The Silent Stones of Baltinglass

One and a half hours drive southwest of Dublin and close to the Wicklow and Carlow counties of Ireland lies the small town of Baltinglass. When I visited briefly a week or so ago, the town centre seemed very empty of people which gave it a certain charm as well as the impression that you didn’t come here if in need of excitement. Google searches appear to confirm it – a website that seems to have last been updated in 2013; even the Wicklow tourism website couldn’t find much to say that would bring the hordes flocking. Although these are all reasons why I would rather like it there is also another very good reason to visit Baltinglass and that is the remains of the Cistercian abbey founded in 1148 by the King of Leinster, Dermot Mac Murrough.

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The dramatic entrance to Baltinglass Abbey

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Today, the ruins consist mainly of the church although there would have been dormitories and other domestic buildings for the monks but of these there is no visible trace. The rather fine tower is of much more recent age for another church was built within the ruins in 1815, itself becoming obsolete by the 1880s.

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The ruined tower of the 19th century church set within the much older ruins of the abbey

Many of the capitals of the stone pillars are heavily carved with decorations that are similar to the abbey ruins of Jerpoint 40 miles to the south. However, the finest of the stone carvings can be found mounted in a doorway – the tomb lid of James Grace who died 23rd February 1605, sixty-nine years after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monastery. There are numerous other and later graves within the ruins but none as fine as the Grace memorial, for it continued to be used as a graveyard right up to recent times.

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The intricately carved coffin lid of James Grace

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Detail of the James Grace coffin lid

Entry to the ruins is free and compared to many other historic sites, little visited. Certainly, at the time of my visit, I was the only person exploring them. This gives the perfect opportunity to explore at length and to absorb the abbey’s silent history. Although the site is quite small, there are countless interesting features to be discovered and the equally tranquil River Slaney is just a field away, a place for yet further quiet contemplation.

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Castleyons – an Irish Gem

The small village of Castlelyons in Co. Cork, Ireland appeared deserted when we drove into it and as we seemed to be the only car on the road there was no fear of being run over when taking the photo below. As if to confirm its silence the main street was dominated by the ruins of an old Carmelite abbey.Castlelyons   copyrightCastlelyons (2)   copyright

Little is known of the origins of the abbey for there are few surviving written records. It is thought that it dates from the beginning of the 14th century although the existing ruins are from a hundred years later.

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The size of the nave is huge measuring over sixty feet in length and twenty in width. It is separated from the chancel by the tower which although very ruined still has its complete spiral staircase which can be climbed – but not for the faint-hearted. The chancel which is also very large (over fifty feet in length) is where the altar would have been placed. A number of grave slabs survive some of which still have visible markings.Castlelyons (7)   copyright

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The cloister, where the monks walked and meditated, is less complete but the turf square and parts of columns gives a sense of the place. The monastery was dissolved during the Reformation and passed into private hands. Now it is a national monument.Castlelyons (12)   copyright

A mile or two from the abbey ruins is the Castlelyons Graveyard at Kill-St-Anne. At its centre is a mausoleum built about 1747. The interior is circular with just one marble monument to James Barry, Earl of Barrymore and carved in 1753. External steps lead to a crypt below.

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Close to the first lies a second mausoleum, also built in the eighteenth century, for the Peard family, local landlords. Their earliest grave (dated 1683) lies elsewhere in the churchyard and commemorates Richard Peard, an ensign from Devonshire in England.Castlelyons (20)   copyright

The church – or more accurately churches – lie in ruins for a more recent one was built within the original. They date from the eighteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively. The remains of the bell tower and gothic arches are from the earlier date, the elaborate stone window which are in the later ruins are reputed to have belonged to the original church. Whatever the truth of this tale, the result is beautiful and romantic.Castlelyons (23)   copyright

The churchyard is a haven for wildlife and native flowers flourish beside mown paths. Beside the old cemetery is another, newer one still in use and equally well-maintained as were the old abbey ruins and the village itself. Castlelyons maybe off the beaten track but it is well worth making the effort to visit. It is rural Ireland at its very best.

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Much information has been gleaned from information boards within the village and also the Castlelyons village website – link here. Apart from details of its history the website shows that despite its small size, the village social life is thriving.

A Year in Review 2013: The First Six Months

As I feared, once you reach a certain age, time flies by even quicker than before and that certainly has happened in 2013.  Where has the year gone?  The only consolation is that speaking with young people, they say the same thing.  Perhaps that is a rather sad reflection of modern living for I often found that the time didn’t go by quickly enough years ago!  Despite the year having gone by rapidly, it has been a great one with some excitement along the way.

January: it is rapidly becoming a tradition that each New Year’s Day some close friends and I go off exploring.  This usually includes a museum and food.  The year before it had been London with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery followed by afternoon tea at my favourite grocers, Fortnum & Mason.  This January it was to the city of Bath with its glorious abbey church where Edgar was crowned King of England in 973AD.  The church has the most exquisite vaulting – it is hard to believe that such fine tracery can be achieved by carving stone.  Bath, which is a World Heritage Site, is famous for its Roman Baths built about a thousand years earlier and which are open to visitors.  A great place to view them from are the Pump Rooms, the imaginary setting of Sheridan’s Georgian play, The Rivals.  It was here that we had our champagne tea.

February was a mixed month weather-wise in the secret valley and one post describes the rain lashing against the windows and the trees being thrown around by a winter gale.  Despite that the winter aconites were in full flower advertising the advance of spring and the wild birds were hanging onto the feeders for dear life.  Take away the aconites and we have a carbon copy day as I write this and, although there are no signs of spring yet, we are passing the shortest day which is always encouraging.

March was a strange month too with huge amounts of rain interspersed with wintry weather.  Even stranger was the affect it had upon the secret valley’s frog population.  I can only assume that it was because everything was so saturated that, instead of laying their spawn in the small lake that is visible from the cottage, they laid them instead upon the tops of nearby fence posts. They couldn’t possibly have survived there anyway but it was sad to see a few days later that they had turned black and ‘melted’ when a hard frost fell upon them.

April is the month of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.  I have been on the committee since its inception and it has been gratifying to find that it has rapidly established a good reputation with authors, publishers and festival goers. One of the star attractions for 2013 was Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame.  Because it is a small festival in a small, country town the atmosphere is very relaxed and it is possible to meet the authors for book signings or just a chat as they stroll about ‘Chippy’.  This coming year the festival takes place from 24-27 April and tickets go on sale next month – check out the website for more details.

April also saw the launch of my new website www.johnshortlandwriter.com and also the start of my tweeting.  Come and join me @johnshortlandwr

May:  As I am always saying the secret valley is a magical place to live and one of the things that makes it so special is its history. Not the history of history books but the type that goes unrecorded other than by the clues it leaves behind in the landscape.  Here we have a patch of rough ground left uncultivated that is the invisible site of a Bronze Age settlement. Later, almost to within living memory, the lane was a drover’s route and, in places, the road has been abandoned to become a green track full of wild flowers and butterflies.  We still refer to one place as the ‘white gate’ even though it was removed a hundred years ago or more.  It feels special to know that the valley has been lived in and loved for over three thousand years.

It was also a very exciting time as my gardening book was published accompanied by radio and other interviews. The launch party took place a couple of months later.

June is a colourful time of year in gardens and one thing I’ve always wanted to create is an Iris border.  This is an extravagance of space that few can afford for they are only in flower for a relatively short time.  However, one of my clients liked the idea so the ‘rainbow’ border was created.  Interest is extended by daffodils and alliums for earlier colour and Japanese anemones, with large flowered clematis behind, for later on.

To read any of the posts referred to above just click on the links, coloured green.

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Chipping Norton – One Week To Go!



Chipping Norton, one of the gateway towns of the Cotswolds often gets overlooked on the tourist trail.  It is not surprising in some ways for many of the region’s towns and villages look as if they have come straight off the lid of a chocolate box – all golden, mellow stone crouched under a heavy hat of deep thatch, devoid of much of twenty-first century life.  Chipping Norton – or Chippy as it is affectionately known by the locals – is different: a bustling, working town full of people going about their everyday lives , whether shopping or working.

Look beyond the modern shop fronts and traffic and you find a gem of a town; raise your eyes for every building has a different façade and, yes, they too are built from Cotswold stone.  Explore the side streets and you find almshouses and a magnificent church and both the 16th century Guildhall and the Town Hall are as glorious a building as you will see anywhere.  Bliss Mill,  a former tweed mill now converted to flats, is surrounded by common land that reaches into the heart of the town.

Chippy is a busy place socially too and for a small town with a population of only 6000 there is always something taking place.  Perhaps one of the most ambitious of recent events is the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest), the first of which was held last year to great acclaim.  This year it is bigger than ever and starts in just seven days time on the 18th April and continuing throughout the weekend.

 

Because the town is so small, the festival is held in numerous venues.  It is fortunate to have an award winning theatre to stage larger events and an award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale, that holds workshops – and sells the most delicious coffee and cakes.  It seems everyone is involved in one way or another: the Chequers pub, the Blue Boar Inn, the Crown & Cushion Hotel, the Vintage Sports Car Club, the local churches, the library; even the shoe shop is hosting a children’s event.  Incidentally, there are free things going on for youngsters all weekend and the festivals designated charity this year is Storybook Dads, which connects prisoners with their families through books and reading.

So who is coming to the festival? There is an amazing choice of eighty authors so there is bound to be someone to interest everybody.  Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame will be there; Fern Britton will be talking about her latest book – and perhaps her experience in Strictly Come Dancing.  For detective novel buffs, Mark Billingham will be discussing murder with Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Martyn Waites.  Did you see the film We Need to Talk About Kevin?  Author Lionel Shriver will be discussing her new book, Big Brother, which tackles the subject of obesity.  For foodies, Xanthe Clay, Henrietta Green and William Sitwell ask “are we a nation of food fashionistas?”

Prue Leith – one of our Festival patrons

Two events that especially appeal to me are Ursula Buchan’s talk ‘How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War’ and the Extreme Travel team of Nick Bullock and Jason Lewis discuss their adventures with Sue Cook.  Jason, incidentally, has just been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the first person to circumnavigate the world using only human power and described by the Daily Mail as “the most remarkable adventurer in the world today.”

Sue Cook, another of our Patrons

One of the especial pleasures of coming to the festival is that because both the town and the venues are small, you are able to be close to the authors, to chat with them and to get them to sign your books.  You can also meet me (!) for, as Facebook followers of this blog know, I am part of the organising committee.  ChipLitFest also has a Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.

Tickets for all of these events are selling fast and for more information about them and the other authors and host of workshops visit the festival’s website by clicking here.

I look forward to seeing you at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, 18th-21st April – do come and say ‘hello’.

all photos, apart from Bliss Mill, from the ChipLitFest website

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A Visit to Bath Abbey

There has been a church on the site of Bath Abbey for over a thousand years but the present Abbey Church is relatively new by British ecclesiastical standards.  Building started in 1499 but it was not until the early 1600’s that it was completed.  This was due to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and the Abbey remained as ruins until 1616 when the church was repaired; the last of the great medieval churches to be built. 

 
Tradition states that the Abbey Church was built after the then Bishop of Bath dreamt of angels descending – and ascending – to heaven.  It is this vision that is first seen as you enter the building carved into the stonework either side of the West Front.  The great flying buttresses were added in the mid 1830’s to strengthen the building after cracks appeared in the tower; at the same time the pinnacles were also installed.

In late Victorian times many of Britain’s churches had their interiors radically altered and Bath Abbey was no exception.  Much was removed – the organ and screen were taken away which has created the breath-taking view down the full length of the church to the Great East Window, also fitted at this time.  Many other windows were fitted with stained glass and that of the west window was replaced.
 

 
Perhaps the most striking of all of the church’s features is the stone fan vaulting: that of the nave was also created then to match the earlier ones of the chancel.  It soars to great heights with such delicacy and feeling of light that it is difficult to remember it is of stone – or imagine the many hours of craftsmanship that the stonemason’s must have carried out.
 

 

Carving of an earlier date, 1649, is the tomb of Sir William Waller’s wife, Jane.  Sir William fought against the Royalists in the English Civil War and intended to be buried with her.  He was however buried in London.
 

Much of the information for this post has been gleaned from the Abbey Church’s excellent website and pamphlets.  It is a magnificent building and well worth allowing plenty of time to visit for there is much to see.  It is, of course, in the city centre and adjacent to the ancient Roman Baths and Georgian Pump Rooms; these featured in an earlier post which can be seen by clicking here.

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