Between Lancaster and Carlisle, and thus between my two latest cycle rides across Yorkshire, I stopped for a couple of nights in Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District. This is another place (see my posts on Wensleydale and Suffolk) that was made very wealthy by the wool trade (Kendal Green was almost as big a thing as Robin Hood’s Lincoln Green), and then in the nineteenth century the shoe industry took over. The Somervell brothers were leather dealers until in 1857 the first sewing machines were imported from the USA; in 1862 they produced their first complete shoes and in 1865 introduced the ‘K’ trademark. Howard Somervell went to Everest in K boots as a member of the 1922 and 1924 exhibitions. K Shoes and Clarks Shoes (in Street in Somerset – I remember a school trip to the factory many years ago) dominated the sensible/school shoes market for many years, and the two companies merged in 1981; but foreign imports and recessions shrank the industry until the last shoes were made in Kendal in 2003 (there is still a distribution centre on Natland Road). The factory outlet shops, opened in 1988, were rebranded as K Village but have finally closed and are now being rebuilt as a Travelodge. The kitchenware company Lakeland began in the 1950s selling chickens in Kendal market – in plastic bags, which proved far more interesting to the public. They’ve always been based in Windermere, but there is a distribution centre in Kendal.
As elsewhere, wealth from wool translated into a church largely rebuilt in the fifteenth century to be much bigger, particularly in the window department. It’s the largest church in Cumbria, with a nave and two aisles on each side. It’s close to Abbot Hall, a Grade-1 listed mansion built in 1759 that houses a surprisingly decent art gallery, largely due to its collection of works by local boy George Romney (1734-1802, one of the many fine portrait painters of the period); it also has drawings and watercolours by Ruskin and a good collection of modern art by painters such as Bomberg, Lowry, Sutherland, Nicholson, Schwitters and Hockney, and sculptors such as Arp, Hepworth and Frink. Unfortunately it’s currently closed, not because of Storm Desmond in 2015 and now Covid-19 but to improve access, security and exhibition conditions; it should reopen in 2022. Alongside is the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, which covers the region’s social history with some excellent preserved shops and rooms, but it’s also closed for refurbishment.
On the other side of the town centre (near the station), the Kendal Museum reopened fairly early after the lockdown and has a remarkable range of displays – on the history side it starts with pieces from Ancient Egypt, Mesolithic and Neolithic stone tools, a dugout Viking boat, and coverage of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s last wife and a London girl, although her family held Kendal Castle for centuries) and Adam Sedgwick, father of modern geology, who was born in Dent in 1785. There are also displays on local geology and natural history, including birds, beetles and butterflies, a moose head, and a stuffed lion, elephant and polar bear. And in an awkward bit of corridor there is of course a display on Alfred Wainwright, who was Kendal’s Borough Treasurer (1948-67) and Honorary Clerk to Kendal Museum (1942-85) – he also wrote the definitive illustrated guides to hiking in the Lakes and the Coast to Coast Walk. The Coast to Coast doesn’t pass through Kendal, but I still come to see friends every couple of years.
Kendal has other mountaineering links – there’s the horribly sweet Kendal Mint Cake, which also went on expeditions to Everest (thankfully healthier sources of energy are now available) and the excellent Kendal Mountain Festival, founded in 1980, with lots of talks and films, the presentation of the highly prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and other events.
Reopening in September, the Brewery Arts Centre opened in 1972 on the site of a brewery opened in 1853; in addition to live performances, there’s a good arty cinema, decent food and drink, and a youth hostel, opened by the YHA in 1971 and sold off in 2011 – it’s doing just fine as an independent (Covid-19 apart) so once again I’m left wondering about the YHA’s management. The Brewery garden is one of the last remnants of the burgage plots that sat behind the houses along the main north-south street, reached by about 150 yards (ie alleys), most of which survive. The town’s newest art gallery is at Cross Lane Projects, in a converted garage just south of the centre – I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had folded since I was last in Kendal, but they’ve come though the lockdown to reopen with interesting new sculpture exhibitions.
Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t interested in the town-centre pubs, acceptable as they are, but had a couple of pleasant outdoor pints at Castle Mills, across the river (the Kent) from the town centre. The Factory Tap claims to stock ‘the most rewarding new hand-crafted beers around’, while the Barrel House is the brewery tap of Bowness Bay Brewing; also here is Joey’s Café, for excellent coffee, salads and pizza.
The first village north of Kendal (along National Cycle Route 6) is Staveley, home to the Hawkshead Brewery and its Beer Hall, opposite Wilf’s Café and Wheelbase, which claims to be the largest bike shop in the UK (the Eagle and Child has been recommended too, as a good place to stay and eat). And in the next village north, Ings, the Watermill Inn also has good food and beds and is home to the Windermere Brewery.
Just south of town is Lower Sizergh Barn, a superb farm shop and café which also has windows over the milking parlour so you can watch the action daily (3.30pm) and also buy raw milk from a vending machine outside. It’s on the edge of the National Trust’s Sizergh estate – the tower house (c1350, transformed in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) has not yet reopened, but I have enjoyed its panelled rooms and paintings by Romney, Opie, and ‘after Kneller’. In any case the gardens are lovely. As a travel writer, I was interested to learn that Thomas West, a Jesuit priest and antiquarian, wrote A Guide to the Lakes (1778) here – the first guide to the Lake District.
About a dozen miles further southwest from Sizergh is Cartmel, a small village known for its Priory, founded in 1189 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, which has a superb east window and a unique bell tower set at 45 degrees on top of the original tower, and more recently for Simon Rogan’s gastronomic ventures – having begun with L’Enclume in 2002, which now has two Michelin stars, he established his own farm in 2009, with a produce shop in the village, and in 2018 the more casual Rogan & Co neighbourhood restaurant, which has also acquired a Michelin star but remains relaxed and affordable. Also on the village square is Unsworth’s Yard, with brewery and bar, bakery, a wine shop and a wonderful cheese shop where you’ll find the products of Martin Gott and Nicola Robinson of nearby Holker Farm – their sheeps’ and goats’ cheeses are at the forefront of the revival of British raw cheese-making. The Cavendish Arms seems to be a pretty decent pub too.
We also passed through Grange-over-Sands, just south on Morecambe Bay, where £2m has been found to stop the Lido (built in 1932) from collapsing – being familiar with the success of the spectacular Deco lido in Penzance, I hope they can manage something similar. I was also reminded of the salt marshes of the Baie de Mont-Saint-Michel, and the similar tradition of guided walks (at low tide) across the bay.
Between the two parts of my cycling trip in Yorkshire I spent time in Lancaster and Cumbria, though not exactly the Lake District. Lancaster is a city I’ve always liked, though it’s a shame the university is out of the centre and so self-contained, though it does give the place a bit of a cultural lift. It’s pretty lively on a Saturday night but not as bad as Carlisle. There’s something about the colour of the stone that reminds me of Edinburgh – I always wonder if people live in tenements here. I was struck by the Baronial architecture of what is now the White Cross Business Park, opposite the Royal Lancaster Infirmary – it turns out to have been Storey’s Mill, built as a cotton mill in 1854-80 and restored in 1987, rather than a misplaced Highland chieftain’s castle. Clearly it shares some history with The Storey, built in 1887-91 as the Storey Institute and now a centre for the creative industries, with office space, a performing arts venue, ‘contemporary eatery’ the Printroom Cafe & Bar, and a tourist information centre. It was all closed when I was there but has since re-opened.
In the absence of the Printroom, I ate at Aquila, where a wood-fired oven pumps out authentically Neapolitan pizza, mostly vegetarian and using carefully sourced ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes, n’duja, walnut and gorgonzola. It’s a real barebones place, essentially a takeaway with a few stools. I also liked the look (in very different ways) of The Borough, a bar and restaurant with rooms on Dalton Square, and Single Step, a wholefoods co-op. For breakfast, Filbert’s Bakery is on King Street, next to the attractive Holm Coffee, with scandi-style open sandwiches and pastries.
Lancaster is lucky to have both an attractive canalside area and a riverfront with a lot of potential – the Maritime Museum is down there in the former Custom House (1764) on St George’s Quay, flanked by largely disused warehouses that are ideal for conversion to loft apartments or indeed a hostel. All the city’s museums are currently closed due to Covid-19, which is a bit of a double whammy as the county of Lancashire was so badly hit by austerity cuts in 2016 that it had to mothball five museums including the Museum of Lancashire in Preston and the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster.
From Lancaster it’s a very easy cycle ride north along the Lancaster Canal towpath (dead level, with no locks) to Carnforth, once a major railway junction that no longer has platforms on the West Coast Main Line to Glasgow, so that it is served only by regional trains from Manchester and Lancaster to Barrow-in-Furness and from Leeds to Morecambe. But of course it’s really famous as the location of the greatest railway film, David Lean’s Brief Encounter – this was based on a short play by Noël Coward, Still Life, and I was the production manager of the play on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the early 1980s, with Hugh Grant and Imogen Stubbs. The excellent Heritage Centre on the southbound platform has the film showing on a continuous loop, a David Lean exhibition, lots of railway material including a 1940s ticket office, and above all the Refreshment Room where Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson had their desperately repressed cups of tea – the Heritage Centre is now partly open, but the Refreshment Room remains closed. But despair not, the northwest’s first micropub, The Snug is in the main station building (built by Sir William Tite in 1846).
From Carnforth I continued north on quiet lanes to Kendal – the Lancaster Canal used to continue all the way to Kendal but has been severed by road-building in various places; nevertheless parts of it remain as a footpath, with the original bridges in place, and the final couple of miles into Kendal are now a useful cycleway. I spent a couple of nights in Kendal (which I’ve written about separately), and then took a train up to Carlisle, which strikes me as a blunt northern city, with a strong military tradition and not many students to dilute the bluntness. My previous visit was on a Saturday night, which was lively… and this time my hotel was on the same street as not one but two Wetherspoons pubs, a Brewdog and a Walkabout (as well as Timmy’s Always Vegan!). They like to go out for a drink – and there are also lots of Italian restaurants, which were heaving on a Tuesday night thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out post-lockdown promotion. And there are lots of barbers too, presumably a preliminary to going out drinking.
But this was also the only place on my recent trip where the museum was open as usual (without pre-booking, although with limited hours), and I was also happy to visit the castle even if I did have to book online. The Tullie House Museum covers local history from 450 million years ago (when Cumbria was part of the continent of Avalonia and the neighbouring bit of Scotland was in Laurentia) but really goes to town on the Romans, who arrived in AD 72. Hadrian came here in 122 and built his wall by 128; at the time 10% of the Roman army was stationed in Britain (just 4% of the empire’s area). In 208 Septimius Severus also came here and repaired the wall, and made Carlisle a civitas (as opposed to a military base) before dying in York in 211. As author of various guides to Romania, I’ve long been aware that it was Dacian (ie Romanian) auxiliaries who garrisoned forts such as Birdoswald – one always wonders how they coped with the weather.
Later history was largely concerned with the border with Scotland, agreed in 1222 and formally fixed by the Treaty of York in 1237; however there were plenty of battles between England and Scotland, including Robert the Bruce being driven back from Carlisle in 1315. However I hadn’t realised that the Reivers, who rampaged around the lawless border area from the late thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, mainly stealing cattle, were totally indiscriminate in terms of national allegiances – anyone was fair game. Still, it was the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603 that finally led to the imposition of law and order in the borderlands.
Industrial history focusses mainly on the railways, with no fewer than seven independent routes meeting here (surprisingly six are still open, with only the Waverley line to Edinburgh having closed); from 1876 they all used Citadel station, designed by Sir William Tite, who claimed this was the first Gothic Revival station, being designed to sit alongside the Citadel, built by Henry VIII in 1541 and modified in 1810 to house law courts. The citadel, at the south end of the old city centre, is not to be confused with the castle, at the north end (in between there’s the cathedral and just a few attractive old buildings on the north side of the main square or, strictly speaking, triangle). Night Mail (the documentary film of an Auden poem, with music by Britten) plays on a loop at Tullie House – however, it starts when the train is already north of Carlisle (This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order), and they miss a trick by not mentioning TS Eliot’s Skimbleshanks (from Practical Cats), who was also on the Night Mail (You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle). Living in Cambridge, I was interested to learn (from Wikipedia, not Tullie House) that Night Mail was premiered at the opening of the Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1936.
Carlisle Castle, founded by William Rufus in 1092, claims to be the most besieged place in the British Isles, notably enduring a nine-month siege in 1644-5, when it was more or less the only Royalist stronghold in northern England after the battle of Marston Moor. It was the base of the Border Regiment, formed in 1881 by the merger of the 34th Cumberland and 55th Westmoreland Regiments (dating from 1702 and 1755 respectively); in 1959 they merged with the King’s Own Royal Regiment and became the King’s Own Border Regiment, and the army finally vacated the castle. It’s open to visitors, but there’s not a lot to see at the moment apart from Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, ie the Border Regiment museum, which does a good job of condensing a lot of history into a manageable form. My grandmother’s brother, killed at Ypres in October 1914, was in the Border Regiment for some reason – the other branches of my family have gravitated to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy.
[I’ve now discovered that his younger brother (who I met) was also in the Border Regiment, survived the Somme, and was in charge of training troops here at Carlisle Castle in World War II.]
I found the cathedral relatively plain, but with some very attractive features, notably the East Window, completed by 1350 in the Flowing Decorated Gothic style –it’s the largest and most complex example in England. There are also fine misericords and wooden screens, and four sets of unusual painted panels on the rear of the choir stalls, dating from 1485–90.
For those interested in beer and the history of the English pub, Carlisle is of interest because its pubs and brewery were nationalised in 1916, to prevent workers in the huge ammunition factories just north at Gretna from going to work drunk or hungover, by banning ‘treating’ or buying rounds of drinks (until 1919) and by paying managers a set wage to remove the incentive to sell more drinks. Astonishingly, they were not returned to the private sector until 1973!
So this is it, the Staycation Summer. The hordes that are usually drinking and vomiting by the Mediterranean are not risking quarantine and so are having their holidays in Cornwall and the Lake District instead (following their much publicised visits to Brighton and Bournemouth beaches, with associated anti-social behaviour and total absence of social distancing). I’m in Cornwall now and I was in Cumbria last week, and it is definitely not what local residents want or are used to.
My first real trip after the Covid-19 lockdown was with my bike to Yorkshire and Cumbria – I’ve written about them before , and definitely plan to focus on York itself before too long. It was fun, but fundamentally I miss my old life. It’s all very well cycling from town to town, but I want to see something interesting when I get there. A few churches at least are now open around Cambridge, but not so many up here, and there are very few museums or stately homes open. How am I meant to gather information with which to confuse or amaze you? So when I do find something open, I don’t care how pricey it is, I’m in, even though in fact various parts are closed because they don’t fit in to a socially distanced one-way system or pandemic staffing levels. And I can’t breathe in my mask and my glasses are steamed up. And don’t get me started on pubs which insist on ordering via a QR reader rather than just saying ‘Two pints, please’ and waving a card at a contactless reader.
One surprise was how few establishments are taking Track and Trace details – I know the whole system is discredited, but still, it’s hardly a big deal to give a name and phone number. Another oddity of the lockdown has been its environmental impact – it seemed great at first, as skies and rivers cleared and cars vanished from the roads to be replaced by hordes of cyclists, joggers and walkers (those poor dogs, dragged out three or four times a day). But then it became clear that throwaway culture was the big winner, with deliveries and takeaways leaving huge amounts of waste, not to mention the mind-boggling amounts of single-use plastic PPE being dumped by the NHS and care homes. But I hadn’t realised until I went on this trip how hard it has become to recycle waste when you’re out and about – home collections still work, but in many towns the street bins seem to have gone.
Doncaster to Tadcaster and Lancaster
Anyway, I took a train to Doncaster and then cycled a branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail (a typical Sustrans route – going great distances on poor surfaces (former railway lines, even a former airfield) to avoid traffic, although in this case without the unnecessary hills they sometimes give us as well) to Snaith, where there’s an attractive priory that I’d never heard of, and Selby, where I knew there was an attractive abbey, and then the Solar System Greenway. On the original Selby-York alignment of the London-Edinburgh railway (where Mallard and the Deltics may have got up to a dizzying 100mph), this is indeed a scale model of the solar system, starting with the Voyager probe and the outer planets, about 2.5km apart, and ending up with the inner planets, about 250m apart, and the sun by the York ring-road. I’ve seen a few of these in my time, including on an alp above St Luc in Switzerland, and in Barrow, Alaska, but they’re always good, illustrating how very lonely the outer reaches of the solar system are.
From the edge of York I turned west through quiet lanes to Tadcaster, a Roman town near the crossing of the Great North Road (Ermine Street, now the A1) and the Leeds to York road (the Roman road from Chester to Bridlington, now the A64), that is now known as home to the Sam Smith’s and John Smith’s breweries.
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery claims to be Yorkshire’s Oldest Brewery, Established 1758, but the truth is slightly more tangled – in 1847 John Smith bought an existing brewery, founded in 1758, but then moved to new premises next door and left the old brewery to his nephew Samuel, who founded Samuel Smith’s Brewery in 1886. Sam’s is still independent and is known in Britain for selling decent beers in its own pubs at a remarkably low price (about double what it used to be, but still good value) and in the USA as the inspiration for early craft brewers such as Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island. Unusually, they produce only one real or cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, as well as a range of keg and bottled beers, and all their beers are vegan except for OBB and Yorkshire Stingo, a rich treacly beer matured for at least a year in oak casks and then bottled. I was intrigued by the name because the Blue Anchor in my home town of Helston in Cornwall, a pub-brewery which has been active continuously since the fifteenth century, calls its beer Spingo. This is a traditionally sweet Cornish bitter, while it turns out that Yorkshire Stingo refers to a stronger ale.
You can enjoy a good pint of OBB at the Angel and White Horse in the centre of Tadcaster, which is not only the brewery tap but also home to their fine grey shire horses, who deliver beer to local pubs five days a week – you can look in to the stables across the courtyard.
On the western edge of town, the much larger John Smith’s Brewery (now owned by Heineken UK) mass-produces a gassy bitter, as well as Amstel and Kronenbourg lagers. Enough said.
From Taddie I cycled on quiet lanes to the edge of Leeds (a great city which I’ve written about before) then followed their new Cycle Superhighway 2 to the city centre and switched to the Aire Valley Greenway, ie the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. In the western outskirts I stopped at Kirkstall Abbey – founded in 1152, this was one of the great Cistercian abbeys that became rich on the wool trade (see the Suffolk wool churches in my last post, and indeed Kendal in my next post), along with Jervaulx (which I visited a week later – see below), Rievaulx and Fountains. Kirkstall is now ruined and there’s not much to see, but it’s at the heart of a popular park. I’d have revisited the David Hockney Gallery in Salt’s Mill in Saltaire if it had been open, but alas no; so I cycled past Bingley’s Two-Rise and Five-Rise Locks to Keighley and then struggled (it was the UK’s hottest August day for 17 years) up the hill to Haworth.
Usually Haworth is swamped by Brönte fans and purveyors of romantic Brönte souvenirs, but the Parsonage Museum is closed, so they’re all staying away. In their absence, I could see that it’s quite attractive and not really that different from Hebden Bridge, with its Haworth Wholefoods, its Haworth Steam Brewery, its book and vinyl shops – but because it’s not on a main-line railway it doesn’t have the same potential for commuting into Leeds and Manchester. It has some decent pubs too, and as I cycled on I saw some more that looked pretty decent on the wuthering heights to the west.
I spent the next six nights in Lancaster and Cumbria – see my next post – and then returned to Yorkshire, taking the wonderfully scenic Settle and Carlisle railway line to Ribblehead. It’s known for the 24-arch viaduct, opened in 1874 as part of the last major railway to be built in Britain, but this wild and remote moorland was crossed long ago by Roman roads, some of which my friend Rob (with whom I cycled in Belgium, Taiwan and other places) is very keen on as cycle routes. His account of this Wensleydale ride is here. I was due to meet him in Hawes, down at the head of Wensleydale, which I thought would be a swift belt downhill but turned out to be quite a slog. I have visited the Wensleydale Creamery, famed for the eponymous cheese, but not this time. Eventually we got going, through Askrigg (where the pub apparently played a rôle in the James Herriott TV programmes) to Aysgarth, where Rob was amazed that as a proud Yorkshireman he’d had no idea the falls were so spectacular (we caught them after a reasonable amount of rain) – the River Ure drops over three separate sets of limestone slabs over almost a mile and the tea-coloured water puts on a pretty lively show.
Our next stop was Wensley, after which the dale of the Ure is named, although no-one really knows why – see below. It’s a tiny village, with an impressive little Grade-1 listed church that’s usually open – it’s not used for worship but is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Built circa 1240, it’s as notable for its furnishings as for its architecture, notably the Scrope family pew, a grand piece of seventeenth-century woodwork with at the back a sixteenth-century carved screen brought from Easby Abbey when it was dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1927 whitewash was removed from the walls, revealing fourteenth-century paintings of Jacob and Esau. Nice wildlife churchyard, too.
I knew Middleham Castle as Richard III’s base, but I have no idea why the village would now be twinned with Agincourt. In fact Middleham was a bit of a surprise – not only is it ‘the Newmarket of the North’, with lots of racehorse trainers here, but it also seems to be evolving into a bit of a foodie/boutique hotel destination, with various pubs serving good food (including the Blue Lion in East Witton, the next village we passed), one of which, the White Swan, transformed itself into The Wensleydale Hotel in 2019. Just to the east we were able to divert onto the footpath through Jervaulx Abbey, the only one of Yorkshire’s great Cistercian abbeys that is privately owned, with an honesty box to pay for admission (Paypal also welcome). It seems like an attractive garden (and tearooms) with an ace abbey attached, as there are few of the detailed information panels you might be looking for.
The next stop was Masham, which shares a similar brewing history to Tadcaster, with a well-known brewery, Theakston’s, founded in 1827, and the breakaway Black Sheep Brewery, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston, who left the family firm in 1988 after its takeover by Scottish & Newcastle. In fact the four other Theakston brothers bought back control of the business in 2004, and its website proudly proclaims it as an independent brewery, although in fact Heineken UK (successor to S&N) still owns 28% of the shares. Their Old Peculier is a really special beer, a strong old ale that’s dark, rich and smooth. Black Sheep Best Bitter, meanwhile, has been a huge success, spreading across Britain and indeed usually on tap in my local in Cambridge. I enjoyed visiting the Black Sheep Brewery over two decades ago and hoped to repeat the experience, but paying with a contactless card was far too simple for them – so we ended up getting our pints of Black Sheep at a pub-hotel on the town’s square, which rather bizarrely turned out to be owned by Greene King, the East Anglian regional brewers that I’ve moaned about before.
Then we passed through West Tanfield, where the fifteenth-century Marmion Tower (Grade I-listed and managed by English Heritage) stands almost up against the thirteenth-century church (which houses some fine old tombs) – the tower is just a shell, but you can still go up to the first floor for views through the oriel window.
Virtually traffic-free lanes took us via Wath to Ripon for our overnight stop – it’s a small historic market town, whoops sorry, city, where the main sight is the cathedral. Built in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, it only became a cathedral in 1836 when the Diocese of Ripon was created, and Ripon therefore became a city – but in 2014 the diocese became part of the new Diocese of Leeds, with three co-cathedrals, here, in Wakefield and in Bradford (but not Leeds). The ways of the Church of England are indeed mysterious. The Early English west front, raised in 1220, is a highlight, but overall I found the furnishings more interesting than the architecture, notably the misericords in the choir, carved between 1489 and 1494, and the wooden hand sticking out above them from the base of the organ, used to beat time for the choir. This summer there are also some 10,000 paper angels hanging in a net high in the nave, in the very striking A Wing and a Prayer installation.
Ripon’s Market Square is spacious and attractive, with an eighteenth-century obelisk, perhaps by Nicholas Hawksmoor, in the centre, and some fine buildings such as the Town Hall, built in 1799 by James Wyatt, and the half-timbered Wakeman’s House, built by about 1600. The Wakeman was (until 1604) the predecessor of the mayor, and can be confused with the Hornblower, who traditionally blows a blast on a horn at 9pm every night at each corner of the obelisk. There are in fact currently three hornblowers (one female) with four historic horns to choose from, and during the pandemic the tradition has been maintained by one of them at home – there’s no public notification of who or where to avoid public gatherings, of course. Otherwise, Ripon has a three-fold museum complex that might be interesting, but as it was just an overnight stop we couldn’t visit; but we did enjoy good Italian food (and wine) at Prima as well as grabbing breakfast pastries at Thomas the Baker.
From Ripon it’s not far to Boroughbridge, an historic coaching stop on the Great North Road, which shows signs of possibly rediscovering its foodie vocation with attractive shops and cafés. First we saw the Devil’s Arrows, three large standing stones that are part of a ritual landscape that stretches to the three Thornborough Henges, back near Masham, sometimes referred to as the Stonehenge of the North. In the almost conjoined village of Aldborough we visited the few paltry remains of a Romano-British township where a couple of mosaics are preserved in their original locations, but they are unimpressive compared to ones I’ve seen in the last few years in places like Trier, Istanbul, Plovdiv , Butrint and even St Albans.
From here there was nothing much to detain us on our ride to York – we were still following the Ure, but it’s rich farming country rather than a dale. But Rob needed to show me the Ousegill Burn, a very minor stream about 2km long, and vent his disgust at the geographical quirk that means that the Ure (having absorbed the Swale, though both are in fact pretty equal-sized rivers) suddenly becomes known as the Ouse after the confluence with this little stream. Ouse was the Celtic word for ‘water’ (just as Avon was the Celtic word for ‘river’), so there are various rivers called Ouse (and Avon) across Britain – but it seems obvious to Rob, and I can’t disagree, that Jorvik, the Viking name for York, derives from the Ure (never mind the orthodoxy that it derives from the Saxon Eoforwic, thought to mean wild boar settlement, or Eofer’s trading place). And Jervaulx is an old French form of Ure Valley. So there are in fact two mysteries, why the dale is named after Wensley rather than the Ure, and why the river through York is called the Ouse rather the Ure. The Ure can definitely feel hard done by.
After crossing the Aldwark toll bridge (free for bikes, and busy with cyclists on the coast-to-coast Way of the Roses) it was nice to pass through the grounds of the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall (still closed, though the gardens, café and restaurant are open) before the pleasant riverside ride into York, for a refreshing pint and a train home.
As a Rough Guides author, I was of course carrying the Yorkshire guide – which turned out to have no coverage of Selby, Tadcaster or indeed Ilkley, but eight pages on Rotherham and seven on Doncaster – is this because the author perhaps lives between them on the southernmost edge of Yorkshire (ie almost in London), or is it a metropolitan obsession with post-industrial re-invention?
For those of us living in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, 30 miles to the east, seems like an uninteresting market town that became an unattractive agroindustrial centre. The truth is, however, that (leaving aside its spell as Roman Durovigutum) Cambridge is not as ancient as Bury, which was a Saxon royal borough. An abbey was founded in about 633 and re-established in 945 to house the remains of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia who was killed by the Danes in 869 (or possibly 870). He either died in battle or was captured and then killed after refusing to renounce his Christian faith – legend has it that he was decapitated and that his followers were guided to his head by a wolf calling ‘Hic, hic, hic’ (Here, here, here, in Latin). It’s not clear to me (ie to Wikipedia) when he was actually canonised, but a cult soon developed over his remains, with pilgrims, including kings, coming from far and wide. King Cnut (Canute) built a stone church in 1020, and the abbey was rebuilt again after 1095, by which time it was the most famous and well-funded in England. Edmund was effectively the patron saint of England until he was replaced by Edward the Confessor (around 1200) and then St George in 1348 – it’s odd that he’s so generally forgotten now.
In 1214 the abbey was the natural place for a group of barons to meet in the guise of pilgrims, to draw up a set of demands to put to King John; they swore at the altar to force him to sign what of course became known as the Magna Carta. However the abbey, like so many others, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, and has now almost totally vanished – a few eroded teeth of stonework stand in what are now the lovely Abbey Gardens, immediately east of the town centre, and part of the west front (aptly described as like petrified porridge) was converted in Georgian times into something like multi-storey hobbit houses. These are adjacent to the current cathedral, which was a parish church (founded in 1503) until a new diocese was created in 1914. It had already been expanded in the 1860s, and then in the 1960s and ‘70s a new choir and crossing were built, as well as the porch. In 1998 an appeal for £10 million was launched to complete the cathedral with cloisters and a lantern tower, and funding was obtained from the National Lottery – this was controversial, because many people thought the money could be better used for social projects, and because it’s all been built in a pretty unadventurous Gothic style which doesn’t really set the pulse racing. Slightly oddly, the diocese (and the local authority area) are called St Edmundsbury rather than Bury St Edmunds (Bury being a variant of Borough).
When I last visited – my first post-lockdown excursion – the cathedral and the gardens were just about all that was open to visitors, other than shops and cafés, but usually you can visit the Moyse’s Hall Museum, in what is claimed to be one of Britain’s few remaining Norman houses, dating from around 1180 (in fact the Norman period ended in 1154 with the accession of the Plantagenet King Henry II). It’s a good museum of local history, and also houses the relatively famous clock collection that was housed first in the National Trust’s Angel Corner (built in 1702, at 8 Angel Hill and now housing council offices) and then in the Manor House on Honey Hill (built in 1738, and sold off in 2007 to be a private house). [It turns out that Moyse’s Hall re-opened the day after I was there – there was absolutely no information then.]
The National Trust also owns the Theatre Royal (built in 1819), which is still a working theatre, and Ickworth (built in 1794-1830), a stately home 3 miles west of town that I haven’t visited for many years but certainly would have gone back to if it hadn’t been still in lockdown – it’s not too huge a bike ride from Cambridge, especially if you take the train home from Bury St Edmunds.
The other thing that I would regard as worth visiting is the Greene King brewery, just south of the centre – although GK are not the most popular across the region, because of the way they swallow up small breweries, promising to preserve their local ales and then ruining them, and because of the way they treat their pub tenants. The Greene King Beer Café has reopened, but brewery tours have not yet restarted. Unfortunately, Britain’s smallest pub, the Nutshell, has not yet reopened either – precisely because it’s too small for safe social distancing, with space for about half a dozen customers, seating and standing, and drinking is not allowed outside.
However, I did quite the look of the Old Cannon Brewery (with restaurant and rooms), just north of the centre, although its post-Covid restrictions made it too much of a pain to check out at the time.
A couple of weeks after my last visit to BSE I was cycling in the countryside about 15 miles south of the town, from Long Melford to Hadleigh via Lavenham (which is lovely and very well known) and Kersey (which is also lovely, but I’d never heard of it before). This part of Suffolk was very wealthy in the later Middle Ages, thanks to the local wool industry which provided clothing to much of Europe at the time. This paid for many churches to be rebuilt with high roofs and huge windows, creating a specific local style of buildings flooded with light. There are lots of lovely half-timbered houses, and again the National Trust owns some key properties, notably Melford Hall and Lavenham Guildhall (both currently closed).
Bury St Edmunds has the reputation of having lots of literary connections, but even the town’s tourism website doesn’t come up with many good examples, although Dickens and Shakespeare mention the place. I’m quietly pleased with my guess that King’s Crypt, in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, is actually Bury St Edmunds. On the other hand I was indignant to read a review of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, saying that it was set in the ‘fictional everytown of Edmundsbury’ – it’s not fictional, and it’s not an everytown.
[June 2021 – The other largeish town of north Suffolk is Newmarket, between Bury Saint Edmunds and Cambridge; it’s surrounded by villages that look to Cambridge for work and services, and in the last big reshuffle of local government areas they became part of Cambridgeshire, but Newmarket itself remains immovably Suffolk. It’s an odd place, dominated by the horse-racing industry, with a mix of strangely short men and leggy women, and plaques on Georgian houses that read ‘Bloodstock Insurance’ and the like. Most interestingly for a cyclist are the tracks through town that are closed to motor vehicles, which allow horses to be taken from the stables to the gallops – there are strange devices about ten feet off the ground which allow the jockeys to activate signals to stop traffic at road crossings, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in the Highway Code.
The High Street is lined with coaching inns (this was once the London to Norwich road), almost all now closed; the grandest, the Rutland Arms, is supposedly closed for a major refurbishment, but it looked a bit more terminal to me. There is a Premier Inn next to a surprisingly big Waitrose supermarket, but I don’t suppose there’s that much demand for hotels now – the new studs of the mega-rich, out in the countryside, presumably have luxurious guest wings.
Coming from near Helston in Cornwall, I was already familiar with what might be called the foundation myth of Newmarket – Sidney Godolphin (1645-1712), from Godolphin House (now a National Trust property, although I visited a few times when it was still a private house), became First Lord of the Treasury in 1680 and financed Marlborough’s wars, becoming the first Earl of Godolphin in 1706. He loved horse-racing, but it was his son Francis who brought the legendary Godolphin Arab and two other stallions to England, where they became the ancestors of virtually all the world’s thoroughbred racehorses. But in fact the Arabs lived at Wandlebury, now a country park on the edge of Cambridge, rather than in Newmarket itself. And in fact horse-racing began here slightly earlier – Charles II was a regular visitor to Newmarket, and his mistress Nell Gwynne’s house still stands next to the remains of his palace, which is now part of the National Horseracing Museum, which is probably excellent if you like that sort of thing (I come from a horsey family, but it was all about one/three-day eventing, and there was no betting involved, as far as I recall).]