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  • 50 Gems of the Peak District by Denis Eardley

    When I started to compile 50 Gems of the Peak District the biggest problem was what to leave out. After some thought, I decided to select gems that were relatively easy to visit for both the private and public transport user of all ages. This somewhat reduced the number of gems I had in mind but there were still far too many for the book. Eventually, after much further deliberation I settled on the number required.

    The Peak National Park was established in 1951 and was the first to be set up in Britain. It is stunningly beautiful and it is visited by people from all over the world. They come to enjoy its glorious ever changing landscapes, enchanting villages, beautiful historic houses, famous attractions and hundreds of traditional events attract visitors time and again. Strikingly beautiful limestone valleys, with magnificent clifftop views, characterise the southern half of the Peak District, with the northern area featuring dramatic gritstone ridges and wild heather covered moorland.

    The 50 Gems in the book have been arranged in groups to enable the reader to explore at their own pace, by visiting just one at a time, or several. The fascinating historical information, legends and other stories will let both the first time and regular visitors to the Peak District take even greater pleasure out of their visits. There is much to see and the book will prove indispensable both to the first time as well as frequent visitors to the Peak District.

    As a sneak preview of the 50 Gems book, I have selected five of my favourites below:

     

    Derbyshire’s Lake District (SK171898)

    Derwent Reservoir. (50 Gems of the Peak District, Amberley Publishing)

    The Upper Derwent Valley is often referred to as the ‘Lake District of the Peak’. It is surrounded by magnificent countryside where water and woodland, topped by high moors, predominate. In recent years forestry has become an important factor and the sides of the valley have been clothed in conifers. Not surprisingly, the area has become so popular that over two million people visit each year. At certain times the road up the valley beyond Fairholmes is closed to help protect the environment and a mini-bus service is operated. Disabled Badge holders are exempt from the road closure.

    The valley was a very attractive location for the storage of water, with its long deep sides and narrow points for dam building. All this, combined with a high average rainfall, low population level and heavy demand for water from the industrial towns that surrounded the Peak District, made the case for reservoir construction. The Derwent Valley Water Board was set up in 1899 to supply water to Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leicester and the Howden and Derwent Reservoirs were constructed.

    At that time the demand for water was satisfied and although plans existed for further reservoirs, no more action was needed. Demand, though, continued to grow and the decision was taken to build one very large reservoir, to be called Ladybower. This entailed the flooding of the villages of Ashopton and Derwent and caused immense unrest. However, the project went ahead and the villagers were moved to new houses at Yorkshire Bridge.

    Ashopton Viaduct was built to carry the Snake Road to Glossop and the Ladybower Viaduct to carry the road from Yorkshire Bridge to the A57.

    The ancient Derwent packhorse bridge, which had a preservation order on it, was painstakingly moved stone by stone and rebuilt at Slippery Stones at the head of Howden Reservoir. The graves in the churchyard were excavated and the bodies reburied at Bamford.

    A few properties built on slightly higher land, including the Shooting Lodge and former Roman Catholic School, survived. Although the majority were demolished and flooded, the church spire was left eerily poking out above the reservoir, when the water level was low, until it was blown up in 1947. The flooding having been completed, the opening ceremony was carried out on 25 September 1945 by King George VI. In order to mark the occasion, a commemorative monument was built close to the dam wall.

     

    Pott Shrigley (SK945792)

    Cottage at Port Shrigley. (50 Gems of the Peak District, Amberley Publishing)

    The picturesque Cheshire village of Pott Shrigley is located on the western border of the Peak District, about one mile north from the small town of Bollington. The houses in the centre of the village huddle together close to the top end of two valleys with Holme and Nab woods rising up to the rear. In all directions, there are beautiful trees and fields with flocks of sheep grazing that give the village a distinct rural identity.

    Pott Shrigley has a long and interesting history, which for many years revolved around Shrigley Hall and its estate, farming and later, mineral extraction. Originally built in the fourteenth century by the Downes family, who lived there for 500 years, it was rebuilt on a grander scale in the early nineteenth century by William Turner. In the 1950s it was sold to the Salesians as a Catholic Education Centre and sold again in the 1980s when it was converted into a hotel, which it remains today.

    St. Christopher’s Church is a Grade I listed building, which is thought to have been founded in the late 14th century and completed in its present form by the building of the Downes Chantry Chapel by Geoffrey Downes in the late fifteenth century. Inside the church, there is a fine, fifteenth century barrel roof, an oak altar table that dates back to 1698. The oak box pews were acquired from St James' Church, Gawsworth in the nineteenth century. Another building in the village with an ancient history is the Church of England primary school, which was founded in 1492.

    In the spring, the bluebells along the road up the hill towards Shrigley Hall are an impressive sight and attract large numbers of visitors. The village cricket ground is in a stunning location, which according to the locals, is one of the most beautiful settings in the world.

    One person though refused to move, Miss A. Cotterill of Gwinnett House. She remained there until she died in 1990, at the age of ninety-nine, the waters of the reservoir lapping at the front garden steps. You can easily pick out the house at the side of Ladybower when crossing the discretionary path across the dam wall.

    Food is available at the refreshment kiosk at Fairholmes, Yorkshire Bridge Inn and Ladybower Inn.

     

    Flash Bar (SK032678)

    Flash Bar Store and Tearooms. (50 Gems of the Peak District, Amberley Publishing)

    For the tired walker having trekked across the wild windswept moorland and the cyclist toiled to the top of Axe Edge, Flash Bar must seem like an oasis with its smart welcoming café and pub. Situated just outside the village of Flash, on the A53, the stylish café and stores is possibly the highest shop and cafe in England. Opposite, the Traveller's Rest public house has now reopened as the Knight’s Table.

    Flash is surrounded by magnificent moorland scenery, stands at a height of over 1,500 feet above sea level and is claimed to be the highest village in England. It is an isolated place, the main part of which consists of well weathered cottages and a small church, all clustered together seemingly to keep warm on the side of Oliver Hill, together with the New Inn.

    On a sunny day when the sky is clear you can see for miles over the surrounding countryside, and as you walk across the moors, listening to the birds singing and keeping a watch out for wildlife, it is easy to imagine you are in Paradise. At another time, on a different day, the picture may be quite the reverse, when the A53 is blocked by snow. It is often one of the first roads in the country to be closed after heavy snowfall.

    Only a short distance from the village is Three Shires Head, where a bridge crosses the River Dane at a point where the borders of Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire meet. Many years ago, illegal prizefights used to take place there, as the police were not allowed to cross county borders, and it was easy for the wrongdoers to flee into another county. For the very same reason, counterfeiters choose the spot for their unlawful trade, ‘flash’ is the name given to the illegal money. The word flash has since become associated with being dishonest, or for goods that are not of genuine quality.

    The village had its own benefit society to support those most in need, the Flash Loyal Union Society, established in 1846, nicknamed the ‘Teapot Club’, presumably because many members saved the money in a teapot. Attendance once a year at an annual feast was compulsory for members when the money was placed in the fund. Feast Day was an important day in the village’s social calendar and when in 1995 the benefit club had to be disbanded due to new Government regulations the event was retained.

    As one visitor who just happened to visit Flash on the day of the village parade recounts, she was astonished to see a procession march all the way to the Traveller’s Rest carrying a large model teapot. Even more so as the marchers also carried banners referring to the teapot and were accompanied by a brass band. On the same day there is a service in the church and also a well dressing and flower festival takes place, and refreshments are provided in the village hall.

     

    Edensor, Chatsworth Park (SK250698)

    Looking down towards Edensor. (50 Gems of the Peak District, Amberley Publishing)

    Every year visitors from all over the world pass through Chatsworth Park on their way to visit the house and gardens or to just admire the view. Most only cast a cursory glance over towards the gateway that leads to Edensor, one of the most admired estate villages in the country. It is quite unique in style and provides the first time visitor with an experience they will never forget. Set in a walled enclosure within attractive parkland owned by the Devonshire family, with its fine buildings and majestic looking church the village just waits to be explored.

    Originally, Edensor lay between the river and the road through the Park, when the houses were set out in a straggling line down to the Derwent. This did not appeal to the fourth Duke of Devonshire, who having spent considerable money and effort improving Chatsworth House, redesigning the gardens and building a grand new bridge over the river. He decided to demolish the houses visible from his home and re-house the tenants in the nearby estate villages of Pilsley and Beeley. The Duke died in 1764 prior to the completion of the work and it was the sixth Duke who completed the building of the present village.

    Joseph Paxton, who remodelled and landscaped the gardens at Chatsworth, chose the site for the new ‘Model Village’, but it was John Robertson, a relatively unknown architectural assistant from Derby, who provided the designs. At that time aspiring young architects such as Robertson would prepare a book of house plans as part of their training.

    It is thought that Robertson approached the Duke to show him the plans when he was busy with other matters. After quickly looking through them he could not make up his mind and chose all the different styles in the book, which proved to be a masterstroke. The designs ranged from Norman to Jacobean, Swiss-style to Italian villas. A few of the old houses that were well out of sight of Chatsworth House were left virtually untouched.

    Robertson retained the fourteenth century church, but it only remained for about 30 years after the completion of the village, before it was replaced by a much larger one, built by George Gilbert Scott. The new church with its graceful spire and spacious layout added to the status and importance of the village, which its predecessor had failed to do.

     

    Wetton Mill (SK017561)

    Wetton Mill. (50 Gems of the Peak District, Amberley Publishing)

    Wetton Mill, owned by the National Trust, is a very popular spot with visitors to the Manifold Valley, which lies a short distance to the northwest of Wetton.

    It was originally a water mill for grinding corn but closed in 1857. Situated by the side of the Manifold Way, it has now been converted to create a beautiful picnic spot, cafe and two National Trust Holiday Cottages. There are still some remnants of the old mill to be seen, with a few old limestone buildings, a section of the mill pond now impounded by the river, the millstream and a grindstone. The bridge that gives access to the mill yard was built by the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1805.

    The tearoom, housed in one of the former grist buildings at the mill, provides welcome refreshment to visitors who come to walk in the valley, or just want to relax and admire the superb countryside. The valley has some of the most spectacular scenery in the Peak District and is rich with wildflowers, butterflies and birds.

    The Leek and Manifold Light Railway used to run through the valley. Lack of sufficient business forced the early closure of the line and it has subsequently been turned into a trail for walkers and cyclists, only two miles of which is not car-free. In total, the trail runs for nine miles from Hulme End Visitor Centre to Waterhouses Old Station car park.

    Surprisingly, the river beds of the Manifold and Hamps that flow through the valley are frequently dry, as the waters soak away into the porous limestone rocks below and only reappear in wet weather. During dry weather, the Manifold disappears at Wetton Mill and re-emerges from its underground journey from a boil hole at Ilam.

    Wetton is a compact little village of limestone cottages that seem to huddle together in an exposed position against the cold at an altitude of about 1,000 feet. Winters are now much milder, but some of the older residents still recall the times the village has been cut off from the outside world.

    Denis Eardley's new book 50 Gems of the Peak District is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Cheshire by Mike Appleton

    The History & Heritage of the Most Iconic Places

    50 Gems in Cheshire is my third contribution to Amberley’s ‘Gems’ series and you’d think I’d have got the hang of it by now.

    50 Gems of the Yorkshire Dales was a jewel filled quest in a national park I knew like the back of my hand while although 50 Gems of Derbyshire took me to a different part of the country, I felt comfortable in the chocolate box villages and on the fells.

    Cheshire seemed an obvious port of call; being minutes from my home in Lancashire and relatively well known in terms of attractions and places to visit.

    Jodrell Bank… check… Sandbach… check… simple.

    Yet, this proved to be one the hardest projects I have undertaken because the county itself is a bit of an anomaly!

    Its current boundary covers roughly more than 900 square miles but historically was a lot larger. It took in the Wirral and stretched across to Black Hill, which is now in the Peak District and near Yorkshire.

    It also travelled as far down as Crewe and skirted along the Welsh border.

    Then, even though it is relatively flat, it has three distinct ‘tops’: the aforementioned Black Hill, which is the highest point in the historic county, but now effectively on the border between the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire and High Peak in Derbyshire – yes, it’s a Cheshire hill, in the Peak District near West Yorkshire! – Shutlingsloe and Shining Tor.

    Alderley Edge Mines take you underground as does Hack Green Nuclear Bunker. Stalybridge, near Stockport, is as far removed from Ness Botanic Gardens as you can get, as is Newton-Le-Willows, part of Merseyside, from the likes of Nantwich and Crewe.

    Then you could include Flintshire, which is now part of North Wales.

    How could I not include all these gems and thus stick to a modern 900 square mile restriction? In the end it was a relatively easy decision to take – but then I had to whittle the Gems down to 50!

    So old boundary, new boundary, there’s plenty of places to discover and the gems are designed to be visited in clusters. For instance, the Lovell Quinta Arboretum is a stunning collection of trees in the late Sir Bernard Lovell’s garden, the famous physicist and radio astronomer. It is a stone’s throw from Jodrell Bank and located in Swettenham, which is beautiful village in its own right. Delamere Forest has Hatchmere Lake as its neighbour while Parkgate and Ness can be visited in an afternoon.

    Here I present five of my favourites; I hope you enjoy them!

    Lovell Quinta Arboretum - Sir Bernard Lovell's 'reflection' pond. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Lovell Quinta Arboretum

    Sir Bernard Lovell created this fantastic arboretum in the grounds of the house he bought in 1948. His vision was to collect a variety of trees and shrubs from around the world, based on the four volumes of W. J. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles and establish them in this quiet part of Cheshire.

    It was very much a personal project – he was meticulous in keeping records, hand-drawn plans and a card index for each plant – and was at the heart of developing it as the years progressed.

    As an astronomy pioneer, that level of detail is more than reflected in his arboretum and his home village, from the creation of the reflection pond to the avenues and areas that symbolised major events in his life. In 1996, the site passed into the watch of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and is now with the Tatton Garden Society and the capable hands of Rhoderic Taylor, the curator.

    He looks after close to 2,400 plants, some of which are ‘champion’ trees, and others of international significance and importance. This is an amazing site with a varied and interesting collection. There is an honesty box in a prominent position, with a suggested entry fee of £2.50 per person, but to be honest, the walk is worth a lot more.

    Hack Green - A vast array of monitoring equiptment, as well as nuclear weapons. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Hack Green Nuclear Bunker

    Sometimes a gem stays with you for a long time. I’ve been fascinated with the history of the Cold War and particularly the aftermath of an attack ever since I discovered a Royal Observer Corps Post while researching another of the 50 Gems series. It opened up a whole new area of underground discoveries for this speleologist and reflection of the world I was growing up in when I was a lot younger.

    Visiting Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker married those two interests together and brought with it a sense of poignancy, empathy and terror I never expected. This was a site of preparation for a nuclear attack, an operational Cold War base, the foundation of civil defence in the region and a reminder of how far we’ve come since the threats of that period.

    Starting in the canteen, you tour around the base and get to see what life would have been like at Hack Green. Your tour includes where nuclear fallout would have been tracked by top scientists, communications and BBC broadcast centres, Home Office briefing and conference rooms and their still operational radio equipment, a ROC Post, bunk rooms, the actual equipment Thatcher used to signal the attacking of the Belgrano in the Falklands conflict and a whole lot more.

    It is incredible, stark, frightening and weirdly reassuring. The fact that the government had all this in place in the event of an attack, to make sure survivors had the best chance of living, is pretty sobering. The team at Hack Green have created something that is educational and entertaining, non-political and utterly fascinating.

    At the top of Black Hill. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Black Hill

    Reaching 1,909 feet, Black Hill isn’t a particularly majestic ‘mountain’ or somewhere that would be high on many peak bagger’s lists, but it retains a certain charm as well as being a real oddity.

    But the views on the way up to the summit are amazing on a clear day and getting to that point is relatively straightforward – from the A635 and along the well-paved Pennine Way, if you’re inclined to take that route.

    Its location makes it important too as I mentioned above!  It got its ‘bleak’ name because it was once covered in deep black bogs; exposed peat stripped back due to 150 years of pollution and wild fires.

    The difference between that description and the present day couldn’t be more contrasting as significant conservation efforts have taken place.

    Remedial work started on the 46-hectare site in 2003, aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, before the Moors for the Future MoorLIFE project came to the fore. They spread 50 million sphagnum fragments on the moorland to reintroduce sphagnum moss, a key peat-building moss. They also planted bog cotton and bilberry, and these are evident as you reach the summit.

    Gawsworth. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Gawsworth

    You only have to see the pictures here to understand what a beautiful village Gawsworth is.

    It’s peaceful, tranquil and its church is flanked by two pools, making it the most idyllic venue for a place of worship.

     

     

     

     

    Parkgate is an important salt marsh and has great views. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Parkgate

    For everything Cheshire has to offer, the last thing you would expect to find is a coastal resort.

    Parkgate was an important port towards the end of the seventeenth century, serving as a leaving point for Ireland. Originally, ships docked further in stream at Chester but as the River Dee silted, alternative disembarkation points were needed.

    The first was built at Burton but as the river became less navigable, a location was found just outside the boundary of Neston’s hunting park. Parkgate was that ‘post’ and it became a bustling hub with ships anchored in the main channel – passengers and goods transferred by tender. It retained that status until 1815 before the majority of trade with Ireland passed through Liverpool.

    The area is managed by the RSPB, who purchased it from British Steel in 1979. Hen Harrier, Merlin, Skylark, Redshanks and Short-Eared Owls all call it home – with even more arriving when tides flush out mammals and insects.

    Taking a walk along the Parade is like stepping back in time. The site of the Old Customs House, once a starting point for donkey rides, provides a host of information, while on the opposite side of the road is Mostyn House School from 1855, the Ship pub and places to buy local seafood and the resort’s famous ice cream.

     

    Mike Appleton's new book 50 Gems of Cheshire is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Lancashire by Robert Nicholls

    Although I was raised in Yorkshire – and traditionally there is no love lost between the two counties – I have grown to love Lancashire. My latest book ‘50 Gems of Lancashire’ celebrates this remarkable county and all it has to offer those who like to explore its treasures, especially those off the beaten track. And contrary to popular belief, Lancashire has far more areas of beautiful countryside that its traditional industrial image would suggest.

    Sambo’s Grave, Sunderland Point. (50 Gems of Lancashire, Amberley Publishing)

    The ‘gems’ is this book are either buildings, structures, locations or landforms that are either rare or unusual architecturally, or associated with a fascinating story which helps bring history vividly to life.

    One such story is that of Sambo, a young slave boy. The site where he is buried at Sunderland Point a few miles away from Lancaster is my favourite spot in the county. I did ponder whether to include this gem in the book. After all, the word ‘Sambo’ has some derogatory associations, despite the fact that the original book portrayed its characters favourably and set the book in India, not Africa. To settle the matter, I consulted some Afro-Caribbean friends, who responded: ‘It is his name, so who has the right to deny him his name or his little place in history?’, and ‘That’s part of my history, it has got to go in the book’. So I see this gem as honouring Sambo and those like him.

    Sambo was a black boy who died in 1736. Sunderland Point was a port for Lancaster, one of the stopping places in the 'triangular trade' whereby goods were taken from Britain to West Africa and traded for slaves, who were then transported to the Caribbean. Ships then returned to Britain carrying goods like cotton and tobacco, and a few slaves such as Sambo. Sadly he died here, reputedly of a broken heart when his Master went off on another trip. More likely he caught one of the diseases of the western world against which he would have had little natural immunity.

     

    The detailed inscription on Sambo’s Grave placed here in 1796. (50 Gems of Lancashire, Amberley Publishing)

    Sambo died in the building now called Upsteps Cottage, and was buried here, in the corner of a field next to a salt marsh, in unconsecrated ground. The grave remained unmarked until 1796 when a local schoolmaster raised some money for the metal memorial that contains his poetic epitaph.

    Another attraction for me about this particular gem is that it is so isolated and it takes some planning and determination to get there. If you are going there by car, you have to be aware that the access road to Sunderland Point is submerged by water twice a day. After that there is still a walk to find the grave, but once there you will be rewarded.

    Nowadays, one of the most enchanting elements is that the grave contains many mementos left in tribute by local school children. So young Sambo, who was once forgotten after his death, is now remembered by the young, and his story inspires them – and us – to more deeply reflect on these aspects of black history.

    Robert Nicholls' new book 50 Gems of Lancashire is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Shropshire by John Shipley

    Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Shropshire has so many Gems to offer therefore limiting this book to only 50 Gems has proved to be very difficult. The beautiful border county of Shropshire is surely one of the loveliest in the kingdom. A history buff's dream with castles and historic sites galore. The county is also a walkers paradise with an abundance of hills, valleys and picture postcard countryside from north to south, from east to west, hikers are almost spoiled for choice.

    For those not into the more strenuous pastimes there are numerous historic towns to visit such as Shrewsbury and Ludlow with their medieval castles, listed buildings, and narrow streets (called shuts in Shrewsbury), plus a host of welcoming hostelries and restaurants. Not forgetting Bridgnorth with its Severn Valley Railway, the unique Funicular Cliff Railway, and historic buildings.

    Shropshire is a county with not one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Ironbridge Gorge (1986), and the Pontcysllte Aqueduct and Canal (2009), not forgetting its very own Lake District around Ellesmere, loads to experience for the discerning visitor. Shropshire has many iconic places: Coalbrookdale with eleven museums to visit, including the incredible Iron Bridge, an area that witnessed the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

    Sweeping through the county is the River Severn, Britain's longest river at 220 miles long, winding through five counties on its picturesque journey from mid-Wales to the Bristol Channel. Of course Shropshire not only boasts this river but has many others, a lot of them tributaries of the Severn, each offering lovely valleys and views to amble through, valleys such as the Teme, the Onny and the Corve, with a special mention to the River Clun, the inspiration for the famous piece by A.E. Housman:

     “Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun, Are the quietest places, Under the sun.”

    The iconic Iron Bridge at Ironbridge. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Shropshire is a county where one can walk through history from the ancient Bronze and Iron Ages, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and on up to the present day.

    There are many famous Salopians, heroes and pioneers such as Wolves and England footballer Billy Wright CBE, the first man to win 100 International caps for England, Sir Gordon Richards, 1904-1986, he was the first Jockey to be knighted. Raised in Donnington Wood, the first English flat-race jockey to ride 4,000 winners, and topped the winning jockey list for 26 out of 34 seasons between 1921 and 1954. In all he won a total of 4,870 races, then a world record.

    Shropshire has two world renowned golfers: Sandy Lyle MBE and Ian Woosnam OBE. Sandy was born in Shrewsbury on 9 February 1958, his father, Scotsman Alex Lyle, was professional at Hawkstone Park Golf Club. Sandy won two major championships: the US Masters, and The British Open, plus many other prestigious tournaments as well as representing Europe in the Ryder Cup both as player, 5 times, and as assistant captain to Ian Woosnam.

    Ian Woosnam was born in Oswestry on 2 March 1958, representing Europe in eight Ryder Cups. Woosie won the US Masters in 1991. He started playing golf at Llanymynech Golf Club, representing Shropshire County Boys in an eight-man team which included Sandy Lyle.

    Amongst Shropshire's other famous heroes is Captain Matthew Webb, 1848–1883, the steamship captain and famous swimmer who on 24 August 1875 became the first man to swim the English Channel. Born in Dawley, Shropshire, on 19 January 1848, the eldest of twelve children. He sadly died on 24 July 1883 whilst attempting to swim across the Niagara River directly beneath Niagara Falls.

    Charles Darwin statue, Shrewsbury. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    One of Shropshire's most famous sons is Charles Darwin, 1809 – 1882, a man venerated the world over. Charles Darwin was born 12 February 1809 at 'The Mount,' (now known as 'Darwin House'), which is situated in the Frankwell area of Shrewsbury, and was educated at Shrewsbury School. His famous epic five year voyage of discovery aboard H.M.S. Beagle began in December 1831 when aged 22 he signed up as naturalist to the surveying expedition. Over the next twenty plus years Darwin formulated his theories of evolution, delaying their publication until 1859. 'The Origin of Species,' expounding evolution through means of natural selection caused an uproar, splitting the scientific community; the Church of England described his work as heresy. Darwin's theory changed every known view on how the human species evolved. His forward thinking book is one of the most important ever written. His legacy is the basis on which we all live our lives. Each February, Shrewsbury celebrates its most famous son in the annual Darwin Festival.

    Doctor William Penny Brookes, 1809 – 1896, was born in Much Wenlock, and is best known as the man responsible for the re-birth of the Olympic Games. This impressive figure, with trademark long facial whiskers and stern expression began exercise classes in 1850 in response to his concerns for the health of the town's population particularly the local working men. Ten years later this developed into the Wenlock Olympian Society, an organisation that still exists. Dr Brookes vision of the Much Wenlock Olympian Games began in 1861, and included diverse activities such as: putting the stone (today's shot-put), jumping, cricket, quoits, plus races for wheelbarrows, and a penny-farthing bicycle race over a three-mile course. The kids of the town also got to have a go at events which included: history, reading, spelling and, wait for it… knitting! Sadly, Dr Brookes died, aged 87, a few months before the first modern International Olympic Games, which took place in April 1896.

    The ruins of Whiteladies Priory. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Then we have soldiers: Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India; Admiral John Benbow; Lord Rowland Hill, the Duke of Wellington's right-hand man; Wilfred Owen, the famous World War One poet.

    Shropshire has a host of famous writers: Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) author of the Brother Cadfael stories; Mary Webb; Francis Moore founder of Old Moore's Almanac. Not forgetting Eglantyne Jebb co-founder of Save The Children.

    Many of the world's first are in Shropshire: the first Iron Bridge, opened in 1781, crossing the River Severn; the first 'Skyscraper' Ditherington Flax Mill; the first iron boat, built and launched at Coalbrookdale in 1787, to mention just a few.

    Shropshire has it all from the marvellous Shropshire countryside, hills and valleys, 32 castles, 25 hill forts (the best is Old Oswestry Hill Fort), 2 ancient dykes: Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke, stone-circles galore, an abundance of ghosts, and Cosford Aerospace Museum.

    Yes, Shropshire is a great place. Come and see for yourself.

    John Shipley's new book 50 Gems of Shropshire is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Derbyshire by Mike Appleton

    'Of the High Peak are seven wonders writ.’

    There’s a saying … if you do what you have always done, then you will get what you always got.

    I’m paraphrasing a little but I’m sure the basic premise remains the same: if you stay with what you know then it is almost impossible to experience new horizons.

    Discovering 50 Gems of Derbyshire was a simple feat. The Peak District National Park itself, Britain’s first, covers 555 square miles. It has two distinct areas – the White Peak in the lower southern part of the park featuring its caves and valleys, and the Dark Park; more northern and wilder.

    It reaches into five counties: Derbyshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester and more than ten million visitors a year enter its boundaries.

    Then you mix in those areas just outside the Park. Buxton for instance is the self-entitled Gateway to the Peak, whilst down in the South East, Derby is one of the finest cities in the country.

    Choosing gems with such an array on offer was a gift. Here are a sneak preview of five of the treasures the county contains.

    Edale Cross

    Sheltered and inset in the corner of the point where two drystone walls meet is an interesting medieval wayside and boundary cross. It stands on the parish boundary between Hatfield and Edale, next to the ancient moorland track between those two villages. It is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 because of its national importance – yet because of its location it begs the question – just how did it end up there?

    Edale Cross - Just a little wander from the Pennine Way, and well worth the diverson. (50 Gems of Derbyshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Kinder Downfall

    I’ve been lucky to visit Kinder Downfall, the 98 foot waterfall on Kinder, in two differing states – but largely in the same weather! The first was on a damp and dreary day, where the upper part of the fall near the Pennine Way was flowing decently and the lower part clouded in mist. The second was when I viewed it from lower down in more windy times and saw the fall blow back on itself. Both states were pretty impressive after a long walk and in winter ice-climbers take on its majesty too.

    The Downfall on a misty day. This is at the point where it crosses the Pennine Way. (50 Gems of Derbyshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Mam Tor

    Dominating the skyline to the west of Castleton is the ‘shivering mountain’ Mam Tor. It stands at 1,696 feet and is part of the Great Ridge which takes in Hollins Cross, Back Tor and Lose Hill - one of the finest walks in the Peak.

    Mam Tor summit looking towards the great ridge. (50 Gems of Derbyshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Eldon Hole

    One of the ‘original’ wonders of the Peak, around half an hour’s walk from Peak Forest. Whilst its depths are the goal of cavers, the open chasm is well worth visiting. It is the largest open pothole in Derbyshire at 110 feet by 20 feet at the surface. It descends some 245 feet under the slopes of Eldon Hill and has some fine formations; Phil Wolstenholme’s attached picture doing it more than justice.

    Stunning formation. (c. Phil Wolstenholme, 50 Gems of Derbyshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Ashford-in-the-Water

    Edensor may have been designed as a model village, but Ashford-in-the-Water is an original catwalk star; one of the prettiest in the country. It’s a chocolate box scene with beautiful idyllic houses and buildings alongside a medieval packhorse bridge that is sure to be one of the most photographed in the area!

    A medieval packhorse bridge. (50 Gems of Derbyshire, Amberley Publishing)

     

    Mike Appleton's new book 50 Gems of Derbyshire is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of South-West Wales by Geoff Brookes

    The selection of places for this book was very hard to make – of course it was. It is such a wonderful part of the country, full of beauty, history and mystery, and there are always discoveries to be made, always hidden pleasures to unearth. Writing this book has given me the perfect excuse to wander around these beautiful and much-loved locations, and also some which I hope are less familiar but equally deserving of your attention. Because wherever you stop, if you pause and look around, you will find a ‘gem’. That is the point of the book: to urge you get out of the car and be a part of the countryside you see around you. It is hard to think of anywhere richer in history and beauty, more appealing than South West Wales. So here’s a gem to get you intrigued.

    The Church of St Brynach. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of South-West Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    Cwm yr Eglwys

    The Royal Charter Storm

    This is a real gem, an enchanting place forever touched by the sea. It is on the eastern side of Dinas Head facing Newport Bay. You need to leave the A487 between Fishguard and Newport and take the signposted road east of Dinas Cross to Cwm yr Eglwys. The narrow road drops down for around a mile and you will see the superb views to your right that are the reason for your journey. You can park easily close to the beach where you will find safe bathing and easy access to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

    It has a very sheltered position and reputedly has its own warmer microclimate. At the end of the nineteenth century it was claimed that no one in Cwm yr Eglwys died under eighty. It is an achingly pretty place and yet carries within it a striking reminder of the brutality of the sea.

     

    The model of a cwm trader, a coastal trading vessel, at the entrance to the churchyard. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of South-West Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    Above the beach and behind the sea wall you can see all that remains of the twelfth-century Church of St Brynach. The rest of it was washed away in the enormous storm of October 1859, a hurricane in which 133 ships were wrecked and ninety were badly damaged. It became known as the ‘Royal Charter Storm’ when the ship The Royal Charterreturning from Australia to Liverpool was wrecked off Anglesey and at least 450 people died. The hurricane ravaged the whole of the west coast and Cwm yr Eglwys did not escape. There had previously been storm damage in 1850 and 1851 but nothing like this. A storm surge 15 feet above normal high water carried away the side wall and roof of St Brynach, ‘together with a wide slice of the churchyard’. A witness interviewed in 1897 remembered that ‘human remains in large quantity’ were exposed as the earth was washed away. She saw the coffins of the vicar’s six dead children exhumed by the waves and carried out to sea. Two ships were lost in the bay and eight bodies were subsequently washed ashore or recovered from the cliffs.

    The ruins stood until 1880 when they were demolished, leaving just the end wall of the chapel you can see. The sea wall was built in 1882 to serve ‘as a rampart resisting the devastating inroads made by the sullen sea’. The churchyard is now an attractive grassed area ideal for picnics, and it is hard to equate what you see now with the terrible devastation the village and the church once suffered.

    You can use the postcode SA42 0SJ to find Cwm yr Eglwys. The sea has never needed any help to find it.

    Geoff Brookes new book 50 Gems of South-West Wales is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Mid Wales by Geoff Brookes

    The Murder of John Price 1826 - Llanafan Fawr, Powys

    I have included Llanafan Fawr in my book 50 Gems of Mid Wales but I have only been able to give it a bare 220 words. But it is insufficient to capture the story of a remarkable dispute between two families, remembered now by a crumbling gravestone.

    Llanafan Fawr church. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of Mid Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    The B4358 sweeps up from Beulah towards Newbridge on Wye and, if you are paying proper attention to the traffic, you might miss the church which stands quietly opposite the Red Lion, the oldest inn in Wales. The Church of St Afan has a long history – and a murderous one. It contains one of the oldest living objects in the country and also a fascinating gravestone.

    The church, built upon an Iron Age mound, is pre-dated by the huge yew tree, estimated to be over 2300 years old. It is a tree that has seen so much drama, so much murder.

    This is such a beautiful and remote place. Hills unchanged, kites circling as they always have. And through the years a community has lived here, where lives have been carved out, away from the rest of us. Jealousies, rivalries, disputes, vendettas – things that the rest of us have known nothing about – have consumed them, defining their lives and their deaths. Old rivalries. Old crimes.

    About thirty metres away from the church door, on the left, you will find it.  An old weathered stone, almost indecipherable now, but unique, carrying both the name of the victim – and his murderer. If you stare at it long enough the inscription will still emerge from the past.

    John Price who was murdered on the Darren Hill in this parish by R. Lewis.

    April 21 1826

    The gravestone. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of Mid Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    The Cambrian newspaper reported the murder a week later. It tells us that John Price was found, ‘his neck twisted till the blood ran out of his ears so that his death must have been occasioned by a dislocation of his vertebrae.’ Suspicions fell upon Rees Lewis, a shepherd and neighbour, who had disappeared. But the Price’s didn’t need evidence. Their suspicions always fell upon the notorious Lewis family.

    This was one of the final acts in a dispute that combined these two families in mutual loathing and which had sparked another notorious murder 42 years previously, when Lewis Lewis killed Thomas Price.

    The Lewis family were, it seems, a lawless bunch, ‘a vicious, wicked set of people.’ Sheep stealing, riotous behaviour and assault run unchecked through their history. David Lewis was transported to Australia for stealing a turkey. His wife Margaret was accused of murdering an illegitimate infant son, fathered in David’s absence. She was acquitted and went on to become the midwife in the parish.

    The Price family weren’t much better. Thomas Price himself was accused of Riot and Assault in July 1784, just before his murder, and others were involved in stealing livestock themselves.

    By 1784 the Lewis family were finding Thomas Price hard to take. They might have been self-confessed villains but they took comfort from the fact that he was worse. They would often find their sheep dead in the fields, laid head to tail, killed by Price and his dog.

    Then, in October 1784 Thomas Price disappeared. A search was organised, one that even involved young Thomas Lewis, but there was no trace of him. The Lewis family, naturally, were accused by Thomas Price’s wife Gwenllian to no avail. Rewards for information were offered but the trail went cold and the Lewis sheep remain untroubled.

    However, in 1788 John Lewis was convicted of sheep stealing and was sentenced to transportation for 14 years. The prospect was horrifying. He was ‘frightened in the highest degree at the accounts from thence and resolved rather to be hanged here, than to be starved there.’ Who can blame him?

    And so he sang.  He told the magistrates everything he knew about the death of Thomas Price four years earlier. He had fallen out with his brother Lewis Lewis and could see no reason to protect either him or his two sons, one also called Lewis and the other, Thomas.

    So Thomas Lewis was arrested. Within a fortnight he too turned King’s Evidence and in so doing condemned both his father and his brother to the gallows.

    Lewis Lewis the Elder had offered sheep to his sons if they would kill Thomas Price. Lewis Lewis the Younger and his pal Evan Davies were eager to take up the offer, though Thomas claimed that he was less enthusiastic and that it was Lewis who made the plans.

    The yew tree, a silent witness to 2,500 years of history. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of Mid Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    In October 1784 the three of them had waylaid Thomas Price. Lewis knocked him to the ground with a stick and then strangled him, whilst Davies thumped him in the stomach. Thomas Lewis said that he just held down his legs. Their indictment would later say that they ‘did not have the fear of God before their eyes but were seduced by the instigation of the devil.’ Well, it happens a lot in Mid Wales, even today.

    Once he was dead, Lewis took Price’s purse and shared with them the contents of 6 shillings. They threw the body into a pool and Lewis hanged Price’s dog with the same cord that had strangled its master.

    Thomas Lewis, already regretting his involvement, joined the search party to throw suspicion away from himself. It was Lewis and Davies who then dragged the body from the first pool and threw it to a deeper one called Varlen Vawr, submerging it with a large boulder. Thomas was the one though who found the body in May 1785, when it bobbed back up to the surface. Together with their father, they put the corpse into a sack and carried it by horse to the home of the Younger Lewis Lewis where they spent all night trying to burn the wet body using wood and turf.

    In the morning they packed up the bones yet unburnt and trampled the fragments and the ashes into the garden. The next night they tried again to burn the troublesome bones, this time at the Elder Lewis Lewis house, again scattering the debris into the garden the next morning. They did indeed stamp upon the skull but the fragments were still recognisable in 1788.

    Evan Davies and the younger Lewis fled once they realised that Thomas was singing in custody. Davies disappeared but Lewis was apprehended in Dolgellau. He was tried and condemned to death. He was reconciled with his brother Thomas and a large crowd witnessed his execution, the first in Brecon for 30 years. It was an occasion of the ‘greatest decorum and solemnity,’ despite his mother turning up to watch, calling out ‘Bydd fawr’n galed Lewis (‘Die hard Lewis’) whilst eating a pie.

    Vendettas have a habit of repeating themselves. In 1826, Rees Lewis strangled John Price with a necktie. He pleaded not guilty but was condemned and, like his relatives before, was hanged at Brecon. The Price family could not miss this opportunity to point a finger at their enemies through the gravestone we can still see. All that passion and hatred, once so real, is now represented by a simple crumbling stone.

    We cannot visit the grave of Lewis Lewis. After his execution his body was displayed in a gibbet near Llanafan Fawr. The family took away his body for secret burial at night during a storm. Unable to release the ankle chains, they cut off his feet and left them behind. A local dog found the feet and took one home to his master.

    Who owned the dog?

    John Price.

    Geoff Brookes new book 50 Gems of Mid Wales is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Cumbria by Beth & Steve Pipe

    50 Gems of Cumbria 1 Bishop of Barf. The two bright white rocks are just about impossible to miss among the deep green hillside of Barf. (50 Gems of Cumbria, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m pretty sure that when I tell most people that Steve and I write books, they envisage us wafting around the countryside on lovely sunny days before returning to our mansion to scratch out a few words before dinner.  Well, it’s not really like that – and this book was particularly not like that.

    First of all we had to agree which 50 Gems we were going to include.  Now, we both passionately love Cumbria and its many hidden away corners so this in itself was no mean feat.  Lists were drawn up, argued over, re drawn up, researched, drawn up again and then finally agreed on.  We know we’ll never keep everyone happy with the 50 we’ve chosen because we know there are so many others we could also have included – perhaps the next book could be “50 More Gems of Cumbria – the ones we couldn’t quite agree on”

    We then set about the task of revisiting them all several times to get the right photos, researching and double checking all of our facts and deciding how best to organise them in the book.  Some gems were easy to research whereas others were more problematic. Take the Bishop of Barf for example; I spent days sending dozens of emails and making lots of bizarre phone calls trying to establish who currently paints it.  It’s a huge white rock half way up an inaccessible hillside which is resplendently white – someone, somewhere, knows who paints it but no-one is letting on.  On the bright side my enquiries did enable me to prove Wikipedia wrong and that always makes me happy.

     

     

    50 Gems of Cumbria 2 Grasmere from Loughrigg Terrace. (50 Gems of Cumbria, Amberley Publishing)

    On top of all that research we were hampered with a run of bad luck on the health front – during the course of the year I had two bad falls resulting in two nights in hospital, two concussions (one of them severe), two broken bones, a two inch cut on my head and a few resulting problems with my short term memory.  Not to be outdone Steve damaged his right knee and spent 6 months of the year on crutches.  One of the finest sights to be seen in the county occurred on a crisp and frosty November morning – Steve headed up to Loughrigg Terrace on crutches while I slithered my way around the lake and into to the village with one arm still in a sling. (The result being the rather lovely photo to the right, which is at the top of page 48 in the book)

    Hopefully we’ve included some of your favourites as well as inspired you to seek out corners you perhaps haven’t previously explored. For us the book represents 50 of our favourite places to visit and, as I flick through it, I remember all the fun and adventures we had putting it together.  Writing books may not be as idyllic as many people imagine – but it is a lot of fun, and an absolute privilege to live in and explore this breathtaking county.

    9781445663968

    Beth & Steve Pipe's new book 50 Gems of Cumbria is available for purchase now.

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