Saintly refuge at Stonor

THE SHEER sense of serenity you encounter at Stonor on a sunny day makes it hard to associate the place with persecution and torture.

But this extraordinary Oxfordshire home has some remarkable stories to tell and played a unique part in the history of English Catholicism.

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Today, basking in the September sunlight, the only sound to be heard across the 1760 deer park is the clack of a cricket ball and occasional cries from approval from the small crowd round the green at the Stonor Cricket Club across the main Henley road, which overlooks the estate.

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But although Stonor Park has been home to the same family for 850 years, it was let to the National Benzol Company during the war and was empty when the family moved back in 1945. Many family possessions were sold off during subsequent years of financial hardship.

It was only in 1978 that the current Lord Camoys was able to buy and start renovating the house, opening it to the public in 1979 and buying back many portraits, pictures and other possessions which had been sold.

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It has been an extraordinary achievement, because there’s a wonderful sense of peace and warm about the manor house which the poet John Betjeman remarked upon – and the same sense of serenity can be found in the park and gardens.

Parts of the house date from the 13th century but the site has been inhabited for longer than that, as witnessed by the circle of standing stones by the front drive, deposited during the Ice Age and used as a pagan site of worship.

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The family name (de Stonore in the 14th century) comes from the stones – and the crest, appropriately, is a hill with prominent stones.

But while the children might want to explore the adventure playground out in the woodland, it’s inside the house and 13th century chapel that the real story of Stonor Park unfolds.

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This is where we first encounter those darker memories of centuries of persecution which followed the Reformation, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Pope and unleashed a harsh crackdown against all those regarded as being guilty of heresy.

Any priest found on English soil was guilty of treason (as was anyone who harboured him), and that included a scholar by the name of Edmund Campion who had once found favour with the Queen as a young man.

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Campion had been born in London and studied in Oxford before moving to Dublin, Douai and ultimately travelling on foot to Rome to become a Jesuit priest. He had been a professor in Prague before the Jesuit mission to England began and he arrived in London in June 1580 disguised as a jewel merchant, and began to preach.

He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire while he started to work on his Decem Rationes (“Ten Reasons”), arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church.

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Upstairs in a hidden room behind a chimneybreast at Stonor is where he and his colleagues hid their printing press which was used to print the famous tract – 400 copies were distributed on the benches of the university church in Oxford, causing a great sensation.

The hunt for Campion was stepped up and the “seditious Jesuit” was arrested at a house in Berkshire and soon publicly hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in London in December 1581, at the age of 41.

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Back at Stonor, Dame Cecily and her son John were taken to the Tower of London too, but Dame Cecily refused to conform to the Established Church – meaning that the tiny family chapel is one of only a handful in the country to have remained Catholic despite 250 years of persecution.

Several rooms in the main house are open to the public, including the Gothic Revival hall dating from 1350, the library, drawing room and bedrooms. Throughout, there are dozens of portraits, photographs and family artefacts, meticulously documented in a “hand list” of contents.

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Outside there’s time to unwind in the tranquil gardens to the rear of the house or meander up to the terraces which provide views across the roofs of the house to the park beyond, where the fallow deer may be seen grazing while red kites and buzzards glide on the thermals overhead.

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Although the house and chapel are only open on Sundays in September and are generally closed until April, there are a number of special events planned, from an autumn food festival in October to candlelit tours of the house decorated for Christmas.

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For full details of prices, opening times and future events, see the main Stonor House website.

Exotic sights in St Albans

VISITORS get a last chance to savour some spectacular floral displays and exotic butterflies this weekend as Aylett Nurseries’ “autumn festival” draws to a close.

The Hertfordshire family nursery has long been associated with cultivating dahlias, and has won awards for decades for its stunning displays of the bushy perennials which first arrived in Britain from their native Mexico more than 200 years ago.

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A marquee in the main nursery contains a magnificent splash of colour with its array of home-grown dahlias on the travel theme of “The Way To Go”, while the Celebration Garden and dahlia field where the plants are grown are also open for charity as part of the National Garden Scheme.

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Dahlias were a great passion of the late Roger Aylett, who started the business on the same 7½ acres of land at the age of 21 and was soon dispatching the stunning plants to all corners of the country.

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Inside the marquee this year are more than 55 dahlia varieties freshly cut from the dahlia field, where visitors can use ribbons to pick out their favourites.

The “flagship” of the nursery for over 60 years, since 1961 Aylett displays have picked up 55 gold medals at Royal Horticultural Society annual shows – and it’s not hard to see why.

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Declared the national flower of Mexico in 1963 and grown as a food crop by the Aztecs, there are 42 species of dahlia, with hybrids commonly grown as garden plants.

The official RHS classification lists 14 different groups and there are more than 57,000 cultivars providing an extraordinarily diverse array of colours and shapes.

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For younger visitors less overwhelmed by the displays in the dahlia marquee, there is a last chance to visit “Butterfly Corner”, an enclosed area housing an array of tropical plants and exotic butterflies.

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These include the postman, flambeau and stunning blue morpho, one of the largest in the world. Guests can learn about the fascinating life cycle of the butterfly and watch butterflies feed and fly.

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There is a puparium where new butterflies emerge and younger gardeners can enjoy spotting the different species, caterpillars and butterfly eggs. The butterflies, eggs, caterpillars and plants will be relocated to the Butterfly House at Whipsnade Zoo when the exhibition closes this weekend.

Visitors to the nursery this weekend also get the chance to vote in the Around the World Crate Competition where individuals, schools, clubs and associations were invited to compete for £100 of gift vouchers.

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The competition focuses on the theme of transport and travel and entrants were encouraged to create a miniature world inside a wooden crate which could be displayed during the festival.

Winners will be decided by public vote, with the winner announced on Monday.

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Time for a moonlit meander

TIS the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it – of ripe fruit and harvest time, of an evening chill in the air and shorter days as we inch towards Michaelmas Day.

It’s the time of year where bats are swarming, birds are migrating and, deep in the woods, mushrooms and toadstools are flourishing.

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But while shepherds, farmers, druids and astrologers might have been all too familiar with equinoxes and solstices, city dwellers may be a little less aware of the significance of the Latin terminology, religious ceremonies and country folklore associated with the month of September.

Michaelmas on September 29 is the third quarter-day of the year and marks the Feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael).

Traditionally this was the time when accounts would have to be settled by tenants, when the harvest was over – and the impending autumn equinox means it is also associated in the northern hemisphere with the start of autumn.

More than 50 English churches take their names from St Michael and All Angels, including those at Aston Clinton and Hughenden (below) in Buckinghamshire.

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Michaelmas is the start of school, university and legal terms, as well as being the last day of the year that blackberries can be picked, according to English folklore, since legend has it that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush.

Satan promptly cursed the fruit and, depending which part of the country you come from, it is said that he scorched them with his fiery breath and stamped, spat or even urinated on them so that they would be unfit for eating.

Hence Michaelmas pie is made from the last berries of the season, while another ancient tradition suggests that a well-fattened goose fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest should be eaten to protect against financial need in the coming year: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.

Indeed the day was also known as “Goose Day”, apparently following the example set by Elizabeth I who was dining on goose on the saint’s day in 1588 when she was told of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

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Looking to the skies, this is also the month of the autumn equinox, one of the two times a year when day and night are almost equal all over the planet and traditionally taken as marking the beginning of autumn.

Since that makes Michaelmas the time of year that the darker nights and colder days begin, the celebration  is associated with encouraging protection during the winter months when it was believed the forces of darkness were stronger – and who better to protect one than St Michael, the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels?

This is also the month of the most famous of all full moon names, the Harvest Moon, with numerous harvest festivals being celebrated around the world, from America to the Chinese mid-autumn Moon Festival.

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In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar months, and for millennia people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named the months after features they associated with their seasons.

Today, we use many of these ancient month names as full moon names, including the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the September equinox. 

Immortalised in music by Neil Young in a song on his 1992 album of the same name, it is not the only full moon to have provided musical inspiration. October’s Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon provided the title for Night of the Hunter’s Moon, a track on the 1978 solo debut album from Sally Oldfield, older sister to Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield

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From Anglo-Saxon times, the Hunter’s moon is associated with hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use in the coming winter months.

For other moon names, see the Time and Date website.

 

Communities answer call to arms

LITTER-PICKERS across the Chilterns have been rallying local communities to help clean up local neighbourhoods this month.

Within minutes of the launch last week of The Beyonder’s “ripple effect” campaign, local groups had been in touch about their activities.

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In Chalfont St Peter, Jodie Burridge organised a clean-up day in the village, with another planned for October 5.

In Wycombe Marsh, Jean Peasley was in touch about the Wycombe Marsh Environment Group, which organises a monthly litter pick around the area (below), as well as gardening and planting on small uncared-for patches of land.

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In Beaconsfield, the Considerate Beaconsfield group organised a litter pick in August and have another planned for the New Year, while Wooburn Green residents also have a litter-pick planned for September.

Nationally, dozens of such like-minded groups have been keeping in touch via the UK Litterpicking Groups page on Facebook, which has more than 2,000 members.

There are also dozens of similar local initiatives, including the two-minute beach clean movement, the zero plastic lobby and national climate change protests.

The Beyonder’s “ripple effect” campaign was designed to unite the hundreds of like-minded local organisations already doing their bit to keep their neighbourhood clean and spread the word about what more can be done locally to tackle the problem.

The campaign coincided with another international call from action from the Pope on the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.

Pope Francis has made many calls for environmental protection and has clashed over climate change with sceptical world leaders such as US President Donald Trump, who has taken the United States out of the Paris accord.

At a local level, his call may resonate with church communities across the Chilterns, many of whom can also organise small-scale local events from litter-picking to education in schools.

This week sees hard-hitting TV anti-litter advocate Jeremy Paxman addressing a two-day conference in Birmingham attended by thousands of recycling and waste business and local authority professionals.

Paxman is patron of the Clean Up Britain campaign, a national campaign specialising in changing anti-social environmental behaviour like littering and fly-tipping, and will be delivering a keynote speech on what he sees as the “national embarassment” of how filthy and run-down Britain looks.

He will tell his audience: “There’s only one sustainable solution, and that’s changing the behaviour of people who do litter. Government-supported initiatives have failed – we need a new joined-up, courageous and innovative approach to win the War on Waste.”

Another national campaigner has also called more a more proactive approach. On Twitter, Quentin Brodie Cooper of Zilch UK has spent the past five years building up a network of more than 12,000 followers working together to eliminate littering.

But he expressed disappointment that the Beyonder campaign focused “entirely on picking up litter rather than trying to do more to prevent it”.

His website lists a number of actions which he believes can make a positive and incremental contribution to the war against littering, including encouraging people to act as human camera-traps in car parks and other places where they can witness and report littering from vehicles.

But Beyonder editor Andrew Knight responded: “We do welcome all contributions to the debate and actively work to promote the work of those campaigners who are co-ordinating the fight.

“But we believe that communities working together can make a real difference in changing attitudes towards this problem. It’s not always safe for members of the public to confront litterers or try to prevent anti-social behaviour themselves, for example.

“However working together communities can help spread the word that littering is unacceptable, and Jeremy Paxman is right about the scale of the problem nationwide.

“It’s not just picking up a few bits of litter that makes the difference, but about thousands of local people spreading the word about how much they genuinely care about the local environment and about leading by example.

“Every week on the UK Litterpicking Groups web pages there are heartwarming stories of small triumphs that show many people do care and want to do their bit to help.”

Locally the National Trust rangers’ team based at Cliveden are still looking for more local litterpickers to help keep paths and car parks clean across 843 acres of land at Maidenhead and Cookham commons.

 

 

 

 

 

Alfresco affair of the heart

WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?

Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.

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And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.

The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.

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Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.

The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.

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For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.

A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.

 

 

Campaign issues a call to arms

THE Beyonder has launched a “ripple effect” campaign calling on communities across the Chilterns to join forces in a local war on litter and fly-tipping.

The move follows months of research into existing initiatives, speaking to campaign groups, rangers, councils and enforcement teams.

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“It’s clear to anyone driving around our area that there is a major problem with littering,” says Beyonder editor Andrew Knight. “It’s becoming an epidemic on our back roads and roundabouts and it has become a national scandal. It’s the same problem we see on bank holiday beaches and people leaving their tents and camping equipment at festivals.

“A significant minority of selfish individuals are acting with complete disregard for our countryside. It’s costing a fortune to clean up, it’s killing our wildlife and it’s leaving us knee-deep in plastic which eventually ends up in our oceans.

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“Thankfully the tide is really turning in terms of people’s awareness, but there’s still a long way to go.”

He points to the impact of programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series and praised teenage campaigners like Greta Thunberg for pushing environmental concerns higher up the political agenda.

“It’s easy for people to get angry or disheartened about the sheer scale of the problem, but during the past year we’ve been impressed with the positive news stories from all over the country,” he says.

“From joggers to dog walkers, community groups all over the UK are getting together to clean up public spaces near their homes. It might start with their own garden and spread to their street, estate or village.

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“And that shared sense of achievement is very infectious – there are dozens of such groups on Facebook and sharing their experiences helps them cope with the negative things. It keeps people fit, it gets young and old and families out doing something good for the community and the cleaner an area is, the less likely people are to drop litter – the effect really does spread….”

The “ripple” campaign is based on the same principle, he explains, because dotted across the Chilterns are dozens of places where the tough clear-up work is already being done – in country parks and National Trust properties, by scores of parish and town councils, by ordinary farmers and landowners.

“Where property is owned by the Woodland Trust or local wildlife trusts, rangers and volunteers are already on the case, with local families, ramblers and dog walkers all doing their bit to help,” he says.

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“The big problem is that the minute you go outside Black Park or Cliveden or a remote footpath and reach a main road, you are confronted with all sorts of rubbish just being chucked out of passing cars,” he says.

“We can’t change people’s habits overnight, but we think the “ripple effect” campaign can make a real difference once the word gets out. We have to get the message out there that this type of behaviour is unacceptable, anti-social and criminal.

“But if most people in the community are behind it and want to keep their town, village or street clean, it will make life a whole lot harder for those few selfish souls who don’t understand or don’t care what they are doing to the planet.”

Enforcement is part of the package too, as the magazine explored in an interview last year with enforcement officers like David Rounding (below) and his colleagues at Buckinghamshire County Council.

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The online magazine encourages people to get involved in the campaign in any way they can, whether than means picking up a few items of litter when walking the dog, organising a community clean-up or taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic they buy and use at home.

“We hope people will want to get involved and tell us what they are up to,” says Andrew. “We know this will take time and determination and that nothing will change overnight, but our countryside is under siege and igoring the problem is simply not an option.”

For full details of the campaign, and how to get involved, follow the link.

 

 

Residents fight Green Belt attack

RESIDENTS across two counties are stepping up their protests over plans to build new motorway service areas and thousands of new homes on Green Belt land.

The upsurge in activity in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire coincides with deadlines passing for local people to voice their concerns with local councils about their draft plans which will shape housing development in the area over the next 20 years.

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Various protest groups are now raising funds for legal representation to proceed with their campaigns. The Beaconsfield Society Save our Green Belt Campaign has been vociferous it its efforts to fight the “biggest threat for a generation” to the local Green Belt, with plans for 1600 new homes, offices and travellers’ sites around the town, which the society claims would lead to a massive increase in congestion and pollution.

The society has slammed both Beaconsfield Town and South Bucks councils for a lack of communication over the blueprint for thousands of homes in the area and argue that the growing housing crisis is not an acceptable reason to build on the protected land.

In the plans, a total of 5,200 homes are proposed across the area from Iver to Chesham, and other groups have raised similar concerns.

HOMESIn Little Chalfont, which has been zoned for 700 homes, the parish council and community association joined forces to respond to the proposals, while campaigners in Bourne End have also fought to protect Green Belt land.

Meanwhile Thames Valley Police has joined local residents in raising concerns about a £150m motorway service area proposed near Chalfont St Peter.

Extra Motorway Services wants to build a hotel, petrol station and a building containing 12 retail and restaurant units on the 147-acre site between junctions 16 and 17 of the M25, close to the M25 exit for Denham/Maple Cross.

Police objected to the plans because of fears about the impact of a new service area on police resources and the safety of staff and customers, pointing out that Beaconsfield Services at Junction 2 of the M40 currently represented “one of the biggest crime hotspots” in the local policing area, with numerous calls relating to crime and anti-social behaviour.

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Residents were also worried about the impact of the development on the local community and about pollution and congestion.

But similar fears have also been raised about another massive motorway service station mooted on green belt land in Hertfordshire will could threaten the very existence of Kings Langley.

Gary Ansell, chairman of Kings Langley & District Residents Association (KLDRA), said in April: “We are extremely concerned the village of Kings Langley will be surrounded by development. And the site is close to a church and primary school which would both be affected by high levels of diesel fumes and noise pollution.”

Moto Hospitality has submitted a planning application for a new service station at junction 20 off the M25 near Kings Langley with an 80-bed lodge, range of shops, parking spaces and other facilities.

See the highlighted links above for more detail about the different protest groups’  campaigns.

 

Berkshire’s first lady of fashion

IT’S hard to imagine quite how dramatic the state of disrepair at Basildon House was after the war.

Exploring the Grade I listed building today, or sauntering round its 400 acres of parkland, you are greeted with a lovingly restored Georgian country house maintained by the National Trust.

But that’s largely down to the vision and hard work of one extraordinary woman, Renée Lady Iliffe, who first saw the building in 1952 after it had suffered years of military occupation.

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“To say it was derelict is hardly good enough,” Lady Iliffe wrote later. “No window was left intact, and most were repaired with cardboard or plywood.”

Walls were covered with signatures and grafitti from various wartime occupants and there was no sign of modernisation other than an army washroom catering for six people at a time.

Nonetheless, despite the cold and damp, the empty rooms and broken windows, she had fallen in love with the place and would spend the next 25 years carefully restoring it to its former glory.

“There was still an atmosphere of former elegance, and a feeling of great solidity. Carr’s house was still there, damaged but basically unchanged,” she wrote.

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Lady Iliffe was born on the island of Mauritius and the family home was a remote and beautiful 5,000-acre plantation. With the collapse of the sugar industry, the family were increasingly strapped for cash and Renée, the eldest of four children, grew up to be sturdily independent.

But her life changed dramatically through the intervention of her aunt Edith, who insisted that the family decamp to England and paved the way for the family’s assimilation into the English aristocracy.

Cultivated and exotic, with film-star looks, Renée was introduced to Langton Iliffe, and the couple fell in love and married in December 1938 – an event captured for posterity by Pathe News.

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Renée Iliffe soon set about the task of transforming their new home, honing a talent for interior decoration she had first show during the war, and establishing herself as a skilled and generous hostess – so much so that the couple’s lifestyle at Basildon Park would feature in the July 1966 edition of Vogue.

That photoshoot, along with the famous weekend parties in the 1950s and 60s where Lord and Lady Iliffe entertained guests such as Princess Grace of Monaco and artist Graham Sutherland, inspired a special display of select pieces of designer couture from the Fashion and Textile museum which runs until November 18.

From Chanel and Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior, 18 dresses and gowns are on display, including items owned and worn by Lady Iliffe herself.

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She was a skilled and generous hostess whose genius was said to be her ability to create an atmosphere in which comfort was mixed with elegance, and to inject it with a sense of fun.

Sebastian Conway, the Trust’s house and collections manager – and whose pictures feature above and below – said: “The vivid life and colour that filled this house at weekends has for a long time been missing. It’s about time we celebrated Lord and Lady Iliffe’s socialite side, as they brought prestige and recognition to Basildon Park with their dazzling dinners and glamorous parties for their celebrity guests.

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She and Lord Iliffe lived happily at Basildon for many years and, after presenting it in 1978 to the National Trust along with a handsome endowment, remained there as tenants. He had succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1960 and died in 1996, while Lady Iliffe died in 2007 at the age of 90.

The Palladian house itself was built by John Carr of York for Francis Sykes, who made a fortune in service with the East India Company, while the interiors were completed for the Liberal MP James Morrison, who bought Basildon in 1838.

But the house stood empty and neglected throughout the first half of the 20th century.

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Nowadays the interior boasts a richly decorated neo-classical hall, a spectacular staircase hall, an octagonal drawing room with heavy Italianate ceilings and a slightly overwhelming upstairs shell room created by Lady Iliffe.

It has to be said that the floral pinks and ornate fifties feel of some of the upstairs rooms are not to every taste, but for those unmoved by fashion and youngsters wanting to let off steam, the 400 acres of parkland provide plenty of space to escape from the house into the sunlight.

Although substantially damaged by wartime tank training, the long-term restoration of the grounds continues today and the parkland walks provide the opportunity to escape from the crowds, even on busy weekends.

For full details about Basildon Park and its history, along with prices and admission times, visit the National Trust’s main website.

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Surprise guests at the palace

YOU can never be too sure who you might run into at Hampton Court Palace.

It might be a sneaky fox sunbathing among the flowers – or possibly even a rogue monarch stopping for a chat in the Tudor garden.

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Henry turns out to be a lot more approachable in real life than the history books might have had us believe.

But maybe that’s because this Henry is one of the actors playing Tudor roles around the site, nowadays a major tourist attraction run by the Historic Royal Palaces charity, which also looks after the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, among others.

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It’s an atmospheric touch much appreciated by many of the thousands of visitors who travel here to find out more about Royal history, or just explore the impressive landscaped gardens.

A major appeal of the palace is the chance to discover more about the public dramas and private lives of Henry VIII, his wives and children, and the extraordinary world of the Tudor court.

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Nowhere is that more vividly on show that in the vast kitchens – one of the king’s earliest building works designed to turn the palace into a principal residence, no easy task given the 1,000-strong size of his household retinue.

Despite owning more than 60 sixty houses and palaces, none of them was really equipped for entertaining on the scale Henry VIII envisaged, so this 1529 transformation was perfect.

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Perhaps it was equally predictable that Henry should be enthusiastic about adding a huge feasting room to the palace. His Great Hall was the last medieval great hall built for the English monarchy and took five years to complete, even with the masons working through the night by candlelight.

But Hampton Court isn’t all about Henry, and there really is an extraordinary amount to take in (so much so that you will want to return again, so the family membership fee for unlimited access to all six of the royal palaces makes a lot more sense than the day tickets).

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When William III and Mary II (1689-1702) took the throne in 1689, within months of their accession they embarked on a massive rebuilding project, commissioning Sir Christopher Wren to build an elegant new baroque palace surrounded by formidable landscaped gardens.

Today, the palace houses hundreds of works of art and furnishings from the Royal Collection, mainly dating from the two principal periods of the palace’s construction, the early Tudor and late Stuart to early Georgian period, and ranging from Mantegna’s impressive Triumphs of Caesar in the Lower Orangery to numerous pieces of blue and white porcelain collected by Queen Mary II.

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But that sheer variety of attractions is perhaps the greatest delight of Hampton Court. Even though the Royals left here in 1737, ever since Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public in 1838 it has been a magnet for millions of visitors.

Whether it’s the formal grandeur of the great Tudor kitchens and hall, the stories of ghosts, the famous maze or the fabulous art collection, there’s no shortage of different delights and distractions, from the magnificent chapel to the biggest vine in the world (the ‘Great Vine’, planted in 1768 by Capability Brown and still producing a huge annual crop of grapes).

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Free audio tours allow visitors to make the most of the experience and thousands of Trip Advisor reviews are testimony to the enduring appeal of the palace.

The Magic Garden is an interactive play garden inspired by Hampton Court’s long history, while the gardeners have worked wonders in recent years to reconstruct the kitchen garden which once grew all the local fruit and vegetables for the Royal dining table.

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Note the word local, because of course the king had no qualms about importing the most exotic delicacies from around the world to grace the tables in the Great Hall – and some of the extraordinary menus on display there do much to explain Henry’s imposing girth.

Time was when three sunken gardens were originally ponds used to house freshwater fish such as carp and bream for the Royal table, although when Mary II arrived at the palace, these sunken, sheltered, south-facing gardens were used to house her collection of exotic plants.

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There’s a whole lot more which could be said about the palace of course, but why not set aside some time to pay Henry a proper visit?

See the main website for full details about prices, attractions and special events at Hampton Court Palace as well as those at other HRP destinations like the Tower of London and Kew.

Thoughts in a time of plenty

IT’S hard to believe we are already more than halfway through August, but the sudden splash of colour from the hibiscus hedges at our front door are the most vivid reminder of the changing months.

We’ve enjoyed the fabulous summer displays from the roses, fuchsia and buddleia in our tiny back garden, and now it’s the turn of the front to have a final spectacular flourish.

IMG_1075Lammas Day (August 1) is past – traditionally the day when the first wheat from the harvest is made into a loaf to be the bread consecrated with the wine at a thanksgiving mass.

Lammas comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning loaf mass and has been celebrated for thousands of years, marking a bittersweet month of feasting and abundance, a time when growth is slowing and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning.

IMG_0820These are the dog days of summer, when the gardens and roadsides are full of goodies, fields are full of grain, and harvest is approaching.

In ancient times it was a time to celebrate the great Celtic sun king Lugh and reflect on the upcoming abundance of the fall months – the season when the first grains are ready to be harvested and threshed, when the apples and grapes are ripe for the plucking, and we are grateful for the food we have on our tables.

August is a traditionally a month of feasting and celebrations – of market fairs, games and bonfire celebrations, circle dances and community gatherings, as well as being seen as an auspicious month for weddings.

There are many customs throughout Europe around the cutting of the grain or corn.

The first sheaf – which guarantees the seed and symbolises continuity and rebirth – would often be ceremonially cut at dawn, winnowed, ground and baked into the harvest bread which was then shared by the community in thanks. The first barley stalks would be made into the first beer of the season.

The last sheaf was also ceremonially cut, often made into a ‘corn dolly’, carried to the village with festivity and was central to the harvest supper: a corn maiden after a good harvest or a hag or crone after a bad one.

Old Lammas Day on August 12 apparently also marked the day when the lord of the manor would allow commoners to graze the medieval flood plain meadows until Candlemas at the beginning of February.

Locally, the blackberrying has been in full spate and the visitors from earlier in the year – Fez the wandering pheasant and Snoot the sneezing hedgehog – have been replaced by the delightful ducklings, swarms of cheerful tits and agile squirrels.

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It’s a reminder that it’s almost two years since we moved to Wooburn Green, and of what a delight that time has been, with the cooing of the pigeons and whistling of the red kite in the nearby Cedar of Lebanon a constant backdrop to life at “Bear Cottage”.

That slight chill in the evening air is also a reminder of the bittersweet aspects of August that former generations will have sensed – the imminent end of the harvest, the picking of the fruit and berries and the promise of darker winter nights to come.

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