Sunday, 23 March 2014

Out and about

Now that spring is in the process of springing, I've been out and about quite a bit in the East of England, seeing for myself some of the wonderful things that are happening at our places. Here's a few images of what I've seen.

It's lambing time at Wimpole - here are some of the new arrivals

The Wimpole team have also been busy in the wider estate - the Stumpery and Stickery in the garden en route to the farm create wonderful bug hotels.

Oxburgh looks fabulous in the Spring sunshine - and a new Den Building area in the woods offers yet more outside activity for visitors.

Up on the North Norfolk coast, the after effects of the December tidal surge are still being addressed. This shed used to sit on the foundations that can be seen in the foreground - the power of the surge lifted it and moved it to its new position.

A stunning view from the rooftop of Melford Hall!

New visitor facilities in the car park at Ickworth will enhance the experience here once ready in a few weeks' time - excellent progress being made.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Flooding in Essex

 The wet weather and storms continue to dominate the news, as parts of the country continue to suffer the dreadful weather. Much of the attention has been on the South West, and in particular the Somerset levels. Coastal areas have also taken a huge battering. But more inland areas, too, are suffering, and I experienced this for myself on Friday when I attempted to leave my own village of Newport in Essex to get to work.

The village was cut off completely at both ends, due to flooding around Shortgrove Hall to the north and Quendon to the south. There was no chance to head west either, as the road to villages like Clavering were also hit.

I eventually made it to work by heading east towards Debden, on higher ground, and then travelling through Saffron Walden. Apart from some flooding near Great Chesterford, I was able to make it to the motorway and on to Wimpole. But it would seem I was lucky – some had to be rescued from their homes, and many local schools were shut.
Nature reserve in Newport, Essex
Newport remains affected. Below is a picture of Newport Common, the grassy open space near the railway station.

Newport Common, now Newport Pond once more

In the past this field has been called Newport Pond, and indeed the whole village at one point went by that name. So flooding in this area is not unusual. ‘Village in Time’, an excellent history of Newport, records that there were floods in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1968, 1987 and 1993. But its impacts always bring hardship, and this year the main casualty has been the village pantomime, Snow White, which was due to be shown this weekend. The show takes place in the village hall, which is next to the common and which has been flooded, damaging props and scenery. The show has been postponed until March – let’s hope the floods have gone by then. 

Flooding in village hall

National Trust places in Essex have also been hit. Hatfield Forest has been closed more times in the last two months than in any time over the 90 years since the Trust acquired it in 1924. High winds are the problem, as they require us to make sure the Forest is safe for visitors. But flooding has also caused problems.

Underwater cycling at Hatfield Forest
 Here was the scene last Saturday morning, when we made a visit to the Forest. A car was stuck in 4ft of water under the disused railway bridge on the approach to the main car park. For some indication of the amount of water, note the brave cyclist who successfully attempted to ride through the puddle. The water entirely covered both of his wheels.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Small is Beautiful: Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse and Willington Dovecote and Stables

I’ve now been in my job as Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England for a full year. For me, it’s been a rather wonderful year, getting to know the places and people that make the East such a special region. But I regret to say that there are still some Trust places in the East that I’ve yet to visit.
Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse - the pillar next to the road is all that survives of the original arch.

I helped to correct that in part today by visiting two of our smallest places (in terms of size), located at the most westerly edge of the region. They also happen to be particularly special places in their own right.

 Ailwyn. Or not Ailwyn.

Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse is part of a medieval monastic complex that was once the fourth largest in the country. What’s left of the monastic building is now a manor house that has been adapted as a school. The Trust's ownership extends to the Gatehouse only, gifted to the Trust by the brother of Lord Fairhaven in 1952 in memory of his wife, a descendent of the barons de Ramsey.
Plaque in memory of Diana de Ramsey, wife of Henry Broughton (brother to 1st Lord Fairhaven)
The property is open on the first Sunday of the month only, and is entirely run by volunteer support. Yet here, at Ramsey, some of the finest medieval minds were at work. Documentation scattered across archives all over the world show that medieval scholars were hard at work here, drawing some of the earliest maps, preparing complicated calculus, and making depictions of the night sky. 

Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse - interior     
The Dissolution meant that Ramsey Abbey was broken up, and its buildings mined for building materials (partly the reason why the village of Ramsey looks so picturesque today). The small scale of the property belies, therefore, a much more significant past.

My next stop was Willington Dovecote and stables. As well as boasting a fine, distinctive sixteenth-century dovecote, possibly built for a visit by Henry VIII, Willington has a very special place in the history of the National Trust in the East of England. It was the very first building to be acquired in the region by the National Trust, in 1914, following a successful campaign by Miss Orlebar, daughter of the local vicar, who bought it to save it from demolition.
Willington Dovecote
The stables opposite the dovecote offer yet further intrigue. A fine fireplace in the upstairs room suggests that this was more than just a place to stable horses or cattle. A graffito on the fireplace even suggests John Bunyan paid a visit from nearby Bedford (I wonder how accurate that is, mind…).
John Bunyan woz 'ere
So much at Willington has been lost. There would formerly have been a range of buildings here, part of a substantial landed estate. It’s much like Ramsey Abbey, in other words. It is today the shadow of something that would, in its time, have been of national significance, a haunt of kings and lords. You don’t have to look far in the East of England to uncover intriguing stories like this. It’s why all of us who work or volunteer for the Trust in the East count ourselves as being so very lucky.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Wonderful Winter Lights

Today is the last day of Anglesey Abbey’s wonderful Winter Lights presentation. The event has sold out, and has received a huge amount of praise for its creative reinterpretation of the gardens and outdoors areas of this important Cambridgeshire house.

I volunteered there this weekend, and was lucky enough to be posted to the grove of silver birches at the end of the Winter Walk. These are definitely a highlight for many, with the normally brilliant white bark of the slender trees illuminated by a psychedelic array of luminous colours.

Beyond the silver birches was the Paddock, where guests could enjoy refreshments and a shadow puppet show. Further beyond, the mill was dramatically lit, and a jazz band entertained visitors outside the house. Day-glo dancers performed on the route, creating amazing light effects as they did so.

All in all, it’s a great example of creative thinking. A really simple idea, helping visitors to see Anglesey Abbey in a whole new light (literally) while also offering a Christmas experience with a difference.

Wimpole, the other side of Cambridge, has also been creative this year with its Wimpole Wrapped show – where parts of the house and estate are wrapped up with ribbon, in part necessitated by the conservation work underway there. Elsewhere, other places in the East are offering all sorts of Christmas treats, including a 1940s weekend at Felbrigg and festive shows at Blickling, Peckover and Oxburgh. More details can be found on the East of England National Trust webpages.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Uncovered at Sheringham

The National Trust’s Uncovered festival takes place over successive weekends in September and October, and explores the hidden secrets of Britain’s landscapes.

The festival offers visitors the chance to hear from experts about the work involved in managing landscapes of all kinds, from country house estates to woodlands to farms, coasts and mountains.

The East of England region of the National Trust is hosting three of the seven weekends –testament to the complexity and beauty of the landscapes of this part of the country. On 5/6 October, visitors will be able to hear about how the Trust manages its land at Wimpole, one of the very few National Trust farms that is managed in hand. The following weekend offers a rare chance to take an in-depth look at Northey Island in Essex, a tidal island off the coast near Maldon which was among the earliest places where coastal realignment policies have started to be pursued in the face of rising sea levels.

The point of these events is that they speak to the many different facets of landscape. Landscape is simultaneously natural and human-made. All landscapes speak to the history and development of society, communities and economies, and carry different sorts of cultural significance as a consequence.
The 1812 Repton exhibition at Sheringham

This point was emphasised most emphatically at the Sheringham uncovered weekend last weekend. Here, the focus was on trees and woods in the landscape, but it was impossible to ignore the huge cultural resonance that woodlands have. Humphry Repton, who laid out a plan for the creation of Sheringham Park in his Red Book of 1812, was very aware of this. He contrasted fast-growing pines with the ancient oaks of England, as a commentary on the way new money was crowding out the landed aristocracy in the early decades of the 19th century.

Repton’s plan for Sheringham incorporated many of the older features of the woody landscape there. At the same time, he was making a landscape for the future, for the young couple (the Upchers) whose patronage he had secured and in whom he vested his hopes for the future of the landscape and of society more generally.
Steve Daniels and Lucy Veale at Uncovered, Sheringham September 2013

Appropriately, therefore, our Uncovered weekend featured both a presentation on Repton’s designs (from Stephen Daniels and Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham), as well as bringing the story up to date with nature conservationists from today’s Trust, talking about the challenges and threats facing our woodlands.

It was a very entertaining mix of talks, walks and activities, and all who came saw Sheringham in a new light. It was the perfect complement therefore to the exhibition about Repton’s design at Sheringham, now enjoying its second year and still looking great. (Thanks to the AHRC for their support.)

Although we walked the estate with a copy of the Red Book, this was of course a facsimile. The original, usually held at the V&A, is currently on show at the Sainsbury Centre, UEA, as part of the Masterpieces of East Anglian Art exhibition. It’s reminder of just how culturally significant Sheringham continues to be.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Meetings with remarkable trees

I visited Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire for the first time last weekend, and was delighted to find both a beautiful area of woodland and a connection with the early commons preservation movement.

Burnham Beeches comprises 220 hectares of woods in South Buckinghamshire, 25 miles or so from London.  Its many miles of walks take visitors through areas of ancient woodlands, wood pasture, open spaces and heaths. The woods get their name from the many veteran beech pollards that provide such an amazing backdrop to an afternoon’s stroll, as well as habitats for wildlife (such as the red ants we saw in nests all over the place).

Curiously, perhaps, the place is owned and managed by the Corporation of the City of London. Why should the City of London concern itself with some woods so far from the City? One of the drives – Sir Henry Peek’s Drive – gives a clue as to what happened.

In 1879 the woods were put up for purchase, as ‘land suitable for the erection of superior residences’. The Commons Preservation Society and the Kyrle Society, which at the time were vocal defenders of open spaces, decided something needed to be done.
Since part of the wood was common land, the Corporation was invited to make use of the Open Spaces Act of 1878, which gave them the power to purchase such lands for the benefit of the public within a radius of 25 miles of London. The Corporation had no powers to purchase the remaining, enclosed areas, and were saved when the local MP Sir Henry Peek stepped in. He offered to buy the residual, non-commonable areas of Burnham Beeches, in order to donate them to the Corporation and re-unite the whole.

Sir Henry Peek was a well-known figure in the open spaces movement, and had been a big influence in the battle for Wimbledon Common in 1864, which had been the starting point for the Commons Preservation movement. One of the contributors to an essay competition sponsored by Sir Henry, on the theme of the protection of commons in metropolitan areas, was a young London lawyer called Robert Hunter. His essay was awarded a highly commended prize, and Hunter went on to be one of the country’s leading experts on the law of common land as well as one of the founders of the National Trust.

Sir Henry Peek, MP

Hunter was closely involved in the struggle to save Epping Forest from enclosure, another woodland saved by the Corporation at around the same time as it acquired Burnham Beeches.  Meanwhile, Octavia Hill, Treasurer of the Kyrle Society, viewed the Corporation’s acquisition of Burnham Beeches as a great success for the early open spaces movement.

 No mention is made of the Kyrle Society, or the Commons Preservation Society, in the visitor centre at Burnham Beeches. Nonetheless, the woods clearly have an important place in the story of the commons preservation movement, and indeed a strong connection to the founders of the National Trust.

Incidentally, the connection with Sir Henry Peek, son of one of the founders of Peek Freans, also provides the missing link between the commons preservation movement and the garibaldi biscuit....
The other remarkable tree I made a fond return visit to last weekend was the Ankerwycke Yew. A very special tree indeed, and one with an even older significance, as potentially the site where Magna Carta was sealed. Read more at the Ankerwycke NT blogsite here.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sandling Holiday

I've just been taking some holiday in Suffolk, and have enjoyed getting to know more about the county's distinctive coastline. The whole area that stretches along the coast from the river Orwell in the south to the river Blyth in the north is known as the Sandlings, because of its distinctive light sandy soils.  One of my holiday reads was 'Sandlands' by Tom Williamson, which explains how the landscape came to look like it does today. Very little, it turns out, is at all 'natural' - most is the result of many centuries of human activity.

The most distinctive feature of the countryside nearest to where we were staying, in Blythburgh, were the saltmarshes and estuarine mudflats alongside the river Blyth. Between Blythburgh and Walberswick stretches land that is now mostly nature reserve, combining woodland, heathy commons, marshes and reed beds. As Tom explains, the saltmarshes that characterise the area are probably its most 'natural' feature, comprising areas of salt-tolerant grasses on silt deposits built up in estuaries or behind sandbanks. 

Much else that we see in the Sandlings today is entirely human in construction, from the grazing marshes created by artificially enclosing salt marshes and excluding the sea, to the vast expanses of heather-covered heaths that resulted from earlier periods of tree clearance and agriculture.

Blythburgh is characterised by its huge parish church, the ceiling of which is lined with twelve wooden angels, wings unfurled. Such a large church was indicative less of the wealth of the area, than of its piety. 

In a region so close to the sea, perhaps the people of the Sandlings had more reason than most to seek divine protection from forces beyond their control.  Certainly the sea has had an overwhelming influence on the landscape. Southward and Aldeburgh are now best known as tourist retreats, but were originally important ports, receiving coals from Newcastle and other goods from the continent and exporting down the coast to London. Smaller places, including Blythburgh, Walberswick and Dunwich were also trading ports. Such was the influence of the estuarine economy that Defoe described the area like this:

   "S'woul and Dunwich and Walberswick
    All go in at one lousy creek"

The creek behind our cottage at Blythburgh, once lively with trading vessels, is now a charming place to while away time, observing the changing water levels, the wildlife, and catching crabs in the shallow waters. We got there by walking down a very pleasant green lane, which turned out to be a disused railway line closed in the 1920s. 

So this delightfully green and tranquil corner of the Sandlands turns out to be a former transport interchange and port - evidence again of the impact of humans on the landscape.

We very much enjoyed spending time at Dunwich Heath. A novel way to explore the Heath is by having a go at Geocaching - a new hobby for us, but one that turns out to be great fun. We managed about seven geocache spots in the end, as well as catching sight of some red deer and the caterpillar of an elephant hawk moth. We also enjoyed a very refreshing cup of tea afterwards, and some delicious National Trust biscuits. 

Consulting the road atlas, it turned out that we had largely managed to confine ourselves to the same square on the map for the whole week - taking in Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich and Blythburgh (with an excursion to Aldeburgh for the excellent carnival there). Amazing how much there is to see and do, just by exploring the landscape.