USA 2019: nine days, ten Northeast and Atlantic states

Steph and I are now relaxing with family in Minnesota.

We have just completed our 2019 road trip: almost 2050 miles across ten states (in yellow), and crossing state lines thirteen times (MA-RI-CT-NY-PA-NJ-DE-PA-MD-WV-VA-MD-DE-MD).

Our visit to the USA started at 03:00 on Tuesday 3 September, when we dragged ourselves out of bed to head to Birmingham Airport (BHX) to catch the 06:00 KLM flight to Amsterdam(AMS). We were surprised to find the airport heaving even at that early hour. While this flight departed on time, on arrival in Amsterdam we discovered, to our (slight) dismay that the onward Delta flight to Boston (BOS) was delayed at least two hours because of the late arrival of the incoming aircraft (from JFK, where severe weather has disrupted many flights the previous day).

But, to give Delta Airlines due credit, they turned the aircraft around quickly and we departed only slightly over two hours delayed. However, as you can imagine that had a knock-on for our arrival in BOS.

Immigration there was a bit of a nightmare. I had hoped to be on the road before 15:00 for the 93 mile drive south for our first night at Orleans on Cape Cod. Because of the various delays, it was closer to 18:00 before we headed out of the car rental center, immediately hitting Boston rush-hour traffic, and then crawling slowly south for at least 35 miles.

Budget car rental assigned us a Jeep Wrangler, perhaps a little bigger than I had contemplated, but it was comfortable and solid on the road.

I had planned to be at Orleans well before nightfall. It wasn’t to be, and I had to drive the last hour in the dark, not something I relish at the best of times. For the final 15-20 miles of the trip, US-6 narrowed to two-way (known locally as ‘Suicide Alley’). Nonetheless, we made it in one piece and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

We spent the first morning on Cape Cod, checking out various beaches, before traveling into Provincetown to view (from a distance) the Pilgrim Monument, erected between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. We also visited the site where Marconi built a transatlantic wireless communication station just after the turn of the 20th century.

Then we headed west to Newport, Rhode Island and the Beavertail Lighthouse at the southern tip of Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, crossing the impressive Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge in the process.

Beavertail Lighthouse.

Then it was on to Plainfield, CT for our second night.

The next day we headed down to the Connecticut coast at Old Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River, before turning west to have a picnic lunch and a walk on the beach at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, some 15 miles west of New Haven (home to Yale University).

Crossing the causeway at Old Saybrook on CT-154

The ‘dangerous’ sand bar out to Charles Island where is access is not permitted during the breeding season of various sea birds.

In the northwest of the state we visited Kent Falls State Park, before heading to Poughkeepsie (pronounced Puckipsee, home to Vassar College) on the banks of the Hudson River (and close to Hyde Park, the home of President Franklin D Roosevelt that we didn’t have time to visit).

Kent Falls State Park

In Poughkeepsie we found an excellent restaurant, The Tomato Cafe on Collegeview Ave just outside Vassar, and enjoyed probably the best meal of the trip.

From Poughkeepsie we had a long drive west into Pennsylvania before heading south and east to end up near Atlantic City on New Jersey’s coast. From the coast we headed west into Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.

Our day started early, crossing the Hudson River on US-44 at Poughkeepsie despite my satnav refusing to calculate a crossing there.

Crossing the Mid-Hudson Bridge at Poughkeepsie

Our first destination was the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania, and Dingmans Falls, just a mile west of US209, in particular. On the way there we came across the remains of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, whose construction started in 1823 to carry coal from the Pennsylvania coal fields.

The Visitor Center at Dingmans Falls was closed during our visit, but the boardwalk trail to the Falls themselves was an easy walk of just under a mile. However, the climb up to the top of the Falls was a little more challenging.

About 20 miles south of Dingmans Falls, the Delaware River cuts through the mountains and heads east. It forms the stateline between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We stopped for a bite to eat at the Kittatinny Point rest area on the New Jersey side.

Looking west (from central northern New Jersey) towards the Delaware Gap.

By this time we were becoming a little concerned about reports of exactly where, on the Atlantic Coast, Hurricane Dorian would make landfall. High winds had been predicted for Atlantic City, and some rain, but as the storm was moving quite slowly, we had no idea if it would affect us or not.

We had already seen forecasts of severe weather in northern New Jersey (just south of New York) and we weren’t disappointed! I misread my satnav and exited from the highway one exit too soon, and found myself heading over the Raritan River at Perth Amboy on the wrong bridge. Fortunately my satnav quickly sorted me out, sending me back north over another bridge on Convery Boulevard, and entering the Garden State Parkway where I had originally intended. We only lost about 10 minutes, but driving among six or more lanes of fast-moving traffic in a downpour and with all the road spray was not an experience I would wish to repeat.

When we arrived at our hotel in Absecon (a few miles outside Atlantic City) it was certainly windy, the clouds were lowering, but there was no immediate threat of the hurricane hitting or any flooding, although our hotel (a rather inferior Travelodge) faced the marshes fronting the ocean.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny however, and hardly a breath of wind. Dorian had passed us by and headed out east into the Atlantic. What a difference a day makes!

The Atlantic City skyline from the northwest, sans hurricane.

So we drove into the center of the city, and walked up and down Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk for a couple of hours.

Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square in Pennsylvania (west of Philadelphia and northwest from Wilmington, DE) was not on our original itinerary. However, through a Facebook chat with a former colleague, accountant Lisa Panes, from IRRI in the Philippines, she mentioned that a visit to Longwood would be worthwhile. I’d never heard of the gardens before, but then discovered they are considered among the best in the USA. And not only that, just a few miles east of the original route I’d planned.

We spent four glorious hours wandering around the gardens. I’ll be writing about the gardens (and other locations we visited) in a separate blog post.

Tired and rather hot, we set off on the last leg to Gettysburg, passing through the heart of Amish country, at Intercourse, PA.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast we set off to the Gettysburg battlefield visitor center, received battlefield guide maps, and decided which routes to take. Over the whole site, seemingly every few yards, there are monuments to different regiments, both Federal and Confederate, and the many skirmishes that took place there over a period of three days in July 1863. Very poignant.

We also went into town to view Gettysburg station where President Lincoln arrived on 18 November 1863, just over four months after the battle.

At the end of the visit we strolled around the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and saw the spot where, on 19 November 1863, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Have 272 words ever been more powerful?

After lunch we headed northwest from Gettysburg to Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA, a feat of railway engineering that was completed in 1854, would you believe.

From there, it was an 80 mile drive south to Frostburg in the mountains of northwest Maryland, a most beautiful landscape that I hadn’t expected. Our hotel there, a Quality Inn, was the best of the trip, about 1½ miles south of the town center, where we also had a lovely meal in an Italian restaurant, Giuseppe’s.

The next two days took us from Frostburg south through the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, before turning east into Virginia to spend nights in Appomattox (where General Robert E Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865), and Colonial Williamsburg.

Seneca Rocks, in Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest, almost 74 miles south of Frostburg.

A typical West Virginia landscape in the Monongahela National Forest.

The McLean home at Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered to General Grant.

Colonial Williamsburg was not quite what I expected. It’s like a living museum, with quite a number of original buildings but many that have been reconstructed.

Our last day, Wednesday, was spent traveling north up the Delmarva Peninsula, stopping off for an hour at Lewes beach, before the last (and heavy traffic) push into Baltimore, for our final night close to Baltimore International Airport (BWI) from where we flew next day to Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP). This last day also included crossing the impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnels, almost 18 miles in length.

On the east Virginia shore, there’s an observation rest area where some of the bridges and causeway can be seen in the distance.

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It was over 90F on the beach at Lewes.

So, for another year, our USA road trip is over. We averaged just over 240 miles per day (discounting the first day trip south to Orleans), and only on two days did we travel more than 300 miles (unlike in 2018, for instance, when most days were over 300 miles, and often closer to or more than 400 miles). So, in that sense, this year’s trip was easier, even though I felt the trip took more out of me than I had expected. Must be an age thing.

Overall, I was pleased with the Jeep. We spent only $203 on gasoline and achieved an impressive (considering the size of the vehicle) 26 mpg; $804 on hotels (or about £645 at current—and disappointing, Brexit -induced—exchange rates), and maybe $350 or so on meals.

Where to in 2020? Maybe the Rocky Mountain states, or do we bite the bullet and tour the southern states from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas? Decisions, decisions!

Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

Last week, Steph and I spent three days exploring five National Trust and English Heritage properties in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This is not an area with which we are familiar at all. We spent the first night on the coast at Skegness, and the second in the Georgian town of Wisbech.

It was a round trip of just under 360 miles from our home in Bromsgrove, taking in nine counties: Worcestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk (for about three minutes), and Rutland.

Our first stop was Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire. There has been a fortified residence on this site since the mid thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until two centuries later that the remarkable brick tower was built. This is quite unusual for any castle, and Lord Cromwell is believed to have seen such buildings during his sojourns in France.

The tower and part of a stable block are all that remain today, although the position of other towers and a curtain wall can be seen. The whole is surrounded by a double moat.

Like so many other castles (see my blogs about Goodrich Castle in Gloucestershire, Corfe Castle in Dorset, and Kenilworth in Warwickshire) Tattershall was partially demolished (or slighted) during the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651.

And over the subsequent centuries it slipped into decay. Until the 1920s when a remarkable man, Viscount Curzon of Kedleston (near Derby) bought Tattershall Castle with the aim of restoring it to some of its former glory, the magnificent tower that we see today.

The castle was then gifted to the National Trust in whose capable hands it has since been managed.

There is access to the roof (and the various chambers on the second and third floors) via a beautiful spiral stone staircase, quite wide by the normal standard of such staircases. But what makes this one so special is the carved handrail from single blocks of stone. And on some, among all the other centuries-old graffitti, are the signatures of some of the stonemasons.

Do take a look at this album of photos of Tattershall Castle.

Just a mile or so southeast of the castle is RAF Coningsby, very much in evidence because it’s a base for the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft, and a training station for Typhoon pilots. So the noise from these aircraft is more or less constant. However, RAF Coningsby is also the base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and just as we reached the car park on leaving Tattershall, we were treated to the sight of a Lancaster bomber (the iconic stalwart of the Second World War Bomber Command) passing overhead, having just taken off from the airfield, just like in the video below. At first, it was hidden behind some trees, but from the roar of its engines I knew it was something special. Then it came into view while banking away to the east.

Just 20 miles further east lies Gunby Hall, a William and Mary townhouse masquerading as a country house, and built in 1700. The architect is not known.

It was built by Sir William Massingberd (the Massingberds were an old Lincolnshire family) and was home to generations of Massingberds until the 1960s. You can read an interesting potted history of the family here.

Gunby Hall, and almost all its contents accumulated by the Massingberds over 250 years were gifted to the National Trust in 1944. Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd (daughter of campaigner Emily Langton Massingberd) was the last family member to reside at Gunby, and after her death in 1963, tenants moved in until 2012 when the National Trust took over full management of the house, gardens and estate.

Gunby is remarkable for two things. During the Second World War, the house was in great danger of being demolished by the Air Ministry because the runway at nearby (but now closed) RAF Spilsby had to be extended to accommodate the heavy bombers that would operate from there. But Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd (husband of Lady Diana) was not a man without influence. He had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, and had served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1933 and 1936. After he wrote to the king, George V, the location of the runway was changed, and Gunby saved.

It was then decided to gift the property and contents to the National Trust. So what we see in the house today is all original (nothing has been brought in from other properties or museums).

Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd started life a simply Archibald Montgomery, but changed his name by deed poll to Montgomery-Massingberd on his marriage to Diana. It was a condition of the inheritance of the estate that the name Massingberd was perpetuated. Both he and Diana are buried in the nearby St Peter’s Church on the edge of the gardens.

Although not extensive, Steph and I thought that the gardens at Gunby were among the finest we have seen at any National Trust property. Yes, we visited in mid-summer when the gardens were at their finest perhaps, but the layout and attention to detail from the gardeners was outstanding. Overall the National Trust volunteers were knowledgeable and very friendly. All in all, it was a delightful visit.

You can see more photos here.

On the second day, we headed west from our overnight stay in Skegness on the coast (not somewhere I really want to visit again), passing by the entrance to Gunby Hall, en route to Bolingbroke Castle, a ruined castle owned by English Heritage, and birthplace of King Henry IV in 1367, founder of the Lancaster Plantagenets.

There’s not really too much to see of the castle except the foundations of the various towers and curtain wall. Nevertheless, a visit to Bolingbroke Castle is fascinating because English Heritage has placed so many interesting information boards around the site explaining the various constructions, and providing artist impressions of what the castle must have looked like.

So the castle footprint is really quite extensive, surrounded by a moat (now just a swampy ditch) that you can walk around, inside and out, taking in just how the castle was built.

A local sandstone, rather soft and crumbly, was used and couldn’t have withstood a prolonged siege. Interspersed in the walls, now revealed by deep holes but still in situ elsewhere, are blocks of hard limestone that were perhaps used for ornamentation as well as giving the walls additional strength. The castle was slighted in the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

The complete set of Bolingbroke photos can be viewed here.

Heading south to Wisbech, our aim was Peckover House and Garden, occupied from the 1770s until the late 1940s by the Peckover family of Quakers and bankers.

Peckover House is a detached Georgian mansion, among a terrace of elegant houses on North Brink, the north bank of the tidal River Nene, and facing a counterpart terrace on South Brink, where social reformer Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was born in 1838.

Standing in front of Peckover House, it’s hard to believe that there is a two acre garden behind. Among the features there is a cats’ graveyard of many of the feline friends that have called Peckover home.

Inside the house, I was reminded (though on a much smaller scale) of Florence Court in Northern Ireland that we visited in 2017. The hall and stairs are a delicate duck-egg blue, and there and in many of the rooms there is exquisite plasterwork. Above the doorways downstairs are fine broken pediments.

The most celebrated of the family was Alexander (born in 1830) who traveled extensively and built an impressive collection of books and paintings. He was Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, and was elevated to a peerage in 1907.

He bought one of his books, a 12th century psalter, in about 1920 for £200 or so. Now on loan from Burnley library and displayed in Alexander’s library, the book has been insured for £1,200,000!

Check out more photos of Peckover House and garden.

Our final stop, on the way home on the third day, was Woolsthorpe Manor, birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642 three months after his father, also named Isaac, had passed away.

This is the second home of a famous scientist we have visited in the past couple of months, the first being Down House in Kent, home of Charles Darwin. Woolsthorpe has become a pilgrimage destination for many renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking who are shown in some of the exhibits.

Woolsthorpe is not a large property, comprising a limestone house and outbuildings. It has the most wonderful tiled roof.

It came into the Newton family as part of the dowry of Isaac Sr.’s marriage to Hannah Ayscough. Keeping sheep for wool production was the principal occupation of the family.

Isaac Newton won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge but had to escape back to Woolsthorpe during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 and 1666. He thrived and the 18 months he spent at Woolsthorpe were among his most productive.

Open to the public on the upper floor, Newton’s study-bedroom displays his work on light that he conducted there.


And from the window is a view over the orchard and the famous Flower of Kent apple tree that inspired his views on gravitation.

On the ground floor, in the parlour are two portraits of Newton, one of him in later life without his characteristic wig, and, high above the fireplace, his death mask.

Also there are early copies (in Latin and English) of his principal scientific work, the Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687.

There’s a full album of photos here.

And, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969, there was a display of NASA exhibits and how Newton’s work all those centuries ago provided the mathematical basis for planning a journey into space. The National Trust has also opened an excellent interactive science display based on Newton’s work that would keep any child occupied for hours. I’m publishing this post on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s blast off from Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral once again.

All in all, we enjoyed three excellent days visiting five properties. Despite the weather forecast before we set out, we only had a few minutes rain (when we arrived at Bolingbroke Castle). At each of the four National Trust properties the volunteer staff were so friendly and helpful, full of details that they were so willing to share. If you ever get a chance, do take a couple of days to visit these eastern England jewels.

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* The Lincolnshire Wolds are a range of hills, comprised of chalk, limestone, and sandstone. The Fens are drained marshlands and a very important agricultural region.

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).


 

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.


 

‘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).


Check out these photo albums: