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.
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.
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 gravesSt 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.
The house below was formerly St Peter’s rectory but is now a private home.
A sign outside this cottage invites passers-by to help themselves to windfall apples
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.
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.
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 …. 🙂
Being ideally situated on the border of England and Wales, Shrewsbury has been an important political and commercial centre for a thousand years and more. English monarch, King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, at one time resided here, the birthplace of their unfortunate son, Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the two princes presumed murdered in the Tower of London. The royal connection continues with Henry VII, the first Tudor king, lodging in Shrewsbury before the Battle of Bosworth where he defeated the reputed killer of the princes, King Richard III.
The river Severn links the city to the Irish Sea via the West Country and the Bristol Channel, a key route for trade during the industrial revolution and even earlier. Many English locations are as old and historic as Shropshire’s county town, but not all have such a wealth of buildings as well preserved and still in everyday use.
On Saturday, I visited Shrewsbury for the first time. After a relaxing river sail between the Welsh and English bridges, our coach party was told where we were to reconvene at 16:45, leaving four hours to explore. Unusually for me, I had no plan for the afternoon and had just decided to wander and get a flavour of the city. I damaged my knee ligament a few weeks ago, and though I’d been walking crutch-free for over a week, I didn’t want to push my luck. I was also still feeling queasy after a terrible coach journey.
From the river we entered the city centre, passing the King’s Head pub, its sign depicting an image of King Henry VII and the date 1483, referencing the Battle of Bosworth. The current building dates from that time, just one of many timber-framed buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Georgian and Victorian buildings are slotted in between, with lots of passageways to explore. It isn’t a big place but the free city map was very useful in making sense of all the nooks and crannies.
We looked around the new market hall which seemed to be thriving, full of stalls selling the usual wares and a couple of small but very popular eateries, one Thai and the other serving what looked like French/Mediterranean dishes. It was lovely to see a town market doing well in an age where many, including the one in my own town, are virtually dead.
A short walk away was the old market hall, or what remained of it. The British Legion was having some sort of gathering there, and the collection of military vehicles parked in front spoiled the opportunity for photographs, but I captured the most interesting features of the front facade.
We stopped for a sandwich and another look at the map to decide our next steps. A very useful feature which I hadn’t seen on any other city maps was the little signs indicating both moderate and steep inclines. Having a better idea of the gradients informed my choice to not walk down a particularly steep lane and across the river to Shrewsbury Abbey, the setting of Ellis Peters’ tales of medieval monk and sleuth, Cadfael. With my knee still unstable I could not have attempted the challenging walk back up again. A longer, flatter return walk along the river bank could have been an option, but we didn’t have enough time on this occasion.
Another religious building attracted our attention: the oldest church in the city, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. As we walked up the gentle brew over the cobbled stones we both commented on the number of runners that had passed by, seemingly taking part in an event. All were consulting the free city maps and seemed to be in a rush and in pursuit of something elusive.
I observed one runner who had stopped outside the Three Fishes pub. His vest displayed the name of his orienteering club in Cornwall….. so that was it! After consulting his compass, off he ran again to find his next clue. A cryptic set of numbers and letters had been written by hand on one of the pub’s very old doors.
St Mary the Virgin is the oldest church in Shrewsbury, so although I’m not particularly interested in churches on the whole, I thought it might be worth a look. The doors are always a clue to what’s inside.
I wasn’t disappointed. The entrance is the oldest part, and dates back to Norman times. A small section of the red stone wall was crumbling slightly and it was wonderful to touch brickwork almost a thousand years old.
Some ancient tomb stones were propped up against the wall.
Inside were some stunning examples of German stained-glass, depicting, amongst biblical scenes, some splendid ducks and a Masonic- type symbol which I have seen in other church windows elsewhere in the country.
A particularly interesting feature was a quite striking wall which had originally been external before the church was extended. I liked the way the light still filtered through from the new windows beyond.
The rich and opulent colours of the beautiful altar below were mesmerising and quite exotic looking.
St Mary’s, Shrewsbury, is one of the most interesting and attractive churches I have visited and was an excellent consolation for missing out on the Abbey.
With an an hour or so left before assembling at the coach pick up point, we ambled along more old paths; marvelled at the misshapen wood panelling on the still sturdy shops; reflected on the leaded windows, no two exactly the same, and decided we would definitely return to explore further – by train next time!
Yesterday, I visited Shrewsbury for the first time. I had been looking forward to experiencing the olde world charms of this quaint Shropshire city on the Anglo/Welsh border. I was less sure about my choice of conveyance: a good old British coach excursion. I suffer from travel sickness, but it affects me only on some terrains and modes of transport. Coaches and winding country lanes are a very, very bad combination indeed. Having been advised (wrongly!) that the journey would be via motorways and straight A roads, I decided to chance it.
Fast forward from leaving the M6 south of Warrington and along many, many miles of rural Cheshire’s scenic but convoluted lanes; fast forward through the inevitable, fortunately not witnessed by fellow passengers, and I finally arrived in sunny Shropshire, still green around the gills .
The travel company had arranged for our first views of Shrewsbury to be from the vantage point of the upper deck of Sabrina, a small pleasure craft offering short sails along the river Severn, which separates England and Wales. Sabrina is named after the Celtic river goddess, a name also bestowed in ancient times to the Severn itself. The source of the river is near the town of Llanidloes, mid-Wales. It loops through Shrewsbury, continues into the west country, and eventually on into the Bristol Channel. The Severn is the longest river in the UK – five miles longer than the Thames.
The short wait at Victoria Quay near to the WelshBridge provided me with a bit more time to recover in pleasant surroundings from the hellish coach ride.
Rod, our friendly Scottish skipper, told us about some of the points of interest as we sailed first towards the EnglishBridge. The tree-lined river banks were lush and green on both sides. Interestingly, exactly three hundred Lime trees are sited on the bank. In accordance with a local regulation, if one has to be cut down another must be planted to replace it. Kingfishers frequent this section of the river but unfortunately none appeared for us. The view was lovely, nonetheless.
We passed Pengwern Boat Club, Pengwern being an ancient name for the county of Shropshire, dating back to the time when it was a Roman settlement. A small herd of Old English long-horn cows grazed happily as people walked by. The reminders of the border position of this city are all around. According to Rod, the cattle are recruited every year to munch on the lush grass and keep it in check.
People strolled along the bank or sat on the grass, reading or just passing time. An adjacent park appeared to be very popular; through the trees I glimpsed dog walkers, and excited children scurrying up climbing frames. Charles Darwin, a local boy, had spent a lot of his time there ( perhaps pondering the origins of the flora and fauna?) and a garden area has been named after him. Another famous former resident is the font of all gardening knowledge, Percy Thrower. Rod pointed out his former house, which could just be spotted inside the park, but I wasn’t able to get a photo. Percy served as Superintendent of Parks in Shrewsbury before he became well-known.
We arrived at the EnglishBridge, originally a Norman construction, but rebuilt in 1768 to allow larger boats to pass beneath as Shrewsbury became a more important industrial link between England and Ireland via the port of Bristol.
Here, Rod swung the boat around, and we retraced our route.
The Kingsland Bridge is privately owned, and originally a toll charge was due from all who crossed it. Nowadays, it’s free to walk across on foot, but drivers must still pay 20p. I spotted the city coat of arms: three sinister-looking leopard heads on a blue background. These are locally known as loggerheads, as in the turtles, though the reason for this is not clear.
We sailed beneath a gorgeous example of early 20th iron work. The Porthill suspension footbridge was built in 1922 at a cost of just over £2000. Its refurbishment a few years ago cost over half a million pounds.
Sabrina arrived back at Victoria Quay and the Welsh Bridge. Originally named St George’s Bridge, it was built between 1793 and 1795 on the site of other river crossings dating back as far as the 12th century. I wasn’t able to get a good shot of the bridge from my viewpoint, so below is one from the internet, which also captures Sabrina at her mooring.
We crossed the bridge into the centre of the city, ready to experience its medieval charms.
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.
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.
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.
I noticed a sign pointing to the remains of the Roman bath house and decided the follow the path alongside the burial ground.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the weekend, inspired by the arrival of spring, I visited Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, a small garden centre just outside Wigan. This friendly family-run business also sells seasonal plants, fruit and vegetables at the town market, so as I was passing by I decided to have a look around.
Despite the record-breaking warmth of the past week, it is still February after all, and the big greenhouse looked almost bare apart from a few splashes of colour. This time next month it will be fragrant with herbs and bursting with botanical brightness.
Whilst perusing the perennials I chatted with the owner who told me her family had established the business nearly 50 years ago on land which had been bought much earlier following the demolition of Bickershaw Hall in the 1940s. Built in the 17th century, the Hall fell into disrepair, made uninhabitable by coal mining subsidence. The only remains are this house which had been servants’ quarters and the cattle shelter which you can see below, now both used by the Nurseries.
Our conversation turned to another local history connection. In 1972, the land where Bickershaw Hall had once stood had gone to seed. Bizarrely, a consortium of Manchester business people and others from the music industry selected the site to host a massive music festival. One of the organisers was a certain Jeremy Beadle, and the headline band was The Grateful Dead. Other illustrious artists included The Kinks and Bryan Ferry, and the list went on… It was to be a spectacular event and the crowds arrived from all over the country.
Of course, by today’s standards the special effects look unsophisticated. A high-diver who descends gracelessly into a burning paddling-pool even seems comedic.
Unfortunately, severe rain made the event a washout, and the field looked like a scene from Glastonbury but without the associated coolness. The Grateful Dead were not feeling very grateful as this short clip shows.
The festival-goers, bless them, still seemed in good spirits despite their tents having sunk into the mire. This would have been an unprecedented occasion for them, and they would probably have just enjoyed being part of it. I like the interview with a local shop keeper who describes the weird and wonderful foodstuffs he has stocked for the pleasure of the Bohemian showbiz types including yogurt, something he’d previously ‘heard of’ but ‘never seen’. Well it was only 1972! 🙂
My curiosity roused, I asked for directions to the festival site. A short walk led me to a path off the main road with woodland to the left.
A couple of cars passed me from the direction I was heading, making me feel less wary about venturing alone into what seemed quite a secluded place. I smiled to myself, picturing the hoards of party people ambling this way in the summer of ‘72.
The path opened out into a car park at what I could now see was a fishery: artificially created ponds stocked with fish for paid-up anglers to spend whole days trying to catch. One pond looked quite tranquil with nobody around.
Whilst others took on a more sinister appearance. I hope that was a just scarecrow….
I followed a path to the right in the direction of a familiar looking field, but not before passing the remains of a burnt tree stump, strangely decorated.
Then there it was…. the venue!
Try as I might, I wasn’t feeling that vibe. The festival spirit had been washed away in that July deluge.
Bickershaw Festival has achieved a quiet cult status; the 40th anniversary reunion held in 2012 (a much, much smaller affair) was even covered by the BBC. Needless to say, Bryan Ferry and the Kinks were unavailable on that occasion.