The Invergordon murals

It’s around 11am and we’re wandering the streets of Invergordon, a small town in the Scottish Highlands, in search of its famous murals. The place is dead: all the shops appear to be closed, there’s no traffic and no pedestrians either. We’ve not logged onto the Internet this morning, so maybe civilisation ended overnight and we’ve missed out on the news?

“Fire, Fire” by Anna Stirling, depicting a fire at the Royal Hotel in 1973.

We continue to explore the main street, our eyes scanning random walls for murals, cameras at the ready. After about a quarter of an hour we encounter a dishevelled, middle-aged guy slumped on a bench seat. He eyes us suspiciously.

“We’re here for the murals,” I say brightly by way of explanation.

“Oh, them!” he grumbles, “they’re rubbish. I can do better with a can of spray paint, even when I’m drunk!”

We must be looking doubtful, so Wasted Tam – as I like to think of him – adds, with more than a hint of bitterness, “I live around here and I’m telling you, they’re rubbish. You should go to Inverness, or…anywhere but here. This place is rubbish.”

“A Century of Sport” by Alan Potter. Interesting that one of the sports depicted is cricket, as this is a game not usually associated with the Scottish Highlands.

Although it’s not yet lunch time, a miasma of alcohol fumes hovers above Tam’s head, and I calculate that if I strike a match right now we’ll all go up in flames. We resolve to treat his assessment of Invergordon and its murals with a degree of caution. But we also note that this place is not without problems!

Invergordon is a small port town on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, infamous as the spot where – in 1931 – the UK’s entire Atlantic Fleet went on strike when the government tried to cut ratings’ pay. The Invergordon Mutiny, as it became known, ended peacefully and the town slipped back into well-deserved obscurity for 70 years, until local resident Marion Rhind proposed an idea to brighten up her neighbourhood and attract visitors by scattering some murals about the place.

“Gather Round” by Alan Potter, depicting the Invergordon Highland Gathering, which was an important annual event for the local community and visitors for over 100 years

Marion was inspired to come up with her cunning plan by her parents, who told her about a little Tasmanian town called Sheffield, where gable ends have been brightly painted to depict local characters and stories. Coincidentally, Mrs P and I have also visited Sheffield and liked the place. I wrote about it on my blog of our 2016 trip to Tasmania, but never knew it had prompted a similar initiative in Scotland.

“Pipes and Drams” by Anna Starling, a tribute to the famous Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band. In the background is the former Invergordon Castle.

Following Marion’s lightbulb moment, a working group was formed in January 2002 to help turn theory into practice. The Invergordon Off the Wall group came up with the following aims for its project: to…

  • revive the community spirit of Invergordon, by giving the community a common aim
  • enhance civic pride
  • celebrate the history of Invergordon
  • halt economic decline by re-branding the town as a destination for tourism
  • create a cultural focus for the town through a special outdoor art gallery
  • promote an ongoing interest in our own history

Lofty aims indeed, and although there are perhaps not as many murals as we anticipated they are fascinating and well executed. One shows the range of sports that are, or have been, played by local people, while another offers insights into the Invergordon Highland Gathering. A third celebrates the local lifeboat and its volunteer crew, and another reflects nostalgically on “The Way We Were.”

“The Way We Were” by Steve Des Landes depicts the Royal Marine Band marching down Invergordon High Street, as they did in the past when the Royal Navy fleet were regular visitors to Invergordon’s deep water anchorage.

One of the most striking murals depicts a fire that engulfed Invergordon’s Royal Hotel in 1973. This was reportedly a dramatic, memorable day for local people, and the magnificent mural serves to keep those memories alive. Also eye-catching is “Pipes and Drams”, a tribute to the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band. I can’t help thinking that Wasted Tam must approve of the distillery’s product, even if he hates murals (and possibly pipe bands too!)

“Volunteer Spirit” by Ken White shows the previous Invergordon lifeboat, which served in Invergordon from 1996 until 2021.

However, my favourite of all the murals is “Our Legacy”, depicting some of the wildlife and wild places to be found in the Invergordon area. It includes this quote from Trinidadian author Aliyyah Eniath –

“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

Taken from “The Yard” by Aliyyah Eniath

The quote echoes my own feelings for the natural world, and as an added bonus the colourful mural features in one corner my favourite bird in the whole world, the oystercatcher. The mural was created with the assistance of local children, whose names are preserved for posterity beneath the images they helped to paint.

“Our Legacy” by Tracey Shough features wildlife that can be see in the Invergordon area.

Taken as a whole Invergordon’s murals are a fine example of community public art, but I worry that they’ve done little to boost tourist numbers or revive the local economy. And, if Wasted Tam is in any way typical of other townsfolk, they’ve not done much to enhance civic pride either. Invergordon Off the Wall is a well-intentioned, impressive project, and deserves to be better appreciated.

Oystercatcher detail from the “Our Legacy”.

On the road again…First stop, the Kelpies!

At last, after a gap of nearly four years due to the Covid pandemic, we’re heading back to Scotland. Our final destination is Orkney – our favourite place in the whole world – but during the long drive north there’s time to stop off at some other Scottish highlights. And those highlights don’t come much higher than the Kelpies, reputed to be the largest equine sculptures in the world

“The Kelpies” by Andy Scott (born 1964)

Dating from 2013/14, the monumental steel sculptures by artist Andy Scott stand 30 metres (100 feet) high, and weigh in at more than 300 tonnes each. They are made up of an extraordinary 34,566 separate pieces, including 7,918 huck bolts (whatever they are!) and 928 steel skin plates. The pieces took a whole year to manufacture, and the final assembly of the sculptures took 90 days.

The Kelpies tower over the Forth and Clyde Canal

According to Scottish folk mythology, a kelpie is a dangerous shape-shifting creature that lives in water but can also appear on land – close to a river, of course – as a grey or white pony. In designing his sculptures Andy Scott imagined two Kelpies emerging from a river in the form of horses. His sketch (below) shows how the now familiar heads of his two creations relate to the whole animals.

Andy Scott’s vision of kelpies emerging from the water

Folklore tells us that children in particular are attracted to these cute equine critters. But therein lurks a terrifying danger, for if anyone tries to ride one, the animal’s sticky magical hide will not allow them to dismount! The Kelpie then carries its victim into the river and eats him. Worse still, Kelpies are very sneaky and may also appear in human form, materializing as pretty young women in an attempt to lure lustful men to their deaths – see below how this played out in the gratuitously salacious imagination of artist Herbert James Draper (1863 – 1920). Or they might take on the form of a human mugger, laying in wait by the river until a passer-by is close enough to ambush, capture and kill.

IMAGE CREDIT: “The Kelpie” (1913) by Herbert James Draper, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately Kelpies have an Achilles heel, a weak spot that enables humans to subdue them. To overcome a Kelpie you must grab hold of its bridle, at which point it will fall under your command. Captive Kelpies are prized for their immense strength and endurance. Having been transformed from malevolent spirits into compliant draught animals, they can be harnessed to safely carry passengers or to haul vast loads.

This Kelpie dwarfs a passer-by!

Scott’s sculptures are modelled on a real life beast-of-burden, the iconic Clydesdale horse. These magnificent draught animals played a key role in the early days of Scotland’s industrial revolution, hauling barges and wagons laden with raw materials and manufactured goods to where they were needed. To ensure his sculptures captured the essence of Clydesdale horses Scott worked closely with two local animals called Duke and Baron (see below), and is reported to have developed a close relationship with them.

Helix Park near Falkirk in the central Scottish lowlands, where Scott’s sculptures are to be found, is no stranger to Clydesdales. The Forth and Clyde Canal runs through the Park, and Clydesdale horses must once have been a familiar sight trudging wearily along its banks hauling monstrously heavy barges. Scott’s sculpture pays due homage to their heroic efforts, as well as reflecting a fascinating part of Scottish folklore.

Inside a Kelpie!

Andy Scott has done a great job, creating two stunning, monumental sculptures that are deeply embedded in Scottish history and mythology. As well as viewing them from afar, this time we signed up for a special tour which took us inside one of them and enabled us to better appreciate the huge creative and engineering effort that went into making these vast sculptures. I’m so pleased that we broke our journey north to re-acquaint ourselves with the Kelpies, which are unquestionably amongst my favourite pieces of public art in the UK.

It’s World Topiary Day!

Today, Sunday 14 May, is World Topiary Day. Who knew? Not me, obviously, but Mrs P stumbled across a reference somewhere and thought it might make for an interesting post. For the uninitiated, topiary is the art of shaping shrubs and sculpting compact trees and hedges into ornamental representations of birds and animals, as well as various decorative architectural forms. It is believed to have originated in ancient Rome, was revived in Renaissance Italy, and became a big hit in 17th century England.

Tatton Park Italian Garden, Cheshire, UK (2018)

Today, if you look hard enough, you can find examples of topiary just about anywhere. We see it frequently when visiting grand stately homes in the UK, but have also encountered it in parks, gardens and other horticultural settings as far apart as Costa Rica, Australia, the US and Singapore.

Felley Priory, Nottinghamshire, UK (2017)

At its best topiary is great to look at, and you are left wondering “How long did that take?” or “How did they manage that?” and, just occasionally, “Why on earth did they bother?” It’s an art form, and I can’t help admiring people with the imagination, skills and dedication needed to turn a few random bushes and trees into something so spectacular that “Wow!” is the first thought springing to mind when you encounter their creations.

Westbury Court, Gloucestershire, UK

Of course, the trouble with living things is that eventually they die, and one of the saddest sights is to see topiary creations disfigured by the ravages of time and disease. Unfortunately, it’s a particular problem right now in topiary fashioned from the box tree. Box is a compact, slow-growing evergreen tree that is ideal for topiary work, but a fungal disease called box blight causes leaves to turn brown and drop off, leaving behind unsightly bare branches. This, sadly, is ruining and sometimes killing off many otherwise attractive topiary creations.

Trentham Gardens Italian Garden, Staffordshire, UK (2018)

Some places go mad for topiary. Zarcero, for example, is a totally unremarkable little town situated in the mountains of Costa Rica, roughly 80km from the capital San Jose. Unremarkable, that is, until you visit the park, where cypress trees have been painstakingly shaped into arches, dinosaurs, birds, dogs and sundry other shapes. Not at all what we expected on our 2008 trip to Costa Rica, but loads of fun!

Zarcero, Costa Rica (2008)

And what about Railton? Although wildlife viewing was the main purpose of our only visit to Australia – as it had also been when we went to Costa Rica – how could we resist a visit to Tasmania’s “Town of Topiary”? Looking back to my blog of that trip I see I had a lot to say about Railton, not all of it very complimentary. I observed that “Many of the living sculptures have seen better days and are apparently suffering from die-back, or neglect, or both.  A few are plainly still tended and the “topiary park” has some reasonable figures, but others have clearly been abandoned to their fate and nature is taking its inevitable course.” That was back in 2016. Hopefully things have improved since then, and the Town of Topiary is back on track..

Railton, Tasmania (2016.) The horse and jockey is probably the best single piece of topiary I’ve ever seen.

Our experience at the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was more positive but equally unexpected. There are plenty of good reasons for visiting the smallest state in the US, and topiary isn’t one of them. However Green Animals offered a welcome distraction from the endless extravagance of the Gilded Age mansions, and was definitely worth the side-trip we made to see it in 2007. It claims to be the oldest topiary garden in the US with more than eighty sculpted trees, including teddy bears, a camel an elephant and even a person in a peaked cap.

Green Animals Topiary Garden, Portsmouth, Rhode Island (2007)

Our own garden is large enough to accommodate a piece of topiary – indeed, our neighbour, who is a keen and talented gardener, has done just that – but it’s not something I’ve ever been tempted to try. In my view, life’s way too short to consider turning hedge cutting into a hobby. The wretched things needs clipping regularly, or they quickly become unkempt: look carefully at the photos, and you’ll see that many of the living sculptures we’ve seen over the years were badly in need of a trim!

The Flower Dome, Singapore (2019)

So instead of creating my own piece of topiary I’ll have to make do with appreciating other people’s efforts, like those shown in the photos taken from Mrs P’s extensive archive of our travels. Who would have believed you can achieve so much with just a few trees and a hedge trimmer? The way I see it, topiary is definitely worth celebrating, so long as it’s someone else who’s doing all the hard work. Have a Happy World Topiary Day, guys!

Dinosaurs reborn!

We took a day trip to Yorkshire Wildlife Park last week. It was great to catch up with their iconic critters, a couple of which – Amur Tigers and Warty Pigs – have featured in earlier posts on this blog. But there was a new exhibit that also caught the eye. As well as investing in 21st century wildlife and conservation, the Park has also been throwing money at Pangea, where kids both young and old can get up close and personal with the dinosaur of their dreams.

Dilophosaurus, displayed in the Pangea exhibit at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.


When we visited the Park in December for its annual winter Festival of Lights and Lanterns, illuminated dinosaurs were much in evidence. But although the seasons have changed since then, and the Christmas lights have been packed away, the prehistoric presence remains. According to the Park’s website, Pangea “is home to over 30 life-sized moving ROARING dinosaurs! From the terrifying T-Rex to the villainous Velociraptors, you will find everyone’s favourite Jurassic characters in the heart of Doncaster!” Plainly dinosaurs are for life, not just for Christmas.

Towering dinosaur displayed in the Pangea exhibit at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.

Big, fierce and scary, dinosaurs fire the imagination. I’m sure some of the youngsters who visit the Pangea exhibit come away with a secret dream to become fossil hunters, spending their lives searching for the remains of the iconic, long-gone beasts. It’s an enticing notion, but the reality is very different. During our many trips to the USA, Mrs P and I have visited several dinosaur fossil sites. Here, eager visitors are greeted by a near-incomprehensible jumble of fossilised bones, and maybe a few random, indistinct dinosaur footprints.

The search for dinosaur fossils is challenging in the extreme. Fieldwork invariably takes place in harsh, remote landscapes that are a world away from the comforts of 21st century living. The work is slow and painstaking; meticulous attention to detail and the patience of a saint are essential attributes of any wannabe dinosaur hunter.

Big, ground-breaking discoveries are thin on the ground. Most days on site must be a tedious slog, groundhog days with added blisters. When the sun goes down there’s often little to show for the day’s efforts, maybe just a few more fragments of disarticulated bone that seem to bear little relation to the dreadful dinosaurs that roam our imaginations.

Few of us have the skill-set or temperament to become palaeontologists, so the display of dinosaur skeletons in museums has an important role to play in helping us understand and appreciate the world of dinosaurs. But even those skeletons have their limitations, and this is where exhibits such as Pangea come into their own.

Brontosaurus, displayed in the Pangea exhibit at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.


Yes, Pangea is sensationalist and shallow, but it does bring home to visitors just how amazing dinosaurs really were. The brutal brontosaurus*, the towering tyrannosaurus and the staggering stegosaurus are given scale and context by the exhibits at Yorkshire Wildlife Park. I defy anyone to view them without thinking “Wow! Creatures like this once roamed our Earth? Really?”

Apatosaurus, displayed in the Pangea exhibit at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.


Pangea is a fun, low-effort learning experience. Wearing my intellectual, pseudo-academic hat, I do wish there was an additional exhibit replicating, or based upon, one of the dinosaur discovery sites we’ve visited, so that visitors could gain some basic insights into the realities of palaeontology. I know that will never happen, but although it is a lost opportunity – in my humble opinion, anyway! – Pangea does have real value in increasing popular interest in, and knowledge of a lost world.

Velociraptor, displayed in the Pangea exhibit at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.

Velociraptor, with Tsingtaosaurus behind

Dinosaurs have been reborn at Yorkshire Wildlife Park, and I’m pleased to have made their acquaintance.

Top Left: Tsintaosaurus. Top Middle: Pachyrhinosaurus. Top Right: Ankylosaurus. Bottom Left: ? Bottom Right: T-Rex.

* OK, for anyone reading this who knows their stuff about dinosaurs, I acknowledge that the brontosaurus wasn’t actually brutal. It was a herbivore, albeit one with a HUGE appetite. But the writer in me loves the way the words “brutal brontosaurus” roll off the tongue. Sometimes, you have to sacrifice just a tad of truth on the altar of alliteration!

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?

Horse power!

Although its primary focus is on the preservation and display of historic buildings from South-East England, the Weald and Downland Living Museum offers other fascinating insights into the lives of ordinary people in times past. A notable highlight of our visit last October was to be able to watch a team of horses ploughing a field that forms part of the Museum’s land. Only a few decades ago such a sight would have been totally unremarkable anywhere in rural England, but these days draught horses have little if any role in country life beyond their participation in ploughing competitions that hark back nostalgically to the pre-industrial world.

The term “draught” horse is derived from the Old English word dragan, meaning “to haul” or “to draw”. They are also referred to as carthorses, work horses or heavy horses. And these terms, I guess, tells us all we need to know. Back in the day, when heavy loads needed to moved or agricultural land had to be worked, the horse was England’s go-to beast of burden. Even as the Industrial Revolution started to kick in, horses toiled along towpaths hauling canal barges laden with raw materials and manufactured goods.

In these modern times, when internal combustion and diesel engines rule the roost, it’s difficult to imagine a moment when we depended not on them but instead on the humble horse. The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s mission is to celebrate and remind us of the world we have lost, and watching three magnificent horses going about their business did just that.

The Museum’s horses are Percherons, a breed of draught horse that originated in western France. Usually grey or black in colour, Percherons are sturdy animals known for their intelligence and willingness to work. They were originally bred as war horses, but later became sought-after animals for agricultural work and hauling heavy goods. As well as ploughing, the horses we encountered also help out with a number of other seasonal farming tasks. These include sowing, haymaking and harvesting, as well as timber-extraction from the Museum’s woodland.

The Museum’s Percherons seemed content in their work, and the guy leading them clearly cared deeply for their welfare. He was practising for a ploughing competition the next day, and although I’m no expert it seemed from what I saw that he and his horsey team were in with a good shout!

In addition to its draught horses, the Museum has several fine examples of historic horse-drawn vehicles. These include a spectacularly colourful gypsy caravan dating from the late 19th century, and a far more humble “living caravan” which would have been home to labourers who travelled the countryside in search of opportunities for paid work.

Like the rest of the exhibits on display at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, the Percherons and horse-drawn vehicles we saw there offered fascinating insights into a world that is almost beyond comprehension from our comfortable, 21st century perspective. I strongly recommend a visit!

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”