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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Liberation of Ingleton dans les Dales

WW2, German, Ingleton, North Yorkshire

The first tendrils of dawn crept slowly, but inexorably, across the horizon.  Restless, I shifted my position, checked equipment for the umpteenth time and looked across at Shorty.  There was a flash of white teeth and the luminous hands of my imitation Breitling Superocean Chronographe glowed faintly in the gloom.  “Time to go,” I whispered.  Muffled sounds of packs being hoisted onto backs, zips pulled up, clips fastened.  Faces black in the half-light, we set off, hearts pounding, the rubber souls of our boots soundless on the tarmac.  So, this was it.  We turned left at the fourteenth sheep and headed across seemingly peaceful fields, wet with dew, full of morning smell.  Others had reconnoitred before us: we followed their advice and, occasionally, took a map bearing just to be sure.  One false step could take us along the wrong public footpath; this was Life at the Edge. 

Ingleton, North Yorkshire, visit Britain

Our objective – the village of Ingleton in North Yorkshire.  Many, including at the highest levels of Government, were unaware of any military activity in this area.  However, intelligence, supported by an effective leaflet and poster campaign, alerted us to the fact that Ingleton, for one weekend in July, has an alter-ego as a French village occupied during the Second World War.  It is called ‘Operation Homeguard’ – Ingleton’s 1940s Weekend.

Ingleton, North Yorkshire, visit Britain

We approached from the south, heading for the strategic road crossing over the River Greta.  Out of nowhere, disaster struck.  In a densely wooded rocky ravine quite a few feet deep, one member of our platoon slipped on a carelessly placed rock.  He suffered a nasty fall, narrowly missing the stream which gushed terrifyingly, and with all the rapidity of poured treacle, several inches below his nose.  Our rendezvous was due at 1100 hours; time, we felt, to have a mooch round and a pub lunch before the Spitfire flew over at 1425 (weather permitting).  So, with our casualty fighting back the pain from a lightly grazed elbow, and the discomfort of muddy trousers, we pressed on, resolutely.

1940s, Ingleton, North Yorkshire

No plan survives contact with the enemy.  The next setback was a sign which announced ‘Bull in field’.  The presence of an extremely large, undoubtedly male, cow established that this statement was true.  I like to imagine the creature gazing lazily over the top of its spectacles as it chewed the cud, daring us to enter his domain.  But was the notice some kind of clumsy disclaimer, should a member of the public be gored whilst walking along a public footpath?  Cursing the moronic farmer – doesn’t he know there’s a war on? – and rejecting the idea of shooting the bull on the grounds that a) it would possibly be a bit extreme, definitely unfair, and b) we did not have a gun, it was decided that cowardice was the better part of valour.  This was the spirit that built an empire (and then lost it).  So General Mayhem (commanding) decided that the best course of action was to retrace steps and come upon our objective from the west.  By the time we got there, Ingleton dans les Dales had already been liberated.  I was particularly pleased to note that the Americans appeared to have arrived early on this occasion.

1940s, Ingleton, North Yorkshire

Everyone seemed very happy.  The erstwhile combatants – mostly members of the Wehrmacht, GIs and Free French Resistance – looked as if they were getting on rather well.  Some civilians were shamelessly fraternising.  There were few British troops around – apart from, oddly enough, members of Ingleton’s Home Guard.  “Don’t tell them your name, Pike”.  Perhaps British WWII uniforms aren’t as nice – I certainly have it on good authority that they scratch a bit when dancing, as well as at other critical moments.  But it was an eclectic mix – including someone, fully whiskered and resplendent in a pith helmet, who looked as though he’d stumbled into the wrong war.

Home Guard, Ingleton, North Yorkshire

That said, there were a couple of tough-looking Red Devils - Paras.  However, several of the troops looked like they had been waiting since the 1940s to be there and had, meanwhile, taken the opportunity to eat thoroughly.  In general, the Germans looked somewhat fitter.

German soldiers, Ingleton, North Yorkshire

The presence of very authentic-looking German troops was vaguely unnerving.  Apparently it upsets some people.  I did overhear someone ask, in a slightly offended tone, “What are they doing here?” I completely get this reaction, but wanted to point out that the Second World War just would not have been the same if Germany had stayed out.

Germans, North Yorkshire, Ingleton, 1940s

Operation Homeguard, Ingleton's 1940s weekend

On a, brief, serious note: it’s a potentially delicate debate, but clearly this event, like any other involving people dressing up in public, was intended to be light-hearted.  And it was.  Staying away from the fun for another moment, I did wonder what a village in the Yorkshire Dales had been like during the War.  That’s for another day; but I do suspect that an event like this would be very different if staged somewhere that had suffered heavy destruction - like Coventry, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Clydebank, or London.  And I wondered if it could take place at all in countries that suffered far worse than Britain – including France and Germany.  But critics should know that 48 men from Ingleton gave their lives in the two world wars.  We should remember ALL who perished and at the same time be absurdly grateful if we are lucky enough to live in a reasonably liberal, tolerant, society. I won’t put up with intolerance.

GIs, Ingleton, 1940s weekend

Back to the Liberation; we spent an awful lot of time waiting for the Spitfire.  I love these aircraft and had the perfect photo-shot in my head, imagining the sleek fighter zooming up the valley by the railway viaduct, waggling its wings as it banked off to attack a local farmer, who had been careless with his bulls.  “Wo ist die RAF?” I thought I heard a captured elderly Hauptman ask.  No one seemed to know.  Rumours circulated: it had got lost (not great for morale); it had run out of petrol (slightly worrying); both of the above and was currently in Morecambe (possible); it had been bounced by two Messerschmitts coming out of the sun (unlikely – it was a cloudy day).  We subsequently heard rumours that: it had turned up, but after sundown and nobody saw it; it did an impressive flypast over the wrong village; the pilot had left his varifocals at home.

George Formby impersonator, Colin Bourdiec, Ingleton, 1940s weekend

There was a lot of amusing stuff to take in at Ingleton’s 1940s weekend, some of it intentional.  For some reason, I found it hilarious that the Italian Restaurant was closed, because the proprietors had gone on holiday; that’s their story, I thought.  There was period music – big band, of course – plus we were entertained by one Colin Bourdiec, allegedly on loan from ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), who did a very passable impersonation of George Formby.  It’s turned out nice again.

Ingleton, 1940s, parade

There were stalls selling period bric-a-brac, clothing and uniforms, some of it possibly genuine and most of it over-priced.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sucker for 20th century memorabilia – ask Head Office (only a twisted mind would spot any ambiguity there) – but I’m sure some of these vendors are looking for people called Wally or Charlie.

GIs, Ingleton, Re-enactment

The organisation of ‘Operation Homeguard’ was decidedly flaky in places, but you’d worry if things like this were horribly efficient, wouldn’t you?  We enjoyed it so much that we returned the following day to witness the street parade.  This time, we used some of our petrol ration and took the car.  The parade was led by the City of Bradford Pipe Band and featured a Winston Churchill lookalike who, I must say, did a fine job.  The band was great – you might initially think they originated from that well-known Bradford in the Highlands but, no, they are indisputably from the Bradford in Yorkshire, were established in 1914 and have won all sorts of awards.

Winston Churchill, Ingleton, 1940s weekend, Yorkshire

As we set off back to Blighty, the cheers of the liberated ringing in our ears, I’m sure I saw a member of the Homeguard, binoculars glued to his eye-sockets, vainly searching for that illusive Spitfire.  He may be there still.

City of Bradford Pipe Band, Ingleton, Yorkshire

Events like this take an enormous amount of organising.  I hope this one continues – I heard that it might not.  Check out the Ingleton Home Guard website for more details and, notwithstanding a few grammatical errors, some fascinating information and photographs.  Finally, here's the original George Formby with "When I'm Cleaning Windows".  Toodle-pip!

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Algarve - not quite

Marsden Bay, the Leas, Tyne and Wear

The wind whips words away, yet the incessant cries of thousands of seabirds are all around Marsden Bay.  To the best of my knowledge, England’s north east coast between South Shields and Sunderland features in very few guide books to Britain, whose writers seem to skip from the Yorkshire Moors to the dramatic Northumbrian coast without stopping.  If they did, just for a moment, they would chance upon these fine-looking limestone cliffs towering 50 – 100’ (15-30 metres) over the North Sea.  The limestone was formed at the bottom of a shallow tropical sea that once stretched from eastern Poland to Greenland.  And, with their classic limestone stacks and caves, created over centuries of erosion, and warm colour in the sunlight, these cliffs do remind me a little of Portugal’s Algarve.

Souter Lighthouse, clifftops, Leas

OK – so the sea’s not quite as blue (or as warm) and maybe you’d struggle to find a nice, welcoming, taverna, but you must agree that it doesn’t look too bad does it?  And I do believe there’s a golf course not far way.

Cormorants, Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear

The grassy cliff tops, the Leas, once partly occupied by a now vanished village near Souter Lighthouse, are much frequented by dog-walkers and, apparently, kite flyers.  I’d be wary of letting my dog off the lead round here, though, and even more reluctant to try kite-flying, sandwiched as it were between the twin perils of the A183 and the sea.

Marsden Grotto, Tyne and Wear

I wondered, as I leant into the buffeting wind, whether the shrieking of gulls masked the wails of Marsden’s most famous resident ghost.  John the Jibber reputedly shopped his smuggling mates to the revenue men and, when found out, was left in a barrel suspended from the roof of a cave, where he slowly starved to death.  The cave, by many accounts, is in Marsden Grotto, which describes itself as “the only cave bar in Europe”.  It has, allegedly, been a pub of sorts since the 18th century and is meant to be fascinating inside.  Inevitably, it being a fine summer’s afternoon (ripe for trade as it were), it was closed when I visited.  Having said that, it looked particularly unappealing from the outside.  When I got down to the beach and viewed it from the shore, I was left feeling distinctly puzzled as to why someone hadn’t either radically refurbished or, even better, surgically removed this piece of architectural dung long ago.

Lifeguard hut, Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear

Talking of eyesores, at the other end of the beach is a particularly ugly, and wrecked, lifeguard station - looking remarkably like a magnet for vandals and ne’er-do-wells.  What a shame.

Lot's Wife, Marsden Bay, limestone stack, Tyne and Wear

These two man-made blights on an otherwise stunning location do not seem to bother the seabirds, who flock and nest in their thousands: mainly kittiwakes, fulmars and cormorants (apparently – I can barely distinguish a sparrow from an eagle).  The birds are amazing to watch, but the cacophony of shrieks and screeches is only marginally less overpowering than their pungent smell.  I guess they might voice similar observations of us in comparable circumstances; perhaps this is seabird version of overcrowded housing.  They squabble a lot too - it's like avian EastEnders.  The cormorants seem to prefer an unnamed stack to the south, not far from the lighthouse, whereas Kittiwake & Co teem around the cliffs and Marsden Rock, a 139’ (42 metres) high stack that, until it collapsed in 1996, used to feature a sea arch.  On shore, closer to the cliffs, is a slender stack known as Lot’s Wife.  In the Book of Genesis, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt after looking back on the destruction of sinful Sodom.  The allegedly real pillar stands today on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.  Surely, whatever joker named the imitation in Tyne and Wear wasn’t thinking of South Shields or Sunderland at the time?  Perhaps it’s a comment on the hedonists of Newcastle upon Tyne, a little farther to the north-west.

Kittiwakes, Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear

There’s a low railing on the cliff top, a point beyond which it is unsafe to tread.  I noticed a couple of bunches of sorry-looking decaying flowers tied to this in different places, and in one instance something very like a home-made shrine.  The really sad – in fact, tragic - bit about Marsden Bay and its surroundings is not the grotty buildings disfiguring a naturally beautiful part of Britain’s coast, but that people have chosen it as a place to end their lives.  This, of course, is in stark contrast to the families that were about when I was there, on the beach and cliffs, laughing and having fun.  Perhaps Marsden is a metaphor for life: beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, side by side.  It should certainly be in the guide-books, though.

Marsden Bay, Marsden Rock

Marsden Bay, romance

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Village open gardens

Burton in Lonsdale, Open Gardens, allium, azalea

Nether Bottom’s Gardening Circle, affectionately known as the ‘S&M Ring’ (Sowers and Mulchers) meets in the Parish Rooms on the last Tuesday of every other month.  Their first meeting of the New Year had but one item on the agenda: the village open garden.  Similar discussions were being held the length and longth of the land. 

Burton in Lonsdale, Open Gardens, roses

The British see themselves as keen gardeners – many would be mildly surprised to discover that people in other countries have gardens too.  Amateur open garden events, where the gardens of private homes are opened to the public, are relatively common.  At the last count, almost 750 were listed on the UK National Directory of Open Gardens, from Cornwall to the Highlands of Scotland.  Top of the exhibiting counties were Yorkshire, Norfolk and Suffolk with 62, 57 and 54 events listed; Derbyshire came fourth with 33.  Regionally, East Anglia, the East Midlands and South East seem to predominate – which could be a reflection of sunshine, population - or just those that can be bothered.  It should be stressed that these are not the gardens of mansions and stately homes, but the often modest patches in Anystreet, Anyplace.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens

Back in Nether Bottom, the debate swung to and fro.  Enthusiasts enthused; wise elders knew what was at stake and the amount of spadework involved.  The excitement reached fever-pitch when someone suggested they buy seeds and grow things; tea was consumed.  Hyacinth Sweetpea tearfully asserted that she was overrun with montbretia, having problems with black-eyed Susan and, besides, her garden was so small.  Pansy Pepper said that, with zeal, Hyacinth would get to the root of her issues and suggested that, in her experience, size wasn’t everything.  Old Fagus Maple said he was having problems with his bleeding heart, but would like to sort out his fuchsia.  In the end, they took a vote and set a date.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, pond, iris, pump

Under the smokescreen of community and good causes, villages and neighbourhoods devise their strategies.  Likely entrants need to be contacted, maps drawn, leaflets produced, advertising planned on zero budgets.  Some have plant stalls; some sell refreshments; some are part of a larger event; some plough proceeds back into community funds, others support a particular charity.  Rarely are there prizes; competition would not fit with the Open Garden Ethos.

Burton in Lonsdale, Pals with Trowels, open gardens, plant stall

Forsythia Ragwort gritted her teeth; no one, but no one, would have a better garden this year.  Of course, Nether Bottom’s biennial open garden event had never been a contest; but, really, everyone knew it was - didn’t they?  All else – her crochet, table-dressing, window-dressing, cross-dressing and evening class in practical antique aging - could wait.  Her husband, Roger, would become the instrument of her plans…

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, flowers, blooms

Erica Broom sat down to choose her colour scheme.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, ornaments

Hazel and Basil Willow thought about it very carefully indeed.  Their garden could certainly do with some attention, but the expense might put an end to the summer holiday in Dungthorpe.  They lay at night, dreaming of plush lawns and neat borders, but were tormented by nightmares of torrential rain washing it all away, or their mad neighbour, Mrs Belladonna, running amok with an axe and secateurs.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens

Miss P and Mr Q from numbers 5 and 11 weren’t dreaming of gardens at all.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, tamarix

The gifted amateur appears to sail effortlessly through the preparation.  If they feel any pressure, they do not mention it; their silence is unnerving.  Lesser mortals spend at least six months repeatedly checking the weather forecast, planning, reading catalogues, heaving, fixing, digging, visiting garden centres and nurseries, growing, planting, trimming, tripping over seed trays in the spare room, cursing; six months of putting off weekend arrangements that might disrupt the Holy Garden Project.  Aches and pains emerge in body parts people didn’t know they had, and rarely wanted to mention in public even when they did.  With the lighter evenings comes weeks of eating late, of the world seemingly rushing by…while others carry on as though life were normal.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, fountain.

Primrose Moss visited her mother in Mudshire.  Whilst there, she ‘borrowed’ some shrubs and planted them in her own garden.  No one would notice – including her mum and especially her husband, Forest.

The Reverend Spray and his wife Lettice (a late bloomer) took stock of the vicarage garden and bought a job lot of concrete garden gnomes on eBay.

The S&M Ring counted confirmed entrants and printed leaflets.

Major Disaster maintained that no one had asked him if he and Daphne would open their garden; so they wouldn’t.

Tension mounts as the Big Day approaches.  The late frosts have resulted in devastating losses and damage.  Entrants publicly console each other.

Down at the Olde Ruptured Duck, Doc Nettle leans against the bar, nursing his third pint of wallop. Hyacinth Sweetpea had been in, complaining of suffering convolvulus.  Roger Ragwort had slashes and burns.

At night, when the neighbours were safely tucked up with their Horlicks (except for Miss P and Mr Q from numbers 5 and 11, who were safely tucked up with each other), Primrose Moss crept to her car and unloaded the large azalea and well advanced alpines and border plants she’d spent a small fortune on at the nursery in the next county, where nobody knew her.

Hyacinth Sweetpea, Pansy Pepper, Old Fagus Maple, the Ragworts, Willows, Erica Bloom, Primrose Moss, Rev and Mrs Spray (and many others) all looked at each others’ gardens before the grand opening. They not only saw some beautiful gardens, but also experienced Nether Bottom from different perspectives – including Numbers 5 and 11.  Then the public came from far and wide and everyone had a Jolly Good Day being nice – even Forsythia Ragwort.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, heucheras

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, lupins, acer

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens

Regrettably, there are no surviving photographs of Nether Bottom’s memorable Open Garden Day.  Instead, I have permission to use shots taken of the successful Open Garden event held in the small Yorkshire village of Burton in Lonsdale in June 2015 and organised by their garden group, Pals with Trowels.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens, plant stall

Checkout the UK National Directory of Open Gardens for events on their database.

Burton in Lonsdale, open gardens

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint

Eagle and Child, Earl of Derby, coat of arms

How often do you go into a pub with your mind on a wizard and a talking lion?  Be honest now.  If you need help with this, try stepping over the threshold into Oxford’s Eagle and Child, because it was a favourite watering-hole of close friends JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

Disappointingly, there’s nothing obviously magical about The Eagle and Child – though it does serve a splendid pint of Brakspear’s for a paranormally reasonable price, and the barmaid is enchanting.  It has been a pub since 1650 and, before that, had a role in the Civil War (1642-49), when Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and the building was either used as a pay-house or a playhouse, depending on the source of your typo.  Its name comes from the arms of the Earl of Derby, the Stanley family, who I assume had some connection with it back in the foggy mists of time.  The Eagle and Child’s long history, however, has been subordinated to the glitter of its more recent literary connections.

Eagle and Child, Oxford, real ale

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) and Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) were the two better-known members of “the Inklings”, an informal group of British literary buffs, most of them academics.  The Inklings – a nicely ambiguous moniker, I think - met to discuss their works and ideas, normally in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College most Thursday evenings from the late 1930s until the 1950s.  On Tuesday lunchtimes, they gathered in the ‘Rabbit Room’, the landlord’s former sitting room, at the Eagle and Child – a tradition apparently maintained until the early 1960s.  Presumably, they did what all enlightened men do; they quaffed ale and solved problems, real and imagined.  Lewis recalled, “Many a golden session in front of a blazing fire, with a pint close to hand.”  During the Second World War, when thirsty American troops occasionally resulted in the beer running out, the Inklings would take themselves off to other hostelries, such as the King’s Arms or the Mitre.  When the Eagle and Child was refurbished in 1962, the Inklings apparently switched allegiance to the Lamb and Flag across the road.  Both the Lamb and Flag and the Eagle and Child (which the Inklings nicknamed, ‘The Bird and Baby’), are owned by St John’s College.

Rabbit Room, Eagle and Child, Tolkien, Lewis, Inklings

The ‘Rabbit Room’ used to be at the back of the pub – there’s an extension now, so the room is more or less in the middle, with two, cosy, panelled rooms at the front.  I sat there, supping my Brakspear, trying to picture these giants of the written word nattering away about their books and beliefs, one of them sometimes bursting into intensity to make a particular point.  I wondered what, if any, inspiration they got from the pub – or the beer.  I read that ‘Tollers’, as his friends called him, was once so inebriated that he imagined goblins were trying to steal his wedding ring; but that sounds too good to be true.  Was Tolkien in the Bird and Baby when he dreamt up the massive eagles of Middle Earth who, amongst other things, often rescued the good guys in the nick of time?  Did he see Hobbits on the way home?  I was pretty sure I did.  Was Gandalf modelled on a colleague at Merton?

I couldn’t see anything of Narnia in the bustle around me but, peering into my beer, found myself back at school on a dark, wet, winter’s day with Mrs McGillivray reading “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” to the class.  The images of Lantern Waste and Mr Tumnus’ shocking disappearance are powerful, even after all those years.  Wonderful, wonderful stories.

Probably, of course, the Bird and Baby was simply exactly what we said at the start; a favourite watering-hole for close friends.  There is something undeniably cosy, conversational and blokeish about the place; I liked it very much.  Over at the next table, two young men were earnestly, very audibly, mellifluously and without any apparent embarrassment, discussing their sex lives.

“Well, I’d like to go back this summer.  There’s this girl I met.”
“Oh; did you, er..?”
“No.  Oh, no.  We were both with other people, so it was a bit awkward.  But we text and I think we probably...”

I happily dragged myself back to reality.

Pippin: “What’s that?”
Merry: “This, my friend, is a pint.”
Pippin: “It comes in pints?  I’m getting one.”

By the way, it was not unknown for Inspector Morse, creator of Colin Dexter (or was it the other way round?) to sup a pint at the Eagle and Child too.

Eagle and Child, St Giles, Oxford