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. 




Bourne free

Bourne Mill in Colchester had a grand re-opening this week. On Wednesday, the mill was open for free to all-comers, to celebrate the fact that it has now moved to more regular, five-day a week opening hours. 


Previously, the building was open only on occasional Sundays and Bank Holidays. Now, it boasts a single member of staff, a cafe and shop, and a team of 25 or so (and counting) volunteers.

The Trust acquired the building in 1936, a consequence of an anonymous donation. I don't know if this was anything to do with the mysterious Ferguson's Gang, who donated Shalford Mill in Surrey to the Trust in 1932. The story of Ferguson's Gang is endlessly fascinating - I've already placed my order for the new National Trust book that is coming out about them soon.

The Mill itself is a charming building, on the edge of a delightful pond. The building dates from 1591, though it is on the site of a former medieval mill. 

In the 17th century it became a cloth mill, and then in the 19th century a corn mill. Its distinctive Dutch gables make it a very attractive building, in the midst of an area of 20th century housing. 

The machinery inside has been carefully restored, and was operating when I visited. 

 It will be a lovely spot for summer days - let's hope they come soon.

Visitors coming by car may also find themselves passing near the curiously named Stalin Road - one of a number of nearby roads named after wartime leaders.  


Sunday, 15 February 2015

On Northey Island


We had fabulous weather this weekend for a visit to the ever-fascinating Northey Island in Essex. Here are some photos.


The picture above shows clearly one of the sea walls that surround the farmland on the island. To the left is an area reverted to saltmarsh, with the scouring of mud caused by turbulence as incoming tides rebound off the sea wall itself. But at this point the sea wall is lower than the field to the right of it, and this wall was overtopped during the storm surge of December 2013. 


Fabulous new signage at the start of the causeway leading to the island.


The square shapes in the salt marsh are former oyster beds. 


Another stretch of sea wall, this time out in the marshes.


In the field on the mainland, flocks of geese were congregating. The noise they make when they are disturbed and take to the air is quite amazing. 


One of the deeper channels in the mud, at the end of a stretch of sea wall. The depth of the channel shows the power of the tide. Northey Island and its causeway serve a strategic function in slowing the impact of the tide as it approaches Maldon. It defends homes there from flooding, just as it was a defensive point in 991 AD when the vikings invaded (leading to the Battle of Maldon in that year).


View across to the wreck of a Thames Barge. Apparently this was placed here deliberately as a permanently moored floating accommodation. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Lavenham Guildhall

I attended my first carol concert last Sunday at my local village church - a reminder of the stirring power of traditional carols. Carols have a very interesting history, as this article by Carolyn Emerick shows. Emerick speculates that the carolling tradition was not so different from Halloween traditions of trick or treating, and that carols could in fact be heard all year round as well as at Christmas. They performed secular as well as religious functions, bringing communities together for celebration and conviviality particularly in the dark winter months.



I also visited Lavenham Guildhall last weekend, to see the newly presented interior of the building following an HLF-funded interpretation project. My visit reminded me that Lavenham Guildhall is in many ways the architectural equivalent of a Christmas Carol. Like carols, Guildhalls were created for a combination of spiritual and secular reasons. They were built at the bequest of individuals, as expressions of spiritual devotion, and were associated with particular trades and professions. Members would subscribe to the guild in order to ensure that a parish priest was available to care for the souls of all members. Guilds would in addition raise funds for the upkeep of their local church, and were a focus for communal and economic activity.



Corpus Christi Guildhall in Lavenham was built in around 1529 on the back of the huge wealth derived by the town from the woollen trade. The size of the building and its central location in the heart of Lavenham itself speaks to the wealth and prestige of the Guild’s original members. Not long after its construction, however, the Reformation spelled the end of Guildhalls in a religious sense, and the building has subsequently experienced a wide range of secular uses in the community: as a jail, a workhouse, an almshouse and a warehouse. It came to the National Trust in 1951 having been purchased and restored by Sir William Cuthbert Quilter in 1887.





The new interpretation scheme at Lavenham replaces the earlier use of the building as a town museum. In place of the traditional museum exhibits comes a sequence of rooms in which are told the stories of individuals who have been particularly associated with the Guildhall through the centuries. The lives of these individuals have been exhaustively researched for the purposes of the project, and are now summarised in beautifully designed hangings and wall mounts. Each room focuses on a different era in the Guildhall’s history, from its use as a Bridewell to its economic uses as a building integral to Lavenham’s woollen crafts and trades: spinning, dyeing and weaving.




I loved the design quality – the quality of the panels and displays, and the small details such as the clever painted shadows of objects on a shelf that was in one of the rooms. It feels that by removing the objects the building has been opened up much more and allowed to speak to us with its own voice, throwing new light upon the 500 years of history




It was also good to chat with a number of the volunteers. One told us a great deal about  spinning, and also explained how wool was dyed. We learned that the leaves of carrots, when boiled, can turn wool yellow. When we got home, we tried it – and were thrilled to discover that it worked!  



Lavenham Guildhall opens fully from the end of February, but much of the new presentation scheme can already be seen – and it is well worth a visit.


Merry Christmas to all, and all best wishes for the New Year

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Charter of the Forest

797 years ago today, a royal charter was issued that could be interpreted as the first ever piece of environmental legislation.



The Charter of the Forest, sealed on 6 November 1217,  was a spin-off from Magna Carta, the great charter of liberties originally agreed by King John in 1215. Magna Carta was a failure from the outset, since John reneged on its terms not long afterwards, leading him into direct war with his barons.

John’s successor, Henry III, reissued Magna Carta as a peace offering on his coronation in 1216, and it was reissued again the following year. The Charter of the Forest was separated out from the main Magna Carta in 1217 in order to provide more detail on what the monarch promised in relation to forest lands. Indeed, it was the separation of the two documents that led to Magna Carta being known as the ‘great charter’, to differentiate it from its shorter companion document. But what did the Forest Charter actually say?


As in the original Charter of Liberties, the clauses relating to forests represented a massive climb down for the king.  Whereas John and his predecessors had extended the boundaries of royal forests, Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest offered some measure of royal retreat. No more would the king claim the authority of Forest Law over such a wide area of land.  

No more would the pre-existing freedoms of people living in those forests – the freedom to gather firewood, to hunt animals, to erect mills on rivers and streams – be trampled on by the demands of the royal forest courts. Forests, after all, were a legal as much as physical entities – they were areas of land over which forest law prevailed, often wooded but not necessarily (since some heaths and much open wood-pasture was also classified as ‘forest’).

"all woods which were afforested by King Richard ... or...  King John ...shall forthwith be disafforested"

"Every free man shall agist his own wood in the forest as he wishes and have his pannage."

"No man henceforth shall lose life or limb for taking our venison"


The Woodland Trust has recently called for a new Charter forTrees Woods and People, to draw attention to the importance of trees and woods in our everyday lives. The work of 797 years ago continues to inspire new ways of thinking about our relationship with the natural world.

The full text of the Charter of the Forest can be seen here: http://www.bsswebsite.me.uk/History/MagnaCarta/forestcharter-1217.htm