Summer days out

Other than going to Paris I did not have any more leave booked until the end of the summer. Being conscious that I hadn’t taken the boys away I decided to have some days out in this country with them, ideally at places they wanted to go to.

As I don’t work on Friday afternoons and had a meeting in York one Friday morning, it seemed a good opportunity to take them to see Clifford’s Tower. I was last there when the ‘insert’ was still under construction and rather than stairs one had to climb ladders to get to the roof. The finished structure is amazing; the roof feels a lot higher up (it is), the views of York are as good as ever; you see more of the actual building as there are more levels; and being able to go in the chapel with its leaning front wall is an interesting, if slightly disorienting, experience. The boys were appropriately impressed and keen to make another trip to York despite the 2 hour journey.

As they were happy to travel down to York again I booked us tickets for Jorvik and Castle Howard. One of the things about the boys, compared with Bella, is that they don’t seem to spend so long looking at things. The best bit of Jorvik is in any case the ‘ride’, which only takes somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes anyway. I find it interesting and informative, but I wish the narrator wouldn’t keep talking over all the things the mannequins are saying: I’d have liked to have heard how people think the vikings and other people from the 9th century spoke (especially as I had just read a book about the Anglo Saxons, which covered the Viking era and Viking rule in England).

Our tour of Castle Howard itself was quite rapid – not helped by the fact that not all rooms were open to the public anyway – and we then had a run around the grounds. The eastern side of the country is so much drier than Cumbria! Castle Howard is interesting because of the family links with Naworth Castle near us here in Brampton; and George Howard was one of the Earls of Carlisle who lived both at Naworth and at Castle Howard. He was also friends with the pre-Raphaelites, including Burne Jones and William Morris, and a talented painter himself. The property has featured on-screen often – perhaps most notably in Brideshead Revisited – and the story of its destruction by fire and reconstruction is an interesting one. So many grand houses have, of course, been destroyed by fire in the past.

Another castle which has undergone much reconstruction over the centuries is Bamburgh. The boys had been there before, with their father, and I had only ever been past it – mostly seeing it in the distance from the train or the A1 against a backdrop of sea; and earlier in the year doing a half marathon that ended there, clambering up over the sanddunes beneath its walls. I hadn’t realised that the Armstrong family who own(ed) it were also the owners of Cragside, the first house to have electricity in the country. Although the ‘main’ Armstrong had developed and traded arms, he’d also invented other things and was a shipbuilder; Vickers-Armstrong and ultimately the British Aircraft Corporation (now BAE, who build submarines in Barrow in Furness) grew from his original company. As with so many things or people, Armstrong wasn’t all bad (the arms business has rather blackened his name in some circles).

The views from Bamburgh are amazing, as they also are from Dunstanburgh: I had promised the boys fish and chips but the trade off was that we drove down the coastal route, as they hadn’t allowed me to go on the beach at Bamburgh (the North sea beaches in Northumberland are absolutely stunning: most of them have miles of clean sand with hardly any people). There’s not really a lot to see at Dunstanburgh but again its story is interesting: Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh were both involved in the wars of the Roses in various ways, which resulted ultimately in the Yorkist Edward IV retaining the throne, followed by his brother Richard (links there to Cumbria: to Carlisle and Penrith in particular as he was Warden of the West March) who was then killed at the battle of Bosworth, heralding the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Tudors. One thing Dunstanburgh does have nowadays however is composting toilets; and the walk from the car park at Craster and back helped justify the fish and chips later.

The final castle Edward and I visited was Lowther Castle and Gardens, closer to home (having also been down to Somerset just before these trips, I was beginning to get a bit fed up with driving long distances). I don’t completely approve of the ¬£ms that the Lowther family has had to restore the gardens and castle ruins, especially as it’s not cheap to get in nor to eat in the cafe, but I do very much like what they have done: and Edward and a friend spent hours happily playing in the wooden ‘castle’ in the woods while I read and made phone calls. It’s another place I thought I’d go back to sometime on my own, so I can look around the exhibition about its history at my own pace and in detail!

Meanwhile my own ‘castle’ is on the market as I’m hoping to sell up and move to Penrith to be nearer the children: which will give me a whole new area to explore in more detail. I was back at Lowther for lunch at the end of a bike ride with Penny just a week after visiting with Edward: as I get to know Penrith and its surroundings in more detail I feel that I could be happy living there.


I’ve now been to Paris about 4 times; but the first 3 I didn’t fall as much in love with the city as many people do. I think perhaps when I was younger I was less clear about what I was interested in; and also I didn’t really research ‘places to visit’ before I went there, unlike my daughter who had a very clear idea about what she wanted (and didn’t want) to see.

In fact she had planned a detailed timetable which made me a little worried that I was going to have a regimented holiday being marched round various sites; and several times I tried to convince her that it might be nicer to go to the coast somewhere. I ended up being glad she had done her research and that she insisted on us going to Paris.

We travelled down by Eurostar, which just seems such a civilised way to travel despite the crowded waiting area at St Pancras International and the lack of places to get a decent meal while you wait (there’s a Pret a Manger, which is great but I don’t really want sandwiches when it’s dinner time on a Sunday evening). You arrive in the heart of Paris at the Gare du Nord, and we had booked into a hotel just across the road for our first night. Already it felt different from home (even from London), with the cafes open out on the pavement and people milling around in the warmth of a summer evening.

The following morning we had our first pleasant surprise when it turned out that a week’s travel card for zones 1-5 inclusive was only Eu25 each – and the very helpful ticket guy at the station took photocopies of our passport photos as we didn’t have photos with us for the cards. Next time we go (!) we can just top up the cards online or at a ticket machine.

We made our way to the airbnb property we were staying in and after a few minor difficulties trying to get in, found ourselves in a lovely third floor flat which was absolutely perfect for us: and had a piano, which was one reason Bella had insisted on booking it. On the timetable for the Monday was going to the Marie Curie museum, so we had time to go to the supermarket across the road and stock up on some food before heading out again.

What we hadn’t checked was whether it would be open on a Monday; having walked all the way there from one of the metro stations we found it wasn’t! However Bella was delighted to spot a maths bookshop on the way back (we were in the heart of the Sorbonne area), and we had an ice cream before walking through the Jardins de Luxembourg and then through St Germain des Pres, including visiting the church of St Suplice, where apparently Widor (as of the Widor Toccata, used at many weddings) was once the organist.

On the Tuesday we had tickets booked for Versailles, just over an hour away by train but included within our cards (Navigo passes). Changing stations to pick up the RER out to Versailles was probably the closest we got to the Eiffel Tower, which was NOT on Bella’s list of places to go. Versailles was amazing but it was very hot and very busy, and by the time we’d walked all around the palace and then around the gardens as well, we felt disinclined to visit the Trianon as well. It wasn’t the first time we were to say ‘next time we come back’. I was so glad to see inside the palace, however – last time I had decided it was too expensive and the friend I was with and I had just walked down through the gardens for a bit and back up the other side. I wasn’t particularly interested in gardens back then, and I don’t think I had appreciated the amazing piece of engineering that got water to the gardens and then created the various fountains. Bella kept saying that her Dad and her brothers would like it, and I think she’s right. You also completely understand why the French aristocracy and royalty were so unpopular, especially by the time you’ve seen the Louvre as well and read about the Tuileries; and the many other enormous ornately decorated buildings in the city.

Bella’s lunch was an ‘Antoinette’ from the Angelina cafe – a chain of teashops with branches elsewhere in the city (though ‘chain’ makes it sound rather downmarket and as with so many French patisseries, it wasn’t).

We had our own upmarket feast that evening as Bella had even researched cafes and restaurants, and we were booked into Le Chardenoux bistro/brasserie. Not only was the food delicious, but the building is impressive and there is a patisserie and a chocolaterie run by the same chef – Cyril Lignac – at the same road junction (he also has a ‘proper’ restaurant as opposed to a bistro, elsewhere in Paris – but for us this was great as it was within walking distance of where we were staying). We were both excited to find bookshops open late into the evening as we walked back: we went back later in the week and bought books, me treating myself to one of his recipe books, which included the recipes we’d eaten in the bistro.

Wednesday turned out to be even hotter, and we were glad to start the day with a trip to the Catacombs: somewhere else we decided that the boys would like. In many ways it was an amazing regeneration project for its day, and highlights one of the differences between Paris and London. The bones from all the city’s cemetaries were moved into the catacombs, which were originally quarries, largely (as far as I can tell) for health reasons/slum clearance. And of course one of the reason Paris has lovely wide streets and lots of beautiful apartment blocks is because it was designed – whereas unfortunately Christopher Wren’s vision to create something similar in London after the Great Fire in 1666 was not accepted.

We came out from the coolness of the catacombs into the heat of a summer’s day, and were glad to find fountains specially designed for people to stand under and cool down at one of the railway stations, before walking into the Jardin des Plantes. We decided to go into the menagerie, and spent several hours wandering around looking at the animals and trying to keep in the shade: I’d wanted to see the red panda but a lot of the animals felt the same way as us and were also just snoozing in the shade.

We then walked along the Seine and into the Polish centre, to see the Salon de Chopin – where, gratifyingly, the guide spoke to us in French. Previous memories of being in Paris were that the French would speak to you in English because their English was far superior to your French; whilst it is, I really did want to try to speak in French while I was here.

On the Thursday – Bastille Day – we went to the Louvre, where we found that neither of us had remembered our phone. I think for me the most impressive part of the visit was in fact seeing the bits of the original castle, dating from c.1190. We saw many galleries, including Greek sculptures – amazing that they are so many 1000s of years old – and more statues which had been at Versailles or other royal palaces; and also the rooms of Napoleon III. The place is enormous and, as mentioned earlier, a reminder of the excesses of royalty and the extremely wealthy.

There were also some low-flying aircraft of various types during the morning, which I think may have been something to do with Bastille Day – we’d seen them on the Monday as well over the Jardins de Luxembourg. That afternoon we ended up back in the Jardins de Luxembourg again, this time joining a relaxed crowd listening to a police band playing from the bandstand. ‘Music’ was perhaps one of the themes of our week.

During our time in Paris I was impressed by how many cyclists there were – and also scooters. There are wide, dedicated cycle lanes: and also one way streets where there are arrows indicating that cyclists can go in the opposite direction to cars! None of them seems to wear a helmet and in fact on one day there was even a woman on roller blades skating along in the middle of the traffic without seeming the slightest bit worried about how vulnerable she was. The city also seemed really clean: my impression of most French cities 20 or 30 years ago was that there was a lot of dog poo around, but this time I saw hardly any. A lot of the French still smoke though: if you’re sitting outside a cafe you can’t guarantee that there won’t be someone at the next table smoking.

We visited the Cemetiere Pere Lachaise on the morning of our final full day, which was just up the road from where we were staying. One thing I was conscious of was how recent the second world war still feels here, which was something I remember thinking when I lived and worked in France in 1996. It may have been partly as it was an anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup – the arrest of more than 13,000 Jews by the gendarmes on 16th and 17th July. There were photos of Auschwitz and other concentration camp survivors along the fence of the Jardins de Luxembourg; and within Pere Lachaise there are some thought-provoking memorials not only to the victims of the camps but also to the resistance.

The final afternoon we found an amazing street of music shops at Europe metro – we had been to a concert of Chopin piano music on the Thursday evening, and Bella wanted to buy some – and walked again for miles looking at shops and the buildings generally: next time I go back I want to go to Opera, and perhaps to Sacre Coeur. It had been an amazing trip and we had both fallen in love with Paris.

Another bit of Hadrian’s Wall

One of my favourite lengths of Hadrian’s Wall is the area around Housesteads: I’ve previously posted photos of Broomlee Lough, one of my favourite places to swim (unfortunately the NT has now said that swimming isn’t allowed as the area is ecologically too sensitive), taken from the Wall astride the Whin Sill.

I’d been saying for a while that it would be good to run from Housesteads to Wall Town crags, and the opportunity presented itself a couple of weekends ago. It had been the music festival on the Friday evening and Saturday, and Penny’s husband was away, so she came to see the festival and then stayed at mine. As it’s a linear run we needed two cars, and left one at Wall Town crags before driving along and parking near Housesteads. We didn’t actually go through the fort itself but instead took the path which is just to the west of the fort area (it’s worth noting that there are public footpaths which cross the National Trust land surrounding the ‘playing card’ area, but I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of explaining that we weren’t going to pay as we weren’t visiting the fort) and which leads across the fields and up the hill to the wall path.

Obviously navigating the wall trail is relatively easy – mostly. This section in particular was easy: not only does it literally follow the remains of the wall itself, which are above ground in most places, but also there were plenty of other people out and about (for some reason they seemed to be going in the opposite direction to us, which meant they were going into the wind rather than having it behind them).

As it turned out, this is my favourite section of the wall. There is plenty to see, and perhaps a visual guide is the best way of representing it.

This is a view I’ve taken photos of several times before: that’s Broomlee Lough in the background, and we’ve just come across the field from the left of the picture and gone up the slope you can see. There are plenty of paths criss-crossing this area: we could have chosen to stay lower, but why stay low when you can go high and get a better view?
This is Crag Lough. I was keen to see whether there might be somewhere else to swim: unfortunately I think the only suitable entry point for this lough is at this end, and I’m not sure how accessible it would be: I don’t know if the track up to the farm is a private track, and have a feeling it may be. The other end is not too far from Steel Rigg car park, but is very weedy/grassy.

The path goes through the woods, though there were signs up advising people not to go through it at the moment as there are trees down due to storm Arwen (the evidence of Arwen is still clearly visible on both sides of the country up here). However as some people were coming through the woods we checked with them and they said it was fine, and that you just had to skirt round some trees. I guess for people who are a bit nervous about slopes and uneven ground it wouldn’t be such a great route: but we’re trail runners and uneven ground is our natural habitat.

Before arriving at Steel Rigg car park we came out at one of the best-known features of Hadrian’s Wall: so well known that I don’t even need to mention it’s name. I have to say that it’s far more distinctive from a distance than close up!

This photo, like the first, I think captures the essence of this part of the wall. It goes up and down constantly along the Whin Sill – some of the ascents/descents are quite steep – with stunning views in all directions. I love it.

The history of the area isn’t all Roman, either. I had never been to Cawfields quarry before, and the interpretation there showed industrial buildings from a far more recent era than the romans. It’s a pity that swimming isn’t allowed in the quarry, as the lake looked enticing: but I guess there could well be the remains of industrial kit under the water.

A quick google indicates that the romans may well have mined here, but that the more recent mining was from 1902 until 1952 – when people started to want to protect the older heritage more. It reminds me of Bath – apparently it was only in the 1960s, when a lot of new development was proposed, that people began to realise that actually Bath, with its Roman baths and beautiful Georgian houses, should be protected rather than destroyed. It’s interesting how some ruins, such as some of the ruined castles, were visited and (to a certain extent) protected during the 19th century, because they were viewed as romantic: but it took until the late 20th century for some other parts of our heritage to be protected.

One of the things I loved about this part of the wall, however – and I noticed this again yesterday, when I was out on a bike ride along part of the wall nearer to home – is that you spot all sorts of bits of roman ‘stuff’ which, not being in public or charitable ownership, doesn’t get commented on much. For example I had not been aware of Great Chesters Fort and milecastle 43, located in farmland to the west of Cawfields. It’s clear on a google maps satellite view from the air, but on the ground you’re running along navigating a farm, when first you see an arch and then what looks like the remains of rooms (barrack blocks?). But that’s what I also love about Hadrian’s Wall generally, and have done ever since I first visited part of it, many years ago: there it is, in a field, and you can just go up to it and touch it, and try to imagine what it would have been like almost two thousand years ago.

There’s some more up and down, and a turret (44b?) where you can sit and have a few minutes’ shelter if you need it, balancing your cup of coffee on a fallen archway, before seeing another lake, shaped a bit like a glass flask (a wider bottom and a narrow entrance) and then dropping down to Wall Town turret (45). From here you then drop further down, away from the wall – which more or less falls off the Whin Sill – and down to Wall Town quarry and country park. I wrote about this a while ago when I ran from Gilsland to Wall Town and back: it’s worth having a quick look on the Northumberland National Park Wall Town website as well as there is a stunning view of the crags at night. In fact it’s probably worth saying that the Northumberland National Park has invested quite a bit in visitor centres and so forth along the Wall in the past few years, and in my view have done a really good job.

This was possibly one of my favourite stretches of the Wall trail: although I also love the bit from Walltown to Birdoswald. I think it’s partly because of the quantity of roman remains there are to see, but also because the geology just makes it so stunning: whatever the weather.