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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, 24 December 2014

Christmas beer

The Punch Bowl, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

Or “The Fairy Tale of the Village Pub”.
Once upon a time, in a land not far away, there was a little village.  And the village had all of the things you’d expect to find there: a church, a school, a post office, shop, village hall, village green – and a pub.  Several miles away from the village, in any direction you’d care to head, was another village.  The second village had very similar things to the first village, and was every bit as good, but of course it did not look the same.  And beyond that was another village – and so on; right across the land there were hundreds – maybe thousands - of villages just like that, each and every one joined up by the countryside that surrounded them.

The Punch Bowl, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

(In between the villages were towns, which had lots of all the things the villages had, and more besides - though they were very different indeed and part of another story).

Then, one day, people in the little village (it could have been any one of them, and almost certainly was), woke up to find the church, the school, the shop, the hall and the pub had all closed.  Everything that helped make them a community had gone and it wasn’t a village anymore, just a collection of houses where nothing happens except inside their own fences and walls.  Clever people scratched their heads and suggested various reasons, most of them sensible, to explain why these institutions had died while nobody was looking.  But, deep down, people had a sneaky feeling that things simply went away if they weren’t used enough.  And everyone was very sorry and sad.


The Punch Bowl, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

Traditional pubs, rather than what one might politely call ‘themed eating houses’, are a declining feature of Britain.  Village pubs are particularly precious; they used to be a kind of community hub, where folk would go to play games and catch up on the gossip.  Only people who do not frequent pubs think of them merely as places to drink alcohol – and there’s no shame in having a soft drink in a pub anyway.  My regular reader may recall that I enjoy the occasional trip to my own local, The Olde Ruptured Duck.  Using a pub is one of the many valuable contributions I make to society. 

But featured is the Punch Bowl at Burton in Lonsdale, just on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  Burton used to be a pottery and mining village, where there were around a dozen pubs to cater for the men’s needs; the Punch Bowl is the very last one.  Though much altered over the years, the original building is 18th century and there’s still a stone mounting block just outside.  The landlady, Sue, makes a huge effort all year round – ably assisted by Stan, Jas, Sophie (and Roxy the dog).  At Christmas the place is transformed with decorations, lights and numerous, arguably kitsch but amusing, seasonal knick-knacks.  So it’s like entering a delightfully over the top sparkly synthetic grotto.  There’s a buzz of convivial conversation, people tucking into pub grub (which Sue mostly prepares herself), a fire at one end, no slot machines, excellent and friendly service, good company – and, of course, the ubiquitous seasonal music playing quietly in the background.

The Punch Bowl, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

I like popping into a good pub sometime over Christmas.  I take pleasure in the unpretentious fellowship; I enjoy the fact that its public rooms have an informal residential feel, but that no one actually lives in them; and I appreciate going back to my own home afterwards.

The Punch Bowl, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

Christmas means different things to different people.  Hopefully, we all remember where it started and celebrate that in our own way.  Whatever our views, we should all be able to take on board the message of peace and goodwill.  Some of us are lucky to be with those we love, exchange gifts and treat ourselves to some special food.  Even a curmudgeonly middle-aged bloke like me can remember the wonder of Christmas as a child and, frankly, I can still sense the magic now.  I love the smells and sounds – spices, pine, all the carols, Slade singing ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, Judy Garland crooning ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ and, of course, Bing Crosby dreaming of ‘White Christmas’.  I can even tolerate a small amount of Slim Whitman - but please don’t tell Sue at the Punch Bowl.

Of course, A Bit About Britain needs some seasonal British music.  So here’s a personal favourite - the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl from 1987 with the fabulous ‘Fairytale of New York’.  I'm thinking there may be people in the Big Apple who have never heard of it.  It keeps topping polls of Britain’s favourite Christmas numbers and is, apparently, the most played Christmas song of the 21st century to date (how do they know that?!).  If this number has somehow eluded you so far, listen to the end before making up your mind.

And remember, a pub should be for life – not just for Christmas.  

Finally, I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to anyone who has chanced upon this project and stayed - particularly those that, amazingly, keep coming back to read it!

The Punch Bowl, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A winter's walk

Ingleborough, Yorkshire, Three Peaks, Dales, Ingleton

It’s been an easy winter thus far.  In our neck of the woods, the number of frosty mornings necessitating ritualistic windscreen ice scraping ceremonies can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  So when we woke up to see Jack Frost had visited the other weekend, we thought a stroll before breakfast was in order.  Besides, I thought, maybe the photos would be OK for A Bit About Britain and I could use it as an excuse to talk about the weather.

Yorkshire, drystone wall

The Gulf Stream flows northward from Florida.  Somewhere along the way, it morphs into the North Atlantic Drift, pops across to visit the British Isles and is largely responsible for the mild weather experienced here and in other parts of Western Europe.

Greta, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the British climate is famously temperate.  It would be nice to add, “just like its population”, but – sadly – Britain has proportionately as many nutcases as anywhere else.  However, my views on British politics and the standard of drivers around Manchester will have to wait for another time, because today we are concentrating on the weather.

The English, in particular, are notoriously fascinated by the weather – or talking about it, at any rate.  It is used as a standard conversation opener:

“Nice day”.

“Arr.  Cloudin’ over, though.  Could see 3 feet of snow and a tornado by tea time.”

“I’d better get home and let the husband in, then.”

All Saints' Church, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

Extremes of weather are rare in Britain – though the winter of 1947 was so bad from January to March that it actually gets mentioned in books about the Cold War (bad joke intended, but it really was a significant historical event).  However, the lowest temperatures are usually reserved for upland areas and, particularly, the Highlands of Scotland where freezing and blizzard conditions are common in winter.  Elsewhere, snow before Christmas is not the the norm – though that certainly happened during the winter of 2010-11 and I know from personal experience that lowland temperatures then were at least -15 Centigrade.  Britain does get droughts too – though a British-style drought usually merely results in a hose-pipe ban.

A Bit About Britain, winter walk

The coldest temperature recorded in Britain is -27.2 Centigrade (Braemar in 1982 and Altnaharra in 1995), and the hottest is 38.5 Centigrade in Faversham, Kent, in 2003.

British weather is supposed to be unpredictable, though I think more so in the north - which I reckon is about twice as wet as the south.  Generally speaking, it is warmer in the south and drier and colder in the east.  Rain is universal – which is why the place is as green as it is and why it was good to take advantage of that crisp, dry, morning.  And this is a good moment to stop before we get into serious issues like climate change, increased flooding and the prediction that the south east will soon be a desert.

Winter walk, berries, Bit About Britain

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A visit to Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle, black swans, Lady Baillie

A fertile imagination can run riot at Leeds Castle, which has been at the heart of English history since before the Norman Conquest and whose tagline is “the loveliest castle in the world”Leeds was once a royal castle, familiar to kings like Edward I, Richard II, Henry V and Henry VIII.  It is particularly, and justifiably, proud of its association with six queens – Eleanor of Castile, Margaret of France, Isabella the ‘she-wolf’, Anne of Bohemia, Joan of Navarre and Catherine de Valois. 

Leeds Castle, Maidstone, visit Kent

Today, Leeds Castle is a romantically attractive and immaculately maintained business and visitor attraction.  The reason it is has survived in its current state, though, is because until 1974 it was someone’s home for most of its 800 years.  And, inevitably, each owner has left their mark – particularly Fiennes Wykeham Martin in the 19th century and Lady Baillie in the 20th.  So it’s doubtful whether many of the earlier owners and historical figures associated with Leeds would recognise it now.  Equally, it’s a bit of a challenge to picture these formidable characters from our past going about their somewhat gritty affairs – but of course it’s worth a try.

Squires Courtyard, playground, Leeds Castle

If you were remaking a 1950s Hollywood Technicolor blockbuster about Camelot or Ivanhoe, full of visual effect and eye-candy, but a little short on reality, Leeds might be one place to consider filming.  Perhaps Leeds Castle is one of those places where heritage rubs shoulders with entertainment.  This is not only a place to visit, but also to attend one of the events – concerts, firework displays, dinners – held throughout the year.  The backdrop is superb and the experience could be, literally, awesome.  People spend holidays here, booked into self catering accommodation; and what a place to hold your wedding reception!  It’s also a place where people come to just to walk, have a picnic and bring the kids.  Through snippets of overheard conversation, several mums with prams and toddlers seemed to be regulars.  And I must confess to feeling a pang of jealousy when I saw the playground – the Squire’s Courtyard – and the amazing mock-castles it contains; we didn’t have stuff like that when I was small.

European Eagle Owl, birds of prey, Leeds Castle

Unsurprisingly, the castle surrounded by its lake draws the eye as soon as it emerges through the gardens.  If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the black swans introduced by Lady Baillie and now the castle’s symbol.  The grounds are full of birds of one sort or another and Leeds Castle also features displays by birds of prey.  This is not something I would normally go out of my way to see, but I admit to being impressed watching Mozart, a beautiful European Eagle Owl and a magnificent Harris’s Hawk from the US.  The very amusing and capable handler also showed a fairly scabby and unpleasant Turkey Vulture, which somehow reminded me of an estate agent I once knew.

Lady Baillie's shoes, Leeds Castle, a bit about Britain

Thorpe Hall, 18th century panelling, Leeds Castle

Just wandering through the parkland and gardens is a pleasant experience.  Inside, the castle is fascinating, certainly with hints of its medieval origins, but mostly and very definitely a luxurious 20th century home.  A set of chambers, the Queen’s Room, recreate what the quarters of Catherine de Valois might have looked like in 1422.  Lady Baillie’s rooms were fabulous and fascinating, though it did feel a little voyeuristic seeing her personal things laid out.

Grotto, Leeds Castle, visit Kent

Peacock, Leeds Castle, Kent

You could round off your visit off by getting lost in the maze – we did (take breadcrumbs) – and walking through the underground grotto.  After that – time for a coffee and a bun – though it’s slightly disappointing to discover the place has a Costa Coffee on site, which is rather too much like the high street for me.  But, overall, Leeds Castle is a ‘must visit’, one of Britain’s treasure houses and a great place for a day out.  It’s not cheap, and not a place to go if you have limited time: my advice is to allow several hours for your visit.  It is possible to buy a ticket that allows unlimited access for a year.

Leeds Castle, grounds, gardens

You can read a bit about the history of Leeds Castle at “The loveliest castle in the world?”

You can learn even more from the Leeds Castle website

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Christmas at Liberty's

Liberty of London, British shops, Regent Street, West End, London

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that people are talking about Christmas.  They try to keep it quiet, but I’m not daft.  In our local, The Olde Ruptured Duck, decorations started to appear weeks ago.  I’ve seen things on TV, y’know: shops and what-not, each flogging their own version of seasonal perfection – a sofa that is guaranteed to arrive before the Big Day, cute little fairies that add sparkle to – well, almost anything, I should imagine – a mate for lovelorn Monty the Penguin, the cheapest way to total oblivion – and so on.

Liberty of London, Xmas shop, Christmas decoration

I love Christmas, I really do.  And, like any other stereotypical male, I am absolutely thrilled by the prospect of Christmas shopping.  Of course, simultaneously sharing that sublime retail experience with thousands of other people, each and every one of them full of peace and goodwill to all, transports me to unimaginable heights of ecstasy... So we went to Liberty’s of London.

Liberty's of London, Christmas shop, visit Britain

Liberty’s of London is one of those iconic British shops, like Harrods, John Lewis and Grace Bros.  It is renowned for its fabrics and floral prints, but also enjoys a reputation for the slightly exotic and individual – as its website says, “where rich heritage combines with the cutting edge and avant garde.”  Rather beguilingly, it goes on to purr, “We welcome you into our eccentric, indulgent and utterly charming world and invite you to get truly lost in Liberty.”  Just in case you don’t get the point, it quotes Oscar Wilde claiming that, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”

Liberty's of London, Great Marlborough Street

Liberty’s founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was the son of a draper who found himself working for Farmer & Rogers’ Great Shawl & Cloak Emporium in London’s Regent Street.  He was put in charge of their oriental business and decided to break out on his own.  Borrowing £2,000 from his future father-in-law and with a staff of 3, in 1875 he leased half a shop at 218a Regent Street, calling it the ‘East India House’.  Within 18 months, Liberty had repaid the loan and leased the other half of the shop.  He was an instinctive niche retailer, growth was rapid and Liberty’s business became associated with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements.  Unfortunately, he did not live to see his fabulous new premises open on Great Marlborough Street, at the junction with Regent Street, where it remains today.

Liberty's of London's Christmas shop

Built in mock-Tudor style, Liberty’s sticks out from the surrounding buildings like a morning suit at a football match.  The timbers used in its construction came from two Royal Navy ships, HMS Impregnable, launched as HMS Howe in 1860 and the Navy’s last wooden-wall ship, and HMS Hindustan, a battleship dating back to 1841.  Apparently, Liberty’s shop front along Great Marlborough Street is the same length as HMS Hindustan was – 185’.  Don’t ask me why.

Liberty's of London, iconic London shop

Inside, Liberty is as unlike every other shop in London as it is on the outside.  It seems mean-spirited to call it an up-market department store, though that’s sort of what it is, offering homeware, clothing, accessories, beauty products and, of course, haberdashery and fabrics.  It’s all on 5 floors, which sometimes creak alarmingly underfoot and, at the best of times, it seems to me like a cross between formal shop and bazaar, contained within an intimate wooden labyrinth.  As soon as we’d made our way in for the Christmas visit, I realised that the sanctity of personal space was at risk because the place was heaving.  Liberty’s fragrant staff floated across the floors, smiling encouragingly, but otherwise it looked about as serene as tank full of piranhas at snack time.  English Home County blended with virtually any overseas accent you care to think of, and most of the owners could have auditioned for the First XV.  Head Office and others of the gentler sex seemed to be perfectly at ease with it all, picking up things and fingering them before moving on in a kind of tackle-proof trance; but, being only 6 foot tall and around 14 stone in weight, I was slightly terrified and just a little confused.  What I really needed was the Kevlar invisibility cloak - and a ball of string so that I could find my way back.

Liberty's of London, Christmas shop, HM the Queen

Upstairs in the Christmas shop, there seemed to be an unofficial one-way system in operation.  To attempt a U-turn was hazardous – so if you missed something, you really needed to go round again.  It must be enormous fun, putting together a Christmas shop – and I think most stores make a pretty good fist of it, to be fair.  Liberty’s certainly do – the place glitters.  I gather from reading some background to the Channel 4 documentary series, ‘Liberty of London’ - which, inexplicably, I kept missing (I think it clashed with ‘Bleak House’ in Cantonese) – that planning for it starts in January and they receive more than a ¼ million visitors from all over the world.  Apparently, they stock 100,000 baubles, 3,000 fairies and 1,000 novelty dogs.  Eat your heart out, Asda.

Liberty's of London, polar bear, Christmas shop

Resisting the urge to buy a gold-framed portrait of Her Majesty the Queen to hang on the Christmas tree at £15.95, or a very useful almost man-sized stuffed toy polar bear for £995, we settled for a bauble that reminded me of a Fabergé egg.  On the way down, we had to inspect the world-famous fabrics.  I spotted a dress mannequin covered with a bright, floral, design; the price-tag was £1,300 – I suppose one can’t just drag a peasant in from the estate anymore, and hang things on them all day.

Liberty's of London, Christmas shop, bauble

For much, much, more information, visit Liberty of London via their website – and don’t forget to tell them you believe in Santa Claus.  By the way, does anyone remember Farmer & Rogers?

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Two Chairmen

Pubs, Westminster, Two Chairmen, SW1, Taylor-Walker

Why on earth would anyone suggest that I might like to visit a pub?  I mean, why would someone I’ve never met suggest I might like to visit a pub?  But that’s exactly what my ether-friend, Adrian, over on Google Plus did.  Up he popped with a fine picture of what looked like a neat little boozer, the Two Chairmen in London.  “Oh”, I commented, “That looks like a neat little boozer.”  And Adrian came back with, “Maybe there’s a blog article there for you sometime in the future.”  He went on to explain that this was one of the oldest pubs in Westminster, with an interesting history, situated opposite the notorious Cockpit Steps, just off Birdcage Walk - named for James I’s aviaries.  Mind you, Adrian works in advertising so maybe he has an angle somewhere.

Anyway, I made a note of it because Adrian seems like a nice bloke and, in truth, I have been known to visit pubs – just for research purposes, you understand (pubs are nasty things, full of beer and temptation) – and I do find myself in London occasionally.

The Two Chairman is a short walk to the west of Parliament Square, in Dartmouth Street, which bisects Queen Anne’s Gate and Old Queen Street.  It is indeed opposite Cockpit Steps, the alleged haunted site of the Royal Cockpit – an 18th century venue for cockfighting.  A little off the beaten track, it’s a relatively peaceful, but handy, location to have a watering-hole: close to all of the capital’s Westminster attractions (and essentials such as New Scotland Yard and the Chilean Embassy) as well as being in a Disney-like area of London full of smart Regency town-houses – all big shiny doors, gloss-black wrought-iron, polished brass and door entry systems.

Sedan chairmen, Cockpit Steps, Westminster, London pubs

The pub gets its name from the chairmen who worked sedan chairs – single-seat carriages carried on poles by two strong men - taking their wealthy clients to the cockfighting and waiting in the pub for their next fare.  The pub’s website claims that this practice might be the origin of the expression “cheerio”, because customers wanting a sedan chair would shout, “Chair Ho”.  Actually, from what I can make out, “Cheerio”, meaning “good wishes”, “goodbye” or used as a toast, comes from joining “cheery” with “O!”.

There’s a belief, dating back to at least the early 19th century, that sedan chairs originated in the French town of Sedan.  In fact, chairs supported by poles, canopied or otherwise, have been used in various cultures in Europe and the Far East since ancient times.  They became popular in Britain from the late 17th century and the name is more likely to be derived from the Latin verb sedere, to sit.

Queen Anne's Gate, Old Queen Street, pub, Two Chairmen

All that aside, I did engineer a visit to the Two Chairman.  We came upon it via Whitehall and St James’s Park and found it to be an unpretentious, traditional, London pub, clearly frequented by a number of regulars; I liked it very much.  It is no quaint village hostelry, but then neither is it a brash, soulless, bar – though, unfortunately, it does have a TV.  Most importantly, it serves good beer; just to be sure, I had several pints of London Pride (which seemed to improve with each glass) and I’m advised that the Merlot was pretty decent too.  It being lunch time, we felt it only right to try the food – which was of the no-nonsense pub grub variety, tasty and plentiful.  We had fish and chips, steak and ale pie and chicken pie – I should add that there were three of us.  The service was cheerful and friendly and, despite the fact that the place was doing a brisk trade, everything arrived promptly.  I will be back.  One day, though, I will find out why it is that loos in the basements of older pubs in London all seem to exude a similar aroma to that of a river estuary at low tide…

Just to see what other people thought of the Two Chairmen, I had a quick look on Trip Advisor and saw one comment about it really only being suitable for adults.  I have to agree, but would need to ask what sort of masochist would want to take children to a grown-up pub anyway?  Family-friendly is all very well, but it’s a different market; and, personally, the last thing I want when I’m enjoying a jar and a bit of conversation is a load of screaming kids running amok.  I would have thought one of the selling points for the Two Chairman is that it is not a typical tourist pub.

So, well done Adrian.  Who says Google Plus doesn’t work?

Fuller's, London Pride, Chiswick brewery

If you’re desperate for more information, visit the Two Chairmen’s website.  The nearest tube station is St James’s Park – District (Green) and Circle (Yellow) lines, but Westminster – District, Circle and Jubilee (grey) lines – is pretty close too.

PS I’d like to confess that I have been paid a modest fee of £2,000 plus expenses to write this article and feature it on A Bit About Britain but, regrettably, that would be untrue.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


Holyroodhouse, Queen, Scotland, James V, tower, Victorian fountain.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.  And parts of it are open to the public.  So, assuming you don’t get to visit palaces too often, you should pop in when you’re next in Edinburgh.  It’s situated at the eastern end of the Royal Mile, which stretches from the unmissable and iconic Edinburgh Castle in the west, along Castle Hill, Lawnmarket and Canongate.  Unfortunately, the Scottish Parliament Building – high on my personal list of the ugliest buildings in the world – is directly opposite.

I like to think of Holyroodhouse as an accidental palace; it began life as an Augustinian abbey founded by King David I in 1128.  The name ‘holyrood’ is derived from Old English (Saxon) halig rod, which means ‘holy cross’.  There seem to be three possible explanations as to why that label was applied to this place which, in no particular order, are:

1)    David was hunting nearby, saw a stag with a glowing cross between its antlers and decided to build an abbey on the spot;
2)    David was hunting nearby, thrown from his horse and speared in the thigh by a ‘muckle white hart’ (stag).  A crucifix (holy rood) miraculously appeared in his hands while he was wrestling with the stag.  He survived.  Accordingly, he decided to build an abbey close to the scene of his encounter.
3)    David’s mum, St Margaret of Scotland (who was confusingly of royal English descent), brought a fragment of the True Cross to Scotland and the King founded the abbey in its (or her) honour.

Any one of the above works for me; I will leave it to you to decide which one you prefer.

Royal Standard of Scotland, Royal Standard of the United Kingdom

The abbey contained royal chambers from an early date and it was one of the king’s residences by the time James II of Scotland was born there in 1430: indeed, he was crowned, married and buried in the abbey.  But it was King James IV (1488-1513) who decided to create a palace there – despite also investing in a perfectly good one 20 miles down the road at Linlithgow, and already having an established stronghold in Edinburgh.  However, a base was needed in the capital and Holyrood had more comfort potential than the austere and cold castle at the top of the hill.  James IV’s work was continued by James V (1513-42) who wanted something impressive for himself and his French wife, Mary of Guise.  The Stewart kings effectively created the palace around the cloisters of the abbey.

Palace of Holyroodhouse, Caton Hill, visit Edinburgh

The English twice looted Holyrood, in 1544 and 1547, as part of the ‘rough wooing’, when Henry VIII was attempting to force a betrothal between his son, Edward, and the infant Scottish princess, Mary – future Queen of Scots and daughter of James V and Mary of Guise.  For a while from 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots made Holyrood her home; she married her second and third husbands, Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley) and James Hepwell (4th Earl of Bothwell) there in 1565 and 1567 respectively. 

Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, largely abandoned Holyrood after becoming James I of England – though he did commission some repairs.  During the Civil War, Cromwell’s troops were billeted there and the palace was badly damaged by fire – whether accidental or otherwise, no one knows.  It received an extensive makeover during the reign of King Charles II - and it is to this that it owes its present largely baroque look, with a twist of Scottish baronial thrown in.  The massive north-west tower, constructed by James V (the oldest surviving part of the palace) is sort of balanced by a similar, but 17th century, tower on the other side.

King James VII (James II of England), Charles’ brother, was not long on the throne and, after that, it seems British monarchs lost interest in Holyrood for awhile.  James’ grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, set up court there in 1745, during the brief Jacobean rebellion.  Some renovation work was undertaken for the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822.  But Queen Victoria was extremely fond of Scotland, liked to stay at Holyroodhouse and more work was carried out during her reign.  The elaborate fountain in the courtyard is Victorian – it is based on the James V fountain at Linlithgow Palace.  Holyroodhouse was also a favourite of George V and it became the monarch’s official residence in Scotland during the 1920s.

These days, Her Majesty the Queen stays at Holyroodhouse every summer, during what is called ‘Holyrood week’, when she undertakes a series of official engagements, investitures and audiences, as well as hosting a garden party for 8,000 guests.  The Queen’s arrival is marked by a ceremony during which she is offered the Great Key of Edinburgh, and a pledge of loyalty; she accepts, then hands the key back for safekeeping.

Holyrood Abbey, David I, Royal Vault, Scottish kings

The parts of the palace open to the public (except when the Queen is in residence) take in the state apartments, which include the throne room and great gallery – hung with portraits of the real and legendary kings of Scotland.  All is amazing, though I may say that the highlight for me was visiting Mary, Queen of Scots’ apartments – including her bedchamber and supper room.  To be in the home of this remarkable historical figure is one thing; but because the rooms contain many original furnishings, not least a most wonderful wood-panelled ceiling, it feels almost as though she has just stepped outside for a minute.  It was here, in the supper room, that the brutal murder of her Italian secretary, David Rizzio (or Riccio), took place.  Mary’s marriage to her cousin, Lord Darnley, was not going at all well.  To be frank, the man sounds as though he was an objectionable ass.  Rizzio, on the other hand, was apparently charming – and good company.  But he was disliked by many Scottish nobles, possibly because he had committed the crime of being a foreigner, a Catholic (like the Queen) – and had more influence than they thought he should.  Darnley was persuaded to do away with Rizzio, in return for which he would receive support for his claim to be king.  He may even have thought that the Italian was having an affair with his wife.  On the evening of 9th March 1566, Darnley and a group of cronies burst into the supper room where the pregnant Mary was entertaining Rizzio and some other friends.  Rizzio, vainly trying to cling to Mary’s skirts, was dragged, sobbing, next door where he was stabbed fifty six times.

Holyrood Abbey, Holyrood House, bit about Britain

The remaining ruins of the abbey, including the royal burial vault, are still attached to the palace.  By the late 16th century, only the nave of the abbey church remained – the remainder had either been incorporated within the palace, or demolished; it was finally ransacked by a Protestant mob in 1688 and the roof collapsed in 1768.

With nine centuries of turbulent history, you would expect Holyrood to have its ghosts.  Allegedly, unexplained sounds have been heard in the old tower and a ghostly figure has been seen – is this Darnley (who himself met a gruesome and unexplained end a year after Rizzio’s murder), or Rizzio?  Intriguingly, a rust-coloured stain on the floorboards – said to be Rizzio’s blood – keeps reappearing, no matter how often it is removed.  Less well known, but in many ways sadder and more terrifying, is Bald Agnes, who apparently wanders through the palace and grounds.  This is said to be the spiritual form of Agnes Simpson, accused of witchcraft, stripped and hideously tortured, and then garrotted and burned in 1592.

Once you’ve got over that, you can retire to the Café at the Palace for a well-deserved cuppa and a sticky bun.  Reasoning that this was possibly the closest we’d get to having tea with the Queen, that’s exactly what we did – and it was very good, thank you, Ma’am.  Suitably refreshed, you then might be brave enough to face the Palace Shop.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of gift shops - though of course I’m always happy to have a browse, offering helpful advice to the shop assistants as I go.  But I think Royal Gift Shops elevate tea towels, post cards and mugs to a marginally higher level than you'd find in Walmart.  You can select from a bewildering array of suitably monogrammed regal cushions, tea-cosies, throws, crockery, jewellery, bubbly, books – in fact – here’s the website of the Royal Collection Shop, so you can check it out for yourself. I can’t help wondering whether Her Majesty personally approves of all this stuff; I suppose she has to.

Holyrood, royal houses, Scotland

The Palace of Holyroodhouse is managed by the Royal Collection Trust, a department of the Royal Household.  You must check opening times before you make a special trip – visit the website of the Royal Collection Trust.  Incidentally, photography is not allowed inside which, as this is effectively a private residence and I am a loyal subject with no wish to be entertained at my own expense in the nasty, draughty, bits of the Tower of London, I think the ban is fair enough in this instance. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Is Tunbridge Wells British?

Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells, Georgian shopping mall

It’s sometimes suggested that Britain has a bit of an identity crisis.  Stuffed full of a combination of mythical and genuine cultural heritage, we sometimes get confused about who we are and, perhaps, even a little nostalgic.  The past was a haven of comfortable certainty, where everything and everyone knew its place, God was in heaven - and almost certainly spoke English with a BBC accent called ‘received pronunciation’ (RP).  We were polite, reserved and emotionless.  Mostly, it was summertime; bees buzzed, birds sang and peasants toiled blithely in their fields, messing about with hay, cows, sheep and what-not.  We might even have trusted politicians.  During hard times, we were fond of saying things like, “mustn’t grumble”, standing with backs to the wall drinking tea and experiencing our finest hour.  The reality of mills, mines, steelworks and shipyards is neatly airbrushed out of this lop-sided fantasy, as is the fact that most people in Britain would regard RP as ‘posh’ and were only stoical because they had no choice in the matter.  I also have a sneaking suspicion that the Scots, Welsh and Irish have always seemed quite content with their own identities and it’s the English who may be bewildered.

Tunbridge Wells, Pantiles, visit Kent

So let me take you to Tunbridge Wells (population 56,500), in the very English county of Kent, hypothetical home to the legendary (or fictional) writer of letters of complaint signed, ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.  The label - apparently unpopular in the town – is synonymous with died-in-the-wool conservatism, the preservation of a bucolic (and possibly faintly imperial?) past.  Could Tunbridge Wells be the last bastion of Englishness?

Once upon a time, prehistoric hunter gatherers may have come this way and perhaps Caesar’s legions marched nearby.  But Tunbridge Wells is a relatively new town.  It all began one day in 1606, when Dudley, Lord North, young courtier to James I, was in the neighbourhood to assist his ailing health.  Cantering through what was then open countryside, Dudley spotted some orangey-coloured liquid bubbling up from the ground and instantly recognised it as a chalybeate spring.  Well, you would, wouldn’t you?  Without hesitation, he supped his fill – a perfectly normal reaction for anyone seeing an oddly coloured fluid oozing out of the earth – was instantly cured, married the love of his life, never had a day’s illness thereafter and died a very rich man in bed at the age of 85.  I may have embellished that a little, but you get my drift; anyway, word spread.  Soon, the site of Dudley’s discovery became a spa retreat, frequented by the great and the good of Stuart Britain – including Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I.  Eventually, building took place around the spring, developing into a colonnaded Georgian shopping mall with an ‘upper walk’ for the gentry and a ‘lower walk’ for the rest of you.  I am unreliably informed that Royal Tunbridge Wells, as it became known, developed a reputation as a place of liberal morals, even debauchery; naturally, I will research that thoroughly and report in due course.  In time, ‘the Walks’ became known as ‘the Pantiles’, after the thick clay tiles shaped in pans that were used to cover the floor.

Pantiles, market, shops, Tunbridge Wells

The Pantiles remain RTW’s best-known feature and, arguably, are still a place to see and be seen.  So we went.  It was a Sunday in May, the Pantiles was basking in sunshine, looked chic, charming and, to be honest, a little un-English.  Let me be clear about this; it is not much like Wigan or Scunthorpe.  Most people appeared to be speaking English – and, yes, some of it was recognisably RP.  But accents varied.  Our fellow walkers were mainly elegant, confident, healthy and apparently well-heeled.  I know appearances can be deceptive, but the scents of Chanel, Moulton Brown, good coffee and freshly shampooed small dog mingled as we passed pavement tables where china chinked and snacks looked tasty and tiny.  There are more cafés and restaurants than you can shake a stick at and a raft of independent boutiques selling everything from handbags and jewellery to antiques and futons – everything you could possibly need for basic survival.  There’s even a vintage gun shop (surprisingly, you don’t see many of those in the middle of Manchester) and a shop entirely devoted to mirrors, which must be worth looking into.  Most of the mainly 18th and 19th century buildings seem dedicated to meeting 21st century essentials of one sort or another – though I was disappointed not to see too much debauchery on offer.  Perhaps we Brits like to keep that sort of thing hidden.

In the middle of all this was a temporary food market.  Rubbing shoulders with a stall flogging good no-nonsense British fare like beef pasties, Scotch eggs and sausage rolls, were traders offering a bewildering array of olive oils (what's wrong with lard anyway?), olives, dolmades – and one of the largest paellas I have ever seen.  Was this really England?  It felt a bit like France.  Or Spain.  With some relief, I spotted a Fullers sign – not frequently seen in Barcelona (or north of Watford for that matter).  In short, the place felt international.  One thing did strike me: the Old Fishmarket is in a building dated 1745, the year of the Jacobite rebellion when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army got as far south as Derby and, according to legend, the Government in London was in panic.  It would seem that life must have carried on in Tunbridge Wells, whatever anyone else was up to; and I’d like to think that this might have been a very British thing to do.

International food, Tunbridge Wells, Pantiles

Eat out, Tunbridge Wells, market, Pantiles

Just so you don’t mistake where RTWs’ loyalties lie, immediately outside the northern end of the Pantiles is the Jacobean church of King Charles the Martyr.  And also at the northern end is the original chalybeate spring, these days presented looking like a rather dodgy lavatory, where you can still take the waters.  At the time, I was disappointed to find that it was closed ‘due to poor water flow’ – a disturbing thought for many of us – but was subsequently relieved after I read Laura Reynolds in, “Just take advice from a local and don’t drink the water from the famous Chalybeate Spring – you don’t want to know what goes into it when the pubs kick out on a Friday night.”  Further signs of national identity?

Indian restaurant, Royal Tunbridge Wells, coat of arms

In any event, here is a small part of modern Britain, wrapped up in historic surroundings.  It’s undeniably part of England, geographically, but also feels a wee bit wickedly exotic.  It seems wealthier than some other parts of the country for sure, but also wealthier, more egalitarian, more confident and more international than its own immediate past.  If there is any vestige of the rather nice, but partial fantasy, Britain described in the first paragraph, it isn’t represented in this part of Tunbridge Wells.  Nor, I suggest is it represented by ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.  Complaining is the very antithesis of “mustn’t grumble” and, in any event, possibly amusingly non-politically-correct Englishmen in the south east don’t have the monopoly when it comes to moaning.  National identity – if it exists - is a complex and hugely varied thing, potentially dangerous and in a modern democracy certainly not a matter of black and white parochialism.  But perhaps the English need to work harder on their national costume.

Fuller's, London Pride, Duke of York, Tunbridge Wells

Just to wrap this up, beyond the Pantiles we walked past the same chain stores that are ubiquitous from Aberdeen to Truro, the same kind of tacky bits that cry out to be steam-cleaned, and then collected the car from a universally ugly multi-storey car park.  You want to know if we bought anything, don’t you?  Yes, we bought a very nice floral trilby from a charity shop – one of a national chain.

chalybeate spring, spa, water, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Postman Pat's Post Office

Postman Pat, Post Office, Kendal, Cumbria

Kendal, nestling conveniently on the edge of the English Lake District, is a famous town.  This, after all, is the place where mint cake was discovered, Katherine Parr had a castle and Alfred Wainwright was Borough Treasurer; but these nuggets of distinction pale into insignificance when you realise that Postman Pat was born there.  Indeed, by all accounts (and, fortunately, there are few of those) he was conceived there as well.

The erudite reader does not need to ask, “Postman who?”  As anyone who is anyone knows, Postman Pat is the resourceful postman in the fictional village of Greendale where, with his ubiquitous companion Jess, the black and white cat, he - well – he delivers the post.  Of course, life is never that simple.  Greendale is a rural community and there are challenges.  So, in between coping with oversized packages and Mr Doughbag at the Royal Mail, Pat has to resolve a whole host of unexpected problems - with things like sheep, snow, runaway trains and even stolen strawberries.  (I made up Mr Doughbag, but know from personal experience that someone very like him definitely exists).

Sign, Kendal Civic Society, Postman Pat's Post Office, Beast Banks

Pat and his whole wonderful innocent world of green hills, colourful flowers and drystone walls were the brainchild of children’s author John Cunliffe, who used to live in Kendal, on Greenside, just a few doors up from the post office that inspired him.  The postmistress in the stories is called Mrs Goggins, by the way.  In real life, sadly, the post office closed in 2003 and is now a private residence.  I’ve often wondered whether houses with famous connections cost more to buy, or whether the price is discounted to take account of loss of privacy and gawping grockles.  I’m assuming that places associated with terrible deeds can be obtained at a knock-down figure, because no one wants to live in them, whereas estate agents will be forced (against their will), to add a premium to the tag of a celebrity home.  However, you could probably make a good ghoulish living from opening the bungalow where Vlad the Impaler used to take his holidays, so I guess the old adage about there being no such thing as bad publicity is probably true.  Isn’t it a gas, though, that places associated with works of fiction – like this post office – can become attractions?  I’m a little surprised that someone hasn’t cashed in on it yet, and I’m rather glad they haven’t.

In any event, keen Postpatians (my own word for Postman Pat fans, in the same vein as ‘Whovians’) heave themselves up Allhallows Lane opposite Kendal’s Town Hall (where Alfred W worked) to Beast Banks – an attractive, almost rural, part of town where a cattle market was held in centuries past.  Opposite, is Beast Banks – or Postman Pat’s - Post Office.  Once you’ve taken precisely 3 seconds to take a photograph – though slightly longer if Pat is visiting, which he does sometimes – you can recover from all the excitement at an adjacent hostelry, the Rifleman’s Arms, which the hawk-eyed amongst you will have noticed that you passed on the way uphill.  This used to be – and hopefully still is – a good traditional no-frills local, where you might get a decent pint of Abbot Ale.  You'll notice they've missed the apostrophe in the sign, though.

Rifleman's Arms, Greenside, Kendal, pubs

Rifleman's Arms, Greenside, Kendal, pubs, signs

I digress.  Postman Pat was born in 1978, aimed at a pre-school audience, and the stories were first screened on BBC TV in 1981.  They take the form of what is apparently known as ‘stop motion animation’ – where objects, such as dolls, are photographed in stages of movement and then the photographs are all joined together - somehow.  Postman Pat (full name Pat Clifton) has his own Facebook page (which has over 83,000 ‘likes’), website, Twitter account and has been shown in 85 countries worldwide.  ‘Greendale’ is reputedly based on the village of Longsleddale, a few miles to the north of Kendal.  Longsleddale is beautiful, remote - and tiny; I suggest an awful lot smaller than its fictional counterpart.

In May 2014, ‘Postman Pat: The Movie’ was released, in which our reluctant hero receives the full CGI treatment.  I am just waiting for the opportunity to see it.  Apparently, Pat is replaced by a robot, ‘PatBot 3000’, which seeks world domination whilst Pat takes part in a talent contest staged by someone called Simon Cowbell.  In addition to the normal cast, it features the voices of David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Rupert Grint and Ronan Keating.

Below is a picture of Pat and Jess, which I borrowed from the BBC.  I hope they consider this fair use and feel I have given Pat a good plug – if not, I will happily remove the picture.  Here is the link to the BBC CBeebies website featuring Pat.  And here is the link to Postman Pat’s official website.

Postman Pat, Jess, black and white cat

PS Our postman's called Sid, and he's brilliant!