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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Haworth and the Brontes

Haworth, Bronte, about Britain, Yorkshire
Haworth Churchyard and, beyond, the Parsonage
Who was the third Brontë sister?  This could be a good question for quiz night down at the Old Ruptured Duck.  My reader, an intelligent soul, of course not only knows the answer but will also be screaming, just about now, that there were five Brontë sisters – plus a brother.  Anyroadup, we were speculating as we set off for Haworth, Mecca for Brontë fans and a whole lot more.

Charlotte and Emily we knew - the authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively.  But we couldn’t remember who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Tracy Brontë, perhaps?  Or Chelsea?  No – if you’re a literary ignoramus like most of us, let me put you out of your misery; it was Anne.  And if you happen upon the Parsonage in Haworth, where they lived, you’ll get a sense of her extraordinary family.

Haworth is one of those beautifully preserved bits of the past nestling amongst what is, in places, a bit of an urban post-industrial mess.  It is a late Georgian-Victorian village, with a picturesque steep cobbled main street, some alluring little shops with a touch of kitsch thrown in and plenty of options for a coffee and a bun.  My reader will have realised by now that somewhere for a coffee and a bun is an essential ingredient for any decent visit.  So Haworth is a joy to meander around.  Its growth was due mainly to the textile industry.  When the Brontës lived there, it is estimated that there were 1200 hand looms working – soon to be replaced by factories.  Now, it boasts its credentials as the World’s First Fair Trade Village and is undoubtedly a tourist destination – not least as a place of virtual holy pilgrimage for Brontë devotees.  Various events are held through the year, including the intriguing ‘Scroggling the Holly’ just before Christmas, featuring Victorian costumes, Morris dancers and, naturally, Santa Claus.  Amongst the emporia you will find a traditional sweet shop, selling lots of sticky filling-removers from glass jars.  Then there’s Rose & Co Apothecary, which still has the wonderful original shop fittings in it.  When I first visited Haworth, it used to sell all manner of fascinating stuff, like carbolic soap, patent rat-dissolving fluid and sadistic looking scrubbing brushes; now it seems to specialise in delightfully fragrant bath preparations, many cunningly disguised as cupcakes etc, as well as unusual ornaments – and a thought provoking range of retro-style frocks, which looked expensive and unreasonably small.

Haworth, Bronte, about Britain, Yorkshire
Main Street, Haworth
Turn right out of the Apothecary and you’ll see the Old White Lion Hotel, one of several hostelries that seriously tempt you to spend time in them, and where I remember once having breakfast amusingly described on the menu as “Heart Attack on a Plate.”  Opposite the Apothecary is the Church of St Michael and All Angels, which has a stunning west window and several other notable features – including the Brontë burial chamber.  Next to the church is the school, where Charlotte taught, and which is sometimes open; it hadn’t changed much, last time I saw it.  The church is relatively new, the previous one being pulled down in 1879 having been judged structurally unsafe and insanitary.  Apparently, water from the adjacent graveyard was seeping in.  The graveyard has to be seen to be believed – it holds an estimated 42,000 graves, which crowd in on each other as if seeking security in closeness.  Rooks caw incessantly from the tall trees whose roots disturb the dead. It’s like being in a Hammer Horror – you half expect to see Vincent Price or Peter Cushing to come looming out of the mist in cloak and top hat.

Haworth, Bronte, about Britain, Yorkshire
Haworth kind of suits monochrome photos
Then, just behind the church is the Parsonage.  Here you can learn a new collective noun, ‘Brontëana’, which gives you some idea of the near-fanaticism of some Brontë worshippers.  Nevertheless, the Parsonage is extremely well-presented (though I can’t show you that, because they are precious about interior photography), and it is absolutely fascinating.  Even an old cynic like me was impressed to stand in the room where great works were written.  The story of the Brontës is one of both achievement and tragedy.  Patrick, father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, became perpetual curate (priest in charge) to Haworth in 1820 and the Parsonage was the Brontë family home until Patrick’s death in 1861, aged 84.  Despite modest origins, Patrick became a Cambridge scholar, changing his name from Brunty to the more pretentious Brontë along the way, and was by all accounts an accomplished writer himself, as well as a dedicated curate who worked hard for his parishioners.  But he outlived his wife, Maria, who died aged 38 the year after the move to Haworth, as well as his six children.  The oldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, died aged 10 and 11 in 1825, allegedly of tuberculosis contracted as a consequence of attending Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters near Kirkby Lonsdale.  Charlotte (b 1816) and Emily (b 1818) were withdrawn from the school, which appears to have been a horrendously cruel place; Anne, born in 1820, never attended.  Their brother Patrick, known as Branwell and born in 1817, was an aspiring painter, but also an alcoholic and drug addict who died in Haworth aged 31 in 1848.  He was followed a few months later by Emily, in her 30th year, and in 1849 by Anne who was just 29.  Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, but died the following year aged 39, possibly of tuberculosis, though some believe her death was caused by acute dehydration resulting from excessive morning sickness; her unborn child died with her.

What strikes me about these talented people is how much they achieved in the tragically short time they had.  Charlotte, Emily and Anne were prolific writers from an early age, and Branwell certainly churned out the pictures.  Granted, they did not endure the same stresses experienced by the working classes around them, though they certainly shared similar general health risks.  But they were by no means wealthy enough to enjoy a life of leisure and, by heck, did they cram a lot in; think about as you chill out in front of the TV; it’s rather humbling.

Incidentally, Arthur Bell Nicolls remained at Haworth until Patrick's death, when he returned to his native Ireland, remarried and died aged 88 in 1906. 

More information about Haworth, visit the Haworth village website.  For more about the Parsonage, visit the Brontë Society's website. Anne Brontë is buried in Scarborough - here is a bit about her grave.

One criticism about the town: there's a large car park on various levels in woodland, just a short walk from the churchyard.  Delightful surroundings.  But the last time I visited there was only one working 'pay and display' machine, the surface of the car park was in poor repair and it's a fairly down market path into town.  You'd think with all the tourists spending money there, they could do better than this.

Haworth is just off the A6033, about 4 miles south of Keighley (pronounced ‘Keithgley’, not as in ‘Minogue’).  And spot the Keighley and Worth Valley (steam) railway while you’re there.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Chalice Well

Chalice Well, about Britain, Glastonbury
The Vesica Pool
The water flows red from a natural spring at the foot of Chalice Hill in Glastonbury.  It is said to be infused with, or at the very least represent, the blood of Christ.  Or maybe it was rusty nails from the Cross - I can’t decide.  Anyway, it was here, stories tell, that Joseph of Arimithea buried the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper and in which drops of His blood were caught at the Crucifixion.  Thus Joseph contributed to a neatly marketable legend that kept King Arthur’s knights, and a whole lot of other people, rather busy down the centuries.  Of course, everyone knows this is utter tosh; the Holy Grail is in lots of different locations – under the Louvre, Rosslyn Chapel, the Dome of the Rock and, naturally, Fort Knox – to mention but a few popular resting places.  Or, it isn’t a cup at all, but the blood of Christ Himself.  Or, the cup, or chalice, was a symbol pinched from earlier Celtic tales of a magical cauldron that has morphed into an essential part of Christian mythology.

Chalice Well, about Britain, Glastonbury
The Chalice Well

It’s easy to mock; the fact is that the Holy Grail is one of the most enduring legends we have.  And if you happen to be passing Glastonbury, the Chalice Well is as good a place as any to include in your own personal (and dare I say probably fruitless) quest.

What is not in doubt is that the Chalice Well is considered by many to be a holy well and has, so they say, been regarded as such for at least 2,000 years.  Some see it as a representation of the divine female, with nearby Glastonbury Tor representing the divine male (discover a bit aboutGlastonbury Tor).  The waters of the well, rich in iron oxide (hence the colour) have long been reputed to have miraculous healing properties, even being the essence of life, a gift from Mother Earth.  I feel much same way about beer.  Apparently, the well produces 25,000 gallons a day, never dries up and the water is naturally radioactive.

So here’s a place that should leave you with a nice, warm, glow.

Chalice Well, about Britain, Glastonbury
The water flows red
The Chalice Well is located within charming gardens that exude a quiet tranquillity, and which are visited by both casual tourists and people of faith from all over the world.  Even the most hardened cynic could find spiritual peace in them.  They are beautifully tended, rich in symbolism and you can whiz round in less than an hour, or take your time and enjoy the experience.  They are in the care of the Chalice Well Trust, established in 1959 by Wellesley Tudor Pole to safeguard the Chalice Well for visitors and pilgrims.  There is a silent minute each day at 12pm and 3pm, marked by the ringing of an old school bell.  The loos are clean and you'll find a dead useful shop where you can stock up on crystals, magic jewellery, spiritual reading matter and other essentials.

The Chalice Well and Gardens are on Chilkwell Street (A361), Glastonbury, Somerset.  Park in town or at the Rural Life Museum in Bere Lane.  Visit the Tor at the same time.

Visit the Chalice Well Trust website.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Saltaire & Salt's Mill

Saltaire, about Britain, Yorkshire
Salt's factory on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal
Call a child Titus Salt and he’ll have to learn to cope.  A bit like the Boy Named Sue, there’s a good chance he’ll either dramatically fail or dramatically succeed.  Titus Salt did the latter; he was an extraordinary man. A 19th century mill owner in Bradford, Titus wanted to expand his cloth business.  However, he also believed he had a moral responsibility for the welfare of his workers.  Between 1851 and 1876, Salt progressively built a new mill and model factory community in Airedale near Shipley known as the Palace of Industry.  Away from the brothels, drinking dens and open sewers of Bradford, the complex included decent housing for his workers, a school, library, church, park, hospital – and so on.  Mind you, Salt was one of those God-fearing-the-devil-will get-you teetotal types; things had to be done his way or not at all and there was certainly no pub.  But the fact remains that his employees enjoyed a better standard of living and health because of this astonishing philanthropist.

Saltaire, about Britain, Yorkshire
It's a photogenic place...
With the decline of the textile trade, and the mixed (and sometime lurid) fortunes of Salt’s successors, deterioration set in.  The houses were sold in 1933 and the mill progressively fell into disrepair, closing in 1986.  The mill was rescued from oblivion in 1987 by another extraordinary entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver.  Now it includes thriving businesses, up-market retail outlets and the world’s largest permanent exhibition of the works of local artist, David Hockney.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t really understand all the fuss about Hockney’s work: sure, some of it is wonderfully perceptive and beautifully executed; then some of it looks almost as good as the stuff produced by our local primary school.  I picked up a book whilst wandering around; it was called “How to appreciate art” or something equally pretentious.  Strikes me if you need to learn how to appreciate a piece of art, then it’s failed.  Just a personal view…
Saltaire, about Britain, Yorkshire
Quality and classic Victorian houses,
each with its own outside loo

But - without its saviour and Hockney's generosity, the place wouldn’t be there and in the state it is.  And it is just wonderful.  As well as art, the mill offers a range of shops, somewhere for a coffee and a bun and a Saltaire history exhibition.  Outside, thanks to the efforts of the Saltaire Village Society and others, it’s like stepping back in time, albeit to a very clean one, of neat Victorian houses with real corner shops, cafes and so on.  Just wandering around the grid of streets (each named after Salt’s children), dipping into places as you go and looking at the listed buildings, is a real pleasure.  Nostalgia’s not what it used to be - but that's why some of the photos are black and white.  The housing, built between 1854 and 1868, was hierarchical; if you were a foreman, you got a better pad than a mere pleb.  It’s not a museum, though; this is a living community – so don’t be too nosey.

Saltaire, about Britain, Yorkshire
Saltaire United Reform Church
Since 2001, Saltaire has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  When it was built, it stood in open countryside; now it perches on the fringes of the sprawling Bradford conurbation, a monument to northern Britain’s past economic glories and the vision of one man, Titus Salt.

Saltaire is about 4 miles north of Bradford, just off the A650.  Rail services from Leeds, Bradford and Skipton run to Saltaire Railway Station, situated just opposite the mill.

Visit Saltaire's village website.

Titus Salt, Saltaire, about Britain, Yorkshire
Sir Titus Salt

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Churchill's Chartwell

Chartwell, Churchill, Britain, Kent
Chartwell from the south, viewed through the orchard
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was one of the greatest Englishmen that ever lived, and a brilliant man.  Now, before anyone gets all excited about the fact that he was an imperialist, capitalist, aristocrat, self-publicist, sometimes reckless adventurer, glutton and all the other dreadful and unfashionable characteristics he may or may not have had, I’m sure he probably had a few faults.  I expect you have some too.  But if you’re British, you owe Churchill big time.  And Chartwell was his home for 40 years.

There are some places where you get a sense of the people that lived there.  And there are places where history was made.  Chartwell is a bit of both.  The house itself is mainly Victorian, though built round a 16th century estate where Henry VIII is said to have stayed whilst courting the saucy-eyed Anne Boleyn just down the road at Hever Castle.  Churchill drove his children to it in 1922, to ask what they thought of it.  They urged him to buy it; he already had, without telling Clementine, the long-suffering Mrs Churchill.

Chartwell, garden, Churchill, Kent, Britain
Yes, it's part of the garden
Chartwell, named for the Chart Well that feeds the lake below, would prove to be a challenge to the family’s often shaky finances.  But Churchill loved it – he had partly fallen in love with the views over the Weald of Kent, which have to be amongst the loveliest in England.  Initially, the property required a considerable amount of work.  The house and gardens you see now are a product of Churchill’s dreams and personal input over the years.  It is, unashamedly, a family home, yet also stuffed full of fascinating memorabilia alongside the personal items.  The study, where Churchill worked on the nation’s budgets, his writings – and, presumably, his speeches – is an amazing room.  The drawing room is elegant and the dining room is set ready for a meal.  Heaven knows how many famous behinds dined there. There’s an exhibition on the man, and loads of his paintings if you like that sort of thing. 

The house was bought by friends of the Churchill’s in 1946 and presented to the National Trust on condition that the Churchills could continue living there.  Clementine gave it up after Winston died in 1965, but continued to visit right up to her own death in 1977.

It’s not really a place to take small children who get easily bored.  But the main drawback is that it can get extremely busy.  The National Trust very sensibly limits the number of people in the house at any time, so entrance is by timed ticket.  But, weather permitting, you can easily lose yourself for several hours just wandering around the gardens and grounds.

Chartwell is on the B2026, south of the A25 at Westerham, Kent.  Nearest railway station is Edenbridge.  Visit Chartwell's website for more information. There's also more about Churchill and his times in the modern history posts on this site, such as Britain at War 1939-45.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Bolton Castle

Castle Bolton Yorkshire Britain
Bolton Castle not in Bolton - a little gem
Bolton Castle surprisingly gives its name to the adjacent village of Castle Bolton.  It sounds so much more impressive, doesn’t it, putting ‘castle’ before the name of the place?  ‘Family Smith’ evokes a far more splendid feeling than ‘the Smith family’?  So anyway, if I hadn’t looked first and realised that Bolton Castle is in Yorkshire, I would have been heading t’other way to Lancashire.  This might have been disappointing, partly because I don’t think there is a castle in Bolton, Lancs, and partly because it’s a little gem, is Bolton Castle (Yorks).  Check before you travel though – the last time we went there was a wedding on and we couldn’t get in.  Not unreasonably, we asked for our parking fee to be returned.  The woman was grumpy.  Hadn’t we seen the signs?  Well, no; if we had we wouldn’t have fed money into the ticket machine would we?  Grr.  But don’t let Mrs Miserable put you off – in every other way Castle Bolton is brilliant.

Castle Bolton garderobe toilet Britain
Mary, Queen of Scots, did time here
Bolton Castle was built in the 14th century by the first Baron of Bolton, Richard le Scrope, an accomplished soldier and statesman, who became Lord Chancellor under Richard II.  One wonders if Baron Bolton toyed with the idea of calling his pile ‘Scrope Castle’, but we’ll probably never know.  It’s still owned by his descendents and has an interesting history.  Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned there – apparently she enjoyed a reasonable amount of freedom, hunting and walking in the gardens.  It is also said that she learned English during her stay, being hitherto fluent only in Latin and French.  The castle was damaged on the orders of Henry VIII in retaliation for the 8th Baron’s Catholic sympathies and was besieged by the Roundheads during the Civil War.  Despite all of this, it is remarkably well preserved and the owners have gone out of their way to show it not only as a medieval fortress, but as a residence too.  The views from the battlements are great.  There are pleasant gardens, a maze and wild pigs root in the woods opposite the car park.  What more could you ask?
Castle Bolton armoury Britain
The Armoury

You’ll find Bolton Castle in Yorkshire’s famous Wensleydale, between Hawes and Leyburn off the A684 north west of Aysgarth.  In the charming village next door, there is also a nice little church, St Oswald’s.  Visit Bolton Castle's website.