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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, 28 March 2014

Haverthwaite chuff-chuff

Heritage railway, Haverthwaite, Windermere steamers, visit Cumbria
Ah, the romance of steam engines!  I’m still young enough to remember dashing for the footbridge over the railway before the train chugged through underneath.  As it did, the billowing clouds would envelope us and we’d emerge, soot-specked, choking and exultant.  Curiously, this was also a simpler, monochrome world, where policemen were kind, poverty was banished and dogs only ever barked happily.

You can experience that evocative wet coal smell (but now in full colour) at scores of wonderfully preserved heritage railways all over Britain.  One of these is located in England’s Lake District and runs between Lakeside, just by the southern tip of Lake Windermere, through Newby Bridge, and Haverthwaite.  It’s not an enormous distance – just over 3 miles – but it’s a pleasant trip through agreeable, rather than spectacular, countryside.  It takes about 20 minutes each way.  If you plan it right, you can combine the railway journey with a boat trip on a Windermere launch to or from Ambleside or Bowness across England’s largest lake.  The cruise between Ambleside and Lakeside takes about an hour and a half; the voyage between Bowness and Lakeside takes about 40 minutes.  Great in good weather – and the scenery is beautiful.  The Aquarium of the Lakes is situated at Lakeside but, apart from that and a fairly unsatisfying café, that’s about it.

Haverthwaite railway station is a congenial little place, though – there’s a café, a shop selling railway souvenirs (as well as “exciting locally produced arts and crafts” – the mind boggles) and a collection of locomotives in an engine shed. Unless you’re a rail enthusiast (“Just look at the bogie on that!”), a visit won’t take you much longer than an hour or so.  While you’re in the area, think about visiting the Lakeland Motor Museum just down the road.

Heritage railway station, visit Lake District

Tourist railway, south Lakes, visit England

The railway started life as a branch line of the Furness Railway in 1869, mainly carrying industrial freight - including locally produced coal, iron ore and gunpowder.  In 1872, the Furness Railway Co displayed a grasp of tourist potential by purchasing the United Windermere Steam Yacht Co, but the line itself gradually declined and, eventually, closed.  The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway Co was formed in 1970 and, since 1973, has run the show.  You can visit the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway website for more information, including details of various special events; it is rumoured that Thomas the Tank Engine even pays a visit sometimes.  What more could you ask?

Steam engine, railway enthusiasts, north west England

Friday, 21 March 2014

Give us a song, Caedmon

The first English poet, father of English song, Caedmon, Whitby.
Once upon a time, many many years ago, there was a good herdsman who lived on a cliff top called Streaneshalch.  The herdsman's name was Caedmon; he was no spring chicken and was actually quite shy.  Nearby on the cliff top was a great Abbey, ruled by a kind and gentle Abbess called Hild, where they sometimes held sumptuous feasts.  Now in those days it was customary at feasts, as the wine flowed and everyone ate jelly, for each guest to entertain the happy throng with a song.  Yes.  But Caedmon had a terrible voice and couldn’t play the harp for toffee.  So when he could see his turn approaching he would slink outside and go home or hide in a barn.

One evening, after just such an occasion, he was lying on some straw feeling pretty sorry for himself.  He very much wanted to join in with everyone else.  Then he had a dream.  A man bathed in a heavenly light stood beside him and said, “Caedmon, sing me a song.”  “I don’t know how to sing,” replied Caedmon miserably.  “That’s why I’m here while everyone else is having fun and eating jelly.”  “You shall sing to me”, commanded the man, firmly but gently.  “Sing about the creation of all things.”

And Caedmon, who in addition to having a rotten voice had previously shown about as much imagination as a sledgehammer, found himself making up words and singing like a nightingale.  It went something like this:

Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven’s fabric,
The majesty of His might and His mind’s wisdom,
Work of the world-warden, worker of all wonders,
How He the Lord of Glory everlasting,
Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a rooftree,
Then made He Middle Earth to be their mansion.

Caedmon woke up and dashed off to tell the kindly Abbess what had happened.  Hild summoned some other wise people so that Caedmon could sing to them.  He repeated the song from his dream and they all agreed this was a gift from God.  Indeed, they asked him to put a particular piece of writing to verse, if he could, and were delighted with the result when he returned the following morning.  Hild had him inducted into the monastic life, so that he could learn all the stories of the scriptures.  And Caedmon spent the remainder of his days turning dry text into melodious verse, and singing of the works of God and stories from the scriptures.  He had a premonition of his own death and passed away peacefully in 680AD.  As his songs spread, so did the Christian message.  Clever, eh?

And that, more or less, is Caedmon’s story.  I lied about the jelly and the rest might be complete fiction.  But Caedmon is famous for being the first known English poet and is sometimes called ‘the Father of English song’; and you thought it would be someone like Eric Clapton, didn’t you?

On 21st September 1898 a huge crowd gathered in St Mary’s churchyard on Streaneshalch in Whitby to see a cross in honour of Caedmon unveiled by the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin.  The cross was the brainchild of Canon H D Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust.  It cost £350 – an enormous sum of money in those days - and is an echo of an Anglo-Saxon cross, made from Northumbrian sandstone.  It stands 20 feet high and is richly carved with Christian iconography, including rather fetching representations of Hild and Caedmon.  The cross stands at the top of the 199 steps overlooking Whitby, and in the shadow of the ruined medieval Abbey Church. 

They do say that, at dawn on old Christmas Day (6th January), the sound of a choir singing in an ancient Northumbrian dialect can be heard echoing faintly around the ruins of the Abbey.  You should visit Whitby Abbey anyway - though it might not be open in January.

Monday, 17 March 2014

When's Easter this year?

Synod of Whitby, date of Easter, authority of Roman church in England
The stark silhouette of Whitby Abbey on the ancient headland overlooking the fishing harbour is an iconic image.  It is the skeletal ruins of the impressive medieval abbey church that you see, all that remains of the great Benedictine monastery that once dominated the town.  The ruins are the size of a fairly respectable cathedral, though, and conceal an even older past – as well as the answer to the question about Easter.

The headland was settled in the Iron Age and people lived on it in Roman times.  Possibly, a signal station stood there, similar to the one at Scarborough, on part of the peninsula that has long since been washed into the sea.  By the time the Anglo-Saxons conquered most of what is now England in the 5th and 6th centuries, the headland was known as Streaneshalch and by the 7th century it was part of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria.  Britain in those days was by no means Christian; worship of the older gods was widespread and deeply rooted.  The Anglo-Saxons worshipped gods such as Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frig (Tiwesdaeg, Wodensdaeg, Thunresdaeg, Frigedaeg), but the Christian tradition that had sprung up in late Roman times was carried on in these islands amongst the Celts of Ireland and the west in the 5th and 6th centuries.  This spread, via Strathclyde in what is now southern Scotland, into Northumbria and the Saxon kingdoms to the south.  A monastery was established on the island of Lindisfarne sometime around 634AD.  Coming the other way, from the south, another brand of Christianity had been busy since 597AD, when St Augustine landed in Kent - on an official mission from Rome to convert the heathen English.

Lady Hilda, ghost, abbey church Whitby
Now, there were great differences in ritual and organisation between the Roman and Celtic versions of Christianity.  The monks even had different hairstyles – the Roman tonsure was a shaved round patch on the top of the head, whereas the Celtic tonsure ran from ear to ear at the front, leaving the hair long at the back.  I am sure you will agree that these variations in religious practice were very important indeed, and almost bound to end in tears if not sorted out.  Rather more fundamentally, the two sects disagreed about how to calculate the date of Easter (from Eostre, a Germanic fertility goddess).  This was (and I believe still is) a complicated process based on cycles of lunar and solar years which I don’t begin to understand and which I find marginally less interesting than a block of concrete.  All we need to know is that the Celts used one formula and the Roman Catholics another.

The King of Northumbria, Osuiu, or Oswy (and a variety of other spellings too) was a committed Christian of the Celtic tradition.  His wife Eanfled, however, had been brought up in Kent and followed the Roman way.  This meant that they sometimes celebrated Ester twice – imagine, all that chocolate!  Clearly, something had to be done.  And Whitby was the place to do it, because here was Northumbria’s principle church and minster, founded by a remarkable lady, Hild, of the Celt party, in 657AD.  So the two sides, the Celtic and Roman, convened a synod at Whitby in 663 (664 in some accounts) to debate the issues.  The Roman case was led by a monk called Wilfred, who concluded by saying that the Roman church received its authority from St Peter, holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  The Celts had no answer to that and Osuiu found the argument pretty convincing, observing that if he did not obey the commands of the guardian of the gates of heaven, he might have some difficulty getting in when his time came.  And so it came to pass that the Roman Church gained ascendancy over all others, an authority that lasted some 900 years until the English Reformation in the 16th century.

I find it mindboggling that you can wander about a place where such influential decisions were made, don’t you?  Who knows how things would have turned out if the Celts had won, or, shock-horror, if both parties had agreed to tolerate each other’s little ways.  Nothing remains of the buildings where all of this took place once stood, or any other part of Abbess Hild’s community.  It is believed the minster was sacked by Danish raiders sometime in the 9th century.  Whitby is a Danish name – the suffix ‘by’ means farm – and it is assumed the pirates turned settlers developed the fishing port at the mouth of the River Esk, below the headland.  Maybe the Danes didn't have a word for 'fishing port'.

 It is said that the new abbey at Whitby was founded by a wandering Norman soldier, Reinfrid, who came across the desolated ruins of Hild’s monastery and was so effected that he became a monk and, later, established a priory amidst the debris of the earlier buildings.  By the late 11th century, this had morphed into a full-blown Benedictine monastery – though only a few traces remain of these buildings.  The magnificent Gothic abbey church you see now was constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and was – appropriately – dedicated to St Peter and St Hild.

When the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, the property was acquired by the Cholmley family, who proceeded to demolish most of the buildings.  In the 17th century, the old abbot’s house was refurbished into a family home.  The Cholmleys were Royalists in the Civil War.  By the late 18th century, they appear to have lost interest in their Whitby estate.  It was inherited by a cousin, Sir George Strickland in 1857 and his son, Charles, repaired and extended the abbey house.  Now, part of it forms a visitor centre and the largely Victorian wing is a youth hostel.

Inevitably, the evocative ruins are haunted.  The ghost is known as the ‘white lady’, or ‘Lady Hilda’ (I wonder if this should be Hild?) and she appears, in a shroud, at the higher windows on the north side of the abbey church.

One postscript to Whitby Abbey’s rich history: on 16th December 1914, it was shelled by battle cruisers of the Imperial German Navy.  Clearly, Whitby had a strategic importance known only to the commander of the German ships.

Visit Whitby Abbey’s pages on the English Heritagewebsite.