Well, Well, Well.

£2 for England’s smallest map?

Fans of the Blackadder TV series will be familiar with the Bishop of Bath & Wells as a ruddy-faced sadistic pervert who eats babies!  Whilst there appears to be no historical precedent for this in the roster of clergymen who have filled the role, they do seem to have been an unsettled bunch for the county of Somerset has seen its bishop moving between Wells, Glastonbury and Bath over the centuries, and though Bath is the most prominent of these three, it has no cathedral, since plans to refurbish the abbey were interrupted by Henry VIII.  Consequently the City of Wells is now the Bishop’s home, and being even smaller than Ripon holds claim to be England’s smallest city by virtue of its cathedral which will feature soon in another post.

It also has three holes in the ground; one in the market square and two in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace dedicated to St Andrew.   Why would you dedicate holes to a saint?  Because these are the wells that give the city its name.

The place is a goldmine for film and TV location scouts as it features a number of historic buildings, including a whole street of medieval houses.  The pub where I stayed, The Crown, saw William Penn (as in Pennsylvania) preach from its windows, yet the pictures displayed give this second billing to the stars of Hot Fuzz (which was filmed in Wells) and Nicholas Cage who owns a property nearby.  Oddly enough, the cathedral, which was the draw for productions as diverse as Wolf Hall and Doctor Who, had to be digitally removed from the skyline in shooting Hot Fuzz as the city was supposed to be just a small market town!

That market still flourishes beneath the defensive gates that mark entry into the Bishop’s Palace and Cathedral compounds.  The fashions have changed since medieval times, and much of the produce too (no food stalls offering dead baby) but you sense that these scenes have changed little since then.  Commerce at its simplest and best.

Of course if you really want to capture the spirit of the the place, then removing the cathedral from the skyline would be a travesty, especially when reflected in one of those “holes”.



Cultural Imperialism.

When I was a child my family didn’t take holidays.  My father owned a business and found it hard to relinquish control, even for a few days, which is why when my friend Derek Taylor told me he was going to Bridlington each year I imagined something exotic.

The reality, as I discovered during my short East Yorkshire exploration, is that it’s just another seaside town trading on bars, amusements and a small fishing port (albeit that I didn’t stop on the promenade to look more closely).  Instead, it being a Sunday, I took my atheist soul to church.

At one point the place must have been extremely pious, for within a short distance of one another there are a number of options for the true believer, that no longer seem to attract the same audiences.

None of these was my objective though.   Instead I passed by an impressive 12th century defensive gatehouse; a sign that I was headed for somewhere more important.

Actually, perhaps the Bayle Gate is not so impressive.  As the main entrance to the Augustinian Priory beyond its defensive role is somewhat limited by the fact that it was never part of a curtain wall, so presumably was relatively easy to by-pass, just as I did on the day.

Bridlington Priory is another example of a magnificent Norman church that was part of a monastic settlement until Henry VIII’s intervention.  (Regular readers will recognise a familiar pattern; Normans build, Henry sacks that we have seen at Hexham, Jervaulx, Ripon, Easby, Finchale and many other places in the North East of England.)  Henry’s motivations are well-known (anger at the Catholic church and financial needs) but why did the Norman’s build so many staggeringly impressive churches?  Bridlington Priory is the largest parish church in the UK, but the place is no metropolis.  (Sorry Derek).  The fact that it doubled for Walmington-on-Sea in the recent Dad’s Army film speaks volumes.

When William of Normandy invaded in 1066 and became William I he was faced with a problem;  though he was able to subjugate much of England with relative ease, Northumbria (the land north of the Humber) was a different matter.  Here many of the population were of Viking descent with a different culture and a different strain of Christianity in their background.  Rebellion ensued which William put down brutally, destroying settlements and scattering those who were lucky enough to survive.  But who would tend the fields now?

William’s answer was to establish monastic settlements with a French tradition all over the north, watering down the original population and introducing new ways of life.  (China in Tibet anyone?).

In wood and in stone there is much to impress at Bridlington Priory, but why has so much survived (inspiring some cheeky modern additions)?

The truth is that so little of the original has (look at the variation in the windows).  The model here shows the extent of the original site, with a church twice as long as that which we see today.  All the same compared to many it is a remarkable survivor.  Perhaps angels were looking down?

Save Our Souls

And so to the second of my subjects in the hinterland of Morecambe Bay… once I’ve told you a little about the bay itself.  This is the largest area of tidal mudflats and sand in the UK, though The Wash was more notorious for much of history after King John’s disaster there (which led to schoolboy jokes about him losing his clothes in the wash).  All of that changed in February 2004.

English: Morecambe Bay Walk Crossing from Arns...
English: Morecambe Bay Walk Crossing from Arnside to Kents Bank. This photo shows the group lead by Cedric Robinson – the Queen’s guide – walking out over the sands towards the River Kent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bay is passable in between tides and for centuries those heading north to the Lake District would employ the services of locals who bore the title “Queen’s Guide to the Sands” to avoid the many quicksands and safely cross before the incoming tides swamped them.  Spending time in Grange over Sands some decades ago there used to a some sort of warning klaxon or siren to indicate the turning of the tides I seem to recall.

The mudflats are rich in shellfish, which attracts plenty of seabirds, but on the 23rd February 2004 it wasn’t birds that were caught out by the tides.  A group of illegal Chinese immigrants who had been smuggled into the county in shipping containers, effectively to work as slaves, were on the sands gathering cockles when the tide turned.  Unfamiliar with the hazards and the geography 21 of them drowned.

On the day of my visit another drama was playing out.  I’d spotted the “lifeboat” out in the bay as I was making my way along the shore, though because of the particular topography here the RNLI actually use a hovercraft.  A little while later a police helicopter appeared overhead too.  My thoughts that this was no training exercise were confirmed when I encountered coastguards scanning the shimmering horizon for signs of life.  Seemingly  a “despondent man had entered the sea” nearby.  They following day they were looking for his body.

It was a different sort of salvation that brought me here though.  I’d come to find Cockersand Abbey (or what remains of it).  There has been a hospital (in the medieval sense) here since the 12th century though it was promoted to abbey status in the same period.  The site may have had a religious function even early than this as finds of Roman silverware were made nearby in the 18th century.

Naturally the abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution and the land was sold on.  In such a remote spot there wasn’t reason to maintain the buildings and these are now little more than bulges of fallen masonry beneath the soil, with the exception of a single structure.  The Chapter House, built in 1230, was put to use as a mausoleum by the land owner in the 18th and 19th centuries, and more recently still has been given Grade I listed status.

Little did I know as I viewed this tomb that death was just a short distance down the slipway to the bay.

Arrested Redevelopment

Another work trip.  Another National Trust Property.  Another tale of monastic dissolution and aristocratic excess… though with a slightly unusual outcome._PW_0870_1_2_4_3

Calke Abbey is not a religious building as you can see, but back in the mid 12th Century there was an Augustinian priory here (never an abbey) and one that remained for over 400 years.  The canons here were more prescient than many of their peers, and so when Henry VIII set about the Catholic monasteries the land at Calke had already been leased to a grocer who was ironically called John Prest (or Priest).  Forty years later and an Elizabethan House was constructed on the site, later to be expanded into the present Baroque Mansion under the ownership of the Harpur family who remained in residence for 300 years and assumed various political roles in Derbyshire.

When Charles Harper-Crewe died suddenly, and seemingly without an heir*, in 1981 the death duties owing exceeded half the value of the estate resulting in the eventual transfer of ownership to the National Trust.  What they acquired was something that they now describe as “the un-stately home”.   Charles had been the grandson of the last baronet in the family, the title expiring when the 10th Baronet Sir Vauncey Harper-Crewe left no male heirs to inherit the title.  He did however leave an extraordinary property.

Sir Vauncey would historically have been called an eccentric; partly out of respect for his position in society no doubt, and partly due to a lack of understanding of issues of personality and mental health.  What evidence do I have?  He was an obsessive collector, and apart from his taxidermy collection (mostly of birds), there are other collections and seemingly random objects to be found throughout _PW_0948the house.  Motor cars and bicycles were not allowed entry to the estate, the ancient plumbing remained in place until after his death, and electricity didn’t arrive during his daughter’s lifetime either.
His relationships with his offspring were difficult; he preferred to communicate in writing with letters to his children delivered by servants and one of his daughters was exiled for daring to smoke a cigarette on the premises.  Perhaps he feared for the thousands of cases of feathers, but there is still evidence of how seriously he took the risk of fire.

Perhaps his behaviour was due to his isolated life; he was educated at home and didn’t leave the estate for a university education which might have broadened his horizons, or perhaps it was due to being descendant (on both sides of his family) of an earlier “Isolated Baronet”.  Some might see him as the result of cousins marrying, but such introversion could be symptomatic of any number of conditions such as anxiety, depression, or Aspergers.  Whatever the explanation, his view of how the estate should be managed seems to have outlived him.  When the National Trust took ownership they found much of the property exactly as he left it 60 years earlier, with the result that they now seek to preserve the property in exactly that state.  The decay is part of the appeal, and while it can’t be allowed to progress there is no intention to restore either.

Not every room is a relic – clearly some were cared for to present an acceptable public face but within the collection is one particularly pristine object.  Protected by subdued lighting and a wall of glass stands The State Bed, believed to be a gift from one of George II’s daughters to the 5th Baronet and his wife.  As it was too tall to be installed in any of the bedrooms it remained packed in it’s original boxes for 250 years until discovered by the Trust.



One final twist to this tale.  On my journey to the estate I heard news reports of Mike Ashley’s appearance before parliament to explain the treatment of employees working for his Sports Direct business.  Ashley had been reluctant to attend because he is such an intensely private man apparently.  The parallels with a family who built tunnels beneath their property so that servants and gardeners could move about without being seen were obvious.

_PW_0859*Some years after the Trust became owners an heir was discovered in Canada, and an apartment for their use is now provided at Calke Abbey.



Reduced Circumstances

_PW_5723Driving through some of the nicer villages of Northamptonshire I came upon a small church on a bend in the road, a small church with no apparent congregation.  Yes there were some buildings nearby, but nothing you call a settlement.

This in itself if perhaps not so remarkable; I’ve encountered churches before where the surrounding village was wiped out by the plague so that the centre of worship remains when all else has been reduced at first to ruins and then green fields.  Bywell in Northumberland has two churches and a castle, but no longer a village.

This church promised something more though.  Firstly due to its colour.  Unremarkable to local no doubt, it, and the nearby buildings were made of a rusty coloured stone mottled with patches of pale green.  I’d never encountered it before, but this is the local ironstone, a sandstone with iron oxides that provide the orange colouring.  I’ve known it be mined as an ore before (Industrial Heartland) but not used as a building material.

The second attraction was its architecture; the pointed lancets that marked it as Early English in style and therefore somewhere after the Normans but probably pre Elizabethan.   In fact both Tudor monarch and French invader played leading roles in the history of this church.  One of the outcomes of the last hostile conquest of this island was the establishment of monasteries that espoused a continental rather than Anglo-Saxon version of Christianity.  The Augustinian priory that was established here wasn’t a huge affair, but the lands under its control covered a few square miles and the monks gave the place its name. The village of Canons Ashby.

The first religious buildings were developed within a decade or two of the Conquest, but the present building dates back to the 13th Century, though it is much changed since then. There are clues even from the outside in the walled up openings that would have once been an open cloister. Step through the door and there is an interior division that seems a little too robust to be adding support to the roof timbers. The east window is also a later addition; not just the stained glass which features figures that could be placed in any Victorian or early 20th Century setting. The fresco around them appears distinctly Baroque.  This end of the building is just at odds with the rest.

The reason takes us back to the Tudor monarch. The church is just a fragment of the larger monastic complex and was created by truncating one wing of the square cloister and demolishing the rest. Another victim of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. That anything remains at all is because Henry gave the land to one of his supporters together with permission to keep the small church as a private chapel.

Why no magnificent ruins then such as those at Fountains, Whitby or Finchale?  Perhaps there are clues in the other nearby structures and that same ironstone, and in particular the Elizabethan Manor House. That’s a story for another post.


Jervaulx Journey

What links Valentines day, a BBC historical drama based on a Booker Prize winner, and visit to a seemingly remote part of North Yorkshire?

The answer is one of the most revolutionary periods of English History; the dissolution of the monasteries.  To simplify things enormously, the love of one of our most iconic monarchs for a young lady of his court resulted in a five year period where the religious and economic foundations of the country, events in which Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Wolf Hall, was a prominent player.

Henry VIII’s response to being denied a divorce from Catherine of Aragon saw him appointed head of an independent church that severed ties with Rome.  Disbanding the monasteries was more than an act of revenge however, it enabled Henry to acquire their assets and income.

Viewed from a modern perspective that might not seem a significant amount given that monastic life tends to be one of simplicity, but in the 16th Century the 900 religious houses and the 12,000 people within them owned about a quarter of the land in England.

Where do I fit into the connection?  My trip to North Yorkshire yesterday took me up the Ure Valley to the former home of one such religious community; Jervaulx Abbey.  As is the case with so many of the affected monasteries, it is now a ruin (lead roofing was often part of the plunder).

Even on a cold, grey and damp winter’s day there were riches to be found that Henry could not have stolen; the monastery fishing pond provides beautiful reflections, and the Yorkshire countryside showcases nature on both a large and small scale.  Look what you missed Henry.

Watering Hole

Note to self; summer solstice long gone, days getting shorter. Considerably, it seems.

Worked all day at a new piece of training, fed, watered and out in search of a portrait at 19.52. Sunset time 20.09.

With conditions that could only be described as squally, there weren’t many options to speak to someone about a picture before the light was gone. I wasted valuable time walking down to the shoreline only to be warned by the woman’s dog not to venture any closer.

Behind me a man who I had no hope of catching multi-tasked running for cover whilst battling to regain control of a coat that flapped and snapped in his wake.

A group of coloured blobs in the distance could have been a fanatical pack of boot campers, but I wasn’t headed their way. This was not a night to be on the beach. This was a night to be in the pub.

Which is a problem these days, for the institution referred to as the “heart of England” by Samuel Pepys, is in sad decline. Until recently inns, ale houses, taverns, and other variations of the pub were closing at a rate of 52 a week. Now that has slowed to 12, but that’s still a drastic number.

One of those still open was across the road from me. The Promenade, as it is now, formerly the Henry VIII, came up trumps and I met Norman on his way to a taxi. Is it my memory or was this place called the Norseman in my formative years?

In the time it takes to recross the road the boot campers had disappeared into the night. And who could blame then while there’s still a pub to go to?