Category Archives: Aspects of Britain
I don’t regard myself as a pedant, and I try to avoid conversations that begin with “now, when I was a lad…” or “in my day…..” or even worse “in the good old days……”, when English was written and spoken properly…….but I have to confess that I am frequently amused by current uses and abuses of language.
We’ve all seen, by the roadside, garages that advertise “MOT’s while you wait” or signs that warn you a road is “Unsuitable for HGV’s”. Now the abuse of the apostrophe is so gaily rampant these days as to prompt a group of language conservationists to form the Apostrophe Protection Society…….I kid you not. If you are guilty of abusing an apostrophe in a public forum, they will hunt you down, ridicule you in public, and make an example of you before the international English-speaking community. If you get away with just a life-sentence in a high security lock-up, count yourself lucky!
Now, as some of you know, I take a ‘moderate’ interest in all things cycling, and I read a lot from a variety of periodicals, memoirs, travelogues, reviews and biographies. Cyclists, in general, are a relatively literate bunch. Some may lack imagination when it comes to writing about their reflections on a route or journey they have enjoyed but, generally, they can form sentences and
paragraphs, know roughly where full-stops, commas and apostrophes go, and get most of their spellings correct…….
Now, I did say only “most”, because there are a lot of pedallers out there who still can’t distinguish their ‘peddle’ from their ‘pedal’, or their ‘peddlers’ from their ‘pedallers’. I have just this minute read the following in an article: “….a tandem does really need two peddlers”. Now I really want to know if a pair of tandemists “will peddle their tandem to a car boot sale, so that they can pedal their wares”……or is it the other way around?
Excuse the unintended puns, but I hate tinkering with people’s (or is it peoples’) thinking, because to do so can mess with their ‘cycle-logical’ equanimity, but I really do need to know, when I climb on my bike, am I ‘hawking’ or ‘spinning cranks’?
Elsewhere in the world of cycling, there have been other developments in the use of language (and not just in cycling either). I’ve always thought of ‘podium’ only as a noun, but I now have to bow down to the superior intellect of our celebrated TV commentators who will quite happily say things like: “….now has Chris Froome done enough to podium at the end?”.
And if you always thought that ‘medal’ was only a noun……well, think again. It does actually exist as a verb meaning ‘to decorate with a medal’, but its usage has now been stretched to mean ‘ to win a medal’. Throughout the 2012 Olympics, we kept hearing things like: “….Wiggins is approaching the finishing line, and it looks as if he’s done enough to medal…..”….or is that to meddle? (Now I’m really confused).
So, what would the BBC’s erstwhile Brains Trust (or was that Brain’s Trust?) have said about all this?
Some of the most celebrated English naturalists seldom strayed far from their homes to make their astonishing discoveries. On my cycle route to Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago, I chanced by the home of Gilbert White in Selbourne, Hampshire, and learned that through painstaking observation of the behaviour of swallows in his own village, he concluded that they migrated to other lands during the winter. From that seed of observation sprouted the theory that many species of birds (and animals) followed the same patterns of behaviour.
Charles Darwin, the man celebrated for having the wisdom to unwrap the mysteries of evolution, spent 40 years living in Downe House with his wife and children. Apart from his 5 years travelling the globe with HMS Beagle, the bulk of his study took place in his home, and out on the 18 acres of land purchased with the house.
He spent 40 years patiently observing and conducting experiments, and the theory of evolution was only one of hundreds of theories that emanated from that small domestic environment. In fact, one of his major studies concerned the huge impact of the humble earthworm on the well-being of the planet. The last book he published before his death contained the results of his life-long study of the worm…….and this from a man who was being celebrated (and vilified) the world over for the ‘earthquake’ he caused amongst the thinking classes.
Darwin had the wisdom to publish and then withdraw to the peace and quiet of his home environment, allowing the intellectuals of his time to ‘clear up the mess’. So it is astonishing to discover that his theory of evolution, in the hands of opposing intellectuals of the time, was used to justify the arguments of opposite camps.
‘Social Darwinists’, on the one hand, argued in favour of the theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’ being applied directly to human society: allow the weak and the poor to die off, and the strongest and wealthiest will propagate the earth. (The foundation of the Nazi final solution…..?). On the other hand, Karl Marx himself embraced the theory in proposing the class struggle. If the poor and the weak are likely to suffer and die at the hands of the rich and powerful, then they should rise up and fight for survival.
If you visit Downe House in Kent, allow a whole day to take in the length and the breadth of this fascinating house. More than just a home to the Darwin family, it was the laboratory from which new thinking was to change the way we viewed the world.
Trying to cover the last three miles to Stonehenge can be a trial. You think there is an accident ahead as the traffic creeps along at slower than a snail’s pace. The truth is somewhat more mysterious. There are no visible hold-ups, no roundabouts or traffic lights that seem to be delaying the traffic…..in fact, there is no explanation other than the fact that curious drivers slow down as they pass Stonehenge, probably to have a lingering look at the megalith without having to stop and visit it. For us, a three hour journey stretched to five hours, and we got there just in time for our allotted slot.
Now with its new Visitor Centre, the history and background to this stunning piece of ancient history is all laid bare. No longer can you wander amongst the stones, but you can get wrapped up in the myriad theories of the who, the how and the why of this circle of ancient stones and barrows. My favourite is the long-held belief that Merlin was the architect. Then the Romans were on the list of suspects, and latterly the Druids. But, of course, none of those were the culprits.
Now we know for certain (?) that it was the ancient Britons of 3000BC who were the proven master ‘bricklayers’. Just think of it…. this pre-dates all the admired wonders of Egypt, Rome and ancient Greece. And for centuries the world had thought the folks on these islands to be too stupid and savage to be the authors of such a wonder.
It’s not just our weather that catches people by surprise!
Cycling back from a Local History Society gathering this evening, I approached my home village of Kimbolton from the east, some 30 minutes before the setting of the sun. As I passed the east wing of Kimbolton Castle, my brakes applied automatically………
……and as I swung around to the west side, I peered through the Gatehouse, and the western frontage was bathed in that warm sunlight that only comes with the ending of the day.
If we open our eyes and look carefully at our familiar surroundings, searching for the extraordinary in the unremarkable, we will sometimes find those coveted diamonds in our own backyard. As T S Eliot once said “you will get to know the place for the first time”.
No, this will not be a standard catalogue of reflections from someone who was roadside at the Tour de France coming out of Cambridge.
But it has to be said, in no other sport (I think….) will spectators stand for several hours (even camp out for several days) to catch so little live action. I was there 3 hours before the peloton arrived, and got to enjoy………wait for it…….believe me this is worth waiting for………. I got to enjoy all of 30 seconds of live action.
The peloton had left the neutralized zone just 500 metres up the road and they were winding up to racing speed as they left the city. Perhaps the most exciting bit was seeing two riders begin a very early break…….but that was it. 200 riders can easily pass you in 30 seconds…..and you don’t even get to pinpoint who is who in the bunch….it is just a wave of brightly coloured lycra topped by sleek aerodynamic helmets and shades.
But it’s amazing how roadies wearing their trademarked club kit find each other at these eventsand then after all the excitement (all 30 seconds of it…….), the numbers swell to five as they seek refreshment at the famous Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden, sitting in the shade of the very same apple trees (I guess) as did the First World War poet Rupert Brooke, who lived in the Old Vicarage next door (now Jeffrey & Mary Archer’s house).It’s a hard life!
The above in the village of Elton, famous for its baronial estate of Elton Hall, and its Loch Fyne restaurant. The cafe in the Walled Garden is worth a visit.
The following in the remote setting of Little Gidding, sparkling under the spring sunshine:
After the wettest winter on record, we are now promised a dry week. Three cheers for the meteorologists!
Rupert’s view is the spot where Prince Rupert (The Royalists’ commander-in-chief) mustered his troops to prepare his attack on the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax. The Royalists’ position commanded a high ridge, normally a distinct advantage on the battlefield, but the Parliamentarians were hidden by the contour of the land, and were able to maneuver into a position to catch the Royalists by surprise.
This viewing platform gives you a sweeping panorama to the south, giving you an idea of the Royalists’ perspective. Despite rough parity of numbers between the two sides, the Royalists were overwhelmed and massacred. King Charles escaped, but the 100 women camp followers on the Royalist side were put to the sword, an atrocity against civilians which was almost unheard of at the time.
One of the King’s places of refuge was the tiny community of Little Gidding in west Cambridgeshire, which he visited on May 2nd 1646. But he rapidly ran out of options and eventually surrendered himself to the Scottish Presbyterian army. After nine months in their ‘care’, he was sold to the Parliamentarians for the sum of £100,000……..a veritable king’s ransom.
Distance covered: 73 miles
After two weeks of cycling across the sweltering flat plains of Florida, sometimes into 20 mph headwinds, it is good to be back negotiating the ‘lumpy landscape’ of rural Northamptonshire.
The route out to the village of Gretton (near Rockingham) took me across large swathes of sparsely populated countryside, through tiny villages of only a handful of houses, to a village hall where the local community put on a monthly lunch, and feed us the best in homemade soups and puddings. We are usually a group of a dozen or more cyclists, who have come from a wide radius, and the lunch venue is our focus not only for the ride, but also for a gathering of like-minded people of the road, most of whom have pedalled several miles to get there.
There were so many airfields in this area that, not surprisingly, many accidents occurred during the routines of training. With the huge loss of manpower during airborne raids, young pilots had to be trained up quickly as replacements, and their preparation was seldom as thorough as it would have been in peace time.Distance covered: 72 miles
A quick dash out on the bike, to catch the last few hours of rare sunshine this afternoon, had me stumbling into this sign along a Bedfordshire country lane:
The emphatic underlining certainly makes a point, but what of the import of the message? To my knowledge, the only litter to allegedly cause brain damage are the contents of fluorescent tubes and cat litter (in babies especially). Now let’s not be alarmist…… neither of these unlikely dangers are going to feature in the depths farming country. But what other explanation……? Someone just practising his/her sign writing? Feel free to comment.
Though we are not the south west, and still less the Somerset Levels, we can still put on an impressive display of flooded roads
…I traversed at least half a dozen, unsure of what unexpected danger might lurk in the depths. But it was a risk worth taking…………so long as you don’t meet an oncoming vehicle. If you do, and they don’t slow down……..who is going to have very wet legs (at the very least) when you emerge at the far end? But there is a secret for avoiding this…..cycle down the middle of the road through the flooded area, and guess what? The oncoming traffic will either stop and let you through or, at least, slow down to a crawl.
Use the same trick on a narrow single track road. Oncoming vehicles sometimes expect to maintain their speed as they approach you and brush by you, sometimes squeezing you off the road through intimidation. If you can hold your nerve and cycle down the middle of the road towards the oncoming vehicle, you will force them to slow down, and then the two of you can negotiate a passing point at a gentle pace. Accidents can be averted by the cyclist if he emphatically occupies his space on the road, and visually communicates (sometimes by positioning, sometimes by eye contact) with other road users.
To get an early start this morning on the bike, I had to battle the rush hour.
Now, in a small community of about 1200 inhabitants, you wouldn’t think that should be a problem. But then Kimbolton has a secondary school, a Prep School and a Primary School, as well as a small industrial estate and numerous businesses on the High Street. But once beyond the parish limits, the going got much easier…..
I headed west, first into Bedfordshire, then into Northamptonshire, and wound my way through dozens of little villages, through rolling countryside, crossing numerous swollen rivers, until I arrived at Naseby Old Vicarage Tearoom (tantalisingly close to the site of the famous battle of Naseby, which proved to be the downfall of King Charles I).
Once beyond Brixworth, with its beautiful Saxon church, I found myself crossing the old estate of Cottesbrooke Hall, its parkland still preserving the open aspect of so many aristocratic estates, with tree lined avenues, gated roads, and flocks of sheep roaming at will. Red kites were in abundance and, amazingly for mid-January, the birdlife was in full song. In the absence of a prolonged cold spell this winter, much of nature hasn’t yet realised that winter is upon us.
On the return, I chanced by Kelmarsh Hall where, close by, there is a Buddhist Centre. It hosts meditation sessions, retreats and study courses. But it also has a cafe which is open to all, and is a particular favourite amongst cyclists.
After 6 hours on the road, I managed to get back home just before the heavens opened. A rare example of the ‘winds of fortune’ being on my side.
For those of us who didn’t join the hundreds of thousands along the Thames at 12 midnight, we have the benefit of playback.
Enjoy! Click here to view.
How many people would go strolling on Christmas morning around their former place of work? Very few, I would guess. But then I had the privilege of working in Kimbolton Castle, which is now Kimbolton School. At half a mile from my home, its park land made a perfect environment for a Christmas morning stroll. After the storms and floods of recent days, this morning was a real bonus.
And as I passed the south face of the Castle, directly in front of the room where Catherine of Aragon died, I wondered how she had spent her last Christmas in 1535, just two weeks before her death, on January 7th 1536.
For those of you who have been kind enough to follow the meandering and sometimes incoherent ramblings on these posts, thank you, and I wish you a very happy Christmas.
If neither traditional circus nor classical dance is your scene, you may find a niche in what comfortably sits outside of both, but depends on both for its inspiration.
Cirque Eloize, a Canadian dance company, sits in a middle ground of being neither a circus act, nor a dance troupe in the traditional sense. Their show iD (currently on with Sadler’s Wells at the Peacock Theatre in London) is a riveting mix of circus and urban dance, loosely based on the West Side story theme of young love and gang rivalry.
Throughout the performance, there is a throbbing sound track, a multimedia visual backdrop that creates shifting urban scenes in 3D effect, and the troupe of dancers are in perpetual motion, whether gyrating on the ground, balancing on a tower of chairs, dazzling us with trampolining or cycling skills, or simply proving that the human body can twist and turn in directions that it was never intended to. This performance is as exhausting for the audience as it is for the performers. Absolutely stunning.
It’s the best unread seller in Spain (discounting the Bible), and the average volume weighs in at about 2 kilos. Only the endurance reader will begin at page one, and stay with it to the last of its 1,500 pages. As with War and Peace by Tolstoy, it would be nice to be counted amongst the minority who claim to have read Cervantes’ Don Quixote in its entirety. But like most students of Hispanic literature, I could only honestly say that I read just enough to get by in exams.
But now, many years later, I make a fresh start from page one (Kindle version this time, weighing only 171 grams), and within a few hours of negotiating the 16th century Spanish of the early chapters, I chance upon the famous episode of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Now Don Quixote had got it into his head that the world was in serious need of a chivalric knight at arms, who would mount his trusty steed (Rocinante), clothed in an old suit of armour, a barber’s basin for a helmet, an old sword and lance, and would head off to perform deeds of chivalry, and all in the name of his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso.
Then, one day, he chanced upon a landscape of some 40 windmills and, believing them to be evil giants, he attacked them.The delusional Quixote would not accept his valet Sancho’s realistic observation that they weren’t really giants, but just windmills, and the giants’ arms were merely revolving blades. They were invincible. They couldn’t be defeated by conventional means.
As I mulled over this incident in the life and adventures of Don Quixote, my thoughts turned to the real life struggle our little community is having with the location of wind turbines just outside the boundaries of the village. The headlong rush into green energy has led to many communities like ours mounting a rearguard action to block their arrival.
I won’t rehearse all the arguments of why these 125 metre evil giants should not be built little more than a thousand metres from dwellings, and in full view of dozens of ancient heritage buildings, including an 18th century castle. But having already defeated the proposal once (the process of which took over 2 years) we are now countering a second attempt and, although the omens are currently in our favour, the battle (or even the war) hasn’t yet been won.
So step in Don Quixote. We need a delusional knight, with dented sword and barber’s basin for a helmet. We need a man of chivalric vision, riding his white charger, lance at the ready, to do battle with these evil giants. Or maybe this is the time for a delusional cyclist, kitchen broom and dustbin lid in hand, to go out and meet the foe, and engage him on the battle field. The realists (like Sancho) will tell him he hasn’t got a chance of winning. The foe is invincible and is set to win the day. But even in defeat, Don Quixote was triumphant. He left the battle field with head held high and self esteem intact. He had, in fact, won the day. A chivalric deed had been done. Which makes him one of the most endearing characters in Spanish literature.
Whether its the influence of the grand tours, or simply the enjoyment of the continuity of the ride, I have found myself increasingly completing solo rides without the usual stop.
My habit has nearly always been to ride about 30-35 miles (50-60 kms), have a short stop to snack and drink, and then resume. So a typical 100 mile ride would include two stops. Now, for the boys in lycra who ride the grand tours, riding a continuous 150 miles (without a stop) is a normal ‘day at the office’. Some have even mastered the tricky art of answering the call of nature without stopping…………. (click here).
If you’ve ever wondered why cycling jerseys have 2/3 back pockets, the answer is very simple…….you can feed on the run. Professional cyclists use a lot of ‘scientific’ energy gels and bars, which can be carried easily, and opened and consumed in a matter of seconds. I, on the other hand, being a ‘normal’ human being, prefer to eat real food, like bananas and fruit bars. If I need an instant sugar boost to the blood stream, a handful of jelly babies does the trick. And, instead of expensive and highly dubious energy drinks, a mixture of water with 25% fruit juice is great for
hydration and restoring energy levels.
My longest non-stop ride this summer was 65 miles/105 kms, which took about 3.5 hours, and the food and drink I had ‘on board’ was sufficient to get me home. Yesterday’s non-stop ride was 50 miles/80 kms. A drizzly morning, with a strong early headwind, saw me struggle down to Olney in Buckinghamshire, but once I turned about to head home, that tailwind restored the energy levels and provided that psychological boost which is a fundamental part of any endurance activity.
A large bowl of porridge for breakfast, mixed with dried fruit and nuts, provided the fire power for the first 35 miles. Then out came a large banana from the back pocket, easily peeled with the teeth and, more importantly, easily consumed. Then what do you do with the peel? Because it is bio-degradable, you just throw it under a headgerow (unlike the wrappings of sports energy goods).
And what of the post-ride recovery food? What better than a Spanish potato omelette (tortilla) with a mixed salad, followed by banana cake with yoghurt? Can it get any better…….?
“The breezes taste
Of apple peel
The air is full
Of smells to feel”
(John Updike, September)
In my teaching days, the end of August heralded the reining in of the wanderlust of summer, and the girding of the loins for the onset of the new term. The first few days of September saw all the systems firing up to receive the returning pupils from
the previous year, and the new pupils making their hesitant start in a new school environment. Since retiring from teaching, I’ve noticed how many of the ‘silver haired’ generation seem to disappear in the early days of September, presumably heading off to those very same resorts and hotels recently vacated by departing families heading home for the start of the school term. Not for them the exorbitant prices of the high season; not for them the noise and boisterous fun-making of children.
We stayed ‘chez nous’ for the duration of the month, primarily to be around when the garden landscapers moved in to dig a huge hole in our back garden, and then begin the process of filling it in again with a new patio. Having lost our patio 6 years
ago when we had a conservatory built on it, we decided to regain it once again……….in time, of course, for the promise of any warm lazy autumnal days that may lie ahead………….. ;0)
Cycling in September jostled for space alongside the obligatory blackberry picking and apple scrumping along the country lanes. This is the time for filling the freezer with the autumnal harvest, and the hedgerows this year have been awash with ripening fruits. Many has been the time I’ve got back home with the three back pockets of my cycling jersey stuffed with apples……….only to be met by the uxorial admonishment of “Oh no, not more fruit-for-free! What are we going to
do with it all?”.
In terms of cycling, the month started with descending temperatures, to the point where some domestic heating systems were fired up (not ours, of course………being post-war babies, we remember well the benefits of simply putting on multiple layers of clothing) and winter cycling layers were dug out from the depths of drawers. After a glove-less summer, applying brakes and gears with gloved hands seemed a little strange. But then a promised Indian summer appeared on the horizon, and the last two weeks of the month provided perfect cycling weather.
This is the time of year when cycling mileages normally tail off a bit. The days get cooler and daylight hours get shorter. Unlike July and August, when several of my day rides exceeded 160 kms/100 miles, my longest route in September was only 130 kms/81 miles. But I numbered 23 riding days in total, averaging 75 kms/47 miles per day………giving a total for the month of 1,735 kms/1,078 miles.
Which reminds me……’tis time to check the chain for wear, and get it replaced before it begins to do irreparable damage to the cassette and chainwheels. My last change of chain required a new cassette…………the guys at my local bike shop told me I was doing too many miles……
We’ve all seen them. Their visibility increases by the day. For many, it all starts on January 1st………
Let’s reveal gender early in the story. A man somewhere near you (maybe a neighbour) wakes up with a hangover on January 1st and decides that something has to change. He’s in his middle years, had his 2.1 children, changed the world in some small way in his business/professional capacity….and then realizes he is beginning to lose the edge. He needs a new target in life, something new to live for.
He takes a look at his profile in the mirror. The waist line is expanding, the hair receding, bags are appearing under the eyes. He thinks about his lifestyle: poor diet, too much drinking, not enough exercise, burning the candle at both ends. Something has to change.
For some, there is a Damascene experience that can have one of several outcomes. Some buy themselves a powerful bullet bike (motor), with the accompanying leathers and attitude. You see them at weekends, ‘hunting’ in packs around the country lanes, breaking the speed limit at every opportune moment. Some take up jogging, but they do nothing to disguise the pain and the suffering……but all for a higher cause. Still others equip themselves with all the expensive gear needed for an arduous day’s fishing (and that includes the folding chair and six pack).
But then there is that unfit, paunchy middle aged male who begins to take an unusual interest in how his wife shaves her legs. He can be caught secretly surfing webpages of spandex clothing, reflective shades, fingerless gloves, shoes with metal plates protruding from the soles. But more worrying still, he begins to head off on secret shopping trips. He doesn’t come back with anything…..he says he’s just been window-shopping. He obviously wants to do something different, to change something in his life, but he doesn’t want to make any bad choices in the process. When he starts this new activity, he has to do everything right, so that he will (at least) look uber-cool.
You’ve probably guessed by now, that these are the early pangs of a middle aged man getting into (or back into) cycling and, having experienced success as a professional and family man, he expects to go from ‘zero to hero’ overnight. If he’s not going to burn rubber at the speed of a Mark Cavendish, or dominate the peloton like Sir Brad, at least he can look the part.
Not for him an old steel bike that has been found at the local tip, and lovingly restored over weeks. Not for him anything less cool than a full carbon bike, weighing in just above the UCI legal 6.8 kilos; not for him the clothing that doesn’t stretch with every movement of his soon-to-be sleek body, and have enough elastication to help hold in that protruding gut; not for him a pair of sunglasses that he might wear for driving, or an old pair of skiing gloves. Everything has got to be right…………..right from the start.
The Cav, Wiggo and Froome effect has got this sub-species of the human race buying hyper-tech bikes with all the latest ‘tricknology’. Their beer bellies may yet be resting on the top tube as they ride, and they may be carrying an excess 30-40 kilos but, boy, they have the lightest, super-cool machine on the market; their clothing is head-turning; the electronic shifters are the best thing since sliced bread; and that Garmin 800 on his bar stem monitors his every heartbeat and pedal turn, every change in elevation, every detail of speed……it will even tell him when he’s missed a turning on the clubrun route.
This MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra) is now ready to impress the world. Watch out for him at the weekends cruising along with his buddies. Like (motor) bikers, they ‘hunt in packs’…………..except the posh word in this case is ‘peloton’. If you overtake them, give them a friendly ‘beep’……
When we lived in Altrincham back in the 1970s, I would frequently go out on a Sunday club cycle ride that headed off to the heights of the Peak District, sometimes picking up the road through the Hope Valley to Castleton and, depending on time and energy levels, climbing out of the valley either via Winnats Pass (20% incline) or over the Mam Tor road (steep but not as steep).
Hovering over Castleton is the silhouette of Peverill Castle, high up on the hillside, imposing and awe-inspiring. Always intent on completing the Sunday ride, we never stopped long enough to tramp up the steep hill to take a closer look at the ruin. But now as members of English Heritage, and with more time flexibility, this was the opportune moment to make that detour.
I imagined that it had been built as a fortification, to house people securely and keep the enemy out. But no. It had been built in the years following the Norman conquest, fell eventually into the hands of the monarchy, but was used mainly as accommodation for the guardians of the royal hunting grounds.
The only king ever to have visited it was Henry II, and then on only one occasion. Obviously it was too far from anywhere and much too remote. This area around Castleton must have almost felt like an independent kingdom, so rarely was it visited by anyone from the realm.
But do go and climb its ramparts. The climb is steep, but the rewards are immense. The views over the Hope valley, and the brooding peaks of Mam Tor and Losehill, will make your efforts worthwhile.
When we arrived, we were understandably impressed by its exterior, its landscaped gardens, its dominant location overlooking the South Yorkshire countryside. When we entered and climbed the stairs to our room, we could see that the grandeur was significantly diluted by its fading elegance. Paintwork and wallpaper were in much need of attention, corridors were pokey, lighting did little to lift the mood of rooms.
But it was only when we read of the Hall’s history that we began to understand a little of its circumstances. It was built as a stately home by Sir Richard Wortley back in 1586, reflecting the wealth of its succession of owners who, in the 19th century, made their money largely from coal mining, like many rich families in the area.
The two world wars saw mansions like Wortley Hall being used for military and medical purposes, and after WW2, many were sold by their impoverished owners because they had lost the source of their income, the mining industry having been nationalized by the post-war Labour Party.
The Labour Unions saw the Hall as a prime location for taking ownership of a property that had been financed by the sweat and suffering of the poor. They acquired it and turned it into a holiday hotel for trade unionists, and also used it as a training centre and location for union meetings.
As you enter the Hall, you can’t help but notice the literature and leaflets displayed by the trades unions, and it’s not often you walk into an impressive ‘country pile’ like this and see a copy of the Morning Star in the reception lobby. I was amazed that it still seems to be thriving daily newspaper.
If you’ve already seen this on Facebook, I do apologise, but I feel stirred to also share it in the context of this blog.
We stayed at Wortley Hall for three nights (in South Yorkshire), and one morning I woke with the dawn, saw the sun rise over the open countryside from our bedroom window, and felt immediately inspired to go for a pre-breakfast cycle ride, to catch the best of the day.
Half an hour into the ride, climbing and descending several narrow country lanes, I came on this scene. The brakes automatically locked on the bike, I fished around for my camera and, as I got ready to catch the moment, a walker appeared from behind me and proceeded up the hill.
It was the perfect moment. In the early morning sunlight at 7.30am, his shadow must have measured 30-40 feet long. If photographers ever talk about a ‘eureka’ moment, this was mine.