Coming over all arty at Buildwas Abbey

The last place we visited during our Easter break was the small-but-perfectly-formed Buildwas Abbey near Telford, Shropshire. It’s definitely in the ‘hidden gem’ category, in fact anyone visiting needs to keep a good look out for the signs or you’ll still miss it, nestled away as it is in a curve of the River Severn, at the bottom of a long hill.

 

But assuming you make it, Buildwas will definitely repay your endeavour. It’s an absolutely charming example of an early Cistercian abbey, now ruined of course but with some of the chunkiest round pillars the Normans built still standing and a Chapter House that will have you eagerly snapping away with your camera.

Chapter House Buildwas Abbey

The story of Buildwas isn’t about any particular person, rather it’s a demonstration in the landscape of a slice of English/Welsh history.

It’s location is in the long disputed and frequently fought over borderlands between England and Wales. It was originally founded by a conquering Norman bishop (Roger de Clinton) bringing a group of Norman monks from Savigny to England in 1135, it soon after became a Cistercian monastery in 1147 and the remains of the building we can still see date from the 1150s through to the 1330s.

One of the things I love about Buildwas is that enough of its history if known to give you the bones of a story, but there are sufficient grey areas where your own imagination can take over and fill in the gaps. So for instance, in 1340 an unnamed abbot of Buildwas was murdered – but the man arrested staged an escape. In 1350 the abbey was raided by the Welsh who took the abbot and monks prisoner. We don’t know what impact the Black Death had precisely, but in 1377 there were only 6 monks there, and in 1381 only 4 – why?

Then again the abbey’s estates were ravaged during the Glyndwr Rebellion of 1406. By the time Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners visited Buildwas in 1535, there were 12 monks there, 4 of whom were accused of grave moral faults

Now if that isn’t enough to get the historic mystery writers juices flowing, I don’t know what is. (By the way, I heard this sort of writing referred to as mystoric fiction – I hadn’t heard that before, but I thought it was brilliant).

I must admit, even while I was walking around I was thinking about the wonderful Ellis Peters Cadfael novels, you could just see Cadfael in his herb garden there. But the mystery and murder also made me think of the C J Sansom Shardlake novels. Have you read these? They seem perfect companions for Buildwas.

Way back during the early part of Buildwas’s history, the abbey owned a large number of books (by the standards of those days) – estimated at over 100 religious texts – reading being one of the important elements of the Rule of St Benedict and a daily requirement. Apparently over 40 of those books still survive and it’s believed that 15 of those were actually written at Buildwas Abbey. Not a bad legacy for a small foundation in the borders.

As was often the case, once the abbey was dissolved, it quickly declined, having been plundered for building stone and materials. Even the grand Tudor house that replaced part of it has subsequently been lost. Which means that today you see a truly romantic ruin set in the loveliest rural setting, with lots of lumpy earthworks all around certain to make your inner archaeologist desperate to wield a trowel.

I don’t think English Heritage would be too impressed if you actually tried, so instead it’s probably best to let the abbey inspire your artistic streak. Don’t go without your camera or you’ll regret it. And if it’s a nice day and you’re happy working en plein air, you’ll be painting in the footsteps of John Sell Cotman and JMW Turner who amongst many others have all been inspired to paint the ruins at Buildwas.

Finally I should say that I felt an especially lovely atmosphere there, it’s the sort of place I really do think you could sit and meditate quietly. Monastic or otherwise, it has a certain serenity and I adore it. I hope if you visit you do too.

If you’re visiting…

Buildwas isn’t open every day. Check here at the official English Heritage website before you go.

There are portaloos in the car park, no permanent facilities.

The lady at the ticket office made us the very best coffee we’d had for the whole week of our holiday – just saying.

Now, if you want VERY detailed history about Buildwas – and I admit to being fascinated – go to this website – but be prepared.

And last question…

Cadfael – Derek Jacobi or Philip Madoc?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden away…

Sorry to disappear last week – it’s what happens when your youngest comes in and drops the comment that she’s got her holiday dates wrong and instead of going away this week after the Easter break, we had to rush off immediately for a few days squeezed between commitments.

But luckily for us the weather was good and so we took the tents over to Shropshire, for what turned out to be a really lovely few days, with bucket loads of heritage-hunting!

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I’ll sit down and share the stories of some of the places we visited soon, including the fabulous medieval Stokesay Castle (above), but if you’re looking for an area to visit that takes you away from the hoards and shows you history throughout the ages, there are few better counties than Shropshire and the Welsh Marches.

We were there for five days and in that time toured six castles (Stokesay, Powis, Ludlow, Hopton, Montgomery and Clun), two abbeys (Much Wenlock Priory and Buildwas Abbey), two hill-forts (on the hillside above the campsite) and a bronze age stone circle (Mitchell’s Fold) and for much of the time we were the only people at the sites, so much lovelier I think than having to push through crowds. I’m a massive fan of these hidden gems.

And besides the abundant heritage, there’s the simply wonderful scenery to enjoy too. I’ve always loved walking up hills and as we don’t have that many in Bedfordshire I was very happy to trot up as many as we could manage (alright, maybe not exactly trot, but I make it up with a liberal smattering of ‘awe and wonder’ stops). We made it up the Long Mynd, the Stiperstones, Corndon Hill, and along a section of Offa’s Dyke from Knighton. My leg muscles are definitely feeling it now.

We camped on the edge of the Long Mynd (it was extreme camping but in a wonderful location – if you’re slightly mad and want the details, leave me a comment or send me a tweet).

After all that sight-seeing and exercise, I was very glad to roll into a pub each evening for a pint of Three Tuns beer. I think a visit to the Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle might be a legal requirement of visiting Shropshire – we certainly always pay homage there, but in fact it turned out that the pub closest to our campsite (The Bridges Pub, Ratlinghope) was also owned by the brewery and I have to say kept their beer extremely well. The food was fabulous there too, so I’d be more than happy to go again. (I’ve put a link to their website here in case anyone is interested, because they offer a variety of accommodation too, which seems like an ideal arrangement should camping without any mod cons not be to your liking – ahem).

The other great find of the holiday was a new-to-us bookshop at historic Brampton Bryan – Aardvark Books. It’s the sort of place where you could happily spend hours and hours browsing through the books (new and second-hand), drinking tea from proper china cups and wandering around their art exhibition. We’ll go back I’m sure, but in the meantime you can follow Ethel Aardvark on Twitter – and why wouldn’t you…

So, it’s back into the swing of things again now just as soon as I get through the mountain of post-holiday laundry. Just before we set off for our break I started two new stitchy pieces which are calling to me now to get on with, but that will have to wait for a day or two – I’ll show you them soon.

Have a lovely week.

Ax

 

 

Two Historical Giants at Pembroke Castle

I may have mentioned before that I particularly love being able to link historic people to historic places and Pembroke Castle boasts intimate connections with two giants of English history, William Marshall and Margaret Beaufort. Both of these characters had long and colourful lives, tightly interwoven with the events of their day, and a visit to Pembroke is a good place to remember the role each played…

Pembroke Castle with the Great Keep on the left.

William Marshall

William Marshall had an extraordinary life. He was born in 1146 (or possibly 1147, it’s a grey area) to fairly lowly Anglo-Norman knightly stock, but through his immense courage and loyalty he rose in importance to play vital roles during the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, John and John’s son Henry III for whom he was appointed protector in 1216.

If you haven’t heard of him, there’s a fabulous biography ‘ The Greatest Knight’ – by Thomas Asbridge *, which is every bit as exciting as any fiction. I won’t bore you with oodles of details here, but suffice to say he got around a bit and fought a lot of fights through his 70+ years – (he led the charge at the battle of Lincoln aged 70).

In 1189 at the age of 43 he married 17-year-old Isabel de Clare (he was given her by Richard I as a reward for his support) and it was through her that he became owner of Pembroke Castle (and indeed a number of other castles – we’ll no doubt meet William quite often as we wander around the castles of Wales and the Marches). They went on to have 5 sons and 5 daughters, which was no mean feat and certainly provides fiction writers with plenty of possibilities.

How much time he spent at Pembroke I’m not sure, in those days practically all the aristocracy lived largely peripatetic lives, but he is credited with having had the castle built in stone and for building the Great Keep –  it’s a massive cylindrical tower with a stone domed roof, nearly 80′ high (you can walk up and on to it to see the views, although I have to say it brought me as close to vertigo as I’ve ever been). It’s impressive today and must have been even more so in the twelfth century.

We have William Marshall to thank for several things, including witnessing and then re-issuing Magna Carta. His descendants include both the Bruce and Stewart kings of Scotland, Edward IV of England and through him, Henry VIII and all English monarchs afterwards.

He died in 1219 and is buried in the Temple Church, London where you can still see his tomb. Isabel died a year later.

William Marshall in historical fiction

There are loads of stories featuring William, including novels by Jean Plaidy, Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick. Have you read any of them? Which ones would you recommend?

I’ve read that he may have been the inspiration for William Thatcher in the film A Knight’s Tale – I love that film although it’s set years later, I sort of hope it’s true.

Margaret Beaufort

Now Margaret Beaufort may not have built anything at Pembroke, but in a way you could claim that it was where the Tudor dynasty began, because it was in a tower at the castle on the 28th of January 1457 that Margaret gave birth to her son Henry, who would go on largely through the political manoeuvring of Margaret to become King Henry VII in 1485.

Margaret’s story is just as amazing as William’s. She was married at the age of 12 to Henry VI’s half-brother the 24-year-old Edmund Tudor. The Wars of the Roses were intimately entwined in her life and Edmund died in captivity at Carmarthen shortly after their marriage, but not before she became pregnant. She gave birth in Pembroke Castle aged just 13. Henry was her only child even though she married twice more, so I think we can imagine it would have been a pretty horrendous experience.

 

Like William, the life of Margaret has been the subject of numerous novels, including the enormously popular books by Philippa Gregory – Margaret is the Red Queen (I’m going to be honest and admit to not having read any of them). I know Margaret was a remarkable woman and you have to admire the way she struggled through the twists and turns of fate to bring Henry to the throne, but I’ve never been able to like her – is there a novel I should read that will change my mind?

Anyway, she outlived Henry VII and watched her grandson Henry VIII being crowned in 1509 shortly before her death. Quite some woman whatever you may think.

Pembroke Castle on film.

I’m surprised Pembroke Castle hasn’t made more film appearances, but for those of us who like to know, it featured in Jabberwocky (1976), Prince Caspian (1989), Richard II (part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series – with the simply marvellous Ben Wishaw as Richard – watch it if you haven’t already, 2011) and in Me Before You (2016). It also had a minor role at the beginning of The Lion In Winter (1968), where Nigel Stock plays none other than William Marshall…

An extra helping?

Click here to go to the official Pembroke Castle website where you can check opening hours, tickets prices, history timeline and the like – they have all sorts of events there too, including after hours ghost walks – sounds like fun.

Here’s a link to Thomas Asbridge’s website – if you aren’t familiar with William Marshall, try Asbridge’s book or search out the documentary he made about him – it’s ‘boy’s own’ stuff really it is.

Does anyone know of a good biography of Margaret Beaufort, surely there must be one? If you want a good article about her, I thought this piece from History Today by Michael Jones was useful.

 

Banqueting ‘medieval style’ – one of the tableaux at Pembroke Castle.

Just to say, there’s lots to see at Pembroke Castle that I haven’t attempted to mention here, but it’s a brilliant place to visit if you’re in the area. It’s privately owned and I love the approach they take to heritage and history, it’s a castle where you feel welcome and connected.

 

 

Step back in time at Canons Ashby

After all the grandeur of Gloucester Cathedral last week, I thought for this week’s helping of heritage-hunting I’d choose something a little more domestic – although it does have a monastic connection – Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. It’s an Elizabethan manor house, built beside the remains of the Augustinian Priory of Canons Ashby, which went the way of those places at the Dissolution (what remains of the Priory is now the somewhat truncated village church).

Canons Ashby

Canons Ashby house is at the ‘ooh, I could imagine myself living here’ end of the spectrum rather than one of the jaw-dropping Chatsworth, Woburn or Blenheim types. Nevertheless, it’s somewhere I love visiting because it has that rare quality of being largely unchanged since the last phase of building work there in 1710.

If you choose your time and day to visit when there aren’t too many other people wandering around, you can almost imagine yourself back in the eighteenth century. Half close your eyes and let your senses bring you the drifting scent of candles and listen for the gentle rustle of silk skirts, perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a servant on the stairs.

It was for many years the family home of the Drydens (not actually the home of the poet and political satirist John Dryden, but they were closely related) and it still feels like a family home to me even though it’s now being shared with all of us visitors. I love the way you’re able to see so many of the rooms, grand and less than grand.

There’s one much more recent resident of the house we do know about – have you heard of Louis Osman? He was the goldsmith who made the crown used at the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 and he lived here from 1969 until 1979. (Although I can’t say it’s something I’d ever want to wear, not that that’s an issue – ahem…).

The house isn’t huge, but it has many small treasures to discover as you wander around.  A speaking tube to pass orders from the dining room to the kitchen, Elizabethan wall-paintings, a magnificent plaster work ceiling, mysterious masonic symbols painted onto cupboards…

Although naturally we all think we’d have been the ones swanning around giving the orders in these old places, I suppose it’s more likely that we’d have been slaving away in the kitchens, but Canons Ashby has a fabulous old kitchen, worth the visit for that alone (well I think so).

The other big draw of Canons Ashby for me is the wonderful amount of needlepoint and woven textiles around the house. It’s not so easy when the house is busy, but there have been days when it’s quiet that I’ve managed to spend really quite a long time peering at the stitched work (and getting some odd looks from the room-guides).

I always find myself thinking about the people who stitched away at those pieces and the lives they lived and what they’d think if they knew we were still admiring their work hundreds of years later.

Outside

Just as lovely as the house itself are the gardens, which are gradually being restored. Go on a fine day and you’ll probably want to spend as long there as inside. One day when it’s really warm I’m going to pack up my stitching, drive over to Canons Ashby, settle myself into a garden seat and stitch away the afternoon there.

Don’t miss the statue of Sam the shepherd boy which commemorates a sad event during the English Civil War when the pro-Parliament Drydens offered food and ale to a group of Roundhead soldiers and set their shepherd lad to watch out and alert the soldiers if any Royalist troops arrived – when they did arrive and the boy played his whistle to raise the alarm, the Royalists took vengeance and killed him.

Gaze through the window and spot Sam the shepherd still guarding Canons Ashby.
The church

If you have enough time, wander over to the church which dates from 1250 and which is all that remains of the Priory – as with other churches ‘cut down’ from monastic sites, it feels a bit oddly proportioned, which I suppose is entirely understandable.

Planning A Visit?

  • I should mention that there’s a lovely cafe there too but if the weather is good you might prefer to take a picnic – there’s plenty of space and on a hot summer afternoon it feels dreamy.
  • Bookworms should know that there’s a small second-hand bookshop in the courtyard too, you might want to allow yourself a few extra minutes for a browse around.

Are you planning any heritage-hunting this weekend, where are you off to? Or where would you like to be going? Do tell…

 

 

Gloucester Cathedral – 5 things you shouldn’t miss.

For me, Gloucester Cathedral has to be one of the most overwhelmingly lovely places in England, but I have to say it was difficult to decide how to begin talking about it here, because quite frankly there’s too much delicious history stuff there to choose from. I was definitely in danger of going into fact and date overload. So instead, I decided to pick just five things I wouldn’t want to miss –  of course your choice might very well be entirely different, and if you’re a Gloucester Cathedral fan I hope you’ll take a moment to share what you’d have included too.

If after all this you’re left wanting to know more, I’ve added a selection of links at the end of this post to help you explore further. 

So kicking off, in no particular order…

  1. The tomb of King Edward II (it’s up on the left-hand side of the High Altar)

Buried beneath a rather splendid canopied shrine, with a lion at his feet and angels at his head, is the unfortunate King Edward II (died 1327), who history says was gruesomely murdered at Berkeley Castle with the wincingly unpleasant application of a red hot poker to his nether regions. (If you visit Berkeley Castle you can still see the room where his murder was said to have been committed and where it’s said you can hear his cries each year on the 21st of September, the anniversary of his death).

Over the course of his reign, Edward had managed to seriously annoy powerful factions at court through his friendships with first Piers Gaveston and later Hugh Despenser. Eventually this provoked Edward’s wife Queen Isabella and baron’s leader Roger Mortimer to revolt and in April 1327 Edward was forced to abdicate in favour of his teenage son who then became King Edward III, with Isabella and Mortimer effectively ruling in his name.

How exactly he really did meet his end isn’t known and a number of theories exist, including one which several historians believe, that he wasn’t murdered there at all, but instead was able, or enabled, to escape to the continent where he later met his son Edward III in Antwerp in 1338.

As it happened, things didn’t turn out too well for Isabella or Roger Mortimer either. Having rid themselves of Edward they went on to make many of the same mistakes and were themselves brutally removed from power just three years later when Edward III seized control from his mother and Mortimer. Isabella was allowed to retire to her castles (Castle Rising in Norfolk where she lived is a wonderful place to visit), but Mortimer was quickly executed, having been blamed for murdering Edward II.

Whatever the truth about Edward II’s death, Edward III went to some trouble to have his father remembered with this elaborate tomb, and the monks at Gloucester (which in those days was an abbey) did very well indeed from the numerous pilgrims who came to pray here. So well in fact that later in the 14th century it was possible for them to carry out the building of what must be some of the most beautiful English Perpendicular architecture in the country.

So in a way, whatever Edward’s fate, you could argue that he has left us a magnificent and poignant legacy in stone, albeit not of his design. I’m not sure that the face of the effigy is a likeness of the king, but to me it seems extremely melancholy and indeed I suppose he had much to regret.

But then I wonder if in some ways he didn’t have the last laugh, because whilst he has this magnificent shrine and still draws visitors nearly 700 years later, there is no trace remaining of the burial places of either his queen Isabella or Roger Mortimer. (Isabella had been buried in Christ Church Greyfriars, London, but that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and the Wren church which replaced it was destroyed in the Blitz during WW2. Roger poor chap was probably buried in Wigmore Abbey amongst his Mortimer family, only ruins now remain there).

2. The effigy of Robert Curthose – Duke of Normandy.

As if one awkward royal wasn’t enough, Gloucester Cathedral can boast another. Across the aisle from Edward II, you’ll find the effigy of another wayward chap, Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. Why you might wonder wasn’t he a king of England if he was the eldest son, but according to history, Robert and his father had some major fallings-out (this seems to be a recurring theme with medieval monarchs), and so William divided his lands in England and Normandy between Robert and his younger brother William, Robert getting Normandy and William inheriting England (and becoming William Rufus).

Things didn’t exactly run smoothly between them (Robert sounds like a bit of a lad one way or another) and when William died without an heir, it was their youngest brother Henry who seized the throne, despite Robert’s attempts to take it for himself. Not long after, Robert was imprisoned by Henry and spent the rest of his long life a prisoner in Cardiff Castle. He died in 1134 aged 83 and is buried in the cathedral.

But the reason for telling you this is just to set the scene, because what I love is Robert’s effigy itself and the curious position he’s lying in.

It’s made from bogwood and dates to about 100 years after his death. And here’s the mystery – what exactly is he doing with his leg and his arm? He looks as if he’s doing some kind or yoga pose. It’s probable that originally he was holding something, but nobody seems to know what that was. As a result he remains stuck in this peculiar stance for all time.

3. The Cloisters.

Now the cloisters at Gloucester are without doubt simply magnificent, the sheer beauty of the vaulting, the windows and the disappearing vanishing points are breathtaking. Thinking about it, this is the one thing I really wouldn’t miss, and where I’d go if I could only see one thing there. But there’s another reason why they’re so popular and why I bet they get many visitors and it’s because they were used as a set for parts of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

I found a charming home video on YouTube of a visit to the film locations with a Cathedral guide pointing out the precise spots – it’s cute if you’re into that sort of thing have a look.

Harry and Ron were not the only stars to film in the cathedral. A ‘Dr Who Christmas special’ episode (while David Tennant was playing the Doctor) was filmed here, as was an episode of ‘Sherlock’ (filmed in the crypt) and scenes from The Hollow Crown and Wolf Hall were both filmed here (and incidentally they’re two of my absolute favourite programmes – what did you think?)

4. The Stained Glass Windows.

A visit to Gloucester isn’t all kings and wizards though. One thing you can’t miss is the simply mind-blowing stained glass, including the extraordinary East Window which is bigger than a tennis court and certainly makes your neck ache if you stand looking up at it.

All the windows are stunning, but I’ll be honest and say that for me the most beautiful of all aren’t the massive ones, but instead I’m a fan girl for Tom Denny’s stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel commemorating the Gloucestershire poet and composers Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi.

Sadly there’s no access to them at the moment as restoration work is being carried out in the Lady Chapel (2017), but they are jewels in the cathedral’s crown and I can’t wait to go back and see them again. If you aren’t familiar with Tom Denny’s work, he has other work in the area, including at Hereford Cathedral and Malvern Priory (and I’m still hoping to make a pilgrimage around them myself before too long).

5. The secret Whispering Gallery…

If it’s open, pay £2 and walk up to the Whispering Gallery (you’ll see signs). It’s one of those lovely acoustic quirks that means someone standing at one side will be able to ‘whisper’ to someone on the other side and be heard over there. Don’t be shy, try it! Oh and the added bonus is getting probably the best view of the East Window.


So there you have this history-junkie’s ‘five not to be missed’. Of course it’s impossible to condense such a splendid place into a handful of highlights, your’s will almost certainly be different (please do share your own highlights too).

Oh and one more thing – if you wander around to the side of the cathedral, there’s a superb cafe with excellent food, free WiFi and (ahem) the necessary facilities. I love it when there’s somewhere comfortable to get a good coffee while I read a guidebook and make my notes.


Want to know more?

What have I missed that you’d have liked to know about? Do tell, I’d love to hear.

Unleashing the history junkie…

Last week I decided to unleash my inner history junkie onto Instagram and committed to regularly sharing pictures and snippets of history-related trivia on my gallery there.

If you’ve been coming here to my blog for any length of time, you’ll already know that exploring British history through visiting the places where it happened is the thing I want to be doing most if I’m not stitching – in fact the truth is that some days I actually want to do it more!

The thing that really gets me excited is knowing that there’s such a massive amount of heritage surrounding us, wherever you are in Britain, there will be something fascinating nearby, quite possibly even under your feet. We can trace our history back through the centuries and visit places where our ancestors stood thousands of years ago right up to the present.

But it makes me really sad that many people only ever get to see the major attractions, not knowing that they’re missing a huge wealth of other historic sites all with amazing stories to tell.

So, I’ve decided that my mission is to wave the flag for the historic sites in Britain that don’t generally feature on the Top 10 lists of places to visit. Because wonderful though Stonehenge, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle undoubtedly are, they’re just the tip of a massive iceberg of possibilities and I hope to make a small contribution by shouting out about the sites that don’t get quite so much attention and to help them have their stories heard.

My plan is to come here once a week and talk about somewhere I think is pretty special. (I’ll post pictures on Instagram too).

Now if you’re reading this and thinking ‘oh crikey no, I had enough of history at school thank you very much, I can’t think of anything worse, I’m off to surf the web for a new knitting pattern’ all I can say is that I hope to avoid being a bore. There are some fabulously informative history websites (which I happen to love), but I’m not intending to do more of the same. I’m not a historian, just a history geek who loves seeing for herself, so I’m not going to be writing chapter and verse guide books, instead I aim to tempt you with titbits of information, excite you with little connections and thrill you with trivia.

I know I’m not the only history-junkie out there, so if you’re currently hiding your history habit, now is the time to come out and join me. Let me know what it is that really gets your history juices flowing. What are the British heritage places you think the world should hear about? What is it that you enjoy most about making your own history trips? Where do you really want to see but haven’t been to yet? If you’re reading this outside Britain, what would you love to see explored here? How could I bring our historic past alive for you?

I’d love it if you’d leave comments here or on Twitter (I’m @AnnPawley) or Instagram (dreaminginstitches). Let’s start talking history and see if we can spread the word.

 

 

Superstitious…

Just wondering, but does anyone actually own up to being superstitious these days?

I sat down to write today, aware that it’s a Friday 13th – a date many people associate with bad luck – and it struck me that nobody I know seems to admit to having superstitions any more.

We’re all rational beings now, looking for scientific explanations for everything and dismissing as primitive anything that doesn’t lend itself to neat scientific explanation.

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I started to consider how superstitious I am. Do black cats crossing my path cause me any concerns? Not especially, unless I’ve had to do an emergency stop to avoid them. Do I avoid stepping on cracks in the pavement, throw spilt salt over my shoulder or poke spoons through the shells of boiled eggs? Nope. And to be honest, I’ve always thought of Friday 13th’s as rather lucky days.

But then, ahem

…there may just happen to be a horseshoe in my kitchen window, (only for decoration of course). I definitely avoid walking under ladders (common sense surely?). I didn’t let my husband see my wedding dress before our wedding day, I don’t put new shoes on the table, I don’t open umbrellas indoors and I do occasionally speak to single magpies.

Just in case you’re now thinking what a weirdo I am, I’d like to point out that the ravens at the Tower of London have their wings clipped so they can’t fly away because ‘if they do, the Kingdom will fall’ !

By the way, if ravens are your thing, I urge you to follow the Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife, at the Tower on Twitter @ravenmaster1 . He happens to have quite possibly the best job in the world.

What about you? Super-stitious or super-sensible?


The photograph above was taken at Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow on the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, on a very foggy late December afternoon last year (actually our wedding anniversary).

Superstition has it that horses who cast a shoe will be mysteriously re-shod there by Weland the Anglo-Saxon god of metal working in return for a silver coin left on the stones…

Anyone tried?

A little Brown and Robinson…

Two names seem to have cropped up repeatedly around here lately – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Sir Tony Robinson…

We’ve been watching Tony Robinson on TV – he’s got a new series on Channel 4 – Britain’s Ancient Paths – walking some of the old routes, talking to historians and staying in rather nice pubs (they didn’t ask me if I’d like to do it – I’m a bit miffed), but also there seem to be repeats of his previous history programmes on practically every time I zap the channels.

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And purely by coincidence and for no good reason, I’d only recently started following him on Twitter (@Tony_Robinson if you’re interested), so for a while I’d begun to feel he was becoming part of the family.

Then again, he’s been something of a constant companion in many ways over the last 30 years or so, from playing Baldrick in the Blackadder series during the 1980s, the wonderful and hugely missed TIme Team era from 1994 until 2013, the post-Time Team documentaries and last but not least his narration of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld audio-books and his voices on the Discworld video game (what, never played it? You haven’t lived…)

The last episode I saw of Britain’s Ancient Paths had Tony walking a stretch of the Ridgeway which is claimed to have been used by locals and every invading army for over 5000 years.

Watching him, it immediately brought to mind a public information film I remembered seeing when I was at school back in the Dark Ages. It had made such an impression at the time, especially the disappearing lady with the Timotei hair, that I felt compelled to search YouTube and see if it still existed anywhere there – and lo! Look what I found…

Crikey I can’t tell you how this took me back (I’m beginning to sound like an old-dear I know, but still…)

Anyway, as a result, inspired by Sir Tony and the Timotei woman, off I went up onto the Ridgeway a couple of Sundays ago, to swish my hair and admire the odd autumnal view.

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The autumn colours were just beginning to set in – we’ve had a very late-onset autumn this year don’t you think? More of a very long summer. But it’s definitely changed over the last two weeks and so it was time to make our annual pilgrimage to Stowe Landscape Gardens to gasp in awe at the colours and play trains in the fallen leaves.

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Which brings us to the other gentleman who’s been cropping up – Capability Brown (I’m not going to use his Christian name if you don’t mind, Lancelot for me will always bring up visions of John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and we don’t need to go there today)…

Capability Brown as I’m sure you know changed the way we think about the English landscape by creating classical romantic idylls for his rich patrons in the eighteenth century. Stowe was where he first cut his garden design teeth and whatever your take on the politics of that era, there’s no denying the beauty of what he created.

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Brown went on to create well over 100 more of his ‘landscape gardens’ and many of them remain to this day.

One which I had never visited previously is at Croome Park in Worcestershire, now owned and being restored by the National Trust. On Monday we headed over there to meet up with my big brother and what a fabulous surprise we had – Croome is just gorgeous.

I’m sure the golden autumn colours and faint haze from the morning fog added a special filter, but nevertheless, what an amazing creation.

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Every new vista seemed to make me giggle with the complete loveliness.

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What a place…

So much thanks to Brown and Robinson, I’m feeling well set up and ready for the colder months, embracing the seasons and indulging in my own version of hygge.

Happy November…

Where do you like to celebrate autumn? And what does autumn mean to you? Do you have any special family rituals at this time of year?

 

A Flying Visit To Orkney…

It sometimes feels strange to live on an island where there remains considerable evidence of our distant ancestors in the landscape and in the monuments they built, but to know so very little about them. Developments in archaeology in recent decades have certainly lead to far more exploration of neolithic sites, but for me at least there is a huge gulf between what we now ‘know’ and what there is we’d really like to know.

So while the archaeologists carry on their painstaking work to uncover and discover facts, we’re left to fill the gap with our imaginations.

Having now become well and truly hooked on this pre-historic enigma, you can appreciate why I leapt at the chance to make a flying visit to Orkney – an island group off the North East tip of Scotland, rich in marvellous and mysterious neolithic sites.

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Scape Flow

It would have been difficult to imagine a more lovely day for our visit. A near cloudless blue sky reflected in the sea and the lochs, creating a sublime combination of emerald greens and sapphire blues beneath us as we flew over Scapa Flow.

This was my first visit to the Orkney and I wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful it is. It absolutely took my breath away. But we had just a few hours to explore, so we began by overflying the area we planned to visit on land – Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.

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Skara brae (bottom right, circles contained within a path)

Skara Brae had to be the highlight of the visit and it was the first site we headed for once we landed.

There’s been a lot of television coverage of Skara Brae in recent years, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing it in person. Built around 3000BC, it was a subterranean village, hidden under sand for centuries, but revealed in the 19th century after a storm removed some of the layers covering sand.

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As you walk around the village, looking down from the path above, your mind goes into overdrive, trying to mentally construct the village as it once was, seeing it with your mind’s eye, peopling it with men and women who looked just like us but about whom there is so much we don’t have a clue about.

Perhaps the most iconic view of Skara Brae is this one…

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Who is there of a certain age who isn’t thinking ‘The Flintstones’ when they see this?

But this is absolutely real! How did the residents use that stone dresser? I couldn’t stop wondering about it. What would you do with it if it was the centre-piece of your house?

Then look around – either side are the stone remains of the bed-spaces and in the middle, a hearth. In the walls are niches – what was kept inside them?

It would, I am sure, be entirely possible to spend weeks just looking at Skara Brae and trying to understand it, let alone uncover more (and yes, the archaeologists are fairly certain that much more of the site remains uncovered). But with only a few hours to spare, we moved on.

Our next stop was to visit the Ring of Brodgar.

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Here is a stone circle from around 3000BC, comprising stones from across Orkney – 36 remain of the original 60, laid out in a circle and surrounded by a henge. Strange mounds also feature in the local landscape adding so much to the mystery that already surrounds this amazing place.

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Where Skara Brae leads you to attempt to answer the questions, here I felt I was in quite a different place. For all the theories and there are many, nobody yet or perhaps ever will know why these circles were constructed. That it took a great deal of effort is evident, so why did people not so different from you and me undertake that task? What would make you do it?

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I admit that standing there, inside that circle, I wasn’t exactly trying to think about the logistics of building it, I was simply enchanted by being in the circle – standing there and turning 360 degrees, looking out at the landscape around the Ring, looking up at the sky contained by the Ring, touching the individual stones as I walked past each one.

That there was a meaning I’m sure, but what it was? Perhaps we all decide for ourselves…

Inevitably I suppose we began to run out of time to explore the rest of the sites in this sequence – the Stones of Stenness (just a mile from the Ring of Brodgar) and Maeshowe.

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Maeshowe from the air

In the end we found ourselves dashing back to Kirkwall with only a very few minutes to flit inside St Magnus’s Cathedral – so little time that I didn’t manage to take any decent pictures.

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One of the intriguingly carved tomb stones in Kirkwall Cathedral

But long enough to confirm that I must return to Orkney, this time with the freedom to explore much more of this mysterious and enchanting group of islands.

Busy month…

You really have to pity my Other Half. Less than 7 weeks after Christmas and he is hit with the triple whammy of St Valentine’s Day, Number One Daughter’s birthday and my birthday, all within the space of 6 days.

So one way or another it has been pretty busy around here, thank goodness for half term which conveniently contains all three events.

We’re not massively into celebrating St Valentine’s so that didn’t cause too much trouble, but the Daughter’s birthday was a very significant one – she can now legally have a pint of beer after bell-ringing (oh and I suppose vote, get married etc etc…)

There was cake.

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I had thought about making a sophisticated affair, but then I decided that although she might now legally be an adult,  she will always be my baby, so instead I went for the ‘add as much chocolate as possible’ option and risked death by fire with the full quota of candles.

We celebrated with what is becoming a traditional day trip to Bath.

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What a fantastic place Bath is, even on days when it rains continuously (like it did last Wednesday), it’s beautiful.

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Our family tradition, stretching back to when the new adult was not much more than a toddler, is to play a round of mini-golf while we’re in Bath. Interestingly, although by no means our coldest round, it was certainly our wettest.

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Have you ever watched a golf ball gently descend into a hole filled to over-brimming with water? And then to have to plunge your hand down into the extremely cold water to retrieve your ball? It’s different, that’s all I’m going to say…

Still, a tradition is a tradition – these things have to be done.

My own birthday was a much lower key event. Having enjoyed being 39 for some years now, I see no reason to change it. I suppose the time will come when I will have to consider being 42 or maybe even 44, but I’m in no hurry.

So Number Two Daughter and I set off for a day trip yesterday, to mark the end of half term with a little bit of culture.

We both love Packwood House in Warwickshire, so that was our first stop. It occurred to us that we’ve never been on a really warm, sunny day. Do you have places like that?

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Each elevation is so different at Packwood…
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Very fond of asymmetry me…

Our initial plan had been to go next to Baddesley Clinton, another favourite, but warned of ongoing work there, instead we thought about either Kenilworth Castle or Hanbury Hall. Neither of us could decide, so eventually we tossed a coin and Hanbury won.

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Restoring the symmetrical balance…
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For some reason, my favourite view of Hanbury…

I felt considerably older than my 39-again years as we were walking round Hanbury, as I kept telling Number Two how much it had improved since my first visits back in the 1970s. But it really has.

So, it’s back to the routine again this week. The Delinquent Dog and I walked along the lane this morning listening to the birds who are quite certain it’s now spring, even if the weather hasn’t totally decided.

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From other people’s blogs and IG feeds I’m sure our lane is not as far on as some others, but I don’t think it will be long before we have flowers and blossom.

Happy stitching x

 

 

 

 

Pilgrimage…

In which even the persistent rain couldn’t spoil the pleasure of a visit to the home of my historic hero, Bess of Hardwick…

It won’t surprise anyone who comes here often, that Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire exerts a powerful allure for this particular history junkie, combining as it does the attractions of a seriously grand Elizabethan great house, with an unsurpassed collection of historic textiles.

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Hardwick Hall – more glass than wall – as they say…

And perhaps adding the real cherry on top, is the fact that both the building and the textiles exist here today, due to the efforts and vision of one truly remarkable Elizabethan lady – the redoubtable, Bess of Hardwick.

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Bess of Hardwick, later in life when the widowed Countess of Shrewsbury

I don’t need much encouragement to go along to Hardwick, so when an opportunity came up at the weekend, off I went!

Hardwick Hall is in the care of the National Trust, which considering the nature of the building and its fragile and delicate contents, is probably a very good thing. But the downside of showing so many historic tapestries, embroideries and needleworks, is that they  keep the light-levels very low to avoid light damage. So if you have the chance to visit on a day when it isn’t raining – grab it.

Sadly, I didn’t have the option, and so I apologise here and now for the poor quality of the photos. I’ve done what I could, but as you will see, it was wet and seriously dark on Saturday afternoon, so try to go with the sepia flow…

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View from the New Hall to the ruins of the Old Hall (also largely rebuilt by Bess) and a ‘must’ when you visit the New Hall.

Anyway, I’m sure many of you know all about Bess of Hardwick (if you don’t, read about her here, or better still, read this book: Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth Mary S. Lovell).

If Bess’s wasn’t exactly a ‘rags to riches’ story, it wasn’t far off. Honestly, I don’t understand why dramatists aren’t all over her story – married 4 times to wealthier and wealthier men, life at the court of Elizabeth I, sharing her home with Mary Queen of Scots, arranging marriages for a brood of children, building at least 3 magnificent houses, acrimonious divorce, deaths – her story has the lot!

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My favourite portrait of Bess: Aged about 30. Oh how I wish that picture could talk…

And the best bit – Bess wasn’t some pawn in the game, she was a lead player. Time and again, Bess confronted difficult situations and worked at them to the advantage of herself and her family. She is for me, an incredible example of a strong woman, standing up for what she wanted and what she thought was right and at a time when this was certainly not the norm for women.

Luckily, much of her correspondence and her inventories remain, so it’s possible to read her own words, which make her feel extraordinarily real. She comes across as something of a cross between an extremely powerful business woman and your Grandmother – juggling the stresses and strains of a major business empire with the day-to-day upheavals of a complex and sometimes dysfunctional family life.

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The marriages of Bess’s children, celebrated in a heraldic mantel.

I’m not sure that she would have been all that easy to live with, or to work for, but of all the people in history I’d love the chance to go back and talk to, it would be Bess – she is my all-time historic hero.

But of course there’s another reason why I love her so much. Bess was into textiles. Her homes were adorned with every kind of rich tapestry, needlework and embroideries money could buy. And although much was produced by professional embroiderers, she also stitched some pieces herself – which gives me a kind of thrill when I look at the many textiles at Hardwick and imagine her running her hands over them, or even wielding her needle.

Details from the needlework table carpet – Story of Tobit (1579)

Details from a long cushion – Fancie of a Fowler – velvet with applied needlework motifs.

I stood for a long time, working out in my mind how some of these pieces were worked. And I suppose it’s seeing something made over 400 years ago, using techniques exactly the same as the ones I use today, that gives me a special thrill. Occasionally, you find yourself understanding precisely why they chose to work in a particular way, and in that moment, there’s a connection across those 400 years. You stand there and realise that if the embroiderer was standing next to you, you’d be talking the same language.

The building itself is superb, but in a way, it overwhelms me, which is why I usually find myself looking for the odd or the quirky aspects, such as the staggered windows and the worn stone stairs. It’s the sort of house that will speak in different ways to every visitor, I’m quite sure. Certainly on Saturday afternoon, it was proving awesome to many of the visitors – which is really quite some legacy, even after all these years.

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Hats off to Bess!

Visitor information from the National Trust is here.

For a wonderful and fascinating insider’s story, follow Ellen Scarlett’s delightful and informative blog – View From My Attic – Ellen works at Hardwick Hall and gives fabulous glimpses into the life of the Hall.

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Oh, and the gardens…well, even in the rain, they’re wonderful…

Do visit Hardwick if you can, you’ll be very glad you did.

 

 

 

 

Medieval faces…

I’ve been having a few churchy days lately, courtesy of the bell-ringers in the family.

On Monday, I spent an hour at our local church, All Saints, Soulbury. I’ve been there so many times, but I still love to wander around, it’s a fascinating place. But in all the hours I’ve spent in that church, I’d never previously realised there was a little medieval treasure waiting to be found…

Have a good look at this chancel window…

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Now, the chancel windows, on either side, each has that colourful glass border. I’d never paid it any attention on other visits. But while I was there on Monday, I took a closer look.

And it appears that each of those coloured sections is a fragment of medieval stained glass – presumably from the pre-Reformation days. Most of the fragments are difficult to identify, although I spotted a few architectural features, and some fabric drapes, but suddenly, I noticed a face…

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and then another…

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And then more…

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Each one is really tiny, but has incredible, fine detail. It never fails to take my breath away when we get these little connections to people from the past. I would so love to know who painted those faces.