Stamford Tour 3-6 June, 2013 – Grand houses, history and cake!

Stamford Tour  and North Northamptonshire, 2013

Driving into Stamford is always a pleasure. One turns into St Martins High Street, on the old Great North Road, and there it is, laid out before one with the gallows beam across the road by the George.  One of the last in the country to remain, gallow beams used to be a common sight outside coaching inns and were used more as a warning to highway men than as actual gallows.  No one danced their last on the current one as it was replaced in the 1980s!

The George of Stamford is a historic coaching inn but it is also a lot more than that.  It has charm, friendliness and a quirky originality that sets it apart from the herd.  This was to be our base for our exploration of the country houses around Stamford.

As soon as we had gathered as a group and introduced ourselves we boarded the coach and headed off to Kirby Hall.  For the first time ever for me the sun shone on a visit to Kirby. It was even more stunning than ever.  As we approached through the fields, trying to ignore the looming landscape of stands to one side that delineate the nearby Rockingham speed track, the Hall put on its greatest charm. As a nearly completely ruined house, Kirby can be grey and grim and somewhat depressing as the wind howls through the rooms.  On our visit it glowed golden in the sunshine and a light breeze frisked about playfully pretending it was incapable of anything more. We were welcomed by a peacock and two hens but moved quickly on to view the house with our very competent and amusing tour lecturer, Peter Smith, in charge.

Kirby is now a shrine to the interpretation of its own ruins and is filled with boards and displays explaining how it was decorated and how the decoration was accomplished throughout its history. Some of the rooms have been redecorated to help those of the sluggish imagination but already those rooms are deteriorating rapidly, as though the Hall is determined to remain a ruin.

Next we went to nearby Deene Park and had extremely large slices of delicious home-made cakes in the old kitchen served with individual sized teapots for our refreshment. Then we were taken around the home of Mr and Mrs Brudenell by one of their house guides.  The main things we remembered afterwards were: the wonderful hammer roof in what was the original Great Hall of the house; the head of the horse Cecil who rode into the battle of Waterloo with Lord Cardigan on his back, which is displayed in a glass cabinet; the portrait of Lord Cardigan’s much younger and very beautiful wife riding side saddle on a horse  – very appropriate as she was Adeline Horsey de Horsey; the Kings Bedroom where Henry VII is said to have slept – with wonderful hand carved linen-fold panelling and an en suite bathroom in the adjoining tower with what must have the best view from a loo in the land; the recently restored bed and hangings and wonderful needlework pictures and tapestry chairs collected by Mrs Brudenell; the picturesque courtyard with no fewer than three sun dials; and finally, the new parterre garden with its teapot topiary which has finally grown into itself and looked wonderful in its spring dress.

Then we were taken by the highways and byways back home to the George Hotel for an exquisitely cooked dinner before falling replete into a very comfortable bed.

The following morning we set off on foot to explore the architecture and hear about the history of Stamford itself.  We visited three of the surviving six churches left of the sixteen medieval churches there used to be in Stamford, including a wonderful tour by the only male resident of Brown’s Hospital. A fourteenth century foundation that is still used to house the elderly – although they no longer have to wear a uniform or sleep in cubicles in the hall. We were informed with a wonderful wry humour that originally there were only two female residents allowed and then only on the understanding that they worked and did the sewing and laundry for the men! Our lovely guide intimated that the situation was now completely reversed and he was the only one that did any work being responsible for the beautiful garden in the central courtyard.

After a lunch in and around Stamford we got on the coach and went to the hauntingly sad ruin of Apethorpe.  Another very grand Elizabethan/Jacobean house Apethorpe only fairly recently fell into ruin. But then,having been exceptionally compulsorily purchased to save it, the Government handed it over to English Heritage to do the work. They have for many years been working on it to repair the roofs and restore the historical elements that make the house so important. A succession of former owners having ripped out the heart of the building (it was even used as a borstal for many years) it is now hard to see how it was ever a living house. But after walking through the procession of state rooms with wonderful strap work ceilings but little else and hearing the history of its beginnings we became absorbed with it, spending a fair while in the long gallery with restored panelling and floor but bereft of any of the portraits that would have been set into the panelling. The highlight of the visit should have been a walk on the roof on one of the rare surviving roof walks in the country.  However,  it is now without the far reaching views the Mildmays would have enjoyed as they welcomed Queen Elizabeth I to visit them, and perhaps watched the hunt in comfort and safety, owing to a high hedge planted to obscure the view to the adjoining property. As we left we all counted up our pocket money but realised we were still a bit short of the £2.5 million required to make an offer for it – never mind having to find the probable £25 million or so that it would take to make it habitable. Before leaving Apethorpe we visited the Kings Head for afternoon tea and more wonderful homemade cake to fortify us for a visit to Fotheringhay.  The scene of so much distant history, it is now but a fragment of what must have been a glorious Royal burial site.

The next day found us at Drayton House, an overlooked gem. Our guide was Bruce Bailey, the archivist at Drayton who lives on the premises and has lived there for years. If that wasn’t enough of a qualification he has also just completed updating the Northampton edition of Pevsner’s Great Buildings of England. He gave us an informative and lively tour of a house laden with flowers left from a family wedding the previous weekend, which underlined the fact that Drayton is very much a family house and a stately home second.

After a visit to see the family tombs in the church in Lowick we had a refined helping of fish and chips in the Snooty Fox pub in Lowick followed by some very tasty strawberries and cream. We then set out for Milton Hall near Peterborough. Milton Hall is another family home that just happens to be huge and architecturally important. Less cosy (cosy?!!) than Drayton it is still filled with family photos and ephemera as a reminder of the fact.  Our guide was the under land agent, William Craven, whose relaxed and cheery charm and quiver full of facts and figures was astonishing. Once again we were swept along with the tales of the family and its history, of the house and the vagaries of its fortunes. Apparently Daphne Dumaurier was a frequent visitor when a child and the gruesome housekeeper in her novel Rebecca may well have been based on the fearful house keeper at Milton who lasted until she was over ninety and is still remembered.

The last morning found us at the pinnacle in Stamford’s crown, Burghley. Built by Queen Elizabeth I’s right hand man, Robert Cecil, the house he made is still visible under the changes which occurred over the years, as are the changes that had to made when the architect got his calculations wrong and the windows in the Great Hall began to fail. After a tour of the state rooms we were very lucky to be shown around the private apartments by the curator of the collection who has recently retired as House Manager in overall charge of the Burghley enterprise.  His knowledge of the house and its collection is second to none and all was imparted with charisma and ready wit.  We also met the charming lady of the house with her working cocker spaniel. Frankly I’m not sure which was afforded the greater attention – well, actually I do, and I do hope Mrs Roc was not too offended by her dog being monopolised by the group.

Eventually, with a head full of new knowledge, a heart full of impressions  and a list of interesting new friends, we had a final lunch – and piece of cake – before returning to the George,  each to go their separate ways.

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    Durham and the Lindisfarne Gospels Tour, 2013

    From the Durham and the Lindisfarne Gospels Tour, 30 July – 2 August 2013.

    There was even sun on Palace Green – unheard of!Durham 2013 Durham_1o

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      The Cotswolds, Arts&Crafts and the April 2013 Tour

      Our first day in the Cotswolds started better than we could have hoped – no snow or wind just a gentle, intermittent drizzle.  Of course when, at this time last year, we decided to bring a group to the Cotswolds to study the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement on the country houses in the region we imagined that by April we would have nodding daffodils and blossom decorating every surface we passed and at least weak sunshine to enjoy…

      We were staying at Bibury Court, the most beautiful Jacobean house built in 1633, with six acres of gardens, which became a hotel in the 1980s. The recently refurbished  rooms are the height of what hotel designers consider to be the latest in creature comforts but which sometimes raise hilarity rather than sighs of pleasure.  The idea of an enormous bath in the beautifully appointed bedroom is still considered preposterous by many.  But you cannot deny that the fabrics used are first class and the staff were mostly very felicitous – especially Adrian the waiter who seemed to know everything about everything whether it was to do with food or not.

      On the day we all met we had a short introductory talk by Shawn Kholucy, who in earlier times had had a scholarship from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and is therefore very well informed on the Arts and Crafts architects who we would be studying over the next five days.  A cup of tea was followed by a walk around Bibury, the village most often used to advertise what is quintessentially England.  We visited the church and walked up to the old fulling mill, long since converted to grind wheat, but now once again converted and up for sale as a desirable Cotswold residence.  Although how desirable it is as a semi-detached house on a main road, adjacent to a tourist attraction in the most visited village in England was strongly debated!

      The next day dawned dry and blustery.  As it happened the weather didn’t have much effect on our day as we were mostly inside.  Inside probably the coldest building in England, but inside.   Hilles, built for himself in the early twentieth century by Detmar Blow, is sited on the edge of the escarpment near Stroud.  It is built for drama and certainly supplies it.  We were shown around the house by Detmar’s grandson Amoury and no one could have done better justice to the house than he.  And what a view of Gloucestershire and Wales from the garden!  Amoury detailed the history of the house and then supplied us with coffee and yummy cakes, which were home-made – or were they?

      Then we drove on to a couple churches with Arts and Crafts fittings. Selsley with very special William Morris windows and then Chalford, right on the side of a busy road and with its village shop tucked into one corner.  Memorable for its enormous classical arcade down the one side, it has the most beautiful Arts and Crafts font imaginable.  Lunch, at the Bear on Rodmarton Common, was enjoyed by everyone before, with renewed gusto, we went on to Sapperton to look at the village where so many wonderful craftsmen lived and built houses for themselves

      Finally we went to Rodmarton where we had a detailed tour of this wonderful high point of Arts and Crafts architecture.  Built for the Biddulphs by Ernest Gimson, it was untimely started in 1914. By the time it was finished enough to move into twenty years later life for everyone had changed.   Even so, for a while, the house fulfilled its original destiny as the centre of village life. Then what is now the sitting room was the village hall where the villagers took lessons in craft work, examples of which line the walls of the upstairs landings.  The house is filled with wonderful examples of furniture made for the house by the leading Arts and Crafts makers which is still in situ and in use.  Just before we left John Biddulph came to make sure we had seen the best bits and encouraged us to explore the gardens, which were certainly worth it even though, sadly, the huge collection of snow drops made by his father, Simon Biddulph had finally gone over.

      The following morning brought a visit to Chavenage, the epitome of an ancient Cotswold manor house – so much so that it seems very familiar, having been featured in many films and period television dramas.  It is now also a popular wedding venue, for which one hopes it is cherished as much for its beauty and its history as for the happy memories it provides.  Once again we were fortunate to be shown the house by the owners, the whole Lowsley-Williams family taking turns to enliven our visit with histories of the house both ancient and not so ancient.  We had coffee in the ballroom and at one point I was worried that we were all going to be invited to descend to the cellar underneath to have a go at removing and replacing the wedges that keep the sprung floor stable for everyday use.   Fortunately the call of the adjacent family church proved a sufficient distraction – a beautifully appointed Church of England chapel for a Catholic family…

      Next it was to Owlpen Manor and a very tasty  lunch in the great Cider Barn. Owlpen is a magical spot and you can almost feel the years standing still since it was built in the little valley in which it lies. Owlpen is now almost solely a wedding venue but we were fortunate that our lecturer Shawn is a good friend of Sir Nicholas Mander so he was very happy to show us around and share some of his immense knowledge of the Arts and Crafts movement with us.  Owlpen was bought by Norman Jewson, the Arts and Crafts architect, in 1925 and in a year he carefully restored what was then a crumbling ruin before being forced to sell it on as it was too big for him to live in. Years later, when Sir Nicholas and his new wife Karin bought Owlpen as a family home, Norman Jewson came back to advise them on the repairs that were needed to his work – so it is an ideal place to study Arts and Crafts techniques.

      The next morning and we were off to Cirencester – a town that vies with Cheltenham as the ‘capital’ of the Cotswolds. We started with a walk around the town while we waited for the church to open. There is a wealth of wonderful architecture in the centre of Cirencester which seems to have avoided the awful modern blocks that some towns suffer where slums were cleared. Cirencester instead, in Victorian times, built a row of perfect neo gothik houses where the slums had stood. Having admired the stately entrance of the impenetrable Cirencester Park, seat of the Lords Bathurst, who still own a great deal of the land and  many properties in Cirencester , we went to the church to meet our guide for the morning, Rory Young. Rory lives and works as a notable sculptor in Cirencester and after a tour of the church and of the free standing porch, for which recently he designed some replacement figurative corbels, we were invited back to his house for coffee.

      Corbels by Rory Young

      Corbel by Rory Young

      As we all scrubbed off the road salt on the door mat to save his slate flagged floor we hoped his house was a ‘tardis’. Fortunately this proved to be the case and everyone soon disappeared within to inspect his roman artefacts collection, his designs for various on-going projects and the collection of art on every surface. Coffee was hurriedly drunk before we all piled into the garden to see his work shop, with maquettes for the reredos for the Lady Chapel in St Albans Abbey that he is currently designing.

      Rory Young, sculptor

      Rory Young, sculptor

      The final flourish was when he lifted the lid on the lime pit under his courtyard garden to show us how he still slakes lime in the approved ancient way – very Arts and Crafts!

      After lunch we went to Kelmscott. We looked at the church and we visited the grave of the Morris family. Then we went to the Manor and had a talk about the the history of the house, which had been a farmhouse before it was rented by William Morris and Dante Rossetti as a country house away from the trials of London society.   We were let loose on the house to wander at will to gaze on the collection of Morris artefacts which are now displayed there. The room guides were very helpful in filling in the cracks of our Morris knowledge and some of the textiles displayed are wonderful. Perhaps it is because, when May Morris died it once again became a house for people to rent, that it is seems to have an almost clinical air and there seems little that remains of the Morris spirit. I found the most atmospheric place was the orchard, wondering if the trees were the same ones and listening to the rooks in the rookery whose antecedents would have made the same raucous noise when the Morris family lived there.  And then it rained for the only time in the whole week.

      On the final day we went to see the little known Whittington Court.  Once again we were welcomed by the owners themselves and shown around their home, which is filled with a collection of unique glass and china. We were also treated to a demonstration of block fabric printing in the attic workshop by the lady of the house, Jenny Stringer, who is well known for her intricate designs mostly based on organic elements.

      Block Printing Fabric

      Block Printing Fabric

      She dexterously showed us how the colours are built up, one by one, with a very steady hand, defying the result to look like an out of focus photograph.  Finally we went to the outhouse in the garden where the Whittington Press is based and had a demonstration of typesetting in the age old way as used by the Kelsmcott Press and other Arts and Crafts printers.

      A fitting end to what had been a wonderfully engrossing week was a meal in the Wheatsheaf in Northleach, where we were fed enormous portions as though we had been labouring in the fields all morning.  It had been a happy week with many interesting and inspiring things to think about and many happy memories to keep for intermittent inspection later.

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        Verdi’s Operas – Bicentenary Study Day in April

        2013 will mark the two hundredth anniversay of the birth of two giants of opera, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. If that is not enough, next year will also see the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Opera lovers can expect a feast of music this coming year.

        Starting the Verdi celebrations in Britain will be Peter Konwitschny’s new production of La Traviata at the ENO’s London Coliseum.

        Art Pursuits UK will be joining in with a study day on Verdi’s operas on the 6th April. Richard Wigmore, the music writer, broadcaster and lecturer, will explore the background and music of four contrasting operatic masterpieces spanning half a century. The Verdi study day will coincide with productions at the Royal Opera House.

        Nabucco was a popular triumph on its Milan premiere in 1842, and sealed the young Verdi’s fame throughout Europe. Simon Boccanegra, originally premiered in 1857, is the most consistently sombre of Verdi’s middle-period operas. These days Don Carlo, of 1867,  is acknowledged as one of the composer’s supreme masterpieces. Counterpointing grand opera spectacle and private anguish, it explores favourite Verdian conflicts in music of searing beauty and power.  In 1893, Verdi finally realised his long held ambition to write a comedy and wrote his final masterpiece, Falstaff, a brilliant distillation of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

        To get into the mood, here is Verdi’s Falstaff from the Royal Opera House with Bryn Terfel and Barbara Frittoli under Bernard Haitink.

        Falstaff

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          Five Days in the Border Country

          Five days in the Border country flew by with an eager party of participants.
          It is difficult to say what the highlight was, there were many moments that are contenders for the title.
          Perhaps it will be the extraordinary, unrestored, interior of Neidpath Castle, where we were shown around by the châtelaine, a good friend of our lecturer, who persuaded her to give us a tour.
          Or the silent moments when everyone held their breath as Morris the coach driver slipped the coach through impossibly narrow stone gate piers – were horse carriages really that narrow?
          Or perhaps  it was our very knowledgeable and personable guide at Alnwick Castle, Taken at Alnwick Castle by our excellent guide, Danielan erstwhile colleague of our lecturer, who walked backwards while lecturing for over ten minutes without tripping up.
          Or seeing Paxton House as no-one ever does, as it would have been designed for, by lamp light, in a power cut, our guide determined that we would see it all – even the behind the scenes rooms waiting for renovation.
          Perhaps the wonderfully comfortable spa hotel, staffed by cheerful locals, perfected with the addition of a maze with accompanying red squirrels will be the thing that lingers in the memory the longest.
          Whatever it is, the tour was for me, four days of happy and memorable experiences.

           

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