How the West Won Me


, , , , , ,

Western Approaches: Episode One

It was 1964 and I was mostly contented being me but when I wanted to be someone else, I wanted to be George Harrison, Muhammad Ali, Robin Hood or Flint McCullough. Mostly I wanted to be Flint McCullough.

There are many things I cannot remember. Like not being able to read, or sleeping in a cot or not wanting to look at clouds. (And realise that these things did not make me unique). I can remember a sitting room without a telly and the day the first one arrived: carried in and installed by men who had Mullard valves in small blue cardboard boxes and smelled of strong drink. I watched my first westerns on that television. The paradox remains that I cannot remember my life before I became aware of westerns. They feel as much a part of me as my elder brothers and sister, my mum and dad, my sense of taste and smell. It seems they’ve always been around.



Robert Horton as Flint McCullough. My first western hero.

I can’t be sure whether film or tv series first introduced me to cowboys and big country and guns and waistcoats. When I began this post my memory was blank but writing things down has a way of tracing a path back into the past and now my money’s on Wagon Train.

There is an inherent ability to distinguish the reality of life from the reality of film and books. It must be something like a second mirror stage as we become aware of what belongs directly to us and what belongs to the other. There is  a different gap between my life and that of the news stories of the day. There were thus three worlds: the one I lived in, the one I watched which was true and the one created by actors and writers. We inhabited them all depending on who was watching. If my mother was there, we were more likely to be in the world of fiction. With my father facts would predominate.

Those actual events still resonate: the soviets putting a man into space, a thing called the Profumo affair, moors murders, the great train robbery, the start of Dr Who and, over-riding all of this, the assassination of John Kennedy a couple of weeks before my fourth birthday. I can probably answer more general knowledge questions on these events and other happenings of 1963 and 64 than I can on events of 2015. By age five I had greater expertise of current popular music than now. But none of this took on the importance of westerns. I greatly admired John Lennon and Paul McCartney but I wanted to be Robert Horton.

Wagon Train was the first programme I’d come in specially to watch from playing in the garden or on the street. We’d try to replay it outside but beyond one of us having the Ward Bond role, raising our hand and calling out “Wagons Ho! Let ‘em roll!”  it was a difficult thing to replicate in play. The gunfights were a favourite. Toy guns were plentiful in the sixties – sometimes with exploding caps- and shoot-outs would soon leave everybody dead until the ‘count to seven rule’ prevented our games from becoming 60 second Hamlets, with bodies scattering the stage. Reincarnation was an essential feature of play. On days out in the country we’d seek out rocks where the baddies would hold out and the good guys could track them down and shoot them dead. Often as many as twenty times over.

The-Lone-Ranger-and-Tonto-007I lost track of Wagon Train after a while as the Lone Ranger and Champion the Wonder Horse took over as favourites: I was now at school and these were what my friends watched. When I came back to Wagon Train, Major Adams and Flint McCullough had gone and it didn’t seem the same. The Monroes briefly held my attention but The Virginian was the big one. It wasn’t universally popular in our household but if the television was on on a Friday evening then James Drury and Doug McClure would be on the chosen channel. I was never a huge fan of the title character. My allegiance would sometimes be to the amiable Trampas and sometimes to Judge Garth. One of the very few authority figures I identified with in childhood…or later. My real love were the huge exteriors, the cattle drives, the enormous skies of Wyoming. I wanted to go there. I still do.


I was slower to come to Bonanza, Rawhide and the High Chaparral but once in the saddle, remained loyal. I’d read Children on the Oregon Trail by An Rutgers Van der Loeff and several of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I was aware that extreme hardship was a part of life in the west. It often got lost when the books made it to the screen. When Michael Landon defected from Bonanza to the Prairie I went with him. I never liked the adaptations of the Ingalls Wilder books but watched them all the same. The struggles of the frontier families were softened to a short actor pretending to weird an axe or drive a plough.  Charles Ingalls was always Little Joe Cartwright in disguise.

More to my liking was the well-cast Alias Smith and Jones. This was one of the great  double acts on the telly and introduced character driven storylines that were heavy on humour. Owing more than somewhat to Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Pete Duel and Ben Murphy played the handsome and reformatory ex-outlaws Hannibal Hayes and Kid Curry. I was expert in western folk-lore. I knew my James brothers from my Youngers, Kit Carson from Wild Bill, Wyatt and Virgil and Billy the Kid. But I had never heard of Hayes and Curry despite the voice-over (Roger Davis) telling us at the beginning of each episode that they were “the two most wanted outlaws in the history of the west”. I was intrigued.  When Duel tragically shot himself (in circumstances that remain mysterious), Universal insisted that production go ahead. Filming of scenes not involving Duel resumed within twelve hours of the actor’s death and by the following day Roger Davis (the erstwhile narrator) was fitted out in costumes to take over the part of Hannibal Hayes. He was good but it was too much to ask of an audience who had lost a personal favourite. The programme ended soon afterwards.

Six Strangers

Western films had much higher production values and carried the major stars. TV had the advantage that we stayed with the same characters week in week out. Some actors could make the cross over. Even as a child I could tell that Lee J Cobb held the screen in a more authoritative manner than Drury or McClure. Films had real trains and The Virginian had large hunks of painted plywood being pulled slowly out of shot while the sound-effects team supplied the verisimilitude. The serials would hold my attention for up to 90 minutes and leave me looking forward to picking up the adventures the following week, the feature films would take me somewhere deeper; stir something more than a love of story. Both suited me just fine.

At school I was diligent in studying Roman life and exploring the world of the Pharaohs. In tests I came half-way up the class. If we’d been tested on the western I’d have been half-way to Oxford. My love of the genre was kindled early and the fire still burns. In the fifties and sixties westerns dominated both film and tv. I didn’t know it at the time but I was tuning into the epic. Here on the plains, in the mountains and deserts of the west were being enacted the continuation of stories told by Homer and Virgil (two names, by coincidence, that are not uncommon among western characters). Here were the Greek myths with guns and stetsons. Where good and evil battled with good and evil. Where men and women played out their destinies against a landscape too huge to contemplate and events far bigger than themselves and only understood in part. The story of the west is one heck of a story and provided a canvas to carve out myths on an epic scale.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in 1967 “I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the westerns…has been saved for the world by of all places, Hollywood.”

John Ford put it more simply in The man Who Shot Liberty Valance,  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


And that, in my own small way, is what I am going to attempt in this blog.


It’s a Winter Thing


, , , , , , , , ,

Mostly Concerning Food

I haven’t done this for a while. And yes, I know I said I was done with it but I’m not a fellow to be trusted. Winter has descended with the first frost and snow of the year and my thoughts have turned once again to baked potatoes and rich stews and dumplings. The camera has been stowed at the other end of the house where its sole use is to record the way I’m changing the property. I must be one of the few people who haven’t got a camera on the phone, so an indulgent spate of eating out isn’t recorded here. A pity because I can’t remember having my food cooked for me more.

The rugby union world cup dazzled the world with 15 a side rugby that actually involved some running, passing and tackling. Keep it up boys and you’ll soon be playing for over half the match. (In fact a couple of games involving southern hemisphere countries kept the ball in play for over 40 minutes. Something the fat northern hemisphere boys seem to have no intention of incorporating into their game plans). A league lad turned out for England and was roundly turned upon by the Nigels in the Grammar School press for being solely responsible for the nations dismal showing. The fact that England were winning comfortably while Sam Burgess was on the field (and the man he had marked out of the game for 60 minutes set up a try for the Welsh within a minute of him being substituted) was over-looked with a twisted myopia that soviet historians would have been proud of.

Having absorbed the way the union boys blamed him for everything from naivety to shortening the vowel sounds in the line-out; as well as lacking the skills for the lying on top of each other and grunting aspects of the superior game; Burgess made his way back to rugby league to the delight of half of Sydney, the entire north of England and the combined Australian, New Zealand and South African rugby union teams.

November was league month. A quality test series between England and New Zealand produced three well matched games that brought real sporting pleasure to the Johnson household. League is criticised by the Nigels as being too “stop-start”. They don’t mind the stop part- they’re used to that. It’s the start bit that confuses them. I loved it. Home-made burgers for the first test, hot dogs with Marks and Spencer’s buns and excellent sausages for the second and a big pan of chilli-con-carne with guacamole, tortillas, soured cream, romaine lettuce and freshly squeezed lime juice. Charlie came round and food and rugby were greatly enjoyed in equal measure.

DSC_0032 DSC_0034

I’ve been pretty busy. I divide my days between office days and overall days. Now the mercury has dropped I’ve come inside, put away the bricklayer’s trowel, hammer and spirit level and taken up the plasterer’s float and the paint-brush.  There are also travelling days but these aren’t quite as much to my taste. I’ve done many of those over the years. I haven’t done enough home days.

The schedule  is busy. T gets home around 4 or 5. Jolly gets her third walk of the day as we share stories and enjoy the darkness descending. The dog-walkers of this part of Derbyshire are fair-weather fellows. The paths and fields are busy in the summer but from November to March we become a select club. Fine people and dogs all. I reckon I do between twenty-five and fifty miles in an average week: Jolly does at least twice that (mostly running!)

DSC_0035Twenty minute meals became really popular when Ready Steady Cook was on the telly.  I find twenty minute meals perfect for weekdays. I can work up until T gets back and then after the walk she’s got time to change and sort out her paperwork before I put a meal on the table. My favourite this week was a mushroom risotto using dried portobello mushrooms and vialone nano rice. I would have used shiitake mushrooms because they give me schoolboy giggles as well as tasting rather good, but they take 40 minutes to steep. Portobello mushrooms take 10 minutes in standing in boiling water and the stock is perfect for risotto. The rice gives a creamy finish with larger grains than carnaroli or arborio. It isn’t better. Just different.

DSC_0036 DSC_0039-001A lunchtime meal for one on an overall day. The sausage is again from Marks and Spencer. It is as good a Cumberland sausage as you can get without being lucky enough to have an exceptional butcher nearby. The egg is from Frances’ chickens and the chips are Aunt Bessies. I don’t use chips all that much, haven’t had a fryer for decades and find these perfectly ok.

DSC_0040Poached eggs on English muffins. Even we English are beginning to call them that. No problem there. There is a great deal still to be absorbed from our American cousins but I’d be happy if they’d take their cold beverages back (and their Christmas trucks). I have said before that if you know someone who can do a good poached egg then you know a good cook. The older Roux Brother used to interview trainee chefs by giving them a single egg and asking them to cook it for him. It’s a fair challenge. Do not use margarine!! A poor egg needs butter; a good egg deserves it!

DSC_0041The most November meal of all. Not a twenty minute meal. Potatoes take an hour to bake but putting a few potatoes in the oven and switching it on doesn’t interfere with other activities. A good cheddar cheese grated is my favourite accompaniment. Again don’t mess with man made spreads. Use butter.

DSC_0042These potatoes were king edwards. They baked very nicely and the jackets were (as they should be) the best part.

DSC_0043I’d worked hard and gave myself a day off on Friday. A full English (exactly the same as a full Scottish (except white pudding and occasionally haggis), full Welsh, Ulster fry (except soda bread and potato farl) and full Irish) and two newspapers. It’s been a heck of a week news wise and interesting to see how different papers absorb events and regurgitate them to suit an agenda. Oh, for true press freedom!

DSC_0045A very Derbyshire November skyline.

DSC_0074Family round for tea on Friday for a little celebration. I cooked half a gammon using cloves, cinnamon sticks and curry leaves as well as onions in the stock. I like to half boil it and then finish it off in the oven. That way you get lots of extra flavour in but also get a nice crumb on the slices. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed family members are featured on the coasters and place-mats.

DSC_0078A little Saturday treat for Simon. I’d eaten them (with finely copped onion, black pepper and freshly squeezed lime juice) before thinking to find the camera. I keep meaning to buy an oyster shucker and risk serious injury by using the end of a sharp knife. A real treat. (For me: no-one else would touch them with a barge-pole!)

DSC_0080Vanilla pods.

DSC_0081We got a micro-wave this week. It’s years since we last had one. We got rid of it when it seemed to be taking up space without ever getting used. Then we had a Christmas pudding in a cafe and realised that a microwave was justified on pudding grounds alone. I also was royally entertained at a friend’s house recently with superb food, beautifully cooked and clever use of a microwave to produce perfect vegetables and potatoes. Time for a re-think. Here a simple bought Christmas pud is served up with a decent white sauce (with a whole vanilla pod). I’m tempted to count off all the remaining days until Christmas with a Christmas pudding. It’s far too good to only eat once a year.

DSC_0071Catkins! In November! O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

S is for Stamford


, , , ,

S is for Stamford

In 2013 The Sunday Times rated Stamford as the best place to live in England and I see no reason to argue.

DSC_0689Film crews have long known about Stamford. For years it has been the go to location for any director tasked with bringing George Eliot or Jane Austen to life. Take out the modern street fittings, the cars and the tarmac and there isn’t a great deal needed to turn St George’s Square back to the 1830s Middlemarch (Coventry) or Meryton (Hertford) of forty years earlier. Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFaddyan donned period costume to critical yawns in 2005. Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell  strolled the same streets to considerably greater effect in 1994.

DSC_0690The secret lies in  centuries  of putting up magnificent buildings and the common sense (not shared by all English towns) of not knocking them down again. Antiquity doesn’t confer grace and dignity of itself but it adds greatly to the beautiful and the charming. The charm is enhanced by the local stone. It was impossible to transport the weight of stone required for this town in the eighteenth century. If there hadn’t been a ready supply of high quality brownish cream limestone at nearby Little Casterton then there wouldn’t have been a Stamford. Everything connects. The finest buildings today are situated approximately where the finest quarries are. The finest quarries are situated where the calmest lagoons were in the prehistoric seas. Lagoons where the skeletons of millions of sea creatures settled, fragmented and later compressed into limestone. It occurs from Dorset through to Lincolnshire in a great band, varying in texture and colour, and everywhere it outcrops, a fine house or town stands as a monument. Portland stone has been used in many of London’s finest buildings, Bath is built out of Limestone, as is Chatsworth. Lincolnshire perhaps has the finest examples. As well as Stamford, this stone also built Lincoln Cathedral – once the tallest man-made structure on the planet and still one of the most remarkable. 

DSC_0691Many towns have an attractive street or square. Stamford stands out by the sheer extent of its magnificent stone buildings. There are over six hundred buildings listed for their architectural importance. The entire town is a work of art and the fact isn’t lost on the people who live here. Is it entirely an accident? Is it all down to the discovery of quarriable stone? Or, are there other reasons why such a town should have grown on the banks of the otherwise, very pretty but, hardly noteworthy River Welland.

DSC_0770It grew as a crossing place on the river. First on Ermine Street, the Roman road that ran from  Londinium (London)  to Eboracum (York) and later on The Great North Road (the modern day A1). The river was navigable and with the advent of canals, Stamford enjoyed a period as an inland port. The railway arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century and played its part. None of these are remarkable. Hundreds of towns have been on important  communication routes and hundreds were linked by canal, rail or river. Yet there is only one Stamford.

DSC_0836Two events played a big part in the raising of the town to special status. William Cecil built Burghley House a mile to the south (across the county boundary in Cambridgeshire). William Cecil was the most powerful man in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His presence carried considerable status. The house he had built is a heck of a house. Thousands of people visit  each year and thousands more come for the annual horse trials which over the years have been won by such equestrian athletes as Miss Anneli Drummond-Hay, Miss Lucinda Prior-Palmer and Mr William Fox-Pitt. Occasionally the event is won by ordinary people without double-barrelled surnames. In 1973 it was won by Captain Mark Phillips and in 1971 by his wife to be …Princess Anne.

DSC_0744In the fourteenth century scholars from Brasenose College Oxford became disaffected by events at that university and attempted to establish a rival seat of learning in Stamford. Their near success can be measured by the strenuous efforts by both Oxford and Cambridge and an act of parliament to prevent Stamford in Lincolnshire having a major university. There is no institute of higher education in the town to this day which seems wrong. It is an ideal location for a significant academic institution.

DSC_0768DSC_0746I arrive happy from a few hours birdwatching on nearby Rutland Water (Stamford is only just in Lincolnshire: it borders Rutland, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire (and, prior to 1974, Huntingdonshire)). I’m in the mood for strolling and a cream tea. The weather is ideal for late summer and the youth of the town are out and about celebrating their examination results on GCSE day. In the town they gather in small groups and give out an occasional whoop of joy. Down by the river they gather in small groups and smoke, giving furtive glances over their shoulders at anyone walking past.

DSC_0707Cars seem out of place in towns like this but are obviously not out of the financial reach of the local citizenry. Most of the cars that pass me are from the upper price range. Parts of the town have been pedestrianised and I can see no good reason why a few more roads can’t follow suit. It is a good place to wander and a bad place to drive.

DSC_0830Shops seem to be able to manage without acres of plate glass and gaudy plastic signs. Even some national chains, that are guilty of defacing other high streets with ugly shopfronts, are restrained in Stamford. There are some that still deserve a visit from the local office of standards but it passes as a rather attractive shopping centre. There are enough independent shops to make it worth the visit but not enough, providing the staples, to be able to manage without the major retailers.

DSC_0754It’s well blessed with five outstanding churches. The sort of churches you don’t need a religious faith to visit. They enhance the skyline (one of the best in the country, especially if viewed from the Meadows by the river) and each carries a history worth exploring.

DSC_0833The main thoroughfares are all lined with properties of note (not all are Regency or Georgian) but it is the cobbled side streets that most fascinate me. Not only are there many architectural gems in these backwaters but there is a calm and a sense of peace that suits the age of the buildings. Aficionados of porches and porticoes will have a field day. Regrettably there are some plastic windows but many houses maintain the wooden sash windows that add so much to the appearance of the buildings.

DSC_0699This is very much a tourist town and there are plenty of hotels. The George is the most celebrated, and the one with the longest history. In fact it could make a case for having the most involved history of any inn in England. It’s well over a thousand years old (though you’d have to get down to foundation level to find anything remaining from its earliest periods). It’s a fine looking building set off by a  wooden sign crossing the street and panelled waiting rooms for passengers wishing to take the stage coach. There are separate waiting rooms for York and London bound passengers.

DSC_0709The town, surprisingly, boasts only a handful of famous people. Sir Malcolm Sargent was one of the better known orchestral conductors of the post war years (among those who have knowledge of such things) and the amiable novelist and former teacher Colin Dexter were both Stamford born. In stretching it’s links with the celebrity world the local tourist office includes Daniel Lambert whose renown is of being Britain’s fattest man (or was; we live in an age where such records could fall on a daily basis). He measure 9 feet 3 inches around his middle but his link with Stamford is that he happened to be staying in the town (at The George) when he died. His demise ended his two and a half day love affair with the place. If you really want to make the most of this connection you can view his walking stick; and who wouldn’t want to?

DSC_0698The town has had a succession of employers but none on whom the town became dependent. It was largely by-passed by the Industrial Revolution but has lived and prospered doing what it does best. And that is being handsome.

DSC_0747When Queen Eleanor died near Lincoln in 1290, Edward I honoured her by bringing her body back to London and having a cross built at each place where her body rested for the night. Charing Cross in central London is the most famous (and one of the last surviving) of these. Other were at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stoney Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham and Cheapside. A carved rose from the original Stamford cross is in the local museum. The town has recently erected a pointy thing to commemorate the spot. It could double as a baton to commemorate Sir Malcolm Sargent. I hope they build a statue of a pint,a pen and a crossword puzzle to Colin Dexter in due course.

DSC_0695Stamford is different to everywhere else. It’s easy to get to and it is worth a visit. The individual buildings are impressive in themselves but collectively they are magnificent. Whether it is Britain’s best town is a subjective judgement. I enjoyed my visit enormously as I always do. Living here would be a different matter. But one I’d be prepared to give some thought to. Maybe I’ll be like Queen Eleanor. I’ll pass through in style and remember it fondly.

T is for Thirsk


, , , ,

A Day at the Races and Knowing Your Places


Yorkshire loves hierarchies. It has its crown jewel towns. They are easy to find. They all have a Betty’s. York, the crown jewel of the crown jewels, has two. Much as I love York, Harrogate, Northallerton and Ilkley I couldn’t live in them. I could happily live in the many less favoured Yorkshire towns though. Scarborough, Huddersfield, Halifax, Ripon, Richmond and Thirsk. I could live out my days in any of them if I had to. And I wouldn’t wander far if I did.


I knew Thirsk first (a tongue-twister if ever there was one) from the racecourse. So much of my early knowledge of geography is based on what I picked up from watching Grandstand* with my father and brothers in the sixties. (Males watched sport, females asked us to raise our feet so they could vacuum beneath them as we watched… it sometimes felt like a chore.) I had favourite sports back then. Rugby League has always been my true passion. It’s part of who I am. As a child, once I’d realised I didn’t have the application to become a vet, my sole ambition was to play professional rugby league; ideally with my hometown club of Barrow. I learnt to love the sport. Experienced, what has been described as high velocity ballet mixed with chess, at close quarters from the wall in front of the crowd on the popular side at Craven Park. Under the Friday night floodlights the royal blue jerseys shone. I can still smell the embrocation from the players’ legs. Still feel the excitement of being there; of being part of it. I knew the names of all the professional teams by the age of seven. By my eighth birthday I could point them out on a map. None of the teams played in the crown jewel towns. They, as you’d expect from lovers of hierarchies, are strictly union.

DSC_0095But I’d watch any sport that was televised. The BBC pretty much had a monopoly on Saturdays. ITV had football highlights to enjoy after Sunday dinner. On Saturdays they made do with Black Marlin fishing and speedway in between the seven horse races they transmitted before the wrestling. There was even a bet called the ITV 7. All you had to do was select 7 winners in a row. The sport wasn’t exactly free of shady dealing in those days but even a Newmarket stable lad couldn’t pick seven in a row. The BBC would chip in with test cricket and some minority sports of their own. At one time motorcycle scrambling, and another sport, where portly middle aged married couples would attempt to drive a vintage car as high up a muddy slope as they could. He’d don goggles and drive like a refined maniac; she would bounce up and down in a less than flattering attempt to secure some traction. The Beeb also found time for horse racing. My knowledge of geography became more widely spread. In addition to the cricket playing nations I could now find every racecourse on the map. It was an ambition to visit them all. I’ve managed plenty but a few remain. To this day I have no idea where the muddy slope was.

Yorkshire  is a sporting county. It has more racecourses than any other. Of 58 courses in the UK (this piece may be out of date within days of publication depending upon how the people of Scotland vote) 9 are in Yorkshire:  Beverley in the East Riding. Pontefract, Ripon, Wetherby, and Doncaster in the West.  York, Redcar, Catterick and Thirsk in the North. The vast majority are flat racing tracks. Thirsk is one of these.

They’ve raced horses in Thirsk since the time of Shakespeare. Originally the course was out of town on the Hambleton Hills but for the last 150 years meetings have been held at the present course on the western edge of the town.

DSC_0044-001There is a great deal about horse racing that I shouldn’t like. Culturally and socially it is the other end of the stick to working class, Labour party Rugby League. This really is a world of hierarchies and squirearchies. A world where segregation is still the order of play; where owners are feted above the trainers and jockeys who bring home the winners. Where wealth and status determines where you are allowed to sit or stand, who you get to mix with. A racecourse is essentially an open field with rails around it. There are a good number of different gates to these fields; the premier gateway is an ordinary wooden door, painted green and guarded with fake doric columns: a veritable plastic parthenon!

DSC_0039Racegoers are respectfully reminded of the standards expected of them. In the Premier Enclosure (the words are carefully chosen) you will be turned away if you arrive in any of the following: “any items of sportswear, fancy dress, short trousers, ripped or torn garments, mottle-dyed denim, trainers, plimsolls, or any other items that, in the opinion of the management, are not in keeping with the Code or may cause offence to other racegoers.” The list is delightfully specific. No-one else has used the word plimsoll in reference to footwear since the seventies.

For all of it’s cap doffing deference to money, I love a day at the races. I love the crowds in their tribal arrays. I love the lines of bookies on the rail and the shouting of the odds. I love the packed stands against the backdrop of green, the brightly coloured silks as the jockeys enter the paddock; and, most of all, I love the sheer beauty of the horses. These are hugely impressive beasts brought up to peak condition  by men in tweed and waxed cotton who have encyclopaedic memories and purple noses.

I love to stand at the paddock rail and watch them parade and see them at close quarters, watch the horsemanship and instant rapport from the jockeys whose skills astonish me. I love to stand on the rail with a furlong to go (no premier enclosure for me) and feel and hear the thunder as they gallop towards the winning post. I’m not a gambling man but any race I watch at the racetrack will be carrying a Johnson fiver. At the bookies I usually lose. At the track I invariably get the winner that funds the day out.

DSC_0037-001Opposite the racecourse is a handsome brick building that is the last reminder of a great Thirsk manufacturer: A.C. Bamletts. From the 1850s to the end of the 1980s Bamletts made specialist harvesting machinery. The firm was started by Adam Carlisle Bamlett as a one man concern. He took the design of mowers, reapers and binders forward at a great leap and was soon able to establish a company that led the world in its field (literally). At one time the name Bamlett was as synonymous with agricultural machinery as Massey Ferguson or John Deere. In the twentieth century it was unable to keep pace with the ever growing machines that yearly turn the once little fields of England into prairies. The firm went into receivership in 1989. This one building remains awaiting tenants in it’s new role as offices. Next door once stood the terminus of the Thirsk and Leeds Railway. It was lost to the short sighted cuts of the 1960s (Beeching’s Axe) and is now, as so many once proud sites have become, a Tesco supermarket. During demolition of the station, workmen uncovered one of the few surviving turntables for locomotives. Nobody knew what it was and it was broken up before its value and significance were recognised.

Parking is fun in Thirsk. There are plenty of spaces in the cobbled square. It says Pay and Display but you only have to press the button on the parking machine and it issues you with a ticket that allows you to stay for an hour without payment.

DSC_0131I’m in a delightful family run café just off the main square. I’ve ordered the sort of breakfast a farm hand would have enjoyed before spending the day out on a Bamlett’s reaper. There is a pleasant air of quiet. The couple at the next table have spent their lives in Thirsk and have seen a sad decline.

“Dying on its feet.”

“In what way?”

“Used to be full of good shops did the square. And on market days it was full of stalls. Now it’s only a handful; and some of them stay away if it looks like rain.”

She looks ruefully across the room  and into the past in one movement.

“There used to be a livestock market out there. You can still see the rings in the ground they tied the bulls to. S’why they called it the Bullring.”

Another pause.

“Now we get coaches of people. They let them off and give them an hour. Some do a bit of shopping. Most walk round the World of James Herriot and then they get back on the bus again and disappear.” After another pause she repeats; “Town’s dying on its feet.”

DSC_0067Every town has people who regret change but this lady wasn’t against improvements. She loves Thirsk and had seen it lose some of its identity. She is not without hope though. She thinks the café, we are in, is the best thing to happen to the town for a long time. A place where local people receive a good service from local people. It would be wrong to see it as a sad place. This town may have lost some of its unique appeal as a market but it is still a very special place to be. I don’t wish to keep beating the same drum but the pattern seems fairly clear. As national chains move inlocal character begins to move out.

DSC_0059The square is one of the biggest of the Yorkshire market towns. Like Ripon, Richmond and Masham the town is built around a large cobbled market place. No two buildings are alike and many are of considerable merit. It’s a pity the market is unable to draw in the number of stalls it once did and an even greater pity that the cattle market has moved to purpose built premises on the edge of the town. It would be quite something to have seen the square at its peak. But the modern world makes demands everywhere. The livestock market is able to carry out its work more effectively, if less picturesquely at its new site. And, critically, the square is still there.

Half a street away is the aforementioned World of James Herriot. It’s a good museum and worth an hour of any traveller’s time. Those above the age of 35 remember the series based on his books. All Creatures Great and Small (still being shown on satellite channels) was the last of the great Sunday evening, family gathered around the television serials. It ran from 1978 to 1990 and owed a great deal of its popularity to its gentle nostalgia for a disappearing way of life among the eternal loveliness of this part of Yorkshire.

DSC_0077-001James Herriot (real name Alf Wight) moved to Thirsk in the early years of the war and worked as a vet for the rest of his life. On approaching retirement he began to write down some of his experiences in a style that could variously be described as semi-autobiographical or fictional autobiography. This wasn’t done to be deceitful but a mixture of protecting professional integrity and the delights of storytelling. The books are good and the television series even better; benefitting from a strong ensemble cast and the star quality of the Yorkshire countryside.

In the books Thirsk becomes Darrowby (though the fictionalisation extends to locations). Herriot continues to act as a tourist attraction but is perhaps also a barrier to Thirsk being seen as a town in its own right. There is certainly a great deal more to the town than the setting for a series of books..

DSC_0092-001Further out is a proud manor house and a church that combines an imposing exterior with a welcoming and atmospheric interior. A spate river known as Cod Beck (It’s a dialect form of Cold Beck) flows around the town centre. In a fine, historic area of parkland and willowgarth called the Holmes it is joined by the Whitelass Beck. For most of the year they are quiet streams but during periods of heavy or prolonged rainfall they can become a mighty torrent. The town suffers occasional flooding.

Above the town on the Hambleton Hills is one of England’s hillside white horses. It’s one  of the more recent and, in my opinion, by some distance, the worst. Further round the escarpment is the true natural splendour of Sutton Bank. It’s as close as any English main road gets to being alpine and from the top are views over the whole of Yorkshire from Dales to Moors. Thirsk is almost perfectly situated. Few towns benefit from so much natural beauty so close to its doorstep. It’s well served by modern roads and would benefit greatly from its lost rail link.

DSC_0132It may have lost a few good buildings to the wrecking ball but its strength lies in the buildings it has kept. Despite the cars and lorries this is still a beautiful town and one, I would happily move to.


 *Flagship BBC 5 hour sports programme that was on every Saturday from the late fifties to the nineties.




U is for Uppingham


, , ,

 In Search of Tranquility

It  was a furtive life. Keeping my head down, shuffling from one concealment to another. Trying to avoid eye contact with the few people who were there, only speaking if spoken to; and then in a muffled whisper. This was at the Birdwatching Centre on the western shore of Rutland Water and I was in absolute heaven.

It hadn’t been on the agenda but the sign on the road to Uppingham  changed my mind.

DSC_0586I had a job pulling myself away. The ducks were just beginning to reveal distinguishing features and a kingfisher had landed on a reed below the hide. Of course it was playing me for a pillock: mine was the only shutter on the otherwise empty hide that didn’t allow me a clear view. Moving would be a mistake but if movement was necessary, best to make it as slowly and carefully as possible. Mais tant pis. As soon as  the  shutter moved it flew off.

There is nothing less than glorious in seeing a kingfisher. Even its disappearance was as the electric blue flash that has become the accepted description. It’s all to do with colour. If it was dull brown it would be an oddity with its over plump body, over sized head and a dagger like beak that is half as long as the bird itself. It sits for long periods so if you get to see one you can be entertained for anything up to an hour. If you only see it fly it will be a highpoint in your day.

DSC_0589There was one further call before heading towards Uppingham itself. Twenty years ago I’d cycled around England telling stories in schools and arts centres. It was all properly arranged. It wasn’t just a case of rolling up and telling the Somerset variation of Jack the Giant Killer. I tend to go on long cycle trips at times in my life when I need space and time to sort through a big career decision or to overcome some crisis. In this instance it was coming to terms with the death of somebody close to me. On the journey I’d taken to calling in at every open church en route and reading a psalm. I read the Bible both as a religious book and as an important work of literature and the aim was to read all 150 psalms by the end of the journey. I would have managed it if I’d kept north of Watford Gap but southern churches are invariably locked and I only got into the 80s. Sometimes I’d light a votive candle, sometimes  pray. Oftentimes I’d just sit still and think. And sometimes just sit.

In the tiny village of Brooke I found the quietness and ancient calm in the church of great comfort. There was nobody else there. I’d rather portentously read the psalm from the pulpit and sat quietly in the box pews. Nothing happened. There was no inner voice or sense of presence. I just sat and let the tears flow. After a while they dried. There was no religious experience but  enormous comfort. It was a feeling that stayed with me for the rest of the journey. I felt I owed the church a big thank you and took a left turn away from the main road.

DSC_0409There was some building work going on in the village but, once parked and inside the ancient churchyard, it was all remarkably familiar. Inside, a smart elderly gentleman was preparing to climb a ladder watched by a lady of similar years who I took to be his wife; correctly I believe. I was welcomed into the church with a warmth often reserved for those who have provided an excuse to put off climbing a ladder. He, in particular, was keen to tell me about the church. I’m not always too welcoming of people who want to point things out to me. Daisy Christodoulou* may not like the idea but there are many more ways of delivering a facts rich education than having a teacher at the front telling us everything. But she is young and earnest so we can forgive her for being somewhat myopic and quite definitely blinkered. After three years of teaching many of us thought  that we knew everything. Time has surprised us at how much we seem to have forgotten.

DSC_0426This couple were as welcome as they were welcoming. She continues her labours but he had taken me in hand and was bringing the most significant features of the church to my attention. There were facts. There were few skills involved once we’d mastered walking, talking and looking. The best and most memorable of the information was carried in story form. The pair treated the care of the church like a very important project. Stories and projects! How on earth did I manage to learn anything from this pair?

DSC_0413I was told of the earthquakes that gently shook the village for three days in a row in April this year. The second one brought down the marble memorial to William Baines Syson, Gent. What was remarkable was that nobody was hurt and that very little damage was done to either the heavy marble or the church floor. The stone had been put in place in 1848 and has been permanently fixed to the wall since then. Inspection of the fixings revealed that for nearly 170 years the memorial which weighs well in excess of a hundredweight has been hanging on the points of two tiny panel pins and sealed around the edge with a film of plaster. It was a wonder that it had stayed in place for 170 days let alone years. My faith was restored. So Victorians had bodgers and cowboy builders as well. I recalled a story I had been told as a boy on my first visit to York Minster, where a heavy stone fell from the tower onto the sleeping head of Roger of Ripon. The stone is on display. It is bigger than human head. It being the medieval period, his awakening  was pronounced a miracle and the event is celebrated in a panel of the great Rose Window. There was no miracle. He was from Yorkshire. He was hard. Had a hard head.

There is a delightful Norman font in the church and some carved graffiti from 1664. The church was used in the making of the 2005 film, Pride and Prejudice when, according the lady church warden: “They spent a whole week filming in here and if you blinked at the wrong time you’d miss the whole scene when they’d finished.” The interior of the church became Tom Hollander’s (Mr Collins) church. The pulpit features strongly but poor old Brooke was considered too lowly in outward appearance. That privilege went to the church at Weekly in Northamptonshire.

DSC_0430The doors are as ancient as you can imagine doors to be. The grade 1 listing that churches like this possess can cause problems and confusion in interpretation. Just what can be renovated, and who should permission be granted by, are questions that vex church wardens, who have little reason to be versed in building law. In other churches they do what is needed to keep the stones standing. Here their reluctance to break any regulations results in delightful additions. Where the fish bone hinge has eroded away, it has been painted back into existence (from a distance).

My visit to the little church at Brooke couldn’t have been more different this time around. The noisy entry of the couple’s grandchildren, armed with questionnaires and crayons to unravel the facts of the church, makes sure of that. Last time I sat in peaceful solitude and found comfort. This time I’m surrounded by helpful and friendly stories. Once more I leave the village a better and a wiser man.

DSC_0433They’ve told me to call in at the church at Ridlington. It takes a bit of finding. It’s a proper English village away from the beaten track and far from the madding crowd. When I park here some curtains twitch and my progress, down the main street, doesn’t go unobserved. I don’t blame them for wondering who the stranger with a camera is. I’m sure they are as fearful that I may be a council official as a burglar. But it makes me smile.There is much that has been preserved in Ridlington. It is a more than delightful place to spend an hour and imagine what it would be like to live in a brown stone cottage with thatched roof with japonica and jasmine growing around the door.

DSC_0449A gaudy twentieth century object has become the symbol of the English village. Pre 1980s red telephone kiosks owe their survival to their attractiveness to middle England. In Ridlington they have found a modern use for it. No need these days for a public telephone so the kiosk now houses a defibrillator. I wonder if they queue up to use it and knock on the glass if someone seems to be taking too long.

DSC_0450One of the delights of having time, a fondness for poetry and a desire to wander, is finding the right location to read well loved pieces. You could read Thomas Gray in the village churchyard and it would add meaning to the verses; but this proves a fine location to read the some Edward Thomas and some Rupert Brooke. Here in a quietness that you only get in villages like this; it is much quieter than you’d find in the countryside itself; the words come to life. My visit coincides with the hundredth year since the outbreak of the First World war. It’s a good place to reflect on what life was like before the men marched away.


My friends in Brooke were right. The church here is delightful. In a glass case are the ancient instruments of a church choir from a previous age. Such a choir can be found in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under a Greenwood Tree. Hardy loved the rural, the peaceful and the unspoilt. I think he would have enjoyed spending an hour in Ridlington. The twitching curtains would have made him chuckle too.


*A young and ardent advocate of teaching everyone by the methods that made her what she is today. Not entirely wrong but blinkered by the rightness of her vision. After three years teaching she felt qualified to write a book that sets out how to do it. Seven Myths About Education has sold well.


U is for Uppingham

Raffles and the Case of the Mysterious Sun Dials


I’m retreating down a dark and tree lined driveway, choosing to believe that the voice is coming from the street in front of me and not the gateway behind. I’ve been taking photographs through railings and generally snooping around in a manner that could be inferred to be consistent with a fellow whose motivations were dishonest. I’m pretty certain the voice is coming from behind.


It’s not the most threatening word but there is a questioning tone; almost accusatory. Apparently Beethoven was only selectively deaf. I imitate the master and, without quickening my pace, direct my feet to the sunny end of the street.

It really is a dark and overcrowded driveway. Trees naturally thin themselves when fighting for height and light. You rarely get an overgrown area of woodland without the interference of man. This avenue was almost a tunnel. If I do stop, I’ve decided to advise that someone gets out a bill-hook and a bushman’s saw. I’d rather not tarry though and the trees make it difficult to locate exactly where the sound is coming from.


It’s getting closer, and, if I’m not mistaken, the voice is now accompanied by the sound of footsteps. They are advancing at a slightly greater tempo than my own adding heater discordance to the scene. I’m becoming resigned to having to face my greeter; my questioner. I’m quietly going over the previous five minutes to see whether I have anything I need to explain. I can think of nothing. I’d wandered like the lonely cloud down a side street following a sign to “The Hall”. Found the hall behind closed wrought iron gates, taken a couple of shots through the railings just in case it turns out to have some historical or architectural significance, and wandered back again. The Hall had been a rather attractive building whose attractions were diminished by attempts to impress. The gravelled drive is composed of the wrong stone and the over-sized trampoline looks tatty and unused. All garden trampolines look tatty and unused even if they are bounced upon daily.


There is greater insistence now. The tone now carries arraignment and imputation. It is an awfully civilised tone though. I feel I may be jolly well told to clear off like the stinker that I am or to be made to feel a cad. I begin to imagine that I am being pursued by Leslie Phillips. One thing is sure and that is that my claim to believe the calls to be coming from the street is growing thin.


“Oh, hello. Are you calling me. I was sure the voice was coming from the street”

“Yes, sound does travel in a funny way in here. I really must start to thin out some branches.”

He pauses and takes the time to survey the thick foliage and gloomy undergrowth. I pause and for a while it seems as though that is the beginning and end of our conversation. I still feel like a boy caught scrumping apples and wonder if I am giving off any outward sign of guilt. He smiles. I smile in return. It seems the thing to do. I even consider whether it might seem appropriate to rise up on my toes and back again and suck in a lung full of woodland air.

“Are you the man we’re expecting?”

“I beg your pardon.”

I can’t quite remember exactly how I felt on this question. Certainly surprise made up a part of the mix.

“Are you the man from the council?”

Whatever emotional state I was in changed to relief. Ever since I promoted myself to snoop with a more expensive camera I have often been taken for a local government official. I am never doing any harm but, as an inquisitive traveller, I am often keen to see what there is to see and consequently I go up more alleyways and driveways than is perhaps common. One funny thing is that I rarely get stopped and questioned when casually dressed and carrying a pocket camera. When smartly dressed and with camera prominent, I attract attention. If times get hard and I am forced into crime then I will remember this. No future Raffles me.

DSC_0465“No, I’m just a tourist.” I pause again, and he seems to expect me to continue. “I followed the sign saying “To The Hall”. I didn’t realise that it was a private residence.”

“Oh yes it is,” he said in that annoying manner of making out that I really should have known that. “All the houses down here are private.”

Once again we look at each other and take it in turns to smile and then to look around at the trees and to imbibe a little more fresh air.

“You probably think Georgian don’t you?”

He’s taken me off my guard for a second time.

“I’m sorry?”

“Think it’s Georgian, don’t you?”

“What do I think is Georgian?” It was becoming surreal.

‘Uppingham. Many people think it’s Georgian, but it isn’t you know. It’s Medieval.” And he’s away. He seems a kind and gentle man; though probably the sort of man who knows a good deal more about trains than I do. “Oh yes, they make the mistake all the time. It’s the ordered fronts you see. They make the houses look very formal but behind those fronts are houses and shops of tiny rooms and winding passages.”

There’s another pause but by now I’ve worked out that my role is that of receiving information so I try out a third smile; an encouraging smile. It seems to work.

“Extraordinary preponderance of sundials. Uppingham. Famous for its sundials. There’s one on the house down here and three in the High Street. Can you see. There (he pointed to the vague distance. “Up there on the Crown. Unusual to get so many in the same vicinity.” The thought wasn’t a displeasing one but it was one that had a greater enchantment for him than for myself.

DSC_0493He was actually a really lovely man and he took the time to tell me all sorts of things about the town that I could never have found out from any other source. He tells me where to eat and what to look out for. I spend the next hour looking for sundials. I’d managed too much of my life without taking an interest. At the end of the hour I felt I had probably given sun dials quite enough of my time. If I get past ninety I will perhaps have to look at one or two more.

Uppingham is truly lovely. The colour of the local stone is lovely, the architecture is lovely and the weather was lovely. It is fairly close to being the quintessential English town. It is beautifully compact and I didn’t see an ugly building during my stay. Even the petrol station in the centre was somehow in-keeping. There are some less than wonderful buildings, if you look for them, but the space and arrangement of the town is such as to draw out the best in everything.

DSC_0469The town centres around a true market place. It is the only market place left in the country where an agricultural livestock show takes place in pens in the centre of a town.  It attracts dozens of cattle, pigs and sheep and is apparently quite an occasion.

DSC_0490The market isn’t on on the day of my visit but a local man comes to sit next to me on a bench and tells me how it was a huge mistake to have left Leicestershire. (Uppingham is in Rutland, once England’s smallest county, and had spent a period of time being subsumed under the larger authority.) He cites startling figures of the number of people in the county who have had to seek advice on debt and bankruptcy. I had an inclination to disbelieve him but later looked up some statistics that suggested that affluence isn’t quite as obvious as it seems.

DSC_0564The clientele in Don Paddy’s are well enough heeled. The meals, according to the blackboard, are garnished with “well dressed roquette and parmesan shavings.” I settle for a cup of coffee and sit quietly. Men of my age and older are either wearing rather smart denim or even smarter corduroy. The elephant corduroy in shades of sand and damson that only people of a certain income wear. I work out that the jeans wearers are the smokers and the corduroy seems to indicate, along with some distinctive facial features, a fondness for whisky.

It’s A Level results day and mothers have brought out daughters to celebrate with other mothers and daughters. Future careers are discussed and decisions made, but never across the generations; mothers talk to mothers and daughters text.

DSC_0526The church is really lovely. I find churches invariably places of peace and tranquility so close to the hustle and bustle of the town. (Not that Uppingham is over bustling on this particular Thursday). There is no need to be of a spiritual persuasion. Churches are peaceful in a secular as well as sacred manner. I particularly admire the way some of the antique pews have been made into a rather splendid playpen.

DSC_0548In my burglar’s way I find myself accidentally wandering into the very heart of the public school that is probably Uppingham’s greatest claim to fame. Despite my socialist tendencies and upbringing I rather fancy I could study in a place like this. The list of former pupils is impressive. Stephen Fry was famously expelled. I’m pleased to be snooping in the footsteps of Jonathan Agnew and Mark Haddon. As a potential gentleman thief I am delighted to see that E W Hornung learnt his letters here. I’m also particularly pleased to see that they have their very own sun dial.

I only saw the Private Property sign on the way out.


V is for The Vale of Pickering

V is for The Vale of Pickering

Part One : Kicking the Habit

(Again there is nothing new here. I’d like to put my little A-Z jaunt of last summer back onto the blog. There may be a few different photographs in a different order but the text is the same as when I first posted it some time ago; albeit I’ve crammed 4 posts into 1. I enjoyed re-visiting it and I hope you will too.)

DSC_0144This is a journey into the past. My past and the ancient past. I first came here on our, one and only, family holiday in the summer of 1970 as an eleven year old. I came back eleven years later to provide relief support in the youth hostels of the region and have been a regular visitor ever since. My father’s family come from this part of Yorkshire. He spent his youth walking the fells and visiting the abbeys and castles that continue to fascinate and delight me. Those abbeys and castles give a sense of the historic importance of the Vale. The castles as symbols of political and military power, the abbeys decadent centres of misappropriated wealth or sanctuaries of spiritual and intellectual endeavour, depending on your viewpoint or the point you are viewing. History lives on in piles of more recent vintage. A castle still dominates the area and draws tourists and film crews to gaze at great wealth and status in a twenty first century context. An abbey church, fully roofed and functioning, is the centre of a modern educational establishment that gave the world sculptor Anthony Gormley, writer Julian Fellowes, Journalist Edward Stourton and Actor Rupert Everett as well as rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio and mountaineer Joe Simpson. Oh, and the late Arch Bishop of Westminster Cardinal Basil Hume. The influence of the Vale of Pickering on contemporary England is as strong as it has ever been. It is a glorious place to be, and, though it has adapted to the changing seasons of human development, it has remained largely unspoilt.

DSC_0167 DSC_0170Geographically the vale is the lowland area bounded to the north by the North York Moors and to the south by the Howardian Hills and the Yorkshire Wolds. it comprises the flood plains of the rivers Rye and Derwent and the market towns of Helmsley, Kirkbymoorside, Pickering and Malton. My vale stretches out slightly into the Vale of Mowbray and the moorlands of my memories. I tried to capture it all in one day. I failed. But captured enough to stand it side by side with any part of England that claims beauty, history and tradition. I only took photographs of things that caught my imagination and made me say “wow.” There were plenty of times I uttered that expression of astonishment.

DSC_0182Byland Abbey has particular remembrance for me. I was struck, as a boy, by the elegance of the ruins and by the almost complete peacefulness of the place. Returning after 44 years it was as if I had stepped  into the past. The very air felt unchanged.

It is locked. English Heritage have decreed that you can only walk among the ruins at certain times and a small padlock forbids entry. I presume this is as much to ensure an income as to preserve the remains. Ironic that I have a card in my wallet that allows me free access, and I could easily scale the fence. Of course I don’t, though I’m not sure why not. I can see the ruins well enough from the road. See the distinctive rose window (was it more complete in 1970?). It is indeed a window on the past. I am 11 once more just as surely as if I had dipped a madeleine biscuit into my tea.

It wasn’t part of my plan to visit but the main road up Sutton Bank was closed and Byland was on the most diverting of diversions. North Yorkshire has an abundance of these great religious houses. It was a place of wealth and power, but also the centre of medieval learning and the cradle of the English Renaissance. Religion and philosophy were studied here but also art and music, literature and the whole field of human study that would eventually be given the name (by a poet) of science.

DSC_0185Such studies continue down the valley where the huge square tower of Ampleforth Abbey stands at the centre of a church that is alive and functioning not only as a place of devotions but also as the beating heart of a remarkable school: Ampleforth College. Remarkable for a number of reasons. Most particularly that such schools still exist and that there are ample parents to fill the dormitories and classrooms  at £31,323 a year. Remarkable too for the sheer majestic beauty of the place. Enclosed in its own valley, and miles from the nearest town, there is a fine feeling generated by location alone. Fitting with this sense, of being lost to time and the outside world, are the black cloaked Benedictine monks who run the school. I’ve hinted at the impressive list of alumni. To the previously mentioned I could add a clutch of noted academics, a handful of significant journalists and as many Law Lords and Major Generals as it takes to fill a room. The college is considered to be the original of Hogwarts. If you don’t care for seeing your children grow up in the heart of a loving home and family then there are worse places to send them.

The students conform and rebel as occasion prompts. After weekly mass there is a movement into the trees where cigarette smoke rises like incense. They let the television cameras in in 2003 (why do schools do this? It never does them any good.) and the resulting documentary is illuminating. A cassocked monk stands outside his rooms puffing away on a cigarette looking an awful lot like Father Ted Crilly. He ponders on an old story of a Jesuit “It had to be a Jesuit.” asking if it alright to smoke while he prays. He is told that it is most definitely not alright. “How about if I pray while I smoke then?” he asks. And no-one can see any problem with that.

DSC_0216Over the next hill (and it is a steep one) is the beginning of the Vale of Pickering proper, and the town of Helmsley. It is a town that has undergone constant change since I first came. Hundreds of houses have found themselves changing hands from those who worked on the land or the estates to those who have come in from West Yorkshire and Teesside. Money has come with them but the funny thing is that the town has retained its character and vibrancy. The more the town of Helmsley changes, the more it remains the same.

You can tell it has changed by comparing the houses to the citizens. The doors are the shortest and widest entries I have seen into any dwellings, yet the good folk are tall and affable and look well in corduroy. Holiday homes are a double edged sword. They allow us to live in a town like Helmsley for one week of our lives and that cannot be altogether a bad thing. They bring money into the pockets of the owners. On the other hand, holiday cottagers tend to arrive with a car full of groceries and everything they need and are often rarely seen in the town. Plenty of English villages have become moribund through the holiday let. Helmsley is made of sterner stuff.

DSC_0247It has made a mockery of anyone who chooses to arrive with bags freshly filled from the shelves of some Surrey Tesco. The shops in the town are better than most and provide everything you need. I’m not much of a one for pubs these days but I’ve enjoyed a lunchtime feed and a glass of orange juice in Helmsley hostelries before now. The beer, they tell me, is good and the beer drinkers look knowledgeable. My parents used to drive here from Huddersfield and the local food was what brought them.

Once I’ve renewed my acquaintance with the castle I take a wander around the square and along the streets. Hunters have managed the trick of advertising their wares on chalkboards without making everything seem a bit naff. The exterior of the shop is almost as attractive as the inside. There is no coloured chalk or word art techniques on the black boards; simply extensive bill off fare in neat white lettering and surrounded by an abundance of hanging baskets and over-flowing planters of the most vibrant flowers. It looks most attractive.

DSC_0253Inside they are friendly, knowledgeable and courteous. One lady makes me the most generous of sandwiches with Wensleydale cheese and a homemade pickle. She has no objection to me taking a photograph so long as I don’t include her. I add a game pie to my shopping bag and stroll the delightful 2 mile riverside walk up to Rievaulx Abbey.

All the places I have visited so far have been beautiful. The spot I have chosen to enjoy my lunch is a serious contender for the most beautiful place in England.

Part Two : Rievaulx, Kirkbymoorside and Hutton-le-Hole

Sheep May Safely Graze

Some say Rievaulx is the best preserved and some say it is Fountains near Ripon. It’s a question I  suggest you have a go at answering yourself. Both are the remains of magnificent buildings. Both, for better or for worse, are places that played their part in our history; and both (as is the way with English monasteries) are in locations of stunning natural beauty. Settings that are so easy to miss if you don’t know they are there. How on earth can you hide an abbey complex in a little country like England? It  is a trick the Cistercians pulled off again and again and again.

DSC_0270I know some are put off by the religious side and some feel a grievance against the mis-use of wealth and power that was undoubtedly a part of the life of the monasteries, and a major reason why Henry VIII dissolved them (it wasn’t all about a quickie divorce settlement from Rome), but these are places which inspire awe. I was born a hundred yards from Furness Abbey and I feel a personal bond with that site. Rievaulx beats it though. Rievaulx is quite simply my choice for the most magnificent place in Britain.

DSC_0290The walk up from Helmsley town centre on a sunny day is a treat in itself. The path doubles as the opening miles of the Cleveland Way. You can continue for another 110 miles of moorland, ancient crosses, Roman roads and spectacular coastline.   If you fancy making your trip into a picnic, there are shops in town that will provide the hamper.  (May I recommend Hunter’s of Helmsley?) And a very fine hamper too. A visit to the  Rievaulx Terrace and Temple Gardens can be added for those willing to climb a steep Yorkshire bank. Or you can simply drive. It’s only a couple of miles up the B1257.

I wander among familiar stones and remember times I have been before. I remember a perfect picnic here with my wife a year or two ago. A 1981 amble up with two Australians who wanted to see “the most British thing they could” while staying at the hostel I was looking after. Most of all I remember coming here with my father and brothers and sister in 1970. He is no longer with us and, among the stones, I miss him a little bit more than usual. He loved this place and had an engineer’s admiration for the monks and masons who raised the stones centuries earlier.

A couple say what a pity it is to see it in ruins. I disagree. I’d been at Ampleforth Abbey (granted it is only 200 years old) earlier in the day and, though a place of wonder in its own right and setting, there is no comparison in terms of awe inspiring magnificence. There are many beautiful places in Yorkshire and a few, very special places, where beauty enters the realm of the sublime. Rievaulx is such a place.

I intend an hour and spend much longer. Technically it isn’t in the Vale of Pickering but it is close by and it would be criminal to miss.

DSC_0372Kirkbymoorside is a contender, along with Wells Next the Sea, for the place name that needs the least explanation. It is a settlement with a church (kirk) on the edge of the moors. It’s nicely set back from the main road and can easily be missed. I think this a good thing. It is bustling with its own citizenry. They are a particularly handsome bunch. Male or female, old or young they are without exception well turned out. Coffee shops and sourdough loaves suggests an urban influx but the town has retained its feeling of being a proper market town; a place where local farmers bring their produce to sell. Much of the feeling of permanence is created by the buildings. These are invariably delightful, traditional, non-pretentious three storey Yorkshire shops and homes on the main street; two stories further out. Designed for families to grow up in or to sell bread, meat, ale or local grown vegetables, they have remained true to their heritage. I’m tempted by a Yorkshire curd tart or a lemon meringue pie but am full from my Rievaulx picnic. Not for the first time I almost wish I still drank beer. The pubs look superb but I’m not going in to sip at a glass of American soda. These are places to drink bitter beer and talk of horses and the price of cattle. At least that is how I imagine them from the outside.

DSC_0334They have proper names for pubs. The White Swan on the eastern side of the main street and the Black Swan opposite with its first storey room suspended on columns and jutting out above the thoroughfare, allowing travellers to await the approach of the stagecoach to Scarborough or York. Beyond these the George and Dragon and the King’s Head. England’s oldest fox hunt (The Bilsdale) was founded here in 1668 by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. He died in the town of a chill caught hunting, which may be seen as something of a victory to the fox. The plaque reads that “Fortune filled him too full and he run over.” Is it a eulogy for the man who had everything? Or is there a subtle  stab in the words? A certain glee in the downfall of the mighty?

DSC_0380The Adela Shaw hospital brought children from the industrial towns of West Yorkshire to Kirkbymoorside. The crippling diseases of the early twentieth century were prescribed time and as much fresh air as possible. The hospital had open wards and verandahs where patients were treated for polio, TB and rickets. By the time I was born these ailments had only just been consigned to history. The hospital closed in 1970. I’m pleased that its work is still remembered.

Men are busy on ladders. Down West End I smell the burning of paint. A decorator is hard at work with a blow torch on proper window frames. It is an increasingly rare sight in England where uPVC has defaced many a fine frontage. There are cottages for sale and, as is my way, I contemplate moving here. I can think of worse places to be.

After a circuit of the town (it is bigger than I remember) I settle in the church for a few moments of reflective peace. It has the simple beauty of well-looked-after village churches. There is no sense of dust and cobwebs taking over or twice monthly services. This is a working church. As if to prove the point ushers and early guests begin to arrive to prepare the church for a funeral service. I feel like an intruder and quietly leave. Half the town are heading in the other direction. The deceased was obviously a well respected man. The town knows how to show respect.

Hutton le Hole got my father’s vote for the prettiest village in the county. Once again I have strayed a mile or two outside the geographical boundaries of the Vale. Once again I would have been a fool to spurn the opportunity to visit a place that is as unique as it is lovely. It can get very busy at the height of the season but on this day it has only a thin trickle of visitors. The village is largely free of the eyesore of beautiful seventeenth century cottages being obscured by twenty first century cars and vans. A big car park has been provided at the top of the town where the moors are beginning to turn purple.

DSC_0401Sheep graze freely on the greens. A stream flows carelessly through the length of the street. A tiny church, a tea room, a pub that does good food. It isn’t so much a place to come and do things, it is more a place to come and be. Hutton-le-Hole is what it is; an delightful and unique village. There is a very good museum of country life here (The Ryedale Folk Museum) where you can pay money to look at delightful Yorkshire houses from different ages. It is money well spent even though you can do exactly the same for free by simply walking up and down the main street.

I don’t think living in a place that attracts dozens of coach parties each day throughout the summer months appeals to me too strongly. Those who do live here seem  happy enough. The houses are all beautifully maintained and the gardens ripe with ample harvest. The village is ruled by the sheep and these are very happy sheep indeed.

Part 3 : Steam Trains and Forest Rides

From Hutton le Hole I want to go right up onto the moors. They stretch from here for miles in every direction except the one I came from. The heather is turning purple. The United kingdom has most of the world’s heather moorlands. They are a true national treasure.


But I’m here for the Vale of Pickering. I’m not making much of a fist of it. I’ve spent at least half of my available time making changes to the game plan just because there is a monastery up one country lane and a picturesque village up another. I must learn to resist temptation.

I could turn back to the main road through the flatlands but head into the hills instead. It is an astonishing stretch of roadway and almost immediately there is a 4 wheel drive vehicle trying to get into my back seat. It is a typical way of driving in rural Yorkshire. They don’t seem to be happy unless they are shunting the back end of the car in front. Not wishing to impede his progress I pull into the next lay-by. He goes past and then mysteriously slows. Now that the game of ‘push the tourist’ is over, even the local farmer is happy to take in the beauty of the countryside.

The road bucks and shies its way over hills and hollows; plunging over bridges and through spinneys, tilting away in a rush to get to the next change in vegetation. First heather and bracken, then fields of sheep, then cows, then through a stand of birch trees and up once more onto open moor. I follow a post van through Oxholes Wood and into Spaunton. At Lastingham diners gather outside the Blacksmith’s Arms while a man lounges in an easy chair in the afternoon sun. As I take photographs of the church the post office van pulls in behind me. A girl, not yet twenty, with a sunny smile gets out and takes a parcel to the lounging man. There’s time for a cheery word. When I worked in these parts the postman would often make himself at home in the hostel kitchen; would happily put the kettle on and make tea; would even help serve breakfasts when things were really busy. She is working to a tighter schedule but knows the value of the human touch. It takes no more than twenty seconds. The words spoken, inconsequential, but the chuckling encounter brings something to both their days.

DSC_0409The village is as old as any in the county. It boasts among its former residents no less than two saints (which outranks towns that can claim a television weather girl and a man who once played left back for Coventry City); Saint Cedd and Saint Chad. Along with their brothers, Caelin and Cynibil they established a monastery here. They were all significant figures in the Anglo Saxon church and were written about by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I’m ashamed to say that my copy sits unread on a shelf surrounded by good intentions.

Cedd played a key role at the Synod of Whitby of 664 which set the date of Easter for the western Christian church (the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, if you are interested). He died shortly afterwards of the plague here in Lastingham. Many monks came to pay homage and most also caught the plague and died.

I take my pictures and move on while still in good health.

At Cropton there are forest rides and a place where you can rent Nordic cabins with hot tubs. Can ride bicycles along forest paths and, if I’m reading the brochure correctly, spend happy hours on a settee, with a family of physical perfection, reading books to children who hang on your every word while staring lovingly. Once you’ve had enough of that you can take them all into the woods and point out butterflies and instil in them a lifelong love of learning about nature. The reality is that you fill the fridge with bottled beer and red wine and take the kids to Flamingo Land and ride the roller coasters and spend the evenings watching Britain’s Got Talent on wide screen television.

I’m actually something of a fan. The cabins are hidden away in the forest, bring jobs and income to the area without any blot on the landscape and allow tourists to experience some of the loveliness of North Yorkshire without contributing to the way holiday cottages are killing off English villages. There is also something very appealing in the idea of sitting in a hot tub in a northern forest as dusk begins to sound the knell of passing day.

Pickering is always busy these days. It never used to be and there are a dozens of couples who moved there to live in a quiet market town only to find it has turned into a significant tourist centre. They don’t seem to begrudge this. It may bustle during the daytime but it has kept its character. In fact, after a period of growing into a backwater it has re-discovered a vigour it has possessed for centuries.

The town has given its name to the whole vale. It’s at an important crossroads and owes its growth to this. Roads lead out of town towards Thirsk to the west and Scarborough to the east. Malton to the south and Whitby to the north. If you were only going to visit five towns in Yorkshire, these would be five that would give you a pretty good idea of why it is regarded, by the locals, as “God’s County”.

It sits right on the northern boundary of the vale. Every road in one direction is steeply  uphill. Steam trains run from the station here up into the moors. At one time, if you saw a steam train in a British film, there was a good chance it was shot on this line. In the sixties and seventies advertisers showed us glamorous people drinking Martini in carriages that had left from a platform in Pickering. Today it trades on a heritage that owes as much to television as to any other source. The other end of the line is Grosmont and Goathland which for years was where the TV series Heartbeat was filmed.

DSC_0440Yorkshire’s stunning landscapes have been at the centre of several long running television shows, from James Herriot to Last of the Summer Wine. They all take care to portray it with a thick veil of nostalgia. Yorkshire sells its yesterdays to the world in a way that allows the honesty and goodness of the county to come out on top. It’s a world of fruitcake and teapots and cricket on the village green. There is nowhere else in England that is so happy to make you believe that you will be heading back in time once you cross the county line. Coach companies  advertise trips to Heartbeat Country and the world of All Creatures Great and Small as if they were real places. To the thousands who join these excursions they are.

DSC_0459I’ve just missed a train. I could wait an hour but the next excursion is being pulled by a diesel locomotive and that doesn’t seem quite right. I take a walk up the hill to the castle ruins which are peaceful and lovely. Hardly what they were built to be. I’m one of five people exploring the ramparts. We are all silent and content. A songbird sits on a thorn tree and sings out the strains of a glorious late summer afternoon.

The Quaker Meeting House is open and invites visitors to sit quietly in the gardens. They have even left out a box of plums to help yourself. I’ve never been in a Quaker Meeting House. In most towns they are carefully locked away behind a wrought iron gate. I cannot resist, and sit for a while and reflect, which is what I believe I am supposed to be doing. It brings a gentle calm to my day. In the next room two carers are teaching an elderly woman to dance. It feels rather special.

The café proclaims that it sells ices. The man is obviously disappointed that that is all I want to buy. I’m disappointed that the ices are all well known brands, factory made and wrapped in bright colours. I’d fancied a true Yorkshire dairy ice cream and have to make do with a Magnum.

DSC_0478This is a fully working town. It may have learnt to cater for travellers but it can look after itself. There are farmers and builders, lawyers and accountants among the citizenry. I learned to fall out of a canoe in the swimming pool here. Learned that I didn’t like motorbikes while being driven at high speed around corners and bends. Sat in pubs and drank pints of good beer while members of the mountain rescue regaled us with tales of hardship and survival on the tops. I’ve cycled the main roads and the back roads. Looked after small hostels and helped in larger ones. Been mistaken for a gunman on the run and held up by armed police. Went to see Caligula in the Castle Cinema where all fourteen of the audience sat on the back row. I’ve many memories of this part of the vale and am happiest on my travels today to sit in the centre of the town and watch shoppers shop and meet and greet. Watch tourists disembark at the station or enter and leave the Beck Isle Museum. It’s busy and thriving and I don’t see a single person who fails to smile.

Pickering has changed since I lived around here. But like many of the towns of the vale, the more it changes the more it maintains its character. I’m sorry when I realise that I’m running late and it’s time to leave. The Memorial Hall proclaims in carved letters that it was built “with the object of improving the conditions of life”. I’d say the whole town is doing that job pretty well.

Part 4 : The Finest Medieval Walled Town in England

The Romans liked Malton so much that they stayed for four hundred years. During that time they established a fort in the modern Old Malton (which is something of a paradox), set up workshops and became goldsmiths, and carvers of jet. It was considered a favourable posting. A largely farming area far from marauding hordes. Not much has changed. Farming is still the main activity and marauding hordes remain conspicuously absent. Earlier this year it was included in the 101 best places to live in Britain, which is impressive until you discover that the list proclaimed Skipton the most desirable place to be. Thirty years ago I would have almost agreed,  but urban influx has increased prosperity and cappuccino options but has killed the seed that made Skipton special. I wouldn’t want to live there now but I’d move back to Malton at the drop of a hat.

Many think of Malton as the very essence of a market town. An abundance of independent shops gather around the large market square. St Michael’s Church is actually in the centre of the square, along with a cluster of other buildings, giving a sense of two squares; three if you include the cattle market which occupies an ancient and central spot a mere  fling of a dried cow pat away. Cattle and sheep are sold by auction on Tuesdays for ‘prime’ stock and Fridays for ‘store’. (animals that are not yet ready for the abattoir). It is an important economic event in the area and a time for farmers to be able to catch up with news of friends and colleagues on other farms. When I lived in the town the Spotted Cow pub had a licence to stay open all day (unheard  of in those restricted drinking times). It was (and I believe still is) an excellent pub that sold well kept Tetley beer. It wasn’t only farmers who took advantage of the all day drinking.

DSC_0527The lay out of the town owes a great deal to its medieval heritage. When Harry Robinson, the Dean of Humanities at Huddersfield Polytechnic,  heard that I was no longer working for the future university but had moved to Malton, he got very excited. Over mugs of tea and ham sandwiches in the refectory he explained why Malton is still the best preserved medieval walled town in Britain, even though there are barely any walls left. Some geographers  favour complex rock formations or pyroclastic flows. Harry (later professor Robinson) had a thing for old street maps and urban settlements. He got very excited indeed at the prospect of me living in Malton. “An awful lot of work still to be done there. An awful lot still to discover.” I told him I’d do my best.

DSC_0500One of the things that hadn’t been discovered back in 1980 was the prisoner of war camp just outside the town. This is surprising given that it was not much over 30 years since it had housed hundreds of (first) Italian and (later) German prisoners, and that the tower stuck out like, well, like a watch tower from a prisoner of war camp. The last prisoners were repatriated to Germany in 1949, after that the buildings were used for the storage of grain and the raising of pheasants to be shot on the Fitzwilliam Estates. In 1985 it was bought by a man called Stan Johnson who intended to set up a potato crisp factory on the site. One day he was approached by three Italians who had been held prisoner during the hostilities. From this meeting events moved rapidly and the camp opened as a museum of the second world war less than two years later. It quickly became a major tourist attraction and is high on the list of places visited by school children on history field trips. Many of my own students have told me how much they have enjoyed a visit there.

DSC_0512Last admission is at 4 o’clock. I arrived at the gates at five minutes to four. This caused a momentary dilemma between catching Malton with its shops open or a museum. I’d already ‘done’ two castles, two ancient monasteries and a working abbey. I fancied shopping. From the outside it looked impressive with a display of tanks, aircraft and flying bombs surrounding the huts and central tower. Happy, well fed, families are emerging. From prison camp to holiday attraction is a fine line to tread. In the “Prisoners’ Canteen and Officers’ Mess you can get hot meals and pints of tunnel-buster strong ale.

DSC_0494Malton always had good pubs. Lots of old establishments with side rooms and nooks and crannies. Many pubs in England reacted to the downturn in trade by modernising. It is a term that is almost always pejorative in the licenced trade. It usually means opening up the space, knocking down dividing walls and thus destroying the natural ambience of the place. Then thought they could recreate this feeling of tradition by erecting mock bookshelves and placing old kitchen and laundry equipment on pointless  shelves next to the laser lighting rig and the Bose speakers. England has lost about a third of its pubs in the last twenty years. Happily many of the ones that have closed are the ones that were modernised. The Spotted Cow is still there, still without a straight wall in the building and still, as far as I can see through the window (it is market day but it is closed) with its jumble of rooms.

DSC_0536Walking around the square is like walking into the past. Some of the shops have changed but the buildings are still the same. Stone is kept for prestige buildings around here. Many of the fine Georgian shops and houses are built with an attractive brick. The majority may be eighteenth and nineteenth century but the design of the town is hundreds of years older and still follows the pattern of the medieval walls.

The most distinctive feature of Malton is the fact that it is two towns. Two very distinct towns divided by a river. On the north bank of the Derwent is well-heeled Malton, on the south is the more industrious Norton on Derwent. I’m very fond of Norton but the lateness in the day keeps me on the top side of the bridge. Both towns are susceptible to flooding and in bad winters they become detached.

I’m delighted to see that Derek Fox’s butchers and game merchant is still in its place at the top of the square. Malton has begun to develop a reputation as a food town and it is upon shops like this that the foundations of that reputation are being built. In the old days pheasants, rabbits and hares hung outside complete with fur and feather. Today such displays are likely to put off as many as they attract. The good folk of middle England are keen to indulge in traditional fine dining but would rather their children don’t have to see where the meat comes from. We were brought up to accept plucking, skinning and drawing as part of the preparation of the meal. Having said that, I’m more than happy to buy 3 brace of pheasant and 3 brace of partridge for £25 and to have them oven ready and in the bag to take away; the pheasant which is not quite in season is frozen, the partridge plump and fresh.

DSC_0557Malton is a horse racing town. There isn’t a course here (though point to point meetings take place) but some of the most successful stables in the country are to be found on the banks of the Derwent. Peter and Mick Easterby have both trained  on the gallops around Malton and Sherriff Hutton. Horses from here have won classics as well as taking the top prizes in jump racing. Blunt and to the point, neither is averse to causing the occasional offence. Listening to them talk horses over a pint or two in a Malton hostelry was to hear the poetry in the Anglo Saxon elements of the language. In 2006 Mick caused great offence in celebrating a winner at the Ebor meeting at York by relating an anecdote about how he came to buy the winning horse to Channel 4 interviewer Alastair Down. The story concluded, “You’ve made me look a c*** once, I’m not be made a c*** twice.”

DSC_0575Four viewers rang in to complain and one to congratulate the plain speaking Yorkshireman. The programme makers issued apology after apology. The authorities however took a more relaxed view. I love the wording of their statement. “We have written to Mr Easterby and reminded him that he might want to be mindful of what he says when he is next interviewed on national television.”

I drive out of town past the gallops where these horses run out. Watching them  remains one of my abiding memories of my time in the town.

DSC_0593Further out I enter the surrounds of Castle Howard. This whole area has retained a deferential cap doffing attitude to the privileged and the powerful. Few parts of England flaunt their wealth more dramatically than this. The castle is a thing of great beauty but is also a statement of social standing and the power of money. The gateways suggest you are entering in at the gates of Vienna yet you are driving from one set of fields to another. In case you’ve missed the buildings, the temples, the lakes and parklands there are two towering pillars that would dominate any London square.

DSC_0571It has been a long day and the evening sun invites me to rest. On a bench in the village of Coneysthorpe I sit in the sun and look over the lake to the great house. It became famous as the location of Brideshead Revisited in an 80s television series. The last time I was here they had just finished filming. I was a young man then. The landscape has barely changed which is something that I cannot say of myself.





W is for Welbeck

Private, Peaceful and Very Well Guarded

Going Underground


(Note to previous readers: there’s nothing new here. I’m simply putting a few posts back on the blog. The dates on the photographs are wrong. They were all taken in 2014.)

Some journeys are carefully planned. Some are so unplanned that they don’t count as journeys until they begin to unfold. The local DIY didn’t have any seed trays (they’re out of season they tell me) so I drove to The Dukeries Garden Centre. It’s on the Welbeck Estate. I knew very little about the Estate and what I did know served to deepen rather than to illuminate my ignorance.

As garden centres go it is rather a good one.   The Harley Gallery next door is much better. The Portland Collection is the jewel in its crown. The lighting is suitably dimmed but the displays shine. All of it belongs to the estate.  A small selection of books includes a second  Folio of Shakespeare from 1632 and letters from Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. The miniature portraits are exquisite. Once again England had exercised its infinite ability to surprise and dumbfound. At best I had expected mugs so unsuitable for drinking out of that they had to pass as art, and some earrings that dangle. The Harley has these as well.

DSC_0025I was being given a glimpse into the workings of a powerful family. What was slowly dawning was that an intended  jaunt, to collect flower pots, had landed me slap bang at the heart of English history. It quickly extended beyond the Cavendish and Portland families to the dissolution of the monasteries and the development of agrarian techniques over eight centuries. It took in legends of Robin Hood and extended to exploiting of commercial opportunities in the twenty first century.

DSC_0066In brief the Welbeck Estate is part of a series of Ducal desmesne in this part of the world. They are all within the bounds of the original Sherwood Forest. It had been a monastery. The man who came to own it, and all of its thousands of acres, was the same man sent, by Thomas Cromwell, to pass judgement on how it operated. He decided it would operate better as a private house. His private house. With a nod and a wink from a fat king the monks left and centuries of wealth and power were transferred to the family Cavendish.

DSC_0025Next door to the gallery was a café where they knew how to poach eggs but not how to serve them. Across the yard was the best food shop I’d been in for a month or two. This was more like it. I buy a flat rib “Jacob’s Ladder” of beef and two big pieces of cheese: one made on the estate and one from Somerset which looked very good.

“What would go well with that?” I ask.

The girl smiles and suggests  something sweet.

“Like a plum chutney?” I suggest.

“Oh yes. That would work well.”

“Or a big bar of chocolate?”

She gives me a winning smile and then serves me an ice cream that makes the journey worthwhile on its own. Along with the Chatsworth farm shop this is the best place to buy good food in north Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire. There used to be a superb food shop in Bolsover but middle class foodies seem happier to visit an aristocratic estate, than an ex-mining town. Welbeck is thriving. Bolsover’s shop is now a funeral parlour.

DSC_0087As I leave the courtyard things  look very different. Garden centres are rarely attractive and this is no different. The car park should suffer the same fate but doesn’t. Behind the cars is a Victorian walled garden of impressive proportions; three acres, maybe more.

I take a wander into what look like the campus of an affluent university. Large two storey buildings that would grace Admiralty Arch house a curious array of ventures. One is the School of Artisan Food, another houses one of the biggest, and grandest, indoor riding schools in Europe. A strange, ugly, military annexe houses the Worksop Gymnastics Club. Under an imposing wall and entered into by even more imposing gates is the home of the Welbeck Abbey Bowls Club. I’ve never seen an ugly bowling green and never seen one as attractive as this. (A pity they need a plastic sign to tell you where you are.)

DSC_0063I’m aware that the estate is guarded but major construction schemes mean that the barriers are up. My sole intention is to see the house and enjoy a pleasant drive along a well manicured approach. Some of the impressive rooflines are coming into view at the same time as a gentleman of comfortable girth and determined gait. Something had been telling me that I was being watched. That same something was now telling me that it was a private residence and my presence wasn’t at all welcome. It’s a civilised, though one sided, conversation. I ask if I can take a photograph. I may as well have asked if I could relieve myself against the abbey walls. He doesn’t move until I am well on my way back from whence I came.Out of badness I take a picture of the abbey reflected in a wing mirror.

Few people know very much about the workings of Welbeck and those who do tend to clam up. I’m sure there is nothing secret going on in there but there seems to be some sort of omertà among the employees.

I’m a law abiding fellow but show me a piece of turf with a ‘keep off the grass’ sign and I’ll have a sudden urge to picnic or play French cricket there. I want to know about the Welbeck Estate and there seems a determination on the part of an unseen body that I shouldn’t. It seems odd. There is no equivalent at places like Chatsworth and Blenheim.

DSC_0061It could be partly explained by the fact that the Abbey was leased to the Ministry of Defence until 2005. My security friend had told me that I can book  a tour of the place at the Harley Gallery. There the woman smiles and says that the tours are strictly limited and only take place in August. “I’m not certain if they will be going ahead in 2015 but if you watch the website and book then there is a chance you might get in.”

I come back on my bicycle, following the waters that emerge as springs in my village, and flow as streams through the beautiful and deserted limestone valley of the Markland Grips before continuing through Creswell Crags. Here caves have revealed prehistoric paintings and tools. Across the main A60 Worksop to Mansfield road I turn onto a bridal path that takes me into the heart of the estate. The streams have been dammed into a large ornamental lake. It is very peaceful. The path is open to the public but I still have the sense of being watched. Farmers in tractors pause in their ploughing to talk on mobile phones.

DSC_0064But it is glorious. From field to field it changes from arable to forestry. A roe deer jumps out forty yards ahead of me followed a few seconds later by her fawn. Buzzards dance over the newly ploughed land.*

DSC_0096The estate is renowned for underground tunnels. In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson, goes in search of the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland. A man who had 15,000 men digging tunnels and underground chambers and rooms. In addition to twelve miles of tunnels (some wide enough for two horse drawn carriages to pass each other), he oversaw the building of a 250 foot long subterranean library and the biggest ballroom in Britain.** I pass tunnel entrances looking like fortresses. I know of several grand mansions in the area but am surprised to find another between Welbeck and Worksop. The man on the tractor tells me it is Worksop Manor.  Once the biggest stately home in Britain it is now a centre for training race horses. (And, inevitably, a place where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned). I know the area well but had no idea it was there.

DSC_0046I continue my stately pedal. The only paths not labelled private involve shouldering the bike and climbing over stiles. I’m happy to do this. The sun is shining and I could almost be back in the nineteenth century.

The beauty of the thousands of acres are kept private. Extraordinary buildings are hidden from view and guarded by veterans. I begin to feel a little sad about this until I remember the food shop and the gallery. The school of artisan food is building a reputation for the training of chefs and food lovers. And then I remember other stately homes: Alton Towers with its roller coasters, Longleat with its zoo and the Welbeck’s secrecy no longer seems such a bad idea.

DSC_0067Footnote: The fifth duke travelled through his underground passages in a sealed carriage into Worksop where people were encouraged to look the other way if they accidentally saw him. He passed through the Lion Gates. These are merely the most impressive of the many gateways into the Welbeck Estate. The wrought iron here would have made quite a contribution to the war effort. When everyone else in Worksop was obliged to give up their railings, nobody thought to ask for these. 


Cuckney Church: a perfect example of what the Normans did for us. It is as peaceful and beautiful as it looks.

*A habit that has given them the nickname of the dancing hawk.

** Notes From a Small Island Bill Bryson Black Swan. pp187 – 193 






A Sentimental Journey

Afternoon of October 1st 2015 (Sunny) and morning of October 2nd (misty)


DSC_0001 DSC_0002 DSC_0021 DSC_0022 DSC_0042 DSC_0054 DSC_0069 DSC_0081 DSC_0088



Two pictures of Lightburn Park. One with thanks to Ulverston Memories Facebook Page showing the park before I ever knew it. The modern one shows a park that has lost its flower beds, its bowling greens, its tennis courts, its putting green and its soul and loveliness. I don’t know if this is a result of budget cuts or someone’s (in authority) idea of improvements. (Put it back to how it was please).



The same view. 1987 of The Lower School and in 2015 of the housing that has replaced it.


Might not look much but this was a regular football and cricket pitch when we were younger. Our small-town-Lords; our village-Hampden!


Is there a more attractive main street in England?



Good Bye and Good Luck

Thank you to all who have read, commented, contributed and supported this blog. It has closed down before and there were reasons for its resurrection. It can now happily take its place in the past tense and rest easy. This really is the very last post. The blog will be taken down later this year. May yours’ continue and prosper.









Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 338 other followers