Category Archives: History

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.

 

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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!

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A bit more exploring in Kendal

What do you do on a damp September Monday morning, when you’ve had your latest novel rejected and are feeling a bit down in the dumps?  In our case we stuck two fingers up at work and headed into Kendal to do a bit more poking about.  And had a surprisingly fun time again.

This time, we took a leaflet we’d picked up at Oxenholme station, published by Visit Kendal and called Kendal Walking Trails.  Although only small, it contains maps and fascinating facts and figures about three separate walks set in and around the town centre: one taking in culture, one history, and the third various bits of woodland.  We didn’t really have time to tackle all three, or even the whole of any one of them, but set off along one of the routes anyway to see what we could find.

Starting off up the ferociously-named Beast Banks (a former livestock slaughtering area which even Alfred Wainwright describes as “steep”), we tracked down the footpath leading to Castle Howe, the site of Kendal’s first castle.  The current ruin on the eastern side of the River Kent is well-known and plain for any visitor to the town to see.  But how many people realise there was an earlier castle on the slopes to the west of the river?  Probably not many, because it’s tucked away at the back of a load of houses, with barely a sign that it’s there.

Possibly this is because it’s not in the best of repair.  There’s a small and attractive park at the foot of the mound, but the mound itself is muddy and overgrown.  We slithered and clambered around the steep steps and rough paths to the top, and found nothing more than a strange obelisk celebrating the “Glorious Revolution”, a handful of sweetie wrappers and a stunning view.  It would have been nice to have a plaque, perhaps, giving some dates and a sense of the history of the place.  As it was, I’ve taken to Google but can’t find much information, other than that it appears to pre-date the second castle which was begun in 1206.

We slithered back down again and poked about Beast Banks some more, finding a fascinating sign celebrating the life of local architect George Webster, responsible for many of the town’s finest buildings, and a small statue of him perched on a rooftop clutching a scroll of architectural plans.  We also trotted along Garth Heads, a recently restored medieval lane cutting across between Beast Banks and Gillingate, with some intriguing-looking stairways and even narrower lanes to explore another day.  Then it was off to Brew Brothers café for a well-earned lunch.

This time, annoyingly, I forgot my camera so there’s no photos to share.  I’ll try to remember it next time and we can always retrace our steps.

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Why the devil helped to build a church

I was going through some old holiday photos the other day and came across this cheeky little fellow:

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I posted him on my Instagram account, but couldn’t remember much about him, except that I’d snapped him in the northern German town of Lubeck several years ago.  (There’s an umlaut on that ‘u’, by the way, but my WordPress account doesn’t stretch to non-British punctuation. Sigh.)

So I turned to Google for a bit of research, and found this charming post which explains the myth beautifully.

Apparently back in 1250 the townspeople of Lubeck were starting work on their new church, the Marienkirche (St Marys).  The devil saw all the commotion and believed they were building a tavern, so came swooping down to help.  It wasn’t until the building was quite well advanced that he realised he’d been tricked.  Needless to say he was a bit cross, but was prevented from destroying the church when the people promised to build a tavern across the road instead!

The church, the tavern, and a boulder that the devil threatened to destroy the church with, are all still there.  As is this little statue, perched on a stone at the side of the church.  As the author of the blog I quote above says, he may very well be the cutest devil in the world.  He certainly brought a smile to my face.

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Two go exploring in Kendal

Saturday was a day of what’s optimistically described as ‘intermittent showers’, which means it alternates between thick drizzle and bucketing.  We didn’t fancy kicking our heels round the house all day, so buzzed into Kendal with our brollies to do a bit of poking about.

Although the town is only around 10 miles away, and although we pop in and out like the sun on a showery day, we’re usually too busy heading for appointments, or rushing round the shops, to bother exploring.  However, every now and again it’s worth taking the time for a closer look, as this is an ancient and fascinating place.

There was a settlement on the River Kent nearby in Roman times, and the town easily dates from the early Middle Ages.  The market charter dates from 1189, the church is over 800 years old, and the town (often called the ‘auld grey town’ because of its beautiful soft grey limestone walls) still retains its medieval street pattern of high street, market place, and dozens of old ‘yards’.  The latter are a real feature, often opening up into hidden spaces containing old warehouses, cottages, or alms-houses.  And everywhere you look, there’s intriguing details: artwork, old milestones, intriguing signs and plaques, and a plethora of blue, green and brown plaques placed by the local heritage society to mark places of special interest.

This time I deliberately took my camera, and spent a morning (in between showers) happily snapping away.  I took around 30 photos and have barely scratched the surface, so there’s plenty more material for future visits.  Here’s a couple of pictures to give you some idea of the town.  Top is the steep section of Branthwaite Brow; middle is the ‘New’ Shambles!  And the third is the Highgate Hotel, with its wonderful inscription which reads in full ‘To the dwellers in this place God grante peace’.  I’ll be posting more soon, on my Instagram account.

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Two go exploring in Coniston

For the last week or so I’ve had a heavy cold, and been viewing the world from the sofa, and the wrong side of a box of tissues.  Yesterday I finally felt well enough to venture outdoors, so we set off for Coniston, early enough to avoid the summer crowds.  Actually we arrived so early none of the coffee shops were open, so we headed off up the back lanes, to an area we’d never really explored before.  This involved a lane past the Sun Hotel, and then a track which led off past the old farm of Dixon Ground (which apparently dates back to the 1760s) towards Church Beck and the fells.

The whole area was fascinating.  There were old wells, vast stone barns, strange architectural features, a footbridge over the beck that we’d never seen before, and piled everywhere, bits of industrial salvage from chimney pots to digger buckets – possibly, in many cases, left over from the local mining industry.

It made for an enjoyable potter about – and some spectacular photographs.  Sadly my legs were still too jelly-like to do a proper walk, but we’ve bagged and tagged the route for another time and will be seeing if we can use it to get as far as Levers Water and Low Water, the two tarns on the slopes of Coniston Old Man.

By the time we got back down to the village the cafes had opened so we could dart in for a cuppa.  And after that we discovered a huge vintage ‘shop’ (really more of a market) in Coniston village hall, simply bursting with goodies at amazingly sensible prices, and I treated myself to a trio (cup saucer and plate) and a pretty little perfume bottle.

Here are some of the pictures showing the farm itself, various outbuildings, a strange low door with a sign that says ‘Bend or Bump’, and some of the weird industrial bits and bobs.

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