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.

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

Cornwall’s Smallest Stone Circle ~ Thursday’s Special

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When it comes to photographing prehistoric stone circles, you need the right kind of light, preferably a dramatic dawn or sunset or a good frost. And this clearly wasn’t any of these, but the best I could do on dull, dank December morning. The whole thing was definitely improved by the arrival of the sweet little girl in her tangerine wellies.

Anyway, here it is – Cornwall’s smallest prehistoric stone circle. It is just over thirty feet across (10-11 metres) and is at least 4,000 years old. It sits most domestically behind farm cottages and among a few sheep in the small village of Duloe. There are eight stones, some estimated to weigh around 12 tons, and they were probably chosen because of their high quartz content, which gives them an otherworldly bloom even in this poor light. In any event, they had to be manhandled from the nearest source, at least one mile away.

The  first historical reference to them was in 1329 CE, when they are mentioned in a record relating to the farm called Stonetown (still existing with that name), on whose land they stand.

In 1801 they were discovered again, although at that time the stones were all lying flat and there was a hedge growing through the middle, with a field on one side and an orchard on the other.

Many stone circles in Britain have recumbent stones, (e.g.  see my post on Arbor Low in Derbyshire) and it is usually not known at what stage the stones were laid flat, or in what circumstances. Certainly there is archaeological evidence of prehistoric people themselves ritually ‘closing’ a monument or burial site when it is no longer needed. In more recent times superstitious dread, and/or Christian repugnance at old ‘pagan’ ways prompted people to bury standing stones or lay them down. All of which is to say, everything to do with stone circles is pretty much shrouded in mystery and conjecture.

At Duloe though, there was an interesting and tangible discovery. In 1861, during efforts to restore the circle and raise the stones, a workman put his pick through a Bronze Age burial urn containing human bones. It had been placed at the foot of the largest stone which was also broken during the restoration work, and is still lying on the ground in two pieces. The urn and its contents have since been lost.

But it is this find that provides 2,000 BCE date for the site. However, the circle itself may well pre-date this. As has been shown with recent work at Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric circle, the stones there were erected in the late Neolithic (c.4,500 BCE) and not in the Bronze Age as originally conjectured, although there are many Bronze Age burials in the vicinity. It also appears that before the Stonehenge stones, there were earlier wooden pillars on the site and these belonged to the Mesolithic period circa 8,500-7,000 BCE when people were still hunter gatherers.

In other words, throughout human existence, a site that has once held, or is perceived to have held ritual significance will often be re-used by succeeding inhabitants across many centuries, and by people of quite different ethnicity and religious viewpoints. So we find Roman temples in earlier Iron Age hillforts, or medieval churches built atop Neolithic chambered tombs.

We cannot divine what these stone circles truly meant to the people who constructed them. But we can surmise that the monumental effort involved implies life and death importance. There are political implications too, both in the conception of the work and in its realisation. Even the building of a small circle like Duloe would have required considerable organisation of people-power. But if these circles have no stories to tell us, they do at least reflect an era when humanity had a very different relationship with the natural and cosmic world than we do today, and that alone might give us some pause for thought.

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Thursday’s Special Paula’s August ‘pick a word’ prompts include fortified, chic, submerged, embodiment, prehistoric. I think I might claim submerged here too, since the meaning and means of construction of this site are well and truly buried.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Making A Splash In Pembroke ~Thursday’s Special

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This month Paula’s pick-a-word challenge gives us the words splash, marine, scenic, feathered and canicular. The seaside photos cover the first  four, and I’ve posted them as an antidote to the ongoing hot weather that is melting many of us in the northern hemisphere. They were taken in March on Broadhaven Beach and at St. Bride’s in Pembrokeshire, and I’m relishing the thought of a brisk sea wind on my face and  an invigorating paddle in some chilled Welsh waves.

This next photo is my stab at canicular – the state for which I need the antidote – the laid out, inactive, sweltering dog days of July, the grass turning brown before our eyes, sunset heatwaves. Phew!

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Thursday’s Special

Going Mazy-Eyed In A Sea Of Grasses ~ Thursday’s Special

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I took this photo last night as I was coming home from the allotment. The sun was setting over the rapeseed field and illuminating the grasses along the headland. This is a broad strip of land on the town side of Townsend Meadow, left uncultivated as a defence against flash floods. The variety of grasses that grow here is bewildering, and I’m sorry to say I have never tried to learn which is which. They are very beautiful though in the evening light.

Grasses (Gramineae) are among the most successful plants on the planet and, excluding the polar zones, cover 40% of the earth’s surface. They of course include cereal crops, rice, bamboos, and pasture grasses and so are of immense importance to humanity. Grass is also an elephant’s food of choice, making up a substantial part of its 300-400 lb daily vegetable intake. I mention that fact here because our headland grasses have so benefitted from the agrichemical feeding of the rape plants uphill from them that they are now doing a pretty good impression of elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) also known as Napier Grass. This particular grass featured in he-who-builds-sheds’ doctoral research on grass smut in the Kenya highlands, and so is a species close to our hearts, and we both know how to identify it.

Coming up is another grass I know: wild oats. The sun was reflecting off its spikelets, which was all rather mesmerizing.

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Thursday’s Special: Lost in details  This week Paula has given us an intriguing challenge and photo to match. I’m interpreting it here both in words and images Who me?

Many Reflections On The Iron Bridge

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Last week we were in Ironbridge inspecting the restoration works on the C18th cast iron bridge that gave the town its name. People come from all over the world to see the bridge, so to find most of it shrouded in plastic would doubtless be a big disappointment. English Heritage, the conservation body whose engineers are carrying out the repairs over the next few months, thoughtfully decided to make a spectacle of their operations. Just beneath the main span they have constructed a walkway with perspex covered viewing portholes along its length. Now visitors have once-in-a-lifetime access to view the structural parts at close quarters.

And while doing this I happened to notice that, at certain angles, the portholes and their surrounds created multiple reflections. Suddenly the town appeared meshed in the dove-tailed struts and roundels of the bridge supports. It seemed fitting somehow – the town within the bridge that gave rise to it; a glimpse of the Gorge whose lucky combination of natural resources: iron ore, coal, fire clay, limestone, made the construction of the world’s first cast iron bridge in this location possible: the now quiet resort place that some call the crucible of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, a once horrifying hell-hole of pounding steam hammers, sulphurous fumes, and streams of white-hot iron.

Thursday’s Special: reflective

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

P.S. Click on the English Heritage link above for more about the restoration project and a very good short video.

“How Green Was My Valley” ~ Thursday’s Special

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Here in Shropshire, May has been a month filled with much welcome sunshine. Everywhere you look, the countryside is brimming with green-ness, so no colour enhancement was needed for this view across the River Severn at Arley (just south of Bridgnorth). It was taken last Saturday at the Arley Arboretum Plant Collectors’ Fair – post to follow.

I’m sorry you can’t see the river, which is actually quite wide at this point (hiding behind the foreground hawthorns). Nor can you see the railway line that runs midway across the frame. For this is the landscape through which you will pass if you have the good fortune to board the Severn Valley Railway, and chug along the river behind a good old coal-fired locomotive, trailing its long white steamy banner as it goes, and not a few smuts. Clackety-clack and much toot-tooting and many a rustic halt en route.  Oh, the nostalgia!

Thursday’s Special: saturation

How Green Was My Valley  a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn set in Wales: tales of the Morgan coal mining family. Also a 1941 John Ford film.

Great Rift Zoom-In ~ Thursday’s Special

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This week Paula’s set us a very  different kind of challenge. She asks us to show her a zoomed in – zoomed out image. I’ve  applied so much zoom to this photograph that the detail is abstracted. I rather like it – the patchwork quilt effect. It is a view of smallholder farms at Escarpment, just north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. I was out with Graham (in his capacity as Smut Survey Team Leader) looking for outbreaks of a fungal infection on fodder grass. You can read the full story at an earlier post Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms. Escarpment was one of the locations we surveyed, and living up to its name, it lies on the easterly elevation of the Great Rift Valley.

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(Click on the image for a larger view). The old volcano in the Rift is Longonot, and the zigzag of road seen faintly to the right of the valley bottom takes you to Lake Naivasha. Even now, after so many years away from Africa, this view stops my breath. And then I find myself breathing in – thinner air at 8,000 feet – whiffs of dust, thorn trees, diesel, roasting maize at a roadside trader’s hearth…

Thursday’s Special: zoom in/zoom out

Thursday’s Special ~ Sempiternal?

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This month Paula has given us 5 words to spark our photographic imaginations: dawning, condensed, coalescing, verdant and sempiternal. This skyscape view from our house on Wenlock Edge says everlasting (sempiternal) to me, though that could be wishful thinking on my part – to think the world as I know it will always remain the same. I think, with the different cloud formations, this image also covers condensed and coalescing. No hidden verdant though, for this is a winter scene – the big bare ash tree in the corner of the allotment. And it was definitely taken at sunset and not at dawn.

Thursday’s Special