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 http://www.coppedhalltrust.org.uk  

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. 






Friday, 1 April 2016

Walton on the Naze

We were inspired to visit Walton on the Naze on the Essex coast by my son, who had been there recently on a school trip. His class were investigating coastal erosion, and there can be few places that better demonstrate this process than Walton, or more particularly the Naze (or headland) to the north of the town. 


Naze Tower, Walton on the Naze

This is hardly a new phenomenon. After all, Daniel Defoe observed the same when he visited on his tour: "The sea gains so much upon the land here, by the continual winds at S.W. that within the memory of some of the inhabitants there, they have lost above 30 acres of land in one place."


Collapsing cliff, Walton on the Naze


We confined ourselves to the Naze, parking near its impressive tower, 'erected by the Trinity House men', as Defoe observed. (Confusingly, my paperback first edition of Pevsner (1954) said it was built in 1796, but all the information pointed to 1720 as the date of origin.) The tower is creeping ever closer to the cliff edge as the Naze recedes into the North Sea. Like Orford Ness Lighthouse, therefore, which on a clear day can be seen from the top of the Naze tower, there is doubt whether the building will still be there in fifty years' time. 


Naze Tower panorama


Descending to the beach, the effects of erosion are all the more obvious. Dotted along the shoreline are military installations - pill boxes and gun emplacements (I think), which presumably once defended the Naze itself, but which have since slumped to be consumed by the tide. 


Pillbox on the beach


Like Orford Ness, the Naze was a landscape that was requisitioned for military purposes during the Second World War. The Naze tower was adopted as a communications mast, while weaponry was tested on the Naze itself (now a nature reserve and SSSI). 


Naze Tower during WW2
All this is relatively recent history  compared to the geological timeframes experienced on a walk along the shoreline. Underfoot, what seems at first solid stone turns out to be compacted London clay, slightly slippery when wet but given to cracking when dried out. The cliffs have a base of London clay, but above them sandy Red Crag. When my son came on his school trip, he was delighted to discover a fossilised shark's tooth. 


London Clay and Red Crag

Remains such as these are abundant in the friable cliff face; several family groups had brought paintbrushes and buckets, presumably to carefully excavate the remains of animals who lived millions of years ago. In a crumbling section of the cliff we found examples of fossilised wood, and marvelled at just how ancient these slivers of timber were. 



Fossilised wood in London Clay


Walton on the Naze might be considered every bit as romantic as Dorset's Jurassic coast. Perhaps it should be marketed as the Neogenic Coast, and seek World Heritage Status. As it is, I was struck by the first signpost we saw upon reaching the Naze tower: an injunction against illegal caravanning on the Naze. 




There may be some improvements needed in how Walton presents itself as a destination; yet an afternoon here is time well spent indeed.


 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Visit to Roald Dahl Museum, Great Missenden


The children's author and short story writer Roald Dahl lived in Great Missenden in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns for more than thirty years. He was born 100 years ago this year, and the museum in his honour in the town is celebrating in style.



The landscape of Great Missenden inspired some of Roald Dahl's writing. This garage on the high street, near to the museum itself, inspired the one that features in Danny Champion of the World. The imaginative displays in the museum playfully recreate some of these features from the books.



Much in the museum dwells on Dahl's life, from school to the RAF to his career as a writer. The famous chair in which he composed his books is on display behind glass and then recreated for visitors to try out for themselves in the room next door. 



We enjoyed the story telling session with the hard working staff (who, I noticed, also doubled as front of house and cafe/toilet attendants). Our eldest came home keen to write a story for himself - quite an achievement. How interesting, though, that one of Dahl's reports accused him of having 'limited ideas' when it came to English composition. 



Sunday, 2 August 2015

Crockham Hill and Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill,co-founder of the National Trust, took up her association with Crockham Hill in Kent in 1884, when she took on a cottage there called Larksfield. I visited Crockham Hill today, after taking in two local National Trust properties: Chartwell, and Emmetts Garden. Octavia may have known of both places, though they only came to the Trust in the 1960s.



Hill was fond of Crockham Hill, which she used as her country retreat. As the name suggests, this is a hilly part of the country, with wonderful views across the wooded Weald. Hill was a great lover of the uplands, which took on a spiritual significance in her eyes. Hills brought one closer to God, and enabled God's kingdom to be surveyed and marvelled at. Little wonder that the National Trust acquired so many hills in its early decades - including (in addition to those in the Lake District) several in the vicinity of Crockham: Ide Hill, Toys Hill, Mariner's Hill.


Hill died on 13 August 1912, at the age of 73. She is buried at Crockham Hill church. A simple gravestone marks the plot, though Octavia's name (along with that of her companion Harriot Yorke) follows that of Miranda Hill, her sister, who died in 1910.



Inside the church is a full-length effigy of a recumbent Octavia Hill, to the left of the altar. It is a striking monument. 

In one of the windows is a specially commissioned stained glass, installed in 1995 (the centenary of the founding of the National Trust), commemorating Hill's legacy. 




It is a beautiful, peaceful church, in an idyllic part of the country: so close to the M25, yet it could almost be another world altogether.