Sunday, 30 March 2014

I love it when a plan comes together

It has taken almost two years for the return of the Furness Abbey crosier and ring to be achieved. Now after a lot of work and collaboration we are basking in the success of the venture.

In 2010 a unique and internationally significant burial was found. The fully articulated skeleton was found with two rare artefacts-a crosier and a ring. From the first moment I knew of this (and I was rather lucky to hear of it-my son was an archaeologist at the abbey when the find was discovered) I knew it had to be important for the abbey. I and many others waited to hear what would happen to these amazing items and it sparked a conversation with the late Alice Leach. We met at a lecture on Jocelin of Furness and had discussed the seeming decline of the abbey and our concerns around that. Alice in her time had been very involved with Furness Abbey, had written books about it and was latterly studying the Coucher Books. We had a lot in common, both teachers, both writers and both with an abiding passion for the abbey.

We had conversations with English Heritage and pressed our issues about the lack lustre appearance of the abbey as a visitor attraction. The response initially was a little lukewarm but we came away with plans to set up a "friends" group to attempt some sort of partnership. Amazingly, the structure of English Heritage was changed almost immediately and there appeared to be a sea change in attitude and approachability. A Channel 4 News report (my other son was the producer on this piece) put the discovery of the crosier on the map and this gave us the focus we needed. We had our first meeting in March 2012 and set up the Furness Abbey Fellowship. Alice unfortunately, decided she would be unable to continue with FAF and wanted to concentrate on the Coucher books and the Civic Society of which she was Chairman. Sadly, she passed away in January this year.

From then on we forged a relationship with English Heritage and began working to raise funds and develop ideas to draw in more visitors to the abbey. We were concerned that the visitor numbers were low and one of the aims was to raise these and extend the publicity and reach of the Abbey, hopefully attracting people from outside the area and well increasing local traffic.

With the advent of the Medieval Fair last year we knew we had broken the back of the problem. The numbers who came to the fair and to see the crosier in situ encouraged us and we set off an appeal to raise funds for the special cabinet required to house the crosier permanently at the abbey.

However, none of us truly believed we would achieve this so quickly, but we have to thank the intervention of EH for this. They showed great belief in us and organised the creation of the box and the display to be ready in time for the new season.

It totally exceeds our expectations and we are delighted with the results. I believe the crosier has been found for a reason. Call it divine intervention, fate or whatever you like-but its discovery has come at just the right time. It can and will provide focus and attention to the abbey and will raise the profile. This can and must be capitalised upon. We will not rest upon our laurels now. In fact we will be regrouping and moving forward in our efforts to raise the level of the abbey, working in partnership with EH and the wider community. We do hope that everyone will continue to support us and even though it was an extravagant remark I made on Thursday- I actually DO believe we can become -if not a World Heritage site- a significant Heritage site which will attract visitors world wide!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Crosier's coming home!

Short and sweet this week-two items:

1. TV debut....BBC North West Tonight last Friday-30 seconds-re training John Woodcock as a Teaching Assistant to give him the necessary credentials to lead a fantastic 3 week summer school in Barrow in the holidays. Our company New Horizons Education Ltd is proud to support him and will do all we can to help him complete this weighty course in good time and as painlessly as possible! Well done John-can you now suggest that Mr Gove does the same? But unfortunately if he asks-I have NO places free for him! See...

2. The crosier is returning to Furness Abbey and will be on show from 1 April 2014! And this is NOT an April Fool! It really is coming home! The brand new bespoke cabinet is ready to be installed and to house the magnificent artefacts and it will be a huge draw to attract people to visit Furness Abbey. Furness Abbey Fellowship have worked very hard to raise the funds for this and are almost at the target of £6000. If you would like to donate please follow the link on the website below.


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Boudicca rides again!

There has not been much blogging going on over here recently. To say I have been busy is an understatement. It hasn't been all work either-no- I have added yet another campaign to my timetable. This one is even more consuming than the others and totally unexpected and unwanted. I had a premonition last year when the government decided in their wisdom to loosen the red tape on the planning regulations fro green field sites. It was not pleasant and I worried that some of our lovely local countryside would vanish under a sea of houses and concrete. However I did not imagine that this would be proposed so close to our beloved Furness Abbey.

I seem to be turning into a cross between Boudicca and Emmeline Pankhurst as I get older and I am not altogether pleased with the effect! I can't help myself -if I see injustice, suffering or liberty threatened I'm on my soapbox rallying the troops! Maybe it's an age thing-or maybe I realise now that if you are the silent majority you are unable to influence anything and it's no good moaning after the deed is done.
So what's the problem you might ask? Well a not so local developer called Story Homes of Carlisle has begun a speculative development in a field just a stone's throw from Furness Abbey. The plan is to build 50 houses on the field on Manor Road-the main approach to the abbey and within the conservation area. You might think-well in a conservation area they won't be able to do this...maybe once over-but not now with deregulation. You only have to look at the plight of Oswestry Hill Fort-an iron age fort-"Oswestry Hillfort is one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation." English Heritage"
Has this stopped the developers-not on your nelly! It matters not that this is a hugely important historic site-nor does it seem to matter to Shropshire Council who have granted planning permission on the foothills of the site. Can you imagine this happening in the USA? Or any other country with any sense?

Our plight is not dissimilar. Furness Abbey is a hugely significant historic site-in fact even Henry Vlll knew exactly how important it was-as he made it the first large abbey to be dissolved. So within 200 yards there is a field-agricultural land undisturbed and not of great note at first appraisal. But look closer and there is a Grade 1 listed precinct wall and the West Gate...rather too close for a modern housing estate to be built on it. Next we have a river-which overflows-often and flows into an underground channel beneath the road and into the abbey. Two years ago this stream broke its bank and flowed over the road creating a swimming pool in the cloister.

Mill Beck full to brimming 2012 (S Hillman)

                                           A flooded cloister-from Mill Beck 2012 (S Priss)

If the building is allowed to go ahead the idea the developer has put forward to offset any future flooding arising from the excess water from a built environment is to provide a 30 foot pond to act as a sump to drain the estate. The excess will then be diverted into Mill Beck. Now the above flood happened without 50 houses above the valley-so what can we expect if this goes ahead? A Cistercian Atlantis?

The plans a re ludicrous and one of the issues apart from flooding is the effect on the aesthetic approach to the abbey-which will damage the visitor experience massively. Then the placing of homes-and people so close to a delicate Grade 1 listed wall and arch is a disaster waiting to happen. The developer will not be able to guarantee the safety and preservation of either wall or environment once the houses are sold-and any damage done will be irreversible. We can only hope that the Barrow Borough Council Planning Department, English Heritage and the Environment Agency will see the folly in this and help to reverse it.

 Manor Road

Furness Abbey is the major visitor attraction in the area apart from the Dock Museum-and of course is more significant historically. With the work that the local Furness Abbey Fellowship have done alongside EH it would be foolhardy and destructive to allow this to happen-particularly as the prize of the century is returning soon to the abbey-the crosier and ring. These amazingly important artefacts will be the jewel in the crown of Barrow and Dalton's heritage and could with some more work be a boost to the local economy through visitors and tourism. 

If you want to support our efforts to stop this thoughtless and reckless idea please visit the website, twitter and Facebook below: and sign the petition