‘Gentry’…by Adam Nicolson

y648.jpgUntil 1914, the gentry owned half the land in England; now the figure is less than one per cent. This very readable history concentrates on fourteen gentry families, from 1400 to the present day, and tells their tale and through them the tale of England and of course the rise and fall of the gentry itself.

In Europe, the tendency was for great lords on the one hand and peasants on the other to be the regional norm. Indeed holidaying in the sixties one was still conscious of a peasant class in France Spain, Italy…..pretty amazing to my mind. Here the peculiarly English class of the Gentry tended to soften society hierarchies and provided a certain stability. Respectability, an attachment to the land, and no great self-regard were their typical traits. And in England we haven’t referred to a peasant class for many centuries. But the gentry was never a rigid part of society….it added a certain flexibility. You could enter the class, and you could drop away from it with with surprising ease.

Of great interest to me one of the families described is the Oglanders who lived on the Isle of Wight. Adam tells the story of Sir John Oglander in the Seventeenth Century. In one sense it was he who got me into Oxford – as Sir John was held up in the vitriolic academic debate in the Sixties as an example of Nouveau Riche who supposedly were the group who were a major factor in bringing about the Civil War. Through some elementary research I showed that this was not so – he was part of the established Gentry. My History Master was impressed and wrote to his old tutor at St John’s about it. I got into St John’s. Anyhow, purely an aside that brought back memories of my sheer enjoyment of studying History at Manchester Grammar. One of the abiding images in the book is of Sir John riding his lands each morning and evening and glancing across to the mainland and be thankful that he did not have to go there…as he said of his family and his friends, going to London “thynkynge it a East India voyage, they always made their wills”. I know the feeling!!

The families described rose, fell, duelled, bought lands, worried about survival, took mistresses, were undone by lawyers and had many family quarrels and they are ever fascinating. As time went on, dirty commerce played an increasing role in their finances, and how. Eliza Pinckney, determined and devoted mistress of estates on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century had a fascinating story (and indeed women played a huge part in these histories. “Yet we’re brought up short at the end of her story with a reminder of the building blocks upon which her success in life was based: a simple long list of her family’s slaves. It’s salutary that Adam commemorates all 326 of them, including the inhumanly named “Muddy” and “Lazy”.

All in all a memorable addition to the historiography of our nation, which has an easy style and brigs History to life. I really enjoyed it.

On a lighter note bedtime reading has been for a few nights Peter Robinson’s ‘Gallowsgallows-view.jpg View’.  Although old-fashioned (it smacks very much of the Eighties when it was written, if not the Seventies), it is a well-crafted Crime novel. The main characters at least are well delineated and the setting is wonderful….a Yorkshire town based fairly obviously on Richmond. This is the first in the Inspector Banks novels. DI Banks has recently moved from London to the provinces to escape the stresses of the Capital. Little does he know what awaits him! A Peeping Tom, a murder, robberies, and his attraction to the young psychologist assigned to the case all add to the mix. A page-turner and very entertaining. Must read more in the series.

At home with Bill Bryson…

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707.pngWell, for some reason this book ‘At Home’ has been on my shelf for a long time now. I only picked it up recently because F. had read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. What had I been missing! It is terrific fun – like most, but not quite all, of his many books. What he does is take his own house, a lovely if cold Georgian rectory in Norfolk, and explore each of its rooms in turn. He looks at the history of that room and its occupants and how it came to be what it is today. Or rather that’s what he sets out to do. In reality, as he always does, he uses the theme as an excuse to explore anything and everything that strikes his interest. And what a roller coaster ride he takes us on. I don’t know what isn’t in here…the Ice Man,  the causes of cholera, why forks have tines, string (‘the weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the Earth’, interesting vicars, a discussion of hydraulic cement which leads to a history of the Erie canal a note about the Duke of Marlborough, who was “said to be so cheap, he refused to dot his ‘I’s when he wrote, to save on ink”. Phew…what fact isn’t lurking at the back of his hamster brain? The thing is Bill Bryson doesn’t really tell us many if any new facts (we know most of what he says), and as the New York Times says it is almost as if he has written most of this in his pyjamas. However, it is the way he presents his facts, the little asides, the quirky approach that grabs us. If you wanted anyone to share a pint with for hours at a time, lots of pints, it would be Bill. More than 700 pages of sheer entertainment. Terrific. One of the Victorian masters-of-everything that Bryson found a lot of time for was Paxton, and that led me to purchase the best book about him that I could find…Kate Colquhoun’s ‘ A Thing In Disguise’.

I do love reading about the sort of Victorians who seemed able to turn their hand to 71B6CPOWvcL.jpganything and make a success of it. The sort who flogged themselves to an early death through prodigious overwork. The Brunels of this world. And I hadn’t realised that Paxton was one of them. Born to a farm labourer his first lucky break came when the Duke of Devonshire happened across him when a gardening apprentice and offered him the job of Superintendent at Chatsworth – in effect Head Gardener. Paxton was only 22 years old. he never looked back. Not from the moment when arriving at Chatsworth at half past four in the morning on the Comet Coach from London, and with nobody there, he scaled the walls and started exploring his domain. At six in the morning “I set the men to work..then returned to the House and got Thomas Weldon to play me the waterworks, and afterwards went to breakfast with (the housekeeper) poor dear Mrs Gregory and her niece. the latter fell in love with me and I with her, and thus completed my first morning’s work at Chatsworth before nine o’clock……” From this point onwards, the pace of his life increased.

What is truly astonishing is that the Duke and Paxton became real friends. the Duke once Paxton was established treated him almost, almost as an equal. Paxton, which is what made the Duke proud, made Chatsworth the centre of the horticultural universe, he was innovative in landscaping the grounds and building the whole estate into the magnificent ensemble it still is today. But how much more than a gardener Paxton became. He ended up controlling all the accounts at Chatsworth. He became designer and engineer and industrial strategist. He of course was responsible for the building of the Crystal Palace for The Great Exhibition He was individually responsible for sending a huge corps of labours, mostly Irish navvies, to the Crimea to build transport and logistics systems for the Army and erect flat-pack housing  and hospitals which he designed. He moved in exalted circles. He championed the railways. He designed and built houses for the Rosthchilds. He knew Victoria and Albert, and Disraeli and Gladstone and the Duke of Wellington on intimate terms. He became a household name. ‘Ask Paxton’ was the advice for anyone in any ind of difficulty. He founded magazines and newspapers. He designed public parks for everyone – the first in the world at Birkenhead. Here’s a small example of his breathless workload….“I arrived safe in London and lay down for two hours; then got up and began business. Our meeting on the Isle of Wight lasted for two hours. I had from one to two to go and see Cannon; at two we commenced upon the Southampton project which lasted til five. Without getting a morsel of food I started off again for Derby and from 8 in the morning until we arrived I had not ouched food nor even a glass of water…..Got to Derby about half past eleven where I found the Sheffield deputation waiting for me. We sat discussing things over until 3 in the morning. I had to be at breakfast at seven o’clock to be ready to start with the Midlands Directors to Gloucester and Bristol….” and so it goes on. It makes me exhausted just to read it. The men were superhuman. I do wish I had lived in Victorian times. I do wish we had such men (of whom there were many…) today. Some hope. A brilliant biography, immensely well researched and full of human interest.

919LxZP7V-L.jpgSome light reading meanwhile. Ann Cleves’ ‘The Seagull’. If you’ve seen ‘Vera’ on TV you’ll know the characters. I must say this isn’t her most exciting outing. And to me it all sounded a bit implausible. However the characters were always of interest and so was the scenic background – Whitley Bay and Tynemouth which we know well and St Mary’s island which is the sort of island you might find in Famous Five, reached between tides by a short causeway. F. and I were virtually stranded on there one cold night when we were getting to know each other, and we just made it back to the mainland through rising waters. I suppose we were lucky not to have been swept away looking back on it. If you know somewhere it’s always a bit of an adventure seeing the spots you recognise in a novel and how they have been renamed or otherwise transformed. Having said all of that, I did stay with it to the end……

…..which is more than can be said for ‘Bleak House’ which I attempted at last and 51Ms8E6mL9L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgpersevered with for a long time. However I gave up on it after a dozen chapters. It was far too slow and Dickens is far too sentimental for me ( a person who often tears up with sporting occasions or much else! ). I know it was published in instalments but you certainly get the impression Dickens was stringing it out for all it was worth. I love Dickens as a man and find him fascinating. He was a friend of Paxton for goodness sake. And he did a lot of good. If you want a really good read get hold of Claire Tomalin’s ‘Charles Dickens : A Life’ . It is one of the very best biographies of all time. Claire was good enough to come to Warwick and talk about it for us. We were honoured….she does hardly any events.

Unknown.jpegA book which was another excellent read for me, just published in paperback, is ‘Six Minutes In May : How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister’ by Nicholas Shakespeare. Using a lot of sources that are new, or surprisingly have been overlooked, Shakespeare moves from Britain’s disastrous battle in Norway, for which many blamed Churchill, on to the dramatic developments in Westminster that led to Churchill becoming Prime Minister. The Norway Campaign really was a disaster and largely of Churchill’s doing. “A second Gallipoli” was the phrase on many lips. “Considering the prominent part I played in these events,” Churchill conceded years later, “it was a miracle that I survived and maintained my position in public esteem.” The fact that he became PM out of the subsequent Commons debate, particularly when hardly anyone gave him a chance is frankly incredible. I am a great admirer of Churchill and am one who believes Gallipoli was worth the gamble…strategic lateral thinking of the sort aimed to avoid the continuing slaughter in the trenches, and which could well have succeeded, given better implementation by the Admirals and Generals involved who were frankly second-rate. But my eyes were opened by Shakespeare’s detailed analysis of Norway, and how incompetent Churchill proved. It really should have been Churchill who resigned in the first instance and not Chamberlain. And what might have happened then. Goodness knows. With all the analysis this book still reads like a novel – indeed it is as novelist that Shakespeare is known. But this book takes him into another league. Highly recommended.


A lovely Wedding Anniversary…

20180531_151532.jpgFor the first time, after taking the bus to Padstow, we boarded the waiting, so-called Atlantic Coaster which runs a magnificent route from Padstow to Newquay. It’s a double-decker and we were the only people on it for some time (apart from the driver of course). 20180531_153534.jpgOur destination was Jamie’s Fifteen at Watergate Bay. During the journey we had a bird’s eye view of some pretty houses……20180531_114123.jpg…beautiful countryside20180531_114155.jpg20180531_114530.jpgand, of course, some great beaches…20180531_121208.jpg20180531_114847.jpg20180531_114656.jpg20180531_122409.jpg20180531_122419.jpguntil we reached our destination. Although it might look cloudy the day was incredibly hot for May and all the beaches were being well-used, particularly as some children were still on half-term. Anyway here is our firs view of Jamies’ and the inside was very very nice indeed…20180531_125440.jpg20180531_130017.jpgespecially when we had ensconced ourselves at the bar….with a bottle of good iced Rose..20180531_130110.jpgOn the bus I had phoned ahead and ascertained that because everywhere was so busy because of the residual half-term (which I hadn’t taken into account), there was no table available for lunch but that we could sit at the bar and eat. We have always enjoyed ourselves before when doing this, as you are close to the action….and this time proved no exception.20180531_133011.jpgOur meal was absolutely delicious, the service good and friendly, the atmosphere terrific and the views sensational. I cannot think of anywhere that would have been better to celebrate our Anniversary…it was great.20180531_130139.jpg20180531_134315.jpgThe food? F. plumped for pork cheek and I had the hake. With this we had side dishes of asparagus and an Italian fried lettuce dish with raisins and pine nuts which was absolutely scrumptious – and unusual. Pudding…. a coffee/chocolate semi-fredo and treacle tart (each shared). The whole thing cost just over £80 but including a £24 bottle of wine it was a winner all the way. And I think the original philosophy behind the Fifteen ventures – basing a gourmet restaurant on training disadvantaged young people to work in the hospitality industry – still stands. Despite his recent troubles, Jamie remains a very successful entrepreneur and campaigner. He deserves all the success he can get.20180531_131700.jpgSated and very satisfied, we made our way down to the beach in order to meet our daily steps target! Hugely busy at the entrance end of the beach……..20180531_150829.jpg20180531_150836.jpg and with a large number of learner surfers…20180531_143738.jpg….once we got away from the crowds…20180531_143509.jpgwe had the beach literally to ourselves….incredible.20180531_144905.jpg20180531_145602.jpgAll we had to do then was lay on the grass (top) and wait for our bus(es) home….a lovely, lovely day.


At home…in May

20180528_183144.jpgTrue, David is looking a little worse for wear, but we still feel the need to protect him from the sun we have been having. The flowering continues apace, blooms much better than last year, and the front garden in particular is bright….20180525_153428.jpg….full of colour and luscious20180525_153444.jpgwhilst in the back garden this Rhododendron, outside our bedroom window, hardly flowered at all last year but just look at it now….20180525_153508.jpg20180525_153525.jpgand again these cream and orange azaleas were nothing last year….20180525_153604.jpgditto this pale Rhododendron….20180525_153626.jpgand staying on our local lanes there is always something to photo….20180527_125824.jpg20180527_131205.jpg20180527_133527.jpgand talk to!20180523_102637.jpgWhile fifteen minutes away from us at the end of Hannafore we discovered a new information board which told more of the remains of the Lammana Chapel, on the hillside built on the site of a sixth century Celtic chapel with a monk’s cell attached. This replaced a medieval chapel on St George’s Island, just offshore. The island was a popular place for pilgrimages in those times; but so many people drowned trying to reach it that the Lammana Chapel was built instead. The chapel was Benedictine, belonging to Glastonbury Abbey until sometime before the fourteenth century, when it was recorded as a private chantry chapel belonging to the local Dawnay family. It was demolished in 1549 in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.Right by the information board, and not on the hillside, is what is thought to be the remains of ‘a monks’ house’ now incorporated into a garden wall….something which despite passing it a few times we had been unaware of. So, thank you new information board.20180526_114938.jpg

Wildflowers in our lanes……


20180220_172606.jpgWe have been trying to note what varieties of wildflower we see on our walks in the local lanes…..and the year started off with snowdrops and primroses. In Cornwall as in some of Devon, including the South Hams, the lanes are awash with these delightful precursors of Spring. We are lucky.20180215_155440.jpgNext comes a mass of bluebells and ramsom, or wild garlic. We see mainly the native broad-leafed garlic but also the non-native narrow-leafed variety from the Southern Mediterranean.20180517_1515141.jpgAs this starts to go over the banks are full of herb robert..20180519_180324.jpgand red campion..20180517_1517262.jpgas well as common mouse ear..20180514_160517.jpgand,of course, buttercups galore…20180519_180202.jpgToday we also saw Foxgloves which stand individual and proud, Hart’s Tongue Fern, Male Fern, Cow Parsley, Cleavers or Sticky Grass and Herb Bennet. Others in the lanes are Dove’s-foot Cranesbill, Nipplewort, Ribwort Plantain, Broad-leaved Dock, Chickweeds, and Pennywort.

As we are not botanists – far from it! – we find it very difficult to identify lots of things and if you take for instance the tall white umbellifers well…. we think we know Cow Parsley, but something else we saw today we thought was the deadly Hemlock. Research on the internet and in my books of wildflowers made us unsure. We washed our hands thoroughly, however, just in case! Again do see the Cornish Hedges site...it’s terrific.

Secret Gardens in Fowey…May Festival

20180518_143919.jpgAs part of Fowey Festival some local owners open their gardens to the public on a couple of days. This year there were a lot less gardens but different ones from last, so off we went. Luckily for us we managed to park in the street for free. On our way into town where we usually park they had been re-surfacing the road for quite a long stretch, with plenty of ‘No Parking’ signs. However one idiot had left his car in the middle of all this so that the car and its surrounds were ‘unmade’. Ah well. Wherever you park it’s a steep descent on foot into town.20180518_122640.jpg20180518_122559.jpgOur first destination was The Royal Fowey Yacht Club. We aren’t members but during the Festival the Waterstones Bookshop and Booking Office are there and you are made welcome. We had fish and chips and a nice glass of Pinot Grigio. A great facility and it must be nice to be a member. Patron the Duke of Edinburgh.20180518_135629.jpg20180518_123737_001.jpgThis is their yard…nice and tidy.20180518_135624.jpgAfter lunch we decided to do our usual stroll through town before visiting any gardens, always a nice experience and interesting to see what’s going on. A posh restaurant with rooms closed (so difficult to last), and a restaurant that we thought was doing well, still not re-opened.20180518_141558.jpgWe liked the hawk kite attached to one roof to scare off the seagulls…20180518_141422.jpg20180518_141744.jpg20180518_141954.jpg20180518_142323.jpgThe Old Grammar School Gardens (which very few seem to visit) was as delightful as usual20180518_143027.jpgand we spent some time sitting there enjoying the view, and marvelling at the friendliness of the robin..20180518_144311.jpg20180518_143155.jpg20180518_144559_011.jpgTwo of the gardens were near each other on a street we hadn’t really visited before, probably because it is a dead end – St Fimbarrus Road. It really was a lovely terrace of Victorian buildings. Wrought iron balconies on a lot, with just a few ‘modernised’ apparently without authorisation, according to one of the owners. image-0-1024x1024.jpgAgain fantastic views, and it was great to relax after climbing the steep path, and talk to one pair of owners on their top terrace.20180518_145517.jpg20180518_145117.jpg20180518_151020.jpgAt the other house on St Finbarrus Road we were encouraged to go inside (love the rack of hats), and view the art of the daughter of the family Jane Cooper of Bristol. She spends half of her life in the mountains all over the world. She was even the first ascender of one mountain and got to name it after her mother – quite a feat!20180518_151709_001.jpgI just absolutely loved this oil of Snowdonia…..outside our reach unfortunately at £800+ and apparently I am told we have no wall space….lightboximage_2113.jpg20180518_153103.jpgOn leaving Fowey on our way to The Duchy Garden Centre, the lanes were a glorious green, or else absolutely saturated with the white pink and blue of wildflowers…20180518_155114.jpg

Time for…….bluebells… a walk in the woods in the middle of May

20180514_163608_001.jpgThe bluebell has many names: English bluebell, wild hyacinth, wood bell, bell bottle, Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, according to the NT and amazingly (to me) almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world. So, we look forward to seeing them. We’ve noticed them gradually replacing the primroses in our lanes, so we  thought high time to visit our local bluebell wood.

We set off on our walk in Treworgey which is a charming but strange village, seemingly owned by one holiday company, one family in fact, with lovely riding stables, animal compounds, a rural play park and pretty cottages and houses. It doesn’t appear there is a single dwelling that isn’t a holiday cottage, and yet it still feels like a traditional untouched village.

Anyway, a beautiful spot, beautiful day (hotter than Ibiza apparently), and……. 20180514_160234.jpgwe were soon climbing out of the valley up a lane full of wild flowers20180514_161401.jpg20180514_160347.jpg20180514_160517.jpgand with a super high hedge….20180514_160436.jpggood views back towards the sea….20180514_160722.jpgand reaching Tredinnick a very pretty hamlet indeed.20180514_161422.jpg20180514_161705.jpgacross a couple of fields then hugely busy with ploughing tractors, we entered the woods, to be greeted by sweeping vistas as far as the eye could see of wild garlic and bluebells….20180514_163521.jpg20180514_163608_001.jpg20180514_163659.jpg20180514_163738.jpg20180514_163820.jpg20180514_163828_001.jpg20180514_164406.jpg20180514_165205.jpg20180514_164330.jpgA new camera, well mobile Samsung S7, which I haven’t quite got the hang of, so with huge contrasts of light and shade in the woods I wasn’t able to get the pics which the walk deserved. On emerging into the daylight on our way back to Treworgey we had distant views of the River Looe and the deep blue sea (not quite ‘wine-dark’, but still an impressive colour.20180514_170018.jpgSeeing a rather beautiful horse chestnut F was reminded of a verse which she composed as an eight year old…..20180514_170210.jpgThe chestnut tree has fingers five,                                                                                                 and near these hands some candles thrive,                                                                                    the candle flames are pink or white,                                                                                                    and dance so prettily in the light

Well I thought it was Keats anyhow….Treworgey had rather a spectacular rhododendron as we re-entered…20180514_170634.jpgA lovely spur-of-the- moment walk late on a May afternoon…very worthwhile.

Our garden is becoming more colourful by the day too…..20180513_133315.jpg20180513_133331.jpg20180513_133359.jpg20180513_110513.jpg20180513_133423.jpg20180513_133414.jpg

Home-made fish pie for tea…white wine obligatory!20180513_135443.jpg


Visiting Powderham Castle at last….11/05


We were really looking forward to visiting Powderham Castle on the banks of the lovely River Exe. This trip didn’t for once live up to our expectations. First of all we visited the cafe, not a great experience. I overheard the next table saying their coffees were virtually cold. The waitress didn’t offer a good explanation, just that they could have asked for the setting on the machine to be turned up. How are you supposed to know whether you need a higher setting?! Sure enough our coffees were tepid, virtually undrinkable. I then heard another table complain about the bread with the soup, the waitress gave them a baguette instead. I had unfortunately already struggled with mine…it was tough and virtually uneatable. I did mention this when paying. The soup itself was the smallest portion you could imagine. No aristocratic generosity here. F’s baked potato with tuna was ‘underwhelming’, potato not crisp on the outside and inside fluffy, tuna not seasoned, really just a mush.

We then went on the tour of the ‘grand rooms’ as opposed to the ‘upstairs/downstairs’ tour. The guide unfortunately was, what can I say, not well-trained. I don’t blame her, it is a difficult job. But anyway she didn’t have much knowledge or authority. So, whilst some of the rooms, particularly the Library and the Music Room, were impressive, the tour itself was an enormous disappointment. As usual with it being a private house, no photos….from the net, here’s the beautiful sequence of rooms forming the library.

153972-Powderham-Castle.jpg1000_1000_scaled_1796346_powderham-ca-20170801084217629.jpgand the splendid Music RoomPowderham_Castle_Music_Room_01.jpgThe formal dining room, a Victorian addition, was very much High Victorian…0fc14dcfcb623163c9a53f4243689a4f.jpgWe wandered outside to the chapel and there some pretty impressive wisteria adorning the outside of the buildings.20180511_131011.jpg20180511_131256.jpg20180511_131352.jpgand the views down to the river were nice enough…although by no stretch of the imagination would you call the gardens impressive.20180511_130919.jpgLooking for something else to do we wandered up quite a way to the walled garden and Victorian glasshouse where we immediately had to shelter from a heavy downpour. Again a great disappointment. There were two fig trees inside plus some very scruffy tables and chairs. The huge walled garden was entirely given over to petting areas with ponies, birds etc and a children’s play area. All very well but I think some token acknowledgement of what the garden was originally used for would have been nice.20180511_151829.jpgThe dash through the rain to our car virtually summed up the whole experience unfortunately. What a disappointment for what should be one of the premier houses and experiences in Devon.

However, we were cheered up by a diversion over to the opposite side of the river to visit Topsham, a lovely village with a character all of its own. The houses and shops all quirky,  Dutch gables reflecting its maritime heritage, the riverside very interesting and the pubs and cafes all looking good. We had a quick coffee in The Globe an excellent establishment with a fascinating history. We would certainly go again. And as for Topsham itself, we will be back. The_Strand,_Topsham.jpg118304832.jpgTrouts-Boat-Yard-Dec-2010.jpg

Enjoying our garden…..and some others Sunday 6th May

20180506_134642.jpgWhen you have lunch in such a colourful setting, it’s hard to leave…20180506_145725.jpgBut we had decided to visit two local gardens in Liskeard which were open in the NGS scheme  We’d passed them many many times but it was interesting to see what was behind the garden gates..20180507_142103.jpgThe views from the gardens were beautiful too here looking towards a Brunel viaduct…20180507_142409.jpg  another pic for my ‘Signs’ folder…20180507_142703.jpgand in one garden the armillary sphere reminded us of our empty plinth…20180507_143148.jpgand outside the garden is one of our local milestones. There is a site that records milestones I must make sure our local ones are on it….20180507_143405.jpg