The good and simple life

A FEW DAYS AGO, we visited the Penlee House Gallery in the Cornish town of Penzance. After admiring its fine collection of art by painters who worked mainly in Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by members of the Newlyn School, I noticed a moss-covered stone in the gallery’s attractive gardens. It mentioned two twinned towns: Penzance and Concarneau.

St Ives Arts Club

Concarneau is a French fishing port in Brittany. Although I was probably less than ten years old at the time, I have some recollections of the family holiday we spent there along with our general medical practitioner, Dr C, and his family. Two memories of that holiday linger in my brain. One is of the excessively lengthy luncheons we had in our hotel’s dining room. Being a poor eater in my childhood, these meals with many courses did not appeal to me. I remember whiling away the time playing with discarded crab and lobster parts from which the adults had extracted the edible flesh. The other memory is of an unfortunate accident that occurred on the beach. Dr C was showing my young sister a sea urchin. Accidentally, it slipped out of his hand and fell onto my sibling’s bare foot. For many years, she remembered this painful experience.

Concarneau is remembered on the stone at the Penlee House Gallery because some of the artists, who spent much time painting in Newlyn, a fishing port next to Penzance, also painted in Concarneau. The French port, like Newlyn, also attracted French artists. Both places were home to ‘artists colonies’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (for some details, see: http://www.stivesart.info/brittany-links/). St Ives, which is near Newlyn and Penzance, was also home to a thriving artists colony in that period. Today, one of the attractions of St Ives is the fact that serious artistic activity continues there. Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947), a highly accomplished artist based for much of his life in Newlyn, wrote that this close neighbour, almost continuation of, Penzance was his:

“…sort of English Concarneau.” (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2003/important-british-pictures-l03123/lot.31.html)

The artists colonies that existed all over Europe and also in North America at the same time as those in Newlyn and St Ives became the subject of research for my friend, the art historian and travel writer, the late Michael Jacobs (1952-2014). For some unknown reason, Michael never learned how to drive. As a result, he depended on public transport and his friends to get him around the many places that he visited. In about 1984, two years after I had gained my driving licence, I agreed to drive him to Cornwall where he was researching its two artists colonies. We stayed both in Newlyn and St Ives in bed and breakfast accommodation. I enjoyed accompanying my friend whilst he made his enquiries.

An organisation in Newlyn let Michael the notebooks (or diaries) of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, who lived from 1884 onwards in Newlyn and died there. Trustingly, the keeper of these original handwritten notebooks gave them to Michael to peruse overnight. He hardly slept that night because he spent most of it feverishly trying to read as much as possible of this source of information about life in Newlyn’s former artists colony.

Michael was a sensitive fellow, who never wanted to upset anyone. This admirable characteristic of my friend backfired the following day. Our landlady provided us with a lavish full English breakfast. The table was covered with an ocean of food, piles of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, fried bread, toast, black pudding, fried tomatoes, and much more. After we had both eaten, there was still a vast amount of food on the table. Michael said to me that we should not leave it uneaten as that would upset our kindly hostess. I said that I could not manage any more. So, Michael, not wishing to risk offending our landlady, managed to consume the huge amount of food remaining. Thoughtful as this was, it was not without consequences. For much of the rest of the day, poor Michael kept clutching his stomach that was not grateful for the load of food with which it had to deal.

We stayed in St Ives. The bed and breakfast place that we had booked was on a steeply sloping narrow street in the old part of the lovely town. Driving my car through streets like these, barely wider than my vehicle and often dangerously steep, was no joke. After that, my first trip to St Ives, I promised myself never to attempt driving in the old part of the town. I have stuck to that promise.

Our visit to St Ives was made special because Michael had to interview various artists in their studios and members of the St Ives Arts Club. The latter, which is housed in an old warehouse, was founded in 1890. Its early members included the artists Sir John Arnesby Brown, Sir Leslie Stephen, Adrian Strokes and W Titcomb. The Club’s informative website notes:

“All but one of the original Committee hung at the Royal Academy.” (www.stivesartsclub.org/copy-of-history).

I do not recall whom we met there, but we were permitted to enter parts of the Club not normally accessible to non-members.

While we were in St Ives, we did not visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum (first opened in 1976) and the Tate St Ives was not yet in existence; it opened in 1993.

By the time that Michael and I visited the two towns in western Cornwall, my friend had already done a great deal of research about artists colonies abroad. What struck him at the time was that in each of the former artists colonies that he visited in a number of different countries including France, Russia, USA, and Germany, he met experts who could tell him much about the colony in which they specialised but few of them were aware, as Michael had become, of how much the artists moved between the different colonies.

Michael’s research culminated in the writing of his book “The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America” that was published by Phaidon in 1985. Sadly, I have mislaid, I hope temporarily, my copy of this book, in which I am sure that he wrote a personal inscription. When we visited the Penlee House Gallery in September 2020, I looked at their bookstore to see if they stocked Michael’s book. It was not there and also the otherwise informative gallery staff had never heard of it, which is a great pity because it shows how the Newlyn and St Ives colonies were part of an international artistic network or community.

It was the visit to the Penlee that brought us to Penzance, a place that we had not considered visiting before. I am pleased that we went to the town because it offers many delights that exceeded our prior expectations.

Michael passed away six years ago. Although in the last few years of his life we saw him less often than previously because he was often away travelling or spending time in his home in Spain, a country which he loved, we think of him often with great affection.

Make a bigger splash

UNLIKE MANY PLACES IN ENGLAND, Penzance in Cornwall did not get a mention in the Domesday Book published in 1086 although there is archaeological evidence of a bronze age settlement in the area. The first written mention of the town is in a document dated 1284, when it was listed as ‘Pensans’. The etymology of the town’s name derives from the Cornish words ‘penn sans’ meaning ‘holy headland’.

We discovered recently, on our first visit to the town, that Penzance in the far south-west of the British Isles is very pleasant and full of interesting buildings and other attractions. One of these is the long seafront promenade from which the visitor can see nearby Newlyn in one direction and St Michael’s Mount, Britain’s answer to France’s Mont St Michel, in another. Incidentally, Penzance is further west than anywhere in mainland France.

A row of poles carrying large flags, on which pictures of a diving ladies, dressed in old-fashioned blue striped bathing dresses, were printed, attracted our attention. The flags were fluttering vigorously in the strong breeze. They were placed next to the wall surrounding a large triangular open-air swimming pool two of whose walls project out into the sea. The pool was divided into two sections, one with a greater area than the other. Plenty of people were swimming in both parts. The design of the pool immediately made us think that it had elements suggestive of the art deco style that was popular in between the two World Wars.

The pool is known as the Jubilee Pool. A plaque at its main entrance informs that the pool was opened on the 31st of May 1935 (during the year of the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V), confirming our suspicion that it was built in the era of art deco. A website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1221190) contains the information that the pool was built to the designs of the Borough Engineer Captain F Latham, and it adds that the pool:

“… is now the finest surviving example of its type with the exception of the Saltdean Lido in Brighton (listed grade II). In Europe, lidos such as the Piscine Molitor in Paris of 1929 were the first to adopt the modernist style in order to embody the worship of sunlight and physical fitness. The seaside lido manifested the transformation of sea bathing in the 1920s from a predominantly health activity into a leisure activity, and because it was freed from the constraints in planning of more conventional pools it presented local authorities with the opportunity to emulate Continental fashions.”

The water in the two sections of the pool differs in temperature. In the lager part of the bath, it is unheated but in the smaller part, it is heated. Currently, a bather pays up to £4.25 to swim in the unheated section, and up to £11.75 to swim in the ‘Geothermal Pool’, whose water is between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius (https://jubileepool.co.uk/tickets/). Despite locals receiving a discount on ticket prices, many choose to swim in the sea amongst the Battery Rocks that surround the pool and the extension of the promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the bath. One local, who was dressed in a wet suit and had just been in the sea thought the ticket prices were a bit steep and told us that during September, the end of summer, the sea is actually quite warm.

The Geothermal Pool is filled with salt water heated by geothermal energy. The idea of installing this feature derives from Charlie Dixon, who in 2010:

“…had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he had bathed in geothermal pools … Ten years and a £1.8m funding package later (not to mention an incredible amount of work by the Jubilee Pool Directors and staff) the first geothermally heated pool of its kind in the UK opens to the public on 1st September 2020 …

… The system operates by extracting warm water from one geothermal well (410m deep – the height of one and a half Eiffel Towers!!), taking heat out of that water using heat pumps and distributing it to the pool via a heat exchanger, before re-injecting the cooler water back into the ground.  This combined system means that the temperature of the pool can be sustained with a very low carbon footprint. The initial pool heating results suggest that it’s about 80% geothermal but ultimately all the energy is coming from our geothermal well. We are using the heat pumps to concentrate that energy to the exact temperature required for the pool.” (https://jubileepool.co.uk/pool-info/geothermal/).

Although the Jubilee Pool geothermal system is the first of its kind in the UK, it was not the first pool or lido to use naturally heated water. The Romans heated the water at Bath with naturally warm spring water.

We wandered along the eastern side of the pool towards a carved stone obelisk that overlooks the triangular pool and the expanse of Battery Rocks. It stands on the site of a gun battery that was built in 1740 when Britain’s relations with Spain deteriorated. The obelisk, a war memorial, was designed by Sir Edward Warren and erected in 1922. It was unveiled by Mrs Bolitho on the 14th of May 1922. She was the wife of Thomas Bedford Bolitho (1835-1915), a Cornish politician (Liberal Unionist MP), banker, and industrialist, of Trewidden (Cornwall). Bolitho is a western Cornish surname and that of a prolific writer and biographer, Hector Bolitho (1897-1974), whose biography of Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, was published in 1954. Hector was born in New Zealand and migrated to the UK in about 1924. Hector’s grandfather emigrated from Cornwall to New Zealand. It would be interesting to know whether Hector and Thomas were related, even remotely.

We saw plenty of folk bathing in the sea near the pool. They sheltered behind towels that flapped about in the breeze whilst they slipped in and out of their bathing suits. None of them, with whom we spoke, complained about the water’s temperature. In addition to humans enjoying the environment I spotted several cormorants contemplating the sea from their perches on the rocks. The Jubilee Pool and the rocks near it are some of the lovely features that make a visit to Penzance delightful.

From small acorns tall oaks do grow

THE BUILDING MATERIALS COMPANY TARMAC is not a company that you might immediately associate with leisure activities. Yet, today, our good friends in Hertfordshire, Gareth and Moyna, took us with their two dogs to a park that has largely been created by Tarmac. Panshanger Park is owned by Tarmac Holdings, who extract sand and gravel from the area. After taking what they need, they restore the ground they have dug to render it attractive to humans, wildlife, and cattle.

William Cowper (c1665-1723), First Earl Cowper and once the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, acquired the Cole Green Estate, which includes the land on which Panshanger Park is situated, in about 1700. His descendant the Fifth Earl Cowper commissioned the architects Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807) and then later William Atkinson (c1774-1839) to design a house to replace the existing one. It was designed in the ‘Regency-Gothic’ (Gothic Revival) style and its construction commenced in 1806. The grounds of the new house were landscaped by Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who also landscaped the grounds at London’s Kenwood House. Seeing the grounds at Panshanger reminded me of those at Kenwood. Sadly, the house was demolished in the early 1950s. All that remains of it is a grassy mound and the roofless ruins of the extensive orangery, whose supporting pillars and lintels remain. The lintels bear a bas-relief of floral wreaths, crumbling in parts. The ground in front of the mound sweeps down towards a lake, just as is the case with the lawns in front of the still extant Kenwood House.

A path leads from the remains of the orangery through woods towards an enormous oak tree circled by protective cast-iron railings. This huge oak tree is said to be the largest maiden oak in the country. It is defined as ‘maiden’ because it has never been subjected to pollarding (artificial control of growth by trimming selected branches). One of the tree’s long branches has grown towards the ground and, unusually for oaks, set down new roots, rather like what is commonly found in banyan trees. This tree is said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Whether she planted an acorn or a sapling, we cannot say. My uneducated guess is that planting a sapling rather than random acorn would have been a more reliable way to be sure that the tree would thrive. The tree trunk’s circumference is at present 75 feet (www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/489/137/panshanger-great-oak.html) and increasing because the tree looks remarkably healthy.

Saplings taken from this royal oak have been used to grow the Prince Consort Oak in the Forest of Dean, and another in the same forest planted  (as an acorn) by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as another tree planted by Sir Winston Churchill, which has outlasted this former Prime minister.

Apart from the amazing oak tree and the intriguing remains of the Panshanger orangery, the park is well worth visiting to enjoy its views of lakes, its variety of trees, the long-horned cattle grazing in the fields, and the lovely vistas of the valley of the River Mimran and the rural Hertfordshire landscape. It is gratifying to see that a company, whose activities, such as digging gravel and sand, can easily wreck the countryside, have managed to carry out their work and at the same time to preserve the estate in superb, unsullied condition. Once again our friends in Hertfordshire have opened our eyes to another wonder in the depths of the English countryside.

The Egyptian House

WE WERE NOT EXPECTING to see anything like it when walking down Chapel Street in the centre of the Cornish town of Penzance. What we saw immediately recalled the pseudo-Egyptian, art deco Carerras Building near Mornington Crescent in London. The building in London is far larger than that we found in Penzance, the Egyptian House. The Carreras Building was built in 1926-28. The Egyptian House was built far earlier, in 1835-36. Admittedly, the two buildings hardly resemble each other but when I saw the one in Chapel Street, I immediately thought of the structure in Mornington Crescent.

The Egyptian House is a regularly shaped building with an extraordinary façade. The front of the building is decorated in colourfully painted bas-relief with ornamentation that evokes thoughts of Ancient Egypt. The windows of this three-storey building are not rectangular. Each of them is framed in isosceles trapezoids (the top and bottom of each frame are parallel, the top being shorter than the bottom, and the sides of the frames form truncated isosceles triangles). All three layers of windows are framed in a large decorative isosceles trapezoid. This creates the illusion that the façade is tapering rather than rectangular. An informative merchant, who spoke to us from his shop across the road from the Egyptian House, pointed out that although the windows on the three floors look different in size, this is also an illusion; they are the same size on each floor.

The decorative features on the building include pillars with lotus capitals, sculpted human heads, a royal coat of arms and an eagle. Above the centrally located front door there is yet another feature, which I will describe soon. But first, a little bit of history.

Numbers 6 to 7 Chapel Street, the building now known as the Egyptian House, stands on the site of an earlier building that had been pulled down by 1835, when John Lavin (1796-1856), a Cornish mineralogist, purchased the site.  According to one source (https://medium.com/the-history-of-collecting/the-sir-russell-collection-of-cornwall-mineral-collections-439cfdb2ae2d) Lavin was:

“… was a stationer and bookbinder in Penzance, Cornwall, who was also dealing in minerals by 1830. Such was his success that he was able to build the famous Egyptian Hall, “Lavin’s Museum”, in Chapel Street in 1835–36.”

The building he created was typical of the early 19th century craze for building in the ‘Egyptian style’. It is said to resemble the now long-since demolished Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly and the Oddfellows Hall in Devonport (constructed 1820s). Also, some of the tombs in the older, spookier, part of London’s Highgate Cemetery were designed to evoke the architecture of Ancient Egypt.  When Lavin died, his son Edward sold his father’s collection to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for £3,500.

The building became neglected and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, the façade was in a poor state, In the 1970s, the building was restored, and its original colouring reproduced. Now, it is maintained by the Landmark Trust, which rents out rooms within it to visitors at a high price, so we were informed by a local.

The decorative feature that intrigued me most is on the lintel above the front door. It is a bas-relief depicting two outstretched wings attached to a centrally located sphere from which a pair of bird’s heads each, on their own curved necks project. The bird’s heads are shown in profile with their beaks pointing in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. The style of the depiction of the birds is pseudo-ancient-Egyptian as are many other of the ornaments on the building.  As I am fascinated by the double-headed eagles that are used as the symbols of many places including, for example Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Karnataka, I was immediately curious as to whether what is above the doorway is a depiction of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’).

Greatly simplifying matters, the earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is in sites in Ancient Mesopotamia (3000-2000BC). The civilisations that thrived there were contemporary with Ancient Egyptian civilisations. Although DHE motifs have been discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites, they are not as prevalent there as in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates. Without getting bogged down with the history of the usage of the DHE, I want to speculate on why Lavin included the two-headed bird decoration on his Egyptian-style building.

Was the centrally located motif simply chosen for its decorative symmetry or was John Lavin aware of some connection of the DHE with Ancient Egypt? Or was he making some reference to Cornish families, such as the Killigrews and the Godolphins, that included the DHE in their coats of arms? Sadly, I have no answer to these questions yet.

Our ‘discovery’ of the Egyptian House in Penzance was just one of many lovely things we saw during our brief first visit to the town. I have already written about the Turks Head pub in Chapel Street and I hope to reveal more of the town’s interesting sights in the near future.

Peel Street and paintings

WALKING ALONG A SHORT street in London’s Kensington recently, I observed things that I had never noticed before and was reminded of Tony ‘M’. When I was a student of dentistry at the University College Hospital Dental School, I first met Tony in the third year. In that year, we began to learn how to make crowns (‘caps’) for our patients. Instead of sending the work out to be done by technicians, we students had to learn the nitty gritty of fabricating crowns, mostly gold ones. We were assigned to one of three or four technician tutors. I was assigned to Tony’s group. Why visiting Peel Street in Kensington sparked me to think of Tony will be revealed later.

Peel Street in Notting Hill Gate lies in land that used to be known as ‘The Racks’. It was part of the extensive estate of Campden House, which was owned by the Phillimore family. In the early 19th century, the land was bought by John Punter and William Ward, who divided the land between them in 1823 after having agreed to lay out two roads: Peel Str and Campden Str. Peel Street lay in Punter’s share of the area. Although Punter retained several plots along Peel Street, the rest were sold to a variety of different people. Nearer the eastern end of the street several buildings were demolished between 1865 and 1875 during the construction of what is now the Circle Line. Though the tracks are underground, there are no buildings built above them. If you look through the gap on the north side of the road, you can see the rear of a brick building which fronts on Edge Street. Near the top of this place, some bricks have been made to project slightly and to spell the name ‘LESLIE’. The rear part of this L-shaped building is currently occupied by ‘The Spanish Education Office’. This building was flying Spanish and  EU flags. I have no idea about the significance of ‘Leslie’.

One of the houses on the south side of Peel Street used to be a pub. It still bears the lettering ‘Peel Arms’. It was probably in existence by 1889, but today it is a private dwelling. The pub’s clientele were probably mostly workers who toiled in the gravel pits that abounded in the neighbourhood. The pub is not far from the six-storey Camden Houses, brick-built blocks of flats erected in 1877-8 for labourers, some of whom might well have drunk at the Peel Arms. The blocks contain 125 separate flats. The entrances to the blocks have art nouveau features. The building were designed by the architect Edwyn Evans Cronk (1846-1919) for the National Dwellings Society Ltd. Cronk was born in Sevenoaks (Kent) and died in Redcliffe Square in South Kensington.

At the western end of Peel Street, there is another pub, The Windsor Castle. Unlike the Peel Arms, this is a working establishment, now popular with the locals, most of whom are not poorly paid labourers. It was originally built in about 1826 and then remodelled in 1933. The pub contains much of its original late Georgian building fabric and is a Grade II listed place. Although I have passed it often, I have never entered it or its reputedly fine garden. At the Eastern end of Peel Street, there is a wine bar, The Kensington Wine Rooms. When we were getting married, back in 1993, the premises were occupied by a branch of the Café Rouge restaurant chain. We held a pre-wedding dinner there. The premises now housing the wine bar once housed a pub, The Macaulay Arms.  It was listed as being in existence in the 1868 edition of “Allen’s West London Street Directory”. Thus, residents of Peel Street were only a few steps from three ‘drinking holes’.

The directory ( https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58160/58160-h/58160-h.htm) lists the residents of Peel Street in 1868 as follows:

“1 Upfold George, sweep/ 2 Arnold F., carpenter/ 3 Miles Frederick, painter/ 23 Mansell H., painter/ 26 Redman J., marine stores/ 28 Redman J., beer retailer/ 37 Taylor W., gardener/ 46 Lucas Wm. Grocer/ 53 Hobbs Mrs. general shop/ 55 Horskins Thos. Baker/ 63 Pollett —, bootmaker/ Harris W., greengrocer/ 67 Smart M., The George Brewery/ 69 Dunnett Mrs. dressmaker/ 77 Elson George, oilman/ 80 Evans H., gardener/ 82 Atwood Mrs, dressmaker/ 83 Salmon —, bootmaker”

Most of the inhabitants appear to have been tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen, rather than labourers. This is probably because the list was compiled before the Campden Houses were built to house manual labourers and their families. Incidentally, there is still a greengrocer on Peel Street. Jack and Jessie’s excellent shop is opposite the Kensington Wine Rooms.

Peel Cottage stands almost at the corner of Peel Street and Campden Hill Road. It is next to number 118 Campden Hill Road (aka ‘West House’), a building on the corner of Peel street designed for the artist George Henry Boughton (1803-1905) in the late 1870s by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). New Scotland Yard and Lowther Lodge (home of the Royal Geographical Society on Kensington Gore) were amongst the many other buildings designed by Shaw. Another artist, the landscape painter Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902) lived at number 80 Peel Street, where once lived the gardener, H Evans.  

The entrance to Peel Cottage, which is dwarfed by its neighbours, is partially covered with ivy. It was seeing the blue, circular commemorative plaque on the wall next to its entrance that reminded me of my former teacher Tony M. The plaque informs the passer-by that the artist Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) lived in Peel Cottage from 1925 until his death. This brings me back to Tony M, about whom you must have thought I had forgotten already.

As a dental student, I spent many hours with Tony M as I struggled to make decent gold crowns that would fit my patients’ teeth in the conservation clinics of the Dental School. Each encounter with Tony involved a trip to the canteen in the school’s basement. Tony was unable to function without a fresh cup of the school’s barely mediocre coffee. Over cups of coffee, Tony used to encourage us when the clinical teachers made our lives miserable, help with our technical work, and chat. During one of our sessions together, Tony, knowing that art interested me, suggested that I visit Cottrell’s showrooms in nearby Charlotte Street (numbers 15-17) to see the fine collection of paintings that hung on its walls. Cottrell’s were an important supplier of dental equipment and materials. Today, although it has retained its original Victorian frontage, it is the premises of the Charlotte Street Hotel.

Dutifully and because I was curious, I visited Cottrell’s showroom and looked at the framed watercolours hanging on the walls of the two ground floor showrooms. The paintings were all works of the inhabitant of Peel Cottage, William Russell Flint.

Flint was born in Edinburgh. He studied at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked as a medical illustrator in London. Later, he produced illustrations for books and “The Illustrated London News”. He was elected President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours (now the Royal Watercolour Society, of which my wife’s cousin, Varsha Bhatia, is a member), a position he held from 1936 until 1956. He was knighted in 1947. Flint produced many well-executed, delicately tinted water-colour paintings. He often visited Spain, where he made plenty of images that often included sensuous portrayals of women in various stages of undress. It was some of these titillating paintings that Tony had sent me to see on the walls of Cottrell’s showroom.

It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s (before 1982, when I qualified) that Tony M encouraged me to pay a visit to Cottrell’s in Charlotte Street to widen my knowledge of the world of art. Many years have passed since then, but a memory of that brief glimpse of Flint’s paintings lingers in the back of my mind. Visiting Peel Street and seeing Flint’s home brought that all back to the forefront of my memory.

Two gardens: one old and one new

DURING OUR TEENAGE YEARS, my friends. Francis, Hugh, and Michael, and I used to take short trips to places of interest outside London. Amongst the many places we visited were Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury, and Winchester, to name but a few. In those days, the mid to late 1960s, none of us could drive. So, we had to rely on getting to places by public transport. On one occasion, we arrived in Cirencester, hoping to find some way of getting to the remains of the Roman villa at Chedworth, which is about ten miles distant from it. The situation looked desperate. We were worrying that we would have to walk when I spotted an old-fashioned looking bus arrive. The driver told us that he operated a once a week service that passed Chedworth. We boarded and reached our goal.

Pavilion by Smiljan Radic in the Oudolf Field garden

One place that we always wanted to visit was the garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Famed for its spectacular landscaping including many architectural ‘follies’, this place was, despite our extensive research, impossible to reach using public transport. It remained one of our greatest wishes to see Stourhead, as great as the Jewish people’s desire to see the so-called Holy Land. Stourhead was almost our ‘Goldene Medina’. We never managed to  reach it together.

Many years later, in the 1990s, my wife and I made our first visit to Stourhead, travelling by car. We saw the place at its best on a bright sunny afternoon. In late September 2020, we returned to Stourhead on a grey, rainy afternoon during the covid19 pandemic. Despite the inclement weather and the restrictions as to where we could walk, we had a wonderful time. Every footstep we took led to one after another exciting view of the landscaped parkland. Wherever we looked, we saw fine trees and a wide variety of shrubs and other plants. Much of the walk is around an irregularly shaped man-made lake, the shores of which are dotted with architectural ‘follies’, constructed to enhance the romantic landscape. Many of these are built to resemble Greek or Roman classical temples. There is also a cottage built in Gothic Revival style and a wonderful and rather weird artificial grotto containing statues and fountains. Words cannot begin to do justice to the beauty of the gardens at Stourhead. The place has to be seen to be believed, and the weather, both good or bad, simply enhances the delightful experience that has been produced by nature skilfully assisted by mankind.

The gardens in the 2650-acre estate of Stourhead were designed by Henry Hoare II (1705-1785), a banker and garden designer. They were laid out between 1741 and 1780 in a classical 18th century design, based on the landscape paintings by artists such as Claude Lorraine and Poussin. The Hoare family owned paintings by some of these great masters. Many of the monuments or follies that adorn the garden were designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769), who died in Hampstead, the area in which I grew up. The slightly over one-mile long walk around the lake was designed to try to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld. The design of this path was conceived to produce alterations in the mood of the visitor as he or she walks along it, moods reflecting those of Aeneas on his journey. If that was the intention, Aeneas must have had a wonderful trip.

In brief, the grounds at Stourhead should not be missed by anyone with even the very slightest interest in gardens. In the words of the Dutchman Baron Van Spaen van Biljoen (1746-1827), who visited the garden in the late 18th century:

“Nothing in England could compare with Stourhead … we were in such ecstasy we had the utmost difficulty in tearing ourselves away from this charming spot…”

This noble Dutchman visited many gardens in England with his stepfather-in-law, Baron W. C. H. van Lynden van Blitterswijk (1736–1816) during the summer of 1791. His opinion is still valid today. The Dutch visitors would have seen Stourhead when the oldest part of the garden would have been only fifty years old. The plants would have been far less developed than they are today. As my wife said wisely, Hoare and his family were not only creating the garden for themselves but for the many generations that would surely follow in their footsteps.

On the day we visited Stourhead, we visited another garden not far away, near the charming town of Bruton in Somerset. Like Stourhead, created in the 18th century to depict nature naturally but under the guiding hand of man, the Piet Oudolf Field next to the Somerset branch of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery is a carefully curated ‘wilderness’, an attractive sea of wild flowers and shrubs. Piet Oudolf (born 1944), a Dutch garden designer, began creating the one-and-a-half-acre garden next to the gallery less than ten years ago.

The garden grows on a plot that slopes gently down to the buildings housing the gallery. At the highest point in the garden, there is what looks like an oversized donut or, perhaps, a huge whiteish mushroom (when viewed from outside it). It is in fact a structure that was the temporary summer pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2014.   It rests on giant rocks and was designed by Smiljan Radic, a Chilean architect born in 1965. Made of a semi-transparent fibre-reinforced plastic shell, it is hollow and allows the visitor to walk around in what looks like part of a large snail shell. Although it looks quite different from the plants growing around it, its fungal resemblance makes it blend with them in a remarkably pleasing way.

Incidentally, the Oudolf Field is worth visiting in combination with the spacious art gallery and its associated restaurant that provides exceptionally good food. I recommend their Sunday roasts!

Both Stourhead and the nearby but much younger Oudolf Field, are fine and beautiful examples of man’s interaction with nature. Visiting these gardens lifted our spirits despite the rain that fell almost incessantly.  I had to wait for over thirty years before my wish to visit Stourhead was fulfilled, but it was well worth waiting for.

Victoria slept here once

LOVINGTON BAKERY AND CAFÉ in Wincanton (Somerset) provides a superb range of breakfast items, all prepared beautifully. No effort was spared to ensure that we had a most enjoyable breakfast. The café, which is housed on the Market Place close to the Town Hall, is almost opposite a former coaching inn, once called ‘The Greyhound’.

The elegant three-storey building that used to be the Greyhound has a centrally located archway that has a cobbled driveway passing beneath it. There is a bas-relief depicting a royal coat of arms above the archway. A cast-iron inn sign showing a greyhound with its broad neck collar remains suspended over the pavement above the archway. An oval panel above the archway but at the level of the roof has a faded painting of a greyhound.

The Greyhound was built in the 18th century, probably by the local builder Nathaniel Ireson (1685-1769), whose impressive funerary monument, which includes a handsome statue and carvings of builder’s tools, can be seen in the graveyard that surrounds the town’s large church of St Peter and St Paul.  The building was first mentioned in parish records in 1743 and advertised as being “new” in 1760 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1238740). The greyhound is the armorial symbol of the Churchey Family of Tout Hill.

In 1825, when the future Queen Victoria was a child aged about six years, she visited Wincanton and stayed for one night at The Greyhound. This visit is recorded on a plaque attached to the building. Where she was going, I have not yet been able to ascertain, but she was not the only royal visitor to be associated with Wincanton. In 1688, William of Orange (reigned 1698-1702) not only visited the town but also his Dutch troops fought and won a battle against troops loyal to the deposed King James II in the town. After his victory, he spent a night in Wincanton A plaque attached to a picturesque old building not far from the former Greyhound inn commemorates the Battle of Wincanton (20th of November 1688).

The Greyhound is one of many pubs (former and still working) that line the main road through Wincanton. In the olden days before motor transport superseded horse-drawn transport, these inns served as staging posts for travellers, places for being fed and for resting overnight. The Greyhound no longer serves the traveller but houses a gallery and has also become part of a housing unit. We spent the night in a modern hotel not far from the modern highway (the A303), which takes traffic past Wincanton rather than through its winding hilly streets. From our bedroom window, we can see a concrete factory and a tall sign advertising a KFC food outlet. Had Victoria been staying here, I am certain that she might have said or thought “We are not amused”.

Sculpted by nature

WE DROVE AWAY from the sun-soaked, windswept sands on the sea front in Paignton (Devon) and headed upwards on to Dartmoor. We followed narrow roads, often barely wide enough for a single car, bounded by hedges, until we rumbled across cattle grids and entered the wide-open spaces of the moor. The roads remained narrow, but the vistas were wide open. Patches of the moor have been cultivated but most of it is not. Sheep, cattle, and occasional horses or ponies grazed here and there.

We headed up a hill topped with what looked from afar like the ruins of a temple or a small fortress. As we neared it, we saw it consisted of piles of huge flat surfaced, irregularly shaped greyish boulders piled on top of each other in what seemed like a state of precarious balance. It appeared as if a giant had collected these stones and put them together in piles, as if to tidy up the land around them, to clear the space for animals to graze. We had arrived at Combestone Tor. A ‘tor’ is defined as:

“… a large, free-standing rock outcrop that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest.”

The definition of tor includes the rocky outcrops I have seen in South Africa, where they are known as ‘koppie’ or ‘kopje’.

We walked from the car park towards the picturesque, tall piles of rocks, the tor, arranged almost artistically. Nature has done a better job aesthetically than many modern artists. A strong warm wind buffeted us as we approached them. It is weather conditions, like wind and rain, that have shaped the stones over the centuries and millennia. The formation of these geological formations began about 280 million years ago when molten rock crystallised to form granite (see: www.dartmoor.gov.uk/data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72097/lab-tors.pdf ). To cut a very long story short, rock covering the granite gradually wore away, allowing the granite to become exposed to the atmosphere. Oversimplifying a lot, the minerals between the lumps of granite became worn away by meteorological forces and, during the ice age(s), by mechanical forces generated by freezing and thawing. What has been left after all this is what we see today.  

The earliest surviving written mention of Combestone Tor was in 1333, when it was named ‘Comerston’ (see: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/combe_stone.htm).  On an 1809 map the tor is named ‘Cumstun’. Over the years its name has mutated to ‘Combestone’.

We wandered around the tor enjoying the amazingly balanced jumble of rocks of different sizes and the views of the surrounding landscape that stretches far below the summit of the hill (1168 feet above sea level) on which the weathered stones perch. Nearby brown cattle grazed, probably unaware of the strange geological formations, which we had come to enjoy. Recently, we visited the former home and gardens of the sculptor Henry Moore. His often huge sculptures dominate the landscape like the stone pillars that form the tor. Whereas Moore’s sculptures seemed to intrude on the landscape and deform one’s view of it, the rocky piles that comprise the tor feel harmoniously integrated into their surroundings.  Give me moor, rather than Moore, any day!

The Turk’s Head

WE DROVE TO CORNWALL along the A3, a main road that connects London with Cornwall. Soon after it leaves the capital, the road passes close to Royal Holloway College (at Egham in Surrey), a part of the University of London. The campus at Egham was founded in 1879 and officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. The college at Egham was founded by a philanthropist named Thomas Holloway (1800-1883).

Holloway was born in Devonport (near Plymouth in Devon). His family moved to Penzance in the 1820s. There, they ran a public house (‘pub’) called ‘The Turk’s Head Inn’. He became a manufacturer and seller of patent medicines. He was highly successful at promoting his business by advertising in newspapers. Between 1837 and 1842, he had spent more than £5000 on advertising, and as he neared the end of his life, he was spending over £50,000 per year on promoting his products. The advertising paid off. He became one of the richest men in Britain during his life. His products were clinically of dubious value, but they sold well. After his death, some of his products were taken over by Beechams Pills.

Holloway was generous with his wealth. He is best remembered for funding and building the Holloway Sanatorium near Virginia Water (Surrey) and the Royal Holloway College. The college was opened for women only. It was not until the 1960s, that it began admitting male students. It had links with Bedford College in London, where my wife’s grandmother studied in the 1920s, having sailed over from India.

Today, we visited Penzance and walked past the Turks Head Inn, which is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) pubs in the town. It is thought that this pub was first established in 1233, following the Turkish (probably Moorish) pirates attacking Penzance during the Crusades (www.picturepenzance.com/pages/Penzance-History). The pub claims to be the first in England to be named The Turks Head. The building was damaged by fire during the 16th century. What we see today is a modification of what was built after the fire.

We had travelled almost 280 miles from Egham to Penzance, mainly along the A30 (a road about which I hope to write more). Thomas Holloway must have covered this distance many a time in the past. It was fascinating to stumble across his childhood home in Penzance and thereby discover why The Royal Holloway College, which I have known of for ages, came into existence.

An old bridge on the moor

POSTBRIDGE IS A TINY SETTLEMENT in the middle of Dartmoor on the banks of the East Dart River, a tributary of the River Dart. The road that passes through the hamlet crosses the river over a venerable stone bridge (built in the 1720s). A few yards away from the bridge, there stands a far older bridge, a so-called ‘clapper bridge’.

The clapper bridge consists of four stone abutments (piers) spanned by three wide slabs of granite, each weighing about 6.5 to 8 tons. It is a simple but elegant structure, which has survived for many centuries. The bridge was most probably built to allow pack horses carrying tin to cross the stream on the way to Tavistock on the west side of Dartmoor. It was already in existence in the 13th century and is one of only 40 surviving examples of this kind of river crossing in the British Isles.

When we arrived at Postbridge during our journey from Cornwall to Somerset, the clapper bridge was crowded with camera-laden tourists who spoke German. Some of them were impolite, shouting at us rudely to get us to move off the clapper bridge so that they could get better photographs. Despite their uncultured behaviour, it was good to see that the bridge is still being used, albeit for leisure purposes. However, this is a far cry from what is depicted on a nearby pub sign: a horseman dressed in a red jacket riding his horse over the ancient bridge,