James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange

James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange

James Bateman came from a family made rich by iron and coal during the Industrial Revolution. A landowner and accomplished horticulturist, in 1842 he bought Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire where he set about creating what has been called ‘a Great Exhibition of a garden – the whole world in one green
space, with planting to reflect the spirit of Italy and China, Egypt, England and the

At the same time as Bateman developed his gardens to represent the variety of creation, he began work on a Geological Gallery at Biddulph Grange which, when it opened to the public in 1862, presented a selection of fossils and geological strata displayed in a chronological order – his attempt to reconcile his evangelical Christianity with geological understanding at the time. Resolute in his belief in divine creation, Bateman planned his Geological Gallery as a refutation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, unveiled in The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Continue reading “James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange”


Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place

Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place

Aberdaron is, I think, the most characterful village on the Lleyn, a  picturesque cluster of white-washed stone buildings huddled around two small, hump-backed bridges and a church that edges the shore. Its present appearance belies the village past. Long a fishing village, in the 18th and 19th centuries it developed as a shipbuilding centre and port, exporting limestone, lead, jasper and manganese from local mines and quarries. At low tide you can still make out the ruins of an old pier running out to sea at the western end of the beach. Continue reading “Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place”

Sutton House: home of Ralph Sadler, late of ‘Wolf Hall’

Sutton House

If you have read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall you’ll remember Ralph Sadler, the young lad taken into the household of Thomas Cromwell. Under Cromwell’s patronage, Sadler entered royal service in 1518, at the tender age of 11. Cromwell’s skills and efficiency in governmental matters – and especially in facilitating Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon – meant that he, Cromwell, rose fast in the king’s administration, and Ralph Sadler rose with him, eventually to become Principal Secretary of State to Henry VIII.

The house that Ralph Sadler built as a rich and successful courtier still stands: a Tudor mansion tucked away in a busy corner of Hackney, a place described at the time as having ‘green fields and clean air’. After passing through many hands and serving many purposes in the past four and a half centuries, it’s owned and maintained now by the National Trust. We went to see it on a day of incessant rain last week.

Now the oldest domestic building in East London, the house was erected in 1535 and was originally known as Bryk Place because, unusually for those times, it was built entirely of brick, rather than the more common construction from timber beams interlaced with wattle and daub.  While writing Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel went to see Ralph Sadler’s house, and down in the cellar she came across original Tudor bricks, one of which she noticed bore the imprint of a dog’s paw. When the bricks were made and then laid out to dry, some unknown mutt had run across them. The sight moved her.  As someone wrote: ‘Most of us would simply see a paw print; Mantel heard the dog, smelt it, felt its coat under her fingers, and watched as it loped away down a muddy country lane in Hackney’.

I didn’t see any paw prints down in the cellar, and we both agreed that you had to work hard to feel a sense of the Tudor past, since the house has been pulled apart and shoved around many times since.  It would be easier if you possessed Mantel’s imaginative powers.

Ralph Sadler
Portrait of a Man, by Hans Holbein, painted in 1535 and considered a possible portrait of Sir Ralph Sadler

In the early 16th century Hackney  was a prosperous village, less than  three miles across open fields from  Bishopsgate in the City. The centre  of the village lay around Church Street (now Mare Street, where we left the 82 bus) with the medieval church of  St Augustine at its heart. There were  also a number of hamlets nearby,  like Humberton (Homerton) and Clapton. Between these various settlements were meadows and pastures, dotted with farms and market gardens that supplied London. Hackney was free of plague and close to the City and the court, so it was popular with noblemen and rich merchants for their principal homes,  or country retreats.

Impression of Tudor Hackney
An impression of Tudor Hackney

The house only acquired its current name in 1953, in the belief that it had been the house that Sir Thomas Sutton, the philanthropist and founder of Charterhouse School. This was in fact the house next door, which was demolished in 1805 to allow for the extension of Sutton Place, a Grade II listed terrace of Georgian houses that you walk down after crossing the churchyard gardens.  The house has had many other names in its time, reflecting the fact that, down the years, it has been home to wool and silk merchants, Huguenots, schoolmasters, trade unionists and squatters.

Sutton House 6
Artist’s impression of Bryk Place in Tudor times
As Cromwell’s secretary Ralph was able and hardworking; a contemporary called him a ‘diligent and a trusty servant’ and by his own admission he was a workaholic accustomed to rising at four in the morning, impatient to start the day. By 1532 Henry VIII had noticed Ralph’s energy and talent and he was taken into the King’s service. Cromwell was by then the King’s chief minister.
Soon Ralph himself is directly in Henry’s service and undertakes delicate diplomatic negotiations in France and Scotland and duties in connection with the dissolution of the monasteries. Increasingly prosperous, Sadler had Bryk Place built for his bride, Ellen Barre. She was a servant and, she thought, a widow, but in a curious story that echoes old ballads, her first husband came back from the dead eleven years later, much to the couple’s dismay.  Unbeknown to everyone, Matthew Barre had been alive somewhere abroad.  Ralph and Ellen now had seven children, and Ralph was a wealthy and influential man at court whose reputation was at stake.  Sadler was obliged to have his children legitimized by a private Act of Parliament which set aside Ellen’s marriage to Matthew Barre and made her marriage to Ralph Sadler a true and proper union. Sadler managed to prevent the publication of the Act and its details never appeared with the statutes of the period.
In 1540, Sadler was knighted and appointed Principal Secretary of State, but later that year when his friend and mentor Thomas Cromwell fell, armed men arrived at Bryk Place to march Sadler to the Tower, where he spent several days accused of treason  before being released. Sadler took a great risk in pleading for Cromwell’s life by writing a letter to Henry,  the last three words of which read, ‘mercy,mercy,mercy’. Henry was apparently ‘much moved’ by the letter and asked Sadler to read it three times.However, Sadler’s intervention ultimately failed: within a month Cromwell had been executed by an inexperienced executioner using a blunt axe.
Ralph Sadler was still working at the age of 79 as a member of the council that sentenced Mary Queen of Scots to death. He outlived everyone of his generation, and died the richest commoner in England.
Sutton House 1
Sutton House: the Linenfold Parlour

The first room you enter in Sadler’s former home is the Linenfold Parlour.  In Tudor times this room would probably have been used by Sadler for conducting his business. Given that he was a senior courtier, many secret  conversations and delicate negotiations might have taken  place here.  The room is so named because the wall panels  were carved to look like draped cloth. Wood panelling  was popular in Tudor times, but it was a luxury item and expensive to make. When people moved house they took their panelling with them, along with the glass from their windows and wall hangings. When first installed the panelling would have been painted in bright colours.

Sutton House, London
Sutton House: the Little Chamber with little dog (National Trust image)

The next room is The Little Chamber, probably used by the lady ofthe house as a bedroom and also to entertain friends and educate her children.  Ralph and Ellen had nine children, seven of whom – four girls and three boys – survived infancy.  Ellen also had two girls from her former marriage. The original entrance to the Little Chamber was by a steep, narrow stairway leading up from the Linenfold Parlour below.  In the early 17th century the owner of the house, Captain Milward, a wealthy silk merchant, blocked it up and cut a door through to his new painted staircase. The oak panelling on three of the walls dates from the late 16th century and might have originally been painted red.  It was Captain Milward, keen to show off his wealth, who commissioned the fluted panelling above and either  side of the fireplace.  He furnished the house with silk  carpets brought from the Far East. Later, a collapse in silk prices in 1639, due to the increase in cotton production in America, resulted in the failure of  his business and he had to sell Sutton House.

Sutton House 3
Sutton House: the Little Chamber’s oak panelling

The Great Chamber is an imposing room. In Tudor times banquets were held here, important guests would be invited upstairs to the Great Chamber, where they would be served with sweetmeats and other delicacies made from expensive, imported sugar.  The oak panelling on the walls dates from around 161o.  This was a costly feature and only used in the most  important rooms. At the end of the room are paintings that date from the Stuart period. There’s s a single portrait of Sir Ralph Sadler of Standon, grandson of Ralph Sadler (glimpsed in the second photo below).  On the opposite wall are two portraits – of Sir Edwin Sadler, another of Ralph’s descendants, and his wife, both painted in 1687.

Sutton House 5
Sutton House: Great Chamber

The Great Chamber served as an assembly room during the several periods when Sutton House was used as a school.  The longest period when there was a school here was from 1657 to 1741, when the house accommodated Mrs Freeman’s girls’ school.  More recently, when the house was owned by the St John’s Church Institute in the early 1900s, this was a billiard room.

Sutton House 2
Sutton House: Great Chamber and portrait of Sir Ralph Sadler of Standon.

Another room on the first floor, which may have served as Ralph Sadler’s bedroom, is now presented as a Victorian study.  There’s a reminder of its time as a bedroom in the garderobe (lavatory) which is just off to one side.  In the 16th century it was thought that if you hung your clothes over the toilet, you would rid them of moths and other annoyances – hence garderobe.

Sutton House 11
Sutton House: the courtyard with 16th century leaded windows

Back on the ground floor, there’s the original Tudor kitchen.  Later, the kitchen was moved elsewhere and this room served a variety of other functions.

Sutton House 7
Sutton House: the Tudor kitchen

Down in the cellar you can see the the foundations of the house, with its original Tudor brickwork.  Surprisingly, it was converted to a chapel in 1914 – from 1891 to 1939, Sutton House was home to the St John at Hackney Church Institute which aimed ‘to promote the spiritual, mental, social and physical welfare of young men’.  The National Trust now present the room set out as if it were a chapel.

Sutton House 9
Sutton House: the chapel

By the time I first visited it early in 1987, this surviving fragment of the ancient hamlet of Hackney seemed to be at the end of its days. The makeshift sheds of a troublesome looking car mechanic were built right up against its west wall; the Georgian front was boarded up, and a passing vandal with a spray can had added humiliation to the injury of the peeling notice announcing that the building had come to the National Trust through the benevolence of one  WA Robertson, who had made his gift in the memory of two brothers killed in the Great War. Recent repairs to upstairs windows and brickwork only added to the sense of dereliction; although carried out by the National Trust, they made Hackney DIY look positively refined. Inside, the story was far worse. The enclosed courtyard was full of junk. Damp and rot were creeping through the structure. Ancient fireplaces had been stolen or shattered and left lying around in pieces. The linenfold panelling had also disappeared. Thieves had ripped it out of the empty building a year or so earlier and sold it for £l per foot to the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company in Shoreditch, the proprietors of which recognised its exceptional rarity and saw that it was returned to the National Trust.

That was how Patrick Wright, journalist, author and sometime resident of Hackney, described Sutton House in his book, A Journey through Ruins in 1991.  How had it got to that state? The house had been bought by the National Trust in 1938, leased first to St John’s Church Institute, and then from the 1960s it was rented by the ASTMS union, in the period when its general secretary was Clive Jenkins. When the union left in the early 1980s, the house fell into disrepair and for a time was home to  squatters, who called it the Blue House.  Eventually, in 1990, the National Trust started the restoration that has resulted in the building as it is today.

Hackney churchyard 2
St John at Hackney Churchyard

Leaving Sutton House, we walked back to the bus stop – the rain still pouring down – through St John at Hackney Churchyard Gardens, the site of Hackney’s old church of St Augustine’s that dates back to at least 1275.  It’s been a burial ground for over 500 years and the medieval tower of the old church still stands there.

Like Sutton House, by the 1990s the Churchyard was in a near-derelict condition, being used as a dumping ground for rubbish and even unwanted cars. Now, a programme of restoration and enhancement of the site celebrates the Churchyard’s past and has provided a public space that is quiet and pleasant to walk in. Among the many tombs and memorials to people buried here, I found this one for Fred Peters, who died in the 1930s.  Known locally as ‘Blind Fred’ he is memorialised in a small plaque in the churchyard where he sold matches for many years.  His memorial records him as a ‘Sunny Soul’ and includes a Braille inscription from the Bible: ‘And this I know, where once I was blind, now I see.’

Hackney churchyard 1
The memorial to ‘Blind Fred’ in Hackney churchyard

See also

E. Chambre Hardman: Landscapes at Open Eye

E. Chambre Hardman: Landscapes at Open Eye

The Copse

I’ve been along to the Open Eye gallery to see the small exhibition of landscapes by E Chambre Hardman that’s currently showing there. Open Eye is the appropriate place for a display of Chambre Hardman’s work – after all,without the intervention of Peter Hagerty, Open Eye’s Director at the time, Hardman’s entire photographic output would have been lost.

In 1979, Peter Hagerty got a call from a social worker concerning the plight of the retired photographer, now in his eighties, increasingly frail and living alone in his large Rodney Street studio and home, had suffered a fall. In his introduction to E Chambré Hardman: Liverpool Through the Lens, Hagerty writes:

What a revelation awaited me, his home and studio were filled with early twentieth century photography, an entire collection of photographic prints, negatives, cameras, lights, darkroom equipment, letters and studio records.  Although much neglected, a number of ceilings had collapsed in the intervening years, every room was crammed with photographs and ephemera and complemented by the more domestic scenes in the two rooms and small kitchen where Hardman and Margaret had lived.

It was clear to Hagerty that Hardman’s work must be protected, and since Chambré had no living relatives to assist, friends and supporters came together to form the E.Chambré Hardman Trust. During the following years the trustees worked to secure funding and support from English Heritage and Liverpool City Council which allowed essential repairs and a conservation programme to begin, but it was not until 2003 when the National Trust took over the administration of the house and opened it to the public that Hardman’s legacy was secure.

More than twelve thousand of Hardman’s photographs have been catalogued as a result of the Trust’s work, and in the last 30 years the scale of his artistic achievement has gradually emerged.  It was at Open Eye that the first retrospective exhibition of Hardman’s work was shown in 1980, followed by a major exhibition E. Chambré Hardman Photographs 1921-72 organised by the Walker Art Gallery in 1994.

Chambré Hardman, who was born in 1898 and died in 1988, is still perhaps best known for his photograph The Birth of the Ark Royal (1950). For half a century from 1923 he and his wife Margaret ran a highly successful commercial portrait studio, first on Liverpool’s Bold Street and, from 1949, on Rodney Street in the premises now owned by the National Trust. While the  studio specialised in portraits, increasingly Hardman turned to photographing Liverpool’s great buildings, as well as scenes of shipping and the Mersey docks.

From the early 1930s Hardman began to develop his passion for picturing the varied British landscape, and some of these images are now displayed at Open Eye.  Taken together, these photos might be taken as an evocation of a lost era of hay ricks, country lanes and open countryside.

The Rick
The Rick, 1936

But Hardman wasn’t exclusively drawn to pastoral subjects: the first image that greets you in this exhibition is ‘Power Station Lister Drive’, taken in 1929.  In its own way, this is as much an image of a lost world as ‘The Rick’: an era of coal and of giant power stations in the heart of urban residential communities.

Power Sation Lister Drive, 1929
Power Station Lister Drive, 1929

‘The Quarry, Wales’ from 1937, also depicts an industrial landscape, but at the same time is a study in light and shade and patterns.  The tracks of wagon ways splay out towards the viewer like crow’s feet.

The Quarry
The Quarry, Wales, 1937

‘Suilven, Sutherland’ (1935) is a complete contrast, an image of a bleak and empty landscape taken in Suilven, south of Lochinver and Loch Assynt.  Another study in light and dark, it contrasts the shaft of light falling on a remote mountain tarn with the dark of the mountains brooding beyond.  Like several photos in the exhibition, it is also a study of the cloud formation which fills the sky and half the frame.

Upper Glen Affric
Suilven, Sutherland, 1935

Another rural image, taken much later in his career, is ‘Hill Farming Country’, from 1965.  The photograph was taken in Wales, and looks as if it could have been captured in the 1920s or 30s, with its scene of fields full of corn stooks. What I really like about this image is the way that Hardman has captured the evening light, with the trees that border the fields casting long shadows across fields etched into the landscape by the hedges that border them.

Hill Farming Country
Hill Farming Country, 1965
The Hardmans made their living primarily from portrait photography.  But, while landscapes were less financially rewarding than portraits, landscape photography dominated competitive exhibitions and professional galleries. From the 1920s onwards Hardman was a frequent exhibitor at annual exhibitions, including the Royal Photographic Society, and in 1927 won first prize in the American Annual of Photography Exhibition for his picture of the quiet French fishing village Martigues. This was one of the many photographs Hardman made in France during 1926 that included the popular ‘A Memory of Avignon’ which depicted in soft focus the sleepy ambience of a street cafe where his friends are relaxing after lunch.
The Copse
The Copse, 1935

My favourite photograph in this exhibition is ‘The Copse’ (1934) which shows a small copse on a hill surrounded by sweeping fields.  I thought it might be somewhere like Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, painted repeatedly by Paul Nash.  Surprisingly, however, this is a scene from Galloway, in Scotland. The image is another cloud study: the towering clouds dominate the upper two thirds of the composition.

Paul Nash, Wittenham Clumps
Paul Nash: Wittenham Clumps, 1913
During the 1930s,  Chambre and Margaret would take time off running their busy portrait studio and spend weekends and holidays exploring the British countryside. Using trains and bicycle they appear to have travelled the length and breadth of Britain in their search for new landscape photographs. The black and white photographs from this decade have a sharper focus, stronger contrast that emphasises the drama of mountain landscapes such as ‘Suilven, Sutherland’ (above) or the elegant description of trees and clouds in ‘The Copse’.
An Old Lancashire Lane
An Old Lancashire Lane, 1965
Close to home – and taken much later, in 1965, is ‘An Old Lancashire Lane’, taken in Parbold, near Ormskirk. The focus of the composition is the bend in the country lane bordered by stone walls, which draws the eye towards the farm building beyond.  The composition is reinforced by the strong parallel lines of the ploughed field on the right, edged by the curving line of tractor tracks.
Other photos in this excellent exhibition are: ‘Late Afternoon in Borrowdale’ (1936), ‘A Dusting of Snow, Kerry Hill’ (1955), Near Northrop, August’ (1950), and ‘The Roman Wall’ (1937).  The exhibition will move to the Hardman House on Rodney Street after the Open Eye run ends next month.

See also

On Bickerton Hill: the blue of distance

On Bickerton Hill: the blue of distance

We had joined the Sandstone Trail walking up from the village of Bickerton to the escarpment where we paused to take in the view out across the Cheshire plain, the last of the autumnal colours still lingering.  We had got lost briefly in the winding Cheshire lanes, burrowing deep between hedgerows and fields, and I stood and thought about getting lost – really lost – the subject of Rebecca Solnit’s little book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I have just started reading.

Solnit is the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which I wrote a bit about last month.  Lost is small enough to fit in your back pocket, so you could take solace from it, I suppose, if you did get lost – locationally lost, that is: her book is a meditation on getting lost in all senses of the word.  ‘Leave the door open for the unknown’, she writes, ‘the door into the dark.  That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go’.

As I gazed out along the sandstone ridge, stretching away to a a distant, hazy blue horizon, I thought, too, of the beautiful words with which Solnit opens the first of four essays that punctuate the book, each entitled ‘The Blue of Distance’:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colourless, shallow water appears to be the colour of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the colour blue.

Walk the Sandstone Trail and you walk on a ridge of rock formed around 250 million years ago when layer upon layer of Triassic wind-blown sand and river-flood pebble beds were laid down in desert conditions. Climb the escarpment from Bickerton and you reach on of the highest and most dramatic points of the trail, chosen by Iron Age villagers as a suitable site for their fortified encampment.

Maiden Castle is one of a series of six forts on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge, hilltop sites probably first enclosed in the Neolithic, around 6,000 years ago, to mark them out as special places.  By the late Bronze and early Iron Age these hilltop enclosures had become increasingly defensive, possibly to protect and regulate important goods such as salt, grain and livestock.

Maiden Castle may have been occupied during the Roman period.  To the west, looking out toward the Welsh mountains, the fort is defended by the natural cliff edge, while two semi-circular ramparts enclose the southern and eastern sides. These once stood two metres high and were made of dry stone walling with a core of  earth and timber. The fort had an inturned entrance that strengthened the weakest point of the defences.  Excavations at similar sites have shown that these forts were once bustling settlements with timber roundhouses, storage buildings, rubbish pits, trackways and enclosures for animals.

Bickerton Hill is one of few remaining areas of heathland in Cheshire, a seemingly timeless landscape where views from the hillfort across the heather and bilberry patches towards the distant hills have changed little through the millenia. Yet this is not actually so:  the heath has seen a variety of land uses over the last century which allowed birch, pine and oak to grow and shade out the bilberry and heather that had flourished for centuries as a result of grazing which ended in the 1930s.

For a decade now, though, under the care of the National Trust, work has been ongoing to remove the encroaching trees and restore areas of the hill to heathland. Grazing has been reintroduced to recreate and maintain a mosaic of heath and woodland. These steps are being taken to halt the spread of birch trees (still the predominant feature along the trail) for, lovely as they as they are, they threaten the future of the rare heathland habitat on the hill.

Bickerton Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and provides a home for many rare or threatened animals and plants, including lizards, adders and birds of prey. The heath is considered to be the best of its kind in the county.  Working with the Habitats and Hillforts Landscape Partnership Project, the  National Trust have introduced a herd of rare Welsh mountain ponies  onto Bickerton Hill to help restore the lowland heath habitat that across the British Isles is disappearing faster than the rainforests.  Nearly half of this type of habitat has vanished in the last 50 years. When grazing ended in the 1930s, pine, oak and particularly birch saplings were able to flourish, and the Trust wages a constant battle to keep the saplings at bay – which is where the Welsh ponies that we encountered in several places, munching on the vegetation – come in.

We had left Liverpool in sunshine, but soon after reaching the ridge the cloud cover began to thicken, threatening the rain that was forecast.  But the day remained dry, though increasingly murky.  Indeed, underfoot this was the dryest walk we’ve done for quite some time.  We walked the ridge as far as Larkton Hill and Hether Wood, returning on one of the many alternative paths to the Sandstone Trail.  On the lower slopes the silver birches predominated, but with occasional stands of larches, their delicately drooping needles turned autumnal gold.

At the highest point of the hill a huge block of sandstone has been turned into a memorial dedicated to the wife of the benefactor who helped the National Trust acquire the hilltop heathland.  Known locally as the Kitty Stone, the memorial displays poems written by Leslie Wheeldon in memory of his wife Kitty.

As we came down off the ridge smoke from a bonfire curled up from the valley.  A few trees still bore their autumnal colour, though most by now were stripped bare.  A holly bush was dense with red berries – sign of a hard winter to come?

I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.… if one keeps on walking everything will be all right.
– Soren Kierkegaard

The dog thought so, too.

Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.
– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Back at the car, it was time to restore the body with lunch at the nearby Cheshire Workshops cafe: a bowl of home-made leek and potato soup did the trick.

Childwall Fields: safe from the developers?

There’s a place I like to go sometimes with the dog, an open space of wildness and natural beauty that comes unexpected in the suburbs of a large city.  Childwall Woods and Fields is a Local Nature Reserve, and I was out there the other day enjoying the current spell of warm, fine weather.  In high summer there are expanses of swaying grasses, shading from golden to purple, dense clumps of blackberries and the brilliant red splashes of mountain ash berries.  I like this place because it is not kempt – although some agency keeps the main paths mown, there are dense, impenetrable swathes of nettles and brambles, visited only by butterflies and bands of gossiping finches swooping to grab seeds.

But yesterday, on the Today programme, I heard Dame Fiona Reynolds, the National Trust director general, talking about the government’s proposals to simplify and relax the planning application procedures in order to encourage economic development.  Alarm bells rang – is this lovely open space safe from profiteers?

Fiona Reynolds said, ‘What people think of when they think of places they love is very often the bit of green space, the local countryside, which often is not designated, but which has been protected by the planning system’. She gave as examples of designated areas green belt, areas of outstanding national beauty, and so on.  She didn’t mention Local Nature Reserves.

The National Trust is warning that the government proposals to change planning laws in England will favour business too much, and could lead to unchecked and damaging development. The new rules will let the public and conservation down by undermining the planning system’s ability to protect nature outside internationally-recognised wildlife sites.

Most controversial is the presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ – a major change in emphasis from the current system which sees planning officers weighing up a range of concerns before making a decision.  Instead, the default assumption will be that development proposals will be approved.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, commented:

The planning system is what protects the England we all hold dear – our iconic landscapes and our wildlife-rich habitats. It is there to represent the interests of the public in the face of complex decisions, and it will fail us all if one factor – economic growth – is set higher than any other.

So, is a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) like Childwall Woods and Fields (shown on map, above) designated? I don’t know.  All I can discover is that a LNR is a statutory designation made under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and amended by Schedule 11 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, by principal local authorities.

According to the Natural England website, there are now more than 1400 LNRs in England. They range from windswept coastal headlands, ancient woodlands and flower-rich meadows to former inner city railways, abandoned landfill sites and industrial areas now re-colonised by wildlife. In total they cover about 35,000 ha. This is an impressive natural resource which makes an important contribution to England’s biodiversity.

Natural England state:

Because Local Nature Reserve is a statutory designation, it is a very clear signal to a local community of the local authority’s commitment to nature conservation. An LNR can be given protection against damaging operations. It also has protection against development on and around it. This protection is usually given via the Local Plan, (produced by the planning authority), and often supplemented by local by-laws. Unlike national designations, the level and type of protection afforded an LNR is decided locally, and varies from site to site.

The history of this place is interesting.  The area we know as the Fields today has virtually the same boundaries as it did a century and a half ago, as can be seen from the first Ordnance Survey map of 184 (below).  But during that time the land use has changed. Originally the land sloped gently from what is now the Woods down to Childwall Lane.  The area was open, with only a sparse covering of trees and the only one building (on the land opposite the Childwall Cross on Childwall Lane).

Through the 1960s and early 1970s, the area was used as a landfill site and the land was re-shaped into three ascending levels, then left to re-green as grasses, bushes and trees gradually established themselves.

Now the area of the Fields and the adjoining Woods has been named a Local Nature Reserve,with sixteen species of trees in the Woods, and further planting of native deciduous trees in the Fields as part of the Mersey Forest project.  The site is valued because of its wide range of urban wildlife, now supporting a wide range of species, including at least 60 kinds of birds, including Kestrels and Sparrowhawks that regularly nest in the woods along with Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.  Sixteen species of butterfly have been recorded on the Fields, including Small Blue, Small Copper and Red Admiral. The grasslands are home to Bluebells and Common Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchids in early June.  Bats, grey squirrels, voles and foxes are also regularly seen in the area.

The view from the Fields on a clear day is superb, looking across the Lancashire and Cheshire plain towards the West Pennines and Pendle Hill to the north east. In the foreground the Widnes Runcorn Bridge crosses the River Mersey  at the narrowest point in the inner estuary.

There’s a place that I seek when I need somewhere to hide 
It’s a place that I go when I need some peace of mind …

When the city’s back is turned it looks a lot like this 
When a mind begins to burn it needs a place like this

– Emily Barker, ‘The Greenway’, from Despite The Snow by Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo

We need places like this.  They should be protected from the developers and profiteers.

Update: excellent article by Simon Jenkins – This localism bill will sacrifice our countryside to market forces – in The Guardian 28 July.


Bodnant: the glory of the garden

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.
– Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Glory of the Garden’

I often wonder, when exploring extensive gardens stretching across acres and created at the whim of some wealthy landowner in a previous century, what it must be like to exert such control and impress your will over such expanses of nature.  Kipling’s poem reminds us of the many unsung ‘men and ‘prentice boys’, largely hidden from history, who laboured to bring a rich man’s vision to life.

The garden at Bodnant, which four of us explored today on a jaunt to Anglesey, is truly one of the most beautiful gardens in the UK.  The garden faces across the Conwy valley towards the Snowdonia range.  The view from the terraces (above), looking across to the Snowdonia mountains is, as F remarked, one of the best examples of the imposition of a piece of man-made beauty on existing natural beauty.  It’s as if  the mountains are part of the garden.

The rich man who acquired this land and organised the creation of this garden was not an aristocrat but a successful industrial chemist and inventor. Henry Davis Pochin was the son of a yeoman farmer of Leicestershire who served an apprenticeship to James Woolley, a manufacturing chemist in Manchester, and in course of time became his partner. Pochin’s most important invention was a process for the clarification of rosin, a brown substance used to make soap, so that after distillation it came out white, thus enabling  a great step forward in human progress – the production of white soap. Another invention involved the use of china clay to reduce costs in the manufacture of paper.  He bought several china clay mines in Cornwall for this purpose

On his retirement in the 1870s, Pochin was able to pursue his passion for gardening – firstly on the Great Orme at Llandudno where he created an extensive and steeply terraced garden that since 1929 has been under the care of the local authority and freely open to the public – then at Bodnant, an estate comprising 80 acres and 25 farms, from 1874 onwards until his death in 1895.

Bodnant House (above) had been built in 1792 but was remodelled by Pochin and on his death it was inherited by his daughter (whose husband became the first Baron Aberconway in 1911). The garden, but not the House or other parts of the estate, was presented to the National Trust, with an endowment, in 1949.

The garden has two parts: the upper garden around Bodnant House consists of the terraced gardens and informal lawns shaded by trees. The lower section, known as the Dell (below) is formed by the valley of the River Hiraethlyn and forms a tranquil wild garden with giant conifers, the shade loving herbaceous plants and blue flowering hydrangeas growing along the river bank.

The upper garden below the house features huge Italianate terraces, specimen trees and formal lawns, with paths descending to the Dell. In the summer months the terrace gardens are colourful with herbaceous borders, roses, water lilies, clematis and many unusual wall shrubs and climbers.

The Pin Mill (below) is an elegant building originally constructed as a garden house around 1730 in Gloucestershire, and later used as a rural factory making dress-making pins. In 1938 it was in a decayed state when Lord Aberconwy bought it and had it moved from Gloucestershire to Bodnant.

Bodnant Garden is renowned for growing a wide range of interesting and beautiful plants from all over the world, particularly China, North America, Europe and Japan, that are suited to the Welsh climate and soil. One of the highlights is the Laburnum Arch, a curved walk covered with laburnum which produces a magnificent cascade of long yellow flowers in late May and early June.  We’ll have to back to see this wonder, revealed in the stock photo below.

Here’s that Kipling poem in full, reminding us of the hard work that goes into creating any garden:

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You will find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all ;
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dungpits and the tanks:
The rollers, carts and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise;
For, except when seeds are  planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:–“Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick.
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hand and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!

Morwenstow’s eccentric vicar

Before we left Cornwall we visited the Norman church at Morwenstow, situated on a wild and remote stretch of the north Cornwall coast, on the track of one of the lovable eccentrics that the English seem to treasure.

Simon Jenkins captures the atmosphere of this place in his England’s Thousand Best Churches guide:

…a no-man’s land of cliffs, windswept fields and isolated farms.  To the west lies only America.

Even today, as Jenkins writes, the place is infused with the spirit of one man, Robert Hawker, who wrote of his parish,

So stern and pitiless is this iron-bound coast that within the memory of one man upwards of 80 wrecks have been counted within a reach of 15 miles, with only here and there the rescue of a living man.

From 1834 to 1875 the vicar at Morwenstow was the eccentric, outstanding Oxford scholar and poet, Robert Hawker.  Hawker’s parishioners must have seemed to him as wild as the coastline: smugglers, wreckers and Dissenters.  He, by contrast, was very High Church, converting to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. But the locals recognised in him a deep compassion: he insisted on giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish. Prior to this, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors were often either buried on the beach where they were found or left to the sea. In the church is the figurehead of the ship ‘The Caledonia’ which foundered in September 1842. The figurehead once marked the grave of nine of the ten-man crew (a replica stands there now). The single survivor, a French-speaking Guernsey sailor, wept at the burial service for his comrades and Hawker later wrote that the cry of the stranger was ‘the touch that makes the whole world kin’.

Nearby stands a granite cross marked ‘Unknown Yet Well Known’, marking the mass grave of 30 or more seafarers who Hawker insisted should be buried in the churchyard.  The epitaph on the tomb (above) is inscribed with the quotation, ‘They came in paths of storm, they found this quiet home in Christian ground’.

Much of the original Norman church survives – there are Norman beasts in the doorway (above) and the font is the oldest known Norman font (below), with a cable decoration around the waist.  Simon Jenkins describes the hollowed bowl as being like ‘an open hard-boiled egg’.  The church is dedicated to Saint  Morwenna, an early 6th century Cornish saint who had a cell at Morwenstow.  She was the sister of Saint Juliot, who had a cell and founded the church near Boscastle that we visited yesterday.  Hawker wrote:

Welcome, wild rock and lonely shore!
Where round my days dark seas shall roar,
And thy gray fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land.

A path leads from the church down to the cliff edge where the National Trust’s smallest building, ‘Hawker’s Hut’ is built into the face of the cliff. Here, Hawker spent many hours in contemplation, looking out to sea towards the island of Lundy, writing poetry, and smoking his opium pipe. He entertained guests here, including Alfred Tennyson and Charles Kingsley (whether they joined him in a drag on the opium pipe is unknown).

Other eccentricities included dressing up as a mermaid and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. He dressed in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman’s jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a huge pig as a pet. He married twice, the first time a woman twice his age; then, after her death, a Polish woman a third his age.

The view from Hawker’s Hut

Inside Hawker’s Hut

Hawker’s Hut

Hawker built himself a remarkable Rectory (above) next to the church, with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life.

Hawker is also renowned as the author of  ‘The Song of the Western Men’, also known as ‘Trelawny’. He wrote the song in 1824, telling of events that took place in 1688, when James II, used the royal prerogative to suspend the operation of legislation directed against those who did not worship in accordance with the rites of the Church of England by issuing a Declaration of Indulgence towards Catholics and ordering it to be read in every church.  The song was inspired by the story of Jonathan Trelawny, one of  seven bishops who refused to read out the Indulgence and who  were  imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Hawker played around with the historical truth: the march on London described in the song only reached Bristol, before Trelawny was acquitted by a jury in London and released.

A good sword and a trusty hand!
A faithful heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here’s men as good as you.
‘Trelawny he’s in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why

By the end of Hawker’s time as vicar the church was in a ruinous state of disrepair.  The wooden roof was rotten and let in streams of water.  The pillars were green with lichen and the side of the tower bulged.  Storms had torn out the glass in the windows.  Before his death, Hawker had tried, unsuccessfully, to raise enough money for repairs.

Later, back in the churchyard, I pondered the nature of this man, Oxford-educated and culturally far-removed from his parishioners, who came to this wild and isolated place and dedicated himself to the lives of the villagers and the souls of shipwrecked sailors.

There are only two buildings in the vicinity of the church – the Rectory and the 13th century Rectory Farm, which is now a tearoom where everything is homemade.  We sat in the garden enjoying the unexpected warm sunshine while a wedding party assembled at the church across the road.

Hidcote Manor garden

On our way back from Stratford yesterday we called in at Hidcote Manor Garden, regarded as one of England’s great gardens. It was the lifelong passion of  self-taught gardener Lawrence Johnston who created his ‘garden of rooms’ in the Arts and Crafts style.  being so close to Stratford (though over the border in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds) we were able to get there for opening time and experienced a usually busy garden in peace and tranquillity.

Lawrence Johnston was an American who came to England to study at Cambridge University.  His mother had bought Hidcote in 1907 and Johnston spent 41 years creating what would become one of England’s most influential 20th-century gardens. He became interested in making a garden out of the fields surrounding the house.

It’s a beautiful garden to wander in, with new vistas opening up constantly as you move from one outdoor ‘room’ to another through archways in high yew hedges and along winding paths.  The small chapel building in the courtyard at the entrance (above) was never consecrated: the wisteria must be spectacular in the spring.

The Old Garden was probably the first of Johnston’s plantings and is dominated by the cedar of Lebanon (above).

Johnston designed Hidcote as a series of outdoor ‘rooms’, which combine masses of colour with traditional garden crafts such as topiary. Each room has its own distinct atmosphere and character.  The hedges that divide the rooms were designed to compensate for the plot’s exposed aspect. Johnston planted hedges of holly, beech, hornbeam and yew for shelter and structure.

Another key feature of Johnston’s scheme is the Red Borders (below) which incorporates all kinds of red and orange flowers, as well as purple foliage for contrast.

The Beech Walk (below) was planted by Johnston to protect the garden from the damaging north-westerly winds.  It is now a fully-mature cathedral nave of beech trees.

There’s an orchard, as well as an extensive kitchen garden (with a huge pumpkin patch).

Two pigs are employed in the kitchen garden, preparing ground by turning over the soil, digging out roots and grubs.This one is as happy as the proverbial…

The gardens are so extensive that can be difficult working out whether you’ve seen everything.   There’s a garden of Japanese maples, an alpine terrace, a garden with a circular bathing pool, and a series of gardens that follow the winding course of a stream.  There’s a ‘wild garden’ called The Wilderness and The Long Walk – an extended grassy walk bordered by hedges, with twin gazebos at one end and superb views across the surrounding Cotswold countryside at the other.  And if you have a snack at the outdoor cafe tables, you’ll find the sparrows are very attentive!

In 1948, Johnston gave his garden to the National Trust. For the next few decades, the National Trust struggled to maintain the original Arts and Crafts style of the garden on limited funds. Several of the garden rooms became somewhat overgrown, and some of Johnston’s original plant specimens had to be replaced. Recently, following a major donation, the Trust has been able to begin to return the gardens to their original state, and Hidcote has become one of the most popular destinations on garden tours and tours of the Cotswolds.

Postscript June 2011

BBC 4 showed a documentary telling the story of Hidcote – the most influential English garden of the 20th century – and Lawrence Johnston, the enigmatic genius behind it. Hidcote was the first garden ever taken on by the National Trust, who spent 3.5 million pounds in a major programme of restoration. This included researching Johnston’s original vision, which in turn uncovered the compelling story of how Johnston created such an iconic garden.

Until recently, little was known about the secretive and self-taught Johnston. The documentary told how, in 1907, Johnston’s mother bought Hidcote Manor and Johnston began a programme of 40 years’ work on its gardens. Here, beginning tentatively before 1914, and more confidently after after being wounded in the First World War, Johnston combined a feeling for structure (creating a surprising series of discrete spaces) with a love of plants and a willingness to experiment with novel plant-combinations. An enthusiastic plant collector, he sponsored or undertook several expeditions in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America to bring back rare specimens.

In 1924 Johnston bought Serre de la Madone, near Menton, on the Mediterranean coast of France; and from then on would spend most of the year at Menton and a few summer months at Hidcote. At Serre de la Madone he turned terraces of vines and olives into a garden notable for its design and rare plantings of sub-tropical plants.

He kept few, if any, records on Hidcote’s construction, but current head gardener Glyn Jones made it a personal mission to discover as much about the man as possible to reveal how, in the early 20th century, Johnston set about creating a garden that has inspired designers all over the world.

See also

Little Moreton Hall

Little Moreton Hall

Little Moreton Hall

On the way down to Uttoxeter today, we called at Little Moreton Hall, near Congleton – a stunning fantasy of a Cheshire black-and-white timber-framed house, complete with moat, long gallery and knot garden.

Started by Sir Richard de Moreton, a local landlord and tax collector, the oldest parts of the building dates back to the 1440s. It was gradually extended over the next 130 years, culminating in the south range and magnificent Long Gallery added by John Moreton in the 1560s.

It is one of the finest examples of timber-framed domestic architecture in England, owned by the National Trust. It is a Grade I listed building and protected as a Scheduled Monument. So picturesque is the house that it has been described as “a ginger bread house lifted straight from a fairy story”.


Powis Castle

Powis Castle

Powis castle

On the way back from Brecon we stopped at Powis Castle near Welshpool and walked round the gardens.

The castle was bequeathed to The National Trust in 1952 by the 4th Earl of Powis, but dates back to the 12th century. It was built by Welsh Princes near the border with England. Sited on a hill and built of red gritstone, it dominates the landscape.

During the Civil War, the Earls of Powis supported the Royalist cause and the castle was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1644 and not returned to the Herbert family (who purchased it in 1587) until the restoration of the monarchy in 1661.

The gardens with the terraces, lead statues, yew hedges and  fine lawns are considered to be the best in Wales. The terraces were built in the seventeenth century. The valley floor has been, successively, a water garden, a landscape park by William Emes, a kitchen garden and, now, a flower garden.

Plas yn Rhiw

Plas yn Rhiw

Plas yn Rhiw

On the way from Aberdaron to Harlech we stopped to look round the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw,  a 16th century small manor house near the village of Rhiw, restored to its former glory by the three Keating sisters who bought it in 1938. The grounds, which have great views over Hell’s Mouth and Cardigan Bay, also include ornamental gardens which contain many interesting flowering trees and shrubs, with beds framed by box hedges and grass paths.

This house was continuously occupied for a thousand years and for most of that time it was in the ownership of a family that eventually took the surname Lewis. The house, which stands on the foundations of a fortified building dating back to 900AD, was originally a farmhouse, and a house of some importance, indeed it is mentioned in the court records of the 16th and 17th centuries. Over the years the house was gradually enlarged until by 1800 is assumed the structure it has today.

Sarn Rhiw by RS Thomas

So we know
she must have said something
to him–What language,
life? Oh, what language?

Thousands of years later
I inhabit a house
whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here

by the sea they said little.
But their message to the future
was: Build well. In the fire
of an evening I catch faces

staring at me. In April,
when light quickens and clouds
thin, boneless presences
flit through my room.

Will they inherit me
one day? What certainties
have I to hand on
like the punctuality

with which at the moon’s
rising, the bay breaks
into a smile as though meaning
were not the difficulty at all?

Plas yn Rhiw was bought by the Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora, and their widowed mother Constance in 1939. They set about a comprehensive programme to save the old Welsh manor house and re-create the garden, while campaigning to protect its whole environment. They bought various smallholdings in the area to restore the estate to something of its former glory, and in 1946 in memory of their parents Constance and William Keating, the sisters donated surrounding land to the National Trust, followed by the house and further land in 1952. They continued to live there, however, until the death of the last sister Lorna in 1981.

The Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Mary Honora, first came to Rhiw as children with their mother in 1904. At that time they rented a house name Pen yr Ogaf, a small cottage situated on the hillside overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay. The house was rented from the North Wales Iron Ore and Manganese Company at the cost of £8 per year. At that time there were extensive manganese workings on Mynydd Rhiw, with tramways, overhead carriers, winding engines and jetties to carry away the ore at Porth Ysgo and Port Rhiw. Their home was in The Park, Nottingham, and their father, who had been a surveyor’s architect, had been involved in the design of Jesse Boot’s first shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham. He was unfortunately killed in a traffic accident in the 1890’s when the sisters were small children. Their mother and grandparents raised the girls. One grandfather was an accountant, the other a lace manufacturer. The sisters came regularly to Rhiw for their summer breaks, buying the house Ty Uchaf. When their mother broke her hip in 1934 whilst on holiday, they decided to live in Rhiw permanently. The frame of an old wheelchair, thought to belong to Mrs Keating has been found at Ty Uchaf by its present owners and has been preserved.

In 1939 the family were able to purchase Plas yn Rhiw which then only included 58 acres of land, and by single minded endeavour, restored the house, and repurchased much of it’s original land, to a total of over 400 acres.

Rooted in history, the garden is run along organic lines, as it was by the Keatings, and although today it’s less overgrown than it had become, many of the plants survive either in their original form, or as progeny of specimens brought in by the sisters. Large overflowing flower beds are contained by box hedges deliberately cut by the sisters in asymmetric patterns. They brought in plants from the wild such as teasles; iris pseudocrus, (which has unusual blackcurrant margins on the flowers); various poppies; myrtle; the poisonous monkshood; sheep sorrel (related to the culinary sorrel but with much smaller leaves) and foxgloves. Other ‘weeds’, such as the gardener’s nightmare, ground elder, are welcome.

Star players in the garden include the specimen Magnolia campbelli. It’s said by sources who spoke to the sisters themselves, that the tree was grown from seed Honora was given when she visited the Far East.