Two go exploring in Glenridding

We used to call in at Glenridding quite often, usually to go walking. There are some great paths on the lower fells between the village and the slopes of Helvellyn which dominate it, and some pretty amazing industrial archaeology left over from the area’s lead mining heritage. But for the last couple of years we haven’t been.

Partly this was due to lack of time, but also partly because the village (and indeed the whole area) was so badly devastated by Storm Desmond that it was too upsetting to go back. However, Desmond’s catastrophic floods, and the three more that followed so quickly afterwards, are more than two years ago now, and repairs have been going on in the village for the whole of that time. The Tourist Information Office, almost completely washed away, has been rebuilt, the beck which overflowed to such terrible effect newly lined with thick stone walls, and the Glenridding Hotel, which flooded four times, has been dried out and re-opened. So on Saturday we decided to go back.

It was a bitterly cold day with a wind strong enough to whip up waves on Ullswater. We started off by the water, with a coffee at the Pier House. This is really a glorified ticket office for boat trips on the lake, but it a few tables and chairs, teas, coffees and cake, a tiny gift shop, and the most amazing views.

After defrosting over our coffees we pottered round the pier, taking photos of the boats, the water and the village rooftops against a backdrop of the high snow-clad fells. It was too cold to hang round for long, though, so we marched back to the village and explored the lanes on both sides of Glenridding Beck. One leads to the village hall and a wonderful farmhouse whose round chimneys suggest a fifteenth or sixteenth century date. The other side passes the Travellers Rest pub then continues past lines of isolated miners’ cottages to the old Greenside lead mine, site of a disaster in 1927 when a dam burst on one of the reservoirs used to run the machinery and, er, flooded the village. It seems to be rather prone to that!

We didn’t make it quite as far as the mine this time but we had a good wander about and I took loads more photos of the cottages, and the fells which were bathed in dramatic, stormy light.

There are still a few scars on the village and the surrounding landscape which will take time to fade. But given the scale of the flooding, and film footage I’ve seen of the beck in spate, it’s wonderful that they’ve come this far with the recovery efforts. We’ll definitely be heading back.

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Stormy light over the head of Ullswater, with the high fells in thick cloud.

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Mine workers’ cottages on the way to Greenside mine.

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An unusually helpful Herdwick posing to have its picture taken…

 

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Friday Five: inspiration for Greystones

There’s no such place as Greystones Hall, of course. The house, a rambling and terrifically haunted manor which features in my latest book Got Ghosts?, is a product of my own fevered imagination. The library, the chapel, the minstrels’ gallery, the attics, even the cellar, are purely fictional.

And yet… are they? Mostly the answer is still yes, but I did draw on my love of old English homes for inspiration. In particular, a group of ancient, fascinating, and sometimes haunted houses and castles that I’ve visited over the years, which include the following:

Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

This wonderful old Cotswolds house gave me the idea of somewhere that’s been added to, piecemeal, over many centuries. It has two distinct ‘wings’ in very different styles, and looks either Jacobean or Georgian depending on which direction you’re viewing it from. In the early 20th century its owner, the eccentric Charles Paget Wade, filled it to bursting with his own collections of antiques, models, and historical costumes including an entire army of Samurai armour! Now owned by the National Trust, and worth a visit to poke around.

Muncaster Castle, Cumbria

P1000984Based around a fourteenth century pele tower, this atmospheric castle is reputed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. Ghosts include the invisible Tom Fool, and a little girl heard crying, who is believed to be Margaret Pennington. The castle’s most haunted room (allegedly) is a bedroom which is rather stage-set these days: painted in cold dark colours and with noticeably less heating and lighting than the other rooms. However, during a visit a few years ago I noticed a very odd atmosphere in a downstairs room, so perhaps the rumours are true…

Sizergh Castle, Cumbria

P1020492Another wonderfully romantic and atmospheric castle dating back to medieval times, this home has been continuously occupied by the same family, the Stricklands, since 1239. It provided some of the inspiration for the feeling of Greystones Hall having been lived in ‘for ever’. It also has a couple of “secret” rooms and a chapel, built into the thickness of the pele tower walls.

Harvington Hall, Worcestershire

harvington_frontHarvington is an incredible survivor of the religious turmoil of Tudor and Elizabethan times, which housed a Catholic family during the reign of Elizabeth I, and was rebuilt to include an incredible set of hiding places for their priests, known as priest holes. At the last count I believe there were about ten – two for church vessels and the rest for the priests themselves. In Got Ghosts? I simplified this quite a bit, but the idea of having one priest hole leading into another came from Harvington. It’s still owned by the Catholic church and well worth a visit.

Greystones Hall?

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Bits of all these houses, and probably others too, came together in my mind as the whole of Greystones. However, individually they’re probably all too large and grand for what I had in mind, which was a low-built, rambling family home rather than something stately. For this reason, this photo (borrowed from the internet!) is probably closer to the “real” Greystones Hall. Sadly, in spite of researching extensively, I don’t know much about it, except that it’s probably set in the Cotswolds. If anyone recognises it and can tell me more, I’ll be delighted.

Friday Five: time-shift novels

P1030049I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of different time lines, or time that moves in different ways in different places. So it’s hardly a surprise that some of my favourite books share this subject:

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe: C S Lewis

I loved this book as a kid – the adventure, the talking animals, but most of all the concept that people could grow into adults in another world, then come back home and have only aged by seconds. The later book The Magician’s Nephew examines the whole subject in more detail but this was the one I read first and it remains a favourite.

Tom’s Midnight Garden: Philippa Pearce

Another classic, this time using the device of a beautiful garden as a kind of ‘time portal’ for a young lad to go back into the grand Victorian past of the house he’s staying in. I loved it as a kid and I still love it now – the descriptions of the past are vivid and magical and the explanation comes as a complete – but satisfying – surprise.

The House on the Strand: Daphne du Maurier

Not one of du Maurier’s better known works but it should be in my opinion! This time it’s an experimental drug which appears to send the book’s narrator into the past, based around the (real) village of Tywardreath in Cornwall. The medieval landscape and characters are brought to life so strongly it’s as though we’re walking the same paths and streets as Dick. Quite possibly my favourite book of all time, with a terrific knock-out punch of a twist.

The Time Traveller’s Wife: Audrey Niffenegger

A much more recent book that plays wonderfully with the concept of time, by having it passing in different directions for two characters who meet and fall in love, at totally different stages of their lives. For me, the violent ending spoiled the poignancy of the rest of the book, but I still loved the sheer originality and the deeply unusual romance.

Roses in December: Fiona Glass

*cough* One of mine included on the list. But given how much I loved most of the above, it’s hardly surprising I’d try my hand at a similar theme myself. Like Tom’s Midnight Garden, in Roses it’s a garden which acts as a portal for characters to slip between past and present, with shocking but ultimately heart-warming results. It’s currently out of print but I’m hopeful of getting it re-published at some point.

Most Haunted: real, fake, or somewhere in between?

Most-Haunted-Derek-Acorah-and-Yvette-Fielding-679x382I don’t know if anyone else remembers Most Haunted, the incredibly popular ghost-hunting show that was all the rage on Cable TV a few years ago? It starred (amongst others) former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding and a well-known medium called Derek Acorah, and each episode visited a different haunted property or location to film the ghosts.

From that write-up you’ll guess that it provided inspiration for my own book ‘Got Ghosts?’. However, where the Got Ghosts? mob are a pretty dodgy lot, I’ve never entirely made up my mind about Most Haunted. But I do still have my doubts, and now you can read about those doubts over at The Spooky Isles magazine.

While you’re there, check out some of the other articles because they have a wide range of paranormal and supernatural stuff from Britain and Ireland: ghosts, history, TV and film reviews, folklore to name but a few.

Historical, not hysterical!

Friend and fellow Westmorland Writer member Deborah Swift has been kind enough to run a guest (ghost?) blog post of mine on the background to Got Ghosts?

Since Deborah writes historical novels (including The Gilded Lily and Pleasing Mr Pepys), I wanted something that would be vaguely interesting to her readers, so rather than concentrating on the ghosts, I looked back over some of the historical influences on the book. These include stately homes, artworks, priest holes, and Lord Byron – but to find out more, why not head over to Deborah’s blog and check out the details? Hopefully they’re more historical than hysterical, as the title suggests.

Mr Pepys is pleased

pepysYesterday afternoon I trotted along to Windermere library to hear a talk by local author Deborah Swift about her new book, Pleasing Mr Pepys. You may remember that I was hoping to attend the launch for this book a couple of weeks ago, only to be driven back by flash floods. This time, in spite of ex-Hurricane Ophelia bearing down on the town, I prevailed, and I’m really glad I did.

The talk was great fun. Deborah spent a good twenty minutes giving us some background on Samuel Pepys (pronounced ‘peeps’) – a seventeenth century bigwig in the English Admiralty who kept a series of diaries which are both entertaining and exceptionally useful for historical research. The diaries depict him as something of a loveable rogue but he was also a serial womaniser who seems to have chased after anything in skirts!

Three of the women in his life feature in Pleasing Mr Pepys – his French wife Elizabeth, a rather superior maid-cum-companion called Deb, and an actress who was also a spy. Deborah weaves a plot full of intrigue and excitement around these three women and Samuel himself, and cleverly, she does it within the confines of events and descriptions from his own diaries.

The book sounds like an absolute blast. Deborah read out an excerpt from the first chapter which had us all on the edge of our seats – and by way of contrast, also read a couple of brief extracts of Samuel Pepys’s own diaries to show us the language, style and sheer detail of his entries.

And on top of that, we had tea, cake and a chance for a good natter afterwards. Not bad value for the princely sum of £1!

Mr Pepys is set to appear in two follow-up volumes, including A Plague on Mr Pepys. So if 17th century intrigue and naughtiness is your thing, grab this one and make sure you look out for that, too.

Friday Five – Windermere ‘peaks’

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I’m cheating a tiny bit with this one. There is indeed a flippantly-named “Windermere Three Peaks Challenge” which takes in three of the low hills at the back of the town (Orrest Head, School Knott and Brant Fell). However, two others are so close to the route that they might just as well be on it, so five it is.

Orrest Head

This was the very first Lakeland fell that Alfred Wainwright climbed, during a day trip to the area on the train. He was so bowled over by the view from the top that he vowed there and then to move to the Lake District and write a series of guidebooks to the fells.  The rest is history. The view is spectacular for such a low hill; it’s one of the few places you can see most of England’s longest lake from. The local council and/or charities are in the process of making the summit fully accessible – no bad thing as there’s a tricky, scrambly rock section just below the top which invariably defeats me. Although pushing a wheelchair up the steep hairpins to reach the top might be quite a feat.

School Knott

You can see the prominence of School Knott from almost everywhere in the town, poking up above the rooftops. It’s not massive at 760′ above sea level but the walk up it is surprisingly steep and goes through some varied and stunning scenery. I actually prefer the ‘back route’ via the old Droomer farm and bridleway, which takes you up to the pretty School Knott Tarn before heading up a grassy slope to the top. The view of the Lakeland Fells, and parts of Windermere lake, is lovely.

Grandsire

This oddly-named fell is separated from School Knott by the tarn, and by a horribly rickety stile which you really don’t want to tackle twice on the same walk.  It’s higher (818′) than its neighbour, and also rockier, and you get a real feeling of having ‘climbed’ something once you get to the top. The view is less of the lake and more of the eastern fells and the low undulating countryside between Windermere and Troutbeck, but no less beautiful for that.

Post Knott

A lovely Sunday afternoon stroll up the steep streets at the back of Bowness, then through woodland dotted with slate benches set into the thickness of the stone wall, takes you to the top of this locally-popular look-out point and picnic site. There’s a lovely view of the lake and the rooftops of the old bit of Bowness, lots of rabbits, and a small tarn where deer sometimes come to drink.

Brant Fell

Down a bit and then up a lot from Post Knott is the abrupt little Brant Fell, which looks almost like a tiny volcano from some directions.  It’s a steep climb and you need plenty of puff to get to the 629′ top, but again the reward is stunning views, plus some odd bits of stonework which are all that remains of an old summerhouse, destroyed by fire (according to the small print in Wainwright’s ‘The Outlying Fells of Lakeland’). Combining this with Post Knott (actually it’s quite hard not to) makes an enjoyable walk on a sunny afternoon.

Here’s a shot of the view over Windermere (town) to Windermere (lake) from School Knott.

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Two go exploring in Appleby

For a complete change on Saturday we headed to the east of Cumbria, to a small town we’d never been to before – Appleby, or Appleby-in-Westmorland to give it its full name.

Appleby lies on the River Eden not far from the Pennine heights of Cross Fell, Great Dun Fell and the like. It’s famous for a number of reasons – being the only town to retain the original county name of Westmorland in its title; holding an annual horse fair which attracts hundreds of travellers and horse traders, many in colourful traditional caravans; and flooding with monotonous regularity. It flooded during Storm Desmond, and the effects are still being felt. Indeed, there was a massive earth-mover trundling around in the river bed while we were walking around, no doubt carrying out dredging or restructuring of some sort.

Appleby is also a very ancient settlement, with a Norman church and a castle that dates back to around 1100, and many beautiful old houses surrounding the market place, the main street up the hill towards the castle, and the river crossing. It’s surprisingly small, though, with a population of only around 3,000.  We were both expecting something a little larger, with more streets, more shops, more cafes, more, well, everything really!

We had a good potter round anyway and took lots of photos. But there was a keen wind blowing off the river, the temperature was only about 11c, there’s an admission charge to go in the castle (even though it’s a hotel?!), and we sort of ran out of things to do. I was particularly annoyed about the castle, as it’s reputed to be haunted and holds regular paranormal tours and events, but the main bit was closed on Saturday anyway. So we hopped in the car and headed back to the pretty village of Orton, in the moors a few miles to the south, where we had an excellent home-made lunch at the Orton Scar café and came away with a neat little wooden cabinet for the kitchen wall.

It was lovely to see Appleby; it’s old and full of character and interesting nooks and crannies, and on a warmer day we’d have been tempted to do a long walk along the banks of the river. As it is, we’ll almost certainly go back some day for another look. As long as it isn’t under water!

Here’s a handful of photos of the church, the castle and the main street.  Oh, and that digger in the river, which suddenly decided to drive straight at me while I was taking the photo!

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Friday Five – unusual historicals

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There’s a tendency sometimes for historical novels to be set in very similar time periods – Henry VIII, the English Civil War, Victorian Britain.  So it’s a breath of fresh air to discover books set in some much more unusual times and places that you might not otherwise have come across.  Here’s a handful I’ve read over the years.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Beautiful, lyrical and incredibly authentic story set in medieval Japan, with all the elements of Japanese literature including romance, destruction and tragedy. I believe it’s actually a YA title, but really doesn’t read like it and tackles some amazingly adult themes.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

This is actually set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, but stands out for two reasons.  One is the sheer sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds of the time, which gives it a strong sense of authenticity. The other is that the main character is a gay man.  The romance is affecting, the characters strongly drawn, and I found it hard to put down.

Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu

A simply extraordinary book written by an Israeli author and translated into English in a volume I found in a second hand book store in London. The story involves another gay man struggling to cope with marriage, relationships and life in 1840s Damascus, when the city was subdivided into a number of racially divided but surprisingly well integrated quarters. A unique and mesmerising book.

People’s Act of Love by James Meek

A searing romance-cum-historical-cum mystery set against the wilderness backdrop of early twentieth century Siberia during the early years of the Revolution. At times brutal, but also imbued with a mischievous sense of humour – and the final revelation is almost literally to die for!

The Sleeper in the Sands by Tom Holland

A sort of ‘thousand and one nights’ for ancient Egypt, with a storyline that moves from Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to a series of ancient myths and legends that form a story within a story within a story. Slightly confusing at times and I’d have like more about Carter, but it was gripping and unusual.

 

Tales from the Bunker (abridged)

Last weekend was the Heritage Open Days event, when dozens of otherwise inaccessible (or expensive!) historical properties fling open their doors to the general public.  This doesn’t just mean stately homes, but all sorts of smaller, less-well-known, or downright unusual venues.  In previous years we’ve visited everything from Unitarian chapels to art installations in barns, and fascinating they’ve been too.

This year there was a new place on the list – the Cold War bunker under Kendal’s County Hall.  The hall, built in the late 1930s to provide council offices when Kendal was still the county town of Westmorland, is already a listed building – partly because of its architectural style and partly because of that very history.  And for the first time ever, the council were allowing people in to take a look around.  It sounded so amazing that we cancelled all our plans for Saturday and shot into Kendal instead.

The bunker proved to be a lower ground floor, beneath the main council offices but still above ground – and it probably was amazing.  Sadly, the people who’d organised the event had completely underestimated the number of people interested in secret Cold War history.  They’d advertised on local radio and in the local press, and they’d even got the marketing department at Kendal Library to send a mail-shot out.  The result was hordes.  We arrived soon after it opened at 1pm, to find a long queue snaking through the car park, and quiet chaos inside.  And more and more visitors kept on turning up.

Where about 40 had been expected, several hundred arrived.  The building wasn’t designed to cope; corridors became clogged and the ventilation system blew a fuse.  It was packed, uncomfortable, and very, very hot.  And too busy to do more than one tour at once, which meant hanging round in the county archives room for the best part of an hour.

The staff did their best to keep their tempers, keep cheerful, and keep everyone informed.  There were leaflets, books, and maps of the bunker scattered about, and we spent some time scaring ourselves silly reading those.  (The absolute reality of potential nuclear war, back in the mid to late 1960s, was brought crashing home – a bomb on Manchester, for instance, would have wiped out my old family home.)  But in the end we couldn’t take any more.  We had a quick look round the bits that were still accessible, peering over shoulders, round heads and virtually through people’s legs.  We saw some of the control rooms, and a plan of where the 40-or-so occupants would have lived and worked, and the ‘over-pressure’ ventilation system that would have protected them from radioactive fallout and kept them safe.  And then we headed for the exit, and cooler air outdoors.

We’re hoping next year will be better.  Hopefully the organisers will realise just how popular this sort of history is, and arrange timed entry and official guided tours.  If they do, we’ll be at the top of the list, because it really was a window onto another world.  Although if current world events keep going the way we are, we might just need nuclear bunkers all over again!