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One Family’s Heritage

Exploring England #28

When Lady Anne Clifford came to stay at Brougham Castle in the autumn of 1670, she was continuing a long family tradition dating back to the 13th century. Located near the River Eamont near the Cumbrian town of Penrith, the castle was one of four owned by the Clifford family and even then, it had an impressive history. Built in the early 13th century, it played host to Edward I in 1300 and was an important strategic site in the wars with the Scots and during the English Civil War. After restoring the castle in 1643, Lady Anne stayed many times and died here in 1676.

The centre of Brougham Castle has always been its magnificent stone keep, a three storey tower with spiral staircases, hidden passages and stylised carvings.

On the third floor, a walkway inside the walls circumnavigated the entire building, joining one room to the next. After climbing the narrow steps to the top, we followed in Lady Anne’s footsteps as we walked around the tower. Inside we could see the structure of the building, and from the outside windows we looked out over the remains of later additions and the surrounding countryside.

Back down in the paved courtyard, we were awestruck again by the sheer size of the castle keep. It was easy to imagine how happy Lady Anne must have been when she passed through the gatehouse to her family home on that long ago October day.

Weekly Photo Challenge ~ Heritage

Searching for Romans

Exploring England #27

We knew there were Roman ruins at Ambleside – they were clearly marked on the map. There was just one problem. We couldn’t find them!

Driving north on the A591 we passed by the spot where we thought they should be but we didn’t see any signs. We doubled back and looked again, but there was no indication of their whereabouts from the road.

We spied a small tourist information centre, so we parked the car and went in to seek help. A friendly man said there definitely was a Roman fort and pointed vaguely towards Borrans Park. We set off on foot in the direction he’d indicated, walking through spacious parkland at the northern end of Lake Windermere.

We came to a rocky outcrop which looked a little like a wall – could this be the remains of the fort? It didn’t look quite right, but we climbed up and over and took some photographs just in case.

From the top of the rock we could see small groups of people in a field at the far end of the park, eyes down and looking very intent. Perhaps we hadn’t gone far enough. We continued on, until an information board confirmed our suspicions. This time we had found the ruins.

The foundations are all that is left of the stone fort constructed here at the start of the 2nd century AD. We wandered around each part of the fort, joining a herd of contented cows who seemed oblivious to the curious visitors in their field.

In one corner of the field was the start of a public footpath – a country walk beckoned and we couldn’t resist. We said goodbye to the the cows and headed off on a raised boardwalk over marshy land on the bank of the River Rothay.

The lush greenery of the woods was mirrored in the calm, shallow water of the river, and we stopped several times to enjoy the beautiful reflections. At the junction with the River Brathay the water was so clear we could see dozens of tiny fish swimming downstream.

Leaving the river behind, we passed through a turnstile and crossed another field before joining the footpath on busy Borrans Road.

As we walked back to our starting point in the park we checked once more for a sign to the fort. Had we missed it on our drive?

No, there weren’t any signs. Lucky we found the information centre or the Romans would still be undiscovered!

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Weekly Photo Challenge ~ Reflecting

Looking For Beatrix

Exploring England #26

Beatrix Potter’s beloved home, Hill Top, is one of the most visited sites in the Lake District and I’d heard about long queues and timed tickets, which often sell out early in the day. But on an cool and overcast Sunday afternoon, there were just a few visitors in the pretty village of Sawrey and I almost had the house and its beautiful garden to myself.

Hill Top was purchased by Beatrix Potter in 1905 with the proceeds of  her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It was the first of many properties she bought in the Lake District and was the place which inspired many of her stories and paintings. As I wandered along the garden path, it was easy to see where her inspiration came from. Late summer blooms perfumed the air and the lush greenery of the vegetable garden spilled over into the fields beyond.

The house, with its thick overcoat of vines, was a vision in green and the garden even came indoors; every room was decorated with simple floral arrangements.

It was easy to see why Beatrix loved this place, with its tranquil setting and beautiful country views. From an upstairs window I gazed out upon the surrounding farmland, and imagined her standing in this same place whenever she stayed here.

I felt her presence in the garden too, and expected to find her around the next corner, paintbrush in hand. I thought this robin was posing for me, but perhaps he was looking for Beatrix.

 

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.

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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