Croft Castle – spanning the dynasties

Just over seven weeks ago, on a sunny early April morning, we headed west from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, to visit the National Trust’s Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, about 8 miles due south of Ludlow (that’s in Shropshire).

Yesterday, on what was probably the hottest day of the year so far, and without a cloud in the sky, we headed in the same direction, to another National Trust property, Croft Castle and Parkland, just five miles northwest of Berrington Hall. This was our second visit; Croft Castle was one of the first properties we visited in June 2011, just after becoming members of the National Trust.

The main entrance of Croft Castle, and the Church of St Michael

What is particularly remarkable is that Croft Castle has been the home of the Croft family for about 1000 years, and was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086. The Croft family has made many contributions to the annals of British history, under the Plantagenets, during the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Tudor and Elizabethan England, the Civil Wars of the 1640s, and through to recent decades. The Croft baronetcy was created in 1671. The castle itself is a somewhat eclectic mix of architectural styles that reflect its long history.

South face

Much of the interior has an 18th century feel, although some of the rooms on the ground floor must have been used as family rooms when the Croft family were in residence continually. Today the family retains some rooms on the first floor, not open to the public. In fact, during our visit there was only one room on that floor open, the Ambassador’s Room overlooking the main entrance, that has been ‘returned’ to its First World War decor.

Just opposite the main entrance to the castle stands the small church of St Michael. Inside, there is the grand tomb of Sir Richard Croft and his wife Eleanor. Sir Richard fought at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, just a few miles away from Croft Castle, in 1461 on the Yorkist side. He later became a high ranking member of the household of Henry VII (who usurped the throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, defeating King Richard III, and establishing the Tudor dynasty).

The castle is surrounded by some 1500 acres of parkland, and the National Trust has set out some well marked walks for visitors to follow. We basically took the Blue walk up to the Iron Age fortress of Croft Ambrey (that dates from about 550 BC), covering almost 4 miles before we returned to the car park, a well-deserved sit down, and picnic lunch under the welcome shade of the magnificent beech and oak trees surrounding the castle.

The Blue walk passes through a grove of pollarded Spanish chestnut trees (panted in the late 16th century) that are said to have come from ships of the failed Spanish Armada.

The 360° views from Croft Ambrey are truly stunning: south to the Black Mountains of South Wales; east to the Malverns in Worcestershire; northwest to Clee Hill; and west into the border hills between England and Wales. The climb (not steep) to the summit is really worth the effort. Despite the heat of the day, there was a pleasant breeze taking the edge off it.

Croft Castle has a particularly fine walled garden, and a glasshouse area. The garden covers some six acres, with many rows of vines in its northeast corner. Having now visited quite a number of National Trust properties, my wife and I are in agreement that this walled garden must be one of the nicest in the Trust’s portfolio.

Since our first visit in 2011, the National Trust has made a number of operational changes to how it manages the property. There is now a free flow for visitors through the house, and photography is permitted throughout. In 2011 I was told off—in no uncertain terms—by one of the volunteers for deeming to take a photo of some panelling detail. The Trust is much more relaxed about photography nowadays, except where there are restrictions (for personal family or copyright reasons) at some houses.

The Hall

The Library Anteroom

The Library and Turret Room

The Drawing Room

The Blue Room

The Oak Room

The Dining Room

The Staircases, Gallery, and Courtyard

The Ambassador’s Room

No such problems yesterday. The staff were most welcoming, particularly the lady who greeted us at the main entrance. The tea room appears to have been expanded, and the toilets have been upgraded – clean as ever at National Trust properties. Last time there was a water shortage, and visitors had to queue up to use portaloos!

Croft Castle is just an 83 mile round trip from home – almost one of our local National Trust properties. Perhaps it does not yet have the finest collection of furniture and paintings (compared to many others), but the rooms have a homely feel. And the parkland of course is stunning, with space for everyone to enjoy. The walled garden is Croft’s ‘jewel in the crown’. Well done to the two full-time gardeners (assisted by volunteers, of course) who keep this garden so well maintained.

 

 

 

Earning a crust in the 1960s, part-time

It was not uncommon during the 1960s (when I was a teenager) for many young people to have a part-time job to earn some pocket-money, me included. From 1964 for almost three years I worked on Saturdays at a local garage in Leek, my hometown in north Staffordshire. Peppers Garage, on High Street, next to the Grand Cinema. The Grand was one of three at that time, the others being the Palace a little further down the same street on the corner with Salisbury Street (and a converted skating rink), and the Majestic across town on Union Street, I believe—a real ‘flea pit’. How times change. All the cinemas have disappeared, and from I saw today on Google Street View, there is now a vacant lot where the garage once stood.

The vacant lot where Peppers of Leek once stood. The new building to the right occupies the site of the former Grand Cinema.

I ‘inherited’ this Saturday job from my elder brother Ed in the autumn of 1964 (maybe a little earlier) when he went to university at the London School of Economics. I had to get to work around 08:30, if not earlier, and stayed there until the garage closed around 17:30 or thereabouts. For this I was paid the princely sum of £0 15s 0d (that’s ‘old money’, pre-decimalization). In ‘new money’ that’s equivalent today to £0.75, but of course that belies the real equivalency of about £13.33. Given that the current minimum hourly wage for under-18s is £4.05, I was paid about £1.66 an hour. Child exploitation!

But the pocket-money came in handy. I bought myself a record player, and a pair of binoculars (I was a keen bird-watcher then) among other things. It gave me a sense of achievement to save this money and spend it on things I really wanted, but my parents couldn’t afford.

Looking back, I can’t say it was a hard job. They assigned me to the car parts sales section, and also to attend the gasoline (petrol) pumps (no self-service in those days). All the vets from a local practice would come by on a Saturday, fill up their vehicles, and sign for what they had taken. We had a select group of customers who signed for their gasoline and were billed monthly.

Peppers sold car models made by the British Motor Corporation (Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley). Of course nothing was computerised in those days, so when someone came in looking for a particular part, we had to work our way through voluminous parts manuals (once we’d identified what the part was actually for), and then see if we had it in stock. There was an old geezer working at Pepper’s who must have been there for years by the name of Bill Wragg. He was a real rough diamond, but generous, who had an extremely colourful vocabulary. Maybe I learned to swear effectively from Bill and others working at Peppers.

Once I’d turned 17 and had a full driving licence, I was allowed to move cars around, and even collect new models from a distributor based in the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent) some 10 miles to the west. These jaunts took me out of the garage (and the tedium) for several hours, and I looked forward to these occasional assignments, and learning to drive different cars.

Being the junior, so-to-speak, I also had to make the twice-daily brew of tea: plentiful, hot, and very sweet! But once I went off to university if October 1967 I left all this behind me.

But being a budding car parts salesman was not my only venture into part-time employment. In those days, during the Christmas rush (from about 15 December onwards) the GPO (as it was then known, today the Post Office) took on extra temporary staff to take care of the huge increase in mail. Many of these temporary staff were from local schools. I was among them, and did my Christmas mail shifts for about four years from when I went into the Sixth Form at high school in 1965 until the Christmas of my second year at Southampton University in 1968. What was remarkable, looking back on it, was that we were actually given permission to take a few days off from school to help with the Christmas mail. It wouldn’t be allowed today. The first year, all I did was deliver mail that others had sorted. The second year I was assigned only to sorting, keeping nice and warm inside while others braved the winter weather. In the third and fourth years I was assigned my own ‘walk’, and had to sort and deliver all the mail for a particular route in the town, carrying a very heavy bag of cards and packages on the handlebars of an old GPO bicycle. But it did mean I got many more hours of work.

After I had completed my pre-university exams in June 1967 (I can hardly imagine that the 50th anniversary is upon us; the Israeli-Arab Six Day War was fought and over while I was sitting my exams), I took a job with Adams Butter in Leek, as driver’s mate on large, refrigerated articulated trucks like the one below.

Adams Butter (now part of Ornua Foods) was a local company, a big employer in Leek that processed butter, repacked it and distributed it to outlets all over the country. I had to be at work very early, often around dawn to begin the day’s trip to deliver butter. The trucks carried about 25 tons of butter, packed in 28 lb boxes. All these had to be shifted by hand. We had a strict delivery route as the trucks had been loaded accordingly. Often it was a question of arriving at a supermarket, waiting around for some time until we could back into the off-loading bay, then 30 or more minutes of hard graft picking up the boxes and throwing them out of the back of the refrigerated compartment. Today everything is delivered on pallets, and fork-lift trucks take the pallets away. It was brute force in 1967. I suffered for the first few days, but once I’d learned how to pick up the boxes without hurting myself, and throwing them to the driver for stacking (or vice versa) I became a dab hand, and quite fit.

Once the truck had been unloaded at our last drop off, we then made our way to the nearest port to pick up a consignment of ‘raw’ frozen butter that had come in from the Irish Republic, Australia or New Zealand. This is what Adams would blend and redistribute. Mostly we went to Liverpool Docks, picking up our load from huge cold stores on the quay. Now these boxes, completely frozen, weighed 56 lb each, and rather difficult to man handle. Once again, it took some practice to safely lift and stack these boxes, and the dockers (known as longshoremen in the USA) didn’t hang about, and certainly didn’t make any allowances for a rookie like me. Three or four days into my work every muscle ached. I didn’t think I was going to be able to continue. But, you know, it was probably the fittest I ever was once I’d been working for a week or so.

I never knew from one day to the next who I would be partnered with. On my very first day, heading up the M6 motorway towing an empty flatbed trailer towards Liverpool Docks, the brakes caught fire and we had to abandon our trip and wait on the hard shoulder for several hours until rescued by mechanics with a replacement trailer. Some times we had deliveries much further afield, to the northeast in the Newcastle area, or even to Glasgow. These were usually three-day trips.

I made particular friends with one driver. I remember his name was Harold, but I can’t remember his family name. Sheldon, perhaps? I often worked with him, especially on the overnight trips. He was very widely read, and had a passion for archaeology. I remember one day out we made with his wife and young children to Wroxeter Roman City near Shrewsbury. Happy days.

I’ve only been to Liverpool once since 1967. That must have been around 2000 when I gave a lecture at the University of Liverpool. Liverpool has changed enormously over the past 50 years. It’s very much on the tourist map, particularly for its connections with The Beatles and the Liverpool Sound. And talking of The Beatles and the Beatles Story, I really must go back there and see for myself the large poster about skiffle near the entrance of the Beatles Story that features my brother Ed and me in the late 1950s.

Sammy Jackson visiting The Beatles Story several years back. Sammy is the son of my nephew Alex.

As of three weeks ago, it was still there among the exhibits, so my good friend Prof Brian Ford-Lloyd informed me. And it was Brian’s comments about his visit to Liverpool that got me thinking about doing the same, remembering about my visits to the city, and the other ideas that came to mind that I have related in this blog post. Funny how one little idea can cause so many others to resurface.

 

Royalty and religion (and oak trees) in Shropshire

Charles II in exile, 1653

3 September 1651. Just over 33 months since his father, Charles I, had his head removed from his shoulders on a scaffold outside Whitehall in London, the young Charles II (not yet crowned king) was on the run. A fugitive. His plans to defeat the Parliamentarians under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had come to nothing. Superior forces of Cromwell’s New Model Army had defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester, bringing an end to the Civil War.

Charles had to escape, but how to return to France and safety? His escape route took him north through Worcestershire (close to where I live, some 13 miles north of Worcester), and through Staffordshire and Shropshire to reach Boscobel House. The Boscobel estate straddles the Staffordshire-Shropshire county boundary (map).

In 1651, Boscobel House was a hunting lodge in the forest. Charles found refuge there, not only hiding in a priest hole overnight, but also among the canopy of a large oak tree (the famous Royal Oak) close by, as Parliamentarian forces searched high and low for him. He was also hidden at nearby Moseley Old Hall (about 10 miles due east of Boscobel, now in the hands of the National Trust, and which we visited in April 2014).

Boscobel House and the nearby White Ladies Priory (which was a converted residence when Charles sought refuge there in 1651) now belong to English Heritage. Yesterday, we made the 45 mile trip north to visit these two sites, and another English Heritage property, the ruins of Lilleshall Abbey, just over seven miles northwest from Boscobel.

Boscobel House and The Royal Oak
The house has Tudor, 17th century and Victorian extensions. The farmyard buildings are Victorian. It was owned by the Giffard family who lived at White Ladies Priory. The lonely Royal Oak that stands in a field a short distance from the house is a descendant of the original tree in which Charles hid.

(1) Hunting Lodge; (2) Garden; (3) Cowhouse; (4) Stables; (5) Dairy display; (6) Smithy; (7) Family room; (8) White Ladies Priory – about 1 mile, 20 minutes walk; (9) Royal Oak – approx 5 minutes walk.

White Ladies Priory

Lilleshall Abbey

A Restoration idiosyncrasy . . .

What special events occurred 1967? The BBC made its first TV broadcast in colour, and set up BBC Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4; the QE2 ocean liner was launched on the River Clyde; singer Engelbert Humperdinck had several top selling singles of the year; and The Beatles released the iconic album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

These were just a few highlighted on little signs either side of the footpath from the car park to Sudbury Hall, a National Trust property in Derbyshire, just north of the Staffordshire-Derbyshire boundary, the River Dove (see map).


But, as we reached the end of the footpath, we encountered the important ‘Sudbury’ fact. Occupied by the same Vernon family since it was built in 1660 by wealthy London merchant George Vernon, Sudbury Hall was bought by the National Trust when the Vernons were forced to relinquish ownership in order to meet death duty liabilities. The Sudbury Vernons were distant cousins of the Vernons of Hanbury Hall (the closest National Trust property to our home in Worcestershire).

Sudbury Hall is a Restoration architectural paradox, idiosyncrasy even: an exterior that harks back to an earlier Jacobean period, disguising sumptuous interiors more typical of the 1660s and early 18th century.

Adjacent to the hall is the Parish Church of All Saints in the Diocese of Derby, with some lovely stained glass windows, and impressive memorials to various generations of Vernons.

The hall is aligned west-east, with the main entrance on the north side. While it has a layout of an earlier building, a large entrance hall, even a long gallery on the first floor facing south, nothing quite prepares you for the flamboyance of the staircase (in the northwest corner), the ceilings and decorations of the saloon and drawing room(s) on the ground floor, and those of the long gallery.

Although George Vernon employed local craftsmen in much of the construction of Hanbury Hall, he did seek out some of the most talented to realise his vision of ‘the good life’.

Much of the plaster ceiling work was carried out by London craftsmen Robert Bradbury and James Pettifer. This is what I found about Bradbury and Pettifer on the website of the Woodcarvers Guild Ltd:

Two London plasterers of this period – the 1660s – whose work was similarly accomplished, were Robert Bradbury and James Pettifer. We know Pettifer trained under the London plasterer Arthur Toogood, who was Master of the Plaisterers [sic] Company in 1663.

Their best work outside London is at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, where they plastered ceilings in 1675-6. These are densely and richly decorated wall panelling and oak panelling and deserve close attention. The house was begun for Mary Vernon in the reign of James I, but was far from finished when she died in 1622. It then stood empty as a partly completed shell until after the Restoration, when Mary’s great-grandson, George Vernon, completed it. In doing so, he had the good sense to use excellent carvers, plasterers and painters.

In 1675-6 Bradbury and Pettifer provided the ceilings of the drawing ­room, the parlour, the staircase hall, the well, the Queen’s Bedroom and that of the 138-ft long gallery. They charged at the rate of 6s a yard and whilst to some eyes their decorations are florid and all-enveloping, the exuberantly fashioned wall panelling and oak panelling ornament was at least confined to the spaces provided in the design. Just enough was allowed to stray beyond the limits set down by the moulded ribs to give a natural effect. In fact, the delicate swirling work, most of it moulded but carefully arranged so that it appeared to consist of many different parts, was positioned with such skill that Laurence Turner wrote in his book on decorative plasterwork in 1927 before the discovery of the accounts, ‘the four well modelled amorini in the corners of the [staircase] cove [are] evidently by an Italian modeller, for no English plasterer could have developed so suddenly the ability to model the human figure …’ In the seven compartments of the long gallery ceiling and its frieze, there are curling flowers and foliage, shells, emperors’ heads, horses galloping from cornucopias, and dragons and wild boar in unlikely proximity to each other. Exquisite wood carving is everywhere.

In the Saloon, family portraits are set in panels carved by Edward Pierce (or Pearce), who also carved the balustrade on the magnificent Great Staircase. The ceiling panel in the saloon and elsewhere are paintings by Louis Laguerre in the Baroque style, which were commissioned by George Vernon a couple of decades later.

The Entrance Hall
Somewhat reminiscent of a medieval hall, Sudbury’s entrance hall has a stone flagstone floor, and stone arched doorways. The walls are covered by several full length portraits. And on three tables are seven exquisite Sèvres porcelain figurines dating to 1860, depicting a boar hunt.

The Great Staircase
Leaving the Entrance Hall, nothing quite prepares you for the magnificence of the staircase, from floor to ceiling, with its intricate carving (apparently in lime wood, and painted white), the paintings on the walls, and the elaborately decorated ceiling. It must rank as one of the most impressive that we have seen in any of our National Trust visits.

The Saloon
An elaborate doorway (mounted with a bust that looks suspiciously like William Shakespeare), you enter the saloon, a room with life-size portraits on all walls, and a smaller painting of the hall’s creator, George Vernon, above the door.

The Long Gallery
This came as a complete surprise. Long galleries were typical of much earlier houses. At Sudbury it extends the whole length of the house and faces south overlooking lawns and the lake. The quality of the plaster work is unparalleled. Currently there is little furniture on display, but at the east end is a beautifully painted 17th century Flemish cabinet with biblical scenes, by Frans Francken II. The frieze around the walls is punctuated by various images, and that on the west wall is apparently of King Charles II. Off the long gallery is a small library, with its own gallery. This opens on to the top of the staircase, and passes right into the Queen’s room.

The Queen’s Room
Over the two doorways are almost identical paintings, almost certainly Dutch, depicting contemporary flowers and fruits. The fireplace is pretty impressive.

Drawing Room(s)
I’ve left the pièce de résistance until last. Leading off the saloon is the drawing room, now divided in two, according to the original 17th century floor plans. It was opened into a single rooms during the 19th century. And why is it the pièce de résistance? Surrounding a full length portrait of a lady is an intricate and quite magnificent wood sculpture, depicting all manner of plants and game animals, carved by renowned Dutch-British sculptor Grinling Gibbons.

This is a special carving. But who was the favored lady? Someone special (nod, nod, wink, wink)? This is indeed a remarkable tribute to someone near and dear. If I remember correctly what one of the volunteers told us, she was the sister-in-law of the wife of George Vernon.

Although the National Trust has owned Sudbury Hall for 50 years (and first opened to the public in 1972), refurbishment of the interior is still a ‘work in progress’. Most of the rooms are still lacking furniture. In this respect, the property reminded me of another National Trust property, Dyrham Park near Bath that we visited in August 2016. Not only had Sudbury Hall to be made safe, but decisions were taken—and still being taken—on how to redecorate each of the rooms. And decisions taken are not to everyone’s approval, as the obituary to the 10th Lord Vernon (referenced earlier) indicates.

Museum of Childhood was opened at Sudbury in one of the extensions to the hall. This is a separate entrance to the hall. We enjoyed an interesting 45 minutes viewing all the exhibits bringing back memories of our childhoods, particularly with the various books and toys on display, and also from our daughters from 1978.

In the 1950s and early 1960s I used to pass in front of Sudbury Hall from time-to-time, travelling with my parents from our home in Leek to visit my father’s sister who lived just beyond Burton upon Trent. Until the early 1960s, my paternal grandparents lived in the village of Hollington, just a few miles north of Sudbury. This is Jackson-Bull home territory. In those days the main road, much quieter then, passed immediately in front of the hall. Now, the hall and village of Sudbury are fortunately by-passed, but there is nevertheless a continual roar of traffic from nearby and very busy A50 from Derby to Stoke on Trent.

It was a bright and sunny day when we visited Sudbury last week, but with a biting northerly wind. Nevertheless, our visit to Sudbury Hall was a delight, and quite unexpected in terms of what we saw. The volunteers were most helpful and knowledgeable, adding to the enjoyment of our visit. Sudbury Hall is definitely worth a visit if you are in the vicinity—and even if you are not.

 

 

 

In search of bluebells

Last weekend, our younger daughter Philippa and her family came down from Newcastle for the Bank Holiday. A few days ahead, she asked us if we knew of or had visited any bluebell woods close to home. Apparently, Elvis, her elder boy (who will be six at the end of September) had told her that bluebells were his favourite flower and wanted to see some growing in the wild. Maybe his teacher had been talking about them recently.

L to R: Felix, Philippa, me, Steph, Elvis, and Andi

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust for several years now, and we’ve had hours and days of enjoyment. Regular readers of my blog will know that I usually write something after a visit to one of their properties, the most recent being a visit about three weeks ago to Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.

There are three NT properties quite close to our Bromsgrove home: Hanbury Hall (our ‘regular’), Croome Park (a little further south, near Worcester), and Coughton Court, just 10 miles away in Warwickshire, east beyond Redditch. And each has its bluebell wood. But the one at Coughton is just a little special, composed almost in its entirety of the native English species, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Very little if any of your invasive Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) here.

The bluebell is such an iconic woodland species. Just imagine that blue carpet spreading under the wood’s leafy canopy. And at Coughton, the bluebells are mixed in places with cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and red campion (Silene dioica).

The native bluebell’s future is threatened in many places because of the spread of the Spanish bluebell that is widely grown in gardens. When garden waste is dumped irresponsibly then bulbs can be discarded as well. It hybridises readily with the native species, and once that has happened, stands of native bluebells are irrevocably changed.

We arrived at Coughton just on 11:00 (opening time) and the car parks were already filling up. I think everyone had the same idea: a walk through the bluebell wood, around the gardens, or the various walks around the estate. We made our first visit to Coughton Court in 2013, and then again in June last year when I was recovering from my accident.

Our walk took us around the bluebell wood, along the River Arrow (lots of ramsoms here, Allium ursinum), around the bog garden that is just beginning to come to life (the Gunnera will be spectacular later on in the season, although it and other plants had taken a slight hit from a frost overnight), and finally round the walled garden.

And for little boys, there were plenty of opportunities for fun besides looking at—but not picking—bluebells.

In front of the entrance to the hall the gardeners had planted a beautiful display of tulip beds, and along the newly-raked gravel paths around the lawn, the trees stood like soldiers at attention, having received a recent ‘haircut’ in readiness for summer visitors.

 

A congregation of corvids

Collective nouns are wonderful.

Why, for example, would a group of carrion crows be known as a murder of crows? Then there’s a parliament of rooks, a mischief of magpies, and a train of jackdaws. Often there is more than one collective name, depending on local tradition and usage.

Isn’t it delightful? Just goes to show how colourful the English language can be.

Well, here are the four culprits, and three of them (magpie, carrion crow, and jackdaw) are becoming increasingly common—and noisy—in our suburban garden in northeast Worcestershire. Greedy magpies regularly visit our bird table; crows and jackdaws tend to shout at us from the surrounding roof tops.

Rooks have taken up residence in a small copse alongside the busy A38 by-pass less than a mile away.

Members of the crow family are large and quite striking birds, and rather intelligent. From time-to-time we see jays in the surrounding countryside. But as they are solitary compared to the other four already mentioned, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scold of jays. The jay is a really handsome bird.

Three other corvids, the raven (a conspiracy), chough (a chattering) and hooded crow ( a MacMurder perhaps, as they are found in Scotland) are much more restricted in their distributions in the UK. I’ve only seen them on a few occasions. Once seen, the chough is never to be forgotten, with its shiny black plumage, reddish-orange curved beak, and legs and feet of the same colour.

So, this morning when I went outside to put some last minute pieces of rubbish in the bin before collection, there was this solitary crow letting rip at the top of its voice, giving me chapter and verse. And that got me thinking about how common they have become, but also the lovely collective nouns we employ to describe them.

Then, being an active member of the blogging fraternity, I did wonder what a collective noun might be. I came across a click of bloggers in one blog; here is a more extensive list of suggestions. Which one would you choose?

There’s beauty in numbers . . .

Now, what I want is, facts . . . Stick to the facts, sir!

Thus spoke businessman, MP, and school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ tenth novel, Hard Times, first published in 1854.

Increasingly however, especially on the right of the political spectrum, facts have become a debased currency. ‘Alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become an ‘alternative religion’, faith-based and not susceptible to the norms of scientific scrutiny. Fake data are also be used as a ‘weapon’.

I am a scientist. I deal with facts. Hypotheses, observations, numbers, data, analysis, patterns, interpretation, conclusions: that’s what science is all about.

There really is a beauty in numbers, my stock-in-trade for the past 40 years: describing the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives; understanding how they are adapted to different environments; how one type resists disease better than another; or how they can contribute genetically to breed higher-yielding varieties. The numbers are the building blocks, so to speak. Interpreting those blocks is another thing altogether.

Statistical analysis was part and parcel of my scientific toolbox. Actually, the application of statistics, since I do not have the mathematical skills to work my way through the various statistical methods from first principles. This is not surprising considering that I was very weak in mathematics during my high school years. Having passed the necessary examination, I intended to put maths to one side forever, but that was not to be since I’ve had to use statistics during my university education and throughout my career. And playing around with numbers, looking for patterns, and attempting to interpret those patterns was no longer a chore but something to look forward to.

So why my current obsession with numbers?

First of all, since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House (and during his campaign) numbers and ‘alternative facts’ featured prominently. Trump does not respect numbers. However, more of this later.

Second, I recently came across a scientific paper about waterlogging tolerance in lentils by a friend of mine, Willie Erskine, who is a professor at the University of Western Australia (although I first knew him through his work at ICARDA, a CGIAR center that originally had its headquarters in Aleppo, Syria). The paper was published last month in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Willie and his co-authors showed that lentil lines did not respond in the same way to different waterlogging regimes, and that waterlogging tolerance was a trait that could be selected for in lentil breeding.

A personal data experience
While out on my daily walk a couple of days later, I mulling over in my mind some ideas from that lentil paper, and it reminded me of an MSc dissertation I supervised at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s. My student, Shibin Cai, came from the Institute of Food Crops, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China where he worked as a wheat scientist.

Cai was interested to evaluate how wheat varieties responded to waterlogging. So, having obtained several wheat lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, we designed a robust experiment to evaluate how plants grew with waterlogging that was precisely applied at different critical stages in the wheat plant’s life cycle: at germination, at booting, and at flowering, as far as I remember. I won’t describe the experiment in detail, suffice to say that we used a randomized complete block design with at least five replicates per variety per treatment and control (i.e. no waterlogging whatsoever). Waterlogging was achieved by placing pots inside a larger pot lined with a polythene bag and filled with water for a definite length of time. Cai carefully measured the rate of growth of the wheat plants, as well as the final yield of grains from each.

After which we had a large database of numbers. Observations. Data. Facts!

Applying appropriate statistical tests to the data, Cai clearly showed that the varieties did indeed respond differently to waterlogging, and we interpreted this to indicate genetic variation for this trait in wheat that could be exploited to improve wheat varieties for waterlogging-prone areas. I encouraged Cai to prepare a manuscript for publication. After all, I was confident with the quality of his research.

We submitted his manuscript to the well-known agricultural research journal Euphytica. After due process, the paper was rejected—not the first time this has happened to me I should add. But I was taken aback at the comments from one of the anonymous referees, who did not accept our results—the observations, the data—claiming that there was no evidence that waterlogging was a verifiable trait in wheat, and especially in the lines we had studied. Which flew in the face of the data we had presented. We hadn’t pulled the numbers like a rabbit out of a hat. I did then wonder whether the referee was a wheat expert from CIMMYT. Not wishing to be paranoid, of course, but was the referee biased? I never did get an opportunity to take another look at the manuscript to determine if it could be revised in any way. As I said, we were confident in the experimental approach, the data were solid, the analysis sound—and confirmed by one of my geneticist colleagues who had a much better grasp of statistics than either Cai or me. Result? The paper was never published, something I have regretted for many years.

So you can see that there were several elements to our work, as in much of science. We had a hypothesis about waterlogging tolerance in wheat. We could test this hypothesis by designing an experiment to measure the response of wheat to waterlogging. But then we had to interpret the results.

Now if we had measured just one plant per variety per treatment all we could have said is that these plants were different. It’s like measuring the height say of a single plant of two wheat varieties grown in different soils. All we can state is the height we measured. We can make no inference about any varietal differences or responses. For that we need several measurements—numbers, data—that allow us to state whether if any observed differences are ‘real’ or due to chance. That’s what we do all time in science. We want to know if what we measure is a true reflection of nature. It’s not possible to measure everything, so we use a sample, and then interpret the data using appropriate statistical analyses. But we have to be careful as this interesting article on the perils of statistical interpretation highlights.

Back to The Donald
One of the most important and current data relationships is based in climate science. And this brings me back to The Donald. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that relationship between increased CO2 levels and increases in global temperatures is the result of human activity. The positive relationship between the two sets of data is unequivocal. But does that mean a cause and effect relationship? The majority of scientists say yes; climate deniers do not. That makes the appointment of arch-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environment Protection Agency in the US so worrying.

Donald Trump does not like facts. He doesn’t like numbers either unless he can misappropriate them in his favor (such as the jobs or productivity data that clearly relate to the policies under Mr 44). He certainly did not like the lack of GOP numbers to pass his repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

He regularly dismisses the verifiable information in front of his eyes, preferring ‘alternative facts’ and often inflated numbers to boot, instead. Just remember his sensitivity and his absurd claims that the 20 January National Mall crowds were largest for any presidential inauguration. The photographic evidence does not support this Trumpian claim; maybe fantasy would be a better description.

Time magazine has just published an excellent article, Is Truth Dead? based on an interview with The Donald, and to back it up, Time also published a transcript of the interview. This not only proves what Mr 45 said, but once again demonstrates his complete lack of ability to string more than a couple of coherent words together. Just take a look for yourselves.

Part of Trump’s rhetoric (or slow death by Tweet) is often based on assertions that can be verified: the biggest, the longest, the most, etc. Things can measured accurately, the very thing he seems to abhor. His aim to Make America Great Again cannot be measured in the same way. What is great? Compared to what or when? It’s an interpretation which can be easily contradicted or at the very least debated.

That’s what so disconcerting about the Trump Administration. The USA is a scientific powerhouse, but for how much longer if the proposed agency budget cuts that The Donald has promised really bite (unless related to the military, of course). There’s an increasing and worrying disdain for science among Republican politicians (and here in the UK as well); the focus on climate change data is the prime expression of that right now.