Astley Hall, Chorley, Lancashire.

7C18465F-5BED-46E4-8E48-69E43A77BA2C

Astley Old Hall, a grade 1 listed historic house in Chorley, Lancashire, originates from 16th century. It sits within lovely Astley Park, just a short walk from Chorley town centre. Although it’s close to home, I had never visited previously and confess I thought that because of its relatively small size and because it doesn’t charge an entrance fee, there probably wasn’t going to be much to see. Wrong! During my hour-long visit I saw some wonderful examples of ornate plaster work, period furniture and intriguing wood carvings.

6969A6D8-9426-46D9-9DED-D70396913718

The Hall has been adapted and extended over the centuries. In 1578 the original Astley Hall was built by Robert Charnock whose family, wealthy local landowners, had been Lords of that Manor since the 11th century. Readers who have travelled on the M6 motorway may be familiar with Charnock Richard services, situated between junctions 27 and 28 in the village of (unsurprisingly) Charnock Richard, which was given its name by Sir Richard Charnock of that same family in the 13th century.

In 1922 the Park and Hall were given to Chorley Corporation by Reginald Tatton, also a prolific landowner, who had inherited the property in 1906. The entrance archway is early 19th century. I sat in a shady part of the Park for a few minutes and enjoyed the sound of a huge wind chime.

5618B439-1240-4F53-9580-E4EB431B4747

Beyond a children’s play area, the drive leads to a lake where friendly swans glide around the lily pads to the water’s edge, accepting titbits out of children’s hands. I just wish people – here and everywhere – would heed the signs and not feed them bread which is bad for them.

Visitors are welcomed into the Great Hall by curators who are happy to answer questions. There is no admission fee, which is brilliant, though I wouldn’t have minded paying to look around this splendid museum.

289F10A6-C708-49CF-8376-21095864D34D

The Great Hall’s walls are adorned with beautiful painted panels of famous historical figures. The curator explained that although these are believed to be gifts which were installed in the 18th century, they are thought to be as old as the house.

D36CF2F0-A1E7-4F4F-9E9B-419011974138

Look up to see the winning feature of the Great Hall, the plasterwork ceiling.

The drawing room was remodelled around 1665 when owner Margaret Charnock married Richard Brooke. The young newly-weds rejected the then old-fashioned Tudor style in favour of stylish Baroque, hence the ceiling and wall tapestries. Clearly, the furniture is not of the same period and was added in the Georgian and Victorian eras.

The inlaid room was used as a library during the 19th century and was where the gentlemen would retire after dinner. The wooden wall panels were inlaid with patterns in different coloured wood, hence the room’s name. Some of the books on the shelves are centuries old; others are undergoing restoration.

The dining room

A small courtyard area leads to the kitchen which is set out as it would have been back in the day, though the particular day is not specified. I appreciated the attention to detail as these things can often end up looking completely naff, though not to the extent of having real stuffed rabbits hanging from ceiling hooks and birds arranged in a taxidermic table display. Surely, it’s time to let the unfortunate creatures go to their rest.

The morning room was where the lady of the house would take advantage of the good light early in the day for embroidery or letter writing. This room was originally part of the Tudor Great Hall but was separated in the 1660s. More impressive plasterwork was added to the ceilings, and the furniture dates mostly from that same period or the 1700s.

33508404-DA7E-417B-86A5-98CDE35085CA

5A618B4B-7D85-42C8-95DF-3C767BB685FE

0DC63A18-497F-4324-83F5-92B2CE8F59E9

I asked the curator about the mermaids, fish and other sea creatures I’d spotted around the house, as I might have expected this sort of maritime design in a coastal location, but not Chorley. Apparently, an interest in mythical creatures such as mermaids was common in the 17th century. I didn’t know that!

Upstairs there are two bedrooms, both claiming connections to Oliver Cromwell. It is known that the Lord Protector stayed at Astley Hall after the Battle of Preston in 1648. The first bedroom has been named in his honour.

However, it is thought that he also slept in the second bedroom, that of his host and hostess; it’s not clear why Cromwell would have been bed-hopping beyond the confines of his own chamber, and even more puzzling is why Cromwell was at the Hall in the first place as the Charnocks were Royalists and fought for the King, Charles I.

My favourite part of the Hall is the long gallery on the top floor. Only 20 visitors are allowed up there at any time due to the floor, though perfectly safe, being in need of protection. A 23ft long oak shovelboard table dominates. Shovelboard was a popular game amongst Tudor nobility; brass counters would be pushed along the table as far as possible without them falling off. The table’s sides are covered with intricate designs including grapevines, a unicorn, various beasties and a couple of ….exhibitionists.

B6EB06A8-1717-4A4D-A704-A8636C68E23F

45C323AD-3CF1-4852-8049-D3B092A12878

6D9A52E5-344E-4499-9C20-97395DFFE956

After surveying the Hall, I decided to head to the old stables courtyard for some refreshments at the Ambio Café.

3A92E02F-A91A-4A0E-9DE9-48AD1BF3E8C7

I had hoped, expected even, that there would be Chorley cakes on the menu, as I am quite partial to these currant-filled local pastries which are similar to Eccles cakes but not flaky, and better in my opinion. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed so I had to settle for a flapjack type thing. I overcame my disappointment in recalling an amusing picture I’d spotted earlier in a shop window.

A9516797-D152-47A3-BC7B-569C1DE8600D

I headed off to Booths supermarket for some Chorley cakes to take home…..and very nice they were too!

7BB52B62-8B1E-4E29-9795-CCCD953B8A93

Heptonstall, Yorkshire: Rest in Peace, Sylvia Plath and an 18th century counterfeiting conspiracy

DSCF5478

Heptonstall is a little village on a steep hill overlooking the lively, Bohemian town of Hebden Bridge. The ascent from Hebden valley is not for the faint-hearted; from the comfort of my seat on the bus I watched with admiration as we overtook those who rose to the occasion and ascended on foot. I reflected with a mixture of pity and awe on how the pack horses of yesteryear must have faced that steep climb to the weavers’ cottages before the arrival of the waterwheels which would later power the multitude of mills which sprang up in the region.

DSCF5488

DSCF5471

The middle of the village still has its original cobbled streets. The old cottages are quirky; artistic flair oozes out of the very mortar. Like Hebden Bridge in the valley below, Heptonstall has reinvented itself, with many residents having moved there to live the rural idyll in an ancient stone cottage . On the periphery of the village are newer, more affordable housing developments. Old village in the new; new village in the old. This is a reinterpreted 21st century English village with a lot of history.

DSCF5476

Just off Northgate is the octagonal Methodist chapel, famed as the oldest in the world in continuous use. It is a venue for social occasions and arts events as well as religious worship. A plaque proudly announces that Rev John Wesley, the founder of Wesleyan Methodism, preached there in 1786. Nobody was around when I visited, so I sat for a while enjoying the view of the valley.

DSCF5480

DSCF5481

The old former grammar school has been turned into a small but interesting museum which houses some fascinating items such as the headmaster’s desk and tables etched with the names of naughty school boys who sat in that classroom 200 years earlier, now probably old bones in the adjacent graveyard.

DSCF5494

DSCF5498

DSCF5507

DSCF5509

Heptonstall has two parish churches: the original, dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, was built in the 13th century. During a ferocious storm in 1847, part of the building was badly damaged, and although repairs were made it was decided that a new church would be built.   The present church of St. Thomas the Apostle stands just metres away at the other side of the graveyard. The shell of the old church is a special place for me; a peaceful spot where I love to sit and listen to the gentle sounds of life and experience a sense of timelessness amongst the pillars and glassless windows. The clock face was removed and reinstalled in the new church; here time stands still.

DSCF5523

DSCF5524

DSCF5531

DSCF5528

DSCF5534

 

Ancient tomb stones, crooked and with inscriptions now faded, stretch out between the old church and the new. One marks the grave of ‘King David’ Hartley, the leader of the infamous ‘Coiners’, a gang of counterfeiters who outsmarted the authorities for years. The Coiners supplemented their incomes as weavers through a dodgy scheme which involved scraping tiny amounts of gold from around the edges of genuine coins then milling the edges again and returning the coins to general circulation. When they had enough gold shavings they would produce fake coins in their own moulds and embellish them with usually Portuguese designs which apparently were accepted as legal tender in England at the time. After many failed attempts to capture the gang, a public official bribed a member to give up the leaders. ‘King David’ was hanged. The Cragg Vale Coiners, as they were known, are a big part of local popular culture.

DSCF5535

The newer part of the church yard is the reason for so many visitors here; it is the resting place of celebrated American poet, Sylvia Plath, who tragically took her own life in 1963, aged just 30. Sylvia struggled against depression for most of her life and made several suicide attempts, finally succeeding after her husband, former poet laureate Ted Hughes, left her.

sp3
Ted and Sylvia in happier times

sp 2

Ted Hughes hailed from down the road in Mytholmroyd and the couple lived in the area for a short time. ‘Heptonstall – Black village of grave stones’ has been immortalised in Hughes’ poem. A similar bleakness is portrayed in Sylvia Plath’s ‘November Graveyard’, where she conjures a morose scene of ‘skinflint trees’ that ‘hoard last year’s leaves’. For sure, dark winter could move the soul to melancholy here, but on this May day the sun is strong, and branches are adorned with lush leaves and pink blossom.

Heptonstall church yard has become something of a pilgrimage site for Sylvia Plath’s global admirers who come to pay their respects to one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. Over the years there have been attempts to chip off the name Hughes by those who blame her husband for Sylvia’s suicide. The grave does not stand out amongst its neighbours or announce its celebrity status. The epitaph reads:

 Even amongst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted

DSCF5541

Chosen by Ted Hughes, these words are open to interpretation. Many think they refer to Sylvia’s struggle to thrive and bloom amongst the destructive force of her mental illness. The words are taken from one of the most celebrated Chinese works of literature, Monkey: Journey to the West and originate in a passage from the Hindu holy scripture, the Bhagavid Gita.

Whether ‘the west’ be India, the destination of the magical characters in the Chinese novel; a little church yard in the west of Yorkshire, or a goal at the end of a more personal journey, it is also where the sun sets at the end of each day, and what a perfect place to see it dip, below the Calder valley.

Hebden Bridge

DSCF5559

Hebden Bridge is one of my favourite places and I’m not alone. I have never met any visitor who has not been absolutely charmed by this quirky, cool little market town in west Yorkshire. Hebden Bridge sits in the upper Calder valley, 8 miles to the west of Halifax. It grew up around the pack horse route from Burnley to Halifax where it passed through the valley and over the bridge that crossed Hebden Water. Fast flowing water, lots of Yorkshire rain and a plentiful supply of wool from ample local flocks meant that the region was ideal for weaving, first by hand loom workers in their cottages and later in the many water-powered mills which sprung up.

DSCF5562

For centuries, textiles and farming used to put the food on most people’s tables in this region, but times change and both industries have declined, completely in the case of weaving.  The area became very run down in the second part of the 20th century, with parts of it being bulldozed. Row upon row of houses stood derelict, but paradoxically it was this availability of housing in a beautiful part of the world which led to a second lease of life. In the 1960s and 70s, hippies, artists, writers and poets moved to Hebden Bridge in large numbers, giving it the label of the Shangri-la of the north, a paradise for creative types. Alternative lifestyles flourished, and the area was transformed and regenerated.

DSCF5586

Whilst the streets of Hebden don’t actually smell of Nag Champa, the aroma of liberality is definitely detected on the breeze, especially on Market Street, where the vendors of the accoutrements of alternative living have their abodes. Artisans are plentiful, and bespoke hand-crafted items of great beauty fill many of the shops.

DSCF5583

DSCF5584

DSCF5585

DSCF5630

Organic dishes made from locally-sourced produce and colourful and healthy-sounding snacks and smoothies are served in stone courtyards or cosy corners of chic cafes. Tourism is important to the local economy, and there are a lot of pubs, restaurants and cafes for a town of Hebden’s size, many of them catering for diverse tastes and offering healthy and novel choices.

DSCF5569

DSCF5590

It can be difficult to find a table at busy times (such as today and most Saturdays) and yet again my plan to feast at the Vegan Kitchen was thwarted by those who got there first. So popular is this newish funky eatery that I have not yet managed to get through the door. That can only be a good sign!

DSCF5573

My other regular spots were also full, and I was all but ready to pop into the Co-op for a sandwich when I decided to try the organic bakery which I had walked past dozens of times but never gone inside. I am so glad I did!

DSCF5581

DSCF5574

DSCF5576

As well as the bread I went in for, I came away with a supply of vegan cakes and croissants and a meat-free ‘Hebden Cornish’ pasty, which I devoured in the fresh air whilst listening to folk musicians giving it their all in a pub garden. Very tasty it was too! That’s the pasty, not the singers of sea shanties.

Such entertainments are not commonly available, but this weekend is special. Every year, the second weekend in May plays host to the Hebden Grass and Roots Folk Festival. Folk music takes over many of the town’s venues, and Morris dancers and musicians perform for the public.

DSCF5606

I particularly liked this troupe of local ladies in their colourful vintage-style attire.

DSCF5616

Those ’60s hippies and artists – now getting on in years if still youthful in spirit – have stayed on in Hebden Bridge and made their mark, but the demographic has evolved once again to include a more recent influx of professionals who can afford some fresh country air. Leeds and Manchester are both very accessible. They are looking for a place to live a different kind of life. It’s a near-perfect compromise for many: a rural location away from the hustle, bustle, grime and crime of urban sprawl, but a new rurality which embraces 21st century-thinking; an intellectual kind of country life:  organic, fair-trade, open-minded. This is the pull for the creative, artistic, ecologically-inclined, forward-thinking souls who have followed in the footsteps of the 60s pioneers and made the old weavers’ cottages their own.

DSCF5563

Old meets new – and new age. Tradition and innovation seem to meld into this 21st century concept: the happy blending of old place and new lifestyle. This is a very different country life to that which might be found in the more traditional settings of deepest Cumbria, where the land is still the living, where there is no place for sentiment, and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ are still new-fangled concepts which meet with some derision.

DSCF5598

Hebden Arts Festival is at the end of June – I’ll be back for that! Two years ago, as part of that event the community launched its blue plaque project whereby locals were encouraged to find out who lived in their houses 100 years earlier in 1916. It is so interesting to see some of the ‘plaques’ in the windows of shops and houses, celebrating residents of yesteryear.

DSCF5577

DSCF5582

DSCF5633

I wonder what those folks would make of the town now….

DSCF5591