Arnside: a Cumbrian gem

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It has been a glorious summer in the UK but here in the north west of England we have seen the first hints of the arrival of autumn. The central heating has been on several times this week as wind and driving rain have brought a significant drop in temperature.

A few weeks ago, under an azure sky, I enjoyed a blissful walk by the estuary of the river Kent in the charming Cumbrian town of Arnside.

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I had passed by dozens of times previously when journeying by train northward along the rugged Cumbrian coast line, but I had never before disembarked there.  Friends had gushed about Arnside’s beautiful coastal paths which even very humble amblers such as I could enjoy before partaking of afternoon tea with a view over the water. It sounded like my kind of place.

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A short walk down from the station brought into view the most prominent local landmark, the Kent Viaduct which was built by the Ulverston and Lancaster Railway in 1857 to carry the railway over the estuary, connecting Barrow-in-Furness to Lancaster. With 50 piers and at 522 yards long, it was a feat of engineering in its day

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A grassy area seemed to serve as both car park and picnic spot where sun lovers had set up their deck chairs and were tucking into chippy lunches, the tang of the vinegar lingering temptingly in the salty sea air.

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I resolved to resist and walked further along the promenade to see more of Arnside.

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It is impossible to see from the window of a train passing over the viaduct the genteel façade of Arnside prom with its classy collection of quirky gift shops, luxury ice cream parlour, two excellent cafes and very interesting restaurant to which I will be returning to sample the impressive vegan options on the ‘east-meets-west’ fusion menu.

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I was surprised to find an award-winning 5* bed & breakfast establishment amongst the other handsome private and hospitality residences lining the impressive promenade. Any guest would be delighted to stay in a room with such a view.

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At high tide, the sea returns rapidly as elsewhere around Morecambe Bay. A siren is sounded by the coast guard at regular intervals to warn unsuspecting beach-combers of the incoming danger, but I was quite safe to enjoy my stroll along the rocky track, headed in the direction of Silverdale to the south.

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The fells of the south Lake District rose in the distance to meet the sky; across the bay, Grange-over-Sands glittered above the water.

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My strappy sandals were not the best choice of footwear for the terrain and I decided after a mile or so to head back. Next time I’ll have to wear my trainers so I can explore further.

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The old county of Westmorland (now Cumbria) erected 139 cast iron Fingerposts between 1894 and 1905. They were made by Joseph Bowerbank at the Victoria Foundry in Penrith. Of the 30 that are still in existence, one on Arnside beach points the way to Silverdale.

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On the walk back, I passed a drinking fountain with a sad story attached.

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A memorial to little Richard Moberly Clayton Grosvenor who died in 1903, aged 4, it was commissioned in commemoration by his grandparents. I didn’t fancy imbibing the rather ferrous looking water so decided instead on a pot of tea at the Ramblers Café as I congratulated myself on discovering yet another Cumbrian haven.

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Seven Dials, London: mystery and magic in the city

 

 

In 1929, British mystery writer Agatha Christie penned a novel, The Seven Dials Mystery, an intriguing tale of murder and espionage with all the usual twists and red-herrings before it is revealed that Seven Dials is not just a place but a secret society of international spies.

 

 

There is a new unsolved mystery if you know where to look: read on…..

Tucked in between the theatres of London’s West End and bustling arty Covent Garden is one of my favourite parts of the city: Seven Dials. It’s a small area, consisting of just seven streets which converge at the landmark from which the locality takes its name.

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When I visited 2 weeks ago the plinth had become a popular sunbathing spot so this is a photo I took last September

A 20ft Doric column adorned with six sun dials sits upon an 8ft plinth; the obelisk itself represents the seventh ‘dial’. The original monument was installed in 1694, orientated so there was a direct south and direct north vertical dial, and four vertically declining dials. It was removed in 1773 as it had become a congregation point for the drunk and disorderly of the area, and the modern replica was erected in 1989.

By that time, the area’s fortunes had completely reversed, and it had become what it is today: buzzing, lively and full of high-end shops and cool places to eat and drink.

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The French Hospital and Dispensarie, opened in 1867  for ‘the benefit of distressed foreigners of all nations requiring medical relief’ now serves as a trendy and popular cafe bar

It has also attracted practitioners of alternative and healthy lifestyles.

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Originally open farmland, the area was first planned and developed in the 1690s by politician and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641 – 1699), a flamboyant character who, alongside his long career as an MP, always seemed to have various enterprises on the go, including civil engineering projects of which Seven Dials was just one. Neale’s CV is an impressive read and includes ventures in colonial America where he was instrumental in setting up a central postal service.

His vision for Seven Dials was one of gentrification; a desirable residential area for the rich, whose rent money would line his pockets. Instead, it became synonymous with poverty and degenerate living and joined the list of failed speculations which ultimately led to ‘Golden Neale’ dying insolvent, due in no small part to his gambling habits.

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In Sketches by “Boz,” Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People, Charles Dickens described Seven Dials in 1835

‘streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.’ 

He also alludes to the variety of life to be found on the seven streets

‘The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…’.

William Hogarth’s propaganda print Gin Lane about the evils of drinking is believed to depict the area around Seven Dials.

That curiosity of which Dickens wrote in the 1800s inspires many of today’s visitors, though instead of ‘unwholesome vapours’ and ‘dirty perspectives’ they are more likely to find a very wholesome, inspiring and soulful environment and an unusual piece of art.

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On the white-washed wall of a passageway on Monmouth Street a spray painted mural appeared on 31st August 2017, the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.‘Be As Naughty As You Want’ shows Diana in the guise of Mary Poppins with her magical flying umbrella, watched by Prince George and Princess Charlotte. His mother’s advice about naughtiness was reported by Prince William in an interview earlier in the year.

This thought-provoking image is the work of famous street artist, Bambi, whose true identity remains a mystery despite her fame and the controversy surrounding the social and political messages expressed through much of her work. Tourists queue to have their photo taken next to the royal graffiti but I was able to get a quick shot between poses.

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The short passage leads to gloriously colourful Neal’s Yard, a radiant and vital hub of energy where a tour of the courtyard offers exciting food and drink, courses in natural apothecary and the chance for some self-indulgence at surely the brightest hair & beauty salon in the capital.

 

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The Yard and nearby Neal Street are named after the architect of Seven Dials, though why the ‘e’ was dropped from his name is another mystery.

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Sitting in Neal’s Yard is always joyful no matter what time of year, but especially on a sultry afternoon such as on my recent visit when the temperature hit 30 degrees and the baking hot sun and spice-coloured buildings almost made me forget I was in England.

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Halifax, West Yorkshire: mysterious creatures at the historic Piece Hall

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I recently made my first visit to the town of Halifax which sits high in the lovely Calderdale area of West Yorkshire. Halifax has been a centre of wool manufacture from the 15th century onward, its 19th century wealth arising from the cotton, wool and carpet industries. Like most other Yorkshire towns, Halifax had a large number of mills, many of which have been lost or converted for other uses.

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Minster Status was conferred on the 15th century Parish Church of St John the Baptist in 2009. I recommend a look if you visit the town. There is a lovely team of knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers and it was refreshing to be ‘loaned’ an information leaflet that I could read and give back or decide to buy for a couple of pounds. I particularly liked the Commonwealth windows, added in the 17th century to replace the ornate coloured glass banned by Oliver Cromwell. I think this simple design is just as attractive, if not more so.

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Another feature is the Jacobean box pews. Many churches from the same period still have these, but they tend to be fewer in number and towards the front, as they were often installed for the richer families of the parish to keep themselves apart from the poorer congregation. Here, all the pews are of this same design which is less common.

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Inside the porch is the broken headstone from the grave of Anne Lister, a member of one of Halifax’s prominent families who died in 1840.

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You can read my post about her remarkable life at beautiful Shibden Hall here .

Halifax is the home of Rowntree Mackintosh (now owned by Nestle) manufacturers of sweets and chocolates. Founder, John Mackintosh, was a local man whose first shop was in the town centre where his wife, Violet, formulated the recipe for their famous toffee. The town is also the home of the Halifax Building Society. Halifax boasts a long list of famous former residents which includes: John Christie -murderer and necrophile later of 10, Rillington Place, London; Shirley Crabtree, better-known as the wrestler, Big Daddy; the marvellous John Noakes of Blue Peter; Percy Shaw, inventor of Cats’ Eyes and singer/song-writer, Ed Sheeran, though he moved south at an early age. I was surprised at the size and bustle of the town which offers a lot to explore, but on this occasion my destination was the historic Piece Hall.

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Halifax’s Piece Hall is where ‘pieces’ of woollen cloth were traded by hand-loom weavers during the 18th and 19th centuries. It opened its gates in 1779 with trading taking place every Saturday morning in a total of 315 merchant trading rooms where producers and buyers would gather. The Piece Hall later became a public market after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the mills brought an end to the hand-loom cottage industry. After it started to fall into disrepair, a £19 million conservation and transformation programme began in 2015 to bring back the grade 1 listed building to its former glory.

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The building fully reopened on 1st August 2017 and is now the site of independent shops, cafes, arts and crafts galleries and a variety of events throughout the year. I was most impressed by the massive piazza which brought to mind more exotic locations. The expertly restored gates include a woolly clue to the original purpose of Halifax’s finest building baaaa none.

 

 

Blondin’s ice cream parlour offers a nod to the famous occasion in 1861 when internationally celebrated French performer, Charles Blondin, traversed the Piece Hall courtyard on a tight-rope. A gala festival – including tight-rope walking, obviously – will take place there on 15th September.

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Next stop for me was the Piece Hall gallery to see the spectacular Transformations exhibition by artist Pamina Stewart who has created from ‘found’ seashells an array of mesmerising, mysterious and even menacing creatures, composed in exquisite detail and expressing, to me, an inherent inner-spirit and the seed of a suggestion that they may not always stand so perfectly still. The curator must have read my thoughts, adding that she often wondered what went on in there at night!

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Pamina Stewart states that her intention is to ‘… take these discarded materials and give them a meaningful form’. I think she has certainly achieved that.

 

 

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I resisted the temptation to shell out on a very expensive impulse buy but was delighted to learn that several pieces had been sold, one to an unnamed ‘celebrity’, perhaps one of the many connected to this interesting town.

Shibden Hall, Halifax: Gentleman Jack and diaries of one woman’s remarkable life

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I recently went to Halifax to see an art exhibition (post to follow in due course) and took the opportunity to visit Shibden Hall, the ancestral home of the Lister family. The Hall is less than two miles from Halifax town centre, so I jumped into a taxi.

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Shibden Hall was built in the early 15th century by William Otes, with the Lister family taking possession at the end of the century and remaining there until 1934. Due to the family’s bankruptcy, the entire estate was sold to Halifax Corporation in 1923 and the grounds turned into a public park, but it was agreed that siblings John and Annie Lister, the last of their line, were  allowed to live out their days there.

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John Lister (1847 – 1933) was a man of charitable works and progressive ideas. In 1877 he set up an industrial school in Halifax whose purpose was to teach young offenders a trade; the school operated for 55 years.  He was also a founder member of the Independent Labour Party and stood as the first Labour candidate for Halifax. He was a clever man and a keen antiquarian who carried out and published research into the Hall and the town. In the 1880s he and a friend discovered a set of diaries at the Hall, part-written in a secret code. The author was the most famous of the Listers.

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Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) appears to the 21st century mind a strong successful woman in the male-dominated world of the early 19th century; to her contemporaries, she was an unnatural woman who wanted to live as a man and did not accept her place in the world as allotted by the social conventions of the times.

She inherited a portion of the Shibden estate in 1813 and moved in with her uncle and aunt, James and Anne, becoming sole owner in 1836. Anne Lister proved to be successful in managing her estate, and as a business woman, much to the chagrin of many other landowners and rival business men who employed dirty tricks to try to ruin her. Some of her initiatives, such as the development of a coal mine on her land, provoked antagonism, as did her refusal to marry and thus allow a husband to take charge. Locals mockingly referred to Anne as Gentleman Jack.

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Anne Lister wrote 27 volumes of diaries between 1806 and 1840 amounting to over 4,000,000 words which recorded all aspects of her life and work, including some intimate details of her sexual relationships with women. These most private of her thoughts were written in a code, a mixture of ancient Greek, punctuation marks and algebraic symbols. The code was cracked by John Lister over 40 years after Anne’s death, and whilst he published some diary extracts relating to the Hall, he kept hidden the coded sections.

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The small room where Anne is believed to have written and stored her journals

Anne lived openly as a lesbian. From 1832 until her death in 1840 she and her partner, wealthy heiress Ann Walker, lived together at Shibden and travelled extensively around the world, all of which Anne has written about. The Anne Lister diaries were re-discovered in the 1980s when a Halifax Council employee looked through the archived papers that came with the estate, revealing an interesting insight into social attitudes to women and sexuality in the early 19th century.

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It was fortuitous that I had changed my original plan which had been to visit Halifax the week before, as the Hall would have been closed for filming. A new BBC drama, Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones and Timothy West, had paused in production just four days earlier but will resume in early September. I guess the cast are enjoying a summer break. I hope Tim West and his wife, Prunella Scales, are enjoying a canal boat holiday. Gentleman Jack will be on TV in 2019. The BBC had left some of their equipment around the Hall and a few items had been moved from their usual places to accommodate filming.

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I hope it will be as good as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister from 2010 starring the wonderful Lancashire actress, Maxine Peake.

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Shibden was also used for the filming of some of the scenes from To Walk Invisible, another excellent BBC production which depicted the lives of the Bronte sisters.

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A few costumes from the programme are on display including those above. The Bronte connections continue: the 1992 version of Wuthering Heights starring Juliet Binoche and Ralph Fiennes was also part filmed at Shibden. The Brontes were contemporaries of Anne Lister and fellow residents of Yorkshire. Famously, the sisters had to invent male names under which their first novels were published due to prevailing dismissive attitudes to women as writers. Although it is thought that the Brontes and Anne Lister would have known of each other by repute, there is no proof they met, and the Bronte sisters are not referred to in the diaries.

I enjoyed looking around the house, gaining a sense of how the Listers lived, and admiring the pretty gardens whilst thinking about women’s lives past and present and how much we now take for granted.

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Sublime Symmetry exhibition: celebrating the ceramics of William De Morgan

Last Saturday, I went to London to see the Sublime Symmetry exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

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A collaboration between the London Mathematical Society and the De Morgan Foundation, the exhibition celebrates the influence of symmetry in the designs of the Victorian designer, potter and later novelist, William De Morgan.

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William De Morgan

Born in London in 1839, William was the son of distinguished mathematician and founder of the London Mathematical society, Augustus De Morgan and his wife, Sophia, who were liberal and encouraging parents, supporting William in his desire to become an artist. Although he entered the Royal Academy, William left soon after to better find his own creative style. Out of a life-long friendship with textiles designer William Morris, the two went into business together between 1863 and 1872 with De Morgan designing stained-glass and furniture for Morris & Co.

Overall, De Morgan was best known for his fiction, but his most celebrated ceramics work emerged between 1872 and 1881 when he set up his own pottery works in Chelsea, experimenting with and perfecting innovative firing and glazing techniques which led to several noteworthy commissions from the rich and famous such as the painter Alfred, Lord Leighton and department store owner, Ernest Ridley Debenham.

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I fell in love with William De Morgan’s tiles ten years ago. A friend, knowing of my passion for Islamic architecture and art, recommended that on my next London trip I should visit Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, the former residence of Lord Leighton.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lord Leighton was part of the Orientalism movement, where western artists, writers, academics and philosophical sorts imitated aspects of middle-eastern and north-African art, design and literature and developed an interest in Islamic spirituality.  This is illustrated in the design of the magnificent Arab Hall at Leighton House. The wood and metal work were imported, mainly from Egypt, but the lustrous ceramic tiles in their peacock hues of cobalt and verdigris were created by William de Morgan. It was love at first sight and I have returned five or six times since my first visit. As photography is not permitted, the images below are from the internet.

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Debenham House (also known as Peacock House) is just a few streets away and was built in 1905 for the department store owner Ernest Ridley Debenham with De Morgan being commissioned to design some of the interior tiles. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to enter the property which has occasionally been used as a film set and, in the past, has held open days. I discovered that the property is currently being renovated and tried to persuade a work man to let me inside for 5 minutes, but to no avail. These images from the internet show more examples of De Morgan’s tiles inside Peacock House.

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The unique blue and green glazed bricks on the exterior mimic the feathers of the gorgeous peacocks I was lucky enough to see whilst eating my lunch in nearby Holland Park.

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After the Debenham House commission, the fashion for Moresque design started to decline and De Morgan left ceramics behind, turning his multi-talented hand to writing.

Apart from Arab and Persian influences, de Morgan also depicted mediaeval themes, mythical creatures and animals as can be seen in some of the Sublime Symmetry exhibits.

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As well as his artistic talents, De Morgan had great mathematical aptitude, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his father’s eminence in that field. Geometry and symmetry were central to the Islamic designs which inspired much of De Morgan’s work. Here are some examples.

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The exhibition is both visually stunning and informative and runs until 28th October.

Sunderland Point, Lancashire: Sambo’s grave where the river Lune meets the sea

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I have a new location to add to my list of favourite places: Sunderland Point. Today, I had the chance to finally explore a unique Lancashire village which exceeded all my expectations in its beauty and serenity.

Sunderland Point is a peninsula between the Lune estuary and Morecambe Bay.

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It is unique in that although it is part of the mainland, it is cut off twice daily at high tide, making it impossible for about eight hours each day to cross the causeway which separates it from the village of Overton. Sunderland’s small population must to some extent organise their lives around tide timetables. Since early spring, I too had been consulting the tide times on those Saturdays when I was free, but my hopes were repeatedly thwarted either by tides and trains not matching up, or by inclement weather. As my travel is not restricted just to weekends at present, I found that today the Fates had smiled, and everything came together.

Waiting at Lancaster station for the connecting train to Morecambe, I felt a bit peckish and bought a packet of crisps for the exorbitant price of £1.10, a purchase I was later very glad I had made. From Morecambe, I boarded a bus to Overton, arriving there 35 minutes later. I was very disappointed to find that The Globe Inn – the closest building to the causeway and where I had planned a light lunch and visit to the loo before making the crossing – was closed for refurbishment.

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No longer resenting a single penny spent on those crisps but frustrated at not being able to spend a different penny, I set off on the 1.5 mile walk across the causeway

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The walk was peaceful and for the most part I had the road to myself, enjoying the sounds of sea birds and admiring the views over to Lancaster 5.5 miles away.

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Zooming in on Lancaster

The greyness of the sky only added to the atmosphere. A few cars passed me heading in both directions. The road beneath my feet and the salt marsh around it had earlier been submerged and would be again later in the day.

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Walking along the causeway

Boats grounded would later be liberated from the silt by the returning tide.

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The end of the causeway came into view and I saw other boats with their best days behind them and unlikely now to be seaworthy.

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To my relief – quite literally – the first building I came to was a toilet block, looked after, according to the sign outside, by the parish of Overton. Bless that parish! The toilet even has a twin in Afghanistan!

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I walked along First Terrace and Second Terrace, two rows of Georgian houses overlooking the old dock area. The houses look bright and some are really lovely with colourful gardens and some with quirky touches. Two or three are occupied as artists’ studios, part of a flourishing and creative community

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Sculpture by the late Ray Schofield

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On Second Terrace is the stump of a cotton tree, believed to have been brought back as a sapling on a ship in the early 19th century. The tree finally fell in 1998 after particularly strong storms and due to its old age. Cuttings were taken and are thriving in the area. Its fruits when it blossomed resembled cotton.

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The living cotton tree

In the 18th century, the terraces would have been occupied residentially and commercially by people who worked in the shipping trades. Vessels returning from the West Indies would dock at Sunderland if they were too large to enter St George’s Quay, Lancaster, or if they had to wait for high tide. Developed by George Lawson, a Quaker, in the early 1700s, Sunderland had ceased to operate by the end of the century as nearby Lancaster had expanded and opened a deep dock at Glasson.

Lancaster had been the third largest port in England after Liverpool and London and traded not only in goods such as cotton and sugar, but also in human beings. Sunderland Point is the burial place of Sambo, a slave who was ‘elevated’ to the position of servant to the Master of an unidentified ship which docked in 1736. He was sent to stay with other ship hands at the inn whilst the Master travelled on to Lancaster alone on business. The popular narrative is that Sambo thought he had been abandoned in this strange place. He became distraught and ill, refused to eat, and died. The ship’s mates buried him in unconsecrated ground near to the estuary due to him not being a Christian. Sixty years after Sambo’s death, his unmarked grave was given a headstone which was organised by James Watson, brother of Lancaster slave trader, William Watson, perhaps out of a sense of family guilt. Strong opposition to slavery was gaining momentum at that time.

The grave is reached along a sign-posted bridle path which leads to the beach.

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Lots of visitors now come to pay their respects at the grave and leave a message or memento. I added something of my own, and spent a few minutes trying to imagine what this man must have experienced being torn from his family, community and land and dying in this place.

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I luxuriated in an undisturbed half hour on a nearby bench with just the landscape, the sea birds and the flotsam and jetsam for company.

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Many years ago, I experienced a frightening incident when some friends and I were almost trapped on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne which is also separated from the mainland by a tidal causeway, only just making it back ahead of the returning water. Keen to ensure nothing like that happened again, I started my walk back in plenty time though the tide had already turned, and fishing boats bobbed around on the water.

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Back in Overton, I was looking forward to a cold soft drink at its other pub, The Ship. I had drained the last of my water hours earlier and was incredibly thirsty.

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Discovering that the pub only opened at 5pm and that there wasn’t  a shop in the village, I asked a lady pruning her roses if she would refill my water bottle; fortunately, she was happy to oblige. The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing.