A Travellerspoint blog

A Cornish birthday

St Ives

‘As I was going to St Ives’

large_P1040049.JPG
St Ives harbour in stormy weather

My birthday falls at the end of October and we often go away, usually abroad. But with work being done at home (installation of new wardrobes) our holiday time was limited this year, so we decided on a break closer to home. I’ve been wanting to go to St Ives for some time, having not been to Cornwall since family holidays as a child, so that was our choice. We hoped for good weather (it quite often is fine and sunny at that time of year in England) but knew there was plenty to do there if it rained, in the form of the newish Tate St Ives and numerous smaller galleries and artists’ studios. Just as well, as it turned out!

P1040060.JPG
St Ives harbour

We decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel, which also proved to be a good decision, and to travel by train rather than drive the long distance from London. The train journey took us along one of the most scenic stretches of rail track in the country, so close to the sea in parts of Devon that some years ago it was totally destroyed in winter storms. Thankfully today’s weather, although wet, wasn’t bad enough to pose a threat to the line and our journey went smoothly – a long run from London via Exeter, Plymouth and Truro before changing at St Erth for the little branch line to St Ives. Waiting in the wind and rain at that small station I think we both wondered why we hadn’t made the time to go to Sicily, our original plan!

Arriving in St Ives we walked to the apartment following directions sent by its owner. These led us along what would be in fine weather a pleasant path right by the sea, but which today was at one point being regularly swamped by large waves. I manged to dash between them but Chris was not so lucky and got caught, resulting in a pair of decidedly wet trousers! Luckily our accommodation was only a short distance further, above a shoe shop near the market hall and parish church. We let ourselves in with the key that had been sent to us a week previously and climbed two flights of stairs to the very cosy flat. We liked it immediately, with its seaside themed décor and view of the sea beyond the roof-tops.

P1040047.JPG
Apartment sitting room

P1040048.JPG
Apartment bedroom

P1040045.JPG
Apartment kitchen

We settled in and, given the weather, decided not to go far on this first evening. Our hostess had kindly given us lots of local restaurant recommendations and one which appealed, Beer and Bird, was only a few minutes’ walk up the main street, Fore Street. This consists of a ground floor bar and first floor restaurant, and although it was busy we got a good table in the latter. We enjoyed our meal on the whole, but had to wait a long while for our main courses because the wood-fired pizza oven was playing up, and Chris had ordered pizza! They really should have just told us that pizzas were off for the evening as despite that being his favourite, I’m sure he’d have found something else on the extensive menu as an alternative. As it was, when the pizza did finally arrive, alongside my very good halibut, its crust was disappointingly brittle although the topping was good. Still, it had been a pleasant evening on the whole – and some dry weather was promised for tomorrow!

A wet birthday in St Ives

My heading above tells a different tale from that weather forecast. We awoke to rain that lasted most of the day, off and on (mostly on!) Clearly it was a day for indoor pursuits so after breakfast at a nearby café (Scoff Troff, which failed to live up to the rave review provided by our hostess but was OK) we walked along Fore Street to its northern end and then followed signs that led us to Tate St Ives by Porthmeor Beach.

Tate St Ives

As the name suggests, Tate St Ives is a regional hub of the original Tate Gallery in London (now Tate Britain) and the Tate Modern. It was preceded by the gallery’s first venture out of the capital, Tate Liverpool, and opened in 1993. A fairly remote small Cornish seaside town may seem an odd choice of location for a major gallery, but once you know something of St Ives’ history and its long association with artists it becomes much less surprising.

P1040065.JPG
Tate St Ives entrance

There is something special about the quality of light in this part of the country which has always tended to attract artists, and once the railway came to the town in 1877 many visited from London for short or longer stays. A local fisherman, Alfred Wallis, had taken up painting following the death of his wife, and his naïve style appealed to visiting artist Ben Nicholson, influencing his move towards more abstract art. When the Second World War started, Nicholson moved to St Ives with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and other artists followed – Naum Gabo, Patrick Heron, Bernard Leach and many more.

The heyday of what became known as the St Ives School was in the 1950s and 60s, but the town continues to attract artists and is home to many small galleries and studios. Barbara Hepworth’s former home and studio has been open to the public for some years, displaying many of her works in the setting where she created them, and was taken over by the Tate in 1980, so it was a natural next step for them to build a new gallery in the town dedicated to the art movement that bears its name.

We bought our tickets, opting for combined ones that also included the Hepworth Studio, on our to-do list for tomorrow when it should be drier (most of the sculptures are exhibited in the garden). Although not large the gallery has a series of rooms telling the story of the St Ives School with works by all of the more famous artists considered members and others I hadn’t heard of.

IMG_20191030_105004.jpg
Artwork by by Otobong Nkanga

There are also rooms devoted to temporary exhibitions which were showing works by Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian artist now living in Antwerp. She uses tapestry alongside photography, painting and video, and I found some of the works very intriguing. The exhibition From Where I Stand explored ‘the politics of land and its relationship to the body, and histories of land acquisition and ownership’, according to the Tate website, but I liked it most for the colours employed in her tapestries and the interesting video showing how she works to bring her huge designs to life.

After looking around the gallery we made our way to the top floor café where we were lucky to secure a table for our coffee break, as the café is quite small and the weather was far too inclement for anyone to be sitting out on the terrace! On finer days there would be wonderful views of Porthmeor Beach from here; as it was, the windows were streaked with rain and, inspired perhaps by all the art we had seen, I had fun creating my own abstract images using the colours of sea and sand blurred by raindrops. Even in this weather I could see that there was indeed something rather special about the light here.

P1040083.JPGP1040073.JPG
P1040072.JPGP1040071.JPG

large_P1040075.JPG
Rainy day photography, Tate St Ives

Porthmeor Beach

After our coffee we took advantage of a brief let-up in the rain to get a few photos of Porthmeor Beach. Quite a few people were braving the elements to walk dogs and a few even to surf!

P1040089.JPG

P1040085.JPG

P1040086.JPG

Porthmeor Beach

We then headed back to Fore Street where we had a light lunch in one of the pubs, the Union Inn – good toasted sandwiches and local beer. After our meal we visited some of the studios and independent shops. As it was my birthday Chris had suggested I pick out a gift here, and I found a pretty silver necklace in a Celtic design at Silver Origins at the southern end of Fore Street.

We spent the rest of the afternoon back in our cosy apartment before wrapping up again to walk to the restaurant where we had booked a table for my birthday dinner. The Porthminster Kitchen was another of our hostess’s recommendations and had also been suggested by a foodie friend who holidays here regularly, and what a good choice it proved to be. OK, we couldn’t really make the most of the lovely setting overlooking the harbour, but that didn’t matter when the food was so good and the service so friendly. Of course I had to have some local fish and chose mackerel pate followed by a hake special, both of which were delicious, while Chris had scallops and a pasta dish. An excellent evening – and surely tomorrow at last it would stop raining?!

A brighter day

large_P1040094.JPG
Harbour

Yes! We awoke to skies which, if not exactly bright, were lighter and no longer throwing water at us. So after breakfast at another local café (a much more successful choice, the Cornish Bakery on Fore Street) we walked down to the harbour, hoping to get better photos than we had managed yesterday.

There were a lot of birds on the lifeboat slipway which subsequent research indicated could be Turnstones in their winter plumage, or possibly some sort of Sandpiper – bird-watching friends might correct me, of course!

P1040097.jpg
Bird at the harbour

91da8510-2c04-11ea-b498-15a93f8bb956.JPG

The Island

We followed the water’s edge, taking a few more photos as we went. At the far side of the bay that forms the harbour is St Ives’ most distinctive natural feature, the Island. Despite its name this is not an island but a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and separating the harbour from Porthmeor Beach. On a map it looks to me a little like a face in profile, with a hook nose, a shock of hair and a very thin beard!

4800ce30-2bec-11ea-ad9e-ebf83bf805cc.JPG
Map showing the Island

There are great views from the Island of the coast in either direction.

large_P1040107.JPG
Panoramic view east from the Island

Rocky outcrops offshore were dotted with cormorants, and further away we could see Godrevy Lighthouse on its small islet. The lighthouse was built in the 1850s as a result of numerous shipwrecks on the Stones Reef – most famously one in 1649 when a ship carrying many personal effects of King Charles I, including his entire wardrobe, was lost. This is the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf to write ‘To the Lighthouse’, a novel I studied for my A Level English Literature course, although she locates the lighthouse on the Scottish island of Skye.

P1040112.JPG
Rocky coastline

P1040105.JPG
Cormorants on rock, from the Island

P1040113.jpg
Godrevy Lighthouse

On the highest point of the Island is the Chapel of St Nicholas, which dates back to the 15th century. It was used in the past by 'Preventive Men', as the excise officers were known, to keep watch for smugglers, for whom the island provided an ideal landing place for their contraband. Later the chapel was used for storage by the War Office, who partially demolished it in 1904, unaware of its historic significance. Fortunately a public outcry stopped the destruction and resulted in its restoration in 1911. Inside it features floor tiles depicting fishing scenes, the work of the famous St Ives potter, Bernard Leach, but we found the door locked and very little could be seen through the somewhat grubby windows.

large_P1040110.JPG
St Nicholas Chapel

At the furthest point of the Island are the remains of an old gun battery, constructed in 1859 to help to protect Porthmeor Beach and the harbour against the threat of invasion by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). There were three gun emplacements and a barracks, which housed the gunners and their families. Later the largest of these emplacements was adapted to serve as a Coastguard Station. This was closed down in 1994, when the government decided that the use of satellite and wireless technology to monitor distress calls made keeping a visual watch unnecessary.

In 1999, the coastguard station was reopened by the St Ives branch of the National Coastwatch Institution, a voluntary organisation established to ‘provide the eyes and ears along the coast’. The station is now manned by volunteer watchkeepers, who keep a log of all the activity within sight of the lookout all year round during daylight hours. Several were on duty when we passed, and outside a poster appealed for further volunteers.

large_P1040118.JPG
On the Island
~ you can see the gun battery at the furthest point

large_P1040115.JPG
Porthmeor Beach from the Island

Looking down on Porthmeor Beach we could see lots of surfers in the water so we decided to head in that direction to try to get some better photos than we could manage at this distance. We got our shots, then found a good table in the Porthmeor Beach Café, perched above the sands opposite Tate St Ives, for a cup of coffee with a view.

P1040117.jpg
Surfers, Porthmeor Beach

P1040123.JPG

Arty St Ives

Many of the town’s small artists’ studios and galleries are located along the winding streets of the area between Porthmeor and the harbour, and we spent a pleasant hour visiting some of these before descending again to the harbour-front.

6ab10dd0-2bfd-11ea-9d23-a1a07ae103f1.JPGP1040134.JPG
Door details

large_P1040126.JPG
Our harbour view at lunch-time

Here we bought Cornish pasties (well, it had to be done!) from one of several shops claiming to sell the ‘best in town’ and perched on a breakwater to enjoy our lunch.

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

After our break we made our way through some more of the back streets to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. As I mentioned above, Hepworth and her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, came to live in St Ives when World War Two broke out in 1939, as a haven from London. She stayed here for the rest of her life, living and working in Trewyn studios (which are now the Barbara Hepworth Museum) from 1949 until her death in 1975 (she died in a fire here at the studio she loved). It was her wish that her home and studio were set up as a museum of her work.

large_P1040155.JPG
In the studio

P1040141.JPG
Sleepy cat
(this one is real, not a sculpture!)

P1040136.JPG
Small sculpture indoors

Our visit here was a real highlight of our short stay in St Ives. Inside the house it was possible to get a sense of the artist and her work, through a series of photos taken over the full period of her time here. There were a few pieces displayed here too, but it was in the garden that the exhibits really come to life, placed just as she wanted them among the plants and flowers. To me their organic forms fit perfectly into this garden landscape.

large_P1040148.JPG

P1040154.JPGP1040143.JPG
P1040149.JPGP1040157.JPG

large_P1040165.JPG

P1040161.JPGP1040162.JPG
At the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

Final evening in St Ives

We had dinner this evening in an Italian restaurant we had spotted and liked the look of earlier in the day, Caffe Pasta at the far end of the harbour-front. It was just as well that we had thought to make a reservation when passing, as on this Halloween evening lots of families were out and about and this seemed to be a favourite local choice for post Trick or Treating get-togethers. And our hunch that this looked a promising spot for our final dinner in St Ives paid off, as we had a delicious meal. I loved the sea bass special, served with candied beetroot & squid ink risotto, and Chris had some excellent wild boar meatballs.

Outside we had a go at a bit of impromptu night photography, using a breakwater as a slightly uneven temporary tripod!

P1040183.JPG

P1040181.JPG
St Ives harbour at night

Farewell to St Ives

The next morning there was time for another good pastry and coffee breakfast at the Cornish Bakery before we had to make our way back to the station (no waves crashing over the path today!) and home to London.

large_P1040190.JPG

large_P1040173.JPG
Last views of St Ives

The train journey, although long, passed as uneventfully as the journey down and we were home in time for dinner after our very pleasant, if not always dry, few days in Cornwall.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:45 Archived in England Tagged beaches art birds night boats rain harbour coast views sculpture weather seaside lighthouse seas chapel cornwall st_ives Comments (18)

Dodging the showers and dining in style

North Yorkshire

large_P1190011b.jpg
View from Rievaulx Terrace

Driving regularly between our home in London and our ‘second home’ in Newcastle, we pass through Yorkshire every time, usually speeding through on the A1M motorway. We also make annual visits to Swaledale (see my page on Grinton: ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’). Recently however we decided to break our journey home with an overnight stay at somewhere rather special – somewhere I have wanted to visit for some time (wait and see!). Before that stay, there was time earlier in the day to see some of the sights in the area around the busy little town of Helmsley.

Rievaulx Terrace and Abbey

P1180992.jpg
The path through the woods,
Rievaulx Terrace

Not having done my homework as thoroughly as I would do for a major trip abroad, I hadn’t realised until we arrived that Rievaulx Terrace and Rievaulx Abbey were two separate properties – the former under the care of the National Trust and the latter under English Heritage. Arriving at the turnoff for both we were faced with a choice and opted for the Terrace, at least as our initial stop.

What had started as quite a bright but windy day in Newcastle had by now turned showery, but as we parked the latest shower stopped and we made our way to the ticket office hopeful of being able to explore without getting wet. The friendly lady there explained about the separate sights (so if we wanted to see both we would have to pay twice) and suggested a walking route that should bring us to the larger of the two ‘temples’ here just as it was opened up for one of the talks that take place a few times each day.

Rievaulx Terrace is a wonderful example of the 18th century taste for the Romantic in landscape gardening. The land here was originally part of the estate of the abbey but after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century it passed into private hands and was owned by several local aristocratic families before being bought by Sir Charles Duncombe in 1687. The Duncombes were already wealthy local land-owners; their Duncombe Park estate adjoins this one. By 1747 both properties were in the hands of Thomas Duncombe II, who returned from his Grand Tour full of ideas about the development of his estate, in particular Rievaulx Terrace. Like others of his generation he planned to create his own idealised landscape, inspired by the scenery of Europe he had so admired on his travels, and unlike many of them he had the perfect spot in which to do it, overlooking one of the features held dear by the Romantics, a magnificent ruined abbey. And not content with that, he also included two picturesque temples, one at either end of the terrace.

Our walk took us along a woodland path to emerge near the first of these, the Tuscan Temple. This is kept locked as its floor is too precious to allow anyone to walk on it. The tiles are medieval, taken from the abbey below – a fate suffered by many of these religious structures after Henry VIII had wielded his royal powers.

large_P1180994.jpg
large_P1180996.jpg
The Tuscan Temple

At this point the route turns back on itself, paralleling the woodland path on a wide strip of green lawn. To our right were the woods; to our left was a steep partly wooded escarpment. Breaks in the trees, thirteen in all, allowed for views down to the abbey below. As befitting the Romantic tradition, each of these views is like a framed painting, offering a different perspective on the ruins. And, again in the Romantic tradition, the effect seems totally natural while in fact being carefully designed.

Rievaulx Abbey

P1190004.jpgP1190013.jpg
large_P1190010.jpg
Views of Rievaulx Abbey from the Terrace

Rievaulx was one of the great Cistercian abbeys of England prior to its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538. It was founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France. Originally the abbey buildings would have been of wood. The first stone structures were erected towards the end of the 12th century and the impressive church completed in the 1220s.

At the time of its dissolution in 1538, the abbey consisted of 72 buildings. These were, as was usual following dissolution, confiscated, rendered uninhabitable and stripped of any valuables such as lead, before being left to fall into ruin. The site was granted to the Earl of Rutland, one of Henry's advisers, and later was sold to Sir Charles Duncombe, a wealthy London banker, along with other land in this area.

Just as the Duncombe family’s many guests would have done, we strolled the length of the terrace admiring the different perspectives of the ruins. Many of them would no doubt have stopped to sketch or paint a watercolour; we in our turn took photos, of both the views of the abbey and our immediate surroundings.

P1190005.jpg
Bee and wild flower

The Ionic Temple

At the opposite end of the terrace to the Tuscan Temple is the Ionic Temple. Its interior replicates the sort of grand dining room that would have been found in the stately homes of that era. Here the Duncombes would have entertained their guests with delicious meals prepared for them by servants in its basement kitchen.

P1190016.jpg
The Ionic Temple

P1190014b.jpg

The temple’s design was inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome which Thomas Duncombe II would no doubt have seen on his Grand Tour. We arrived here as hoped while the building was still open, and although we had missed the start of the talk by the docent, we were in time to hear his description of its star attraction, the painted ceiling. This is the work of an Italian painter, Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis, who came to England around 1753. The central panel depicts Aurora, Apollo and the Muses, and is based on Guido Reni’s mural in the Palazzo Rospigliosi in Rome. Around it are other mythological scenes.

P1190019.JPG

P1190017.JPG
In the Ionic Temple

Below, the table is set for dinner as it would have been when the Duncombes and their guests arrived here after their stroll, with Worcester porcelain, and a set of twelve mid-18th century mahogany dining chairs.

The docent explained that when the family fell on harder times and entertained less, the basement was converted to serve as a garden store. Our arrival at the temple had coincided with the start of a heavy shower, so after the docent had finished his talk and we had taken a few photos, we went outside and down the short flight of stone steps at the side into this basement area.

Nowadays it appears to be used for exhibitions about the history of the terrace and temples. There were panels describing some of the wildlife to be found on the terrace, some examples of the garden tools that were stored here, and a temporary exhibition which I found very interesting: A Tale of Two Sketchbooks. This described the artistic lives of two young 18th-century women artists from contrasting backgrounds. One was Ann Duncombe, daughter of Thomas who built the terrace, and the other Effie Silver, a child of the Foundling Hospital who had found work as an assistant to an artist through the intervention of one of the hospital’s famous patrons, Hogarth. The exhibition focused on their chance meeting on the terrace when Silver’s employer was working for the Duncombes, painting family portraits. It took me a while to realise that much of their history, and even their very existence, is fiction, although the historical background is real, and what I took to be facsimiles of their sketchbooks are in fact new works of art created for this exhibition.

Helmsley Walled Garden

large_P1190036.jpg
In Helmsley Walled Garden

P1190047b.jpg
In Helmsley Walled Garden

When the shower had passed, we headed back to our parked car to decide where to go next. We considered a visit to the abbey ruins below but decided instead to drive into Helmsley where there might be more to do if the weather worsened. A friend in Newcastle had recently visited and enthused about the walled garden there so we took a chance on the weather, parked as recommended in the busy long-stay car park (this is clearly a popular town with visitors to Yorkshire) and followed the footpath to the gardens.

P1190069b.jpg
Glasshouses, Helmsley Walled Garden

Helmsley Walled Garden occupies the site of the former vegetable garden of the ‘big house’ at Duncombe Park. After WW1, the garden was leased out for use as a commercial enterprise. This closed down in 1982 and it fell into disuse and became overgrown. In 1994, a local lady Alison Ticehurst, who had been looking for a place to develop her ideas on horticultural therapy, decided to buy and restore the garden. It was a mammoth undertaking as it had by then turned into a complete wilderness, but she persevered, helped by her family and volunteers, and created the beautiful gardens we can see today. Sadly Alison died suddenly and at a relatively young age, in 1999, but not before she had realised her dream, and the garden continues to thrive and to provide therapeutic support for many. It is also a very pleasant place in which to spend an hour or so.

By the time we arrived the sun was shining again, but we opted to have a light snack in the café at the gardens before exploring them. We had reason to want to be very hungry this evening (wait and see!) so just had a coffee (not very good) and cake (excellent), enjoying the warm sun through the glass roof and the grapevines all around.

After a while the sun became too warm, so we went to pay our entrance fee for the gardens themselves – just as a very black cloud appeared overhead. And we had got no further than the glasshouses when the heavens opened, and we were forced to take shelter. No matter – there was plenty to interest us here in the glasshouses – thistles laid out on the wooden shelves to dry, attracting loads of bees, colourful geraniums and other flowers in pots, and a water-colour artist at work.

large_P1190023.jpg
Bee and thistle in the glasshouse

When the shower blew over we went out to explore and spent a happy hour meandering along the paths, and taking lots of photos. The garden is divided into a number of ‘sub-gardens’ – the Clematis Garden, the White Garden, the Hot Border, the Long Border, the Orchard, Alison’s Garden. In some the flowers had taken a bit of a battering in the rain, in a few the blooms were passed their best, but there was still lots of colour and lots to photograph.

large_P1190067.jpg
The White Border

large_P1190073.jpg
P1190063.jpgP1190064.jpg
large_P1190081.jpg
P1190055.jpg
In the orchard

P1190049.jpg

P1190050.jpg

P1190052.jpg

In the clematis garden

Beyond the walls are the photogenic ruins of Helmsley Castle. The first castle on this site was a wooden one, built in the early part of the 12th century, with stone construction starting at the end of that century. It grew over the next two hundred years, with the impressive East Tower, a chapel and living quarters. In the 16th century the old medieval hall of the castle was converted into a comfortable ‘modern’ Tudor mansion and the chapel into a kitchen. It passed down through generations, and at the end of the 17th century was sold to Sir Charles Duncombe – the same Sir Charles Duncombe who also bought Rievaulx Abbey. When he died his sister Mary's husband, Thomas Brown, inherited the castle. He promptly changed his surname to Duncombe, had a country house built on the estate, which he called Duncombe Park, and left the castle to fall into the picturesque runs so beloved at that time. It is still owned by the same family (now the Barons of Feversham after an early 19th century Charles was raised to the peerage).

large_P1190037.jpg
large_P1190048.jpg
Helmsley Castle from Helmsley Walled Garden

Helmsley

When we left the gardens, we opted not to visit the castle, as we had already seen a bit of it from the gardens, and instead had a stroll around the town. It has some attractive buildings and a striking memorial to William, the 2nd Baron of Feversham, in the middle of the market square.

P1190085.jpgP1190086.jpg
The monument to Lord Feversham

But that same square was marred by all the parked cars and the pavements crowded. The large number of signs outside the houses (‘Private property, no parking’; ‘Drive in constant use’; ‘No access’; ‘Not a public footpath’ etc. etc.) said a lot about the impact of tourism on this small community, although no doubt it is great for the local economy.

P1190088.jpgP1190083b.jpg
All Saints Church, and Helmsley Castle from the town

We had a quick look at the exterior of the church, All Saints, which although dating in part from the 12th century is largely the result of a significant Victorian make-over. But rather than linger in the town we decided to make the most of the sunshine, which seemed now to be firmly with us, and visit another of Yorkshire’s ruined abbeys.

Byland Abbey

With the weather improving all the time, and having not paid a visit to Rievaulx Abbey, we couldn’t really miss stopping at Byland, especially as we had to drive right past it to reach our destination for the night. What is more, although like Rievaulx and Helmsley Castle, Byland is under the care of English Heritage, there is no fee charged for admission! I had expected therefore to find very little to see here, but that is by no means the case.

large_P1190091.jpg
The west front

In its day Byland was one of the largest Cistercian abbeys in the country. The great church with its magnificent west front and rose window was the inspiration for a similar window at York Minster. The buildings whose ruins we see today were mostly constructed in the 12th century and the abbey thrived through to the 14th. It acquired considerable land and derived much of its income from sheep farming. But during the 14th century it suffered a series of setbacks. Byland, Rievaulx and several other religious houses in this area were pillaged by the victorious Scots as revenge for the English attack the Cistercian abbey of Melrose. The Black Death also hit the abbey population hard, both monks and lay brothers.

large_P1190094.jpg
View of the church from the west front

large_P1190105.jpg
Church ruins

By the early 16th century it was starting to recover and rebuild its economy, but then Henry VIII dissolved all religious houses in the country when he declared himself head of the Church in England in 1533. Like Rievaulx and others, Byland Abbey was stripped of all valuable materials before being given to a favoured local aristocrat – in this case, Sir William Pickering. The Byland estate later passed through various hands, and the abbey’s stones were gradually taken to serve various purposes – building local cottages, decorating the gardens of Myton Hall in Swalesdale. The high altar and a small alabaster image of the Trinity are both now at nearby Ampleforth Abbey. What remained fell into disrepair and then into ruin.

P1190104.jpgP1190097.jpg
Remains of the south (left) and north transepts

Following excavations in the 1920s much of the original plan was revealed, and what remained of the church, cloisters and other buildings preserved. As well as that great west front you can still see some of the 13th century tiled floor, especially in the south transept. Parts of some other walls still stand, the cloisters are easy to trace, and a number of other rooms are labelled such as the parlour and kitchen.

P1190099.jpg
Medieval tiles

large_P1190111.jpg
Church ruins from the domestic buildings to the south

The Black Swan at Oldstead

I became aware of chef Tommy Banks and his Michelin-starred pub restaurant in Yorkshire through the TV programme Great British Menu. I was impressed by his ethos of ‘field to fork’ – fresh seasonal ingredients, produced locally (most on his parents’ nearby farm or in the pub’s own extensive kitchen garden) or foraged for in the hedgerows and woodland around Oldstead, and presented with creativity but without forgetting that taste is foremost. Banks was Britain’s youngest Michelin-starred chef in 2013 and won Great British Menu in 2016 and 2017, and more recently has been a judge on the programme. So having been so impressed I looked up the Black Swan and realised that it was not too far from the route we take regularly between London and Newcastle, and back again, and that although a stay here would be a splurge, it was not an unaffordable one. As I am closing my small business this year to go into ‘almost’ retirement, I decided this would be the perfect treat with which to mark that closure and blow some of the profits!

large_P1190123.jpg
The Black Swan at Oldstead

Oldstead is little more than a hamlet – just a cluster of cottages reached along a single-track road from Byland Abbey. We arrived towards the end of the afternoon, parked behind the pub and went to check in. There are no bedrooms in the pub itself, with some being in a block behind and the remainder in cottages just a few metres away in the village. We were in one of the latter, so we grabbed our overnight bags (leaving most of our luggage in the car – we had been in Newcastle for nine nights and had quite a lot with us!) and followed the friendly receptionist to our ‘home’ for the night.

P1190125.jpg
Our cottage - our room is bottom left

P1190117.jpg
Our bedroom

P1190118.jpg
Our bathroom

Although not large the room was stylish and welcoming, and we had a sizeable bathroom with rain shower and huge copper bath-tub! We settled in and made use of the wifi to check emails, and I sorted through the photos I had taken during the day.

If you book a stay here a table is automatically reserved for you in the restaurant and breakfast is included in the package too – all you need to pay for on top are any drinks. We made a start on those with a pre-dinner drink in the cosy bar. And most of the drinks too reflect Banks’ ethos, being innovative and derived from local produce. I tried the local (Yorkshire-made) gin, Rare Bird, and Chris had a vodka and tonic.

The menu here is a set tasting menu, although if you mention any allergies, food aversions etc. in advance alternates will be provided. Our first course was a mushroom quiche, but forget any idea you may have of a slice of eggy cheesy set custard on a pastry base! This little work of art was served in the bar with our drinks and set the tone for a truly memorable experience – or rather, a whole evening of such experiences! Starting with the ‘pastry’, which was made with dried cep powder, this was a multi-layered mushroom feast in miniature – perfectly formed and absolutely delicious.

IMG_20190819_191802.jpg
Mushroom quiche

We were then escorted upstairs to our table to enjoy the rest of the meal. Chris ordered the accompanying drinks package too, but realising that would probably be more alcohol than I could comfortably appreciate (I have to manage my intake because of medication) I instead asked for advice and selected just a couple of the wines in the package. The advice was good (and also practical, with wines towards the lower end of the £6 - £118 (per glass!) range being proposed, and served in small amounts so that I could sample several.

The full menu was:

IMG_20190819_202846.jpg
Scallop with Sun Gold Tomatoes
IMG_20190819_213845.jpg
Raspberry & Elderflower
'ice cream sandwich'

IMG_20190819_204214.jpg
Monkfish with New Onions
IMG_20190819_210146.jpg
Potato with Fermented Celeriac

Mushroom Quiche

~o~

Crab and Pea
Beetroot Salad
Sour Bread and Sour Butter
Raw Oldstead Deer
Scallop with Sun Gold Tomatoes

~o~

Monkfish with New Onions and Lemon Verbena
Potato with Fermented Celeriac
Lamb with Courgette and Girolles

~o~

Raspberry and Elderflower
Strawberry and Woodruff
Chicory and Potato
Root Vegetable Toast

But those simple labels don’t really give any idea of the complexity of flavours within each dish. Each was presented with a full explanation of the ingredients, delivered by waiting staff who clearly love their work and the food they serve. The drinks too came with a description, and I know from what Chris told me (and the sips he offered me!) that all went perfectly with the dish they accompanied.

It’s hard to pick out highlights but if I was pressed to do so I would probably pick the mushroom quiche, deer carpaccio, lamb and (surprisingly) the dessert made with chicory and potato, which tasted for all the world as if it were made with vanilla ice cream, salted caramel and coffee!

None of the dishes was large, naturally, so at the end of the meal we felt pleasantly full rather than stuffed. We strolled back up the road to our room in the cottage, with a sky full of stars overhead.

P1190127.jpgP1190134.jpg
Kitchen garden views from our breakfast table, and from the car park

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we returned to the pub/restaurant and enjoyed a delicious breakfast of home-made granola, brioche with strawberry conserve and a ‘full English’, at a table with a view of the kitchen garden. Then it was time to check out and set off on the long drive home, but not before resolving to return to the Black Swan one day.

P1190132.jpg
Cat in the garden

P1190121.jpg
Sheep grazing nearby

P1190138.jpg
Swallow on a wire

Posted by ToonSarah 11:28 Archived in England Tagged castles architecture flowers restaurant history ruins views village pubs garden abbey Comments (14)

In Metro-Land

Ruislip

Ruislip is a pleasant suburb in north west London, with an ancient village at its heart which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. It is also the town where I grew up, and where my parents continued to live until old age and ill health necessitated a move away for the last few years of their lives.

867758236808920-Descriptive_..ry_Ruislip.jpg
Domesday Book info in the library

When the Doomsday Book was written, in 1086, Ruislip was known as Rislepe, ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow’, and (as I was always told as a child) had more pigs than human inhabitants. These pigs roamed the extensive woodlands, and Ruislip Woods remain to this day, although smaller than they once were.

cdcc7490-796f-11e9-a26f-dfd720689d17.jpg
With my sister by Ruislip Duck Pond
- I am on the right

The village grew up around the 13th century parish church dedicated to St Martin. The barns belonging to the former Manor Farm, just to the north of the church, still stand. Nearby is the village duck-pond, where as a child I loved to throw bread to the ducks.

Ruislip remained quite small, and rural, until the coming of the Metropolitan railway at the start of the 20th century. At first the new line and station were used mainly by Londoners wanting to escape to the country for a day, but soon the charms of living here lured many to move out to the suburbs, and development in Ruislip mushroomed. The population rose from 6,217 in 1911, to 72,791 in 1961, and growth was especially fast in the 1930s, as the many houses from this era testify.

This was the period of Metro-Land, a vision of a suburban idyll developed as part of a Metropolitan Railway advertising campaign designed to lure workers away from their cramped homes in Central London and out to a supposed ‘paradise’ that was rural in appearance and lifestyle and yet was in easy reach of their jobs in the capital.

8dccaa20-796c-11e9-8dd6-73a3bce45b92.jpg
Metroland poster
- (from wikicommons)

The notion was simple: the railway would buy the farmers' fields that lay either side of the newly expanding railway line and build on them. But while the posters that formed the bulk of the campaign showed a sylvan landscape where ladies in hats picked flowers and drifted through sun-speckled meadows, and families picnicked in perpetual sunshine, of course the building programme destroyed the very landscape that these posters seemed to sell. Meanwhile, the occasional attractive mock-Tudor house shown in those same posters was the exception rather than the norm – most of the construction being of functional brick and pebble-dash terraces.

392626826808957-Typical_1930..ip_Ruislip.jpg
Typical 1930s terraced housing

I lived for ten years of my childhood in such a house – a comfortable if uninspiring family home in a street of many more such. But we were happy there, and it was a vast improvement on the tiny flat in Regents Park where my parents had started their married life together. The Metro-Land lifestyle was later immortalised by the poet John Betjeman:

6808956-Ruislip_Gardens_station_today_Ruislip.jpg
Ruislip Gardens station today

‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt's edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.’

Ruislip Gardens was my home from the age of four to fourteen, and I would often watch those red trains (or the 1960s maroon equivalents) from my bedroom window, as I waited for my father (not Elaine!) to alight and come home from work.

IMG_3333.JPG
Our (2nd) Ruislip home

Later my parents were able to buy a house in Ruislip proper that more closely fitted the mock Tudor poster image, an attractive early 1930s house. Living here as a teenager, and starting to take an interest in the history of Ruislip (now that we lived nearer to its historic heart), I was fascinated by the anecdotes of a neighbour, a woman then in her seventies, who had lived here since the street was first developed. She remembered having to wear rubber boots to walk across the fields that separated her house from the station, changing there into smart ‘town shoes’ and leaving the boots and a lantern with the station-master, to be collected on her return for the night-time walk home. Those fields have long since been covered by other streets and other houses, and even today development is on-going, with some of the larger houses built in the 1930s being pulled down to make way for modern apartments or smaller family homes.

But something of that earlier sense of living a little apart from the hustle of the city remains, and the modern-day equivalents of Betjeman’s Elaine still alight from tube trains each evening and breathe, no doubt, a sigh of relief at being somewhere calmer and quieter. For me, a city-lover, Ruislip now seems too quiet and remote from the action to appeal as a possible home, but I still have that same sense of a slower pace of life whenever I visit and I can understand why Ruislip still lures people to move here with a desire to experience that Metro-Land lifestyle.

And the ancient heart of the former village is still there...

St Martin’s Church

6808898-St_Martins_Church_Ruislip.jpg
St Martin's Church

The church of St Martin’s was built in 1245 and probably stands on the site of earlier wooden and Norman stone churches. A stone from the latter was found in the grounds, and some Norman stones appear to have been incorporated in this structure, as well as Roman tiles indicating that prior to all the churches a pagan temple may have stood here.

The name St. Martin is believed to have been given to the church by the Benedictine monks of the Bec Abbey, after Martin of Tours, a saint in Normandy. Ruislip had been given to the Abbey of Le Bec-Hellouin in 1087 by a Norman lord, Ernulf de Hesdin, who himself had acquired this land after the Norman Conquest. The present structure is of flint and stone, and has a bell tower added in the 15th century. This houses eight bells which are still rung every Sunday, I believe.

Inside there are some medieval wall-paintings, a priest’s door and two ancient wooden chests. The pulpit is from the 17th century and the stained glass from the 19th and 20th. I always look too for the memorial to Lady Mary Bankes, which bears this inscription:
‘To the memory of LADY MARY BANKES, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq, the wife and widow of the Honourable Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of his Majesty's Court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of his Majesty King Charles I, of blessed memory, who, having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this. She had four sons: 1. Sir Ralph; 2. Jerome; 3. Charles; 4. William (since dead without issue), and six daughters.’

My first school in Ruislip, which I went to from the ages of five to eleven, was named for Lady Mary – Lady Bankes School. The school’s crest bears an image of a castle, intended to represent Corfe Castle in Dorset. Lady Mary Bankes grew up in Ruislip as a member of the local ‘big’ family, the Hawtreys, and married into the Bankes family who owned the castle in the small village of Corfe. Following the death of her husband during the Civil War, she bravely and successfully defended the castle during a siege in 1643. However, during a second siege in 1646 an act of betrayal by a member of her garrison led to the castle’s capture by the Parliamentarians. They allowed her to go free out of respect for her bravery, but deliberately demolished the castle resulting in the dramatic ruin which today dominates that village.

6808900-Detail_Ruislip.jpg6808902-Above_the_main_door_Ruislip.jpg
St Martin's Church details

St Martin’s was substantially restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1870 and the lych-gates added at that point, which do set off the building rather nicely. It is today a protected building, having received Grade B listed status as an Anglican church in 1950. Located at the top of the busy High Street, both it and its churchyard are a peaceful haven from the bustle of shopping and well worth turning aside to visit. Unfortunately when I was last there a small weekday service was in progress (this is a very active parish church as well as a historic site) so I had to content myself with just one shot of the interior taken from the porch. I will have to go back!

6808899-Inside_the_church_Ruislip.jpg6808901-Above_the_lych_gate_Ruislip.jpg
Inside the church, and detail of the lychgate

Almshouses

Backing on to the churchyard of St Martin’s Church is a row of 16th century almshouses. Originally this was a single dwelling, built in 1570 and serving as the parish house. It was converted in 1616 into ten small alms- or church houses (five at the front, five at the back, each with one room downstairs and one up) to provide accommodation for the poor and needy of the parish.

large_178262316808906-Almshouses_f..rd_Ruislip.jpg
The almshouses from the churchyard

The block was known as the Church House, and there are many old references in the parish accounts to its inhabitants, which give an idea of the need for such a facility:
'June 1665 – Widow Fearne of the Church House, several times in her sickness, 13s 0d
Mar 1666 – Paid to John Bates for carrying 50 bavins (bundles of kindling) to Widow Fearnes, 1s 9d
1726 – Moving three women to the Church House, my cart horse, 15s 0d
Paid the carpenter taking down the beds and setting them up, 3s 0d.'

In 1787 the vestry agreed to give poor families living in the Church House ‘a bed and bolster, a pair of blankets, a pair of sheets and a rug each’. In 1789 it was decided that more room was needed to accommodate the poor and destitute, so a purpose-build workhouse was constructed on a site near Copse Wood. But poor families continued to live here too, for some time at least.

6808904-Almshouses_from_Eastcote_Road_Ruislip.jpg
The almshouses from Eastcote Road

6808905-Window_detail_Ruislip.jpg
Window detail

In 1938 four of the tiny cottages were knocked together to form a house for the verger, and in the 1950s the middle four were also knocked together, this time to accommodate the curate. These were used until the mid 1970s, but the buildings were by then in a bad state of repair and threatened with demolition. They were saved however, modernised, and now form four flats and a maisonette owned by a Housing Association.

Manor Farm: the Great Barn

large_6808907-West_side_of_the_barn_Ruislip.jpg
West side of the Great Barn

There was a farm on this site (at the northern end of what is today Ruislip High Street) from the 9th century until relatively recently, and several buildings remain from various periods in that farm’s existence. Of these the Great Barn is the most impressive and the most noteworthy. It dates from the latter part of the 13th century, around 1280, and is the second largest barn in Middlesex (the largest is in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport), being 120 ft (36.6 metres) long and 32 ft (9.75m) wide. It was built with oak, probably from nearby Ruislip Woods, in a design known as an aisled barn, with smaller out-shoots running alongside the main supports under a single roof.

large_6808908-East_side_of_the_barn_Ruislip.jpg
East side of the Great Barn

The barn has been very well-preserved over the centuries and, along with the rest of the Manor Farm site, was restored with Lottery funding in 2007/2008. It is regularly used for local events, including crafts and farmers’ markets. It makes an impressive setting and the bustle of human activity is dwarfed by, and therefore serves only to emphasise, its great size. But we are very lucky to have it. At the start of the 20th century there were plans to develop this site for housing and all of Ruislip’s historic buildings, with the exception of St Martin’s Church, would have been lost. Amazingly (even for those days I think), no one seemed to oppose these plans, and it was only the intervention of the First World War that halted building work before it had barely begun. When, in 1919, work was able to resume, it was significantly reduced in scale owing to the poor economic situation of those times, and before the historic buildings had been affected the Royal Society of the Arts had stepped in and designated a number of buildings in Ruislip that should be preserved, including not only this barn but other buildings on the Manor Farm site and beyond, such as the old post office.

6808909-The_great_doors_Ruislip.jpg
The great doors of the Great Barn

Manor Farm: the Little Barn

P1000146.jpg
The raised threshing floor

Very near the Great Barn is another, somewhat smaller but still impressive. This is the Little Barn or Tithe Barn, and since 1937 has been the unusual location for Ruislip Library – a library I once worked in (many years ago!)

6808921-Old_beams_in_the_roof_Ruislip.jpg
Old beams in the Little Barn roof

This barn is of more recent origin, having been built in the 16th century, and is a Grade II listed building. Despite its conversion into a library, and the further modernisation that took place in 2007, its original role is still very apparent in its high beamed roof (with many original timbers) and other features, such as the slightly raised floor at one end – the former threshing floor. The windows have heraldic shields, one of which is of Kings College Cambridge, the estate’s earlier owners.

large_35921226808918-The_library_..en_Ruislip.jpg
The library from the bowling green

Just south of the Little Barn is a bowling green, on the site of the farm’s former rick-yard. Looking across this towards the library it is not too difficult to imagine the rural scene that was the norm here until just eighty or so years ago.

Manor Farm: the house

The third of the larger buildings on the Manor Farm site is Manor Farm House itself. This is an early 16th century house that was built of the site of a motte-and-bailey castle. The latter is thought to have been a wooden structure dating from soon after the Norman Conquest, built for Ernulf de Hesdin who had been given control of the manor of Ruislip in recognition of his loyalty to William the Conqueror. This castle in turn was built within an earthwork, possibly from the 9th century, that has been traced in an almost complete circle round the old village of Ruislip.

large_6808925-Manor_Farm_House_and_moat_Ruislip.jpg
Manor Farm House and moat

The castle does not appear in the 1086 Domesday Book and so could have been demolished or changed significantly by that time. But it is known that at some point a priory was also built within the moated area, under the aegis of the Benedictine Bec Abbey of Normandy. The Abbey had been granted Ruislip by Ernulf de Hesdin around 1087 and held it for 300 years.

The site was appropriated by the Crown and granted to King’s College in 1451, and the priory abandoned, falling into ruins. Those ruins would still have been here, however, when the Manor House was built between 1506 and 1511 over a number of building seasons, from Easter to Michaelmas. The house was built in the latest style of the period and was designed to showcase the wealth of the owner, with a decorative frontage and moulded ceiling beams.

large_997156366808927-The_farm_hou..re_Ruislip.jpg
Manor Farm house seen from the cow byre

The house served two purposes: courthouse and farmhouse. Courts were held here until 1925, and the farm remained until the 1930s. Court cases were heard twice a year in the main hall of the house. Two types of court were held:
Court Leet – cases involving land disputes, assaults and minor offences;
Court Baron – administrative matters, deeds, wills etc.

Of course the house has been somewhat altered over the years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the windows and doorways were replaced and an extended kitchen was installed, with the latter being replaced in 1958 when the house was modernised. Today it serves as a meeting place for various community groups, such as the Women’s Institute, and can be hired for conferences. The line of the old moat can still be traced around the garden.

The Duck Pond

At the southern end of the Manor Farm complex is the duck pond. I have many happy memories of coming here as child to feed the ducks – a valued treat.

6808933-The_Duck_Pond_Ruislip.jpg

6808936-The_Duck_Pond_Ruislip.jpg

The Duck Pond

The pond though was not originally intended for ducks but for the farm’s horses, who would have been washed down here. Today the pond has given its name to the twice weekly Farmers’ and Food markets that take place in and around the Great Barn – the Duck Pond Markets.

The River Pinn

The River Pinn gives Ruislip its name, albeit indirectly. Ruislip derives from "Rush leap", a reference to the rushes that lined the river and the fact that here it was just narrow enough to be leapt over – although I have to say that I would not attempt such a feat! Maybe it has widened over the years?

The River Pinn rises on Harrow Weald Common and flows through Pinner and Eastcote before reaching Ruislip, and from here flows on to Ickenham and Uxbridge, where it passes through the grounds of RAF Uxbridge and Brunel University. It then continues on to Cowley where it joins the Frays River (a branch of the Colne) at Yiewsley. In total it is about 12 miles (19 kilometres) in length. In the past it has been prone to flooding (I remember one year in particular, probably around 1973 or 74, when several nearby streets were closed because of it), but some work has been carried out in recent years to reduce this.

285145696808942-River_Pinn_K..ds_Ruislip.jpg6808941-A_walk_by_the_Pinn_Ruislip.jpg
River Pinn, Kings College Fields

In the centre of Ruislip it flows through a fairly narrow strip of green space, with a pleasant walk alongside it, and to the east through the open spaces of King’s College Playing Fields (named for the former owners of the land in this part of Ruislip). This walk is part of the longer Celandine Walk, which follows the entire length of the river. But even if you don’t want to do the longer walk, a stroll by the river is a relaxing way to spend an hour or so in Ruislip.

Ruislip Woods

large_6808950-Entrance_to_Park_Wood_Ruislip.jpg
Park Wood

Ruislip may be largely a built-up area today but a significant vestige of its rural roots remains in the large tract of woodland to its north. This is the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London and is important enough to have been designated a National Nature Reserve.

These woods are the remnant of ancient woodland after land was cleared for settlement and crops in medieval times. They consist of four separate woods: Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood and Bayhurst Wood. The woods were mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, when they provided foraging for pigs and timber for building and firewood. Later, timber from these woods was used in the construction of the Tower of London in 1339, Windsor Castle in 1344, the Palace of Westminster in 1346 and the manor of the Black Prince in Kennington. They were coppiced on rotation throughout the years with the timber sold to local tanneries. By the time King's College took ownership of the manor, after it was confiscated from the Abbey, the woods were let for sport, with pheasants kept for shooting.

large_255578356808952-Near_the_ent..od_Ruislip.jpg
Park Wood

Today the woods are crisscrossed with footpaths and bridleways, and many locals (and some from further afield) enjoy walking and riding here. There is a large variety of tree, plant and animal species. The most common trees are hornbeam, oak and beech – in particular, the mixture of hornbeam and beech in Bayhurst Wood is considered unusual. The information board below gives some idea of the extent of the woods still standing here.

large_P1000171b.jpg
Sign in Park Wood

Modernist houses

In Park Avenue, near the woods, a row of three houses stands out from the rest. A whole estate of these Modernist style houses was planed for this part of Ruislip, but these three were the only ones to have been built. They were designed by the partnership of Connell, Ward & Lucas and completed between 1935 and 1938. They are now Grade II listed, meaning that they are considered of special architectural and historic interest.

808102306808958-Much_rarer_1..ve_Ruislip.jpg
Modernist houses in Park Avenue

The Polish War Memorial

If a local is giving you driving directions to Ruislip it is quite likely that they will tell you to leave the main A40 road out of London ‘at the Polish War Memorial’. This impressive memorial has stood at this junction since 1948 when it was erected to commemorate the contribution of the Polish Air Force to the Allied victory in the Second World War, and to honour those who died. Many of those Polish airmen had been based at nearby Northolt Airport, and many chose to stay on in west London after the war, not wanting to return home to Soviet-occupied Poland.

6808947-Detail_of_the_memorial_Ruislip.jpg
The Polish War Memorial

6808948-Polish_War_Memorial_Ruislip.jpg

The memorial was designed by Mieczysław Lubelski, who had been interned in a concentration camp during the war. It is made from Portland stone and Polish granite, with bronze lettering and a bronze eagle, the symbol of the Polish Air Force.

********************************

I hope you have enjoyed this little wander through my one-time home - a typical and unremarkable London suburb at first glance, but with plenty of history for those who seek it out.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:03 Archived in England Tagged churches buildings trees architecture london history river houses woods family world_war_two Comments (13)

Cracking the code

Bletchley Park

large_P1180909.JPG
Sign at Bletchley Park

We have been meaning to visit Bletchley Park for some time, our desire to do so increased by seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ a few years ago, and finally we went – and immediately decided to return soon! There is so much to see here, and luckily entrance tickets are valid for a year, so a repeat visit makes even more sense.

Background history

In 1938 the mansion of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire became the base for a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School. Tensions in Europe were growing, and their job was to set up and run intelligence activity from the house, chosen for its location near to, but not in, London. When tensions seemed to ease the base was closed down, but reopened when war broke out. The work that was undertaken here became vital to the Allied war effort, with ground-breaking inventions which shaped the future of computing science – a perfect illustration of the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention!

P1180874.JPG
Signage at Bletchley Park

P1180873.JPG
Signage

Today this site is rightly regarded as a hugely significant part of the history of Britain’s role in World War Two, but it might not have been. In the early 1990s there were plans to demolish Bletchley Park and build housing here, as part of the ever-growing new town of Milton Keynes on whose southern fringes it now lies. After public outcry and campaigning Milton Keynes Council was persuaded to declare most of Bletchley Park a conservation area. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and in 1994 opened the site to the public as a museum. With financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from commercial and private sponsors, the museum has gradually grown to become a major attraction – and is continuing to expand and develop additional parts of the site.

Introductory displays

As soon as we arrived, parked the car and started to walk towards the building housing the entrance and visitors centre we were left in doubt where we were, as the stylish signage echoes the coding theme.

We exchanged our pre-purchased online tickets for actual paper ones at the desk and were given a map of the site. The obvious place to start was with the exhibits in the visitor centre, where we watched a short introductory film tells the story of the part played during WW2 by those working at Bletchley Park. There was one of the famous German Enigma machines in a display case (we were to learn much more about these during the course of our visit) and an overview of the processes followed in deciphering enemy messages.

P1180875.JPGP1180876.JPG
Enigma machine

The Enigma machines used a system of rotors to scramble the 26 letters of the alphabet. Its settings were changed daily, based on secret key lists, while some other settings were changed for each message. The receiving station needed to know and use the exact settings employed by the transmitting station to successfully decrypt a message. Much of the work at Bletchley Park focused on identifying the encryption settings each day in order to decipher and translate the messages sent by the German army, air-force and navy.

After exploring these displays, we took a break over a coffee in the café here and studied the map we had been given. It was already clear that we couldn’t see everything on this first visit so we determined our priorities and set off to look around.

The lake

large_P1180878.JPG
View of the Mansion from the lakeside path

Walking around the small lake in the centre of Bletchley Park you can get a good overview of the layout and see how a family estate was transformed into a top-secret base. The mansion lies across the water, looking every bit the small-scale stately home it once was, but scattered on either side are the many huts, wooden and brick, that were built to house the various operations – first just a couple, then growing in number as the war progressed and the work carried out here became ever more critical to the war effort.

P1180879.JPG
Brick huts by the lakeside

Information boards at intervals describe daily life for the staff working here – the hardships (long shifts, spartan conditions (especially in the winter months) and the impossibility of telling anyone, even close family, what you were doing) – but also the small pleasures of games of tennis, skating on the lake in winter, forming friendships and romances.

P1180885.JPGP1180880.JPG
The lake with heron and bluebells

The Mansion

The ground floor of the Mansion, as the old house at the heart of the estate is known, is open to visitors and has a number of rooms of interest. We were welcomed on entering by a docent who told us that photography was allowed, if not for commercial purposes, and recommended that we look up at the ceilings as they are quite varied and attractive – he was right!

P1180894.jpg
The ceiling of one of the Mansion's rooms

The office of Commander Alastair Denniston, head of the British Government Code and Cypher School (known as GC&CS), has been recreated in great detail in the Mansion, and was our first taste of the way in which the atmosphere of those war years has been so effectively captured here. In-trays are full, piles of papers lie on the desks, pencils at the ready, typewriters with sheets inserted. On the notice board are announcements of a dance and a concert (social activities were seen as very important in keeping morale high), and a reminder to ‘carry your identity card always’.

large_P1180888.jpg
Commander Alastair Denniston's office in the Mansion

A sign describes a historic meeting which took place in this room in February 1941, which it credits as ‘the beginning of the United Kingdom / United States special relationship’. Four US military personnel came to Bletchley Park to discuss an exchange of information on Japanese and German codes and cyphers. This was some months before the US was to enter the war, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even those working here were unaware of the visit, apart from Dennison, his senior team and his personal assistant, recruited to the meeting to ‘pour glasses of sherry’.

The library at the other end of the hallway is similarly recreated to show as it would have looked when in use as a Naval Intelligence office. There are cigarette stubs in the ashtrays and empty, coffee-stained cups beside them. Hats and coats hang on the coat-stand and a cardigan is draped over the back of a chair with a handbag carelessly left on its seat. As elsewhere, the re-creation is based on old photographs and accounts of those who once worked here.

P1180891.JPG
In the library

P1180890.JPG
P1180892.jpg

Other rooms in the Mansion are used for exhibitions, one of which is devoted to the Roll of Honour which lists all those believed to have worked in signals intelligence during World War Two, both at Bletchley Park and at other locations. There are photos of a few of them, sound recordings of the memories of just a handful, and an online resource which relatives can use to search for information on ancestors who worked here.

There was also a special temporary exhibition on the work of one of the most significant of the codebreakers, Bill Tutte, whose research in the field of graph theory was of enormous importance in the development of the techniques used here. I have to say though that the explanations of his work and its application to codebreaking were well over my head! I therefore quote Wikipedia on the significance of his achievements:
‘During the Second World War, he made a brilliant and fundamental advance in cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher, a major Nazi German cipher system which was used for top-secret communications within the Wehrmacht High Command. The high-level, strategic nature of the intelligence obtained from Tutte's crucial breakthrough, in the bulk decrypting of Lorenz-enciphered messages specifically, contributed greatly, and perhaps even decisively, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.’

The garages

P1180895.JPGP1180897.JPG
Stable block, and Sunbeam Tourer detail

Behind the Mansion are the garages in what was once the stable block, which house several interesting vehicles. They include a Sunbeam Tourer used in the 2001 film ‘Enigma’ starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, which we hadn’t seen but which sounds interesting – I plan to look out for it.

There is also a 1938 Austin Ambulance, used for the same film and also for the TV series ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, which I have seen. It tells the story of a young evacuee and stars John Thaw. Both vehicles were donated to Bletchley Park by the film company, owned by Mick Jagger, which made ‘Enigma’.

P1180899.JPGP1180900.JPG
1938 Austin Ambulance

The cottages

Next to the garages is a row of cottages around a stable-yard, presumably built to house staff when this was still a family estate. These were the location for some of the early codebreaking successes, before the various huts were built to accommodate the fast-growing operations here. It was in these cottages that Enigma was first cracked by an all-British team including Dilly Knox, Mavis Lever and Alan Turing. They aren't open to the public - I got the impression that they are in use as private residences.

large_P1180902.JPG
The Cottages

Hut 3

The highlights of our visit for me were the codebreaking huts, numbered 3 and 6. In these huts Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence. They have been brilliantly restored and presented in a fashion that recreates the war-time atmosphere, bringing to life the world of the codebreakers in a way that makes the huts seem almost haunted by them. The rooms are ‘dressed’ to resemble what they once were when the codebreakers worked there, and as you enter each you can hear the voices of actors engaged in realistic conversations about their work, and also their off-duty lives. In some rooms there are also projections of actors on the walls, but I think I found those where there was only audio the most effective of all.

P1180908.JPGP1180923.JPG
Corridor and desk in Hut 3

A sign as you enter Hut 3 explains:
‘You are now standing in one of the most secret areas of BP where deciphered messages were translated and analysed. Early on in the war the resulting intelligence was sent to MI6 and a limited number of senior army and RAF personnel. The evocative sights and sounds will help you to imagine what happened here. The scenes are set in 1940-41, and are based on the words and memories of BP veterans.’

P1180904.JPGP1180905.JPG
Teleprinter office, Hut 3

One of the larger rooms is that which housed the Watch, where a sign explains:
‘Work at BP went on round the clock. In this room there were four Watchkeepers on each shift, led by Watch 1. Most were civilian experts on German, able to fill any gaps in the deciphered messages before translating them. As they had no military experience, special Military Advisers helped compile the final reports.’

large_P1180910.JPG
The Watch

P1180915.JPG
In the Watch

85f203d0-765c-11e9-95f9-a7a6a85d7681.JPG

Hut 6

This was perhaps the beating heart of Bletchley Park. According to its sign,
‘Some of the most important codebreaking of the war took place in this hut. Little survives to tell us what it looked like inside, but the hut itself remains a witness to those tense times. Images, props, sounds and words are based on Veterans’ recollections and photographs taken later in WW2. They help to conjure up events here on just one date – 28 February 1941 – the day a crucial enemy cipher was broken.’

large_P1180920.JPG
A room in Hut 6

large_P1180917.JPG
The corner of an office, Hut 6

To capture the sound, as well the images, of this hut I shot some bits of video in a few of the rooms, which I later edited together:

We took a break at this point to eat a light lunch in Hut 4 which was formerly a WW2 naval intelligence codebreaking hut, but which now houses the café. Then we continued our explorations in another of the restored huts.

Hut 8

While the work in Huts 3 and 6 was focused on German army and air-force messages, Hut 8 was devoted to cracking the even tougher to decode naval messages. It was here that the famous Alan Turing did his most famous work, concentrating on this more complex Naval Enigma because ‘no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself.’ Turing devised a number of techniques to speed up the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish Bombe method, which used a machine (a forerunner of today’s computers) to work out the settings for the Enigma machine. This work ultimately enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped to win, and to shorten, the war. His office in Hut 8 has been recreated exactly as it would have looked in World War Two.

large_P1180926.JPG
large_P1180924.JPG
Alan Turing's office

Other parts of this hut are devoted to hand-on ‘experiments’ illustrating ideas about probability and chance, and explaining how these are critical to an understanding of codebreaking. The codebreakers looked for what they called ‘cribs’ – predictable repeated phrases (e.g. weather reports) which could give a clue to the day’s encryption settings.

Huts 11 and 11A

P1180929.JPG
In the window of one of the huts

Our final stop for the day was in the huts which housed the Bombe machines, developed by Alan Turing from some earlier Polish ones which had been shared with the Allies at the outbreak of war. The machines featured multiple drums representing the rotors of an Enigma machine, which could whizz through all the different possible permutations for the settings each day. Hundreds of these machines were operated by Wrens, here and in outstations in other parts of the country. It was boring and oppressive work, with the women running the machines during long shifts in dark, stuffy rooms, as the displays here make clear.

By now though the museum was getting busier, including with several school groups, and it was harder both to study the displays and to take photos. We found it difficult to follow the detailed explanations of the technology behind the Bombes, so decided in the end to leave this section and the other remaining buildings until the future visit we had already determined to make.

But if you can’t wait till then to find out more about the Bombes, check out the museum’s website’s description of its Bombe Breakthrough exhibits.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:25 Archived in England Tagged lakes architecture history museum details world_war_two Comments (13)

A Breath of Fresh Air

Grinton

large_P1110613.jpg
Swaledale

The Yorkshire Dales are one of the loveliest parts of England, and Swaledale one of the loveliest dales, though less well known than its neighbour to the south, Wensleydale. Near the head of Swaledale is the quiet village of Grinton. It isn’t particularly on the tourist trail, though connoisseurs of the English countryside may find their way here, as may fans of the James Herriot books which were set near this part of Yorkshire.

We know it however as the village where my father-in-law, John, spent several happy years as a boy, having been evacuated here to escape the war-time bombing of Tyneside. Although a city boy by birth, he fell in love with the beautiful countryside and the rural way of life, and continued to visit here regularly for the rest of his life, bringing us with him on many occasions. When he died in 2009 we followed his wishes and scattered his ashes on the moor above Grinton. Thus the place that had meant so much to him became his final resting place.

large_40266b90-57ce-11e9-89ef-57573ef164df.JPG
Grinton Moor

The house where John lived as a boy was home to a gamekeeper, Billy Holland, and his wife. Nowadays it has become part of the pub next door to form the Bridge Inn, and we visit annually to meet up with the Hollands’ two daughters and their husbands, bringing John’s two sisters, May (who was also evacuated here) and Gloria (just a baby during the war and considered too young to leave her mother). It’s a chance for that generation to reminisce about the old days and for us to enjoy their stories.

large_4699059-The_Bridge_Inn_Grinton_Grinton.jpg
The Bridge Inn

P1000236.jpg
May, Chris and Gloria outside the Bridge Inn

Some years ago my mother-in-law Teresa captured John’s stories as part of the BBC’s ‘People’s War’ project in a piece they called ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’, and I’ve included some extracts here. I hope you enjoy them as much as we have done and will come to understand just why this place meant so much to John, and why his memory will live on here for all of us.

St. Andrew's Church

large_4699047-St_Andrews_Church_Grinton_Grinton.jpg
St. Andrew's Church

I have seen this church referred to as “the Cathedral of the Dale”, which sounds very grand for what is simply a rather peaceful old parish church. The oldest part of the Church is Norman, showing that there has been a church here for over 900 years, and it is thought that there may even have been a Saxon Church here prior to that.

Most of the present-day building though dates from the fourteen to sixteenth centuries. Although I have been there several times, it is only now, researching for this page, that I have found out much about it.

The original Norman church was only the nave to the Chancel steps of the current church with the aisles being added in the 16th Century. The font, a small window in the west wall and the chancel arch are all that now remain of the original Norman church.

The wood screen in the chancel was carved in the 14th century. The Lepers’ squint, a small window in the screen, was designed to allow those who suffered from leprosy and were not allowed in to the church to see what was happening and take part in the service.

The church floor is 3 to 4 feet lower than the churchyard level. It is the original level of the church. The height difference is apparently due to all the burials over the last 900 years which have raised the churchyard by this amount.

The 1718 inscription over the pulpit is the date when the pews were installed. Until then there were no seats, the parishioners sat or knelt on the floor. It was only during the Reformation period that pews were installed in churches. The tower was also a 16th century addition.

P81900351.jpg

4699053-John_in_the_village_church_Grinton.jpg
John in St Andrews Church

My father-in-law had many happy memories of this church. In ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ he said:
‘Mrs. Holland played the organ in the local church so we found ourselves at services three times on a Sunday. Sometimes I was allowed to pump up the organ for her. I was also in the choir and sang solo until my voice broke. I never thought then that one day I would return to Grinton with my family, visit the church, see the organ and sit in a pew reminiscing.’

Grinton Moor

P1110617.jpg
Swaledale

Swaledale’s scenery is characterised by its green valley dotted with trees; fields above dotted with white sheep and separated by the traditional drystone walls; and windswept heather moorland beyond these. This landscape may look in places like nature at its wildest but in truth was created by a combination of traditional farming practices and lead mining.

While sheep farmers gradually enclosed the lower slopes to create this characteristic mosaic of dry-stone walled compartments and stone field barns, the spoil heaps and scars of the lead mining industry are responsible for much of the barren and bleaker parts of the dale especially on the moorland. You will also see occasional ruined stone mine buildings up on these moors.

Swaledale is part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the moors are therefore protected. There are many footpaths crisscrossing the moors, and a walk up here will certainly blow the city cobwebs away!

My photo below shows the special spot above Grinton where Chris scattered his father’s ashes last August. The purple heather makes a fitting resting place for a man who loved this landscape and who came to feel so at home here as a young boy.

large_4699049-Grinton_Moor_Grinton.jpg
Grinton Moor

Here are some more extracts from ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’

‘We arrived in Grinton, Swaledale, ten miles west of Richmond, Yorkshire, into the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. I knew nothing about the countryside at that time. George and I were billeted with a young, newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Holland....

The house where I lived is now part of the Bridge Hotel. The first memory of the village was the silence and the lack of noise from trams, trains, ships’ hooters and the like. Also the sound of unfamiliar birds each morning. We had no timepiece in the bedroom and consequently always being hungry I found I was first up each morning! The house was a big, two-storied building adjoining the Bridge Hotel at the side and the back so there was no back entrance. … It fronted the main road to Reeth, a village about a mile away. It had three steps down leading to a sunken patio. The door led to a cosy living room with a coal fire. Here we took our meals and relaxed in the evenings listening to the battery-operated wireless, or, in the case of Mr. Holland, dozing by the fire. Sometimes he would be nursing George and the two of them would be fast asleep in the wooden slatted rocking chair!

IMG_0229a.jpg
Chris and May at the Bridge Inn

P1110610.jpg
In the Bridge Inn
- I believe this is the
former Sunday Parlour

Paraffin lamps provided the lighting (there being no gas or electricity) and the cooking was done on two primus stoves or on the grill above the coal fire. There was a highly polished fender surrounding the fire.

A door to the left led to the Sunday Parlour. It was rarely used at any other time. On a rack in the corner were Mr. Holland’s two 12 bore shot guns, (he was employed as shepherd/acting gamekeeper) and later a 303 calibre Enfield rifle, which was supplied when he joined the LDV (later to become the Home Guard). Also in the rack was a selection of walking sticks and umbrellas.

To the right leading off the living room was the kitchen. This had a sink (cold water only). The two primus stoves stood on a bench. Off the kitchen was a walk-in pantry. The shelves held a number of the previous year’s storage jars of home-made jams and chutneys. It also had a stone slab for “perishables”. The milk was delivered in a churn from where the milkman used a dipper to measure the required amount into Mrs. Holland’s large enamel milk jug. The milk float had rubber tyres and was pulled by a horse.

A staircase led to the three bedrooms upstairs. At one time the third bedroom was occupied by an elderly lady from London. She was kind to me but didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mr. and Mrs. Holland and returned to London soon afterwards. We all went to bed by the light of a candle. My household chores commenced early each morning when I primed the two stoves and lit the fire, which I set with cowlings (a form of dried heather) and coal…

The nearest school, Fremington, was located about one mile to the north but only catered for children up to the age of eleven, so they had no facilities for a couple of us. One of the Government slogans at that time was ‘Dig for Victory’ so the schoolteacher put us to work growing vegetables in the school garden. Mr. Holland and I dug up the Vicar’s tennis court and we planted more vegetables. The fresh air gave us quite an appetite and we were very well fed. We developed muscles and in the summer sported healthy suntans….

At first George was homesick and set off to walk to Gateshead regularly but his legs didn’t carry him very far and I was able to bring him back. I remember Mr. Holland sitting some evenings with George, teaching him to read and write. George was a great favourite in the village. When not at school he would sit with his legs dangling over the bridge which spanned the river singing some of the bawdy songs the cattle drovers had taught him in Gateshead. This greatly amused the villagers although I suspect they couldn’t understand his Geordie accent.…

large_P1110616.jpg
On Grinton Moor

There were no buses at all but our entertainments included an occasional silent film show given by the Vicar — usually featuring Charlie Chaplin — a great favourite. We listened avidly to the battery radio as we had no gas or electricity. Once Gateshead Council arranged for us to be taken to the Zetland Cinema in Richmond — another treat! The film was ‘Pinnochio’.

They also arranged for my mother, two younger members of the family and my cousin to visit us twice. Each week we wrote letters home and each week we received a postal order for 6d [2.5p in today’s decimal currency]. Of this, I got 2d, George and May also 2d. Mr. Holland cut a slot in an empty Fynnon Salts tin and this was for my savings. Other outings included trips with Mrs. Holland to the Women’s Institute. They had a small library on the premises so I spent the time reading. I remember on one occasion Mrs. Holland discovered me reading a book she considered unsuitable so she removed it.

She bottled all sorts of jams and preserves, some of which were donated to the local Fayres. The recipes were taken from Mr. Woolton’s radio programme. He was the Minister of Food. Sometimes I was allowed to go on her bike for the shopping in Reeth. Another treat was to ride pillion when Mr. Holland and I mended the fencing. Other times I was allowed to visit his four gun dogs which were kennelled away from the house….

The Vicar had an orchard from where we were allowed to pick up and eat the windfall fruit. What we couldn’t eat my pal and I squirreled away in the hollow of an old tree. We also tickled trout in the beck. The Vicar was the only person in the village (apart from the Post Office) who owned a telephone. He was also the A.R.P. warden and one occasion he went around the village with a hand-bell to announce that a land-mine had been dropped on Grinton Moor leaving a huge crater but not doing any damage. The following day I went up and picked up a piece of shrapnel and a length of multi-coloured parachute cord. I was fascinated.

large_P1110614.jpg
On Grinton Moor

Life in 1941 carried on as usual but the outstanding memory of it was the winter. This was particularly severe. Mr. Holland’s sheep were kept up on the moors and during the winter they would take shelter in the lee of the dry-stone walls and fences. Unfortunately this was where the snow drifted and a considerable time was spent digging them out. Mr. Holland and the dogs knew exactly where to look for them and consequently we managed to save the majority. But as the winter dragged on we were digging out dead sheep. These we attached to the spade with rope and dragged by the horns to a nearby bog where they immediately sank. This I found very upsetting and exhausting but Mrs. Holland had a meal ready for us with home-made stout to wash it down with! Sheer heaven.

By 1942 I was well and truly a Yorkshireman and delighted in it. I even spoke their dialect. ... Unfortunately Gateshead Council decided I was now old enough to be bombed so they instructed me to return home. I was nearing school-leaving age (14) and was required to collect my School-leaving Certificate and find a job. My brother and sister were too young to remain on their own so they returned home with me. I don’t remember much of the parting except that it happened very quickly and my elder brother came to collect us, but I did not feel I had said a proper “goodbye” to Mr. and Mrs. Holland and my friends....’

large_3e5e55c0-57ce-11e9-89ef-57573ef164df.JPG
On Grinton Moor

I hope some of you will have enjoyed reading these first-hand reminiscences about the war years and what it was like for a city boy to find himself living in such a very different environment. Although of course things have changed since then in Grinton, life still moves at a slower pace in this corner of England and the village that John knew is still very recognisable – and well worth a visit.

IMG_0749.JPG
Grinton Lodge with sheep

P1110608.jpg
Swaledale sheep and dry walls

And if you do come, have a meal or a drink in the Bridge Inn and raise a glass to John and the family which welcomed him and George into their home, just as so many other families welcomed the children of strangers during those years.

P81800341.jpg
Sunday dinner at the Bridge Inn
- when my in-laws were still with us

Posted by ToonSarah 11:07 Archived in England Tagged landscapes churches history views village family war_and_peace world_war_two Comments (16)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 17) Page [1] 2 3 4 »