Google+ A Bit About Britain: November 2014 Google+


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?

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!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Remember Clitheroe

Clitheroe, war memorial, Lancashire

Clitheroe doesn’t shout or seek attention.  It’s an unremarkable, yet pleasant, bustling, Lancashire market town in the Ribble valley; worth spending time in.  I like it very much.  The population is around 15,000, it has an array of good independent shops, the usual chain stores - and the bits, common to every human habitation in the world, that somebody should either tidy up or hide from public view.  To the north is the glowering mass of the Forest of Bowland; to the south, Pendle Hill, famed for its witches.

Clitheroe Castle, Lancashire

One of Clitheroe’s most prominent and enduring landmarks is its castle.  Probably built in the 12th century, possibly on the site of an earlier fort, it sits open to the elements on an isolated limestone lump, dominating the town below.  There’s not much left of it: a tiny keep – one of the smallest in England – and a portion of curtain wall.  A museum is housed in the 18th century steward’s house, with an adjacent café serving good cakes and indifferent coffee.  The castle was the seat of the ancient Lords of Bowland.  During the Civil War it was garrisoned by Royalist troops and, in 1649, ‘slighted’ by Parliamentarians – which means they made a damn great hole in it so that it couldn’t easily be used again.

Clitheroe, Norman keep, Civil War

Clitheroe Castle is surrounded by 16 acres of public space, which includes a bandstand, skate park, gardens – and its war memorial.  One of the legacies of the First World War is up to an estimated 100,000 war memorials all over Britain, ensuring that we never forget the men (mostly) from every farm, factory, village, town and shire who left their homes, and those who never came back.  The people that went were forged by their neighbourhoods, shaped by a history shared with a thousand other communities.  The construction of their memorials, mostly during the 1920s, was a unique occurrence.  Every year, on or around the anniversary of the Armistice – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the guns finally fell silent – services take place at these cenotaphs and wreaths of red poppies are laid.

Louis Roslyn, sculpter, Clitheroe, First World War

Clitheroe’s memorial shows a soldier, head bowed and arms reversed, looking over his town below and to Pendle Hill beyond.  It was unveiled in 1923 and the inscription reads: “Erected by the inhabitants of Clitheroe in grateful remembrance of their fellow townsmen who gave their lives in defence of their king and country in the Great War 1914 – 1918.”  The good citizens of Clitheroe made the mistake of thinking it was ‘the war to end all wars’; the memorial commemorates 324 sons who died in the First World War and a further 72 from the Second.

Park, Clitheroe, Lancashire towns, Ribble valley

The sculptor of Clitheroe’s memorial was Louis Frederick Roslyn, who produced monuments across the land from Basingstoke to Wetherby.  He was born in Lambeth, London, and changed his name to Roslyn from Roselieb during the war.  Roslyn’s father was a German – appropriately, in my view.  I do not believe these memorials were erected in a spirit of narrow nationalism; far from it, they were set up out of love and respect, and so that generations would remember the terrible ease with which precious life can be carelessly erased - irrespective of its origins.  So, whilst Clitheroe has its own particular character, in terms of its position in history, especially over the last century or so, it could represent us all.  And, like most of us, Anytown is special; yet also unremarkable.

Clitheroe, war dead

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), Lancashire poet.

Visit Clitheroe

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Portpatrick on a whim

Portpatrick, Dumfries and Galloway, harbour

Sometimes, it’s good to do something on the spur of the moment.  In fact, I’ve often planned to be more spontaneous.

So we visited Portpatrick on an impulse – not to labour the point, without any forethought.  It’s a wee seaside town on the west coast of Scotland – more accurately on the Rhinns of Galloway.  The Rhinns of Galloway is that hammer-shaped peninsular on your map, in the south west of Dumfries and Galloway.  Portpatrick is at the end of the A77 and pretty much as far west as you can go thereabouts without getting your feet wet. The Isle of Man lies about 45 miles to the south and Northern Ireland is around 20 miles to the west.

Portpatrick, lifeboat, Dumfries and Galloway, harbour

By tradition a fishing village, in former times Portpatrick was also a busy seaport, a conduit for trade between Ireland and Scotland, until Stranraer’s more sheltered harbour gradually gained ascendancy.  These days, it’s a popular holiday destination where people go for sea angling, golfing, walking, or to watch the boats go in and out while the gulls wheel and squawk overhead.  Sometimes, there’s a traffic jam.  And there’s an annual folk festival in September.

Portpatrick, fishing, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

I know Portpatrick’s a popular place because we bowled up in out-of-season March, shortly after the place had stopped being snowbound, to find it heaving.  My theory is that some of those stranded by inclement weather hadn’t quite managed to navigate their way out of the taverns that run along the waterfront.  Anyway, this is where spontaneity first let us down, because it was late afternoon, we hadn’t booked anywhere to stay overnight and many of the bewilderingly large number of bed and breakfast establishments were full.  Eventually, we were generously allowed to lodge in one close to the harbour – provided we agreed to take out a second mortgage.  The room was scrupulously clean, but appeared to have been created by dividing a former broom cupboard into two.  It boasted an ensuite that could also have been euphemistically described as ‘compact’.  Indeed, if inclined to multi-task and a certain amount of physical contortion, it might have been possible to perform certain essential tasks simultaneously.

Portpatrick, beach, Rhinns of Galloway

Squeezing our way outside, half of Scotland seemed to have noisily migrated into the bars and eateries, so we considered it expedient to make sure we could dine later by reserving a table somewhere.  Our B&B actually turned out to be a small hotel with a restaurant so, not knowing any better, we plumped for that.  You might say it was a spontaneous thing.  And I must confess that bit worked a treat, because the meal was really excellent, the staff were a delight and we had a wonderful evening.  There were just two downsides.  Firstly, the proprietor was one of those individuals whose bonhomie seemed somewhat exaggerated (though I’m sure it was sincere) and extended to … touching.  Now, I don’t know about you, but as a middle-aged male Brit I require a reasonable amount of personal space; actual touching (apart from a good, firm, manly handshake) is normally reserved for the memsahib, very close friends, my GP – and of course the rugger club.  The second thing was that this tactile toady had a thing about Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits.  I’m partial to hearing a little of Ol’ Blue Eyes myself, but after ‘My Way’ struck up for the third time I called a waitress over and asked – no, pleaded - whether they could possibly change the CD.  Perhaps they could take a musical quantum leap and try a bit of Crosby (before he joined Stills and Nash), or even Matt Monro.  The waiting staff seemed delighted that someone had dared speak up and rapidly replaced Frank with the latest ‘Now That’s What I Call Music (feat. Take That, Robbie Williams, David Guetta etc); I’m convinced the service got even more betterer from then on.

Portpatrick harbour, Dumfries and Galloway, sunset

In between extricating ourselves from the ensuite hutch and eating, we had a wander round the town.  It’s an attractive place, with pretty houses clustered round the harbour.  We watched the boats go in and out while the gulls wheeled and squawked overhead – as you do.  At this point I should return to the shortcomings of spontaneity.  You may be familiar with the maxim, “proper planning prevents poor performance” – also known as ‘the 6 Ps’ (I know, you only counted 5 – there’s a missing adjective before ‘poor’).  So the absence of any planning before our brief visit to Portpatrick meant that we completely missed seeing the old kirk, St Patrick’s, the local ruined castle, Dunskey, as well as a nearby hill fort.  In fairness, we did have limited time.  It simply means we’ll need to go back.  And while we’re there, we could pop down the coast to Logan Botanic Gardens too.  Regrettably, I can’t remember the name of the place we stayed in…

For more information, visit Portpatrick’s website.

Portpatrick harbour, Dumfries and Galloway, sunset, visit Scotland

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Blessed Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius

Ashby St Ledgers, church, Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius

The Catesby family used to worship at this peaceful old church, in the manor of Ashby St Ledgers.  The Catesbys were wealthy landowners in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire and, in 1375, the manor passed to them by marriage, from the Cranfords.  Sir William Catesby was councillor to King Richard III, fought alongside him at the Battleof Bosworth in 1485 – and was beheaded for his trouble.  For a short while, the Catesbys lost their estates; but these were returned in 1498.  In 1508, the family sold a little property of theirs – Althorp – to the Spencers (who still live in it).  Life went on.  Then, over a very short period of 70 years or so, England transformed from a staunchly Roman Catholic society into a mainly Protestant one in which Catholics had become a persecuted minority.  Catholics in later Tudor England could not legally hear Mass, be baptised or married according to Catholic rite, or receive the sacrament on their death-bed.  Holding public office was subject to taking the Oath of Supremacy, swearing allegiance to the monarch as the supreme head of the Church of England.  It was easy for 16th century English Catholics to be traitors, the penalty for which was death.

Ashby St Ledgers, church, Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius, manor house, gatehouse

Nevertheless, die-hard Catholics throughout the land hung onto their beliefs.  Recusancy – a label for Catholics originating from a refusal to attend Anglican services - was strong amongst some of the older families, particularly in the north, west and English midlands – including the Catesbys.  And it was Robert Catesby, a charismatic fanatic, who planned the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  Much of the planning for what we would today have considered a barbaric terrorist attack, followed by a coup d’état, took place in the manor’s gatehouse, just next door to the church.  After Guy Fawkes was taken in the early hours of 5th November, six of the plotters, including Catesby, met that evening on the outskirts of Ashby St Ledgers, before galloping off in a vain attempt to gather sympathisers to their lost cause.  So Ashby St Ledgers was where the gunpowder plotters plotted; they would have known this church.

Ashby St Ledgers, church, Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius

By 1611, the Catesbys had gone from Ashby St Ledgers.  After passing through various hands, in 1903 the manor was purchased by Ivor Guest, Viscount Wimborne.  It was sold by his son, fell into disrepair, and the house was re-purchased by his grandson, another Ivor Guest and the 4th Viscount Wimborne.  It is not open to the public; the wider estate is now owned by the Crown.

Medieval, frescos, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire

Back to the church.  It dates from the 12th century, but is mostly 14th and 15th centuries.  St Leodegarius, Leodegar – or Leger – was a 7th century Bishop of Autun, who had his eyes gouged and his tongue cut out, before later being murdered.  It was tough being a bishop in those days.  What he had to do with the small village of Ascebi (Ashby) is anyone’s guess.

Ashby St Ledger, stained glass, east window

The church has an astonishing number of medieval wall paintings, including a depiction of the flagellation of St Margaret dated at 1325, 14th and 15th century frescos illustrating the Passion above the chancel, a 15th century fresco of St Christopher and a 16th century cartoon, apparently representing the Black Death, posing as the sexton.  Can you imagine what a cheerful place this must have been, once upon a time?

St Leodegarius, 16th century rood screen, medieval church pews, Northampton

There is a beautiful carved rood screen from 1500, installed by George Catesby in thanks for the return of the estate in 1498.  The pews at the front of the church are 14th century; the box pews and the triple pulpit are 17th century.  There are brasses, including several commemorating members of the Catesby family, that have somehow survived the centuries.

Overall, the church at Ashby St Ledgers is a treasure-trove.  I particularly liked the lovely 19th century east window, which depicts the nativity, the risen Christ and the three Marys at the tomb.

Manor house, Ashby St Ledgers, Viscount Wimborne

Despite the puritanical plainness of the church today, it has a huge amount of atmosphere.  The surviving frescos hint at what it may have looked like when Robert Catesby’s parents were married there.  I wonder what he would make of it all now?  Standing in the peace of his old family church, visions of the carnage that would have ensued had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded seem particularly offensive to me.  Yet Catholics, Protestants and others were cruelly treated all over Europe.  Four hundred years on, a Catholic is still unable to be monarch in the United Kingdom – for the simple reason that the monarch is head of the Church of England.  But Britain is now a largely secular society; like all civilised countries, it is justifiably proud of a religious tolerance that allows all faiths to worship and for everyone (in theory) to be equal under the Law.  However, thousands have died along the way and bigotry, still present in some quarters, is easily inflamed.  I like to think that the ghosts in Ashby St Ledgers would be profoundly sad, and worried, that there are yet those in the 21st century who exhibit a frighteningly medieval mindset of violence, cruelty and unreasoning fanaticism, often based on a warped religious doctrine.

For more about the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius, visit Ashby St LedgersChurch website.

For a bit about the Gunpowder Plot, check out Where the Gunpowder Plotters plotted.

Manor house, Ashby St Ledgers, Viscount Wimborne

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