The Realm of a Thousand Islands

The Netherlands’ capacity for surprise never ceases to amaze. For a small country, it has a fascinating history … and a lot of it. I’d read about the extraordinary history of the area north of Alkmaar, known as the Realm of a Thousand Islands, but it has taken me three years to get around to visiting the region, and the lovely Broeker Veiling Museum in the tiny village of Broek op Langedijk.

The Broeker Veiling Museum tells the story of the region and its people. The first thing I learned was that the Realm of a Thousand Islands should really be called the Realm of Fifteen Thousand Islands. That is the remarkable number of patches of land, known as polders, that were reclaimed from the marshland by digging canals and building dikes. The sludge from the canals was used to create raised areas of dry land.

Windmills near Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Windmills near Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

The soil proved extremely fertile and, despite the hardships of farming in such difficult terrain, this soon became one of the Netherlands’ most productive agricultural areas. Here, amongst the tiny plots of land, incredible numbers of cabbages, onions, carrots and potatoes were grown. In a single year, it produced around seven million cabbages, red and white. Unsurprisingly, the area became famous for its sauerkraut production – and the smell of rotting cabbage leaves in the canals was overwhelming.

All those vegetables had to be sold to someone. Until the late 19th century, farmers sold directly to traders on the canals. In 1887 though, the world’s first sail-through vegetable market and auction opened in Broek op Langedijk. Originally open air, eventually a market building was constructed over open water. Boats sailed in, buyers would check the goods, and then the boats would go into the auction house for a Dutch Auction – where the price starts high and gets lower until someone bids.

The area was particularly famous for its potatoes, which thanks to a microclimate grew quicker than elsewhere. The harvest of the first potatoes, the Langedijker Eersteling, was announced on the radio and was celebrated around the country. The farmer who harvested the first potatoes was rewarded with cigars and his name in the local paper. Make no doubt about it though, farming here was very hard work.

The area got the nickname of the Realm of Hard Work for good reason. Farmers not only had to travel by boat between their plots of land, which were often long distances from each other, but virtually all the farming had to be done by hand. The plots were too small for mechanisation, and the tough labour in the fields was added to by the fact that the canals had to be regularly dredged (by hand) to stop the area becoming marsh again.

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

I started my visit with a tour of the museum and a walk around the gardens, followed by visiting the indoor floating market. Inside were boats, some with ‘produce’ in them. It’s a big space and as you walk around there are recordings telling you the history of the market. The market connects by water to the auction house, where once a day there’s an auction of local vegetables to tourists – it’s fun, even if understanding the Dutch commentary is challenging.

After you’ve visited everything a boat ride takes you on a trip through what remains of the Realm of a Thousand Islands. It’s a fascinating ancient man-made landscape. As the area became uncompetitive in the 20th century, most of the original plots were lost to other development. The small area that remains is cultivated by hobby farmers who are growing traditional and non-traditional crops. The produce is still sold, but these days it has to be organic.

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Cycling on water, crossing the Houtribdijk

It’s not every day that you get to cycle across one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – even if it’s only one of the Seven Wonders according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That though is what I found myself doing as I cycled along the Houtribdijk, a 30km-long dike that connects the new Dutch town of Lelystad to the ancient Dutch town of Enkhuizen just to the north of Amsterdam.

The Houtribdijk forms part of the immense Zuiderzee Works, a series of dams, dikes, locks and sluices begun in 1932 with the construction of the Afsluitdijk. Intended to protect the Netherlands from floods that periodically devastated the country, the Afsluitdijk transformed the Zuiderzee from a large saltwater inlet of the North Sea into a freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer. It also began a large-scale land reclamation programme that added an extra 1,650km2 of dry land to the Netherlands.

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The city of Lelystad, my start point, was built in the 1960s on land reclaimed from the water. Today it’s home to 75,000 people, and sits about 3 metres below sea level. It would be fair to say that Lelystad’s very existence depends on the Afsluitdijk keeping out the waters of the North Sea. The Houtribdijk was built at the same time as the city. When it opened in 1975 it sliced the IJsselmeer in two, creating a new lake to the south, the Markermeer.

The original plan had been to drain the Markermeer and reclaim another 700km2 of new land. That was derailed by growing financial and environmental concerns in the 1980s, so the Markermeer remained a lake and has become a vital recreational area and wetland habitat. As you cycle along this enormous hydraulic engineering project, the vast expanse of grey-blue water seems to stretch forever, merging seamlessly with the horizon.

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah's Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah’s Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

I cycled from Lelystad’s train station to the shore of the Markermeer where fishing boats and pleasure boats mingle along the shoreline. Improbably, in the harbour was a 70m long ‘replica’ of Noah’s Ark – I’m not sure how you can have a replica of something no one has ever seen. The Ark is billed as the first floating biblical theme park. It’s spent the last five years touring Europe, but is now back in the Netherlands.

Leaving that absurdity behind, I passed an actual replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship, the De 7 Provincien. In the background was the magnificent Anthony Gormley sculpture, Exposure, of a crouching man looking out over the water next to the Houtribdijk. I was soon on top of the lock system that allows boats to transfer between the two halves of the lake, and I could see the dike snaking into the distance.

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

The cycle lane starts alongside the N302 main road, but soon drops down below the road so that you’re cycling alongside the water, and the 8,500 vehicles that pass along the dike each day are several metres above you. It’s quite strange, but very peaceful as you can’t see or really hear the traffic. Boats pass by as you cycle along, and after a couple of bends in the road the route becomes arrow straight.

I reached Trintelhaven, an ‘island’ in the middle of the dike with a small harbour, car park and restaurant. It also has a small beach. Carrying straight on I finally popped back up onto the top of the dike and I could see my destination, the beautiful medieval town of Enkhuizen. I didn’t have long in Enkhuisen before jumping on a train towards the equally attractive town of Hoorn.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Exploring the Isle of Arran

The Isle of Arran is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’. This is thanks to the fact that the island seems to mirror the geographic division between the Lowlands and Highlands of mainland Scotland. Arran’s north is rugged and mountainous with a harsher climate; the south softer, more temperate and hospitable. No surprise then that the majority of Arran’s 4,600 inhabitants live in the southern half of the island.

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

We woke early in the village of Kildonan and went for a reviving stroll along the beach. The early morning light illuminated the beautiful views over the Firth of Clyde to two small islands off the coast, Pladda and Ailsa Craig. We spotted a couple of seals in the shallows, and there was a lot of birdlife. After a leisurely breakfast we took to the road again and slowly made our way towards Brodick.

Although not Arran’s largest village, and certainly not its most attractive, Brodick seems to be the island’s de facto capital. It has the ferry terminal that connects to the mainland, has the island’s only tourist information office and is home to the beautiful Brodick Castle. Impressive credentials but, much more importantly, Brodick has a fish and chip shop – the true mark of a capital ‘city’.

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

We found a B&B and went for a walk around the wide arc of Brodick Bay to visit the castle. The blue waters and sandy beach are impressively framed by the mountains of the interior – most notably Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak at 874m (2868ft). Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, Brodick Castle was the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, the most senior peerage in Scotland after the Dukedom of Rothesay – which is owned by Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son.

The current building dates from 1844, but there has been a castle on this strategically important spot since the early 13th century. The castle is currently being refurbished, earmarked to reopen in 2018, but the gardens are worth a visit in their own right. We had a wander around and then made our way back along the coast to the village. On a whim we decided to drive the route across the centre of the island, on a road known as The String which offers beautiful views.

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

The next day we dragged ourselves out of bed early for breakfast and the ferry linking Brodick with Ardrossan Harbour on the mainland. The weather can change in the blink of an eye in this part of the world, and the contrast between the sun and blue skies we’d been enjoying for the last few days couldn’t have been more stark. As we set off past ships moored in the harbour, it was raining hard. The world seemed drained of of light and colour.

Finally, true Scottish weather…

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Arriving in Ardrossan Harbour, Scotland

Arriving in Ardrossan Harbour, Scotland

Into the Firth of Clyde, the Isle of Arran

The view of the Isle of Arran from the tiny ferry terminal at Claonaig on the Kintyre Peninsula is nothing short of spectacular. Jagged layers of green-purple mountains dominate the north of the island, seemingly rearing straight up out of the Firth of Clyde. Looking east across the sparkling waters offers a dramatic perspective on the wild beauty of Arran’s landscapes.

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

From Claonaig it’s a thirty-minute ferry journey across to Lochranza on the northern coast of Arran, and we sat on a small white sand beach and watched the ferry make its way across the water towards us. As you approach, the bay at Lochranza opens up to reveal a small village, and a ruined but picturesque castle nestling underneath a ring of hulking mountains. It’s one of the iconic sights of Arran and a great introduction to the island.

Lochranza Castle dates from the 13th century and has many famous associations. It’s claimed that this is where Robert the Bruce landed when he returned from exile in Ireland to seize the Scottish throne in 1307. A few years later he would reestablish an independent Scottish kingdom and the castle would become a royal hunting lodge. More contentiously, the castle is said to be the inspiration for the castle in the TinTin adventure, The Black Island.

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Sitting on a spit of land on the edge of the water, it’s certainly a location worthy of such associations. We had a walk around the village but didn’t have time to take a tour and do a tasting at the Isle of Arran Distillery. We jumped back in the car and headed south on the coast road towards the one place I was desperate to see: Machrie Moor. This stretch of moorland is home to numerous prehistoric sites, including several stone circles and towering standing stones.

Human history on Arran dates back 8,000 years, and the standing stones and stone circles on Machrie Moor are around 4,000 – 5,000 years old. The moor is also home to burial cairns, which haven’t yet been excavated, and the remains of circular huts. The density of all these sites alone makes the moor one of Scotland’s most important prehistoric sites; the incredible landscapes in which they are set only adds to the sense of awe for modern-day visitors.

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

We wandered down a track through scenic countryside making discovery after discovery as we went. We found small stone circles, but off in the distance were much larger standing stones. This was clearly a site of great importance for the Neolithic peoples who inhabited the area. The moor is easily accessed from the main road, requiring only a twenty minute walk. Amazingly, we had the entire place to ourselves.

We made our way back to the car park and headed towards the most southerly point of Arran. There were incredible views of the coast and ocean as we passed through pretty hamlets. Eventually we stopped in Kildonan where we decided to spend the night. We watched the sun set over the water, with the distinctive islands of Pladda and Ailsa Craig acting as a backdrop. The quality of the evening light was extraordinary.

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

The wild and remote Isle of Gigha

Even at its peak in the early 19th century, the wild and windswept Isle of Gigha off the West Coast of Scotland supported a community of less than six hundred people. Today, some two centuries later, the population of this Inner Hebridian island has shrunk to around one hundred and sixty people. That’s an improvement from the early 21st century when the population dipped below one hundred, and the island’s future seemed to be in the balance.

Ferry to Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Ferry to Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

The scattering of buildings that make up its main population centre, Ardminish, barely qualify as a village. Although it does have a hotel and pub. The rest of the inhabitants live scattered around the island in remote houses and farms. Although modernity has long arrived on the island, the sense of isolation and remoteness is overwhelming. The journey on the small Calmac ferry that connects the island with the mainland gives you a real sense of adventure.

Reaching Gigha involved a long drive from Glasgow, along the shores of Loch Lomond and down onto the Kintyre peninsular – made famous by Paul McCartney’s song ‘Mull of Kintyre’. We had time to admire the views across to Gigha before boarding the ferry. The dramatic-looking Paps of Jura loomed in the distance. The word ‘paps’ comes from the old Norse word meaning ‘breast’ and is, therefore, hilarious to British people. The breast-shaped hills dominate the skyline to the west.

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

If Gigha’s landscapes, golden beaches and surprisingly blue waters weren’t dramatic enough, its rollercoaster history is just as remarkable. Gigha is community owned these days. Its residents formed the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust to buy it from the previous owner in 2002. Like many Scottish islands, and vast swaths of the Highlands, Gigha has been inherited, bought and sold by wealthy landowners for centuries. The islanders had to pay £4 million for their independence.

It’s only a small island, 9.5 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide, but Gigha has seen more than its fair share of history. Largely thanks to its location on a vital sea route, human history can be traced back over 5,000 years. It goes back so far that its origins are shrouded in myth, neolithic standing stones only add to the mystery. In the 6th and 7th centuries, it was part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata that covered parts of Scotland and Ireland, from which the Kings of Scotland claimed legitimacy well into the 18th century.

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Carragh an Tarbert standing stone, Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Carragh an Tarbert standing stone, Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

There is little recorded history until a few centuries later. One of the earliest records came in 1263 when the Norwegian King, Haakon, anchored his fleet here in an attempt to reassert control over his Scottish possessions. Scotland had been under Norwegian tutelage since the 11th century, but that ended in 1263 when the Scots defeated the Norse army at the Battle of Largs.

Between then and the purchase of the island by its inhabitants, came eight hundred years of turbulent and frequently violent history. Gigha was buffeted by the rival claims of different Scottish clans and the dizzying array of clan alliances that consumed Scotland in the medieval period and through to the Jacobite Rising of 1745. MacNeills, MacDonalds, Maclains, MacLeods, MacKinnons and MacQuarries all vied for control of the island.

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

We only had a short time on the island, to attend a wedding at the 19th century Achamore House. Famed for botanical gardens that thrive in the island’s mild micro-climate, the grounds of the house offer panoramic views west to the islands of Islay and Jura. In truth, had I not gone for the wedding, Gigha would still be shrouded in mystery. I’d heard of its bigger, whisky producing neighbours, but I’d never heard of Gigha before.

It was an eye-opening trip, one that has made me want to further explore the Hebrides, Inner and Outer – although I doubt the weather will be as accommodating as it was when we were on Gigha.

The Vale of Nightshade, Furness Abbey

Tucked away on the Furness Penninsular in West Cumbria, the crumbling glory of Furness Abbey’s red sandstone is a glorious sight. It sits in beautiful countryside, known as the Vale of Nightshade, and despite its proximity to the towns of Barrow-in-Furness and Ulverston, it was as quiet and peaceful as I imagine it to have been in medieval times. It’s pretty easy to conjure up images of robed monks walking these grounds.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey was founded in 1123 by a group of French nobles, including Stephen, Count of Boulogne, who would go on to become King of England in 1135. By the time Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, Furness Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Cistercian monasteries in the Kingdom, second only to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

The Abbey owned vast tracts of land across northern England, Ireland and the Isle of Man. They owned mining rights, fishing rights, built castles, ran farms and dominated trade in the region. They even built their own ships, on which they exported wool from their farms and iron from their mines. It was an enormous ecclesiastic money making machine, with a monopoly on industry, agriculture and trade. No wonder Henry VIII wanted to get his hands on it.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Crook from an Abbot's crozier, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Crook from an Abbot’s crozier, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Much of what you see today dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, and even in it’s current state it doesn’t take much to see that this was a powerhouse of a place. Its graceful decline and picturesque location have proven to be inspiration for writers and artists. Turner made many sketches of the abbey and Wordsworth wrote a moving stanza in his great masterpiece, The Prelude:

Of that large Abbey which within the vale
Of Nightshade, to St. Mary’s honour built,
Stands yet, a mouldering Pile, with fractured Arch,
Belfry, and Images, and living Trees,
A holy Scene!

The really helpful and informative woman who sold me a ticket gave me a quick update on the conservation of the building – a necessary conversation as scaffolding is supporting one of the tallest parts of the building. The story of why was fascinating. Several years ago, English Heritage investigated the leaning walls of the main tower, what they found was both a major problem and a major archaeological discovery.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Tomb, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Tomb, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

The monks’ 900 year-old ingenuity was the problem. They had built this enormous structure on marshy land. Their solution was to lay strong oak foundations upon which the abbey stood. Providing that the wood remained completely submerged in water, it wouldn’t rot and weaken. Then they diverted a stream for their own use, which can still be seen today, and by doing so they exposed the wooden foundations to the air.

This weakened the foundations and the ruined Abbey began sinking into the soft ground. Major engineering works were needed to prevent collapse. The upside of this was that during excavations to assess the extent of the damage they discovered the grave of an Abbot. Undisturbed since the Middle Ages, he was found together with his personal possessions, a hoard of medieval treasures including a silver Crozier and monks ring.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Mason's mark, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Mason’s mark, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

They also found the remains of the monk inside, it turns out Abbey life was pretty easy if you were in a position of power. The good life can have serious consequences though, the monk was described as a well-fed, little exercised man in his 40s who suffered from arthritis and type 2 diabetes. I doubt this is the same monk who is said to appear as a headless ghost riding a horse through one of the arches in the abbey.

Neolithic adventures, Birkrigg Stone Circle

On a whim, I left Swinside Stone Circle behind and headed to the other side of the Duddon Estuary to unearth a second stone circle, Birkrigg. Found near the village of Bardsea on the Furness Penninsular, it’s smaller than Swinside but Birkrigg still has a dramatic location on a fell overlooking Morecambe Bay. Thanks to the stone circles, it’s easy to imagine the connectedness of the communities that lived here around 5000 years ago.

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

In fact, it was probably much easier to locate the stone circles 5000 years ago. Today, local authorities don’t make it easy to find these Neolithic monuments. There are no signs from the road and no arrows to point you in the right direction once you arrive in the general area. Were it not for a chance encounter with a local dog walker, I would probably still be wandering around the fells looking for it.

Birkrigg was originally much more impressive. It once had a concentric, double ring of stones with a ditch in between. This is quite rare in Britain, Stonehenge being the most famous example, and may mean Birkrigg had some special status. The outer ring had up to 20 stones, which have been scattered over time; the inner ring has between 10 and 12 stones depending upon who’s counting. You’d think this was an easy riddle to solve, but it’s more difficult than anticipated.

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

There is a superstition, attached to many stone circles, that it is impossible to count the number of stones. Every time someone tries they reach a different number. I’ve been to Birkrigg, have photos of the circle, and still can’t make my mind up if it’s 10, 11 or 12 stones. I’m pretty sure this isn’t Neolithic magic but, since we have little knowledge of the people who built stone circles, anything might be possible.

This area seems to have been highly populated in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and although I didn’t see any, Birkrigg Common has several burial mounds from the period. Excavations in the centre of the stone circle in the 1910s unearthed human remains. Five people were buried there, all cremations, ashes from one was found in an urn that is now in Carlisle Museum.

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

After I’d wandered around the stones for a while, I went for a walk across the fell. I’ve never been to this area before and it’s a beautiful place, with tremendous views over the estuary and towards Ulverston. I eventually found my way back to the car and drove down to the coast. The tide was out so I decided to take a stroll on the sands. The vast panoramas from the sandbanks were spectacular.

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Back to the Bronze Age, Swinside Stone Circle

Cumbria is a surprising place. Well known for the natural beauty of the Lake District, and its association with Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, there is a wealth of history and culture just waiting to be discovered beyond the obvious. The region might be a bit of a backwater these days, but in the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages, around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, this was the centre of a thriving civilisation connected by trade to the rest of Europe.

Proof of this lies in the fact that Cumbria is home to an incredible number of stone circles. They may not be as well-known as Stonehenge or Avebury, but what they lack in size and grandeur they make up for in number and location. Little is known about the extraordinary structures that are dotted dramatically around the Cumbrian mountains, but they are the key to understanding the culture that flourished here millennia ago.

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

During the Neolithic era the central Lake District was the centre of a European-wide industry making stone tools. There were several axe ‘factories’, most famously in the quarries of Great Langdale and Scafell Pike, which made polished stone axes and other tools from green volcanic rock. They were prized items traded across the British Isles. For the time, the scale of the industry was huge, so much so that the quarries are easily identifiable today.

The same people who made stone axes in the Langdales, built Cumbria’s stone circles. If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, it’s well worth the effort to track down the site of these ancient monuments. I’d spent the morning in Millom, and Swinside Stone Circle is only a few miles from the town. I visited here in early 2015 on a cold winter’s day, and decided it was worth another visit on a bright sunny day.

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Known locally as Sunkenkirk – the Devil is said to have pulled down stones of a church that was being built – Swinside is one of the most important Neolithic monuments in Cumbria. It consists of 55 stones set in a near perfect circle, and sits on a flat, man-made area on the eastern flank of Black Combe. You can see the appeal of the site, there are spectacular views over the Cumbrian mountains, and access to the Irish Sea at nearby Duddon Estuary.

Although it’s slightly more accessible than many Cumbrian stone circles, Swinside’s position in the west of the county places it well off the tourist trail. On my previous visit I had the place entirely to myself and, apart from a couple of ponies and a lot of sheep, so it proved today. There’s a majesty to standing in this ancient place, admiring the views with only the sound of the wind and an occasional sheep bleating.

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Estuary near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Estuary near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

I spent a some time drinking in the views, and imagining the rituals that may have been performed here during the summer and winter solstices, before walking the couple of miles back along the track to where I’d abandoned the car. I’d not seen it on the way here but, as I reached a point where the track went downhill, the Duddon Estuary was shimmering in the sunlight before me. Truly beautiful.

A place of despair? Misunderstood Millom

I have to be careful what I say about Millom, after all I was there to visit a good friend who grew up in the town. I think the kindest thing I can say about this West Cumbrian outpost, is that it is blessed by extraordinary natural surroundings. To the north are the hulking mountains of Black Combe and White Combe; to the east lies the picturesque Duddon Valley and the otherworldly Duddon Sands; and to the south lies the beautiful Hodbarrow Nature Reserve. Everything west is Irish Sea.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

The town wears the suffering of a long and not very graceful post industrial decline like a shroud, something underlined by my visit to the tourist information office. On my map the tourist office was in the library, but had recently relocated to the train station. The station is the sort of place that would make you question whether you’d made a mistake by getting off the train.

The tourist office consisted of racks of leaflets, none of which were about Millom. A friendly woman came over and asked if she could help. “I’m just wondering what there is to do in Millom,” I said. It quickly became clear that this is not a question people ask very often. She half-heartedly looked at the racks of leaflets, in her heart knowing that there wasn’t any point. To break the tension, I picked up a few leaflets about other places and politely made my exit.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

I walked back through the town and bought a delicious homemade steak pie (they do a good pie in these parts). I stopped to read a dilapidated board advertising day trips to my home town of Kendal. When Kendal seems like a good idea for a day trip, things must be bad. I was beginning to think a former Mayor of Copeland had hit the nail on the head when he described Millom as “a place of despair”.

I don’t want to be unfair though, so let’s just say that it’s not a place that lends itself to conventional tourism. Millom has an interesting history, built on deposits of high grade iron ore, and the Hodbarrow Nature Reserve is a truly wonderful place. I know this because I’d just spent a few hours walking around it and the Duddon Sands. It’s this area that explains why Millom exists at all.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

In 1855 large deposits of iron ore were discovered around Hodbarrow. In a very short period of time, what had been a few small hamlets and farms was an industrial boom town of 10,000 people. At its peak, this was one of the largest iron ore workings in Europe. All the more remarkable then that almost no trace of that history exists today, except for some structures around the nature reserve.

I walked around the reserve, now an important haven for bird life, and marvelled at its beauty. Millom was framed by Black Combe and to the east were the majestic hills of the Lake District National Park. The view from Duddon Sands was even more dramatic, and, as I walked out as far as I could without ending up in the water, the view just kept expanding. It was magnificent, and the whole area was illuminated by wild flowers.

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

The strange thing about Millom, is that they make almost nothing of the fact that one of Britain’s finest 20th century poets spent his entire life here. Norman Nicholson was a literary giant to rival W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes, although he’s not nearly as well known. Nicholson took his inspiration from the people of this area, he narrated the industrial decline of West Cumbria, and he wrote of the landscape in a way that is the polar opposite of that other Lakeland poet, Wordsworth.

On the way out of town I stopped at the 12th century church of Holy Trinity, which sits next to the ruins of Millom Castle. This was a reminder of a different, earlier history. There may not be many reasons to visit Millom, but spectacular views over the Duddon Estuary, Norman Nicholson’s ghost, a 12th century church, and a glorious nature reserve, all stake a pretty strong claim for half a day of anyone’s time.

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

A walk through the Vale of Grasmere to Rydal Water

The Vale of Grasmere and nearby Rydal Water are two of the most picturesque places in the Lake District, itself famous for its picturesque landscapes. Grasmere, though, is more than just beautiful views to me. It’s a place I lived and worked for two years, a place I grew to love. I’ve walked the fells around here countless times, swum in the lakes and tarns, hiked to neighbouring valleys to go to the pub, and watched sunsets and sunrises from the mountain tops.

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

It’s a special place, and somewhere to which I was happy to return. The day after cycling the Fred Whitton Challenge though, I was less happy to climb any mountains. I opted instead for a gentle walk around the two lakes, a route I’ve covered more times than I can remember. I grudgingly have to agree with Wordsworth, who proclaimed Grasmere “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.” At least if you can visit outside of the tourist season.

I’d forgotten about the bluebells that carpet the lakeside and woodlands at this time of year; how the rich greens of the hills merge with the browns of the dying bracken; and how the sun illuminates distant hilltops like a spotlight as the clouds move across the sky. I’d also forgotten just how invigorating it is to walk in such magnificent countryside without a care in the world.

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Wordsworth, of course, took inspiration walking these very same paths. He lived his younger, most artistically creative years in the hamlet of Town End on the edge of Grasmere; and he spent his less productive, but more famous later years, at the much grander Rydal Mount at the southern end of Rydal Water, by which time he was Poet Laureate. His friends and fellow poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, frequently spent time here as well.

I walked from Grasmere village along Grasmere up onto the ridge overlooking Rydal Water. This was always one of my favourite spots. The views are achingly beautiful and, nestling underneath the hulking mass of Nab Scar and Heron Pike, the whitewashed Nab Cottage, former home of Coleridge’s eldest son Hartley, glowed in the sunlight. I stood here for some time drinking in the views.

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, CumbriaRydal Water, Lake District National Park, CumbriaRydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Slate quarry, Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Slate quarry, Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Nab Cottage was also home to Thomas De Quincey, another member of the strange literary group centred on Wordsworth that descended upon this remote part of England. De Quincey is best known for his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which relates his laudanum addiction. Laudanum, a sugary opium drink,  was regularly used as a medicine. Even Wordsworth took laudanum.

I couldn’t pass by Rydal Caves without having a look inside, for Old Time’s sake. These are man made from the time when this area was quarried for slate. You can still see the workings scattered across the landscape nearby. The bizarre thing about the caves is that there are tiny fish living in the water. The cave is some distance from the lake, begging the question, “How did they get there?”

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Dropping down to Rydal Water, I walked along the shoreline until I came to a small woodland that brought me to the River Rothay. The Rothay flows through Grasmere village, and connects Grasmere and Rydal Water. I finally made my way along the shore of Grasmere under a hot sun. Back in the village I reckoned I’d earned a lazy lunch.