Northern Exposure

After my recent rant about travel and tourism, I realised that I forgotten to mention any of the positive things about my recent trip to Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands so I shall redress the balance.

First, there was the accommodation. Until I discovered the Landmark Trust, I had no idea that you could have a medieval gatehouse all to yourself, for only slightly more money than a budget hotel room.


This is what’s left of the castle in Cawood – a once important Yorkshire town that gradually became eclipsed by its neighbours, particularly after the Industrial Revolution. Today, it’s a pleasant village with just one shop and a couple of pubs.

I’d never heard of Cawood Castle, but it has a long list of illustrious visitors, including Henry VIII and Thomas Wolsey, who was arrested here. Over the centuries, the gatehouse has been used a prisoner of war camp (during the Civil War), a courthouse and an officers’ mess.

Today, it is a holiday home.


The Landmark Trust have done a wonderful job of maintaining the gatehouse’s historical character without compromising on modern comforts. I particularly appreciated the compact kitchen, which had a bone china tea set and a set of Le Creuset saucepans – a far cry from many holiday rentals.

The only slight problem was the winding stone staircase, which connected the sitting room with the loos and bedroom. My wife and I decided to limit our alcohol intake to a bottle of light fizz, rather than risk plunging to our doom during the night.


At the top of the gatehouse, we were able to sit in deckchairs and enjoy the view. We were warned that the locals would be having an open air party on Saturday night, but they were barely audible. Most of the time, it was so quiet that I could only hear the ringing in my ears.


My sons moaned a little about the absence of wifi and television, but far less than I was expecting. Overall, they seemed to enjoy the silence and slept like logs in their huge room, with its grand fireplace.


If you want to escape from the crowds, enjoy quirky, eccentric buildings and can survive with only books and board games for entertainment, I can warmly recommend the Landmark Trust.

I also enjoyed being in Yorkshire, where plain speaking is particularly valued. When I ordered a Sunday lunch in a pub that seemed to be staffed entirely by schoolgirls, I was told “If yer want it in’t garden, you’ll ‘ave to pay oop front”.  I presume the implication was that I might do a runner after finishing my meal.

In other situations, it might have sounded rude, but coming from a girl who was 14, going on 65, it was more endearing than anything else.

During our weekend in Cawood, we went to York and did the usual things that anyone does there, along with umpteen thousand other people. I love York, but it’s one of those places that has become fully ‘monetized’ and there are few surprises to be had.

However, the day after York, I went on one of the most interesting guided tours I’ve ever been on.


I’ve always had a hankering to visit a coal mine, ever since reading The Road To Wigan Pier. My wife thought that it was a yet another one of my strange whims, but why wouldn’t anyone be interested? Virtually everything that has happened in the last 250 years has been enabled by coal, one way or another.

The National Coal Mining Museum opened in 1988, three years after it closed as a working colliery and offers underground tours given by ex-miners. I had naively assumed that the modern coal mine would be a relatively comfortable working environment, but the reality was quite different.

The first surprise was the lift. There were around 20 of us in the tour group and when I saw the tiny cage that would take us down to the coal face, I wondered whether we could do it in two or three shifts. But our guide was having none of that:

“C’mon, that’s it. Squeeze right up to the end. We’ll all get in. Even you Doris…”

I couldn’t believe that we’d all fit in, but we did and I realised that it was quite right that we should experience the cage journey from the miner’s perspective. But I was wrong again:

“We’re going down quite quickly, but this isn’t the lift’s proper speed. We used to go at least six times faster.” Time was money, he explained.

As we descended, the air changed and water dripped down the side of the shaft. Then suddenly, we slowed to a halt and the cage door slid open. I had expected a large, brightly lit space with tunnels going off in different directions, but the reality was gloomy and claustrophobic.

We’d been equipped with hardhats and safety torches, specially designed to avoid igniting any methane gas emissions. All electronic devices were banned – even car keys – so there was no temptation to look for good photo opportunities. Instead, we were able to fully engage with our surroundings and try and imagine what it must have been like to work there.

Our guide showed us a narrow tunnel where, two centuries ago, children as young as five worked with their parents in total darkness. The children were tied to their parents by a rope, otherwise they could have been lost forever. We were asked to turn off our torches for a minute and experience the complete absence of light.


The guide invited us to crawl through a tunnel that was barely wider than a normal adult body. Most people declined, but I felt compelled to have a go and as I squeezed my way awkwardly towards to the exit, I tried to imagine what it must have been like on the first day in a mine. To realise that this was your life from now on, with few opportunities for respite and no prospect of deliverance.


Of course, as time went on, conditions improved. But even the modern, post-nationalisation coal face, with all of its safety features, was still a unremittingly grim place to work. I left feeling an even greater respect for the miners, along with a gratitude that I’d been born in a different time and place.

After leaving Yorkshire, we drove to the Scottish Highlands where nothing out of the ordinary happened. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t enjoy it; just that it was very similar to our trip the year before.

We went for a very pleasant walk next to the River Garry (sadly, there is no river called Steve or Colin), which was enjoyably rugged.


My younger son (pictured) had a bit of a sulk because we wouldn’t let him cross the fast-moving river by hopping from boulder to boulder. I think his faith in his manual dexterity has been inflated by playing computer games.


Perhaps something interesting happened to us in Scotland, but I can’t recall anything. It was just very lovely, as always. If anything comes back to me I’ll let you know.

This year’s experiences have taught me three lessons:

1. Always stay in a Landmark Trust property, if possible.

2. Don’t let my son choose the car music.

3. Remember that boredom is character building for children.


  1. Annabel (gaskella)

    I like the idea of Landmark Trust properties. I could cope with either no wifi or no telly, but not both unless I remembered to take a radio! The coal mine experience sounds fab – on a similar but more civilised theme – I went inside the mountain on a tour at the Dinorwig Hydro Power Station in Snowdonia – there’s miles of tunnels, but they took us by coach!


    • Steerforth

      Yes, I cheated a little and used my data allowance to enjoy some internet access, but in general I was content to explore the contents of their bookcase and read the often interesting comments in the visitors’ book.

      The power station sounds right up my street!


  2. Toffeeapple

    We tend to go to Argyll and/or Ayrshire when we go up to Scotland. Argyll is particularly lovely.
    My Father was a Coal Hewer, that chap in the picture lying, naked, on his back. A filthy, thankless job which made him ill for many years.
    I’ll give the Landmark Trust properties a miss, I can’t do stairs, day or night.


    • Steerforth

      The Landmark Trust have all sorts of properties, many of which have much easier access. If you look at their website, I think you can specifically request only those properties that are easier to get around. Apparently, our staircase is notorious as the most difficult out of all their properties. I’m surprised nobody’s broken their neck yet. Perhaps we all take extra care because it’s so obviously challenging.

      I’ll have a look at Argyll and Ayrshire – I’ve had several recommendations for the latter.


  3. Caroline

    Lovely! Thank you and, as ever, cheering. This year’s holiday rental in Cornwall, otherwise pretty modest, had no less than nine separate hand-held graters of varying shapes, sizes and grades in the kitchen. Quite astonishing. And I have, once, met a man called Avon so I suppose that makes up for the lack of Colin, etc (not sure if Avon had ever met Garry though…) As for the Coal Mining Museum, sounds rather brilliant and reminded me of a visit to Cragside in Northumbria which, I’m ashamed to admit, disabused me of my strongly-held notion that there was nothing of interest, to me at least, in hydraulic power. It was fascinating. And the gardens were very splendid too.


    • Steerforth

      A man called Avon? I only hope that he wasn’t around in the 1970s, when Blake’s Seven and the “Avon calling!” commercials were on television.

      Re: the hydraulic power – some of my best memories are from times when I’ve been somewhere with low expectations and found myself pleasantly surprised.


  4. Allen

    “a pleasant village with just one shop and a couple of pubs.”
    They’ve got their priorities right.
    If the loos are on the same level as the bedroom, do your drinking in bed. If they’re on the same level as the living room, drink enough to fall asleep there. Problem solved, either way.


    • Steerforth

      Ah, if only it was that simple. One loo was between the sitting room and the bedroom; the other was halfway down towards the dungeon (as my sons liked to call it), so the stairs were unavoidable.


  5. George

    If you are ever in Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry has a coal mine. I can’t report on it, for the one time we visited we had limited time. (We did see the U-Boat, though.)

    Underground coal mining remains a dangerous business. It is somewhat less so in the US, where safety rules are often followed. But China had a high mortality rate among coal miners last I read.


    • Steerforth

      One of the many fascinating facts I learned was that coal dust is ten times more dangerous than methane. Our guide told us that in 1913, over 400 miners were killed in a Welsh pit fire that began when coal dust ignited. It seems extraordinary that this incident isn’t more widely known about in Britain.


  6. Numbatty

    We have stayed at Cawood castle too a couple of years ago. I felt as though the eyes in the portrait of Thomas Wolsey followed you round the room. They apparently built the wide Georgian staircase at the entrance for the judges when it was a court and only the prisoners ascended up the stone stairs from the depths. Watching the swifts flit around from the roof terrace was mesmerising.


    • Steerforth

      It’s a wonderful place, but those stairs! There was a spare cot bed in the upstairs room and I was trying to imagine carry a baby or toddler in one hand while clinging on to the rope for dear life with the other.


  7. Joan Kyler

    When we were travelling a lot in Great Britain, back in the 1980s, we often stayed in Trusthouse Forte hotels. These were usually old coaching inns and estates that had been converted to very comfortable and atmospheric hotels. Since I haven’t been to the UK for over 15 years, I don’t know if they still exist (although I suppose I could Google them) or if they’re in some way related to the Landmark Trust hotels.


    • Steerforth

      I think they’re still going. They’re not related to the Landmark Trust, which is a charity and doesn’t operate hotels, but just lets out single properties for between two and seven nights. There are some lovely coaching inns, but there are also some shockers that complacently rely on their location rather than the quality of the rooms. Thank goodness for websites like Trip Advisor.


  8. Dale

    You can be our Trip Advisor, Steerforth – and we are duly warned now to stay away from Cawood Castle. And coal mines. Though we did go down a lead mine once, in the Peak District and that was quite fun, as the mine was flooded and one went round by boat seeing nothing whatsoever. Fortunately the guide was a comedian who made the most of his opportunity with a captive audience.
    How did they get the furniture up to the rooms on that staircase?


    • Steerforth

      That’s a very good question. There’s a normal staircase that goes up to the first level, but I’ve no idea how they managed to reach the bedroom. It’s not as if the furniture is flatpack stuff. It’s all solid wood; mostly antique. The cleaner has a separate hoover for each level, which is very sensible.


  9. Pete

    Glad we didn’t lose you on that staircase. (Rest assured, we would have gotten a chuckle, but not the hearty laughter had you been crushed that time by all those books.)

    Less merrily: those illustrations. Literally hellish.


  10. Steerforth

    I must leave instructions with my wife to record any details of my demise, if it’s suitably comic. Obviously death by books would be my preferred choice, but failing that, a tumble down a medieval staircase is perfectly acceptable.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Kid

    Staircase apart, Cawood Castle looks brilliant – very atmospheric. Thanks for showing us your photos – I wouldn’t mind staying there at all (again, staircase apart).


  12. Jan Stewer

    We stayed with friends in a very comfortable Landmark property on the Isle of Lundy. The day when there was no ferry timetabled lent a marvelous sense of having the place to ourselves.


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