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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?

Friday, 31 January 2014

Victorian streetwalking and the 60s leads to prison

There’s an entire recreated Victorian Street inside York Castle Museum.  It’s been there since the start of the museum in 1938 and was the brainchild of its founder, Dr John Kirk.  He was evidently an extremely innovative man; nowadays, so-called living museums are all over the place.  And what a fabulous way of engaging with people – especially youngsters like me.  ‘Kirkgate’ – named for John, above, represents a street from 1870-1901 and is based on real York businesses – some of them still trading.  So you can dip in and out of all your favourite stores, like the chemists, toyshop, sweetshop, scientific instrument chappie (Victorian equivalent of an Apple Store, I guess) and (of course) the pawnbroker.  There’s also a taxidermist – every high street should have one - and I’m sure we can all think of a few people we’d like to take there.

Castle Museum, visit York, John Kirk, Kirkgate

When we last visited, in 2013, the museum had not long completed a large refurbishment project, including adding ‘Rowntree Snicket’, an alleyway designed to illustrate the appalling social conditions people lived in during the Victorian era.  A study on poverty in York, undertaken by Seebohm Rowntree of chocolate fame, caused a particular stir when it was published in 1901.  Rowntree not only described the horrifying squalor in which almost a third of the inhabitants of the city lived; his work also demonstrated that even those in work could not afford to sustain what he called ‘bare physical efficiency’  It caused a sensation.  Many found it inexplicable that such a state of affairs could exist at the heart of the British Empire.  Winston Churchill told an audience that the book “fairly made my hair stand on end”.  (Visit Poor Britain for a bit more on this topic.)

Victorian poverty, England, Rowntree

On a lighter note, the idea of refurbishing a Victorian Street appeals to me (think about it).  And they’ve done it very well – though, personally, I found the costumed staff somewhat unconvincing.

Skip a short lifetime to find yourself confronted by a large photograph of Twiggy in ‘The Sixties’.  This is a fun gallery, complete with a nice shiny Lambretta, Beatles’ singles (I really should sell mine), a jukebox and all manner of iconic paraphernalia.  I particularly liked the TV news footage.  Of course, if you can remember it all, then you weren’t there...

1960s, Lambretta, Mods, Rockers, Twiggy

York Castle Museum is housed inside an 18th century prison.  You can now experience the cells and hear the stories of some of the people that were held in them.  These include the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin, executed for horse-thieving in 1739, and Elizabeth Boardman, who was burnt to death in 1776 for the murder of her husband.  Clever audio-visuals bring the characters to life, in a ghostly way.

York Prison, Dick Turpin, Elizabeth Boardingham

There is an enormous amount to see in York Castle Museum, possibly justifying its relatively high ticket price.  Though it’s one of those tickets that allow you entry for a whole year, I suggest this is a useless gimmick so far as most people are concerned.  In fairness, entry for residents of York is free.  However, it’s a place that I, for one, could happily spend hours in – and have.  There are good exhibitions on social history, containing a fascinating array of everyday objects from times gone by, and on armour and armaments.  I was particularly intrigued by Oliver Cromwell’s death mask.  Even more captivating was an exhibition entitled, ‘From Cradle to Grave’, covering those two (and sometimes three) essentials of human existence – birth, marriage and death.

A final recommendation, though, is not to look forward too much to a nice cup of coffee in the museum’s café, because it may leave a bitter taste.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Criccieth Castle

Criccieth, places to eat, restaurants, Llwelyn ap Iowerth

I like castles, I really do.  Even scant and scraggy ruins can have a certain allure - a hint of romance blended with an aroma of past power.  It is easy to lose yourself in these monuments of stone, trying to understand a little of their history and the lives of the people that built, lived and died in them.  We are lucky to have so many castles in Britain: there are more than 640 in Wales alone.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Criccieth Castle didn’t do much for me.  Maybe this was due to mixed feelings about the town, where the welcome was sometimes less than cordial – though we did enjoy two excellent meals, in the Spice Bank and the Moelwyn Hotel.  Yum.  

Criccieth, ruined castles, Gerald of Wales

But there are three really good things about Criccieth Castle.  First – position: it is situated on a rocky promontory sticking out into Tremadog Bay, towering over the town and the two beaches either side.  So it has a wonderful silhouette and, when you get to the top, the views from the battlements are spectacular – particularly east toward the distant mountains of Snowdonia National Park.  Secondly, just look at that massive gatehouse – it is, literally, awesome – as no doubt it was meant to be.  It almost makes the castle look top-heavy: there is nothing elegant about Criccieth Castle; it is what it is – a no-nonsense medieval fortress designed to deter attackers.  Thirdly, the castle has a fascinating exhibition about Gerald of Wales, a 12th century cleric and scholar of Anglo-Norman/Welsh heritage, who wrote at least 17 books (all of them best-sellers?), including an account of his Journey through Wales, Itinerarium Cambriae, in 1188.  I hope Cadw, who look after the castle, keep this exhibition going.

Welsh flag, Criccieth, Cadw, war with England
Unlike so many castles in Wales, Criccieth is generally reckoned to have been built by the Welsh, rather than the English.  Though there is scholarly debate about who actually built what, and when, it is believed to have been constructed by Llwelyn ap Iorwerth, also known as Llwelyn the Great, in around 1230.  It was extended about 30 years’ later and considerably developed after 1283, when it was captured by the English.  Criccieth was besieged by the Welsh in 1294 during an uprising led by Madoc ap Llwelyn, but was kept supplied by sea with essential food and equipment from ships sailing from Ireland, and the garrison managed to hold out.  By the 14th century, Criccieth was being used as a prison.  It was finally captured by Owain Glyndwr in 1404, whose forces tore the walls down.  It is said that the fires started that day have left their marks in the stonework – and it is certainly true that some on the western side had a reddish hue about them.

However, for me – and sadly – the walls of Criccieth Castle exude little of these great and tumultuous events.  Don’t take my word for it; hundreds of people love Criccieth Castle, I’m glad I’ve seen it and I’d certainly go again if I happened to be nearby and didn’t need to be somewhere else.

Visit Criccieth Castle’s website.

For a bit about the English conquest of Wales, see Whatever happened to Wales?

Criccieth Castle, visit Wales, English conquest

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Changing rooms

York Castle Museum is a lot of fun.  I’ve been there several times and it never fails to delight.  The museum was founded in 1938 and is housed in 18th century prison buildings constructed on the site of the Norman castle.  The galleries include a full-size reconstructed Victorian Street, ‘Kirkgate’, much of it based on real businesses and people.  Plus, there are some wonderful rooms, recreated from past eras, where you can take a trip back in time and/or marvel at how quaint/tatty/awful it all once was.  I guess it depends on your age and state of mind; nostalgia’s not what it used to be.  If some of them look horribly familiar, it is merely indicative of your wide knowledge and vivid imagination.  Or perhaps you like period dramas.

York Castle Museum, Victorian parlour, how people lived, British social history

Take a look at the Victorian parlour.  Now tell me you don’t remember a time when it was common to have a piano in the house, lace mats all over the place, hideous gilt-framed pictures on the wall, a good china tea service and one of those multi-tiered tables in the corner?  You still have all of that?  Well, bless you; you’re looking great.

York Castle, Dales farmouse, how people lived, British social history

The early 20th century farmhouse seems more alien to me – it actually looks older than the Victorian parlour.  But I liked the dog and was impressed that he remained so still, and quiet, whilst people took their photographs.

York Castle, 1940s, how people lived, Ascot heater, British social history

I’m certain they’ve got the 1940s kitchen all wrong.  Surely, Ascot heaters were much, much later than that?  Perhaps this is cutting-edge stuff.  But you still see clothes driers with pulleys to haul them up to the ceiling today – don’t you?

York Castle, 1950s Britain, social changes since 1950

The living room from the 1950s was immediately recognisable, despite me being much too young to ever experience anything like it...  The TV, the Coronation Coach, the tray, train set (a Hornby?), electric fire, leather pouffe, décor – all very familiar, yet so far removed from a living room of the 21st century.  You can almost see father, pipe clenched between his teeth, reading the newspaper on the settee; of course, he is wearing a jacket and tie.  Messy though - mother must be down the pub.

York Castle, 1980s, mum's kitchen, growing up in Britain

And, finally, a kitchen of the 1980s – I’m assuming that decade, though in many ways it could be the 1970s.  Apart from the Vesta ready meal, the contents of the kitchen cupboard and worktop don’t seem that far away.  But you won’t find coffee sets and kitchen units like that in too many showrooms these days.  Microwaves only really took off in Britain in the 1980s and 90s – though invented in 1947, the first domestic ones were not sold here until 1974; I’m proud to say that I learnt to use one just the other day.

We can all recognise that these rooms are manifestly from another age.  But I’ll bet the perspective is very different, depending which side of 30 you’re on.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Wharram Percy

Wharram Percy, DMV, deserted villages, England, visit Yorkshire
We tend to see towns and villages as more or less permanent things.  Yet most settlements are relatively recent, and the world is littered with places that have been lost - abandoned communities, traces of vanished civilisations.  In a crowded little place like Britain, they are all around you; some known, others long-forgotten.  Deserted villages are a national feature – apparently we have about 3,000 of them.  Some neighbourhoods have been destroyed intentionally, perhaps savagely; others have faded away due to disease, emigration – or for reasons we will never know.

Wharram Percy is reputedly the most famous and intensively studied deserted medieval village (DMV) in England.  I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised there was no one there when we visited.  It was about 25 miles from York, then a drive along a narrow country lane off the B1248, a little south of Wharram-le-Street, to a small car park where there was just one other vehicle.  Clambering out and pulling on boots, we heard aircraft wheeling and diving above.  They seemed to be putting on a show and it struck me as quite a contrast with the old path to a medieval village, which had been busier hundreds of years ago, but which was windswept and empty now.  So off we went, coming upon the DMV after about ¾ of a mile.

St Martin's, church ruins, Yorkshire Wolds, Bit about Britain
The village once stood on the west side of a valley called Deep Dale.  It had two parallel main streets and the houses fronted the streets – the ‘toft’, which was an area of land including the house and any outbuildings, with the ‘croft’ – an enclosed area of land used for crops or grazing stock – behind that.  Now, there is nothing much to see except the shell of the church, St Martin’s, a reconstructed fish pond and the remains of an 18th century farm complex.  The humps and bumps in the turf show the location of buried walls and some of these, including the outline of two manor houses on higher ground, have been highlighted by archaeologists. Useful information boards have been placed around the site, to explain various features and show how the village might once have looked.

Despite the attention Wharram has received, practicalities have meant that excavation has been relatively limited.  Even so, an enormous quantity of material – animal bones, pottery shards, metal objects – has been found.  And the experts have discovered a considerable amount about the place.  The site was farmed long before a village emerged – a community like this is usually preceded by thousands of years of human activity and occupation.  Ancient man has left his mark all over the nearby landscape and it is believed there was, at least, a Bronze or early Iron Age ranch at Wharram.  Evidence of two Romano-British farmsteads have been found on the site, which continued to be in use during the 7th-8th centuries before a village formed in the Late Saxon Period – around 9th or 10th centuries.  The community peaked between the 12th – 14th centuries, survived the Black Death, famine, Scottish raids and declined in the 15th century when the local landowners, the Hiltons, wanted the land to graze sheep.  The last families were evicted by 1517.

Lost villages, England, North Yorkshire, medieval burials
The church of St Martin is actually a typical English parish church, despite its ruinous state.  Built on the foundations of an earlier Saxon church, it grew in prosperous times and shrank when things were bad.  It continued to be used by the parishioners of nearby Thixendale until as recently as 1870, when they got their own church – but I have also read that St Martin’s was attended right up to the 1950s.  The grave markers you see now date from the 18th century.  But nearly 700 medieval skeletons have been excavated from the cemetery, and studied.  They show that children were commonly breast-fed up to the age of 2, helping to explain a relatively low rate of infant mortality.  DNA tests on TB sufferers showed they had been infected by other humans – not the cattle that hunkered down at the other end of the house.  One particularly remarkable discovery was the skeleton of an 11th century man who had suffered a severe blow to the head; however, the injury had been treated by carefully cutting away bone to relieve pressure on the brain, following which the patient went on to live a (presumably happy) life for many years.  So much for primitive medical care.

Places like Wharram Percy will not appeal to everyone; it lacks the cachet of a stately home, or even a dilapidated castle; there is no gift shop or café.  But it is a curious sensation to walk in the footsteps of a long-gone community, where children used to play and generations went about their lives with no concept of an end to it all.  These were our ancestors; I wonder who will be looking back at us in the centuries to come.

Wharram Percy can only be reached by foot, as explained, and there is no shelter – you need to dress accordingly.  It is also on the Yorkshire Wolds Way, a footpath running just short of 80 miles between the Humber and the coast near Filey – so you could make a weekend of it…

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Temple Bar

Temple Bar Gate, Paternoster Square, visit London
Mention the Temple Bar and my thoughts inevitably turn to a pub.  It was close by East Lane (or East Street) market in London’s Walworth Road, where far too many pints of Bass IPA were sunk after work, often whilst playing endless games of space invaders.  Who said men can’t multi-task?  Sadly, the pub’s closed now, as is Carter Place Police Station, which used to sit conveniently - and reassuringly - next door.  But the market, where it was rumoured you could buy anything if you had the right cash, is still going strong.

None of which is anything whatsoever to do with the Temple Bar that you’ll now find between St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Square.  In fact, this construction is Temple Bar Gate.  Temple Bar is the point where Fleet Street turns into the Strand (or vice versa) and marks the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster (and vice versa).  The name comes from the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar, situated a few feet to the south.  The bar was erected – probably in the form of a chain between posts – in the middle ages to help regulate trade; it was never a defensive barrier, or part of the City walls.  By Tudor times, at least, Temple Bar had become a gated wooden house, possibly used as a prison, and the background to many historical scenes and processions.  Even now, on some state occasions the monarch waits at Temple Bar for permission from the Lord Mayor to enter the City – a piece of ritual that dates back to the celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1588.

Temple Bar, dragon, Fleet Street, the Strand, London monuments.
Temple Bar Gate survived the Great Fire of 1666, but Charles II wanted it replaced and a new one, (probably) designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built of Portland stone, was built.  In place by 1672, it cost £1,500.  A grand central arch was flanked by two pedestrian gateways, with statues of Charles II and his executed father, Charles I, set into niches on the eastern entrance and statues of James I and Elizabeth I (some say it is James’ wife, Anne of Denmark) on the west, leaving the City.  As its predecessor had been, the new Temple Bar Gate was a showcase for the heads of traitors, mounted and displayed from the roof; the last such gruesome use was in 1746, following the Stuart rebellion of the previous year.

In 1878, it was decided to widen the road.  But instead of demolishing Temple Bar Gate, the enlightened folk at the Corporation of London had it dismantled, stone by stone (about 2,700 of them); each stone was numbered and carefully stored.  This seems to be a remarkable decision for the time; it must also have been quite unusual.

Where is Temple Bar, City of London boundary
Lady Meux, reputedly one-time banjo-player and barmaid (though definitely not in Walworth Road – I’d have remembered), persuaded her husband, Sir Henry Meux, a wealthy brewer, to purchase the dismantled Temple Bar Gate in 1887 and rebuild it at their pile, Theobalds Park, in Hertfordshire.  Henry died in 1900, but Lady Meux – Valerie – used to entertain in it; allegedly.  She died in 1910, the family sold the estate in 1929 and the once-proud Temple Bar Gate gradually deteriorated.  A report of 1981 in ‘History Today’ talks of its collapsed roof, broken windows and walls daubed in graffiti.  However, there is a happy ending – kind of.  A Trust was set up in the 1970s with the aim of returning the structure to the City of London and, in 2004, the restored and rebuilt Temple Bar Gate was officially opened in its new position, where you can see it, and walk through it, today.  It cost just over £3 million.  I gather you can rent out the room over the top for dinner parties.