THE GREAT HALL of Lytes Cary Manor House in Somerset has some stained glass windows decorated with crests relating to the Lyte family, who owned the property between the 15th and 18th centuries. One of the crests caught my eye because the crest contains a double-headed eagle. This is a symbol that began to interest me in my teens when I first became fascinated by the Balkans. The double-headed eagle figures on the flags of Albania and some of its neighbours. The earliest known use of this peculiar creature is on seals used to secure goods in Babylon during the 3rd century BC.
The crest at Lytes Cary Manor is a combination of the Lyte family crest and that of the Worth family, which incorporates the two headed bird.
In 1592, Thomas Lyte (c1568-1638) married Frances Worth (1580-1615) who was born in Charlton Mackrell in Somerset. Thus, the double-headed eagle of the Worth family became joined with the three swans of the Lyte family crest. This marriage which was celebrated so long ago, is recorded in glass on a window of the Great Hall at Lytes Cary.
Why the Worths employed the double-headed eagle on their crest is something I would like to know, and will investigate. The double-headed eagle appears on British crests less frequently than other heraldic creatures. Possibly, andI am only guessing, it relates to the fact that a son of King John, Richard, Duke of Cornwall (1209-1272) was appointed King of The Germans, that was a senior position in the Holy Roman Empire. The symbol of that empire was the double-headed eagle.
LYTES CARY is a mediaeval manor in the English county of Somerset. This beautiful building, maintained by the National Trust, was owned by the Lyte family since the 15th century, if not earlier. The Great Hall of the manor house was built in the 1460s. The manor remained in the Lyte family until 1755, when the indebted Thomas Lyte IV surrendered all rights to their family home. Between then and 1907, the property fell into decay.
In 1907, the dilapidated Lytes Cary was purchased by Sir Walter Jenner (1860-1948) and his wife Flora, who died in 1920. They lived with their daughter Esme (1898-1932), a keen horse rider, who died of pneumonia after having been drenched in a rainstorm. Sir Walter was the son of Queen Victoria’s physician, Sir William Jenner (1815-1898), who studied at my alma mater University College in London. At his death, he left a great fortune.
Sir Walter had the house repaired and filled it with furniture and objets d’art appropriate to the age of the house. The result was a comfortable home with fascinating contents. One of the many objects that caught my eye is a trophy depicting a military man on a horse. This item bears an engraved plate:
“Major Sir Walter Jenner Bt, from Lt Colonel Forrester Colvin 1915 to commemorate joining the Ninth Lancers together December 1880. The many happy years spent therein and the following polo tournaments won by the regiment…”
Below this, there is a long list of tournaments played in India, England, Wales, and Ireland. In India, he was in the winning teams in Umballa (Ambala) in 1883 and 1884, and in Meerut in 1885. The latest tournament listed on the trophy was in Dublin in 1893.
Educated at Charterhouse School, Sir Walter became a magistrate in Somerset after retiring from the Ninth Lancers. He served in his regiment during WW1 and was awarded the DSO for his services in that conflict.
I enjoy visiting old houses like Lytes Cary and always find it interesting when I discover links between them and the history of India. Sir Walter’s polo trophy is not one of the most attractive pieces on display at Lytes Cary, but for me it was most fascinating.
THERE IS AN OLD octagonal building in the market place of Somerton in Somerset. According to a website about the town, this building is:
“… the octagonal shaped market cross; also known as the Buttercross. This was built by the Stawell family in 1673 and given the parish council in 1916 … The market place was a busy and noisy area during market day, and in extremely hot weather the dairy products such as cheese, butter and milk would soon go off. These goods would also be ruined in wet weather, and so a shelter was required that would shade and cover the products from the weather conditions. The Buttercross was the ideal solution, as it was both cool and dry. It is now listed as a Grade II ancient monument, and has been repaired on a couple of occasions during the last century.” (from: http://www.somerton.co.uk/virtual-tour/market-cross/)
It is not the only octagonal structure in Somerton. The tower of the mediaeval parish church is also octagonal.
A SOLITARY CHIMNEY stands in the middle of East Harptree Woods in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, not far from Bristol and Bath. This tall, not quite vertical, chimney and the surrounding uneven landscape is all that remains of the local tin and zinc mining activities in the area. Known as Smitham Chimney, this was built in the 19th century and was the exhaust for the toxic fumes created by the furnaces smelting lead-bearing materials. The unevenness of the surrounding area, now richly populated with a variety of trees, was caused by the pits and spoil heaps created during the era of mining activity. The chimney was built in 1867 and by 1870, the East Harptree Lead Works Co Ltd were producing about 1000 tons of lead per year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smitham_Chimney,_East_Harptree).
Today, the chimney stands amongst a fine collection of trees including conifers and birches, all growing in a sea of ferns and other bushes. Much of the woodland is mossy. Maintained by Forestry England, the Mendip Society, and Somerset County Council, the woodland has good, fairly level paths, easy on the feet. The place and its industrial archaeological feature make for a pleasant and interesting short excursion.
AN UNUSUAL CRUCIFIX hands within the church of St Mary in Bruton, Somerset. It is a sculpture typical of early 20th century German Expressionism, yet it was created in 1969, long after the heyday of this artistic trend. The creator of this religious sculpture was Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976). He was born Ernst Müller in North Germany, but after his marriage to his first wife, Ilse Blensdorf, in 1923, he changed his surname to ‘Müller-Blensdorf’, then later to ‘Blensdorf’.
At first, Blensdorf became a seaman. After having been interned as an enemy alien by the British during WW1, Ernst travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa with a fellow internee. It was here that he made a table-top wood carving of an African village. On his return to Germany, this fine carving persuaded Ernst’s father that his son had a future as an artist and was willing to support him towards this aim. While in Africa, Ernst had seen African art first-hand and exposure to this certainly helped influenced his future creations.
After a brief spell at an art school in Barmen, he left to become apprenticed to a master joiner. By 1922, he had become a journeyman for a furniture company, which specialised in manufacturing luxury items. During this period, he was influenced by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. The skill that Ernest acquired and developed whilst manufacturing wooden objects for the furniture company became useful as he moved from applied craftsmanship to artistic endeavours. In addition to other activities, he taught at the art school in Barmen during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had become an established sculptor and had exhibited his works at various exhibitions in Germany, where he received both private and public commissions.
When the Nazis took power in Germany, Blensdorf became one of the first artists whose works were categorised as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and his regime. This led to him losing his teaching post at Barmen and his studio being wrecked by the Nazi’s loutish followers. Ernst, his wife, and children, moved to Norway, where he was planning a giant peace monument to honour the Norwegian statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Fridjtof Nansen. In Norway, he worked on this project and made a living creating and selling artistic ceramic works, alongside the Norwegian ceramicist Eilif Whist.
When the Germans invaded Norway in spring 1940, Blensdorf and his children fled to Scotland. His wife, Ilse, remained behind, saying that she was a follower of Adolf Hitler. Following his arrival in the UK, Blensdorf was once again interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Along with many others, including a good number of men with artistic talent and German nationality, he was interned on the Isle of Man (from 1940 to 1941). His children were placed in a couple of orphanages. While interned, he, along with fellow artists, were allowed to satisfy their creative urges and even to sell their creations. Using whatever materials he could find during this period of scarcity, Blensdorf’s creative output was impressively large. For the first time in his life, he had plenty of time to undertake artistic work in the absence of anxieties such as he had experienced before arriving on the Isle of Man.
Blensdorf was released from internment in 1941. He went to live with an Austrian couple, the Schreiners, whom he had met in the internment camp. They lived in Charlton Musgrove in Somerset. With him, the Schreiners planned to set up an art school, but this failed for financial reasons. Ernst remained in Somerset. His first job was teaching pottery at a school in Bratton Seymour. It was here that he met his second wife, Jane Lawson. They married in 1942 and moved into a house near Wincanton, where they were joined by his children. Blensdorf taught in various schools in Somerset including the King’s School in Bruton.
In 1943, Blensdorf and his family bought a run-down 17th century house close to Bruton. Gradually, the house was restored and improved. It remained his home for the rest of his life. Although he exhibited often and in prestigious venues, Blensdorf never realised the great reputations that other artists, such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, and Barbara Hepworth, gained in the UK and beyond. For this reason, seeing his work for the first time during my first visit to the lovely Bruton Museum in July 2021, was a wonderful surprise and an exciting eye-opener. In one corner of this small museum, there is a large glass cabinet that contains examples of Blensdorf’s sketches, ceramics, and sculptures. When I told the lady, who was looking after the museum, how much I liked what I had seen of his works, she told me about the crucifix in the local church, which fortunately I was able to see. She also sold me a copy of a well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of his works that was held some time ago in the Bruton Museum. It is from this publication that I have extracted much of the information above. Bruton is a gem of a town. Visiting its museum is a ‘must’ because not only does it allow you to ‘discover’ the works of Blensdorf but also to see a display of artefacts relating to the author John Steinbeck, who lived close to Bruton between March and September 1959 … but that is another story.
EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000, excepting 2020, The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has erected a temporary summer pavilion. Each pavilion is designed by a different architect or group of architects. What they have in common is that their pavilion is the first of their designs to be constructed in London, or maybe the UK. They stand in front of the Serpentine Gallery during the summer months and into early autumn. They are always fascinating visually and always contain a café with seating. Over the years some of them have been used as event spaces.
At the end of the season, the pavilions are dismantled and are never seen again in Kensington Gardens. Some of them might be sold and others re-erected elsewhere, but until recently I have never seen one again.
A few years ago, a contemporary art gallery, Hauser and Wirth, which has a branch in London’s West End, bought a farm on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. They have used some of the farm buildings and constructed some new ones to accommodate another branch of their gallery. In addition to the exhibition spaces, there is a superb restaurant, an up-market farm shop, and a wonderful garden created by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (born 1944).
The garden slopes upwards from the gallery. At the top of the slope, there is something that at first sight looks like a giant hamburger patty or the profile of an oversized bagel. I recognised it immediately as being one of the former summer pavilions that once stood next to The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It is the 2014 Serpentine pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic (born 1965 in Santiago, Chile).
When I saw it in London in 2014, I was not overly impressed by it. However, seeing it at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset, it looks great. My description of it as an oversized bagel is not too far from the truth. It is, basically, an annular structure like a ring or a bagel, but it is far more interesting than that. Supported on rocks, the ring is not in one plane, but it undulates gradually. Irregularly shaped holes in its translucent skin provide intriguing views of Oudolf’s garden, which looks good in all seasons, and the surrounding hilly Somerset countryside.
A visit to Hauser and Wirth in Somerset makes a fine day out even if you have only a scant interest in contemporary art. The food served in the restaurant is of a high quality and not unreasonably priced. The buildings on the estate are lovely and the garden is hard to beat for its beauty.
BRUTON IN SOMERSET lies along the River Brue. Most of the old town is high above the river on its steep banks. Narrow passageways run along the steep slopes, connecting the High Street with the riverbank below. These steep passageways in Bruton are called Bartons. The word ‘barton’ means ‘farmyard’ in Old English. However, why these passages are called ‘bartons’ in Burton is a bit of a mystery despite the fact that there used to be farmsteads close to the town.
THE RIVER BRUE flows through the Somerset town of Bruton. In the Domesday Book (1086), its name was recorded as ‘Briuuetone’, which is derived from Old English words meaning ‘vigorously flowing river’. In brief, this small town is picturesque and filled with buildings of historical interest: a church; several long-established schools; municipal edifices; an alms-house; shops; and residences. On a recent visit, we drove past a Tudor building that was adorned with a crest labelled “Hugh Sexey” and the date “1638”. At first, I thought it was a sort of joke, rather like ‘Sexy Fish’, the name of a restaurant in London’s Berkeley Square. I walked back to the building after parking the car.
I looked at the sign, and my curiosity was immediately aroused. The crest bears a pair of eagles with two heads each, double-headed eagles (‘DHE’). Now, as some of my readers might already know, the DHE is a symbol that has fascinated me for a long time. This bird with two heads has been used as an emblem by the Seljuk Turks, the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, Russia (before and after Communism), the Indian state of Karnataka, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and some people in pre-Columbian America, to name but a few. In the UK, several families employ this creature on their coats-of-arms. These include the Godolphin, the Killigrew, and the Hoare families, to name but a few. Each of these three families has connections with the county Cornwall, which, through Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272) and King of the Germans, had a strong connection with the Holy Roman Empire, whose symbol was the DHE. Until I arrived outside the building in Bruton, Sexey’s Hospital, I had no idea about the existence of the Sexey family nor its association with the DHE.
Sir Hugh Sexey (c1540 or 1556-1619) was born near Bruton. He became royal auditor of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I, and amassed a great fortune. After his death, much of his wealth was used for charitable purposes in and around Bruton. Two institutions that resulted from his money and still exist today are Sexey’s Hospital, outside of which I first spotted the crest with two DHEs and Sexey’s School (www.sexeys.somerset.sch.uk/about-us/the-sexeys-story/). The school, which is now housed in premises separate from the hospital (now an old age home), was first housed in the same premises as the hospital.
According to the school’s website:
“…a two headed spread eagle is taken from the seal used by Hugh Sexey later in his life which can be seen on his memorial on Sexey’s Hospital …”
The article then considers the DHE (‘spread eagle’) as follows:
“Traditionally the spread eagle was considered a symbol of perspicacity, courage, strength and even immortality in heraldry. Prior to notions of medieval heraldry, in Ancient Rome the symbol became synonymous with power and strength after being introduced as the heraldic animal by Consul Gaius Marius in 102BC (subsequently being used as the symbol of the Legion), whilst it has been used widely in mythology and ancient religion. In Greek civilisation it was linked to the God Zeus, by the Romans with Jupiter and by Germanic tribes with Odin. In Judeo-Christian scripture Isa (40:31) used it to symbolise those who hope in God and it is widely used in Christian art to symbolise St John the Evangelist. An heraldic eagle with its wings spread also denotes that its bearer is considered a protector of others. Sexey’s seal and crest may have included the spread eagle to symbolise the family’s Germanic heritage.”
Some of this is in accordance with what I have read before, but I need to cross-check much of the rest of it, especially the Greek and Roman aspects. The final sentence relating to Germanic heritage seems quite sound, as the DHE was an important symbol in the Holy Roman Empire.
There is a sculpted stone bust of Sir Hugh Sexey in the courtyard of his hospital (really, almshouses), which was built in the 1630s. This portrait was put in its position in the 17th century long after his death. Above the bust, there is a carved stone crest bearing two DHEs, which was created by William Stanton (1639-1705) from London. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’):
“ Later in the seventeenth century a stone bust of Sexey, together with a coat of arms (that of the Saxey family of Bristol, with which he had no known connection), was placed over the entrance hall…”
The plot thickens as I now wonder whether the DHEs are related to the Sexey family or that of the above-mentioned Saxey family. A quick search of the Internet for the coats-of-arms of both the Sexey and the Saxey families revealed no DHEs except on crests relating to Bruton’s two Sexey foundations.
One family that was involved in the history of Bruton and whose crest bears the DHE is Hoare. They took over the ownership of the manor from the Berkely family in 1776. This is long after Hugh Sexey died and is therefore unlikely to be the reason that William Stanton included the DHEs on the crest above Sir Hugh’s bust. So, as yet, I cannot discover the history of the DHEs that appear all over Sir Hugh’s hospital and neither can I relate them to any other British family that uses this heraldic symbol. But none of this should mar your enjoyment of the charming town of Bruton.
“IT’S THE TOWN’S SYMBOL, you see”, we were told by a friendly young man whom we met by chance in a churchyard in the town of Bruton in the county of Somerset.
“Never been up there myself, even though I’ve been living in Bruton all my life,” he told us, pointing at a tall tower on the summit of a hill overlooking the town.
“Where have you come from?” he asked us. When we replied ‘London’, he commented:
“Never been there myself. Have a good evening.”
Bruton is about 120 miles southwest of central London. The tower about which we had asked the young man is square in plan, is built of neatly cut limestone blocks, has three layers of windows, and looks (from below) as if it is missing its roof. The top parts of each of the four walls are triangular, looking as if they were once the side walls of gabled roofs.
The tower that stands in Bruton’s Jubilee Park is known as ‘The Dovecote’. The hill on which it stands rises steeply from the almost level fields of the public park. Birds, mainly pigeons, could be seen perching on the edges of the four gables at the top of the tower. It stands on a square plot 65 square feet in area and is situated on land over 300 feet above sea level, to the south of the centre of Bruton. Although it is tall, I have not been able to discover its height by searching the internet. That it has lost its roof, is recorded.
The tower stands in what was a deer park of about 30 acres established in about 1545-6 by the canons of the long-since demolished nearby Bruton Abbey (whose remains can be seen in the town). The park was later enlarged and surrounded by a wall. In the 18th century, the deer were removed. However, much earlier, in the 16th or, 17th century (actual date is uncertain although some of the timber used in the construction has been dated as being felled between 1554 and 1586), the present tower was built by the Berkly family. They acquired the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The tower was built to be used as a ‘prospect’ or ‘look out’ tower.
In about 1780, or maybe much earlier, the tower was converted to be used as a dovecote. Inside the tower, which we could not enter, there are roosting spaces (nesting boxes) for at least 200 doves. Long ago, pigeons and doves were an important food source. They were reared for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In 1915, the National Trust (‘NT’) acquired the freehold of the tower from Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare (1865-1947). Not only did Sir Henry give his tower to the NT, but also, more importantly, he also donated his family estate with its fabulous landscaped grounds at nearby Stourhead to the same organization in 1946. The Hoare family, about whom I hope to write soon, is also associated with another tower not far from Bruton, the Alfred Tower, which we have visited … but more on this anon.
Although we could not enter The Dovecote tower, we did one better than the young local with whom we spoke earlier; we walked up to its base.