Snapshot Saturday: From World Heritage to heritage at home.

Fountain’s Abbey seen from a hillside walk last Autumn.

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.

Huby’s Tower at Fountain’s Abbey, built not many years before the Dissolution of the Monasteries

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.

The first floor was once the lay brothers’ dormitory. Now it’s our flat. I bet those monks didn’t look out over this lovely walled garden.

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?

The Old Grange is attached to the fine 18th century house next door. We seem to have access to their wisteria.

This post is in response to the WordPress weekly photo challenge: ‘Heritage’

Free cycling

That's where I spent my evening, near the Temple of Piety. Can't complain at that. (
That’s where I spent my evening, near the Temple of Piety. Can’t complain at that. (

I was volunteering at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal yesterday evening.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there.  It was raining – and how – as I drove there, and the evening looked very unpromising.

A small team of us were there to make an evening’s Family Bike Ride round the Abbey and Studley Royal grounds run smoothly.  Apparently I was going to be stuck near the Temple of Piety and Moon Ponds preventing riders from disappearing up into a woodland path, with only my two-way radio for company.  I hadn’t even got an umbrella.  Anyway, who would bother to turn out with their families, and all the family bikes, to trundle round Fountains Abbey in the rain?

Baby coot (Tim Felce: Airwolfhound)
Baby coot (Tim Felce: Airwolfhound)

I was wrong.  Of course.  The rain stopped.  Families turned up, and lots of them.  At first though, I had many minutes of peace to stand and absorb the views of the very special Georgian water garden.  I spent time enjoying the company of a new family of coots: I suspect the three little spherical balls of fluff I saw with their solicitous parents had hatched that very day.

This was my view for much of teh evening. Those coots are out there somewhere.
This was my view for much of the evening. Those coots are out there somewhere.

And then the bike riders came.  There were confident teenagers relishing the chance to get up speed in this tranquil setting.  There were primary-aged children enjoying family time with their parents.  There were little ones, able to wobble along on their bikes, their parents confident that they were utterly safe from passing traffic.  Open Country, a local charity working to help people with disabilities access the countryside had brought along a team and several tandems.

Some people went round the circuit once, some twice, a few as many as five times.  I took lots of photos with lots of cameras for family souvenirs of the evening.  Sadly, I hadn’t brought my own camera.  These not-at-all impressive photos are taken with my camera phone.

I’ll volunteer again sometime for this event.  But not next time.  Next time I’ll want to be there with my own family, trundling around this very special site with my own grandchilden (first though, I’ll have to learn not to fall off a bike).

One of the last families of the evening finishes the last lap.
One of the last families of the evening finishes the last lap.


The Works Outing

Sledmere House (Wikimedia Commons)
Sledmere House (Wikimedia Commons)

It was our Works Outing, our Grand Day Out, our Jolly.  It was a day we volunteers at the National Trust’s Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal had been waiting for: our reward (though not entirely free) for good behaviour over the past few months.  A coach would collect us and deliver us to spend time at two destinations well worth visiting over in East Yorkshire: Sledmere, and Burton Agnes.

Both places belong to – no, not a rival organisation: everyone concerned’s aim is to preserve and enhance our heritage for us, and for future generations – but a different one, the Historic Houses Association.  Both places are visited as much for their gardens as the houses themselves.

Well, just look at this.  This is the view from the coach window.

A very British view.
A very British view.

So much for the gardens then.  A real shame.  Sledmere‘s grounds are extensive, and offer cunningly tweaked panoramas of the surrounding countryside.  They were developed in the late 18th century by Capability Brown, then at the height of his popularity. Apparently unending vistas of manicured countryside, easy on the eye, were what was required.   The local village got in the way of the view?  Easy.  Move it and re-build it.  The villagers will get used to it.

A quick glance at the grounds from the library.
A quick glance at the grounds from the library.

We were able to admire the grounds from the protection of the house, but not so the planted areas, in particular the walled gardens. We favoured a nice cup of coffee and a home-made cake in the cafe instead. We’ll want to go back when the sun is shining.

Sir Christopher busied himself in having his house as well as his garden improved.  The plaster work designed by the celebrated Joseph Rose is said to be the finest in England.

Plasterwork ceiling.
Plasterwork ceiling.

As is the Long Library, extending the length of the building, a long, light-filled and elegant space.

The library.
The library.

There are curiosities too, such as the Turkish room designed for Sir Mark, 6th Baronet in 1913.  Every surface here is covered in specially designed Armenian tiles.

The Turkish room.
The Turkish room.

The house might have disappeared from view in 1911 though.  A catastrophic fire broke out while the 5th Baronet, Sir Tatton Sykes, was dining. He insisted on staying to finish his pudding. But estate workers, farm hands, villagers, children from the local school, anyone and everyone else turned to and dragged out furnishings, pictures, statues, china, carpets, even doors and banisters.  As muscular estate workers struggled out with the monstrously heavy copy of the Belvedere Apollo, the ceiling fell.  And since then, thanks to the detailed plan which survived, the whole thing has been meticulously restored.  You can read all about it here.

Off to Burton Agnes then.  This Tudor Renaissance hall was built between 1590 and 1610, and has remained within the same family for more than 400 years: the original Manor house was built as long ago as 1173.

Burton Agnes (Wikimedia Commons)
Burton Agnes (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a family home, albeit a privileged one.  It’s a home which has been filled with everything from magnificent Jacobean carvings, Impressionist paintings, and more recent artworks.   This is a home that is lived in and loved.  Here’s a quick glimpse of what the visitor can see.  As to the award-winning walled garden, the woodland gardens … well, we didn’t visit those on this particularly soggy day.  We might be British, but we’re not that daft.  The house offered sufficient enjoyment, and the gardens will be there another day.

The Apprentice: 19th century style.

The twins have had it tough these last few days.  It was the week of the infamous and widely criticised SATS, the final year tests for all British primary school children.

We thought we knew a place where they could see that compared with some, their lives weren’t too bad.

Quarry Bank Mill seen from the gardens.
Quarry Bank Mill seen from the gardens.

Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire  is one of the best preserved textile mills of the Industrial Revolution in its day, a beacon of progress and enlightenment in 19th century Britain.  It’s in a glorious wooded setting, just as its original owner and developer, Samuel Gregg, intended.  There’s running water to drive the water wheels, and it was well-connected by road, and by the Bridgewater Canal, to have its products transported to the busy port of Liverpool.

Samuel Greg, and then his son Robert, were careful, paternalistic owners.  They looked after their employees – very well, according to the standards of the time.

We went to the Apprentice House there to see what it was like to live there as one of his child apprentices.  The house was in use from about 1790 to 1847, and children would be taken from the age of nine . They had often come straight from the harsh and bleak conditions of the workhouse – institutions that only the truly destitute would go to.  Tough as life at Quarry Bank was, it must have seemed rather wonderful to anyone who’d come from this punishing regime.

We were taken round by the ‘housekeeper’, and we obeyed her every word, and were sure to remember to call her ‘ma’am’.

This chap's being punished because his daughter's left-handed.
This chap’s being punished because his daughter’s left-handed.

She met us in the schoolroom.  The young apprentices received  an elementary education, though only on Sundays.  All children learnt to read.  The boys learned arithmetic too, and how to write – it was only necessary for girls to learn to sign their names.  They had more important skills to learn: cooking, cleaning, making clothes for the inmates.

Here’s how their week went:

Monday to Saturday:

  • Rise at 5.30.
  • Go to the factory to be at work by 6.00 a.m.
  • At 8 o’clock, in the factory, they got a handful of stiff, solid porridge (it had to be solid, so the children could eat the stuff directly from their hands).
  • Work till midday – more porridge, but this time with maybe a few carrots or potatoes stirred through it.  Unlike Oliver Twist, any child could always ask for more.
  • After the midday meal, the children would work again till 6.00 p.m.
  • Then they’d come back to the Apprentice House.  And then there would be an hour of chores – perhaps for the boys, working in the garden tending the vegetables that were part of their diet, or scouring out chamber pots.  Girls would be doing household chores, cooking or mending.
  • Their meal, served after 7 o’clock,  would be substantial, plain fare – maybe boiled bacon and potatoes.  No puddings.  Sugar was expensive.
  • Then they were free … probably to fall asleep.

Sundays, there was no work at all.  Just church, morning and early evening.  But the church was two and a half miles away, and they walked there and back – twice.  In the afternoon, they had their lessons.  However, unusually for the time, they were never struck.  Instead, as a punishment, they’d face the wall, holding small dumb-bell like weights in their out-stretched arms.  This was good for muscle tone. You’d certainly be punished like this if you tried to write using your left hand. Until recently, left handedness has been frowned on

In their dormitories, they were two to a bed, sleeping on mattresses stuffed with straw, changed every year.  They even had blankets.  They had medical care when they needed it too.

Alex says this bed's not at all bad. This was just before he was chosen to empty the chamber pots.
Alex says this bed’s not at all bad. This was just before he was chosen to empty the chamber pots.

Work was hard.  When we visited on Sunday, the huge, cavernous factory rooms were filled from floor to ceiling with machinery.  There were machines for carding, machines for spinning, machines for weaving.  Each room, in its heyday, might have had up to 60 machines.  On Sunday, each room had no more than one machine working.  The noise was deafening.  We were urged to spend only a limited time there, and the volunteer machine operators all had effective ear-defenders. Imagine 60 machines, clattering and clanking away 12 hours a day.  Men and women would have charge of small groups of machines, constantly refilling , re-threading, checking, checking.  The children’s jobs included working as ‘scavengers’, crouched between the constantly moving machinery, clearing fluff and other obstructions: or running to re-stack piles of bobbins from a central point.  Like everyone else, they’d constantly be inhaling cotton waste, and were prone to the risk of repiratory disease, and an early death.

Here's pre-industrial weaving. These looms were a big investment for a family, but offered year-round employment.
Here’s pre-industrial weaving. These looms were a big investment for a family, but offered year-round employment.

These days, Quarry Bank is a wonderful place to spend the day.  We quite simply didn’t see it all.  But we’ll be back.  And if you get the chance, I suggest you go there too.



Project Exhaust-a-twin at Easter

Easter holidays.  Time to have those ten-years-old grandsons over.  Time to keep them so busy they don’t have a chance to realise that ours is not a home stuffed with devices.  Not a smart phone in sight.

Let’s get them back to the past straight away, even before we get them back to our house.  Are they too old for an Easter Bunny hunt at Fountains Abbey?  Apparently not.  Not when there’s a chocolate bunny to eat at the end.  Are they too cool for egg and spoon races and egg-rolling down the hill?  Apparently not.



Would they like to visit ‘Forbidden Corner’?  They agreed they would, even though we failed to provide a description of what to expect.  We couldn’t.  It’s been described as ‘The Strangest Place in the World’.  Perhaps it is.  It’s a folly.  It’s a fantastical collection of follies.  It’s woodlands, walled gardens, mazes, tunnels, grottoes, built in the manner of a topsy-turvy collection of fairy tale castles in enchanted grounds.   Every stone putto is liable to pee on you as you walk past.  Every passage is too narrow, too low, too dark, and may lead nowhere.  You just want to try to get along it anyway, because at the end there may be another secret door, with halls of mirrors, or ever-changing fountains, or grotesque stone gremlins, or stepping-stones ….  And beyond, in every direction, the glorious countryside of North Yorkshire.



Next day, off to Brimham Rocks.  No child can resist the opportunity to climb and jump among these extraordinary tottering towers of balanced rock formations.  A visit there is a regular fixture for Alex and Ben.



And finally – yet more rocks.  Underground this time.  Stump Cross Caverns: limestone caves set about with stalactites and stalagmites, tinted in all kinds of shades from the iron and lead seams that also penetrate the area.  Gloomy, dark and mysterious, and guaranteed to fire the imagination.  Photographs courtesy of Ben.



In the evenings we sat round the kitchen table and played board games.  The London Game brought out everybody’s inner mean streak as we blocked other players in, or despatched them to the end of the line at Wembley Central.  Stone Soup gave us the opportunity to lie and lie again in an effort to get rid of all our cards.  All very satisfactory. A good time was had by all.

But Granny and Grandad would quite like a rest now.  Please.


Weaving for pleasure

Last Thursday, I learnt to weave.  Not a splendid rug with intricate and richly coloured motifs.  Not a cosy scarf in soft heathery colours in subtle, muted stripes.  Not even a simple table mat, plain but serviceable.

No, I wove a ….. er, thing.  A ‘thing’ I have yet to find a use for (Mobile phone mat? Drugget for a pet mouse?). But I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I rather resented the fact that because I was on a course, I was time-limited, and had to finish and tidy up just as I was getting into my stride.


This course, you might guess, was at Fountains Abbey, where I’ve volunteered to be part of a new project.  The idea is to open up Swanley Grange, once an abbey farm (since 1358 in fact) but in more recent years the Education building.

The aim is to create the ‘feel’ of a monastic farm space as visitors enter the sheep-field/grange area and to help them make connections between the grange network and the abbey. Until now, there’s been little to highlight the importance of the wool trade to the expansion of the abbey.

Over winter, the building has been redeveloped inside, and outside there have been very exciting happenings.  There’s a ‘mediaeval style’ vegetable garden, just waiting to be planted up with mediaeval-style vegetables (kale, beans, leeks, that sort of thing.  Potatoes, courgettes and tomatoes need not apply).  Traditional cleft fencing will enclose a flock of sheep, just like the old days, and there’ll be chickens, and bees in mediaeval-style skeps.

Beekeeping, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis (14th century) (Wikimedia commons)
Beekeeping, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis (14th century) (Wikimedia Commons)

The volunteers will be keeping an eye on the animals, and with the help of the gardeners, maintaining the vegetable plots.  Most of us who’ve volunteered feel quite comfortable with that.  But most of us who’ve volunteered are less comfortable with mediaeval crafts.

Spinning with a distaff....
Spinning with a distaff….

So the other day we learnt to spin wool, first of all using a distaff, then a spinning wheel.  I don’t think I’ve found a new hobby.  Teasing out the raw, though washed wool, keeping the distaff turning, turning, to twist the wool into a useable fine thread seemed frustrating and, frankly, dull.  It was work that women did constantly, even when minding the children, walking, talking, working.  But you can find blogs written by those who enjoy it, even now it’s no longer an economic necessity.  The greater mechanisation of spinning seemed less tedious, but quite tricky, all the same.

... and with a spinning wheel.
… and with a spinning wheel.
A spot of carding.
A spot of carding.

We did a spot of carding, combing out wool into parallel, useable fibres ready for that all important spinning.  Even that was hard going, and we were glad to break for lunch.

And after lunch, there they were.  A collection of small table looms, the warp already prepared so we could get busy with the weft.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look here.

And we got busy. We learnt to like the rhythmic back-and-forth as we pushed our wool-laden shuttles through the warp threads.  I felt the need to get above myself, and try something just a little more complex.  Here it is.

A mini-masterpiece? Or an adequate first attempt ?
A mini-masterpiece? Or an adequate first attempt ?

But if I could produce that in not much more than half an hour, who knows what weaving genius is within me, trying to get out?

This post is dedicated to blogging friend Kerry, writer of Love those ‘Hands at Home’, who inspires me with her love of textiles, of learning new things, and of life.


A history mystery

Acting the facts (Pad Dawson)
Acting the facts (Pad Dawson)

When teachers bring parties of children to Fountains Abbey, we often tog them all up in monastic robes, and explore the site with them .We want them to get a feel of the day-to-day life of a mediaeval monk. What? Prayers eight times a day? No underclothes? No talking? No heating? They’re impressed, in a horrified kind of way.

Then they go away, with only brief notions of the story the Abbey itself has to tell. Or why the place is a roofless ruin.

Until this year. Now they can come with their teachers and ‘Act the Facts’. They’re given props – perhaps a simple cape, a feathered cap, a woollen robe, a crown . These turn them into an early monk, a master mason, an Italian wool merchant, a dastardly baron, or even Henry VIII.

They have a script. It’s a melodramatic pastiche telling the Abbey’s turbulent history. Simple God-fearing beginnings, then powerful prosperity, then war, plague and corruption all leading to the final action. Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries.

The question at the beginning of the play is –

Who destroyed the Abbey?’

Acting it out, the children lose their places, stumble over words like ‘Cistercian’ and ‘lavatorium’, and forget which character they’re playing.

Honestly, what’s the point? It’s too complicated. They’re learning nothing.

Then they reach the end. We ask them to line themselves up. Twelfth century characters first, then thirteenth… and so on, through to those who bring the story to an end in 1540. We ask them which century was best.

And that’s when we realise how much they’ve learnt. They talk passionately about the simple piety of the early days set against the laxity of later centuries. They discuss austerity versus comfort. They talk feelingly about the plague, and the reasons for the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

And in telling the story of the Dissolution, they’ve solved the mystery of why Fountains Abbey is a roofless ruin.

Back at school, there’s so much for their teachers to build on. The ruin has brought history to life.

Come and see it for yourselves.  We can’t promise you a feathered cap, or a cardboard crown, but you could join one of the regular tours.  You’ll get a real taste of history as you soak up the special atmosphere of this special site.

(Pad Dawson)
(Pad Dawson)