FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A day at the château – in Buckinghamshire!

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 14, 2017

One of the most surprising sights in Britain can be found in Buckinghamshire, a short drive from Aylesbury, where Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild built an exquisite turreted country home in the style of a French château between 1874 and 1883. It is one of only a handful of Rothschild family houses that survive today out of the forty that were once spread out across Europe.

Waddesdon Manor

The moment you step onto the drive it feels as though you have somehow been transported to the Loire valley and that first impression carries through into the extravagant interior, especially in the marble-clad dining room with its echoes of the grandest French palaces. Among the many extraordinary furnishings are pieces commissioned by Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Marie Antoinette for the Louvre and Versailles respectively. The mixture of 18th century decorative arts and English portraits from the same era works remarkably well – nothing feels out of place.

Marvels abound in every room and reward a slow soaking up of detail, such as the set of chairs with small carvings of birds assembling a nest or a golden cherub appearing to climb out of a set of drawers.

One highlight was a bronze elephant automaton dating to 1774 which stuns even in its static state. A video of of the automaton shows how much more astonishing it is in action. Other stunners included a musical box depicting Orpheus taming the animals (c. 1720) and a strikingly curvy-swirly silver gilt cup by Christian Van Vianen (1640) which is now paired with a contemporary painting showing a boy holding the cup. In truth, it is a house of highlights.

The house might seem like a historical anachronism to us now but in its heyday it was a showcase for cutting edge technologies, including central heating, electric lighting and one of the first lifts to be installed in an English country house. Queen Victoria was said to have been so impressed by the lights that she asked for them to be switched on and off repeatedly!

The original Otis lift (installed in 1898) is now on display in the Power House

The Rothschild family had great foresight in understanding that great collections such as this would naturally drift towards national art museums without taking special steps. James de Rothschild (1878-1957) ensured that the collection could be enjoyed in its family context by future generations by donating Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust backed by a suitably large endowment. It’s a pleasure to step inside and marvel at their legacy.

Practicalities

Our trip to Waddesdon Manor proved to be one of the most straightforward days out that we have enjoyed. An hour or so on the train from London Marylebone to Aylesbury Vale Parkway station followed by a short ride on the free shuttle bus to Waddesdon Manor.

At the time of writing the shuttle bus connects with the Chiltern Railways service that leaves London Marylebone at 9.57am so you end up reaching the property at around 11.15am. Return times vary. The bus only runs once a day in each direction, but that’s not really a problem as there’s plenty to see at Waddesdon. If you time your visit for Wednesday, Thursday or Friday you will also be able to see the rooms in the Bachelors’ Wing.

We spent around two hours inside the house but could easily have spent longer looking at the displays on the first and second floors. The rest of our time was divided between the aviary, grounds and stable block. Although the food on offer in the cafe in the stable block was perhaps a little on the pricey side there was no doubting the quality and super taste of everything we sampled. Last but not least, the fudge was sensationally good…

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Charlecote Park

Posted in England, Stratford-upon-Avon by folkestonejack on October 8, 2017

A weekend trip to Stratford upon Avon gave us an opportunity to take a Sunday morning outing to see Charlecote Park, a National Trust property that is a mere 14 minute bus ride away from the centre of town. From the moment you enter the estate and start your walk down the drive towards the sixteenth century turreted gatehouse you get a sense of how special this place is. More of the magic gets revealed as you make way through the archway and see the main house and as you explore the deer park beyond.

Through the gatehouse

The Lucy family has lived here since at least 1189 when Sir Walter de Cherlecote inherited the estate, though the current house dates back to 1558 and what we see today is very much how the Victorian owners wanted to present it. The site looked a little familiar to me without ever having visited which turned out to be because this historic site was a source of inspiration for the set designers of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won!

The Elizabethan exterior is magnificent but the interior is a nineteenth century vision, partly drawing upon a two year grand tour by the Lucy family that sounded like the ultimate in holidays from hell! The family set off in their carriages with their retinue but got stuck in heavy snow whilst crossing the alps, resulting in the death of their young son. Incredibly, another child was born while they were on the road! You can still see the carriage they used on their grand tour in the carriage house.

The material gathered during their grand tour was much more than a collection of artifacts, even extending to the red and white marble flooring in the Great Hall which was picked up in Venice.

The view from the west

Overall, a visit to the house and grounds kept us entertained for a leisurely two and a half hours – including some lovely moments watching deer running through the west park. Hard to imagine that a young William Shakespeare spent time in the same grounds here whilst poaching!

Practicalities

We were thoroughly confused by the information available on the bus route that passes the property. The information on the National Trust website and in the journey planner suggested that we needed to take the X18 bus, but on arriving at the bus stop at Bridge Street in Stratford-upon-Avon we discovered a notice stating that the X18 is now taking a more direct route to Warwick and would no longer stop at Charlecote. Instead, passengers are asked to take the X17, which only runs Mondays to Saturdays. Not much help for our Sunday outing…

Our disappointment turned to delight when the driver of the next X18 confirmed that he was going to Charlecote. At the other end we discovered a crucial piece of missing information – a notice at the Charlecote bus stop states that on Sundays the X17 runs as the X18! Talk about a convoluted change. So, in summary, X17 Mondays to Saturdays and X18 on Sundays/Bank Holidays. The notice states that not all X17 buses will serve Charlecote so it is worth checking carefully…

The bus route passes the Charlecote estate before reaching a bus stop outside the Pheasant Hotel. The visitor centre is an easy walk round the corner from here and the entrance to the estate is just over the road.

At the time of writing adult admission costs £12 (with Gift Aid) for the house, grounds and outbuildings but is free for National Trust members. You can get a discount for the restaurant or shop when arriving by public transport.

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A peek inside Crossrail Liverpool Street

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 21, 2017

The last stop on our Open House London schedule for 2017 brought to the Crossrail site at Liverpool Street Station, just around the corner from my workplace. I was quite intrigued to see what was going on behind the hoardings that I regularly pass during my working week.

The entrance to the Eastern Ticket Hall (Broadgate) will be through a five metre tall glazed canopy in a newly pedestrianised plaza

I think we all knew that it is a massive undertaking to build this new railway line but I still had not appreciated the degree of complexity involved in weaving this new line through the heavily built up city and finding a place to fit the infrastructure needed to support it. This even includes the need to avoid the disused stretch of the mailrail that passes through here.

The other fascinating insight was how innovative technology is being used to improve the efficiency of the build, from drones used to inspect the tunnels to VR hard hats allowing easy access to plans and drawings whilst working with both hands. The future industrial application of this technology sounds so optimistic that it makes you wonder why so much of the initial focus was on the leisure market!

Our visit allowed us to take a look inside the construction site at what will be the Eastern ticket hall of a new station that will stretch all the way across to Moorgate which has a rather striking ceiling design that looks like someone has been making origami in concrete.

The view down from the Eastern Ticket Hall to the lower levels of the concourse

From here we could also see the space where escalators and an incline lift will take passengers down to the lower levels. It’s hard to believe that in just over a year this space will be bustling with passengers. As it will almost halve the time from the City to Heathrow I am sure it won’t be long before I am amongst the throng.

Exploring Alexandra Palace’s hidden history

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 20, 2017

Our first stop on this year’s Open House London weekend took us to Alexandra Palace, a pleasure palace built for the people in the late nineteenth century. In act, it was built twice over – the first palace burnt down in 1873 sixteen days after its grand opening so the building we see today is a complete re-build which opened on 1st May 1875.

Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace is probably most famous as the birthplace of television with the first BBC broadcast transmitted from here to 200 television sets on 2nd November 1936. However, our visit focused on the basement and some remnants of earlier chapters in its remarkable story.

After donning hi-vis jackets and hard hats we headed through the doors of the curiously named ‘Traitor’s Gate’ below the south terrace and into the surprisingly extensive south basement where the layers of history are still visible. In contrast the north basement, which was completely rebuilt after the terrible fire of 1980, is of little interest.

Entering the basement through Traitor’s Gate

At first it was hard to imagine that this derelict and dusty space was once a thriving underworld filled with offices, kitchens, cellars, store rooms, larders, ice wells, plate stores and a dining hall for servants. However, as our guide pointed out the surviving features, including storerooms with shelf markings still visible and bread ovens, the space started to come alive a little.

The industrial scale of the dining experience here looks pretty grand in the pictures that survive but it was said that the food was often cold by the time it reached the table after making the long journey from the kitchen!

Bread ovens

Move forward a decade or two and the picture is entirely different. Alexandra Palace became home to Belgian refugees in 1914 and then an internment camp for German, Austrian and Hungarian ‘enemy aliens’ between 1915 and 1922. Over the span of the war 17,000 aliens spent time at Alexandra Park, divided into three battalions reflecting their social class. The working classes found themselves crammed into the great hall whilst the upper class inhabitants had a more comfortable living space in the towers. The divisions didn’t end there – working class men were allowed weekly visits of just 15 minutes whilst the upper classes were allowed 2 hours.

The basement space was a part of this re-purposing of the palace. Our guide pointed out a prison cell with barred windows that survives in the basement (apparently many internees tried to get themselves sent here to escape the noise of the overcrowded hall) and some of the discarded heavy machine tools from the workshops used by the internees. Amongst other things, the internees made model boats that they sailed on the boating lake behind the palace. Other aspects of the camp have long since vanished, such as the 400 allotments that once surrounded the site.

Abandoned workshop tools

After making our way back into the main building we had an opportunity to see a marvelous short film that gave us a little bit more of the story of the internment camp, drawing on letters and drawings from the individuals detained here. The last internees left in 1922 but the effects were longer lasting, whether from mental illness brought on by the confinement (‘barbed wire disease’) or through harrowing deportations that separated the men from their english families (only a minority of 4000 were allowed to remain).

Alexandra Palace has so much history to share and I hope that the plans for restoration will allow the spotlight to be thrown on all these layers.

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Open House London 2017

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

Open House London celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with another bumper crop of new buildings added to the list of old favourites. It is testament to the riches of London that there is never any shortage of places to visit every year from stunning livery halls to astonishing industrial sites. This year was no exception – with two palaces offering some fascinating and very different glimpses of the past.

Lambeth Palace

Our day took us back and forth across London with visits to Alexandra Palace, Lambeth Palace, Watermark Place, The Walbrook and Crossrail Liverpool Street. Along the way we enjoyed a side-visit to the incredibly surprising St Mary Abchurch which we just happened to see was open whilst walking between sites.

The highlight of the day was a ‘taster’ tour of Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury for over 800 years. The sense of history is overwhelming, such as when you step inside the Guard Room to find yourself being watched by two centuries worth of Archbishops of Canterbury and learn that this was where the fate of Sir Thomas More was sealed.

Other interesting sights on our tour included the beautiful stained glass and blitz marked floors of the chapel, the vaulted crypt and the charming State Drawing Room.

The enthralling nature of our tour of Lambeth Palace was as much a testament to the story-telling skill of our wonderful guide as the building itself, weaving in historical events, tales of chance encounters with past archbishops and some unusual discoveries (such as the green man in the Guard Room). Absolutely wonderful.

The roof gardens at Watermark Place

The biggest surprises of the day came at Watermark Place, where we enjoyed a stunning rooftop view and met the hawk that keeps the skies above clear of pigeons two days a week, and at St Mary Abchurch, where we discovered that the conventional looking square red-brick exterior hides an astonishing painted dome (one of Wren’s experiments in preparation for St Paul’s Cathedral).

From the outset Open House London has been an incredible event and to my mind it is by far the best weekend of the year in the city, though it is considerably more popular than when I first participated as a university student in the 1990s! Thank you to Victoria Thornton, the Open House London team and the many volunteers for twenty five years of wonderful insights into the architectural gems of this city.

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THV Galatea visits London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 11, 2017

The Trinity House Vessel Galatea, a Multi-Function Tender, arrived in London in the early hours of this morning after making the journey round the coast from her home port of Harwich. The visit has been organised in conjunction with the biennial London International Shipping Week (11-15 September 2017).

THV Galatea arrived in London in the early hours of this morning

The Galatea is just a month shy of the tenth anniversary of her naming by the Queen at this very spot on 17th October 2007. The vessel was constructed at the Remontowa shipyard in Gdansk and launched on 26th July 2006. She is normally based at her home port of Harwich.

The near ten year old tender was designed as a state of the art vessel to support Trinity House’s role as the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. This includes buoy handling, wreck marking and hydrographic surveying. Quite a striking change from the cruise ship visitors more familiar through the summer, especially with her distinctive 30 tonne lift crane!

THV Galatea and HMS Belfast with Tower Bridge in the background

The evening rush hour got a rather impressive view of the ship with black skies, brilliant sunshine and a rainbow which are probably circulating on social media right at this minute. I was a little too slow making it to the bridge for that shot, timing my arrival for the last few rays of sun and the arrival of a deluge! After sheltering for a moment or two I was lucky enough to have a chance to redeem myself.

THV Galatea will be moored alongside HMS Belfast until the evening of Thursday 14th September.

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Seven highlights from the Folkestone Triennial 2017

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 3, 2017

The Folkestone Triennial has once again served up an interesting mix of work from 20 artists which have been spread across the breadth of the town from the Leas to the East cliff. Highlights include a couple of figures from Anthony Gormley, gilded replicas of Folkestone’s fishing fleet by Jonathan Wright and an audio installation by Emily Peasgood in the Baptist Burial Ground.

I usually pop down some time after the event has got into its stride, but on this occasion I took a look on its opening weekend and discovered that not everything was quite ready. One of the artworks, Bill Woodrow’s The Ledge, won’t be installed until later in September so all you can do now is admire an empty black plinth!

1. Fleet on Foot – Jonathan Wright

The moment I stepped into Tontine Street my eye was immediately drawn to Jonathan Wright’s distinctive gilded replicas of boats from Folkestone’s current fishing fleet which stand atop poles at various points along the street, leading you down to harbour square. The location is rather appropriate as the street sits atop the Pent stream, a mostly hidden water channel that runs along a culvert and into the harbour (though I discovered the hard way, in August 1996, that it causes havoc when it floods!).

A 3D printed replica of fishing boat FE75 “Rowena” (built Rye, 1989) in Tontine Street

I’m no art connoisseur but I liked the crossover between the artworks and the familiar everyday sights of Folkestone Harbour. It was fun comparing these to the real thing a little later in the day on a wander along the Stade.

2. Halfway to Heaven – Emily Peasgood

The Bradstone Road Burial Ground is a Folkestone oddity – a graveyard that has sat 20 feet above street level since the mid-nineteenth century. The burial ground was originally on the hillside, in the grounds of the local miller’s house, but when the railways arrived the land was needed to allow the town to expand. No-one wanted to disturb the dead so the burial ground was left untouched as the rest of the hillside was cut away. The graveyard was surrounded by retaining walls that have kept this last piece of the hillside intact right up to the present day.

Bradstone Road Burial Ground

The sound installations at the Baptist Burial Ground were quite hauntingly beautiful. The artist, Emily Peasgood, had researched the individuals buried here and this was used to create sound pieces that triggered as you wandered amongst the graves. It was perhaps at its most amazing when a handful of people were wandering around, triggering the sound pieces at the same time.

I was really pleased that we got the chance to go up the stairs to the burial ground and look around. It really is very odd to find a graveyard up a set of steepish stairs with the street on one side and a garage at the back. My father was fascinated too – his best man’s house overlooked the burial ground from across the street but he had never been up until this weekend. It’s a fascinating curiosity of history.

3. Holiday Home – Richard Woods

It is pretty much impossible to miss Richard Wood’s contribution to the Folkestone Triennial – six one-third size ‘holiday homes’ that draw attention to the growth in second homes at a time when many cannot afford a house at all. The six homes are deliberately placed in unlikely places to show that ‘no site is too small, too unlikely, or too inconvenient for its neighbours, for a holiday home’.

One of the holiday homes on the shingle in front of Marine Crescent

The printed maps we picked up show a different location for one of the houses (marked on the map as 6e) to that shown in the map available to download from the website. This house is sited on the shingle in front of Marine Crescent not part-way up the zig zag path.

4. Another Time XVIII and XXI – Antony Gormley

Two of Anthony Gormleys now very familiar cast-iron figures are on loan to the Folkestone Triennial and were a big draw on the opening weekend. One is placed at the far end of the Parade, nearest to the east cliff, whilst the other has been installed in a loading bay on the Folkestone Harbour arm.

Another Time XVIII 2013 at the Loading Bay, Folkestone Harbour Arm

The figure on the harbour arm was sufficiently popular that queues had formed at one point on the first day of the Triennial. A short set of steps takes you down to a viewpoint over the loading bay but you can’t get up too close. You also need the tide to be in your favour – when I returned on the sunday the floor of the loading bay and viewpoint was completely covered with water!

By contrast, the figure in the parade was somewhat easier to access, albeit down a rather slippery set of steps. I probably haven’t wandered around the arches here since I was a child, so it was good fun looking at the different angles that were possible for a photograph.

Another Time XVIII 2013 at high tide (photographed through the grill)

I’ve seen these figures in a few locations now, but nothing quite compares to the effect of seeing so many spread along Crosby beach. Nevertheless, it was great to see them in Folkestone.

5. Siren – Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od

The piece from Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od really appealed to me as it draws on the ‘listening ears’ along this stretch of coast which I just happened to have visited a little over a month back.

Siren at sunrise

Siren is marvelously positioned near the East Cliff Pavilion, with a great view over the Sands and Folkestone Harbour. It was proving a popular spot on the first day, though most folk seemed more interested in hearing their own voices impressively amplified than listening to the waves to get the sea-shell effect.

6. Lamp Post (as remembered) – David Shrigley

The idea behind David Shrigley’s piece was to reflect Folkestone’s creative-led move away from its long history serving the traditional tourist market. To that end he invited an artist to spend 40 seconds memorising the decorative lamp posts on the Leas and then re-create this from memory, thus turning heritage into an artwork befitting of the new Folkestone.

Lamp Post (as remembered)

It’s an interesting concept and one that plays out nicely as you stroll along the Leas wondering if you will spot the interloper immediately. In fact, it is easy to do so because it is much shorter and then as you get closer you notice the differences in design. Quite apart from anything else it made me look closer at the existing lamp posts which I have too easily ignored in the past!

7. Minaret – HoyCheong Wong

One of the things I love most about the triennial is the chance to see Folkestone afresh, whether that is surfacing a bit of forgotten history or providing a new viewpoint on a familiar sight. I have to confess that I had absolutely no idea of the existence of the Islamic Cultural Centre, which has operated as a Mosque in Foord Street for 28 years. I must have walked past it plenty of times on my way to my Nan’s house without noticing.

The Islamic Cultural Centre illuminated at night

You certainly can’t miss it now. For the duration of the triennial HoyCheong Wong has added a delightful temporary facade with minarets which is illuminated at night. It proved a popular spot to visit on our evening stroll, turning the usually quiet side street into a magnet for art-hunters. I’m not sure what the occasional motorist made of the folk lined against the wall that borders one side of the road in an attempt to get that perfect shot!

Practicalities

The fourth incarnation of the Folkestone Triennial runs every day from 2nd September to 5th November 2017. A map and app are available through the Folkestone Triennial website.

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Re-imagining Folkestone

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 3, 2017

A weekend trip to see the Folkestone Triennial provided a welcome opportunity to see what has been going on around the town in the three years since I last made it down.

A view of Folkestone Harbour from the newly opened walkway towards the True Briton

The transformation of the town was already well under way last time I visited, but I was really struck by the health and vitality of Tontine Street, a far cry from the run down state of the street in the 1990s. The restoration of the Brewery Tap as an exhibition space for the University for the Creative Arts is rather wonderful (we popped in to see the current installation and my father reminisced about his last visit in the 1960s, a time when it still had a sawdust floor).

The Old High Street looked reassuringly busy with only a handful of shop units lying empty – astonishing when you consider how many high streets are struggling right now. It is also encouraging to see the side-effects of regeneration spreading across town and the much needed refurbishment of hotels that have long seemed stuck in the past.

In various spots around town you can see that the work continues. The demolition of the Old Bingo Hall and Co-op buildings has left quite a noticeable gap at the junction of Dover Road and Tontine Street which will be filled by a world class six storey Urban Sports Park when construction is completed in 2018. It looks like a really exciting development and one that shows that this wave of transformation is not solely for the benefit of incomers (as some have suggested).

The new pedestrian walkway across the old Folkestone Harbour Viaduct on the morning of 3rd September 2017

However, it is around Folkestone Harbour and the coastal park that the most dramatic changes have taken place. On 2nd September 2017 a new pedestrian walkway across Folkestone Harbour opened using the railway viaduct and swing bridge. It seemed to be an instant success with everyone and offers a lovely perspective on the harbour (I especially like the way that they have adapted the well-built brick support for the sidings into a viewing platform looking across the outer harbour). Access is currently via temporary steps in harbour square – a staircase and lift will come later.

The new walkway will eventually continue through the railway station, providing a connection with the harbour arm and the newly established boardwalk across the shingle towards the Leas Lift. At the moment work is continuing on the station but what you can see already looks pretty impressive with the replacement of the canopies and restoration of the station walls. When this is finished visitors will have the option to walk at platform level or on the track bed path. It may not be the preserved railway line that I once hoped for but it is a wonderfully sympathetic restoration that does a terrific job of preserving the history of the site.

Restoration of the canopies and installation of the new trackbed paths continues at Folkestone Harbour Station

An indication of how well this has been done can be seen in the beautiful revival of the last surviving part of the old Customs House, with the addition of some lovely wooden doors, which currently houses an exhibition in connection with the triennial. The restoration and adaptation of the buildings on the harbour arm and the re-establishment of the platform break (where the line to West Beach Carriage Sidings used to cut through) show a similar respect for the history of this site. The latter connects with a boardwalk across a freshly re-shingled beach that hides the footprint of the old Rotunda site.

If I have any quibbles about the development they are mostly around the scale of a few of the taller buildings that will be built in the last stage of the project on the south quay – it looked as though they rather dwarfed elements like the Old Customs House in the model and illustrations on display in the visitor centre (located at the entrance to the harbour arm from the car park overlooking the sands). However, it’s not as though the buildings that were on this spot until recently were pleasing to the eye and surely nothing can be any worse than the architectural monstrosity that is the Burstin!

The first stage of the Folkestone Harbour walkway is a striking addition to the geography of the town and puts it on the map with other innovative adaptations of old railway lines such as the Promenade Plantée in Paris and the High line in New York. Not bad company to be keeping!

The sympathetic restoration of the station platforms is rather special

The creative-industry led regeneration in Folkestone continues to be rather wonderful and unusual, saving the town from the downward trajectory seen in many a coastal town where traditional industries and/or tourist markets have been in steady decline. Sadly most of the deprived coastal communities around the country do not have a benefactor like De Haan to inject such sustained and much needed investment.

Folkestone’s fascinating story of re-invention from the fashionable resort of the Victorian era to a new life as a hub of artistic creativity is remarkable, but it is worth remembering that the regeneration is not a panacea for all the problems that the town faces, particularly when there are still wards around the harbour that are among the 10% of most deprived in the country.

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A little bank holiday sun at Chartwell

Posted in England by folkestonejack on August 28, 2017

After the coldest start to the summer holidays since 1982 a little heat over the august bank holiday weekend has been a pleasant surprise to those of us missing the sun. In an attempt to make the most of the good weather we took a little trip on the 246 bus to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s family home in Westerham, Kent.

Winston Churchill’s country retreat at Chartwell

As others have noted before, it is a delightful bus ride in its own right taking you through Keston, Leaves Green, Biggin Hill (with views of the airport, memorial church and the boarded up married quarters from the former RAF station) and Westerham. The route includes the southernmost bus stop in London and also the highest above sea level. It is easy to forget that you are on a London bus as you pass along one narrow country lane after another.

Once you have entered the grounds it is quickly apparent why Winston Churchill made his uncharacteristic decision to buy the house in September 1922. Standing on the terrace in front of the homely red brick Victorian mansion you are faced with splendid views of undulating green countryside. The house is surrounded by other green delights too, including a colourful butterfly-filled garden and a croquet lawn.

I have been to Chartwell once before, as a teenager in 1986, so it was good to come back to better appreciate the house and grounds. One thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years is the slow procession through the house – it is inevitably too cosy for the 230,000 plus who visit each year despite the careful arrangements to allow entry via timed slots. At least it allows you time to soak up the detail.

The exhibition in the house offered up a few surprises, not least the discovery that it was Winston’s own efforts at bricklaying to create a beautiful walled garden that we had been admiring before our tour. I rather liked a picture of Churchill building a snowman at Chartwell too!

Summer colour at Chartwell

After wandering through the house we made a quick stop off at Churchill’s painting filled studio before heading home in the midday sun. Our only regret was that we didn’t get to see Jock VI, the latest marmalade cat in residence!

Practicalities

The 246 only heads to Chartwell on a handful of Mondays each year (it only runs on Sundays and Bank Holidays) and conveniently stops right outside the entrance to the grounds. The first bus of the day arrives at 10.12 and we picked it up from Hayes.

Admission to the house and grounds is free to National Trust members or £15 (including gift aid) per adult at current prices. Entry to the house is by timed ticket at 10 minute intervals and on summer sundays and bank holidays these often sell out fairly early in the day.

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Biggin Hill – Festival of Flight 2017

Posted in Biggin Hill, England by folkestonejack on August 19, 2017

It is all too easy to overlook the sights and attractions that lay closest to home. Unfathomably, I never attended the Biggin Hill International Air Fair, the largest privately organised air show in Europe in its day, even though it was more or less on my doorstep. I only appreciated my mistake when time was called on the event in 2010 after a 43 year run. The closest I got was looking up at military jets in transit whilst mowing the lawn!

The Saab JAS39C Gripen from the Czech Air Force

In 2014 a smaller event, the Festival of Flight, was launched at Biggin Hill and this year’s show was extended to two days to celebrate the centenary of the airport. The airport has come along way from the airfield used by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the First World War and is today mostly used by business jets.

I finally made it out to the air show by bus (regular local buses from Hayes on the first day and the special bus from Croydon on the second) and spent two enjoyable days taking photographs with the terrific backdrop of some of the older buildings of the West Camp.

Mil Mi-24 Hind and Mil Mi-171 Hip

The highlight for me had to be the Mil Mi-24 Hind and Mil Mi-171 Hip from the Czech Air Force but there was a lovely variety to the air show, in part from the regular and irregular traffic interspersed with the displays that included civilian flights and military jets departing for air displays in other parts of the country.

Other aircraft at Biggin Hill included the Belgian F-16 Fighting Falcon, the B-17 Flying Fortress, Typhoon, Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, JAS39C Gripen, EADS CASA C-295 and Boeing CH-37 Chinook.

The Red Arrows taxiing in at Biggin Hill

As always the Red Arrows put on an excellent display (on this occasion the flat display as the full display is impossible here due to the restricted airspace overhead) but the biggest surprise of the show had to be the display from G-Force aerobatics which features the unusual double act of an Extra 300s with a 40% scale radio-controlled model Extra. The precision of the acrobatics these two planes performed was simply astonishing and it was easy to forget that you were looking at a model at times.

It may not be the slickest of air shows but the Biggin Hill Festival of Flight has a lovely atmosphere, a great setting and doesn’t feel too overcrowded. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back!

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Goddards House and the Terry’s chocolate story

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 13, 2017

On our travels we have come across many surprising twists and turns in history that have been long forgotten. A late afternoon visit to Goddards House at the edge of York Racecourse, home of the Terry family, revealed another of these: if the original plans of the Terry’s chocolate company had worked out we might all now associate the name of Terry’s with the chocolate apple (1924-1954) instead of the chocolate orange (1926-present).

Goddards House

This year sees the 250th anniversary of the Terry’s business, which started life in 1767 as a chemist shop near Bootham’s Bar in the centre of York. The story of the family and their chocolate business is told in the wonderful arts and crafts home that Noel Terry commissioned to overlook their new factory in 1927.

Goddards House is a lovely property in its own right but must have been all the more special in its time as a family home as Noel Terry was an avid collector of mid-18th century English furniture. Today this collection can be seen at Fairfax House and the house is rather more sparsely furnished with pieces befitting of a house of this era.

In the upstairs rooms the story of the Terry’s chocolate business is illustrated with wonderful photographs, a model of the factory complex and examples of their packaging. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the ingenious designs from the early 20th century and a bit of nostalgia for later product ranges that I had long forgotten about.

The guides explained that the creativeness of the business in developing innovative products led to it having too many product lines, many with runs too small to be economic. The business was sold on to United Biscuits in 1975 and then on to Kraft in 1993 with the new owners immediately slashing the product range from over a hundred to just three.

250 years of Terry’s

The factory closed in 2005 and production was switched to plants in Europe, such as the massive ‘line of the future’ at Skarbimierz, Poland. The factory site has since been redeveloped for luxury flats and the original office complex has been sympathetically restored as the hub of a rather impressive care village (including a Terry’s chocolate shop).

It’s well worth making the trip out to Goddards House (just a short trip by bus from York Railway Station) in this double anniversary year. Adult admission currently costs £7 per person though for us this was covered by our National Trust membership.

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Fountains Hall and Abbey

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 13, 2017

A Sunday outing to the National Trust site at Fountains Abbey proved to be a great way to enjoy a sunnier day in Yorkshire, but the initial draw for us was not the abbey ruins but the somewhat overlooked Elizabethan prodigy house. Arguably, you could say that we were still coming to see the abbey as Fountains Hall was built using stone from the ruins (the hall even includes a complete spiral staircase taken from the abbey).

Fountains Hall

In any other location Fountains Hall would be a major attraction, but on this site it is dwarfed by the majestic ruins of Fountains Abbey and the extensive 18th century pleasure gardens of Studley Royal. Construction of the hall began in 1598, almost 60 years on from the dissolution of the abbey and the subsequent wrecking to make it unfit for religious use. The abbey has been a ruin for the entire lifespan of the hall.

The exterior of the hall reflects the influence of Robert Smythson but is not in the league of grander houses from the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean age such as Hardwick Hall or Burghley House. Nevertheless, Fountains Hall has the wow factor that you expect from a prodigy house even if the three rooms open to visitors can’t hope to live up to that first impression. Through much of its history the hall has been in a state of decay as the home of estate workers and tenant farmers. The rooms not open to visitors include holiday and staff flats.

The later history of the hall turns out to be as fascinating as its beginning. In 1923 the hall was purchased by the Vyner family and their extensive restoration efforts saved the building at a pivotal moment in its history. It is intriguing to note that Clare and Doris Vyner were great friends of the then Duke and Duchess of York and had history turned out differently Fountains Hall may have become a royal country retreat. Instead the abdication of Edward VIII set the couple on a different course.

I gather there are plans to open up and make more of the hall, including the re-opening of the chapel room. I hope this comes to pass as this house deserves to be appreciated for the architectural marvel it is.

Fountains Abbey

A short walk from the hall brought us to the west range of Fountains Abbey, which was first established on the site in December 1132. The views of the surviving buildings as you wander through are magnificent and make it pretty clear that this was an impressive complex by the time of its surrender in November 1539. Some elements, such as Huby’s Tower, were barely 40 years old by this point.

The pleasure gardens present an altogether different collection of delights with temples, towers and statues within a watery setting. Although these stand on their own today they were originally the grounds of Studley Royal House which burnt down in 1946. I particularly liked the gothic Octagon Tower which you reach by taking an artificial uphill tunnel (known as the Serpentine Tunnel).

Our day visiting the estate was a delight and it is wonderful to see a site where so many layers of history are so accessible, from the earliest abbey buildings to the carefully engineered water gardens of the eighteenth century and on to the second world war memorial established by the Vyner family inside Fountains Hall in memory of their two eldest children. It is well worth a day of exploration and discovery!

Practicalities

We caught the first 822 ‘Fountains Flyer’ bus of the day from the stop at York Theatre Royal to Fountains Abbey at a cost of £10 for an adult return. This bus only runs on Summer Sundays and Bank Holidays, taking 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Fountains Abbey via Ripon. The seating on the bus was filled up by the time we reached the halfway point, though many switched to another bus at Ripon. We picked up the return bus at 2pm, but there is a later bus at 4.55pm and I suspect that most of the passengers we encountered in the morning opted for the latter.

Our stay was sufficient to take in the abbey, water gardens and the hall but we skipped the mill and the exhibition in the Porters Lodge. We also didn’t stray far beyond the National Trust grounds. If you want to take the time to walk out to the Deer Park and St Mary’s Church you would probably need the later bus.

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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.

Gallery