Tag Archives: Cumbria

Fully Tested

Spring in Cumbria

I’ve just received results from my first DNA test. I say first because I’m sure the science is still in its infancy. Having dabbled in family history research I already know (on paper) I have relatives in every corner of the British Isles. At first glance I thought my results confirmed what I’d always feared, I am entirely British. How very boring! I was hoping to discover at least one wildly romantic and exotic strain in my ancestry.

But now I’ve studied the data more thoroughly I discover I’m only 73% Brit. So there’s some hope. Actually with mother’s Northumbrian roots it’s no surprise to discover 5% of my genes are Scandinavian, the Vikings were known to love that particular coast. And 5% Celtic, something I’ve always suspected but never been able to prove. And finding Eastern European strains, with trace elements of Jewish, Spanish and Finish/NW Russian probably explains father’s ‘foreign’ characteristics.

But what’s fascinated me most is finding 3% of me comes from the Caucasus. Practically far-flung! Historically many an exotic race fled this contentious region and some infamous ones remain – like the Chechens, a very passionate people (such as my dear friend Ondrei). But this leaves me thinking – what truly defines race? I believe the various places I grew up, and the place where I live now, have made me who I am. Nationality defines character, and the landscape of the British Isles defines my spirit, but it is history which defines my soul. Which is why I wanted to explore my DNA?

Caucasus Mountains

As far as I can see Britain is peopled by the progeny of various waves of immigrants and invaders. There is no indigenous race, nobody who can prove their ancestors have native possession. The only thing my DNA test proves is how I’m descended from a cacophony of ancestors who most probably arrived on Britain’s shores before history was conceived, never mind written.

So what is British? First and foremost an island race who often travel beyond their surrounding seas but generally decide to come home. Otherwise we feel the need to make a ‘little Britain’ wherever we put down roots. It’s inevitable I suppose, to take what’s best and evolve.

I spent most childhood summers on the untamed beaches of Northumberland, near my grandmother’s home, dabbling in rock-pools, careering down seamless sand dunes, splashing the crystal cold waters of the North Sea, wondering when the last invaders beached their boats in the bay.

But my parents lived and worked at the opposite end of the country, in Kent. But it might surprise outsiders to learn that the broad sweep of salt marsh that skirts the Thames Estuary is as remote and unknowable as the wind-swept beaches of Northumbria. Charles Dickens used to walk these ancient sea-walls in search of inspiration. During the sixties, when I lived there, Upchurch was still surrounded by ancient orchards of fruit trees and autumn scaffolds of hops, quilting the northern chalk Downs. Life in Kent revolved around harvest, except nobody liked picking hops; they stain the skin and leave clothes tainted with their pungent smell. No wonder the first history I researched (age 11) was all about the production of beer!

For the last thirty years I’ve occupied a place of outstanding beauty – Cumbria – land of mystery and legend, where two nations meet but never merge. This landscape has its own timelessness, past and present conspire and inspire. But living here requires a particular kind of endurance, because we can experience all four seasons in a single day. True border people are tuned to prevail, I’m sure its distilled in the local DNA.

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I know where I belong. Take me away from my habitat and I’m nothing, or rather what remains is insignificant to who I am or whatever I might be.

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Kith and Clans

Here is the kind of winter morning I love most. Ringed by clear azure skies the patchwork fields surrounding my home sparkle like crystal carpets as dawn gilds the hedges with bronze fire. And not a breath of wind stirs the stillness. There is a sense that nature is holding its breath, preparing for spring and yet not wanting to wake. But the far horizon has begun to melt already. Mist rises, sloughing winter behind a sentinel guard of skeletal oaks.

This landscape has barely altered through time but had I been here five hundred years ago there might have seemed better reason to praise the clear, frosty weather. Living less than twenty miles from the border (with Scotland) meant we’d be in fear of reivers. But reivers liked to pursue their prey under a cloak of darkness and/or dribbling rain.

What is a reiver? Rather a unique figure – he came from every social class and might live anywhere in the region called The Borders. For many generations reiving families formed a state within a state between the two countries of England and Scotland, organizing the region to suit their own rules and boundaries; fighting men who used tracking, ambush, raid and theft as second nature. The Borders were ‘badlands’ where freebooters, rustlers and raiders held sway. This was ‘their’ country and they understood every inch of ground, be it river, marsh or hillside, by day and most particularly by night. The geography of the region was perpetually used to their advantage, as many a traveller complained. Barbarous, crafty, vengeful, crooked, quarrelsome, tough, perverse, active, deceitful – contemporary descriptions vary little when explaining border people. They made excellent soldiers if disciplined but that raw material was hard, wild, and ill to tame.

winter sun

Having grown up in the south of England I knew nothing of reivers until we moved to Cumbria. It’s a parcel of history many historians prefer to ignore (or forget), better known to those who inhabit Britain’s former colonies. Why? Well one of the ‘solutions’ to the inherent problem of reiving was to ‘transport’ whole families (or clans) to populate those colonies. Thus the Grahams arrived in New Holland, with legal charges pending if they should ever return. Being a cagey lot some merely reversed the letters of their surname – Cumbria still contains many a native called Maharg. But the advent of a ‘united’ kingdom meant reiving families were no longer able to slip across the border to evade justice, after 1603 the border no longer existed!

For generation after generation, simmering over five hundred years, no outsider would dare travel unarmed and alone through the rolling countryside which stretches from the Scottish Southern Uplands to the Pennines. In these ‘middle shires’, where mainland Britain narrows between the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the wild North Sea, where Rome threw up a boundary wall to separate the defeated from the free, few households slept soundly during the winter months. English or Scots, rich or poor, all lived in fear of reivers. This state of affairs gave rise to ‘protection’ being bought from tribal leaders who lived in formidable towers such as Hermitage, a building so grim it was recently described as ‘sod-off’ built in stone. Here was ‘no-man’s land’, where national laws had little jurisdiction. And the control centre of infamy resided in a district called the Debateable Land. Here you find the first use of words like ‘black-mail’ and ‘feud’, and the constant threat of raids, or the retaliatory march of a ‘hot trod’ stamped their hardy souls with a mistrust of all outsiders.

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Just north of Carlisle the M6 motorway crosses the powerful river Esk at a place called Metalbridge. The green and pastoral landscape denies the myth that once upon a time this was actually the most dangerous place in all Christendom. Think Khyber Pass, Barbary Coast or Soho on a Saturday night. Across this moss-filled valley, where winter riding was mired in clay, lies the southern boundary of the ‘Debateable Land’. This hostile region stretched north and east for a dozen or so miles, almost up to Langholm and the mouth of Liddesdale, but was never more than four miles wide and twelve miles long. So lawless were its inhabitants neither Scotland nor England wanted responsibility for policing its crimes but pertly used it as a ‘buffer’ zone.

Touching the western limit is Gretna (a cross-border village created after the two kingdoms were joined), where the lesser river Sark marks the official border. Back in Elizabeth I’s reign a Scottish bishop venturing through the region on his way to Glasgow enquired whether the locals were Protestant or Catholic. He received the terse reply, ‘Na, we’se for Armstrongs or Elliots here’.

Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle.

Tradition and politics created a mongrel system for regulating the Border. The region was loosely divided into Marches and each March had a Warden nominated by national government – so, for example, there was a Scottish Warden of the West March and an English Warden of the West March. More often than not the Warden came from a major reiving family, inclined to protect his own interests, but the system worked, even during times of war, and so it persisted. But, by the middle of the sixteenth century, even the Wardens agreed the kind of people who called the Debateable Land home were so inclined to rob, burn, plunder and kill that someone had to take charge. After much deliberation (the final decision being laid upon a passing French ambassador) they decided to build a bank and ditch to mark the reach of each nation’s responsibilities. It’s still there, just to the south of Canonbie, and called the Scots’ Dike.

Recently there has been revived interest in ‘reiving’ families, encouraged no doubt by family historians eager to trace their roots. My mother, seeing her maiden name of Tait listed in our local museum, was keen to purchase a beautifully illustrated history of the family, until she read of their exploits. Taits were infamous on the North March, as were Rutherfords (grannie’s surname), for all the wrong reasons. The Privy Council of Scotland drew up an official ‘black list’ of reiver surnames: Armstrongs, Batesons/Beatties, Bells, Burns, Charltons, Crosiers, Dodds, Elliots, Forsters, Glendinnings, Hendersons, Hetheringtons, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Littles, Lowthers, Maxwells, Musgraves, Nixons, Pringles, Robsons, Routledges, Rutherfords, Scotts, Storeys, Taits, Trotters and Thomsons. Thieves and vagabonds ‘of great clans who encourage obstinacy’.

Further Reading:

The Reivers, by Alistair Moffat

The Steel Bonnets, by George Macdonald Fraser

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What Do You Want Santa To Bring You For Christmas?

BUT WHAT DO YOU WANT SANTA TO BRING YOU FOR CHRISTMAS?

It’s a huge decision. And four year old Reuben has struggled with it every day for almost a whole month – he mustn’t get his choices wrong.

Obviously with so much to deliver Santa has to restrict all little boys and girls to three toys, otherwise how could everything possibly arrive on time. Reubs big brother Oscar (aged five) knew just what he wanted. At the beginning of December he carefully copied out his letter to Santa, checking the spellings more than twice. He even got most of the words to fit the lines while using his very best handwriting. The stamp he drew on the envelope was coloured-in with crayons and mummy took him to the local post office so he could make sure the address was absolutely correct. Oscar also enquired if Santa ever had trouble with Polar Bears because they live at the North Pole too. Very concerned for Santa’s welfare is our Oscar.

Thinking a visit to the old man himself would help resolve matters my daughter booked Reuben an appointment. He sat on Santa’s lap, completely overcome with fear. Eventually he whispered into the whiskers. But later that night, just as he was closing his eyes to go to sleep, Reuben burst into tears. He’d asked Santa for Lego – but as Lego comes in all shapes and sizes how would Santa know what sort to bring him.

Reuben was still struggling with his decision on the final day of school. My daughter and I were in Edinburgh for the day, enjoying the festive market that fills the old Nor Loch and looking for stocking fillers, when my son-in-law rang with the news that Reubs had decided that the only thing he wanted Santa to bring was a Teksta puppy – in blue.

Now, of course, the one toy completely sold out in every shop was a Teksta puppy of any colour. Very popular this year, we’re informed. Meanwhile my son-in-law had no luck on the internet either. I sent an urgent text to my sister. She works for John Lewis’s, in London – but even that great metropolis was Out of Stock. Less than a week to go and it seemed we had no chance of fulfilling Reubs wish.

But then we found one on E-bay, second-hand but unused, the woman said, because her daughter wanted red, not blue. It arrived in the post, yesterday. My daughter, elated with success, asked Reubs if there was anything else he wanted Santa to bring.

A scarf he said, with the letter ‘R’ on it, for Reuben.?????????????????

Guess who’s spent all day sewing?

Happy Christmas Everyone, hope you get everything you wished for….

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Best Laid Plans

Busy family life

Busy family life

Well both grandsons are off to school (Reuben’s first year, Oscar’s second), summer is drawing to a close and I’m all fired up ready to proceed with my Grand Plan – back to writing that novel again. Seriously!

Eight thirty in the morning I’m sitting at my desk, fingertips at the ready, but almost immediately the phone rings.
‘You’ll have to come to work’ – husband’s voice – ‘there’s a couple of things I need you to look at urgently’.
OK. So I jump into the car and drive straight to our business premises five minutes away.

All the problems are solved quickly but once at work I decide I might as well open the day’s post and sort through some invoices and then I remember I need to pop into town to get some food for dinner. And might as well drop off the ironing – after a houseful of visitors last week it’s all piled up and there’s this wonderful local business where the ladies are better than fairy godmothers.

Lunchtime already? I’m just settling down for a quick snack before starting work on my Grand Plan when the phone rings again.
‘Are you doing anything’ – daughter Sam’s voice – ‘only I need to pop to town for an appointment and Delilah’s asleep?’
No problem, Sam promises she will just be an hour – I grab my tablet, proving I’m trying hard to succeed with the Grand Plan and it makes me seem like an avant-garde gran.

Delilah wakes after less than half an hour. As soon as I pop my head around the door she takes my hand and leads me on a route march around her house, a guided tour, discharged in a language of her own making which she assumes I comprehend. As we enter the kitchen she waves a finger at the tap – time for a drink of water? Already, at one year old, her nature leaves me in no doubt she had a previous existence as a headmistress.

Sam arrives home. Relieved of duty I can shoot off home but as I leave she hands me a bag of freshly picked damsons surplus to requirements…if I don’t want them perhaps great-gran would?
It seems sensible to take the damsons straight to mum’s, it’s not very far, almost en route, and they’ll only go rotten if I take them home. Having had a spectacular harvest this year we’ve got piles of ripe fruit gently going rotten in assorted bowls and we can only eat so much jam and chutney and the freezer is full.

Dad’s mowing the lawn. As soon as I appear he stops work and leads me to the garage, a look of smug triumph on his face. Ever since my parents moved here two years ago the garage has been full to bursting with household goods and furniture deemed no longer useful. We suggested they give all the stuff they no longer want or need to charity shops but old furniture is bulky and unfashionable and even local auction houses aren’t interested in taking it. However dad has discovered a man with a van (a community charity) and he is coming to take everything away later today, so last chance if I want anything.

I’d been meaning to grab their emergency fridge –newer and smarter than the one we have at work and doesn’t need defrosting. And then there’s the brass coffee table – can’t let that go because I have its twin. But it’s hardly fair not to take them away immediately. Dad’s been waiting long enough to park his car inside the garage – it’s so untidy cluttering up the drive.
Husband isn’t too pleased but comes immediately. Another essential job done and dusted.

Now where was I? Better make the dinner…..best laid plans and all that. I’ll just have to start on my big plan tomorrow.

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The Country Diary of an Elizabethan Lady

We are experiencing what is likely to be one of the hottest summers ever here in rural Cumbria. Having lived in our little stone cottage on the edge of the northern fells since 1982 we’ve survived a variety of severe weather systems but during the bulk of those thirty-two years the outlook has been generally, if not persistently, wet. Locals will tell you that if you can see the hills it’s just about to rain and if you can’t see the hills it’s already raining. But apart from an occasional shower we haven’t had real rain for weeks and this dry hot weather is proving uplifting not merely because we are all sporting the kind of suntan usually got by forking out good money to catch the sun.

Complimenting this sultry season is the best display of wild flowers I remember. The scenery around our cottage is a pastoral landscape of undulating fields ringed by ancient hedges and mature trees which generally radiate every hue of green until the fields ripen to golden yellow, usually around the time July turns to August. But this year the pastures have already ripened and the harvest of grain ripples like an ocean in the breeze whilst the surrounding hedges look on, shaggy and dishevelled. Yet underneath their shelter lies a hidden and beautiful phenomenon.

In this part of Cumbria most fields are surrounded by hedges rather than stone walls, or fences, and the roads which criss-cross through our village are old droving roads with wide, grassy verges so the cattle or sheep could graze whilst being driven to market. Of course nowadays most beasts travel by wheels but thankfully the layout of the roads remain, and the modern lines of black tarmac are bordered either side with an amazing variety of wild grasses and flowers which spill with a bounty equalling the most carefully planted gardens. These wild borders are speckled in frothy whites, smouldering purples, beaming yellows and cerulean blues, as though nature is trying to show all her diversity. And I can almost forgive the abundance of weeds that have migrated into my garden, because who’d want to miss sunning themselves in this unusually hot weather?

I’ve tried to list those flowers I recognise. Drooping from the shadows is a froth of nettles surrounding the umbrella-like heads of meadow-sweet clustering behind. I can’t name the diversity of grasses heavy with seeds, but they are dotted with white and purple clover, yellow celandines and dandelions whose chrysanthemum-like flowers seem dull beneath the taller swathes of ox-eye daisies. Weaving between this undergrowth are purple-blue beads of vetch and golden lady’s slippers, hanging like jewels, and above them are trumpets of white bindweed and yellow honeysuckle poking their heads through the dark green hedge whilst tumbling through the very top falls a tangle of white and pink dog roses. Butterflies hover amongst the flower heads and if I stand and stare long enough I may even spy a field mouse, or catch sight of a red squirrel sidling up a tree.

As a teenager one of my favourite books was The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. A facsimile of Edith Holden’s personal notebook it’s a charming and intimate study of the British countryside during 1906 and her sketches describe the incredible abundance of wild flowers. But the countryside surrounding the tiny village where I grew up, in North Kent, seemed devoid of any native vegetation, something I later realised was due, at least in part, to farmers blanket-spraying with chemical weed-killers and DDT in order to kill anything that might harm the fruit crops that kept the Kentish economy afloat. Thankfully Cumbria’s agriculture has a completely different axis, and the fact farmers here are less willing to expend good ‘brass’ on chemicals helped give our beautiful and well-endowed landscape a reprieve. And the first thing I noticed when I moved here was the beauty of the hedgerows, just at Edith promised. It’s taken time for me to appreciate it’s true wealth but with this exemplary weather the summer of 2014 will be noted as fondly as that of 1906.

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Frozen Lakes

ImageWe visited Dove Cottage last month, a small damp cottage at Town End, Grasmere, world famous for being home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth. I’ve never been a fan of Romantic poetry but given his reputation, and the fact he was one of the first to promote the grandeur of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria, my home county) for its wild mountain scenery and ‘savage’ natives (I’m told it means un-contaminated) I felt it was time I learned a little more about him than his famous reflections on spring bulbs.

 

Orphaned before he reached his teens William was flailing for a profession when a small legacy meant he had money enough to support his ambition to write poetry. In late 1799 he rented the former Dove and Olive Bough public house, a native-built stone cottage set beside the main road from Keswick to Kendal, and moved in with his sister Dorothy, who he hadn’t lived with since childhood. But she shared equal aspirations for William’s genius and managed to supply all the practical support he required, which was essential because Will preferred to recite his thoughts while someone else did the writing. They lived in the tiny cottage for eight years, squeezing in with William’s new wife and her sister and then, by-turns, three children, as well as many famous and frequent visitors. When Walter Scott came he gave them one of his dogs, Pepper, whose portrait greets visitors when they first enter the cottage.

 

Men such as Coleridge, Southey and de Quincey, would call for afternoon tea and emerge weeks later bowled over by the Wordsworth’s hospitality. And when the Wordsworth clan moved to Allan Bank in 1808 De Quincey became the tenant of Dove Cottage, a tenancy he held for the next twenty-eight years. It seems strange the Wordsworth’s eight years trumped poor De Quincey but he failed to be respectable after publishing his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The publicity machine which drove Wordsworth’s popularity meant the former public house was bought by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public the following year as Dove Cottage.

 

It was during his very first stay in Grasmere that De Quincey noted, when the lake froze over, how William embarked on his other great passion, ice skating. William was particularly proud of his great skill on the ice but his friend was less impressed and wrote in his diary, ‘he sprawled upon the ice like a cow dancing a cotilion’.

 

Taken from ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth

 

And in the frosty season, when the sun

Was set, and visible for many a mile

The cottage windows through the twilight blaz’d,

I heeded not the summons:—happy time

It was, indeed, for all of us; to me

It was a time of rapture: clear and loud

The village clock toll’d six; I wheel’d about,

Proud and exulting, like an untired horse,

That cares not for its home.—All shod with steel,

We hiss’d along the polish’d ice, in games

Confederate, imitative of the chase

And woodland pleasures, the resounding horn,

The Pack loud bellowing, and the hunted hare.

So through the darkness and the cold we flew,

And not a voice was idle; with the din,

Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,

The leafless trees, and every icy crag

Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills

Into the tumult sent an alien sound

Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,

Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west

The orange sky of evening died away.

 

 

Next-door to Dove Cottage a dedicated museum displays artefacts relating to William’s life

and times. While I truly hope he didn’t actually use the cock-spurs the basket full of  

pace-eggs was a delight. At Easter many children (and adults) still go pace-egging in this part of the world and it was interesting such beautifully-decorated (and very delicate) hard-boiled eggs had survived. But what really caught my attention were William’s ice skates. Not one pair but several! The man really did love to skate, as illustrated by his words. And I share his passion.

 

Taken From The Prelude, Memories of Ice Skating on EsthwaiteLake

 

Not seldom from the uproar I retired

Into a silent bay, or sportively

Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,

To cut across the image of a star

That gleam’d upon the ice: and oftentimes

When we had given our bodies to the wind,

And all the shadowy banks, on either side,

Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still

The rapid line of motion; then at once

Have I, reclining back upon my heels,

Stopp’d short, yet still the solitary Cliffs

Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll’d

With visible motion her diurnal round;

Behind me did they stretch in solemn train

Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch’d

Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

 

William’s giddy words define the peculiar exuberance of ice skating – as pertinent now as when he composed them, and obviously based on first-hand experience of skating by star-light on a frozen lake. But I wonder if Dorothy was skating right behind him with her notebook and pencil?

 

 

 

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Love Affairs – Part 2

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English mountains and hills possess a rare form of grace. They dominate the landscape of Cumbria like gigantic beasts, asleep and content. The prospect of rolling hills and soaring mountains arouses deep emotions and, to my mind, encapsulates the perfect rural habitat. When times are bad we are told to look upwards, to seek inspiration from beyond our confines, and perhaps that is why some people are drawn to leave cities and towns to make the countryside their home. I know I am privileged to inhabit such a landscape.

 

The lane passing my house leads to a viewpoint where I can experience the full drama of the Caldbeck Fells, hills once claimed by Queen Elizabeth I to be ‘worth all England else’. On fair weather days I even have the bonus of Skiddaw’s peak piercing the sky behind. And when I turn back towards home I see an opposing panorama of patchwork fields spread wide across the Solway Plain. The scene is bounded to the east by a sweeping profile of dome topped Pennine’s and to the north, rising above the tidal waters of the Firth, the span of Scottish hills the Scots call Lowlands. My heart soars at this view. The plain overflows with history and makes me mindful of those who came before me, the generations who survived Romans and Reivers. This land has long been home to a race of free-thinking, independent souls. It encapsulates the breath of Borders tenacity. But ten years ago this complex, beautiful countryside was ruined by an arrogant line of industrial white turbines which stretch their mechanical wings like bunting across the plain. And because they stand barely a mile from my viewpoint they intercede with the horizon. A perspective broken is a perspective spoiled, ask any artist.  

 

I’ve only recently discovered that a large wind turbine has now been approved in the next village, Thursby, named by the Vikings for Thor. I wasn’t given any opportunity to raise my objections because it falls outside the boundaries of my ‘parish’ and the authorities are not obliged to make me aware. However this turbine will stand barely three fields from my home and cast its long shadow across my neighbour’s land. Those who cannot live with this monument to ‘progress’ have already begun their exodus; they refuse to endorse the spoilage. It seems to me The Reivers are back, except they are wreaking a different kind of chaos, one that attacks our ideas of what countryside represents.

 

And so to my real concern. There is a new proposal to build three of the largest wind turbines yet constructed ‘on-shore’ in our village, at a farm called Carwath. Even the title has been invented to deceive because the village is called Rosley and even locals fail to recognize the location of this project. These 150 metre turbines are to be sited in the heart our village, less than 1000 metres from the village primary school, community centre and church. They will stand a mere three fields from my home in the opposite direction to the Thursby turbine. When considered alongside a smaller turbine at nearby East Curthwaite and a wind farm being proposed in a village further east there will no longer be an unsullied view of the horizon whether you look north, south, east or west. We are able to raise objections to the proposed site but apparently, in the twenty-first century, the council have no authority to prevent a wind farm on the grounds of desecrating an unblemished panorama. Me….I blame the national curriculum. Thirty years of educating the mind without engaging the spirit and we’ve nurtured a generation of vacuous number crunchers. Do they even comprehend the concept of beauty?

 

“I love all beauteous things, I seek and adore them,

God hath no better praise, And man in his hasty days,

Is honoured for them.”

Robert Bridges

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