The final few days before Christmas can become quite fraught as folks pile into the shops to buy those last-minute presents and to make sure provisions are in store for seemingly hundreds of unexpected but potential visitors.
I don’t much like grocery shopping, preferring instead to ‘click’ my selections into my basket and await delivery in the comfort of home, but having been defeated earlier in the week by a particularly potent (but fortunately short-lived) winter bug (and not being able to secure an online delivery slot) I had to face the trolley gauntlet on Friday. It looked like the shortest day was going to become a very long one. Drawing on every bit of festive cheer I could muster, I patiently navigated the obstacle course of spatially unaware (or unconcerned) fellow shoppers, and reached the check out as quickly as I could.
When a friend called to ask if I’d like to go for a walk, my first thoughts were that I didn’t want to leave the house again that day. After a few moments’ reflection I phoned her back. If I wrapped up properly, a drive off the beaten track, some fresh air and appreciation of nature would be a good way to end the shortest day of the year.
These pigeons were also having a quiet moment as we rounded the path in their direction.
The sudden beating of wings in flight was the only sound apart from our footsteps on the squelchy leaves.
Creatures watched from their posts in the undergrowth: traditional Christmas card scenes and flashes of exotic colour.
The year continues to be relatively mild, and there was no ice cover on the pond. Water dwellers looked peaceful both above and below the surface.
This is a time to reflect on another year now passed, and a time to look forward as the days lengthen and we move away from the dark and towards the light. What adventures will there be for us in 2019? For now, I’m happy to stay cosy inside.
Smithills Hall is a grade 1 listed manor house near Bolton, Lancashire, close to the West Pennine Moors. Last Sunday I took a tour to find out more.
First things first. The popular tea room makes tasty soup and sandwiches which were just what we needed before the hour-long exploration began.
According to Dorothy, our excellent guide, when the Anglo Saxons settled in the area in the 7th century, they described the surrounding hylls as smeƥe, or smooth. By 1300s, Smeƥe hylls had evolved into Smythell as noted in the earliest records which mention a manor house in that location. In 1335, house and land were bought by the powerful Radcliffe family who built the oldest parts of the present great hall from timber frames and stone.
Original features are still present; my favourites are the alms windows where bread would be left in the loaf-shaped openings for collection by the beggars of the parish, so that physical contact with them could be avoided.
After the last of the Radcliffes died heirless in 1485, Smithills (as it was by then known) passed into the possession of the Bartons, wealthy gentlemen farmers who held onto it for two centuries. There are some wonderful features from this period including examples of carved wood.
The Bartons were enthusiastic recyclers, repurposing the solid oak planks of decommissioned ships which happened to make splendid beams and joists.
The Tudor period was one of great turmoil in England. Henry VIII had brought religious reformation in the 1530s when he declared himself Head of the Church of England and severed ties with the Pope and Rome. After Henry’s death in 1547, his son, Edward, became King, but died after just six years. The new monarch, Queen Mary, re-established Catholicism. She became known as Bloody Mary due to her persecution of Protestants and the gruesome burnings which she ordered to be carried out on Protestant clergy who would not recant their faith.
In 1554, George Marsh, a preacher from Bolton, was interrogated or ‘examined’ in what is known as the ‘green room’ at Smithills Hall before he was eventually burned at Chester. The ‘green room’, with its incredibly uneven and creaky floor, can normally only be viewed on special tours such as the heritage event we were attending……and ghost tours.
All old English houses have their stories of ‘things that go bump in the night’ and Smithills is no exception. After his interrogation, George Marsh is said to have stamped on a flagstone, leaving a strange supernatural footprint which is now under a glass cover for protection. It was impossible to take a decent photo due to poor lighting and visitors walking past so here’s one I found online.
An original private chapel was thought to have been established in the 8th century with the present chapel (still in use), being built in 1520 by the Bartons and later refurbished and extended.
I particularly liked the splendid stained-glass windows and the wooden panels, some of which are engraved with Masonic-looking symbols which also appear elsewhere in the Hall. Another member of the tour group asked about these but was told that they’d been checked out by the Freemasons who denied the images were associated with their secret society.
The Ainsworth family took ownership in 1801. They were ‘new money’, owning a very successful bleaching business and a family fortune which demanded a residence to match their status.
The different wings converge around a courtyard, now turned into an herb garden. Formal gardens surround the Hall and the wider grounds include extensive woodland and lawns.
The west wing was the last part to be added in the Victorian era. Mr and Mrs Ainsworth’s separate sitting rooms have been set out authentically with some original features.
I was delighted to find his and hers fireplaces decorated with gorgeous tiles; his in a Delft design and hers created by my favourite ceramic artist, William de Morgan (read my blog post about him here ).
Although I’m not a great fan of Victoriana in general, I found it interesting to compare the different sections and styles of this somewhat disjointed house.
After Smithills was sold to Bolton Corporation in 1938 it was put to various uses including as a home for elderly ladies; hopefully they were accommodated in the warmer west wing and not in the mediaeval grand hall…
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.
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 GlobeInn – 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.
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
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.
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.
Boats grounded would later be liberated from the silt by the returning tide.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
Lots of visitors now come to pay their respects at the grave and leave a message or memento. I added something of my own, and spent a few minutes trying to imagine what this man must have experienced being torn from his family, community and land and dying in this place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The school holidays are in full swing and I too am off work so was able to enjoy a day with my six-year-old niece. I let Mia choose what she wanted to do; her surprising decision was to “play golf at Haigh Hall”. I had expected Southport or Blackpool and was secretly relieved to avoid the seaside crowds.
I have fond childhood memories of Haigh Hall, sitting with my family on a picnic blanket within the walled rose garden, or splashing in the pool. I hadn’t been for years and had heard that there had been a lot of changes.
There has been a manor at Haigh for centuries with the earliest recorded residents being the Le Norreys in 1193. The most famous residents of Haigh Hall were the Bradshaigh family who lived there from the 13th to the late 18th century. One of the Bradshaigh family, Lady Mabel (or Mab, to her friends) is said to haunt the Hall. Legend has it that during the crusades, her husband, Sir William, went missing for between 7 and 10 years, and thinking him dead she eventually remarried. Sir William made an inconvenient return (there are several variants on exactly what he’d been doing during that period, and whether he could have returned sooner if he had wanted) and to punish his faithless wife for marrying another, the story goes that he made her walk barefoot once a week several miles to a mediaeval cross as penance; quite harsh, I think, considering he’d gone AWOL for several years.
The landmark officially became known as Mab’s Cross and what’s left of it remains standing in front of a primary school which has been named after it. Although the tale of Lady Mabel’s sufferings would appear to based in fact, some elements of the story are disputed.
The present Haigh Hall – a grade II listed building – was constructed in the early 19th century by the 7th Earl of Balcarres, James Lindsey, on the site of a previous brick building. Lindsey, who had married the heir to the Bradshaigh estate, was involved in its design and oversaw its construction from Lancashire sandstone. The Lindseys continued to develop the early mining industry founded by the Bradshaighs in the 16th century, and during the Industrial Revolution made their fortune from coal and cannel mining. The family founded the Wigan Iron and Coal Company, the largest of its kind in Lancashire, and some mining took place on Haigh estate.
The Lindsey family sold the property to Wigan Council in 1947. Although I went there quite often as a child, I only remember going inside a couple of times; I don’t recall there being much to see. Haigh Hall was not developed as an historical attraction in the same way that many similar manor houses were and was mainly used for civic and corporate events and later for wedding receptions. It is now run as an hotel and wedding venue. I didn’t go inside but comparing the Hall’s current external appearance with the last time I saw it, I would say it is greatly improved.
Adventure Golf is adjacent to the proper golf course and for a children’s activity, the course, though great fun, is quite challenging and includes water obstacles. It is much more sophisticated than the pitch-n-put I remember, and I was surprised at how seriously some of the pushy parents seemed to take it, clearly eager to turn their intimidated offspring into future champions.
After lunch in the courtyard area where 19th century stables have been converted into a deli, cafe, an ice cream parlour and a coffee shop, we walked around the lily pond which didn’t seemed to have changed a bit.
There’s a lot to keep the kids amused for an hour or two, including a big playground with areas to suit all age groups, a few fairground rides and a high-rise agility circuit for daredevils of any age.
The original pitch-n-put was still there too, run by Rotary Club volunteers to raise money for local charities – we’ll try that one next time. In one of the gardens, a group of little ones and their parents watched a musical interpretation of Alice in wonderland.
I was happy to find that at least one of the walled gardens was still filled with flowers and that bees were thriving in the borders.
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
Sadly, the fragrant rose garden which had been my childhood favourite was no longer there but had been replaced by a kitchen garden. Unfortunately, the gates of that garden are locked at 3 O’Clock and we had just missed out on a chance to look around though I did get a peek through a gate.
From there, paths led into the shade and a network of tempting woodland walks throughout the expansive grounds but those will have to wait for a return visit.
Southport is a seaside town in the north west of England. It’s the nearest coastal resort to my home, so although it’s not my favourite beach location, I go there from time to time when I want to smell that distinctive sea air and walk on the wet sand. The town has some nice shops and a genteel ambience, though it is has lost some of its former glamour. Of course, as adults we see through other eyes the once beloved places of our childhoods, and they are never quite the same.
I went to the town last week to visit the British Lawnmower Museum (you can read about that unique experience here ) and decided to spend some time relaxing in one of Southport’s pretty green spaces. The King’s Gardens covers an area of about 17 acres between the town centre and the sea front, which now includes the funfair.
In the reign of King George V, for whom the Gardens are named, the Irish sea used to come much further inland than it does now, so the King’s Gardens would have been a splendid crowd-puller on the promenade. Although development of the shore area started in the mid-19th century, the King’s Gardens came to completion under the design directive of celebrated landscape architect Thomas Mawson in 1913 when they were opened by King George V and Queen Mary.
Last week, most schools in the region had not quite finished for the summer, so although it was a pleasant day the mechanical sounds of the funfair rides and the screams of the thrill-seekers were happily absent, and Marine Lake’s true feathered population enjoyed the water unencumbered by the people-powered imposters.
I admired the revamped Victorian pavilion shelters and the fountain, where nobody is ever too old to have fun…
…and I found a quiet spot in the Sensory Garden
It was a joy to see hundreds of bees darting in and out of the flowers, taking succour between the petals. I found myself engrossed in their vital and urgent foraging; their purposeful yet graceful endeavours for queen and hive in the Gardens of the King.
To read about another visit to Southport, click here
Rain has recently fallen on my part of the world for the first time in four weeks; and very welcome it has been! I love the sun and the heat and have basked and baked under the glorious rays, enjoying each day as it has arrived in all its fiery glory. I have trudged nightly, heavy watering can in hand, across the lawn to quench the thirst of wilting flowers. My little lawn has suffered in the extraordinary heat. Straw-like patches have appeared amid the verdant blades. It is incredible how quickly the lawn has rallied after just three heavy downpours; new growth has already sprung forth, and the dry but cooler weather of the last few days has aided the revival. I eagerly await the return of the intense heat but a (hopefully brief) respite is literally a breath of fresh air.
Lawns. Mine is only small. We Brits love them. We love sitting on them. We love walking barefoot across them. Playing tennis on them is another British pastime. Most of all we seem to love mowing them. All this lawn talk reminded me of a museum I had heard about that is dedicated to that instrument of lawn beautification, the trusty mower. When I first heard about this repository for mechanical grass cutters, I thought it must be a joke. Certainly, these most labour-saving of horticultural contraptions hold pride of place in our garden sheds, but could there really be a museum celebrating their existence? I decided to head to the coastal town of Southport to find out mower (sorry!).
Shakespeare Street, just a short walk outside of the centre of Southport, is quite ordinary except that it is the location of a centre of national gardening heritage, the British Lawnmower Museum This fascinating place was created by owner, Brian Radam, whose family business, Lawnmowerworld, is adjacent. In fact, visitors must go through Lawnmowerworld – a business which specialises in the sale, servicing and repair of all things lawnmower-ish – to enter the Museum. According to its website, ‘The Museum retains a character not often seen in these modern times’; I would not disagree.
I paid my £4.50 entrance fee and passed through the turnstile which separates the shop from the Museum. Brian – curator and business owner – explained that there would be an audio guide which would provide details about some of the many exhibits and about the history of lawnmowers in general. He asked me if I was interested in the devices, and I confessed that I was not, beyond their usefulness in my own garden, but that I was fascinated by the idea of a museum being dedicated to them. Fortunately, Brian didn’t seem to take offence at my frank response.
The audio commentary proved to be very informative, containing lots of interesting details about the invention of the first models and how they were initially dismissed by critics who thought they would never take off! The commentary and the Museum’s website inform that ‘the lawnmower was patented by Edwin Beard Budding in 1830’. At the time, Budding was thought to be insane and ‘had to test the machine at night so no one could see him.’ Needless to say, Brian has the prototype in his collection and was happy to demonstrate to me how it worked. Two men would have been needed to move this revolutionary piece of machinery, so Brian had to multi-task in this demonstration.
Only a fraction of the Museum’s total collection is on display, with the rest being stored away at a secure location. It wouldn’t be possible to show everything. It’s a rare thing to be guided through a museum by a curator. Brian helpfully hovered, powered by enthusiasm, revealing interesting snippets. I learned a lot on my visit, though I have to say that as I’m not mechanically-minded, some of the more technical details went over my head.
I found the Museum a lot more interesting than I had expected to, and was particularly entertained by the collection of celebrity mowers and devices which the rich and famous have donated. Here are just some of them.
I asked Brian if he contacted celebrities to request their expired devices. I was quite surprised to hear that it was they who contacted him and invited him to their posh pads to collect the aged contraptions. I was particularly amused by an anecdote about Nicholas Parsons who went on to offer Brian not only the mower originally promised but virtually the whole contents of his shed! With all that stuff to get rid of, Nicholas Parsons could have put on the car boot Sale of the Century! (if you were born after 1970 you will have to ‘Google!’)
On one wall, Brian has displayed some photographs of himself meeting celebrities at various events to do with gardens or machinery or when they have visited the Museum.
Brian didn’t mention during our conversation that he is a former racing champion and played down taking part in (and winning) a TV quiz show, various media interviews over many years and participating in other TV programmes and conventions. As a curator, Brian Radam is a cut above (sorry again!) those of most other museums and brings back to life through enthusiasm, knowledge and humour the rusting relics of gardening yesteryear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Butterflies flitted between the wildflowers, most of them too quickly for me to get any clear shots. A Meadow Brown was almost perfectly camouflaged.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.