Rotherhithe, strange tales of whales and Pilgrim Fathers

Puritans. Very determined people the Puritans. Best remembered for their zealous dedication to strict and rigid Protestantism, and utter opposition to the ‘heresy’ of the Catholic Church; history has passed down to us an image of forbidding black clothing, ridiculous hats and dour humourlessness. The average Puritan wasn’t exactly renowned for his or her joie de vivre. These are the people behind the Salem Witch Trials, and we all know how that went.

So it was with some mirth that, as I wandered the history soaked streets of Rotherhithe, I came across a pub called The Mayflower, named for the ‘Pilgrim ship’ which left England in 1620 for North America. Were they transported back to modern-day London, I’m sure the assorted gang of Puritans who left England’s shores on the Mayflower, would be furious to discover themselves commemorated by something as immoral as a pub.

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

A little investigation over a pint of Pale Ale led to the discovery that the Mayflower started its journey from this very spot. The arrival of the Mayflower in New England is a significant moment in Western history; imbuing this area with an historical importance that would be hard to guess at walking down the street. The Puritans left England fleeing what they saw as religious persecution; the authorities saw them as troublemakers, probably traitors, and were presumably glad to see the Mayflower disappear down the Thames.

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Sixty-five people boarded the Mayflower in Rotherhithe in July 1620. Amongst them some of the people now known as the Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of New England. The ship was tiny, cramped and suffered three months of delays before sailing into terrible weather crossing the Atlantic. The bravery and determination of the men, women and children on board cannot be underestimated. I tipped my glass to their bravery, and left the pub to stroll on the foreshore of the River Thames where the Mayflower was anchored.

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Leaving the Mayflower behind, I set out to investigate a couple of nearby churches. Close to the pub is St. Mary’s Church, which claims strong associations with the Pilgrim Fathers. The current church dates from 1715, but there has been a church on this site from the 13th Century. There is a drawing of the former church dating from 1623, and it is likely that the Pilgrim Fathers worshipped there before sailing. The church was locked, but luckily one of the most interesting things about the church can be found in the graveyard.

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Here lie the remains of Prince Lee Boo from the Pacific island of Palau. How a member of royalty from a Pacific island came to be buried in Rotherhithe is the story of the expansion of global trade in the 18th Century. In 1783, the English ship, Antelope, was shipwrecked near Palau and the surviving members of crew formed an alliance with the local king, Abba Thulle. The crew built a new boat and Abba Thulle decided to send this son, Prince Lee Boo, with them when they left for England.

Why did Lee Boo end up in Rotherhithe? The ship’s captain, Captain Wilson, came from Rotherhithe and Lee Boo lived with him when he arrived in England. He attended school and services at St. Mary’s. Sadly he died, as so many people did, from smallpox.

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

As I walked through St. Mary’s graveyard I passed St. Mary’s Free School. Founded in 1613 by two local sea captains, it was intended to educate the children of seafarers. It has two lovely statues on the outside, making it an interesting local landmark.

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

From here, glinting gold in the distance, I could see a church spire. This was the Norwegian Church in London, suitably located at 1 Olav’s Square. Although the current St. Olva’s Church dates from 1927, there has been a Norwegian Church in London since the 17th Century. Thanks to trade with Nordic countries there are several Nordic churches in London, and Rotherhithe, with its history of seafaring, is where most are located. The shining spire? A golden Viking Longboat.

St. Olav's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Olav’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

This area has very strong Nordic connections, and still has many residents of Nordic origins. This made it the obvious place for the Norwegian Government-in-Exile to establish itself during World War II.

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Cementing the Nordic connections, a short walk from St. Olav’s is the enormous Greenland Dock, which was the centre of Britain’s trade with Nordic countries. Timber was a major import, but Greenland Dock is famous for its role in whaling. This is where Whalers, ships that hunted whales in the North Sea and Atlantic, came to off-load blubber, whale oil and whale bone. All of which were important commodities in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Unsurprisingly, there are several whale-themed pubs in the area.

The Isle of Dogs and a walk under the River Thames

I’m not sure what seems more improbable, an island of dogs or being able to walk under the Thames. Then again, East London is full of surprises. Starting next to the historic and enormous (and closed) Hawksmoor designed St. Anne’s Church, my route passed through Limehouse’s narrow streets to the corporate glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf; arriving at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich via the Thames Path and the marvellous Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

No one really knows the origin of the name ‘Isle of Dogs’ – the great bulge in the River Thames. Theories, however, abound: royal hunting dogs were kept here; a corruption of the name ‘Isle of Ducks’; dead dogs washed up here; a nickname because people who lived here led a ‘dog’s life’. None of which make it sound particularly appealing. While the meaning is lost, the name was in common use by the 16th Century and has stuck.

Its almost unimaginable today, but this was a rural area until the 19th Century. Known as Stepney Marsh, it was a wetland criss-crossed by waterways, accessible only by bridge or boat. The marsh was drained in the 17th Century, becoming an important agricultural area providing food for London. This all changed in the 19th Century. It was transformed from cattle pasture into London’s most industrialised area, teeming with people and activity.

Dunstan's Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Dunstan’s Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Mid-19th Century, this area was the powerhouse of trade and communication with the British Empire. A relationship born witness to by the series of docks and wharfs dotted all over this area, all of which serviced the massive maritime ambitions of the British nation. Trade and Empire can still be recognised in names: West India Dock, Ontario Way, Cuba, Tobago and Malabar Streets. Today those connections are maintained by the international workforce involved in international finance at Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

The streets here were lined with wharves and hundreds of warehouses, built to house goods arriving or departing to every corner of the globe; it was the engine of Britain’s economy. That status made the Isle of Dogs a target in World War II. Starting on 7th September 1940, and continuing for seventy six consecutive nights, this area was bombed with heavy explosives and incendiaries. The Blitz had come to London.

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

The Blitz intended to destroy Britain’s the economy and the nation’s ability to fight. The warehouses and wharves burned for days on end, as did their contents. One bombing raid set fire to 380,000 tonnes of timber at Surrey Docks. By the time The Blitz ended a third of the Isle of Dogs’ warehouses, and tens of thousands of homes, had been destroyed. Bombs from World War II continue to be unearthed even today.

Ironically, the end of the war was even more destructive for local communities. The end of Empire and shifting global trade made the docks obsolete. Britain was bankrupt and rebuilding was little more than a pipe dream. This area remained – and still is in parts – a severely deprived area. Even the Docklands development of the 1980s, which bequeathed us Canary Wharf, did little to solve entrenched poverty.

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Along the Thames Path occasional signs impart bits of forgotten history. One stated I was stood on the site where the Great Eastern was built. The SS Great Eastern was the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When it launched in 1858 SS Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, capable of sailing to Australia without refuelling. Sadly, the SS Great Eastern was a commercial failure, ending its days in ignominy as a floating advertisement for a department store.

Leaving Canary Wharf behind, I arrived at the most exciting section of my walk. A small glass-topped dome marks the entrance to one of London’s hidden wonders: the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Descending the iron stairs, you walk the 370 metres through a tiled tunnel less than 3 metres in diameter underneath the River Thames. A few fun-filled minutes later you emerge next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The northern end of the tunnel has a section of steel reinforcing it where it was damaged by bombs in 1940.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

It’s thrilling to walk through the tunnel. It has been used for all sorts of filming, events and ridiculous activities – bizarrely, it forms part National Cycle Route 1 (from Inverness in Scotland to Dover on the English Channel). More ridiculous, a marathon was run in the tunnel to mark it’s centenary. It takes 58 laps to run a full marathon in the tunnel, and there’s not much scenery en route. One hundred runners took part, and British marathon legend, Hugh Jones, won the race in a very credible 2 hours 45 minutes.

Rather him than me.

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

Taking a whirl on The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Musical Museum

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit to London’s Musical Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of mechanical musical instruments, but the phrase ‘giddy excitement’ seems appropriate. Like being let loose in a sweet shop as a child. This beautiful collection of self-playing instruments – collected from all over the world – is a real pleasure. Made all the better when listeing to these exquisite contraptions play live music. There are also recordings to listen to.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

The museum is small but has a fabulous array of exotic self-playing instruments. There are pianola, pianos, violins, Hammond organs, Reed organs, theremins, gramophones, jukeboxes and much more. The names of the instruments are evocative of another age. Pianos on display include the Steck Duo Art, Steinwat Welte-Mignon and Chickering Ampico Model B; not to mention the Welte ‘Vorsetzer’, a remarkable ‘instrument’ which looks like a piece of furniture but plays an ordinary piano when rolled into place over the keyboard.

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Within the three display rooms there is everything from tiny clockwork boxes to the museum’s pride and joy, a fully functioning Mighty Wurlitzer sat in a concert hall. I was lucky enough to hear it played live. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the Mighty Wurlitzer is an over-the-top art deco delight, complete with illuminated side panels which change colour from deep red to ice blue. This wonderful ‘instrument’ is connected by two thousand electrical wires to a room housing organ pipes and wind chests.

There are ordinary organs, most regularly encountered in churches; and then there are Mighty Wurlitzers, the pipe organ designed to imitate an entire orchestra. Fitted out with multiple keyboards, peddles and stop keys, it has percussion and special effects. On a Mighty Wurlitzer a person can play a piece of orchestral music – imitating trumpets, symbols, clarinets and violins – or mimic a train leaving a station, a galloping horse or the crashing of ocean waves.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

Hearing a Mighty Wurlitzer in action is to be transported back to an age of concert halls and silent films. The Mighty Wurlitzer peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, and was designed to accompany silent films, providing both an orchestral and sound effect soundtrack. The Musical Museum occasionally shows silent films with the Mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the on-screen action, which must be a wonderful experience – especially as it sits on a lift which raises it onto the stage and takes it down again.

Most of the larger instruments are operated by rolls of musical paper. The music is stored as perforations in the paper, these are read by the mechanism inside the machine which plays the correct notes. The first music roll was used commercially in 1883 in the USA. A pianist would play on a special piano that would mark a roll of paper as they played – a recording – this was then mass produced on machines in factories. The museum has two of these machines to show how the rolls were produced.

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Many of the instruments were used in private homes – this was the way the wealthy middle class listened to music – others were in commercial settings. Dance halls, cafes and restaurants had them, as a result they have coin slots where people would pay for a tune. Our guide fumbled around getting an old 1p coin out of a mug, then sliding it into the coin slot he brought to life a machine that played two violins and a piano. We could see the entire workings as it played a popular 1900s tune: paper rolls going round and small wheels lowered onto the violin strings. Absolutely wonderful.

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

It is a privilege to see, and hear, so many working examples of such wonderful mechanical instruments. Unfortunately, the Musical Museum receives little funding and is only open three days each week. It is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are expert craftspeople who undertake repairs and maintenance on the instruments. It’s a small museum – which takes an hour or so to visit – and the £10 entry might seem a bit steep, but listening to the Mighty Wurlitzer in full voice makes £10 seem cheap.

Tales from the riverbank, memories of the English Civil War

These memories, I might add, are not my own, although the long winter days can make you feel several hundred years old. The English Civil War erupted in the late summer of 1642, following two years of protracted negotiations and disagreements between King Charles I and Parliament. London didn’t see much fighting during the conflict, and remained firmly in the hands of Parliamentary forces throughout the war.

London didn’t see much fighting that is, except for two critically important battles fought in West London at the very beginning of the war. Had these battles proved decisive for the King, London would have been captured and, without the huge support of London’s population, Parliament might not have triumphed over Charles I. The simple truth was, without London’s wealth and manufacturing, the Royalists couldn’t hope to win the war…not that anyone realised it at the time.

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

It is difficult to imagine today as you walk down the tranquil River Thames from Kew to Richmond, but there was vicious fighting here in November 1642. Parliamentary gunboats sailed along the river and bombarded Royalist forces massing at the stronghold of Syon House, which was damaged by artillery fire. A short distance from where I was walking on the Thames, the main battle was fought at Brentford (literally a crossing over the River Brent), an important entry point into London.

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

I was heading to Richmond Locks, where I planned to cross the Thames and loop back to Kew on the north bank of the river. A route which would take me through the grounds of Syon House and past the site of the Battle of Brentford. First though, I hoped to be able to get a sight of the Kew Observatory. Also known as the King’s Observatory, it was completed in 1769 at the request of King George III so he could witness the transit of Venus across the sun. At the time, this area was still considered countryside, and light pollution wasn’t the problem it is today.

Sadly this monument to the human fascination with the heavens isn’t open to the public. Worse, its in the middle of a private golf course, at the entrance to which are lots of forbidding signs about how plebs (sorry, non-members) aren’t permitted to enter. This means you have to trespass and risk being hit by flying golf balls, or turn back. Wishing the Parliamentary army was still around to sort out the golf club, I headed back to the river and continued along my way. I did find this photo though, from the London Bytes blog…

Kew Observatory, London, England

Kew Observatory, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

Crossing the river I was soon on the north bank heading east and passing through the grounds of Syon House. Closed for the winter, I had to make do with the view from outside the fence, and, as time was getting on, I pressed on to Isleworth. On the first half of my walk the lovely riverside location of the 14th Century All Saints Church in Isleworth had been illuminated by the sun. I now walked down Church Street, past some lovely Georgian houses and The London Apprentice pub, to the church itself.

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

The row of houses opposite The London Apprentice were once home to Arthur Penty (1875–1937), an architect and writer on guild socialism and distributism. Much more exciting though, it was also the home of the actor, William Hartnell, best known as the first Doctor Who from 1963–1966. He lived opposite The London Apprentice from the 1920s.

Arthur Penty's house in Isleworth, London, England

Arthur Penty’s house in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints is a bit of a disappointment. The church was gutted by fire in May 1943 and only the tower remains from the original. You may be thinking “May 1943? Did the Luftwaffe bomb the church?”, but the fire was the result of arson by two local schoolboys. Their crime spree saw another nearby church burnt down before they were caught. The replacement building is the product of 1960s Utopian architectural thinking, and is incredibly ugly. The sun was going down, so I pressed on through Syon Park, finally arriving at the site of the Battle of Brentford (1642).

Brentford was fortified with two regiments of Parliamentary soldiers, and was attacked by Royalist cavalry and Dragoons. As you walk down a busy road, passing through some fairly deprived areas, towards the site of the battle, its hard to conjure an image of charging cavalry, musket shot and thundering canon. Thundering trucks, yes, but this nondescript place offers up few hints of its history.

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Although the Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, led by Prince Rupert, it wasn’t decisive, and the following day the two main armies clashed at Turnham Green. Again the battle was inconclusive, but Charles I decided to retreat to Oxford and spent the winter there. This was a disastrous decision for his hopes of winning the war. He would never come close to capturing London again, and his failure at Brentford and Turnham Green over the weekend of 12 and 13 November, 1642, would result in the loss of his kingdom and his head.

Tales from the riverbank, a walk around Kew

I love walking the River Thames, especially in west London where the city starts to fade away and things become a bit greener. At Putney the concrete paving of the Thames Path National Trail turns into a muddy track, and the grinding urban landscape gives way to become almost rustic. There are more trees than buildings, dog walkers in Wellington boots outnumber people tapping away on their mobile devices. In a crowded city the river offers a sense of space, the vast sky becomes visible.

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

You never quite leave the city behind, wandering off the river path will bring you abruptly back into an urban environment, but between Kew and Richmond there is a wealth of green space linked by the river. Kew is known as the home of the Royal Botanical Gardens, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to all things plant, but Kew itself is a lovely place.

Walking up river on a cold, sunny winter’s day is wonderful; sunny days have been in short supply and because it was mid-week the Thames Path was largely empty. The cyclists and joggers who take to the path in their hundreds at weekends, were safely tucked away in office buildings, leaving it in the care of a few dog walkers and my good self. Passing under Chiswick Bridge along the tree-lined path the occasional rowing boat passes, and the only reminder that you’re in a city of eight million is the buzzing airplanes overhead.

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

Ducking under a railway bridge, trains thundering overhead, you soon spot Oliver’s Island. This small wooded island in the middle of the Thames is rumoured to have been a secret base from which Oliver Cromwell led operations during the English Civil War. There’s no truth to the story, but the name has stuck. Once past the island you find yourself at Kew Bridge, with the option of going into Kew or crossing the river to Strand-on-the-Green along the north bank.

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

Oliver's Island, Kew, London, England

Oliver’s Island, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Nestling in a bend of the river, Kew retains a distinctly village-like feel – albeit a very well heeled village. In part the village feel exists because Kew retains that most traditional of village landmarks, a ‘green’. Kew Green’s grassy public space is a large area surrounded by elegant Georgian houses. It is home to a cricket pitch and in the centre of the space is the splendid looking Church of St. Anne.

St. Anne’s was built in 1714 on land given to the Church by Queen Anne. Its a grand-looking building sitting amidst Kew Green, if you could climb the tower you’d be able to see the Royal Botanical Gardens just beyond the Green. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of people buried here who are associated with the Botanical Gardens, including Sir William Hooker, Director of the Gardens, and his son, botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Hooker.

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Kew is almost as strongly associated with artists as it is botanists; its no surprise that the cemetery’s most famous resident is the wonderful landscape artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who lived nearby. It is also the burial place of German neoclassical artist and fellow member of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany. Zoffany lived at Strand-on-the-Green and enjoyed the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, giving him access to the highest society.

Johann Zoffany's tomb, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Johann Zoffany’s tomb, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Zoffany was, alarmingly, unique amongst contemporary artists. William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, has described him as “the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal.” I’m sure that’s not how he’d prefer to be remembered, but sadly its true. Zoffany was returning to Europe from India when he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The desperate, and desperately hungry, survivors held a lottery in which the loser was turned into dinner.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

The river is tidal at Kew – and for a few more miles up river. The tide was high the day I was there, it doesn’t affect walkers too much but is a recurring issue for people living on the banks. The houses which dramatically line the river at Strand-on-the-Green are regularly inundated with water. Walking past them on a footpath still wet from when the river most recently came over the bank, their vulnerability to flooding is clear. Many doorways are set high in the wall for just such an occasion.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

While messing around by the river I discovered the Musical Museum, home to a collection of mechanical musical instruments, including a giant Wurlitzer. The museum was closed, but there’s no way I can resist the appeal of a giant Wurlitzer…

Wife swapping and summoning angels, the supernatural John Dee

Blue skies and sunshine have been hard to come by in London recently, and the weather forecast is relentlessly grim. When the sun does shine, there is a limited window of opportunity to enjoy it. During these short winter days a cold but sunny day is special. The light lasts longer into the afternoon; a sign of things to come, that the worst of winter is behind us.

I decided I’d walk along the Thames from Barnes Bridge to Kew Bridge. The tide was high and parts of the path were flooded and impassable. This proved lucky, I came off the river at Mortlake and discovered the lovely Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The stonework of the church tower looked old, the cemetery was atmospheric, but the supernatural connections of a person buried here makes St. Mary’s special.

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Inside the church is a plaque to John Dee. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. With access to a computer, it dawned on me that a modern opera, Dr. Dee, recently celebrated his life. The work of Blur frontman, Damian Albarn, and future head of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, it premiered in 2012. This isn’t the first time Dee’s featured on stage, Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is thought to be based on him. A fitting portrayal since Dee is credited with summoning the storm that smashed the Spanish Armada. He’s also fictionalised in Peter Ackroyd’s novel, The House of Doctor Dee.

A trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and her court, Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, astronomer, mystic, astrologer, geographer and occultist. He was rumoured to be a spy and he famously owned one of the largest libraries in Europe. He was a student of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, a pre-Christian writer/prophet, possibly a contemporary of Moses, who influenced many early Christian thinkers. This is the sort of discovery that happens when the Thames floods.

Portrait of John Dee

Portrait of John Dee

John Dee's 'Seal of God' in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee’s ‘Seal of God’ in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee had an extraordinary life. During the reign of Mary Tudor, he was imprisoned for for attempting to murder the Queen through black magic. He was lucky to keep his head. Considered an intellectual giant in his time, at the age of twenty he lectured at the University of Paris on algebra. He was deeply religious, but in a superstitious era, when people grasped at anything to make sense of the mysteries of the physical world, his ‘knowledge’ of astrology and the supernatural made him invaluable to Elizabeth I. He chose her coronation date to ensure it was auspicious.

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

His study of astronomy made him an ‘expert’ in navigation, at a time when Europeans were   starting to explore the New World. Dee had made friends with legendary map maker, Gerardus Mercator, while in Belgium. It seems he stole some of Mercator’s maps and on his return to Britain published a book, General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. This proposed English expansion around the world – a blueprint for empire. Established as the foremost expert on navigation, he trained many of England’s merchant adventurers before they set sail for the New World.

To a modern mind, Dee’s mysticism took him in bizarre directions, including communing with angels, by which he believed it possible to understand the divine fabric of the world. He seems to have believed a confidence trickster, the ‘spirit medium’ Edward Kelley, who claimed to be able to hold ‘spiritual conferences’ with angels in Enochian, the angel language. The angels dictated several books to Kelley and the ‘spiritual conferences’ were taken seriously – both men were invited to the court of the King of Poland.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In 1587, Kelley told Dee that an angel had ordered both men to share everything in common, including Dee’s much younger wife. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what does? Dee believed this to be a divine order and complied. History doesn’t record how Mrs. Dee felt about this divinely inspired arrangement. We do know that she died of plague in 1604, there is no evidence to suggest this was divine vengeance.

Today, Dee would be seen as a deluded religious fantasist, but that is the benefit of living in an age of science. In his own time he was considered one of Europe’s foremost scholars, taken seriously by Kings, Queens and religious authorities. He was, after all, a contemporary of Nostradamus. Sadly Dee’s grave has been lost over time, but he was buried at St. Mary the Virgin in 1609. The church itself was constructed in 1543 on the instruction of King Henry VIII and makes for happy wandering.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In another coincidence, just over the road from the church I came across a memorial to the the Lower Dutch House, part of the Mortlake Tapestry Works. The Tapestry Works were established in the 1620s on the site where John Dee’s house had stood and, as so often in English history, it attracted highly skilled immigrant Flemish tapestry workers. The tapestries made here were famous and very valuable.

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Back on the river, the tide was going out and I could continue on my merry way to Kew Bridge…

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