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

Strange shapes on the skyline

The clues are there if you only know how to recognize them. For many landscapes it is quite difficult to determine just what forces of nature sculpted what we see all around us, and frankly take for granted as always having been there.

As a geography student at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s, I studied geomorphology (the study of landscapes and the forces that shape them) over three years. So it’s quite fun when we are out and about on our travels trying to work out how any particular landscape evolved. Of course, in the past 10,000 years or less humans have had a dramatic impact on what we see, often hiding the very features that would provide a straightforward answer.

But there are many landscapes when it is much clearer how ice, water, or wind acted upon the geology to reveal those landscape features that we all treasure. The tors of the Dartmoor, formed through chemical weathering of granite in a tropical environment, find their counterparts in Nigeria, for example.

Walking round Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire (just northwest of Knaresborough and Harrogate) the effects of wind erosion on a 400 million year old sandstone, Millstone Grit, during the last Ice Age some 12-18,000 years ago) – and earlier periods of weathering in warmer climates millions of years ago – can be clearly seen. And some fantastical rock formations are now carefully protected by the National Trust.

Steph and I visited Brimham Rocks at the end of September on our way north to Newcastle, and what glorious weather we had. You could see south and east 20 miles or more over the Vale of York. In fact the tower of York Minster was clearly visible on the horizon. And to the west, the landscape rises towards the backbone of England, The Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales.

Walking up from the car park, we took the left hand route round the Rocks. In the video you can see several of the rock formations that are indicated on the map: Surprise View, Cannon Rocks, Eagle, Dancing Bear, Druid’s Writing Desk, and Idol, among others, finally come round to Druid’s Castle Rocks from the north and east (click on the map, ©2002 The National Trust, to open a larger version, and which is reproduced here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks).

©2002 The National Trust – inlcuded here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks

Canals and hedges – the formality and beauty of an Anglo-Dutch water garden

At the beginning of September, we headed some 48 miles southwest of where we live in Worcestershire to Westbury Court Garden, a National Trust property in Gloucestershire, on the banks of the River Severn estuary. It was a typical early September day when high pressure dominates the weather scene – somewhat misty and murky, overcast, and the sun taking until mid-afternoon to burn away the worst of the low cloud.

Maynard Colchester commenced excavation of the garden in 1696, with the digging of the first canal, and layout of the garden in the formal Dutch style, shown in Johannes Kip’s 1712 engraving below of the house and garden. You have to remember that Dutchman William III was King at the time.

And until today, Westbury Court Garden remains the only surviving garden in this Anglo-Dutch style. There is no longer a house on the site.

There are impressive north-facing views over the garden and canals from the Tall Pavilion.

Along the canals are planted espaliered fruits, mainly heritage apple varieties (some dating back to the 1500s), but also some pears and plums. There is one area of formal gardens, but the gardeners are having to grub out the box hedges due to box blight. The yews lining the canals are apparently being affected by a fungal disease (a Phytophthora attack) and unless this can be brought under control the yew hedges might be lost as well.

The gardens are not large, but in the contrast between the canals (full – even choked – with water lilies) and the formal beds, they are a delight to the eye, and a haven of peace (even though a rather busy road does pass by at the north end). Among the features worthy of special mention are a glorious tulip tree (Liriodendron sp.) that must be at least 100 feet tall, and an impressive 400 year old evergreen oak (Quercus ilex).

You can easily take in all that Westbury Court Garden has to offer in 60-90 minutes, but as a stopover on the way to another destination (we were headed for the Forest of Dean, and The Kymin), it is certainly worth a visit. After all, it is a unique remnant of a by-gone era of gardening in this country before the fad for open landscapes (championed by the likes of Capability Brown) took hold later on in the eighteenth century.

The perfect picnic spot . . .

It’s been a perfect picnic spot since Georgian times in the 18th century. And where’s this ideal place? Why, The Kymin, of course.

On a steep hill overlooking the town on Monmouth in the Wye valley on the English-Welsh border, The Kymin has a number of features that you wouldn’t associate with an inland site (although it’s not that far from the Severn Estuary).

There are two buildings at the top of the hill: the Round House (which is open only on certain days, and not when we visited) and the Naval Temple, constructed in 1800 to commemorate the British naval victory at the Battle of the Nile, but also British admirals who had played major roles in confronting the French leading up to that date.

Admiral Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton visited The Kymin in 1802.

On a clear day the views from the top must be spectacular to the south and west, towards the Brecon Beacons and the Welsh valleys. On the day we visited it had been overcast in the morning, and the cloud was beginning to burn away only by early afternoon when we arrived. But it was still very hazy and we couldn’t see many miles beyond Monmouth itself.

It’s a very narrow and winding road (but with passing places) from the main road A4136 up to The Kymin. But the climb is certainly worth the effort – if you can find the exit from the A4136 (traveling east to west towards Monmouth would be much easier, since the road leading up to The Kymin is on a sharp bend).