Saturday, 14 October 2017

a hard winter?

Most people will be familiar with the adage that a profusion of holly berries in autumn portends a hard winter. It’s nonsense, of course, but given that not only holly trees but also hawthorns are carrying massive quantities of bright red berries this year, it will be possible to evaluate the validity of this claim during the coming winter.

Clearly, there must be a reason for this phenomenon, but providing a food supply for the local bird population in advance implies some kind of conscious agency and can therefore be dismissed as a plausible cause for the greater than usual yield of berries. The real reasons for the bumper yield this year are the warmest spring in more than 300 years and a wetter than usual summer. Severe frosts in March and April kill off many of a tree’s flowers, and more flowers drop off in summer if it is too dry. However, in the last few days, hawthorn berries have begun to shrivel and are thus unlikely to be available as food when winter arrives. Although the profusion of berries, whatever the species, will have been the result of the same unusual weather conditions, only holly berries will be available as food in the depths of winter, which may be one reason for the erroneous belief that such profusion is the harbinger of a colder than usual winter.

Holly is the only common broadleaf tree in England that is not deciduous. In fact, holly has probably been associated with winter since pagan times because of this feature, and its red berries and unusually spiky leaves make it possible that it was believed to possess magical properties. The association of holly with winter was reinforced in more modern times with the introduction of Christmas cards in the mid-nineteenth century, and the sentimental juxtaposition of holly, snow and robin is still a popular motif for such cards. This association may even be the origin of the belief that the berries have been put there solely for the benefit of birds.

Here are two photos of hollies taken in the last few days. The first is of a holly in Castle Park; I took the second photo on Beacon Edge:

As I mentioned above, the local hawthorns, which are much more common than hollies, are also plastered with berries this year. Here are four recent photos; they could have been taken almost anywhere around Penrith:

Finally, here are two pictures of unidentified ornamental species. The first is of a tree next to the main railway line at the top of Brunswick Road; the second is of a bush at the entrance to a private house on Carleton Road:

Whatever the explanation for this year’s bumper crop of berries, and whether or not the coming winter is unusually severe, the local avian population will be well supplied with food.

Monday, 9 October 2017

up to the mark

It all started with my morning walk. The beginning and end of the walk are fairly fixed, but I tend to vary the route through town. However, on most occasions I walk past Arthur Terrace, which is at the south end of Drovers Lane, and I remember noticing an Ordnance Survey benchmark somewhere in the area many years ago. As I walked past, I began to look out to see if I could spot it again. I didn’t stop, but my eyes scoured the walls and gateposts as I passed. It took me quite a few passes before I eventually saw it again. The first photo is of the general location, and the second is a close-up of the mark:

The horizontal line is precisely 133.4707 metres above mean sea level, as measured from a datum in Liverpool.

I knew of only one other mark, on the Beacon Tower overlooking the town, which is one of four grade I listed buildings in town. Technically, this is not a benchmark but a ‘bolt’ (the hole where the lines join contains a recessed metal bolt, although I have no ideas about its purpose).

The tower was built in 1719 to house the fires that had been lit on the top of Beacon Pike for centuries to warn the local population that yet another Scottish raiding party was on its way. When I was growing up, the tower was surrounded by steel railings, but when I came back to live in Penrith in 1989, I was surprised to find not only that the railings had been removed but also that the door was not locked. I was even more surprised to discover that there was a spiral staircase in the left-hand corner in the view above. The raised horizontal masonry course coincides with the upper floor, which is where the fires would have been lit, turning the tower into a gigantic lantern. The door is now locked, apparently in response to serious vandalism.

Anyway, I wondered if I could find any more benchmarks. I didn’t have much luck, but I did find two on Beacon Edge, the highest road in town. This is the entrance to Caroline Cottage, which was once the entrance to the public-access land surrounding the Beacon Tower:

I decided to try a Google search for ‘Penrith benchmarks’, and top of the search was a website that styled itself ‘Bench Mark Database’ (BMD). The members of this website log visits to benchmarks, and it so happened that one such member had been visiting Penrith benchmarks only two days earlier, which is why the site appeared at the top of my Google search. When I tried the same search the following day, the site was nowhere to be seen, but I found it again by consulting my recent browsing history, and by searching within the BMD website I was able to obtain a list of all benchmarks located within a 50km radius of my postcode. From this list, I learned that there were once no fewer than 87 benchmarks in town—this total includes ‘bolts’, ‘rivets’, ‘pivots’ and ‘flush brackets’—although 24 have been logged as ‘destroyed’.

I had expected that such benchmarks would be located where there was a good line of sight to the next one—hence my decision to look for examples on Beacon Edge—but when I obtained the list, I noticed immediately that several were in the town centre, and I’d probably walked past them many times without noticing them. Here are five such examples:

The Lowther Arms, Queen Street

Last Orders, Burrowgate

The former Old Crown, King Street

Sidney Bakewell’s old shop, Stricklandgate

Birtle’s Sports shop in Cornmarket

All these benchmarks have been painted over, which makes them harder to spot but still clearly identifiable.

I also expected benchmarks to be carved on buildings or substantial pieces of stone such as gateposts, so when I returned to Beacon Edge to check out Nandana, the former youth hostel, I couldn’t find the mark because I examined only the gateposts at the entrance to the house’s grounds. I returned after consulting the BMD website and found the mark cut into a boundary wall:

There is a benchmark that is even harder to spot on Bridge Lane, the main road out of town to the south:

This one is so inconspicuous that, having crossed the road to take a general picture of the location, I had trouble relocating the mark.

Finally, here are three benchmarks that I’ve walked past dozens of times this year alone without noticing them. The first part of my morning walk takes me through Thacka Beck Nature Reserve, on the northwestern outskirts of town, as far as Thacka Lane. The railway bridge over this road has a benchmark carved into the right-hand abutment (the approximate location is shown by the red arrow), and the second photo is a close-up of the mark:

The second example is carved into a converted barn at the top of the hill leading away from the far side of the bridge. The benchmark is located between the door and the drainpipe).

Both photos were taken looking back the way I’d just come to avoid shooting into the sun.

Although I usually continue straight ahead past Arthur Terrace, I do occasionally turn right down Hunter Lane at this point, meaning that I walked past yet another benchmark without noticing it. The large sandstone building is the police station, built in 1904, and Sidney Bakewell’s shop (see above) can be seen at the end of the road.

I’ve now located 48 benchmarks in Penrith, although as far as I’m concerned that is the end of the story. Nevertheless, it has been an interesting exercise that I feel was worth the time and effort involved.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

photographic abstraction #24

My latest collection of abstract photographs features the usual mixture of old and new motifs. Further details follow each image.

bloody hell


Jigsaw makes use of a motif that I’ve employed previously on Blood, Sweat and Tears (Photographic Abstraction #16), Surface of the Moon (#18) and Sheep May Safely Graze (#19). If you compare these four images, you will see that this is probably the most versatile motif I use.


Leapfrog is the only photo in this collection to feature a completely new motif, and I’d be surprised if anyone can identify what it is actually a photograph of. I know, I’ve written that before and been proved wrong, so see if you can work it out.

naff giraffe

Naff Giraffe comes from the same source as Distribution in Photographic Abstraction #23. For the origin of these images, I refer you to the photo of the staithe featured in Photographic Highlights 2016–17. There are steps leading down to the water at each end of the staithe, and the side walls have the most amazing patterns, which I believe have been created by lichen.


I no longer recall where I took this photo, but I’m fairly sure that it’s an image of the staining on the exterior walls of a squatter hut.

the crystal maze

The Crystal Maze derives from the same source as Shattered Dreams (Photographic Abstraction #20). Some time ago, Paula and I came across a discarded car windscreen by the side of the road, and these two images are the result.

Friday, 15 September 2017


I’ve got a little list…
WS Gilbert, The Mikado.
I don’t usually post puzzles at this time, but this is not intended to be a serious attempt to bamboozle my readers. Below are eight photos of Penrith landmarks, all of which are identified and described. The order in which they appear is not significant. So what do these landmarks have in common?

The first two photos are of gateposts:

Gateposts: Corney House, Stricklandgate

Gateposts: Mansion House, Friargate

The second pair of gateposts were once topped by carved stone urns, as the following photograph, taken circa 1910, shows. It was originally captioned ‘The doctor’s wife’, implying that there was only one doctor in town at the time. This seems unlikely:

During the Middle Ages, Penrith was, like most small towns, ravaged periodically by bubonic plague. This probably continued into the eighteenth century. Victims were buried in mass graves to the east of town, in areas that were built on in the nineteenth century. When the plague was raging, all financial transactions between townspeople and outsiders required the buyer to place coins into a stone basin filled with vinegar. Given that the transmission vector for bubonic plague is the fleas living on the backs of rats, I doubt the efficacy of such a procedure.

According to Wikipedia, Penrith’s ‘plague stone’ was fashioned in ‘whinstone’. I had always thought it to be sandstone, but on closer examination I found Wikipedia to be correct, which it often isn’t. ‘Whinstone’ is a quarryman’s term for dolerite, a chemical equivalent of basalt that forms shallow intrusions such as the Whin Sill, which underlies the mountain limestone of the North Pennines a dozen miles to the east of Penrith.

Plague stone

The next photo features more gateposts, these ones dating from the eighteenth century:

Gateposts: Dockray Hall, Great Dockray

The next two photos are of landmarks in the graveyard of the local parish church, St Andrew’s:

War memorial

Memorial to the men who built the L&CR

The war memorial, which takes the form of a Celtic cross, was constructed in 1919 to commemorate the Great War. The Lancaster and Carlisle Railway was completed in 1846 and was subsequently taken over by the London and North Western Railway.

There aren’t many of the traditional telephone boxes designed by Giles Gilbert Scott around nowadays, but here is one outside Penrith’s railway station:

K6-type phone box outside Penrith station

The final photo is of another war memorial, this time to remember the Boer War. It is otherwise known as ‘the Black Angel’ and once stood outside the town hall, but it was moved to Castle Park in the 1960s because it was being damaged by traffic fumes.

Black Angel, Castle Park

This list is incomplete.