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Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Meeting with a remarkable tree!


This is me, with Monty the dog, sitting in the courtyard of Skipton Castle under the yew tree that was planted in 1659 by Lady Anne Clifford to mark the repair of the castle after the English Civil War. Despite enduring a three year siege during the Civil War, Skipton is one of the most complete medieval castles in England. The yew tree stands in the Conduit Court (so called because it was where the spring water bubbled out) in the centre of the castle, surrounded by a range of early Tudor buildings that remain unaltered and intact. I've never seen a tree growing inside a castle courtyard like this before although my husband swears he has been somewhere else where there was a tree just like this - and he has been racking his brains ever since to try and remember where it was! It was very peaceful and cool to sit beneath this ancient tree on what was a very hot day and read all about the castle in the guidebook. It was also very nice to be able to take our very well-behaved dog into the castle, although he wasn't very keen on the spiral stairs and refused to go down the dungeon!

There has been a castle in Skipton since 1090 when Robert de Romille, a Norman baron, built a fortress to defend against Scottish raids. The castle is built on a rocky outcrop with a truly impressive precipice behind. The Clifford family owned Skipton Castle from 1310 until 1676 and featured such characters as "Bloody Clifford" "the Butcher," who slaughtered many Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses including Richard, Duke of York, father of Edward IV and Richard III.


In the market square in the town we came across this plaque on one of the pubs. It records the fact that the "ancient hostelry" was once a Royal Mews belonging to Richard III at the time when he was Lord of the Manor and Honour of Skipton. Those were the days when the fortunes of the Cliffords were in decline since their star was tied so securely to the Lancastrians. They were restored to their lands and titles by Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth.

Another infamous Clifford was the wastrel George, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, who was Queen Elizabeth I's Champion and wore her diamond-studded glove in his hat. George squandered a fortune before he was thirty then turned to privateering in an attempt to regain his wealth. He fought against the Spanish Armada, commanding the ship Elizabeth Bonaventure and was the first to bring the news of the English victory to the Queen. He never regained his fortune, however, and died in debt.

After the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 Skipton Castle was the only Royalist stronghold left in the North. Sir John Mallory, the governor of the castle, finally negotiated a surrender, and on 21st December 1645 the garrison marched out with colours flying and trumpets sounding. In 1648 after the Royalists re-occupied the castle, Oliver Cromwell ordered the removal of the roofs and the slighting of the walls and towers so that it could not be used as a defensive fortress again. However Lady Anne Clifford was allowed to rebuild on condition that the walls were thinner and the roof was no longer strong enough to bear firing cannon. Above the gatehouse is the Clifford family motto, Desormais, meaning Henceforth.

Skipton contains all that a medieval castle should - arrow slits where archers could shoot a longbow with incredible accuracy to pick off attackers eighty two feet below; a suitably dark and dank dungeon (although the records state that prisoners were always particularly well fed at Skipton, which undermines the idea of terrible torture!) and watchtowers with fighting chambers whose walls are thirteen feet thick. The beautiful yew tree at the centre of the castle has been a witness to events there for over three hundred and fifty years.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Literary Leanings in Kildwick - Nicola's research trip part 2!

After we picked up our narrowboat we set off westward along the Leeds to Liverpool Canal. Our first stop was at Kildwick in the area known as Craven in Yorkshire. During the 1970s I sang in the choir of the parish church here with my grandparents and I had not been back since they left when I was 11 years old. It was exactly as I remembered it and I felt a very strong sense of nostalgia.

The original Saxon church at Kildwick dated back to the 10th century. It had a heavy oak-timbered roof thatched with straw overlaid with turf and a very broad low tower. Some of the stone from the Saxon churchyard cross was found embedded in the wall of the current church chancel in the early 20th century. The rest of this early church has vanished, replaced by a medieval building that is very beautiful. In the same period the earliest bridge over the River Aire was built at Kildwick, costing £21.12.09. The box pews or ‘close pues’ or ‘privey closets’ as they were called in the 17th century with doors that closed to hide you inside, were apparently introduced by the Puritans so that no one would see them disobeying the rules of the Anglican service. The picture here isn't of box pews at Kildwick, which were removed, but this is what they looked like.

Several other things that I noticed about the church which had escaped me as a child were the very fine clock on the tower, dated 1828, with the rather poignant inscription "redeem the time" and the little bridge taking a path over the canal and directly into the graveyard. This was apparently the original private entrance to the church for the village squire from Kildwick Hall. I imagine that it might be rather spooky seeing a funeral party taking a coffin over that bridge but on the sunny day that we were there nothing could have seemed less sinister. We met a charming American tourist taking photographs in the churchyard and agreed what a very beautiful place it was.

We moored for the night near Kildwick Hall and I got a good look at the house the following day when we went for a walk on the moors above Kildwick. Built in 1642, it is old-fashioned in design, harking back to the Elizabethan style with its gables and mullion windows. During the period in which the Brontë sisters were writing the Currer family lived here and when Charlotte Brontë sought a masculine nom de plume she chose the pseudonym of Currer Bell. In another literary parallel, the arms of the squires of Haworth are impaled by those of Currer over the front door at Kildwick. Just as at Heathcliff’s house in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, one step then takes you into the great hall. Miss Frances Currer (1785-1861) who was known as a scholar and collector of books lived at Kildwick Hall at that time and may have been known to the Bronte family. In 1920 the hall was also used as the setting for Thrushcross Grange in the silent movie version of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Overwhelmed at Hardwick Hall!


This is Hardwick Hall on the border of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, a house described as "more window than wall." I'd never been to Hardwick Hall before last weekend, a shocking omission when I consider myself to be a fan of the Tudor period and of Bess of Hardwick in particular, that tough, shrewd woman who worked her way up society from her beginnings as the daughter of a poor gentry family and ended up founding a dynasty. One of the first historical novels I read was a fictional biography of Bess of Hardwick entitled only "Bess." It enthralled me and fostered my fascination with history and I dearly wish I had kept my copy or could at least remember the author's name.

So last weekend, on the way to my research trip/canal boat holiday in Yorkshire, I finally made my pilgrimage to Hardwick Hall. When I came out of my tour of the house I was so stunned and over-awed I couldn't speak for about an hour. This happens to me sometimes when I've seen a play or a film that I particularly enjoy. I'm so wrapped up in the experience and so busy thinking about it that I don't say a word. Hardwick did that to me. But it wasn't really a comfortable silence. It was more a bafflement at the character of Bess, inveterate builder on such an ostentatious and overwhelming scale. It was said that a soothsayer had told her that she would not die for as long as she continued building; a hard winter finally came in 1608 when Bess was eighty one years old. The workmen put down their tools - and Bess of Hardwick died.


My first port of call was Hardwick Old Hall, built by Bess between 1587 and 1596. This is a ruin now, hugely atmospheric with some of the original plasterwork still visible to give an idea of the radically modern Italianate style of the house. One of the truly exciting aspects of the ruin is that you can still climb the staircase right up to the fifth floor and what would in Bess's time have been the lead roof over the Hill Great Chamber. Bess's household and her visitors would have enjoyed a walk around the perimeter, safe behind the stone balustrade, and with views out across the parkland and landscape beyond.

Even before the building of the Old Hall was complete, Bess had started work on Hardwick New Hall, just metres away. Both houses continued to be built at the same time so Hardwick Old Hall was not replaced by the newer house, it complemented it. Nevertheless it is Hardwick New Hall that still stands today intact as Bess would have seen it whilst the Old Hall was demolished from 1745 onwards. The reason for the demolition is not know. It could have been to save money - the sale of the lead, iron, plaster, wainscot and doors raised over £300. or it could have been to create a picturesque garden ruin for the inhabitants of the New Hall to enjoy. The Old Hall's open interior was planted with trees in 1793 to appreciate as a garden feature!

After I had appreciated the Old Hall at length I walked over to the New Hall which, as the National Trust guidebook puts it "celebrates in stone Bess's rise from an obscure gentry family to the rank and riches of a countess." For me, what makes Hardwick overwhelming is it's height and size and symmetry; six towers, huge expanses of window glass and inside the original decorations of huge Flemish tapestries, table carpets, painted wall hanging, plaster friezes, inlaid furniture and 16th and 17th century needlework, all rattling around in a place that covered the area of a sports stadium. Magnificent it most certainly was; cosy it was not. Opinions of visitors to Hardwick have varied from the start. In the 18th century Horace Walpole said "vast rooms, no taste." The first is certainly true, the second rather harsh in my opinion! John Torrington said: "Like a great old castle of romance" and that is exactly right.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Not What You Expect to See...

Last weekend I was out on a walk in Oxfordshire near Henley-on-Thames and came across something I never expected to see in the English countryside. This. I suppose I should have learned by now to expect the unexpected - Britain is eccentric in so many ways and so to find an Indian-style obelisk in a small village is not that surprising.

This is The Maharajah's Well in the village of Stoke Row. It was a gift to the people of Stoke Row from the Maharajah of Benares, a friend of a prominent local landowner, Mr Edward Anderdon Reade. Mr Reade was Governor of the Northwest Provinces of India and during his time there presented a well to the people of India. As there was an absence of available water in the Stoke Row area, the Maharajah generously reciprocated the gesture to demonstrate his feelings for England and as a token of friendship with Mr Reade.

Work on the well commenced in 1863 and it was officially opened just over a year later. It is 368 feet deep (taller than St Paul's Cathedral, twice the height of Nelson's Column) and was dug entirely by hand. The Maharajah also donated the purchase price of a four acre orchard nearby to be stocked with cherry trees so that the profits of the local fruit harvest could endow the well, as was the custom in India. These days you don't get enough income from cherry trees to support a well so the site is run by a charitable trust and the orchard belongs to the community. There is also a Warden's Cottage, where the wellkeeper lived, which cost just over £74 to build compared to the £353 for the well itself. The Warden paid no rent and had an income £1 per annum. In return he or she was expected to be on duty for all daylight hours, to "admit people to the well," to keep the well machinery in good working order and "to guard against mischief or abuse."

Going to the village well must have been quite a social occasion as it took all morning simply to draw the 9 gallons of water contained in the two buckets! I loved the wellhead cover, which is very ornate and includes a golden elephant under a domed canopy.

Even more startling than stumbling across the well was that it apparently started a sort of "charity contest" between rival maharajahs because the Maharajah Vizia Nagran of Madras then endowed a drinking fountain in Hyde Park near Marble Arch!

On the way home we passed through the nearby village of Nettlebed (I love that name!) and stopped for a look at the disused lime kiln, which was originally built in the 18th century for making pottery and bricks. It's quite a fun thing to have in your back garden! The Fleming family of James Bond fame had connections to Nettlebed and I am told that it has also been used as a setting for a number of episodes in Midsomer Murders. There you are - an eclectic and eccentric mix of facts about a couple of Oxfordshire villages!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Flushed with success! A history of bathrooms and water closets!

A few weeks ago I bought a book called "Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and Water Closet." It struck me that sanitation is so rarely mentioned in romance books unless there's a steamy scene in the baths such as I included in The Scandals of an Innocent. Perhaps this is because bathrooms and water closets are so determinedly unromantic; functional but not quite nice to talk about. And yet the history of sanitation is fascinating and without developments in sanitation engineering, where would be be today?

I cannot do justice to the whole of Clean and Decent here but I would like to share some little gems that I have picked out.

The bidet was first mentioned in 1710 when the Marquis d'Argenson was enchanted to be granted audience by Madame de Prie whilst she sat. What they talked about is not recorded.

In the 19th century a novelty of the chamber pot was that some had concealed musical boxes which gave a concert of appropriate chamber music when one lifted the lid. As early as 1820 Prince Metternich had been awoken in the night by a musical chamber pot that played the flute. He found and pressed a button and the music stopped, only for it to start again an hour later. The musical chamber pot eventually ran out of steam and made what he described as "disturbing little noises." When he complained in the morning the valet commented that there was another chamber pot in the castle that played trumpet music.

2010 is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Crapper, without whom our lives would have been so much more inconvenient. Apparently Crapper did not invent the flushing lavatory - that had actually been done by a poet, Sir John Harington, back in 1596. However Crapper built on the sanitation work of Cummings and Brammah in the 18th century and bought up all the patents for the dull but vital parts of the flushing process, the valves, ballcocks, siphons etc and branded them with his company name. There had been a Public Health Act since 1848 that required every new house to have a wc, privy or ash pit and it was Crapper who made the bathroom an essential and stylish part of the house. Crapper was very much a high society sanitation engineer, his work bought by Bertie, Price of Wales (later Edward VII) who insisted on a gorgeously decorated pedestal or two with cedar seats at Sandringham in Norfolk.

There is an authentic working Crapper in the basement of the Science Museum in London.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What Lies Beneath?


Now here is an idea for a story setting! I was reading my English Heritage magazine and came across a reference to the medieval vaulted passageways that lie beneath the City of Exeter. Apparently they were built to supply fresh drinking water to the city and are unique in the UK. These days they are a tourist attraction.

Exeter's early water supply came from springs and the Roman garrison sourced water from two local springs and brought it into the city via an aqueduct. In the Middle Ages, Exeter became a great ecclesiastical centre and the earliest passage was built between 1346 and 1349 to serve the city's cathedral. The water pipes ended at a fountain in Cathedral Close that supplied clean water to Exeter's clergy. The same stonemasons who worked on the magnificent cathedral were also tasked with constructing the vaulted underground passageways and their masons' marks can be seen on the walls. The tunnels were constructed by digging a trench in the clay, lining it with cut stone and adding capping stones.

The continued growth of the city meant that the supply of clean water was never enough for the whole population and this resulted in the construction of a second tunnel known as The City Passage between 1492 and 1497. Wealthy merchants engaged in the woollen trade wanted their own water supply, one that was not controlled by the cathedral authorities. The wealthiest residents could afford for the water to be piped directly to their homes but for everyone else, it was dispensed through an ornate public fountain called The Great Conduit, at the junction of South Street and the High Street.

During the English Civil War the passage under the wall was thought to be dangerous, a way in which enemy troops could infiltrate the city. The lead was removed and used for casting into bullets and the passages were filled with rubble. Despite this Exeter, which started the war as one of the few parliamentary-held towns in the Royalist south west, fell to the Royalists in 1643 and remained under their control until almost the end of the war.

In 1655, after the war ended, the passages were repaired and the water supply restored. However, the water supply for the fast growing city was proving to be inadequate and in 1694 a wheel driven 'water engine' was built which pumped water through wooden pipes to a tank at the rear of the Guildhall.

Between 1805 and 1833 James Golsworthy was employed to maintain and improve the water supply and in 1811 he introduced the first cast iron pipes in England. The system was used until 1857. Five hundred years after they were first built, the passages were put to a completely different but equally vital use during World War II when part of the tunnel network served as a shelter from German bombing raids.

So now here is a challenge. How would you incorporate Exeter's underground passages into a book? Would it be in a time slip story as a way to step back into the 14th century? Or in a paranormal, as the hiding place for vampires? Is it somewhere a Regency heroine might be trapped, or a route she uses to escape from her chaperone in order to do something more exciting than attend balls and assemblies? What lies beneath?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day!

Happy May Day! Today is the pagan festival of Beltane, marked by the lighting of bonfires, the first day of summer in the Celtic calendar. It is also a time of other festivities; bringing in the May, dancing around the maypole, and dressing up as a tree if you so wish.

Also on this day:

Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington, Irish-born soldier, statesman and Prime Minister was born in 1769.

The Act of Union united England and Scotland in 1707.

Betting shops became legal in the UK in 1961.