Tom's Britain - Exploring places of interest and things to do in England, Wales & Scotland

30 November 2012

See the Hereford Mappa Mundi

The Mappa Mundi is held by Hereford Cathedral and is a fascinating map dating from around 1285, which shows the world as it was seen in medieval times. Apparently drawn on calf skin by Richard of Haldingham and Lafford, the map places Jerusalem at the centre, with the British Isles on the outer edges of the known world.

The map displays only what was known by Richard and his contemporaries, reaching no further than the River Ganges in India, the Nile in Africa and Norway and the Caspian Sea to the North, and for your author one of the most interesting aspects was the strange beasts, creatures and quasi-human animals which lurk around the edges of the map, presumably representing an acute fear of the unknown.

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^Picture from the Wikimedia Commons^

29 November 2012

Cross Sellack Swing Bridge

Your author has fond memories of catching minnows in the shallows of the River Wye below Sellack Bridge in Herefordshire as a child, and the swing bridge which crosses the river between the villages of Sellack and Kings Caple near Ross-on-Wye. The bridge was opened in 1898 to link the two parishes by public petition, apparently because the vicar was having trouble getting ferryboat men to take him across the river.

The bridge was commissioned by Hereford architect Mr Ernest G. Davies, and designed and built by Louis Harper of Aberdeen,, and opened in 1898. It has always struck your author as unusual as it stands in open countryside and does not carry a road, making it a pleasant inclusion to a walk in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

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^Picture © Trevor Rickard used under a Creative Commons license^

28 November 2012

Visit Kilpeck Church

Despite being irreligious, your author particularly appreciates a good church, and the tiny sandstone Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, is a particularly interesting one, noted for its Norman carvings which include serpents, angels, a green man, a Sheela na Gig and a menagerie of beasts including a hound, hare and ram.

The church is entered through a spectacular Norman arch and is thought to contain remnants of its earlier Saxon foundations, and the St David referenced in its name is thought to be a local Celtic St David rather than the famous 6th century Welsh Bishop, and the name of the village itself is thought to derive from Pedic, a local early Christian hermit, Kil Peddeg thought to imply the "cell of Pedic".

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26 November 2012

Walk on Clevedon Pier, North Somerset

Originally built in the 1860s, Clevedon Pier in the small North Somerset town of Clevedon, was designed to allow paddle steamers to dock for services to South Wales and other places. Since 2001 it has been a Grade I listed structure making it - since the sad fire at Brighton's West Pier - the only Grade I listed pier open to the public, as well as being among the earliest Victorian piers still in existence.

Even after the building of the Severn Railway Tunnel to South Wales, the pier continued as a docking station for pleasure boats which took passengers around the Severn Estuary and recent years have seen a reprise, with boats such as the MV Balmoral and Paddle Steamer Waverley taking passengers from Clevedon to destinations such as the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm, as well as Penarth and Ilfracombe. Despite a collapse of two elements of the pier in 1970, an commendable campaign by the Clevedon Pier Preservation Trust saved the pier from demolition and after many years it was finally completely reopened in 1998.

For more, see

^Picture © Matt Neale used under a Creative Commons license^

25 November 2012

Climb the Cabot Tower, Bristol

The city of Bristol has always been quite proud of its adopted son John Cabot, an Italian sailor who set sail from the port to become the first European to set foot on the mainland of North America, and at the end of the 19th century a tower was erected on top of Brandon Hill in the city to celebrate him.

The tower is still open to the public for free and whilst the staircase to access it is quite tight, the views from the top are exceptional, as Brandon Hill provides an excellent vantage point to survey the city.

For more, see,_Bristol

24 November 2012

Visit a prison built for French and American prisoners of war

Viewing the world with a 20th and 21st century mindset, it's hard to imagine a situation when there Britain would capture French and American prisoners of war but there was a time when it happened, and a place was needed to put them the French prisoners - taken during the Napoleonic Wars - were first imprisoned in derelict ships but between 1806 and 1809 Dartmoor prison was built to house them, and after 1812 they were joined by Americans taken in the war of 1812.

It isn't hard to see why the location - at the centre of one southern England's last great wildernesses - was chosen, but this is not just a historical anomaly and the prison still operates today and is home to more than 600 inmates. Indeed, but for a short break when it was used for conscientious objectors during the Great War, it has been in use as a prison ever since and a small museum operated by the Prison charts its history and even sells benches and garden ornaments made by inmates.

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23 November 2012

See the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives

Though the great 20th century sculptor Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield and spent time in Hampstead and Italy, moved to St Ives in Cornwall with her husband Ben Nicholson in 1939, and acquired a traditional stone building called Trewyn studios in 1949, working there until she was killed in a fire in the building in 1975.

The building which had become Hepworth's home was opened to the public - according to her wishes - in 1976 and remains open to the public all year round, allowing visitors the opportunity to see the place where Hepworth lived and worked and also to explore the beautiful garden she created with her friend, the South African-born composer Priaulx Rainier, who helped plant it with exotic plants.

For more, see

22 November 2012

Visit the Tate's southwestern outpost

It's easy for Londoners to think that the Tate empire extends no further than Bankside and Pimlico, but most will be aware that there are other galleries under the Tate banner and last week your author visited the Tate St Ives for the first time. Designed by architects Evans and Shalev on the site of a former gas works the gallery is on Porthmeor Beach and opened in a town long famous for its art in 1993.

Though the block of flats being rather noisily built next door was rather off-putting, a warm welcome awaited and the current show The Far and The Near: St Ives and International Art was a good introduction to art in St Ives and how it fits with the wider world, even if the film which accompanied it was rather full of puffed-up artspeak. From there, your author continued to the Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden, of which more in a couple of days.

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21 November 2012

Find Sir John Betjeman's final resting place

It was during childhood visits that the late poet Sir John Betjeman fell in love with the chapel of St Enodoc, a building tracing its history back to the 12th century which stands among sand dunes on the North coast of Cornwall, and it's easy to see why. Overlooking Daymer Bay and the Doom Bar now famous with ale drinkers across the land, the chapel had been buried in sand dunes between the 16th and 18th century, accessed for annual services through a hole in the roof.

When the sands eventually receded new life was breathed into St Enodoc's, and it was renovated in 1864 and this was the way Betjeman came to love it, first as a child, then when he immortalised it in his poem about the village of Trebetherick. In fact it was so important to him that as a seasoned visitor of thousands of churches he chose to be laid to rest in the graveyard, where he can still be found.

For more, see

20 November 2012

Visit Madron Holy Well

A couple of miles north of Penzance, and at the end of a winding muddy path, Madron Holy Well is thought to date from pre-Christian times and is still visited by passers-by. The well is easy to find, with signposts and more traditional 'clouties' - pieces of rag tied to the tree according to traditional custom at healing wells.

Nearby, a ruined chapel from the 12th century contains a well with running water in corner where it fills a simple baptistry before being piped away. Many suggest there was a simple building here from Celtic times onwards, and the water was thought to have healing properties, bringing many to bathe in its healing waters. Local folklore tells of John Trelill, who had been a cripple for 16 years, being cured by the water in the 17th century.

For more, see

19 November 2012

Drink at the Pandora Inn, Cornwall

A thatched pub at the end of a long Cornish lane, the Pandora Inn sits beside sleepy Restronguet Creek and was once a farmhouse until, in the 1200s it became a pub. Though it was the victim of a quite horrific fire last year and is also occasionally subject to flooding it is open

The pub has now fully recovered from the fire and when your author dropped in last week to do some afternoon reading, the only fire he found was one of two log fires quietly burning in the grates, whilst the interior of the pub had been restored quite brilliantly, and we are told that those responsible were keen to do so with according to traditional building methods and using correct materials, as per the Grade II listing.

For more, see

18 November 2012

Visit Newlyn Art Gallery

Opened in 1895 in Newlyn near Penzance, Newlyn Art Gallery was originally a place to exhibit the art of the Newlyn School of artists, a group of Victorian artists who had established themselves in the small fishing village to paint in plein air and observe the light and scenery of West Cornwall.

Today, the gallery is still going strong, and following redevelopments in 2007 it has been extended with the inevitable addition of an attractive first floor cafe with panoramic sea views.

For more, see

17 November 2012

See some art in a Bristol front room

In Bristol this weekend, the artists of Totterdown are throwing open their front doors and inviting you to see some art in their front rooms.

The trail has been going since 2001, and is an annual event, attracting thousands to see the work of 180 artists across 60 different venues. Only their boast that they are "the oldest of Bristol's art trails" seems a bit odd.

For more, see

^Picture © Steve Daniels used under a Creative Commons license^

16 November 2012

Visit Helston Folk Museum

A brilliant little museum in the Cornish Market Town of Helston, the Helston Folk Museum is run by Cornwall Museums and is quite deceptively large. A collection of many different aspects of life in a town with a small population but a proud heritage, it certainly puts many London borough museums to shame.

Whilst the contents might at first seem like a ramshackle collection of items, in fact they tell many aspects of the story of this little Cornish town, through artefacts such as a huge cider press, the paperwork and photographs of the town's first motorcar and various items referring to the folk history of the area and the the smugglers who were once rife on the Cornish coast.

For more, see

^Picture © T J Wright used under a Creative Commons license^

From mid November to late January, Tired of London, Tired of Life is becoming and featuring interesting things to do in England

15 November 2012

Sit beside the fire at the Warren House Inn

Whatever the weather outside, visitors to the Warren House Inn can always be sure of a warm welcome, so warm in fact that the fire has burnt continuously since 1845. The Inn cuts a lonely figure in the middle of Dartmoor, on what was once a packhorse route serving local tin mines.

Formerly known as the New House, the pub was renamed after a rabbit warren which was once situated close to the Inn, the Warren House was built in the eighteenth century on the site of an earlier pub, and where once it served miners from what was then a thriving local industry, today your are more likely to find the pub populated by walkers enjoying the local scenery, sheltering from a shower as the miners did before them.

For more, see

^Picture © Martin Bodman used under a Creative Commons license^

From mid November to late January, Tired of London, Tired of Life is becoming and featuring interesting things to do in England

13 November 2012

Admire the view from Selsley Common

An area of common land overlooking the town of Stroud in Gloucestershire, Selsley Common comprises nearly 160 acres of limestone grassland with stunning views over the the Severn Vale and towards the Stroud Valleys, which once boasted around 150 woolen mills, creating cloth for export around the world.

The town of Stroud is lucky to boast significant areas of common land, grazed by cattle but open to the public to roam as they please and popular with paragliders. However, Selsley is the most interesting, said to have been used as a camp and lookout by soldiers loyal to Edward - who was later to become King Edward I - during the Baron's War of 1263-67 and also boasting the remains of a neolithic long barrow called The Toots. Beneath the common, Selsley Church, funded by Sir Samuel Marling, and designed by G. F. Bodley, is celebrated for its gallery of pre-Raphaelite stained glass by William Morris and others.

For more, see

12 November 2012

Drink at The Bell, Aldworth

Yesterday afternoon, your author set out from South East London in brilliant sunshine to rediscover England, making his first stop at the Bell Inn in Aldworth, Berkshire, a beautiful pub which traces its origins back to the 14th century, and on a sunny Sunday is a fine example of how a village pub can still be right at the heart of a community.

The Bell has been in the same family for some 250 years, and your author understands by way of a talkative local that it is very safe in the hands of the latest generation. Tucked away beneath the Ridgeway in a village who all seemed to be happily passing their Sunday enjoying each other's company over ale and crusty sandwiches, it certainly seemed to be. If all villages could have a friendly local like the Bell, busy with village life and and so beautiful inside that it warrants a listing in the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, the world would be a better place.

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5 November 2012

See the Lewes' Bonfire Night celebrations

Though Saturday's celebrations at Brockham are dear to your author's heart - especially in a village setting like the one in which his childhood bonfire nights were spent - the annual celebrations at Lewes in Sussex, where the town's seven Bonfire Societies unite for spectacular displays on 5th November, is certainly a thoroughly competitive occasion.

From the procession of the flaming martyrs crosses and effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, to the letting off of bangers and other fireworks at very close proximity to spectators, the evening is a thoroughly traditional affair and though crowds get ridiculously big in some years, this year - with the 5th falling on a Monday night - offers as good a chance as any to see the celebrations up close. The six societies put on a number of different parades, firework displays and bonfires, occasionally making the evening quite confusing to the uninitiated, but it will certainly not be a disappointing experience for attendees.

For more, see

3 November 2012

Attend Brockham Bonfire

Brockham Bonfire, in the Surrey village of Brockham near Dorking, is often cited as Britain's biggest Guy Fawkes night celebration and traces its history back to around the 1880s. Today, it is attended by around 20,000 people from the surrounding area and further afield, and the huge bonfire and fireworks display are certainly amongst the most impressive your author has ever seen.

Apart from the stunning bonfire and fireworks displays, one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening is the procession, where the Guy is taken on an hour-long walk around neighbouring hamlets to followed by a band and ordinary people carrying huge numbers of real flaming torches, before the group returns to the green for the Guy to be hoisted on top of the fire and the torchbearers to simultaneously light the huge fire. It's certainly an occasion worthy of attending for those in the area, and anyone within striking distance.

For full logistics, see