Fountains by Floodlight

National Trust
Darkness falls at Fountains Abbey.

Darkness falls at Fountains Abbey.

The days are getting shorter.  The nights are getting longer.  We grumble every time we notice another milestone passed, another hour in which it’s no longer possible to enjoy sun and light and – daytime.  Ten o’clock. Nine o’clock.  Eight o’clock.  And now we’ve reached 7 o’clock. Winter’s on its way.

But there are consolations in that diminishing light.  Yesterday for instance.  As darkness started to blot Fountains Abbey from view, floodlighting blazed over the buildings, enhancing well-known silhouettes against the night sky. Places grown familiar to me over the past months presented themselves fresh and new. The structure and proportions of those arches!  Those solid yet soaring columns, supporting unimaginable weight!  That vaulting in the cellarium!  No mediaeval monk would have had the least experience of the power of modern lighting to illuminate every corner of the abbey they knew so well from a lifetime spent within its confines.  Yet last night, I felt closer to them, and to their spiritual concerns and way of life than I do as I enjoy the abbey site by day.

Glancing upwards to Huby's Tower.

Glancing upwards to Huby’s Tower.

The place was busy though.  I was there as one of my duties as a regular volunteer there*.  Dressed as a monk, I first of all spent an hour or so with families, taking them round the site while talking about the daily routine of those silent choir monks, from their first act of worship at 2.00 a.m. to their eighth and final one at an early bedtime.  And then I stayed dressed in those robes as night fell, the floodlighting came on, and Saddleworth Male Voice Choir assembled in the cellarium to perform in the gathering darkness.  The acoustics of the place are exceptional, bringing a power and mystery to the voices of the singers, affecting listeners and performers alike: everyone present knew they were witnessing something special.

Performing in the cellarium

Performing in the cellarium

As for me and my fellow ‘monks’.  Well, we answered questions,  We tried to persuade children to join us at 2.00 a.m. Vigils (Did any of them come?  I don’t know.  I was asleep at the time).  We were on call as local colour for all kinds of photo opportunities.

Monks by night.

Monks by night.

As the music finished, we all walked up the hill, away from the Abbey, to street lights, a car journey back home, and 21st century life.  It had been good, very good, to have an hour or two away from all that, in touch with life in simpler times.

Fountains Abbey by night,

Fountains Abbey by night,

*I keep promising to tell you more about life as a National Trust volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  And I will, I will. 

A holiday in Herefordshire

England, National Trust
The local landscape.

The local landscape.

We’ve just come back from Herefordshire, where we’ve been helping our friend Hatti celebrate a Big Birthday.  She and her family have a cottage there – it’s been in their family for decades now – in the back-end of nowhere, alongside the River Lugg.  If you don’t like fishing, or walking the hills and vales, or mooching along woodland paths, best not go there.  If you’re in a hurry, don’t go.  You’ll only meet a tractor on a narrow single-track road and be forced to reverse all the way back to the last junction.  There’s no nightlife, no shopping malls, no nearby towns, not much of any evidence of 21st century life – the family cottage doesn’t even have electricity, for goodness sake:  gaslight in the evening is a reposing and rather nostalgic experience.

History, though.  The area has history.  It’s part of the Welsh Marches, that border territory between Wales and England that was fought and skirmished over pretty constantly  from the time of the Romans, by Angles, Saxons, Normans and countless ancient tribes, right up to the time of the Tudors.  Offa’s Dyke, that 8th century earthwork which largely defined the Welsh border for centuries can still be seen not too far from here.  This was frontier territory, crammed with motte-and-bailey castles, and garrison towns such as Hereford and Shrewsbury.  An area of gently undulating hills, deep and wooded secret valleys, it’s a territory that must have lent itself to scraps, battles and long-drawn-out tit-for-tat fighting between the area’s war lords.

It’s hard to imagine now.  Those hills and valleys are patchworked with fields where cattle and sheep browse the meadow grass, and where crops are maturing, ready for the summer harvest.  The woods are still there though, and there are trees so old that they may have seen some of those ancient conflicts.  There’s an interesting story surrounding the gnarled and twisted sweet chestnuts and oaks in the parkland of Croft Castle, just down the road from where we were staying.  It’s said the sweet chestnuts trees were planted in 1588, in the formation of the Spanish Armada.

Oaks represented the English navy.  Though some trees are even older.  This oak tree is thought to be 1000 years old.

The 1000 year old Quarry Oak at Croft Castle.

The 1000 year old Quarry Oak at Croft Castle.

Carry on walking though, and you’ll climb upwards and find yourself on the site of an Iron Age hill fort.  Recent excavations there have found evidence too of Romano-British fire ceremonies, animal sacrifice and feasting.  Nowadays, it’s enough to marvel at the views across to England one way, Wales the other.  It’s said you can see 14 counties on a clear day.  We couldn’t, but that may say as much about our command of the local geography as anything else.

Commanding views of several counties, in England..... and Wales.

Commanding views of several counties, in England….. and Wales.

We had a wonderfully satisfying break: peaceful, lovely countryside to explore, with the added bonus of parkland, gardens, ancient churches.  And while Herefordshire remains rather difficult to get at from just about anywhere else in England, it’ll probably go on being one of the country’s best kept secrets.

Croft Castle seen from its walled garden.

Croft Castle seen from its walled garden.

In which we visit Isaac Newton’s apple tree

National Trust
We gather round That Apple Tree to hear its story.

We gather round That Apple Tree to hear its story.

Isaac Newton, as every English school child knows, was sitting in the garden when an apple from the tree under which he was sitting dropped beside him.

He thought about it.  And then he thought some more.  Why do objects always fall vertically?  Why not go sideways?  Or upwards? Me, I’ve never even wondered about this.  It’s just the way things are.  But sitting under that apple tree, 350 years ago, Isaac Newton began to work on developing his best-known achievement: the theory of gravity.

Yesterday, we visited the house where Isaac Newton used to live, and saw the apple tree which grew from the ruined trunk of the tree which he sat under.  I’m a National Trust volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal – more of that in my next post – and we were on a summer ‘works outing’, visiting a couple of properties in Lincolnshire.

And here we were at Woolsthorpe Manor.  It’s the farmhouse where Newton was born in 1642, and where he grew up.  Isaac was a reflective, head-in-the-clouds sort of child, and it was obvious that he’d never be a useful farmer.  His teacher persuaded his mother to let him study at Cambridge University, where he paid his way for some of the time by working as a valet.  But in 1665, Cambridge temporarily closed its doors, for fear of the plague.

It was during this time of ‘exile’ that Newton began many of his experiments in the field of optics, astronomy and the laws of motion.  He developed the branch of mathematics we know as calculus. And then he left for Cambridge once more, and his career as academic, MP, and warden at the Royal Mint was launched.

Woolsthorpe Manor , as Newton seems to have discovered, is the place to come to be reflective.  This is a seventeenth century yeoman farmer’s house, comfortable, unostentatious, and set among a jumble of outbuildings and an apple orchard where that famous tree still stands.  In truth, it’s not quite the same apple tree.  That was struck by lightning in its old age. But a shoot grew from its ruined trunk, and that’s the specimen we see today, propped, pruned, and generally cossetted to keep it going as long as possible.  Other fragments have grown into other trees, as far away as a university in America.  The orchard is filled with other ‘babies’ born of the original, against the day that almost-Newton’s-tree finally gives up.  The orchard and grass are tended, but not too much, and sitting amongst the apple blossom, with the buttercups and meadow flowers moving gently in the breeze was a fine way to pass the late morning.

There’s the house to see too.  A working kitchen, a living area focussed round an enormous hearth, bedrooms – this was a comfortable family home.

Then there’s the Science Discovery centre.  Enjoy the chance to play with prisms, to break light up into all the colours of the rainbow before uniting them to white.  Experiment with gravity, throwing weighted balls from the top of a tower… and so on.  Get in touch with your inner child and learn a lot whilst you’re having fun.

Playing with light in the Science Discovery Centre.

Playing with light in the Science Discovery Centre.

And then go to the coffee shop there, treat yourself to a home-made cake and a nice cup of tea, and sit quietly in the courtyard there, reflecting on your good fortune at being in such a charming, relaxing, yet instructive place.

Woolsthorpe Manor.

Woolsthorpe Manor.

‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.’

Alexander Pope

Misadventures in Nidderdale

Nidderdale, Yorkshire, Yorkshire Dales
The landscape glimpsed through the skeletons of summer's cow parsley.

The landscape glimpsed through the skeletons of summer’s cow parsley.

Yesterday’s outing was a gem.  We walked in bright late summer sunshine as the trees began changing colour for Autumn.  Great views over Nidderdale and a few interesting animal encounters added pleasure to the day.  And best of all was the chance to tease Our Leader For The Day – let’s call her Ms. X, to spare her blushes.  Within 10 minutes of starting, she’d taken us off-route.  A landowner called us off the steep hillside that she was already scaling.  ‘It’s private land – but in any case it doesn’t lead anywhere.’  That wasn’t surprising.  There was no path.

Never mind.  We were enjoying fine panoramas, and a path that led onwards and upwards into ancient woodlands where large rocky outcrops showed us we weren’t at all far from Brimham Rocks.  The paths round here were the stamping ground of lay brothers from Fountains Abbey who lived and worked in this area.  They would have appreciated the fresh water springs, one of which has a carved stone alongside: ‘Adam’s Ale’, it says.

Here's fresh water, aka Adam's ale

Here’s fresh water, aka Adam’s ale

The monks of Fountains Abbey had complete control of the Hartwith area from 1180 until the dissolution of the monasteries.  It was home for their sheep; a source of wood; and animal fodder; and stone from the glacially deposited millstone grit , which was used to make mill-stones (‘quern-stones’).  It was here too that the Abbot of Fountains Abbey had his own private hunting park.

After that we were on National Trust land, and the outer-reaches of the Brimham Rocks estate.  Here, the landscape changes for a while to austere and fairly barren moorland.  But it was easy walking, and we were entertained by a fine herd of long-snouted ginger Tamworth pigs corralled on the edge of the moor.  They were vocal, curious, and keen to eat my gaiters.

Two nosey pigs.

Two nosey pigs.

Then we got lost again.  Ms. X led us through impenetrable bracken, at the edge of which she promised us a stile.  There wasn’t one.  We returned through the impenetrable bracken, and found the correct – and easy – path.  We passed the handsome Jacobean Brimham Lodge, built on the site of the Abbot’s Hunting Lodge.  Those Abbots knew how to choose a good view.

This was a day of many stiles.

This was a day of many stiles.

Now we were onto areas of pasture-land.  These fields have been progressively cleared in the years since the Dissolution of the Monasteries by the landowners who took over monastic lands.  We picnicked in a field by a little-used track.  Two of us spread ourselves out on the little-used track.  We opened our sandwiches.  And a large tractor advanced on us – down the little-used track.

Throughout the afternoon, we passed several ponds, probably originally fish ponds for – yes, you’ll have guessed – Fountains Abbey.  Ducks escorted us along the roads, geese protested at our presence: it was all very bucolic.

At last, we reached ancient woodland – Old Spring Woods is known to have existed in prehistoric times.  Remains of stone enclosure suggest that at one time, the area was used for grazing stock, but later, hunting became more important.  And it was here that Ms. X led us astray for the last time.  At the bottom of a long descent she insisted she’d gone wrong.  Up the hill we trailed, and all of us had a go at re-interpreting the map in our own way.  By popular vote, we all traipsed down the hill again, and found the path we’d needed all along, just there, beyond the woodland gate.  And we were nearly home and dry.

But our day wasn’t over yet.  Ms. X suggested finishing off the afternoon at an ice cream parlour a couple of miles along the road.  It wasn’t her fault that the signs to it on the main road all read ‘Open’.  It wasn’t her fault that there was a long and bumpy farm drive down to the café .  And it wasn’t her fault that when we got there, the café turned out to be shut.  But we blamed her of course, just as we blamed her for every mishap along the way, even though we all had a hand in reading the map.

She knows we don’t mean it.  We’d had a Grand Day Out.  We’d had a good work-out, a scenic walk full of interest, a fine day out with friends, and a chance to tease Ms. X unmercifully.  Thank you, Ms X.

A view across Nidderdale near the end of our journey

A view across Nidderdale near the end of our journey

Brimham Rocks

Yorkshire, Yorkshire Dales

We’ve had quite a weekend.  Our vaguely organised daily lives, with plenty of chances to stand and stare, or at least sit down with a cup of coffee and the paper have been shot to pieces by the arrival, for two days only, of our twin nine-year old grandsons, Alex and Ben.

We had a busy Saturday, full of pancakes, playgrounds, and Ripon’s Prison and Police Museum (recommended).  But the highlight of the day was Brimham Rocks.P1150790

It’s an extraordinary place.  There, slap-bang in the middle of the rolling and verdant Yorkshire Dales, is a 30 acre fantastical landscape.  Dry-stone walled fields and charming villages are suddenly replaced by an odd collection of weird and wonderful shaped rocks.  Brimham Rocks.  These are formed from millstone grit: glaciation, wind and rain have eroded them into extraordinary formations, pierced by holes, balancing apparently precariously, or stacked into tottering towers.  Geologists study them, rock climbers scramble up them, but above all, families come to let their children become impromptu explorers, mountaineers and adventurers of every kind.

We’ve only chosen quiet times to visit here in the past, but with Alex and Ben, we had no choice,  We wanted to take them there, so a brisk and breezy Saturday slap-bang in the middle of the school holidays it was. The car park was overflowing .  Oh dear.

But it was fine.  The space is big enough to provide room for all.  And it was fun to be amongst children from the smallest toddler to the tallest and lankiest of teenagers, all having an equally good time: all exploring, all testing themselves physically, weaving their own adventures.

Alex and Ben take a pause at Brimham Rocks

Alex and Ben take a pause at Brimham Rocks

And besides, we didn’t come home empty-handed.  August is bilberry season.  Alex and Ben, particularly Ben, rose to the challenge of stripping the small and rather hidden fruits, becoming ever more purple as time passed.  Teeth turned blue, hands indelibly stained, fingernails beyond help from any nailbrush: it was so good to see my grandchildren discovering the pleasures of food-for-free.  Bilberry pancakes for Sunday breakfast then…..


Tourist information: Bath and beyond

England, Travelling in Europe

We’re back in France, to rather strange mid-January scenes.  Our local skiers’ playground at Mont d’Olmes appears to have only a dusting of snow, though it claims to have 5 pistes open.  Our garden’s full of marigolds flowering alongside the snowdrops, and on a walk yesterday afternoon, dressed in light pullovers, we heard birds singing ceaselessly, apparently to welcome the spring as they busily seemed to be putting winter behind them.

And so it was in England too.  We rarely wrapped up warmly, and enjoyed being out and about in the balmy conditions.

Best of all was our trip to the part of the country that includes parts of South Gloucestershire and Witshire and Somerset, to stay with my daughter-in-law’s family.  They took a dim view of our lack of knowledge of their end of the country, and set about putting things right.

Everyone knows Bath as a Roman stronghold and as a wonderfully intact 18th century city much visited by Jane Austen.  No wonder it’s an UNESCO World Heritage site.  We had to be content with a taster session. And we began with a stroll across Pulteney Bridge, which has shops on it, like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, and along the Avon to enjoy the views of the Abbey and Parade Gardens.

Bath Abbey’s an ancient church, but what we see today- a light graceful building soaring upwards to spectacular stone fan vaulting – is largely the work of the Victorian Gilbert Scott.  Every wall is covered with memorials: so many people came to Bath to ‘take the waters’ and then upped and died.  Plumbers, admirals, sugar plantation owners, soldiers – they’re all here.

Time for a coffee break.  Where else but the 18th century Pump Room, where we decided a Bath Bun was a good idea, a sulphurous glass of spa water a very bad one?

We can’t recommend the Roman Baths Museum highly enough.  After spending several hours there, we feel as if we’ve had a real taste of the life of a Roman citizen living, working, playing and praying in Bath during that period.  The baths themselves have been very sensitively and imaginatively interpreted.  If near Bath, just go!

After that, a quick stroll round the 18th century.  The graceful symmetry of streets like the Royal Crescent is so impressive: just don’t look round the back, you’re not meant to.

Next day, we were tourists too. England at its most picturesque.  Cotswold villages with solid stone-walled, stone tiled cottages.

Back in the medieval period and beyond, Castle Combe used to be a centre for the local woollen industry.  Now, more often than not, it’s a film set, the scene of many a period drama on TV or at the cinema.  And Lacock is so picture-postcard perfect that almost the whole village is owned by the National Trust. Great for a relaxing visit.  I wonder what it’s like to live there.

We’d mooched happily round these two villages for some while.  But after all that we needed to step out and stretch our legs.  Kennet and Avon Canal anybody?  Brian and Sue chose for our walk the Caen Hill Locks, a flight of 16 locks packed tight together, one after the other, with ponds at the side to store the water needed to operate the locks.  We thought our walk up the canal banks used quite enough calories.  What if we’d been taking a canal boat up the entire flight and beyond, through lock-gate after lock-gate? This 100 mile canal has more than 100 of them in total…..

A wonderful couple of days then, steeped in history and splendid views and countryside.  We’ll be back – if Brian and Sue’ll have us.

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