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Manchester Street Names

This is a post by Hannah about the city where we live—Manchester

I’ve always been really interested in the history of Manchester, and the stories and people that made the city what it is today. Recently, this has become a bit of a fascination with the almost-hidden echoes of Manchester’s past—things that you might walk past every day without realizing the story behind it. I’m planning to write a few posts about some of my favourite places to glimpse Manchester’s history. Today’s post is about a few Manchester street names that tell a story.

Museum Street

Museum Street

One of the side streets leading off Peter Street (in the city centre) is called Museum Street. It’s a short street, leading from Peter Street to Windmill Street. It’s fairly nondescript and there’s not really much to see. One thing that you definitely won’t find on Museum Street is a museum.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The story of Museum Street begins with John Leigh Philips, a wealthy textile manufacturer and collector of natural history specimens. When Philips died, his collection (or ‘cabinet’) of specimens was bought by a group of scholarly Mancunians who formed the Manchester Natural History Society in 1821.

Alfred Waterhouse was commissioned to build a new home for the museum and the university

In 1835, the Society made its home in a grand building on Peter Street. Philips’ cabinet was added to with donated specimens and, in 1850, the collection of the Manchester Geological Society. By the 1860s, the Society had filled its Peter Street premises (and run low on funds) and so the museum was transferred to Owens College (later to become the University of Manchester). In 1868, the Peter Street museum was closed, and the college commissioned architect Alfred Waterhouse to build a new home for the museum and the university. This building, opened to the public in 1890, still forms the heart of the University of Manchester’s Oxford Road campus—and the museum lives on as the Manchester Museum.

For more information about the history of the Manchester Museum, you can check out the museum’s website. If you’ve read our earlier blog posts, you might also remember that this venue is particularly close to our hearts, as we held our wedding there in March this year.

So there might not be much to see on Museum Street now, but the name of this little road remains as a tribute to the cabinet of John Leigh Philips, and to the Society that played such an important part in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of nineteenth-century Manchester.

Vauxhall Street

But it wasn’t all serious intellectual study in Manchester… my next choice of street is all about fun. This next street is one of my current favourite stories about Manchester’s history (not least because it is about North Manchester, where we live), so I will be expanding this into a blog post all of its own at some point.

Vauxhall Street

Another blink-or-you’ll-miss-it street—and another one that doesn’t really go anywhere or house anything—Vauxhall Street is hidden away on the edge of the city centre and North Manchester. If you head out of town on Dantzic Street, until it turns into Collyhurst Road—or head down Collyhurst Road if you’re coming from North Manchester—you’ll spot a side street called Vauxhall Street. There isn’t really anything there—in fact it’s a dead end, and you’ll just run up against the crumbling walls of this area’s imposing industrial past.

A pleasure garden created by Robert Tinker of the Grape and Compass Coffee House

To the side of Vauxhall Street, you’ll see an empty patch of land, which stretches up to Sand Street (and, beyond that, to Rochdale Road). Currently part of the Irk Valley Area Action Plan, this patch of land is still designated as contaminated below surface-level (and there’s a stern sign to this effect on Sand Street), as a result of heavy-duty industrialization in the later nineteenth century (specifically, here, dye-works). In the 1700s, the same patch of land was described as a ‘wild, uncared-for dell’. But in between these periods of wildness and contamination, this little bit of North Manchester greenery was Tinker’s Gardens—a popular pleasure garden created by Robert Tinker, proprietor of the Grape and Compass Coffee House. Although the gardens appear to have been most commonly known as Tinker’s Gardens, they went through a few names—including Elysian Gardens (as a nod to Greek mythology) and Vauxhall Gardens (after one of London’s most famous pleasure gardens).

I think that Robert Tinker and his pleasure gardens deserve a post of their own, so I can say a little more about the gardens’ heyday and their sad demise. But, for now, if you should go past Vauxhall Street, close your eyes and listen for the echoes of the 50000 jubilant people who (allegedly) filled the gardens to watch the ascent of the coronation balloon in 1827.

Tib Street and Tib Lane

Back to the city centre for the next one, though this one might be a bit more well-known. But I like it, so I’ve included it.

Earlier in the year, I had a conversation with someone from Poland who mentioned that he found UK street names a little confusing, and it reminded me that my American friends have had similar problems navigating UK addresses. The issue is that UK street names rely on both parts of the name to make sense: so we don’t speak about driving down Oxford, or meeting someone on the corner of Market and Corporation. You have to remember whether it is Oxford Street or Oxford Road—the ‘street’ and ‘road’ designations are important.

In the case of Oxford Street/Oxford Road, our quirky UK naming conventions don’t pose too much of a problem. (To be honest, most Mancunians don’t really know when Oxford Street ends and Oxford Road begins, so we tend to forgive visitors who get them confused.) Elsewhere, though, you can get in a bit more of a pickle if you don’t know your streets from your roads, lanes and avenues.

Tib Street

Most people familiar with Manchester city centre will know Tib Street, the busy road that leads up the side of Debenhams in Piccadilly into the heart of the Northern Quarter. Tib Street has its own place in Manchester’s history—from the early development of the city to more recent cultural and social events—and the Manchester City Council website is a good place to start to find out about the history of this part of the city centre.

But, for now, the important thing to remember is that this is Tib Street. Forget the second part of the name and you could end up somewhere rather different.

Tib Lane

Although it’s within walking distance of Tib Street, Tib Lane is in quite a different part of Manchester. This small side street is found at the top of Cross Street, just before the junction with John Dalton Street and Princess Street. It’s another one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it streets—I mostly use it as shortcut to Fountain Street, and I probably wouldn’t have paid it much attention if it wasn’t for the name.

When I mentioned Tib Street/Tib Lane to my Polish friend, his first question was: why? Why would you have two streets with the same name on opposite sides of the town centre? But if you know the origin of these streets’ names, then it’s all completely clear.

The river is now completely underground, but old maps of the city remind us of its place in the town’s landscape

Tib Street and Tib Lane are both named after the River Tib—one of Manchester’s ‘lost’ rivers. A small stream that rises in Miles Platting, travels down what are now Oldham Road and Tib Street, through the city centre to Castlefield, where it eventually meets the River Medlock, the River Tib was gradually culverted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The river is now completely underground, but old maps of the city remind us that it used to be a (small) feature of the town’s landscape.

River Tib 1794

From written accounts that mention it, it seems that the River Tib was probably at its fullest at Tib Street. But I’ve also read accounts that suggest the river was a significant reason for the development of the part of town around Tib Lane—which was once much more than a mere side street. One book I’ve read (written in 1793) describes this part of Castlefield as the former home of fustian dyers’ crofts, which were relocated to the banks of the river after the nearby springs failed.

Now, the River Tib is underground. But, like the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers before me, I’ve become completely fascinated by this cheeky little brook that was elevated to the status of river and had not one, but two streets named after it. It’s my second favourite Manchester river (after the River Irk) and I’ve done a lot of research into its exact location, so (like Tinker’s Gardens) I think it deserves an entire post to itself and I’ll be writing that up at some point in the future.

Anita Street

Anita Street 1

From rivers to… erm… other liquids now, and a story that might be familiar to Mancunians but definitely deserves retelling.

Manchester is an industrial city—in fact, for a time, it was the industrial city. Known as Cottonopolis, Manchester during the industrial revolution was home to cutting-edge manufacturing, millionaires and the world’s first passenger railway station. But all these advancements came at a cost. Large areas of the city were turned over to cheap dwellings for labourers, and certain locations were almost synonymous with ‘slum’.

One such area was found in Ancoats, which has been claimed as the world’s first industrial suburb. By the late nineteenth century, housing conditions in Ancoats had hit an all-time low, with tiny cramped dwellings piled on top of each other and inhabitants suffering from appalling ill health and high mortality rates.

In 1885, Manchester Corporation formed the Unhealthy Dwellings Committee, and areas of Ancoats (specifically at Oldham Road end) were cleared in preparation for new, healthier residences to be built.

The five-storey Victoria Square dwellings (completed in 1894), also known simply as ‘The Dwellings’, was the grandest of these new municipal housing projects. Now a Grade II listed building, Victoria Square survives to this day as retirement housing, and is currently managed by Northwards Housing.

The new healthier dwellings were named ‘Sanitary Street’

As well as this red-brick housing block, the city council also built new tenement housing on surrounding streets. One such street saw the construction of two rows of two-storey housing (with ground-floor and first-floor tenements sharing a common entrance), separated by 36 foot wide thoroughfare—and you have to remember that this thoroughfare itself would have been a bold departure from the previous back-to-back housing that had filled the area. Even more excitingly, these new tenements each boasted an individual sink and WC (replacing previous shared facilities). The council were so proud of these new healthier dwellings, they named the new street ‘Sanitary Street’.

By the 1960s, the slums of the nineteenth century had fallen out of living memory, and an individual toilet was no longer a selling point for a flat. Residents of Sanitary Street came to dislike the sound of the street name. The story I’ve heard is that it was the residents themselves who forced the council to change the street’s name; they took to covering up the ‘S’ and the ‘ry’ and referring to their address by the much prettier ‘Anita Street’. Whether this is true or an urban legend, the street name was changed and the ‘model housing’ of Anita Street remains as part of the Ancoats Conservation Area.

Anita Street 2

Lever Street

The final street name in this post is often misunderstood, which is a shame because there’s a great story (and a great Mancunian character) behind it.

Lever Street

When I was 15, I did my work experience in the Zeneca (formerly ICI) archives at Hexagon Tower in Blackley. Sadly, the archives are no longer housed in Blackley, but in the 90s they were an amazing repository for information about the history of dyeing in North Manchester.

Among the many stories I was told during my short time working in the archives was that Lever Street in Manchester was named after the Lever Brothers, creators of Lifebuoy soap and builders of the Port Sunlight model village in Merseyside. The Lever brothers, I was told (a little vaguely), had some connection to Alkrington, near Middleton—perhaps a factory on the banks of the River Irk. Lever Street in the centre of town is named in recognition of this connection.

When I was older, I found out that this wasn’t true. There is no connection between the Lever Brothers, Port Sunlight and Manchester. It seems to be a persistent story though, as a number of people I spoke to have heard it before (or, they’ve heard that Lever Street was named after Harold Lever, Baron Lever of Manchester or his brother Leslie Lever, Baron Lever of Ardwick. Let’s lay it to rest for good now though—Lever Street has been Lever Street since way before the Lever Brothers started their business in 1885, and it definitely pre-dates Harold and Leslie.

Here’s Lever Street on a map of Manchester from 1797. You’ll see it’s in just the same place as it is today, running parallel to Newton Street and Oldham Street.

Lever Street 1797

However, while Lever Street is most definitely not named after the Lever Brothers, it is named after someone. And there is a connection to Alkrington, Middleton.

Lever’s Row is one of the earliest streets in this part of town

If you look closely at the 1794 map, you’ll notice a significant difference to a modern map of Manchester. The street that runs perpendicular to Oldham Street, Newton Street and Lever Street, which is called Piccadilly today (and is a row of shops and restaurants facing Piccadilly Gardens), is named as ‘Lever’s Row’. Lever’s Row, in fact, predates Lever Street and is one of the earliest streets in this part of town.

In the eighteenth century, the part of Manchester town centre (which wasn’t really a town centre at this time) that is now bounded (on its four sides) by Lever Street, Piccadilly Gardens, Great Ancoats Street and Market Street, belonged to Ashton Lever (1729-1788), the son of Sir James Darcy Lever, former High Sheriff of Lancashire.

Ashton Lever was born in Alkrington Hall, near Middleton, but he also had a house constructed at the edge of the Daub-Holes (now Piccadilly Gardens) in Manchester. The new street on which his Manchester home was built was named after its owner – Lever’s Row. This house stood until after Lever’s death, when it was replaced with a coaching inn.

Although not always remembered nowadays, Ashton Lever was famous in his day. A collector of natural history specimens, Lever amassed one of the richest and largest private collections in the country. He exhibited it in Manchester, then at Alkrington Hall, and then in Leicester Square, London. His museum was so well-known that even Captain Cook donated objects collected on his voyages. Eventually, Lever bankrupted himself and was forced to dispose of his collection by means of selling lottery tickets, thus dispersing the collection for good. (As a little footnote to this, Adam Weymouth wrote a piece in the Guardian in July about a stuffed wolf that was sold as ‘the last wild wolf shot in Scotland’ with a surprising connection to Lever’s collection. It’s worth a read!)

While Wikipedia simply notes that Lever became bankrupt as a result of purchasing items for his museum, other sources paint more of a picture of a man who lived life rather large. Sir Ralph Assheton refused a young Lever consent to marry his daughter Mary, and the story goes that this was a result of Lever’s reputation for being a ‘wastrel’. He went on to form and join a number of eminent Manchester societies, and apparently was particularly fond of hunting, and his museum became known as ‘second only to the British Museum’. Ashton Lever died in 1788, and his death was recorded as being the result of a chill; however, there is a persistent suspicion among his (admittedly few) biographers that his death was, in fact, a suicide.

Either way, Lever seems to have sadly fallen into obscurity. However, a few people are seeking to put this right. A recent film by Anthony Dolan—Enlightenment Middleton—includes Lever in its catalogue of eminent Middletonians. And in my own humble way, I’ve offered a nod to Lever’s contribution to the early formation of Manchester city centre. My short story ‘Lever’s Row’ (published in an anthology called Hauntings) travels through the history of Piccadilly Gardens to the days when Ashton Lever’s home stood alone among cornfields and clay pits.

Like many other Manchester luminaries, Ashton Lever still has a street named after him. It’s just a shame everyone seems so keen to claim it’s named after someone else.

A short postscript

In 1834, the last of Ashton Lever’s family died without heir, and Alkrington Hall and estate was sold to the Lees of Oldham, who broke up and sold off the estate. I’m not sure what happened in the intervening period, but the local council acquired Alkrington Hall in 1942 and eventually transformed the glorious Georgian building into bedsits. Local people remember these as being rather ‘squalid’. In the mid-1990s, private developers bought the building and converted it into four luxury homes that are now privately owned. The building still stands, as it has done since the 1700s, above the River Irk, and is visible as you travel into Middleton on Manchester Road.

Obviously, now that it is privately owned, it’s not possible for the general public to visit the home of Ashton Lever (but at least it isn’t squalid bedsits anymore!). However, the last time one of the homes was put up for sale, the estate agent made a video to showcase the property. If you’re feeling nosy, here’s the closest you can get to having a snoop around the former home of Ashton Lever:

Manchester: The Portico Library

The Portico Library was founded in 1806 and is one of Manchester’s hidden heritage gems

As well as writing about places we’ve travelled to, it’s sometimes nice to focus on places a bit closer to home. And do have a lot to choose from here in Manchester. Today’s post is about one of the city’s historical (hidden) gems: the Portico Library.

Portico Sign

The Portico Library first opened its doors (to members) in 1806, as a newsroom. Shortly afterwards—once a sufficient number of books had been acquired—it became a subscription library as well as a place for the Mancunian intelligentsia to peruse the daily news. The library survives to this day, and is a significant part of Manchester’s literary heritage.

The building was designed by Thomas Harrison and built by David Bellhouse

The idea for the Portico Library was conceived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The story goes that a couple of Manchester men—Michael Ward, a surgeon at the Manchester Infirmary (which was on the site of what is now Piccadilly Gardens), and Robert Robinson, who was (I think) a bookseller and stationer—were inspired by a visit to Liverpool’s Athenaeum and wanted to create something comparable in Manchester. They gathered support from Manchester’s intellectual elite and—perhaps more importantly—from local businessmen (though there was not so much of a divide between business and academia then as there is now). Subscriptions were sold to raise money for the project, and architect Thomas Harrison (who also designed the Lyceum in Liverpool and the Commercial News Room in Chester) was commissioned to design a building to house the new library. Work started in 1803 and was carried out by David Bellhouse, who was also one of the founders of the library.

Portico Library
Photo: Stephen Richards via Creative Commons

The Harrison-designed, Bellhouse-built Portico building is the earliest surviving Greek Revival building in Manchester. It’s now a Grade II* listed building, with a pedimented loggia and four unfluted Ionic columns facing on the Mosley Street entrance and a charming (almost secret) doorway round the corner on Charlotte Street next to a five-bay colonnade. The original design of the building had the reading room at ground floor level, with a mezzanine gallery housing the library and overlooking the reading room. In 1920, it was decided that the library would have to take a tenant to occupy the ground floor, and a ceiling was put in to separate the ground floor from the upper gallery (which were converted into the library as it is now). The original ground floor tenant was the Bank of Athens, who leased the property in 1921.

Exposed columns give some indication of the original floor plan

Downstairs is now occupied by The Bank pub (formerly the Forgery and Firkin). Although the pub’s ceiling obscures any view (or hint) of the library above, the columns of the gallery are exposed, giving some indication of the original floor plan of the reading room. However, you have to squint a bit to imagine this, as the pub bears far clearer traces of its more recent predecessor—it’s much easier to see how it’s a converted bank than a converted reading room. When she was in her late teens, Hannah used to sometimes drink in The Bank before heading off to Discotheque Royale nightclub for the night. Royales (as it was known) was housed in the old Theatre Royal on Peter Street, a theatre built in 1845, which saw performances from Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank in its heyday (as a theatre—it saw a famous performance from Take That in its heyday as a nightclub). Of course, Hannah knew none of this in 1995, and so had no idea that she was actually on a very literary pub crawl.

The library continued—and still continues—to live in the first floor of the building, and is now accessed via the doorway on Charlotte Street. The shelves (containing the library’s impressive collection of nineteenth-century literature) still sit in what would have been the gallery, with the central area being used as an exhibition and café space (tea, coffee and cake are available throughout the day). Above all of this is the wonderful painted glass and plaster ceiling dome, which is completely invisible when you’re outside the building but utterly stunning when you’re inside.

Portico 3

It’s a membership library (and you can join as a ‘town’ or a ‘country’ member, depending on how close to Manchester city centre you live), but it’s also now a venue for public events, exhibitions and meetings. The library also has a strong association with local literature, and in 1985 the Portico Prize was established to celebrate books set in the north of England.

Portico 9

The Portico has had many illustrious members over the course of its history—from John Dalton to Eric Cantona. The first secretary of the Portico’s committee was Peter Mark Roget, who began the work of compiling his thesaurus in the library, and the Portico is also mentioned (though pseudonymously referred to as the ‘Porch’) in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The library still has a rare first edition of this book, and you can read more about de Quincey’s association with the library in this article by Grevel Lindop.

But our knowledge of (and love for) the library has come from attending events and visiting exhibitions, rather than membership. For instance, we were for 2014 Museums at Night Bad Language event, which featured special guest Rosie Garland reading from her then-about-to-be-published novel Vixen and poetry from Jo Bell, Rodge Glass and Marli Roode.

Portico 2

In 2013, we actually hosted our own event at the library. Blood and Water, the debut novel by Beth Daley, was published by Hic Dragones (aka: us) and had launch parties in Manchester and Leeds. We chose the Portico Library for the Manchester launch, because the opportunity to hold a book launch in such an amazing space was just too good to pass up.

bawlaunch

Portico 7

More recently, we attended the Portico’s Christmas party. We do love Christmas, so it was great to be able to celebrate in such a lovely building. There were carols, mince pies and mulled wine, and a fantastic seasonal performance by The Shining Bones, a trombone quartet from the Royal Northern College of Music.

Portico 6

Postscript

In May 2015, Hannah interviewed Emma Marigliano, the librarian at the Portico for her radio show. To hear more about the history of the Portico—but also about more recent plans and events—you can listen to the interview here:

A Trip to Somerset – Part 2

Rob and Hannah went down to Somerset for a steam-powered trip across the Bristol Channel. This post is about the second day of their short break.

Our previous post was about the first day of our recent short break in Somerset – and our trip across the Bristol Channel on board the PS Waverley, and then on to the Brecon Mountain Railway. Originally, we’d intended to travel straight home the following day, but we changed our plans when we got back from Clevedon and decided to stop off at Wookey Hole caves on the way back north.

Wookey Hole

We’re both rather fascinated by caves and caverns. When we first came up with a list of all the places we wanted to visit this year, Rob made sure that ‘caves or something underground’ was high up the list. So when we decided to slightly prolong our trip to Somerset this September, a visit to one of the cave systems seemed like an obvious choice. We chose Wookey Hole over Cheddar simply because Hannah visited Cheddar several times as a kid, but neither of us had ever been to Wookey Hole.

So… what did we make of Wookey Hole? It was certainly a rather unusual experience. Let’s take it step-by-step: we’ll look at the good, the bad, and the baffling.

The Good

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For most people—though not, perhaps, all people—it’s pretty obvious that the main attraction at Wookey Hole is the series of limestone show caves on the southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills. ‘Hole’ is used here in its Anglo-Saxon sense, meaning ‘cave’. The ‘Wookey’ part of the name (and, confusingly there are two villages in Somerset that bear this name—Wookey Hole and Wookey—which are just a couple of miles apart) either comes from the Old English word wocig (meaning ‘animal trap’) or from the Celtic/Welsh word ogof (meaning ‘cave’). If the latter etymology is correct, then ‘Wookey Hole’ really means ‘Cave Cave’, and Wookey Hole Caves means ‘Cave Cave Caves’ (so good they named it thrice).

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So, what about those caves then? They’re actually a series of limestone caverns, formed when natural acid in the groundwater dissolves the bedrock, forming openings and fissures that have expanded over epochs to create caves—this type of cavern is called a ‘solutional cave’, and is often characterized by the presence of calcium carbonate formations, such as stalagmites, stalactites, helictites and flowstones (created when water slowly precipitates through the limestone).

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There are at least 25 chambers in the Wookey Hole cave system, though only three are open as ‘show caves’. So far, over 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) of the system have been explored, but the full extent is still unknown. For rock fans, there are a number of unique or unusual geological features in the system. The first part of the cave, for instance, is formed from Triassic Dolomitic Conglomerate—a cemented fossil limestone scree—which reveals evidence of the erosion of the Mendips in the Triassic period and the infill of the valley as a result. Passages in the twentieth cavern may well be the result of a Vauclusian spring (a spring that originates within a cave system, forcing water upwards at high pressure). In addition to this, the River Axe—which rises in Wookey Hole caves and is formed by water that has entered the cave system—flows through two of the chambers, then through the valley and westwards, until it reaches the sea at Weston Bay.

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For biological and geological reasons, Wookey Hole caves are now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). However, they’re also of interest for the fascinating evidence of human habitation and use that has been discovered within them. It appears that the caves were inhabited by humans in the Palaeolithic period, as tools and fossilized animal remains have been discovered. Stone Age and Iron Age artefacts have also been found, as well as evidence of occupation during the Roman period. Evidence of a Romano-British graveyard (c. 2nd-4th century AD) has been discovered in the system’s fourth chamber, as well as possible domestic occupation from the same period.

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But it seems that, from the late Middle Ages onwards, the cave’s primary use has been as a show cave. William of Worcester visited Wookey Hole in 1470, by which time it was becoming known as a ‘place to see’. From late antiquity until the twentieth century, the fourth chamber was the furthest accessible point in the cave system, but the path to this chamber appears to have been relatively easy to traverse. By the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century, the caves became a place for the well-to-do to hold parties and dances (wine bottles were discovered during the excavation of the Romano-British burial site). There is a local legend claiming that Alexander Pope visited the caves (which were also known as ‘Okey Hole’) in the eighteenth century, and that he shot down a number of stalactites to decorate the grotto at his villa in Twickenham. This story is probably spurious, as there is no evidence that Pope ever visited Wookey Hole, and the ‘fine and very uncommon petrifaction from Okey Hole’ noted at Twickenham was actually a stalagmite (not a stalactite), one of a number cut off by a local person and presented to various collectors around the country. (Apparently, the stump of Pope’s stalagmite has been identified, though the current whereabouts of the ‘petrifaction’ itself are unknown.)

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In the twentieth century, the caves were owned and managed by Gerald Hodgkinson. Up until the Victorian period, the main business concern on the land was the paper mill (and more on that shortly). However, the continued and increasing interest in the cave system encouraged Hodgkinson to consider the potential for transforming the area into more of a dedicated tourist attraction. He opened the caves to the public for the first time in 1927, though this decision was not uncontroversial. In 1930, John Cowper Powys wrote the novel A Glastonbury Romance, in which the myths and legends (including grail legends) of Glastonbury and the surrounding area come into conflict with the capitalist ambitions of local industrialist (and mine owner) Philip Crow. Hodgkinson claimed that the character of Philip Crow was based on him, and he successfully sued Powys for libel in 1934. Nevertheless, the caves remained a popular tourist destination, and remained in the ownership and management of Hodgkinson (and, after his death in 1960, his heirs), until they were finally sold to Madame Tussauds in 1973.

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As well as having (probably) one of the longest histories of tourism of any show cave in Britain, Wookey Hole caves also boasts an interesting history of cave diving. In the 1930s, the first cave dives were undertaken by Jack Sheppard and Graham Balcombe. Since then, a huge amount of diving and exploration has been undertaken, with over 25 chambers discovered and charted by divers. This is not without its dangers, of course, and the divers Gordon Marriott (d. 1949) and Keith Potter (d. 1981) both tragically died while diving in Wookey Hole. But work continues, and the discovery of just how far the cave system extends is testament to the boldness and devotion of successive generations of divers.

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We’ve already briefly mentioned the paper mill, so it’s only right that we say a little more about the non-cave-related history on the site as well.

There’s a record of a corn mill on the River Axe listed in the Domesday Book

The River Axe was navigable from the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century. It was also used to power watermills, and there is a record of a corn mill on the Axe listed in the Domesday Book. By the early seventeenth century, there was a paper mill on the river (the earliest deed of sale is dated 1610, but the mill must have existed prior to that). Production and development seem to have continued apace until 1855, when a disastrous fire led to the freehold being sold off to W.S. Hodgkinson, whose family played such a pivotal role in the development of the site (and the surrounding area). It was the paper mill, rather than the caves, that brought the Hodgkinson family to Wookey Hole, and the paper-making business continued to grow until it hit its peak in 1891. Throughout its history, the Wookey Hole paper mill only ever made handmade paper—the Hodgkinson family never installed new technology to enable them to switch to machine-made paper. As a result, their paper became something of a niche product in the twentieth century, and business began to decline.

In the early 50s, the family sold the mill to the Inveresk Paper Company, who continued to produce handmade paper until 1972. When Madame Tussauds bought the caves in 1973, they also bought the paper mill, bringing the two sites back together as part of a combined tourist offer. Although commercial production ceased, paper was made on a smaller scale as part of an exhibition.

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So to summarize ‘the good’: Wookey Hole caves are a spectacular natural attraction, and the caverns that are open as show caves are very impressive. (And the approach to the caves, with the wall of the Mendip escarpment towering over you, is stunning.) There’s also a small museum dedicated to cave diving at the site, and there’s a fascinating film about the history of diving at Wookey Hole that plays on a loop as a part of the exhibition. This is without doubt the most informative part of the attraction—but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

There is also a small exhibition dedicated to the paper mill on site, with a single vat and some equipment on display. However, this is very limited, as the majority of the historic equipment was sold by the current owner in 2008. Apparently, paper-making demonstrations are sometimes given for visitors, but we didn’t see any evidence of this during our visit. But it’s still nice to see some vestige of the site’s former use, as well as the inclusion of an anonymous eighteenth-century verse about paper-making (and capitalism) in the display.

Rags make Paper—Paper makes Money—Money makes Banks—Banks make Loans—Loans make Beggars—Beggars make Rags.

Finally, there’s the cheese. Due to the caves’ consistent temperature of 11℃, Wookey Hole has the perfect conditions for maturing cheddar. We got a quick look at the ‘cheese cave’ on our tour, and then could try a sample in the gift shop. Cave-aged cheese is really very tasty!

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The Bad

Ah… the bad… well, the first thing to be aware of is that almost none of the information above was actually gleaned from our visit to Wookey Hole, but rather from reading up about the site before and after we went. Despite the fact that the place is literally called ‘Cave Cave Caves’, the show caves are now only a small (and somewhat undervalued) part of the tourist offer. And there’s very little information given as to the geological, biological or historical significance of the cave system itself.

In 1912, Herbert Balch discovered a thousand-year-old skeleton of a woman in the caves

The tour of the open chambers lasts around 20-25 minutes, and is dominated by the story of the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’. This is an old tale, which seems to have sprung up over a century ago when visitors to the cave decided that a vaguely human-shaped stalagmite in the first chamber deserved a bit of folk history. There are various versions of the legend (usually involving a monk from Glastonbury chasing a witch into the caves and petrifying her with holy water), and the story has been around for quite some time. In 1912, a thousand-year-old skeleton of a woman was discovered by archaeologist Herbert Balch (and now housed at the Wells and Mendip Museum), and this came to be associated with the story of the witch. When the Romano-British burial site was excavated in the fourth chamber, suggestions were made that the bodies were victims sacrificed to the witch.

While there may or may not be some historical basis for the folk legend, what is clear is that it has become garbled into a mish-mash of vague ideas about the ‘spooky’ past, and the way it is now presented as part of the cave tour is borderline gibberish. Human sacrifice, curses, avenging monks—even King Arthur—are all thrown into the mix, while creepy music and colourful lights attempt to draw visitors’ attention to a lumpy petrifaction that—if you squint a little bit—sort of resembles a seated woman. Add to this that the venue now employs a woman to wander around in a cloak and a black pointed hat, posing for photographs with children, and the actual history is diluted beyond recognition.

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We assume that the long-standing legend of the witch is the reason for the venue’s current branding. As you can see from the picture at the start of this post, there’s a distinctly ‘Harry Potter’ feel to the marketing. The gift shop is full of generic witches’ hats and wizards’ wands, that seem at odds with the intriguing history of the site.

But the ‘mish-mash’ doesn’t end there. When you exit the caves, you arrive in one of the site’s other ‘attractions’ (their website currently boasts that there are twenty of these included in the ticket price, though the definition of what counts as an attraction varies wildly). The next thing we encountered was the dinosaur park—a small patch of land outside the old paper mill building, crammed full of fibreglass dinosaurs. While there were some information boards about each of the species presented, there was no attempt made to suggest any actual link to the site. Not all the species represented have been discovered in Britain—let alone in Somerset—and the whole thing was further undermined by the inclusion of a giant fibreglass model of a gorilla, which purported to be the ‘Mighty King Kong’.

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Nestled amongst the dinosaurs and King Kong are fibreglass models of other prehistoric animals. In some respects, this ‘attraction’ made a little more sense than the dinosaur park. There’s a replicated hyena den, for instance, which is in-keeping with archaeological discoveries on the site. Cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaean) fossils have been discovered in the caves, and the model accurately depicts the ‘hyena cave’ being used by Stone Age humans—which is borne out by the evidence of excavations.

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However, these models might gesture towards accuracy, but they aren’t for the pedantic. During our tour of the caves, the word ‘Neanderthal’ was used to describe the prehistoric hunters who occupied the hyena cave. Worse still, we were presented with a model of dire wolf (Canis dirus), as though this species had also roamed the prehistoric landscape. While cave wolf (Canis lupus spelaeus) fossils have been discovered in Somerset, this is the only megafaunal wolf that inhabited Europe; dire wolf lived south of the Wisconsin glaciation, in the Americas.

Having dire wolf, King Kong and the Wicked Witch of the West happily cohabiting with cave hyenas and Stone Age hunters might not be the worst sin in the world, but it’s symptomatic of a general disregard for historic (or geographic) accuracy. There really is very little attempt to offer anything educational to inform a visit to the spectacular caves.

The Victorian paper mill buildings have been converted into indoor attractions and a 4D cinema

And this is also true for the paper mill. The Victorian buildings have now been converted into the site’s indoor attractions, including the cave diving museum (which, admittedly, is very interesting) and the paper-making display. However, these gestures towards history are hardly signposted, and a visitor would be forgiven for missing them entirely. What is more boldly advertised is the ‘Witch’s Laboratory’ 4D cinema experience, where visitors are told they will encounter the witch and her companion in the middle of an experiment that has ‘gone horribly wrong’, before being led into the cinema to watch a 20-minute film accompanied by physical effects. Never mind that this attraction seems to have merged the legend of the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’ with a Hammer Horror-esque Frankenstein plot, the cinema itself only shows films about dinosaurs!

This hodge-podge of generic ‘child-friendly’ concepts—witches, dinosaurs, spooky laboratories—is compounded by the incongruous inclusion of pirates in other parts of the venue. One of the site’s cafés is now designated as ‘Captain Jack’s Restaurant’, and is adorned with fibreglass statues of nearly-Disney pirate characters. To the rear of this eatery is the Pirate Island Adventure Golf, complete with a large wooden ship flying a tattered skull and crossbones. The construction of the crazy golf course was the subject of some controversy, as the current owner of Wookey Hole demolished the site’s Victorian bowling green to make room for the pirate ship in 2009, without obtaining prior planning permission. The bowling green was one of the amenities built for mill workers and villagers when the Hodgkinson family owned the paper mill.

The Baffling

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There’s one final strand of the attractions on offer at Wookey Hole. We’ve classed this strand as ‘baffling’, because that’s how we felt about it during our visit. Reading up about the recent history of the site has offered some explanation as to why these attractions have ended up housed on the site of a Victorian paper mill and show caves, but we wanted to give a flavour of how confused we felt at the time.

In addition to the pirates, witches and dinosaurs, Wookey Hole also boasts a circus school (complete with theatre), a clown museum, a mirror maze, and a room full of Edwardian penny arcade machines.

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The mirror maze and penny arcade have something of a faded charm about them. They conjure up a slight air of times gone by, and a vague nostalgia for old-time seaside entertainment. (However, it should be pointed out that Wookey Hole is over thirty miles away from the sea—making the end-of-the-pier entertainments almost as incongruous as the pirates.)

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The penny arcade machines are mostly a collection of oddities—there’s a series of ‘execution’ machines, for instance, in which your penny would have bought you the rather gruesome pleasure of watching the workings of the electric chair, the gallows or the guillotine. Most of the machines no longer work properly, so although visitors have the chance to exchange modern coins for old pennies, the display promises more than it offers.

 

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We didn’t visit the theatre, as there wasn’t a performance on while we were there, but we did visit (or rather stumble into) the clown museum. Unsignposted and unexplained, this little corner of Wookey Hole is the stuff of a coulrophobic’s nightmares. Glass cases are crammed with memorabilia, programmes, costumes and props belonging to professional clowns; a clown car hangs from the ceiling by a set of chains; there is a full suit of clothes in a large glass frame. In one cabinet sits row upon row of eggshells (some cracked or broken), each painted with the face of a professional clown. Against one wall is a set of life-sized mannequins depicting famous clowns (including Coco the Clown, Lou Jacobs and Charlie Carioli).

Like so much of the material on show at Wookey Hole, there was no information given as to the background of this collection, but it turns out that it’s not quite as baffling as it seems. The penny arcade/mirror maze display and the clown museum have different provenances, but they both become a little bit clearer when you know who owned Wookey Hole after Gerald Hodgkinson’s heirs sold the site.

Tussauds acquired Edward Ward’s collection of antique fairground art in 1973

While under the operation of Madame Tussauds (later the Tussauds Group), the venue acquired a collection of antique fairground art, rides and machines. Much of this collection had been amassed by Edward Ward, 7th Viscount Bangor in the 1960s and 70s, and it was sold to Tussauds in 1973. The new owners decided (presumably for want of a better location) to house the collection at Wookey Hole, which they had purchased in the same year. From then until the 1990s, the Fairground Museum was a part of the tourist offer at Wookey Hole, displayed in a mocked-up old-time ‘pier’. In 1997, Tussauds sold the valuable collection of antique fairground art at auction, but the (less valuable) penny arcade and mirror maze remained housed at Wookey Hole. (NB: We don’t know for sure that the penny arcade was part of Edward Ward’s collection, or whether Tussauds purchased it at a different sale, but it formed part of the same display at Wookey Hole for around twenty years.)

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The circus school and clowns came later. In 2004, Wookey Hole was bought by circus-owner Gerry Cottle, who was looking for a permanent home for his circus. Cottle started the circus school, which trains children and young people in various performance skills. Obviously, a theatre was also constructed for the school’s performances (which are, on occasion, accompanied by an appearance by the Witch of Wookey Hole).

The clown museum was brought into Wookey Hole in 2007. It is, in fact, the museum of Clowns International (originally the Circus Clowns Club), an organization formed in 1946. The club originally met at St James’s Church in Islington, the burial place of Joseph Grimaldi, to commemorate and celebrate the ‘father of clowning’ and to hold an annual memorial service. When St James’s was deconsecrated in 1959, the club moved to Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, and it began to acquire a collection of clown-related memorabilia and art. This became known as the Clowns’ Gallery, incorporating both artefacts and archives relating to the profession. Eventually though, the museum outgrew the space in Dalston, and so the main part of the collection was moved to Wookey Hole in 2007 (offered a home by the Vice President of Clowns International, Gerry Cottle).

The Circus Clowns Club realized that painted eggs could be used as a record of members’ unique make-up designs

And those eggs? Far from being just a slightly creepy curiosity, these eggs are actually the utterly unique (and really interesting) way in which professional clowns protect their intellectual property. In the late 1940s, circus enthusiast Stan Bult began painting clown faces (copying the unique face paint of individual performers) onto hollowed out eggshells. Although this was originally intended to be just a hobby, the Circus Clowns Club (of which Bult was a founding member) soon realized that the eggs could be used as a record of its members’ make-up designs.

Bult’s collection was stored at his home until his death in 1966, after which it was moved to a London restaurant. Sadly, some of Bult’s eggs were broken or damaged over the years, but the remaining ones (24 of which survive) were moved to Wookey Hole in 2007.

The Egg Register (as it is known) was revived in earnest in 1979, when Clowns International formalized the practice as a means of copyrighting performers’ designs. An ‘egg artist’ is now employed, who paints a (pottery) egg for each registered performer and incorporates swatches of fabric, tufts of hair, and other unique elements of an individual’s costume. These pottery eggs are also housed at Wookey Hole, alongside the remainder of Bult’s collection.

So, to end then, the clown museum at Wookey Hole isn’t so baffling after all. But it is very frustrating. The collection represents an archive of a performance tradition that most people know almost nothing about. The artefacts that have been so carefully preserved are testament to a history—and a practice—that is shrouded in mystery, and yet still so very familiar. But there is no information about any of this in the museum or on the Wookey Hole website. While the clown museum is listed as an attraction, it is merely titled ‘Clown Town’, and the contents and history of the collection are left undescribed.

Now we know what we were looking at, we’ve revised our initial opinion of the clown museum at Wookey Hole. Aside from the caves, it is probably the most interesting ‘attraction’ on offer. But, like the caves, it feels rather undersold—and, also like the caves, it is woefully overshadowed by the ramshackle collection of fibreglass pirates, incongruous dinosaurs, and a woman in a pointed hat paid to scare children.

A Trip to Somerset – Part 1

Rob and Hannah went down to Somerset for a steam-powered trip across the Bristol Channel. This post is about the first day of their short break.

In September, we travelled to Somerset for a trip on a paddle steamer, a mountain railway ride, and then a visit to some caves. Our journey began in Clevedon, where we boarded the PS Waverley.

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Clevedon and the PS Waverley

The PS (Paddle Steamer) Waverley is the last seagoing passenger paddle steamer in the world. The original PS Waverley (named after Sir Walter Scott’s novel) was built in 1899, and served as a minesweeper. The older vessel was sunk in 1940, during the Dunkirk evacuations, but is commemorated by its successor.

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Work began on the new Waverley in 1945, in the Clyde shipyards, and the ship was completed and launched in 1946. The Waverley’s maiden voyage was in June 1947, when the ship entered the service of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). PS Waverley originally sailed the LNER’s Firth of Clyde steamer route from Craigendoran Pier, via Loch Long to Arrochar.

They sold the PS Waverley for the token sum of one pound

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In 1948, Britain’s railways were nationalized, and the Waverley was brought into the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (a branch of the Railway Executive), which eventually merged with the West Highland ferry company David MacBrayne Ltd to form Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) in 1973.

Sadly, by the time CalMac was formed, there was little use for the PS Waverley. Passenger numbers had declined, and the ship was in need of work to ensure it remained seagoing. The company decided that the Waverley wasn’t worth the investment, and so withdrew it from service after the 1973 season. However, CalMac were still keen for the ship to be preserved, and so they sold the Waverley to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for the token sum of one pound in 1974.

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In order to preserve the PS Waverley for future generations, funding was sought for renovation, and the Waverley Steam Navigation Company was set up to operate the ship. This began the Waverley’s second life as a well-loved tourist attraction, and the final restoration work—returning the ship to its original 1940s style—was completed in 2003. The Waverley has now carried over five million passengers on its various tourist trips, sailing from over sixty ports around the UK.

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Although there are now many trips to choose from, Hannah had a yearning to travel the Bristol Channel, and so we booked on the Clevedon-Penarth sailing. This was doubly attractive because, as well as the sailing, the ticket included a coach trip up into the Brecon Beacons and a trip on the Brecon Mountain Railway (more on that shortly).

We met the PS Waverley at Clevedon Pier, which is a fascinating attraction in its own right. Built in the 1860s, the pier was famously described by John Betjeman as ‘the most beautiful pier in England’. It opened in 1869 and was used as an embarkation point for paddle steamer trips to Devon and Wales for almost a century. The pier was designed by local architect Hans Price, and construction was carried out by engineers John William Grover and Richard J. Ward. It stands at 1,024 feet (312 metres) long, with eight spans (supported by Barlow rail legs) and wooden decking.

A pagoda-style pavilion designed by Hans Price was erected at the pierhead

But just like the PS Waverley, the history of Clevedon Pier wasn’t a smooth journey. Although the pier began life as a new, fast route to South Wales, it was quickly superseded by the opening of the Severn Railway Tunnel in 1886. By 1891, ownership of the pier had transferred to Clevedon Council, and the pierhead was in need of some expensive repairs. A new landing stage was constructed, and a pagoda-style pavilion (also designed by Hans Price) was erected at the pierhead.

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The pier continued to serve as a boarding point for paddle steamers—and as a tourist attraction in its own right—until the 1960s. However, disaster struck in 1970, when two of the eight steel spans collapsed under routine stress-testing. The first six spans passed the test, but Span No. 7 collapsed, bringing down its neighbour and leaving the pierhead and pavilion standing (rather lonely) out at sea.

The Clevedon Pier Preservation Society was formed in 1972, and its members campaigned for the pier’s restoration (successfully fending off the district council’s application to demolish the pier in 1979). In 1984, funding was secured from English Heritage and the National Heritage Memorial Fund (as well as other sources), and the restoration work began. Other restoration worked was funded by a passionate local campaign, and the reconstruction work to the spans and decking was completed in 1989. Thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (and yet more campaigning), the pierhead was restored and reopened in 1998. It is now a Grade I listed building (sadly now the only pier in the country to have this status, as it had previously shared the accolade with Brighton’s West Pier).

Seeing the beautifully restored PS Waverley arrive at the beautifully restored Clevedon Pier feels very appropriate, and the sight really makes you grateful to all those people who campaigned, and worked, and fundraised to preserve these two gems for the future.

We didn’t linger long at Clevedon, though, as we were soon heading out over the Bristol Channel to Wales. The weather was nice, and the crossing was very calm. We spent our time exploring the PS Waverley—there is something wonderfully hypnotic about watching the machinery at work in the engine room—and just sitting on deck, enjoying the calmness of the water around us.

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And then… we saw the coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan, and we began to approach Penarth Pier…

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Brecon Mountain Railway

At 750 feet (230 metres) long, Penarth Pier is quite a bit shorter than Clevedon, but the two constructions have a shared history of welcoming the pleasure steamers and ferries that travelled between England and Wales. Opened in 1898, Penarth Pier was constructed from cast iron and wooden decking. After it was sold to Penarth Borough Council in 1929, a ferro-concrete Art Deco pavilion was constructed at the shoreward end of the pier. The pavilion has seen a number of uses during its life—including being a dance hall, a restaurant and a snooker hall—and in 2008 the charity Penarth Arts and Crafts Ltd was formed to restore and maintain the spectacular building. After securing a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the PACL were able to fully restore the building, and it is now in use as an art gallery, restaurant and community cinema.

But aside from admiring the beautiful exterior of the pavilion, we didn’t get much time at Penarth Pier. Our coach was waiting to take us through the Vale of Glamorgan and up into the Brecon Beacons—our destination was the Brecon Mountain Railway (Rheilffordd Mynydd Brycheiniog).

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The BMR is a narrow gauge tourist steam railway, which operates on a five-mile stretch of track that runs from Pant, on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, to Torpantau.

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The BMR runs on a section of the trackbed of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway. This railway line was constructed and opened in stages in the 1860s. Its southern section linked Bassaleg (now a suburb of Newport) with the ironworks at Rhymney, and was mainly a mineral line transporting coal. The northern section travelled on through Pant, Pontsticill, and then via tunnel to Brecon, operating mostly as a passenger line servicing the isolated rural villages and farms. At Torpantau (north of Pontsticill), trains entered a 666-yard (609-metre) single line tunnel—which, at 1,313 feet (400 metre) above sea level, was the highest railway tunnel in Britain.

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway continued on through the nationalization of the railways in 1948, but the service had never been particularly profitable. Gradually, its timetable was cut down (in the 1950s), passenger services from Pontsticill were stopped (in 1961), and—in the end—goods service were withdrawn. The line was closed completely in 1964.

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In the 1970s, an idea was had to construct a heritage railway along part of the old B&M track, operating restored steam engines from around the world. The section of the line between Pant and Torpantau was selected for the project, and work commenced in 1978. Although there were certain obstacles to be overcome—the site of the original station at Pant was unavailable, and the BMR team discovered that scrap merchants had removed both the track and the bridge girders—a narrow gauge line was constructed and opened to passengers in 1980 (using engine Sybil and a single carriage).

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A new station was constructed at Pant, on land near to the original site, and this became the entrance to the new railway (including the car park, ticket office and café) and a workshop where engines could be restored and maintained. At Pontsticill, the shell of the station house was renovated, with the waiting room being converted into a small workshop and storage shed. Until 1994, the tourist line ran from Pant to Pontsticill, with work being done behind the scenes to restore additional carriages and engines to accommodate the increasing popularity of the line.

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Work was also done to extend the line up the steep incline to Torpantau (as well as to renovate locomotives powerful enough to handle this climb). The first stage of the extension—between Pontsticill and Dol-y-Gaer—opened in 1995. The original Dol-y-Gaer station has now been renovated and converted into accommodation for the Plas Dolygaer Scout Mountain Centre, and so the line extension ended at a passing loop just before the site of the station.

The northern terminus sits just a stone’s throw from the old Torpantau Tunnel

In April 2014, the BMR was able to open a further extension to the line, taking passengers all the way to Torpantau. A single platform was constructed for the new northern terminus, and it sits just a stone’s throw from the southern entrance of the old Torpantau Tunnel, at the summit of the original Brecon and Merthyr Railway line. And so, a few months later, we were lucky enough to be able to enjoy the charming five-mile line (with plenty of restored carriages—there were a lot of people booked onto the trip that day!).

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Leaving Pant, the views from the train are amazing. On the left-hand side, you can see the gorge of the Taf Fechan river, and on the right is a disused quarry. This gives way to a wooded valley, as the train approaches Pontsticill.

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On the outward journey, the train travels straight through Pontsticill without stopping. To the left, you can see Pontsticill Reservoir. (We spent much of the ride in the gap between the carriages in order to better enjoy the views, though this did result in us both getting quite a bit of soot in our hair! Totally worth it.) After Pontsticill, the train passes through Dol-y-Gaer and begins the steepest part of its climb—you can now see Pentwyn Reservoir to the side of the line.

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After a short break at Torpantau (to stretch our legs mostly, though if we hadn’t been on a schedule we could have had a bit of a longer walk and returned on a later train), we returned back down the line. On the way back, the train stops at Pontsticill, which now houses a small museum and workshop in the old station house. There’s a café at Pontsticill, but we were much more interested in visiting the Steam Museum and seeing the collection of small stationary engines and locomotives.

And then, we reboarded the train, wound our way back to Pant, and rejoined the coach. We had a (very) brief stop in Brecon, and then we returned to Penarth to rejoin the PS Waverley. Another beautifully calm sailing over the Bristol Channel—and another chance to enjoy the metal and power of the engine room—and then the lights of Clevedon Pier came into view.

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So… a magical day of lovingly restored heritage, steam power and scenery. We stayed the night at the very pleasant Orchard House B&B in Weston-Super-Mare, before going on to the next bit of our little trip to Somerset. But that bit—which was really quite different—will have to wait until our next blog post…

York Mystery Plays 2014

In July, we watched a performance of the York Mystery Plays, performed on pageant waggons by town guilds, drama societies, schools and church groups

In July, we went to the 2014 performance of the York Mystery Plays. Before we talk about this year’s event, here’s a little introduction as to what the mystery plays actually are—time for Hannah to put her medievalist hat on…

The York Mystery Plays are a cycle of Middle English mystery plays that were performed each year at the Feast of Corpus Christi (which fell on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday). These plays told the Christian story from Creation to Last Judgement, with individual plays (or ‘pageants’) being performed by the craft guilds of the town. Each guild presented a particular story, taking responsible for the script, the performers, the costumes and the decoration, and the pageant was then performed on the back of a waggon that was rolled through the town to the twelve ‘playing stations’.

Forty-eight pageants from the York cycle have survived, as well as evidence of performance, costume and props

While many medieval towns would have had similar entertainment at Corpus Christi, the York cycle is unusual in the amount of information that has survived to the modern day. Forty-eight pageants have survived—making the York cycle one of only four (almost) complete sets of plays—and there’s surviving evidence of performers (usually guild members, but occasionally professional players), costumes and props for some of the pageants as well. There is no record of the earliest performance of the cycle, but they had probably been performed many times prior to the earliest surviving records, which date from 1376. The plays continued to be performed annually until the Reformation, after which they carried on for a short time (adapted to remove reference to the adoration of the Virgin) before being suppressed in 1569.

After this suppression, the plays were pretty much forgotten until the end of the nineteenth century—though manuscript evidence of the pageants survived, squirrelled away in various collections. In 1885, an edited transcription of one of the manuscripts was published, and then in 1909 a selection of the plays was performed to raise funds for St Olave’s Church in York. This early revival paved the way for the study and performance of the plays in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Various casts ‘bring forth’ pageants, performing their plays on waggons at stations around the town

The revival of the plays has seen two different strands of performance. Since 1951, plays have been staged at three- and four-year intervals, at which a selection of pageants is performed at a single static location with a single cast made up of amateur and professional actors (usually a professional actor takes the role of Jesus, and sometimes that of Lucifer/Satan). Alongside this, from the 1970s, attempts have been made to revive the waggon plays—in which various casts ‘bring forth’ pageants, performing their plays on waggons (usually brewers’ drays) at several playing stations around the town. 1994 saw the first processional waggon plays to be performed in modern times, and this event had nine amateur dramatic groups taking a play each and touring it around five locations in York. Since then, the waggon plays have been performed at four-year intervals (currently two years out of step with the static plays).

Hannah went to the 2010 performance of the waggon plays (before we met), and was keen for us to go to the next event. While the revival of the static plays has seen some ambitious performances, wonderful actors and talented direction, there’s something about the waggon plays that’s very appealing. Since 2002, production of the plays has been managed by a committee made up of the Guilds of York, and the 2010 and 2014 performances were played by a mixture of Guild members, amateur dramatic and student actors, church groups and other local volunteers. The sets are designed to be housed (or carried) entirely on a single waggon, and each pageant has a different cast. This feels more ‘authentic’—or at least, closer to the spirit of the medieval play cycle—and it makes for a very fun day out.

In 2014, twelve pageants were staged, moving between two playing stations. Each group had creative and interpretative freedom to present the story in their own way, and it was interesting to see the differences in the plays that were also performed in 2010 (which included Creation, The Slaughter of the Innocents, The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement—which are kind of the ‘biggies’), as well as to see new interpretations of other pageants. The plays were performed in two sets—so you could watch both halves at the same location (with a break in the middle), or watch the first half at one station and then move on for the rest (which is what we did).

We began at Dean’s Park, at the side of York Minster, for the first seven pageants. As we waited for the first waggon to arrive, music was provided by the Minster Minstrels.

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This year, accompanying music for the pageants was provided by the International Guild of Town Pipers and The Taborers Society, and a chorus was included to offer some exposition on the stories presented.

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Creation of the World to the Fifth Day

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In the Middle Ages, this pageant was performed by the Guild of Plasterers. Following the opening chapters of Genesis, the pageant presents the beginning of God’s creation, ending with life being brought forth.

The revived pageant is brought forth by the Guild of Building, and it really brings out the references to construction and craftsmanship found in the surviving script. It’s important to remember that these pageants weren’t simply straightforward dramatizations of Bible verse—there was a lot of creative interpretation, humour and invention. As we’ll come to shortly, a number of the pageants were based on stories that aren’t actually found in the Bible—but even in the ones that have a Biblical source, they’re often adapted by the guild to which they belong.

So, in the Creation of the World, we find God imagined as a Yorkshire builder (complete with charts, compass and a Thermos of tea), surveying the construction of the world with a shrewd eye. Even though the players remain fairly faithful to the language of the surviving Middle English script, it’s pretty easy to follow (and laugh) along with the affectionate and comic presentation.

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The Fall of Man

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This pageant presents the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation by Satan in the Garden of Eden, and it was traditionally performed by the Cooper’s Guild. In the 2014 plays, the pageant was brought forth by Canon Lee School and the Gild of Freemen. The performers (playing the roles of Satan, Eve, Adam and God) were all GCSE students, who managed to fit rehearsals around their final exams. We were particularly impressed with Ben Franks, who played the role of Satan. His performance was very charismatic—he was quite the persuasive Devil!

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The Angels and the Shepherds

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Of the 48 surviving pageants, only eleven draw on Old Testament stories—the rest of the plays are concerned with the birth, miracles, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ (and Mary). The 2014 performance roughly followed this ratio, as we leapt from Genesis to the Nativity without stopping on the way.

The ‘Angels and Shepherds’ play is traditionally known as the Annunciation to the Shepherds or the Adoration of the Shepherds, and it was performed by the Guild of Chandlers (candle-makers). This year, it was brought forth by the Guild of Scriveners, with an angelic choir provided by SoundsFun community choir. Even though it was a nice sunny day, it was hard not to get a touch of Christmas spirit as we moved into familiar territory of Nativity plays and carols.

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The Slaughter of the Innocents

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Quite a dramatic shift in tone and style now. The Slaughter of the Innocents is a moving and poignant pageant, and this was the first play to use modern costumes and design this year. The pageant is based on the Christian story of Herod’s massacre of all young male children following reports of the birth of Christ. While the story does have a Biblical source (Matthew 2:16-18), the medieval version was much expanded and was recounted in a number of pageants. The Coventry pageant of the sixteenth century (performed by the Shearmen and Tailors) included the ‘Coventry Carol’—perhaps the least cheerful Christmas carols that’s still sung today—a lament by the mother of one of the murdered infants. The York play of the Massacre of the Innocents similarly focuses on the pain and grief of the bereaved mothers (which is only referred to prophetically in the biblical account), offering a sharp counterpoint to Mary’s joy at the Nativity and a painful moment of identification for mothers in the audience.

The pageant was traditionally performed by the Guild of Girdlers and Nailers; in 2014, it was brought forth by Heslington Church. As we’ve said, the decision was taken to present the play in modern dress—with Herod appearing as a despotic military leader—and the set was a recreation of the façade of Heslington Church itself. In a creative addition to the script, the pageant featured a vicar who attempts to intervene but is killed for his efforts.

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The Baptism

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We moved ahead now to the life of Christ, specifically the baptism by John that marked the beginning of his public ministry. Traditionally performed by the Barbers’ Guild, the pageant was performed in 2014 by the HIDden Theatre Company (which was founded by members of the Lords of Misrule after their performance in the 2010 Mystery Plays). Like several other plays in the cycle, the Pageant of the Baptism focuses on the humanity of Christ—Christ is both human and divine at the moment of baptism—but also that of John the Baptist (much of the script is concerned with John’s uncertainty about worthiness to perform the task in front of him). In this year’s selection of pageants, it was the first to clearly point ahead to the issues of salvation and revelation that would lead us forward to the Last Judgement.

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The Woman Taken in Adultery and The Raising of Lazarus

 

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In the Middle Ages, this pageant was performed by the Guild of Capmakers, but here it was brought forth by staff and students of York St John University. The stories are drawn from the Gospel of John (8:1-11 and 11:1-44), and are probably fairly familiar to modern audiences. The York St John adaptation sought to focus on the role(s) of women in the two Bible stories, offering a dramatic contrast between the imposed silence of the Woman Taken in Adultery and the very vocal grief of Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus.

 

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The end of this pageant was one of only two points in the day’s entertainment where we didn’t skip ahead too far. This play is No. 24 in the surviving medieval cycle, and the next one to be performed would be No. 25. Christ’s final words in this pageant signal his intention to travel to Jerusalem—and his encouragement to others to follow him—and so, it was to Jerusalem that we travelled next.

The Entry into Jerusalem

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This pageant was traditionally performed by the Skinners’ Guild, but today we saw it as imagined by the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with his disciples and is met by enthusiastic citizens. As he carries out several miracles (including redeeming the tax collector), Jesus is celebrated with great joy—however, this is subdued by Christ’s knowledge that his betrayal and death will quickly follow. In the full cycle of plays, the Entry into Jerusalem is contrasted by the later Christ Led to Calvary—as the latter play wasn’t being performed this year (there was a very good version performed in 2010), the contrast was shown instead through the rather downbeat and detached depiction of Christ (played here by Laurence O’Reilly).

Nevertheless, the Entry into Jerusalem was a lot of fun. The costumes were styled on early twentieth century fashions (there were even a couple of suffragette sashes to be seen) and the set was floral, bunting-heavy and picturesque—less Entry into Jerusalem, more Entry into an English Village Fete (And did those feet, in ancient time…)—which made the whole thing a rather jubilant end to the first half of the programme.

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At this point, we had a break for lunch, then we moved on Museum Gardens in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey for the second set of pageants. (And we do have to apologize for the quality of a couple of these pictures—as Hannah was taking photos and tweeting on behalf of the Manchester Medieval Society all day, her phone battery died and she had to switch to a back-up.)

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Christ Before Annas and Caiaphas

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We picked up the story after Christ’s betrayal and arrest. This pageant—which was traditionally performed by the Bowyers and Fletchers—depicts the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, with priests Annas and Caiaphas taking centre stage. The 2014 version was brought forth by the York Settlement Community Players on behalf of the Company of Cordwainers. The adaptation was staged in modern dress, with the conflict between Caiaphas (the older, politically powerful priest) and Annas (his younger rival) brought to the fore.

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The Crucifixion and the Death of Christ

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The York Play of the Crucifixion is one of the best-known pageants in the cycle (at least, among people familiar with medieval literature). There’s been a lot of academic work done on the play, and, like many tutors of medieval literature, Hannah has taught it to undergraduate students on a number of occasions. It’s a (literally) stunning piece of drama that has retained its power to shock audiences with its combination of uncomfortable humour and arresting stagecraft.

The 2014 production combined the Pinners’ Pageant of the Crucifixion with the Butchers’ Pageant of the Death of Christ, and it was brought forth by the Company of Butchers with the parish church of St Chad on the Knavesmire. The soldiers’ treatment of Christ is uncomfortably prolonged, with their squabbling and incompetence creating a sense of cruelty, but also mundanity. These bumbling soldiers are far removed from the corrupt power of Caiaphas—they are just jobsworths trying to get their task finished as quickly as possible. If the audience begins to snigger along with these jokey characters, it makes them complicit in the betrayal of Christ (an important lesson in much medieval literature and drama). All this comes to a dramatic climax as the soldiers raise up the cross, allowing Jesus to face the audience for the first time. When Christ speaks to/of the soldiers, it feels a lot like he’s talking about the assembled viewers as well.

It probably goes without saying that the Crucifixion was one of the pageants selected for the 2010 performance as well—it’s hard to imagine this iconic play being missed out of the modern performances.

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The Harrowing of Hell

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Although the Harrowing of Hell is alluded to in the Bible (1 Peter 3:19-20), this story doesn’t really have a Biblical source. Nevertheless, the story of Jesus’s triumphant descent into Hell between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection can be found in Old and Middle English literature, as well as Western and Eastern art. The purpose of Christ’s descent was to offer salvation to the souls of all the righteous who had died since the creation of the world—in Middle English pageants, this was often illustrated through the saving of recognizable Old Testament figures, such as Adam, Noah and Abraham, who died before the birth of Christ (and therefore weren’t Christian).

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In the 1300s, this pageant was performed by the Guild of Saddlers. Today, it was brought forth by the Parish Church of St Luke the Evangelist. The production was striking for its post-apocalyptic sets and unusual portrayal of Satan (played by Willow Pollock, as a tiny but utterly arresting punk devil).

Since the Middle Ages, the Last Judgement play has been the most spectacular part of the cycle, but this version of the Harrowing of Hell set quite a high bar in design terms. We’d find out shortly if the 2014 Last Judgement could match it, but there was one more significant step to the story first…

The Resurrection

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The Carpenters’ Pageant of the Resurrection presents the fearful reactions of Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas and the soldiers to Christ’s return, as well as the joyful response of Mary. The 2014 version was brought forth by the Company of Merchant Taylors, with much of the cast drawn from Helperby and District Dramatic Society. The dialogue from the surviving medieval script had been edited down in this version, with the reactions to Christ’s resurrection instead being carried through music and song. One musical number—entitled ‘Resurgens’—encouraged audience participation, and percussionist Janet Fulton (of the Manchester Camerata and the Halle Orchestra) provided accompaniment on the tubular bells.

The Last Judgement

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The York Play of the Judgement Day (or the Last Judgement) has always been a pretty lavish affair. In the Middle Ages, it was the province of the Guild of Mercers (purveyors of expensive and exotic textiles), and surviving evidence of the production reveals the time and expense that went into the pageant (including the creation of gilded props and costumes and the hiring of professional players). The Mercers were a powerful guild, and their pageant was a show of wealth and authority—as well as being the final, awe-inspiring (in the truest sense) ‘message’ of the pageant cycle. The Last Judgement is the true climax of the mystery plays—both in terms of its theological significance and of its status as the ‘grand finale’ of the Corpus Christi entertainment.

Hannah and her friends were very impressed with the 2010 Judgement Day play, so she was curious to see how it would be interpreted in 2014. And it wasn’t a disappointment…

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Brought forth by the Company of Merchant Adventurers—the descendant of the medieval Guild of Mercers, who have revived tradition by ‘re-adopting’ their play and performing it each year—and Pocklington School, this year’s Apocalypse was a steampunk end-times fiesta. As the souls of the righteous were separated from the souls of the damned, and a heavenly platform was slowly erected on the waggon, the cast of performers spread across the gardens with their chaotic jumble of props, clothes and musical instruments. Christ’s arrival and ascension to the throne of Heaven was stylishly done, but our favourite bit was undoubtedly the dancing by Ravens Morris, a steampunk Morris troupe from Yorkshire.

We’re not totally sure that the underlying doctrinal message of the pageant (drawn from the Book of Revelations) was as clear this year as it was in 2010, when members of the audience were invited to participate, before being led to the left or right as they were judged. But for sheer spectacle, we think this year’s pageant takes the cake. It might be a terrifying prospect if you stop and think about it, but the York Play of Judgement Day has long proved that the Apocalypse can be a lot of fun to watch.

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And with that, the waggon rolled away for another four years. We’re really hoping that the waggon cycle of mystery plays will be back in 2018 as planned, and we’re looking forward to seeing the new adaptations and developments.

London: Prince of Wales Theatre and British Museum

We took a trip to the capital to catch a musical and visit the British Museum

In May, we went on a little overnight trip to London for a bit of culture (and comedy). We booked theatre tickets, hotel and train tickets with SuperBreak, who we’ve used before to get good deals on London theatre tickets. The package we got was very reasonable—but, as always, we had to make sure we had enough time to get from the hotel to the theatre, as the ‘1.2 miles’ distance feels like an awful lot further when you’re switching between Tube lines!

We stayed at the Radisson Blu Edwardian New Providence Wharf Hotel (bit of a mouthful)—which is an awful lot bigger and fancier than the places we normally stay. By booking through SuperBreak, we’d got a room and breakfast for a very low price, so we were a bit taken aback by how shiny and polished everything looked (most of the places we’ve stayed in London have been a bit more ‘budget’). Unfortunately, when we went to book in, there was a bit of a panic as our booking hadn’t actually been sent through to the hotel so they had no record of our reservation—for a moment it looked like we wouldn’t be staying in the big shiny hotel after all. However, we really could not fault the attitude of the staff members we spoke to. They were so pleasant and helpful, and rang straight through to resolve the issue with SuperBreak. Within ten minutes, they’d confirmed our reservation, apologized profusely, given us drinks vouchers to make up for it, and shown us to our room—which was an awful lot fancier than we were expecting! I don’t know if we got upgraded because the hotel was busy (there was a wedding on) or if that’s a standard room in this hotel, but the bedroom was huge!

Anyway, enough about the hotel—though it did deserve a mention for being the nicest we’ve stayed in on a SuperBreak deal and for having absolutely lovely staff—and on to our real reason for visiting London.

Prince of Wales Theatre

We’ve titled this with the name of the theatre, but that’s perhaps a bit misleading, as it was the show we came to see rather than the building. We had tickets for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s irreverent musical The Book of Mormon.

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Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) and Robert Lopez (co-writer of Avenue Q), The Book of Mormon first opened on Broadway in 2011 and made its West End debut in 2013. As fans of South Park, we were pretty aware of what to expect from the show: it’s a religious satire that is simultaneously wildly offensive and deeply critical of offensive ideologies. It tells the story of two naïve young Mormons—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (played by Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner, reprising their Broadway roles) who are sent to Uganda as missionaries. Once there, they meet people whose lives are blighted by AIDS, poverty and war—but, nevertheless, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham blithely cling to their understanding that their new acquaintances’ lives will improve once they are introduced to the teachings of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

It’s darkly satirical, but it’s also a surprisingly sweet and heart-warming story

The above paragraph is an awfully dry way of describing the show, and it doesn’t really do it justice. We were expecting something funny, obnoxious and controversial—being familiar with Parker and Stone’s other work—but that description also doesn’t do justice to The Book of Mormon. Although it is just as outrageous as South Park—with very few topics that are off-limits for comedy purposes—and it is darkly satirical of Mormon practice and doctrine, it’s also a surprisingly sweet and heart-warming story about two well-meaning (though misguided) young men who truly believe they can make a difference in people’s lives. While the religion itself is roundly mocked (along with an awful lot of other things), its practitioners are treated with a sort of affection. In terms of the show’s depiction of Uganda, the show treads a really difficult line between using horrible circumstances to get (sometimes uncomfortable) laughs and poking fun at the naivety of Western attempts to understand these circumstances. Some of the jokes are pretty cheap and crude, and some rely on horrendous stereotypes, but—as with South Park—the ground is constantly shifting, with everything and everyone becoming a potential target for mockery.

We expected this sort of humour—surely no one would buy a ticket for The Book of Mormon if they expected something different?—but we weren’t really sure what to expect in terms of the music. Obviously, knowing the sort of songs that have appeared in South Park and Team America: World Police, we knew there’d be some very silly—but very catchy—songs, but we weren’t sure how it would stack up as a musical. On this score, we were very pleasantly surprised, as The Book of Mormon is a show that knows its musical theatre history and presents it (just as it presents everything) with a mixture of satire and fondness.

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The show’s narrative follows a very familiar arc for fans of musicals—even resolving the seemingly impossible crisis that faces the protagonists with an utterly ludicrous musical salvation—and the songs themselves are written in the usual Broadway styles. In fact, the musical numbers almost work as a rundown of the key styles found elsewhere in musical theatre, gently lampooning these through the contrast of the ‘nice’ style to the (often) crass and controversial lyrics. Many of the songs are almost—almost—spoofs of other famous Broadway hits, though this is done with a surprisingly light touch in places. Perhaps the clearest parodies are ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ and ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’, in which you can clearly hear the musical echoes of ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ at various points in the song. What’s great about these numbers is that, not only is the musical inspiration really clear, the lyrics of each also lampoon the content and sentiment of their inspiration. That’s abundantly clear in the case of ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’, which is pretty much a straightforward parody of the message of ‘Hakuna Matata’ (and this is underlined by Elder Cunningham asking if the phrase means ‘no worries, for the rest of your days’—‘not exactly’ is the answer he receives), but we really liked the way ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’ mocks the idea of friendship as presented in Wicked by repeatedly reminding the audience that one of the friends is a bit more of a diva than the other (which, to be honest, is exactly what happens in ‘Defying Gravity’ as soon as Elphaba hits that high note).

The Book of Mormon is probably not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Parker and Stone’s other work then it’s a definite recommendation.

The British Museum

The following day we decided to take a trip to the British Museum. I’m not sure that this institution needs much of an introduction, and it’s somewhere we’ve been several times.

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Photo: Ham via Creative Commons

On this occasion, we had tickets for the museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition, a collection of hundreds of artefacts with a 37-metre-long warship at the centre. We actually heard about this exhibition in a rather unusual way—when we were on honeymoon in Norway in March, we visited Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, where we saw that several items had been removed from display in order to go on loan to an upcoming British Museum exhibition. So we were very keen to visit the BM Vikings exhibition when it opened.

I don’t know if Oslo spoilt us—we visited the Viking Ship Museum as well as the Historical Museum—but we found the BM’s exhibition very disappointing. It was very overcrowded, making it almost impossible to see some display cases. The information accompanying the displays was patchy—some boards had ‘dumbed down’ explanations too much, and there were a number of places where the information contradicted what we’d learnt in Oslo (and, in the case of one board about literature and storytelling, contradicted what Hannah knows from her doctoral research in Medieval Studies). All in all, it seemed a rather poorly thought-out experience—though it clearly succeeded in drawing big crowds (surely Vikings always do?), it failed in an attempt to educate or enthuse people about history. We ended up squeezing through the last little bit of the display as quickly as we could, so that we could go and look at some of the better arranged displays in the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, while the ‘big name’ exhibitions can be rather hit-and-miss, the museum itself remains as wonderful as ever. The museum was established by an act of Parliament in 1753, to house the collection of Hans Sloane. In 1757, King George II donated the Old Royal Library collection of around 2000 manuscripts, which carried with it the privilege of copyright receipt. The museum was housed in Montagu House, Great Russell Street and opened to the public (‘all studious and curious Persons’) in 1759.

Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building for the museum and library

The library expanded massively in the decades that followed, receiving donations of natural history specimens, antiquities and books from a variety of bequests. By the time George IV donated his father’s King’s Library collection in 1822, Montagu House had been deemed insufficient for the museum’s needs. Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building for the museum and library. His quadrangular neo-classical building replaced Montagu House, and was opened to the public in 1857. However, the museum’s collections continued to grow, even while the new building was under construction, and so decisions were made to augment Smirke’s designs with additional galleries, and even to move some collections to alternative premises. In the 1880s, the natural history collections were moved to premises in South Kensington, initially called the British Museum (Natural History) but later renamed the Natural History Museum.

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Photo: lena1 via Creative Commons

The British Museum Library also continued to expand rapidly, and it also needed a new home. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke’s original design was also filled with the now-iconic cast iron, concrete and glass Reading Room (designed by Robert’s brother Sydney Smirke), which was also opened in 1857. This remained the library’s home until the British Library Act 1972 created an independent entity (the British Library), which was finally moved to purpose-built premises in St Pancras in 1997.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Reading Room hosted a number of special exhibitions. In fact, the last exhibition we went to was housed in the Reading Room—Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. However, by the time the Vikings exhibition was staged, a new gallery had been constructed for housing temporary exhibitions—the future of the Reading Room is currently uncertain (and the museum have been carrying out consultation on its potential future use). The new gallery was certainly better suited to the Vikings exhibition—we’re not sure how well they could’ve displayed a 120-foot warship in the Reading Room—however, we did miss the ‘feel’ of the historical Reading Room, which had been used to good effect in previous exhibitions (Hannah’s personal favourite was the Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe in 2011, which made very good use of the exhibition space).

We meandered around some of the other galleries for a peaceful, unhurried look

On this occasion, we cut our visit to the (ticketed) exhibition short and meandered around some of the other galleries instead. We didn’t have any particular items or artefacts that we wanted to see, though it was good to be able to get a (peaceful, unhurried) look at some pieces that were contemporaneous with the items selected for the Vikings display (e.g. the Lewis Chessmen—only a couple of which were moved to the temporary exhibition, the rest remained in their usual display—and the Sutton Hoo helmet).

And with that, our trip to London came to an end. Unusually, we travelled home separately—Rob had to book an earlier train to Manchester so he could get back to Manchester for a Nine Inch Nails gig, while Hannah waited for the (very cheap) train that she’d booked as part of the package deal. So, by the time we both got home, we’d managed to cram in a controversial West End musical, a fancy hotel, Vikings, the British Museum and Trent Reznor—not a bad weekend, all in all.

A Trip to Medieval Denbighshire

The Manchester Medieval Society’s 2014 excursion was to Denbighshire in North Wales, where we visited Valle Crucis Abbey, Llangar Church, Rug Chapel and Denbigh Castle

The Manchester Medieval Society (founded in 1933) runs an excursion to sites of historical interest each year. As Hannah is currently the society treasurer, we always go along on the excursions. Since we’ve decided that this blog will just be about places we’ve visited since our wedding, the first excursion we’re going to write about is the 2014 trip to Denbighshire.

Valle Crucis Abbey

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The ruins of this Cistercian abbey lie in Llantysilio, near Llangollen. ‘Valle Crucis’ means ‘vale of the cross’, and the name derives from the nearby Pillar of Eliseg, a ninth-century stone pillar that was once surmounted by a towering cross. The abbey was founded in 1201 by Madoc, ap Gruffyd Maelor, and was dissolved in 1537. It is now looked after by Cadw.

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Valle Crucis was the last Cistercian abbey to be founded in Wales. As with other Cistercian abbeys, its location was selected for its isolation—although apparently the ‘isolation’ in this case was achieved by relocating the population of the village that stood in the way. The monks of Valle Crucis came from Strata Marcella, an older abbey near Welshpool. According to the rules of their order, the ‘choir monks’ (who wore white habits) lived in devout seclusion, while a community of lay brethren (who wore brown habits) attended to the manual labour and the more public aspects of abbey life. It seems that the original design of the abbey included accommodation for around twenty choir monks and forty lay brothers.

The number of monks living at the abbey fell as a result of the Black Death

The abbey suffered a number of crises in its early years. Shortly after Madoc’s death in 1236, the abbey was ravaged by fire. It is also believed that the abbey suffered damage during Edward I’s invasion of Wales in the late thirteenth century. As with many abbeys, the number of monks at Valle Crucis fell as a result of the Black Death in the mid-1300s, and the building was apparently also damaged during Owain Glyndŵr’s revolt in the early fifteenth century.

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But the abbey bounced back. In 1535, it was the second richest Cistercian abbey in Wales (after Tintern, and known for its association with the literary arts. In the fifteenth century, the abbey (more welcoming now that the Cistercians had relaxed the austere rule of their order) had offered hospitality to Welsh poets, including Gutun Owain, Guto’r Glyn (who died and was buried at the abbey in 1493) and Tudur Aled. Nevertheless, when the Reformation came, this wasn’t enough to save Valle Crucis, and the abbey was identified for suppression in 1537.

The estate was sequestered by parliament in 1651 and by the late 1700s was used as a farm

On its dissolution, Valle Crucis was leased to Sir William Puckering, then Baron Wotton, but the estate was eventually sequestered by parliament in 1651. By the late 1700s, the abbey was being used as a farm. Eventually, though, Cadw took over—and Valle Crucis is now the best-preserved monastery in North Wales.

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This is a really beautiful place to visit, and a significant part of North Wales’s medieval heritage. Just wandering around Valle Crucis gives you a sense of the abbey’s imposing past—but also its importance to the landscape and people that surrounded and inhabited it.

The abbey church and west range are in ruins, but the east range is mostly intact—with the dormitory and abbot’s rooms being particularly well-preserved (and unusually accessible, given that they’re on the first floor of the building). The dormitory now houses a collection of medieval grave slabs, including that of Madog Crypl.

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Elsewhere, there are beautiful surviving window traceries and evidence of nineteenth-century restoration.

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After spending some time enjoying the evocative atmosphere at Valle Crucis, it was time to move on to our next location…

Llangar Old Church

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Llangar Church (also known as All Saints Old Parish Church) was built in the fifteenth century—though there’s evidence of an earlier church at Llangar in documents dating to 1291. This isolated little church is reached by a rocky footpath just off the B4401, and its late medieval heritage is ostensibly obscured by bright whitewashed walls (which was actually the norm for parish churches until Victorian times).

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The church at Llangar really is a testament to Cadw’s restoration and conservation work. Although the building had served as the parish church for several centuries, it was abandoned in the 1800s as a result of people moving away from Llangar (and its neighbouring township of Cymmer). When the Church of St John the Evangelist at Cynwyd was consecrated in 1856, it became the new parish church, and the decision was taken not to restore All Saints. And so the old church languished in a state of disrepair and dilapidation until the late twentieth century.

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In 1974, Cadw began a major rescue operation. In a way, the church’s disuse had some benefits, as a number of features had remained untouched—or were lying in wait beneath the veneer of later centuries. The medieval arch-braced roof trusses are still visible, as is the barrel-vaulted canopy over the altar. Restoration work was also carried out on the church’s (mostly Georgian) furnishings—including the dramatic pulpit, the box-pews (for the gentry) and the benches (for the rest of the congregation). The singing gallery and music stand are also preserved.

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Undoubtedly, one of the most captivating features of Llangar Church is the series of wall paintings. When the restoration work was carried out, eight layers of wall paintings were uncovered, dating from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. On the south wall, the fragmentary remnants of a painting of the seven deadly sins (in which each of the sins is represented by a human figure riding on the back of an animal) and seven corresponding works of mercy are (just) visible. The north wall displayed the text of Gweddi’r Arglwydd (the Lord’s Prayer).

From the cradle to the grave

But by far the most dramatic wall painting is the eighteenth-century skeleton who faces you as you enter the church. This grisly spectre of mortality wields a dart and an hourglass, and has a set of gravedigger’s tools between its legs. We were very curious about the skeleton’s pelvis, though, as it seemed to some of us that there was something else depicted in this painting. Although it’s not very clear, it does seem like there’s something nestled under Death’s ribcage—and a few members of our group suspected that it might, in fact, be a baby. If this is the case, then the picture is designed to offer a grim reminder of the inevitable path of human existence—all the way from the cradle to the grave.

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Outside the church is a picturesque sloping churchyard which still houses a jumble of tied tombstones.

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Llangar Church is now a Grade I listed building and a scheduled monument. It’s not the most accessible heritage site in the country (which is, of course, part of its charm), and (I believe) it has rather limited opening times. Because we were visiting as part of an excursion by a historical society, we’d been in touch ahead of time and were shown in by a Cadw guide, but we’d advise you check their website before planning a trip.

And if you do get to visit Llangar, you should really combine it with the next place on our itinerary…

Rug Chapel

Rug (or Rhug) Chapel isn’t actually medieval—it was commissioned in 1637 by William Salesbury—so it wasn’t an immediate choice for a Medieval Society excursion. However, this beautiful private chapel, which is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is just too lovely to miss.

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The rather plain exterior and garden setting of the chapel is misleading. This deceptively modest little stone building houses an incredible interior, filled with lavish carved and painted decoration. The Cadw website describes the chapel’s decoration as being the result of ‘high church pretensions and a zany style’, and this seems like a fair assessment.

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One of the most impressive features is the chapel’s roof, with its coloured panels running the full length of the building. It’s adorned with cut-out angels and a decorative frieze—and it’s just spectacular.

Looking down from the roof, though, you discover that all the timberwork in the chapel is highly decorated. From the pews and the bench-ends, to the screens, altar rails and parapets.

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And, if the skeleton at Llangar Church wasn’t enough to remind you of your mortality, the chapel also boasts an imposing wall painting of its own—a skeleton (complete with hourglass and additional skull) surrounded by verse in Welsh warning of the fleeting nature of life. Surmounting the Welsh is the Latin motto Ut hora sic vita—as is an hour, so is life.

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Standing outside Rug Chapel is a stone-based pillar that appears to be an old town or market cross. This is a little bit of a mystery, as the chapel was built several centuries after a cross like this would’ve been erected. And there’s also no clear evidence of a settlement on the site that would’ve warranted such a marker.

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We didn’t really have time to ponder this puzzle, however, as we had to return to the coach and continue to our final site of the day.

Denbigh Castle

Denbigh Castle (Castell Dinbych) stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Vale of Clwyd. Construction began in 1282, under the instruction of Henry de Lacy. It was intended to be part of Edward I’s ring of fortresses around North Wales, and it was completed (after building was halted when the incomplete castle was temporarily captured in 1294 during the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn) in 1305.

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The castle was heavily defended by its enclosure wall and by its seriously unwelcoming gatehouse that was buttressed by octagonal towers, but also by the walled town that occupied the rest of the promontory. One of the gateways to the walled town (Burgess Gate) still survives, and sections of the wall (which also survives) are accessible to visitors.

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But, sadly, we only had time to visit the castle—though we did get a fantastic guided tour (and our guide coped admirably with the fact that he had to show a group of academic medievalists around a medieval castle). While the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech (also part of Edward I’s ring of castles) might be better known, Denbigh Castle is a pretty breath-taking site. Although it was allowed to fall into ruin after its abandonment in 1660, large parts of the structure survive—enough to help visitors build a mental picture of the castle in its prime.

Denbigh 2

Parts of the triple-towered gatehouse survive, including the large carved figure (possibly Edward I himself) who greets visitors as they arrive. Inside the walls (parts of which are preserved and accessible to the bold vertigo-less visitor), some of the buildings of the castle’s inner ward are still identifiable. In particular, the hexagonal kitchen tower can be identified by its two massive fireplaces and its proximity to the castle’s gigantic well.

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The ruins remind you of the castle’s formidable defences and its strategic complexity

Other features of the castle can also be discerned—including the sally port (or sneaky back door) in the southwestern corner and the Postern Tower. All of these remind you of the castle’s formidable defences, and its role as a fortress as well as a place of residence. In fact, the castle ruins paint a picture of a structure that is very creative in its strategic complexity—for instance, the sloping pathway leading up from the Postern Gate to the castle has a tight, sharp turn in it, which was intended to disorientate and expose enemy soldiers seeking to attack from this side. It’s quite dizzying to look at this defensive construction and imagine how an invader would feel if they got caught there.

Like all the sites we visited on this trip, Denbigh Castle is in the care of Cadw. In addition to being told the story of the castle’s construction and habitation, we were also shown some of the more recent restoration work that has been carried out to preserve this site for future generations. This work included the removal of cement-based mortar (a remnant of earlier restoration work) and the stabilizing of masonry with locally-sourced materials that are sympathetic to the original stonework.

Denbigh 8

And with that, our trip to medieval Denbighshire came to an end. Time to return to our coach and head back to Manchester.