Unrivalled Views

Exploring England #25

At the top of the hill where the busy A591 enters the Lake District village of Windermere, a small sign publicises a walking track – a footpath leading to views of the surrounding area. Set back from the road against an old stone wall, it’s easily missed. We were lucky to see it, and even luckier that we returned after our cruise on the lake to investigate.

A “20 minute walk with unrivalled views” seemed like the ideal end to a perfect day. The wide footpath, doubling as the road to local homes, was level and even – we looked forward to a gentle country stroll.

We hadn’t gone far when the road was replaced by a broad leaf strewn path leading into the woods. A weathered sign post pointed the way past old dry stone walls overgrown with moss.

After the bustle of the crowds at the lake, the shady woods were quiet. Even the birds seemed to enjoy the peace.

After passing through a rusted turnstile, the incline was more noticeable, and a simple wooden bench offered a few minutes’ respite. Our gentle stroll was turning into a hill climb.

The path became a stony track muddied by yesterday’s rain, but we were spurred on by tantalising glimpses of the views beyond the farm gates.

The further the path went up the hill the more it deteriorated. Wooden steps dug into the hillside gave way to a rough track up the last steep stretch.

We clambered up the last few metres, leaving the woods for the open hill top of Orrest Head.

A few more upwards steps revealed what we’d come to see – 360° views of Lake Windermere surrounded by the Lake District Fells and the Pennines. In the late afternoon sunshine, the lake was dark and silvery. Little boats left sparkling trails in their wake and the waters of Morecambe Bay glistened far away on the horizon. In the opposite direction, farmhouses were dwarfed by the rolling hills of the Fells.

After meeting no one on the path, we were surprised to see others on the hill. Like us, they were silent – awed by the spectacular view, and perhaps also like us, glad they hadn’t missed the sign on the A591.

Weekly Photo Challenge ~ Earth

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No Rain On Us!

Exploring England #24

It’s often wet and windy in the Lake District but the sky was blue, the sun was shining and a warm breeze was blowing the day we visited Lake Windermere. Of course this meant that many other people were also taking advantage of the glorious weather. Lake Windermere is England’s largest natural lake so there was plenty of room for everyone.

A leisurely cruise is a great way to enjoy the lake and there are several ticket options. We chose a route around the southern half of Lake Windermere with the addition of a vintage steam train ride from Lakeside to Haverthwaite and back. After a short wait on the quay at Bowness-on-Windermere, we boarded the steamer Tern and found a sunny spot on the deck.

Ours wasn’t the only craft on the water – canoes, sail boats and small ferries loaded with tourists all passed by.

The shores of the lake are lined with dense woodland punctuated by small stony bays. Some give respite to weary sailors or shelter to watercraft while others are filled with beautiful homes and boutique hotels.

After 45 minutes of smooth sailing we docked at Lakeside, at the southern end of the lake. Billowing clouds of steam led us to the little train, waiting for us to board for the next leg of the journey. The railway line follows the course of the River Leven through the scenic Leven Valley. Contented sheep grazing in the lush fields hardly looked up as the train clattered past on its way to Haverthwaite Station.

The heritage station dates from the mid 1800s and once serviced the nearby village of Haverthwaite. Today it services modern railway enthusiasts, who enjoy the nostalgic feel of the 19th century platform, complemented by a traditional Punch and Judy show.

Instead of relaxing with the dozens of other tourists, we ventured beyond the platform where we discovered a happy surprise behind the children’s playground.

A winding woodland path led us uphill through the trees to a small lookout, from which the view was anything but small. From our hidden vantage point, a vast expanse of green fields stretched away to the hills in the distance and a lighthouse overlooking Morecambe Bay.

The train whistle beckoned and we climbed aboard once more for the return trip to Lakeside, where the steamer Swan was waiting to sail north.

By the end of the day the breeze had lost its warmth, but the sun was still shining as we arrived back in Bowness. Lucky for us because, true to form, the next day it was raining at Lake Windermere.

 

Caring for the Past into the Future

Exploring England #23

Imagine you are newly wed and your parents’ wedding gift is a home. It’s not just any home but a magnificent timber framed building with its origins in the 14th century and 15th and 16th century additions. It’s a little worse for wear due to the excesses of previous owners, who’ve spent the family fortune on themselves with little regard for the house’s upkeep. What would you do – remove, renovate or restore?

Luckily for us, when Charles and Mary Nevill found themselves in this situation in 1883, they chose to restore their new home, Bramall Hall, to its former glory.

Bramall Hall is a Tudor manor house set in 60 acres of parkland in the Borough of Stockport in Greater Manchester. It had been the home of the Davenports for 500 years, but with family fortunes dwindling and costs increasing, the house was not well maintained. When the Nevills moved in, they began a program of restoration which continues to this day. Some rooms retain their medieval or Tudor character while others are decorated as they were in Victorian times when Charles and Mary lived there.

Bramall Hall is now owned by the Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, who recently completed a £1.6 million maintenance and restoration program. With continued care, future generations will be able to appreciate the beauty of this historic home as much as Charles and Mary did.

Hidden From View

Exploring England #22

The Peak District is renowned for its natural beauty. More than 10 million people visit every year to enjoy the excellent walks and beautiful scenery.

While there’s plenty to do above ground, there are also fascinating wonders hidden below the surface; several show caves are located close to Castleton. We visited three and were surprised to discover both their similarities and differences. They are all enormous, natural caverns created long ago by the movement of water and they all show evidence of human intervention. What’s different is the way people have used each cave in the past.

Peak Cavern is the closest to Castleton. A path from the centre of the village passes old miners’ cottages before leading into a forested limestone ravine. The cave entrance, the largest in England, is almost hidden by plants growing in the shadow of the cliffs.

A sign bearing the alternate, original name of the cave greeted us – it’s an indicator of rumbling sounds made by air currents inside. The cave’s name was changed to protect Queen Victoria’s sensibilities before she visited in 1880, but most people prefer the original.

Because of the vast, protected space in the overhang of the cave entrance, it was inhabited by rope makers for more than 400 years and our cave visit began with a demonstration of this craft. Mr ET volunteered his services as apprentice rope maker, turning the handle first one way and then the reverse, to twist the strands of fibre into one strong length of rope.

Once the rope was made we followed a self-guided track into the depths of the cave. The damp and slippery path led to a series of walkways and platforms high in the airy spaces above the cavern floor. Here the constant sound of running water echoed off the yellow limestone walls.

Water also features at Speedwell Cavern, a short drive from Castleton at the base of Winnats Pass.

The cavern itself is 200 metres underground and can only be reached by boat! Narrow water-filled tunnels created by lead miners in the 1770s go deep inside the mountain, and, with just a few centimetres between our heads and the roof, safety helmets were necessary for the 800 metre ride to the cavern.

After the closeness of the boat ride, the natural space of the cave seemed immense. The roof is so high it cannot be seen from the cave’s floor while to one side the Bottomless Pit, a naturally formed shaft, falls away another 150 metres into the depths of the cave. The 18th century miners tossed their mine spoil into the pit, but it barely made an impact.

At the top of Winnats Pass is the entrance to Blue John Cavern, where mining has made an impact on the cave.

Semi-precious Blue John stone is found only in the Castleton area and has been mined since the mid 1760s. Some areas of this cave are still worked – our tour guide mines in the cave in the winter months. The first miners were lowered into the natural cave through a small pothole on the surface but we went 70 metres below ground via steps and a man-made tunnel.

Once inside the cave, our path followed the bed of an ancient underground river which flowed more than 8000 years ago. Fossils are embedded in the cave walls and stalagmites and stalactites decorate each of the six chambers.

Veins of Blue John run across the walls of some of the chambers and, even in the dull electric lighting, the crystals sparkle. Old mining tools have been left near a shaft where the largest known pieces of Blue John were discovered.

We spent a lot of time in the Peak District looking out over the beautiful countryside and green rolling hills. In these three caverns, we discovered a new perspective on the area, our eyes turned upwards to the vast underground spaces that lie hidden beneath.

Up To The Top

Exploring England #21

Walking – it’s what people do when they visit the Peak District National Park. Some enjoy a gentle stroll through a pretty village while others take on the challenge of hiking the 431 km Pennine Way National Trail.

Somewhere in between the two extremes are 3,005 km of walking tracks with right of way through farming land.

Let’s go – through the gate

up the hill

over the stile

to a vantage point at the top of the ridge.

Walkers are rewarded with expansive views of the village of Castleton and the limestone hills bordering the Hope Valley.

Imagine the views when they go even higher!

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Weekly Photo Challenge ~ Atop

More Than Words

Exploring England #20

Foremost among the many beautiful buildings in Manchester is the John Rylands Library. Founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands, the library was gifted to the people of Manchester and first opened to the public in 1900.

The library houses a vast collection of precious books, manuscripts and illuminated texts, including a Gutenberg Bible. An entire wing is dedicated to the Althorp Library, which Enriqueta acquired from Lord Spencer for £210 000 in 1892. But as fascinating as the collections are, it’s the spectacular Victorian building many people come to see.

The neo-Gothic interior is richly ornamented, with stained glass, vaulted arches and soaring ceilings. Statuary fills every niche.

Enriqueta and John Rylands, immortalised in white marble, greet visitors to the Reading Room, where alcoves are filled to overflowing with aging leather-bound books.

Historical figures of artistic and scientific importance line the walls of the Reading Room, They look down serenely upon those who visit, as if ready to impart their knowledge to a new generation.

Whether it’s ancient words or wonderful architecture, this beautiful library has something to offer everyone.

Wall Walking

Exploring England #19

Many towns and cities in England have remnants of ancient walls and gates, originally built by the Romans and fortified centuries later by the Normans. Chester’s city walls are the most complete in Great Britain and give a wonderful perspective on the city, both inside and beyond. With medieval towers and bridges, a Norman castle, Roman amphitheatre and an ancient harbour lost long ago, a walk on the walls is a walk through history.

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The three kilometre walk surrounds the city centre and is elevated almost all the way round. We climb the steep medieval steps at Northgate, the highest point along the wall, and immediately the views are spectacular.

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Inside the wall is Northgate Street, home of The Pied Bull, oldest licensed house in Chester; beer has been served on this site since 1155. The Shropshire Union Canal, with pretty canal boats moored by the path, echoes the curves of the outside of the wall.

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The first tower we come to is the Phoenix Tower. Medieval in origin and restored by two city guilds in the 17th century, the tower is named for the carved phoenix above the door, symbol of the Painters’ Guild. In 1645, King Charles 1 watched the defeat of his army in the battle of Rowton Moor from the roof of this tower.

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Chester Cathedral, built in Gothic style, stands close to the eastern wall. For more than 1,000 years, worshippers have gathered on this site, and we leave the wall for a couple of hours to enjoy the splendid stained glass, medieval carvings and Victorian mosaics inside.

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Climbing back up to the wall, we walk on to Eastgate and the Eastgate clock, which commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The gate and its beautifully ornamental clock mark the entrance to Chester’s pedestrian shopping mall, where Tudor style buildings line the streets.

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From the top of the wall at Newgate we have a bird’s eye view of the Chester Amphitheatre. Dating from 275 AD, the stone amphitheatre is the largest of its type in Great Britain. It was in use until around 350 AD and would have been the site of military exercises, gladiatorial combat and other Roman entertainments. We’re surprised to spot some Roman soldiers in the amphitheatre today! Luckily, instead of going into battle, they’re telling stories of their exploits.

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Next to the amphitheatre, there are more traces of Roman occupation in the Roman Garden. The garden was developed in the 1950s but the pieces on display are not in situ. They were collected on 19th century building sites around Chester and placed together in this formal setting.

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When we turn the south east corner, the River Dee comes into view. The water here seems calm and still until it rushes over the weir built by the Normans around 1092 and onward under the Old Dee Bridge. This beautiful stone bridge, complete with seven arches, was built in 1387 and was the most important connection between northern England and Wales.

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There are private homes along this part of the wall and we wonder what it would be like to live here. The address of this home leaves no doubt about its unique location.

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After passing the bridge, our walk on the wall continues alongside the river, where leafy trees provide welcome shade.

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The scenery changes again on the western side as Chester Castle dominates the skyline. Originally a timber structure built by William the Conqueror in 1070, the castle was rebuilt in stone during the 12th century.

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Further along the western wall is the vast green expanse of the Roodee, Chester’s famous race course. It’s difficult to believe that, where horses now compete, Roman ships once docked – two thousand years ago this was a busy Roman port on the estuary of the River Dee. As the river changed course and the estuary silted up during medieval times the port disappeared, although traces of the Roman quay are still visible in parts of the wall. Horse racing began on the marshy land in 1539 and by the 18th century the races held in May were at the top of Chester’s social calendar. Today, the Chester Cup is one of England’s most important horse races.

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On the north west corner of the wall stand two more towers. The angular Bonewaldesthorne’s Tower and the Watertower, recognised by its semicircular walls, were both strategically placed to protect the river port from attackers.

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The last tower we come to on the walls is Pemberton’s Parlour, a Georgian alcove created in the ruins of the earlier medieval Goblin Tower. It was named after John Pemberton, a Mayor of Chester in the 18th century, who often sat here while supervising his team of rope makers toiling on the ropewalk below. After walking right around the city, we follow Mr Pemberton’s example and rest for a while in the shade.

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Returning to Northgate, our circuit of the city walls is complete. The Pied Bull is open and it’s time for some of that beer!

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