A curious sundial

Standing on the central stone at noon, the person’s shadow is cast on the stone marked ‘XII’

AN INTERESTING SUNDIAL in the gardens of Blickling Hall, Norfolk consists of numbered stones laid out around a larger central stone. When someone stands on the central stone, his or her shadow will fall on the stone bearing the hour of the day.. This is an example of an ‘anellematic’ sundial.

A marvellous modern mosque

KINGS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE has a superb perpendicular gothic chapel, whose construction commenced in about 1446 and took almost 100 years to complete. Its fabulously intricate fan-vaulting makes it one of the finest buildings in Cambridge, if not in all of England. Until recently, it was the one and only building in Cambridge that visitors to the city needed to see, even if they did not have time to see anything else. Although this continues to be the case, there is another building, which visitors should make time to see in addition to the chapel. Unlike the college edifice, this is not in the historic academic part of the city but in Mill Road, not far from the main railway station. Near the eastern end of this thoroughfare, which is rapidly becoming a ‘trendy’ part of Cambridge, you will come across a wonderful modern building set back from the road and separated from it by a pleasant, small garden. This structure is The Cambridge Central Mosque.

The mosque was completed in 2019 and designed by Marks Barfield Architects (London) in conjunction with Professor Keith Critchlow (1933-2020), who was Professor of Islamic Art at London’s Royal College of Art, and the garden designer Emma Clark. The designers of the mosque aimed (in the words of Abdal Hakim Murad, chairman of the Cambridge Mosque Trust) to create:

“…a brand new sacred space … to bring together something that’s very ancient and timeless with the very latest technologies.” (https://cambridgecentralmosque.org/design/)

This has been achieved very successfully. The visually spectacular deep portico, reached after walking through a pleasant garden, is supported by clusters of curved timbers, which immediately bring to mind thoughts of the masonry fan-vaulting in Kings College Chapel. These clusters continue through the entire building, creating a sense of continuity of the exterior and interior spaces. The vaulting that reminds us of the mosque’s gothic relative at Kings College also evokes purely Islamic architecture such as one finds at the Alhambra in Spain. The outside of the building is covered with brickwork in two colours, the bricks being arranged to produce patterns which are contemporary versions of a traditional Islamic design. The centre of the mosque is topped by a single dome made in matt-gold coloured metal.

The glass walls that separate the portico from the interior of the mosque reflect the mundane houses opposite the mosque (across Mill Road). I do not know whether the designers intended it, but I felt that these reflections were a way of giving the impression that the garden and the world beyond the mosque is merging with the building itself, that the religious structure was merging with its secular surroundings. Whether or not this was the designers’ intention, this mosque deserves a place in the highest echelon of great British architecture alongside Kings College Chapel. The beauty of the chapel and the mosque, separated by many hundreds of years in age, both have the effect of taking one’s breath away in amazement.

Shopping surprise in Suffolk

WE TRAVELLED TO HADLEIGH in Suffolk to see its church, its mediaeval guildhall, and its Deanery Tower. After viewing these buildings on a drizzly afternoon, we walked along the High Street, looking at some of the lovely old buildings along it. Several of them have coloured pargetting (decorative plasterwork).  Then, we spotted MW Partridge &Co on the corner of High Street and George Street. From the outside, there is nothing remarkable about this hardware store.

Stepping inside Partridges is like entering an enormous. well organised Aladdin’s cave. Apart from food and plants, there is almost nothing that cannot be found in the shop. One room leads to another, and then another, and yet another, each filled with everything that you might ever need to maintain your home and garden. Remarkable as this is, what is truly fascinating is that apart from one room built as an annexe in the 20th century, the rest of the shop is supported by old-fashioned timber beams and pillars.

According to the company’s history (www.partridgeshadleigh.co.uk/index.php?main_page=about_us), there has been an ironmongery business on the spot since 1823, if not before. In 1823, the ironmonger and iron founder Thomas Pritty acquired the business from a Charles Pretty (or ‘Pritty’). After passing through a couple of other owners, Maitland Walter Partridge and Daniel Partridge of Kersey bought the concern in 1929. This partnership did not last long, and in 1934 Maitland and his sister Edith registered the name M W Partridge & Co. Partridges have been in business ever since.

Amazing Grace was written here in this small hut

MANY PEOPLE KNOW, but I did not, that the words of the hymn “”Faith’s Review and Expectation”, now better known as “Amazing Grace”, were written by John Newton (1725-1807), an Anglican clergyman. What fewer people know is that John Newton had once been the captain of ships that transported slaves across the Atlantic, but also a slave himself. In 1745, having fallen out with the crew on the ship he was sailing, he left his ship in what is now Sierra Leone. He was captured and enslaved and became the property of a princess of the Sherbro People, who lived in that part of Africa. He remained enslaved until 1748, when he was rescued by a sea captain, whom his father had sent to rescue him. On the voyage back to England, he received his spiritual calling.

Cutting a long story short, Newton was ordained as a priest in 1764. Soon after, he became the curate of a church in the small town of Olney in the north of Buckinghamshire. He remained in Olney until about 1779. While living in Olney, Newton struck up a friendship with the poet William Cowper (1731-1800; pronounced ‘koo-per’), who moved to the town in 1767. They collaborated on several literary projects.

From 1779 until his death, Newton was Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. In 1788, Newton published his “Thoughts upon the Slave Trade”, a pamphlet that described to horrors on board the slave ships crossing the Atlantic. It was also a confession of his error of having been involved in such an inhumane business. He became an ally of William Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the slave trade.

Olney is a charming little town, which we visited recently. Close to the market square, there is a large building in which William Cowper lived between 1768 and 1786. It now houses a museum dedicated to commemorating both Cowper and Newton. Behind the house, there is an attractive garden, which leads to another equally lovely garden. In the further garden, there is a small hut with white plastered walls and a tiled roof. It is just large enough for one person to sit inside it. It was here that Cowper’s friend John Newton used to sit and write. It is said that one of the hymns he wrote here in this tiny edifice was the hymn, now known by the words of its first line, “Amazing Grace”. This hymn was probably written in 1773.

A recycled telephone kiosk

RURAL TELEPHONE BOXES (kiosks) are often used (re-purposed) to house AED defibrillators and small book libraries. Occasionally, they still contain coin-operated telephones. We were driving through rural Cornwall between Bodmin and Luxulyan, when we took a wrong turn and drove along a small lane. After making a three-point turn, I spotted an old telephone box partly covered with vegetation. Its original glazed door had been replaced by a wooden one that was quite out of keeping with the box’s elegant design. The present owner of the telephone box has been using this as the entrance to his or her garden. I was pleased to make find this quirky modification of an old telephone kiosk.

On the temple steps

THE DOMED IONIC temple in the gardens of Chiswick House in west London was built in the early 18th century. It appears in a painting executed in 1729. This circular building is faced by an obelisk that stands in the centre of a circular pool. Today, we walked past these neoclassical garden features when we noticed a lady in a flowing white dress posing on the steps of the temple. Facing her across the circular pond were cameramen and their assistants, some holding large reflector screens. They were either carrying out a photo-shoot or making a film. Every now and then, a man holding a smoke gun ran past the temple creating an illusion that the temple was bathed in mist. Here is a photo I took whilst this activity was in progress.

Art and memory in East Anglia

MY LATE MOTHER worked in the Sculpture Department of London’s St Martins School of Art in the days when it was located on Charing Cross Road, near Foyles bookshop. Amongst her colleagues at St Martins were Sir Antony Caro (1924-2013) and one of his pupils, Phillip King (b 1934). Both of these artists helped my mother to learn sculptural metal welding techniques in the early 1960s.

THIS SCULPTURE, which is on display in a glade within the gardens of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, reminds me of the kind of work Caro produced, but this was by his ‘disciple’ Phillip King. I like it, but cannot explain why, but it might not be seen as beautiful by everyone. My mother was mainly involved in abstract composition. This might have helped me me to become appreciative of this kind of art. .

A floral fireworks display

SOME OF LIFE’S PLEASURES are seasonal. Such is the case for the explosion of colour that can be seen in the Isabella Plantation in London’s Richmond Park. During late April and most of May, the azaleas and rhododendrons in the Isabella burst into flower. These alongside many other flowering plants, including seas of bluebells, provide a sumptuous banquet of colour for the visitors’ eyes. It is not so much the immense number of flowers that provides so much joy but the way the shrubs and other plants have been planted that creates a visual experience that easily rivals the best of fireworks displays. Even if I were able to express myself better in writing, words cannot possibly recreate the experience of seeing the Isabella Plantation in full bloom. Although I am keen on photography, I feel that even good photographs of the place can only hint at the impact of seeing the flora in real life. In brief, if you can, you must try to visit the plantation when the blooms are at their most magnificent.

The Plantation is in the southwest part of Richmond Park, not far from both the Robin Hood and Kingston Gates. The latter is open to motor traffic currently (May 2021). Richmond Park was a royal deer park, a hunting ground, established by the 14th century when it was part of the Manor of Sheen (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000828).  King Henry VII was particularly fond of the park, which he named ‘Richmond’ after his earldom in Yorkshire (Richmond is a town in that county). He also had a palace built there, of which precious little remains because by the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, it was already dilapidated and was never rebuilt. In its heyday, it was one of the few places fitted with a flushing lavatory. This was installed by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington (baptised 1560- died 1612; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harington_(writer)).

The history of public access to the park is of interest (www.trpg.org.uk/perch/resources/newsletter-005.pdf). Between 1637 when King Charles I enclosed the park and the 1730s when Robert Walpole forbade it, there was pedestrian access to the park. In 1758, a certain John Lewis (1713-1792) won a court case that re-established the right of some public access to the paths and roadways within the park. By the mid-19th century, the public could drive their carriages through it. Today, its roadways are popular both with cyclists and motorists.

The history of the Isabella Plantation is detailed on the website of The Royal Parks (www.royalparks.org.uk/), from which I obtained the following information. By the 17th century, the waterlogged area in the south west corner of Richmond Park was known as ‘The Sleyt’, a sleyt being a word for boggy ground or an open space between woods and banks.  The area where the Plantation is today was marked as ‘Isabella Slade’ on maps published by 1771. The name Isabella either referred to a lady with that name, or, more likely, it was a corruption of the word ‘isabel’, which as far back as the 15th century meant ‘dingy’ or ‘greyish yellow’, which is the colour of the soil in the area of the park where the Plantation is located.

A Deputy Park Ranger, Henry Addington, Lord Sidmouth (1757-1844), fenced off an area of 42 acres of the Isabella Slade in 1831, planted various kinds of trees for timber, and gave the land its present name, ‘Isabella Plantation’. Sidmouth, a Tory politician, was briefly Prime Minister at the beginning of the 19th century, lived in the White Lodge of Richmond Park from 1801 until his death (https://whitelodgetimeline.royalballetschool.org.uk/1800/item/161/). He had been given it as a residence by King George III, who appointed himself the park’s Ranger and Sidmouth his Deputy. Currently, the White Lodge houses The Royal Ballet school.

Getting back to the Plantation as we see it today, it was created chiefly by the work of the Park Superintendent, George Thomson, done between 1951 and 1971. The Royal Parks website explains that:

“The present garden of clearings, ponds and streams was established from the 1950s onwards. It is largely the work of George Thomson, the park superintendent from 1951-1971. Along with his head gardener, Wally Miller, he removed Rhododendron ponticum from large areas and replaced it with other rhododendron species. They established evergreen Kurume Azaleas around the Still Pond and planted other exotic shrub and tree species.”

The Plantation has three ponds, of which the Still Pond is the most spectacular. Surrounded by azaleas and Rhododendrons, its waters are still, that is they are mirror-like. The flowers of the shrubs surrounding the water are reflected in the water, producing a delightful and dramatic visual effect. The other ponds, Peg’s Pond, and one named after Thomson, have their own charms but lack the drama of the Still Pond. Streams and rivulets lined with ferns and other plants flows across the Plantation. The longest stream was dug in 1960 and includes Peg’s Pond.

So far, we have visited the Isabella Plantation three times. Twice, we saw it in its full floral glory and once a few months before the flowering began. Timing is important if you want to enjoy the full floral impact. So, get there in late April or during the first few weeks of May in order to best experience the forms, colours, and fragrances of this beautiful collection of flowering shrubs.

King Richard the Third, Henry Irving, and James Bond

SHEEP WITH THEIR LAMBS were grazing or resting in the sunshine in a meadow beside the roadway leading to the entrance of Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Although the main house at Greys Court was closed (because of the covid19 pandemic) when we visited the estate in April 2021, there was plenty to enjoy in the gardens and fields that are contained in its extensive grounds. The highlight for me was the formal garden enclosed within ruined stone walls that extend from two sides of a tall tower topped with crenellations.

Grey Court House

Greys Court has an interesting history, most of which I have summarised from what is contained in a good guidebook published by the National Trust, to which Greys Court and its grounds were donated in 1969. I have also consulted “Elizabeth’s Rivals” by Nicola Tallis. The tower and the attached ancient wall are the only remains of what was constructed by the De Grey family, who had been living on the estate since (or before) the Domesday book was compiled in the late 11th century. One of the family, Walter de Grey (died 1255), Archbishop of York, was a supporter of King John when he was forced into signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

In December 1346, the then owner of the estate Sir John, 1st Baron Grey of Rotherfield (1300-1359) was granted a licence to ‘crenellate’ Greys. What this means is that he was authorised to surround his home with a fortified curtain wall. It is the remains of this mediaeval wall that surrounds the walled garden that attracted me. After Robert, 4th Earl of Grey died in 1387, the estate passed to his daughter Joan, who was married to Lord John Deyncourt. Then, it was inherited by their daughter Alice, who married Lord William Lovell (died 1455). Through this marriage, the estate became owned by the Lovell family.

When Alice died in 1474, she left Greys to her grandson Francis Lovell (1456-c1487), who managed to ‘back the wrong horse’ by being a supporter of the Duke of Gloucester, who became King Richard III. After fighting alongsid the king, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth (1485), the Crown confiscated Greys and awarded it to Jasper Tudor (1431-1495), uncle of King Richard’s successor, King Henry VII. In 1514, Greys was leased to a member of Henry VII’s court, Robert Knollys (died 1521). His rent was a single red rose to be paid each Midsummer.

Sir Robert’s son Sir Francis Knollys (1511-1596), a devout Protestant, spent most of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) abroad, returning following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, who was a cousin of his wife Catherine (1524-1569), whose mother was Mary Boleyn (sister of Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn). One of Francis’s many important jobs was guarding the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.

Sir Francis demolished much of the mediaeval Greys Court building and rebuilt it with three gables in the Elizabethan style. His renewed building is what we see today as Greys Court House. One of his reasons for this and other constructions was that he hoped that he would be able to host Queen Elizabeth there, but she never visited. The works were carried out between 1559 and 1596. Francis’s son Sir William Knollys (1544-1632) inherited the Greys estate. It is thought that Shakespeare’s character Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” was based on William. The Knollys family made several modifications and additions to the buildings on the estate but by the late 17th century they began to lose interest in maintaining it. Lettice Kennedy (died 1708), the last of the Knollys to live at Greys sold it to James (or William, according to one source: “Greys Court Volume 2 – Historic England Research Report”: research.historicengland.org.uk) Paul in 1688. Mr Paul and his wife Lady Catherine Fane had a daughter Catherine, who inherited Greys Court. The daughter, Catherine, married Sir William Stapleton (1698-1739) in 1724. Thus, the Stapleton family acquired the property.

Sir William was wealthy.  Some of his money came, as the National Trust discreetly puts it:

“…also from sugar plantations in Antigua and Nevis, acquired in the 17th century.”

His son, Sir Thomas Stapleton (1727-1781) inherited Greys. He was a member of the infamous Hell-fire Club along with its principal member and founder, his cousin Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) of nearby West Wycombe. Sir Thomas did not live at Greys Court but arranged for the transformation of the mediaeval remains into ‘Gothick’ follies including the addition of the crenellations that can still be seen on the Great Tower. He also added the two-storey bow windows to Knolly’s Elizabethan house after his marriage to Mary Fane in 1765. She was responsible for many more modifications of the house and its outhouses.

The Grey estate remained in the Stapleton family for several generations, but it was only in 1874 that another male member of the family, Sir Francis Stapleton (1833-1899) began living in it. With no heirs, he left it to his nephew Miles Stapleton, who showed no interest in the place, eventually selling it to a widow, Mrs Evelyn Fleming, in 1934. Both her sons became extremely well-known. Ian Fleming was the creator of the fictional character James Bond. Ian’s brother Peter was an adventurer, soldier, and travel writer, whose life was far more exciting than that led by James Bond. Mrs Fleming was hoping that Greys would be a place where her son Peter could write between his travels, but his marriage to the actress Celia Johnson in 1935 put an end to this idea. So, she sold the property in 1937. The buyers were Sir Felix Brunner (1897-1982) and his wife Elizabeth (1904-2003).

Sir Felix was grandson of the politician and industrialist Sir John Brunner (1842-1919), who was one of the founders of the Brunner Mond & Co chemical company, which became part of ICI in 1926. Sir John was also a supporter of Octavia Hill (1838-1912), the founder of the National Trust, which was formed in 1895. Incidentally, Octavia was also involved with saving London’s Hampstead Heath from disappearing by being built on.  As well as serving in WW1, Sir Felix was a Liberal politician. He stood in various Parliamentary elections but was never elected to become an MP. In 1926, he married the actress Elizabeth Irving (1904-2003), a granddaughter of the famous actor Henry Irving (1838-1905).

In 1969, Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth donated Greys Court to the National Trust and continued to live there. After she was widowed, Elizabeth continued to live at Greys Court, where she died in 2003. During their occupation of the Greys Court estate, the Brunners did much to improve and beautify it, rendering it one of the loveliest National Trust properties that I have visited so far.

I had never heard of Greys Court until a few weeks ago when we drove past a road sign pointing at a road leading to it. As we had never come across the name before and were curious about it, we returned a few weeks later and discovered what a gem of a place it is.  While it is relatively simple to describe its history, the opposite is the case when it comes to describing its appearance. Photographs help to do justice to its attractiveness but the best way to appreciate it is to visit it yourself.