Drowned in India

ON OUR THIRD VISIT to the delightful grounds of Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, we took a close look at the chapel that stands close to the main house. Constructed between 1776 and 1779 in Palladian style, it was designed by someone who was far better known for his skill in landscape planning than for his architectural ability, Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (c1715-1783).

The chapel was constructed to replace another older mediaeval one that Brown demolished in order to improve the view of the garden’s lake from the main house. A slender obelisk stands close to the lake, marking the former position of the older chapel. A carved stone notice below it explains:

“This obelisk is an exact model of the Lateran obelisk at Rome. The marble was given by Joseph Thomas Jeffrey Esq of Place in Cornwall”

A man with the same name ordered the building of the Treffry Viaduct in Cornwall in 1839, using granite from his own quarries (https://explorecornwall.org/a-walk-around-luxulyan-valley/). Maybe this is the same person who supplied the granite on which the Compton Verney obelisk stands. Place in Cornwall is near to Fowey, where Jeffrey was based.

 Close to this monument, there are a couple of gravestones lying in the grass. When the old chapel was demolished in 1772, most of its funerary monuments were saved and then transferred to Brown’s new chapel, where they can be seen today.

A fenced off area near the obelisk contains a brick structure from which spring water issues. This is fed to a rectangular stone bath next to the lakeside. This pool is currently being used to grow watercress.

On entering Capability Brown’s chapel, the visitor cannot help immediately noticing the splendid carved monument in the centre of the eastern half of the nave. Carved in 1631 by Nicholas Stone (c1586-1647), sculptor and architect as well as Master Mason to both James I and Charles I, its top bears the carved almost life-sized effigies of Richard (1563-1630) and Margaret Verney (née Margaret Greville, 6th Baroness Willoughby de Broke; c1561-1631) . Various large gravestones form the floor of the raised step where an altar should normally stand. Some of these have been placed so that the heads of the stone slabs face east rather than the usual west. The oldest memorial that we could find in the chapel is dated 1574. It is the gravestone of George Verney (c1543-1574), son of Sir Richard Verney (c1516-1549) and his wife Frances (née Raleigh; c1521-1544).

While I was looking at the stones set in the floor, our friend, who was accompanying us and knows of my interest in India and its history, pointed to a commemorative plaque on the north wall of the chapel. It informs:

“In memory of Henry Verney 2nd Lieutenant VII Hussars. Born June 19th 1870, drowned at Poonah with two of his brother officers June 25th 1893, and of Katharine Verney born July 3rd 1874, died July 28th 1897.”

Henry’s full name was ‘Henry Peyto Verney’. He was the son of Henry Verney, 18th Baron Willoughby de Broke (1844-1902) and Geraldine (née Smith-Barry). Katharine was Henry’s sister.  ‘Poonah’ is an old name for the city of Pune (modern name) in the current State of Maharashtra in India.

The VII Hussars were originally ‘7th Queen’s Own Light Dragoons’. They took on their new name in 1807. This British army unit, which Henry Verney joined, was in existence from 1805 until 1958. The unit served all over the place: in the Peninsular Wars (1808-1809); in England to help quell the Corn Law Riots (1815); at the Battle of Waterloo (1815); in Canada, quelling riots (1838-1842); in India suppressing the Revolt that began in 1857 (1857-1859); South Africa (1881-1882) during the First Anglo-Boer conflict; the Sudan (1884-1885); and again in India (1886-1895)

Henry Verney joined the VII Hussars and went out to India at the age of twenty. According to a history of the VII Hussars (https://www.britishempire.co.uk/forces/armyunits/britishcavalry/7thhussarsverney.htm) :

“Preparations for embarkation to India began in September 1886 when the 7th left Hounslow to go to Shorncliffe. Horses were handed over to the Mounted Infantry and to the 14th Hussars who were returning from India. Extra men were drafted into the regiment from other hussar units so that the strength was now 21 officers, 587 NCOs and privates. They, with 50 women and 47 children proceeded by rail to Portsmouth where they sailed on the ‘Euphrates’ troopship on 26th Nov 1886. They arrived at Bombay on 23rd Dec, taking less than a month, so must have sailed through the Suez Canal. They were stationed at Secunderabad … In Oct 1891 they moved to Mhow…”

They arrived at Mhow (renamed ‘Dr. Ambedkar Nagar’  in Madhya Pradesh State) in the year following that in which Henry Verney joined them:

“He joined the 7th Hussars on 8th Oct 1890 and served with them in India but he was unfortunately drowned in a boating accident at Poona on 25th June 1893. He and two other young officers, Lt Sutton and Lt Crawley were on leave and hired a sailing boat to go on the river, but they lost control of it in the current and were swept over a waterfall. The three of them were seen clinging to the upturned boat in the swirling waters but they succumbed and went under, one of them was last seen swimming towards a bridge but he never made it. Verney’s body was found on 27th and the other two on the next day. They were buried on 28th June with military honours. A firing party was provided by 2nd Yorks LI and a gun carriage by L Battery RHA. The commanding officer Lt-Col J L Hunt attended with 9 officers and 3 warrant officers.”

This plaque in Capability Brown’s chapel is not the only one recalling the drowning of Henry Verney. Another one can be seen in the church at Lighthorne, a village close to Compton Verney. The trapezoid plaque, which I have yet to see, reads:

“TO THE GLORY OF GOD/ AND IN THE MEMORY OF HENRY PEYTO VERNEY/ LIEUT 7TH HUSSARS DROWNED AT POONAH/ IN INDIA 25 JUNE 1893 AGED 23 YEARS” (www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/83855).

Had Henry not been killed so young, he might have become involved in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) or even WW1, by which time he would have been 44 years old. During that war, the VII Hussars lost 224 of their members in Mesopotamia during 1917.  They had been sent to the Middle East from Bangalore (India), where they had been stationed since 1911.

Even if your interest in India is minimal or non-existent, it is well worth making a visit  to Compton Verney to see its art collections, house, chapel, its lake with fine stone bridges, its wonderful trees, and its beautifully landscaped grounds.

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.

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.