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.

1066 and all that . . .

It’s the morning of 14 October 1066.

On Senlac Hill (or Senlac Ridge), about six miles north of the coast in Sussex (map), a Saxon shield wall prepares to engage the Norman-French invaders under Duke William of Normandy.  The Saxons, under King Harold Godwinson, have just arrived after marching south from Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire where, just three weeks earlier, they had defeated another invading force under King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his ally, Harold’s brother Tostig.

Exhausted and possibly out-numbered, this is a make or break stand for Harold’s Saxons. But, if they stand their ground, they are better positioned than the Normans who must cross a shallow valley then climb Senlac Hill to engage the Saxons.

This is the view from just below Senlac Hill looking south to where the Normans were mustered on the ridge in the distance. They had to cross this shallow valley to engage the Saxons.

For most of the day the battle (of Hastings as it has come to be known) ebbs and flows with neither side gaining an advantage. Until, late in the day, the Normans appear defeated and in retreat. The Saxons break rank and chase the fleeing Normans. But it’s all a feint. The Norman cavalry in small groups of five or six riders turn on the pursuing Saxons, and cut them down. Harold is killed (by an arrow through his eye, so the story goes), and William is victorious.

And so begin several centuries of foreign rule of England, first under the Normans and then under the durable Plantagenets who reign until the death of Richard III (the last Plantagenet king) in 1485 on Bosworth Field in Leicestershire.

Shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Duke William (now crowned King William I, the ‘Conqueror’) founded Battle Abbey, a Benedictine institution, although he died before it was completed.

The abbey endured until 1538 when, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, under Henry VIII, the abbey was closed, the church demolished, and the lands sold off.

Today, Battle Abbey and the battlefield are owned by English Heritage, and there are many quite well-preserved ruins to explore. From the magnificent gatehouse there is an excellent view not only over the ruins and battlefield but also over the small town of Battle that grew up around the abbey.

The gatehouse (above) and the view over Battle (below)

Among the best preserved buildings is the Dormitory, and beneath it, the Common Room.

At the east end of where the Church once stood, the Crypt is now exposed revealing several chapels.

After the Dissolution, the Abbey passed through several families.

The independent Battle Abbey School now occupies part of the site of the former abbey.

For more photos of Battle Abbey and the battlefield, please take a look at this album.


Dover Castle sits high on the cliffs overlooking the town and modern port. The site has been fortified since at least the second century AD, when the Romans (who invaded in AD43) built a lighthouse (or pharos) there. But there is evidence of much earlier occupation back to Iron Age times.

From near Langdon Hole on the White Cliffs of Dover, looking west, this is the keep of Dover Castle on the right, and the Saxon church on the left.

The pharos still stands proudly beside a Saxon Church of St Mary in Castro (built around AD1000), and was once used as the bell tower.

A century after the Conquest, Henry II (great grandson of William the Conqueror) launched a major building program at Dover Castle. The keep was erected and much of what we see today began to take shape between 1179 and 1188.

Dover Castle has remained an important link in the chain of defences on England’s southern coast. During Tudor times, it was an important castle for Henry VIII. In the 18th century further garrisons were built to house soldiers sent there to face the threat of invasion from France. And it played an important role during the Napoleonic Wars that ended with Napoleon’s defeat and exile to St Helena in 1815.

The castle also played its part during the Second World War. There are antiaircraft guns mounted on the battlements. And deep under the castle there is a series of tunnels used during the war. These are quite separate from the extensive medieval tunnels on the north side of the castle, which we had the opportunity to explore.

We must have spent four hours or more exploring Dover Castle. It’s an excellent destination for anyone interested in England’s post-Norman history. And also a mecca for families with children. English Heritage makes great efforts to bring history alive.

More photos can be found in this album.

I mentioned that Dover Castle stands high above the town. Here are two short videos of the drive up to and down from the castle. They give a good impression of just how strategic its location is.

Just a couple of miles to the east are the White Cliffs of Dover. We walked only as far as Langdon Hole, but still managed a good view of the Cliffs and, once the haze had lifted, a view across the English Channel (La Manche) to the cliffs on the coast of northern France. Just twenty or so miles. It clear why Dover Castle was so important for the defence of the realm.

The White Cliffs of Dover are a National Trust property.


Near Lamberhurst in Kent stand the ruins of a Premonstratensian monastery, Bayham Old Abbey, that Steph and I took in late one afternoon on our way back to the holiday cottage near Robertsbridge (just 13 miles south).

Bayham Old Abbey was founded around 1207 and, like the abbey at Battle, survived until the mid-16th century.

The ruins, some of the best preserved in southern England, stand proudly alongside the River Teise. We enjoyed them by ourselves in the late afternoon sun.

Check out more photos here.


Once the Normans and their successors had their feet under the ‘English table’, so to speak, Saxon lands were confiscated and given to Norman families. Throughout southeast England, and more widely over the country, many of the estates we see today came from the spoils of conquest 1000 years ago.

During our exploration of National Trust and English Heritage properties in East Sussex and Kent, we took in three moated castles built in the 14th century.

Bodiam Castle was built around 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a knight formerly in the service of King Edward III (third great grandson of Henry II). It was occupied for almost three hundred years, until it was slighted (partially dismantled) during the Civil War of the 1640s.

Ask any child to draw a castle, and something resembling Bodiam is what they are likely to produce.

With towers at each corner, and imposing gatehouses, Bodiam Castle is surrounded by a deep moat full of large fish, probably carp. Unlike many castles, Bodiam does not have a central keep. The living apartments were built on the inside of the castle walls.

Owned by the National Trust, much of the castle is open to explore, and visitors can climb a couple of the towers, and enjoy the views over the moat and the central courtyard.

I have posted more photos and plans of the castle in this album.

There is a link between Bodiam Castle and the Second World War, and I now regret not taking a photo.

Alongside the path leading to the castle from the ticket office, there is a pillbox (a type of concrete blockhouse) that was constructed some time after September 1939 to help protect Bodiam bridge over the River Rother against a potential German invasion, although I’m not sure how this could have been successful in the face of a serious onslaught.


The moated manor house at Scotney Castle was built around 1380. It stands some distance from a large country house that was built between 1835 and 1843, known as Scotney ‘New Castle’.

You can just see the round tower of the ‘Old Castle’ in the valley below the terrace of the New Castle (L) and the ‘New Castle’ from the causeway on to the island of the ‘Old Castle’ (R).

The ‘Old Castle’ has not been occupied for a long time, and part of the castle has been completely demolished. Although begun in the late 14th century, the buildings date from different periods in the 16th and 17th centuries as well.

See the full set of photos here, including many photos of the interior of the ‘New’ castle. It’s a National Trust property.


Just east of Sevenoaks in Kent, Ightham Mote is one of the most delightful moated manor houses I have ever visited¹. It must be one of the most complete still standing. Over the centuries it has been owned by several families, each generation adding to its architecture (click on the image at right for a larger version), although the Selby family who purchased Ightham in 1591 resided there for almost 300 years.

But perhaps one of its most interesting periods dates from just over 60 years ago, when an American, Charles Henry Robinson (from Portland, Maine), purchased Ightham and lived there for some years. It passed to the National Trust when he died in 1985.

During our recent visit, we watched a short video about the conservation restoration of one of the wings of the house that the Trust commenced in 1989, and was finally completed 15 years and £10 million later. But how it was worth it!

Inside the house, the Great Hall, the New Chapel (with its ceiling panels painted to celebrate the marriage, in 1509, of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon), and the Drawing Room (with its exuberant fireplace and raised ceiling to accommodate it), decorated with 18th century hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, are of particular interest.

A visit to Ightham Mote is a stroll through 600 years of history, and the architectural and design interests of several families. What I particularly like about properties such as this are the small details that catch my eye, in the woodwork, the furniture, the wallpaper. The chapel ceiling immediately connects you with early Tudor times, for example, yet in other parts of the house, it’s clear that this was a home until just 35 years ago. Ightham Mote has a remarkable lineage.

Check out the full set of Ightham Mote photos and floor plans here.


¹ Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire (also a National Trust property) has to be the other. We visited there in 2013.

“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.

From the Second World War to the Cretaceous: exploring East Sussex and Kent over 84 million years

We live in the northeast of Worcestershire, shown in red, 180 miles from Robertsbridge.

. . . as well as corners of West Sussex and Buckinghamshire.

Steph and I have just returned from a week’s holiday in the southeast of England, a part of the country neither of us is familiar with, where we rented a one bedroom cottage near Robertsbridge in East Sussex (just 10 miles north of Hastings). This was our base for visits to National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) properties. It lies at the heart of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

There are so many NT and EH properties to visit in the southeast, far too many for just one week. In the end we took in eighteen, including one on the trip south (to Down House, home of Charles Darwin in Kent), and Hughenden Manor north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, the home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, on the return journey. And, during the week, we crossed briefly into West Sussex, to Standen House near East Grinstead.

Check out this map for more details, including links to the NT and EH web sites for each property. I’ll also be writing about our visits to these properties in several posts over the next week or so.

What a week! Great weather. Lots of history, and beautiful landscapes, from the chalk cliffs at Dover and the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap, to the heavily wooded High Weald.

The view southwest over the Weald from Emmetts Garden.

At Langdon Hole on the White Cliffs of Dover; and the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap.

Our holiday home, Hop Cottage, was situated at the end of a half mile unpaved road, set among trees alongside a couple of other cottages. We had the site to ourselves.

And what a feast of bird song to entertain us. I’ve not heard a song thrush (right) for a long time. But, each morning, we awoke to one singing his heart out, perched high in the early morning sun. I thought I’d try my luck recording his song on my smart phone. Just click here to listen to my short (2 minutes) recording. Not bad for a first attempt.


As an evolutionary biologist, I couldn’t resist calling at Down House on the way south, the house Charles and Emma Darwin called home for many decades, and where they raised their large family.

It’s where he wrote his seminal On the Origin of Species, published to acclaim—and controversy—in 1859. We had free range of the gardens, but photography was not permitted inside the house except for a reconstructed bedroom on the first floor. Most of the items on display downstairs still belong to the Darwin family.

The Sandwalk (at the far end of his garden), where Darwin walked daily and pondered his ideas about natural selection and evolution.

While it was a great privilege to wander around Darwin’s house and garden, seeing many of his treasured possessions, his journals, we came away feeling there had been something lacking. I felt no emotional attachment to Down House as I have experienced at other properties, and which I did later in the week when we visited Chartwell, for example, the home of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, or Hughenden.


Our longest excursion, on the first full day, took us to Dover to explore Dover Castle, after which we continued on to the famous White Cliffs.

Built in the late 12th century by King Henry II, the first Plantagenet king and great grandson of William the Conqueror (see below for comments about the 1066 Battle of Hastings), Dover Castle has been occupied continuously in the intervening centuries, right up to the Second World War (1939-45). We didn’t visit any of the WWII tunnels at the castle or defences further along the White Cliffs. But on the day after our return home we learned all about them in a Channel 4 program about Dover and its defences, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.

Henry II was not the first to fortify Dover. There’s a Saxon church within the castle walls and, alongside that, the ruin of a lighthouse that the Romans built almost 2000 years ago. In a chain of defences along the south coast Dover Castle has always been one of the most important, and throughout the castle, its long history of protecting England’s coast is on display.

We only walked a short distance from the NT car park along the White Cliffs as far as Langdon Hole. Just above the cliffs, near the Coastguard Station, two original radar towers from WWII (on the left), are still standing.

As the hazy conditions over the English Channel improved, we could clearly see the coast of France, just 20 miles due east of where we were standing. Such a short distance yet such a cultural chasm.

On our way back to Robertsbridge, we made a detour via Dungeness, a large shingle beach jutting out into the English Channel. I’ve always wanted to visit Dungeness. It’s a unique landscape of pebbles with scattered vegetation. A small hamlet has grown up along the shingle, and its most notable house is Prospect Cottage, once occupied by film director Derek Jarman.

Prospect Cottage

You can see more photos from Dungeness here.

The old lighthouse and decommissioned nuclear power station at Dungeness.

But what I hoped to see at Dungeness, perhaps more than anything else, was the 15 inch Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. We’d crossed the tracks a couple of times while driving to the end of the road at Dungeness. While there was a diesel-pulled train just departing as we arrived, a few minutes later, Hercules steamed into the station.

Then, as you will see in the short video, we saw another train, pulled by three locomotives heading for Dungeness. As we were stopped at a level crossing, I had to quickly jump out of the car and hope I’d catch the action as the train passed by. Unfortunately I didn’t attach the lens hood properly, so part of the image is obscured – much to my annoyance.


Later on in the week, we had the opportunity to look into the lives of two literary giants, Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, both Nobel Laureates in Literature (in 1907 and 1953, respectively) when we visited Batemans and Chartwell.

Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill

Batemans, just a few miles from our holiday cottage, is a delightful Jacobean house that Kipling bought in 1902 and remained there until his death in 1936.

Looking around his study on the first floor and an exhibition room, it’s remarkable just how many possessions from his India days have been preserved. I was particularly impressed by a set of six first edition novels, from Allahabad in 1888, in one display cabinet.

What can I say about Chartwell? I was overwhelmed. I was amazed at how many of Churchill’s belongings were on display. Priceless treasures of national importance. A great tribute to a great man. And one of nation’s greatest Prime Ministers? He certainly was a man of his times, and in the right place at the right time.

Most of the rooms have original furniture, and the layout is the same as when the family lived there. I was also amazed—and very pleased—that photography was permitted throughout the house, and in Churchill’s studio where many of his oil paintings are on display.

The house from Churchill’s studio, and his study where he wrote, standing up, at a desk along the right hand wall.

Undoubtedly, this visit to Chartwell was one of the best NT visits we have made.

Benjamin Disraeli was, apparently, Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister. She certainly held him in high regard, given the number of gifts from her that are on display at Hughenden Manor.

The red brick house is not particularly attractive from the exterior, but as one walks through the various rooms open to the public there is certainly a sense of history that was experienced there.

His study, on the first floor, is the most complete of all the rooms at Hughenden. As custom dictated, Queen Victoria did not attend Disraeli’s funeral in April 1881. However, she did visit Hughenden a few days later, left a wreath of promises on his tomb, and spent a short while alone in his study.

Besides being a prominent politician, it should also be remembered that Disraeli was a prolific author, publishing more than a dozen novels besides political tomes as well.


Leaving Chartwell, we had to pass through the small town of Westerham, so decided to take a look at Quebec House, the boyhood home General James Wolfe, the 18th century army officer who defeated the French in Canada in 1759.

I’d not done my homework carefully enough. Quebec House was closed, but we could walk round the house and small garden.


Continuing the literary theme, we visited three properties connected with the Bloomsbury Set, a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century: Sissinghurst (home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson), Monk’s House, the home of Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, and Knole, ancestral home of the Sackville family since the late 16th century.

The images below show Vita’s Tower from the garden created by Vita and Harold at Sissinghurst (left), Virginia Woolf’s writing room (A Room of Her Own) at Monk’s House, and the majestic entrance to Knole outside Sevenoaks in Kent.

Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of the 4th Lord Sackville. She could not inherit Knole on his death. Instead, Knole passed to her cousin ‘Eddy’ who became the 5th Lord Sackville. In his rooms in the Gatehouse, there are original guest books with the names of many of the Bloomsbury Set who were frequent visitors. One of Vita’s ancestors, Cicely Sackville (nee Baker, died 1615) married into the Sackville family becoming Countess of Dorset. She was originally from Sissinghurst.

When Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst it was derelict. They turned it into a family home and created one of the most renowned gardens visited by multitudes of gardening aficionados annually. It was quite busy on the day of our visit, but manageable.

Vita and Virginia Woolf were lovers. The various permutations of relationships are not ignored in various displays at these three properties.

No photography of the wealth of treasures at Knole is permitted as they are still owned by the family. All I can say is that they are remarkable – paintings, furniture (some silver, a gift from Louis XIV of France), and many other items.


Going a little further back in time, we visited Battle Abbey and site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the Normans under William, Duke of Normandy (who came to be known, infamously, as William the Conqueror) defeated the Saxon king Harold Godwinson.

After his victory, William established the abbey at Battle, and the site of the high altar in the abbey church (no longer standing) is said to mark the spot where Harold was slain on Senlac Hill (where the Saxon shield wall had been formed). While the church has disappeared, many other buildings with fine vaulted ceilings adorn the site.

Just 16 miles northwest from Battle (less as the crow flies), Bayham Old Abbey lies in ruined splendour, one of the finest examples of a Premonstratensian monastery type in southern England. It was founded around 1207, and flourished until it was closed during the reign of Henry VIII.


Three moated properties were on our itinerary: Ightham Mote, a fine manor house built around 1320; Bodiam Castle (built by Sir Edward Dallingridge to defend against a possible French invasion) in 1385; and finally, Scotney Castle a fortified manor house that was built around 1380.

Ightham Mote

Bodiam Castle

The ‘old castle’ at Scotney Castle


There are, however, two houses at Scotney. The ‘old castle’ was abandoned a long time ago, and in 1837 another was built in the Elizabethan style for the Hussey family. Scotney also has extensive gardens.

From the terrace of the house you can see the round tower of the old house in the valley below.

Standen House and Garden date from the 1890s, created by James and Margaret Beale, and decorated throughout in the Arts and Crafts style by the design firm Morris & Co. Throughout the gardens there are fine views over the surrounding countryside.

The layout of the rooms today is more or less as the family would have enjoyed them in the 1920s.

Finally, we enjoyed a visit to the Edwardian garden, Emmetts (’emmett’ is a local word for ant), created by banker and scientist (and keen plantsman) Frederick Lubbock. After his death in 1927, it was taken over by American geologist Charles Boise.


A week passed by all too soon. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and apart from a few brief holdups on the M25 motorway on the return journey, we met with no traffic problems at all.

However, I think we have only scratched the surface of what the National Trust and English Heritage have to offer in this part of England, and I’m sure we’ll be returning at some future date to explore and take in the beauty and heritage of the southeast.


Do check these photo albums:

National Trust properties
Batemans
Birling Gap
Bodiam Castle
Chartwell
Emmetts Garden
Hughenden
Ightham Mote
Knole
Monk’s House
Quebec House
Scotney Castle
Sissinghurst
Standen House
White Cliffs of Dover

English Heritage properties:
Battle Abbey and Battlefield
Bayham Old Abbey
Dover Castle
Down House


 

A year full of heritage

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust since 2011. Following our first visit to one of the Trust’s properties in February that year (to Hanbury Hall, just 7 miles from home), we have tried each year to get out and about as often as we can. After 5 years membership, we were offered a special senior citizen joint membership: such great value for money; so many interesting houses, landscapes, and gardens to visit, and enjoy a cup of coffee (and an occasional flapjack) in one of the NT cafes.

These visits give purpose to our excursions. We’ve now explored 97 National Trust properties in England and Northern Ireland (as well as as few maintained by the National Trust for Scotland). And we have enjoyed many country walks as well around parkland and through gardens.

Click on the various links to open stories I have posted during the year, or an album of photos.

We are fortunate that close to us (we’re just south of Birmingham in northeast Worcestershire) there are half a dozen properties that take 30 minutes or less to reach. The closest is Hanbury Hall, and we often visit there to enjoy a walk around the park – four times this year – or take one of the many paths to the canal, up to Hanbury church, and back into the park. I particularly enjoy seeing how the parterre changes through the seasons. It is a very fine example.

The parterre at Hanbury in August

The other houses close to home are Charlecote Park ( in July), Croome (August), Packwood House (August), Baddesley Clinton (October), and Coughton Court (April and November).

Coughton Court in April

Our National Trust year began in February with a return visit to Newark Park, 58 miles south in Gloucestershire, to see the carpets of snowdrops, for which the garden is famous. We first visited the house in August 2015.

A week later we traveled 20 miles southwest from home to the birthplace of one of England’s greatest composers, Sir Edward Elgar. It was a sparkling day. We even managed a picnic! After visiting the house, The Firs, and the visitor center, we took the circular walk from the site that lasted about 1 hour. I found watching a short video about Elgar’s life to the accompaniment of Nimrod quite emotional.

Then a week later, we decided on a walk in the Wyre Forest, about 17 miles west from Bromsgrove, to find Knowles Mill, a derelict flour mill in the heart of the forest.

April saw us take in three properties (besides Coughton Court): Dudmaston (which we first visited in 2013); Kinwarton Dovecote; and Southwell Workhouse (a fascinating visit).

In May, I had to obtain an international driving permit, and the closest post office was in the center of Birmingham. That was just the excuse we needed to book a tour of the Back-to-Backs on the corner of Inge and Hurst Streets. What an eye-opener, and one NT property that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Closer to home, in fact less than 4 miles from home, is Rosedene, a Chartist cottage that was one of a number erected in the area of Dodford in the 19th century. It’s open infrequently, so looking to the weather forecast we booked to view the property on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the NT guides were unable to unlock the front door, so we never got to see inside, just peer through the windows.

We had returned to Upton House in Warwickshire at the beginning of the month to enjoy the walk along the escarpment overlooking the site of the 1642 Battle of Edgehill, and then around the garden. We had first visited in July 2012.

We were away in the USA during June and July, and just made some local visits in August. We were preparing for a week of NT and English Heritage (EH) visits in Cornwall during the second week of September.

What a busy week! We stopped at Barrington Court in Somerset on the way south, and Knightshayes in Devon on the way home a week later. You can read about those visits here.

Barrington Court

Knightshayes

We visited four more houses in Cornwall: Lanhydrock, Cotehele, St Michael’s Mount, and Trerice, and I wrote about those visits here.

Then there were the coastal visits, to The Lizard, Cape Cornwall, and Levant Mine (check out the stories here).

While on the north coast (visiting Tintagel Castle – see below), we stopped by Tintagel Old Post Office.

Cornwall has some fine gardens, and we visited these: Glendurgan, Godolphin, Trelissick, and Trengwaintonread about them here.

October was a quiet month. I can’t remember if we took a walk at Hanbury, but we did enjoy a long one along the Heart of England Way at Baddesley Clinton.

November saw us in the northeast, with a return visit to Seaton Delaval Hall (that we first visited in August 2013), and also to Penshaw Monument that is such an imposing sight over the Durham-Tyneside landscape.

In mid-November it was 70th birthday, and Steph and I spent a long weekend in Liverpool. One of the highlights was a visit to the Beatles Childhood Homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – rather emotional.

We completed our National Trust year by enjoying Christmas at Coughton Court on 30 November.


We have been members of English Heritage (EH) since 2015. Our daughters gifted us membership at Christmas 2014. Witley Court in Worcestershire is the nearest property to home, and we have been visiting there since the 1980s when we first moved to Bromsgrove. But not during 2108. Here’s a story from September 2017.

In April we were in the northeast and enjoyed a visit to Warkworth Castle near Alnwick on the Northumberland coast (map) with grandsons Elvis and Felix. Since it was close to St George’s Day, there was a tournament entertainment for the children.

Warkworth Castle

While in the northeast, we visited Rievaulx Abbey, somewhere I had first visited as a student in the summer of 1968, and then again in the mid-1980s on holiday with the family on the Yorkshire coast.

Towards the South Transept and the east end of the church from the southeast.

During our trip to Cornwall in September, we got to visit Chysauster Ancient Village, Pendennis Castle, Restormel Castle, and Tintagel Castle, which I have written about here.

The steps leading up to the castle gate.

Then in November, on the way home from Newcastle, we stopped off at Mount Grace Priory, that is owned by the National Trust but managed by English Heritage.

It was a bright and calm November morning, lots of color in the trees, and we were enchanted by the peace of this wonderful site. On our trips to Newcastle we have passed the entrance to the Priory many times, but never had found the time (or the weather) to stop off. It was well worth the wait.


This has been our heritage 2018. We have barely scratched the surface of NT and EH properties. We look forward to spreading our wings further afield in 2019.

Governed by the rule of St Benedict

Nestling under the Cleveland Hills in North Yorkshire, about half way between Thirsk and Middlesbrough along the A19 (map), Mount Grace Priory has stood proudly overlooking this beautiful landscape for over 600 years. It is owned by the National Trust, but managed by English Heritage.

Founded in 1398 by Thomas Holland, 1st Duke of Surrey, Mount Grace is a walled Carthusian priory or Charterhouse, of which there were several throughout England. It’s regarded as the best preserved. The priory was finally closed down in 1539 at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII.

Built from a beautiful yellow stone that glowed in the early winter sun last Sunday when we visited, Mount Grace was a community to fewer than 20 monks, living more or less as hermits each in his own cell (6). Actually, these cells must have been the 15th century equivalent of a ‘des-res’. These surrounded a large cloister (5), were two storey buildings, with piped in water, outside latrine, and a garden that each monk attended. By the entrance door there is a large niche through which food and other necessities were passed to each monk. One of the cells (8) has been reconstructed.

As we entered the cloister the air was filled with the eerie sound of pheasants calling among the trees on the surrounding hillside.

The priory was dedicated to the Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin in Mount Grace, and an small but impressive ruined church (4) lies at the center of the priory compound.

More photos of the priory ruins, and a little more history can be viewed in this album.

The site was acquired in the mid-17th century by Thomas Lascelles, and then in the 1740s to the Mauleverer family. The priory guest house became the heart of the manor house we see today. But its current aspect was the work of a wealthy industrialist at the end of the 19th century, Sir Lowthian Bell.

Just a few rooms are open to the public. A carpet designed by William Morris is on loan to Mount Grace, and is laid in one of the ground floor rooms.

The coat of arms of the Bell family is displayed above the fireplace in another room on the ground floor.

The west facade of the manor house is covered in Virginia creeper, glowing red in its full autumn glory, overlooking a small, but carefully laid out terraced garden, leading to several pools that were used by the monks to raise fish. It was nice to see plant name labels throughout the garden.

Mount Grace Priory, house, and gardens were a true delight. We’ve often passed the entrance on our way north to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family in Newcastle. But this time we were determined, weather-permitting, to stop off and explore the site. And that’s how we spent a very enjoyable three hours last Sunday morning, before hitting the road again, heading south to home in north Worcestershire.

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (3): Stepping back in time

Almost 2000 years.

English Heritage preserves several important sites in Cornwall, and during our week long break there, we got to visit four that span about 2000 years of British history, from the Roman occupation of these islands, through the Dark Ages, the 12th century under the Normans, and from the Tudors until the Second World War:

  • Chysauster Ancient Village, on the Land’s End Peninsula
  • Tintagel Castle, on Cornwall’s north coast
  • Restormel Castle, near Bodmin
  • Pendennis Castle, overlooking Carrick Roads near Falmouth

Chysauster Ancient Village (pronounced ‘chy-soyster’, with ‘ch’ as in church)
Sylvester’s House. That’s what Chysauster means; ‘chy’ is Cornish for house or home. But whether Sylvester ever lived there and who he was I guess we’ll never know. Because the remains of this Iron Age village date from Romano-British times, some 1800-2000 years ago.

The Romans never really penetrated into Cornwall, apparently. Thus Chysauster, with its unique courtyard houses (found only in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles), is a very important site in the nation’s history. Courtyard houses are found in several locations, but the village at Chysauster is one of the best preserved.

As I walked on to the site I had this feeling that the village had once been a thriving community. I could imagine children playing among the houses, smoke rising from each roof. A busy place.

We spent about an hour walking from one building to the next, fascinated by the layout of each house with its rooms off the central courtyard, and even a backdoor.

Take a look at more photos here. This is the link to English Heritage.


Tintagel Castle
Did King Arthur live here? Did he even exist? Whatever the truth of the myth, Tintagel Castle will forever be linked with his name. It’s certainly an iconic site jutting out into the North Atlantic, battered constantly by winds and storms. It was quite windy on the day of our visit, but thankfully dry.

Tintagel Castle from the Upper Mainland Courtyard (4)

Click here to download a phased plan of the castle, which shows its occupation over almost a thousand years.

Geoffrey of Monmouth has a lot to answer for, because much of what we ‘know’ of our history prior to the 12th century is a mixture of fact and fiction that he wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain.

Among the many myths that he conjured up is the tale of King Arthur and his links with Tintagel Castle where, claimed Geoffrey, Arthur was conceived.

Tintagel Castle was once home to a thriving community of more than 300 persons. But since much of its history derives from the so-called Dark Ages (the period between the exodus of the Romans in the 5th century AD and the arrival of the Normans in the 11th). Tintagel Castle island is dotted with the remains of many houses.

We arrived at Tintagel just before 09:30. I wanted to be sure of a parking place knowing that it can become very busy. The castle opened at 10:00, so we took a slow walk down to the entrance, about half a mile, and quite steep in places. We opted for the Land Rover ride (at £2 each) back up to the car park after our visit.

The cafe was just opening, so we enjoyed a quick coffee before registering for our visit, and getting some wise advice about how to tackle the site. There are lots (and I mean lots) of steps at Tintagel, some very steep indeed. The person on the ticket counter advised us to enter the site through the upper entrance (just before 1), and straight into the mainland courtyards (3 and 4) that overlook the main entrance and island courtyard and Great Hall (6).

There is a set of extremely steep steps down the cliff to then cross a bridge and climb into the main ruins. The walk up to the upper entrance and courtyards was certainly gentler than had we visited the main island first then returned to view the courtyards (and climb that set of stairs) as we saw many other visitors doing later one. And by visiting the courtyards first, we had a panorama over the island ruins to get our bearings.

What goes down must go up . . .

The island courtyard and Great Hall (6)

Check out the full album of photographs. It takes about an hour and a half to walk round the ruins and appreciate everything that Tintagel has to offer. The views over the cliffs, north and south down the coast are typical Cornwall, and you’re left wondering how a community managed to survive for so long in this rather desolate spot.


Restormel Castle
Moving forward to the 12th century, Restormel is a Norman castle alongside the River Fowey in Lostwithiel. Its circular shell keep is unusual (the round tower at Windsor Castle is also a shell keep), built on a mound surrounded by a dry (and quite deep) ditch. The ruins are remarkably well preserved, and in addition to wandering through the various rooms at ground level, English Heritage has provided access to the battlements, from which there is a good panoramic view over the surrounding countryside.

You can read a detailed history of Restormel here.


Pendennis Castle
Guarding the approaches to Falmouth, Pendennis Castle has proudly stood on a peninsula overlooking Carrick Roads since the time of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. And it remained an important fortress right up to the Second World War when guns were installed to combat any threat from German naval vessels.

Across the estuary is another Tudor fortress, St Mawes Castle, a mirror image of Pendennis. During Tudor times, the guns from each could reach half way across the estuary, this protecting Falmouth and its harbor from both sides.

In July 2016 we visited Calshot Castle, that guards the approaches to The Solent near Southampton, and is another of Henry VIII’s coastal fortresses.

Pendennis has a fine collection of cannons inside and also on the battlements, as well as the Second World War guns at Half Moon Battery.

Looking southwest to the mouth of the Helford River

At Half Moon Battery

The castle is not just the round tower. There are extensive 18th century barracks and parade grounds enclosed within major earthworks, ramparts constructed during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Earthworks leading to the main entrance (and below as well)

The barracks (on the right) and guardhouse on the left, from the roof of the Tudor round tower.

Check out more photos here.


These are the other four stories in this Cornwall series:

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (1): The journey south . . . and back

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (2): Coast to coast

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (4): An impressive horticultural legacy

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (5): Magnificent mansions