Isel on a Sunday Afternoon

One of the benefits of looking for a property to buy is that we visit places we’ve never had cause to visit before.

One Sunday afternoon, Best Beloved and I tootled along the western edge of the Lake District National Park, seeing what we could see.

There were lovely views across West Cumbria toward the Irish Sea, the Solway Firth and Scotland.  Along the feet of the fells were hidden hamlets, quiet rural views, and winding waterways.

Our northernmost stop for the day was the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Isel. The sign states that the present church dates from c1130, and is built on a Pre-Norman site.

It isn’t a grand building, but it is a welcoming one.

Settled into the curving bank of the River Derwent, the church is surrounded by impressive sandstone monuments and gravestones.

A beautiful resting place for generations of local families.

Swallows nest in the porch and swoop about catching insects.  The body of believers at St. Michael & All Angels have kindly provided benches for resting and reflecting, and watching the swallows.

Just to the north and a little further downriver, Isel Hall dominates the ridge above.

Known for its c1400 Pele Tower and sunken gardens, the hall is a private home and has very limited opening times.

Victorian renovations didn’t destroy the clean Norman simplicity of Isel’s church.  Nor have recent floods caused irreparable damage.

We’ll have to plan a second visit to Isel, in the spring.

Rumour is that the graveyard will be covered in bright, twirling daffodils. A sight to see.

Peace,

Herdy Girl

 

 

We Capture the Castle

Whenever possible, Best Beloved and I wander down unknown lanes and chase whatever has caught our fancy. It’s our version of a gallivant.

So, when the outline of a castle beckons along a much travelled route…

Close to the intersection of the A66 and the A685, is the village of Church Brough.

And on the edge of the village is a picturesque ruin.

When the Normans conquered the non-mountainous bits of Cumbria around 1092, they built a defensive tower at Brough.

They chose a high spot,  one already bearing the earthworks and remains of a far older Roman fortification, Verteris. (One of a series along the main Roman road from York to Carlisle.)

A few generations later, thick curtain walls and a strong stone keep were added.

Later still, luxurious residential digs were built, altered, and rebuilt.

The site commands a far-reaching view.

Brough Castle is now managed by English Heritage. They don’t charge an entry fee, which is a pleasant surprise.

Entry is via a path crossing a field dotted with sheep, and then through a simple turnstile.

When you look back through the gatehouse, all is peace and rural beauty. It certainly hasn’t always been this way.

The current stone keep was built more than 800 years ago, replacing another that was destroyed in a siege – courtesy of some fiery Scots.

Even in ruins, it is imposing.

Fire, violence, and time have done much damage.

That it can stand so tall whilst bearing massive wounds is a testament to those who built the tower’s walls.

From our cosseted modern life, it is difficult to image the strife that would have caused such a building to be built.

And not just the one building – successive fortresses.

From the inside looking out, toward the west.

It’s a good place for a quick visit.

No day out is complete without a bite to eat.  Again, this place delivers.

Independently owned, Brough Castle Farm (Ice Cream Parlour and Tearoom), has all the savouries or sweets you might need to sustain your exploration. And it is accessible directly from the castle.

BB and I ate sandwiches and then partook of some delicious Butter Pecan Ice Cream. (A flavour that reminds me of my Pa. One of his favourites.)

Altogether, an atmospheric and inexpensive place to enjoy a bit of a wander.

Peace,

Herdy Girl

 

An Unfriendly American Invasion

On the 23rd of April, 1778, American revolutionaries took their fight to the western coast of Britain. An audacious move.

It would have been a cold, dark evening when John Paul Jones and thirty of his men rowed into Whitehaven harbour.

Our recent visit couldn’t have been more different, with a summer sunset painting the port in soft watercolours.

Most of Whitehaven’s piers, tongues, and quays were already standing 239 years ago, and their weathered stones give the impression of age and solid steadfastness.

John Paul Jones, ‘Father of the American Navy’ was very familiar with Whitehaven and may well have walked these very routes, since it was his home port for the first season of his sailing career.  He knew the fortifications, the pattern of days, and where the watchtowers were.

In 1778, Whitehaven was the third largest port in all of England. Only London and Bristol exceeded it in size and capacity.

There were as many as 400 British merchant ships anchored there on the day American revolutionaries landed.

Their plan was to disable the port’s cannon and, while the tide was low, set fire to the ships, perhaps engulfing the town’s vast warehouses of coal, rum, sugar and tobacco.

The invaders would have shimmed up walls and across decks, feeling the effects of adrenaline, anxiety, hard physical work, and the need to go unnoticed.

Half the sailors, sent for extra fuel for the fires, were distracted by the delights of a pub and stayed for hours. (Fancy that.)  And one sailor abandoned his mates, to alert the townspeople because he didn’t want to “destroy poor people’s property.”

In spite of these things, the Americans did manage to burn one large and important ship, the Thompson,  a fine new vessel filled with coal.

Jones and his men rowed hastily to their ship, the USS Ranger, while the people of Whitehaven rushed to douse the fire before it spread beyond the Thompson.

Historians speculate that this attack on British soil fanned the fears of the British public and may have contributed to England’s losing the American colonies.

John Paul Jones became an infamous pirate and bogeyman to the British, and a brave American hero to the colonists. Such was the power of media and rumour even then.

Jones was formally pardoned by the Commissioners of the Harbour of Whitehaven on the 27th of June, 1999. Today, you’ll find a variety of pleasure craft and a few fishing vessels sheltering in the harbour.

I’ve yet to meet one American who was taught the story of John Paul Jones’ attack on Whitehaven. I’d never heard it until I moved to Cumbria myself. Curious.

So many lessons to learn from stories like this one. Not least of which is that you shouldn’t stay too long in the pub!

Peace,

Herdy Girl

 

Ragnarok in a Cumbrian churchyard

‘The Doom of the gods’ is not something you expect when you visit a village church. St. Mary’s in Gosforth has many of the normal requisites: church bells, stained glass, tombstones, and more.

It also has some very unusual and rather special things.

Chief among these is a fourteen and a half foot tall ancient cross. This slender sandstone wonder has been standing here since between 920 and 950 AD. That makes it the oldest and tallest Viking cross in England.

Amazing, isn’t it? That it is still standing in this small churchyard, that you can still see the carvings on the weathered stone, that it isn’t in a museum somewhere.

You can touch it, feel the grains of blushing sand and wonder who carved it, and what stories it could tell.

Nearby is the base of what was, presumably, another similar cross. Remnants within the church, and old records, tell that there may have been as many as four such crosses of a similar style and size.

The cross starts off with a cylindrical stylized tree base thought to represent Yggdrasil, ancient Scandinavia’s mythical ‘Tree of Life’.  It is carved with dragons, Loki, Thor, beasts and monsters. Oh my.

Yet it is undeniably a cross, and it also carries carvings of Christ’s crucifixion.

We can only wonder and surmise what this and the other bits and pieces mean. The Vikings quickly converted to Christianity as they settled the west coast of Cumbria.

Could the cross(es) have been used to explain the story of Christ in terms that the new inhabitants understood?

There has been some sort of Christian place of worship on this site since the 8th century.  That’s near enough to 1,300 years!

The current church building is late Victorian, 1897 AD, if the front edifice is correct.

The Victorians are known for preserving ancient sites or buildings; they destroyed quite a bit with their ‘improvements’ up and down the country.  They did preserve some of the ancient stonework from the previous Norman (12th century) church, most notably the sandstone arches throughout.

You might think it unremarkable, and not explore further.

Don’t make that mistake. There are other treasures.

There are two splendid ‘hogback’ stones. Unique to northern Britain and thought to be shaped like Viking boat-shaped houses. Historians and archaeologists generally agree that hogback stones served as grave markers.

There are further smaller treasures dotted throughout St. Mary’s.  You’ll have to visit yourself to see them.

There’s so much to see, learn, enjoy in Cumbria. Hope you enjoyed this Viking history teasel, I mean teaser.  (I’m a silly Herdy Girl, sometimes.)

Peace,

Herdy Girl