Tag: heritage

How to celebrate Darwin Day in Shrewsbury

He is one of our brightest scientific minds.

His hometown of Shrewsbury marks his birthday on February 12 each year by hosting an international festival of natural sciences. And his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, forms the basis of our understanding of evolution.

But the naturalist Charles Darwin [pictured above] embarked upon his lifelong quest for knowledge as a small boy in the Shropshire market town and often drew on experiences from his great-outdoors childhood in his later writing.

Walking tour

I’ve come to Shrewsbury, with its half-timbered buildings and historic English Bridge, to join a walking tour in the footsteps of the town’s most famous son.

Down House, Darwin’s Kent home since 1842 may be better known, but the lesser-visited childhood haunts reveal a more human side to the man behind the black-and-white photographs of the stern Victorian scientist.

“Darwin’s ideas were revolutionary on a global scale,” says DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival Organiser, Jon King, “but Shrewsbury is where they were formed.”

The tour starts at the Arts and Crafts-era Morris Hall, the public meeting space with the granite Bellstone in the courtyard a symbol of the unique geology of Shropshire.

Darwin was born in 1809 at Mount House, on the fringe of the town’s Quarry Park, and was loved exploring these geological features in the fields behind his house as a boy.

We move onto St Chad’s Church, where Darwin was baptised, and stroll past the town’s historic Market Hall to the Unitarian Church he attended with his mother, Susannah, whose father was Josiah Wedgwood of the pottery empire fame.

Charles had been born into a well-to-do family, his father, Robert, a respected local doctor, and boarded at Shrewsbury School from 1818, the former school building now converted into the town’s library, while the modern-day school has relocated across town to the banks of the River Severn.

The small square in front of the original school building is today home to a statue of Darwin but, as my tour guide Jon points out, he sits with his back to the school entrance, having not enjoyed the drab rote-learning of his schooldays.

Indeed, his teachers at the time branded him “an average student”.

Golden opportunity

Darwin later attended university in Edinburgh and went on to Cambridge, but he rebelled against his father’s wishes for him to train as a doctor or a clergyman.

He preferred to indulge his passion for natural history by studying earthworms and barnacles amongst others on a series of study tours.

It was only when he was offered a place on an expedition ship, The Beagle, in 1831, the chance came for him to prove himself.

Standing outside the Lion Hotel today, we can still imagine the young Charles rushing to take the next stagecoach to plead for his place on the expedition at The Admiralty in London.

The unpaid role as the resident naturalist on the five-year voyage would change the course of history when the ship sailed from Plymouth on December 27 with Captain Robert FitzRoy at the helm.

We finish the walk under Darwin’s Gate, a public art installation with three seemingly free-standing columns symbolising the three key influences of his formative years, namely the local geology, his religious views and his early study of scientific classification.

Childhood memories

“Darwin attracted more criticism than any other scientist, but he simply saw life with more clarity than most of us,” says Jon. “He was an early pioneer of the stewardship of nature, not control — ideas that still resonate today.”

Darwin died in 1882, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, but remained a Shropshire lad at heart. Indeed, the poetic closing words from On the Origin of Species, could have been written about his Shrewsbury upbringing:

“From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

More information here.

Read the edited version of this story, A Glorious Evolution, in the Daily Mail.

How to celebrate St Dwynwen’s Day in Anglesey, North Wales

Today marks St Dwynwen’s Day, the Welsh equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

The love action is focused on Llanddwyn Island [pictured above], a remote headland off the tip of Anglesey, where Dwynwen founded her spiritual Shangri-La in the 5th century.

It’s a place to celebrate new-found love and soothe the soul after heartbreak.

I’ve done the walk to Llanddwyn Island several times, braving the elements and soaking up the ancient spirituality of the location.

I’ve trudged its Blue Flag beach for both contexts.

Llanddwyn is off limits to most this year under ongoing lockdown restrictions.

But my feature in the travel section of The Independent today celebrates its unique sense of spiritual calm at a time when, loved up or alone, we all need some saintly solace.

Here’s a flavour of my story:

Today that church may be ruined but it still swirls with the spirituality of the Wales’ age of the saints and has a presence that compels visitors to run their fingers along the ancient stone altar.

As the weather closes in, I find wave-smoothed pebbles [pictured below] tucked amongst the stones, messages of love lost and won scrawled upon them.

Read the full feature, A walk with ancient Celtic lovers for the Welsh Valentine’s Day via Independent Travel.

A preview of Life on Board at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

 

[Photo: National Museums Liverpool]

  • National Museums Liverpool opened its new gallery Life on Board today, an opening delayed from March by Covid-19, as part of a wider re-opening of its museums, including the new Linda McCartney Retrospective exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. My preview ran today in Telegraph Travel and the below is my original copy filed before lockdown. 

I’m standing in front of a little piece of maritime history.

With its miniature sun loungers, palm trees and umbrellas, plus mini-me figurines taking a dip in the pool, the 3.5m replica model of the Arandora Star, the ship torpedoed in 1940 while carrying prisoners of war to Canada, had been in storage for years after wartime bomb damage.

But the 1936 exhibition model of this Blue Star passenger liner has been lovingly conserved over 400 hours of restoration work and now takes centre stage in a new maritime gallery opening in Liverpool later this month.

Life on board, the new permanent gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool’s Albert Dock [pictured above], explores the history of travel by sea from the 18th century, via the interwar heyday of the ocean liners as floating palaces, to the current day.

Liverpool was a hub for Transatlantic crossings at the turn of the 20th century with the numerous shipping companies operating out of port city, including White Star Line (later merged with Cunard Line).

The Museum also hosts galleries devoted to the stories of the Lusitania and Liverpool connections to the Titanic story.

The gallery has been over a year in the planning and takes a case-study-led approach to exploring Liverpool’s seafaring heritage, putting human stories at the forefront of the exhibits with text and audio testimonies to illustrate.

Of the 250-odd exhibits, some have been brought out of storage, while a small number are new acquisitions for the opening.

“Our cruise story as a city is rooted in heritage but it also remains an integral part of our living history,” explains Michelle Walsh, the museum’s curator of maritime history and technology.

“We look at the modern revival of interest in cruising by setting it in the heritage context of Liverpool as a cruise port.”

ESSENTIAL EXHIBITS

The exhibition is arranged thematically, as opposed to in chronological order, starting with stories of the Merchant Navy before moving onto the Lines and Leisure section, which shines a spotlight on the golden age of cruise of leisure travel.

It was during the 1920s that the introduction of Tourist Third Cabin Class opened up cruise travel to a wider audience, making the voyage on board an integral part of the overall journey.

The era also saw architects and artists employed by shipping companies to remodel the liners with fashionable Art Deco stylings.

Interspersed amongst the exhibits are some hands-on interpretation for families with younger children, such as learning how to tie a reef knot, and getting your own temporary tattoo as a means to explain the superstitions behind the artwork favoured by sailors.

The gallery also incorporates the museum’s Archives Centre, featuring National Museums Liverpool’s vast collection of maritime and slavery records.

“Liverpool has always been a very outward-looking city, gazing out to the horizon,” says Michelle, who spent her own honeymoon on an Alaska cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL).

“I believe this outward mentality is a reflection of our rich maritime heritage as a city.”

Key exhibits in the gallery include a series of on-board outfits worn by passenger Gertrude Walker, left to the museum by surviving family on Merseyside, to reflect the experience of women travelling by sea in the early 20th century.

Gertrude’s diary recorded the daily routine of first-class travel on the transatlantic ships. Meanwhile, a set of decorative glass panels from the Cabin (first) Class Dining Room of the Mauretania II, marked with signs of the zodiac, highlight the Art Deco influence on design rom the era.

One of Michelle’s favourite exhibits, however, is an architectural design model of the lime-green mid-ship lobby, or the ‘rotunda’, aboard the QE2, which illustrates how ship design evolved with the swinging Sixties.

Built on the Clyde, the QE2 made her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on May 2, 1969.

“With so many items in storage, including over 2,000 ship models, it has been very hard to make the final selection,” explains Michelle as we admire an 1917 events programme from the RMS Orduna, which lists on-board activities, such as a potato race for ladies and cock fighting for men.

“Once you start delving, there are so many important stories to tell.”

FUTURE GROWTH

Today Liverpool’s cruise industry is again booming with plans for a new Liverpool Cruise Terminal scheduled to open in 2022/3, handling up to 3,600 passengers per ship visit.

With the gallery open, those passengers will be able to disembark near Liverpool’s Three Graces, incorporating the landmark Liver Building, and stroll along the waterfront to the museum to visit the new gallery.”

“As a teenager in Eighties Liverpool, the dock was all silted up and the cruise traffic had long since drifted away to Southampton,” says Michelle.

“But the return of the big ships has rekindled a huge sense of pride in our cruise history.”

Large numbers of people now flock to the quayside to welcome visiting ships in port.”

“As curators, we’re always there, too,” she laughs. “Basically, we’re all just massive ship geeks.”

More info here.

Lockdown loafing: the truth about Chester’s favourite ghost story

It’s one of the Chester’s favourite ghost stories.

The tale of a mystery figure, dressed as a monk and spotted on a winter evening, walking along the spooky passage by St John’s Church — the one with the coffin in the east walls [pictured above].

The figure has been seen many times over the years, patrolling the passageway beyond the westerner facade, which leads towards The Groves, the riverside walkway.

His presence is linked not with the church, however.

The Hermitage, the hidden building on a sandstone outcrop between the city walls and the river, is alleged to be his home.

The mysterious building, now privately owned and a reputed hotbed of poltergeist activity over the years, is also known by the name on its tucked-away entrance gate, The Anchorite Cell.

The story suggests the mystery man could be King Harold Godwinson, the vanquished Saxon king who got something in his eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

It’s a story we all know from school history classes and one made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.

Waltham Abbey in Essex claims the last resting place of King Harold. There’s even a stone marked with the words:

“This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066.”

But Chester offers a different version of the story.

Local historians suggest that Harold’s mistress, Edith Swan Neck, rescued her lover from the battlefield and brought him to Chester to live out days in The Hermitage.

Disguised as a monk, he blended into the local community of holy men, who made their home at St John’s since the 7th century.

Edith cared for him during his final days, bringing supplies to his secret Chester hideaway.

It’s easy to dismiss the story as ghost-tale tosh but the sightings over the year offer first-hand accounts.

And excavations of the collapsed western facade years later unearthed two human skeletons entwined together in an eternal repose.

It’s a story I look forward to retelling when Chester Ghost Tours return after lockdown, especially if I’m leading a tour around King Harold’s Day, the nearest Saturday each year to October 14th.

Could the mystery monk behind Chester’s favourite ghost story be a long-lost King?

That would be one in the eye for Essex.