29 April 2015


Dandelions where monks'  hymns once reverberated
A priory is a small monastery or nunnery. Often it was an outpost of a castle, bigger abbey or large country estate. It would have had several purposes - never solely a place where pious monks paid homage to God.

For almost four hundred years, Monk Bretton Priory operated in the heart of South Yorkshire. It was built by the noble and fabulously rich Norman family that developed Pontefract Castle - twelve miles north east of Monk Bretton. The family wanted their monks to pray for their mortal souls and they also wanted them to control tenant farmers and collect rents.

In the twelfth century the nearby River Dearne would have been a silvery stream containing fresh fish and pure water from the Pennine hills. Building the priory would have involved enormous effort. Thousands of stones would have had to be quarried from faraway hills and transported on river rafts or by horse and cart on rutted roads.to the chosen  green and peaceful location.
The gatehouse at Monk Bretton Priory
The priory had a large gatehouse to control entrances and exits. There was an administration building where financial matters were conducted. There was of course a large chapel for worship and  prayer but also a dormitory  for the monks, stables, gardens,  a refectory for meals and a large kitchen which had ingenious channels for both fresh water and drainage. In short it was an enclosed self-functioning complex. It even had its own graveyard.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, long standing tensions between church and state saw King Henry the Eighth calling for The Dissolution of the Monasteries. Along with other priories around the country, Monk Bretton was closed down, its monks departed and the building gradually fell into disrepair. Thousands of stones were filched for local building projects so what you see today is mostly ruins - a pale but evocative shadow of what once was.

The monks would never have imagined that one day the surrounding area would become very industrialised or that the town of Barnsley would stretch out its tentacles to embrace local villages like Monk Bretton and Lund. But that is what happened and now the old priory sits in the suburbs of the town on the edge of an impoverished council estate called Lundwood where once monks would have wandered collecting nuts and berries and listening to the birds in the trees that stretched heavenwards.
The priory's restored administration building
Monk's grave
Drainage channel heading to The River Dearne
Kitchen with water channel

27 April 2015


How soon past events may be forgotten. In yesterday's April sunshine I went for another jolly stroll - this time close to Barnsley - beloved second home of Frau Meike - the award-winning architect of Baden-Württemberg blog "From My Mental Library". 

I parked at Monk Bretton Priory which I shall blog about later on but here I am thinking about something that happened in mid-December 1866. Something awful. And I only learnt about it when I ventured into the grounds of Ardsley's Christ Church as I plodded back to my car.

Barnsley was once famous throughout the land for its coal mines. Indeed, when I first hitchhiked through the area in 1969 I was struck by the town's own version of The Alps - huge piles of coal waste or what we know in England as slag heaps. Today it is so different, so much cleaner and the coal mines have all gone.

In the mid-nineteenth century, English coal mines were frequently run by unscrupulous profit-hungry capitalists who seem to have viewed  the men and boys who worked the mines as disposable commodities. Safety was not very high on the agenda and there were many deaths through rock falls, flooding, suffocation and fire.

One of the pits at Ardsley to the south east of Barnsley was called The Oaks Colliery. There had been deaths there before - notably in 1846 when seventy three men and boys had been killed in a methane explosion. But on the night of December 12th 1866 an even greater tragedy struck for 334 men and boys died in another gas explosion and only six of the men who were underground at the time survived. The next day yet more men died - would-be rescuers - bringing the total of fatalities up to 361.
This is an extract from the report in "The Illustrated London News", March 1867:-
"The news soon spread far and wide that the Oaks Pit was on fire, and all the workpeople remaining in it. The friends and relations of those who were employed in the colliery were seen running frantically towards the melancholy spot, anxious to learn the extent of the loss of life. From the village of Ardsley, Gawber, Worsbro' hill, Barnsley, Monk Bretton and other places, numbers were presently collected together on the spot. The intensest excitement prevailed, the pit hill was everywhere crowded with the wives, the children, and the friends of the sufferers below, whose cries and wailings were alone to be heard."

I can hardly imagine the impact that this disaster would have had on local communities and families so cruelly robbed of their main breadwinners. Most of the bodies were never brought out of the mine. They still lie entombed far beneath the earth's surface but thirty five were interred in the grounds of Christ Church. And I only learnt about all of this because I turned round to read the inscription on a monument that is so small and so relatively insignificant that you might think it a kind of insult to all those lost souls.

For almost fifty years, The Oaks Colliery Disaster was the worst mining tragedy in British history until the toll of the dead were surpassed at Senghenydd Colliery in South Wales in 1913 when 436 miners were killed in a similar explosion. This was the price of coal and though it was long ago, I still bow my head in respectful memory of the dead. So many forgotten heroes. And the total of the dead on the monument is wrong.Not 354 but 361 - but hey who cares about seven dead miners?

26 April 2015


Oskar Groening worked at Auschwitz. You may have heard of that awful place. Jews were brought there on goods trains for extermination. Oskar  was just twenty one when he arrived at the death camp. He was assigned a clerical position and as a Nazi bureaucrat, he had the job of logging details of the currency that Jewish prisoners brought to Auschwitz.

He was not directly involved in the killing. As he once said,, he had a "desk job" and yet he currently finds himself, at the age of ninety three, facing justice in a court of law charged with being an accessory to the deaths of 300,000 people.

In fairly recent years Oskar Groening spoke out with shame about what he witnessed at Auschwitz. For example, he recalled a particularly terrible incident that had haunted him for sixty years:-
"...a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags. A mother had left it behind, perhaps because she knew that women with infants were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby's head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent."

Remember, Oskar Groening was just twenty one when he was sent to Auschwitz. Little more than a boy. In my view, he himself was a victim of the Nazi regime. Like so many young Germans he was caught up in the tide of war. He did not start the war or plan the extermination of Jews. He was just a little cog in the processes of Nazi horror.

I think it's so wrong that this old man now finds himself in a court of law. It isn't justice, it's a legal witch hunt when a line should have been drawn under what happened at Auschwitz a long time ago. He was just a pawn and as in any game of chess, it's the back row you really need to get at and those evil men are already dead. What merit is there in pursuing Oskar? Forgive and forget.

25 April 2015


This is Paul in the hamlet of Whitle just north of New Mills. His clothes and arms are dirty because he has just come home from work. He drives and maintains heavy goods vehicles and is as strong as an ox. He's forty two and lives with his wife and three children in an old stone farmhouse that overlooks the Sett Valley on the western edge of The Peak District.

Whenever Paul gets home it is not long before he is out in his paddock tending his chickens. Like Jan in Sloughhouse, CA, he knows a lot about raising chickens and is passionate about them though unlike Jan he's not into showing them. He jut loves the feathers and the eggs and the fact that he has raised them and that they are free to run around in the sunshine. He shook his billy can of seed and a small flock came running with their handsome little cockerel behind.
Some chickens came running
Paul's house

Paul is a workhorse - a bit like Boxer in "Animal Farm". He just gets on with things . Take that big wall behind him. He built that with his own hands. Well there had been an old tumbledown wall there beforehand but he repaired it and raised it to its present height and as he was scrabbling around in the loose stone he found this huge piece of carved millstone grit. It had lain in the earth for donkey's years.  Neither he nor I were sure what it is but can you see the date "1587" carved on the side? The stone goes right under Paul's wall and is about seven feet long.
And here's the way that walkers get through the wall on the public footpath that passes right through Paul's paddock. Quite a climb up:-

 And here's the view from Paul's lane over The Sett Valley:-

When I am out walking, it is rare to spend more than a couple of minutes talking to strangers but I was in conversation with Paul for over half an hour and at one point thought that I would never get away to continue the circular route I had planned from New Mills Central railway station.

In that half hour I learnt enough about him to write a book. He spoke in a broad north Derbyshire accent and had a positive, cheerful "can do" view of life. It is unlikely that he gathered many if any qualifications at school but that didn't matter because he had his hands and his muscles and his spirit to make an honest  living for himself and his family.

I learnt about his sister - a former air hostess and his father who would sometimes point to the nearby stone quarry when Paul and his siblings were causing annoyance and say "Why don't you lot bugger off and play in yon sandpit?" The memory of this amused Paul greatly and his eyes narrowed to slits as a big, genuine smile lit up his face. You get a sense of that in the staged photo at the top of this post. And can you see how he is hiding his hands because they are black with engine grime?

Like me, Paul is very proud to be English and proud of our little country. We shared a common feeling of distaste for those who knock England or run it down. "It's beautiful!" said Paul his arm sweeping across his priceless view of The Sett Valley and "I know it's only a small country but we've done a lot for this world. We should be proud!"

If I hadn't made a move, I would still be talking with Paul now. As it was the half hour delay meant that I got back to New Mills Central Station at 7.15pm - just in time for the 7.16 train back to Dore and Totley Station where I had parked my car - for free! Yippee!

23 April 2015



(Song of The Economic Migrant)

Between lives
And in the middle of this sea
Which  rises and falls
To the thrumming of my heart.

Faraway our village sits
In my valley
Where father raised goats
Till the laughing gunmen came
In their jeep.
Nana squeezes my hand,
Looks into my eyes,
Whispers her blessing
Then I leave.

Between places -
Hope in all these fearful faces -
Our memories dance
To the humming of the "Johnson" outboard.

Beyond that blue horizon
Our new lives wait
We will be safe there
I  will work and work and work
Maybe one day
See The Arsenal play
Ride in black taxi
Eat KFC from cardboard box.

If opportunity knocks
In the EU -
Not far to go Nana...
We will soon be there...
I will send money
As I promised...
I can see the island now.

22 April 2015


Long term visitors to this blog may remember that there are two sheep in our garden. The mummy sheep is called Beau and her frisky little lamb is called Peep. Peep is very clingy - always by his mother's side so today I decided to assist his social and emotional development by taking him out for a walk in the North Derbyshire countryside.

He was bleating plaintively as we drove over to Edale and it was disappointing to discover that he had deposited some lamb droppings on the front passenger seat during our journey. I put on my walking boots and we headed towards Jacob's Ladder which is a path that weaves up to Edale Cross.
We met a man called Tony from New Mills. He was with Ollie - his black labrador. At first Tony thought that Peep was also a dog - some kind of Arctic poodle - but I  advised him otherwise. We encountered an Australian couple near Edale Cross. He was called Bruce and she was called Sheila - no word of a lie! I volunteered to take their photo and suggested the resulting picture would look good on their Sydney mantelpiece. Bruce said "G'day mate!" which I did not understand though I think the expression was relatively friendly.

Soon Tony and Ollie headed off for Hayfield but Peep and I turned left to South Head Farm. Then there was a long trudge up to South Head before we followed  a long moorland wall to Brown Knoll. We stopped there for some refreshment. I had remembered to bring Peep a bag filled with fresh grass but I ate an apple and downed a bottle of water in three thirsty glugs.
Triangulation pillar on Brown Knoll
Then back to Edale Cross and down Jacob's Ladder to Yongate Bridge over The River Noe. Peep was doing really well and still frolicing without complaint but I had to carry him the last hundred yards to my car. He was almost asleep by the time we got there. It had been quite an adventure for the wee lamb.
Yongate Bridge
It Could Be You!
Old sheepfold on the way to Brown Knoll
Stone trough in a wall at Lee House Farm

19 April 2015


Rabbits at Castle Farm near Tealby
Shirley is heavily involved with The Women's Institute. She is even going to attend the centenary Buckingham Palace Garden Party in June and as I write this post she is at the  Meadowhall Shopping Palace on the edge of  Sheffield in search of a suitable frock. 

Anyway, because she had a WI event on Friday night and another on Saturday morning, I decided that this was a good opportunity for me to do something I have been planning for a while. I drove over to Lincolnshire and had a five or six mile circular walk in the low country west of The Lincolnshire Wolds. I parked up in the village of Owmby-by-Spital and returned there three hours later. It was a lovely stroll and again I saw many delightful things.

But that walk was just a prelude for Saturday's ramble. 

From Owmby-by-Spital I drove to Market Rasen where I had booked bed and breakfast in "The Red Lion" on King Street. Friday evening curry in "The Gate of India" and then three pints of Thwaites Best Bitter in "The Aston Arms" in the marketplace meant that I was ready to sleep like a log.

The full English breakfast in the morning made a nice change from muesli and a banana. Besides, I needed some extra fuel on board for the major walk I had planned and was soon on my way to the village of Tealby on the western edge of the rolling chalk wolds.
Woldland - see the chalk pieces like snow
After parking, I wandered up to the honey-coloured village church which stands in an impressive position overlooking parishoners' homes. I met  the church warden and he let me in to see the interior of All Saints which can trace its history back to pre-Norman times so parts of the church are more than a thousand years old. I chatted to the church warden for a while and he told me that they had recently received a grant of £51,000 to fix the chancel roof. Interestingly, he also said that the current turnout for Sunday services is around twenty five. As in many other English villages, the ancient church is becoming financially unsustainable. There's erosion, weather and old age to contend with. We both shook our heads.
A quiet corner in Tealby Church
I began my long Lincolnshire Wolds ramble at ten o' clock and didn't get back to my car till five in the evening. The weather was gorgeous and the spring sunshine perfect for capturing lovely images along the way.

The route took me to Walesby, Normanby-le-Wold, Thoresway, Stainton-le-Vale, Kirmond-le-Mire and then back to Tealby. Of course it wasn't all walking. There were photographs to take and churches to enter and for twenty minutes I sat on a bench in Thoresway churchyard to consume a humble lunch - bag of salt and vinegar crisps, banana, chocolate wafer biscuit and a bottle of water.

To use a colourful English expression, I was well and truly "knackered" by the end of the walk though my late mother would have instead used the term "jiggered". But it was a splendid fatigue for I felt like an explorer who has just discovered a new country - the understated and undervisited Lincolnshire Wolds - a rolling chalkland of peaceful beauty with many whispers from long ago. I shall be back.
Lincolnshire Longwool lamb
The Ramblers'Church, Walesby
Stained glass window  inside The Ramblers' Church
(formerly All Saints Church)
In Stainton-Le Vale
Abandoned dwelling in woods east of Normanby-le-Wold
Airforce radar station high on The Wolds
Front door of the derelict Manor House in Kirmond le Mire
East Lodge on the way back to Tealby

16 April 2015


The name "Mersea" sounds like "mercy" but in Old English the Island of Mersea's name was actually "Meresig" which meant "island of the pool". We enjoyed our trip there straight after Easter and I have chosen a few extra pictures for your interest:-
Easter display in a corner of West Mersea Church
Abandoned old punt in reeds near West Mersea Beach
Heading to Packing Shed Marsh Island. It sits in the channel
just off Mersea and was once a hive of industry in the
processing and packing of oysters
At Mersea Stone - a concrete  pillbox relic of World War II
Easter display by a window in East Mersea Church
This grave in East Mersea churchyard caught my eye. It contains the mortal remains of a World War I soldier called Alfred Edward Russell. He died in December 1918 aged thirty. His wife Katie is also buried here. She died in 1984 - aged 95 - sixty six years after her husband. Their daughter Bertha is also interred here. She must have been six years old when her father died a few weeks after The Great War ended.
A view of Pewit Island across Pyefleet Channel

14 April 2015


Growing up in my East Yorkshire village there were certain social mores to which children were obliged to subscribe. After all, we were only kids and we needed to know our place. When we spoke of or to our adult neighbours and fellow villagers we never used their first names.

Next door to us lived a piano-playing widow called Mrs Varley. Mrs Austwick ran the little sweet shop on South Street. Mr and Mrs Ward were the licensees at "The Hare and Hounds" and Mr Peers was the village grocer. Mr Assert was the assertive school caretaker. There was a funny little man called Mr Grubham -  with a name like that he just had to be the street sweeper. To this day I have no idea what those people's first names were - apart from Mr Grubham who was called Joe.

Fast forward to 2015 and we have two little girls living next door to us and two little girls across the street. To them I am Neil and Shirley is Shirley. They probably don't even  know our surname. It just happened - symptomatic of our times and changing social habits. Of course the parents never asked how their daughters should address us. It's the modern culture we inhabit. Somewhere along the line something changed.

And when I was growing up, business organisations, banks and utility companies would never even think of using first names in their correspondence with customers. The very idea would have been outrageous. A degree of formality was important. It provided a suitable transactional distance and was an appropriate signal  of respect.

Nowadays, both in email communication and call centre talk, I am habitually addressed by my first name and usually this happens without my permission. On more than one occasion I have interrupted calls to ask the person at the other end not to use my first name. It is likely that I am the only informality protester they encounter. They probably skip to their call centre "comfort breaks" giggling about the dinosaur they have just stirred.

And as you may or may not know we have a general election coming up in Great Britain next month. I have received several election communications which begin with the appellation "Dear Neil..." or "Neil - this is the most important election for a generation". But all I can think is - Who said you could use my first name?

In shops and pubs I don't want to be "pal", "mate", "bro" or to be on the receiving end of  any other similar informal terms of address. If anything I still want to be "sir" - for that term helps to define our relationship. I am the customer and you are giving me a service. I am not your friend.

King Canute could not command the tide and I know that my feelings about manners and the growth of informal address are probably anachronistic. Some people's instincts are to embrace the new without question - be it in terms of technology, fashion, language or social habits. But that is not my instinct. In my world what is new is not necessarily better. It is simply something to be considered.

12 April 2015


Our holiday home in West Mersea - well the bottom right bit
Back home from Essex. I managed to take photographs in every square kilometre of Mersea Island. The northern coastline is a world of birds and saltmarshes, mud banks and silences where channels weave around like the adders that hide by the shore.

We visited East Mersea Church whose vicar was once the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould who penned "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Now the Day is Over". Easter floral displays remained and on the north side of the church we saw the grave of fifteen year old Sarah Wrench who died in 1848. Her remains are protected by an iron "mortsafe". A local man told us that she had been a witch but the true story of her tragic end  was undoubtedly very different. Pregnancy and/or suicide may have been involved.
Sarah Wrench's grave in East Mersea churchyard
On our way home, after crossing The Strood, we headed westwards into deepest Essex and parked up in the charming village of Stock. As forecasted by the weather people, the drizzly morning rain had passed over on its way across the sea and April sunshine had returned.

We walked to a farm called Ramsey Tyrrells where my Uncle Jack, a radio operator aboard a Blenheim bomber, died in  November 1940. I wanted to find the exact location of the crash but the local farmer, a most pleasant man, was unable to help us. The records state clearly that the plane came down at Ramsey Tyrrells and there was even an archaeological survey of the site in 1975. Buried pieces of the plane were retrieved. But no luck yesterday - a thwarted pilgrimage.

We wandered back into Stock and had a light lunch in "The Baker's Arms". It was filled with affluent Essex people - spending some of their disposable incomes on sea bass and lamb chops. A similar scene could be regarded through the windows of the nearby "Hoop". It's all pretty different in the land of UpNorth. Three hours back along The Great North Road to reality.
Wild greylag geese on Mersea Island
Saltmarsh World at Mersea
Ramsey Tyrrells Farmhouse
Calf  near Fristling Hall Farm,  Stock

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