Yorkshire & Northumberland 1997
Having elected (for now forgotten reasons) to take our Summer break rather later than usual, the Rector was champing at the bit to get away by the third week in August. Unfortunately, our speedy getaway after the MU service on Wednesday 20 August was rather hampered by the bout of tonsillitis that your humble scribe had somehow started that morning... so the first three days of the holiday passed in a blur of antibiotics. My comic timing always was impeccable.
I was told that I was doing a good impression of a wet puppy that didn't want a walk ... So the beautiful Priory Hotel in Ketton, Rutland (yes, they've reinstated the county) went sadly unappreciated; and we pick up the story from the Friday, when we crossed the Humber Bridge to arrive at our first cottage in Langton, near Malton, between Scarborough and York.
Our first comment was Isn't it quiet? - the village is a beautiful one, straight off a chocolate box, and not a sound to be heard. The cottage belonged to a Cambridge graduate who had decorated it with artefacts from his travels to Morocco - a bit disconcerting at first to find oneself in what felt like an Eastern harem, but we got used to it!
Our church on Sunday was in a village rejoicing in the name of Bugthorpe - where, of course, Selwyn found the priest to be a colleague from Mirfield days. Under the umbrella (yes, we'd left the sun in Surrey), they exchanged reminiscence for a time, and we then made for Nunnington Hall, a delightful National Trust property. It includes the Carlisle collection, which is a stunning collection of miniature rooms created by a Mrs Carlisle - not dolls' houses, but individual rooms at one-eighth real size - ranging from various work rooms (such as a carpenter's) to a magnificent Palladian Hall. The intricacy and attention to detail is stunning.
The following day we made our way to Beverley, a very pleasant place, and of course the lovely Minster. As readers of these reports of our annual amblings through our country will have realised, we are especially fond of stately homes and gardens, and Burton Agnes was a good discovery. Many of the rooms are decorated in an unusually individual style, such as the Chinese room with its striking lacquer panelling, the dining room with vivid red walls, and the magnificent library with large modern French oil paintings. In fact, the whole house is full of an extraordinary collection of artwork, including the works of Cézanne, Gaugin, Manet, Matisse, Augustus John - and even Edward Lear! The Long Gallery is a vast, light area, housing many beautiful works of art. The gardens, too, are delightful, being full of Alice in Wonderland-style "secret places", corners and bowers.
The sun came to visit us at Burton Agnes, so taking advantage of this, we went on to Flamborough Lighthouse - stunning and peaceful scenery, with beautiful walks.
Rievaulx Abbey is rightly famous as one of the loveliest ruined abbeys in Britain. It existed as a Cistercian monastery for some 400 years, and it was eerie to pace our way around it, trying to imagine it as a live place of worship. In fact, it still is used in this way at times, as we discovered on visiting a local church later in the week - mention was made in the parish magazine of a regular annual open-air service held at Rievaulx, which must be very atmospheric - weather permitting.
We drove across the moors, stopping near Osmotherley in a tiny cafe for lunch - looking across the moors in the sunshine. Glorious. Sion Hall at Kirby Wiske houses another of our favourite "things to visit" - a Birds of Prey centre, otherwise known to us as a Wolery (if you are into Winnie-the-Pooh). The owls, falcons and the rest were delightful, and loved playing up for the cameras - as did the very small child who was evidently a daughter of one of the staff, as when several birds were brought to meet the public, she was responsible for carrying the smallest owl.
Our last two days in Yorkshire were spent in that wonderful city, York. We found it friendly and fascinating - "a good place" is our usual accolade for a town which feels right. We took a boat trip through the centre of York, finding ourselves after only a few miles in beautiful countryside before returning; spent time in the glorious Minster, which manages to retain its spirituality despite being such a tourist attraction; and were particularly enchanted by the York Castle museum.
The Museum is a remarkable place, created and maintained with love and care; cobbled streets with "shops" (some of which even smell appropriate!), displays of all kinds of everyday goods, from washing machines to hoovers to radios, tracing their development ("My mum and dad had one of those" was a frequent moan from the Rector); faithfully reconstructed rooms from every era ("It's the living room on Canvey"); dolls, costumes, militaria, Valentine cards... and even an authentic Fifties' Milk Bar for the café (carefully situated halfway through the tour). Well worth a visit. Two guidelines: if you go during the tourist season, arrive early to beat the crowds; and leave yourself plenty of time - at least 2-3 hours.
On the way up country on Friday, we stopped at Durham Cathedral - another fascinating place. I particularly liked the Galilee Chapel (where the Venerable Bede is buried), with an unusual but effective combination of traditional and modern décor. Our next self-catering cottage being right up in Northumberland, we had elected to break the journey with a night in a hotel somewhere romantic halfway between the two - which happened to be Gateshead. After a prolonged and unwanted tour of the city, including vast tracts of apparently empty commercial spaces, we finally found the place, which actually wasn't bad, with pleasant views of the river.
The journey from Gateshead to Northumberland was made in glorious sunshine (most of our long journeys are...) but having plenty of time, we made several rewarding stops. Bolam Lake was the first - a hidden oasis. Simply a very beautiful lake surrounded by trees, with an air of tranquillity which was nothing short of spiritual. A robin greeted our arrival, swans watched us round the lake, and we left a father with his two young children with their fishing lines as we departed. Very special.
Two National Trust places were also on our route. The first was called Wallington... yes, really. The house was closed when we were there (there was a wedding on - Selwyn thought he'd got away from those), but we thoroughly enjoyed the gardens, particularly a charming walled garden - sitting on the wall at the top, one looked down its full length; a lovely panorama. Cragside is simply massive - so much so that the lazier among us can take the car on the special route around the estate. A great place for an educational visit, too, with exhibitions of the work of the first Lord Armstrong, a major contributor to the development of hydro-electrics. Lots of buttons to press!
The cottage at Milfield, near Wooler, was the best we've ever stayed in. A lovingly converted barn, with lots of light, high ceilings, simple furniture and a wood-burning stove (and yes, we did need to light it!) - delightful. It turned out that the owners often use the cottage themselves when it isn't being rented out - which explains the way that it is furnished with comfort and style, rather than with leftovers, which is so often the case.
On the Sunday morning, 31 August, we had set our radio alarm to give us sufficient time to travel to Wooler for church. We woke at 7.30 to the news which was to send shock waves round the whole country - leaving us completely bewildered (the death of Princess Diana). The church service was handled with great sensitivity by Revd Judy Glover, assisted by her reader, and we were glad to be there; our thoughts were very much with all at St Mary's, knowing the distress that we were all feeling.
It was raining hard as we left church, so we took time to wander a couple of local villages - Ford and Etal - and have a Sunday pub lunch (complete with giant Yorkshire puds...) In Ford, we found another unexpected treasure - the Old School House, which contains the murals painted by Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, taking her subjects from the Bible and her models from the local community. People still return to the village to point out their grandparents shown as St John, Daniel, Joshua and the Christ Child!
Having checked the tides, we had resolved to visit the Farne Islands. Sadly, it wasn't possible to get to Lindisfarne itself in the timeframe we had that day - or at least, not without being stranded on the island for about four hours longer than we needed. However, we did take a boat trip to Farne, which was thrilling. Lots of long lens shots of gulls, shags and cormorants (no puffins, sadly); and of the seals, who loved playing up for the cameras. We also caught a very brief glimpse of a porpoise.
Wednesday saw us in Edinburgh. A couple of Selwyn's friends live up there, so we met one for afternoon tea (complete with Guinness) and the other for dinner.
It's another wonderful city. We particularly enjoyed the Camera Obscura, which is a structure on top of a very high building, using mirrors to reflect the city ("we're not allowed to use a zoom lens, but we still get to see some interesting things..."); the views from the top of the tower are magnificent. There is also a superb exhibition of laser photography - fascinating and disturbing - and of some excellent pinhole photography, using such advanced mechanisms as an empty biscuit tin!
Edinburgh Castle is justly famous, again for its beautiful views of the city; it was so windy that we felt in danger of flying off the walls. We also went to Holyrood; not to go inside (we couldn't face that) but to pay respects at the edge of the sea of flowers which had been placed there, as in many similar venues all over the country. The scent of the flowers was what really brought home to me what had happened.
Floors Castle, Roxburghshire, is another beautifully maintained stately home with vast grounds (one of the passing American tourists was heard to remark "If they had this much room in California, they'd cover it in condominiums...") Our final "favourite place" was Abbotsford, the house built and inhabited by Sir Walter Scott. Glorious libraries, some rather gruesome artefacts, and a simply charming walled garden.
A visit to the beautiful Abbotsford in Melrose, Scotland, was much enjoyed (it was the house built & inhabited by Sir Walter Scott). It was here that we overheard in a tea-shop the following comment on the events of recent days: "Och, my dear, it'll all be over and forgotten in a week. Just like poor Anne Boleyn".
Our last port of call was to make our way South to Derbyshire, spending one night in the hotel which was the East Lodge to Haddon Hall (as in the Sullivan opera), breaking the journey once more. Finally, on the Saturday, we began the curious experience of driving back to Surrey through almost totally deserted towns, villages and motorways. We stopped the car in some unknown village at around eleven-thirty, and listened to the rest of the service, joining in the prayers, parked by the village church.
We then motored on, joining the M1. The speed limits changed from 70 mph to 50 mph to 20 mph; every motorway bridge from Althorp onwards was full of people; the traffic swapped lanes, with those of us who wanted to drive slowly occupying the "fast" lane; and we stopped as it became obvious that the cortège was about to pass. Several others did the same, getting out of their cars; the cortège and its fleet of outriders passed, and we continued our journey. Gradually we all started up again, picked up speed, and the motorway regulations returned to normal.
Strange and sad to be on holiday at such a time; and yet... If nothing else, it served as a timely reminder of carpe diem, and to see, hear and feel all that we can today. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, ... to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived - this is to have succeeded. No matter what our opinions of the Princess of Wales, the controversy of her life and the tragedy of her death, there is no denying the difference that she made to many people. If we feel grief at her passing, perhaps the best tribute that we can make is to take that attitude in our own lives, and whether in work or in leisure, to play and laugh with enthusiasm and to sing with exultation. And when as a result of that enthusiasm, we find that even one life has breathed easier - we, too, will know that we have succeeded.