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...