One year already in the northeast . . .

There were days, a little over a year ago, when I thought that the sale of our house in Worcestershire would never be completed. It was a really stressful time, not made any easier by the solicitors ‘managing’ the house sale chain.

Even today I find it slightly surreal that we finally managed to sell our house and move 226 miles to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England (map), in the middle of a pandemic. But, at just after 12:30 on 30 September last year, that’s what we did, closing the front door of our home of 39 years for the final time.

Since we hadn’t found anywhere to buy in the Newcastle area—the pandemic restricting any travel plans we initially had to view properties for sale—we took a six month rental on a three bedroom house in the West Allotment-Shiremoor area of the city, about six miles northeast of the city center towards the North Sea coast, moving in on 1 October.

After taking a little over a week to settle in and familiarize ourselves with the local area and shopping, we began the search for a new home to buy, armed with a list of properties that I’d already lined up through online searches of estate agent (realtor) websites.

The search didn’t take long at all. On 14 October our offer on a two-year old house in the Backworth area (just under a mile from where we were renting) was accepted. However, the actual sale didn’t complete until the first week of February this year, and we finally moved in on 6 March.

Moving out of Cloverfield on 6 March

Moving into our new home


Having spent so little time searching for somewhere to live, we could then sit back and relax, so to speak, and explore the local North Tyneside area and Northumberland more widely.

We already knew something about the county. In 1998 during one of our home leaves, Steph and I spent a week traveling around Northumberland. Then, our younger daughter Philippa commenced her degree course at Durham University in October 2000, and afterwards she moved permanently to Newcastle. So for 20 years or more we’ve had good reason to come back to this neck of the woods.

Northumberland is one of the most beautiful counties in the country, located just south of the border with Scotland, with Cumbria (and the Lake District) to the west, and North Yorkshire (and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or AONB) to the south. There are so many interesting and beautiful locations to visit, and keep up our interest in properties owned and managed by the National Trust and English Heritage. And it’s a county with a long and illustrious history.

The Backworth area was, until 40 years ago, home to several collieries. After they were closed, the buildings demolished, rail tracks lifted, and spoil heaps leveled, the whole area has re-wilded, and the routes of the former rail links (the waggonways) to the coal depots or staithes on the River Tyne to the south have opened as footpaths and bridleways. There are miles and miles of waggonways. The plant and animal and bird life is incredible. I try to get out most days for a 2-3 mile walk along the waggonways.

Along the Cramlington Waggonway, West Allotment

Just a few miles to the east of Backworth is the North Sea coast. Northumberland boasts of some of the finest beaches in the country. Our closest is at Seaton Sluice, and many times since we moved north we have headed there for a bracing walk along the beach, weather permitting.

This interactive map (with links to other blog posts or photo albums) shows all the places we have visited over the past 12 months. And although it looks as though we have been quite busy, there’s just so much more to explore for the first time or renew our acquaintance from previous visits to Northumberland.


Being a new build house, there were only a few things that needed my attention inside and they were quickly dealt with over a few weeks. Outside was a different prospect, and a project that has kept us busy—well, kept Steph busy— ever since: the creation of a new garden. Both the front and rear of the house only had lawns. So Steph came up with a design and we called in a small company at the end of April to remove the surplus turf. Then we set about planting all the materials we’d brought from Bromsgrove and carefully nurtured over the winter.

Quite a difference for just five months. But Steph has lots more plans.

As we have for exploring Northumberland and the wider region in the coming months and years.


 

Life in a northern town . . .

Septimius Severus

There is only circumstantial evidence that the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 145-211, ruling from AD 193) ever visited Coria (that we know today as Corbridge Roman town) in Northumberland. However he arrived in Britannia in AD 208 to suppress uprisings in Caledonia (Scotland).

The route to the north lay along the Roman road Dere Street. And Dere Street passed through Coria. After campaigning for three years he took ill, withdrew to Eboracum (York), and died there in 211.

Coria claims to be the most northerly town in the Roman Empire, founded almost 2000 years ago. I can’t vouch for that, but it was certainly the most northerly Roman town in Britannia, just a few miles south of Chesters Roman Fort and Hadrian’s Wall, the northern boundary between Roman civilization and barbarism to the north.

The remains of Corbridge Roman town lie just under 20 miles due west from Newcastle upon Tyne city center. Steph and I took our two grandsons, Elvis and Felix, there a few weeks past.

Any visitor to Corbridge can’t help but be impressed when entering the ruins, especially taking into account what is actually on display, and what is not. English Heritage has domain over only a small section of the entire Corbridge site. It stretches much further out in all directions. Just south of the site is the River Tyne where there was once a crossing. Much of the site has been excavated, but large areas were covered over once the excavations were complete, over a century ago.


Entrance to the site passes through a fine museum chronicling the history and timeline of the town, with many impressive artefacts on display from the mighty to the mundane. Among the most notable of these is the Corbridge Lion that was discovered more than a century ago inside a water tank.

Just outside the museum are the remains of two large granaries with their vaulted floors that allowed heated air to flow and keep grains dry.

These granaries stand next to the impressively wide high street that bisected the town.

Around the site are the remains of walls that have become bowed through subsidence yet impressively retained their integrity.

Another feature of the site which interested me were the sophisticated drainage channels, some covered, along the streets and connecting different buildings, presumably some carrying clean water into dwellings.

In the southwest corner of the site is a deep, wall-lined pit that apparently was the strongroom.

There’s so much to explore at Corbridge Roman town that I don’t think I did the site justice during this first visit. Another visit is surely on the cards come the Spring.


 


 

Castles across Northumberland

Once the weather improved in May and June, and we could get out and about more regularly, Steph and I visited several abbeys and priories managed by English Heritage that dot the landscape of this northeast corner of England, including Tynemouth Priory, Brinkburn Priory, Whitby Abbey, and Mount Grace Priory.

More recently, however, we’ve turned our attention to military historical sites, from the Romans (with visits to Chester’s Fort and Housesteads along the iconic Hadrian’s Wall) to the post-Norman conquest period of the late 11th century, with visits to Prudhoe Castle, Aydon Castle (more a fortified manor house), and most recently, Dunstanburgh Castle that proudly looks out over the North Sea on a windswept headland (home to the largest breeding colony of kittiwakes in Northumberland).

Northumberland has many castles, over 70 in fact. While most are ruins, shells of their former glory, some are still lived in today (such as Alnwick, Bamburgh, and Chillingham). All have played a significant role in British history, situated as they were at a great distance from the seat of power in London, along the border with Scotland (an independent country then), and prone to inter-familial conflict. Many castles and towers were also built for protection against the Border reivers, raiders from both England and Scotland who terrorized communities in the region.


Prudhoe Castle overlooks the River Tyne from a hill on the south bank, a little over 11 miles west of Gateshead (map).

The barony of Prudhoe had been granted to the d’Umfraville family, and construction of the castle began around 1100. It was this same family who built Harbottle Castle in the Upper Coquet valley that we visited a fortnight ago. It remained in the d’Umfraville family until 1381, when it passed by marriage to the Percy family, who became Earls and Dukes of Northumberland.

Prudhoe has an impressive gatehouse, with the room above converted to a chapel in the 13th century. The curtain wall encloses a large bailey or courtyard, and the remains of a substantial keep still stand on the west side. An 18th century manor house stands in front of the keep and now houses the offices of English Heritage and a museum.

I have posted more photos of the castle here, together with images (with descriptions) taken in the museum.


About 7 miles northwest from Prudhoe, as the crow flies, the fortified manor house of Aydon Castle occupies a site overlooking a small stream known as the Cor Burn (map). Its construction began in the late 13th century.

It’s remarkably intact, because since the 17th century it was used as a farmhouse, and apparently still occupied until the mid-1960s.

There is an outer courtyard, with enclosed battlements on the curtain wall surrounding the site, if the model of the house has been interpreted correctly (rather like those we saw at Stokesay Castle in Shropshire in 2015 (below).

Model of Aydon Castle, with enclosed battlements on two walls.

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

English Heritage has carefully removed the wall paneling and room partitions that were in place when the house was most recently occupied. So you get a real sense of what Aydon Castle must have been like in its fortified heyday.

And there are more images and building plans here.


We have visited 14th century Dunstanburgh Castle several times, but this visit less than a month ago in mid-July was the first time we had ventured this far north since moving to the northeast last October (map).

There’s not too much of the castle left standing, apart from the main gatehouse, and a couple of towers on the east and north sides of the bailey. But the location is spectacular, and the cliffs teem with seabirds.

Even though the ruins themselves are not extensive, it’s perhaps the enjoyment of the walk from the village of Craster, some 1½ miles to the south, that attracts so many visitors. And, the Craster kippers of course.

The view south towards Craster from the ramparts of Dunstanburgh Castle.

If interested, a plan of the castle ruins can be downloaded from the English Heritage website.

I have posted more images of our July visit here.


 

Walking in Hadrian’s footsteps . . .

For the past couple of months I’ve delved into Roman military fiction by British authors Simon Scarrow and Harry Sidebottom. Several of their books are set on the fringes of the Roman empire, including references to the conquest and settlement of the British Isles two millennia ago.

I’ve been to Rome more times than I can remember, always in a work capacity. Having said that, I often tried to time my arrival in Rome to give me a free weekend to explore the city, mostly on foot. Rome is a great city for walking around. History and archaeology are everywhere. And it has never ceased to amaze me just how Rome was, for hundreds of years, the hub of one of the world’s largest and most powerful empires.

Here are just a few views of ancient Rome, from the Circus Maximus, the Palatine Hill, the Arch of Constantine, the Via Sacra, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon.


Throughout England, less so in Wales and Scotland, the reminders of Roman occupation can be seen everywhere, from the towns they founded such as Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), Corinium (Cirencester); the roads they built (still evidenced today in several important highways such as Ermine Street and Watling Street, to name just two), the villas they left behind (such as Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex or Chedworth in Gloucestershire), the various garrison towns like Viriconium (Wroxeter) in Shropshire and Vindolanda in Northumberland, and last but not least, perhaps the most famous landmark of all: Hadrian’s Wall stretching more than 70 miles from coast to coast across northern England.

The Romans did venture further north into Scotland, and built the Antonine Wall from the Clyde in the west to the Forth in the east. Construction began around AD142, but it was abandoned after only eight years. And so Hadrian’s Wall became the de facto northern boundary of the Roman occupation of Britain: Roman territory to the south, land of the barbarians to the north.

Steph is standing astride the north gate entrance at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall: barbarians to the north (left foot), Romans to the south (right foot).

Our outing at the end of June took in two sites along Hadrian’s Wall: Chesters Roman Fort near Chollerford (map) and a little further west, Housesteads Roman Fort, one of the best examples of an auxiliary fort anywhere in Europe. And, between the two, and beside the invisible remains of Carrawburgh Fort (also know as Brocolita), stand the ruins of the small Temple of Mithras. All sites are maintained by English Heritage. We’ve been to Housesteads and the Temple at least twice before, but this was our first visit to Chesters. We weren’t disappointed.

Much of our understanding of the history and archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall is down to one man in the nineteenth century: John Clayton (1792-1890), the town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne. He came from a wealthy family, acquired much of the land on which the Wall and other sites stand, and over a fifty year period beginning in 1840, he excavated much of what we see today (with the exception of Vindolanda where there is an active excavation and many remarkable finds still being unearthed). Many of the best pieces are now displayed in a museum named after Clayton that was opened by his family in 1896 after his death.


Chesters Roman Fort
As with many Roman sites, only the outline of buildings can be seen, just a few feet high. Nevertheless, it’s possible to take in just what the site might have looked like in its heyday. And English Heritage kindly provides reconstructions of what the buildings and overall site might have looked like on display boards around the site—as they do at Housesteads and elsewhere.

We entered through the North Gate, and immediately made our way to baths on the east side of the fort, where the land slopes down to the North Tyne river. The Romans certainly knew how to choose the right spots to build their forts. But at this point the river was easily fordable, and a bridge (no longer standing) was built across the river to connect with Hadrian’s Wall on both banks.

Valley of the North Tyne at Chesters Roman Fort

Remains of Hadrian’s Wall on the east bank of the North Tyne, and immediately opposite the East Gate at Chesters Roman Fort

Chesters was primarily a cavalry fort, and there are the remains of stable barracks on the northeast corner of the fort. Elsewhere the commanding officer’s house gives some indications still of how much better he must have lived with his family than the ordinary troops. There are remains of underfloor heating and the like that must have made living in the harsh climate of Northumberland that little bit more bearable. Just beyond the commanding officer’s house, closer to the river are the ruins of the substantial bathhouse.


Housesteads 
It’s a half mile walk uphill from the car park beside the B6318 to the main entrance to the fort. The English Heritage shop and cafe are next to the car park.

What is particularly impressive about Housesteads is its remote location. There are spectacular views from the fort over the surrounding Northumberland landscape, in all directions. And the fort and Hadrian’s Wall are intimately connected. It must have been an important site along the wall, in defence of the empire.

Among the more intact buildings is the granary, that was used to dry or keep dry any cereals and presumably other perishables.

At the bottom of the slope, in the southeast corner stand the remains of the communal latrine, which must be one of the best preserved examples.

We didn’t visit the museum close by the fort during this visit. I had seen evidence displayed there—or was it at Vindolanda just over two miles away to the southwest?—of letters received or never sent by a soldier who hailed from Syria or somewhere in that region. Roman auxiliaries came from all over the empire, and could acquire citizenship after more than 20 years service. So, as I’ve commented elsewhere, the Romans must have left more behind than just impressive ruins. Their legacy lives on in the genetics of this part of the country.

On a bright and sunny day when we visited in June, Housesteads is a great destination for all the family. From what we experienced that day, children were having a great time exploring the fort—especially the latrine! Given its exposed location, a less clement day would make for a challenging visit.


In case you would like to see more of the photos I took during this visit (and more details of each site), please click on the links below to open photo albums:


 

No vampires . . . not even a Goth!

Hardly surprising, really. It was the middle of the day, and the sun was beating down the whole time we were there. The hottest day of the year to date, just earlier this week.

So where were we? In Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast, about 75 miles south from our home in Newcastle (map). But we weren’t in search of Count Dracula and his cohorts. No, we were there to visit the impressive ruins of 13th century Whitby Abbey on the headland jutting out into the North Sea, and overlooking Whitby town and harbor.

The view over Whitby from St Mary’s churchyard next to the abbey.

But what’s all this about vampires and Goths? Well, Irish author Bram Stoker used the ruins of Whitby Abbey as a backdrop to part of his narrative in Dracula (published in 1897). And the Dracula (and Goth) connection has been keenly adopted and celebrated in Whitby to this very day.


Humans have occupied the Whitby headland for millennia, with good archaeological evidence from pre-history, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon times.

It was in the mid-seventh century that a nun, St Hild, founded a monastery at Whitby, and it quickly became a seat of learning.

Nothing remains of the Anglo-Saxon monastery, nor of the stone building that replaced it from the 11th century. Just looking at the silhouette of the 13th century ruins against a deep blue sky it’s not hard to imagine how magnificent Whitby Abbey must have been in its Benedictine heyday. Until, that is, Henry VIII got his grubby regal hands on it in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Thereafter, the abbey and its lands became the property of the Chomley family, who built a grand house beside the abbey ruins, presumably using stone scavenged from the ruins. The house standing today (built in the late 17th century) now houses a small museum and the English Heritage shop.


But let’s get back to the ruins.

Similar in design to other monasteries in the region, such as Rievaulx and Fountains, Whitby Abbey was rebuilt in the 13th century in the Gothic style. There’s a brief description of the various architectural stages on the English Heritage website.

Because it stands proudly on a headland, and not surrounded by woodland or hills, it looks in some ways much more impressive than its larger counterparts. From a distance of several miles, as the road into Whitby from the west (the A171, Guisborough Rd) drops quite dramatically from the edge of the North York Moors to the coast, the monastery is a clearly visible landmark standing proudly above Whitby along the River Esk.

The abbey’s sandstone has weathered to a delicious light brown in some places. There’s certainly sufficient ruins remaining to appreciate how it must have appeared centuries ago. Although it has suffered the ravages of time. Even as recently as 1914, when it was shelled by the German Navy that was attacking a coastguard emplacement on the headland.

Here are just a few photos of the Abbey. I have posted a complete set of photos in this album.

We couldn’t have wished for better weather to see Whitby Abbey ruins in all their majesty. We visited Whitby just once before, in 1988, but not the Abbey. So, it had been a long-held aspiration to return one day. I have a feeling that it won’t be the last. But not in when the Whitby Goth Weekend is in full swing.


 

 

Brinkburn: a medieval priory on the banks of the River Coquet in Northumberland

Brinkburn Priory, an early 12th century Augustinian ‘transitional’ priory (architecturally between Norman and Gothic), nestles in a deep bend of the River Coquet in central Northumberland. All that remains today is the priory church, which was restored in the 19th century with the completion of a new roof, and installation of beautiful stained glass windows.

The site is owned and managed by English Heritage.

The free car park is located about 400 m from the priory itself, but from experience I can say just how enjoyable that stroll was, high above the fast-flowing Coquet, the trees, shrubs and understorey plants coming into flower, and a multitude of birds singing all around, trying to out-compete one another.

Brinkburn was dissolved in 1536. It was considered a ‘Lesser Monastery’ with a value of only £69, so was spared the fate of most monasteries. The church continued to be used until the late 16th century when it fell into disrepair and the roof collapsed. A manor house was built alongside the priory church in the late 16th century, incorporating parts of the other monastery buildings that had been destroyed. This manor house was refurbished by the Cadogan family who also undertook the restoration of the priory church from 1858. It took just a year to replace the roof, and the windows were installed by 1864.

Just click on the image below to open the album of the photos I took during our visit yesterday.

Access to the manor house is limited to just the ground floor and basement, where the ancient stonework from the former priory buildings is exposed, and how the undercroft from the old monastery was used as a foundation for the house.

As we sat on a bench, eating a picnic lunch and facing the west end of the priory church, I couldn’t help reflecting on the other ruined monasteries and the like that we have visited over the years: Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey, Mount Grace Priory, Lilleshall Abbey, Wenlock Priory, White Ladies Priory, and Hailes Abbey. And they all have one thing in common. The monks knew how to choose just the right location to build their communities. Such peaceful places to think, take pause. The bench we sat on was dedicated to the memory of a couple who had visited Brinkburn frequently, simply because they found it such a peaceful place. I know how they felt, sitting there beside the church and the babbling River Coquet.


 

Riding the Metro to the sixteenth century and beyond

I love train journeys. Long or short. It makes no difference. I’d travel everywhere by train if it were possible, convenient, and affordable.

And a couple of days ago, after seven months here in the northeast of England (on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in North Tyneside), Steph and I took our first ride on the region’s Metro. Destination: Tynemouth, just six stations and 12 minutes from our nearest station, Northumberland Park.

We had delayed taking the Metro until Covid-19 travel restrictions had been eased, infection rates had started to decline steeply, and both of us had been vaccinated. It’s now been almost three weeks since we both received our second vaccine doses: Pfizer for me, AstraZeneca for Steph.

Earlier last week we upgraded our concessionary travel passes (CTP) to Gold Cards. With our CTP, we have unlimited free travel on buses nationwide, one of the benefits of being a senior citizen. For an extra £12 fee, we purchased unlimited travel on the Metro that we can use everyday, but only after 09:30 on weekdays. Here’s my CTP. Somehow my image was squashed; the original I submitted with my online application was fine.

The Tyne & Wear Metro (a publicly-owned transport system) serves five metropolitan boroughs: Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland, on the south side, which together make up the former Tyne & Wear metropolitan county. The first stretches of the network opened in 1980, and today comprises the Green and Yellow Lines. In all there are 60 stations along almost 50 miles of track.

Parts of the network utilize former 19th century railway lines, one of the oldest parts being the former Newcastle and North Shields Railway. In recent decades, new Metro lines have been added or extended, taking the network as far west as Newcastle Airport. The system has overhead electrification throughout. The rolling stock is, however, showing its age, and breakdowns are not infrequent. The Metro is currently undergoing a major upgrade and new rolling stock are expected to be introduced over the next couple of years.

Train to Tynemouth approaching Northumberland Park station.

Train departing Northumberland Park towards Shiremoor, the next station down the line, and on to Tynemouth, eventually leading back into Newcastle city center.

Several of the stations are the original ones built for the former rail companies. Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, and Tynemouth are particularly outstanding: beautiful red brick buildings, with glass roofs to the platform edges. Tynemouth is a striking example, and has lost none of its Victorian charm.

Northumberland Park is one of the newest stations, opened in 2005 to serve the recent housing developments nearby on reclaimed mining land, and the Cobalt Business Park just a mile or so to the south (largely vacant at the moment due to office closures during the pandemic).In this video, we are approaching Tynemouth station.


So, why did we head to Tynemouth as our first Metro destination? We’ve been there several times before when visiting Philippa and family over the years.

This time, however, we had a particular Tynemouth destination in sight: Tynemouth Priory and Castle, owned and operated by English Heritage.

This was a Benedictine priory, which the same fate as countless others under the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII between 1539.

The priory (and its fortifications) were built on the headland of Pen Bal Crag, that juts out into the North Sea opposite the end of Tynemouth Front Street.

From the grounds of the priory and castle there are excellent views of St Edward’s Bay to Sharpness Point to the north, and overlooking Short Sands beach.

To the south, the coast stretches past South Shields, overlooking the north and south piers of the entrance to the River Tyne.

While we were having our picnic lunch overlooking the Tyne, a large transporter ship entered the river, making its way west upriver to dock of the port of Newcastle. This was once a very busy port, exporting coal worldwide. And it was a major ship-building location, sadly now disappeared. Although it was a bright sunny day with little breeze, I was surprised at how rough the sea was outside the north pier. As we approached the cliff edge we could hear the booming of the waves as they crashed against the pier. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. For the past few days we’ve had brisk northeasterly winds, with a long fetch down the North Sea from the Arctic.

Just inland from the mouth of the River Tyne, is a huge statue (facing south) of Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (a Newcastle native) who was second-in-command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.


Humans have occupied Pen Bal Crag for at least two millennia, with remains of Iron Age roundhouses discovered on the site. The earliest priory itself dates from the 7th century, but the ruins standing today date from the 13th century. There is a nice summary of Tynemouth Priory’s history on the English Heritage website.

Today the ruins are a stark reminder of how majestic Tyneside Priory must have been in its heyday. Standing on this peninsula, looking out to sea, the priory reminds me of Whitby Abbey (another site carefully managed by English Heritage on the North Yorkshire coast).

The entrance to the priory passes through the gatehouse of the castle, and opens up on to a broad grassy area, overlooking the coast, and encompassing the ruins, a cemetery of mainly 18th and 19th century graves, many incredibly weathered sandstone, and an abandoned coastguard station. There are also World War One and Two naval gun fortifications facing out to sea.

A couple of things struck me as we walked around the ruins. Again, how the monks chose such inspiring locations to build their monasteries. And second, what a beautiful sandstone they used for Tynemouth Priory and its castle fortifications. It glowed a deep golden brown in the strong May sunshine.

After the Dissolution, the site was occupied for centuries by the military and, as I mentioned earlier, artillery installations from two world wars dominate the cliffs overlooking the entrance to the River Tyne.

There has also been one further addition—a bit of a blot on the landscape—especially as it has been abandoned for 20 years. In 1980, a new coastguard station was constructed alongside the priory ruins. Following a restructuring of the coastguard service in 2001, the station was closed and stands there today, a white elephant staring out to sea. Rather incongruous, given the serenity of the priory ruins close by.

Our visit to Tynemouth Priory was certainly one of our most convenient English Heritage or National Trust visits. Having enjoyed our picnic, we made our way back to the station for the short journey home. We’d walked almost four miles, and enjoyed the sea breezes. No wonder I felt tired after we arrived home. It didn’t take long before I dozed off in my armchair.


 

The past changes a little every time we retell it (Hilary Mantel).

When I retired in 2010, I briefly toyed with the idea of enrolling at the Open University for a BA degree in history. That would have been quite a departure for me, since I already have graduate degrees in botany.

However, over the years working as an agricultural research scientist and academic, I developed a keen amateur interest in history, and was fortunate to visit many interesting historical and archaeological sites all over the world, such as the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example, or the Great Wall of China, that stand as silent and emblematic reminders of once powerful empires.

When you think about it, history is often the narrative of subjugation of one nation, society or culture by another. To the victors the spoils, who then make the rules, control the narrative.


Much of my recreational reading for the past 30 years consisted of biographies and histories. Not just UK history, but increasingly, accounts of the American Civil War in particular. During our road trip in the USA in 2019, I persuaded Steph to include several important Civil War sites in our itinerary.

I also quite enjoy historical novels, and over the past few months polished off the Wolf Hall trilogy by twice winner of the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel.

So much so that I then borrowed A Place of Greater Safety from our local library, her 1992 account of the French Revolution seen through the eyes of three protagonists: Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. That inspired me to find a history of that traumatic event. So I’ve now just opened the first pages of Stephen Clarke’s The French Revolution (first published in 2018) that I came across on the library website. I must look for Simon Schama’s 1989 Citizens.


When I was in high school in the 1960s neither of my two (maybe three) history teachers spawned any affection for their subject. Everything was taught by rote, with little contextual analysis of principals or events. In contrast, my two daughters Hannah and Philippa, who studied for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diplomas at the International School Manila, thrived on history (even though both became psychologists). Hannah’s extended essay (an IB requirement, which she could have chosen from any of her six subjects) focused on the impact of the emerging railways on the canals in 19th century England. Philippa had a poor history experience for the first year of her IB course, which was rescued in the second when a new teacher, Mr Fischer, was appointed to take over a potentially failing class. He dragged them up by their historical bootstraps, so to speak, encouraging them to higher achievements. Philippa was awarded the highest grade 7, one of the few at that level worldwide for her particular modern European history course. How I wish I’d had an inspirational history teacher like that.


While I’ve more recently taken an interest in American history, I was initially drawn to 18th and early 19th century European history, essentially the period between the accession George I in 1714 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This was the Age of Enlightenment and industrialization, the transition from rural to urban economies, with all the privations that growing urban populations had to endure. It was a time of great social change, but also polarization of politics, particularly as that age-old rivalry between Great Britain and France spilled over into so many different conflicts across Europe. It was also an age of colonial expansion (by many powers, not just Great Britain) and empire building. And the height of slavery.


Historical narratives do change, as new evidence comes to light and events reinterpreted. I never cease to be amazed at how much of the last 1,000 years of our history is carefully preserved in the National Archives at Kew in London, where primary documents are available for historical research. I also discovered that the UK Parliament still prints its laws (for archival purposes) on long-lasting vellum made from calf- or goat-skin. The oldest extant law available on vellum dates back to 1497.

But apart from dates and places, people and events, history is also about relationships, of motives, of actions taken and their consequences. That’s why narratives do meander over the years, depending on the interests and perspectives of each historian, and whether they have a particular historical (or even political) axe to grind.


Today, however, historians (and society in general) face another challenge: how to view the past through a 21st century prism, as well as in terms of today’s mores.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) anti-racism campaign has forced us all to confront the uncomfortable truth that the twin abominations of racism and slavery are very much part of our nation’s narrative.  As are the consequences of colonial expansion and empire and that, all-too-frequently, atrocities were perpetrated in the name of King/Queen and Country. Abominations that must be acknowledged, not set aside or brushed under the carpet as irrelevant to society today.

Since I was born in the first half (just) of the 20th century, in 1948 actually, can I be held responsible for what past generations perpetrated? Not directly, of course. We can’t turn back the clock, but my generation can finally face up to issues that, until now, were too uncomfortable to accept or talk about openly.

One particular highlight of the BLM campaign here in the UK last year was the toppling of the statue of Bristol merchant and philanthropist, Sir Edward Colston (1636-1721), that ended up in Bristol harbour.

The statue was erected in 1895, but in recent years Bristolians had begun to question why the city continued to give prominency to someone whose fortune was derived from his involvement in the slave trade. At least one civic building and street had also been named after him.

But was giving Colston’s statue the heave-ho an acceptable way to address this issue? Can we expunge Colston and his like from history? Clearly the answer is ‘No’. A few days after his downfall, the statue was retrieved from the depths of the harbour, and after undergoing repair and cleaning, it will be displayed in a local museum in a way that contextualises Colston and the age in which he lived. We need explanation and understanding, not destruction.

The same goes for other statues, such as that of imperialist (and racist) Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College at Oxford University. Oxford is not the only place where Rhodes has faced this ignominy.

Some protestors have demanded the removal of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill from Parliament Square in London, because of his racist and imperialist views. Churchill was not alone among his generation in being racist. But he is celebrated today for his leadership as the nation faced an overwhelming threat from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The question we need to ask is whether his racism should trump his war leadership record? We need, I believe, a nuanced appraisal and understanding of this statesman (and others as well). We can and should condemn unacceptable (to us) beliefs and actions, but they also have to be understood in their contemporaneous context.


Steph and I are keen members of the National Trust, and if you check out the National Trust and English Heritage page on this blog, you will find accounts of the many glorious country houses that we have visited over the past decade.

In the wake of BLM campaign, some are accusing the National Trust of being overly woke. On a recent visit to Cragside in Northumberland, there was this message at the foot of the main staircase relating to a statue higher up:

I came across this article by historian David Olusoga in The Guardian yesterday, a commentary on those who are attacking ‘woke’ history.

The National Trust has a big task ahead. You only have to visit properties like Powis Castle where there is an impressive collection of Indian artefacts once belonging to Robert Clive, one of the founders of the British Empire in India. Or Kedleston Hall near Derby, where some of the treasures on display date from the period when George Nathaniel, Lord Curzon was Viceroy of India.

The treasures in these houses (and many others in the National Trust portfolio) were assembled over decades if not centuries through colonial settlement and/or slavery. Now the National Trust is beginning to better explain the background to the accumulation of such wealth. But it’s not just colonialism and slavery. For many land owners their wealth was created much closer to home, through merciless exploitation of the labouring classes, almost as a form of slavery in itself.

Confronting the past will be a challenge for the National Trust, and society as a whole. Then there are the ‘spoils’ of empire building locked up in museums all over Europe. The debate continues whether museums should repatriate artefacts that were acquired (= stolen in many instances) during the Age of Empire.

At least one museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne has revealed plans to ‘decolonize’ its collections, because . . . a number of our objects are inextricably linked with Britain’s colonial past and systemic racism . . . acquired over 250 years.

As the museum’s Keeper of Archaeology stated: Decolonisation, for us, is not an attempt to completely rewrite history, but rather an effort to shed light on areas of our past that have been neglected, or simply ignored.

I’m sure other museums will follow. Hopefully this will, in a small way, help counter the British exceptionalism narrative that has emerged during the Brexit debate, that has, in my opinion, also revealed just how deep-seated racism is in our society today. Not overt racism perhaps, but pervasive all the same.


 

Taking a last look at Hanbury Hall

As regular readers of my blog will know, my wife Steph and I are enthusiastic members of the National Trust (and English Heritage). At every opportunity, weather and other commitments permitting, we take off for an outing to one property or another. We are fortunate that there are so many within 50 miles of our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (just south of the UK’s second city, Birmingham). In recent years we have also taken short breaks to explore properties much further afield in Northern Ireland (in 2017), Cornwall (in 2018), and East Sussex and Kent and Lincolnshire (in 2019).

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown put paid to these lovely outings. Until yesterday! Our last outing before lockdown was in the middle of January when, on a very misty, moisty morning, we had an excellent walk around our ‘local’ property, Hanbury Hall, an elegant ‘William and Mary’ house in the Worcestershire countryside, just over six miles from home.

We have visited more than twenty times since we joined the National Trust in 2011. In fact, Hanbury Hall was the first property we visited after we became members.

We just enjoy walking around the park and the magnificent parterre that is, in my opinion, one of the best among all the Trust’s properties. We’ve been inside the hall itself only three times, and two of those occasions were to see the Christmas decorations.

Here are some images of the parterre taken over the years and in different seasons. While not as colorful as some of the parterres we’ve seen, like those at Waddesdon Manor, Charlecote Park, or Witley Court (an English Heritage property), I really do appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Hanbury version, with beautiful clipped box hedges and cones, holly shrubs, and sparse planting.

During lockdown, I have been able to get out locally almost every day for a 2-3 mile walk. But the same routes have become rather stale after all these weeks. So, after three months of lockdown, it was great to be able to get timed entry tickets to Hanbury Hall yesterday. This is only the second week that Hanbury (and many other National Trust properties) have re-opened, but not fully. Visitors are being limited currently to allow for sufficient social distancing. On arrival we were made welcome in a safe manner.

What a joy! We’ve been ‘starved’ of the opportunity of just deciding, on a whim, to put on our walking shoes and head off for a stroll of just under three miles around Hanbury’s park and garden.

Here is a link to the album of photos from yesterday’s visit.

I mentioned that Hanbury will no longer be our local National Trust property. That’s because we have sold our house (subject to contract) and expect to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England by the beginning of September. Well, that’s the plan and we hope there are no glitches and hitches along the house selling pathway.

We already know several of the National Trust and English Heritage sites across the north east, and a little further south. We look forward to exploring those once again, and seeking out many that are still on our bucket list. Exciting times!

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.

 

 

 

 

Benign decay in the Northumberland countryside

Belsay Hall, some 14 miles northwest from Newcastle upon Tyne, is a country mansion, constructed between 1810 and 1817 in the so-called Greek Revival style. It is believed to be the first house in the country to be built along these lines.

Steph and I visited Belsay Hall in late July 2009, along with our younger daughter Philippa and Andi (who she married in 2010).

The east front and main entrance

Its owner was Sir Charles Monck who, until taking up residence in his new house, occupied the 14th century castle on the Belsay estate nearby, and which is also open to the public.

Belsay Hall is a square building, and today is completely empty inside, being left in what has been described as ‘benign decay’. The only maintenance prevents the building from deteriorating further. The house is decorated throughout in the ‘Greek style’, pillars everywhere.

The stables and coach house, which are sited just to the northeast of the main entrance, are also open to the public.

On the south side of the house, there is a terrace and formal gardens.

After exploring the house, we made our way to the castle, a half mile walk through the Quarry Garden, a cool, dark, and damp environment favored by luxuriant ferns. The house was built from stone quarried here.

There is access to the roof of the tower and, on a nice day, I’m sure there must be fine views over the surrounding landscape. It was rather grey and misty on the day we visited.

In July 2009, there was a very special art installation mounted in the Great Hall.

Lucky Spot, as it is known, is a three dimensional chandelier in the shape of a leaping Appaloosa horse, hanging from the rafters of the Great Hall. Made from 8000 large crystals beads, it was a collaboration between Stella McCartney (daughter of former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney) and the Austrian glass maker Swarovski. I’ve read that Stella McCartney was inspired to create Lucky Spot after a visit to Belsay.

Catching the light from all directions, this is one of the more impressive pieces of art that I have come across.

Once we move up to the northeast, a return visit to Belsay is definitely on the cards. This time I’ll make sure to use my camera rather more liberally than I did in 2009.


 

 

 

Crossing the North Sea by boat and car . . . or so it seemed

In the summer of 1998, when Steph and I were back in the UK on our annual home leave (I was working in the Philippines at the time), we had a week’s holiday in Northumberland. We spent almost the whole week within the boundaries of the county, the fifth largest in England, crossing into southern Scotland for just one night. It was the first time we had visited the county. But it wouldn’t be the last, not by a long chalk.

Our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at Durham University (under 20 miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2000, and after graduation in 2003, remained in the northeast, marrying Andi in 2010 and now raising two boys, Elvis and Felix. So, we’ve been traveling up to Newcastle at least a couple of times a year, and taking more opportunities to explore the fabulous Northumbrian countryside.

Northumberland has so much to offer, from moorlands to coast. There are so many Roman ruins to explore like Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall as well as magnificent castles like Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Dunstanburgh. The coast has some of the best beaches in the whole of the country, but not so good for bathing, at least in my opinion. Why? Because the North Sea is too damned cold!

On two days we headed to the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island.


The Farne Islands
The Farnes (owned by the National Trust) are an archipelago of some 15-20 islands (depending on the tides) up to 4 miles off the northern coast of Northumberland, just south of the border with Scotland. They are one of the country’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, with significant colonies of puffins, terns, guillemots, and kittiwakes, among others. After a short (maybe 30 minutes) boat ride from Seahouses, we arrived at Inner Farne, the only island with access. It was a smooth crossing to Inner Farne in bright sunshine, but by the time of our arrival there, it had clouded over.

Puffins on the cliff edge, with guillemots on the far right.

As we approached Inner Farne, it was hard not to wonder at the sheer number of seabirds flying to and from the islands, as well as the rising cacophony of calls from the different species.

After landing, and as we made our way on the short walk to St Cuthbert’s Chapel, and afterwards as we explored other open paths, we were dive-bombed by protective Arctic terns that were nesting in the grass on all sides. And I can assure you that a passing peck from the tern’s dagger-like beak hurts! In fact, the National Trust encourages all visitors to bring suitable headgear for protection.

This was my first up-close experience of large colonies of seabirds. And what a feast for the eyes as you can see from the images above.

Besides the various bird (and grey seal) colonies, Inner Farne also has a long history of human occupation dating back to the late seventh century AD, becoming first the solitary home of St Aidan, and then St Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral). Apart from National Trust reserve wardens stationed on the islands during the seabird summer breeding season, the islands are now uninhabited.

But they do have a particular claim to fame for the brave exploits of Grace Darling, daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper on another of the islands who, with her father, saved nine persons on board the paddle steamer Forfarshire that was wrecked in a tremendous storm on the Farnes in 1838. She was only 22. She died of tuberculosis in 1842, a national heroine.

Grace Darling (1815-1842) and the SS Forfarshire that foundered on the Farne Islands in 1838.


Holy Island and Lindisfarne Priory
A little further up the coast is Holy Island, the site of Lindisfarne Priory (owned by English Heritage).

Access to the island is across a one mile tidal causeway that is submerged twice a day at high tide, so careful planning is required to safely cross on to the island, and avoid being stranded before the tide covers the causeway. I don’t remember exactly when we crossed, but we had no issues, and had plenty of time on the island itself before returning to the mainland. We did see a couple of cars that hadn’t made it in time, caught in a rising tide and abandoned by their owners.

We did not visit the castle on Holy Island. That is owned by the National Trust. I’m not sure if it was open to the public back in the day.

Monks first settled on Holy Island in AD 635, but after a violent Viking raid in AD 793 they fled from the island. The ruins that comprise Lindisfarne Priory date from the 12th century. The most spectacular is the Rainbow Arch.

I must have taken more photos, but these are the few that I’ve been able to lay my hands on.

We’ve only scratched the surface of Holy Island. Once we have moved north, then we hope to have many opportunities of exploring this magical place again, including the castle next time.


 

 

 

 

Warkworth Castle: a 12th century fortress above the River Coquet in Northumberland

Warkworth Castle, built in the 12th century, stands on a narrow neck of land in a loop of the River Coquet in Northumberland, close to where the river flows into the North Sea at Amble.

View from the Keep along the River Coquet towards Amble and the North Sea.

The view north overlooking part of Warkworth.

Steph and I were visiting family in Newcastle in April 2018, and on a bright sunny day, enjoyed an excursion to Warkworth beach with our younger daughter Philippa and her husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix (then 6 and 4, respectively).

Phil and Andi went straight home after the walk and a picnic, but we decided to take the boys to Warkworth Castle close-by, which is owned by English Heritage. And we were in luck.

On the day of our visit (21 April) English Heritage was celebrating St George’s Day (actually 23 April) with displays of ‘armed combat between knights in shining armour’, and many other attractions.

Visitors enjoying combat between ‘knights in shining armour’.

Felix and Elvis (with Grandma behind) enjoying the armed combat.

View from the Keep towards the Gatehouse. The Lion Tower is on the right.

Carvings on the face of the Lion Tower.

The castle came into the Percy family (later the Dukes of Northumberland) in the mid-fourteenth century. It saw action in the Wars of the Roses in the late fifteenth century, and parts of the castle were demolished (or ‘slighted’) then. It suffered further damage in the late sixteenth century.

Today, many of the internal structures have disappeared, but the outer curtain wall stands more or less intact. The Keep can be explored. The Lion Tower (on the right in the image immediately above) has some impressive stone carvings above the archway.

It’s an excellent destination for adventurous grandchildren who have some excess energy to burn off. From their reaction at being allowed to explore the different buildings it was clear that Elvis and Felix enjoyed their visit – just as much as Grandma and Grandad.

The image of Warkworth Tower on its mound that’s covered in daffodils has become iconic, and often use in tourism brochures and the like for Northumberland. Here’s my take.


 

Dunstanburgh Castle: a 14th-century fortification on the coast of Northumberland

Dominating the horizon on the coast of Northumberland, and overlooking the cold North Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle was built during the fourteenth century reign of infamous King Edward II by the king’s cousin, Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle along the coastal path from Craster.

The castle can only be reached on foot, about 1.5 miles north from Craster. The castle is owned by the National Trust, but the site is operated by English Heritage.

View of the great gatehouse over the southern mere.

Overlooking cliffs on one side, the castle had excellent natural defences, and occupied the site of an Iron Age fort.

Thomas of Lancaster was executed in 1322, and it passed eventually passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It changed hands between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses, and suffered damage from which it never fully recovered. By the sixteenth century it was in an advanced state of decay.

Today, just a few of the towers are standing, particularly the entrance Great Gate with its twin towers. Also the curtain wall that surrounds the castle connecting with the cliffs.

It’s possible to climb some of the towers from which there are magnificent views over the surrounding Northumberland countryside.

Steph and I have visited the castle on a couple of occasions, the last being in May 2012. Parking in Craster, we enjoyed the coastal walk on a fine, bright but blustery day. The kittiwakes were nesting on the cliffs below the castle, and we spotted a weasel darting along a stone wall just above the tide line.

Then it was back to Craster for a pub lunch, and purchasing some of the renowned Craster kippers (smoked North Sea herrings).

 

 

Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

Last week, Steph and I spent three days exploring five National Trust and English Heritage properties in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This is not an area with which we are familiar at all. We spent the first night on the coast at Skegness, and the second in the Georgian town of Wisbech.

It was a round trip of just under 360 miles from our home in Bromsgrove, taking in nine counties: Worcestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk (for about three minutes), and Rutland.

Our first stop was Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire. There has been a fortified residence on this site since the mid thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until two centuries later that the remarkable brick tower was built. This is quite unusual for any castle, and Lord Cromwell is believed to have seen such buildings during his sojourns in France.

The tower and part of a stable block are all that remain today, although the position of other towers and a curtain wall can be seen. The whole is surrounded by a double moat.

Like so many other castles (see my blogs about Goodrich Castle in Gloucestershire, Corfe Castle in Dorset, and Kenilworth in Warwickshire) Tattershall was partially demolished (or slighted) during the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651.

And over the subsequent centuries it slipped into decay. Until the 1920s when a remarkable man, Viscount Curzon of Kedleston (near Derby) bought Tattershall Castle with the aim of restoring it to some of its former glory, the magnificent tower that we see today.

The castle was then gifted to the National Trust in whose capable hands it has since been managed.

There is access to the roof (and the various chambers on the second and third floors) via a beautiful spiral stone staircase, quite wide by the normal standard of such staircases. But what makes this one so special is the carved handrail from single blocks of stone. And on some, among all the other centuries-old graffitti, are the signatures of some of the stonemasons.

Do take a look at this album of photos of Tattershall Castle.

Just a mile or so southeast of the castle is RAF Coningsby, very much in evidence because it’s a base for the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft, and a training station for Typhoon pilots. So the noise from these aircraft is more or less constant. However, RAF Coningsby is also the base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and just as we reached the car park on leaving Tattershall, we were treated to the sight of a Lancaster bomber (the iconic stalwart of the Second World War Bomber Command) passing overhead, having just taken off from the airfield, just like in the video below. At first, it was hidden behind some trees, but from the roar of its engines I knew it was something special. Then it came into view while banking away to the east.

Just 20 miles further east lies Gunby Hall, a William and Mary townhouse masquerading as a country house, and built in 1700. The architect is not known.

It was built by Sir William Massingberd (the Massingberds were an old Lincolnshire family) and was home to generations of Massingberds until the 1960s. You can read an interesting potted history of the family here.

Gunby Hall, and almost all its contents accumulated by the Massingberds over 250 years were gifted to the National Trust in 1944. Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd (daughter of campaigner Emily Langton Massingberd) was the last family member to reside at Gunby, and after her death in 1963, tenants moved in until 2012 when the National Trust took over full management of the house, gardens and estate.

Gunby is remarkable for two things. During the Second World War, the house was in great danger of being demolished by the Air Ministry because the runway at nearby (but now closed) RAF Spilsby had to be extended to accommodate the heavy bombers that would operate from there. But Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd (husband of Lady Diana) was not a man without influence. He had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, and had served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1933 and 1936. After he wrote to the king, George V, the location of the runway was changed, and Gunby saved.

It was then decided to gift the property and contents to the National Trust. So what we see in the house today is all original (nothing has been brought in from other properties or museums).

Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd started life a simply Archibald Montgomery, but changed his name by deed poll to Montgomery-Massingberd on his marriage to Diana. It was a condition of the inheritance of the estate that the name Massingberd was perpetuated. Both he and Diana are buried in the nearby St Peter’s Church on the edge of the gardens.

Although not extensive, Steph and I thought that the gardens at Gunby were among the finest we have seen at any National Trust property. Yes, we visited in mid-summer when the gardens were at their finest perhaps, but the layout and attention to detail from the gardeners was outstanding. Overall the National Trust volunteers were knowledgeable and very friendly. All in all, it was a delightful visit.

You can see more photos here.

On the second day, we headed west from our overnight stay in Skegness on the coast (not somewhere I really want to visit again), passing by the entrance to Gunby Hall, en route to Bolingbroke Castle, a ruined castle owned by English Heritage, and birthplace of King Henry IV in 1367, founder of the Lancaster Plantagenets.

There’s not really too much to see of the castle except the foundations of the various towers and curtain wall. Nevertheless, a visit to Bolingbroke Castle is fascinating because English Heritage has placed so many interesting information boards around the site explaining the various constructions, and providing artist impressions of what the castle must have looked like.

So the castle footprint is really quite extensive, surrounded by a moat (now just a swampy ditch) that you can walk around, inside and out, taking in just how the castle was built.