Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Rillington Place and Back In Time To Brixton

Two programmes revealing Notting Hill's murky past. Now its plush white porticos house millionaire financiers, famous spin doctor politicians and massive basement conversions, but once, long before Hugh Grant set foot in its doors, it was such an impoverished, dingy and dismal place to live that it wasn't even remotely near the tip of the radar of "up and coming". It was wrecked, miserable, and racist.

And never more so as when Reg Christie and his wife Ethel moved down from Sheffield in the 1940s, to make a fresh start on their marriage after Reg had been AWOL for nine years, eventually turning up doing time for crimes unspecified. He claims Notting Hill is up and coming. But he's a big fat liar.

He's also a voyeur, a philanderer and a murderer. Strangely incongruous with the shuffling, mumbling, balding, bespectacled moper he appears to be. He is repressed with palpable tension, yet his morose, put-upon wife merely shrugs as she comes across yet another blood-stained mattress, or sees him digging a shallow grave next to a rosebush. It's so dark in the house thanks to the wartime black-out that it's hard to see or be sure of anything. There is an eerie atmosphere, threatening hallucination, uncertainty and death. Ethel gets cross if she finds Reg flirting with a prostitute or a lady visitor, but her anger soon collapses into terror when Reg finally lashes out, nearly strangling her over the kitchen sink. Ethel runs away to her brother's, but a niggling, pleading letter from Reg makes her return, only to find the coat of a missing woman hanging in the hall.

The story begins with a hanging too - and this man's story is still to be told. More next week.

The family in Back In Time to Brixton are later to arrive in Notting Hill, attending the carnival in 1999, the last year of their journey tracing the story of a typical Jamaican family in London arriving on the Windrush in 1948. Their first night in London is in even less desirable accommodation than Rillington Place (though at least it doesn't come with its own murderer) - an underground bunker near Clapham South tube station that had been used as an air raid shelter in the war. It's already equipped with rickety bunk beds and a bucket, which is all the authorities think people need. That and corned beef. Thankfully soon the family can move into a poky one-room bedsit, and then gradually work their way up through life and jobs in Brixton. But the struggles and attitudes the families faced in London, the xenophobia and mistrust, the outright abuse, make me wonder if Britain has learned nothing in the past sixty years. The tabloid headlines of the Sun in the sixties echo those of anti-migrant stance seen in the Mail and Express today. It's shocking, despicable and depressing.

The Irwins are as interesting and entertaining as the Robshaws last year, only a bit cooler, and definitely better dancers. The dad has even been on Gladiators. Brixton, like Notting Hill, has changed immeasurably since the arrival of the Windrush generation. At the far end of the Victoria Line, the tube station now blasts out classical music to keep the hooded teenage hoodlums away. It was a short bus ride from my house in Clapham, but I usually only ended up there to see a gig at the Academy (Belle and Sebastian, Starsailor, and James' great reformation in 2007) or a film at the Ritzy. I suppose I had my own prejudices: memories of the news footage of the riots in the 1980s, that the shops and bars were better (or at least more convenient) on my doorstep in Clapham, or that Brixton was just too busy.

And speaking of busy, 1999 was coincidentally the only year I went to the Notting Hill carnival. I had a lovely time eating jerk chicken and fried plantain at the street food stalls, listening to the steel bands, and cheering on the colourful floats and befeathered, whirling dancers. Such a fabulous, life-affirming, vibrant, energetic sight. Until I decided it was time to head home to Clapham and realised there was about a million people between me and the nearest open tube station; the entire million seemingly moving in the opposite direction to me. The crowds meant I never could face going back. But it was fun while it lasted.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Great Canal Journeys

Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe

Another series from the wonderful Timothy and Prunella. Floppy hats, lots of whisky and wine, and the following of dreams.

Two of the series were dedicated to crossing Scotland, with not a narrow boat in sight. The first episode travelled the length of the Caledonian Canal, seeking out Nessie along the way, and passing through the locks of Neptune's Staircase near Fort William before heading out to the open sea.
Very dark - Neptune's Staircase

Last night Tim and Pru started in Balamory, ahem, Tobermory on Mull, where I was disappointed to see that Archie's castle isn't actually pink. They then braved (but were defeated by) treacherous seas on the crossing to Iona, eventually having to resort to the heaving and tilting Caledonian McBrayne ferry instead, the only local vessel strong enough to withstand the waves. On Iona, stranded by the storm, they reflected on this important place of pilgrimage. Once the weather improved, and after bypassing a terrifying looking whirlpool, they crossed the Crinnan Canal by puffer ship to Loch Fyne. Fresh lobster on board, but not an oyster in sight.


We made our own pilgrimage to Iona in 1995, to see John Smith's grave. Thankfully the ferry crossing was smooth, the journey made only mysterious by mist. If nothing else, this series always serves to remind me that life is short, memories may not last, that a loving partner should be cherished forever, and that seeking out harmless pleasures on a daily basis is possibly the secret to a happy existence.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Planet Earth 2

Planet Earth 2 - is this an alternative universe? One where there is no Brexit and Donald Trump hasn't been elected President? One where the nightmares have ended, nobody votes for anything stupid, and everyone lives in peace and harmony and actually gives a shit about humanity?

Sadly not, it's still Planet Earth number one. It's just series number two. Still our flawed, fucked up world. But on camera, it's an achingly beautiful one. One where David Attenborough is in charge, at least of the voiceover. It's not him parachuting off mountain slopes or camping out on a rocky outcrop in a quagmire of penguin shit these days. The man is 90, after all.

All it does is serve to remind us of what is at stake if pacts to reduce carbon emissions are reneged on and countries don't work together for the greater good.

It's not really cheering me up, but it is a stunning watch. From the snake chasing the newly hatched iguanas, to the solitary snow leopards nuzzling the rocks, to the flamingos getting stuck in the ice, to the dancing grizzly bears rubbing up against a tree, to the baby ibex teetering above a vertical drop, it's compelling and breathtaking viewing, all with crystal clear photography; the film slightly slowed to enable us to appreciate it even more.

Though my husband got offended when I said the sloth swimming to find a mate reminded me of him. I don't see why. It really did. And that was one very cute sloth. He captured my husband's slightly slow, lumbering gait perfectly. I'm not saying my husband is a pygmy, or that he has three toes. He doesn't like swimming that much either. I'm not sure he would have ever crossed water to come and find me. Dancing on the revolving floor on Newcastle's Tuxedo Royale moored under the Tyne Bridge does not count. But he is a cuddly, furry beast with a sweet smile.

Many of these are places far more remote than I have ever been, but there are glimpses of the familiar - mountain goats and marmots in Glacier National Park, a waterfall tumbling into the Yellowstone River, an Arabian desert, a blowhole off the New Zealand coast.

How can anyone vote to destroy all this? Because that is essentially what happened in America last week, as a climate change denier was elected to power. How selfish we are. We are as greedy as the eagles squabbling over carrion, as snarling as the snow leopards wanting a mate, as merciless as the snakes, and ultimately as vulnerable to nature as the penguins being smashed against the cliffs in a storm.

Many years ago, I subtitled a documentary about the life of David Attenborough. He was of course quite wonderful - erudite, self-deprecating and very witty. At one point, someone asked him about God. He said he is often criticised for portraying the violent side of animal behaviour in his documentaries when God allegedly made nature so glorious. His response resonated greatly with me at the time:

"Quite frequently people say how...I never give credit to the Almighty Power that created nature... It's funny that people, when they say that this is evidence of the Almighty, always quote beautiful things... orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses. But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. I reply and say, 'Presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well.' I find that baffling, to credit a merciful God that action. Therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truthful and factual and allow people to make up their own mind about the moralities, or indeed the theology, of this thing."

Whether or not there is a god, and personally I do not believe that there is, man must not play god with what we have.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Dark Angel

It's a very British thing to share "a nice cup of tea" with someone. It usually puts the world to rights, even if only briefly. Unless you happen to be Alexander Litvinkenko or in any way related to Mary Ann Cotton, in which case "a nice cup of tea" is seriously bad news.

Mary Ann Cotton was Britain's first female serial killer. Dark Angel told her rather far-fetched seeming story. But hailing from County Durham, she really existed. Using a teapot full of arsenic, when not scrubbing away bed bugs, Mary Ann murdered her way through at least three husbands, one lover, her mother, best friend, and possibly several of her children, and a few of other people's too. Her husbands all had life insurance policies, which were readily paid out to our evil, hyperfertile, softspoken Mackem. (Not that she got wealthy from their deaths - she remained poor and debt-ridden.) It seems that people so commonly died of typhoid or gastric fever in those days that it took a very long time for the claims departments to get suspicious about all these painful deaths by vomiting. In fact they never did - she was eventually found out by a pharmacist. Mary Ann gets life insurance money for her dead children too, although the implication on ITV is that none of them were killed deliberately. The reality is more blurred.

If the TV series is to be believed, an awful lot of her children died before she discovered arsenic. Mary Ann's life was stuck in one long miserable cycle of pregnancy, birth and bereavement. Her first husband (and in fact every subsequent husband), as far as she was concerned, was a useless tosser. Particularly after she discovers sex with local bad boy Joe Nattrass. She moves on from town to town, job to job, husband to husband, but Nattrass remains a constant provider of pleasure and entertainment. (Until she bumps him off too.) I will never be able to look at the pier in Saltburn again. Let's not think about what might happen underneath the boardwalk, but last summer, the railings above had been brilliantly yarnbombed.

Yarnbombing, and the view towards Mary Ann's family home

The other main location shoot for Dark Angel was none other than our park at the end of our street. Filming was done over a few days in August 2015. Stupidly, I didn't take any pictures. We had our usual route to the reading cafe and play area blocked by television trucks, lighting rigs, bossy women with clipboards, and people in Victorian costume pushing prams and carrying parasols.

We love our park. Built by Joseph Rowntree as a memorial to his factory workers who fell in the First World War, the park opened in 1921. Only having a small, damp north-facing yard, we use it as our garden. And we don't have to mow its lawns, prune its trees or weed its flower beds. Although given government austerity, that time may yet come. It might be ankle deep in goose poo and flood regularly, but on a regular day, the park a haven of green and tranquility. (The goose poo was all too apparent on Dark Angel.) It has fun climbing frames and a zip wire, play sculptures, a woodland walk, a library cafe, model boating and wildlife ponds, waterfowl, islands of coot nests and abandoned goose eggs, a mosaic maze, bowling greens, weeping willows, tennis courts and rose pergolas. It hosts regular events like cycling festivals, sponsored walks, forest schools, and an annual birthday party where the queues for facepainting stretch for miles. The other day, a thousand KitKats were strung from the aforementioned pergolas. It's the sort of magical thing that happens there. Rowntree Park has many people who care for it, and one resident park keeper, who sails around in a dinghy when the flood waters rise. It opens late in summer, but closes far too early in winter. Last winter, after storms Desmond and Eva, the park was full of water for several weeks, and badly damaged. It's made a miraculous recovery, thanks to a lot of hard work by the city council and local residents.

Chocolate bombing

The same pergolas in flood

As well as Rowntree Park and lovely Saltburn On Sea, filming for Dark Angel also took place at Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, the Beamish Museum and a house on a familiar looking street that I can't quite identify but it must be round here. Cotton was hanged in the old prison yard of the Castle Museum in York . The teapot ended up in the River Ouse just opposite our house.

Dark Angel was silly, sexed up, contrived, tended to state the bleedin' obvious ("Keep back, lass, arsenic is POISONOUS!"), but nonetheless an entertaining yarn for a wintry Monday night.

Friday, 21 October 2016

A World Without Down's Syndrome and The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs

These were two recent thought-provoking documentaries that led to me reflecting on how the state of the NHS makes us behave.

Children with Down's Syndrome are amazing. They bring just as much joy to the world as any other child. But if you knew you were pregnant with a child with Down's Syndrome, would you continue with the pregnancy? This was the question Sally Phillips was asking us. A new screening programme is to be introduced that can diagnose Down's with 99% accuracy without any invasive tests, and she fears that it will result in a 100% abortion rate for pregnancies that test positive, as happened in Iceland when the same screening programme was rolled out there. Phillips' eldest son has Down's Syndrome. He is gorgeous, bubbly, funny, wonderful. He has a right to life that she thinks shouldn't have the chance of being taken away.

What became clear during the documentary is the lack of support for parents facing a Down's Syndrome diagnosis. Many are advised by doctors to abort because of the health risks associated with the syndrome (heart problems and the like), and not shown enough of the positives. Children with Down's Syndrome lead full, active lives and cope extremely well in mainstream schools. The decision about whether or not to terminate has to be made quickly as time is not on your side. Termination is a procedure which frankly sounds horrendous, nobody could take lightly, and must affect mothers for the rest of their lives. But who is it that is unable to face supporting a potential lifetime of health problems, the parents, the doctors, or the NHS? The NHS is at breaking point - is it cheaper to make a woman abort than to have to provide the services to care for her child? Is this governing the pressure being placed on parents by doctors? I hope not, but there has to be a proper, informed choice, which there doesn't seem to be at the moment. What people also don't take into consideration is that babies without Down's Syndrome aren't necessarily going to be any easier than babies with Down's Syndrome. A baby could be "perfect" in medical terms, but still not let you sleep for the first four years of its life.

Sally Phillips didn't have to make a decision about her pregnancy as her son wasn't diagnosed until after he was born, and her antenatal screen had not put her at risk of having a child with Down's Syndrome. Phillips clearly has the resources to cope with whatever life throws at her, emotionally and financially. Not everyone would be able to manage as well as her. But what would she have done had she known in advance?

I don't know what decision I would have made. Having spent ten weeks feeling sick and exhausted and grumpy before my nuchal fold scan, I had vested a lot of physical effort already into the pregnancy, and would not have wanted all that effort to be in vain. But then I might have felt unable to cope with any kind of disability when faced with it as a reality. Before the scan, I was in a slight state of disbelief. I hadn't managed to convince myself that I was having any sort of baby at all. I was aware I might miscarry, so hadn't let my hopes rise too high. And yet as soon as I saw that tiny little blob on the screen, complete with tiny fingers and feet, somersaulting over my bladder, to me she was perfect. I loved her, I wanted her. I couldn't have stood having to get rid of her. But I was told that all was well. I didn't have to even consider that. I know that I cried with relief.

Phillips put her heart and soul into the documentary, but obviously was presenting it from a strong personal standpoint. I don't think women who feel unable to go through with a Down's Syndrome pregnancy should be judged in any way, because it's a heartbreaking decision, and an indescribably painful loss. What Phillips succeeded in doing, I hope, is opening up a debate on the issue so that parents will get to understand the true nature of both alternatives if they get a Down's Syndrome diagnosis.


The NHS is also at breaking point when trying to treat people with long-term health issues. It ends up pumping them full of drugs, because it's the quickest, easiest and sometimes cheapest thing to do. There isn't time or money to do all the tests available. Surgical alternatives are higher risk and expensive. And it's what we've grown to expect. We're all prone to visiting our GP (assuming we can get an appointment) expecting a perfunctory check during our ten-minute slot, not many questions asked, and a prescription that will cure us to be handed over at the end.

Some drugs will cure us. But others are prescribed unnecessarily - antibiotics for a virus being the classic example. Because we've spent decades guzzling these pills like Smarties, bacteria are learning to outsmart us and are becoming drug resistant. In time, they will kill us all. Anyone who believes that man is the most advanced being on the planet needs to think again.

Other drugs are prescribed continuously where alternative therapies could prevent the need for long-term pills. The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs (Chris van Tulleken) tried to see if there was another way. He found that a daily walk could reduce cholesterol or Type 2 diabetes symptoms in some patients. The highs from open-water swimming alleviated depression in another. He also highlighted the ineffectiveness of painkillers and the more beneficial aid of physiotherapy and properly structured exercise.

Personally, I hate taking pills. I have to take thyroxine every day, and it makes me feel like crap. All drugs in my experience come with a raft of side-effects. Doctors tell me off for spending too much time reading the leaflet in the box. But I don't want to take something only to then have to deal with something else. Right now, in perimenopause, I have developed a whole host of symptoms, largely attributed to hormone imbalances, and not helped by having an auto-immune thyroid disease. I'm trying to learn to manage continuous acid reflux and menstrual problems, but the quick-fix drug solutions - PPIs, the Mirena coil - have only caused other issues. Who will look at the whole me? No GP has the time to really work out what is going on and they need to fob me off. And I don't want to waste their time either. I'm pretty miserable right now. What could The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs do for me?

National Treasure


This was a very brave production by Channel 4. Irritated by them for poaching and therewith effectively shutting down Bake-Off, this drama starring Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters just about put us back on speaking terms. The storyline was compelling, and the performances stunning.

It wasn't an easy watch. But what I admired most about it was its complexity. There was much more to the characters and the plot than met the eye.  Celebrity Paul Finchley arrested for alleged sexual crimes from decades before. An Operation Yewtree style sting, and yet it wasn't clear-cut. You couldn't guess what the truth was. For everybody has their light and dark sides.

A wife sticking by her partner through endless philandering. A very messed up daughter, in and out of rehab. An on-screen partnership that had also stood the test of time. But who really knew what happened? What tricks can memory play over the years?

Once one accusation was in the press there followed many more. Who was genuine? Who was merely trying to sell a story? Could this jovial quiz show host really be that evil?

In the end, Finchley got away with it. The truth was that on at least one count, he shouldn't have. "How do you tell if sex is consensual?" asked the prosecutor. "You just know," said Finchley. Only it seems he didn't. Lives were ruined, while elsewhere, opportunities were sought.  The champagne bottles were uncorked at a celebratory party but Finchley ended up wandering around his house, lost. He had shed tears in the courtroom, but had escaped punishment by the law. But now he was alone. In the end, the long-suffering wife had finally had enough.

Louis Theroux recently broadcast a follow-up documentary to one he made in 2000 about Jimmy Savile. The follow-up largely consisted of a melancholy Louis wandering around visiting Savile's victims, wringing his hands and saying things like, "How could I have let him be my friend?" "How could I not have noticed that this man was the biggest paedophile in the world?" In retrospect, of course, it's almost screamingly obvious what Savile was. But when he was alive, he was a closed book, and devious beyond anyone's belief. At various times, the man openly admitted on camera to a rampant sexuality. But somehow his half confessions were disguised and dismissed. Of course what he never told us was that he was pitting himself against children, and against the will of others.

What it boils down to is the same as with Paul Finchley - if someone is in the public eye, you have an automatic assumption that they can't be a criminal. You somehow believe that they must be inherently good. That someone else has done the vetting for you. Else they couldn't have got that famous. Else they wouldn't be allowed to work with children. Else they wouldn't raise all that money for charity. Because they're your hero.

Sadly, this is not how the world works. People in the public eye have to be scrutinised, because some - perhaps lots - have abused their power and fame, and the worship and adoration of others.  There is so much more safeguarding of children in place now than there was in the 1970s, but somehow it's still not the right people getting punished.

Apparently, Jimmy Savile gave me a cuddle when I was a baby. My father only told me this after Savile had died and his crimes come to light. It's a thought that I would have been awestruck by as a child, addicted to my weekly fix of Jim'll Fix It. It would have been a great consolation to my letters never getting answered. It naturally fills me with disgust now. Apparently, this (minor) incident took place at a Christmas party at the Leeds General Infirmary, where my grandfather was a consultant, and where Savile worked as a hospital porter, raising a lot of money for the hospital. The ward Matron held a sherry party every year on Christmas Day for staff who were working - my grandfather was always one of them - and their families. I have no idea who invited Jimmy Savile to the gathering - was it my grandfather? Matron herself? Or was Savile just wandering round the hospital on a whim, as we now know was his predatory style, thinking it might be a quiet day to abuse the sick? The latter is too appalling for words. Anyway, as oblivious as everybody else as to what Savile was up to or capable of, my parents gaily handed me over for a bounce on his knee. No harm done. Savile also went to my grandparents' house on at least one occasion, a fund-raising meeting with my grandfather, but thankfully all the daughters of the house, some of them still teenagers at the time, weren't home. The girls were merely excited to find a cigar stub in an ashtray when they returned. Again - and thank heavens - no harm done. But.... but... had we known...

For hundreds of others, it was a very different story. Unlike Paul Finchley, Savile will never face trial for what he did. There will be no justice of any kind. It's a sick world.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Cold Feet

Cold Feet is back! Many, many years on, with the kids more or less grown up and flown the nest (or safely ensconced in boarding school) leaving the grown-ups time to reflect and play. And have issues. And crises. Of the midlife variety, obviously.

To be honest, it's been so long that I can't remember much about the original series. I always get it muddled up with This Life. The cast all went on to great things, from Downton Abbey to The Hobbit. Apart from Helen Baxendale's terrible performance in Friends, which was a bit like the Cold Feet car crash that killed her

Fay Ripley has spent the past few years writing family cookery books. (Though her claim to be lactose intolerant on An Extra Slice made me wonder, does she really? Most of the recipes contain dairy.) Whatever their origin though, they are firm favourites in our house.

"I don't want any yucky carrot! Where are the chips?"

Anyway, yes, the crises. Speeding tickets. Dodgy deals. Depression. Stalkers. Young brides. Ageing. The fear of having wasted one's life. The need to be slimmer, fitter, happier, richer. All fairly textbook stuff.

Apart from the euthanasia. They just slid that one in there next week. Pete can't decide whether or not he wants a coffee after dinner at home, but had no bother picking up a pillow and smothering his mate. Thankfully, he arsed it up.

The car crash of life - Henry the Mini at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry
So their Manchester is one of concerts and bars and canalside smooches. We may still be stuck in the messy kids bit that has happened since we last saw them and which has been conveniently left out (messy teenagers are way cooler), but it's still somehow cosy and familiar to be back in their midst.

The nearest we have got to mentioning distance of this new middle-aged Cold Feet world is a trip to Dunham Massey a few years ago. No cycling (and no cheating) for us though. It was the first day of summer, and we were en route to North Wales. It was a National Trust pitstop of a hot lunch and clean toilets and somewhere for a toddler to burn off enough energy for a nap. The rhododendrons were in bloom, and deer roamed the parkland.

There is still rain and traffic jams in Cold Feet land, which is what we were party to on a recent visit. I wrote about Manchester before, but it was from a near 25-year absence, which we rectified this summer with two trips across the Pennines. Admittedly, one was to catch a plane. But the second was to explore the region more thoroughly, staying with family in Wilmslow.

The mill maid fantasy?

There were great, vast places ending in Bank (Jodrell, Quarry). And then the centre of Manchester itself, where we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. Which is quite brilliant. And what's more, free. There are fantastically enthusiastic explainers who taught us how to make a mini microscope and did a show about famous Manchester inventions, you know, insignificant little things like the aeroplane and the Spinning Jenny. There is a whole floor of kid-friendly experiments - magnetism, mirrors, friction, levers, optical illusions. There are steam engines, jet engines, railway engines, and flight simulators. And a Sinclair C5. The cafe makes fresh pizzas and even has a healthy salad bar. It's a top day out, which left us on such a high that we didn't mind the deluge that soaked us as we made our way back to the car to head to Salford Quays.

And Salford Quays, where there are the Lowry paintings of my parents' youth (Level Crossing hung above our gas fire), and the CBeebies of my daughter's. A friendly lady behind a desk in the BBC part of Media City gave our girl a CBeebies sticker, which just about made her LIFE.

Media City, Salford Quays

I tend to see the world through Dangermouse and Old Jack's eyes.
Not Topsy and Tim's mother's.

And then we went outside and found the Blue Peter garden, which just about made mine.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Free English Heritage August Membership with British Gas

Everybody loves a freebie, and so it was like a shot that I signed up for an e-mail offer from British Gas giving away several thousand English Heritage memberships for August. The membership covered two adults and up to six children, who seemingly didn't even need to be related to you.

We are National Trust, Historic Houses and Royal Horticultural Society members, which always seemed like more than enough to keep us going. To join English Heritage as well felt excessive. Plus we've been a bit snippy about English Heritage properties in the Yorkshire region since most of them are, not to put too fine a point on it, ruins. It didn't seem worth paying to go in them since you think you've kind of seen enough just walking or driving past them. They haven't got a roof, furniture, wallpaper or windows so what could they possibly have inside?

Well, here was our chance to find out what they were hiding. Quite a lot more than we thought, to be honest. The chance to step back and enjoy a beautiful setting, for one thing. A little museum or two of salvaged artefacts. The eerie atmosphere of abandonment. The consequences of wanton destruction by Henry VIII's army. A batty sheepdog. The chance to brush up on some important history and imagine a bygone age.

We made it to:

1) Clifford's Tower.

I'd been before as one of my 40 challenges for turning 40, but given that it is down the road and it was going to be free, it would have been crazy not to go again, this time with daughter in tow. She loved climbing up the spiral staircase to the ramparts and trying to spot our house from the top. You can't actually see our house from the top, but you can see the Terry's chocolate factory tower, which was good enough for her.

2) Kirkham Priory.

This has a peaceful setting beside the River Derwent, and the slightly less peaceful York to Scarborough railway line. There were cows. Our daughter assigned us each a house amongst what was left of the buildings so that we could all play happy families. Sigh. Mummy and Daddy aren't very good at these sorts of games.

3) Rievaulx Abbey.

We have often looked down on the abbey from the National Trust owned Terrace above, but never ventured down into the valley. More fool us. The abbey is absolutely stunning, with a delightful, well presented museum. A children's trail helps you locate the monks' toilets.

4) Helmsley Castle.

Similarly, we have often looked up at Helmsley Castle from the Walled Garden, but had never been inside. It is much more substantial than the severed keep you see from the market square. It being a castle rather than a former monastic establishment, this is one of the few local ruins not destroyed by Henry VIII, but rather by the Civil War, and a bit of neglect. Walking around the mound above the moat ditch was a particular highlight. Our daughter spotted her beloved chickens in the walled garden below.

Helmsley Walled Garden

Above the moat

5) Byland Abbey.

Home of the aforementioned batty dog, who actually lives on a neighbouring farm, but spends his day hanging out at the abbey seeking out unsuspecting visitors to throw him sticks. Our daughter is terrified of dogs, so ran off screaming as soon as she saw him, but eventually came around to his persistent pestering. Good dog.

Batty sheepdog

6) Brodsworth Hall.

Not a ruin! A beautiful house and garden just outside of Doncaster that we'd always wanted to visit. Loads of activities for kids - a mini beast hunt in the garden, and a trail of giant knitted insects around the house that were to be identified as friends or foes, depending on how much damage they tend to do to building fabric. The house was kept in the same family for years and years, and they continually patched it up or just let it evolve, so it's an odd mismatch of period and repair. A beautiful wooden Victorian kitchen table with a Formica top, for example. A lift that was forever breaking down. A lot of it is currently undergoing more significant structural restoration - mainly the window shutters, and the billiard room, which had everything in tea crates. But the garden is just stunning - a fern grotto, sun room and croquet lawn amidst a formal parterre, rose dell and arboretum. And statues of whippets. The usual play area and tea room you would expect in such establishments.

As it was school holidays, and there are 31 days in August, really we could have got a lot more mileage out of this freebie. But despite best intentions, owing to various prior commitments and visitors, days and weekends ran away with us, so we didn't quite manage to get to as many places as we hoped. Notable local places we missed out on included Richmond Castle, Whitby Abbey, Scarborough Castle, Middleham Castle and the York Cold War Bunker. Further afield, I would have been tempted to revisit places like Eltham Palace and Audley End (which definitely aren't ruins), and Stonehenge. Maybe next year, we will add English Heritage membership to our list so that we can see the rest.

Richmond Castle (taken June 2016)

Eltham Palace (taken July 2015)