Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Durham: Following in the Footsteps of Pilgrims

Bill Bryson, the American author and renowned anglophile, is Durham's greatest fan. In his bestselling eulogy to Britain, Notes from a Small Island he wrote: "I got off at Durham... and fell in love with it instantly in a serious way. Why, it's wonderful - a perfect little city.... If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It's wonderful."

Indeed, Durham must be most Americans' idea of heaven; a compact city which oozes history from every inch of its rich tapestry of ancient buidlings and cobbled streets (plus, as it's so small so you don't have to walk too far...)

Perched on densely wooded banks, high above the River Wear and visible from just about every corner of the city is the magnificent cathedral: one of the best examples of Norman architecture in Europe. It's origins date back to the 10th century when a community of monks were driven out of their home on Lindsfarne by Viking raids. Carrying with them a precious cargo which included the venerated remains of St Cuthbert, they eventually settled on a loop in the River Wear, where they built a monastery as a shrine to St Cuthbert.

When the Normans arrived around one hundred years later, they seized the site, which is almost completely surrounded by water and, recognising its natural defensive strengths they destroyed the monastery and built a cathedral in its place. Incredibly, the Normans continued to revere St Cuthbert and his remains survived the upheaval.

So having endured the Viking raids, the Norman takeover and later, the Reformation and Civil War - the priceless, 7th century relics of the north's best-loved saint remain on display in the cathedral's Treasury.

One of the best vantage points from which you can view the cathedral, and the adjacent Norman castle, is the Framwellgate Bridge. From there, you can take a walk up the shady riverbank path or take a Prince Bishop cruise boat which operates from Easter to October - the perfect alternative for all those weary American tourists!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Three more gems along the Cleveland Way

A final recap is due on this historic, rugged North Yorkshire coastline (A.K.A. The Cleveland Way) and three other treasure towns which cling to it like limpets.

Robin's Hood Bay: Once a haven for smugglers, this adorable place is a cobbled maze of stone cottages which are arranged hapharzardly on the steep cliff. Very popular with tourists, but don't let that put you off, cars are not allowed in the old village so the descent to the gorgeous beach and quay has to be made on foot. A few steps from the beach, the Bramblewick (a 17th century property which was once the village bakery) serves excellent food and drink in the prettiest of locations... beautiful.

Runswick Bay: Nine miles up the coast from Whitby, Runswick Bay reveals its sweeping arc of golden sand and brightly painted fishermen's cottages - a breathtaking sight from the crest of the hill or while enjoying a pint of Black Sheep from the Royal Hotel.
Such is its precarious position on the cliff, in 1664, a landslip caused the entire village to fall into the sea. It was rebuilt and remained a vibrant fishing community for several hundred years. Today, the permanent population of Runswick has dwindled to less than 20 and the fishermen have long gone. It's a place where holiday makers flock (unpeturbed by the bracing winds off the North Sea) to enjoy simple seaside pleasures - and there's not a single unsightly arcade to spoil the picture-perfect view.

Staithes: (Also pictured at the top) Arguably the prettiest of all the cliff top villages, Staithes has been a magnet for artists for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, it became the base for a colony of renowned English Impressionists including Laura Knight - Britain's first female artist to become a Dame.
The village's art scene is still vibrant and Staithes Gallery which sits on the high street is a fantastic showcase of contemporary art which has been inspired by the area. They also run an art school and rent out the original, refurbished studio used by Dame Laura herself.

Staithes Gallery
High Street,
North Yorkshire,
TS13 5BH

Tel: 01947 841840


Friday, 5 September 2008

Wet and Wild in Whitby

I'm trying very hard not to be obsessed by the weather but it's hard when the summer's been a damp squib (again!) and now all hopes of an Indian Summer seem to be dashed as well. Inspite of this, I decided to head to a proper English seaside town this week, attempting to convince myself that I prefer such places in the winter. (I'm not sure when or how i ever reached that conclusion but i'm obviously deluded)

But first I had to traverse the moors: a vast wilderness whose atmospheric, wild charms evoke strong memories of when I was a sixth former, completely engrossed in the study of Emily Bronte's moors-based novel Wuthering Heights. All of this nostalgia is heightened by the mist and driving rain and the helter skelter route which heads up to the coast makes for quite a thrilling ride.

Whitby itself is the ultimate tourist town. Suprisingly unspoilt and genteel, the town features regularly these days in seaside resort top 10's. That said, it's a town of contrasts, at once brash and beautiful - perched on a cliff, pretty stone cottages tumble down to the arcades and tourist shops which line the harbour.

Historically, a great seafaring town, this is the home of Captain James Cook. He served his apprenticeship in Whitby in 1746 and the great ship Endeavour was also built here. More than a thousand years earlier, the town was an important centre for Christianity when in 657, St Hilda founded Whitby Abbey. The abbey's dramatic, windswept ruins overlook the town from the top of cliff, and can only be reached by the 199 steps which start at Church Street.

Today, Whitby is not only a historical tourist attraction, but a goth magnet (see below, two beautiful specimens seen pacing the high street), thanks to its other famous 'son' - the fictious vampire Count Dracula who arrived here on a ship full of dead men. Bram Stoker, Dracula's creator, was apparently inspired by the town and its stark abbey ruins - he penned the novel while staying at the Royal Hotel in Whitby.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Putting Britain's heritage back on the map

This might still be silly season, but last night's speech by Mary Spence (President of the Royal Cartographic Society) while not billed as a thriller, has been widely reported and debated in the media today.

In a speech to more than a thousand geographers, she lamented the fact that the emergence of sat nav and online maps is wiping knowledge of the UK's heritage and cultural treasures from the public consciousness. (Read more about this story here)

Hmmmm. What we need is a sat nav system with a built in tour guide. Something that combines the technological genius of satellite navigation with good, old-fashioned quality information about the UK's rich heritage. A system which as, say, a tourist heads down the A303 across the Salisbury Plain and sees an unusual grouping of ancient stones, will tell them that they are approaching Stonehenge. A bit of background information in audio and some pictures would be nice too.

Sound familiar....?

A Moor-ish hidden gem

Andrew Pern's foodie empire in the North Yorks Moors is the jewel in North Yorkshire's gourmet crown. The Michelin-starred chef and his wife oversee the famous Star Inn in Harome (the middle of nowhere) and a fantastic deli and butchers a few minutes away in the village of Helmsley.

Groaning with local organic produce including meat and poultry from the Star's trusted suppliers, Perns of Helmsley is a total feast for the senses and I left there with my reusable shopper bursting at the seams.

You can read more about Andrew Pern and his book 'Black Pudding & Foie Gras' here

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

North Yorks Abbey Trail: Part II

So I find myself continuing an impromptu tour of North Yorkshire's Cistercian Abbeys... of which there are several but I'm sticking to the principal three: Fountains (tick), Rievaulx and Byland - the three 'shining lights' of the Cistercian Order as they came to be known.

Located just six miles or so apart on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, even over 900 years on, it's easy to see why the monks were attracted to this beautiful, remote wilderness.

The approach to Rievaulx is an event in itself. Anticipation builds as you follow the narrow road which runs steeply down the densely wooded valley of the River Wye. The road bends suddenly to reveal the mighty stone ruins which stand completely alone against fields, woods and sky - just as it did five hundred years ago at the height of its power.

In spite of its magnificent scale, what remains of the great church and abbey buildings is surprisingly austere with little decoration - seemingly so as not to detract from the monks' simple lifestyle. In its hey day, the abbey was home to 140 monks and some 500 lay brothers who worked the abbey estate. Records of the wool it sold show that they owned around 12,000 sheep in a series of sheep stations across 6,000 acres.

In 1142, the monks at Rievaulx got a nasty shock when another group of Cistercians set up home less than a mile away in Byland. The two monasteries were within the sound of each others' bells which caused confusion and quarrels ensued. A few years later the Byland monks were persuaded to move to land a few miles up the road near the village of Wass, on which they refounded Byland Abbey and its ruins still preside today.

Visible from the road, it's clear that time has treated Byland less kindly. Piercing the sky like a stone finger, the remains of what must have been a spectacular rose window suggest that Byland was much more extravagantly decorated. On closer inspection, you can see the remains of glazed tile floors and ornately decorated pillars.

I think I'm going to start a list of places to return to with loved ones (or a loved one....) Just a few paces from the abbey, lies the diminutive 19th century Abbey Inn which became English Heritage's first gastro-pub in 2006. It even serves its own special brew - Byland Brew which is described as having an orange, hoppy flavour. Upstairs, there are three bedrooms with views out over the abbey and surrounding countryside which simply ooze charm and romance. Right now, I can't think of a better place to rouse from a deep slumber - enjoying breakfast in a four poster bed overlooking the abbey...

Rievaulx Abbey,
North Yorkshire
YO61 4BD

Abbey Inn,
North Yorkshire
YO61 4BD

Tel: 01347 868204

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Survivor of the Dissolution: Yorkshire's First World Heritage Site

RoadTour and just about every other guide to this part of the world rate Fountains Abbey and the Studley Royal Water Garden as the not-to-be-missed attraction - in a recent local survey, it was even voted Yorkshire's top beauty spot.

And rightly so... Fountain's Abbey and the surrounding estate and parkland is a sensory pleasure park in which you could lose yourself for days. Unfortunately the unseasonal weather didn't show it off in its best light, but you cannot fail to be awestruck by Britain's mightiest monastic ruin which sits on the banks of the River Skell.

In 1132, following a dispute in York, thirteen monks were exiled to this spot in the Skell valley to establish a new monastery which was admitted into the austere Cistercian order. By the mid-thirteenth century, Fountains had become one of the wealthiest religious houses in England. In 1539, Henry VIII's dissolution brought monastic life here to an abrupt end along with 400 years of agricultural and industrial prosperity.

The abbey itself has survived the ravages of time and history unbelieveably well. Large sections of the impressive structure remain substantially intact - not least the cellarium's magnificent vaulted ceiling. Originally, this was a series of partitioned rooms where the abbey's workforce - the lay brothers - ate, slept and socialised.

On closer inspection (with a bit of help from the fantastic free guides), there remains evidence of intricate carvings and sculptures, the sophisticated medieval water and drainage system, the monks' day stairs and the huge fireplace in the warming room which kept them warm in winter. It really is a fascinating insight into medieval monastic life.

The surrounding estate is equally impressive. Expertly landscaped in the 18th century, the Skell valley's natural beauty is enhanced by a Georgian water garden with ornamental lakes, canals and cascades, geometric lawns and a series of classical temples (one dedicated to Fame, another to Hercules) and statues.

With countless perfect spots for a picnic, Victorian visitors would have been disappointed as the strict regulations prevented them from eating, drinking, smoking or even lingering in the grounds or abbey. No such restrictions exist today thankfully. Among other local fare, the estate serves delicious Brymor icecream by the bucket load which is produced using milk from a herd of pedigree Guernsey cows who graze a few miles up the road in the Yorkshire Dales.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden
North Yorkshire HG4 3DY

Tel: 01765 608888

Thursday, 14 August 2008


Ten minutes up the road from Harrogate, perched on a limestone ridge above the Nidd Gorge, the ancient town of Knaresborough is a picture perfect market town with a vibrant heart.

This is the lush, fertile Vale of York, once an ancient passageway used by the Romans which provided limestone for some of this area's most distinguished buildings - including York Minster.
Occupying a commanding position 120 feet above the gorge are the ruins of Knaresborough's Norman castle, which offer some of the most scenic views across the town towards the impressive railway viaduct which spans the River Nidd.

I arrived in the beautiful market town just as the balloons and bunting were going up for the annual Knaresborough FEVA - a colourful festival of entertainment and visual arts. Now in its 8th year, the festival will be reaching its climax this weekend with free entry into the castle and museum, a free guided walk through the Nidd Gorge (Sunday 10am) and a classical evening concert in St John's Church.

For those whose visits don't coincide with the festival, there's still plenty to explore. When, or if, you finally tire of the views across the gorge, wandering around the town's pretty streets, you will undoubtedly stumble upon the oldest chemist shop in England which is now the home of Farrah's famous Harrogate toffees. The chemist shop dispensed its medicinal wares in around 1720 but these days the shop is more famous for its sticky treats and vast array of Farrah's toffee tins.

You can also explore the cavernous birthplace (and its picturesque riverside surroundings) of Knaresborough's most legendary resident, Ursula Southeil. Better known as Mother Shipton, England's most famous prophetess, she lived during the reign of Henry VIII and is said to have accurately foretold the Great Fire of London and the events surrounding the defeat of the Spanish Armada. She also predicted the end of the world in 1881 - but two out of three ain't bad, as they say.

Mother Shiptons Cave
Prophecy Lodge
High Bridge

Tel: 01423 864600

Monday, 4 August 2008

Fat rascals and a strong Yorkshire Brew

As I'm journeying through Yorkshire, i can't help reflecting on the three years I spent (or misspent) here as a student. I'm a little bit sad to say that i don't think there's a single trace of Yorkshire lass about me. Even down to the way I make a cup of tea - I like it weak, like dishwater - I'm definitely a soft southerner through and through.

Tea, you see, is pivotal to Yorkshire life. And Bettys, Yorkshire's most famous teashop - is nothing short of a national institution.

Bettys was founded in 1919 by Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont, who, on arrival in London was planning to head to the popular southern seaside resorts to establish his business but took the wrong train and ended up in Yorkshire. His inital dismay was quickly replaced with a love for the beautiful Yorkshire countryside which reminded him of his alpine home.

In spite of the fact that I am a tea and cake fanatic, an almost 90 year old tea shop patronised by what I imagine to be coachloads of the blue-rinse brigade doesn't overwhelmingly appeal. I like to think my taste is little more 'bijou' so I feel sure I'll be disappointed.

But I'm pleased to report it's actually a not-to-be-missed experience: the height of elegance and gentility and the rainbow-coloured spectrum of cakes and tarts is a dazzling sight to behold. And little wonder its packed full with tourists eager to immerse themselves in the quintessentially English pursuit of taking afternoon tea.
I have a friend who had a Saturday job at Bettys when he was young (beats working in McDonalds!) and his top tip for my visit was to try a warm buttered Fat Rascal - a Bettys part scone, part rock cake speciality (pictured on display in the window below). I duly indulged and can confirm that they are freshly baked, crumbly perfection - the melted butter part is a must.

There are now six Bettys tearooms - all in Yorkshire. And they also have a mouthwatering mail order website from which I pinched this beautiful picture of a plate of Fat Rascals with Emma Bridgewater's adorable bespoke Bettys pottery - all of which can be ordered here online.

Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms
1 Parliament Street

Tel: 01423 502746

Open every day from 9am to 9pm

Thursday, 24 July 2008

National Parks Week

The sun is shining and if you need any greater excuse to go and explore the Great British outdoors, next week is 'National Parks Week' (28 July - 3 August). 

There are 14 National Parks in the UK (one of which is the Peak District which became Britain's first national park in 1951). These 14 parks form part of a global network of 6,555 protected areas covering 12% of the earth's surface. That's quite a stat isn't it?!

According to the organisers, National Parks Week aims to reconnect people to the beautiful open spaces around us particularly highlighting local food and farming. To help us make this connection, lots of events have been organised and you can even 'eat your way around' the 14 parks with this collection of local recipes. 

For more information, have a look at the National Parks website.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Neglect and decay threaten Britain's heritage sites

This week, English Heritage has raised the alarm on the thousands of historical sites which are at high risk from decay and neglect. Of the 70,000 heritage sites assessed so far, they say that one in twelve are threatened - that's well over 5,000 listed buildings, ancient monuments, battlefields, gardens and landscapes which face an uncertain future.

Thanks to protective legislation, demolition is no longer an option, but as Times columnist Richard Morrison points out, listed buildings which have been abandoned because they're no longer 'fit for purpose' are now deliberately left to decay in the hope that someone else will pick up the restoration bill.

You can read more about this here or go to the Heritage at Risk section of the English Heritage website to find out what can be done to ensure our heritage is preserved for future generations.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Peak Palaces and Puddings

Apparently Derbyshire's most famous dish, the Bakewell Pudding (or Tart) has been falling from favour among health-conscious 21st century Brits. Reports from Kipling Towers suggest that sales of Mr Kipling's (over-sweet and unauthentic) cherry bakewell version have fallen 30-odd per cent in the last few years.

So in a selfless bid to help save this local delicacy from extinction, I decided to hot-foot it over to the small market town of Bakewell and put my sweet-tooth to good use for once.

As I entered the Peak District National Park, only one thing stood in my way - the breathtaking vision of Chatsworth House's honeyed palladian facade nestled on the banks of the River Derwent. My pudding craving momentarily had to go on hold...

Chatsworth, which lies about three miles to the east of Bakewell, has been the the ancestral home of the Duke of Devonshire and his family, the Cavendishes since 1549. The first house was built by Bess of Hardwick and her husband Sir William Cavendish. The first Duke of Devonshire rebuilt the house at the end of the 17th century which later became the backdrop to the colourful life of Georgiana Cavendish, wife of the 5th Duke, which has been depicted by Keira Knightly in the film The Duchess (due for release in September).

I've never quite made it inside the house - exploring the grounds alone could probably take a few days. There are some beautiful walks to explore, winding up the rocky, bracken-clad slopes to the open peaks behind the house (I once spotted then Home Secretary David Blunkett with his black labrador Lucy enjoying a wintry walk here a few years ago).

Another highlight is the Chatsworth Farm Shop, situated on the estate in the village of Pilsley on the way to Bakewell. Benefitting from a recent £500,000 expansion, story boards above each section introduce you to the local producers who supply the shop with, among many other things, estate-reared beef, lamb, venison and pheasant, free range eggs, poultry and ice-cream and a huge variety of locally grown fruit and veg.

Having got completely sidetracked by just a tiny fraction of what Chatsworth has to offer, I finally arrived in Bakewell, just as the Bakewell Tart Shop was closing and the tourist coaches were departing. A peep through the shop window though and I reckon the legacy of this famous local delicacy is in safe hands with the people of Bakewell (oh, and Jamie Oliver who apparently did a great version in his book Jamie's Dinners).

DE45 1PP

Tel: 01246 565300

The Chatsworth farm shop,
DE45 1UF

Tel: 01246 583392

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Crooked Spire

I'm returning to old stomping ground for the next leg of the trip as I studied in the Steel City (Sheffield). I've come to re-visit the Peak District national park, whose vast expanses of incredible scenery open up within, literally, a five minute drive of the leafy west side of the city. (This happens to be the area occupied by Sheffield's enormous student population and I'm ashamed to say that this fact was largely wasted on me and most of my student colleagues.)

First pit stop en route to the Peak District is Chesterfield. Having passed the town's most famous attraction - the crooked spire - countless times on the train from Euston to Sheffield, I decided to stop and take a closer look.

It really is quite an arresting sight. The steeple of Derbyshire's largest church, St Mary's and All Saints, twists 45 degrees and leans nine and a half feet to the south west. The church was largely constructed in 1350 following the Black Death outbreak and the spire was added later in 1362.

It's wonkiness is attributed mainly to a dearth of skilled craftsmen at this time and their use of unseasoned timber. There are (of course) several more colourful explanations including the story of a local blacksmith who was so nervous about shoeing the devil that he drove a nail into his foot. Leaping over the spire in pain, legend has it that the devil knocked the spire out of shape.

Standing beneath Derbyshire's answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I was not comforted to learn that the spire isn't even attached to the church tower on which it sits. Apparently, due to the wonders of science, it's weight (all 32 tons of it) holds it in place...

Not being particularly scientifically minded or inclined to figure out how this feat of botched engineering has remained in place for over 600 years, especially on blustery days like today, I beat a hasty retreat (in what I believed to be a north-easterly direction) to the nearest coffee shop.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A Stomp through Robin Hood Country

Beguilingly perched somewhere between the realms of fact and fiction, the legend of Robin Hood has fascinated people for over 700 years. My personal knowledge is based largely on Kevin Costner's dashing portrayal of the hooded hero in the 1991 film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and a sporadic dip in and out of the BBC's latest TV series. But do these modern day depictions bear any resemblance to any real-life historical figure? Did he even exist?

Rather than embark on the University of Nottingham's new MA programme dedicated to England's national hero and most celebrated underdog, I decided to see if I could glean more from a trip to his famous home - Sherwood Forest - which is en route from Lincoln to Derbyshire.

Though still impressive, these days, the ancient forest is shadow of its former self. Covering 450 acres to the northeast of Mansfield, Sherwood's 100,000 acres dominated the county of Nottinghamshire during the reign of King John and stretched 30 miles from just south of Sheffield to Nottingham.

In Norman times, Sherwood Forest was a designated Royal hunting ground and was ruled by a special set of laws designed to preserve the King's 'vert and venison'. Surrounding a section of the Great North Road from London to York, Sherwood's 'vert' and its famous oak trees made it the perfect hiding place for bandits and robbers who made a good living out of ambushing wealthy travellers.

Sherwood's most famous tree is the hollow Major Oak which, according to legend was Robin Hood's prinicpal hiding place. With a girth of 33 feet, the Oak is said to be the largest living organism in Britain and, although you obviously can't count the rings of a hollow tree, it is said to be between 800 and 1,000 years old.

It's a magnificent specimen - propped up by a system of scaffolding and iron manacles which were first fastened around its great branches by the Victorians in 1900. Age has not withered its ability to reproduce - in a good year, the tree can apparently produce up to 150,000 acorns.

As for its fabled resident, no-one knows for sure whether or not the legend is based on a real historical character. The earliest written reference to Robin Hood dates back to a 15th century poem, but the boffins have yet to track down the one true Robin Hood, as Hood, Hode and Hod were all common surnames in medieval England. Robins and Roberts were equally popular so there are countless medieval law-breakers with variations of the same name.

Apparently Russell Crowe and Sienna Miller are set to star in a Hollywood twist on the legend entitled Nottingham, which will controversially take the side of Sheriff of Nottingham - casting Robin as the baddie. Not for the first time, Hollywood will stand accused of 'sexing up' a British legend - Braveheart springs to mind - but to us Brits he'll forever remain our do-gooding national hero.

Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve
NG21 9HN

Saturday, 21 June 2008


These days, like Stamford, Lincoln is off the beaten track - geographically rather isolated and beyond commuting distance to any larger cities, there doesn't appear to be any obvious or outstanding reason choose Lincoln as a destination over, say York or any other cathedral city.

Which is strange when you think that it used to be on *the* main Roman London to York road - otherwise known as Ermine Street. Lincoln was established in Roman times, but it was the Normans who singled it out and made their mark on what actually remains an undeniably charming and historically impressive city.

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror spearheaded a major building programme which established Lincoln as the administrative centre of the largest diocese in medieval England - a diocese which, for over 800 years, stretched all the way from the Thames to the Humber.

Lincoln is divided by the River Whitham into two parts, known locally as uphill, which houses the historic core (the 11th century cathedral, castle and bishop's palace) and downhill where you find the modern city centre. The two parts are connected by a charming street called Steep Hill - which does what it says on the tin (it's an embarrasingly exhausting hike for someone who's been rather sedentary of late.)

The three great towers of the cathedral can be seen from nearly 30 miles away and absolutely dominate the city skyline. It's not difficult to see why the Norman invaders chose this hilltop location on which to establish their new rule; the Saxon peasants who occupied the lower ground would have got the message loud and clear.

Having enjoyed a wander round the quiet streets of the medieval cathedral quarter, Steep Hill was a much more pleasant experience in the descent. With plenty of oxygen circulating, the magnificent views were the only thing taking my breath away. Second hand books and antiques shops and sweet little boutiques line the street, alongside the Jew's House which is thought to be one of Britain's oldest residental buildings.
I had a delicious lunch at Brown's Pie Shop at number 33 - £7.95 for two great courses. The pie of the day was pork, plum and celery...

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Dinner Under the (Michelin) Stars

I didn't get very far north of Stamford (roughly 7 miles) before pulling off the A1 to check out a pub called The Olive Branch which comes with high praise from the RoadTour pub guide and a Michelin star.

It was also featured in the Evening Standard magazine yesterday. I'll add my two penneth to the long list of accolades - the sausage and mash was divine!
The Olive Branch
Main Street
LE15 7SH
Tel: 01780 410355

Friday, 13 June 2008

A Curious Tale of a Natural Curiosity

A peculiar little story before I bid Stamford goodbye...

In 1806, the Stamford Mercury (which claims to be Britains' oldest newspaper) reported that a man from Leicester named Daniel Lambert who weighed in excess of 50 stone, was having a carriage built in order to 'exhibit himself as a natural curiosity'.

The naturally reclusive man charged a (then) hefty admission fee of one shilling - the profits of which, it is presumed helped pay for his servants who assisted him and specially-made clothes.

In June 1809, Lambert arrived in Stamford for the races and lodged at the Wagon and Horses Inn, where he died suddenly. Such was his size, a wall of the inn had to be completely demolished in order to remove his body.

At the time of his death, Daniel Lambert weighed 739 pounds (almost 53 stone or 336 kilos) - his waist measured 9ft 4ins, his calf measurement 3ft 1in.

He was buried in the church yard at St Martin's, Stamford and he maintains the dubious distinction of being one of the most obese men in history to this day. Items of his clothing are still on display in Stamford Museum.

Stamford Museum
Broad Street

Tel: 01780 766317

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Setting the scene for Middlemarch

The drive across the west Norfolk flats, into Lincolnshire and around the Wash, was eerily quiet... Even RoadTour, which usually chats away at fairly regular intervals, was silent for the entire journey into Lincolnshire. So it was a relief to find civilisation once again in the form of Stamford - a beautiful, historical stone town just off the A1.

With more than 600 medieval and Georgian listed buildings lining the numerous narrow cobbled streets, alleys and picturesque squares, Stamford is virtually untouched by modern architectural influence which made it the perfect setting for the BBC's costume drama Middlemarch.

The town’s name derives from a stone ford – then the only crossing point over the River Welland - over which Queen Boudicca is reputed to have chased the Romans in AD 61. Lying as it does on the main Roman route (Ermine Street) from York and Lincoln to London, Stamford attracted many other royal and noble visitors - Sir Walter Scott described the town’s mellow limestone facade as 'the finest scene between London and Edinburgh'.

Yet in spite of all these credentials, Stamford does appear to be slightly off the tourist trail. Its streets are refreshingly devoid of the troups of American sightseers and coach loads of French exchange students which you find in just about every other English historical town.

So I felt I blended in rather well with the locals as I mooched around its pretty streets. Nestling alongside the usual high street fare, there is a great range of independent stores, boutiques, galleries and other little treasures.

I loved this florist – the cutely named ‘Miss Pickering Flowers' on St Paul's Street. Just a few doors up on the same street, there’s a fantastic deli - Simpole Clarke - which has its own refrigerated cheese room where 100 different varieties of cheese are nurtured by owner Julie Simpole Clarke.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Team sets sail to yield Dunwich's hidden treasure

Further to my earlier post about Dunwich in Suffolk, I saw this interesting piece in the Times today. Following these investigations, Dunwich's treasure might not be hidden for much longer...

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Lavender and Luvvies

The coastal road from Cromer to Hunstanton takes in some beautiful scenery and a string of pearl-like villages - Cley, Blakeney, Wells-next-the-Sea, Holkham, the Burnhams (all seven of them), Brancaster...

The well documented gentrification of these coastal resorts is very much in evidence - expensive and tantalising organic butchers, delis and antiques shops line the winding route and at the weekends, the village greens and pub car parks are gridlocked with Chelsea tractors.

Understandably, local people have been less than thrilled with the luvvie influx which has driven house prices through the roof, but this area remains a charming and now rather hip corner of East Anglia.

It's at this stage of my journey that the GPS pubs and inns guide kicks into overdrive and I’m totally spoilt for choice with numerous lovely pubs serving up a bevy of local delicacies: Brancaster mussels, Thornham oysters, Blakeney crab, Holkham game and samphire harvested from the marshes.

This being Lord Nelson’s birthplace, you can sup on a pint of Nelson’s Revenge at the Carpenter’s Arms in Wells or head to the Lord Nelson pub in Burnham Thorpe, where a tot of Nelson's Blood awaits you (according to the guide ‘a devilish concoction of 100% proof rum and spices’).

My favourite though is the Hoste Arms in beautiful Burnham Market where I happily whiled away a few rainy hours this week in one of their sumptuous leather sofas.

Just beyond Hunstanton, heading south on the Lynn Road is Heacham, the home of Norfolk Lavender – another Norfolk icon. Caley Mill, an old watermill which dates back to 1087, is the Norfolk Lavender HQ, and is surrounded by 100 acres of lavender fields.

I wish I could tell you about the heady scent and spectacular purple haze of those fields but unfortunately, I mistimed my visit as the lavender isn’t due to come in to full bloom until early July. Drat! But the gardens surrounding the mill are beautiful and there’s an incredible array of lavender themed goodies in the tea room and shop – from cosmetics and oils to lavender infused ice cream, fudge – even mustard. I couldn't resist the blueberry and lavender jam which I intend to spread liberally over hot toast at breakfast tomorrow.

Here's what I imagine those fields will look like in about a month's time...

The Hoste Arms
The Green
Burnham Market
PE31 8HD

Tel: 01328 738777

Norfolk Lavender
Caley Mill

PE31 7JE

Tel: 01485 570384

Monday, 19 May 2008

Norfolk's Other Seafaring Hero

The accolade of Norfolk's local hero recently went to a man of incredible courage and leadership who made his name at sea.

On this occasion however, Lord Admiral Nelson didn't quite cut the (Colman's?) mustard. In the BBC poll, Norfolk's local hero was named as a humble crab boat fisherman from Cromer called Henry Blogg.

Born in 1876, Blogg joined the lifeboat crew at the age of 18 and during an incredible seafaring career lasting 53 years, he saved 873 lives.

In the days before motorised boats, the crew of the cromer lifeboat (whose average age was over 50!) would be summonded to duty by a maroon, and regularly put their own lives in peril, relying on old fashioned manpower and courage to get the job done.

I've spent time in Cromer in all weathers and in the icy wind and rain it can feel like an epic task just popping out to Budgens for a loaf of bread - let alone taking to the roaring seas in a wooden rowing boat.

Due to his heroics as Coxwain of the Cromer lifeboat, Henry Blogg has become surely the world's most famous lifeboatman. The famously humble Norfolk man won the George Cross, a British Empire medal and many other awards for bravery.

On top of the cliffs, a bronze bust of Blogg gazes intently out across the vast North Sea panorama which he conquered on many occasions - in spite of the fact that he never learnt to swim!

The RNLI Henry Blogg Museum
The Rocket House
The Gangway
Norfolk NR27 8ET

Tel: 01263 511294

(P.S. The Rocket House Cafe is a great place to get a coffee or a light lunch with fantastic views over Cromer beach...)

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Wild weather in Cromer

I've come to the conclusion that, despite having a general hatred for dull, dank British weather, I actually prefer English seaside resorts in winter-time. I'm spending a few days on the North Norfolk coast - currently in Cromer - and the weather's been pretty mixed - today was wild though and so atmospheric which seemed to bring out the David Bailey in me...

Monday, 12 May 2008

A Fine City indeed

I know Norwich quite well as I have family here but I confess its incredible heritage has been dulled a bit by familiarity over the years.

In the 19th century, the Norfolk-born writer George Borrow described Norwich as ‘a fine old city’ – a proud refrain which the city borrowed for its road signs.

Its graceful Norman cathedral and castle dominate the city skyline, and the crumbling ruins of its ancient city walls and labyrinth of medieval backstreets and winding alleys still echo with its long and distinguished history.

For several hundred years, from the Norman Conquest onwards, Norwich was England’s second city and it is well known for having over 50 churches during medieval times – more than any other western European city.

Around 30 remain, and many have carved out a new vocation in these more secular times such as St James’s and St Michael’s which are now a puppet theatre and interactive science exhibition respectively.

Elm Hill remains my favourite spot in Norwich. Tucked away from the thousands of shoppers who throng to the city’s numerous shopping areas, this cobbled street, lined with timber-framed Tudor houses and antique shops is the perfect place to take a breather.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Elm Hill was an important commercial thoroughfare due to its position by the river. Weavers, goldsmiths, saddlemakers and other skilled craftsmen set up shop here and the area became a hub of workshops and wealthy merchant’s houses.

In 1507, a terrible fire destroyed 700 houses and its thought that only one building in Elm Hill survived – today, the attractive 15th century thatched building called the Britons Arms is a popular coffee house.

A visit to Elm Hill with my Auntie Sarah this afternoon confirmed my view that one of the best bits about Elm Hill is the tiny terrace garden at the Briton’s Arms. It’s an overgrown but completely secluded suntrap - the perfect spot on a sunny afternoon for tea and cake.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A drop of Suffolk ale

Today I meandered from Southwold to Norwich and came across a boozy little gem called St Peter's Hall which lies just outside the picturesque little town of Bungay (still in Suffolk).

It's an interesting place, a 13th century moated manor comprising many fine ecclesiastical pieces which were salvaged following the dissolution of nearby Flixton Priory.

In 1996, the hall was bought by John Murphy who has turned it into a brewery like no other - certainly a world away from my local brewery on the far-from-picturesque Wandsworth one-way system, adjacent to which I must have spent many a tedious hour stuck in traffic.

The main restaurant is a lofty banqueting hall complete with 17th century tapestries and fine stone fireplaces - a little on the grand side for my pit-stop lunch. Next door there's the more cosy Library Bar, but on a glorious sunny day like today I opted for the beautiful pub garden.

I'm not the world's biggest ale fan but it seemed rude not to partake - if only to get my hands on one of the brewery's quirky receptacles - as you can see, they are more medicine bottle than beer bottle. And I have to say that Suffolk ham and eggs washed down with this mild brew was a rather refreshing combination.

St Peter's Hall
St Peter South Elham
Suffolk NR35 1NQ

Tel: 01986 782288

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Life's a candy-coloured beach

Often described as the 'jewel' in the crown of the Suffolk coastline, Southwold is a firm favourite with this particular treasure hunter. And while this coastal treasure trove is hardly 'hidden' (it made Coast Magazine's Top 10 British Coastal Towns this week), in my humble opinion no trip to Suffolk is complete without a trip to Southwold.

Apparently, one of Southwold's famous beach huts is for sale in the popular Gun Hill area of the town and it looks like it might fetch £80,000. In fact, the local media has gone into a bit of a frenzy about this smart blue and white beach hut named 'Reverie' which appears to be bucking the current sloping trend in property prices.

Of course, this seems like an outrageous price to pay for a few square metres of shed on the beach (and remember we're talking British beach - where it rains most of the time). But if I had a spare £80,000 lying around, I'd love to buy a beach hut here. I can't think of anything that evokes childhood holiday nostalgia more.

I have a wonderfully flamboyant uncle - chef and housekeeper, flower arranger and party organiser extraordinaire - who used to entertain from his bijou beach hut at Herne Bay in Kent when we were children. My memories are like a scene from Country Living magazine - the only trouble was that the colour co-ordinated plastic buckets and spades which hung on the wall were ornamental.

Beach huts were first introduced to British seaside resorts in the Edwardian and post-first world war era, when it finally became acceptable for men and women to 'bathe' in public together. Councils provided beach huts and tents on the beach so that people could change into their swimming costumes out of view.

Before this, men and women bathed on separate beaches and changed in bathing 'machines' which were towed to the shoreline in an elaborate attempt to keep everyone's dignity in tact. Oh my, how times have changed!

To wrap up the childhood nostalgia theme, there's an old fashioned sweet shop in Southwold - Number One St James' Green - which is chock full of childhood favourites: a mind-boggling array of traditional boiled sweets, handmade fudge and locally sourced lavender honey.

So I end the day eating sweets on the beach next to a candy-coloured string of beach huts in the sunshine - can't get much better really.

Number One St James' Green,
Suffolk IP6 6JL
Tel: 01502 726039

For more information about the history and renting of beach huts click here

Friday, 25 April 2008

Britain's 'Atlantis' - Dunwich, Suffolk

I passed through Dunwich a few years ago, on a trip home from Norwich to London, when time allowed and the scenic, coastal route seemed preferable to the A11. I didn't linger much beyond a bite to eat and a pint of Adnams by the fire at the Ship Inn, as there's not a lot to see here in this sleepy coastal village.

However, shortly afterwards, I was amazed to discover that in Medieval times, Dunwich, which has now has a population of around 120, used to be one of Britain's most prosperous towns - in the 14th century, it rivalled London in size. As I looked back on my first trip here, and remembered the rather desolate main street (the only street?!) this seemed frankly laughable.

You see, Dunwich of old - the capital of East Anglia, major trading and fishing centre and one time centre of the English wool trade - now lies deep below the North Sea.

So, this time round, I decided to get to the bottom of this very watery, hidden treasure and the village museum (above), transformed in the 70's from a beautiful old cottage, is a fantastic treasure trove of information.

The helpful chap manning the displays tells me that during the 13th and 14th centuries, this part of East Anglia was battered by heavy storms and coastal erosion.

In January 1286, a violent storm shook the whole of England for five long days, during which, one million tons of sand and shingle were deposited in Dunwich Harbour. With no mechanical means to remove the debris, this effectively spelled the end for Dunwich and, as the sea continued to erode the soft cliffs away, the town was gradually abandonned.

In all, eight churches, two monastries, two hospitals and hundreds of other buildings were lost to the sea. Legend has it that if you stand on the beach and listen carefully, you can still hear the sound of church bells from the lost churches tolling beneath the grey sea.

I decided I couldn't leave without putting this to the test. I bought some fish and chips from the Flora Tea Rooms (the stuff of more Dunwich legend) and went and sat on the shingle beach expecting a requiem of underwater bell ringing. However being more foodie than campanologist, I was completely engrossed in my skate and chips, and I can't claim to have heard anything much above the wind whipping around my chip paper.

Dunwich Museum
St James' Street
IP17 3EA

Tel: 01728 648794
Opening times: Daily 11.30am - 4.30pm, April to October.

Flora Tea Rooms
The Beach Carpark

Tel: 01728 648433
(Closed in winter)

Friday, 18 April 2008

Constable Country

The twisting lanes and snug villages in the Dedham Vale on the Essex / Suffolk border are so ridiculously easy on the eye that I can feel myself turning into a dreaded Sunday Afternoon Driver – the sort that drive at half the national speed limit in order to ‘drink it all in’.

This little corner of Essex retains a sleepy, chocolate box charm and assuming it’s changed little in two hundred years, it's not hard to see why John Constable, one of Britain's best loved artists rarely strayed far from his Essex birthplace. "I should paint my own places best" he wrote to a friend in 1821.

His most famous work, The Hay Wain (above, which was voted the second best painting in Britain in 2005*), depicts a view across the river near Flatford Mill, which was owned by his father, a wealthy corn merchant.

Keen to immerse myself in all this spectacular scenery, I decided to follow the National Trust’s 7 mile walk from Manningtree to Flatford, via Dedham - which passes through open fields and woodland and weaves across the bridges and sluice gates of the River Stour.

As I made my way along the tranquil but well-trodden route, the tall oak and beech trees, now flushed with vivid green, the lush meadows and the iridescent river water arranged themselves into countless wonderful compositions - just ripe for painting.

In fact around each corner there seemed to be a familiar tableau - and as Willy Lott's white painted cottage came into view, my heart leapt slightly with a feeling like I'd been there before.

This called for a pit stop - a few moments to appreciate one of Britain's most famous and idyllic pastoral scenes. The hay wain and its heavy horses are now long gone but the mill pond and cottage remain unscathed by their enduring celebrity.

Later, in the National Trust's beautiful river-side tea room, I decided that I would buy a sketch book and some pencils at the very next opportunity. Now seems like the perfect time to attempt a stirring of the hitherto unrealised promise I showed as an artist (at primary school).

* What was Britain's no. 1 greatest painting? JMW Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Colchester: Britain's oldest recorded town

I can't say I'd ever thought of Essex as a hotbed of any cultural or historical exuberance. Although Colchester famously claims to be Britain's oldest town, which is not a bad start.

According to records, the town's existence was first referred to (albeit in passing) in AD77 by Pliny the Elder - when its Celtic name was Camulodunon. Pliny was a Roman author and naturalist who compiled the encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia in AD77- four volumes of observations of the natural world. Unfortunately, his curiosity for nature finally got the better of him when he went in for a closer look at the erupting Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. His body was later found interred under the ashes.

This is also Constable Country, of course - but more on that shortly...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Big Ben's Big Anniversary

The hour has come! And I thought it worth mentioning, as I set off on my travels from London Town, that the bell inside London's iconic clock tower - Big Ben - is celebrating its 150th anniversary today.
I spent almost four years working in Westminster, so I'm very familiar with the sight and sound of the clock tower but (maybe it's just me ) I was surprised to learn that this piece of gothic extravagance is actually Victorian.

A fire destroyed most of the Palace of Westiminster in 1834 and shortly afterwards Victorian architect Charles Barry was awarded the contract to create a new palace. His redesign incorporated sections of the palace that had survived the fire, such as Westminster Hall which dates back to the eleventh century. It also included the magnificent gothic clock tower.

The original bell was cast in Stockton on Tees, but on testing, it cracked and the damage was irrepairable. Whitechapel Bell Foundry recast the old bell, and a sales ledger from 1858 records that the invoice was charged at £572 (this amount took into account credit given for the metal which came from the old bell).
On 31 May 1859, the 13 1/2 ton bell chimed for the first time inside Parliament's world famous clock tower.

Established over four hundred years ago in 1570, Whitechapel Bell Foundry, is now one of only two bell makers left in Britain. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the foundry is listed as the UK's oldest manufacturing company.

Its fascinating history spans the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the murderous reign of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in the late 1800's. During years of conflict, the foundry was set to work making cannon and, in the second world war, aluminium parts for submarines.

This hidden treasure, still nestled in London's East End, continues to cast its world famous bells Monday to Friday. You can visit the museum and shop but the foundry's popular guided tours (which can only take place on Saturdays for health and safety reasons) are booked up until next year!

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry
32/34 Whitechapel Road
London E1 1DY
Tel: 020 7247 2599

Shop and museum opening hours:
Monday to Friday 9.00am to 4.15pm
Foundry tours must be pre-booked (Bookings for 2009 will be taken from 1 September 2008.)

Palace of Westminster
London SW1A 0AA

UK residents can tour the Houses of Parliament throughout the year, free of charge, although they must be arranged through their local MP. Overseas visitors may only take a tour during the Summer Opening.
The clock tower is not open to the general public although, UK residents with a 'special interest' can arrange a visit to the top of the tower through their local MP.