Have Bag, Will Travel
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There is a simple pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong. The question is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.
If the Scottish Nationalists ever get their way then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!
I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.
A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately wants a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car. So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!
On a more positive note, although it is a thousand miles away or so, Gibraltar seems to like to retain its British connections even if this is motivated by indecent self-interest!
The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller islands. The term British Isles however is controversial in Ireland where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British which in terms of Irish history continues to be considered colonialist. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and it prefers the term Britain and Ireland as an alternative description. Even the British Lions Rugby team is now rebranded as the British and Irish Lions.
The England Cricket Team has an Irish Captain who refuses to sing the National Anthem which to me means he is simply not eligible! Previously there has been a Scottish captain, Mike Denness and a Welsh Captain, Tony Lewis who didn’t have the same problem. I would say to Eoin Morgan sing or you don’t play and get the appearance money!
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed eighth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.
The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.
Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, let’s be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake! The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!
But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?
We arrived in Ireland (an hour late thanks to unannouced Ryanair flight rescheduling) at Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now known and as we descended the aircraft steps the wind tugged at the buttons of our shirts and the rain stung our cheeks as though we were walking through a swarm of bees.
It turns out that this is a most unlikely airport. The site, on a hill in boggy terrain that is often shrouded in dense fog, was thought by airport planning experts to be hopelessly unrealistic but was built following a long and controversial campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine (more about that later) and who convinced both the Irish Government and the European Union to fund the project.
Perhaps due to Devine Intervention it is now the fourth busiest airport in Ireland after Dublin, Shannon and Cork and we were happy about that because on our quest to visit all of Ireland this provided us with a gateway to the North West.
When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon.
Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like Arithmetic and English I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion. In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.
Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because he preferred his drink. People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike. More charitable folk said that it was communion wine. He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was definitely no Sunday school.
For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome. I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he also came to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well.
I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church. He had one leg shorter than the other and wore a corrective shoe. One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.
I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it. The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in.
In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful. Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy. I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.
I must have inherited this from my mother…
I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it. It never came. I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.
One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar. His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor.
At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club. The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too. The girl in the middle was called Elizabeth and was my first girlfriend!
I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock, which I thought made me look like a Cardinal and had the important job of carrying the processional cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.
None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling (there is no such thing as a sign unless you want there to be) and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.
In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request. I assume this could be like writing to
Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?
Once again I didn’t get a response from the Big Man!
Cleethorpes is a seaside town that is attached to Grimsby like a barnacle to a rock. This is unfortunate for the residents of Cleethorpes because they consider themselves to be superior to Grimbarians in all respects and snootily resent the association with its grubby neighbour.
The short train journey took only ten minutes or so as it passed through the site of old fishing docks, past the Grimsby Town Football Club ground (which is actually in Cleethorpes) and then alongside the estuary at low tide, sticky with mud before arriving at the station which really is the end of the line for this particular route.
The railway terminates here but is the starting point of many seaside holidays because this is where visitors to the resort arrive from towns and cities of Humberside and South Yorkshire because while people from Leicester and Nottingham go to Skegness in the south of Lincolnshire, Cleethorpes is the seaside of choice for people from Sheffield, Doncaster and Scunthorpe.
The station is situated at the western end of the promenade right in the middle of the tacky funfair and associated attractions. The sort of place that children are drawn to like bees to nectar but which I cannot wait to pass through as quickly as possible. I especially dislike those pointless children’s rides that do nothing in particular and seem to me to cost a disproportionate amount of money to the pleasure they provide. I hate them outside supermarkets and in shopping malls and if I were Prime Minister the first thing that I would do is pass a law to make them illegal.
I hurried the children through this part of the visit with a promise that I would think about paying for a pointless ride on the way back later.
Next we came to the pier. The pleasure pier is quintessentially British, a genuine icon and one that I have never really understood. No one in England lives more than seventy miles* or so from the sea but when they get to the coast they have a curious compulsion to get even closer to the water and as far away from the shore as possible without taking to a boat. The Victorians especially liked piers and by time of the First-World-War there were nearly two hundred sticking out all around the coastline as though the country was a giant pin-cushion.
Cleethorpes Pier now claims to be the site of the ‘Biggest Fish and Chip Shop’ in the World but I take that boast with a pinch of salt!
The shortest pier in England is that at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset (so they claim) but this one must be a true contender for the title. It was opened in 1873 (financed by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway) and was originally nearly a quarter of a mile long but over its lifetime it has been severely shortened.
English piers you see are rather fragile structures and over the years have had an alarming tendency to catch fire – Weston-Super-Mare, Brighton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, and Great Yarmouth have all suffered this fate but Southend-on-Sea is probably the most unfortunate of all because it has burned down four times which seems rather careless.
The problem with a pier of course is that they are generally constructed of wood and are highly combustible and a quarter of a mile or so out to sea they are also rather inaccessible to the fire service so once they go up in flames little can be done but to watch the blazing inferno from the safety of the promenade until the fire goes out by itself and all that is left is a tangle of twisted metal girders and beams.
Fire isn’t the only danger of course because the coast can be a rough old place to be in bad weather and severe storms and gales have accounted over the years for Aberystwyth, Cromer, Saltburn, Southwold and Brighton. Reaching far out to sea also makes them rather vulnerable to passing ships and the aforementioned unfortunate Southend-on-Sea was sliced in half in 1986 by a tanker that had lost its navigational bearings. One unfortunate man was in the pier toilets at the time and only just made it out in time before they tipped over the edge!
Cleethorpes pier is no exception to disaster and it burnt down in 1905. It was rebuilt but was shortened again in 1940 and this is my favourite Cleethorpes Pier anecdote. It was demolished to prevent it being of any use to the German army in the event of an invasion of England via the Humber estuary. Quite honestly I don’t understand why the German army would need the pier to offload their tanks and equipment when they could simply have driven it up the muddy beach but that is not the point of my story.
The dismantled iron sections were sold after the war and they were bought by Leicester City Football Club who used them in the construction of the main stand at their ground at Filbert Street. From about the age of ten my dad used to take me to watch Leicester City and we used to sit in that stand every home match and so although I didn’t know it I had actually been on Cleethorpes pier fifty years before I ever visited the place.
* Based on a direct line drawn on an Ordnance Survey map from location to the first coast with tidal water. The village that is further from the sea than any other human settlement in the UK is Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire at exactly seventy miles in all directions.
We were leaving the caravan this morning and I wasn’t especially sad about that. It was nice enough but disappointing compared to the luxury accommodation that we had enjoyed a couple of months previously in Norfolk; the constant sickly smell of calor gas reminded me of childhood caravan holidays and was giving me headaches, although Kim accusingly suggested that it might alternatively have been the Stella Artois!
We started the day by making a third attempt to visit nearby Seaton Delaval Hall which had been inconveniently closed for the last two days. We arrived at ten o’clock but it didn’t open until eleven (Kim said that I should have checked the web site and I couldn’t argue with that but I blamed the Calor gas/Stella Artois headache) so we walked around the gardens and then sat in the pleasant sunshine in the garden until the ticket office opened.
We didn’t need tickets because now we were members of the National Trust so we flashed our temporary paperwork and walked straight through without stopping even to look in the ridiculously overpriced gift shop.
I liked this place immediately. I could imagine living there. Sadly the main block is almost derelict, destroyed by a massive fire in 1822 but even though it is soot blackened and blaze scorched (it reminded me of one of my garden BBQ attempts) it remains a magnificently impressive building.
What a tragedy that a place has magnificent as this should be destroyed in a single night and after two hundred years or so still be left as a great ruin.
It was designed and built by Sir John Vanbrugh who had been previously responsible for Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and although this one is much smaller in scale historians and architects today consider it to be his finest work.
The Delavals were rich landowners and early industrialists who made their money from coal, salt and glass and by all accounts they worked hard and partied hard and weekends here of parties and shagging went together like dog’s tails and wagging! Everyone in society looked forward to an invitation popping through their letterbox!
Of all the places that we had visited this weekend this was my favourite, I could have stayed and poked about in the corners and the recesses for a whole day. The west wing (not destroyed by the fire) was lived in until relatively recently by a member of the modern day aristocracy but upon his death the owner had a huge bill for inheritance tax and unable to afford it sold the place to the National Trust.
Taxes! We pay taxes all of our lives to the Government and then when we die we pay them all over again. Bloody outrageous if you ask me, reminds me of a film I once saw with a great line – “There is nothing more certain in life than death and taxes – unless you are Greek!”
As we walked around the West Wing my eye was drawn to a painting which described the subject as Baron Astley of Hillmorton in Warwickshire and why that poked my interest is because I lived and grew up in Hillmorton in Warwickshire. None of the guides could give me any information on that point and that was not especially surprising because as it turns out the Baronetcy of Hillmorton was/is just a convenience title and the man who enjoyed it actually lived in Norfolk.
There is however a street in Hillmorton called ‘Astley Place’.
After visiting the Hall we walked around the grounds and the formal gardens, which didn’t take especially long and then we left Seaton Delaval and Northumbria and headed for the Tyne Tunnel and the journey back home.
Before driving into Yorkshire we stopped briefly at Washington Old Hall, another National Trust property and the ancestral home (allegedly) of George Washington of American Independence and First president of the USA fame.
It has to be said that the link is quite tenuous because George’s ancestors left Washington Old Hall almost a hundred years before he was born and he himself apparently confessed had little interest in genealogy or his English heritage.
I have said before that I always like to see how far a place name has travelled and not unsurprisingly there are a lot of Washingtons in the USA and thirty States have a place named after the town in Tyne and Wear or, more likely of course, the first President of the USA. These are the nineteen that don’t – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming.
We spent a very pleasant hour or so at Washington Old Hall and as we finished with a cup of tea and a slice of cake in the café I did some final reckoning up and was happy to find that we had fully recovered the cost of National Trust membership and we had a full year ahead of us to make a tidy profit.
I wonder where my next caravan holiday will take me?
The scenery was wonderful, sweeping and serene as we left the fringes of the Northumberland National Park and the Cheviot Hills and headed east back towards the coast.
Out of curiosity, I checked later just how far north we were and I was surprised to find that although we were still in England we were further north than the Scottish border at the Solway Firth in the west. In fact the Scottish border there somewhere north of Carlisle is almost seventy-five miles south of the border in the east at Berwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in England (the most southerly town in Scotland is Gretna).
That is why despite being in England, Berwick Rangers play in the Scottish Football League and Carlisle United play in the English Football League. If Berwick Rangers played in England (and assuming they were in the same division) than a match for the team at England’s southernmost and westernmost league team, Plymouth Argyle, would result in a round-trip of almost one thousand miles.
By contrast Gretna FC (2008) play in the Scottish Lowland League and not in England.
As it turned out we were even further North than Scotland in our caravan park at Whitley Bay, just outside of Newcastle.
We were also some way north of Hadrian’s famous wall and although a lot of people think that the Roman Emperor’s Wall marks the border between England and Scotland it never has and never will because it runs a conveniently short distance between Wallsend near the River Tyne in Newcastle and the Solway Firth in Cumbria. When it came down to military expediency the Romans didn’t concern themselves too much about geography.
So we carried on now to Dunstanburgh Castle stopping briefly on the way at the pleasant but unremarkable little town of Alnwick where it was market day and which by all accounts has a very fine castle but is not National Trust and with our membership cards burning a hole in our pockets we drove straight by and on to the village of Dunstan, determined to get our money’s worth from the membership fee that we had forked out earlier.
As we drove some previous life memories came back to me and I remembered how in the 1990s I worked for an incompetent waste management company called Cory Environmental (I wrote some stories about them some time back) who had purchased some seriously unprofitable contracts in the North-East at Wansbeck and Castle Morpeth Councils and I chuckled to myself now as we drove through these two council districts and the towns of Morpeth and Blyth where the company had their depots and recalled just how disastrous the privatisation of public services had been at that time and continues to be even today.
Eventually we arrived at the coast at the fishing village of Craster with a sheltered harbour, with the tide out fishing boats resting up on the mud banks and lobster pots stacked on the quay ready to be taken out to sea later.
Do lobsters like bright colours I wondered?
From Craster there was a long walk to Dunstanburgh Castle, almost two miles as it turned out, but the weather was exceptionally fine and we made our way north along the coastal walk. A grassy stroll across a windswept headland and on the way we passed through flocks of sheep and herds of cows and as we stopped now and then to look out to sea over the salt stained black rocks decorated with vivid green seaweed and water polished barnacles I imagined the intrepid Vikings bearing down from the North Sea and sweeping westward across the land.
Dunstunburgh turned out to be a very fine Medieval Castle, ruined of course, collapsed into the sea in some parts and pillaged over the centuries for building stone for nearby Craster but I liked it, it has a nobleness and a sense of the ‘Wars of the Roses’. I forgot about the Vikings now and imagined a Baron’s army laying siege to the castle or a great Lord of the realm leading his men out to defend against Scottish invaders from the North or possibly from the South depending upon which direction they came from.
So we climbed the towers and the battlements and walked through the courtyards which are no longer there and then we took the two mile walk back to the car park and began our journey back to Whitley Bay and the caravan park. Still determined to get full value from our recent National trust membership we stopped en-route at the stately home at Wallington.
I was pleased that we hadn’t driven too far out of our way because although it made for a convenient stop and there was a fine house and extensive grounds to explore it wasn’t especially thrilling but at least we were closing in now on break-even on the cost of our National Trust annual membership.
It was Father’s Day and everywhere was rather busy but we didn’t expect to see long untidy line of people queuing up outside a pastry shop in the small town of Seaton Delaval. We were intrigued by that and although we didn’t have the patience to investigate right now we made a note to return possibly the next day.
(We did that and it turned out to be an Italian bakery with the most delicious vanilla ice cream made from a secret recipe from Tuscany, which apparently draws people in from miles around).
Rather unimaginatively we ended the day at St Mary’s Lighthouse where we just sat with the local people who regularly turn up here at high tide and watch and see if any unsuspecting tourists get cut off and have to either swim for it or spend the night on the island.