The joys of gardening . . .

Actually, I don’t really enjoy gardening. That’s something my wife Steph takes charge of. I just mow the grass – front and back – when needed.

But I really appreciate the beauty and color that Steph’s efforts bring into the garden each Spring and Summer.

After a dreadful winter – mild but very wet, we’ve had an early Spring and I reckon that many plants in the garden are at least two weeks ahead of their ‘normal’ flowering time. What that means is that the garden is full of different plants – columbines, lupins, Welsh poppies, bleeding hearts, fringe-cups, etc. that you wouldn’t normally expect to see in full bloom at the same time.

But it does lead to a wonderful early summer display. So yesterday, in a short break between heavy showers, I grabbed my video camera and rushed into the garden. I’d almost finished when it started to rain – again – and towards the end of the video below you can see one large rain drop on the lens. I didn’t do any editing of the footage – just stringed the clips together, found a piece of music on Freeplay that turned out to be exactly the same length as the clips, and posted it on YouTube.



It was inevitable, really . . .

‘What?’, I hear you ask. Publication of a raft of new books about the ‘Great War’, the ‘First World War’, ‘World War I’, the ‘War to End All Wars’ – take your pick – since August this year marks the centenary of the start of that war. I recently wrote about a couple of these that discussed the events leading up to the outbreak of war, and how and why it came to end as it did in November 1918 after years of stalemate. Although a ‘student’ of history, I normally avoid the many books about military history and especially the First and Second World Wars. But since these must make up at least 50% or more of those on the history shelves, I guess it was inevitable that my attention would be drawn to these, especially in this centenary year. But, if you follow the thesis of James Hawes latest offering Englanders and Huns, then conflict between Great Britain and Germany was inevitable from the 1860s onwards. And in an innovative way, Hawes (a German scholar and academic at Oxford Brookes University) has used articles and editorials, and – most interestingly – cartoons, from both German and English newspapers and magazines (Punch, in the case of the UK) during the 50 years leading up to August 1914.

Germany was a country that lacked confidence, envious (jealous, even) of Great Britain, a country it thought should be its natural ally. It was envious of Great Britain’s empire, its navy and perceived that its imperial aims were being thwarted. With Bismarck in power – reflecting a dichotomy in German society between the conservative and Protestant north and northeast (Prussia) and the liberal and Catholic south, German society was also very rigid and hierarchical: the ‘vons’ versus the ‘non-vons’ in Hawes’ terminology. The tensions between Germany and Great Britain were not helped by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, being half-English – his mother Victoria, the Princess Royal, was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. The Kaiser’s apparent fondness, at times, for all things ‘English’ (much resented in Germany), his dislike of his uncle, the future Edward VII, and his apparent mental instability all contributed towards growing animosity between the two countries.

I also learned a new term after reading this book: ‘Manchesterism’ (symbolizing free trade and consumerism) that was coined by a German socialist in the 1870s as a term of abuse. By the end of the 19th century and Germany’s support for the Boers in South Africa, it was surprising that Germany had not already come to blows with Great Britain. Everyone expected it – and were already planning how new technology could be used to curtail the power and influence of the Royal Navy, as this cartoon clearly illustrates, even before the Zeppelin had been ordered for the German military. Englanders and Huns is not a particularly easy read – but it’s a worthwhile one, opening up a new window on Anglo-German relations in the decades before 1914. It also says a lot about what came after the First World War and the rise of Nazi Germany. It was published in February this year by Simon & Schuster (ISBN:  0857205285, 9780857205285).

‘. . . tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today’. (John Dryden, 1631-1700)

That’s a quotation from a poem by Poet Laureate John Dryden, and distant cousin to the family whose home we visited last week. Summer had arrived, and – having prepared a picnic – we headed 50 miles southeast to  Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire.

Canons Ashby House and estate was acquired by the National Trust only about 30 years ago. It had been offered to the Trust several decades earlier, but the Dryden family (which continues to have connections with Canons Ashby) was unable to provide the financial support needed to enable the Trust to take on the necessary long-term commitment. That changed around 1980 when the National Trust was able to secure public funds to acquire and restore the house that had already declined into a near terminal state of disrepair.

1. Car park; 2. Reception; 3. Toilets; 4. House entrance; 5. Garden entrance; 6. Steps into park; 7. Parkland; 8. Priory Church of St Mary; 9. The Norwell; 10. The Orchard; 11. Site of Medieval Village; 12. The Paddock.

Three decades on and you wouldn’t believe what a transformation has taken place, and Canons Ashby is indeed one of the nicer National Trust properties that we have visited since becoming members at the beginning of 2011.

The 2500 acre estate and house was inherited by Sir Henry Dryden in 1837 (the 8th generation of his family to live at Canons Ashby), when he was just 19. Leaving his studies at Cambridge, he set about rescuing the house from more than 100 years of neglect, and made some extensive alterations to the rooms inside.

But the origins of the estate go much further back. An Augustinian priory was founded there in the 13th century, and the Priory Church of St Mary is all that remains today of a much larger settlement. And from Tudor times, and after the Dissolution of the monasteries, stones from the priory were used in the construction of the original parts of the house. The Priory Church is one of just a handful of privately-owned churches in England. The site of a medieval village lies to the north side of the house (11 on the site plan). Apparently, the Black Death badly affected Canons Ashby in the mid-14th century and more than half of the village died.

The house itself is surrounded by a small formal garden leading southwards towards the Lion Gate through what is now a vegetable garden. Beautifully manicured lawns and flower beds grace the south side of the house, but to the west is a walled garden, the Green Court, planted with yews, which provided the family some degree of privacy from outsiders and servants alike.

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An archway (in part of the original Tudor building) leads into the Pebbled Court, and steps leading into the Great Hall. On the ground floor there are several rooms open to visitors: the hall itself, with an impressive display of swords and muskets on the walls and over the fireplace; the paneled dining rooms (with some impressive portraits including Sir John Dryden who erected paneling in many of the rooms in the 18th century); the book room/study, and a small room that was a museum developed by Sir Henry. Above the fireplace in the dining room is a mirror, slightly tilted forwards to enable anyone with their back to the window (but facing the fireplace) to see the garden (Green Court) outside.


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On the first floor, two rooms in particular are impressive: the Drawing Room with its fireplace and domed, plastered ceiling; and the Tapestry Room, a bedroom with beautiful tapestries hanging on the walls. In another bedroom, Spensers Room, some of the oak paneling has been removed to reveal the remains of some fine Tudor wall paintings.

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Off a long gallery on the north side of the building there is a nursery, and the bedroom of Alice, Sir Henry’s only daughter – who became a well-known photographer who established a dark room in the cellars. Descending gingerly through low-framed doors and winding stairs in the oldest part of the house, there is the Servants’ Hall (once thought to be the original family dining room) and the kitchen (with its incredibly high, vaulted ceiling). The Servants’ Hall is rather intriguing, for a couple of reasons at least. The walls are covered in paneling, brilliantly decorated with coats of arms and escutcheons, some of which seem to indicate a link with Freemasonry (even though the Freemasons as such were not founded for a couple of centuries later). At least one window was bricked up – which previously had a view over the Green Court – so that servants could not watch the family at play.

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From Tudor times onwards, the Dryden family were harshly Puritan, and supported Parliament during the Civil Wars of the 1640s. In the Green Court there is a statue of a shepherd boy reputed to have warned the Parliament troops stationed at Canons Ashby about the approach of Royalist forces. It is rather curious, therefore, that a portrait of King Charles I is displayed rather prominently in the dining room.

Canons Ashby is a delightful National Trust property. It feels like a family home, but the centuries of its history just ooze from the woodwork.