Reality T.V. And The Roman Town House And Disquieting Views Of The Past

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This 4th century Roman house is quite a landmark. It sits beside a rural crossroad below Wenlock Edge, and even though we know it is there, it always takes me by surprise whenever we drive that way to Shrewsbury – its time-slipped Mediterranean demeanour striking false notes in the midst of 21st century Shropshire farmland. But then this was once the style de nos jours across most of England – the way we were, almost fully Romanized, twenty to sixteen centuries ago.

And of course it is a re-creation, but then that is surprising in other ways. For a start it is built on the site of an actual Roman city, otherwise known as Wroxeter or Viroconium, and it is not usual for the heritage-powers-that-be to allow building work on their sites of international archaeological importance. For another, it is a product of a Channel 4 ‘Reality TV’ show broadcast in six episodes back in 2011. ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day ‘ was a piece of experimental archaeology turned mainstream viewing, in which a team of UK builders was set the task of building the town house using ONLY traditional Roman methods.

They had 6 months to master new skills, guided by a 2000 year old manual written by engineer Vitruvius, and under the watchful eye of project planner Professor Dai Morgan Evans, who had based the design on an actual building excavated at the site. By all accounts it was a bit of a bumpy ride.

These days Wroxeter is in the care of English Heritage and if you follow the link you can find out more about the once fourth largest Roman city in Britain. The site’s immense historical importance meant the town house project could only proceed by first creating a foundation raft that would protect the remains in the ground. Originally, too, it was intended that the house would have a limited time span. However, it is still with us, and we finally decided to make an actual visit in November last year – on Remembrance Sunday in fact, when many of us were pondering on quite another momentous historical event, the centenary of the end of World War One.

A strange case of mixed millennia then. The day was bright and blustery day with an icy wind blowing up the Craven Arms gap between the Shropshire Hills. As we peered into the re-created domestic quarters  (in much need of some serious house-keeping) we could hear the peeling bells of Shrewsbury’s churches several miles away. It sounded joyous too, this commemorative toll on so many million wasted lives.

And so it was one of those moments of complete chronological, if not ontological disorientation when you wonder what life, the universe and everything means. A ‘Who am I? Why am I?’ reaction. I took a few photos and fled back to the warmth of the visitor centre where there were two lovely young English Heritage women to chat to, and where one could also submit to the soothingly anodyne effect of graphics panels on topics Roman.

I came away thinking there are many versions of ‘reality’ that we buy into, man-made, manipulative and specious. Nonetheless, there are still some actual Roman remains at Wroxeter, the rising facade of the great Baths Basilica. And of course I remember a couple of weeks I spent here in the 1970s, a Prehistory and Archaeology undergrad, apparently gaining some required excavation skills in order to obtain my degree.

In fact I probably learned more from the gang of prisoners let out each day from their penal establishment. They worked close behind the line of us middle class student excavators, emptying our spoil buckets, barrowing the dirt into skips, all the while intent on shocking us with talk of lurid prison doings. One among them, though, grew so fascinated with the excavation process that he was promoted to the digging line and even worked through his lunch break. ‘I’m going to do this when I get out,’ he said, head down, trowel in hand, scrape-scraping away. Yes. That was a real reality glimpse. I learned a lot from that.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

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Lens-Artists: Architecture

Chatsworth Again

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If you read my October posts on Chatsworth, you will know that our wander through the grossly sumptuous interiors made us very, very grumpy – with ourselves for one thing – for pandering to this piece of (very successful) private heritage enterprise and paying £50 (including guide book) for the doubtful privilege of doing so.

And then there’s the history that riles. However you look at it, this great family pile is founded on all that continues to be wrong with English society: the dubious acquisition of great wealth, status and power, and the fact that we STILL bow before the titled, rich and famous as if rampant social climbing and an unearned and unjustified position of superiority is worthy of our respect. Furthermore we then confuse the act of procreation by such people with the passing on of hereditary titles, as if the first justifies the second. It does not. It need be considered no more real than a mass belief in fairies. Yet we  have embedded it in our institutions – the monarchy and the House of Lords being its most obvious expressions.

The first, admittedly, has been reduced to soap opera status (although the royal family still holds on to a vast amount of wealth and property so long as it does not rock any political boats), but the Lords, by contrast, exercise considerable authority over the passing of our laws. And while there are very good reasons to have an upper house to provide check and scrutiny of the doings of the House of Commons, the fact is the Lords are unelected – bishops and peers whose titles are the only membership credentials required to get in there to lobby and pass judgement on matters of national and international importance.

And we the English people, through habit and unquestioning apathy continue to be complicit in a system where wealth, class and newspaper magnates shape and control the society we live in, and often against our best interests. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes writ large – in all its intricately self-serving, pernicious nastiness. So why do we still buy into it? Or are we too distracted by our cell phones to pay attention?

But back to Chatsworth. Now I’m left wondering if it would be more acceptable if it were owned by the National Trust. Probably. Although I have to say that in recent conversations with friends and relatives who, like us, are Trust members, we increasingly agree that the stately homes themselves leave us cold, their current presentation often afflicted by bad cases of Downton Abbey-itis that make too much of surviving family members who (by accident of inheritance) may still live in them. Instead, it is more the National Trust’s thoughtful management of landscape and countryside, and the pioneering of green technologies that wins our hearts and minds.

Meanwhile at Chatsworth the Cavendish family take pains to make themselves politically acceptable by presenting themselves as great patrons of the arts, and particularly of contemporary art. They do this to the extent of mining their own mitochondrial DNA in order to commission artwork that fixes it in a public display in the North Sketch Gallery. Many of you commented on this bizarre piece of self-regard-made-art in Back to Chatsworth and a bad case of over-gilding?

But of course, all this leaves me with a terrible dilemma. You see I have the photos, and Chatsworth is nothing if not photogenic, and especially in the October sunshine. And so now I’ve had a little rant, here are the pictures, the selection inspired by Paula’s word prompts at Lost in Translation. (See the list below).

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P.S. But in case you’re thinking Chatsworth is an isolated example in the history of England’s aristocracy, and how its members acquired riches, power, titles and unwarranted social and political influence, then architectural historian, Dan Cruikshank’s BBC series The Country House Revealed  gives further examples. We came upon it last night on YouTube, and it reminded me how angry I’d felt at Chatsworth. Anyway, Cruikshank tells a grim, if fascinating story in episode 1 at South Wraxall in Wiltshire, though be warned, his whiffling, whispering mannerisms may prove a little irritating to some. On the other hand, the revelations in the content make it worth putting up with the eccentric delivery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dywRbbDsqnY

 

Related posts:

To Chatsworth and how Mary Ann went to the ball

Back to Chatsworth and a bad case of over-gilding?

 

Thursday’s Special: Pick a word in November : palatial, cerulean, spurting, radiating and comic.

Back To Chatsworth And A Bad Case Of Over-gilding?

I promised some interior views of Chatsworth. So here they are – not easily taken I might add, what with much penumbral gloom and spot lights where the camera least wanted them. But you will get the idea.

Much of what you will see was the work of the 4th-Earl-made-1st-Duke by the imported protestant regime changees, William and Mary, at the end of the 17th century. The earl certainly forked out for his dukedom. First among his creations to welcome the new monarchs is the Painted Hall. It replaced the original Elizabethan Great Hall, its walls adorned with scenes from the life of Julius Caesar. (Painted by Louis Laguerre who had the Sun King Louis XIV for a godparent.)  It seems the intention was to flatter William III, although it is suggested the included scene of Caesar’s murder was a hint for him not to overstep the mark.

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The next glimpse is of The Chapel built between 1688 and 1693, and little changed since then apart from the addition of Damien Hirst’s creation of St Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain – upon which I pass no comment other than to say that the Devonshires continue to take pride in the commissioning of contemporary art for the house. On a general note though, the chapel struck me as a touch lacking in what one might expect of Protestant self-restraint.

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And now for a few hints of grandeur from the State Apartment with its drawing and withdrawing rooms and state bedchamber and closet – all laid on for the monarchs’ great good comfort, with the exception of the gilded leather wall covering (next photo) which was added much later by the 6th Duke during a redecorating spree. (Apologies for the spotlight flares).

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By now I’m overstuffed with the extravagance, and we’ve not even looked properly at the art piled up in every room or reached the Library:

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And then there’s still the Great Dining Room to see. It is being set out for a grand private banquet on the day of our visit. The guide book says that until 1939 and the outbreak of war, this room was used by the family whenever there were more than six to dine. A thirteen-year old Princess Victoria also enjoyed her first grown up dinner here. To ensure nothing went wrong, her host, the 6th Duke, ordered a fully cooked banquet dress rehearsal the day before.

As we gawp passingly at the 6th Duke’s silver (the surtout de table  commissioned from silversmiths Paul Storr and Robert Garrard) I am amused to see two women pressing the damask cloth’s long skirts over their respective ironing boards.

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But now for the case of gross over-gilding that caused me much mental frothing at the mouth. Way back in the Chapel Corridor that I haven’t shown you, and where artworks from 4 millennia are displayed, I happened on some notices attached to the windows. They referred to the £32 millions’ worth of renovations carried out at Chatsworth over the last decade.

This is what the current Duke, Peregrine known as Stoker’ has to say of one particular restoration venture – the breathtakingly expensive (demented?) gilding of exterior window frames:

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And this is what the gilder had to say:

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And here’s a segment of the finished product:

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And here’s what was running through my head: What are we doing here, encouraging these people, and paying £21 each, plus parking fee, for the doubtful privilege of witnessing this ludicrous waste of money when an artist’s impression of how the windows once looked would have done just as well?

So: we were more than a bit aggravated after the two-hour-trek wherein we only scratched the surface of the opulence on show, and were further forced to grit our teeth as we were allowed to view the family’s still much used cosy salon, a room where one whole wall was taken up depicting The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Yet it wasn’t all overbearing. There were some things in the ducal collection I did like – Lucien Freud’s portraits of the late duke and duchess, a Clarice Cliff coffee pot, some earthy ceramics, the name of whose maker I could not find, the Cornelis de Vos portrait of his daughter, a monster sized foot belonging to a 3,000 year old Greek goddess, Barry Flanagan’s Leaping Hare in the Inner Court, the silk wall covering in the Duke of Wellington’s bedroom and a fossil fern. And then there was the very nice man, rather surprisingly playing Eric Coates compositions in the Ante Library. He told us the composer was much undervalued:

But the undoubted prize for self-regarding humbug has to go – not to the artist Jacob van der Beugel for his extraordinary creation and execution, but to the Cavendish conception of the work in the North Sketch Gallery. The whole corridor is installed with 659 ochre ceramic panels that provide, in abstract form, portraits of the present duke and duchess and their son and his wife, Lord and Lady Burlington. The portraits’ composition derives from the mitochondrial DNA sequences taken in swabs from each of the four individuals.  A fifth portrait depicts Everyman, showing the DNA common to all of us. Meanwhile interspersed mirrors allow passing (in our case bemused) visitors to place themselves fleetingly amongst these family ‘portraits’. The whole is described as ‘the most significant single art installation at Chatsworth since the creation of the 6th Duke’s Sculpture Gallery in 1832.’

Or an ill conceived stab at faux inclusiveness?

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Phew. Enough already. Time to take a break and go out into the garden – more of which another time.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

The Thing I Didn’t Tell You About Lower Brockhampton Farmhouse…

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…was that out in the garden the air was filled with the dreamy scent of cyclamen. They were growing everywhere including under a medlar tree whose unpromising looking fruit is only ready to eat in winter, after it has ‘bletted’ i.e. the flesh softened by frost. Then, so I read, it tastes like apple sauce and can be eaten raw, or else made into a fruit jelly. The tree was introduced to England by the Romans.

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Nor inside the house did I show you the ornately carved Tudor bedstead in the master and mistresses’ bedroom off the gallery above the great hall. Or down below, the huge fireplace where once, in medieval times all the main cooking would be done. The spit-roasting tackle is on the floor beside the cast iron grate.

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Then there was the impressive timbering upstairs in the must-have gatehouse for the family going up in the world. Also in the doorway there was a nice sample panel of wattle and daub, the construction method of choice in medieval England. And then there’s the door itself – very much the thing to keep out unwanted callers with its faux portcullis lattice work:

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Back in the garden there was the swing to linger on, and across the moat the ruins of a thirteenth century Norman chapel. In the orchard the damson trees were hanging in fruit. I’m guessing these might have been sold as much for dyeing as for eating, since this is what they were used for in my part of Shropshire during the nineteenth century, and therefore probably earlier too. The apples in the orchard would have been turned into cider, Herefordshire’s traditional tipple.

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Cheers!

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

See previous post for more of the manor’s history.

In the Pink #7 

Today over at Becky’s it’s all pink wigs and tutus.

Traces Of The Past ~ An English Moated Farmhouse And Why It’s Still Here

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Last Wednesday the power was out on Sheinton Street (the electricity men were in our end of town, trimming off tree branches that were impinging on the lines). A day out was called for. So we set off for unknown territory, over the county boundary into Hereford. Lower Brockhampton Manor near Bromyard was the destination, a 600-year old farmhouse on the Brockhampton Estate, one of the National Trust’s many properties, and the kind of place where the provision of coffee and cake could be guaranteed.

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The Brockhampton Estate is an ancient manor, first documented in 1166 when some worthy called Bernardus lived here. No one knows where, though his house may well have been under the surviving farmhouse at Lower Brockhampton, it being a human habit to re-use a good spot once one has been found.

The earliest part of the house you can see to today is the great hall (in the next three photos), built around 1425 by the Dumbleton family.(A name to almost conjure with for Harry Potter fans). And if you want to know what else was going on around this time well, England’s Hundred Years War with France was still on, Jean of Arc was about to defeat the English at Orléans; Chinese imperial admiral Zheng He was on course for East Africa with his treasure ship fleet of 300 ships and 30,000 crew, and in London some essential repairs were being carried out on London Bridge including building a new drawbridge to facilitate the passage of shipping to the upper reaches of the Thames.

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The house was remodelled during Tudor times, a false floor added to the great hall (above) to provide bedrooms for children and thus privacy for their parents, the need for which being something of a new-fangled notion.

The gatehouse was also added in Tudor times (c. 1545 and so around the time of Henry VIII’s death and the accession of his son Edward VI). The family was clearly going up in the world and wished to show it. I think it is a star piece of historic architecture. Here’s another view – from the window of the great hall (through murky old glass):

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In succeeding centuries the owners of the estate became very grand and built themselves the usual big pile, on a hill a mile and half away from the farmhouse. After the National Trust took over the estate, they wisely decided they had enough stately homes on view to the public, and so leased the more recent estate properties for private occupation, and concentrated instead on the Lower Brockhampton farmhouse.

To my mind the farmhouse, and its 600 years of associated agricultural history, is far more interesting and historically important. Well done National Trust.

BUT THEN they would not have been able to do this were it not for a piece of most enlightened Victorian forethought.  In 1871 the owner of the estate, one John Habington Lutley, commissioned, John Chessell Buckler, a top architect of the day, to restore the crumbling farmhouse. The two men recognised that too much of England’s historic vernacular architecture was being needlessly destroyed because people did not think it could be repaired. They wanted to debunk this notion. So hats off to those two gentlemen.

Once the house was restored, it and its farm fields, continued to be let to tenant farmers. One of the rooms in the house is set in the 1950s, marking the tenancy of Marian and Valentine Freegard who arrived on the farm with their five children in 1952. On their 115 acres they kept  a small milking herd of Shorthorn cattle and reared sheep. They also maintained the existing apple and damson orchards. Valentine had a new Land Rover, a tractor and one working horse called Old George. They sold their milk at the village shop for 2 pence a pint. The next photo could be a scene from my childhood, the Cheshire farmhouses I remember visiting.

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The Freegard children apparently amused themselves by rowing about on the moat in an old tin bath. And in case you’re wondering, moated farmhouses were a common feature of the English countryside from before 1200 and into the Tudor period. A moat could of course be defensive, but it is more likely to have been a demonstration of status.

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Of course one of the cheeriest parts of any farmhouse is the kitchen, and Lower Brockhampton’s is no exception. Unfortunately it was not providing the requisite coffee and cake that had spurred us from home in the first place. For that we had to hike back across the park, through the damson orchard, over a shorn wheat field, past cows, into a wood and up a big hill to the Apple Store Cafe where we had left the car. (There was alternative parking and snack bar nearer the farmhouse, but we thought we needed a walk).

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All in all, the Brockhampton Estate is a marvellous resource. Quite apart from the farmhouse, there are several walking trails through 1,700 acres of stunning park- and woodland. And yes, I know you have to pay to go in, or become a National Trust member, but if it weren’t for the NT, whole swathes of Great Britain’s landscape would have been lost forever, and this includes our magnificent coastal paths which are freely accessible. Better still, they are using the great estates in their care, to pioneer all sorts of environmentally friendly technologies. It’s also good to see that when it comes to family days out, NT properties are increasingly destinations of choice. There is much emphasis on outdoor pursuits and learning about both natural and man-made landscapes; activities where children, grownups and dogs can have plenty of fun exercise, and maybe learn a few important things too.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Traces of the Past

Jo’s Monday Walk

Lincoln Cathedral ~ Black & White Sunday

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A few years ago we spent a very satisfying three days in Lincoln. Not only is the town bursting with historical buildings and atmosphere, it is a very visitor-friendly place. The cathedral is undoubtedly the star, although the monochrome edition here makes it look rather stark. In real life the stonework has an amber glow. You can see that version in an earlier post: Walking Through Time On Lincoln’s Steep Hill.

It is astonishing to think that this building – begun in 1088, and later suffering fire, earthquake, and many phases of rebuilding, is still standing. Art critic John Ruskin claimed it to be the most precious exemplar of British architecture, and worth two of any of our other cathedrals. I’ll take his word for it. In fact I agree. The extraordinary craftsmanship and feats of engineering, if not their overall purpose, truly impress me. The towers were built in phases from the late 1200s – constructed ever taller and more elaborately. The central, and tallest tower was raised to 271 feet/83 metres in 1311. With spire added it is said to have outdone the Great Pyramid of Giza for tallness, a record it enjoyed until 1549 when the spire blew down.

The cathedral’s presence in the townscape is indubitably breath-taking, but the thing I liked best when we were there was that peregrine falcons have taken to nesting way up on the tower ledges. As you walked around the peaceful precincts you could hear their plaintive calls in the tower tops. These birds normally nest on sheer cliff faces so you have to admire their nouveau urban style – pinnacle of early English Gothic.

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Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past  You have till a week on Sunday to post your own traces of the past and link to Paula’s blog here.

Going Behind The Scenes In Wenlock Abbey

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We followed in the footsteps of long-gone celebrities on our recent, and I have to say, nigglingly exclusive visit to Wenlock Abbey. It was the first chance we have had to visit there, and it was done under the auspices of our Civic Society.

Without doubt this building is the architectural jewel of Much Wenlock. It lies at the heart of the town, but is usually only visible if you scramble around at the back of the church yard, and peek over the wall. It housed the erstwhile domestic quarters of the priors of Wenlock Priory and, since the Dissolution in 1540, has remained in private ownership. The adjoining priory ruins, however, belong to English Heritage, and are the town’s main tourist attraction. Somewhat confusingly the house has long been called The Abbey, although the priory from Norman times was always a priory, not an abbey. The Saxon religious house that preceded it, however, was an abbey of both monks and nuns and ruled over by an abbess.

The range seen in the first photos is the most recent part of the house, built in the early 1400s. The limestone wing, just visible on the left, comprised both the monks’ infirmary and the original prior’s chambers, and are considerably older.

The present owners have spent the last three decades restoring the house, and creating interior settings that to many might seem outlandish and controversial. There will be more about this in a moment.

But first those celebrities of times past. I’ve written about his visits before, but one of the returning house guests in the days of the Milnes Gaskells’ ownership was Henry James. He came in 1877, 1878 and 1883 – and apparently drew much inspiration from the house and grounds when he was writing The Turn Of The Screw.  The little roof-top tower certainly puts in an appearance in the text.

At the time of James’ first visit, his hosts, Charles and the young Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, had not long been married and were expecting their first child.  The invitation had been secured through ‘lobbying’ by a mutual friend, Henry Adams, the American historian. He and Charles Gaskell had met as undergraduates at Cambridge, and before Charles’ marriage he had also been a frequent guest at The Abbey. Adams thought Charles, by then a prominent barrister, and Henry James had many interests in common and would get on well; and so it proved.

Charles’ father, James Milnes Gaskell, had been the Conservative MP for the Borough of Wenlock and had bought The Abbey (priory ruins included) in a derelict state from his wife’s cousin. The Gaskells senior appear to have held rather rustic and unconventional house parties there. (They naturally had other smarter homes elsewhere). Adams describes a visit in the autumn of 1864:

God only knows how old the Abbot’s House is, in which they (the Gaskells) are as it were picnic-ing before going to their Yorkshire place for the winter. Such a curious edifice I never saw, and the winds of Heaven permeated freely the roof, not to speak of the leaden windows. We three, Mrs. Gaskell, Gask (Charles) and I, dined in a room where the Abbot or Prior used to feast his guests; a hall on whose timber roof, and great oak rafters, the wood fire threw a red shadow forty feet above our heads. (1.)

One of the more unusual pursuits on such visits included the archaeological excavation of the Priory ruins.

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Adams describes his own contributions to the general exploration:

Whenever we stepped out of the house, we were at once among the ruins of the Abbey. We dug in the cloister and we hammered in the cellars. We excavated tiles bearing coats of arms five hundred years old, and we laid bare the passages and floors that had been three centuries under ground. (1.)

When Charles Gaskell took over The Abbey from his father, he and Lady Catherine set about restoring the property and making it a family home where they might energetically entertain notables from the world of arts and literature. Emphasis was on mind-improving activity, and an appreciation of the aesthetic in all its forms.  Visitors would be treated to extensive walks, drives and railway journeys to view all the surrounding great houses, and visit Shropshire’s many ancient churches and castles.  A trip to Wenlock Edge to take in the vistas was also obligatory.

Henry James documents his own many outings with Charles Gaskell in Portraits of Places.

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The Prior’s Chapel during the time of Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell from her book Spring in a Shropshire Abbey  1904 (available to download on Gutenberg Press).

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The Gaskells’ other guests included In Darkest Africa explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, architect, Philip Webb, Architect and Pioneer of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and Thomas Hardy and his wife. Hardy was apparently surprised to find himself lodged in the oldest part of the house, and declared that “he felt quite mouldy at sleeping within walls of such high antiquity” (2.)

The Hardys were also taken around the county, visiting Stokesay Castle and Shrewsbury. Florence Emily Hardy recounts how one Sunday Hardy and Lady C walked until they were tired, when

“they sat down on the edge of a lonely sandpit and talked of suicide, pessimism, whether life was worth living, and kindred dismal subjects, till we were quite miserable.”(2.)

The room wherein Hardy felt so mouldy was in the infirmary wing and is indeed very old, dating from the 1100s CE.  The original prior’s chambers were built adjoining the infirmary around a hundred years later, the scale of them doubtless dictated by the need to accommodate a series of royal visits. The deeply devout King Henry III, along with his own prestigious guests, was a frequent guest between 1231 and 1241.

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This photo shows the rear view of the infirmary and original prior’s lodgings, (the limestone range on the right) together with the side elevation of the upscaled prior’s lodgings that were added in the early 1400s (multi-coloured stonework to the left).

The king, as monarchs did, would arrive with a large retinue of servants, clerks, cooks, musicians and blacksmiths, all of whom had to be housed. There must have been some pretty good parties too, since a permanently appointed keeper of the king’s wine was required to manage the contents of the priory wine cellar in readiness for any royal visit. Supplies were  brought in from Bristol ( a hundred miles away) by the Sherriff of Shropshire and a record relating to the delivery of four barrels in 1245 states that the wine was to be placed ‘safely in the cellars there against the king’s arrival as he proposes shortly to come to those parts, God willing.’ (4.)

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The galleried facade of the more recent fifteenth century lodgings,originally unglazed, was constructed from stone from four different quarries.

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The catslide roof is tiled with stone flags.

Inside, on the ground floor, is the prior’s private chapel, while upstairs is the Great Hall with its great stone fireplace and high beamed ceiling mentioned by Adams, and next to it, though scarcely less grand, the Lesser Hall. Timbers in the Great Hall roof have been dendro-dated to 1425.

The front door to the left of this range, though, is considerably older, with its characteristic Norman arch. James describes it in his travelogue Portraits of Places (3):

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I returned to the habitation of my companion (Charles Milnes Gaskell)…through an old Norman portal, massively arched and quaintly sculptured, across whose hollowed threshold the eye of fancy might see the ghosts of monks and the shadows of abbots pass noiselessly to and fro…for every step you take in such a house confronts you in one way or another with the remote past. You feast upon the pictorial, you inhale the historic.

It was through this doorway we also went a few  Saturdays ago. As I said, this was a private tour, and our first such visit. Since 1983 the house has been the home of Gabriella and Louis de Wet. De Wet is an artist of some renown and Gabriella is better known to the wider world as theatre and television actor Gabrielle Drake. For the last 33 years, driven by Louis de Wet’s extraordinary artistic vision,  they have been restoring the house – carrying the building’s story on into the 21st century while revealing its ancient monastic roots in strikingly original ways. The project has been an epic labour of love, and involved the dedication of consummate craftsmen, working very much in the mediaeval guildsmen tradition.

I did not take photos. So if you want to see what lies behind this door, please follow this next link. It will take you to a 2 minute trailer of a very excellent film made by Gavin Bush in 2011: In The Gaze Of Medusa . I leave you to make up your own minds about the merit of the De Wets’ prodigious and unique enterprise. It is not straight forward by any means.

For now, here’s the one photo I did take – of the library, and still a work in progress. It gives a taste of the quality of the craftsmanship involved in the restoration-creation work, the newly made shelves that will house a life-time’s collection of books on art, philosophy and history. Also niggles apart, we did appreciate the gracious hospitality of Mrs. de Wet who showed us around with such enthusiasm, and then treated our party to tea and some very delicious cakes in the Venetian Room. So very English!

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

1. Ernest Samuels Henry Adams: Selected Letters  1992 p 69

2. Florence Emily Hardy The Later Years of  Thomas Hardy  1930

3. Henry James Portrait of Places

4. Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock  2001

Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring In A Shropshire Abbey  1904

Walking through time on Lincoln’s Steep Hill

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Steep Hill in Lincoln has seen a lot of history its time. The invading Romans built the first road around AD 48 to link their legionary fort of Lindum Colonia on the top of the hill with the riverside Iron Age settlement at bottom. After the Romans came marauding Vikings, who then gave up pillage for commerce, and so turned Lincoln into a thriving trading centre. Next in 1066 came the invading Normans. All have left traces of themselves around the city.

Today, Steep Hill ranks among the most scenic streets in Britain. It now links the city’s historic Cathedral Quarter in Bailgate, with the bustling shopping centre down by the river.

But a word of warning. You definitely need to take plenty of time to walk up it. In the lower reaches it rises seven feet for every one foot (just over 2 metres for every 0.6 metres). In fact I was so concerned about staying alive on the ascent, I forgot to take any photos until I stopped for a breather outside this curio shop (above). The building itself is unremarkable, probably nineteenth century, but it struck me that it has many things of its own to say about the passing of time. I like the worn steps and the old bicycle. I also imagine that it might once have been a corner shop where you popped in for your milk and bread and a packet of tea.

Heading on, though, you come upon these astonishing old sandstone buildings. The Jews House is 12th century, and dates from the time when the city had a strong Jewish community. But like many others in medieval England they fell foul of bigotry and false accusations, and the entire community was expelled in 1290. The Norman House below it is also 12th century, and said to be one of the oldest surviving domestic buildings in Britain.

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And it’s at this point we reach the part of the street that is seriously concerned with a preoccupation of our own time – shopping:

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At the top of the hill is Castle Square. The castle was built by the Normans on the site of the Roman fort, but it was under wraps and being restored when were there so I couldn’t photograph it. Ahead, though, you can see the fine timbered 16th century building that was once a Tudor merchant’s home, and is now the Tourist Information Centre.

And finally, coming up is the building we’ve been struggling up the hill to see – Lincoln Cathedral in all its splendour. Work began on it in 1088, and continued through several phases over the following centuries. The towers, for instance, were raised and improved upon during the early 1300s. All in all a breath-taking feat of architectural engineering, to say nothing of standing the test of time. It is Britain’s third largest cathedral:

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And so if any of you are thinking of visiting the UK, Lincoln is definitely a must. It is a city to wander around, layers and layers of time revealed at every turn. There are museums and galleries and even a surviving town windmill. Pleasingly, too, the cathedral towers now provide nesting sites for peregrine falcons. As you walk around the precincts their mournful calls echo off the leaded roofs. These sounds, too, give one a wistful sense of times past.

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Today Paula’s guest, Debbie Smyth, at Thursday’s Special is asking us to think about time. Please visit Debbie and Paula for their own interpretations of the theme.

Wind Catching ~ The Ancient Art And Science Of Persian Air Conditioning

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Wind towers – aren’t they  just beautiful? Not only that, they provide low-tech, totally renewable energy solutions to day-time desert heat waves. Within the capped tower is a port that is opened towards the prevailing wind. Some towers are multi-directional, the vents opened and closed as appropriate. Air is drawn into the living quarters below, its movement providing the cooling effect.

When there is no wind, the tower acts as a chimney, venting hot air from the interior. A more sophisticated version involves an underground canal, qanat, in which case the wind tower vent is opened away from the prevailing wind, and the system pulls cooling air up from the canal. You can read more about this if you follow the link.

But it seems to me to be an example of perfect human ingenuity – problem solving with minimal impact on the natural environment, while at the same time harnessing natural resources without depleting them. Persian architect-engineers came up with such elegant and aesthetically pleasing solutions over 2 millennia ago, although Ancient Egyptians apparently had something similar.

And not only can you have upmarket palace installations, but there is also the demountable, flat-pack desert nomad version.

The first kind was photographed (above and below) in Dubai at the restored Sheik Saeed Al Maktoum House on Dubai Creek. It is now a museum, but built in 1894, it was originally the home of the ruling Al Maktoum family. Persian architectural techniques arrived in Dubai in the nineteenth century along with the development of the pearl fishing industry there.

The portable Bedouin version I spotted in the Dubai Museum  in the courtyard of the old fort. Apparently the disadvantage of this kind of makeshift structure was that close proximity to the cooking hearth could have the unintended consequence of turning it into an actual chimney, and thus a major fire hazard.

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 copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

For more wind themed posts please visit Ailsa’s blog at Where’s My Backpack

Seeing my town in Black & White: 2

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In the second part of my black & white tour of Much Wenlock (part 1 here), I was further inspired by Marilyn’s Wednesday photo prompt at Serendipity. This week she chose ‘small town summer’. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could capture that sense without using colour.

So it is Wednesday, half-day closing. A warm July afternoon. Wenlock is drowsing, although there are some visitors wandering here and there. In the heart of the town, where the High Street meets Barrow Street, a young man is waiting – for his girl? For his best mate? On the right is the sixteenth century Guildhall described in part 1, behind him, the former Victorian Market Hall with its added World War 1 Memorial frontage. This building was also the local cinema in the 1950s. Now it is our museum and tourist information centre, but due to council cuts, it is not open much.

Here, then, is the town centre from the boy’s point of view. There is little of interest for young people. His  posture, the high-lit ‘not-much-happening-here’ of the following street scene triggers my own response – that long-ago sense of adolescent ennui: that permanent sinking feeling of alienation.

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In the five o’ clock shadows past and present coalesce. It could be oppressive. In the Square the Jubilee Clock is a local landmark. Its several faces used to tell different times, but it has recently been overhauled and given a new electronic movement. It was donated in 1897 by a town worthy, erstwhile emporium owner and august alderman, Thomas Cooke. It celebrates Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and would have been in sight of Mr. Cooke’s shop that stood next to the Museum and is currently occupied by the open-all-hours Spar Supermarket.

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The buildings around the Square are modern – a pastiche of local architectural idioms. But the open space is pleasing. For years it was occupied by a derelict stone barn. These days it is a gathering point for locals and visitors alike, and a good place to sit and watch the world go by, albeit a rather small and slowly moving world.

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The High Street is difficult to capture. It is narrow, and its east-west alignment means that one side or the other is always in shadow. Then there are the cars in the way, either parking or manoeuvring through. Surprisingly, there is fervent trader resistance to pedestrianizing the street. They think they will lose custom. I think they should at least try it for six months. They might be agreeably surprised at how many more visitors would come to enjoy this little street in peace. It can offer so much hospitality and interest along the way.

For a start we have two ancient inns whose origins go back to monastic times. The George & Dragon is probably everyone’s idea of an unadorned old English pub – all beams and quarry tiled floors.

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The Talbot on the other hand has a 1970s ‘olde worlde’ interior, though it dates back to 1360, and was thought to be the Almoner’s House, a hostel for pilgrims come to worship at the shrine of St Milburga, and also a centre for alms giving. The white rendered facade hides its timber-framed antiquity, but if you step under the arch you will find a pretty courtyard, where there are also nice B & B rooms in a converted malt house should you want to stay longer.

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There are also two cafes, one with a deli, an Indian restaurant and two hotels. And amazingly for a small town, we have two bookshops – one dealing in second-hand books, and the other an inspirational survivor among the country’s dwindling number of independent book shops. Its owner, Anna Dreda, not only sells new and old books, but she also hosts reading groups for infants and adults, puts on author talks and book launches, and she is the founder of the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. Browsers may further find themselves offered a cup of coffee or tea, and invited to pass away the hours in one of the cosy corners upstairs. In short, the shop and its owner are among the town’s treasures, and have won national notice to prove it.

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And it is from upstairs in Wenlock Books that you can sneak a good view of the High Street’s mid-section: Mrs P’s newsagents and sweet shop, the estate agents, and Ippikin, a shop that is its own art installation and is our very special haven for knitters and crafters. These next two photos were taken earlier in the day.

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Opposite the book shop is the street’s most impressive historic house, Raynald’s Mansion. Here we have a medieval hall clad first in a flat-fronted building of 1600, and then extended by the addition of three timbered bays in 1680. The property remained in the Raynald family until the late 20th century, and is still a private house. In the nineteenth century it was actually a butcher’s shop, and the rail beside the right hand doorway was an aid to tradesmen lifting heavy loads.

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And next is another town treasure, Twenty Twenty Gallery. I missed it out. It is further back down the street towards The George & Dragon, and every month has a new exhibition of contemporary art, ceramics and jewellery for sale. The owner, Mary, likes to feature the work of local artists and makers.

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Back again down the street beyond Raynald’s Mansion and The Talbot Inn we have another imposing house, also early 17th century. Up to the 1920s it was the Swan and Falcon Inn. Later it housed our local branch of Barclays Bank until it moved to smaller, less frequently open premises next to the Post Office. The current new owner has development plans for it and its ancient  medieval barns out back, but in the meantime our local wildlife rescue charity has it shop there.

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And just in case you think all is perfection along our High Street, we do have our eyesore. In 2009 or thereabouts the space next to the old Swan and Falcon was the scene of a general town uprising. A local developer, who had put up an unpopular housing enclave behind the High Street, then erected a house on the street frontage that did not conform to the approved plans. So after considerable agitation, down it had to come, although only after we Wenlockians had frightened the visiting local authority planning committee by our vociferous objecting. It was rather like a similar revolt back in Wenlock’s 1300s, when the serfs, fed up with the domineering Bishop who ruled both Priory and the town, threw down their ploughshares in general protest.

The site itself was once a seventeenth century clay tobacco pipe works, and in more recent years had become overgrown, and thus a well treed wildlife area that helped mitigate the town’s flooding risk. The only problem is that ever since, the space between the Swan and Falcon, and High Street’s terrace of Tudor cruck cottages, has looked like this, one of our less than successful visitor attractions:

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Somewhat surprisingly, the original planning permission for the housing development, both on the street, and behind it, had been given without any reference to, or consultation with the local authority’s Conservation Officers.  Apparently it was not deemed necessary with a new development, despite the site being in the middle of an ancient town. Anyway, the houses were expensive, cramped inside, and so took a lot of selling, even with offers of free cars. In the end a housing association bought many of them, so at least some families on the local social housing list have benefitted.

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By contrast, this row of cruck cottages some 400 years old, and the new development’s nearest neighbours, are solidly built, remarkably spacious inside, and have very pretty gardens behind them. Lacking the paper thin walls of new houses, there is doubtless little noise leakage between the cottages, although they do lack multiple en suite shower rooms that seem to be a feature of all English new-builds these days. Anyone would think water grew on trees, or that our drainage systems were robust enough to cater for all the washing we think we need to do.

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Finally, here is one of the town’s loveliest ancient houses Ashfield Hall. I’ve mentioned its history in an earlier post. It was built by one Richard Ashfield who lived in Wenlock in 1396. It is probably on or near the site of the earlier St. John’s Hospital which was a hostel for poor itinerants.

And there you have it: some of Wenlock’ High Street highlights. It is well worth a visit.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell