Friday, 25 July 2014

75 years of the Sutton Hoo finds

75 years ago this week, a discovery was being made in the East of England that was to change our understanding of the past forever. 

Mound 2 - showing what the mounds might originally have looked like
While war clouds gathered in the summer of 1939, a self-taught Suffolk archaeologist called Basil Brown was uncovering the remnants of a much earlier Germanic invasion force, in the form of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial. It turned out to be the grave of King Raedwald, the king of the East Angles who died in c.625. 
The Deben Estuary. The ship was hauled up the hill from here

The King's identity was revealed by the high-status nature of the items that lay next to him: beside the sword, shield, bowls and other decorative items was the famous Sutton Hoo helmet which now occupies centre stage in the recently re-opened Room 41 of the British Museum.
 
Tranmer House from the mounds
The find put Sutton Hoo firmly on the map. There had been no archaeological discovery of this importance in Britain before 1939 – and there has not been since.  A heathland plateau above the Deben estuary was revealed as the hugely symbolic resting place of a king, and, it turned out, many others too. In fact, I learned yesterday that there are still burial mounds at Sutton Hoo that await archaeological investigation, even while the site has suffered over the centuries from the depredations of grave-robbers, the plough, and even second world war defences.
 
Mound 1 - containing the ship - excavated 75 years ago this summer

I enjoyed this evening’s garden party at Sutton Hoo, which recreated the sherry party that Mrs Edith Pretty threw on this day in 1939 to celebrate Basil Brown’s discovery. (Mrs Pretty was the owner of Sutton Hoo at the time; after half a century of further archaeological investigations the place came into the National Trust's care in the 1990s.)  We noted the contribution made by Basil Brown, who was forced to watch from the side-lines as a team of professional archaeologists moved in to take command of the subsequent investigations – a drama that will be recreated on film soon. Cate Blanchett will apparently play Mrs Pretty – I wonder who will take Basil’s role?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Buildings, Bugs and Butterflies*: a response to the Heritage Exchange

At the Heritage Exchange event hosted this week by the Heritage Lottery Fund, delegates were invited to vote for the greatest scourge of our built heritage. Was it, the poll asked, the 1960s town planners who wreaked such destruction on historic city centres up and down the land in the post-war era? Or was it those meddlesome badgers, who as well as moving the goalposts like nothing better than to burrow deep into Bronze Age burial mounds? Or perhaps the greatest disdain should be reserved for the Victorians, forever scraping away at the crumbling walls of medieval churches or pulling them down altogether in order to replace them with smart new ‘old’ buildings?

The 1960s town planners topped the poll, you may not be surprised to hear, even though today the fate of much of our historic environment is entirely dependent on the ongoing survival of the planning profession (and the IHBC, ALGAO and English Heritage have some pretty troubling stats about the demise of planning services and conservation officers in particular).

But another heritage enemy was highlighted this week, when the BBC carried an article about Buddleia.

Enemy? How so? Buddleia is a plant that looks splendid at the moment – its bright purple flowers erupting like fireworks in the flower bed. Butterflies love them, and there can be no finer sight on a drowsy summer’s day than a buddleia plant swarming with insect life of all kinds. There’s a plant at the bottom of my garden in fact, which looks amazing, and just grows continuously.

Buddleia at the bottom of my garden


But that is the problem. As the BBC article pointed out, buddleia is also one of those plants that can cause great damage to the built environment. It is highly invasive, thanks to its tiny seeds which are carried on the wind and find homes in the most unlikely places – railway verges, cracks in the pavement, holes in the wall. Once it gets into mortar it can cause huge damage to buildings. Hardly surprising that derelict buildings are nothing without the obligatory tuft of buddleia protruding from damp window sills or gutters. Once the plant is in it is costly to remove and to clean up after.

This battle – between natural and built heritage – was one of the issues debated at some length at Heritage Exchange. We all want beautiful gardens that are rich in widlflife, and Butterfly Conservation are actively promoting the planting of buddleia (with sensible precautions) to encourage butterflies. But how do we balance this with also ensuring that the built heritage is looked after and protected from invasion?  Others, after all, warn against any form of buddleia planting because of its rapacious characteristics.

More generally, how can we ever possibly find a language that enables us to weigh up our feelings for built heritage with those for the natural world? Are the two inevitably collision-bound? Or can we find a way of talking about what we value that ensures room for both? If so, is it possible to translate this into a political message? Governments, after all, are prone to ‘divide and conquer’ approaches, putting all the nature experts into one ministry and its quangos (Defra/Natural England) and the buildings experts into another (DCMS/DCLG/English Heritage). One of the conclusions of the Heritage Exchange was that we needed to find a better discourse to articulate the values that are held simultaneously in both natural and built components of the landscape.

The organisation I work for, the National Trust, has been riding this tension between the built and the natural ever since we were set up 120 years ago in 1895. Indeed our charitable purposes call for us to promote the permanent preservation of places of ‘beauty or historic interest’, but especially in relation to the ‘natural aspect features and animal and plant life’ found on our land. Having to decide whether to cut down the buddleia in the interests of keeping the wall up is something of a no-brainer, even while our ’50 Things’ campaign encourages children to hunt for butterflies on the tips of buddleia.

Moderation in all things is surely the message. The idea that built and natural heritage occupy two separate worlds is entirely misplaced, despite some of the provocations heard at Heritage Exchange.  Buildings, bugs, butterflies and buddleia: all are part of our rich tapestry, and deserve our care and attention even while they pursue lives of their own.

PS Many thanks to all on Twitter who helped to identify the other bug I found in my kitchen this weekend! It turns out to have been a carrion-feeding beetle. Yuk.



(*With apologies to Lauren Child)

Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Journey to Skye

"In the morning we sent our horses round a promontory to meet us, and spared ourselves part of the day's fatigue, by crossing an arm of the sea.  We had at last some difficulty in coming to Dunvegan; for our way led over an extensive moor, where every step was to be taken with caution, and we were often obliged to alight, because the ground could not be trusted.  In travelling this watery flat, I perceived that it had a visible declivity, and might without much expence or difficulty be drained.  But difficulty and expence are relative terms, which have different meanings in different places."

Samuel Johnson's visit to Skye in 1773, as recorded in his Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, recounted this trip from Portree to Dunvegan Castle. I am lucky enough to have just returned from spending a week in a place that Johnson (and Boswell) might well have passed as they navigated the 'watery flat'. 

Skye was, for me, a revelation - I had never been before, but will certainly hope to return. The mountains, the water, the slow pace of life, all added up to a very enjoyable visit. And everyone was warm and welcoming - it was a most hospitable place.

Some highlights included:

- Dunvegan Castle, where Samuel Johnson's letter of thanks to his host is on display


- the seals we saw on a boat trip from the castle 


- this 165-million-year-old dinosaur's footprint, on the coast near Staffin (it took us a while to find it, mind)











Thursday, 8 May 2014

The saving of Hatfield Forest

On the 10 May 1924, 90 years ago this week, the nation received a wonderful gift.  350 acres of Hatfield Forest were given to the National Trust by the Buxton family. 215 acres of this land had been purchased on his death bed by Edward North Buxton, whose efforts had done so much to secure Epping Forest for the nation some 40 years earlier. The remainder had been purchased by Buxton’s sons Gerald and Anthony in the weeks after their father’s death, in tribute to his memory. 
 
The Lake at Hatfield Forest
Hatfield Forest is a remarkable place. It is one of our only surviving medieval forests – a wood-pasture that was originally established and maintained as a Royal hunting ground. Passing into private hands, its last owners were the Houblon family, who acquired it in 1729 as an adjunct to their estate at Hallingbury in Hertfordshire. Evidence of the Houblon influence on the landscape of Hatfield can still be seen today, with the Shell House next to the ornamental lake dating from the ‘Capability’ Brown era and later 19th century plantings of black pine and horse chestnut. Yet still the medieval character of the forest is evident in its great ancient oaks and hornbeams.

A special ceremony was held at Hatfield on 10 May 1924 to mark the occasion of the gift. Gerald Buxton symbolically handed the deeds over to Lord Ullswater, the Trust’s vice-president. Ullswater in turn reminded the guests of the huge contribution the Buxton family had already made to the nation – through Edward North Buxton’s efforts to save Epping Forest, as well as through the other gifts to the National Trust of Paycocke’s House in Coggeshall (Essex) and Roman Camp in West Runton (Norfolk). Had the Trust not been invented, Ullswater observed, the state would have needed to have stepped in, such was the pressure on such ‘delectable and enjoyable spots’ from creeping urbanisation. As The Times reported, this was a time when the ‘preservation of flora and fauna’ was regarded as an increasingly vital necessity. The Trust’s ambition at Hatfield was to ‘increase the places where flora and fauna could multiply without being subjected to constant raids’.
 
Ullswater even ended his speech with a joke. He hoped the public would respect Hatfield’s special character, and not leave it strewn with litter. ‘We [are] indeed a littery nation’ was his jest, evidence for which he needed to look no further than the benches of the House of Commons after he, as Speaker, had cleared them for a division.

The list of those attending the ceremony on 10 May 1924 includes some interesting figures. One was Harriet Yorke, Hon Treasurer to the National Trust and companion of Octavia Hill. Another was the colourful figure of Daisy, Countess of Warwick, socialist socialite who lived nearby at  Easton Lodge. Also present was Miss Dorothy Hunter, the daughter of Hill’s colleague and fellow co-founder Sir Robert Hunter. Dorothy served on the Trust’s Council until the mid-1960s and was a stalwart supporter of the Trust’s work her entire life. Given that the last of the founders, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, had died four years earlier in 1920, it must have been especially gratifying for these survivors of the Trust’s first generation to see a site as rich in ‘natural beauty and historic interest’ saved for the nation.
 
Dorothy Hunter in later life 

This weekend special events are being held at Hatfield to mark the 90th anniversary of the Trust’s acquisition, including free car parking and guided walks and talks. 

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.