A family forlorn, Long Meg and Her Daughters

The fifty-nine granite stones (The Daughters) that make up the circle and the huge sandstone monolith (Long Meg), that comprise the wondrous Long Meg and Her Daughters Neolithic stone circle, are an extraordinary sight to behold.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

I can’t describe the feeling of being in the presence of this ancient monument better than William Wordsworth, the great Lake District poet, who penned the following lines after a visit in 1833:

A weight of awe, not easy to be borne
Fell Suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that sisterhood forlorn –
And Her, whose strength and stature seemed to scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
When, how and wherefore, rose on British ground
That wondrous Monument, whose mystic round
Forth shadows, some have deemed, to mortal sight
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

This is no ordinary ancient monument. At over 100m in width this is the third largest stone circle in Britain and the sixth largest in the world. So grand is the scale of Long Meg and Her Daughters that the only way to appreciate the magnitude of what you’re seeing is to view it from the air. Luckily, Visit Cumbria has an arial photo on its website. Viewed from the air or not, this is a magnificent place.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

There were perhaps seventy-seven stones in the circle, eighteen having vanished over the centuries. Still, we should be grateful that any stones are standing at all. In the 18th Century the landowner, Colonel Lacy, decided to have the stones removed so he could plough the field (some say he thought there was buried treasure). As the work began a terrifying thunderstorm erupted, taken as an omen that the stones should be left alone.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

This story adds to the local superstition that the stones are a witches coven turned to stone. It’s said that if any unsuspecting visitor manages to count the stones twice and gets the same number both times, the spell will be broken and the witches brought back to life. Given the size of the stones, the heaviest is estimated to be thirty tonnes, these were some big witches.

Long Meg is the most impressive of all the stones. Quarried from red sandstone on the banks of the River Eden over two miles away, one side of Long Meg is decorated with carvings. These enigmatic spiral, ‘cup and ball’ and concentric circle designs are still visible today. As is some more modern graffiti.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

The stone is associated with many legends. It is said to be the petrified remains of a local witch, Meg of Meldon, who apparently existed in the 17th Century; another superstition states that if you walk around the circle then press your ear to Long Meg you can hear her talk. This terrifying prospect hasn’t stopped people from making offerings at the base of Long Meg and in the trees within the circle.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

None of this explains why this protected national monument has a farm track running through the middle of it, or why the entire area seems to be a toilet for local cows. Is this really how we treat one of our most important ancient structures? Does the local farmer hate people visiting so much that standing in cow shit comes as standard? Perhaps the witches should be brought back to life…

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

A little distance away from Long Meg and Her Daughters is more evidence of the thriving Neolithic civilisation that existed in this area. Just outside the town of Penrith lies Mayburgh Henge, one of three nearby Neolithic henges that acted as meeting places for pre-historic communities. The giant stone in the centre of the huge earth bank that surrounds the site is the only remaining stone of four originals.

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge is fascinating. It’s a huge structure, the surrounding bank is made with approximately 20,000 tonnes of stone brought from the nearby River Eden. There is a gap in the bank forming an east facing entrance and framing the one remaining standing stone as you enter the henge. It is a shame that the M6 motorway runs close by and peaceful enjoyment of this place is impossible.

A Pagan Christmas, exploring Castlerigg Stone Circle

Perched on a hilltop plateau dramatically located in a natural amphitheatre created by the mountains of the northern Lake District, the Castlerigg Stone Circle must be one of the most atmospheric sites for a neolithic stone circle anywhere in Britain. Stonehenge may be bigger, but it can’t rival the intense sense of place you feel when you stand in the centre of Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Constructed over 5000 years ago, sometime around 3200 BC, Castlerigg is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and Europe. The people who built it knew what they were doing. The 360º panoramic views offer spectacular vistas of some of the grandest Lake District mountains, including the towering Blencathra, Skiddaw to the north, Helvellyn, Catbells and Great How to the south.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

It is a magical place to visit at any time of year, although I prefer it when it is freezing cold and the rain is accompanied by driving winds that chill you to the core. Luck would have it that on my recent visit these were the exact weather conditions I encountered. Even the local sheep looked fed up and they’re used to this weather.

One of numerous neolithic sites in the northern English county of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park, Castlerigg probably has forty large stones. I say ‘probably’ because local folklore has it that it is impossible to count the real number of stones, and the ‘official’ number has fluctuated over the years.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Depending upon who you ask the stones number either thirty-eight, forty or forty-two. Although on the information board at the entrance they show forty-seven stones. I counted sixty-five, although I was seeing double thanks to the gale force wind making my eyes water.

The tallest stones are around 2.5 metres high, including two large stones which mark the northern entrance into the circle. On the eastern side of the circle is a rectangle of stones that jut into the circle and probably had a ceremonial function – no artefacts have been unearthed to prove this claim although the solar alignment indicates a religious role.

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Visiting this place at Christmas started me thinking about the origins of the Christian festival, and the pagan traditions it displaced when Roman Emperor, Constantine, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380 AD. Attempting to displace the traditional cult of sun worship, the new religion absorbed much of the old for its own ends. Christmas merged seamlessly with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Similarly the pagan Celtic tradition of Yule, celebrated by northern European tribes, was also absorbed into Christianity, which came late to northern parts of the Roman Empire. Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is a traditional Celtic ‘Fire Festival’ celebrating the end to the darkest days of the year; it still influences our modern rituals around Christmas. Castlerigg Stone Circle, aligned to celebrate the solstice, was part of this tradition.

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Yule logs, Christmas trees, holly wreaths and mistletoe owe their origins to numerous pre-Christian beliefs and traditions that survived the onset of the Christianisation of northern Europe. Even Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is pagan in origin, although I’m pretty sure he was invented by the marketing team at Coca Cola.

All this paganism goes some way to explaining why those religious zealots, the Puritans, outlawed the celebration of Christmas when Oliver Cromwell was running England in the 1640s. What Cromwell and his regicidal compatriots would make of our commercialised Christmas we can only guess at, although I have a feeling Christmas would be cancelled once again.

A walk to wintery Helvellyn

Spring may have finally sprung in the UK, but no one has told England’s third highest mountain that winter is over. As this was likely to be my last time in the area for a while, the free day I had in the Lake District National Park was reserved for hill walking, and Helvellyn was my destination. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in a considerable amount of snow and ice on top of the hill. I should have been better prepared, I’ve encountered snow on the summit of Helvellyn in May.

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn is a mountain I’ve climbed too many times to recall, but I never tire of clambering over the classic horseshoe trail: up Striding Edge, over the crown of the hill and back down Swirral Edge – familiar names on this legendary mountain. Situated in the heart of the English Lake District, Helvellyn is a popular hill amongst Lake District enthusiasts, so-much-so that there is a website dedicated to promoting the mountain’s glories. Even to me that seems a step too far.

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Although I clambered to within 20 or 30 metres of the top, the last section of Swirral Edge was too icy to risk without crampons or an ice axe. A slip either way would result in a fall of several hundred feet. I was lucky that a person coming down had a spare ice axe, which he was generous enough to offer to me to help with the descent. It was disappointing to get so close and not reach the summit but the rest of my walk was wonderful.

View back down the valley, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View back down the valley, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Raise and Glenridding Common, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Raise and Glenridding Common, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Snow melt, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Snow melt, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Starting out from the village of Glenridding – which sits on picturesque Ullswater, the inspiration for Wordsworth’s Daffodils poem – I chose to avoid the steeper, faster route up Little Cove towards Hole in the Wall. Heading instead towards Red Tarn by skirting around the base of Birkhouse Moor, en route passing one of the Lake District’s many disused mines. The Greenside Mine was the largest lead mine in the Lake District and was mined from the 1690s until the 1960s. There are still some mine buildings, and the scar of the mine works is carved into the hillside.

Helvellyn with Striding Edge (L) and Swirral Edge (R), Lake District, England

Helvellyn with Striding Edge (L) and Swirral Edge (R), Lake District, England

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn, Lake District, England

In an area notorious for bad weather, there was barely a breath of wind as I started the long ascent to Red Tarn. Under a warm Spring sun, I suddenly found myself wearing several layers of unnecessary clothing and was glad when I finally reached the tarn and the glorious view of snow-capped Helvellyn. Although it was mid-week, there were plenty of people taking the opportunity to do the walk; I could see small shapes dotted along Striding Edge and on the summit.

Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Red Tarn from Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Red Tarn from Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

I decided Striding Edge might be icy and opted to go up Swirral Edge, which afforded tremendous views over Red Tarn and back down the fells. After falling short of the top I headed to Hole in the Wall and descended into the beautiful parallel valley of Grisedale, finally reaching Patterdale and the road back to Glenridding.

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

After the horrendous weather when I was in the area in December I wasn’t expecting great things. This time though, thankfully, the weather chose to be hospitable. It made for one of those days which make the Lake District so special.

Whitehaven, the American War of Independence and a question of ‘What if?’

Cleopatra’s Nose Theory argues that chance plays a big role in historical outcomes. The theory goes that had Cleopatra’s nose been bigger Mark Anthony wouldn’t have found her physical charms so irresistible, and the whole course of Western civilisation would have been different. Putting aside the inconvenient fact that Mark Anthony was at least equally attracted to Cleopatra’s intellectual charms, this is the ultimate historical ‘What if?’

The last pharaoh, Cleopatra and her nose

The last pharaoh, Cleopatra and her nose

While it may only merit a bit-part in the annals of history, the small Cumbrian town of Whitehaven is home to a less well known ‘What if?’

Had things been different, George Washington – Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence, one of the Founding Fathers and first President of the United States – might have been raised near Whitehaven and not in Virginia. Washington’s grandmother, Mildred, was from Virginia. When her first husband, Lawrence Washington, died she married George Gale, a tobacco trader from Whitehaven. Mildred moved to England with her new husband, dying in Whitehaven in 1701. She is buried in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in the town centre.

St.Nicholas' Church, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas' Church, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Had Mildred brought her son, George’s father, Augustine Washington to England with her, the course of Washington’s life and, quite possibly, the course of the American War of Independence might have been different. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory for modern Western civilisation. Mildred died following childbirth, she was buried alongside her baby daughter and a woman called Jane, Mildred’s African slave servant. It was illegal for an African to be buried in a British graveyard at the time; for Jane to be buried in the family plot alongside Mildred speaks volumes about their relationship.

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The connections between this part of England and the United States are many, largely due to trade and emigration. There were particularly strong links with tobacco plantations in Virginia, and Whitehaven became the preeminent centre of imported tobacco. Many of the town’s wonderful Georgian buildings were built from the profits. Its no surprise that Washington’s family lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia, named after the County of Westmoreland, England, close to where Whitehaven is situated. The town of Whitehaven, Maryland, was founded by George Gale, Mildred’s second husband.

Another connection with the American War of Independence is non-other than ‘father of the American navy’, John Paul Jones. Jones was Scottish but moved to Whitehaven as a boy, he began sailing from the port when he was thirteen. He regularly visited Virginia, where his brother had settled, sailing on various trade and slave ships. History has been favourable to Jones, but his reputation as a fighter for American Independence can’t erase his reputation as a violent ship’s captain. He once flogged a man so severely he died, another time he killed one of his crew in an argument.

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Jones had serious disputes with the High Command in America and was dispatched to France. Sailing from here, acting more like a pirate than a war commander, in 1778 he attacked and attempted to sack his former home of Whitehaven. He planned to set fire to the ships in the port – over 200 vessels were moored there – and burn the town to the ground. His men came ashore and spiked the main harbour guns, but the attack was bungled from the start. He might still have been successful, but his crew went to a pub and got drunk. The townsfolk were alerted and Jones fled.

Gunnery sculpture, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Gunnery sculpture, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

It’s hard to imagine today, but Whitehaven was a vital British port and a justifiable military target. Although its easy to believe there was something personal in Jones’ attack on the town. I’m glad he failed to burn the town, it would have destroyed some wonderful architecture. Today the attack is commemorated by a sculpture on the harbour. A sailor, defending the town, is firing a cannon towards the ocean where Jones’ ship would have been. The cannons are originals from 1778.

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

For a small town, Whitehaven has seen its share of historical incident. I wandered the streets as the winter sun set and darkness descended, and found myself in a small square where a plaque caught my attention. This recounted a bizarre incident. It transpires that Jonathan Swift, the legendary Irish satirist, lived in the town as an infant. A little more research into this uncovered a genuine mystery. His nurse essentially kidnapped him and came to Whitehaven where Swift lived in her care for three or four years.

Jonathan Swift's house overlooking Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Jonathan Swift’s house overlooking Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Debate rages about the importance of this experience for Swift, but some biographers believe his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, was influenced by witnessing the activity around Whitehaven harbour. The house Swift lived in still stands, and has exceptional views over the port. I imagine the young boy watching the activity around the port. Seeing ships coming and going to destinations all over the world, and exotic produce being unloaded on the docks, must have left a strong impression.

One biographer has even claimed that Swift was born in this house…another Cleopatra’s Nose Theory, perhaps?

Rum and the slave trade: Whitehaven’s ‘Dark Spirit’

Whitehaven, a small town on England’s north west coast, feels a bit down-at-heel. In rival towns people refer to those from Whitehaven as Jam Eaters, supposedly because they can’t afford meat in their sandwiches. Yet, walking around the town centre, it’s clear that there is something extraordinary about Whitehaven. Here, in this unlikely spot, is the largest collection of Georgian-era buildings outside of London. Ignore the cars and modern shop frontages, and the town is like a Georgian theme park.

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Candlestick Chimney, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Candlestick Chimney, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

The story of Whitehaven is the story of a powerful aristocratic family, the expansion of global trade throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, followed by stagnation and decline in the 20th Century. It is also the story of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the role of British trade in shipping millions of Africans into slavery in the Americas. Whitehaven grew rich from trade that depended upon slavery: tobacco from Virginia and, most famously, rum and sugar from slave plantations in the Caribbean. The Rum Story, a museum telling this history, was my destination after walking from St. Bees.

Pub in Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Pub in Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven was owned by the Lowther family – Earls of Westmoreland and the county’s wealthiest aristocratic dynasty. It was built on a grid system designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and has been described as the first ‘company town’ of the Industrial Revolution. The Lowther family made a fortune from exporting the region’s huge coal reserves to Ireland. This trade made Whitehaven wealthy, and released a vast amount of money for ship building and trade with the New World.

Jefferson's 1785 Dark Rum, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Jefferson’s 1785 Dark Rum, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

One of the most important ports in the country, Whitehaven had extensive trade with the colonies in the United States and the Caribbean, and was a major departure point for emigrating Scots and Northern English. The major port for tobacco from Virginia in the 17th Century, it is a town with intimate links to the slave trade. In the 18th Century, rum distilled from molasses on slave plantations in the Caribbean would become synonymous with Whitehaven.

Rum and sugar became Whitehaven’s driving force, it’s ‘dark spirit’. Ships sailed from Whitehaven loaded with manufactured products, including rum, to be traded for African slaves; they were shipped in appalling conditions to the Caribbean and traded for sugar and rum; which were shipped to Whitehaven. One of the region’s most famous products, Kendal Mint Cake, was the result of Caribbean sugar arriving in Whitehaven. Yet, the town became a centre for opposition to the slave trade and ended its role in the ‘human trade’ around 1770.

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story museum explores Whitehaven’s rum and slave connections by tracing the story of local wine merchants, the Jefferson family. Rum was first discovered by slaves working in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Despite having a reputation as being “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”, rum soon became popular, especially on the boats which plied the trade between Europe, Africa and the New World. The Jefferson’s owned a slave plantation in Antigua, which produced sugar, molasses and Jefferson brand rum.

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The museum is fascinating, it does a good job of explaining the brutality and brutal economics of the slave trade, and the terrible working conditions slaves faced in the Caribbean. It also shines a light on little known aspects of Whitehaven’s history. One of the least ethnically diverse places in the country today, in the 1770s and 1780s there were a large number of free slaves arriving in Whitehaven. Some were servants of families returning to England during the War of American Independence; others were slaves freed because they fought for the British and emigrated to England after the war.

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The museum benefits from being housed in the original Jefferson buildings. You walk through the 18th Century Bonded Warehouse, the original cellars and even the office as it would have looked in the 19th Century. There are exhibitions on the traditional use of rum in the navy – which paints a terrifying picture of general drunkenness; a section on the island of Antigua; and a section dedicated to rum and prohibition. Perhaps best of all, they offer you a taster shot of rum as you leave.

Giant barrel, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Giant barrel, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

A few hours spent in Whitehaven was enlightening, I discovered a history that I never imagined existed before. A history involving an American President, his mother-in-law and an American War of Independence hero…

Above the roaring ocean on Cumbria’s Heritage Coast

Leaving the tumultuous crashing waves of the Irish Sea behind, and narrowly avoiding ‘a furious devout drench’*, I headed north over the three hundred foot-high red sandstone cliffs of St. Bees Head. This is the first (or last) segment of the 192 mile-long Coast to Coast walk, which after a few miles turns inland towards England’s East Coast. One day I’ll do the whole route, but this time my ambitions were more local. I was on my way to the Georgian-era town of Whitehaven, six and a half miles from St. Bees.

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

The giant fissured red sandstone cliffs make this a dramatic segment of coast. They also make it one of the most important, and largest, seabird colonies in North West England. Much of the area is an RSPB Nature reserve: cormorants, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, white throat herring gulls, fulmars, rock pipits, whitethroats, linnets and stonechats all live here. I mention this array of our feathered friends because, as you walk along the cliff tops, there are times when the smell of fishy excrement is almost overpowering.

Reaching the top of St. Bees Head, you are greeted by breathtaking views north across the cliffs and south along the beaches of St. Bees. On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man and both the Scottish and Irish coasts. From this vantage point, its easy to understand why this is the only section of the English coast between Wales and Scotland to be designated as a Heritage Coast. It is truly beautiful. The pounding waves below adding a suitably melodramatic soundtrack to accompany the visual treat stretching ahead.

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

From St. Bees Head you can clearly see the St. Bees Lighthouse, a speck of brilliant white surrounded by green fields on top of another cliff top hill. This is North Head, which has the distinction of being the most westerly point in Northern England. Following the path downwards, the route passes through farmland before reaching a natural gap between the two headlands.

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

This is Fleswick Bay, where its possible to walk down to a sandy beach nestling underneath the towering cliffs. At least, its possible when the tide is out. When I was there, an unusually high tide was most definitely ‘in’, waves thundering into the bay. Clambering back up the other side, I was soon in front of the lighthouse. There has been a lighthouse here since 1718, but the original one burnt down in 1822 – until then, it was the only surviving coal-powered lighthouse in the country. The current lighthouse replaced it. Today, electrified and automated, its beam of light can be seen 21 nautical miles away.

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Walking around the headland of North Head, you soon see the town of Whitehaven in the distance. There were still three miles of walking left to do, but at least I could see my destination. The sun was illuminating the two small lighthouses at the entrance to Whitehaven harbour and the Candlestick Chimney, a former ventilation shaft built in 1850 for one of the region’s many coal mines.

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

At the point where the Coast to Coast route heads east, the path to Whitehaven starts a long, gradual descent back to the sea. The route is mainly farmland, but it does pass a sandstone quarry still quarrying the rock which has been used for building in this area for centuries. Eventually the route reaches the historic port of Whitehaven, the main part of which dates from the 17th Century when Whitehaven was one of the most important ports in England…

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

* A line from Philip Larkin’s poem Water

Fact or fiction? An ancient Irish Princess on the Cumbrian Heritage Coast

Stepping off the tiny, two carriage train in the picturesque village of St. Bees, the roar of the ocean is audible long before you see it. At least today, a day of high winds and high tides, the noise of the Irish Sea crashing into the mighty sandstone cliffs of the West Cumbrian Coast, easily carries the half mile inland to the train station. Even at this distance I can tell that the sea is rough, and my planned walk along the Cumbria Heritage Coast might be wetter than expected.

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

West Cumbria is often overlooked by visitors to the region, overshadowed by the nearby Lake District National Park. It has been a long time since I visited and, although the weather can be terrible, this is an area full of natural beauty with a history as surprising as it is fascinating.

This region has suffered significant economic decline, with communities gutted as industries closed. For years this was one Britain’s most depressed and deprived areas; a status seemingly at odds with the beauty of the landscape. The transport infrastructure doesn’t help. The train route meanders along the coast, cutting inland around bays and estuaries. It’s a beautiful route, but even the relatively short journey to St. Bees takes over two and a half hours. A day-trip on public transport is an endurance test.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

From the early 17th Century onwards, shipping, mining and trade with the Americas and Caribbean were the drivers of the economy. A predominantly rural region, West Cumbria was remarkably industrialised, connected to far flung corners of the globe through trade. This has left an industrial and cultural legacy that is only just beginning to be exploited for tourism.

There are many small towns and villages worth a visit, but one that already attracts thousands of visitors annually is St. Bees. This pleasant village is the start/end point of the 192 mile Coast to Coast walk, popularised by Alfred Wainwright. Its proximity to the beautiful and rugged coastline, and the beach which sits beneath the cliffs, draws visitors; but it is the former Benedictine Priory of St. Bees, and the legend of St. Bega, that sparks the imagination.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

Norman doorway, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Norman doorway, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Celtic cross, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Celtic cross, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

The name St. Bees is a corruption of St. Bega. Reputed to have been a beautiful and virtuous Irish Princess, St. Bega fled Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage. She lived the life of a hermit, in isolation and poverty in St. Bees. Fearful that Vikings, who were pillaging along this coast, would rape her, she fled to Northumbria leaving behind her one worldly possession, a bracelet. Naturally, St. Bega, and her bracelet, became the focus of worship at the Norman-era Priory built in St. Bees in the 12th Century.

There was a thriving cult dedicated to St. Bega by the time the Benedictine Priory was built around 1120. The cult was still going strong in the early 16th Century, when records show a large amount of money being donated to ‘the bracelet of St. Bega’. She is credited with several ‘miracles’ and in Bassenthwaite, only a short distance away in the Lake District, there is a church dedicated to St. Bega. This is fine, but there’s evidence to suggest that St. Bega didn’t exist.

The legend of St. Bega, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

The legend of St. Bega, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

It’s argued that St. Bega is a Christian invention based on pre-existing pagan beliefs. This is why her bracelet is important. The local word for bracelet is ‘beag’ and there may have been a sacred pagan bracelet that took human, and Christian, form as St. Bega. In a world where Christianity was encroaching on pagan beliefs, apparently this isn’t improbably. An alternative theory is that chroniclers confused her with an entirely different person. There seem to have been quite a few Irish women living as hermits who later got canonised. These and other theories are explained here.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

Stained glass window, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Stained glass window, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Whether she existed or not, in 2000 the local council decided to commission a sculpture of her. Not everyone is a fan. The woman I asked for directions said, “She’s supposed to be an Irish Princess, but she looks like a chubby fisherwoman.” To be fair, the sculptor didn’t have any pictures to work from. The sculpture depicts her arriving in a small boat. I’m no expert, but if she sailed that boat across the Irish Sea she deserves her own cult. Then again, since she’s probably fictional, I’m not sure it matters.

Sculpture of St. Bega, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Sculpture of St. Bega, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved stones found at the Priory of St. Bees indicate that Gaelic-Scandinavian settlers lived in this area in the 10th Century. This community probably lived in relative isolation until the arrival of the conquering Normans in 1092. It was William le Meschin, a Norman Baron, who extended the existing religious site into the Benedictine Priory. The Priory functioned as a religious institution – a wealthy one at that – until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. It continues to be used as the parish church, but many of the original buildings have disappeared.

The Priory has seen much history and has many secrets. In 1981, during excavations of a 14th Century burial site, a mystery was unearthed – a coffin containing a six hundred year-old male body. Known as St Bees Man, remarkably his nails, skin and stomach contents were found to be in near-perfect condition. The body has been identified as either Anthony de Lucy, a knight who died in the Teutonic Crusades in 1368, or Robert of Harrington, buried here in 1297. It’s all a bit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the carved Norman doorway and coffin lids inside the church add to that feeling.

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Walking away from the Priory towards the start of the coastal path, I could hear the ocean getting louder. Suddenly, the headland and ocean came into view – giant waves were pounding into the cliffs and onto the beach with a ferocity I’ve rarely seen. Above the ocean I could see the track that would take me over St. Bees Head and onto the beautiful route that follows the cliffs to Whitehaven. The wind was blowing hard at my back and the sun had decided to shine for the first time in weeks. Onwards and upwards…

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Above the clouds on the Fairfield Horseshoe

The Fairfield Horseshoe is one of my favourite walks in the English Lake District. In the heart of the Lake District National Park, it is a near perfect hill walk around a horseshoe-shaped route which towers over the valley below. Starting from the bustling village of Ambleside, you climb upwards over Dove Crag and Hart Crag, before finally walking the last few yards up to the summit of Fairfield.

On the way back down, once you’re over Great Rigg, you can descend into either the hamlet of Rydal or the village of Grasmere, both of which have strong connections to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I’d decided to visit Grasmere, where I’d lived for three years in my twenties, but which I hadn’t visited for several years.

Ambleside viewed at the start of the Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Ambleside viewed at the start of the Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Deep bog, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Deep bog, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

On a good day, the views from Fairfield are spectacular. With fine weather, the summit of Fairfield offers 360º panoramic views around the Lake District, and even to the Irish Sea. This was not a good day, but the views that awaited on top of the mountain were remarkable for other reasons.

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

I started from Ambleside early in the morning, the sky was overcast, and, despite the weather forecast claiming the day would improve, it definitely felt as if rain was in the air. As I began the long ascent over the fells, the cloud descended and I quickly found myself walking through a muted landscape, unable to see more than 20 or 30 metres ahead. Strangely, there was very little wind, in fact none at all, and although I was getting wet from the moisture in the cloud, it didn’t rain.

Walking in weather like this is pretty unusual for this part of the country. Without the sound of wind you can hear distant sounds: birds singing, sheep bleating and water cascading down rocks into the valley below. I’d pretty much given up on seeing anything of the surrounding countryside, or getting the views from Fairfield. However, as I walked over Dove Crag it was suddenly illuminated by the sun. I was still shrouded in cloud, but it was better weather.

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Pushing on towards Hart Crag, I heard a noise behind me; with my heart pounding and imagination running wild, a fell runner (one of those crazy people who run over mountains for fun) emerged out of the mist and ran past me with a cheery, “Bloody horrible weather.” As he disappeared back into the mist, I set off again, and not long after found myself walking above the clouds.

It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in the Lake District. I must have walked here hundreds of times, but I’ve never experienced anything like it before. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but blue sky, white cloud and the occasional top of a mountain sticking through the cloud. When I finally reached the top of Fairfield, there was one other person there. Neither of us could quite believe what we were witnessing. He said he’d set off with three others, all of whom had turned back convinced the weather wouldn’t improve. Technically the weather didn’t improve, but we’d walked through it and found ourselves above it.

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Funnily enough, the sun was so hot it felt tropical, and I actually got sunburned. Which is as ridiculous as it sounds. As I started to descend, I spotted a rainbow in the cloud, which created a Brocken Spectre, something I’d not seen before, but which is simultaneously beautiful and eerie. It was a truly magical experience, shared with a few sheep and an absence of noise.

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Helm Crag, Grasmere, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Helm Crag, Grasmere, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Descending, I quickly found myself shrouded in cloud again, and visibility returned to being negligible. I came across several people coming up the hill, all of whom were happy to know what awaited them when they reached the top. I trundled onwards towards Grasmere and finally dropped out of the bottom of the cloud with views towards Helm Crag, which sits at the northern end of the Vale of Grasmere.

A tale of two houses (part 2): Sizergh Castle

Sizergh Castle isn’t really a castle at all. Although it has a large defensive tower dating from the 13th century, a potent symbol of the power of the Strickland family throughout the Medieval period, it is really just a grand country house. Prominent parts of the house date from the Elizabethan, including the dark wood panelled interiors, and Georgian-eras.

The house is set in a large country park, the first, dramatic, sight of the building comes as you walk across the park from the south. The long walk through the grounds, passing some lovely old trees, gives you some idea of the former wealth of the family that lived here.

SIzergh Castle from the south, Cumbria, England

SIzergh Castle from the south, Cumbria, England

Sizergh Castle entrance, Cumbria, England

Sizergh Castle entrance, Cumbria, England

Much history is bound up in Sizergh Castle, including the political and religious turmoil of the 17th and 18th centuries. Until the end of the 18th century, the Strickland family were deeply involved in the events of English history. Despite having a central role in this turmoil, they managed to retain ownership of Sizergh Castle until the 20th century. The family ‘gave’ the house to the National Trust in 1950, but negotiated a pretty good deal. They continue to live there and public access is restricted to four hours per day, five days per week.

The Strickland family arrived in England as part of the Norman Conquest, and were granted land in Cumbria. Sizergh Castle came into their hands through marriage. Thomas Strickland came to prominence during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, carrying the flag of St. George (a great honour apparently). More importantly, Strickland brought with him a complement of archers. The Bowmen of Kendal were instrumental in the English victory against overwhelming French odds.

SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Window, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Window, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

The Strickland family chose the wrong side in the 15th century War of the Roses, but it didn’t harm their standing. More damaging for the family was their religion. Staunch Catholic supporters of the Stuart monarchy, in the 1640s Sir Robert Strickland backed Charles I against Parliament. Sir Robert’s son, Thomas, fought at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 and was finally captured by Parliamentarians in 1644. While suffering financial penalties for their Royalist sympathies, Sizergh Castle remained in their possession.

It was inevitable that the Strickland’s would be drawn into further conflict when, in 1685, James II inherited the English throne from his brother Charles II. James was suspected (rightly) of being a secret Catholic, and was frequently at odds with the Protestant Parliament. His attempts to create religious freedoms for Catholics, and the birth of a Catholic heir in 1688, caused Parliament to act.

Sizergh Castle entrance, Cumbria, England

Sizergh Castle entrance, Cumbria, England

Medieval baquet hall, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Medieval baquet hall, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Cabinet, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Cabinet, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Portrait of Mary Matthews, the great, great grandmother of the current head of the family SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Portrait of Mary Matthews, the great, great grandmother of the current head of the family SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Elephant clock, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Elephant clock, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Four poster bed, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Four poster bed, Sizergh Castle, Cumbria, England

James II was replaced by the Protestant, William of Orange. James went into exile in France, all-the-while plotting to return and reclaim the throne. The Strickland family fled abroad to join him.

James’ invasion of Ireland in 1688 ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, something still celebrated by Northern Ireland’s Protestant fundamentalists. This finished his ambitions to reclaim the English throne, and condemned him and his supporters to permanent exile. While remaining loyal to the Jacobite Stuarts, some members of the Strickland family returned to England, and Sizergh Castle, in 1699 – others continued to live in France as part of the exiled Stuart court.

The 'hot wall', SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

The ‘hot wall’, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Heraldic shield, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Heraldic shield, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

The final Stuart or Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 saw Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, invade England with an army of Scots Highlanders. Francis Strickland was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s seven companions when he sailed from France in 1745 to raise support in Scotland. This group is known as The Seven Men of Moidart.

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army passed Sizergh Castle on their triumphant march south, and again on their disastrous retreat north towards final defeat at the Battle of Culloden. There is no evidence that Bonnie Prince Charlie or Francis Strickland visited Sizergh but the castle’s inhabitants must have been following events anxiously. Jacobite ambitions were crushed by the defeat at Culloden, although the Strickland family remained Jacobite supporters throughout the rest of the 18th century. There are portraits of the Stuarts dotted around the building.

SIzergh Castle from the south, Cumbria, England

SIzergh Castle from the south, Cumbria, England

Once you’ve tired of Sizergh Castle’s history, the gardens offer a welcome break from being patronised by the National Trust staff working in the building. I was told three times that I needed to be careful not to damage anything with my very small bag. Three times seems a little excessive, especially when delivered in a tone that would have been offensive had it been used on a dog.

Topiary garden, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Topiary garden, SIzergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Sizergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Sizergh Castle, Cumbria, England

Luckily I didn’t encounter any further Trust staff in the gardens and could enjoy them unmolested…and, to be fair, the gardens are quite lovely.