DURING THE LAST YEAR or longer, we have visited plenty of ‘stately homes’ in England. Many of them are very fine works of architecture.Today, we visited Blenheim Palace for the second time in 12 months., It was built for the first Duke of Marlborough and is still home to some of his descendants.
Of the many grand homes that we have seen during our travels, Blenheim impressed me far, far less than many of the others. It is impressive in its bulkiness but, for me, it lacks the finesse that characterises so many of the other aristocratic homes we have visited.
PS: To be fair, Blenheim was not completed as originally planned because at some stage the funds for its construction became dramatically reduced.
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.
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.
MANY PEOPLE ENJOY eating watercress. I quite like it, but it is not my favourite. I prefer eating its close and more piquant relatives: mustard and wasabi. As its name suggests, watercress is an aquatic plant that lives in a watery environment. It could almost be considered an edible water weed. This April (2021) we visited Ewelme, a small village in Oxfordshire, where watercress is cultivated in the river that runs through it. We had come to Ewelme to see its alms-houses and school, which were built in about 1437 and are still being used for their original purposes. I will relate more about these in the future.
On our way to the village, we met some cyclists, who told us about the watercress cultivation in Ewelme and recommended that we took a look at the set-up. I was interested to see it as I had never (knowingly) seen watercress growing. Also, I was curious because I have often walked past Willow Cottages on Willow Road in Hampstead. It was in this row of dwellings that Hampstead’s watercress pickers lived many years ago. They gathered the crop from streams flowing on nearby Hampstead Heath.
The name Ewelme is derived from the Old English ‘Ae-whylme’ meaning ‘waters whelming’ or ‘source of a stream or river’. In the early 13th century, the place was known as ‘Eawelma’. The spring after which the village is named is just north of Ewelme. Water from the spring that flows through the village is in Ewelme Brook, which is a short tributary of the nearby River Thames. It meets the Thames 1.2 miles upstream from Wallingford Bridge. Watercress grows best in alkaline water such as flows in Ewelme Brook, which rises in the chalky Chiltern Hills.
The watercress beds can be found in Ewelme near the northern end of the High Street, northwest of the attractive village pond that forms a part of the Brook. They were established in the 19th century. Watercress from Ewelme was taken to Wallingford from where it was carried further afield by train. In 1881, the idea of a rail link between Ewelme and Wallingford was mooted, but the line was never built. It was in that year that:
“…Smiths of Lewknor and South Weston, who were established at Brownings by 1881, and created cress beds along the roadside stream probably in stages. The business continued until 1988, with cress initially transported from Watlington station for sale in the Midlands, Covent Garden, and Oxford.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol18/pp192-234)
The watercress beds at Ewelme are a series of rectangular enclosures in a widened part of the stream. The cress grows, floating on the water in the enclosures. Pairs of enclosures are arranged sequentially like shallow steps in a staircase. The shallow water flows rapidly from one enclosure to the next through small gaps in the stone barriers that demarcate them. Swarms of watercress leaves on their stems almost fill each of the enclosures, deriving nutrients and water from the continuously changing water flowing through their roots. I imagine that picking the crop involves wading in the watery watercress beds.
Although Oxfordshire is no longer one of the major counties for watercress cultivation, what can be seen at Ewelme is pleasing to the eye. The counties where most of this plant is now grown include Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Hertfordshire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watercress). Alresford in Hampshire, near Winchester, is known as the UK’s watercress capital.
Although I am not keen on raw watercress, I prefer it served in a soup. My late aunt used to make a superb watercress soup using fresh watercress added at the last minute to a homemade vegetable stock. We have tried making it with meat stock, but this was not nearly as nice because the fresh taste of the almost uncooked watercress gets masked by the flavour of the stock. With this small bit of culinary advice, I will leave the watercress beds of Ewelme and wish you “bon appetit”.
FIRST WORLD WAR veteran William Frederick Stone died aged 108 in January 2009. He moved to Watlington in Oxfordshire in 1986 and lived the rest of his life in this small town. A popular figure in the town, he would have often passed the place’s Town Hall, which had been in existence even longer than him.
The name Watlington is probably derived from ‘tun’, meaning ‘fence’ or ‘enclosure’, and the people of ‘Wacol’ or ‘Waecol’, who also gave their name to the famous old road known as Watling Street. The town is close to another ancient cross-country route, the Icknield Way (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icknield_Way). There is evidence that there was a settlement at Watlington in the 6th century AD. The current street layout was already established by the 14th century and that there were inns in the town by the following century. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), Parliamentary troops were billeted in the town on the night before the Battle of Chalgrove Field on the 18th of June 1643, a battle in which their opponents, the Royalists, were victorious (www.britishbattles.com/english-civil-war/battle-of-chalgrove/).
Twenty-one years after the battle, in 1664, Watlington’s town hall was built by Sir Thomas Stonor (c1626-1683). He lived at Stonor Park, which is 4.7 miles south east of Watlington. The Stonor family were Roman Catholics and retained their faith throughout the Reformation and suffered for that during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The brick town hall is unusual in that no two of its sides are equal in length and none of its corners are right angles (www.watlingtontownhall.com/history.html). Part of the ground floor is an arcade open to the outside air. This area was formerly used to hold markets. The first floor of the building served as a grammar school in the 19th century. The clock mechanism on the second floor is said to have come from the studios of the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren. This is not the only timepiece on the outside of the building. The other is a sundial, which has been gilded with 24 carat gold. The town hall was extended in the later 17th or early 18th century (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101369012-town-hall-watlington#.YH28eehKhPY) and was restored faithfully in the 20th century. Currently, the first-floor room, the former school, and beneath it, the under croft, are available for hire for social and other functions.
We came across the town hall quite by chance when driving home from visiting the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row. Today, we revisited the town on our way back from seeing several other places in Oxfordshire, about which I hope to tell you in the near future. Driving through England on roads other than motorways takes one through small towns and villages and many of these have features worth stopping to examine. Apart from the town hall, Watlington is a charming old place with several half-timbered buildings, cafés, and shops. Once again, a day trip to the countryside near London has proved rewarding.
LIFE DEPENDS ON WATER. A few days ago, at the end of March 2021, we drove to a village in Oxfordshire to see two old wells. They are no ordinary wells: they were gifts from India while it was still part of the British Empire.
Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886) was a British civil servant in India between 1826 and 1860. Brother of the novelist Charles Read (author of “The Cloister and the Hearth”), Edward was born in Ipsden, a village in Oxfordshire (www.oxforddnb.com/). He entered the East India Company in 1823. In 1832, he was transferred to Kanpur (Cawnpore), where he introduced opium cultivation to the district. In 1846, he became Commissioner to the Benares Division, a position he held until 1853 when he was moved to Agra.
Edward encouraged genial relations with the local Indian gentry and aristocracy. One of his Indian acquaintances, who became his good friend, was Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889), the Maharajah of Benares, who reigned from 1835 to 1889. During the years before the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (aka ‘First War of Independence’ or ‘The Indian Mutiny’), Reade and the Maharajah discussed much about England including the shortage of water that existed in Ipsden, the part of Oxfordshire where his family lived. Apparently, the villagers in this part of the Chiltern Hills had little or no access to clean drinking water, much as must have been the case for many villagers in India.
During the Rebellion of 1857, the Maharajah remained loyal to the British. In June 1857, the town of Kanpur was besieged by Nana Sahib and his forces. After 3 weeks, the British garrison surrendered under condition that the British inhabitants would be given safe passage out of the town. However, Nana Sahib decided to hold about 120 women and children and kept them housed in a house known as the ‘Bibighar’. This ended badly when some of the hostages were killed. Some of them tried to escape their grizzly end by jumping into a well at the Bibighar. This well became one of the most powerful images of the Rebellion in the minds of those who lived in Britain.
I do not know whether or not it was the tragedy at Bibighar that brought the conversations he had with Reade to the forefront of the mind of the Maharajah of Benares after the Rebellion was over, but in 1862, after his loyalty to the British had been formally recognised, he consulted Reade as to making a charitable gift to the poor people of Ipsden, whose plight he recalled. The Maharajah financed the construction of a well at Stoke Row, not far from Ipsden. It is also possible that the Maharajah remembered the help that Reade had given him when constructing a well in Azamgarh (now in Uttar Pradesh) back in 1831.
Work commenced on the well in March 1863. The well shaft was dug by hand, a perilous job for the labourers as they removed earth from the depths of an unlit and unventilated shaft, bucket by bucket. The shaft, 4 feet in diameter, was 368 feet in depth, greater than the height of St Pauls Cathedral in London, for this is depth of the water table at Stoke Row. Special winding machinery constructed by Wilder, an engineering firm in Wallingford, was installed. It is topped with a model elephant. The mechanism and the well stand beneath an octagonal canopy topped with a magnificent metal dome with circular glazed windows to allow better illumination. It resembles a ‘chhatri’ or architectural umbrella such as can be seen at war memorials on London’s Constitution Hill and on the South Downs near Hove. The structure, restored in recent times, looks almost new today. Reade, who helped plan the Maharajah’s well, planted a cherry orchard nearby; dug a fish-shaped pond (the fish was part of the Maharajah’s coat-of-arms); and constructed an octagonal well-keeper’s bungalow next to the well. The profits from the cherries harvested from the orchard were supposed to help to finance the well, for whose water the villagers were not charged anything. The Maharajah’s well at Stoke Row was the first of many such gifts given by wealthy Indians to Britain. Other examples include the Readymoney drinking fountain in Regents Park and a now demolished drinking fountain in Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:
“Reade was wryly amused that an Indian prince should thus give a lesson in charity to the English gentry.”
The well at Stoke Row provided the locals with fresh water until the beginning of WW2, when, eventually, piped water reached the area. It provided 600 to 700 gallons of water every day. The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is relatively well-known compared to another Indian-financed well next to the parish church at Ipsden, where Reade’s grave is located. The well, whose winding mechanism is similar to that installed at Stoke Row, is not covered by a canopy. It stands by a cottage next to the entrance to the churchyard. It was presented to Ipsden in 1865 by ‘Rajah Sir Deon Narayun Singh of Seidpor Bittree’ (I am not sure where this is: these are the words on the well), who had, like the Maharajah of Benares, remained loyal to the British during the 1857 Rebellion.
The Ipsden well is deep but not nearly as deep as that at Stoke Row. A lady, who lives in the cottage beside the well, told us that she had tasted water from the well and it was ice cold, deliciously clean, and tasted pure, having been filtered by many feet of chalk through which it has seeped. She said that once a year, the local water board opens the well and takes a sample of its water to check its purity.
Both wells are worth visiting. We parked in Benares Road in Stoke Row close to the Maharajah’s gift. After viewing the well head and its surroundings, we bought hot drinks at the village’s shop-cum-café, which his run by a couple of friendly people from Zimbabwe. I am grateful to Dr Peter U for bringing the existence of this unusual well to my attention.
RIVER CROSSINGS HAVE often had great historical significance. The small town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire has been a place for crossing the River Thames since Roman times or maybe even before. According to “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names” by someone with an interesting name: Eilert Ekwall, a fascinating book that I picked up for next to nothing at a local charity shop, the town was known as ‘Waelingaford’ in 821 AD, as ‘Welengaford’ in c893 AD, and ‘Walingeford’ in the Domesday Book. The meaning of the name is ‘The ford of Wealh’s people’, clearly referring to a river crossing place. It is said the William the Conqueror used the ford. Today, a fine bridge with many arches crosses the river.
There has been a bridge at Wallingford since 1141, or before. The construction of the first stone bridge was probably constructed for Richard, the first Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272), a son of King John, who became King of Germany (Holy Roman Empire) in 1256, a title he held until his death. Some of the arches of the bridge may contain stonework from the 13th century structure. Much of the present bridge dates from a rebuilding done between 1810 and 1812 to the designs of John Treacher (1760-1836). During the Civil War (1642-1651), four arches were removed and replaced by a drawbridge to help defend the besieged Wallingford Castle.
The huge castle was built on a hill overlooking the town; the river – an artery for water transport in the past; and, more importantly, the bridge, which was an important crossing place on the road leading from London to Oxford via Henley-on-Thames. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, the castle was used a great deal, being used as a royal residence until Henry VIII abandoned it. During the Civil War, the castle was restored and re-fortified and used as a stronghold by the Royalists. It was of great importance to them as their headquarters were at nearby Oxford. To simplify matters, the Parliamentarians began laying siege to Wallingford Castle in 1645. This initial attempt was unsuccessful because the besiegers had underestimated the strength of the castle’s fortifications. After the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Naseby (14th June 1645), Wallingford was one of only three strongholds in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) still loyal to King Charles I. A second siege of Wallingford commenced on the 14th of May 1646, shortly after the Parliamentarians had laid siege to Oxford. The latter fell on the 24th of June 1646, but Wallingford held out until the 22nd of July 1646 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallingford,_Oxfordshire). The castle was demolished in November 1652.
The castle grounds are open to the public. Here and there, few and far between, there are ruins of what must have once been a spectacular castle. Within the grounds of the former castle, there are several informative notices that give the visitor some idea of which part of the castle used to stand near the signs. From the grassy areas that formed the motte and bailey of the castle, there are fine views of the river below and some of the town.
Although our first visit to Wallingford was brief, I learnt that the judge Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) had presided as the Recorder at Wallingford from 1749 to 1770. “So, what?”, I hear you asking. At first, I hoped that he was something to do with the road, where we lived in Chicago (Illinois) in 1963: South Blackstone Avenue (number 5608). But I think that thoroughfare was more likely named after the American politician and railway entrepreneur Timothy Blackstone (1829-1900). The Wallingford Blackstone, who lived in the 18th century, was most probably a distant cousin of Timothy’s father (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Blackstone). Related or not, Sir William Blackstone had an extremely important influence the legal affairs of the USA.
Having studied at the University of Oxford and the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar, Sir William taught law at Oxford for a few years. Just before resigning his prestigious academic position in 1766, he published the first volume of what was to become a best-seller, a real money-spinner, “Commentaries on the Laws of England”. Eventually, this work was completed in four volumes. They contain:
“… first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law, developed from the Roman law, to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commentaries_on_the_Laws_of_England)
The “Commentaries” are widely regarded as being the definitive sources of common law in America before the American Revolution. Blackstone’s writings were influential in the formulation of the American Constitution. His words embodied his vision of English law as a method of protecting people, their possessions, and their freedom. Blackstone’s ideas are well exemplified by this quotation from the “Commentaries”:
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
This is known as ‘Blackstone’s Ratio’.
Leaders of the American Revolution recycled the idea with words such as:
“It is of more importance to the community that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…” (John Adams; 1735-1826), and:
“…it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer…” (Benjamin Franklin; 1706-1790)
As already mentioned, Sir William presided in the court in Wallingford from 1749 onwards, three years after being called to the Bar. During his career, he served as a Tory Member of Parliament a couple of times: for Hindon (1761-68) and for Westbury (1768-70). In the House of Commons, he was:
“…an infrequent and ‘an indifferent speaker’: during the seven years 1761-8 only 14 speeches by him are recorded, mostly on subjects of secondary importance. Very learned and original, over-subtle and ingenious, in major debates he showed a lack of political common sense.” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/blackstone-william-1723-80)
The Blackstone family owned a large estate at Wallingford including 120 acres of land by the River Thames. He died in Wallingford and was buried inside St Peter’s Church, which is close to the bridge over the river.
What little we saw of Wallingford, its castle, its riverside including the Thames towpath, its attractive market square, and streets rich in historic buildings, during our brief visit recently, we saw enough to whet our appetites for a future and lengthier visit.
I have never been able to enjoy reading poetry and enjoy it. However, if it is read out aloud by someone else, I usually love what I hear. Poetry is like music made with words.
Here is a poem that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young teenager. It is Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He was killed in France during WW1. His poem captures the essence of the world that reveals itself gradually when a train stops at a small country station.