Castles ain’t what they used to be!

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

Arundel Castle in West Sussex.

Arundel Castle

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

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

Gatehouse at Arundel Castle, West Sussex.

Gatehouse, Arundel Castle

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

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

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

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

Source: Giving is Great retrieved 12 April 2023.

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

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

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

Zog at Warwick Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castles ain’t what they used to be!

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

Baddesley Clinton: murderous cuckolds, hidden priests and unintended marriages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central courtyard at Baddesley Clinton moated manor house in Warwickshire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dining Room

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

Reclaiming the landscape: Poolsbrook Country Park

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.

Great Crested Grebe

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.

Close-up of Mute Swan.

Mute Swan

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.

Grey Heron.

Grey Heron

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.”

The Sculpture Park: riding dinosaurs, boosting moods

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.

"Pre-Hysteric": a sculpture by Andrew Sinclair.

Pre-Hysteric, by Andrew Sinclair

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?

"Pre-Hysteric": sculpture of a naked lady riding on the back of a dinosaur, by Andrew Sinclair.

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!

"The Butler" - A sculpture by Paul Richardson on display at The Sculpture Park in Surrey (October 2022), with the added bonus of a bottle of hand sanitiser to help protect visitors from Covid!

The Butler, by Paul Richardson

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.

"The Butler" - A sculpture by Paul Richardson, in which an apparently obsequious servant hides a menacing tyre iron behind his back.

Look carefully to spot the tyre iron he’s hiding behind his back!

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.

"Doctor Foster", a work by Paul Richardson on display at The Sculpture Park in Surrey (October 2022)

Doctor Foster, by Paul Richardson

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.

"Jonah", a work by Paul Richardson on display at The Sculpture Park in Surrey (October 2022)

Jonah, by Paul Richardson

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?

Glimpses of a lost world

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

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

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

Bayleaf farmstead, from Chiddingstone in Kent

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

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

Medieval farmhouse, from Sole Street in Kent

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

Pendean Farmhouse, from Midhurst in Kent

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

Poplar Cottage, from Washington in West Sussex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Murals and metaphors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting weapons off the streets – the Manchester Anti-Violence Bee Monument

It’s a jungle out there. Living in a secure property on a comfortable middle class estate in a quiet Derbyshire town, it’s easy to forget the dangers of gun and knife crime. But only if you throw your television, radio, mobile phone and laptop out into the street, and lock yourself away from modern Britain. The news media revels in crime stories, even in the festive season, so its no surprise that the recent murders of Elle Edwards (shot in a pub in Wallasey on Christmas Eve) and Cody Fisher (stabbed in a Birmingham nightclub on Boxing Day) got massive coverage.

The Manchester Anti-Violence Bee Monument – parked up for the day outside a local filling station and café

Don’t get me wrong, it could be much worse. The murder rate per 100,000 people in the US is more than four times that in the UK (2018, extrapolated from data quoted in the World Population Review). Maybe that reflects, in part, the fact that in this country there is no constitutional right to bear arms (of course, we have no written constitution at all, but that’s another story altogether!) Our laws surrounding the carrying of weapons are strict, and I for one am enormously grateful for that.

But the law isn’t much of a deterrent or an obstacle to those who don’t respect it in the first place. There’s no shortage of weapons to be had in this country, so long as you know where to look. We urgently need to get them off our streets. With this in mind, Greater Manchester Police have committed to an ongoing amnesty project. It seeks to encourage holders of such weapons to surrender them voluntarily.

Some of the weapons collected have been used to create an anti-violence monument for the city. The monument takes the form of a giant bee, and is made out of literally hundreds of knives and firearms surrendered during the “Forever Amnesty” project. The artwork visited a local town near us a few weeks ago, so Mrs P and I popped along to where it was parked up to take a look.

The artists behind the Bee Monument are from the British Ironworks Centre, where the stunning Knife Angel was also created. It’s hard not to find the Monument both enormously impressive and seriously alarming. On the one hand it is magically eye-catching, bristling with glinting knives and glowing with well-oiled firearms. But on the other hand, I would never have believed there were so many deadly weapons in Manchester…which I guess shows just how innocent I am! And I wonder how many more are still out there, primed and ready for use by people with malice in their minds?

Seriously alarming…or a symbol of hope?

The Bee Monument is a splendid sculpture which does a decent job in raising awareness about the scale of the problem. But maybe, also, it’s a symbol of hope, showing that – with commitment and creativity – objects so profoundly ugly as weapons of death can be re-cast into a thing of beauty.

What energy crisis? Dinosaurs light up Yorkshire Wildlife Park

While Brits will know it only too well, overseas readers may be unaware that – due to the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the UK is in the middle of an energy crisis. Prices have gone through the roof, and we are warned that energy rationing, through a rolling programme of power cuts, is a real possibility if there is a prolonged cold snap later this winter.

Everyone is being urged to be energy aware, and to cut down on power consumption if at all possible. But you’d never know that there was any problem at all, if you were basing your opinion on the Festival of Lights and Lanterns at Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP).

As I’ve written before, I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but YWP seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. But conservation costs money, so managers are happy to embrace initiatives that will attract paying members of the public through the gates. And what better way, at this festive time of year, than to flood the place with countless coloured lights?

We went to last year’s Festival of Lights and Lanterns, and had a great evening. It’s not the most obvious way to celebrate Christmas, but it worked for me and countless others too. Giant, glowing coloured lanterns were distributed throughout the Park, representing some of the critters living there, including polar bears, tigers, giraffes and okapi, and a few others that just wouldn’t feel quite at home, such as whales! There were even a few dinosaurs, poignant reminders of the world we have lost.

The regular critters – tigers, giraffes and the like – were back in force for this winter’s Festival. It was good to see these old friends, and also pleasing to note that last year’s favourites had been recycled and not simply trashed. But the big change, for the 2022/23 season, was in the population of dinosaurs, which seems to have exploded over the last few months!

And don’t the visitors love them, T-Rex and Triceratops, and all their brutish buddies? Children looked on in awe, and adults lapped it up too, a welcome opportunity to escape – if only for an hour or two – the stresses and strains of life in the UK at the end of 2022. Just for a short while it was possible to forget the energy crisis, and bathe irresponsibly in the light of a thousand colourful lanterns. But spare a thought, if you will, for YWP’s Director of Finance…he may be in for a few sleepless night when the Park’s next electricity bill arrives!

The company of cats

It’s been a tough year. While catching Covid was the worst thing that happened to us personally in 2022, from a national and international perspective it’s been unrelentingly grim. In a year in which the UK lost its queen after 70 years on the throne, political turmoil and financial crisis have stalked the land, the National Health Service is in meltdown, social care is collapsing and many folk can no longer afford to heat their homes or buy enough food to feed their families. Misery rules, OK! And overseas, events in the Ukraine reinforce the sense of instability and imminent jeopardy.

Malteser (aka Pudrow). Here he’s relaxing on the sofa (“HIS” sofa!) which lives in our Library Room

Are we downhearted? Well, to be honest, from time to time I am! But one of the things that has brought me a degree of comfort and solace in the dark times has been the company of cats. Two cats in particular, Milky Bar and his buddy Malteser.

Regular readers of this blog will know that although Mrs P and I have no cat of our own, Milky Bar and Malteser, who live somewhere on our street, regard our garden as part of their territory. And Malteser also lays claim to our house, although he graciously allows us to continue living here so long as we allow him access whenever he feels the need!

Milky Bar (aka EmBee). On the bridge over the pond, struggling to keep his eyes open.

We see Milky Bar most days in summer, but rather less often at this time of year. He’s a beautiful chap, although getting on a bit in years and growing stouter around the tummy. His hobby is snoozing, and he’s pleased to indulge in it at every opportunity. He regularly beds down in a nest he has built for himself under an azalea bush, but when he craves sun rather than shade he stretches out on the little wooden bridge that crosses the narrowest part of our garden pond. Here he can soak up the rays while keeping one eye open to watch out for dragonflies, which he’ll catch and eat if the fancy takes him.

Milky Bar’s favourite hobby is snoozing. He practises regularly!

Milky Bar is an aloof and somewhat cautious cat, but clearly trusts us to respect his personal space. Occasionally he will approach, softly miaowing and offering himself up to be stroked But mostly he keeps his distance, happily observing what is going on all around him. He watches with interest whenever he sees me doing the gardening (or is he in shock? I don’t do much gardening!), and allows me to approach within inches of him without stirring. We enjoy one another’s company, both understanding that there are boundaries between us that must be respected.

Occasionally Milky Bar approaches us, miaowing softly and offering himself up to be stroked. Here, he’s half way through the kitchen door.

Of course there are times when I wish Milky Bar were more affectionate, more gratuitously friendly. But that’s not his style, and his mere presence in the garden is always enough to raise my spirits.

Milky Bar doing what he does best, asleep on the bridge over the pond.

Malteser, however, is altogether more forward. He visits every day, and is normally to be found waiting outside the door when I go downstairs to make an early morning cup of tea at around 6:30am. I open up, and he dashes in. We greet one another in the time-honoured fashion, but pretty soon he gets on with business, sitting himself down in the kitchen and waiting to be fed.

The cat treats we buy are called Pawsome Pockets, “crunchy pillow treats with a soft centre.” Available in beef, chicken and salmon flavours, Pawsome Pockets are evidently very tasty, and Malteser loves them. But his meal is invariably interrupted by Mrs P, who comes downstairs to join us. Malteser breaks off and strides across the kitchen, greeting her with loud purrs and fond nuzzling. Mrs P takes over feeding duties, and the purring gets even louder. Malteser’s in heaven, and Mrs P looks pretty damned happy with life too!

Personal grooming is an activity that Malteser clearly enjoys.

When his breakfast treat is over, Malteser throws himself on to the kitchen floor, rolling on his back and inviting me to rub his belly and fondle his ears. I’m happy to oblige. As soon as I’ve done my duty he dashes upstairs to the Study. We follow, and spend the next 10 minutes entertaining him, playing “chase the ball” or “pounce on the piece of paper.” By this time his purrs are so loud that the windows almost rattle in sympathy.

Malteser loves to play. I spend more time on my hands and knees indulging him than is good for a man of my advanced years!

And then suddenly, and for no obvious reason, he evidently decides that enough is enough. He trots downstairs and waits beside the door to be let out. We are in no doubt that within a few minutes he will be visiting another of our neighbours, demanding attention and treats from them too. He’s that sort of cat.

One of Malteser’s favourite places to sit is on this blue plastic bag, which we left lying in a corner of the Study one day. He’s a somewhat eccentric cat!

Malteser may return two or three time during the day, for treats, belly rubs, playtime and lots of attention. Sometimes he simply uses us as a convenient short cut, entering by the back door them marching immediately through the house to the front door, where he demands to be let out again. And we, being desperate to please him, do just that.

When Malteser gazes up at me like this I’m powerless to resist him!

While he is with us, Malteser brightens up our lives. So thank you, Malteser, and Milky Bar too, for making a difficult year a little less difficult. And come again guys, as often as you like, in 2023: the company of cats will always be welcome here.

Malteser is almost as skilled at snoozing as Milky Bar!

And while we’re on subject of thanks, I’d also like to thank anyone out there who ever reads or comments on this blog. Your continuing interest has certainly helped keep my spirits up throughout this miserable year. How can I ever thank you? I don’t think you’d like Pawsome Pockets, and I guess it would be inappropriate – and maybe a bit creepy – to offer you a belly rub, but it’s my absolute pleasure to wish you a Merry Christmas, and Happy & Healthy New Year. Have a great time, guys!

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!