Exploring England 2012 – Yorkshire

Friday, Jul 27, 2012 at 19:34

Member - John and Val

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The sun was still shining when we left Stables Cottage in the Lakes District, though it was quite windy. It was Saturday and the traffic was surprisingly light as we drove across to Kendall. From there we made good time on reasonable roads across to Brough Castle, where we arrived well before the advertised opening time. We need not have worried as there were no locked gates and no-one to collect entry fees. What remains of the castle is just behind the village of Brough, requiring just a short walk up behind a farmyard past some large barns. A sign of spring - dairy cows beside the path had given birth just a short time before our arrival, so we stopped to admire the newborn calves. It might have been early summer but the wind was strong and quite cool. The locals were dressed for summer; we had a few layers of winter gear on.

This small but stark castle occupies the site of an old Roman Fort on a hilltop with commanding 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. It is protected by a deep ditch and earthen walls. Stones from the Roman fort were used to build and rebuild the castle, which has had a long and chequered history. Frequently the target of Scots raids, its towering keep dates from about 1200. Later, more comfortable living quarters were added, only to be accidentally burnt following a great Christmas party in 1521. Brough was restored in the 17th century by Lady Anne Clifford and traces of those additions can still be seen. Now there is not much left of the fabric of the castle, but we were fascinated by the garderobes (toilets) built into the outer curtain wall – the ultimate in comfort!

From there we continued on over some picturesque back roads, including some that took us over the moors to Barnard, a busy town that clusters around Barnard Castle high above the river Tees. The castle was founded by the Normans shortly after the conquest, but enjoyed its heyday during the latter half of the 12th century. After several different owners the castle was finally inherited by Richard III. After his death in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field the castle gradually fell into ruins.

This castle is huge with walls and ditches that divide the area inside the outer wall into four sections to make it easier to defend. The walls themselves are massive, metres thick and in places very high. In one section there were many nesting niches built into the stone walls to encourage doves and pigeons to nest and lay eggs. The fresh eggs and meat must have been especially valuable in times of siege.

While at the castle we learned of an abbey nearby, so we made our way along a narrow hedgerow lined road to Egglestone Abbey. The carpark was almost full with people settling in for a weekend picnic and day in the sun. This Abbey was founded in the late 12th century, and although small and always poor it had some interesting features. Some of the buildings apart from the chapel still showed some structure, including massive fireplaces and drainage systems.

From the abbey we walked down towards the river, past some picturesque cottages and on to a big stone bridge that arched across the river. From the bridge we found a lovely shady riverside walking track that took us beside the river for quite some distance. Remembering the crystal clear water of the Lakes District streams, we were fascinated to see that the water here, draining of the moors was dark with tannin. A fisherman casting his lures nearby obviously saw that as no impediment to his craft.

From the abbey we continued on to the village of Reeth where we would spend the night. We travelled via back roads that took us right up through pine plantations and out over the top of the moors where, although the wind was strong and chilly, there were wonderful views for miles in all directions.

The country by now had become very stark, with few trees (other than occasional plantations) and big rock screes sliding down the bare hills. Stone houses, built square and robust, huddled in folds in the hills where there might be some protection from the wind. Stone walls marched relentlessly over the moors and down into the dales.

Reeth was once the centre of a busy lead mining area until before WWII. Now it relies on farming and tourism. The remaining pubs face onto the village green and across the green we found our accommodation for the night, and were made very welcome by our friendly and helpful hosts. We had a walk around the village, followed by a generous meal and beer at one of the pubs.

A feather doona looked a bit much for a warm night, but it turned out to be quite comfortable. A full breakfast was included in the price of the room, - sausages, eggs, tomato, hash browns, bacon and toast. It was certainly tasty but quite a change from our usual bowl of muesli. It also gave us a late start as breakfast in England is served much later than at home.

Our morning drive took us through very pretty dales (valleys). We came to Richmond and saw some abbey ruins in the town centre. Stopping to investigate and admire the colourful gardens we saw signage about another castle – and indeed Richmond Castle was big and with a more complete tower or keep that rises over 100 feet. John climbed up to enjoy the views. The castle sits above the River Swale and the town has grown up around it. The building of Richmond Castle commenced in 1071, and it is now the oldest English stone castle still surviving. Except for skirmishes with Scottish raiding parties, Richmond Castle saw very little fighting.

The castle was used during the WWI as the base of the Non-Combatant Corps made up of conscientious objectors - conscripts who refused to fight. It was also used to imprison conscientious objectors who refused to accept army discipline or participate in the war in any way.

From Richmond we were off to find Rievaulx Abbey – despite some waypoints that were in the wrong place we eventually found it. We were confronted by two entrances, one to Rievaulx Terraces and one to the Abbey. We looked at the terraces first. They were built in a massive gardening operation in the 1750s that flattened out the whole top of a large hill, and on that temples, gardens and other whimsical structures were built, all to impress friends and neighbours! The temples overlook the abbey, and in the larger one “picnics” were held for many guests – although the picnic was held inside the elaborately decorated “Ionic Temple” with guests seated at an elegant table.

We then went back in time to visit the ruins of a once-magnificent abbey. Our first stop was at a comprehensive display about the abbey and the Cistercian monks who built it, starting in 1132, and the large community that was centred around the abbey. The monks built up a very profitable business mining lead and iron, (with a prototype blast furnace) rearing sheep and selling wool to buyers from all over Europe. The abbey, like many others was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1538. Henry ordered the buildings to be rendered uninhabitable and stripped of all valuables such as the lead from the roofs which was melted down into huge ingots.

The main abbey was huge; we estimated that it was 70-80 feet high, and surrounded by many large outbuildings including a big refectory, a hospital, a scriptorium where books were copied and illustrated by hand, and even a tanning pit.

There were lots of visitors, many of whom were either attending a medieval fair being held adjacent to the abbey or stretched out sunbathing amongst the abbey ruins. The car parks were full and we were surprised to see many families just pull out chairs and tables next to their car and settle in for a day’s relaxation in the sun.

Our next destination was Whitby, a small town on the coast and home for a time to a young Captain Cook. It was something of a shock to see, as we came down the escarpment towards the coast, a wall of fog sitting over the sea, and stopping abruptly just behind the beach. We found our room for the night, up 3 flights of stairs, small but comfortable and within walking distance of the town centre and pier.

Before leaving home a friend had recommended the Magpie Café as a great place for fish and chips. It was out on the pier so we set out to find it, and before long we were in the fog, cold and clammy after the heat of the day. We did enjoy the fish and chips which we ate sitting on the busy, although rather shabby pier in the fog and with the noisy and quarrelsome seagulls – that seemed much bigger than Australian gulls.

Along the pier we saw a 40% scale replica of Cooks “Endeavour” that did tourist trips along the coast. We walked up towards the Cook Memorial that sits on a high hill overlooking the coast. We were barely able to see it through the fog, but turned back when we saw how many steps we would have to climb to get up there.

A bridge across the river caught our attention, as it was designed to swing sideways to open to let boats through. It led to the old part of town with narrow cobbled streets, tiny shops and laneways running down to the waters edge. Wandering through the town we came to steps that led up to ruined Whitby Abbey – all 199 of them. Up we went, the thick fog limiting our views to just the surrounding rooftops. At the top of the steps we found a huge churchyard full of headstones, many dating back 2 or 3 centuries, and many too worn to decipher. And beyond that the ghostly abbey ruins just visible through the fog, but mostly obscured by a high stone wall. We spent quite a while up around the abbey enjoying the special atmosphere of the fog. And, just as we reached the bottom of the steps on our way back home the fog suddenly cleared, allowing us finally to see the town, the river and the many fishing and recreational boats moored there.

There was no early start the next morning either, as we forgot to hand in our keys and had to retrace our steps to return them. Our first stop was Robin Hood Bay a pretty little seaside village just south of Whitby. We drove down to the beach on a very steep (30% slope) narrow road – almost a canyon between stone built houses – complete with sharp bends. When we reached the bottom there was nowhere to park, so we turned around and headed straight back up that rather daunting stretch of road.

Further south we turned in to have a quick look at Scarborough – to see if there was indeed a fair there? – and also to have a look at the old castle ruins. We found a parking spot close to the castle, overlooking an old cemetery. Our attention was caught by a large group of tourists exclaiming at a particular grave – then we saw that the grave was that of Anne Bronte, one of the famous Bronte sisters (remember Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?).

It reminded us that having seen the places and country that was the setting and inspiration for so much of the English literature that we had studied (and enjoyed) at school, how much more sense it all made now. The desolation and loneliness of Heathcliff’s moors, the splendour falling on castle walls, the sense of history … as Aussie kids in Aussie classrooms how could we possibly have known about all that.

It was a steep climb up to the huge Scarborough castle site. There is not much left of it now, as German bombing in WWI finished off what was left of the ruins. But there were wonderful views along the coast, and there was no sign of fog. There was a small museum that held artefacts recovered from the site.

We continued south through farming country, stopping at a farmhouse for fresh bread, cheese and apple pie. We found the turn-off to Castle Howard, along a narrow country road, then along a mile or more of tree lined avenue complete with spires, gates and arches. We paid our admission at the big old stables then climbed onto a tractor drawn carriage for the trip to the front of the grand house. And it was grand; we made our way through the house that has been home to the Howard family for over 300 years, seeing the various architectural and decorative styles that changed as the house was slowly built. There was rich furniture, and artworks that adorn the walls and line the halls. In 1942 fire destroyed the famous dome and 20 rooms. While the dome was rebuilt and a roof constructed, the space below remained empty until some rooms were partially reconstructed for use as filmsets for two productions of “Brideshead Revisited”. These rooms now house comprehensive and interesting displays about the filming.

Outside we saw the huge Atlas fountain, surrounded by terraces and clipped hedges. To one side is a big ornamental lake where rhododendrons were making a colourful display. On the other side is a huge walled garden laid out with formal flower beds, rose gardens, vine covered trellises and vegetable gardens. Everything is on a lavish scale, although at this time of the year, summer, there were few flowers.

Like many of these grand old houses the family still live in one wing, and farm the land, while the remainder of the house is open to the public, and also used for functions, weddings etc. Surely the beautiful chapel must be a highly sought after wedding venue.

A whole afternoon was barely sufficient to take in all that Castle Howard has to offer, but even after that time we were tired and footsore as we climbed back into the carriage that took us back to the parking area. From there it was a short run towards York and our accommodation for the next two nights. We capped off our day with another excellent pub meal and for once a proper cold beer.

Next day saw us doing another “first” as we queued up at the bus stop for a ride on a double-decker into town. Traffic in York is said to be chaotic and parking expensive. Once in town we quickly got our bearings as we wandered through the narrow streets of the old town, heading towards York Minster. The map drawn by our lunchtime friends of a few days ago was very useful.

The Minster was easily seen through the cluster of old buildings and when we reached it, we saw how massive it was. Building commenced in the 1200s and took 250 years to complete, and since then sections have been destroyed by fire and have had to be rebuilt. Currently major restorations are underway including restoring the huge eastern stained glass window. While this is happening the whole window has been replaced with a vast digital graphic of the window.

We spent a couple of hours inside, as this ancient church has its own character to savour. There were not many tombs, but we were impressed by the chapter house and its beautiful ceiling, and by the size of the organ pipes, the largest being about 2 feet in diameter and maybe 30 feet long. Later in the day we went back to attend Evensong and hear that impressive instrument together with the choir – a magnificent sound, with the bass notes more felt than heard.

Lunch that day was a sumptuous feast at a little courtyard café recommended by locals (who thought we were Americans!). We ordered sandwiches and they came with generous fillings and salad and chips, a real feast. In the afternoon we explored some of the old town, including the shambles where markets were still busy and noisy. We went to the Hall of the Merchant Adventurers Guild, a big wooden hall about 800 years old. Its roof is held up by massive oak beams, and the floor although solid has a wonderful sag to it. It is still in use as a meeting room, and downstairs there are displays of the old hospital that was once there.

Our final exploration for the day was a walk around the walls of the old town, solid stone defensive structures with towers and embrasures through which archers could fire arrows at attackers. Now the walls give an elevated position from which to view the old buildings and their gardens, and like the rest of the old town is very popular with tourists.

Finally we were ready to catch a bus back to our room. It has been a warm and sunny day again – a wonderful stretch of summer weather in a part of England where we least expected to see sun. The next day was still sunny, as after another late breakfast, we drove into York to drop the car off. By 9.30 the traffic was fairly quiet so it was an easy drive. A pleasant young woman from the car hire company dropped us off at the station where we caught an express train back to London.

As if to signal our departure there were now a few showers about, and after wrestling our luggage through the Tube stations we were finally back at Rob’s flat. What bliss to just stop and catch our breath for a few hours. It’s been a memorable trip to the Lakes District and across Yorkshire, with so much to see that we will be living on the memories for a long time.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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