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

Thursday, 14 August 2008


Ten minutes up the road from Harrogate, perched on a limestone ridge above the Nidd Gorge, the ancient town of Knaresborough is a picture perfect market town with a vibrant heart.

This is the lush, fertile Vale of York, once an ancient passageway used by the Romans which provided limestone for some of this area's most distinguished buildings - including York Minster.
Occupying a commanding position 120 feet above the gorge are the ruins of Knaresborough's Norman castle, which offer some of the most scenic views across the town towards the impressive railway viaduct which spans the River Nidd.

I arrived in the beautiful market town just as the balloons and bunting were going up for the annual Knaresborough FEVA - a colourful festival of entertainment and visual arts. Now in its 8th year, the festival will be reaching its climax this weekend with free entry into the castle and museum, a free guided walk through the Nidd Gorge (Sunday 10am) and a classical evening concert in St John's Church.

For those whose visits don't coincide with the festival, there's still plenty to explore. When, or if, you finally tire of the views across the gorge, wandering around the town's pretty streets, you will undoubtedly stumble upon the oldest chemist shop in England which is now the home of Farrah's famous Harrogate toffees. The chemist shop dispensed its medicinal wares in around 1720 but these days the shop is more famous for its sticky treats and vast array of Farrah's toffee tins.

You can also explore the cavernous birthplace (and its picturesque riverside surroundings) of Knaresborough's most legendary resident, Ursula Southeil. Better known as Mother Shipton, England's most famous prophetess, she lived during the reign of Henry VIII and is said to have accurately foretold the Great Fire of London and the events surrounding the defeat of the Spanish Armada. She also predicted the end of the world in 1881 - but two out of three ain't bad, as they say.

Mother Shiptons Cave
Prophecy Lodge
High Bridge

Tel: 01423 864600

Monday, 4 August 2008

Fat rascals and a strong Yorkshire Brew

As I'm journeying through Yorkshire, i can't help reflecting on the three years I spent (or misspent) here as a student. I'm a little bit sad to say that i don't think there's a single trace of Yorkshire lass about me. Even down to the way I make a cup of tea - I like it weak, like dishwater - I'm definitely a soft southerner through and through.

Tea, you see, is pivotal to Yorkshire life. And Bettys, Yorkshire's most famous teashop - is nothing short of a national institution.

Bettys was founded in 1919 by Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont, who, on arrival in London was planning to head to the popular southern seaside resorts to establish his business but took the wrong train and ended up in Yorkshire. His inital dismay was quickly replaced with a love for the beautiful Yorkshire countryside which reminded him of his alpine home.

In spite of the fact that I am a tea and cake fanatic, an almost 90 year old tea shop patronised by what I imagine to be coachloads of the blue-rinse brigade doesn't overwhelmingly appeal. I like to think my taste is little more 'bijou' so I feel sure I'll be disappointed.

But I'm pleased to report it's actually a not-to-be-missed experience: the height of elegance and gentility and the rainbow-coloured spectrum of cakes and tarts is a dazzling sight to behold. And little wonder its packed full with tourists eager to immerse themselves in the quintessentially English pursuit of taking afternoon tea.
I have a friend who had a Saturday job at Bettys when he was young (beats working in McDonalds!) and his top tip for my visit was to try a warm buttered Fat Rascal - a Bettys part scone, part rock cake speciality (pictured on display in the window below). I duly indulged and can confirm that they are freshly baked, crumbly perfection - the melted butter part is a must.

There are now six Bettys tearooms - all in Yorkshire. And they also have a mouthwatering mail order website from which I pinched this beautiful picture of a plate of Fat Rascals with Emma Bridgewater's adorable bespoke Bettys pottery - all of which can be ordered here online.

Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms
1 Parliament Street

Tel: 01423 502746

Open every day from 9am to 9pm