A gong by any other name . . .

There was an awful lot of insignia and medals (informally known as gongs) on display yesterday during the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Not least among the royals, and the many military personnel of course.

And, unfortunately, rather too many ill-informed and bad-tempered Tweets about who and why was wearing what medals, and the like.

Medals and the insignia of the many orders of chivalry in this country have been conferred by the sovereign on the great and the good for centuries. There are ten current orders of chivalry, some made at the sole discretion of the sovereign, others on the advice of the government. Most have several classes, such as member, officer, commander and the like.

Among the Armed Forces there are various campaign and service medals that serving personnel receive as well as personal decorations for specific acts of bravery and the like, such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, to name just two.

The most senior order of chivalry is the Order of the Garter, established in 1384 by King Edward III, and only outranked in precedence by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair are members of the order, among nineteen others.

The British Empire?
Many of those attending the state funeral at Westminster Abbey yesterday, or in the crowds lining the funeral route, proudly wore the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s the Order most familiar to everyone, and the most awarded.

The Order has Members (MBE), Officers (OBE – insignia on the right), Commanders (CBE), Knights Commander or Dames Commander (KBE or DBE), and Knights Grand Cross or Dames Grand Cross (GBE). Recipients are named (at least during Her Late Majesty’s reign) twice a year, in the New Years Honours or the Sovereign’s Birthday Honours. It is awarded for prominent national/international or regional achievements.

Until his death in 2021, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was Grand Master of the Order. That position is currently vacant, and presumably King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of the Order on his accession on the death of the Queen on 8 September 2022.

The Order was founded by King George V in 1917 to fill in gaps in the British honours system as, until then, most honors went to diplomats, civil servants, and officers in the Armed Forces. He wished to create an order to honour the many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combat roles during the First World War. Since 1918 it has two divisions: civil and military.

On 29 February 2012, I was made as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) during an investiture at Buckingham Palace in London, presided by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. It was awarded for services to international food science.

Receiving my OBE from the Prince of Wales, and afterwards in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace with my younger daughter Philippa and wife Steph.

In recent decades, membership of the Order has become controversial, and there are several widely-publicized rejections of the honor. When, in November 2011, I received a letter (below) that my name was being put forward for approval by Her Majesty, I was given the option to accept or decline.

A new start
Some have called it a ‘preposterous charade‘, others have declined the honor because of its connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Indeed, during Tony Blair’s premiership in 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence! Now that seems preposterous to me, and the change never happened.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully assess what is right and proper today. For far too many the legacy of the British Empire is painful. Dreadful acts were perpetrated on subservient populations in the British colonies. Should a prestigious honor still have that link? Perhaps it is now time to re-evaluate the honors system and how it is applied. And to whom.

I am proud to be a recipient of an OBE, and I would not wish to change its name. However, with the deaths of Her Majesty as Sovereign of the Order, as well as Prince Philip as Grand Master, I believe there is an excellent opportunity to ‘freeze’ the Order as such (it would become dormant) but replace it by a completely new order of chivalry with exactly the same purpose but without the disagreeable connections with empire.

A new way forward
Furthermore, while it might be unpopular to say so, the monarchy has, in my opinion, become a 21st century anachronism. I agree with this recently-posted tweet from Professor David Price of University College London:

It’s hard to see a place for monarchy when, in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest nations, food banks are a lifeline for millions, and the cost-of-living crisis is the worst for decades. And the UK has lost its focus and place.

However, I do not favor an elected presidential system. Rather I would see us continuing as a parliamentary democracy (with MPs elected by proportional representation to ensure that every vote counts) with a non-executive president as head of state. Fulfilling many of the same duties that the King and members of the royal family undertake, but without all the kowtowing, pomp and ceremony – and expense. Just like in the Irish Republic or Germany, for instance.

In any case, I’ve written about the state of the nation and what needs to change in an earlier post. Her Majesty’s death should give us the space for reflection on how we want this nation to develop.


 

A day out in York . . .

York is an historic town, founded by the Romans in AD 71 and known as Eboracum. It was one of the most important settlements in Roman Britannia, sitting at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, and navigable inland from the North Sea.

Just over 80 miles south of our home in North Tyneside, we enjoyed an excursion to York last week.

From the magnificent York Minster (completed after several centuries in 1472) to the city walls dating mainly to the 13th century (but built on earlier earth banks), and the bustling and narrow streets of the medieval town around Shambles, York has a lot to offer any tourist. And even in the middle of September after children had begun the school year, the city center was extremely busy with visitors from the four corners of the world (if the languages I heard spoken were anything to go by).

While we appreciated the Minster from outside, walked through Shambles, and enjoyed a section of the city walls circuit west of the River Ouse (from Baile Hill, past Micklegate Bar, and back to the Ouse) we had traveled to York to visit the Treasurer’s House (a National Trust property behind the Minster), and Clifford’s Tower (an English Heritage property near the confluence of the two rivers, with a magnificent 360º view over the city). More images of York can be viewed here.

The journey south, on just the A19 the whole way, took around 90 minutes. Just outside York we parked at Rawcliffe Bar Park and Ride on the northwest of the city before 10:30, and took the bus into Museum Street close-by the Minster, and a 15 minute journey costing just £1.20 return (with our concessionary travel cards).


The Treasurer’s House sits just behind York Minster (off Minster Yard) and was the residence of its Treasurer (a position established in 1091) until 1547 when it was abolished during the Reformation.

The Grade 1 listed house we see today, from the early 17th century, was previously much larger comprising several additional wings that are now part of Grays Court hotel. Roman remains have been found beneath the house.

In the fading years of the 19th century, Treasurer’s House was bought by eccentric industrialist Frank Green (born 1861, right), who filled it with exquisite paintings, ceramics, and furniture. So none of the interior is contemporary to the house per se, rather a reflection of Green’s eclectic collecting passion.

The family wealth was founded by Green’s grandfather Edward, who established the an engineering firm in Wakefield in 1821. Edward Green patented (in 1845) a design—Green’s Economizer—to increase the steam-raising efficiency of boilers. The company is still in operation today.

Frank’s father, Sir Edward Green was Conservative MP for Wakefield from 1895 to 1892. He married Mary Lycett, introducing that surname into the family although it was not used by Frank but by his elder brother Edward who became the second baronet. Edward Lycett Green, 2nd Baronet took no interest in the engineering company.

L-R: Edward Green (grandfather), Sir Edward Green, and Mary Lycett (parents)

Frank Green never married. He was an irascible individual, obsessed by cleanliness and hygiene. Even down to the placement of furniture in the house, marking precisely where each piece should be replaced if it was ever moved for cleaning. And woe-betide any of staff who didn’t follow his instructions – to the letter! He even sent his laundry each week to London for cleaning. Nevertheless, he was, by all accounts, a genial host of York society, celebrities, even royalty.

He extensively remodeled the house, and opened the central part to create a great hall – because he thought all ‘good’ houses needed a hall (and a gallery). The magnificent staircase to the first floor was a purchase from another house, and none of the paintings displayed there have any connection with the house whatsoever.

A full album of images from our visit can be found here.

By 1930, and his health declining (perhaps because of the damp conditions in York), Frank Green moved away from the Treasurer’s House and set up home in Somerset. He gave the Treasurer’s House and all its contents to the National Trust which has faithfully looked after the property ever since. Even making sure that the furniture is always replaced on the marks on the floor! He is also reputed to have left one of his Rolls Royce limousines to his chauffeur who set up a taxi business. In Somerset, Green was instrumental in saving the Exmoor pony breed during World War II.


Clifford’s Tower stands atop a very steep mound – the motte, and until recently visitors could only enter and gaze up at the blank walls. That is until English Heritage constructed a framework inside that takes visitors on to the roof and affording those panoramic views over the city.

There are more photos here.

This Norman tower was built on the orders of William I (the Conqueror) in 1068, and rebuilt a year later after it was destroyed by Vikings.

York or Jórvík had been the Scandinavian capital in northern England. In 1190 the Jews of York died in a pogrom inside the tower.

By the 18th century the tower was being used as a gaol and continued as such until the 1890s. Across the River Ouse the remains of York’s second castle can be seen at Baille Hill alongside the city walls.


By the time we had walked that section of the wall, it must have been 15:30 and catching the bus in Museum Street back to Rawcliffe Bar we were on the road home by 16:00, arriving around 17:20. York is a fascinating city and has lots to offer, and we’ll have to make plans to return again.

 

 

“The august but elderly testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent . . .”

King Charles III signs the document to uphold the Protestant faith in Scotland, at yesterday’s Accession Council.

Yesterday, at a Accession Council in St James Palace—broadcast live on television for the first time—Charles III was proclaimed King.

He made a personal declaration about the death of the Queen and an oath to preserve the Church of Scotland—because in Scotland there is a division of powers between church and state.

For anyone interested in ancestry, genealogy, and genetics a simple question remains: Is Charles the true king? And if not, who should be?


Back in 2004, a Channel 4 documentary presented an alternative theory of succession of the British crown from George, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449-1478), younger brother of King Edward IV (1442-1483), and elder brother to Richard III (1452-1485). The claim was based on the supposed illegitimacy of Kind Edward.

The ‘rightful heir’ should have been Michael Edward Abney-Hastings, 14th Earl of Loudon, a British-Australian farmer, now succeeded by his son the 15th earl. The documentary was a bit of fun, and certainly not taken seriously by Abney-Hastings. However, besides this Plantagenet ‘claim’, there are other alternative successions to the crown.


Charles III has an impressive family tree that can be traced back to the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and even earlier it seems. Of course the line of descent through each monarch was not always direct, father to son or daughter. Some sovereigns never had children.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The key person in that family tree that links the monarch today with the Plantagenets and earlier is Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise. Her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, and daughter of Henry VII. Henry VII had married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thereby linking the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties.

Mary’s son became James VI and I (1566-1625). As we enter a second Carolean Age it’s interesting to note that Charles III is not a direct descendant of Charles I or Charles II, the son and grandson of James.

Charles II (1630-1685) had several bastard sons (who were ennobled) but no legitimate children. However, if and when William, Prince of Wales (and now heir to the British crown) becomes King, there will be a ancestral link back to Charles II through his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

After Charles II’s younger brother James II (1633-1701) was deposed in 1688, and to exclude his Catholic heirs from throne, the crown was offered to James’ Protestant elder daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William III. They had no children, and in 1702, the crown passed to Mary’s younger sister Anne, who reigned until 1714. It was during Anne’s reign that the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union in 1707.

Anne had 17 pregnancies, but only five live births. None of her children survived to adulthood. So, on her death in 1714, Parliament had a dilemma. It would not support the stronger claim of the hated Catholic Stuarts to the throne, instead turning to George, Elector of Hanover, and great grandson of James VI and I through his second child and eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. George became George I of Great Britain, thus founding the Hanoverian dynasty that lasted until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.


George I was succeeded in 1727 by his son George II, and in 1760 by his great-grandson George III, who reigned until 1820. George III had fifteen children, some of whom never married, or never had legitimate children. The notorious eldest son became George IV in 1820, and the third son William IV in 1830.

Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn

George IV had one daughter who died in childbirth. William IV had a bevy of illegitimate children, none of whom could succeed to the crown.

Once again, the country was faced with a dilemma. The next in line, so to speak, was Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820) fifth child and fourth son of George III. He married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861) and they had one child—a daughter—born in 1819 who succeeded to the crown in 1837 (on the death of her uncle William IV) as Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Edward, Duke of Kent died less than a year after Victoria’s birth.

But was he Victoria’s father? And this is where the story becomes really interesting, and genetics comes into play.

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had nine children, several of whom married into the royal houses of Europe.

Albert, Victoria and their nine children in 1857.

And they took with them a deadly genetic disorder: haemophilia, the ‘bleeding disease’. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the haemophilia gene, but before her there was (apparently) no record of the disorder among the Hanoverians or the families they united with through marriage.

Victoria and Albert’s eighth child and third son, Leopold, Duke of Albany was a haemophiliac. He married Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont; they had a non-haemophiliac boy and a carrier girl. The tragedy of the gene in the Russian Imperial Family is well known.

So where did the haemophilia mutation arise? How had Victoria become a carrier? The gene is carried on the X chromosome. Here’s a simple diagram to explain the genetics.

Well, there are two answers. Either, as distinguished geneticist Professor Steve Jones FRS has so eloquently put it (writing in The Telegraph in May 2011), a mutation of the blood-clotting disease haemophilia . . . originated in the elderly and august testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent; or Edward was not Victoria’s father. If so, then Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a haemophiliac lover, and Victoria was their illegitimate offspring.

Supposition, of course, but still a genetic mystery. DNA tests could solve the mystery, but that would require a comparison of Queen Victoria’s DNA with that of a confirmed relative of George III (or close relative). Just as was achieved when the late Prince Philip’s DNA was used to confirm the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. And testing the DNA of a descendant of the sister of King Richard III to confirm the identity of the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester.

If a match was not found, what should have been the succession? Presumably the younger brother of the Duke of Kent, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and his descendants. However, these German descendants were deprived of their peerages and honors for having sided with Germany in the First World War.

Charles III was confirmed as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, fourteen other countries, and a host of territories. Should he be? It remains one of the intriguing ‘what ifs’ of British royal history.

Long Live the King!


You may be interested in this further reading:

 


 

The Queen is dead, long live the King!

Thus, the traditional proclamation as one monarch passes and another assumes the mantle of Head of State.

Official portrait of HM The Queen (on her 80th birthday) which was released on the announcement of her death on 8 September 2022.

It’s hard to imagine this country without Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the helm, so to speak. She reigned for more than 70 years, and could trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror in 1066 and beyond. I was only three when she became Queen on 6 February 1952 on the death of her beloved father, King George VI, and too young to remember. Her coronation 16 months later was a different matter, however, when there were nationwide celebrations. Even in Congleton (where I lived at the time) the local children got in on the act.

Children from Moody Street and Howey Lane in Congleton celebrate the Coronation on 2 June 1953.

Head of State of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty was also Head of State of 14 other countries¹, as well as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations (the ‘Commonwealth’) comprising 56 member states.

Fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom served during her reign, from Sir Winston Churchill (on her accession) to Liz Truss, appointed just three days ago at the kissing hands ceremony at Balmoral Castle where Her Majesty passed away yesterday at the age of 96.

In fact it was this and other photographs of Her Majesty welcoming Liz Truss, published later that day or the following day, that caught my attention in particular.

Her Majesty had been looking increasingly frail since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. At breakfast on Wednesday (the 8th) I remarked to Steph just how the Queen appeared to have gone down hill over recent weeks, perhaps her final chapter. Little did I realize.

Then, yesterday morning as I was scrolling through the news feed on my phone, I came across this news story about the Cambridges and their children, and I asked, on Twitter, why this was news at all.

Earlier this year, in the face of increasing political controversy, I wrote a blog post calling for major reform across government and society in this country. And although I’m neither republican or anti-monarchist, I expressed an opinion that the monarchy as such was past its sell-by date. Thus the last point in my tweet, little knowing that Her Majesty would pass away later that same day.

I did see Her Majesty in person on one occasion. In 1975, the University of Birmingham (originally the Mason Science College) celebrated its centenary. I and a group of fellow graduate students from Biological Sciences were among the crowds to welcome her to the Edgbaston campus. I was just a few feet away from her. I will always remember her warm smile.

When I was awarded my OBE in 2012 it was conferred by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. My good friend John Sheehy was also made an OBE but attended his investiture at Buckingham Palace two weeks earlier. We both thought it would have been nicer to have met Her Majesty. But, as John reminded me, Prince Charles would be King sooner or later.

Receiving my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales on 14 February 2012

So what sort of King will Charles become? Known for his strong and often outspoken (and sometimes misguided from a scientific point of view) opinions, he has vowed—so I have heard just now in a BBC commentary—not to carry these across to his new role as King. But I cannot help thinking that he won’t be able always to hold back. And if he chooses the right issues, that might not be a bad thing after all. Our politicians need holding to account. He has already indicated that he wants to see a smaller royal family (those who are working royals and therefore supported by the state), and that can’t be a bad thing.

It’s the end of an era, the start of a new one. Rest in peace Your Majesty. I wish King Charles well, and although my sentiments are to abolish the monarchy, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime or the King’s. Charles is just four days older than me.


¹ Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu.

Around Northumberland in 96 miles . . . and several thousand years

Steph and I have been Friends of the Alnwick Garden since April 2021, and being only 34 miles north of where we live in Newcastle, we try to visit the Garden every couple of months or so. It’s always nice to see how the Garden awakens in the Spring, flourishes during Summer, and closes down in the Autumn and Winter. And we always enjoy a welcome cup of Americano in the Pavilion Cafe.

However a stroll round the Garden usually takes no more than 90 minutes, so we often try to combine a visit there with somewhere else: on one of Northumberland’s glorious beaches, or deep in the county’s fabulous landscape.

And that’s just what we did last week, heading south from Alnwick to Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort, south of Rothbury and beyond.

This is the route we took, and I have marked the various interesting sites along the way that encompass various aspects of Northumberland’s history over the millennia. We only stopped at three of these (having visited the others many times before): Lordenshaws, Mote Hills motte and bailey castle at Elsdon, and Winter’s Gibbet high on the moorland beyond Elsdon.

So without further ado, let’s explore what can be seen along this route.

(1) The Alnwick Garden Planning for the Alnwick Garden began in 1997, with the first phase opening in 2001. It was the inspiration of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland. The land was donated by her husband, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and covers 42 acres. The garden is managed by a charitable trust. The garden also includes a display of some of the world’s most poisonous plants, and there is a narrative of how they have been used for various nefarious purposes.

(2) Alnwick Castle Home of the Percy family for over 700 years, and residence of the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family, the first parts of Alnwick Castle were erected in 1096.

Today, it’s open to the public, although we have never visited. The castle has been the filming location for several movies and television programs such as two of the Harry Potter films, and Downton Abbey.


Leaving the Alnwick Garden, we headed south towards Rothbury on the B6341, with views back towards the coast from the high, heather-covered moors, then descending towards Edlingham and magnificent views over the Upper Coquet valley all the way to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish border.

(3) Edlingham railway viaduct The viaduct (seen in the image below, beyond Edlingham Castle) on the Alnwick to Coldstream (Cornhill) Railway, was opened in 1897.

The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Freight services continued until 1965.

(4) Edlingham Castle and chapel The castle dates from the 14th century, although there was an earlier manor house on the site dating from about 1300. It was the home of Sir William Felton. The castle was abandoned as a residence in the mid-17th century.

Close by the castle is the 11th century chapel of St John the Baptist. Services are still held in the chapel.

Here is a link to a photo album.

(5) Cragside This must be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown, being the first house in the world powered by hydro-electricity. It was built by Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. What is particularly striking about Cragside, in addition to the magnificent house and its location, is the fact that the Armstrongs transformed an area of high Northumberland heath into a remarkable garden with trees a hundred feet tall or more, something that they would never have seen. We’ve visited there several times, even before we moved to the Northeast in 2020.

(6) Rothbury Proudly proclaimed as the ‘Capital of Coquetdale‘, Rothbury is a small, traditional market town, and a convenient staging post for tourists wishing to explore the surrounding Northumbrian landscape. It was the birthplace, in 1970, of radio and TV celebrity Alexander Armstrong (a distant cousin of the Cragside Armstrongs). In 2010, Rothbury was also the focus of a massive police manhunt.


From Rothbury, the route climbs towards the Simonside Hills. Lordenshaws hill fort is close by. On this section of the route—as from Alnwick to Rothbury—the damage to trees caused by Storm Arwen in November 2021 was very much in evidence.

(7) Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort and rock carvings This was our second visit to Lordenshaws. The Iron Age fort was built around 2000 years ago. There is also a Bronze Age burial mound. Close-by are the cup and ring marks etched in large boulders, and dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, 6000 to 3500 years ago. Also, the views from there over Coquetdale are impressive.

Heading west from Lordenshaws, we traveled below the Simonside ridge before reaching the meandering River Coquet. Then climbing once more before descending into the village of Elsdon, a small hamlet we had visited in 1998 and which, for us, held an interesting story.

(8) Tosson Tower The tower appears in the video above around 5 minutes mark.

It is a Pele tower built in the 14th or 15th century to protect against raiders in this border region with Scotland. It had walls 2 m thick. We didn’t stop as the tower is on private land.

I’d been trying to locate some of the villages we had visited in Northumberland in 1998. And as we entered Elsdon I realized this was one of them. On that holiday we never had a set route, just ending up each day finding bed and breakfast accommodation when and where we could. In Elsdon, we had an evening meal in the local Bird in Bush pub, before retiring for an early night. You can imagine our surprise the following morning when we came down to breakfast to discover that the landlady’s husband, who we’d met the evening before, had suffered a heart attack during the night. A doctor and ambulance had been called and he was in hospital, probably in Morpeth. We slept through the whole commotion!

(9) Mote Hills motte and bailey castle, Elsdon Parking close by the village hall (where the toilets are open to the public!), we walked the short distance up a lane to Mote Hills, the earthwork remains of a late 11th/early 12th century motte and bailey castle, and one of the finest in the country. It’s very impressive, from a distance and close up.

Click on the image below to enlarge.

We had come across the Umfraville family on one of our earlier trips, in Upper Coquetdale, at Harbottle castle. And like the castle at Elsdon, Harbottle was built on a steep mound, the motte. At Elsdon the slopes must be 60° at least, and after struggling up the sides (before we found a much easier exit) I could imagine just how easy the site would have been to defend against unwanted visitors.


Having spent around 30 minutes exploring the remains of this interesting castle, we left Elsdon, and headed southeast to the last stop on that day’s tour of Northumberland: Winter’s Gibbet.

(10) Winter’s Gibbet High on the moors southeast from Elsdon, and with a magnificent 360° panorama, stands a sinister reminder of a late 18th century crime.

Winter’s Gibbet stands out clearly against the skyline. It a replica of the one first erected in 1792.

It was here that the body of one William Winter was hung in chains and left to rot following his execution (in August 1792 in Newcastle, along with two women accomplices) for the murder a year earlier of an old woman, Margaret Crozier who lived in a nearby Pele tower. It was the custom back in the day to leave the body of a murderer in a place overlooking the scene of their horrific crime. Click on the image below to enlarge.

William Winter was the only criminal to be ‘displayed’ at this gibbet.

From Winter’s Gibbet we headed home, passing on the way Wallington Hall, the village of Kirkharle, and Belsay Hall.

(11) Wallington This is a late 18th century mansion in the Palladian style, that replaced a medieval Pele tower on the estate (the cellars of which are still visible in the basement). It passed to the Trevelyan family in 1777.

We have visited Wallington on several occasions, and enjoyed not only walks in the garden and parkland, but also understanding the links of the Trevelyan family with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the late 19th century. I have written about our visits in three blog posts.

Capability Brown

(12) Kirkharle Just west of the A696 and about two miles south of Wallington, lies the village of Kirkharle. Birthplace in 1715/16 of the famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who I wrote about after a visit to the National Trust’s Croome in Worcestershire. Brown received one of his earliest commissions from Earl Coventry to redesign the landscape at Croome and dig a large lake, the ‘Croome river’.

(13) Belsay Hall and castle This was one of the first English Heritage properties we visited even before we moved to the Northeast. It lies about 14 miles northwest of Newcastle.

Besides the Regency style house built in the early 19th century, the Belsay estate includes an impressive garden within the quarry from which stone for the house (and castle?) was taken, and the ruins of a 14th century castle, original home of the Middleton family.

There is access to the roof of the tower with good views over the estate and the Northumbrian hills to the north.


Northumberland has something for everyone. I think we’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of its history. And although we have traveled quite extensively already throughout the county, there is still plenty more to explore. After all, it is 1820 square miles (or 4716 km²).

 

 

 

 

Are you a picky eater?

I guess many of us have, at one time or another, taken one of the many quizzes (like the one below) that appear from time to time on social media platforms, testing whether we are picky or fussy eaters.

When you consider this list, it’s pretty anodyne. ‘Western’ even.

As for me, there’s just one item on this particular list—snails—that I would balk at completely. And it would have to be cooked oysters. I have no real issues with any of the others. There are a couple of others items. namely liver and raw fish, that I’m not overly fond of but would eat.

Yesterday evening, as Steph and I were enjoying a barbecue with chicken, sausage, burgers, salad, and grilled vegetables, I asked her whether there were foods she had refused to eat when growing up in the 1950s. I’m not sure how this came up in conversation. Maybe my memory was stirred by a piece of avocado that I was about to eat. More of that later.

I am fortunate that I have never faced hunger. Even when I was very young and my parents were raising four children, there was always food on the table.

One food item we both agreed that we ate quite frequently when young was liver, usually fried. I quite like fried liver but I haven’t tasted it for years. Chicken livers on a stick (anticuchos) were a particular favorite at a restaurant near Lima where we used to dine we lived in Peru. Delicious!

But how picky would you be if the list was rather more wide-ranging, not western diet biased? Very, I’m sure. Given that so many food preferences are cultural, I have to say there are many foods I could bring myself to try. Here are a few examples.

However hard my colleagues in the Philippines ‘encouraged’ me to try balut (a fertilized developing duck egg embryo), for me that was a step too far. Likewise on my first visit to China around 2005, I declined the ‘exotic’ dishes typical of Cantonese cuisine, becoming vegetarian for the duration of my visit to Guangzhou.

Let’s not even think about insects, especially large juicy grubs. Shivers.

As for very spicy food, I have my limits. So, much as I enjoy Mexican and Indian dishes, I much prefer a delicate blend of spices to the searing heat of chillies.

I’ve always enjoyed trying new fruits, although my favorites are apples and bananas, both of which I eat daily. Until I lived in the Philippines I’d never enjoyed mangoes. But the varieties widely available there are succulent and sweet. Fruits to die for!

But there is one fruit that I have tasted just the once. And once was almost one time too many. The durian! If you can get past the smell the flesh doesn’t actually taste too bad, but is rather rich. However, it was the after-effects. It certainly was the fruit that kept on giving, as I wrote in 2014.

So, provided with a different picky food list, I’m certain my score would be very high indeed.

I mentioned avocado earlier in this narrative. Until I moved to Lima, Peru in January 1973, I’d never tasted this particular food item. And my initial experience put me off it for decades to come. It wasn’t the avocado itself, but the chicken salad (or similar) stuffing of palta rellena that made me violently sick. Steph suffered exactly the same experience when she arrived in Lima some months later on, and for many, many years afterwards, neither of us could face tackling an avocado. However both of us are now enthusiastic avocado aficionados.

I can’t say I was particularly impressed when faced with ceviche for the first time, raw fish marinated in lime juice. It’s a very typical Peruvian dish. However, washed down with a pisco sour or two, what a delight it is.

So, if you ever come across one of those quizzes, try and put it in context, and think about all the cultural differences we experience with regard to what foods we consume – and enjoy.


 

Beach-combing along the Durham coast

When we lived in Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire), we were about as far from the coast as it’s possible to be in England (if you discount stretches of the Severn Estuary).

In fact, the small community of Meriden (yellow icon on the map) near Coventry (just 19 miles north east of Bromsgrove) claimed for hundreds of years, to be the geographical center of England. However, when I did a search online, I came across this Ordnance Survey website. The center of England and Wales is, apparently, on a farm just outside Sutton Coldfield (green icon), about the same distance away from Bromsgrove as Meriden. Almost two years ago, Steph and I left Bromsgrove and moved to the eastern outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, and just over 5 miles (or 10 minutes) from the North Sea coast.

We love it up here in the northeast, and take every opportunity of exploring Northumberland and its glorious coastline. Northumberland boasts some of the best beaches in the country, although the sea is much too cold for the likes of me to even dip my toes.

We’ve spent less time south of the River Tyne, but have enjoyed the various visits we have made to the Magnesian limestone cliffs at Whitburn, Marsden Beach, and Souter lighthouse.

However, earlier in the week we headed a little further south, beyond Sunderland, to explore one of the beaches near Seaham on the Durham Heritage Coast (DHC).

The DHC  is a 20 mile stretch of coast from Sunderland south to Hartlepool having emerged from its industrial past to an area worthy of Heritage Coast status with one of the finest coastlines in England. Click on the map to enlarge. Here is a pamphlet.

Viewing the coast today it’s hard to believe that for decades it was heavily polluted, and almost all wildlife was wiped out. All along the coast there were coal mines, and the waste from the collieries was simply dumped over the cliffs (a continuation of the Magnesian limestone found north of the River Wear).

We headed for Nose’s Point and Blast Beach less than a mile south of Seaham harbor. This was the site of the former Dawdon Colliery. It was one of the most efficient and productive pits in the Durham coalfield. Indeed one of the most productive in the country. It finally closed in 1991.

Dawdon Colliery above Nose’s Point and Blast Beach, in 1934.

Blast Beach was once so polluted that it was used as a location for the opening sequences of the 1992 movie Alien 3. It looks very different today.

Blast Beach from Nose’s Point.

Nose’s Point from Blast Beach.

So what is its history? These sign boards tell something of the industrial story of the coast. Click on the image to enlarge.

The wildlife has returned, the sea water is clean, and this has been repeated all along the DHC.

And as much as we just enjoy being out and about, our visit to Blast Beach had a purpose. We came looking for ‘treasure’ – sea treasure. Sea glass, in fact. The beaches north and south of Seaham are world famous for the quantity and variety of sea glass that is washed up with almost every tide.

The northeast is famous for its glass-making industry, and has a long and illustrious history. Today the National Glass Centre is located in Sunderland.

The Londonderry Bottleworks were opened in 1853 on a site close to Seaham harbor, and remained in production until 1921. Vast quantities of waste glass were dumped in the sea close to the beach, and later on in deeper water. Over the decades this glass tumbled with the tides, becoming smooth pieces, almost jewel-like.

Let Paula Newman from Peblsrock in Seaham explain more about sea glass and its origin.

As it turned out, Blast Beach was not the best location to find sea glass, but wherever you are beach-combing for sea glass, it’s not so easy to spot the small fragments of glass among the shingle.

Here’s our small haul for about 90 minutes of combing as we strolled along the beach.

Eventually we reached Frenchman’s Cove towards the southern end of the beach, and made our way up the steep steps to the coastal path that encompasses the whole of the DHC.

Back at the car park, we had a picnic lunch overlooking the North Sea, and then marveled at the Dawdon fossil.

Hunting for sea glass is very compelling; it could almost become obsessive. So I’m sure that it won’t be too long before we find ourselves once again strolling along one of Seaham’s beaches, backs bent, peering at the shingle and hoping that the one piece of glass we hoped for was there at our feet.


 

One of the most beautiful places I have visited . . .

Recently, I was asked to choose one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Well beauty lies, as the saying goes, in the eyes of the beholder. What one person finds appealing leaves another cold.

However, to choose just one place, that really is a challenge. But I’m up for it!

I have visited more than 60 countries, and whenever possible, took a day or so from my busy schedules (mainly at weekends) for some sightseeing. So there are many candidates to choose from.

I lived abroad for almost 28 years, in Peru and Costa Rica between 1973 and 1981, and in the Philippines from 1991 to 2010. Our elder daughter lives in the USA (in Minnesota) and Steph and I have visited each year since 2010 and traveled extensively across that vast country. Until Covid put paid to our plans, that is.

In the Americas, I could choose Crater Lake in Oregon, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Arizona, or the giant redwoods of northern California. Not to mention the many spectacular rivers we have crossed or the mountains like the Tetons and Appalachians we have traveled along.

In Central America, we visited the Aztec temples north of Mexico City, the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. In Peru, there’s the awe-inspiring Machu Pichu, and well as the beauty of the Andes mountains.

In Europe, I fulfilled a life-long ambition to see the Matterhorn, and almost anywhere you travel in Switzerland is chocolate box beauty.

My travels in Africa have taken me to Ethiopia and Kenya in the east, and the magnificent Rift Valley, and to regularly to Nigeria and Ivory Coast in the west.

Water buffalo in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya

Traveling around Asia, I spent many happy times in Laos, and on one occasion Steph and I managed to snatch a weekend away in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, and take a trip up the Mekong River. In Cambodia, we’ll never forget our visit to Angkor Wat, while the beauty of the Bali landscape and beaches is firmly embedded in my mind. In the Philippines, we visited the coast at Anilao as frequently as possible, about nine visits a year, where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive over some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. And again, there’s the wonder of the rice terraces in the mountains.

Heading further south, our travels have taken us on several occasions to Australia and one memorable road trip of 1000 miles from Sydney to Melbourne taking in the spectacular coastline.

Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, Australia

And not to miss out on locations closer to home such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, or the landscapes and beaches along the Northumberland coast where we now live.

But how can I distill all these experiences down to just a single choice? It’s very hard indeed. But in doing so, and I will reveal my choice shortly, I have also taken into consideration not only its intrinsic beauty, but the location, history, and emotions it stirred. And when I combine all these elements, I have chosen the one place (not yet mentioned) I would return to tomorrow, given half the chance.

And where is this particular jewel? Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced Canyon de Shay), in northeast Arizona. Just zoom out on the map below to reveal its location.

It’s certainly not on the same scale as its ‘near’ neighbor the Grand Canyon. But there’s something about Canyon de Chelly that really caught my imagination. And Steph and I have the good fortune to visit there in May 2011.

So how did I come to learn about Canyon de Chelly? It’s not a name that rolls off the tongue.

Well, in early 2011 I came across a book in the public library in Bromsgrove (in Worcestershire where I used to live) about US army officer, Indian fighter, explorer and adventurer, Colonel Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson (1809-1868). Kit Carson was a western ‘hero’ of my boyhood, a figure in popular western culture and myth.

In 1863, he led an expedition into Canyon de Chelly to vanquish the resident Navajo tribe, killing more than 20 persons, stealing 200 or more sheep, destroying their homes (known as hogans) and their precious peach orchards. Not something to be proud of or remembered for as a hero. Anyway, this biography of Carson had me intrigued, and as I began to plan our road trip to the American Southwest for May, I decided to see if it would be possible to include Canyon de Chelly in the itinerary. It fitted in just right.

Landing in Phoenix, we headed north through Sedona Valley to Flagstaff, and on to the Grand Canyon the next day via Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. After a couple of nights at the Grand Canyon, we headed east to Chinle (the nearest town to Canyon de Chelly) via Monument Valley.


The Canyon de Chelly National Monument actually comprises three interconnected canyons: Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. It was designated a national monument in 1931. It’s the ancestral home of the Navajo, but throughout there are the relics of Ancestral Pueblans or Anasazi built into the cliff faces.

Access to the floor of the canyon is limited, with just one trail—to the White House—open to the public (although currently closed due to safety and ‘law enforcement’ issues). Otherwise, visitors must take one of the guided tours to travel along the canyons.

However, there are rim drives on the north and south sides of the canyon, with several overlooks providing spectacular (awe-inspiring even) views. Steph and I set out early from our motel, before the day became too hot, to explore as much as possible along both rim drives.

The approach to Canyon de Chelly from Chinle is not particularly impressive. In the canyon bottom there are groves are cottonwoods springing up beside the creeks that run through.

But it’s not until you begin to climb further along the rim drives that the true nature of Canyon de Chelly reveals itself, with sheer sandstone cliffs rising from the canyon floor.

In places these cliffs are 700 feet or more high.

Among the impressive Ancient Pueblan ruins are Mummy Cave and Antelope House (seen from the north rim drive), and the White House from the south.

Mummy Cave

Antelope House

White House

There is also a cave, fairly close to the rim on the north side known as Massacre Cave where, in 1825, the Navajo were slaughtered by invading Spanish troops.

Massacre Cave

The drive along the south rim eventually brings you to the Spider Rock overlook. Spider Rock is a free-standing sandstone pillar, over 700 feet tall, named after Spider Woman, a prominent character in Navajo lore.

Spider Rock, with the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border on the horizon.

There were few people visiting at the same time as us, and it felt as though we had the whole canyon to ourselves. While we didn’t descend to the canyon floor, the overlook points along both the north and south rim drives provide excellent visual access to the canyon from above.

Spider Rock overlook

Now I’d like to return, taking several days to really explore, understand better the Navajo relationship with Canyon de Chelly, how they came to occupy it, and how their agriculture has evolved over the centuries. In fact, I’d like to understand more about the evolution of human societies in the American southwest.

The grave of Col. ‘Kit’ Carson in Taos cemetery, New Mexico.

Canyon de Chelly has featured in at least 26 movies or TV specials, among the most notable being The Lone Ranger (2013) with Johnny Depp, Wild Wild West (1999) with Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Kline, Mackenna’s Gold (1969) with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif, How The West Was Won (1962) with a host of ‘Western’ stars, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston.

Heading east from Arizona, we found ourselves in Taos in northern New Mexico where I visited the grave of Kit Carson.

If you ever find yourself on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, make a beeline for Canyon de Chelly. You won’t regret it.

Mind my Ps and Qs? More like Ws and Cs for me.

I’ve never been one for puzzles of any sort. Crosswords, Sudoku, Rubik’s Cube, even jigsaws. They all leave me cold. Not for me either (in the main) the many online challenges and quizzes that can absorb so much of one’s time.

Until recently, that is.

Many months ago, I noticed that a group of my Twitter friends (all ex-University of Birmingham in one capacity or another) were attempting the daily word puzzle Wordle. Despite their encouragement for me to join in, I replied—rather smugly—that I didn’t waste my time on such pastimes.

Little did I realize that once I had tried to solve the daily word riddle, I would be hooked. Not quite obsessive I hasten to add, but I’m definitely now a devotee of this daily brain teaser.

And not only that, but I found the country quiz Worldle, and that’s become almost as compulsive.


Devised by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle as far back as 2013, Wordle went online publicly in October 2021 becoming an instant craze (perhaps cooled somewhat since then). In January 2022, Wordle was purchased (for a reported seven figure sum) by The New York Times, and is published free online daily. There was a concern that once the NYT acquired the app it would be placed behind a paywall. That hasn’t happened yet.

Anyway, the aim of the game is to guess a five letter word, over six attempts. Correct letters (in the correct position) appear green. Correct letters, but in the wrong position are yellow.

Everyone has their own approach, some having a few ‘starter’ words with which to attack the problem. I take a more haphazard approach, taking the first five letter word that comes into my head, and working from there. The most frustrating challenges are those where there could be several solutions. Just like today’s puzzle (below). Or words that are common in American English but not British English, as has been the case from time to time recently.

So, how have I done? This is my score today (24 July 2022). I’ve never hit on the correct word at the first attempt, and there are few successful second or third guesses. Mostly fourth and fifth guesses. As well as sixteen complete failures.

However, when it comes to Worldle, I’m in much safer territory. Must be all those hours spent, as a child, pouring over maps and wondering which countries I might visit when I grew up. Just like Wordle, you have six attempts to recognize the outline of a country.

Some outlines are a complete mystery since they are never to scale. So a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for instance can appear as large as large country.

Anyway, my success rate on Worldle is quite good, with almost half on the first correct on the first attempt.

My morning routine is a cup of tea at 06:00 listening to Today on BBC Radio 4 for 15 minutes, then attempting both Wordle and Worldle over the next fifteen. Suits me, and gets my brain working ready for the day ahead.

But I’ve not been tempted to move on to spin-offs like Dordle, Sexaginta Quattuordle, or Nerdle. Those would be a step too far.


 

Legacy of an empire

Not the British Empire. The Roman one!

Lasting for over 1000 years, from the time of the first Emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Octavius, 63 BC – AD 14) in 27 BC, its physical legacy can be seen all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Julius Caesar

Eventually Britain (Britannia) came under the sway of the Romans. In 55 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) led an expeditionary force to this island, returning the following year. But that did not lead to conquest, taking almost another 100 years to complete, under the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, 10 BC – AD 54) in AD 43.

What is remarkable in many ways, is that the Roman occupation of Britannia lasted less than 400 years. By AD 410 they had upped sticks and departed.

Less than 60 years after the conquest of Britannia, the Romans built a road network of almost 8000 miles, and in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, AD 76-138) ordered the construction of a wall across the narrowest part of northern England, from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea coast in the east.

Twenty years later, under the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus, AD 86-161), the Antonine Wall was constructed from turf on a stone foundation, coast to coast, about 40 miles north from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was abandoned less than 10 years later.

Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is surely one of the most conspicuous of all Roman remains, anywhere. It still stands proudly, although somewhat diminished, where once it guarded the most northwestern frontier of the empire against barbarians to the north. It was a remarkable achievement, and even today inspires wonder at the effort it took to construct the Wall over the wildest of landscapes.

And we can also wonder about the lives of the men (and women) who were stationed along the Wall and where they came from. It’s not just the physical legacy of the Wall (and other settlements around the country) but also the genetic legacy that the Romans left behind, in their offspring from relationships with local women, legitimate or otherwise. Romans didn’t just come from Rome, but from all corners of the empire even from the easternmost provinces of the Middle East and beyond. The ‘Roman’ genetic signature has obviously been diluted by successive waves of invasion into these islands.

The Romans have left a huge legacy for us all to wonder at. They were road builders par excellence. Roads were needed as the Romans spread out across the country, to maintain communications between towns and military garrisons, to allow troops to travel more effectively and rapidly, and to facilitate commerce. And their roads have endured even today, and some of England’s principal arteries follow the routes of former Roman roads, and are known, in part, by the same names.

I recently came across this stylized map (in the format of the iconic map of the London Underground created by Harry Beck) of the Roman road network that connected towns and cities, and military installations all over.

The author of the map, Sasha Trubetskoy, has also produced a second version with modern place names.

Even today, Roman roads are still being uncovered. There was a report recently in The Guardian of a road in west Wales that indicated the Romans had ventured deeper into Wales than previously appreciated.

As far as I can recall, the only Roman road I have walked was the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors near Goathland. The exposed part is only about a mile long. The first time was in 1968 when I was at university, and then about 20 years later with my wife Steph and daughters Hannah and Philippa.

We now live in North Tyneside, just 3 miles north as the crow flies from Segedunum, the fort at the the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. And with Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman remains so close, we have made quite a number of forays into the Northumberland countryside to explore them.

It’s quite remarkable just how much of Hadrian’s Wall remains, after 2000 years, despite much of the stone having been removed.

Hadrian’s Wall at Sycamore Gap.

The Wall was much higher than remains today, and the Mileposts and Turrets (or observation towers) have been reduced to shells of their former imposing structures.

Milepost 39 near Sycamore Gap.

However, further west beyond Birdoswald, where the Wall was built from turf, the signature of the Wall can still be seen as depressions in the landscape.

Even at forts like Chesters, Housesteads or Birdoswald, Corbridge Roman Town or Vindolanda in Northumberland, extensive as they are, it’s really just the foundations that have survived.

This is a panorama across Corbridge Roman Town.

At Wroxeter, in Shropshire, one part of a basilica wall still stands, and at Portchester the impressive outer curtain wall of the original Roman fort is still intact, 20 feet or more tall. Typical Roman concrete, just like I have seen in Rome itself.

The surviving 7 m high basilica wall (‘Old Work’) at Wroxeter, the largest free-standing wall in England.

The Roman walls of Portschester Castle.

And then there are the civil remains like Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester in West Sussex (that I haven’t visited) and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire that we have.

And Roman remains are still being uncovered all over England. Not only hoards of coins, but also a beautiful mosaic that was discovered in a farmer’s field in eastern England a couple of years ago, with images of Homer’s Iliad, a unique find. Roman archaeology is thriving.

Then there are all the various artefacts, from jewelry to household items, monuments and statues that were left behind that allow us to paint a detailed picture of life in Roman Britain. Here are some kept in the museums at Corbridge Roman Town and Chesters Roman Fort.

And, in particular, the Vindolanda Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in this country, have provided a commentary of the lives of soldiers and their families.

The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets

These are some of the most important relics from the period of Roman occupation. And these, and other sites and remains from that time will keep archaeologists busy for years to come.


 

An Englishman’s home is his castle . . .

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, there was—for centuries afterwards—an obsession almost for building castles as magnates secured their rule throughout the land, led of course from the top, by the monarch.

Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire

Many of these castles still stand today, mostly as ruins. Some in a more advanced state of dereliction than others. During the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, many castles were deliberately demolished or ‘slighted‘. But even in their diminished states, these castles still remind us of the power struggles that dominated our landscape for centuries.

As keen English Heritage and National Trust members, Steph and I have visited quite a number of the castles in their care. And since we moved north to Newcastle 21 months ago, we have enjoyed exploring the Northumbrian landscape and the numerous castles (and Roman remains) that can be found there.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to map all the fortifications—ancient hill forts, Roman forts, castles, and fortified manor houses—that we have visited over the past decade. Just click on each of the icons to view an image and links to different websites or posts in this blog.

I have color-coded the icons thus:

  • Black: pre-historic and pre-Roman (pre-AD 43)
  • Green: Roman (43 – 410)
  • Yellow: Norman (1066 – 1154)
  • Red: early and late Plantagenet (1154 – 1399; including one castle in Scotland and another in Northern Ireland)
  • Blue: Lancastrian (1399 – 1461)
  • Purple: Tudor (1485 – 1603)
  • Brown: Stuart (1603 – 1714 – with Interregnum)
  • Grey: Hanoverian (1714 – 1901)

 

A changing religious landscape . . .

The vandalism began in 1536. The landscape changed. Henry VIII threw his toys out of the pram, and ordered his officials to close down religious houses all over England, in what has become known as The Dissolution of the Monasteries. What had been thriving communities, with some of the most magnificent architecture that this country has ever produced, were sold off, some converted where possible into residences, or simply destroyed.

And much of Henry’s despotic legacy still stands in ruins in many parts of England 500 years later.

Over the past 12 years, we have (as members of the National Trust and English Heritage) visited many of the ruins of once proud, the grand (like Fountains, Rievaulx, and Whitby in North Yorkshire) and not-so-grand monasteries, priories, abbeys, and the like, as well as some small churches and chapels (Langley in Shropshire, St Mary’s at Kempley in Gloucestershire with its magnificent frescoes, or the ancient church of St Clement’s on the southern tip of Harris in the Outer Hebrides) that did survive and continue to serve their communities, some dating back to pre-Norman Saxon times.

Some we made a bee-line for; others we came across quite by chance. All have been inspirational in one way or another, although I should add that I hold no religious beliefs. I am inspired nevertheless by these buildings and how they must have dominated the surrounding landscape during their brief ‘lives’. Many were built in the couple of centuries after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. And I am inspired by the skills of the masons and other craftsmen who created these magnificent buildings.

Just click on any of the icons on the map below to view links to my stories or to photo albums. I’ve also included links to National Trust or English Heritage web pages where available. To open the map in full screen mode in a new tab, click on square icon in the top right hand corner.

One thing you can say, however, is that these religious orders certainly knew where to found their abbeys, monasteries, or priories. Just a few days ago, Steph and I made the short (<18 mile) journey south into County Durham to visit Finchale Priory that stands beside a bend in the River Wear. What a peaceful setting, and you can easily image just how that tranquility made for easy religious contemplation. Something of that spirituality lingers. Quite magic!


 

No fog on the Tyne . . .

The River Tyne is actually two rivers, North and South, until they converge at Warden Rock, a couple of miles west of Hexham in Northumberland in the northeast of England. From there, the river flows east, eventually meeting the North Sea at Tynemouth, east of Newcastle upon Tyne. The river is tidal upstream as far as Wylam, just under 24 miles (38 km) from Tynemouth.

The river is the southern boundary of Newcastle, and the adjoining authority of North Tyneside. On the south of the river lie Gateshead and South Tyneside. It’s a bit like the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul in Minnesota, where our elder daughter Hannah and her family reside.

Tyneside was, for generations, a site of heavy industry, especially shipbuilding and coal mining. The lower reaches of the river are lined with the remains of once proud shipyards.

Large ships still enter the Port of Tyne. Most conspicuous, and always attracting large crowds of spectators are the cruise ships, even Cunarders like Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth.

And almost all the most coal wharves or staiths that brought coal by rail from mines north and south of the river for export worldwide have disappeared. The mines finally closed in the 1980s or earlier.

Only Dunston Staiths has survived, on the river’s south side, from where coal was exported from the North Durham Coalfield.

Families lived in the rows of crowded, smoky, dirty, and noisy slum terraced houses on both sides of the river, now mostly demolished to make way for new upmarket housing and commercial developments, even a marina.

What a renewal the area has enjoyed in recent decades, and a stroll along the Newcastle and Gateshead Quaysides is now a pleasure. But not one that we had experienced until just a few days ago although we had visited more than ten years ago.


After we moved to Newcastle on 30 September 2020, we spent the first five months in rented accommodation in the Shiremoor district of North Tyneside (towards the coast, east of Newcastle city center), but within a couple of weeks of arriving here had put in an offer on a new house in Backworth, moving in at the beginning of March 2021. Being in our early 70s, we’d made the move north from Worcestershire to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family.

Given the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns that came into play beginning March 2020, we still wonder we could sell our house that year and make the move north. We’ve now been here for 21 months, but only recently ventured into the city center for the first time. That was last week, when we attended a wine and cheese tasting at the Newcastle Wine School, that I wrote about immediately afterwards.

We have been ultra-cautious about mixing with crowds. Even though the government has signaled (falsely) that the pandemic is over and done with, there are already worrying signs of a new wave of infections. So whenever we are out and about, and likely to encounter crowds, Steph and I always wear masks. And so like sore thumbs we stick out in a crowd. Almost no-one else is masked these days. Having avoided infection so far (although I’m not pushing my luck by saying this, I hope) we don’t intend to expose ourselves to infection.

Last Wednesday dawned bright and sunny, and warm, quite a change from the unseasonable weather we’ve been experiencing recently. Just after 10 am we headed to our nearest Metro station at Northumberland Park (less than 10 minutes walk) for the 20 minute ride into the city center, to Monument station.

For most of the network, except for a short section from Jesmond to the city center at Central Station, the Metro is an overground service. But at Jesmond it dives under the city.

We emerged at Monument, beneath the hugely impressive pillar monument (135 feet or 41 m) to Charles, 2nd Early Grey, Prime Minister and father of the Great Reform Act of 1832, that stands at the head of Grainger Street and Grey Street.

Working our way south towards the river, through Grainger Market and Central Arcade, passing by the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, one of the Tyne’s iconic bridges came into view. Close by the city center there are seven bridges taking road and rail traffic over the river.

The Tyne Bridge, opened in October 1928 by King George V (and remarkably similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge since it was designed by the same architects), has almost come to symbolize Newcastle.

What is pretty special about this bridge (and other tall buildings in the vicinity) is that it is home to an inland colony of kittiwakes, a bird that normally nests on wind-swept coastal cliffs.

Along the Newcastle Quayside, about a quarter of mile east from the Tyne Bridge, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge is a foot and cycle bridge across the river connecting to (the) Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (a converted flour mill) and the Gateshead Sage (an international home for music and musical discovery, affectionately known as The Slug on the Tyne). We took the lift to Baltic’s 4th floor viewing platform to appreciate the impressive panorama of the river, its bridges, and Newcastle city center.

Opening to the public in 2001, the Millennium Bridge tilts to allow tall river traffic to pass through. It quickly became a must-see feature of the Quaysides.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the Newcastle Quayside across from (the) Baltic, and beside the rather impressive Blacksmith’s Needle, erected in 1997.

Then it was a slow walk back to the Metro at Central Station via the steep climb up Sandhill (a quayside used since Roman times) and Side (a medieval Street) and Dog Leap Stairs to exit beside Newcastle castle (which we must really return to visit soon).

On our return Metro journey, we were again the only passengers wearing masks. I still can’t fathom why so many folks, many elderly and potentially more vulnerable, are oblivious to the continuing Covid threat that could be reduced by the simple measure of wearing a mask.

We arrived home by 4 pm, tired but cheerful, ready for a welcome cuppa, having walked almost 5½ miles around the city (according to the pedometer app on my mobile).


Then from the coast they bore away, and reached the Holy Island’s bay (Sir Walter Scott).

Twice a day—without fail—the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, lying about 1 mile at its closest point off the north coast of Northumberland (map), is separated from the mainland as the tide sweeps in and covers a paved causeway.

The tide takes no prisoners, but safe crossing times are widely publicized. Not everyone heeds those warnings.


Steph and I last visited Holy Island (for the first and only time) in July 1998 when we were on home leave from the Philippines.

Earlier this week, we headed north to visit the two attractions on Holy Island: Lindisfarne Priory (run by English Heritage, which we looked at in 1998), and Lindisfarne Castle (managed by the National Trust). It’s quite unusual to have separate attractions from these two organizations at the same location (although they do co-manage several properties around the country).

My satnav indicated a journey of about 58 miles to the village, just 54 to the start of the causeway, and about an hour’s travel time. So we left home around 09:45 with the aim of arriving at the causeway just as the tide had receded. The causeway was already open when we arrived, ahead of the published safe crossing time of 10:55. There were already many vehicles in the car park.

There is only a small population of around 160 persons on the island. But that number is swelled to at least 650,000 or more visitors a year. Choosing a day for our visit, we were just waiting for the tide times and good weather to coincide. As it transpired, the day was not as bright as originally forecast, but that was no bad thing. Sometimes photography is much easier when the light is even; no harsh shadows. Even so, we only saw the sun as we were preparing to leave late in the afternoon.


The history of Lindisfarne Priory is illustrious and tragic. It was founded in the 7th century, on a promontory at the southwest corner of the island, and is one of the most important early Christian sites in the country. An Irish monk named Aidan became the bishop of Oswald’s Kingdom of Northumbria, and founded the Priory on Holy Island.

12th century wall paining of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.

One of the North’s greatest saints, Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral) joined the community in the 670s as monk-bishop.

However, in AD 793, Lindisfarne was raided for the first time by the Vikings, and over the next century the Priory declined under the threat of further raids, with as few as a couple of monks at one time.

After the Norman Conquest of England in AD 1066, Lindisfarne was re-founded and continued to thrive albeit at a low level. In the 13th century, after Edward I’s invasion of Scotland, border warfare flared, and the monks were obliged to fortify their Priory.

Then along came Henry VIII, and in 1537, the Priory was ordered to close. By the 18th century much of the priory lay in ruins, although the church was reported as more or less intact in 1780. Further collapses followed in the subsequent decades.

Click on the image (right) to open a site plan of the Priory on the English Heritage website.

I think one of the first impressions of the Priory is the rich red color of much of the stonework, of the West Front and what remains of the church. Particularly striking is the so-called ‘rainbow’ arch, the surviving rib of a crossing vault even though the tower above it has collapsed.

Here is a small selection of the many photos I took in the Priory; there are more in this album.

I shouldn’t finish this brief description of Lindisfarne Priory without mentioning the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most spectacular manuscripts to have survived from Anglo-Saxon England, and now residing in the British Library. There is a small exhibit about the gospels in the Church of St Mary the Virgin adjoining the ruins of the Priory.

From the grounds of the Priory there are stunning views towards Lindisfarne Castle that sits on a rocky crag at the southeast corner of the island.

And having seen all there was to see in the Priory, that’s where we were headed, a walk of a little over a mile from the village.

A fort or castle has stood here since Tudor times in the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Lindisfarne Priory was abandoned.

Stone from the Priory was used in the construction of the castle, which stands on a rocky outcrop known as Beblowe Crag. The walls are very thick, since several rooms were used as powder magazines.

Edward Hudson © Country Life Picture Library

In 1901, the castle was purchased by Edward Hudson (owner of Country Life magazine) who commissioned the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (who played a leading role in the design and building of New Delhi as the capital of India) to refurbish the castle in the Arts and Craft style. The castle was given to the National Trust in 1944 and opened to the public in the late 1960s.

Access to the castle is up a winding and quite steep slope, through a sturdy wooden door (with the remains of a portcullis) and up a flight of stairs to the entrance terrace. Just a few rooms are open to the public (the entrance hall, kitchen/parlor, the dining room and a couple of bedrooms. But there is also access to an upper terrace and I guess many visitors to the castle come for the stunning views from there over Holy Island, and north and south on the mainland coast with views of Bamburgh Castle also due south.

Here are a few of the photos I took on that visit. Others can be seen in this album.

To the north of the castle is a small walled garden, designed in 1911 by the influential garden designer and horticulturist, Gertrude Jeckyll (1843-1932).

Further east from the castle crag, there is a set of lime kilns built in the 1860s. Limestone was quarried on the north of the island; coal was brought in by sea.

It was a slow walk back to car park. Having enjoyed an interesting visit to Holy Island, it was time to head south for home. We left just after 15:30, well ahead of the closure of the causeway on the incoming tide.

We really must return, in the winter (weather permitting) when there are fewer visitors (it really was quite hectic throughout), but also when the geese return. Lindisfarne is an important wildlife area.


 

 

Mix and match . . . wine and cheese

I faced an event last night with some trepidation, anxiety even. Steph and I attended a wine and cheese tasting at the Newcastle Wine School (NWS) in the city center. Since moving up to the northeast 21 months ago, we have not traveled into the city center at all. In fact we’ve only been on the Tyne and Wear Metro twice even though we have concessionary travel passes upgraded (for a small fee) to Gold Cards for free travel.

Why? Covid, of course. And despite government protestations to the contrary, the pandemic ain’t over yet. So we remain cautious. We are triple-jabbed, but I’m sure that whatever immunity we acquired more than a year ago has already begun to wane. We do get out and about, mostly to places where we can walk in the fresh air, and have, until now, avoided mixing with crowds. Having said that, we do a weekly shop at the local supermarket, but always masked. Indeed, we wear masks wherever and whenever we expect to meet crowds.

So we were faced somewhat with a dilemma yesterday. How do you go to a wine and cheese tasting event masked up? Simple answer: you don’t.

The NWS is located at Blackfriars (a 13th century friary) on Friars Street, close to Central Station.

The event was a 2021 Christmas gift from our daughters and their families. So, despite any reservations we might have had, we hopped on the Metro close to home (just under 10 minutes) for the 20 minute and eleven stations ride into the city. The train was quite empty for the most part, until we reached Jesmond where the Metro truly becomes an underground operation. We saw only one other masked passenger.

From Central Station, it was less than a 10 minutes to the venue, located in meeting rooms above the Blackfriars restaurant. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and having arrived a little before the 7 pm start time, we whiled away the time in the restaurant bar. Just a glass of water for both of us.

There were just nine couples (full house) attending the wine and cheese, and we found a table over on one side where there was a little more space from the other attendees.

Waiting for everyone to arrive.

Our tutor for the evening was Alex Lomas who briefly explained the rudiments of tasting both wine and cheese, and how to successfully match them. But the bottom line: it all depends on personal preference.

And without further ado, we got down to enjoying what Alex had prepared for us.

We had seven wines to taste (retailing from £10.50 to £15.50), each matched with a different cheese. In front of each participant was a table mat, with six ‘numbered’ glasses. And a plate of cheese each.

There were two white wines (English and Alsace), a Rhône Tavel rosé (French), an Argentinian Malbec, two ports (white and tawny), and a dessert wine (Sauternes). Just click on the image on the right to read descriptions of the wines and the cheeses they had been matched with.

As we tasted the first white, from Cornwall of all places, I remarked to Steph that it tasted like summer in a glass: light and fruity, quite dry, similar to a Sauvignon Blanc. The other white was a ‘heavier’ Gewurztraminer from Alsace. More like autumn in a glass.

In between we’d tried a Tavel rosé, full of strawberries. Unlike many, we really enjoy rosé wines. Apparently all wines with the Tavel appellation are rosé.

The white port was an eye-opener for me, never having tasted this before. It was delicious, and matched with a wine Derby cheese. The other tawny port, a fuller, richer taste (lots of raisins and nuts) was matched with a mature Cheddar, full of crunchy salt crystals.

In between the ports, we enjoyed a soft Malbec from the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec has certainly taken off in popularity, and I have to say it’s one of my favorites. It was matched with a salty Gouda.

And finally, we all enjoyed a glass of sweet Sauternes or ‘noble’ botrytis wine, which had been matched with a Stilton. Quite unexpected but what a perfect combination.

Now, much as I prefer red wines overall, and the Malbec was delicious, the find for me at this tasting was the Graham’s Fine White Port. It was the Alsatian wine for Steph. And the cheese? Butler’s Handmade semi-hard Lincolnshire goat cheese.


All too soon, the allotted two hours had flown by, and we were making our way back to the Metro, catching a train around 9:30 pm.

Waiting for our train on Platform 2.

We were home by 10 pm. It was a really excellent evening, and by then, all anxiety had disappeared. Let’s hope there were no Covid carriers in the room last night.

Thank you to Hannah and Philippa, Michael and Andi – and the grandchildren. Celebrating Christmas in June.


 

A baker’s dozen . . . and a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!

A baker’s dozen¹. That’s how many National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) properties—spanning more than 4500 years of history—Steph and I visited recently during the course of a 10-day and 1337 mile holiday in the south of England. We stayed at a cottage in the New Forest, near the village of Beaulieu in Hampshire, almost 300 miles due south (as the crow flies) from where we live in North Tyneside, near Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, but almost 380 miles by road.

At the end of this piece I’ll also tell you all about that extraordinary close encounter that occurred on the last day.


We took two days each way, stopping off in Banbury, Oxfordshire on the way south, and Leek, in North Staffordshire (and my ‘home town’) returning north. And on each of these four days we visited one NT or EH property, and the other nine during six days in Hampshire. The round trip took in 19 non-metropolitan and metropolitan counties². And over the course of our break we managed to walk, on average, more than four miles each day.

Click on the map below to view the NT and EH icons for each of the 13 properties.

In this post I’ve made little attempt to provide a comprehensive description of each property. Rather I have selected a few highlights that caught my attention. But there are links to National Trust or English Heritage and other sites for each property where you can find much more detail. I have however included links to the photo albums I have created to display the many photos I took during this trip.


Nostell (photo album)
Looking for somewhere to visit, about half the distant to Banbury on the first day, I came across Nostell in the National Trust handbook. Located in West Yorkshire, a few miles south of the M62 (roughly between and south of Wakefield and Pontefract)  it was a convenient spot to break our journey after 110 miles on the road.

And we weren’t disappointed.

Dating from the 1730s, it was built, in Palladian style, for the Winn family who continued to live there until the property and contents were given to the National Trust in 1953.

Nostell is renowned for several treasures: an impressive doll’s house made for Susanna Winn and her sister in the 1730s; a fine collection of oil paintings including one by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and a copy of a Holbein of the family of Sir Thomas Moore; and perhaps one of the finest collections of furniture designed and made by Thomas Chippendale.

The Nostell collection also includes a wooden clock, made in 1717, by John Harrison, the clock-making genius who made the world’s first marine chronometer.

We enjoyed a walk through the park (which covers more than 300 acres), around the lake and in the walled garden which had a stunning display of tulips.

Leaving Nostell by mid-afternoon, we headed south on the M1, M42, and M40 motorways to arrive at our Premier Inn for the night in Banbury, a distance of 142 miles.


Basildon Park (photo album)
After a satisfying Premier Inn full English breakfast (highly recommended!), we set off south again, covering the 53 miles in under 1½ hours, and crossing the lovely landscape of the Berkshire Downs close to Basildon Park which overlooks the River Thames near Pangbourne, west of Reading.

Basildon Park has had an interesting history. Built in the Palladian style and decorated inside by Robert Adam, between 1776 and 1783, it served as a convalescent hospital during WW1, a barracks for a US airborne division in WW2, and fell into disrepair thereafter. It was rescued by Lord and Lady Iliffe, who gave the property and estate to the National Trust in 1978.

Among the most impressive are the dining room, the octagonal room, and the extraordinary shell room. Much of the house has a homely feel, and apparently the Iliffe’s stipulated that each room should be displayed as though the family were still living there.

We also enjoyed a walk around the park of almost 5 miles, and came across the most wonderful display of bluebells I think I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the disease ‘ash dieback‘ has taken hold quite seriously across the estate.

Then we headed back to the A34 and south to the New Forest, and our ‘home’ for the next six nights.


The Vyne (photo album)
This is located in the north of Hampshire, a round trip of almost 120 miles from our accommodation near Beaulieu.

The Vyne, on the edge of Sherborne St John, is a Tudor mansion built for William, 1st Baron Sandys who was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. At the time of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, the Sandys family found themselves on the wrong, Royalist, side of the conflict, and they lost The Vyne which passed to the Chute (or Chewt) family. And there it remained until bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956.

The classical portico on the northwest face was added in 1654 by John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones.

Among the treasures of The Vyne are the Palladian staircase, in a classical Greek style added in the mid-18th century, the Oak Gallery (the most significant surviving Tudor room in the house), the Soho tapestries woven in the first two decades of the 18th century (and which had just been returned to The Vyne after years of conservation work), and the chapel, unchanged from its original Catholic origins, i.e. pre-Reformation.

Henry VIII visited The Vyne on several occasions with his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. All around the house Catherine’s pomegranate motif can be seen on many carvings.

There are good walking opportunities at The Vyne taking in the gardens, lake, woodland, and wetlands. We covered just over 3½ miles.

Sandham Memorial Chapel (photo album)
That same afternoon we traveled west from The Vyne to the village of Burghclere, about 17 miles, to view the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Externally, the chapel, constructed in the 1920s, is nothing particularly special to look at. It was commissioned as a memorial to Mary Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham who died from an illness contracted in WW1.

Inside, however, is something quite altogether different. The walls are covered in a series of frescoes painted by the English artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, that were inspired by his own experiences during the war. The paintings took him six years to complete between 1926 and 1932.

These next images are courtesy of the National Trust.


South Harting (West Sussex), Harting Down, and Uppark House and Garden (photo album)
On the Saturday we made the first of two forays into West Sussex, aiming for the village of South Harting, just east of Petersfield. Why? Well, there are two National Trust properties close by: Harting Down on the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs National Park; and Uppark House and garden. But, more importantly, South Harting is where some of Steph’s Legg ancestors come from. Her grandfather, Sidney Legg, was born there in 1893, and her mother Myrtle spent some years as a child living with her grandmother in ‘Rose Cottage, which we searched for but were unable to find.

Sidney’s father, Frederick (Steph’s great-grandfather, born 1858) was a gamekeeper, and it’s highly likely that he was the gamekeeper, or one of a group, working on the Uppark estate.

We drove up on to Harting Down, affording great views over the surrounding countryside, down into South Harting, enjoying a picnic lunch then driving on to Uppark, just a couple of miles further on.

Uppark is a late 17th century perched on the top of the down with marvellous views to the coast and even as far as The Solent and the Isle of Wight to the west on a clear day.

Only the ground floor and basement are open to the public. The Featherstonehaugh family that purchased the house in 1747 still has interest in upper floor apartments. No photography is permitted in the ground floor rooms. There are some real treasures there. But all was nearly lost in 1989 when a fire ravaged the building and destroying the upper floors. Much on the ground floor was rescued, however, and is on display today.

The dairy was not open during our visit, but the game larder (presumably where Steph’s great-grandfather spent much time) is now the tea room, and is (like the dairy) connected to the main house by a tunnel.

Another exquisite dolls’ house is on display in the basement, an equal of the one we saw at Nostell a few days before. These two dolls’ houses are certainly among the priceless treasures of the National Trust.