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Introduction

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?

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg, stone circle, Keswick, Cumbria, about Britain
What on earth were our ancestors doing, building this thing? We’ll probably never know. Perhaps if you visit Castlerigg when there are few other people about, the stones will talk to you. Failing that – and I concede that chattering stones are rare these days – the location is dramatic, so it is worth paying a visit for that alone. You are surrounded by the Cumbrian Fells: to the north towers brooding Blencathra; to the west, Skiddaw. People describe it as like being in a natural amphitheatre; anyway, get the right light and it certainly is an atmospheric place.


Somebody went to the considerable bother of setting up Castlerigg about 5,000 years’ ago, and it can’t have been easy. There are around 1,000 stone circles in the British Isles – a feature of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Ages - and Castlerigg is one of the earliest. It’s roughly 100’across, not a perfect circle, and consists of 38 or 40 ancient, local, stones. The number of stones is reputed to vary...and in 1919, people spoke of seeing strange balls of light… Within the circle is a group of a further 10 stones forming what is known as ‘the sanctuary’, or ‘cove’ – the purpose of which is unknown. At the northern end of the circle, two larger stones flank what might be an entrance. An unpolished stone axe, now in Keswick Museum, was found on the site in 1875 and the sanctuary was excavated in 1882, revealing charcoal. Curiously, the earliest known record of Castlerigg only dates back to 1776, in an account by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who visited it in 1725. Intriguingly, Stukeley mentions another circle in a nearby field; but no trace of this has ever been found.

Castlerigg, stone circle, Kewsick, Cumbria, about BritainIt is said that there are significant astronomical alignments in the construction, which might have meant something to the builders in around 3,000BC. Or maybe they intended it as a meeting place, for trade or ceremonial purposes – or both. It would be nice to know, wouldn’t it?

Castlerigg was one of the first scheduled ancient monuments in Britain in 1883. It is owned by the National Trust and cared for by English Heritage. You’ll find it about 1½ miles east of Keswick on a minor road, signposted from both the A591 and A66. There is a lay-by for parking. Take stout shoes – it can be wet and muddy.
Castlerigg, stone circle, Keswick, Cumbria, about Britain





Friday, 18 January 2013

Angel of the North

Angel of the North, Gateshead, Antony Gormley, North East England, about Britain
So there you are, trundling down (or up) the A1 by Newcastle/Gateshead and this gigantic rust-coloured figure flashes past your peripheral vision.  “Oh”, you think to yourself, “That’s the Angel of the North.”  And you’re one of about 90,000 drivers to have seen it that day; it’s true, the Angel counts them as they go by.

Antony Gormley’s steel creation, controversial when it was unveiled in 1998, has become one of the iconic images of the North East.  Is it a cherished landmark, or “bad art”?  Some refer to it as “the Gateshead Flasher”; others aren’t that polite.  It cost nearly £800,000 at the time (though I did see another account which suggested £1 million), stands 66 feet (20 metres) high, has a wingspan of 178 feet (54 metres) and weighs 200 tonnes.  There’s enough steel in it, apparently, to build 16 double-decker buses, or 4 Chieftain tanks.  Whatever you may think of it, it is certainly big – and makes one hell of a statement.

Angel of the North, Gateshead, Antony Gormley, North East England, about Britain

The Angel stands on a mound, towering overhead like a modern colossus, on the site of the pithead baths of the former Lower Tyne Colliery.  It is intended to be a reminder of the miners that worked far below ground, in the dark, for 200 years.  I can get that.  Antony Gormley said that it is a “Focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.”  I can get that too – though whether the good folk of Tyne & Wear feel abandoned is another matter.  I can see that people are drawn to the Angel of the North; there is something embracing and protective about those bloody great wings, stretching out far above you.  Undoubtedly, many love it – and, according to Gateshead Council, it receives more than 150,000 visitors every year.  I find it fascinating – and of course it’s impressive; not sure if it moves me, though – unlike Mr Gormley’s figures on the beach at Crosby.

You decide.  If you’re passing by, take a look – but best park up beforehand.  Take the northbound A167 toward Gateshead from the A1; there’s parking on the left about a quarter of a mile further on.

Find out a bit more about visiting the Angel of the North.  

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Wells Cathedral


Wells Cathedral, St Andrew, Somerset, about Britain
Wells Cathedral viewed from east, in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace
Drag your worthless body across the green toward the Cathedral, you miserable peasant.  Now - look up – and wonder.  Before you, vividly represented in stone painted purple, scarlet, green, silver and gold, is all of the company of heaven.  Here you sense your own creation, fall, redemption and resurrection as you contemplate Judgement Day…

In the superstitious Middle Ages, approaching the West Front of Wells Cathedral must have been awesome, mysterious and, perhaps, a little terrifying.  Even now, unpainted, it seems to radiate life; to say it’s impressive is an understatement.  For one thing, it’s massive – 100 feet high by 150 wide.  There are niches for about 500 figures, around 300 of which survive, presenting a panorama of holy hierarchy with Christ at the apex and the apostles, saints, bishops and kings beneath.  Lower levels portray biblical scenes.  It is an astonishing work of art and architecture, yet also a statement, and reminder, of the power of the Church in earlier times.


Wells Cathedral, Somerset, about Britain
Looking down the nave at the scissor arches
The Cathedral Church of St Andrew in Wells is full of surprises and beauty.  Take a look at the massive so-called ‘scissor arches’.  If you think they appear fairly modern, you’re wrong; they were built between 1338-48 to better support the central tower, which had begun to crack.  They were the brainchild of master mason William Joy.  Keep a lookout for the carvings the medieval masons have left us - some of them quite mischievous - throughout.  Then there's the octagonal Chapter House – the office and boardroom of the Cathedral – which was built in 1310 and appears to be held up by one central pillar.  Around its walls are the seats for the prebendaries – ecclesiastical members of the Chapter – each one bearing the name of its owner, like the seats of the Round Table.  Check out Wells Cathedral clock, which is claimed to be the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain (possibly the world) to be still in use.  It dates from before 1392, when records show that the Keeper of the Clock was paid 10 shillings (50p).  Until 2010 it was wound by hand each week.  The outer ring tells the hour, the inner ring the minutes and the central dial shows the position of the moon.  Jousting knights above the dial rotate as each quarter is struck and the clock is linked to an equally impressive timepiece on the outside, northern, wall.  The Cathedral is also famous for its rare, and original, stained glass windows; the Jesse window above the alter at the eastern end dates from c1340.


Wells Cathedral, Somerset, about Britain
Chapter House ceiling
There is evidence of prehistoric and Roman use of the springs which bubble through the limestone and give Wells its name.  It was around the year 705 that Adhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, persuaded King Ina (or Ine) of Wessex (688-726) to found a church there.  This was probably made of wood and no trace of it has been found, but it became the cathedral for the Diocese of Wells, covering the whole of Somerset, in 909.  The bishops of Somerset have borne the title of Bath and Wells since 1244.  The present building dates from around 1175.  It lies just to the north of the original, was constructed from east to west and was substantially complete in 80 years.  Apart from the bits that were added later.


Wells Cathedral, Somerset, bit about Britain
The Clock

The building emerged relatively unscathed from the Reformation, though many of its treasures were removed to London and the Cathedral was forced to sell others when an Act of Parliament reduced church incomes.  17th century puritans destroyed many statues and paintings.  Along with other cathedrals, Wells was closed during the Commonwealth, when Oliver Cromwell ruled, but opened again when the monarchy was restored in 1660.  During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, rebel soldiers occupied the Cathedral and stabled their horses in the cloisters.  In the Victorian period, a programme of restoration and cleaning was embarked upon, which I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning to you but for the fact that it was known as ‘the great scrape’.

The City of Wells, England’s smallest city, is in the county of Somerset at the crossroads of the A371 and the A39.  The Cathedral is the big building in the middle.  And whether you’re inclined to worship or simply admire, you shouldn’t miss it.  Visit Wells Cathedral website

Wells Cathedral, Somerset, bit about Britain
Eastern bays added 1325-40
Taking part in InSPIREd Sunday.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh, castles, North East England, about Britain The jagged towers of this huge medieval stronghold present an iconic and enigmatic silhouette on the stunning Northumbrian coast.  There are several castles in dramatic locations in this part of the world, but Dunstanburgh, situated on a naturally defensive position on a headland, is one of the best.  The artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) obviously agreed, because he painted it several times.  The castle has played its part in England’s turbulent and bloody history and comes fully equipped with its own ghost.  Kittiwakes and fulmars soar overhead as the waves crash on the rocks below.

The site has probably been in use since prehistoric times. Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, started building his fortress on it in 1313.  A strong supporter of King Edward I, who he fought for in Scotland, Thomas was one of the most powerful barons in England – amongst other things, he was also Earl of Leicester, Salisbury and Lincoln.  By the time construction began at Dunstanburgh, though, Thomas was in open opposition to King Edward II, his cousin and Edward I’s son.  He was instrumental in the murder of Piers Gaveston, the King’s favourite, and was leader of a baronial rebellion that culminated in the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322.  Thomas was captured, convicted of treason and beheaded at Pontefract.
Dunstanburgh, Turner, castles, North East England, about Britain
Dunstanburgh by Turner - watercolour c1798-1800
His castle at Dunstanburgh was probably intended as a northern stronghold and was certainly a massive statement of his power, though it is thought he only saw it once.  After his execution, the castle was seized by the King but later passed back into Lancastrian hands.  John of Gaunt, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, considerably strengthened it – including the enormous gatehouse you see today.  The castle was attacked by the Scots in 1384 and twice besieged by the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses, eventually falling to the Earl of Warwick in 1464.  It is said that the Captain of Dunstanburgh, John Gosse, was taken to York where he was beheaded with a hatchet.  After that, it seems to have been abandoned and by the 16th century it was in decay.

The ghost is supposed to be that of a young knight, Sir Guy the Seeker.  Legend has it that beneath the castle rock is a secret cavern, wherein sleeps a beautiful maiden.  A wizard encouraged Guy to rescue the girl from the spell she was under by choosing to either draw a sword or blow a horn; unfortunately, our hero made the wrong choice (the horn) and was forever doomed to wander in search of his heart’s desire (the girl).  Why do wizards do things like this?

Though in ruins, Dunstanburgh is dead impressive and worth a call if you like castles and enjoy a short walk along a lovely coast.  It’s roughly equidistant from the villages of Craster and Embleton and can be approached on foot from either one.  The walk from Craster, where there is a reasonably picturesque harbour, and refreshments, is shorter and either pleasant or bracing, depending on the weather.  From Embleton, you can walk across sandy Embleton Bay – which is on the radar for a future visit.  Take the minor road from the B1339.

For more information click HERE.