We took a day trip to Yorkshire Wildlife Park last week. It was great to catch up with their iconic critters, a couple of which – Amur Tigers and Warty Pigs – have featured in earlier posts on this blog. But there was a new exhibit that also caught the eye. As well as investing in 21st century wildlife and conservation, the Park has also been throwing money at Pangea, where kids both young and old can get up close and personal with the dinosaur of their dreams.
When we visited the Park in December for its annual winter Festival of Lights and Lanterns, illuminated dinosaurs were much in evidence. But although the seasons have changed since then, and the Christmas lights have been packed away, the prehistoric presence remains. According to the Park’s website, Pangea “is home to over 30 life-sized moving ROARING dinosaurs! From the terrifying T-Rex to the villainous Velociraptors, you will find everyone’s favourite Jurassic characters in the heart of Doncaster!” Plainly dinosaurs are for life, not just for Christmas.
Big, fierce and scary, dinosaurs fire the imagination. I’m sure some of the youngsters who visit the Pangea exhibit come away with a secret dream to become fossil hunters, spending their lives searching for the remains of the iconic, long-gone beasts. It’s an enticing notion, but the reality is very different. During our many trips to the USA, Mrs P and I have visited several dinosaur fossil sites. Here, eager visitors are greeted by a near-incomprehensible jumble of fossilised bones, and maybe a few random, indistinct dinosaur footprints.
The search for dinosaur fossils is challenging in the extreme. Fieldwork invariably takes place in harsh, remote landscapes that are a world away from the comforts of 21st century living. The work is slow and painstaking; meticulous attention to detail and the patience of a saint are essential attributes of any wannabe dinosaur hunter.
Big, ground-breaking discoveries are thin on the ground. Most days on site must be a tedious slog, groundhog days with added blisters. When the sun goes down there’s often little to show for the day’s efforts, maybe just a few more fragments of disarticulated bone that seem to bear little relation to the dreadful dinosaurs that roam our imaginations.
Few of us have the skill-set or temperament to become palaeontologists, so the display of dinosaur skeletons in museums has an important role to play in helping us understand and appreciate the world of dinosaurs. But even those skeletons have their limitations, and this is where exhibits such as Pangea come into their own.
Yes, Pangea is sensationalist and shallow, but it does bring home to visitors just how amazing dinosaurs really were. The brutal brontosaurus*, the towering tyrannosaurus and the staggering stegosaurus are given scale and context by the exhibits at Yorkshire Wildlife Park. I defy anyone to view them without thinking “Wow! Creatures like this once roamed our Earth? Really?”
Pangea is a fun, low-effort learning experience. Wearing my intellectual, pseudo-academic hat, I do wish there was an additional exhibit replicating, or based upon, one of the dinosaur discovery sites we’ve visited, so that visitors could gain some basic insights into the realities of palaeontology. I know that will never happen, but although it is a lost opportunity – in my humble opinion, anyway! – Pangea does have real value in increasing popular interest in, and knowledge of a lost world.
Dinosaurs have been reborn at Yorkshire Wildlife Park, and I’m pleased to have made their acquaintance.
Top Left: Tsintaosaurus. Top Middle: Pachyrhinosaurus. Top Right: Ankylosaurus. Bottom Left: ? Bottom Right: T-Rex.
* OK, for anyone reading this who knows their stuff about dinosaurs, I acknowledge that the brontosaurus wasn’t actually brutal. It was a herbivore, albeit one with a HUGE appetite. But the writer in me loves the way the words “brutal brontosaurus” roll off the tongue. Sometimes, you have to sacrifice just a tad of truth on the altar of alliteration!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
The eastern part of my home county of Derbyshire has a long association with coal mining. Limited production took place during the medieval period, but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that large-scale mining began. When the coal industry was nationalised in 1947, there were 68 deep mines in Derbyshire. Now there are none, but their legacy lives on in a surprising way at Poolsbrook Country Park.
The area now occupied by the Park once consisted of farmland set in a rural landscape. Large-scale mining, which began in 1875, changed the place beyond recognition: mine shafts were sunk, massive colliery buildings were erected, and vast, ugly spoil heaps were dumped wherever seemed convenient at the time. When the Ireland Colliery finally closed for good in 1986, the whole area had been transformed into a bleak, dystopian eyesore that offered little of value either to local people or to the natural world.
Eurasian Bullfinch (male)
Luckily the local council had the vision to realise that with time, effort and resources, the site could be reborn as a valuable community amenity and wildlife habitat. Under its ambitious plans the mining infrastructure was dismantled and the old colliery spoil heaps were landscaped to mimic a natural lake/river valley, which was then planted with trees and wildflower seed.
Today, the 165 acre (67 ha) site is home to a mosaic of habitats including lakes, wet grassland, wildflower hay meadows, woodland and hedgerows, all carefully managed for the benefit of wildlife. Good visitor facilities are also provided, encouraging local people to abandon the stresses and strains of urban life for a while and instead explore a small corner Derbyshire’s magnificent countryside.
So, rather than simply return the land to its pre-mining status as an unremarkable piece of farmland, the planners and environmentalists have significantly enhanced it. In doing so they have created a big attraction for lovers of the natural world, particularly birders like Mrs P and I. The photographs that illustrate this short post show just a few of the birds we’ve spotted at Poolsbrook Country Park since the easing of the Covid lockdown.
Casual visitors unfamiliar with its history would struggle to identify Poolsbrook Country Park as the site of a colliery that was in operation for over 100 years. This, in my view, is very encouraging, an illustration of just what can be achieved if we are ambitious about restoring our natural world. It offers real hope that with effort and resources we can put right at least some of the wrongs perpetrated by previous generations in the name of “progress.”
A few months ago I wrote about a controversial sculpture in Birmingham. I called the piece “Art’s Not Meant to be Easy” and concluded by observing that artists have a duty to make us reflect, to make us debate, to make us think critically about the world in which we live, even if the process is painful. In retrospect I should have said that this deadly serious task is one of an artist’s duties. On the other hand, sometimes the artist’s role is – quite simply – to help us have fun, to focus on boosting moods rather than improving minds.
When we visited The Sculpture Park in Surrey a few months ago there was plenty on show to make us think. But there were also some witty creations dotted around the ten acre (4 ha) site, works that seemed to serve no higher purpose than to entertain and raise a few laughs. Who, for example, can fail to be delighted by the sight of well-built lady riding on the back of a dinosaur, while wearing nothing but a top hat and an anxious expression?
The piece in question is called Pre-Hysteric. Standing 11 feet (3.5m) high, it is made from bronze resin. Its British sculptor, Andrew Sinclair, claims never to have grown out of his fascination with dinosaurs, and has evidently put his childhood obsession to good use. Pre-Hysteric was one of the first pieces we encountered on entering The Sculpture Park, and immediately we saw it we knew we were going to have a great day.
Pre-Hysteric could be yours to own for the princely sum of £29,000 (USD 34,000). Plus tax, of course. Our government’s a bit short of cash right now, and would very much like to get its hands on some of yours. You have been warned!
Another sculptor who made us laugh is Paul Richardson. Paul appears to specialise in grumpy old men, and since – according to Mrs P, anyway! – I am one, I suppose it’s inevitable that I should feel some affinity with his work! The Butler seems to be a servile, miserable old guy, slightly stooped and obsequiously carrying a small drinks tray. But all is not as it seems…hidden behind his back he carries a tyre iron, with which he presumably intends to beat his master into submission. His facial expression suggests that he relishes the prospect of avenging the indignities that his job has inflicted upon him.
In a magical contemporary twist, some bright spark has placed a bottle of hand sanitiser on The Butler‘s drinks tray. I’m tempted to say that we could easily manage without such reminders of the pandemic, but on the other hand isn’t it good to be able to laugh at Covid for a moment rather than to fear it.
Other delightfully grumpy old men fashioned by Paul Richardson include Doctor Foster, who carries a brief case in which – no doubt – he stores various instruments of surgical torture that he will inflict upon his poor unsuspecting patients, and Jonah, who looks so fearsomely cantankerous that he’s almost certainly a politician in his spare time.
Neither Sinclair nor Richardson’s pieces are high art, but they are supremely witty – seeing them lifted our spirits and boosted our mood enormously. After all, what’s the point of life without a bit of laughter now and then?
Although its primary focus is on the preservation and display of historic buildings from South-East England, the Weald and Downland Living Museum offers other fascinating insights into the lives of ordinary people in times past. A notable highlight of our visit last October was to be able to watch a team of horses ploughing a field that forms part of the Museum’s land. Only a few decades ago such a sight would have been totally unremarkable anywhere in rural England, but these days draught horses have little if any role in country life beyond their participation in ploughing competitions that hark back nostalgically to the pre-industrial world.
The term “draught” horse is derived from the Old English word dragan, meaning “to haul” or “to draw”. They are also referred to as carthorses, work horses or heavy horses. And these terms, I guess, tells us all we need to know. Back in the day, when heavy loads needed to moved or agricultural land had to be worked, the horse was England’s go-to beast of burden. Even as the Industrial Revolution started to kick in, horses toiled along towpaths hauling canal barges laden with raw materials and manufactured goods.
In these modern times, when internal combustion and diesel engines rule the roost, it’s difficult to imagine a moment when we depended not on them but instead on the humble horse. The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s mission is to celebrate and remind us of the world we have lost, and watching three magnificent horses going about their business did just that.
The Museum’s horses are Percherons, a breed of draught horse that originated in western France. Usually grey or black in colour, Percherons are sturdy animals known for their intelligence and willingness to work. They were originally bred as war horses, but later became sought-after animals for agricultural work and hauling heavy goods. As well as ploughing, the horses we encountered also help out with a number of other seasonal farming tasks. These include sowing, haymaking and harvesting, as well as timber-extraction from the Museum’s woodland.
The Museum’s Percherons seemed content in their work, and the guy leading them clearly cared deeply for their welfare. He was practising for a ploughing competition the next day, and although I’m no expert it seemed from what I saw that he and his horsey team were in with a good shout!
In addition to its draught horses, the Museum has several fine examples of historic horse-drawn vehicles. These include a spectacularly colourful gypsy caravan dating from the late 19th century, and a far more humble “living caravan” which would have been home to labourers who travelled the countryside in search of opportunities for paid work.
Like the rest of the exhibits on display at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, the Percherons and horse-drawn vehicles we saw there offered fascinating insights into a world that is almost beyond comprehension from our comfortable, 21st century perspective. I strongly recommend a visit!
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
WATCH OUT NEXT WEEK for “All the Pretty Horses at the Weald and Downland Living Museum”
The UK doesn’t have many animals running wild through its countryside, and most of them are in any case rather difficult to see. While Grey Squirrels unashamedly flaunt their presence, most of our mammals keep their heads down. This, often combined with low numbers and a limited geographical distribution, means that few people in this country are well acquainted with the species that call these islands home. The British Wildlife Centre, located near to the village of Lingfield in the county of Surrey, is seeking to put this right.
The Centre was founded by former dairy farmer David Mills in 1997. At the age of 50 David reluctantly came to the realisation that he could no longer face the prospect of milking his herd twice a day, and decided to change the direction of his life by indulging his other great passion – British wildlife. His aim was to build an attraction specialising in UK animals, with the goal of educating ordinary members of the public about our native species and the challenges they face.
Although it strives to offer visitors a good time simply by allowing them to get up close and personal with British wildlife, education is at the heart of the Centre’s mission. Its website explains that
“In term time we specialise in school visits …We can then focus on teaching children to appreciate and respect Britain’s own wonderful native wild species, so that they may develop a life-long interest in their protection and survival. Our philosophy can be summed up as ‘Conservation through Education’.”
During our visit to the Centre a few months ago we were pleased to get good views of one of the resident polecats, an animal I’ve never seen in the wild. Once common throughout mainland Britain, they were driven to near extinction in the middle of the last century due to persecution by gamekeepers.
By the late 1930s all that remained of British polecats was a small population in north Wales. Thankfully, the species is now bouncing back, and polecats can be found throughout rural Wales, and growing areas of England including parts of the Midlands, the South and the South-East.
Another member of the weasel family to put on a show for us that day was a stoat. These animals are widely distributed across the UK, but unpredictable and difficult to spot. I have been lucky enough to see stoats in the wild, but only rarely and for just a few fleeting seconds before they hurry away into the undergrowth. At the Centre we were fortunate that one of the animals ceased its relentless dashing and posed for a couple of seconds, enabling Mrs P to capture its image for posterity.
Perhaps the most exciting encounter during our visit to the Centre was with a Scottish wildcat, which looks similar to the domestic tabby, but with more stripes and a bushier, blunt-ended tail that boasts several thick black rings We refer to these animals as Scottish wildcats, but in fact they were once widely distributed across the whole of the British mainland.
However, they disappeared from southern England around the 16th century, and the last one recorded in northern England was shot in 1849. They are now confined to parts of the Scottish highlands, but survival of this outlier population in the wild is threatened by interbreeding with feral cats.
The Centre has many other wildlife treats in store for the visitor, from foxes and badgers – which are invariably dead on the road whenever I see them – to pine martens and otters, animals I rarely see either dead or alive. The Centre’s guiding philosophy of “conservation through education”, the work it does to improve awareness of British wildlife, and its support for captive breeding programmes and scientific research, is to be applauded. I hope that, before too long, we’ll be able to make another visit.
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.
We’ve booked to go out for lunch, and with a couple of hours to kill before our appointed time, we decide to treat ourselves to a spot of birdwatching. Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve was once home to a sewage works and an opencast mine. It doesn’t sound promising, but in recent decades the local council has done a good job of restoring it as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. The locals call it Swan Lake, but the Reserve has plenty more besides the eponymous Mute Swan to tempt nature lovers.
On arrival we’re surprised to see that the Straw’s Bridge lakes are frozen in places. Instead of swimming elegantly across wide expanses of open water, the Mute Swans are reduced to an ungainly waddle and appear in mortal danger of ending up flat on their beaks at any moment. Meanwhile, Black-headed Gulls huddle together miserably on the ice, as if bemused by the sudden meteorological change that has turned their familiar surroundings into an unwelcome skating rink.
As we set off to walk a series of trails around the lakes we spy a robin sitting atop a rubbish bin. Like many of his species, our red-breasted friend seems unperturbed by proximity to humans, even as Mrs P creeps ever-closer in pursuit of the perfect, full-frame photo. She snaps away merrily, the robin sings lustily and I take a bit of video footage. Contentment reigns supreme!
A bit further on we watch an unexpected face-off between a Grey Heron and a mob of Mute Swans. The heron has staked its claim to a section of ice, and although they have a whole lake to choose from the swans evidently decide that the ideal place for a family gathering is the precise spot on which it’s standing. They close in on the heron, which eyes them warily. I train my video camera on them all, expecting to see feathers fly. But the heron clearly thinks better of it, and goes slip-sliding away from the mob in search of a swan-free life. Good luck with that at Swan Lake, my friend.
We continue our stroll around the lakes, revelling in the golden colours of the winter reedbeds. Despite the glorious sun beaming down at us from a clear blue sky, it’s a bitterly cold morning. But we’ve come prepared, wearing so many layers of thermal clothing that we feel comfortably toasty. In the leaf litter beneath a small stand of trees, a solitary redwing – a refugee from Scandinavia, where winters are much colder than our own – searches energetically for anything edible. Meanwhile, in the far distance we spot a flotilla of mallards and coots circling in a patch of open water, while a buzzard scans the landscape hopefully from its vantage point at the top of a nearby tree.
And finally, we happen upon the star of this morning’s birding expedition. It’s another Grey Heron, this one sitting amongst the dead vegetation at the edge of an ice-free section of the lake. The bird is indifferent to our presence as we creep ever closer, and looks majestic in the soft midwinter light.
Thoughts inevitably turn to my Mum. After Dad died in the mid-1990s, we started taking her out on birdwatching excursions with us. She got to love it, and the bird she loved most of all was the heron. The tall, long-legged, long-billed wader fascinated and enthralled her, and was her highlight of any outing to a wetland habitat. Such happy memories!
Far too soon, it is time to head back to the car and drive a couple of miles down the road to where we will be taking lunch. There’s one final surprise in store – in the lakeside car park we see a Pied Wagtail cavorting across a car bonnet, presumably in search of its own lunch of splattered insects.
It’s been an uplifting morning. As reserves go, Straw’s Bridge is hardly spectacular, its list of regularly occurring species totally unremarkable, and yet this is a truly wonderful place to chill out with Nature. We’ll be back again very soon, although next time I hope we can manage without the thermal underwear!