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 

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