Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Those who have holidayed on the North Devon coast may be familiar with the small resort bearing the only place name in the country with an exclamation mark: Westward Ho!  For bookworms, meanwhile, the name will call to mind a 19th century novel by the author Charles Kingsley about an expedition to the Spanish Main.  Confusingly, the early part of the novel is set, not in the eponymous resort, but in nearby Bideford, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.   Property developers of the time who were planning to build a resort around the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company decided to capitalise on the success of the novel by christening the resulting village Westward Ho!  The “Ho!” part of the name derives from an expression used by water taxis on the Thames, who used to yell “Eastward Ho!” or “Westward Ho!” to indicate where they were going.

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Bideford from Seven Oaks. Photo by Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons

The main inspiration for the story was drawn from the exploits of the Elizabethan corsair Amyas Preston, whose name was changed to Amyas Leigh in the novel.  Preston set sail for the New World with such luminaries as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.  Probably his best known exploit occurred in 1595 when he led an expedition alongside naval hero George Somers – known as the Preston Somers Expedition or the Capture of Caracas.  The expedition members made an arduous trek through the mountains of the Spanish-held Province of Venezuela before capturing Caracas from the Spanish forces.  It was this expedition which formed the basis of the Westward Ho! story.

Bideford is described by Kingsley as “the little white town of Bideford, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with yellow sands”.  Nowadays the white is interspersed with more recent red brick buildings, such as the Town Hall built in 1850 and the Police Station.  Kingsley recalls how the port “furnished seven ships to fight the Armada”.  A reminder of that time exists in Victoria Park, where eight cannons known as the Armada Guns are on display.  The guns were discovered when the quay was being widened in 1890, having been used as mooring posts.  In Chapter XII Kingsley turns his attention to the Bideford bridge, which he describes as “the very omphalos, cynosure, and soul, around which the town, as a body, has organised itself”.  The bridge was begun in 1280 as a wooden structure graced with two chapels and a large cross in the centre.  The bridge was subsequently rebuilt in stone and widened, and now stands at 677 feet long with 24 arches.  In 1968 a part of the bridge collapsed, causing much disruption due to the diversions which had to be put in place.

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Bideford Old Bridge. Photo by John Spivey, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main characters in the novel is Sir Richard Grenville, a local nobleman, who is the godfather of the main character.  He is described as looking Spanish more than English, with “the nose long, aquiline, and delicately pointed”, and with “the mouth fringed with a short silky beard”.  The real life Sir Richard Grenville was born at Buckland Abbey in Devon, but evidently grew up in Bideford.  There are a number of reminders of him around the town, such as a housing development known as Grenville Place and a whitewashed building known as the Grenville Manor House.  There used to be a Grenville College, but it closed in 2009.

Visitors to Bideford who want to find out about the town's history should look in on the Burton Art Gallery and Museum, which has displays on the town's heritage.  Other attractions in the town include the day trips to Lundy Island and the Pannier Market

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River Torridge by Victoria Park. Photo by Steve Daniels, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 12 June 2017


Normally my pieces about Britain on the small screen centre around locations featured in TV dramas and suchlike.  However, this time I have decided to feature the location of this year’s Springwatch, the eternally popular wildlife spectacular which has the whole nation cheering on fledging blue tits and cooing over playful badgers and fox cubs among other engaging creatures.  More often than not the series comes from an RSPB reserve or similar, but this year’s Springwatch HQ is Sherborne ParkEstate, a swathe of beautiful Cotswolds parkland and farmland adjacent to the former hunting lodge at Lodge Park, all run by the National Trust.

The area covered by the estate includes a variety of habitat for the wildlife.  The woodlands provide a home for birds such as jay, chiffchaff and the obligatory Springwatch blue tits, as well as raptors in the form of buzzard and red kite.  The series also features a kestrel family which has set up home in the church in the nearby idyllic village of Sherborne, and other stars of the show include the magnificent barn owl.  Chris Packham explains that these raptors manage to co-exist due to the fact that they eat different things and employ different hunting methods.  For example, this part of the Cotswolds has a plentiful supply of rabbits for the red kite chicks to gorge on. 

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Sherborne Church and Sherborne House. Photo by Philip Halling, via Wikimedia Commons

The farmland on the estate is a perfect habitat for birds such as skylark and yellowhammer, and hares can also be found there.  The hedgerows provide shelter for a variety of birds including the gorgeous bullfinch, and stoats find the typical Cotswold dry stone walls perfect for their dens, although the mother stoat regulary moves her offspring from place to place as the dens become a bit whiffy from all the prey consumed there.  The diversity of flora on the estate attracts insects including a range of different butterflies.

During the spring, the water meadows of the estate’s tranquil River Windrush are the scene of a mass emergence of mayflies, providing a feeding frenzy for the resident trout.  This incredible event was shown during the first week of this year’s Springwatch.  The river looms large in the series, looking magnificent in the evening sunshine, with gently sloping sheep pastures rising from it.  

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Photo by Philip Halling, via Wikimedia Commons
The estate is located just off the A40 between Cheltenham and Oxford.  Visitors to the area where Springwatch is being filmed can park at Ewe Pens Barn, from where there are a number of walking trails, including one down to the water meadows.  There is another car park at Northfield Barn, but if visiting during the filming of Springwatch you will not have access to that one.  Lodge Park is some distance away on the other side of the A40 and the former hunting lodge can be visited for an entrance fee (free to NT members).
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Photo by John Menard, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


When J. K. Rowling finished the first book in her series of Harry Potter novels Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997,  having experienced a hand-to-mouth existence on benefits, she could hardly have dreamt of the riches that would come her way, not only from the sales of the books themselves, running at several hundred million copies, but from the resulting series of films, starring such luminaries as Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese and the late Richard Harris, as well as launching the careers of several young actors and actresses, with Daniel Radcliffe playing Harry.  The films feature a number of stunning locations – see my previous post Pottering Around On The Jacobite Steam Train for some of the Scottish locations – but one of the most recognisable locations is Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Part of the schooling of Harry and his schoolmates consisted of  learning to fly a broomstick, an activity which was overseen by Madam Hooch (Zoe Wannamaker).  This skill was passed on in the area of the Outer Bailey, which was also where the rules of Quidditch (a broomstick-based sport) were taught.  As for the Inner Bailey, this was where Harry and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) crash-landed the famous flying car.  The imposing entrance to the castle from the gardens, known as Lion Arch, served as the entrance to Hogwarts, leading to Hagrid’s cabin and the Forbidden Forest.

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Alnwick Castle state rooms exterior. Photo by James West, via Wikimedia Commons

Alnwick Castle, which is still inhabited by the Duke of Northumberland, not surprisingly makes the most of its Harry Potter connections by offering, among other things, broomstick lessons, primarily aimed at the kids, although adults have been known to join in the fun.  The lessons are given by characters dressed up as professors, and take place in the area where the broomstick lesson scenes were shot for the film.  However, it’s not all about Harry Potter.  Garden enthusiasts will love the grounds surrounding the castle which include such novelties as a Poison Garden full of toxic plants where visitors are led around by a guide to avoid mishaps, and the magnificent Grand Cascade water feature.  There is also a massive treehouse which serves as a unique treetop restaurant.  

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The Grand Cascade. Photo by John Firth, via Wikimedia Commons

The castle itself was first started in 1096 by Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick.  Being at the northern end of England, the castle was repeatedly captured and besieged by Scottish kings.  Later, during the Wars of the Roses, the castle was held by Lancastrian forces.  Various alterations were made to the castle over the years, but the rooms on view to the public today are characterised by opulent Italianate interiors, providing a contrast to the solid medieval exteriors.  Beyond the castle, the town of Alnwick is an attractive market town which, apart from the castle, is known as the home of Barter Books.  Housed in a former railway station, it is one of the country’s largest second-hand bookshops.  A short distance away is the glorious Northumberland coast, with yet more alluring castles such as Bamburgh Castle and Dunstanburgh Castle.

Saturday, 6 May 2017


Among all the works by Charles Dickens, Hard Times seems a bit out on a limb.  The main reason for this is geographical, being set “up north” rather than the author’s usual stamping ground, which was mainly in the south-east, sometimes extending out west to Bath, or up the east coast to Great Yarmouth.  The story is set in the fictional Lancashire industrial centre known as Coketown.  Dickens had never ventured this far north prior to writing the novel, so to get himself into the mood he set off for Preston in 1854, where he reportedly became thoroughly bored and depressed, perhaps as much as anything because there was a strike on at the time – oh, and the fact that it was January probably didn’t help.  The industrial unrest witnessed by Dickens provided the main inspiration for the backdrop to the story, and for the characters, including the obnoxious industrialist Josiah Bounderby and one of his employees, the tragic Stephen Blackpool, unable to leave his alcoholic wife for his co-worker sweetheart, wrongly accused of a bank robbery and forced to flee the mill and Coketown before coming to an untimely end after falling into a hole in the ground. 

It has been commented that, unusually for Dickens, the characters in Hard Times lack vibrancy, not surprisingly since he did not linger long enough in Preston to get to know the local people.  However, where he does shine is in his descriptions of the local industrial landscape.  Coketown is described as “that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in”.  The red brick architecture is dismissed with the comment that it is “of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it”.  Not surprisingly, the chimneys attract particular disgust: “the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes”.  However, he did concede that the factories, when lit up, looked like “fairy palaces”.  Even on a sunny summer’s day and seen from a distance “Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays.   You only knew the town was there because you knew there could have been no such blotch upon the prospect without a town.” 

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Miller Arcade. Photo by Francis C. Franklin, via Wikimedia Commons

Preston lies on the banks of the River Ribble, and its origins go back to Roman times.  Highlights of the city’s pre-industrial age include the Battle of Preston in 1648, during the English Civil War, and another Battle of Preston during the Jacobite Rebellion, when the Jacobite army was defeated there.  It was in the 19th century, however, that the former market town became a ‘poster child’ for the transformations brought about by the Industrial Revolution, most notably courtesy of the cotton industry and its mills such as the one owned by Bounderby.  The appalling conditions in the mills were what led to the strike of 1842 which led to the reading of the Riot Act and the involvement of armed troops, who killed several strikers.  Sadly, like so many places in the north, the 20th century saw a notable decline in the city’s industrial activity.  The free to enter Harris Museum and Art Gallery has a section devoted to the city’s history alongside its art displays.  The town's shopping centres include the Victorian era Miller Arcade, picture above, which was modelled on the Burlington Arcade in London.

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The Harris Museum.  Photo by Francis C. Franklin, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 20 March 2017


The latest (and last) series of Broadchurch is currently gracing our TV screens, and with it a new location – the scene of the rape which forms the core of the latest investigation.  The rape took place at a party in a manor house called Axehampton House in the series, but in real life the house is the privately owned Bridehead House.  Originally the Manor of Brydian, owned by Cerne Abbey from 987 until the Dissolution, a new manor house was built on the site around 1600 by Sir Robert Mellor.  In the 19th century the architect Benjamin Ferrey made substantial changes to the house on behalf of his client Robert Williams of the Williams Deacon & Co bank.

The house, situated between Bridport and Dorchester, is surrounded by the chalk hills of the Dorset Downs, at the head of the Bride Valley.  The lake seen in Broadchurch is fed by the waters of the River Bride which gushes from nearby springs and tumbles down a waterfall.  Although the house itself is private, there is a 5-acre site open to visitors, including the Victorian Walled Kitchen and Flower Gardens and a series of walks. 

Along with the revamped manor house, Ferrey built the estate village of Littlebredy (bredy pronounced ‘briddy’) and he added a spire to the 14th century tower of the church of St Michael and All Angels.  The church has a lovely carved font and in the churchyard is a memorial to the former Bishop of Wellington, New Zealand, Frederic Wallis, who returned to the UK to become Archdeacon of Sherborne.  The attractive thatched village hall used to be the village school.  The area around the village is dotted with signs of early occupation – stone circles, tumuli etc.  The National Nature Reserve known as the Valley of Stones in the south of the parish was the source of building material for many of these early constructions.

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Photo by Mike Searle, via Wikimedia Commons