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Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris – Taking a walk on the Wilde side

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The inspiration for this blog has once again come from a meeting of the book group which I have belonged to for about four years. We have read all sorts of titles from the obscure to the latest Booker Prize winners. Almost all have been novels, though recently there has been some deviation: October/November brought us George Orwell’s social commentary The Road to Wigan Pier (see my blog about this), and the penultimate 2017 selection was a play by Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s only short and highly amusing and we considered allocating parts and reading it together – in character – but decided we had too many other things to talk about as well, such as our favourite Christmas tree baubles, cats and the National Health Service.

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Oscar Wilde is one of the great names of Anglo-Irish literature. In the last decade of the 19th century he wrote poetry; several plays – notably comedies – including Lady Windermere’s Fan and his most famous, The Importance of Being Earnest; he also wrote many short stories and is the author of the famous novel, The Picture of Dorien Gray.

In as much as he was famous for his contributions to literature, Wilde was also surrounded by controversy relating to his sexuality. Married, and a father of two sons, Oscar Wilde also had sexual relationships with men, most notably Lord Alfred Douglas. His lover’s influential father accused Wilde, in writing, of being homosexual, and Wilde contested this at a time when to be a gay man was illegal and when the appearance of conventional respectability was everything. Wilde lost the libel trial which backfired horribly, causing his private life to be exposed and landing him in prison charged with gross indecency. After his release the disgraced Oscar Wilde removed himself to Paris where he lived and eventually died on 30th November 1900.

I have twice visited Pere Lachaise, the Paris cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried. My last visit there was in 2014. I’ll add at this point that I don’t have a particular interest in cemeteries and don’t go out of my way to visit them. I prefer to explore a metropolis, not a necropolis, however, my friend and fellow traveller is a big ‘Doors’ fan and Pere Lachaise also happens to be the final resting place of lead singer, Jim Morrison. She insisted on paying her respects to Jim and thus ensued a most interesting excursion around that architectural gem in the heart of the French capital.

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Pere Lachaise is the biggest and most famous cemetery in Paris. If one feels inclined to explore every inch of the grounds it would probably take up half a day. Burials still take place, but spaces are limited and in great demand. The crematorium is also located there and many choose to have their ashes interred in the elegant and artistic columbarium.

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The tombs of ordinary Parisians lie alongside those of many notable people and an information leaflet with map has been produced to help visitors navigate the terrain and find the tombs of interest. With 3.5 million visitors per year it is the most visited cemetery in the world. It goes without saying that one of the most visited graves is that of Oscar Wilde.

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Like the man, the grave is elaborate and flamboyant and at the time of its construction was similarly controversial due to the perceived sexualisation of its design. It has been both vandalised and restored over the years.  It cost £2000 and was designed by sculptor Jacob Epstein who was greatly interested in Indian and Egyptian sensual art; this, along with inspiration from Wilde’s poem The Sphinx is said to have resulted in the most unusual memorial. Interestingly, it was created in London and the stone was from Cheshire. The epitaph on the grave is taken from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written whilst Wilde was incarcerated there:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

There is a long-standing tradition of applying some bright lipstick (if you’re not wearing some already!) and planting a kiss on Oscar Wilde’s grave. This was met with disapproval by the cemetery authorities and Oscar Wilde’s descendants and in 2011 a protective barrier was assembled around the monument to prevent further smooching. Many visitors, not all outcasts and not all men, still kiss the Perspex. I did, of course, add to the collection of lip prints! Although it may appear as if the sky is strangely blue in this part of the cemetery alone, the real reason is that the photo below was taken during a spring time visit where the others were taken in grey October.

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Pere Lachaise has a lot of stories to tell. More photos and tales of the famous departed will follow soon, so watch this space.

 

English Abbeys and churches, Liverpool, St Luke's Bombed Out Church

The Bombed Out Church – St Luke’s, Liverpool

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Bold Street is my favourite place in Liverpool; a quirky, alternative spot, home to some fabulous places to eat, international and organic food retailers and ethnic and arts shops. Look towards the top of Bold Street with your back to the city centre and you will see what first appears to be an ordinary church; but things are not always what they seem. Any native of Liverpool will be able to tell you why this church, St. Luke’s, is different. For those who are not ‘in the know’, keep on walking and you’ll find out…….

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St Luke’s, colloquially known as the ‘bombed out church’, stands as a proud shell of its former self – literally. It was built to serve the Anglican community of city centre Liverpool after Lord Derby granted the land on Leece Street to the Church of England in 1791, apparently on condition that it be always used as a church and that no burials take place there. The building was completed in 1831.

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The good people of the city worshipped uninterrupted at St. Luke’s for over a hundred years until a fateful day in the spring of 1941. Britain was at war with Germany and nightly air raids were commonplace, affecting many British towns and cities. Outside of London, Liverpool was the most targeted location in the country, due to it being a major port. In May of that year, the German Luftwaffe attacked Liverpool for seven days in a row. St Luke’s was hit by an incendiary device, thankfully at a time when nobody was within. The church blazed for three days before finally revealing all that was left – a roofless shell. Some photographs of the blitzed city and church are displayed within the modern space.

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After the war, Liverpool Council planned to demolish the remains of the church, but there was a public outcry; to the people of the city, the ‘bombed out church’ was a symbol of survival and strength. Happily, the plans were dropped, but over the years the site became neglected.

About fourteen years ago Ambrose Reynolds, founder of local arts organisation Strawberry Urban Lunch, sparked a regeneration of interest in St. Luke’s by using it to host arts events in commemoration of the blitz and its survivors. Within a few years he was granted stewardship of St. Luke’s and through a lot of hard work and receipt of financial support, he and his team were able to open the space to the public once again.

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The building has been put to some creative uses during the last decade, including live music and outdoor cinema events, educational projects and art exhibitions. It has even been a wedding venue. Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono have counted amongst its patrons, though despite the high-profile support, St Luke’s has struggled for its survival over the last few years as austerity cuts have hit the north west particularly hard. Ambrose Reynolds and his team have fought this all the way, determined to preserve this amazing space and living museum for the city of Liverpool. Thanks to sheer hard work and determination and whatever financial support they have been able to get their hands on, these brilliant people have been able to secure the future of the bombed-out church, at least for the next thirty years.

The space is currently used for an eclectic range of activities from daily Tai chi and yoga through to performance art. The thing I really love about this special little place in the big city is that it has not, despite its iconic status, developed affected arty airs; it stands in simplicity, displaying its war wounds: charred timbers, glassless windows and warped metalwork, a real symbol that life goes on and human spirit survives conflict.

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Lancashire history, Literary connections, Places to visit in Lancashire

The Road To Wigan Pier……well, sort of

The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it are not immediately clear.’ – George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

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DSCF4395Last week I heard on the news that a life-size statue of George Orwell had been erected outside BBC Television Centre in London; apparently it is the only statue of the author and political commentator in any public place. I can’t imagine there being an effigy of the man on anybody’s mantelpiece next to the Royal Dalton figurines, so this may well be the only statue in existence.

This unveiling at BBC HQ coincided with Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ being chosen as the October/November read by the book group I belong to. I had thought it a strange deviation from our usual selections (mostly fiction – anything goes except chick -lit), but I had read the book about 25 years ago when I spent one summer devouring everything Orwell had written, and I had found it interesting, if rather depressing. I was happy to give it another go.

As with most books which we read more than once, the experience is different each time. I was struck by the richness of the language Orwell used to create a realistic but almost poetic picture of some of the people and places he encountered in the 1930s in working-class communities, mainly (though not exclusively) in the north of England. Here is a marvellous example:

‘The shop was a narrow, cold sort of room. On the outside of the window a few white letters, relics of ancient chocolate advertisements, were scattered like stars. Inside there was a slab upon which lay the great white folds of tripe, and the grey flocculent stuff known as ‘black tripe’, and the ghostly translucent feet of pigs, ready boiled.’

The Road to Wigan Pier’ is a book of two parts and it is a great shame that the descriptive style of the beginning – more akin to Orwell’s works of fiction – doesn’t continue all the way through; if it had, more than just two of us in the book group might have read to the end! The second part of the book is all about Orwell’s socialist political views, his thoughts on the north/south divide, and includes a lot of not very interesting details such as room measurements in working class homes and the links between tidiness and number of children in a family.

The thing that struck me most about the book was how little it actually had to do with Wigan in particular. Other places, including various towns in Yorkshire and Wales, receive as many mentions, and not one of the photographs is of the town. So why the title? To Orwell, Wigan Pier symbolised decay and loss. It was in 1936 when Orwell spent time in the town, seven years after the ‘Pier’ had been removed for scrap. The locals had forgotten the exact spot on which it had stood, and Wigan Pier – formerly an emblem of thriving industry and plentiful employment –  had slipped out of sight and into the past.

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DSCF4404So what was Wigan Pier?  It was actually a coal tippler – a metal construction – on the bank of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It was used to transfer the coal from the many mines in the area onto waiting canal barges, and these vessels would carry the ‘black diamonds’ to Liverpool and from there to other parts of the country. In its late 18th century heyday, the canal must have been the equivalent of an aquatic motorway of its time. Coal was king in Wigan, and the north of England was heavily industrialised. By the late 19th century, railways had taken over most of the coal transportation and canals began to slip into disuse.

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DSCF4433The ‘Pier’ at Wigan was left standing for decades, part joke, and obsolete until it was finally scrapped. The photograph below, which I took about 10 years ago when visiting ‘The Way We Were’ Wigan heritage museum, shows the dismantling of the defunct tippler back in 1929. A replica made by students at the local college was installed in 1986 on what is thought to be the same spot, and it still attracts visitors who want to be photographed next to the Orwellian icon; apparently, some people become quite annoyed when they read the information plaque and discover it is only a replica.

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This canal-side area just outside of Wigan town centre, and a very short walk from the town’s two train stations, was almost desolate at the time of my visit on a recent Sunday afternoon. Apart from an occasional appearance by cyclists and dogs with their human walking companions, there was nobody else around. It felt quite surreal in such a quiet spot to reflect on the intense noise and frenetic activity which would once have been there. The Kittywake, a narrow boat which offers leisure trips during the warmer months, was tucked away in her undercover mooring for the duration of the winter.

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The Way We Were Museum had enjoyed a few years of popularity during the nineties and early noughties, and was a favourite with primary schools who brought their young charges to experience the mock Victorian classroom complete with super strict (‘resting’ actor) teacher in charge.

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Coach loads of older people who still remembered their childhoods at the time of Orwell’s writing would also head to Wigan to reminisce. The attraction, which was located within the former canal terminal buildings, closed a few years ago when visitor numbers started to drop. It is now boarded up and neglected, the cycle of rise, fall, revival and decline repeated across the decades and centuries. Below are a few photographs I took at the Museum which depict life in industrial Wigan in bygone times.

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In his book, Orwell describes vividly the Leeds and Liverpool canal where it passed through Wigan

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All around was the lunar-landscape of slag-heaps……the canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogsthe lock gates wore beards of ice…..nothing existed except shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.

As the photographs below show, the canal has been reinvented as a place for leisure and relaxation and is a popular place to walk. Pretty former lock-keepers’ cottages line the now pristine pathway and behind them a former mill has been converted into swanky apartments.

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To end the afternoon, I decided to venture a little way outside of the town to visit one of the local ‘flashes’ – former pit shafts which were later flooded over – described by Orwell as follows.

‘…in the distance stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that has stretched into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits……the’ flashes’ were covered with ice the colour of raw umber…’

Scotsmans’s Flash is now a wildlife conservation area enjoyed by local people and a centre for water activities. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now, without a coal mine in sight but with the ‘Pier’ – or a version of it – still standing witness to what once was.

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Lancashire history, Occult, Pendle Witches, Places to visit in Lancashire

The Pendle Witches Part 2: Walking in witches’ footsteps

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Following my recent visit to the Pendle Heritage Centre (See Pendle Witches Part 1) I embarked on my next adventure which was to see for myself some of the key locations in the story of the Pendle Witches. I couldn’t have picked a better day for it, as it was unseasonably warm, and the sunshine was glorious – perfect for getting out and about in the beautiful Lancashire countryside.

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As readers of some of my other blogs will know, I don’t drive and therefore a lot of my journeying involves public transport. In this part of rural Lancashire this proved to be a challenge. Not very interesting, I know, but I mention it as it is something people should bear in mind if planning a similar day out. I was very glad I had put in the research and planned my day beforehand.

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My first destination was Barley, a tiny village in the foothills of Pendle Hill and the suggested starting point for those who want to make the climb. The village lies between Black Moss and Ogden reservoirs within the Forest of Bowland designated area of natural beauty. There are fine walks to be enjoyed nearby, including a nature sculpture trail within the forest.

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As I had so much to fit in on a day when the sun was due to set before six o’clock, I had to leave these pleasures for a return visit. It has been thought by some that the area around Black Moss is the possible location of Malkin Tower, home of the Device family of witches, though there is no definitive evidence.

On 21st March 1612 Alison Device approached John Law, essentially a mediaeval travelling salesman, and asked him for some pins. Although this might seem to the modern mind like a meagre request, pins were expensive to make, and it was well known that they were used in casting spells (one piece of incriminating evidence later brought against the Device family was the finding of clay figures at their home into which pins had been stabbed); Law refused. Alison is said to have cursed him, and shortly after, he fell from his horse. The modern take on this is that he suffered a stroke, though Alison was accused of using witchcraft and, believing herself to possess such powers, she confessed. This was the single event – the catalyst – which marked the beginning of the investigation, the trials and finally the executions of ten people five months later. Three of these were Alison’s grandmother, mother and brother, who also confessed. Her nine-year-old sister, Jennet, was the main witness against the family, whether through innocently telling the truth about their practices, or through manipulation by those who wanted to impress the King by rooting out witches and/or secret Catholics.

Barley really is tiny, though until the mid-19th century it had two small weaving mills. With the decline of the water-powered textiles industry, many people moved towards the nearest towns, Burnley and Nelson, to find work in the modern mills. The mill workers’ cottages are still there, though now with other occupants. Farming is still going strong in Barley and the hospitality industry is well-represented in the Pendle Inn and the award-winning Barley Mow restaurant. The busiest place in Barley is the car park, the assembly point for walking groups and site of a lauded café. I didn’t stop off at any of these on this occasion as it was time to explore my next destination.DSCF4275DSCF4278

My plans were best laid, but they did go awry at this point. I had intended to walk next to Newchurch-in-Pendle, another key location in the witches’ narrative, just one mile from Barley. The problem with street maps is that they don’t show elevation. As I approached Cross Lane, the road to Newchurch, I dismissed immediately the idea of attempting such a hike, since I didn’t have my climbing gear with me! Yes – it really was a very steep road! It is at such moments that I am in awe of our forebears who walked those paths every day without recourse to any kind of transport, and when I pity the poor horses and mules which would have pulled heavy burdens up such inclines. A quick change of plan then, and a new course was set.

My revised route turned out to be a blessing! Under the bluest of autumn skies, I made my way at a leisurely pace to Roughlee, which originally was to have been my final destination of the day. The walk was just under two miles and I enjoyed the tranquillity of having the road to myself much of the way.

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Roughlee is another tiny village with a very cute school and one pub which is closed for refurbishment. Pendle Water runs through and the little waterfall is lovely to sit by.

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The main point of interest for me was the sculpture of Alice Nutter, another of the Pendle accused. It was commissioned in 2012, the 400th anniversary of the Witch Trials. I was struck by the power of the sculpture when it first came into view, large as life in the middle of the footpath. On closer inspection I observed that despite the 17th century attire, ‘Alice’ had a very modern and ordinary face. For me, this added to the disturbing effect; she was a woman above all else – the rest was supposition and superstition, and political expediency. Feelings clearly still run strong, as somebody had placed a cross and chain around her neck.

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Alice Nutter was an enigmatic character. The nine-year-old chief witness, Jennet Device, claimed that Alice was at a gathering of witches at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612; the purpose of the meeting, Jennet claimed and the authorities believed, was to plot the blowing up of Lancaster Castle in order to release from its dungeons those who were already being held there awaiting trial for witchcraft. Alice was different to the other accused women and men: they were very poor and uneducated labourers; she was the widow of a yeoman farmer, respected and of much higher status, essentially lower middle-class. At trial, Alice spoke only to plead not guilty to witchcraft. She never explained why she was at Malkin Tower on that day, or even to deny she was there at all. It is widely thought that Alice Nutter was a secret Catholic and that it was convenient to be rid of her. This was just five years after the gunpowder plot against Parliament and the King.

I soaked up some more sunshine and bird song before boarding the next bus back to Nelson, my starting point. From there, a taxi was my only option to my final destination: Newchurch-in-Pendle. The driver was baffled as to why I was going to a place where, apparently, there was nothing to see. I decided not to bother with the history angle; if he’d been interested, he’d have known already.

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Sixteenth century St Mary’s Church has a supposed link to Alice Nutter. She, along with the others accused of witchcraft, was hanged at Lancaster on 20th August 1612. It was unheard of for convicted witches to be buried in consecrated ground; after execution, they would usually be buried secretly in unmarked graves. Despite this, many believe that Alice is buried in a family grave at St Mary’s. I am very sceptical. Nutter is – and was – a popular name in this neck of the woods, and I believe that the Alice beneath the tombstone at St Mary’s is a name sake. In this photo of the grave you can just about make out the Nutter surname on the headstone and the skull and cross bones on the slab.

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The church was open, and a notice invited visitors to enter. Nobody else was there, so I sat for a while to reflect on the day and to enjoy the ambience. I was so glad that I did, as I had the opportunity to see an intriguing painting by artist Joan Parsons, ‘Mary, the mystic rose, mother of our lord, the peacock of heaven’. It was unlike any other depiction of Jesus and Mary that I had seen before.

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Newchurch’s other place of interest is its only shop, Witches Galore. This wonderful little place sells a whole range of things connected to witchcraft, from Halloween nick-nacks to symbolic jewellery, incense and pagan art . A little incongruously, it also sells ice creams and sweets………but then it is the ONLY shop within a radius of several miles. I smiled to myself when I remembered Hansel and Gretel and the witch’s tempting gingerbread and candy house. Outside, the message in old Lancashire dialect above the shop door gave rise to more amusement.

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‘Gerrit spent. They dont pupockits i shrouds’

As I embarked on the mile-long trek downhill through farm land back to Roughlee (the reverse journey of that which I couldn’t have contemplated earlier in the day) I thought about the festival of Halloween, preparations for which were taking place across the world: fun, entertaining and secular; dressing up as witches and celebrating the dark side. I also thought about those local people who 400 years ago had been sent to the gallows for the mere suggestion of the same.

The world turns, and we all turn with it……………

Lancashire history, Occult, Places to visit in Lancashire

The Pendle Witches part 1: a visit to Pendle Heritage Centre

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The village of Barrowford, the location of Pendle Heritage Centre, is in East Lancashire at the foot of Pendle Hill, a powerful brooding presence which dominates the landscape for miles around. It is about 150ft short of qualifying as a mountain. Pendle Hill is popular with hikers, especially those who have been captivated by the surrounding area and its dark history. Even on a glorious summer’s day, Pendle Hill has an eeriness about it; in grey October, as Halloween approaches and the nights draw in, the imagination can run riot.

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OK, a little bit of history in a nutshell to set the scene………

The notorious Lancashire witch trials took place just over four hundred years ago in a turbulent time when religious suppression and fear of the supernatural were rife. In 1603, King James I (and VI of Scotland) came to the English throne. The new King was exceptionally superstitious, even for the time, and was obsessed with witchcraft, believing that attempts had been made on his own and his wife’s lives through the agency of black magic. His wife, Queen Anne, was from Denmark, which was in the grip of witchcraft mania.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420In addition to that of the occult, another fear weighed heavy on the King and Parliament: Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation in England had begun about 75 years earlier, but during the reigns of King Henry VIII – the architect of reformation – and Queen Elizabeth I, there had been greater tolerance of ordinary Catholics who were still following ‘the old religion’ as long as they were very discreet, posed no threat and gave no offence to The Crown. Those times had gone, and the beginning of the 17th century brought with it a climate of fear and suspicion of English Catholics to the extent that they were regarded as enemies of the state; traitors who were seen as loyal to a faith which had at its head a foreign pope, not their own King. Practising as a Roman Catholic was considered to be an act of treason, and priests – when discovered – were punished by gruesome execution. Spies for the Crown were at large throughout society; all who adhered to this ‘foreign’ faith apparently posed a threat. Only seven years earlier Guy Fawkes and his associates had attempted to blow up parliament, an extreme act of rebellion against the oppression of Catholics.

Lancashire had the largest number of recusant Catholics in the country. Folk traditions were also still popular and the people were considered to be less conforming than in many other regions. The trial of the witches of Pendle is one of the most famous in British history. It has been the subject of much academic analysis, and has been depicted in novels, films and TV programmes. A lot is known about the Pendle witches, though much is still open to debate and speculation.

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Pendle Heritage Centre is within a gorgeous Tudor building, Park Hill, formerly home of the wealthy and influential Bannister family. I was fascinated to discover that Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, descends from that same family. There has been a settlement on the site – farming and later textile production – since the 1200s. The present building was rescued and preserved by Heritage for the North West.

Entrance to Park Hill takes visitors past the first of a trail of tercet way markers commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire Witch trials. There are ten in total and they are positioned along the 51 mile route which the accused followed on the route to Lancaster Castle where they were imprisoned and tried. Each way marker displays a stanza of the poem ‘The Lancashire Witches’ written by poet Laureate, Carole Ann Duffy.

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Admission is through a small reception area which offers the usual selection of leaflets, postcards etc. The nice lady behind the counter then showed me to an ancient-looking door which she invited me to pass through. I stepped into a paradox: the modern steel, glass and audio-visual displays that were the exhibition, housed in the remains of a dim, musty mediaeval building, complete with crumbled stone walls and the smell of damp. This combination of ancient and contemporary was slightly unsettling. Perfect!SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The history of Park Hill is told through displays and an audio recording which visitors activate by pressing a button. This continues as you make your way up the stairs to the next level. The early exhibits are about the Bannister family and the house, and include some examples of authentic 17th century household items. There is even a sitting room set up as it would have been about 400 years ago, though I felt that the dodgy mannequins with their rather comical wigs, in addition to the faux-flame pantomime-style fire detracted somewhat from the intended effect. This was all very interesting, and perhaps the topic of a future blog post, but the main interest of most visitors (including me), I suspect, is the next part of the exhibition, which is about the Pendle witches.

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Next, I found myself in a tiny, dark room where there were three simple wooden benches, the front one occupied by a couple engrossed in a short film about the infamous witches. I don’t know if the siting of that auditorium was deliberate, or whether it was the only space left over once the displays had been placed, but it was spot on! Pitch black apart from the TV, and malodorous from the pervading dampness; closed-in and slightly unnerving, it was the perfect place to watch a film about dark arts.

The story of two feuding families, Chattox and Demdike, headed up by aged matriarchs who scraped a sort of living through begging, petty crime and perhaps a bit of ‘wise-woman’ healing over 400 years earlier, and their executions on a hill above Lancaster Castle is a complex one. It is a story about fear of women who were unmarried and outspoken; about the interpretation of mental health conditions, learning difficulties and dementia through the supernatural explanations prevalent at the time. It is also a story about the melding of ancient folk lore and remnants of old Catholic practices which still lingered in rural Lancashire at a time when both were feared, the latter considered a threat to King and country. Ambitious, powerful men, out to gain the King’s favour, found convenient offerings in Pendle. It is a story about scapegoats.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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Undoubtedly, some of those accused were involved in the practice of casting spells; there is evidence of that. More about that next time!

The warmth, light and delectable aromas of the Heritage restaurant downstairs was a world apart from the exhibition area, and a welcome contrast. Home-cooked food is served every day except Christmas day and the restaurant is popular, not just with people visiting the exhibition. I enjoyed a cup of peppermint tea in a snug corner before stepping out into the traditional garden to appreciate the turning of the season.

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Pendle Heritage Centre is a smashing place to visit if you’re in the area. A couple of hours is enough time to spend there before exploring the other villages and hamlets that sit in the shadow of Pendle Hill along the ‘Witch Trail’. More witches, magic and nature will follow, so watch this space.

http://www.pendleheritage.co.uk/museum-garden/

 

 

Literary connections, Places to visit in Yorkshire

Bronte Country – Haworth, Yorkshire

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The moors seen at a distance, broken into cool, dusky dells, but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze.” Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte.

The first time I read Wuthering Heights I was thirteen years old. It was unlike anything else I had read before, and I was mesmerised. It was not an easy read, containing many scenes of brutality and unlikable characters. Brooding northern skies and foreboding moorland are the backdrop to this celebrated story of intense love which survives death. My thirteen-year-old self was captivated by the character of Heathcliff: wronged, maligned; the victim child turned vengeful man and romantic hero. I read it again a decade later and my take on it changed somewhat: the woman saw Heathcliff’s brutality, raw, and minus the romanticised notions of the teenaged girl. I have read Wuthering Heights maybe five times in my life, and on each occasion I have read a different story: time – and living in the world – changes our responses as readers, and language resonates in new ways. One thing that has remained constant, reading after reading, is my sense of the great beauty and power present in the descriptions of the landscape.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath.’

”I shall never be there but once more when I die…..and shall remain there forever.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

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‘In summer, Miss Catherine delighted to climb along these trunks, and sit in the branches.’  Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

The Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne, are amongst the best-known authors in English literature. They lived for most of their lives in Haworth, west Yorkshire, where their father was vicar of the parish church. The parsonage was the place where Wuthering Heights was written, and it is clear to see how the surrounding moors and heathland inspired such a dark, gothic and intense story of passion and extremes.

This is not a blog about English literature or even about history; it is, like my others, me sharing with you an experience and my impressions. The Bronte sisters are fascinating characters as writers and as women, and their personal stories hold their own tragedies which are equal to those of some of their characters. The name of Bronte is synonymous with Haworth, but the place has charms of its own to recommend it to visitors.

‘Bronte Country’, as Haworth and its environs is known, has not changed much in appearance since the time of its most well-known residents. It goes without saying that the literary connection attracts visitors from all over the globe; another notable attraction is the restored railway with operational steam trains which pulls in hundreds of 1940s vintage enthusiasts every year (more about them in a future diary entry).

Haworth’s main street (it is actually called Main Street) is home to some lovely shops, amongst them a vendor of occult services, a lovely tea room and various arts and crafts gift shops. The Cookhouse is a friendly attractive café which offers a good range of veggie/vegan/gluten free lunch options. It can be hard to get in anywhere at busy times as Haworth is essentially a one-street village; it can be a bit frustrating, but better that than sacrificing its character on the altar of commerce.

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The cobbled length of Main Street rises at a fairly steep gradient towards the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels. This newer building has replaced the original church where Reverend Bronte presided. I was a tad disappointed when I realised that it was not possible to see the Bronte tomb. A plaque indicates the place where the family lies buried below this newer building, which was raised above the level of the old . Anne Bronte is buried not with her sisters at Haworth Church, but at Scarborough, where she died whilst on holiday, hoping that the sea air would  restore good health. The tragedy of it all………. You couldn’t make it up! (OK, you could.)

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Haworth parsonage is situated close to the church and now serves as the Bronte Museum. Sadly, I can’t show any photographs of the interior or exhibits, as photography is not allowed and this rule is strictly enforced by the vigilant staff there. Some of the family’s original furniture has been purchased by the Museum (at great expense) and has been set up as it was thought to have been when the family lived there. The couch upon which Emily died is in situ in the front parlour, which is where the sisters are said to have shared their ideas and written their novels at the table. Some of the exhibits are fascinating, including several items of the sisters’ clothing which demonstrates how tiny they were. The place is well worth a visit.

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A narrow path between the museum and church took me to to a public footpath leading out into the fields and from there to open moorland. On a windy day beneath a heavy grey sky it is very easy to make a connection to the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. This is a harsh place where the forces of nature rule.

On the way back, I met a beautiful horse whose name I didn’t quite catch when she introduced her splendid teeth to my arm. It was only a slight graze, so no harm done, and it was entirely my own fault for not offering her a treat of some kind – or so I was advised by a fascinating local woman who witnessed the equine assault. Apparently, the horse is usually very sweet. I am certain this is true and that her out-of-character behaviour was the result of the powerful energies of the landscape. After all, even Heathcliff was sweet once………..

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‘On one side of the road rose a high, rough bank, where hazels and stunted oaks, with their roots half exposed, held uncertain tenure.’

‘I wish you were a mile or two up those hills. The air blows so sweetly.’

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

 

 

 

 

 

Literary connections, Places to visit in Yorkshire

Journey to the west (of Yorkshire, that is): Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall

 

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Heptonstall is a little village atop a steep hill overlooking the lively, Bohemian town of Hebden Bridge in west Yorkshire. 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 more firm of foot and resolve, as with gritted teeth they rose to the occasion and to the prize at the top. I reflected with a mixture of pity and awe on how the pack horses of yesteryear must have faced that steep climb, taking raw cotton and wool to the spinners and weavers whose cottages housed the wheels and looms which prevailed before the arrival of the waterwheels which would later power the multitude of mills which sprang up in the region.

In the Calder valley, textiles and farming put the food on most people’s tables, but times change and both industries have declined, completely in the case of cotton spinning. 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, hippies, artists, writers and poets moved to Hebden Bridge in large numbers, giving it the label of the Shangri-La of the north. Alternative lifestyles flourished and the area was transformed and regenerated.

Whilst the streets of Hebden don’t actually smell of Nag Champa per se, 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. Organic dishes made from locally-sourced produce and colourful and healthy-sounding snacks and smoothies are served in stone courtyards or cosy corners of shabby chic cafes. Those ’60s hippies – now in their 60s – have stayed on and very much made their mark, but the demographic has evolved once again to include a more recent influx: the commuting professionals who can afford some fresh country air. Leeds and Manchester are each just 40 minutes away by train.

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Hebden and Heptonstall have seen an influx of towns-folk looking for a place to pursue 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 the hippie trail, and made the old spinners’ cottages their own.

Up above the valley, Heptonstall has an air of mystique. Old meets new – and new age. Tradition and innovation seem to blend into this 21st century concept: the reinvented English village. Like Hebden Bridge at the bottom of the hill, Todmorden just a few miles away, and other similar locations in this neck of the picturesque west Yorkshire woods, there is a happy blending of old setting and new living. This is a very different country life to that which might be found in the more traditional settings of deepest Cumbria, where the land still provides the living, where there is no place for sentiment, and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ are still new-fangled concepts which meet with some derision.

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Heptonstall is like a charming maze. You turn a corner and find you are back on the same little walk way you exited a few minutes earlier, but there is none of that feeling of frustration which usually comes with finding you are trapped inside a street-puzzle. The middle of the old village is tiny: cobbled streets at jaunty angles and challenging gradients. A pub, a post office and a fruit and veg shop are the obvious places of reference – and the newest addition and nod to gentrification, the vintage-style tea room. The old cottages are quirky, perhaps revealing clues as to the way their inhabitants choose to live. Artistic flair oozes out of the very mortar. On the periphery of the village there are newer housing developments and an estate, ironically much more conservative in appearance. Old village in the new; new village in the old.

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A sign points in the direction of parking for ‘coaches’. Heptonstall is definitely delightful by any standards………..but coach parties? Intriguing………..

The village has two claims to fame, both connected to its places of worship. The beautiful octagonal Methodist chapel is one of the oldest of its kind in the world, and has been in continuous use for over 250 years. It is a hub of local activity and a popular events venue. By far the more famous is the Anglican church and in particular one of the residents of its graveyard.

In fact, the village boasts two parish churches : the original, dedicated to St. Thomas a Beckett, 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 and is somewhere I like to sit from time to time; a place of peace and quiet where it is easy to contemplate (although in summer it can attract a lot of tourists). There is a benevolent energy about the place; a sense of presence amongst the pillars and glassless windows. The clock face was removed and reinstalled in the new church, which is apt as there is truly a feeling in this space that time stands still. I know that many others feel the same way about St Thomas a Beckett and it is fitting that in a little part of the world where modern expressions of spirituality seem to have transcended traditional beliefs, this building has become a new temple for those of all faiths and none.

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The new church – or more specifically the newest part of its graveyard – is the resting place of many. The final destination of the journey into the west. I have stood in that place many times and have always been struck by the serenity. Amongst the headstones is one which marks the grave of the 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. Heptonstall church yard has become something of a pilgrimage site for admirers of Sylvia Plath from around the world, yet many struggle to locate the plot; simply adorned with a few wild flowers and daffodils, it does not stand out amongst its neighbours or announce its celebrity status. The epitaph reads:

Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.

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Chosen by Sylvia’s estranged husband, 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. The words are based on 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 indeed a representation of an ideal or goal on a more personal journey, it is also where the sun sets at the end of each day, and this is a perfect place to see it dip below the Calder valley.

‘Even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted, the five elements compounded and transposed, and put to new use. When that is done, be which you please, Buddha or Immortal.’

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