Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Cambridge Bonfires

Our local history group was given a fascinating talk last night by Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University on ‘The Cambridge Bonfires’ - moments of civil unrest in Cambridge at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The unrest took the form of spontaneous bonfires in Cambridge’s Market Square, in which both Town and Gown participated. But these bonfires were to mark what today would be considered distinctly reactionary causes: the defeat of an attempt to extend the awarding of degrees to women, and the conferring of an Honorary Degree on Lord Kitchener, victor of the Battle of Omdurman.

Dr Lang recreated a world in which the Cambridge students treated the city much as their own fiefdom. Their territory was, after all, literally being extended. Cambridge university sports clubs were proliferating in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, leading to more and more plots of land in the vicinity of the city centre being given over to sports pitches. The river, while still very much a working channel of trade and communication, was increasingly dominated by athletic young men in rowing boats.

1880 Cambridge University Rugby XV

The masculine culture of the university was offended by the very idea of women (from Girton and Newnham colleges) being awarded degrees. The defeat of this proposal in 1897 was considered a relief by many male students and graduates, who wished to deny ‘Girton Girls’ the public recognition of a full degree. The authorities could do little to prevent the celebratory bonfire in the Market Square that followed.

Picture showing the protest at Women's Degrees in Cambridge, 1897. The effigy of the woman on a bike was cut down and destroyed by the (largely male) crowd

A similar, if larger, bonfire in 1898 marked the arrival of Lord Kitchener in the city, on the day he was awarded an Honorary Degree. Kitchener was a ubiquitous presence at the time - his face was so well-known at the time that the famous poster of 1914 (‘Your Country Needs You’) carried no mention of his name - it was simply not needed. The patriotic bonfire to celebrate this stalwart defender of the British Empire was hot enough to melt streetlamps.

Another bonfire was expected in 1900, in anticipation of the Relief of Mafeking. This time, the city authorities were more canny in controlling the unrest. The Mayor, Horace Darwin (son of Charles) established a ‘Bonfire Committee’ to apply some organisation to the event. The location of the bonfire was switched to Midsummer Common, where its impact could better be controlled. Although the bonfire was huge, its effect on the city was less disruptive. The Market Square, this time, was carefully policed to avoid disorder breaking out.
Dr Sean Lang shows a picture of the Midsummer Common bonfire of 1900

Thereafter, there were far fewer examples of civil disorder in the city. The boisterous student culture calmed; Town and Gown learned to live more harmoniously with each other. How typically British that such violent examples of disorder and unrest were ultimately quelled by means of a local authority subcommittee…. and how sad that it took until 1948 before women were awarded full degrees.

Mayor Horace Darwin

Monday, 17 October 2016

Easton Lodge Gardens

I am fascinated by the story of Frances Evelyn Greville, or the Countess of Warwick as she became. Lady Warwick was a society hostess, and one of the richest women in England having inherited her father's estates at the age of four in 1865. Her principal house was at Little Easton in Essex, though her marriage to Lord Brooke brought with it Warwick Castle among other places when her husband assumed his father's title. 

Easton Lodge is now mostly demolished. Only a single wing - the West Wing - survives today as a private home. The site  is not too far from us, and so we did not pass up the opportunity to visit on the last open day of 2016 (there are nine open days in total - for which, see the Easton Lodge gardens website). 

We were well looked after on our visit by a team of enthusiastic volunteers, all clearly proud of the Easton Lodge story and what has been achieved there in the 11 years or so since the Easton Lodge Gardens Preservation Trust was set up. An archive room containing multiple folders of press cuttings and written information helps to provide background on the fascinating story of the house, gardens and social world of Lady Warwick. 

The story is an intriguing one. By the 1880s and 1890s Lady Warwick had developed a reputation as the 'it' girl of her age. Wealthy and well-connected, her rumoured extra-marital romantic liaisons included with (among many others) the Prince of Wales. An extravagant ball at Warwick Castle in 1895 drew the censure of a left-wing newspaper and led Lady Warwick to visit the editor, Robert Blatchford, to demand an apology. She left Blatchford's office equipped with a new perspective on the world, and over the coming decade became a committed socialist and supporter of the Labour Party. 

While continuing her penchant for hunting, parties and glamorous attire, Lady Warwick campaigned relentlessly for the socialist cause. She even stood as a Labour candidate (against Anthony Eden). At Easton Lodge she was surrounded by left-leaning figures: HG Wells (who lived at Easton Glebe, on the Easton Lodge estate), Conrad Noel (whom she appointed to the living at Thaxted), and Noel Noel-Buxton (a minister in the 1920s Labour government). 

Having an affair with Bertie was one thing, but turning so dramatically to the socialist cause might have been considered a far graver turn of events by many of her class. Lady Warwick even at one stage offered the house to the Labour Party (they declined to accept the gift of such an aristocratic figure) and to the Trades Union movement. Eventually, the house was taken over during the war by the military, and an airfield laid out opposite it. After the war Lady Warwick's son took the decision to demolish most of it. 

The place was left in ruins for several decades, until Brian and Diana Creasey bought it in the 1970s and set about the task of restoring the gardens, originally laid out by Harold Peto in the 1920s (part of a redesign that followed an house fire in 1918, apparently started by Lady Warwick's pet monkey). Today, the Italianate gardens form the centre of the experience, but visitors can also explore Peto's other innovations (such as the pavilion at what would have been the side of the house). A recreation of Lady Warwick's yew sun dial also sits in the garden: this was originally at Stone Hall, a cottage ornee some distance from the house. 

I enjoyed hearing the story of Daisy Warwick, and of the house at Easton. A bank of trees now marks where the house would have been, the footprint of its chapel and library only just visible in the undergrowth. It takes a leap of imagination to wander though those trees and listen to the conversations that might have taken place there - in a house where a discreet bell was rung at 6am every morning so that house guests could quietly return to their designated beds from whichever room they had actually spent the night....

Monday, 19 September 2016

Jubun Minka in Japan

Japan has an equivalent of the Historic Houses Association in the UK. It’s called the Japanese Historic House Owners’ Society, and comprises 130 or so private owners of traditional Japanese houses. I’ve just had the privilege of visiting Japan to talk at a symposium organised in collaboration with the Society, and to visit a number of owners in their houses. 

The historic house in Japan is, of course, very different from its equivalent in the UK. There are over 400 historic houses designated as being ‘important cultural properties’, and about 250 of them are private houses.  Collectively they are known as ‘jubun minka’.

Jubun minka are in the main timber-built properties, dating from the 16th or 17th centuries. Many were farm houses, some were shops or merchants houses. They are now largely buried in the urban sprawl of modern-day Japan, but provide oases of serenity in the midst of bustling city life. 

I was staying in Osaka, and the houses I visited were all to be found there or in surrounding areas (such as the nearby city of Kyoto, which I reached by bullet train from Osaka in just 15 minutes). Some of the houses are pictured here. 

There was a similar form to each of them: after an entrance area, visitors (having removed their shoes) are invited to step up onto a raised platform to visit the house. Although there were houses with more than one storey, there were many that comprised a range of rooms on a single floor. 

Individual rooms are formed by means of wooden partitions, often made of a combination of wood and paper. In the most historic houses, the paper on these panels is decorated with delicate drawings. 

Rooms are set aside for different purposes: tea ceremony rooms, shrines, receiving guests. Another difference from Western Europe is the absence of any furniture: seats would have been cushions or mats on the floor. 

A museum in central Osaka, the Museum of Housing and Living, contains a replica of a typical Osaka street scene in the last of Edo Period (about 200 years ago), housed within the 8th floor of a modern office building. The museum had queues of people waiting to get in before opening time at 10am: it is hugely popular, not least because of the chance for visitors to dress up in kimono

My favourite house (Nijo Jinya) was in Kyoto: a former inn that was used by soldiers visiting the nearby Nijo Castle. The house was full of surprising features: secret spaces for ninja to hide in, holes in the ceilings for soldiers to leap down if their master needed protection, even a room set aside for seppuku (harakiri).

I was very lucky to have the chance to visit so many wonderful houses. I was especially lucky too, in that a typhoon hit Osaka just a few hours after I caught my flight home.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Booton, Norfolk

The church of St Michael the Archangel at Booton in Norfolk stands on the road leading to Reepham. Reepham is famous for its churches, at one time boasting of three of them within the same small Norfolk village (it was to do with three adjacent parishes wanting their church built near to a shrine, we were told when we visited). The church at Booton adds to this church-building reputation by virtue of its size, scale and audacity. 

The building is duplicitous. It occupies the same floorspace as an original medieval parish church. But it is largely a fabrication of the late 19th century. The original church was almost entirely rebuilt by the rector, Whitwell Elwin, editor of the Quarterly Review and, somewhat improbably, a descendant of Pocahontas. Elwin became vicar here in 1849 and aside from forcing the GPO to install a letter box (such was the volume of his correspondence), his major achievement was rebuilding the church between 1876 and 1900. 

Somewhat amazingly, Elwin designed the whole thing more or less himself, despite having no formal architectural training. A baptistry and vestry were added, as were two very striking towers at the west end, which today give the church its signature outline. Inside, a vast hammerbeamed roof soars overhead, with carved angels gazing down, whose original purpose was to support lamps. The angels were carved by the man who carved the bull’s head that still features as the logo for Colman’s mustard

Apparently much of the inspiration came from Elwin’s travels across the country, visiting different churches and taking detailed notes. This magpie style is reflected in the various architectural features across the church: porches, doorways, recesses, windows. The whole effect is rounded off by the stained glass (by Cox, Sons & Buckley) - a unified scheme for the building, which further adds to its rarity (it all looked very pre-Raphaelite to my untrained eye, but apparently Elwin was a severe critic of the Brotherhood).

Such is the effect of this architectural extravagance that Edwin Lutyens apparently declared the church to be ‘very naughty, but in the right spirit’.

Our visit to St Michael the Archangel was affecting for a number of reasons. 

First, we were there to try out a night of Champing. This new(ish) idea is the genius invention of the Churches Conservation Trust, which has looked after the building since 1987 (no small undertaking, given its idiosyncrasies).  Champing involves camping. In a church. We were trying it out for the first time, and found the whole thing to be great fun. 

The booking process was simplicity itself (do visit their website). The arrival instructions were emailed in good time, and were very clear to follow. When we got there, we found the beds already laid out for us, and a carpeted area installed with camp chairs and bean bags. A kettle was the only means of sustenance (Champing does not involve cooking in churches or their churchyards), and a neat outside eco-loo was the only other mod con. Aside from this it was just us, our duvets, and the church itself, for the night.

I recommend sleeping in a church. It is less spooky than it sounds. After hot chocolate, we turned all the lights off and settled down to sleep. I was conscious of the vast vault of the roof above us, and the angels looking down on us. I was conscious too of the bats flitting about at the very top of the church. But I had a very good night’s sleep indeed. We woke naturally, as the early sun seeped through the stained glass. Champing turns out to be a simple idea, brilliantly executed, and well worth trying out.

The second affecting aspect of our stay happened very early on. We had just arrived, and were unpacking our stuff. A man and his young son were wandering about in the graveyard, and then wandered into the church itself and began examining the building from the inside. At first this was quite disconcerting - didn’t he realise he was poking around in our bedroom? But I suppose this is part of the Champing experience - making private for one night what is, in reality, public space. 

Anyway, we got chatting, and it turned out the man was from Holland and on his annual visit to St Michael the Archangel. He was visiting because a relative, his infant brother, is buried just outside the west end of the church building (his brother died in 1977, and special permission had to be sought for the boy to be buried in this spot). The man had no idea it was possible to sleep in the church - he was simply there to tidy up the gravestone. We were pleased to tell him about Champing, and I like the idea that one day he might come back to spend a night so close to his brother’s grave. 

A third revelation (of sorts): visiting Reepham for our delicious breakfast (at the Dial House: all included in the Champing ticket) I was looking at some second-hand books and across Stephen Fry’s memoir Moab is my Washpot. I am sure I have read this already. Anyway, I was flicking through it, and discovered that St Michael the Archangel features, in a black and white photographic plate. This was because Fry spent his boyhood in Booton, either in the large house adjacent to the church, or another one close by (I couldn’t quite work out which). Fancy that. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Copped Hall, Essex

Copped Hall in Essex featured in the Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A in 1974. The entry in the catalogue reads: “built for John Conyers by John Sanderson, 1753; altered by James Wyatt, 1775; burnt 1916; shell remains.”

I am pleased to report that very much more than simply the shell now remains. Thanks to the Copped Hall Trust, the 18th century house is being lovingly, painstakingly brought back to life. Now roofed and with new flooring throughout, the original floorplan is once again in place and the importance of the house and its history thereby revealed.

 The mansion at Copped Hall today was a mid-18th century replacement for an earlier Elizabethan house, completed by 1568 when the Queen herself is said to have stayed. The original house featured a Long Gallery of considerable proportions, where ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was first performed in 1594, on the occasion of the marriage of Sir Thomas Heneage (Copped Hall’s owner) to the Countess of Southampton. The West Essex Archaeological Group has been active at Copped Hall in recent years, excavating the remains of the old hall within what is now an attractive sunken garden.

The new Copped Hall of 1753 was an architectural marvel, with views across rolling Essex countryside. A succession of owners brought wealth and influence. The Conyers family sold to the Wythes family in 1869, who extended the house and laid out substantial gardens.

The mansion was dilapidated by fire a hundred years ago (in fact, in 1917). Between 1917 and the 1990s the structure was left open to the elements, its walls blackened, its floors and roofs gone. The abandoned rooms of the house were used for growing mushrooms; pigs were reared in the Victorian garden buildings. Vandals made frequent raids on the house and its ancillary buildings. The M25 was built through a corner of the park.

Eventually the parkland was saved by the Corporation of London (the house is on the borders of Epping Forest). The house itself avoided redevelopment as a hotel or golf course clubhouse. The Copped Hall Trust was established, and took on the freehold, with a view to restoration.

The Trust has found various ingenious ways to invest in the long-term restoration of the house. Various buildings in and around the house were brought back to life and sold on as very attractive homes. Grants were secured from all manner of charitable sources. Many volunteers offer their time free of charge, to carry out maintenance and restoration. A full team of volunteers works in the impressive Walled Garden, perhaps the largest of its type in Essex, from where garden produce is sold. Events and open days, including a successful Apple Day, bring visitors and income to the property, and help to finance its ongoing restoration.

Copped Hall no longer deserves to feature as an example of the destruction of the country house. Quite the opposite: from the ashes has arisen one of the most impressive examples of country house revitalisation. To find out more about supporting the work of the Copped Hall Trust, or about the events taking place there, visit  

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Country House at War

It is said that 2,000 country houses were requisitioned in the Second World War.  Two houses that I recently visited provide excellent illustrations of the impact of this military usage. 

Bletchley Park in Bletchley near Milton Keynes became the basis of a top secret codebreaking establishment. Here the house was taken over early on in the War and adapted for use by highly intelligent men and women recruited for their codebreaking skills.

Various huts and outbuildings work constructed for teams of men women to work night and day to try to break the codes used by Axis forces.They were helped in their efforts by the capture of various German Enigma machines. But the Enigma cipher could not be broken without understanding the key that was being used by German forces on any given day

Mathematical geniuses such as Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman developed means by which the ciphers could be cracked. Turing is noted for having done research work that led to the establishment of computers as we know them today - his groundbreaking work on the computer technology was published in 1936 when Turing was still in his early 20s and two years before he secured his PhD from Princeton.  Turing's efforts at Bletchley Park are memorialised in the film The Imitation Game, about which there is currently an exhibition at Bletchley Park.

But there is much much more to see here. The Park has been beautifully brought back to life. The various huts are full of different exhibitions on aspects of the codebreakers' work. All is presented in a very clear and thoughtful way. Technical information is provided but there is also plenty of human interest to captivate visitors. Quotes are given from the various people who worked at Bletchley Park during the War, such as the one by the garden historian Mavis Batey below, although nothing was known about this place until the secret was first built in around 1974. Even the machines (the Bombe) used to crack the Enigma code were dismantled after the war on the orders of Churchill. Only replicas can be seen at Bletchley, to help tell this fascinating story.

The park is brought to life by conveying different aspects of working conditions at Bletchley - the recreated offices, the tennis courts, the cycle racks. As visitors walk around the site outdoor speakers transmit sounds, giving some idea of what this place must been like when 9,000 people came to work every day in conditions of absolute secrecy.

Bletchley Park is quite simply astonishing - the sort of site that will continue to captivate for many years ahead as more and more secrets are uncovered about its wartime role. 

Not too far away I also visited Hughenden, a National Trust property.

The house is most famous as the home of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century prime minister. It was he who removed the render and Gothicised the house,  revealing it in all its naked redbrick angular glory. But a new exhibition in the basement reveals the wartime history of the house. Hughenden was used by the map makers of the Second World War, the men who provided the targets for the Allied bombing raids on the continent.

The conditions in the house at that time are represented through various black-and-white photos showing rooms with the contents removed, to be replaced by the map-makers' tables. On my visit the basement exhibition was just as popular as the rooms upstairs, demonstrating the appetite there is for Second World War stories.

I was slightly less convinced however by the air raid shelter in the basement which showed the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster on display. Though popular today, the poster was never in fact in mass circulation during the war.