Monday, 24 October 2016

Wooded Dales of Northeastern England:
Visiting Causey Arch near Newcastle

Tucked into a sea of fields, Causey Gill of County Durham houses the oaks of the ancient English uplands. A walk under Causey Arch reveals all.

The journey from London to Newcastle exposes England to be a truly agricultural country. In the north, woods can only be seen in the niches and ravines that form seams between the broad fields.

Agricultural scenery from London to Newcastle
Rolling out of King’s Cross London on the train, through the suburbs and golf courses of the North Downs, we see the sky open up around Peterborough with Constable clouds towering over the fens. The black earth of the former peat marshes, the fenlands, is the best vegetable gardening soil in Britain, but the landscape northwards continues to be overwhelmingly agricultural: a patchwork quilt of fields in a score of green colours whatever time of year. Where are the grand trees of the ancient English wildwoods? In the tiny dales of northeastern England survive the oaks and hazels of the English uplands.

Past York to Newcastle, sheep-studded hillsides and shadows of medieval ridge-and-furrow field systems stretch away from the tracks. In the east, the thin flat ridge of the North York Moors rises from the horizon, while dark clouds pile up on the Pennine Mountains, England’s backbone, to the west.

English histories of landscapes and woods

The deforestation of Britain began some 5500 years ago, in the Neolithic; by the early Iron Age, 2500 years ago, half of the land was agricultural, and by the time of the Domesday Book 900 years ago, woods covered only 15% of the land. The agricultural landscape so obvious to the traveller today has been the face of England for over a millennium. Stands of woods provided building timber and have commonly been coppiced and pollarded as well, forcing the trees to send out new shoots that were harvested for tool hafts, fencing and firewood. In the north, such woods survive in the tiny upstream valleys – so different from upland forest of the south.

Whereas valleys are ‘vales’ in the south, a word originating in Latin and coming into English through French, in the north, valleys are ‘dales’, originating in Anglo-Saxon and related to Dutch. Each of the major rivers draining the Pennines towards the North Sea has its own valley collectively known as the Pennine Dales: Wensleydale, Teesdale, Weardale.
Roddam Dene near
Wooler, Northumberland

Following the rivers upstream in the big dales, the country-
side still wears its agricultural cloak, with more sheep and 
drystone walled field boundaries encroaching on the 
heather and moorlands that crown the high hills. Beautiful 
and breathtaking as they may be, these are not the objective of our travel. To see the forests of northeastern England, head for the gills and denes!

‘Dene’ may have Anglo-Saxon roots as ‘dale’ does, but ‘gill’ is an Old Norse word (ghyll), reflecting the later Viking conquest of northeastern England. Denes and gills are best imagined as ravines or gorges: deep-sided, dark enclaves of native vegetation through which run not rivers or even streams but ‘burns’, another Anglo-Saxon gift to English. Most of these ravines are also criss-crossed by paths — natural routes along waterways — but some are developed as nature areas or local parks. Causey Gill is a case in point.

Causey Arch in Tynedale, 
an industrial archaeology bridge
Causey Arch in wooded
Causey Gill, County Durham
 South of Newcastle, Causey Burn runs north through Causey Gill, eventually flowing into the Tyne in — you guessed it — Tynedale! But what about the placename Causey? It comes from ‘causeway’, a stone bridge built to cross the gill in 1725-6 and now known as Causey Arch.

A marvel of engineering of its time, Causey Arch was built 
with Roman arch technology under the guidance of a leading 
northeastern stonemason, Ralph Wood, who took his life by 
jumping off the 80-foot-high structure before it was 
completed. For thirty years after its construction, Causey Arch had the distinction of being the longest single-span bridge (100 feet) in the world. It was used, 
Old coal wagon from Tanfield Colliery
however, for barely ten years to haul coal out of Tanfield 
Colliery before the mine was closed down after an explosion and fire in 1740. First hosting double rail tracks for wooden carts pulled by horses (each loaded with 4 tonnes of coal), Causey Arch remains the world’s oldest surviving single-span railway bridge, though now disused.

Today, walking down the gill, one is surrounded by thick, lush foliage under a thin canopy of oaks, silver birch, hornbeam and sycamore maple. The burn has cut through layers of sandstone which line the gill as cliffs in places. A wren scuttles to a fence rail, while great tits and chiffchaffs twitter and buzz from above. A cuckoo calls in the distance. Below grow ferns and fragrant ramsons, betony and a variety of crane’s bill.
Sandstone cliff in Causey Gill

Though woodland areas have remained stable for centuries through careful resource management, many now are threatened by development and overgrazing. If, however, the woods were ever to reclaim British land, it would be a jungle.

Anon. (1995) “Causey Arch picnic area & the Tanfield railway”. Pamphlet, Durham County Council Environment Department.
Rackham, Oliver (1986) The history of the countryside. London: JM Dent & Sons.
Watts, Kevin (2006) “British Forest landscapes: the legacy of woodland fragmentation”. Quarterly Journal of Forestry, May 2006:273-279
Floralocale (2005) “Restoring ghyll woods” 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Ironmonger Row Baths Spa LONDON: a disaster

Having been to Ironmonger Row Baths several years ago when it was in a Victorian state of repair, I was really looking forward to visiting the newly revamped spa with a friend to see the changes. I don't usually use this blog to write negative things about my adopted country, but from the beginning, this was a disastrous visit, though there were a few positive (+) things. Be sure to read to the end of this:
-1. I tried to phone for an appointment but got the answerphone; no one ever called back like they said they would.
-2. I emailed for an appointment; they did indeed write back to say the time I chose was already fully booked. My second email requesting a different time went unanswered.
-3. So I had to go there in person to make the appointment. Done.
-4. We arrived on time for our appointment, 6–9pm Friday night. The desk is chaos; we had to wait 10 minutes to turn our shoes in, and another 10 to receive slippers (just back from the laundry). There went 20 minutes of our alloted three hours.
+5. We were able to book "pitta plates" for a snack at £5 a person; they asked what time we wanted them, and we specified 7.30.
+5. The towel and bathrobe were fluffy and nice, but
-6. The wrist bands didn't work very well to open doors and lockers.
+7. We didn't know where to go next, so we went back to the desk (in swimsuit under bathrobe) to ask for directions; the woman said she would be down shortly to show us around.
-8. She never showed up.
+9. We tried the Tepidarium, which was nicely appointed with fake marble benches and clean tiled walls,
-10 and then moved on to the Laconium – so hot we couldn't touch the benches and certainly couldn't lie on them.
+11 Took a dip in the Plunge Pool and sprawled on the loungers in the hallway. Felt that wonderful tingle coming on from a good hot/cold alternation.
-12 7.30 came and went; we didn't know where to collect our food. So, back to the desk for one of us to ask what we should do. Order? There is no order for food? But we paid. Sorry, no order in the computer. The desk person will try to contact the previous shift worker to see what happened and let us know.
+13 So we switch to the Relaxation Lounge – a darkened room with soft music. Nice
-14 Table set out with a bowl of 3 apples; coffee pots (empty), water jugs with lemon slices (empty), only one glass available anyway. Ok, it is getting towards closing time, but this is no way to (literally) treat customers.
+15 My friend eats an apple because she is starving.
-13 8.10, no word from the desk, so I go up and ask what's happening. Oh! no order, no food, no computer record. Me: Ok, so can I have my money back? Her: Yes, the manager will call me. Me: What do you mean, she'll call me; I don't have my phone in the spa. Her: Oh, she's not here now so she will call you to arrange a refund. Me: What do you mean, I'll have to come here again to collect my refund? Her: She'll call you. Me: Answer the question!! Her: Yes, you'll have to come back; I am not allowed to give refunds.
-14 I try to find my way back to the Relaxation Lounge and end up in the Treatment Rooms. I spy a bowlful of apples.
-15 Returning to the Relaxation Lounge, I find all the apples gone, so I sneak back to the Treatment Rooms and grab one for myself. This is dinner.
-16 I decide to try the Peppermint steam room; smells like sweat.
-17 I try the herbal steam room; all the steam is at the ceiling and I can't smell anything.
+18 I try the sauna. Really hot, really great! And the Monsoon Shower sending out cold mist afterwards is good, too.
-19 8.30 PA announcement for everyone to move to the showers. Including the trips back and forth to the desk worrying about our food, we had less than two hours in the spa.
- 20 Can't get through the women's locker room for all the towels and bathrobes discarded in a heap. Climb over them (don't they have a towel drop??).
-21 At the desk, again take up the issue with the desk person. She can't help, does nothing.
+22 So go upstairs and ask for the manager on floor duty. He's really nice, takes the money for our refund out of his own till, and says he will speak to the spa manager.

I say, this is no way to run a business! Yes, it was beautiful and clean, but understaffed, undersupplied, with ignorance of/ absence of procedure, no receipts, no adequate response to valid complaints. The desk person could have called up to the floor manager herself, but no, she just wanted us to go home and have it sorted out later, like next week.

Will we go back? I asked for the brochure to check the costs and noticed 'hammam' listed as an option. I asked, where was the hammam? Her: Oh, it's the bench. Me: What? Have you ever been to a hammam? Between me and my friend, we have been to hammams in Morocco, Istanbul, Paris and Paddington. If Ironmongers Row Baths thinks they can market a bench as a hammam, more power to them. No, I'm not going back, especially at £25 a throw when they don't even have a jacuzzi.

Later that week, I called the manager and she asked to meet so I could air my grievances. We did so, and she said she would mail me coupons to use for another visit. Do you think they ever arrived?
   I wrote this blog when the new Ironmongers opened up two years or so ago but decided to wait and cool off before publishing. Now I wonder if these problems have been solved. Does anyone know? Have you been? Is it better?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

English "elevenses"...why not "fourses"?

I'm interested in language change – new words are being made up by individuals all the time and some spread like wildfire. But how does one spread a new word intentionally? People have to hear it enough, decide it fits the bill and use it themselves.

In a previous post "Tea: food or drink?", I lamented the confusing situation of "tea" in England – it can mean the drink, a (calorie-laden) snack, or a meal; and the timings and content differ according to region and class (unfortunately still a part of British society).

I ended that post with the recommendation that we use the word "fourses" to indicate tea with bakery goods in the afternoon. Afterall, if we can have "elevenses" as morning coffee or tea, why can't we have "fourses" as the afternoon equivalent. That would certainly solve the vexing problem, when you are invited to have "tea", that you don't know if it's a meal or not. Being invited to "fourses" is clear. Isn't it?

Help me out! Spread the word, and enjoy your afternoon tea with biscuits/scones/cake or whatever....

Friday, 1 March 2013

New takes on dry stone walls

Dry stone wall in England
A musician acquaintance has written some music and painted scenes to celebrate a very long (22 miles) dry stone wall in northern England. I never thought of walls and music together, but these are exceptionally poignant. "Wall to Wall" is the name of an exhibition of music and paintings by Martin Matthews. On his website, the paintings are accompanied by a couple of music tracks by himself playing northern-style tunes on the banjo that can be run while gazing at the picture. What a delight!

Dry stone walls are a feature of the English countryside. Once they are built, they tend to stay put forever for two reasons. Because dry stone walls are a product of clearing rocky ground that cannot be farmed, they tend to enclose pasture for sheep. Unlike fertile crop fields surrounded by hedgerows, stone walls are not destroyed to enlarge the fields; hundreds of miles of hedgerows have been lost to such "efficiency" enlargements.

Secondly, it takes a long process of natural invasion by plant life to deconstruct a well built wall; and then one is left with a pile of rocks in the landscape instead. It is sobering to think that most of the 250,000 miles of dry stone walls in Britain are at least 200 years old, and some date back to the Neolithic, 5500 years ago.

So now you've read this far thinking, "what is a dry stone wall?". A very complicated structure indeed that takes knowledge to build and to maintain. The Guardian ran an article on dry stone walling where an expert explains exactly how to build one. It is one of the traditional crafts of the countryside, along with roof thatching, hedge laying, blacksmithing, stonemasonry – what The Guardian calls "disappearing acts". The video accompanying the article has drawn a number of interesting comments. You can learn a lot from these resources and even find out how to attend courses and become a dry waller.

In closing, take a look at this new version of a dry stone wall. Now, if this isn't ingenious, I don't know what is!

New-style dry stone wall for a bike shed in Cambridge

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Buskers on the Tube

Ted Emmett, TfL busker
Hearing music floating up the escalators on London's tube always gives me a lift, even when going down, not up. The performers are usually very, very good and deserve a coin tossed their way. I stopped to listen and talk to one Ted Emmett who was playing some really nice stuff. Apparently there is stiff competition to hold one of the 39 pitches available in 25 underground stations. Transport for London vets each applicant and licences them to play, and TfL also send all their buskers a newsletter and can serve as a go-between to put them in touch with the public who would like to hire them for gigs. Seems like a win-win situation for everyone. I just wish I'd see more people contribute to the cause  – after all, it's nice to reward a good player for their efforts rather than have someone stand on a corner with a begging cup.

Chelsea Buns for Christmas!

I was devastated last year when I visited Cambridge and found Fitzbillies bakery closed for business. Then Tim Hayward and Alison Wright came to its rescue and Fitzbillies, that most Cambridge of institutions, are selling their wondrous Chelsea buns again, along with – extra bonus – slices of their incredible Sachertorte cake! (So you don't have to buy a whole cake.) Others are rapturing about the delicious menus in the new café-restaurant, but I am just glad for the take-aways.
   Yes, we fell in love with Fitzbillies Chelsea buns during our time in Cambridge but are somewhat glad we don't have access to them too often anymore. They are very special food, and so what did we eat this past Christmas day? Not turkey like every other household in Britain but Chelsea buns! What a treat.
   As for the Sachertorte, having loved the Fitzbillies variety, we were very excited one year to be in Vienna to visit the Sacher Hotel, which made the cake famous. With watering mouths, we ordered our Sachertorte – and, it didn't hold a candle to Fitzbillies' version!
   You can read all about the excitement of the new opening of Fitzbillies this past autumn and their various offerings on their website. And if you can't get to Cambridge to try these delicacies, both Chelsea buns and Sachertorte are available by mail order. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Japanese Deer Dance at the Thames Festival

Kanatsu Shishi Odori
at the Ashmolean Museum
8 September 2012
Last week, England was visited by a Japanese troupe of 14 deer dancer cum drummers. Invited to the Thames Festival, which took place on the weekend (Sept 8-9), they also danced at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and at the Embassy of Japan in London. The troupe is from Iwate Prefecture in northern Tohoku where they traditionally dance at festivals and blessing ceremonies; here they danced in memory of those lost to the tsunami last year. Though the dance is stately and serious, the audience was wowed by the tossing of horns and flattening of the white spires to the ground as they bent over.

The dance is called Shishi Odori. We actually heard a Japanese guy telling his British girlfriend at the Thames Festival parade that it was a Lion Dance from Fukushima. Wrong! It is a Deer Dance from Iwate, even though the word shishi in Japanese is written with the Chinese characters for 'lion'. The word shishi itself is ancient, meaning 'meat', and there are several kinds of meat mentioned in old documents:  ka-no-shishi (deer meat), and i-no-shishi (boar meat), with inoshishi becoming the normal word for 'boar'. The tossing of the heads resembles real deer behaviour, and the dance may symbolize ancient hunting practices revering the animals providing the food. Several other origin myths surround its distant beginnings.

Deer Dancer kneeling,
from the back
The dance costumes are very heavy, weighing about 40 pounds, a lot of the weight residing in the headgear. The long spires are bamboo that are slivered into spikes, then tied together with string into which folded papers are entwined. The papers are similar to those used in Shinto rituals to call down the god(s). Two of the fourteen dancers have spired with black bands at the top: these are the troupe leader and the single nominal doe in the group, this time actually played by a woman dancer. Traditionally the dancers have all been male, but women can now join the groups. See their dance in the Thames Festival night parade, at 0:55-1.14 minutes.

The headdress is fixed with steel antlers and has two long flaps that cascade down the back. These are painted with designs similar to those painted onto wide back panels of the divided skirt (hakama). Many such costumes, drums, and actual dancers of Tohoku performing arts were lost to the tsunami on 3.11; for this particular troupe, one drum was washed away but came floating back – taken as an auspicious even among tragedies. Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, it was quite an undertaking to bring a large dance troups and their accoutrements to London, but we hope to see them here again sometime.