‘When a family lives in the same place for 400 years they end up with a diverse collection of art, furniture and curiosities.’

20150701 124 Chirk Castle

Chirk Castle. It’s a somewhat odd legacy of a early more violent and later, opulent past.

And seemingly incomplete, its central keep standing alone on a hillside without any visible signs of the curtain walls that surely must have surrounded it many centuries ago when it was first built in 1295. Because the first castle was constructed on this site overlooking the valley of the River Ceiriog, just north of the England-Wales border, and today about eleven miles south of Wrexham and seven miles east of Llangollen (map).

It was one of several castles built by or for Edward I along the Welsh Marches. It came into the Myddleton family in the late 16th century, and remained a family home until 2004. In the 1930s however, it was home to Thomas Scott-Ellis, 8th Baron Howard de Walden, and apartments on the ground floor of the east wing redecorated in the 19th century in a Gothic style, including the library and chapel that was converted to a music room (and also acceseed from the Long Gallery on the first floor).

Some evidence of an earlier medieval period can still be seen in the 14th century Adam’s Tower on the south side, with its exposed stonework, narrow spiral stone stairways, and even a dank dungeon nine meters underground.

Chirk probably saw its last conflicts during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, but after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 it became a family home, luxuriously and exquisitely decorated inside over the next three centuries. From the splendid entrance hall, the elegant staircase, to the refined dining room, and the colorful ceilings in the reception rooms, designed by Victorian architect and designer Augustus Pugin, and through the seventeenth century Long Gallery, Chirk has a lot to offer.

The formal garden of yew-lined gravel paths and topiary were first laid out in the seventeenth century, and the garden stretches to the east through landscapes beds and woodland. From a ha-ha at the furthest point in the garden it’s possible (on a clear day, which it wasn’t when we visited) to see over North Wales, the Pennines to the north, and the Shropshire Hills to the southeast).

All in all, Chirk Castle has something to offer every visitor.


Tredegar House – home of the Morgans

Tredegar House in Newport, Gwent in South Wales is an impressive building, a testament to the wealth of the Morgan family who built it in the 17th century, adding to an earlier Tudor building on the site, parts of which can still be seen in the west wing.

20150618 016 Tredegar House

The north entrance to Tredegar House, through the stable yard.

20150618 123 Tredegar House

The remains of the Tudor west wing of Tredegar House.

Just a stone’s throw from Junction 28 on the M4 (hopefully better road signs to Tredegar House will be installed after the proposed re-modelling of the complex Junction 28 are completed), Tredgar is adjacent to a 90 acre public park, the remnant of what was once a huge estate attached to the house. While the principal entrance was originally on the north wing, you enter the house today through an impressive north approach.

Tredegar House has had a chequered history. Completed in late 17th century, it remained in the Morgan family for several centuries until sold off, with all its contents by the 5th Lord Tredegar, in 1951 when it became St Joseph’s Convent School. Eventually Newport Council took over the property until 2012 when the National Trust signed a lease for 50 years to manage the property and restore as much as feasible to its former glory. Several rooms on the upper ground floor are open to the public, as is a suite of rooms decorated in a 1920s-30s style on the first floor, and the extensive kitchens and courtyard at ground level, but are accessed as though descending into a basement. Some normally accessible rooms were closed last week due to health and safety considerations, because of mould in a couple and damage to a chimney in another.

The Entrance Hall

The Brown Dining Room
This is a most impressive room with carvings on the wall. Charles I stayed at Tredegar, and his face was incorporated into the carving as a caricature when the room was designed in about 1675 or so.

To the left of the fireplace is a portrait of Captain Henry Morgan, a distant relative of the Tredegar Morgans. Yes, the Henry Morgan of rum fame. He was a buccaneer, but eventually became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in the late 17th century. This portrait was painted around 1650.

Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) 'The Buccaneer'

Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) ‘The Buccaneer’

The Gilt Room
Beyond the Brown Dining Room lies the Gilt Room, and would have looked magnificent with the gold shimmering in candlelight. But all is not what it seems. The paneling is actually pine painted to look like walnut. And the ‘marble’ columns either side of the fireplace are also painted pine! The ceiling painting is a late 17th century copy of one in the Palazzo Barberrini in Rome, and depicts Pope Urban overcoming lust.

The King’s Room and the Red Room (1930s)
The second floor has bedrooms occupied by the family up until the death of Evan Morgan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, son of the 1st Viscount, Courtenay Morgan.

The Blue Room

Below stairs

The gardens and outbuildings

Tredegar planOn the west side is a lovely walled garden with magnificent yew trees. There are also some impressive outbuildings to the northwest, including a couple of barns, stables, and what we assumed must have been the coach house.

As you can see from the photos, we had a glorious day weather-wise, and for us, traveling down from north Worcestershire, the 80+ mile journey was not a problem, on motorways and dual carriageways (divided highways) the whole way. We had seen Tredegar House featured a few times on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt as well as the venue for another programme, Antiques Roadshow. So we were pleased that our plans to visit came to fruition. All in all, it is certainly an interesting property to visit.

Pigeons and peers – a des-res for doves and aristocrats

For my non-British readers, ‘des-res’ is an informal term for ‘desirable residence’.

And last Thursday we got to visit three in the Worcestershire countryside, only a handful of miles from our home in Bromsgrove.

The Hawford and Wichenford dovecotes
Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, Hawford and Wichenford dovecotes are today owned by the National Trust, and open for anyone to explore. Probably associated with a former abbey in the case of the Hawford dovecote, and the nearby Wichenford Court for the Wichenford dovecote, both are half-timbered structures, in a remarkable state of repair, notwithstanding their age. Although access to both dovecotes appears, on first glance, to be restricted, the doors are open and inside you can see all the nesting boxes, several hundred in each dovecote, where young pigeons or squabs and eggs would be collected for food.

The Hawford dovecote (map)

The Wichenford dovecote (map)

Next to the dovecote is a complex of semi-derelict farm buildings, dominated by a huge medieval barn that has obviously seen better days. We did wonder if some group was intending to ‘rescue’ this beautiful building and restore it to something like its former glory.

Witley Court (map)
Then we headed off to Witley Court near the village of Great Witley, which we have visited many times over the past three decades. Even though it’s now just a shell of a building, having been gutted by fire in the 1930s, Witley Court still has an awsome presence in the countryside, and in its heyday it must have been a magnificent residence, truly a ‘des-res’. Now managed by English Heritage, much has been done to refurbish the grounds in recent years, the parterres have been replanted, and the impressive Perseus and Andromeda fountain is now in full working order. It fires up every hour on the hour.


The Perseus and Andromeda Fountain in the foreground, and the south face of Witley Court behind. On the left, behind the ruins of the orangery is the parish church of St Michael (with the gold domed roof), one of the finest examples of baroque architecture.


View from the south parterre and the Perseus and Andromeda Fountain. The orangery is on the right.


The refurbished parterre on the west side of Witley Court.

Here’s a short video I made in 2008.

English Heritage have placed on its website a floor plan of how the mansion developed over the centuries. A house was first built on the site in the mid-17th century, and was added to extensively during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Beside the ruined house is Great Witley parish church of St Michael, untouched, fortunately by the 1937 fire, and one of the country’s outstanding examples of baroque architecture, and a feast for the eyes inside. The organ is said to have been played by Handel.



Peace and tranquility . . . just west of the M6 in Lancashire

Last Monday was the last day of our holiday in Scotland. We’d reached Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway on Sunday night, and just had the journey down the A74(M) and M6 to reach home.

Two hours is about as much as I can take driving on the motorway before I need to take a break. And we had discovered that there was a National Trust property, Rufford Old Hall, in Lancashire just south of Preston, about equidistant between Lockerbie and home. The ideal place to stretch our legs, have a bite to eat, and enjoy another of the Trust’s delights. In fact, it seems that many holidaymakers have exactly the same idea. One of the volunteers told me that Monday is usually a busy day, with many visitors breaking their journey north or south at the hall. Rufford Old Hall is very convenient to the M6, just a handful of miles west of Junction 27.

20150608 062 Rufford Old Hall

20150608 057 Rufford Old Hall

Formerly the home of the Hesketh family, Rufford Old Hall (is there a new one?) has two main wings: an original timber-framed Tudor one built in 1530 for Sir Robert Hesketh, oriented east-west, that may have once also had another wing on the west side (there are two ‘external’ doors on the west wall) but this no longer exists; and a later seventeenth century brick wing, north-south. The main entrance opens into what was once the kitchen, but that was moved to another location in the same wing at a later date.

The crowning glory of course is the Tudor wing, which consists primarily of the Great Hall with its magnificent bow window and small section of original Tudor stained glass. The roof of the Great Hall is a wonder to behold in timber architecture and construction. There is also a moveable screen just inside the hall. Photography is permitted only inside the Great Hall as the National Trust does not own all the items on display elsewhere throughout the property.

There is a small formal garden, with renowned squirrel topiaries, and walks through orchards, woodland and meadows alongside the Rufford Branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal (built in 1781) on the east side of the property.

Three, five or seven? On the Tresham Trail.

Spring had really sprung a couple of days ago. With hardly a cloud in the sky, and a warm day promising, Steph and I headed east some 80 odd miles from our home in north Worcestershire, to visit two properties in Northamptonshire constructed in the late 16th century by Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham, a celebrated recusant who was imprisoned on several occasions for his faith.

First stop, in Rushton, was one of the most peculiar buildings I’ve ever visited but I’d wanted to see for quite some time – I’d seen it on TV in the past year.

eh-logoThe Triangular Lodge – a folly – was completed by 1597, is owned and managed today by English Heritage. This was our first visit to an English Heritage property since we became members at the beginning of the year.

20150409 002 Rushton Triangular Lodge

Full of religious symbolism, the Lodge is a perfect triangular building, and there are threes everywhere you look. The sides of the building are exactly 33 feet long, the windows are triangular. There are three floors from basement to upper floor. Each floor has a hexagonal room, with a small room in two of the corners and the stairwell in the third. The roof is a triangular maze.

Constructed of alternate bands of light and dark limestone, the Triangular Lodge is odd – and yet ethereally beautiful – in so many ways. A testament to Tresham’s devotion to the Holy Trinity, it continues to stand in a corner of rural Northamptonshire.

Just 12 miles from Rushton is another Tresham treasure – Lyveden New Bield. At first glance, it appears a desolate ruin, and one imagines what calamity has befallen this impressive building. But it’s not a ruin. Tresham died before it was completed, and there has never been a roof. It is now owned and managed by the National Trust.

20150409 092 Lyveden

Designed as a garden lodge or secret retreat to which he could retire, or even worship as a Catholic in privacy, Lyveden New Bield has all the religious symbolism – and more – that we encountered at the Rushton Triangular Lodge. It is shaped like a perfectly symmetrical Greek cross, each of the four wings of the building mirroring the others. Each of the bow windows has five sections, each five feet wide.

There are no floors but they must have been in place at some time or another since there are wood remnants in the walls where joists would have spanned the building. You enter the building through a very low servants’ entrance (on the south side), into what would have been the basement; there’s a large fireplace and behind, a series of ovens in what must have been the kitchen.

The main entrance, on the north side, is almost six feet or so above ground level. The arches above the entrance and to other internal doors are fully finished and sculpted.

CCI11042015_00001The lodge stands on an open lawn, surrounded by a ditch on all sides, not far from the moat that once surrounded (but on three sides only) a 14th century manor house, now totally demolished and erased from the landscape. But nearby, there are the outlines of what would have been a parterre, and more intriguingly, a Tudor labyrinth. Its existence only came to light in recent years after someone discovered a wartime aerial photograph from the Luftwaffe – presumably on their way to raid Coventry or Birmingham. An old orchard has been replanted with varieties of apple, pear, plum, damson, quince and medlar among others from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent. Nearby is the old hall, Lyveden Old Bield, which was Tresham’s home after he moved from the original family home of Rushton Hall.

As a young boy, Tresham went to live with the Throckmorton family of Coughton Court near Alcester in Warwickshire (and only 12 miles from our home) and eventually married one of the daughters. One of their sons was implicated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, as were the Throckmorton family.

An 18th century landscape of temples and statues

Stowe Landscape Gardens. Perhaps one of the finest examples we have of the fashion for ‘natural’ gardening that blossomed in the mid- to late-18th century. And this was natural as opposed to the more formal approach to gardening that was common before this period, and perhaps quite well exemplified by the Anglo-Dutch garden at Westbury Court in Gloucestershire.

Covering an area of about 250 acres, Stowe Gardens and Park are open to the public almost all year round, and are best approached along the Grand Avenue from the nearby town of Buckingham.

It’s a 10 minute walk from the car park to the entrance into the gardens, and there, on the other side of the lake, stands the magnificent Palladian mansion, Stowe House (now a public school and open periodically to the public). We must have walked more than eight miles in total.

The gardens as we see them today were developed – and greatly expanded from an original formal garden – by General Sir Richard Temple, later Viscount Cobham follwoing his marriage in 1715. A number of landscape architects were involved in developing the gardens and building the various temples and other structures that are dotted about the park, including ‘Capability’ Brown who was Lord Cobham’s head gardener in 1746. A detailed description of the gardens and the various buildings has been published in Wikipedia (so there’s no need to repeat this here) and is certainly worth referring to for more information about each, who designed them and when.

Stowe Landscape Gardens are now regarded as one of the most significant to have survived into this century, and can now be enjoyed through the National Trust. The rest of this particular post is dedicated to the photography I enjoyed during our visit in early September. Each of the images has a caption so you can locate each building on the map below.

Entering the gardens 

The Palladian Bridge

Along Lord Cobham’s Walk from the Palladian Bridge to the Grecian Valley

Virtue and Worthies

The western walks


Tis well. (George Washington, 14 December 1799)

George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the Nation, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, first President (1789 – 1797) of the United States of America, and slave owner, was born in Virginia in 1731. And like many (most, probably) of his contemporaries, descended from English forebears.

In fact, the Washington family is an old one from County Durham (now Tyne and Wear) in the northeast of England, and the ancestral home is Washington Old Hall in the small community of Washington that is now surrounded by a complex of arterial roads that connect Newcastle and Sunderland to the main motorways to the south.

At the end of September on our way home from Newcastle, we stopped off at Washington Old Hall – less than 10 miles from where our younger daughter Philippa lives in Newcastle with her family.

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

Situated in the center of the ‘village’, the hall is not very well sign-posted and it took a couple of wrong turns before we ended up at the hall, and were, for the most part, the only visitors that morning inside the house (although some local mums were walking in the gardens with their children).

Although there has been a building on this site since the 12th century, much of what we see today was built in the 17th century. And had links to the Washington family until the 1930s. Before it was taken over by the National Trust, it had been divided at some period of the last century into a series of dwellings, each family essentially having just one or two rooms. The ground floor of the hall has been restored more or less in 17th century style, while the upper floor has mainly been turned over to Washington family memorabilia and their connection with the USA’s illustrious first president.

The grounds are quite small, but attractive. Below the main terrace in front of the hall there is a parterre garden, an apple orchard and vegetable garden, and beyond those, a nuttery. And, as with most National Trust properties, there’s a small cafe where you can enjoy a welcome cuppa.

In 1976, the USA celebrated its bicentennial. Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President in November that year and took office on 20 January 1977. During his first overseas trip as president, Carter visited the UK, and on Friday 6 May he made a special visit to Washington Old Hall, flying into Newcastle International Airport (known as Woolsington Airport then) on Air Force One (a Boeing 707), in the company of UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Click here to read the detailed itinerary and schedule of that visit to Washington Old Hall, as well as Newcastle and Sunderland.

This visit to Washington Old Hall in September was our second encounter with George Washington this year. In June we visited the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and saw the impressive sculpture that honors Washington along with presidents Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln.

Four presidents in the sky

Four presidents in the sky