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

Friday, 3 March 2017


Stand by ladies.  Hot on the heels of Colin Firth diving into the lake at Lyme Park and Aidan Turner baring his torso in Poldark, here we have another male heartthrob stripping off, only this time we get the full frontal.  In 1991 the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was released, starring Kevin Costner as Robin and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid Marian, just two of an illustrious cast.  In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Maid Marian happens upon a naked Robin Hood bathing in a beautiful waterfall. 

The waterfall in question was Hardraw Force, just one of a number of spectacular waterfalls to be found in the north of England – Hardraw is old English for ‘shepherd’s dwelling’.  Another one, Aysgarth Falls, was used in the same film for the fight scene between Robin and Little John.  Located just under a mile from the town of Hawes in Wensleydale, Hardraw Force has its origin in Hardraw Beck, in Hardraw Scar, a wooded ravine.  With a drop of 100 feet, the waterfall claims the title of England’s highest unbroken waterfall, not including underground ones. 

Near the waterfall is a 13th century pub called The Green Dragon which, last year, went up for sale for 1.5 million pounds.  The price included not only the pub but 5.5 acres of parkland, a visitor centre, a campsite and Hardraw Force waterfall itself.  Apparently when the owner at the time of the sale originally bought the pub in 2001, the leaks in the roof were a rival for the waterfall itself. 

As an aside, the inn was visited by the painter JMW Turner in 1816, and Turner painted the gorge into which the waterfall plunges in the painting titled Hardraw Fall.  

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Photo by Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 21 February 2017


The late John Betjeman, who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, and remained in the role until his death in 1984, leaves behind a wealth of evocative verse and prose, describing the places he knew and visited around Britain so vividly that he transports the reader back to an earlier time redolent with nostalgia.  One of his best known works is the autobiographical 'Summoned by Bells', which recalls his childhood, his school days and his time at University.  Chapter VII of the collection covers his time at Marlborough College, a boarding and day school in the attractive small Wiltshire town of the same name which he attended in the early 1920s.

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Entrance to Marlborough College. Photo by Steph, via Wikimedia Commons

Betjeman was allegedly quite miserable at Marlborough College, where he spent five years (“Thank God I’ll never have to go through them again”) and he does not miss an opportunity to have a dig at it in his poetry, referring to it as “my prison house”.  Winters were a particular endurance test, described as “Black as our college suits, as cold and thin”.  Mealtimes did not bring any solace, with cakes “harder than the rocks”, tea which is “made from stewed up socks”, and a Dining Hall smelling of Irish Stew.  The teas at the College were described as a joke – “you only ate them when quite stony broke”.    

Sports formed a large part of life in the College, and Betjeman bemoaned the fact that for five years he and his fellow pupils “shivered in exiguous shorts”.  While at the College he founded a satirical magazine called ‘The Heretick’, which made fun of this obsession with sport.  Other negative memories recalled in the poem include the “casual beatings”, the stone flag passages and the iron bars.  In the early 1960s Betjeman made a documentary film about Marlborough, part of a series which became lost, but were subsequently rediscovered.  The director of the piece on Marlborough recalls that it took some persuading to get him to go through the gates of the school for the filming on his first visit there for 40 years, such were his feelings about it.

It wasn’t all bad though, because he liked the town and adored the surrounding countryside.  He used to walk along the River Kennet, which he recalls in the poem with the line “The smell of trodden leaves beside the Kennet, On Sunday walks with Swinburne in my brain” (a reference to a fellow English poet).  He also cycled to Silbury, “by burnt-up hawthorn edged again with white from chalk dust whirled by Fords and Lancias” (Marlborough is in the middle of a predominantly chalk terrain) and to “sepulchral Avebury “.

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Avebury Ring. Photo by Simon Barnes, via Wikimedia Commons
Marlborough used to be an important pit-stop on the old road from London to Bath, and the quaint old inns lining its main street are a reminder of that time.  Its most notable feature is its generous High Street, the second widest in the country, with a pleasant mix of pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops.  In fact, for a town of its size it has a surprisingly decent selection of shops, probably because the continued presence of Betjeman’s hated College lends the town an upmarket air.  The chalklands around Marlborough are full of fascinating ancient sites.  Silbury, mentioned above, is home to Silbury Hill, an artificial prehistoric chalk mound, and Avebury is famous for its Avebury Ring, a henge monument containing three stone circles.  These two Neolithic monuments, along with the West Kennet Long Barrow, are part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The High Street, from St Peter's Church. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall, via Wikimedia Commons