FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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Autumn wanders at Wakehurst

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 22, 2016

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

The mansion at Wakehurst Place

The mansion at Wakehurst Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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