We left Long Meg with some reluctance, but with gratitude that we had seen the circle in sunshine and had the place to ourselves, No-one arrived until we were done. Our next stop was some way away, on the long drive home. Sadly, we were obliged to drive through the glorious, snow-covered hills of Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales for miles and miles... with one small hobbit squeaking at the wheel with every vista and bemoaning the lack of places and time to stop.
We were heading for the small town of Kirkby Stephen to see a stone in a church… though of course we had forgotten that it was Sunday and the church might conceivably have other priorities than stone-seekers.
Which it did, with a christening about to begin… so we decided to go for a wander around the quiet town. In summer it would be thronging with tourists, but in winter, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
It is very much a northern town, built of stone, with the alleyways and ginnels familiar to my youth and every period of ‘modern’ history portrayed in its architecture.
It has been a market town since 1353, when Roger de Clifford, Baron of Westmorland, was granted a charter by King Edward III. The grand market portico that leads into the grounds of the church is of a much later date though.
Echoes of childhood were found in a proper sweet shop, selling proper sweets…which we felt obliged to sample… there are too many memories to ignore in a sweet shop!
So, indulging as we went, we continued exploring the town, passing more of the little ginnels, the worn stone steps with cold metal handrails that speak, more than anything, of home.
We passed the Temperance Hall and found an estate agent’s board in its window…Temperance has gone out of business it seems, here as elsewhere and the painted Victorian statue now watches in vain over her town.
Between rows of lovely old cottages, we walked down to the River Eden and Frank’s Bridge. The Eden rises just a few miles away and, given more time, I would have loved to walk along its course to the ruins of Pendragon Castle. It has a special place for me, being one of the locations I used in Sword of Destiny, a short fantasy written to preserve some of the old stories and legends.
Local names, such as Mallerstang and Wild Boar Fell take me right back into its pages, and from there to my own childhood, tramping this land with my grandfather and listening to the old tales, learning my love of this land by osmosis.
We waited a while by the river, watching the ducks on the water, a cheeky robin seeking bounty and a pair of wrens playing in the bushes. On a summer day it would be a perfect place to be, but in winter the chill soon sets in.
So we made our way back up to the church, hoping that, by now, the service would have finished. We had not come all this way to miss the stone. But no such luck… there were still hymns being sung.
We wandered around the exterior, looking at the architecture and at the grave stones that are propped up against the wall, victims of the tidying process that we see more and more at these old churches. There was an odd cry from overhead and, pointing the camera skywards I caught the silhouette of a pair of very odd birds.
Watching their flight, I noticed another large and surprisingly colourful creature in one of the trees. Thankful for the zoom on the camera, I turned the lens his way.
The last thing you expect to see in the middle of a northern winter are macaws. We do not have them in England…except, apparently, we do. They originally belonged to a local gentleman, but have now colonised the town, flying free and bringing brilliance to a darkening afternoon. I went in search of my companion to share my excitement… but he had disappeared. He seemed to have found a way into the church…