Saturday, 12 May 2012

Thornborough Henge. Beltaine Celebrations.

It is sometimes difficult to admit that we can no longer do things that we did when we were younger. There is not a lot which falls into this category but cartwheels would be one that does-not that either of us ever did cartwheels, but that is by the by. The point is that if we ever had done cartwheels and felt capable of still doing them, the Beltaine Celebration at Thornborough Henge would be a time and a place where we would have cartwheeled with wild abandon.

The site: The central henge, where the celebration is held, is one of three still remaining of the eleven which made up the complex, constructed five thousand years ago.As we walk in through the entrance a round barrow dominates to our left, towering over the henge of which it forms part. The ramparts themselves have a wonderfully battered look, it is only the uniformity of their design that identifies them as earthworks in places. Inside the henge diameter measures seven hundred and eighty seven feet-which means that the ten foot high pile of manure within (this is farmland when not used by celebrating pagans) can co-exist quite happily with its human visitors. In fact, there is so much going on here that it is quite easy to ignore the pile of manure. All around the perimeter traders have set up stalls-a market for which the organisers have made no charge to them for their pitches, an unusual move nowadays but one which is entirely in keeping with the relaxed atmosphere of the event.

In the centre a ring of spectators participate in a simple open ritual to welcome in the Summer and then enjoy the entertainments: There is music and theatre and a May Queen is crowned. This is followed by Handfastings conducted by a Druid. Elsewhere people are walking the henges and we join in with this activity: it is a day for relaxing and being under a wide blue sky. Small groups are sat around drumming, chatting, laughing. Kids are running about, up and down the henges, playing as kids play and proving that theme parks are purely an adult concept of childrens' entertainment-they need no more than a bit of open space and the freedom to get their knees muddy.

It is the perfect day, and the ideal company, to welcome in the Summer. Even without the cartwheels. We Durogante Mudhoppers hope you all have a good one.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Bolton Abbey is a ruined abbey-that is to say, it is an abbey which has been ruined. There is rarely much else to say about the ruins of an abbey, once you have seen one you have seen them all. Having said that, they are usually worth visiting; not for the piles of stone left behind after the ruining was done but because they can be set in some spectacular surroundings. Here Bolton Abbey scores higher than most-it sits in the Wharfe Valley as it runs through the Yorkshire Dales (which rates amongst the most unspoilt countryside imaginable). That this is so is due to the geography of the place, which made it impossible to clear for cultivation in the valley above the abbey-so the ancient woodland remains between here and Barden Bridge  a few miles upriver. It climbs up steep hillsides from the tops of which streams run down to join the river below. The River Wharfe takes its name from the Celtic word meaning 'twisting and winding', a well chosen description and giving ever changing scenery to a riverside mudhop.

Unless you enjoy getting ripped off for a few hours parking it is best to find somewhere to leave your car a mile or so away from Bolton Abbey. Finding a layby close to one of the footpaths near the river is useful, it is a good walk to your destination-and some of the money you have saved can be spent on cake when it is time to stop for a cuppa. The walk through Strid Wood is to surround yourself in one of the largest areas of acidic oak woodlands in Yorkshire-this much any guidebook will tell you. What is more fascinating to us simple Mudhoppers are things like the sulphur well we come across on the way: bad eggs smell bubbling up from the earth proving that the Spirits who inhabit this place have a wicked sense of humour. And there is The Valley Of Desolation, a wonderfully evocative name reeking of Dr Who adventures, maybe with Hawkwind playing in the background. But such things are merely a sideshow for us today-we are here on a mission.
                              THE SULPHUR  WELL                                      

We have come to seek out The Strid-so we will follow this by explaining what The Strid is, starting with a few figures. The River Wharfe, as it flows through Strid Wood, is a magnificent eighty two ft wide. Then it hits a point where this narrows down to twenty one ft over a distance of just eight hundred and twenty ft-in practical terms this means that an enormous amount of water suddenly has to find somewhere to go and that it will go to that somewhere with one hell of a lot of force. As if this was not enough, this narrowing of the river gets to less than six ft where the water drops down into a submerged gorge, estimated to be twenty five ft deep and running for about fifty yards.

                                       HERE IT COMES....

This is The Strid and it is the point where Mother Nature created a small wonder, it is one of those places where the untameable power of nature is there in front of your eyes in all of its hypnotic glory. It gets its name from the narrowness-a stride-and it is very tempting to make the jump from one side to the other. But you do not do this; whereas with most rivers falling in involves getting wet, here it inevitably entails getting drowned. The force of the water dropping into this gorge sends you under and there are no records of anybody surviving after falling into The Strid. It is a place to treat with the utmost respect.
                                        ....AND THERE IT GOES.
The roaring of the river as you stand on the solid rock into which the gorge is formed prevents conversation; but there is nothing to say, you just stand and look. The speed of the water being funnelled through this narrow gap seems to grip you, almost as if it is trying to pull you along with it-the magnetic power over the human body at its most intense. And though the geographical conditions which have created this phenomena follow an easy to understand logic, there is something incomprehensible about it when you are stood by The Strid.


Wednesday, 1 December 2010


The view from our front door: The Old Bronte Cinema.

We had become used to the meteorological micro-climate that exists in Poole. This is a posh way of saying: no matter what was happening in the rest of Dorset, it rarely snowed. When it did it rarely settled and, if by some outside chance it did settle, it was usually gone again within a few hours. So the snowfall we are experiencing here in the Pennines is more than a novelty for us, especially as we live high enough up on the Brow to get a view right across this part of the Worth Valley to see the rest of the village stretched out before us-and thence to the moors beyond. It is strange to have the dark stone buildings, the green of the fields and the near black of the winter heather all levelled out to a pure white. It distorts the usual perspective and, to use that well worn phrase, it is another world.
So the Mudhoppers become Snowhoppers or more precisely due to the great need for caution with flagstones underfoot, Snow Waddlers-that awkward gait which involves placing the foot down squarely with each step, a method of walking which makes the buttock muscles grumble after a mile or so of this unaccustomed movement. But it is this mile or so which will get us through the village to Penistone Hill, our destination which no amount of muscle grumbling will deny us. On the way we pass many local kids who are dragging their sledges to any slope of their choice-all of them running about on the slippery stuff with no thought of mishap.Worse, they get away with it! Not tempted to follow suit, we stick to our waddling.
"The north wind shall blow, And we shall have snow..." as the rhyme goes. As hard as it may be for the Robin, poor thing, the Kestrel has probably got to work harder-what with all that hovering burning up thousands of calories before it gets some nosh. The hunter whose territory is on this part of the hill is  suspended in the air above us, more visible against the grey sky than at any other time of the year. The voles which it loves to munch on must be more elusive to with the predator so clearly evident. As we follow what we hope is the path leading across the hill, the snow making this well trodden path invisible, there is a sound in the distance which is difficult to place. To try to describe it: like the far off rumour of a storm approaching or-to give it a more mechanical reason for existence-a piece of heavy plant chugging some miles away, its sound borne on the wind. But then comes the realisation that the source of this whisper is not only closer to, it is all around us. The sharp northerly wind is blowing through the frozen heather and wavy hair-grass which is giving rise to a low mournful drone. It is little wonder that the moors can be an eerie landscape for travellers after dark, it is spooky enough in the daylight.
The view from Penistone Hill today is snow and yet more snow. In the village this hides all but in the further distance it accentuates some features: the occasional old farm building, an odd tree, a house built in an isolated spot-whereas all of these would normally blend in to their surroundings, now they stand out so starkly that you wonder about not having noticed them before. Below us is Lower Laithe Reservoir, the water level high after the rainstorms of a fortnight ago. Reflecting the cloud cover it appears like a huge sheet of ice, an illusion broken when a gust of wind sends ripples across the surface.
Everything around us is reinforcing that sense of unreality which comes with the snow: it causes inconveniences to everyday living, though this is largely due to the modern way of life when so much depends upon a system where everything has to be kept moving. So much so that to many people the only time that snow would be welcome is Christmas Day-and then they feel cheated if it does not happen. But to the rest of us snow is fun-not least because it makes everything slow down or stop, the air becomes fresher to the taste and the background noise level drops like a stone. For us Snowhoppers, we have left the central heating and kettle behind knowing that we can go back to them to warm up after. For now, we would not swap Penistone Hill and its surroundings in this bitterly cold wind for anything.  

Saturday, 13 November 2010


It being a sunny Autumn day, one where the afternoon sun is  making it warmer out of doors than in the house, we decide to get out and kick our circulations into gear. We had heard that in nearby Oakworth there is a park with some sort of Victorian folly in it. We thought it may be worth a look and the walk over there is always good-especially the bit where we can get off the beaten track and follow the river for a while, lots of mud down there! So off we went, totally unprepared for what awaited us in Holden Park.

Eccentricity is a trait for which we as a nation are known throughout the world-though in our 21st century identikit society such singularity of character is increasingly frowned upon. And eccentricity is something that the Victorians did so well that it has become a byword for that era, perhaps inaccurately. It was, after all, a time of great change scientifically and culturally. With so many new ideas and possibilities suddenly being developed it is little wonder that some of them, by later standards, seem a bit wild and whacky. At the time they were quite normal. So when in 1875 Issac (later Sir Issac) Holden spent £120,000 creating a system of caves and grottoes in the grounds of his home, Oakworth House, it was probably seen as just a rather grand bit of landscape gardening very much in keeping with the age. Sir Issac was an inventor and a wool manufacturer, so successful at both of these things that in 1859 his company had become the largest wool combing business in the world. He died at the ripe old age of ninety in 1897 and ten years later Oakworth House, still in the possession of his descendants, was destroyed by fire.  After a further twenty years had passed the family gave the land which the house and grounds had occupied to the local council, to be used as a public amenity for Oakworth. So was born Holden Park.

On the spot where the house once stood is now a bowling green, where the Turkish bath and the billiard room were situated is now a children's play area. As for the rest, it is the wonderfully preserved grottoes and caves-which are more extensive than they appear to be at first glance. That first glance, it has to be said, takes us completely by surprise: we had expected to find a run of the mill folly (whatever that is!) and instead there is this whole garden where follyness abounds. The starting point for Issac's grand plan was in the fact that the piece of land around the house was, many centuries ago, a stone quarry. This meant that the sides and back of the property were bordered by a rock face some twenty foot high. Into this he created a series of interconnecting caves running right around the garden, open to the sky in places where stone steps were cut to lead up to a  garden on top. Throughout the caves various openings large and small lead into the grottoes, some of which can be entered by squeezing through a gap on one side and exited by an equally tight gap on the other side. Much use has been made of hypertufa (look it up-we had to!) blended in with the natural rock to give the impression that cave roofs are supported by fossilised tree trunks, so realistic that it had us wondering if this is what they actually were. Here and there on the cave walls are the evidence of pipework and brass jet fittings which, with the drainage points on the floor, show that the whole complex was also a water feature. Water was also a feature in the top garden where walkways wind around planted areas through which streams were created. These lead to a central point where a waterfall would have dropped down into a large grotto facing  the back of the house-it must have been incredible to see all of this in full flow!

Holden Park is one of those places where you could spend a lot time in wandering and never knowing which way to turn next, not wanting to miss something which may be tucked away out of sight. That it was created a hundred and fifty years ago, the result of one person's vision, gives it an iconic air. It is also cool to realise that this is not a tourist attraction for which an admission fee is charged (it could well be, and then they would probably go and build a tacky gift shop in one of the caves). It is there in a public park, open to anybody to walk in and enjoy and this is how it will stay. A secret garden, one of the country's hidden gems.

Friday, 8 October 2010


This is a Mudhoppers public information announcement: There are some places for which photographs and words could never do full justice-certainly not through the medium of a blogspot.

The walk up through Ponden Clough and then up some more to Ponden Kirk starts easily enough: about three quarters of a mile of tarmac road past the Old Hall and through a couple of farmyards, then across a field which leads to a well made and maintained track. This track, despite being part of an international tourist trail (the signposts are worded in both English and Japanese) is not kept so for the public. For at the far end of the clough, where two high waterfalls run down the hill to join Ponden Beck below, the local water board have built lock gates on each one-presumably an emergency measure in the event of flash flooding. As the track ends abruptly at the works it is clearly to enable easy access for water board vehicles. Beyond this it is stout walking boot country, more suited to Mudhoppers and sheep than to coachloads of tourists.


Getting up to Ponden Kirk should, in theory, also be easy. Alongside of one of the waterfalls stone steps have been set into the steep hillside and a wooden handrail is in place on the downhill side. But the stones were only ever going to be temporarily secure: the soil beneath them has gradually washed away and they now tilt every which way and wobble. This means the handrail is indispensable for making the ascent, a good climb for all that (so long as you keep looking ahead, if you have no head for heights the backward view will send your sphincter into overdrive) and attaining the top step is enough to make even the most complacent feel smug. When we walk up here today visibility is good and distant hills spread across the horizon. But it is the closer scenery which grabs our attention. The heather across the moor has lost the purple blanket of its flowers and the bracken on the hillside is turning brown. These dull colours, under a bright mid-afternoon sun, are a blaze of autumn glory (Wordsworth can keep his daffs!) The air here is full of the time of year too, these wilting flora mixing their earthy aromas with that of the rich black soil-this last made more prominent by a good soaking in the recent rainstorms. With the steep drop to one side and the chance of encountering a quag on the other we find the path to the Kirk, a path which in places is no more than a rabbit track. Keeping to the track is therefore wise, but difficult to do whilst unable to stop yourself from looking all around for the sheer pleasure of it.


The small outcrop of rock known as Ponden Kirk is named for a church, though the reasons for this are lost in the mists of a time long before churches were built in this country. There are folk tales surrounding it (which can, arguably, be held to be the most accurate way of learning of our history-if you can sort the wheat from the chaff) that tell of the wedding ceremonies which took place here. These tales are so enduring that it would be hard to not give them credibility as the reason for its name. Also associated with this rock are methods which would ensure that a desired marriage will take place-either by a couple hoping to wed each other or a single person wishing that, before they pop their clogs, someone will turn up who will be the ideal partner in the enterprise. All of these tales involve climbing around the rock to its base and squeezing through an opening known as the Fairy Cave (and this name also suggests legends from a pre-christian era). Not needing these services for ourselves, we are content to sit upon the flat top of Ponden Kirk for a while and enjoy the peace and calm. It is a very special place, a one-off and time spent here gives a reality to the old tales. And can this statement be qualified? Yes, in that all of us know that there are times when, for one reason or another, there is magic in the air.

Having negotiated the wonky stones to get up here we let discretion be the better part of valour and do not attempt to go down them. Instead we follow the top of the hill, which crosses the top of the other waterfall and leads to a more gentle descent (plus this second waterfall is even more photogenic than the first). If the walk up was relaxing due to the clough shutting the rest of the world out, this downward path is inspiring for exactly the opposite reason-the sense of space and of place is immense. We are walking on top of the world.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


We have moved from Dorset to West Yorkshire, to a village called Haworth high up in the Pennines. It is a fantastic place to be, surrounded by miles of open moorland which climb into the sky and then drop down into deep valleys. Water tumbles down the hillsides and over rocks, brown tinged from the peaty soil, it finds its way to the becks below in any way that it can. These becks in their turn join the rivers, the same rivers which powered the many mills which dot this area. You are never far away from one, whether it is a crumbling ruin now overgrown or one which has been given new life with a more modern commerce. What land has been cultivated over the centuries seems to be purely for the grazing of livestock, there are no wheatfields adding their colour to the scene. It is little wonder that its most famous literary connections are with the Bronte sisters whose works were peopled with dark brooding characters, living embodiments of the landscape. It has a reputation for being a dour landscape, but this is a shortsighted view which does not do justice to the breathtaking beauty of this part of our green and pleasant land.
After living, as we were, at sea level in Dorset it is now a huge contrast to find ourselves (at 1000 ft) living in the sky. The sky is now our world and though our feet, by neccessity, still use the ground to walk about on this does at times go unnoticed. All around us is the deep blue of of clear skies or, in another mood, clouds. The blue is welcome because there is less chance of rain falling out of it but it is the clouds which give shape and substance to our new world. They come in colours which, if not so vivid, are more varied than those found in a rainbow-especially in the evening just before the sun sets. At this time we walk up onto Penistone Hill where the uncountable miles of panoramic views can give the clouds in all of their variations. From the west we get the dark, sometimes thunderous, clouds creeping towards us. Due to the setting sun behind them, these are usually tinged with gold. Where the cloud cover is more sparse the golden hue streaks through the black, its brightness giving lie to the threat of a storm.
On each side of the rainclouds-to the north and the south-are thick bands of clouds ranging from grey to pure white.These last form into strange, almost box-like, shapes over the far hills. To the east the clouds tend to be thinner and, catching the rays of the setting sun from a distance, have pinkish tints to them which deepen in colour as the sun sets lower. Here too we see the sky peeping through the breaks,  pale watery blue. But the most spectacular effect is back in the west during those short minutes when the sun has virtually dropped out of sight. Then it appears as if a fire is raging along the hilltops, moreso when there is wind to give movement to this illusionary inferno.
When it has burnt itself out this singals that we should make our way back down the hill. When darkness comes to the moors at this time of year it tends to be sudden and complete, so we head for the village and return to earth. Haworth is a one-off: it is dark and lopsided, oozing history from streets and buildings that make no apology for their failure to be picturesque. The energy that was spent in years gone by, when daily survival was a struggle, still pervades and feeds our imaginations. It is an exciting place to live.

Saturday, 26 June 2010


Our relaxing into the Solstice starts on Saturday evening with a visit to Knowlton Rings to watch the sunset. Here we meet a small crowd who have settled themselves down to enjoy a weekend of gentle celebration-and Knowlton is the perfect place for gentle. This Bronze Age earthwork must have been a very important site, the Christians felt the need to build their church slap bang in the middle of it. This church, like so many erected on Pagan sites, now stands in ruins-adding more to the ambience of Knowlton than it ever could have done when it was in use for its intended purpose. It is interesting to note that this church, first built in the 12th c, collapsed in the middle of the 18th c-a time generally credited as being one of new enlightenment (interesting, that is, to Pagans, who like to think of this land's old religion sweeping the upstart Christians away!) So we sit against the wall of the church: drums are drumming, a whistle is whistling, a didgeridoo is didgeridooing, a child is playing, the sun sets and all is well with the world.

Girls and boys come out to play, it is the eve of the Summer Solstice and (for a good option on celebrating it in the traditional way) that means Stonehenge. Your newspapers and televisions will tell you that the whole thing centres around 'Druids and Hippies' but of the 20,000 that we mingled with this year there were comparatively few who would have been identifiable as either of these stereotypes-as a scan through the photographs of the Beebs report on the event will show. Instead what you will see is that the majority of folk there are 'ordinary people': ages ranging from the very young to the very old, drawn from most sections of society and from all over the world. These are the type of people who have been coming to Stonehenge at this time of year for far longer than any modern day Druid order and for over a century before the 1960s presented the world with its first 'Hippy'.
(For a more detailed-not to mention highly readable-history of the gatherings at Stonehenge since the mid-19th century, Andy Worthington's 'Stonehenge, Celebration and Subversion' is recommended.)

For ourselves, we are openly Pagan and undoubtedly freaky in our way of life-perfect fodder for both of the stereotypes-but we are at Stonehenge for the more fundamental reason. To be at this enigmatic ancient site on a rare occasion when everyone can actually get amongst the stones and to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere created by a good natured crowd. It is a combination for what the Druid would describe as 'A Raising of Energy' and the Hippy would declare as 'A Good Vibe'. Us Mudhoppers just call it 'Fun'.

Close to the stones stands 6 tonnes of 20ft high statue-an impressive work in steel created by Andy and Michelle Rawlings called 'The Ancestor'. We first see it against the darkening sky, a good setting as it towers over the crowds below. Crowds that are laying, sitting, standing or walking around-all intent on doing very little apart from being there. Within the stones itself the revelry is more intense, though no less good humoured: drums are once again dominating, punctuated by joyful whoops which start up from nowhere and spread through the crowd until they break out into wild cheering at nothing in particular. Experiencing this sound happening all around you is akin to being suddenly lifted a few feet off the ground and, as the cheering subsides, gently lowered down again. Getting into the depth of the press of bodies is a feat well rewarded, the energy everyone is giving out is infectious and addictive-and this is for us two who in usual circumstances cannot abide being in crowds. But this is Stonehenge at Summer Solstice, a time to be with folk who, despite differing appearances, are of a like mind to get amongst the stones and celebrate the day. Which brings us back to the old religion of this land: There is something drawing people, of all races and creeds, to Stonehenge. Forget the rubbish that the journalists report, forget the claims of some neo-pagans who believe that the Solstice at Stonehenge should be exclusively theirs, if you have never ventured to the site at this time of year but feel drawn, then go and feel it. It is for you.

Thursday, 14 January 2010


The tarmac path ends abruptly, as does all sign of the four lane commuter route. Here a narrow wooded walk leads through mainly Oak and Beech interspersed with some fine Holly trees. To your left a low steep bank leads down to the shore-now dominated by reed beds which stretch to the small island in this part of the bay-whilst to the right are fields. Or, from a more feathered viewpoint, seabirds to the left and Buzzards and Kestrels to the right. Growing so close to the sea the Oaks are very gnarled and stunted, their lower branches sweeping the ground. As their trunks are growing out at the top of the bank and with their branches heading down to the shoreline, they create a screen in their leafy season which increases the effect of walking into a green haven. The road noise subsides, at the end of this path lies Upton Country Park.
This is a spread of over 100 acres of public gardens, parkland and woodland surrounding a late Georgian manor house, built in 1816 upon the profits of cod from the New Found Land-though the estate has a history dating back many centuries before this time. It is also home to a scandal which was big news in the Victorian era: The Case of the Tichborne Claimant. These legal battles started in 1871 and lasted for a total of 288 days, with evidence presented to the court so complex that the final summing up by the judge took 18 days. They were instigated by the disappearance of one Sir Roger Tichborne in the early 1850s and his subsequent reappearance in 1866 to claim his, not inconsiderable, inheritance. The court cases centered around a simple case of identity: was he Sir Roger, as he professed himself to be, or was he an Australian butcher's assistant by the name of Arthur Orton as some of the Tichborne family alleged. It was a case that divided the Tichborne family as well as public opinion and each side of the debate still has its protagonists even to this day. It is a tale which has been used as the subject for many books, plus a couple of films, and they all document how Arthur Orton failed in his fraudulent claim. The cad was sent to prison for 14 years hard labour-a verdict which caused a small scale riot on the streets of London-but this did not stop him, upon his death in 1898, from being buried with the name 'Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne' inscribed upon his coffin. What is pertinent to this whole affair, and is not even touched upon in books or films, is why Sir Roger done a bunk in the first place: He had fallen in love with his cousin, Katherine Doughty, but the families of both feared a scandal were they to marry and prevented the liaison. So off he went and so ensued many years later a court case which (in today's figures) cost ten million quid, which is a totally disproportionate expense in preventing two young people from playing 'Hide the Sausage'.

So much for Sir Roger: it was a fair cop but society was very much to blame. Now jump forward a hundred years to hear a local legend-some of the loot from The Great Train Robbery was buried in the grounds of Upton House. More than this, it was never recovered and is still there. Ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I ask you to consider the facts of the case;
At the time of the robbery Upton House was the residence of the exiled Prince Carol of Romania and Hohenzollern, which all sounds very grand but he had only got the tenancy because Poole Council, who had granted him the lease, were under the delusion that he had a lot of money. In fact he had none to speak of though, fair play to him, he was doing his best to support his family and maintain a fully staffed mansion (including gardeners for the estate) by setting himself up as a carpet salesman. I should point out, before you all throw up your jobs to become carpet salesmen and women, this line of work did not appear to be a total success and Prince Carol was running up a lot of debts.
Quite why the Boys in Blue suddenly took an interest in him in 1965 has never been fully explained, but they certainly felt it necessary to raid two properties that he owned-one in Nice and the other in Surrey-after they were given a tip off that the Prince was aiding Ronnie Biggs, at that time on the run following his escape from Wandsworth nick. They did not find any sign of their quarry, but that did not stop the locals around Upton House from making a few, extremely tenuous , connections between their poverty stricken neighbour and the train robbers.
Perhaps they were a little envious of nearby Bournemouth which had a train robbers legend of its own, namely the belief that, after dividing up the swag, the robbers went on a celebratory binge in that seaside town (though this, if true, would have been a fairly stupid thing to do: at that time Bournemouth was clinging on to its image as a 'Bathchair Resort'. Any strangers arriving in the town who were under the age of 120 would have stood out like a sore thumb). But there must be some thread of truth in that town's connection because one of the gang was arrested there. So, the Great Train Robbers were known to have possibly been in the vicinity, the Bluebottles had been sniffing around the Prince and, finally, the most damning piece of evidence pulled all of these threads together. At least two locals remembered seeing, shortly after the robbery had taken place, a strange car driving down a road not far away from Upton House! Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury what further proof could you possibly need? I put it to you that, when we simple Mudhoppers are enjoying our walks around the grounds of Upton House, we are unknowingly walking over the spot where bags of ten shilling notes still lie concealed. Such is the local legend.

Oblivious to these unimaginable riches we head towards the bird hide, a good place to rest our foots and to look out over the part of the bay which attracts many nesting seabirds. Amongst the more obvious species, such as the Shelduck, there are lots of others which we do not have a clue what they are. Actually, this is not strictly true: there is a big information board in the hide which tells us bad birdwatchers exactly what we are looking at out there, which is more than a clue. A bit of a dead giveaway in fact, certainly enough to cause us to feel jolly clever when we manage to identify one of the little buggers correctly. There are a few places around the shores of Poole Harbour where bird hides are to be found, but this one at Upton House is by far the most easily accessible. Couple this with the part of Holes Bay which it looks out upon being rich in the variety of birds which can be seen at any given time, it is always a relaxing place to rest awhile. Being able to name each and every species is not essential, enjoying what is there is enough.

Above is the view from the bird hide looking out towards Pergins Island, another place of local legend which will be the subject of Holes Bay, Part 3-coming soon.

Friday, 8 January 2010


More or less wherever you live in this country it is possible to escape the urban areas and get out into the open spaces. We Mudhoppers are fortunate in our location as the choice of escape is wide-we have within very close proximity the sea, countryside, hill ranges, woods, the New Forest, heaths, in fact whatever takes our fancy at any given time is there within a very short distance. But this is the first in a series of posts about a place which is, literally, right outside our front door; Holes Bay, a more or less neglected backwater in Poole Harbour. For many years it has been used as the dumping ground for old boats and the evidence of this is in the wrecks which are rotting or rusting away in parts of the shoreline. Also in places around this shoreline are the reed beds which collect all manner of flotsam, jetsam and old supermarket trolleys-all of which is never cleared away and create a constant eyesore. When the tide goes out this bay virtually empties (apart from a main boat channel through its centre) exposing vast areas of mud which, on a hot day, proclaims by its odour the amount of pollution that was at one time discharged into it mingling with the usual acrid smell of backwater mud. In short: look beyond the waste and it is a beautiful place, largely undeveloped, a haven for wildlife plus it is possible to walk around practically the whole of it-a walk which takes a couple of hours or so, starting and ending in the town, but which will take you through ever changing scenery along the way.

The walk proper starts where the Old Town ends, level with an area which used to be the only landward entrance to Poole. Now overdeveloped with the type of buildings which conceal the borough's 'Historic Town' claim, there is suddenly a great sense of space as you look out over the bay which dominates your vision. Close to are the lumps of Purbeck stone jumbled down to the waters edge (evidence of where you are stood being reclaimed land) with sporadically spaced concrete blocks. These latter house the pipes which drain water into the harbour and, though not pretty in form or structure, they are very popular with the seabirds. It is not unusual to see a pair of Swans leading their Signets here to feed and they are also attracting the ever increasing numbers of Little Egrets-until recently a rare sight in the harbour. Like the Swan, the Little Egret stands out as magnificent looking creature. There is something about pure white birds in the natural environment, contrasting vividly with Mother Nature's grubby reality, which is breathtaking. The Little Egret, of course, is a close relative of the Heron-a bird whose numbers in the harbour have been decreasing over recent years. Why this is so is uncertain, but we would not mind betting that the rise in Little Egret numbers has something to do with it-they are showing the Heron up for what it truly is: a joke bird which Mother Nature plonked onto the planet for our amusement. Y'see, the Heron is the epitome of gracefulness, whether in flight or stood at the water's edge feeding. Until, that is, it opens its beak at which point all gracefulness flies out of the window. Its cry can only be likened to the sound that Rod Stewart might make if he was to be suddenly garroted whilst in the throes of expelling a particularly reluctant turd from his body.

Where were we? oh yes, Holes Bay. This first part of the walk is like treading between two worlds: on your right are four lanes of main commuter route with houses and factories laying beyond. To your left the wide open space of the bay where everything moves at a slow peaceful pace and which causes you to forget whatever else is around you. When the tide is up the V shaped ripples of the larger fish disturb the water close to the shore whilst the sand eels-their prey-panic in the shallows creating the illusion of the water boiling as they thrash about. The Gulls are overhead to take advantage of the ease with which they can pick off this small fry, screaming at and squabbling with each other constantly as they do so. It is a place which never sleeps; we walk along this part of the bay day or night when we need a good leg-stretch and there is always something happening on the water. A mile further down the path it climbs over the Waterloo-Weymouth railway line and shortly after that it veers around the top of the bay taking us away from the busy road and into another world, one with a Victorian scandal and a Local Legend.

More to come in Part Two.

Friday, 1 January 2010


It is New Year's Eve and we are at Avebury-to Mudhop, certainly: but we also have an underlying reason to be here on this day.

Our first stop though is West Kennet Long Barrow for a good stretch of the legs after the drive up here. It is a day that can be described as 'crisp', though not so crisp as to involve frost. Mind you, it's not far off this level of crispiness-we are both throwing fashion sense to the wind (not that we seem to have any of this commodity in the first place) and displaying ourselves to the world in all of our winter wrappings-essential against the freezing wind which is cutting across the Marlborough Downs. So; crisp in the sense that without our thermals parts of our bodies would be shrivelling up!

The walk up the hill to the long barrow sufficiently jump-starts our circulatory systems to ignore the aforementioned wind and, as ever, the stones give us a warm welcome. The short time we spend here this afternoon charges our batteries ready to fill the rest of the daylight hours with trudging through muddy fields, up and down hills, surrounding ourselves with this most enigmatic of landscapes and building up an appetite.

And due to a rather devious bit of forward planning we have ensured that the apex of this appetite building will coincide with our arrival at 'The Red Lion'. Here, for a small fee (actually about twenty quid), our Mudhopping metamorphoses into New Year's Eve relaxing, warming up and stuffing our faces full of food. All in preparation for our underlying reason to be here today......

...... Which is the Moon. For not only is it New Year's Eve, it is also a full moon and not only is it a full moon, it is a blue moon. As we both seem to possess a somewhat slightly off the elliptical approach to life, we had decided a few days ago that we wanted to view this moon whilst we stood on top of West Kennet Long Barrow. With this in mind we had been keeping an eye on the weather forecast every day of the preceding week, noting its predictions waver between snow, sleet, rain, dry, clouds and clear skies with each changing hour. By the the time we had left the house that morning only one thing was for certain; it might or might not be too cloudy to see the moon that night. So our campaign slogan for the day was 'Sod It, We Are Going Anyway'!

When we finally wrenched our well fed bodies out of the Red Lion to head towards our Sod It the moon was well up and playing peek-a-boo with us from behind broken clouds, clouds which were thickening fast. So much so that by the time we make our second walk up the hill to the Long Barrow the moon was completely hidden and we could tell that there was little chance of us seeing it that night. Boo! But there was other magic in the air for us; stood on that mound, with the great stones which screen the entrance to the tomb below us, we looked up at the patch of sky which was illuminated by the moon. Even from behind this thick cover she made her presence known as the light caught the edges of the huge black cloud giving it the sheen of burnished steel. Further away, where the cloud was patchier, this same light was giving the appearance of a foam flecked sea washing across the sky. Back on Earth we were surrounded by the darkness, a stillness and great calm as the wind, though still cold, dropped to a breeze. It was a very primitive atmosphere, a rare moment to stand and enjoy-and if some barrow wights had crawled out of the tomb to join us we would not have been at all surprised. But the best bit was saved for when we tried to leave.

We were sixty miles from home and the temperature was dropping, not wishing to run the risk of icy country roads it came time when we knew we must leave. But when we started to make our way back down the side of the barrow our legs suddenly made it clear that they were reluctant to do this-there was something more for us here tonight. Not knowing what this something was, and needing to get our bodies moving again, we decided to take a walk along the top of the barrow to its far end. Once there we turned to walk back (there being little else we could do) and then it happened. Rather like the cheesy ending straight out of Hollywood, at that moment a great split appeared in the thick cloud and the Moon was fully exposed in all of her glory. For a few minutes she did her 'doth shine as bright as day' bit, casting her full light upon us and creating long shadows over the countryside. This is why we came and, unexpectedly, we were not to leave without seeing it-giving rise to two loonies on a hill on a cold dark night, grinning for the fun in it all.

Happy New Year Folks!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Yule Greetings: We Didn't Go To Buzbury Rings On Christmas Day.

We didn't go to Buzbury Rings; it is completely fenced in with no public access at all.

After days of freezing rain the 25th dawned bright with little or no wind and, as your Mudhoppers have been stuck indoors for too many days, we went and had a good squelch through the muddy lanes around Badbury Rings. It was a beautiful day to be out of doors and we joined the many who were taking advantage of a bank holiday to get away from the glittery madness.
And afterwards we didn't go to Buzbury Rings-a little known earthworks a couple of miles away from Badbury. If we had we would have needed to park the car in a lay-by and walked along the B3082 until we found the overgrown bridleway which borders the western end of the site. This we would have had to follow, alongside that dense (and more than a little inviting) woodland until we reached a gate at the end. Here on the southern side of the site the barbed wire gives way to an electric fence-and far be it for us to even consider scrambling underneath it.
Had we done so we would then approach the Rings with that feeling that most people get when walking into part of our history, the fascination with what those who went before have left behind. In most instances of this, e.g. with a Saxon church or an Elizabethan merchants' hall, there is written history which, although it does nothing to dispel that sense of awe, gives a fairly detailed account of life in those times. But, with so much unknown of the folk who constructed the ancient earthworks, sites like Buzbury have that edge of mystery, of excitement and even, dare we say it?, of magic.
Had we walked into the Rings we would have been treated to the rare sighting of a hare, a hefty example of its species darting around in the centre. The kestrel too, flying low over the field not a hundred feet away from where we would have been stood. And all around the peace of the countryside on a warm winter's day would have given our spirits, already high from our day's Mudhopping, that extra lift. Probably enough to cause us to decide to climb through a barbed wire fence to get back to the car.
But we did not go to Buzbury Rings, that would have been trespassing.

Our seasons greetings to you all. We hope you enjoyed the festivities in whichever way you celebrated them. 2010 here we come!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dartmouth (Come Rain Or Shine)

Dartmouth we first explore on a cold, wet November night, none of which can hide this Devon town's quirky magnificence. This magnificence does not exist on the grand Georgian scale of our island's cities, for Dartmouth it is the layout of a town, established as a deep water port on the River Dart, which has been built ad hoc over many centuries and which retains something of each period. The oldest building dates from 1380 whilst, at the other end of the scale, the Flavel Arts Centre is surprisingly unobtrusive in its surroundings for such a modern structure. So as we wander around the narrow streets and alleys we never know what gem from the past we will encounter around the next corner or, as Dartmouth is built into the side of a very steep hill, at the end of one of the many flights of old stone steps which connect the various levels of the town.

Having read virtually nil about Dartmouth's history before we came here (we prefer to explore places 'cold', rather than have a list of 'things to see and do'-it's much more fun!) it was with big grins on our faces when we suddenly found ourselves walking into Bayard's Castle. One minute we are walking along a stretch of quay which is a film makers dream (i.e. The Onedin Line) and the next we are stood in one of Henry the VIIIs coastal defence forts with the gun ports open to the sea lapping just below. The atmosphere within buzzes whilst the smell and the sounds of the cannons still hang in the air - at least, it does in the Mudhoppers' somewhat fertile imaginations on a wet night in Devon.

After playing at being soldiers for a while we head off up a nearby flight of the aforementioned steps, from the top of which we look over the roofs of the houses below and across the wide River Dart to Kingswear on the opposite bank. It was from there that we had caught the ferry to get into Dartmouth, a scarily exciting experience for the one of us who is not used to waterborne travel - being, as it is, a small floating bridge which is manoeuvred by a tugboat tied along one side of it. Even the one of us who is used to waterborne travel felt his sphincter twitching a bit at first. But this is enough of climbing upwards for one night, we make our way back down through the streets, diverting off to the left or the right as the fancy takes us, until we reach the railway station.

Ah yes, Dartmouth Railway Station. Dartmouth has a lot to recommend it to all sorts of people - except trainspotters. This is because, having built a railway station in the 1860s, a decision was then made that this is as far as Dartmouth was willing to go in respect of this mode of transport and no railway lines were ever laid into the town. This is ironic considering that Thomas Newcomen, a native of Dartmouth, was the first person to build a steam engine - which gave rise eventually to the development of steam locomotives. Back in the 1860s this fact was of no concern to the boatmen and the merchants of Dartmouth who saw the railways as a threat to their nautical way of life and who successfully resisted the incursion of the new-fangled technology into the town. It is a very nice railway station though.

Dartmouth in the dark is all very fine and dandy, but it gives us the itch to see it in the daylight too - though for this we have to be patient. Having arrived here on a Saturday evening our day on the Sunday is taken up with an indoor event so our next proper sight of the town is not until the evening again. This is not without its compensations as our first bit of exploration then was to hunt down some food, which can always be a hit-and-miss venture in a strange town. But we were in luck (unashamed plug coming up here) with the first place we walked into: The Windjammer Inn on Victoria Road is a family run truly independent free house, good food, good beer and no bloody television spoiling the friendly atmosphere within. We recommend it.

Monday morning gives us our first chance to wander the town in daylight and, bonus, a change of weather has chased the rainclouds away. The morning is spent revisiting places that we had only seen at night and discovering all the bits that had been hidden in the darkness - it really is a fascinating town where its 1000 years of history blends in with all the modern trappings of a holiday resort. Having explored awhile around the river and backstreets us Mudhoppers then decide (some would say foolishly) to go for the birds eye view. As noted above, Dartmouth is built onto the side of a hill-a very big, steep, hill-which we make our way up determined to reach the top. It's a hard climb, though made easier at first by the flights of steps, but rewarding as the fantastic views increase with the height. Away to the right are the two castles, one each side of the rivers entrance, built in 1481 to guard the port. To the left more and more of the river becomes visible as it snakes inland while below and in front are the towns of Dartmouth and Kingswear and the hills of Devon beyond. It is breathtaking (and not only 'cos of the hill-climbing involved to see it all!) Our climb starts with the much used steps, then goes into the little used and overgrown steps before finally leading us up a muddy country lane to the intriguingly named 'Jawbones Hill' (as yet we have not been able to discover the origin of the name, any clues?) Any ill effects that we may be feeling through having to spend the previous day indoors are blown away as we stand at the top of this hill-it is a beautiful part of the country.


This is probably none of our business, as we are not residents of the town, but there was one rather worrying sign that we noticed in Dartmouth-several signs in fact. These are the little notices in the windows of the small local shops protesting about a proposed rise in the, already high, business rates. One trader is quoted as saying that his bill is set to rise from £5,400pa to £18,000pa in one leap. It would be a shame to see Dartmouth's atmosphere changed (as in too many other places) by the loss of local shops-driven out by overblown rate demands-to be replaced by endless rows of Starbucks, Subways and others of their ilk. At the moment one of Dartmouth's strengths is its uniqueness.