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.

Digital Camera

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.

Digital Camera

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 Naughty Guide to Durham

Durham Newc BW3

My first self developed photo.

“Grey towers of Durham, how I love thy mixed and massive piles”

Does anyone else think of an intimate bodily dysfunction here? Would it be too rude and childish to say “bum grapes” this early on – though I have called this a naughty guide!

And, Sir Walter, it is not “Half a church of God, half castle ‘gainst Scot”.

But Scott was of the establishment, and this pair of actually quite brown if you look properly piles are definitely of the establishment.

Durham full length

Yes this handy Cuthbert statue’s covering something…

I have just finished reading Durham Cathedral: Light of the North. Its subtitle is hardly appropriate, given the contents and my and others’ experience of the titular church. This official cathedral publication is a catalogue of abused privilege as women-free as the cathedral was for much of its life: women are behind a marble line, a footnote, and in reference to their bishop/prince husbands. I recall only three being mentioned, despite the story of Durham actually going back to Saxon times. And despite the Celtic church being one where women were equal – in the same region, there is a famous abbess of a co-educational monastery.

Yet I’d like to squash right now the idea that Cuthbert, the ‘saint’ who gave us and has often saved today’s city, was a misogynist. And I’d like to do it by recounting a legend about three females, one especially. But you’ll have to wait for that.

Let’s get back to the piles, and the half church. I think this was built with less than half an intent as a house of God. It was not so much castle ‘gainst Scot as castle against your own.

This was the symbol of “you have new leadership”. The Normans, like the Romans (their structures are well alternatively called Romanesque), were building edifices that literally, as per the too oft used phrase, dominated the city. Why the Scots and Northumbrians didn’t bond over this, I couldn’t tell.

Durham was not, as the book says, the biggest Norman church. I know the lengths of the cathedral and abbeys in Britain and there were and are some much longer than Durham. They are all in the south/east (save Glastonbury, which is a bit later). But I can assert that at the time, Durham cathedral was by far the biggest building that North Britain had seen and remained one of that area’s largest churches by far. (I have thrice read that Durham’s 469ft in length, about the same as St Andrew’s, and compares to present York minster’s c520ft. Yes, I’m imperial; times by 0.3048 if you want to know the lengths in metres). And all Norman churches were huge by Saxon standards.

Was the Norman’s God one who was simultaneously worshipped as they conquered, and felt that quite congruent with faith? It’s been a regular tenet in history. But I see Durham’s mother church as little about the glory of God and more about the glory of the Scandinavian descended French invaders, and little mothering, from God or otherwise.

For centuries – I cannot work out when exactly it ceased – a marble line prevented women from entering barely past the door to the nave. Even queens were not allowed; King Edward III’s wife Philippa, it’s said, was asked to move in the night to be further away. From what or whom? Cuthbert, of course. His followers brought his body here – he  was bishop at Lindisfarne, but they needed a new safe home from the previous invaders. Durham cathedral is jointly dedicated to him. And he has been the trump card of the people, being more miraculous in death than in life. He was the source of income from myriad pilgrims.

When it was realised that other saints were inclusive and their shrines were doing better, Durham thought how to get women pilgrims in without compromising their men-only rule. They attempted the now fashionable Lady Chapel in the usual position at the east end, but said Cuthbert didn’t want even the Queen of Heaven near his high altar resting place. The Light of North book says it was really foundation related. Bollocks. They wanted women kept behind the marble line, and they wanted their pink (girls not gay) pounds. So they built the Lady Chapel on the west front, by the women’s area. Now they could get the consolation of the Blessed Virgin, cough up for indulgences and pilgrim badges, and yet still be kept at bay (literally). Although I believe in miracles I think this one was entirely invented for an obvious purpose: whilst obviously on the right side of the black line, a blind lady had a vision of Cuthbert restoring hers.

Why didn’t they do what Newcastle did  with their marble line: dig up and move it?

Why didn’t a woman have a vision (made up if necessary) that Cuthbert – or better still Jesus – had appeared to her and told that the banishment of women was wrong?!

Durham is often called a massive, powerful masculine church. But I see its famous tall round pillars (piers) with their four types of incised patterns (sacred geometry?) as maternal, soft, strong and very very long. Yes that was a tagline from a toilet roll advert, but I am not being facetious. Stone might be solid and hard and even cold, but these piers look huggable. And it endures, it is constant. They hold up shelter, you can escape wind in their lee and sun in their shade. Curvature is an essentially feminine quality.

I love that God, especially in her female form, was not invited much into the making of this church, but She snuck in anyway.

And I take great pleasure in stepping over that marble, as even my favourite queens could not.


Durham Newc BW2

I was a friend of Durham Cathedral. They were not a friend to me. I am still angry, a decade on. They were rude, stuffy, uncaring, telling me when I asked to join that “Sunday is a bad day, we’re terribly busy. Are you sure you want to join us?” They are the only church – I’ve been to many, including other cathedrals – who have cheese and wine instead of tea and coffee as post service refreshments. Older alumni wear college scarves and enquire in incredulous plummy accents which institution you have possibly got your degrees from if not themselves, Oxbridge, or Caledonia’s equivalent.

The bit that also really winds me up is the long term interior photography ban. It’s been there for 20 years at least. Ten years ago, you had to pay £20 for a permit – that’s for amateurs too. Now there’s twice yearly photo nights at £10 a go. It’s hard to photograph a cathedral without professional equipment – the better your camera, the harder it is: big space, intense light and shade. And we don’t own the photos to put in posts like this! To make up for the ban – which is enforced – there are extra postcards available to buy. Doesn’t that smack of the medieval tricks of indulgence buying and oddly placed lady chapels? Oh and it’s free to enter, but would you like to give £5? And you? Really, would you not like to donate? And if you want a leaflet, it’s £1. It’s several thousand pounds a day to run this place.

Well, pay your senior staff less then, have less golden capes and flash new visitor centres.

Look online, and I’m not the only one who’s found snotty staff. The many positive reviews are for the building, though it can feel forbidding – people related as much as architecturally.

It’s why Durham’s not my favourite and it’s enough to wonder, even having had a prolonged cathedrals/Normans/Celtic phase, if I want to go again.

Castles2 - Durham

Then there’s the castle – the home of a bishop come civic and military ruler with prince like powers – hence the jurisdiction of Durham was known as the Palatinate. This was a stronghold and palace, used for showing off, entertaining (I mistyped and got exterminating – that too, including Cromwell’s Scots prisoners who were held in the cathedral and starved to death). The fat edifices of the Normans take up most of the little peninsula that’s Durham City. So most of the citizens had to live outside the walls, taxable and protectionless, and doubly controlled.

Durham from cathedral tower

The bishops were mostly drawn by the fact that due to its significance in trying to quell the north (that’s you too, Scotland), Durham was a high status, well paid, high powered bishopric. (Note the last syllable). Many bishops barely lived here – a few didn’t even visit. They did little, they had often little aptitude or calling for the role. They had huge salaries, in proportion to other vicars and local workers, and to other bishops. This was the case at least till living memory. (During the miner’s strikes, the bishop was paid – I scrubbed out earned – 700 times what miners got).

Durham had a long relationship with Oxford university, even though it and Cambridge stopped earlier attempts at Durham getting a uni. It seems Durham was finally allowed one to prevent Newcastle getting in first. It was of course, a C of E establishment.

So when at last reform came to the overpuffed and stuffed Chapter, who were more about filling prestigious “stalls” in the choir (ie where you could stand in services if you had a special job), the institution created that killed off the Prince Bishops just started another exclusive hierarchy to look down on citizens and visitors.

If you receive a castle tour, a posh lad takes you round his founding college with lots of in private school/man’s club sorts of jokes. We’re fined £20 if our phone goes off during Latin grace, he quips. We have competitions for who can say it.

Do you care what it means? It’s more for show, and tradition for tradition’s sake it seems, than any thankfulness.

The corridors and entrances of Pudsey, a 12th century bishop, now lead to state rooms of the senate, embellished by those overblown dining club primates inbetween.

I first saw Durham as a student elsewhere, and I didn’t know where to belong – neither town nor gown. I can see why there was such strong anti feeling during labour related struggles.

DurhamMy friend was interviewed for Durham in the late 1960s. “What class are you from?” the panel enquired of her. “A class of my own” she brilliantly replied. One feels that this question is still one posed, even indirectly, by staff and student alike.

As for the rest of Durham – there isn’t much. Take away the Norman monoliths, and you’ve a dun-coloured average market town with far too much space taken up by the university, and with below average facilities – only one theatre-cum cinema, and little other nightlife and not great shops.

This is considered a superlative Norman city by some – but that’s because it’s a small hilly place, surrounded by hills and viaduct, topped with two fat buildings. As I say in my Norman Britain piece – it’s not so Norman; no Romanesque towers, apse, and little of the castle externally. Even the boasted of bridges are mostly if not entirely rebuilt later.

The Light of the North book tries to wash off its soot in the final chapter. Amusingly honest about the dirt of its forebears, it tries to show that it now embraces coal dust, that staff are well trained, that since 1990s Cathedral Acts, it’s well run. The lively tone of gentle ribbing narrative turns to advertorial.

The last line is true – there is work to do.

I hope this piece has made clear what some of that might be – or at least, what areas and impressions need addressing.

Durham sketch

I round up with that female, the one that began Durham, and the one that overturns the cart of Cuthbert’s lady hatred. Cuthbert posthumously guided his followers as to where to put his revered body safely. The cart got stuck – Cuthbert himself was going no farther in their direction. Instead, he gave them a word – a place they’d not heard of. In that form, neither have we. Then some of those lesser creatures, women passed, seeking their cow, who might be at Dunholme – a wooded promontory with the river Wear wrapped round it. And the wheels of the Cuthbert cart freed, and they found both dun cow and resting place. We call that place Durham. But I love the cow, who gets a statue on the cathedral and her own lane. Females, human and bovine – the chosen instruments of God and Cuthbert.

Like Sister George, I close with MOOO!

(Don’t forget my novel… there will be updates!)

A Day Out With Elspeth in Rouen


The world’s best timbered city?

This time I go international, and to the capital of Normandy.

I’d long seen pictures of this city and wondered if it would be a cunning 1 street (like Worcester’s Friar’s St) made to look like many. Someone from there told me unenthusiastically that it was industrial, and I wondered how much after the big clock and the cathedral I’d find to enjoy.

Answer – more than any city I’ve visited, and easily beats anything in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Rouen’s quite large by today’s standards – the area or departement it is capital of is at least half a million. It feels like a regional capital too, with its metro system and serious feeling arts theatre, the regional leader’s palatial home (the Prefecture); its overpriced Beaux Arts museum aiming at being a national one, its Art Nouveau Rive-Droite station.

It was also large in pre-industrial times. Nearly every street within the city walls – covering well over a mile – is an ancient, attractive, postcard worthy view. Some of it’s like mini Paris, the typical stone buildings of post renaissance grander France; and much of it is the timbered look, often with colour on the wooden parts. The buildings are high – showing it was always grand, even in the middle ages – having several more storeys than the average Norwich building, with whom it is aptly twinned. But the strength of historic atmosphere here is more like York or Chester, as is a greater presence of tourists.

You won’t be here long and not know Joan of Arc (or Jeanne D’Arc) ended her life here; she may be the Maid of Orleans, but her incarceration and execution at Rouen are reflected not only in the controversial modern church on the site of her death in the market, or the now defunct J of A museum, or that the helter skelter like remains of the castle are named after her. There’s various other perhaps more random and profane things – for example, a tour company bearing her name; or the light show on the front of the cathedral.

I was first drawn to Rouen because of its churches, of which there are three outstanding ones, but also many interesting bombed ones and a couple of classical ones, such as the monument to Jeanne on the hill overlooking the city. St Maclou is surprisingly short, and sadly shut when I was there, but pictures reveal a stunning, light interior – perhaps the best in the city. And the stonework on the outside is incredibly detailed. St Ouen’s abbey is a large church whose interior is reminiscent of York minster, wide and light. It’s no longer used for worship but its uncluttered seat free interior is pleasant to wander, especially if there’s a rehearsal for a concert. You will start to note that, perhaps to Rouen’s resentment, its English influence is apparent, especially in its older buildings during the time of English occupation. Perhaps it’s why I like this city particularly and felt a draw here. The cathedral, which I thought to be a favourite, was less so once inside the doors and I preferred the inside of the other churches mentioned. The huge wide frontage is of as many stone kinds as it is architectural styles, but the 19th C iron spire doesn’t add or fit entirely. War damage (again English influence on the cityscape) made the interior a little forlorn and some of the glass was as dirty as a shed – but restoration is planned.

The Gros Horloge is a wonderful viewing point of the cathedral and on top, of the entire city. There’s nothing really spoiling the vista, nothing high rise, as far as the eye can see. It’s an interesting museum, where you’re escorted audially around by the ghost of the old clockmaker. And the elaborate clock itself is worthy of all the photographic attention lavished on it.

The early stone buildings here are centuries in front of what Britain was building at that time – the 16th C Finance Office that houses the tourist information centre, the Palace of Justice/parliament, and the Bourgtheroulde mansion (now luxury hotel) are three of the biggest examples.

The area that is disappointing is the river, which could be a real asset, but British bombers took much of this area, including the transporter bridge. Some warehouses are being converted into restaurants; the industrial use remains – this is still one of France’s biggest ports.

Happily this is almost a mall free city, though it did have several British chains that I was annoyed to see. Instead, one wanders the streets finding all sorts to browse at, eat in – there are so many buildings of interest I could mention – though it’s not so great if you’re vegetarian, and I could easily lampoon the upmarket restaurant whose idea of a veggie dish was broccoli spring rolls with a dash of broccoli.

One of its cinemas is reviewed here http://cinemawithelspeth.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/rouen-le-melville/

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.

Swindon7 Swindon6 Swindon3 Swindon2

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.

A Day Out With Elspeth on A Bus Named Pochahontas

-Which is a Coasthopper Bus, which are all named after Norfolk locals (the Native American visited). And therefore, this post is about North Norfolk, and Norfolk in general.

Coasthopper named Pocahontas

Norfolk in particular – Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Thetford – all have or will have their own entries.

Norfolk is wetlands and desolation, and that’s not necessarily a derogatory remark. Many places’ character and pleasure is the isolation and quiet they offer. Despite being one of Britain’s most populous counties in medieval times, Norfolk has the impression of spacious, uncluttered, unpeopledness. It’s also quite wild, even eerie.

Windmill Without Sails

Windmill Without Sails by me

Apart from the above listed towns, there’s not many places to especially pick out about Norfolk; what’s considered special here would be mediocre by other counties’ standards. The postcode changes from NR for Norwich to PEterborough in the west and IPswich in the south reflect a character change too – PE is like the Wash: fenland flat with a sort of dirty dark honey stone, a little more Midlands; and IP has prettier, older towns and exposed timbers, and is more like Suffolk.

I like a capital to resemble its provinces, but it seems one has to choose between charming county or city. Suffolk and Essex are prettier than Norfolk, but have no outstanding city (the same is true of Gloucestershire and Somerset); Norwich is one of Britain and Ireland’s most special historic cities (certain locals say it features on a European level), but, sorry Nelson County, this top slice of the Pig’s Bum of England (I think a map of Britain looks like a chicken riding a pig) is not one of our nation’s strongest.

Norwich’s looks are seen more in north Suffolk; there’s flashes of it in North Walsham, perhaps even certain angles of Holt. But there’s only one village that looks how I’d hoped Norfolk might, having known its county town – and that’s

Me at Walsingham

Little Walsingham. Pilgrims come, but it seems, tourists do not so much, and there’s little to do if you’re not in one of the three Christian shrines or the snowdrop ridden original abbey and holy site – the Catholic one being a LONG walk out of the village. Architecturally, it’s a very interesting village (and former small town), one of the few with a museum. I had expected a kind of Lavenham, plenty of shops and places to eat; though I was really hopeful for an eastern Glastonbury, and wondered if alternative spirituality was also present here (no hippies but occasional Hindus). But there’s only two each of local shop, tearoom, pub, shrine shop. If you’re on the steam train, beware there’s not much of a station of around it (the original’s now an Orthodox shrine). And if you go by bus, you have a long wait till the next one – and risk being stranded, for you’re many miles from alternative transport, so plan carefully if you’re using it, for the service ends late afternoon.

Perhaps I should state here, for anyone unfamiliar – RURAL BRITAIN STOPS EARLY. Shops are shut by 530pm – perhaps even 4, they are closed often on Sundays and Bank Holidays, and transport is reduced. More anon on this re the Coasthopper.

These comments can sum up much of the county: infrequent, early stopping buses and closing shops (sometimes seasonal too); in the North, some perhaps incongruous posh shops and eateries among little to do, espicially by night (a film society if you’re lucky, but little arts outside the larger towns).

Holt is over-egged and is not the Londoner’s bijou that brochures make out; it’s very country Norfolk, but there’s no activity here except the little old fashioned shops – colourful and quaint, but no buildings of individual interest, and nothing to visit or do by night – and the steam train station is A LONG way out of the centre.

Burnham MarketI am not sure of the attraction of Burnham Market, whose billing as the land of the second homes squad of a certain kind of affluent is mostly a repellent to me (‘Chelsea on sea’ is overused and I quite like Chelsea). Burnham’s got some much needed colour (amidst the swathes of grey flint round there) and a village green, but the houses which would have been artisan are now expensive… why? And you can get everything Burnham offers in Norwich, plus all the things it hasn’t got. Burnham calls itself Norfolk’s prettiest village, but if it’s true, it says something about Norfolk – I refer you to my para under my painting above.

I shall post separately about best villages.

There’s the slice of Norfolk’s pie that seems to get less attention, in terms of transport and tourism – the Mundesley (Munds-ly)/Happisburgh (Hays- bra) chunk. Lighthouse, woods, beach hut, quiet.

The rest of this is more about North Norfolk, between Cromer and Hunstanton.

Cromer pier

Cromer pier by me

People have a preference over Sheringham or Cromer – both fishing villages turned seaside resort, but Sheringham feels closer to fishing village still. It begins as a Holt-like local high street (from the stations – the Poppyline heritage one is Sheringham’s best bit) and becomes tourist seaside with a bit of tack, but if you turn towards the church, you find books, gallery and two smart restaurants. The concrete sea fighting wall is now adorned with pictures, which takes off some of the grey. It does have a Little Theatre and this includes a behind release but interesting and quite arty film programme.

You could walk to Cromer over the Bump! but the official (acorn signed) path takes you inland further than you might expect and it also takes longer – with erosion and snotty caravan parks, the direct coastal route isn’t possible; if you go along the beach, beware: tides come in quickly and right up the shore.

Beeston Bump

Cromer’s tall church tower is easily seen from Beeston Bump, and it’s evidence that this was a place of importance before railways and daytrippers. Its central streets are still tight and evoke a medievally feel – Jetty Street and Hans Place, looking from the old style cinema to the great church tower, are a couple of my favourites. Neither town is large, but both have sufficient amenities, and Cromer is one of the seasides few to still have an end of pier show. That pier and the only remaining grand hotel give it more presence than Sheringham. Both have easily accessible clifftop walks and other nature, and two museums each.

There’s no other real resorts until the very western edge of the county at Hunstanton. I’d hoped to visit to report here, but couldn’t stand the two hours of Coasthopper bus – one of the few ways to reach Hunstanton without a car. There was a problem and the popular little coach was filled at capacity from its first stop. Many of us got off at the first viable place, which changed my day plan from riding the whole of the coast to exploring a small section. I think I’ve learned that despite a very good value ranger ticket (which also allows you on some of the trains – called a Bittern line ranger), that you can’t be too ambitious. Many of the walks or attractions (eg Blakeney Point, seal trips) take a couple of hours and the early stopping of the buses again makes stranding a real possibility. Coasthopper also say sometimes they can’t guarantee everyone getting on – not funny if you’ve an hour’s wait, let alone if it’s the last bus of the day.

Cley (Cly – below) and Stiffkey (Stoo-ky?) can be summarised by my above comments – with the addition of how shocked I was by the busyness of the coast road, a tiny single lane going through the heart of the villages with NO PAVEMENT. Many drivers in over large vehicles were selfish ones and it didn’t make for pleasant wandering.

Cley windmill from marshes

However, I did something not in the tourist maps – I walked to Binham, which must be about 3 miles as it took an hour along the road. Mostly you can do so safely and get on a verge, but there were a few trickier points nearer Stiffkey. Binham’s as pretty (or not) as any of the other villages that way, it has a pub (not cheap or over friendly) and a wonderful priory.

Binham priory across fields

The priory is across fields, and is under half the length of what it was with no towers, but there are several reconstruction drawings to help you imagine it. Frustratingly, the different ownerships of the ruins and church mean that guides do not refer to the whole. Beware, there’s a sort of maze/dead end among the ruins where you have to take a little jump. I thought Binham’s interior looked poky in photos, but there is a strikingly… I have tried several times to put the atmosphere into words… spiritual, peaceful, a place to linger and pleasant to be… lighter inside than I’d expected for a place with most of its windows sealed up. It had more of an effect than Cley church which I also visited – though I’d like to commend both churches for allowing visitors to enter each day and trusting us to do so without a warden to harass us (take note, Wymondham Abbey!) And Binham has nice new loos.

Binham Priory inside

You probably can’t see, but there are pleasing mouldings on the furthest bottom arches.

I’ve been to all the towns in Norfolk bar 3, but the only other place I’d like to single out today is Holkham. The hall is too plain and Palladian for my liking, but the beach is special. However, I’m not going to join the boast that it’s the country’s best, though it is one of the best in the county – but then, most of Norfolk’s beaches are loved because of that natural, grassy duny untouched feel. You walk to Holkham’s down boardwalks and there’s no facilities after the hall. I personally prefer some cliffs too, but this has the backdrop of pines. I will close with an old picture of me impersonating Ms Paltrow at the end of Shakespeare in Love, filmed here. I like the symbolism of walking to fresh new worlds.

Me on Holkham beach being Gwyneth