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.