Renishaw Hall and Gardens

A few weeks ago the attractive gardens and grounds at Renishaw Hall provided a perfect pick-me-up after the drudgery of the Covid-19 lockdown, bringing some much needed colour to our lives.

Renishaw’s bluebell woods, May 2018

As the Covid-19 infection rate falls and the country starts to open up, we decide it’s time to make the most of summer before it morphs into autumn. One of our first day trips is to the gardens at Renishaw Hall, in the far north of our home county of Derbyshire. We’ve been here before, in spring when the bluebell woods are a magnificent sight, but it looks rather different in the height of summer.

Renishaw Hall: Big is not always beautiful

Renishaw Hall was built around 1625 by George Sitwell, who made his money from iron. By the end of the the 17th century the Sitwells were the largest producers of iron nails in the world and their furnaces were producing more than a tenth of England’s entire iron output. 

They made a fortune, which enabled one of George’s descendants to enlarge and extend the Hall between 1793 and 1808. The man commissioning the work was called Sitwell Sitwell. Yes, his father really was so obsessed by the family’s name that he forced his wretched son to endure it both as a forename and a surname. Poor bugger.

In the mid-19th century the Sitwells fell upon hard times. The residents deserted the Hall to live in Germany, where the cost of living was cheaper, and its contents were auctioned off. Renishaw might have suffered the fate of so many grand English homes and crumbled away into dust and obscurity, had it not been for the timely discovery of coal on the estate.

Weathered, classical-style statues, topiary trees and a distant view of the fountain

The north-east corner of Derbyshire is riddled with coal seams, so we should not be too surprised by the Sitwells’ good fortune. However they made the most of the geological generosity with which their estate was blessed: the family’s fortunes were restored, later enabling the development of Renishaw’s outstanding gardens.

Renishaw Hall is an imposing building, but the curtain of climbing plants clinging to its façade can’t disguise the fact- in my humble opinion, anyway – that externally it’s fairly unremarkable, despite its Grade I listing from Historic England. Big is not always beautiful.

The gardens, however, are rather special. Nearly 120 years ago Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), fourth baronet, created what is today regarded as one of the most important classical Italianate gardens in the UK.

Sir George could think of no good reason to be modest about his horticultural knowledge and skills, and therefore felt moved in 1909 to show them off by writing An essay on the making of gardens : being a study of old Italian gardens, of the nature of beauty, and the principles involved in garden design. Wouldn’t be my choice of bedtime reading, but what do I know?

Garden features at today’s Renishaw include well-trimmed lawns, immaculately clipped topiary, ornamental ponds, a spectacular fountain, a scattering of statues – both classical and quirky – and borders overflowing with blossoms. And beyond the formal gardens can be found handsome lakes and parkland.

Renishaw’s garden enjoys a II* (“two-star”) listing from Historic England, a non-departmental arm of the British Government funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Also, in May 2015, it received the UK Garden of the Year award. The award, organised by the Historic Houses Association and sponsored by Christie’s auctioneers, recognises the importance of some of the country’s most spectacular gardens, gardens that have outstanding horticultural and public appeal.

After months of near-confinement at Platypus Towers, it’s great to get out and about at Renishaw. The flower-beds are ablaze, and a ballet of butterflies flits happily between the blossoms. The statues, including an unexpected elk (for anyone reading this in North America, a Eurasian elk’s just like your moose), look splendid in the warm sunshine, and down at the lake a swan paddles happily amongst the rushes and reeds.

Renishaw Lake

The Sitwell family still live at Renishaw. In the first half of the 20th century it was graced by the famous literary trio, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, who were all patrons of the arts and played a significant part in the artistic and literary world at that time. Today’s residents have a lower profile, but are pleased for us all to line the family’s pockets by visiting their gardens and, occasionally, the Hall itself. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Getting stuffed: the King of Rome and superfluous penguins

He spends his days, and nights too, with all the other dead things in the natural history gallery. In a desperate attempt to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear Derby Museum’s curators call it the “Notice Nature Feel Joy Gallery”, but there’s precious little joy for me in display cabinets full of sad, stuffed things. It’s a bizarre collection, an unholy mixture of long dead creatures that certainly lived here or hereabouts – foxes, badgers and the like – and others that most definitely did not.

Hands up anyone who knows why Derby Museum finds it desirable or expedient to display a pair of stuffed penguins.

But don’t mock and be sure to behave yourselves, after all we’re in the presence of royalty. Over there, in that unassuming showcase on the back wall, sits the King of Rome. And here’s the thing, he really does belong in the heart of the English East Midlands: the King of Rome lived out his days in Derby.

Before you think I’ve completely lost my marbles, or conclude that Derby folk make a habit of inflicting taxidermy upon exiled European monarchs, let me reassure you that the King of Rome is a racing pigeon. Deceased, obviously, otherwise the RSPCA would have something to say regarding his incarceration in a museum showcase.

And not just any racing pigeon. I mean, this guy’s a record breaker who found his most famous exploit celebrated in song.

*

Even setting aside matters of gastronomy, man and pigeon have been in a longstanding relationship. A record exists from around 1200BC of messenger pigeons being used in ancient Egypt to enable cities to communicate with one another about Nile River floodwaters. More than a millennium later they were passing messages through the Greek and Roman worlds, and pigeon racing is known to have taken place as long ago as the third century AD.

File:The-King-Of-Rome.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Derby Museum and Art Gallery [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D Picture by & © Andy Mabbett, CC by-sa 3.0

Modern European pigeon racing began in Belgium in the 1850s, from where it spread to Britain. The first formal pigeon race in the UK took place in 1881, and five years later King Leopold II of the Belgians presented racing pigeons to Queen Victoria as a gift. To this day the monarch retains a royal pigeon loft at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

In the early 20th century poor working men in some areas of the UK took up pigeon racing. For them the sport became a means of escape, personal exploration and self-expression at a time when working class lives were hard. Selectively breeding pigeons to increase their chances, then rearing and caring for them to ensure they were in top condition on race days, became an all-consuming passion for the sport’s devotees.

It’s now that our hero, and his owner – one Charlie Hudson – steps on to the stage. Charlie lived on Brook Street, in a poor area of Derby known as the West End. His interest in pigeon racing is said to have begun in 1904, and in 1913 he showed the world that he’d produced a champion.

In 1913 Charlie entered his best bird into a race from Rome to Derby, a colossal distance of 1,611km (1,001 miles). It won, and in so doing set a new long-distance record for an English racing pigeon, while over one thousand other birds competing in the race perished on the journey home.

The winning bird became famous in pigeon racing circles. When it died in 1946 after a long and celebrated life, Charlie presented the corpse to Derby Museum to be stuffed for posterity and the common good.

*

Charlie Hudson died in 1958. Three decades later the story of this simple working class hero and his indomitable bird caught the imagination of Derbyshire folk singer-songwriter Dave Sudbury. “The King of Rome” tells the story of the race, and, more importantly perhaps, shows how pigeon racing allowed Charlie to escape the confines of his birth and upbringing. Through the medium of Dave Sudbury’s song, Charlie says:

… “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”

Excerpt from The King of Rome, © Dave Sudbury

The song, which has since become a classic in the folk world, was initially made famous by the brilliant June Tabor on her 1988 album Aqaba. You can hear her version on YouTube by clicking here. The complete lyrics are here.

Countless others have recorded the King of Rome. Dave Sudbury’s original version of the song is also available on YouTube: raw, authentic and very moving.

However my favourite of them all is sung by the incomparable Lucy Ward. Lucy’s a Derby girl, so it seems only appropriate that she should sing about another great character from that city. Click here to listen and watch her singing the song live and unaccompanied at Jurassic Folk, Seaton, East Devon, England in 2012.

*

In 2013 the 100th anniversary of the great race was celebrated in a 45 minutes-long radio drama, demonstrating that the story continues to capture imaginations. Dreams really can come true.

What a pity, therefore, that Derby Museum makes so little out of this heart-warming tale. True, it displays the stuffed King in a neat little showcase, while a small adjacent card describes the bird’s achievement and mentions the folk song in a few meagre sentences.

But the story, as Dave Sudbury so ably captures, is much bigger than that. It offers a way into the social history of Derby, in particular the inadequately told history of working class leisure pursuits in the 20th century. Surely these are the stories that English regional museums should be telling, rather than cluttering up their galleries with superfluous penguins?

Ironbridge: an industrial icon in rural Shropshire

History is made in the most unlikely places. Shropshire, for example. The Shropshire Tourism website describes it as “the nicest of England’s quiet counties”, which sounds a bit lukewarm if you ask me. The website goes on to add that it’s “ideal for a short break away from the stresses of modern life, or indeed perfect for a day’s escape into the countryside”. All of which makes it very difficult to believe that Ironbridge Gorge, which lies on the River Severn close to the heart of rural Shropshire, is widely described as “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”.

The Iron Bridge crosses the River Severn

It’s a big claim, particularly as England led the rest of the world into the Industrial Revolution. According to this reading of history, Ironbridge Gorge was the birthplace not just of a local or national revolution, but of a global transformation which made possible our comfortable, technology-driven 21st century existence. How come? I hear you asking.

The bridge was opened to traffic on New Year’s Day 1781

The deep gorge carved out by glacial outflow at the end of the last Ice Age exposed readily accessible deposits of raw materials – including iron, coal, limestone and fireclay – that helped kick-start the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The key development was in 1709 when the Quaker Abraham Darby I launched his innovative technique for smelting local iron ore, using coke made from coal mined at the Shropshire village of Coalbrookdale. Through its use of coke rather than charcoal, Darby’s discovery made the mass production of cast iron economically viable.

The span is 30.63 metres (100 feet 6 inches).

Darby’s revolutionary technique resulted in the availability of large quantities of relatively cheap iron, which in turn led to this area of Shropshire becoming – by the standards of the time – highly industrialised. The River Severn was a key trading route along which products could be transported, but it was also an obstacle to the cross-country movement of people and goods

Calls grew ever louder for a bridge across the Severn and, inspired by the local iron industry, a proposal was made for the world’s first iron bridge. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard drew up the designs, which were approved by Act of Parliament. Construction began in 1777 but Pritchard died within weeks, and subsequently most of the project was overseen by Abraham Darby III, the grandson of iron smelting pioneer Abraham Darby I.

The bridge was completed in 1781, and remains today an iconic piece of industrial design. Inevitably given its ground-breaking design the project had its problems, and it set an unwelcome trend that HS2 seems likely to emulate by coming in way over budget.

In total the 378 tons of iron used in the bridge’s construction cost £6,000, against an initial estimate of £3,200. However, by the mid-1790s the bridge was highly profitable and the shareholders were receiving a substantial annual dividend of 8 per cent. By way of contrast, BP currently (as of 6 January 2020) pays a dividend yield of 6.28%.

File:William Williams The Iron Bridge.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: William Williams [Public domain]. Abraham Derby III commissioned Williams to make this picture in October 1780, and paid him 10 guineas for it

Although its use of iron was a radical departure from previous practice many of the techniques employed were surprisingly traditional:

Research also revealed that 70% of the components of the bridge – including all the large castings – were made individually to fit, and all differ slightly from one another as a result. Darby’s workers employed joining techniques used in carpentry, such as dovetail and shouldered joints, adapting them for cast iron.

SOURCE: English Heritage website, retrieved 7 January 2020

View west to east across the bridge. The toll house is on the left

The bridge remained in full use for over 150 years, but in 1934 it was finally closed to vehicles and designated an Ancient Monument. Remarkably, pedestrians continued to pay tolls to cross it until 1950. It is, however, reassuring to note that the owners of the bridge had an egalitarian view of who should pay the tolls: quite simply, absolutely everyone had to cough up:

‘Every officer or soldier whether on duty or not, is liable to pay toll for passing over as well as any baggage wagon, mail coach or the Royal Family.’

SOURCE: Taken from the Table of Tolls (see photograph of the sign)

Even members of the Royal Family were expected to pay if they wanted to cross!

Ironbridge Gorge Museums comprises no fewer than 10 separate museums on sites scattered throughout the area, including Blists Hill Victorian Town, Jackfield Tile Museum, Coalport China Museum and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. Anyone with an interest in industrial history can easily spend two or three days here – as we have done, spread across a couple of visits – and still feel that there’s more to explore.

But without doubt the jewel in Ironbridge’s crown is the iconic bridge itself. Shockingly, in the 1960s there was a serious possibility that it would be taken down and sold for scrap. Fortunately for scholars, tourists and local businesses alike, wiser heads prevailed and the bridge was saved for the nation by English Heritage. It remains the most potent and memorable symbol of an age when this relatively remote and rural corner of rural England led the international community into a brave new industrialised world.

The Knife Angel comes to Derby

A few days before setting off on our epic journey around New Zealand, Mrs P and I took a trip to the nearby city of Derby to take a look at the Knife Angel. Also known as the National Monument Against Violence and Aggression, the Knife Angel is a public art installation that is currently touring the country to draw attention to the issue of knife crime. The sculpture, which stands 8.2 metres (27 feet) high, has been created from around 100,000 blades surrendered to police during knife amnesties.

The Knife Angel is the brainchild of the British Ironwork Centre, working with sculptor Alfie Bradley. The Centre provided police forces with 200 secure knife banks, free of charge, to support and encourage them to run more knife amnesties.

The knives and other weapons that were surrendered during the amnesties prompted by the knife banks were sent to the Centre’s workshops, where they were disinfected and blunted. Bradley created a basic angel shape from steel, and then proceeded to weld knives to it. The wings were made from knife blades only, to produce a feathery appearance.

The Centre invited families who had lost loved ones due to knife crime and violence to engrave an everlasting message on a blade, which would then be integrated within the monument. Its website explains that “messages of love and remembrance feature on the angel’s wings, messages not only from families but also perpetrators who have seen the error of their ways and now fight knife crime and violence in a bid to stop it happening on our streets.”

We were surprised and pleased that so many people had turned out on a wet morning to view the Knife Angel. According to the Derby Telegraph, by the time the sculpture moved on to the next city on its itinerary more than 90,000 people had been to see it, from within and beyond the city’s boundaries.

It would be fanciful to expect that pieces of public art like this can have a material impact on the current high levels of knife crime in the UK. However, as a vehicle for community solidarity and a catalyst for reflection on what we have become as a society, the Knife Angel is very powerful indeed. It’s also a damned fine piece of public art, and deserves to be appreciated on those terms as well as for the positive messages it promotes.

Getting older: An unwelcome milestone

Our last day in Cambridge has not gone according to plan.  Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built around the year 1130 and generally known as The Round Church lives up to expectations, the Fitzwilliam Museum does not.  The museum’s neo-classical exterior is magnificent, but isn’t the real point of a museum to go inside, wander around a bit to take in a few of the exhibits in a cursory sort of way, and then have a large mocha and a slab of cake in the café? 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Round Church

Who in their right mind would close one of the country’s great museums on a Monday at the height of the summer tourist season?  Ah, silly me, that would be the management of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I suppose. Disappointed, we decide to leave Cambridge and return to Platypus Towers on an earlier train.

*

We’re standing on the platform at Cambridge station.  The train is due in about 20 minutes, and we’re both a bit knackered.  The weather’s hot and humid, and we’ve spent a good part of the last three days trudging the streets, doing the tourist thing. 

Inevitably there are very few seats on the platform, and all but one is taken. I encourage Mrs P to grab it – I’m a proper gentleman, don’t you know – and I’m left standing next to her, looking tired and miserable.

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Time passes.  Eventually the guy seated next to Mrs P tears himself away from his mobile phone and looks around him.  He’s in early twenties and, unlike me, is appropriately dressed for the weather in sandals, shorts and a lightweight shirt.  He spots me and a caring expression crosses his lightly bearded face. He stands, looks me straight in the eye, then smiles encouragingly and politely asks, “Would you like a seat, mate?”

Would I like a seat? I ask myself.  WOULD I?  Of course I would, pal, only I don’t want you to offer me one, thank you very much!  You think I’m old and past it, don’t you? Well I’m not! I’m not old at all, I’ve just got a lived-in kind of face, like Mick Jagger but with regular lips.  I’ve had one hell of a life and if you’d done half of what I’ve done you’d look a damned sight older than me!

I don’t say any of this, of course.  I just smile sweetly at my new-found knight in shining armour, and say “Thank you, I think I would.”

Cambridge railway station

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge railway station” by hugh llewelyn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My saviour returns to his phone, probably fixing a hot hook-up on Tinder, the fit young bastard that he is, leaving me seated next to Mrs P to ponder what has just happened.  I’m in my 64th year, having worked over 40 years and travelled the world, and this is the first time anyone has ever stood up to offer me a seat. 

What an unwelcome milestone this is, another waymarker on the inevitable journey to decrepitude.  God, I feel old.

At last the train arrives.  Even though half the population of Cambridge appears to be travelling west today it’s only three carriages long, so I don’t get a seat. 

I end up standing in the area where cyclists stow their bikes, next to the disabled persons’ toilet. There are just two seats in this part of the carriage.  On one of them sits another young, bearded, shorts-wearing man, but this one won’t meet my eye. 

Cambridge (Mainline)

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge (Mainline)” by Sparkyscrum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the last 20 minutes I’ve grown accustomed to the good manners of the younger generation towards their elders, and am therefore incensed by the brazen effrontery of this new guy.  He knows I’m standing here and badly need a seat, but he just keeps playing with his phone, swiping right furiously. I hope when you get a date she doesn’t turn up, you ignorant slob, I think to myself.

The other seat is occupied by an older woman, elegant, grey-haired and immaculately dressed, library book on her lap.  She glances up and sees me leaning uncomfortably against the side of the carriage. A look of genuine concern crosses her face. 

“Would you like this seat?” she asks, oh-so-kindly.

I look at her carefully.  In her left hand she’s clutching a Senior Citizen’s Railcard.  For god’s sake, she’s as old as me, possibly older, and here she is offering me a seatJust when you think life can’t get any worse, it bloody well does.

I quickly regain my composure and politely decline her offer.  You see, I still have my pride, and in any case as I mentioned earlier I’m a proper gentleman. 

But we reach an agreement, that kind lady and me.  She’s getting off at Ely, and when she does she’ll make sure I’m able to slide on to her seat before anyone else grabs it, so I can do the rest of the journey sitting down.  It’s a good arrangement, and satisfies both parties. 

After all, when the going gets tough us old fogeys need to stick together.