Hidden away…

Sorry to disappear last week – it’s what happens when your youngest comes in and drops the comment that she’s got her holiday dates wrong and instead of going away this week after the Easter break, we had to rush off immediately for a few days squeezed between commitments.

But luckily for us the weather was good and so we took the tents over to Shropshire, for what turned out to be a really lovely few days, with bucket loads of heritage-hunting!


I’ll sit down and share the stories of some of the places we visited soon, including the fabulous medieval Stokesay Castle (above), but if you’re looking for an area to visit that takes you away from the hoards and shows you history throughout the ages, there are few better counties than Shropshire and the Welsh Marches.

We were there for five days and in that time toured six castles (Stokesay, Powis, Ludlow, Hopton, Montgomery and Clun), two abbeys (Much Wenlock Priory and Buildwas Abbey), two hill-forts (on the hillside above the campsite) and a bronze age stone circle (Mitchell’s Fold) and for much of the time we were the only people at the sites, so much lovelier I think than having to push through crowds. I’m a massive fan of these hidden gems.

And besides the abundant heritage, there’s the simply wonderful scenery to enjoy too. I’ve always loved walking up hills and as we don’t have that many in Bedfordshire I was very happy to trot up as many as we could manage (alright, maybe not exactly trot, but I make it up with a liberal smattering of ‘awe and wonder’ stops). We made it up the Long Mynd, the Stiperstones, Corndon Hill, and along a section of Offa’s Dyke from Knighton. My leg muscles are definitely feeling it now.

We camped on the edge of the Long Mynd (it was extreme camping but in a wonderful location – if you’re slightly mad and want the details, leave me a comment or send me a tweet).

After all that sight-seeing and exercise, I was very glad to roll into a pub each evening for a pint of Three Tuns beer. I think a visit to the Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle might be a legal requirement of visiting Shropshire – we certainly always pay homage there, but in fact it turned out that the pub closest to our campsite (The Bridges Pub, Ratlinghope) was also owned by the brewery and I have to say kept their beer extremely well. The food was fabulous there too, so I’d be more than happy to go again. (I’ve put a link to their website here in case anyone is interested, because they offer a variety of accommodation too, which seems like an ideal arrangement should camping without any mod cons not be to your liking – ahem).

The other great find of the holiday was a new-to-us bookshop at historic Brampton Bryan – Aardvark Books. It’s the sort of place where you could happily spend hours and hours browsing through the books (new and second-hand), drinking tea from proper china cups and wandering around their art exhibition. We’ll go back I’m sure, but in the meantime you can follow Ethel Aardvark on Twitter – and why wouldn’t you…

So, it’s back into the swing of things again now just as soon as I get through the mountain of post-holiday laundry. Just before we set off for our break I started two new stitchy pieces which are calling to me now to get on with, but that will have to wait for a day or two – I’ll show you them soon.

Have a lovely week.




Step back in time at Canons Ashby

After all the grandeur of Gloucester Cathedral last week, I thought for this week’s helping of heritage-hunting I’d choose something a little more domestic – although it does have a monastic connection – Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. It’s an Elizabethan manor house, built beside the remains of the Augustinian Priory of Canons Ashby, which went the way of those places at the Dissolution (what remains of the Priory is now the somewhat truncated village church).

Canons Ashby

Canons Ashby house is at the ‘ooh, I could imagine myself living here’ end of the spectrum rather than one of the jaw-dropping Chatsworth, Woburn or Blenheim types. Nevertheless, it’s somewhere I love visiting because it has that rare quality of being largely unchanged since the last phase of building work there in 1710.

If you choose your time and day to visit when there aren’t too many other people wandering around, you can almost imagine yourself back in the eighteenth century. Half close your eyes and let your senses bring you the drifting scent of candles and listen for the gentle rustle of silk skirts, perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a servant on the stairs.

It was for many years the family home of the Drydens (not actually the home of the poet and political satirist John Dryden, but they were closely related) and it still feels like a family home to me even though it’s now being shared with all of us visitors. I love the way you’re able to see so many of the rooms, grand and less than grand.

There’s one much more recent resident of the house we do know about – have you heard of Louis Osman? He was the goldsmith who made the crown used at the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 and he lived here from 1969 until 1979. (Although I can’t say it’s something I’d ever want to wear, not that that’s an issue – ahem…).

The house isn’t huge, but it has many small treasures to discover as you wander around.  A speaking tube to pass orders from the dining room to the kitchen, Elizabethan wall-paintings, a magnificent plaster work ceiling, mysterious masonic symbols painted onto cupboards…

Although naturally we all think we’d have been the ones swanning around giving the orders in these old places, I suppose it’s more likely that we’d have been slaving away in the kitchens, but Canons Ashby has a fabulous old kitchen, worth the visit for that alone (well I think so).

The other big draw of Canons Ashby for me is the wonderful amount of needlepoint and woven textiles around the house. It’s not so easy when the house is busy, but there have been days when it’s quiet that I’ve managed to spend really quite a long time peering at the stitched work (and getting some odd looks from the room-guides).

I always find myself thinking about the people who stitched away at those pieces and the lives they lived and what they’d think if they knew we were still admiring their work hundreds of years later.


Just as lovely as the house itself are the gardens, which are gradually being restored. Go on a fine day and you’ll probably want to spend as long there as inside. One day when it’s really warm I’m going to pack up my stitching, drive over to Canons Ashby, settle myself into a garden seat and stitch away the afternoon there.

Don’t miss the statue of Sam the shepherd boy which commemorates a sad event during the English Civil War when the pro-Parliament Drydens offered food and ale to a group of Roundhead soldiers and set their shepherd lad to watch out and alert the soldiers if any Royalist troops arrived – when they did arrive and the boy played his whistle to raise the alarm, the Royalists took vengeance and killed him.

Gaze through the window and spot Sam the shepherd still guarding Canons Ashby.
The church

If you have enough time, wander over to the church which dates from 1250 and which is all that remains of the Priory – as with other churches ‘cut down’ from monastic sites, it feels a bit oddly proportioned, which I suppose is entirely understandable.

Planning A Visit?

  • I should mention that there’s a lovely cafe there too but if the weather is good you might prefer to take a picnic – there’s plenty of space and on a hot summer afternoon it feels dreamy.
  • Bookworms should know that there’s a small second-hand bookshop in the courtyard too, you might want to allow yourself a few extra minutes for a browse around.

Are you planning any heritage-hunting this weekend, where are you off to? Or where would you like to be going? Do tell…



A Flying Visit To Orkney…

It sometimes feels strange to live on an island where there remains considerable evidence of our distant ancestors in the landscape and in the monuments they built, but to know so very little about them. Developments in archaeology in recent decades have certainly lead to far more exploration of neolithic sites, but for me at least there is a huge gulf between what we now ‘know’ and what there is we’d really like to know.

So while the archaeologists carry on their painstaking work to uncover and discover facts, we’re left to fill the gap with our imaginations.

Having now become well and truly hooked on this pre-historic enigma, you can appreciate why I leapt at the chance to make a flying visit to Orkney – an island group off the North East tip of Scotland, rich in marvellous and mysterious neolithic sites.

orkney scapa flow
Scape Flow

It would have been difficult to imagine a more lovely day for our visit. A near cloudless blue sky reflected in the sea and the lochs, creating a sublime combination of emerald greens and sapphire blues beneath us as we flew over Scapa Flow.

This was my first visit to the Orkney and I wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful it is. It absolutely took my breath away. But we had just a few hours to explore, so we began by overflying the area we planned to visit on land – Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.

scara brae
Skara brae (bottom right, circles contained within a path)

Skara Brae had to be the highlight of the visit and it was the first site we headed for once we landed.

There’s been a lot of television coverage of Skara Brae in recent years, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing it in person. Built around 3000BC, it was a subterranean village, hidden under sand for centuries, but revealed in the 19th century after a storm removed some of the layers covering sand.

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As you walk around the village, looking down from the path above, your mind goes into overdrive, trying to mentally construct the village as it once was, seeing it with your mind’s eye, peopling it with men and women who looked just like us but about whom there is so much we don’t have a clue about.

Perhaps the most iconic view of Skara Brae is this one…

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Who is there of a certain age who isn’t thinking ‘The Flintstones’ when they see this?

But this is absolutely real! How did the residents use that stone dresser? I couldn’t stop wondering about it. What would you do with it if it was the centre-piece of your house?

Then look around – either side are the stone remains of the bed-spaces and in the middle, a hearth. In the walls are niches – what was kept inside them?

It would, I am sure, be entirely possible to spend weeks just looking at Skara Brae and trying to understand it, let alone uncover more (and yes, the archaeologists are fairly certain that much more of the site remains uncovered). But with only a few hours to spare, we moved on.

Our next stop was to visit the Ring of Brodgar.

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Here is a stone circle from around 3000BC, comprising stones from across Orkney – 36 remain of the original 60, laid out in a circle and surrounded by a henge. Strange mounds also feature in the local landscape adding so much to the mystery that already surrounds this amazing place.

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Where Skara Brae leads you to attempt to answer the questions, here I felt I was in quite a different place. For all the theories and there are many, nobody yet or perhaps ever will know why these circles were constructed. That it took a great deal of effort is evident, so why did people not so different from you and me undertake that task? What would make you do it?


I admit that standing there, inside that circle, I wasn’t exactly trying to think about the logistics of building it, I was simply enchanted by being in the circle – standing there and turning 360 degrees, looking out at the landscape around the Ring, looking up at the sky contained by the Ring, touching the individual stones as I walked past each one.

That there was a meaning I’m sure, but what it was? Perhaps we all decide for ourselves…

Inevitably I suppose we began to run out of time to explore the rest of the sites in this sequence – the Stones of Stenness (just a mile from the Ring of Brodgar) and Maeshowe.

Maeshowe aerial shot orkney
Maeshowe from the air

In the end we found ourselves dashing back to Kirkwall with only a very few minutes to flit inside St Magnus’s Cathedral – so little time that I didn’t manage to take any decent pictures.

Tombstone St Magnus Kirkwall
One of the intriguingly carved tomb stones in Kirkwall Cathedral

But long enough to confirm that I must return to Orkney, this time with the freedom to explore much more of this mysterious and enchanting group of islands.