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.

Boris Johnson is a mendacious ****!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Biddulph Grange – a masterpiece of Victorian garden design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

And this obituary (written by me) appeared in The Guardian on 5 July 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Disraeli’s death mask.

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


But we discovered another side to Hughenden.

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

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

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

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


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

‘Ménage à trois’ . . . ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were lovers.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

The White Garden from Vita’s Tower.

The South Cottage from Vita’s Tower.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”. Charles Darwin

It is clear from our recent visit to Down House in Kent, the Georgian manor that Charles and Emma Darwin called home for 40 years until his death in 1882, that Darwin certainly did discover the value of life.

Charles Darwin, naturalist and confirmed agnostic, turned the world upside down in 1859 with the publication of his seminal On the Origin of Species, published to great claim, and controversy. It was written at Down House as was much of his prolific output.

Born in Shrewsbury in 1809, the son of a doctor and successful businessman, Robert Darwin, he had two illustrious grandfathers: natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, and potter Josiah Wedgwood, both anti-slavery abolitionists and members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Darwin never knew his grandfathers, as both passed away before his birth.

Coming from a wealthy background and supported by his father and the Wedgwoods, Darwin had no need to find other employment. He could concentrate on developing his theories and publishing his ideas. He did not have to sell many of his precious specimens as was often the case for many naturalists like Darwin’s ‘rival’ Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, to keep body and soul together. Many items of Darwin memorabilia are on display at Down House today.


Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood in January 1839, and over the next seventeen years had ten children. Moving from a cramped house in London in September 1842, Down House was the ideal location for the Darwins to raise their growing family, and for Darwin himself to have the space and tranquility to develop his theories on evolution and natural selection.

When they moved to Down House, the Darwin’s were already the proud parents of a son, William (b. 1839) and a daughter Anne (b. 1841). Another daughter, Mary was born at the time of the move, but lived for less than a month.  Their last child, Charles W. (b. 1856), died in infancy aged 18 months. Anne succumbed to tuberculosis in 1851.


Our visit to Down House was the first stop in a recent week-long break in the southeast. From home in northeast Worcestershire to Down House is a journey of 156 miles, under three hours by road, almost entirely on motorways (M42-M40-M25). Leaving the M25 at Junction 4, we took to the narrow lanes to cut across country to the Kent village of Downe.

 

Just four rooms are open to the public on the ground floor: Darwin’s Study (one can stand there in awe), the Dining Room (that Darwin, as a local Justice of the Peace, used as his court room), the Billiard Room, and the Parlour. No photography is permitted inside the house because all the items on display still belong to the Darwin family.

In the Dining Room there are two fine oil paintings of grandfather Erasmus. The porcelain on the dining table must surely be Wedgwood?

On the first floor (there’s no access to the upper floor) several rooms are filled with Darwin memorabilia, his journals, awards and the like. It’s a snapshot of Darwin’s life. One room was filled with wood engravings by Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat.

Another room, supposedly the Darwin’s bedroom, with a magnificent bow-window view over the garden, has been reconstructed by English Heritage, and photography is permitted there.


Down House has quite modest grounds, including an orchard. In the walled garden where Darwin conducted many of his experiments, the lean-to greenhouse has a small but fine collection of carnivorous plants and orchids.

At the far end of the garden, and parallel to the house and terrace, is the Sandwalk, a gravel path where Darwin (a creature of habit) would take a walk every day and work through all the ideas swirling around his mind. It’s not hard to imagine Darwin strolling along the Sandwalk.


As an evolutionary biologist who has worked on the variation in domesticated plants and in nature (addressed by Darwin in Chapters 1 and 2 of his On the Origin of Species) in potato and rice and their wild species relatives for much of my career, I had long been looking forward to this visit to Down House.

And I was both pleased and disappointed at the same time. It was incredible to see where Darwin had lived, and formulated one of the most important scientific theories ever, to see his journals and many other personal items, to learn something about his family and family life. Darwin often suffered from ill health, almost considered a hypochondriac. Now it’s thought that he may have been suffering from recurring bouts of Chagas disease that he picked up in South America during his voyage there on HMS Beagle.

On the other hand, I came away feeling that something had been missing. I didn’t feel much emotional connection to Down House as I have experienced in visits to other properties (such as Chartwell or Bateman’s, to mention just a couple). I know Darwin had lived in Down House. There was all the evidence in front of me. It just didn’t feel as though he had.

I mentioned that photography is not permitted inside Down House. Visitors are greeted at the entrance with a sign stating that photography is prohibited. Prohibited! Perhaps English Heritage could tone down the ‘request’. A more welcoming approach would be more appropriate.


Before visiting Down House, I decided to re-read On the Origin of Species, which I had first read many decades ago. I didn’t make good progress. It’s not that the subject matter is difficult. After all, Darwin’s ideas were ‘meat and potatoes’ to me during my working life. It’s just that Darwin’s style of writing is challenging, not helped by an extremely small font in the version I have. I’ll get there, eventually.