Dark Times

No lighthouse hunting today

Perhaps I was suffering from a degree of geographic confusion arising from the sea being to my west rather than my beloved east coast, though more likely it was the mental clouding arising from having been made redundant from my training job less than an hour previously, but in either event my usual sense of direction deserted me in Heysham and I walked as shown here.  

Perhaps in some way though I was following a historic precedent.

According to some stories, a teenage boy was kidnapped by pirates from his home in Ravenglass, Cumbria at some point in the 5th century.  He was sold into slavery in Ireland.  After a few years he escaped and boarded a boat bound for France which was blown off course with the result that he came ashore back in England.  If as some believe he landed in Heysham, then he was only 50km or so from his birthplace.

Across Morecambe Bay to Cumbria

Buildings on the site I was visiting give credence to this being his landing spot, and the legends relating to the origins of a place in Cumbria called Aspatria support his return.  The young man was St Patrick. (Or one of them as some scholars believe that tales of two different preachers have become conflated.)

Of course all of this took place in the period known pejoratively as “The Dark Ages” where we have few written records to draw upon.  What supports this story is that this small settlement on Morecambe Bay has long religious significance.

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Standing on a small headland are the remains of a tiny chapel (St Patrick’s Chapel) that dates back to the 8th century, though evidence suggests it had earlier wooden predecessors.  It is too small to have been a place of worship and so preaching is likely to have taken place outside.

National Trust Artist’s Impression

Why the building then?  Perhaps it was there to house something of importance?  Research has found lots of burials on the site including some within the chapel itself, but it is the graves outside that are most interesting.  Among them are two examples (a group of 6 and a separate pair) of graves carved into the solid rock.  Sockets at the end of each suggest that large markers were inserted at the head of these graves, so it’s thought that these were perhaps resting places for important individuals (or their bones at least).  Like the reliquaries that still draw pilgrims to many catholic churches, this was probably a place to get close to the truly holy.

Of course if you’re attracting a lot of visitors sooner or later you want a real church, and just below the chapel sits an unmistakably Anglo-Saxon church.  St Peter’s Heysham.  Consecrated in 967 AD, it too follows earlier buildings, and it has changed and developed over the centuries as evidenced by the mismatched window and door styles, and the fact that it is no longer a tall narrow structure.

More interesting graves are in the churchyard, though the most interesting of all was denied to me.  A viking style hogback grave marker was moved inside the church for its protection in 1977.  As it was nearly dusk the church was securely locked, so I was unable to photograph this record of Norse pagan imagery found in an English christian churchyard, though there are images online.

Still in the dark about my navigational error I began to retrace my steps through the gorse, brambles and nettles along the cliff tops.  At least I could be sure there would be no snakes!

Patrick’s Presence?


Interesting video featuring Heysham in the 1970’s (about 6 mins in – though I enjoyed the whole clip)



Arx celebris fontibus*

* a citadel noted for its springs.

In Georgian England a sure way for a town to become prosperous was if it benefited from natural springs whose mineral waters had healing properties.

Bath has traded on this for centuries of course, the Romans having constructed a bath house and temple at the site of a hot water spring and naming the place Aquae Sulis (The Waters of Sulis).  Its more prosaic though perfectly descriptive modern name is probably the work of the Anglo Saxons.  Nevertheless the town can still justify the nomenclature, for the Thermae Bath Spa combines one of the 18th Century hot baths with more modern treatments in a piece of contemporary architecture.

Some spa towns were so popular with Royalty that their names were changed too; Royal Tunbridge Wells,  and Royal Leamington Spa for example.

Further north, one beneficiary of this trend was Harrogate, whose town motto forms the title of this post; its waters are “chalybeate” meaning rich in iron and derived from the Latin word for steel.  Originally discovered in the 16th Century the waters drew the wealthy sick in increasing numbers from the 17th Century onwards and Harrogate benefited.  Whether the consumers did or not is another matter.

APW_8965-EditUnlike Bath, Harrogate hasn’t invested so heavily in maintaining the spa experience, and the town’s heyday has now passed.  The huge hotels that once served a myriad of visitors (and in one case gave refuge to an Agatha Christie fleeing the glare of publicity) are tired and desperate for the sort of refurbishment that current visitor levels don’t justify.

Nowadays the main attractions are the huge conference and exhibition centre, the exclusive boutiques, and the cafés and restaurants that of course include the famous Betty’s Tea Room.

I stopped off here on my way to Bootle last Sunday and struggled to find a place to park.  It seemed that a different Spring was the attraction this time.

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Rivista trimestrale*

Three months into my Project 365 and it seems a good time to take stock, so last night I looked back on all of my experiences to date.

What surprised me was that considering that the majority of the pictures have been taken in the North East, how many nations have been represented in my portraits so far.  There are at least 14 countries apart from the UK that have supplied one of my subjects (it’s possible that some of those I’ve assumed to be Anglo Saxons have a more exotic origin, but unless there’s an accent to give them away I haven’t tended to ask.

I don’t consider us the most cosmopolitan of regions yet I have representatives from Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North America.  Must go out and find some South Americans!  What is perhaps surprising is that amongst the Europeans I have met there has not been an Italian thus far.

Italians have made themselves at home in the UK for nearly two thousand years, thanks to the Roman invasion ordered by Claudius in AD43, the migration of Italian bankers in the middle ages, and then when the Napoleonic wars ravaged the agriculture of Northern Italy another wave came to these shores in search of a better living.  This last group almost exclusively established food businesses, and so “Britalians” became known for their ice cream parlours, coffee bars and restaurants.

Of course when I refer to them as Italians I do so to identify their geographic origin, since Italy as a nation was not formed until the middle of the 19th Century when the various regions that had built up around the mediaeval city states were unified in 1861.

My experiences of Italians when I grew up were of Italians in the food trade, the Notariannis and Minchellas provided the sea front ice cream cones of my youth, and slightly further afield I encountered Rianis and Di Mambros in Houghton le Spring where my father’s business was located, and Valente in Seaham where he was born.

Whether my love of Italian food goes back to these fondly remembered days, or the travels my family and I have made in that beautiful country I cannot say, but it says a lot when my birthday yesterday was marked with everything I need to make the perfect cappuccino or espresso and a rather nice bottle of grappa!

The lack of Italian representation is therefore all the more surprising.  I was in Gabriele’s, provider of great pizza since my teens and local institution celebrating last night (but didn’t take Nevio’s picture as I was off duty!), to my mind the best restaurant in the Sunderland and South Tyneside area is Romano’s in Cleadon, and our regular walks along the coast take us past the door of Little Italy, so no excuse!  My blog has even been read in Italy, which makes this omission all the more inexcusable.

Time to put that right, so off I went to Gabby’s again.  I could have added Portugal to my list of countries with some of the other staff, but it was the real Italian that I was after and sure enough he was there by the bar and happy to pose.  Second bite of the ciliegio!

*Quarterly review