Sawley Abbey

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The ruin of Sawley Abbey stands within the Forest of Bowland, an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire. I may be biased because it’s my home county, but I believe it would be a tall order to find another region of England which has as much variety to offer visitors in terms of open rural landscapes, miles of exhilarating beaches, buildings of historical interest, quaint chocolate box villages and not forgetting bustling towns and cities. Anybody familiar with this neck of the woods doesn’t need an official label to point out the beauty of this part of the shire.

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Situated close to the lovely town of Clitheroe, the Abbey was founded by a Cistercian order of monks in 1146 under the patronage of the extremely wealthy De Percy family of Northumberland. It was smaller than many of its contemporaries such as nearby Whalley Abbey  and Furness Abbey (link to my blog below). By all accounts the brothers of Sawley were not a happy bunch, complaining of poor crop yields and marshy land, and they didn’t reap the great material benefits enjoyed by many of their counterparts at other sites. Another gripe was that Sawley, due to being close to a busy road (nothing has changed there!), was an obvious resting place for travellers who had to be offered hospitality, this eating (pardon the pun) into the Abbey’s resources.

Like almost all Abbeys and monasteries in England and Wales, it was dissolved (torn down) in or just after 1536 when Henry VIII set up the Anglican Church and smashed – both metaphorically and literally – the Catholic Church in England. Many of these ruins are in the north of England. Most were not destroyed completely, as it was said that the King wanted people to see them, witness his power, and understand that he had authority, not Rome. Over time, much of the stone from these ancient sites was used by landowners and local people for new building projects.

The larger structures are long gone but visitors can still get an impression of the scale, stature and the space the Abbey occupied within its beautiful pastoral surroundings. It is now managed by English Heritage. No staff members are on site, but a local key holder opens and locks up daily.

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Nine centuries later, the ruin is still accessed via the extremely busy A59 road, and I can vouch that life and limb have to be risked when crossing. Visitors will also spot lots of four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling steel containers often crammed with sheep. This is the countryside, so it is to be expected, however I always find this upsetting and it is sure to cast a shadow over my day. Once the treacherous dual carriageway has been traversed, a side road leads to where lovely stone cottages line the short road up to the Abbey precinct. I didn’t take any photos of the desirable residences, as people were milling around outside and I thought it a bit rude to photograph them and their homes – and possibly a bit weird….or envious…. or all three.

A stone wall encloses the site and once inside I was fascinated to see some of the interesting architectural features displayed on natural stone shelves along one length of the perimeter.

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Below are some well preserved sections of the original floor. Imagine the painstaking work involved in lining up all of those stone blocks!

 

 

Although I was the only soul around for most of the hour or so I spent a Sawley, at one point a family with boisterous children entered. It seems that the site also doubles as a playground, unfortunately. I found a quiet nook where I could sit, relax, shiver a little despite the deceptive sunshine and enjoy the emergence of spring.

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Lancaster Museum

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Lancaster was only made a city in 1937 but its story can be traced back to the Romans who established their ‘castrum’ or fort by the ‘Lon’ or river Lune.

I am familiar with Lancaster but until very recently had never visited the city Museum, a modest building which one could easily walk past without noticing. It isn’t grand or ornate, but typically of Lancaster buildings it is constructed from stone and blends in with its surroundings. Ironically, it came to my attention on my most recent visit due to the scaffolding, plastic sheeting and forlornness which surrounded it. Thinking it had closed, I carried out a closer inspection, and at the bottom of a polythene walkway found a way in and a warm welcome. There began an hour long exploration of kings and castles; Saxons and stone carvings; industry, craftsmanship, culture and conflict.

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This Roman milestone stands in a somewhat incongruous position at the top of the staircase where the chintzy curtains and electrical wires appear at odds with this object of antiquity. It was made during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (builder of the border wall between England and Scotland)  between AD 127 and 138 and informs onlookers that it is four Roman miles to Lancaster from the spot in Caton where it was found in 1803. Here are some more relics of Loncastrum life….

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An altar dedicated by one Julius Januarius (great surname!), a retired soldier. This home altar was dedicated to a meadow god associated with the river Lune.
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A tomb stone discovered in 2005 near to the main Roman road leading into Lancaster
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Third century carvings which were probably part of a shrine. The heads represent the four winds

Moving on a few strides and several centuries we find ourselves in Lancaster of the middle ages. There are many examples of Celtic and Saxon crosses in ancient church yards all around England, especially in the north. The two below were found during excavations of Lancaster Priory Church.

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Most interesting to me were the informative displays about Lancaster during the industrial revolution, and its development as a centre of stained glass manufacturing.

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At the height of its fame in the late Victorian era, the company of Shrigley and Hunt ranked among the leading designers and manufacturers of stained glass in Britain, rivalling the better-known contemporaries such William Morris and Company
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John O’Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

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The skill of glass making flourished in Lancaster from about the 1870s in response to the growth in church building and the number of prestigious homes which boasted luxurious stained leaded windows.

James Williamson, Lord Ashton, was a leading industrialist and one-time mayor of the city whose family firm produced linoleum (see my blog on Williamson Park). Some fine examples appear in this display cabinet. A few of these fine specimens have cool retro appeal. Oilcloth and linoleum were big business in Lancaster for over a hundred years from the 1840s until the second world war and at the industry’s height it employed over half of the city’s work force.

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Examples of the city’s metal trades are also showcased

What local museum is complete without a badly turned out mannequin or two…or three…or more…? Lancaster has not fallen short and my particular favourite is the lady below undertaking wash day duties. I have early childhood memories of my own grandma having a dolly tub in her out house, decades after it had seen its last load of laundry.

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Lancaster has a proud military history and a section of the Museum celebrates this. I was very interested in looking at the various exhibits which had belonged to real men who had fought in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, some who died and others who survived to tell their stories. Some of their personal possessions have been donated by family members still living in the Lancaster area.

I was fascinated by the fabric and sewing detail on these uniforms and the fact that some of them looked so small, clearly worn by slim soldiers. It’s difficult to gain a sense of the proportions from this photo.

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On the left we see a regular officer’s coat of the Fourth King’s Own Royal Regiment from around 1820. In the centre is the coat of an officer of the First Royal Lancashire Militia from 1794 – 98 .To the right is the tunic of an officer of the 10th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers.

 

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A German snare drum embellished with the red rose of Lancashire
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This beautiful Coptic bible was the personal proper of Lieutenant Bray and was donated by his family.

 

More mannequins model military attire and weaponry of different eras. In the first picture a kilted Scottish rebel awaits his fate.

This little museum has no cafe, gift shop or any of the multi-media and interactive attractions we have become used to nowadays, but it’s well worth a look if you’re in the city and want to learn more about the story of Lancaster.

 

 

 

 

The Road To Wigan Pier……well, sort of

The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it are not immediately clear.’ – George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

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Last week I heard on the news that a life-size statue of George Orwell had been erected outside BBC Television Centre in London; apparently it is the only statue of the author and political commentator in any public place. I can’t imagine there being an effigy of the man on anybody’s mantelpiece next to the Royal Doulton figurines, so this may well be the only statue in existence.

This unveiling at BBC HQ coincided with Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ being chosen as the October/November read by the book group I belong to. I had thought it a strange deviation from our usual selections (mostly fiction – anything goes except chick -lit), but I had read the book about 25 years ago when I spent one summer devouring everything Orwell had written, and I had found it interesting, if rather depressing. I was happy to give it another go.

As with most books which we read more than once, the experience is different each time. I was struck by the richness of the language Orwell used to create a realistic but almost poetic picture of some of the people and places he encountered in the 1930s in working-class communities, mainly (though not exclusively) in the north of England. Here is a marvellous example:

‘The shop was a narrow, cold sort of room. On the outside of the window a few white letters, relics of ancient chocolate advertisements, were scattered like stars. Inside there was a slab upon which lay the great white folds of tripe, and the grey flocculent stuff known as ‘black tripe’, and the ghostly translucent feet of pigs, ready boiled.’

The Road to Wigan Pier’ is a book of two parts and it is a great shame that the descriptive style of the beginning – more akin to Orwell’s works of fiction – doesn’t continue all the way through; if it had, more than just two of us in the book group might have read to the end! The second part of the book is all about Orwell’s socialist political views, his thoughts on the north/south divide, and includes a lot of not very interesting details such as room measurements in working class homes and the links between tidiness and number of children in a family.

The thing that struck me most about the book was how little it actually had to do with Wigan in particular. Other places, including various towns in Yorkshire and Wales, receive as many mentions, and not one of the photographs is of Wigan. So why the title? To Orwell, Wigan Pier symbolised decay and loss. It was in 1936 when he spent time in the town, seven years after the ‘Pier’ had been removed for scrap. The locals had forgotten the exact spot on which it had stood, and Wigan Pier – formerly an emblem of thriving industry and plentiful employment –  had slipped out of sight and into the past.

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So what was Wigan Pier?  It was actually a coal tippler – a metal construction – on the bank of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It was used to transfer the coal from the many mines in the area onto waiting canal barges, and these vessels would carry the ‘black diamonds’ to Liverpool and from there to other parts of the country. In its late 18th century heyday, the canal must have been the equivalent of an aquatic motorway of its time. Coal was king in Wigan, and the north of England was heavily industrialised. By the late 19th century, railways had taken over most of the coal transportation and canals began to slip into disuse.

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A reconstruction of part of the original structure

 

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The ‘Pier’ at Wigan was left standing for decades, part joke, and obsolete until it was finally scrapped. The photograph below, which I took about 10 years ago when visiting ‘The Way We Were’ Wigan heritage museum, shows the dismantling of the defunct tippler back in 1929. A replica made by students at the local college was installed in 1986 on what is thought to be the same spot, and it still attracts visitors who want to be photographed next to the Orwellian icon; apparently, some people become quite annoyed when they read the information plaque and discover it is only a replica.

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Dismantling of the original

 

This canal-side area just outside of Wigan town centre, and a very short walk from the town’s two train stations, was almost desolate at the time of my visit on a recent Sunday afternoon. Apart from an occasional appearance by cyclists and dogs with their human walking companions, there was nobody else around. It felt quite surreal in such a quiet spot to reflect on the intense noise and frenetic activity which would once have been there. The Kittywake, a narrow boat which offers leisure trips during the warmer months, was tucked away in her undercover mooring for the duration of the winter.

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The Way We Were Museum had enjoyed a few years of popularity during the nineties and early noughties, and was a favourite with primary schools who brought their young charges to experience the mock Victorian classroom complete with super strict (‘resting’ actor) teacher in charge.

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Coach loads of older people who still remembered their childhoods at the time of Orwell’s writing would also head to Wigan to reminisce. The attraction, which was located within the former canal terminal buildings, closed a few years ago when visitor numbers started to drop. It is now boarded up and neglected, the cycle of rise, fall, revival and decline repeated across the decades and centuries. Below are a few photographs I took at the museum which depict life in industrial Wigan in bygone times.

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In his book, Orwell describes vividly the Leeds and Liverpool canal where it passed through Wigan

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All around was the lunar-landscape of slag-heaps……the canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogsthe lock gates wore beards of ice…..nothing existed except shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.

As the photographs below show, the canal has been reinvented as a place for leisure and relaxation and is a popular place to walk. Pretty former lock-keepers’ cottages line the now pristine pathway and behind them a former mill has been converted into swanky apartments.

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To end the afternoon, I decided to venture about a mile outside of the town to visit one of the local ‘flashes’ – former pit shafts which were later flooded over – described by Orwell as follows.

‘…in the distance stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that has stretched into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits……the’ flashes’ were covered with ice the colour of raw umber…’

Scotsmans’s Flash is now a wildlife conservation area enjoyed by local people and a centre for water activities. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now, without a coal mine in sight but with the ‘Pier’ – or a version of it – still standing witness to what once was.

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The Pendle Witches Part 2: Walking in witches’ footsteps

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Following my recent visit to the Pendle Heritage Centre (See Pendle Witches Part 1) I embarked on my next adventure which was to see for myself some of the key locations in the story of the Pendle Witches. I couldn’t have picked a better day for it, as it was unseasonably warm, and the sunshine was glorious – perfect for getting out and about in the beautiful Lancashire countryside.

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As readers of some of my other blogs will know, I don’t drive and therefore a lot of my journeying involves public transport. In this part of rural Lancashire this proved to be a challenge. Not very interesting, I know, but I mention it as it is something people should bear in mind if planning a similar day out. I was very glad I had put in the research and planned my day beforehand.

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My first destination was Barley, a tiny village in the foothills of Pendle Hill and the suggested starting point for those who want to make the climb. The village lies between Black Moss and Ogden reservoirs within the Forest of Bowland designated Area Of Natural Beauty. There are fine walks to be enjoyed nearby, including a nature sculpture trail within the forest.

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As I had so much to fit in on a day when the sun was due to set before six o’clock, I had to leave these pleasures for a return visit. It has been thought by some that the area around Black Moss is the possible location of Malkin Tower, home of the Device family of witches, though there is no definitive evidence.

On 21st March 1612 Alison Device approached John Law, essentially a mediaeval travelling salesman, and asked him for some pins. Although this might seem to the modern mind like a meagre request, pins were expensive to make, and it was well known that they were used in casting spells (one piece of incriminating evidence later brought against the Device family was the finding of clay figures at their home into which pins had been stabbed); Law refused. Alison is said to have cursed him, and shortly after he fell from his horse. The modern take on this is that he suffered a stroke, though Alison was accused of using witchcraft and, believing herself to possess such powers, she confessed. This was the single event – the catalyst – which marked the beginning of the investigation, the trials and finally the executions of ten people five months later. Three of these were Alison’s grandmother, mother and brother, who also confessed. Her nine-year-old sister, Jennet, was the main witness against the family, whether through innocently telling the truth about their practices, or through manipulation by those who wanted to impress the King by rooting out witches and/or secret Catholics.

Barley really is tiny, though until the mid-19th century it had two small weaving mills. With the decline of the water-powered textiles industry, many people moved towards the nearest towns, Burnley and Nelson, to find work in the modern mills. The mill workers’ cottages are still there, though now with other occupants. Farming is still going strong in Barley and the hospitality industry is well-represented in the Pendle Inn and the award-winning Barley Mow restaurant. The busiest place in Barley is the car park, the assembly point for walking groups and site of a lauded café. I didn’t stop off at any of these locations on this occasion, as it was time to explore my next destination.DSCF4275DSCF4278

My plans were best laid, but they did go awry at this point. I had intended to walk next to Newchurch-in-Pendle, another key location in the witches’ narrative, just one mile from Barley. The problem with street maps is that they don’t show elevation. As I approached Cross Lane, the road to Newchurch, I dismissed immediately the idea of attempting such a hike, since I didn’t have my climbing gear with me! Yes – it really was a very steep road! It is at such moments that I am in awe of our forebears who walked those paths every day without recourse to any kind of transport, and when I pity the poor horses and mules which would have pulled heavy burdens up such inclines. A quick change of plan then, and a new course was set.

My revised route turned out to be a blessing! Under the bluest of autumn skies, I made my way at a leisurely pace to Roughlee, which originally was to have been my final destination of the day. The walk was just under two miles and I enjoyed the tranquillity of having the road to myself much of the way.

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Roughlee is another tiny village with a very cute school and one pub which is closed for refurbishment. Pendle Water runs through, and the little waterfall is lovely to sit by.

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The main point of interest for me was the sculpture of Alice Nutter, another of the Pendle accused. It was commissioned in 2012, the 400th anniversary of the Witch Trials. I was struck by the power of the sculpture when it first came into view, large as life in the middle of the footpath. On closer inspection I observed that despite the 17th century attire, ‘Alice’ had a very modern and ordinary face. For me, this added to the disturbing effect; she was a woman above all else – the rest was supposition and superstition, and political expediency. Feelings clearly still run strong, as somebody had placed a cross and chain around her neck.

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Alice Nutter was an enigmatic character. The nine-year-old chief witness, Jennet Device, claimed that Alice was at a gathering of witches at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612; the purpose of the meeting, Jennet claimed and the authorities believed, was to plot the blowing up of Lancaster Castle in order to release from its dungeons those who were already being held there awaiting trial for witchcraft. Alice was different to the other accused women and men: they were very poor and uneducated labourers; she was the widow of a yeoman farmer, respected and of much higher status. At trial, Alice spoke only to plead not guilty to witchcraft. She never explained why she was at Malkin Tower on that day, or even to deny she was there at all. It is widely thought that Alice Nutter was a secret Catholic and that it was convenient to be rid of her. This was just five years after the gunpowder plot against Parliament and the King.

I soaked up some more sunshine and bird song before boarding the next bus back to Nelson, my starting point. From there, a taxi was my only option to my final destination: Newchurch-in-Pendle. The driver was baffled as to why I was going to a place where, apparently, there was nothing to see. I decided not to bother with the history angle; if he’d been interested, he’d have known already.

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Sixteenth century St Mary’s Church has a supposed link to Alice Nutter. She, along with the others accused of witchcraft, was hanged at Lancaster on 20th August 1612. It was unheard of for convicted witches to be buried in consecrated ground; after execution, they would usually be buried secretly in unmarked graves. Despite this, many believe that Alice is buried in a family grave at St Mary’s. I am very sceptical. Nutter is – and was – a popular name in this neck of the woods, and I believe that the Alice beneath the tombstone at St Mary’s is a name sake. In this photo of the grave you can just about make out the Nutter surname on the headstone and the skull and cross bones on the slab.

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The church was open and a notice invited visitors to enter. Nobody else was there, so I sat for a while to reflect on the day and to enjoy the ambience. I was so glad that I did, as I had the opportunity to see an intriguing painting by artist Joan Parsons, ‘Mary, the mystic rose, mother of our lord, the peacock of heaven’. It was unlike any other depiction of Jesus and Mary that I had seen before.

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Newchurch’s other place of interest is its only shop, Witches Galore. This wonderful little place sells a whole range of things connected to witchcraft, from Halloween nick-nacks to symbolic jewellery, incense and pagan art . A little incongruously, it also sells ice creams and sweets………but then it is the ONLY shop within a radius of several miles. I smiled to myself when I remembered Hansel and Gretel and the witch’s tempting gingerbread and candy house. Outside, the message in old Lancashire dialect above the shop door gave rise to more amusement.

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‘Gerrit spent. They dont pupockits i shrouds’

As I embarked on the mile-long trek downhill through farm land back to Roughlee (the reverse journey of that which I couldn’t have contemplated earlier in the day) I thought about the festival of Halloween, preparations for which were taking place across the world: fun, entertaining and secular; dressing up as witches and celebrating the dark side. I also thought about those local people who 400 years ago had been sent to the gallows for the mere suggestion of the same.

The world turns, and we all turn with it……………

The Pendle Witches part 1: a visit to Pendle Heritage Centre

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The village of Barrowford, the location of Pendle Heritage Centre, is in East Lancashire at the foot of Pendle Hill, a powerful brooding presence which dominates the landscape for miles around. It is about 150ft short of qualifying as a mountain. Pendle Hill is popular with hikers, especially those who have been captivated by the surrounding area and its dark history. Even on a glorious summer’s day, Pendle Hill has an eeriness about it; in grey October, as Halloween approaches and the nights draw in, the imagination can run riot.

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OK, a little bit of history in a nutshell to set the scene………

The notorious Lancashire witch trials took place just over four hundred years ago in a turbulent time when religious suppression and fear of the supernatural were rife. In 1603, King James I (and VI of Scotland) came to the English throne. The new King was exceptionally superstitious, even for the time, and was obsessed with witchcraft, believing that attempts had been made on his own and his wife’s lives through the agency of black magic. His wife, Queen Anne, was from Denmark, which was in the grip of witchcraft mania.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420In addition to that of the occult, another fear weighed heavy on the King and Parliament: Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation in England had begun about 75 years earlier, but during the reigns of King Henry VIII – the architect of reformation – and Queen Elizabeth I, there had been greater tolerance of ordinary Catholics who were still following ‘the old religion’ as long as they were very discreet, posed no threat and gave no offence to The Crown. Those times had gone, and the beginning of the 17th century brought with it a climate of fear and suspicion of English Catholics to the extent that they were regarded as enemies of the state; traitors who were seen as loyal to a faith which had at its head a foreign pope, not their own King. Practising as a Roman Catholic was considered to be an act of treason, and priests – when discovered – were punished by gruesome execution. Spies for the Crown were at large throughout society; all who adhered to this ‘foreign’ faith apparently posed a threat. Only seven years earlier Guy Fawkes and his associates had attempted to blow up parliament, an extreme act of rebellion against the oppression of Catholics.

Lancashire had the largest number of recusant Catholics in the country. Folk traditions were also still popular, and the people were considered to be less conforming than in many other regions. The trial of the witches of Pendle is one of the most famous in British history. It has been the subject of much academic analysis, and has been depicted in novels, films and TV programmes. A lot is known about the Pendle witches, though much is still open to debate and speculation.

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Pendle Heritage Centre is within a gorgeous Tudor building, Park Hill, formerly home of the wealthy and influential Bannister family. I was fascinated to discover that Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, descends from that same family. There has been a settlement on the site – farming and later textile production – since the 1200s. The present building was rescued and preserved by Heritage for the North West.

Entrance to Park Hill takes visitors past the first of a trail of tercet way markers commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire Witch trials. There are ten in total and they are positioned along the 51 mile route which the accused followed on the route to Lancaster Castle where they were imprisoned and tried. Each way marker displays a stanza of the poem ‘The Lancashire Witches’ written by poet Laureate, Carole Ann Duffy.

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Admission is through a small reception area which offers the usual selection of leaflets, postcards etc. The nice lady behind the counter then showed me to an ancient-looking door which she invited me to pass through. I stepped into a paradox: the modern steel, glass and audio-visual displays that were the exhibition, housed in the remains of a dim, musty mediaeval building, complete with crumbled stone walls and the smell of damp. This combination of ancient and contemporary was slightly unsettling. Perfect!SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The history of Park Hill is told through displays and an audio recording which visitors activate by pressing a button. This continues as you make your way up the stairs to the next level. The early exhibits are about the Bannister family and the house, and include some examples of authentic 17th century household items. There is even a sitting room set up as it would have been about 400 years ago, though I felt that the dodgy mannequins with their rather comical wigs, in addition to the faux-flame pantomime-style fire detracted somewhat from the intended effect. This was all very interesting, and perhaps the topic of a future blog post, but the main interest of most visitors (including me), I suspect, is the next part of the exhibition, which is about the Pendle witches.

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Next, I found myself in a tiny, dark room where there were three simple wooden benches, the front one occupied by a couple engrossed in a short film about the infamous witches. I don’t know if the siting of that auditorium was deliberate, or whether it was the only space left over once the displays had been placed, but it was spot on! Pitch black apart from the TV, and malodorous from the pervading dampness; closed-in and slightly unnerving, it was the perfect place to watch a film about dark arts.

The story of two feuding families, Chattox and Demdike, headed up by aged matriarchs who scraped a sort of living through begging, petty crime and perhaps a bit of ‘wise-woman’ healing over 400 years earlier, and their executions on a hill above Lancaster Castle is a complex one. It is a story about fear of women who were unmarried and outspoken; about the interpretation of mental health conditions, learning difficulties and dementia through the supernatural explanations prevalent at the time. It is also a story about the melding of ancient folk lore and remnants of old Catholic practices which still lingered in rural Lancashire at a time when both were feared, the latter considered a threat to King and country. Ambitious, powerful men, out to gain the King’s favour, found convenient offerings in Pendle. It is a story about scapegoats.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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Undoubtedly, some of those accused were involved in the practice of casting spells; there is evidence of that. More about that next time!

The warmth, light and delectable aromas of the Heritage restaurant downstairs was a world apart from the exhibition area, and a welcome contrast. Home-cooked food is served every day except Christmas day and the restaurant is popular, not just with people visiting the exhibition. I enjoyed a cup of peppermint tea in a snug corner before stepping out into the traditional garden to appreciate the turning of the season.

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Pendle Heritage Centre is a smashing place to visit if you’re in the area. A couple of hours is enough time to spend there before exploring the other villages and hamlets that sit in the shadow of Pendle Hill along the ‘Witch Trail’. More witches, magic and nature will follow, so watch this space.

http://www.pendleheritage.co.uk/museum-garden/

 

 

Hoghton Tower – The return of the King

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A horse and rider approach slowly along the impressive length of the driveway, flanked on both sides by other figures on foot. The king has returned. A buzz of excitement stirs through the crowd which has gathered in anticipation around the entrance to the outer courtyard. A trio of musicians stands poised, awaiting a signal to release the first notes from drum, pipe and horn. With the king just yards from the gateway the first beats and notes are heard and the assembled crowd starts to cheer its sovereign’s arrival. His majesty, King James VI of Scotland and I of England, clad in fur-trimmed riding cloak and tan leather boots surveys his awed subjects, there to welcome him to Hoghton Tower, the fortified manor on a Lancashire hill top where he will be the guest of Sir Richard for the next three days. The month is August; the year 1617.

Move the clock forward 400 years to a warm Sunday in July 2017 and to a special event being hosted at Hoghton Tower, the grade 1 listed ancestral home of the De Hoghton family. The original manor house dates back to Norman times, but the present building is 15th and 16th century and includes some 19th century renovations. Standing proudly atop an east Lancashire hill are the Tower’s turreted battlements, a show of strength against any would be Scottish invaders and harsh northern winds.

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To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King’s visit to Hoghton, a weekend of activities has been arranged. Events of this type also create much needed income for the upkeep of this grand building, still occupied by members of the De Hoghton family but legally owned by a charitable trust.

Once ushered into the courtyard, we – the peasants of the parish (as we were addressed) – took our places at the bottom of the steps leading up to a parapet where the De Hoghton family and other local worthies stood on ceremony waiting for the King to make his grand entrance. He did not disappoint. Riding gear removed and bedecked in more regal attire, King James met his public. It was all very light-hearted and we, the peasantry, were further insulted due to our general pong and ragged and offensive appearance.

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Apparently, in 1617 the King’s real appearance was somewhat different. It is recorded that he did not dismount in the courtyard, but rode his steed into the house and up a flight of stairs, rejecting the bedroom he was offered as he felt it posed a security threat. He rode along a landing to the furthest room which he decided would be his. Once safely inside and behind closed doors he eventually dismounted and the horse was taken back outside. The reason for this ……… at just 4ft 10 inches, the vertically challenged Majesty did not want people to realise how short he was when seeing him standing next to others. Part of the very brief (and poorly organised, it has to be said) tour of the house included a look at what has since been named the royal bedchamber.

From the courtyard, the stately entourage proceeded into the grand hall where the King held court. This was most amusing and members of the audience were invited to petition the Regent. Whilst His Royal Majesty was petitioned by the disgruntled but hopeful of the shire of Lancaster – including a Mistress Catherine of Blackburn who beseeched that His Majesty release her from paying a parking fine – the inner courtyard served as an outdoor stage for drama students from a local school who performed scenes selected from three of Shakespeare’s plays. A wonderful array of colourful costumes and some outstanding young players were an unexpected bonus. A couple of future stars of stage and screen may well have been present today.

Hoghton Tower has for years hosted performances of Shakespeare plays, which is apt, as the bard is reported to have stayed at the house in the 1580s and acted (no pun intended) as tutor to the De Hoghton children. There are other literary links to Hoghton Tower: Lewis Carroll’s great great grandmother, Lucy De Hoghton, resided there in the 1700s and Charles Dickens visited in 1854.

Today’s celebration marked the visit of King James I of England and VI of Scotland in August 1617 after being invited by Sir Richard to grace the manor with his presence. This first Stuart King of both England and Scotland, accompanied by a retinue of aristocrats and servants, was at the time on route to Scotland. He stayed at Hoghton for three days and during that time feasted at the most lavish banquets, the cost of which, it is said, led to Sir Richard becoming bankrupt for a time. Dressed in costumes from the era and fully entering into their parts, the ‘staff’ were keen to show us fascinated visitors the amazing display of authentic food which the King enjoyed during his stay. Due to the existence of the actual 400 year old menu, Stuart dishes both fair and foul had been prepared and set out for us to see; these included some delicious looking sweet wafer biscuits, a variety of tarts and pastries and a rather vile salad tossed in sugar – lots and lots of it! It was fascinating to have the opportunity to look at these examples of food from the time and I was surprised at how many things, such as a quiche, would not look out of place on a contemporary table. One well-known story which has its origins in this royal visit is the knighting of ‘Sir Loin’, a particularly delicious steak which had made its way from the De Hoghton estate farm onto the King’s platter.DSCF4075DSCF4070DSCF4065DSCF4066

Hoghton Tower is surrounded by woodland and includes a working farm, but the estate gardens are small and ever so slightly disappointing. Some formal flower borders and a pretty rose garden are well-tended, whereas other areas appear to be less cared for; a water feature has been left unfinished, the black plastic lining open and thirsty for water. The farthest section of garden nearest the turrets at first appeared to have been subjected to an unfortunate mowing incident, but on closer inspection this seemed to be an attempt at a lawn maze, presumably for children, though there were signs (a lot of them, all over the place) instructing visitors to stay off the grass. We spotted through the trees another area, seemingly long-since abandoned and gone to seed. The upkeep costs of Hoghton probably prohibit the development of the outside as much as the family and trustees would like. That being said, an attractive and spacious lawn had become the focal point for some Jacobean games involving hoops and wooden posts and a small troupe of minstrels entertained with folk songs.DSCF4072

Hoghton Tower is reported to be one of the most haunted houses in England. A network of underground passages links back to the Lancashire witch trials which took place just five years before the King’s visit, and the house has its share of priest holes which were part of the subterfuge made necessary by the continued practice of the Catholic faith outlawed by King James and Queen Elizabeth I before him. Looking up towards the window of the royal bedchamber, I amused myself with a question: could the King have been worried about another kind of nocturnal visitor?

The present Baronet and his wife are lucky enough to still be in residence though nowadays only occupy one wing of the house, having signed the whole over to a charitable trust. Both are still active in estate life and the managing of events like this. Seventy-two year old Sir Bernard, whilst juggling the handing out of programmes and issuing instructions through the walkie-talkie, still found a few moments to ask if we had enjoyed our visit and chatted briefly about the building’s history and immense running costs. The walkie-talkie sprang once more into life just as another member of staff approached, so our conversation had to be curtailed. Polite to the end though clearly very busy, Sir Bernard thanked us again for coming. That’s what I call breeding.

Samlesbury Hall

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Picture a busy motorway cutting through surrounding countryside. Traffic races relentlessly for most of the day, and the locomotive hum is carried across adjacent fields and the ancient pathways beyond. The motorway is the M6 in the heart of Lancashire; junction 31 to be exact. Our destination is near in distance, but far away in time.

Just a short drive away along Preston New Road sits Samlesbury Hall, one of Lancashire’s most interesting historic houses, whose foundations stretch back to the 12th century. You could drive straight past if you (or the sat nav) didn’t know what you were looking for, as unlike many other manors of ancient aristocracy, Samlesbury Hall is not set in vast grounds and is partially screened from the main road by a wall of trees. The Hall is situated so close to the road it is hard to imagine how different the setting would have been in centuries gone by.

The building is wonderful, no architectural masterpiece, but true and honest and visually engaging. The Hall has been extended, modernised in parts and spruced up over the years, but the oldest part of the present (other structures had preceded it ) wattle and daub building still proudly boasts its timber frame in the traditional black and white colours. Part of the Hall’s charm for me is its original features in all their imperfection. Within the slightly skewed window frames, twisted beams and creaky floorboards is imbued a certain old world magic which has hung on across the ages and become part of the structure.

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Samlesbury is steeped in history and is dripping with stories of religious conflict, treason, kings, priests and witches. It even boasts a saint – and several reputed ghosts. Its rich and fascinating history is a big pull for visitors, and it’s great to see that the charity which now keeps the Hall open to the public has used history and lore to create an excellent visitor experience. The ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Janey the witch’ tours are both crowd-pullers and highly entertaining.

A much more recent and popular addition to Samlesbury is the tempting aroma of the delicious cuisine which is served daily in the Hall’s attractive restaurant. An impressive menu incorporating locally sourced ingredients has not only put the restaurant on the map, but is one of the reasons why the Hall provides a venue for many weddings and corporate events. I was happy to see that since my last visit the Hall has further diversified and now hosts art exhibitions and has developed its antique sales. That being said, it was lovely to see that the said antiques no longer occupied part of the long gallery.

Recent modernisations and adaptations necessary to meet 21st century multi-purposes have not led to the Hall’s many quirky features being overshadowed or side-lined. There is a curious mix of new functionality and heritage.

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During the 16th and early 17th centuries, Lancashire was in the thick of the religious turmoil of the times. The county was well known for the high number of its population which remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church; recusants who refused to convert to the new protestant religion often paid a heavy price through loss of property or even life. The Southworth family of Samlesbury Hall were devout Catholics at a time when practising their faith was both illegal and potentially deadly. St John Southworth, beatified by the Pope in 1929, was a member of the Samlesbury Hall family, born there in 1592 and hanged, drawn and quartered on Tyburn Hill in 1564. His remains lie in Westminster Cathedral. Like many Catholic houses of the time, Samlesbury Hall has its secret priest hole. Clergy who were visiting or even residing within the Hall might celebrate mass in secret; priest holes were concealed in the walls, cellars or roof spaces as a means of escape from the King’s men when they came looking for illegal Catholic worship taking place. Three skeletons have been found in the walls at Samlesbury, possibly unfortunate Catholics who met their ends in hiding from their persecutors. Their ghosts are said to walk at night. Ultimately, it was through the heavy anti-Catholic taxation of the times (a fine was imposed on those who refused to attend Anglican church services) that the Southworth family’s fortunes took a down turn, leading in the end to them having to sell Samlesbury in the 17th century.

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On the other side of the religious coin, one Southworth heir, Thomas, converted to the Anglican faith and is recorded as overseeing the dissolution of the local Abbey at Whalley on behalf of Thomas Cromwell. Another protestant family member, Jane Southworth, was implicated in the Lancashire witch trials, maliciously it would appear. Happily, she was not executed.

Walking along the impressive long gallery and sitting in the (now deconsecrated) chapel – currently a popular wedding venue – it’s hard for the 21st century mind to grasp the power of the religious fervour which rent families apart and which led to such fear and destruction. Four hundred years isn’t all that long ago.

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Samlesbury Hall was bought and sold a number of times after the departure of the last of the Southworths in 1678, and was put to many uses such as a boarding school for girls and industrial units for hand loom weavers. One room at the house displays a time line showing the Hall’s history, including its hitting rock bottom in 1924 when it faced demolition. It’s sad to see the slow decline of Samlesbury from its elevated status as the seat of mediaeval lords to its almost destruction by bulldozer.

The Samlesbury Hall story is a bitter-sweet one. It is believed to contain many restless spirits, and there are plenty visitors who will swear to having seen or sensed them making their presence felt in dark corners or on quiet landings, or perhaps amongst the trees in the garden, the scene of another murder resulting from sectarian divisions. I’d like to think that any Samlesbury spectres might, like the delighted visitors to the house, be able to enjoy celebration of a home that has lived on and flourished in new times and in new ways, whilst still firmly rooted in the distant past.

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