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.

Will it hurt? Yes … The Fred Whitton Challenge

It was still dark when my alarm went off. I looked pensively out of the window. It was windy, but it wasn’t raining. It was going to be a good day for cycling. After a quick shower, the kettle went on and I ate my first (but by no means last) banana of the day. I filled water bottles, checked clothing, tyre pressure, helmet, energy bars, spare inner tubes, brakes, tyre pressure (for luck). Finally, it was almost 6am, time to head to the start.

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Some 8 hours and 27 minutes later, exhausted but ecstatic, I crossed the finish line of the Fred Whitton Challenge. Along with two thousand other people of questionable sanity, I’d cycled 180 km (112 miles) on a loop around the English Lake District. A route that takes in nearly 4,000 metres of ascent and crosses all the major Lakeland passes. It’s a roll call of pain: Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott, Wrynose.

The day started with an ascent of Kirkstone Pass. We were cycling into a strong wind, but this is one of the easier climbs on ‘The Fred’. Like most of the highest points on the route, there were people cheering, ringing cow bells and banging drums. The support was amazing, and cow bells are remarkably motivating. We wound our way along the shores of Ullswater, all thoughts of daffodils dancing in the breeze banished.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Through Keswick and Buttermere we went, stopping briefly at the 58 mile point to refill water bottles and eat more bananas. By now the weather was getting hot, and the landscapes were luminous under a bright sun. It would have been greatly enjoyable but for the fact that I was cycling 112 miles. We passed by Ennerdale and Calder Bridge (where there was a second feed station), each village filled with people cheering us on.

Then it was the moment each person doing ‘The Fred’ anticipates and (if you’re me) dreads: Eskdale. Here the road narrows as you come down the valley, ahead rises the fearsome sight of Hardknott Pass. I could see the colourful jerseys of cyclists snaking up the vertical-looking mountainside. The last time I was here, on a biology field trip, I witnessed a car getting stuck on one of the hairpin bends. I was not looking forward to what lay ahead.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The final 20 miles are perhaps the hardest of the route, and not just because you’ve already cycled 95 miles. It starts with Hardknott Pass, a relentless climb that reaches a gradient of 33%. I made it over the first brutally steep part of the climb, and tried to regain my breath and mental composure on the less severe mid-section. Looking ahead, I could see hairpin bends rising like a wall in front of me and felt despair.

I tried, but I reached a point where I couldn’t peddle anymore. The incline, too steep; my legs, burning. I got off and pushed the bike the last 200 metres. If that had been where the torment ended I’d have been delighted. The descent of Hardknott is the most terrifying thing I’ve done since climbing 6000m peaks in the Andes. My brakes were screaming as if in pain, the road so bumpy I was certain I would fly off the mountainside.

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Reaching the bottom, I have rarely felt such relief. Relief that I was alive. I then made the mistake of looking ahead. As if to mock me, rising up a few miles further down the route was Wrynose Pass. My heart sank, but I was encouraged by the bonhomie of other cyclists, all with a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude. I peddled on telling myself that only one more big effort was needed and then I was nearly home.

The ascent and descent of Wrynose was a ‘cathedral of pain’, but I made it. The last 10 miles flew past in a revery of optimism and exhaustion. Finally, the end was in sight, I applied the brakes one final time and my first ever cyclosportive was over. I’ve never been happier to stop moving in my entire life.

_______________________________________________________

For a bit of fun, check out the time lapse video (by a good friend) close to the finish. I appear at 4:00, blink and you’ll miss it.

A Vast Land Fit for Witches, a Pendle journey

On a sunny early summer’s day, the countryside and villages that surround Pendle Hill are beautiful. Green valleys almost glow in the light. I know from bitter experience that on a cold, wet day when the sun doesn’t make an appearance, the area can be far more foreboding. On those days it’s easy to understand why Pendle Hill has a reputation for being sinister. On my recent visit, I was lucky to have blue skies and bright sunlight.

This is an area soaked in history. It’s most famous for its association with the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, when the villages that fall beneath Pendle Hill’s shadow were centre stage in a scandal that saw ten people sent to the gallows for witchcraft. The area has another history though, built on centuries of farming and cloth making. Ancient churches, medieval villages and Victorian-era mills are scattered across the landscape.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This history and landscape lend themselves to folklore, and the people who live around here have a very strong sense of place. When I was in the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, I came across a folk song summing up that feeling:

Oh Pendle … oh Pendle, thou standest alone,
Twixt Burnley and Clitheroe, Whalley and Colne,
Where Hodder and Ribble’s fair waters do meet,
With Barley and Downham content at thy feet.

Oh Pendle, oh Pendle, majestic, sublime,
Thy praises will ring till the end of all time,
Thy beauty eternal, thy banner unfurled,
Thou dearest and grandest old hill in the world.

And when witches fly on a cold winter’s night,
You must not tell a soul, and you’ll bolt the door tight,
You’ll sit by the fireside and keep yourself warm,
Until once again you can walk in her arms.

Oh Pendle, Oh Pendle, o’er moorland and fell,
In glorious loveliness ever to dwell,
Through life’s fateful journey where e’er we may be,
We’ll cease in our labours and oft think of thee.

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This area was isolated from much of the rest of the world until the 19th century, one of the reasons why superstitions such as witchcraft held such a powerful influence on local communities. It was also one of the reasons why alternative Protestant religions flourished here. It was on Pendle Hill in 1652 that George Fox had a vision that led to the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers.

Fox recounted the experience as, “When I was come to the top of this hill, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire, and from the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places He had a great people to be gathered …” Following this tradition, the subversive preachings of the Baptists found fertile ground in the area and, later, John Wesley journeyed here, establishing Methodism in the region.

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

I left Barrowford behind and followed the Pendle Witches Trail, which passes along the exact route those accused of witchcraft took to Lancaster to be tried. Today, a mere 405 years after that fateful journey, the route is filled with picturesque villages and beautiful views. I passed through Roughlee and Newchurch, where I bought some Eccles cakes in a shop called ‘Witches Galore’, before reaching Barley which still has a Methodist church.

Further on I passed in front of Pendle Hill, and there were sweeping views of the valley below. Like Fox before me, I swear I could almost see the Irish Sea from this isolated spot.

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

I finally arrived in Chatburn, from here I’d planned to go to Clitheroe to visit its 800-year old castle. I didn’t have enough time on this trip, so headed in the other direction to make a quick stop at the remains of Sawley Abbey. Founded in 1147, the abbey played a role in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the widespread but short-lived uprising against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

The monks of Sawley returned to the Abbey during the uprising, but once it was defeated they were forced to flee, not before the abbot had been executed though. It’s a tranquil spot that doesn’t seem to attract too many visitors. I had a wander around and then jumped back in the car and headed north towards the Lake District.

The Dark Corners of the Land, on the trail of the Pendle Witches

Four hundred years ago, amongst bewitching Lancashire countryside in the brooding shadow of Pendle Hill, one of the most extraordinary events in English history took place: the Pendle Witch Trials. The discovery, in 1612, of a circle of witches living in this remote area of northern England proved to many that evil supernatural forces were at large. The resulting execution of ten innocent people is now regarded as a tragedy, but was pretty normal for the time.

The Pendle Witch Trials came during one of England’s most turbulent periods, a time of religious persecution and superstition. King James I came to the throne in 1603, inheriting a country recently converted to Protestantism and facing strong Catholic opposition. England simmered with religious divisions that threatened to boil over into outright rebellion.

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

The uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, an attempt by Catholic rebels to kill King James and ferment a country-wide uprising, led to hysteria about Papist plots. A wave of anti-Catholic persecution swept the country, Parliament introduced the Popish Recusants Act, punishing Catholics for their beliefs. An England consumed by fear and superstition was the setting for the Pendle Witch Trials.

Lancashire in the 17th century was an isolated place. Education was almost non-existent in remote villages, many of which had little communication with the outside world, and the area remained strongly Catholic. Many Jesuit priests were in the area to perform illegal religious services for the faithful. Amidst Lancashire’s wild landscapes, Catholicism and superstition thrived, and became entwined in the popular imagination.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This included the mind of King James, who firmly believed witchcraft and witches to be real. He wrote an influential book, Daemononlogie, and oversaw the trial and execution of hundreds of people for witchcraft. The 1604 Witchcraft Act imposed the death penalty “for making a covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love, or injuring cattle by means of charms”.

Previously, society accepted ‘wise women’ or ‘traditional healers’ who cast spells for good and bad. These mostly poor single mothers or widows lived in many communities. Now, under King James, all witchcraft was assumed to be evil. Worse though, and with profound consequences for those accused in Pendle, was the belief that witches never acted alone. Where one witch was found, there would be many others.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

In the villages near Pendle Hill, two families of ‘witches’, the Demdikes and Chattox, survived by begging, stealing and providing cures to local villagers. The unravelling of their lives started when Alison Devices of the Demdike clan met John Law, a peddler from Halifax. She demanded he give her some pins for a spell. He refused, she ‘cursed’ him. Bizarrely, he immediately fell to the floor paralysed, probably from a stroke.

Witchcraft was assumed and Roger Nowell the local magistrate was informed. A zealous man keen to impress the government of King James, Nowell cast his net wide. He quickly extracted confessions from barely literate peasants and had nineteen people arrested to await trial in Lancaster Castle – a trial at which they were not allowed to defend themselves.

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Amid accusations of murder, causing madness, cursing cattle and bewitching horses, clay models of people and human teeth stolen from graves at St. Mary’s Church in the village of Newchurch were discovered. More damning, a meeting of the families at a place called Malkin Tower was portrayed as a Witches Sabbath. Some confessed to meeting the Devil in a place called Faugh’s Quarry.

What is surprising about all of this, is that those accused seemed convinced of their powers, and even exaggerated them to the authorities. They openly confessed to all manner of things guaranteed to get you hanged in the 17th century. In total, ten people were put to death for witchcraft, one other died in prison. They were hanged on a bleak moor outside of Lancaster. Today, it’s a children’s playground.

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

'Eye of God', St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

‘Eye of God’, St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Faugh's Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

Faugh’s Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

It’s rumoured that the body of one ‘witch’, Alice Nutter, was returned to Pendle and buried in St. Mary’s Church in what is now called the ‘Witches Grave’. Alice was an oddity amongst the accused. She was from a well-to-do family and never spoke at her trial. It seems likely that she was hiding the fact that she had been attending secret Catholic services, and died condemned as a witch to protect that secret.

There is a statue of this innocent woman in the village of Roughlee, which now forms part of a ‘Pendle Witches Route’. In Barrowford, the route’s start point, the Pendle Heritage Centre does a good job of explaining the story. I visited a number of places associated with the witch trials including Newchurch village, home to St. Mary’s and close to sites such as Faugh’s Quarry, where the Devil is alleged to have been seen.

St. Mary’s Church tower has an ‘Eye of God’ to ward off evil spirits. These symbols were often found in people’s homes, but seeing one on a church is a reminder of the power of superstition.

On the trail of the Lord Protector in Ely

Seen from a distance across the Cambridgeshire fens, Ely sits proudly on a small hill under a vast sky. The fenland landscape around Ely is as flat as it gets in England, most of the surrounding area is no more than a few metres above sea level. There are many similarities with the Netherlands, from where I’d just arrived, including dyke building and the historic use of windmills to drain the land for agriculture.

Several centuries ago this entire area would have been marshland, and Ely itself was once an island, said to get its name from the eels that were caught in the surrounding rivers and marsh. Ely’s existence is owed to the fact that it sits on a chalk outcrop that raises it above the waterline. Sitting on the very highest point in this low-lying region, the Cathedral dominates the skyline and can be seen from miles away.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The size and grandeur of the cathedral seems disproportionate to the size of the city – it’s home to only 20,000 people – and, at heart, Ely is a sleepy market town. Albeit, one with a long and fascinating history. While it has an attractive historic centre, there isn’t a great deal to see, but it makes for an interesting half-day of exploration. I decided, as if there were a choice, to head first to the cathedral.

This area was quite isolated until the fens were drained, but that isolation attracted religious communities. It was St. Etheldreda, a Saxon princess, who first founded an abbey in Ely in 673AD. Over the next 1,344 years, the original abbey was destroyed and rebuilt, then built upon further until the current building was begun in 1083 AD.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

It’s fair to say that Ely cathedral is magnificent inside and out. The vast interior space comes as quite a shock (as does the entrance fee of £8). It’s an extraordinarily beautiful building though, particularly the truly unique ‘lantern’ tower and the painted wooden ceiling of the nave. I met a trainee volunteer guide who gave me a potted history, and after an hour or so I found my way outside through the galilee porch to Palace Green.

Ely’s star attraction is definitely the cathedral, but I’d come here for a different reason. I was on the trail of devout Calvinist, renowned statesman, fiery orator, feared general, Governor of Ely and Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell is a divisive historical figure, particularly if you’re Irish, but also one of the most misrepresented.

Ely Cathedral and Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral and Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Crowmell was born in nearby Huntingdon. He lived in Ely between 1636 and 1647, although as a Member of Parliament and a commander in the Parliamentary army, he was often away for prolonged periods of time. The house he lived in during that time is now a museum telling the story of his life, the interior rooms recreated to reflect the house Cromwell himself would have known.

It’s quite a small museum, and it doesn’t take long to go around it, but it does offer insights into the man behind the myth. The Cromwell passed down by history is a stern religious man, a humourless Puritan, a cruel tyrant responsible for the murder of a King. While his actions in Ireland, especially at Drogheda, stain his reputation, it turns out that he was far from humourless, enjoyed a drink, smoked, and was a devoted husband and family man.

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

I left the museum and went on a walk through the lovely Cherry Hill Park towards the River Great Ouse. As the sun broke through the cloud, the views back towards the cathedral were beautiful. Ely is certainly an attractive town and I wish I’d had time to explore a bit further. After a late lunch in a cafe near the river, I set off again on the long journey towards the Lake District.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Cannon on Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Cannon on Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

River Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire

River Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Constable country, Flatford Mill and the River Stour

The area around Flatford Mill, Dedham and East Bergholt in Suffolk is synonymous with the works of John Constable. This is where Constable grew up, his family owned Flatford Mill, he went to school in Dedham and East Bergholt is his birthplace, site of his family home and first studio. All these places, dotted close together along the Stour valley, provided untold inspiration for Constable’s work.

His most instantly recognisable paintings from this area – The Haywain, Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River), The Mill Stream – are part of a series painted within a few hundred yards of each other. Strange to think then that, although familiar with his work, I had absolutely no idea where any of these masterpieces were painted.

John Constable, The Hay Wain (courtesy of the National Gallery)

John Constable, The Hay Wain (courtesy of the National Gallery)

Willy Lott's House, Suffolk

Willy Lott’s House, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

I would still be ignorant of this but for the fact that I was travelling by ferry to Harwich, before driving to the Lake District. On the map was a symbol for ‘place of interest’. That ‘place’ was Flatford Mill, and since the ferry arrived early in the morning I thought I’d spend the day exploring some places along my route. An early morning stroll on the banks of the River Stour seemed like a good introduction to Constable Country.

So famous were Constable’s paintings of the area, it became known as Constable Country during his lifetime. Constable heard this himself from a fellow passenger during a stagecoach journey. He recorded the incident in a letter: “… one of them remarked to me – on my saying it was beautiful – “yes sir, this is Constable’s Country!” I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it.”

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Willy Lott's House, Suffolk

Willy Lott’s House, Suffolk

I arrived at Flatford car park (owned by the National Trust) so early that I qualified for a reduced rate ticket. Walking in the direction of the Stour, the sun was struggling to emerge from behind a blanket of white cloud. As if on cue, as I stood admiring Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s House, the sun illuminated the entire scene. It was beautiful, the buildings radiating colour as they were reflected in the water.

None of these buildings are open to the public, so a visit is restricted to viewing them from the outside. I spent a little time drinking in the view before setting off past Bridge Cottage on a walk along the banks of the River Stour to Dedham. It was a peaceful morning and I strolled in isolation through a quintessentially bucolic English country scene.

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Bridge House, Stour valley, Suffolk

Bridge House, Stour valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Arriving in the small hamlet of Dedham was like arriving in a major city after the river walk. I wandered around the place where Constable had gone to school just as it was coming to life. Shops were opening, people were heading to work and the grass cutter was at work in the churchyard. Dedham has another claim to fame, as a hotbed of nonconformist religious zeal in the late 16th century.

Members of the Dedham Classis, a Presbyterian group that opposed the established church, were persecuted in England. Like many other religious radicals, many of them left the country to build a new life in the United States where they established a settlement in Massachusetts called, with great originality, Dedham. The US version is famous for having the oldest surviving timber-framed house in the country.

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

I found a footpath that took me from Dedham to East Bergholt, where the site of Constable’s first studio and family home are located. Neither building is the original, and the one that replaced his family home is an ugly example of modern British house building. I bought some breakfast in the local bakery and headed back to the car for the next part of my trip … to Ely.

Site of Constable's first studio, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable’s first studio, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable's family home, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable’s family home, East Bergholt, Suffolk