Take time out on the towpath

THE Chilterns may be a fair distance from the sea, but that’s no excuse for not getting down to the waterside for a ramble this month.

With the Thames rushing down to London from Oxford and the slightly more sedate Grand Union Canal linking Paddington Basin in West London with Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Birmingham, there’s no shortage of towpaths and cosy canalside cafes to explore.

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For wintry walks and an escape from traffic, the network provides a glorious break from office routine, with a stroll promising the opportunity to spot birds and wildlife, study industrial landmarks or just become a lazy “gongoozler” watching canal life from the towpath.And that’s one of the reasons we’ve added ‘Waterside wanders’ as a regular monthly reminder of the delights on our doorstep that we often take for granted.

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It’s one of half a dozen free attractions that can provide a day out with a difference for cash-strapped families – and the Canal & River Trust website offers a range of maps and downloadable regional guides, as well as tips about nature spotting and details of open days and special events.

On its way through Reading, Henley, Windsor and Hampton Court, the Thames offers countless different vistas, and the Thames Path is a national trail offering walkers the chance to “follow the greatest river in England for 184 miles from its source in the Cotswold hills to the sea”.

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From unspoilt rural villages to the heart of London, England’s longest river has been an integral feature of the country’s trade and culture since pre-Roman times.The Queen later recalled how she once sailed up the Thames to London with Winston Churchill in 1954. “One saw this dirty commercial river as one came up and he was describing it as the silver thread which runs through the history of Britain,” she said. “He saw things in a very romantic and glittering way.”

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As popular today with pleasure craft as it’s always been, today the Thames boasts a range of towpath treats from rushing weirs to intriguing locks, from remote river banks reminiscent of Wind In The Willows to bustling towns like Henley and Marlow, with their races and regattas.From Hurley Lock to Maidenhead, Bourne End, Cookham and Cliveden, this is a world of weekend walks and messing about in boats, of riverside pubs and cosy cafes where you can watch the world drift by.

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And if the pace of the Thames is too frantic, there’s always the Grand Union linking London to Birmingham or, out in Berkshire, the Kennet & Avon Canal striking west for a hundred miles from Reading towards Newbury and Hungerford on its way to Bath and Bristol.With a range of free maps and guides to help you find your way around the network, the Canal & River Trust is eager to get the message across that getting active down by the waterside could be a perfect way to enjoy a happier and healthier life. 

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From sailing and canoeing trips to boating holidays, fishing, art and cultural events, there’s no shortage of things to do – and if you like getting your sleeves rolled up, the trust relies on an army of towpath volunteers to keep the network thriving.Check out the Canal & River Trust website for events, free guides and more information about the industrial heritage of the local canal network. And keep a check on our What’s On pages every month for local events across the Chilterns area. 

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Final home for fallen comrades

CANADIAN visitors to Cliveden might be surprised to find a peaceful corner of the estate set aside for a small war cemetery paying tribute to their fallen countrymen.

When the First World War broke out, Cliveden was a grand country estate well known for its exclusive parties and famous guests.

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But Waldorf Astor (later 2nd Viscount Astor) offered part of the estate as a military hospital, and the Canadian Red Cross took up the offer.

The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital opened in 1915 and by the end of the war was treating up to 600 injured personnel at a time.

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Nancy Astor was often seen helping out in the hospital and famous visitors included Winston Churchill and King George V.

Of the 24,000 troops treated there, only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the 1st Viscount Astor’s sunken Italian garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased.

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A mosaic floor was replaced by turf in which grave stones were later set and a sculpture was created especially by Australian sculptor Bertram MacKennal.

He was commissioned by Nancy Astor to design and create a symbolic bronze female figure for which it is thought he used Nancy’s features as inspiration for the face.

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Today the War Memorial Garden contains 40 war graves from the First World War, each marked with a stone set in the turf. MacKennal’s statue overlooks the graves and below it reads the inscription: ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’

In September 1939 Waldorf Astor again offered the use of the land and the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital was built. A further two war graves on the site date from World War II.

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Hidden history under our feet

Guest writer Dr Wendy Morrison, project manager of Beacons of the Past, explains how local people can help uncover the secrets of our ancient Chilterns landscape

THE Chiltern Hills have been a focal point for people for thousands of years.

Any walk or ride through the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty will take you past sites and monuments that stretch across huge spans of time and yet have survived the ravages of millennia and subsequent human activity.

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In between Ice Ages, the region was sporadically occupied by people in search of game to eat and flint for making tools. These ancient artefacts are found all over the Chilterns, left by hunter-gatherers from 150,000 years ago up until the last of the Ice Ages (c. 11,000 years ago).

The warming landscape was filled with herds of deer and horse which were the main diet for the Mesolithic (9000-4500BC) people. The chalk streams and valleys were the perfect place for these nomadic groups.

The first substantial human alterations to the Chilterns begin in the Neolithic (4500-2200 BC) when farming technology begins to be practiced. Although the homes people lived in have long disappeared, we can see traces of what they were up to at places like Waulud’s Bank, a monumental enclosure in Marsh Farm, Luton.

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We also know some of the places they buried their dead, in long barrows at Halton, Gerrards Cross, and Whiteleaf Hill. Some of the trackways they used to get around the landscape are still in use today!

The introduction of metals in the Bronze Age (2200-800 BC) to the Chilterns opened up a lot of possibilities to the people living here.

We can see the field systems that outline their agricultural activities at Pitstone Hill as well as their cemeteries – collections of barrow mounds – at Dunstable Downs and at Ivinghoe Beacon, where the Chilterns’ earliest hillfort was built around 1100 BC and where an incredible bronze sword was found.

The enigmatic earthworks collectively known as Grim’s Ditch are seen at various points across the AONB but can best be visited along the Ridgeway National Trail between Nuffield and Mongewell. Although little is known about these features, this particular section of Grim’s Ditch has been dated to the Iron Age.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an Iron Age farmstead recreated at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The period we call the Iron Age ushered in the ability to increase production of grain on the Chiltern fields. Iron tools meant that more difficult soils could be tilled, surplus crops could be grown, and the resulting prosperity mean that some people could show off their wealth and power through the construction of enormous earthworks.

Some of our Chiltern hillforts were certainly these kinds of expressions of power. Some, however, may have had more humble functions, such as places of refuge during conflict or enclosures for livestock.

In the Chilterns we have at least 20 hillforts, varied and unique, and with stunning views. Visit Pulpit Hill, Cholesbury Camp, Church Hill, or Medmenham Camp to take in a sample of these ancient monuments.

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PULPIT HILL: the Iron Age enclosure                  PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

The Chilterns are steeped in prehistoric remains, and a new LiDAR survey of the entire area is revealing hundreds of new features.

Beacons of the Past – a National Lottery funded project to discover more about the Chilterns Iron Age hillforts – flew a bespoke LiDAR survey of the Chilterns earlier in the year, the first of its kind in this area and the largest high-resolution archaeological survey ever flown in the UK.

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RAMPARTS: traces of the past at Pulpit Hill       PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

Encompassing 1400 km2, the survey is revealing hundreds of new archaeological sites across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

The project team are asking for the public’s contribution to view and interpret the results of the data gathered by the LiDAR visualisations; in many cases these will be people who may have spent decades exploring the Chilterns landscape or those who live in it, and who will bring a unique perspective to the project.

The team will offer comprehensive training and tutorials to teach LiDAR interpretative skills, allowing users to decipher the results of the data and enter the findings on an online portal at chilternsbeacons.org.

This will enable anyone in the world to discover new archaeological features in the Chilterns from their computer. Encouraging people from all walks of life to engage with a resource that is usually accessible to a handful of researchers will open up the landscape for greater understanding and appreciation, and when we appreciate and understand a place, we begin to take more active roles in caring for it.

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AERIAL VIEW: Pulpit Hill © Google Earth; LiDAR image © Chilterns Conservation Board

Funded by a £695,600 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a number of partners such as the National Trust, Chiltern Society and local authorities, Beacons of the Past is providing a real focus for community and public involvement through techniques such as remote sensing and survey, practical excavation, and research, as well as a programme of events and educational activities.

Results will be used to further engage communities with their heritage, through work in schools, with youth groups, public talks and workshops. The new discoveries will be made available to the relevant Heritage Environment Record officers in the four counties and will also help heritage managers, archaeologists and policy makers to consider how they look after the Chilterns landscape.

LiDAR, standing for “Light Distance and Ranging,” also known as Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS), is a survey technique that has been used by archaeologists for nearly 20 years. It has aided in the discovery of new sites and is particularly important for its ability to show archaeology beneath tree cover.

The Chilterns Conservation Board was set up following the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and increase awareness and understanding of the Chilterns AONB. The Board, which also aims to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities, is supported by Defra and all local authorities in the area.

For further information follow @ChilternsAONB, @Hillfortian, and @edpev7 or search #Chilforts. Dr Morrison can be contacted at wmorrison@chilternsaonb.org.

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.

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.

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.

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And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.

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Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.

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In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.

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A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.

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For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.

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In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.

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Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.

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Time to start seeing the light

OUT WITH the old, in with the new. After the sombre removal of the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, January 6 sees a distinct change of mood with the celebrations marking the feast of the Epiphany.

And anyone feeling a little sad at the lights and tinsel disappearing for another year can always look forward to Candlemas Day on February 2, which since pre-Christian times has been a feast of lights celebrating the increasing strength of the sun as winter gives way to spring.

Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, originated in the East with Christians celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Western Church began following it in the 4th century as the day the wise men were led by the star to visit baby Jesus, according to the story of the Nativity.

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THREE KINGS: Christians mark Epiphany on January 6  [PICTURE: Inbal Malca, Unsplash]

The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus.

The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, as Ben Johnson explains.

As with all good traditions, there’s no universal agreement over the exact timing of Twelfth Night, since some regard Christmas Day as being the first day of Christmas, while others believe the 12 days begin on Boxing Day.

But the Victorians began the tradition that it should be the night that Christmas trees and decorations should be taken down, to avoid bad luck after the season of merriment (and to encourage everybody to get back to work).

There’s similar disagreement over the precise details of the story of the Magi: how many wise men actually visited, for example? And when was this? Some theologians argue that Christ would have been around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred; by that time the Holy Family would also have moved out of the stables and into more permanent accommodation.

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TIMELESS TALE: the story of the Nativity                               [PICTURE:Dan Kiefer, Unsplash]

Maybe the precise details don’t matter too much – after all, it was Pope Julius I who had the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity, helpfully blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations.

By Shakespeare’s day, as well as the carols and church-going, Twelfth Night would have been marked by music, masked balls and feasting – and it was in this context that he wrote his raucous comedy Twelfth Night (or What You Will), as fitting entertainment to close the Christmas season.

The first record of its performance comes from Candlemas of 1602 to bring down the curtain on Tudor festive celebration which used to last throughout the month of January.

In fact, many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period, it seems, including carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies, as the BBC’s History Extra magazine explains with the help of Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – authors of the 2018 book A Tudor Christmas.

So if the sight of those bedraggled Christmas trees got you feeling a little down, don’t despair – the spirit of Epiphany is upon us, and Candlemas is just around the corner!

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Another glimpse of hidden London

MANY visitors to London’s Central Criminal Court never see the statue of Lady Justice straddling the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey.

Yet this is the statue used to illustrate countless news reports of the great criminal trials which have taken place here across the years.

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There’s been a court here since the 16th century, attached for much of its history to the adjoining Newgate prison, and it has witnessed hundreds of thousands of trials, including some of the most notorious and newsworthy.

Back in the 19th century, hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside and the condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the prison and the court to be met by riotous crowds pelting them with rotten fruit and vegetables.

Those crowds have long gone, but high on the dome above the court stands that bronze statue of Lady Justice, executed by the British sculptor F W Pomeroy, erected in 1906 and holding a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left.

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It’s an iconic image that harks back to her origins as Iustitia, the Roman goddess of justice introduced by Emperor Augustus and subsequently a figure which every Roman emperor wanted to be associated with.

Though formally called a goddess with her own temple and cult shrine in Rome, it appears she was viewed more as a symbolic personification rather than as an actual deity with religious significance.

Today, she gazes down on streets steeped in history, although so much of this part of London was destroyed in the war and buried by modern monstrosities that you have to look hard to find those hidden traces of the city’s past.

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One such establishment is the Viaduct Tavern, a Victorian gin palace built to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct and with numerous claims over the years that its cellars incorporate old prison cells from Newgate Prison.

The Fuller’s pub is certainly in the right location for that – and it is also likely the pub stands on land which was the original site of a debtors’ prison which operated until 1853.

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Across the road and down a side street  and you find yourself in front of Cutlers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of the most ancient of the City of London livery companies.

It its first Royal Charter from Henry V in 1416 and, as was the case with the other trade guilds of the day, its function was to protect the interests of its members, to attend to their welfare, and to ensure that high standards of quality were maintained.

Their business was producing and trading in knives, swords, and other implements with a cutting edge. Over time the emphasis shifted from implements of war to cutlery and other domestic wares such as razors and scissors.

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A ‘House of the Cutlers’ mentioned in 1285 is the earliest recorded regular meeting place of the Cutlers, but the current building (the fifth such hall) dates from 1888 and survived a great fire bomb raid on December 29th 1940 which left only St Paul’s Cathedral and Cutlers’ Hall standing virtually unscathed amongst the devastation.

Back up Newgate Street and in the Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden you can find a much more recent tribute to the city’s past, commemorating Christ’s Hospital School’s 350-year presence in the City of London from 1552 until 1902, when the school moved to Horsham in West Sussex.

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The bronze sculpture by Andrew Brown was selected following an open competition run by The City of London Corporation.

From here, it’s but a short walk to Fleet Street and the first of many hostelries to have resonated with the exchanges of generations of journalists. The Punch Tavern is a Grade II listed refurbished 19th century gin palace once known as the Crown and Sugar Loaf.

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It is said to have been renamed in the 1840s in homage to the regular drinkers from the nearby Punch magazine, a weekly magazine of humour and satire which was at its most influential at that time, when it helped to coin the term ‘cartoon’ in its modern sense as a humorous illustration.

After the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002.

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Almost next door is another Fleet Street pub with a proud history, the Old Bell Tavern. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, The Old Bell Tavern has been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years.

The claim is that it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to house his masons as they rebuilt St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire of London. Certainly it is still sought out by journalists returning for services at the church, with its centuries-old connections with the printing industry.

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Down in the crypt, the church chronicles 2,000 years of its history, which began with the Romans some six centuries before the name of St Bride, daughter of an Irish prince,  emerged from legend to become associated forever with the site.

By the time the Great Fire of 1666 left the church in ruins, a succession of churches had existed on the site for a millennium. It took nine years for St Bride’s to re-appear from the ashes under the direction of Christopher Wren, and for the next two centuries his unmistakeable wedding-cake steeple cast a long shadow over the rise of the British newspaper industry.

In 1940, St Bride’s fell victim once again to flames as German incendiary bombs reduced Wren’s architectural jewel to a roofless shell. This time 17 years elapsed before rebuilding was completed.

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Generations of newspapermen and women have prayed here and feel a special affinity for the place. Many have been married here – while others have come to honour dead colleagues, whose pictures stand on a side altar beside flickering candles.

After exploring the long history of the “journalists’ church”, it’s probably time for another convivial Fleet Street pint, perhaps this time in The Tipperary, which can claim to be the “original” Irish pub outside Ireland.

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On a site which was once an island between the River Thames and River Fleet, a dribble of which is said to still run under the pub, The Boar’s Head was built in 1605 and, being made of stone and brick rather than wood, survived the Great Fire.

In around 1700 the S G Mooney & Son Brewery chain of Dublin purchased the pub and fitted it out in traditional Irish style. It became the first outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft, and was renamed in 1918 by the printers who came back from the Great War in honour of the song “It’s a long way”.

Greene King bought the pub in the 1960s and refitted the interior to the style of Mooney’s days, recapturing the original character of the 1700s.

Emboldened by an authentic pint of Guinness, there might just be time to pop across the road and visit another venerable Fleet Street watering hole which did not fare so well in the Great Fire.

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Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of London pubs to have been rebuilt shortly after the fire, although there was a pub here from 1538 and the establishment is chiefly known for its literary associations and lack of natural lighting, which lends a gloomy charm to its many little side rooms, bars and passages.

Hidden down a narrow alleyway and decorated with wood panelling from at least the 19th century, the pub boasts plaques showing famous people who were regulars, and who may have ranged from Dickens and Chesterton to Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Talking of Dr Johnson, there may be time to look in on the charming nearby 300-year-old townhouse where the writer and wit lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language.

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Today, the hidden gem is open to the public with a collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and a wealth of original features. But if you are pressed for time, there’s one famous local character you must look in on before saying a fond farewell to Fleet Street – Dr Johnson’s beloved cat, Hodge.

Hodge is remembered by a bronze statue unveiled in Gough Square in 1997 showing the cat sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary.

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Sculptor Jon Bickley made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult – just about right for putting an arm around. Most of the information on Hodge comes from Boswell’s account:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.

I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.

Snatch a glimpse of London’s past

LONDON’S skyline is under attack.

Well, in truth it has been under attack for years, but it’s only now that we can fully appreciate the scale of the onslaught as dozens of high-rise buildings reach completion.

When architecture critic Rowan Moore highlighted the problem back in 2014, more than 200 towers were being planned across the city, in urban and suburban locations alike.

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But it’s telling that today the London Town website actually says that this part of London is “aesthetically defined by its towers” and even suggests venues where high-rise visitors might want to savour a vertigo-inducing glass of bubbly and pricey meal while taking in the view of what remains of our once glorious capital.

Moore discusses the aesthetic dangers and practical drawbacks of this race to look like Dubai, Shanghai or New York, but if you haven’t wandered round the backstreets of the City lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that every cobble, every tiny alleyway, is being transformed – mainly into offices or high-rise luxury penthouse blocks.

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Much of that is driven by overseas investment – and a glance in the estate agent’s window quickly establishes that no “normal” rent-payer would find it easy to pick up a bargain around here, even in the few bijou low-rise developments which remain.

Property agents confirmed this month that overseas investors had shrugged off Brexit worries to invest nearly  £7bn in London property in 2018 – ahead of Hong Kong and Paris.

The only consolation is in tiny alleys and hidden squares there are a few remnants of the old city for the wanderer to stumble upon.

The main tourist attractions like St Paul’s still provide visitors with a focal point, of course. Sadly Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign during the Blitz saw swathes of central London flattened in 1940 and 1941, leaving only blue plaques to remind us of some of the buildings which had graced the historic square mile since that other great London disaster, the Great Fire of 1666.

The Museum of London is a great place to start an exploration of London’s past – and when it moves to its new home beside Smithfield Market it should be an even more fascinating attraction.

But what remains of that historic capital, the Roman and medieval city largely hidden under our feet? There are still glimpses of London’s history down dark alleys and quaintly named closes, although it has to be said much of it is masked by traffic fumes and the detritus of modern living.

Between the high-rise blocks, London’s financial heart has become relentlessly hipster in mood and appearance, although the obsession with quality coffee is nothing new. London’s coffee houses were famed across the centuries, even if Samuel Johnson declared himself  ‘a hardened and shameless tea drinker’.

But where to start after you emerge from the overheated hubbub of the Central Line in rush hour and step aside from the frantic City hordes to take your breath outstide St Paul’s?

Down on Ludgate Hill it’s reassuring to see an old Routemaster bus struggling to make any progress down towards Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street, but this throwback to the past is something of a sop to the tourists.

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The vehicle itself is authentic enough, now more than 50 years old, having been originally delivered to London Transport in July 1964.

But it was withdrawn from service in the 1980s and spent time in Hampshire, Perth and Glasgow before being selected as one of a handful of buses to operate “heritage routes” through London – in this case from St Paul’s down to Trafalgar Square.

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More authentic, perhaps – and a lot less well known – is a small park round the corner from St Paul’s which provides a welcome splash of green among the concrete.

Postman’s Park has an intriguing history in its own right, occupying an amalgamation of three burial grounds and taking its name from the fact that when it opened in 1880 it became a popular haunt with postal workers from the nearby General Post Office.

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Efforts to resist the attention of Victorian property developers in the 1890s ensured that the park was saved for posterity and when it reopened in 1900 it incorporated an extraordinary and moving memorial to self-sacrifice, remembering ordinary “humble heroes” who had lost their lives endeavouring to save the lives of others.

Chief proponents of the scheme to remember the extraordinary actions performed by everyday men, women and children were the artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) and his wife, Mary (1849 – 1938).

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The Watts Memorial contains 54 memorial tablets commemorating 62 individuals. The earliest case featured is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in 1863 and the latest is Leigh Pitt who drowned in 2007.

A short walk from the park is a somewhat grimmer memorial on the outer wall of St Bartholomew Hospital in Smithfield paying tribute to Sir William Wallace, one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence – most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film “Braveheart” – who was executed nearby on August 23, 1305.

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Wallace was charged with treason, to which he responded that he could not be guilty, for he had never sworn fealty to Edward I. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to the traitor’s death, one of the most vicious punishments devised during the medieval era.

He was taken to the Tower of London where he was stripped naked and dragged behind horses to the scaffold at Smithfield. He was first hung by the neck and then cut down while still alive. He was then eviscerated and castrated, and eventually beheaded. His body was cut into four parts, and his limbs sent to the corners of Scotland as a warning to the rebellious country. His head was set on London Bridge, where it was soon joined by other Scottish rebels.

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Hidden away from the main tourist thoroughfares, Wallace’s monument is a place of pilgrimage for Scottish visitors to London, while round the corner Sherlock Holmes buffs gather to see the vacant pathology block where Benedict Cumberbatch took his famed mystery plunge in the BBC series reimagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

This part of one of Britain’s oldest hospitals is being redeveloped into a private healthcare facility. But opposite it is a reminder that this was once a rather seedy corner of medieval London where the Great Fire of London – ‘occasion’d by the sin of gluttony’ – finally stopped, as commemorated in a statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner.

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The fire which broke out in in the early hours of Sunday, 2 September 1666 swept across London from the Thames to Smithfield, destroying thousands of houses and more than 80 churches over five days.

Initially blamed as part of a treasonous plot by Roman Catholics, the 18th-century monument credited an alternative culprit in the shame of the extravagant feasting of well-off 17th-century Londoners.

At this corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street also stood The Fortune of War pub, a rather unsavoury drinking den where in the early 1800s corpses provided by body snatchers used to be held in a backroom for surgeons at the nearby hospital to view and purchase.

The high-rise office blocks haven’t quite obliterated this part of London yet, although they are certainly encroaching from all sides.

Not that anyone is suggesting that the medieval brothels of Cock Lane or nearby Victorian gin palaces provided a vision of London which tourists would enjoy today.

But between the soaring office blocks there are those glimpses of a different London skyline – like the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey, where the gleaming statue of Lady Justice, erected in October 1906, has long been used to sum up anything to do with the criminal justice system.

But that, as they say, another story…

See the Further Afield section of The Beyonder for additional snippets about London’s history.

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