Out Now!

Friday, 18 August 2017

Whitby is better than a sneeze.

Whitby Abbey is always worth a visit. Dracula thought so, and who are we too argue. The only real drawback is the 199 steps you have to climb to get there. In my view, if the Vikings had the puff to ransack the Abbey after all that climbing, well good luck to them. Good luck to them too for renaming the place, giving it a more sensible name. Whitby. The original inhabitants, the Brigantes had called it Sinus Fari, which brings to mind some kind of nose disease. The Saxons were even worse, calling it Streonshalh, which is fine if they were naming it after a vigorous sneeze. No, Whitby – Norse for White Settlement is a far superior name, though now it might be seen as politically incorrect.

The Abbey was founded in 657 by Oswy, the King of Northumbria and was shared by Monks and Nuns following the Celtic tradition. In fact, its first ruler and driving force was a woman – St Hilda.
In 664 AD we had the Synod of Whitby – which is a bit of a misnomer for the Vikings hadn’t yet come to rename the place. But thinking on it, the Synod of Streonshalh just doesn’t cut it. The Synod of Whitby made a fateful decision in terms of which ‘Church’ the North should follow – the loosely organised but spiritual Celtic Church, or the prestigious bureaucracy of Rome. They chose the latter and three years later the Vikings came and sacked the place.
I think not.

The Abbey recovered in time, flowered in the High Middle Ages and was all but destroyed by Henry VIII. It’s final indignity occurred in 1914 when the Germans fleet shelled Whitby and inadvertently or otherwise damaged much of the West Front.

To be honest, I found it hard to stop taking pictures. The damned place is so photogenic, but anyway, here goes.

An Abbey and a UFO. What more do you want?

Apart from the fact it is in ruins, very much as the medieval traveller would have seen it.

At sunset or sunrise the large stained glass windows would have flooded the interior with colour. 

St Mary’s, the church close by is in far finer condition, and though dating from the C11th was comprehensively besmirched late C18 Low Anglicans. It just gave me the creeps, all those boxed pews - pens for sheep – and the three storied pulpit dominating those below, and from which the word of God was preached. I found it oppressive and claustrophobic.

The day ended with a meal of fish and chips on the quayside. No pictures of this, we were too busy fending off predatory gulls. Quite honestly, Dracula would have been better served by gulls than bats. They strutted about in small predatory gangs, sensing the old and infirm and making sudden swoops on the unguarded chip or fragment of fish. Hitchcock had been to Whitby, I thought, and likely had lost a chip or two.

Friday, 11 August 2017

A ghost story

Easby Abbey and the church of St Agatha

Richmond is famous for its legend of the ‘little drummer boy.’ So famous that I’d never heard of it before going there and inadvertently following his trail. 

The story is both simple and tragic. In the late C18th soldiers garrisoned there discovered a hole in the ground near the castle and what looked like a tunnel. Being too large to squeeze into the hole they dragooned their drummer boy who was sufficiently small and thin to squeeze through. They passed his drum down and told him to explore, banging his drum as he went. 

They followed the sound of the drum out of Richmond through Frenchgate and along the River Swale. Just half a mile from Easby Abbey, the drumming stopped and the boy was never seen again—just the sound of his drumming on cold winter nights. The short six-minute video is worth watching. 

The photos we took along the walk are quite good too, especially those of the Abbey and its adjacent church of St Agatha with its incredible medieval frescos.

One passing thought. It was believed that the tunnel was an escape route for the monks of Easby Abbey from marauding Scots. One presumes they were pygmies to squeeze through a hole barely big enough for a drummer boy, either that or there’s another entrance lost or bricked up. I have no intention of finding out in case I come across these two and hear the ghostly strains  . . . 

The path followed the river Swale

Lichen and rock on the path. For those who grew up with Rupert Bear it looks exactly the kind of place you'd expect an elf or a pixie to pop out, so I waited, camera poised until my wife told me was being silly. Who am I to argue?

The path of the drummer boy roughly followed the river Swale.

And he nearly reached the Abbey, but not quite. A landslide, or something more mysterious, we don't know.

Easby has a long history. It is said that St Paulinus baptised Saxons in the River Swale in 672 AD and that a Church was built on the present site as early as 700 AD

It really is a beautiful spot. Below is the Church of St Agatha.

And its Frescos that aren't really frescos

They were executed using the secco (dry technique) whereby the colours were added on to dry plaster. A Fresco used the 'wet' technique whereby the colour was added on to fresh wet plaster which worked in dry climates but rarely used in Northern Europe. These paintings predate the Florentine, Giotto (1287 - 1337) and the Sienese master, Ducchio (179 - 1317) So there!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Richmond Castle

This was taken from a bridge over the river Swale that skirts the castle

We recently spent a wonderful five days in a cottage that fronted on Easby Abbey and a mere twenty five minutes walk from Richmond. A mere twenty five minutes walk. If that was all. The castle was built on a sizeable hill, virtually everywhere we went was on a bloody big hill —Whitby Abbey with its 199 steps—and only good food and whisky sustained me.

 Richmond Castle was built in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and likely founded in the 1070’s by Count Alan Rufus, ‘The Red.’ He was a kinsman of William the Conqueror, commanding the Breton contingent of the Norman army at the battle of Hastings. In exchange, William granted him lands in the North and estates in the south, which is why today we have a Richmond on Thames.

Protected by high cliffs and skirted by the River Swale, the site cried out for a castle, and the result would dominate the surrounding countryside, Saxon malcontents and the small town built around it. The Earliest masonry built by Count Alan includes long stretches of the stone curtain wall, the great archway in the ground floor of the keep, and Scolland’s Hall. In fact, no other English castle has so much surviving C11th architecture.

I told myself how blessed I was as I trudged up steep spiral staircases to the top of the keep. His grandson, Conan (1135071) successfully combined Brittany with Richmond and vast English holdings. It was in the C12th that the castle as we know it today was built. Now it is a most imposing ruin where red Valerian holds sway. 
Richmond as seen from a castle window
Richmond square as seen from the castle window

Richmond square at ground level
The Keep built by Conan. The arch and the ground level stone work is C11th built by Count Alan.
Interior of keep at ground level
Conan's grand hall some way up the keep
The top of the Keep at last!
Red Valerian from a distance
Red Valerian from me balancing precariously on a stone. Just as well it's not armed.

Thursday, 27 July 2017


The title is a teaser, clickbait even, and those inclined that way are in for one hell of a surprise. Lord Tredegar put the hard in core, but this new book on the reprobate peer focuses almost entirely on death duties and the demise of an ancient estate.

In 1865, Sanford and Townsend in their The Great Governing Families of England   set out to remind the nation of the permanence given to English policy by the influence continuing through centuries of a limited group of families.
Foreseeing no immediate end to their hereditary power, the aristocracy had always put the nation’s long term interests before their own for: ‘. . . with the greatness of England their own is indissolubly bound up.’ They were in Burke’s eyes: ‘The great oaks that shade a country and perpetuate the benefits from generation to generation. Similarly for Sanford and Townsend the aristocracy were seen as a thread in our social fabric, one that stretched from Alfred to Victoria. Ideas like these were an integral part of an aristocratic self-consciousness and succinctly expressed in George Meredith’s novel Beauchamp’s Career. Rene, a French aristocrat explains:
‘ I know my ancestors are bound up in me by my sentiments to them . . . We shame them if we fail in courage and honour . . . If we break a single word, we cast shame on them; why that makes us as we are.’

And then we have Evan Morgan who saw Tredegar House as a venue for extravagant parties. The writing was on the wall even before his death and those he left behind paid the bill. Between profligacy and swingeing death duties his inheritance was all but obliterated.

William Cross wisely sandwiches essentially dry letters between some potted background for those who know nothing of Evan Morgan, and ends with  a detailed timeline of his life. There are a few stylistic infelicities in the potted background, but then we get on to the letters, an absolute goldmine for the historian and—that word again—hardcore aficionado of all things Evan. 

They reveal the last death throes of an ancient estate being torn apart by land valuers, Inland Revenue, and the National Trust—which was initially seen as a safe port of call. The letters by their very nature are dry. That’s the nature of bureaucratese. In the words of the Honourable Emily Eden commenting on William Gladstone: (If he) ‘were soaked in boiling water and rinsed until he were twisted into rope, I do not suppose a drop of fun would ooze out.’ 

What does ooze out is the tragedy of a vast, historic estate being torn apart by scavengers in pinstripes and perhaps wearing spectacles.

The book, Evan Lord Tredegar, Final Affairs, The Aftermath is beautifully produced and has some wonderfully evocative photographs, but its primary aim is to wrap up a history; as I said earlier a goldmine for historians, background for writers of historical fiction and those interested in the decline of an ancient family. For the general reader, I’d recommend instead earlier books that focus on the essentially tragic history of Evan and his sister Gwyneth Morgan.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

'Simple Simon met a pieman . . .'

A fool and his money are soon parted. This is especially true of a fool who loves pies. It’s why I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a food market. This little lot:
A packet of wild boar bacon (dry and disappointingly  tasteless)
A packet of traditional pig bacon. (Nice, one very happy fool.)
Four cheeses. Cheddar. Unpasteurised. (Hit the tastebuds running)
And five pies ranging from Chicken, ham and leek, Steak and Kidney, Venison, Beef in wine, and Wild Game pie.  I would still have been buying but someone with more sense pulled me back.

I love pies. Every kind of pie, though I draw the line at what I call the ‘adventurous pie.’ One that I still dream about we bought from our local butchers in Aintree and also local chip shops. They were small and round in hot water pastry. They contained a large dollop of peppery minced meat swimming in hot gelatine, and they were heaven. If anyone knows where I can buy them, please send me a line – better still a pie. *

The adventurous pie is an entirely different kettle of fish. They’re a bit like the previous mixed metaphor. They’re just wrong. I’m talking about pies like Beef and Stilton and worst of all – curry pies. Wrong wrong wrong, like Saris in Iceland, roast pork in Mecca, Gazpacho in Saskatoon, and Mars Bars deep-fried. There are also curry pasties, and they’re pretty foul too.

But enough of this, I have a fridge full of pies to get through and four solid weeks in the gym

*I’m wondering whether they were called Scotch pies but googling it, it seems they have gravy in them – not the hot succulent, gelatinous meat I remember. The search continues.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Strong tea, trolleys and weird women.

I only recount this dream to illustrate a point. I was with my wife in a large cafeteria echoing with the clinking of crockery and cups. Our table was an exception, for we had no cups. We had no tea. And we were thirsty. I stood up to investigate.

At the far end of this place of pine and polished steel, a tea urn gleamed, and I headed towards it.

Damn thing was empty. Looked like it had been empty for years.

I sensed my wife’s roaring thirst catching up on me. A waiter dressed in green tweed sailed by and ignored me until I wrenched him by the arm. ‘We want tea!’ I said with some force.
 He pointed to another tea urn still farther away. ‘That’s bloody ridiculous,’ I said, boiling with fury and rage . . .

 . . .  even as I drifted into consciousness, and realised I could just roll out of bed and drink all the tea I could possibly want. But the dream held me back. I wanted blood . . . and tea. This fellow in tweed was not going to get away with his insolence. It was a classic example of Dream vs Reality. Rage vs a teabag just a moment away. Reality overcame insanity—just—and I staggered into it and all the tea I could drink. 

But sometimes dreams invade reality and the borders between the two become blurred.

Was I dreaming when I read a notice in an upmarket supermarket (Waitrose) exhorting customers not to wheel their trolleys into the toilets? And I’m still not sure about another incident on a long and wearisome journey.

I was dozing on a National Express bus from Liverpool to Monmouth, when someone hissed loudly in my  ear. “It’s disgusting. May the Lord have mercy on their souls.”

I opened my eyes and a woman in green tweed stared into them. “I shouldn’t be telling you—a gentleman like you?”

I must have looked puzzled.

She brought her face closer. “Two women kissing. Just walked past them now. Front of the bus. Driver should never allow it.”

The woman was stocky and grey, middle-aged and with the intensity of a witch or a Welsh non-conformist. I struggled to make some kind of reply. Was she dreaming or was I? Was I still in the C21st?

“Obscene. I’ll pray for their immortal souls,” she muttered before walking on to the back of the bus.

I tried to go back to sleep still not entirely convinced it wasn’t a dream. Sleep wouldn’t come. The picture of women passionately kissing just six rows up front, put paid to all thoughts of sleep. The damage was done. Whenever the bus stopped I looked up to see who these mysterious creatures were—discreetly mind, in case the woman behind might feel obliged to pray for my immortal soul too.

No one left the bus before Monmouth, and I stood intrigued but discreetly so. I cast my eyes this way and that as I made for the door.

The woman was blind, opinionated but blind. The couple that had provoked such Godly wrath were most definitely heterosexual: a comely woman in black leather and jeans and her boyfriend whose hair was longer than hers.

I leapt of the bus eager to be home with a pot of strong tea and a bathroom with not a trolley in sight.