Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Durham: Following in the Footsteps of Pilgrims

Bill Bryson, the American author and renowned anglophile, is Durham's greatest fan. In his bestselling eulogy to Britain, Notes from a Small Island he wrote: "I got off at Durham... and fell in love with it instantly in a serious way. Why, it's wonderful - a perfect little city.... If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It's wonderful."

Indeed, Durham must be most Americans' idea of heaven; a compact city which oozes history from every inch of its rich tapestry of ancient buidlings and cobbled streets (plus, as it's so small so you don't have to walk too far...)

Perched on densely wooded banks, high above the River Wear and visible from just about every corner of the city is the magnificent cathedral: one of the best examples of Norman architecture in Europe. It's origins date back to the 10th century when a community of monks were driven out of their home on Lindsfarne by Viking raids. Carrying with them a precious cargo which included the venerated remains of St Cuthbert, they eventually settled on a loop in the River Wear, where they built a monastery as a shrine to St Cuthbert.

When the Normans arrived around one hundred years later, they seized the site, which is almost completely surrounded by water and, recognising its natural defensive strengths they destroyed the monastery and built a cathedral in its place. Incredibly, the Normans continued to revere St Cuthbert and his remains survived the upheaval.

So having endured the Viking raids, the Norman takeover and later, the Reformation and Civil War - the priceless, 7th century relics of the north's best-loved saint remain on display in the cathedral's Treasury.

One of the best vantage points from which you can view the cathedral, and the adjacent Norman castle, is the Framwellgate Bridge. From there, you can take a walk up the shady riverbank path or take a Prince Bishop cruise boat which operates from Easter to October - the perfect alternative for all those weary American tourists!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Three more gems along the Cleveland Way

A final recap is due on this historic, rugged North Yorkshire coastline (A.K.A. The Cleveland Way) and three other treasure towns which cling to it like limpets.

Robin's Hood Bay: Once a haven for smugglers, this adorable place is a cobbled maze of stone cottages which are arranged hapharzardly on the steep cliff. Very popular with tourists, but don't let that put you off, cars are not allowed in the old village so the descent to the gorgeous beach and quay has to be made on foot. A few steps from the beach, the Bramblewick (a 17th century property which was once the village bakery) serves excellent food and drink in the prettiest of locations... beautiful.

Runswick Bay: Nine miles up the coast from Whitby, Runswick Bay reveals its sweeping arc of golden sand and brightly painted fishermen's cottages - a breathtaking sight from the crest of the hill or while enjoying a pint of Black Sheep from the Royal Hotel.
Such is its precarious position on the cliff, in 1664, a landslip caused the entire village to fall into the sea. It was rebuilt and remained a vibrant fishing community for several hundred years. Today, the permanent population of Runswick has dwindled to less than 20 and the fishermen have long gone. It's a place where holiday makers flock (unpeturbed by the bracing winds off the North Sea) to enjoy simple seaside pleasures - and there's not a single unsightly arcade to spoil the picture-perfect view.

Staithes: (Also pictured at the top) Arguably the prettiest of all the cliff top villages, Staithes has been a magnet for artists for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, it became the base for a colony of renowned English Impressionists including Laura Knight - Britain's first female artist to become a Dame.
The village's art scene is still vibrant and Staithes Gallery which sits on the high street is a fantastic showcase of contemporary art which has been inspired by the area. They also run an art school and rent out the original, refurbished studio used by Dame Laura herself.

Staithes Gallery
High Street,
North Yorkshire,
TS13 5BH

Tel: 01947 841840


Friday, 5 September 2008

Wet and Wild in Whitby

I'm trying very hard not to be obsessed by the weather but it's hard when the summer's been a damp squib (again!) and now all hopes of an Indian Summer seem to be dashed as well. Inspite of this, I decided to head to a proper English seaside town this week, attempting to convince myself that I prefer such places in the winter. (I'm not sure when or how i ever reached that conclusion but i'm obviously deluded)

But first I had to traverse the moors: a vast wilderness whose atmospheric, wild charms evoke strong memories of when I was a sixth former, completely engrossed in the study of Emily Bronte's moors-based novel Wuthering Heights. All of this nostalgia is heightened by the mist and driving rain and the helter skelter route which heads up to the coast makes for quite a thrilling ride.

Whitby itself is the ultimate tourist town. Suprisingly unspoilt and genteel, the town features regularly these days in seaside resort top 10's. That said, it's a town of contrasts, at once brash and beautiful - perched on a cliff, pretty stone cottages tumble down to the arcades and tourist shops which line the harbour.

Historically, a great seafaring town, this is the home of Captain James Cook. He served his apprenticeship in Whitby in 1746 and the great ship Endeavour was also built here. More than a thousand years earlier, the town was an important centre for Christianity when in 657, St Hilda founded Whitby Abbey. The abbey's dramatic, windswept ruins overlook the town from the top of cliff, and can only be reached by the 199 steps which start at Church Street.

Today, Whitby is not only a historical tourist attraction, but a goth magnet (see below, two beautiful specimens seen pacing the high street), thanks to its other famous 'son' - the fictious vampire Count Dracula who arrived here on a ship full of dead men. Bram Stoker, Dracula's creator, was apparently inspired by the town and its stark abbey ruins - he penned the novel while staying at the Royal Hotel in Whitby.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Putting Britain's heritage back on the map

This might still be silly season, but last night's speech by Mary Spence (President of the Royal Cartographic Society) while not billed as a thriller, has been widely reported and debated in the media today.

In a speech to more than a thousand geographers, she lamented the fact that the emergence of sat nav and online maps is wiping knowledge of the UK's heritage and cultural treasures from the public consciousness. (Read more about this story here)

Hmmmm. What we need is a sat nav system with a built in tour guide. Something that combines the technological genius of satellite navigation with good, old-fashioned quality information about the UK's rich heritage. A system which as, say, a tourist heads down the A303 across the Salisbury Plain and sees an unusual grouping of ancient stones, will tell them that they are approaching Stonehenge. A bit of background information in audio and some pictures would be nice too.

Sound familiar....?

A Moor-ish hidden gem

Andrew Pern's foodie empire in the North Yorks Moors is the jewel in North Yorkshire's gourmet crown. The Michelin-starred chef and his wife oversee the famous Star Inn in Harome (the middle of nowhere) and a fantastic deli and butchers a few minutes away in the village of Helmsley.

Groaning with local organic produce including meat and poultry from the Star's trusted suppliers, Perns of Helmsley is a total feast for the senses and I left there with my reusable shopper bursting at the seams.

You can read more about Andrew Pern and his book 'Black Pudding & Foie Gras' here

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

North Yorks Abbey Trail: Part II

So I find myself continuing an impromptu tour of North Yorkshire's Cistercian Abbeys... of which there are several but I'm sticking to the principal three: Fountains (tick), Rievaulx and Byland - the three 'shining lights' of the Cistercian Order as they came to be known.

Located just six miles or so apart on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, even over 900 years on, it's easy to see why the monks were attracted to this beautiful, remote wilderness.

The approach to Rievaulx is an event in itself. Anticipation builds as you follow the narrow road which runs steeply down the densely wooded valley of the River Wye. The road bends suddenly to reveal the mighty stone ruins which stand completely alone against fields, woods and sky - just as it did five hundred years ago at the height of its power.

In spite of its magnificent scale, what remains of the great church and abbey buildings is surprisingly austere with little decoration - seemingly so as not to detract from the monks' simple lifestyle. In its hey day, the abbey was home to 140 monks and some 500 lay brothers who worked the abbey estate. Records of the wool it sold show that they owned around 12,000 sheep in a series of sheep stations across 6,000 acres.

In 1142, the monks at Rievaulx got a nasty shock when another group of Cistercians set up home less than a mile away in Byland. The two monasteries were within the sound of each others' bells which caused confusion and quarrels ensued. A few years later the Byland monks were persuaded to move to land a few miles up the road near the village of Wass, on which they refounded Byland Abbey and its ruins still preside today.

Visible from the road, it's clear that time has treated Byland less kindly. Piercing the sky like a stone finger, the remains of what must have been a spectacular rose window suggest that Byland was much more extravagantly decorated. On closer inspection, you can see the remains of glazed tile floors and ornately decorated pillars.

I think I'm going to start a list of places to return to with loved ones (or a loved one....) Just a few paces from the abbey, lies the diminutive 19th century Abbey Inn which became English Heritage's first gastro-pub in 2006. It even serves its own special brew - Byland Brew which is described as having an orange, hoppy flavour. Upstairs, there are three bedrooms with views out over the abbey and surrounding countryside which simply ooze charm and romance. Right now, I can't think of a better place to rouse from a deep slumber - enjoying breakfast in a four poster bed overlooking the abbey...

Rievaulx Abbey,
North Yorkshire
YO61 4BD

Abbey Inn,
North Yorkshire
YO61 4BD

Tel: 01347 868204

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Survivor of the Dissolution: Yorkshire's First World Heritage Site

RoadTour and just about every other guide to this part of the world rate Fountains Abbey and the Studley Royal Water Garden as the not-to-be-missed attraction - in a recent local survey, it was even voted Yorkshire's top beauty spot.

And rightly so... Fountain's Abbey and the surrounding estate and parkland is a sensory pleasure park in which you could lose yourself for days. Unfortunately the unseasonal weather didn't show it off in its best light, but you cannot fail to be awestruck by Britain's mightiest monastic ruin which sits on the banks of the River Skell.

In 1132, following a dispute in York, thirteen monks were exiled to this spot in the Skell valley to establish a new monastery which was admitted into the austere Cistercian order. By the mid-thirteenth century, Fountains had become one of the wealthiest religious houses in England. In 1539, Henry VIII's dissolution brought monastic life here to an abrupt end along with 400 years of agricultural and industrial prosperity.

The abbey itself has survived the ravages of time and history unbelieveably well. Large sections of the impressive structure remain substantially intact - not least the cellarium's magnificent vaulted ceiling. Originally, this was a series of partitioned rooms where the abbey's workforce - the lay brothers - ate, slept and socialised.

On closer inspection (with a bit of help from the fantastic free guides), there remains evidence of intricate carvings and sculptures, the sophisticated medieval water and drainage system, the monks' day stairs and the huge fireplace in the warming room which kept them warm in winter. It really is a fascinating insight into medieval monastic life.

The surrounding estate is equally impressive. Expertly landscaped in the 18th century, the Skell valley's natural beauty is enhanced by a Georgian water garden with ornamental lakes, canals and cascades, geometric lawns and a series of classical temples (one dedicated to Fame, another to Hercules) and statues.

With countless perfect spots for a picnic, Victorian visitors would have been disappointed as the strict regulations prevented them from eating, drinking, smoking or even lingering in the grounds or abbey. No such restrictions exist today thankfully. Among other local fare, the estate serves delicious Brymor icecream by the bucket load which is produced using milk from a herd of pedigree Guernsey cows who graze a few miles up the road in the Yorkshire Dales.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden
North Yorkshire HG4 3DY

Tel: 01765 608888