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Brimham Rocks

We’ve had quite a weekend.  Our vaguely organised daily lives, with plenty of chances to stand and stare, or at least sit down with a cup of coffee and the paper have been shot to pieces by the arrival, for two days only, of our twin nine-year old grandsons, Alex and Ben.

We had a busy Saturday, full of pancakes, playgrounds, and Ripon’s Prison and Police Museum (recommended).  But the highlight of the day was Brimham Rocks.P1150790

It’s an extraordinary place.  There, slap-bang in the middle of the rolling and verdant Yorkshire Dales, is a 30 acre fantastical landscape.  Dry-stone walled fields and charming villages are suddenly replaced by an odd collection of weird and wonderful shaped rocks.  Brimham Rocks.  These are formed from millstone grit: glaciation, wind and rain have eroded them into extraordinary formations, pierced by holes, balancing apparently precariously, or stacked into tottering towers.  Geologists study them, rock climbers scramble up them, but above all, families come to let their children become impromptu explorers, mountaineers and adventurers of every kind.

We’ve only chosen quiet times to visit here in the past, but with Alex and Ben, we had no choice,  We wanted to take them there, so a brisk and breezy Saturday slap-bang in the middle of the school holidays it was. The car park was overflowing .  Oh dear.

But it was fine.  The space is big enough to provide room for all.  And it was fun to be amongst children from the smallest toddler to the tallest and lankiest of teenagers, all having an equally good time: all exploring, all testing themselves physically, weaving their own adventures.

Alex and Ben take a pause at Brimham Rocks

Alex and Ben take a pause at Brimham Rocks

And besides, we didn’t come home empty-handed.  August is bilberry season.  Alex and Ben, particularly Ben, rose to the challenge of stripping the small and rather hidden fruits, becoming ever more purple as time passed.  Teeth turned blue, hands indelibly stained, fingernails beyond help from any nailbrush: it was so good to see my grandchildren discovering the pleasures of food-for-free.  Bilberry pancakes for Sunday breakfast then…..

 

…. the birds, that is.  I’m sitting looking out of the study window.  There, almost centre front, is the mulberry tree.  I can see why it’s secured itself a place in the history of children’s singing rhymes, even though it’s quite certainly a tree and not a bush.  Its densely leaved branches curve down to the ground, leaving a perfect den for small people to spend an hour or two hiding away, playing games away from interfering adults.

There it is, our magnificent mulberry tree

There it is, our magnificent mulberry tree

And just now, mid-summer, is the time it fruits.  I’ve never lived with a mulberry tree on tap before, so I made the usual deal with the birds: ‘You take the high-up berries, I’ll take the low ones.  There are plenty to go round.’  They weren’t listening. I’m watching them now, those pesky blackbirds, swooping in to select a not-quite-ripe fruit and flying away to enjoy in private.

OK, it's not a blackbird, but a crow.  They're thieves too.

OK, it’s not a blackbird, but a crow. They’re thieves too.

Mulberries are in fact quite a curious fruit, the size and shape of a raspberry or blackberry, but with quite a pithy core. It’s quite a challenge to find these relatively small berries growing on a fully-sized tree, hidden among large almost heart-shaped leaves.  The majority of the berries fall to the ground (where the birds ignore them, it seems), and this is a crop that can only be picked when black, juicy, and very fully ripe.  So fingers and clothes alike get quickly and indelibly stained.  Purple is the best colour to wear.

All my recipe books tell me to use them in any recipe calling for blackberries or raspberries.  I’ve discovered I prefer both those more familiar fruits, but it won’t stop me having a go at using the unexpected haul of free berries.  I made a coulis for ice-cream yesterday.  What next, I wonder?

Hunt the mulberry.  It's quite a job.

Hunt the mulberry. It’s quite a job.

Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
On a cold and frosty morning.

Gateway to our tour of the mines.

Gateway to our tour of the mines.

Take a walk through much of rural Nidderdale in North Yorkshire, and almost the only sign of human endeavour that you’ll see is connected with agriculture.  Go out into this lightly-populated area, with its apparently nearly barren hillsides, and you’re only likely to meet sheep, with the occasional field of cattle.

Yesterday, we went to  Greenhow.  It’s a charming, pretty village more noted these days for being the highest village in Yorkshire: a whole 400 metres or so above sea level.  It used to be an industrial power-house.  It was here and in the surrounding area that villagers used to mine for lead.  And the signs of this ancient industry are still here.  We set off on a walk across moorland and valley to investigate.

It’s thought that the Romans were the first to mine lead in the area, and by 1225, the abbots of Fountains and Byland Abbeys were apparently squabbling(!) over rights to mine at nearby ‘Caldestones’.  This valuable commodity  was transported over, for the time, immense distances.  In 1365 for instance, a consignment was sent to the south of England, to Windsor: ‘Two wagons each with ten oxen carrying 24 fothers* of the said lead from Caldstanes in Nidderdale in the county of York by high and rocky mountains and by muddy roads to Boroughbridge’.  At which point, the journey perhaps continued on water.  Indeed, lead was exported as far afield as Antwerp, Bordeaux and Danzig.

The beginnings of a long journey for that now-smelted lead.

The beginnings of a long journey for that now-smelted lead.

Well, we were on those ‘high and muddy mountains‘, but they didn’t cause us too much trouble.  Comfortable walking boots and a bright sunny day probably helped us on our way.  What we did see were warrens of carefully constructed and stone-lined tunnels leading to the ancient and now fully-exploited lead seams.  We saw, in the small streams now coursing along some of them, how water became a real problem to the miners of those seams.  Horse tramways hauled lead , which was smelted on site, off to what passed for major roads at the time.  It was obvious to us how very difficult transport must be in this up-hill-and-down-dale area, which even than was not highly populated, with poor transport infra-structure, and unsophisticated wooden carts to carry the goods.  Ancient spoil-heaps from now-exhausted seams litter the area.

An old lead-works, spoil heaps, a river and a perfect picnic spot.

An old lead-works, spoil heaps, a river and a perfect picnic spot.

And at the end of our journey, we strode up to Coldstones Cut.  This is a fine art work, a vantage point from which to see a vast panorama of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and beyond, as well as the last working quarry in the area.  These days, it’s all about aggregates and asphalt, but the quarry has a long history of providing lead, then limestone as well as other materials.  Andrew Sabin‘s viewing area is part streetscape, part brutal stone-block construction.  It’s a magnificent intermediary between an immense and busy industrial landscape, and the gentler and even vaster rural one in which it’s situated.

 

* An old English measurement equalling about 19.5 hundredweight.

Mount Grace Priory viewed from the cloisters

Mount Grace Priory viewed from the cloisters

As you travel round North Yorkshire, you quickly become aware of its Christian heritage, and realise how many abbeys and monasteries there were, from a variety of religious foundations, for Henry VIII to get his teeth into once he’d laid his plans for the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.

Fountains Abbey, as I mentioned in a recent post, is just down the road, and Jervaulx and Rievaulx aren’t far away: there are at least a dozen more.  And each of them is ruined, left waste after Henry VIII pensioned off or martyred the abbots, priors, monks and lay brothers, and all the equivalent females too.

Today we visited Mount Grace Priory near Osmotherly.  We’re accustomed to making a tour, when we visit these religious sites, of chapels, refectories, kitchens, cloisters – places where monks or nuns and lay brothers or sisters gathered together in spiritual or physical work for the benefit of their own and perhaps the wider community.

Not so at Mount Grace.  This community was a Carthusian foundation.  The Carthusians developed their order as a reaction to the lax conditions tolerated by many other religious orders at the time – the late 11th century.  Initially centred on Chartreuse near Grenoble, the order founded religious houses throughout Europe, reaching Mount Grace in the later 14th century.

The simple, unadorned architecture of the priory.

The simple, unadorned architecture of the priory.

Seven years is the time it took to become a full Carthusian monk.  Seven years in which to decide whether the full religious life of solitary prayer, contemplation and work was for you.  Seven years in which you would only ever see your fellow monks on a Sunday, at Chapter meeting.  For the rest of the time you lived completely alone in your own little house which gave onto the large Great Cloister.  Here you had a room in which to sleep and pray at the proper appointed times, a small living area with a large hearth, and upstairs, a room where you would work.  Perhaps you would weave, or write out or illustrate manuscripts.  Sometimes you would grow vegetables or fruit and herbs in your little patch of garden. You might walk or meditate in your very own mini-cloister.  Even mealtimes were solitary.  Your (vegetarian) food for your twice-daily meals would be pushed through a space in the wall by a lay brother whom you never saw. Bedtime was 6.00 p.m. and there were two extended times of prayer through the night. What you also had, though, extraordinary for medieval times, was a privy regularly flushed from springs in the area, and cold piped running water.

 

The monastery site includes a prison to confine brothers who became disobedient. At a time when mental illness was little understood, surely some must have reacted badly to this life of extreme solitude, and become ‘problems’?  Any yet there were always far more men wanting one of the 25 places at this austerely- run yet comfortable priory than could be accommodated.

The lay brothers who did much of the ‘housekeeping’ led similarly solitary lives, as far as their working day permitted.  They farmed, made domestic pottery ware, looked after working animals, and the fish ponds: fish were apparently sometimes served as part of a vegetarian diet.

One of the several fishponds.

One of the several fishponds.

Naturally women were never permitted on site.  Both male and female pilgrims would stay in what is now the Manor House from time to time, as monasteries have always had an obligation to offer shelter to travellers.

Since the Dissolution, the priory and its surroundings have been abandoned and fallen into ruin.  The surrounding farmland was sold off, and the Manor House was converted and adapted for family life at various times in both the 17th and 19th centuries.  The refitting of the house in the  popular Arts and Crafts style at the turn of the 20th century deserves a post of its own.

Mount Grace is a lovely site. Malcolm and I were happy to visit it together, to have the chance to talk to informative and enthusiastic staff, and to wander around at our leisure.  Living there for an entire adult life, under strict Carthusian rule?  Not a chance.

This is the Manor House as it appears today, viewed from the garden and fishpond.

This is the Manor House as it appears today, viewed from the garden and fishponds.

View from a hide at Nosterfield.

View from a hide at Nosterfield.

Not far from here, only about two miles as the crow flies, is a nature reserve, Nosterfield Local Nature Reserve.  And ‘as the crow flies’ is an appropriate way to measure the journey there, because above all else, it’s a bird reserve.  Even more than that, it’s a wetland reserve.

 

Evening at Nosterfield.

Evening at Nosterfield.

 

Until the 1990s, this was a landscape quarried for its sand and gravel, exposing the underlying limestone and fluctuating water courses.  Even as the land was worked birds flocked here in search of insects.  Once the quarries closed, the land proved unsuitable for agriculture: the intermittent flooding saw to that.

Wildlife took the site over.  Wading birds adore the muddy margins and insect-rich grasses.  Natives such as lapwing and curlew breed here, whilst many other species, such as sandpipers and godwit drop in as they migrate.  Dozens of other species of bird make this their home, holiday destination, or stop-over site.  At the moment, harvest time, Canada geese are exploiting the riches of the harvest.  If they’re not noisily camping out in the wheat field just behind our house, you can be sure they’ll be at Nosterfield.

 

Since 1996, the area has been a nature reserve.  A group of local naturalists succeeded in buying the site, having formed the Lower Ure Conservation Trust. They manage the site to exploit its already abundant resources.  The fluctuating water levels – up to three metres a year  variation is not unknown – means that there is everything from muddy shallows to small shallow pools to deeper sheets of water.  There’s something for everyone, if you’re a bird who likes water.  Or even if you’re a bird such as a wagtail, linnet or twite, who doesn’t.

The site supports a huge variety of wild flowers and grasses.  That means there are insects, butterflies such as common blue, brimstone, wall brown and white-letter hairstreaks and moths too.  There are rabbits and hares: while voles and shrews are preyed on by kestrels and barn owls. Summer-grazing cattle and sheep assist in managing the landscape: one way or another, this is a success story.

 

A busy evening at Nosterfield

A busy evening at Nosterfield

 

We simply aren’t birders.  Not yet.  But this reserve is doing much to help change all that.  There is a series of well-managed hides, and best of all, a comfortable  unstaffed information centre, with piles of illustrated leaflets and books to help us identify what we’ve seen.  It’s a serene and beautiful place to spend a quiet couple of hours watching the soap opera of bird life unfold, as they feed, raise young, quarrel, swim and wheel about above.  We  love visiting at different times of day, and look forward to coming throughout the seasons to see how the local bird population changes.  By this time next year, we may be able to identify much of what we see.  Maybe.

 

Sunset at Nosterfield

Sunset at Nosterfield

The Old Grange

Here's the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

Here’s the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

As we’ve been four months back in England, it’s perhaps time to introduce our home, which answers to the name of ‘The Old Grange’.  I’ve already mentioned that it’s in part of an older building which forms part of a large, mainly Georgian house.  To understand how it came to be built, we’ll have to pay a quick visit to UNESCO World Heritage site, Fountains Abbey, some 5 miles from us as the crow flies.

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

Back in 1132, there was no Abbey.  But there were 13 monks anxious to build one.  These particular men had joined holy orders in order to live a simple, strict and holy life, and were dismayed by the lax conditions they found in the Benedictine order they had joined.  The Archbishop of York offered them his protection, and the gift of some land near Ripon on the banks of the River Skell.  This area now is a fertile place, with pastureland, woods, stone for quarrying, and the waters of the Skell.  Back then, it was a hostile, overgrown and thoroughly unpromising environment.  The monks joined the Cistercian order which they felt offered the structure and discipline they sought, and strove to emulate the lifestyle promoted by its founder Bernard of Clairvaux.  A tough life of manual labour, self-sufficiency, and prayerful spirituality was the order of the day.

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

To cut a very long  story short – one which I will tell in a future post, because it’s a fascinating one – the Abbey the monks built prospered, to the extent that it became one of the largest, most successful and wealthy monasteries in the whole of Europe.  When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, the buildings and lands belonging to Fountains Abbey sold for over £1,000,000 – unimaginable wealth at the time: the monastery had acquired land over much of Yorkshire and Lancashire.  The simple life of those early monks had changed over the years. The monks themselves devoted more of their time to their spiritual life, with prayerful ritual being an important part of their routine.  The day-to-day work, mainly with sheep and cattle and all the other work associated with farming, both at Fountains itself and at all the other sites, was done by the so-called ‘lay brothers’.  Less educated, they had far fewer spiritual obligations.   And they lived communally in ‘granges’.

All those older buildings you’ll see as you travel around this part of the world, which include ‘grange’ as part of their name owe their existence to the fact that once they housed those lay brothers, mainly from Fountains Abbey.  The room where we sleep once formed part of the dormitory where the men working at our ‘old grange’ once slept.

In truth, it’s hard to believe.  We live in a stone building of traditional design, but with all mod cons.  One of the few signs of the building’s age is the huge fireplace on the ground floor which is now simply an alcove, though we gather it wouldn’t take much to reveal the old spit mechanism.  We have only one room downstairs.  The other spaces, which we have no access to, are now, as then, workspaces and storage areas.

Upstairs, where the bulk of our living space is, was once a single room, as long as the building itself.  In Victorian times, the owners of the larger property which had been built onto the original Old Grange in Georgian times, decided to break up the space into a number of rooms, to make it convenient to use as servants’ quarters.  And this is where we now live.

We find all this thoroughly exciting.  We enjoy noticing other granges as we explore Yorkshire, and we appreciate the connection that we now know we have with Fountains Abbey, a wonderfully beautiful site, whose history has touched the area for so many many miles around.

The Old Grange seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.

The Old Grange – the top floor dormitory – seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.

 

 

Ripon Cathedral: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ripon Cathedral: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I got the chance to climb the bell tower at Ripon Cathedral.  How could I refuse?  Hearing the full peal of bells joyously announcing Sunday worship, and at other times too,  is one of the privileges of being near Ripon.

Bell ropes ready for action.

Bell ropes ready for action.

It was Wednesday evening.  That’s when the team of ringers always meet to practise and learn new changes.  I knew bells were rather heavy things, and imagined that tugging on the bell-ropes to make them chime must be a young person’s hobby – preferably a burly, muscular young person.  But no.  Bell-ringers are young, old, male, female, slim and rangy, tall and chunky, small and wiry.  All that’s needed is an enthusiasm for this particularly British pursuit.

Getting started.

Getting started.

It was a fine thing to watch every member of the team as they got each bell going.  That did look hard work.  Holding the rope high above their heads, each ringer tugged to bring it low down, again and again, till the bell had acquired its own satisfying momentum: till indeed, it was turning so far that the bell reached the top of its 360 degree swing, paused momentarily, and could be controlled.  Each bell sounds a different note in the scale, with each ringer sounding his or her bell in harmony with the rest.

Keeping the rhythm going.

Keeping the rhythm going.

There may have been bells in Ripon cathedral since the 13th century.  Over the centuries, bells have been replaced or recast.  The bell tower itself has been refurbished several times to replace ancient, beetle-infested timbers.  By the early 20th century, the cathedral at Ripon acknowledged that its bells were no longer really doing a great job, so in 1932, ten of them were recast by John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough – one of only two bell foundries left in the country.  Three more bells were added in 2007/8.  At the same time as the main recasting, the bell tower was strengthened with steel and concrete.  Since the heaviest bell (and it’s one of a team of 13) weighs in at  one and a quarter tons, a good strong and safe bell tower  seems essential.

Bell in the belfry, almost fully turned.

Bell in the belfry, almost fully turned.

It was a wonderful thing to watch the ringers working in rhythmic harmony (pull, pause, pause, pull), but what made the evening even more special was the opportunity to climb the bell tower itself.  We had to put on thick ear protectors.  Then we climbed the twisting narrow stone stairs, with almost impossibly far-apart treads, to find ourselves on what amounted to a walkway around the majestically swinging, harmoniously clanging quite enormous bells.  We felt the tower shudder and sway and assumed it was our own fantasy.  No, apparently it really does move with the momentum of all those bells.  Despite the ear protectors, our ears felt sore from the auditory assault. Eyes and ears feasted on those bells swinging, sounding and reverberating.

A  harmony of bells.

A harmony of bells.

Reluctantly, we ventured down the stairway once more.  The ringers were well into their rhythm now, guided by the somewhat arcane instructions of their leader, which meant absolutely nothing to us.  But I can see the attraction of being part of such a well structured and purposeful team, using skills that have changed little over the centuries.  I can understand why they like occasionally to give themselves challenges such as ringing a full three-hour peal, why they welcome visiting bell-ringers, why they enjoy the chance themselves to ring different bells in different churches.  And why, apparently, at the end of a hard-working practice, they like nothing more than to get down to the local pub and sink a well-earned pint.

Thanks, North Stainley Women’s Institute, for organising this visit, and to the bellringers of the cathedral for allowing us a glimpse of their Wednesday evening practice.

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