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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 FabergĂ© 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?