Out Now!

Friday, 25 August 2017

A moment of madness

I was at a family gathering some months ago and was introduced to madness by one of my cousins. He was a coin enthusiast and I’d probably had a little too much to drink, so I listened to him and found madness infectious. There are apparently more than a few coins worth far more than their face value. My face lit up illuminating the table like a . . . table lamp. 

He listed a whole bushel of coins all apparently from memory, and I had to ask him to slow down as I made laborious notes. There is for example: an Olympic 50p worth £3,000, a ‘dateless’ 20p coin worth £100, a 1983 ‘New Pence’ coin worth 650, a Guy Fawkes £2 coin worth hundreds, a EEC Comeneration 50p worth £20 –disappointing but more valuable than Brussels. Not as disappointing as a 2008 50p that has the Royal Arms as a design and worth a mere £5.99 to a collector. The list went on and on and I left convinced I was about to make my fortune the easy way.

Well, the looks I got as I held up queues up and down the country—Monmouth at least, sometimes Newport—fumbling for change and scrutinising every coin in every transaction. Trouble is, I’m not only obsessional, I’m also shortsighted and have a bad head for figures, so every time, I had to drag out my little list and compare every coin. Was that hatred behind me? Surely not. Mild irritation perhaps.

At last the penny dropped (not a valuable one) and with it came the realisation I’d gone mad without really noticing. I’m convinced now that coin spotting is a gateway to other, more sinister activities like Scientology, and that every coin should come with a health warning. 

I gave it up through sheer strength of will, but there should be support groups out there, along with warnings to beware of pushers like my cousin. In the words of comic and sage, Ken Cheng, ‘I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.’

Friday, 18 August 2017

Whitby is better than a sneeze.

Whitby Abbey is always worth a visit. Dracula thought so, and who are we too argue. The only real drawback is the 199 steps you have to climb to get there. In my view, if the Vikings had the puff to ransack the Abbey after all that climbing, well good luck to them. Good luck to them too for renaming the place, giving it a more sensible name. Whitby. The original inhabitants, the Brigantes had called it Sinus Fari, which brings to mind some kind of nose disease. The Saxons were even worse, calling it Streonshalh, which is fine if they were naming it after a vigorous sneeze. No, Whitby – Norse for White Settlement is a far superior name, though now it might be seen as politically incorrect.

The Abbey was founded in 657 by Oswy, the King of Northumbria and was shared by Monks and Nuns following the Celtic tradition. In fact, its first ruler and driving force was a woman – St Hilda.
In 664 AD we had the Synod of Whitby – which is a bit of a misnomer for the Vikings hadn’t yet come to rename the place. But thinking on it, the Synod of Streonshalh just doesn’t cut it. The Synod of Whitby made a fateful decision in terms of which ‘Church’ the North should follow – the loosely organised but spiritual Celtic Church, or the prestigious bureaucracy of Rome. They chose the latter and three years later the Vikings came and sacked the place.
I think not.

The Abbey recovered in time, flowered in the High Middle Ages and was all but destroyed by Henry VIII. It’s final indignity occurred in 1914 when the Germans fleet shelled Whitby and inadvertently or otherwise damaged much of the West Front.

To be honest, I found it hard to stop taking pictures. The damned place is so photogenic, but anyway, here goes.

An Abbey and a UFO. What more do you want?

Apart from the fact it is in ruins, very much as the medieval traveller would have seen it.

At sunset or sunrise the large stained glass windows would have flooded the interior with colour. 

St Mary’s, the church close by is in far finer condition, and though dating from the C11th was comprehensively besmirched late C18 Low Anglicans. It just gave me the creeps, all those boxed pews - pens for sheep – and the three storied pulpit dominating those below, and from which the word of God was preached. I found it oppressive and claustrophobic.

The day ended with a meal of fish and chips on the quayside. No pictures of this, we were too busy fending off predatory gulls. Quite honestly, Dracula would have been better served by gulls than bats. They strutted about in small predatory gangs, sensing the old and infirm and making sudden swoops on the unguarded chip or fragment of fish. Hitchcock had been to Whitby, I thought, and likely had lost a chip or two.

Friday, 11 August 2017

A ghost story

Easby Abbey and the church of St Agatha

Richmond is famous for its legend of the ‘little drummer boy.’ So famous that I’d never heard of it before going there and inadvertently following his trail. 

The story is both simple and tragic. In the late C18th soldiers garrisoned there discovered a hole in the ground near the castle and what looked like a tunnel. Being too large to squeeze into the hole they dragooned their drummer boy who was sufficiently small and thin to squeeze through. They passed his drum down and told him to explore, banging his drum as he went. 

They followed the sound of the drum out of Richmond through Frenchgate and along the River Swale. Just half a mile from Easby Abbey, the drumming stopped and the boy was never seen again—just the sound of his drumming on cold winter nights. The short six-minute video is worth watching. 

The photos we took along the walk are quite good too, especially those of the Abbey and its adjacent church of St Agatha with its incredible medieval frescos.

One passing thought. It was believed that the tunnel was an escape route for the monks of Easby Abbey from marauding Scots. One presumes they were pygmies to squeeze through a hole barely big enough for a drummer boy, either that or there’s another entrance lost or bricked up. I have no intention of finding out in case I come across these two and hear the ghostly strains  . . . 

The path followed the river Swale

Lichen and rock on the path. For those who grew up with Rupert Bear it looks exactly the kind of place you'd expect an elf or a pixie to pop out, so I waited, camera poised until my wife told me was being silly. Who am I to argue?

The path of the drummer boy roughly followed the river Swale.

And he nearly reached the Abbey, but not quite. A landslide, or something more mysterious, we don't know.

Easby has a long history. It is said that St Paulinus baptised Saxons in the River Swale in 672 AD and that a Church was built on the present site as early as 700 AD

It really is a beautiful spot. Below is the Church of St Agatha.

And its Frescos that aren't really frescos

They were executed using the secco (dry technique) whereby the colours were added on to dry plaster. A Fresco used the 'wet' technique whereby the colour was added on to fresh wet plaster which worked in dry climates but rarely used in Northern Europe. These paintings predate the Florentine, Giotto (1287 - 1337) and the Sienese master, Ducchio (179 - 1317) So there!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Richmond Castle

This was taken from a bridge over the river Swale that skirts the castle

We recently spent a wonderful five days in a cottage that fronted on Easby Abbey and a mere twenty five minutes walk from Richmond. A mere twenty five minutes walk. If that was all. The castle was built on a sizeable hill, virtually everywhere we went was on a bloody big hill —Whitby Abbey with its 199 steps—and only good food and whisky sustained me.

 Richmond Castle was built in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and likely founded in the 1070’s by Count Alan Rufus, ‘The Red.’ He was a kinsman of William the Conqueror, commanding the Breton contingent of the Norman army at the battle of Hastings. In exchange, William granted him lands in the North and estates in the south, which is why today we have a Richmond on Thames.

Protected by high cliffs and skirted by the River Swale, the site cried out for a castle, and the result would dominate the surrounding countryside, Saxon malcontents and the small town built around it. The Earliest masonry built by Count Alan includes long stretches of the stone curtain wall, the great archway in the ground floor of the keep, and Scolland’s Hall. In fact, no other English castle has so much surviving C11th architecture.

I told myself how blessed I was as I trudged up steep spiral staircases to the top of the keep. His grandson, Conan (1135071) successfully combined Brittany with Richmond and vast English holdings. It was in the C12th that the castle as we know it today was built. Now it is a most imposing ruin where red Valerian holds sway. 
Richmond as seen from a castle window
Richmond square as seen from the castle window

Richmond square at ground level
The Keep built by Conan. The arch and the ground level stone work is C11th built by Count Alan.
Interior of keep at ground level
Conan's grand hall some way up the keep
The top of the Keep at last!
Red Valerian from a distance
Red Valerian from me balancing precariously on a stone. Just as well it's not armed.