Wednesday was forecast to be brighter on the Cumbrian side of the Pennines than in the east. I was keen to make a return visit to Levens Hall, which we last visited in 1984, and the Systems Administrator wanted to see the Ribblehead viaduct from the ground having previously ridden over it in a train, so Wednesday seemed the obvious day to head west. Granted, it is a fair drive from Barnard Castle, but still a lot closer than starting from north Essex.
The gardens at Levens open at ten, but the house doesn't open until one. Four hours seemed more than enough time to spend looking at topiary, so we decided to start off with the gardens at Holker Hall near Grange-over-Sands. We stopped there once before, on our way to visit friends in the Lakes, and after an hour or so the Systems Administrator said we could not stay any longer or we would be so late it would be rude. I liked the gardens so much the first time round I bought the owner's book about them, and was eager to see them again. They are medium sized in grand garden terms at around twenty five acres, set in extremely beautiful countryside. Near the house are formal gardens with topiary, and bedded out blue salvias still putting on a bright show in mid September. As you go further from the house the garden gets wilder and more naturalistic, as you'd expect, until suddenly you come to another formal garden, sunken and paved with a little stone garden pavilion romantically overgrown with vines, pond and waterspout, and pergola, and at this time of the year quantities of small flowered, late clematis rambling over and through the other plants in the borders and the stone wall along the back. It is such a good trick to confound visitors' expectations by altering the usual running order of garden features, and I liked the sunken garden very much. There are all sorts of interesting trees in the grassy areas away from the house, including the Holker lime, a leviathan 7.9 metres in girth. New since our previous visit is a grassy bowl designed by Kim Wilkie, which has a strangely soothing quality as sun falls on its opposite sides at different angles so changing the apparent colour of the grass. We didn't bother with the hall, but the garden at Holker is a delight.
At Levens Hall we started with the house, to make a change after just viewing a garden, and because the house closes earlier and you never want to feel you are looking at things against the clock. The house as now seen was mostly constructed between the late sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It still has its original Elizabethan oak panelling and plasterwork and some marvellous leather wallpapers, and is largely furnished in the dark and massive Jacobean style. I really like that sort of thing, while seeing why it was that by the Georgian era people were ready for a change. It seems a miracle that Levens survived so unaltered and unmodernised, but when we asked one of the guides why this was and whether it was because the money had run out she said no, the family had been wealthy enough, but Levens had ceased to be their main seat and had been occupied by a series of long-lived widows who liked it as it had always had been.
The famous topiary garden was laid out at the very end of the seventeenth century. What I had not reckoned with when I requested we add Levens Hall to our itinerary was that in September they would be cutting it. This meant that one corner was cordoned off, and there was some noise, on the other hand it was so interesting to see how they did it. A gardener was tackling the top of one of the large yews with a battery powered, long handled hedge trimmer, working from a cherry picker he could operate from the platform. Between cutting sessions he spent a long time flicking away the cut ends with a long bamboo cane. That must be tricky, since freshly cut yew on yew is quite difficult to see, but it dries to a deep brown that would show up badly, and by then the hydraulic platform would have gone back to the hire depot. The beds surrounding the clipped yews and box are always bedded out, this year in a bright combination of vivid yellow and purple, which was still looking extremely colourful despite the lateness of the season. Maybe it is easier to make things last in the west where they get more rain.
Then came our pilgrimage to the Ribblehead Viaduct. The Settle and Carlisle line was one of the last major trunk routes to be built, the viaduct being completed in 1875. It is an extraordinary feat of engineering when you consider where it is, hundreds of feet up in the middle of a moor. Coincidentally I had just finished reading a book about railway navvies picked up on our last holiday the very night before we went to see Ribblehead, and the final chapter was about the Settle and Carlisle, so I know that apart from dealing with ground so boggy that barrows had to use barrels for wheels or they sank into the ooze, the soil the navvies had to excavate was largely boulder clay. Dry, it was hard as cement and you could scarcely drive a pick axe into it, wet it turned to slurry so sticky it wouldn't tip out of the wagons used to shift it. The workmen spent a year building one embankment without advancing a yard, the loads of clay they tipped running everywhere across the slope except where they were wanted. More recently Ribblehead makes an appearance in Ben Wheatley's black comedy Sightseers about a couple on a caravan holiday that turns nasty.
Even further up the moors along really tiny roads is England's highest railway station. Dent Station is 1,150 feet above sea level, annual rainfall around ninety two inches. The old station is now a holiday let, and while trains still stop it looks as though you have to buy your ticket on the train with not even a ticket machine on the platform. The Systems Administrator, who is a mine of useful information about railways, told me firstly that the Settle and Carlisle had not overall been especially expensive to build, despite the incredible engineering works of the viaduct and the tunnels, because the land the route followed was so cheap to buy, and secondly that nowadays it is largely used for freight when it hasn't been partially blocked by landslips like it is at the moment, providing useful extra north-south capacity.
And that was Wednesday, and supper is not yet ready, so I shall press on, though the internet connection in the cottage is rather dodgy. On Thursday we went to Beamish, the great museum of life in the north east just north of Durham. Again, it was not the closest visitor attraction to where we are staying, but it is a fabulous museum and the cottage was picked to be strategically handy for the A66 and A1. We visited Beamish four years ago, and it was vast, with more to see and do than you could ever see or do in a day. They have moved endangered buildings from their original sites to create a pit village and pit head, town of the early 1900s, Georgian valley, and 1940s farm. Vintage trams and buses take you around the site if you don't feel like walking, and in almost every building there is something being made or working. The hundred and fifty year old engine at the colliery (which I now know was not a beam engine but a vertical piston A frame engine) was in steam so we could see its mighty flywheel turning and piston rising and falling. Cakes were being made and sold in the bakery, heavy horses stood outside the livery yard, and in the 1940s farm we found to my great joy a vast and patient pig. Since our previous visit they have finished the reconstructed 1820s restoration of a medieval church, with a nice set of Georgian box pews coming from a church in Somerset, and a photographer's shop complete with dressing up costumes and vintage dark room has appeared in the 1900s high street. We didn't have our photo taken, but we could have. From Thursday to Sunday they were holding their annual agricultural fair, and while we missed the brass bands going on a weekday, we did have a long and instructive conversation with a clog maker about the uses and qualities of different woods. We were into Beamish at half past ten, by the time we'd queued for our tickets, and didn't leave until nearly five, and still hadn't seen everything there was to see. The tickets are valid for a year, but sadly I don't think we're likely to be in county Durham again that soon.
And two days of touristing is quite enough for one evening. I forgot to say, Barnard Castle has a very good curry house, the Bengal Merchant. If for some reason fate or choice takes you to Barnard Castle then that's the place to go.