Taking a last look at Hanbury Hall

As regular readers of my blog will know, my wife Steph and I are enthusiastic members of the National Trust (and English Heritage). At every opportunity, weather and other commitments permitting, we take off for an outing to one property or another. We are fortunate that there are so many within 50 miles of our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (just south of the UK’s second city, Birmingham). In recent years we have also taken short breaks to explore properties much further afield in Northern Ireland (in 2017), Cornwall (in 2018), and East Sussex and Kent and Lincolnshire (in 2019).

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown put paid to these lovely outings. Until yesterday! Our last outing before lockdown was in the middle of January when, on a very misty, moisty morning, we had an excellent walk around our ‘local’ property, Hanbury Hall, an elegant ‘William and Mary’ house in the Worcestershire countryside, just over six miles from home.

We have visited more than twenty times since we joined the National Trust in 2011. In fact, Hanbury Hall was the first property we visited after we became members.

We just enjoy walking around the park and the magnificent parterre that is, in my opinion, one of the best among all the Trust’s properties. We’ve been inside the hall itself only three times, and two of those occasions were to see the Christmas decorations.

Here are some images of the parterre taken over the years and in different seasons. While not as colorful as some of the parterres we’ve seen, like those at Waddesdon Manor, Charlecote Park, or Witley Court (an English Heritage property), I really do appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Hanbury version, with beautiful clipped box hedges and cones, holly shrubs, and sparse planting.

During lockdown, I have been able to get out locally almost every day for a 2-3 mile walk. But the same routes have become rather stale after all these weeks. So, after three months of lockdown, it was great to be able to get timed entry tickets to Hanbury Hall yesterday. This is only the second week that Hanbury (and many other National Trust properties) have re-opened, but not fully. Visitors are being limited currently to allow for sufficient social distancing. On arrival we were made welcome in a safe manner.

What a joy! We’ve been ‘starved’ of the opportunity of just deciding, on a whim, to put on our walking shoes and head off for a stroll of just under three miles around Hanbury’s park and garden.

Here is a link to the album of photos from yesterday’s visit.

I mentioned that Hanbury will no longer be our local National Trust property. That’s because we have sold our house (subject to contract) and expect to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England by the beginning of September. Well, that’s the plan and we hope there are no glitches and hitches along the house selling pathway.

We already know several of the National Trust and English Heritage sites across the north east, and a little further south. We look forward to exploring those once again, and seeking out many that are still on our bucket list. Exciting times!

Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

Two delightful country houses in deepest Warwickshire

Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are impressive houses in Warwickshire, a few miles east of Junction 16 on the M40 motorway (map) near the village of Lapworth. The former started life as a Tudor farmhouse in the 1550s, whereas Baddesley Clinton is a moated manor house dating from the 13th century. They are just 2½ miles apart. Both are owned and managed by the National Trust.

The entrance to Packwood House.

Baddesley Clinton from the north.

We consider them among our ‘local’ properties, being only 17 miles away (and usually just over 20 minutes) from Bromsgrove down the M42 and M40 motorways. We have visited both several times over the years since we joined the National Trust.

There are interesting walks around both. I don’t have photos of the three mile Packwood walk (map), but I have written about a delightful walk we made at Baddesley Clinton in mid-October 2018.


Let’s first turn to Packwood House.

It’s not what it seems. I’ve even seen it described as a pastiche. There’s no doubt that the house does date from the sixteenth century, originally built for William Featherston. It remained in the Featherston family for generations. There are few original features in the house, but the garden is a reflection of former generations. The Yew Garden in particular, which is reputed to have been planted in the 1670s by John Featherston, grandson of William.

Graham Baron Ash

But the house we see today, and its interiors, are the creation of Graham Baron Ash (Baron being his second name, not a title), who inherited Packwood House on the death of his Birmingham industrialist father, Alfred James Ash, in 1925.

This article, on the Landed Families of Britain and Ireland website (published in December 2015), not only describes the genealogy of the Ash family, but also details how Baron Ash set about restoring Packwood House, installing new features like the staircase, and building a link (The Long Gallery) between the house and a converted barn. He then set about acquiring architectural salvage from houses that were being demolished (detailed in the web article I referred to above). Unless you were aware of this story before visiting Packwood House, you’d probably have no idea that the interiors were a ‘fantasy’. But an elegant fantasy.

To one side of the house is a sunken garden, and beyond that the Yew Garden.

This link will take you to an album with all the photos taken during our various visits to Packwood House.

Satisfied with his creation, Baron Ash donated Packwood House, its contents, and gardens to the National Trust in 1941, although he continued to live there until 1947 when he moved to Wingfield Castle in Suffolk.


Baddesley Clinton retains much of its medieval ancestry. Entrance to the house is across the moat that surrounds the house.

The estate was acquired by John Brome in 1438, and passed to his son Nicholas, who built the nearby Church of St Michael. On Nicholas’s death in 1517, Baddesley Clinton passed to his daughter Constance who had married Sir Edward Ferrers, Sheriff of Warwickshire. It was Edward Ferrers who reconstructed the house much as we see today. He is buried in the church, as is Nicholas and many generations of the family. The Ferrers were a recusant Catholic family, and there is a priest hole in the gate tower.

The house remained in the Ferrers family for five centuries until 1940, when it was sold to a distant cousin who changed his name to Ferrers. The National Trust acquired the estate from his son in 1980.

I have included many photos of the interior of the house in this album.

The gardens are not extensive, but the National Trust gardeners keep the borders looking spick and span. At the time of our 2018 visit, there were dahlias of all colors in bloom. On the side of one building a glorious wisteria blooms in the early summer.


Even though Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are such a short distance apart, there is too much to see if you would try to include both in a single visit. About four years ago, a new shop and restaurant were constructed at Packwood House serving great meals. Baddesley Clinton has a sheltered courtyard next to converted outbuildings (not inside the moat) where one can enjoy an excellent cup of coffee and a National Trust flapjack sitting in the sun, weather (and Steph) permitting.

 

 

 

 

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.

 

 

 

 

Benign decay in the Northumberland countryside

Belsay Hall, some 14 miles northwest from Newcastle upon Tyne, is a country mansion, constructed between 1810 and 1817 in the so-called Greek Revival style. It is believed to be the first house in the country to be built along these lines.

Steph and I visited Belsay Hall in late July 2009, along with our younger daughter Philippa and Andi (who she married in 2010).

The east front and main entrance

Its owner was Sir Charles Monck who, until taking up residence in his new house, occupied the 14th century castle on the Belsay estate nearby, and which is also open to the public.

Belsay Hall is a square building, and today is completely empty inside, being left in what has been described as ‘benign decay’. The only maintenance prevents the building from deteriorating further. The house is decorated throughout in the ‘Greek style’, pillars everywhere.

The stables and coach house, which are sited just to the northeast of the main entrance, are also open to the public.

On the south side of the house, there is a terrace and formal gardens.

After exploring the house, we made our way to the castle, a half mile walk through the Quarry Garden, a cool, dark, and damp environment favored by luxuriant ferns. The house was built from stone quarried here.

There is access to the roof of the tower and, on a nice day, I’m sure there must be fine views over the surrounding landscape. It was rather grey and misty on the day we visited.

In July 2009, there was a very special art installation mounted in the Great Hall.

Lucky Spot, as it is known, is a three dimensional chandelier in the shape of a leaping Appaloosa horse, hanging from the rafters of the Great Hall. Made from 8000 large crystals beads, it was a collaboration between Stella McCartney (daughter of former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney) and the Austrian glass maker Swarovski. I’ve read that Stella McCartney was inspired to create Lucky Spot after a visit to Belsay.

Catching the light from all directions, this is one of the more impressive pieces of art that I have come across.

Once we move up to the northeast, a return visit to Belsay is definitely on the cards. This time I’ll make sure to use my camera rather more liberally than I did in 2009.


 

 

 

Crossing the North Sea by boat and car . . . or so it seemed

In the summer of 1998, when Steph and I were back in the UK on our annual home leave (I was working in the Philippines at the time), we had a week’s holiday in Northumberland. We spent almost the whole week within the boundaries of the county, the fifth largest in England, crossing into southern Scotland for just one night. It was the first time we had visited the county. But it wouldn’t be the last, not by a long chalk.

Our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at Durham University (under 20 miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2000, and after graduation in 2003, remained in the northeast, marrying Andi in 2010 and now raising two boys, Elvis and Felix. So, we’ve been traveling up to Newcastle at least a couple of times a year, and taking more opportunities to explore the fabulous Northumbrian countryside.

Northumberland has so much to offer, from moorlands to coast. There are so many Roman ruins to explore like Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall as well as magnificent castles like Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Dunstanburgh. The coast has some of the best beaches in the whole of the country, but not so good for bathing, at least in my opinion. Why? Because the North Sea is too damned cold!

On two days we headed to the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island.


The Farne Islands
The Farnes (owned by the National Trust) are an archipelago of some 15-20 islands (depending on the tides) up to 4 miles off the northern coast of Northumberland, just south of the border with Scotland. They are one of the country’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, with significant colonies of puffins, terns, guillemots, and kittiwakes, among others. After a short (maybe 30 minutes) boat ride from Seahouses, we arrived at Inner Farne, the only island with access. It was a smooth crossing to Inner Farne in bright sunshine, but by the time of our arrival there, it had clouded over.

Puffins on the cliff edge, with guillemots on the far right.

As we approached Inner Farne, it was hard not to wonder at the sheer number of seabirds flying to and from the islands, as well as the rising cacophony of calls from the different species.

After landing, and as we made our way on the short walk to St Cuthbert’s Chapel, and afterwards as we explored other open paths, we were dive-bombed by protective Arctic terns that were nesting in the grass on all sides. And I can assure you that a passing peck from the tern’s dagger-like beak hurts! In fact, the National Trust encourages all visitors to bring suitable headgear for protection.

This was my first up-close experience of large colonies of seabirds. And what a feast for the eyes as you can see from the images above.

Besides the various bird (and grey seal) colonies, Inner Farne also has a long history of human occupation dating back to the late seventh century AD, becoming first the solitary home of St Aidan, and then St Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral). Apart from National Trust reserve wardens stationed on the islands during the seabird summer breeding season, the islands are now uninhabited.

But they do have a particular claim to fame for the brave exploits of Grace Darling, daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper on another of the islands who, with her father, saved nine persons on board the paddle steamer Forfarshire that was wrecked in a tremendous storm on the Farnes in 1838. She was only 22. She died of tuberculosis in 1842, a national heroine.

Grace Darling (1815-1842) and the SS Forfarshire that foundered on the Farne Islands in 1838.


Holy Island and Lindisfarne Priory
A little further up the coast is Holy Island, the site of Lindisfarne Priory (owned by English Heritage).

Access to the island is across a one mile tidal causeway that is submerged twice a day at high tide, so careful planning is required to safely cross on to the island, and avoid being stranded before the tide covers the causeway. I don’t remember exactly when we crossed, but we had no issues, and had plenty of time on the island itself before returning to the mainland. We did see a couple of cars that hadn’t made it in time, caught in a rising tide and abandoned by their owners.

We did not visit the castle on Holy Island. That is owned by the National Trust. I’m not sure if it was open to the public back in the day.

Monks first settled on Holy Island in AD 635, but after a violent Viking raid in AD 793 they fled from the island. The ruins that comprise Lindisfarne Priory date from the 12th century. The most spectacular is the Rainbow Arch.

I must have taken more photos, but these are the few that I’ve been able to lay my hands on.

We’ve only scratched the surface of Holy Island. Once we have moved north, then we hope to have many opportunities of exploring this magical place again, including the castle next time.


 

 

 

 

Following in the footsteps of Izaak Walton

Izaak Walton

The River Dove is a 45 mile long tributary of the River Trent (the third longest river in the UK), and for much of its length is the county boundary between Staffordshire to the west, and Derbyshire to the east (map).

It’s a sparkling trout stream, and was partly the inspiration for The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton first published in 1653.

The river cuts through the Peak District’s limestone dome to form a series of deep valleys covered in ash woodland, known as dales, of which perhaps the most well known is Dovedale.

Dovedale is a National Nature Reserve; the land is owned by the National Trust, and apparently receives a million visitors a year, so you can imagine just how crowded it might become at the height of the summer tourist season. But not in these Covid-19 days, regrettably.

The entrance to Dovedale from the south, with Thorpe Cloud on the right.

I grew up in Leek in North Staffordshire, just 14 miles to the west of Dovedale (about 25 minutes by car). My paternal grandparents, Tom and Alice Jackson, lived in the Derbyshire village of Hollington, just 10 miles south of Dovedale, between Ashbourne and Derby.

Dovedale was the destination for many family outings when I was growing up in the early 1950s. I was born in November 1948, so these two photos below must have been taken around 1952 or 1953.

Crossing Dovedale’s famous Stepping Stones, with L-R: my eldest brother Martin, my elder brother Edgar, my cousin Marion, ??, my sister Margaret, my cousin Alec, me, and my mother Lilian Jackson

With my father, Fred Jackson, my brothers Edgar and Martin, and sister Margaret. I remember sailing those yachts.

The famous Stepping Stones connect the Staffordshire bank with its counterpart on the Derbyshire side. On the Derbyshire side there are trails up to the summit of Thorpe Cloud, or along the valley beside the river. Several spectacular limestone outcrops are exposed in the valley sides.

Looking south along the River Dove at the Stepping Stones.

My wife Steph is from Essex (to the east of London) and had never visited Dovedale until she moved to Birmingham in 1971. After we returned from South America in 1981 and set up home in Worcestershire, we took our daughters Hannah and Philippa on several occasions to enjoy the beauty that is Dovedale, the last visit being in July 2006.

My sister Margaret had friends who farmed land near Alstonefield just above Dovedale. When I was in my mid-teens (around 1964, I guess) a friend of mine and I camped for a week on that farm, and enjoyed many excursions over the lip of the valley into Dovedale. And, being in those days a keen birdwatcher, I saw for the first time (but few times since) the iconic bird of Dovedale: the dipper.

It’s a remarkable little bird, and feeds underwater, scurrying along the riverbed in search of crustaceans and the like. I came across this video showing a dipper feeding in mid-stream.

The limestone landscape of the Derbyshire dales is striking, and botanically very interesting. In 1970, after I had graduated (in geography and botany) from the University of Southampton, for a few days I assisted my friend John Rodwell (now Professor, who was a graduate student studying for his PhD under renowned plant ecologist Joyce Lambert) in his field work in Cressbrook Dale, about 18 miles north of Dovedale. It’s part of the same geological formation, and the botany is similar.


 

Hidcote: an Arts and Crafts-inspired garden

Lawrence Johnston

Near the northern edge of the Cotswolds, just 4 miles northeast of Chipping Camden lies the sleepy village of Hidcote Bartrim (map).

Well, it was sleepy once upon a time. It’s home to Hidcote, an estate of more than 300 acres and an Arts and Crafts-inspired garden that was the creation of naturalised British garden designer and plant hunter, Lawrence Johnston. He came from a wealthy American family, but served in the British Army during World War I, reaching the rank of Major.

Johnston was apparently inspired to design and create Hidcote by reading The Art and Craft of Garden Making (first published in 1900) by Thomas H Mawson. He not only sponsored plant collecting expeditions to many parts of the world, he even went on some himself.

The Hidcote estate was purchased by Johnston’s mother in 1907, and it reached its heyday (under Johnston’s care) during the 1920s and 1930s. His mother bequeathed Hidcote to him on her death in 1927.

Johnston is also known for another garden, Serre de la Madone on the Mediterranean coast of France.

On its website, the National Trust has provided a comprehensive history of Hidcote and its development, so there’s little need to cover that here in any detail.


Acquired in 1948, Hidcote today is one of the jewels in the National Trust’s portfolio. Thousands of visitors flock to Hidcote to wonder at Johnston’s beautiful creation, which must have inspired many in their own gardening endeavors, though perhaps not on the same scale.

Steph and I were among those visitors at the beginning of October 2011, as the seasons were turning from late summer to autumn. We didn’t see the garden (or should I say gardens, because it was developed as a series of ‘rooms’) at the height of its summer exuberance, but we were still treated to a feast of garden design and carefully thought-through planting.

This is just a selection of the many photos I took at Hidcote. Please click here to open an album.

When we visited there were just a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the Manor open to visitors. I believe that more may have been opened to the public since then.


Lawrence Johnston has a semi-double, yellow climbing rose named in his honor.


This is the view, over the Vale of Evesham, from the north facing escarpment of the Cotswolds beside Broadway Tower, just under seven miles southwest from Hidcote.

The Vale of Evesham from Broadway Tower on the Cotswolds escarpment.


 

 

Beningbrough Hall: an elegant Georgian mansion in North Yorkshire

Beningbrough Hall in North Yorks, is less than 10 miles northwest from the ancient city of York. It was one of the first properties owned by the National Trust that Steph and I visited in August 2011 a few months after becoming members.

The main entrance, on the north side of the Hall.

Beningbrough Hall is over 150 miles northeast from our home in Worcestershire (map), so it was not the sort of place to visit on a day trip. However, our younger daughter and her family live in Newcastle, a further 82 miles north from Beningbrough, and we stopped off at Beningbrough on the journey north to visit them.

This is believed to be a portrait of John Bourchier III.


There has been a house on the Beningbrough estate since the mid-sixteenth century. The original house was sited a few hundred meters away from the present Hall that was finished in 1716.

It was constructed by John Bourchier III (one of whose forebears, also named John, was one of the 59 persons who signed the death warrant of King Charles I in January 1649).

In 1916, Beningbrough Hall was acquired by Lord and Lady Chesterfield, and after her death in 1957, the Hall passed to the National Trust in 1958 (in lieu of death duties), although none of the contents came with that acquisition.

The grand cantilevered Staircase of the three main flights, constructed entirely of oak and internally strengthened with wrought iron is of outstanding workmanship by William Thornton. (Source: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel).

Besides its elegant architecture and interiors (the work of Bourchier’s chief craftsman William Thornton) and gardens, Beningbrough Hall is now home to a collection of 18th century paintings, displayed as part of a partnership between the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery.

There’s no doubt that the collection of paintings on display is of the highest quality and significance. Nevertheless, our visit to Beningbrough was equally enjoyable taking in views of the Hall’s elegant exterior, and the formal gardens and orchards, mostly on the rear, south-facing side of the Hall.


 

Standen House: where Arts and Crafts meets West Sussex

Designed between 1891 and 1894 by architect Philip Webb, a friend of William Morris (whose name is synonymous with the Arts and Craft Movement of late Victorian Britain), Standen House was the home of London solicitor James Beale and his large family of seven children.

The Beale family, c. 1900 (source: the National Trust).

It is located just south of East Grinstead (map) and is owned today by the National Trust. Steph and I visited the house and gardens on a glorious day in mid-May 2019.

The exterior design of the house blends effortlessly with the surrounding Kent landscape. From the gardens that surround the house there are impressives views overlooking the Kent countryside to the south.

The view from Standen House garden over the High Weald of Kent.

But Standen House is famous for its Arts and Crafts interiors. And they are impressive indeed. Most of the rooms are a celebration of the best of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and incorporate many of Morris’s iconic designs in the various wallpapers. It’s a pure feast for the eyes – although I’m not sure I could live with Morris’s designs every day [1].

To view the magnificence (and perhaps to our more minimalist eyes today, the exuberance) of Standen’s interiors, please click here to open a comprehensive album of photos that I took during our visit.

After a tour of the house, it was very pleasant to wander through the shade of the gardens, before completing our visit and returning to our holiday cottage near Robertsbridge in East Sussex, some 32 miles to the southeast of Standen.


[1] Another National Trust property full of William Morris designs is Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. Steph and I visited there in the summer of 2014.

Warkworth Castle: a 12th century fortress above the River Coquet in Northumberland

Warkworth Castle, built in the 12th century, stands on a narrow neck of land in a loop of the River Coquet in Northumberland, close to where the river flows into the North Sea at Amble.

View from the Keep along the River Coquet towards Amble and the North Sea.

The view north overlooking part of Warkworth.

Steph and I were visiting family in Newcastle in April 2018, and on a bright sunny day, enjoyed an excursion to Warkworth beach with our younger daughter Philippa and her husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix (then 6 and 4, respectively).

Phil and Andi went straight home after the walk and a picnic, but we decided to take the boys to Warkworth Castle close-by, which is owned by English Heritage. And we were in luck.

On the day of our visit (21 April) English Heritage was celebrating St George’s Day (actually 23 April) with displays of ‘armed combat between knights in shining armour’, and many other attractions.

Visitors enjoying combat between ‘knights in shining armour’.

Felix and Elvis (with Grandma behind) enjoying the armed combat.

View from the Keep towards the Gatehouse. The Lion Tower is on the right.

Carvings on the face of the Lion Tower.

The castle came into the Percy family (later the Dukes of Northumberland) in the mid-fourteenth century. It saw action in the Wars of the Roses in the late fifteenth century, and parts of the castle were demolished (or ‘slighted’) then. It suffered further damage in the late sixteenth century.

Today, many of the internal structures have disappeared, but the outer curtain wall stands more or less intact. The Keep can be explored. The Lion Tower (on the right in the image immediately above) has some impressive stone carvings above the archway.

It’s an excellent destination for adventurous grandchildren who have some excess energy to burn off. From their reaction at being allowed to explore the different buildings it was clear that Elvis and Felix enjoyed their visit – just as much as Grandma and Grandad.

The image of Warkworth Tower on its mound that’s covered in daffodils has become iconic, and often use in tourism brochures and the like for Northumberland. Here’s my take.


 

Farnborough Hall: home of the Holbech family since 1684

If you are traveling south on the M40 motorway in Warwickshire and, about half way between Junction 12 (B4451 Gaydon Rd for the British Motor Museum) and Junction 11 (A422 for Banbury), you happen to look to your left, you’ll see an obelisk on the skyline. That obelisk is in the grounds of Farnborough Hall, a country house that has been occupied by the Holbech family since 1684. It’s now owned by the National Trust (since 1960) when the family endowed it to the Trust, although a descendant of the Holbech family still lives there and manages the property.

Farnborough Hall is just under 40 miles southeast from our home in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire (map).

It is an elegant, soft coloured stone building (probably Cotswold limestone) with elegant gardens, and a mile-long grassy terrace with the obelisk at the far end.

The main entrance, on the northeast facade of the house.

Steph and I visited there at the end of July 2012, having visited Upton House earlier that same day. Upton House is only 6 miles west from Farnborough Hall.

I don’t have any images of the interior of Farnborough Hall. I seem to recall that photography was not permitted (for copyright reasons, as many of the artefacts were still owned by the family). So I don’t have any firm memories of the rooms that we may have visited. It apparently has exquisite plaster work, which you can see on the National Trust webpage for the Hall.

Here is more information about the history of the Hall.

Another feature are the beautiful landscaped gardens, and views across the estate and the Warmington Valley.

I would certainly like to make a return visit before we move north to Newcastle. But I guess that is going to have to wait at least 3-6 months, as all National Trust properties are closed until further notice and the Covid-19 situation improves.


 

Managing the mail for 150 years

In September 2018, Steph and I enjoyed a week long break in Cornwall, and visited sixteen National Trust and English Heritage properties scattered over the county. And a couple in Devon on the journey south and return.

On our last full day, we made the 58 mile journey from our holiday cottage near the Lizard in the far south to Tintagel on the north coast to visit Tintagel Castle, of King Arthur fame, and a National Trust property in the center of the village: Tintagel Old Post Office.

Tintagel Old Post Office was built over 600 years ago. Originally a farmhouse, it has had many functions over the centuries, and became the village post office in 1870. Besides the five rooms to explore on two floors, Tintagel Old Post Office has a delightful cottage garden.

A complete album of photos of the post office and garden can be viewed here.

Then we headed down some very narrow lanes to the cliffs for a picnic overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Next stop: Newfoundland!

We also took the opportunity to explore the Church of St Materianna, and enjoy the view back to the village itself.

I have included photos of this side trip in the same photo album referred to above.


 

Cragside: a magnificent creation in the heart of Northumberland

Cragside, the house built by William, 1st Baron Armstrong between 1869 and 1882, is remarkable. It was the first house in the world to be lit (and powered throughout) by hydroelectricity. Armstrong was a wealthy engineer and industrialist, eminent scientist, inventor and philanthropist.

Surrounded by moorland and farmland, Cragside stands in the heart of Northumberland near the village of Rothbury (map). It has been owned by the National Trust since 1977. It was one of the first National Trust properties that Steph and I visited after becoming members in 2011.

Cragside was a joint creation between William Armstrong, his wife Margaret (née Ramshaw), and architect Richard Norman Shaw.

Armstrong constructed a dam and lake high on the moorland above Cragside to provide the water to generate electricity. The original turbine house still stands in the grounds.

There are many magnificent treasures to view inside the house. However, I don’t have any images of Cragside’s interior. I guess in 2011 the National Trust’s policy on photography was not as liberal as it is today (as my readers will have realised from the many images I have posted about our National Trust visits). Or perhaps, there were copyright issues that did not permit photography inside the house.

What is also remarkable about Cragside is the garden that the Armstrongs carved out of the hillside, planting many trees and exotic plants obtained from all over the world. In particular there are outstanding stands of tall Wellingtonias. Of course they never lived to see their garden in its mature magnificence. Below the house, is a large and impressive rockery, and a bridge takes you across the valley bottom, and a path towards the formal garden, some distance from the house. This garden was designed on an open south-facing slope overlooking Rothbury and the farmland beyond.

Once the Covid-19 crisis has passed, and we have finally made the move north to Newcastle upon Tyne (assuming we can sell our house in Worcestershire), Steph and I look forward to re-visiting Cragside. And then, with any luck, I can add to my collection of photos with some interior images.

Dunstanburgh Castle: a 14th-century fortification on the coast of Northumberland

Dominating the horizon on the coast of Northumberland, and overlooking the cold North Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle was built during the fourteenth century reign of infamous King Edward II by the king’s cousin, Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle along the coastal path from Craster.

The castle can only be reached on foot, about 1.5 miles north from Craster. The castle is owned by the National Trust, but the site is operated by English Heritage.

View of the great gatehouse over the southern mere.

Overlooking cliffs on one side, the castle had excellent natural defences, and occupied the site of an Iron Age fort.

Thomas of Lancaster was executed in 1322, and it passed eventually passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It changed hands between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses, and suffered damage from which it never fully recovered. By the sixteenth century it was in an advanced state of decay.

Today, just a few of the towers are standing, particularly the entrance Great Gate with its twin towers. Also the curtain wall that surrounds the castle connecting with the cliffs.

It’s possible to climb some of the towers from which there are magnificent views over the surrounding Northumberland countryside.

Steph and I have visited the castle on a couple of occasions, the last being in May 2012. Parking in Craster, we enjoyed the coastal walk on a fine, bright but blustery day. The kittiwakes were nesting on the cliffs below the castle, and we spotted a weasel darting along a stone wall just above the tide line.

Then it was back to Craster for a pub lunch, and purchasing some of the renowned Craster kippers (smoked North Sea herrings).

 

 

Clent Hills – in the heart of the Midlands

The Clent Hills are a range of hills rising proudly to over 1000 feet (315 m) over the surrounding landscape less than 7 miles as the crow flies from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire. They are, as the National Trust states on its website, ‘a stunning countryside haven in the heart of the busy Midlands‘.

In the 39 years that we have lived in Bromsgrove (although we were abroad in the Philippines for 19 of those) we visited Clent Hill on just a handful of occasions, the last being at the end of July 2010, a couple of months after we retired back to the UK.

As you can see from the short video I put together, and the images I have included below, it was a rather overcast day. But the visibility was very good indeed, and we had great views southwest to the Malvern Hills, and even beyond (just) to the Black Mountains of South Wales. Then west into Shropshire, and coming round to the north looking over Stourbridge and on the the Black Country of the West Midlands conurbation.

Inspired by ants?

Emmetts Garden is a six acre garden, high on the 600 foot Ide Hill near Sevenoaks in Kent, overlooking the Weald, which Steph and visited in mid-May 2019 during our week-long vacation in East Sussex and Kent.

Before 1860, the site of Emmetts Garden was open farmland, after which a house was built. But it wasn’t until 1890 when Frederick Lubbock purchased the house and land that he set about designing and creating a garden on the site.

After Lubbock’s death in 1927 the estate was purchased by Charles Boise, who bequeathed Emmetts Garden to the National Trust in 1964. The house is not part of the National Trust property.

Frederick Lubbock and Charles Boise

Under Charles Boise’s care, Emmett’s Garden continued to flourish, as Boise kept on Lubbock’s gardener, Mr Taylor. But he did make several changes, filling in lakes (having worked in the Congo he had a morbid fear of malaria!), and extending the rockery.

When we visited the rockery was probably at its best, but the rose garden (one of the few formal features) had not reached its peak. The wild flower meadow was past its best. We also had a lovely walk through the more informal parts of the gardens leading down to the viewpoint over the Weald that you can see in the photo at the top of this post.

Here are some more photos taken around the garden.

The Rockery

The Rose Garden

The woodland paths

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.


The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.


Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.


Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 24: A Laotian experience

Laos or the Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – actually a Unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic) is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia. But it does have a connection to the sea, down the Mekong River where, through its mighty delta in Vietnam, it disgorges into the South China Sea. For a considerable length, the Mekong is the international border between Myanmar and Laos, and Thailand and Laos.

During the 19 years I spent in Asia (with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines) I visited Laos more than any other country, probably a couple of times a year over a five to six year period. Why? Because it was a focal country for the major rice conservation project that I managed between 1995 and 2000, funded by the Swiss government.

The Swiss, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also funded an in-country Lao-IRRI Program. So, as we were looking to strengthen the collection and conservation of indigenous rice varieties and wild rices in that country, it was a logical step to associate our rice biodiversity project administratively with the Lao-IRRI Project. The scientist who we hired for the Lao component of the project, Dr Seppana Appa Rao (originally from a sister center, ICRISAT, in Hyderabad, India) was based in the Lao capital Vientiane, and reported on a day-to-day basis to the leader of the Lao-IRRI Project, Australian agronomist Dr John Schiller (who passed away a couple of years ago).

Enjoying dinner with Appa Rao and John Schiller at John’s home in Vientiane.


In February 1997 I was joined on one of these visits to Laos by my wife Steph. IRRI had a generous travel policy. For every so many days a scientist was travelling outside the Philippines (but discounting the days of departure and arrival), his/her spouse or partner was entitled to one trip to a destination in Asia. So, we took advantage of that policy for a slightly extended visit to Laos (to take in some of the sights) as well as a weekend in Bangkok, through we had to transit in any case. A trip to Laos inevitably involved an overnight stop in Bangkok on both legs of the journey, taking a late flight out of Manila to Bangkok (about three hours) then the first flight on Thai Airways or Lao Aviation the next morning to Vientiane.

When I first visited Laos in 1995, the population of Vientiane was less than 400,000. It’s now reported at over 800,000. Back in the day it had the feel of a small town hugging the banks of the Mekong. But even then the traffic could become snarled at times. I wonder what it’s like nowadays? Looking at a satellite image the other day, the spread from the city center is clear. Even back in the 1990s, the city had begun to rapidly spread eastwards. The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) had its research station in this area, and where a rice genebank was constructed with financial support from the Swiss.


On this particular trip, Steph and I spent time with Appa and his Lao colleagues, Dr Chay Bounphanousay and Ms Kongphanh Kanyavong at the research center, looking at the genebank, field plots and various other facilities used to conserve the rice varieties collected throughout the country. This was also of interest for Steph as she originally trained in genetic resources, and has an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation  and use from the University of Birmingham (where we met in 1971/72).

L-R: Kongphanh Kanyavong, Appa Rao, and Chay Bounphanousay

We also visited a research site where wild rices were being monitored in a joint project with Japanese scientists. It was hoped that data from that project would inform the establishment of field or in situ conservation sites around the country.


Driving around Vientiane as tourists, we noted that two buildings dominate the skyline in the city center. The first, the Patuxai monument, is a huge war memorial that commemorates the struggle for independence from France. The other, a short distance away to the northeast, is Pha That Luang, a large, gold covered Buddhist stupa.

And after a hard day in the field, or touring the city and markets, what better way to end the day than a stroll along the banks of the Mekong.

That’s Thailand on the far bank.

On another day, Appa, his wife, Chay, and Kongphanh took us for a boat excursion round the Nam Ngum Reservoir, about 70 km north of Vientiane, and afterwards to the Lao Zoo nearby.