The circumnavigation of Beningbrough Hall

In theory it’s easy to cycle from York, where we live, to Beningbrough Hall. In practice, though, it’s been raining almost continuously for a fortnight and cycling through mud isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (It’s a great route in the sumer, though).

We grabbed the one suny morning we had this week, and we drove there.

There’s been a stately home on this site since Elizabethan times, but the present pile was built between 1702 and 1716, in a style inspired by its owner’s two-year tour of Italy.

It went through many incarnations. One owner, a passionate horsewoman, ran a stud farm here. It also served during World War II as a billet for British and Canadian air crew.

Like many stately homes, Beningbrough Hall passed into the hands of the National Trust when its last private owners had to find money to pay Death Duties.

We caught some fleeting sunshine on the Chapel in the grounds.

“Is that river supposed to be there?”

It’s the point where the rivers Nidd and Ouse meet, but they’ve also ‘met’ a few fields, hedges and trees into the bargain.

Not to mention parts of the path…

Running the premises, from the National Trust’s point of view, hasn’t always been easy. In 1979 they teamed up with the National Portrait Gallery so the main rooms could be used for art exhibitions.

In better, non-pestilential times, you can go inside and view interiors and art without having to book in advance.

It speaks volumes that the present exhibition is on the subject of Well-Being (and that it ends on Hallowe’en).

Stay safe, everyone.

Park and glide

Many families go for a walk in the country on Boxing Day. We tend to try and beat the rush, and go in the run-up to Christmas. We’re often out and about on the shortest day or, in this case, the day before. Dusk falls at 3:30 pm, so it’s generally not a long walk.

From the top of Sutton Bank, Yorkshire spreads out like a giant, sage-green quilt.

Someone wants their memories always to remain here.

Sutton Bank, as a scarp facing into the prevailing wind (South West), is ideal for gliders. The Yorkshire Gliding Club has been here in its present form since 1934.

The gliders make an eerie whistle as they ghost overhead.

Moved by seeing the horse hill figures of the Southern counties, a local businessman suggested creating one on the hillside of Sutton Bank. The Headmaster of a nearby school got wind of the idea and, in 1857 with the help of his pupils, made it a reality. The work involved marking and carving out the figure by stripping away the topsoil, followed by transporting tonnes of white limestone to the site.

Their horse is so Victorian! He stands, stolid, as if waiting for work – unlike the ancient horses who inspired it, who run like waves across the wild landscape.

Book Review: ‘Science and Secularism’ by Dan Dana

Science and Secularism by Dan Dana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


‘Science and Secularism’ is a journey, described three times and in three ways.

It starts with a brief life story – how the author got to the beliefs he holds now. Next come the Haiku sets, evoking his wonder at natural phenomena – a wonder which, he argues here, needs no additional thought of a ‘creator’ of any kind.

The final section sets out the most typical argument in favour of atheism: that there is no measurable evidence for a ‘creator’, nor any logical explanation of how such a thing could exist.


The opening section, with its description of the revelations about different religions, about merging into broader and broader ‘families’ of faith, is a nice sequence – representing literally a broadening of the mind.

The logic is sound: with so many religions, which in some places contradict each other but each of whose followers believe is the ‘right’ religion, which one is right? And whichever it is, the others, if they’re different, must have something wrong with them.

It is rather spoiled by an ambiguity in the third paragraph, near the beginning, in which the sentence structure implies that the adults in the culture to which he was born – or possibly adults in most cultures – had no understanding of Science. Also, to be honest, I wondered how one can breach a moat.

By taking the “there’s a huge variety of religions among people, leading to inevitable contradictions and thus the question of which one is correct” line of argument against religion as truth rather than the more traditional “There is no direct evidence of God” line, the author has also indirectly tackled the “yes but there’s no direct measurement of ‘love’ either – only of the effect it has upon people” counter-argument to the latter. After all, unlike with any ‘God’, all human beings are in agreement about what ‘love’ is, and what it does.

So: is Atheism a faith? The argument posed here is that it is not, because with no direct evidence for any god(s), it’s the most reasonable thing to believe.

The haiku sets are in two sections: Secular, and Science.

Among the Secularism Haiku (sets 1 – 10) I most appreciated the second, with its joke about ‘Not collecting foreign stamps’ bordering on the Zen. Does ‘nothing’ – i.e. the lack of things – have an existence all of its own?

The Science Haiku (sets 11 – 27) evoke the ‘sense of wonder’ the non-religious feel, without the need to invoke a ‘creating power’ of which to be in awe. Even after more than half a century of fascination with astronomy and cosmology some of us, myself included, still feel like “a wide-eyed passenger hurtling through spacetime.”

I loved the wry humour of “this haiku’s not infinite – I’ve reached the edge now.”
The penultimate haiku, in praise of water, which exists in a tiny range of temperatures and makes life possible, included a nice metaphor – Mars’ skeleton key – while the final haiku sets out our stark existential choice.

The Haiku sets are followed by the final section, dedicated to debunking Creationism, the angle taken being that Pandeism (the belief that a creator, having created everything, now becomes the things they have created and so is no longer directly detectable). This has in common with the more conventional religions, the question “where did that creator come from?” The hypothesis of non-linear time is an interesting one – that there was literally no time before the act of creation, in much the same way that you can’t travel further north than the North Pole.

My problem with this final section is that it suffers from the same shortcoming as Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, namely the desire to invoke in the reader awe of what there is in nature, while at the same time taking meticulous care to avoid any spiritual angle, religious or otherwise. This puts a severe limit on the imagery and metaphor, and neglects the observer/writer’s relationship with the world being described – and all good writing is, in one way or another, about relationships.

For an idea of what’s missing, Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us’, for example, while a scientific and factual description of the world of the oceans, maintains a sense of beauty and awe in the reader by endowing the world described with a certain mystery – as if to say, here is what we know, but also here is our place in it; here is what we have in common with it; and finally an implication that there is always more out there that we have yet to understand. None of this can be done, it strikes me, if one adheres too strictly to the ‘material’ outlook at the expense of all else.
The narrative then turns to Supernaturalism – the mystical belief that entities exist beyond empirically observable reality, outside the laws of nature, specifically the Standard Model of particle physics. The coverage of recent advances in cosmology and other sciences is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, but to me, referring to some phenomena as ‘supernatural’ simply begs the question of what lies outside the standard model but is yet to be explained by a better scientific model.

To those who, like me, have not grown up in a religious milieu, and who’ve not had to ‘escape’ from a religious upbringing, this final section seems a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
However, the Haiku sets and philosophical sections together would make a thoughtful gift for friends who are wrestling with the contradictions between alternative world views – religious and non-religious. Or indeed with the many contradictions between and within religions.




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An appreciation of the life of a cherry tree

I probably love trees far too much. And this is what happens.

Back in the spring of 2007 we decided to liven up a rather boring (as in, privet hedge, lawn, nothing else) back garden with some fruit trees. So after a spot of research – what size? What type? Are there local varieties that do well in sunny, frosty Yorkshire..? – we chose two pear trees (Conference and Buerre Hardy) and the cherry tree (Stella). These were joined, two years later, by a plum – a present from my workmates in Leeds when I resigned the job there. Tsar – of course!

Round about that time, the cherry produced its first fruit.

To my shame I have no pictures of it in blossom, so here’s a neighbouring tree I spotted more recently when photographing some consequences of this year’s amazing dry, quiet spring.

Our tree grew rapidly, outpacing our ability to harvest anything from it – the birds always grabbed the lot first. Until this year.

Was this brought on by 2020’s uncanny, clear spring? Or simple maturity? Or, strange to wonder, the tree sensing its days were numbered – because we were beginning to talk about it as a problem?

Harvest (well, a tiny part of it)

This year we picked more than 500 cherries, each magnificent. As every year, I keep the stones (along with the dozens I find on the lawn where the birds have dropped them!), scattering them, throughout the autumn, in any place I think could do with a tree.

Autumn.

At this point we were still just thinking the tree could do with a drastic prune. We’d done this before – about three years ago – but that only made it grow faster! By the time I took this shot, it had grown taller than our garden is wide. The two little pear-trees on their modest rootstock were really struggling.

So. A tree-surgeon came and did the deed.

The red hue of the wood is painful to see. As if I’d murdered someone.

I shall miss our tree. This time of year, I miss the shapes I could see in its branches – and the shadows they made on the kitchen wall when I turned the lights out last thing.

But its giant roots had stalked under the lawn and reached the house, putting up new trees along their lines as they did so.

Our cherry tree was a victim of its own success.

It hasn’t gone – its roots are still alive. The new trees that grow from them, I know from having severed roots before, won’t die as a result of being cut off from their giant Source.

We shall dig them up, and plant them elsewhere.