Mark making tools, paper, and a steady hand

Ask anyone to name a famous English composer and they’d probably mention Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) or, more probably, Sir Edward Elgar.

Elgar was born in June 1857 in a small cottage, The Firs, in the village of Lower Broadheath, a stone’s throw west of Worcester, and 20 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove. The cottage (formerly the Elgar Birthplace Museum) came into the care of the National Trust in 2016 following an agreement with the Elgar Foundation. Closed for a year for some refurbishment, and the addition of a tea-room at the existing Visitor Centre among other improvements, The Firs re-opened in September 2017.

As the weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) had looked promising from earlier in the week, Steph and I made plans for a day out. But where to go? Looking through the 2018 handbook I came across The Firs (which had not featured in the 2017 handbook for obvious reasons). And with the added attraction of a two-mile circular walk in Elgar country in the vicinity, this was just what the doctor ordered!

Our visit to The Firs was beyond my expectations and unbelievably moving, even bringing me to the point of tears as I watched the 15-20 minute film about Elgar in the Visitor Centre. Throughout our visit, but especially in ‘Elgar’s Study’, I really had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, and I can’t recall ever having had that reaction before.

Elgar’s parents William and Anne had seven children, although two died young.

William was a piano tuner, and held a warrant from Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV).

Although Elgar moved away to Worcester with his family at the age of two, he retained a life-long attachment to The Firs. At the bottom of the cottage garden (see map) there is a lovely life-size sculpture of Elgar sitting on a bench (by Jemma Pearson) gazing through a gap in the hedge towards the Malvern Hills that he loved so much. It was commissioned by the Elgar Foundation in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.

Elgar’s daughter, Carice (born in 1890) was the inspiration, in 1935, to acquire The Firs as a memorial to her father.

Entrance to the house is by timed tickets. There’s obviously not a great deal of space inside to accommodate too many visitors at a time.

Inside the entrance porch was a small room with an iron range for heating water and cooking. Today, the National Trust has decorated the room with contemporary though not original-to-the-house items, including a piano tuner’s set of instruments.

On the ground floor, the Parlour (dedicated to Carice Elgar) has a lovely piano, possibly played by Elgar.

At the top of the stairs is a room the full width of the cottage (perhaps earlier divided into two rooms) where Elgar was born. Two other rooms and this one have displays of various musical instruments, his sporting and scientific interests, and other personal belongings such as watches.

Elgar was apparently a keen cyclist, and on one wall of the Visitor Centre there’s a mural of an exuberant cycling Elgar. We were told, although this may well only be anecdotal, that Elgar once cycled from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch his favorite football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. A round trip of 100 miles!

Alice and Edward Elgar in 1890

Inside the Visitor Centre, an exhibition illustrates highlights from Elgar’s life and career. He married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889. Her parents disapproved of Elgar—a ‘jobbing musician’—and did not attend their wedding in the Brompton Oratory in London. I hadn’t realized until yesterday that Elgar was a Catholic.

Alice (who died in 1920) was his inspiration, and early on in their relationship recognized his genius. And that leads to the second point I didn’t know. Elgar received no formal musical training. It wasn’t until 1899, with the first performance of the Enigma Variations, that his growing reputation as a composer was sealed.

In ‘Elgar’s study’ there are original scores of some of his most famous works, as well as the desk at which he worked.

Alice used to prepare the paper on which Elgar composed. Apparently, specially printed paper with the staves was not available, and had to be drawn by hand using the five-pointed pen you can see in a couple of the photos above.

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free‘. Famous words by Arthur C Benson put to music in Elgar’s 1901 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, sung here by contralto Clara Butt.

A page from the original score of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’

Who hasn’t heard Land of Hope and Glory? It’s the theme accompanying high school and university graduations around the world. Our two daughters graduated from Manila International School in the Philippines in the 1990s, and it was used then.

Another large room in the Visitor Centre, the Carice Room, is used for concerts, and where we watched the film about Elgar. There was also a lovely exhibition yesterday of watercolors by Worcestershire artist David Birtwhistle.

After a spot of lunch—we even sat outside at one of the many picnic tables—we set off on our walk, which took just over an hour. The walk begins on a public bridleway just behind The Firs, and then crosses three fields sown with oilseed rape and winter barley. By the time we reached terra firma again at Bell Lane, it felt  as though we were carrying half of Worcestershire on our muddy boots.

And at this point I must come back to Vaughan Williams for a moment, because as we were walking across the barley field, and looking back towards Worcester Cathedral to the east, a skylark rose into the air in front of us, singing lustily throughout its ascent and as it glided slowly back to earth.

What a wonderful sight and sound, reminding me instantly of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending premiered in 1920, although originally written for violin and piano in 1914.

The staff and volunteers at The Firs were outstanding, and their friendliness and readiness to engage with us added to the enjoyment of our visit. As I said at the outset, we didn’t have any particular expectations when deciding to visit Elgar’s birthplace. I came away deeply affected by what I saw, heard, and learned, and I’m sure that the emotion will stay with me for many days to come. And, coincidentally, as I am finishing writing this post, while listening to Classic FM, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 has just been featured.






A stroll in the park . . .

Croome Court, some 20 miles south of our home in Bromsgrove, and nestling beneath the Malvern Hills, is one of our ‘local’ National Trust properties. In fact, it was the second property we visited, at the end of March 2011, just after we’d become members of the National Trust.

And a couple of days ago, on a very bright but cold morning, we made our fifth visit to Croome. The ideal setting for a bracing walk, and not only to recover from some of the excesses of Christmas, but also take a peek inside the house since we’d not done that since 2011.

We can see the Malverns from Bromsgrove, and there is often a clear view south down the valley of the River Severn near Croome, with the Costwolds outlier of Bredon Hill on the east side and, more spectacularly on the west, the line of the Malverns stretching some eight miles north to south and separating Worcestershire from Herefordshire.

As we drove south along the M5 motorway I wasn’t expecting to see the Malverns as we did that morning, covered in snow, and looking even more stately, impressive, and higher than we normally see them. What a surprise! Once at Croome, we had magnificent views of the whole line of hills due west. The snow had somehow ‘etched’ new landscape perspectives that we’d never observed before.

The magnificent Malvern Hills, looking more like the Alps than a modest range of hills on the Worcestershire-Herefordshire border.

The northern end of the Malverns, with Croome’s Temple Greenhouse on the far right, and the Croome River snaking past trees towards the left.

The Panorama Tower has a view westwards towards the Malverns, and east towards Croome Park itself. It lies about 1 mile as the crow flies due west from the house.

First things first, however. We arrived just after 10:45, after a 30 minute drive from home. Fortunately although the night before had been very cold, with a little dusting of snow and some icy patches on rural roads, we did not encounter any holdups at all. Nevertheless, the first place we headed to was Croome’s 1940s-style canteen to enjoy a cup of frothy cappuccino to set us up for the walk around the park.

In the past we’ve taken in the whole circuit of the park, to the far end of the Croome River (see map). But on this day, we walked as far at the Island Pavilion (21 on the map), and back along the far side of the Croome River to the Chinese Bridge (16). After touring the house, we headed to the Rotunda (13) and along the east side of the Walled Garden to exit through the Visitor Centre. It was a walk of around three miles, and most welcome.

A painting by Richard Wilson in 1758 is on display in one of the ground floor rooms. Not much has changed in the intervening 260 years.

Since our first visit, the main entrance to Croome Court is now through the Hall on the north side of the building. Inside, there are few significant changes from our last visit, although I think there were more rooms open on the first floor.

The Robert Adam ceiling in the Long Gallery is a sight to behold. The decorated plaster-work of the dining room is as delightful as ever, likewise the main doorway and ceiling of the Saloon. The bare wooden walls of the Tapestry Room are testament to what was; the tapestries now hang in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom on the first floor caught my eye, as did the portraits of the 9th Earl of Coventry and his wife propped up against the wall of an adjacent room.

Two exhibits stand out above the others. I love porcelain, and in the dining room there is a stunning exhibit, The Golden Box (designed by Dutch artist Bouke de Vries, whose War and Pieces we saw at Berrington Hall in April this year), of some of Croome’s porcelain. The Golden Box took my breath away.

On the first floor, in what was Lady Coventry’s Dressing Room, is the recently opened ‘I AM Archive’, a vortex construction that will eventually house information and documents about Croome. A truly inspirational design.

Finally, it was outside again through the doors of the Saloon, and on to the south-facing steps flanked by two sphinxes. In the early afternoon sunshine, the light coloured stone of the façade glowed a deep gold. At the Rotunda there was a good view over much of the park to the west and south.

Croome was heaving with visitors, all taking advantage of the lovely day, many following children along the ‘Gingerbread Trail’, or taking dogs for walks in the park’s wide open spaces. Everyone seemed to be having fun, as we did, and we look forward to our next visit some time during 2018.


Elgar’s county – a land of hope and glory?


The county’s flag and coat of arms

Where Worcestershire Sauce was first concocted. But Worcestershire is also the birthplace (just outside Worcester) in 1857 of Sir Edward Elgar, one of the nation’s most renowned composers.

While reading this post, why not listen to celebrated contralto Clara Butt sing, in this 1911 recording, one of Elgar’s most famous compositions, Land of Hope and Glory (written in 1902, with words by AC Benson). 

Bounded on the north by the West Midlands and Staffordshire, to the northwest by Shropshire, Herefordshire to the west, Gloucestershire to the south, and Shakespeare’s county, Warwickshire to the east, Worcestershire is a mainly rural county in the English Midlands. It has an area of 672 square miles, and is 38th out of 48 counties in size. Click on the map below to explore further. The estimated population (in 2016) was a little under 600,000. Ethnically it’s mostly white British (>91%).

Setting up home
Worcestershire is my home, but I’m not a native. I was born and raised in Cheshire and Staffordshire, some 70 miles to the north. My wife hails from Essex, east of London. We chose Worcestershire—Bromsgrove in the northeast of the county to be specific (shown by the blue star on the map above)—more by chance than design. Let me explain.

In March 1981, Steph, Hannah (almost three), and I returned to the UK after living more than eight years in Peru and Costa Rica. I’d just been appointed to a lectureship at The University of Birmingham, in the Department of Plant Biology, School of Biological Sciences. Until we found somewhere to live permanently, Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend-on-Sea, while I settled into lecturing life at Birmingham. And launch ourselves into the housing market.

Before we left Peru, we had asked Steph’s parents to contact on our behalf as many estate agents (realtors) as they could identify from locations in a wide arc from the west of Birmingham, south into Worcestershire, and southeast towards the Solihull area. We already had decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham itself.

Arriving back in the UK we encountered a very large pile of house specs waiting for us at Steph’s parents, and began to work our way through these, rejecting immediately any that did not meet our expected needs. We quickly whittled around 500 down to a handful of fewer than fifty or so.

It must have been the Wednesday of my first week at the university in April, a slack period with no lectures or practical classes scheduled. So I decided to take the afternoon off and go house viewing. But in which direction to strike out?

Bromsgrove is just 13 miles south of the university, connected by the A38, a route that crosses the city right by the university in Edgbaston. We had selected a couple of properties in Bromsgrove that seemed promising, and the drive there was likely to be the easiest of any of the other locations on our list. So I made appointments that same afternoon to view these two properties. And the first house I saw was the one we actually ended up buying. It just ticked all the boxes. Later that evening I phoned Steph to tell her what I’d been up to, and that she should schedule to come up to Birmingham on the train as soon as possible to take a look for herself. Within a week we’d made an offer for the house, and started to sort out a mortgage—at 16¾% interest in the first year or so!

Our younger daughter, Philippa, was born in Bromsgrove in 1982. New house, new baby!

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and we stayed there until April 2010, almost 19 years. All the while we kept our home in Bromsgrove, fully furnished, but unoccupied, and available for us to return to whenever we came home on annual leave, and to take up residence once again on retirement.

Worcestershire is a lovely county, dotted with picturesque villages, rolling hills in the north and west, magnificent river valleys slicing through the landscape, and fertile agricultural land to the southeast. We’ve never regretted making the choice to move here. Being located in the middle of England, it’s not too far from anywhere. Our younger daughter lives in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast, a smidgen under 250 miles away. And during their lifetime, visiting Steph’s parents in Essex, just 160 miles away, was an (mostly) easy trip. Over the past seven years of retirement, we are enjoying getting out and about to explore not only our ‘home’ county, but also places within a 80-100 mile radius for day trips.

Administration, political life, and towns
Worcestershire has few urban areas. The City of Worcester lies in the center of the county, just 16 miles south of Bromsgrove. It’s the seat of the county council, and also of the Diocese of Worcester and its magnificent cathedral.

There are six local government authorities: 1. Worcester; 2. Malvern Hills; 3. Wyre Forest; 4. Bromsgrove; 5. Redditch; and 6. Wychavon.

There are seven parliamentary constituencies, all held by Conservative politicians. That says a lot about the county. The Member of Parliament for the Bromsgrove constituency is Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a member of the Cabinet, and once considered as a high flyer and Tory Party leadership contender. His star has waned somewhat.

Bromsgrove is famous for its 17th century nail-making industry, and the iron gates of Buckingham Palace¹ made by the Bromsgove Guild of Applied Arts. Carpet-making Kidderminster is nine miles to the west of Bromsgrove.

Redditch, nine miles to the east, was home from the 18th century to a needle-making industry, and Droitwich Spa, founded on extensive salt and brine deposits, lies about six miles south. In the far south of the county, market town Evesham serves the agricultural community in the fertile Vale of Evesham.

Geographically, Worcestershire has some important features. England’s longest river, the Severn, enters the county northwest of Kidderminster (south of Bridgnorth), and flows for some 45 miles south before reaching the Severn Estuary in Gloucestershire and beyond. The River Avon (Shakespeare’s Avon) meanders east to west across the southern part of the county, round Evesham and to the north of Bredon Hill, before joining the Severn at Tewksbury in Gloucestershire.

In the north of the county, to the north and west of Bromsgrove, the Lickey Hills (between Bromsgrove and Birmingham) and Clent Hills rise to 978 and 1037 feet, respectively. On a clear day, the view from the top of Clent can be spectacular, as far as the Black Mountains of South Wales.

The view south towards the Malvern Hills (on the right), the Severn Estuary, and the Cotswolds (on the left).

Looking further west towards Abberley Hill, beyond Great Witley.

Straddling the county border between Worcestershire and Herefordshire, the Malvern Hills are an easily recognisable north-south spine, rising to over 1300 feet, and offering an unsurpassed panorama over the Severn Valley to the east, and the Cotswolds further southeast.

The Malverns (R) looking south to Bredon Hill (center) and the Cotswolds, and the Vale of Evesham, from just south of Great Witley.

This is a view, to the west, of the northern section of the Malverns and the Severn Valley from the Panorama Tower (designed by James Wyatt in 1801) at Croome.

In the south of the county, Bredon Hill (at 981 feet) is a Jurassic limestone outlier of the Cotswolds, affording views north and east over the Vale of Evesham, and south to the steep north-facing escarpment of the Cotswolds proper.

This is the view from Broadway Hill, looking north over the Vale of Evesham, with Bredon Hill on the left.

Horticulturally, the Vale of Evesham is one of the most important areas in the country, famous for its extensive orchards of apples, pears, and plums, vegetables (especially asparagus), and hop gardens, among others. Worcestershire is also ‘home’ to The Archers, an every day story of country folk, based on villages close to Bromsgrove.

In the northwest of the county, and spreading into Shropshire, the Wyre Forest is an important semi-natural woodland, and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It covers an area of about 10 square miles.

Summer visitors to Worcestershire must be very high indeed, but perhaps for just an hour at most as they cross the county. That’s because the M5 motorway is a 32 mile corridor ferrying holidaymakers south to the West Country or north to Lancashire, the Lake District, and Scotland.

Worcestershire has two other motorways. A section of the M42 (the southern orbital around Birmingham) passes north of Bromsgrove, and joins the M5 there. The M50, in the southwest of the county, branches off the M5 and takes traffic west into Herefordshire and south to South Wales.

Worcestershire has two particular transport claims to fame. Running north-south, just over a mile east of Bromsgrove town center, the main-line railway (connecting Birmingham with Bristol and the southwest) traverses the Lickey Incline (currently being electrified as far as Bromsgrove), the steepest sustained main-line incline in Great Britain, for a little over two miles, at 2.65%.

The Incline was first surveyed, but then abandoned, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1832 as a route for the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway.

Just a little further east, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, completed in 1815, connects the River Severn at Worcester with Canal Basin in the heart of Birmingham, a distance of 29 miles. The 30 lock Tardebigge Flight, close to Bromsgrove, is the longest flight of locks in the UK. I have written about both the Lickey Incline and the canal here.

Tardebigge Top Lock

Part of the Tardebigge Flight

The view from Tardebigge church (above Tardebigge Top Lock) over Bromsgrove to the Malverns (in the southwest on the left) and to Clee Hill (due west, in Shropshire) in the distance.

Another canal, the 46 mile long Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (completed in 1771) branches from the River Severn at Stourport on Severn, crosses the northwest part of the county through Kidderminster, eventually joining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood in Staffordshire. This was a vital link for 18th century industry.

Famous sons and daughters of Worcestershire
Earlier I mentioned Sir Edward Elgar. He is perhaps the most famous son of Worcestershire. He was appointed the first professor of Music at The University of Birmingham in 1905. The Elgar Concert Hall at the university, opened in 2012, is named after him. It is one of the venues in The Bramall that sits alongside the university’s Great Hall, an extension of the Aston Webb building, completing the red-brick semi-circle vision of Sir Joseph Chamberlain, which has been at the heart of the University since 1909.

In addition to his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Elgar is also renowned for his Enigma Variations, composed in 1898/99 (0f which the evocative Nimrod must be the most loved). But I think his tour de force must be his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 played in this video by Jacqueline du Pré, one of the 20th century’s most talented musicians.

AE Housman

Classical scholar and poet Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, just outside Bromsgrove in 1859. His most famous cycle of poems is A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896. His statue stands proudly over the High Street in Bromsgrove.

Conservative politician and Prime Minister at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, Stanley Baldwin was born in Bewdley in 1857. Roland Hill, credited with the concept of a modern postal service, and the postage stamp, was born in Kidderminster in 1795. William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, and motor magnate and philanthropist, was born in Worcester in 1877.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in Kidderminster in 1948, actor Charles Dance  (born 1946) hails from Redditch, and Sting’s wife Trudie Styler was born in Bromsgrove in 1956.

Historically, Worcestershire has much to offer. Two major—and pivotal—battles were fought in the county. In August 1265, the forces of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester were defeated at the Battle of Evesham by the army of King Henry III led by his son Edward, later Edward I. Almost 400 years later, in the final battle of the English Civil Wars, the forces of King Charles II (who wasn’t restored to the crown until 1660) were defeated at Worcester in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian New Model Army.

Today, the Monarch’s Way is a long distance footpath (>600 miles) that traces the route of Charles II’s escape after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Earlier this year we visited Boscobel House in Shropshire (the furthest north Charles fled) where he hid in an oak tree.

The Monarch’s Way crosses the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in places, and passes through Pepper Wood, just west of Bromsgrove.

Standing proudly above the River Severn in the center of Worcester, the cathedral is the final resting place of King John (of Magna Carta fame).

The tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral.

The cathedral was built between 1084 and 1504, combining different architectural styles from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic. There are many other abbeys and religious buildings throughout the county, most destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

There are two outstanding medieval threshing barns standing in the south of the county, near Bredon, and at Littleton near Evesham, as well as good examples of dovecotes at Hawford and Wichenford (both owned by the National Trust).

The medieval barn at Bredon.

The roof of Littleton barn.

Hawford dovecote on the left, and Wichenford on the right.

One of the oldest public schools (i.e. private school) in the country, Bromsgrove School, was founded as a chantry school in 1476, and re-founded in 1553. It takes pupils from all over the world, but despite occupying a large chunk of real estate in the town, seems to have very little connection with the community (even though it’s quite often featured in the local weekly newspapers).

The National Trust also owns two large estates in Worcestershire at Hanbury Hall (just seven miles southwest of Bromsgrove), and Croome Court, southeast of Worcester. Both are impressive 18th century houses. Greyfriars is a medieval merchant’s house and walled garden in the center of Worcester.

Hanbury Hall, built in 1701.

Croome Court, home of the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the first park designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Looking south along Friar Street in Worcester. Greyfriars is the double gabled building on the left.

At Great Whitley, some 16 miles west of Bromsgrove, stand the ruins of Witley Court, owned by English Heritage, destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1937. It has become a favorite place for us to visit, since the early 1980s when we moved to the county.

We have yet to visit the only other English Heritage property in Worcestershire, Leigh Court Barn.

The heritage, standard gauge Severn Valley Railway, formed in 1965, runs 16 miles from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, beside the River Severn, with intermediate stops at several picturesque stations. It’s a delightful way to spend the day, with the opportunity for a good walk around Bridgnorth before returning to Kidderminster.

Worcestershire has such a lot to offer, and to some extent we have just scratched the surface. We look forward to many more years of getting to know this corner of England we call home.

Land of hope and glory? Much of Worcestershire is glorious. Hope? Well, while this Conservative government remains in power, and facing Brexit, there’s little optimism for hope, especially with all Worcestershire MPs being members of the Conservative Party.

¹ In February 2012, I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace and received an OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales. In this post-investiture photo in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace, I’m wearing the OBE medal, which is made by Worcestershire Medal Service based in Bromsgrove.

With Steph on 29 February 2012 outside Buckingham Palace after the OBE investiture.

No laughing matter

Have you ever been surprised walking through an 18th century landscape? Ha-ha!

Well, you’ve probably come across numerous ha-has without stopping to think what or why?

A ha-ha is a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. They became very popular in the 18th century, as landscape architects like Capability Brown developed their visions of an open landscape connecting house and surrounding land.

In some ways, they are like a dry moat, built for protection—not against human marauders, but animals. Grazing animals were excluded from the lawns and gardens immediately adjacent to a house. But, with a ha-ha separating this area from the ‘wild’ grazing outside, there was a continuity, a oneness with the surrounding landscape in which a house sat. (Think of an infinity pool as a modern equivalent having the same visual effect).

I first saw a ha-ha when I was a young boy growing up in Leek in North Staffordshire. There’s a good example on one side of the pitch at Leek Cricket Club where my Mum and Dad often took me on a Saturday evening in the summer.

Ha-has are more common than you might think. During our visits to National Trust properties over the past six years, we’ve seen some very good examples. Standing at the entrance of a stately home, gazing out over the landscape, your mind is easily transported back 250 years or so. Magnificent today, what must have been the wonder at these new landscapes in their heyday, and the unlimited vistas that the addition of a ha-ha opened up?

At Hanbury Hall, the National Trust property closest to our home in northeast Worcestershire, from the ha-ha just west of the formal garden and parterre, there is an open view to the northwest, across what must have once been a deer park.

In Herefordshire, a ha-ha separates the lawn in front of the main entrance from the meadows beyond at Berrington Hall.

The ha-ha at Berrington Hall encircles the main entrance to the house, and encloses a lawn and gravel drive.

Croome Court is southeast of Worcester, about 20 miles from home. The park at Croome was the first landscape designed by Capability Brown. However, the ha-ha does not separate the land immediately surrounding the house itself, but an area to the west of the house, around the Croome River, about half a mile from the house, where an orangery, a temple and a grotto were built. From the ha-ha there is an uninterrupted view back to the house.

The view from the edge of the ha-ha in front of the Orangery at Croome, looking towards the house

We just returned from Northern Ireland, where we visited eleven National Trust properties in eight days! In Co. Fermanagh, Florence Court sits comfortably in its landscape. It’s the National Trust’s furthest west property. The ha-ha is particularly impressive.

In these two photos, looking across the lawn in front of the house, the edge of the ha-ha can be easily discerned as a slight change in colour of the grass.

Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and 100 miles east from home, is a magnificent property. We visited last August. On the east-southeast side of the house, there is a tree-lined avenue and vista to Belmont Tower, about 1 mile away.

Belmont Tower from inside the house. The ha-ha is just beyond the people in between the trees.

Looking back to Belton House from the ha-ha that is about half way to the Belmont Tower.

Just under half way from the house, a curved ha-ha separates the gardens from the park beyond.

Aerial view of the ha-ha at Belton House (from Google Maps)

Steph standing on the edge of the ha-ha.

I expect there will be many more to find and photograph in the coming years.

“By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” . . . “By God, sir, so you have!”

In general, I do not read up about any of the National Trust properties we visit ahead of the visit. Maybe I should, from time to time. On our way to Holyhead recently, for an overnight stop before we took the ferry over to Ireland early the next morning (for our National Trust tour of Northern Ireland), we visited Plas Newydd, a mansion alongside the Menai Strait, and home to the Paget family, Marquesses of Anglesey.

There has been a house at Plas Newydd since the late 13th century. The house today reflects the significant changes made by James Wyatt in the late 18th century. There are stunning views along the Menai Strait north to the famous Stephenson Britannia Bridge (the original was constructed in 1850), south towards Caernarvon on the mainland, and further east, of course, the Snowdonia panorama fills the skyline.

The original Paget family home was at Beaudesert, an estate near Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, in the 16th century. Plas Newydd, acquired by the Pagets in the 18th century, was only a holiday retreat, but eventually became their permanent residence.

I didn’t know too much about the estate nor the family, apart from something I’d read about the flamboyant 5th Marquess (featured on the cover of the National Trust magazine for Spring 2017) who squandered much of the family’s wealth, and died, aged 29, in 1905. The consequence of his debts was the sale of Beaudesert by the 6th Marquess in the 1930s, which was demolished but not in its entirety. Many of the contents, particularly paintings, were brought to Plas Newydd. Those in the drawing-room are particularly notable.

The 1st Marquess, Henry William Paget (as the Earl of Uxbridge) was one of the Duke of Wellington’s senior commanders (of the heavy cavalry) at the Battle of Waterloo, who was elevated to the marquessate of Anglesey just three weeks after the battle. Towards the end of the battle, he was struck on the leg by a cannonball, apparently eliciting the exchange between him and Wellington that I have used as the title of this post.

The Duke of Wellington was not well disposed towards Uxbridge, who had eloped with the Duke’s sister-in-law, but who he eventually married. He had eight children by his first wife, and seven surviving infancy from his second marriage. There is a several displays in the house of the Marquess’s regalia, his uniforms, even one of his artificial legs. He was eventually promoted Field Marshal.

In the ample grounds there are many walking trails, a small arboretum, and a terraced garden on the north side of the house.

On the wall of the small Gothick Hall, with its balcony, are early Paget ancestor (which you can just see through the open door from the Music Room). The Music Room itself opens off the left side of the hall.

Through a small door in the far corner of the Music Room, there is an elegant staircase leading to the first floor bedrooms. On the wall above the staircase is an impressive full-length portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

Just a few bedrooms are open to view, including the Alcove Bedroom, opened to the public in 2013, from which there is a wonderful of the Menai Strait. Very relaxing! The bedroom of Shirley, Lady Anglesey and wife of the 7th Marquess, is decorated in pink. Either side of the fireplace are paintings by Constant Joseph Brochart (d. 1889). But what is more remarkable is the hand decoration to the bed posts and canopy that was added by family friend and British artist, designer and illustrator Rex Whistler (d. 1944). More of him later, downstairs. Beyond Lady Anglesey’s bedroom is the bedroom of the 7th Marquess. In several rooms there are examples of old wallpapers.

The study of the 7th Marquess on the ground floor has several desks, piled high with books and documents. He was an enthusiastic military historian. The wallpaper reflects this interest.

Lady Anglesey kept a study at the south end of the house, overlooking the Menai Strait.

Along the east side of the hall (Menai Strait side), several rooms flow from one to another: the drawing-room, a breakfast room, and the dining room with the famous room-length painting by Whistler, and some exquisite trompe d’oeil illustrations on the end walls.

From a vestibule behind the Gothick Hall, you pass through to the drawing-room. At first glance, its colour scheme doesn’t seem to work: green and blue, and a red smaller carpet in front of the fireplace. But I had an enormous feeling of relaxation just walking into this room. Several large landscape paintings by Flemish painter,Balthazar Paul Ommeganck (c. 1789), cover the walls. They were brought from Beaudesert, and cropped to fit the available space. The effect is most pleasing.

Beyond the drawing-room is the breakfast room, with a bust of the 7th Marquess, by Whistler, on the mantelpiece.

Then you come to the masterpiece that is the Whistler painting in the dining room. And how stunning it is, providing different perspectives on the mountains when viewed from different angles.

What a stunning finale to our tour of Plas Newydd, which fitted in perfectly with our plans to visit Northern Ireland. I’m sure we will repeat the pleasure one day.


Springhill: a complicated genealogy

Springhill House, near Moneymore in Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland, is a typical ‘Plantation House‘, a 17th century farmhouse that was embellished in the 18th century with the addition of single storey wings, and pavilions with Dutch gables on either side of the avenue leading up to the front of the house.

Constructed in about 1680, it was the home of the Conyngham family of Scottish settlers who came to Northern Ireland from Ayrshire around 1611. Becoming the property of the National Trust in 1957, the house had remained in the same family until then. The family name had changed to Lenox-Conyngham in the early 18th century. The genealogy is complicated by there being multiple Georges and Williams.

To one side of the entrance hall is a small study with a fine display or guns and swords, especially a long gun on one side of the fireplace. Original 18th century wallpaper was uncovered during the restoration of Springhill by the National Trust.

Ceilings are quite low in the 17th century parts of the house, but much higher in the 18th added wings. This can be seen quite distinctly, moving from the library, to the drawing room, and into the dining room.

Springhill is said to be haunted, by the ghost of Olivia, second wife of George Lenox-Conyngham (whose portrait hangs in the ‘haunted’ bedroom). Was he murdered by his wife or did he commit suicide? A secret door and passage were found in the bedroom, which you can just make out in the far right corner beyond the wash-stand, in the photo below. Was this how Olivia crept in to commit the foul deed? Some documents were found, but the evidence is circumstantial. We will never know for sure.

There’s an interesting costume museum, and ample opportunity for long walks on the estate. The weather (and time) was against us.

The Full Monty

With extensive parkland, some of the most beautiful formal gardens, an elegant yet somewhat understated house that simply oozes wealth, position, and history, Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula in Co. Down has everything (map).

The Mount Stewart estate (then known as Mount Pleasant) was purchased in 1744 by wealthy merchant Alexander Stewart. His son became the 1st Marquess of Londonderry in 1816. Mount Stewart is the family home.

If I mentioned the name Robert Stewart, this would probably just evince a shrug of the shoulders. Mention Viscount Castlereagh, however, and the reaction would probably be very different, as he was one of the most influential politicians and diplomats of his age, Foreign Secretary in the British government, and a visionary of the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 that sought to re-establish peace and order (and national borders) to post-Napoleonic Europe. Castlereagh became the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry in 1821 on the death of his father, the 1st Marquess. Yet he had committed suicide just a year later, and the title passed to his half-brother, Charles, who married (as his second wife) one of the wealthiest heiresses of the age, Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest. Her wealth gave the impetus for expansion and refurbishment of Mount Stewart. Charles had served as one of the Duke of Wellington’s generals in the Peninsula War, and was Ambassador to Austria at the time of the Congress of Vienna. After this marriage, the family name became, and continues as, Vane-Tempest-Stewart.

Mount Stewart became the principal home of the 7th Marquess and his wife Edith. She was a great socialite and political hostess, and much of today’s decor and the impressive formal gardens are due to her influence and creativity. Their youngest daughter, Mairi, their only child to be born there, was bequeathed Mount Stewart in the 7th Marquess’s will. One of Mairi’s daughters, Lady Rose Lauritzen, still has an apartment at Mount Stewart, and while we were touring the house, I saw her describing some ‘Congress chairs’ to one of the National Trust volunteers in the dining room.

There’s so much to see at Mount Stewart. It must be the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the National Trust in Northern Ireland. I’ve read that the Mount Stewart is counted among the world’s top ten gardens!

So let’s start with the grounds, followed by the formal garden, and then a tour of the house.

We took the lakeside walk, about a mile and a half, encountering the White Stag of Celtic legend, and visiting the family burial plot, Tir n’an Og.

To the south of the house, and up a slight hill about 10 minutes walk, you can find the Temple of the Winds, built in the late  18th century (before the house was even built). There are wonderful views over Strangford Lough to the west, and Scrabo Tower, just south of Newtownards on the other side of the lough. Scrabo Tower was constructed in 1857 as a memorial to Charles, 3rd Marquess. It has now been re-opened in partnership with the National Trust.

On the west side of the house, which faces southwest, there is a Sunken Garden and the Shamrock Garden, with a topiary Irish harp, as well as the Red Hand of Ulster planted with bright red salvias. Along the top of the hedges, there are other topiary figures.

You enter the larger garden through an impressive black and gilded gate. What a feast for the eyes, with lots of mythical animals, extinct ones like the dodo for example, and one clearly male fox!

You can explore the house on your own, but there are very knowledgeable and friendly National Trust volunteers in each room, ready and able to fill in the detail.

The entrance hall is quite unexpected, as you first pass through a modest vestibule, with the hall opening out into a sea of light.

Passing from the hall, towards the dining room, there is a very large portrait of the 3rd Marquess above an arch. To one side are some cabinets with articles of the family’s wealth and connections on display. In the room itself, there is a fine portrait of Castlereagh (the 2nd Marquess), and the ‘Congress chairs’ lining the wall beneath a portrait of a familiar figure: Napoleon Bonaparte.

From the dining room, you can enter the study of the 7th Marquess, and through to a Saloon-cum-breakfast room. The ceiling rose is mirrored in the beautiful inlaid woodwork on the floor. The table standing in the middle of the room is a so-called Irish coffin or wake table.

Lady Edith developed her own drawing room, luxuriously furnished, but homely at the same time. There’s a portrait of her on the wall.

At the bottom of the staircase, there are cabinets on either side displaying the family china. The cantilevered staircase divides halfway up, beneath a huge painting of a racehorse, that’s clearly out of proportion: in the horse itself, the length of the groom’s legs, and the right arm of the other boy.

Finally, in a large and very grand drawing room the walls are covered with portraits of family members, and lined with other objets d’art.

It’s no wonder that Mount Stewart is one of the National Trust’s most popular destinations. The history of the house and the family is almost unparalleled. And if you are ever in Northern Ireland, the trip out to Strangford Lough and Mount Stewart has to be high on your list of attractions. We were not disappointed. You won’t be either.