Into the enchanted forest…watch out for fairy snares!

Hollywood would have us believe that fairies are mischievous but kindly creatures – think Tinker Bell, the fairy dust-sprinkling brat of the Peter Pan films. The reality is somewhat different. These wee magical creatures should be avoided at all costs. They are malicious, devious beasties who’ll try to bamboozle and trick you, and then lure you into one of their snares.

Fairies kidnap babies and leave ‘changelings’ in their place. When I see a small child wearing fairy wings in the street, all I see is fairy propaganda at work. Under no circumstance should you wander unsuspecting into the realm of the fairies, and definitely avoid eating their food. These winged willow-the-wisps are a menace, but, for reasons known only to themselves, fairies don’t like iron. Carry iron with you at all times.

The Limestone Link through Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Limestone Link through Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Fairy Steps, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Fairy Steps, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Fairy Steps, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Fairy Steps, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

Having just survived a close encounter with fairies while walking in Underlaid Wood, close to Beetham in Cumbria, its ‘fairy’ easy to see how belief in the small folk could take possession of a person’s mind. The narrow woodland tracks cross a landscape of wind and rain sculpted limestone. Its a magical place, with a soundtrack of eerie, creaking trees to accompany your walk. Surely, fairies live in these enchanted woods?

Of course they do, they even have their own staircase, ‘The Fairy Steps’. What further evidence is needed?

Limestone, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

Limestone, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Fairy Steps, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

The Fairy Steps, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

Limestone, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

Limestone, Underlaid Wood, Cumbria, England

Of course, fairies aren’t really real. That’s what I keep telling myself, and anyone who claims otherwise requires a one way ticket to the psychiatrist. They may be folk tales, grown out of pre-Christian beliefs and traditions, but the idea of the fairy has had a powerful influence on the Western European mind for centuries…and for centuries people have believed them to be real creatures influencing human existence. A bit like the Djinn in Arabic culture.

I had my fairy encounter while on a walk to Arnside, where the River Kent reaches Morcambe Bay and the Irish Sea. The day started fine, but by the time I reached Arnside it was raining. Three hours later it was still raining. As the Eurythmics sang, ‘There’s nothing like an English summer’.

The Limestone Link route to Arnside, Cumbria, England

The Limestone Link route to Arnside, Cumbria, England

The Limestone Link route to Arnside, Cumbria, England

The Limestone Link route to Arnside, Cumbria, England

The estuary at Arnside is famous for its railway viaduct, and for being one of the most dangerous bits of sand anywhere in England. The estuary is deceptive, people die here every year. Quicksands will swallow a person whole; deep water channels are hazardous; most dangerous of all, the ‘Arnside Bore’. Not some old bloke in the pub, but a tide that arrives with the speed and power of a steam train at full speed. You don’t want to be on the sand during the Bore.

Arnside viaduct, Cumbria, England

Arnside viaduct, Cumbria, England

Arnside sands, Cumbria, England

Arnside sands, Cumbria, England

Arnside sands with viaduct, Cumbria, England

Arnside sands with viaduct, Cumbria, England

I reached Arnside via the village of Beetham, home to the 14th century Beetham Hall. This fortified country house appears to be slowly crumbling, but it is still a powerful reminder of the history of this region…and Beetham Hall has seen some history. On the wrong side of the War of the Roses the owners lost the Hall and their lands to the crown. On the wrong side during the English Civil War, its Royalist defenders found themselves under siege from Thomas Fairfax’s Roundheads. Serious damage was inflicted on the building, it hasn’t recovered since.

Beetham Hall, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Beetham Hall, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Beetham Hall, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Beetham Hall, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Beetham itself is a pretty little village, with a cluster of old buildings, including St. Michael and All Angels Church, parts of which are 12th century. The original chapel was dedicated to the largely forgotten St. Lioba. She was born into a nobel Saxon family, and was destined for Holy Orders from an early age – she was related to St. Boniface, which no doubt helped her career. Boniface made it his life’s work to covert Germany to Christianity (where he met a sticky end, presumably at the hands of an affronted pagan).

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Beetham, Cumbria, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Beetham, Cumbria, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Beetham, Cumbria, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Beetham, Cumbria, England

The Wheatsheaf pub, Beetham, Cumbria, England

The Wheatsheaf pub, Beetham, Cumbria, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Beetham, Cumbria, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Beetham, Cumbria, England

St. Lioba accompanied Boniface on his missionary trips. It was while pestering Germans that she is credited with saving a village from a terrible a storm, one of several miracles allegedly achieved through prayer. Beetham parish church doesn’t have an association with her anymore, but up the hill from the church is a shrine containing a statue of her ringing a bell.

Shrine to St. Lioba, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Shrine to St. Lioba, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Shrine to St. Lioba, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Shrine to St. Lioba, Beetham, Cumbria, England

Getting closer to Arnside the Limestone Link route I was following passed by the 14th century Hazelslack Tower. A Peel Tower that was constructed to protect people from attacks by Scots raiders and Border Reivers. The tower fell into disrepair in the 17th century, coinciding with an end to Border Reiver activity.

Hazelslack Tower, Limestone Link, Cumbria, England

Hazelslack Tower, Limestone Link, Cumbria, England

From here it was only a couple of miles to Arnside. On a good day, you can look out over Arnside Sands and see the hills of the Lake District in the distance. Unfortunately, the clouds had gotten progressively bigger and darker on my journey and now, in Arnside, the heavens opened. Only another six miles to go…as the Eurythmics sang, ‘Here come the rain again’. I blame the fairies.

Ledbury, Medieval market town with the ‘most photographed alleyway in England’

‘Quaint verging on twee’, instantly springs to mind when wandering around Ledbury. Its probably not fair to pigeon-hole a town of 10,000 people that way, but it seems appropriate. After all, it was here that a man from New York informed me I was standing in the most photographed alleyway in England. What he really meant to say, but was too polite to do so, was that I was standing in the middle of his photo of the most photographed alleyway in England. I removed myself immediately.

The most photographed alleyway in England, Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

The most photographed alleyway in England, Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

Ledbury feels ‘twee’ because it has managed to preserve a magnificent collection of historic buildings – something to be applauded. It feels like you’ve been transported back in time, with lots of other tourists along for the ride. Whether it is the glorious 12th century St. Michael and All Angels Church or the 17th century timber-framed Market House, Ledbury is a town with a rich history writ large. I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger collection of timber-framed houses anywhere in England. Chester, perhaps?

The 17th century Market House, Ledbury, England

The 17th century Market House, Ledbury, England

The 17th century Ledbury Park, Ledbury, England

The 17th century Ledbury Park, Ledbury, England

17th century buildings on Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

17th century buildings on Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

Ledbury’s origins are Saxon – part of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, but ruled as a fiefdom by a Saxon knight, Edwin of Magonsaete. On his deathbed he bequeathed Ledbury to the church. A new convert to Christianity, Edwin left his estate to the church so that they would intercede, through prayer, on his behalf to ensure he reached heaven. Nice work if you can get it.

Although Christianity had come to the British Isles with the Romans, it was never more than a minority cult amongst numerous Pagan beliefs. It truly arrived in England riding on the coat-tails of St. Augustine in the 6th century. This new and fashionable religion, with its emphasis on centralised authority and intolerance for Pagan beliefs, secured the patronage of King Aethelbert. When the Diocese of Hereford was founded in AD 676, Christianity was well on its way to being a ‘national religion’, thanks in large part to the sponsorship of the ruling classes.

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Once under the control of the church, Ledbury developed into a major ecclesiastical centre – its mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a rural manor owned by the Bishop of Hereford. It was the Bishop who established the town of Ledbury, and his layout for the town remained largely unchanged until the Victorian-era, when the arrival of the canal and railway led to significant growth.

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

The outstanding ecclesiastical feature remaining from that time is St. Michael and All Angels Church. Its a massive church for the size of the town, and dates from AD1140, although it has been added to throughout the centuries. The oddity about the church is that the tower, with a spire added in the 18th century, is separate from the church. No one seems to know why.

The interior of St. Michael and All Angels is wonderful. Full of tombs underneath the floor, and ancient memorials on the walls. It also has some beautiful stained glass windows dating from different periods, some Medieval. One lovely memorial is to Captain Samuel Skynner, who, in 1725, bequeathed six pounds (£6) to be divided between the vicar and twenty poor housekeepers who weren’t receiving alms (poor relief).

St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial to Captain Skynner, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial to Captain Skynner, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Stained glass window, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Stained glass window, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Detail from a tomb in St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Detail from a tomb in St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

After the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries, Ledbury fell under the control of several powerful families. Church buildings were converted to secular use and many have, remarkably, survived into the 21st century. It is a pleasant place to spend a few hours pottering around, occasionally cooling down with a glass of local cider – they love their apple-based beverages in this part of the world.

Cider shop, Ledbury, England

Cider shop, Ledbury, England

Shops, Ledbury, England

Shops, Ledbury, England

Shop, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Shop, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Alleyway, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Alleyway, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Sadly, St. Catherine’s Hospital, which dates from 1232 and is one of the few surviving hospitals from this period, wasn’t open when I was there. Its currently being restored and repaired, and will presumably reopen to the world sometime soon. Wish I’d been able to go inside, all the same.

Sign for St. Catherine's Hospital, Ledbury, England

Sign for St. Catherine’s Hospital, Ledbury, England

Pub sign, Ledbury, England

Pub sign, Ledbury, England

For all its history, time has not left Ledbury behind. It is now home to lovebirds Elizabeth Hurley (she of the dress) and Shane Warne (he of the wicked spin and even wickeder text message). Rubbing shoulders with scandalous celebrity probably makes Ledbury less twee, and possibly a little more glamourous.

Sing for train station, Ledbury, England

Sing for train station, Ledbury, England