North Riding Coast Walk, 2019. — Final 3 Days. ( Whitby , Robin Hoods Bay, Cloughton and Scarborough.)

4 Sep

Catherine, my daughter and I were at the halfway point of our 6 day trek along the scenic coastline of the old North Riding of Yorkshire, walking north to south. We had settled into a familiar routine — breakfast at a guest house with its full English and small talk about the weather and everyone’s plans for the day; pulling on our boots and dragging ourselves back up on to the cliff top; walking along a rugged but beautiful  coast path with its bays, beaches, rocky outcrops and dramatic headlands; observing birds, butterflies, wildflowers and the occasional dragon fly; passing through little picturesque fishing villages tucked into coves, former smuggling hot spots but now popular holiday resorts. I have given a blow by blow account of the first 3 days, but to avoid repetition and tedium, I will just pick out a few impressions of the last 3.

LEAVING WHITBY — We climbed up the famous 199 steps out of the old town, without a rest. We now felt fitter than at the sluggish start to our walk. At the top we passed the old graveyard of St Mary’s Church featured in the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” The gravestones, dating back to the 18th century were heavily weathered by the wind and rain of the centuries. Next came the gaunt, dark outline of the medieval Benedictine Abbey. Soon the red roofs of the town disappeared and we were back on the coastal path. Most of the tourists melted away.

TO ROBIN HOODS BAY. — a 5 mile hike south of Whitby past dark cliffs, rocky platforms called scars and the sea, a greeny- blue in the shallows. We walked through a large, neat caravan park which has its own shop and cinema. We passed a large fog-horn building and a small white lighthouse, both now converted into holiday accommodation. We encountered another noisy kittiwake colony, clinging to a cliff face and were accompanied by darting, swooping sand martins. We saw the remains of two “rocket” launchers, which had fired ropes out to boats in distress on the stormy sea.

Robin Hoods Bay or Bay Town is another atmospheric and picturesque former fishing village, tucked into a fissure between 2 steep cliffs. A steep hill leads to a maze of tiny streets and alleys, eventually reaching the beach. It used to be a major smuggler’s haven and the place was reputedly riddled with secret, subterranean passages through which the contraband was transferred from the ships. A thunder storm with sheet lightning hit the village but by then we were safely in our little guest house, the “Villa.”

ON TO CLOUGHTON — We climb back up on to the cliff path and immediately see a small deer running through a field. We pass fields of strange black sheep with long thin horns. We steeply descend through woods to Boggle Hole where another stream has cut a cleft through the cliff. An old water mill has been turned into a Youth Hostel. Here, many years ago, I stood on the beach and in awe, watched shooting stars.

A stiff climb up to Ravenscar, the holiday resort that never was. Streets were built and sewers were laid. A railway station was established. But no houses were ever built, because investors at the turn of the 19th/20th century lost confidence, possibly because it was a tricky descent to the rocky beach. Today, there is only a hotel, a visitors’ centre and a teashop in what was to be a resort to rival Scarborough. We have a cup of tea alongside German cyclists and English dog walkers. We don’t climb down to see the seal colony on the beach, but do see a seal’s head bobbing up and down in the sea.

We pass an old World War 2 radar station. It’s lookout tower is now used as a bird hide. A man is spending the day painting it. The path sweeps up and down, nestled between wheat fields and the sea. Coming down a long slope, we get our first glimpse of Scarborough castle on a distant headland. Nearing Cloughton village, we drop steeply down through shady trees to Hayburn Wyke, a local beauty spot where a stream drops over a rocky ledge on to a beach, forming two pretty little waterfalls. We climb up through sun-dappled woods and then through fields to Cloughton, a village just inland on the busy Scarborough to Whitby main road. We get a room with a hot bath and eat a hearty pub meal at the Blacksmith’s Arms. The bath is put to use to soak our tired feet.

FINAL LEG TO SCARBOROUGH — Only a few miles to go. More lovely coastal scenery with Scarborough’s Castle keep getting ever closer. Reach Scarborough’s North Bay at Scalby Mill. A new housing estate has been allowed to disfigure the coastline. We swap the quiet of the coastal path for the noise and bustle of the tourist throngs. Drink lime and sodas outside a pub by a beck, surrounded by people eating fish, chips, scampi and other deep  fried fare. Beady-eyed gulls hang around in expectation of a meal. Colourful beach chalets, buckets and spades, picnics in deckchairs, sandcastles and ball games. Two miniature railway trains stop at a pretend station above the bay, on their way back to Peasholm Park.  At last our hotel appears on the upper promenade. Its peeling white facade speaks of faded grandeur, but we are excited that the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen once stayed there.  Out long trek is over. The delights of Scarborough, the “Queen of the East Coast”, await us. We have covered 60 miles in 6 days — not bad for a middle aged woman and an old man. £550 had been raised for charity. On our way back from an Indian meal, we watch surfers and kayakers as the sun sets over North Bay.




North Riding Walk, Part 3 — Staithes to Whitby. (Kittiwakes, Bloody Socks and Whale Bones.)

3 Sep

This was to be our longest walk and biggest challenge — a 12 to 13 mile hike from Staithes to Whitby. There were no suitable overnight stopping places in between. Pennine Way veterans must be laughing by now because they average 15 to 16 miles a day across rugged terrain. But my daughter and I were not walking the North Yorkshire coast to prove how tough we were. We were more interested in the scenery, the nature and the history and in spending some valuable one to one time together. We were a bit nervous because of all those miles and because the long range weather forecast had predicted showers and even storms. However after a few worrying spit- spots of rain while we were still in Staithes, the weather cleared and it was to be another fine day with warm sunny periods.

We climbed steeply out of the village up cobbled Church Street. This was the route used by coffin-bearers en-route to funerals at nearby Hinderwell. At the top of the hill we were already a bit out of breath so stopped to admire the view of the picture-postcard village tucked in-between its two dramatic headlands down below. Before us 3 graceful horses grazed in a field but we didn’t hang around because a nearby farm was emitting the pungent, foul smell of cow manure. Trying not to breath through our noses we walked quickly on to the cliff top path. We had barely got going when we were faced with another stiff climb up on to the top of a rocky headland. The effort was worth it though because we were greeted by the sight of another kittiwake colony. We heard their high pitched shrieks before we saw them, each pair clinging to its own precarious bit of rock. It must have been getting close to the end of their nesting season but there was still plenty of activity as the birds constantly came and went from their fishing trips. The bare sandstone was decorated with large splashes of white guano.

After the kittiwake drama we settled into our cliff top walk, enjoying the usual fare of bees, birds and butterflies, hedgerows and wheat fields, rocky headlands and sandy bays. We presently reached Port Mulgrave, a former ironstone exporting port, at its busiest in the second half of the 19th century. The remains of its loading pier could still be seen down below us. It had been deliberately destroyed by Royal Engineers in the Second World War to stop potential German invaders using it. By then the local iron industry had collapsed, overwhelmed by cheap foreign imports. Fishing had also been carried out here and we spotted derelict fishermen’s huts made from pastel painted driftwood, down near the harbour at the foot of the cliffs. On we walked, negotiating a steep slope down and then up again where a stream had cut a little ravine as it neared the sea. Another dark, forbidding headland started to appear in front of us as we neared Runswick Bay, which was to be our first rest stop. By now the weather was hot and sticky and we were in need of a cool drink.

We turned briefly inland, skirted a field and entered the upper village. Runswick Bay is like a mini Staithes. Red-roofed houses cling  precariously to a cliff side. It is very picturesque. From the foot of the cliff spreads a large bay containing a white sanded beach popular with tourists. Tourism has now largely taken over from fishing as the main source of income and in the summer the beach is full of bucket and spade type holidaymakers, enjoying a family day by the sea. There are also rock-pools to investigate and in the cliffs at the far end there are several caves to explore. The downside for Runswick is that only a handful of permanent residents remain, the rest of the properties being used as holiday lets or second homes. It’s the same story as in Staithes. We descended steeply down through a maze of charming, little lanes until we reached the Royal Hotel ( which is really just a pub) where we were rewarded with a drink with a view. Our shoulders enjoyed the momentary rest from the weight of our back-packs. Nearby, colourful canoes had been pulled up on to a slope near the lifeboat station. We could have stayed there all day but after half an hour we took the strain again and pressed on.

We traversed the busy beach, dodging the footballs and frisbies and slightly envying the people eating picnics in their deckchairs, protected by  windbreaks, even though it wasn’t particularly windy. At the farther end of the bay the people thinned out although we did see a couple of intrepid fathers and their children heading for the caves. Our route took us off the beach into a narrow cleft cut by an emerging stream . We carefully negotiated the loose stones on its steep banks, crossed a footbridge, then started a long, slow climb out of the bay. It was the most tiring climb yet. Just when we thought we had reached the top of the steps, another set appeared, and then another and so on. The steps had not all been cut to a comfortable height so it was a bit of a pull to drag ourselves up on to the cliff- top again. By now we were meeting plenty of people walking chunks of the Cleveland Way. As we finally reached the top of the climb we met a whole walking group sprawled on and around a seat, having a rest. They’d obviously found the climb strenuous as well. We said hello about 15 times in a row as they all individually greeted us. It’s nice that people in the countryside always pass the time of day, as opposed to in the towns where people go out of their way to avoid eye contact.

On we walked, covering mile after mile of beautiful coastline. Occasional finger posts marked our progress. We passed more evidence of alum mining at Kettleness, the former spoil heaps merging with adjacent rock platforms and cliffs. Heather and tall grasses softened the dark, rocky coastal landscape. After the tiny hamlet of Kettleness, the squat spire of Lythe church appeared on our right beyond the golden wheat fields. It served as a guide to our progress, but for a disconcerting 15 minutes or so it did not seem to get any nearer. Our weariness was starting to play tricks on us. At last we started to descend through steep woodland towards Sandsend, our planned late lunch stop. It was nice to get into the shade of the trees, although the descent was a bit precipitous at times. We emerged on to a wide path that followed the route of a disused railway. This seemed to go on for ever too. By now my left boot was rubbing and my foot was hurting. I started to develop a slight limp. We needed to get to Sandsend! Finally, the old railway curved round a bend and the little seaside resort finally appeared. The path dropped very steeply into a large car park and I knew that at the end of this was a teashop.

The “Wits End” teashop boasts of a pretty, peaceful walled garden. It seemed too good to be true, and it was! To be honest, it was OK even though not as idyllic as it first sounded.  The “garden” was really a few planted pots strewn around but the food was fine, the service pleasant and we found a table with a shady umbrella. However, Catherine soon figured out why the cafe was called “Wits End” They refused to take payment when we ordered so when people went back to pay they often had to queue with all the new people putting in orders. We were lucky and got dealt with quickly but when we left, there were 7 frustrated people waiting in the queue and one  harassed girl: taking the orders, receiving the payments and making the teas and coffees. But I am getting ahead of myself –before leaving we had to experience the drama of the bloody sock!!

My left foot had been hurting for a time so while I was seated, I decided to take my boot off to investigate. I discovered that a significant part of my walking sock was wet even though it had been an entirely dry day. I didn’t realize what the moisture was at first because the sock was coloured red and grey. Then I realized that the big damp patch was actually sticky blood! Slowly and surreptitiously I peeled the soggy sock off. I didn’t want to attract attention and put people off their cream teas. The sharp edge of a nail had been pushed into the adjoining toe, scratching it deep enough to draw blood. It looked worse than it really was. Also my little toe had developed a tender blister, and my little toe nail had gone black! I cleaned up the messy area and applied protective plasters. The people around me continued to munch away, not realizing what high drama was unfolding in their midst! I retrieved my softer trainers from my bag and decided to walk in them for the 2 remaining miles into Whitby.

Sandsend is another pretty little seaside resort on the North Yorkshire coast. It is located where a large stream flows out of  the woods and goes on to the beach and into the sea. It has a lovely, wide beach which stretches all the way to Whitby.  It sits beneath another brooding headland. It also has great rock pools when the tide is out and picturesque wooden groynes that originally stopped the sand from drifting sideways. The tide was out so we were able to have a very pleasant stroll down the beach, with the cliffs, piers and ruined abbey of Whitby getting ever closer. My feet felt a lot better in the trainers. We eventually climbed up on to Whitby’s West Cliff, passing the amusements, paddling pools, Arnold Palmer’s Crazy Golf course and numerous hotels and guest houses. One of them was ours : “The Seacrest Guest House”, just off Whitby’s rather smart Royal Crescent, a hint of its Regency past. All the guest houses had “No Vacancies” signs in the window. Whitby is a very popular resort.

Yes Whitby is an immensely popular holiday and day trip destination, despite its remote location trapped between the sea and the high moors. Sometimes it is too crowded for comfort. It sits in another striking location in a narrow river valley between two sets of cliffs. The River Esk, the only river in the North Yorkshire Moors , flows into the North Sea between two grade 2 listed , curving piers crowned with light-houses. Fishing boats and pleasure craft line the riverside. Lobster pots and shell-fish stalls add to the old world atmosphere. On the east cliff sits an historic church and the ruins of an ancient abbey, founded in Anglo-Saxon times. The famous 199 steps lead up to it from the old town. As in Staithes, these were originally constructed to aid coffin bearers climbing up to the church. Today they are mostly populated by tourists, with convenient seats placed for the out of breath. The old town, on the east side of the river, consists of a few narrow cobbled streets and a little sloping market square. Across the Esk there is a metal bridge connecting the two halves of the town. Occasionally it swings open to let larger boats through.

We explored this area a bit when we went for our evening stroll and meal. We ate at an Italian restaurant converted from a Quaker Meeting House. The give away was the big, rounded windows. The original Quakers would quake and shake in their graves if they knew what had happened to their place of worship, but I suppose they should be thankful that it wasn’t now a night-club. The river and its reflections looked very picturesque as we strolled back to our guest house after an excellent meal. The colourful reflections were wonderful and our cameras were inevitably out. A climb up a steep hill affectionately known as the Khyber Pass took us back up on to the West Cliff where we were greeted by a statue of Captain Cook ( surprise, surprise!) and a large, pair of whale bones, probably ribs. They curved together to form an arch. These are a reminder of Whitby’s past as a major fishing and whaling port. I wonder how many tourists, taking their whale-bone framed shots, think deeply about the gruesome slaughter that led to them being there? As I looked up the coast, I was lucky to catch the last embers of an orange sunset over the black silhouette of Sandsend’s cliffs.

Whitby has had numerous incarnations. The abbey is a reminder of its religious importance in the past. It’s been a major fishing and whaling port as already mentioned. Alum and jet mining took place in its vicinity and jet jewellery is still a popular product of the town, even though most of the jet ( the squashed, petrified remains of the monkey- puzzle tree) is now mostly imported from Poland. Queen Victoria had popularised it in the 19th century when she used it as her mourning jewellery, presumably because it is black, or should I say: “jet black.” Whitby was also a ship-building centre until wooden ships went out of fashion. Today, it has mostly sold its soul to tourism. Almost the whole of the old town consists of: teashops, souvenir shops, jet jewellery shops, art and craft shops, ice cream vendors, fish and chip outlets and the occasional pub. There’s not much of everyday life here. I think of it as “tourist land”, a place I have encountered many times on my travels. In the high season, tourists shuffle around, looking at other tourists shuffling around. I suspect that most of the locals keep well clear except for the ones running businesses that are chasing the tourist pound.  On one recent Bank Holiday, the place was so crowded that the traffic was unable to get over the bridge and down the narrow streets near the river, causing huge jams.

It wasn’t too bad when we were there especially when the day trippers and coach parties had disappeared. When not choked with visitors, Whitby is a lovely, atmospheric and historical place, a delight to explore. As we meandered through the narrow streets of the west cliff we came across 2 scenes that typified today’s Whitby. One was a fish and chip restaurant with outside tables, sitting in a narrow, cobbled lane. As people tucked into their deep fried fare, a herring gull stood nearby, its beady eye patiently surveying the scene, waiting for its opportunity to grab some easy food. All over the town are signs warning people not to feed the gulls and to beware of having their fish and chips suddenly snatched away from them. I joked with one diner that she was in dire danger of losing part of her dinner, and she replied she had the vinegar bottle at the ready! Just down the same lane was a sinister looking shop that proclaimed “Welcome to Hell!” It was full of skull and cross bones, skeletons, wolf heads, sharp beaked eagles, outlandishly tattooed ghouls and the like. This symbolises Whitby for some people, because it was featured in the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s famous Gothic novel “Dracula”. Fans of the Goth sub-culture, which takes its inspiration from gothic novels, horror films and the Gothic rock off- shoot of Punk music in the 1980s, flock to the town every year. The men look like undertakers in their long black coats, black top hats and big, black boots. The women sport long black dresses from an earlier century, jet black hair and lurid black and white make up. They too are mostly in funereal black except for the occasional splash of purple. They pretend that they belong to a death cult. They create quite a spectacle and have become a tourist attraction in themselves despite their sinister connotations. Anything for a good picture! In the recent past the Goths have cause problems by frolicking in the old church graveyard on top of the unstable East Cliff and sometimes causing old bones to fall down on to the houses below.

Well that’s Whitby for you. It was a fascinating end to a long but fascinating day — a 12 mile stretch of the North Riding coast. We drifted off to sleep in our guest-house accompanied by a raucous chorus of scavenging herring gulls. My poorly toes were at last enjoying their well deserved rest.

Walking the Riding, Part 2 — Saltburn to Staithes. ( August, 2019)

31 Aug

Day 2 of our walk along the coast of Yorkshire’s North Riding began on a sunny morning at  old Saltburn, by the Ship Inn. Before the Victorian resort blossomed on the steep hill above, this was all there was to Saltburn — a small inn and a few straggling adjoining buildings. Like many settlements on this coast, Saltburn was a fishing and smuggling centre. Tucked into a then remote bay, it was far away from the prying eyes of the customs and excise men. As we took the strain, and hauled on our heavy rucksacks, a few small boats straddled the shore and a handful of people strolled on the beach. Out alongside the pier, a group of wet-suited surfers were trying to catch the waves. Catherine and I lingered for a short while and took our start of walk selfie.  Then we set off on the 9 mile coastal hike to the little fishing village of Staithes. We hauled ourselves up a steep, twisting set of steps  on to the top of the tall cliffs that lay just beyond the town. It was the first of numerous climbs. Once at the top, we looked back. Saltburn by the sea was now spread below us like a map — its beach, pier, cliff lift and grand Victorian terraces. Looking inland we saw the wooded slopes of the Cleveland Hills including the familier collapsed cone of Roseberry Topping. Originally a perfect cone shape, it partly caved- in when ironstone miners tunnelled into its side. Although only a hill, it’s distinctive shape has led to comparisons with the Matterhorn.

Ahead of us led a clifftop path just set back from precipitous drops, making one nervous to venture too close to the edge. This is the mighty Huntcliff, so called because people used to hunt wild-cats there. We passed the site of a former Roman signal station. Cliffs were great places to site beacons. Near to it were several warning signs of the dangers of the unstable, sandstone cliff. A few years ago, a couple of 17 year olds were taking selfies on the cliff edge near here and fell to their deaths on the rocks far below. The cliff path is bordered by wild flowers and grasses and so we were constantly accompanied by bees, birds and butterflies. Sand martins darted around and when we dared to peep down, we spotted kittiwakes and other gulls nesting or resting on the cliff ledges. A hill started to appear to the right ( Warsett Hill) and our path was squashed tightly between it and the edge. A railway also bizarrely appeared. Its trains carry potash from an under-sea mine at Boulby to the chemical works of Teesside. Some people are so nervous about the vertinigous drop, that they they take a chance, slip through the fence and walk on the railway track.

Saltburn had now disappeared from view behind us and ahead lay new headlands, bays and beaches. As we neared Skinnigrove, a striking steel art- piece appeared on a grassy knoll in front of us. It consists of a steel circle or bracelet. From it dangle 10 steel “charms”, each representing a local tradition, folk story or feature of the area. There are: miners’ tools, a pit pony, a fanciful mermaid, a racing pigeon and pieces of seaweed such as bladderwrack that could be discovered on the shore. It made for some eye-catching photos especially when the upcoming beach and headland was framed within its circle. It was the first example we had come across of cliff path art, something we had seen a lot of in County Durham 2 years before.

We started to gently descend between gorse bushes with a field of rape seed waiting to be harvested, on our right. An interesting piece of industrial archaeology now appeared on the far side of the field. A handy info board explained. It was the ruined shell of a fan house. A large engine had powered a giant fan that had provided vital ventilation for the Alum mines that had been dug into the base of the cliff. Alum used to be an important ingredient of the dieing industry, helping the colour to stay fast. It increased the strength and permanance of the dyed cloth. At one point in the 19th century it worked most effectively when mixed with human urine. Large sloshing vats of the smelly stuff were thus collected and taken along so that the required chemical reaction could be brought about. This is possibly where the expression “taking the piss” originated from! We now negotiated a steep path down the cliff-side made slippy by loose stones. We proceeded gingerly but Catherine came a cropper and ended up on the floor. She got no marks for style! At last we made it to Cattersby Sands and walked on to Skinningrove with its disused jetty dating from 1880 when this was a busy mining area. Large quantities of ironstone and alum used to be shipped out from here.

Skinningrove’s name is Viking influenced and mean’s a skinner’s grove or pit. Today it is just a small, quiet village by-passed by the main road. It has an ironstone mining museum which is good but we didn’t have time to visit. We took off our heavy packs and rested for a while on a convenient bench. Next to us was a life size wooden sculpture of 2 fishermen launching a coble. This was a small, flat-bottomed, high bowed,one sailed fishing boat that could be launched straight from the beach. Also nearby was a carving of a local pigeon fancier releasing his bird. Pigeon racing was and still is a very popular pastime amongst the men of these parts. Homing pigeons are transported to far-flung corners of the country and invariably their remarkable navigational  skills enable them to find their way home. The hillside above Skinningrove is littered with pigeon lofts. Our climb out of the village was steep and tiring so we rewarded ourselves with a sandwich and a drink when we finally reached the top.

Now it was more cliff top rambles accompanied by birds, butterflies, bees and wildflowers. I lay flat on my stomach to photograph lovely pale blue harebells fluttering in the breeze. Cow-parsley, purple thistles, banks of beautiful heather and a host of swaying grasses decorated our way. At the tiny hamlet of Boulby the coast had been re-sculptured by the now abandoned alum mines. Spoil heaps, once an eye-sore, have been smoothed over by the tides and merged with the adjoining rocks and cliffs. In the village we admired a butterfly smothered buddleai bush and munched on some juicy blackberries in the hedgerow. We now angled away from the cliff tops and  strolled through a golden field of wheat. Soon it would be harvested, signalling the end of summer. To the right was the aforementioned Boulby Potash works, not the prettiest sight but providing vital employment for the locals. Ahead, at last, was the entrance to Staithes. We passed the twin stone terraces of Cowbar and then dropped steeply into the old quaint, fishing village, now a popular holiday destination.

Staithes’s old village nestles between two cliff headlands or Nabs which hide it from view until the last moment. Thus when it suddenly appears, it comes as a wonderful surprise. It sits at the bottom end of a deep, narrow glen created by a wide stream known as Roxby Beck. Its name is Old English for “landing-place.” Its red roofed little houses descend, higgledy-piggledy down the steep slopes, scattered like confetti. They cling to the hillside in tight terraces, the floor of one being on a level with the chimneys of the one in front. It is mostly negotiated via a confusion of alleys ( called “nicks”), stairs and tiny squares. Every now and again you can spot on old “nettie” or outside toilet. The village is alive with the raucous cries of herring gulls. As evening approached they seemed to colonise every roof-top and chimney, noisily and constantly defending their territory. A narrow cobbled high street leads to a small bay and beach, overseen by the towering cliffs. Our little guest house the “Endeavour” is named after Captain James Cook’s famous ship. Staithes too claims its chunk of Cook heritage. Apparently he worked in a shop here and, seeing the boats going back and forth, got the taste for the seafaring life that made his name. An old Methodist chapel has been converted into the Captain Cook museum which attracts at least 5000 visiters a year. We got this info from our guest house owner, Dave, who is fighting to keep the museum open as it has recently been inherited by new owners who want to turn the building into more lucrative holiday apartments. In its hey-day, Staithes had 5 chapels and 7 pubs. They were nicknamed, the “5 Virtues” and the “7 Deadly Sins”!

Staithes today is a busy, summertime holiday destination. It has no amusements, gimmicks or conventional tourist attractions, but it does have history, quaintness and atmosphere. Cars are banned from the old village at the bottom of the hill ( except for deliveries) so, to use the old cliche, a visit to Staithes is like stepping back in time. The village is very photogenic. It’s no surprise to find that it was the centre of an artists’ colony in the 1920s and 30s. The so called “Northern Impressionists” were attracted by the pretty village and coastline, plus the fine quality of the light. Their most famous members were Dame Laura Knight and her husband Harold. It’s also its “lost in time” quality that attracts so many visiters. Up to the 1960s, many of the women wore traditional dress including white bonnets, the men sat around in their knitted guernsies mending the herring nets and the cobles were scattered picturesquely on the beach and beckside waiting for the next high tide.

The problem with Staithes’ popularity is that many of its old, charming little cottages are snapped up by outsiders for use as holiday lets or second homes.Thus, in winter, the place is more like a ghost village. Local people have been priced out and so many have had to move away. This is a serious issue in several places on the North Yorkshire coast.

After settling in to our bolt-hole for the night, we set out on a pre-dinner stroll. Up and down the confusing tangle of lanes we went and then we crossed the little bridge over the beck to take a closer look at the cliffs of Cowbar Nab. The air was filled with the raucous cries of herring gulls which were constantly flying back and forth. But as the cliff turned a corner we were met with the higher-pitched shrieks of kittiwakes. Hundreds of them had taken over the rock face and greeted each other noisily whenever one of the pair returned from a fishing trip out at sea. They created a constant cacophony. We walked out to the breakwater and flood defences and dodged the large waves that occasionally crashed over on to the path. In the past Staithes has been very badly flooded and a lot of money has had to be spent to protect it.

We thought it would be easy to eat in the Cod and Lobster, the main pub on the waterfront. But even at 5pm it was crowded out with tourists and trippers devouring their obligatory fish and chips. We surveyed the scene of squealing small children, panting dogs, sloshed beer and spilt peas and chips, and beat a hasty retreat. We squeezed into a corner of the Royal George up the High Street which was also busy and ate tasty Vegetable Lasagnes, a staple vegetarian dish on most pub menus. We had a nice conversation with some friendly tourists from Bourton on Trent who had allowed us to share their table. If we had gone in November, the place would probably have been very quiet.

Finally, after an atmospheric twilight stroll, we called it a day and settled down for the night. You would think it would be quiet in that old village with no cars but our night was constantly punctuated by the shrieks of herring gulls who had taken over all the roofs and chimneys around us. It was liking being in a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” They were to provide the soundtrack to much of our walk. An interesting and eventful Day 2 of our adventure was finally over.

Walking the Riding, 2019. ( Part 1 – Redcar to Saltburn by the Sea.)

25 Aug

I live on the rugged but beautiful north-east coast of England. My official address is in Cleveland but most people still think of it as part of the great county of Yorkshire — “God’s own country.” The Vikings used to be top dogs around here, back in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Many settlements still have Norse names such as my own village of Skelton. The Vikings’ first attack on mainland Britain was at Lindisfarne (Holy Island) on the Northumberland coast just north of here, in 793AD.  Later, when their longships arrived off the coast of north Yorkshire, they were so impressed by the miles of soaring cliffs, that they dubbed it Cleve-Land or Cliff-Land. Politicians and administrators picked up on this ancient name in the 1970s when they were carving up the county to make it more manageable. I like the name because of its history, but just between you and me, I actually live in the north of Yorkshire! Even the Vikings found Yorshire to be too big to manage so they divided it into 3 administrative regions known as “Ridings” They were North Riding, West Riding and East Riding. For some reason “South Riding” never existed except in the famous novel with that title by Winifred Holtby.

So what has all this got to do with walking? Well in 2011 I walked the entire coast of Northumberland from the Scottish border to Tyneside with a friend. Then, 2 years ago, in the summer of 2017, I walked the entire coast of the original County of Durham with my daughter Catherine. We called it the 3 River Mouths walk, starting at the Tyne, finishing at the Tees and taking in the mouth of the Wear at Sunderland on the way. We had a great time ( see previous blogs from 2017) and raised a substantial amount of money for animal charities. Don’t ask me about the missing year — we were probably still trying to get our breath back! Anyway this year we decided to tackle the Yorkshire coast, the next one down from Durham. Due to time and financial constraints we agreed to split the county’s coastline into 2 halves. It has nothing whatsoever to do with me pushing 70! The plan I devised would take us from the south bank of the River Tees at Redcar to the seaside resort of Scarborough, roughly 60 miles to the south. Most of this walk would be along the coast of the original North Riding. I discovered too late that the North Riding actually extended down to Filey, a few miles south of Scarborough. After this the old East Riding began. But, never mind, we will walk that another time. To all intents and purposes we were going to traverse the coast of the North Riding of Yorkshire. We were going to walk the Riding!

I have described the North Yorkshire coast as “beautiful” but the start point of our walk was far from that. When one thinks of Teesside the first word to pop into the mind is ” industry.” Once ironstone and other minerals were discovered in the nearby Cleveland Hills, the area around the estaury of the River Tees became a hive of industrial activity, particularly iron, steel and chemical production. It is officially prohibited to drive all the way to South Gare, on the southern bank of the mouth of the Tees, near Middlesbrough, because it is a private road. However, we got as close as we could at Warrenby, the northern part of Redcar. In the near distance we could see the lighthouse and pier of the river mouth where we had finished the County Durham walk. As we walked our first steps, we were surrounded by car scrapyards, rundown workshops and a barbed- wire protected waste- recycling plant. We took our first selfie in front of the latter and then quickly struck out for the nearby coast. We hoped this would be the scenic low-point of the trip and that soon it would just be a brief, bad memory. We soon spotted the magical sight of a finger-post announcing the English Coastal Path. It led us across a golf links towards high dunes crested with marram grass. This is the northern stretch of Redcar’s long, impressive beach. The sands stretch all the way to the Tees about 2 to 3 miles to the north but, because this is the furthest part of the beach from the car-parks, amusements and cafes, it is usually frequented only by a sprinkling of dog walkers. This was the case now. In front of us reared an eerie- looking wind farm just off shore. To the left, as well as the river mouth, was the now defunct Redcar Steel Works, a sad victim of the recession and cheap Chinese steel being dumped on the world market. The ovens were finally extinguished in October, 2015 after years of struggle. The Warrenby/Redcar Steelworks had been founded by Dorman Long in 1917. Steel from there had been used to build the Tyne Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Auckland bridge and many more. Now the works have closed, it’s as if the heart has been ripped out of Redcar. The other main employer, ICI Teesside, has also run down its operations. The abandoned, derelict Warrenby Steelworks are a poignant sight. In a conventional sense they are an eye-sore, but so many people’s lives and histories have been centred on them in the past century that anyone with even an inkling of soul cannot help but feel a surge of sadness at this great loss to the local community. A micro-light plane buzzed above us as we turned south to walk along the flat sands to the town.

Redcar is a down to earth, friendly little town and resort. Despite its economic problems it still manages to keep a smile on its face. I don’t know how Yorkshire people have got their reputation for being dour and unfriendly. Living amongst them, I have always found them to be just the opposite. It’s name refers to its low lying situation where originally there were reeds in a marsh. Even today there is a pleasant wading- birds, nature reserve, at Coatham marsh on the edge of town.We left the beach to walk along the promenade. Redcar  used to be a regular destination for Victorian tourists once the railway from Darlington and Middlesbrough opened in 1846. It used to have amusement arcades, donkey and pony rides, swings, roundabouts and a helter skelter. It also had 2 pleasure piers, one at Coatham and one at Redcar itself. Both are now just memories after being hit by ships, damaged in fires and, in the case of Redcar pier, suffering from a mines explosion in World War 2. It had already been deliberately breached in 1940 to prevent its use by invading enemy forces.

Ironically, considering this war damage, one of Redcar’s more recent claims to fame was when  part of its seafront was dressed up to look like war-torn Dunkirk for the major 2006 film “Atonement.” An important scene from Ian McEwan’s novel featured the epic Allied evacuation from that beleagured French port in 1940. Redcar was chosen among several British applicants to represent Dunkirk, presumably because the Dunkirk of the 1940s was almost completely destroyed by bombing in the war against Nazi Germany. It was a welcome shot in the arm for the struggling town. A facade of bombed out buildings was created on the seafront, while bomb craters were made on the beach and rubble and debris strewn across the promenade. Filming took place over 3 days in August, 2006 and hundreds of local men earned some extra pocket money by acting as soldiers.  A sculpture, “Lost Luggage” was commissioned by the film company and given to the town to commemorate this event. We stopped to look at it on the prom. It consists of a British “Tommy’s” luggage, helmet, crates of ammo and  rifle plus a film director’s camera and chair It takes its place amidst a slightly bizarre collection of sculptures and 3D ceramic pictures of local attractions. These strangely included a group of penguins and a depiction of a crab eating chips! These attempts at modern promenade decorations involved the replacement of the traditional  seats and shelters from the resort’s hey-day with more flashy, streamlined versions.  Many locals have mourned the loss of this tiny part of their heritage.

The most controversial addition to Redcar’s seafront is the Beacon, which arrived in 2011. Approaching it, the Beacon looks like a tacky, grey, white and pink helter- skelter. Described as a vertical pier, it stands close to where the real pier used to be. Apparantly over a million pounds worth of local tax money were spent on it, in an attempt to put Redcar back on the tourist map. It has proved to be very unpopular with many locals and deeply divisive.  It was nominated for the Carbuncle Cup, a competition run by Building Design, an architect’s magazine to find the worst new building of the year. It came third in the whole of the UK! After being hit by Storm Desmond, a couple of years ago, 3 of its panels were blown off and fell on to the beach.  Just past the beacon are glimpses of the old Redcar prom. Small fishing boats and tractors line the top of the beach. A tiny fleet still sails straight off the beach looking for inshore fish, crabs and lobsters. The Zetland Lifeboat museum proudly presents the world’s oldest  lifeboat from 1802. However the old Regent Cinema which once masqueraded as a French hotel is now sadly closed, a victim of Netflix and the multi-plexes. Its dilapitated, peeling walls still display fading sillouettes of Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe trying to protect her modesty, Buster Keaton clinging by his finger-tips to a high ledge and other Hollywood icons. They are now just mere memories from the silver screen of days gone by.

We walked on past a motley collection of amusement arcades, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours. Gradually we left the tourist detritus behind us and were just left with the rather wonderful beach, stretching for miles in either direction. It was on this stretch of sands that Donald Campbell made attempts at the British land speed record in his famous streamlined car : “Bluebird.” Decrepit wooden groynes snaked out towards the sea, adding an old fashioned picturesque quality to the scene. In the distance the faint outlines of huge cliffs jutted out into dramatic headlands but were partly obscured by a heat haze. Yes, it was very warm and fine such that we never disturbed the rain gear dutifully stuffed into our back-packs.

We now entered the “Stray”. a 2 mile long stretch of coastal grassland between Redcar and Marske by the sea. Apparantly this part of the coast is famous for fossils called “Devil’s Toenails” but we never spotted any. There were plenty of gently waving grasses in the sea breeze and swathes of flowering thistles being constantly visited by bees and dancing butterflies. We saw the first of many orangy-speckled Painted Ladies which have graced Britain with their presence in such large numbers this year, a once in a decade phenomenum. They have flown in stages all the way from Africa, the longest journey of any butterfly. Also, while strolling along the Stray , we were entertained by the dazzling flying displays of sand martins, twisting and turning, soaring and dipping as they tried to catch insect snacks right there in front of us. That’s something we would have missed if we had travelled the same route by car.

We had a tasty pit-stop at a cafe in Marske, an assuming little seaside village which has not tried to turn itself into a resort. It has a little quirky heritage museum in an old cruck-style cottage ( “Winkies castle”), some picturesque fishermens’ cottages and  old St Germains church tower and graveyard overlooking the beach. Apparently somewhere in there is the grave of Captain Cook’s father. Everywhere in Cleveland, towns and villages are trying to catch a share of the James Cook bandwagon. Unusually and surprisingly, Marske also has a grand Jacobean house built in the reign of Charles I in 1625. Marske Hall began its life as the home of a local aristocratic family, was later a boarding school and is now a Leonard Cheshire Home. A summer fayre was being staged in its grounds when we passed by, so between the bouncy castle and the entertainment stage we got glimpses of its towers, turrets and gargoyles. Also on Marske seafront is Cliff House, a 19th century casselated mansion built as a holiday and retirement home for the Pease family of Darlington. This famous Quaker dynasty owned many coal mines in the area and hired George Stephenson to build the world’s first public railway from Stockton to Darlington in 1825. Joseph Pease retired here and in his old age, after he went blind, he used to get his carer to wheel him out on to the balcony so he could hear the waves and enjoy the fresh, sea air.

We now walked on along a wide stretch of beach flanked by low, boulder clay cliffs towards Saltburn by the sea. We could see its pier in the distance. A grade 2 listed building, this is the only remaining pleasure pier on the North-East England coast. It was Henry Pease, out walking while visiting his brother in Marske, who is reputed to have had a vision of “a town arising on the cliff and the quiet unfrequented and sheltered glen turned into a lovely garden.” It was this that led to the creation of the gentile Victorian seaside resort of Saltburn by the sea in 1850, near where I now live. Up the cliff from the pier is the old Cliff Tramway. Two balanced tram cars climb and descend the steep slope, the top one being weighed down by gallons of seawater poured into special side hoppers. This plus the force of gravity pulls the other car up. This water- balance funicular is one of only 2 in the entire country, the other one being in Lynton and Lynemouth, Somerset.

Gradually the beach got busier with holiday makers as we neared the little town and climbed up to the top of its cliff. Saltburn is getting more and more popular today but still retains its largely Victorian quaintness. Pease’s vision has been turned into a sweet little town and the lovely Valley Gardens where a large stream ( or burn) flows into the sea. The railway was extended here in 1861 and the enormous Zetland Hotel, dominating the cliff top actually had its own private platform. Porters used to meet hotel guests straight off the train and take their luggage up to their waiting rooms. The Zetland is still there but has been turned into rather spectacular apartments. It was of the world’s earliest railway hotels.

Our first day’s hike was now nearing its end. After a quick coffee in Saltburn’s Station Square and a look at the lovely, community garden, we walked through sun-dappled woods to my home in nearby Skelton, about 1.5 miles inland. We were now on the Cleveland Way, the long distance footpath that reaches the coast at Saltburn. Its familer acorn sign was to accompany us for the rest of our trip. Everyone we met assumed we were regular Cleveland Way walkers. They looked a little bemused when we explained we were walking the North Riding coast and had begun in a rundown area of Redcar. This wasn’t an officially designated long-distance trail. It had been an interesting and enjoyable first day. It had also been a gentle breaking- in process as we had encountered few hills and had got away with carrying just one small rucksack. From Day 2, the real heavy stuff would begin as we would leave my immediate home territory and head south, carrying everything with us on our backs.

The Magic of Singing.

22 Jul

It was a day of tedious jobs — clearing out cupboards, combing through files, trecking to the charity shop with boxes of unwanted books and bric a brac. It was a day to get over with only the satisfaction of clean, tidy cupboards to reward us. Then we came across the mystery DVD. What could it be? I couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. On it was written “Singing Our Hearts Out” by Heaton Voices. It was dated 2006. Heaton is an area of Newcastle upon Tyne, a city I used to live in or near for 27 years. In fact 2006 was the year I left to move down to my present abode in Cleveland. Heaton Voices is an excellent community choir I was fortunate enough to be a member of  for 6 happy years. I had forgotten all about this DVD, which was a recording of a programme made for Community TV. It was about the choir, its members and its involvement in the National Street Choirs festival held that year at Sage Gateshead. Suddenly, the cupboards and the jobs could wait and I was transported back 13 years, remembering all the songs I used to sing and all the lovely people I sang them with. Watching that DVD brought a lump to my throat.

Choirs have been an important part of my life ever since 1989. It was a choir that dragged me up from the pits of despair as I struggled to cope with the emotional fall out of a difficult divorce.  Previously, most of my life had been centred on family and work. I still had my teaching work of course, but day to day contact with my 3 children had gone and at weekends and holidays I often felt cut adrift. Time hung heavy and self pity was never far away. Many things and numerous people helped me to recover from that very low ebb but it was a choir that played a particularly crucial role. One summer weekend, I had arranged to go with a friend to a festival at Druridge Bay, a beauty spot on the Northumberland coast. The festival had been organised by Friends of the Earth to raise awareness of the threat to the bay from a planned nuclear power station. I had been heavily involved in anti-nuclear campaigning throughout the 1980’s, so I was completely up for this one. When we arrived there were the usual variety of stalls and in the middle of them, a big marquee. From it drifted interesting sounding music. It was a choir singing acappella style in 4 part harmony. Intrigued, I went in to listen. It was the Caedmon Choir from Gateshead. As I sat down they were singing a piece about the potential price of nuclear- generated electricity. It talked of the horrific consequences of a nuclear accident. ( Chernobyl was not far into the past.) The song built up to a thrilling, intense climax. I was hooked. This is what I could do to help rid myself of that lingering, post-divorce malaise.It would tap into 2 of my main interests — music and political activism.

Up to that point I had associated choirs with church. Both my parents had sung in church choirs for most of their lives. My maternal grand-father had been a choir leader, organist and composer of hymns at the local Methodist chapel. He had also given me piano lessons and so had helped to generate my lifelong love of music. However in my teenage rebel days I had got into pop and rock music in a big way and I associated choirs with the older generation and with boredom. How wrong I was! I needed to do a lot of growing up before I could fully appreciate what a wonderful thing a choir is.

On the Tuesday evening after the weekend festival, I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall on public transport. I didn’t have a car at that point, and had to catch 2 buses from my home in Wallsend. It was an awkward journey and I could easily have not bothered, but I was determined to go, even though it was work next morning. I didn’t want to spend another evening moping and marking. I didn’t know Gateshead, the small city that sits across the Tyne from Newcastle, but I eventually found my way and entered a hall full of strangers, sitting on chairs arranged in semi-circles. Caedmon was an Anglo-Saxon monk who was supposed to have been given the gift of song by God in about the 8th or 9th century. His musical legacy is claimed by both Gateshead and Whitby, a seaside town in North Yorkshire, near where I now live. I have never got to the bottom of where Caedmon actually lived , if indeed he existed at all. I don’t think people moved around very much in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Maybe he got “transferred” from one monastery to another like a modern day footballer changing clubs. Anyway, here I was in the Caedmon Hall on a Tuesday night. It was a good evening. I enjoyed the singing and a few people smiled and welcomed me to the choir. Choirs are always glad to see a man walk through the door, as many seem to be perpetually short of tenors and basses. Women seem to be much more open-minded and adventurous than men, willing to try new things away from the pub and the telly.  Most activities I have got involved in, from singing to yoga, from English literature to learning a language, seem to consist of at least three-quarters women and only a quarter men, if that.

As I sat there on my first evening as a chorister, belting out the bass parts, I became aware that I was picking up the baton from my father and  my grandfather before him. Bass singing has been a family tradition. ( My mum, aunties and a female cousin, also did their bit for the sopranos and altos.)  I remembered my Grandad Thomas’s deep, powerful voice reverberating round the chapel on a Sunday evening. I remembered Uncle Ernie ( my mum’s cousin) roaring out the stirring chorus of the Sheffield carol “Diadem” at our Sunday School anniversary — “Crown Him, Crown Him, Crown Him — Crown Him Lord of all!” Another uncle, my mum’s brother, had sung the bass solo parts in productions such as the Messiah.  And of course I remembered my dad powerfully vocalising the bass lines of traditional Christmas carols like ” O Come All Ye Faithful”. All this now welled up inside me as I sang in my first choir. It was a very satisfying experience! Recently. I have been very proud and pleased to hear that one of my daughters has joined one choir and set up another in her home city of  Leeds. She has always been musical and is now continuing what has been a strong, family tradition for at least a century.

I spent many happy years as a member of the Gateshead Caedmon Choir. Some friends were highly amused when I told them, as they misheard it as the “Caveman Choir.” It was and still is, a community choir. Anybody could join irrespective of age, gender or musical ability. There were no auditions. The only restriction on numbers was the size of the hall. We averaged between 20 and 40 members but I believe numbers have recently swelled due to the popularity of choir documentaries such as those presented by Gareth Malone. The choir contained people of all ages and many types. We had a jovial West Indian who was often well lubricted by rum. We had a down and out man who tied up his shabby trousers with rope. We had gays and straights, not that sexuality has anything to do with singing, in my opinion. We had students and retirees. OK, I admit, it included many middle aged and middle class people but there was still quite a variety. The music brought us together and gelled us into one big, happy family.

When I joined, Caedmon Choir, Gateshead had an inspirational leader : Sandra Kerr. I’m sure she won’t mind me name dropping her. She was a talented performer, composer and teacher, and became particularly famous when she composed the music of the children’s TV series “Bagpuss.” She was a hard task-master and set high standards, but her infectious enthusiasm and expert teaching skills drove us to musical heights that we had never dreamt of achieving. We performed all sorts of music — folk, pop, classical, gospel, religious. Sometimes original songs were composed and arranged for us. Joining that choir put me on a steep learning curve and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Since giving up the piano lessons in my mid teens, my musical development had been pretty spasmodic, as other things rushed in.  I had performed in a Hertfordshire school production of The Mikado when the pupil I was understudying dropped out. That was a brilliant experience but was a one off, which was just as well as my acting was rather wooden .( think Roger Moore). I had also sung with gusto the Yorkshire versions of traditional carols to a brass accompaniment in Sheffield pubs when I lived there. But now, at last, I had the time and inclination to build more consistenly on these musical foundations. Later I moved on to Heaton Voices under the excellent leadership of Richard Scott. Heaton was much closer to my home and I felt I needed the stimulus of a new musical environment. It certainly worked — I enjoyed over 6 exhilerating years there before I moved to Cleveland. The musical directors of my subsequent choirs in Whitby and Middlesbrough have also been great and have extended my skills and repertoire considerably.

The thing about singing is that it is so enjoyable. It lightens the spirit. Sometimes I would turn up at choir full of worries and problems. On such evenings I had seriously considered not going in at all. But by the end of a 2 hour sing I felt like a different person altogether. My low mood had been dispelled and I felt happy and glad to be alive. One of my fellow choristers in Heaton Voices, described on the DVD how she felt light-headed after a choir session, almost as if she was on drugs. She pondered whether it was safe for her to drive home. I have felt the same. Singing is the one sure way of dispelling the clouds and letting the sunshine back in. Listening to music is wonderful and performing it, if anything, is even better.

Choirs are much than just the music of course. They are about people. As outlined above, they are from all walks of life, all abilities, all ages and all shapes and sizes. The best choirs are also non-judgemental, although I acknowledge that this not so attractive human trait has occasionally reared its ugly head. Choirs are groups of people and sometimes there are personality clashes and differences of opinion. It comes with the territory as they say. However, it’s mostly the music and the choir’s common purpose in making it, that wins out. In Caedmon Choir, Heaton Voices, Whitby Communiy Choir and Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir ( my current choir), I have met and am still meeting lots of lovely, interesting people. I have made friends for life from all these singing groups. Many choir members don’t just turn up and sing once a week. They develop a social life, they invite each other to parties, they go away for the weekend and even go on holidays together. All these things have happened to me and have been a major part of my social life over the years. From the choirs I have met friends, walking partners, squash partners and gig and concert going companions. On the DVD is featured a choir member’s 40th birthday gathering with lots of chatting, eating, laughing and semi-drunken singing. On some youth hostelling weekends I have laughed so much that it has hurt. I have taken part in ceilidh dancing, story telling evenings, fun quizzes, clumsy and slightly dangerous sword dancing and any number of crazy party games. It certainly beats staying in and feeling miserable with life.

Choirs have also got me to many interesting places. I took part in the annual National Street Choirs festival for many years with 3 of the choirs I belonged to. We found ourselves singing in shopping centres, churches, concert halls, parks, street corners and town squares in places  as far apart as Brighton, Newcastle upon Tyne and Aberystwyth,  We sang in big cities like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester and in little towns like Hebdon Bridge, Saltaire and Belper. The feeling of warmth and camaraderie as hundreds of singers join together is incredible and empowering. All the choirs I have been lucky enough to be in have also done valuable charity work, collecting for a variety of good causes especially at Christmas. My present choir at Middlesbrough Town Hall is particularly involved with supporting homeless people and asylum seekers. In fact we have a young Nigerian woman and her son in our choir and she has taught us some great songs. I have sung with people from France, Germany, Ghana, Congo and Iran.

In this age of international argument and conflict with President Trump’s  divisive policies and the British Brexit vote creating barriers between people, I think it is even more important for music to build bridges between nations. At the height of the dispute between Russia and the United Kingdom over the shocking Salisbury poisonings, some choir friends and I went to listen to a Russian Orchestra performing pieces by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at Middlesbrough’s Victorian Town Hall. It was a tremendous evening and the applause was thunderous. Music had brought people from 2 disputing nations together. Music destroys barriers and builds bridges.

Music has certainly helped me to turn my life around and ensure that I have a rich and rewarding social life. Last month I was singing in Ripon’s wondrous cathedral, as part of their summer lunchtime concerts programme. One our choir leaders, Dave, is the chief lay tenor in that cathedral’s choir. It was a privilege to sing in such a magnificent building with it’s amazing acoustics. Tonight I’ll be performing with Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir a programme that ranges from: medieval religious music sung in Latin to Bon Jovi’s ” Livin’ on a Prayer” the 1980s rock anthem. ( not my favourite but fun to perform) There will be nearly a hundred of us, the biggest choir I have ever been in. I am nervous but it will be great, and at the end, when the applause hopefully rings out and with the adrenaline pumping, I will feel on top of the world. If you want to have an inkling of how Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger feel, join a performing choir!

Peeping Into The Box — Exploring Orkney.

24 Jun

The people of the Orkney and Shetland Islands are extremely irritated by atlas publishers. Why is this? It’s because their real location is hardly ever properly shown on  a map of Britain. They are usually stuffed into separate boxes to the right of the main map, giving the impression that they are just off the east coast of Scotland. The truth is that they lie to the north of the mainland and if the map is drawn to scale, these Northern Isles would not fit on the page. So, to many they are outposts that are out of sight and mostly out of mind. They are detached boxes, tucked away and rarely opened. If you travel to the extreme north of Caithness, in mainland Scotland, you literally reach the end of the road. All those charity walkers, runners and cyclists going from Land’s End to John o’ Groats think they have travelled the entire length of the country, from one extreme to another. But they are wrong. Scotland and the UK carries on northwards even when the road ( and the rail) has finished.  Over the sea lie 2 sets of islands that are as much an official part of our country as London, Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff. One has to board a boat or catch a plane to get to them. They are Orkney and Shetland, the islands in the boxes. For my wife Chris and I this year, the road to adventure led northwards.

We went to Orkney or the Orkney Islands. Apparently, you are not supposed to say the Orkneys as that is like saying the Scotlands or the Englands. Because of the distance travelled to get there, it was almost like visiting a foreign country. Some guide-books say they have a Scandinavian feel to them. Orcadians, as the residents of Orkney are called, do not regard themselves as Scots but as a proud, distinct nation. There are about 20,000 of them. In fact, up to the later 15th century these islands were actually part of Norway. ( as were the islands of Shetland.) The Vikings had taken them over as they were on their main sea routes from Scandinavia into the north Atlantic.  The first Viking raids into England probably came from Orkney. Then in the 1460s, Orkney and Shetland were named as the security of a wedding dowry for the marriage of a Norwegian princess, Margaret to King James III of Scotland. If the dowry of 50,000 Rhenish florins was not paid then the islands would pass into Scottish hands.  The Scandinavian King, Christian I was impoverished, the dowry was never paid, so in 1468 they were formally annexed by Scotland. Even to this date, Norway has never formally recognised Orkney and Shetland as part of Scotland.

Most people I know invariably  travel south for their hols, seeking out the sun. Just in the last few months friends of mine have travelled to France, Greece, Malta, Spain and Portugal, posting their sun-drenched photos on social media. All these are great destinations. But there are equally intriguing places to explore if one forgets the shades and the sun cream and heads to the cooler  climes of the north. So, when we decided to visit the Orkney Islands, we made sure we packed fleeces and overtrousers, hats, gloves and even scarves instead of the usual hot weather gear. I optimistically packed some shorts but never got round to wearing them, even though it was “flaming June.” So why did we go?

The biggest lure for me is the history. Orkney is the richest site for ancient history in the whole of the UK, if not northern Europe. It is a paradise for archaeologists. We were entering a world of: stone circles, chambered passage tombs, neolithic villages, bronze age remains and iron age brochs. It sounds mysterious doesn’t it?  That’s what makes it so exciting. This is not just history but prehistory. We were visiting buildings that were constructed before people could even write. We encountered places that were created before the Pyramids in Egypt. Their builders are unknown. Their purposes can only be guessed at. It is a history shrouded in mystery.

There are plenty of beautiful beaches in Orkney. We walked on a couple, but didn’t spend our time lying on them, even though the sun did shine brightly on quite a few of our days there. Instead, we spent a fair amount of time crawling down long, low stone- age passages or huddling inside claustrophobic stone tombs that only see the light of day when the sun on mid-winter’s day shines directly down the tunnel to illuminate the gloomy chamber within. How did so called “primitive” people have the astronomical and geometric knowledge to work that one out? Another mystery. The main neolithic passage tomb on Orkney is Maes Howe. One whole side of the passage or tunnel is made from a single huge stone. Before the age of the wheel, how did stone- age man transport such heavy stones to this site? One theory is seaweed. Large quantities of shiny seawood are thrown up on Orkney’s shores during storms and high tides. It’s slippery quality may have made it possible to slide the large blocks along the ground. Maes Howe is also special because its inner chamber is covered with Viking graffiti after a group of Norse warriors broke into it in the 12th century, probably hoping to find hidden treasure.  The normally mundane: “I was here” is a much more powerful and evocative message when it happens to be 900 years old and scratched in Viking runes on to 5000 years old stones!

The only ” problem” with Maes Howe is that it is now becoming a victim of its own popularity. Yes – shock, horror — other people also make the trek north to this isolated archipeligo! Other people means: queues, timed tickets, guides, souvenir shops and the whole mass tourist package. Maes Howe has become something of a packaged experience. This is inevitable as a place becomes more popular. Health and safety comes into play and the ancient site itself has to be protected.  Even though the guide was good and the tomb fascinating ( if you like that sort of thing) , it still felt as if we were being processed and thus took away much of the atmosphere that we might have experienced in days gone by. Luckily, Orkney still has less organised prehistoric sites such as the Tomb of the Otters and The Tomb of the Eagles on the island of South Ronaldsay. We visited the latter tomb, so called because of a large number of eagles’ talons found in and around it. Don’t ask me why, as that’s  yet another unexplained phenomenum. After an interesting talk about how the 5000 year old tomb was discovered in 1957, and a close-up look at some of the stone-age artefacts excavated, we walked out for nearly a mile, unguided, to the actual tomb, near the edge of a sea cliff. Entry was through a short but very low stone passage. I had to lower my 6 foot frame on to a trolley that was like a big skate-board and pull on a rope attached to the roof of the tunnel to haul myself into the chamber. Then I was in the ancient tomb — all alone. Chris didn’t fancy joining me and there were no other tourists. I took a deep breath of the musty air and tried to take in the reality of where I was. I tried to appreciate that I was alone in a place that had been lost, deep in time for 5 millenia; that had been built by stone age people. But then I thought of Chris getting wetter and wetter on the cliff top and I heard the voices of other, approaching tourists, so the moment was lost and I hauled myself  back into the 21st century. It was still a special experience though, albeit a brief one. We were also alone when we visited the Broch of Gurness, on the top of Orkney Mainland. It’s an impressive, circular, dry- stone defensive tower built in the Iron Age in around 200BC. It was a lovely sunny day when we explored it but we had it to ourselves as it’s obviously not on the main Orkney bucket list. It was also at the end of a long, narrow country road, not really suitable for tour buses.

Equally mysterious are the stone circles of the Orkney Islands. On a cold, windy afternoon  we visited the Standing Stones of Stenness, sharing it with a large group of German bikers who kept getting in the way of our photos! 4 mighty stones remain of an original group of 12. One is 5.7 metres ( 16 feet) tall. All are quite slender after being delicately split off from their parent block. The predominant rock on Orkney is sandstone, a sedimentary rock that can be split along its cracks into thinner shards. The standing stones exude atmosphere even when they are shared with others. I should have gone back at twilight when all the visitors had gone. Then I might have experienced the full magical power of the place. But, like most people, I didn’t think to fit this into a busy schedule. Even though we stayed a full 8 days on Orkney there was still little time to just stand and stare. Near to the Stones of Stenness is the even more impressive Ring of Brodgar. A large circle of  weathered sandstone slabs stands on a low hill overlooking 2 big lochs. As this is less than a mile from the Stones of Stenness and quite close to Maes Howe, archaeologists have speculated that this whole area , on a narrow isthmus of land between the 2 lakes, must have been sacred and special in neolithic times. The Ring of Brodgar has 27 of its original 60 stones left in situ. It is thought that different settlements in the area may have contributed their own standing stones to this communal monument. It is surrounded by a grassy defensive ditch and the whole area is carpeted in heather. From the low- lying boggy fields around us we could hear the shrill, piping cries of nesting oyster catchers. As someone said, they are the “sparrows” of the Orkney Islands. As we walked up towards the mysterious stones we saw a flock of oyster catchers harrying a short-eared owl out on a day-time hunting trip. The Ring itself is impressive and it’s purpose only wild guesswork. When archaeologists feel stumped they usually fall back on the sacred ceremony theory. As with Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire so it is with The Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness, except the Orkney circles are much older.

One of our abiding memories of the Ring of Brodgar was of the cold wind. It had been warm and sunny earlier on but now the wind whipped up. Orkney is frequently windy. There are virtually no trees and few concentrations of buildings, so there is nothing to break up the winds as they whip off the ocean. One resident explained that she got so used to the wind that when she visited Glasgow on a calm day she felt she could hardly breathe. It was strange and disorientating for her to experience still air. She also felt claustrophobic when surrounded by all those tall, city buildings.

The most famous ancient site on Orkney has to be Skara Brae. It is this new stone- age village that, more than anything, made me want to visit the islands. It is probably at the top of most people’s Orkney bucket list. It’s a remarkable neolithic fishing and farming village, its circular houses huddled together on the edge of a scenic bay and connected by low passages. A fierce storm in 1850 blew away the deep sand dunes that had been covering and preserving it for millenia. It’s probably about 5000 years old and is another Orkney site that pre-dates the Pyramids. Many people, when they think of the stone-age, conjure up images of people crouching in caves, roughly covered in animal skins and wielding clubs. However, here one can see that neolithic people lived in houses that had their own stone furniture and fittings — fireplaces, built-in beds, boxes and even dressers. I wished I could have pinched myself harder to appreciate more fully the remarkable remains from the distant past that were spread out before me. It was a special experience but once again tempered by having to share it with scores of other visiters. Along with the 1st and 2nd War Naval remains at Scapa Flow, Skara Brae is Orkney’s top tourist attraction. It may be in the far north of the UK but increasing numbers are visiting it, meaning that they have to be managed and controlled. So, inevitably, as well as the ancient village itself, we now have a car park, a coach park, a shop, a cafe, an exhibition and a small video theatre. It’s another packaged experience. It’s run, very efficiently and pleasantly by Historic Scotland, but I couldn’t help wondering how thrilling it must have been to visit it in its virgin, newly discovered state. Still, I’ve seen it now — tick!

One major reason for the increase in visitors to Skara Brae and other Orcadian sights is the ever more frequent appearance of cruise ships. Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, is now the cruise ship capital of the British Isles. The lady running our guest house in Stromness announced several times during our stay that there was a cruise ship in with 1000 to 2000 plus passengers, so it was best to get to Skara Brae early that day. The cruise passengers are disgorged for the day and many do a whistle- stop tour of the main island’s hit parade. The trouble is that when they arrive at a place they swamp it with their numbers and potentially ruin the experience for others. An Australian couple in our guest house wanted to do a tasting tour of the local whisky distillery but were unable to get in because a cruise ship had booked it out for the entire day.  I’m sure that cruise ships bring extra customers for local businesses and make valuable contributions to the local economy, but their presence can spoil the experience for “ordinary” tourists  who have been attracted by the peace and quiet that these islands usually have to offer. Is this a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

As well as history we were attracted to Orkney because of its scenary and wild-life. Apart from the dramatic black hills of Hoy, Orkney is low lying and gently rolling. It presents an attractive pattern of green fields dotted with low-slung sandstone farmhouses ( based on Viking longhouses) and divided by dry stone walls. Some crops are grown, such as an ancient type of barley, but it’s mostly small herds of grazing cattle that catch the eye. We saw numerous family groups of these gentle, calm creatures complete with a muscular bull and adorable suckling calves. Often creamy in colour these cows displayed overt maternal behaviour. Once we saw a cow cradling its youngster as they lay together on the grass. On another occasion when it was windy and rainy, we saw a group of calves sitting down in the corner of a field, being sheltered from the worst of the weather by the adults who were clustered around them in a protective semi-circle. We also saw moorland, saw evidence of peat digging and often heard the haunting, unfurling call of the curlew. Orkney’s countryside is mostly gentle, soothing and peaceful. It is beautiful in its own quiet way. However, the coast is often wilder and more dramatic, especially in the west. We saw beautiful beaches and bays, complete with bright blue and turquoise sea, basking seals, stately swans and eider ducks with their young. But the most memorable places were the high, red sandstone sea cliffs, the stacks, the natural arches and even a couple of dangerous looking blow-holes ( collapsed caves.) We trecked, on Hoy, to see the most famous sea stack of all — the Old Man of Hoy. It’s the tallest stack in the British Isles, standing at 137 metres, a third bigger than Big Ben. It’s a tall, slender sandstone pillar standing on a much harder volcanic base. It and the cliffs opposite are constantly pulverised and shaped by the raging seas far below.

We also saw dramatic sea cliffs at Marwick Head, and at Noup Head on the northern island of Westray. All housed spectacular cities of breeding seabirds — guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, cormorants, black-backed gulls and gannets, We also heard the raucous cries of kittiwakes. At Noup Head we stood above a colony of 100,000 birds. The gannets with their huge wing span and striking yellow necks put on a memorable flying display as they constantly arrived and departed. As we looked down at the vertiginous cliffs below us, fulmars suddenly reared up in front of us, buffeted by the wind. It was a heady sensation of sight, sound and smell ( the cliffs were stained white with pungent guano.) Meanwhile on the open ground near the cliff edge in both Westray and Hoy, we encountered huge, menacing Great Skuas ( known locally by the old norse name of “Bonxies”) , arctic terns and the ubiquitous black and white, orange -beaked oyster catchers. We were also lucky enough to see and hear skylarks above the meadows, an increasingly rare experience on the British mainland. On top of all this we were delighted with the wild flowers, most of them tiny because of the cool, windy climate. Most striking of all were the bright pink carpets of sea thrift, that mixed with the orangy-yellow swirls of algae on the cliff edge to create a vivid spectacle.

We didn’t encounter many mammals apart from the sheep and cattle in the fields. There are no deer like in much of the rest of Scotland, and I don’t think there are any badgers or foxes. We saw a large hare once, bounding up the lane in front of us and, while trying to take a close up picture of a flower in the long grass of a cliff top, Chris encountered the rare Orkney vole. Apparently it is bigger than its mainland cousin and is seldom seen. I didn’t see it but heard Chris’s yelp. She thought it was a rat! Orkney people liked to tease us with stories of things we might see but never did. “This is where the otters come to feed.” “You might see pods of dolphins or porpoises off that shoreline” “Did you know there was a group of pilot whales that got stuck in Kirkwall Bay for a while?” They found their way out into the ocean just before we got there! However, we were well satisfied with the rich array of birds that we saw. I nearly forgot to mention the pair of rare, nesting, white-tailed sea eagles that we saw on a high rock face in Hoy, courtesy of an RSPB telescope.

On top of all this, Orkney is the UK’s top diving mecca. We wandered why we kept seeing large groups of young men hanging around. It seemed a long way to come for a stag do and one thing Orkney is not famous for is its night-life. Then we realised that these were diving parties. The deep, sheltered waters of Scapa Flow to the east of Orkney mainland and Hoy provided the perfect spot for the British High Seas fleet in both the 20th century’s World Wars. The English Channel was far too busy and dangerous so the fleet headed to the far north. By the end of the First World War, the captured German High Seas Fleet was also corralled there. In June, 1919, their commander ordered his men to deliberately sink their own ships. He believed that Germany was about to surrender unconditionally ( Up to that point there had just been an armistice) and did not want his beloved battleships to fall into enemy hands. His order came when the main British fleet was out at sea. The scuttling of the German fleet must have been a highly dramatic sight. Returning British sailors panicked when they saw the German ships disappearing beneath the waves. They opened fire on the Germans , killing about 6 or 7 ( a possible war crime), but it was too late to stop the scuttling. Many of  these ships have since been salvaged for their valuable metal but about 7 still remain down there on the sea bed, a magnet for marine life and for divers, who just love exploring wrecks. The German ships were joined by  the British battle ship, The “Royal Oak” in 1939 when it was torpedoed to the bottom by a U Boat with great loss of life.  Sadly, most of the victims were young trainee sailors of 16 or 17 years old. After this Churchill ordered barriers to be constructed between the south eastern islands of Orkney to stop further deadly incursions. These were made from concrete blocks and sunken “block” ships. Today they have been turned into causeways carrying roads and provide a link between the main island and the islands of : Lamb Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. These are called the Churchill Barriers and much of the work was done by Italian POWS. This wartime activity has ironically led to one of Orkney’s most beautiful and popular attractions: The Italian Chapel. Dubbed: “The Miracle of Camp 60”, it is an exquisitely decorated Catholic church made from 2 nissen huts, salvaged metal and wood, and barbed wire. For instance the ornate light shades were made from bully-beef cans. The main artist based the altar piece on a painting in his church back in Italy. He had a picture of it in his wallet. He was invited back in 1960 to complete and restore his beautiful decorations. It’s a very moving place to visit, especially if you are lucky enough to avoid the tour buses.

A lot of 1st and 2nd War History is still to be found at the ex Royal Navy base at Lyness, on the Scapa Flow coast of southern Hoy. Here are rusting anti-aircraft guns, ruined old piers, mouldering cranes , torpedo storage tunnels and ruined barracks turned into cow sheds and barns. It’s great if you like that sort of thing. You can still go into the air-raid shelters built for the service men and women. We heard that the Royal Navy sailors stationed there were initially very slovenly and untidy until a detachment of WRENS was stationed up there and there was a miraculous transformation!  Quite a few relationships and future marriages blossomed in this far-flung northern outpost. Our guide on Hoy told us that she had recently shown round a Canadian tourist who had wanted to come to see the wind-swept place where he had been conceived!

Orkney is a box well worth opening. It is much more than an obscure inset on a map. The history, scenary and wildlife are all outstanding. But our strongest impression was of the serene peace and quiet ( when a cruise ship hadn’t docked) and of the light. The light is wonderful, a result of all that shining sea and those massive skies. Artists and photographers love it. It was a great trip north.  Next time we may well go all the way up to the most northerly edge of the UK  to open the Shetland box. It’s only a 12 hour voyage by overnight ferry from Aberdeen! Another northern adventure beckons!

In Aachen — Confronting an Enigma.

26 Apr

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Since the early dawnings of my lifelong interest in history, I have been fascinated and bugged by another enigma. It took the shape of a mysterious, mythical figure from the Middle Ages — Charlemagne. I first encountered him in a book of famous people in history which I must have got as a Christmas or birthday present when I was still at primary school. Alongside Hannibal, Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Boadicea, Julius Caesar and the rest was this mysterious foreign emperor from the so-called “Dark Ages”. From the brief description in the book I couldn’t work out whether he was French, German, Roman or something else. Where was he from? What did he do? Why was he so revered over many centuries? My fascination remained dormant for many decades, until at last, in this, my 70th year, I finally visited Aachen in west Germany, the town that this enigmatic Emperor had made into his capital. It’s not the most obvious German town to visit on holiday — it’s not nationally important and not particularly beautiful. Unfortunately many of its older buildings were blasted to smithereens by the Allies in the Second World War. It is not even the biggest place in North Rhine-Westphalia, the region of Germany it sits in, for Cologne, a very large city, lies just an hour’s journey to the east. So what attracted me to Aachen?  Well, it was that irresistable combination of history and mystery. Charlamagne’s capital was at Aachen. Finally I would have a stab at unravelling the enigma of that mythical ruler. Luckily I had a friend who was happy to share in the investigation.

Well, Charlemagne is everywhere in 21st century Aachen. I’m surprised that he didn’t meet us off the train and shake our hands! He was in the foyer of our hotel, an avuncular figure welcoming us with his long, curly beard and flowing medieval robes, not forgetting the ancient, octagonal crown on his head. He looks a bit like Father Christmas. Of course it was just a statue, but it was one that was repeated constantly as we wondered through this small city. He guards shops and cafes. He appears in ginger-bread form in bakeries.  I heard a rumour that there are chocolate replicas of him in the confectioners. In the market square there is an impressive statue of Charlemagne sporting a renaissance- era suit of armour and holding an orb and sceptre. His image sits above the main entrance to the City Hall ( Rathaus) alongside that of Christ and the Pope who crowned him Emperor, so he is in exalted company. Aachen’s main museum is called Centre Charlemagne and the Tourist Office’s Heritage walk  is called — yes, you’ve guessed it — the Charlemagne Trail. We even saw his statue in the window display of a shoe shop!

So who was Charlemagne? He was the King of the Franks in the late 8th and early 9th centuries AD. The Franks were a Germanic tribe who took over the lands we now know as Germany, France and the Benelux countries. They once formed most of the Western Roman Empire. The Franks were one of the main “barbarian” tribes who swept in from the east to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman legionaries.  Charlemagne inherited the Frankish throne in 768 AD from his father, along with his brother, and when his sibling died a few years later, he ended up as sole ruler. Charlemagne is his French name. The English refer to him as Charles the Great and the Germans call him Karl der Grosse. These multiple names show what an important, international figure he became. Like many of the famous people in my little history book, Charlemagne made his name as a great war leader. For 26 years or more he ruled, not from a throne, but from the saddle. He was disciplined, determined and relentless. Through no less than 54 military campaigns he accumulated a vast Empire. It was know as the Carolingian Empire. It covered what we now know as France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the far north of Spain and much of northern Italy. It was the greatest Empire Europe had seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, over 300 years before. There was not going to be another European empire like it until Napolean Bonaparte came to power in the early 19th century.

But Charlemagne didn’t merely conquer land, he forced all the people in these territories to give up their pagan gods and convert to Christianiaty.  This is why the Pope in Rome liked him so much. He may have been a devout Christian but that does not mean that he paid much attention to the teachings of Jesus.  For example, he fought many bloody battles against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe of pagan worshippers. After defeating them at Verden in 782 AD, he ordered 4500 Saxons to be massacred! He eventually forced the Saxons to become Christians by declaring that anyone who refused to be baptised or follow Christian ways would be put to death! As with so many of these so called “great” figures of history, the accolade was awarded for the “end” result not the “means” by which it was achieved. Yes, Charlemagne created a great Christian Empire, uniting much of western Europe under his control, but one can also say that he was a ruthless murderer and ego-maniac. So how did he end up becoming an Emperor instead of a mere king and why was such a violent, bloodthirsty man feted by the head of the Christian Church? As is often the case, power and wealth won out against peace and love. Charlemagne used his military might to rescue Pope Leo III from a rebellion in Italy. Leo thanked him by crowning him  “Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans”  in Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica, on Christmas Day, 800 AD. This I believe, was the beginning of the “cult ” of Charlemagne. Not only was he a very powerful,  early medieval ruler but he was now being hailed as the natural successor to the  great Roman Emperors of the past. His achievements were being ranked alongside all the glories of the ancient Roman Empire. He was in effect, the first Holy Roman Emperor, a prestigious title for the honorary ruler of the numerous states of what we now call Germany. Subsequently 30 German kings or Holy Roman Emperors were crowned in Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen.

It has to be said though that Charlemagne’s glittering reputation rests on a lot more than his soldiering exploits and vast conquests. Ambassadors, scholars, legal experts, scribes and artists were encouraged to come to Aachen, his capital. Culture flourished under his rule such that this period has been dubbed the ” Caroligian Renaissance.” The arts and intellectual pursuits were encouraged. Roman and Ancient Greek knowledge was preserved and advanced. Significant detailed attention was applied to laws and precedents, so that a uniform legal system was established across much of Europe. This had not been seen since the days of the actual Roman Empire. Charlemagne introduced administrative reforms and standardised weights, measures and custom duties throughout his territories. All this created stability and encouraged commerce , which led to prosperity for many. So after all that slaughter, the peoples of western Europe eventually reaped the considerable benefits of Charlemagne’s enlightened rule. He encouraged eminent scholars to attend his court in Aachen and he established a library of Christian and classical works. He held a General Assembly  there every year. So although he was a dictator, Charlemagne did make some small steps towards democracy by consulting representatives of the people he ruled. His mission was to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom. So one could confidently claim that he was the founder of modern Germany. His Empire also laid the foundation for modern France as well. In recognition of this, his statue stands right outside the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Charlemagne was the source of inspiration for such leaders as Napoleon and Adolf Hitler who also had visions of ruling a united  Europe . In fact Emperor Charlemagne is referred to by some as the “Father of Europe.” Not surprisingly his achievements are heralded today by the European Union, an ambitious modern project to unite much of Europe in peaceful trade and co-existance. Not surprisingly, the 2 major players in the E.U. are France and Germany which were the 2 main parts of the Caroligian Empire all those centuries ago. It seems that throughout European history, everyone, good or bad has tried to get a piece of Charlemagne , to legitimise their own rule and to bask in his immense reflected glory. Charlemagne was not merely a king and emperor from the distant past. He is now a cult, a legend and a myth. He is a symbol of civilisation and European unity.  He is an icon of the Catholic church. However so many people have tried to hitch a ride on his coat-tails, distorting the truth to suit their own agendas, that it is now very difficult to untangle fact from fiction. To quote Winston again, you could say he is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Big C is also a massive tourist attraction of course even though he died and his great empire disintegrated more than a thousand years ago. Afterall, this was why my friend and I were visiting Aachen and not some more obviously picturesque location. Despite a great fire in the 17th century and 74 consecutive nights of British and American bombing in 1944, the crowning glory of Aachen remains Charlemagne’s magnificent cathedral, the Dom. After an orientation stroll and our first sampling of Aachen’s excellent coffee and irresistable cakes, we inevitably ended up at the entrance to the Dom. It’s not everyday that one can stand in front of a building that was established at the start of the 9th century. In Britain that would be the Anglo-Saxon era and few buildings have survived from that time. Charlemagne’s Palace-Chapel was completed in 800 AD. It is an unusual octogan shape, not the cross-shape we are used to seeing in cathedrals. The ancient, octagonal chapel is topped by a cupola. To our surprise, it is free to go in. 1 euro is requested to take photographs but there were no offertory boxes and no one seemed interested in collecting any money. A few laid- back security guards kept a casual eye on things. As we wondered in, our jaws dropped. This was one of the most extraordinary buildings we had been in. Sorry to be so corny!

The first things that hit you are the rich, dazzling mosaics. They adorn a sixteen sided arcaded walkway that surrounds the central octogan. Separating this walkway from the central worship area are a series of Arabic style archways in alternate dark and light blocks of stone. The whole area is adorned in shining marble. The original impact of the spectacular mosaics is only slightly reduced when you find out they were done as recently as the late 19th century and early 20th century in neo-Byzantine style. Inside the octogan, one’s view is drawn inexorably upwards. It is a spectacular 3 storey space. Above is a 2 tiered gallery with 8 arcades of classical columns originally brought from Ravenna and/or Rome in Italy. Some of these ancient columns were hacked off and carted to Paris by French revolutionary troops when they took possession of Aachen in the Napoleonic wars. Not all of them have been subsequently returned so some of the ones seen today are replicas. Up above in the cupola is an enormous fresco ( or mosaic) representing heaven. The original mosaics were cracked and badly damaged by the installation of a colossal  12th century brass chandalier hanging from a powerful iron chain donated by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He too wanted to verify his rule and gain prestige by connecting himself with Charlemagne. The great chandalier hovers dramatically above the worship area. It is so huge that it had to have been constructed inside the Dom. It is a place to sit down in silence and simply be awed. All around us tourist cameras were clicking away as if there was no tomorrow, but although we had taken some pictures ourselves, it seemed to be a time to sit in quiet contemplation.

Subsequent kings and emperors added their chapels , artefacts and expensive adornments. There is a gold-plated altar and a jewel encrusted pulpit. The most wonderful addition in my opinion, is a 14th century Gothic chapel based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It has huge, spectacular, glowing, stained glass windows. The original medieval windows were blown out  by the wartime Allied bombs but excellent replicas were quickly made and installed between 1949 and 51. From this magical chapel comes Aachen’s French name :Aix- la- Chapelle. The wondrous chapel was built in 1355 to help accomodate the tens of thousands pilgrims who were flocking to Aachen. They were coming to see Charlemagne’s gilded shrine, finished in 1215 . By then many regarded him as a saint although he has never officially recognised by the Catholic Church. The pilgrims also came to view 4 important Christian relics which had been brought to Aachen and kept in the golden Shrine of Mary, also in the chapel. They are: the apparel of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of the baby Jesus, and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. These are put on view every 7 years, and if you want to go and join the pilgrim throngs, the next viewing is in June 2021. It seems strange to me that objects like this still have such a powerful hold over  religious people today. Fancy coming all that way to see an ancient nappy and a bloody rag? Surely such blind faith and deep superstition belong back in the middle ages before the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century? But who am I to argue with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims?

Charlemagne originally wanted to transform Aachen into a new Rome. It had previously been a Roman town but on the northern edge of their Empire. The Romans were attracted there by a series of hot springs which they tamed and turned into a luxurious bath complex. They did the same in Bath, England. The word “Aachen” simply means “water.” There is still a thermal spa complex in Aachen but we didn’t go in because it looked expensive, and anyway, we had forgotten out trunks.

It was an interesting and very enjoyable holiday. Aachen lies on the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, so it a great place for trips on the excellent rail network. We went to Cologne in Germany and Maastricht in the Netherlands as well as passing the Belgium cities of Brussels and Liege on our rail journey from England using the Eurostar. It was a great trip around a fascinating part of the European Union, the organisation that the United Kingdom has now voted to leave. Obviously the “leave” voters in the UK are that rare breed — people who don’t know or don’t care about Emperor/Saint Charlemagne’s legacy. Many others through the centuries have been desperate to be part of it such that he has reached mythical, superstar status. For me, I am really pleased that I have at last  visited Aachen/Aix-La-Chapelle to unwrap the enigma and understand a bit more of my continent’s rich history and culture. Never again will I say “Who’s Charlemagne?” He meant many things to many people. Like Heinekin, he reached the parts that other emperors couldn’t reach!