FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Castle Howard and the Treasurer’s House

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 12, 2017

A short stay in Yorkshire gave us the opportunity to spend our Saturday visiting two very different historic sites – Castle Howard and the Treasurer’s House – each with their own fascinating preservation stories.

Castle Howard

The three hundred year old Castle Howard is a remarkable survivor. In November 1940 the house was ravaged by a terrible fire that destroyed 20 of the finest rooms, its iconic dome and many of its artistic treasures. A third of the building was left open to the skies. It could easily have started the building on a spiral of decline but instead the family opened the house to the public and set course on a steady programme of restoration that has allowed this stately home to reclaim its place among the treasure houses of England.

Early successes included the restoration of the Temple of the Four Winds in 1955, the reconstruction of the dome in 1961 and the recreation of Pellegrini’s Fall of Phaeton on the underside of the dome in 1962. The list of works needed to keep this place in good shape must be daunting, including many elements far from the house that many visitors will have missed such as the Monument to the 7th Earl of Carlisle and the castellated walls half-way up the stray (we only half-glimpsed these from the bus taking us back to York).

One of the most intriguing elements of the house today are the derelict interiors left over from the fire of the 1940s. The film company shooting the most recent Brideshead film saw an opportunity to create film sets in these spaces to ‘restore’ the garden hall and the high saloon. The guides in the rooms were keen to stress that everything was not as it seemed the moment we stepped inside, pointing out the most illusory elements and techniques used to achieve the effect of aging. It was certainly effective and gave us a stronger sense of what has been lost here.

The continuing appeal of the restored house and grounds can be judged in the massive increase in visitor numbers over the past decade or so, with 270,680 visitors in 2016, up from 171,601 in 2004 (according to the figures published by Association of Leading Visitor Attractions). Let’s hope this stays on its upward track, helping to contribute to the funds needed to keep up the ongoing restoration of the estate.

The Treasurer’s House

Our second stop, on our return to York, was the Treasurer’s House. This building has the distinction of being the first property gifted to the National Trust, albeit with the stipulation that it should be presented exactly as its owner specified.

You might not think this a problem but that owner, wealthy industrialist Frank Green, had an interesting perspective on historical accuracy which saw him conduct substantial architectural re-arrangement and inauthentic decoration to achieve his vision of how he thought the house must have been. This included the movement of fireplaces, re-positioning walls and the complete removal of one floor! The exacting degree to which this presentation was specified can be seen in the metal studs used to mark out the exact positions of furniture on the floor.

Through the mid-twentieth century the house was presented with more historically accurate interior decoration, but in the late 1990s the National Trust decided that the honourable course of action would be to return the house to the way Frank Green intended it to be seen. In a funny way this makes it all the more fascinating as you enter each room and discover how it had been altered to fit Frank Green’s vision for the house (assisted by the very knowledgeable guides and photographs showing the rooms before and after alteration).

The property has seen more royal visits than you might expect – Edward VII, his wife Alexandra and daughter Victoria stayed here and the rooms given names to permanently record this. However, the rooms were not preserved exactly as they has been arranged for their stay with much grander beds and furniture added afterwards. You can’t take anything at face value in this place!

We arrived fairly late in the day so we didn’t get the opportunity to try the hard-hat tours of the basement (where the famous sighting of an entire legion of ghostly roman soldiers occurred) or the rooftop walks. Maybe next time…

Practicalities

We took the direct 181 bus from York (leaving from stop RM in Station Avenue, a short walk down the road from York Station) to Castle Howard. Admission to the house and gardens came to £18.95 (we were able to take advantage of a 2 for 1 voucher from Treasure Houses of England given to us at Hatfield House.

The 181 bus route is operated by Stephensons of Easingwold and at the time of our trip a return ticket came to £10 per adult for the hour long journey. It’s only a single decker bus (presumably because it has to pass under a low arch on its way down the ceremonial southern approach, known as ‘The Stray’) but just about everyone got a seat on a busy summer Saturday, suggesting that they’ve got this just about right. Three buses run out and back each day between Monday and Friday, with a fourth added on Saturdays. Separate services are available on Sundays and Bank Holidays between 14th April and 24th September 2017.

The Treasurer’s House is located in the centre of York, just around the corner from York Minster. The garden is free to enter whenever the house is open (it’s a lovely space in its own right). Admission to the house currently costs £8.50 for an adult (including gift aid) but our entry was covered by membership of the National Trust.

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A tale of two taxis

Posted in England, Stratford-upon-Avon by folkestonejack on August 6, 2017

The idea of a relaxing and stress free weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon with the opportunity to visit two fascinating National Trust sites sounded great in principle, yet proved to be anything but. Instead, it became memorable for two hours waiting for rail replacement taxis instead!

Baddesley Clinton – one of two NT properties we visited this weekend

It used to be relatively easy to catch a through train from London Marylebone to Stratford-upon-Avon at the weekend, but since the new route to Oxford Parkway started in October 2015 most of these have been reduced to connect with local services. At present this requires a switch to a London Midland service at Dorridge with a 6 minute connection.

Our train reached Dorridge at precisely the same time as our connecting train was due to leave. It stayed on the platform just long enough for the fastest among us to race over the footbridge, only setting off the moment they reached the doors! The thirty or so passengers left behind trooped in to the ticket office to discover that Chiltern Railways would be laying on replacement taxis. Our relief was short lived. The slowly unfolding saga of the taxi arrivals ensured that we were still waiting when the next train appeared – one hour later!

Incredibly, the next day delivered yet more rail replacement taxis after our train to Hatton (for Lapworth) was cancelled. In a ludicrous sequence of events our taxi took us as far as the outskirts of Stratford upon Avon before we discovered that the taxi firm would only allow our driver to take us in the wrong direction to a connection for London that we didn’t want or need! This madness was only resolved after our taxi returned to our starting point and the incredibly helpful station master intervened.

To say that we were relieved when we finally reached Packwood House, would be a massive understatement. Thankfully, the calming beauty of the gardens was the perfect antidote to the stresses of the morning.

Our first stop in Lapworth – Packwood House

Packwood House is an interesting beast – a Tudor manor house remodelled by Graham Baron Ash in the 1920s-30s to create a much grander country house, financed by a family business in the galvanised steel industry. It’s such an effective transformation that it is not always immediately apparent when you step into new territory – such as with the Great Hall converted from a barn in 1927 and the long gallery from 1932 that connects this to the main house. Much of the furniture, fittings and tapestries that look so at home here were actually rescued from country houses facing destruction or financial ruin (including many from a sale at Baddesley Clinton in the 1930s).

The house is presented as it was left by Baron Ash in 1941, reflecting the way he wanted it to be seen rather than how it had appeared during his time living in the house. Nevertheless, it still comes across as an eminently comfortable country house unlike many that I have visited. Queen Mary must have had the same opinion on a visit in 1927, remarking on the comforts of this bachelor pad. This extends to the rather delightful gardens that surround the property, including a rather extraordinary Yew garden that dates back 350 years (supposedly symbolising the Sermon on the Mount!).

The moated manor house at Baddesley Clinton

The second National Trust property we visited was the picturesque moated manor house at Baddesley Clinton. This building is a wonderful blend of styles that reflects its construction in phases during the 15th and 16th centuries followed by major remodelling in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was the home of the Ferrers, a family of Catholic recusants, for thirteen generations – an impressive feat in the turbulent history of this island.

There is plenty to take in on a wander through the house and plenty of wonderful stories to bring it to life, from tales of fishing in the moat from bedroom windows to the long-lasting stain of blood in the library supposedly from the murder of a priest in the late 15th century (which it transpires was actually animal blood, topped up by a member of the family to keep up the story!). The elaborate decoration in the great hall and in Henry Ferrers’ bedroom were highlights of the free flow tour, but the room I found the most satisfying was the library – it managed to blend the old with a livable quality and looked to have been left much as its last owner left it.

One of the most interesting elements of the house is a chamber below the house used to hide Catholic priests from the priest hunters of the late 16th century – a brave move at a time when this action would have brought a charge of treason. This ‘priest hole’ was accessed through the shaft running from the privy on the upper floor and was large enough to have hidden nine priests during a four hour long search in October 1591. In more recent times a view of the hole was cut-through the kitchen floor for the benefit of visitors.

It was a lovely day out, despite the slight rocky start, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit to both properties. If I had to choose just one I think the rich history of Baddesley Clinton would win out for me.

Practicalities

The plan for our weekend was simple enough – an afternoon and evening show at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stratford upon Avon base on the Saturday followed by a sightseeing trip to Lapworth on the Sunday.

The execution of this plan showed up its weaknesses! Under the current timetable there are only two trains that you can realistically catch from Stratford upon Avon on a Sunday to reach Lapworth with a reasonable journey time. In both cases this involves a change of trains at Hatton. The first of these options, at 9.38 gets you to Lapworth at 10.06 and the second at 12.19 gets you to Lapworth at 12.49. The only alternatives to these involve 1.5 to 2 hour trips. If you want to see both National Trust properties at Lapworth on a Sunday outing from Stratford upon Avon the 9.38 train is your only option.

Summer colours at Packwood

The walk from Lapworth station to Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton takes around half an hour apiece, whilst our walk between the two properties took us around 1 hour and 15 minutes with one hobbling walker! I’m not sure if we took the quickest route between the two properties but it was certainly a pleasant walk that was mostly covered by public footpaths (including a stretch along the Grand Union Canal between Rising Lane and the Old Warwick Road). The footpaths were reassuringly well marked and maintained, though you do need to keep an eye out for the small square markers and ideally have an OS map to hand. If you feel up to it, there is a longer seven mile circular walk connecting the two properties.

Our admission fees were covered by our National Trust membership but at each property you are allocated a slot to visit the house. If you visit on a busy day, as we seemed to have done, you may find yourself with a bit of a wait before you can enter the houses. We were lucky here – our entrance slot was perfect to give us enough time for a visit before we had to head back to the station to get our train home. If we had arrived any later we may well have had to admire the building without being able to go in!

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Soaked on the Solent

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on August 1, 2017

The news that the US Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft carrier George H W Bush was due to arrive in Portsmouth at the end of the week generated a ripple of excitement in the local and online communities. Although warships are a familiar sight here it’s not that often that the opportunity arises to see one of the world’s largest aircraft carriers around these shores.

I thought I would come down for a daytrip and see if I could improve on the photo I took of the same ship on a rather grey day on the Isle of Wight in 2011. Tickets for the two hour cruises offered by the Gosport Ferry company to see the carrier, moored in Stokes Bay, sold out very quickly.

USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) moored at Stokes Bay, as seen during a short-lived break from the rain in late afternoon

The slot I picked had just about the worst weather of the weekend with heavy rain for most of the time and only occasional breaks. We must have looked like a sightseeing boat destined for the Niagara Falls rather than Stokes Bay with everyone wrapped up in plastic and waterproof layers (still knowing that this would be insuffient, as the soggy remains of my rucksack all too sadly prove!).

Needless to say, my photographs were pretty terrible (far worse than last time) but it was still good to see around the warship from close up (at least, as near as you could get with a strictly enforced exclusion zone). From the water it looked like a floating car park with so many of its fixed wing jets and helicopters on deck. Such a pity the forecast was so accurate this time!

The ferry trip may not have been the success that I had hoped for but I did have a good day, catching the arrival of the destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) and getting to visit the submarine museum at Gosport.

USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) enters Portsmouth Harbour in mid-morning

I did not know anything about the attractions at the submarine museum and was quite simply astonished to see and be able to go inside the first submarine commissioned by the Royal Navy (HMS Holland 1 – commissioned in 1900, lost in 1913 and raised in 1982). The other exhibits (including HMS X24 and HMS Alliance) and display galleries were pretty terrific too. It’s a pretty marvelous museum all round and well worth visiting.

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Push-Pull to New Romney

Posted in Dungeness, England, New Romney by folkestonejack on July 15, 2017

A conversation with my father about the small bridge used by the Southern Railway line to cross over the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch narrow gauge War Department branch line (as mentioned in my recent post ‘A trio of sound mirrors‘) prompted a few memories of the operation of the standard gauge line. I thought it was an interesting follow up to my last blog post. It’s probably no great revelation to any knowledgeable railway enthusiast but I was fascinated to hear how the line operated!

My father used to work as a fireman on steam hauled freight (the Lydd Goods) and passenger trains down to New Romney around 1957, some twenty years after the line opened. The motive power would usually be a H class tank for the passenger trains and a C class or 01 for the goods. The line was single worked with a staff picked up and handed over to the signalman at New Romney.

At New Romney the standard gauge station stood on one side of the level crossing whilst the narrow gauge line sat on the other, though the standard gauge track actually continued over the level crossing a short way and was used whenever they had deliveries for the RHDR (the Kent Rail website has a helpful map illustrating this). The standard gauge station had two platforms but by this time the second of these was already grassed over. They would also do a bit of shunting here for the local coal merchant. At Lydd they would sometimes work into a siding and pick up beach stone from the quarry there.

The operation was worked on a push-pull basis – pushing into New Romney and pulling out of New Romney. On a two carriage passenger train the loco would sit at the back, tender facing the coach, whilst it pushed the train into New Romney. The fireman would be in the loco (usually getting all the smoke blowing back) whilst the driver would drive from the coaches where he had controls that allowed him to operate the regulator. At least that was the theory! In practice, they never used this and the pipe was usually left uncoupled. Instead, the driver would ring a bell and the fireman would shut the regulator.

My father recalls one occasion approaching Ham Street where he thought the driver was leaving it rather late, not realising that a bit of coal had fallen and broken the bell cord!

As for the starting point of our conversation – the narrow gauge line had been lifted by the point my father was working trains through here so there couldn’t have been much to see, though he did recall a bump on the way into New Romney which might well have been this small bridge.

A trio of sound mirrors

Posted in Dungeness, England by folkestonejack on July 15, 2017

The other worldly landscape at Dungeness holds many surprises, having been the home to many an experiment in new wireless, radar and navigational technologies. The most curious of these is a trio of ‘sound mirrors’ dating to 1928-30 which were at the cutting edge of advances in the detection of aircraft by sound long before they became apparent to the unassisted human ear.

Although the technology was proven it would never see full operation, having been rendered obsolete by developments in the use of radio waves that would go on to become radar. In some ways this short-lived field of military technology is all the more fascinating for its unfamiliarity, whether that be these monstrous fixed concrete listening ears or the even more extra-ordinary mobile sound locators.

The three sound mirrors are on an island that can only be reached by a narrow swing bridge used for open days and guided walks

The 20ft, 30ft and 200ft sound mirrors that survive at this site are now surrounded by the deep-waters of the Greatstone Lakes, formerly the Lade Pits, which are man-made quarries that have steadily been reclaimed by nature since the end of sand and gravel extraction. Today, the site forms part of the RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve.

The three sound mirrors present a perfect demonstration of the development of the technology. The earliest of these, the 20 foot sound mirror, was completed in July 1928 and would have been operated using a swing-able collecting trumpet connected to the listener by a tube and stethoscope.

The 30 foot mirror, constructed between February and April 1930, afforded its operators a little more shelter with a listening chamber enclosed with glass windows. This sound mirror also used a swing-able collecting trumpet and this mechanism is surprisingly intact (with the exception of the trumpet that sat at the very end). A look at period photographs shows that the ground level has dropped by at least 3-4 feet here, exposing concrete that would have sat well below the single at the time of its use.

The decision to go ahead with the construction of the largest of the sound mirrors, a 200 foot long curving concrete wall with a height of 26 feet, took place in late 1928 and work was complete by the summer of 1930. This strip mirror was intended to pick up the low frequency sound waves from approaching aircraft at three times the range of the unaided ear (if not more) and could be used to identify the bearing and distinguish aircraft (so long as they were separated by more than 10 degrees).

This giant introduced a number of advancements, making the move from a swinging trumpet-shaped sound collector to a series of 20 microphones, placed five foot apart on the concrete forecourt. At first the monitoring was carried out from a hut beside the wall, but in 1933 a control room was added behind the mirror with a window was cut into the concrete to give the operator a clear view of the entire forecourt.

The 200 foot strip mirror was built to endure the strongest winds, with steel-re-inforcement bars inside the wall and buttresses at the rear every 10 feet. This was also sufficient to ensure that attempts to demolish it in 1940 proved trickier than expected, leading to the abandonment of the attempt (the initial focus of the demolition was on the buttresses and the damage caused by this was subsequently rectified during a restoration programme in 2003). Instead, the mirrors were abandoned and left to crumble in their own time.

The 20 and 30 foot sound mirrors at Greatstone

I was interested to read that the experimental establishment had problems with inappropriate access as early as 1930, with staff having to turn away day trippers. This necessitated the replacement of boundary stones with a barbed wire fence. It is testament to the continued curiosity factor and appeal of the sound mirrors that this has remained a problem all of their life.

The shifting and sinking shingle continued to expose the foundations of the sound mirrors, leaving them in a perilous condition. The future might have seemed bleak but it was at this point that English Heritage stepped in with a restoration project partly funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. The marvelous sight of the trio, now stabilised and in a much improved condition, is testament to the success of that work.

Practicalities

The Sound Mirrors are usually only available to see close-up on a handful of occasions each year, for open days or guided walks. If you haven’t managed to time your visit for one of these you can still get a pretty decent view of the mirrors from the pathway alongside the Greatstone Lakes. It’s worth keeping an eye out on the event listings of the RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve and the Romney Marsh website.

Footpath across the shingle

To get to the site of the sound mirrors I caught a train down to Ashford, Kent, and then picked up a number 11 bus towards Lydd-on-Sea, getting off at the bus stop at Coast Drive/The Parade nearest to Derville Road (alternative stops at Taylor Road and Seaview Road would work equally well) after a ride of just over an hour. Another option would be the 102 from Folkestone. There are three entrances to the nature reserve at Lade Pits – I took the option that I thought involved the least trudging across shingle, walking up Derville Road, taking a right into Leonard road and then up a pathway between the houses to a gate into the reserve (I’m not sure if this was opened specially for the open day – the public footpath from Taylor Road, which I used on my way back, could be a safer bet if you are walking to get the view of the sound mirrors from across the lake).

At the immediate left-hand side of the gate are the remains of a small bridge that took the Southern Railway’s re-aligned standard-gauge line over the top of the narrow gauge War Department branch line of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway and on to New Romney. The standard gauge line originally ran behind the sound mirrors but was re-aligned to serve the holiday camps established on the coast. It only lasted thirty years, from 4th June 1937 until 6th March 1967.

The short narrow gauge War Department branch line was equally short-lived, lasting from 1929 until 1951. It had played a crucial role in the story of the sound mirrors, carrying a great deal of the material needed for its construction, before ending its life serving freight traffic from the quarry.

Turning right after the gate you follow a footpath along the perimeter of the lake, on what was once the trackbed of the now dismantled Southern railway line, until you come to a loose shingle pathway on your left after a short walk. Taking this turning leads you towards the centre of the lake and to the very narrow bridge across to the island (where the original causeway was cut to create a barrier to deter trespassers). Most of the year this is locked out of use, preventing access to the island, but on open days you can walk across one foot at a time (when they say narrow, they really mean it!). The effort is well worth it – the sound mirrors really are stunning close-up and this view really allows you to appreciate details invisible from a distance.

It is well worth picking up a copy of the excellent book ‘Echoes from the Sky‘ by Richard Scarth (now available in a revised and expanded new edition, published by Independent Books in 2017). This meticulously researched work presents the fullest account of the development of the sound mirrors, drawing on original sources and private papers. Along with the wonderful photographs of the sound mirrors under construction and in operation that are included in the book this account really helps you understand what you are looking at. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Dungeness

Posted in Dungeness, England by folkestonejack on July 15, 2017

The landscape at Dungeness is one of the most distinctive in the country and a magnet for photographers. The bleakness of the setting and the remains of its fishing past (winches, tanning coppers and near skeletal boats) is a key part of its appeal to many, though to others the combination of the nuclear power station, seemingly endless shingle and sparse vegetation makes it a hard place to love on a first look. However, that first impression belies the rich catalogue of wildlife to be found here.

Dungeness is actually home to a third of all plants found in this country (an astonishing 600 plant species) and is a key staging post for migratory birds and insects.

A little on the bleak side

Ramshackle carriage homes have gradually given way to holiday cottages and now more upmarket residences are replacing some of the existing structures (partly prompted by planning restrictions that prevent the construction of new homes on undeveloped land but which allow the replacement of existing structures). The local conservation and preservation policies for Dungeness are intended to prevent the character of the place being altered too much, but a degree of change seems inevitable.

The strange shingle landscape of Dungeness may not be the United Kingdom’s only desert, as some have claimed, but it still has a character unlike anywhere else that I have seen in my travels around the country. However, it’s not a landscape preserved in aspic – the railway carriages adapted as beach homes by Southern Railway workers are hardly recognisable as such any more (though look carefully and you can see the tell tale origins of many of these homes).

I enjoyed my visit to Dungeness, even if the conditions were not suited to great photography. I took a walk up to the top of the Old Lighthouse for the stunning views over the loop at the end of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (currently celebrating their 90th anniversary), took a look at the historic survivors from a century of innovation and took a pleasant wander along the boardwalk. A few hours here was quite long enough, but I’m sure it must be all the more stunning to see the sun rise here in relative solitude and without the constant flow of day-trippers like me!

In the golden age of domestic vacations the area drew in a considerably greater volume of holiday makers with camps at a couple of locations, including Maddiesons at Greatstone. My mother recalls a summer fortnight spent at a cosy bungalow in Greatstone in the 1950s, somewhere to the east of the camp in a largely residential area. My grandmother took the bus and picked up the keys from a local estate agent. Meanwhile my mum and her sister cycled up from their home in Folkestone, ready to spend a fortnight on the beach. It might not seem terribly far flung now but I’m sure it was a great place to escape to (especially as it was much less built-up than today).

The shed at Dungeness used by Marconi for wireless tests during the 1890s and which later became a radar research station. A planning notice indicates that a request for permission to re-build has been applied for this year.

As much as I admired the photographic potential I can’t imagine it being the most hospitable place to spend a wet winter’s day, but with the wind howling and a spot of unexpected rain it was hardly the nicest summer’s day to have picked either. Needless to say this wasn’t quite what the weather forecasters had promised!

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Riding the Mail Rail

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 8, 2017

One of the more extraordinary feats of engineering in Great Britain has to be the Post Office Railway, a six and a half mile long line on which driver-less mail trains ran beneath the feet of unsuspecting Londoners for 76 years. In its heyday it carried an average of 12 million letters and parcels a day, though this had reduced to four million towards the end of its active life due to the relocation of sorting offices away from the line. It was officially renamed the ‘Mail Rail’ in 1987 to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

One of the narrow tunnels on the Post Office Railway, now re-used for the Mail Rail experience

Standing in front of the electric units used on the line at a MailRail themed open day at the BPMA Museum Store at Debden, Essex in April 2012 I lamented the demise of such a remarkable system and wished I could have seen it in operation. The tantalising glimpses of the system offered by urban explorers showed that the line, mothballed in 2003, was still in reasonably good condition and only increased that desire to see more.

I could never have imagined that five years on the MailRail would be back up and running, this time as London’s newest and most exciting tourist attraction. At that time any possibility of reviving the system seemed complete fantasy, so hats off to the believers who kept pushing the idea. When the news about the plans first broke in 2013 I was delighted and only too happy to make a small contribution to its revival by sponsoring a sleeper when the opportunity arose. I still hardly dared believe that it would really happen.

Today, I got a chance to take a sneak-peak at the MailRail experience as workmen continued to apply the finishing touches to the new museum buildings. Our day included a ride on the Mail Rail in specially designed new passenger viewing coaches, a look at the new Postal Museum and a walk along the tracks to see the sleepers we had sponsored.

Walking the tunnels – hard hats were a must for the low tunnels on parts of the route

The Mail Rail ride experience takes in a relatively short stretch of line underneath the Mount Pleasant sorting depot. The ride begins in what was the depot and then takes you through two platforms that have apparently been left largely untouched since the last mail train ran on the system (although emptied of the mail trolleys that would once have filled them). Along the way some pretty clever projections bring the history of the Postal Railway to life. It might only take a quarter of an hour before you loop back round to the beginning but they are very satisfying minutes!

It’s worth noting that it could all have been very different. There were a number of commercial proposals on the table around the time of the closure, including the transportation of wine, document exchange and the delivery of high value small goods to retail stores on Oxford Street. I’m thankful that it was the museum curators who won that battle.

The new miniature passenger vehicles, specially commissioned for the museum, are a little bit of an awkward squeeze but then again the system was never intended for the transportation of human beings. That’s not to say that the system is utterly without human touches – rather wonderfully a dartboard still hangs on one of the Mount Pleasant platforms with scores chalked up from the last game.

Looking ahead at the entrance to the tunnel system with one of the two new passenger vehicles in the station

Our walk along the tracks later in the day gave us a bit more space to appreciate the route and just how narrow the tunnels are. It was rather lovely to see the sleeper we sponsored, complete with a plaque, which should have a lifespan of 25 years before it needs replacing. The walk allowed us to get a better look at the stalactites hanging down from the tunnel roof, the graveyard of wagons part-way through and the dummy vehicle used to test the dimensions of the new passenger vehicles in the tunnels.

The final element of our visit was a chance to look around the half-finished Mail Rail exhibition space which shows off the surviving locomotives on the tracks they were built for, rather than languishing in the museum warehouse out of context. It’s a superb historical walk through but it took a locker preserved just as it was left on the last day of operation (complete with 2003 vintage shower gels) to remind me that this is a story of the 21st century as much as of the ingenuity of the first engineers.

A deconstructed engine from the 1930s

The Postal Museum itself is one of the best presented I have seen anywhere, telling the five hundred year long story of the postal system with real verve. It also manages to achieve the near impossible balance of serving up sufficiently engaging stuff to entertain children and plenty of fascinating exhibits/information for adults. Star exhibits included Machin’s ‘Diadem Head’ plaster cast and trial stamps (essays), a display about Edward VIII stamps and an array of rather wonderful postboxes. The pneumatic postal tubes looked fun too.

My absolute favourite had to be the hand-illustrated envelopes that Frederick Tolhurst sent to his children when his marriage ended in 1915. Every one is a marvel, incorporating the address into the design in ever more ingenious ways such as on the side of a barrage-balloon over a search-lit London skyline. You can see some of the wonderful designs on a blogpost from the BPMA at The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelope: Case Closed.

I learned plenty too – I had no idea that the first postboxes were installed in the Channel Islands, that you could post game with nothing but a neck label in the 1930s (as long as they didn’t leak) or that at one time you could send postcards for a cheaper rate if you only wrote five words!

One of the displays in the Postal Museum

It is safe to say that the combination of the MailRail and the Postal Museum is fabulous – it really deserves to become one of the top attractions in London. The Postal Museum is opening to the public on 28th July 2017 but the Mail Rail exhibitions and ride don’t start until 4th September 2017. Full details are available from the Postal Museum website.

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Splendours of Syon House

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on June 26, 2017

On a recent flight into London I took a glance out of the window and found myself looking down on the marvelous sight of Syon House, a former royal palace, set in 200 acres of parkland on the Thames riverside. I resolved to take a closer look from the ground and on stepping inside discovered wonderful palatial interiors far beyond my expectations.

An aerial view of Syon House and Park, as seen from a recent flight into Heathrow

Syon House has been the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland since their grand house on the Strand was earmarked for demolition in the 1860s. Although it might not attract the volume of tourists that travel to the palace at nearby Hampton Court it is just as steeped in the bloody history of the country, notably with Lady Jane Grey’s acceptance of the crown in 1553 which would ultimately lead her to execution at Tower Hill a year later.

The walk from Syon lane station to the house offers a tantalising preview of Robert Adam’s re-modelling with a grand lion-topped entrance on London Road with porters lodges standing astride the driveway to the house. Not much farther beyond this is a rather splendid crenelated gateway that leads pedestrians towards the former royal palace, cunningly hidden behind a garden centre car park! Mind you, nothing is that ordinary here – the garden centre is based in a 16th century stable block.

The entrance to the footpath from London Road

As the house doesn’t open until 11am we took the opportunity to take a wander round the gardens first and admire the marvelously photogenic grand conservatory with Mercury posed in a pool in the foreground. It is a little hard to appreciate today just how ambitious this building was when Charles Fowler came up with the design in the 1820s. It also marks a fascinating point in the transition between the orangeries of the 18th century and the Victorian conservatory. Structures like Kew’s vast Palm House were still a couple of decades away when this place was unveiled.

The conservatory also has greater significance, as it was the shipment of 36 vine cuttings from Syon House to Sydney in 1832 that helped found the Australian wine industry.

The Great Conservatory (1826-1827)

I hope that it is not too rude to say that the sober exterior, whilst grand, is not the most thrilling that I have seen, but step inside and you are immediately transported into Robert Adam’s vision of a Roman basilica, watched over by four classical sculptures. However, your eye is immediately drawn to the far end of the hall and a striking copy of the Dying Gaul (the original sits in the Capitoline Museum, Rome). It’s quite an entrance!

The great hall is immediately followed by a succession of astonishing rooms – from an intensely colourful ante-room with gilded statues to a stunning long gallery decorated with medallions showing past members of the Percy family (including the most famous Percy of all, Hotspur). It is testament to the talents of Robert Adams and the craftsmen that he employed that the re-modeled interior still delivers such a wow factor today. It’s a pity that Robert Adams never got to add the giant rotunda that he planned for the inner courtyard but what he was able to deliver is nothing short of astonishing.

The house is filled with incredible artworks and treasures, including many royal portraits. I think my favourites would have to be the pair of paintings from the Flemish School in the Oak Passage that show King Henry VII with his three sons and Elizabeth of York, Queen of England, with her four daughters.

Syon House

Syon House itself has plenty of royal connections of its own which place it at the heart of British history and not just through the nine day queen. These connections include Charles I, who visited his children at Syon House during his imprisonment at Hampton Court, and Princess Victoria who stayed frequently at Syon House before succeeding to the throne.

The most gruesome royal connection is perhaps Henry VIII, whose coffin lay at Syon in 1547 whilst en route from Westminster to Windsor. The coffin seeped blood from the bloated corpse which a dog was seen to lick up – an act that many saw as just retribution for Henry’s suppression of the Bridgettine abbey that preceded Syon House. Although the abbey is long gone, it is still remembered in an exhibition space in the house which showcases the finds and architectural discoveries from Time Team and other archaeological digs on the site.

Practicalities

It is well worth a visit to Syon House to admire the marvels of Robert Adam’s interiors and the treasures of the Percy family. We took the train to Syon Lane and it took us around 15-20 minutes to make the walk to the entrance to the house, next to the garden centre. The garden centre has a restaurant but a freezer-failure saw us head to a delicious alternative at the Coach and Horses, Isleworth which more than satisfied us.

The gardens at Syon Park are usually open all week during the season but the house only opens three days a week. Full details of opening hours and ticket prices are available on the Syon Park website.

Fake history

Posted in England by folkestonejack on June 25, 2017

A little outing for a Saturday afternoon brought us to Nymans, the country gardens and home of the Messel family at Handcross, Sussex. The formal gardens attached to the house cover 33 acres and include many rare species brought back by plant hunters from expeditions as far flung as Chile and Tasmania. However, for me it was the house that was the most intriguing element.

The house at Nymans gives the appearance of a long ruined late Gothic/Tudor style stone manor house but this turns out to be way off beam. The house was actually built in the 1920s by Leonard Messel and the deception was enhanced by the purchase of old oak furniture and tapestries that gave the place a medieval feel. It must have been a pretty good illusion as the late Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) once said that it was not until he was 16 that he realised the house was a ‘complete fake’.

Nymans House

The lifespan of the house was sadly far shorter than you would ever imagine upon first sight – just twenty years. A devastating fire in 1947 left very little of it untouched. Today, you can admire the ruins of the house from the gardens and take a look at the handful of small rooms on the ground floor that survived the fire. The surprisingly cosy and comfortable rooms have something of a feel of a country cottage about them and this is largely how they were left by their last occupant, Anne Parsons (née Messel), Countess of Rosse, when she lived here from 1979 until 1992. The library looked an especially lovely space to settle down and read a good book.

Practicalities

To get to Nymans we took a train to Crawley and connected to the 271/273 bus for the short run to Handcross. The timings of the return buses proved to be a little awkward, giving us a choice between too little time or too much (we opted for the latter). Admission was covered by our National Trust membership.

The Carshalton Water Tower

Posted in Carshalton, England by folkestonejack on May 21, 2017

In all my wanderings around the British Isles and beyond in search of incredible sights it is easy to overlook the delights that stand on your own doorstep. With this in mind, we made a beeline for the Carshalton Water Tower, a local-ish historical curiosity that I have long intended to visit but somehow have never quite gotten around to. A poor effort on my part, given that only needed me to hop aboard a number 157 bus on a Sunday afternoon!

Carshalton Water Tower

I’m glad we finally made the effort. The Carshalton Water Tower and the historic gardens that surround it have a fascinating story to tell. It says alot that this kept us hooked for almost two hours, much to our surprise. I think that is a bargain for just £3 per person.

Our visit began with a tour of what would once have been the grounds of Carshalton House, a grand house built for tobacco merchant Edward Carlton but with a tortuous history of ownership that led to its purchase by a religious order from Liege, the Daughters of the Cross, in 1893. The daughters established a roman catholic school on the site that still operates to this day.

The water tower and the house were separated by a lake, created in the late 18th century when the fashion for more formal arrangements was being swept away in favour of landscape gardens. It’s a dry-ish affair today, though we didn’t want to test whether any of the recent rainfall remained and crossed by a causeway (a twentieth century addition). Partway across we paused to admire the Sham Bridge, another folly, which is a dam in reality (no water can flow underneath, though painting its underside black with pitch must have helped maintain the illusion in its heyday).

Once we had made our way across to the other side we navigated our way round to the hermitage. Today’s pathway, trampled through the long grass, is probably quite far removed from the circuit that the gentry might once have taken on their perambulations!

Carshalton House still stands at the heart of today’s school complex, albeit somewhat altered from its original appearance

The hermitage is a splendid stone-built folly built into the hillside that dates back to the early eighteenth century and must have been a gorgeous spot to stop and admire the views of the pleasure gardens, lake and the nearby springhead. It has suffered a little over the years from the weathering of the soft reigate stone but recent repairs are already starting to blend in nicely. There’s some pretty neat historic graffiti too.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story was the way that the nuns re-interpreted the landscape. They created an outdoor trail of the stations of the cross and converted the hermitage into a grotto for their pieta – until the weight of the thing threatened to destabilise the structure!

After threading our way back through the long grass we had a chance to see an ancient yew tree that is as good an example as you can see of the way this species self propogates when left to its own devices, by driving its branches down into the ground.

The hermitage

Saving the best to the end, we returned to the water tower to see what makes it unique. The tower was constructed in the early 18th century for Sir John Fellowes and housed a reservoir that was used to supply water to the house. However, it was a pleasure house in its own right with a saloon, orangery and a beautiful bagnio lined with blue and white delft tiles. It’s both a wonderful piece of social history and a fascinating piece of engineering. Indeed, you can still see the water wheel which powered the pumps that lifted the water up to the cistern.

We have to thank the nuns for adding a staircase that provides access to the roof, affording a much better view of the upper structure and a better appreciation of how the alignment of West Street was altered to create the grounds we had just walked.

If you want to visit, the Water Tower is usually open on Sunday Afternoons from 2.30pm to 5pm from the first Sunday after Easter to the end of September. However, if you want to go on a tour of the hermitage as well you need to time your visit for the first and third Sunday of each month. For further information about visiting and any changes to the schedule you should check out the website of the Carshalton Water Tower and Historic Garden Trust.

The view from the rooftop

Our visit to the Carshalton Water Tower was a superb way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Thank you to the wonderful guides who brought the story to life for us.

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Treasure in the library at Hatfield House

Posted in England, Hatfield by folkestonejack on May 13, 2017

One of the great treasure houses of England sits just 21 miles north of London in leafy Hatfield, an easy 23 minute train journey from King’s Cross. The 42 acre site is home to two palatial residences – the Old Palace, the childhood home of Elizabeth I, and Hatfield House, a Jacobean prodigy house built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to James I.

Hatfield House

Hatfield House delivers wonderment from the moment that you enter the ornately decorated marble hall until you step back outside. The walls hold so many familiar royal portraits, none more so than the famous Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (even if it looks more like she is holding a garden hose rather than a rainbow these days!). The extravagance doesn’t let up as you explore the rest of the state rooms, though the gold ceiling of the long gallery has perhaps the largest wow factor. It’s not a statement that you can easily ignore…

However, for me the real treasure lay in the library. I’ve visited a fair number of stately homes in my time and you often see glass cabinets full of moderately interesting letters and other exhibits. Not here. The cabinets at Hatfield House hold astonishing historical artifacts such as Lord Burghley’s rough draft of the warrant ordering the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Another fascinating letter on display in the library warns the Earl of Murray not to support rebels fleeing over the border into Scotland in 1569. It is all the more striking because it is written almost entirely in cipher, barring for the signature of Elizabeth I at the end!

The fountain in the West Garden

We are lucky that Hatfield House survives to be visited as it suffered from a terrible fire in 1835 that destroyed the West Wing of the house and might have threatened more had a fortuitous spell of torrential rain not intervened. The chapel had a particularly lucky escape after the heat of the fire melted the lead water tanks in the attic, dousing the flames. I certainly appreciated the opulent interiors and wonderful artworks throughout the building – it would have been a terrible loss had this not endured.

Hatfield House is understandably popular as a wedding venue so we didn’t get the opportunity to take a look inside the surviving parts of the Old Palace but our tickets are valid for the rest of the season so maybe we’ll get the chance to pop back on and remedy that later this year.

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The last inhabitants of the Bourbon Tower

Posted in Buckingham, England by folkestonejack on May 10, 2017

Our visit to Stowe gave me the opportunity to seek out a rather unusual building in the parkland that surrounds the landscape gardens – the Bourbon Tower. This unusual building was once home to my great-great-great grandfather, George Griffin, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Bourbon Tower

The tower was built in 1741 as a house for the gamekeeper, with sweeping views over a deer park that was all too susceptible to poaching. Originally known as the gothic tower, it was given the name of the Bourbon Tower in 1808 to honour the exiled King of France, Louis XVIII, who spent many days at Stowe when he first arrived in England. Louis and other members of the French royal family planted the oaks that still surround it.

In its original form the tower was 65 foot in height, 110 foot in circumference, with a narrow winding stone staircase to the summit. Later re-modelling saw the conical roof replaced with a flat roof topped by a 24 foot tall octagonal turret. The interior holds more rooms than you might think, with five rooms at the time of the 1911 census – a kitchen on the ground floor, bedrooms on the first/second floor and a large room on the third floor. Looking at the solid walls I can’t imagine that much in the way of natural light penetrated inside, but the top floor apparently had skylights to let some sunlight in.

In the nineteenth century the Bourbon Tower was perhaps more strongly associated with the yeomanry and became home to many a sergeant major. Typical of these residents was Crimean veteran Edward Collier who lived in the tower with his family for thirteen years (1872-1885). It was not such a complete break with tradition as it might seem – in addition to his responsibilities to the yeomanry Edward acted as park ranger for the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

The length of each occupancy of the Bourbon Tower varied but was typically just above or below a decade. Samuel Poole, a drill instructor in the Yeomanry, lived in the tower with his family around 1885-1893 (press reports refer to their presence from 1887 to 1891). The next occupant, Sergeant Major Rogers, moved into the tower in March 1893 and press reports show that he was still there in early 1895.

Family connections

My family connection with the Bourbon Tower begins somewhere between 1895 and 1901, when George Griffin moved in with two of his grown up children (Clement and Eleanor Alice). By this time George was a retired gamekeeper, whilst his son was a woodsman on the estate.

George Griffin had been a gamekeeper all his life, as had his father before him. An account from the Bucks Herald of a poaching incident in August 1884, when the family were living at Squirrel Copse, Lillingstone Dayrell, shows his sons now joining the profession and just how physical it could be:

From the evidence of the keepers, George Griffin, sen., Clement Griffin, and Geo. Griffin, jun., P.C. Warman, of Silverstone, and P.S. Lait, it appeared that shortly after midnight on the 22nd August last the keepers were in a field called Squirrel Copse, near Tile House Wood. They came upon two nets, one of which was pegged out, and immediately after they saw three men near at hand who dared them to “come on.” Griffin, the elder, went at one man, who struck him on the head with a long heavy stick which broke his hat. The keeper returned the blow and felled his opponent, who tried to get up again, but the keeper gave him another blow on the head and then stood over him. Clement Griffin, in the meantime, had received a blow with a stick from a man whom he recognised as James Chapman; but Clement eventually overcame him, and went to his father’s assistance. The father called for a light, whereupon Whitlock and Chapman made off. A match was lighted and put to the face of Wilcox, and they could plainly see it was him. Then they let him get up and go home. When it became light the keepers found two caps (produced), sticks, two nets and a rabbit.

The Bourbon Tower must have been an incredible place to live if the newspaper accounts are anything to go by. The Buckinghamshire Yeomanry regularly used the parkland at Stowe for their field days and their are some wonderful accounts of the entire regiment charging towards their target, the Bourbon Tower. In the years before the Griffins moved in the tower provided much needed shelter for the soldiers when the heavens opened.

On 22nd February 1902 George Griffin (75) died from chronic bronchitis and exhaustion at the Bourbon Tower (he was probably a few years older as he was baptised at Ludgershall, Bucks, in 1825). George’s son Clement and daughter Eleanor Alice continued to live in the tower after his death and they were the sole occupants at the time of the 1911 census.

Unhappy endings

It’s not a tale with the happiest of endings. The first inkling of trouble can be seen in a snippet of news from The Bucks Herald of 30th November 1912 which states that the Buckinghamshire Rural District Council had been alerted to the presence of eleven cats and a number of hens and chickens inside the tower, which was said to be in a filthy condition.

A horrific report of an RSPCA visit in 1913 paints a far grimmer picture and gives an account of a conversation with Eleanor that suggests the occupants were not mentally well (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 7th June 1913). Following on from this, the local sanitary authority got involved.

Finally, an application to eject Clement Griffin from the Bourbon Tower was submitted to the Buckingham Divisional Petty Sessions on 29th May 1915 on behalf of the Rev. the Hon. Chandos Morgan-Grenville (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 5th June 1915). The application for eviction was approved with an order for possession in 21 days.

Clement and Eleanor Alice left Stowe Park behind and headed south to join their relations in Folkestone for a short spell, before ending their days in Kent County Lunatic Asylum in Chartham. Eleanor died on 12th July 1917 and Clement died on 15th December 1917.

Stowe House was put up for sale in 1921 and various smaller lots of land surrounding the gardens came onto the market. Deerbarn Farm, of 244 acres, with its residence, and the Bourbon Tower were sold for £4000 (Bucks Herald, 9th July 1921).

The local newspapers make no further references to anyone moving into the Bourbon Tower after the departure of the Griffins but it was apparently later used as the home of the Stowe School clay pigeon club. It was derelict by the time that the National Trust took on Stowe and plans to restore it have not yet reached fruition. Hopefully someday it will reverberate to happier sounds than in its last period of occupancy.

Thank you to the National Trust team at Stowe for the map of the parkland at Stowe and the helpful directions to the tower.

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Stowe in the sun

Posted in Buckingham, England by folkestonejack on May 10, 2017

The corporate away day can be a thing of nightmares, but this year’s departmental sustainability away day turned out to be the complete reverse, taking us to the stunning landscape gardens at Stowe near Buckingham. Not only did we get the chance to work on a satisfying project as a team in incredible surroundings, we were were also blessed with a miraculous burst of blue skies and sun out of nowhere.

The Temple of Ancient Virtue

The gardens at Stowe have attracted visitors for centuries but it was really surprising to discover that it has only been in the hands of the National Trust since 1989, whilst the house is looked after separately by the Stowe House Preservation Trust. The story of how the site reached that point is a fascinating lesson in the horrific cost of keeping our great houses in good shape.

The whole site had been in steady decline since the nineteenth century and the previous owners, Stowe School, had lacked the resources to maintain either the grounds or house adequately, despite their best efforts and the financial assistance provided through various grants. The scale of the problem becomes clear when you hear that a survey in 2002 estimated the cost of restoration for the house alone as £40 million! Today, the grounds and the many remarkable garden buildings look so well maintained that it is really hard to appreciate just how poor a state everything was in when they took over. The house too has received substantial restoration.

A quick scan of the before and after photographs on the National Trust website show how much progress has been made following the £10 million restoration masterplan – the shots of the beautifully restored Temple of Concord and Victory today and the same building bricked up in the early 1990s are quite astonishing (a transformation that cost £1.3 million alone). A shot of tennis courts next to the Palladian bridge shows how the views that this landscape garden excels at were quite obscured during this era, but visiting today you would have no idea that anything had changed over the centuries.

Our base for the day, the New Inn, was another example. It was originally constructed in 1717 to provide accommodation for early visitors to the garden but had been in a derelict state for many years before the National Trust bought the property in 2003. The National Trust re-opened it in 2012, thereby restoring the traditional entrance and approach to the property (up to this point National Trust visitors entered via a point at the north of the gardens and house) and what an approach it is…

As our coach turned onto Stowe Avenue we got our first glimpse of the Corinthian Arch, beautifully illuminated at the end of an impressively straight long drive, and began to appreciate the grand scale of the gardens we were heading towards. Once we had made our way into the gardens themselves, passing through the Bell Gate, we were treated to the most gorgeous view of Stowe House across the Octagon Lake.

A very relaxed and enjoyable half-day followed, with three teams tackling different projects. The team I joined re-painted a bridge that needed freshening up some 5-6 years since its last coat. It was a fairly straightforward task to paint the inside, but the sides facing the river had to be painted from a boat. The end result was more impressive than I could have imagined – we had struggled to pick out the bridge when we first entered the gardens but now the gleaming white bridge stood out a mile. My home gardening is never quite this rewarding!

A freshly re-painted White Bridge in the grounds at Stowe

Later in the day we had an opportunity to take a wander around the grounds and appreciate the full splendour of the landscaping and just why this was considered to be the most magnificent in the British Isles. Every penny of restoration was thoroughly deserved to recreate these incredible vistas for the nation.

Time ran out all too quickly, so I’ll have to make an effort to return and make a fuller exploration of the gardens and take a look inside the house. I quite fancy the idea of renting the Gothic Temple which has been wonderfully restored by the Landmark Trust as a holiday cottage. How amazing must it be to wake up and look out on a landscape like this?

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Exploring Knole

Posted in England, Sevenoaks by folkestonejack on May 2, 2017

The attractions of the showrooms at Knole House have been drawing visitors for hundreds of years, long before the National Trust took over ownership. Stepping inside its not hard to see why. However, time your visit for a Tuesday in April-September and you get the added bonus of a chance to look inside the 26 acre walled private gardens of Lord Sackville.

The west front of Knole House

The house began its life as an archbishop’s palace in 1456, but was ‘voluntarily’ passed to Henry VIII by Thomas Cranmer in 1538. It was already grand but the money lavished on it at this time substantially enlarged its footprint with the addition of a new gatehouse and the buildings of the Green Court. After a bit of swapping back and forth the house eventually ended up in the ownership of Thomas Sackville, Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I.

Under Thomas Sackville the house underwent the most significent transformation, turning it into a show house that would hold up well in comparison with the great houses established by the other Lord Treasurers of the age (such as Burghley House, Audley End and Hatfield House). The stamp of his ownership is proclaimed everywhere you look, from the stone leopards that stand atop the roof to the ornamentation on the lead drain pipes in the courtyard.

An early National trust notice for Knole House

Impressive as it is, you can imagine what a burden it must be to inherit such a sprawling house and to feel the need to maintain it to a level to satisfy your illustrious ancestors. Faced with these challenges Charlie Sackville-West agreed to transfer Knole House to the National Trust in 1946, after a decade or so of discussion. The decision safeguarded the future of the house and also the gardens, which had seemed impossible to keep up.

The massive building, conservation and restoration project Knole is currently undergoing is testament to the wisdom of that decision. The £19.8 million project, the largest in the history of the National Trust, has seen the stabilisation of the property and the re-opening of the most astonishing showrooms, though others will remain closed until Spring 2019 as the restoration work continues. It has to be said that thet refurbished Ballroom and King’s Room are absolutely stunning.

Some of the colourful sights in the 26 acre gardens

The National Trust have done such a good job here. Not just with the telling of the big story, but also picking up on the story of the estate (with a lovely recreation of the estate office) and the life of a somewhat reluctant later inheritor, Edward Sackville-West, who lived an unconvential life in a private residence in the Gatehouse Tower. There are so many interesting tales to absorb on a visit.

Knole House is quite some country house, even if the story about it having a room for each day of the year is not exactly accurate (and let’s not get started on the question of 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards!). The gardens are pretty delightful too, with wonderful fields of bluebells in the ‘wilderness’ and the longest wisteria outside China. Well worth a look around – on a Tuesday!

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Stepping between heaven and hell

Posted in England, Peterborough by folkestonejack on May 1, 2017

Our visit to Hardwick Hall last year has set us on a mission to visit the surviving prodigy or wonder houses in England, eager to see just how daring the courtiers of the Tudor and Jacobean age could be in building their showstopping palatial residences. The next on our list, Burghley House, proved to the perfect choice for a Bank Holiday weekend and amply demonstrated why it deserves its label as one of the treasure houses of England.

Burghley House

Burghley House was the creation of William Cecil, principal Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I. The construction took place in stages between 1555 and 1587, though the palace has been re-shaped by many significant alterations since then. It certainly cuts a striking shape as you approach it from across the park but this is nothing compared to the astonishing decoration inside.

A walk through the state rooms leaves you in no doubt of the intention to impress, but it is the rooms commissioned by the fifth Earl of Exeter in the 17th century that deliver the knockout punch. The Earl’s choice of artist, Antonio Verrio, spent a decade at Burghley House decorating six rooms (and quarrelling with just about everyone in that time). Each has its own wow factor but the most extravagant of these, the heaven room, goes much further.

On stepping into the heaven room you are immediately transported inside a temple open to the skies, filled with figures from mythology in a re-telling of the story of Mars and Venus. Such is the power of the illusion that it feels as though you are in a busy room even when you are standing alone admiring the detail, whether your focus be Vulcan’s forge or the self-portrait that Verrio cleverly included. Once you have absorbed this, the next doorway takes you into the darkness and despair of the hell staircase. Quite extraordinary.

The walls include a fair number visual representations of the household. You clearly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Verrio or risk being immortalised unfavourably! The cook found this out to her cost, ending up as a six-breasted woman in one room, whilst the priest is shown as a drunkard in two rooms. You can get a better impression of these astonishing sights through the superb set of 360 degree views of the staterooms which are available on the Burghley House website.

After leaving the house we enjoyed a pleasant wander through the gardens, admiring a selection of modern sculptures, before heading home in late afternoon. As you might have guessed, we thorough enjoyed our visit and would highly recommend a trip to Burghley House.

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Deltic delight at Stamford

Posted in England, Peterborough by folkestonejack on May 1, 2017

On my travels there have been a few occasions where I have timed our journeys to co-incide perfectly with a passing steam special or the like, with a degree of eye-rolling when I protest that it was pure chance to my by now very clued up better half. However, there are occasions when I am completely surprised and it takes some convincing that I genuinely didn’t know about whatever has appeared.

Just such a situation occurred on our Bank Holiday outing to Burghley House. It was pretty clear that something was expected by the number of photographers standing ready in the fields and in country lanes as we made our way by train to Stamford. On arriving I joined a small gathering of photographers and waited. I probably should have asked what it was we were waiting for, but thought I would enjoy the surprise…

55018 ‘Ballymoss’ passes through Stamford

After a twenty minute wait we were treated to the superb sight of class 55 Deltic locomotive 55022 ‘Royal Scots Grey’ (in the temporary guise of 55018 ‘Ballymoss’) storming through the station at the head of a three locomotive convoy. I like surprises like this, even if it does take me a devilishly long time to convince anyone that I hadn’t planned our chance encounter!

I later discovered that this was the movement (running as 0Z55) of the deltic from the Nene Valley Railway at Wansford to the Severn Valley Railway at Kidderminster, with 31271 and 45041 ‘Royal Tank Regiment’ in tow. All three locomotives will be appearing at the Spring Diesel Festival at the Severn Valley Railway on May 18th, 19th & 20th.

Tilbury B and the changing Thames riverside

Posted in England, Gravesend, London, Tilbury by folkestonejack on April 26, 2017

On a stroll along the shoreline at Gravesend you can’t fail to miss the twin chimneys of Tilbury B Power Station, a structure that has dominated this stretch of the Thames since its construction started in 1961. Like so many other industrial landmarks of the twentieth century it is a sight that won’t be with us for much longer – it is set to share the fate of its sister power station, Tilbury A, and will be completely demolished by the end of 2018.

SB Hydrogen sails past Tilbury B Power Station

Work on the destruction of the site began in January 2016, three years after its closure, but the majority of the explosive demolition jobs are scheduled for this year. The first of these will see half of the Turbine Hall demolished at 10am tomorrow, followed by the chimneys, boiler house and bunker house later in the year.

So many colossal industrial structures have disappeared from London and kent, such as the gasholders at Battersea and Kings Cross and the 244m chimney of Grain Power Station, but I had not entirely appreciated just how much change was taking place on the Thames.

The Royal Wharf development at Silvertown

The Greenwich Peninsula development

The degree of change is particularly striking on the stretch of the river at West Silvertown (between The Thames Barrier and Trinity Buoy Wharf) and around the Greenwich Peninsula where a low height industrial landscape is being replaced by high-rise residential developments. In the not too distant future it will be as hard to imagine the industry that the Thames supported here as it is to imagine that a forest of cranes and warehouses once surrounded Tower Bridge!

My trip up the Thames between Gravesend and Greenwich over the Easter weekend gave me plenty of opportunities to see the vanishing industrial landscape, as well as the occasional survivor such as the Victorian marvel of Crossness Pumping Station (somewhere I must get around to visiting). It was a fascinating trip – I wonder how different it will all look in a decade or two and how much further the de-instrustrialisation of the Thames will have extended.

Thames Gallery

Sailing beyond the storm

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on April 16, 2017

The splendid sight of the parade of sail for the Tall Ships Festivals 2017 certainly drew the crowds to Greenwich and Woolwich. It looked as though the initial forecasts of around 600,000 visitors could easily have been met over the course of the four days that the event spanned. Indeed, some 11,000 visitors were reported to have got on board one of the tall ships moored at the two sites over the first three days of the festival alone.

Once the tall ships began their procession it was striking to see that just about every spot lining the Thames to Woolwich has been filled, despite the miserable weather. In some places, such as around the Trafalgar Tavern, the crowds looked to be six-deep, though one chap on the water had the best view of all!

Artemis heads towards the towers of New Providence Wharf

As a spectacle, I think the Parade of Sail in 2014 has the edge, if only because there were a few more sails on display and the significantly better weather, but it was still a treat to be able to admire such a great line up of beautiful ships on our doorstep. I hope it is not so long before we see such a gathering again.

It has taken a while to go through the thousand or so pictures that I took during the parade, but I think the selection below gives a reasonable flavour of the event. I was a little lucky to be on a sightseeing boat for the event as it gave us a chance to outrun the gathering storm and try and catch the ships in the better conditions to the east. Nevertheless, I can’t help but like the drama that the dark skies add to some of the pictures.

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Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2017

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on April 16, 2017

Over the course of the Easter weekend around 30 ships have been moored at Woolwich Arsenal and Greenwich for the Royal Greenwich Tall ships Festival, an event marking the start of the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta.

Amongst the ships on display there were nine that would be participating in the first leg of the regatta from Torbay to Sines, Portugal, with the remainder visiting for the weekend from ports across Europe. The visitors span an impressive 122 year stretch of shipbuilding history, from the gaff cutter Leila (1892) to the brig TS Royalist (2014).

The Santa Maria Manuela (1937) is turned by a tug, ready to lead the parade of sail away from Greenwich

The largest ships in the festival were the four masted schooner Santa Maria Manuela (1937) and the fully-rigged ship Christian Radich (1937), both of which are participating in the first leg of the regatta (the other participants being the Etoile, Jolie Brise, Rona II, Peter Von Danzig, Vera Cruz, Wylde Swan and Hosanna).

The handful of ships participating in all the legs will visit Sines, Bermuda, Boston and the eastern US seaboard before reaching Quebec on July 18th for the celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Afterwards, the return voyage will see the ships cross the Atlantic to Le Havre via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Artemis (1926) returns to a mooring at Woolwich Arsenal at the end of the parade

For the last day of the festival I joined a group of photographers on board the sightseeing ship Jacob Marley for a cruise upstream from Gravesend to follow the parade of sail, setting off at 1.30pm and returning to our starting point at 8pm. Along the way we got to see the ships mustering in Greenwich for the grand departure, the parade of sail and the onward travels of a handful of vessels making their way to a mooring at Gravesend.

The forecast was not exactly promising when we set out but there were a few wonderful moments of light amidst the gloom and that’s all you need to get a few good shots. I returned with over a thousand photographs, so I could hardly claim to have been deterred by the lack of sunlight!

Thank you to the team from Timeline events and the Jetstream Tours crew for a marvellous afternoon on the water.

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Bulleid bonanza at Corfe Castle

Posted in Corfe Castle, England by folkestonejack on April 1, 2017

It has been a while since I last visited Corfe Castle but the Swanage Railway’s ‘Strictly Bulleid’ gala managed to lure me back with the largest gathering of Bulleid light pacifics in the preservation era. It was clear from the outset that the event had proven irresistible to a good many more as the hourly bus service from morebus really struggled with the numbers (indeed, a few poor souls queued for two and a half hours just to get on a bus with space). However, it was well worth the hassle…

West country class 34052 Lord Dowding passes Corfe Castle en route to Swanage in mid-afternoon

The event, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of steam in the Southern Region, saw five locos in action 34046 Braunton (as 34052 Lord Dowding), 34070 Manston, 34092 City of Wells, 34081 92 Squadron and 34053 Sir Keith Park. As if that wasn’t enough of a temptation it was possible to see 34072 257 Squadron undergoing restoration at Herston Works and the frames of 34010 Sidmouth is on a wagon at Corfe Castle station. Quite a gathering!

I usually stay quite close to the railway on my visits but on this occasion opted for some more distant viewpoints, including a spot in the medieval skyscraper that is Corfe Castle and going higher still, atop West Hill looking down on the castle.

Up to this point I had assumed that the view of the railway with Corfe Castle in the foreground involved quite a bit of walking, so was rather surprised to discover that it was just a short, if rather steep, walk up the hillside. The steps that start the climb are easily accessed by following the footpath from the visitor centre on the A351 or by taking Ollie Vyes Lane from the Square and the footpath that continues on the other side of Tyneham Road.

My pictures certainly can’t compare to the wonderful shots I have seen from here but I was still thrilled to have taken in the breathtaking view from the top – with or without a camera it is quite a sight.

Battle of Britain class light pacific 34081 92 Squadron passes Corfe Castle in mid afternoon en route to Norden

The gala weekend also saw the operation of trains over the four miles of newly restored line from Norden to the River Frome – a stretch of line only opened to passengers in 2016. In the trade off between travelling and photography I didn’t get a chance to ride this bit of the line today so that’s a good excuse to make a return in the near future, perhaps even this summer when diesel hauled services into Wareham begin.

Overall, I had a great day and want to thank everyone involved in making it such a special event. I never fail to be struck with awe at the sight of a Southern light pacific on top form so was never going to be disappointed with an event featuring so many, but it really was something to see so many gathered in one place at the same time and with such great scenery all around. If it’s a feat that is never repeated then I’m glad to have seen this for at least one day!

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Art and architecture beyond the revolution

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 19, 2017

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen the opening of a couple of new exhibitions in London – Imagine Moscow at the Design Museum (15th March – 4th June 2017) and Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at the Royal Academy (11th February — 17th April 2017) which both explore the seemingly limitless boundaries in both art and architecture during the early years of the new state. Over the past two weekends I enjoyed visits to both and came away with some surprising highlights.

The Design Museum in Kensington, London

I have long been astounded by some of the imaginative buildings proposed for Moscow so the new exhibition “Imagine moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution” at the Design Museum was always going to fascinate me.

A full size 4 metre long reconstruction of Lenin’s index finger, which was intended to point from the top of the Palace of the Soviets towards his mausoleum, makes you appreciate the vast scale of the unrealised plans of Boris Iofan and his contemporaries. It’s hard to appreciate just how much Moscow would have been altered by all of these vast schemes, but the footage on a loop from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s 1938 film “New Moscow” gives you a good idea. No room for cathedral spires or ancient towers in this vision!

As astonishing as these designs were, it was a couple of the smaller exhibits that intrigued me the most. The first was a copy of “About Two Squares” (1922), a suprematist childrens book authored by El Lissitzky telling the story of a black and red square that come to earth from space. It’s a strikingly bold approach to teaching children about the new Soviet order, but it’s hard to imagine this being a tale that would have won many hearts and minds.

The second exhibit that caught my eye was a Ne Boltai poster from the new state’s drive to improve the literacy of the population. The poster by M. M. Litzvak (1925) is a call to all citizens to take note that a library was being installed in the restaurant wagon of every train – with an image of a trio of ordinary workers engrossed in books to re-inforce the point.

On top of all this, it’s terrific to explore the interior of the relatively recently re-opened design museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building) now that the crowds have eased a little and neighbouring Holland Park is a delight at this time of year with its vast swathes of daffodils.

The astonishing roof of the Design Museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building)

There are some pleasing overlaps between the two exhibitions. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 includes a rather marvellous urn “Commemoration of the Flight of a Russian Dirigible from Moscow to New York Piloted by Three Soviet Airmen” (c. 1932) shows the Palace of the Soviets on one side and the Empire State Building on the other (if the Palace had been completed these would have been the two tallest buildings in the world).

The two exhibitions complement each other quite nicely in other ways too – for example, you get a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living at the Royal Academy and then at the Design Museum see some of the imaginative buildings devised to create communal spaces that would break the mould of family life.

The highlights of the exhibition at the Royal Academy for me were some of the hidden treasures of the twentieth century – such as Kliment Redko’s painting “Insurrection” (1925) and Georgy Rublev’s “Portrait of Joseph Stalin” (. 1930) which are both on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. These two paintings were hidden from view for entirely different reasons.

As his view of the revolution soured Kliment Redko drew upon his early years as an icon painter and in “Insurrection” created a striking image of Lenin at the heart of a city ablaze – it’s a quite extrordinary painting with incredible detail, from the workers on the march to the disciples surrounding him. It’s hard to imagine that Lenin’s displacement of Christ was meant to be viewed as a positive development.

In contrast, Georgy Rublev gives us an informal painting of Stalin quite unlike anything that I have seen before. Stalin looks decidely relaxed as he sits cross-legged, reading Pravda, in a rattan chair with a dog curled at his feet. It clearly sprang from a far less critical place than Redko’s work but was no less unshowable, only emerging after his death.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the Royal Academy exhibition makes it a pleasure to wander. I can’t say that all of the artworks appealed to me but they certainly captured my interest for an hour or so.

If this wasn’t enough, there is another exhibition of Soviet art coming along later this year. Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern (8th November 2017 – 18th February 2018) looks set to show us the development of Russian and Soviet art from the 1905 revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953. I’m certainly happy to see some more!

All hail the robot revolution – or maybe not!

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 25, 2017

The latest exhibition from the Science Museum In London, Robots, looks at our long quest to build thinking machines in our own image. It’s an exhibition that takes us through the centuries from the clockwork automatons of the pre-industrial age to the developments in robotics of the early 21st century.

Along the way we get to see some of the marvellous robots of the 1950s-60s. Standing proudly at the cntre of this display is Cygan, a remote-controlled robot from Italy powered by thirteen electric motors. Cygan was often to be spotted in the magazines with a glamourous model on his arm, which only goes to show the unlikely appeal of a bit of can-crushing.

Visionary robots of the 20th century

Cygan stands proud amongst other visionary robots of the 20th century

The last gallery of the exhibition is given over to the social robots that are beginning to move among us in all sorts of environments, ranging from the shopping mall to the nursing home. If you had any notion that robots are a threat to your job you might be vaguely comforted by this section as many of the robots seemed to be out of action when we visited.

The highlight of the exhibition for me was an 18th century automaton of a silver swan which ‘picks up’ fish from a stream. You can see this in action once a day (weekdays only) but it still looked incredibly impressive as a static exhibit. Although the exhibition runs until 3rd September 2017 the swan is only included in the display from 8th February to 23rd March 2017.

It’s definetly worth a look, but overall I don’t think it reached the same heights as last year’s epic exhibition on the Soviet space program. Nor was it perfect – after all, it somehow managed to overlook the finest and most talented robot of our age – Metal Mickey. Boogie boogie!

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Exit 2016, pursued by a bear

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on December 31, 2016

I can’t recall a year that I have been so eager to say farewell to as 2016 with its devastating trail of political upheaval and the death of some of our most loved public figures. However, not wishing to dwell on such miserable matters for the last post of the year I thought it was the right time to celebrate another terrific year for London’s theatre scene.

For me, one of the greatest attractions of living in this city is the incredible array of plays on offer in over 200 theatres that range from the 60 or so seats of Theatre503 in Battersea to the 1000+ seats of the Olivier and Barbican Theatres. As the year came to a close I crunched some numbers and was somewhat surprised to realise that 92% of the 66 productions that I have seen over the past year were at theatres outside the West End.

Topping the list for me in 2016 have been three distinctive theatres – the Orange Tree in Richmond, the Arcola in Dalston and the Royal Court in Chelsea – which have delivered up a feast of well judged revivals and thought provoking new plays.

1. Unreachable (Royal Court)
A play about one film director’s obsession with finding the perfect light might not sound like the most unpredictable nights of theatre, but the mid-play introduction of the frenetic actor Ivan ‘The Brute’, played by Jonjo O’Neill, guaranteed that this would be one of the most memorable nights of theatre ever. Ivan’s explosive contributions led the entire audience into bouts of uncontrollable laughter and occasionally left the other actors corpsing. If I hadn’t been seeing this towards the end of the run I would happily have booked to see it again and again…

The Spectator also picked out the creation of Ivan as a standout, describing this as ‘A new role any actor will kill to play‘ whilst Time Out thought the play as a whole was an ‘intoxicatingly chaotic comedy‘.

2. Thebes Land (Arcola)
I almost didn’t go to see this play with its grim description as an exploration of patricide and the promise of the on-stage participation of a convicted killer. Staged inside a steel cage, the two hander turned out to be a thoroughly original piece that is as much about the way we engage with theatre as anything else, twisting and turning our perception of the truth all night long. I was surprised by how funny it was, despite the dark themes. One of those plays that lingers in your head long after you have wandered out of the theatre.

The Guardian described it as an ‘engagingly treacherous twist on Oedipus‘ whilst the Stage concluded that whilst it was not the most festive of pieces, it was ‘a rare treat’.

3. Kenny Morgan (Arcola)
The desperately tragic tale of Terence Rattigan’s secret lover, whose death formed the basis for The Deep Blue Sea, proved to be a thoroughly absorbing couple of hours. Paul Keating gave an astonishing performance in the lead, living and breathing the part of Kenny throughout his heartwrenching descent into despair.

The Telegraph considered it to be a ‘painfully moving new play‘ and the FT thought it ‘an eloquent and compassionate response to Rattigan’s great play‘.

Outside of this trio, I have long had a soft spot for The Winter’s Tale since studying it for my A Levels many years ago, and can never resist a new production. Two strikingly different productions of the story were delivered in 2016 and two more are to come in 2017 (from the English National Opera and Cheek by Jowl respectively).

The first of 2016’s tales had more than a touch of brilliance with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench giving masterful performances and delivering new insights aplenty. The second, Christopher Wheeldon’s three-act ballet adaptation for the Royal Ballet, was a marvel with ravishing sets and incredible movement.

Other honourable mentions for 2016: As you like it (NT); Bassett (Orange Tree); Blue/Orange (Young Vic); French without tears (Orange Tree); Hand to God (Vaudeville); How to date a feminist (Arcola); Kiss me (Hampstead); Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Donmar); No Man’s Land (Wyndhams); The Children (Royal Court); and Travesties (Menier Chocolate Factory).

It is a pity that the perception that good theatre is expensive deters so many from taking a look at what is on offer particularly on the fringe where tickets are often in the same price bracket as the cinema. There are some exciting new seasons on the fringe – I am particularly looking forward to Guards at the Taj at the Bush Theatre and The Cardinal at the Southwark Theatre. Roll on 2017!

Karlsruhe on the Thames

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 8, 2016

The Bremen class frigate Karlsruhe (F212) arrived in London at the weekend for a five day stay in the capital, taking up position alongside HMS Belfast for the duration. The Karlsruhe follows in the wake of sister ships Niedersachsen (F208) and Augsburg (F213) which visited in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

On her way to London the Karlsruhe and her crew commemorated two sunken warships which also bore the name Karlsruhe (one scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919 and the other sunk at Kristiansand in 1940).

Bremen-class frigate F212 Karlsruhe

Bremen-class frigate F212 Karlsruhe

The thirty-two year old Karlsruhe has just finished her last operational deployment in the Mediterranean where she took part in Operation SOPHIA, the EUNAVFOR mission to capture and dispose of the vessels used by migrant smugglers. In mid-2017 she will be decommissioned, leaving just two Bremen-class frigates (out of eight) still in operation.

The replacement for the Bremen-class frigates will be the F125-class frigate, currently under construction by Thyssen-Krupp and Lürssen. The first of the class, the Baden-Württemberg (F222) is due to be delivered at the end of November 2016 and should be commissioned in 2017.

The Karslruhe is currently scheduled to pass through Tower Bridge on her way out of London at 07.45am on Wednesday 9th November.

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Steam to Sheffield Park Garden

Posted in England, Sheffield Park by folkestonejack on October 29, 2016

After a rollercoaster week at work it was good to get out to the beautiful landscape gardens at Sheffield Park, Sussex, to recharge my batteries. It may not have been the best day to visit, with overcast skies and unexpected drizzle, but nothing could diminish the beautiful autumnal colours. It didn’t seem to have deterred the crowds either with the overflow car park called into use to cope with a long queue of visitors.

A view of Sheffield Park House from the garden

A view of Sheffield Park House from the garden

My journey to Sheffield Park Garden was an altogether more relaxed affair. I took advantage of the Bluebell Railway’s ‘Giants of Steam’ gala to take a ride down to Sheffield Park behind the sole surviving B12 class express passenger steam locomotive (built by Beyer, Peacock & Co. in 1928), a gorgeous sight in LNER Apple Green.

The splendid recreation of the Southern Railway of the mid 1920s at Horsted Keynes is always a highlight of any visit to the Bluebell, even if I was only passing through this time. There was even a nod to the 21st century Southern experience with a half hour delay on my journey back up the line (the service unravelled with the unfortunate failure of the B12, blocking the line at Horsted Keynes until the stricken train could be shunted into the sidings).

It takes only a few minutes to walk to the gardens from Sheffield Park station, following a well signed footpath across parkland. Once inside the gardens you can take your pick of paths around the four lakes, through the glades and woodland, admiring a landscape that has evolved over hundreds of years. Most notably, the gardens owe much to the work of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton in the late 18th century.

The gardens also include a splendid set of carefully engineered waterfalls which were constructed by James Pulman and Son between 1882-1885 using their secret recipe for Pulhamite, a rather special kind of artificial rock that is most familiar to me from its use in the Zigzag Path in Folkestone. The waterfalls are only switched on for an hour every Tuesday and Friday, so I’ll have to come back to see it working on some future occasion.

Red leaves at Sheffield Park Garden

Red leaves at Sheffield Park Garden

The Sheffield Park estate was split up in 1953 with the National Trust purchasing the gardens whilst the house remained in private ownership (in the 1980s it was divided into twelve apartments). However, you can still see how beautifully this all fitted together when you take in the view across the Ten Foot Pond from the First Bridge to the gothic house designed by James Wyatt.

Sheffield Park Garden was designed to be at its best in the autumn so its no surprise that the colour on display here, mirrored in the lakes, is such a lure for visitors. I thought it was a wonderful place to unwind and let go of the stresses of the working week. If only you could bottle that effect…

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Autumn wanders at Wakehurst

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 22, 2016

The promise of a fine day tempted us out to sample the autumnal delights of Wakehurst Place, the country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The trip required a little planning as buses to the site only run every two hours on saturdays but the reward was a relaxing wander in the grounds with a pleasing mix of beautifully illuminated reds and golds that made this photographer very happy!

The mansion at Wakehurst Place

The mansion at Wakehurst Place

The extensive grounds are a pleasure to explore and we have Gerald Loder, later the first Lord Wakehurst, to thank for that. In 1903 he purchased the long-established estate and set about creating the gardens that we see today. The next owner of the estate, Henry Price, continued his work and bequeathed Wakehurst Place to the nation in 1963. Today, it is owned by the National Trust but managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew.

It is not hard to see why Wakehurst Place holds great appeal as a wedding venue, but the benefit of visiting on one of its quieter saturdays was the opportunity to peek inside the mansion for a moment or two (the Elizabethan mansion is not a significant focus of the visitor experience here, but it’s still nice to get a feel for the house at the heart of the estate) and to enjoy the view across the lawn.

Our walks took us from the lawn to Iris Dell and the Himalayan Glade. Although the dell was long past its best the autumn colours around the water were still tempting plenty of photographers to linger for the perfect shot. It must look stunning in July with over 60 varieties of Japanese water iris in bloom. After a spot of lunch in The Stables restaurant we enjoyed stretching our legs among the impressive tree roots on the rock walk.

The trees in full autumnal splendour proved a big draw for everyone, but especially photographers. It was almost as much fun watching photographers pointing their lenses upwards to catch the perfect interplay of light and red foliage as it was to take pictures myself. Nevertheless, the hundreds of photographs I took are ample proof that I was not immune from the photographic lure of a red tree or two…

Inner Compulsion by Peter Randall-Page in front of one of the buildings at the Millennium Seed Bank

Inner Compulsion by Peter Randall-Page in front of one of the buildings at the Millennium Seed Bank

At the opposite end of the timeline to the Elizabethan mansion is the barrel-vaulted complex of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank which has been home to the world’s largest plant conservation programme since it opened in 2000. This ‘living library’ is working towards the impressive target of conserving 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020, with the first priority being the most endangered or economically important species. The importance of this was brought home in the story of some of the rare UK species that had been rescued by this programme when they would otherwise have faced likely extinction.

The Millennium Seed Bank is a fascinating project explained in just the right amount of detail through a series of panels around the central exhibition space, explaining the process of extracting moisture to ensure that seeds are stored in the most perfect conditions and the science of determining how long the seeds will last. I thought it was inspired to offer a glimpse of the scientists at work in the open plan offices adjacent to the exhibition, carrying out the very processes we had just read about.

A count in August 2015 revealed that the vaults of the seed bank contained 2,115,847,290 seeds from 36,333 plant species at the time. The number is incredibly impressive but sadly dwarfed by the 60,000 and 100,000 species currently at risk (around a quarter of the world’s plant species).

I have to admit that I had no idea of this vital work before I visited but having discovered the project I would say that it is impossible to visit Wakehurst and not be inspired.

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Twenty one years in the online world

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 20, 2016

Twenty five years have passed years since the first public website went online sometime in 1991 and this month it will be 21 years since I built my first web page.

Although the World Wide Web was made publicly available in 1993 my first encounter with the web didn’t occur until two years later. I didn’t seek it out – I just happened to start a postgraduate course in 1995 which included a short course in building web pages from the relatively simple HTML code of the day. I was hooked from that moment on, eagerly creating my own pages and exploring the mainly text based websites of the early web community. I didn’t anticipate then how much this discovery would underpin my future career.

Twenty one years on I am still enjoying the challenge of creating and curating good online content in my day job, but I am also acutely aware of the dangers the myth of the internet presents to our store of knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong. Every day I am astonished at how much more is available now than I could ever have dreamed of in the era of the early text based web. Yet I know that there is so much more out there sitting on the shelves of our libraries that would easily repudiate the insidious claim that ‘everything is available online’ if it could speak for itself.

Sadly, these respositories of knowledge are under attack. The House of Lords debated the role of libraries in the UK earlier this month and the scale of the losses given was quite shocking. Since 2010 more than 500 libraries have closed and almost 9,000 librarians have left the profession.

Each time I hear that a library has closed or a collection has been junked I have to say that my heart sinks, knowing that the information world has just got a little bit smaller. However, the drain of professional expertise is just as damaging for the long term health of our library system. The ability of professional librarians to know precisely what a collection holds and mine it effectively is sadly far too easily overlooked.

I am an optimist by nature and I still think that the overall impact of the internet is positive in exposing the hidden wonders of our archives and libraries to new audiences. However, there is an incredibly fine line between a rich digital future and a digital catastrophe. The challenge for the hybrid information professional of today is to work within the system towards that better future, never forgetting the importance of our libraries.

Signs of Autumn

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 15, 2016

It is three weeks since the official beginning of autumn but to me it is only when the colour of the trees start to turn that it really feels as though the seasons are changing. Perhaps I haven’t been the most observant, but it was only on a weekend outing to Ham House in Richmond that I noticed this for the first time this year.

Autumnal colours at Ham House

Autumnal colours at Ham House

A couple of wonderfully golden trees standing outside the entrance gave the clear signal that autumn is here and that it is time to get the camera out!

Ham House is a stunning survivor from the seventeenth century with an incredible collection of artistic treasures. Freeflow visits of Ham House have already finished for the year, but we took up the offer of a short ‘highlights’ tours which left us wanting to return next year for a better look!

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Pieless in the sky

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 11, 2016

One of the strange delights of a flight for me has always been the reassuringly familiar performance of the cabin crew in serving up a meal from their metal trolleys. It is, perhaps, a link to a more glamorous age of travel that I know has long gone but which still has a degree of magic to it.

A British Airways airbus A319 and A320 at Gatwick earlier this year

A British Airways airbus A319 and A320 at Gatwick earlier this year

The serving of food on flights is one of the great rituals of a full-service flight and ridiculous as it sounds, to me it is a part of the magic of a holiday that starts when you step on board a plane. I know I am not about to have the most exciting culinary experience of my life and yet I really enjoy the excitement of being served up a random meal and indulging in a momentary distraction from flight boredom.

I am relieved to see that I am not alone in this strange liking for the tray of delights as recent articles in the press (such as The glory days of airline food are behind us, but it’s painful to let go and I love plane food. Please British Airways, don’t take away my foil-wrapped fun) and blogs like Inflight Feed attest.

The news that British Airways is removing free food and drink from its short haul offering and cutting meals from some of its long haul flights has aroused great passion on social media and in the press over the past few weeks. I know this is something of a first world problem, rather than one of the great injustices of the world, but I would be sad to see this start the ball rolling on the disappearance of the mystery in-flight meal from full service airlines.

Having said that, when the first airline meals were served up by Handley Page Transport between London and Paris (on 11th October 1919) passengers were charged 3 shillings for their pre-packed lunch-box so maybe things are not as different from the golden age of aviation as we might like to think!

It will be interesting to see what happens next – will British Airways continue its transformation into a budget airline or are they plotting a new path? If nothing else, the last three bouts of cost cutting will have left many passengers wondering where the axe will fall next and how reliable BA’s promises of service levels might be months ahead of a flight.

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Open House London 2016

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 18, 2016

The Open House London weekend is always one of the highlights of the year for me and never fails to surprise with the astonishing interiors it opens up. Our itinerary for this year, split over two days, took us from the brilliant opulence of Lancaster House to the darkness of a single, very special, room at the Beaumont Hotel.

Lancaster House

Our weekend began with Lancaster House, a grand building originally commissioned in the 1820s as a home for the Duke of York, befitting of his status as the brother of the new king. Unfortunately, he died soon after the framework was completed, leaving the whole project in doubt and steeped in debt.

In the end the building and its palatial interiors would mostly be shaped by the new leaseholders, the Dukes of Sutherland, who took over the development in 1830 and stayed with the property until 1911. After a spell as a museum it is today managed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and used as a centre for government hospitality, conferences and events.

The Music Room, Lancaster House

The Music Room, Lancaster House

We were delighted to discover that Paul and Trevor, our tour guides, worked in the house and had that wonderful passion for the building and depth of knowledge about its current use that it would be hard for anyone else to bring. It made for a fascinating visit, richly illuminated by tales of the events and filming that had taken place in each room. I particularly appreciated the insights into the everyday use of the less showy rooms on the ground floor, such as the room with a table laid out for a ministerial dinner.

The splendour of the state apartments and wonderful paintings on display across the first floor of Lancaster House would make this a top tourist attraction in any other city and really helped to put into context Queen Victoria’s famous line to the Duchess, “My dear, I have come from my house to your palace.” I think that captures the magnificence of the interior perfectly.

I was a little surprised that we had overlooked this gem on past Open House weekends but as this is only the third time that it has been included in the event there haven’t been that many opportunities to see inside. Don’t pass up the chance if it appears in the listings next year!

Holland House

It took us an hour to get inside our next building, Hendrik Berlage’s revolutionary office block of 1916 in the city. It was originally built for a Dutch shipping company and included many features that we now take for granted in offices, such as movable partitions and the first atrium in the UK.

Sadly, the building has suffered badly over the years with many of the original features removed during successive redevelopment. In spite of these losses the building still has much to catch the eye of the visitor and the lobby spaces have a distinctly continental feel with vibrant aquamarine glazed bricks and colourful tiles arranged in various maritime themes. Work on the building continued during the war, with the flow of materials prioritised over food supplies!

Looking up from the atrium

The atrium at the centre of Holland House

The striking exterior of Holland House is perhaps more American in styling, with grey-green bricks used to cover a steel frame. It must have seemed quite unlike anything else in the city in the early years of the twentieth century and still makes quite a striking sight today.

Tower 42

Tower 42 is one of many tall buildings in the city today and you might not think to give it much of a glance, but for the duration of the 1980s it was the tallest building in the country. It was originally built for the National Westminster Bank between 1971 and 1979, with the Queen opening the building in 1981.

Even though it has long since seen new owners and been renamed it is hard not to think of this place as the NatWest Tower when the footprint of the tower so neatly matches the NatWest logo!

A view of the Gherkin and Canary Wharf from Tower 42

A view of the Gherkin and Canary Wharf from Tower 42

We have seen a few skyscrapers in the city during past Open House weekends so it was interesting to compare these with the first of its kind. Unlike many of the newcomers, which have banks of flash lifts to whizz you to the top, this one had just one small and rather unremarkable lift to take you to the relatively narrow viewing gallery at the top (which is today home to a champagne bar, Vertigo 24).

The view from the top is one of the finest that I have seen in the city and it’s really striking to see the top of the Gherkin just a short distance away. As I work just around the corner it was good fun to try and trace the buildings that I am familiar with from the ground level, such as the re-developed Angel Court and the unmistakeable circle of Finsbury Circus.

The Oak Room (New River Head)

Our second day began with the story of the survival of a single room through history, rather than an entire building. The Oak Room is a late renaissance marvel which was originally the centrepiece of the offices of the New River Company, reflecting the prosperity of the company. It features stunning carvings that are believed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) and a ceiling painting dominated by a portrait of King William III by Henry Cooke (1642-1700). It is quite an ensemble and must have impressed anyone stepping inside during its heyday.

The original home for the Oak Room (actually a main room with anterooms at either end) was demolished to make way for the new headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1915 and the room was then re-incorporated, albeit re-orientated, into the new building. It was dismantled again in 1941 (spending the war years in the relative safety of the Queen Mary Resevoir) and then re-instated.

Thames Water sold off the building for conversion to luxury flats in 1992. However, the room endures with new owners and residents are able to book use of the room for special occasions and the like. Thames Water still has use of the room for 20 days a year, opening it to the public a few times a year and for Open House London.

Detail from the ceiling in the Oak Room

Detail from the ceiling in the Oak Room

It is a splendid room which rewards close examination with plenty of interesting detail to spot. I particularly liked the plasterwork frame to the ceiling painting which presents wonderful scenes of rural life, swans and some rather fierce looking sea creatures. The fish hanging from a hook on the wood carving were a lovely touch too!

Once again, it is thank to the people who have a strong connection to the place that these buildings really come alive. Our tour guide’s tale of her first days at New River Head as all the changes were being announced gave this visit an extra dimension.

Finsbury Town Hall

We were heading for the bus when we spotted the Open House logo on a banner outside the old Finsbury Town Hall, now owned by the Urdang Academy. If I am honest I didn’t expect much from this former municipal space, but the stunning art nouveau design of the Great Hall had a real ‘wow’ factor. The winged angels line the walls holding up garlands of lights were really quite extraordinary.

This was our chance find of the weekend and really captured the essence of Open House London for me. I would never have guessed that the council would have taken such a radical step in the design of the town hall!

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Although it is hard to believe now, the town hall was on the English Heritage list of Buildings at Risk just over a decade back, after the move of the last remaining municipal functions to Islington Town Hall. Thank goodness Urdang stepped in when they did.

Westminster Hall

It is always a pleasure to wander around the vast interior of Westminster Hall and soak up over 900 years of history under the watchful gaze of the angels lurking in the medieval hammer-beam roof. However, part of the appeal of this visit was the opportunity to see the contemporary light sculpture ‘New Dawn‘ which was installed above the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall earlier this year.

The sculpture commemorates the success of the long and difficult campaign for women’s suffrage and was unveiled on the 150th anniversary of the first mass Votes for Women petition. It’s a beautiful addition to the House of Parliament and beautifully completes a space always intended for an artwork but which had lain empty since the 1850s.

HM Treasury

A short walk from Westminster Palace brought us to HM Treasury and the government offices of Great George Street, constructed between 1900 and 1917.

The Drum

The Drum

It is a pity that you can’t see the interior of the Treasury any more (remembering being able to see Chancellor Gordon Brown’s office on a much earlier Open House) but it is always a pleasure to see the massive circular courtyard (the drum) which sits at the centre.

Room at the Beaumont Hotel

The last stop on our Open House London adventures for 2016 brought us to the elegant art deco interior of the Beaumont Hotel to see one of the most unusual rooms in this city. The room in question is an inhabitable sculpture in the form of a crouching figure that quite literally sits on the structure of the hotel.

Room at the Beaumont Hotel

Room at the Beaumont Hotel

It’s not the first time that we have been inside one of Anthony Gormley’s sculptures having visited his vast work Model at White Cube, Bermondsey, in 2013. However, this feels like a quite different and much more intimate experience.

The suite of rooms that make up this hotel room lead up to a curtained off dark oak-clad interior with no distractions beyond a bed. Once the lights are switched off you can gradually discern the shape of the figure through the small amounts of light seeping through. Anthony Gormley has described the concept as offering him the chance to ‘sculpt darkness itself’.

We only spent a short time in the room, listening to our guide James give an enthusiastic explanation of the concept, which was quite enough to convince us that it must be quite remarkable to spend a night here. We were very grateful for the chance to have a small glimpse of that!

Thank you to all the organisers, owners, staff and volunteers who continue to make Open House London such a delight.

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