Haigh Woodland Park, Wigan

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The school holidays are in full swing and I too am off work so was able to enjoy a day with my six-year-old niece. I let Mia choose what she wanted to do; her surprising decision was to “play golf at Haigh Hall”. I had expected Southport or Blackpool and was secretly relieved to avoid the seaside crowds.

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I have fond childhood memories of Haigh Hall, sitting with my family on a picnic blanket within the walled rose garden, or splashing in the pool.  I hadn’t been for years and had heard that there had been a lot of changes.

There has been a manor at Haigh for centuries with the earliest recorded residents being the Le Norreys in 1193. The most famous residents of Haigh Hall were the Bradshaigh family who lived there from the 13th to the late 18th century. One of the Bradshaigh family, Lady Mabel (or Mab, to her friends) is said to haunt the Hall. Legend has it that during the crusades, her husband, Sir William, went missing for between 7 and 10 years, and thinking him dead she eventually remarried. Sir William made an inconvenient return (there are several variants on exactly what he’d been doing during that period, and whether he could have returned sooner if he had wanted) and to punish his faithless wife for marrying another, the story goes that he made her walk barefoot once a week several miles to a mediaeval cross as penance; quite harsh, I think, considering he’d gone AWOL for several years.

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The landmark officially became known as Mab’s Cross and what’s left of it remains standing in front of a primary school which has been named after it. Although the tale of Lady Mabel’s sufferings would appear to based in fact, some elements of the story are disputed.

The present Haigh Hall – a grade II listed building – was constructed in the early 19th century by the 7th Earl of Balcarres, James Lindsey, on the site of a previous brick building. Lindsey, who had married the heir to the Bradshaigh estate, was involved in its design and oversaw its construction from Lancashire sandstone. The Lindseys continued to develop the early mining industry founded by the Bradshaighs in the 16th century, and during the Industrial Revolution made their fortune from coal and cannel mining. The family founded the Wigan Iron and Coal Company, the largest of its kind in Lancashire, and some mining took place on Haigh estate.

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The Lindsey family sold the property to Wigan Council in 1947. Although I went there quite often as a child, I only remember going inside a couple of times; I don’t recall there being much to see. Haigh Hall was not developed as an historical attraction in the same way that many similar manor houses were and was mainly used for civic and corporate events and later for wedding receptions. It is now run as an hotel and wedding venue. I didn’t go inside but comparing the Hall’s current external appearance with the last time I saw it, I would say it is greatly improved.

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Adventure Golf is adjacent to the proper golf course and for a children’s activity, the course, though great fun, is quite challenging and includes water obstacles. It is much more sophisticated than the pitch-n-put I remember, and I was surprised at how seriously some of the pushy parents seemed to take it, clearly eager to turn their intimidated offspring into future champions.

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After lunch in the courtyard area where 19th century stables have been converted into a deli, cafe, an ice cream parlour and a coffee shop, we walked around the lily pond which didn’t seemed to have changed a bit.

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There’s a lot to keep the kids amused for an hour or two, including a big playground with areas to suit all age groups, a few fairground rides and a high-rise agility circuit for daredevils of any age.

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The original pitch-n-put was still there too, run by Rotary Club volunteers to raise money for local charities – we’ll try that one next time. In one of the gardens, a group of little ones and their parents watched a musical interpretation of Alice in wonderland.

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I was happy to find that at least one of the walled gardens was still filled with flowers and that bees were thriving in the borders.

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Sadly, the fragrant rose garden which had been my childhood favourite was no longer there but had been replaced by a kitchen garden. Unfortunately, the gates of that garden are locked at 3 O’Clock and we had just missed out on a chance to look around though I did get a peek through a gate.

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From there, paths led into the shade and a network of tempting woodland walks throughout the expansive grounds but those will have to wait for a return visit.

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Todmorden, West Yorkshire: reflections on the passage of time

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Despite the stifling heat, I decided to make a return trip by train to the market town of Todmorden in west Yorkshire. I hadn’t been to ‘Tod’ for a couple of years as I had started to feel each time I visited that it was slipping into decline, slowly but surely. Nevertheless, I’d been told about a new vegan café called Meow, which was run as a fund-raising venture with all profits going to support cat rescue charities. Off I went with a friend, looking forward to lunch at a kitty cafe.

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Former residents of Marld-Earth and Honey Hole

We passed St Mary’s Parish Church which was built in the 17th century but has been modernised. I don’t normally look at churches unless there is something unusual about them, or a story to tell. My interest was piqued on this occasion by some impressive looking tomb stones positioned near the entrance. The oldest dated from the early 1700s though it was obvious that the ancient sandstone had been cleaned up and the inscriptions re-worked, though staying faithful to the lettering in its simplistic beauty. I read the names of some of the long-since departed of Todmorden including, sadly but inevitably, children.

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I am very interested in the history of localities, and the stones bear witness to the longevity of family lines, the same surnames appearing generation after generation (to this day) with sons being gifted their fathers’ Christian names. I was intrigued by some of the places from which the people hailed, such as Honey Hole, which I later discovered was just a stone’s throw from the Church. The world was much smaller then; the town was the centre of the universe, and in hamlet and village all needs were met.

Today, many people make their lives away from the old ties of families and communities, and some of us would even re-define ‘community’ in the 21st century. Certainly, churchyard narratives like these are literally a thing of the past. Will our descendants – if they look for us at all – find us reposing in pay-per-view online data files?

 

 

 

Another point of interest in the churchyard is the footprint which marks the starting point of the Paulinus Pilgrim Way. Saint Paulinus, a Roman monk, arrived in England as a missionary in 601 AD. He was sent north to spread Christianity, becoming Bishop of York and eventually a saint. The pilgrimage which begins at Todmorden Church follows ancient routes through the great north of England and ends in York.

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The Church itself is quite ordinary; surprisingly airy and modern inside. The masons of Todmorden, it must be said, loved their work, never using one word when five would do.

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A short walk down to Water Street led to disappointment. Despite consulting Google maps, which reliably informed us that Meow café was indeed in that very location, we could not find it. It’s only a short Street and we walked its length twice, but not a whisker of a feline-themed eatery could be seen.Several businesses seemed permanently closed, so we supposed Meow must have been one of them.

 

 

 

Todmorden Library on the left and Town Hall on the right.

We walked back onto Rochdale Road for a salad lunch at Kava vegetarian café, where we enjoyed a view of the Rochdale Canal and spotted a pig watching us watching him.

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Kava is under new management, having relocated from a previous spot on nearby Halifax Road. It was a pleasant enough location, but the menu was limited, and the service required a little polish. Hopefully time will remedy that. The town’s former flagship vegetarian restaurant, The Bear, used to be in the old Industrial & Co-Operative building next door to Kava and was my favourite spot for lunch, but I was saddened to see that it had closed.

Fed and watered, we decided to look at the Unitarian Church with its impressive Gothic spire which was just a short walk away, on Honey Hole Road of all places.

 

 

 

Initially, we were confused, as the building we first encountered bore a sign which identified it as the Unitarian Church, yet it seemed very homely. A gorgeous tortoiseshell cat sat grooming herself on the door step before sashaying happily in our direction to receive compliments and petting.

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Becoming convinced that this was a private residence which was affiliated with the Church, we decided to stop our gawping and photo-taking and walk up the incline in the direction of the spire. A wonderful Church came into view, but this was marred by the less attractive view of two half-naked men on the ground, swigging from cans. One of them raised his hand in a drunken toast; we made a hasty retreat. It is an oft-mooted topic, how the British are quick to disrobe in public at the appearance of sunshine. It doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else. I bet Honey Hole didn’t see sights like that in Reubin Haigh’s day!

I later researched the Church and discovered that it is still in use for services and ceremonies and is also a centre for social and arts events. It looks quite stunning inside, so I suspect I will be back to try my luck again. I also found out that the private residence in the grounds is the former Church lodge.

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Todmorden Wicker man
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The White Hart pub

A walk around town led us past the RSPCA charity shop, beautifully painted by a local artist.

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Next, we looked in at a community garden space which used to be a haven for bees. The parched vegetation and absence of pollen-rich flowers had, unsurprisingly, failed to attract insect visitors. The only inhabitants were more partially clothed and partially intoxicated people.

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The saddest sight of the day was a discarded bicycle which had been left to rust in the water where ducks could easily have become stuck in its spokes.

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Back at the Station, we had a fantastic view of Stoodley Pike looking down on the town.

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!!! Epilogue: Meow Café is, I am pleased to report, open for business and offering delicious food Thursday to Sunday somewhere “just off” Water Street.

Royal bees in the King’s Garden

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Southport is a seaside town in the north west of England. It’s the nearest coastal resort to my home, so although it’s not my favourite beach location, I go there from time to time when I want to smell that distinctive sea air and walk on the wet sand. The town has some nice shops and a genteel ambience, though it is has lost some of its former glamour. Of course, as adults we see through other eyes the once beloved places of our childhoods, and they are never quite the same.

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I went to the town last week to visit the British Lawnmower Museum (you can read about that unique experience here ) and decided to spend some time relaxing in one of Southport’s pretty green spaces. The King’s Gardens covers an area of about 17 acres between the town centre and the sea front, which now includes the funfair.

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In the reign of King George V, for whom the Gardens are named, the Irish sea used to come much further inland than it does now, so the King’s Gardens would have been a splendid crowd-puller on the promenade. Although development of the shore area started in the mid-19th century, the King’s Gardens came to completion under the design directive of celebrated landscape architect Thomas Mawson in 1913 when they were opened by King George V and Queen Mary.

 

 

Last week, most schools in the region had not quite finished for the summer, so although it was a pleasant day the mechanical sounds of the funfair rides and the screams of the thrill-seekers were happily absent, and Marine Lake’s true feathered population enjoyed the water unencumbered by the people-powered imposters.

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I admired the revamped Victorian pavilion shelters and the fountain, where nobody is ever too old to have fun…

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…and I found a quiet spot in the Sensory Garden

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It was a joy to see hundreds of bees darting in and out of the flowers, taking succour between the petals. I found myself engrossed in their vital and urgent foraging; their purposeful yet graceful endeavours for queen and hive in the Gardens of the King.

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To read about another visit to Southport, click here

The British Lawnmower Museum, Southport: gardening habits of royalty and celebrities, a grass-cutting obsessed curator and a lesson in Qualcast mechanics

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Rain has recently fallen on my part of the world for the first time in four weeks; and very welcome it has been! I love the sun and the heat and have basked and baked under the glorious rays, enjoying each day as it has arrived in all its fiery glory. I have trudged nightly, heavy watering can in hand, across the lawn to quench the thirst of wilting flowers. My little lawn has suffered in the extraordinary heat. Straw-like patches have appeared amid the verdant blades. It is incredible how quickly the lawn has rallied after just three heavy downpours; new growth has already sprung forth, and the dry but cooler weather of the last few days has aided the revival. I eagerly await the return of the intense heat but a (hopefully brief) respite is literally a breath of fresh air.

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Lawns. Mine is only small. We Brits love them. We love sitting on them. We love walking barefoot across them. Playing tennis on them is another British pastime. Most of all we seem to love mowing them. All this lawn talk reminded me of a museum I had heard about that is dedicated to that instrument of lawn beautification, the trusty mower. When I first heard about this repository for mechanical grass cutters, I thought it must be a joke. Certainly, these most labour-saving of horticultural contraptions hold pride of place in our garden sheds, but could there really be a museum celebrating their existence? I decided to head to the coastal town of Southport to find out mower (sorry!).

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Shakespeare Street, just a short walk outside of the centre of Southport, is quite ordinary except that it is the location of a centre of national gardening heritage, the British Lawnmower Museum This fascinating place was created by owner, Brian Radam, whose family business, Lawnmowerworld, is adjacent. In fact, visitors must go through Lawnmowerworld – a business which specialises in the sale, servicing and repair of all things lawnmower-ish – to enter the Museum. According to its website, ‘The Museum retains a character not often seen in these modern times’; I would not disagree.

I paid my £4.50 entrance fee and passed through the turnstile which separates the shop from the Museum. Brian – curator and business owner – explained that there would be an audio guide which would provide details about some of the many exhibits and about the history of lawnmowers in general. He asked me if I was interested in the devices, and I confessed that I was not, beyond their usefulness in my own garden, but that I was fascinated by the idea of a museum being dedicated to them. Fortunately, Brian didn’t seem to take offence at my frank response.

 

 

The audio commentary proved to be very informative, containing lots of interesting details about the invention of the first models and how they were initially dismissed by critics who thought they would never take off! The commentary and the Museum’s website inform that ‘the lawnmower was patented by Edwin Beard Budding in 1830’. At the time, Budding was thought to be insane and ‘had to test the machine at night so no one could see him.’ Needless to say, Brian has the prototype in his collection and was happy to demonstrate to me how it worked. Two men would have been needed to move this revolutionary piece of machinery, so Brian had to multi-task in this demonstration.

 

 

Only a fraction of the Museum’s total collection is on display, with the rest being stored away at a secure location. It wouldn’t be possible to show everything. It’s a rare thing to be guided through a museum by a curator. Brian helpfully hovered, powered by enthusiasm, revealing interesting snippets. I learned a lot on my visit, though I have to say that as I’m not mechanically-minded, some of the more technical details went over my head.

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These enthusiastic lady gardeners demonstrate the first petrol powered lawn mower produced by ATCO (Atlas Chain Company) in 1921. It was designed by the factory’s managers after the sad death of the horse which had previously pulled the old lawn cutter around the grounds.
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The world’s biggest lawn mower

 

 

 

 

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Lawn bling

I found the Museum a lot more interesting than I had expected to, and was particularly entertained by the collection of celebrity mowers and devices which the rich and famous have donated. Here are just some of them.

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Eric Morecambe’s mower
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A donation from Richard and Judy
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This splendid lawn maintenance collection was a wedding gift to the Prince and Princess of Wales. I was intrigued to know who would have selected this cutting-edge gift for the couple and what it must have looked like when it arrived gift-wrapped at Kensington Palace.
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Paul O’Grady’s unique instrument
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Slightly macabre in its noose is the mower of Britain’s last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.
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Nicholas Parsons’ contribution

I asked Brian if he contacted celebrities to request their expired devices. I was quite surprised to hear that it was they who contacted him and invited him to their posh pads to collect the aged contraptions. I was particularly amused by an anecdote about Nicholas Parsons who went on to offer Brian not only the mower originally promised but virtually the whole contents of his shed! With all that stuff to get rid of, Nicholas Parsons could have put on the car boot Sale of the Century! (if you were born after 1970 you will have to ‘Google!’)

On one wall, Brian has displayed some photographs of himself meeting celebrities at various events to do with gardens or machinery or when they have visited the Museum.

 

 

 

 

Brian didn’t mention during our conversation that he is a former racing champion and played down taking part in (and winning) a TV quiz show, various media interviews over many years and participating in other TV programmes and conventions. As a curator, Brian Radam is a cut above (sorry again!) those of most other museums and brings back to life through enthusiasm, knowledge and humour the rusting relics of gardening yesteryear.

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