Saturday, October 22, 2016

An island cloaked in myth and mystery

St Michael's Mount (named after the Archangel) is perhaps the most iconic landmark in south-west England, if not in all of England. This famous island lies off the south coast of Cornwall, and has been used by man since the neolithic period, the first building perhaps appeared in the 8th century, with a monastery being built in the 11th century.

If the name of the island jogs a memory, it could be because you have heard of Mont Saint-Michael in France. There is a connection, in fact, the English island is the sister island of its French counterpart. The monastery on St Michael's Mont was given to the Norman Abbey on Mont Saint Michael as a Priory in the 11th century. Come the 15th century, the war between the nations under the rule of Henry V, ended the association between St Michael's Mount and Mont Saint-Michael. In the 16th century, the mount became more fortress-like and more or less resembles what you see today.

The Mount as seen from Marazion

In 1659 Colonel St. Aubyn purchased the island, the descendants of the family still live there to this day. The population of the island peaked in 1821 when 221 people resided there, it was mainly a fishing port at that time. In 1954 the St. Aubyn family gifted the island to the National Trust to manage, whilst retaining a 999-year lease.

15th-century chapel of St Michael

The gardens that surround the rocky island are from the Victorian era, the frost free climate means that flowers and shrubs flourish here, and it is quite a sight viewed from the highest point on the island.

The victorian terraced gardens looking towards the mainland

As a visitor to the island, you can either walk along the causeway (low tide only) or for a small fee catch a boat from Marazion to the island. The harbour dates from at least the 15th-century but was enlarged in 1823 to accommodate larger vessels. The boat journey is short, but can be a bumpy and wet ride on occasion!.

St Michael's Mount harbour

Mural painted on the side of one of the 19th-century buildings

Marazion is a small parish only 1/2 mile from St Michael's Mount, and the gateway to the island. The town itself is quaint and has a small selection of shops and restaurants, and a bakery serving possibly the largest Cornish pasties in the county.


Largest pasty in all of Cornwall

The island has long been steeped in myths and legends. As far back as the 5th-century tales of sailors been lured to the rocks by mermaids exist, and during the 6th-century the island was said to be home to a giant named Cormoran. This giant as legend has it was slain by a farmer's son named Jack, the giant's heart still remains on the island in the form of a stone. The island is also said to be on top of a major ley line "St Michael's Line", so is a spiritual place on many levels.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Escape to the Country

I have called home quite a few places across the UK, and the USA: from Cities to Suburbia, to Towns and Hamlets; from humid hot climates to a dry desert climate, and everything in between. Whilst I do love cities, particularly London and New York, my heart has always been in the countryside. I spent most of my school years in Thame, Oxfordshire, a small historic market town (11,500 population +/-). 

Thame dates back to the Anglo-Saxon era and gets its name from the River running to its north. The town is situated close to the Chiltern Hills (area of outstanding natural beauty), and a stone's throw from the County seat of Oxford. In 1138 Thame Abbey was founded, later demolished in the 16th century, and incorporated into what is now Thame Park house. The parish Church "St. Mary the Virgin" dates back to the 13th century, and the nearby Prebendal (Church buildings) date also to the 13th century.

Thame's 13th-century parish church

The Prebendal in the background, once the home of Robin Gibb

Gravestone from 1668

In the center of Thame stands the town hall, a relatively new building in Thame's history, built in 1888. Several other notable buildings line the high street, mostly dating from the 16th and 17th centuries; including the Six Bells and the Bird Cage pubs, the latter doubling up as a prison during the Napoleonic wars.

Thame Town Hall

Six Bells public house

The Bird Cage public house

The Chiltern Hills lie a few miles southeast of Thame, and are one of my favourite "local" areas for walking and cycling. Much of the chalk hills are designated as an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", they encompass approximately 300 square miles over 4 Counties.

View from the Chilterns

Chiltern wildlife - the Common Darter

On the southeastern edge of the Chilterns, close to the towns of Chalfont St. Giles and Chalfont St. Peter lies the "Chiltern Open Air museum". This museum was founded in 1976, and its purpose is to preserve buildings from the Chilterns that would otherwise have fallen into disrepair. The museum has quite a range of buildings, and you could easily spend half a day or more exploring.

18th-century barn converted into cottages in 1770

WW1 Nissen hut

1886 Tin Chapel

1826 Toll House

Friday, October 7, 2016

Dockyards and Dickens

"Rule Britannia! rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves" - this famous Poem by James Thompson dates from the 1700's, and has long been associated with the Royal Navy, and sung famously every year at the last night of the Proms.

Great Britain has had a close link to the sea for many many centuries, and shipbuilding was a very important industry during the heyday of sea supremacy and exploration. One very important dockyard was Chatham, on the River Medway in Kent, established in 1567 by Elizabeth I. The dockyard at its peak employed over 10,000 workers, and over its history built 500 ships, including Lord Nelson's famous HMS Victory.

HMS Cavalier WW2 Navy ship

One of the most striking buildings at the Royal dockyard is the Ropery, this building dates from 1728, is 346m long, and is capable of producing 300m (1000ft) long hemp ropes (still in use today). The quickest way to travel along the length of the building when making rope is by bicycle.

The Ropery

The Ropery

Every September the Royal Dockyard hosts a 1940's weekend, you really feel like you have been transported back in time. The sound of Vera Lynn, Andrew Sisters, and Frank Sinatra fills the air; the smell of fish n'chips tempts you to the food vans and costumed actors really look the part.

Just a short distance south along the Medway river from Chatham Royal Dockyard is the City of Rochester. Rochester has links back to the Celts, the Romans, and Saxons, and in more recent times has strong links with Charles Dickens. Dickens lived just across the river Medway, many of his stories are based in and around Rochester, most famously "Great Expectations".

Rochester Cathedral dating from 1080AD

The city has long needed guarding against an attack due to its proximity to the river Medway and the Kent coast. Rochester castle is a very prominent landmark; dating back to 1087, the stone keep is one of the best preserved in England.

Canyons overlook the Medway

The impressive stone keep

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

In an English Country Garden

It is well known the world over, that the Brits love their Gardens. The trend for the "English Country Garden" dates back to the 18th Century, and is maybe attributed to the famous landscape designer of the times Capability Brown.

Today, come Springtime, the drone of lawnmower engines, and the chink chink of shears and pruning tools is heard across the nation. The climate in the UK is perfect for growing an abundance of colourful flowers, ok, I know that is a nice way of saying it rains often. 

Hidcote NT Gardens, Cotswolds

Greyfriars' House & Garden, Worcester

The National Trust does an outstanding job of preserving magnificent buildings, stunning gardens, and awe inspiring landscapes. The Trust was formed in 1895, and its moto "for ever, for everyone" sums up their work perfectly.

The jewel in the crown for the Trust has to be Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, it is one of the NT's most visited properties. The house was owned by the Rothschild family, and was built between 1874 and 1889, gifted to the National Trust in 1993. The house was built in the style of a French Chateau, rather than an English Country Manor, and the interior is just as lavish and extravagant as any Chateau found in France.

Waddesdon Manor - rear of the house and gardens

Waddesdon Manor - rear wing

Waddesdon Manor - Gardens

Waddesdon Manor - the Aviary