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!

Travellers v. Towton

I’ll make this clear at the outset: I’ve got no beef with travellers. (I do have a beef with criminal and anti-social behaviour, whoever it’s committed by, but that’s a different story). Although I’ve never met any genuine Roms, I’ve known plenty of New Age travellers and water-gypsies who live on boats – perfectly decent folk who, for whatever reason, choose to live outside mainstream society. Besides, travelling is our common ancestry; all humans started out as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and a small section of the population – gypsies, itinerant workers and travelling show-people – maintain the roving lifestyle to this day (frequently as the objects of prejudice and deep suspicion on behalf of the static population). So I view the travelling life as part of our shared cultural heritage, and in that respect, as worthy of protection and preservation as our historic landscapes and buildings. And therein lies the rub at Towton, site of the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, and long placed on the English Heritage register of battlefields at risk from, among other things, development and change of land use.

Back in 2009, risk became reality when a traveller bought a plot of land called The Gallops in Towton village, laid down hard standing, parked a caravan there and retrospectively applied for planning permission. Unsurprisingly, this generated a massive upsurge of protest from local residents and concerned members of the wider heritage community. Faced with this outcry, Selby District Council initially refused the application; but when the site owner appealed, had to grant temporary planning permission until January 2014, conditional on a number of criteria being met (to date, as I understand it, none of them have been). Underlying this decision was a serious problem: if the traveller had to move, there was nowhere for him to relocate to, because the Selby district is badly under-provided with suitable sites to accommodate people staying in or travelling through the area.

This deficiency was acknowledged by the council, who put together a very sensible policy on travellers. It stipulated that an adequate number of pitches should be provided in locations with privacy and screening, good access to the road network, local shops, schools and other amenities, and NOT on sites of historical, natural or archaeological significance. It all looked great on paper… but five years down the line, nothing has happened to implement this policy. So last week, the meeting to discuss the granting of permanent planning permission at The Gallops was held against the backdrop of the site owner, and other travellers in the Selby district, still having no other place to go.

From a heritage and green belt preservation perspective, all the arguments mustered against the development since 2009 still hold true. The Gallops falls within the extended battlefield boundary currently under review by English Heritage (thanks to strenuous lobbying by leading Towton archaeologist Tim Sutherland and the Towton Battlefield Society). Towton village is known to have been one of the sites of the rout, as defeated Lancastrians fled the field hotly pursued by the Yorkist army on Palm Sunday 1461. So The Gallops could well contain battle-related artefacts and possibly human remains – hence any further development of the site, or disturbance to sub-soil features, threatens the archaeology of a nationally and internationally-significant heritage site.

Added to this are the wider issues of adherence to planning legislation. If permanent planning permission were to be granted at The Gallops, it would set a most worrying and undesirable precedent: that anyone could purchase land and begin to develop it, safe in the knowledge that the council would do nothing except, eventually, cave in to the fait accompli.

These were the grounds on which I added my voice to the latest hue and cry (as I would oppose any development or change of land-use in this area). Despite the meeting having been announced over the Christmas holiday period, over 170 members of the public registered overwhelmingly negative comments on Selby District Council’s website. (Disappointingly, English Heritage failed to take a similar stance; they seem to believe that the caravans presently on site constitute no risk to the archaeology, completely disregarding the likely consequence of further development and disturbance if the planning permission is granted and The Gallops becomes a permanent traveller site). Some 40 people also attended the meeting at which, according to two Battlefield Society committee members present, there were NO votes in favour of permanent planning permission being granted. The proposal was accordingly rejected.

On the face of it, this is good news for Towton – but the story is unlikely to end here. The meeting, having been badly publicised, must be held again (although apparently the decision will not be overturned). The site owner may, and probably will, appeal; and there is always a possibility that central Government will intervene to reject Selby District Council’s decision and grant permanent planning permission. So altogether, I see it as a catalogue of disastrous failure: by English Heritage, who despite recognising Towton as a battlefield at risk have done zip to mitigate said risk; and by Selby District Council for not acting on their own policy to provide quality alternative pitches for the travelling community in their area.

Talk about a no-win situation…