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The Roaches form a gritstone escarpment in the Peak District looking over the Leek, Tittesworth Reservoir and the Cheshire Plain.  This jagged crest of rocks, along with Hen Cloud and Ramshaw Rocks marks the south west tip of the Pennines. Today we take a trip to it, over it and around it while extreme dog walking.

Hustled by sheep on Hen Cloud
Hustled by sheep on Hen Cloud

 

Avoiding the weekend crowd awards seldom seen solitude and the rocks are relatively devoid of kids, climbers and other craghoppers.  It’s a chance for us to take the our dog Nelson out and away far from the madding crowds that freak him out. Not that he appreciates it, he just wants to wee on every bit of grass.  It’s also a chance to wear some of the unsuitable gear we bought for Arctic Circle trip in Norway earlier this year, which was most of it.

View from The Roaches Hen Cloud
View from The Roaches Hen Cloud

It’s beautifully quiet with some great views. Jodrell Bank and Cheshire is in the distance, Tittesworth Resevoir nearby with rolling cloud shadows draped across the land. Sheep graze among the moorland, Peregrine Falcons nest among climber free rocks while the heather shelters Curlew and Golden Plover .  The Roaches is an impressive sight rising steeply with an elevation of 505 metres. We started on the solitary edge of Hen Cloud before the gentler walk along coarse sandstone of The Roaches across the lower and upper tiers.

It can feel a million miles from nowhere but there are surprises along the way.  The Queen’s Chair, Doxey Pool and a bronze age cremation urn with cremated human remains was recently found on The Roaches as a workman reinforced the footpath.  There are those that suggest that Hen Cloud is named because to some it looks like a roosting hen, I can’t see that myself.  It’s more likely from the Anglo-Saxon name of ‘Henge Clud’ which means steep rock, which you can definitely see.

The King in the car park, what a way to be remembered, as if your reputation wasn’t bad enough already.  King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the last king of England to die in battle, not quite the end of the Wars of the Roses but marking the end of the Plantagenet reign and the beginning of the Tudor age.  In August 21012, an excavation took place in a Leicester council car park on the site of the long demolished Grey Friars Church. The archaeological excavation unearthed an unceremoniously dumped skeleton with a severe spinal curvature   The remains were confirmed as those of Richard III and we get to visit the King in the Car Park.

Richard III - The King in the Car Park
Richard III – The King in the Car Park

 

We are visiting the King in the car park nearly a year to the day he was reinterred and at the King Richard III Visitor Centre which now stands on the site of the car park.

Richard III Visitor Centre
Richard III Visitor Centre

 

Richard III was the King we love to hate, Shakespearian tales of a twisted and deformed hunchback, usurping his nephews, the “princes in the tower” Edward and Richard from the crown by locking them in the Tower of London for them to mysteriously disappear i.e. murdered.  His short reign of 2 years brought to a bloody end in battle at Bosworth against Henry Tudor.  The King Richard III Visitor Centre gives the story of his rise to power to his bloody demise, his hasty burial and quest by the “Looking for Richard” group led by the slightly bonkers Philippa Langley.

Richard 3 the king in the car park
The King in the Car Park. Richard III monument at Leicester Cathedral

 

Unfortunately there is very little in the way of medieval artefacts to note on display. It’s the story of the excavation with videos, a high-vis vest, pick axe and Wellington boots reeking of desperation.  It’s a little disappointing. The admission fee is a tad steep, they reckon the exhibition will take an hour and half, we managed it in 35 minutes dragging our heels. And that’s the problem, it’s not a museum, it’s a visitor centre, an attraction.  More cash cow than king like.

Alas, we don’t get to see the remains of the King in the Car Park, weak arguments about dignity and respect for the dead meant that Richard III’s remains were buried at Leicester Cathedral.  I’m sure they’d be horrified to see the skeletal remains of Glen Parva lady at the free-to-enter Jewry Wall museum down the road.

Facial reconstruction of the King in the car park Richard III
Facial reconstruction of the King in the car park Richard III

 

Instead there is a 3D printed replica of his skeleton.  We are clearly able to see the curvature of the spine from scoliosis, not quite the hunchback as depicted by the victorious Tudor disinformation team.  History might very well be written by the victors but it might not be correct. The printed replica shows the wounds that Richard received and the fatal blows to the back of the head delivered as a final coup de grâce.  The number of wounds inflicted at the time of death and those after, certainly seem like overkill.  Not a romantic vision of the Wars of the Roses, Battle of Towton anyone?

Richard III Medieval Stormtrooper
Richard III Medieval Stormtrooper

 

There is a facial reconstruction, not sure how accurate these are supposed to be and the white replica armour on display makes Richard III look like a medieval Stormtrooper.  Conclusive proof that he was evil by wearing the Empire’s colours. We veer towards the exit but not before pausing over the dig site of the King in the car park with his projected image outline of the skeletal remains in his grave.

Richard III remains on the left and the projected image on the right as the grave now stands.
Richard III remains on the left and the projected image on the right as the grave now stands.

 

Finally we pop over the road to Leicester Cathedral where Richard III was reinterred in a lavish ceremony after an unholy courtroom battle for those who wanted him to be reinterred in York. Perhaps they should have taken better care of him in the first place.  Allegedly free to enter, we were soon accosted by the god squad to “donate” £3 as their eyes burned into my wallet.  Viewing the opulent fossil stone tomb where Richard III resides in his final resting place cannot be done in place, another member of the church persists in staying close to the tomb.  Clearly no rest for the wicked.

Richard III tomb
Richard III

The wild frozen and barren wastelands of the north, also known as Yorkshire, is the focus of today’s visit, specifically the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Located just off the M1 motorway at West Bretton near Wakefiled, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is set in 500 acres of rolling rural lands and freezing fresh air as we study stylish sculpture in snowfall.

KAWS - Yorkshire Sculpture Park
KAWS – Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Stepping out the car, we know we’ve arrived in Yorkshire as our northern cousins feel the need to broadcast at 100 decibels as the ferret legging freaks slog snowballs….”Ee by eck its froz yuth.”  Leaving aside the social stereotypes, we venture down the estate, or “darn t’state” which is more difficult that you can imagine, its paths of pure mud, as if those tight fisted Yorkshire folk had spent all their money on flat caps and whippets instead of tarmac.  Maps and signposts are vague at best.

Galloping Horse by Julian Opie
Galloping Horse by Julian Opie

Silhouetted in the snow are stylistic shapes and sculptures by famous artists including Henry Moore, Julian Opie, KAWS and Anthony Caro.  But I’m not having a great time here.  The fact is I don’t understand outdoor sculpture and I’m having a hard time understanding how rusty iron pieces, bronze busts and breeze block buildings, even chopped up trees made into steps are being considered as art.  It kind of reminds me of a giant version of The Great Pottery Throwdown where a contestant haphazardly splashed paint all over a piece of pottery and a judge cried over it because he loved it. I just thought he was taking the piss, just like the car parking fee of £8.  It’s not for me.

 

Today is New Years Day. Start of a new day, a new year and a new you according to Sam.  So with this in mind, we finds ourselves exercising and extreme dog walking around Hathersage Moor to kick-start the rude awakening out of the post Christmas & New Year slumber to avoid slipping any further into the self-induced Chrimbo diabetic cheese and chocolate coma.  It’s also an effort to escape the claustrophobia of Christmas and the stress of crowds, there are tons of people here, they very same we were trying to avoid.  We should have known really, we’ve been here before parking up at Surprise View in the Peak District. Last time laughing at the “all the gear – no idea” types up here.  So we’ve decided to join them.

Hathersage Moor. The view from Higger Tor of Carl Wark.
Hathersage Moor. The view from Higger Tor of Carl Wark.

Today being the 1st of January, it is technically the coldest day of the year, being only 3 degrees.  On the other hand it also happens to be the warmest day of the year if you want to look at it like that.  So we’ve decided to test out some of our new clothing gear during our extreme dog walking day and I’m wearing summer walking trousers and a wind-proof fleece, all in preparation for our forthcoming trip to the Arctic Circle in March.  Now I’m wrapped in more fleece than the sheep on these moors, which keep eyeing me suspiciously.  I’m the one feeling sheepish and hoping I don’t get anywhere near a lit flame, which is highly unlikely in this hurricane force wind and rain currently sweeping across a grassy Hathersage Moor. That’s OK though, I’m using a natural layer of blubber i.e. fat, that I’ve built up to protect me from the elements.  The result is that while I’m freezing my ‘nads off, my torso is cooked all the way through but still moist.  I’m cooking in my own juices under all this fleece.  Mrs Cook has ditched the traditional flip-flops and opted for boots.  It is a new start after all…..

We’re striding out on the gritty outcrop of Over Owler Tor and Millstone edge towards Mothercap, a fairly prominent feature that has kids climbing all over it.  Turning our attention towards Higger Tor in what we think is the near distance. Unfortunately it’s not going so well, we’re crossing some well-worn paths, each footstep sucking us into wet boggy grass, the new boots are holding out well, but the wind-proof fleece doesn’t seem to be proving so wind-proof.  We’re also a little concerned, Higger Tor seems a little steeper than anticipated, 434 metres above sea level, and we haven’t seen anyone else for ages.  It’s as though they’ve missed the cut off time point for climbing the summit of Everest at 8848 metres….

Hathersage Moor view of Higger Tor on the left and Carl Wark hill fort on the right.
Hathersage Moor view of Higger Tor on the left and Carl Wark hill fort on the right.

We end up trampling rapidly across a very boggy Hathersage Moor to avoid becoming the next bog bodies to be discovered. This place is riddled with old relics, stones, hill forts, cairns, standing stones and burial chambers.  I need to be careful not to step on a skeleton at this rate, it could be another Monster Megalithic Monument Tour.  After taking a breather and cursing our knees, we admire the view from Higger Tor of Over Owler Tor, Stanage Edge, Padley Gorge and Longshaw Estate before finally heading towards the moorland ramparts of the hill fort of Carl Wark.

Carl Wark hill fort is another rocky outcrop but with a natural defensive position with three sides defended by sheer rock faces and a fortified wall of large gritsone boulders but without evidence of settlement.  Its age is uncertain, with estimates from iron age to Romano-British period up to 500 AD.  A scheduled monument and described as unlike any other in Britain.  I can’t say dog is too happy to be here either, he’s shaking like a leaf.  There’s plenty of them blowing around here.  The moody moorlands of Hathersage Moor can be a bleak place on a windy day unless you’re wrapped up to make a penguin feel cold.

Higger Tor from Cark wark hill fort.
Higger Tor from Cark Wark hill fort.

 

A lot has changed since we last visited London, the wealth of the richest has doubled, the Government has allowed homelessness to rise 47% since 2010, allowed £70Bn of bank tax evasions while chasing the poorest members of society for £1Bn of benefit fraud and has now sold us out to our new Chinese overlords.

It feels like a world apart, walking past London hotels with a Rolls Royce waiting to ferry the privileged elitist establishment so they can pay £13M for a flat.  We can’t afford the cheapest 1 bedroom at £250K.  So it strikes me as somewhat coincidental that the three most powerful men in Britain, all went to the same exclusive school, all were in the same exclusive drinking club and all are exclusively rich and running the country.  All in it together?  And you trust them to represent your views…democracy in action, you lot voted them in again….  No wonder we see junior Doctors striking.  It’s time to visit London and make a stand. Or maybe have a look around.

Mr and Mrs Cook, November 2015.
Mr and Mrs Cook, November 2015.

We’re stood outside Parliament on November the 4th, the day that Guy Fawkes was discovered in 1605 for his part in the gunpowder treason plot.  With my track record of the Police knocking down the door on my threat to steal the Olympic flame, I’d best be careful.  There’s police buzzing everywhere, especially as we move towards Trafalgar Square, they’re preparing for the Million Mask March.  We’ve had a pricey but great week in the big smoke, we’ll be back. Exploits below…

 

Guards practicing
Guards practicing

First up is the British Museum (£ Free), mainly because its round the corner from the hotel and London is full of museums. Another chance to geek out over “old stuff.” More swords, more skeletons, more relics, more rocks.  Greeted inside by giant skeletons, these were Day of the Dead Festival skeleton puppets from the James Bond film SPECTRE. Which is fine by me, because I’m often mistaken for James Bond…cue music and the gun barrel scene…introducing Nick Cook as James Bond…

 

The Sutton Hoo helmet.
The Sutton Hoo helmet.

Further inside, the Rosetta Stone, didn’t understand a word of it, full of hieroglyphs, might as well have been written in Greek for all I know… Delving deeper we come across relics and antiquities of Egypt.  The good thing about having a once all-conquering empire is that you just steal somebody else’s stuff and send it back home.  After all, London is already home to a bunch of thieves, the Houses of Parliament, the House of Lords, The Met, The Royal Family.

 

Giant Day of the Dead Festival puppets from the James Bond Film SPECTRE.
Giant Day of the Dead Festival puppets from the James Bond film SPECTRE.

Then we come on to the magnificent Sutton Hoo helmet, an extra ordinary Anglo-Saxon artefact found in a ship burial chamber from the early 7th century.  This place is huge.  You could get lost but at least you’d be entertained.

 

Russian LK-3 Lunar Lander on display at the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition
Russian LK-3 Lunar Lander on display at the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition

Tuesday November the 3rd takes us to the Science Museum and a chance for me to really geek out at the stunning Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition.  Sam knows this is the reason I’ve marched her half way across London for, knackered knee or not.  The Russians were the pioneers of space travel, launching the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the first animals and the first man in space, the first woman in space and the first spacewalk.  The Cosmonauts exhibition is billed as once in a lifetime and it is truly an outstanding collection of 150 Russian spacecraft and artefacts to visit the UK. You can read more about our visit here.

 

Westminster Abbey interior. Not hard to see what your medieval peasant money was spent on.
Westminster Abbey interior. Not hard to see what your medieval peasant money was spent on.

Next up on our London tour is Westminster Abbey (£20) where there are more dead Kings and Queens buried here than you can stumble over, well 17 anyway.  The place stinks of skeletons.  Guess what, there’s also no photography allowed either, no doubt the church wants you to pay all your worldly possessions to the gift shop for a souvenir photo. Again I tried some shaky phone footage. Inside is regal, resplendent and it’s not hard to see where all your medieval peasant money went when you passed it to the God squad.

 

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

 

There’s a 1000 years of history here.  William the Conqueror, or that French Norman bastard coming over here and conquering our lands as he’s sometimes known as, was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day on 1066, so was his 22nd great-granddaughter, she’s called Queen Elizabeth II and lives down the road at Buckingham Palace. Many more of the land grabbing thieving gits have been crowned and wedded at Westminster Abbey since, some even televised.  The Coronation Chair, minus the Stone of Scone is also on view, all that money and they don’t even pay for a cushion to sit on.

 

Yeoman Warder, a Beefeater, at the Tower of London.
Yeoman Warder, a Beefeater, at the Tower of London.

On Wednesday, we visited the Tower of London (£24.50).  Murder mayhem and millions of kids. And murdered kids eh King Richard?… Imposing is the word I would use.  Its also exactly the type of thing I would build after I’d conquered a country.  It was resented as a symbol of oppression, especially if you were getting your head cut off or hung, drawn and quartered.  Tales of murder, beheadings and execution in the aptly named Bloody Tower are brought to you by one of the Beefeaters, the Yeoman Warders, as they delight in telling you about botched attempts at lopping heads off and where Ann Boleyn’s body is buried.  If you wonder where the entrance fee went, then go and look at the Crown Jewels, your money went on the Queen Lizzie’s bling.  At least you’re at the tower for a god few hours, or a good few years if you were a prisoner. People are still being murdered today, except these days the Government kills its undesirables under the term”austerity.”

 

On guard outside the Queens' House at the Tower of London
On guard outside the Queens’ House at the Tower of London

 

So while we are at the Tower of London, we get to see the Agincourt 600 exhibition displayed on the top floor in The White Tower. Disappointingly, after having just paid £24.50 each for the Tower of London entrance fee, you’re not allowed to photograph anything on display at the Agincourt 600 exhibition, this theme is becoming familiar.  Sunday the 25th October 2015 marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (St Crispin’s Day, Friday, 25 October 1415), probably the most famous medieval battle in British history and if push came to shove, my specialist subject area on Mastermind. Something quite enduring about Henry V, his army being outnumbered, his St Crispin’s Day speech, the apparent readiness of peasant archers setting to work with bows and bollock daggers to slaughter the French and lots of their royalty.

London's China Town
London’s China Town

Organised by the Royal Armouries, it’s’ a fine display of objects relating to the battle, including manuscripts, the actual French battle plan, not that it worked out for them on the day, arms, armour and a detailed scale model of the battlefield. When viewing this, you get the sound of thousands of arrows flying through the air to deadly delivery and look up to see a stylised representation of this.  Objects on display include the stunning pig faced Lyle Basinet, this is normally on display at the fantastic Leeds Royal Armouries, arrows recovered from the Mary Rose, the Warwick Shaffron (head armour for a horse) and many other fine artefacts.  You can find out more about the Battle of Agincourt 600th anniversary exhibition here.

 

Conquest castles, celts, cakes, cawl, sheep, St David, daffodils, Davy Gam, Dylan Thomas, rarebit, rebels, leeks and us. They’ve even got a dragon on their flag.  This isn’t Westeros, its Wales boyo.  We’re holidaying in south west Wales, with rain coats at the ready guarding us against the accidental spittle of unpronounceable place names.  We’ve driven past villages that sound like you need your tongue cutting off and a bad nasal tone to pronounce, Sat-Nav started to melt trying to interpret place names.  Not bad for a language where there are seven vowels in the alphabet, none of which I can pronounce without a verbal accident.

Panorama of Marloes Sands in Pembrokeshire, Wales
Panorama of Marloes Sands in Pembrokeshire, Wales

 

We’ve placed ourselves in South West Wales, near Kidwelly, and through our online brochure, booked a static home by the beach.  In real life, this is a mouldy caravan by a muddy estuary that a night-time has the thermal equilibrium to rival that of Pluto’s frozen ice mountains.  That’s still a step up from Royal Air Force accommodation, I should know, I was stationed near here temporarily some years ago.

It does allow us though, to go extreme dog walking and explore the Gower peninsula and the Pembrokeshire coastline.  We’re not far from Carmarthen, the supposed birthplace of the wizard Merlin from Arthurian legend, though we cannot find anything magical about the place. We’re across the bay from the lovely village of Laugharne where Dylan Thomas lived in his boathouse, but between here and there, it’s an alien landscape filled with boulders, lugworm mounds and dead jellyfish.

Dylan Thomas's boathouse at Laugharne
Dylan Thomas’s boathouse at Laugharne

 

Gower starts just past Swansea, the graveyard of ambition, at a placed called the Mumbles, presumably called because the local Welsh rebels were moaning about regular incursions into the lands by their oppressive English overlord rulers; these days it’s me and tourists.

What Gower does have is stunning expanses of scenic and sandy beaches. Rhossili beach (£4 for parking all day), voted Britain’s best beach, a 3 mile long stretch of glorious sand proving that time on the beach with your dog is never wasted.  The promontory Worm’s Head, or ‘Wurm’ meaning dragon, as it was named by Viking invaders, thought it resembled a sea serpent.  Not so sure about that but it is a pretty panoramic sight.  The producers of Doctor Who thought so too when they filmed here (episode entitled New Earth).  Don’t let that put you off, the climb down to the beach will do that for you when it kills your calf muscles.

Kidwelly Castle
Kidwelly Castle

 

If Kidwelly Castle seems familiar, then it may be because it was a location in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Arthur and Patsy saddle up to their destination in the very first scene just after the titles.  They say that first impressions count, a castle on your doorstep certainly says something and if I was a medieval bad ass, I’d be building something like this. portcullis and murder holes are a definite must-have when looking for our next home.

Set on high ground with natural defence using the river Gwendraeth, its got great views of Kidwelly killing fields when in 1136. the warrior Princess Gwenllian led her army against the Lord of Kidwelly, got captured and her head cut off. Supporters of Owain Glyndwr, the rebellious Welsh prince who led the Welsh revolt against the english in the war of independence, led an attack against the castle but it never fell.  It doesn’t cost a fortune (£4), is dog friendly, helpful staff and you can climb steep stone steps to the top.

Rhossili Bay. Time on the beach with your dog is never wasted.
Rhossili Bay. Time on the beach with your dog is never wasted.

 

A visit to south west Wales isn’t complete without a few scrambles along The Pembrokeshire coastline.  We pass yet another castle, I suppose you need something to keep the rebels in line, the imposing Pembroke Castle along the way, where Henry Tudor was born, later becoming Henry 7 after killing the King in the Car Park Richard 3 at Bosworth in 1485 and winning his crown, and make our way to Marloes Sands.  Marloes has a sandy surf of clean seas, beach and cliffs. Layers of upturned sharp shale, sandstone and silurian stratified layers make it a geologists dream.

It’s nice to soak up the sun and gaze over the surf to the islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm while munching on soggy sea-sprayed sand-blasted sandwiches while our salty sea dog Lord Nelson goes mad from snorting seawater.

Marloes Sands
Marloes Sands

 

Further down the coast we visit the 800 years old structure that is St Govan’s Chapel, wedgied into the crags of the cliff above a stormy sea, presumably to avoid the bucket and spade brigade.  The only thing disappointing is that we didn’t have to duck to avoid the Apache A10 attack helicopter as depicted by the public information leaflet. Turns out that this place is part of the MOD Castlemartin Range.

Along St Bride’s Bay, we divert to Newgale beach and Solva before reaching St Davids.  Britain’s smallest city founded by the Welsh patron saint himself in 550.  You can go in the church but expect glaring looks off the god squad bouncers on the door directing your gaze to the ‘charity’ tin.

St Govan's Chapel
St Govan’s Chapel

 

Then it’s off to St David’s Peninsula, the most windswept westerly point in Wales for more extreme dog walking by Whitesands beach.  Wielding our walking boots in South west Wales along the Pembrokeshire coast we can see seals swimming in the sea and horses harassing us, dragonflies but no dragons. The horses aren’t the only thing up here that’s wild.  I need to be careful, Sam is in no mood for another Monster Megalithic Monument Tour, but yet again, we’ve stumbled across Carreg Coetan Arthur Dolmen, a neolithic burial chamber around 6000 years old.  I really mean stumble as well, we’re knackered.

We finally make it back to the car park only for me to fail; a fat man in his forties falling flat on his face trying to leap and avoid paying 20p for the gents. Another one to add to the database of pain. I’ll be one of those old folk you hear about dying after suffering complications from a fall, but at least it wasn’t tumbling down a Pembrokeshire cliff.  Next time anyone ask for a penny for my thoughts, I’ll charge ’em 20p and recite back that memory.

Edge of the world selfie at Worm's Head, Nelson, Nick, Sam.
Edge of the world selfie at Worm’s Head, Nelson, Nick, Sam.

 

 

Stanage Edge, a gritstone escarpment like a broken boulder backbone of Britain past Hathersage in the Peak District.  A geological gap of the Dark Peak and the White Peak stretching for 3 1/2 miles rising up 20 metres in places taking it to a nose bleeding 458 metres at its highest point elevation.  Try not getting a nosebleed if you fell from that.

Stanage Edge, Derbyshire.
Stanage Edge, Derbyshire.

Easing yourself to the exposed edge, it’s a killer on the calf’s to the top of the cliff face, especially for a fat arsed forty something who struggles to ascend the stairs at home, I could do with a Stanage Stair Lift…geddit?….,

I’ve often thought that people come to the Peak District to get away from it all, the higher the height the fewer the people. Stanage Edge clearly bucks that trend, Its got climbers crawling all over it, walker’s winding their way and heroic hang gliders hurtling into the hillside.  For climbers and rock crawlers, Stanage Edge is home to the “Right Unconquerable” which was err…. first conquered in 1949.

That scene in Pride and Prejudice when Keira Knightley stands at Stanage Edge daydreaming of Darcy, what they didn’t show you was the alternate ending when she chucks herself off the edge, fed up of fell walkers and falling foul on flimsy footholds.  Be careful.

Fresh from our Monster Megalithic Monument tour, we’re taking advantage and sightseeing in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires and old worldly charm.

Radcliffe Camera
Radcliffe Camera

Every city has its sights, Oxford has its cyclists and scholars.  With it being summer and the recess before new term, the chances of being mown down by a psycho student cyclist with a smug elite stare are thankfully less. Ever wonder why Inspector Morse was so busy round here?  Thankfully its all quite walkable, along with the 3 million tourists that have decided to visit albeit that Oxford itself has become yet another homogenised high street, an identikit clone of every other city in the UK. Oxford retains some charm though, the university area, Radcliffe Camera, Sheldonian Theatre and the Ashmolean Museum to note.

 

We’re on tour, a chance to take a trip in the new car and test it, test the sat-nav and ultimately test our patience when we won’t find anywhere.  So we’ve gone south towards Stonehenge in what we’re calling by the very catchy name of the nerdy neolithic Monster Megalithic Monument tour.  Checking the weather forecast before we go for the time we are due to arrive, it states light rain shower, 66% humidity and visibility as very good.  Which means that we will be able to see the rain perfectly.

Stonehenge 5 August 2015
Stonehenge 5th August 2015.

Now, the only reason to visit these stones on the Monster Megalithic Monument tour is because in some fit of middle-aged madness, at the grand age of 44, we decided to purchase membership for National Heritage.  Finding them is easy, the rubbernecker drivers gave us a clue.  On arrival, the queue is horrendous.  Merely glancing at it will suck the very soul from humanity and slaughter your sanity for nothing is sacred here.  For once, I’m quite happy to have paid a premium and only have my wallet sacrificed.  We booked online in advance and because we were members, ushered straight to the front, no queue, no hassle, no selfie sticks snapped in anger and the rain has held off.

Shipped off to the stones by shuttle bus, we arrive at Stonehenge to see a bunch of stones assembled together like a drunken giants jenga game. Somebody obviously got bored and knocked ’em down.  Sozzled stones would be a great alternative name for Stonehenge.  Actually, its pretty cool here and I’ve always harboured a suspicion that the allure of the stones owed their looks to the magic of photography.  They certainly look different as you walk around.  They’d look even better in the sun, except its August and the sun is yet to make an appearance.  How on earth our ancestors aligned these stones I’ll never know but I’m pretty sure the sun always aligns to something.  Maybe that’s why it took years to build Stonehenge.

Quite why they built Stonehenge, I may also never know, maybe those neolithic nincompoops just thought it would be a great talking point for years to come, you know let’s get some dead heavy bluestone from Wales, move them 160 miles, knock up some sarsen stones and voilà, instant tourist attraction.  People will be talking about it for years to come wondering why we built it.  I’m pretty sure that life 5000 years ago was hard enough as it was, so lugging 30 ton rocks must have some meaning. Being free from the shackles of religion, I didn’t feel the need to hug a hippy or practice any trumpery idolatry. Some people certainly did, most just felt the need for a photograph. I’m not sure that sacrificing virgins on the slaughter stone would appease any malevolent powers.  When you start looking at the landscape, there are barrows and burial mounds everywhere you turn.  This is one giant ceremonial graveyard.

 

Moving on with the next stop in the Monster Megalithic Monument tour is Silbury Hill.  You can’t miss it, it’s staggering at 40 metres high and half a million tons of chalk, it’s the tallest prehistoric human made mound in Europe.  Built around 2400 BC, its purpose remains unknown.

Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill

 

Next on the Monster Megalithic Monument tour is West Kennet Long Barrow.  This is a neolithic tomb over 100 metres in length and at least 400 years older (3600 BC) than Stonehenge.  It’s constructed from sarsen stone and limestone topped with chalked that today is covered in grass.  Inside there are 5 burial chambers where at least 46 people over 1000 years were buried.  It has some impressive sized stones at the entrance before you go inside.  It’s worth the trek up the hill to West Kennet Long Barrow from the A4 roadside where when you are at the top, you can also see Silbury Hill.  On the other side of the hill, we saw excavation work being completed at West Kennet Avenue by the National Trust archaeological team.

West Kennet Long Barrow.
West Kennet Long Barrow.

 

At this point I’m having to drag Sam away from the tomb, mainly because I’m in distinct danger of being buried myself so off we trot on the next step of our Monster Megalithic Monument tour to the Avebury stone circle for more monolithic madness.  What is complete madness is that there is a main road running right through Avebury stone circle.  While the stones themselves are pretty big, the henge itself, the circular bank and ditch is huge, over 28 acres.  Inside there is an outer circle of tall standing stones at 331 metres and a further two stone circles enclosed.  Constructed during the neolithic new stone age 2600 BC, its purpose and the rituals contained within remain unknown.  Its current purpose is to bring in lots of visitors to a very pretty village.

Avebury Stone Circle
Avebury Stone Circle

 

Continuing on to the penultimate step on our Monster Megalithic Monument tour is Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow on Britain’s oldest road, The Ridgeway. Tucked out-of-the-way and hidden in a wooded area, its dead quiet here and certainly atmospheric.  Quite handy considering this is another neolithic burial chamber built around 3590 BC where the remains of 14 people were found in earlier excavations.  Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow is actually two tombs, with excavations showing that the monument we see today covers an earlier barrow. At 56 metres long and 13 metres wide, that’s a pretty impressive resting place. The site is important as it illustrates a transition from a timber-chambered barrow to a stone-chamber over a short period of time, perhaps as little as 50 years.  The name is linked to the Germanic smith-god Wolund of Wayland given to the site by Saxons who settled here and with the first documented use of the the name in 955 AD.  Legend has it that a traveler whose horse has lost a shoe can leave the animal and silver coin on the capstone overnight and when he returns the next morning, will find the horse re-shod and the money gone.

Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow
Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow

 

As we are on the ancient road, we trot along to the Uffington White Horse, the final stop on our Monster Megalithic Monument tour.  This bronze age stylised hill figure of a horse is made from chalk and is best viewed from the air.  Our legs are tired and we can’t jump that high to see, it has after all been a mega tour.  Truth is, there are lots to see around here, the Avebury World Heritage site has plenty of walks to keep you entertained, as do Stonehenge and the Vale of White Horse.  Worth coming back for more.

Ground view of the Uffington White Horse
Ground view of the Uffington White Horse

We’re off over the border into the wild and windy badlands of the Peak District in Derbyshire at Speedwell Cavern and The Devil’s Arse Peak Cavern.  Off to see how the other half live, obviously they live underground.

Starting at Speedwell Cavern, we’re at the foot of Winnits Pass to dip down to the deepest part of the cavern.  This is undertaken by stooping down 106 steps to a waiting boat in the tunnel below.  A boat ride to an an underground cavern with the name called the “The Bottomless Pit.”  I can’t work out if this is a Bond villain’s secret lair or a trip on some shitter version on Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.  Incidentally, I am informed by those in the know, Google, that the boat in Willy Wonka was called the Wonkatonia.  It would be quite easy to rename this boat placing an ‘A’ instead of the ‘O’ if I don’t like the cavern. Decorum prohibits me from saying the name but it’s spelt Wankatania.

The descent down to Speedwell Cavern
The descent down to Speedwell Cavern

Our guide looks like a poor Ed Sheeran who got dressed in the dark.  I was assured though that he is very knowledgeable. Not surprising then that the journey on the boat is in complete darkness.  Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch much of his speech as a mother sitting next to me thoughtfully decided to place her screaming child at shoulder height aimed directly at my good ear for the time it took on the boat to get to the cavern. My only entertainment throughout this time was the thought of how best to murder strangers in complete darkness to match the screams of the child at my ear.

Eventually arriving at Speedwell Cavern, we disembark in the limestone cave to find it not quite cavernous.  Sure its got a high ceiling and a few stalactites hanging down but you really can’t see that much. You can’t climb down to the bottomless pit, which surprise surprise turns out not to be bottomless. It’s supposed to be a deep vertical shaft but now filled with water and tons of rock spoil dumped by miners.  Our guide assures us Speedwell Cavern is Britain’s least successful lead mine. Combined with the tour cost and the parking fee, he’s really selling this place to us.  Instead of the boat trip and banging your head and trapping your fingers against the narrow tunnel to the cavern, I can’t help but think that this experience could be improved by forcing visitors to swim the 800 metres in the 3 degree cold water to the cavern may make them appreciate the place more.  Those who perish along they way can be dumped in the bottomless pit along with your excitement.

Speedwell Cavern boat journey
Speedwell Cavern boat journey

Hot off the back of disappointment, off we trot Peak Cavern, also known by the much racier name of the Devil’s Arse. Now my dog has been known to make some pretty turgid noises and pungent smells, toxic cloud so thick can emanate from his rear end that a foggy haze envelops the room and you can choke it’s so thick.  Surprised Hans Blix and UN weapons inspectors aren’t called every time the dog farts to test for chemical weapons.  I’m pretty sure he’s got the Devil’s Arse, most people encountering it would probably agree,  So to call yourself the Devil’s Arse is one proud boast you’d better live up to.

Arriving at the cave, we exchange hard cash for access to this almost entirely natural cave. Apparently, it was also home to some of Britain’s last troglodytes who use to make rope for a living.  To be honest, I’n not sure they’ve all left.  First up, a demonstration.  I get stringed along and used as a guinea pig for rope making.  I didn’t get paid and pretty sure I saw the rope I made on sale in the gift shop on the way out.   I’ve just been used as slave labour.  Tory Britain has truly returned to Victorian values.

Peak Cavern - The Devil's Arse
Peak Cavern – The Devil’s Arse

Travelling further down the cave requires more stooping, ducking underneath some interesting avens and a noticeable drop in temperature as we venture down, its amazing how low some people will go to get a good view of a cave. Eventually we pass through the chambers of the great cave of the Orchestra Gallery and Roger Rain’s house.  The amount of water dripping from the ceiling onto the delicate electronics of your camera while you attempt to take photographs should give you  a clue with the name.

In 1880, the Devil’s Arse was renamed to Peak Cavern in order to avoid causing any offence to the dour Queen Victoria when she visited here.  Turns out The Devil’s Arse name is due to flatulent sounding noises that the water flowing from the cave can make, we didn’t hear any, not a squeak.  One is not amused.

You can find out more about Speedwell Cavern and Devil’s Arse Peak Cavern here.

We’ve been roaming the Derbyshire Peak District for what now seems like hours in an attempt to find a suitable route to Stanage Edge.  The area we are currently having some navigational difficulty with is called the Dark Peak, presumably, because they don’t like to give out routes or signposts, Postcodes to Stanage Edge.  Instead we’ve ended up at a place called Surprise View in the Peak District.  A career as a travel writer would not be off to an auspicious start.

Surprise View from Over Owler Tor towards Higger Tor and Carl Wark hill fort.
Surprise View from Over Owler Tor towards Higger Tor and Carl Wark hill fort.

What isn’t a surprise is the amount of twatish driving and piss poor parking.  It’s a Bank Holiday, so every man and his dog has turned up, some of them have been kind enough to leave their doggy doo doo droppings tied to trees. Predictably, it also has middle-aged men clad in skin-tight lycra showing off their sweat stained buttock crease every time they stand and cycle. Wedgied between Derby and nearby Sheffield, it’s as though the entire population has been displaced and then descended here. It’s enough for me to seriously consider ritual disembowelment, not mine – theirs.

Surprise View Over Owler Tor.
Surprise View Over Owler Tor.

Now we’re up here on bleak barren gritstone moorland with all the grimness of the desolate wastelands of the north.  You could stylise the view into black and white to enforce the misery of the bleakness.  The Surprise View is overlooking Hathersage and Derwent with heather moors and gritstone edges, erosion shaped Tors of Over Owler Tor, Mother Cap, Higger Tor and the Brigante hill fort of Carl Wark.  Millstone circles litter Millstone Edge, presumably so the poor northern buggers grind up rocks to eat when they’ve nowt else left after they’ve finished feasting on their flat caps and whippets.

Jane Austen, she of Pride and Prejudice fame, reckons there is “no finer county in England than Derbyshire.”  I’m guessing she didn’t get out that much. Incidentally, as if to further frustrate my folly journey, Keira Knightley, who played Elizabeth in  Pride and Prejudice, stands on Stanage Edge fluttering in the wind, the very same place we can see and were trying to get to.

View from Millstone Edge of Over Owler Tor and Mother Cap.
View from Millstone Edge of Over Owler Tor and Mother Cap.

It’s impossible to feel lost here, a frenzy of kids clambering and scurrying over rocks and roads in every direction, as though planners are determined to concrete over the rest of Britain.  It’s not exactly the “magnificent desolation” that Buzz Aldrin spoke about when he stepped foot on the moon.  So I’m at  loss to explain the ‘all the gear – no idea’ types strolling up here, especially the bloke with the full on flare gun strapped to his back pack.  It’s the size of a god damn cannon.  Not sure what he’s planning to do with it but a short time later, we hear screaming sirens, I suspect he’s probably shot someone to match the seppuku I suggested earlier.  That or I’m just getting as bitter as the taste of the rocks.

Millstone Edge abandoned gritstone mill circles.
Millstone Edge abandoned gritstone mill circles.

As if you ever needed any proof that the luddite folk of ye olde Nottingham don’t like new fandangled technology or my denial that I am a cave dwelling suburban simpleton, Nottingham, or at least the area that is now Nottingham’s city centre, was once known as Tigguo Cabauc, City of Caves.  Today we’re having a visit to these Nottingham caves, after we’ve finished smashing up spinning frames of course – self-fulfilling prophecy I suppose.

Accessing the entrance through the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre and paying a steep fee of £7.50, there are over 500 man-made caves dug out from the soft sandstone that Nottingham sits on, but we only get to visit about four of them. The earliest reference to Tigguo Cabauc is 900AD in the book, The Life of King Alfred, he of burnt cakes fame, by the Welsh monk Asser.

This labyrinth of unconnected caves beneath the city streets, made of compacted sandstone, have all been dug out by hand with simple tools and used for cellars, tannery, houses and lodgings with pottery finds dating back to 1270.  Gives new meaning to the dark ages – not exactly much natural lighting down here.  They were inhabited till 1845 when the St Mary’s Enclosure Act banned the renting of cellars and caves as homes to the poor.  God only knows what the Tories would do with the extra bedroom tax from these cave lodgings.  Surprised they’ve not considered re-renting them.

Nottingham is also home to Britain’s only underground medieval tannery where animal skins were preserved and made useable as leather.  A King John’s groat found in the well of this cave suggest the Pillar Cave was originally cut before 1250 but had been filled in by rockfall in 1400. It was cleared in 1500 and used as a tannery where pits and clay lined vats were dug into the ground and animal skins sunk filled with dung and urine for the tanning process.  Just the place for a filthy peasant for when they haven’t got  a pot to piss in.   Clubbers in Nottingham recreate the same conditions every weekend against a bus shelter.

So unpleasant were the conditions around Broadmarsh in Nottingham, some may say they still are, that even the plague in 1665 stayed away.  Says a lot about Nottingham.

You can find out more about Tigguo Cobauc City of Caves here.

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Nottingham Castle and Mortimer’s Hole

Bradgate Park, a medieval deer park in Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, barren, rugged and reputedly the birthplace of the short-lived Nine Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey, before Bloody Mary got ticked off with the Tudor usurper and tried for high treason, eventually losing her head over it, all before the age of 17.  No wonder her house is in ruins.  Not sure what I can give in way of an explanation for mine.

Old rocks and Old John, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.
Old rocks and Old John, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.

What we’re really here to do is extreme dog walking.  At least that’s the pretence I’ve used to visit here.  It’s ripe for it though, there are some hills here, helped enormously by the craggy knolls of Precambrian rocks of volcanic origin, we’ve got a dog, usually a decent enough excuse for a dog walk, trees, deer, muddy paths, screaming kids, howling wind and acres and acres of wild grassy spaces.  Note to self: never underestimate dogs ability to sniff out every blade of wild grassy heathland unmolested by others dog’s pee for him to accurately deposit his own it. It’s also got a central focal point atop the highest point in Bradgate Park in the form of a folly called Old John, built in 1784, ideal for when your calf muscles are screaming at you from your extreme dog walking if you can get up the hill.

I’m not suitably dressed for it though, I’m slogging through thick cloying mud in white trainers, and with every step weighing me down by the accumulating peat and marshy mud dragging me ever closer to a boggy demise.  I’m in danger of fast becoming Leicestershire’s very own Pete Marsh (Lindow Man), in fact, if I’d have trodden any further to the east I’d have become Pete-Bog-Horror Man (Peterborough…geddit?….Hint…Google Maps).  And they say french Knights had a tough time with the mud at Agincourt.

Of course, what I really to do, and the whole reason for the pretence of extreme dog walking, is to geek out and look at those interesting rocks, the sliding stone stump breccias and ancient Precambrian rocks.  These Precambrian rocks, 600 million years old, are some of the oldest in the UK and the world.  Now you could argue that all rocks are old, but allow me to divulge. Over 50 years ago, it was generally accepted that life, particularly multi-cellular life, not just your odd single cell or groups of cells, emerged during the Cambrian age, the so-called Cambrian Explosion, where in geological terms, life exploded onto the scene and where most of the major animal phyla appeared as indicated by the fossil record.

Sliding stone stump breccia, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.
Sliding stone stump breccia, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

Scientists had always thought there wasn’t any point looking at these rocks, but in 1956/1957, a few schoolkids found marks and impressions in the rocks. These marks on the Precambrian rocks were eventually checked out by a geologist and new species was catalogued – Charnia, named after the forest in which it was found in and can be seen in Leicester’s New Walk museum.  The first macrofossil to be discovered anywhere in the world in Precambrian rocks.  This led to scientists in other parts of the world to look at other similar aged rocks. These fossils are so old that scientists cannot find the distinction between plant and animal life.

All this happening where we are walking now.  While Leicester has often given me the impression that it is devoid of life, I have worked near here after all, there are certainly a few old fossils here.  Sadly the fossils are not easy to see on these rocks and we didn’t get to see any.  Even worse is the fact parts of these Precambrian rock faces have been vandalised, carved with graffiti and souvenir hunters have tried to hack away for a keepsake.  They are not the kind of rocks where fossils will come out, they just shatter.  For this reason, the site is kept secret although groups may request in advance with the Bradgate Park Trust.  Something I’m still keen to see.

You can see my earlier attempts at fossil hunting here.

Once again, we’re visiting the ancestors of Caveman Cook at the limestone gorge of Creswell Crags located on the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire borders, this time to tour the largest cave on the site, the Robin Hood cave.

The Robin Hood Cave Horse, previously known the Ochre Horse found at Creswell Crags in 1876.
The Robin Hood Cave Horse, previously known the Ochre Horse found at Creswell Crags in 1876.

This was the most northerly point in the world during the last ice age which was habitable for only a few weeks each year where Neanderthal ancestors used to visit.  The gorge, split by a modern-day lake, is also home to Britain’s only ice age rock art which is on the north facing Nottinghamshire side, and on the suburban south-facing sunny Derbyshire side we have where our caveman friends used to live.  Definitive proof that people from Derbyshire are Neanderthals while confirming Nottinghamshire’s status as the bohemian capital of the midlands.

Britain at this time, was connected to the rest of Europe, called Doggerland, which is very different from dogging land which allegedly happens in the nearby woods, allowed nomadic humans to follow migrating woolly mammoths, rhinoceros, hyenas and bisons as evidenced by remains in the Robin Hood cave.  To access this cave tour,  we have to don a cavers helmet and torch looking like some sort of manic miner ducking through small passageways to reach the four main chambers.  Its pretty dark in here with illumination only from your head torch (sounds like dogging again) and its pretty cool at a constant 8 degrees but with the overhanging magnesium limestone cliff face helping to enforce the natural protection from the cold, it’s still warmer than outside in the ice age.

The Victorian archaeologists in their eagerness to excavate the cave and its deposits were frustrated by the hard flowstone and used dynamite to help dig through, probably destroying more artifacts than they found.  A wide range of artifacts have been found including tools left by Neanderthals between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago.  Amazingly, they have a genuine Neanderthal hand axe you can touch and pass round the tour group.  Even more amazing is that I didn’t drop it.  The hand axe is made from flint that is not local to Creswell and thought to be from nearer Kent. Other tools found were flint scrapers, leaf points and ribs that were made into spear tips.

Other notable finds include hippo and narrow nosed rhinoceros bones from before the last ice age when this area was as warm as Africa is today and a tooth from a lesser scimitar cat which was extinct long before the ice age.  Evidence for upper paleolithic hunters camping here 12500 years ago come in the form of flint and bone objects that include the only known engraving of a horse on a fragment of rib clearly showing the head and neck facing to the right.

You may also like this previous post on Creswell Crags Ice Age Rock Art Tour.

You can find out more about Creswell Crags here.

York, the wild northern frontier nestling on the river Ouse is a popular and busy place. Battered by Brigantes, rampaged by Romans and harried by Norsemen, its had its fair share of long stay visitors, some are on an extended stay at the Jorvik Viking Centre.  Today, it is thronging with tourists, pounding the pavement and treading the tourist traps. But beneath their feet is a hidden world and the buried remains of the Viking settlement of Jorvik.

Jorvik viking toilet
A Viking taking a….poo. This tourist attraction insists you get up close and personal.

In 1976, before construction work in the centre of York where the Coppergate Shopping centre now stands, the York Archaeological Trust unearthed Viking age timbers and other Viking age artefacts in unprecedented numbers in the damp conditions that helped to preserve the finds. Whether they were raiders and/or traders, or perhaps just wanted better farming land or weather etc is still open to debate.  One thing for certain is that my wallet was raided and credit card assaulted by the fee to enter the Jorvik Viking Centre.  But at least you can visit as many times as you’d like within the year.

Jorvik Skull of male aged 16-25 showing battle injuries.
Skull of male aged 16-25 showing battle injuries.

Today the Jorvik Viking Centre stands on the exact site where the remains had been found.  Inside, you step on a glass floor with an accurate reconstruction of what the Coppergate dig would have looked like below your feet.  Most of the items are reconstructions of discarded objects except the animal bones and shells.  Considering they dug up 5 tons of animal bone, there appears plenty to go around.  There are maps provided to show you what’s beneath the glass floor but you can’t read them because it’s so dark.  I’m guessing Vikings didn’t have street lights, so that makes it authentic.

Builder on the Jorvik ride
Builders taking a break from chucking mud at wattle to build viking housing. Nothing has changed in a 1000 years…

Then it’s onto a ride taking you back to the 10th century Viking settlement, a street and market place with historically houses, clothes, tools and smells.  Animatronics waxwork dummies with faces based on reconstruction of Viking age skulls, speaking the languages of old Norse and old English.  It’s a bit like a PG rating of Westworld without Yul Brynner running wild. Nearing the end of the ride, we are err… lucky enough to see, hear and smell, a Norse chap taking a dump, spared only by a wicker screen to protect his modesty and our blushes. It stinks and there is rubbish everywhere. This, dear readers, is what Scandinavian life has to offer you.  Then again, I suppose it’s easier to accept it at the end of a pointy sword thrusting at your belly.  Disappointingly, not one Viking is wearing a helmet with horns and we do not see anybody having a blood eagle.

Female skeleton discovered in the excavations at Coppergate. She was around 46 old and 5ft 2in, robustly built and possibly used crutches.
Female skeleton discovered in the excavations at Coppergate. She was around 46 and 5ft 2in, robustly built and possibly used crutches.

The last third of the exhibition has associated collections of 800 artefacts from the 40,000 that were found.  Bone and antler working to make combs, leather for making shoes etc.  Of course, any Viking experience is not complete without battle and you now get a  chance to see a few weapons and the injuries these can cause on the battle-scarred skeletons on display.  The weapons are not that good and better examples are on display in the Derby museum from the Vikings when the Great Heathen Army camped over winter at Repton or those on display in the Leeds Royal Armouries.  The skeletons however are a grim reminder of diplomacy on the receiving end of an axe edge.

Battle skeleton at Jorvik with 16 visible injuries. Its possible he died at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton.
Battle skeleton at Jorvik with 16 visible injuries. Its possible he died at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton.

One skeletal chap on display has 16 visible injuries including an axe shaped wedge wound to his upper leg, two stab wounds to the pelvis penetrating the abdomen and two execution style wounds to the back of his head. He was aged between 18-25 and was one of a group of 30 skeletons all showing blade injuries that had not healed.  They were discovered in the cemetery at the Church of St Andrew in Fishergate so it is unlikely they died in the famous clashes at the Battle of Fulford, a Viking victory, or the Battle of Stamford Bridge where Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson (half-brother of King Harold) was killed by the English army of King Harold before he marched down to Hastings to face William Duke of Normandy, heralding the end of the Viking age in Britain.

Learn more about the Jorvik Viking Centre here.

Newark Castle on the River Trent in Nottinghamshire
Newark Castle by the River Trent in Nottinghamshire.

Newark Castle , the medieval monument of national importance sitting on the River Trent, famous for dispatching that mad despot, bad King John.  Personally I don’t see how the pilloried Plantagenet  was any worse than the incumbent pocket thieving, tax-avoiding, limelight hogging bunch of media whores we’ve got now.  Magna Carta hasn’t done me any favours and the Queen still refuses to see me when I pop to London.  Her loss.  Today, Newark Castle is blessed with our majestic presence but besieged by common peasants crawling around because the sun is out.  One look at the behaviour of these peasants and you can see how revolting they really are.

The stone castle built in 1133 by the modestly named Bishop of Lincoln, Alexander the Magnificent, was originally on the site a Saxon fortified manor house.  King John is probably its most famous visitor, when he died here in 1216 on his way to his hunting lodge, King John’s Palace in Clipstone.  Probably wanted to console himself by inflicting pain on animals as the clumsy oaf lost the crown jewels a week before in the Wash.  Luckily for the animals, and the country, Newark Castle must have had a really bad cook where bad King John managed to gorge himself on peaches and died of dysentery on 18 October 1216 in the south-west tower.  It’s more likely though that he died in one of the apartments above the imposing and then heavily guarded gatehouse.

Newark castle was also in support during another royal rumpus, where it was held for King Charles 1 during the Civil War and besieged by Parliament 3 times.  Parliament ordered the castle to be slighted, but owing to an outbreak of plague in Newark, and not due to MP’s incompetence, not all the castle was destroyed and today, one and a half sides of the castle remain including the imposing curtain wall by the River Trent, the grand gatehouse and south-west tower.

Mosaic at Teversal village entrance
Mosaic at village entrance

I said some time back about promising to stop visiting former coal tips. That didn’t last long, perhaps I should accept the heritage around here.  A grim legacy from the past couple of hundred years, the area we now stand in was decimated by industrial digging, tearing up the county with pockmarked areas of dirt and drudgery for coal.  Now these areas have been re-claimed to woodland walks and trails.  Today’s dog walk takes us to the old colliery that once stood here and is a now woody 115 hectare area of Silverhill Woods in the old coal mining village of Teversal.

Teversal was once owned by Lord Carnarvon.  The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, financed the excavations that led to the discovery of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1922.  On entering Teversal village, there is a very distinct mosaic showing the boy Pharaoh’s death mask along with other icons symbolising the area.  Teversal is also the home of that high class harlot Lady Constance (Connie) Chatterley romping with Mellors in that Victorian version of 50 Shades of Grey, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with Teversal Manor as Wragby Hall.

The Teversal Trails on the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire border encompass 4 miles of walking and cycling.  The path in Silverhill Wood on the site of the former Silverhill colliery is one of the highest points in Nottinghamshire.  The Silverhill summit of the man-made hill resting at 204m from the spoil tips of the coal mines, is crowned with a statue of ‘The Miner’ with a Davy lamp called ‘Testing For Gas.’  The statue shows a miner testing for methane gas known as firedamp, holding a flame safety lamp to test for the presence of explosive firedamp by observing the shape and color of the flame.  The commemorative plaque on the plinth at the back lists the principal coal mines within Nottinghamshire that were in operation between 1819 and 2005.  On the boulders surrounding the statue are waymarks showing landmarks and other points of interest.  In the very near distance is the fine Elizabethan architecture of Hardwick Hall, called Chadwick Hall in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Victorian nippersA day out at Papplewick Pumping Station may not be on everybody’s agenda, inspecting Victorian water works, or any anybody else’s waterworks for that matter, but it could, especially when it’s for free as part of the Radio Nottingham Big Day Out.  Initial suggestions at visiting Papplewick Pumping Station are filled with thoughts of dour Victorian gentleman in tail coats with magnificently kept moustaches marvelling over mechanical masterpieces while kids are playing in coal dust ‘cos there’s now’t better to do for the young rapscallions apart from scuttle up tall chimneys sweeping up soot for their tea.

Amazingly, this engineering leviathan of Victorian age is still in operation after 150 years and continues to supply water to Nottingham using electrical pumps housed in modern buildings.  Granted, it has had some restoration with a reopening in 2005 but you can’t knock Victorian craftsmanship.  Stained glass windows, ornate decorations with polished brass and mahogany pieces stand as a statement of flair and pride.  Try saying that about a Barratt house in 150 years.

Calverton Iron Age Roundhouse Reconstruction
Calverton Iron Age Roundhouse Reconstruction

Also part of the Radio Nottingham Big Day Out is a viewing of a reconstruction of an Iron Age Roundhouse in Calverton.  Built as part of a research project by an archaeology student, the roundhouse is built using methods and materials circa 500 BC and would have housed an extended family between 12 – 20 people.  Chuck a few hazel stakes in the ground, haul up some oak beams, whittle some willow with wattle and daub thrown in and paint with limewash.  Now once you’ve obtained planning permission (yes, seriously) and mustered enough like-minded student manpower every Sunday for 18 months, you too could have a 32 foot diameter and 25 foot tall thatched roundhouse.  No mod cons included.  Like a back to basics bronze age barrack block.  Trust me, I’ve slept in Forces accommodation worse than this.  Not sure how it stands for bricks & mortar insurance, mainly because there isn’t any.

 

Being a self-confessed and unashamed geek, I am compelled to drag the clan (man, woman – try saying it in grunts like a caveman) across the land hunting and gathering geek interest.  This time to Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge of stone age caves occupied during the last ice age between 50,000 – 10,000 years ago on the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire border.  I always knew there were knuckle dragging cave dwelling troglodytes around here.  I see him in the mirror, Cro-Magnon caveman Cookie.

Ice Age rock art at Creswell Crags
Ice Age rock art at Creswell Crags

creswell-crags-stag-outline-church-hole

Today, we’ve managed to see Britain’s only ice age rock art.  I’ve also managed to touch it and not ruin it.  Quite eerie considering you stand in the same spot, your finger tracing the outline of the carving as they may have done.  The Church Hole cave at Creswell Crags is the home of Britain’s only cave art with Palaeolithic etchings and engravings on the walls and ceiling approx 14,000 years old.  This rock art was only discovered in 2003.  A steel floor was erected at the cave’s original height as it would have been years ago.  The Victorians excavated the cave using that precise very method of dynamite.  They chucked out a load of rubble and god only know what other artifacts and this lowered the floor level.  As a result, this left the faint engravings and etchings high up out of view.

There are over 80 drawings in church Hole cave with bas-relief carvings using natural features in the rock to enhance.  Some engravings are clearer than others, it may not look like much in my photo, but there is definitely a stag there and part of its shape is easily visible.  You can also see a bison and a bird although you may need an expert to guide you.  It’s possible that some of the carvings may have had colour at some point, ochre was found outside of the cave.  Today the inside of the cave is wet in places, particularly over the bison carving, so colour may not have lasted long.

Now some of the engravings need more imagination than others.  Apparently there are engravings of women and triangle shapes.  These are supposed to be, or represent vulva i.e. ladies bits.  Now I’ve seen more imaginative drawings on toilet walls before, some incredibly detailed but never in the shape of the caveman porn these cave dwellers carved.  I have some doubts.  Not a pair of boobies to be seen.  Give a man a pencil and ask him to draw a woman, you’ll get boobies.  Maybe the woman he was drawing was flat chested, maybe he ran out of flint.

Some of the animal etchings were not native to the area at the time e.g. the Ibis bird carving on the ceiling, we know that the cavemen used to be nomadic seasonal visitors, the first being Neanderthals, couldn’t stop here all year round as it was too cold.  This was the most northern habitable edge.  The gorge was somewhat different in the past, Britain was part of a larger landmass called Doggerland.  The limestone gorge did not have trees, definitely no boating lake but a small stream separating the two sides, one side predominantly for shelter.

Other findings include, flint tools, knife-blades, a prehistoric hyena den occupied by Neanderthals and bone engraved figures – The Robin Hood Cave Horse (also known as The Ochre Horse) and Pinhole Cave Man. Robin Hood’s cave also has evidence of hunting woolly rhinoceros.  We’ll be visiting this cave next time.  You can see some of the amazing tools in the exhibition, including 50,000 year old Neanderthal handaxes,  120,000 year old Hippopotamus jaw and a fine bone needle with the needle eye just 2mm across.  You can see more items at Derby Museum and Art Gallery including flint leaf-tip spear points 38-35,000 years old.

Creswell Crags
Creswell Crags

Visitors have been going to Creswell Crags for 50,000 years says the tag line.  You can too, you wont need to grab your bullwhip and fedora hat though, the rock art is very near the entrance to the padlocked Church Hole cave, but you will need to pay to enter via a guided tour.  We managed to visit the Rock Art Cave Tour on its first day of opening this year, its worthwhile phoning up beforehand and pre-booking your visit.  You can also come back and revisit with your ticket within the year.  Learn more about Creswell Crags, the Rock Art Cave Tour and the Robin Hood Cave Ice Age Tour here.

 

Curbar Edge. Quite windy.
Curbar Edge. Quite windy.

Following on from the news that we’ve already suffered the wettest winter on record and that we’re still in it, I think we may have finally found somewhere high enough to escape the ever rising wetness to the gritstone crag of Curbar Edge.  Looks like quite a few other people had the same idea though, climbers, hikers, walkers, photographers, doomsday preppers, all scrambling along the steep edged, windswept rock that overlooks the Derwent valley.  Some say it’s pretty, I say it’s a view of bleak, barren, broken Britain when a man has to climb near the clouds to get away from the rain.

Curbar gap looks rather dominating from below, a wall of boulders, rubble and cliff face that even the wildlings in Westeros wouldn’t want to walk.  But its an easy footpath from Curbar Gap to the path  on the top of the ridge.  A walk along the edge is a windy affair with a vertical cliff .  A man could easily slip to his death, especially if pushed by his Mrs.  Personally, I’m not afraid of falling off, just hitting the floor.  It’s at this point I hear a shriek echoing along Curbar Edge.  I assume it’s the screams of someone being pushed off edge by his Mrs, probably deservedly with their girly cry as they fall to terminal velocity.

 

Surprisingly at this point, I decide that the picnic Sam suggested is a great idea after all, even if it is windy as hell and the picnic nightmare we had at Land’s End not so many months ago has already been forgotten.  We traipse across the mud sodden heath, swearing that the dog is deliberately aiming for the mud, to squat upon a stone and chip away at a cheese sandwich before the wind erodes it from existence.  Now Sam mentions getting a flask for soup and a backpack.  This is her idea of getting ‘tooled up’ even though our efforts at extreme dog walking are about as hardcore as having a bath.  I’m firmly against becoming an “all the gear – no idea.”  I’d rather save the cash and just have no idea.  Now she’s the one in danger of accidentally slipping to her death after I’ve checked the life insurance.

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