A Day Out with Elspeth In Southwell (and Newark again)

I’m doing the cathedrals of England, and I’m nearly done. The big ones, that is. I’m less bothered by parish church cathedrals, and even less so by most of the catholic ones. It’s not the title, it’s the church itself; so I’m more keen to see Beverley Minster and Sherborne Abbey as I am those churches with a place for a bishop’s bum who are upgrades of quite ordinary ecclesiastical edifices.

The ones left now are mostly in places that I’ve not been able to get to yet, but I made a special effort to go to Nottinghamshire, rising at dawn and being in transit for 5 hours to get there, and quite a complicated journey.

Southwell had seemed a little bottom of the pack. My first cathedral book, which I was given on my 21st birthday, doesn’t even have a picture of it. Other books put it in the minor, back of the book category, with small pictures which mostly focus on those leaves.

That seems to be Southwell’s main glory – freestanding foliage made of thin stone. It’s almost as if the rest of the minster isn’t needed – just that little polygonal chapter house. And even then, only the bit round the door and the seat decorations.

Well, the leaves weren’t the bit that I went for, nor what I took away.

I’ve decided that I rather like Nottinghamshire. I don’t think I’ve seen its countryside before. There’s a swathe of midlands-ish particular shade of red brick that goes right across England; and against the verdant green that’s close to the shade of a certain legend’s clothing, it was a pleasing experience to view.

I got back to Newark too – I’ll tell you about that later – but both towns enhanced my view of the county, and both had similar qualities.

I arrived in Southwell, which can pronounced both ways, locals tell me, via a bus which can arrive anytime in 15 minutes of the advertised time. So beware Stagecoach’s 28s and 29s from Newark to Mansfield.

I first saw Easthorpe — a kind of village tacked on to Southwell, where the Bramley apple comes from. It melds into one of the few main streets of Southwell, and the minster popped out as a kind of surprise. I like to savour that first moment of a first meeting, but here it was, unprepared.

This is a seriously good church. It’s quite big too, and not at all minor.

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My first view of Southwell Minster

The friendliness I experienced at the minster desk (though one guide couldn’t see the rudeness of asking her colleague for a permit in the midst of her talking to me), and at the Tourist Information Centre was excellent. The TIC had been so helpful prior to my visit. It’s little but well stuffed with all about Nottinghamshire, and is far better than the new one at Newark which tries to look flash and feels clinically white and trying too hard. It didn’t even have the excellent town trails about itself that its sister at Southwell did.

There was one thing that spoiled the day, and I know I can’t write more without telling you what it was. The minster was having a concert that night. It was strewn with mounted lights, wires, and the loud mouths of those setting up who had no respect for the building that they were in or that visitors might want a different atmosphere. No it’s not just another concert hall, another job – it’s a sanctuary and I mean in the sense of being peaceful and set apart, whether or not yours is the Christian God or particularly the church of England. I bet other faiths don’t let this go on, I thought. I thought it even more later, but I will save expanding on that for a post on the city concerned.

Suffice to say that my journey that day included 3 towns but I am only doing the two in Notts here.

Southwell Minster is free to enter – hurrah – but its photo permits are quite a lot at £5 and I’m not sure what I feel about charging for the right to take pictures. There’s a berth between the 300 photo snapper and those who take “just one of the nave”. I’d have resented paying for a pass that day when the minster was not looking its best inside.

Oh, but what a church! If you like Norman architecture, GET HERE! I recently did a ‘facetious, wicked and opinionated’ talk on the best place in England to see the Normans, and I didn’t get time to come here. I should have – for there are several things which make Southwell stand out. It’s the only church left to have a pair of complete Norman western towers. This once common arrangement is well exemplified here, and helps us imagine the many lost or altered abbeys with such a frontage. It also has a third Norman tower at the crossing. And it has lead clad pyramid spires, the sort that we think the Normans actually built. This is at least the 3rd lot, and annoyingly, the grain goes in the wrong direction – it should be herringbone, pointing like the spire, not straight down, Mr Gilbert Scott!

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Sorry, I no longer have a wide angled camera

It has Norman detail everywhere, looking mostly recently restored, but without the heavy hand of the emu (my name for Victorian restorers, because they peck at things and spoil them). Its favourite motif is the cable mould, so there are rope patterns round arches, along sides of walls (‘string courses’), and at least 3 good Norman doorways and an interesting porch.

Southwell may be smaller than the other great Eastern Cathedrals, but it’s no less lovely or impressive.

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Southwell Minster’s crossing

It’s a bit dark inside though – this is one of the few churches with still Norman shaped windows, and it has only 2 rows of them instead of the usual 3, so that the galleries (‘triforium’) are unlit. I’m not sure what I think of the roof: being round like the general spirit and rhythm is right – but it both feels a further darkener and isn’t quite right. The aisles are satisfyingly and contemporarily vaulted.

And what of the non Norman bit? I’m usually not bothered by early English and feel annoyed when it has taken over from the Romanesque I so enjoy. But I like the choir here. It is lighter, and a place to linger.

Digital CameraAnd as for the leaves? I had to look hard to imagine why these were singled out as the great medieval carvings. I recall the Saxon tympanum stone more, and the cables that I’ve already mentioned. The chapter house is as usual a pleasing and quieter space, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others.

Southwell’s got a ruined medieval palace which you can visit a small but grand roofed part of for free, with an overdone soundscape and video. There are gardens but much is roped off and marked, incendiarily, as private. I was more cross when I worked out that the Bishop probably lives here.

I didn’t got to the out of town workhouse, which makes me so angry. “Imagine the Victorian Poor” says the National Trust leaflet. I think many of us fear for the late Elizabethan poor, which we might be ourselves, and how the founder’s ethos of “an empty workhouse is a successful one” might reflect welfare policy today. I’d rather put my efforts into changing that ethos. I don’t think a visitor attraction with an entry fee is what Oxfam means by “Make Poverty History”.

The town is little, and doesn’t take long to walk round, but there are many shops and cafes and it’s upmarket. There are country-feeling walks in easy reach, but I ended up getting cross with all those big prebend’s houses.

I found three hours here was suffice, and also I didn’t trust that bus.

So I’ve given myself little time and space again for Newark, but I liked the York-like feel of it, and I did three things which I couldn’t last time.

I got in the church – not as special quite as I’d hoped, again, quite dark, with the organ console positioned for maximum attention. Who are we worshipping, I wondered?

St Mary M’s is huge and I liked the coloured ceiling.

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I also entered the hard to find little local museum and gallery, which involves a lift, inside the town hall and buttermarket – the beige stone building in the large market place. One member of staff was sensitive to my interest and schedule – unlike a colleague – but I was able to view a very splendid Georgian ball room.

The TIC — which was small but well formed, by Castle Station – has moved, next to the Palace theatre on Appleton Gate, and in with the new Civil War museum.

I sensed the Richard III experience at Leicester in all ways of this £8 new attraction, and left well alone. (You’ll see what I mean in my next post).

The stations are apparently not as far apart as I estimated – but I think that the online distances are wrong. At full speed, which is quite rapid, it took 20 mins to walk from Newark Northgate to the bus station. I meandered (and got stuck in a housing and industrial development) between the Castle and Northgate stations, but I made a discovery – there’s a river path, much nicer than either Appleton or Northgate streets, which passes barges and warehouses as well as greenery. It’s unlit and it’s quite weird in one place, being forced off the river path, then invited back on it by ALDI supermarket, down a rough path, where a new bridge reassuringly appears. On the Castle station side, the walk becomes pastures, but you need to be on the bank with Zizzi and Pizza Express to access Northgate station as there’s not a bridge again till beyond the point you need to cross. They could make that a proper, nice walk, and I do wish that NNG station (that’s it’s code name) had something round it to do or eat/shop – not just a tiny cafe within the gated station.

I am mentally spending more time in the Midlands and may soon return with further adventures – cinematic, literary, mental and actual.





Elspeth’s Quest for Britain’s Best Castle

There’s a little season coming of Elspeth Quests – I’ve not got out much in a while, not to anywhere new 😦

However, the mind, the net and books are ever here to do the walking for us…

LIKE WINTER, PICTURES ARE COMING! (and are now here! Keep scrolling)

I’d first like to state my issues with castles – symbols of domination, feudalism, torture and military.

Why are so many castles lumps of stone and decay that in no way convey what they used to be like? I prefer something that a ghost would recognise.

I don’t like Georgian and Victorian remodelling or the chintzy sofas of some lived in castles.

Defining castles against fortified houses and palaces is difficult and there may be overlap when I have a quest for those.

Castles1 - HeverI suppose I have a list of favourite castle qualities: setting, silhouette, tall walls and gates,  alive – recent reconstructions are my favourite; being part of national history and featuring people I care about – so Hever, pleasant as it is, means more to me for being Anne Boleyn’s family home. I like palatial splendour and pre 1700 architecture; lack of horror and military; a large great hall, chapel and kitchens, and square Norman keeps.

I haven’t been to all Britain’s castles yet so I may miss off some obvious ones, but they may also be precluded for other reasons, so there will be elephants not in the room.

Here’s a few castles I recommend:



The Great Hall and chapel from my scrapbook

The craggy rock with its backcloth of hills is surmounted by a dour and frankly, not very fetching fortress; but I don’t see that. I see David Simon’s illustration from the Historic Scotland guide – a 15-16th Century gold renaissance palace, entered through a gate over twice the height of the existing one and flanked by satisfyingly round drum towers. I see the King’s Building as James (Johnny Depp lookalike) IV’s bachelor pad, not the military museum hotchpotch it is today. I focus on the building that cheers across the city from the train, peeping slightly awkwardly from afar, but now comfortable and proud and rather large. The Great Hall has been returned to its fetching yellow, “King’s Gold”, with crow step gables and turrets and lions and two big bay windows. It is Scotland’s largest secular medieval room and must be among the largest anywhere. Inside (sadly a little plainer than I’d like to see), the hammerbeam roof is back, so’s the minstrel’s gallery and Queen and King seats – can you resist?! And lots of green sort of voile curtain. You feel as if they’re between banquets and the tables will come out later (you can hire this castle for just that). The large chapel doesn’t please me outside, but it’s more gold within, and some early 17th C friezes round an annoying modern ceiling, but it feels like a place you’d actually want to attend a service.

The Palace, though small by other countries’ standards, is bigger in life than in pictures and the Auld Alliance with France is very obvious in its flamboyant external decoration. Inside are 6 rooms, recently refurnished – the only 16th C set of state rooms in Britain. I love to walk where Mary Queen of Scots did. I’d like it even more if her Dad’s rooms weren’t so sparse (did they run out of money and pretend it’s because it’s the year he died?) and yet a little over the top – I was looking forward to more David Simon pictures made real, with panelling and not too many colours in one room.

Me in my newly refurbed apartments, and during the revamp

This is my favourite Scottish castle and a contender for the whole of Britain

Other Scots castles I like or want to see:

Crathes and Craigievar for their names and for the painted and plastered decoration inside – and for looking nice and Scottish and turreted;

and fortified Linlithgow palace for being much like Stirling but contained all in one square. I amuse myself trying to put the things of one palace into the other. Shame about the lack of roofs. Again – I see this as it was, not as it is, though the great hall has power even as a ruin. Anyone else worked out that Linlithgow fits with the theme tune of The Simpsons?! I’m also intrigued by Dirleton and Crichton, whose eggbox patterned courtyard I’m sure is a sign of the Illuminati…

Moving down into England…


or Dur–ham as an American friend pronounced it. Do I like this better for being a snob university instead of the seat of Prince Bishops?

Castles2 - Durham

As a castle, it ticks many of my boxes, save its Gothickisation: it is on a peninsula and ridge by its cathedral, it has a gatehouse, a large (but annoyingly restored and Oxbridge-ised) great hall, a medieval kitchen arch where students stand to get their food; a C17 tall black wooden carved staircase; a Norman chapel and two corridors of that era which are especially superb, including a ceremonial doorway. There are unseen rooms for university dignitaries.

Other good castles around: large and high walled Bamburgh has a square keep, great hall and a sparse beach location, but it was home of a Victorian magnate who got rich on making armaments with sticky and overzealous architectural fingers, and is filled with armoury.

Newcastle’s little keep is one of the few Norman castles with rooms in it; the best two are in the basement, with stone vaulting. It has excellent city views from the top.

While we’re on complete keeps, Castle Hedingham in Essex also has four storeys all with roofs and the biggest Norman arch in Europe. A ghost would be happy here – so so am I.

The Marches and Wales have many potentially special castles but too many ruins; I’d single Ludlow out as a better one though I’m sad only Caerphilly in Wales has a major room with a roof. Stokesay has a large open roofed great hall and carved panelled solar. I like the contrast of stone and timber framing – more of that gold at Stirling. But I think the best castle on the west side is


(pronounced as in Sesame Street’s dog). I can’t get away from the horror with Edward II, but otherwise this is a welcoming looking red/pink stone family home. Well done to the Berkeleys for keeping chintz out and making it look like a real castle (and not doing an Alnwick) and yet still comfortable. There’s a large enough great hall which still feels usable and homely, and other rooms – one with medieval paint traces. Shame I’ve not yet been.

Tower of London

Tower of London1 - Copy - Copy   Tower of London (2)

medieval palace in St Thomas’ Tower and a bit of Byward Tower

It surprises and delights how this rather shiny remnant of medievalness sits amidst Europe’s biggest and most impatient city. It has two sets of full height walls which can be walked on with big towers. It’s interesting to know who was held in there, such as seeing Walter Raleigh’s rather comfy room; and for me, the high poignancy of knowing that Anne Boleyn both was crowned and executed here, and her daughter held possibly in the same room. There’s Tudor timbering, gate houses, a redecorated medieval palace (though alas no great hall), and one of the best Norman keeps – outside. However, there’s no rooms in it that look anything like what William evil eye of Normandy would have built himself – and much of this early stone tower is filled with armoury. There is also the horror factor, which can be avoided, though the official guide claims there was less torture and execution here than in public imagination. The ravens and beefeaters add to the mix, though my military views and dislike of ridiculous ceremonies (the nightly keys) – and having to be bag checked do cast a shadow of a raven’s wing over this. And I’m not sure how much standing on a Generation Game conveyor belt trying to recall which sceptre and orbs you’ve just seen appeals either.

There’s two great halls in the South East that I wish still had castles to go with them – Winchester (with its Arthurian link) and Eltham (with a rare monogram of Henry and Anne – Boleyn, did you need to ask?)

Of Kent’s many castles, I think


is the most special. It sits on cliffs as a symbol of entering the country; and its edifices go from Iron Age bumps, Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, late Norman keep to World War II control station hidden in the cliffs. Best of all, the Keep had a makeover, Henry II style, and you can see just how bright 13th C furniture was. Wish T of L had one, because empty rooms – however many drawings and virtual computer animations are displayed – don’t feel very exciting. It’s when I visited Stirling after the refurbishment that I realised that no amount of imagination and illustration was a substitute for standing in the recreated rooms of the period.

I realise that despite Britain’s many and various castles, most are dismissed (by me) as being too ruined (majority) or chintz fests. I would love it if more got the Stirling treatment.

If you want to know why the elephants aren’t here, or to recommend me somewhere, please drop a comment

Elspeth’s quest for the best pre 1700 merchant town house

We’ll start floating round Britain without ado…


My favourite in Scotland – and a contender for all of Britain – is Provost Skeen’s house in Aberdeen. Hiding behind a modern building, and overlooked by the mighty Marischal College, this FREE folk museum includes several 17th century plastered ceilings and a wonderful painted hall that you have to shut the door on to protect it.

Edinburgh Riddles Court  Edinburgh Moray House

Edinburgh: Riddle’s Court and Moray House, both on the Royal Mile

In Edinburgh, you’re likely aware of Gladstone’s Land, John Knox House and the Huntly House/Museum of Edinburgh; but I’d like to speak of two lesser known homes which are not normally publicly accessible. They are both on the Mile. Riddle’s Court is on the Lawnmarket, and is reached through a pend. Within it is one of the lively decorated ceilings distinct to Scotland (to see one in its original vibrant colours, visit The Study in Culross – and the photo below). There is also a plastered ceiling and a green room with  a flat pattern on it. Moray House is on the same side, on the Canongate, and is part of the university’s education department. Two rooms have an open plastered ceiling, which make this house fascinating and unusual.

Stirling Argyll's Lodging

Argyll’s Lodging from my scrapbook

I would have liked Stirling’s Argyll’s Lodging a little more if it had retained a more early 17th instead of late appearance, but the exterior is everything I’d wish for in a Scottish mansion – turrets and gables, buckle quoins – fairy tale and French. But you can’t visit it as easily as one once could. I recall fondly when entry was added onto my castle ticket and having a random chat with staff that James V looks like Johnny Depp and discussing that Nigel Tranter’s historic novels have the same wedding night scene pattern! (This is called Naughty Guide for a reason!). Alas for the most part, it’s behind bars and quite fiddly to arrange a visit to now.


Nerwcastle Sandhill Newcastle Sandhill

You’d have a naughty view of Bessie Surtsee’s escape from here!

Newcastle has two special town houses.
One might be drawn to the two renovated brown brick Georgian houses on Pilgrim Street with their green sashes. If one peeked over the parapet of the right hand (north) one, you might just glimpse something that hints more is here than you think. You may observe that the top windows on that same house are different, and are older, if you could get access to the back, you’d be clear that this isn’t a Georgian home you’re looking at. Fenwick’s is 17th century and has a tall staircase the height of the building and a copula with a balustrade (posh top of stairs rail thing). Inside are panelling and plastered ceilings. It is not normally open to the public.
There’s a group of 7 houses in Sandhill, but you’d not know that the red brick ones are actually timbered houses in disguise. All have some accessibility as pubs and clubs (the Quilted Camel is a the most bizarre bar I’ve ever entered), and Bessie Surtees House is open free as the regional HQ of English Heritage. Except you only see about 3 rooms and the courtyard. I understand that there’s one more interesting room on the 2nd floor, much like the one below but without the exciting ceiling. Which means that Bessie Surtees, despite its incredible frontage, is a one room house. But what a unique front – one can tell the proximity to Scotland (cf the type of peg like overhang with John Knox’s house in Edinburgh), 5 storey alternating bands of glass and renaissance columns. And you’ll have heard of the story of how Bessie snuck out of the window and eloped with her lover… That room is the one with the panelling, overmantel (ie posh fireplace, pinched from elsewhere) and the plastered ceiling. Apart from the house-height stairs, there’s little more to see here.

York Barley Hall

Renewed Barley Hall in York (above) is one of the best early medieval homes you’ll come across, and the voice of Judi Dench gives you a tour. The large open hall is in are in medieval techicolour brilliance/gaudiness (delete to your taste).

Chester Bear and Billet Chester Leche House

The Rows – the medieval two tiers of shops along Chester’s roman axis of streets – are stuffed with nice surprises. The house I’d like to champion isn’t one that externally you might single out of the very detailed patterned frontages, such as the Bear and Billet above. When I last went to Chester, 17 Watergate was a shop – the Sofa workshop, but it’s very special conglomeration of 14-17th centuries. Leche House (ie after the physician’s favourite sucking invertebrate) is the best preserved example of a Row House – shop at the front, open hall with a gallery in the middle – this one has a Jacobean overmantel and plastered pendant (above right) – and more plaster in the front and back rooms. It has studded doors to the stone cellar beneath.

Conwy in North Wales looks very much the medieval little town and it has an Elizabethan town mansion  – Plas Mawr – which is probably the best of its date in the country. It was recently restored – now whitewashed with crowstep gables and a distinctly Celtic stair turret. It has about six plastered rooms, some in colour, and you can explore the attic too and see the studded trusses of the medieval original house. It has a kitchen with a wide arch and a gatehouse. Worth adding onto your castle ticket.


Bristol Lllandoger - Copy Bristol Lllandoger1

Bristol had a much wider range of merchants’ houses, both large hall houses and complicated Tudor/Stuart frontages. Bombs, slum clearances and industrialisation have taken many. Although the house to visit is Red Lodge with its amazing chamber (I’ve not seen a room so big in a town house), what I  like best is an inn, which is part of Travelodge. A door takes you Mr Benn-like from a modern hotel into a 17th century hostelry of distinction, the Llandoger Trow (above), with Ipswich windows (see Ancient House below), ceilings of  plaster and fireplaces.

Ludlow’s Readers’ House seemed to be an in the know place to visit, but it was one of the very best things I saw in this timbered Shropshire town. The doorbell was answered a little ominously by its custodian, but the building inside is a special Tudor house.

Worcester Commandery Worcester Commandery1

It’s dark inside – and a bit spooky – hence the camera shake

Worcester’s Commandery (above) has probably the largest medieval hall I can think of in a town house, and its scale suggested it may not fairly be placed in this category. As a museum, it was very interesting – the only time I’ve tried out Braille (it was used as a blind school).


Ipswich St Stephen's lane St Lawrence Ipswich Ancient house barrel room

Alas this is the only internal photo I have – it’s hard to sneak your camera out when pretending to browse PLASTIC utensils

Ipswich’s Ancient House (above) will draw your eye if you walk down Buttermarket. The pargetting (ie plaster decoration) is particularly fine, and the Ipswich windows (so called even when they occur elsewhere) exemplary of these kind of bow crossed with venetian fenestration. It seems 17th century, but it is actually several structures from 15th C and includes work from 18th and 19th centuries. There’s a hall house with a hammerbeam roof at the core. It’s surmised that a builder from the West Country was brought in for the type of ceiling is not common in these parts, and neither’s the wooden decoration on the courtyard. There are 16th century ceilings, an earlier 17th century heavy fireplace, and a late 17th C panel and plaster room at the first floor of the building. The side in St Stephen’s Lane has exposed timbering and there’s a barrel roof towards Arras Square by the shopping centre (both pictured). It had a long association with books, as a library and then Dillon’s bookshop, but is now a branch of Lakeland Plastics. You can get to many rooms but the attic with its gallery is not open due to safety concerns (snore), and the small room about information on the building is covered in boxes.


Curat and Edmund Wood’s houses  in Norwich share a general pattern of shops to the street, a courtyard and two very alike large Tudor hall rooms on top of each other. The top rooms have the same kind of flat timber ceiling, the lower one a timber and plaster design that I’ve not found anywhere else. But while Edmund Wood’s is known and open to the city as an arts centre (formerly King of hearts, now Anteros, bottom right), Curat’s is specialist knowledge and not even enjoyed privately, for it’s an expensive largely unused extension to a shop.

I’d like to end by taking you round Stranger’s Hall (above left and top right). It has the best domestic undercroft in the city of the most of these cellars in the country; it has a 15th C hall with two large bay windows and stairs added in the next two centuries; it has 16th and 17th rooms which aren’t as good as I’d expect for a mayoral residence, and then the more impressive Georgian dining room in its much older skin…and finally, recreated rooms of varying eras, from a counting house/kitchen of 16th century to Victorian parlours and a modern display of dummies with tights for hair.

Do I have a favourite? – well I would have said, Crosby Hall, London. Moved from Bishopsgate (where it became unfashionable for the growing financial sector) to Chelsea for safekeeping, it is the grandest merchant’s town house I’ve ever heard of. Its great hall is castle sized; its long panelled and plastered rooms fit for a palace. But – it’s owned privately by Mr Moran, who lives in it, and has a vault for himself built ready. The way it was written in a book on London’s hidden interiors (of course that means, no photos, no access) makes it sounds as if this entrepreneur is trying to revive the feudal medieval ideal of bearing oneself to glory for eternity. Of course I don’t know the man – this may all be wrong. But he is hogging UK’s grandest pre 1700 townhouse all to himself. Hands up who thinks it should be opened to the nation?! (yes I’m aware much of it is neo Tudorbethan and 20th C but my point still stands).

A Day Out With Elspeth in Canterbury

I’m not one to often speak of road numbers – I’m very conscious of Bill Bryson’s observation about that as a British past time – but my thoughts of Canterbury begin at the A2, the London to Dover road. You have the same view from the Eurostar – it’s the sight of the hunched up shoulders of Canterbury cathedral that warns you’re about to go into European turbo mode. The tower seems tall from some angles and not tall enough from others, for the cathedral that seems scrunched from the front is huge length ways, I believe within 10 feet of Europe’s longest medieval cathedral (which is Winchester, should you care, 556 ft). Canterbury’s like an over stretched slug with too small a steering wheel from the south/north.

Yes, like the Volkswagen indie cinema adverts, I see things differently.

It is pleasant to be in a walled city, and one with little traffic within them. I’m not a huge car-banner but it was so much more tranquil and safe. It’s even nicer to have a major medieval gate to welcome you – something that only a handful of British towns have. I consider Westgate as a burley but friendly door keeper.

Unlike Winchester, there’s a bit more to Canterbury than the obvious main street that presents itself both for shopping and exploring (of course Winchester has other streets but perhaps few with attractions and cafes?). Canterbury is good for cafes. The high street changes its name a few times and extends beyond the Westgate to St Dunstan’s street, which is also pretty and full of inns of pilgrims who missed the curfew.

The city side of the gate, it’s St Peter’s Street and this is the more attractive end with independents and eating options, becoming High Street briefly around the Eastbridge where there’s a medieval hospital you can visit (with a volunteer in the mould of the man in Duckula who recited the digits of pi) and the much pictured weaver’s tearooms (where you pick up a punt tour). Boho cafe here lives up to its name – there is a quite a streak of this in Canterbury, as was evidenced by a literary and music festival which was on when I visited.


As you head down (south east) the high street, towards where Westgate’s twin gate once was, you get to the post war high street shopping. This used to feel ugly and incongruent, but since the mid 1990s, it was mostly rebuilt in that short window when planning was sensitive. Gone is the multistorey car park that dominated the city as much as the amphitheatre on its site must have. Whitefriars shopping is a warm red brick; what was Gap clothes shop is in the traditional local pantiled c1600 style, and New Look nearby has a modern twist on a Dutch gable. This was all gratifying to someone who knew Canterbury during the modernist era and saw that most blights have gone.

New ones have arrived. The yellow 1930s cinema made a nice theatre, but now the Marlowe is all glass and shines blue at night, vying in attention with the cathedral from Tyler’s Hill at the university. Canterbury still has little by way of the arts, and save the Gulbenkian at UKC (read my visit here) which isn’t easy to access for non drivers all year round, there’s the two screen Odeon or this receiving Theatre Royal-like all rounder named, as many things are, after the locally connected playwriting Christopher. Yes Canterbury’s only about 40,000 people, no it’s not Kent’s county or largest town (that’s Maidstone), but being a famous cathedral and university city, one would hope for a little more perhaps, especially as it does serve much of east Kent as a retail/entertainment destination.

The other new cultural bit which was an unwelcome change was the Beaney extension. The heavily Victorian museum, gallery and library has a modern wing onto Best Lane, and has NO tourist information centre worth speaking of – for one of Britain’s most visited cities?! Thinking of getting guides, leaflets, things to do, places to eat ideas or souvenirs? Wrong. Thinking of planning a trip in the area or getting a holiday brochure for the rest of the country? Forget it. I really don’t know where this scaled down TIC trend is coming from, but it’s stupid. Where do the tourists go? The TIC used to be huge and multilingual, and its former site by the Canterbury Tales is now a tearoom with prices higher than the 17th C newelled staircase but fare that is less fancy.

Canterbury’s been good at tidying in my absence elsewhere, including scruffy Stour Street, or has my taste just changed? I quite liked wandering the back streets which seemed a little more industrial than twee (I found a bonded warehouse or two). The only bit that seriously needs doing, and I understand is earmarked, is opposite the modern Sainsbury’s and Kingsmead leisure centre, which feels more of a dump than ever since so little of Canterbury is now.


Go down the side streets. All of them, and keep wandering. There’s quite a network. If you hit the city walls but see old beyond them, keep walking. You find interesting Northgate, St Augustine’s abbey ruins to the east, and even Wincheap’s worth a little wander, or the area just off New Dover Road. One of my favourite streets is Palace Street, which leads to Northgate and runs to short but sweet Sun Street (now with a shite marketing name I won’t repeat). Timbered fronted Conquest House and no 8 appear in guidebooks (if you can find one, mine are old) but there’s more to view, such as the Palace gate that’s had a staircase put where the entrance arch is. Like much round here, it’s part of the King’s (cathedral private) school, and there’s an Oxbridge/Eton parallel, not wholly welcome. Peek round the corner past the wonky house to St Radegund’s hall, a cool pub currently known as the Parrot with a lovely open timbered dining room upstairs.

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Want to see these? Pay up or lose out forever

Now I must start my cathedral whinge. £10.50, not just to go in the church, but to ENTER THE PRECINCT. It means if you don’t pay, the nearest you’ll get to seeing the Anglican mother church is through the back windows of the cathedral café (by the main gate, in a building more interesting than the food) or by the new cathedral shop’s back door. Even locals who qualify for a pass can’t wander through the other entrances as they once could. I was shocked by the amount of prohibitive signs and directivity. I wanted to reply that for £10 (only London’s great churches charge more in the UK), I should be able to wander where I wish in what order I want. I contrast with Norwich, where you’re thanked for not parking here and people sit and even kick balls on the grass and wander the labyrinth in the cloister. And then when I asked for a annual pass (not offered) I am required to fill in my details and have them verified and retained and to prove myself. I realised I may have walked into the gates of that once favourite cathedral for the last time. (Read my thoughts on Keep Cathedrals Free and on the 2016 gun guards)

Canterbury would feel weird without going in the cathedral, as the precincts (as the Close is called here) takes up almost a quarter of the walled city and is by far the tallest and most noticeable building. There is much to linger and enjoy in this city, though for holiday purposes, I’d say you’d need only a couple of days to get round the museums (it’s better value to buy a joint ticket for the Heritage and Roman ones) and try some cafes or do the river walk, for there’s not much far beyond the walls to explore. It is one of the most medieval feeling and atmospheric towns of Britain if not the continent, it’s charming, safe feeling but lively, and no French school parties squirting Kentish people this time. But for that £10.50 do I retain a sourness…




A Day Out With Elspeth in Tewkesbury

My favourite small town so far

Tewkesbury sketch

Tewkesbury’s status as such comes from having an abbey in cathedral league, for alleys and attractive main streets – one which looks like a village, the other a small town. There’s a mill and meadows, a brilliant arts centre – the Roses, and a large for a town of its size library. The bookshop is also big for an independent, two storeys and with a good range. Tewkesbury’s got cheapies and chains next to Marks and Spencer’s (not a favour easily bestowed, and after their workfare use, not one I reciprocate with my custom) and small shops and cafes: some feel upmarket, some long term local.

The image many of us may still have is of when this little town was waterlogged. I have an aerial postcard of that. So I did some Christmas shopping here that year to help with their economy. I wish I’d had a camera to capture that gorgeous lazy sunset that day – and the morning I awoke in the Hop Pole hotel to hear and see the Abbey, again in a haze. The Hop has a corridor made out of a medieval hall house, an era well represented in Tewkesbury.

Although in Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury looks more like Worcestershire than the Cotswolds, being of the red brick and black and white timbered school rather than golden stone. Some of those timbers house museums, and for a little town, Tewkesbury again is excellent. It has a local free one, one about wildlife conservation (though the touching table was rather small, I was looking forward to that part especially), and Out of the Hat, which is the expensive and modern one. And there’s a disguised old Baptist Chapel to visit too. So along with the abbey and the arts centre, and those little shops and alleys to browse, there’s quite a bit to see here.

The issue though is if you don’t drive. I’d recommend buses as they go from the centre of town and drop you off likewise in Cheltenham or Gloucester. The station was right near the Roses, but now it’s at a church with an industrial estate called Ashchurch. One can be alone a long time here, especially at night, and there is NOTHING here – only a vending machine for company and even taxis are of the prebooked variety. During the day, there’s a bus service. It’s not a road you’d really want to walk as it’s a main one without a proper pavement. So one can feel stranded and island like even without floods at Tewkesbury. So it’s a good thing it’s so attractive and with so much to do, because you will need it.



A Day Out With Elspeth in Stamford

The Easterner’s Cotswold fix

I think this was my first stone town – that of warm, golden beige, unmarred by the grey of age or industry, and I was enchanted; I still am. I like that even the modern housing enclave by the station is made of that light Jurassic park limestone that runs like a seatbelt from Yorkshire to the West country. The station is also made of it, but its cuteness was reversed by the following: it is unstaffed after midday; and trains run once an hour in each direction, in a clump, so much of the hour, there’s no action and no-one around. Not fun at night and it’s not that easy to find your way out of – one of the first signs you see is “No entry – your council at your service.”


Having escaped the housing enclave, you are greeted with meadows and the many towers of a gorgeous little town that looks like mini Oxford. And if that city had not suppressed Stamford’s medieval college, perhaps it might have become one. And as you walk, you keep finding little streets all in that limestone, with the odd timbered or whitewashed house. You have to walk quite a way till that ceases. Stamford’s not a big town – c20,000 – but it was, which means it hasn’t expanded much but it does have quite a big historic core, where many residents live. Going beyond that core reveals that though you may be on the Cambridgeshire border (Burghley House is in Cambs) you are definitely in the Midlands; the accent also underscores what the style of Victorian houses tell you.

I was charmed, wandering as I felt led, sometimes in residential streets, sometimes with shops. I love that Stamford has no shopping mall or anything high rise, although I did discover some uglier bits (eg Waitrose, whom I’d suspected for the town, but in a horrible, non stone building on West Street). I love that posh independents and higher end chains sit by the kind of shops in Thetford – Poundland’s two doors down from a French named nice things shop. There’s lots of smart ladies’ shoes (and a man shoe shop), and a bookshop in a former timber framed post office which is above Thornton’s chocolates and newsagents – go up stairs to the padded carpet and enjoy a sofa. I saw nowhere save another dark long WHSmith’s that sold any other kind of media.

Stamford5StamfordMy elephant grey moan (see my other blog “Keep Elephant grey for elephant’s bottoms“) is particularly pertinent here, as it doesn’t go with the stone. The old colours brought its beigy gold out; this one makes it drab. I can’t wait for that fad to end.

Save the House I’ll get to in a minute, there’s not any individual outstanding buildings, nothing you come to see in Stamford. It’s the whole, not parts. The museum has closed and heritage is now a room in the library, sans the models of extremes Tiny Tom Thumb and big Daniel Lambert. The leaflets – full of people pointing (another potential post and point of irritation) – make out that there’s more here than the single room with a tapestry, pictures of the town you can see anyway, and a touch screen.

There’s medieval Browne’s Hospital, but I’ve never been able to as its opening hours are few and seasonal. I thought this visit had coincided with them, but you now have to be part of a large group.

The churches make a great skyline; guides speak of five medieval ones, but there are seven with a churchyard of another. Most guides omit that the church tower (St Michael’s) which frames views down the High and Ironmonger streets was chopped into shops in the 1980s, and the top half – which could have been a hall – seems dead. There’s seats in the graveyard and one of those horrible private land parking company signs I will moan about on my other blog. Again, the churches make a joined whole, but inside especially, I found them not places to linger or recall separately .

The Arts Centre is now featured on my sister blog. This Georgian theatre is also the tourist information centre, who were very warm and helpful, and assisted me to locate the stump of Norman St Leonard’s priory, sitting alone in a field, and inaccessible.

To reach High Street St Martin you have to dice with death; it has several busy roads and no crossings. This attractive street, with the not so attractive George inn sign when you know what it is across it, is close to the station and the route to Burghley House. Beware: maps suggest that the park entrance is nigh. It is, but the Barnack Road way isn’t nice as it’s a busy road, a high tree lined wall and industrial sheds; Water Street is better and takes you to the pedestrian entrance. Cars have to carry on further, but they go in nearer the house which is a good half hour’s walk or more from the pedestrian gate. You can see it quite early on in the free to enter park that’s open to dusk each day, but then it disappears behind a mound, and you’ve got a way to walk until you reach it.

Burghley is not what I’d imagined when I first saw the outside. Most of the Elizabethan prodigy has gone internally. Save the kitchen with the horrible turtle skulls and sheep diagram, it’s late 17th C plaster and terrifying frescoes.


me and an obliging deer from a previous visit

I also found out that the Burghleys (descended from Richard Attenborough’s part in the 1998 film Elizabeth) are the reason that Stamford looks how the Georgians left it: fearing the 1832 Reform Bill’s effect on landowners, they repressed the town’s expansion and industrialism. Nice for us today, but I’m angry at upper class monopoly.

I had another delightful time in Stamford, finding lovely scenes and shops, meadows and parkland (no deer, what is it with creatures and me at the moment, I didn’t find an adder in Thetford either). I think it’s truly beautiful and I’d love to come back – I did and shall again. On my first visit, I found food finding missions far harder than anticipated, and that restaurant chains are quite dominant for a small town proud of its independents. On my second, I reversed that opinion, and noted the classy characterful pubs especially.

It is rather ill-lit at night and only two of the churches are illuminated and felt very quiet.

I’ve often thought that Stamford and Peterborough should lend to one another: Peterborough’s got the cathedral, Stamford’s got the town that ought to go round it. Peterborough is Stamford’s antithesis, as I will share in another post.


A Day Out With Elspeth in Swindon

Your joy is complete

That’s what I want to official town tagline to be. If you read the Thursday Next stories by Jasper Fforde, you’ll be forced to go to Swindon against your will. I wasn’t the only one who felt that. You’ll want to see the croquet stadium and the magic roundabout. 1960s town planning will never have looked so good!


There is an old part to Swindon, not old by most place’s standard, but it’s an escape if the concrete centre gets too much. In the Old Town, I liked the dead Italianate Town Hall, and there’s a little museum and a few shops/restaurants approaching interesting… and there’s the arts centre with a festival. It’s quite a slog back into the glory of the high street and malls, but I think the best part of Swindon is the old railway area further along from today’s glorious pile of a station.

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There’s a Victorian chapel and railway cottages and the designer shopping bit in old rail sheds (take note other towns, these are better then the sheds we now build, and combine history and commerce). Steam museum is excellent – even if you don’t think you care about Brunel and old trains, you will (you’d better, there’s nothing else to care about here). I cannot get over how both the National Trust and English Heritage (ie the nation’s keepers of all things OLD) moved their HQ here… from Queen Anne Saville Row in London to a dead shed amidst more dead sheds and access by a tunnel which makes you wonder if you’ve missed something (or will be missing something when you come out, if you do) in a town that’s synonymous with soulless and, er, new. The NT’s eco friendly new building is named after Beatrix P’s married name, the woman who gave us ducks, rabbits and a lot of the Lake District so developers couldn’t get it.



Hm, I’m running out of things to tell you about… I spent much of one of my visits in Marlborough, which you can access by bus from here: a sort of Wiltshire Woodbridge of shops and cafes on a long high street, but apart from the Merchant’s House and a college where a certain lady went, there isn’t loads to report here either.


You might also want to find Malmesbury, whose half ruined abbey (home of Naked Gardeners) is a happy sight after the gruelling bus ride, but beware – it’s easy to get stranded as the last bus (only late afternoon) comes in early as one number and leaves as another! And the whole town seems asleep by then! EEk!

Well, I’d often wondered what I’d do with those Swindon pictures and why I took them – now I know, to share them with you. Read The Eyre Affair before visiting. It will be a sweetening pill. It might also be an irresistible magnet.