A National Trust trip around Northern Ireland

Well, if I count the visit to Plas Newydd on the southern shore of Anglesey, on the way to Holyhead to catch the ferry over to Ireland, Steph and I visited twelve National Trust properties in eight days.

We have wanted to visit Northern Ireland for many years, but until now never really had the opportunity, or we felt that the security situation didn’t make for a comfortable visit. All that has changed. Now retired, we have time on our hands. ‘The Troubles‘ are a thing of the past (fortunately), and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has transformed the opportunities for that part of the United Kingdom.

Being members of the National Trust, and knowing that there were some splendid houses to see over in Northern Ireland, as well as some Trust-owned landscapes such as the spectacular Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast, this was just the incentive we needed to decide, once and for all, to cross over to the island of Ireland again. We have visited south of the border several times. I first went to Co. Clare in 1968, and Steph and I had holidays there traveling around in 1992 and 1996.

Planning the trip – finding somewhere to stay
For a number of recent holidays, I have used booking.com to search for hotels when I was planning our road trips across the USA. So I used this company this time round when looking for an overnight stay in Holyhead, convenient for the ferry to Ireland early the next morning.

In Northern Ireland we were looking for somewhere central from where it would be a relatively easy drive each day to any part because the National Trust properties we wanted to visit were scattered all over (as shown in the map above). After reading various online reviews (are they always reliable?), and looking for value for money, we chose The Drummeny Guest House in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone (Mid-Ulster council district), on the west shore of Lough Neagh.

Me and Tina Quinn on the morning of our departure from The Drumenny Guest House

What a find! Our hosts, Tina and Damien Quinn, were the best. What a friendly welcome, and hospitality like you would never believe. The reviews on booking.com were all very positive. Were they accurate? Absolutely! In fact, our experience was even better than previous reviewers had described. Such a breakfast (full Irish), and lots of other extras that Tina provided. In fact, staying with Tina and Damien it felt as though we were staying with family, and a week at The Drumenny was better than we ever anticipated. So, if you ever contemplate a Northern Ireland holiday, there’s only one place to head for: The Drumenny Guest House in Ardboe. You won’t be disappointed.

Less than a mile away there’s a good restaurant, The Tilley Lamp, that serves good, simple food, and lots of it. Very convenient.

Day 1: 8 Sep — home to Holyhead, via Plas Newydd (168 miles; map)
Our Northern Ireland trip started just after 09:15, and because of major road works (and almost certain traffic congestion) we decided to travel northwest from Bromsgrove via Kidderminster and Bridgnorth, before joining the A5 south of Shrewsbury. We then continued on the A5 through Snowdonia, and over the Menai Strait to Plas Newydd House and Gardens, just a few miles west of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

Home to the Marquesses of Anglesey (descendants of the 1st, who as the Earl of Uxbridge, served alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and had his leg blown off by a cannonball), Plas Newydd stands on the shore of the Menai Strait that separates Anglesey from mainland Wales.

Day 2: 9 Sep — Dublin to Ardboe, calling at Derrymore House near Newry, and Ardress House (120 miles), Co. Armagh
Our Stena Line Superfast X ferry arrived to Dublin Port on time, just after noon, and we quickly headed north on the M1, crossing into Northern Ireland just south of Newry in Co. Armagh.

Derrymore House lies a few miles west of the A1, and is open for just five afternoons a year. That was a piece of luck that we happened to pass by on one of those days. It’s a late 18th century thatched cottage. The ‘Treaty Room’ is the only room open to the public, and the 1800 Act of Union uniting the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland is supposed to have been drafted there.

Further north, and the route to Ardboe, we also visited Ardress House, built in the 17th century, and embellished in the 18th. It has a traditional farmyard.

We arrived to our guesthouse around 18:00, and enjoyed a meal out that evening at The Tilley Lamp. The best pork chops I’ve ever tasted.

Day 3: 10 Sep — Ardboe Cross, Co. Tyrone, Springhill House, Co. Londonderry and The Argory, Co. Armagh (53 miles)
Sunday morning. We decided to briefly explore the Lough Neagh shore near Arboe, and see one of Ireland’s national monuments, the Ardboe Cross.

Springhill House is a typical 17th ‘Plantation‘ house, showing the history of ten generations of the Lenox-Conyngham family.

The Argory is just 20 miles south of Springhill, and was built in the 1820s and was the home of the MacGeough Bond family, and has remained unchanged since 1900. It has magnificent interiors, particularly the cantilevered staircase.

Day 4: 11 Sep — Florence Court and Crom Castle, Co. Fermanagh (169 miles)
Florence Court is the furthest west of all of the National Trust’s properties, a few miles southwest of Enniskillen in Co. Fermangh. It was the home of the Earls of Enniskillen, and was built in the 18th century. There are beautiful views of the nearby mountains from the front of the house. Inside, where photography is not permitted, the walls and ceilings have some of the finest stucco plaster work I have seen. In 1955 there was a disastrous fire and it’s credit to the National Trust how well they accomplished the refurbishment. Remarkably many of the precious items in the house were saved.

On our route back to Ardboe, we diverted to make a quick visit to the ruins of Crom Castle, on the banks of Upper Lough Erne. There was time for a walk to the ruins from the Visitor Centre before it closed for the day, and approaching showers drenched us. There were some lovely views over the lough to Creighton Tower.

We also saw how convoluted the border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sorting that out during the Brexit negotiations will be a challenge, nightmare even, and so unnecessary. It is an invisible border, and hopefully obstacles will not be put in place by this incompetent Conservative government that will undermine the economic and social progress that Northern Ireland has made in recent years. This story on the BBC website (20 September) has a video of the very road we took back to Ardboe between the counties of Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Monaghan (Republic).

Day 5: 12 Sep — Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim coast, Co. Antrim (162 miles)
The Giant’s Causeway has long been on my Bucket List of attractions to visit. And we weren’t disappointed. We had carefully monitored the weather forecasts and chose what we hoped would be the best day of the week. In general it was. The drive north from Ardboe took just under 2 hours. We passed through the small town of Bellaghy, Co. Londonderry, burial site of Nobel Literature Laureate Seamus Heaney. I wish we had stopped.

Although it was not yet 10:30 when we reached the Visitors’ Centre at the Giant’s Causeway, it was already very busy, and just got busier over the three hours we stayed there. There were visitors from all over the world – particularly from China.

It’s a walk of more than a mile down the cliff to the actual Causeway, so we took a leisurely stroll there. But we did take advanatge of the free bus ride (as National Trust members) to go back up the cliff road.

We then headed east along the north Antrim coast, and stopped for a picnic at the Rope Bridge car park where a torrential downpour spoiled the view and prompted us to move on rather than have a wander around. Then we headed down the east coast on a road that hugs the bottom of cliffs along the seashore, before reaching Larne and then heading west around the top of Lough Neagh and home to The Drumenny.

Day 6: 13 Sep — Mount Stewart, Co. Down (127 miles)
On the northeast shore of Strangford Lough, just south of Newtownards, the Mount Stewart estate was purchased in the mid-18th century, and became the home of the Marquesses of Londonderry when the current house was built at the beginning of the 19th century. It has a beautiful formal garden, mostly the work of Lady Edith, wife of the 7th Marquess.

Day 7: 14 Sep — Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, Donegal (Republic of Ireland), and the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Londonderry and Co. Tyrone (200 miles)
On Day 7, we headed west once again to visit Castle Coole, situated just outside Enniskillen. We were not able to visit there when we had travelled west on Day 4, as the property had been closed for a special BBC Proms in the Park event.

Castle Coole was built by the 1st Earl Belmore between 1789 and 1797. It’s mostly the design of famous English architect James Wyatt, who also designed much of the interior and even the furniture. Photography is not permitted inside, and I’m unable to show you some of the splendours of this house, particularly the Saloon, which must rank as one of the finest examples of its kind among any of the stately homes in this country. The current Earl Belmore resides in a cottage on the estate.

Leaving Castle Coole, we headed west into the Republic, turning north at Donegal and crossing back into Northern Ireland at Strabane. We decided to cross the Sperrin Mountains, and had the weather been better (much of the journey north of Donegal was in torrential rain), I could have taken some nice photos. But we did have one surprise. Having taken one wrong turn too many when road signs petered out, we stumbled across a Bronze Age site of stone circles and cairns, at Beaghmore. It had stopped raining, everywhere was sparkling in the evening sun, and we enjoyed a half hour walk around the site.

Given the sunshine and showers, conditions just right for the appearance of rainbows. We saw ten throughout the day, some double.

Day 8: 15 Sep — Rowallane Garden and Castle Ward, Co. Down (136 miles)
Just south of Saintfield alongside the A7, Rowallane Garden is a haven of tranquility, about 50 acres, created in the mid-19th century by the Revd. John Moore and his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore. It’s also the headquarters of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.

Then we headed the further 16 miles southeast to Castle Ward on the tip of Strangford Lough. It’s an extraordinary building: Neo-Classical Gothic! The two architectural styles are reflected on the front and rear of the building, and mirrored inside, because, it is said, the 1st Viscount Bangor and his wife could not agree.

The Ward family, originally from Cheshire, settled here in the late 16th century, and there is an old castle on the estate – used in the hit HBO TV series Game of Thrones.

Steph (L) and Clare at Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens

Day 9: 16 Sep — Arboe, Co. Tyrone to Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow (224 miles)
We travelled south into the Republic, taking a winding route through Co. Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Kildare and Wicklow to spend the night with old IRRI friends Paul and Clare O’Nolan. Paul had been the IT Manager at IRRI; Clare was my scuba dive buddy (video) for several years. On the evening of our arrival, Clare took us on a tour of the Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens close to where they live on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains.

Day 10: 17 Sep — Rathdrum to Dublin, Holyhead to home (235 miles)
We left the O’Nolans just before noon, and headed north around the M50 to Dublin Port for our 15:10 Stena Superfast X ferry to Holyhead. We disembarked at exactly 19:00, and the drive home to Bromsgrove took four hours. Fortunately the roads were quite quiet and we made reasonably good progress until we were less than 20 miles from home when we were slowed down by major roadworks on the M5 motorway.

Ten days away, 1594 miles covered, twelve National Trust properties visited, seven enormous Irish breakfasts enjoyed. Northern Ireland was everything we hoped for: beautiful landscapes and friendly people. We had delayed our visit there for too long. And the National Trust was our excuse, if one was needed, to make the effort to visit.

All in all, ten days well spent! In due course, I will post detailed accounts of our visits to all the National Trust properties, and link them here.



Peeling away the veneers of history

Witley Court. Just a few miles west of Droitwich in north Worcestershire. A shell of a ruin, having been destroyed by fire in 1937. It had been the home of the Earls of Dudley.

The grand entrance to Witley Court, with the Church of St Michael and All Angels to the right

Witley Court, fountain and gardens from the south. The golden dome of the Baroque Church of St Michael and All Angels can be seen to the rear on the left

I’m not sure who actually owns Witley Court today; it’s managed by English Heritage. And being just 30 minutes by car from home, we consider it as one of our ‘local’ heritage destinations. We’ve been visiting Witley Court since the 1980s. Then it was freely open to the public. There was no paid access as there is now. Alongside the ruin stands the proud Baroque Church of St Michael and All Angels, not actually part of the English Heritage management of the site, and still in use as a parish church to this day. It must boast one of the most illustrious interiors of any church in the country.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, and it being a fine bright day yesterday, we decided to make another visit, have a walk through the grounds, see the Perseus and Andromeda Fountain fired up (every hour on the hour from 11 am onwards, for about 15 minutes), have a picnic lunch, and still have an afternoon to spend at home. I didn’t feel like making a long journey as we will be off to Northern Ireland a week hence, exploring that Province and all the National Trust treasures it has to offer.

And wandering around the grounds, I took time to carefully read the various information signs that I hadn’t bothered with in the past. And I learnt several new things about Witley Court.

There’s been a house on the site for several hundred years, being transformed from a relatively modest 17th century Jacobean mansion, to the magnificent, somewhat ostentatious Victorian mansion, the ruins of which are still standing.

One of the glories of Witley Court today is the East Parterre. Planted with a variety of plants, the lavender was past its best, and perhaps the overall was not as vibrant as when we saw it in 2016, almost exactly one year ago.

After the 1937 fire, most of what was not damaged was stripped from the house. The grand conservatory on the west side of the house was not damaged in the fire, but was nevertheless stripped. Today it’s planted with lavender, and gazing through the empty windows towards the Perseus and Andromeda Fountain, one can imagine what the house must have been like in its heyday.

Probably the most admired feature at Witley Court is the Perseus and Andromeda Fountain, that was completely refurbished in 2003 (at quite a staggering cost, more than £1 million). But it was worthwhile. It’s magnificent! It was undergoing further renovation in August last year when we visited, but was re-opened in April this year.

There are also woodland walks, taking around 30-40 minutes, the ubiquitous shop, and a tea room is open at the church (but not managed by English Heritage). Entrance to the church is, by the way, free.

To appreciate more fully what the Witley Court estate and ruin looks like, I came across this aerial video on YouTube, taken by drone.

Erddig: ‘Where fragrance, peace and beauty reign’ (Philip Yorke II)

A week ago, Steph and I headed 100 miles northeast from home to visit Belton House in Lincolnshire. On Thursday, it was 75 miles northwest, just south of Wrexham in North Wales, to visit Erdigg Hall, a Restoration house built between 1684 and 1687, and standing in 1200 acres. It was the home to the Yorke family for 250 years, although it didn’t come into their possession until 1733. Seven generations!  Here is an interesting Erddig timeline.

Interestingly, we discovered a family connection between the Yorkes of Erddig and the Custs of Belton. Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Cust, Speaker of the House of Commons, married Philip Yorke I in July 1770, three years after he inherited Erddig. Philip Yorke I was author of the The Royal Tribes of Wales, published in 1799.

Erddig (pronounced Erthigg) is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave. Over the centuries, the Yorkes hardly threw anything away; what’s on display today at Erdigg is a fraction of what the National Trust has in storage (more than 30,000 items). There are even vintage cars and old bicycles in some of the outbuildings. In that respect, Erddig must be almost unique among National Trust properties in that all its contents are ‘original’ – somewhat like Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.

The main entrance of Erddig Hall, facing west towards the Welsh hills

This is the rear of the house, facing east, overlooking the formal gardens and lake.

In 1947, disaster almost struck. Following nationalization of the coal industry, the coal mines just beyond the Erddig estate began to mine underneath the house – contrary to what had been apparently agreed over decades if not centuries with the owners of the private mine. The result was massive subsidence, up to five feet on one side of the house. Faced with significant expenditures to make the property safe and not falling into further disrepair, and with no family to pass it on to, the last Squire, Philip Yorke III bequeathed the estate, house and all contents to the National Trust in 1973.

It took four years to carry out all the work necessary to the house, and rehabilitate the gardens. In June 1977, Erddig was opened to the public. This is Erddig’s Ruby Jubilee, 40 years. And the planting designs in the formal garden reflect this, as you will note from many of the photos I have chosen to illustrate this post.

Structurally, the house is aligned north-south, and is a long ‘thin’ building, with a line of rooms along each side and a narrow corridor in between. There’s a grand staircase at the northern end, leading down to the family chapel. Stairs at the south end gave access to all floors for the servants.

A fine complex of red brick out buildings is located on the south side of the house, with a sawmill, workshops, stables and a coach house among others.

Delightful, formal gardens are laid out to the rear (east side) of the house. It’s hard to imagine what the overgrown gardens must have looked like when the National Trust took over Erddig. The fruits of 40 years labour and TLC are apparent in abundance. There are more extensive walks through the park, but we didn’t take any of these.

The National Trust has carefully laid out a route for visitors to enjoy Erddig Hall. The entrance to the house is through the ‘working’ wing of the house through the bakery, scullery and laundry, along a servants’ passage with offices for the housekeeper, butler, and estate manager.

What is also interesting is that the Yorkes ‘celebrated’ their staff, and apparently were very conscientious for their welfare. The servants’ passage is lined with photos of servants from as early as the mid-19th century.

One of the most striking rooms on the ground floor (at the south end, and east side) is the Dining Room, with its pillars and impressive paintings.

Further along are the Saloon (with its unusual metal ceiling), the Tapestry Room, Chinese Room and Chapel.

On the front of the house are the Library, the Entrance Hall (Music Room), and Drawing Room.

On the First Floor are several bedrooms: Red, White, and Blue as well as the State Bedroom with some of the Hall’s oldest artefacts; and the Nursery. There is also access to attic bedrooms on the top floor.

Erddig was so much more than we expected, and well worth the two hour plus travel time from north Worcestershire. I think we were lucky to hit the gardens at just the right time of the season. Everything was at its best and in full bloom. Credit goes to the Erddig garden staff.

Squire Philip Yorke III must have been quite a remarkable man. He died peacefully while attending a church service, in 1978. These quotes from his diary sum up the Yorke family outlook on life.






“Well, tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.” (Allan Dare Pearce)

Letters will be dropping through mailboxes all over England and Wales this week. High school students are anxiously waiting for their Advanced or A Level exam results. Fifty years ago I was in the same boat.

I’d sat my exams—GCE A Levels in Biology, Geography, English Literature, and General Studies (set by the Joint Matriculation Board)—a few weeks earlier in June, just as the Six Day War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Then it was the long wait, constantly full of nagging doubts that I would make the grade to get into university. I nearly didn’t!

I had received offers of places at King’s College and Queen Mary College, University of London, and the University of Southampton. But I’d already decided that if I met their offer (of three Cs) I would accept the place at Southampton to study for a BSc Combined Honours degree in Botany and Geography.

To fill in the time, I took a summer job working as a driver’s mate on lorries (trucks) delivering butter all over the country for Adams Butter, a local company in my home town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Anyway, about a week after I’d received my exam results, having arrived back at the Adams depot late one afternoon from a trip to Liverpool, the supervisor handed me a message that my dad had left there during the course of the day. The message was short and sweet: Southampton wants you! What a relief!

And it really was a relief, because my exam results were not quite up to snuff. Just Grade C for Biology and Geography, and Grade E for English Literature and General Studies. I hadn’t quite met the Southampton offer. However, Lady Luck must have been on my side, because I was accepted on to the course, and duly set of for Southampton in early October to join four other students on the same course.

Burning the candle at only one end
I was not a good student, but I did enjoy being at university.

I scraped through a Geology course in my first year at Southampton. One of the other Botany and Geography students (I only remember he was another Michael, and he came from Birmingham) failed that course, and since there were no re-sit exams in those days (1968), he had to withdraw. Now we were four.

Come Final Exams (or Finals) in May 1970, I was awarded a Lower Second Class degree (often denoted 2:2 or 2ii), with an overall score of 58% apparently, just shy of the Lower Second / Upper Second boundary of 60%. My classmates, John, Stuart and Jane, were awarded Upper Seconds.

Now I should add, for the benefit of my readers outside the UK, that exams are marked on a scale of 1 – 100%, right across the scale. At university, the pass mark was 40%. A First Class degree merited 70% and higher. There were no transcripts, just an overall classification (such as First, Upper Second, Lower Second, etc.) that, for reasons I’ll mention shortly, is increasingly falling out of favour. Fortunately when I was an undergraduate, Finals exams were based just on the courses taken in the third or final year of the degree course. I’m not sure when the changes were made, but in earlier years, Finals were often based on courses taken throughout the whole degree course over three years.

In February 1970, I had applied for a place on a recently established MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. Once I had my BSc under my belt I had to wait for a confirmation from Birmingham. Professor Hawkes very quickly told me that he would take me on the course despite my 2:2, but funding was a problem. No student grant available. I didn’t hear back from him until late August or early September that he had been able to find a small maintenance grant (just sufficient to keep body and soul together), and that my tuition fees would be paid by the university.

I redeemed myself at Birmingham. The course was all I expected, the subject matter fired my enthusiasm and, for the first time, I learned how to study efficiently, and take and pass exams with flying colours. The rest is history. Professor Hawkes took me on as his PhD student, and I started a great career in international agricultural research.

I remember leaving his office after I had successfully defended my thesis in October 1975. I think I must have danced a little jig down the corridor, reflecting that I had just taken (and passed) my last exam. Ever! Now that really was a milestone.

The tables turned
Less than six years later, in April 1981, I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (Botany having changed its name in the interim). As a faculty member I developed and taught various courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, setting and marking exams for each.

There is growing concern about grade inflation, and the number of top degrees that are now being awarded. In my graduation year (1970) at Southampton, there were no Firsts in Botany, and from a class of maybe 40 Geography undergraduates, there were only two. There were certainly more 2:2s awarded that 2:1 degrees.

That’s not the case today; most undergraduates obtain a top degree. Remarkable! Does that mean they are better students than we were? Perhaps. It might also reflect more generous decisions while marking exam papers, some justified no doubt, others not. Let me explain.

In the UK, undergraduate degree courses and exams are monitored by External Examiners, with the aim of ensuring standards and equability across universities and degree courses. When it came to Finals exams and course work for the Biological Sciences degree at Birmingham, we marked on a 15 point scale, with 13 and above equating to a score of 70% plus or First Class. I didn’t mark my first Finals papers until May/June 1982. Even then, External Examiners were questioning the low number of First Class degrees being awarded in Biological Sciences, and encouraged staff to use the whole marking range. Many staff were reluctant to awards marks higher than 13 (70-75%) for work that clearly merited a higher mark for a First Class answer. As final degree classification was based on the aggregate score for all examinations taken, higher scores in one would compensate for any lower ones elsewhere with, of course, a minimum number of First Class marks having been awarded. Awarding scores of 14 and 15 was, for some, a tough examination culture change.

On reflection, I did not find it that challenging to assign appropriate marks. I remember giving one second year undergraduate a score 0% for his answer to a question about breeding systems in flowering plants and their relevance to taxonomy. His answer consisted of a single paragraph about goldfish!

On another occasion I gave a score of 100% to one of my MSc students (who subsequently went on to complete a PhD under the supervision of my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and myself). 100%? Is that really possible? As I reviewed her answer to a question about the origins of agriculture, I came to the conclusion that it was as good as anyone might be expected to achieve. It was a consistent and well-reasoned discussion that I could not fault, especially since there was only one hour in which to answer.

Students are perhaps under greater pressure today than my generation was. Everyone needs—and probably expects—a top degree. But I find it hard to believe that half a class of students merit a First Class degree. I think it’s about time that we adopted a detailed transcript system (I know there was talk of this at Birmingham after I left in 1991), that provides documentary evidence of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, if any.

Schools are under pressure to ensure that students achieve the minimum expected grades in their GCSE exams. Universities want to demonstrate their academic worth, leading to better employment prospects for students with top degrees. It’s an academic rat race, and one that I’m glad to have left behind many years ago.


The perfect country house . . . a stunning English treasure

Standing in 1300 acres on the northern outskirts of Grantham in Lincolnshire, Belton House must be one of the National Trust’s jewels, though perhaps not quite on the same scale as either Waddesdon Manor or Kingston Lacy.

Built in the 1680s for Sir John Brownlow, Belton House is an elegant Restoration mansion that retains much of its original structure externally, but which has been remodelled from time-to-time internally over the past 300 years to meet changing demands for its occupancy. English architect James Wyatt had a major influence on the redesign of parts of Belton House in the late 18th century, as he did on many country houses.

The Brownlow fortune came from sheep and wool and, like may wealthy families, the construction of a large home was a sine qua non. Belton House remained the family seat of the Brownlow and Cust families into the 1980s.

The south front – and main entrance – of Belton House

The north front overlooking a parterre garden

We visited Belton House last Friday. Since we became members in 2011, we have ‘picked all the low-hanging fruit’, more or less (visiting most if not all properties within 50 miles or so of home), so must now travel further afield as active (and enthusiastic) ‘Trusters’.

Belton House is almost exactly 100 miles from home, door-to-door. The ‘best’ route (A38-M42-M6-M69-A46-A52-A607) on Google Maps indicated a journey of about 1 hr 40 minutes. And that’s how long it took (although somewhat slower on the return journey after 2:30 pm as the Friday afternoon traffic picked up).

Belton has much to offer: the house itself, formal gardens, long walks through the park, and one of the Trust’s largest adventure playgrounds for children. No wonder the car park was quite full when we arrived before 11 am, and filled up even further by mid-afternoon.

Not being entirely sure of the weather on Friday (fortunately it remained dry although did become quite overcast for a while around noon), we decided to take in the gardens and the grounds close to the house as far as the Boathouse, Lake and Maze (17 on the map below).

The Boathouse was built in the 1820s in a Swiss chalet style. From a distance the walls appear to be made from woven panels of rushes or the like. But no, the walls are solid with a sculpted surface to resemble panels.

A short distance from the east face of the house is the Mirror Pond (16), from which the house can be seen in all its glory, and reflected in the Pond.

A small maze offers a challenge to many of Belton’s younger (and older) visitors.

To the east of the house a long avenue of trees draws you towards a rather high ha-ha, and beyond that more parkland rises to Belmont Tower a further mile out. From the house’s main entrance there is also a mile-long drive through a deer park leading up to the front door. How magnificent it must have been to arrive by horse-drawn carriage and met by footmen. The views are stunning but of course we are seeing the parkland today as the house architects envisioned them three centuries ago, with majestic mature trees spread across the landscape.

On the north side of the house there are two formal gardens: a 19th century parterre, and another with pond and fountain laid out in front of a very impressive Orangery (14).

Much of the house is open to the public. We opted not to take the below stairs tour, which lasted 50 minutes. First, given the long journey home, we wanted to maximise our viewing of the main parts of the house. Second, a tour of this type would probably have involved standing around as the tour guide described each room; since I broke my leg at the beginning of 2016, I no longer find standing still comfortable .

All rooms on Upper Ground Floor are open to the public.

Marble Hall
Not particularly large by some country house standards, the Marble Hall is elegantly proportioned, with an array of portraits on the walls, and fine ceramics around the perimeter. On the east wall is a large portrait of Sir John Cust, 3rd Bt (1718-1770) who was twice Speaker of the House of Commons. A couple of portraits have fine wood carving surrounds, reminiscent of the work of Grinling Gibbons (d. 1721) to whom some of this work has been attributed. We first saw his exquisite work during our visit to Sudbury Hall earlier this year.

Staircase Hall
What an elegant staircase, climbing in three sweeps to the first floor. It’s lined with some fine portraits, and overlooks a black and white marbled floor, a continuation from the Marble Hall.

Blue Dressing Room
Adjacent to the Blue Bedroom, this small room has some interesting treasures: a whole array of paintings, including the one shown here which portrays the Madonna and Child, attributed to Italian painter Pier Francesco Fiorentino from the 15th century. Behind the door is a cabinet made from lapis lazuli. And some intricate and very beautiful carving on the fireplace surround.

Blue Bedroom
This is the oldest bed in the house, and has a fine view over the parkland and main entrance driveway from the south.

Chapel, Gallery, and Drawing Room
In the Drawing Room hand two fine 17th century tapestries by Huguenot weaver John Vanderbank, modelled on tapestries owned by Queen Mary II at Kensington Palace.

The Saloon has views over the parterre garden on the north side, and has several interesting features, paintings, and pieces of furniture.

Tyrconnel Room
This room has undergone a number of changes over the centuries. This is an impressive portrait of Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754) wearing his robes as a Knight of the Order of the Bath. The wide floorboards show the Brownlow coat of arms.

Red Drawing Room
This room was rather dimly lit (although these poor quality photos don’t show that).

What caught my fancy in the Study were the gold busts lining the top of the west wall.

Tapestry Room
This is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the most elegant room in the whole house, and has undergone several changes of use over the centuries. It’s warm, intimate, inviting, and lined with tapestries that, at one time, were found in the attic rooms being used as carpets! The tapestries depict the life of ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes.

One can imagine enjoying a welcome gin and tonic in this room at the end of stressful day. On the piano is a photograph of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson (it looks like one’s I’ve seen from their wedding in 1937. The Duke certainly spent time at Belton. It’s not certain if Wallis did.

Breakfast Room
There are 20th century portraits of the Cust family in this room.

Hondecoeter Room
Swans seem to be a theme in this room which became a dining room in 1876. The large canvasses by 17th century painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter were installed then. A larger canvas was sold to a buyer in the USA as it did not fit in this room. The fireplace came from another family property.

On a table by the window, overlooking the parterre, is a large vessel (a soup tureen, a wine cooler?) made from more than 41 kg of solid silver. It was commissioned by Speaker Cust, referred to earlier. He died, however, before the vessel was completed.

On the First Floor, some apartments are still reserved for the Cust family if they care to visit, and therefore not open to the public. The Cretonne Bedroom was closed as well.

Yellow Bedroom
The Yellow Bedroom is immediately above the Blue Bedroom, and also benefited from structural changes that James Wyatt made, bricking up windows on the east and west walls, leaving just the windows overlooking the south landscape. You can see how these changes were made on the photograph below, on the farthest side of the house.

Chinese Bedroom
This is a quirky room, with 18th century wallpaper designed specifically for the room, but apparently not hung until about 1840. The bamboo door surrounds are painted not made from bamboo.

Queen’s Bedroom
This room was redecorated in 1840 for the visit of Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, and has been known as the Queen’s Bedroom ever since. Her monogram adorns the bed’s headboard.

Ante Library and Library
The Library is approached from one side from an Ante Library, and from the main staircase on the other. It has a domed ceiling. High on the walls at either end of the Library are ‘frescoes’ painted by daughters of the Cust family. The one shown here was painted by younger daughter Lucy Cust (bn. 1784).

This was originally a bedroom but in the 1770s was remodeled by James Wyatt as a dressing room. Only some of Wyatt’s designs remain (such as the ceiling). Its presence design and use dates from 1963.

Windsor Bedroom
I suppose the claim to fame of this bedroom is that it was used by HRH The Prince of Wales while undergoing jet aircraft training at nearby RAF Cranwell in 1971. He apparently preferred to stay at Belton House than in the officers’ mess at Cranwell. Maybe this room was also used by the Duke of Windsor, presumably when he was still Prince of Wales. Or did he visit as Edward VIII?

West Staircase
Not as grand as the main staircase, this one is nevertheless quite impressive. It was originally used just by servants, but in 1810, the 1st Earl made the west entrance into the family entrance. The large painting shows the Cust family in 1741. You can see the West Entrance (opening into a courtyard) in the house photograph under the Yellow Bedroom (above).

Belton House certainly has a lot to offer with its mix of indoor and outdoor interests. The National Trust volunteers were very knowledgeable and freely shared intriguing details of the house’s history. For a day trip, four hours on the road, just under four hours at Belton, it was quite tiring. And I was quite relieved to arrive home and enjoy a late afternoon cup of tea. But as I mentioned from the outset, we will now have to travel further and further afield to visit new properties, and probably plan for several overnight stays into the bargain.

Put Belton House on your National Trust ‘bucket list’!

The sting was in the tail . . . or was it?

Sting in the tail. An unexpected, typically unpleasant or problematic end to something.

That’s what the Nawaz Sharif and his family has just found out. If you recall, Sharif was, until yesterday, Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Sharif and his family got caught up in the Panama Papers scandal that erupted in 2016, although they denied (as one might expect) all guilt or culpability. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that Sharif should be excluded from office. Who would credit that a typeface would bring a political dynasty to its knees?

There was one rather unlikely source of evidence against the family that no-one could have anticipated. Among the documents presented by the family in its defence was one dated from 2006 and using one the Calibri fonts. Not a font with a tail on many of the characters. Unfortunately for the Sharifs, the date on the document pre-dated the commercial release of Calibri by Microsoft by some months. There was little chance that the document could be genuine.

I’m sure that’s the last thing anyone would have expected; it was unpleasant and problematic, and Fontgate (as it’s come to be known) has had far-reaching consequences. Here’s something I found on the endgadget website:

The documents from 2006 submitted by Maryam Nawaz (daughter of PM Nawaz Sharif) were in the Calibri font. That font, according to the investigation team’s leaked report, wasn’t publicly available until 2007 . . .

A cursory glance at the history of Calibri reveals it became the default font on Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and WordPad in 2007. However, Microsoft’s website states that version 1.0 of the font was available to download separately as far back as 2005. And, according to font consultant Thomas Phinney, Calibri was also available as part of a Windows pre-release in 2004 . . . 

Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn even reached out to Calibri creator Lucas de Groot, who seemed skeptical of the font’s use before its public release. “Why would anyone use a completely unknown font for an official document in 2006?” he questioned.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a font geek, but I hadn’t realised that Sans Serif Calibri had become the default typeface for several Microsoft products. I use it all the time, Calibri 12 pt. Incidentally, check out a list of type designers here.

Sans Serif typefaces have become more popular in recent years, no doubt because of the Microsoft default font decision, although until the release of Calibri, Arial (and also Helvetica and Tahoma to some extent) was more commonly used. In earlier versions of Microsoft Word, maybe even Outlook (I don’t remember), the default was I believe Times New Roman (TNR). It’s a typeface that I find particularly ugly. Text appears, to my eyes at least, as rather cramped compared to others. I made a conscious decision to change the default in my Microsoft Office settings from TNR to something else.

When I was setting up the Office for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications)—DPPC—at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2001, I decided we should give all the documents sent to donor agencies (such as project proposals, reports, and the like) a distinctive look and ‘feel’. We felt it was important that IRRI documents stood out from others they might receive. At a glance, a document had to be recognised as one from IRRI, notwithstanding that we also placed the institute’s logo on the cover sheet, of course.

From the outset, I excluded Times New Roman (TNR) as the DPPC typeface, and of course Calibri was not available then. We chose Palatino Linotype 12 pt as our default font. It’s an elegant serif font, but more open, rounded even than Times New Roman. And I find it much easier to read than a document in TNR.

What do you think? Click on the text below in three different fonts: TNR 12, Palatino Linotype 12, and Calibri 12, justified and left justified.

The design and release of typefaces goes back centuries of course to the first experiments in printing in the 1400s. Digital printing has opened up many new avenues for design, as the work of Luc(as) de Groot shows.

I often check the typeface of the books I read, if that information is provided. Mostly it’s not, which for typeface geeks like me, is a pity. I’m halfway through a book about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Titled Embattled Rebel, it’s by James M McPherson, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of Hostory at Princeton University, and publsihed by Penguin Press in 2014. Not only is it well written, but Penguin chose a typeface and font that just adds to the overall reading enjoyment. Here’s a sample below.

Incidentally, the default font of the regular text in this Dusk to Dawn blog theme is Verdana, and PT Serif for the headings.

Returning to the original story, however, Sharif was caught out by a Sans Serif font. It was another sting in the tail, but not of the Serif kind. Maybe we should be talking about Nawaz Sharif as Nawaz (Sans) Serif instead.

Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!