I was at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. And it was raining. I stood beneath the shelter of the Temple of Piety, and enjoyed the gracious structured elegance of the Water Gardens. Centre stage was Neptune, Roman god of the waters, and of the Moon Ponds over which he presides.
And then I noticed that amid this ordered beauty, a coot family had built a ramshackle and highly unstructured nest. I think the gardens’ creators, John and William Aislabie would have enjoyed the water birds’ cheeky appropriation of this most peaceful of scenes.
I’m a reluctant and easily sea-sick sailor. Yet a backdrop to my life has been the hypnotic daily rhythms of the shipping forecast on Radio 4. I love to listen to those poetic names of the areas round the British coast where seamen find themselves as they tune in to hear what the weather will bring.
Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, FitzRoy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes and Southeast Iceland.
Yesterday, the Shipping Forecast was 150 years old.
A public service since 1867, it’s been broadcast since the 1920s, with a break during World War II. Never more than 380 words long, it always follows the same strict format. The late night broadcast, preceded by ‘Sailing by’ is a bedtime story, a soporific sleeping pill to many land-based listeners. We couldn’t do without it.
Look! We even have a cushion, and a breakfast mug dedicated to our beloved shipping forecast.
As far as blogging goes, I’m still in Barcelona: though in reality I’m snuggled in a cosy jumper looking upwards as a grey sky turns greyer.
In Barcelona, we visited the Monasterio de Pedralbes. It’s not actually a monastery, because no monk has ever lived there. It’s a priory, built in 1326 by King James of Aragon for his wife Elisenda de Montcada, who wished to found a community of Poor Clares there. Poor Clares? These are nuns who devote themselves to a life of simplicity and prayer, and in Elisenda’s time were almost always drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy. She herself never became a nun, but she was very real presence in the life of this community.
And what a fine place it is. A graceful three-storied cloister surrounds a peaceful garden. Here is a fountain, topped off with a rather cheeky looking angel. This is where the nuns would wash their hands before dining in silence in the refectory, while devotional works were read to them from a pulpit.
But it’s the kitchen I’d like to show you. In its day, this was a state-of-the-art workroom. Who wouldn’t like to cook at this unusual kitchen range, supervised by Saint Anthony? Look at these fine sinks, dating from about 1520. There are bread ovens, tiled worktops, and it was here that the simple diet of the nuns was prepared: fresh and salted fish, pulses, rice, vegetables and fruit. Meat was reserved for festivities.
This is another of Barcelona’s hardly-discovered treasures. Just a couple of school parties there, and once they’d gone, we had the place almost to ourselves. Put this on your must-visit list too.
It’s a story that goes back to the 15th century, when Barcelona already had six hospitals. In 1401 these merged onto a new site in Raval, to offer improved care to the sick.
By the 19th century, these facilities were too small, too outdated, no longer really fit for purpose. A Catalan Banker, Pau Gil, put up the money to fund a truly enormous and visionary project: a whole community of buildings offering state-of-the-art care to the poor of the city. The plan was for facilities of the highest quality, designed in cutting-edge modernist style by cutting-edge Modernista architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
Modernism? Think of it as Art Nouveau, Catalan style. You’ll recognise it in the works of Antoni Gaudi. Montaner found inspiration from Moorish architecture. Playful looking mosaics and the light-flooded areas are the special feature of his buildings. What we noticed straight away was bold colour, bold decoration: rich-hued tiled roofs: and within, tiles and mosaics in sunny yellow, grass green, sky blue.
Sun, grass, sky. Why not remind the sick inmates of a cheerful world outside the hospital? Why not have light, airy, high-ceilinged rooms, tiled throughout for ease of cleaning, and because they would never become dingy and faded? Why not build underground tunnels, tiled in cream, so that patients could be moved round the site without being exposed to the elements? Why not build a decent well-lit operating theatre, well-stocked libraries for doctors to consult, and set all these buildings among gardens which patients and staff alike could enjoy?
This was a Christian foundation. Nuns provided nursing care until the 1990s, as they had done since the hospital’s earliest years Mosaics in the building told stories from the Christian tradition, such as that of Saint George slaying the dragon. Other carvings and statues relied on ancient legends. This frog nursing a baby frog, for example, is an old symbol of caring love.
Originally, men and women were separated, but later, the hospital was organised by specialism. Now, although research continues here, modern buildings behind continue the work of the hospital.
The foundation stone was laid in 1902, and facilities were developed until about 1930. Large parts of the site were never built at all, from lack of funds. This isn’t surprising. There is nothing of the workhouse about this place. It’s a beautiful, special site, fully deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status, acquired in 1997. It only opened its doors to visitors a few years ago, and it’s not yet truly on the tourist trail, despite being just up the road from then Sagrada Familia which is always surrounded by hordes of tourists. Visit it now, while it’s still an oasis of calm. It’ll be somewhere you’ll remember forever.
I’d intended to go into the story of this place in more detail. But a fellow blogger, Restless Jo, whom I ‘met’ only recently, introduced me to a series of posts by a blogging friend of hers, Jude. Here’s a link to the first one, from which you can reach all the rest. She tells and illustrates the history of this place so well that, quite simply, I don’t have to.
In 1132, thirteen Benedictine monks from York fetched up in a wild and isolated place we now know as the manicured and lovely parkland setting of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. The Archbishop of York had offered them the land so they could establish a pious community based on silence, prayer and simplicity.
Over the years – over the next four centuries – they built a community with all the trappings of a large village: sleeping, living and working quarters, an infirmary, guest accommodation, a mill, a tannery, quarrying, as well as the daily focus of their lives, the Abbey church itself, where they worshipped eight times a day.
Their principal source of income was from sheep, whose wool came to be valued at home and abroad. Merchants from all over Europe to buy and trade.
The Abbey site could not sustain enough sheep for this thriving business. Lay brothers (the manual workers of the monastic world) were sent further and further afield to establish small working sheep farms – granges. During the 15th century they came here, and built the house in which we now live.
It’s changed a bit of course. Who knows how much of the house is truly original, though the stone-built walls are a traditional, sturdy and strong build? We no longer live in an upstairs dormitory, as the lay brothers did.
The Victorians divided the place into rooms for the servants of the country house which was built and attached to the grange in the 18th century. The animals and working quarters are no longer downstairs, though the old, spacious and business like kitchen hearth still exists.
As I make the eight mile journey from here to Fountains Abbey I like to think of the heritage our home shares with this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site. Aren’t we lucky?
Just round the corner from us, on a back road into Ripon, is a fine old manor house, Norton Conyers. It was in such ruinous condition that it was closed for several years while its owners, Sir James and Lady Graham, oversaw its restoration.
Last year, one one of its few open days, we paid a visit, and I failed to blog about our wonderful afternoon out. But now I don’t have to.
Ann Stephenson, in her wonderfully varied blog ‘Travels and Tomes’ not only recounts something of the house and its history, but lets us all into a secret. Norton Conyers, with its secret attic and resident madwoman may have provided the inspiration for Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. How exciting is that?
You can read all about it here. Thanks Ann, for letting me share this story.
While we are on the topic of the Bronte sisters (or, at least, we were two weeks ago), there’s one more thing I should mention– an especially juicy tidbit. Are you listening? Jane Eyre may be inspired by a true story.
This isn’t news in North Yorkshire and the cozy city of Ripon that I once called home. Just around the corner from Ripon, roughly two or three miles from the roundabout at the edge of town, lies a beautiful old manor house by the name Norton Conyers. It is a handsome medieval squire’s home, dating back to the 1600’s, which has remained in the possession of one family (the Grahams) for nearly 400 years. That’s an achievement!
However, the house had fallen into disrepair of colossal proportions: rain poured in, wood-boring beetles swarmed, and very little of the grand house was heated. Thankfully, Sir James and…
We went to Knole on Sunday: I was with Tom, Sarah and William. Here is a house with 500 years of history set into a mediaeval deer park of 1000 acres.
The house turned out to be off-limits. Only when we got home did we find out that with an over-booked Children’s Book Festival in full swing, other visitors were being urged to stay away.
It didn’t matter. A 1000 acre deer park simply never gets crowded, and the weather was sunny and bright. William rushed about the unending open space and we all helped him spot distant deer.
What we didn’t expect was that the deer were rather more interested in spotting us, and not staying at a distance at all. They’d developed a formula which goes something like this: ‘people = rucksacks = picnics = free food’.
We knew it wasn’t a good idea. We know that deer are wild creatures, sometimes unpredictable and that they can host ticks and other unwelcome creepy-crawlies. It was a treat to be able to see them grazing nearby.
The deer had other ideas. They found a neighbouring toddler’s empty push chair and nuzzled around it for treats. Then they spotted William. He had an apple. The young sika deer thought that William’s apple might make a nice change from grazing for young grass.
It was treat for William of course, to get so close to these wild creatures. And it was a treat for us too. But we were wary, and did what we could to discourage our marauder. Once he ‘d snaffled the apple core, we made our excuses and left.
We’ll go back to Knole of course, to explore the house. But we may leave our picnic at home.