For the second time this week a visit for Frances to Plymouth Hospital. I had a visit too, sandwiched in-between hers – to Liskeard Hospital. A worrying time today’s, but a terrific result. A suspicious small lump on the breast was diagnosed as a cyst by the Greek specialist and removed immediately, sucked out, with the minimum of fuss. We await the results of our other visits! Such it is to be retired…….I do dislike going to Derriford Hospital at Plymouth – you have to admit it looks like the Brutalist architecture of Moscow in the Fifties. Once inside it’s a bit friendlier. Good job really. After that we needed fresh air, so off we went to the NT house at Saltram which we were totally unsure we had visited before (despite living very near here in the Seventies). This was our first glimpse of the beautiful Georgian house, and no we hadn’t been before. First stop as nearly always was the cafe for lunch. No beer, only cider, and a menu which was disgustingly full of fat….there were hardly any nice healthy eating options. I had to have the soup, and F. a pork pie which was very dry. Very poor fare.We then toured the house which was very interesting and cool enough (it was 30 degrees outside). The hall was Adamesque ( and indeed Robert Adam had a very influential input at Saltram for the Parker family who transformed what was a Tudor building into a magnificent Georgian house).and I did like the ‘Tenants Table’ where were stored the records for each tenant. I am sure it must be in its correct place in the entrance hallway. Wouldn’t want tenants coming too far into the interior!The house is stuffed with valuable original pieces but it is disconcerting that this bust of Cicero for instance is labelled Roman…is it original or not?! Anyhow, full of character. What we loved were the walls cram bang full of paintings just as the owners would originally liked to have displayed them in order to show off their wealth…..You don’t often see this (you do at the RA’s Summer Exhibition ironically enough).This card table was set with intaglio cards, gaming chips, and a letter…marvellous!The inner courtyard had orange bins…very appropriate in this weather……and after that we passed into the core of the house which still retained its Tudor kitchen, with original and more up-to-date features…brass and copper are so evocative, are they not?Now here’s a picture with a story, it’s of Theresa Parker who, with her husband John, brought most of the valuable contents to Saltram. And it’s by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds was born only four miles from Saltram in Plympton, Devon. His first studio was in Dock (modern day Devonport, Plymouth) but as his popularity grew, he quickly moved to London to meet the demands of those who wanted their ‘likeness’ made by him. By1768, Reynolds had established himself as the leading portrait painter of his time and became the founding president of the Royal Academy. Reynolds was good friends with John and Theresa Parker and they met often both for business and on social occasions. In 1770 he began painting this full-length portrait of Theresa in a landscape. When it was still not complete two years later, Theresa joked that Reynolds was ‘very lazy’. She sat for him at least two more times in 1772 whilst heavily pregnant. There are many Reynolds paintings at Saltram as well as many by Angelica Kauffman, and here is her self-portrait…..“Reynolds was not the only Academician to be patronised by the Parkers. Angelica Kauffman painted numerous portraits and history paintings for the interiors at Saltram. Like Reynolds, Kauffman was a founder member of the Royal Academy, but along with painter Mary Moser, shewas one of only two female members. Kauffman was born in Switzerland and rose to fame as an accomplished painter in Europe before even moving to London in 1766. Here, her work was so popular that by 1781 the Danish Ambassador wrote that the whole world was ‘Angelica mad.’ Despite being hugely famous, she was still a minority in the male-dominated art world. Kauffman was left in social and financial difficulty after a disastrous first marriage but it was through her talent and determination, along with the support of Queen Charlotte and patrons like the Parkers of Saltram, that she was able to continue working.” In the portrait (which NT want to restore, and for which we bought raffle tickets to help), it seems absurdly apparent that the right hand has been re-painted by someone else at a later stage – and someone who was not very good at painting hands! Have you ever seen such an awful hand? And compare its butcher’s fingers with the delicate digits of the left hand………On the stairs, Reynolds by Kauffman…nice and relaxed, it seems obvious they are good friends.But there are many paintings to catch the eye…the Victorian mother and child captures that couple superbly.And so to bed…well the bedrooms, nearly all in Chinoiserie style, obviously well-regarded at the period, certainly not to my taste. Much of it imported through the East Indian Company. These individually painted wall panels are rather good.The last room on the tour however undoubtedly the best – the Library. Beautiful room, lovely books, lots of places to sit, not just to work – wonderful.A quick walk past some pretty borders to the Orangery was all we had time for.Yet another eventful day in the life of the Smiths….. and, before I forget, the day before we had popped into Looe on the bus to do our usual walk and greatly admired the amazing conversion of the old Sardine Factory….we went into the downstairs cafe….and admired the brand new and very good Heritage Centre, of which more another time…….
‘The Salt Path’ is a book about walking the South-West Coast path. There are many books about doing that and I have read quite a few, but this is different. It starts with the background that the author, Raynor Winn, is being chucked off her farm at the same time that her husband learns he is terminally ill with a brain disease. They have nothing left and decide to do The Path walk investing what little they have in a tent and cheap sleeping bags . Everyone seems to find this very uplifting (look on the Net and it’s all ‘The Uplifting true story’…….blah, blah, blah….), but I am afraid that right from the start I felt unease about the whole premise, and where it would lead. The entirety of the book seems, to me at least, to be self-serving, and to offer exaggeration, and deliberate play on our sympathies throughout. When did the publisher get involved? Maybe it’s just my cynicism, but I really do have my doubts about a lot of things in here. And the fairy-tale ending? It’s all a little too good to be true….
Because we live on the borders of Cornwall and Devon it is just as near for us to go to South Devon as many places in Cornwall, so I read the Bradt Slow Travel book ‘South Devon and Dartmoor’ with a great deal of pleasure. This really is one of those travel books that you can pick up and read from start to finish. And it’s a book that keeps on giving. Nearly all of the suggestions in here are things you really do want to do, and it is extremely well-researched and personal. We know the area very well, but I just kept finding things and places I didn’t know throughout. If you’re not acquainted with this series, please do get hold of one of their books…they’re great.
I recently read three Peter Robinson crime novels one after the other. So they must be good? Well, yes and no. What I don’t like about them is that as the series develops Peter seems, like Ian Rankin, to be obsessed with music. Not only do his characters , and in particular the main one DS Banks (as he now is), listen to music but we have to be told in detail what their musical taste is, why they are listening to such and such, how it relates to other music. Frankly it is all a bit of a bore and totally irrelevant as far as I am concerned. It seems to be designed to show off how much the author knows about music. Why do these Crime writers feel they have to do it? Right that’s my gripe out of the way (and unfortunately it does mean I’ll be reluctant to pick up another one). The novels are otherwise very good. The setting – Eastvale, which seemed to me to be quite obviously Richmond in Yorkshire, but is apparently that town mixed with Ripon – is terrific and adds an awful lot to our enjoyment. Who doesn’t love the Yorkshire Dales, and Richmond is fantastic. The main character Banks is particularly well developed but not so much the other ones. And the plots are interesting and topical. Well, the first one I picked up – ‘Gallows View’ – happened by chance to be the first in the series and is about glue-sniffing amongst other things, so it was no doubt topical then (1987), but you don’t hear much about glue-sniffing now! The plot weaves together a number of themes and characters very nicely. And not much music….I also had on my shelves ‘Past Reason Hated’ (1992), probably when I last read it, and it too was satisfyingly complex with any number of suspects for the murder of someone who, we found out, was really the sufferer of abuse from her husband, a famous composer (music again!). Family secrets, lesbianism, a newly promoted Detective, it was full of interesting bits and pieces. Anyhow I also read ‘When The Music’s Over’ (I wish it was) where Banks has been promoted and has to deal with a case of historic sexual abuse, as well as being in charge of another investigation as Senior Officer. Nicely complicated plots. Good in nearly all respects. I thoroughly recommend Peter Robinson. How many years before I read another?
Yet another re-read from my shelves ( I barely remembered ) was ‘Devices and Desires’ by P D James. This is that great rarity these days – a literary Crime novel. It is so well written and certainly evokes tremendously well the area where this one is set – the remote Norfolk coast. And what an interesting plot, based on Larksoken nuclear power station which itself has an important brooding role. Commander Dalgliesh from London (nice to have an up-market detective) is staying at his aunt’s converted windmill in order to put her affairs to rest, but can’t help becoming involved in a local murder case. In fact as we learn he becomes too involved, and there is a very satisfying mix of local characters as well as outsiders working at the power station. I did enjoy it, and must read some more P D James.
Well not quite, but the first time for many a long day I have done anything on my own (F. being in Spain…)! I had booked a very cheap first-class ticket to Exmouth (£13 return) which we had never visited before. The view from the train is always interesting, here rather burnt countryside near Liskeard. And three or four rivers or estuaries passed in the short section to Plymouth…First glimpses of the Exmouth estuary promising..But one reason I had come was to see how much Exmouth deserves its self-appointed accolade of floral town. As I exited the station and came towards the underpass it was clear that the work of the volunteers extended everywhere….This really is how underpasses should be….and the shopping streets were well garlanded….and the parks flower filled….Flowers literally everywhere…I was glad to see the beach was pretty special too, it was quite a surprise…I visited more parks and enjoyed the wildlife….quite tame in Exmouth apparently…and who doesn’t get cheered up by the bright colours of beach huts?I found myself quite a long way down the promenade so doubled back, and as I approached town it was evident it had a certain Eastbourne or Bournemouth-like gentility with some nice seafront houses….and some quirky modern housing at the marina reminiscent of our recent trip to Amble but on a much larger scale…So my verdict? Exmouth is well-worth a trip, and I am so glad that here is a place which its inhabitants take a genuine pride in…..at least enough of them to make a difference! they should be really proud of their efforts. It was strange being on my own for a change, and I was at a loss what to do at times. What could I do after all my wandering – 16,000 steps? I decided to make my way back to Exeter, and there I gave the main museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, another chance as we had found it disappointing on our first visit. Sure enough it was much better than expected. First I went up to the viewing platform to see the Roman wall…..quite impressive in its own way.I then started to explore the museum’s collections which whilst arranged chronologically really adopt the ‘highlights’ style presentation which seems common these days (Coventry, Edinburgh etc)…here is a beautiful clock face. This clock was made in 1619-21 by the Exeter craftsman Matthew Hoppin and is the oldest surviving clock in Devon. It consisted of a stone dial with a seated figure of Matthew above. The figures on the clock include Apollo, Ceres and Mars. It was actually located on one of Exeter’s poorest parish churches…no-one knows why. There is also a magnificent collection of medieval woodwork (one of the best). It is the Hems Collection of woodwork. An outstanding collection of nearly 500 pieces of medieval woodwork, collected by the Exeter master sculptor Harry Hems. The pieces were originally displayed in Hems’ workshop to inspire his craftsmen in their world-renowned work. The woodwork is intermingled with architectural fragments which are mainly fragments from historic buildings in Exeter. ‘Many of these items were salvaged during renovation or demolition of historic buildings in the post-war redevelopment of the city. The collection includes fragments of woodwork and plasterwork from the city’s Tudor houses, and fragments and casts of stonework from the Cathedral and the Guildhall.’
In one room there is the remarkable Seaton Down hoard..’The Seaton Down Hoard consists of 22,888 Roman coins and three iron ingots. It was buried in around AD 350 but why, and by whom is a mystery. Could it have been wages for workers or a merchant’s savings? Were the coins stolen or were they being hidden from the taxman? We may never know. The coins were found a few fields away from known Roman sites. One was a farmstead, the other an army watch tower. The hoard is probably connected to these in some way.’But the Roman object I found most fascinating was a tile where the person who made it used the wet clay to practice their writing….they scratched into it IABCDIIFF – the earliest recorded use of the Latin alphabet in Devon.These Roman decorations are pretty unusual too…Medusa maybe?and Devon is famous for its stone-age axes…these all from one site – the earliest stone tools made by humans – a remarkable collection of 350,000-year-old flint handaxes from the gravel pits at Broom near Axminster. Quite quite amazing. I had time left for a quick look around Exeter…here a view from Wagamama.Here the beautiful Georgian area Southernhay…. but I was headed for the river and a well deserved (I thought) drink at The Prospect Inn which I took outside and enjoyed in the shelter of the old Customs shedThe Customs House projects itself as the most prominent building on the riverfront……One last glimpse of the Cathedral….and it was time to make for the station. On the way I noticed this plaque to perhaps the greatest local historian of them all W G Hoskins someone with whom I am very familiar, having studied much of his work………..an interesting day…on my own!
Tickets yet again (we are really lucky….) to Centre Court Wimbledon on Manic Monday. But first we have to get there. At our local station Liskeard there was a goods train waiting and I was amazed to see that not only is its signage not metric but apparently goes back to the old chains and furlongs days! How many chains in a furlong? 22 yards = one chain….10 chains = one furlong….8 furlongs = one mile……easy.The thing about going to London on the train, even to Plymouth which is our nearest big city, is that you get some wonderful views. It would be nice to have a route map, and we talked to BR in the Seventies about producing them….but that’s another story.Anyway after leaving our bags at David and Jennifer’s flat we decided to use our National Art passes for the Courtauld Institute, a new one for us. All we knew was that is famous for its Impressionists paintings. the cafe was a huge disappointment as they had run out of food….how can you do that? Never mind. The gallery is arranged by period and one of the first things that greets you is this wonderful medieval marriage chest from Florence showing exquisitely painted scenes of Romantic knightly endeavours….And I did like this portrait, a young lady whom you could meet in the streets outside, painted with real feeling.Mr and Mrs Gainsborough on the wall here….and here is the Courtauld on Mrs Gainsborough…. “Family legend holds that Mr. Gainsborough painted a portrait of his Mrs. every year on their wedding anniversary. Sadly we only know of 5 portraits of Mrs. Gainsborough by her husband, but this portrait is a beautiful testament to their (sometimes fraught) relationship. When painting family, someone the artist knows well, the experience is vastly different from a commissioned portrait or working with a professional model. This painting is more informal, the technique looser than in other Gainsborough portraits.”
The start of the series of Impressionist paintings shows this Pisarro of a Lordship Lane station in a growing suburb, but curiously devoid of people….A famous painting of course is Degas’ Two Dancers On A Stage, of which the Courtauld indicates…For many years it was assumed that Degas’ depiction of two dancers on the stage did not represent any specific performance and was meant as a general representation of ballet. However recent research has shown that the costumes of the dancers, especially the one on the right, match the bell-shaped tutus and hairpieces with roses of the dancers in the Ballet des roses, a ballet section added to Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787) for performances at the Paris Opera House from 1866 onwards. The scenery in the background suggests foliage, which would have been appropriate to the garden setting of the Ballet des roses. The new expanded version of Don Giovanni was performed more than fifty times at the Paris Opéra between 1872 and 1874, so Degas’ subject is very much engaged with contemporary life. The painting was shown at the dealer Durand-Ruel’s London gallery in 1874, where it was purchased by Captain Henry Hill of Brighton.” Incidentally the bronze is also by Degas….Renoir’s La Loge or Theatre Box shows a male with binoculars but the female (very unfairly in my opinion known as fish-face!) concentrating – perhaps knowing that she is being observed…..Over to Gaugin – they keep on coming – “The two figures in the background and the ‘bird of the devil that is keeping watch’, as Gauguin called it, seem to be conspiring against the reclining woman. She lies awake, perhaps conscious of being watched. The title evokes Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, in which a poet, driven mad by the loss of his love, hears a raven repeating endlessly ‘Nevermore’. Here, Gauguin suggests the loss of innocence. He was deeply disappointed by Tahiti, where he had moved from Paris, hoping to find a primitive and unspoilt paradise. Instead, he found a society marred by corruption and colonialism.”Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe was considered shocking in its day “because his pastoral idyll made deliberate references to contemporary life. The men wore modern clothing, and the naked woman was considered ugly. As such, it seemed to mock academic ‘high’ art.”And now the painting the Institute has chosen to represent itself…Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère….. “The Folies-Bergère was Paris’s first music hall. A magazine described its atmosphere of ‘unmixed joy’ where everyone spoke ‘the language of pleasure’. It was notorious for the access it gave to prostitutes. The barmaids, according to the poet Maupassant, were ‘vendors of drink and of love’. This picture was Manet’s last major work, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882. Manet knew the Folies-Bergère well. He made preparatory sketches on site, but the final painting was executed in his studio. He set up a bar and employed one of the barmaids, Suzon, to pose behind it. Manet’s picture is unsettling. An acrobat’s feet, clad in green boots, dangle in the air. The quickly sketched crowds convey the bustle of the Folies-Bergères. In contrast, the barmaid is detached and marooned behind her bar, with her reflection displaced to the right. She stares at the viewer, but the mirror shows her facing a customer.” Strange indeed. What a hypnotic painting though….A good gallery visit wouldn’t be a good gallery visit without a bit of sex, and Van Dongen’s 1905 painting Torso, The Idol certainly gives us that. This is in fact the artist’s wife, and surely she is shown at a moment of post-coital abandon with her sexually charged posture and her flushed face. Did the artist pick up his brushes immediately after having sex? That would certainly seem to be suggested, and maybe she is just a bit embarrassed at being painted thus? An in-your-face picture that you can’t ignore.In contrast, one of Renoir’s last paintings Woman Tying Her Shoes seems very decorous indeed….One of my favourite paintings was this one – Bonnard’s the River Seine In Paris. The sky is so unusual and beautiful, and even the road in the foreground seems to reflect the overall mood. Now to a really disturbing painting one of several by Walter Sickert depicting presumably prostitutes in sleazy rooms in Camden Town. The suggestive bent leg and the prostitute’s gaze (one would think at a client at the end of the bed) convey raw sex. But the whole thing is very seedy and threatening. This reminded me that Patricia Cornwall in a recent book, the result of many years research, presented what many would say is compelling evidence that Sickert was Jack The Ripper. Indeed even more disturbing Sickert paintings show depictions of women being attacked: “One of them is tied up in a chair and being stabbed.” Another shows decapitated heads. When you see this painting, you can perhaps see where it leads. Astonishing.Max Pechstein’s Portrait of a Man has recently been shown to be of his patron an architect of the time. It all seems a little incongruous with him dressed very smartly for the Opera but in an avant-guard setting with its bright colours. Just love it.Getting even closer to modern times (it was getting near to closing) Lucien Freud’s Girl With Roses is regarded as one of his more important early paintings. Although he went on to marry Kitty, the painting aims to set us on edge with her wide eyes and the fact she is grasping a very prickly rose. Not so much love shown here.I had to include this last image of Polperro, 20 minutes drive for us. Painted in 1939 by an artist who had just fled from Prague and settled there, Kokoschka it perhaps shows his unease and includes allegorical details such as the large crab which he said represented disaster, and a woman mourning over a prostrate body. Very prophetic.Whilst staying with David and Jennifer we had a nice ramble through Acton Park, just over the road from them, and another look at the Mini-Golf course which is much the nicest we have ever seen, planted superbly with all kinds of things including mature olives and terrific water features. I really must do a five star review for them.The exercise area was pretty impressive too…On another day we took the bus out to the river and had a wonderful stroll from Hammersmith with its amazing bridge to Barnes which we really love with its village-like atmosphere……Some exceptional buildings along the way including this – part of the library of St Paul’s school….and a very good pub to finish – The Bull’s Head, famous for its jazz apparently and with its Bolan Room (Marc Bolan died in a car crash nearby….).Beautiful buildings on the river frontage in Barnes…they really are… Very near to David and Jennifer is Bedford Park which many say is the world’s first real garden suburb. We just knew it was full of nice houses, many obviously by the same architect. But we explored its history a bit and it is fascinating. Do read about it. Sir John Betjeman no less described Bedford Park “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably in the western world”. Herman Muthesius, the celebrated German critic who wrote The English House in 1904 said, “It signifies neither more nor less than the starting point of the smaller modern house, which spread from there over the whole country.”And now to the real reason we came to London for this visit. We’ve done this before but we always like to take the tube to Wimbledon (not the nearest tube station) and walk up the hill to one of many places for a nice breakfast. We chose well this time, although you can’t go wrong. It is then not too much of a walk to the venue, and what a venue. We like to look at what is going on in the outside courts first, where you get really close to the action, and realise what incredible athletes these people are. And anyway everywhere is so pretty….. it really is my best sporting day out ever even, I would go so far as to say, the best day out ever.After picking up some lunch and a drink we made our way to our seats in Centre Court, towards the back this time but what a view…and on such a hot day we were glad to be in the shade…first up was Federer who won easily…what an elegant and brilliant player, a privilege to see him..Then it was Serena Williams, also in super form and winning fairly easily….she’s big, strong and athletic (and with a lovely personality – when not on Court!).It’s quite something to examine your fellow-spectators too, not all middle-class oiks by any means.Next up the masterful Nadal, what a trier he is. Jimmy Connors was one never to let a point go by without maximum effort, but Rafa excels even him. His efforts are super-human. Won in straight sets. maybe this was all a bit too straightforward. We saw the big names but not for long. However, we had an amazing bonus because transferred to our court now was the mixed doubles match featuring Jamie Murray and his new partner Victoria Azarenko.and the match was so tight and went on for so long that they had to close the roof and finish under lights…..a wonderful experience. How exciting was this….5-1 down in the final set and led by the brilliance of Azarenko the ‘British’ partnership drew level and won. Fantastic! The atmosphere was indeed electric, a cliche but in this case so true. We couldn’t have asked for more…..Federer, Williams, Nadal and a Murray victory.On our last day having a couple of hours before my train and F.’s plane we had lunch at the V&A. It never fails.How could you eat in more impressive surroundings?And we had time to fit in things we didn’t see last time round, including the sculpture gallery….You’ve just got to love this statue of the quack doctor Joshua Ward, maybe intended for a monument in Westminster Abbey (in the event this didn’t happen). Rather touchingly the V&A says ‘His hand gesture may indicate generosity, while his bulky figure suggest prosperity’. That’s certainly one way of putting it.Everywhere you get marvellous surprises like this striking portrait at the top of the stairs. I can’t for the life of me remember who this is, and I have searched the V&A archives to no avail….But the real eye-opener came when we visited the jewellery rooms. No wonder the V&A say this is one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of jewellery in the world. Over 3,000 jewels tell the story of jewellery in Europe from ancient times to the present day. The displays use themes…and a historical timeline…here is Etruscan gold jewellery for instance…….not too dissimilar, you have to agree, from the Art Nouveau jewellery except that they are separated by 3000 years! The piece de resistance in the rooms is a collection of 154 gems bequeathed to the V&A by the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend, a cleric and poet, and a friend of Charles Dickens and later his literary executor. The stones were mounted as rings before they came to the Museum, mainly in a series of standardised gold settings, often of the coronet or galleried type. How absolutely staggering!But even the staircase to the upper level of the collections is amazing. You could spend hours in here……On the way out we peeped at the Cast Halls, closed for refurbishment, but worth a look over the balcony….…..and so to the long, long tunnel leading back to the Tube…I certainly did my 10,000 steps today….How lucky we are that our son and lovely daughter-in-law live in London. I wouldn’t like to, but I love what London has (including Jennifer and David!)……
Two night’s away for F’s birthday present and I chose Wells, England’s second smallest city (after only the City of London). We stayed at the Lord Leazes Hotel in Chard as this got extremely good write-ups. However it was strange driving on a convoluted route through a large housing estate and then down a short country lane to arrive there. As our room wasn’t ready we asked to leave our suitcase and were directed to our room. Bad mistake! With unmade bed and the detritus of someone else’s occupation it was a horrible experience, and I nearly sought out somewhere else. Anyhow off we went to Wells and our first impressions on walking from the car park into the centre were very favourable, with neat streets of old houses (above and below)……and a historic market place crammed with characterful buildings…The range of independent shops we had passed was impressive too…First stop for lunch was ASK which, as often with them, was in a lovely old building, in this case the former market hall also in the square. We used a couple of offers by virtue of the kind waitress booking us theoretically onto two separate tables…mine a glass of Aperol spritz which was delicious..the meal and service were great.Next to the Bishop’s Palace free with our HHA cards and the major reason for our visit. On entering through the imposing gatehouse……..the first you see is the moat which along with the battlements surround all fours sides of the groundsThe inner precinct is approached over a drawbridge. This is all a very impressive-looking assemblage of buildings. In the 14th century, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury continued the building of the original palace and he had an uneasy relationship with the citizens of Wells, partly because of his imposition of taxes. Thus he surrounded his palace with the crenellated walls, moat and a drawbridge. None of this was built for serious defence as the walls are flimsy and the moat shallow. But it served its purpose. Inside a harmonious range of buildings. In this view the original palace on the left, the chapel, and the ruined wall of the banqueting hall. On close inspection, the hall built by Bishop Burnell as a splendid dining and entertaining hall, was built c.1290 alongside his chapel. Although only two walls and the four corner turrets survive, it is still one of the most impressive examples of a medieval open hall; its huge size reflects the power held by Bishop Burnell as a leading statesman of his time. It is the third largest secular hall in England after Canterbury and Westminster Palace. Built in the Early English Decorative style, elements of this can be seen in the remaining wonderfully large windows…….As part of our visit we did a grounds tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and here we are walking on a section of the ramparts…then proceeding through one of the many beautiful gardens…before getting to a point where there are spectacular views of the Cathedral itself….We then looked at the three wells or springs – in Anglo-Saxon, wella -, to which Wells owes both its name and its origins….they bubble up continuously at a point which is now within the gardens. The most northerly spring was held to be a holy well and was dedicated to St Andrew. The springs are a result of the geology of the surrounding area. When it rains, water runs off the Mendip Hills and disappears into a system of underground channels and rivers. When it reaches Wells the water hits a layer of mudstone and is forced up through clefts in the rock to form what are known as the springs. On average 4 million gallons of water flow from the springs every day.use of the springs is made in the community allotment gardens which are also within the precinct….What a wonderful spot for the citizens of Wells, the gardens are quite magnificent….Inside the chapel was quite as restful as the grounds…Built by Bishop Robert Burnell at around the same time as the adjoining Great Hall in the late-thirteenth century, the windows are surprisingly large for the period and the tracery in them is an exceptionally fine example of the Early English style. The roof bosses are of naturalistic foliage and bizarre animals painted in traditional medieval colours. The Chapel was restored by Bishop George Henry Law in the nineteenth century. In the windows he used fragments of French medieval glass from churches in the Rouen area, which were destroyed in the revolutionary era.The Bishop’s Palace dates from the early-thirteenth century when Bishop Jocelin Trotman, the first Bishop to hold the title Bishop of Bath and Wells, received a crown licence to build a residence and deer park on land to the south of the Cathedral of St Andrew, and inside there are lots of reminders of how it has developed through the centuries…This piece of wood carving presumably very recent is very good….and the dining hall atmosphericI enjoyed the pictures of past Bishops including the large one of Laud who was responsible for the splendid Canterbury Quadrangle at my old college St Johns….Unsure which arms these are…more research needed, but obviously could be William Piers Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1663……On the way back to Chard from Wells we pulled in for refreshments at The King’s Arms at a beautiful little village called Charlton Horethorne…vintage Jag sports car outside, not at all like the pesky Ford influenced ones now. We wished we were staying here…never mind……Next day first port of call was the NT’s Barrington Court It was a hot one. We were there to see the gardens mainly and the various rooms and borders were exceptional. It just made me want a herbaceous border of my own all the more. Must look into this.Built in c.1550 for William Clifton, a prosperous London merchant, Barrington Court is a typical early-Elizabethan E-plan house built of honey-coloured Ham stone. The original entrance façade to the south consists of two long projecting wings enclosing a forecourt and is topped with a riot of finials and spiral chimneys. Inside, apart from 2 overmantels, one of which depicts the Judgment of Solomon, little original decoration survives. In 1907, neglected and dilapidated, Barrington was the first country house to be acquired by the National Trust, although the Trust was unable to find the funds necessary for its repair. In 1920 it was let to Colonel A.A. Lyle, who restored the house and filled it with his fine collections of oak panelling and other interior fittings. Strode House (below), built in 1674, was originally a stable block. This grand, red brick building bears the initials of William Strode II, who was keen to display evidence of his wealth by housing his horses and carriages in style. It was remodelled and restored in the 1920s for the Lyle family’s use, and they added a connecting corridor from it to the Court. So there are two houses to explore as well as the gardens.Colonel Lyle (yes, of the sugar dynasty) really did have a passion for collecting historic woodwork and other architectural features, salvaged from houses that were neglected or abandoned. The items he saved included linenfold panneling, fireplaces and surrounds, and a staircase saved from a Scottish castle and installed in the east hall. Together with his architect, E.F. Forbes, Colonel Lyle put his collection to good use during the Court’s restoration between 1920 and 1925.It is very instructive to see the before and after pictures of the long gallery, showing it when it was used as a farm building in the 1920’s and then after restoration….what a great job Lyle and his architect did.Plenty of inspiring views from the house both to the wider world and internally….Walking through the fruit and veg garden on the way back it was obvious the gardeners believe in the magic French marigolds can do!Footpaths everywhere were different and well-maintained….The white garden……..Our next step was another NT property nearby Montacute House.…..We had a drink and something to eat in the rather nice pub at the end of the village and then admired the village of Monatcute itself. Built almost entirely of the local hamstone, from the 15th century until the beginning of the 20th century it formed the heart of the estate of the Phelips family of Montacute House. First built in the 12th century the church contains monuments to the Phelips family, of Montacute House. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to exploreMontacute House is a masterpiece of Elizabethan Renaissance architecture and design. With its towering walls of glass, the glow of the ham stone and its surrounding gardens, it is certainly a place of beauty and wonder. Sir Edward Phelips was the visionary force and money behind it, and it was completed in 1601. Built by skilled craftsman using local stone under the instruction of William Arnold, master mason, the house was a statement of wealth, ambition and showmanship. Sir Edward Phelips made his fortune as a lawyer, enjoying a successful political career after entering Parliament in 1584 and becoming speaker of the House of Commons from 1601-1611. Edward played a key role in one of the trials of the century, making the opening statement for the prosecution against the notorious Guy Fawkes and his fellow gunpowder plotters. The architecture is a mix of two styles, the traditional Gothic and the new fashionable Renaissance, with ideas and influences coming from the continent. The house was built on a grand scale with turrets, obelisks, shell niches, pavilions and walls of glass. On the east front stand the Nine Worthies, statues of biblical, classical and medieval figures, including Julius Caesar and King Arthur.Sir Edward takes pride of place as you would expect in the entrance hall……Family portraits line the walls …..This remarkable C17 plasterwork frieze panel in the Great Hall tells a story. On the left, a husband is being chastised by his wife for drinking while minding the baby. On the right, a (perhaps the) man is seen “riding the Skimmington”, being carried around the village on a pole while being mocked…………In 1787 the house was occupied by a later Edward Phelips, who gave it a face lift. Remarkably he took an ornamental façade from another local 16th century house, Clifton Maybank, and added it to the west front. It meant the layout of the house could be changed. On the ground floor, rooms were enlarged and fireplaces added. The first floor was transformed by the creation of a corridor; family and visitors could have privacy and their own door. Before this, family and visitors would have to go through each other’s rooms to get from one side of the house to the other. By 1895 Montacute House was being leased to tenants, the most notable being Lord Curzon, who took the lease from 1915 till his death in 1925. Two portraits, one of the Lord and another his mistress Elinor Glyn are touchingly together. The painting of Elinor is particularly powerful…..His personal bathroom in a cupboard is quite remarkable……Four years later, Gerard Almarus Phelips felt he had no alternative but to sell the house. It eventually made its way into the possession of the National Trust, but the house was virtually bare except for the Phelips family portraits and Lord Curzon’s bath. Much of the collection in place today came via a bequest from the industrialist Sir Malcolm Stewart, ‘…for the adornment of Montacute House in order that it may re-assume its former character.’ The Long Gallery extends the full length of the house. Measuring an amazing 172 feet from end to end, making it the longest surviving Elizabethan gallery in the country, and an amazing place to be. On a rainy day no trouble getting my 7000 steps in…… And in rooms off the Gallery there are lots of portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, a great touch. Mind you most of them are by artists unknown or ‘after’ so the NPG not quite as generous as I thought first. If you’re interested in British History, there’s plenty to interest you….. and me. Here Thomas More (his hair shirt we have seen in Buckland Abbey).Here Jane Seymour, not exactly a beauty….’after Holbein’….and Katherine Parr…Here Sir William Butts ‘after Holbein’ and physician to Henry VIII. The original is in America and this is dated to Elizabeth’s reign, so it indicates an interest by Elizabethan patrons in early Tudor history…..And here Elizabeth ‘by an unknown artist’. Painted in the 1580’s this together with similar portraits copying early originals shows an increased demand for images of the Queen….It was discovered in a blackened state in 1890 built into the fireplace of a blacksmith’s cottage in Sussex. Astonishing!Essex ‘by an unknown artist’ shows him as the adventurer he was. Painted on English oak from the West Midlands…..and his co-conspirator the Earl of Southampton. they led a badly planned rebellion against Elizabeth. Both condemned to death, Southampton survived (he had been a favourite of Elizabeth).Here Sir Christopher Hatton (you’ve guessed it) ‘by an unknown artist’ . He became Lord Chancellor and was visited by the Queen on his deathbed. he is shown holding a cameo of the Queen.This portrait of James I is thought to have been presented to the builder of Montacute Sir Edward Phelips. By John de Critz.and his daughter Elizabeth for a very short while Queen of Bohemia…there is a special exhibition about ‘the Winter Queen’ in one room..
Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596-1662) was an extraordinary political and cultural figure in the networks of power that spanned seventeenth-century Europe. Born in Scotland, she was the goddaughter of Elizabeth I, sister of Charles I and grandmother of George I.
This special display in Room 4 exploring Elizabeth’s life and portraits has been developed by the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery, in partnership with the University of Bristol, as part of the National Trust’s year of events on ‘Women and Power’.
Strikingly beautiful and highly educated, at sixteen Elizabeth was married to a German count, Frederick, Elector Palatine. Ruling from Heidelberg, the Protestant couple were drawn into the religious wars that raged across Christian Europe when Frederick was offered, and accepted, the crown of Bohemia. After little more than a year, they were expelled from Prague, the capital of Bohemia, and their German dominions by Catholic forces and forced to flee to The Netherlands where they settled in The Hague.
Elizabeth spent the rest of her life campaigning for the restitution of the German lands of the Palatinate, first to her husband, and then to her children. Hundreds of her letters survive, many written in code. Initially described in scorn as the ‘Winter Queen’ because her reign in Bohemia had lasted only a single winter, the term was adopted by her supporters as a sign of affectionate respect.
Elizabeth became a symbol of militant Protestantism in Europe whose supporters proclaimed allegiance to her as ‘Queen of Hearts’ and her descendants played a crucial role in the continuity of Protestant rule in Britain. Her grandson, the eldest son of her youngest daughter Sophia, was invited to take the British throne as George I after the Stuart line ended with the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
This display was inspired by the important early seventeenth-century bed associated with Elizabeth’s marriage that is on permanent display in the Crimson Bedroom at Montacute House. The ornate carved headboard includes the Royal Arms of James I, flanked by the Prince of Wales escutcheon and the arms of the Elector Palatine. Sir Edward Phelips, the builder of Montacute House, was closely associated with the Stuart royal family and paid for a masque written in celebration of Elizabeth’s marriage in 1613.
and her son, one of my favourites, the dashing and scholarly Prince Rupert…A portrait you’ll agree absolutely full of character ‘by an unknown artist’.Now this which I like also for its character is by Joshua Reynolds but in this case of an unknown sitter!Outside the weather was still sweltering…so off we went to Lyme Regis…it could well be called a genteel watering hole, and whereas I dislike gravel beaches, the pebbles on this beach are lovely although, as my research reveals, imported!some very quirky houses right on the front…and some nice looking pubs which I like to see……On our last day we decided to return to Wells as we had liked it so much and visit the Cathedral this time. We parked near Waitrose and had a lovely walk in again.It’s a pity we didn’t have time to visit St Cuthbert’s as it is often mistaken for the cathedral and a very impressive Grade I church….We visited the cathedral first for a general look around…and then for an hour’s guided tour. Here the famous West front of course…… and here the cloisters..and the unique scissor arches………. The scissor arches, which often visitors believe to be later, modern additions were constructed from 1338-48 as an engineering solution to a very real problem. By 1313 a high tower topped by a lead covered wooden spire had been constructed but as the foundations were not stable large cracks began to appear in the tower structure. In fear of a total collapse, several attempts at internal strengthening and buttressing were made, until the famous ‘scissor arches’ were put in place by master mason William Joy as a final solution.The Stations of The Cross around the nave were beautiful, but it seems very Catholic?
“The Stations of the Cross is a very old devotion; it may well originate in the desire of Christians to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and be in the place where Jesus went to his death. Most Catholic churches nowadays will have ‘stations’ (the name means ‘stopping-places’), in the form of fourteen pictures or sculptures or engravings, or sometimes simple crosses, to allow Christians to pause (‘stop’) and enter reflectively into those last moments of Jesus’s journey of love, and to pray by imagining themselves in Jerusalem with him. Over the centuries the number and format of this devotion has changed a good deal, but it has had its present form since the 15th Century.”
Interesting monuments as you would expect….here Bishop Still..The Georgians in their desire to show ecstasy in the translation to Heaven often sculpted extremely sexy figures……dating from 1703 this figure is supposed to be Bishop Stiller’s mourning daughter looking up at urns containing her two dead parents, who were killed when a chimney stack collapsed on them….These well-worn steps are probably some of the most famous there are…often called the ‘sea of steps’…….They lead to the chapter house…an amazing piece of architecture…Intricate sculpture had developed considerably since the early Gothic period and the Chapter House is a triumph of the decorated style. Delicate ball-flower surrounds each window arch and the vault bosses have beautiful leaf designs. Seats round the outer walls give places to more than forty prebendaries or canons, to meet together and discuss the affairs of the cathedral……. Legal proceedings were also carried out from time to time. Each seat is marked with headstops under the canopies and in all the corners there are humorous and mischievous faces…..here one sticking out his tongue at the Dean’s place directly opposite….‘The Jesse Window at Wells Cathedral is one of the most splendid examples of 14th century stained glass in Europe. It dates from about 1340 and, considering its age, is still remarkably intact. Fortunately, the window has survived the vicissitudes of time and British history (narrowly escaping destruction during the English Civil War) and so what we see today is basically how medieval glaziers designed and created it and how our ancestors viewed it before us.’The Choir is as one might expect splendid….and we managed to squeeze in a brief look around the Library with its chained books..The tour guide we had was very knowledgeable about architecture, giving us an easily understandable explanation of the move in the cathedral from Gothic or ‘French Style’ through Decorated to Perpendicular. Great to have a good guide….now outside I was anxious to see Vicar’s Close. Vicars’ Close was built over 650 years ago to house the Vicars Choral and it has since been continuously inhabited by their successors. Vicars’ Close is unique; physically connected to Wells Cathedral and the most complete example of a medieval Close in the UK. It embodies an internationally renowned musical heritage. A privilege to see it…On the way back to the car we passed through a couple of streets filled with Georgian architecture….and by chance the memorial to Harry PatchThe inscription says it all…….Somerset is a very large county with a lot going for it, but we saw some of the very best during our visit…..
To celebrate Katherine’s new position as Prof at the University of Edinburgh and the family’s acquisition of a new house, another visit to Edinburgh was called for. The first thing they had which was new was a useable garden….space for Aiisha to ride about in (when she wasn’t using the new climbing frame). Plenty of space for clothes drying too!Grandma and Aiisha were soon hard at work clearing up after a blowy day……But we were soon all out and about in beautiful Edinburgh…and waiting for the bus which would take us to Almond Valley Discovery Centre where we all had amazing fun…..This place had no end of surprises including a ‘Musical Wood’ with loads of large instruments to play…..
and very well-looked after animals of all kinds…here some rheas guarding lots of very large eggs (the male does most of the incubation….there’s sexual equality for you)……and when we went on the train journey around the grounds we saw lots more and with a knowledgeable commentary….We didn’t miss the lamb feeding…..this must be easy…….in fact the lambs were so greedy it was difficult to maintain hold of the bottles….….more adventures before we left. We all thoroughly enjoyed the day and I can’t recommend this place highly enough…..do go there if you get chance.Another day involved a visit to the National Museum, always a treat….When Grandad and Grandma were left alone with Aiisha (a rare night out for Katherine and Nasar…very rare, they must do it more often) it involved dressing up…and bed-time…that must be easypeasy with all our experience…not in bed yet…..…..and teeth to brush….Phewww…….Another day, and first a scoot across The Meadows…this hill looks tough….…and a bus to Dalkeith Country Park a real favourite…Dalkeith Palace is currently home to the University of Wisconsin…..First, the cage drop to negotiate, suspended from a bridge over the gorge…I wouldn’t do it…….Then more fun…….for children and Mums….Lovely grounds to admire…and a brilliant restaurant…some people are enjoying their meal……Just time for a climb on the way home…An adult theme today with a visit to Dalmeny House Dalmeny House was completed in 1817 and sits in rolling parkland to the West of Edinburgh. With spectacular views overlooking the Firth of Forth, the house is home to The 7th Earl and Countess of Rosebery, of whom more later. The House contains two intermingled collections of art and objects: the Rosebery and Rothschild collections. Meticulously curated by Lady Rosebery.
“The Rosebery Collection incorporates both the pieces collected by the earlier Earls of Rosebery for Barnbougle Castle and the newly-built Dalmeny House and those assembled by the 5th Earl of Rosebery. This collection of pictures and furniture includes fine views of the Estate and Edinburgh by some of the best-known Scottish painters. It also includes furniture made for the house and the family portraits in the Hall, Library and Dining Room. The 5th Earl and his wife, Hannah de Rothschild, continued to build on the astounding collection of art and fine furniture which her father, Baron Meyer de Rothschild, had begun. Their letters and diaries reveal a great happiness in seeking out new treasures together.
Baron Meyer de Rothschild, Nathan’s third son, built Mentmore Towers, which he furnished with a dazzling collection of art and objects dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was a time when the misfortunes of the variousEuropean royal families had released on to the market a great number of pieces of the highest quality. Baron Meyer and his agents were quick to acquire many masterworks of decorative art from the previous three centuries.
Baron Mayer had only one child, Hannah, to whom Mentmore was left after he and his wife died in 1874 and 1875. Hannah married the 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1878, bringing this wonderful collection into the Rosebery family. The two continued to add to the collection until Hannah’s tragically early death in 1890. At the death of the 6th Earl of Rosebery in 1974, it became necessary to sell Mentmore Towers and most of its contents to pay death duties. Many of the best objects, however, including the contents of the Drawing Room and the porcelain, were brought up to Dalmeny House to complement the Rosebery collection already there.” The drawing room has particularly fine French furniture
The 5th Earl was absolutely smitten with Napoleon and started to collect whatever artefacts he could, eventually setting up a special room for his collection -the most important outside France…..He He made some major coups, including David’s portrait of Napoleon (now in the Smithsonian in Washington) and Napoleon’s superb travelling library. To them he added the cushion on which Napoleon’s head had rested on his death bed, a desk and chair and even the shutters of his bedroom from Longwood on St Helena, his throne as First Consul, a magnificent shaving stand from the Palace of Compiègne, and some outstanding portraits of Napoleon and members of his family by Appiani, Lefebvre, Girodet and Wicar, By way of contrast, it also contains the ingenious collapsible campaign chair of the Emperor’s most redoubtable opponent, the Duke of Wellington. After the interesting tour of the house with the knowlegeable guide we adjourned to the dining room for tea and cake and there had a lovely chat to the Countess (the Earl had already popped in for a caramel slice). There seem to be very few visitors, so she is obviously keen to make the best impression. The House desrves a lot more. We had already looked around the grounds……a most enjoyable day yet again.A highlight of our visit was a family outing on the new Waverley rail line, the longest new stretch of domestic railway built in the UK in over a century. It terminates at Abbotsford, the Borders home of Sir Walter Scott…..Just an hour’s ride from Edinburgh through beautiful countryside……Our first sight of the house itself was from the restaurant in the Visitor Centre, a beautiful modern building with, as well as the restaurant, an excellent museum and shop.To get to the entrance we walked through the beautiful gardens including the spectacular walled garden…For the house we chose to have the audio guide with a commentary by Sir Walter himself. This was exemplary and chock full of interest. Our starting point in the Hall gave us a good idea of what to expect…decoration that is way over the top but at the same time rather homely…..a home you might be glad to visit (as many famous people did). Plenty of places to admire the view….a library which is quite obviously the heart of the home….and lots to admire including the books themselves, a fascinating collection as you would expect…….even the celing and light were spectacular……There wasn’t a single room that was not a sheer delight….including rather surprisingly a rather large armouryThe one restrained room was the dining room re-decorated by his French wife after his death….I mentioned the famous people who came to call – one was JMW Turner with whom he had a very up and down relationship. Anyway great to see Turner’s palette and travelling case….On the way out a mounting stone in the guise of a favourite Scott dog, proved a hit with some….On the way back after passing through the walled garden again we examined some Roman plaques. These had been plucked by Scott himself from a site on the Roman wall…..those were the days!Without a doubt one of the most interesting houses I have visited. I would love to go again…… We had as usual a lovely time in Edinburgh and it was fantastic to see Katherine and Nasar’s new house taking shape, only a very few finishing touches needed including stair carpet……..but after all the angst in moving, it’s definitely a house to be happy in……
A double trip – to friends Julia and Alan in Northumberland and our family in Edinburgh. First, the delights of staying at Julia and Alan’s house, near Morpeth. A lovely house in the middle of beautiful countryside with gardens which are a sheer pleasure to be in. And weren’t we lucky with the weather….allowing a memorable breakfast outside on one occasion….Mind you one windy day showed what it can be like………
Lots of interest for us on returning to Northumberland where we lived for a few years. Our first outing was to the coast – equally as spectacular as here in Cornwall. Craster was not that far away and we did indeed call at the famous Robson’s kipper smokehouse...and, after a couple of purchases, explored the small harbour and then did the walk to Dunstanburgh Castle which is just under two miles away along the shore…and what a magnificent ruin it is with a location and history to match. It was built originally by Thomas of Lancaster who led two rebellions against Edward II and was executed for his pains. It was then owned by Thomas of Lancaster and later played an eventful role in the Wars of The Roses. After a lovely lunch in The Jolly Fisherman we moved on to one of my favourite small towns Warkworth on the pretty River Coquet. Warkworth has its own equally spectacular castle crowning a hilltop rising steeply above the river and it was owned most famously by the Percies the great landowners of Northern England. We didn’t have time to visit, but enjoyed a walk along its forbidding perimeter.On our way back to the car we paused to look at the hugely interesting church of St Lawrence…best to read the incomparable Simon Jenkins on its history. It is the largest and most complete Norman church to have survived in Northumberland. Its bell tower noticeably leans several degrees from the perpendicular (not entirely clear from my pic).
Last stop Amble, still a fishing port but on the up from its previous decline.It was great to see some imaginative modern housing on the quayside, flats with views of the harbour, the Coquet, and up the coast to Warkworth. Why can’t more modern housing show just a little imagination?Next day we had a trip out to nearby Brinkburn Priory which we had never visited in all our time in Northumberland (what were we doing?). A path leads from the EH car park steeply down to the Priory which is set picturesquely in a bend of the Coquet. It looks as if some of the stone was quarried locally which is possibly one reason for its location. Our first glimpse shows another reason..it is really hidden away and a less likely target therefore for marauding Scots and all the rest….It was founded by William Bertram, Baron of Mitford, in the reign of Henry I as an Augustinian priory. The exact date is not known but cannot have been later than 1135, as Henry died that year. About 1180 or so, Brinkburn became an independent house, and the building of the monastic church was commenced. The architectural style has been described as “transitional” (i.e. between Norman and Gothic). Although the Priory acquired lands in Northumberland and Durham over the years it was never particularly wealthy. Little is known of the early history of the priory, although it is known that it survived some difficult times. In fact, as late as 1419 it was raided and robbed. Brinkburn Priory was dissolved in 1536 after Parliament enacted the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act. The “lesser monasteries” were those with an income of less than £200 per annum, and Brinkburn fell into this category as in 1535 the priory’s value had been recorded as £69 in the Valor Ecclesiasticus. After the dissolution the estate was mainly owned by the Fenwick family and in the late 16th century they built a manor house on the ruins of the Priory buildings and adjacent to the Priory Church. Services continued to be held at Brinkburn and the church was retained in a fair state of repair till the end of the 16th century. In 1602 it was reported to be in a state of decay, and at some point before 1700 the roof had collapsed and regular services were abandoned. In the 1750s Thomas Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland, tried to effect repairs to the ruin. Although there was considerable support for the project, work was called off after a dispute between the owner William Fenwick and the Vicar of Felton. In the 19th century the Cadogan family, owners of Brinkburn, revived the plans for the restoration of the church and work began in 1858. The roof was completed in the space of a year, and the stained glass windows had been inserted by 1864. The church, however, was not furnished until 1868. Brinkburn Priory today is a sympathetic 19th-century restoration of the mediæval original. The tombstone of Prior William, Bishop of Durham (died 1484) was found during the reconstruction, as was the original altar stone with five crosses. The latter is still preserved along with an ancient font. As you approach, the Norman doorway is impressive…..it comprises a roundheaded arch displaying typical late-Norman ornament, such as zig-zags and dog-tooth mouldings, underneath a gable decorated with an Early English blind arcade of three pointed and trefoiled arches. the interior is impressive too…..and outside there remain traces of the vaulted vestibule leading to the chapter house. On the south and west walls of the nave, blind arcading indicates that these were the back walls of other structures, most likely of the covered walk that would have extended round the edges of the cloister garth. Almost adjacent to the priory is the now deserted manor house. It is the C13 south range of the Priory conventual buildings converted into a house for the Fenwick family in the later C16. Remodelled in 1810 for Richard Hodgson there were also alterations and major extensions 1830-37 by John Dobson the most famous architect in Northern England for William Hodgson Cadogan. What a lovely house it must have been to live in and there are throughout traces of its more ancient heritage, as here.Brinkburn is an English Heritage property, and Julia and Alan belong to EH. The very nice and ultra-enthusiastic guide in the entrance hut has made us consider whether to replace our NT membership next year with EH. We shall see.
Our next trip out was along the Tyne Valley to Corbridge where I used to live for a period. What a lovely town it has become, much improved and not over-the-top touristy. We parked by the river, a beautiful spot as you can see, and then wandered up to look at the houses and shops and have lunch at the well-named Corbridge Larder.As always we looked in estate agents windows and decided it would be an exceptionally nice place to live (if we could afford it!), and we had a good chat with the bookshop owners who had just moved premises to a very characterful building near the church. They had been in touch with the new owners of both Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books which was nice to know. Great shop, do visit it if in the area. Need to jazz up their website though…Forum Books. Next stop somewhere where I have always wanted to visit Vindolanda. What an exceptional place this is and what a treat to visit. Where to start? First of all it is in a lovely setting set down in a bowl amongst the hills and surprisingly sheltered. And then its sheer scale is immense.As we walked through the site we were astonished at what has been revealed. Here is the main road going through the vicus, the village which supported the fort with workshops, pubs, baths and so on…..and a Junior class having a practical lesson in Roman history, inspiring we hope…… When I say fort I should correctly say forts for there were at least 8 successive forts of which several were occupied before Hadrian’s Wall was even built. Regiments from modern Belgium and Holland were garrisoned here. The visible stone fort dates to the early third century and the impressive remains include the fort walls, the headquarters building and the commander’s house. And of course we moderns never fail to be astounded by the standard of living the Romans expected with their central heating systems which even ran up cavities in the walls as well as being underfloor.Baths were absolutely essential too , and that involved a plentiful supply of cold and hot water. The local landscape must have been denuded of trees and heather to keep this lot going, and fuel of one kind and another brought in on convoys of wagons.Wanting to cram in as much an experience as possible in an afternoon (you could easily spend a few days here) we fairly quickly homed in on the museum where major finds from the site are displayed imaginatively. A wall of leather shoes greets you…..including the only actual pair found….Then we see the weapons….the tools….examples of keys…..an astonishing collection of coins….examples of stonemasons work…much needed people stonemasons as the forts were continually demolished and re-built…….dining sets….and table ware…a beautifully decorated glass bowl….more tools…and even a toilet seat would you believe……but of course what we really wanted to see were the letters…….These are without doubt the most amazing finds from the site – thousands of writing tablets recording daily life – letters from soldiers asking for socks and underwear, a birthday party invitation to the fort commander’s wife, requests for payment, lists of goods supplied and troop deployments. No wonder the Vindolanda writing tablets were voted Britain’s ‘Top Treasure’…….It’s a pity in many ways that the best of the letters and the bulk of them are in London at the BM, yet another example of cultural autocracy…The whole museum was extremely well-designed and amazed at every turn and corner…on the way out there were reconstructions of the study rooms of early archaeologists on site….and an extremely pleasant cafe with outside eating area…..but after some quick refreshment we weren’t finished yet…..more houses to see inside the fort and, what was really interesting a talk with one of the very enthusiastic archaeologists working on a new area…and, to finish, a climb up the reproduction Roman tower…On the way back Alan was good enough to stop roadside to enable me to get a pic of the famous nearby sycamore……”The Sycamore Gap tree is one of most photographed in the country. It stands in a dramatic dip in Hadrian’s Wall in the Northumberland National Park. In late 2016 it took the crown for English Tree of the Year in the Woodland Trust’s awards.” The 1991 film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, starring Kevin Costner, was filmed here. The tree has been known as The Robin Hood Tree ever since! What a wonderful day………..Whilst on things Roman, I must mention the carved head that Alan found in the wall of their previous house…could be Roman? And I am most grateful that Alan gave me one of his collection of Roman coins…from the time of the Emperor Maxentius whom I will research…..
Next, a trip to Alnwick. We found a lovely place for a mid-morning tea The Cookie Jar a newly-opened boutique hotel…and a lovely terrace where we whiled away half-an-hour..…before having a look round Alnwick itself….plenty of nice stone buildings but plenty of dilapidation as well……..as Julia says, the Duke is one of the wealthiest men around (fifth largest landowner in the UK), so you would think he would do more to support the town…must write to him.The famous Percy Lion here on top of a monument is just outside Barter Books a truly fascinating place to visit, people come from all over the world here. It sits in the old Alnwick station where you can read newspapers in front of the coal fire in winter, plus it has its own railway, always an amusement to children and men! I did like the notice in the window of the antique shop next door….you wouldn’t find that very often! Must send to my friend Malcolm….he likes that sort of thing.And naturally we visited Alnwick Castle. As usual, no photography allowed inside. In one of the courtyards a pack of children were being taught how to fly broomsticks (very Harry Potter). They were still at it when we came out of the castle. Alnwick Castle has been dubbed the ‘Windsor of the North,’ and is the second largest inhabited castle in the country, and has been home to the Duke of Northumberland’s family, the Percys, for over 700 years.The interior is as you would expect magnificent, Italianate, over-the-top, but I must say if you want good china and tableware go to No.I London……16.000 books in the Library, my favourite room, of which the Duke reports himself to have read 14,000 (not in full I think….).
Another day, another thing I had always wanted to do – which was view the Pitmen Paintings at Woodhorn Colliery. Another first…I had never visited a coal mine although F. has actually been underground, and I believe my children did as schoolchildren. No underground today but nevertheless a wonderful experience. First we looked around the site itself, today in its pristine glory…..most unlike when in operation! ‘For more than 80 years Woodhorn was a coal mine. Work to sink the first shaft began in 1894 and the first coal was brought to the surface in 1898. At its peak almost 2,000 men worked at the pit and 600,000 tons of coal was produced each year. Production stopped in 1981 but the shafts continued to be used for neighbouring Ashington Colliery until 1986. It began its life as a museum in 1989 and following major redevelopment, reopened in October 2006. Today, the yellow Ashington brick buildings have protected, listed status. The site is recognised as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and it is the best surviving example of a late 19th/early 20th century colliery in the North East tradition.’ We visited the cage shop, winding houses, the fan house, engine house and more….and didn’t forget the awful toll this grim industry could sometimes reap………After lunch in The Cutter, a dramatic building honouring the massive cutting machines used in the mine’s more recent history…..we moved on to the fascinating museum…complete with terrific audio-visual presentations, mock-ups, and records of everyday life for the miners and their families…..one of the most evocative information boards showed all the pits that closed in roughly a ten-year period…absolutely incredible. Recognising that the industry had had its day, had very bad working conditions etc etc it is still humbling to think of the communities that were wrecked, whole societies shattered, a way of life gone for ever. As ever pluses and minuses…..On then to the permanent exhibition of the Pitmen’s Paintings. This unique collection of more than 80 paintings was compiled by the original members of The Group themselves over many years. They felt the paintings represented the very best of their work. The Group largely made up of coal miners, first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves. The very first meeting was luckily recorded in paint..I just picked some personal highlights to photograph, but really considering who they were and what they did each painting was worthy of respect..There was also a temporary exhibition of some of the paintings still in private hands….and miscellania…..and a great exhibition of contemporary paintings of Ashington by North East painter Narbi Price …….On the way back from Scotland, and before catching our plane from Newcastle, we called in briefly to Julia and Alan’s again and had a delightful walk around Bolam Lake (and Alan and I examined the old hill fort).I loved this armchair and settee…..looks as though it has just been fly-tipped, whereas it is actually made out of a fallen tree…..and this bench inscription rings true…..A quick visit to Bolam Church totally isolated now apart from the next-door vicarage. If of interest do read an excellent archaeological survey which is absolutely fascinating.……….the tower here is a rare example of Saxon work which made it a privilege to see. The narrow slits may or may not indicate it had a defensive use – commentators can’t agree.and the doorway is obviously Norman….in fact it seems the church is what is called a Saxon-Norman overlap….Great records for this church….it’s always remarkable to see this sort of heritage, particularly if you’re the current vicar…..at the beginning of the 14th century, came the addition of the South Chapel or Shortflatt aisle, presumably built as a chantry for the De Reymes family of Shortflatt, the mid-14th century effigy of Sir Robert still surviving. Most impressive. To see the sort of times Robert lived in see a Google Books entry.
A fantastic visit to Northumberland. Thanks to Julia and Alan for making it so worthwhile…..
Until 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 ‘Gallows 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.
Well, 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 anything 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.
Some 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 persevered 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.
A 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.
For 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). Our destination was Jamie’s Fifteen at Watergate Bay. During the journey we had a bird’s eye view of some pretty houses………beautiful countrysideand, of course, some great beaches…until 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…especially when we had ensconced ourselves at the bar….with a bottle of good iced Rose..On 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.Our 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.The 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.Sated 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…….. and with a large number of learner surfers…….once we got away from the crowds…we had the beach literally to ourselves….incredible.All we had to do then was lay on the grass (top) and wait for our bus(es) home….a lovely, lovely day.