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.
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.
We talk a lot about the weather here in the UK. We never cease to be amazed at what shouldn’t really surprise us at all, as our weather is nothing if not unpredictable. But this year, we have been spoiled. Last winter outstayed its welcome, the last snow falling at Easter, but summer – when it arrived – was long and glorious. An exceptionally mild and bright autumn followed, dry and unseasonably warm. A recent visit to London was on one such day.
Inspired by an episode of Gardener’s World which featured two Indian inspired gardens, I had planned to visit both locations. Like the weather, even best-laid plans don’t always turn out as expected.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London is a very beautiful Hindu temple. At the time of its completion in 1995 it was the largest outside of India. Incredibly, the Bulgarian stone and Italian marble of which the temple is constructed were first shipped to India to be hand-carved and engraved by traditional craftsmen before being shipped to the temple site.
Photography inside the building is prohibited. Visitors must leave all personal belongings except purses, wallets and mobile phones inside their vehicles or inside the security cabin in front of the temple. Eagle-eyed security people watch for attempts at phone photography, which is fair enough. The interior is exquisite; the expanses of marble and the detail in the carved stone pillars brilliant. I happened upon three worshippers, friendly old men who spoke with great pride about their Mandir, telling us that it had been paid for by the community. Despite the beauty of the place and the welcome offered by these gentlemen, I found the watchfulness of the security presence rather oppressive. Nevertheless. it was certainly worth the visit and I got a few photographs of the outside once I had retrieved my belongings. No garden shots, sadly.
Back in central London, I decided to visit one of my favourite shops in the Soho area, and this seemed like a good time to stop for lunch. I thought I would probably grab a sandwich and find somewhere to sit outside rather than waste an hour of my day in a restaurant. Waiting to cross a side street, I was attracted by the sound of gentle drumming and chanting but couldn’t make out where it was coming from. Deciding to find out, I soon came across the familiar sight of orange-robed Hare Krishna devotees seated outside a small RadhaKrishna temple.
I was delighted to see that the temple incorporated a ‘karma free’ cafe offering simple vegetarian fayre. Forget the sandwich; the plan had changed.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but a karma free lunch is another thing entirely. I ordered a plate of poppadoms with spicy dips and a small green salad accompanied by a glass of fresh apple juice, all for the amazing price of £3.50. Govinda’s was very crowded and I had to share a table with some other people, something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but it was all part of the experience. I ate quickly, as even more people were waiting to be seated.
A security man paced back and forth constantly, more than I thought was necessary or polite. On my way out, I asked him why his presence was called for in what seemed a nice place full of peaceful diners. His answer was ambiguous but he told me they often had “trouble”.
I decided to walk for a while as I had time and it was a lovely day. I wandered down Whitehall in the direction of Big Ben and the Thames.
The second garden I wanted to visit was a newly opened creation at the Aga Khan Centre which is not far from Kings Cross Station. Monty Don had been given a sneak preview during the summer but the Arabesque symmetry garden had only opened to the public in late September. I was so happy that the day had turned out sunny, as I suspected that an exotic garden would probably require a certain quality of light.
It took me a while to find Aga Khan, an odd looking building which incorporated ancient Moorish designs into its very modern facade.
In I went, and out I came again, just moments later. Needless to say, I had looked at the website before planning my visit, but clearly I had missed the part which told readers that visits could only be made on Thursday afternoons by prior online booking. They were already booked up for the next three months.
The sun might have been shining on me, but Fate was behind a cloud, or so it seemed. I still had a couple of hours before my train so I decided on a walk around the Kings Cross area. This proved to be a revelation and worthy compensation for my earlier disappointment.
Hundreds of people had come out to enjoy the warm autumn day, sitting along the towpath of the Regent’s canal or picnicking on the grass, or even perusing the floating book store where I picked up a battered anthology.
Things often have a way of working out not as expected, but better. One thing doesn’t work out but something else turns up instead; something which might not have been discovered if the plan had….. gone to plan. 🙂
I recently visited the little-known village of Trim. It is a unique place on the west Lancashire coast boasting an abundance of desirable residences and traditional independent shops on the edge of the village green.
Brightly painted narrowboats are moored along the canal, attracted to the peaceful surroundings and the hospitality on offer at the Horse’s Head pub.
In some ways, this place has been frozen in time and gives the impression of an England that no longer exists.
Trim enjoys impressive facilities for a rural location of its modest size, including a post office, fire station and a police station.
Two train stations: Trim and Brady provide frequent services, which seem to be unaffected by industrial action and chaos resulting from new timetabling.
The vintage green line train passed by about 20 times or more during my short visit. Another train of an unusual European design conveyed some eccentric passengers including a Princess Diana lookalike and her consort, both in Edwardian dress, and another woman – possibly an artist – who offered me a rude two-digit salute, though she may just have been flashing a particularly showy ring.
Trim has a fascinating ethnically diverse population. A community of faerie folk lives deep in the wild grasslands to the west of the village.
Based on my observations, they appear to go out in pairs or threes, looking utterly miserable. Seemingly interested in watching from a distance the comings and goings of the human villagers, the wee people don’t appear to participate in village life. I didn’t see any faerie men in the locality, so it’s possible they live as a female only collective.
A recent increase in crime and wickedness is threatening the very fabric (or mainly the glazing) of what should be a perfect place to live. Close examination of some of the posh properties revealed cracks in the surface of the shiny windows.
Despite extensive house-to-house enquiries carried out by the local constabulary, they haven’t yet found out who is behind the window-smashing campaign. My money is on the person I saw peering through the panes of one house, rock in hand, about to strike. An enormous white sock pulled over his head made a cunning and effective disguise.
A more worrying development is the giant bird which has been making an appearance recently.
Though it has been mainly foraging amongst the reed beds near to the faerie habitation, I saw it for myself in the centre of the village outside the taxi rank, and again later on top of the post office where it seemed, somewhat ironically, to be taking an interest in a cat which had ventured onto a nearby rooftop and fortunately was about to be rescued by the emergency services.
Happily, the village people seem unperturbed by the colossal feathered presence, and life carries on in its typical timeless way.
The cricketers watched their wickets on the green; a newly married couple emerged from the church; outside Bistro Pierre, a fine diner momentarily rested against the wall for support, possibly having had one glass too many.
Outside the pub, a man served his time in the ancient stocks for some unmentionable crime. The faeries looked on…. still miserable.
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.
Every year, for five days in June, the attention of many music fans in the UK and beyond is on a festival held on farm land near Glastonbury in Somerset. Now an iconic event which has become woven into the fabric of British culture, the Glastonbury Festival has morphed from its hippie roots into a spectacle attended annually by well over 100,000 enthusiastic spectators. Wellington boots have become synonymous with ‘Glastonbury’ due to the frequency of heavy downpours which coincide with the event, but unlike the sodden earth, spirits are not dampened and the music plays on. To many, ‘Glastonbury’ is just that: an annual musical mud bath, now part of the mainstream and attended by the industry’s greats. No longer alternative or counter-cultural, it is half a century, and a mile and a half – as the crow flies – from its roots in the small west-country town where its conceptualisation sprang up from the mystical ground.
This is a ‘fallow’ year for the festival; a chance for the well-trodden fields to breathe and rejuvenate, but there is much more to this place than music and mud as I discovered last summer.
Glastonbury is steeped in history, myth and legend. It is reputed to be the location of Avalon, the magical site of the court of King Arthur, the knights of the round table, the Lady of the Lake and the wizard, Merlin et al. The Arthurian connections are celebrated (and marketed) all around the town, amongst them a restaurant called Excalibur and various shops whose names offer a nod. It is not hard to understand why people from all over the world flock in their thousands every year to soak up this ambience. Glastonbury is unique!
The Abbey ruins to the south of the town are nothing remarkable in themselves; little of the shells remain compared with many similar ruins to be found around the country. Apart from the impressive wildlife area and interesting sculptures by local artists, the feature which stands out and makes this place so irresistible to tourists is the simple marker which indicates the supposed site where King Arthur himself might be buried. The remains of the church have been made safe and developed into a beautiful space where wedding ceremonies can be held in the former crypt. St Patrick’s Chapel, a tiny Norman structure within the Abbey precincts which contains exquisite decoration on its walls, is also still in regular use by Christian worshippers. Another fascinating inhabitant of the Abbey is the Holy Thorn, supposedly planted by Joseph of Arimathea as a cutting from the tree from which the holy cross was made.
The Joseph of Arimathea connection continues. This disciple of Jesus is said to have brought, in secret, the Holy Grail – the chalice from which Christ and his disciples drank at the last supper, and many ‘Grail’ seekers are convinced that the much-celebrated vessel still lies hidden.
Near to the foot of Glastonbury Tor – a legendary and ancient hill overlooking the town – lies Chalice Well, probably my favourite place on this magical map. As the reputed site of the concealed Holy Grail chalice, it is naturally a place of great intrigue and attracts many visitors. The focal point is the well head, reputed to be the place where the chalice is hidden far below the surface. This spot is a popular gathering point for reflection, meditation and group ceremonies such as the Lammas harvest gathering which took place at the time of my visit. The well feeds into an underground water course which flows into a much-revered spring, the Lion Head, from which iron rich water emerges. There are several legends which attempt to explain the slightly red colour of the spring water, including perhaps the obvious which suggests it is symbolic of the blood of Christ represented by the wine drunk at the Last Supper from the chalice. The water flow never diminishes and the temperature is apparently always constant.
People of all faiths and none visit the site, which feels very peaceful and spiritual without there being any clear affiliations with any belief system. In the beautifully tended gardens the staff and volunteers who run the site are welcoming and open. Some live within the grounds where there is also guest accommodation which can be booked by groups and individuals. Irrespective of visitors’ views on the legends associated with the chalice and the well, this feels like a special place.
The mysteries of Glastonbury don’t end there. The chalice is not the only secret in the depths of the town’s natural landscape; lay lines – or dragon lines as they are locally known – criss-cross like a supernatural grid of occult cables, esoterically powering the town. They are believed to be magnetically charged, and points at which the earth’s primal vibration can be tapped into. Those who believe in this hidden energy network claim that they are the reason that Glastonbury has become the focal point of so much spiritual activity throughout the ages from the ancient deities and spirits as old as the earth whose names are now lost in the mists of time, through to the disciples of Jesus.
So…… what of Glastonbury today?
My first thoughts when I arrived in the town were that it was almost exactly what I had expected, but smaller. Vibrant, eccentric, quirky and fascinating are words that describe both place and people. An exciting array of shops lined the main street and more were tucked away in the little courtyards leading off it: crystals, cauldrons, lotions and potions, straight off the pages of Harry Potter but for grown-ups, obviously represents a modern-day continuum of the tradition of magic and healing which is Glastonbury’s heritage. It was easy to distinguish the visitors – who tended to be mesmerised by the street scene, or clicking away with their cameras – from the locals, who were lucky enough to experience this enchanting place as part of everyday life.
During my short stay I was undeniably aware of a feeling of positive energy in and around the town. I can’t say with any certainty if this raised vibration emanated from the earth’s magnetic forces, or whether it was down to the strong and happy spirit of its residents and visitors. I was taken aback each day by the friendliness I encountered and the natural ease with which people smiled and greeted friends and strangers alike. In my home town, if a beaming stranger approaches, initiates conversation and offers compliments, one of several things might be happening, none of them usually good or welcome. Not so in this town. It takes a little bit of time to adjust to this wonderful revelation that people here are just happy. It is not a coincidence that a significant number of the local population has chosen Glastonbury as their home, having moved here from elsewhere. On the other side of the coin, it’s also clear that not all of those who have come here to seek their personal Holy Grail have succeeded in finding it. There is a slight shadow of a dark cloud behind the rainbow and if you look closely enough you will see the folks who are running, or searching for something elusive to fill a space beneath the shimmer and sparkle. Too often, a flamboyant appearance and larger than life smile can be a fragile disguise.
At the end of the first day, after spending a peaceful couple of hours in the Abbey grounds we decided to head back up High Street to find somewhere to have dinner. It was still only eight o’clock and I was quite surprised to find the area almost empty. Shops were closed and only two cafes were still serving meals. A bench outside the Co-op store appeared to be a sort of meeting place for the sharing of banter and canned beverages of the alcoholic variety, and one of those gathered must have read my expression and decided to add his own thoughts: “It’s boring here, isn’t it? Glastonbury’s crap!” I couldn’t agree with his statement, but it struck me as quite poignant that this was a place where the trends were reversed compared with most towns in the UK: this was a micro society so utterly ‘alternative’ that the small mainstream minority lived in its margins, disconnected.
As the sun set, the vibrant shop fronts faded to grey, finally becoming shadows of their day time selves. Undoubtedly, in homes and hives around the town, there was an eclectic buzz of activity, as minds and souls plugged into the currant of the lay lines, but in the centre of town it was time for lights-out.