This week, the wind and rain have lashed the garden, whipping the tender shrubberies and blowing a sheet off the line and into a neighbour’s tree. I had to take down the wind chimes for a couple of days until the gusts settled. Even I, lover of tubular tinkling that I am, was driven to distraction by the cacophony that sounded more like an ice-cream van in melt-down than soothing music for the soul. Today it is warm, muggy even, and although a storm has been forecast for this evening, it’s lovely so far.
The little garden has taken quite a bashing too, but the flowers and shrubs are none the worse for some much-needed rain. I have decided to abandon the various plans I had for my tiny plot this year; it’s been hard enough to get compost, let alone the shrubs and the landscaping materials I had hoped for. The fences, thirsty for a coat of wood preserver, will have to wait a bit longer. The prospect of queueing outside B&Q for an hour does not appeal.
Strangely, I find that I don’t really mind. Some of my plants seem slow in getting going this year, but I am enjoying what there is so far, and the wildlife is enjoying it too. It’s not always a bad thing to be forced to slow down and enjoy right now rather than think about what’s next.
Most of my planting has been deliberately chosen to encourage bees and butterflies, and purple is definitely one of their preferred colours. I yearn for those bolder, brighter colours to come through but whilst the roses, geraniums and fuchsias are still just on the edge of revealing themselves, there is a lot of pretty purple in full bloom.
Thyme in flower
Verbena Bonariensis, a butterfly magnet
One of the most popular plants with the bees is Walker’s Low, cat mint. Like all mint it takes hold and spreads, offering the pollinators a fragrant feast. Oddly, there were no bees around when I took these photos.
It’s not just popular with bees either.
A carpet of cat mint under a honeysuckle canopy offers a cool and peaceful shade from the hot sun.
Today is the 484th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne Boleyn, the ill- fated second wife of King Henry VIII. I don’t think either needs any further introduction. I should point out that this is not a date which I usually mark, or would even have been aware of had it not been for my current reading material. I have finally reached the end of TheMirror & TheLight, the third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s retelling of the story of the fall from grace and eventual execution for treason of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal and Henry Tudor’s general right-hand-man until he fell out of favour. Cromwell was the common man, a blacksmith’s son, who had risen, under Henry’s patronage, to become the most powerful man in the kingdom bar the king himself. Indeed, that was the problem. The most popular reason proffered for Cromwell’s grisly demise was his role in forging Henry’s disastrous union with Anne of Cleves that ended in annulment after 6 months. Whilst that was undoubtedly an important factor, whispering in the King’s ear were those English nobles of ancient lineage, consumed by envy and contempt towards the lowly nobody who had risen to greatness and who they wanted out of the way.
This isn’t a history blog, nor do I do book reviews, but reaching the final (875th) page on the date of Anne Boleyn’s beheading felt quite poignant and inspired me to have a look at my photos of the single occasion on which I visited the Tower of London, on another sunny day about six years ago.
In 1070, William the Conquerer decided to show the recently vanquished Londoners a symbol of his power by erecting a fortress on a hill above the city, complete with a tower that would loom menacingly, casting a shadow of fear. Just in case anybody got any ideas. Over the next few centuries, the Tower was expanded and fortified through a concentric design of defensive wall within defensive wall. Within, medieval kings built their regal abodes and locked away their riches and armoury. The Crown Jewels of Queen Elizabeth II are stored there and can be viewed, though not photographed, by visitors. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing them but decided that since I was there I would take a look. I was struck by how blingy these national treasures appeared, almost too shiny and glittery to be real, as if they had come out of a dressing-up box.
On the day of my visit, troupes of colourful Morris dancers jingled and jangled their bells for the audience. Mock medieval tents stood on the lawn where soldiers appeared to be going through some kind of training activity.
In medieval times, prisoners accused of treason would usually be brought into the Tower by boat, sailing along the Thames and through the notorious Traitors’ Gate. It must have been terrifying, knowing that almost certainly they would not leave again and that all manner of horrors might await within. It felt quite disturbing to me to look beyond the grille and imagine passing through.
Although a prison for over 500 years, not all of those incarcerated were kept in dingy dungeon cells. Lavish apartments were comfortable abodes for the weeks, months or years that some English nobles awaited the monarch’s decision as to their fate. Some did get out alive. The ones we know most about are those that didn’t.
On Tower Green stands a glass memorial which marks the site of the execution block where so many heads rolled. On it is inscribed:
‘Gentle visitor pause awhile: where you stand death cut away the light of many days: here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life: may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage: under there restless skies.’
The memorial is dedicated to all who were sent to their deaths by order of the state, though some names are better known.
The light and clarity of the glass and the gentle touch of a cushion in place of the block seemed quite fitting in such a sad and gruesome spot where the blood of many was shed, sometimes for reasons of political expediency.
Queues were very long on that hot day, so I decided to avoid entering the more crowded exhibitions which included a display of royal armour from across the centuries. Instead, I joined a guided tour of the Royal Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula, the final resting place of those executed for treason including, amongst many, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and the two beheaded queens. Our guide was one of the beefeaters or Yeoman Warders. Again, photography was prohibited.
Until the 19th century, the Tower had its own zoo; a royal menagerie of exotic creatures; novelty gifts from courtiers or ambassadors, or procured at the Regent’s request. Happily, the real animals are long gone and are replaced by some impressive metal sculptures.
There are still some famous animal residents at the Tower of London; creatures of legend, the ravens. There are seven in total, all looked after by the yeoman raven master; pampered, in fact. The legend goes that the ravens protect the Tower, and if they ever leave the Tower and the kingdom will fall.
I watched a programme about the ravens a couple of years ago and found it intriguing. They really are very spoilt. As they are, like so many before them, prevented from leaving (in this case through the clipping of a wing feather), it seems only right that there is a pay off. I wonder if they would leave if they could. Perhaps we should be hoping not.
The early May Bank Holiday weekend is upon us, usually a time for weekends away, day trips into the countryside, or at the very least visits to garden centres followed by afternoons of planting shrubs and flowers or painting fences. That was before. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air above England that Sunday may bring an announcement that restrictions may be eased and a gradual and tentative return to the old ways begin. But for now, it’s still staying in, the new usual for most of us.
Yesterday, whilst waiting for somebody to reply to a message on Microsoft Teams where I mainly work now, I found myself browsing a list I had typed some time last year entitled Places to go in 2020. I had to laugh at myself: the wettest February on record followed by a deadly virus that’s kept us inside throughout the driest, warmest April and will likely curtail recreational freedom for some months to come. If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that when it comes down to it, our human planning and organising and solid certainty is actually very fragile and no match at all for the forces of nature. Anyway, back to the joy of life and sunshine and celebrating that I am alive, well, employed and have everything I need except my hairdresser.
On this extensive list of possible places to go this year is West Kirby, a small town at the tip of the Wirral Peninsula and just eight miles from Liverpool. I have been a couple of times previously but have particular reasons wanting to go again, and the time would have to be right.
The north Wirral peninsula has some quite lovely coastal towns and villages which look out to open sea or over the river Dee towards north Wales. Kirby as a place name is, not surprisingly, of Viking origin and means the village with a church. The Vikings arrived in AD902 having been driven out of Ireland. There isn’t much in the way of archaeology, though a hogback stone is preserved in the parish church and other examples of Viking artefacts have been discovered elsewhere on the peninsula. The history surrounding the Wirral Vikings is something I hope to explore further. Modern day residents include Conservative MP and one-time-would-be party leader Esther McVey, who I’m not interested in .
The original West Kirby Marine Lake was built in 1899 but the current lake, larger and deeper then the old, dates back to 1985 and is very popular with all sorts of water sports enthusiasts. It’s a very short walk from the train station to the lake and from there to the Victorian promenade and beach.
About two miles off shore is Hilbre Island, uninhabited except by wildlife. An observatory offers opportunities to see some rare and endangered birds as the island (actually a very small archipelago) is a stop-off point for some species which migrate twice-yearly along the west coast of Britain. Grey seals also live on the island but tend to stay in the water when people are around. The island can be reached on foot at low tide, hence the timing of the visit having to be carefully planned.
I haven’t been to the island but that was one of my hopes for 2020. Reading through my wish list prompted me to look through these and other photos from a previous visit, partly to enjoy the only beach scenes I might get to see for quite a while, but also as a reminder that in the natural world the cycles of life carry on, unaffected by Corona; flourishing and renewing through less human contact. Birds still fly; seals still swim.Tides still come and go at their appointed times and following their courses, pulled by the moon, as they have since forever. How humbling and reassuring it is that they too are beyond our planning and organising and will still be rushing in, and out again, waiting for no man, once we are free to get out there again.
Here in the UK we are into week 5 of lock down. People are responding to the situation in different ways. Some are coping well and are adjusting to a slower and simpler temporary life; others are struggling with confinement and uncertainty about when things will change. I’m naturally a homebody and enjoy my own company, so thankfully I’m doing OK; though I am starting to lose track of what day it is and doubt I am alone in that. Sadly, there are no rural amblings to be had close to my home so I can’t show you any verdant spring scenes. I’m sure I’ll be itching to get out when restrictions are lifted, but as that could be some time off I thought I’d write a little retro travel post without having to leave the house.
Though not intentionally or philosophically a minimalist, I appear to own less stuff than most people I know and I tend only to have things that I actually use or am really fond of. In the second category is Montmarte Cat who sits on a shelf in the kitchen. I bought this ceramic feline about five years ago from my favourite part of Paris.
Montmartre is well known as the artists’ quarter of the French capital, a bustling and lively place with lots of winding cobbled streets, cafes, artists and little studios. Montmartre is actually the name of the hill but it incorporates the district which has grown up around it.
Walking around admiring street artists’ work is to be taken much more seriously than here in England. Stand too long in admiration and it’s assumed you have entered into an unspoken commercial contract to purchase the watercolour you have been ogling for the last seven minutes, or to pose for the portrait painter whom you have naively made eye contact with. Once those bristles hit that canvas there’s only one honourable outcome unless you want to make your escape, chastened and shamed, as the offended artist shouts insults after you. Just keep moving unless you want to buy, and enjoy the wonderful energy of the village.
Moulin Rouge is a just a short walk away but I haven’t been tempted. One of my two favourite views of the city can be savoured from the Basilica of Sacre Coeur which sits atop Montmartre (the other favourite view, perhaps unsurprisingly, being from the top of the Eiffel Tower).
Each time I have visited has been a warm and bright day, perfect for buying a freshly made baguette and walking up the steps of Sacre Coeur to sit and enjoy the sprawling metropolis below.
Of course, there are the usual hawkers and pick-pockets and opportunists who can spot tourists a mile off; it’s a slice of life. There are also souvenir shops selling tat to those of us who can’t resist – my personal weakness is fridge magnets. Bill Bryson once admitted to the same (tat, not especially fridge magnets) so there’s no shame in it. Excellent coffee or a green fairy will soon have you feeling more sophisticated again.
On my last visit five years ago I came across this gorgeous little ceramics studio.
The items on display outside were, understandably, glued in place but I was still impressed that they remained intact. I knew I was going to buy something…
Not the handrail, though it was exquisitely painted.
Inside the tiny gallery there was a collection of cats in white and a rich olive green, singular and paired, reclining, sleeping, stretching, serious or smiling. One looked very pleased with himself, contented and lazy as cats should be, and as he has been since, on my kitchen shelf.
Keep smiling too! Planes will once again fly, ships will sail and adventures are awaiting.
This is the second week of my Easter break from work, and in these strange times all that means is that I’m just not looking at anything work-related for a fortnight. On Monday morning I’ll take up my position at my home desk and work on whatever can be worked on within the limitations imposed by distance and technology. At the onset of lockdown I thought working from home would be easier than the reality has proved, hence my present ‘hard line’ on taking this two weeks’ leave. Still, I’m immensely grateful and relieved that I’m able to continue working and have security and peace of mind where so many others now face uncertainty.
Being blessed with excellent weather, I’ve spent much of my time contentedly pottering outside: sowing, re-potting, pruning and repairing. I’ve also been able to finish a couple of books, both sidelined some weeks or months ago, and am now, after a slow start, just over a hundred pages into Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. This final part of the trilogy which charts the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell has been a long time coming, and I know that I have not been alone in wondering, impatiently, what was taking Hilary so long. I read somewhere that she was finding it hard to write the end; to finally put Cromwell’s head upon the block. Hilary Mantel is a perfectionist, which is the real reason for the gap between Bring up the Bodies and this finale. Having been awarded Booker prizes for instalments one and two, the pressure to maintain that standard a third time must have been immense.
Thomas Cromwell was a key figure in driving King Henry VIII’s programme of dissolution of the monasteries as part of the English Reformation. Henry’s main interest was in the considerable revenue which, confiscated from the wealthiest monastic establishments, could boost his kingly coffers. For Cromwell, apart from wanting to impress his boss, the king, his own agenda was more theological, being strongly in favour of rooting out all things papist.
All this talk of Tudors and Reformation brought to mind another of my favourite places, Whalley Abbey near Clitheroe. Now owned by the Church of England, only ruins remain of the 14th century Cistercian monastery. More modern (still centuries old) buildings on the site are in use as a spiritual retreat and conference centre. I was first introduced to Whalley about 10 years ago by a friend who was training to be a counsellor and had taken part in a residential course there. She had found great pleasure in strolls among the ancient ruins and along the banks of the river Calder which skirts the grounds. These photographs I took on a summer’s day a few years ago capture the Abbey’s serenity.
Of course, the Abbey was not always the peaceful location it is today. Established in the late 13th century and a work-in-progress for nearly a century after that, the monastic community had its fair share of controversies and scraps over money with other local religious powerhouses. The founders had relocated to Whalley from their original Abbey at Stanlow on the banks of the river Mersey where a series of unfortunate incidents including flooding, gales and fire damage had led to the decision to move to pastures new. An age of prosperity and calm followed and the Abbey became one of the principal landowners in east Lancashire. Rivalries in the region were fierce where money was concerned, and records dating from the last quarter of the 15th century tell of vicious feuds between the Abbott and the Rector of Slaidburn over tithe payments, with reports of the Rector’s thugs attacking monks.
The church then, as now, enjoyed fantastic wealth, and inevitably some of that was abused as records of lush living and monkish opulence describe. Of course, Abbeys were also places where the sick could receive care and the poor, alms. The rising star that was Cromwell saw an opportunity. In 1535 delegations of ‘visitors’ were sent to the English Abbeys to carry out inventories of their assets and to look for signs of superstitious practices such as promoting belief in the power of so-called relics, a lucrative business in its time. Examples of some of these finds were widely publicised by Cromwell to provide further justification for the dissolution. The Visitors’ report on Whalley was not especially damning, with only one monk apparently conducting himself lewdly, but the Abbott, John Paslew, was accused of selling off some of the church’s gold. Sanctions were placed on the community and records show that Cromwell himself was required to make judgement when the Abbey appealed. He relaxed the sanctions. Nice.
The following year, 1536, saw Abbott Paslew and many of the monks participate in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic rebellion. Paslew was executed for treason. The year after that the Abbey was dissolved. Centuries of private ownership followed before it was bought by the Church of England in 1923. It is a grade 1 listed scheduled ancient monument. To me, it’s just a really lovely place to spend some quiet time.
I hope to go back to Whalley once some sort of normal life is resumed and spend a few hours just moving slowly around the grounds, bench-hopping, listening to birdsong and blissfully doing nothing much.
On the occasion of the birthday of William Wordsworth I am reblogging this post from a couple of years ago. I’ve just watched a feature on the local news about the poet and his great love for his Lake District home turf, a spot I am also fond of. Wordsworth fiercely disapproved of the ‘uneducated masses’ descending on the area to enjoy its beauty and inspirational power as he and his privileged contemporaries did. The emptiness of pretty Grasmere village today would have been very much to Wordsworth’s liking, a paradise for any lonely cloud-wanderer. News footage showed deserted streets and empty cafes as social distancing keeps us all close to home. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before the danger abates and allows us once more to enjoy scenes like these.
I was recently given an intriguing book: a paperback version of a travel guide of the Lake District written by the celebrated poet William Wordsworth who was born and resided most of his life in that beautiful part of England. A Guide Through the District of the Lakes was first published in 1810 and revised and reprinted several times before the final version was written in 1835. Wordsworth was strapped for cash and with a growing family, hence the artistic compromise. Wordsworth himself expressed some degree of contempt for this work, admitting that the need for funds had been the incentive behind its publication.
Whilst it’s obviously not in the same league as his poetry, I quite like this book; it’s like a Lonely Planet guide of its time and reminds me of the later Wainwright guides which laid out walking routes across the mountainous pastoral terrain of the north of England, routes still followed to this day. I find it very interesting to compare Wordsworth’s poetry with his – albeit highly descriptive in parts – functional writing.
Wordsworth made his home close to Grasmere Lake to the south of the Lake District region. Its name is from the old English gress and mere – the lake flanked by grass. Wordsworth first stayed at Dove Cottage, and his final home was at Rydal Mount where he died in 1850. At only a mile long and half a mile wide, Grasmere was not particularly impressive in size, but was Wordsworth’s favourite. The river Rothay feeds the lake, from where it flows on into Rydal Water and then to Lake Windermere.
A footpath along the west shore of the Lake leads to Penny Rock Woods, another route to Rydal Water
I really like Grasmere, not because it is spectacularly atmospheric like my favourite of the lakes, Ullswater, or as grand as the better-known Windermere, but because it is relatively quiet, is easily accessible for most people and because the south shore is like a pebble beach from where it’s easy to paddle or swim.
What better descriptions could I use than those of Wordsworth himself?
‘In preparing this Manual, it was the Author’s principal wish to furnish a Guide or Companion for the Minds of Persons of taste, and feeling for Landscape, who might be inclined to explore the District of the Lakes with that degree of attention to which its beauty may fairly lay claim’ – William Wordsworth, A Guide Through the District of the Lakes.
‘I do not know of any tract of country in which, within so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety in the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime or beautiful features of the landscape’
‘…at the outlet of the lake, the stream pushing its way among the rocks in lively contrast with the stillness from which it has escaped.’
‘The presence of a lake is indispensable to exhibit in perfection the beauty of one of these days.’
‘the smallest rivulet – one whose silent flow is scarcely noticeable in a season of dry weather – so faint is the dimple made by it on the surface of the smooth lake.’
‘… the lover of Nature might linger for hours’
‘All else speaks of tranquillity … the clouds gliding in the depths of the Lake.’
‘It has been said that in human life there are moments worth ages’
In the words of a well-known George Formby song, ‘it’s turned out nice again’ today. Though cold for the last day of March, the sun has shone and, more importantly, it’s been dry. The weather has become more, or less, significant to many of us over the past week or so. Dry days have made those permitted walks, runs and bike rides possible for those who are able to get outside their four walls. Even for those like me who are working from home, it’s great just to sit in the garden for a bit, or even do a bit of planting, pruning and tidying up.
There is new growth in the garden, plenty of it, but not a lot of colour yet. With little prospect of holidays or even day trips for some time, those lucky enough to have even the smallest of green patches will, no doubt, enjoy them even more than usual in the weeks, or even possibly months, ahead. The few snowdrops that bloomed in my little garden are long gone, and one or two crocuses are clinging on, but the bright and cheerful daffodils are still making me smile.
I decided to go into town yesterday to deposit some cash and a cheque into the bank. Cash is exceedingly frowned upon at the moment, so I felt guilty handing it over when it was eventually my turn to cross the bank’s threshold, having satisfied the lady on the door that I had a good enough reason to enter, i.e. a purpose that couldn’t be accomplished through the use of the cash machine outside. It was very unnerving to see people queueing, spaced so very far apart, to enter the few businesses that remained open.
From the bank I had one more call to make inside the shopping arcade, though there was very little shopping going on. The jocular security guy again asked me what my business was. I gave the right answer, passed the test and was admitted. As I made my way from one store to another of the three that were open, it hit me that in that moment, in that big space, there was just me and the statue of George Formby, immortalised with his ukulele in his hand. It was surreal. I’m sure George would have come up with some jolly ditty to raise folks’ spirits at a time like this, as many ordinary people are doing in all sorts of ways right now through social media. Good on them.
The Grand Arcade is built on the site of the former Wigan Casino, the legendary home of Northern Soul. There is a plaque which marks the exact spot of the Casino entrance outside a well-known mobile phone shop, but I can’t show you a picture here as that area is cordoned off; none of the stores at bottom end sells food. Like George’s lyrics, Northern Soul’s motto was a happy one, never more relevant than now: ‘Keep the faith!’. Keep smiling everyone, and be safe.
Today was exceptionally grey but was the first dry day for nearly a week, so I decided to go out for the afternoon. Monday through to Friday I go to work before sunrise, and it’s dark again by the time I get home, so weekends are particularly precious in winter.
I took the train to Liverpool with an entirely different intention, but having failed to find what I was looking for and with just a couple of hours of proper light left, I decided just to ‘potter’.
Catching sight of the Bluecoat, I realised it must have been two or three years since I’d last gone inside, so I decided that looking at some art would be a good way to salvage what risked becoming a wasted afternoon.
The Liverpool Bluecoat was opened in 1725 as a school and is the oldest building in Liverpool city centre. The initiative of the Rector of Liverpool, Robert Stythe, and Master Mariner, Brian Blundell, its purpose was to educate the boy pupils, through Christian charity, in the tradition of the Anglican faith. It functioned as a school for nearly 200 years until growing pupil numbers required relocation. From the time it closed as a school in 1908, it reinvented itself as the arts community hub which it still is today.
Parts of the elegant Queen Anne style building are now used by independent businesses.
Once inside, a large and airy a cafeteria offers a nice space to have lunch away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre just a stone’s throw away.
The Blucoat runs a variety of arts projects and exhibitions, and until late February is hosting It’sMyPleasuretoParticipate by London-based American artist, Alexis Teplin.
The artist works through an unusually varied media of paint, sculpture, film and performance which draw on traditions from art history including still life, landscape painting and literature. The same themes of both vivid and muted colour and robust and delicate materials flow throughout the exhibition, linking all into what’s described as an ‘expanded painting’, beyond the flat of the canvas.
The actors in the film above, which plays on loop, wear some of the same costumes on display in the gallery. I didn’t watch the whole film but I was intrigued by how the spellings of some words had been changed in the subtitles, still clearly recognisable as the actual words, but with an altered poetic quality. I captured a couple of examples in the images above.
The objects on the beautifully crafted metal table above represent typical subjects used in still life paintings; each, including the blown glass pieces, has been created by the artist.
I enjoyed the exhibition and ‘got’ the concept of the ‘expanded painting’. I would have struggled to interpret any of the objects in isolation, but the the point – which escaped me at first – is that they are not isolated, but one piece.
A glimpse of some foliage led me into the garden which still looked charming for the time of year.
So the day didn’t turn out quite so grey after all.
Happy New Year! I hope as we start 2020 all in WordPress world are well and in good spirits. I decided that rather than write a review of 2019 I would write a few thoughts on what I’d like to be blogging about during the year ahead.
Yesterday marked my first visit of the year to the coast (my favourite kind of location), and I can’t think of a better first photo of 2020 than a spectacular sunset viewed from Southport Pier.
Apparently, today is this blog’s birthday. I have been pressing words for five whole years! This is also my 100th post, so a double milestone. Do the maths and you will see that I’m far from a prolific poster, and that is unlikely to change in 2020. I’ll still post when I have something new to share about somewhere I’ve visited or an experience I’ve enjoyed that I think might be of interest to some other people. I’ve never had a writing schedule and have sometimes gone weeks – and in the early days of the blog, months – without writing a word, though I’ve posted more over the last year or two.
Regular readers will know that I love to be near to the sea, in all seasons and at any time of day. Yesterday afternoon I decided to make the short train journey from my home in Wigan to Southport on the Lancashire coast. It was after 2 o’clock when I arrived, so after having a quick bite to eat and a mooch in a couple of shops, I made my way to the Pier. The town was busy, unsurprisingly on such a dry and bright day, but by this time it was about 3 o’clock and the light was starting to fade.
Although it wasn’t a cold day for the time of year the wind coming in from the sea was bitter as I walked towards the end; I wished I’d worn a scarf and gloves. My hands shook a little as I angled my phone towards the western sky, partly cold fingers and partly the biting breeze. It was well worth it though, as I was rewarded with breathtaking views as the sun descended.
At the end of the Pier I sat for a while on one of the wooden benches, watching as the light diminished and the sky changed from one moment to the next, nature’s own light show, unsurpassable.
This is a ‘first’ for me as I have never before written a post on my phone, or used in a blog photographs I took with it. I don’t really like using this small key pad for anything other than texting, but other devices are out of action at the moment, and actually the typing is not that bad and I like the photos. Perhaps that opens a door to more spontaneity in 2020.
Five years ago, this blog started out purely as an extension to my Facebook page where I would share photos with friends and family of places I’d visited but without any details or narrative. People would often ask about the locations, want more specific information or want to share their thoughts. I had the idea of writing a simple little blog which I would link to Facebook where folks could click on a link to see more than just the photographs. I seldom use Facebook these days, but here I still am.
It never occurred to me that anyone else would be reading my blog, or even how they would come across it. Even now, I sometimes wonder what people must have ‘Googled’ to end up here. One day I logged on for the first time in months and noticed a tiny orange circle near the alert bell at the top of the screen which I hadn’t seen before. I thought it was probably a notification from WordPress and was very surprised to find it was a message from a real person who had been reading one of my posts. As that started to happen more often, and one or two people started to follow my blog, I changed my style slightly, and wrote for anyone who might visit, not just those readers I knew personally.
It was even longer before I started to explore WordPress and found so many interesting and talented writers whose words and images I still thoroughly enjoy. I’ve discovered great places to visit and have been intrigued, amused, moved, entertained, inspired and educated by the posts I’ve read. I look forward to seeing more in 2020.
So what will I be writing about this year? Probably exactly the same as before. There is no plan. I’m sure I’ll revisit my favourite places and may write about those again if there’s something new to add. I’m also sure I’ll seek out new places to explore which I’ll share here. I’ll probably focus more on places closer to home, though there will be one or two trips further afield too. One thing I can guarantee is that there will be more posts from the coasts and hopefully more stunning views like these.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to look around one of Manchester’s most historic buildings, Chetam’s Library. The 15th century building, attached to the prestigious Chetam’s School of a Music, offers pre-booked guided tours on most days of the year, but this was a bit different. Chetam’s Unscripted was promoted as a chance for visitors to wander unaccompanied and at liberty around the Library after closing time, aided only by torches and fairy lights to guide the way. This is the second year of Unscripted, and as last year’s event sold out very quickly, my cousin and I made sure we secured our places this time around. We were looking forward to the extraordinary opportunity and the promise of ‘surprises’.
The building is next to Manchester Cathedral and dates back to 1421 when it served as home to the clergy of the then collegiate church. Humphrey Chetam (1580-1653), a successful and very prosperous Manchester textiles merchant, banker and landowner made provision in his will for five parish libraries in Manchester and Bolton which would be accessible to all who wished to use them. There was no equivalent at that time, with formal education being only for the privileged classes. In addition to the church libraries, Humphrey Chetam established the building we stood in front of as a boarding school for 22 boys. Despite his material success, Chetam retained some more humble qualities and was fined for refusing a knighthood.
Once all the visitors had assembled at the security barrier we were escorted inside by a volunteer and greeted by a member of staff whose immense enthusiasm seemed slightly patronising, as if we were schoolchildren, perhaps her usual audience. It was then explained that we were not in fact allowed to wander around at will and explore every ancient nook and cranny, and that any closed doors were ‘closed for a reason’; there were a lot of closed doors. The event was programmed to run from 6 pm to 8 pm to be followed by wine, mince pies and an opportunity to ask questions. Before we were let loose, we were told that wine would actually be served from 6:45 pm.
Torches guiding the way, we set off excitedly down a stone passageway towards the light emanating from an open door at the end. Clues had been left to suggest the possibility of unworldly encounters to come.
The darkness and magical lights were very atmospheric. Up ahead, shadows moved unexpectedly, the dim lights from other torches revealing the presence of fellow corporeal explorers. In truth, it really was too dark to see much detail, even with the aid of torches, but we were able to pick out some interesting architecture.
In one of the large rooms we could just about make out the details of some period furniture and spied some old books laid out on a large central table. Due to their age and delicacy it was not possible to touch them, though one of the curators did offer to tell us more about the books if we were interested.
John Dee, a famous character from the court of Queen Elizabeth I, is associated with that very room, but I won’t elaborate here, as I plan to revisit in daylight when I hope to be able to see the exhibits properly.
A flight of creaky oak stairs took us to the library itself, a long gallery with reading areas behind locked iron gates to the left and glass-fronted shelves to the right. Another volunteer was seated at the top of the staircase in the pitch blackness, her presence only detectable through the torch beam which she shone in our direction. I later heard her telling some other visitors that she sometimes dressed in period costume, which was what we had been expecting really, and would have added to the atmosphere. Nevertheless, this part of the building was the most interesting. Again, we were not allowed to touch any of the books, many of which were clearly very fragile, but it was fascinating to read some of the titles on the battered spines which included volumes on science, natural history and the geography of Lancashire.
I spotted a pale face inside a cabinet, all the more disturbing in the darkness. I assumed it to be a death mask and this was confirmed by the volunteer. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell me any more about the owner of the original head, but suggested that Google might be able to help.
At the end of the corridor we found an area which looked to be in use as an office. What a marvellous place to spend your working day!
Retracing our steps, we almost literally bumped into some other people from our party and spent a few moments chatting about what we’d seen – or not seen – so far. We all shared the view that the day time tour would probably be better and that we would definitely be interested in returning in the light.
A very old and elaborately carved door led into another room.
This housed a chained library, a collection of books dating back to the 17th century and one of the original libraries which Humphrey Chetam had planned for five parish churches in the region. As you see in the photographs, each book is attached by a metal chain to the cabinet or library. There were originally four of these libraries (the fifth was never printed) and members of the public could sit at the cabinet, which was usually attached to their church’s pulpit. Whilst not as convenient as the modern lending libraries we enjoy, this provided a great opportunity for individuals to access the written word. In addition to the one below which it already owns, Chetam’s is hoping to purchase a second from a private owner in the near future. Very sadly, the two others are believed to have been destroyed years ago, some of the precious books having been found in second-hand book shops in Manchester. Understandably, we were not allowed to touch those books either, but the curator opened one for us so that we could read a little of the ‘Old English’. In fact, it was not ‘Old English’ at all but the language was of its period and therefore is old-fashioned to the 21st century reader. Perhaps it was presumed we would not understand the difference.
The chained library was, for me, the most interesting exhibit. From there, we took a look inside a tiny room where the school master would have been able to look through a slot in a wooden panel down into the baronial hall to listen in on the school boys gathered below. Today, it houses the visitors’ book and an assortment of pens, some designed to look like quills.
Within an hour we had looked around all the permitted areas and at as much as we were allowed to touch and able to see in the darkness, so it was time for wine in the baronial hall. Mince pies were available but they were not included in the ticket price (£22) and there were no alternative beverages for any tee-teetotallers. None of the staff or volunteers mingled or asked for feedback or if we had any questions, and long before the advertised finish time of 8 pm, all visitors had departed.
Our verdict (shared by those participants we spoke to, though others may have had a different opinion) was that Chetam’s Library is undoubtedly a fascinating place and well worth a visit, but in the day time for the guided tour which costs less than a third of the price of the Unscripted event, and at 45 minutes lasts about as long as it took us to go round, but with the benefit of a person to explain the exhibits. We were expecting much more, as suggested by the advertising, and there were none of the ‘surprises’ we were promised, ghostly or otherwise. Chetam’s is a Manchester gem but it needs the light to bring out the sparkle.