Ambleside in the English Lake District

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The wheel of the year has turned. The temperature is barely above zero and my fingers feel like the ice formations I see in the puddles and ditches, but the grass looks lush and these verdant landscapes shout out their promise of blossoming and ripening in the months ahead. The land is quickening. Winter is taking its leave as spring impatiently waits to step into the breach.

I don’t mind the cold at all, as long as it’s dry, and February sunshine and blue skies are a joyous combination. A day like this couldn’t be allowed to go to waste, so I decided to get out into the countryside and tap into that vernal energy. Cumbria is my favourite county and the villages, woods and footpaths around Lake Windermere are some of my favourite places to relax and appreciate the land. Where better then to spend a beautiful day on the cusp of the seasons?DSCF3486

Ambleside’s history can be traced back to Roman times. Then known as Galaca, the remains of the fort near Waterhead Pier are a reminder of when the settlement was part of the Roman defences against the possibility of invasion from the Scots to the north. Centuries later, the town is reputed to have taken its name from Hamel, a Viking who owned land there. Evidence of Nordic occupation is evident in the present day lexicon of the land. Words like beck (brook with a stony bed); fell (rock, cliff) and tarn (mountain lake) are synonymous with the power and mystery of this rugged, often-bleak, but always awesome northern landscape. When they first set foot on the mountain paths and beheld the icy clear tributary streams flowing down into the vast lakes below, the Scandinavian invaders would surely have felt they were home from home.

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Putting Viking warriors to one side, for me, the town evokes other more peaceful and relaxing associations. How could a place name which contains the verb ‘amble’ not conjure up images of quiet green lanes shaded by towering trees, expanses of pasture land, dry stone walls and the sound of bird song? The footpath from the northern pier of Lake Windermere up the gentle incline to the town certainly matches that description, though the town itself, small and unspoiled, is a hive of activity.

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Situated at the gateway to the Langdale pikes (another Scandinavian word, meaning ‘pointed mountain’) and south lakes fells, Ambleside enjoys enormous popularity amongst tourists and serious walkers and climbers. It has an abundance of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants, mostly full, even out of season…………..if there is such a thing as ‘out of season’ here.

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One highlight of this particular visit to Ambleside was being able to see the magnificent view of the white-topped peaks before the strengthening spring sunshine melts the snow, transforming it into crystal water.

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The views from the lower valley are breath-taking. High snowy peaks merged with sky line; I’m sure I even saw some fluffy sheep amongst the stratus, perhaps spirits of a fell-dwelling flock from Viking times, still holding on to their connection with the land. It’s easy to let the imagination run wild in such an inspirational setting.

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I love my visits here and feel so blessed that I live quite close to this bit of England’s green and pleasant land.

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Sawley Abbey, Lancashire

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The ruin of Sawley Abbey stands within the Forest of Bowland, an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire. I may be biased because it’s my home county, but I believe it would be a tall order to find another region of England which has as much variety to offer visitors in terms of open rural landscapes, miles of exhilarating beaches, buildings of historical interest, quaint chocolate box villages and not forgetting bustling towns and cities. Anybody familiar with this neck of the woods doesn’t need an official label to point out the beauty of this part of the shire.

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Situated close to the lovely town of Clitheroe, the Abbey was founded by a Cistercian order of monks in 1146 under the patronage of the extremely wealthy De Percy family of Northumberland. It was smaller than many of its contemporaries such as nearby Whalley Abbey  and Furness Abbey (link to my blog below). By all accounts the brothers of Sawley were not a happy bunch, complaining of poor crop yields and marshy land, and they didn’t reap the great material benefits enjoyed by many of their counterparts at other sites. Another gripe was that Sawley, due to being close to a busy road (nothing has changed there!), was an obvious resting place for travellers who had to be offered hospitality, this eating (pardon the pun) into the Abbey’s resources.

Like almost all Abbeys and monasteries in England and Wales, it was dissolved (torn down) in or just after 1536 when Henry VIII set up the Anglican Church and smashed – both metaphorically and literally – the Catholic Church in England. Many of these ruins are in the north of England. Most were not destroyed completely, as it was said that the King wanted people to see them, witness his power, and understand that he had authority, not Rome. Over time, much of the stone from these ancient sites was used by landowners and local people for new building projects.

The larger structures are long gone but visitors can still get an impression of the scale, stature and the space the Abbey occupied within its beautiful pastoral surroundings. It is now managed by English Heritage. No staff members are on site, but a local key holder opens and locks up daily.

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Nine centuries later, the ruin is still accessed via the extremely busy A59 road, and I can vouch that life and limb have to be risked when crossing. Visitors will also spot lots of four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling steel containers often crammed with sheep. This is the countryside, so it is to be expected, however I always find this upsetting and it is sure to cast a shadow over my day. Once the treacherous dual carriageway has been traversed, a side road leads to where lovely stone cottages line the short road up to the Abbey precinct. I didn’t take any photos of the desirable residences, as people were milling around outside and I thought it a bit rude to photograph them and their homes – and possibly a bit weird….or envious…. or all three.

A stone wall encloses the site and once inside I was fascinated to see some of the interesting architectural features displayed on natural stone shelves along one length of the perimeter.

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Below are some well preserved sections of the original floor. Imagine the painstaking work involved in lining up all of those stone blocks!

 

 

Although I was the only soul around for most of the hour or so I spent a Sawley, at one point a family with boisterous children entered. It seems that the site also doubles as a playground, unfortunately. I found a quiet nook where I could sit, relax, shiver a little despite the deceptive sunshine and enjoy the emergence of spring.

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Rydal Hall Gardens, Cumbria: a retrospective

Spring is around the corner and the promise of some better weather coming up has inspired me to get back out there after my winter semi-hibernation. I think Cumbria is on the cards for next week, with the hope of some golden daffodils to show you. Below is another visit to one of my favourite counties, made as summer came to its end.

DSCF3879Tucked away behind tall stone walls on the A591 between Ambleside and Grasmere is Rydal Hall. Describing itself as ‘The Christian Centre at the heart of the English Lake District’, this beautiful house and its surrounding gardens, woodland and water courses is a serene and lovely place. It’s somewhere I like to go on my own from time to time when I feel the need to recharge my batteries and just relax. I have never been inside the house, but I’ve spent many hours doing nothing much in the Hall’s outdoor spaces. The main reason why, for me, Rydal Hall is such a sanctuary is because it is so quiet. Even at the height of summer it is sometimes possible to sit undisturbed in one of several gardens, savouring the stillness and peace. Outside of the Christian communities who use the venue for conferences and retreats, Rydal Hall is one of the Lake District’s ‘best kept secrets’. The Diocese of Carlisle very kindly opens the garden gates to all.  A perfect place for weary limbs and a tired mind, this green space soothes, inspires, excites and invigorates.

Relax for a short while and walk with me in a one of my favourite places…………..

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First stop, the formal gardens. Symmetrical, sculptured and taking inspiration from Italianate architecture, the formal garden is a grand design. Situated in front of the house, it was created in 1911 by the celebrated landscape architect, Thomas Hayton Mawson. The garden was designed with the main focus being the views from inside the Hall, in particular from the grand staircase in the home of the Edwardian generation of the Le Fleming family whose ancient forebears first occupied the land. Beautifully kept and with some interesting nooks, crannies and novelty features, the formal garden in its elevated position is also a great spot from which to look out over the surrounding countryside. Nab Scar in the distance provides a wonderful contrast against the formal lawns and the concrete pillars. I like to spend some time appreciating the beauty and the fragrance of the magnolia as it climbs the pagoda.

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Let’s move on now, making our way through the iron gate and down the steps, crossing the path into the wild and wonderful quiet garden.

In parts overgrown, this place celebrates nature. In complete contrast to the precision of the formal gardens, here there is a feeling of being in a little wilderness; a real secret garden. Grasses have been left to grow undisturbed; giant ferns line the pathways and wild flowers adorn untouched corners to the delight of grateful feasting bees. That this part of Rydal estate is as carefully contrived as the rest does not diminish from the delightful illusion.

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Our senses are engaged here. The colour palette of Mother Nature dazzles our eyes, as does the stunning art work which takes us by surprise as we turn around every corner. Animal representations painted on wood hang from branches like talismans, reminders of a natural habitat shared with other lives. Sculptures stand like sentinels, obscured behind giant plants. We can hear the beck gently trickle nearby, and beyond is the sound of a waterfall. Let’s go there………

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Crossing the little beck, it seems as though we have come to the end of the path but we can definitely hear the tumbling water not too far away. Suddenly, there is a fork in the pathway which can’t be seen until you’re almost upon it. This leads to a tunnel which brings us out at the side of the crystal clear beck as it flows over the stony bed; very tempting on a hot day to have a paddle. Here, there is an interesting wooden building, ‘the grot’ dating back to the 18th century when it was added to this carefully selected spot to enable the family and their visitors to enjoy the view of the impressive cascade. This photograph doesn’t do it justice.

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Numerous artists, including John Constable, have committed the scene to canvas. I feel lucky to be here savouring this location. Looking up above the majestic spray I can see the stone bridge and am reminded that the tea room is there. Shall we go up?

Back the way we came and exiting through another wrought iron gate, we find ourselves at the former school room which has been transformed into a pretty little café. We can’t buy a meal here but there are some delicious cakes and beverages and a cosy corner next to the wood burner. Looking through the window I smile at the colourful animal sculptures outside and next my attention is drawn to the purple felt butterfly with its sparkly wings encrusted with tiny pieces of mirror. The woodland lies ahead.

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The path into the woods leads us up a gentle slope, firm under foot today, but quite slippery when the autumn leaves have fallen and turned to mulch. One of the things I like best about this part of the grounds is that I never quite know what to expect. Serving as an outdoor art gallery, Rydal Hall wood plays host to various artists at different times, who use the space innovatively to show off their creations, mostly sculpture and fun installations. I’m fascinated by the textiles I see woven between the branches and wrapped around the tree trunks. The place looks magical. Batik, crochet work, woven fibres adorn nature. Here, colours and textures are vibrant and invite touch.

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A little way further on and we find ourselves alongside the upper beck. We can sit for a while and listen to the flow of the water over the stones before we return to our lives, all the better for having spent time in Rydal gardens.

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Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Eskdalemuir, Scotland

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I came across this place when looking online for places to visit on a short break in the south of Scotland. It burst onto my monitor in a multi-coloured flash and at first I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought my Google search had brought up a rogue link to a place somewhere in the Himalayan foot hills, not the rolling green hills of Dumfriesshire. Closer inspection showed me that Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery did indeed have a Dumfries post code. I was hooked!

The magpie in me has always been attracted to the shiny and colourful, and this place had it in abundance. The bold, ornate temple with its dramatic art and sculpture jumped off the screen. I decided I had to go there to see for myself.

I had spent many happy childhood holidays in the Scottish border regions where my family had a static caravan. My memories are fond and include more recollections of grey skies and rain than sunshine in the blue. I’ve always found brooding grey skies and hill mists powerful and compelling.

As the little bus makes its way along the narrow road, passing through miles of uninhabited heather-covered moorland and vast forests of fir, my anticipation grows. I try to picture the spectacle of this bold oriental structure against the pastoral landscape.

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The temple comes into view. First I see a wide driveway with entrance through a grand ornamental archway. Lines of red, blue and green prayer flags flutter in the breeze. It all looks surreal. Entering from the road via a different route I find myself almost immediately in front of the temple building. Large and imposing, it is every bit as colourful as the photos suggest. This fascinating construction is a sight to behold; a feast for the eyes.

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Stepping inside, the interior is stunning. Red and gold dominates, especially in the inner sanctum where a large golden Buddha statue sits in pride of place within a glass display cabinet. Offerings of food items and trays of candles are placed before the statue which is surrounded by manifold images of saints and deities. The richly painted ceiling is a stunning canopy. Look too closely and too critically and of course you will see that all that glitters is not gold. Grandeur or bling? Artistic or tacky? Ornate or pale imitation? What would the wise man say? Maybe he’d say, ‘Don’t look to closely and just enjoy the experience.’

Outside again, I am free to roam around the site with the only ‘off- limits’ areas being the residential apartments for the monks and visitors on retreat. A flock of small birds catches my attention as they settle on a strange object placed on a balcony. I climb the stairwell to investigate. The birds take flight as I approach and I am none the wiser as to the nature of the foodstuff upon which the feathered collective has been feasting. It most resembles a small pile of melted candle wax. Descending the steps again I pass a shaven-headed monk in full garb accompanied by an American woman I’d earlier seen inside the temple. I receive a look of disapproval from the monk; perhaps I am out of bounds.

The extensive monastery gardens are a mix of pleasure and practicality. Wildflowers, sunflowers, marigolds and lavender are just a few of the flora in bloom alongside the beds overflowing with marrows, cabbages and lettuce. Some areas appear to be a work in progress. A cement mixer and piles of flagstones suggest grand ideas not yet made manifest. A brown hare appears on the path ahead where bracken has taken over and nature rules. It stands perfectly still, almost like an illusion, before darting away at the sound of approaching footsteps. Statues of the Buddha and deities and demons of Tibetan folklore turn this Scottish garden exotic and mystical. Strips of pretty fabrics adorn tree branches, prayers and wishes moving in the wind. Insects hover above the lily pads of a still pond traversed by a pretty wooden bridge.

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The ‘Tibetan Tea Rooms’ had looked very inviting on the website and I am looking forward to a wholesome veggie lunch prepared (hopefully) using the organic home-grown produce I’d seen in the vegetable garden. I am most disappointed to discover that the only food on the menu is Danish pastries and cheese & onion pasties. The enthusiastic young man who serves me informs me that there is usually soup and sandwiches too, but all the kitchen staff are new and still learning. Two packets of crisps and a refreshing bottle of elderflower cordial have to suffice. It doesn’t seem to matter in the scheme of things.

On my way back to the road I pass an intriguing building, a sort of corridor with prayer wheels arranged along one side, and what is essentially a columbarium along the other. Within glass-fronted cabinets stand rows of urns and other receptacles containing cremated remains. Most have alongside them photographs of the  people and pets whose remains are housed here, presumably members of the Buddhist community and their companions in feather and fur. Exquisitely decorated vases, bejewelled caskets, Chinese-style lacquered boxes, even hand-painted cardboard tubes all repose in the recesses. Smiling faces look out from gilded frames as the prayer wheels spin in sequence, carrying a thousand heartfelt wishes onto the breeze.

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Lancaster Museum

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Lancaster was only made a city in 1937 but its story can be traced back to the Romans who established their ‘castrum’ or fort by the ‘Lon’ or river Lune.

I am familiar with Lancaster but until very recently had never visited the city Museum, a modest building which one could easily walk past without noticing. It isn’t grand or ornate, but typically of Lancaster buildings it is constructed from stone and blends in with its surroundings. Ironically, it came to my attention on my most recent visit due to the scaffolding, plastic sheeting and forlornness which surrounded it. Thinking it had closed, I carried out a closer inspection, and at the bottom of a polythene walkway found a way in and a warm welcome. There began an hour long exploration of kings and castles; Saxons and stone carvings; industry, craftsmanship, culture and conflict.

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This Roman milestone stands in a somewhat incongruous position at the top of the staircase where the chintzy curtains and electrical wires appear at odds with this object of antiquity. It was made during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (builder of the border wall between England and Scotland)  between AD 127 and 138 and informs onlookers that it is four Roman miles to Lancaster from the spot in Caton where it was found in 1803. Here are some more relics of Loncastrum life….

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An altar dedicated by one Julius Januarius (great surname!), a retired soldier. This home altar was dedicated to a meadow god associated with the river Lune.
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A tomb stone discovered in 2005 near to the main Roman road leading into Lancaster
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Third century carvings which were probably part of a shrine. The heads represent the four winds

Moving on a few strides and several centuries we find ourselves in Lancaster of the middle ages. There are many examples of Celtic and Saxon crosses in ancient church yards all around England, especially in the north. The two below were found during excavations of Lancaster Priory Church.

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Most interesting to me were the informative displays about Lancaster during the industrial revolution, and its development as a centre of stained glass manufacturing.

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At the height of its fame in the late Victorian era, the company of Shrigley and Hunt ranked among the leading designers and manufacturers of stained glass in Britain, rivalling the better-known contemporaries such William Morris and Company
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John O’Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

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The skill of glass making flourished in Lancaster from about the 1870s in response to the growth in church building and the number of prestigious homes which boasted luxurious stained leaded windows.

James Williamson, Lord Ashton, was a leading industrialist and one-time mayor of the city whose family firm produced linoleum (see my blog on Williamson Park). Some fine examples appear in this display cabinet. A few of these fine specimens have cool retro appeal. Oilcloth and linoleum were big business in Lancaster for over a hundred years from the 1840s until the second world war and at the industry’s height it employed over half of the city’s work force.

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Examples of the city’s metal trades are also showcased

What local museum is complete without a badly turned out mannequin or two…or three…or more…? Lancaster has not fallen short and my particular favourite is the lady below undertaking wash day duties. I have early childhood memories of my own grandma having a dolly tub in her out house, decades after it had seen its last load of laundry.

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Lancaster has a proud military history and a section of the Museum celebrates this. I was very interested in looking at the various exhibits which had belonged to real men who had fought in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, some who died and others who survived to tell their stories. Some of their personal possessions have been donated by family members still living in the Lancaster area.

I was fascinated by the fabric and sewing detail on these uniforms and the fact that some of them looked so small, clearly worn by slim soldiers. It’s difficult to gain a sense of the proportions from this photo.

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On the left we see a regular officer’s coat of the Fourth King’s Own Royal Regiment from around 1820. In the centre is the coat of an officer of the First Royal Lancashire Militia from 1794 – 98 .To the right is the tunic of an officer of the 10th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers.

 

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A German snare drum embellished with the red rose of Lancashire
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This beautiful Coptic bible was the personal proper of Lieutenant Bray and was donated by his family.

 

More mannequins model military attire and weaponry of different eras. In the first picture a kilted Scottish rebel awaits his fate.

This little museum has no cafe, gift shop or any of the multi-media and interactive attractions we have become used to nowadays, but it’s well worth a look if you’re in the city and want to learn more about the story of Lancaster.