Friday, 31 October 2014

On the origins of pumpkin carving....

Halloween as we know it today is in many ways an invention of the 1970s and 1980s, largely imported from the USA. But its roots run far deeper as a medieval Christian festival, the eve of All Saints’ day or Hallowmas (1 Nov) and All Souls day (2 Nov), on which candles were lit and bells rung as an aid to souls that lingered in purgatory.

Edgar, NT Pumpkin Support Coordinator


After the Reformation the Christian festival of Halloween faded away in many parts of the country. By the early 20th century Guy Fawkes night had assumed pre-eminence for many, although ‘punkie night’ continued to feature in some places, and involved the parading of lanterns made out of root vegetables. In other parts this time of year was known for ‘souling’, when people would visit each other to present soul-cakes as commemorations of the dead. Elsewhere, 31 October was also known as Mischief Night (Miggy Night in Yorkshire), when tricks were played on neighbours by knocking on their doors and running away, or swapping over the signs outside shops.

So if you are out trick or treating tonight, remember that there is more to this than simply a commercialised import from America – underlying it is a tradition stretching back more than a millennium, to mark a time of year when the spirit world was deemed closer than usual to its earthly counterpart.  

There’s plenty of spooking happenings at National Trust places too, from the scary trails at Sheringham and Peckover to Pumpking Carving at Dunstable, Sutton Hoo and Wimpole and Batty Halloween at Hatfield and Wicken Fen. It all sounds fantastic half-term fun!

(This based on Steve Roud's The English Year (2006))


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Mmmm Skyscraper, I Love You

 I was lucky enough to visit Balfron Tower this week, to see the latest innovation in the National Trust’s London programme. Balfron Tower is a hi-rise that dominates the landscape near Poplar in East London – or at least it did, before it was dwarfed in turn by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Balfron was designed by the architect ErnÅ‘ Goldfinger, whose modernist home in Hampstead is owned and displayed by the National Trust.



Goldfinger was a controversial enough figure in his day – so much so indeed that Ian Fleming (a near neighbour in Hampstead) used his name for one of his villains in the James Bond books. But Goldfinger was nothing if not an enthusiastic pioneer of new ways of thinking about life, buildings and the spaces around them. The 27-storey Balfron Tower, with its ‘streets in the sky’ connected from a single service tower, was a distinctive social vision aimed at providing a solution to post-war housing needs. It adjoins the equally visionary Lansbury Estate, named after the socialist George Lansbury, which had its origins as part of the Festival of Britain (1951).

Balfron Tower is now a building on the cusp of a new future. Its current residents are mostly artists and architects, who live there as the ‘guardians’ of the place. Soon, they will be leaving, as the place is taken over by Londonewcastle for refurbishment of the Grade II-listed flats.



Before it does, the Trust stepped in to show off one of the apartments in its 1960s hey day – the very apartment, in fact, that Goldinger himself moved into in 1968 in order to test the liveability of the place. The designer Wayne Hemingway and his daughter Tilly were invited to dress the flat at number 130 as if it was 1968 again, and a family were living there. There are echoes of the Domestic Wing at Anglesey Abbey therefore, in the recreation of a 1960s interior that will be familiar to many. From the winceyette  bedspreads to the posters of the Beatles and other pop stars of their day, the place was dressed with a lovely attention to detail. (Although I did wonder if the clean-shaven Beatles on the bedroom posters were a few years out of date for 1968?)



There is also an excellent guidebook, featuring the best ever cover I have ever seen on one of our guides. Inside, an attempt is made to link Goldfinger’s work with that of our founder, Octavia Hill, given that both shared a concern for the open green spaces between buildings. In truth, I think Octavia would have been appalled by the brutal modernism of Balfron Tower, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless that Goldfinger was in some way the heir to the housing endeavours that Octavia Hill had been pursuing in London a century earlier.



A more solid link between Poplar and the National Trust however comes with the figure of George Lansbury, the Suffolk-born radical socialist who became so closely associated with the east end, serving as councillor for Poplar and then Labour MP for Bow and Bromley. Lansbury’s public campaigns for social justice gave rise to the term ‘Poplarism’ as meaning the local defence of the less privileged against the demands of the centre. Lansbury went on to become the Commissioner for Works (in other words, heritage minister) in the National Government of 1929-31, and later Leader of the Labour Party.  (The Hyde Park lido on the Serpentine was known as Lansbury’s Pond, since it dates from his time in ministerial office.)
Lansbury, grandfather of the actress Angela Lansbury, knew Octavia Hill. The two of them sat on the Poor Law commission of 1905-09 (Lansbury would have been in his 40s at the time, Octavia in her 70s). They were on opposite sides, since Lansbury signed the Webbs’ minority report that heralded the beginnings of state welfarism, whereas Octavia signed the majority report in favour of reforms to the existing Poor Law system.  Lansbury went on to serve as vice-President of the National Trust in the 1930s, and was closely involved in the saving of Sutton House, a story told by Patrick Wright.   


So, although 130 Balfron Tower might be a time-limited ‘pop-up’, there are more links between Poplar and the National Trust than might first be the case.




PS Ageing hipsters will have noticed that the title of this blog comes from the Underworld album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. In a recent Guardian interview, Karl Hyde relates how the album was influenced by his late night walks around London, and was intimately informed therefore by the psychogeography of the city. “To me this album was Romford, Soho, Canary Wharf, the A13 corridor, the transition from a changing suburbia.” The perfect soundtrack to the Balfron experience? 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Sanctuary at Dunham Massey

I spent two days this week at Dunham Massey in Cheshire, attending a regional directors’ meeting. The venue was chosen in order to showcase two very exciting new additions to the property. First, it has a fantastic new visitor reception, including a beautifully arranged shop and a very busy catering outlet. But also, and opening just a few weeks after the visitor centre earlier this year, Dunham also boasts the Trust’s latest interpretation success story:  Sanctuary from the Trenches.


The General Manager explained to us that the whole project blossomed from a moment of inspiration that he had one evening. Knowing that Dunham Massey had been a military hospital during World War 1, he wondered what it might be like to re-present the house as if it were a hospital once again. He tried the idea out on his team, and found that lots of people loved it, including many of the 500 or so volunteers. And so, two years later, Dunham Massey’s main rooms were emptied of their furniture, and replaced by metal hospital beds and all manner of audio-visual echoes of the Great War (including very clever use of recorded sound at various points on the visitor route).

An especially evocative feature of Sanctuary is that the property has employed a company of actors to recreate the parts of several of the people who had been at Dunham Massey, either as patients or nurses. The actors act out scenes at various times during the day, amongst the crowds of visitors. It is a highly engaging piece of theatre, as we watch one of the nurses read out a letter from home to one of the soldiers who has lost his sight in battle, or we overhear the blossoming romance between a patient and one of the nurses. (In real life, they went on to marry.)  All the stories were exhaustively researched, using records held at the house and elsewhere.

Sanctuary has certainly put the property on the map: there’s been a significant increase in visitors, helping to meet the costs of setting up and running the show.  The acting transforms the historic interior of Dunham Massey, and we see the property in an entirely new light: as a site of drama and tragedy, a consequence of the country’s involvement in the war.  The forging of the connection between the mansion and the wider world was the subject of our subsequent discussions, as we explored how the Trust’s approach to interpretation might develop more generally in the future across our properties.

Sanctuary shows the value of taking a few risks with our approach to interpretation, which needn't simply be confined to showing our houses as static displays. Anglesey Abbey’s Domestic Wing has shown a similar sort of creativity – and it’s exciting to think of where the next big opportunity might be for this sort of intervention at our historic places. 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Memories of a Free Festival*

Around now, the last piece of wood will be being carved, the last ukulele will be being plucked, and the last drop of real ale will be being drunk…marking the end of another successful WoodFest at Hatfield Forest. This was my first WoodFest experience, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend of it.


WoodFest has been run for a number of years. It started small, as a showcase for showing off local woodcraft talent. Over the years it has morphed, becoming a music festival for local groups and, more recently, a chance to experience the joys of wild camping in the midst of a rare survival of an extant medieval forest. Did I mention, it is also free?


I began early on Saturday morning with a stint of car parking. It turns out that car parking at events like these is of crucial importance. Cars began arriving quite early, and were either siphoned off into the main visitor car park at Elgin Coppice, or parked in the area near the campsite (where I was helping out). Radios helped the team to stay in touch, meaning that any problems (such as over shortages for disabled parking spaces) could be addressed. Standing in a field for four hours may not sound like fun, but actually it turned out to be strangely interesting work!



Having been relieved of duties, I spent the rest of my time enjoying WoodFest with my family. We made camp in the main campsite, and then took advantage of all the delights on offer. My children enjoyed the Children’s Glade, with the chance to make models out of oddly-shaped offcuts of wood. Nearby at the timber tent, serious wood aficionados were placing orders for planks of the finest seasoned wood Hatfield has to offer.



The National Trust Essex team showed off their excellent pop-up activity tents, and the new attraction of the Wendy house. Nearby, in the main stage tent a carousel of excellent musicians entertained the crowds from lunchtime onwards.



There was much else besides – local crafts, vintage clothes, storytelling, percussion, wood turning, natural history… All in the confines of a hugely important wooded landscape – one of the rarest of its kind possibly in the whole of Europe.



I cycled back home afterwards, taking advantage of a new purchase: the Dinky Map of Hatfield Forest (a pocket-sized extract of the OS map, on tough, waterproof paper). Cycling via the Flitch Way, I made it to Bishops Stortford without needing to travel on any public roads. From here, I headed home the back way, through the delightful villages like Manuden and Rickling. 



The journey was a slice of England, starting with the disused railway alongside the edge of a medieval forest, crossing over the M11 motorway under shadow of planes taking off from Stansted, and then heading through Hertfordshire suburbia before breaking into late-summer Essex countryside. There was even a cricket match under way at Rickling Green, where I stopped a while to watch ‘someone running up to bowl’. It wasn’t Whitsun, but Larkin might have enjoyed the variety of these sights, all witnessed within an hour or so of each other.

* acknowledgements to D. Jones

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)