Exploring England 2015, Part 9 – Surprises, Odds and Ends

Friday, Jan 20, 2017 at 13:40


Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of any trip are the happy surprises that just pop out at you, unplanned and unforeseen. Unprepared as you are, they have the capacity to astonish and delight. Mind you, such surprises can usually only be found by keeping your eyes open and taking the time to look and be curious about what is around the corner. This trip was no exception with many little gems that all combined to make for memorable experiences.

Windmills and watermills were once common in England, used to pump water or to grind grain. Now there is a National Mills Day that occurs annually on the second Sunday in May. On that day many preserved wind and watermills that are usually closed to the general public open their doors and offer an insight into the mills’ workings and history. We were fortunate to attend the open day at the Impington windmill which has been painstakingly restored by its present owners. It was used to grind grain and we learned about how the huge millstones were made up in sections from stone imported from France. We were able to climb inside the mill to see how the huge gear wheels worked. The mill was even turned on for a short while at the end of our visit and we could marvel at the magnificent sight of the slowly turning sails.

Further east in Norfolk the land is very flat and wind-driven pumps were used to drain the fens. The Horsey Wind Pump was minus its sails when we visited, but we were able to see the internal workings of this impressive machine. Elsewhere we also saw a few waterwheels, notably at Tintern where Abbi the 140 year old waterwheel turns for visitors a few times each day. She weighs over 4 tons, turns at 14 rpm and takes 2 minutes to stop – so keep your distance!

Mazes (or labyrinths) have a history dating back thousands of years. While their purpose is now debated some consider them to be places of meditation or penance. In the little village of Hilton is one of only 8 surviving turf mazes in England. It was cut in 1660 and appears to be based on the pattern of the maze in Chartres Cathedral in France. Recently refurbished, it was fenced off so we unable either to meditate or do penance. There is a similar but more recently constructed maze in the cloister garth in Norwich Cathedral. The Cathedral Labyrinth was laid to commemorate the celebration in 2002 of the Golden Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Steam trains lend a touch of romance as they slowly chug through the landscape, steam billowing and whistles wailing, reminding eager visitors of the glory days of steam locomotives. At Sherrington on the Norfolk coast we watched as a little train trundled in the distance towards a picturesque windmill, while from a high point at ancient Corfe Castle we had a closer view of a metal fire breathing dragon.

Chiddingstone village in Kent is considered to be one of the best examples of a Tudor village left in the country. Its perfectly preserved buildings are certainly evocative of times long gone, but it was the small details that caught our attention – the worn cobblestones of the footpath, the stone walls festooned with flowers, the old churchyard with graves clustered close to the church.

Sherborne Fair took us completely by surprise. We had set out to visit Sherborne Castle, one time home of Sir Walter Raleigh. After driving for a while we found that the traffic was becoming increasingly heavy – and all cars were headed for Sherborne. Just like here at home, a paddock or 2 had been turned into a temporary parking lot, so we joined a steady stream of people - and dogs, and went to see what the gathering was all about. A country fair was in full swing, so for several hours we were entertained by aspects of English rural life.

There were displays of all things rural (and some not so rural) – rescue dogs, archery, model boats, dragon boats, Morris men. Farm animals were on display, including rare breeds that we had never seen before, along with traditional wood crafts, sheepdogs herding ducks and pigs, raptors on perches, a tiger moth doing aerobatics. Traditional hearty lunches were for sale after patiently queuing (we were in England after all), after which we sat on a patch of grass along with hundreds of other folk on a rural nostalgia trip. The castle was closed to visitors but we did take a walk around the lake to the old castle, admiring the gardens as we went.

On our way back from Sherborne to our cottage at Puddletown we stopped off for a look at one of numerous figures carved into the chalk downs of Dorset and neighbouring counties. Many of these figures are horses but the Cerne Abbas Giant, also known as the Cerne Giant and the Rude Man, is definitely human and certainly male. It is a chalk drawing of a naked man wielding a club on a hillside and (surprise, surprise) it is apparently the most-visited site in the entire county. Both the identity and date of the Giant remain a mystery, with theories ranging from a prehistoric fertility god to a 17th-century parody of Oliver Cromwell.

On warm summer days we were intrigued by the sight of an English version of a BBQ. Bought in a supermarket, they consist of an aluminium foil tray containing heat beads, with skewers to hold small bits of meat on skewers arranged precariously above. At one camping area there were small cement slabs thoughtfully provided so that the grass below the tray was not scorched. Not much resemblance to a decent Aussie campfire!
While at Puddletown we visited the little village of Tollpuddle, home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. These six men were a group of 19th century Dorset agricultural labourers who were arrested for and convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, a forerunner of modern trade unions. In an era when mechanisation was beginning to affect agricultural working practices for the first time, these Tolpuddle labourers refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to transportation to Australia, arriving here in 1834. Back in England they became popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected for their release. Eventually they were able to return home in 1838. The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum was closed when we were there. It features displays and interactive exhibits about the Martyrs and their effect on trade unionism. A sculpture of the martyrs, made in 2001, now stands in front of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum.

Quaint and curious English place names abound, and the area around the delightful village of Puddletown was a perfect example. The river Piddle runs through the village, and the villages of Tollpuddle, Affpuddle, Piddlehinton and Piddletrenthide are not far away.
English forests are special places, although they are often quite tiny by Aussie standards. We spent a few hours exploring some of the lovely forests around Puddletown. One little patch of Oak forest was carpeted in soft bracken fern and patches of bluebells, with that magic green light that filters down through the canopy, and a gentle rural silence. Nearby in another forest we shared the ambience with trailbike riders adding to the noise of a busy roadway nearby. This forest was full of rhododendrons, the shadows black beneath their tangled branches.
On another walk through a pine plantation not far away we had an unexpected pang of nostalgia when we came across a little patch of gum trees. How did they get there? The oldest might have been 30 or 40 years old and they seemed to be surviving very well, judging by the number of younger trees and seedlings surrounding the parent trees.

We stayed in a cottage on the Welsh borders that was close to the Forest of Dean, once a royal forest used for hunting, where we were able to walk under huge trees and along paths bordered by shoulder high braken. Nearby we visited Symonds Yat an ancient hillfort now covered by thick forest, much of it planted as part of a planned forestry enterprise.

Travelling north from Puddletown we revisited Devises to have another look at the Caen Hill Locks, a flight of sixteen locks in a straight line up the steep hillside that are designated as a scheduled monument. On our previous visit there had been very little traffic through the locks but this time there were boats ascending and descending, squeezing past each other with only inches to spare. Apparently the locks take 5–6 hours to traverse in a boat. Opening the big wooden gates looked like it would be hard work although some of the boat crew made it look easy.

In southern Scotland around Falkirk we visited two sites that give a dramatic twist to the old canals that were originally built for the transport of goods across the country. The advent of railways saw many canals fall into disrepair as they were no longer used. More recently tourism has seen a revival of interest in the canals and many have been repaired and now are used by many narrow boats and other craft. The dramatic Kelpies are 30-metre-high stainless steel horse-head sculptures, standing next to a new extension to the Forth and Clyde Canal. The sculptures represent the significance of the heavy horse of Scottish industry and economy, pulling the wagons, ploughs, barges and coal-ships that shaped the geographical layout of the Falkirk area.

The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift in Scotland, connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. Designers of the wheel decided to create a dramatic 21st-century landmark structure to reconnect the canals, instead of simply recreating the historic lock flight. The wheel has an overall diameter of 35 m and consists of two opposing arms extending 15 m beyond the central axle and taking the shape of a Celtic-inspired, double-headed axe The wheel raises boats by 24 metres, using an amount of energy roughly the same as boiling eight kettles of water to make a half turn of the wheel. We stood in misty drizzle while we watched in amazement as the wheel slowly turned and boats moved in and out of the canals. There is a tourist boat but as we had a long drive ahead we did not experience the wheel from that angle.

We had a brief overnight stop in Oxford, and had just enough time to have a quick look around that famous seat of learning on a quiet Sunday morning. Although many parts of the city are quite ordinary the old part of the town with the Gothic architecture of the university buildings in golden limestone and topped with ornate towers and spires is incredibly beautiful. There are about 35 university colleges and most don’t display their name, or if they do it’s via a very discreet sign. Consequently it was difficult to know which colleges we saw. But the Bodleian Library building was fascinating even if we only saw it from the courtyard. There are signs in Latin above doors leading to different sections, a touch that says much about the value of arcane knowledge. We walked along narrow cobbled streets, past gardens and manicured playing fields down to the Thames, here not more than a small stream but still big enough for punting. A game of cricket was being played on a nearby oval. We wondered about the juxtaposition of wealth, power and privilege with the lofty ideals of education, science and philosophy.

We spent a wonderful week in Scotland where one of the first surprises was to find road signs in Gaelic. Driving towards the west coast we came across the delightful little town of Dochart with their wonderful wide white cascades of tumbling water. We stood in the middle of the ancient stone bridge, along with many visitors to admire the cascades and learn a little of the local history.

While in Scotland a day trip from our base in Benderloch took us to nearby Oban where the houses climb up steep slopes to a curious building with a Roman appearance. But its origin is much more recent, being an attempt by a Victorian era banker to build a family memorial. From its arched structure there are wonderful views out over the harbour from where ferries take locals and visitors to many of the outlying islands. If only we had more time to explore!

Another stop on a cloudy and drizzling day was to visit an underground hydro power station near Loch Awe. A small bus took us a kilometre underground to see the four turbines fed by water stored somewhere way above our heads via tunnels cut through very hard rock. The plant was built in 1964 and is used to provide peak load on the electricity grid.
Later that day we drove down to lovely Inveraray, a Victorian era village that was built all at one time to a unified plan, so unusual in a country where most villages have grown over the centuries. The village sits on the shore near the head of Loch Fyne, which opens to the sea some distance away. The old steam/sail boats tied up (rather permanently it seemed) at the pier evoked more tranquil bygone days, while their “For Sale” signs enticed modern day dreamers.

Our all-too-short time in Scotland ended up with a brief visit to Edinburgh Castle and a walk down the famous Royal Mile, a stretch of road leading from the Castle down towards St. Giles cathedral, the law courts and parliamentary buildings. The buildings are sombre under pale sunlight, but that stretch is redolent of the Scottish Enlightenment and the many famous thinkers and scientists who lived and studied there. We saw statues of Sir Walter Scott, Adam Smith and David Hume while being jostled by tourists from all over the world, all the while hearing the skirl of pipes played by buskers.

So these were some of the little sparkling jewels strung in among the bigger gems of our holiday. They were delightfully unexpected, making a lasting impression on our hearts and minds.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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