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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Lincoln Cathedral: tall tales and mischievous imps

Visiting Lincoln a few weeks ago, it was impossible to miss the Cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline. By any standard it’s a massively impressive building, but even so I was surprised to learn that in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries it was the tallest manmade structure in the world (around 160m), having claimed the title previously held by the Great Pyramid of Giza!

The Cathedral dominates Lincoln’s skyline

A brief history of Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror, who was anxious to stamp his mark on the territory he had captured from the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Work began in 1071 and after just 20 years the Cathedral was consecrated, but a couple of decades later it was ravaged by fire. More shockingly, in 1184 the building was partially destroyed by an earthquake.

One of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals

Earthquakes are very rare in England, and when they do happen damage is usually minimal. Not so in Lincoln in 1184, when the unprecedented event caused massive damage to a building that was not even 100 years old. Paradoxically, however, the earthquake was the making of Lincoln Cathedral.

The Sanctuary of St Hugh’s Choir, the most sacred part of the Cathedral

Undaunted by the scale of the challenge facing him, the incumbent bishop – Hugh – oversaw the building of a magnificent new Gothic-style cathedral. Although it included some surviving sections of the original building, it was altogether much larger and grander than its predecessor, and incorporated state-of-the-art architectural features such as flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches.  Thanks to the earthquake and Bishop Hugh’s response to it, today’s Lincoln Cathedral is reckoned to be one of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals.

Stained glass window in the Chapter House

The Cathedral became the world’s tallest building in the early 14th century, when a wooden spire was added to the stone central tower originally commissioned by Bishop Hugh. The record held until 1549, when a hurricane – almost as rare in the UK as earthquakes! – caused the spire to collapse.

View across part of the Cloister garth towards the central tower, which supported a wooden spire between C14 and 1549.

Had the spire survived, Lincoln Cathedral would have remained the world’s tallest building until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. The full-height tower and spire must have been a remarkable sight in medieval Lincoln, an otherwise unremarkable English provincial city.

The Cloister

The legend of the Lincoln Imp

Even without its record-breaking central spire, Lincoln Cathedral remains a magnificently imposing structure, a monumental masterpiece. And yet perhaps its most famous feature is – relatively speaking – tiny. The Lincoln Imp is a grotesque, a small carving situated at the top of a soaring stone pillar supporting two arches. Just 12 inches (30cm) in height, it would be easy to overlook if you didn’t know it was there.

Legend has it that one day Satan was feeling particularly mischievous, and decided some devilment was in order. To do his work he sent some badly behaved young imps out into the English East Midlands. One made its way to the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield where it made a mess of the local church spire (I wrote about the twisted spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield here), while two others were despatched to cause mayhem at Lincoln Cathedral.

Spot the imp!

The naughty imps lived up to the Devil’s expectations. They forced their way into the Cathedral and started to cause havoc by smashing windows, breaking furniture, dancing on the altar, throwing rocks and tripping up a priest.

An angel intervened and told the imps to behave themselves. But the imps were having a good time and decided the angel could safely be ignored. Wrong! The angel promptly turned one of the little devils into the stone image that visitors to the Cathedral still seek out today, thereby reminding all who see it that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The second imp did a swift risk assessment, didn’t like the answer it gave him, and made a run for it.

Who’s been a naughty boy?

Despite – or perhaps because of – its rebellious nature, the imp has become the unofficial emblem of the city of Lincoln. Locals have taken it to their hearts, nicknaming the city’s professional soccer team The Imps. Some pubs and bars in and around the city are named in honour of the imp, while the Cathedral shop sells various items, from fridge magnets and greetings cards to socks and earrings, all depicting the Devil’s tiny sidekick.

The legend of the Lincoln imp is just a piece of harmless fun. But its impact should not be underestimated, as it encourages people who might otherwise have little interest in architecture to explore the city’s magnificent Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral may no longer be the world’s tallest building, but it is still an awe-inspiring structure that’s well worth a visit.

Harlaxton Manor – where Americans learn about the Brits

The histories of the US and the UK are closely intertwined. Some might call it a love/hate relationship, but in truth it’s characterised primarily by confusion. I mean, why do the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road? And why can’t Americans learn to spell like the English? These are good questions, and hark back to the misunderstandings that arose during the Second World War when US troops based in the UK prior to D-Day were widely resented for being “overpaid, over-sexed and over here.”

Harlaxton Manor, built between 1832 and 1854

In a noble, but in all likelihood doomed attempt to bridge the great divide, the University of Evansville (Indiana) delivers an immersive British Studies course out of the architecturally splendid Harlaxton Manor, which lies deep in the verdant countryside of the county of Lincolnshire. The Harlaxton College website describes the course in these terms:

British Studies is a Harlaxton signature program, taught by British professors. It is a multidisciplinary program comprising two course options unified by a focus on the issues, historical and contemporary, and cultural trends, that both create and dislocate a sense of national identity in modern Britain. 

Harlaxton College website, retrieved 29/07/22

It must be a brain-frying experience for young students from the US to spend two semesters based in a building as extraordinary as Harlaxton Manor, but I hope they don’t think it’s in any way indicative of the way real Brits live, or have ever lived. Harlaxton is a fairy tale, simply one man’s breath-taking fantasy cast in stone, courtesy of the vast wealth at his disposal.

A potted history of Harlaxton Manor

The man responsible for Harlaxton Manor was one Gregory Gregory (1786–1854). That’s not the name he was born with, but he adopted it anyway, suggesting to me that he was at least one card short of a full deck.

Rear view

Gregory evidently came from a wealthy family. He inherited the land on which the Manor now sits, as well as an earlier Harlaxton Manor House dating from the 14th century. He was rolling in money – his inheritance included holdings in various canal and railway companies, as well as a number of coal mines.

So what does a man do when he has more money than good sense? What he does is to let the manor house he has inherited go to rack and ruin, and commission in its place perhaps the most extravagant English country house of the 19th century.

Gregory spent much of the 1820s attached to various British embassies overseas, although exactly what he was up to isn’t clear. But what is known is that during his time away from the UK he spent a fortune buying up works of art. He clearly had a burning passion for European art and architecture, and the money to indulge his obsession.

On returning to his native land Gregory wanted somewhere appropriately palatial to display his acquisitions, and thus was the Harlaxton Manor project conceived. He also had a grand vision, to fuse Elizabethan and Jacobean architectural styles with Baroque, and he hired some of the finest architects of the early 19th century to help him achieve it.

Is Gregory’s Harlaxton Manor a bold, imaginative and ground-breaking masterpiece, or simply an act of narcissistic self-indulgence by a wealthy man possessed of a somewhat delusional mind? Well, I guess the jury’s out on that one. But he was clearly making a statement, something along the lines of I’m so wealthy I can afford whatever I damned well like. Live with it! Modesty, subtlety and restraint were evidently not Gregory Gregory’s strong points.

The Gold Room

For what it’s worth – and I confess to knowing nothing much about architecture! – for me the design lacks coherence and perhaps a degree of good taste. Opulence in excess can be oppressive, and jumbles of monumental, bright and shiny stuff are not necessarily beautiful. Sometimes less is more, but Gregory Gregory would never settle for less when he could show off his wealth and status by having (a lot) more.

Having said that, Harlaxton has the wow factor and don’t we all need a bit of wow in our lives sometimes? But I wouldn’t want to live there, even if you paid me!

Work started on Harlaxton Manor in 1832 and ended with Gregory’s demise in 1854. After his death it passed through several owners. During the First World War, the grounds were used to train soldiers in trench warfare, and during the Second World War the Manor was requisitioned and used as the officers’ mess for nearby RAF Harlaxton. Three years after the war ended, the then owner Mrs Violet Van der Elst (inventor of the world’s first brush-less shaving cream!) sold Harlaxton to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

The Gold Room

The Jesuits’ intention was to use the Manor as a novice centre, where recruits new to the faith would be housed and honed. But things did not go as planned. The anticipated number of 200 novices on site proved wildly optimistic, and when numbers dropped to around 50 the Jesuits decided to cut their losses.

Harlaxton reprieved: the Americans save the day

In 1965, the Jesuits leased the Manor to California’s Stanford University, making it the first American university campus in the UK. Stanford remained at Harlaxton for four years, before moving their “Stanford in Britain” programme to another, less provincial part of the country. It was at this point that the University of Evansville stepped in, leasing the Manor from the Jesuits and opening its international study centre there in 1971. Sixteen years later, in 1987, the University acquired outright ownership and quickly set about making it their own.

The Morning Room

Today, during the regular academic year, Harlaxton College hosts over 300 students from the University of Evansville and various other US colleges and universities. During each summer around 1,000 further people attend summer schools, short courses and conferences, and a few lucky couples (loaded with cash, I imagine!) even get married there. Once or twice a year the College holds an open day when locals, and travellers from further afield like Mrs P and I, can visit and gaze in bewildered awe at Gregory Gregory’s architectural excesses.

Harlaxton was buzzing with visitors when we visited earlier this summer, our last trip out before succumbing to Covid. Everyone having a whale of a time. The open day was, as you would expect, impeccably organised and the hosts – all proudly sporting their college shirts – were unfailingly polite.

The Great Hall

At one point I fell into easy conversation with one of the Harlaxton crew, a young intern from Charlotte, North Carolina, pointing out to her that the signage directing visitors to the toilets referred to them as “restrooms.” I explained to my new friend that this twee euphemism is a North American confection, and would never, ever be encountered in a genuinely British public building.

Harlaxton Manor may be an extravagantly over-the-top British building nestled deep in the English countryside, but the signage, politeness and organisational polish on show that afternoon made it absolutely plain that we were on US soil. And it felt good!

British Studies? Good luck with that, guys!

My academic life ended many decades ago, but I can’t help but be intrigued by Harlaxton College’s British Studies course. What are they telling those poor American kids about us? Is any of it true? And who is to say what is true, anyway, in these days of division, disharmony and unprecedented change?

The Great Hall

The College website proclaims (boasts?) that the course is taught by “British professors.” That sounds like a good thing, but being British and bright doesn’t mean you necessarily fully understand Britishness…my passport proves I’m British and my Cambridge University degree suggests I’m quite bright, but have I totally nailed the essence of Britishness? No, probably not. Maybe I should sign up for the course!

But if I did take the course, I’d appreciate some foreign perspectives on Britishness as well those of the – doubtlessly estimable – “British professors.” Maybe we Brits are just too close to the subject to fully understand what’s going on here.

The Long Gallery

To its credit, Harlaxton offers a “Meet a Family Experience”, enabling students to get to know some ordinary Brits. In this way they are able to get up close and personal with aspects of British life that might be challenging to convey in erudite College lectures. If we lived closer than a two-hour drive from Harlaxton I’d be tempted to sign up, and then bore some poor unsuspecting youngster rigid with my limited, flawed insights on being British in 2022. I might even try to explain to him – or her – the rules of cricket, but only if I were feeling particularly mischievous.

I’m glad our American cousins, in the guise of the University of Evansville, stepped in to help save Harlaxton Manor, which, for all its architectural excesses, deserves to be saved. I’m also glad that the University is using the Manor as a base to increase mutual understanding between our two great nations. God knows, we both need all the friends we can get right now, don’t we?

Ante Room ceiling

But I fear that, however hard Harlaxton tries, the mysteries of British driving and American spelling will be with us all for some time to come!

Locked up in Leicestershire…and Derbyshire too!

Last month was Local and Community History Month here in the UK, which aims to celebrate and increase awareness of local history. And why not? After all, history is all around us if we only know where to look, or, to be more precise, if we can only understand just what it is we are looking at. Take, for example, those small, round, pyramidal-roofed buildings that are dotted here and there around our neighbouring county of Leicestershire. Their former role in community life is fascinating, but far from obvious at first glance. Read on to find out more…

Smisby lock-up, Derbyshire (the brick building on the left of the image). Now a picturesque feature of the village, it hides a grim past

The buildings in question are lock-ups, in effect holding pens where drunks and suspected criminals were held for a day or two until the civil authorities were ready to determine their fate. They would then be taken before a Justice of the Peace (aka J.P. or magistrate), whose job it was to decide what should be done with them.

Some would be fined or sent to prison. The most serious offenders would be sent to face trial before a jury, while those deemed to have suffered sufficient punishment through their incarceration in the lock-up would be released to return, shame-faced and chastened, to their local community.

Close-up of Smisby lock-up

There must have been thousands of these lock-ups in 19th century Britain. They came in all shapes and sizes. Several hundred still remain, scattered across the length and breadth of the country, including several fine examples in Derbyshire and Leicestershire (for overseas readers unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of English place names and their spellings, that’s pronounced Lester-shire!)

Smisby lock-up looked picturesque when we visited a few weeks ago, a small, round brick-built structure (well, octagonal if we’re being strictly accurate) just a stones-throw from the village church, its tiled, pyramidal roof partly clothed by a climbing plant bearing a mass of handsome blossom. It’s been there since the early 18th century when it was used to lock up drunks and minor lawbreakers while they sobered up, or until they could be taken to court at Derby. It was also used to temporarily confine paupers and vagrants. 

Spare a thought, if you will, for the poor souls who spent time there, perhaps guilty only of enjoying rather more ale than was good for them. The space in which they were confined was tiny. It had no windows, light being admitted only through a few holes drilled into the sturdy wooden door – it’s no surprise, therefore, that lock-ups were popularly known as “Blind Houses.”

Breedon-on-the-Hill lock-up, Leicestershire

And let’s not dwell too long on how the men, women and children detained there managed when they had bodily functions to perform! It must have been a wretched, stinking hovel, freezing in winter and like an oven in the height of summer. Quaint and quirky though it looks today, Smisby lock-up was a grim place in which to spend time.

Built to the same basic design, although fashioned out of local stone, Breedon-on-the Hill lock-up was a similarly miserable place of confinement. It was built in about 1793, and remained in use until 1885.

Worthington lock-up, Leicestershire. Note the firing-slit window, added in WW2 for use in the event of a Nazi invasion

Worthington lock-up also dates from the 18th century. It sports an unexpected slit window, which is believed to have been inserted during World War 2 when the building was earmarked as a potential defensive pillbox for use in the event of a successful invasion by Hitler’s Nazis.

Alfreton lock-up, Derbyshire, (photographed in 1985)

Most of the lock-ups I’ve featured so far are to be found on the border of or in our neighbouring county of Leicestershire. But I wouldn’t wish you to think that Derbyshire folk were all so well-behaved that similar provision wasn’t needed here. Indeed the nearby town of Alfreton boasts an unusually large lock-up, perhaps reflecting the locals’ unusually large appetite for strong ale! It dates from around 1843 and contains multiple cells, evidence that bad boys abounded in Alfreton town in the mid-19th century.

Sandiacre lock-up, Derbyshire

Derbyshire’s Sandiacre lock-up dates from 1660, although it was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century. Above the door is a plaque bearing the words “Erected as a village lock-up and pound for the imprisonment of stray animals about the year 1660 AD”, which I guess tells us all we need to know about how drunkards, rogues and ne’er-do-wells were regarded when buildings like this were in use.

Jaggers Keep lock-up outside the village of Curbar, Derbyshire

Finally in this round-up of local lock-ups, consider Jaggers Keep in the Derbyshire village of Curbar. This substantial two storey, single room building dates from the 18th century and boasts a conical roof and stone chimney pot. It was apparently used to temporarily detain drunken and miscreant miners who were on their way to Derby jail, and is conclusive proof – if ever it were needed – that folk in my home county knew how to party!

An architect unchained: celebrating Augustus Pugin’s masterpiece

Architects have a frustrating life, don’t they, forever constrained by the briefs and the budgets of their paymasters, always wondering how much more they could achieve if their clients would only interfere a bit less and pay a bit more. But just occasionally, when the stars are in alignment and the gods smile benevolently upon him, an architect is given a free hand to express himself.

At 61m (200ft) Giles church is Cheadle’s tallest building

Augustus Pugin was one such architect, and when the chains were removed he built his masterpiece, St Giles church in the Staffordshire town of Cheadle. Otherwise known as Pugin’s Gem, St Giles is a Grade I listed Roman Catholic church built in the Gothic Revival style. With a spire standing 61m (200ft) high, it is by some way Cheadle’s tallest building, and is – in my humble opinion anyway – absolutely spectacular.

Looking down the nave towards the altar

If you’re not from the UK you almost certainly have never heard of Cheadle. I’m guessing most Brits aren’t familiar with it either. This is a humble West Midlands market town of around 11,000 people. For hundreds of years the main industry in the Cheadle area was coal mining, but the mines have all closed now and the town’s main employer (JCB) makes mechanical diggers and excavators. It’s a remarkably unremarkable little place, and would be instantly forgettable were it not for the efforts of Mr Pugin.

The arches, walls and pillars are covered in decorative stencilling

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), the son of a French draughtsman and designer, was a prodigiously talented and prolific architect whose output included the interior designs for the Palace of Westminster, and over one hundred churches and cathedrals. He also managed to find time to pen eight books on architecture and design before dying at the age of just 40, succumbing – it is believed – to the effects of syphilis that he first contracted in his late teens.

View across the nave towards the pulpit. To the right of the pulpit is the rood screen, intended to protect the altar from irreverent gaze! Above the rood screen is Christ on the cross, with figurines of Our Lady and St John on either side.

Pugin’s patron in the building of St Giles was John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852). In 1829, two years after Talbot succeeded to the title, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, better known as the Catholic Emancipation Act, 1829. This important piece of legislation allowed Roman Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to occupy all but a handful of public offices at a stroke, overturning restrictions that had been in place for hundreds of years.

Shrewsbury’s principal residence was at Alton Abbey – which he renamed Alton Towers – just 6 miles (9km) from Cheadle. The Earl took a keen interest in the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the town, and, emboldened by the Catholic Emancipation Act, he engaged Pugin to build a church there. Pugin, himself a Catholic, had previously undertaken an architectural commission for Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, and had impressed the Earl with his contention that Christian (or gothic) art and architecture could be a powerful weapon in the re-conversion of England to the Catholic faith.

The pulpit is carved from a single block of stone and features images of four saints

It was a marriage seemingly made in heaven. The Earl had the money, Pugin had the creative talent and the pair of them shared a passionate commitment to the Roman Catholic faith. Cheadle’s Catholic population was modest in size, but Pugin’s design was the opposite: extravagant, exuberant and extraordinary.

When St Giles was consecrated in 1846, the service was attended by Bishops, Archbishops and overseas statesmen, as well as the great and the good from the world of architecture and design. Cheadle had never seen anything like it before, and probably never will again.

Between the arch and the roof is a Doom Painting, a representation of the Last Judgment.

When we visited St Giles last year, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but insofar as I had expectations, Pugin’s Gem exceeded them one hundred fold. It is a breath-taking creation, all the more so for being located in this small and otherwise insignificant Staffordshire town. To describe it as totally over the top does not adequately describe its impact on the visitor, but you probably get the general idea!

The altar and reredos are carved out of alabaster. On the front of the altar are angels playing musical instruments. On the reredos the angels hold torches and censers.

I can’t agree with Pugin that architecture alone is capable of inducing religious conversion: in the 21st century such views are either wishful thinking or a dangerous delusion, depending on your point of view. My own spiritual beliefs were utterly untroubled by his masterpiece, but St Giles church remains clear in my memory, monumental and magnificent, a vivid testament to what can be achieved by an architect unchained.

Caldon Canal – Short on length, big on history!

It’s easy to underestimate the impact canals had on the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Today, if they are not drained of water or choked by vegetation, they’re mostly used for leisure purposes only. It is hard to believe that, 200 years ago, they were central to the industrial miracle that transformed society beyond all recognition.

Smart, colourful barges show that the canal is now used for recreational purposes. But hidden amongst the trees to the far left of this shot are remains of limekilns, a legacy from the canal’s industrial past.

The Caldon Canal is a mere 18 miles (29km) long, and runs from Froghall in Staffordshire to Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent, where it joins the much larger Trent and Mersey Canal. Completed in 1779 it was built primarily to transport limestone, so it comes as no surprise that abandoned limekilns can still be found along its route.

Closer view of the remains of limekilns at Consall Forge

The kilns at Consall Forge, which stand 10m high and 50m long, are now clothed in vegetation. Back in the day, however, the view would have been very different. Raw limestone, quarried nearby, would be loaded at the top of the limekilns. Furnaces heated the rock and converted it into quicklime, an essential resource in the steelmaking process. The quicklime would then be removed at the bottom of the kiln and loaded onto barges for onward transportation to where it would be used.

“Bridge #50” across the Caldon Canal at Consall Forge, in the picturesque Churnet Valley. Built c1779.

The remains of more limekilns can still be seen at Froghall Wharf, and here too the serene surroundings make it difficult to fully appreciate how the place must have bustled with activity in its heyday. Froghall also boasts a handsome 19th century warehouse. This has been tastefully repurposed as a café catering for 21st century visitors who like nothing more than to replenish the calories they’ve burned off during their canal-side strolls with a hot drink and an enormous slab of cake!

Former canal-side warehouse at Froghall Wharf, now serving coffee and cake!

One of the undoubted highlights of the Caldon Canal, and perhaps more unexpected, is the Cheddleton Flint Mill Museum. There was a watermill on the site in 1253, and by the 1500s there were two, one to wash woollen cloth in a process known as fulling, and one to mill corn. When the canal was driven past the mills in late 18th century it opened up the possibility of new uses.

Limekilns at Froghall Wharf

The Caldon Canal passes through Etruria, which was – from 1769 – the home of Josiah Wedgwood’s ground-breaking pottery business. One of his highly successful products was “creamware”, which used ground, calcined flint to help achieve its distinctive light-coloured appearance. The mills at Cheddleton were converted to grind the flint Wedgwood needed, and the canal enabled its easy transportation to the potter’s Etruria factory.

Canal view next to Cheddleton Flint Mill

Now owned and run by the Cheddleton Flint Mill Preservation Trust, the site offers fascinating insights into a flint milling process that I was completely unaware of before our visit. It also preserves the miller’s cottage, which dates from the 1800s, shining light on a lifestyle so very different from our own.

Cheddleton Flint Mill

The cottage is dressed as a piece of living history. Recently washed laundry (sparkling white!) hangs drying in front of the range, which serves both as the cottage’s source of heat and a stove for cooking meals. Along the walls two dressers display cherished pieces of tableware, and the table in the middle of the room is laid ready for tea. The exhibit is totally convincing, and it’s easy to believe that the miller and his wife have just popped put for a few minutes, and will soon be back to carry on with their lives.

The miller’s cottage at Cheddleton Flint Mill

Cheddleton Flint Mill is just one of many fascinating points of interest along the 18 miles of the Caldon Canal which, although clearly short on length, is undoubtedly big on history. A visit (or two, or maybe even three) can be strongly recommended if you’re ever in the area!