Wandering along the tranquil River Wye at The Weir Garden

Sitting down yesterday, enjoying a DIY cup of coffee at the The Weir Garden (a few miles west of Hereford), I commented to my wife that we had to be thankful for the eccentricities of the former owners of many of the National Trust’s properties.

I’d picked up a copy of the Trust’s Spring 2017 magazine and there on the cover was a photo of an exceedingly eccentric individual: the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Paget (whose country estate was Plas Newydd on Anglesey that we will visit in September on our way to Holyhead, and a week’s tour of National Trust properties in Northern Ireland). They could pander to their eccentricities because they were wealthy. And many of them spent their wealth—often to their ruin—in developing large houses and estates, and filling them with the most wonderful artefacts. That’s what we can enjoy today thanks to the work of the National Trust.

A Weir Estate is recorded from the reign of Henry VII in the late 15th century. But the Romans were there over 1000 years earlier, and the remains of a villa or temple have been excavated on the banks of the River Wye that flows past.

The Weir Garden was originally laid out at the end of the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th when wealthy Roger Parr became owner did the garden really flourish. He revitalised the walled garden, installing a state-of-the art (for the 1920s) glasshouse. The house is now a nursing home, and has been ever since the estate became the property of the National Trust in 1959.

The south-facing Garden is certainly worth a visit, and must surely show different ‘faces’ at different times of the year. There are few formal parts—a small rock garden surrounded by elegant Acers—but mostly the garden, laid out on the steep slopes along the river below the house, is woodland with oaks, London plane trees and a few tulip trees dominating the landscape. And as the paths weave their way through the woodland, there are vistas over the River Wye east and west. What a river; fast flowing, but clear as a bell, and no doubt full of trout and other fish. There is a report of an eight foot sturgeon having once been caught in the vicinity in the 19th century.

These photos (and a short video) are my take on The Weir Garden in early July, according to the locations indicated on the map above.

(2) Rustic hut

(3) Rockery

(4) Viewing bridge

(6) River meadow and (7) River wall

(10) Roman ruins

(15) Walled garden and Foster & Pearson glasshouse

‘Georgian grandeur on a human scale’

This is how the National Trust describes Berrington Hall, a late 18th century sandstone Neo-classical mansion overlooking the rolling Herefordshire landscape a few miles north of Leominster (see map). Designed by London architect Henry Holland, Berrington Hall was built between 1778 and 1781 for Thomas Harley.

Thomas Harley, by John Hall, after Henry Edridge, stipple engraving, late 18th century.

The estate also has a particular claim to fame. The park was the last to be created by landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who was also Henry Holland’s father-in-law).

Last Tuesday, Steph and I made our second visit to Berrington; we were first there in September 2011, the year we joined the National Trust. It was a beautiful day then, as it was this week. The weather forecast had promised a better day if we travelled westwards. Berrington Hall is 37 miles almost due west, and a little over an hour by road, from Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire.

We arrived not long after 10:30, and already the car park was quite full. After heading off to the tea room for a refreshing cup of coffee, we enjoyed a long walk around the park before heading back to the car for a quick picnic lunch, and then into the house itself.

We followed the route due south of the house towards and around the bottom of the lake, past the Boat House, around George’s Plantation, and back to the house.

Berrington Hall is not large compared to some 18th century mansions we have visited. Indeed it is quite modest, somewhat austere in appearance. But it sits so comfortably in its landscape, facing southwest, that it was always meant to be there. Eighteenth century landowners and their architects certainly knew just where to begin construction to the best effect.

A grand Triumphal Arch now hosts the National Trust entrance office, and a driveway approaches the house from the rear, before circling around the front of the house to reveal a majestic portico supported on four large pillars, strategically spaced never to block any of the windows.

As was Capability’s intention, the house is best seen from different advantage points in the park, as is the park from the steps of the house.

Brown knew how to exploit the view of the parkland from the house to best effect. It was no laughing matter. He placed a ha-ha just in front. A ha-ha is ‘a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. The design includes a turfed incline which slopes downward to a sharply vertical face, typically a masonry retaining wall. Ha-has are used in landscape design to prevent access to a garden, for example by grazing livestock, without obstructing views‘.
 

The ha-ha at Berrington is one of the finest. The landscape just floats away, uninterrupted, from the house, the only evidence of its presence being a change in colour between the short grass of the terrace and the fields beyond, that is clearly seen in the video clip below.

On the rear of the house is a courtyard, a stables block (with clock), a dairy, and laundry. Most of the buildings now accommodate facilities for visitors: the tearoom, toilets, a shop, and the like, as well as offices.

Inside the house, the atmosphere is one of restrained elegance. None of the rooms is particularly large, unlike many other houses we have visited. Nevertheless, there are flashes of flamboyance: in the mouldings around the doors, on the architraves, and particularly the ceilings which are most elaborately sculpted and painted.

The staircase, and the first floor landing surrounding the staircase on three sides, is rather stunning, all marble pillars reflecting the natural light from the cupola.

We encountered our biggest surprise, however, when we entered the dining room on the ground floor. In September 2011 the dining table was laid out as though dinner was about to be served. On the walls are paintings reflecting the battles of Admiral Lord Rodney, whose son, George, married Anne, the daughter of the man who built Berrington Hall, Thomas Harley. On his death, Berrington passed to the Rodney family.

On this visit, the room was almost in darkness, with just spotlights focused on a sculpture, War & Pieces, that extended the length of the table. Created by Dutch artist, Bouke de Vries, this is how the sculpture is described in the National Trust brochure:

War & Pieces is a striking piece, nearly six metres in length, inspired by the grand seventeenth century sugar sculptures found on the dining tables of the wealthy. By the early eighteenth century, sugar had been replaced by exquisitely crafted porcelain depicting allegorical, classical or architectural scenes that displayed the host’s wealth and taste at their banquets.

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it became popular for banquets to be held for generals and their officers on the eve of great battles.

War & Pieces is an envisioning of one of these war banquets showing deconstructed porcelain figures engaged in a deadly struggle with a giant central mushroom cloud composed of skulls, ‘frozen Charlottes’ (a nineteenth century mass produced child’s toy) and presided over by figures of the crucified Christ and Guanyins, the Chinese goddess of compassion.

The piece is composed of broken antique porcelain and glassware, as well as parts of plastic children’s toys and sugar, bringing together the notions of modern warfare and art with those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and making us reconsider our perceptions of beauty and the usefulness of broken objects.

War & Pieces

The scene of war on the table is echoed by the maritime battles depicted on the walls by Thomas Luny (1759-1837). Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792), the naval hero of The Seven Years War and the American Wars of Independence, is celebrated in these paintings. Rodney was the youngest captain in the British navy and is, arguably, the tactician who first attempted the manoeuvre called ‘breaking the line’ which was used to such great success in later British naval victories. At Berrington, his grim engagements with the French and the Spanish upon his ninety gun ship of the line, The Formidable, in the 1780s are highlighted by Luny’s paintings. The Formidable is the ship depicted on the plates on the dining table that surround War & Pieces.

The handles of the knives are shaped like AK-47 rifles! Comments in a visitors’ book reflected the wide expression of opinions about this sculpture. I thought it was an inspiring commentary on the futility of conflict.

Berrington also has a large walled garden, planted with heritage apple trees that I have commented on and illustrated elsewhere in this blog.

All in all, a very pleasant second visit to Berrington. And it would be remiss of me to finish this particular account without mentioning the extremely friendly staff and volunteers who contributed to our overall enjoyment. The two ladies in the ‘dressing-up room’ on the first floor kept us entertained with their descriptions and demonstrations of the intricacies of 1770s and 1805 fashions!

Here is a short video I made of our visit.

Herefordshire’s Goodrich Castle . . . yet another castle slighted

Two days ago, after a couple of weeks of really cold, wet and windy weather, it was bright and warm enough to contemplate an outing. Thank goodness, as cabin fever had begun to set in. With our 2,000 mile road trip around Scotland less than a week away, I didn’t fancy a long journey so we looked for a National Trust or English Heritage property that was within easy distance. Having been members of the National Trust for over four years now, we’ve visited most of the nearby venues. As English Heritage members only since the beginning of the year we decided that one of their properties would be a more convenient choice.

We chose to visit Goodrich Castle, built in the 12th century on a red sandstone outcrop along the River Wye in southeast Herefordshire.


It’s about a 400 m walk from the car park to the castle, and emerging through the trees you get this wonderful panorama of the south walls of the castle—or rather, what’s left of them. For having survived from the 12th century, the walls and floors in the towers were deliberately demolished (or slighted) in 1646 after the Parliamentarians captured the castle from Royalist supporters (just as they did at Kenilworth Castle that we visited a month earlier) in the aftermath of the Civil Wars.

Goodrich panorama 1

If you asked a child to draw a castle from memory, then I guess Goodrich Castle would fit the bill, minus the crenelations. These probably disappeared during the Parliamentarian vandalism. There are four towers around a ‘central’ keep (actually closer to the south wall). The towers no longer have any floors; but in the keep, stairs have been constructed up to first floor level from where it’s possible to climb to the roof of the keep, up an extremely narrow and tight spiral staircase.

20150521 066 Goodrich Castle

The climb to the roof of the keep – very narrow and steep. Not for the faint-hearted.

The castle is surrounded by a deep moat, although I don’t think it was ever filled with water, more of a deep ditch on the east, west and south sides. The outcrop on which the castle stands descends steeply on the north side to the River Wye that would have provided a natural defence. I did wonder whether the sandstone excavated to construct the moat was then used to build the castle’s walls. Above several courses of grey, and presumably harder sandstone, the upper courses of the walls were built from red sandstone.

What are particularly impressive are the straight-sided, triangular buttresses propping up the southeast and southwest round towers.

Below the gatehouse on the west side of the castle is a large hemispherical barbican, with a short causeway leading into the castle. This would have been protected originally by a drawbridge, wooden gates, and two separate portcullises.

Interestingly, the castle chapel can be found alongside the gatehouse, just to the south.

It seems that Goodrich Castle was more of a residence, luxuriously furnished, by its different owners over several centuries, rather than playing much part in the various conflicts that affected this part of England that is quite close to the border with Wales. That is until the 17th century English Civil Wars. Even after the Royalist besieged had surrendered, many parts of the castle were still inhabitable. That is why the Parliamentarians decided to demolish the walls and rooms deliberately.

English Heritage provides access to many parts of the castle, and you can walk along the upper part of the walls. In some buildings where there are no original stairwells, stairs have been installed.

It was our original intention of combining a visit to Goodrich Castle with a National Property such as Tredegar House in Newport (much further south), calling in at Goodrich on the way home. We thought that it would be just a quick visit to Goodrich, not a lot to see. How wrong we were! We must have spent well over two hours clambering over the various buildings, climbing up to the highest levels (at the top of the keep), and walking around the moat and remains (actually just the foundations) of the stable block—which was where the Parliamentarians first gained access to the castle in 1646.