Saturday, 17 September 2016

two museums, one castle, a waterfall, an old railway station, and part of a garden

We spent Friday touristing closer to the cottage, to give the Systems Administrator a break from the A1 before the journey home, and because it was forecast to be the greyest and dampest day of the week and we wanted to visit The Bowes Museum.  It is supposed to have one of the finest collections of decorative and fine art in the country, tucked away in the relative obscurity (from the point of view of London and the south east) of Barnard Castle.  I'd long been aware of it, without knowing exactly where it was except that it was in the north, and as we firmed up on this year's holiday I realised we'd be staying ten miles down the road from it.  It turned out to be a very, very good museum, and if we lived close by I'd go often, especially as I get in for free with my Art Pass.  We looked at eighteenth and nineteenth century French furniture, and a splendid collection of porcelain, and a great many pictures and sculptures spanning the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, including an El Greco and a vast, extraordinary Italian alter piece.  We looked at glassware and silverware and coins, until after two hours our brains were bursting and we could not absorb any more art.  This was a slight shame, since the piece de resistance of The Bowes Museum is their mechanical silver swan, a twin to the one in The Hermitage Museum, and it operates once daily but not until two.  Still, we have seen its trick of swivelling its neck and devouring a silver fish from the rippling crystal stream on television, and probably lots of people would have wanted to see it move and we would all have had to stand a distance from the cabinet, but we were able to have a good look at it when it was not moving and marvel at the delicacy of its construction.  The museum was the creation and gift of a local landowner and his French wife, and occupies a handsome building styled along the lines of a French chateau designed and built for the purpose.  Sadly, they both died before it was finished.  Other donors have continued to swell the collection, and it is absolutely superb, and very uncrowded and quiet to visit compare to the latest London blockbuster.  I really liked the Bowes.

Then by way of a change we drove up Teesdale to High Force.  Local tourist marketing mythology has it down as the tallest waterfall in England, though according to its Wikipedia entry it isn't.  It doesn't matter, tallest or second or third tallest it is spectacular.  The whole of the Tees, not just one side tributary, has carved itself a gorge in the upper part of Teesdale, and at High Force it rushes over the Whin Sill, a great layer of hard igneous rock lying across the north east.  It crops up again under some of the Northumbrian castles and parts of Hadrian's Wall.  The path to High Force is rather sedate, being neatly graded and gravelled by the Raby Estate which owns the falls, but you can scramble out on to the rocky beach below the waterfall if you so choose and sit on a boulder while you contemplate The Sublime.  It is very impressive and quite loud.  The waters of the Tees are stained a rich brown by the peat.  We noticed that further downstream, and it gives High Force a cappuccino tinge.

We wanted to see more of Richmond before the holiday ended, and took the scenic route over the moors via Brough.  The north Pennines are magnificent and brooding, the striped poles two metres high that run along the verges giving you an idea of what it might be like in the winter when it snows.  Compared to the Lake District the landscape is vast, the moors stretching wider and further than any fell, the valleys broader and more intensively farmed.  It is a great part of the world if you like big, open landscapes and wandering about looking at stuff.

One of Richmond's medieval churches has served since the 1970s as home to The Green Howards Museum which tells the history of the local regiment.  It has recently been refurbished, and seemed to me to be very well done.  This was confirmed by the SA, who as a keen military historian has more of a framework on which to hang the sort of information in the museum, and is more likely to spot any errors.  Then we went and looked at the inside of Richmond Castle, built as a royal castle not long after the Norman invasion but which never saw active service.  It is quite large with a well preserved keep, and good views of the town from the top of the keep, including a glimpse down into the delightful garden of Millgate House.  English Heritage a few years ago sponsored the creation of modern gardens at several of their castles, presumably wanting to increase their general level of visitor interest, but meaning they are now saddled with the maintenance expenses of features that are nothing whatsoever to do with the main historic element.  At Richmond this takes the form of quite a lot of whiskery yew hedges and modernist blocky topiary, all on a sloping site making it impossible to stand a simple platform.  I predict the management will regret this in years to come, now they are supposed to cover their own costs as visitor attractions.  The man on the door tried very hard to sell us a guide book and then to persuade us to join English Heritage.

Finally we strolled down to the old railway station, since it is not in the SA's nature to visit a town and not inspect the station.  The line ended on the opposite bank of the river to the main part of the town, and Richmond is the only town in England where the railway company paid for a bridge that had a road on it rather than the railway.  The station is now used as an art cum bijou leisure centre, with a cinema and cafe plus various shops and galleries, and we ate a late tea while thinking that it would be nice to go to the cinema there, if you lived in Richmond.

And today we saw a little part of one garden as we broke the journey home at Anglesey Abbey, to give the SA a break from driving and so that we would not arrive home too early while the housesitters were still having their lunch and before they had loaded their car.  The gardens include a great dahlia border, which ought to be at its peak in mid September, and was.  It is colour graded, moving from pale yellow at one end via orange, red, purple and mauve, to pink and eventually white.  They are all good gaudy doubles, cactus and pompom forms, none of your subdued good taste not-really-like-a-dahlia singles, and the effect is striking.  We drove over specially to see it a few years back, and only discovered after someone in the visitor centre had sold us a guide to the individual varieties for fifty pence that access to the dahlia walk was closed at both ends to save the grass.  After that and a similar experience when we drove over to see the snowdrops I rather went off Anglesey Abbey, but it might be time to forgive them.  We did not have time to look at most of the rest of the garden or the watermill, but did discover a truly impressive display of Cyclamen hederifolium under the trees en route to the dahlias.

When we got home we still had four cats and six hens, which was a relief.  I was worried about how the kittens would react being left with strange people for the first time, and whether the serious kitten would refuse to come in at night, and it turns out he did stay out at night a couple of times but survived the experience.  Mr Fluffy and the ever energetic Mr Fidget both seemed to have grown in the week and looked much more like cats than when we went away.  They all remembered who we were and were pleased to see us, which was nice.

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