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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?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sizergh Castle

Sizergh, castles in Cumbria, Kendal attractions, Strickland
And, your tongue-twister for today – is pronounced ‘size-err’…which sounds a little West Country to me.  But it is, in fact, bang in the North West of England, just outside Kendal and a few miles from the Lake District.  I am told the name is derived from Old Norse ‘sigarith’, which apparently means ‘dairy-farm’.

However, there’s little of the dairy-farm about Sizergh Castle.  On the other hand, it’s not really a castle either.  It probably started out as a pele (or ‘peel’) tower – a defensive structure common in these once troubled border regions.  What you see now is more of a medieval house, with a fine 16th – 18th century interior that includes some splendid furniture and portraits.  Plus, it has rather lovely gardens.  There’s a very unusual, and impressive, limestone rock garden that was laid out by Hayes of Ambleside in 1926 (the firm is still there, transformed into one of those huge garden centres that sells un-horticultural stuff like scented candles and decorations).  Sizergh also has a fine kitchen garden – not something I’d normally get excited about before dinner, but it is downright impressive.  There’s an orchard, a couple of lakes – and beehives (if you’re not worried about supporting bees, you should be).  Plus – pleasant walks to be had through the grounds and beyond.  So it’s a good place to go to.

Sizergh, gardens, Cumbria, spring in the Lake District
Though the estate was given to the National Trust in 1951, Sizergh Castle is still lived in by descendents of the same family, the Stricklands, who acquired the place through marriage in 1239, when Henry III was on the throne of England.  My American reader may like to know that an early Strickland, Joan, married a Robert de Wessington – direct ancestor of a chap called George Washington.  Anyway - the Stricklands lived on the edge, when this part of the world was close to the frontier with Scotland.  A Strickland carried the banner of St George at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  During the Wars of the Roses, they took the Yorkist side.  They were Royalists during the Civil War of the 17th century – Sir Thomas Strickland fought at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, and was captured by the Parliamentarians.  They were also related to and friendly with another local family, the Parrs – Catherine Parr married Henry VIII in 1543, the last of his six wives.  But the Stricklands were Catholics – which isn’t a huge problem for most people in the UK today, but could be massively inconvenient during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  Amazingly, the Stricklands managed to emerge from all of that unpleasantness relatively unscathed; that, I suggest, was quite an achievement.

Sizergh, gardens, spring, Cumbria, Strickland
It is at this point worth mentioning that the male Stricklands mostly seem to have been called Thomas or Walter, with the occasional Robert thrown in for good measure.  But as you’re unlikely to be introduced, I don’t suppose it matters much.

You can see the Catholic connections in particular in the dining room at Sizergh where, as well as having the most amazingly ornate carved overmantle (nothing sinister about that – it’s just a wonderful piece of work), there are portraits of Charles II, his brother James II (looking like he has a very unpleasant smell on his upper lip) and the latter’s wife, Queen Mary of Modena.  On the opposite wall is a portrait of James and Mary’s son, James (‘the Old Pretender’ – oh yes!), who would have become James III if his father hadn’t been swept off the throne in favour of the Protestant William and Mary.  Over a doorway is a bust of Bonnie Prince Charlie, ‘the Young Pretender’.

When James II went into exile, Sir Thomas and Lady Winifred followed.  Before going, they placed Sizergh in trust with two family servants so that it could not be seized by the government.  These loyal employees kept the property safe until young Walter Strickland was able to return to England to reclaim his inheritance.  Incidentally, Lady Winifred was extremely close to Queen Mary of Modena and was with her when she died, writing afterwards that she closed her queen’s eyes.  Back at the ranch, the Stricklands took no part in the rebellions of 1715 or 1745, despite the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army marched close to Sizergh on the way south to Derby (see "The Last Battle" for more about this).

Catholics in Cumbria, the Reformation, Restoration, Glorious Revolution, 1715, 1745, Jacobite
The ‘inlaid chamber’ at the top of the tower is worth a mention.  This room is decorated with exquisite 16th century panelling.  But in 1891 it was sold to the V&A Museum to raise necessary cash.  It returned to the room it was designed for in 1999 on permanent loan, and was restored.  Not necessarily something you’d get at IKEA, but stunning nevertheless.

My favourite room though, is the old banqueting hall in the tower, with its 17th century refectory table and pewter.  On one wall is a huge 16th century broadsword.  It’s wonderfully atmospheric – the sort of place you could imagine having a great meal with far too much ale.

And then there’s the ghost.  It is said that a husband locked his wife in a room in the tower, to keep her safe from marauding Scots, whilst he went off to put an end to the danger.  But he did not return.  The poor woman starved to death and her wails can be heard when the wind is right…It’s all very unlikely isn’t it?

Sizergh, pele tower, banqueting, haunted, Cumbria
From junction 36 of the M6, take the A590 toward Kendal.  Follow the A590 on the first exit off a roundabout signposted for the South Lakes.  Turn immediately right off the dual carriageway to Sizergh Castle.

Visit the website for Sizergh Castle for more information.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Customer service in Britain

BT, complaints, bad customer service, unhelpful staff, call centres, Warren Buckley
Horrendous experience with BT, Britain’s leading telecommunications provider (possibly the world’s worst company?), as well as the twerps at Royal Mail, got me thinking about customer service in general.  If you’re a visitor to these fair shores you should know what to expect when spending your money with us.  If you live here, you already know what it’s like; you’ll be well aware of the cavalier, often bullying, style adopted by some of the UK’s major communications, financial services and public sector organisations.  But what visitors really need to know about happens at street level – not because some oik has messed up a direct debit or your broadband.

It’s hard to resist saying that customer service can be exceptional in Britain; so, make the most of it when you come across it.  But, bad jokes aside and to be fair, you should find that customer service is on the whole pretty good in smaller owner-operated retail outlets, restaurants and pubs.  Occasionally, you’ll come up against the salesman or waiter that thinks they’re doing you a favour, but intentionally bad service is rare.  However, indifference, or a lack of basic manners, is unfortunately universal – particularly in the larger chains.  Those amongst the latter that generally get it right include Booths (a family-run supermarket business in the north of England where, I am shocked to say, shopping is actually enjoyable), John Lewis (including Waitrose), most branches of Marks & Spencer, Pizza Express, TGI Fridays and Premier Inn (except their restaurants, which range from naff-awful to very good). There are two independent DIY stores local to me that put the big boys to shame, but I have found the folk at Wickes to be pretty good.
Booths Supermarket, good customer service, Kirkby Lonsdale, Kendal, Settle, Preston

Good customer service is nothing to do with intelligence; I sent a link to this post to the good folk at Booths and they ignored it; how stupid is that?

Motorway service areas and railway stations are in a class of their own – and are mostly a rip-off; one exception is Tebay, on the M6.  You may also come across the charming trait of ‘upselling’, whereby it is assumed you are an idiot who has forgotten that you need a large bar of chocolate, bottle of water, big sticky cake – or something else that you hadn’t asked for, but which the assistant helpfully reminds you about.

Misunderstood be easy is it to sometimes, so here are a few phrases/signals you may experience whilst out and about in Britain:

Which means…
“Good morning/afternoon/evening sir/madam, how may I help you?”
Madam.  Or Sir.
Sir.  Or madam.
I’m not your friend at all, but do imagine that I’m much tougher than you are, so don’t get cocky with me you miserable customer.
“Enjoy your meal”
a) Absolutely nothing; I’ve been told to say this.
b) The cat refused this earlier so I’ll be interested to see how you get on.
c) Enjoy your meal.
Masticating on chewing gum whilst talking to a friend
I don’t deserve to have a job and you are an irrelevance to me.
Doing something with the till roll and completely ignoring you
Not only are you irrelevant, but I’m also much more important than you are; and anyway I’m so stupid that I can only think of one thing at a time.
“How is the meal?”
a) Absolutely nothing; I’ve been told to say this and will be very confused if you complain.
b) I’m intrigued to see you haven’t thrown up yet.
c) How is the meal?
“How are you today?”
a) If you know this person, “How are you today?”
b) If you don’t know this person, you are up against trainers who are not only insincere but also socially retarded; don’t fight it unless you are feeling strong.  The best response to this naff enquiry is to say, “Actually, I’ve not been very well.”  And then provide a few gory details.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
I really hope there isn’t - hurry up, I’ve got a hot date and want to go home to wash my hair.
“Tall, grande or venti?”
The firm is fond of pretentious twaddle.
“If it’s not on the shelf, we ain’t got any.  Innit.”
I’m so dreadfully sorry, my friend, Tarquin, got the order wrong and we are clean out; but we are expecting a delivery next month.  God forbid you should think I can’t be bothered to drag my pimply arse into the warehouse to check the stock for you.
“Our computer system is, like, literally down”
The computer is feeling very depressed.
“The soup is, like, good.”
The soup is close to being edible.
“The fish is, like, off.”
I’m terribly sorry; the fish is so popular that we’ve sold out.  Please let me tempt you with an alternative tasty morsel from our wonderful menu.
“Sorry for the delay, we are, like, really busy at the moment.”
We got our staff levels wrong so you will have to wait even longer than you have already.
“You look great in that dress/suit/fluffy bunny outfit.”
They could be lying; get a second opinion.
“Did you see the match last night?  We decimated them.”
Every tenth member of the opposing team was taken out and shot.
“See you later”.
Goodbye.  (DO NOT mistake this for an invitation).

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Monument

Monument, London, Great Fire, London's Burning
I’m kind of tickled that of all the thousands of memorials in Britain, there is just one arrogant enough to be known as ‘The Monument’.  The nearby tube station is so cheeky that it drops the definite article altogether and calls itself, simply, ‘Monument’.  For the benefit of those that don’t know, then, and are bursting to find out, this is the monument to London’s Great Fire of 1666.  By the time this had finished, more than 13,000 houses and 87 churches had been destroyed, and most of the old medieval City of London was gone forever.

You might think that the remarkable thing about the Great Fire of London is that something like it hadn’t happened before; all those nice combustible timber-framed houses clustered cosily together, the docks packed with inflammable goods like tar, timber and tallow.  It is probably even more remarkable that so few perished in the flames and smoke – officially there were just 4 fatalities, though historian Roy Porter gave the figure as 8.  Apart from making an estimated 100,000 homeless (though one estimate went as high as 200,000), the long-term result, of course, shaped the London we see today.  This was not the planned city of wide boulevards envisaged by some in the immediate aftermath – issues of land title proved too problematic for that – but it is still a very different place to what it might have been had disaster not struck that fateful day in 1666.

The fire began in royal baker Thomas (or Robert) Farryner’s bakehouse in Pudding Lane.  Apprentice bun-maker, Noah, was out the back having a fag (cigarette, for the benefit of my American reader), chatting-up the comely wench Imogen, when… No - what really happened in the early hours of Sunday morning, 2nd September, isn’t clear, but Farryner and his household escaped, leaving behind a maid, who was too afraid to follow them across the rooftops and thus became the fire’s first victim.

Monument, Great Fire 1666, London, how many steps, Wren
The lord mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, woken from his beauty sleep to be told of the news, remarked that “a woman might piss it out” and returned to his slumbers.  (His descendants no doubt went on to work for the Decca record label and reject the Beatles.)  By mid-morning, fanned by a strong wind and with the benefit of a dry summer behind it, the fire threatened the whole city.  The King, Charles II, instructed the creation of firebreaks by pulling down houses, but it was not until Thursday that the conflagration was brought under control - and it was still burning in places on Friday.  At its height, the heat had been so intense that the molten lead from the roof of St Paul’s flowed down Ludgate Hill.  Flames shot 300 feet into the air.  One hero of the hour was the King’s brother, the Duke of York, who organised much of the fire fighting.  Later, as King James II, he was unceremoniously booted off the throne in the revolution of 1688.  Charles had been busy directing efforts to stop the fire spreading too, and was also concerned with relieving the distress of the victims, who were camped with what possessions they could salvage in the open space around Finsbury and Moorfields.

Some Londoners thought the fire had been started by foreigners, or Catholics – or both.  A French protestant confessed to it, and was hanged for the crime, though he was undoubtedly innocent and almost certainly deranged.  For years, many blamed the Catholics – despite the King’s assurances at the time that the disaster had been an Act of God.  More probably, it was caused by a negligent baker who single-handedly changed London forever.

So, that’s what The Monument commemorates.  It is 202 feet high, located 202 feet from where the fire started and topped off with a flaming urn of gilded copper.  Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it took 6 years to build (1671-77) and is the tallest free standing stone column in the world.  There are 311 lung-busting steps the top, which was enclosed with a mesh case in the 19th century to prevent suicides.  The views are great; but don’t go up if you are uncomfortable with heights.

London views, Monument, City of London, River Thames, Great Fire, Pudding Lane

The Monument is situated on the north end of London Bridge, on the corner of Fish Street Hill and Monument Street and on the site of the incarcerated church of St Margaret’s.  Nearest tube? – it’s Monument; did I mention that?

More information HERE.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Igtham Mote

Igtham, medieval moated manor house, Kent, gardens, Grade I dog kennel
Before we start, the name of this marvellous medieval moated manor house is pronounced ‘item’.  It is derived from a Saxon name, Ehta, so it means ‘Ehta’s homestead’ – or, as we would say, ‘Ehta’s place’.  The ‘mote’ is possibly because it is surrounded by, yes, a moat; or it could be built on a moot – an ancient meeting place.

Anyroadup, go there on a hot spring or summer’s day, when the ground gives off that comforting warmed earth and vegetation smell.  Wander round the gardens, the orchard, the woods – then checkout this charming house, allegedly historian David Starkey’s favourite Tudor property.  It originates from the early 14th century and was developed over the next hundred years or two to form the unusual complete square enclosing the cobbled courtyard that can be seen today.  Heavily restored in the late 19th century, and extensively repaired in the 1950s, by the 1990s the ravages of time, acid rain and deathwatch beetle had taken their toll; the house was saved from oblivion by a £10m+ restoration project undertaken by the National Trust from 1989 - 2002.

Igtham Mote is not one of those witnesses, so far as we know, to the great events of history; it was home to a succession of well-heeled gentry, who evidently kept their heads below the parapet.  During the reign of Henry VIII it was owned by one of his courtiers, Sir Richard Clement – and the place is rich in Tudor features and images.  From 1591 – 1889, it was owned by the Selby family; Dorothy Selby was one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting.  A young man, Thomas Colyer-Fergusson, bought Igtham Mote for £38,000 from the Selbys and, his wife tragically dying in 1902, he brought his 6 children up there and lived in the place for 60 years until his death in 1951.  Colyer-Fergusson lost a son in each world war and his only surviving heir, his grandson, could not take on responsibility for such an expensive property.  Igtham Mote was sold to a consortium of local businessmen who hoped to rescue it, and then in 1953 to a Charles Henry Robinson of Portland, Maine, who had fallen in love with it during a cycle tour.  Robinson gave the property to the National Trust when he died in 1985.

Igtham Mote, Kent, National Trust properties, Dido, Selby family

Apart from this being one of the most picturesque houses you will ever see, there are some fine features – not least the hall, chapel, crypt and library.  It also boasts Britain’s only Grade I listed dog kennel, built for a Victorian St Bernard called Dido – no connection with the singer.

There are various tales of ghosts, bricked up skeletons and what-not associated with Igtham Mote, none of which sound terribly convincing to me.  But one story I did like was that Cromwell’s soldiers, always getting history’s bad press, were on their way to rob the rich Royalist Selby family, but got lost in the dense forests that covered this part of England in those days.  Unable to do over Igtham, they apparently pillaged somewhere else instead.  I don’t know which innocent residence was on the receiving end of their obnoxious visit, but suspect the tale isn’t true anyway.

Igtham Mote, Great Hall, Tudor house, Richard Starkey, Kent
Gardens, Kent, Igtham Mote, restoration project

You’ll find Igtham Mote about 6 miles to the east of Sevenoaks, near Ivy Hatch, in Kent.  Website HERE.