Skip to content

My best cathedrals of Britain and Ireland

January 31, 2018

Our islands are blessed with some of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals. They are an ensemble of every architectural style from the Romanesque through to the current century.  Some have been places of Christian worship for 1500 years, while others were founded in the last 100 years as different denominations established or, in the case of Roman Catholicism, re-established themselves.  The grandest were royal or noble foundations and tell our islands’ story in stone, wood and glass.  Some dominate their city centres while others can be seen for miles around.  In England and Wales all buildings known as cathedrals are intact and in use as places of worship and are the centre of their diocese.  In Scotland and Ireland the Reformation and later religious differences have left many in a state of ruin, the fate that befell most of our islands’ great abbeys.

My first visit to a cathedral was on a primary school trip to Cheddar caves and Wells cathedral. I preferred the man-made columns and sculpted formations in the cathedral to the natural wonders of the caves.  I have loved visiting cathedrals ever since and whether travelling in Britain or anywhere else in the world I will always seek out a cathedral to visit.  Due to the complex religious and political history of our islands there are rather a lot of churches with cathedral status. It’s a little simpler in Wales and England, where the greatest architectural treasures are in the custody of the Anglican church, with its 48 cathedrals.

The oldest cathedrals are in Wales, where Christianity continued after the departure of the Romans. Britain’s oldest cathedral is Bangor, where St Deiniol became the bishop in 546. Cathedrals were founded in the next decade at Llandaff, St Asaph and of course at St David’s. The pattern of four dioceses survived the incursions of the Normans, the conquest of Edward I, the reformation and the rise of nonconformity from the 18th century, overtaking Anglicanism as the main Christian denomination. In 1920 the Lloyd George government disestablished the Welsh church.  This removed its status as the state sanctioned church and also gave the new Church in Wales (not “of” Wales) its own Archbishop, on a par with Canterbury and York. Two new dioceses were also approved, upgrading the priory at Brecon and the church of St Woolos in Newport to cathedral status.

England’s oldest cathedral is the St Augustine foundation at Canterbury in 597. The Saxons gradually established dioceses throughout their kingdoms as they and the Danes converted to Christianity.  The Norman conquest in 1066 resulted in only minor tweaks to the diocesan map but the Saxon bishops joined the Earls in being supplanted quickly by Norman men. The new bishops embarked on a massive programme of cathedral (and abbey) building, bequeathing to us the glories of Norman cathedral naves, with massive round columns joined by rounded arches.

The diocesan map was shaken up more profoundly by Henry VIII.  Breaking from Rome gave the opportunity to create extra dioceses.  There was no need for new cathedrals to be built as Henry had dissolved hundreds of monasteries.  Five were converted to cathedrals.  For instance the enormous diocese of Worcester was broken up with Gloucester’s St Peter’s Abbey and Bristol’s St Augustine’s Abbey becoming cathedrals, with the towns themselves thereby becoming cities. By 1542 Henry’s Church of England had a total of 22 English and 4 Welsh cathedrals.

The 2 archbishops and 24 bishops were all members of the House of Lords.  Today there are still (incredibly!) 26 Lords Spiritual, though the rules for who qualifies for a seat have changed several times to allow for the creation of new dioceses, Welsh disestablishment and most recently from 2015, giving precedence to female bishops.

The modern Church of England has 42 cathedrals.  The 20 additions were made in the 19th and 20th centuries to reflect a growing population and the shift in that population to industrial centres. As with the Henrician creations, most of the new cathedrals were upgrades of large parish churches, for instance at Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle. One new cathedral was built by the Victorians at Truro in 1876 after diocesan status was restored to Cornwall after a gap of 826 years. In the 20th century new cathedrals were built at Liverpool (the largest cathedral building) and at Guildford, the last addition to the diocesan map in 1927.

I have visited all 48 cathedrals of the Church in Wales and the Church of England.  Most of them have been seen while on holiday or on heritage day trips. By 2013 only four had eluded me but as Minister for Communities in the coalition government I visited towns and cities all over England.  I made sure that community cohesion project visits in Blackburn, Bradford and Wakefield included a visit to their cathedrals. On my last day in the DCLG office in March 2015 my staff took me on a trip to Chelmsford, completing my cathedral set.

In 1829 Catholics were freed from most of the restrictions that had been placed on them since the Tudors and in 1850 the Pope decided to restore the hierarchy of bishops.  England now has 18 catholic cathedrals and Wales has three.  I have visited several but most are Victorian or modern buildings of less architectural interest than their Anglican counterparts. Liverpool and Westminster are the exceptions.

Scotland and Ireland have some architectural gems, again mainly survivors of pre reformation changes.  I will write about these separately below.

What follows is my selection of personal favourites, in various categories.  I will start with the cathedrals that I visited first, last and most frequently. I will add another category every few days.

1 First, last and most often visited

The tiny city of Wells is dominated by its cathedral, one of the architectural masterpieces of medieval England. The cathedral close is an enclave within the city, best entered through the gatehouse at the head of the high street, in the corner of the market place. The joy of visiting Wells is the complete ensemble of the close, with the cathedral at the centre facing to the west a green bordered by the houses of the canons and other officials of the cathedral. On the north side is Vicars’ Close with houses from the mid 14th century, reputedly Europe’s oldest continuously occupied street.  The Bishop of Bath and Wells lives not quite above the shop but his palace is to the south of the cathedral, with its own gatehouse from the market place and separated from city and cathedral by a moat. Between the moat and the cathedral are the Mendip water wells from which the city gets its name and supply of water.

The glory of Wells is the west front.  On my first and every subsequent visit I was mesmerised by the array of statues filling most of the niches right up to the roof gable. There are statues of kings and queens, knights and ladies, saints and disciples, culminating in Christ at the apex.  At ground level you can only appreciate the detail of the lowest rows.  On my next visit I must remember to put some opera glasses in my bag…but I have promised myself this before.  There are spaces for almost 400 in all and in medieval times they would have painted bright colours.  Repainting is unlikely but it would be wonderful if a temporary laser show could light them up.

Entering the cathedral through the west front door your eye is drawn immediately to an unusual architectural feature in the centre of the nave. Instead of a choir screen or an organ loft there are two arches filling the space beneath the main central arch, one inverted on top of the other.  They’re termed scissor arches but I think forceps is a better description.  Their purpose is to buttress and support the main central arches that support the central tower, which became too heavy after an extension to its original height.

I would pick out two other interior features.  A flight of well-worn steps curves to the right, leading to the chapter house.  The octagonal meeting room of the Dean and chapter (of canons) has a vaulted roof supported by a single central column.  Back in the main body of the cathedral, in the north transept, is a remarkable piece of medieval craftsmanship. Time keeping is essential in all cathedrals and monasteries for the orderly running of services.  The Wells cathedral clock is no ordinary timepiece.  A quick glance will not reveal the time.  The face has to be studied carefully.  The outer rim has 24 hours, with noon at the top.  Inner circles give the minutes, day of the month and the number of days since the new moon! But what caught my eye as a nine year old was that on each quarter hour four horseman ride around an oriel window above the clock face. Outside there is a conventional clock face but quarter hour entertainment is provided by two knights in armour who stand aside two bells, striking them with their halberds.  Wells cathedral has something to delight anyone who enjoys great architecture, set in a beautiful close with some medieval humour thrown in.  I can’t recommend a visit highly enough.

Cathedral 48 that completed my Anglican tour was Chelmsford. It doesn’t have the grandeur and splendour of a great cathedral but it is pleasing nonetheless. The parish church of SS Mary, Peter and the Saxon Cedd was given cathedral status in 1914 for the new Diocese for Essex, of which Chelmsford is the county town.  The exterior is unremarkable except for the south porch, with stone bands filled with flint. The spire on the tower is a slender spike.  The interior is an unexpected delight.  The nave is light and airy, with white painted walls roofed with a coved ceiling.  The ceiling plasterwork is painted blue, pink and green, edged with gold.  The chancel roof is also painted in bright colours.  The north transept window is filled with wood panels painted to show a tree of life.  Around the church are icons that would look more at home in an Orthodox church. The cathedral has commissioned several pieces of modern art to give it multiple points of interest that more venerable cathedrals have taken centuries to accumulate.

While Wells was the first and Chelmsford the last on a 39 years long cathedral tour, Bristol is the cathedral that I have visited by far the most times. I first saw it on the day of my interview for a place at Bristol University to study history.  Eight months later I took up my place and Bristol has been my adopted home city ever since.  I have visited the cathedral many times every year, sometimes for official services when I was a councillor and MP but mainly for pleasure.  In the decade that I was Bristol West’s MP I held my constituency surgeries in the nearby City Hall or Central Library and always had lunch in the cathedral café.  I must have munched my way through almost 500 jacket potatoes with tuna and cheese.  When visiting a major cathedral I always have either lunch or tea in the café as an essential part of my visitor experience. Winchester or Salisbury are among the best.

The abbey of St Augustine was founded at Bristol in 1140 by Robert Fitzharding, later the first Lord Berkeley.  At dissolution in 1539 the abbot was part way through a major rebuild and the abbey nave had been demolished.  Henry VIII gave the truncated church cathedral status in 1542 but it wasn’t until the 1880s that Bristol finally got a new nave and a rather short one at that.  The nave replicates the design of the medieval east end and quire where the north and south aisles are the same height as the main body of the church.  The result is a unique “hall church” giving the cathedral a light and spacious interior. The best medieval features are to be found at the east end in the Lady Chapel, where the reredos has been recoloured. Above it are the carved heads of Edward II, murdered at Berkeley Castle and Isabella, his queen and instigator of his death. The Elder Lady Chapel (smaller but older!) has decorative carvings including a sheep playing a violin and a monkey playing a pipe.  Along the cathedral walls are recessed tombs of the Berkeley family, the principal benefactors.  The recesses are crowned by a “star-burst” arch, another feature unique to Bristol.  As with all cathedrals, there is a multitude of memorial plaques on every wall.  I would pick out the one in the south aisle commemorating Samuel Morley, one of my predecessor Liberal MPs.  He was one of the 19th century’s richest industrialists but also one of the most generous philanthropists.  Round the corner from Morley’s plaque the Norman chapter house is entered off the single remaining arm of the cloisters.  It’s arguably the best Romanesque room in the country, with stone patterned walls and a ceiling with zig-zagged ribs.  Another Norman feature is found outside, where the abbey gatehouse has survived a multitude of changes in the area, complete with its grand round arch.

Next up will be a selection of my favourite medieval original cathedrals.

2 Grand medieval originals

Prior to the changes of Henry VIII there were 21 dioceses, 17 in England and 4 in Wales. This group of 21 cathedrals are those that were purpose built as the mother church of the diocese.  All of them remain with us today, though London’s cathedral of St Paul was rebuilt after the 1666 great fire. The bishops (and two archbishops) of these cathedrals were major figures in their regions, with their dioceses often covering vast areas and controlling huge estates.  The Diocese of Worcester stretched all the way south to Bristol and the river Avon, the boundary with Somerset. Many of the medieval cathedrals are thus the showpiece building in their region, built for the glory of God but with the wealth of a huge area contributing to their construction.  They are all wonderful and worth a visit. But I will limit myself in this selection to three grand favourites and below, three smaller gems.

Edward the Confessor travelled to Exeter in 1050 to make the minister built by Cnut the cathedral of the new diocese joining Cornwall with Devon. His Norman successors rebuilt the cathedral but then in 1275 another rebuild commenced.  What we see today is one of the most beautiful examples of Decorated Gothic for the main body of the church but retaining two Norman towers.  Uniquely, instead of forming the usual pattern of bookending the west front the twin towers straddle the mid- point of the cathedral, forming the upper storeys of the usual north and south transepts. The lower third of the west front is like Wells, filled with niched statues, but with a great window above.  Entering the nave through the west front door it is immediately apparent that the west window was designed to shed light on one of Europe’s great medieval spaces.  The absence of a central tower and crossing space means that Exeter has a vaulted ceiling running the whole length of the building as far as the eye can see. At 300 feet (91m) it is the longest medieval vault in the world. The columns and pointed arches of the nave support a ribbed vaulted ceiling, resembling an avenue of palm trees. The palm vaults are joined by stone ribs running in a continuous line along the centre.  They are punctuated by coloured corbels with a variety of carved images.  One shows the murder of Thomas Beckett.  Other highlights of the interior include the cathedral clock.  The face is similar to that at Wells but there are no performing quarter jacks or knights.  But in the doorway below the clock there is a round hole, for the cathedral cat. Mice had a liking for the fat that used to smooth the operation of the clock mechanism and it is claimed that the Exeter clock is the inspiration for the nursery rhyme “Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock…”  Every cathedral takes its name from the cathedra, the throne of the bishop.  The one at Exeter is pretty spectacular.  It stands 60 feet high and was carved out of Devon oak in the early 14th century. It resembles a miniature of a tower, complete with arches and pinnacles and a vaulted roof topped with a spire.  William of Orange sat in the cathedra to make his proclamation claiming the crown from James II after his landing at Torbay in 1688. Also not to be missed at Exeter are the minstrels’ gallery, half way along the north wall of the nave and also the 1665 organ, mounted on top of the screen between the nave and quire.

The greatest cathedral of the Midlands is Lincoln. The flat topography of the county is punctured at Lincoln, with the medieval town on top of a hill, where the Romans had also built a settlement.  The cathedral sits on top and can be seen for miles around. The sight must have amazed medieval travellers and pilgrims and certainly impressed me when I arrived by car in August 2012. In medieval times the sight would have been even more amazing as the spire on the central tower soared to 525 feet, making Lincoln the medieval world’s tallest building.  The spire collapsed in 1548.  Surely with modern methods of construction and lighter materials there could be a reconstruction?

The Saxon diocese was a huge slice of eastern England from the Humber to the Thames. William I moved the mother church of the diocese from Dorchester on Thames to Lincoln. The town was to be his first northern outpost, overawing the conquered English. The cathedral faces Lincoln Castle, which now holds its copy of Magna Carta. (See my best castles blog https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2017/10/31/my-best-castles-of-britain-and-ireland/ ) To the south is the old Bishop’s Palace, part of which is now converted into a boutique hotel, where I stayed on my visit.  William’s Norman cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake in 1185.  The cathedral was rebuilt over the next century and a half, with the agricultural wealth of the vast diocese financing the building of one of the wonders of Europe.  Walking around the outside takes a while, such is the scale of the site and the variety of things to gaze up towards.  The west front has a Romanesque doorway and two huge rounded archways, the preserved fragments of the Norman cathedral. To the north is the decagonal chapter house, with a pyramid like roof.  The great interior was large enough to host three medieval Parliaments, in 1301, 1316 and 1328.

Stepping inside the nave you are immediately impressed by the vastness of the space, with the roof’s supporting columns inlaid with shafts of black Purbeck marble. I was fortunate that my visit coincided with the cathedral flower festival.  The nave was without chairs but arranged between the pillars were floral displays shaped into various human, animal and abstract forms.  I much prefer to see naves without chairs or pews, as this is how they were originally meant to be experienced.  The floral displays also gave a hint of the colour and bustle of the nave as it would have been prior to the reformation, with various altars and shrines.

The cathedral’s most famous shrine in medieval times was that of St Hugh of Avalon, the bishop who oversaw the early stages of the rebuilding from 1185. His shrine attracted many visitors and the income from pilgrims helped pay for building works.  It was smashed in the mad days of the reformation but a modern statue of St Hugh, feeding a swan, now stands in the choir, St Hugh’s choir. The roof of the choir has a most unusual pattern, with the ribs of the vault arranged in a way to give a sense of moving to the east – medieval “crazy vaulting.” Behind the choir, in the sanctuary, is one of the three tombs of Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward I, who died near Lincoln in 1290.   The grief stricken Edward ordered a cross to be erected at each stopping point on the journey of her body back to London.  Eleanor’s entrails are buried at Lincoln, her heart at Blackfriars and the rest of her at Westminster Abbey.

Lincoln has a good claim to be the finest early gothic building in Britain, or even in Europe.  Durham cathedral is undoubtedly one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Europe.  It’s most familiar image to me and to thousands of people every day is the view from the London to Edinburgh train.  The brownish great mass of the cathedral towers above the trees on the hill of the opposite bank of the river Wear from the rail line. As you walk from the station, across the bridge and up the hill the cathedral looms ever larger. The cathedral as we see it now was largely completed in a 40 year dash from the rebuilding ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1070s.  Like Lincoln, it was paired with a castle to consolidate Norman rule in the north. But it was also at the edge of William’s realm and a bulwark against the Scots.  The bishops of Durham had secular power as well as spiritual leadership as the king’s representative in the far north.

The cathedral interior, at least in its stonework, is largely unchanged from its completion in the 1130s.  The most impressive feature is the nave, with the bulk of its thick columns joined by their Norman rounded arches.  Unlike most Norman columns, they are neither plain nor uniform.  They alternate between solid drums and clustered finer columns.  The drum columns alternate with patterns of chevrons and diamonds incised into the stone. In the Lady Chapel, known as the Galilee Chapel and unusually at the west end due to weak ground at the east of the cathedral, there are thinner and finer versions of the massiveness of the nave.  The central tower was completed in the 14th century and the view from the top, looking down at the roof of the nave and over to the castle, is well worth the climb.  I wish all cathedrals opened their towers on a regular basis.

Next up will be three of my favourite medieval gems.

Advertisements

How to reform the NHS to cope with winter pressures

January 13, 2018

Every winter we see the same headlines about patients waiting long hours to be seen, sometimes kept on trolleys in corridors or in ambulances backed up outside A&E.  All governments, Labour, Coalition and Conservative respond by saying that they have already allocated more money and planning for winter pressures is better than before.  But this year it does seem to be a lot worse.

My own local hospital in Bristol, Southmead, is reported today (http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/southmead-hospital-bristol-worst-country-1048383 ) to have the most patients in England waiting more than 12 hours to be seen in A&E.  The hospital managers say they are running at 104% of capacity, management speak for bursting at the seams. The Bristol Post reports that some patients in the hospital have gone without hot meals.  A nurse claims that staffing levels in her department are a third below their required level.  We thus have a terrible combination of patient excess demand and clinician under supply.  Action is clearly required immediately to inject the resources needed to bring services back into balance.  But to avoid a repeat in 12 months’ time a big shift in political thinking by the government is required.

The first big initiative should be a fair way of finding extra money. The NHS will celebrate its 70th birthday this July.  When it was founded not many people lived beyond their seventh decade.  Yet even without the current pressure of an ageing population it was recognised at the outset that there would never be enough money and rationing was part of the system.  Aneurin Bevan thought that the best way to secure maximum resources for his NHS was to take the funding from general Treasury resources.  He did not want the NHS or treatment entitlements to be linked to national insurance in the same way as the other pillars of the welfare state, social security benefits and pensions.  I have thought for many years that this principle needs to be set aside.  We need a full understanding of what 21st century healthcare expectations will cost and then a clear and fair way to find the resources.

I believe that we need a new tax, specifically dedicated to raising the money for the NHS. It should also fund social care services, the cost of which is currently borne by local councils. The clearest and fairest way to do this is to reform national insurance and dedicate all the proceeds to a combined NHS and Care system.  This would give the system the resources it needs and each year the Chancellor would adjust the tax to keep revenues at the right level to support service needs.  This would enable politicians to be clear with the public about how much the system costs and how much we all need to pay. It would also relieve local government of its biggest spending commitment and reduce the level of the unfair council tax. I’ve written more on how the new tax could work here – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/a-new-tax-to-fund-the-nhs-and-care/

Money raised for the NHS is spent mostly on its staff.  Extra money from a new tax should enable recruitment of a larger workforce.  But this will not be easy.  Training doctors, nurses and paramedics takes time. The NHS is the country’s biggest single employer and its workforce is made up of people from all over the world.  Britain’s exit from the EU next year will make it harder to recruit key staff as freedom of movement comes to an end.  Indeed the inflow of key workers from other EU countries is already drying up and many of those who are already here are choosing to leave for better opportunities (and a more welcoming environment) in France, Germany and our other neighbours.  So the second major and urgent shift in thinking is about the impact of Brexit on our NHS and care services.  The government needs to make an emphatic statement guaranteeing the rights of existing EU origin workers.  If we are to go ahead with the madness of Brexit then something that replicates freedom of movement needs to be in place for essential public services.  My 10 years’ experience as an MP in a cosmopolitan city with two major hospitals and two major universities showed me that the Home Office is a useless dysfunctional outfit that cannot manage effectively the existing visa regime.  Imagine the utter chaos that will ensue in March 2019 if we apply a work visa system to everyone from the EU. There is no sign that Theresa May grasps that her obsession with reducing immigration is going to inflict massive damage on the NHS.

The third shift in thinking has been slowly gathering pace for several years.  The boundary between the NHS and social services care causes problems for both sides.  The systems have different political masters and different funding streams so it is hardly a surprise that there is a failure to deliver a seamless service to the patient.  The Coalition began in 2014 to bring the systems together by pooling some local NHS and council budgets into the Better Care Fund. Mrs May’s shambolic reshuffle of her government this week renamed the Department of Health to add Care to the title of Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt.  It is unclear at the moment whether this means that Hunt and the new DoHC will be taking over care funding from my old ministerial department of DCLG, which also got a name change.  The Liberal Democrats have called for some time for the NHS and Care to be merged.  But without new funding Mrs May’s adoption of our approach will remain cosmetic.  At a local level elected Mayors and councillors need to focus on what they can do to align their social services departments with local NHS hospitals so that patients are admitted only when they need to be and are discharged promptly.

More money, extra staff and closer integration of services are all needed to avoid not just seasonal pressures but to make the NHS and Care fit for purpose all year round.

My best Prime Minister heritage sites

December 21, 2017

American Presidents are all commemorated in some way after they leave office.  Whether they be great, obscure or disgraced, all modern holders of the office have a Presidential Library, housing their papers and artefacts and dedicated to the preservation of their place in history.  Their birth places and homes, from Lincoln’s log cabin to Jefferson’s self-designed mansion of Monticello, are major tourist attractions.  While on a parliamentary delegation to the USA in 2010 I visited the huge memorial halls to Lincoln and Jefferson in Washington DC.

Britain has swept most of its 53 former Prime Ministers under the historical carpet. London has a statue to George Washington, at a prominent site in front of our National Gallery. But our first and longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, has no public statue anywhere in the country. There is a statue of him, in St Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament.  Most of the people who walk by probably have no idea who he was, there being little information to tell them.  While there are statues of some of our Premiers in London and elsewhere, most are unheralded by any sort of public monument or preserved building.  Why do we treat Walpole, Peel, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher so shabbily?

Part of the answer must be that our Prime Ministers are not head of state. Neither are they directly elected.  They are the choice of party factions and many, like Theresa May and Gordon Brown, were choices unpopular with the public.  Our politicians are overshadowed by the Royal Family. The most terrible of monarchs, George IV or Charles I, have numerous statues and well known portraits by the great artists of their time.

The commemoration of our Prime Ministers has probably declined even more in the last century.  The Georgian and Victorian suburbs of our great towns and cities have numerous terraces, crescents and squares named after Gladstone, Disraeli and Rosebery, plus other well-known politicians of the time.  I lived in Harcourt Road in Bristol, named after a Liberal cabinet minister.  In my current road, planned in 1893, there is a house named after Hawarden, the home of Gladstone who was PM when the road was started, while another is named Rosebery Villa, after the PM who was in office when the road was finished, with a further house named Hatfield, the home of his successor Lord Salisbury.  The First World War undermined respect for politicians so Bannerman Road in Bristol is the last to be named after a Prime Minister.  It is unlikely that anytime soon we will see a Thatcher Drive or a Blair Close.  Just a few months ago the (Conservative) government decided not to support a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square, for fear it would be the target of protest and vandalism. The Americans show more respect even for Nixon and George W Bush.

There are some places you can visit to appreciate our former Prime Ministers. Many were from aristocratic or wealthy backgrounds and have a country house associated with them. While there are no great halls or monuments, there are plenty of statues to stand next to for a political selfie.  Only one Prime Minister has a specific museum dedicated to his memory.  He is also my political hero and so my personal selection of heritage sites associated with Prime Ministers opens with him.

1 David Lloyd George (PM 1916-22)

The first Prime Minister to come from a humble background and so far the only Welsh holder of the office.  Welsh was his principal language, though he was actually born in Manchester. The site of the house at 5 New York Place, Chorlton on Medlock is now occupied by Manchester University.  There is a painting of it by Lowry, in a private collection. From an early age was brought up by his widowed mother and her brother in Llanystumdwy on the Llyn Peninsular in north west Wales.  All liberals should pay a pilgrimage to Llanystumdwy.  As a child many of our family holidays were at nearby Pwllheli Butlins, so I first visited the Lloyd George Museum in Llanystumdwy at about age 10, while visiting Cricieth Castle in the next village.  I’ve visited many times since and have posed next to the bust outside the entrance. The purpose built museum is the only one known to me that is specifically devoted to a former Prime Minister. The museum houses many artefacts associated with Lloyd George such as photographs, cartoons, speech notes, election posters, insignia and a large selection of presentation caskets for the huge number of city and town freedoms at home and abroad that were granted to the “man who had won the war.” There is also a cinema showing film of him speaking, long after he was Prime Minister.  Lloyd George and Churchill were great friends in life and both were masters of the spoken word.  It is a great shame that Lloyd George was at the peak of his oratorical powers in the age just before radio and film recordings became common, which has allowed Churchill to eclipse him in popular memory. Next door to the museum is “Highgate”, the cottage and cobblers, which was the home of his uncle and is now restored as it was in the late 19th century.  Up the hill behind is Ty Newydd, the last home of Lloyd George, when he returned to his boyhood village with his second wife Frances Stephenson in 1944.  The following year he died and was laid to rest under a huge boulder on the bank of the river Dwyfor. It’s a striking sight but must be the least ostentatious grave memorial of any world leader of the 20th century.  Finally in north Wales, Lloyd George had a solicitors practice with his brother William in Porthmadog. The firm is still there but the town is now better known for being the terminus of the Ffestiniog Railway.  One of the steam engines that pull carriages along the narrow gauge line to Blaenau Ffestiniog is named David Lloyd George.

Portraits of Lloyd George can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery in London and at Cardiff in the National Museum and Gallery.  Opposite the entrance to the museum is a fine statue of a cloaked figure of Lloyd George, arm outstretched in an oratorical flourish. It is my favourite of the three main statues of Lloyd George, though I wish Cardiff Council would clip the tree branches that now partly obscure the statue.  The other statues are at Caernarfon, in the main square in the shadow of the castle (see my best castles blog) and in Parliament Square.  It was not until 2007 that the latter was unveiled, a long overdue tribute in London.

There are few streets and squares named after Lloyd George but Cardiff has Lloyd George Avenue, a 1990s boulevard from the south side of the city centre, linking it to the regenerated Bay and the home of the National Assembly.  While on a parliamentary delegation to Israel I asked for our mini-bus to stop at a location in West Jerusalem so I could see the sign for Lloyd George Street. Lloyd George and his Conservative Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour had supported the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, once it had been liberated from the Ottoman Empire. The carve up of the Middle East by the British and French has unfortunate consequences to this day.

2 Winston Churchill (PM 1940-45 and 1951-55)

Churchill was a Liberal colleague of Lloyd George from 1904 to 1922 and they remained life-long friends and mutual admirers after Churchill returned to the Conservative party in 1924.  Churchill’s birthplace was rather grander than his friend’s and you can’t get much more grander for a non-royal home than Blenheim Palace.  Churchill was neither the heir nor the spare of the Duke of Marlborough. His father Randolph was the brother of the Duke.  Throughout his life he had money problems, though always managed to talk or write his way out of them and was bailed out by wealthy friends.  Blenheim now has a pretty good museum inside the Palace, telling the story of its most famous son, including the bedroom where he was born.  In central London the Cabinet War Rooms museum is well worth a visit and part of it is dedicated to Britain’s Second World War Prime Minister.

In between the two world wars Churchill acquired Chartwell, a house near Westerham in Kent. It was the private home of Winston and his wife Clementine until his death in 1965. It’s now in the care of the National Trust.  The brick house has no particular architectural merit but the coach parties from London bring visitors to the nearest the country has to a shrine to Churchill.  The ground floor rooms are preserved as they were used by the family.  The walls display a small portion of the astonishing output of paintings produced by Churchill.  More can be seen in the studio at the bottom of the garden. Some of the still lifes are quite good.  The upstairs of the house is largely given over to a museum.  As with Lloyd George, there are a large number of awards and “freedom of the city” caskets from all over the world.  Unlike Lloyd George’s museum there is also a display of the many uniforms and regalia that Churchill enjoyed wearing.

Churchill is well served by statues in London.  His is the dominant statue in Parliament Square, a bronze hulk clad in a great coat, facing Big Ben.  Inside the Houses of Parliament statues of Churchill and Lloyd George flank the entrance to the Commons chamber. There is also a statue of Churchill at Westerham on the town green, depicted seating and wearing his “siren suit”, a 1940s onesie. I think the most pleasing statue is in Woodford, his north London constituency, where he is standing, wearing his famous bow tie.  In New Bond Street there is a bench with seated statues of Franklin D Roosevelt and Churchill, celebrating their wartime partnership.  While inter-railing in my twenties I came across a bust of Churchill in Prague and there are many others throughout the world.

Churchill, like Lloyd George, has a modest final resting place.  His simple flat stone slab grave is in the churchyard at Bladon, the parish church of Blenheim.  On the two occasions that I have visited, there was no one else there.

3 Sir Robert Walpole (PM 1721-42)

The name of Britain’s first Prime Minister is probably best known these days as an easy answer to the history section of a pub quiz.  Few people would recognise his portrait and there is no public statue to be viewed. He’s not been commemorated on any bank notes or coins but was featured on a stamp in 2011.  It is a remarkable burying of the image of the first and longest holder of our principal political office.

Walpole used his positon at the head of all political patronage very wisely and lucratively.  He amassed a substantial fortune, much of it spent on the building of his country mansion at Houghton in North Norfolk.  Yet even there, you would have to look very hard to spot any evidence of its founder and most famous occupant.  The current owners (Marquess of Cholmondeley) do little to tell Walpole’s extraordinary life story.  Walpole also amassed the nation’s finest private art collection.  His grandson sold most of it to Catherine the Great and it now forms a significant part of the art at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

You have to go inside the Houses of Parliament to find images of Walpole.  His marble statue is with other 18th century statesmen in St Stephen’s Hall, the entrance hall of Central Lobby.  His portrait is the MPs’ dining room, seen by few visitors.  It is all very unlike George Washington.  Walpole may not have led a successful uprising against colonial rule but he did establish that the head of government should be a commoner, not the king. He deserves better recognition.

4 Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (PM 1828-30 and 1834)

Wellington owes his enduring fame to being the victor of the battle of Waterloo.  More people probably know that a pair of boots is named after him than are aware that he was also, briefly, one of our Prime Ministers. Like the other hero of the Napoleonic Wars, his name is commemorated all over the country with statues and monuments.  The cast iron town clock in Tredegar was built as a memorial and carries his face in relief on the side panels. Towns are named after him as far away as the capital of New Zealand.  The original Wellington from which his bother selected the ducal title is in Somerset and marks the man who made its name famous with an obelisk on the hill.  There’s even a beef dish named after him.

The best place to visit for an appreciation of Wellington is Hyde Park Corner.  English Heritage now run Apsley House, given to Wellington by a grateful nation.  Inside is not just a museum of Wellington’s military exploits but also one of London’s great galleries of paintings, sculpture and china.  Much of it was presented by nations (and restored monarchs) grateful for their liberation from Napoleon.  Ironically, the most striking exhibit is a colossal statue of the Little Corporal, naked and filling the stairwell hall. Opposite Apsley House is the Wellington Arch.  There is another museum, tucked inside the hollow space above the arch.  The huge equestrian statue of the duke that used to stand on top of the arch was removed in 1882 and relocated to the army town of Aldershot.  A smaller equestrian statue was erected next to the arch.

Wellington’s country home was Stratfield Saye in Hampshire.  It is open to the public for a limited period each year and I am yet to visit.  But this summer I did visit Walmer Castle, the former official residence in Kent of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an office filled by Wellington.  Many of the exhibits in the castle, a converted fort from the time of Henry VIII, are from the time of the duke, including a pair of the eponymous boots. Wellington’s enormous tomb is in the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral.

5 Sir Robert Peel (PM 1834-35 and 1841-46)

The first Prime Minister of a modernised “Conservative Party”, Peel went on to split his creation when he proposed the repeal of the protectionist corn laws in 1846.  Free trade split the Conservatives again in 1904, when Churchill defected to the Liberals. Maybe Brexit will do the same in 2019. Peel came from a fabulously wealthy family, the first PM from “new” money in an industrialised nation. His father bought him the pocket borough of Cashel for his 21st birthday, a better birthday present and an easier way into Parliament than I ever got. Peel went on to represent Tamworth in Staffordshire.  I’ve seen the fine statue of him in the town square, while visiting the shell keep castle. Outside Tamworth was Drayton Manor, the house built by Peel on a design by Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum and Bristol’s old Council House.  He commissioned a series of portraits of his political contemporaries to hang in a “statesmen’s gallery” in the house.  It later formed the core founding collection of political portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, the best place apart from Parliament to see portraits of Prime Ministers. Drayton itself was demolished in 1929, leaving just the clock tower to survive into the 21st century, now a curiosity surrounded by the rides of the theme park.  I doubt if the name of Peel means much to those enjoying the thrills and spills. There are other statues of Peel in Bury and in Parliament Square.

6 William Gladstone (PM 1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-94)

Gladstone was a political disciple of Peel and followed him into exile outside the Conservative Party.  In 1857 the Parliamentary grouping of “Peelites” merged with the Whigs and Radicals to form the Liberal Party.  Gladstone went on to be Liberal Prime Minister for four separate terms and to be the most famous statesman of the Victorian age. There are statues of him in most of the major cities of the country.  But the image of Gladstone also found its way into millions of homes across the land.  His penetrating gaze and whiskered jowls were painted onto plates, jugs and cups.  I have a small collection.  Pictures of him and his family were printed onto millions of postcards, the text messages of their day. I have collected many over the years.  During his lifetime his image would have been known by every household, many of which had a picture of him on the living room wall.  It is impossible to imagine a modern prime minister being celebrated in this way.

In an age without microphones and amplification it is astonishing that thousands of people turned up to watch him speak at outdoor events.  Today thousands of walkers pass by the plaque on the Watkin path, one of the routes up Snowdon, which commemorates one of Gladstone’s hillside speeches.  Gladstone was brought up in Liverpool and married Catherine Glynne, from a gentry family just inside the north Wales border at Hawarden.  The castellated mansion at Hawarden (pronounced “harden”) was to be Gladstone’s home at the weekend and during Parliament’s (then rather long) recesses for the rest of his life.  Unfortunately the house is not open to the public, though you can see it from the ruined castle keep on the edge of the grounds.  But there is a lasting memorial and legacy to Gladstone at Hawarden, the residential library that now bears his name.  Gladstone was a great bibliophile and before his death decided to found a library in his home village with his own books as the core collection, covering his interests of theology, philosophy and history.  It was not to be a library for borrowing or casual visits.  Rather it was to be a centre of learning, a library with attached accommodation, where people could stay to read and discuss their thoughts.  At the end of my first year as a history student at Bristol University I was fortunate to be nominated for a scholarship stay at what was then called St Deiniol’s Library.  It was a wonderful experience, reading books while staying on full board for two weeks, a secular version of a monastic retreat. There is a fine statue of Gladstone outside the library, which has now been renamed Gladstone’s Library, a popular bolt hole for authors. It even has its own Twitter account.

Gladstone’s main statue in London is on The Strand, outside St Clement Dane’s Church.  There is a marble statue of him in Central Lobby in Parliament.  He is also commemorated with statues in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  But there is nowhere in the country that tells his extraordinary life story. Perhaps Liverpool would be the best place for some dedicated museum space to be set aside for a display about one of its most famous sons.

7 Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (PM 1868 and 1874-80)

While Gladstone followed Peel out of the Conservative Party, Disraeli was one of the people who drove them out.  Gladstone and Disraeli were bitter rivals for three decades thereafter.  But Disraeli was almost as great a figure in the mind of the Victorian public as Gladstone. He is also commemorated in statues around the country, standing with his rival on the steps of St George’s Hall in Liverpool.  Victoria herself favoured him over Gladstone and sent a bunch of primroses and a hand written note to his family funeral at Hughenden church in Buckinghamshire. The monument in the church was commissioned by Victoria and says “Kings love him that speaketh right”, from Proverbs. The grave is outside.  The church is near to Hughenden Manor, a rather ugly brick house that was Disraeli’s home from 1847 to his death in 1881. It is now the main national shrine to Disraeli, in the care of the National Trust. Bristol has a Hughenden Road, parallel to Beaconsfield Road, named after the Earl of Beaconsfield title taken by Disraeli in 1876.  

8 Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (PM 1830-34)

Sipping Earl Grey tea is an acquired taste, one that has never appealed to me.  I wonder how many people know that the name commemorates the Whig Prime Minister who pushed through Parliament the first reform of the franchise for electing MPs in 1832.  It’s hard to imagine now the strength of feeling in the early 1830s about Parliamentary reform.  There were huge campaigns in favour of reform and large scale rioting when Parliament rejected the proposal in 1831.  In my adopted home city of Bristol the Bishop’s Palace, the mansion house of the Mayor and the city prison were all burned.  Grey’s Reform Act restored order, even though it was only a tiny extension of the franchise to upper middle class men. Bristol does not commemorate Grey and neither does London.  A visit to Newcastle upon Tyne is necessary for a memorial to Grey.  At the summit of Grey Street is a column rivalling Nelson’s in London.  At the top is a statue of Earl Grey by the same sculptor as Nelson’s column.  His family were long standing landowners in Northumberland.

9 Robert Gascoyne Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (PM 1885-86, 1886-92, 1995-1902)

Known as Lord Salisbury during his three separate terms as Prime Minister, he was the first Premier of the 20th century and the last to sit in the House of Lords while in office.  Salisbury was the third member of his direct family line to be the country’s chief minister.  His ancestor William Cecil was principal adviser to Elizabeth I for most of her reign.  He was succeeded in that role by his son Robert, who went on to serve James I and was created Earl of Salisbury in 1605, the year that he uncovered the Gunpowder Plot.  It is largely for these associations with the Tudors and Stuarts that people visit Hatfield House, the mansion built by Robert Cecil using bricks from an earlier Tudor palace.  But it was also the place of birth and death of Lord Salisbury.  In front of the entrance gates (opposite the town railway station) is a statue of Salisbury, complete with what would now be regarded as a rather splendid hipster beard. He is seated and wearing the robes of the Chancellor of Oxford University.  Salisbury’s tomb is in the parish church, which is also the burial place of Lord Melbourne (PM 1834 and 1835-41) who lived at nearby Brocket Hall.  The capital of the former colony of Rhodesia was named after Salisbury and remained so until Robert Mugabe changed the name to Harare.  Salisbury appointed several members of his extended family to his governments, including his nephew Arthur Balfour (who later succeeded him as PM in 1902), hence the phrase, “Bob’s your uncle.”

10 Other Prime Ministers

The four most significant Prime Ministers of the 20th century, Lloyd George, Churchill, Clement Attlee (PM 1945-51) and Margaret Thatcher (PM 1979-90) all have full body bronze statues in the Members’ Lobby (entrance court) of the House of Commons.  But there is little elsewhere to commemorate Attlee or Thatcher.  Our first woman PM has a marble statue in the London Guildhall, watched over carefully in case its head is knocked off for a second time by a hooligan.  I assume there will have to be an interval of several more years before a public statue is erected.  Attlee has one statue, now at Queen Mary University but formerly outside the now demolished Limehouse Library in his constituency.  It’s surprising that there are not more monuments to Labour’s greatest Prime Minister, though he did get to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Members’ Lobby is also the place to see busts of the other 20th century Premiers, apart from Blair who will not be commemorated until 2019, twelve years after leaving office. Asquith (PM 1908-16) has a marble statue. Most of the Prime Ministers from Walpole to Churchill have portraits hung along the Committee Corridor, which covers the length of the first floor of the Houses of Parliament.  More recent Prime Ministers, right up to Cameron, have portraits in Portcullis House. My favourite is a triptych depicting Tony Blair (PM 1997-2007), flanked by Michael Howard and my late friend Charles Kennedy, the three leaders during the 2001 general election.

Away from Parliament the best place to see portraits of all Prime Ministers is of course the National Portrait Gallery, where I have spent many happy hours since my first visit to London at the age of 11, when I bought a post card of Sir William Orpen’s portrait of Lloyd George.  A copy of this portrait was restored to pride of place in the Chancellor’s study at 11 Downing Street in 2010.  It had hung there for many years until Gordon Brown (PM 2007-10) banished it to a corridor in the Treasury.

Westminster Abbey is the burial place of 8 of the 49 deceased Prime Ministers – William Pitt the Elder, his son William Pitt the Younger, George Canning, Lord Palmerston, Gladstone, Andrew Bonar Law, Neville Chamberlain and Attlee.   The selection does not appear to be on merit as many greater figures chose to be buried at their family location.

The names of Prime Ministers live on through several place names including Melbourne in Australia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, named after Pitt the Elder before America’s independence and Port Stanley, the main town of the Falkland Islands, named after Edward Stanley, better known as Lord Derby.  His predecessor, Lord John Russell, lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park.  The building is now a wedding and party venue and is a slightly painful memory for me as it was the setting for the post 2015 general election party (or wake) for Liberal Democrat MPs and defeated MPs. Nick Clegg’s former base as Deputy Prime Minister was Dover House on Whitehall, formerly known as Melbourne House, the London home of our 23rd Prime Minister.

Apart from Walpole there are several significant Prime Ministers who have no memorial in the form of a statue in a public place or former home open to the public.  In the 20th century these include the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (PM 1924 and 1929-35), presumably because Labour regard him with hostility. The Prime Minister who preceded and succeeded him, Stanley Baldwin is about to be commemorated with a statue in his home town of Bewdley.  It is due to be unveiled in February 2018 and will be the next place for me to visit on my tour of sites associated with Prime Ministers.

Other places associated with Prime Ministers:

Duke of Devonshire (PM 1756-57) – Chatsworth house, Derbyshire

Earl of Bute (PM 1762-63) – Mount Stuart house, Isle of Bute and Kenwood House, London

Pitt the Elder (Earl of Chatham, PM 1766-68) – his London home is now Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, famous for its “Chatham House rules.” There is an obelisk in memory of Pitt on Christchurch Green in Clifton, Bristol.  It was erected by William Draper, the general who in 1762 captured Manila in the Seven Years War.  Manila Road (the site of his house) is opposite the obelisk. Pitt was MP for Bath and there is a plaque on the wall of the house he used at Laura House, by the Pulteney Bridge.

Lord Shelburne (PM 1782-83) – Bowood house, Wiltshire. Later Marquess of Lansdowne, most Georgian suburbs have a road or square named after him.

Duke of Portland – portrait by Thomas Lawrence at the City Museum & Art Gallery, Bristol

Pitt the Younger – statues in London and Edinburgh

Spencer Perceval – the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated (in 1812, in the lobby of the old House of Commons), he was the MP for Northampton and there is a statue of him inside the Guildhall.  There is a bust of him in St Luke’s church, Charlton, SE London, where he was buried.

Lord Aberdeen – Haddo House, Aberdeenshire

Lord Palmerston – Broadlands house, Romsey, Hampshire

Earl of Rosbery – Mentmore house in Buckinghamshire, though devoid of original contents, with the best now at Dalmeny house, just west of Edinburgh. Rosebery’s great wealth came from his marriage to Hannah Rothschild, the richest heiress of late Victirian times. It’s a shame that the usual convention is to write about Prime Ministers using their aristocratic title as otherwise Rosebery would be known to history as Archibald Primrose, easily the best Prime Ministerial real name.

Henry Campbell-Bannerman – statue at Stirling, his constituency.  “CB” is technically the first holder of the title “Prime Minister”, as well as First Lord of the Treasury.

Edward Heath – Arundells house, Salisbury cathedral close. His ashes are buried in the cathedral.

James Callaghan – Callaghan Square on the south side of Cardiff city centre (linking to Lloyd George Avenue) commemorates the fact that Callaghan was MP for Cardiff South from 1945-87. But it is a bland urban space, crying out for a statue of the only person to occupy all four of the great offices of state, PM, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.

The burial places of all Prime Ministers are generally accessible. Here’s a list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_burial_places_of_Prime_Ministers_of_the_United_Kingdom

 

My best abbeys, priories and monasteries

December 12, 2017

My last heritage blog was about my favourite castles. The surviving monastic buildings of medieval Britain and Ireland were largely built by the same people.  The king or his magnates built the castles to physically control and overawe the population.  They also founded monasteries and endowed chantries to shape the thought of the medieval world and to pray for their souls in the next world. Monasteries on our islands have existed since the coming of Christianity under Roman rule.  The Celtic Britons maintained the religion with small monastic cells and monasteries.  The most spectacular survival is at Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of county Kerry. Those in the east such as Lindisfarne were sacked by Scandinavian raiders.  Eventually the pagan Saxons, Danes and Vikings who ruled over fragments of what later became England converted to Christianity and turned from pillagers to monastic founders.

Most of the monasteries we can see today date from medieval times.  The Norman kings and magnates endowed daughter houses of their French foundations.  The Welsh and Scottish rulers followed suit.  A network of monastic franchises spread, with Benedictine, Cistercian, Augustinian and many other orders owing allegiance to continental mother houses.  They all controlled large tracts of land and were a major factor in the medieval economy.  They were also centres of learning, from scripture to medicine. Many monasteries became fabulously wealthy, with accumulated endowments from generations of departed souls for whom the monks were meant to pray.  Abbots were major local figures and also sat in the upper house of Parliament with the bishops and barons. For 500 years over 800 monasteries were at the centre of religious, economic and political life.

All of this was swept away during the sixteenth century.  Henry VIII approved the dissolution of the monasteries of England, Wales and Ireland in 1536. The agents of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, had already surveyed the monasteries, eying up the wealth as well as recording the lifestyles of the monks that were often far removed from the codes of their order.  Within a few years every monastery was closed.  What followed was the greatest act of cultural vandalism in British history.

The vast majority of monasteries passed into the ownership of the Tudor court favourites, creating a new class of country gentry.  The new owners stripped the lead off the roofs of the abbey churches and removed much or all of the stonework for the building of new mansions.  Libraries and artefacts were scattered.  Fortunately, some of the abbey churches in major towns and cities continued as places of worship either as cathedrals in Henry’s new Church of England or as parish churches.  Some monastic cloisters and domestic buildings were incorporated in new gentry homes or found civic use.  But most rural monasteries quickly became stone shells, relics of a former way of life.  By the 18th century many became appreciated as romantic ruins, the subject of poets and painters.  In the 21st century they are popular tourist attractions.

Here are my personal favourites. Which are yours?

1 The best Majestic Ruins

My favourite and most visited ruined abbey is Tintern.  Driving along the winding road that serves the Wye Valley you turn a bend and a huge roofless church fills the view. The former Cistercian abbey stands to its full original height and if you narrow your eyes and use your imagination you can picture the full splendour of this medieval masterpiece, with a lead roof on top of the shell of the building and stained glass filling the skeleton of the stone tracery of its windows.  It has stood as a stone jewel on the banks of the Wye, attracting visitors of the “picturesque” for the last 250 years.  It has been painted by Turner and its environs celebrated in verse by Wordsworth. Wander the site and curse the soul of Henry VIII.

The English rival for the scale and grandeur of Tintern is Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.  A fellow Cistercian house, Fountains was the richest in the order.  But its status was insufficient to save it, being too remote from any large town to have a new life as a cathedral and far too big to be a parish church.  After suppression in 1539 its lead roof and the glass from its windows was stripped for buildings in nearby Ripon and also York. Some of its stone was used to build Fountains Hall, a fine example of a medium sized Elizabethan house.  By the 18th century the ruined abbey lay at the centre of a landscaped water park on the Studley Royal estate.  In the 19th century it was owned by the 2nd Marquis of Ripon, a close friend of Gladstone who served in all Liberal governments from Palmerston to Asquith. He commissioned William Burgess (see my blog on castles, Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch) to build St Mary’s church.  The interior decoration is a beautiful example of Victorian high gothic.  The whole ensemble of abbey, house, park and church is now a World Heritage Site.

My favourite Scottish grand ruin is at Melrose. Another Cistercian house, it was founded by David I in 1136 but what we see today is the rebuild from the end of the 14th century, in the Perpendicular style. The abbey became one of the burial places of Scottish kings, including reputedly the heart of Robert the Bruce. Dissolution came later in Scotland but the hand of Henry VIII was instrumental in the ruination of Melrose as his army attacked the abbey during the unsuccessful “rough wooing “of the Scottish royal family into a marriage alliance with Prince Edward.

Ireland is rather bereft of grand ruins, though is better endowed with cathedrals, both ruined and intact. I enjoyed visiting the scant remains of Mellifont, the principal Cistercian abbey in Ireland.

2 Small but pleasing

In between the west Somerset harbour towns of Watchet and Minehead lie the remains of Cleeve Abbey.  Here the interest is principally the well preserved domestic buildings of the monks, rather than the abbey church ruins.  The main gate house to the abbey precinct stands to its original height.  The most impressive building in the monastic enclosure is the monks’ refectory with a magnificent timber arched ceiling. The former Benedictine priory at Ewenny is a little known gem in the Vale of Glamorgan, which I first visited at about age 9 when I’d persuaded my father to drive me around the many local castles.  The priory church is largely intact, with the Norman nave functioning as the parish church.  Turner painted a watercolour of the choir and south transept in 1795. A 21st century glass screen now separates the nave from the east end, with its Romanesque niches and tomb of the founder William de Londres. To the south of the priory church is the best preserved fortified enclosure in Britain.  Walls stand to their full height, with two gatehouses.  They surround the manor house and farm buildings that now occupy the site of the priory’s domestic buildings. At nearby Margam the former Cistercian abbey church has also been preserved for parish use.  The real interest here is in the adjacent Cadw museum, housing a large collection of Celtic stone crosses from all over south Wales.   Llanthony Abbey nestles in the shadow of the Black Mountains, just inside the Welsh border.  The abbey church is quite ruined apart from the West end, long incorporated into a house that is now a pub.  This is the joy of Llanthony, sitting on the base of a pillar of the ruined nave, with a pint of beer in your hand, listening to the sheep baaaaing on the hill.  Magical.

3 Dissolution reprieves

We should be grateful for the fact that the dissolution did not sweep away every abbey.  The larger ones in the centre of the major towns of Tudor England found new life as cathedrals.  The abbeys of Bristol, Gloucester, St Albans and several others were saved in this way.  I will write a separate blog on my favourite cathedrals so here we are concerned with former abbeys now operating as rather grand parish churches.  Most are shorn of their cloisters and domestic ranges but the abbey churches live on.   My favourite is Tewkesbury, the grandest surviving abbey church apart from Westminster. A Benedictine house, it was founded in 1092 by Robert Fitzhamond, a close associate of William the Conqueror and his younger sons William II and Henry I. The fabric of the abbey church is still largely from the time of its founder, with a Norman arches in the nave and probably the finest Romanesque central tower in the country.  The west front is almost entirely filled by a Norman arch, framing a much later window.  The church has fine tombs of the leading aristocrats of the west of England and south Wales, including the de Clares, Despensers (see the Caerphilly entry in my castles blog) and Nevilles. Tewkesbury is a good place to go for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses. After the battle of 1471 many of the dead Lancastrians and Yorkists were buried at the abbey.  These included Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir of the soon to be deposed for a second time Henry VI.  For balance, George Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s estranged brother is also buried here.

Romsey in Hampshire is the grandest surviving nunnery church. It’s one of many buildings that I’ve visited during Parliamentary by elections, combining my twin interests of politics and heritage. The Liberal Democrat Sandra Gidley won the by-election in 2000, so it’s a good memory.  Like Tewkesbury, the architecture is largely Norman.  Bath and Sherborne are both reversals of the usual abbey survival story.  Originally cathedrals from Saxon times, they were both stripped of full cathedral status as the Norman and Plantagenet conquerors reordered the diocesan map.  Bath had to give way to Wells (though stays to this day at the head of the name of the diocese) and Sherborne to Old Sarum and eventually the new cathedral town of Salisbury.  The cathedrals became abbeys but survived dissolution as the principal churches of their locality.  Bath and Sherborne also share the architectural feature of exquisite fan vaulting in their naves.

As I have mentioned Bath it would be remiss of me not to feature Bristol. The abbey of St Augustine became the city’s cathedral in 1542.  The second city of medieval England was richly endowed with other monastic houses and a large number of churches.  Facing the cathedral across College Green is the chapel of the monastic St Mark’s Hospital, founded in 1230.  At the dissolution the chapel was bought by the city corporation.  It is now the country’s sole civic church, which I’ve had cause to attend on many occasions. The interior is packed full of tombs and monuments covering several centuries, all sheltered by a beautiful gilded oak ribbed nave roof and stone fan vaulting in the side chapels.  The vaulted cellars below became the storage place for the city’s eponymous “cream” sherry made by Harveys.  Upstairs on Remembrance Sunday I am grateful for the warm mulled wine at the end of the annual civic parade.   Bristol’s oldest building is the Priory of St James.  This building has a remarkable story, switching between denominations. It was founded in 1129 as a Benedictine daughter house of Tewkesbury by Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester.  He owed his surname and title to the fact that he was one of the many illegitimate children of Henry I, this one by the Welsh princess Nest. The church retains its Norman nave and west front, topped with a wheel window.  The church survived dissolution as a parish church, losing most of its out buildings except for the guest house, which is now the White Hart pub. It was the parish church of the most prolific hymn writer in English, Charles Wesley.  By the 1980s it was redundant and when I first came to Bristol was closed to visitors.  In the last couple of decades it has been reborn, returning to its catholic roots and with an attached mission of working with people with drink and drug addictions.

Honourable mentions should go to Beverley and Selby, praised by many but I am yet to visit.

4 Remotely rural or coastal

Some of the greatest abbeys were located in rural settings, owning large country estates. Their earnings from sheep farming and agrarian products supplemented their endowments and donations. Market towns were not far away.   But a large number of abbeys were built in remote locations, perhaps on pilgrimage routes but in any event more than a day’s walk for a monk or nun from the nearest settlement.  Today they offer a long drive up a minor road, often through rolling hills and blind bends.  Visit for the journey as much as the destination. On a Lake District holiday you shouldn’t miss Shap Abbey.  The site is quite ruined apart from the west front tower but its small scale allows an easy impression of the typical layout of an abbey. Shap gives me an excuse to mention one of the smaller religious orders, the Premonstratensians. They were canons, not monks and so preached in nearby parishes rather than living a life of ordered contemplation at their abbey.   If in the vicinity of Aberystwyth do make a rural detour through the Ceredigion countryside to Strata Florida abbey.  A small Cistercian house largely endowed by the Deheubarth Prince Rhys ap Gruffudd, better known as the Lord Rhys, founder of the national eisteddfod. Apart from its beautiful setting, the main thing to see is the unique design of the west front doorway. The usual Romanesque round arched shape is set in a series of five receding roll mouldings, rather like stone pipes.

The coast also provided sufficient isolation for religious contemplation.  In the first few centuries of post Roman Christianity it meant that monasteries were exposed to heathens arriving by sea as the unfortunate Saxon followers of St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne discovered in 793 when the Vikings raided their Northumbrian monastery. The site was all but abandoned until the Normans refounded a monastery.  The remains we see today date from that period.  There’s a conventional west doorway to compare with Strata Florida.  Like Ewenny, there was a fortified enclosure, built to protect the site from the Scots. The historical significance of the site was not enough to save it from dissolution and in any event the cult of St Cuthbert had been centred on the cathedral at Durham for many years.

You can’t be more coastal than an island monastery and my selection here is Caldey Abbey, on an island off the coast from the splendid harbour town of Tenby.  The medieval Benedictine priory buildings are well preserved and are now cared for by their Cistercian successors who took over the site from the Anglican Benedictines who had refounded the monastery in 1901.  The modern buildings with whitewashed walls and red tiled high pitched roofs look like a transplant from Bavaria.  Apart from the island setting and interesting collection of buildings, another good reason to take the boat to Caldey is to sample the bars of chocolate made by the monks.

If you want to arrive by steam train rather than boat, I recommend Hailes Abbey, which has its own station on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire preserved line, reopened this summer. Little remains of the abbey above knee height but the on-site English Heritage museum is excellent.

5 Royal connections

I couldn’t write an article on our best abbeys without including Westminster, probably Britain’s most famous church.  The setting for all coronations of England’s monarchs since 1066 and the final resting place for many of them between Henry III (who rebuilt the abbey and was buried there in 1272) and George III in 1760.  I’ve wandered around the church and its precinct many times as a tourist and in an official capacity and it is impossible to take in the multitude of tombs and monuments to the many non-royals commemorated in every nook and cranny.  Eight Prime Ministers are buried there, including Gladstone and Attlee and there are monuments to numerous writers and scientists. There are works of art as well as monuments, including a view of the abbey by my favourite artist Canaletto.

The decapitated body of Mary, Queen of Scots was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey by her son James VI and I.  Her predecessor Scottish monarchs were mainly laid to rest at Iona (which I have not visited) until 1093 when Malcolm Canmore (Malcolm III) was the first to be buried at the abbey he founded with his Queen Margaret (later canonised as a saint) at Dunfermline. The abbey was rebuilt by their son David I in 1128 in the style of the Normans.  The nave survives with its thick round columns and round arches.  It is now the vestibule of the parish church built as an extension in the early 19th century. Robert the Bruce’s body lies here, separated from his heart which was initially sent on crusade and then interred at Melrose in a lead casket. Dunfermline is another of my successful by election visits. In January 2006, after a walk down the high street with Charles Kennedy, I escaped the freezing weather to visit the abbey in the snow. In the summer of 2018 I made a longer visit, including the adjacent palace where the second son of James VI, later Charles I, was born in 1600.

Many of the abbeys in Wales were associated with the native princes of Gwynedd, Powys and Dyfed. They were small and poorly endowed compared to their counterparts founded in south and east Wales by Cambro-Norman lords.  Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn ab Iorwerth) supported the building of a Cistercian cell of Strata Florida at Aberconwy in 1198.  Monastic life lasted for less than a century as Edward I decided that the mouth of the Conwy was a perfect site for a castle and new town (see my best castles blog) and the monks were evicted.  The abbey church became the parish church for the new English settlers within the walled town.  Llywelyn’s tomb was evicted with the monks, eventually finding a place of rest at the church in Llanwrst.  The headless body of his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was buried at Cwmhir Abbey after being killed by one of Edward’s mercenaries near Builth in 1282.  Despite this famous association with the last native Prince of Wales the abbey church was reduced to mere fragments after dissolution. The Tudors did not respect their Welsh origins. Five of the nave bays from the abbey were used for the nave of the parish church at the nearby market town of Llanidloes, my favoured lunchtime stopping point on journeys to north Wales.

6 Famous associations

Monasteries were usually founded and endowed by a monarch or magnate for spiritual reasons.  But the first Norman foundation in England could not have more secular origins.  In gratitude for his victory over the English in 1066 William the Conqueror founded an abbey at the site of the Battle of Hastings.  The battlefield site and village, near to Hastings, is now known as Battle.  Not much remains of the abbey and no one can be certain of the location of the tomb of the vanquished King Harold.  But the gatehouse is worth a look and if you’re going to visit a battlefield, there are none more famous in England.  Neath abbey was the last refuge of Edward II, on the run from his vengeful queen Isabella.  The king had fled west from the castle of his favourite Hugh Despencer (see my best castles blog) and was given sanctuary by the monks of Neath.  They quickly grew wary of the implications of hosting the doomed king and asked him to leave.  Edward was captured on the hill above Llantrisant, a spot that used to be marked by a plaque but it had disappeared when I went to look last year.   The abbey was dissolved and a mansion was built in the grounds by Sir Richard Williams, who later took the surname of his sponsor Thomas Cromwell and was the great-grandfather of Oliver. The mansion is now a ruin too. Glastonbury abbey was the richest and most visited in medieval times.  It must now be among the most visited ruins.  But today’s pilgrims are hippies drawn to the music festival town and its alternative shops, many with a whiff of incense or something stronger.  Hippies dance and busk in the town square, with ankle and wrist bells.  It’s a whole new meaning to the bells and smells associated with Catholicism or high Anglicanism.

7 Conversions to other uses

Tudor owners plundered dissolved abbeys for stone and lead for their new houses.  Sometimes they obliterated almost everything above ground. The Herberts, one of many Welsh families to prosper under the Tudors and do well out of dissolution, built their quadrangular Wilton House directly on top of the demolished Benedictine nunnery. Often the name of the abbey has been retained and the house is an adaptation of the monastic domestic buildings, for instance at the former convent of Lacock Abbey.  Monasteries all had large barns and the one at Lacock now houses the museum of photography, it was through a window at Lacock that Fox Talbot took one of the earliest photographs. At Francis Drake’s Buckland Abbey the house is built within the walls of the abbey church itself. In Bristol alternative civic use was found for the medieval halls of the Dominican Friary, in medieval times in the shadow of Bristol castle but now surrounded by a 21st century shopping centre. The two medieval halls were taken over by the trade guilds for bakers and cutlers and are still known by those names.  The building between the two became Bristol’s main Friends Meeting House, hence the religious oxymoronic name for the whole modern restaurant and function room complex, Quakers’ Friars.

8 Working monasteries

Four centuries after dissolution came a monastic resurrection.  The Victorians coupled strong religious observance with tolerance for denominations outside the established Church of England. This allowed for a reestablishment of catholic religious orders, often from communities that had long existed in exile elsewhere in Europe.  At Ampleforth (Yorkshire) and Downside (Somerset) new Benedictine monasteries were built, following the gothic revival architecture seen in hundreds of parish churches and cathedral restorations.  The new abbey church at Prinknash in Gloucestershire was built as recently as 1973. Its modernist design resembles a 1970s university laboratory rather than a church.  Modern monasteries have done more than put up new buildings for religious contemplation.  The resident monks have also revived many of the domestic crafts such as pottery, bee keeping for honey, brewing beer and making perfumes.

The star for me is Buckfast Abbey, on the southern edge of Dartmoor. I have visited at least 20 times and have stayed on retreat, though my contemplation has been more secular and political than religious.  The site has one of the most remarkable stories in English monasticism. Next year the current Benedictine community will celebrate the millennium of monastic life on the site.  The Saxon monastery founded in 1018 had fallen into decline by 1136 when King Stephen granted the site to the Savigniac order from his Norman abbey of Savigny. In 1147 the Savigniacs merged with the Cistercians and Buckfast was a house of the white monks until dissolution in 1539.  Over the next three centuries the abbey church disappeared above ground level and part of the cloisters and other buildings were incorporated into a mansion.  In 1882 Buckfast entered the fourth phase of its monastic history when the mansion was bought by a group of French Benedictines. They excavated the remains of the abbey church and began plans for a rebuild, with construction eventually starting in 1907.  Over the next 30 years a small number of lay brothers built with their own hands a new abbey church in a mainly Romanesque style.  In 1966 the modernist Blessed Sacrament Chapel was built at the east end. The whole of the east wall is made of stained glass bricks, manufactured on site by one of the monks. They depict the figure of Christ with welcoming arms,  standing behind the communion table with the bread and golden chalice.  The best time to see it is early on a summer morning, with the rising sun shining through the colours.  Whatever your thoughts and beliefs, it is impossible not to be moved.

The Brexit Lexicon

December 7, 2017

Politics has always added new words and acronyms to the English language, many of them pinched from other languages.  Dictator, boycott, left-wing, fascist, federalist, quisling, quango, think-tank, commentariat, chav, cabal and Watergate are all examples of words that crop up in books or in the news. Britain’s referendum on the European Union in June 2016 has spawned a new set of words and sayings that weren’t previously in use at all or are old words given new meanings.  In the last 18 months the word Brexit has become the most used political word in Britain and probably across the European Union itself.  Here’s my lexicon of Brexit, to which I’m sure there will be new additions in the months ahead. Maybe I could create one here – a Brexicon, which in fact could have a double meaning!

Brexit – derived from Grexit, coined to describe the risk of Greece crashing out of the Euro currency during the financial crisis from 2009 onwards.  Greece is still in the Euro and new countries have joined it since the word was first used.

Brexit means Brexit – first used by Theresa May in the aftermath of the referendum and David Cameron’s resignation, as she campaigned to replace him.  Now fading from use and the rider of “and we are going to make a success of it” was ditched after the 2017 general election setback for Mrs May.

DExEU – the Department for Exiting the EU, set up by May, who appointed David Davis as its Secretary of State.  He has since lost a couple of ministers, his special adviser and top civil servant.  The department is supposed to be preparing all the paperwork and analyses for Brexit – see also Impact Assessments.

Brexiteers – the cheery, heroic, buccaneering name Brexit campaigners give themselves.  Rude opponents say Brexshitters.  A more polite word would be Brexiter.

Global Britain – the bright new future Brexiters claim lies ahead for Britain, free of the EU and able to make its own trading agreements.  Deals that will be made from the much weaker position of being outside the world’s largest trade bloc.

Jam – an example given of the export opportunities that will be open to Britain outside the EU.  Sadly, it will take a lot of jars of marmalade and lemon curd to make up for lost jobs in the automotive and aviation industries.

Remoaner – name given by Brexiters to Remain supporters who continue to point out the flaws in the arguments put forward by Leave supporters. Also known as Remainiacs.

Regrexit – the name given by Remoaners to Leave voters who now regret their vote, who are having a feeling of Bregret. Perhaps a better one would be Brexitears, which could also be the general feeling of sorrow felt by all Remain supporters.

Snowflake – a word that has blown across the Atlantic, used by right wing politicians and commentators to describe over-sensitive liberals who disagree with them. But I don’t think the hot blast of their rhetoric causes liberal arguments to melt away.

Take Back Control – one of the killer phrases deployed by Vote Leave speakers during the referendum.  Gave the (false) impression that Britain was under the heel of Brussels and couldn’t do anything to stop hordes of Johnny Foreigner from coming here to live, steal our jobs and live off benefits while being health tourists.

Make our own laws – a variant of take back control, giving impression that a majority of British laws were made by the EU, which should have come as a surprise to Leave supporting MPs who must have been wondering what all those House of Commons votes were all about.  Also duped people into thinking Britain had no say in the small number of laws that were actually made in Brussels.

Single Market – a concept barely spoken of outside the Westminster Bubble pre referendum and still hardly understood or deliberately misrepresented (straight bananas, an invention of Boris Johnson) by most commentators.  Put simply, it’s the rules of the market, from component sizes to label descriptions of thousands of products.  The same sort of things you’ll find in any street market licence or for that matter in Magna Carta, so beloved of Brexiters who’ve never read it.

Four Pillars – the fundamental pillars of the Single Market are the four freedoms of movement for goods, services, capital and people. The free movement of people is anathema to Brexiters.

Customs Union – like Single Market, hardly heard of until the last year.  Goods move inside the Customs Union without any import taxes (tariffs) whereas goods from outside, say from the USA, China and Japan have import duties slapped on them.

Norway Model – much talked about in the referendum, when Leave supporters pointed to Norway, a prosperous country that is in the Single Market but not in the EU.  Now denied by Brexiters, who want to leave the Single Market as part of the Brexit means Brexit mantra.

Experts – a much derided group of people who gave warnings (dismissed as scaremongering) about the risks of Brexit.  Michael Gove, a minister once in charge of England’s schools, who fancies himself as an intellectual, famously said that the nation was tired of experts.

Tricky economicy words – used by Gove to describe difficulties put forward by ministers (or experts) trying to navigate the Brexit negotiations.  Seen by some as a pitch for the job of Chancellor, held by Phillip Hammond, a Remoaner.

Liberal Elite – experts and any well-educated people who disagree with Brexiters.  Mainly found in expensive houses in north London, Bristol and other university cities.

The Will of the People – cited by dictators through the ages to use the force of numbers to cow any of the elite who were not on their side. Used by Brexiters to imply that the 52%:48% win for Leave in the referendum was a crushing victory that should silence dissent forever.

Enemy of the People – another phrase beloved by dictators but used in November 2016 by the Daily Mail to describe British judges who ruled that Parliament should vote on the triggering of the Brexit negotiations. Similarly, campaigners against Brexit have been labelled traitors and saboteurs.

Soft Brexit – leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market and Customs Union.  Killed off by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech when she confirmed her government would take Britain out of all vestiges of EU membership.  This position was formerly dubbed Hard Brexit.

Red, white and blue Brexit – used by the Conservative party to imply Brexit is patriotic. Not heard much these days.

Jobs first Brexit – an oxymoron used by the Labour party to pretend the position of their leadership is different to Theresa May.

Exit from Brexit – a campaign slogan of the Liberal Democrats, who want the public to have a referendum on the Brexit deal, a “first referendum on the facts”, definitely not a “second” referendum…

Ulster says NO! A favourite phrase of Democratic Unionist Party founder Ian Paisley.  Since June 2017 Theresa May has headed a minority government, propped up by the DUP.  The DUP are little different to UKIP (who’ve had new three leaders since the referendum) in terms of their hatred of the EU but inconveniently for them Northern Ireland voted Remain.

The Irish Border Question – last a serious issue in British politics in 1921, when Northern Ireland was created but with a common travel areas across all Irish and British islands.  This arrangement remained unaffected when the UK and the Republic of Ireland joined the EU together in 1973.  If Brexit happens, with Britain outside the Single Market and Customs Union, then the Irish Border will be the modern equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein Question, the intractable diplomatic problem of the 19th century.

Regulatory Divergence – the drifting apart of UK and EU trade laws and regulations.  The DUP oppose any special arrangement for keeping Northern Ireland close to EU rules as a solution to the Irish Border question.

Regulatory Alignment – a possible solution to the Irish border, if the UK agrees to hug close to current and future EU single market and customs union rules.  This would be similar to Switzerland, where they practice Autonomer Nachvollzug, the automatic translation of EU law into Swiss domestic law while pretending to be independent of the EU.  It certainly can’t translate as taking back control and would infuriate Brexiters.

Vassal State – a phrase coined by Brexiters who fear Britain will end up complying with EU regulations in order to get a good trade deal and to square the Northern Ireland question.  The Tories once campaigned on the slogan, “In Europe, not run by Europe.” The slogan will have to be reversed now – “Out of Europe but run by Europe.”

Brexodus – in previous times of high taxes known as a brain drain.  Now it’s not higher taxes but reduced opportunities that are likely to lead to a talent flight to the EU.  The country is obviously going to lose EU regulatory authorities (eg in banking and pharmaceuticals) but professional advisers based in London are also setting up offices in other EU financial centres.  Also used to describe the denuding of the NHS, universities and hi-tec industries of the EU citizens who used their freedom of movement to work in the UK.

Brextino – someone who is officially a Brexit supporter but is trying to minimise the damage.  Describes most of May’s cabinet.  A variant of the US term Rino – used by the right wing Tea Party to describe moderates who are Republican in name only.

Twitter bots – thousands of Twitter accounts that were not operated by thousands of individuals.  Allegedly used by Leave campaigners and possibly by dark forces from Russia to move opinion.  Russian money is also believed to have financed pro Leave adverts on other social media platforms.

Impact Assessments – common practice for any legal change by government, I signed off several when a minister.  David Davis told Parliament a year ago that DExEU was working on 57 of them, with a high degree of detail.  He said a month ago MPs couldn’t see them as they would undermine negotiations.  Now he says they don’t exist and if they did their value would be “near zero”.  Brexit is therefore officially a leap in the dark. Davis has faced calls for his resignation for misleading Parliament, a Dexit for Davis?

Trade Deals – arrangements between countries to reduce taxes and harmonise rules so as to increase trade.  Since 1973 the EU has negotiated these on behalf of Britain. Member states cannot negotiate their own separate deals.  When we leave the EU we will have no trade agreements in place and will have to renegotiate all the agreements currently held as an EU member.  This is in addition to a new agreement we will need with the EU itself and any deals that the EU has not yet agreed, for instance with China or the USA. Leaving the EU without a trade deal with it would be falling over the cliff edge.

WTO rules – the default rules of the World Trade Organisation, used in the absence of negotiated deals.  If Britain crashes out of the EU on Brexit Day without at least a deal with the EU itself, then we will be reliant on WTO rules for all of our international trade until new deals are signed.  This will mean tariffs and so higher prices on all goods.

Brexit Day – 29th March 2019, the second anniversary of the start of the negotiations, the backstop date set in Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon.  I suspect various new words will be invented for this day.  No doubt Brexiters will refer to it as Independence Day.  As a Remoaner, I suggest Brexageddon, as it will be the end of a pointless conflict, leading to the end of the world as we know it.

 

ADDENDUM

These are new words and phrases that have emerged (or I missed!) since I wrote this article.

February 2018 update:

Transitional Period – the triggering of Article 50 started the 2 year clock for exit, ticking down to 29th March 2019.  The government has spent so much time making its mind up (with no answer at the time of writing) about what it wants from the negotiations that it accepts a period of transition will needed before the final break with all EU institutions and rules.  They wanted another two years but Michel Barnier has confirmed (February 2018) that the backstop date will be no later than 31st December 2020.

Stab in the back – a variant of Enemies of the People, straight out of the language of the 1930s, as Brexiters lash out at those they think are working to undermine their project.  Preparing the ground for a Great Betrayal if Brexit collapses, with everyone to blame but themselves.

Vichy State – a more extreme expression of Vassal State, used by Brexiters to describe the potential Transitional Period to be a betrayal of Leave voters if EU rules remain in force beyond 29th March 2019. Mainly used by that most unlikely of Brexit poster-boys, Jacob Rees Mogg.

Brexcosis – coined by Boris Johnson in his Valentine’s Day overture speech to Remainers, describing the (undue) anxiety of them about the consequences of Brexit.  A Remainer might throw the word back, saying Brexcosis should be diagnosed more accurately as a form of self-delusion common among Brexiters, believing against mounting evidence that the grass will always be greener the other side of Brexit Day. In time as the whole project crashes around them Brexiters will suffer severe Brexcosis, a depression brought on by the realisation that their dreams were an illusion.

March 2018 update:

Cherry picking – the accusation of EU negotiators that British ministers are trying to pick out the bits they like about the EU (frictionless trade) and discarding the bits they don’t like, such as the jurisdiction of the European Court over trade and market rules.  On 7th March 2018 the President of the Council of Ministers, Donald Tusk, said that there could be “no pick and mix” deal.

Cake – politicians have always accused other people (including in private moments the voters) of wanting to “have their cake and eat it” but it’s now crept into the language of our fellow Europeans. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has made it clear that the cake trolley is unavailable. After the recent series of speeches by cabinet ministers, attempting to clarify Britain’s Brexit position, Donald Tusk said with some exasperation that the politics of cake was still alive. Perhaps the tendency will become known as cakeism and if the whole thing becomes scandalous, cakegate.

Unicorns – beautiful mythical creatures, rather like the advantages awaiting post Brexit Britain, according to my fellow Remainers.

Brextremists – the true believers in the Brexit project. About 40 Tory MPs are currently holding Theresa May’s government to ransom. Every now and then one of them will repeat the nonsense that the EU needs us more than we need them and that we should walk away from the negotiations. Many of them would prefer a no deal scenario, free of all ties to the EU.

Lexits – the true believers In Brexit on the left of politics, who have spent 30 or 40 years in opposition to Britain’s membership of the EU.  They typically refer to the EU as a capitalists’ club and claim it is an obstacle to full blooded socialism.

The definite article – has become important in discussing tariff free trade.  We are current members of The Customs Union.  The government made it clear in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in early 2017 that they wish to leave the customs union but still want instead a “comprehensive free trade agreement.” Labour’s position is that they would leave the customs union but want to join a customs union, which currently doesn’t exist. The Liberal Democrats want us to stay in the customs union, the entity that does actually exist.

Rule taker – Britain is currently one of the rule makers, with an EU Commissioner and ministers at council meetings and MEPs in the European Parliament.  The nightmare for Brextremists is that during any transitional period and beyond we shadow EU rules in order to preserve market access rights and low or zero tariffs.  We would be rule takers, rather like Norway.

April 2018 update

Blue passports – I got my first passport in 1992, in order to go inter-railing around Europe. It was the first year that British and other EU nationals could travel behind the former Iron Curtain without a series of visas, a first step to the likes of Poland and Czechoslovakia (as it then was) joining the EU.  I remember being disappointed that this freedom to travel unhindered across multiple borders meant that I got no national stamps in my passport. The passport was burgundy red.  One of the more ludicrous campaign pledges of the Vote Leave campaign was that leaving the EU would mean a return of the “iconic” blue British passport. The colour of the cover of a passport was more important to them than the travel rights the document conferred.  Last month the Home Office announced that the new blue passports would be made by a French-Dutch company.  Competition and best value rules meant that a British firm would lose the contact.  Cue howls of protest from Brexiters, conveniently forgetting that they were supposed to be in favour of free trade.  Ironically the EU never stipulated the colour of the passport.  It could easily have been blue…

Implementation Period – the preferred term of the government for what everyone else calls the Transitional Period. The pretence is that this is the period, down to 31st December 2020, that Brexit will be implemented when in fact EU rules will remain in place for the whole of that time.  Theresa May wasted so much time (including calling an unnecessary election) that the period, whatever it’s called, is effectively an extension of the two year Article 50 period.

Schadenfreude – the warm feeling of satisfaction about the troubles of your rivals and opponents.  Remainers feel this whenever another penny drops for Leavers that their Brexit dreams were just an illusion. I saw a discussion about this on Facebook, suggesting a new word to show the double satisfaction of using a German word to describe the pain of British Brexiters.  The suggestion was schadendoublefreude or the more linguistically accurate schadendoppelfreude.

May 2018 update

Gammon – foodstuffs feature on a frequent basis in the new language of Brexit. Gammon is a pejorative term for middle aged to elderly white men who enjoy a rant about Europe, foreigners, immigration, etc. Gammons are usually overweight men, with a tendency to go red in the face while having an angry outburst. It’s most recent application has been to male audience members in the BBC’s Question Time, which every time I watch it (not often these days) is packed full of vocal gammons. But the insult appears to have much earlier origins, appearing in French humour about Englishmen in the 1960s. A less friendly version of “les roast boeufs” or “les rosbifs.”

Max fac – nothing to do with makeup (though a lot of airbrushing of facts occurs in Brexit debates) but an abbreviation of “maximum facilitation”, the preferred solution of cabinet Brexiters to the Irish Border Question when Britain is outside the Customs Union.  It places a lot of trust in cross border traders to self-declare their customs dues and is an alternative to the Customs Partnership promoted by the Prime Minister.  The EU have made it clear that both ideas are unlikely to work. The credibility of max fac was torpedoed by the head of HM Revenue & Customs who estimated it would cost businesses up to £20billion a year.

June 2018 update

Backstop date – we will (probably) be leaving the political and decision making structures of the EU on 29th March 2019.  As no one expects a final separation deal to have been completed and implemented by then there will be a Transition Period until 31st December 2020 during which the current freedoms of the union will remain and Britain will continue to make contributions to EU funds.  Such is the pessimism that a solution to the Irish Border Question will be found even by this date it is now accepted that EU customs duties will have to be collected by Britain until a workable solution can be found to the taxing of the significant movement of goods from the Irish Republic both to Northern Ireland and the Welsh ports. The Brexit enthusiasts in the cabinet were worried that this arrangement could continue indefinitely so Theresa May has conceded a backstop date of 31st December 2021.  Don’t be surprised if a new phrase has to be invented for another extension as the reality dawns that leaving the Customs Union while preserving an invisible Irish border is impossible.

Hotel California Brexit – the backstop date is meant to calm the fears of Brexiters that we might never fully leave the EU. But they have a lingering doubt that we will never manage to extricate ourselves from the almost 50 years worth of institutional entanglements. The Brexiter nightmare is that we never actually check out of Europe, quoting the last two lines of the Eagles song Hotel California – “You can check out any time you like…But you can never leave!

Brexit dividend – perhaps the most infamous Brexiter claim in the 2016 Referendum was that £350 million a week would be freed up for the NHS if we left the EU. The claim was questioned by Remainers during the campaign (but never properly debunked by the BBC) and is now totally discredited. But Theresa May has now brought it back from the dead and given it a new name – the Brexit dividend, while announcing extra funding for the NHS. The announcement has been ridiculed by economists, with the Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies pointing out that Brexit is expected to weaken tax revenues by £15billion a year, or about £300m a week.  Add to that the fact that Britain will be continuing its EU payments during the Transition Period and that we will probably remain in some institutions (or set up more costly British replicas) then there is a Brexit loss, not a dividend for many years to come.

Meaningful vote – the government has guarded jealously its power to negotiate treaties and has resisted giving Parliament much of a say in the final terms of the Brexit deal.  Theresa May has said that No Deal is better than a bad deal. But she doesn’t want Parliament to have the ability to send her back to the negotiating table if it doesn’t like the outcome of her discussions.  A meaningful vote would give MPs the power to reject both a bad deal and a no deal outcome.  In June 2018 the Commons and Lords played Parliamentary “ping-pong” over amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, with Peers twice voting to insert a meaningful vote.  In the end on 20th June 2018 there were insufficient rebellious Tory MPs to counteract the Brexit supporting Labour MPs who voted with the government.

Peoples Vote – there are calls for another referendum, once the exit terms are known.  Originally it was only the Liberal Democrats who supported a “first referendum on the facts” as Vince Cable called it but there are now several Labour MPs in support, as well as the Green Party.  But Corbyn and most Labour MPs are opposed and unless they shift position in the next 6 months there is very little chance of a new referendum being held.

Have the German FDP been smarter than the Liberal Democrats?

November 29, 2017

When I heard that the Free Democrats had pulled out of coalition talks with Angela Merkel my mind went back to events in Britain in 2010. What if the Liberal Democrats had decided not to enter into coalition with either David Cameron? Was a coalition with Labour ever a serious runner? Would the electoral carnage of 2015 been avoided if the party had stayed in opposition? As a casualty of that election, it’s a very personal conundrum, as well as an intriguing counter-factual.

I’ve kept a diary for most of the last 40 years and during the coalition negotiations in the second week of May 2010 I kept detailed contemporaneous notes. Now re-reading them for the first time in seven years the first memory that is jogged is just how tired, pressurised and rushed we felt. In the election on Thursday 6th May I’d won a stunning victory, with a 11,366 majority over Labour, despite a massive boundary change that favoured them. My result had been announced just before dawn on Friday. On Saturday I’d gone up to London on an early morning train, having barely slept since Tuesday. The Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet (I was the shadow BIS Secretary, covering higher education among other things…) met at 10.30am at Local Government House in Smith Square.

Nick Clegg told us that he’d had spoken with David Cameron and had “listened” to Gordon Brown on the Friday. He felt we had at most 3 days to put together a deal. After that we would probably lose public goodwill. At that stage he felt the problem with the Tories would be policy substance. The problem with Labour was the Commons numbers. I spoke in favour of making all effort to reach a deal with Labour, as long as Gordon Brown departed and we got agreement on electoral reform. Nick summed up by saying that if talks failed then there would be a short period of Tory government and then an early election.

There lies the biggest difference between the German and British situations. The German election was on 24th September. The FDP leader Christian Lindner pulled out of preliminary coalition talks on 19th November. He had the benefit of a rested and clear mind to consider the benefits to his party and his country of almost two months of discussions about the mere possibility of a coalition with the Christian Democrats and the Green Party. The German constitution (written largely by the British in 1949) allowed plenty of time and the German media and public were used to long coalition negotiations. The shock in Germany is that this is the first time that negotiations have been de-railed. In Britain in 2010 there was no constitutional breathing space and a “hung” parliament was a rarity. The media were demanding a swift conclusion.

The German President, rather like the Queen, has a largely ceremonial role. But he has a key role enshrined in the constitution to facilitate the formation of a stable government. Frank-Walter Steinmeier is now urging the SPD to reconsider their opposition to continuing a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU. He could insist on negotiations taking place for another couple of months at least before contemplating a dissolution of the Bundestag. The Queen has no such powers. We knew that it was Gordon Brown who would control the timetable. He could resign at any time and at that point the Queen would have to invite Cameron to form a government. Our negotiation leverage was effectively in the hands of one of our negotiation partners.

The second difference between Britain in 2010 and Germany in 2017 is the parliamentary numbers. Inside my diary is my candidate’s ticket from the Bristol West election count. I had taken it out of my pocket on the train to London and scribbled out some numbers on the back. Taking account of the non-voting Speaker, his deputies and the Sinn Fein MPs meant that for a bare majority a coalition would need the backing of 322 MPs. Assuming that the then small number of SNP MPs would be too tricky to be reliable we could possibly scrape a majority with almost everyone else, other than the DUP. I made a column of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and NI Alliance: 258+57+3+3+1= 322. Throw in the Ulster independent Lady Sylvia Herman but take away two Labour MPs who would need to be Deputy Speakers and we were short by one.

Such a government would have teetered on the edge of disaster every day, soldiering on in the hope that the mutinous ways of numerous left wing Labour MPs would be curtailed. I doubt if the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott would have been more loyal to a multi-party coalition than they had been to the single party Labour governments of Blair and Brown. The British “rainbow coalition” was much more elusive than Germany’s “Jamaica” of the CDU, FDP and Green Party, which could command a comfortable majority in the 2017 Bundestag.

But over the next three days in Westminster in May 2010 it wasn’t just the numbers that pushed the outcome towards what to me had been the unthinkable and unpalatable outcome of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. It was the policies that could be agreed and the attitude of the two larger parties. At the first of two full meetings of the Lib Dem Parliamentary party (“PPM”) on the Monday Nick Clegg told us that the Tories had proposed a full blown coalition, agreeing to many of our top policy demands on taxes, schools and the green economy. On constitutional reform they agreed to a fixed term parliament, a 95% elected House of Lords and a free vote on a referendum on PR, with the Tory leadership promising to vote for the legislation.

Later in the afternoon there was a dramatic shift in the dynamics as the news broke that Gordon Brown had undertaken to step aside as Prime Minister at some point later in the year, if a coalition of the progressive parties could be put together. I wrote in my diary that I had jumped around my office with joy. I clung to the hope that a coalition with the Tories could be avoided.

The second PPM of the Monday started at 10.40pm, again in the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall. It became clear that any hopes of a deal with Labour were fast fading away. Nick had spoken to both Cameron and Brown about PR. The most they were both prepared to offer was legislation on a referendum for AV. But Brown’s negotiation team was being much more difficult. While the peers, Peter Mandelson and Andrew Adonis, were being constructive, the MPs – Harriet Harman, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were being obstructive on policy. Our top demand for a rise in the income tax threshold was not possible, nuclear power had to be expanded and renewables couldn’t grow, the Heathrow 3rd runway had to go ahead, ID cards had to stay, no enthusiasm for political reform and on tuition fees they were not prepared to agree a cap. On AV, Brown’s offer was undermined by Balls admitting that there was no way they would get it past the PLP. One of our negotiation team, David Laws, added that the overall attitude towards us was “sneering”.

I spoke at a quarter past midnight, saying that despite the Tories being more amenable on policy, they were still our long standing enemy. They had opposed most advances for ordinary people. I reminded colleagues that during the election Chris Grayling had defended the right of hotel owners to refuse a double bed to gay people like me. We should go back to Labour, so I would be able to look my constituents and a lot of my personal friends in the face and tell them that we had tried as hard as we could to reach a progressive party deal.

Tuesday 11th May (election plus 5 days) was a frustrating day of waiting to be summoned to another PPM for an update on the negotiations. It had been agreed that we would meet at LGA House. My flat was just round the corner so in the early evening a few colleagues joined me there to wait and watch the rolling BBC news coverage. Ed Davey fell asleep on the floor. Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone and Sarah Teather complained that I didn’t keep any alcohol in the flat. So we decided to go downstairs to Pizza Express Millbank and as we left the BBC reported that Brown had resigned as Prime Minister and Cameron was on his way to Buckingham Palace. I texted Chris Huhne (one of our four negotiators) to ask what the hell was going on? He replied “relax, it’s fine” and I tried to enjoy my pizza.

We gathered in LGA House at 9.30pm and did not emerge till about 1am. Nick reported that Labour were “in a muddle” and while Gordon Brown was keen to do a deal his team were not. There had been no further negotiations with Labour after the morning but significant progress had been made with the Tories. A document was circulated titled “Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition negotiations Agreements reached 11 May 2010. Over six and a half pages of A4 I could read what looked remarkably close to a summary of the Lib Dem manifesto on many issues. Nick described it as “an astonishing opportunity for us” and recommended acceptance. Fifty MPs, myself included, voted in favour and none voted against. All the Peers present and all bar one of the party’s federal executive members voted in favour too. To some extent our votes were just a formality as Cameron was already in Number Ten and Nick was lined up as his deputy.

At the time I was pleasantly surprised by the policy outcome but still uncomfortable with the politics. But I thought if the deal was actually implemented then enough voters, perhaps a different mix to our previous supporters, would back us in the general election that we now knew was five long years away, thanks to the agreement for fixed parliamentary terms legislation. In any event, we had done the only deal that was possible, given the attitude of Labour and the undesirability of a Tory minority government and another election in the autumn of 2010.

The policies in that agreement were largely implemented but the Liberal Democrats suffered electoral near annihilation in 2015. Two years earlier we had felt the pain of our German sister party as the FDP crashed out of the Bundestag altogether, falling just below the 5% threshold needed for MPs. Ironically, their PR system had always given them greater representation than us, despite being far less popular. They had gone from 93 MPs to zero. In 2010 we had won 23% of the vote but had just 57 MPs, under 9% of the membership of the House of Commons. A German voting system would have given us 150 MPs and the Tories about 230. It would have given quite a different impression of the government to the Tory dominated vision that the public saw for five years.

In the end, it wasn’t the policies that undid the Liberal Democrats. It was our inability to make it clear just how much we had achieved or indeed how much we had blocked…such as a referendum on EU membership. The coalition negotiations had concentrated on the policy deal, which was the right thing to do in the 3 active days of discussion. But little or no thought was given to how the government would operate in terms of the distribution of ministers, advisers and other support. I will write about this in another blog.

Looking back, the Liberal Democrats got a great policy deal in 2010 but were unable to convince the public that we played a positive role in government. It looked, unfairly, that we had been bit part players in a Tory government. By the end of the 2010 Parliament we felt that we knew how to operate as a junior coalition partner and would strike a harder implementation bargain in any negotiations in 2015. Against almost everyone’s expectations, the chance never arose. The FDP have got their second chance and are safeguarding their position. As Christian Linder has said, for them “it is better not to govern at all than to govern wrongly.”

The Liberal Democrats did well to achieve a credible policy deal in 2010. But over the next five years they were out manoeuvred by their much larger coalition partners (and their friends in the media) and denounced by Labour, the party that had ran away from government. William Hague is reputed to have boasted in 2010 that the coalition deal would “kill the Liberal Democrats”. His view was similar to a former Lib Dem leader. At the end of the first full meeting of our parliamentary party on the Saturday after the election Charles Kennedy had said “the Tories will play with us like a cat plays with a mouse before killing it.” In 2015 Britain’s liberal mouse was left twitching. In 2017 British politics is hard to predict from this side of our departure from the European Union. It remains to be seen whether the mouse will get the chance to roar again.

My best castles of Britain and Ireland

October 31, 2017

I’ve been visiting castles for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Wales, there were plenty on my doorstep or to visit on holidays. Wales must have one of the highest concentrations of castles in Europe. I’ve visited all of them and over the years I’ve also visited most of the major castles across the British Isles.

Visiting castles deepens your understanding of how a disparate series of kingdoms and lordships gradually merged together to form a nation state that would be a European and eventually world power. They are also a great way to view our coast and countryside and for a vantage point over towns and cities.

The child in me still loves skipping down a spiral staircase, walking along battlements, sitting on top of a tower and peering through arrowslits. What follows is a personal list of what I think are the best castles to visit across Britain and Ireland. What are yours?

1 Best overall experience

As much as it pains me to say so, my choice of best castle for the overall visitor experience goes to an England one, Dover. The castle does have everything, across the ages. It has a dramatic cliff top setting, giving views across the Channel. It has buildings from Roman times to the nuclear age. A visit gives an insight into our island’s history as it succumbed or saw off invasions from 2000 years ago to the 1940s. Anyone who has enjoyed this year’s cinematic depiction of Dunkirk should visit Dover to see the recreated rooms where Operation Dynamo was planned in 1940. You need to spend at least half a day taking in the Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, Norman keep and 19th and 20th century military buildings. English Heritage have done a superb job of recreating a medieval interior inside the keep. The rooms are furnished and decorated with wall paintings and tapestries as they may have looked during the reign of Henry II. I wish EH, Cadw and the other custodians of our built heritage would do this more often. There is a place for the picturesque ruin but some of the more complete sites could be brought to life, rather than being a series of empty rooms with just pigeons and weeds being the only life on show.

Runners up are Warwick and Mont Orgueil. Warwick is a complete example of a great medieval fortress, with plenty of towers and wall walks. The halls have suits of armour, swords and shields and the rooms are not only furnished from different periods but as the castle is now owned by Madame Tussauds, there are mannequins in costume to bring the castle to life. Mont Orgueil overlooks the town of Gorey, on the east coast of Jersey. The castle is pleasing enough, with plenty of dark passageways and stairwells. But the Jersey Heritage Trust have installed a series of modern sculptures and artworks across the site, giving plenty of photo opportunities. There’s a an amazing hologram of the Queen, called Equanimity, marking 800 years of links to the crown via the Duchy of Normandy.

2 Best castle and town combination

The easy winner here is Conwy in North Wales. The huge fortress is dramatic enough, one of Edward I’s castles built to overawe the Welsh. Edward also constructed new towns, colonial plantations with English residents. To protect them from the Welsh the new towns were walled. Conwy is far and away the best preserved medieval town in Britain. You can walk almost the entire circuit of the walls, with views over the town, coast, railway and of course the castle itself. Within the walls is Plas Mawr, one of Britain’s best preserved Tudor town houses. The castle itself stands to its original height but is largely roofless and could do with some Dover like reinterpretation. The whole ensemble is a World Heritage Site, up there with the Colosseum and the Pyramids!

Runners up are Lincoln and Rochester. At Lincoln the castle and cathedral square off against each other, on a plateau above the town. Inside the castle there are displays on Magna Carta (Lincoln has one of the original copies) and Victorian prisons, the function that preserved many county town castles. Rochester is another splendid castle and cathedral combination. The castle has one of the best Norman “square” keeps. Honourable mentions should go to Richmond (Yorkshire) and Totnes, where a visit to the castle tops off a wander round an interesting town.

3 Best coastal site

Many of my childhood holidays were to Butlins at Pwllheli. Day trips from there introduced me to the great castles of Gwynedd. The nearest is Cricieth. Originally a castle of the Welsh princes, it was strengthened by Edward I after the conquest. It’s a small site but sits on top of a tump overlooking the town and the coast. On a clear day you can see across to Harlech, one of the best concentric castles, with a double circuit of walls. You can catch a train between the two towns.

While Cricieth is in easy reach of road and rail, you have to walk over a mile from the car park to Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast. The gatehouse and other towers stand to about half their original height but enough is left to give an impression of how it once looked. A visit to Dunstanburgh is more about the setting than the site. Orford in Suffolk has an unusually shaped keep, cylindrical at the core but with squared off projections. The view from the top is across Orford Ness, a nature reserve with some puzzling concrete screen structures. During the Second World War they picked up the sound of approaching German planes. My favourite seaside clifftop ruined castle is Scarborough and in Northern Ireland the castle at Dunluce backs right onto the cliff edge, looking as though it could fall in to the sea at any moment.

4 Royal connections

The obvious winner is Windsor. The whole site, including the spectacular St George’s Chapel, is the largest British castle and the one with the longest continued habitation. As a castle I don’t find it that pleasing. There is a keep on top of a motte but like everything else at Windsor it has been much embellished. The interior is utterly dull but the tiring walk to the top gives a good view over the whole site. The poor guide has a hard job telling everyone to avert their gaze (and their smart phone cameras) from the view over to the Queen’s private apartments. The real point of a visit to Windsor is to see the world class collection of art in the state apartments.

Medieval monarchs and their courts travelled all over their kingdom so their heirs were often conceived and born outside London. Edward I’s heir was born at his new spectacular fortress town of Caernarfon. In 1301 Edward junior was proclaimed as the first English Prince of Wales. Caernarfon, like nearby Conwy, is one of Europe’s best preserved castles and town walls. Unlike Conwy, for some reason that I’ve never understood, you aren’t allowed to walk the circuit of walls. But the castle is of a unique design, modelled it is though on the Roman walls at Constantinople.

To some extent we Welsh got our revenge in 1485 when Henry Tudor invaded from France and took the crown from Richard III at Bosworth. Henry’s paternal line was Welsh and he was born at Pembroke Castle. The castle is well preserved, with the country’s best example of a Norman round keep.  In 1991, after climbing through several storeys of the collapsed interior I felt slightly uneasy sitting on top of the stone dome that caps the tower. On my 2018 visit the health and safety people had put a stop to this, though you can still walk around the base of the dome and take in the view.

The best castles for the royal rulers of independent Wales is the remote and largely ruined Dolwyddelan in Snowdonia.  In Scotland king James IV built a new palace within the ramparts of Stirling. Like Edinburgh, the site later became a British military base.  But in the last two decades Historic Scotland have done an amazing job of restoring and decorating the principal rooms to look as they may have appeared during the sixteenth century. I wish Cadw would be as adventurous at Caernarfon.

5 Best mock, modern and folly

Medieval castles were built by the king and his magnates. From the 15th century the wealthy preferred to vacate their draughty castles for manor houses and no new castles (excluding artillery forts and barracks called castles) were built. Until that is the 19th and 20th centuries when the rich rediscovered an interest in castles and other medieval ruins. They sponsored artists and poets to paint and write about the castles on their estates. The really rich went one step further and commissioned architects to build them new baronial piles, complete with the amenities of the age such as bathrooms (in contrast to medieval garderobes, toilet shafts down the outside walls with your bodily functions plopping into the moat) and electricity.
My favourite has to be what I regard as my “home” castle, Castell Coch, on the north side of Cardiff. The outside is South Wales’s fairy tale image of a castle, complete with conical roofs. It has been a familiar site all my life, on trips from Abercynon to Cardiff, poking above the trees and seen from both the road and railway line. While the outside is a passable attempt at a medieval castle, the interiors are a riot of the imagination. The banqueting hall, drawing room and bedrooms are a mock gothic extravaganza, the creation of architect William Burgess and his patron, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Bute was the wealthiest man in the country, based on his land holdings in the south Wales coalfield and the port of Cardiff. Fortunately for us, he was a keen medievalist and splurged a considerable proportion of his wealth on building or restoring castles. The walls and ceilings of Castell Coch (“Red Castle”) are decorated with pictures of animals and mythical creatures, including scenes from Aesop’s Fables. The structure was completed in 1879 so when I first visited as a child it was less than a century old. I never tire of visiting, both on my own and with successive friends (and quite a few poor parliamentary staff) from Bristol. I must have been at least 40 times and it’s a must for anyone touring South Wales or living just over the border.

The wealth from coal and port dues built Castell Coch and it was slate that built North Wales’s mock Norman Penrhyn Castle, just outside Bangor. The immensely wealthy Pennant family (who also had slaves on West Indies plantations) commissioned Thomas Hopper to build a Norman keep with attached mansion in 1820. The keep looks much like Rochester would have appeared. But the interior is a Victorian mansion, complete with a bed made of slate. Wealth from the ‘Home and Colonial’ stores enabled Julius Drewe to commission Edwin Lutyens to build for him a modern castle on the edge of Dartmoor. Castle Drogo is an amazing place, with the facades part castle and part 1920s municipal building. The interior rooms are of the inter war years, connected by soaring stone passageways and stairwells. Building had started just before the First World War. The Drewe’s eldest son Adrian was killed at Ypres in 1917 and a room at the castle has a moving display dedicated to his memory.

I have not yet visited Eilean Donan Castle, on an island guarding sea lochs opposite the Isle of Skye. But it must be among the most familiar of castle images, on the cover of many of my books about castles. Like Castell Coch, it is a recreation on the site of an actual medieval castle. Completed in 1932 it has featured in the Bond film Goldeneye and its image adorns many a Scottish shortbread tin.

American money also took an interest in Britain’s built heritage. Panelling was stripped from walls, joining artworks to be shipped across the Atlantic. Fortunately newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane in the Orson Welles film) wanted an authentic site, instructing his agent to find him a castle in England. But it was St Donat’s on the Glamorgan coast that he bought by telegram for £130,000 in 1925. Over the next five years Hearst’s agents bought up parts of medieval buildings from all over the country and, to the outrage of conservationists at the time, knocked about both them and the fabric of St Donat’s to create a fortress (with 32 modern ensuite rooms) where Hearst could entertain the rich and famous of the 1930s when he was in Europe. Visitors included Lloyd George, Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Cardiff born song writer Ivor Novello and the future President Kennedy. It’s now home to the Atlantic College but can be visited.

6 Capital Castles

It’s hard not to give first place to the Tower of London. The Norman keep, the White Tower, was built by William the Conqueror, the first castle to overawe the defeated English. The exterior is little changed today. The surrounding buildings are of limited interest but it’s the famous associations that make the site a must visit. It’s the home of the Crown Jewels, guarded by the Yeoman of the Guard (or Beefeaters) in their red Tudor uniforms. Several kings and queens, rivals and traitors have been imprisoned within the walls, arriving by Thames barge at Traitor’s Gate.

Among the other castles in our island capitals, the next most interesting is Cardiff. Like Dover, Cardiff has something from every period. The square site in the city centre is founded on the walls of a Roman fort. Within the walls in one corner the Normans erected an earth motte and put on top the best shell keep in the country. William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert, Duke of Normandy, was kept a prisoner at the castle by his younger brother Henry I. By Tudor times a mansion had been constructed alongside the curtain walls of the castle. In the 19th century the Marquess of Bute remodelled the interiors and built a clock tower. This was his first collaboration with Burgess, before he turned his attention to Castell Coch. No expense was spared, allowing Burgess’s imagination to run riot with wood carvings, wall murals and gilded details. In the twentieth century the Marquess’s son rebuilt to their full height the Roman walls, with a reconstructed gatehouse onto Bute Park.

Scotland’s capital castle is special mainly for its setting on top of a crag.  The famous silhouette from below is largely a Victorian barracks. But if you’re in Edinburgh, how could you not visit?  I’ve done so four times, most recently in the summer of 2018 when I enjoyed it more than on previous visits. The Scottish crown jewels, the restored palace building and the recreation of a Napoleonic wars era prison were the highlights, apart from the amazing views of the city below the ramparts.  Very little is left of medieval Dublin Castle, with most of the walls and towers being demolished in the early 18th century to make way for new buildings forming the core of the government of Ireland by the English Lord Lieutenant.  The castle became a hated symbol of English rule. The state apartments, with their Georgian interiors, are worth a visit.

Our smaller self-governing islands have some interesting castles. Castletown used to be the capital of the Isle of Man and Castle Rushen is one of my favourites anywhere in the British and Irish Isles. It was originally the seat of the Norse kings of Man until over lordship passed briefly to the Scots and then the English crown. The castle is almost perfectly preserved and is great fun to wander around. Jersey’s capital of St Helier is guarded by Elizabeth Castle, more of an offshore fort than a castle. It’s possible to walk across to the castle at low tide but it’s much more fun to arrive at high tide on a boat, on one of my visits by Second World War DUKW “duck” wheeled boat. I’ve not been to Guernsey but Castle Cornet is definitely high on my list of significant castles to visit.

7 Continuously occupied

Many castles have been continuously occupied either by successive noble families or by the state. But lots of them have been adapted and rebuilt so much that they no longer resemble much of a classic castle appearance. But there are several exceptions. The first castle I visited outside Wales was Berkeley. It was a coach trip combined with Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre. I’ve never returned to see the birds but have been back to the castle many times. Berkeley, through various genealogical twists and turns is still in the hands of the eponymous family who built it in Norman times. The shell keep was “slighted” after the civil war and fortunately the gap in the defences was enough for Cromwell to allow the rest of the castle to remain. If only the same had been true of Raglan, the greatest of losses to Cromwell’s desire to deny any future rebels a secure base. The interiors are modest compared to most occupied castles and many of the features, like St Donat’s, are a hotch potch of architectural salvage from all over England, Wales and France in the early 20th century refurbishment. Berkeley has given its name to a multi-cusped arch (best seen at St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol) and a US university, spelt correctly but pronounced burke as opposed to clerk. The family provided generations of Gloucestershire MPs, including Freddie Berkeley, Bristol’s longest serving MP from 1835 to 1870. The castle is probably most famous for being the scene of the murder of Edward II in 1327, though the red hot poker story is unproven.

Alnwick in Northumberland has been the home of the Percy family for 700 years. They were the leading noble family of the north of England and Alnwick is a sort of Windsor for the north. It looks much more like a castle than Windsor from the outside but like Windsor has interiors housing a spectacular art collection. The present Duchess of Northumberland has overseen the creation of some spectacular gardens. Horticulture is one of the main reasons to visit Powis Castle, in Montgomeryshire. Four grand terraces hang from the castle, leading you down to the Severn valley. The castle has been the home of the Herbert and Clive families since 1587 and is still occupied by them today though the castle is in the care of the National Trust. The building exterior is very clearly a castle, slighted in the best possible way by the walls being punctured by large windows.

8 Remoteness

Most castles dominate major towns and centres of governance, guard the coast or strategic river crossings. But some are far away from any major settlement, sitting in lonely isolation on top of hill or at the head of a valley. I have visited several castles like this and had them all to myself, or to me and my travelling companions. This is occasionally an eerie experience. A long drive along a deserted road leads you to Hermitage, in the Scottish Borders. An ugly, high walled single structure fort, I was visiting in the early evening as the light faded on a dull day. It felt like the perfect place for a murder and the castle indeed has a grisly history. Brough castle in Cumbria is built on a Roman site, on the road to Carlisle. The site is quite ruined but is a pleasing way to end a day in the Lake District. Carreg Cennen sits on top of a crag in Carmarthenshire and can be seen from miles around. It’s a huge site and one has to wonder at the labours involved in carting the stone to the top of the hill. You approach the castle from the farm below, passing sheep giving you a disapproving look. The views across many other hillside sheep farms are spectacular. At the far side of the stone courtyard the curtain wall hugs the edge of a cliff, with a hair raising drop as you peer through a window to admire the view, buffeted by the wind.

9 Spectacular

Second only to Windsor in size, Caerphilly Castle in Glamorgan is Britain’s most spectacular medieval secular monument. It is Britain’s first concentric castle, set in a huge man-made lake rather than surrounded by a moat. It’s all the more extraordinary as it was built not by a king but by a Marcher Lord, Gilbert de Clare. Constructed from 1267 onwards, it predates the great castles of Edward I and was built for defensive purposes, rather than subjugation. It was designed to safeguard the lowlands of Glamorgan (and the route to Ireland) from the independent Welsh kingdoms further north and west. This purpose was soon redundant but the castle had an eventful history under the Wales conqueror’s hapless son. The castle had passed to the Despenser family and in the 1320s Hugh le Despenser the younger was the latest of Edward II’s male favourites. It was to Caerphilly that Edward fled with much of the royal treasury in 1326, chased by his vengeful wife queen Isabella. Despenser was eventually captured and was hung, drawn and quartered at Hereford. Edward was captured near Llantrisant castle and in the following year met his grisly death at Berkeley. Caerphilly became a forgotten ruin, its walls plundered for stone and its lake drained and silted. As with Castell Coch nearby, the marquesses of Bute saw an opportunity for restoration. It was the 4th marquess in the 1920s who actually funded the rebuilding, employing many local men during some hard years for the local coal industry. The great hall was re-roofed, with the beams resting on the walls above the original corbels with carved heads thought to represent Edward and Hugh. The lakes were restored by the state in the 1950s. Cadw continues to enhance the site, with replica medieval siege engines occasionally firing projectiles, safely into the lake. Taking a leaf out of Mont Orgueil they’ve also recently installed sculptures of medieval figures into several of the rooms. I’m not so keen on the dragon that greets you as you leave the ticket office to enter the outer ward but I’m sure children love it.

Caerphilly may have been part inspired by the lake setting of Kenilworth Castle, one of the great fortresses of the Midlands. But Kenilworth has had no Bute like benefactor and you have to combine your imagination with English Heritage reconstruction drawings to see the castle as it may have looked in its heyday. Kenilworth had a longer active life than Caerphilly, with its lake staging a water pageant to entertain Elizabeth. The 19 day pageant laid on by Robert Dudley did not impress the queen sufficiently to succumb to Dudley’s charms. She remained a virgin and he was bankrupted.

Another of England’s great fortresses was fortunate enough to be saved and restored by a wealthy family. Bamburgh stands on a rocky promontory on the Northumberland coast and can be seen for miles around. The exterior looks like a perfectly preserved Norman castle, with curtain walls surrounding a square keep. In the 1890s the Armstrong family used their wealth appropriately sourced from armaments to restore the walls and construct interiors, stuffed with suits of armour as well as family furniture. The family continue their occupation today. The walk along the beach gives one of the best views of any British castle.

10 Finally – castles pleasing for a variety of reasons

There is nothing trim about Trim Castle in county Meath. It is the largest and most impressive in Ireland and has a full height square keep at its centre. Another Irish favourite is Cahir, a sensitively restored small castle in co Tipperary.  Restormel in Cornwall has one of the best shell keeps atop a motte. Conisbrough in south Yorkshire has a full height round keep buttressed by six three-sided towers. Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire is roofless but otherwise intact and wandering around this unusual D shaped castle is a delight. Caerlaverock in Dumfrieshire is a moated triangle. Chepstow must be mentioned as Britain’s longest surviving castle built from the outset in stone. Perched on a cliff above the Welsh side of the river Wye, the castle could be supplied by boat when under siege. When the Severn Bridge tolls are scrapped in 2018 it will surely see a surge in visitors from Bristol and the rest of England. As former politician it’s possible that my kissing of the stone at Blarney Castle improved my speeches! Finally, though it pains me to exclude so many castles, there is Bodium, a square castle looking like every child’s toy fort, rising straight from a moat.

I hope the above inspires you to visit a nearby castle or to seek one out on your next holiday.