Riding into the sunset

Having enjoyed an afternoon mooch around sunny Southport and a stroll on the sand, I headed back to the train station for the journey home. It was 15:17 and the brightness of the afternoon was fading fast. The journey would take just 33 minutes, but dusk was approaching, and the last of the winter daylight would almost have gone by the time I arrived back in Wigan.

Just a few minutes out of town, behind us now the retail park and long terraces of B&Bs, we reach the start of several miles of mainly agricultural land.

I have my Kindle poised, ready to resume the le Carre I started reading again yesterday, more than 20 years after being enthralled by the paperback publication, later made into a film with Sean Connery in the lead role, playing a very different sort of spy.

The Kindle’s still poised as I find my attention drawn instead to the view from the window, one scene quickly changing into the next as the train speeds ahead through the arable landscape.

The track cuts through a patchwork of fields, a vast open space as far as the eye can see in shades of gold, ochre, muted and vibrant greens, rusted oranges and rich browns. The sky is still blue, and the light plays on water and earth, casting shadows or setting on fire.

A few stops outside Southport and a ticket inspection is underway. At this time on a week day afternoon, we passengers are small in number and a well-behaved lot, every conductor’s dream. In this carriage there’s only me and a young woman sitting behind. We both produce our tickets and receive thanks and a winning smile. The conductor moves on.

Back to the window. In the few minutes that I’ve been distracted, the light has faded a little more, creating a somewhat mysterious effect.

Acres upon acres of farm land lie mostly dormant, long since harvested, recovering and reenergising for the next planting, though some reveal signs of recent working and a few even show off healthy winter crops. An abundance of cabbages and kale are grown in West Lancashire.

The train slows as we approach the next stop, the attractive station house now defunct and possibly under development for another use. The lady announcer reminds us, if we are alighting, to take all our belongings and mind the gap between the train and the platform edge. A passenger from the next coach heads towards the door nearest me, belongings in hand and ready to watch for the gap. She wishes the conductor a good evening and good luck in the next round of strikes next week. Did I really hear that? I must have, as the conductor laughs and replies, “We’ll need it.” Satisfied that no more passengers are going make a last minute dart out of or onto the train, she steps up from the platform, locks the doors, and we’re off again.

A gorgeous full moon is now visible behind the thin clouds, though it has failed to appear in these photographs. Look at the sky and it could be 10:30 pm in mid-June, only the bare-branched trees and the russet hues revealing the true season.

A couple of stops before home, the enchanting views gradually subside, replaced by scenes of industry and domestic life. Russet grasses become trackside rusted metal, and vast housing estates replace furrowed fields. Street lights, Christmas lights, traffic and hubbub announce our return as we slowly pull into Wallgate station. The lady announcer gives the reminder about belongings and another gap to watch out for, and thanks us for travelling with Northern Rail. On the platform, the pleasant conductor gives another winning smile. I don’t mention strikes.

A look around Turton Tower

Turton Tower is a property of mediaeval origin situated between Bolton and Darwen in Lancashire. It’s made up of three distinct and originally separate buildings, the stone tower being the oldest dating back to the 16th century. In later times, the other buildings were added and eventually all three were consolidated, with the newer additions constructed in the older Tudor style for an homogenous and perhaps more grandiose appearance.

In the 1920s, the property was given to the local council for the benefit of the local community and it’s run by a professional, knowledgeable and friendly team of volunteers, on hand to provide guided tours and a wealth of information. The American lady in the reception area/ gift shop revealed that she hailed from Detroit, where a couple of my granddad’s older brothers had emigrated in the 1930s to find work in the Ford car factory. Years ago, when I was seriously into genealogical research, I sourced the documents which outlined their initial passages from Southampton and Liverpool respectively as they set sail for their new lives. I could happily have chatted for longer to find out more about Detroit but more customers arrived and our tour guide invited us to start our exploration.

Look closely at the sizeable front door to spot a much smaller door within, a clever way to prevent ill-intentioned callers from entering unhindered and wielding their swords, possibly like the fine example displayed below.

What old English country house would be compete without a suit of armour or two? A less than discreet design feature allowed for the call of nature to be answered.

Most of the artefacts, whilst totally authentic and in keeping with the various periods of its occupation, do not belong to Turton Tower but are on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum. There are some splendid examples.

A grand if not very comfy-looking seat
ornate engraved cabinet
Early 18th century engraved box
A child’s bed engraved with sea creatures and mermaids, themes that can be found in other houses of the same era
Some of the most interesting exhibits were a variety of chairs, including
An amusing engraving
This exotic looking example
This intriguing ‘reading chair’, designed for men to sit facing towards the back, leaning on the arm rests to enhance the reading experience. The back of the chair, at crotch level, contains a little door, obviously essential for reading

All of the rooms were well presented and, perhaps because the exhibits were on loan and carefully chosen, there wasn’t that over-stuffed feel that I’ve encountered at some similar historic houses where much of what was on show seemed superfluous and untidy.

The drawing room with furniture from different eras
Top floor of the tower which provided a perfect lookout for approaching enemies, wattle and daub wall section exposed

One of my favourite objects was not one of the oldest but this gorgeous clock which shows the phases and faces of the moon peering out as if from behind the clouds . I’d never seen a clock like it, but our guide, Margaret, remembered her granny owning one and thinks they were probably not uncommon. I would love to see this charming timepiece in working order.

It was time for a cup of tea in the sunshine, so off we went to the little outdoor cafe, to enjoy the fresh air and the daffodils on a perfect spring day.

Whalley Abbey: dissolved but not forgotten

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …. 🙂

St Peter’s Church, Heysham: a melting pot on a cliff edge

Yesterday’s visit to Heysham took me to the ancient ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel and the mysterious stone barrow graves at the edge of the cliff.

A short walk from the chapel ruin is the Church of Saint Peter, which also has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon period. Grade 1 listed, the building still retains some of the original fabric but has been developed over more than a thousand years, the final additions being made in the 19th century. In the main, the Church is medieval.

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The first thing that strikes me when I enter the church yard is its picturesque back drop – quite literally, it’s perched at the edge of the cliff where rolling waves flood the rock pools directly below.

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It’s hit and miss as to whether the church is open, perhaps depending on whether somebody from the parish is available to supervise. Yesterday I was lucky.

The interior is small and dark; typical of its era, with that slightly musty smell of age, wax and polish that I really quite like. Behind the altar is a memorial stone inscribed to the memory of one William Ward, vicar of the church, who departed life in 1670. The engraving style is common amongst 17th century tombstones, where words at the ends of rows are split and there are no spaces between. The window in the photo was installed in the 1300s.

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The most interesting exhibit in the Church is the hog back Viking tomb which dates back to the 10th century, around the same time the barrow graves were dug out on the cliff above. There are other hog back stones in Scotland and elsewhere in the north of England, but the St Peter’s example is considered to be in the best condition.

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The stone was brought inside the Church in the 1960s to save it from further decay. Engravings on both sides have been interpreted as tales from Viking mythology; a Christian trefoil is also depicted. The melding of Pagan and Christian narratives was not unusual.

Another interesting feature is a decorated medieval sepulchral slab which would have covered a tomb.

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Back outside, I took a turn around the graveyard to learn more about the people of this idyllic place. The lower section of an Anglo Saxon cross is somewhere in the grounds but I didn’t come across it.

The medieval stone coffin next to the path was originally under the window of the south chancel inside the Church. It contained a body, presumed to be a former rector because of the fragment of a chalice found in his hands. The body was reinterred inside.

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The post of a Saxon sun dial (the face is lost) is also grade 1 listed.

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Morecambe Bay is a stunning but particularly hazardous stretch of the north-west coast line, where fast incoming tides can rush in from all sides and catch people unaware. Some readers will recall the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers who were drowned in 2004. Two years later a helicopter crash in the Bay claimed seven lives; the names of the pilot and six gas rig workers who died are commemorated on a memorial stone at St Peter’s.

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Within the railings is the grave of sisters, Agnes Wright, 18, and Mabel, 14, who drowned together in June 1895 whilst bathing near the rocks within sight of their own home on the cliff, more victims of treacherous tidal currents.

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I noticed, as in all grave yards, a few surnames recurring over the decades or even centuries, a sign of roots and continuity. I also, inevitably, noticed a few sad stories like little Stewart’s, a boy clearly popular with his school friends.

And one or two enigmas such as the young and apparently unique James McAvoy.

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My lasting impression of this village is that people and communities come and go but for all of them this has been home for a time. Some arrived from across the seas and made lives here, bringing custom and culture; becoming part of the the land and its story. Maybe they stayed; perhaps they returned to the Nordic lands or across the Irish Sea. Other folks can trace their roots here back through the centuries to Domesday. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of life at Heysham going back 10,000 years or more. It’s wonderful to be able to see the legacy of this cultural melting-pot everywhere you look.

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St Patrick’s Chapel and Heysham Barrow Graves

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Today was the first day in a while when there hasn’t been a downpour. With the forecast looking good I decided to take full advantage and head to one of my favourite places. Heysham is a coastal area just outside Lancaster, probably better known for its port and power station than for its sea views. You will not be surprised to know that neither of those facilities was the reason for my visit. A little way along the coast from the docks and the sites of industry is one of the most picturesque spots in the north west of England, and it is amazing how many people know nothing about it.

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Overlooking Morecambe Bay, Heysham’s sea cliffs are a beautiful place to sit and look down to the rock pools below or to walk the many coastal paths, appreciating the bracken, grasses and heather.

It’s no wonder that such a place as this evokes a strong sense of spirituality and a connectivity to the forces of nature. Others before us were moved to make it a place of prayer and contemplation. There is evidence that the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxons first built a small wooden chapel on the cliff head in the 5th century. That older chapel was replaced in the 9th or 10th century by the structure whose remains still stand today.

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The chapel is dedicated to Saint Patrick who was instrumental in spreading the new religion. Although associated with Ireland where he was adopted as patron saint, Patrick was an English man, hailing from the Ravenglass area of Cumbria. Aged 16, he is believed to have been kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was held as a slave for about seven years. The story goes that Patrick had a dream in which a ship was waiting to take him home, and this spurred him on to make his escape from captivity. He boarded a ship bound for France but strong winds blew it off course to Heysham where Saint Patrick landed.

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A cemetery existed around the chapel where about 80 members of the community were interred. More interesting are the 10th century barrow graves, hewn from the rock close to the cliff edge. It isn’t known who occupied the graves, but probably figures of importance. Due to their size it is speculated that they may have held bones only. Herein, it is believed, is the reason for the building of the new and larger chapel around the same time: to provide a place for visitors to the barrow graves to pray for the souls of the dead. They now enjoy Grade 1 listed status.

I love coming here. Not only is it a lovely place to be near the sea away from the crowds, but also to appreciate those others who have left their marks on the land.

The Lune Aquaduct, Lancaster

There are few things more relaxing than sailing on a canal boat on a fine day. With average speeds not exceeding 4 miles per hour on English canals, slowing right down – in every sense – is almost mandatory. I’ve enjoyed a lot of boat trips over the years with sightseeing from the water often being on my itinerary when visiting new towns and cities. Today’s little journey took me along a short stretch of the Lancaster Canal in my home county of Lancashire.

We boarded the generously proportioned Kingfisher at the Water Witch Pub which is just a short walk from the centre of Lancaster. Kingfisher Cruises operates a range of excursions throughout the year and more frequently during the summer season. We had opted for a short sail which would take us just a couple of miles outside the city but taking in a very significant landmark.

The heavens opened as we boarded, making it necessary to stay under cover for the first part part of the journey. I was lucky to have a seat near to the front of the boat and was quickly outside as soon as the rain stopped.

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The boat meandered serenely through the tranquil water, lush green banks on both sides.


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Our destination came into view: the Lune Aquaduct.

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Completed in 1797 to take the Lancaster Canal over the river Lune, the Aquaduct has grade 1 listed status. It is over 200 metres long and spans the river 16 metres below. Built from sandstone, five arches support the water trough. Designed and constructed by John Rennie and Alexander Stevens respectively, the structure cost nearly £50,000 – more than twice the estimated budget.

The sun was shining as we approached the Aquaduct, so the skipper decided it was safe for us to disembark to better enjoy the scenery.

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A group of children was getting ready to enjoy a kayaking session, their bright multi-coloured vessels like an art installation against the sandstone.

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It would have been nice to spend more time on the Aquaduct but it wasn’t possible to moor there for more than 10 minutes, and another trip was to follow after ours. It was time to turn the boat around and sail back.

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Exploring Castle Hill, Lancaster

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I spent yesterday afternoon in Lancaster, one of the most historic locations in the north of England. It’s a small city which has held onto its medieval character, and though it has the usual high street names within its town centre arcades, it has avoided the towering presences of high rises and industry. The only towers in Lancaster belong to the churches and the Castle.

Lancaster Castle sits on a hill overlooking the city, a key strategic position of power. Almost 2000 years ago, the Romans settled their first garrison in a perfect spot to keep an eye on the Scots and Picts to the north, and to have access to the river Lune and from there to the sea.

The current grade 1 listed building dates back a thousand years to the Normans, though the structure has been changed many times over the centuries. Until  2011 Lancaster Castle was still in use as a prison. The notice remains in place near to the ancient door, and barbed wire is still intact on the ramparts.

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English monarchs, entitled as Dukes of Lancaster, have owned the Castle since 1265.

The Castle offers fascinating guided tours; a chance to visit the damp dark cellars where the dingy cell walls display the centuries-old scrawlings of prisoners awaiting their fates. Amongst those imprisoned and later executed in turbulent and intolerant times were the Lancashire witches and 15 Catholic priests. Many ordinary Lancastrians were also tried at Lancaster. There were over 200 executions at the site known as hanging hill close to the Ashton Memorial at Williamson Park. You can read about my visit there if you click here  . A Castle tour wasn’t on yesterday’s agenda for me, but based on previous experiences I can recommend it.

Despite the blue sky and the bright sun it was windy and quite nippy on the hill so I was glad to head for the warmth of the Priory Church which is just behind the Castle. I admired the swaying congregations of spring flowers in the Church grounds.

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If I were a betting woman, I would have wagered that if there was just one day in the week when a church would be open, it would be Sunday. Not so. Incredibly, the doors to the splendid ancient building were bolted shut. I was disappointed not to see some of my favourite misericords, and to gain some temporary respite from the chill. I grumbled for a few minutes with another thwarted visitor before taking a turn around the grounds.

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On a bright day you can see the sea from the wall.

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Looking down from the Priory grounds beyond the Georgian houses and over the city, with the Cathedral spire and the Ashton Memorial in the distance.

I noticed a sign pointing to the remains of the Roman bath house and decided the follow the path alongside the burial ground.

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You can see the posts which would have supported the bath house floor, kept warm by under-floor heating. This is believed to be what remains of the the last of three Roman settlements in Lancaster.

From the ruins, I headed back up the east side of the hill and back to the Castle grounds to seek out my next destination.

 

 

On the way I passed the former premises of Gillow & Co, cabinet makers, founded in 1727 by Robert Gillow who had started out as an apprentice joiner. Some fine examples of Gillow workmanship were on display where I was headed next.

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Lancaster Judges’ Lodgings is the city’s oldest town house. It was originally home to Thomas Covell, Castle Keeper and notorious witch-hunter. From 1776 it was used as a residence for judges attending the assize courts at Lancaster three times each year as part of their circuit of the northern counties. It continued to provide accommodation for the judiciary until as recently as 1975. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was usual for two judges to be in residence along with their families and even their servants.

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The building is now a museum with the first two floors reconstructed authentically. Below, we see His Honour getting ready to leave for work at the Castle Court.

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Some of the furniture in this room was produced by Gillow & Co.

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This is a very small museum and there was a member of staff in almost every room available to answer questions if visitors were to approach them, though there was little in the way of information displays.

The building’s top floor houses the Museum of Childhood, rather incongruously, I thought. Not staffed, and very different in tone and content to the two lower floors, it felt as though there had been a left-over space that ought to be made use of. To my mind, it would have been ideal for exhibits relating to some of the cases that the judges would have tried, and for information about the assize courts system, trial and punishment throughout the ages.

Instead, there were several showcases of toys from the Victorian era up to the 1980s including some of the most sinister dolls imaginable. The lighting was poor throughout, so the photos are not the best.

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Humpty Dumpty – not like the jolly character in my Ladybird book

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The teddy looks desperate to be rescued.

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Some of this bizarre collection of curiosities and horrors on the judges’ top floor looks more like the stuff of childhood nightmares, but I’ll leave that judgement to you.

 

Sunderland Point and Sambo’s grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zooming in on Lancaster

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

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Walking along the causeway

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

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

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

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

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Sculpture by the late Ray Schofield

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

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cotton tree
The living cotton tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brockholes Nature Reserve

 

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Brockholes ‘unreserved’ nature reserve is just outside Preston, Lancashire. It is owned by the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside and was developed on the site of a former quarry. I decided that a gorgeous warm Saturday afternoon was the perfect time to connect with the natural world.

As I don’t drive, the places I visit generally must be accessible by public transport. There is no bus service to the reserve, but I alighted at the nearest stop outside the Tickled Trout Hotel on the banks of the River Ribble. From there it’s a 1.3 mile walk along the Preston Guild Wheel recreational pathway which is popular with walkers and cyclists. I strolled at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sunshine and admiring a small herd of sleepy cattle.DSCF5789

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From the entrance to the reserve I would estimate it’s at least another half mile to the visitor village which is where site maps can be picked up.

The Brockholes website informed me that hundreds of different species of wildlife had become established there including otters, brown hares, deer, kingfishers, herons, osprey, Lancashire’s first sighting of a Pallid Harrier and many rare species of birds depending on the time of year. I readily admit I am no bird expert – far from it – and didn’t have any particular expectations, though I would have loved to have seen a bird of prey. I was also hoping for an encounter with some deer and otters.

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On first entering the reserve I passed a ‘no dogs’ sign, there for obvious reasons. Within five minutes, I passed two couples coming away from the direction of the reserve – yes, with dogs! Signs inform that there is CCTV around the reserve, and shortly after I came across a staff member on patrol, so hopefully the Brockholes mammals are kept safe from ignorant people.

The ‘village’ is of an innovative eco design and floats on a central lake surrounded by reed beds. There is a venue for corporate events and conferences, and people even choose Brockholes for their nuptual celebrations, saying ‘I do’ in the woodland, on the banks of the River Ribble or in a dedicated wedding room.  The whole reserve, but especially the central village, is very popular with families.

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The vegetation on both sides of the track was literally buzzing with insect life, an abundance of dragon flies sparkling blue against the wild grasses.

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Butterflies flitted between the wildflowers, most of them too quickly for me to get any clear shots. A Meadow Brown was almost perfectly camouflaged.

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Some wildflowers like the germander speedwell have been purposely cultivated whilst others like the tufted vetch and meadow vetchling commonly occur by roadsides and in wildflower meadows.

Once in the ‘village’ I headed for the visitor centre to pick up a map and then went for a look around.

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The impressive restaurant is available for wedding receptions with a lake view

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Peering over the side of a pond I spotted the shapes of unidentifiable fish of various sizes gliding between cobbles and under the wooden walkway.  A particularly loud girl of about 12 was sulkily protesting that the fish were swimming away out of view….go figure!

A stroll around the accessible side of the lake revealed little beneath the surface except decorative pond ornaments and lily pads, much to the disappointment of the parents and toddlers scanning the depths.

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Therein is the paradox: to bring in the money to look after wildlife, the Trust must attract visitors who splash their cash but whose noise and frenetic activity ultimately frightens away the wildlife.  Catering solely or mainly for serious birdwatchers would not get enough visitors in, hence the ice cream parlour and huge restaurant along with children’s playground and educational centre where lots of little ones were busy with colouring books and crayons. I had mixed feelings about this: it’s brilliant that children are developing an awareness of the natural world, yet I felt that many of those visitors were there solely for an ice cream or lunch in a lovely setting with free admission. The wildlife seemed incidental.

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One of many paths and tracks around the reserve

The reserve covers 250 acres but I stayed quite close to the main paths. I spotted a lookout so went inside expecting a few twitchers with binoculars trained on the lake.

I discovered instead a two-year-old running wild and banging on the glass to the amusement of his parents and another dad pushing a pram back and forth trying to soothe a screaming baby. Back outside then….

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I spent a couple of pleasant hours at Brockholes and saw swans and wildfowl which I photographed from a distance as I was walking back towards the entrance.

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I know from other people’s accounts that it is possible to see rare bird species on the reserve, and such a sight must be thrilling, though most unlikely on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June.

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