Helsby Hill - November '18

On a last minute unplanned trip on a cold friday evening I decided to take a short trip west to Helsby hill in Cheshire to test out some new equipment I'd recently invested in. As usual, I intended to be back before sunlight but was thoroughly glad that I stayed to witness the landscape changing before me, even if I had to find my way back in total darkness!

Helsby is widely known to have been a hillfort during the bronze ages, and settlements here are believed to have first been established as far back as 4000 BC. With wide open views of the surrounding landscape spanning over to Runcorn, Chester & Ellesmere port, it is easy to see why many have chosen this spot as a safe refuge over the centuries. Its sandstone foundation remains largely unchanged and is now protected by the national trust. In 1970 a trig point was placed on the hill to for surveying purposes.

100 yards inland from the edge of the cliff face is a little known relic of cold-war Britain. A nuclear bunker, or ROC post, still lies dormant upon the hill surrounded by private farmland. Up until around 20 years ago it was still in pristine condition despite having been decommissioned, but unfortunately has since been fire damaged inside, leaving nothing but burnt ash and rubble for explorers to find. These were placed across the British Isles to monitor the event of a nuclear attack from Russia, and spots such as this were chosen for their vantage points and strategic location. This, however has to be the most dramatically positioned bunker I've seen yet. One can only imagine what the views across the Mersey estuary would have been like if the worst actually came to happen!

11.11

Today marks the 100th Armistice day since the end of the 1st World War at 11am on 11th November 1918. More than 700 thousand British men were killed during the grueling four year conflict that saw the world at war with itself for what was once naively said to be the 'war to end all wars'. Today, we paid a small personal tribute to my Great Grandfather Edward Roberts who served in the Royal Field Artillery from 1915-1917 in Europe. He survived the war but not unscathed, with permanent damage to his upper arm that stayed with him for the rest of his life. The bayonet pictured is one of the only family heirlooms we have left from the era. Standard issue from the war, this was once most likely attached to end of a Lee Enfield rifle for close conflict. It is unknown whether or not the blade was ever used in action. Edward's main duties would have been to transport the artillery trailers across to the frontlines via horse to provide support for the British Army. The horse that he served his time with during the war was unfortunately killed from it's injuries, and I am told he often spoke fondly of it until he passed away some 42 years later, with his wife Mary following him to the grave not long after. Their own spoken words still to this day read on the gravestone; 'Goodnight, God Bless'.

Grotto In The Woods

The headless preying monk. Found within what was once the grounds of a post-medieval abbey, where a long established family of Roman Catholic baronets are said to have built this extravagant folly with its unique religious stone carvings in the mid 18th century. A closed order of Benedictine nuns eventually took over the estate and are thought to have used this bizarre location for secluded worshippings. They left some time in the mid 1970's, however most are now buried closely together outside the folly in the dense woodland that surrounds it. Is this a chair? Or is it a carved art piece made to immortalise the practise of the monks who once resided here? The mystery is possibly what makes this place so intriguing. You'd be forgiven for thinking this place was some kind of film set - the fact that it even still exists without any form of protection is a wonder in itself.

Natural Wonder

The Caló Blanc Bridge, one of a handful of natural rock formations on the Balearic islands to have formed this unique shape after embracing millions of years of corrosion from the wind and sea. Hundreds of coves are hidden beneath these structures that have famously provided a perfect cover for Balearic sailors and pirates, as well as those seeking refuge from crusaders.

Bodnant House

Sat in the Eglwysbach Conwy Valley in North Wales the structure of Bodnant was built by Colonel Forbes between 1770 and 1821, and the late Georgian house was bought in January 1875 by Henry Pochin, a wealthy industrial chemist and china clay magnate from Lancashire. He progressively rebuilt the house from 1875-6 in Old English style, refaced with hard blue local stone and using Talacre sandstone for window dressings and quoins whilst replacing the sash windows with stone mullions and casements, and went on to begin cultivating the extensive botanical gardens that are world famous today. Bodnant House eventually became home of the late Lord Aberconway, and members of his family continue to be actively involved in the management of the garden, its tea pavilion and surrounding estate on behalf of the National Trust. The house now remains under the private ownership of the Mclaren family, but isn't lived in permanently.

Within the garden itself, originally built in 1730 as a gazebo at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, and later used as a pin mill and later still as a tannery, the Pin Mill building was moved to Bodnant gardens and reconstructed in 1938/9 as a pavilion at the south end of the canal terrace. The coat of arms on the building is of the family Surman (Shurmer) whose connection with the building is still a mystery. On the central pier of the eastern pavilion arcade is a dedication inscription with the date 1939, in raised characters: 'C and H A, 1939' (for Christabel and Henry Aberconway).

Then & Now

1891-2018. The facade of 118 Duke Street, Liverpool city centre. Situated in an area south of the city more recently renamed the 'ropewalks', the growth of Duke Street commenced following the opening of the old docks in 1715, resulting in a demand for premises that directly led to the customs house and the dock itself. As shipping intensified, so did the need for roperies and the gentleman pictured, Mr Roberts at number 118 supplied the demand for many decades as it passed through the family until the ports eventually died down in the late victorian era. A little known fact that I only found out through some archive digging was that the house is infact the birthplace and childhood home of Felicia Hemans, poetess and writer of 'Casabianca', but the more recent history of 118 is unclear, as it has remained derelict for the past decade, and with black faux windows it has almost faded from sight along the road. It was most likely boarded up and used as warehouse storage like many of these buildings following the post war era, however records show that the premises were sold at auction at the beginning of this year and on my most recent visit the sale signs had been taken down. Many of these Georgian townhouses have been redundant for the best part of half a century due to their protected listed status and required maintenance, and now that the regeneration of the city is finally taking shape - their time has eventually come to shine again.

Prisoners Of War

Then & Now 1942-2018. This prisoner of war camp stationed within the grounds of a farm in rural England held German and Italian prisoners during WW2. The men would have seen out the duration of the war by contributing to the county's agricultural workforce, which had great need for able-bodies to work the farmland, seeing as the majority of young men were fighting in Europe. Deemed 'politically unmotivated', these men were considered low risk prisoners. Many of them integrated into the local community following the end of the war, and the sheds were then left behind to remain miraculously untouched for over 70 years.

Guarding Home

Sat at the base of Castle hill in Huddersfield is an early 1940s Heavy Anti-Aircraft installation. Rumoured to have also contained a supposed POW camp, the emplacement would have housed two guns, probably 3.7` and would have been used to target high altitude bombers in WW2 heading to and from the cities of Leeds and Manchester. A few of these sites had a life after the war but this one has become part of the surrounding rural landscape. The two gun positions are directly in front of a formidable concrete bunker and have sloping concrete trenches that lead down to the ammo store. The ammo store is semi-sunken to protect it from blast damage, but has since meant that it has permanently flooded. Seventy years ago Hitler’s bombers were wreaking havoc on Britain’s cities with the Blitz. Huddersfield had several Home Guard units – and it was certainly no laughing matter for the men stuck out all night and in terrible weather manning gun batteries and guarding areas around Huddersfield. 

One Huddersfield woman believes the man in charge of the gun battery at Castle Hill had lost his wife and family killed in an air raid on the south coast and used to fire the gun every time a bomber went over. It caused shrapnel to all fall over the area. The woman whose family owned a fish and chip shop in the Newsome area during the war said: “One night we were ready to open our fish and chip shop. There was always a queue right to the corner, but the gun opened up and my dad said the customers would all go but when we opened the door not a soul had moved. “They were still in the queue, the shrapnel was falling and the only concession was the man from the end house had gone in and fetched his umbrella. Mr Wimpenny, they called him.” 

 Huddersfield Home Guard also had its own signals section. A command post was manned by the Royal Observer Corps at Castle Hill and after a German bomber was shot down maps found in the wreckage indicated that Castle Hill was used as a main navigation point for German bombers attacking northern England. Just about every village in Huddersfield was protected by its own home guard. Units from Huddersfield Sector of the Home Guard’s 25th and 26th West Riding Battalions were based all over the town including Hall Bower Chapel in Newsome and St Mary’s Sunday School in Outlane where patrols covered the bleak moors towards Manchester.  

Diary Entry

As this now crumbling yet brilliantly unique manor house spent some of its later years as a youth hostel, I thought I'd dig out a diary entry from one of its customers, dated 3rd February 1936. 'Found hostel, alone again. A most peculiar place this time. A great draughty barrack of a house, built in the sham-castle style – somebody’s Folly – about 1860. All but three or four of the rooms quite empty. Miles of echoing stone passages, no lighting except candles and only smoky little oil-stoves to cook on. Got out of bed so cold that I could not do up any buttons and had to go down and thaw my hands before I could dress. Left about 10.30 am. A marvelous morning. Earth frozen hard as iron, not a breath of wind and the sun shining brightly. Not a soul stirring. The lake had frozen over during the night. Wild ducks walking about disconsolately on the ice. The sun coming up and the light slanting along the ice the most wonderful red-gold colour I have ever seen.'

Tea Break

Inside the main room of the huge soda ash works in Winnington that produced this fine white powder for over 140 years. I originally thought this was some sort of control room, but I was wrong! As the entire factory was inevitably covered in its own product, leaving very few areas untouched for workers to use for their lunch breaks, a nearby solution was needed. Alas, the lunch-hut solved this issue, giving these grafters a place to grab a cuppa away from any chance of contamination. (Not to mention how easily soda ash could be mistaken for sugar..)

For Sale

One of the most unique places in the world.. the Snowdonia car mine.

Sold today to a happy customer!

These 14x11" mounted prints are now available for £40

The Car Caves

Some time during the 1970's hundreds of cars were somehow dumped into a slate mine in Snowdonia, for reasons yet unknown to all of those who have ventured here. At the time in which these cars were left behind, they were far from old enough to be scrapped. These are cars that are now considered serious classics; Ford Anglia's, Mini coopers, Cortina's, Escorts, Vauxhall Crestas, Victors and numerous others that were once iconic motors on the roads above. These caves were first found by enthusiast abseilers who were unaware of what they would find beneath - with the entrance to the redundant mine, having been unused for more than half a century, sitting at the opposite side of the underground cavern. The only source of light is a small gap above the cars that has grown smaller and smaller as rock slides and a build up of earth around the original opening have changed the landscape around the mine in the decades since these cars were left here. A 100ft descent welcomed us after wading through knee-high water in the flooded opening, but what met us at the bottom was nothing short of breath-taking. Another jewel in the heart of Wales uncovered, and one that will surely stay with us for a very long time.

Northern Monument #14

Ewloe Castle, built around 1257, is a relic of a brief triumph that the Welsh had over the English Crown in the mid 13th century. Until then, this part of north east Wales had been the starting point for repeated Norman invasions of Gwynedd for more than 150 years. The castle was built from local stone. Its design – such as the Welsh Keep – suggests it was conceived and built entirely by a Welsh workforce. Two decades after its construction, in July 1277 Edward I began the first Welsh War by marching his forces out of Chester and up the west coast of the Dee Estuary. Ewloe Castle is not mentioned in chronicles of the 1277 invasion suggesting the Welsh had abandoned the castle before the attack; retreating to stronger defensive positions. As Edward I's castles at Flint and Rhuddlan could be provisioned by sea, Ewloe was never used by the English military. By the late medieval period some 2 centuries later, the site was in ruins. Much of the castle's dressed stone work from its curtain walls and keep were carted away for reuse in later buildings. Despite having avoided its use as a defensive position, in essence, Ewloe castle still stands as a monument that represents a time before Wales was fully integrated into the empire, and the woodlands could still hide enemies at any given point in time. Something that's really quite hard to imagine in this day and age!

Blue Lagoon

Once a busy slate quarry up in the hills of Snowdonia. As more than a century has passed since its closure, decades of rainfall has caused a man-made lake to form that perfectly reflects the blue sky on a sunny day. Featured in the BBC's program 'Secret Britain' in 2016, it's now not quite as secret as it once was, and almost impossible to get a photo with nobody in the frame during peak seasons - but luckily I was patient enough and rewarded soon after with what was probably the warmest wild swim I've ever had in the UK. What I didn't realise, however was that nobody has ever been able to record the depth of the lake - according to a local, scientists have all broken their equipment trying to descend deep enough to get a reading. Given my fear of extremely deep water, I was pretty glad I only found that information out after I got out of the lake..

Burnley Empire

Designed & built during the late victorian era, this grand theatre was once held in high regard as a proud feature of this northern English town. Like many of its kind however, the timing of its construction fell at an unforseen point before two world wars, and the subsequent change of culture that led to the birth of modern cinema. Decades of catching up forced the venue to be reconstructed many times in an effort to broaden its intended design. Despite these attempts, it could no longer hold its own against newer multiplex cinemas, and as a last grasp at salvation its owners turned it into a bingo hall in the 1970's. If we've come to learn anything from our travels its that once you turn your cinema into a bingo hall, it's already the beginning of the end.. the building has now been disused since the mid 90's and this beautiful craftsmanship is now well and truly beyond any hope of repair.

Then & Now

1901-2018. `Gwalia` otherwise known as Sandfield Tower was built in 1851 for the wealthy American merchant Joseph Edwards who was making his fortune in part thanks to Liverpools booming docking industry. One of several 19th century villas in the Victorian residential estate to meet the same fate, it fell victim to the demise of the city when the docks fell quiet. The building has remained vacant, slowly rotting away since the 1980s with enforcement action against the building’s owners by the council dating back to 2004 still bearing no indication of its future, despite the city's new-found regeneration. Old photographs of the building are extremely rare, and its neglected gardens have slowly become surrounded by newer buildings over the last century, meaning it is unfortunately no longer possible to match the camera angle of the original photo without standing in someone else's back garden!

Nature Takes Over

Then & Now 1889-2018. Baron Hill - one of the most magical places I have ever visited. Acres of untouched nature now hides the clues to the hidden past of this 17th century manor that has been left behind for almost a hundred years. What once stood here was a pristine ornate garden; the shining glory of Anglesey Island.

75 Years In Memoriam

Today marks the anniversary of the notorious RAF dambusters raid on Germany in 1943, and the death of one of our local hero's (and close friend of my Grandfather's) John Wilkinson, the wireless operator in Vernon Byers’s aircraft the AJ-K Avro Lancaster. This was the third aircraft to take off on the night of 16 May, and the first to be lost. Off course, it crossed the Dutch coast at Texel Island, a well known flak position, and was shot down before reaching its target. The aircraft pictured that I photographed in 2009 are now some of the only examples left in the world that resemble those used by these men during the liberation of Europe, and what became known as the pioneering feat of Operation Chastise, a courageous effort by many that stunted the industrial growth of Nazi Germany and paved the way for eventual victory. I vividly remember his photo sitting ontop of my grandparents TV throughout my childhood, and in his home town just down the road from me they recently held a commemorative afternoon in honor of his memory.

Then & Now

1905 - 2018. Storthes Hall asylum, Kirkburton. Originally an 18th century Manor, the Hall was acquired by the West Riding society in 1904 as Yorkshires 'last asylum' due to overcrowding across the region in other institutes. The land surrounding the building was vastly extended, housing up to 3000 patients in its prime, and served for more than 8 decades until it closed in 1991 along with all other asylums in the country. The 20+ surrounding buildings were demolished due to asbestos contamination leaving the listed manor on its own again for almost 30 years, and after endless planning requests it is now under preparation for development as part of one of Europe's largest retirement villages. If all goes to plan, this building will find new life once again

Northern Monument #13

Ashurst Beacon, perhaps the most famous landmark of Skelmersdale at the top of Ashurst Hill, stands at 173m above sea level. One of a chain of Lancashire beacons which stretched from Liverpool to Lancaster Castle, it was built in the 16th Century by Sir William Ashurst as an early warning system against invaders during the glorious revolution. Today its chamber is locked shut but the monument still commands a magnificent view point over many counties and on a clear day visitors can see the mountains of Snowdonia, the Cheshire Plain, Blackpool Tower, the Lake District Mountains and the panorama of Liverpool and the River Mersey.