Exploring Britain 1. Up North

Sunday 18th August 2013, Exeter, Devon
Before I begin this section I ask the indulgence of British followers of our travels. It was for you I began the blogs but over the years we now have followers from around the world. They are certainly less familiar with Britain than you are so if sometimes I expand about things you already know, please bear with me. Others may not necessarily know where to find such places as Carlisle, York or Leamington Spa.

We have been home for several months and my plan for producing a blog for Britain has not yet begun. I blame everything, from the sunny weather luring us into the garden too frequently, to the continued problems with my eye. Nearly a year on and I am still taking anti-viral medicine as the shingles lurks behind my eye waiting its chance to return. Meanwhile it grumbles on, making me feel miserable and slightly depressed. It hardly makes entertaining reading and I apologise.

Today I feel quite good and have more energy. Perhaps it has something to do with the Turkish “Evil Eyes” we were offered by Charlotte when we returned from Romania to stay a few days with her in Munich last October! In Turkey they are regarded as symbols of good fortune. Sorry Charlotte but I think you may have been sold a dud lot! On our first night back in Munich I woke with a searing pain in my eye and the shingles progressed from that moment. Unaware of a possible connection I’ve kept the “eyes” hanging up in our kitchen in the vain hope they would improve my cooking skills, but two days ago the hospital told me my eye was not progressing as expected and there was little more they could do for me. Depressed at the sight of those blue eyes watching me dropping yogurt on the floor and burning the toast I removed them to the garage. It’s still early days but I have to admit to feeling much better already! My culinary skills however remain as stubbornly poor as my eye.

Here we have had an excellent summer. After a dodgy start the sun has put its hat on and encouraged our late planted vegetables to produce! We may even have a few tomatoes before winter returns. There has been rain, but at the right time and place. Meanwhile Ian has been as happy as a pig in muck catching up on his bibliographical activities which he alternates with shovelling real muck around the vegetable patch. We’ve had a couple of huge fir trees removed and our lawn seems so much larger. We should have done it years ago.

We’ve not neglected the house either. We’ve replaced the central heating system and converted the downstairs coat cupboard and cloakroom into a shower room. We are delighted with it. Now Kate has well and truly moved out and taken her belongings from the garage we have so much room we seem to rattle. Not for long we suspect. She and Matt told us recently they will become first-time parents in January. This is very happy news but now her old bedroom here has become a temporary storage depot for assorted baby goods, a cot and a pram. There is no room to store them until needed in her tiny house and already we wonder how long they will all be able to live there.

Amidst all this we have travelled around England visiting friends and family or just camping. July saw us in London for a week where each day was a cheerful round of seeing relatives and old school friends. No possibility of museums or cultural expeditions this time but visiting friends is even more important to us. It was a mixed experience joining several of Ian’s friends at Charlton cemetery for a graveside ceremony concerning one of their school friends who had died in Singapore. It is amazing how many of our friendships go right back to our schooldays.

In Charlton cemetery, South East London
After a shared meal with our friends in a Nepalese restaurant in Charlton Village Ian took me for a nostalgic walk to rediscover the home of his maternal grandparents. He found it but it was hard to recognise. When he visited as a child the street was not crowded with parked cars, nor were the front gardens paved over as most in the street are today.

Charlton House, South East London
Ian’s grandparent’s house, Charlton, South East London

During our visit to Croydon we made a brief foray down to the coast to meet friends for lunch. Later we called off at the Bluebell Railway, a restored line run by enthusiasts. There is still so much charm in a little, cast iron engine, the pervading smell of smoke and oil and the old wooden carriages tugged by these same little monsters a few miles through the pretty countryside of West Sussex.

In the engine shed, Bluebell railway, West Sussex

Waiting room, Bluebell railway, West Sussex

Platform with bridge, Bluebell railway, West Sussex

From London we made our way north in easy stages, stopping overnight with friends Peter and Kate in the attractive Georgian spa town of Leamington in the heart of the Midlands, before making our way up to Carlisle in Cumbria near to the Scottish border. If certain politicians in Edinburgh get their way our friends Peter and Jill in Carlisle may well be needing passports to go to the shops just a few kilometres up the road! Cumbria is a stunningly beautiful area of England far removed from the congestion and overcrowding of the south-east and the London area. While the centre of London may be historic, picturesque, teaming with tourist attractions and the heart of Britain’s banking industry, the suburbs are generally overcrowded, frantically busy and frequently ugly and dirty. Neither the road infrastructure, housing nor services can cope with the ever increasing demands made upon them. Even when we lived there, over thirty years ago now, it was a soulless place to commute and work. Crossing London Bridge loses its charm when you do so twice a day to get to work and back as Ian used to do for many years.

River seen from the railway viaduct in Weatheral, Cumbria

Peter, after the rest of us had called it a day! Pub supper, Wreav, Cumbria

Cumbria though is a stunning area of open countryside with pleasantly sized old English towns and weathered villages that blend into the landscape. The exposed moorland is grazed by sheep while the many lowland fields and wooded valleys are home to cattle. It is an area for outdoor recreation and a Mecca for hiking, fell walking and, with its many deep lakes gouged out during the Ice Age, for water activities.

Our friends took us for a picnic and a visit to Mirehouse set in parkland on the edge of Bassenthwaite Lake, surrounded by the steep sided heather-clad purple moors. The house dates from the 17th century while the lake is home to nesting Ospreys which, on a luckier day than ours, may be seen from the hide on the wooded hillside above, fishing in the waters. The house is still owned by the Speddings family who had connections with several notable Victorians including the poets William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson, the writer Thomas Carlyle and the painter John Constable. The house contains a number of artefacts and manuscripts connected to Tennyson. A gentle stroll across grassy meadows grazed by hundreds of woolly sheep led us to the tiny estate church of St. Bega dating from pre-Norman times. It is claimed the church inspired Tennyson while writing his Morte d’Arthur during his stay at Mirehouse in 1835.

“...to a chapel nigh the field
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark straight of barren land ...”

End of Bassenthwaite Lake, Mirehouse, Cumbria

Mirehouse, Cumbria

View towards Bassenthwaite Lake and St. Bega’s church from Mirehouse, Cumbria

St. Bega’s churchyard, Mirehouse, Cumbria

Two Jills in the grounds of Mirehouse, Cumbria

Returned home from a stunning day out our hostess’s worst fears were realised as we became tangled up in the Penrith rush hour, causing tailbacks of at least three vehicles at each of the two sets of traffic lights in the town centre! It’s another world up North!

After a delightful and very relaxing visit we made our way across to the east coast to visit our family near Hull on the Humber Estuary where our son Neil works as a research chemist with BP. From Carlisle we crossed the deserted and beautiful moorland of the North Pennines. There is little in the way of habitation other than a few lonely farmsteads until arriving at Alston. This is a charming large village with stone cottages set to either side of the main, partly cobbled street rising up and out onto yet more empty, heather covered moorland. Here we stopped for coffee, bowing our heads to pass beneath the old lintel of the tiny tearoom with its black ceiling beams and whitewashed walls. Around us weary hikers were ordering huge all-day breakfasts. They had earned their plates of sausages, bacon, fried bread, mushrooms and tomatoes. We’d not, so limited ourselves to coffee. It wasn’t easy though!

Continuing our journey we passed such delightfully named places as Cow Green Reservoir, Cronkley Fell, Ettersgill and Widdybank. Eventually we dropped down from the open moor, passing High Force, an awesome and beautiful waterfall crashing down into a deep basin worn into the rocks.

By lunchtime we had reached the small market town of Barnard Castle in County Durham, to my mind one of the very nicest northern towns. It is built in the dark local stone with its market hall on the central square. Perhaps in winter it may all seem a bit dark and gloomy in the terraced cottages but on a sunny day it is charming. The high street is filled with independent shops. I do not recall seeing a single chain store and the hardware shop will sell you a can of paraffin or a jar of udder cream without batting an eyelid. The town of course has the ruins of Barnard Castle, set on a high rock above the River Tees, but it also has the magnificent though incongruous Bowes House museum.

This is a nineteenth century stately mansion in the style of a French chateau overlooking the town. Commissioned by John Bowes it was built as a museum to house the family collections. It is the best to be seen in the north of England and includes paintings by Fragonard, El Greco, Goya and Canaletto. It is a museum of exquisite taste filled with magnificent works of art - paintings, sculptures, furnishings and textiles, ornaments and objets d’art - such as the famous 18th century automated silver swan that preens itself and “eats” fish! The museum also has an impressive library where our friend Vally, who lives in the town, spends happy hours in her retirement transcribing documents between nipping down to the rather smart tearoom for refreshment or to meet up with us as we pass unexpectedly by. Bowes House is connected to the Bowes-Lyons family, that of our late Queen Mother.

Bowes House Museum, County Durham

Today though we were expected and even her husband Chris was at home. So often he is away on pharmaceutical trips to such places as Georgia, Turkey and even Syria. It is always a delight to see friends again, even if only for an hour or two. They live on a quiet hillside above the town with a flowery garden overlooking fields and more distant moorland. Amazingly, it was too hot to lunch in the garden! So we sheltered from the heat inside, gathered around the kitchen table sharing a cold lunch and catching up on family news, much of it concerning new additions to our growing collections of grandchildren.

Having left the stunning empty moors of North Yorkshire behind, the roads were busier and villages closer together, though still very pleasant. We took the main route south for a while before turning east to the sparsely populated East Riding of Yorkshire, passing through Thirsk, Pickering and Thornton-le-Dale. We turned south again near Scarborough on the East Coast, passing through Driffield and reaching Beverley just as Neil, Jeev and the girls arrived home from, variously, work, school and nursery.

Beverley is a charming old market town some ten miles from Hull where both Neil and Jeev work. It has a central market square flanked by buildings dating back to the 18th century. It is a very agreeable place for them to have settled.

During our visit Jeev left us to Neil’s mercy and took the opportunity to attend a romantic writers’ conference down in Sheffield. Jeev has now had two works published as e-books and a commission for a third. She has recently signed a contract with a London publisher for a work to be produced in printed format as well as electronically. Writing romantic comedy she finds a release from the pressures of everyday life as a busy working mum with a couple of exceptionally demanding young children. In the real world she works as an intellectual property advisor for the University of Hull but (here’s the plug) moonlights under the name of Rhoda Baxter. Her current e-books are Patently in Love and Having a Ball. Thanks to those of you who have already purchased your beach books through Amazon. Despite your support I think she’ll need to hang on to the day job!

Britain has many stunning country houses open to the public, many managed by the National Trust. While the Trust undoubtedly does an excellent job in maintaining these properties and enabling access to the masses, its corporate management style means that each becomes a clone of the rest. Parkland and gardens may vary, as do the properties themselves, but they all have similar tearooms, plant stalls and gift shops with volunteer guides in every room to ensure your visit is as pleasant and informative as possible – and that your children don’t run sticky fingers over the figurines. Annual membership is a bargain but you are heavily encouraged to purchase delicious and expensive meals and treats in the tearooms. The first few properties are wonderful, but gradually their charms can become mundane.

Saturday was Ian’s birthday and it was warm and sunny. We packed up a picnic and drove to the country house of Burton Constable. This is not a National Trust property and its management style was a refreshing change. With Indi in a pushchair and Deyvi with a permanent spring we’ve never managed to disable hidden somewhere inside her, we didn’t want to explore the house. Instead we found a shady spot near the stables with a view across the ha-ha and settled to enjoy our picnic. Neil frolicked with his daughters who treat him as a gentle giant, a terrifying monster to chase them and roll around with on the grass. Beside us was an open air chess board with pieces as big as Deyvi to move around the board.

Disaster! As we prepared Indi’s lunch (she needs a special diet) we realised we’d left her feeding spoon at home! Back at the tearoom they were only too helpful offering not only a spoon but plates, cups and anything else we may need to carry off on trust into the surrounding parkland! After a delightful visit and an exploration of the estate we returned the spoon and stopped for tea and flapjacks before taking two weary little girls home for a bath and bed. Ian had enjoyed a really contented birthday with our little granddaughters.

Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Stable block, Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Orangery, Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Neil and the Beverley sisters, Burton Constable, East Yorkshire

Jeev was due to return the following evening. Before that though we went for Sunday lunch in the open air on the banks of a trout fishing lake. Again it was hot and sunny. In the afternoon we visited the parkland, museum and ornamental lake with its national collection of hardy water lilies at Burnby Hall Gardens in Pocklington. Pocklington is a small market town on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds while the gardens were created by Major Percy Malborough Stewart around 1900.

It was a perfect day. The lilies were a riot of bright blooms amidst the green pads where frogs sat croaking before diving back into the water as we approached. The goldfish and carp were huge and very tame. Indi was completely charmed and would have happily tumbled in after them without daddy holding her tightly.

Grandma’s in charge, Burnby Hall Gardens, Pocklington

Dad and the girls at Burnby Hall, Pocklington

After ice-creams all round we explored the museum, filled with artefacts gathered during the travels of Major Stewart and his wife between 1906 and 1926. Compared to them our own travels fade into insignificance. In the tradition of his day the major blasted his way around the globe killing off tigers in Bengal, polar bears in the Arctic, elephants in India, rhinos in Africa and anything else he could kill and stuff around the world. They are all in the museum – at least their heads are. The rest was too much to crate up and bring back so their bodies were left to rot in the jungles of their own continents.

There were other artefacts too, including some from Sri Lanka. As Neil and Deyvi would shortly be out there with Deyvi’s Sri Lankan grandfather, we’d vainly hoped she would be interested in some of the Buddhist artefacts. I suppose it is a lot to expect from a five year old when the sun is shining and she’d just encountered a school friend in the gardens.

We stayed for several days in Beverley, also visiting friends locally including our library friend Elizabeth in York. After filling us with stuffed peppers and red wine she marched us off to visit the Bar Convent Museum, standing just outside one of the city gates. The convent was founded in 1686 and still functions as a resident religious community. The museum covers the recusant period from Henry VIII to George III and the persecution and danger faced by the Catholics during this time. It also reflects life at that time within the city of York. The current 18th century building replaced the original convent building and contains a neo-classical chapel designed for rapid exit and a priest’s hole in which to hide in case of an unexpected raid by the Protestant authorities. The library archives today form a Catholic study and research centre.

Elizabeth and Ian, York

Micklegate Bar, entrance to the old city of York

Neo-classical chapel in the Bar Convent, York

We left Neil and family following a happy few days and started the long 300+ miles homewards. We wish they lived nearer. In Derbyshire we stopped at New Mills, south east of Manchester to visit Helen and Edwin. Helen and Jill worked together in their younger, unmarried days in Croydon Reference library (as we’ve said before, so many of our friends are from library backgrounds). It is many years since we last passed this way so there was much news to catch up on. We are now all of us retired and we spent a cheerful afternoon taking a walk in the shady river valley that cuts deeply through the town and sitting in the sunshine in their garden looking across at the view of Kinder Scout, one of the highest points in the High Peak district.

I studied librarianship in Manchester while Ian studied in Sheffield at the same time. We would meet at weekends in the High Peak for long hikes on the lovely, steep hillsides around Buxton, Hope, Edale, Castleton, Glossop, Tideswell and Hathersage. We could have willingly spent a week exploring the area once more.

As it was, we were all so happy with our reunion that Helen suggested we’d best spend the night and continue home next day. Sleeping in Modestine on the near vertical road out front was impossible so we gratefully accepted the offer of overnight accommodation. While Jill helped Helen to prepare a baked salmon supper in the garden, Ian and Edwin organised wine and laid the table. We sat outside with our wine and coffee until darkness fell and the outline of Kinder Scout became indiscernible from the night sky.

Ruins of one of the mills and viaduct across the gorge through the town, New Mills, Derbyshire

Helen, Edwin and Jill, New Mills

Next day we did have to face up to the reality of the long drive home. After a brief foray to taste the atmosphere of the delightful spa town of Buxton, set in the very heart of the Peak District National Park we took the motorway south. It’s the only thing to do when we actually have a home and commitments to return to.

Opera House, Buxton Spa, Derbyshire

Public gardens, Buxton Spa, Derbyshire

University buildings and art gallery, Buxton Spa, Derbyshire

St. Anne’s well pump rooms, Buxton Spa, Derbyshire