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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, 14 August 2013

Wallace memorial, Smithfield

William Wallace, Smithfield, Braveheart, Scottish independence
London’s Smithfield seems a little frayed round the edges to me.  Home to the capital’s huge meat and poultry market, some of the buildings have seen better days and there is a sad little park; it did not encourage me to linger.  What I was looking for, though, was the memorial to Sir William Wallace, just across from the park on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital.  A couple of Scots were busy taking photos of it and some dead flowers were stuffed into a railing underneath.  Wallace was cruelly executed nearby more than 700 years’ ago, on 23rd August 1305, but the memorial – and it is a handsome one - was placed there as recently as 1956.

I guess it would be difficult to honour all of those who died thereabouts.  ‘Smooth Field’ originally sat outside London’s walls and for centuries was the city’s chief livestock market, as well as a site for fairs, tournaments and public executions.  Wallace wasn’t the first to be done to death there, and certainly wasn’t the last.

Little is known about this Scottish patriot and hero, though we can be pretty sure he wasn’t much like Mel Gibson.  William Wallace was born sometime in the 1270s, possibly in Elderslie near Paisley, or in Ayrshire, and was apparently the younger son of a minor landowner called Alan Wallace.  It is said he was educated by two uncles, and could speak Latin and French.

At a time when the English King Edward I virtually ruled Scotland, Wallace came to prominence in May 1297 by leading a successful attack on Lanark, killing the English sheriff, Sir William Heselrig, in the process.  The story goes that Heselrig had murdered Wallace’s wife and that Wallace retaliated by ghastly dismembering Heselrig’s corpse.  He went on to wage a victorious guerrilla war against the English, culminating in the defeat of a considerably larger English army at Stirling Bridge in September 1297.  He was knighted, allegedly by Robert the Bruce, and made Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland.  More triumphant hit and run tactics followed, but in July 1298 the Scots were heavily beaten at the Battle of Falkirk.  Wallace went abroad to plead Scotland’s cause, returning in 1303.  In August 1305, he was betrayed by Sir David Menteith, captured at Robroystoun near Glasgow, taken to London and put on trial for treason.  Wallace denied the charge, pointing out that he had never sworn allegiance to the English King so how could he be a traitor?  The result was a foregone conclusion, though; Wallace was found guilty, of course.  Far from home and alone, accounts of his execution make harrowing reading: he was stripped, dragged through the streets to Smithfield on a wooden frame, and there hung, drawn and quartered in front of a baying crowd.  His head was displayed at London Bridge and the four remaining parts of his body were exhibited at Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick upon Tweed, Stirling and Perth.

It is said that the Latin inscription on the memorial is a saying that Wallace knew; it translates roughly as “My son, freedom is best, I tell thee true; never live like a slave”.  “Bas Agus Buaidh” is a Scots Gaelic battle cry and means “Death and victory.”

Monday, 12 August 2013


Helvellyn, Lake District, English mountains, walking in Britain
 If you’re thinking, “Ooo – I could just fancy a nice English mountain,” Helvellyn might get your juices flowing.  Now, other countries’ mountains (with the possible exception of Holland’s) often come in larger sizes, but England does have some fairly serious lumps of rock and Helvellyn is one of them.  At 3,117 feet (950 metres), it is England’s and the Lake District’s third highest peak, easy to get to, provides interesting and varied scenery, exhilarating views, the magnetism of the infamous Striding Edge…and is not to be trifled with.

Helvellyn is part of a mighty range of ancient peaks all more than 1,900 feet (600 metres) high, running about 6 miles from north to south.  The rocks in these parts are known to geologists as ‘the Borrowdale Volcanics’, and were spewed forth in molten magnificence before your grandmother was born 450 million years’ ago.  The west slope of this range rises relatively steeply and inexorably from Thirlmere, but the eastern aspect facing Patterdale and Ullswater is (arguably) far more interesting - a product of the last Ice Age, sometime between 26 and 10,000 years back.  Here, deep U-shaped valleys have been carved with arêtes either side (sharp ridges left by two parallel glaciers), basins have been scoured out to form corries filled with glacial melt water known as tarns, brooks babble their way down hill across peat and over coloured stones and you can, with precious little effort, imagine that the 21st century is a very long way off.  Having said that, Helvellyn is a popular climb, particularly from the east – so if you crave total solitude, set off early or approach it from another direction.

Helvellyn, Lake District, English mountains, walking in Britain
The routes from Patterdale via Grisedale, or from the more touristy Glenridding, are along well trodden paths – to a point.  Depending how fit you are (and if you’re concerned about fitness, then maybe it’s better to read ‘Wainright’s Favourite Mountains’) the trudge to the top and back should take anything from 3 – 6 hours.  To describe this as a walk is, in fairness, a little misleading.  From Grisedale, once you’re off the valley bottom it is, quite frankly, a relentless slog up cut steps to your first named feature, Hole in the Wall – actually, a series of scattered rocks and a stile.  The route from Glenridding is marginally kinder on the lungs.  The views all the way are immensely rewarding.  From Hole in the Wall, you start a gentler, but more challenging, stagger up onto Striding Edge, a narrow spine some half a mile in length.  Striding Edge must be treated with considerable respect.  It is not for the faint-hearted and, if you have no head for heights, do not try it – though you can work your way along the northern (Red Tarn) side, with care.  However, what look like paths are rabbit runs that can come to dead-ends at sheer rock faces and, in places, a slip can be fatal.  If someone is nervous, don’t hassle them, and keep both children and dogs under control.

As you begin the ascent from Hole in the Wall, Red Tarn will come into view on your right and you’ll see the brooding mass of Helvellyn beyond.  The tarn is in a horseshoe, formed by the arêtes of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge.  Once off Striding Edge, you’re immediately confronted with a scramble, mostly on hands and knees, up jumbled rocks the height of several houses to the top of the mountain.  The slope seems vertical at times, but is probably a gentle 45 degrees.

Helvellyn, Lake District, English mountains, walking in Britain
Helvellyn is not a classic inverted V-shaped mountain: the top is a broad plateau where, in 1926, someone actually landed an aeroplane.  And it is on the plateau that you may come across several memorials.  The most famous is to Charles Gough, tourist and artist, who disappeared on the mountain in 1805.  His skeletal remains were found three months later, by a passing shepherd, where he had fallen.  Trixie, his faithful (and presumably well-fed) dog still guarded what was left of her master’s cadaver.

But don’t dwell on that.  Provided the summit isn’t shrouded in cloud, wander about and enjoy the stunning views.  Your way down is along Swirral Edge – not as daunting as its sibling on the opposite side, but still to be treated with care – skipping is not advised.  Once you’re back at Red Tarn, pick your preferred path back to civilisation and, possibly, a well-deserved pint.

Conquering Helvellyn is an immensely rewarding achievement.  Take a camera, a picnic and enjoy yourself.  But it does claim lives and even experienced hill walkers can get into trouble.  So, do not undertake this walk without suitable preparation, clothing, equipment and supplies.  I have seen stupid people on it wearing casual shoes, shivering and without a map (you probably need Ordnance Survey North East English Lakes OL5).  Conditions can change very quickly and it is easy to go astray.  Unless you’re very experienced and well equipped, or tired of living, on no account attempt Helvellyn in bad weather or mid-winter.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Anne Bronte's grave

Anne Bronte, Scarborough, St Marys, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Yorkshire
 Anne, the Brontë sister people often forget, is buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Scarborough, Yorkshire.  Overshadowed by her better known siblings, Charlotte and Emily, Anne is probably best known for writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and less known for her other novel, Agnes Grey.  She is the only one of her immediate family not to be interred in the Brontë vault at Haworth, and died of tuberculosis (consumption) just 8 months after her brother, Branwell and a mere 5 months after Emily.

Anne Bronte, Scarborough, Yorkshire, St Mary's, Wildfell Hall
She had grown to love Scarborough whilst working as a governess and, when she fell ill, hoped the sea air would revive her.  She journeyed the 70 miles from Haworth with Charlotte and a friend, Ellen, stopping en route in York, and arriving on Saturday 25th May 1849.  By this time, she was very frail and asked Charlotte whether it would be better if she returned to die at home.  The doctor’s advice on Sunday was that the end was very near; and the following day she was gone.  Charlotte made the decision to bury her in the town and the funeral apparently took place two days’ later.  It seems that only Charlotte, an old school teacher who happened to be in town and, presumably, friend Ellen, attended.  Charlotte commissioned a headstone, but returning 3 years’ later found a number of errors on it.  The errors, whatever they were, were seemingly corrected – but the inscription still has Anne’s age wrong.

A new plaque rests on the ground in front of the headstone.  It says:

Anne Brontë
novelist and poet
The original headstone reads

Here Lie the remains of Anne Brontë

Daughter of the Revd P Brontë

Incumbent of Haworth Yorkshire

She died Aged 28 May 28th 1849

The text contains one error
Anne Brontë was aged 29 when she died
This plaque was placed here in 2011
By the Brontë Society

So there she is, in the shadow of the ancient castle, overlooking the colourful houses, busy harbour and slot machines of Scarborough.  The house she died in was on the site now occupied by the Grand Hotel – which has also seen better days.

Some mysteries… I am sure there is a reasonable explanation as to why Charlotte decided that her sister should lay at rest remote from everyone else in the family, and then be interred so swiftly without even allowing time for her father to attend the funeral.  Perhaps it was a matter of expense.  Shortage of cash may also explain why Charlotte did not discover that the text on her sister’s tombstone was incorrect for 3 years.  Finally, it appears that Charlotte prevented further publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – possibly because she considered it unsuitable; or was she jealous?  The novel was published in 1848 under the pseudonym ‘Acton Bell’ (was this inspired by Arthur Bell Nicholls, who later married Charlotte?) and quickly sold out.  But it was widely considered to be revolutionary in its treatment of issues such as alcoholism, domestic violence, sex and vice in general: sounds like a ‘must read’ to me.

You can read a bit about the Brontës and Haworth HERE.

Scarborough, St Mary's, Anne Bronte, Yorkshire