Visiting The Berlin Wall, a retrospective

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Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the opening up of the Berlin wall. In the days that followed, euphoric, defiant Berliners – some with their bare hands – tore down sections of the ominous structure which had dissected their city for 28 years. Constructed almost overnight in 1961, the wall had split Berlin in two, dividing families and friends, not just into two halves of the city but into two countries, and two very different worlds.

I remember watching the scenes on the news back in November 1989, witnessing the droves of East Berliners heading through the city check points into West Berlin and out of the Soviet Union.

The world of political intrigue, spies and conspiracy theories has always captured my imagination, inside the pages of novels and on the screen. One of my favourite authors is John Le Carre, and the brilliant ‘The Spy who Came in from the cold’ is one of his best. Set in Berlin in the 1960s, the story of espionage has at its centre the sinister and ever-looming presence of the wall.

In October 2015 I visited Berlin to finally see the wall for myself.  From the U-bahn station right outside our hotel in the vibrant and Bohemian Friedrichshain area it was just a 10 minute ride to  AlexanderPlatz in the centre of the city.

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The Berlin Radio Tower dominated from above, another dark reminder of Soviet control.  From there we walked to the East Side Gallery as the last remnant of the wall is now known.

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The Gallery is 1,316-long and a heritage-protected landmark which attracts millions of visitors each year. It consists of over 100 paintings by internationally renowned artists. Most of the works are poignant, some hard-hitting, on themes of freedom and oppression. Below are just a few.

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Over the years, ordinary Berliners have made their own marks through the addition of graffiti. Some of the damaged art was been restored, but not all. It was easy to lose perspective as we admired and took photographs of why this structure was erected and what it represented for so many people for so many years.

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There is graffiti all over Berlin

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and some interesting street art too

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The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 18th century on the land of the Electors of Brandenburg, near to their traditional hunting ground, the Tiergarten. When the wall fell in November 1989, Berliners from east and west of the city converged on both sides of the wall at the site of Brandenburg Tor (gate), united in their determination to break down the barrier that separated them. It was spine-tingling to be standing there myself. Of course, the area looked so very different in 2015.

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Checkpoint Charlie, the American Army border crossing, is now iconic, and a museum piece. The place where many lost their lives, shot down as they attempted to defect to the west, looked slightly surreal in the middle of what had become a thriving shopping street.

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Throughout the 1990s and the beginning of 21C, Berlin has reinvented itself as a beacon for culture, freedom and liberty whilst cherishing and rebuilding its great heritage. I have read that there are mutterings about finally removing that last section of what many in Germany feel should now be assigned to history. I completely understand that. I’m just glad I had the chance to see it.

 

 

Bruges in six hours

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A European city break has become something of an October tradition for me. For the past six or seven years I have looked forward to a few days on the continent, but this year,  and last,  I tried something a bit different, choosing to sail rather than fly, and spending just a day at my destination. Last week I set off on a three day round trip to the lovely Belgian city of Bruges.

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We departed from the port of Hull at 6:30pm on Tuesday for an overnight sail to Zeebrugge. The 14 hour crossing was smooth and relaxing on calm water. Having traversed the North Sea several times now, my early fears of sea-sickness or sinking have been eradicated. Basic cabins are small – sometimes VERY small – but serve their purpose for the two nights on board; other amenities on P&O ferries are excellent. My feelings about sailing have changed, and I now look forward to the voyage as part of my mini break. We docked at the Belgian port on Wednesday morning as we watched the sun rise over our continental breakfast.

From Zeebrugge it was just a 30 minute coach ride to the historic city of Bruges. Setting us down just outside the city centre, our driver gave us directions and told us what time to meet up again later in the day.

 


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Bruges is well-known for its horse-pulled carriages, a popular way for tourists to see the city. Personally, I don’t like horses being used like this when there’s so much traffic on the roads, just as a touristy gimmick. I was glad to see though that the animals I encountered seemed well cared for.

We walked through a small water park where bold evergreens contrasted with muted yellows and russets on sparse branches and passed an attractive building with paving in the style of a chess board.

 

Bruges is a small city and it’s perfectly possible for most people to be able to walk around the central areas in a day, visiting museums and stopping off at cafes and restaurants along the way; but I was with my mum, who has mobility difficulties and uses a walking aid, so we went at a slower pace and decided to get a flavour rather than try everything on the menu. One wonderful flavour which dominates in Bruges is chocolate.

 

 

 

Belgian chocolate is famous the world over. Walk around Bruges and your nose will twitch with delight at the rich aroma escaping from the abundance of artisan shops on every street. Most sell the same range of goodies whilst others offer a more bespoke and artistic selection at a higher price. Many chocolatiers had created special Halloween treats such as the skulls in the window in the photo above. Another famous Belgian confection is the sweet waffle, served with a variety of toppings including fresh cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce, hot caramel and ice cream to name a few. Waffles are cooked fresh as street food and are also on the menu in most cafes.

We continued our leisurely stroll towards the centre of the city, passing the canal where we admired the swans and watched one of the city tour boats heading under the bridge.

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Undeterred by my misgivings about the design of the tour boats, mum and I decided to view Bruges from the water, not one of my better decisions as it turned out. We made our way to one of the landing stages and paid our €10 each. Despite there being two other empty vessels waiting, we were ushered into the first, which already seemed to me to be overloaded. Mum required some help getting in, and those already seated were urged by the skipper to squash up. To our dismay, about six other people were made to get in after us, with an American lady being quite vocal about wanting to board one of the other boats instead. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. So off we sailed, packed in like sardines, low in the water and barely able to move. Photography was not easy, but I did get some shots of what was a very picturesque waterside vista.

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The crow-stepped architectural style is typical of buildings all over the city. Once a major European trading port, Bruges – or Brugge, in Flemish – has evolved since medieval times and incorporates a variety of styles as revealed as we wound our way around the bends and under the ancient low bridges. Unfortunately, our rather primitive sailing vessel was not equipped with the usual audio ports and headphones which provide an interesting accompaniment to any tour, in a range of languages; instead we relied on our skipper, unenthusiastically pointing out a few key landmarks and furnishing us with sparse details in French, Spanish, German and English, always in that order. By the time we got to the English bit, the landmark would be behind us and impossible to view when any movement would surely knock one’s neighbour into the water. Back at the landing stage our joyful skipper told us it was customary to tip the driver and stood with his hand outstretched by way of an extra visual clue. We waited for the other passengers to disembark so that mum had time to carefully step up on to the bank, and to his credit our guide did lend a hand, but then spoiled the gesture by demanding the ‘customary’ tip which I had to give in order to get past him. Other people have told me of lovely experiences on the Bruges canals, so I guess we were just unlucky, and it was the only negative of the day.

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I spotted an interesting looking door in an old wall and decided to investigate.

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We found ourselves inside a passage way which opened up into the courtyard of the Beguinge or Begijnhof. Dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary, this was once a church and religious community of Benedictine nuns, founded in 1245, though the present buildings date back to the 1600s only. The nuns dedicated their lives to prayer and simplicity but didn’t take vows and could leave the community at any time. Now, the church is still open and some of the buildings are part of a museum. Numerous signs indicated that visitors should be silent and not take photographs (saw that one too late) so we didn’t stick around, despite the peaceful atmosphere.

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Unfortunately, the quaint cobbles of some of Bruges’ main streets were, like the rest of the modern world, subject to construction works, which made navigation just a tad trickier, but as we slowly made our way along we enjoyed browsing in some of the specialist shop windows. Bruges is also famous for textile production going back centuries, mainly cloth and lace. This tradition is still well represented with souvenirs aplenty.

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By this time we were ready for lunch, which necessarily included waffles. Everywhere was crowded but friendly and we took some time to relax and watch the world go by. There really is something special about Europe in the autumn.

With half our allotted time remaining, we ventured on, reaching the busy market square and arguably Bruges’ best known landmark, the Belfry. I had at first been excited to learn that Wednesday was market day, and had visions of exquisite little curiosity stalls where I would be tempted to part with me euros. Unfortunately, it was a market like any other, selling the usual commodities, but there was an definite buzz around the cafes and the entrances to the interesting side streets.

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Typical selfish tourist, I was quite put out that such banal commercial activity was spoiling this ( market) square and my photo opportunities. At 83m high, the Belfry is a dominant presence in Bruges. Like so many other buildings, it was constructed in the 13th century, originally as an observation post attached to a market hall. It later served as the city treasury and municipal archives. Visitors can ascend its 366 steps to get a fabulous view of the whole of Bruges. If only I’d had time….

The hour is marked by the beautiful ringing of the Belfry’s 16th century carillon, consisting of 47 bells of which 26 are still in full working order.

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We decided on one of the attractive looking streets leading off from the market square. At first I thought we could have chosen better, as we seemed to have found ourselves on a long and modern shopping street. A few twists and turns brought us to Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, so we decided to go inside.

Brugge was the home of the old Flemish Masters, so it should not have come as a surprise that the city’s Cathedral was in some ways a gallery of religious art. We spent longer than expected admiring the rich oil paintings and intricate sculptures along with more modern interpretations of Christian expression. Below are just a few.

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We emerged from the Cathedral into the sunshine again and decided to spend our last hour-and-a-half meandering through the streets and along the canals back to the water park. We found that the views from the pavement were actually just as good as from the water, and certainly more comfortable.

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We only really scratched the surface but felt that once again we had experienced an amazing day out a long way from home.

Travelling back in time

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Last year saw rail chaos in the north of England. At its peak during the summer months hundreds of trains in the region were cancelled every day; of those that ran, far more were delayed than were on time. The impact on my life was minimal compared with the horrific experiences endured daily by thousands of people who depended on Northern trains to get them to and from work. By way of compensation for some of my delayed journeys, Northern sent me several travel vouchers entitling me to free rail journeys. This small collection of freebies has remained in a drawer for nearly a year, so this weekend I thought I’d make use of a couple of them before they expired.

The first leg of the journey was to Grange-over-Sands.It was going to be a changeable day according to the Met Office, and as we sped across the viaduct at Arnside the bright sunshine of early morning was replaced by threatening cloud with the first of the day’s light showers appearing just as I alighted at Grange. I briefly regretted not bringing an umbrella, but the rain had stopped by the time I boarded the bus outside Grange Station to get to my next destination.

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Just 17 minutes later I alighted at Haverthwaite railway station. This once busy branch line of the Furness Railway transported iron ore to the industrial regions of the north west of England until the industry finally went into decline. Popular also with holiday-makers travelling to Lake Windermere, the station finally closed to passengers in 1965 and to freight trains two years later. From the time of the line’s demise, work was going on behind the scenes to purchase steam engines and carriages for preservation. These were stored at nearby Carnforth until a deal would be struck with British Rail for the line to be sold into private ownership. Seven years later, after numerous obstacles, objections and with the support of parliamentary lobbying, the purchase was realised and in 1973 the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway Company reopened the line. The station has been beautifully restored, developed and maintained; shiny red paintwork, window boxes, planters and shrubs offer a welcome contrast with the usual soulless modern railway buildings.

I had planned my day so that I would have an hour or so to spare before boarding the vintage train to Lakeside. Hungry by this time, I decided to try out the tea rooms for some lunch. Walking from the front to the platform I passed a huge pile of coal, obviously fuel for the steam trains. For environmental reasons, Haverthwaite and other vintage train attractions may not be around for too much longer as we seek to reduce our national carbon footprint. I wanted to ride in a train of yesteryear before the last of them are shunted off to museums.

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After a tasty and substantial lunch in the pleasant and reasonably-priced (if somewhat over-crowded) tea rooms I had just 10 minutes to wait before our engine, Victor, chugged up to the platform, whistle blowing and enveloped in an aura of steam. The returning passengers emerged, and it was time to board.

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Like the tea rooms, the train was mainly occupied by young and very noisy children, and I felt rather like I was tagging along on a pre-school outing. I tried to talk myself into a more tolerant, less grumpy mindset, but then another young family took the seats behind and started to sing with great gusto (the parents in particular) about the wheels on the train going round and round all day long. As always on such occasions I resorted to my trusty ear-plugs which remained in place for the next 20 minutes. Settling into my sagging but nostalgically comfortable seat, I appreciated the tints of autumn on display through the window as the train’s gentle rhythm merged harmoniously with the melodic sounds of Agnes Obel. The wheels on the train went round and round, the whistle blew and trails of white steam floated past the window and up above the pastoral scenery.

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Arriving at Lakeside station on the southern tip of Lake Windermere, it was time to leave Victor the steam engine and start the next part of my journey. I observed that almost all of the people with children were heading towards the adjacent Lakeside Aquarium; so that explained it. This must be a typical weekend lunch/ train/ marine life combo.

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I’m glad I made the trip, just for the experience, but I wouldn’t rush back. It was time to get in the queue for my next embarkation.

On the cusp of seasons

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Well, what a changeable summer we had here in the UK! August in particular was wetter and cooler than usual here in the north west of England. We also had a few exceedingly hot days which were most welcome. This summer I spent more time at home than usual, relishing those dry, warm days and, like a contented sloth, lazing in the garden, admiring nature’s handiwork in which my own efforts have played a small part. Not knowing how many more luxuriously sultry, blazing days might still be to come – or not – I made the most of each, in case it was to be the last.

I also became something of a wimp as far as travelling was concerned. I hope this is a temporary thing. I found repeatedly that I could not muster much enthusiasm for being out in the countryside or at the coast – or anywhere – in heavy rain, or in cramped, sticky, sweaty trains or buses on the hotter days. As autumn advances I’m sure I shall once again return to my gallivanting ways, but it has actually been rather lovely slowing down and enjoying my own small but exclusive green space.

Autumn is here. Instinctively, I hold with the ancient calendars which place the start of autumn in August at the time of the first harvests. There is a tangible shift which is felt most keenly in those colder, damper evenings.

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The blackberries in my hedges, which appeared for the first time two years ago, have been and gone. Blackberries remind me fondly of childhood when we used to go as a family on long walks, parents and siblings all harvesting the plump purple fruits in old ice cream tubs or Tupperware containers, fingers stained blue and arms invariably scratched from delving into prickly brambles. Those days are distant memories, and nowadays I leave my own miniature crop for the birds to enjoy.

The wild flowers have all died back now and new growth has slowed down. The rose bushes are still adorned with buds but I know from experience that many of those will not open. Those still in full bloom continue to nourish wild life.

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It has been a joy to see so many butterflies in the garden this year, mainly feasting on the verbena, which has been a triumph. There will be more of that next year too. Some of my graceful visitors are below: commas, small whites, small tortoiseshells, peacocks, speckled woods (I think!) and painted ladies which arrived en masse in late July.

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In mid September we are still enjoying some fine sunny days. There is still a lot of colour. The shop-bought Nigella seeds have, like last year, added so much beauty to every part of the garden in shades of white and various blues. They are amazing, growing vigorously and splendidly wherever the seeds were scattered.

Most have now finished blooming, their stunning seed heads continuing to delight.

A few have already turned brown and as thin and dry as old paper. The black seeds rattle inside their shells. After releasing and collecting them I’ll store in a dry dark place until the spring when they can be planted, providing me with an abundance of new plants for free.

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It will soon be time to place the spring bulbs in the earth and to cut back the spent growth so that it may rest over the winter until it’s time for the cycle of growth to start again. For now, I’ll enjoy this warm start to the autumn, relishing every moment.

Ulverston

On Saturday I travelled to the Cumbrian town of Ulverston. It wsn’t my final destination, but as I was passing through on my way to nearby Conishead Priory, I decided to spend some time in the town.

First, I decided to find out more about a very famous comedy connection.

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Better known the world over as Stan Laurel, Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in Ulverston in 1890. Though not really a Laurel & Hardy fan, I decided that as I was there anyway I would take a look at the museum which is dedicated to the comic duo. The museum is on the ground floor of the small vintage cinema. I paid my fiver to the fez-wearing young fellow on the door and walked in the direction he suggested.

I thought the £5 admission fee was steep for such a small place. To be fair, there was a mini cinema with proper seats playing back-to-back films, and a couple of old chaps looked like they might be settled in for the day with their flasks and sandwiches. I decided to watch for a bit and, to my surprise, enjoyed my viewing.

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Displays include artefacts such as letters sent by Laurel to his family in Ulverston through which he recounts various tours, performances and successes. It was touching to read these personal notes which showed his continued closeness to his family.

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And photographs of Stan as a boy and young man in Ulverston

The Museum has acquired many original costumes from Laurel & Hardy films along with other props and promotional materials. Looking at the poster for Sons of the Desert, the curator’s fez suddenly made sense.

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One corner brimmed over with old souvenirs and novelties, including a hideous green pottery lamp. Fascinated, I switched it to ‘on’ position to see if it would look even more gruesome when lit, but sadly the bulb was missing.


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I enjoyed my hour or so in the museum, and reading about the Ulverston connection of which the town is so proud.


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From there I decided to walk along Market Street towards my favourite Ulverston cafe. The town is pretty and colourful with traditional independent shops.




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A street market seemed to be doing well and a brass band played music from Bond movies.

As the musicians performed their rendition of Gold Finger, I continued walking, looking up at the Sir John Barrow monument in its sentry position on top of Hoad Hill. The 100ft tall monument was erected in 1850 to commemorate the founder member of the Royal Geographical Society who was born in Ulverston in 1764.

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Although it looks like a lighthouse it has never functioned as one. Lots of folks enjoy climbing the hill and even going up to the top of the monument to experience the stunning views of Morecambe Bay and the Lake District. Not remotely tempted to try such a feat, I decided it was time for refreshments before hailing a taxi to Conishead Priory.

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Gillam’s is one of Ulverston’s oldest establishments, popular and always busy. Specialists in fine teas, they offer a wide selection in the cafe, or to take home. My favourite contains cocoa nibs which infuse a delicate hint of chocolate.

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I headed into the garden to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air as I waited for my cup of tea and freshly-baked fruit scone, still warm from the oven.

Conishead Priory and Manjushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple

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About once a year I travel to the pretty Cumbrian town of Ulverston and from there make the short journey to the small coastal village of Bardsea to visit one of the most distinctive properties in the north of England, Conishead Priory.

In the 12th century a community of Augustinian monks established a church and hospital on the site which grew in size, importance and wealth, was promoted to the status of priory and later received a royal charter from King Edward II. The Priory ministered to the poor of the surrounding areas, spiritually and medicinally, and didn’t do badly in return through tithe payments and hopeful pilgrims seeking blessings and cures through the medium of the in-house relic, a piece of the girdle of the Virgin Mary, no less.

All that came to an end in 1537 when the Priory, and all others like it, was demolished during England’s Protestant Reformation. The estate passed through several owners until it came into the possession of the Braddyll family in the 1600s, remaining the family seat for almost 200 years. The last of that line to own the Priory was Colonel Thomas Braddyll who inherited the estate in 1818. He found it in a state of disrepair and decided to rebuild from scratch, engaging the services of architect Phillip Wyatt at a cost of £140,000 and taking 15 years to construct. Master craftsmen from all over the world were brought in to contribute to a grand design resembling a fortified house with an ecclesiastical structure.

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Financial losses in the Durham coal mines bankrupted Thomas Braddyll and in 1848 he had to sell the estate. After changing hands several times, Conishead was bought in 1878 by a Scottish syndicate and was turned into a luxury hydropathic hotel and health farm offering salt baths, lawn tennis and pleasure boating amongst other benefits for those who could afford it. A branch line from Ulverston Station even ran directly to the site which, sadly for me, was long ago dismantled.

The Priory continued as a place of rest and recuperation from 1928 until 1972 when it was run as a convalescent home for Durham coal miners, interrupted during the years of World War II when it was temporarily the largest military hospital in the north west of England.

When the miners’ tenure came to an end, the site sat empty for four years and fell into a shocking state of decay until it was bought in 1976 by the Kadampa Buddhist Community which, over many years, worked continuously, initially to repair the extensive rot and then to transform Conishead into an international college of Buddhist learning and meditation.

Conishead is, with no exaggeration, a fantastic place to visit because it has so much to offer. Primarily a Buddhist centre of learning, it attracts tens of thousands of Buddhists every year, especially to its festivals and retreats. Generously, it has extended its welcome to all, and the beautiful grounds are open, free of charge, to those of us who just enjoy this gorgeous place.


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The reception area gives a short multi-media history of the Priory and is the starting point of a tour – very reasonably priced at £3 – which takes place once daily at weekends and bank holidays, excluding religious festivals when the estate is closed to day visitors. Every time I have visited since the first time in 2015 I have planned to join the tour, but have never ended up doing so. Once I start roaming around the grounds I lose track of time and just want to carry on in solitary happiness, taking pleasure in the tranquility. I hope you enjoy, through my photos, my own solo tour which I’m sharing with you.

From the car park, an archway leads to what would have been the courtyard and stables. Cottages which would formerly have housed staff or been stables are now the homes of Buddhist community residents. A friendly cat greeted me as I approached.

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Continuing through the cottage courtyard and through another archway leads to a wide lawn area bordered by plants and shrubs. Community members also live in parts of the main house and some clearly love gardening.


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A tunnel of evergreens leads to a small wild garden. I love to sit in the corner surrounded by the fragrant herbs. Everything here is left to do its own thing and signs of autumn are all around in the form of ripening fruit and flowers gone to seed. In one of the pictures you’ll see a clue to our next stop on our tour.


Another lawn leads us to the spectacular temple. The lawn is surrounded by stone seating where visitors can sit and relax. It’s usually quiet here.

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The temple is relatively simple in design compared with others I’ve visited. Let’s look inside. We have to take off our shoes.



Everybody is welcomed warmly and free to sit quietly, look around, take photos or meditate as they like. Visitors can ask questions as there are always community members supervising, but happily they are not evangelical, and leave visitors to appreciate the space in their own way.

Back outside, we’ll walk across the outer lawn and into the private woodland.


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I deviate from the wide main path and come across a sad but lovely little clearing I’ve not seen before; a little resting place for furry friends passed away.



I stay for a few minutes thinking about life and love and how precious time is before moving on through the trees to enjoy the time I have right now on this warm sunny day. Glorious bright sunshine greets me as I exit the trees and walk out onto the Priory’s private beach, again generously available to all visitors and their dogs. The stunning fells of the Lake District are a splendid background. In the second picture below you can see the viaduct across the bay at Arnside.

Looking out to the right towards Heysham.

I sit for half an hour doing absolutely nothing before retracing my steps through the wood. Emerging outside the conservatory cafe, I head inside for a cold drink.

It’s time to leave. I promise myself that I won’t leave it so long in future.

Heysham- a village in bloom

Like a lot of people, I would love to live by the sea. Fortunately, I do live within easy distance of the coast and my favourite north-west seaside destinations, where I can appreciate the stunning views, peaceful shores, and where I can envy those who do actually reside there.

One such place is the village of Heysham in Lancashire, just a few miles outside the historic city of Lancaster and a pleasant walk down the coastal path from better-known Morecambe. Not all of Heysham is gorgeous – it is also the site of a huge power station – but its grassy cliff tops, rock pools and quiet promenade are, for me, unrivalled in the region.

The addition of the ancient ruins of St Patrick’s Chapel with its mysterious Viking barrow graves, plus the Anglo-Saxon Church of St Peter on the cliff edge, put Heysham at the top of my fantasy seaside homes list. My posts about St Patrick’s Chapel and St Peter’s Church tell more: St Patrick’s Chapel and barrow graves St Peter’s Church

Heysham is also a village in bloom, where private residents and the small community as a whole seem to be on the same green page. Many of the houses are hundreds of years old.

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The house below was formerly St Peter’s rectory but is now a private home.
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A sign outside this cottage invites passers-by to help themselves to windfall apples
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The houses below are both 17th century, like many other properties close by

On Main Street is a quirky community display with an abundance of flowers and peculiar objects which, no doubt, are significant to the village.

Recessed in a wall close by is St Patrick’s Well, named after the ancient chapel whose ruins stand on the cliff just a five minute walk away. Originally a Holy Well, it was later used by the rectory for utilitarian purposes but became contaminated and was filled with rubble in the early 1800s. Some restoration work took place about a hundred years later but it was further restored in 2002 and turned into a feature. The water is now pumped through artificially.
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The Glebe Garden is accessed from the grave yard and is a lovely example of community effort.

A path winds around the lush space where benches, each one dedicated to the memory of somebody who loved spending time here, have been placed for quiet contemplation and pleasure. Perhaps the old man modelled as peering through the shrubbery once did so in life.


There are also modern properties in the village, some of them luxurious; most of them charming. An annual Viking festival is held in July, and it looks like one Norseman just doesn’t want the party to end.

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A potential problem for those lucky enough to live in the village is being spoilt for choice between the cafes, a tea room and the pub, all of which offer delicious fresh food. It’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having though …. 🙂