Castlerigg Stone Circle: Keswick

Charlie and I could see the stone circle marked on the road map just outside Keswick. It was depicted by a small picture of a standing stone. We soon picked up on the brown (tourist information) signs  pointing the way and pulled into a sleepy single track lane lush with deep green foliage. At a certain point, the road widened so you could park up at the side and I pulled in our little car. A lonely ice cream van was sitting at the far end devoid of customers, as curious an artefact as the stones we were about to view. 

One door after the other was slammed shut and we nipped across the road and up some steps. Before us lay the circle – ringed in megalithic stones, the grass cut and dry. And all around us, the mountains sat brooding and dark. Unlike Stonehenge which sits in a fairly mediocre landscape – this was spectacular. The clouds hovered low on the brink of rain, growling in a deep grey. Layers of charcoal and lead rumbling over one another, tumbling down mountain sides, heading towards the emerald platform were we stood in the still air. Built around 4000 years ago, the scenery speaks miles for the reasons of its location. Circling it are the hills of Great Mell Fell, Clough Head, Red Pike, Thirlmere, Helvellyn, Crag Hill. Like a wall of waves waiting potently on the horizon waiting for the crash. 

There is a scene in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia – right at the end when mother, daughter, and aunt are watching as the rogue planet Melancholia heads towards Earth, about to cause its destruction, with a collision course. All that protects them from this is a twig teepee. That is how I felt on Castlerigg – like the end of the world. Did these stones make them feel safe? I felt little and vulnerable. 

This particular stone circle has links with the manufacture of stone axes. It is thought this is where they were traded or exchanged, as was determined by the archaeological finds in and around the circle. But despite, our summations that this might be nothing more than an elaborate market place, like churches, cathedrals, temples and mosques – this place felt holy.

Castlerigg Stone Circle is just outside of Keswick and is maintained by English Heritage. The area is free to enter and perfect for picnics,  casual sunbathing and reading books. There is some on street parking, but I imagine it gets busy during the holidays. Alternatively, it is a 30min walk from the town. Well worth it for the beautiful views.  


Death in Paris

The air was cold and damp. More than damp – the water sat in a dense humidity all around us like a cloying mist. Round me snaked the stacked coils of the dead – radius, ulcer, tibia, skull. So went the procession – the only physical remains of lives once lived, stored in hollowed out mines beneath the streets of Paris. These are the Catacombs.

Getting in can be quite troublesome. The queue was long, despite the fact I got there before the door opened and I went during term time. The combs, you see, only allow a maximum of 200 people inside at once, so a lengthy queue meanders, down the street and round the park, at all times. This seems like a bit of a nightmare, but it is actually, despite the wait, a thankful mercy for visitors. This is beacuse it alleviates the claustrophobic atmosphere and its addition, through omission, creates a hallowed, reverent quality that seems respectful in this place of interment.

But the history of the Paris Catacombs is actually the history of The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents in French) which was curiously named after the slaughter of infants by Herod when he attempt to take out the baby Jesus. The graveyard saw uninterrupted use from at least as far back as 1186 until its closure in 1780. It was an overcrowded slum for the dead.

“For eighth hundred years, day in, day out, corpses by the dozen had been carted here and tossed into long ditches, stacked bone upon bone for eight hundred years in the tombs and charnel houses.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind [1985]

This sacred churchyard saw around 1800 burials a year. From what I can gather it works like this: mass graves were dug in the middle and each new body covered with a bit of mud (but not much) until the entire pit was filled. The rich had their own graves along the outside. After an appropriate amount of time had passed (hopefully for decomposition) new graves were dug, the bones hauled out and housed in the charnal houses which lay around the walls of the cemetery.

The place was heaving with bodies and the stench was toxic.

In 1780, Louix XVI, or more likely his advisors, finally decided it was to be closed. At this point it is thought that over two million bodies were on site. The lynchpin event that spurred on this decisive action? A heavy rain storm that caused a hundred partially decomposed bodies to burst into the cellar of a nearby building, a restaurant in fact, and it was discovered when a man went to fetch more wine. Imagine a graveyard literally bursting at the seams.

Five year later, they excavated the bones and moved them to the catacombs where they rest to this day. There are other graveyards from central Paris housed here as well. You walk through the necropolis and it feels like a tour of the streets from the past.

These city workers spend the next year digging human remains out of the cemetery’s deep mass graves and collecting the millions of bones that had accumulated in charnel houses around its perimeter. They then systematically transported carts full of humans and human remains to an underground quarry on the city’s southern peripheral.

Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830.   (Erin Marie Legacey, 2019)

Its current site has been used as a place of tourism almost from the beginning. In 1809 Héricart de Thury managed the project of bone arrangement – artistically taking advantage of the skulls that remained intact after their inglorious ‘tossing into the pit’.

As we race through the centuries, sometimes the site closed for decades, sometimes with visitor limits, sometimes without, until of course today, where the whole experience is carefully managed, and I suspect, a lot is not on display. When I went a few years back, entrance was significantly reduced if you could prove you were an EU citizen under 25. I think this is still possible, although the discounts aren’t as generous as they once were.

The route through the caverns is low roofed, slightly inclined and it swept circuitously. There was a small sign before we entered warning us that “the ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition”. I really didn’t know what to make of that sign. Surely, if you were of a nervous disposition you wouldn’t decide to visit the macabre site of the dead arranged like art, between doric columns, alters and tombs. Never the less, the sheer force of that many bones is disquieting. Thousands of thigh bones, piles of skulls – people decimated by plagues, childbirth, toothaches, bad food and dysentery. Mothers, children, husbands and wives all washed up and on show. Is this a one of those dark-tourism site that is better left unvisited? Or are graves no longer graves when we can’t remember to whom they belong?


Venice with Webbed Feet

Venice, Grand Canal
View from the Rialto down the Grand Canal
Venice, Grand Canal, Italy
The Grand Canal
View from the Campanile, St Marks Cathedral, Venice, Italy
`St Mark’s Cathedral from the Campanile
The Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
The Doge’s Palace

Venice is made of 118 islands (apparently, not that I had the skills or inclement to check) all composed like a jigsaw puzzle someone had placed, in order, on a table, but forgot to push together. When you are there, however, it feels like an organic structure – like aquatic shoots that have pushed themselves up through the water. And in the centre of these reeds, one prodigious bamboo reaches high above the others; it’s the tallest building on the island, the bell-tower, or The Campanile. 

The city is often described as a maze by befuddled tourists with paper maps unfolded between two outstretched arms. With their sunglasses pushed to the top of their heads, and one hand wiping sweat out of their eyes, they’d sigh confounded. And I guess I’d have to agree. Occasionally, despite my flâneuse instincts,  I’d be forced to relent and check the GPS on my phone only to find myself, puzzlingly enough, on the opposite side of the island to where I’d thought. I imagine the contrast this befuddlement creates next to the local’s superior knowledge, gives them a sublime sense of power.

You have to elbow your way through the selfie snappers in order to reach anywhere. I pity the Venetians who must spend a large majority of their time spent in exhaustion as they face down the ‘barbarous multitudes.’ But a tip, the art galleries and museums are quite quiet. I don’t know what that says about the average tourists.  

It’s early June and the mercury reads 28C with 50% humidity; later in the day, it creeps up to 32. My day is spent eating gelato after gelato, stalking out supermarkets and corner shops with ice-cold bottles of water hidden in the midst. I’d pick places on the map that I want to check out; two hours later I’d arrive, only for it to take me three minutes to make the return journey.

 I bemoan the crowds, but it really doesn’t take long to walk somewhere nearly altogether deserted, like a little cafe or a water fountain in a community square from which you can watch as well dressed children eagerly dip bottles and hands into the font.  Others can be found kicking footballs against the walls of mighty buildings. At times the city seemed at peace, and when it did it felt most like a home. 

I saw a family amble by. The woman, in front, held a paper bag of groceries in her arms. A small dog and few tottering toddlers followed in tow. Is she nanny? Or mum? It’s hard to tell when they look so rich. Suddenly, I was drawn back into my childhood memories. I remembered an aristocratic friend of mine who had had a plethora of nannies. They were all called ‘the nanny’ and she would always tell spiteful stories about them after they left. I met one or two, and they always seemed rather mean – or at the very least they didn’t feed me enough when I visited. I remember hearing about one nanny who was very fat and after she left they found mountains of food under her bed. Looking back, that whole scenario tells a different story. But this woman, in front of me now, was all designer sunglasses and Italian chic. Surely,  this was mum. Someone being paid to care might worry a little more about the three-year-old nudging their shiny red shoes, closer and closer, to the edge of the canal. Unless it doesn’t really matter – after all there is that rumour- that all Venetian’s have webbed feet. I watched her pass over a bridge and out of sight. 

In front of me now, a pink trousered youth stood on his head in the grand archway of some impressive looking building. It was a confident pose – legs bend and elbows out. It wasn’t until I clocked the ambo-boats, that I realised he was posed upon the steps of the city hospital. Was he leaving or checking in? The whole of Venice is a bit like that really.

The whole city of Venice is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. I don’t know if this imparts serious restrictions on the repairs people can make to their buildings, but everywhere the facades of houses were falling and crumbling. Venice has been likened to a museum (carefully preserved) or Disneyland (carefully orchestrated) – I’d say it’s nestled somewhere in the middle. Neither too perfect nor to hallowed. 

The light, however, is from a dream – or the recollection of a dream. It is haunting even in its glaring strength. It flashes and screams and sulks and dapples – it shimmers on crumbling masonry, mottles casino walls, and caresses the faces of those watching the water by moonlight. It paints memories of mermaids and pirates over the faces of those watching in awe. It speaks of opulence and depravity as it glints off wine glasses, held in bedewed hands of heiresses. It is the light that makes painters weep.

Like all memories, Venice does not stay stationary in my mind, but changes and grows – mutates and fades, beautifies or indeed decays. Those qualities that were once slight are now gargantuan and overwhelming when I remember back. I have dreams of tiny sidewalks clinging to the edges of buildings. I dream of towering stone and I dream of feeling slight in the presence of centuries of elation and heartbreak.

My travel book of the week is The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. With a Napoleon era setting, the novella is about love and belonging – told with magic. This was the book that brought Venice alive for me, and spurred on my decision to visit. And books are the most romantic way of being inspired. To seek the geographies of the imagination, sprouted from words upon a page, speaks to the wild visionary parts of our brains. It pours kerosene on Disneyland and disrobes facts from museums. It is life and love and adventure – but most importantly it leaves the visuals of a place for our own cerebral cortexes to curate and interpret. 

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
The Hospital, Italy
Inside the Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
The Campanile, Venice, Italy
St Mark's Cathedral, Venice, Italy

Slug Cheese and Peeled Almonds

The Dales were, for the first hour, swathes of green velvet, scrubby moorland peaks and granite mountain tops. It wasn’t quite the blistering wilds made famous by the Bronte sisters. Instead, it was tempered by a kind of human tenderness which transmuted the land from desolate to verdant. Before our eyes flashed farmsteads, drystone walls and chocolate box cottages; all lying in wait for the artist’s brush.

My sister and I took my silver Clio on a tour of the National Park. We watched as the fields, like pistachio ice-cream, flashed past, and the white woolly sheep, far in the distance, glistened like freshly peeled almonds. My sister didn’t say much. Although, she never does. Perhaps it was my driving that forced her to remain tight-lipped. Her hands clung white-knuckled onto the door handles as I steered the car through the labyrinth-like road network. I’m not a stranger to single track lanes, but I am to the rocky walls that stop you pulling the car onto the verge. Gone was the endless possibility of space. Gone was the Fenland ability to, given enough gumption, just pass each other with the edge of your tyre balancing on tarmac and wing-mirrors air-kissing as you pass.

The Dales were: stop, watch out for passing places, hairpin bend, sheep, gear up, gear down, blind summit. All whilst keeping your eye on the temperature gauge which would slowly creep upwards into the realms of Hell.

From within the confines and safety of our little silver ship though, we plotted our way to the Wensleydale Creamery and muttered with glee, over and over again, the website’s grand promise of ‘free cheese’. Quite difficult to say once; very difficult to say a few times over.

At the creamery, we paid our modest dues (about £4 for adults) and embarked on the ‘cheese tour’. My sister learned that back in the day the citizens of the Dale would make cheese out of the sludge collected from ditches. I learned they made cheese from slugs collected in ditches. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend trying it at home. I would recommend, however, that our next trip incorporates a visit to an audiologist. I’m not sure what else I learned (having been pretty shocked with the idea of slug cheese, but also eager about the prospects of making my, ill-advised, own), but I think it included a history of the creamery, the owners, the cheese making process, and a look at the factory in action.

And then, as if walking out of the black and white world of Kansas and straight into Oz, we walked through sterile glass doors, sanitised our hands, and appeared in cheese-heaven. Hark! We hear cherubic choirs and harps twanging. Then a golden suffusion of light, the sort which could literally cure holes in the mortal soul, blared through open windows. And there we were. Arrived and surrounded by a room of ‘free cheese’. For we were indeed presented with a room full of delicious cheeses, which you could eat without labouring under a judge-full eye.

I juggled an armful of these lactose-treats to the checkout, equal in amount to the quantity I’d already consumed. I decided to take a fairly traditional approach to the selection process. After all, why buy anything that’s not Wensleydale at Wensleydale? Although they did also have a range of soft, blues and hard cheeses on offer. I took one waxed truckle of the unadulterated, Gromit saliva inducing, traditional Wensleydale, which was a creamy, slightly acidic, and delightfully crumbly affair. To which I added an oaked smoked version and a series of mixed cheeses. The latter are made by grating the cheese, adding the fruit and then, for want of a better term, re-squishing it back together again. I added  a ginger, a caramelised onion and a cranberry one to the collection.

Back at the car, the prospect of transporting my body weight in cheese home without refrigeration suddenly became an issue. So we nipped into the little town of Hawes and bought some ice for the cooler box and some fancy crackers for later. Hawes is one of those tourist towns that rake in the money from confectionery and souvenirs, but I liked it, so I won’t dwell too critically.

PS: I’ve checked with Google – it’s defo slugs, but you can also use snails (in fact snails are better).

The Yorkshire Dales
The Yorkshire Dales
The Yorkshire Dales

The Pirates of Thornwick Bay

Waves fly towards me from the ocean. Creating that deep underwater rumble that moves from the horizon and quickens towards me through solid ground. It makes my heart quake within its bony cage – delicate and insubstantial – in the face of such power.

Do you know that rumble? The rumble of hooves? It starts imperceptibly beyond eyesight; their trotting feet, roaring into a canter. Until a little way offshore, they start to gallop. All the time, unaware, seemingly, of their fatal end.

At the base of the cliff, the white horses leap out of their depths, thrusting up their shaking heads, snorting with fear. The riders have all been forsaken; the stampede of mares and stallions, fillies and colts throw down their hooves onto the jagged rocks of the seabed below, attempting to slow their heady speeds. Too late!

They hit full force. Crushing their bodies against the milky monolithic cliffs of Yorkshire’s east coast.

And then it happens again, and I watch the ritual crash as they hit again and again into the chalk and collapse with a crash.

My trip encompassed Flamborough and Thornwick, included a visit to Bridlington and Robin Hood’s Bay before finally ending up with the crowds at Whitby. Right then, however, I was camped up at the Wold Farm. The site backed straight onto the main walkers’ path. Turn right and you’ll find Thornwick Bay and Flamborough. Turn left and you’ll reach the nature reserve. At night, the lighthouse spins rhythmically inwards across the sheep fields, giving sleeping campers a constant reminder that busy lives continue whilst we doze.

One morning, I took a wander through the gloom and found a cliff-path. I would take this route several times over the next three days. This evening, though, I stood on tiptoe, bent at the middle, hanging over the railings and peered down into gannets’ nests perched upon craggy mounds of grass. The salt air fills me with notions of taking to the high seas, 17th-century style – with buccaneering, cutlasses, and hijinks on the high seas. Except this is Yorkshire, so my pirates roam chill waters and pillage stone houses on the moors. Lovers are windswept and hopelessly entwined in cocoons of rain and passion. The wilds are Northern and coal-stained; the accents sing deeply.

Along the East Coast of Yorkshire, is a network of pathways. Some just partings in the grass maintained by footfall. Some are impressive viewing platforms built to overlook the arches, caves and stacks along the way. It is one part rambling trail, one part pristine tourist attraction.

I was painfully aware, however, that I was standing above all the action, constantly peering over the edge trying to get a glimpse of the cliff’s spectacular natural features, caused by millennia of erosion. Each gully and crack is filled with the nests of seabirds and I felt an undeniable urge to throw myself into the blue ocean below. Or scale with bent fingers and hooked toes, the chalk of the cliff face. I watch as a little sailing boat, with triangular sails like a Junk, bobs along on the current below me. I wonder how much of me they can see. The air is foggy and gloomy and atmospheric. Later, when the sun burns off the mist, the cliffs become bracing, sun-bleached and barren.

There is an RSPB site near Bempton. It is here that people, who don’t walk, drive up to the land’s edge, waddle cliffside, and then head back to the car. And then, there are those that drag themselves bleary-eyed to look at some ‘outside’ whilst dressed for a business meeting and patting themselves on the back for managing some ‘nature’. I apologise for being so cynical. But walk away from the hotspot and everything goes quiet, except for the sound of the birds. Every once in a while you might find someone doused in Regatta, North Face and Gore-Tex, with a pair of Binoculars and a DSLR hanging around their neck, but for the most part, you’ll have the place to yourself. Even during the national holidays – at least that was true when I was there. And, yes, I put a premium on solitude.

Thornwick Bay, as I descended down the cliff towards the bay, struck me as a bizarre place – if you turn inland you can see a mass of caravans scattered across the hill like a pox, but the bay itself was fairly quiet. In recent years, I’ve learnt that holiday parks have expanded over the area. Meaning it is probably three times more noisy and busy and polluted than it was in 2015. 

I remember there being a little hut near the beach, out of which a cafe runs. Its peach-painted pebble dashing is falling off in chunks. It sold a mean builders-brew and chocolate Magnums. It felt like the end of the world or the world after the apocalypse. Strangely run down and grotty and wild, yet hopeful and full of sun. And I’d hate to visit again in case something has changed such is the nature of memories that seem somehow perfect.

Map of Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Bempton Cliffs
Bempton Cliffs
Thornwick Bay