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.   

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Naming ceremony at Blakeney Point

I was thrilled to participate in a very special event yesterday - the naming ceremony for the Francis Wall Oliver Research Centre on Blakeney Point.

Blakeney Point is a dynamic spit of shingle and sand dunes on the North Norfolk coast. The National Trust has been involved here for over a hundred years. The Point was acquired for the Trust in 1912, using funding from Charles Rothschild, and at the behest of Professor Francis Wall Oliver of University College London.

Yesterday’s event was a naming ceremony for the building that UCL continues to maintain on the end of Blakeney Point, adjacent to the Trust’s distinctive Lifeboat House. UCL continue to use the building as a field studies research outpost, accommodating students keen to record nature on the BlakeneyPoint National Nature Reserve, just as Professor Oliver did a century ago.

The event was therefore a celebration involving three groups of people in particular: research staff from UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity andEnvironment Research; National Trust staff; and members of the Oliver family, including two of his grandsons, two of his great grandsons, and a great great grandson.

It was a particular treat to see two pictures that were brought along for the occasion: one, an interior painting of the UCL building that was donated to UCL, the other a watercolour by Thomas Matthews Rooke of the National Trust Executive Committee meeting on 15 April 1912 at which the acquisition of Blakeney Point by the Trust was agreed. Shown as present at this meeting were Octavia Hill (though, in fact, she was not there, as she was close to death by this point), and Sir Robert Hunter, Chairman of the National Trust and a UCL graduate himself (he studied logic and moral philosophy there from 1861 to 1865).

It was wonderful hearing recollections of boyhood stays on Blakeney Point from Professor Oliver’s grandsons. It was also illuminating to hear that Professor Oliver moved to Egypt later in his life, and lived near El Alamein throughout the Second World War, continuing to live there even as the famous battle raged around him. He later published one of the first scientific papers on the impact of modern combat on the natural world, analysing the effect of tank treads on the desert landscape. This paper was apparently long neglected, but was much consulted in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

According to his ODNB entry, Professor Oliver’s  sense of humour was “reflected in his Who's Who entry, where he listed his recreations as ‘once mountaineering, now washing up’.”. There was much washing up to be done after yesterday's afternoon tea - thanks to the UCL team for organising such a wonderful event. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Wolf's Child at Felbrigg

Strange things are happening in the woods at Felbrigg at the moment. Each night, up to 250 visitors arrive for a performance that begins with a company of crows summoning up the bones of a wolf from a smouldering log fire, before leading the visitors on a walk through the dusky landscape. 

The story of Wolf’s Child, which has been the star of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival, involves a running battle between the ‘Mother’ and her regiment of chanting maids, who live their ordered lives within the safe confines of the mansion, and the pack of wolves that roam the unruly woodlands beyond.

The story explores what happens when one of Mother’s maids, Rowan, answers the call of the wild by joining the wolf pack.  I mustn’t give too much more away, except to say that Rowan shows us one version of what we at the Trust might mean when we encourage people to ‘get outdoors and closer to nature’. The story explores the nature-culture divide, and demonstrates that however clever we two-legged human beings think we are, the crows are really the ones in charge.

If you get the chance to attend Wolf’s Child, please grab it and go while you can (it runs until 23 May). It’s such an inspirational glimpse of how places can be brought to life in new and interesting ways. The show has had rave reviews (including this one by Libby Purves). 

It really is something very special, written and produced by WildWorks (who previously worked at Kensington Palace and on the Passion in Port Talbot).  

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Runnymede, Magna Carta and the Anglesey Abbey connection

 Magna Carta is perhaps the most famous example from history of a monarch conceding powers to his subjects. The Great Charter of Liberties was agreed on the meadows of Runnymede in Surrey 800 years ago this year in June 1215.

Runnymede is today managed by the National Trust, but it very nearly was lost to development. Its open, natural character was only saved by the generosity of the Broughton family, who also went on to bequeath Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge to the nation. This link explains why visitors to Anglesey Abbey are able to see numerous references to Magna Carta in the collections on display in the house.

Magna Carta was a peace treaty between King John and his disgruntled barons, who had been angered by years of excessive taxation and arbitrary royal rule. The charter represented a colossal climb-down for the king, who not long afterwards reneged on the agreement and plunged the country into civil war.

But Magna Carta survived. After John’s death in October 1216 it was reissued in the name of his 9-year-old son and heir Henry III, in a smart piece of statecraft by William Marshal, the king’s regent. The move was enough to end the civil war and restore order.

Magna Carta went on to be reissued again several times by Henry III and his successors, each an attempt to unify the nation by reaffirming the limits of the king’s authority. King’s may have ruled by divine right, but Magna Carta demonstrated that they operated within some commonly agreed constraints.

Two clauses in particular remain of fundamental importance to us today – the freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and the right to a fair trial. These clauses are now regarded as the basis of our modern system of law and governance, and are the reason why Magna Carta is still venerated, 800 years on. The barons and King John himself could never have imagined it, but their actions on that June day in 1215 changed the course of human history forever.

Magna Carta has not always been held in such esteem in the country of its origin. By Shakespeare’s time, the charter had almost been forgotten (the bard’s play about King John does not even mention it). Its significance grew in the era of the Civil War, at a time when the limits of monarchical authority were again under intense scrutiny.

But in many ways we owe it to our American cousins for keeping faith with the Charter of Liberties. Its clauses directly influenced the USA’s founding documents, and some US states still keep Magna Carta on their statute books today.

This may explain why Urban Broughton, an English civil engineer who made his fortune in America, chose to take a house near the meadows after returning to England in 1912.

Urban had married the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, and the family’s fortune enabled them to acquire several properties in England.  Urban served as MP for Preston from 1915 to 1928, while his wife promoted charitable causes in her adopted country.

In 1921 Runnymede appeared on a list of Government property that was up for sale as development land. A huge local outcry ensued, and the coalition Government of the time was forced into a u-turn, withdrawing the 252 acres of meadowland from sale.

Ironically nothing at the meadows contained any link at all to the events of 1215. For centuries the grassland had been preserved as an open space not because of Magna Carta but because it was the venue for the Egham horse races.

The pressure for development meant that the meadows’ future was far from secure. Urban and his wife therefore offered to buy the meadows, in order to save them for the nation. Urban was nominated for a peerage, but died in January 1929 before he could assume the title.

Cara, his wife, became Lady Fairhaven, and his eldest son became the 1st Lord Fairhaven. Lady Fairhaven and her sons purchased the meadows at Runnymede in December 1929 in Urban’s memory, and passed them to the National Trust for protection in perpetuity.

Lord Fairhaven by this time had also acquired Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge.  For more than thirty years he carried out extensive improvements to the property, and filled it with fine art. A special gallery was built simply to display Lord Fairhaven’s collection of views of Windsor Castle, which include one of nearby Runnymede. His library meanwhile holds a unique edition of Magna Carta, produced to mark its 600th anniversary in 1815 and printed using gold leaf.

A special LiberTeas event will take place at Anglesey Abbey on Sunday 14 June of this year, as part of the Magna Carta 800 celebrations.

This article appeared in the Cambridge News on Saturday 7 March 2015

The National Trust guidebook to Runnymede and Magna Carta - written by me! - is out now.