Helmick 14th Anniversary Adventure!

For near enough the past decade, we’ve celebrated our wedding anniversary by going off for a couple of days walking/exploring interesting places, with dinner, bed and breakfast at a posh hotel in between, and 2021 was no exception. Blessed by the weather, we got off to a fine start with a visit to Kirkham Priory, (off the A64 between York and Malton) – we’d often passed the sign for it but never visited.

Hubcap orientates himself, with eastern chapel wall to left, and west range/cloister to right in background

The hillside location overlooking the River Derwent is spectacular, as are the standing fragments of the gatehouse and priory church; the rest, thanks to Henry VIII and centuries of stone-robbing, is reduced to foundations.

Gatehouse adorned with Roos family heraldry, St George & the Dragon to left of arch, and David & Goliath on right

However, the English Heritage interpretation boards and the useful guidebook on sale in the shop give a good idea of how magnificent this wealthy Augustinian house must have been in its heyday, equalling the better-known Cistercian foundations like nearby Rievaulx Abbey. We spent a good hour and a half hoofing round the terraces looking at everything – I was particularly struck by the remains of the superb 13th century arched laver in the cloister, where the monks washed their hands before entering the refectory – and wondering how many of these ruined religious houses would’ve survived until today had it not been for the Reformation.

After that we were gasping for a drink; and since only basic refreshments are available on site, we set off to the pub signposted as 300 yards up the road – ‘up’ being the operative word! But it was worth the stiff pull to enjoy a cold glass in the beer garden of The Old Stone Trough, which was doing a brisk Sunday lunchtime trade; we’d have eaten there ourselves if we hadn’t come prepared with a picnic in case there were no suitable eateries open.

We were well ready for that by the time we’d walked back down to the Priory carpark, and ate while watching hikers pass by on the riverbanks and a couple of intrepid ladies swimming up and down a short stretch. Being in the vicinity with time to kill before we could check in to our hotel, we then went on to another English Heritage site Hubcap had never seen, and I’d not revisited since a student archaeology field trip I went on in 1981: Wharram Percy near Wetwang, one of the largest, best preserved deserted medieval villages (DMVs) in Europe and, thanks to decades of intensive archaeological investigation, probably the best-known. Once a thriving Saxon settlement, Wharram was awarded to the Percy family by William the Conqueror, and at its height in the 14th century boasted a manor house, a water mill, a green with a stone church, houses and outbuildings for some 40 peasant families, and a population of c. 200. Wharram Percy’s later fortunes fluctuated dramatically as a result of raids by the Scots, the Black Death, voluntary departure, and ultimately forced evictions and the destruction of homes in around 1500, as part of the change from arable to sheep farming driven by the rising profits to be made from the English wool trade.

Free to visit and open year-round, Wharram Percy is no site for the unfit or those expecting tea-rooms, toilets and trinkets – there are no facilities, and no structures except for the ruined church and an experimental 19th century farm building used as a headquarters for the excavation teams, neither of which are currently accessible to the public. The DMV lies some three-quarters of a mile from the carpark down a rough track and hollow-way, and is itself very rugged with some steep gradients which we puffed up and down, looking for vantage points where we could make sense of the grassed-over building platforms, ditches and trackways. If we’d done some research beforehand and thought to bring a site plan, we could easily have spent a full day there; aside from the archaeology, Wharram Percy is a perfectly preserved fragment of ancient landscape, and Hubcap was captivated by its associated rare ecology – another addition to our growing list of places to re-visit.

The downside was coming back, uphill all the way – in the rain. At least the wind was behind us, albeit driving the water dripping off my coat into the backs of my legs; luckily I had some dry trousers to change into when we got back to the car!

By then it was time for the short drive to Malton, where we’d been looking forward to staying at the wonderfully picturesque Old Lodge Hotel, former gatehouse to the Norman castle built on the site of the Roman auxiliary fort Derventio Brigantum.

After a drink on the terrace and a turn round the grounds, we put away an excellent two-course Sunday dinner; Hubcap chose ham hock terrine followed by baked salmon, while I went for the vegetarian option of baked Brie wedges and a walnut and red wine nut roast; the portions didn’t look massive but proved to be so filling we couldn’t finish all the veg, and neither of us had room for dessert.

We rounded things off with a drink in the cosy oak-panelled bar, then went up to our room – where, as usual, all our problems began. For a treat, Hubcap had upgraded us from the Sunday special offer room to a much larger one with an almost equally huge bathroom, whereas we’d probably have been better off stuck away in a little garret at the back. Instead, our luxurious billet was at the front, facing the road, near the main entrance and directly above the kitchen.

On the middle floor – bedroom on right, bathroom on left, drain and extractor fan in between!

For most people, this wouldn’t matter. For us, it was a disaster. We’re so used to our Memoryfoam mattress in a chilly, pitch-dark, silent room that we struggle to sleep in other surroundings, however palatial. Hotels are almost always far too hot for us, so our first actions were, as usual, to turn off the radiators, fling the windows wide where we could, and swap the inevitable Arctic-rated duvet for our own wafer-thin summer weight, (yes, we really are sad enough to take our own bedding to 4-star hotels). Of course, open windows mean noise – in this case, the hum of a kitchen extractor fan until late, accompanied by the all-night drip-drip of water from some condenser unit trickling into a drain directly below, and torturing Hubcap, who couldn’t wear his ear-plugs for long due to an inner-ear infection. I could wear mine, not that it made much difference – I was still too hot and uncomfortable, and at 3.30 am I gave it up as a bad job, made a cuppa and went to read in the bathroom.

This latest in a long string of disappointing, virtually sleepless hotel nights left us both feeling rubbish, completely unrested, and aching from the previous day’s exertions, (I’d also spent the night wrestling leg-cramps, which I often suffer when I’ve been on my feet for long periods). Fit for nothing more, we could only hobble round the adjacent Roman fort earthworks and briefly around Old Malton before calling it quits – a real anti-climax when we’d planned to spend more time exploring, then return to the Old Stone Trough at Kirkham for lunch, and perhaps take in another site on the way home.

So we’ve decided that this 14th Anniversary Adventure will be a watershed: the last of its kind. No more wasting money on nights in hotels where we never sleep well, if at all. Short term, we’ll do day-trips only, lunching and/or dining in lovely places and coming home to our own bed, (which will please Henry Wowler, who dislikes being left unattended). Then in a couple of years, as we ease down further into retirement, we’ll buy a nice camper van so we can go away for longer and take our own bed with us!

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