Ghillie Heather Mitchell’s work on Scottish estates relies on the strong bond she has with her sturdy, sure-footed ponies
Clad in tweeds, a woman strides purposefully over the hills and rivers of the Scottish countryside. At her side is a small, stocky Highland pony. The crisp air dances over the peaks and whistles around their ears as the pair move nimbly across the rugged terrain. On the back of the pony is a gleaming, bulky saddle, bound on with thick criss-crossed straps.
The woman is Heather Mitchell. She is a ghillie, a person who works as an attendant on a deer-stalking estate in Scotland. Unlike other ghillies however, she only occasionally plays a part in stalking the deer. Instead, her role is to attend to her pony, which is used to carry the deer from the hill. These sturdy animals, known as stalking ponies, or garrons, are a heavy type of Highland pony. They are strong enough to carry stags that weigh up to 18st (114.3kg) over rough ground on their special saddles.
Over the last 20 years, Heather has had six stalking ponies. Today, her companion on the hills is 13-year-old Mayfly. She shares a deep affection and trust with all her ponies. “The secret to being a good pony ghillie is to understand the horses,” she explains. “Young lads train as a ghillie, then think ‘I’ll just add a horse in’. But you have to know about horses. The skill is in being able to know what the pony is thinking, and why it might be frightened. You need to be able to pre-empt anything that could spook them.”
Learning the ways of the hills
Mayfly has been with Heather for four years. She was only introduced to stalking work last year, but is coming on quickly. Her background was in dressage, as far from the hills as possible in the horse world. But dressage is the art of training a horse and rider so they work in harmony. It has made this big boned horse as light as a feather on her feet and willing to learn. Heather hopes this will stand her in good stead in her new role. “I only have
to show Mayfly something once for her to get the gist of it,”
she says. “She’s very intelligent.”
Nimble and sturdy, the Highland pony is native to Scotland and the islands. The island ponies are slightly smaller in stature to their mainland counterparts. Both were bred to not only carry deer, but also to pull provisions and wood. They often worked across treacherous terrain in dire weather conditions where only the most substantial horses would survive. On today’s shooting estates, they transport equipment onto the hills, and carry birds home in wicker panniers as well as stags.
Mayfly is an exception to the rule that training usually starts at an early age. Often a foal will follow its mother out on to the hill when she is at work. This way it becomes used to the smells involved in the work in her reassuring presence. It also learns from her how to read the land for a safe and sure footing.
“The foal follows its mother out on the bogs and learns how to test the ground and where to tread,” says Heather.
“I used to have a grey mare who would go up to the bogs
and sniff them to tell if they were safe or not.”
The horse is a natural flight animal, so has to learn to suppress its urge to run from the scent of blood. It is introduced to the experience of carrying deer very gently.
The foal is gradually acclimatised to the scent so it is not frightened by it. “We take a fresh deer skin, and place their feed on it. In this way the deer’s smell becomes familiar.”
It is only when the bones have stopped growing, at approximately five years old, that the ponies are introduced to the deer saddle. Both heavy and cumbersome, this special saddle weighs approximately 2st (12.7kg). Added to this will be the heavy deer. The weight the ponies carry is gradually built up over subsequent training sessions, either using weighted sacks or part of a tractor tyre. As the pony progresses, Heather may recruit a friend to lie over the saddle. “I’ll get them to stick their arms and legs out so they move as the pony moves, mimicking the dead weight and movements the stag’s body would make,” she says.
After approximately three days’ training, the pony is confident and strong enough to carry a load over tricky terrain. As it learns, trust builds up between ghillie and pony. It is essential there is complete commitment between the handler and pony when the first stag carcass is loaded on.
If the pony panics and bolts, it could be injured by the antlers, or run into danger. The glens have many ravines and bogs that would prove treacherous to a bolting pony.
Heather first came across Highland ponies when she was 23. At the time she was working with very different horses at
a racing yard in north Yorkshire. When the racing season finished, she took a summer job at a trekking centre on Rhidorroch House estate near Ullapool in Ross-shire.
“I found myself with 17 of these short, fat, hairy beasts, which were totally different to the Thoroughbreds I was used to,” she says. “They fascinated me, with their slow plod and massive feet, their short, sturdy legs and long tails. Their sure-footedness and sturdiness was the opposite of racehorses. Nature’s four-wheel drives, they can go anywhere, including walking safely across a bog. When you come to a steep bit of ground, it’s as if they change gear and put the power on.”
While at Rhidorroch, Heather was offered the chance to go out as a ghillie with ponies working on the estate. After just one day, she knew this was what she wanted to do. Then and there she bought a Highland stallion, Oscar.
Moving to a job at Lochinvar estate, she was able to learn from a keeper there. “I taught myself along the way and, as I was working with him, I was learning all I could,” she says. “Working as a pony ghillie isn’t something that’s easy to train for. You need to find a gamekeeper who wants to work ponies on the estate. Then you have to have the confidence to learn on the job. The knowledge is all passed down. I’ve learnt from a few old boys I met when working on other estates. They will tell you they know a better way to do something and will show you how. It’s a handing down of their knowledge. I’ve taken what they’ve shared and added other ideas myself.”
The majority of ghillies and gamekeepers are men, stronger than her. “I have to think a bit differently,” she says. “On the hill I can be up to 10 miles from anywhere, with a stag and a pony. I have to think tactically. Whereas the male pony ghillies can simply lift a stag over the back of their horse, I’ll drag the carcass on top of a nearby rock.
I then take the pony alongside it and slide the stag on.”
Stalking work is seasonal from July to February. Stags are taken between 1 July and 20 October, and hinds taken from 21 October to mid February. “All the deer that are shot on the Highland estates are taken as part of a cull programme,” explains Heather. “The stags are selected according to their age. A judgment is made as to whether the older ones are fit enough to make it through the winter. The weak are picked
off to ensure there are more resources for the younger healthy bucks. Also, stags with deformed antlers, which could cause damage to the other deer, are taken.”
When not working over winter, the ponies are in the field. “Then, when the grass comes through in spring, I need to take them into stables or they get fat,” she says. “At this stage, I change their diet to hay and a salt lick alongside unmolassed sugar beet. Each pony has a bespoke feed to treat any ailments or weaknesses it has. For this, I add in things like seaweed, devil’s claw, brewer’s yeast and turmeric. I’m always on the look-out for signs of grass sickness in the ponies, which occurs when bacteria is picked up from the soil, as that can be deadly.
“From April, I start showing the ponies at the country shows and taking them out for demonstrations. I tack one of the ponies up and show how they work with a dummy stag. It is important to me to teach people what we do and keep this tradition alive.”
Going it alone
Heather worked for estates for several stalking seasons, living on site for months at a time. She worked with both her own ponies and those of her employers. Then she decided to become a freelance pony ghillie. Today, different estates employ her each year, in the Highlands, and out on the islands. When working, the ponies are given a field to graze in while she stays in a bothy within the estate grounds.
She is also continuing the tradition of passing on the lore of the job. For the last two years she has returned to the Rhidorroch estate to teach Iona Scobie the skills of a pony ghillie. Iona has taken on the running of the estate from her mother.
“Twenty years ago, the tradition of using Highland ponies on the hill for carrying deer was being phased out,” says Heather. “Instead, estates were using motorised vehicles. But hunters love the authenticity of using ponies, and often ask for them. That is good news for us pony ghillies, and helps keep traditions alive.”
After two decades, she still gets immense satisfaction from working as a ghillie, and cannot imagine doing anything else.
“Being out on the hill is indescribable,” she says. “It’s beyond obsession. I was hooked from the very first time I went up there. As a ghillie working with ponies, you’re alone, but never lonely.
I don’t take my mobile phone out with me. Instead, I carry a radio with me, and the stalker will contact me when the shooting party is ready for me to come and collect the stag.
“I have great memories of lying up there on the hill with two horses tied to my foot, watching a pair of golden eagles swooping overhead, so still and silent. I’ve never felt that feeling of peace and serenity doing anything else.”
Workhorse of the mountains
The Highland pony is one of the three native breeds which are found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
It is unknown how this ancient breed arrived in Scotland, but there are records of them here by the 8th century BC. One theory is that wild horses arrived after the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. A second is that they arrived with prehistoric settlers.
The Highland has distinctive markings, such as eel or dorsal stripes along the spine, zebra marks on the legs, dark points (extremities such as the tips of the ars and tail) and shoulder stripes. These are primitive coat markings similar to those on ancient equine breeds.
Over centuries, this sturdy little pony has adapted to the changeable and often harsh Scottish environment. Its winter coat is made up of a layer of tough badger-like guard hair growing over a soft, dense undercoat. This allows it to survive on the hill, whatever the weather. It has a long, thick tail and mane, long tufted fetlocks and wispy whiskers under its chin. All help ensure torrential Scottish rains run off its body.
A versatile pony
Their bodies are well balanced and compact, with a deep chest, giving plenty of room for heart and lungs. The ponies’ powerful, well-developed quarters are ideal for the physical demands of work on the hills. They thrive outside, regardless of the weather, and can remain in good condition on the poor grazing afforded by the hills and moors.
Standing 13-14.2 hands high (a hand equals 4in/10cm), the Highland pony was originally a farmer’s workhorse on crofts. They were used for transport and carrying goods before roads were built approximately 200 years ago. After that they pulled carts.
Highland ponies are extremely versatile. They can jump obstacles up to 4ft (1.2m) high, are sure-footed and have indefatigable endurance. On top of this, they can carry weights in excess of 18st (114.3kg) and tackle the roughest, steepest, and trickiest terrain.
Their hardiness is accompanied by a kind and gentle nature, a steady temperament and intelligence. A Highland pony usually only needs to be shown something once to be able to then do it.
Special deer saddles are used to safely strap the deer to the pony’s back. These distribute the weight evenly so there is never too much pressure in one area. Made from thick buffed leather, they are stuffed with horsehair on top of straw, for comfort.
The straw absorbs moisture, keeping the pony’s skin dry. The padding is covered with a thick woollen cloth.
Many of the saddles are more than 100 years old and are now rare. “You need to ask around to find one, scour the papers and leap on one when you get the chance,” says Heather. “Some estates hold on to them, even though they’re not being used, so it can be near impossible to track one down.”
Because it is so hard to source replacement saddles, they are cared for meticulously and repaired as required.
Unlike a riding saddle, which has one girth, deer saddles have two or three girths, which are crossed over. “This keeps them securely on under the heavy weight of the deer,” explains Heather.
“Different estates designed their own saddles in different shapes and sizes.
These reflect the size of their deer, which varies depending on area.” She has a Glen Strathfarrar, which is designed is for bigger deer, while her Glen Quoich is for slightly smaller ones. Both are saddles that were made for carrying deer, but can be ridden in. They have two or three girths, a breastplate, breeching strap, which goes round the back of the pony under its tail, and a surcingle, which runs under the horse’s belly. All help to hold the saddle in position. On top of these, there are several straps designed to secure the stag in position. A third type of saddle is known as a combination. This is one made for riding, but has extra straps for fastening the stag on with.
Words: Abigail Alldis and Katy Islip Photography: Mark Mainz
With its distinctive blue veins, Stilton has a long heritage as a cheese of quality, although its origins remain unknown
A large, drum-shaped cheese sits proudly on a table. With its crumble-cream texture, soft, butter-yellow crust and distinctive blue veins, this is Stilton.
Today, Stilton enjoys Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. This dictates that it can only be produced in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, to a legally-binding recipe. Each batch must pass strict quality controls. If one fails, it can only be sold as unnamed ‘blue cheese’. Just six dairies are licensed to create this sumptuous, tangy cheese, while a seventh makes only white Stilton. None of them are in, or even near, the village of Stilton in Cambridgeshire from which its name comes.
For many years, it was claimed that Stilton cheese did not originate in the eponymous village. Recent research, however, has fetched up a recipe dated 1722. This implies that a cheese called Stilton was made in the village in the early 18th century. As a white, pressed, cream cheese, it bore little resemblance to the product known today.
No one knows for certain, but it is believed the distinctive blue veining may have happened by accident. As it aged, the cheeses produced natural cracks into which mould spores would develop. Far from being repulsed, early connoisseurs were delighted by this. The cheese’s flora and fauna are at their most active in and around the rind, ensuring flavour at its most complex. Daniel Defoe, writing in 1724, said he had “pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
It is unknown what made the cheese mites so tasty to 18th century travellers. While Stilton today is made to methods that remain traditional, modern hygiene standards ensure the rind remains maggot-free.
Stilton cheese’s fame spread. This may have been because it was made with whole milk and extra cream, unlike many cheaper cheeses where part-skimmed milk was used. Geography also played a large role. Sitting on the Great North Road, Stilton was only 70 miles from London. This made it a convenient stopping point for coaches travelling north to York or further. At its height, Stilton was heaving with humanity and horses. A minimum of 300 horses were held at The Bell Inn, with 300 more at The Angel. These would be changed with the tired horses of coaches travelling through. There were a further 14 hostelries in the village, all with accommodation.
Visitors would be aware of Stilton’s large cheese market, held every Wednesday. In 1743, Cooper Thornhill, landlord of The Bell, had an idea. He began working with Frances Pawlett, a cheesemaker from Wymondham, Leicestershire, to make something truly special on a more commercial scale. It is claimed Pawlett came up with a novel way to avoid having to press the whey from her cheeses. She moulded them in ceramic pipes, fired with holes, from which the fluid could drain. It also gave the product the classic drum-shape it retains till this day. Pawlett set out high standards for her ‘Stilton’ cheese, giving it an early reputation for quality.
At first, Cooper Thornhill served it to guests, then sold it to passing travellers. Finally, as news of its superior quality spread, he began supplying Stilton to fashionable cheesemongers in London.
Traditionally, the cheese was made in the summer months, when the local pasture and, therefore, milk was at its richest. The rounds didn’t mature until December, but this made them perfect for Christmas. Stilton’s rich creaminess is still associated with the season’s feast.
The arrival of steam railways killed the coaching trade and Stilton’s hotel business. The cheese industry, though, flourished thanks to improved distribution. However, all six of today’s Stilton dairies remain within a few miles of each other in the crook of three counties.
In the 1790s, the cheese sold at half a crown a pound, twice a day’s wages for an average farm worker. Top quality ingredients and an intense hands-on
process mean it continues to be the luxury product it
has always been.
Making Stilton Cheese
Approximately 16 gallons (72 litres) of milk are needed to make a prime 16lb 8oz (7.5kg) whole cheese. Everything, from the breed of the cow to its health and what it eats, will affect both flavour and texture. To meet the requirements of the Protected Designation of Origin, cattle must be grazed within a certain area.
When Leicestershire cheesemaker Frances Pawlett created Stilton in the 18th century, her milk would have been raw, direct from the cow. Modern Stilton uses pasteurised milk. This is cooled in giant vats, before it is introduced to a live starter culture of friendly bacteria, along with penicillium roqueforti. These are the mould spores that will eventually develop the blue veins. Traditionally, Stilton’s clotting agent has been animal rennet, but in recent years a vegetarian alternative has also been made.
The cheesemaker’s skill
A fine Stilton takes between 10 and 12 weeks from the moment the milk is pasteurised. Most processes are still done by hand. These include mixing the milk in the vats and cutting the curds to ladling, milling or grinding the curds into soft crumbs, and salting. Giant hoops are filled by hand to create the characteristic, cylindrical Stilton shape. There are no machines that can accurately check curds for setting point, or the developing cheeses for quality. This means the skills of individual cheesemakers are tested on
a daily basis.
The cheeses are stored in the ‘hastening’ room in hoops very similar to the moulds Frances Pawlett developed more than 200 years ago. Over four to six days the whey slowly drains away, ensuring the cheeses will not collapse when they are de-hooped. The next process is
to smooth them. The master cheesemaker strokes each cheese round to create a smooth crust. This prevents oxygen activating the blue spores too early.
The rounds are stored in a maturing room to develop the creamy, leathery crust essential for all Stilton cheeses. Variables such as temperature and humidity decide exactly how long each batch will take.
For five weeks they are turned regularly to allow the air to reach each round evenly. Then they are individually pierced with steel needles to introduce air. This activates the mould spores for the blue veins. The blue does not develop in the pierced holes, but in tiny cracks and fissures within the cheese’s loose, crumbly body. The cheese rounds see out their maturation in the blueing store, for between four and six weeks. Here again, they are regularly turned and graded with a long coring tool, or iron, to ensure quality.
Some strange misconceptions have grown up around how Stilton should be served. It is best cut simply, in wedge-shaped slices. The general advice is to ‘cut high, cut low, cut level’. This involves cutting a small wedge in the top, about ½in (1cm) deep. Cutting is continued around it like a shallow cake, slicing it off horizontally to ensure the least amount of air reaches the main body. Scooping exposes more surface area to the air. This dries out the cheese, killing both flavour and texture. It is not recommended if the cheese is not to be eaten at one sitting. Nosing the cheese, that is removing the soft, creamy inner ‘nose’ leaving fellow diners with the hard crust, is not acceptable.
Stilton village’s guide to eating this most tricky of cheeses claims the high cream content not only renders butter unnecessary, it detracts from the experience, making it over-rich.
Words: Sandra Lawrence
From medieval ruins to red-roofed cottages, the North Yorkshire town o Helmsley is surrounded by striking buildings that enhance nature's charms.
The midsummer sun shines down on a glistening river as it makes it way past stone cottages with red-tiled roofs. A rich glow lights up the stones of an ancient castle’s tall tower, glowering down upon the town it once controlled.
This is Helmsley, a North Yorkshire market town where history, architecture and natural beauty are closely intertwined.
Located in a natural dip, it sits on the southern edge of the North York Moors, where Borough Beck meets the River Rye. The site has been a place of strategic and commercial importance since before the Norman Conquest. From turbulent beginnings, Helmsley eventually flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries as the ideals of romantic architecture and formal landscaping took hold. Today the town draws visitors who come to revel in its vivid connection to the past.
With a population of approximately 1,500, Helmsley has a bustling town centre. The large Market Place and Bridge Street are flanked by small independent shops, cafés restaurants and pubs.
One such shop is a delicatessen, Hunters of Helmsley. The business has won a range of awards for its service and ideas. Last year it gained the accolade of Best Small Shop in Britain, awarded by the Parliamentary Small Shops Group.
Owners Chris and Christine Garnett put their success down to their motto: shopping like it used to be.
“We talk to the customers, engage
with them, treat them like friends,” says Christine. “That can be tricky in summer when you’ve a queue out the door and 30 more at the ice cream hatch, but we always do our best!”
The shop teams up with local suppliers to create new products. One recent venture was a sloe gin ice cream. This was made with the help of Sloe Motion gin makers in Malton and Brymor Dairy in Masham. Another collaboration was with the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth Abbey, five miles away. This resulted in a slow roast pork and Ampleforth apple cider pie.
“The hardest part of my job is tasting the new inventions,” says a smiling Chris.
A microbrewery, Helmsley Brewing Co, opened in a tiny shop on Bridge Street last year. Its beers, Helmsley Honey, Howardian Gold and Striding the Riding, are sold in the shop.
“It’s not easy to be an independent and slightly old-fashioned shop in today’s fast-moving market,” says Christine. “What we really love is interacting with our customers. At the end of the day, we’re Yorkshire folk. We like to talk.”
A dominant structure
Beside the town, and dominating it, are the remains of a once-proud castle. Perched high on its defensive mound, the castle’s heavily fortified bailey and barbicans are still largely intact. Its four-storey East Tower is the tallest structure in Helmsley. Today the whole complex is cared for by English Heritage.
“You really sense the depth of history as you come in through the South Barbican, just as visitors to Walter Espec’s estate would have done in the 12th century,” explains Adam Price, the site manager. He says he feels the centuries of history every morning when he arrives to “wake up the castle”.
“This building was about one thing – domination. The town’s inhabitants were in no doubt about who held the power here. It is imposing and awe-inspiring.”
These days the castle has a more benign influence on the town, says Adam.
“It has become part of the fabric of life here,” he explains. “It is loved by locals and admired by people who visit from all over. Generations of families have brought their children here to let them run around on the battlements and have a picnic in the inner bailey, especially in the summer.
“I meet a lot of adults who played
here as children. They are bringing their own children to tap into that wonderful sense of nostalgia.”
The best time to visit is at the start or end of a summer’s day. “That’s when the colours really explode,” he says. “Standing on the curtain wall near the keep, you can watch the morning light creep across the East Tower, bringing it to life. This gorgeously warm, yellowy-orange light picks out the lines of the keep and bounces off the stonework. Moments like that are magical. I believe Walter Espec, Robert de Roos and Charles Duncombe enjoyed them as much as I do.”
From powerhouse to ruin
Helmsley Castle was built by a Norman lord, Walter Espec. It transformed the small town, formerly known as Elmeslac, into a powerhouse of trade and military might. In 1120, Espec was granted almost unlimited power across northern England by the king, William II. Helmsley Castle was designed to underline his power and influence. Passed to the de Roos family following Espec’s death, it was strengthened through the 13th and 14th centuries. In the less turbulent 16th century, a Tudor manor house was added in the inner bailey.
The castle’s only active combat came in 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. Its Royalist garrison was besieged for three months by Parliamentarian forces. Only the threat of starvation forced surrender. In recognition of their brave resistance, the 200 occupants were allowed to march out with honour, sporting their small arms weaponry.
The victorious Parliamentarians blew up and dismantled parts of the castle. It was then left derelict until 1695 when it was bought by London banker Charles Duncombe. His descendants still own it. The family lived at the castle until 1711, when they built a new mansion in the adjoining parkland. The castle was kept a romantic ruin, visible from the long hillside
driveway that connects the two buildings.
Garden of delights
Another legacy of the castle plays an important role in the town today. On the other side of the ruins is the entrance to Helmsley Walled Garden. This was originally a kitchen garden for the castle in Tudor times. It continued to serve the estate until the second Earl of Feversham was killed in action in the First World War. The house was leased to a school and the gardeners departed. After a period as a market garden, it fell into disuse.
Then in 1984, a keen local horticulturalist, Alison Ticehurst, formed
a plan to reopen it as a place of healing. With a lot of help from friends, volunteers and benefactors, she succeeded. Today Helmsley Walled Garden draws visitors
and volunteers from all over the country.
“Alison’s husband was a GP and they both had a holistic approach to health,” says Tricia Harris, marketing manager and a long-time volunteer at the garden. “She felt very strongly that people could be restored through horticulture. All you had to do was create a safe place for them to do it. The walled garden, by its very nature, is that place.”
The stick man
Several businesses share Helmsley Walled Garden’s premises. Among them is the tiny workshop of Keith Pickering, known as The Stick Man. For 30 years, he has been carving elegant designs into walking and shooting sticks. Today he is one of Britain’s foremost craftsmen of his art, cutting approximately 1,000 sticks a year. “It started because I was a beater for a pheasant shoot and I thought I’d carve my own stick to take with me,” he recalls. “The first one was a cock pheasant. Not very good, but it made me want to get better.” He mainly uses hazel, but he also carves ash, chestnut, blackthorn, lime and holly. The majority of these raw materials come from the woods of Duncombe Park, with permission from the estate.
Making a difference
The garden is now a centre for horticultural therapy, as well as being open to visitors. Its team of therapists help a wide range of people. These include vulnerable adults, people with learning disabilities, and people coping with stroke, depression or bereavement. There is
also a patch tended by children from a local special needs school.
“Working in the garden is therapeutic in so many ways,” says Tricia. “You are outdoors, away from the difficulties you are normally up against. You are part of a team, so your presence makes a difference. And it provides the right kind of challenge. With a garden there are very few quick fixes. You have to work at a problem and solve it, and the reward for doing so is immense. You see something happening as a result of your labour. That is therapy in its most basic sense.”
In summer the garden is alive with warm colour. The main source of this is the Hot Border, a long floral bed forming the spine of the garden. It takes its name from the primary colours of the flowers planted there, which yield bold reds, yellows, oranges and purples. These include yellow Anthemis tinctoria ‘E C Buxton’ and Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’, purple spires of Salvia nemorosa ‘Lubecca’ and magenta Monarda ‘On Parade’.
“Alison had remarkable vision,” says Tricia. “I wish she could have seen how the garden looks in summer. It’s such an explosion of warmth and colour.”
Ancient monastic ruins
Leaving Helmsley, two miles to the north-west is the upper valley of the River Rye. Here, sitting in the heart of a steep-sided wooded gorge is Rievaulx Abbey, one of the largest and most impressive monastic ruins in England.
It was founded in 1132 by 12 monks of the Cistercian order who came from the abbey of Clairvaulx in north-eastern France. They chose the valley as their home because of the abundance of natural resources, and its seclusion. The Cistercian order aimed to follow a strict life of devotion and self-sufficiency.
The abbey was built with the patronage of Walter Espec, the original builder of Helmsley Castle. The monks named it Rievaulx (pronounced ‘ree-voh’), meaning Valley of the Rye. This name harks back to their original home in Clairvaulx.
The monks initially diverted the course of the Rye to create a flat space large enough for the building. Later they diverted it again in order to create a canal. This made it easier to transport building stone from a quarry in the valley wall.
Unusually, the abbey sits on a skewed angle from south-east to north-west. Under church law, most places of worship were built with a west-east alignment. This anticipated the return of the Messiah with the rising of the sun. But the lie of the land at Rievaulx did not allow this. Instead the monks obtained special permission from Pope Honorius II to align their abbey in the alternative form. A transept window faces east instead.
Throughout the 12th century, the abbey became the centre of a major monastic and industrial operation.
The monks mined lead and iron, and developed subsidiary churches around
the region. They reared sheep, sold wool and built a substantial tannery within
the abbey walls.
Over the next 400 years, the abbey thrived. At its peak in the 1150s under its third abbot Aelred, the abbey occupied half a square mile and was home to over 140 monks. There were a further 500 lay brothers and other assistants.
“The monks valued their privacy, but equally they were progressively enterprising,” says Mike Ward, English Heritage’s site manager at Rievaulx. “They were builders and shapers, and they knew how to run a business. If you came here in the 12th century you would have
seen industry on a grand scale, from construction through to tanning and mining. Food production was hugely important too, with so many people at Rievaulx. That’s the main reason why the refectory building is almost as large as the main church.
“The abbey also served as a hospital. The Cistercian vows required them to welcome and treat anyone who required medical help.”
The abbey’s life came to an end in 1538, when Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries during his schism with the Catholic church. Left as ruins for 400 years, it was only rescued by an energetic restoration project. This was carried out by the Ministry of Works after the First World War. The work was done to help provide employment to returning war veterans who found it hard to get jobs.
It resulted in a clearing of the site, to reveal the abbey ruins in their full glory. Visitors could now appreciate one of the most spiritually and architecturally important abbey sites in England.
In more recent years, English Heritage has done much to return the site to as close an approximation of the 1150s era as possible. The buildings seen today are largely those that would have been familiar to Abbot Aelred and his brethren.
A visitor centre opened this summer, helping bring the abbey’s history to life.
“Summer is the abbey’s high season, and the site looks its best when it is being explored and enjoyed by people,” says Mike. “The vast majority of visitors come on foot, following the Cleveland Way from Helmsley. That’s by far the best way to approach the site; to see it suddenly revealed after following the river through the woods.”
View from the Terrace
Another dramatic view of the abbey comes from an elegant, landscaped bank above the buildings. This is Rievaulx Terrace, created in the 1750s by Thomas Duncombe, son of Charles, the founder of Duncombe Park. He wanted to echo the formal footpaths and temples found on his family estate with an ‘outpost’. His aim was to make visual use of an even more splendid ruin than Helmsley Castle, namely, the abbey.
The site features serpentine woodland walks leading to two temples at either
end of the terrace. One is Ionic, the other Tuscan. The woodlands are planted in sequences of contrasting colours. Paler trees such as lime and whitebeam
contrast with darker species including sycamore and beech.
The terrace is a haven for wildlife. Seventeen different species of bat have been recorded at the site. These include a new species to Britain, the Myotis alcathoe. In summer, the bank of the terrace is alive with vibrant wildflowers. These include lady’s bedstraw, knapweed, harebell,
water avens, betony, wood anemone, crosswort and ragwort.
“The terrace is all about the use of perspective,” explains Nick Fraser. He is the live-in site manager for the National Trust, which now cares for the terrace. “Thomas Duncombe wanted to create a perfect viewing platform for a spectacular landscape and frame it with perfect architecture. You have to say he succeeded!”
The secret, he says, is not to rush for the main viewpoints. Instead it is better to undertake a journey through the landscape to reach them.
“In the 18th century, the journey was just as important as the view,” he explains. “So as you follow the woodland trail, it builds up the anticipation and curiosity. The visitor is never sure where they are going or what’s around the next corner. There are actually 13 different viewpoints around the terrace. Glimpses come here and there. Then round the final corner, there’s the big reveal at Valley View. These wonderful temples are the perfect frames for the valley and the abbey beyond. It’s like a delicate piece of music, building to
a great crescendo.”
He explains that the terrace uses light to spectacular effect, particularly in summer.
“The temples stay cool and dark in the morning. It takes until midday for the sun to come round and light them up, then it’s all golden pyrotechnics,” he adds. “For most people, a lovely sunny day is best. However, I like the terrace on dramatic days when there’s a bit of storm in the sky and the wind is up. The temples play up to that nicely as well. They can be incredibly atmospheric when it’s blowy.
“If Turner came here, he wouldn’t pick a bright sunny day. He’d want something with texture, something raw and wild. You get those days in summer as much as in any other season.”
Nick also relishes the fact that the woodlands, planted 260 years ago, have only now reached their peak of perfection.
“We are fortunate to be living at this point,” he says. “The gardeners who created the terrace knew they would never see them in full maturity and splendour. That is where we are now. In a decade or so the original trees will start to decline, so we are witnessing them at their peak.”
When asked to sum up the appeal of the terrace, Nick has a reply that fits all
the attractions of Helmsley and the surrounding area. “The idea of this terrace was never about just planting something to make a place look nicer. It was about how you drew things in from the landscape to make them part of your scene.”
An enriching experience
That ethos is common to Helmsley Castle, Duncombe Park, the walled garden and, on a much smaller scale, the work of the Stick Man. All frame and magnify the natural world of which they are part. They all enrich the people who come to experience them. This may be through the historical revelations of the abbey or the holistic healing of the walled garden.
The snaking footpaths to the hilltop temples and the grandiose barbicans of Helmsley Castle all create an experience that can intimidate, entertain or enrapture. Helmsley is a narrative of landscape framed and punctuated by art.
If Yorkshire folk like to talk, this small Yorkshire town and its history certainly have a great deal to say.
Words: Nick Hallisay Photography: Alamy
The city where the dream of a united England was forged, Winchester has been a site of historic significance since the Iron Age
Tucked in the basin of the Itchen Valley at the western end of Hampshire’s South Downs sits an ancient city which was once the most important in England. For 2,000 years Winchester has stood between high chalk ridges to the east and low rolling downs to the west. In spring, its flint and limestone buildings are encircled by hillsides of fresh grass and bluebell-carpeted ancient woodland. Between the streets, the River Itchen gives life to damselflies and wildflowers while gardens are coloured with daffodils and cherry blossom.
Winchester first saw life as a Roman town, Venta Belgarum. This was established in AD70 on the site of an Iron Age settlement chosen because it was a good place to cross the River Itchen. Abandoned by the Romans when they left Britain in the 5th century, it went on to become the capital of the kings of Wessex. Named from Wintan-ceastre, the Old English for Fort Venta, it was the most significant settlement in England at this time.
Over the centuries, it has retained an intimate atmosphere. From the top of the sole remaining gate of the outer city walls at Westgate, it is possible to look down the length of the High Street to the eastern edge of the city. This is only 1,000yd (900m) away.
The Roman origins of the High Street are now long buried, but the River Itchen still runs the course set by the Romans. An idiosyncratic collection of buildings and monuments line the street, an architectural jumble of flint, stone and red brick. Each represents a slice of time out of Winchester’s long history.
Staring back from that eastern end is the statue of Winchester’s most famous son, Alfred the Great. “King Alfred made Winchester a part of England’s national story,” says Robin Iles, the venues and learning manager for Winchester’s Westgate and City Museums. From 871 to 899, Alfred ruled the kingdom of Wessex. This extended across present day Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset, later covering the whole south of the country. His defeat of the Vikings at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire in 878 helped pave the way for the unification of England.
“To consolidate his position in the south of the country, Alfred built a series of well-defended settlements called burhs. Winchester was the largest of these,” says Robin. “There is little left standing from those days. Only the outline of his church, the Old Minster, is visible. However, the streets you walk around today are still largely on the layout he planned. The names for these streets, such as Gold Street, Fleshmonger Street and Tanner Street, are clues to the crafts and trades of those who settled here during that time. Winchester was the principal royal city of Wessex and later of the whole of Anglo-Saxon England.”
The Great Hall
In the Middle Ages, one building would have towered over Winchester, from its site on the hill next to Westgate. This was the castle built by William the Conqueror in 1067, the year after he defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings.
“The City of Winchester submitted peacefully to William’s rule in 1066. This was important because the Royal Treasury was based here,” says Robin. “He wanted the castle built at the top of the slope where everyone could see it.”
The majority of the castle was destroyed by the Parliamentarians in 1649 during the English Civil War. Only the Great Hall was left standing and was then used for assemblies and the County Assizes. Measuring 111ft (33.8m) long and 54ft (16.5m) wide, it is the largest surviving medieval hall in Britain. It was originally built by Henry III between 1222 and 1235 in the Gothic style, with tall Purbeck marble columns and pointed arches. The plate tracery windows were carved from a single slab of stone.
The stone and flint walls were once decorated with coats of arms, a map of the world and a wheel of fortune. The latter was an allegorical illustration about the fragility of power, often depicting the monarch and a personification of Fortune turning the wheel of chance. During restoration work in 1874, Sir Melville Portal, the Chairman of Magistrates, decorated the east wall with the names of all local Parliamentary representatives since Edward I. These still adorn the walls today. In the 1980s, decorative wrought iron
gates were installed to commemorate the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
The knights’ table
The centrepiece of the hall is a Round Table which hangs on the west wall. Weighing 1.2 tonnes with a diameter of 18ft (5.5m), it is made from 121 separate pieces of English oak. It was claimed to be the original table at which King Arthur and his knights sat. However, carbon dating in 1976 showed the wood was from the late 13th or early 14th centuries.
“It was probably made around 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of Edward I’s daughter,” says Robin. “Arthur was perceived as a man of romance and legend, the ideal king. Edward may have re-enacted the meeting of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to show he was a man of chivalry.”
Another king who used the legend of Arthur to promote himself was Henry VIII. “In the early years of his reign, he entertained the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in the Great Hall. It is thought Henry had himself painted onto the Round Table in the place of King Arthur, with a Tudor rose at the table’s centre. He was making a claim that he was descended from the legendary king.” A painted image of Arthur, bearing a likeness to the young Henry VIII, can still be seen clearly on the table today.
A historic street
A short walk up the High Street from the Great Hall passes a brick and half-timber building, named God Begot House. This dates back to the 11th century, when the original building formed part of the Manor of Goudbeyete from which it gets its name. The present building dates mainly from the mid 16th century, and it is now used as a restaurant.
Immediately opposite is the old Guildhall and Town Clock, both erected in 1713. Built of stone and red brick in the Georgian baroque style, the building is of modest proportions and is now occupied by a bank. The Guildhall itself relocated to a new and far bigger building towards the end of the 19th century. Inside the belfry of the old building hangs Winchester’s curfew bell, which is still rung at 8pm every evening. The curfew was introduced following a severe fire in 1141, which destroyed much of the city. It was
designed to remind people to cover their fires until the morning.
Halfway along the High Street stands
a 15th century market cross known as the Buttercross. Beneath it farmers would sell their produce to the townsfolk. There are 12 figures on the cross, one large one on each side and two smaller ones. These include St Peter, St Swithun and St Thomas. A scheduled ancient monument, the Buttercross was restored in 1865 by
Sir George Gilbert Scott.
The passageway next to the Buttercross leads through to The Square where the City Museum is located in a purpose-built building constructed in 1903. Here visitors can step inside a replica Victorian apothecary’s shop. There is also a display of intricate Anglo-Saxon art and jewellery dug up from Winchester’s streets during the 1960s and ’80s. “When King Alfred made Winchester his capital, the city became a centre of craft and trade,” says Robin. “The best jewellers and crafts people came here because they knew courtiers and bishops were wealthy enough to buy their goods.”
When the City Corporation outgrew the old Guildhall, the new Guildhall was built at the far eastern end of the High Street. Opened in 1873, it stands on the site of St Mary’s Abbey, demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Built of Bath stone in a striking Middle Gothic style, the Victorian Guildhall stands taller than the surrounding buildings. It remains an imposing sight in Winchester’s city centre.
It is, however, the 11th century cathedral that is the city’s real jewel. Sitting in Cathedral Close behind the museum, it does not actually stand out in the town. “When you get into the Close, it is there waiting for you,” says Jo Bartholomew, the Cathedral’s curator and librarian.
The northern segment of the Close, known as Outer Close, lies between the cathedral and town. It is entered via
a grand avenue of lime trees off Great Minster Street, out of which the cathedral emerges at the far end. Constructed inPurbeck stone the colour of light sand, Winchester Cathedral does not have a spire. The unity of Norman, medieval and Gothic architecture, however, is a magnificent sight. “When it was first built in 1079, its nave was the longest in Europe,” says Jo. “It would have looked quite a spectacle at a time when most of the town was still living in humble huts.”
Outer Close is an intimate and tranquil green space, blooming with daffodils in the spring. The first place of worship to be built here is known as the Old Minster. The outline of its foundations is marked in red brick on the north side of the present cathedral. Dating back to the 7th century, it was the first Christian church in Winchester. A second building, the New Minster, soon joined it. This was built by King Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, according to his father’s wishes. The bricks from both these early churches would eventually be used to build the present cathedral.
To reach the Inner Close on the south side of the cathedral, pedestrians would originally have walked through the cathedral. But in 1632, Bishop Curle built a walkway through a buttress on the south side of the building. Known as Curle’s Passage, the narrow archway forms a grand entrance to an enclosed courtyard, encircled with historic buildings.
Four Norman arches on the east side would have once formed part of St Swithun’s Priory’s chapter house. Today they stand alone as the building’s sole survivors from the 16th century Dissolution. Also on the east side is the 13th-century vaulted porch of the Deanery, whose old Prior’s Hall boasts
a 550-year-old timber roof.
Remembering a gardener
A more modern addition is the Dean Garnier Garden. Created in 1995, it
covers the length of the monks’ former dormitory. A surviving flint wall can still be seen on the north side. The eponymous Thomas Garnier was Dean of Winchester from 1840 to 1872. He is best remembered as a horticulturist who planted many of the mature trees surrounding the cathedral and had a rose garden here. Today, the garden is laid out in three rooms, which mirror the shape of the cathedral.
In the south-east corner of the Inner Close is the 14th century Pilgrim’s Hall, which has a magnificent hammer beam roof. This was erected in 1310 as a guesthouse for pilgrims to St Swithun’s Priory. It is now attached to The Pilgrim’s School, one of the UK’s biggest choir schools. The Hall is used for school assemblies, concerts and plays.
Home to Bishops
Pilgrims entered the Close by Priory Gate, which is coloured lilac and green with wisteria from April to June. This gate is attached to the magnificent Cheyney Court, a beautiful Elizabethan timber-framed house, with towering gables and leaded windows. Once the secular seat of power for the Bishop of Winchester, it dates from the 15th century and is now
a private residence.
Cheyney Court has survived the centuries, unlike the former residence of the Bishops of Winchester, Wolvesey Castle. This now lies in ruins outside the walls of the Inner Close. Built by the powerful Bishop Henry of Blois in the 12th century, it was little changed for over 500 years. Then in 1680, a new palace was built next to it, and the castle was abandoned. The new building itself fell into disuse in the late 18th century and was largely demolished in 1786. Its surviving west wing still serves as offices for the Bishop of Winchester. Its baroque architecture forms a marked contrast to the crumbling stone of its predecessor.
College Street runs along the south side of Cathedral Close. Opposite the ancient King’s Gate, P&G Wells Booksellers have been trading from the same premises for 250 years. “The buildings of Winchester all look old and venerable, but inside they are full of life,” says the shop’s owner and director, Crispin Drummond. “There is no sense of complacency here, we don’t just sit around and talk about the good old days.”
P&G Wells works closely with Winchester College whose old flint walls line the south side of the street. The students often call by the shop on their way to town at lunchtime. “We lie between the boys’ classrooms and their lunch,” says Crispin. Founded in 1382 by Bishop William of Wykeham, the College is thought to be the oldest continuously running public school in the country.
Spring brings great beauty. “College Street is unmissable in April. When the magnolia flowers, this is one of the loveliest streets in England,” says Crispin.
His words echo those of the poet John Keats, who stayed in Winchester for seven weeks in 1819. He regularly walked down College Street to the River Itchen and the ancient almshouse of the Hospital of St Cross. “It is the Pleasantest town I ever was in,” he wrote to his sister. It remains a beautiful walk today.
Centuries of charity
The Hospital of St Cross is believed
to have been founded between 1132
and 1136 by Bishop Henry of Blois. He was so moved by the plight of a young, impoverished girl he encountered by
the river that he decided to found a community to help the poor. Today
St Cross is one of England’s oldest charitable institutions.
“We’re the only place in the country that still gives out bread and water to those who ask for it,” says Catherine Secker, the on-site porter. She runs the Porter’s Lodge Shop and looks after the security of the almshouse. The original objective of the institution was to support 13 poor men and feed a further 100 every day. The
13 men became known as the Brothers
of St Cross. Wearing black robes they were known as the Black Brothers. In 1445 they were joined by red-robed members of the Order of Nobel Poverty, the Red Brothers. The Hospital still houses and supports 25 Brothers to this day.
“Our oldest building is the church,” says Catriona Morley, the Hospital’s Clerk to the Trustees. “Building on it started in the early 1100s. It is a Norman church which resembles a small cathedral.”
The church forms one corner of a quadrangle, the rest of which is completed by the almshouses themselves. “They were built around 1450,” she says. “Inside, there is a central wooden staircase leading to a flat on either side. Some of them have very old features, such as ancient beams and fireplaces, but they have been modernised.
“The toilets are still located at the back of the flats, but now with modern plumbing. They are positioned over a water channel which at one time ran straight to a fish pool. The fish were at least moved to another pond before they were served
up for supper!”
The grounds of St Cross are open to visitors throughout the year. “It’s a beautiful place, untouched by time,” says Catriona. “The Master’s Garden has herbaceous borders, several mature trees and a pond with fountains. In spring, there’s a wonderful display of snowdrops, daffodils, flowering cherries, cyclamen and winter aconites. We even see kingfishers dive into the pond in the early morning.”
The River Itchen
Keats wrote that in Winchester, “there are the most beautiful streams about I ever saw – full of Trout”. It is fitting then that the father of angling, Sir Izaak Walton, spent his late years in Winchester. His book The Compleat Angler (1653) is the most frequently reprinted publication in English after the Bible. Walton lived by the banks of the River Itchen for over
20 years. Above his grave in Winchester Cathedral is a stained glass window depicting him reading by the river with
his fishing rod by his side.
Upstream from the Hospital is the oldest working watermill in the country. Known simply as the City Mill, it lies near the King Alfred statue close to where the old East Gate would have been. There is evidence that a mill was operating on the same site as far back as Saxon times. By 1086 the Domesday Book records it as one of the most profitable mills in the country. The mill seen today was rebuilt in the 18th century but timbers from the 14th and 15th centuries remain intact.
To travel the short distance from Winchester’s Westgate to the river is to take a journey through 2,000 years of history. The mix of silvery stone, flint, brick and timbers has built a city that is both rich in culture and heritage. In spring, the colours of the buildings are enhancedby the vibrancy of foliage and flowers bursting forth. It remains, as the poet Keats described it in 1819, “an exceeding pleasant Town, enriched with a beautiful Cathedrall [sic] and surrounded by a fresh-looking country.”
Words: Rachel Broomhead Photography: Jeremy Walker
Once a safe place for newborn, orphaned lambs, a lovingly restored shepherd's hut now provides cherished sanctuary for one man and his dog
Tucked within a quiet Norfolk garden, the curved iron roof and silver-grey weathered wooden walls of
a traditional shepherd’s hut contrast gently with the greenery of spring. Chickens and ducks shelter beneath it, while homemade preserves are stored inside it.
Today, it is a quiet, peaceful place for owner Ian McDonald and his wife, Carol. In its heyday in the late 19th century, however, it would have provided much needed shelter for a working shepherd. Towed out to the fields in early spring by horses, the hut was the solitary shepherd’s home throughout
the lambing season.
There were few home comforts. Measuring 9ft high, by 7ft 6in wide and 12ft 6in long (2.75 x 2.3 x 3.8m) it was big enough to house its single occupant and one or two lambs. There would have been a rudimentary wooden bed but no mattress, a stove, storage box for medicine and food, and possibly a cage for orphan lambs. This was often placed under the bed, allowing
the shepherd and lambs to share body warmth on cold nights.
Ian and his family have owned the hut since 2003. It was in a derelict state when he and Carol first saw it at School Farm in their village of Barford, Norfolk. Rotting away, trees were growing out of the roof. The hut’s neglected state and obvious need for care instantly attracted them. “I just saw the hut and thought it was interesting,” says Carol.
History in the making
Using a forklift truck and a trailer, they transported the hut back to their house on the other side of the village. “Unfortunately the front axle fell off when we lifted it up as the wood was so rotten,” says Ian. Undeterred, he set about a thorough restoration. At the same time he started research to find out more about shepherd’s huts and their history.
Several months were spent carefully taking the crumbling structure apart, recording every detail. “I measured and drew everything.” This was done so he would know exactly how to
put it back together correctly. He also visited the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse rural history museum in nearby
Dereham. They had two huts, and also gave him the number
of a woman who had researched the subject. She put him in touch with former shepherd and shepherd’s hut enthusiast, Gerald Beavis, from Cambridgeshire. All provided useful information for his restoration work.
Eventually, Ian was ready to begin the task of rebuilding his hut. An electrical engineer by profession, he was helped by what he learnt during a four-year coach-building apprenticeship in his youth. This provided him with the woodwork, metalwork and welding skills needed for much of the work. The restoration took approximately two years. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says.
“It was a way of coming back from work and unwinding.”
A hut with heart
Today, the hut is warm and cosy. On a bright spring day, it is full of sunshine, with a gentle woody smell. Birdsong is heard through the open door. The interior is lined with pine and the floor is made from pitch pine salvaged from a chapel in Suffolk. There are two comfortable wicker chairs and a set of shelves.
“I love coming here,” says Ian. “When you step inside, you could be anywhere. It is so peaceful. As a child, I always wanted a den, somewhere to go and hide, and to keep my treasures. Even as an adult, it is great to have a hideaway.”
Over the years, the hut has been used to hold parish council meetings and children’s sleepovers. Carol uses it as an art studio, her paint box and jars of brushes sitting on a small folding table. Underneath is a large wooden box. “It is a genuine shepherd’s chest and was given to us by a shepherd,” says Ian. Hanging by the door is
a selection of old tools accumulated over time, including sheep shears and a crook. In one corner is a small Victorian coal-burning stove.
“We have tried to keep it as authentic as possible,” he says.
A varied past
As part of his research, Ian traced his own hut’s story back to 1945 when it was bought to house a German prisoner of war, Hans Lenzen. He had been sent to work for Eddie Simmonds, of School Farm. Towed 15 miles by tractor from Hall Farm, Rackheath, it cost £7.
Hans appears to have lived in the hut until he was declared free of his PoW status in 1947. He married a local woman and remained in East Anglia. Ian managed to contact him, but Hans’ age prevented the pair meeting. Instead, his son Robin visited and gave Ian copies of his father’s papers. These included his PoW documentation and discharge form from the Luftwaffe. He recalled his father describing the hut as a basic, cold place where he struggled to dry his clothes in winter.
For the following 20 years, the hut was used as a farm store and dog house. Rodney Brown, the owner of the haulage company that moved the hut for Ian, recalled choosing a puppy from a litter born in it in the 1960s. “He helped me move the hut for free as he had fond memories of it,” says Ian.
The hut’s past uses are an important part of its attraction for Ian. “The history really gets me,” he says. “I love the fact it has evolved from a shepherd’s hut to a home for a PoW to a farm store and a dog house, and now we have prolonged its life. It makes it something special and gives it an atmosphere.
“I am fascinated by the history of how and why these huts were used, as well as the huts themselves. Sometimes there were notes written in the huts themselves, as the shepherds recorded information they might need onto the wooden walls.” Unfortunately, this was not the case with Ian’s hut as the original lining was tarred sackcloth.
Saving farming heritage
Ian is keen to share his knowledge to encourage others to rescue these huts. To this end, he has set up a website with links to the specialists who helped him. The site also records historic hut manufacturers and has a section on their history as well as practical tips.
“I want people to save these pieces of our industrial heritage while they are still out there,” he says. “I love the skill and craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into building the huts in the first place, but it’s their history that makes them so special.”
A labour of love
Ian restored his hut in sections, starting with the ironwork. Most of this was reusable, apart from the bolts, which had been corroded by the tannin from the wet oak. The four cast iron wheels and the axle swivel plate were sandblasted to remove rust. Next they were sprayed with hot zinc to protect them from future damage. Replacements for the bolts were commissioned from a company in Sheffield to old Imperial standards. “I wanted the hut to be built how it was originally. Where that wasn’t possible, I used new parts made to old specifications,” explains Ian.
The original wooden axles had to be replaced. Plywood patterns were cut, then new ones were made from solid oak at a nearby sawmill. These were bolted to the chassis with specially made 16in (41cm) bolts. Wrought iron pieces came from the Sheffield ironworks.
“The chassis sat on wet ground for at least 40 years as the wheels and axles sunk into soft soil. A screwdriver could be pushed through the 4in thick timber,” says Ian. Four new side panels were made from oak and pine. A new curved corrugated iron roof was sourced from a specialist who makes pig arks. The door was made of larch and the window frames of oak. He then assembled the hut with the help of some friends.
Finally the outside cladding, made of green or unseasoned larch planks, was attached. Butted together vertically, a much narrower larch plank or joining strip was placed over the gap between each plank. This allows for movement in the wood. In the summer the planks shrink, opening up a gap between them. The joining strip ensures the walls remain sealed. The wood has room to expand with the winter wet without buckling. The woodwork is now treated annually with preservative.
Huts on wheels
The earliest known mention of shepherd’s huts dates back to 1596. English writer Leonard Mascall mentioned a ‘cabbine upon a wheel’ used
by shepherds in a work on rural life. Their popularity peaked in the 19th century, with some continuing in use until after
the First World War.
Thomas Hardy gives a detailed description of Gabriel Oak’s shepherd’s hut in Far From the Madding Crowd. “The inside of the hut was cosy and alluring... In the corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were ranged bottles and canisters of simple preparations pertaining to ovine surgery and physic... On a triangular shelf across the corner stood bread, bacon, cheese and a cup for ale or cider which was supplied from a flagon beneath... The house was ventilated by two round holes like the lights of a ship’s cabin, with wood slides.”
Out of lambing season, the huts were used to supervise sheep folding at the end of the year. This was the practice of using sheep to fertilise fields. A small area would be fenced off and the animals left to graze on root crops. Once these were consumed, the flock would be moved onto the next section. The land would then be ploughed and the nutrients in the sheep droppings returned to the soil. The ammonium nitrate fertilisers developed after the First World War rendered this process obsolete.
As changing agricultural practices saw shepherd’s huts fall out of use, many slid into disrepair, gently rotting away where they stood. Some were even broken up and burned. A resurgence of interest at the end of the 20th century has seen many surviving huts rescued and renovated for use once more.
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Richard Faulks
BOBBINS AND COTTON ARE TRANSFORMED INTO HONITON LACE IN A DEVON HOME
Outside, winter is at its height. The leaves have gone from the trees, the east Devon skies are darkening, the light low. Inside a neat home, tucked away from the bustle of daily life, a piece of exquisite lace is slowly being created.
Pat Perryman’s nimble fingers move silently across the curved surface of a blue-clad pillow, weaving bobbins and cotton thread around an array of silver pins. Fraction by fraction, a picture emerges, following the pattern on a card beneath the pins. For hour after patient hour, Pat works towards her finished creation. Eventually, several hundred hours after she started, the work is done, and a new piece of historic Honiton lace is born.
For Pat, making this complex but beautiful piece of lace is a therapeutic labour of love. “If life is stressful, I can sit and do lace and be in another world,” she says. It is something she has been doing for nearly half a century now. Today, she is a seasoned expert, known around the world.
A natural talent
A trained dressmaker, Pat came to lacemaking by chance. In 1969 she joined a class at the local community college. The mother of two young children, it gave her the opportunity to do something away from the house.
Her teacher spotted her innate skill as soon as she started. Three years later, the teacher retired and Pat was running the class. “I was the youngest in the class, both in age and experience,” she says. “I had to go into that class and tell them I was the new teacher. It was daunting.”
In the years since then, she has created a prodigious quantity of work. It ranges from tiny, delicate pieces enclosed in pendants to larger work displayed in frames. The majority of her creations are decorative, although some have practical application. A lace parasol, adorned with 24 different butterflies, is redolent of a more feminine age. A sumptuous lace garter made for the wedding of her granddaughter-in-law took 80 hours of dextrous work. To make a wedding veil could take several years. “If you have a five-year-old daughter, you had better start now,” she says.
A Parliamentary task
In 1980 she was asked to make a new Honiton lace jabot, or ornamental neck frill, for the then Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas. The pattern was designed by Honiton School’s art teacher, Tom Griffiths. It depicted a portcullis and crown, the flower emblems of the UK’s four countries, plus images inspired by the Devon landscape. It took Pat many hundreds of hours to make, over three years.
By the time it was finished, a new Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, was in office. He came to Honiton in 1984 to be presented with the jabot. Later that year Pat was invited to the State Opening of Parliament, at which the Speaker wore her unique creation for the first time. At the subsequent reception she was asked to make a pair of matching cuffs. That resulted in a further thousand hours of work over four years.
Project of beauty and skill
Her biggest single project is safely contained in a quilted box. This is an exquisitely beautiful fan, consisting of 11 separate pieces of lace. “I always wanted to make a fan, and I was working on this for about three years,” she says. “I had all sorts of ideas for its design, but was eventually inspired by a piece of lace we have here in Honiton, in Allhallows Museum, called the Treadwin Flounce.
“Mrs Treadwin was a 19th century Honiton lacemaker. She made the flounce for Queen Victoria’s fourth son, Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany, for his wedding in 1882 to Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont. The intricate designs in this flounce inspired my fan.”
She has presented her own work to royalty. When Princess Anne visited Honiton in 2005, Pat gave her a piece of lace with an intricate swan design. It had taken her approximately 350 hours to complete. She also gave the Princess a brooch depicting a lace horseshoe with the initial ‘A’ woven in it.
In 2013 Pat achieved the jewel in the crown of her career. She was awarded the British Empire Medal for Services to the Heritage of Lace-Making in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Today, she continues to teach lacemaking classes. She has also had two books published. One is her New Designs in Honiton Lace, created in collaboration with a lacemaking colleague, Cynthia Voysey. The other is Pat Perryman’s Lace Patterns. Both remain in demand.
The future for lace
For almost half a century Pat has inspired many people to take up the threads. She is delighted that the craft is continuing to thrive. “We still have a class on a Saturday morning for children. It is now taught by one of my former child pupils, and it’s rewarding to see the tradition carried on.”
Her enthusiasm for the lace is infectious. For her, it is a task of unstinting dedication to creating works of delicate art that will last for centuries.
Words: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne Photography: Clive Doyle
A RIVERSIDE STROLL TAKES IN THE GLOUCESTERSHIRE MARKET TOWN OF LECHLADE
Nestled among the gentle hills and green fields of southern Gloucestershire, streets of mellow stone buildings glow in the sun. The golden tones are interrupted by occasional splashes of red or blue plaster. Crooked chimney pots perch atop steeply sloping roofs in the Cotswold market town of Lechlade.
For centuries, this small settlement was an important inland port, the highest navigable point of the Thames for goods-laden barges. Today, the river still draws visitors, travelling languidly downstream in barges and boats. Pleasure, not commerce, inspires these journeys though.
This 3½-mile walk starts in the town’s marketplace, below the soaring spire of St Lawrence Church, before taking a route along the winding River Thames. The furthest point is a tiny church with over 1,000 years of history written on its walls.
With a current population of 2,800, Lechlade owes its growth to its position on roads and river. The main roads into the town converge at the small marketplace. In 1210, King John granted the town a charter allowing a weekly market and an annual three-day summer fair to be held. The market probably stretched down what is now the high street. Traders from Lechlade and nearby villages sold fruit and vegetables grown in the surrounding fields. The good pastureland meant cheeses were a speciality.
Dominating the marketplace is St Lawrence Church, its spire climbing 140ft (42.5m) into the sky. It is believed that a church has stood on this site since Saxon times, but the present building was completed in 1476. Constructed of local Taynton limestone, the church was financed by local merchants, who had grown rich on the town’s thriving wool trade. Because of this, it was known as a wool church. Like other Cotswold churches similarly paid for, it was originally richly decorated, with beautiful woodwork screens that have now gone, and a fine oak panelled roof.
The church was initially dedicated to St Mary. Then in 1501, the manor was given to Katherine of Aragon, who had come to England to marry Prince Arthur Tudor. She changed the church’s name for that of a saint from her native Spain. Prince Arthur died soon after their marriage, and eight years later Katherine married his brother, the recently crowned King Henry VIII. Tudor roses are cut into the stonework, and a pomegranate, Katherine’s emblem, is among the carvings on the vestry door.
A summer’s inspiration
To the left of St Lawrence Church, a small path makes its way through the graveyard. This is Shelley’s Walk, named in commemoration of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s visit to the town in the summer of 1815. Shelley, his novelist wife Mary and two friends rowed up the Thames from Windsor, hoping to find the source of the river. They only got as far as Lechlade, however, as their boat became entangled in thick weeds. They stayed for two nights, reputedly at the New Inn, in the marketplace.
St Lawrence’s inspired Shelley’s haunting poem ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’. “Here could I hope, like some enquiring child Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight, Sweet secrets,” he wrote. His words seem to linger among the lichen-encrusted tombs and trailing ivy.
Shelley’s Walk opens onto a small lane, and the route now crosses through the gate opposite. The path travels down the side of an open field, scattered trees breaking the skyline. After passing through another gate, it is raised above flood meadows. The trees lining each side intertwine to form a tangled archway. This route follows in the footsteps of medieval monks, who travelled the pathway between the church and the Priory of St John the Baptist which once lay ahead. Slightly less than half a mile on, the path ends at a main road.
At the road, a right turn is taken towards St John’s Bridge and the Trout Inn. The inn was once part of the priory, which was sited behind the present day building. Established in 1220, the Augustinian priory superseded a nunnery on the same site. Its monks were charged with looking after the sick and poor. The Trout was likely to have been the original Priory guesthouse. A steady flow of travellers visiting the Priory boosted Lechlade’s already flourishing economy.
It is near The Trout that the River Leach joins the Thames, before the enlarged river flows under St John’s Bridge. From this meeting comes the derivation of the name Lechlade. A lade is a muddy confluence of rivers. From 1234 a fair was held every year in a nearby field called The Lade. It is not known why the town took its name from the River Leach rather than the Thames on which it stands.
The monks’ bridge
Erected in 1229, St John’s Bridge became the first Thames bridge outside London to be built in stone. It replaced a wooden bridge swept away in a flood. Responsibility for keeping the new crossing in good condition fell to the priory monks. In return they were allowed to charge a toll on people and goods going over or under it. Chief among these were packhorses loaded with salt travelling the ancient Salt Way from Droitwich in Worcestershire. Cattle driven from Wales and the West Country along drovers’ roads also crossed the bridge. Some were sold at Lechlade, while others were put on boats to London.
The monks, however, did not always honour their part of the bargain. Several times the Crown had to pay for repairs to the bridge. This was not the only area where the monks were involved in irregularities. Reports from 1300 show that some monks were accepting money in exchange for saying masses. In 1472 the priory was finally dissolved, with stone from the buildings being used in the construction of St Lawrence Church.
The current road bridge dates to 1886. With no footpath, it is crossed with care. Over the bridge, there is an immediate right turn, down the steps and through a gate to St John’s Lock.
At 234ft (71m) above sea level, this is the highest lock on the Thames. It is also the first of 45 on the way to London.
The lock opened in 1789, to coincide with the opening of the Thames and Severn Canal further upstream near Inglesham. Before this, Thames locks were ‘flash’ locks, dams with sections that could be raised to let a boat through. Usually effective, there was a risk that the ‘flash’ of water that escaped might actually sink the boat. The flash locks were replaced with the new pound locks, still familiar today, which have a chamber with a gate at either end.
The new lock was capable of accommodating the big Thames barges. These giants of the river were 12ft 2in (3.7m) wide and up to 90ft (27.5m) long. Able to handle 85 tons of cargo, they constantly ferried goods up- and downstream.
Boats were supposed to pay a toll to pass through St John’s Lock but this was often evaded by the rough and ready bargemen. Until 1830 the lock-keeper had traditionally been the landlord of the Trout Inn. Believing it would lead to improved efficiency and better revenue collection, the Thames Commissioners who ran the lock decided he should instead live on site in a purpose-built house. However, the first landlord to be offered the house, Benjamin Hodges, refused to move. In 1831 care of the lock was put out to tender.
Today the Thames barges have gone, but St John’s remains a favourite stop-off for boaters. Brightly coloured narrowboats and river cruisers line the basin.
On the way to the gate at the far end of the lock there is a statue of Father Thames, by Rafaelle Monti. This was sculpted in 1854 and exhibited at the Crystal Palace. Surviving the fire that destroyed the Palace in 1936, it was bought by one of the Thames Commissioners. It was placed at the source of the river at Thames Head Springs, before being moved to the lock in 1974.
A working river
The route now follows the Thames as it winds its way through expansive water meadows. Swans glide down the river as the breeze ripples the water, kingfishers a flit of blue as they search for food. Above it all rises the spire of St Lawrence’s, visible over the open fields for miles around, a beacon to the traveller of old.
On the far bank of the river is a squat concrete structure with thin slits for windows. This is a Second World War pillbox, one of a string built along the Thames in 1940. Designated GHQ Line Red, it was part of a strategy to stop a possible German invasion from reaching the Midlands.
In the distance, draped in willow, can be seen the honey-coloured tones of Halfpenny Bridge. The route passes through the small archway on the left to emerge at Riverside Park. On the opposite bank is the Riverside Pub, a former goods warehouse, standing on Parkend Wharf. This was one of several wharves built in Lechlade from the early 1600s onwards to replace the medieval ones originally at St John’s Bridge. Goods brought here could be transported on to London and the Continent. The wharves handled everything from livestock to coal, timber and stone.
The route continues along the river, passing over walkways and through gates towards Inglesham, which lies over the border in Wiltshire. After approximately half a mile, two buildings emerge on the horizon. The one to the right is the Roundhouse, where the Thames and Severn Canal once joined the Thames. Now part of a privately owned property, this was originally a lengthsman’s cottage. The occupant maintained a designated stretch of canal and operated the nearby lock. The ground floor was used as a stable, with living quarters on the two floors above. Inglesham is one of five roundhouses built along the canal in 1790, the year after it opened. It is one of only three with an innovative inverted cone roof which channelled rainwater to an underground storage tank.
The opening of the canal, linking the Rivers Thames and Severn, meant that goods could be transported between London and Bristol. Lechlade was an important link in the chain. Within a century, however, the canal had been superseded by the railways and fell into decline. It was little used after 1911, finally closing in 1933.
The walk now cuts across the meadows towards the building on the left, the church of St John the Baptist. It is reached by passing through the gate at the far edge of the field and turning right. This church is beautiful in its simplicity. Its essential medieval fabric is almost untouched, thanks to the efforts of William Morris. One of the leaders of the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement, he lived five miles away at Kelmscott Manor. From there he supervised the 1888 renovation of the church. His intervention successfully safeguarded the church’s medieval identity from any plans to restore or alter the interior.
Although the core of the building is Saxon, most of the present structure dates from 1205. Today the interior looks much as it would have done to worshippers in the mid 1600s, with the then-new box pews that allowed families to sit together during services, 15th century screens and font, and original timber-board roof.
What make this church so special are the paintings that adorn almost every wall. Ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries, they are several layers thick in places, with parts of earlier paintings visible among later ones. This, and their worn condition, makes them difficult to decipher. Even so, they give a sense of how this church would have looked to centuries of worshippers.
Several of the original consecration crosses survive, painted red. These mark the places where the church was anointed with holy water or oil as part of the sanctification ritual. It is also possible to see how the chancel would have looked when the church first opened its doors. It would have been decorated with imitation stonework, delicate foliage and flowers, and a pattern of red and white stripes, possibly mimicking a textile hanging. Fragments of 14th century paintings of St Catherine holding her wheel and figures from a Doom, a depiction of the Last Judgement, remain. There is also a vivid Tree of the Seven Deadly Sins emerging from under a picture of St Christopher. On the north aisle is a depiction of The Weighing of the Souls. This painting shows a golden-winged St Michael holding his scales as Mary shelters souls in her cloak.
The walls are also inscribed with texts, ranging from the late 16th to the 19th centuries. Some are framed with vividly coloured scrollwork and flowers. Later ones are more classical in style, bordered with simple lines. They include biblical verses, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
St John’s Church and nearby Church Farm are all that remain of what was once a much larger village. Ridges and furrows still visible in the surrounding fields mark the medieval settlement. This was abandoned with the passing of the wool trade over the centuries.
The route is now retraced back to Halfpenny Bridge, going up the steps at Riverside Park on to the bridge, to turn left down Thames Street.
Halfpenny Bridge was built in 1792 to replace the old ferry crossing. As the name suggests, a halfpenny, or ha’penny, toll was charged to pedestrians using the bridge. The tiny tollhouse, topped with a pyramidal roof, stands on the north side of the bridge. Public pressure led to the toll being scrapped in 1839.
At the end of Thames Street, a right turn is taken at the T-junction. Ahead lies the marketplace, the spire of St Lawrence’s, and journey’s end.
Words: Diane Wardle Photography: Alamy
Rural setting for industrial achievements
Standing proudly in the broad floodplain of West Yorkshire’s Aire valley is a monument to one man’s vision and care for his workers. Surrounded by moorland and fields, the village of Saltaire is a proud reminder of how the best Victorian manufacturing was combined with philanthropy.
Rows of pale yellow stone workers’ cottages sit in the shadow of the imposing architecture of Salts Mill. Gardens are filled with spring flowers, bringing a burst of the natural world into what was a hub of industrial activity for more than 150 years. This mile-long circular walk gives a taste of what life was like for the cloth mill workers fortunate to earn their living at Salts Mill. It encompasses the mill, the impressive United Reformed Church, the factory school and Victoria Hall, as well as the labourers’ homes.
Extending the walk a further three miles, along the tree-lined Leeds and Liverpool Canal to nearby Bingley, leads to another industrial wonder. This is Five Rise Locks, the steepest staircase of interlinking locks in Britain.
The full feature of the walk around Saltaire to Five Rise Locks originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
Flint has been used to build durable walls for centuries across a band of south-east England from East Anglia to Dorset and the South Downs. Lynn Mathais has been working with flint since he was 16. Then he helped his father repair the flint section of a medieval tithe barn in Bedfordshire.
"I love my job, I like working outside in the warmer months and I like the creative aspect of the job. It is truly rewarding to restore something to its former glory," he says. The tools and processes he uses are unaltered since medieval times. The only modern additions are a spirit level, a knee pad, gloves and goggles.
Flint has been worked for building since Roman times. It was used in the construction of Saxon and Norman churches. Then in the 14th century it began to be used with other materials to create a more decorative finish. The Victorians used flint in a whole range of buildings, from cottages and church restorations to country houses.
Photography: Clive Doyle
The full feature about Lynn and flint walling originally appeared in the Mar / April 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.