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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?

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Malham Cove

Malham Beck, Yorkshire village, Malham, Malhamdale

If you went to school in Britain, and paid attention during geography lessons, you probably know all about Malham.  Amongst other things, it is famed for its limestone topography.  My failure at geography was spectacular, but even I remember pouring over Ordnance Survey maps trying to pick out the characteristic features that the erudite, kindly and hirsute Mr McFadden was urging his distracted pupil to identify.  I know many of you will find it hard to comprehend what a pimply teenage lad could possibly find more engaging than the geomorphology of the British Isles, particularly on a sunny day with a netball match going on outside the window, but there it is.

The tiny village of Malham, a little to the east of Settle in the Yorkshire Dales, is a bit of a honeypot for walkers, outdoor-types in general and casual tourists.  And geographers, of course; did I mention geography?  Serious hikers trek through it along the Pennine Way; others do a circuit from the National Park Centre, taking in Malham Cove, Malham Tarn, Gordale Scar and Janet’s Foss.  Some folk come just because it’s pretty, popping into the village blacksmith to admire the handiwork and finding somewhere for a coffee and a sticky bun.  The Old Barn Café does a roaring trade in mugs of tea and bacon butties; back-packs and big boots mingle with handbags and trainers.  The two pubs, the Lister Arms and the Buck Inn, look inviting.  Few of Malham’s visitors leave, though, without walking up the road to Malham Cove, a short distance to the north.

Limestone, clapper bridge, Malham Beck, Malham Cove

Malham Cove is a concave limestone cliff face some 260 feet (80 metres) high.  It is often described as a natural amphitheatre – inaccurately, in my view, but it is no less dramatic for that.  Once upon a time, some 10 or 12,000 years ago, a torrential waterfall of glacial meltwater cascaded over the cliff as ice retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.  The descendent of this is Malham Beck, which now trickles and bubbles its way out of the base of the cliff, down on into the village.  For as every good geographer and geologist knows, water likes to disappear underground in limestone regions, forming massive and complex subterranean cave systems.  The caves are created, some believe, to be explored; but you wouldn’t get me down there without a substantial bribe.  The water that feeds Malham Beck probably largely comes from Malham Tarn about a mile and a quarter to the north.  On the map, near the foot of the tarn, is marked ‘water sinks’, where the outflow from the tarn vanishes beneath the moorland.  ‘Area of shake holes’, it says on the map; “Typical of upland limestone areas”, said Mr McFadden.

Malham Cove, glacial valley, Dales National Park

I’m intrigued by, and a little nervous of, shake holes – (also known as ‘sink holes’, or ‘swallow holes’) lest the ground beneath my feet suddenly disappears in an avalanche of mud, rock, water and aspiring writer.  Best stick to the paths when you can, not giving a second thought to the hundreds of miles of water-carved caves and tunnels below ground wherever you tread.

Yorkshire Dales, limestone country, drystone walls, medieval strip farming

As you meander your way through the typical Dales landscape of drystone walls toward Malham Cove, spare a thought for those that went before you.  The area has been farmed since at least the Iron Age, is dotted with the sites of ancient settlements and you might spot medieval field systems over to the north east.  You might also fall over earnest and generally friendly people with tripods and obscenely large camera lenses, trying to get shots of the peregrine falcons that nest in the vicinity.  As if that’s not enough, tiny coloured specks moving slowly across the cliff face turn out, on closer inspection, to be climbers.  To someone who gets dizzy changing a light bulb, the prospect of being suspended more than 3 feet above the ground is just as terrifying as the idea of exploring water-filled caverns underneath it.  Fortunately, the Dales caters equally well for the bold clinically insane as it does for the well-balanced physical coward.

Malham Beck, cliff face, Malham Cove.

So, trying to ignore the crazy climbers swinging carelessly to your right, shielding your eyes against impending falcon attack from above, mildly mindful of ghostly medieval farmers all around and oblivious to the antics of lunatic subterranean cavers, press on up a steep footpath to the west of Malham Cove.  It is customary to nod politely at passers-by, uttering banalities such as, “Almost there,” and “Fine day for it” between wheezes.

Walkers, limestone pavement, Malham Cove.

At the top, you’ll be rewarded by simply one of the best examples of a limestone pavement that you’ll find in any geographer’s field book.  You can see why it’s called a pavement, because that’s exactly what it looks like.  The enormous glaciers that lay over this part of the world scoured the limestone, removing the soil and creating fractures along the weaker lines of the rock.  Over the centuries, rain water has further eroded the fractures, washing any deposits left by the retreating ice and wind-blown soil down into them.  New soil does not accumulate on the exposed surfaces, or slabs, which are known as ‘clints’.  The fractures, or fissures, which are typically at 90 degrees to the top of the clints, are known as ‘grykes’.  The grykes provide a sheltered, shady and relatively humid environment for vegetation, including rare species and plants more usually found in woodland areas.  The smaller hollows formed by rain on the tops of clints are known as ‘pits’ and ‘pans’.

Limestone pavement, clints, grykes, pits, pans.

There was a time when I’d skip fearlessly across a limestone pavement.  Perhaps younger men are more courageous, or lacking in imagination; these days, I tread more gingerly, conscious that this is leg-breaking territory.  Grykes typically range in depth from a few inches to a few feet, but can apparently be as deep as 20 feet; it would be very easy to drop your walking stick down one.

Malham, limestone pavement, Harry Potter.

It can be pretty windy on top of Malham’s limestone pavement and, to be honest, when it’s like that it’s not somewhere I’d choose to linger in.  On a good day, it’s a fine place for a picnic and the views can be spectacular.  Still, I was surprised to see it was chosen for a scene in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ when Harry and Hermione were seeking horcruxes whilst simultaneously trying to avoid You-Know-Who; tough place to pitch a tent, even for a wizard.


While I’m busy name-dropping, Bill Bryson, the American writer, used to live down the road at Kirkby Malham. 

How's that, Mr McFadden?

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Middle Temple

Paschal lamb, agnus Dei, lamb of God, Middle Temple, Knights Templar, Lamb and Flag

Some years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to do some work for the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in London; the days I spent there were almost like being in a time capsule.  All around were ghostly whispers from our past, of crusader knights, Magna Carta, the Wars of the Roses, the exploration of the New World, Shakespeare, the divisions of Civil War, the founding of the United States of America and the destruction of the Second World War.

Two knights sharing a horse, Knights Templar, milennium 2000, Temple Church

An ancient thoroughfare, Middle Temple Lane, runs between Fleet Street and the Embankment.  The area either side of it is known as Temple, named for the medieval order of soldier monks, the Knights Templar, whose London Headquarters was on this spot.  They built their round church here, which is still very much in use and which was consecrated by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, in 1185.  After the Knights Templar were disgraced, and then officially suppressed by Pope Clement in 1312, the lands passed into the hands of their rivals, the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, or ‘Hospitallers’.  From sometime in the 14th century, at least, the area became popular with the legal profession.  And it still is: this gated community is home to two of the four Inns of Court, which between them have sole responsibility in England and Wales for admitting law students as barristers.

Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn are located to the north of Fleet Street, beyond the Royal Courts of Justice.  Sharing the Temple site with no visible barrier between them are the Middle and Inner Temples – the latter largely on the east side of Middle Temple Lane and the former along Middle Temple Lane and to the west of it.

Middle Temple, Cloisters, Pump Court, World War Two, bombing

The whole place is an oasis of tranquillity, of elegant squares, barristers’ chambers and neat, fragrant, gardens.  Quoting from my grandfather’s dog-eared Victorian edition of Barnaby Rudge,

“There are, still, worse places than the Temple, on a sultry day, for basking in the sun, or resting idly in the shade.  There is yet a drowsiness in its courts, and a dreamy dullness in its trees and gardens; those who pace its lanes and squares may yet hear the echoes of their footsteps on the sounding stones, and read upon its gates, in passing from the tumult of the Strand or Fleet Street, ‘Who enters here leaves noise behind.’ ”

Interior, Plowden Building, Middle Temple Lane, London

The societies of the Inner and Middle Temples were established by the 14th century, as tenants of the Hospitallers.  The landlord changed in 1540, when the land was seized by Henry VIII at the Reformation, but a grant of letters patent in 1608 by James I gave the security of freehold in perpetuity to both societies, who voluntarily partitioned the land between themselves in 1732.  It was a particular stipulation of the letters patent that the land had to be used for the accommodation and education of lawyers.  A further condition was that the societies shared responsibility for maintaining the Temple Church.  At the same time, James preserved certain privileges that the societies had inherited from the Knights Templar, which exempted them from the control of external authorities, civil or ecclesiastical.  Those privileges more or less continue to this day, which means that the Inner and Middle Temples are their own local authorities and do not come within the jurisdiction of the Corporation of London.  Perhaps that’s one reason why Middle Temple Lane is still lit by gas lamps – though the last lamplighter, Mr Balman, retired some years ago (“he made the night a little brighter” etc).  Anyway, the letters patent were confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008, in a ceremony to mark their 400th anniversary.

Middle Temple Hall, double hammer beam roof, Tudor, Elizabethan, Plowden

By Tudor times, studying at the Inns of Court had become an alternative to Oxford or Cambridge, offering an excellent general education as well as grounding in the Law, but with the advantages of more freedom than at the universities and the additional lure of proximity to the Royal Court.  In fact, the vast majority of members did not pursue a career in the Law – though many went on to achieve success in other fields.  The focal point of Middle Temple was the Hall, inherited from the old knights, where students and barristers ate together (“kept commons”), took part in debates and legal exercises, and which was also used for – sometimes riotous – entertainment.   However, the growth in numbers and the poor state of the old knights’ hall necessitated a replacement.

Middle Temple Hall, Bench Table, Queen Elizabeth I, Windsor oak

They started building the new Middle Temple Hall in 1562 and finished it in 1573.  It is 100 feet long, 40 feet wide, spanned by a double hammer-beam roof and, quite frankly, one of the best examples of an Elizabethan hall you will ever see.  At the far end from the entrance is the High, or Bench, Table made from three 29 feet long planks of a single oak from Windsor Park, allegedly a gift from Queen Elizabeth I, floated down the Thames and manhandled in through a window before the building was finished.  Above this are portraits of monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth I, Charles I, Charles II and James II.  In the windows are memorials to notable members, including Sir Walter Raleigh.  Adorning the panelled walls are members' coats of arms, which date from 1597.  A table, known as the cupboard, stands by the Bench Table; it is used by members when they are called to the Bar (to become barristers) and is allegedly made from a hatch cover from Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind.  Drake visited the Hall, and dined at the Bench Table – as did, allegedly, Queen Elizabeth herself.  Indeed, the great and the good continue to dine in the Hall to this day; of course, I have had lunch there.  In the entrance to the Hall is a heavily restored poop deck lantern from the Golden Hind – it was virtually destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.  Badly damaged in the same air raid is a beautifully carved screen by the entrance, made in 1574.

Golden Hind, Francis Drake, poop deck lantern, Middle Temple

The first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed in Middle Temple Hall in 1602.  Its 400th anniversary was celebrated in the Hall in 2002 with a repeat performance by an all-male cast, in Tudor style, in which a young Eddie Redmayne made his professional debut as Viola and Mark Rylance played the part of Olivia.

Middle Temple Gardens, Wars of the Roses

Shakespeare’s connection with Middle Temple does not end there.  It was in the Temple Garden, in Henry VI Part I, that Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, plucked a white rose and the Earl of Somerset plucked a red for the Lancastrians.  This marked the start of the terrible English dynastic power struggle, the Wars of the Roses, that were fought for more than 30 years between 1455 and 1487.  We don’t know for sure that the rose plucking event actually took place, but the white and red roses are still the emblems of Yorkshire and Lancashire (though the rivalry is a little better humoured now).  Shakespeare also penned the line, in Henry VI Part II, “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers”.  There are alternative interpretations of what he meant by that.

Prince's Room, bench apartments, Middle Temple, Smoking Room

Sir Walter Raleigh was just one of many Middle Templar explorers and adventurers; others included Sir Martin Frobisher and Sir John Hawkins.  Member Bartholomew Gosnold sailed for New England in 1602 and named Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.  In 1606, he was captain of one of the three ships that sailed from London and founded the first permanent settlement in North America at Jamestown.  This expedition was made by the Virginia Company – supported by several notable members of the Middle Temple.

In the Middle Temple library are the Molyneux Globes, a unique pair of terrestrial and celestial globes made in Lambeth by Emery Molyneux in 1592.  They are the only known pair of such globes in the world and the terrestrial one was the most geographically correct when it was made.  Naturally, some bits are missing – including Australia and New Zealand, which had not been invented (or ‘discovered’) at the time.

Molyneux Globe, Middle Temple

In the 17th century, tensions between Parliament and the King were reflected in the differing views of Middle Templars: John Pym, MP and an early vocal critic of Charles I, Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester and a commander in the Parliamentary army, and Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, one of the king’s commissioners, were all members of the Inn.  By and large, London was pro-Parliament; it must have been a difficult place for anyone with Royalist sympathies.

The connections with North America continue beyond exploration and settlement.  Several members of Middle Temple were American revolutionaries: five were signatories to the Declaration of Independence - Thomas Heyward, Thomas Lynch, Thomas McKean, Arthur Middleton and Edward Rutledge; seven were signatories to the Constitution of the newly formed United States - John Blair, Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, John Dickinson, Jared Ingersoll, William Livingston, Charles Pinkney and John Rutledge.  The latter was chairman of the drafting committee and John Dickinson apparently coined the phrase, “No taxation without representation.”  Quite right too.

Fountain Court, Middle Temple, mulberry trees, London

I’m concerned that I might send my reader to sleep if I bang on too much more about the Middle Temple’s history and its connection with the story of this small island of ours.  But I should mention the Second World War, when the garden was turned over to the cultivation of vegetables and the Temple area suffered its share of devastation courtesy of Göring’s Luftwaffe.  Particular raids: on 15th October 1940 resulted in extensive damage to Middle Temple Hall, blowing a hole in the east end and shattering the Tudor screen into hundreds of pieces; on 12th December a landmine caused a 40 foot crater next to the library, which subsequently had to be pulled down; on 25th March 1941, the Hall was narrowly saved from destruction by incendiaries; on 10th May, the area east of Middle Temple Lane was pretty much devastated.  Amazingly, Temple Church was saved – though it was badly hit.

There was extensive rebuilding after the war.  So visiting Temple now involves a trip through architecture from medieval to modern.  Many of the buildings are listed.  Stepping through the 17th century Great Gate off Fleet Street into Middle Temple Lane, you’ll immediately see 17th and 18th century buildings, some of which were once shops.  Wander down, dipping into and out of the various courtyards (don’t miss Temple Church), looking at the names on the barristers’ chambers and delightful architectural fripperies as you go.

Temple Gardens, Victorian, Embankment, Middle Temple Lane

I particularly like Fountain Court, just outside the Hall, where there has been “the plash of falling water,” as Dickens puts it, since 1681.  Dickens seems to have known Temple well.  It is claimed that the fountain was the first permanent one in London.  Next to it are two black mulberry trees, planted to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1887; those in the know idly pick the fruits in late summer.  There’s a beautiful wisteria nearby.

At the end of Middle Temple Lane is an archway leading through Temple Gardens, a wedding cake-like Victorian building, onto Embankment.  The Knights Templar had direct access onto the Thames, but this was interrupted when the Embankment was built in the 1860s, simultaneously helping to solve London’s sewage crisis, providing routes for the District and Circle underground lines, relieving traffic along Fleet Street and the Strand, as well as reducing the width of the river and deepening it.  It also enlarged Temple Gardens and the two Inns still have right of access to the Thames via their own private set of granite steps.


It is hardly surprising that Middle Temple is a favourite location for film and TV.  Amongst others, it has featured in the Da Vinci Code, Bridget Jones II, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Long after I had completed my work for the Middle Temple, the man I worked for, an unfailingly courteous and erudite gentleman, generously gave my wife and me a guided tour.  I hope my brief essay does justice to his kindness, and the place itself.  Next time I’m there, I’ll take the photographs I should have taken last time!


Laburnum, Middle Temple Gardens, fuchia, London

You should note that there is no public right of way through the Temple, though there is public access and no one will challenge the well-behaved pedestrian.  But, external gates are locked at night, over weekends and on public holidays.  You might get access via Tudor Street at these times.  Bear in mind this is a working area.  You are not allowed into buildings – including Middle Temple Hall - unless you are a member, have been invited or are part of a tour.  See the Middle Temple’s website for information.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Fox's Pulpit

Fox's Pulpit, Cumbria.

My mate Dave said we should go to Fox’s Pulpit.  “There’s not a lot to see,” he said.  “But we should go.”  He was right, of course - on both counts.

Fox’s Pulpit is one of those curios of the British historical landscape.  It is about 3 miles north-west of Sedbergh in the county of Cumbria, on the side of Firbank Fell, and is where, on 13th June 1652, itinerant preacher George Fox (1624-1691) addressed a crowd of a thousand people and is said to have given birth to the Quaker movement.

Fox was one of any number of 17th century religious dissenters whose philosophical roots went back a hundred years or more.  Many would once have regarded them as heretical, ‘puritan’ or, later, ‘nonconformist’; today, some would call them Christian fundamentalists.  An obscure movement called the Seekers (I’m assuming this had nothing to do with Judith Durham) is often regarded as the forerunner of what became the Society of Friends, or ‘Quakers’ - after Fox told a Derby judge to “tremble at the word of the Lord”.  The Seekers believed that the established church was corrupt.  Fox himself rejected organised religion with its ceremonies and hierarchy of bishops; his belief was based on a personal relationship with God.  He had been wandering the land preaching, allegedly on Divine Instruction, for several years.  Earlier in 1652, on Pendle Hill some 50 miles to the south of Firbank, he is said to have had a vision commanding him to “sound the day of the Lord” to a great gathering of people.

Fox's Pulpit, Firbank Fell, Quakers, Cumbria

I was glad Dave was driving.  He knew where he was going for a start, which is always handy.  I reckon you also have to be in the right frame of mind and vehicle to tackle roads like the intriguingly named Shacklabank Lane, a narrow track off the A684 which obviously hadn’t experienced resurfacing for a decade or more.  This led us, past buildings out of another time, to our destination where we nudged into a gateway in front of some corrugated iron sheep pens and got out of the car.  The Howgill Fells gathered around us like a damp shroud; it was impossible to tell that the M6 growled with traffic just a few short miles to the north.

Disused burial ground, site of chapel, Firbank Fell.

Fox’s Pulpit sits a little back from the road, in open ground next to a disused burial ground where once stood a chapel.  The pulpit is an oddly shaped rock that looks rather like a large letter-box cut into the hillside.  We clambered to the top.  On that June day in 1652, Fox had been invited to address a meeting in the chapel.  He recalled, “While others were gone to dinner, I went to a brook, got a little water, and then came and sat down on the top of a rock hard by the chapel.  In the afternoon the people gathered about me, with several of their preachers.  It was judged there were above a thousand people to whom I declared God’s everlasting truth and Word of life freely and largely for about the space of three hours.”

It is hard to conceive of that large a crowd gathering in this place; where on earth did they all come from?  Understandably, it is said by some to be an evocative spot; a place of pilgrimage, even.  I thought it cold, bleak and rather sad.  There is little obvious trace of the chapel, which was ruined by storms in the winter of 1839-40.  The few remaining gravestones are forlorn reminders of lives long since gone.  It is a dead place; hard to picture it alive.  Yet people congregate here at least once a year, on the anniversary of Fox’s address.

Fox's Pulpit, religious dissent, Cumbria, North West England.

Dave posed, rather effectively, I thought, on the pulpit for me.  We mooched about, explored what looked like a sort of trackway behind the burial ground, tried to pick out where the chapel had once stood and failed to comprehend how a thousand people would allow anyone to talk for that long.

There’s a plaque on the pulpit, placed there in June 1952, 300 years after Fox’s oration.  It says:

“Let your lives speak.  Here or near this rock George Fox preached to about one thousand Seekers for three hours on Sunday June 13, 1652.  Great power inspired his message and the meeting proved of first importance in gathering the Society of Friends known as Quakers.  Many men and women convinced of the truth on this fell and in other parts of the northern counties went forth through the land and over the seas with the living word of the Lord enduring great hardships and winning multitudes to Christ”.

The Society of Friends went on spread their message all over the world.  They were often regarded as eccentric, or with suspicion because they refused to swear oaths – including an oath of allegiance to the Crown.  They were abused, attacked and often imprisoned.  Fox himself is said to have been arrested sixty times and was detained in hideous conditions.  He travelled throughout Britain, as well as to the West Indies, America, Holland and Germany.  William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, became a close friend.  The story is that among many who were influenced by Fox that June day on Firbank Fell was Margaret Fell, wife of local Judge Thomas Fell, who married Fox in 1669, eleven years after her first husband’s death. 

Burial ground, Fox's Pulpit, Cumbria. bit about Britain.

Whatever our personal views and faiths, everyone can admire the Quakers’ respect for all other beings, their tolerance and belief in peace.  Quakers were conscientious objectors in both world wars.  I believe their influence on modern society has been disproportionate to their relatively small numbers.  Because Quakers were barred from universities and many professions, one natural outlet for them was in business.  A ridiculously large number of British businesses were founded by Quakers, including such household names as Barclays, Lloyds, Carr’s, Clarks, Cadbury, Reckitt’s, Rowntree, Fry and Terry’s - to name but a few.

Finally, I daresay there are some reading this who have been dying to point out, “But you can walk to Fox’s Pulpit!  There are some wonderful walks round there.  You don’t have to drive!” They are absolutely right and you will find those walks easily enough on other sites.  As I get older I find myself getting more and more like Jeremy Clarkson.

Check out InSPIREd Sunday for other places of worship from around the world.