Forever my ‘home town’

I was born in Congleton, but my family moved to Leek in North Staffordshire when I was seven, in 1956. I haven’t lived in Leek for more than 50 years since I moved away to university in 1967, and afterwards to distant parts across the globe. Despite not being a native-born Leekensian, I always consider Leek, the Queen of the Moorlands, as my ‘home town’. My deep memories of Congleton are really few and far between.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had tickets to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and rather than try and make it to the show in one day from our home in north Worcestershire (a round trip of almost 200 miles by the ‘fastest’ route) we decided to spend a couple of nights in Leek, and take in other visits to Biddulph Grange Garden on the way north, and return home via Lyme Park which is southeast of Stockport.

Leek was an excellent base for these excursions. And it was a great opportunity to see how the town had changed since we were last there in September 2011. 

Leek (from Ladderedge in the west) in the 1960s, with The Roaches and Staffordshire Moorlands beyond.

Many of the mill chimneys have disappeared from the Leek skyline, but four (maybe five) buildings still stand out: the tower of the Church of St Edward the Confessor on the left, the green ‘dome’ (now grey) of the Nicholson Institute (centre), and to the right the spire of the Catholic church, St Mary’s, the Monument, and the tower of St Luke’s. What a magnificent panorama! No wonder Leek keeps drawing me back, even if it is only once in a while.

I have included here just a small sample of the photos I took during this visit. There’s a larger collection in this album for you to enjoy.


One thing that struck immediately me on this visit: just how much traffic and congestion there is in the town now. We had traveled into Leek along the Macclesfield Road and Mill St en route to our hotel, the Premier Inn next to the Monument. We followed a long line of cars and trucks (some of them behemoths).

The roundabout was removed after 2013.

The roundabout at the junction of Derby St (Leek’s main shopping thoroughfare), Haywood St and Ashbourne Road has now been replaced by traffic lights. I couldn’t fathom how this change had improved traffic flow, except that it must be easier for large commercial vehicles making their way through the town, rather than having to navigate a rather tight roundabout. Through traffic is routed this way to and from Stoke-on-Trent. 

Removal of the roundabout was a cause célèbre among Leekensians at the time. I don’t know whether that has now died down. There does seem to be some nostalgia for it on a couple of Leek Facebook groups that I joined. Personally, I quite like the ‘new’ look around the Monument and the end of Derby Street, with the development of Sparrow Park and its seating areas. But we did find one aspect very confusing. Given the layout there and along sections of Derby Street, and the types of paving used, we often did not realize which parts were traffic free or not. Or maybe I was just having a senior moment.


Leek is about half the size of where I live now, Bromsgrove. But Leek seems to be thriving better than Bromsgrove. Maybe it’s the proximity of Bromsgrove to Birmingham. But the shopping in our High St is rather run down compared to Leek.

In another blog post I commented on the high number of pubs in Leek compared to Bromsgrove. It never ceases to amaze me when wandering around the town just how many there are. However, it seems some are not doing so well, like The Quiet Woman at the bottom of St Edward St, where there was a notice stating that the pub was closed until further notice.


I was interested to see renovation in some parts of the town, such as the opening of Getliffe’s Yard, off Derby Street. I had no idea it was there, and it’s now a haven for a number of upmarket boutiques and a very decent restaurant, Leek Café Bar & Grill, with a Mediterranean (Turkish) flavour. We had an excellent meal there on our first night, washed down with a couple pints of Efes lager.

It’s good to see how a number of mills, like the one on the corner of Shoobridge Street and Haywood Street are occupied once again. But it’s also disappointing that too many are empty, particularly the one that dominates Mill Street that is now in a bad state of repair. Is conversion to apartments not feasible? After all, these mills are a solid part of Leek’s industrial heritage.


I decided to go and look at the six properties around the town where my family had lived since moving to Leek in 1956:

  • 65 St Edward Street, until 1961/62; we lived above the shop
  • 56 St Edward Street, 1962-1963
  • 26 Market Place (an apartment above the former building society that’s now Costa Coffee), 1962-1963
  • 19 Market Place, 1963-1976; we lived above the shop
  • Greystones, Stockwell Street, in the first floor apartment
  • 13 Clerk Bank – my mother (as a widow) moved here in about 1986, until 1989 when she moved into a care home.

My dad took over a photography business at No 65 when we first moved to Leek, but when the lease came up for renewal (around 1960) he knew he had to find somewhere with better footfall. In the interim we moved across the road to No 56 (taking over from a retailer of fine china) and living part-time in a room behind the shop until we found the apartment at 26 Market Place.

Around 1962/63, my parents purchased and renovated No 19 Market Place, and stayed there until their retirement in the summer of 1976. They then moved into the first floor apartment in Greystones on Stockwell Street. My father passed away in April 1980, and my mother stayed on in Greystones for a few more years before the council found her a terraced bungalow on Clerk Bank. Suffering a stroke in 1989, she moved away to a nursing home in South Wales, and our direct link with link was severed.

Behind No 19 was a ‘court’ with a couple of cottages, that were no longer occupied when we moved there in 1963. After a year or so, the cottages were demolished, and Mum and Dad began to build their urban garden. No-one passing by in the Market Place would have guessed there was such a jewel hiding there. We decided to see how it looks today, and were disappointed that subsequent residents of No 19 had let the garden decline.

Leek town centre is very much lived in. We enjoyed strolling along the streets off Derby Street, like Bath Street or Ford Street. These seem very much like communities, and can be seen radiating out from Leek town center, a legacy, no doubt, of the town’s industrial past in silk weaving.


Another thing we liked were the ‘blue plaques’ placed on various buildings around the town by the Leek and District Civic Society. Two of the properties which we’d occupied have blue plaques: 56 St Edward Street and Greystones. No 56 is now a photography business once again.

At the entrance to Clerk Bank is a small sandstone cottage, with a blue plaque stating the the Leek and Moorlands Cooperative Society (LMCS) had been founded there in 1859.

By the end of the 1890s, the LMCS had moved to a new premises on Ashbourne Road, next door to the White Lion and across the road from the Talbot Hotel, now Leek’s Premier Inn. This building was being refurbished, and the plaster reliefs depicting some of the town’s trades then were looking splendid. In style and colour they closely resembled the reliefs that adorn one of the original buildings at the Leek School of Art, now the Buxton & Leek College on Stockwell Street. I have it on good authority that the reliefs are by the same architectural sculptor, Abraham Broadbent.


Before we left Leek to return home, we couldn’t resist one last stop: Leek Oatcake Shop on the corner of Haywood Street and London Street. Delicious!


One thing I’d had forgotten was just how beautiful the Staffordshire Moorlands are. One of the finest landscapes in England. Here are a couple of dashcam videos of part of our journey to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on 6 June, from the Premier Inn to the Longnor turnoff on the A53 (first video), and from there to crossing into Derbyshire at Crowdecote (second video).


 

Boris Johnson is a mendacious ****!

****? Maybe *****, even ******.

I leave it to you, my readers, to substitute an appropriate epithet. A few come to mind, but I prefer not to say in print.

This coming Sunday it will be three years since the referendum was held to determine our future inside or outside the European Union. Three years! I wholeheartedly voted Remain, and still have [fading] hopes the decision to Leave can be reversed. Based on what I heard in the ‘debate’ on BBC1 a couple of nights ago among five contenders who made it to the fourth ballot among MPs, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, and Rory Stewart, for leadership of the Conservative Party (and de facto Prime Minister), we don’t appear to have made much progress. 

L-R: BoJo, JeHu, MiGo, SaJa, and RoSt.

None of the contenders had a viable plan, no clear idea of how they would deliver Brexit.

While Boris Johnson has been egregiously mendacious throughout his career, three of the other candidates were also living in cloud-cuckoo-land. And, in hopes of winning the Tory Party election, were trying to ‘out-Brexit’ each other.

Listening to Sajid Javid (my local constituency MP) I did wonder whether Dominic Raab (who was eliminated from the contest in a ballot earlier in the day) had reappeared on stage. Only one of the candidates, Rory Stewart, has adopted the reality of the situation that the nation is facing. But even he was floating around in cloud-cuckoo-land in proposing some measures to unblock the parliamentary impasse. Must be the residual effects of the opium he is reported to have smoked in Iraq.

And the same goes for three of the other candidates: Boris Johnson (“I was once at university offered a white substance, none of which went up my nose, and I have no idea whether it was cocaine or not”), Michael Gove (who has admitted taking cocaine on several occasions 20 years ago), and Jeremy Hunt (who admitted drinking a cannabis-infused drink while backpacking in India years ago). What next? Javid admitting he has a drink problem?

Anyway, two days on, and we’re down to the final two candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy HUnt, who will now go forward to hustings around the country and a vote by 160,000 or so members of the Conservative Party only.

But the clear favourite (so we are led to believe), and winner of the ballot among MPs, is BoJo. A man who has openly spoken or written racist comments, who has lied through his teeth (and denied he ever said such things), and who was, as far as commentaries from insiders go, a disaster as Foreign Secretary.

This is the man who even his former employer Max Hastings¹ (former editor of The Telegraph) says can’t be trusted and is unfit to be Prime Minister, in comments widely circulated on social media:

Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet. His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is indeed manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless and frankly, nastier, figure than the public appreciates. I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgement, loyalty or discretion. Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st Century, could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still. 

So, there we have it. The MP ballots have been cast. From the original ten candidates, there are now just two: a mendacious **** up against a disastrous and incompetent former Health Secretary (not something I’d want on my CV) and current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. And both believing that a new deal can be negotiated with the EU to deliver the Brexit 17.4 million citizens of this benighted nation of ours supposedly voted for. Except nobody (on the UK side at least) seems to agree on what the endgame really was. And none of the candidates for Conservative Party leader and PM had a clear vision for the future. Except that the Promised Land is over the horizon, and the unicorn breeding program is doing just fine.

Boris Johnson soon to reside in No 10 Downing Street? Already there are predictions that his premiership will last no longer than a few months. The parliamentary arithmetic has not changed.

However, another thing that concerns me equally is the thought of a General Election, and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn winning the keys to No 10.  Either Johnson or Corbyn in No 10? It’s the stuff of nightmares. I think I prefer the incumbent — Larry!

Update: 23 June After I’d posted this story, David Thompson left the comment below, to which I have just replied. And he rightly raises the spectre of The Brexit Party winning a General Election, and Nigel Farage becoming Prime Minister. He’s an even bigger buffoon than BoJo. Nevertheless, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could come to pass. What has politics come to in the UK?

As Private Frazer from the BBC’s series about the Home Guard during the Second World War, Dad’s Army, would probably have said: We’re doomed, doomed!


¹ This article, by Max Hastings, was published in The Guardian on 24 June 2019. It totally destroys Boris Johnson.

Biddulph Grange – a masterpiece of Victorian garden design

Steph and I became members of the National Trust in 2011. Since then, we have enjoyed visiting more than 100 properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and a handful owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

One of the first properties we visited in 2011 was Biddulph Grange Garden, between Biddulph (in North Staffordshire) and Congleton (where I was born) in southeast Cheshire. And just over a week ago, we returned for a second visit.

My family had a long connection with Biddulph Grange, way before it was taken over by the National Trust in 1988. Before then, Biddulph Grange was an orthopaedic hospital, founded by Lancashire County Council in 1928 as a hospital ‘for the crippled children of East Lancashire’.

After the Second World War, my father, Fred Jackson, joined the Congleton Chronicle newspaper as a staff photographer. His work took him around the area, within a 10 mile radius I guess of Congleton, taking photos of local events and happenings for publication in the newspaper.

Every Christmas morning he would take photos of Santa visiting all the children on the wards at Biddulph Grange. Even after our family moved to Leek in 1956, Dad (accompanied by Mum) continued to visit Biddulph Grange at Christmas. I remember visiting on many occasions, and meeting the Matron (right), but I don’t remember her name.

During our 2011 visit, there was an album of old photos taken during the hospital years, and I believe many of them had been taken by Dad over the years. There was even a photo from one of the Nurses’ Balls, that Mum and Dad would attend each year (they loved ballroom dancing), and I found Mum among the large group of ball-goers.

The National Trust now looks after the Garden, while the house has been converted to private residential apartments. By the 1980s the garden had suffered from decades of neglect during the hospital years. Now the Trust has brought the garden back to its former glory, as envisaged by the couple who designed and built the garden in the mid-nineteenth century, James and Maria Bateman.

James Bateman was a wealthy landowner (and lay preacher) who bought an old rectory at Biddulph (he moved there from nearby Knypersley Hall) in the 1840s, and set about expanding it to the house we see today. Bateman and his wife were passionate gardeners. He was a keen horticulturalist, and collector of plants from around the world.

Assisted by Edward William Cooke, the Batemans built what has become a world-famous garden. Yet the Batemans did not reside at Biddulph for more than a couple of decades. It never ceases to amaze me how landscapers and gardeners in the 18th and 19th centuries spent all their energies creating gardens they would never come to appreciate in all the glory that we can enjoy today.

Bateman and Cooke’s garden takes you around the world—China, Egypt, and Italy, among others—but the garden is divided into areas and themes. Around every corner there’s something different to see and experience, glens to weave through, tunnels to duck into, and tree-lined walks (lime and Wellingtonia) to add to the broad landscape experience.

The resurrected Dahlia Walk is a real delight in late summer. During the hospital years it had been filled in, and once the National Trust had command of the Garden, it had to be excavated almost archaeologically to reveal its former glory. It’s certainly one of the highlights of the Garden, as are the various parterres below the house.

Here is just a small sample of photos of some areas of the garden which show the garden at two different seasons. Do take a look at this photo album for many more photos.

Another interesting feature is Bateman’s Geological Gallery, now refurbished by the National Trust.


 

In the footsteps of Mr Darcy

There are few authors whose works I read, and read again. Jane Austen is one such, and my favorite novel of hers is Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813. I’m in good company; millions of Jane Austen fans have the same opinion.

In 1995, the BBC aired a six episode adaptation (by Andrew Davies) of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Who can forget that lake scene filmed in Lyme Park. Lyme was Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s country estate.

Lyme was the home of the Legh family since the late 14th century until it was given to the National Trust in 1946. Over the centuries, numerous additions were made to the original 16th century building.

The south entrance of Lyme seen across the Reflection Lake.

Lyme has a classic Palladian south front, from the early 18th century, best viewed across the Reflection Lake. However, its austere exterior (in this overcast weather) belies an elegant interior.

It was during the Regency Period of the first two decades of the 19th century that the house was extensively remodeled and restored. Thomas Legh commissioned Lewis William Wyatt to undertake that work. The interiors on display today reflect that Regency period. Many of the rooms are open to the public.


Lyme Park lies just to the west of the Peak District, in east Cheshire (and south of Manchester). Steph and I enjoyed a visit there a week ago. The mansion lies at the center of a 1400 acre park (map), surrounded by small but impressive formal gardens. It’s quite a drive from the main road (A6) south to the house.

Passing through the North Entrance, access to the house is from steps on the east side of the Courtyard.

The North Entrance.

The Courtyard and entrance to the house.

The National Trust has laid out a route around the house that ensures visitors do not miss any interesting room.

One thing that strikes any visitor on entering Lyme are the impressive tapestries that hang from so many walls. The tapestries in the Entrance Hall are large indeed, and throughout the house they do not fail to impress. Cost must have meant little to past generations of the Legh family, as in at least two rooms, the tapestries have been cut to fit around fireplaces and other features.

The south wall of the Entrance Hall.

The north wall of the Entrance Hall.

Tapestries cut to fit around features in the Ante-Room to the Dining Room, and in the Morning Room (on the north side of the house).

In the Library, the very early and rare Lyme Caxton Missal is on display. The room has a beautiful wood ceiling.

When first added to the building, there was no internal access to the Dining Room. With the early 19th century remodeling that anomaly was rectified. The doors at either end of the dining room have superbly carved wood lintels.

Beyond the Dining Room is a small room known as the Stag Parlour. It was once only accessible from the outside of the house, and was, apparently, where Jacobite sympathizers met. It’s named the Stag Parlour for the series of reliefs high on the walls depicting the life cycle of the stag. Again, there is a wonderful tapestry on one wall.

The main features of the Drawing Room are the floor-to-ceiling fireplace, the stained glass bow window, and reliefs high on the walls.

The Yellow Bedroom was prepared for King James II in the late 17th century. The eiderdown is original. On the wall is a portrait purported to be one of the king’s mistresses.

On the south side, the walls of the Saloon are decorated with the most exquisite wood carving by the celebrated sculptor and wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, d. 1721 (whose work we have seen at Sudbury Hall and Belton House).

On the second floor is the biggest surprise in the whole house: a 130 foot Long Gallery, along the east side of the house, and overlooking the Orangery and formal gardens.

One other room of note on the second floor is the Knight’s Bedroom, with its solid wood bed, carved relief over the fireplace, and ornate ceiling. The bed looks 17th century, but is apparently a 19th century copy.

At the bottom of the Grand Staircase is a huge oil painting of one of the Lyme mastiffs (now extinct). On the staircase wall is a painting of Thomas Legh, who was an adventurer, and responsible for the look of Lyme that we see inside today.

For more photos of these magnificent room, check out this album.


Access to the house also gives access to the gardens, walks, and the Orangery close to the house. A walk around the Reflection Lake, even when the weather was overcast was worthwhile.

The Italian Garden, southwest of the house, is best seen from the West Terrace.


The weather forecast for the day of our visit was not very promising, and it was heavily overcast, as you can see from the photos taken outside, and from the drive from the entrance to the car park. We toured the gardens first. As we left the house after about three hours at Lyme it began to drizzle. By the time we reached the carpark, which was no more than 200 m, the rain was almost torrential. And so it remained the whole way back home to North Worcestershire.

Nevertheless, it was . . .


I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that Lyme was one of the locations used in the filming of Pride and Prejudice in 1995. The National Trust provides a ‘Jane Austen Experience’ at Lyme, and there is a room where visitors can don Regency clothing, should they so wish. In fact, we saw several people touring the house and gardens in costume.

We have visited two other houses that were used as locations in the series. Belton House near Grantham was used at the home, Rosings, of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The interiors of Pemberley were filmed at Sudbury Hall.

On our way to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on the day before we visited Lyme, we passed Ramshaw Rocks, just north of Leek in North Staffordshire, where some scenes were films. And we passed through the village of Longnor, which became Lambton where Elizabeth Bennett spent a holiday with her aunt and uncle. It was from there that they visited Pemberley.

Here is a short video of Ramshaw Rocks and Longnor.


 

Turbocharging rice photosynthesis – the vision and legacy of John Sheehy, a brilliant scientist

Yesterday, I received the sad news that my dear friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), John  Sheehy, had passed away on 7 June after battling Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) for several years. He was just 76.

I first met John in 1995, when he applied for the position of Systems Modeller at IRRI. I was Chair of the Search Committee. John came to IRRI after a successful career at the Grassland Research Institute (GRI) in Hurley, Berkshire, until it closed in 1992. His groundbreaking (and award-winning) work at GRI on nodulation, gaseous diffusion, and nitrogen fixation in grassland legumes, and other aspects of crop physiology focused on yield potential.

I knew the first time I spoke with John he was someone who would bring a very different scientific perspective to IRRI’s research. And that’s just what he did. He wasn’t some fresh-faced graduate or postdoc expected to toe the line in terms of rice science orthodoxy, so to speak. Always polite, he often challenged the perspectives and approaches of some IRRI old timers who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate John’s breadth of quantitative expertise. He had graduated with a BSc degree in Physics, completed an MSc in Electronics, and then studied for his PhD in ecophysiology under Professor John Cooper, CBE FRS at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth.

In coming to IRRI, he led research on and supported breeding the so-called New Plant Type (NPT) that was expected to push the yield barrier in rice.

Setting up the Applied Photosynthesis and Systems Modeling Laboratory, John came to the conclusion that a completely new approach was needed if rice yields were to be increased significantly. That’s because photosynthesis in rice (known as C3 photosynthesis) is inefficient compared to the system (C4) in other cereals like maize. John began to develop ideas to turbocharge photosynthesis by introducing ‘C4’ traits into rice, thereby aiming to increase photosynthetic efficiency by 50%, as well as improve nitrogen use efficiency, and double water use efficiency.

Rather than me trying to explain the rationale for this vision, why not listen to John explaining the need for a C4 rice.

John appreciated that IRRI could not realize this dream of a C4 rice alone. So he set about persuading, and bringing together, a group of many of the best scientists worldwide in a C4 Rice Project, that is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The continuing Project is an important part of John’s scientific legacy.

It is now coordinated by Professor Jane Langdale, CBE FRS at the University of Oxford.

At the time of his death, and after 20 years of research, C4 rice is not yet a reality, but significant progress has been made.


John’s scientific output was prodigious, and his many publications appeared in some of the best rated journals in his field, like Field Crops Research for example, a reflection of his research stature at IRRI (and before he joined IRRI). You can check his publications on Google Scholar.

He also waded enthusiastically into the controversy over the System of Rice Intensification or SRI, questioning—based on solid quantitative analysis of yield potential in rice—the yield claims of SRI adherents.


John retired in 2009 and returned to the UK. Before leaving IRRI, he met with Gene Hettel (former Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, and ‘IRRI Historian’) to record his thoughts on rice science and the challenges that IRRI would face.


In 2012, John was recognized in the New Year Honours (see page N.24) with an OBE for services to agricultural research and development, which was conferred during an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 14 February.

John receiving his OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales (L), and after the ceremony with wife Gaynor (L), and daughters Isabel (L) and Rhiannon (R).

In July 2014, John was honoured as a Fellow of his alma mater, Aberystwyth University.


In 2011, Steph and I joined John and Gaynor’s many friends and relatives to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

L-R: Rhiannon, Gaynor, John, and Isabel

While at IRRI, John had taken enthusiastically to golf, and could be seen almost every weekend out on the golf course south of Los Baños where he had become a member. On his retirement to the UK, he was unfortunately unable to continue with this passion, due to bouts of poor health.

After I retired in 2010 back to the UK, John and I kept in touch regularly by email, on the phone, or SMS, when either Wales or Ireland were doing well at rugby, especially in the Six Nations championship. He had divided loyalties, born in Wales of Irish ancestry.

The last time I saw John was in July 2017, when Steph and I spent the weekend with him and Gaynor in Marlow, and met up with other IRRI friends, Graham and Sue McLaren (who now reside in Canada),

L-R: Gaynor, Graham, Sue, Steph, John, and me.

It was also an opportunity for John and me to swap OBE investiture reminiscences. I had also been made an OBE in the same New Year Honours as John, but attended an investiture two weeks later on 29 February.


John was a far better scientist than I could ever aspire to be. I always sought his advice on science issues. In return, he asked my advice about how to manoeuvre through institute politics and management to influence his research agenda, especially after I had moved upstairs, so to speak, to join IRRI’s senior management team.

But what I remember most about John was his cracking, but rather dry, sense of humor. His generosity of spirit. He was an excellent host. Many’s the dinner or BBQ Steph and I enjoyed with John, at his house or ours.

Christmas Day 2006 Chez Sheehy. L-R: John, Sue McLaren, Steph, Catherine McLaren, me, Gaynor, Alex McLaren, and Graham McLaren.

John, you will be sadly missed. Rest in Peace!


This obituary (written by Gene Hettel) has just been published on the IRRI website.

‘Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen’. Benjamin Disraeli

The more I write this blog, the more apt this quotation from Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeili seems.

Having visited seventeen National Trust and English Heritage properties in East Sussex and Kent recently in the space of a week, I can now hardly remember where we were on any particular day.

And, to add to the ‘confusion’, we added an eighteenth on the return journey from East Sussex to our home in north Worcestershire. Hughenden Manor, on the northern outskirts of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire lies almost equidistant between our holiday cottage and Bromsgrove.

Hughenden was purchased by Disraeli’s father Isaac in 1845 and, on his death in 1848, passed to his son and his wife Mary Anne. Built in the late 18th century, Hughenden was remodeled by the Disraelis in the late 1860s. Mary Anne took great interest in the gardens and was very much a hands-on participant in their redesign.

The formal gardens are not extensive, but blend harmoniously with the house itself.

Inside the house there is a wealth of Disraeli memorabilia on display. To the left of the entrance is a full size marble statue of Disraeli later in his life, and in the Entrance Hall itself there are two marble busts of a young Disraeli.

Besides being an important Conservative politician who loyally served Queen Victoria, Disraeli was also a poet and novelist with a prodigious literary output.

On the ground floor, several rooms are open to the public, with one of them dedicated to Disraeli’s political career. There are some excellent cartoons depicting Disraeli and current events, including his long-standing rivalry with Liberal politician William E Gladstone.

Above the fireplace in the Drawing Room is a large portrait of Mary Anne that Disraeli commissioned after her death in 1872. It was based on a miniature that is displayed in one of the cabinets.

In the Library, it’s not hard to imagine all the 19th century grandees who must have met there, and the matters of state that were discussed. Above the fireplace is a portrait of a young Disraeli.


On the first floor, the most significant room is Disraeli’s Study where he dealt with the contents of his Red Boxes, wrote many of his speeches, and his novels.

This room is more or less as it was in Disraeli’s time, with the original furniture. On the mantelpiece are portraits of his parents, Isaac and Maria.

In accordance with custom at the time, no women attended Disraeli’s funeral in 1881, not even Queen Victoria. However, a few days after the funeral, she visited Hughenden, left a wreath on his tomb, and asked to remain alone in his Study.

Just along the corridor from the Study is Mary Anne’s Boudoir and the Bedroom she and Benjamin shared. On the walls of both rooms are many portraits of Queen Victoria and Albert (some signed), and their children, gifts from the Queen herself.

In a final room, a number of personal gifts from Queen Victoria to Disraeli are on display. Disraeli had become a great favorite of the Queen especially since, in 1876, he introduced the Royal Titles Act which conferred on her the title of Empress of India.

I knew that Disraeli became the Ist Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876. What I hadn’t realized is that Disraeli had refused a title in 1868, so that he could remain in the House of Commons. Instead, Mary Anne was created Viscountess Beaconsfield in her own right. Once he became the Earl of Beaconsfield, he served as Prime Minister from the House of Lords. He died at his London home on 19 April 1881.

Disraeli’s death mask.

Wandering through Hughenden there is clearly a sense that this was not only a home, but somewhere the future of the nation had been decided during Disraeli’s years as Prime Minister (just as I’d felt visiting Chartwell, the home of Winston Churchill, just a few days earlier).


But we discovered another side to Hughenden.

During the Second World War, it was requisitioned by the Air Ministry as a base (code-named ‘Hillside’) to produce the maps that air crews used to attack Nazi Germany.

The story of ‘Hillside’ is told through photos of the people who worked there, some of the maps they produced, and really interesting cartoons. After all, the map makers were skilled artists in their own right.

This added another layer of interest to our visit to Hughenden.

Please take a look at more photos of the gardens and inside the house in this album.


After a little over seven years, and more than 530,000 words, this is my 500th post on A Balanced Diet.

‘Ménage à trois’ . . . ?

During our recent trip to East Sussex and Kent, we visited three National Trust properties that are linked by family and membership of or association with the Bloomsbury Group (or Set) – check the map:

  • Knole, on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent, family home, since the 16th century of the Sackville and Sackville-West families;
  • Sissinghurst Castle and Garden (24 miles southeast of Knole), home of poet, novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicholson; and
  • Monk’s House  at Rodmell on the south coast near the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap (see map), the home of writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Top: Knole; bottom left: Sissinghurst; bottom right: Monk’s House

The Bloomsbury Group was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century.

What was their ethos? Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.

So what is the particular connection, the ‘ménage’ as I’ve called it, between Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House?

Left: Vita Sackville-West (and husband Harold Nicholson); middle: Eddy Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville; right: Virginia Woolf.

Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville. She was born at Knole in 1892. As a woman, Vita could not inherit Knole on her father’s death. Instead, Knole and the Sackville title passed to Lionel’s younger brother Charles. His son Edward (‘Eddy’), Vita’s cousin, became the 5th Baron. Although he was not a core member of the Bloomsbury Group, many of its members and ‘hangers-on’ were frequent visitors to Knole as shown in the guest book on display in the rooms that Eddy occupied in the Gatehouse Tower there.

Vita and her husband purchased derelict Sissinghurst Castle in 1930 and set about creating a garden that has received acclaim worldwide. Sissinghurst had been the home of one of Vita’s ancestors, Cicely Baker, who married Thomas, Ist Earl of Dorset in 1555.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were lovers.

It’s not my intention here to discuss nor describe further the ancestral, social, or sexual links between all involved. I cannot comment either on the literary output of Vita and Virginia as I have not read any of their works, although I know what they wrote and the genre.

Instead, let me just describe some of my impressions of Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House.


It took less than an hour to drive north on the A21 to Sevenoaks from our holiday cottage near Robertsbridge. Driving along the High Street (A225) at Sevenoaks, it’s hard to believe that just behind the houses lies a 1000 acre parkland, with Knole and its gardens at the center. The park has herds of fallow and Japanese Sika deer, descendants of the deer introduced centuries ago.

Knole is a large house, but the public has access to just a few rooms. But what a feast for the eyes therein. Treasures aplenty! The items on display inside the house: oil paintings by the dozen, rare furniture and many others remain the property of the Sackville-West family that continues to live at Knole, under a 200-year lease from the National Trust. Robert Sackville-West is the 7th Baron.

No photography is permitted inside the main house; but no such restrictions hold in the Stone [4] and Green Courts [2], or from the roof of the Gatehouse [8]. Likewise photography is permitted in the Orangery [3].


Sissinghurst Castle Garden is a delight. But hard to appreciate fully when there are so many visitors. And on the day we visited, it wasn’t as busy as it must surely get!

Designed by Vita and Harold, Sissinghurst must be on every gardener’s bucket list. Like the garden we saw at Greys Court two years ago, Sissinghurst is also a series of rooms open to the sky, and best seen in their entirety perhaps from the top of the double turret tower, Vita’s Tower.

The White Garden from Vita’s Tower.

The South Cottage from Vita’s Tower.

Vita loved her tower, and had a writing room there. There’s no access to the room, but I visitors can look through a grille to see its layout.

The Library is open however. Over the fireplace there is a grand oil painting of Vita. It’s a comfortable room where no doubt she and Harold entertained their Bloomsbury friends.

Vita and Harold had a turbulent marriage, and both had same-sex affairs. Vita’s affair with Virginia Woolf was perhaps the most notorious. But their marriage survived, and together they worked on creating their garden at Sissinghurst.


Visitors to Monk’s House in the small village of Rodmell new Newhaven make a beeline to Virginia Woolf’s writing room in the garden.

Virginia and husband Leonard shared a 16th century cottage. On the walls are paintings by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell (VB) and the person (TR) who became Leonard’s companion after Virginia’s suicide by drowning in 1941 (aged 59) until his death in 1969, Trekkie Parsons.

The ashes of both Virginia and Leonard were laid at the base of a wall in their small but attractive garden, with its views over the South Downs.

Before our visit to Monk’s House, the name of Virginia Woolf was familiar to me, but I knew very little of her life and associates. It was fascinating, however, to see the environment and work room that gave one of the great writers of the 20th century inspiration to continue, even though she suffered mental health problems all her life. For some of visitors I had the sense that their visit to Monk’s House was almost a pilgrimage.


Leaving Monk’s House to drive back to Robertsbridge, we chose a route that would take us down to the coast at Birling Gap where we hoped to have a good view of the chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, where the South Downs meet the sea. It was a sparklingly bright afternoon, and we were not disappointed.

From the National Trust car park there was easy access down to the beach, where we could sit and take in the magnificence of that landscape.

Continuing our journey on from Birling Gap, we passed Beachy Head, although we didn’t stop. The short video below shows our departure from the car park at Birling Gap, and the climb on to the cliffs, passing the Belle Tout Lighthouse (now restored as a bed & breakfast establishment), and finally dropping down into Eastbourne, with Pevensey Bay in the distance, where the Normans landed in 1066. From that drop into Eastbourne you can appreciate just how high the chalk cliffs are at Beachy Head, at more than 530 feet (162 m).


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