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Introduction

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, 28 January 2015

Churchill's War Rooms

Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill, underground, London, museums
They say there are many secrets buried under London.  One that is no longer classified is the underground complex beneath the Government Offices Great George Street (GOGGS) in Westminster, known as the Cabinet War Rooms.  They will forever be associated with Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965); thus, now including a remarkable Churchill Museum, the complex is known as Churchill’s War Rooms.  Here, during the dark days of World War Two, while the Blitz raged overhead, Britain’s war effort could be planned and coordinated.  Never one to avoid a cliché, you can almost smell the cigar smoke.

Received wisdom in the 1930s was that a future war would unleash devastating aerial bombardment on civilian targets, resulting in hideous casualties and, potentially, the dislocation of governance.  So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the decision to establish a safe emergency refuge in London for the leaders of Britain’s government and armed forces was only made in 1938.  Perhaps this is indicative of the British Government’s faith in the efficacy of appeasement, or their sincere desire to avoid war at any cost.  Meanwhile, the storm clouds of war gathered across the English Channel.  In any event, the secret underground shelter was created on a strictly need-to-know basis and became fully operational just a week before war was declared on 3rd September 1939.  It was not a specially constructed shelter; unlike Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, the Cabinet War Rooms were cobbled together from existing basement storage rooms, chosen for the strength of the building above and the central location at the heart of Whitehall, close to the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street and the House of Commons.  I heard a rumour that furnishings were stealthily diverted from other places to avoid suspicion that anything was going on.  It’s a good story, though it smacks a little of ‘make do and mend’, doesn’t it?

Cabinet War Room, World War Two, underground shelter, government

Later, a slab of concrete, between 1 and 3 metres thick, was ingeniously inserted, using American-supplied pumps, between the ceiling and ground floor above.  This was extended, allowing the complex to occupy a larger area.  Despite the concrete, though, the Cabinet War Rooms were far from bomb-proof and were by no means immune from other risks like poison gas, flooding or, of course, penetration by the enemy.  However, they remained safe and sound; and it seems that the Nazis never cottoned onto this particular British secret.

Churchill War Rooms, Map Room, museums, London

Entering the Cabinet War Rooms is to step back in time to the period of Churchill’s leadership.  He became Prime Minister, not by popular vote but by a process of political manoeuvring, on 10th May 1940.  It was the same day that Germany invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland; and Britain invaded Iceland.  After the fall of France, one of Churchill’s greatest achievements was to continue the war – there were many who would not have – and to inspire others to do so.  He later said, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”  As JFK later said, Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

Churchill's bedroom, study, war rooms, Westminster, museum, Second World War

Churchill recognised that Britain and the Commonwealth was unlikely to be able to win without help, but could do enough not to be beaten.  He knew that, in time, the USA would recognise that Hitler was evil and had to be removed.  He also knew that, eventually, mainland Europe would need to be invaded.  And, somehow, this spirit of resistance, of planning some great crusade against evil with inadequate resources, seeps from the drab painted concrete walls of the Cabinet War Rooms.  Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, John Colville, said: “Immediately Churchill became Prime Minister the pace in Whitehall changed: people started to think faster and to act fast.  Distinguished civil servants could be seen running down the passages…”  The man’s pace of work was legendary; he is reputed to have regularly worked 19-hour days; and he expected others to do the same.

War Rooms, Dining Room, Churchill, Second World War, bit about Britain

Churchill actually disliked his underground lair and only used it when he had to.  Nevertheless, this place bore witness to discussions and decisions about great events, through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, triumph at El Alamein and, gradually but inexorably, to final victory.

Roosevelt, Churchill, transatlantic, telephone

The Cabinet War Rooms remained functioning for six years.  During that time, the War Cabinet met there on 115 occasions, the final time being on 28th March 1945 when the last V1 and V2 weapons had fallen on Britain.  Churchill himself left office in July 1945, defeated in the General Election.  It is said that at its peak around 300 people (one account said more than 500) - clerks, typists, serving officers, politicians - worked down ‘the Hole’.  Never before have so many worked in a space designed for so few.  It is astonishing that security was maintained – but these were different days, when people not only knew their place but also that careless talk really did cost lives.  The Map Room was staffed, 24/7 as we would say today, with officers from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.  Each day, at 0800 hours, they would produce a situation report on the war for the King, George VI, Prime Minister, Churchill, and the Chiefs of Staff.  In 1943, a transatlantic telephone room was installed, so that Churchill and US President Roosevelt could speak directly.  The charming method hit upon to disguise the real purpose of the room was to install a toilet lock on the door; so everyone thought this was the PM’s private lavatory.  There were sleeping quarters – Churchill, other key officials and Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, had their own rooms; others slept in dormitories.  To say that accommodation was ‘basic and without frills’ is a classic piece of British understatement.  There was no proper drainage.  Washing and sanitary arrangements were primitive: buckets, bowls and chemical toilets mixed with tobacco smoke must have helped create an arresting aroma.  Many lived a troglodyte-like existence, with no exposure to sunlight for long periods, and were given access to sunlamps to reduce the risk of vitamin D deficiency.

Transatlantic telephone room, Churchill War Rooms

In August 1945, the Cabinet War Rooms became redundant.  People went home, or onto other work.  Some rooms were locked up; others were used for storage.  Aside from informal guided tours, the complex was largely abandoned and forgotten until, in the 1970s, it was decided to restore and preserve it.  In 1984, it opened to the public.  Many of the objects and furnishings on display are original.  In 1980, an envelope with an officer’s name on it was found in one of the desk drawers in the Map Room.  The envelope contained rationed sugar cubes and had been there since the 1940s; it is now back on the officer’s desk.

War Rooms, working in, switchboard, doll's eye, gas mask

The complex also contains the unique Churchill Museum, which opened in 2005. 

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born into an aristocratic family in 1874, the son of Conservative politician Lord Randolph Churchill and the beautiful American heiress Jennie Jerome.  He was a complex man – an imperialist and adventurer, yet also a man of the people who helped introduce social reforms that paved the way for the Welfare State.  He is worshipped by many as Britain’s greatest war leader, but reviled by others who see him as an unreliable maverick, an enemy of the working-class and a shameless self-publicist.  Maybe he was all of those things; but even most of his critics recognise that he was a Great Man to whom we owe an enormous debt. 

Churchill, poster, WW2, go forward together

Churchill died at just after 8am on 24th January 1965 following a massive stroke.  He was given the honour of a State Funeral, which took place on Saturday 30th January.  At his request, he was buried in the churchyard at Bladon, near to his parents and just a few miles from where he was born at Blenheim Palace.  You can visit Churchill’s grave.

The Churchill Museum at the Churchill War Rooms attempts to capture the life of Churchill in the times and events he lived through.  Of course, it also helps that he lived through such fascinating times, as the Victorian age died away and the white heat of technology began to burn.  And I think the museum does a pretty good job.  There is an astonishing interactive ‘table’, called the Lifeline, from which you can access all manner of documents, including official and personal correspondence.  The collection is a treasure-trove of items, ranging from a German enigma machine to one of Winston’s famous siren suits and the old door to No 10 Downing Street.  My only criticism is that the museum is, mysteriously, somewhat dark.  Perhaps it is considered atmospheric, rather like some modern dramas; perhaps they are trying to save money.  But I like to imagine the Old Boy growling something like, “Ah – be good enough to turn the lights on.”  Pause.  “What do you think I am - a bloody bat!?”


10 Downing Street, door, Churchill Museum, London

Visit the Imperial War Museum website for more information about Churchill’s War Rooms.  Action this day. 

Boris Johnson has written a new biography of Churchill - no idea what it's like; I did enjoy the TV documentary narrated by Sir Ian McKellen.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Anniversaries, 2015

Westminster, 750th anniversary, parliament, Simon de Montfort

I was looking into Magna Carta – as you do.  The sealing of the Great Charter in 1215 was a Big Thing (a post is in preparation) and we’re going to hear plenty about its 800th anniversary in 2015.  Democracy also celebrates 750 years since Simon de Montfort’s ‘parliament’ of January 1265.  This summoned two knights from each shire and two elected representatives of each borough to “come to the King at London” – though the King, Henry III was effectively de Montfort’s prisoner at the time.  Simon almost certainly never envisaged a parliamentary democracy as we all aspire to, but it was a significant event and seen by many as a precursor to the House of Commons.  Anyway, all of this got me thinking about anniversaries in general, and centenaries in particular.  So what centenaries could Britain be thinking about in 2015?  And, of those, which ones will get the most press?  Do you want to have a small wager?

1015 – Cnut invades England

Cnut (or Canute), son of Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, claimed the English throne and, in September 1015, arrived in Kent with an estimated 10,000 warriors.  Sailing round the south coast, he is said to have subsequently laid waste to Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, fighting a series of battles against the Saxons under Edmund Ironside.  Cnut became King of all England on Edmund’s death in 1016, ruling until 1035.  He has associations with Bosham, in Sussex, where one of his daughters is said to be buried in Holy Trinity Church.  Cnut himself was buried in Winchester, the old capital of Wessex.

Vikings, Danes, Cnut, invasion, 1015, anniversary

1215 – Magna Carta

Under pressure from ‘the barons’, nasty King John set his seal to the Great Charter at Runneymede on 19th June 1215.  This document attempted to hold the monarch accountable to the rule of law and has enormous symbolic significance in establishing the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial.  Free men as we would know it were limited in number in 13th century Britain.

Magna Carta has been called “England’s greatest export” (bigger than the Beatles?), “the foundation stone of the freedoms enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries” (according to several websites – I have no idea who originally said this).  In addition to a memorial near the site at Runneymede, four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta survive and can be seen, two in the cathedrals where they were first deposited, Lincoln and Salisbury, and two in the British Library (check before you visit).

Events and ‘Magna Carta Weeks’ are planned all over the UK in 2015 – and beyond, including in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.  Visit MagnaCarta 800th for more information than you can possibly take in.

1415 – Battle of Agincourt

On St Crispin’s Day, 25th October 1415 a small, hungry, disease-ridden English army under King Henry V defeated a much larger French one near the village of Azincourt, about 31 miles south east of Boulogne.  As with the Battle of Crécy in 1346, a lightly-armed largely peasant army of English and Welsh foot soldiers, most equipped with longbows, overwhelmed heavily armed French cavalry.  There is astonishing disparity over numbers in various accounts, but the generally accepted figures are that the English army was around 6,000 and the French 30,000.  French losses were horrendous – anything between 5 and 10,000 – made worse by the slaughter of French prisoners which, even in a violent age, went against accepted rules of warfare and common sense, ordered by Henry probably because he thought his army was being attacked in the rear.  The cream of French nobility are said to have perished at Agincourt.  The total number of English dead has been estimated at around 200.  If you like historical fiction, I can recommend Bernard Cornwell’s excellent novel, Azincourt.

Henry V, Agincourt, Azincourt, anniversary, centenary, 1415

Agincourt came in the middle of what is known as the HundredYears War between England and France.  The English victory at Agincourt eventually led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, under which it was agreed that Henry or his successor would become King of France on the death of the then current French monarch, Charles VI.  To seal the deal, Henry married Catherine of Valois, Charles’ daughter.  Henry died of dysentery in 1422 and never became King of France.  Eventually, with some help from Joan of Arc, the French booted the English out. 

Agincourt’s fame is probably limited, and undoubtedly enhanced by Shakespeare’s play, Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – etc).  The ruins of Monmouth Castle, where Henry was born, can be visited.  He is buried in Westminster Abbey, where you can also see Catherine of Valois’ death mask.  Catherine has associations with LeedsCastle and her later marriage to Owen Tudor had a profound effect on everyone; her grandson was the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII.

1715 – The ’15 Rebellion

After Queen Anne died leaving no surviving heir in 1714, the nearest Protestant candidate was No 52 in line to the throne, the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I.  Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, a Roman Catholic could not be monarch; the sovereign had to swear to maintain the Churches of England and Scotland.  ‘The Fifteen’ was an attempt to replace George with James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James II and a Roman Catholic, who was in exile in France.  The rebels were known as ‘Jacobites’, from Jacobus, the Latin for James.

The uprising began at Braemar in Scotland, the Stuarts’ home turf and where the Act of Union of 1701 between England and Scotland was unpopular with some.  Two battles took place in November, at Sheriffmuir near Dunblane and at Preston in north-west England.  Sheriffmuir was either inconclusive or a rebel defeat, depending which account you believe, and at Preston the rebels surrendered to government forces.  James himself landed in Scotland in December, but support had dwindled away and by February, in the face of almost certain defeat, the ‘Old Pretender’ as he became known was back in France.  Other risings in England were largely prevented by swift government action.  Many of the leaders of the ’15 were executed for treason, but most rebels were pardoned.  Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to take the throne for his father in 1745 was less of a fiasco.

There are several memorials on the site of the Battle of Sherriffmuir.

1815 – the Battle of Waterloo

The final act of the Napoleonic wars was the defeat of Napoleon 12 miles outside Brussels on 18th June 1815.  Exiled to the island of Elba after his forced abdication in 1814, Napoleon escaped captivity and headed for Paris, gathering support en route.  He marched north into the Netherlands with a force of some 124,000 men, many of them veterans of his Grand Armée.  Confronting him was a combined British, Dutch, Belgian, German army commanded by the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under Marshall Blűcher.  Napoleon aimed to defeat these armies in turn, before support could arrive from their allies, the Austrians and Russians.

Waterloo, infantry, anniversary, centenary

Wellington held off a French attack at Quatre Bras on 16th June, but Napoleon forced the Prussians back at Ligny.  Wellington withdrew to a defensive ridge south of the village of Waterloo.  And it was here that the decisive battle was fought.  No one’s sure exactly when Napoleon attacked - but it was sometime during late morning and the battle raged fiercely from then on.  As Wellington later described it, it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.  The day was saved by the arrival of the re-grouped Prussians in late afternoon.  By early evening, it was all over and, at 9.15pm, Wellington and Blűcher met to congratulate each other.  The final downfall of Napoleon ushered in a period of peace in Europe that lasted until the Crimean War of 1854 (see Trooper Pearson).  Apart from that, Britain stayed out of European conflicts until 1914.

There are memorials to and reminders of Waterloo all over Britain.  Stratford Saye House in Hampshire has been the country home of the Dukes of Wellington since 1817.  Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner in London, also known as ‘Number One, London’, is the town house.  Numerous museums feature exhibits from Waterloo, including the National ArmyMuseum in London and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards museum at Edinburgh Castle.  The south Hampshire town of Waterlooville is allegedly named after the ‘Heroes of Waterloo’ pub, which used to stand there and which was used by soldiers after they had come ashore at nearby Portsmouth.  Last, but not least, Waterloo Bridge in London was named in honour of the battle and, eventually, gave its name to the railway station on the south bank of the Thames.

Gas, poison, first use, gas mask, Flanders Field, centenary

1915 – second year of World War One

The centenary of the First World War will continue to be commemorated until 2018.  The historian Lyn Macdonald has subtitled her book, “1915 – the death of innocence”.  And that probably sums it up as neatly as anything can.  In amongst it all, though, four significant dates stand out:

19th January – German zeppelins bombed the Norfolk towns of King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth.  It wasn’t the first aerial bombardment in history, but it was the first so far as Britain is concerned.  Four people were killed.

22nd April – first mass use of poison (chlorine) gas by the Germans at Ypres, Belgium, against British, Canadian and French positions.  The British used gas for the first time in September, against German positions at the Battle of Loos.

25th April – British and French troops land in Gallipoli, in an ill-executed attempt to knock Turkey out of the war.  After horrendous losses – particularly on the part of Australians and New Zealanders – the campaign was abandoned less than a year later.

7th May – passenger liner the RMS Lusitania en route from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland.  1,198 died, including 128 Americans.


So that’s a few centenaries for Britain to mark in 2015.  In terms of other anniversaries that may crop up (and we seem to have them every year):

50 years ago, in 1965: Statesmen Sir Winston Churchill died; capital punishment for murder was suspended in England, Scotland and Wales; the Beatles film Help! was released; and the first episode of Thunderbirds was shown on television.


75 years ago, in 1940, Britain was (depressingly) in the second year of yet another war, the Second World War.  This was the year that France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway fell to the Nazis, when something like 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, Churchill became Prime Minister and the RAF fought the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain over the skies of southern England.  On a happier note, it was also the year my parents got married.

Spitfire, Hurricane, Battle of Britain, anniversary, Hendon

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Countess Pillar

Countess Pillar, Clifford, Russell, coat of arms, Cumbria

Lady Anne Clifford was a remarkable woman.  Sooner or later, if you potter about the old houses and castles of old England, particularly in the north, you’ll come across her – though probably only by reputation, because she died more than 300 years ago.

A couple of miles from the Cumbrian market town of Penrith, on the south side of the A66 - if you ever plan to motor east, you’ll see – the Countess Pillar.  It’s easy to miss.  Look for the junction with the B6262 and walk a few hundred yards east, parallel with the A66.  You’ll find the pillar kept in a small cage.  It was erected by Lady Anne in 1656 to commemorate the last time she and her mother said goodbye, 40 years previously.  It stands near the spot, as Lady Anne wrote, “Where she and I had a grievous and heavy parting,” at the junction of the old driveway to Brougham Castle and the main road.  Anne had been visiting and was setting off on the long journey back south to Knole House, her enormous home in Kent; her mother, Margaret, was returning to Brougham, which had been owned by the family since the 13th century and where, a month later, she died.  So what’s with the pillar?

Countess Pillar, A66, B6262, Brougham, Cumbria

The de Cliffords were one of the big landowning dynasties of medieval England.  They arrived from Normandy in the 11th century and went on to hold great offices of state, as well as fighting – and often dying - in most of England’s wars at home and abroad.  Anne was born at one of the family castles, Skipton, probably on 30th January 1590.  The family was obviously well-connected and, thanks to her mother, Anne was brought up to be educated and sophisticated.  As a girl, she was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I; as a young woman, she danced with the Queen, Anne of Denmark - who advised her not to trust her husband, King James I!

Lady Anne Clifford

Anne’s father, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, was a champion jouster and buccaneer (what the Spanish might have called ‘a pirate’).  He died in 1605 and, instead of leaving his estates to his one surviving child, Anne, he left them to his brother, Francis.  Anne was outraged, both by the injustice and being disinherited.  Though only 15, she was also highly intelligent and extremely determined.  So, with the help of her mother, she set out to win her birthright and embarked upon a legal battle that would consume the next 38 years of her life.  Eventually, in 1643, Anne was successful – because she outlived her uncle and cousin and the properties finally passed to her.  Unfortunately, a bloody civil war was raging in England at the time and it was not safe to leave the security of Baynard Castle, where she was staying in London.

So it was not until 1649, when Lady Anne was 60 years old, that she was able to head north.  There, she found her estates neglected, with many of the properties ruined or decayed.  With the same dogged resolution that she had displayed all of her life she set about repairing her family’s heirlooms.  This included restoring the castles at Appleby, Brough, Brougham, Pendragon and Skipton; she also built and restored churches and almshouses.  And that’s how she spent the next 26 years or so, journeying between her properties in the manner of a benevolent medieval matriarch until her death in 1676, at the age of 86, in the same room at Brougham Castle where her father had been born and her beloved mother had died.

Countess Pillar, inscription, un dials, Bit About Britain

In many ways, Lady Anne Clifford is defined by her long legal battle and subsequent restoration work.  Yet, along the way, she was eyewitness to great historical events, married twice and had children.  She also kept a diary, providing a fascinating insight to her life and times.  Her first husband, in 1609, was Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset a notorious wastrel and spendthrift, with whom she had three sons who died in childhood and two surviving daughters.  Sackville died in 1624 and, six years later, Anne married Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, a widower with several children and with whom she had two premature boys who did not survive.  Neither marriage was happy and it seems that the constants in Anne’s life were her mother, her sense of justice and her family heritage.

Some might see Lady Anne Clifford as a champion of women at a time when it was very much a man’s world – though that is to commit the sin of judging history with modern eyes.  That she was an extraordinary woman is not in doubt.  She also, apparently, smoked a pipe. I get the impression that Anne was quite a loner.

Dolestone, Countess Pillar, Alms, Anne Clifford, Cumbria

So anyway we have this 14 foot high octagonal pillar, dedicated to the mother she loved, and who, until she died in 1616, was the only person to stand by her, the only person she could ever totally depend on.  It must have been quite a relationship.  Perhaps, also, the pillar was a public statement of Anne’s determination and ultimate success – a kind of ‘Yah-Boo’ to society.  On the pillar are the coats of arms of the Cliffords and the Russells (her mother’s family), next to each other. Anne is also buried next to her mother, in Appleby church.  At the foot of the pillar is the ‘dolestone’, a slab of stone on which alms were distributed to the poor on the anniversary of Anne and Margaret’s final farewell.  Unfortunately, we went on the wrong date.  We did see people walking some alpacas along the path, though, which made a nice change from sheep.

THIS PILLAR WAS ERECTED ANNO 1656 BY Ye Rt HONOble ANNE COUNTESS DOWAGER OF PEMBROKE & DAUGHTER & SOLE HEIRE OF Ye Rt HONOble GEORGE EARL OF CUMBERLAND & FOR A MEMORIAL OF HER LAST PARTING IN THIS PLACE WITH HER GOOD & PIOUS MOTHER Ye Rt HONOble MARGARET COUNTESS DOWAGER OF CUMBERLAND Ye 2d OF APRIL 1616.  IN MEMORY WHEREOF SHE ALSO LEFT AN ANNUITY OF FOUR POUNDS TO BE DISTRIBUTED TO Ye POOR WITHIN THIS PARRISH OF BROUGHAM EVERY 2d DAY OF APRIL FOR EVER UPON Ye STONE TABLE HERE HARD BY.
LAUS DEO


Anne Clifford's diaries have been published and there is also a biography by Martin Holmes.  I haven't read either of them.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

St Leonard’s, Chapel-le-Dale

St Leonard's, Chapel-le-Dale, Ingleton, Tudor chapel

We stepped down the lane in the dappled sunlight of a still frosty winter afternoon.  It has an ancient, lived-in, feel to it, does the hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale.  Sitting astride a Roman road, evidence of long-vanished communities are shown on the Ordnance Survey map with the word ‘settlement’ printed over various places close-by, in old English script.  Hints at modern domesticity, like washing hanging on a line, seem a little incongruous.  It’s a moss-covered rock-green world, with the mass of  Ingleborough looming to the south and, to the north, beyond Hurtle Pot cave with its boggart, a holloway leading to an upland stone-strewn plain and the whale-back of Whernside filling your horizon.

Whernside, waleback, North Yorksire, Dales

But we had come to see the church - the chapel in the dale – partly because it just needs to be done, and partly because of its association with a railway.

St Leonard's, Chapel le Dale, lych gate

This was once a chapel of ease – a kind of subsidiary – for the parish church of St John the Baptist in Low Bentham, about 8 miles away, which was too far for the farmers of the upper dales to go for regular worship.  St Leonard’s is a small building with strong lines, no blurred edges, built of mortar-covered limestone under a stone slate roof.  Inside several wonderful stained-glass windows come to light, of mysterious provenance and surprising in number for a relatively remote place - and achingly beautiful.  The colours contrast with plain whitewashed walls and timber pews.  The building is thought to date from the 16th century, though a fertile imagination could wonder whether something earlier once stood on the same spot, at this convenient junction of Roman road with ancient trackway. It was painted by Turner from sketches he made around 1808 (‘Ingleborough from Chapel-le-Dale’ is currently in the Yale Center for British Art in the USA) and extensively renovated in 1869 at a cost of £500 – when the stained glass was probably added.

Chapel-le-Dale, St Leonard's, churchyard

The chapel has never been formally named.  The first reference to it is in a document dated 1595, which refers to a John Eamondson being reader at the ‘Chapel of Wyersdaile’ (Weyesdale).  It was subsequently called the ‘Chapel of Witfalls' and by the 18th century was generally known as the ‘Ingleton Fells Chapel’, the village of Ingleton being just 4 miles downhill to the south.  It has only been known as St Leonard’s since the 1940s, when a reference to St Leonard’s in Ingleton (now dedicated to St Mary) in an old will was mistaken for a reference to the chapel.  In fact, the chapel has never been officially dedicated to St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners, women in labour and horses, though the name continues to be used.

Chapel-le-Dale, stained glass, St Leonard's, interior

The land hereabouts was once owned by Furness Abbey and you feel for the men and women that lived and farmed in this often harsh climate, in what can still be a relatively lonely part of England.  A sense of the people and families who were the movers and shakers of their day – the Ellershaws, the Kidds, the Metcalfes, the Willans – is gained from the memorials in the chapel and the gravestones that are still legible.  But this most rural community, for a brief moment in its history, found itself a role in the thrusting drama of Victorian socio-economic revolution when the railway came.

Ribblehead viaduct, Chapel-le-Dale

Just up the road from Chapel-le-Dale is the Ribblehead viaduct, still carrying trains of the Settle-Carlisle Railway having been saved from closure in 1989 by Conservative politician turned TV presenter Michael Portillo.  Intended as an alternative route between the English Midlands and Scotland, the Settle-Carlisle Railway was constructed from 1869 to 1876 and includes 14 tunnels and 22 viaducts through some of the most austere parts of northern England.  It is a triumph of 19th century design, engineering and determination, but there were countless fatalities during the project. Many of the 6,000-strong labour force were itinerant navvies, housed in temporary camps along the railway’s route, including in the shanty towns of Batty Wife Hole, Sebastopol and Belgravia at Ribblehead.  This bleak complex was home to the workers who built the ¼ mile long 100 feet high viaduct with its 24 massive arches, and who blasted and hacked one end of the mile and a half long Blea Moor Tunnel, lining it with bricks made on site.  The settlements included shops, taverns, a school, post office – even a library – to help cater for the men and their families.


Memorial, Carlisle-Settle Railway, Chapel-le-Dale

More than 200 workers, their wives and children are buried at Chapel-le-Dale.  They were so numerous that the churchyard had to be extended to contain their poor, unmarked, unremembered, remains. Many died of smallpox during an epidemic that swept through the flimsy timber huts in 1870, but many were victims of dreadful construction accidents – some men even drowned – at a time when life was cheap and any sense of health and safety primitive.  So, inside the chapel you’ll find a marble Victorian memorial to the men who died.  And outside, in 2000, a memorial stone and plaque was more widely dedicated to the nameless men, women and children whose bodies lie somewhere in the lumpy ground nearby.

Chapel-le-Dale, 2000 memorial, building Settle to Carlisle Railway

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