Castles ain’t what they used to be!

When I was a kid I thought I knew all there was to know about castles. In my mind these ancient, grim monstrosities were built for heroic defence in times of war. Their imposing ramparts were, I believed, always surrounded by an unfathomably deep moat and punctuated with soaring towers in which the lord could lock up captured enemy warriors, as well as random passing princesses. A single, rickety drawbridge crossed the moat and led to a sturdy gate, above which was one of those ominous holes through which the defenders could pour hot oil and other nasties onto the heads of their adversaries. This romantic image of castles inevitably beguiled and seduced my younger self.

Arundel Castle in West Sussex.

Arundel Castle

In my innocence it never occurred to me that castles were also homes, that people lived out their daily lives in them. And of course, as the centuries passed and a fragile peace took hold across the land, castles outgrew their original purpose. No longer needed for defence, they were redesigned to become places where the wealthy and powerful could show off to their neighbours. Castles morphed into mansions meant for boasting rather than battles.

Arundel Castle in West Sussex is a case in point. Work began on the construction of the castle in 1067, just a year after the Norman conquest of England, and the towering walls and sturdy gates leave the visitor in no doubt that defence was once the main purpose of this place. But even the most well made of castles are not impregnable, as Arundel’s 800 Royalist defenders learned to their cost when besieged by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War in 1643. They surrendered after just 18 days, and in due course Parliament ordered the destruction of the fortifications to ensure that the castle could play no role in any future conflict.

Gatehouse at Arundel Castle, West Sussex.

Gatehouse, Arundel Castle

The castle’s fighting days were over, and it languished in ruins for many decades, its owners – successive Dukes of Norfolk – having other priorities at the time. The 8th Duke eventually carried out a few repairs around 1718, and about 70 years later the 11th Duke (aka “the Drunken Duke!”) undertook some further restoration. And in the early 1840s the 13th Duke internally remodelled the castle in preparation for a visit in 1846 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Wealthy Victorians were never happier than when “improving” their homes, so it’s no surprise that between 1875 and 1905 the 15th Duke embarked upon yet another grand project to modernise Arundel Castle in line with upper-class fashions of the time. It is the 15th Duke’s legacy that is most visible to visitors today, and it’s thanks to him that Arundel Castle became one of the first English country houses to be fitted with electric lights, integral fire fighting equipment, service lifts and central heating. Although the walls and gates make the castle’s defensive origins abundantly clear, many of the internal fittings are grand – opulent, even – and obviously belong to a totally different, post-medieval world.

The Duke of Norfolk is still king of his own private castle, but a charitable trust maintains the buildings, grounds and contents, guaranteeing public access for at least 100 days per annum. The Trust seeks to

“maximise the public enjoyment and education by refurbishing and improving displays and the condition of artefacts, supported by hosting special events such as jousting, civil war re-enactments and other events in keeping with its history.”

Source: Giving is Great retrieved 12 April 2023.

Arundel Castle is an interesting place to visit, but vastly at odds with the image of castles that so captivated my imagination as a child. On the one hand I guess we should be grateful that successive Dukes chose to preserve it, rather than simply bulldoze it to the ground and replace it with something extravagantly tasteless. But on the other hand no amount of jousting events or civil war re-enactments can mask the fact that – aside from the walls and gatehouses – the medieval world that gave birth to it is difficult for casual visitors to identify. I don’t think a trip here would have helped me much with that school history project on castles I wrote nearly 60 years ago!

Warwick Castle is perhaps an even more extreme example of a medieval masterpiece that has been ruthlessly repackaged for a 21st century audience. In many ways it feels more like a theme park than a historical site, a fact brought home to us when we encountered Zog the accident-prone dragon shortly after arriving for our visit last month. Zog is the creation of the wonderful children’s author Julia Donaldson, brought to life by illustrator Axel Scheffler. I have a lot of time for Julia and greatly admire her work – who doesn’t love the Gruffalo? – but I can’t feeling that Zog has his place, and Warwick Castle isn’t it.

Warwick Castle, with Julia Donaldson's Zog the Dragon in the foreground.

Zog at Warwick Castle

Like Arundel, Warwick Castle’s origins lie in the 11th century, in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest. And just like Arundel, it served as a fortification for several hundred years before being re-born as a lavish country house. In 1978 it was purchased by the Tussauds Group, which at one point managed a portfolio of over 50 tourist attractions including Madam Tussauds waxworks, Legoland theme parks, the London Eye, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures. In 2007 the Tussauds Group was itself acquired by Merlin Entertainments, which in so doing, became the world’s second largest leisure group after Disney. And that, I suppose, tells us all we need to know about Warwick Castle’s 21st century offer!

Warwick Castle. Left: The Gatehouse. Top Right: Inside the walls. Bottom Right: Reconstruction of a trebuchet on land just outside the castle walls

As we learned when we were there, Warwick Castle today is all about “visitor experiences” – the Zog Playland, the Horrible Histories® Maze, falconry and archery displays, the Castle Dungeon immersive experience, live action performances, and over 200 “special event days”.

There are glimpses of history too – the walk around the castle walls, for example, is worth the considerable effort, unless, I suppose, you suffer with vertigo. The state rooms, many of them dressed as they would have looked at a “Royal Weekend Party” in 1898, are grand but not at all medieval. And the reconstruction of a full-scale working trebuchet (to the uninitiated, that’s a monstrous catapult for hurling missiles at besieged castles) is instructive, if perhaps overly theatrical. But you have to work hard to find serious history, and to avoid being distracted by the shallow 21st century frenzy that pervades Warwick Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that places like this are a welcome attraction for many families, a fun, safe destination to take the kids for a day out. But how many of those young people return home with any real appreciation of what life was like in the medieval period? How many take an interest in understanding and learning more about history as a result of their visit? A few maybe, but not nearly enough, I suspect. To traditionally-minded history lovers like me Warwick Castle seems like a a bit of a lost opportunity, though I guess that most visitors – and shareholders of Merlin Entertainments too! – would strongly disagree.

Warwick Castle. Top Left: Medieval armour displayed in the Great Hall. Middle Left: Diorama depicting life “below stairs” in medieval times. Bottom Left: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898. Top Right: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898. Bottom Right: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898.

Warwick Castle may well be fun for all the family, but it’s not necessarily the place where aging, stuffy, academically-minded history graduates like me are likely to find much comfort. I won’t be going back there any time soon.

Castles ain’t what they used to be!

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Note for regular readers of this blog: Summer is fast approaching, and we already have exciting trips planned to Scotland, Norfolk, Surrey and Rutland. No doubt we’ll think of a few other places to visit too. All this will provide me with lots more material to write about, while at the same time eating into the time I set aside for writing! So, for the next few months, my schedule will be to blog once every two weeks, on alternate Wednesdays. Weekly posts should resume in November.

Baddesley Clinton: murderous cuckolds, hidden priests and unintended marriages

These days we seem to spend a lot of our time visiting grand historic houses. While their architecture may be splendid and the contents sublime, it is often the human stories associated with them that bring these buildings to life. Last week, for example, we spent a happy afternoon at the moated manor house of Baddesley Clinton in the county of Warwickshire, where my imagination was captured by stories of murderous cuckolds, hidden priests and unintended marriages!

Baddesley Clinton moated manor house in Warwickshire, viewed across the moat with daffodils in the foreground.

Now owned by the National Trust, Baddesley Clinton is a 15th century manor house completely surrounded by a moat

Construction of the house that we see today began in the 15th century. Surrounded by an impressive moat, it now consists of three long sides (ranges) at right angles to one another; a fourth range, which would have created a square building completely surrounding a central courtyard, was demolished in the 18th century.

Baddesley Clinton has seen its fair share of dramas over the years. In 1485, for example, its owner Nicholas Broome came home unexpectedly to find the local parish priest stroking his wife under her chin. Believing himself to have been cuckolded, the outraged Broome drew his sword and swiftly despatched the errant priest, an act for which he had to undertake expensive acts of penance before finally being pardoned by King Henry VII in 1496.

Baddesley Clinton moated manor house in Warwickshire showing bridge cross the moat.

A single, brick-built bridge crosses the moat and gives access to the house

A century later, priests once again took centre stage in Baddesley Clinton’s story. In the 1590s the house was rented out to a pair of pious Roman Catholic sisters, Anne and Eleanor Vaux. At the time, anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England, with gangs of determined priest-hunters prowling the land, intent on rooting out (and probably stringing up) men they regarded as heretics and spiritual enemies.

Anne and Eleanor were determined to do what they could to protect Catholic priests. To this end they commissioned Nicholas Owen, England’s “chief designer and builder of hiding-places” to create safe havens in their home for up to 12 endangered clerics. In 1591 Owen’s design was put to the test when a horde of priest-hunters descended upon Baddesley Clinton. Despite a search lasting many hours the priest holes remained undetected, and the five clerics in residence at the time lived to preach another day.

Central courtyard at Baddesley Clinton moated manor house in Warwickshire.

The central courtyard, and two of the three ranges that partially surround it

Fast forward to the mid-19th century, when two married couples take up residence at Baddesley Clinton. Marmion Ferrers owns the property, and in 1867 marries the artist Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen. Rebecca’s aunt, Georgiana, is already married to Marmion’s close friend Edward Deering. The four of them share a passionate interest in the arts, and revel in one another’s company. Having moved in together under one roof, they become known as the Quartet.

Modern-day cynics may raise an eyebrow at this arrangement, and question whether it amounted to a polyamorous ménage a quarte. This seems unlikely, given the moral landscape of Victorian society and the fact that the Quartet’s members were devout Catholics. However, all is not quite as is seems, as it is believed that Edward had really meant to marry Rebecca rather than her aunt Georgiana.

Left: Ornate door frame in the Great Hall. Top Right: Baddesley Clinton’s private chapel. Bottom Right: the Great Hall

The story goes that, several years before the move to Baddesley Clinton, Edward Dering, young, dashing and seriously wealthy, visited the 53 year old widow Georgiana to ask for her niece Rebecca’s hand in marriage. However, Georgiana was a bit deaf, and believing that Edward was in fact proposing to her she gleefully accepted.

Stunned by this unexpected turn of events, Edward quickly realised he had only two options: to marry the love of his life and be regarded forever as a heartless cad by Georgiana and her supporters, or to preserve his reputation by dumping Rebecca in favour of her aging auntie. This being Victorian England, Edward inevitably did the latter!

The Drawing Room at Baddesley Clinton moated manor house in Warwickshire.

The Drawing Room: some of Rebecca’s portraits of the Quartet can be seen here

Mrs P and I were talking about this story over a cup of tea earlier today. My wife isn’t entirely convinced by Georgiana’s supposed deafness. She believes that the widow understood only too well that her chances of finding herself another man by conventional means were limited. But – Mrs P contends – Georgiana also understood that if she played her cards carefully she could ensnare Edward, who she calculated was far too weak to admit that he didn’t really want to marry her at all because he had the hots for niece Rebecca.

We will never know the truth of it, of course, but it’s fun to speculate. And it’s also interesting to note that in the end Edward did indeed get the girl of his dreams. Georgiana died in 1876, followed by Marmion in 1884. The following year, Edward and Rebecca were finally married.

The Dining Room at Baddesley Clinton moated manor house in Warwickshire.

The Dining Room

Rebecca was a moderately talented artist, and wandering through the elegant rooms of Baddesley Clinton it’s possible to see many examples of her work, including several portraits of each member of the Quartet. These remind us that historic buildings are more than just architecture and furniture: they are homes too, and over the years have been witness to countless domestic dramas both great and small, including murder, mayhem and marital mishaps!

Glimpses of a lost world

When we spent a few days down south last October, one of the places we were determined to visit was the Weald and Downland Living Museum in the county of Sussex. Readers living in the UK may be familiar with the Museum as the place where the BBC’s Repair Shop series is filmed, but there are plenty more good reasons to call in besides the chance of spotting the odd TV celebrity (although, just for the record, I should point out that we were pleased to see two of the programme’s regularly featured craftspeople strolling around the site at lunchtime!)

The Weald and Downland Living Museum preserves and exhibits over 50 fine examples of historic architecture originating in the Weald area of South-East England, which covers parts of the counties of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire between the North and South Downs.

The buildings on display date from around 950AD to the early 20th century, and are spread across a site covering some 40 acres (16 hectares). The Museum lies within the scenic landscape of the South Downs National Park, which provides the perfect backdrop for the presentation of buildings that were dismantled, moved and then re-assembled on site in order to protect them from demolition.

Bayleaf farmstead, from Chiddingstone in Kent

Bayleaf farmstead, for example, is a medieval timber-framed hall-house dating mainly from the early 15th century. It was moved to the Museum between 1968 and 1972. The central hall, heated by an open fire, is flanked at one end by service rooms, and at the other by rooms for the owner and his family.

It’s interesting to note that there was no chimney, and smoke from the fire would have exited the building by seeping through the roof. It sounds eye-wateringly uncomfortable from our 21st century perspective, but at least they had a roaring fire and a solid roof to help keep them warm and dry. For the poorest people living in England, when Bayleaf farmstead was built, this would have been an unattainable luxury.

Medieval farmhouse, from Sole Street in Kent

A second farmhouse on display at the Museum is the medieval structure from the Kent village of Sole Street. Also dating from the 15th century, it was finally condemned as being unfit for habitation in 1960, but continued to be lived in until 1967. When efforts to preserve it in situ failed, it was acquired for the Museum and dismantled in 1970. It was not re-assembled until 1991.

Pendean Farmhouse, from Midhurst in Kent

Pendean farmhouse, originally from the Kent village of Midhurst was built in 1609. Times changed and building styles evolved, so this building contrasts with those mentioned earlier by having separate downstairs rooms, rather than an open hall. It also has a chimney! However it retains some medieval features, including unglazed – and therefore very draughty! – windows.

Poplar Cottage, from Washington in West Sussex

Poplar cottage dates from the mid-17th century, and has two rooms on the ground floor with two more on the floor above. It is believed to have belonged to someone too poor to own land, a labourer partially or wholly dependent upon wages.

Although clearly much smaller than the farmhouses, Poplar cottage still seems quite substantial given that it is approaching 400 years old. However, the almost total absence of windows – although understandable given the price of glass and the need to minimise unwelcome draughts – is a reflection of novelist L. P. Hartley’s famous observation that “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

A lost world, but not one I’d like to inhabit!

There are many other residential dwellings scattered throughout the Museum’s grounds, as well as some historic farm and working buildings. Photographs of a few of these are included below. Taken as a whole, the buildings on display at the Museum offer us a fascinating glimpse of a lost world, but are also a potent reminder of how far we’ve come.

It’s easy to get seduced by the romantic appeal of ancient, traditional, “authentic” structures, but would I – living in my light, spacious, cosy, centrally-heated, draught-free home with water on tap and sewage disposal only one flush away – wish to live or work in one of them? I don’t think so!

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Some of the other residential dwellings in the Museum. Left: mid-17th century house from Walderton in Sussex; Middle: Boarhunt medieval hall house (late 14th century) from Boarhunt in Hampshire; Right: c15th century house from North Cray in Kent

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A small selection of the farm / working buildings preserved at the Museum – Top left: Aisled Barn, built c 1771, from Hambrook in Sussex; Middle left: barn built about 1536, from Cowfold in Sussex; Bottom Left: Granary built in 1731, from Littlehampton in Sussex; Right: 17th century watermill from Lurgashall in Sussex

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WATCH OUT NEXT WEEK for “All the Pretty Horses at the Weald and Downland Living Museum”

Murals and metaphors

External appearances can be misleading. Uninspiring when viewed from the outside, some apparently ordinary buildings conceal hidden gems within. A prime example is the tiny church of St Martin in the Surrey village of Blackheath – who would expect to find, behind its thoroughly unchurch-like exterior, a rich and vibrant display of murals depicting scenes from the life of Christ?

St Martin’s Church dates from the 1890s, and was designed by architect Charles Townsend (1851-1928) in the Arts and Crafts style. Inspired by Byzantine and Romanesque buildings he had seen on his travels in Europe, Townsend created a low-roofed structure modelled on an Italian wayside chapel.

Instead of the traditional cruciform footprint, he opted for an oblong hall topped off with a low, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Alabaster lines the chancel walls and sanctuary arch, which are separated from the main body of the hall by a gleaming, gilded screen. In line with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, the church was built wherever possible from locally sourced materials.

The murals are, for me, the stand-out feature of the church. Of course, back in medieval times nearly all internal church walls were awash with paintings, but these were mostly destroyed or painted over during the Reformation. Since then, adorning church walls with murals has happened in a few places, but it remains unusual to find any English church painted in this fashion. For me, this is what makes St Martin’s so appealing.

The St Martin’s murals were painted in 1893-95 by artist Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930). Born in Philadelphia, Merritt moved with her family to Europe in 1865. By 1870 she was living in London, where she met the noted art critic Henry Merritt (1822–1877). They married in April 1877, but sadly Henry died just three months later.

Anna outlived her husband by over 50 years, and – remarkably for a woman of that period – spent her days, and earned a living, as a successful artist. She believed that true religious feelings are accompanied by light, hope, and cheerfulness, and her murals at St Martin’s convey the message wonderfully. St Martin’s is unlike any church I’ve ever visited, and one that I shall never forget.

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Surrey is several hours drive from where we live, so it’s unlikely we’ll be making a return visit to St Martin’s any time soon. However, there is a church much closer to home that also boasts some fascinating murals. St Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire village of Cromford was built in the last decade of the 18th century. It is historically significant as the final resting place of Sir Richard Arkwright, builder in 1771 of the world’s first water-powered cotton-mill.

Arkwright, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution, commissioned the construction of St Mary’s to serve the workers at his Cromford cotton-mill. However, the striking wall paintings were not added until 1898, as part of the church’s centenary celebrations. The artist responsible for them was Alfred Octavius Hemming (1843-1907).

From the outside St Mary’s looks more typically like a church than St Martin’s. But here too there is no hint of the splendid and highly unusual murals that lie within. And perhaps we should see this as a metaphor, or maybe a life-lesson? External appearances, these two churches remind us, are often misleading. We should endeavour to look beyond them to seek out that which initially lies hidden from view. Only by doing so do we stand a chance of discovering deeper meaning and true beauty.

Beautiful, extraordinary and utterly magical – Watts Cemetery Chapel

I must confess that I’d never heard of the Watts Cemetery Chapel before our visit there a few months ago. The little building doesn’t appear to be well known, either locally or nationally. Maybe that’s because it’s hidden away in deepest, darkest Surrey, on the outskirts of a little village, languishing on a road to nowhere. Or maybe because it was designed by a woman, and has therefore – until quite recently – been under-appreciated by the male-dominated architectural establishment?

The designer in question is Mary Watts (1849-1938). She was the wife of George Frederic Watts (G F Watts, 1817-1904), one of the most accomplished painters and sculptors of Victorian Britain. Mary was herself a hugely talented artist, and when their village decided to create a cemetery to increase the capacity of the local graveyard she saw an opportunity to push herself further than she’d ever been pushed before. She offered to build for the village a mortuary chapel, which is a consecrated space in which bodies of the dead can lie briefly before burial or cremation. Mary’s loving husband, 33 years her senior and significantly wealthy thanks to his successful career as an artist, provided financial backing for the project.

The Chapel was built between 1895 and 1904, with a floorplan that is best described as a circle intersected by a cross. Mary’s work oozes with mystical symbolism, and the floorplan is just one example. She described it as “the Circle of Eternity, with the Cross of Faith running through it.”

From the outside, the Chapel looks like a Byzantine or Orthodox Church that has been lifted intact from its place of origin and incongruously deposited two thousands miles away in the leafy Surrey hills. It is built from small bricks made from a local red clay, and the exterior is decorated with a variety of intricate terracotta panels. These boast a complex array of symbols derived from Celtic, Romanesque, Jewish and Egyptian traditions.

Magnificent though it is, the external appearance of the building gives no clue to the wonders that lie within. The walls and vaulted ceiling are totally covered with rich, vibrant decoration. The senses are assaulted by the range of colours, by the glitter of gold and silver, and by a magical, metallic lustre. Angels stand in a circle around the walls, and in the centre of each group of them rises a Tree of Life, its roots entwined below like the arms of a crazed octopus. Above each group, a Seraph (a form of high-status angel) clad in “the crimson colour of love and life” raises its hands in a sign of blessing.

Taken as a whole, externally and internally, the Watts Cemetery Chapel is truly mind-blowing, so it is no surprise that the noted writer and broadcaster on architectural matter, Lucinda Lambton, wrote this about it:

It is no exaggeration to say that the Watts Cemetery Chapel is one of the most beautiful, one of the most extraordinary, original, marvellous and magical buildings in the whole of the British Isles!’

Lucinda Lambton

Interestingly, the decoration of the Chapel was a community endeavour. Mary encouraged local people to explore their own creative potential by getting them involved in making some of the external terracotta panels and internal decorative features. The faces that decorate parts of the vaulted ceiling are cherubim and are representations of local children who helped with the project.

Work on the project was completed in 1904, the same year that Mary’s husband G F Watts died. Appropriately, the casket containing his ashes was displayed in the Chapel, before later being buried in the cemetery. The Chapel, and the adjoining cemetery, continue to be used to this day. It is good to know that this wonderful, Grade I Listed building is not simply a tourist attraction, but continues to be used for its originally intended purposes. Long may it continue.

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Postscript: To learn a little more about the Chapel please view this brief video produced by the Watts Gallery Artists Village.

Kedleston Hall – a masterpiece that lasts all year

Kedleston Hall is yet another of our local stately homes that gets dressed up for Christmas, so one morning a couple of weeks ago we decided to check out its latest festive makeover. Poor Kedleston, Derbyshire’s forgotten treasure, is forever in the shadow of the local legend that is Chatsworth House. However, in my view anyway, the place is a seriously under-appreciated masterpiece that’s worth visiting at any time of the year, not just at Christmas.

Chatsworth, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, has a national profile and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. And very fine it is too, if bling is your thing. I like Chatsworth well enough, of course, but if given the choice I’d prefer to potter around Kedleston any day.

The Marble Hall

Kedleston Hall is an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical wonder. To build it, local bigwig landowner Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) flattened an entire village of the same name, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t have to endure unwanted encounters with the local peasantry while wandering his estate.

The Drawing Room

Behaviour like this was typical of men of his ilk at the time, and from a 21st century perspective is totally inexcusable. The only mitigation one might offer is that Curzon built a damned fine house on the land he so rapaciously reclaimed from his tenants, though I doubt that this was much of a comfort at the time to the poor people he made homeless.

The Library

Although the Curzon family still lives in part of the Hall, the property and surrounding parkland is now owned on behalf of the nation by the National Trust. Here’s what the Trust’s website has to say about Kedleston:

“Kedleston Hall is an extravagant temple to the arts designed by the architect Robert Adam…The house is framed by historic parkland and boasts opulent interiors intended to impress. Designed for lavish entertaining, Kedleston Hall displays an extensive collection of paintings, sculpture and original furnishings, reflecting both the tastes of its creators and their fascination with the classical world of the Roman Empire.”

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 13 December 2022

Neo-classicism may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works for me, The elegance and sheer beauty of Robert Adam’s work is breath-taking, and while I was looking forward to a bit of Christmas cheer at Kedleston I was concerned that it might detract from the majesty of the Hall’s state rooms. But I need not have worried: the Christmas decorations were tastefully restrained, and the Adam’s interiors remained the stars of the show.

The Saloon

Entrance to the mansion is via the grand Marble Hall. With walls boasting multiple niches that display statues in the classical Roman style, and lined by 20 soaring, fluted alabaster columns topped with elaborate Corinthian capitals, the Marble Hall is clearly a statement piece. It is designed to overawe visitors, to advise them that they have entered the home of someone richer, more cultured, and more powerful than they can ever hope to be. Know your place! it proclaims.

The Music Room

Equally impressive is the Saloon, a circular room rising 62 feet (19m) to a grand glass skylight. It was designed as a sculpture gallery, the style being based on the temples of a Roman Forum. The modest Christmas tree at its centre did little to distract our attention the sheer elegance of the room’s design.

Clockwise from Top left: The Library. Top right: Ante Room / Dressing Room. Bottom Right: The Saloon. Bottom Left: View through Ante Room / Dressing Room to the Christmas tree in the Saloon. Middle (bottom): The Dining Room. Middle (top): The Family Room

The other state rooms, including the Library, Drawing Room and the Dining Room, are equally impressive. And that’s the point. This place was built to impress, and it does just that. More than Chatsworth House, and more than just about every other stately home I’ve ever visited, it positively exudes the wow factor. I love Kedleston Hall just as much as I’m sure I would have disliked Nathaniel Curzon, the guy who commissioned this spectacular mansion…anyone with an ego that big must have been seriously bad news!

In the Deep Midwinter: Christmas at Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, is one of England’s foremost stately homes. It’s run as a business, depending for its survival largely on the income it generates by welcoming paying members of the public to explore the stunning house and massive ornamental gardens. As with so many visitor attractions, the Christmas season is vitally important for the health of the enterprise. This is even more true in 2022, as Chatsworth seeks to recover from the damage inflicted upon the business by Covid.

Chatsworth’s famous Cascade, which dates from around 1708, flanked here by rows of eerily lit trees

And when we visited a couple of weeks ago visitors were out in force to experience this year’s Christmas extravaganza. Here’s what the website told us to expect:

Deep Midwinter: A Nordic Christmas at Chatsworth brings to life the Christmas folklore and traditions of the Arctic and Nordic regions through a series of themed roomscapes. Sculpted ‘ice’ walls, tranquil pine forests, lanterns, traditional Nordic Christmas decorations and foliage foraged from woodlands and hedgerows across the estate evoke the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world at wintertime…

Our Nordic theme continues into the garden with an enchanting Christmas light trail. Experience our ‘northern lights’ over the Canal Pond, let colour guide you along Broad Walk into a glade of glowing lights and, for the first time, see the Maze illuminated and filled with festive music.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But sadly, it didn’t live up to expectations. In 2019, the last time we visited Chatsworth at Christmas, we were blown away by decorations on the theme of “a land far, far away.” This year, however, we were distinctly underwhelmed: the Nordic associations pretty much passed us by, and the decorations lacked impact. Worse still, we paid nearly £30 (USD 37) per head for the privilege.

Some grand stately homes in other parts of the country charge quite a bit more for their Christmas celebration – Blenheim Palace, for example – but, if recent television coverage is to be believed, they offer a lot more too. Clearly, £30 per head isn’t a fortune, but that’s not the point. The question is, does it represent value for money, particularly as we are currently in the midst of a nationwide “cost of living crisis”? I don’t think so.

One of the more attractive features of the “enchanting lights trail” in the garden.

Don’t get me wrong, our visit wasn’t a total waste of time. Parts of the garden lights trail were pretty good, while the best of the decorated rooms of the House were very well done. And if you’d never been to Chatsworth before the whole show probably made a good, although very crowded, introduction to the House’s splendours. But we know the place well and – based on what we saw in 2019, and what we paid for our tickets this time – we expected rather more. The photos I’ve used to illustrate this piece feature the highlights, but the majority of “the experience” was a lot more mundane.

Maybe they had a limited budget in 2022, as a result of Covid’s impact on revenue streams? Or did they spread their resources too thinly, by having “an enchanting lights trail” in the gardens as well as decorating the House (in 2019, the Christmas extravaganza was limited just to the House, and didn’t extend into the gardens). But I can’t help worrying that Chatsworth’s trading on its name, making a calculated underinvestment in this seasonal attraction on the assumption that people will turn up anyway, just because it’s Chatsworth?

Top left: The Painted Hall. Top right: Another room, another group of trees, and a stray speaker playing Christmas music! Middle right: The Library. Bottom: The Chapel. The golden statue between the trees is by the notorious contemporary British sculptor Damien Hirst.

If so, I fear that may be a bit short-sighted, as there are plenty of other stately homes around here that also put on a show at Christmas. People who shared our disappointment with Chatsworth’s efforts this time may well choose next year to get their seasonal cheer somewhere else, somewhere offering the prospect of seeing more while paying less.

Hopefully, this is a one off, and Chatsworth will be back on form in time for Christmas 2023. Until this year they’ve had a good track record, so we’ll probably give them another chance. I’ll report back 12 months from now!

Burton Agnes celebrates Christmas

Although Burton Agnes may sound like the upper crust villain of an Agatha Christie novel, the reality is altogether more interesting. Built between 1598 and 1610 near the village of Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Burton Agnes is a magnificent Elizabethan mansion that’s been associated with the same family for over 400 years.

Although the Hall is now managed by a charitable trust, the family still lives there. To help cover the cost of its upkeep, paying visitors are invited to have a poke around this Grade I Listed architectural masterpiece. And, inevitably, the period before Christmas is a great time to pep up the income stream.

The Great Hall

This, of course, is nothing unusual. Up and down the land the good, the bad and the ugly of British stately homes open their doors to the Great British Public at this time of year, anxious to milk the cash cow that is Christmas.

Some do a great job, investing heavily to decorate their mansions with festive frivolities that are sure to get their visitors into the mood for Christmas and, hopefully, will encourage them to return the next year. Others, I suspect, do the absolute minimum that they calculate is necessary to prevent the paying public demanding its money back.

Burton Agnes, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, felt like good value for money. The place was tastefully, but not excessively decked out in seasonal finery. They say that “less is more”, and whoever planned the Christmas decorations here clearly understands the benefits of measured restraint in such matters. The seasonal adornments seemed in tune with their setting rather than simply overwhelming it, which has been the case in some of the places we’ve visited over the years

To be honest, I would normally find it difficult to feel festive in mid-November, but by the time we left Burton Agnes I could happily have polished off a plateful of mince pies and knocked out a verse or two of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Roll on Christmas, I’m ready for you now!

The White Drawing Room

And, just as important, our visit to see the Christmas decorations also served as an introduction to a truly spectacular building. The Great Hall is just that, a masterpiece of plasterwork and panelling. The Long Gallery, with its barrelled ceiling, is light, airy, elegant (and very, very long!), while the White Drawing Room is comfortably tasteful. Although the decorations were great to see, the quality of the building itself shone through clearly.

Above: The Red Drawing Room. Below: The Long Gallery

Burton Agnes has been described by the author Simon Jenkins as ‘the perfect English house’ and as one of the twenty best English houses. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that there’s lot to admire in it. Mrs P and I have agreed that we’ll make a return visit at another time of year when the Christmas decorations have been removed, so we can get to know it a bit better.

In the entrance hall

Birmingham, the Venice of the North. Really?

In some circles Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands just 50 miles / 80km from Platypus Towers, is referred to as The Venice of the North. Really? Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the premier jewels in Europe’s cultural crown, “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.” Birmingham, however…

Difficult to believe this was taken in the very centre of Birmingham, the UK’s “second city”, population 1.15 million

Although its origins are much older, Birmingham owes its prominent position to the Industrial Revolution. Central to the city’s growth was the production of metal-based goods. It became known as “the city of a thousand trades”, where a myriad of small workshops employed skilled craftsmen to manufacture high quality finished products. It was dynamic and prosperous, but it was no Venice!

Comparisons with Venice are woefully wide of the mark, except in one particular regard: canals. Venice is a city of canals, and Birmingham too has a web of waterways dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These were excavated to bring in the raw materials needed by local workshops, and to carry away the finished goods they produced to markets throughout the country.

Pretty soon, Birmingham was at the heart of the national canal network. The city thrived, and the nation’s canals bustled with activity. But the development of railways in the mid-19th century heralded a change in fortunes for the canal network locally and nationally. Rail transport – and later, transport by road – proved quicker and therefore cheaper than the carriage of materials and goods by water. Birmingham’s canal network declined, and by 1980 all commercial traffic had stopped.

Once the lifeblood of the city, Birmingham’s canals morphed into fetid rubbish dumps and the warehouses lining them became neglected eyesores, derelict and anachronistic. They served no real purpose, and it’s easy to imagine that some bright spark might have thought it would be a good idea to fill in the waterways and bulldoze the associated buildings.

But fortunately, the City Council recognised that if they were sensitively restored, Birmingham’s canals could help drive the city’s regeneration. Work began in the late 1980s, and when we visited a few months ago we were able to see how this far-sighted vision has been put into practice.

Historic toll house, where users of the canal once paid for the privilege

Gas Street Basin is the hub of the city’s canal network, located in what is today the heart of Birmingham’s cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping districts. Here we walked along towpaths lined with vibrant cafés, bars, restaurants and modern buildings, and were also pleased to spot some fine examples of historic canal architecture. Several narrowboats were moored in the basin, adding to the area’s quaint charm.

As we continued our stroll along the towpath, past modern developments that included the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the National Sea Life Centre, we encountered plenty of pedestrians and dog-walkers, and some cyclists and joggers too. All were taking the opportunity to get some fresh air, away from the noise and mayhem of the frantic city centre streets.

Gas Street Basin

Meanwhile, colourful narrowboats chugged slowly along the waterways, offering holidaymakers and tourists an unexpected perspective on what is known as the UK’s “second city” (after London, of course!).

Along the way we stopped off for a drink at one of Birmingham’s most distinctive historic buildings. The Roundhouse was built in 1874 as a giant stable complex where 50 horses that worked on the canal could be housed. The need for the facility is long-gone (none of the narrowboats now using the canals are drawn by horses), and for some time the future of the building was in doubt.

However, creative minds have come up with a way forward: now run by a charitable trust, the Roundhouse has been repurposed as a visitor centre, café, display space and offices. It also acts “as a launchpad to explore Birmingham’s brilliant stories and place…[offering] canal-based kayaking, city walking tours, [and] boat trips.”

The Roundhouse, which once provided stabling for 50 working canal horses

As we enjoyed our mochas there was time to reflect on what a good job the city authorities have done in revitalising Birmingham’s canal network and infrastructure. While Birmingham is clearly nothing like Venice, the canals give the city a distinctive character that reflects its unique heritage. A canal network dating back over two hundred years could have become a serious burden to the city and its people in the 21st century, but visionary, enterprising developments have turned it into a genuine asset. Well done, Birmingham, I salute you!

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Postscript: Venice of the North

Birmingham is not the only place that has been labelled the Venice of the North. Other nominees include Saint Petersburg (Russia); Amsterdam (Netherlands); Giethoorn (Netherlands); Bruges (Belgium); Stockholm (Sweden); Copenhagen (Denmark); and Alesund (Norway). To which I can only say, get a grip, guys. Each of these places has its own merits, and should stand or fall by those merits rather resorting to spurious comparisons with another, very different place!

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Catching up with Chesterfield’s must-see snail!

We’d been meaning for ages to go visit the famed Chesterfield snail, but Covid got in the way and it wasn’t until a few months ago that we finally caught up with it. Not that there was much chance of it getting away. Snails are notoriously slow at the best of times, and this one’s chances of making a run for it are hampered by the fact that it’s 5 metres / 16 feet tall and fashioned from sheets of brushed stainless steel.

Mollusc sits in a small area of parkland at the edge of a housing estate, on land that was once home to the Markham Engineering Works. Why, we wondered, would anyone choose to erect an enormous steel snail here…or anywhere else, for that matter? The reason, it seems, is that ancient fossil gastropods have been found in the coal measures that are widely distributed around this area of Derbyshire. Sculptor Liz Lemon has made sure that none of the locals will ever forget this obscure piece of trivia.

Lemon also took inspiration from the industrial history of the site: the form of the Mollusc echoes the casings of huge turbines that were once manufactured at the Markham works before being shipped to hydro-electric power plants around the world. This chapter of Chesterfield’s industrial history is further honoured by inscriptions in the base of the sculpture bearing the replica signatures of former Markham employees.

Although the setting is incongruous, as a piece of artwork Mollusc is undeniably eye-catching. The gleaming shell’s spiral design is decorated with a series of “portholes” that reduce in size towards its centre. These, I understand, are lit up at night by blue and green fibre optic lights, but as we visited during daylight hours this intriguing feature was invisible to us.

Installed in 2003, the Mollusc is part of Chesterfield’s Art Trail. It, and more than 70 other pieces of public art, was funded from the local council’s “Percent for Art” scheme. Developers of schemes costing over one million pounds (USD 1.15m) are encouraged to include a work of art to the value of 1% of the total cost of the project, with a view to help “create a sense of place and add character to the built environment.”

I hope that the current financial crisis engulfing the UK doesn’t undermine the Percent for Art scheme. If the Mollusc is anything to go by, this is an enlightened initiative that can only enhance the character of Chesterfield’s urban landscape. Mrs P and I look forward to exploring other hidden gems on the Chesterfield Art Trail in 2023.