Friday, 21 October 2016

The black knight of Ashton-under-Lyne

England’s towns and villages are renowned for preserving ancient customs and festivities that once had considerable significance but are now carried on just for a bit of fun. One of these is the
Black Knight Pageant at Ashton-under-Lyne, which is a medieval town that became part of the Manchester conurbation when the latter expanded during the Industrial Revolution.

The legend concerns the wicked Sir Ralph Assheton who, during the 15th century, would ride round the town in his black armour on a black horse to torment the local people.

It was, however, only during the mid 18th century that the death of Sir Ralph began to be commemorated, with an effigy of the black knight being paraded round the town and either hanged, burned or shot at.

The custom became forgotten during Victorian times but has been revived in more recent years. However, it is now a much more peaceful affair with an actor making the ride and suffering no ill-effects. It is an excuse for a celebration and the raising of funds for local charities.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Day trips from York

Visitors to York may think that they need not leave the confines of the city for at least a week before their interest wanes, and they would be right! However, if York is your base and you have your own transport there is plenty to be seen that is within an easy day’s drive there and back.

Castle Howard

Drive along the A64 to the northeast for about 18 miles (towards Malton) and follow the signs to one of Britain’s most magnificent country houses. Castle Howard has been home to the Howard family for more than 300 years, having been designed by Sir John Vanburgh (a playwright who had never designed anything before) and Nicholas Hawksmoor. The building took more than 100 years to complete, but much of what the visitor sees today is the result of restoration after a disastrous fire in 1940. The building is familiar as the setting of “Brideshead Revisited”, filmed in 1978 and again in 2007.

The vast house has many rooms that are open to the public, including the Great Hall with its dome, which was rebuilt after the 1940 fire to the original design. There are many treasures on display, including furniture by Sheraton and Chippendale and paintings by Gainsborough, Rubens and Van Dyck.

There are also 1000 acres of grounds to explore, the extensive views being bracketed by examples of 18th century extravagance in the form of temples, obelisks and statues. Water features abound, including fountains and large artificial lakes, on one of which boat trips can be taken to observe the wildlife.

The gardens include a walled rose garden with more than 2,000 varieties and a woodland garden that is renowned for its changing colours as the seasons rotate.

Castle Howard represents excellent value for its entry fee, with the needs of children also taken into account. A full family day out is therefore guaranteed.

North York Moors

Only about ten miles further on from Castle Howard is Pickering, which is the terminus of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. This was used as the route of the “Hogwarts Express” in the Harry Potter films. The line cuts through the North York Moors to Grosmont and Whitby, with trains being drawn by steam or diesel locomotives. It is possible to go all the way to Whitby and spend a few hours in this fascinating old port town before making the return journey in order to get back to York in reasonable time.

Another way to explore the Moors, during the summer months, is by “Moorsbus”, a network of routes through the Moors that, with careful planning, you can use to create a special day trip that leaves the driving to someone else. You can buy a ticket that lasts all day on all the Moorsbus routes (children travel free if with a fare-paying adult). You can park at several locations within easy reach of York and just set off. If you want to get off the bus and just walk across the magnificent landscape of the open moors you can do so and just hail a bus when you see one on the route back. There is one bus a day each way between York and Helmsley, an ancient market town on the edge of the Moors with medieval castle ruins to explore.

Rievaulx Abbey and district

This ruined Cistercian Abbey is close to Helmsley and therefore within easy day-trip distance of York. Although the site was despoiled during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the skeleton of the Abbey church, plus traces of the monastic buildings surrounding it, bear witness to the wealth that the Abbey must have possessed in its heyday. The beautiful setting of the Abbey in its wooded valley is also very atmospheric and tranquil.

Unconnected with the Abbey, but not far away, is the Rievaulx Terrace, which was constructed in the 18th century to provide a romantic view of the Abbey in the valley below. This provides a picnic spot for a break during a full-day trip to the area.

Rievaulx  is close to the Hambleton Hills, which offer splendid views across the Vale of York to the Yorkshire Dales in the distance. At Sutton Bank is a National Park Visitor Centre, and not far away is the massive Kilburn White Horse, the most northerly such feature in the country. You need to be at the bottom of the hill to appreciate it fully but at the top to get the best views of the surrounding countryside.

Also not far away is Byland Abbey, another Cistercian foundation that was always the “poor relative” of Rievaulx. The ruins are not as extensive as those at Rievaulx, but are impressive nevertheless, with the lower half of the frame of a huge rose window at the west end of the church being particularly noteworthy.

Should time permit, a visit can be made to Shandy Hall, Coxwold, which was the home of the eccentric English novelist Lawrence Sterne (1713-68), the author of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”. The house is open as a museum of memorabilia devoted to Sterne, although only on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. The 2-acre gardens are open as a separate attraction, every day except Saturdays.

Harrogate and Knaresborough

Knaresborough is 22 miles west of York, with Harrogate being four miles beyond. The former is an attractive old town that rises above the River Nidd as it flows through a steep gorge. Visitors will be interested in the 14th century castle, with its dungeon and underground tunnel, and “Mother Shipton’s Cave”, which is reputed to be where a 16th century prophetess predicted events including the wars of the 20th century. Perhaps even stranger is the “Petrifying Well”, where objects hung in the constant drip of mineral-rich water are turned to stone within a few months.

Harrogate owes its fame to the remarkable properties of the springs that rise in the area and which turned the town into a celebrated spa during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Royal Pump Room and Royal Baths can still be visited, although “taking the waters” is no longer fashionable.

Harrogate is renowned for its parks and gardens which complement the elegant Victorian architecture of the town’s buildings and monuments. Of particular note are the Valley Gardens, with the 600 feet long Sun Colonnade along one side, and The Stray, a 200-acre area of common land on the south side of the town centre. Several mineral wells rise in these and other open spaces in the town. The Harlow Carr gardens, on the western side of the town, belong to the Royal Horticultural Society and can be visited on payment of a fee.

The Yorkshire Coast

A day at the seaside is perfectly possible starting from York. Bridlington has a safe sandy beach and is an excellent, albeit declined, family resort. On the road to Bridlington from York you soon pass the site of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where King Harold defeated a Norwegian invasion before marching to defeat at Hastings in 1066.

Filey is somewhat more upmarket as a resort than Bridlington, with many Edwardian features including some splendid public gardens. It also boasts miles of sandy beach.

Scarborough is the largest Yorkshire resort, with everything to provide a family day out including two sandy beaches, amusements and rides, a cliff railway, boat trips and a sea life centre. Between the two beaches, on a headland, stand the extensive ruins of Scarborough Castle which dates from the 12th century.

An alternative to a day on the beach is offered by the cliff scenery at Flamborough Head, just north of Bridlington. The 400-foot chalk cliffs are best seen from the north side. You can visit the lighthouse on the Head itself, or go two miles up the coast to the nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs which is famous for its gannets and puffins. If time permits, you can take a boat trip from Bridlington to view the Flamborough and Bempton Cliffs from the sea.

The above suggestions are by no means an exhaustive list of the day trips you can make using York as your base. The towns of Ripon and Selby, with their respective Cathedral and Abbey, are well within day-trip distance, as are the ruins of Fountains Abbey, another vast Cistercian abbey that was dissolved in the 1530s. You could even venture into the southern part of the Yorkshire Dales, but the further you go the less time you will have to appreciate their beauty.

However long you spend in York, and however many day trips you make, you are bound to want to come back and see and do more!

© John Welford

Monday, 17 October 2016

Day trips from Yeovil, Somerset

The important thing about making day trips (assuming that one has access to four wheels, or two with an engine) is that the time on the road is kept as short as possible and a reasonably high proportion of the day is spent at the places one wants to go to. From that perspective, a visitor to England’s West Country could do a lot worse than make Yeovil their base.

Yeovil is in south Somerset and very close to that county’s border with Dorset. It is a “crossroads” town, where the east-west A30 crosses the north-south A37, although visitors travelling down from London are more likely to use the much faster A303, which passes within a few miles of the town. Yeovil also happens to be where two rail routes cross, those from London to Exeter and from Weymouth to Bristol. Day tripping is therefore made easy even if one does not have a car.

Yeovil is not without interest in its own right, but the visitor is likely to want to explore beyond the town’s boundaries before long. One day trip could be to potter through the country lanes that surround the town and connect it with a host of attractive villages with fascinating names, such as Ryme Intrinseca, Hardington Mandeville and Chilton Cantelo. One village that should not be missed is East Coker, to the south of the town, which is not only exceptionally pretty with its thatched hamstone cottages, but was also the inspiration for the second of T S Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. The poet’s ancestors came from the village and his ashes are buried in the village church.

The area is notable for several large historical country houses, some of which are open to the public. A day trip could take in one or more of these, along with a drive through the villages.

Montacute House, four miles to the west of Yeovil, is one of the finest Elizabethan mansions in England. It was built between 1598 and 1601 for Sir Edward Phelips in the English Renaissance style and is noted for having the longest “long gallery” in the country. The house is full of period furniture and textiles and there are fine formal gardens and parkland walks to enjoy.

Another house from this period is Barrington Court, only eight miles from Montacute. The gardens and outbuildings are particularly impressive, including a stone-walled kitchen garden and the “white garden” in which all the plants have white flowers.

Another house to visit in the area is Lytes Cary Manor, former home of the medieval herbalist Henry Lyte. There are also the gardens of Tintinhull House to the northwest of Yeovil.

An attraction of a very different kind is the Fleet Air Arm Museum, seven miles north of Yeovil. This is the world’s second largest museum devoted to naval flying and includes more than ninety aircraft and 30,000 other artefacts, plus two million documentary items. Not every item has a direct naval link, with one of the aircraft being the first British-built Concorde airliner.

Five miles east of Yeovil, over the border in Dorset, is the historic town of Sherborne that can trace its history back to Anglo-Saxon times. Sherborne Abbey has traces of Saxon and Norman architecture but most of what can be seen today dates from the 13th to 15th centuries. This beautiful building, in golden-yellow hamstone, has many interesting features both inside and out, including the tombs of two Saxon kings.

Sherborne has two castles. The “old castle” is a hilltop ruin of a 12th century building that was severely damaged during the English Civil War. The “new castle” is a fortified manor house built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594, although he did not have much chance to enjoy it as he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for most of his life after 1603. The house can be visited on Saturdays but the extensive grounds are open for most of the year.

There are several possible day trips that call for a bit more time on the road but are well worth the journey. One of these is to Stourhead, about 25 miles from Yeovil. Although Stourhead House is well worth a visit, it is the world-famous landscaped grounds that most people come to see. Henry Hoare (1705-85) inherited the estate from his father and proceeded to create a landscape based on the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Poussin.  A large lake was created, around which the land was carefully planted with exotic trees and shrubs and various temples and grottoes were built to afford “classical” views as one walked around the lake. With the trees at full maturity, today’s visitors can see the grounds as their designer never could.

Almost due north of Yeovil is Glastonbury, reached after a journey of about 20 miles. The best approach is via Somerton and across part of the “Somerset levels”, a mysterious yet beautiful area of countryside that was reclaimed by draining the marshes in medieval times. The sight of Glastonbury Tor with its solitary tower can be seen from many miles away, and the view from the top, if you have the time, is well worth the effort.

The town of Glastonbury has a “new age” feel to it, as if the 1960s hippies never left (in point of fact, some of them never did!). It is associated with ancient myths and legends, including those of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have come to Britain and founded a chapel at Glastonbury. The “Glastonbury thorn” that grows on Wearyall Hill (but which was vandalised in 2010) was supposed to be a direct descendant of the thorn that grew when Joseph thrust his staff into the ground. Glastonbury Abbey was built in medieval times and its ruins, which purportedly contain the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, are a peaceful place to visit.

Further on still (six miles beyond Glastonbury) is Wells, which is England’s smallest cathedral city. The cathedral, however, is magnificent and well worth the journey. The astronomical clock in the north transept dates from 1392 and is one of the oldest working clocks in the world. A walk round the moat of the old Bishop’s Palace might be rewarded by seeing the swans ring the bell by the bridge for food.

As mentioned earlier, what counts as a day trip depends on how much driving you are prepared to do as opposed to sightseeing. Yeovil might therefore be regarded as a base from which to visit attractions such as Roman and Regency Bath, Dorchester and Maiden Castle, Cheddar with its caves, Longleat Safari Park, Stonehenge and Salisbury. This is certainly a part of the world that has so much to offer the visitor that he or she will be forced to make some very difficult choices.

John Welford

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Best beaches in Dorset and Devon

The coastline from Bournemouth in east Dorset to Plymouth in west Devon is well over 150 miles in length, to which must be added the north Devon coast of at least another 70 miles. There are so many beaches along both these stretches that it would be impossible to describe more than a few in a short article, and what constitutes “best” must depend on one’s particular circumstances.

However, from the point of view of a family taking a seaside holiday, there are certainly some that must be mentioned in advance of others.

Bournemouth to Sandbanks

The stretch of sandy beach runs for seven miles, part of which is in Bournemouth and the rest in Poole (Branksome Chine to Sandbanks). Many people take the view that this is the best beach in the whole country, let alone the Dorset/Devon coast. The current writer is, of course, entirely unprejudiced, despite having grown up only a couple of miles away!

The first thing to state is that this is one of the safest beaches you can find. It is regularly patrolled by lifeguards, and a flag system shows when bathing is safe and when it is not. The beach is also very clean, and it regularly wins awards for the quality of both sand and seawater.

The views from the beach are magnificent, with the chalk cliffs of Old Harry Rocks to the west and the Isle of Wight to the east being visible on a clear day. You can also watch the sailing boats in Poole Bay and the ferries making their way into Poole Harbour.

The more popular stretches of beach get very crowded in summer, these being around Bournemouth Pier and at Sandbanks itself. However, a walk along the Promenade will soon bring you to a less populated area where you can play beach games without interfering with other people.

All the facilities are here, from watersports to beach hut and deckchair hire. There are “dog friendly” stretches of beach and plenty of opportunities to buy ice creams and other food items. Bournemouth and Poole rely on tourism as a major source of local employment, and the beaches are a vital element of this.

Shell Bay and Studland

Take the chain ferry from Sandbanks across the narrow mouth of Poole Harbour and you will find a very different kind of beach that is far less commercial but just as safe and family friendly. The beach closer to the ferry faces north-east and is known as Shell Bay, but round the corner is south-east facing Studland Beach that stretches for two miles to the village of Studland.

The beach is backed by sand dunes and heathland that form a nature reserve in the care of the National Trust. There are therefore fewer tourist facilities here, although what is there is adequate for most needs. If the children tire of building sandcastles they might enjoy walking a nature trail in the company of an official guide. The nature reserve is noted for being home to all six native British reptiles.

If you decide to walk the whole length of the beach you may well come across people who are “au naturel”, given that part of this area is designated and maintained as a nudist beach, with National Trust approval.


Weymouth can claim to be Britain’s first seaside resort, as it was here that King George III came to bathe in the sea and encouraged a habit that people have followed ever since. The beach is part of the town, and not all that large, so it can get quite crowded in high season. It is however a very safe and clean beach.

One particular feature that makes Weymouth beach special is the quality of the sand that makes it perfect for sand sculpturing. Amazing sculptures by local artists have been a feature here since the 1920s.

Weymouth Bay is also perfect for sailing, hence its use for the Olympic Sailing Regatta in 2012.

Lyme Regis

Although there is an excellent sandy beach at Lyme Regis itself (Lyme is near Dorset’s border with Devon), the beaches to the east and west of the town are renowned for another activity that appeals to all ages, namely fossil hunting. The cliffs comprise rocks of Jurassic age that formed as a sea-bed during the age of the dinosaurs. Due to their instability, every storm washes more material on to the beaches and reveals fossil ammonites, belemnites and more, that can be found very easily by any beachcomber.

Care should be taken when fossil hunting, and cliff climbing is not advisable, so taking a guided walk in the company of a professional geologist is a good idea.

Children will also be keen to explore the rock pools that are formed when the tide goes out.

The English Riviera

This is the title long held by the 22-mile coastline of Devon’s Tor Bay, next to which are the towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. There are 20 individual beaches on this coast, ranging from sheltered rocky coves to wide, sandy expanses. The geographical setting of this area makes it the mildest place in Britain, with palm trees growing on the sea front.

Among the beaches, those around Paignton offer the best facilities for families, with safe conditions for swimmers and paddlers, excellent sand for castle builders, and a pier and town for entertainment and food.

Other beaches are ideal for exploring rock pools at low tide.

Croyde Bay

This is a relatively small beach on Devon’s north coast, but mention of it must be made as it is the best surfing beach in the area. This is because it faces due west and thus receives the full force of rollers coming in from the Atlantic, plus the effect of local geology that throws up waves to delight experienced surfers. Surf schools operate here for those who wish to learn, while others might prefer to watch!


The writer still bears the scar from a childhood accident suffered here, but he still reckons that it counts as a great beach! North of Baggy Point, which separates it from Croyde Bay, and south of Morte Point, Woolacombe beach stretches for nearly three miles of wide, flat sand, backed by sand dunes. If swimming is what you want to do, wait for the tide to come in or you’ll have a long walk!

As with many British beaches, if you want to get away from the crowds you need to walk a bit, but finding a place all to yourself should not be difficult on such a large beach. It is safe for swimming, being patrolled by lifeguards, and very clean. At the north end of the beach, Woolacombe village offers the usual facilities.

You might want to warn your children that jumping off sand dunes without due care and attention could lead to them being scarred for life, but you don’t really want all the gory details, do you?

As mentioned earlier, a short summary of the “best” beaches along so many miles of coastline must leave out many that others would want to include, and their omission here must not be taken as any sort of judgment. The aim has been to point out the excellence and variety that these two coastlines offer the visitor in terms of beaches.

© John Welford

Saturday, 15 October 2016

London's best art galleries

The art lover is spoiled for choice when visiting London. There is so much wonderful art here that you could stay for a month (at least!) and not see it all. You also need to be aware that it is housed in a large number of art galleries throughout the city, and there are treasures to be found in many different places.

What counts as “best” depends on what you are looking for. The best gallery for modern British art is not going to be best for Italian “old masters”, for example. And biggest does not necessarily mean best.

So here is a quick guide to the familiar and non-so-familiar in terms of London art galleries. Some galleries have large permanent collections, whilst others display temporary exhibitions, and may be closed at times between exhibitions. Some galleries have both a permanent display and space for special exhibitions. Even the permanent displays will change from month to month as galleries rotate their stock to fill gaps when paintings are on loan, or to display items that would otherwise be kept in storage and thus out of public view. There are also a number of private galleries in which the art on display is offered for sale.

Firstly, you cannot ignore the “big four”:

The National Gallery

This is on the north side of Trafalgar Square, and is one of the World’s greatest collections of British and European art. There are usually at least two exhibitions on the go at any one time, although there is usually a charge for admission. Otherwise, admission is free.

The National Portrait Gallery

This is in St Martin’s Place, just round the corner from the National Gallery. There are more than 10,000 portraits in the main collection, but the NPG has an archive of more than 320,000. The vast majority of subjects are British people who have achieved fame or notoriety in various fields, so a walk through the NPG is a history lesson as well as an artistic experience.  Admission is free, except for special exhibitions.

Tate Britain

On Millbank, a short distance up-river from the Houses of Parliament. The home of British art since 1500, there are rooms devoted to, for example, William Blake, JMW Turner, John Constable, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Admission is free, except for special exhibitions.

Tate Modern

London’s newest “great gallery”, it is housed in the former Bankside power station on the south bank of the Thames opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. You can take a boat trip from Tate Britain, passing the London Eye on the way. The displays are of international modern and contemporary art, some of it highly controversial and challenging. There are rooms devoted to themes, such as pop art or “material gestures”, and others to individual artists, including Mark Rothko and Joseph Beuys. Admission is free, except for special exhibitions.

But don’t stop there! Here are some suggestions for galleries that are also “the best”, but might not be top of your agenda:

Victoria and Albert Museum

A museum? Not an art gallery? It’s both. If you took the museum galleries away from the V&A and left the art galleries behind, you would still have a major collection in its own right. The V&A is in South Kensington, close to the Natural History/Science Museum, and not far from Harrods. The collection includes 2,000 British and European paintings, plus many more drawings, pastels and a very unusual set of portrait miniatures. Some of the best-known works by Turner, Constable and Gainsborough will be found here, and not at the National or Tate Britain. Admission is free. Some exhibitions are free, and there is a charge for others.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

It is amazing how many people have never heard of this gallery, although it has been here since 1811 and predates the National Gallery. It started life as a collection looking for a home, as it was originally intended to be the basis of a Polish National Gallery. However, Poland’s loss was London’s gain, because it is a substantial collection of European old master paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Poussin, etc. It is a little off the beaten track, in South London, but well worth the journey. This is not a free gallery, but the admission price is reasonable. If there is a special exhibition (in the gallery that runs parallel to the main gallery) there will be an extra charge to see it.

Courtauld Gallery

This is housed in Somerset House, on the Strand overlooking the Thames. The collection includes works from as far back as the Renaissance, but its main claim to fame is its outstanding collection of impressionist and 20th century art. Here you will find world-famous impressionist paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Gauguin, Degas, Renoir and others, and 20th century artists include Modigliani and Vanessa Bell. There is a small admission charge but this includes any temporary exhibitions.

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

British monarchs since the 17th century have acquired or commissioned works of art of the very highest quality, so that the royal art collection is one of finest in private hands in the World, although the present Queen is mindful that she holds these in public trust and not as her personal property. This recently expanded gallery makes some of this collection accessible to the public in the form of a series of special exhibitions. As the exhibits move around the royal residences, and are often on loan to other galleries, you can never be sure what you will find at the “Buck House” gallery, but you could see works by Holbein, Leonardo, Canaletto, Rembrandt, and many other great artists. The gallery also displays sculpture, furniture, and other items from the royal collection. There is an admission charge, but it is not extortionate.

Wallace Collection

This is another superb gallery that deserves to be better known. It is in Hertford House, Manchester Square, which is not far from Selfridges on Oxford Street. The collection includes furniture, arms and armour, and objets d’art, as well as paintings, and its main strengths are in French 17th and 18th century works. What makes the gallery particularly unusual is that Hertford House was the town residence of the Marquesses of Hertford, from whom the collection was bequeathed to the nation in 1897. You are therefore seeing the art in its original setting. One of the best-known paintings is “The Laughing Cavalier” by Franz Hals. Admission is free.

And that’s still not all. Other fine collections and exhibition venues include the Guildhall Art Gallery, the Hayward Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Saatchi Gallery. If it’s the visual arts you want, London’s the place to be!

© John Welford

Friday, 14 October 2016

Bangor Pier, North Wales

This is an introduction to a restored relic of a bygone age, namely the pier at Bangor, North Wales. I stayed in a house overlooking the pier and relived memories of my time as a student at the nearby University.

The Victorians' love of piers

The Victorians had many admirable qualities, among which were a desire to stay healthy by taking gentle exercise, and excellent engineering skills. When the two came together the result was the seaside pleasure pier. Very few seaside resorts around the British coast did not have at least one pier by the end of the Victorian era, and the top resorts had several magnificent structures striding out to sea, such as Brighton with three!

Bangor pier

Bangor, in north-west Wales, had to wait a long time for its pier, as it was not opened until 1896 when Queen Victoria was nearing the end of her life and reign.

Like most constructions of its kind, it had two main functions: as a place to promenade and take the sea air, and as a landing stage for pleasure steamers.

However, at low tide you can see that this pier had a third reason for its existence, as it is built on a foundation of hidden rocks that stretch for about two-thirds of its length. With the pier in place, no vessels would be tempted to take a short cut and risk grounding on the rocks.

From the picture above, you might query whether this is a sea pier at all, or merely an incomplete bridge. Bangor is at the eastern end of the Menai Straits, and the land you can see is the island of Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh). The pier only goes half way across, ending at the deep water channel that has been scoured out by the strong tides that sweep through the Straits.

Construction and design

The pier was constructed mainly from steel, supported on spindly-looking cast iron columns and with a broad wooden decking. A landing stage was built at the sea end, together with a pavilion that today serves as a small cafe. At intervals along the 1550 foot length are small shelters, in pairs, with conical roofs. Today these are used as kiosk shops, mostly run by local charities. There are also ornamental lamps and seating along the sides of the pier. The two towers at the pier entrance have onion-domed roofs that betray the Victorian love of everything oriental.

The pier made Bangor fully accessible to coastal shipping, mainly for pleasure but also serving commercial purposes. Steamers ran from here along the North Wales coast, and also across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man and Blackpool.

Decline and restoration

In 1914, a steamer failed to moor properly and collided with the pier, causing considerable damage and making it necessary to bridge the gap with a walkway that, because of the First World War, stayed in place for far longer than was intended. It was not until 1921 that the pier was finally repaired.

I was a student at Bangor University in the early 1970s but was never able to visit the pier at the time because it was in very poor repair and closed to the public. There was even talk of demolishing it altogether. However, a restoration project was started when it was declared to be one of the three finest surviving piers in the country (i.e. the UK, not just Wales). Raising the finances was a huge task, and it was not until 1982 that the work started. This took six years to complete, but when it was reopened in 1988 it was in a condition that its Victorian builders would have been proud of.

An uncertain future

Unfortunately, the story of restoration does not end there, because the pier is still in need of work to maintain it and keep it in a safe condition. There has been some concern that not enough money has been set aside by the local council to keep the pier in good condition, and there is currently talk of a million pound shortfall in the maintenance budget.

At a time when local authorities across the country are desperately seeking ways to save money, maintaining a Victorian relic such as a pier might not come very high on the list of priorities. It would, however, be a shame if Bangor pier once again had to be closed due to safety concerns.

Visiting the pier

As thing stand, the pier is open throughout the year. There is a small entrance fee, but for much of the year you are asked to place your money in an "honesty box" at the gate. The views from the pier are magnificent, along the coast towards the Great Orme Head, down the Menai Straits, or inland.

The pier is an excellent vantage point for fishing, and for bird-watching. At low tide the nearby mudflats are exposed and thousands of wading birds come to feed, including oystercatchers, redshanks and little egrets.

If you are passing through this area, why not stop off for an hour or so to take a break and wander along the pier? You won't regret it! There's even a pub that serves excellent food very close to the pier entrance!

© John Welford

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Abergavenny, South Wales

Abergavenny is a town in south-east Wales, 15 miles west of Monmouth, with a population of around 14,000 people. It lies in the valley of the River Usk at the point where it is joined by the smaller River Gavenny, hence the town’s name. It has a very long history, elements of which can be still be seen.

Although there was a fort here in Roman times, the earliest remains to be seen are from the 11th century, belonging to a castle and a Benedictine priory. Of the latter, only the tithe barn and prior’s house remain of the original buildings, but the priory chapel was extended to become the parish church of St Mary, in which there is very little of the original fabric to be seen.

The tithe barn has been restored in recent years and is open to the public as a free museum of the history of the Priory. The display includes the splendid “Abergavenny Tapestry” that was a millennium project that took six years to complete. This tells the 1000-year story of the town.

The priory church, which is sometimes called the “Westminster Abbey of Wales”, was mainly built in the decorated and perpendicular styles of medieval architecture and contains many memorials that date from as early as the 13th century. The choir stalls include some 14th century work.

The castle, which predates the Priory, is in ruins, but it is clear from what remains that it must have been a substantial structure in its heyday. It is testament to the fact that Abergavenny lies close to the England/Wales border and was built by the Normans to keep the Welsh at bay.

The castle was the scene of a massacre in 1175 when the castle’s owner, William de Braose, invited the local Welsh chieftains to Christmas dinner. However, this was a ruse to gain his revenge for the murder of his uncle, and all his guests were slaughtered as they sat at his table.

The castle suffered most of its destruction in 1645, when it was “slighted” (i.e. walls blown up so that the roof collapsed) on the orders of King Charles I to prevent the Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell from using it.

Another landmark building in Abergavenny is the Town Hall, with its tall tower. This building houses the Borough Theatre and the town market.

There are many interesting narrow streets to explore, but the visitor’s eye will always be taken by the hills that surround the town and their invitation to proceed deeper into Wales, including the Brecon Beacons National Park that is only a few miles away.

© John Welford