Temples, ruins and too much information

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Guisborough Priory, North Yorkshire, England

Monasteries, abbeys, priories – they never look so good as when they’re ruined, don’t you think?

I spent many a childhood holiday trotting behind a father who was batty about architecture. Grand houses decked out in precious furniture and china and paintings. Castles and abbeys in varying states of decorative decay. Cathedrals and churches held aloft by flying buttresses and topped by soaring spires.

Which is probably why I like nothing so much as a jolly good view. Romantic ruins silhouetted against moody skies. Empty buildings blessed by an absence of furnishing.

Historic sites endowed with quiet custodians – and a short guide book.

I know, shameful admission. I am ashamed. But it’s true.

A few weeks ago we went holidaying in God’s own county – Yorkshire folk are modest about their home – which has more than its fair share of romantic ruins.

The weather gods cooperated nicely.

Early mornings hazy with autumnal mist. Afternoon skies of Lapis-blue, humming with insects. Fields patchworked by dry stone walls and speckled with nibbling sheep.

north yorks etc 040The first romantic ruin – a hasty swerve off a fast major road that almost had me praying – was Mount Grace Priory. There, before the smash and grab of King Henry the greedy, Carthusian monks lived isolated lives in a community of non-communication.

It was built as a kind of commune of hermits – they came together only for prayer in the chapel – around three times a day.

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One cell’s little garden, with appropriate shadow

Seen with modern eyes, it sounds an idyllic life. A small cottage, meals delivered, a little garden for growing herbs and vegetables.

But then there was the prayer. And the work. And the lack of sleep.

The routine, at the original monastery at Chartreux, still begins at 11.30 at night, with prayer. Two or three hours later there’s a short sleep.At 6.30 in the morning a day of alternating prayer and work begins, ending around 8 pm with another snooze.north yorks etc 018

I feel sleep-deprived just thinking about it.

Add the chill air of winter, the rough woollen gowns, the injunction not to bathe too much, the blood letting …

It sounds like hell.

Anyway, in common with the other ruins we visited, Mount Grace suffered destruction as a result of Henry VIII’s ‘dissolution’ of the monasteries. But there’s still a remarkable amount left standing.

north yorks etc 020Each ruin I visit makes me marvel at the labour involved in building such monuments to the Christian God.

Massive blocks of stone – quarried, transported, shaped, stacked.

Complex arches perfectly balanced.

Fragments of glass painted, joined, with strips of lead, into delicate-looking but formidably strong – and beautiful – windows.

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Reconstructed monk’s cell – living accommodation downstairs, workroom upstairs


And all destroyed by a man who wanted to dispose of one wife and take another. To sever his ties with an inconvenient Pope in Rome.

It’s not a simple part of our history and one brought up ‘Roman’ Catholic must beware oversimplifying – especially when it comes to the martyrs.

Bonfires were lit under many people in those dark days, not just Catholics – and not all the monks were blameless souls praying for others. In fact, monks were some of the canniest businessmen of their day. As you learn at Rievaulx Abbey.

Rievaulx has a special place in my affections because of its name. I don’t know whether schools in Britain still do the ‘house’ thing. It was (maybe is) a kind of club within your school that everyone had to belong to – they had a team colour and tended to be sports-dominated.

When I first went to ‘big’ school, aged 10, our houses were named after sites of martyrdoms. Gruesome. But some kind nun must have realised we had enough ‘grue’ in our diet, what with our patron being Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife who was put to death by being crushed beneath a door.

Anyway, abbeys became our new houses and mine was twelfth century Rievaulx, our house colour yellow. (I still have the badge.)

It was with some affection, then, that I gazed down upon the ruins from my vantage point near a ‘temple’. A temple built as a summer dining house by the lucky chap who bought up some of the ruined abbey’s estate.

And what ruins.

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Gorgeous, spectacular, dreamy, romantic. And beyond my ability to capture with a small silver box and millions of pixels.

I still hadn’t learnt how to focus on the distant vista – the hazy day and pale ruins combined with an automatic focus fixing itself on dark greenery was not a good combination.

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Nice dining room for occasional use!

A walk of a mile took us from one temple to another, oohing and aahing at views along the way, before we descended the valley to the abbey.

Sheep and their wool eventually made the abbey rich – and made it a key part of the regional economy – so when disease among the sheep ruined its finances, the king of the time had to step in to save it.

A bit like the banks and the banking crisis.

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Rievaulx Abbey seen from Rievaulx Terrace



As a big enterprise, covering a wide geographical area, many lay people – and their families – depended upon the monks. When the monasteries were destroyed it was not just the religious who suffered.

Today, these haunts of poets and water-colour artists stand forlorn. Romantic, but also tragic.

Is romance always tinged with sadness?

Is it that knowledge, lurking beneath the pleasure, that all good things must, one day, change? One day, come to an end?

I peer through the evocative, empty windows, wander the lumpy grounds and wonder. If only Henry hadn’t – what would this island be like, today?

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Husband and wife artists capturing the afternoon shadows in watercolours

We’ll never know, but we can imagine. Make stories of our own.

People it with ascetic, holy men or fat self-indulgent abbots. And sheep.

Historians can argue its meanings, poets ensnare its mood in words, artists capture its afternoon shadows in paint.

For that, I suppose, we have Henry VIII to thank.

It’s something.

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North, south and nowhere. Of rape, politics, PR and simple geography

I’m angry. I apologise in advance if this is poorly researched, disjointed and incoherent. I’m not stopping to find things out, I’m writing from the heart, not the brain. And I’m writing as a northern English person who feels passionate about fairness both at home and abroad.

First, abroad. Africa – that vast, awe-inspiring place that’s believed to be the birthplace of humanity – well, humans.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa over the last 32 years.

On my first visits I was shocked to my core by apartheid South Africa. I would say, with hindsight, it changed my life.

I was pleasantly surprised – superficially, it turns out – by Swaziland.

I was amazed and charmed by a Zimbabwe frozen in what now we might see as Mad Men world – without the ad agencies.

After a few summers spent looking after diggers in Swaziland, I made my first visit to Zambia, because of my husband’s work.

At the time Zambia was very poor – materially. Shops had blankets, soap, worming tablets and dried fish. Rolls of cheap toilet paper were cut in half – even in hotels – to make them go further.

I learnt, from that first visit, that I must take everything – absolutely everything – I might need with me.

It was a great place to visit. I hate to write ‘people are so friendly’ clichés but it’s true. Is true. We’ve broken down often enough to know how much poor people will do to help a stranger for no reward. Yes, there’s corruption, yes, there’s crime, yes, there’s danger – but no more than in any other country, really.

I tell you this because these are my credentials for saying things I don’t like – things I don’t want to say.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been reading about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the end of the Cold War. About the US government’s attitude to peace and war. The military industrial complex. But that’s for my book, not for now.

For now, I’m stunned by the news I heard this morning on BBC Radio.

An interview with a doctor – sounded Australian but I don’t know if he is – that had me frozen where I stood.

Two hundred girls were kidnapped in Nigeria – remember? This man tells us he has been talking to leaders among their captors. He tells us that they would be willing to hand over 40 or so girls – but that 60 more girls would be kidnapped to take their place.

But this is not the worst thing. He then tells us that Nigerian government officials are involved. That this is part of a political campaign, if you like.

My husband tells me of a report he’s read of four girls who escaped and say they were raped every day.

Dear God, what kind of world is this?

Is there no oil to make world leaders sit up and take notice?

Yes – but, silly me, the Americans are doing quite nicely without it, than you very much.

Why is nothing being done for these poor, poor girls?

Why is so little, so late being done about Ebola?

Fly back, for a moment to the UK.

We know, those of us who live in the north of England, that our concerns are far from the minds of our leaders. They live, most of the time, in and around London. They absorb (and create) the London and south-east news.

They believe house prices are rising everywhere (they’re not – surely that’s a good thing?) and people enjoy working for themselves for a pittance – aka becoming ‘entrepreneurs’ – because they can’t get a real job.

Some believe that paying hundreds of pound a night for a hotel – or a meal – is normal.

If we, here, in our small island have such a huge cliff of perception separating the north and south of just one part of our small island nation, what hope does the south of the world have of being heard?

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is the north’s fault that nothing has happened in Nigeria. Yes, the north could apply pressure, but Nigeria has oil and thus money.

Nigerian politicians have western educations. But that doesn’t make any difference. Like the UK, apparently, one region really doesn’t matter – other than for votes. But the way this doctor says they are going about getting them is, to say the least, extreme.

I think back to poor old Swaziland. Corruption endemic, a King with many wives and cars, spending money like water while his people suffer. I had high hopes, way back when – because this King was educated at Sherborne school in Dorset, England. Pah.

It’s all our fault? Colonialism?

Give me a break. How long has it been? It’s like a fifty-something still blaming mummy and daddy for sending them to the wrong school or buying them the wrong clothes. Grow up!

My own, maddening, experience this week is a paltry thing by comparison.

I sign up to a day of ideas about how to make northern England an economic success story. Eight events in cities across the north of England, twenty people in each.

I spend time thinking about it, do a bit of research. I’m pleased that someone – even if it’s our deputy prime minister, whose party is haemorrhaging support – is asking us for our ideas.

Yesterday we’re told we’ll be filmed. And have to make a film.

Can we bring laptops – especially if we have video editing software – or smartphones or tablets – and leads to connect to a big screen.

What a naïve fool I am. This isn’t just partly a PR exercise, it’s entirely a PR exercise. I should have known. I might have organised such a series of events myself – but, ye Gods, I would have given them meaning, too. I don’t underestimate ‘ordinary’ people. I’m not that much of a fool.

One last thing.

At university I did a term of ‘historical geography’ and saw an image that made a terrific impact on me – though sadly I can’t remember where – of a world map.

Communist Russia up top, rest of world below it. Aggressive-looking arrows showed the way the commies would march down and take over us good guys.

Turn the map upside down. It doesn’t look so simple.

North, south. It’s an illusion in a spherical world, rotating in the universe.

But two hundred girls being raped daily is not. Imagine them in Massachusetts or Surrey. Something would have been done.

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Dear Professor Cox, No thanks – but thanks

The universe.

All existing things. The whole creation. The cosmos.

That’s what ‘universe’ meant to me, as a schoolgirl.

And where did nine-year-old me live? I scrawled it on the packet which holds the pinking shears I still have in the sewing box:

Tong, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, Europe, The World, The Universe.

As soon as I began to hear about universes, plural, my understanding – small as it was, like me – waned to a pinprick. So did the awe, the mystery. It simply became incomprehensible to a mere, little, mortal. And not incomprehensible in the magical way of one finite yet infinite universe.

It’s odd, that, because you’d think that the more incredible and beyond mere earthly horizons ‘everything’ (or nothing) was, the more I’d be inspired or amazed. But once anything becomes so utterly other – well, I start to switch off.

That’s not to say all things unfathomable turn me off. Doctor Who inspired me from an early age – still does, on occasion – but then, he’s a Time Lord and Brian Cox is not.

Here we go.

Last night I watched ‘The Human Universe’, with a nerve-calming bottle of red wine to hand and Archaeo-Man (AM) twirling edgily in his swivel chair beside me.

Because last year he was contacted by a researcher, working for the BBC, on a new programme featuring the affable, approachable, scientist-cum-presenter (or is that presenter-cum-scientist, now?) Professor Brian Cox.

As with all things, AM took the request for help on the early bits of human evolution seriously. Doing things properly requires more than just answering emails and talking on the phone. It requires checking the very latest publications, checking the right people to approach in places like Ethiopia, checking that you’re doing your very best to help them make something sound.

He reckons, AM, that he probably spent the equivalent of a day of his time on it. And enjoyed it. He always enjoys enthusing others about what inspires his own work. And the researcher bought his book, so that was nice. It’s called  From Hand to Handle, The First Industrial Revolution, published by Oxford University Press. Rather expensive – the paperback’s not out yet :(

There were early signs it might not go quite as well as he hoped when his advice, having balanced pros and cons, to go to South Africa rather than Ethiopia – because there was more information available and more to see, more accessibly – was rejected. But never mind, the Gelada baboons were fun. They make the most amazing ooh err umm sounds, don’t they?

When he heard what was being planned, he suggested that a novice (B Cox) might benefit from popping over from Manchester to nearby Liverpool, to award-winning labs where he might handle skulls, stone tools – and even learn basic knapping (shaping stone tools from scratch), in just a couple of hours. The suggestion was not rejected, just ignored.

The result? A rubbish attempt at knapping, from Brian, which looked like it annoyed him. (Yes, there’s something he can’t do.) But it amused me, so, thanks for that.

There’s more, but this is beginning to sound like vicarious sour grapes.

It’s not. Wait, you’ll see.

As the programme progressed – or rather, continued – I heard AM ask me, ‘did you follow that?’


Oops. I’d switched off.

It was, I thought, a rambling, hop-skip-and-jump of a programme, alive only when BC was briefly with the baboons, but mostly when dealing with his beloved space, the final frontier.

I hated the loud and persistent music, hated the demeaning ‘portraits’ of black rural poor people standing smiling or looking up at the sky but, mostly, taking no part. I hated the row of skulls on the ground and the villagers standing, a dutiful audience, as BC spoke to the camera, not them, about skulls.

Skulls! In rural Africa … Have they thought of people’s sensitivity to such things?

I hated the use of people whose mouths didn’t open when their words were voiced, as if they couldn’t be trusted even to speak on camera.

I know, I’m too touchy about the way we cultural colonials treat the human zoo in Africa – but I did not like the way this programme did what it did.

I also think it did it in a superficial, gaudy, disconnected, disjointed way that neither led nor followed.

I’m glad. Glad that the programme was not great. Glad that, after all, there was no credit to AM for all the time he put in – for free.

And I’m glad for another reason.

Seeing B Cox, the latest in a line of excellent presenters of knowledge, who have strayed beyond their own field to the detriment of their standing in my ordinary eyes, (Professor Alice Roberts, at one time taught by AM, is an honourable exception) I’m glad that many attempts at TV series featuring my own in-house presenter of things beyond my ken have come to naught.

I don’t like what fame does.

So, thanks, Brian Cox, for the no thanks.



‘Lupemban point’ from Kalambo Falls, Zambia [approx 21cm long]

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Mist rolling in from the sea (but not on the Mull of Kintyre)

Amazing what Aged White can do. Paint, that is.

BTP (Before The Paint), the head of our bed backed onto the green and silver wallpaper that someone, somewhere, had imagined resembled vegetation. I looked at it and felt Ophelia-esque. As if I might drown in washable, two-dimensional weeds.

A regrettable side-effect of this placement of the bed, though, was the other view. A huge, home-made ‘fitted’ wardrobe. Four massive, sliding doors – two of them mirrored – filling the entire length and height of the wall.

Then, last week, following a therapeutic bout of demolition, a skip took away the wardrobe – doors and all. Now the room’s a calm, sort-of-white oasis. Free-standing, solid wooden furniture stands where we want it – on a new carpet.

A carpet upon which no cat has ever trodden.

I hate to leave it in the morning. Even more than I usually hate to square up to the world. Because we’ve turned the bed around and now the view is wardrobe-less and neighbour’s-garden-less. All we can see is fir trees. And the top of our fence.

My first cup-of-tea-in-bed-in-the-new-room morning, I sat back, ignoring the newspaper, peering up at the branches. Wondering why the wind was only blowing on one tree.

Then I saw it.

Zippy. The red squirrel.

The unwelcome grey, it seems, has so far failed to infect our red with the pox.

It’s been several weeks since our first sightings and Zippy’s fit enough to fight off an angry magpie. Zipping down the tree trunks stashing something – can’t make out what – on the ground beneath. Racing across the garden trailing a magnificent deep-red-wine-coloured tail behind its squirrelly-orange body.

The next day, back to work and we’re up before the sun …

As the pallor of day begins to creep through the inky gaps between the trees, the mist begins to roll. And rise. From the sea, which is not very far away, though we can’t see it.

Gone nine o’clock, the fiery ball in the sky makes a heroic bid for the day, painting dying leaves a honeyed gold as it tries to burn through the misty-moisty trespasser on its territory. But still, mere water vapour foils the sun god – obscuring the distance and the sky.

So, I shorten my focus and watch the birds.

One bossy male blackbird splashes around in the dish of water – while two more torment each other. ‘Whose territory is this, huh? Huh?’

I wince as a very small, fast finch flits onto the fence. Then others, so fleet I can barely see them – like the warplanes we saw at the airshow – but quieter. And more beautiful.

I have a bad feeling about this frenzy of aerial acrobatics. There’s going to be more kamikaze avian aviation.

The trouble with the pretty, tiny finches is that they tend to kill themselves on their headlong flights into our windows. Unlike the clumsy, chubby old Wood Pigeons.

A large WP has left the most amazing imprint on the balcony window. Like a stencil, much more graceful than the bird itself. It will have to go. The imprint, I mean. Though if the WP were to … Well, never mind. Though there are plenty of them.

I refuse to put up nets or stickers. It’s a price the birds will have to pay – I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.

Our side of the bargain?

Attention. (Do birds have egos?)

A bath – frequently cleaned (though not by me). Some seeds in winter. A fat ball now and again.

A beautiful, sleek thrush lands by the water bowl. We’ve been seeing its plumage change. It’s gradually turning adult, the speckling clearer every day.

A rosy-breasted finch waits – not very patiently – for its turn in the bathroom, picking through leaves I haven’t yet tidied away.

Now the mist is reasserting itself. It’s crept in unannounced. No sound, no fury. As if the gods have been brewing a nice cup of tea with some enormous celestial kettle – and forgotten to switch it off.

The steam’s extinguishing the light, infiltrating everywhere. A sinister suffocation of the day. And the birds are turning into warriors. Finches and thrushes and blackbirds, dog-fighting it out in the air.

Which gives the robin its chance. He’s snuck in for his ablutions.

Oh, work, work, work. Why, why, why?

It’s no good. Bird world wins, every time.

But I suppose I ought to send an email to the one who has gone on the train, to work. To a 9 am lecture.

He needs to know. His tiny pumpkins that have, at last, turned yellow aren’t destined to grow any bigger. The little primrose spheres are scattered on the ground.

Nature. Fickle friend. And displacement activity, par excellence.

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Hell’s bells and buckets of blood

Cursing has its fashion moments. Some are good, some are the verbal equivalent of peasant-style smocks with frills. You look back and think – did anyone ever really say that?

My mum used the one in the title – I’m not sure I heard it spill forth form the lips of anyone else, but it’s colourful, you have to admit.

Much more common, though, was the ‘damn, blast and bugger’ combo.

As a child I had no idea what bugger meant and I’m not sure it would have made any difference if I did. I’d probably have reacted the same way that I did when I read the book my parents placed on my pillow to introduce me to sex. That left me feeling rather sick and hoping I would only have to do it once, like having an operation to cure a terrible affliction.

I kind of imagined that enduring one bout of sex enabled a woman to store up child-making capacity and babies would pop out later, like occasional eruptions of acne.

As it turned out I didn’t have to suffer the acne outbreaks. And sex turned out to be something altogether different from what the book led me to believe.

And sex leads me right back to cursing.

My in-house American went to a junior high school where one boy carried a case around full of knives and drugs and guns. Although most kids didn’t use the f-word, some, like the dealer, did.

A big, gutsy female teacher, tired of hearing it spoken, one morning shocked them all by writing F.U.C.K. on the board.

She then went on to spell out what it ‘meant’.





Ha! I never heard that one.

She wanted the kids to know what they were saying. I doubt it changed many gun-toting drug-dealing kids’ behaviour.

But it’s interesting how people tend not to know what they’re saying when they curse. In the very old days, for example, when ‘God blind me’ was worthy of a detour to Hell, people corrupted it to ‘blimey’. How innocuous does that sound now?

And I always thought that tw-t where the ‘–’ is an ‘a’ was just a more expletive form of twit. Oh dear.

But some sheltered people in the days of my youth didn’t even know what word the ‘f’ stood for.

My mum, for example.

Although she worked in a school full of teenaged boys, the f-word was never uttered in her presence. Nor mine, as far as I can recall. In fact, I reckon I reached the age of 30 or so before hearing it spoken, in full, in real life.

Yes, people said, ‘eff-off’ – but that was about as close as it got.

So, anyway, back to my mum’s ignorance in the field of ‘f’.

It was my friend Maureen, my fount of all knowledge on all things forbidden (she had two gorgeous brothers for added insight) to whose lot it fell to explain it to my mum.

‘What does f-off actually mean?’ asked my innocent, well-brung up mum of my worldly-wise friend.

Maureen put on a nervous expression. She was good at this kind of thing.

‘Ooh, Mrs E, it means … er, it means … er, fly off!’

My mum just looked a tiny bit puzzled behind her grown-up, meant-to-look-knowing nod.

And I thought of that, yesterday. I was ranting (just a bit) about anachronisms in film and TV. About those happy, ignorant young script-writers who assume that everyone, from time immemorial, said f (and I don’t mean fly), in full, as often as some verbally challenged people do now.

Um – no. They just didn’t.

Hang on, hang on! Don’t get all ‘yeah, she went to a Catholic all-girls school run by nuns, what does she know?’ on me.

For a start, convents are notorious for producing badly-behaved girls. Marianne Faithfull – I rest my case.

And some people I knew, like my friend Maureen’s brothers, were definitely not angels. In fact Stephen – well, least said soonest mended. Gorgeous but a bit wild and very interested in sex. Snogged you at the drop of a hat. Hands like the proverbial octopus.

He smoked, too. Offered – what a vignette it was – my mum a cigarette in our kitchen once. I’ll never forget the look on her face. He must have been all of 17.

But I never heard a word worse than ‘shit’ pass the lips of those boys. And that was usually greeted with shock all round.

Because everyone else said sugar.

Like flip and heck, sugar was a safe alternative to the full fat ‘shit’. You knew the real word but were too polite – or scared – to use it.

So when I hear a nice, middle class girl, or boy, or woman, or man, in a film set in the fifties or sixties or even much of the seventies, eff-ing away like mad, I turn off, mentally. It breaks the spell for me.

Bugger. Yes.

Damn. Yes.

Blast. Yes.

Bloody hell. Yes.

Sugar, flippin-heck, hecketty thump (um, maybe that was just a local variation) – hello.

But, please, young writers, spare us the f-word. If only for the sake of authenticity.

And – don’t worry about the hell’s bells thing.  Just stick with ‘buggeration’ and you’ll be fine.



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Bombs, war and death-bringers. Another great day out.

Once upon a time, I worked for a magazine that spelt ‘defence’ ‘defense’.

It was one of three magazines in the stable of an American specialist publisher and I was, for a while, the nearest thing they had to a European editor. I edited press releases – but because they knew I knew nothing, I then sent them on to Boston, for checking, in a weekly package.

For real news, or features, I had to use the telex machine. Ye gods! All those little holes. Correcting a mistake on a ticker tape for a transatlantic telex – what a nightmare.

But anyway. Working for the Journal of Electronic Defense, I went on press trips. Visited places I would otherwise never have seen. Like Le Bourget, the big air show in Paris. There I goggled, awe-struck at the weapons on display.

Dealers in death and destruction, in suits and smiles, stood behind stands, plying their trade. How far? How much? How many?

Once, I drove a tank on a French army base. OK, so it was a tank simulator, but it was fun. Though a wrap-around-skirt and stockings wasn’t the ideal outfit to wear for climbing in and out.

Being the only young woman in a coterie of mostly middle-aged men had its advantages and its disadvantages.

They were taken seriously. I wasn’t. And that was actually, as far as this role was concerned, a very big advantage, because I knew next to nothing about defense. Or attack, as I like to call it.

But soon I understood enough to be able to nod at talk of C3 (Command, Control, Communication) and could discuss military microwaves with reasonable – if false – assurance.

So this weekend brought it all back.

Young artist at work by the beach, oblivious to flying machines

Young artist at work by the beach, oblivious to flying machines

The Southport Air Show. A fun day out for all the family.

It was fantastic, I loved it.

Despite the grey skies. Despite the increasing chill seeping through the concrete sea wall and up through my behind. Despite the rain that finally fell as the Vulcan’s non-arrival was announced.

That is, Vulcan as in V-bomber.

Yes, a death-bringer, let’s not fence around the issue – I was disappointed not to see a death-bringer.

The day – while wonderful, was a salutary reminder of what war means.

We had small aircraft flying by ‘strafing’ and ‘bombing’ the beach. (I suspect there were charges on the beach – but who am I to spoil the illusion).

nyroks and airshow 043We had the glamorous Red Arrows tearing across the low clouds in their designed-for-inclement-weather display. Patriotic emissions of red white and blue trailing in pretty patterns to show how skilful their nyroks and airshow 052manoeuvres were.

And scary.


A yelp, synchronised with that of the young Polish woman next to me, burst from my lips as they passed each other, very close, low in the sky over the sea-less beach. Then we shared a laugh.

It was a convivial day. On one side of us were two Polish men and a woman, the other, a big family outing, three generations from north Wales. We missed them when they left.

But there were, for me, some very sombre moments.

nyroks and airshow 032The Huey means only one thing to people who lived through the sixties and seventies.


The war that I hate to talk about as a waste of lives, in deference to those who gave them – or gave their young years. To the people who still have nightmares.

But perhaps, at its best, Vietnam helped to expose that ridiculous, seemingly never-ending, so-called Cold War.

How silly it seems.

Mutually Assured Destruction.



nyroks and airshow 081 Much later, when we’d begun to fear they wouldn’t make it, two huge, slow, Lancaster bombers droned their sinister drone across the ever-more funereal sky.

Magnificent, but terrifying.nyroks and airshow 079nyroks and airshow 086



As I watched their grey forms vanish into the murk, I thought of the people who saw these all-too-real phantom-creature machines for what they were.

Like that old man who’s a charmer, dressed up in his finery, twirling his moustache. Turns out he’s been something evil – a sinister, predatory murderer. Or just a lecher, on a good day.

Well, you know what I mean.

The Typhoon, too, set my nerves rattling. There’s no adequate way of describing the noise it makes, the aural equivalent of a scorching, all the devils in hell screaming at once. As it vanishes straight up into the air, the fire, belching from its rear end in the sea mist, reminds you that it’s real.

It’s the Eurofighter.

It’s not a just a dark toy with a tempestuous name that flies fast, to defend us. It’s a machine designed to destroy.

Fire, I’ll take you to burn. As someone sang.

The music broadcast over the public address system at times made my heart swell with pride, with emotion. A reminder of how easy it is to whip us up into an irrational euphoria.

But it’s important to remember why these planes and helicopters exist.

Because modern, civilised, wealthy, well-fed man, chooses to turn on fellow man. And because we have invented the ultimate, nuclear, weapon, we cannot afford to sit back and be pacific.

Or can we?

I leave you with a picture from the Saxon Church in a poor village that I wrote about recently. A kneeler, embroidered by a woman, no doubt.north yorks etc 136

World peace.

I’ll drink to that – and pray for it.



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It’s a sign. But what does it mean?

Brown road signs usually point towards something interesting.

This one says, ‘Saxon church’.

We’re on holiday, not in a hurry. Tired – but intrigued enough to make the turn.

It’s been a day of surprises, beginning with this morning …

Mist lingers in the warm air of the Indian Summer. Cresting a hill we find ourselves driving through glorious, dramatic, English countryside – and this on a road from one major industrial city to another.

Not what we expected, in our ignorance.

We’re looking for the house where Thomas Bewick – eighteenth century artist and master engraver – lived.

A bridge we need to cross is closed and we’re soon lost in a mess of semi-industrial, semi-rural roads. I blame the map. It’s such a tiny scale that I can’t tell where we are half the time. But eventually we pull into a small car park – and into our second surprise of the day.


The Chillingham bull, from the Bewick Society website gallery

Because, as we step into the garden, time slips.

Gone are the noisy roads, the industrial estates and lorries. We’re in Bewick’s world. north yorks etc 080His trees, his fields, his ox. north yorks etc 082 north yorks etc 091

(Actually, two donkeys, now).





Bewick’s birds are famous, but his rural scenes are gems. Usually, something obvious is happening in the foreground – but look carefully and there’s often something odd going on in the background.

And so it is when, on our way back, we take that brown-signed detour.

As we follow the minor road it feels less and less like the kind of place we’re likely to find an ancient church.

Pretty countryside, mostly, but the villages are real, if you know what I mean. Not second-home charming.

We’re in County Durham, north-eastern England.

Rural beauty. Towns and cities brimming with historic interest. But also a place of industry. Where mining was maybe not king, but certainly a VIP.

And these villages speak of decline.

Mining, shipbuilding, steel. Dead – or dying.

Farming, still, of course, but increasingly mechanised.

So where do people work, now? Or do they? How many call-centres are there in the rural north east?

At last we reach the village.

We’re both feeling dubious. It’s tried its best, is almost pretty as we descend the house-lined hill. But it becomes visibly less affluent the further we go.

And there it is.

Darkened stone. Taller than expected. Set within a graveyard, a wall and a locked iron gate.north yorks etc 142

The church is on a kind of island – the road circles round it before returning up the hill.

A large, attractive pub, the Saxon Arms, stands on one corner, a little higher up in the world.

Round the back of the church, a strip of small, 1960s terraced houses lines the far side of the road.

A notice on the church gate tells us the key’s at number 28.

north yorks etc 139Within a few minutes the padlock’s off the gate. On the second attempt we manage to unlock the church door and we’re inside, with timed lights for illumination that project eerie stars on the walls.

It’s like no other Saxon church I’ve seen.

It’s not just the height – or the remains of wall painting, or the whitewash. It’s not the Roman stones or the engraving of the cross. I don’t know – it just feels different.north yorks etc 128north yorks etc 137



Possibly the oldest Saxon church in England, at around AD 675, it was nearly lost. The village had a new, Victorian church, up the hill. But one man rallied to the defence of the decaying Saxon edifice, managed to restore it, enlist locals in its maintenance – and the ‘modern’ upstart was demolished.north yorks etc 114

The village itself was ‘remodelled’ in the 1960s.north yorks etc 123

north yorks etc 115north yorks etc 122



I’ll leave the pictures from the church to speak for themselves – I’m just flummoxed by that remodelled village. Of which I take no pictures.

A woman and her dog, the key-holders, live at number 28. The dog, she says, likes to sit and watch the world go by.

Judging by the church guest book, she’s watched quite a few adventurous souls trek by. Most recently, from Scandinavia, Germany, Canada. And I wonder – what did they think of this place?

Accumulated experiences can, I know, coalesce and emerge as prejudices. And I do tend to assume things, despite finding out, time and again, that I’m wrong.

But I suspect some of the first people to live in that terrace of houses bought their homes off local councils in the boom times. And perhaps, more recently, lived to regret it.

One house, a couple of doors down from where the dog sits world-watching,  boasts a ‘sold’ sign. On my return I check it out on a property website.

Before I tell you what I discovered, there’s something important you need to know.

Average house prices in July 2014* were:

  • England £284,000
  • London £514,000.

The three-bedroomed house by the Saxon church, in north-east England, sold, this year, for

  • £29,950.

The average price in the village is about £69,000.

Yet in 2005 the village’s average house price was £140,600.**

I’d like to explain what’s happened since 2005. Why there’s such a shocking divide between this village and, especially, the south. (Of the English regions, the lowest average prices are all northern: North-East £156,000,  North-West £175,000,  Yorkshire/Humberside £174,000.)

But I don’t have the resources – or the expertise.

I could take a stab at it. Changing tides of employment, the banking crisis, mis-sold mortgages, legacy of Thatcher’s council house sell-off. A repossession.

But I don’t really know.

It’s all about value, I realise – but whose? And why such vast discrepancies?

Heritage is a powerful force in modern, western lives. One reason why we have brown signs, to direct us to the art, the architecture, the heritage we value.

We found a Saxon church. We found a case of shocking inequality. They’re everywhere. They are our heritage, too.

It’s time some politicians took the long trek north and noticed the signs. There are plenty.


* Source: UK Government Office for National Statistics
** Source: Rightmove

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In which we don’t travel on the Hogwarts express

‘I can’t see any smoke.’

‘But I just heard a whistle.’

‘Yes, but there’s no smoke.’

And there’s a very good reason why we can’t see any smoke.

One weekend a year – yes, just ONE weekend a year, this weekend, the one we are in – the North Yorkshire Moors Railway shunts away its steam engines and holds a diesel gala.


By this time I have bought the tickets.

And I am – to put it mildly – disappointed.

A minute ago I was lapping up the sights and sounds of a vanished world, waiting for our train to whisk us away, chuffing and huffing and puffing up the steep valleys.

Now, I’m dejected. We are dejected. And the poorer by £46.

‘Oh well. Let’s have a cup of tea.’

We are in England, after all.

The café is run by women of a certain age and – by ’eck – the scones look good.

They are. Hefty, lumpen wodges of currant and raisin and sultana, bound in a floury mixture – and fresh from a spell in the oven. Spread with butter and washed down with the perfect brew.

By the time the train arrives we’re both recovering nicely.

Amazing what a nice cup of tea and a sit-down will do.

nymr 012The diesel rushes in like a demon, exhaling poisonous vapours.

‘That’s an old British Rail one, sixties, I reckon,’ one of us says. Was it me? I don’t know.

nymr 006Before we know it we’re excited. Climb into a carriage of individual compartments, pull the door to and settle in, on well-sprung seats, for a ride back in time.

We’ve opted for tickets that take us one stop beyond our real goal.

We decided we should take a look at the place where the engines are tended and cared for, where the real contemporary railway meets the fantasy recreation of yesteryear.

Grosmont, it’s called.

This turns out to be a good move.

nymr 014 The station is prettily dressed: flowers, clean paint, benches, buckets, lamps.


nymr 008nymr 013nymr 021nymr 016

Men in smart caps wear suits with silver-buttoned waistcoats, white shirts and ties, wave coloured flags. Blow piercing bursts on their whistles as trains chug in – and then chug out again.

Within minutes of arriving we’re hooked.

A clutter of cameras is trained on a new diesel coming in. Mine included. Unlike everyone else I have no idea what vintage engine it is that I’m recording with my megapixels. But – shh – don’t tell – I am impressed by it.

We decide to pass on that Yorkshire speciality, pie and peas – and live to regret it. When we return to the next stop back down the line, a place called Goathland, we end up resorting to a ham sandwich.

nymr 051Goathland is meant to be a very special place. And though we try, we just don’t feel the magic. But maybe during term time this most elusive of stations has to put on an ordinary face. You see, this is the stop for Hogwarts School.nymr 032

nymr 042nymr 037





There’s one little giveaway, way above the kitchen. An owl.

But there’s not a wizard in sight.nymr 041

One more cup of muggle tea and our (really quite good) sandwiches later, we step out onto the platform hoping for a train pulling the wooden carriages we spied earlier.

We’re lucky.

nymr 070Heading back down the valley we’re ensconced in splendour in a 1930s coach. Built from wood, with solidly upholstered chairs and leather arms, it has oval mirrors on the walls and connecting doors that Hercule Poirot would have coveted.nymr 055

We decide to spend the last few minutes in the old wooden buffet car, decorated in an unusual shade of blue.

The tea urn stands resplendent – but out of service – over the counter.

nymr 060The chairs, free-standing silver and blue, speak of a very different time, when ‘health and safety’ was just three words.

When travelling was simply like sitting at home, or in a restaurant or hotel lounge, but moving. An experience.

Aye. It were a grand day out, after all.
nymr 074

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Where is Potto? And why am I bothered?

Is it a peculiarly British thing?

There’s trainspotting, which I could understand when there were gleaming Thomas-style tank engines huffing and puffing and spitting out sparks. It’s harder to see the fascination in a dirty diesel with a serial number. But still they stand, men and boys (mostly), at the ends of station platforms, notebooks in hand, butties in bags and a flask of tea to keep out the chill.

But now we have lorry spotting. Have had for a while, in fact.

[I refuse, by the way, to call them trucks. I mean, who can’t twist their tongue around red truck yellow truck red truck yellow truck? It has to be lorry.]

It began with the Stobbies (though I’m sure a nerd somewhere will disagree – there seem to be 750,000 of them visiting lorryspotting.com).

Gleaming green and red machines rolling along the motorways. Eddie Stobart in large letters blazoned on the side and – to those in the know – the name of a woman, in small letters, on the front.

The tradition started with Eddie, who called his first ones after famous women – Twiggy, Dolly (Parton), Tammy (Wynette) and Suzi (Quatro) – but soon lorry drivers’ wives and other names joined the fleet.

Today Stobart is big business – as in BIG – trains, planes and refrigeration and crikey who knows what – but I admit there was a time when I was a bit hooked.

I was doing a lot of driving around as part of my job. A team of us was on the road doing presentations and community PR as part of – well, you don’t need to know that – but we started spotting Stobbies.

Soon one thing led to another and we bought membership of the spotters’ club – and a Corgi model of a lorry – for one lucky team member.

We never got into Nobbies – Norbert Dentressangle – the continental European rival. Which suggests none of us would have made serious lorry nerds.

And many years have passed since I stopped cricking my neck to see whose name was on the front of a passing Stobby.

But it all came flooding back this week on our holiday. We’re in the far north of Yorkshire, staying in a quiet village not far from a place called Potto.

I’ll confess, when I saw the Potto signpost I was actually excited. Because for years I’ve noticed the super-smart gleaming red-and-gold vehicles that bore the words, ‘Prestons of Potto’ on their doors. And wondered – where on earth is Potto?

Well, now I know. I also know that the company started with steam engines – not the railway kind, the traction kind.

It began, in 1936, as an agricultural contracting business set up by Richard Preston Senior. He used steam engines for threshing and wood sawing.

The transport business took off when they began delivering bricks during the Suez crisis of the 1950s. Diesel was in short supply so a Prestons’ traction engine –  called Lightning II – hauled 20 tonnes of bricks between Darlington and Ampleforth, a distance of 28.6 miles, every day for 3 months. When diesel became readily available again Richard Preston bought a lorry so he could keep the contract – and thus the haulage company was founded.

north yorks etc 045

A special 50th anniversary of Anne & Richard Prston lorry – gold & red instead of red & gold

I know that Anne Preston MBE and Richard Preston are Chairman (both of them it seems from their website) and that their gleaming lorries gleam just as much when they’re asleep in Potto as they do on the road.

north yorks etc 044

Not a great picture but had to get the sign & the flowers in!

Not only that, but the company has taken part in ‘Yorkshire in bloom’. And their offices are in the former Potto railway station. Where steam engines used to huff and puff.

I’m dangerously close to becoming a Prestons of Potto nerd. A Prestons of Potto spotter. But that carries with it a serious linguistic dilemma.

Pottie spotting? No, no.

Pressie spotting? Doesn’t sound right.

Tonny spotting? Hmm.

Maybe I’ll stick to birds.


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Nature, contrary to mine

I don’t do poetry. I’ve tried before, look back on it and cringe. So why? Well, it was a challenge – and a form I’d never heard of – Tanka.

‘Does anyone not love Haiku,’ ran the intro. Um, I don’t. I felt like running for cover, hiding my head from battery by short-form-lit-lovers.

But I carried on reading. Tanka, it seems, is longer than Haiku, by two lines. Syllables: 5-7-5-7-7. Hmm.

Go on then. Nature notes in a most unnatural form. For me.

But just this once.


No more. Ever.

(No that’s not a Haiku!)



Sleek, dark, wine-red flash
Of tree-leaping, nut-hoarding
Squirrel, beware! Grey,
Who, innocent, carries death
– your fate? – trod this path today.


Splish splash, dirty bath
Lazy me, topped it up
Instead of cleaning.
Poor bird, still happy, bathing -
But drinking, too! How can you?


Stretching in the sun
Gaudy, blowzy blooms, yellow
For a day or two
Fall off, unfertilised.
No All Souls pumpkin-ghouls, then?


Stratospheric ice,
Fleeting strands of crystal white.
But real weather comes
In dark grey, rain-sown puffballs,
Near enough for birds to pierce.


Fragile, brown, dancing
In pairs, centre stage
Where once their showy cousins
The Peacocks fluttered by
To doze, drowsy with nectar.

Summer turning

Red berries. Dry leaves
Russet as the days shorten.
Seeds drop. Swallows wheel,
Soar, catch ants newly flying.
Tired summer sighs, ‘enough’.


Red, white, black – and mad.
Hammering your head against
Next door’s pergola
– for what? That fat, white, lardy,
Grub? I see. Soft, sanity.



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