119. Wakehurst Place – 11/8/2017

West front of the Mansion with its beautiful summer border

A visit to Wakehurst Place is not really a National Trust visit at all. Although the Trust owns the site, it has been leased to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since 1965, just two years after it was bequeathed to the nation, and for someone so engrained in the Trust’s traditions and culture it looks and feels slightly alien. Kew has perhaps had the knowledge and funds to make more of Wakehurst than the Trust ever could, but I still couldn’t help feeling a little resentful of their takeover. In the first place, they have changed its name for their own purposes, removing the ‘Place’ and turning the house into a bit-part player that doesn’t even make the credits. But most annoying is their decision a few years ago to charge an exorbitant parking fee, which is their way of taxing the National Trust visitors who are supposedly allowed in for free. The parking charge is £10 for any longer than 2.5 hours, which they rather ridiculously call ‘all day’ – while there are probably many planets in the universe with three-hour days, Earth definitely isn’t one of them.

If you can leave your National Trust sensibilities (and your £10) at the door, Wakehurst makes for a very pleasant day out and has a wealth of botanical delights for those with serious interest in and knowledge about the plant world. As well as four National plant collections (hypericum and skimmia shrubs and birch and southern beech trees), the site is home to a multitude of different plant species from all around the world, with distinct Asian, Southern Hemisphere and Himalayan areas, while the large swathes of woodland support a real mix of local and international species. There was a nice phrase in the guidebook that described Wakehurst as a ‘living encyclopedia of plants’. But even for those uninitiated in plant specifics, there is a great variety of sights, from carefully designed borders and walled gardens to the wilder walks amid the glades and valleys leading down to the lake.

The other thing that I also found quite special about Wakehurst is that it is also a journey through time. The High Weald with its sandstone cliffs and ‘ghylls’ (steep-sided valleys) is very much a prehistoric landscape and a walk along the Rock Walk with the yew tree roots exposed and draped over the stones certainly feels like a slightly spooky step out of time. Then, there is the Elizabethan manor house, much altered over the years but still very much of its era, in the external architecture and ornate plaster ceilings. The house is usually open to visitors but is not furnished so its few rooms are mainly of interest for their architectural features and for a display of botanical watercolours by the Bauer brothers, Sarah Drake and John Day.

Pushing further through time, we come to the turn of the 20th century when Gerald Loder and his head gardener Alfred Coates arrived at Wakehurst Place. Together, they made a huge impact on the site, laying out new areas and importing and planting thousands of different species. Sir Henry and Lady Eve Price bought Wakehurst in 1936 and carried on Loder’s work in developing the gardens before bequeathing them to the Trust in the early 1960s.

The Millennium Seed Bank

Under Kew’s control, the development has continued and one of the highlights of any visit is the Millennium Seed Bank, which is a significant conservation and sustainability project. Designed to preserve as many of the world’s plant seeds as possible, the very modern facility is a hive of scientific activity and you can even see the staff in their lab coats working away behind the windows, sorting, cataloguing and drying the seeds before freezing them (at -20°C) in the underground vaults. As well as exploring the best ways to store each type of seed, the scientists also work on how best to wake them up when they are needed again. There is also a regular count to show how the seed storage is progressing. As at 2 August 2017, the bank was said to house 2,224,557,313 seeds representing 38,079 different species from 189 countries. This is still only around 13% of wild plant species, however, so work is very much ongoing and the target is 25% of species by 2020.

Yew roots drape the rocks in the Rock Walk

After visiting the Seed Bank we immediately embarked on a woodland walk around the estate and it was certainly a giant leap through time to exit the ultra-modern building and shortly after find ourselves in the wild and prehistoric landscape of Bloomers Valley and the Rock Walk. We walked down one side of the estate to the lake and then back up the other through the Himalayan Glade and the Water Garden, and we spotted a few interesting little nuggets along the way, including some of the Tom Hare all-natural willow sculptures that dot the grounds (they are marked on the map so you could follow the complete trail) and manmade bat holes that have been carefully created in dead trees to provide homes for the resident flitters. We also came across a lot of sun-bathing ducks and a few pheasants hanging around the visitors for picnic scraps.

I was a little disappointed that the wildlife wasn’t as international as the plant life. I read in the guidebook that the shrubs in the Himalayan Glade – which would be grazed by yaks in their natural habitat – are managed instead by Wakehurst’s gardeners. But I would have paid the parking fee twice to find yaks lumbering over the hillside!

As ever, my garden visits can only give one seasonal view, but Wakehurst’s guidebook makes much of its year-round sights, from spring bulbs and rhododendrons to summer floral displays, autumnal trees and berries and winter’s vistas that open up when the trees lose their leaves. There is also a specialist winter garden but it is currently undergoing major reconstruction and is unlikely to offer much in the short term.

Speaking of the guidebook, it was also different from what I’m used to with the NT publications. The history of the house and its owners is only covered in a short section at the end of the guide (including a brief timeline for the property), so it is easy to miss the kinds of stories that I always feel are part of a property’s appeal. For example, a hundred years after his ancestor built the house, William Culpeper then gambled away all the family’s money and had to sell (there’s always a profligate lurking somewhere in the histories!) Still, it is the garden and grounds for which Wakehurst is famous and the stories of Loder and the Prices are slightly more prominent, with the Sir Henry Price Memorial Garden and a sundial in memory of Loder and Coates.

All in all, I would recommend Wakehurst (Place) as a good day out and a perfect spot for a varied and occasionally eye-opening walk, but don’t expect a National Trust atmosphere (and any scone-oisseurs among you should perhaps avoid Wakehurst’s offerings). However, not all differences are bad – for example, much as I love the Trust’s fresh home cooking, it was actually a nice change to be able to get fish and chips for my lunch!

Highlights: Rock Walk with its eerie yew roots; Millennium Seed Bank; the West Mansion Border with its colour scheme of orange, to red, to purple, to blue, to white; and my favourite tree, the Japanese dogwood with its red berries that look like raspberries on stalks

Refreshments: Tea (redbush, yay!) with carrot and walnut slice; fish and chips; tea with scone and jam

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum, Dad and Peter

Japanese dogwood tree

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118. Dudmaston – 20/7/2017

My visit to Dudmaston could best be described as a game of two halves: I arrived in time for the Hidden Stories talk, but then took a break from the history to meet an old friend for lunch (which ran over into afternoon tea!), before touring the house and grounds later in the day.

The extra long refreshment break was a pleasant interruption but didn’t help to keep my mind on the job. What I really needed was some quiet time in the garden reading the guidebook as that would have set me up perfectly for the rest of my visit, but Dudmaston has run out of guidebooks and the new one hasn’t been printed yet… a particularly poor bit of organisation considering it’s the summer holiday season. This is actually the second time the Trust has let me down in this way within the past couple of months but while The Needles Batteries escaped a black mark when a member of staff dug out an old copy for me, Dudmaston didn’t oblige in the same way so a black mark it is… 

I made do with what they call a ‘short guide’ and then had to photograph a number of relevant display boards for extra info. As Dudmaston is still a family home, photography is not allowed inside the house but I admit that I broke the rules in the downstairs exhibition room so I could get a picture of the family tree. I then had to resort to pen and paper and jot down notes from the exhibition’s timeline of the house and estate.  As I type, though, a copy of the old guidebook should be winging its way to me from an eBay seller, so if there’s anything in there that warrants a mention I’ll add a postscript or two below.

As usual, the introductory talk was helpful in laying out some of the basic facts about the property and its people, and we also benefited from an impromptu tour of the stable clock and its winding mechanism, arriving there just as (the rather attractive!) Simon came by to give it one of its twice weekly boosts.

Later on the tour, our guide pointed out a plaque on a wall in the stableyard that commemorates William Whitmore, who was one of the estate’s more influential owners. The initials on the plaque may make the modern viewer think of something entirely different as WWW is now an established term in modern digital life, so it is extremely fitting that Charles Babbage, known as ‘the father of the computer’, was married to William’s daughter and spent a lot of time at Dudmaston.

The plaque is dated 1789 but Dudmaston’s history goes back much further than this and the exhibition room displays the original deed to the estate, which was granted to Harlewyn de Butailles in 1127. Dudmaston has remained in the same family, by inheritance or marriage, ever since. The Wolryche name entered the line in 1403 when Margaret of Dudmaston married William Wolryche and it was Sir Thomas Wolryche who built the existing manor house in the late 1690s. A later owner – Reverend Francis Henry Laing – took his mother’s surname when inheriting the estate so as to keep the Wolryche-Whitmore line going.

William Wolryche-Whitmore (son of the William Whitmore previously mentioned) made a number of renovations to the estate in the 1800s, including the addition of the Big Pool below the garden’s terraces and the Regency staircase, my favourite part of the house. Captain Geoffrey Wolryche-Whitmore was another particularly important personage in Dudmaston’s history as he recognised the need to change the focus of the estate from farming to forestry in order to make ends meet. During his lifetime, he passed the estate over to his niece Lady Rachel Labouchere on the understanding that she would prepare it for presentation to the National Trust, which happened in 1978. Interestingly, Lady Rachel was a descendant of the Abraham Darby who built Ironbridge’s famous bridge and was herself President of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in its early days so Shropshire’s tourist trade certainly owes her a debt.

The Laboucheres were a very important influence on the Dudmaston we see today. Lady Rachel quickly realised that the house was not particularly unusual and risked being a little overlooked in the National Trust’s impressive catalogue of stately homes, so she and her husband set about adding value to the property, mainly through the creation of modern gallery spaces in one wing. They filled these with their various collections and today you can see Sir George’s modern art and ceramics and Lady Rachel’s costumes and botanical watercolours in several separate galleries. There is also some interesting information about their past life on the road as Sir George was a British ambassador posted abroad for almost 25 years, including stints in Stockholm, Nanking, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Budapest, Brussels and Madrid, before landing back in Shropshire. The Laboucheres’ influence spreads beyond the galleries, though, with examples of modern art also lurking in various quiet corners of the gardens, while the pretty staircase hall wouldn’t be quite the same without its impressive chandelier, which is said to be modelled on one from the British embassy in Spain.

Through no fault of its own (unless I can blame the cattle grids), Dudmaston may stick in my memory for the wrong reason as a suspension coil on my car snapped on the way out of the car park, stranding me in the wilds of Shropshire waiting for a breakdown truck. For some, the modern art would have compensated for that but I don’t really have an eye for abstracts, so instead I will simply give Dudmaston credit for its beautiful staircase, lovely views and charming clock winder!

Highlights: Regency staircase hall; views down the garden terraces to Big Pool

Refreshments: Vegetable soup, bread and crisps; hot chocolate and shortbread cookie; a ham and salad sandwich to have later at the hotel. (Another small black mark here as the restaurant hadn’t really catered for a coach party that they had in so when we went for lunch at about 12.45 there was very little choice of hot food left.)

Purchase(s): ‘A short guide to Dudmaston’

Companion(s): Ali/none

NT Connections: Chastleton House & Garden (John Whitmore, a member of the Dudmaston Whitmores inherited Chastleton in 1828 and combined the Whitmore and Jones family names)

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117. Shalford Mill – 9/7/2017

A picture of a postcard as you can’t get this angle without entering a field with some bulls!

As promised, I decided to stay on the trail of Ferguson’s Gang and make sure that my review of Shalford Mill in Surrey sat alongside the Newtown Old Town Hall entry. Shalford Mill was actually the first property saved for the National Trust by Ferguson’s Gang and was also the place where they held their regular meetings, sitting around a millstone hatching plans to raise money and picking places to save, before tucking in to the food and fine wine delivered by van from Fortnum & Mason. The main mill shaft was also part of the Gang’s rituals as they would recite their motto while touching the solid pine tree trunk, which stretches 20 feet through three floors of the Mill.

All visitors to Shalford Mill are guided around the property by an on-site volunteer and Ferguson’s Gang is undoubtedly an important part of the tour, while further information is displayed on the first floor where their meeting room can usually be seen (it was closed while we were there as it is on the private residential side of the mill and the family were hosting a gathering this Sunday). However, our guide adjusted her tour very well after hearing that I had read the book about the Gang so I didn’t have to go over old ground.

Instead, we were given a useful rundown of the history of the building and then explanations about the mill machinery as we climbed the steep ladders from floor to floor.

The pretty tile-clad building we see today dates back to around 1740, although there were likely to have been earlier mills on the same site, perhaps even as long ago as the 11th century. John Mildred, an entrepreneur from Guildford, paid for construction of the building we see today, which originally housed two mills side by side. Although the mill was leased to many different millers over the years, it actually stayed in the ownership of just two families until it came into the hands of the Trust in 1932: first the Mildreds and then from 1794 the Austen – later Godwin-Austen – family.

Shalford Mill ceased operation in 1914 as country mills faced growing competition from dockside operations and more industrial locations, and the building fell into serious disrepair. It was during the Trust’s initial renovations to the mill that one side was converted into living accommodation and this was occupied by John MacGregor, the conservation architect responsible for the works – known affectionately to Ferguson’s Gang as ‘The Artichoke’. It seems fitting that future generations of Artichokes still live in the residential half of the property today and continue to support the Trust’s work in showing the mill to the public.

I have said before in this blog that I already feel a little over-milled and that the number of mills that still await me on travels is a little disheartening. It was with this less-than-enthusiastic mindset that I forced myself out to Shalford on a hot Sunday afternoon when I’d much rather have curled up in the cool with a good book. But as I have also said before, every property has something to recommend it, some story to tell or some snippet of information to impart, and in fact so far I think Shalford has an edge on all the other mills I have previously visited.

This is largely due to the guided tour. It is one thing to read an information board about the various processes that take place in a mill, but it is quite another to have an enthusiastic lady explaining what does what and what happens where. For example, I have seen millstones before but it was interesting to discover that French burr stones are used to grind finer flours, while the Derbyshire peak stones have a coarser grind for animal feed. And although the mill no longer functions there are still hands-on opportunities to see exactly how various ropes and belts once worked. I probably learnt more about milling at Shalford than I have at any of the previous mills I have visited. Plus, it is also one of the largest I have seen so far, with more original machinery on display. It may not be operational but Shalford Mill is certainly educational.

Another thing that made my visit to Shalford a little more interesting was the fact that many moons ago (sometime in the 1990s) I once visited the mill for dinner! At that time, it was not open fully to the public and a small apartment at the top of the mill was occupied by tenants who were available to show interested parties around on request. I worked with one of these former tenants and I visited her and her partner one evening in a social capacity. I remember it being a very unusual route to one’s house, climbing several rickety wooden ladders in the dark with the rushing sound of the Tillingbourne stream below, and it was certainly nostalgic retracing those steps on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

NB: this was my last outstanding Surrey property so that’s another county ticked off.

Highlights: Milling insights

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook, postcard

Companion(s): Mum and Dad

NT Connections: Newtown Old Town Hall, also acquired for the Trust by Ferguson’s Gang

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116. Newtown Old Town Hall and Nature Reserve – 4/6/2017

Here’s an experiment for you: tell someone that you are visiting the Newtown Old Town Hall and wait for either the confused expression on their face or the mocking comments. The name certainly seems to be a contradiction in terms but if I tell you that Newtown itself was granted borough status in the 1250s you can see that it isn’t actually a very new town at all and is therefore fully entitled to have an old town hall. In fact, Newtown is several centuries older than the existing town hall, which dates from the end of the 17th century, so the name is a real time-bending brain teaser.

Newtown’s history is just one thing that you can learn about at the Town Hall (and neighbouring nature reserve), from its early life as the most important port on the Isle of Wight to a French raid in 1377 that destroyed much of the town and on to the later silting of the harbour and new use of the area for salt production (which lasted until the 1930s). The Town Hall itself was important as a centre for the borough’s activities and for elections and there is information in the Hall about Newtown’s status as a ‘rotten’ borough: it was returning two MPs from a tiny number of voters for many years and these MPs were generally chosen by the local landowning families, the Worsleys and the Barringtons. A historical list of the borough’s representatives on the wall includes a notably large collection of Worsleys and Barringtons among their number. To complement this aspect of Newtown’s history, a set of four Hogarth prints related to electoral corruption are also displayed in one of the back rooms. The town finally lost its right to elect MPs as a result of the Reform Act of 1832 and saw its borough status withdrawn a few years later. Newtown was rotten no more.

While this was all very interesting, it almost pales into insignificance beside the other tale that Newtown has to tell, namely the story of how the Old Town Hall came to be owned by the National Trust at all. By the 1930s, the building was a ruin and was purchased for £5 by The Ferguson Gang, a group of young people – mainly women – who had come together with the common purpose of raising money to save old buildings and protect them from England’s urban sprawl. They had already saved Shalford Mill in Surrey and Newtown was next in their sights. It all sounds like a highly rational and admirable project, which it undoubtedly was, but the way the Gang went about their work had less of the rational and more of the totally bonkers about it.

First of all, the identities of the Gang were swathed in secrecy for many years as they all adopted nicknames, such as Sister Agatha, Bill Stickers, Kate O’Brien and Silent O’Moyle. Secondly, in delivering the funds for their restoration projects to the National Trust, they behaved more like thieves than benefactors, donning masks and interrupting meetings to drop bags of coins into the laps of the bemused Trust managers. The money itself was never referred to as such and was instead called the ‘goat’!

The story of the Ferguson Gang is well told in an exhibition in the basement where you can also find a copy of their minutes book, which is well worth perusing. You can see that the Gang’s stomachs were very important to them, with the minutes giving details of what they ate, while most meetings ended with some kind of proposal and seconding of lunch!

If the story of this motley crew really appeals to you, there is a book currently available about them: Ferguson’s Gang by Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck. It’s a good read and was particularly interesting to me as I knew a couple who were once tenants at Shalford Mill, which is where the Gang held most of their meetings after they saved the building. I still haven’t ticked that one off for the blog but it’s not far from home so I will try to do it next so that the Gang’s two big successes lay side by side in these pages.

All in all, Ferguson’s Gang raised £1000 for the restoration of the Old Town Hall, which was opened to the public in 1933 and later used as a Youth Hostel and by civil defence organisations during WWII. In more recent times, it has been used for Parish Council meetings and, of course, for people like me and my companions to tramp through and learn about the town, the hall and its colourful past.

If you have the time, don’t leave Newtown without taking a walk around the village and the nature reserve. We followed the route of a short Harbour Walk, which took us past a bird hide, where we watched black-headed gulls feeding their young, and then across a boardwalk to the old quay and salt pans. It was a beautiful, gentle stroll but was more than a little breezy out on the exposed salt marshes – you have been warned!

Highlights: The story of the Ferguson Gang

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook; Harbour Walk leaflet

Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets

NT Connections: Shalford Mill, also acquired for the Trust by Ferguson’s Gang

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115. Mottistone Gardens – 4/6/2017

Subtropical foliage in the Lower Garden (Mottistone Manor behind)

The only thing I really knew about Mottistone Gardens before I visited was that Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter were married at the small Mottistone church in 2015 and held their reception in the grounds of Mottistone Manor. I am slightly embarrassed that I know this, although my excuse is that it had something to do with the National Trust so it was bound to slip onto my radar!

Mottistone is clearly a popular wedding venue and is consequently closed to the public on Fridays and Saturdays so we had to save it for the tail end of our weekend’s touring. Fortunately, we had another lovely day to walk around the relatively compact gardens surrounding the pretty Mottistone Manor (which is only open to the public on two days each year) and had timed our visit well for a good display in the rose garden and a purple lavender extravaganza in the double herbaceous borders.

The Mottistone estate was bequeathed to the National Trust by Sir John Seely, the 2nd Lord Mottistone, in 1963. The gardens only really came into their own after this, when Seely’s stepbrother Sir John Nicholson and his wife Vivien took on a tenancy of the manor and embarked on renewing the landscape around the house. The current layout of the 6-acre garden is largely their doing, although it continues to evolve under NT management.

The fact that Mottistone is not an historic garden works very much in its favour as planting is not restricted to species that were relevant to a certain era. As a result, it has a fairly unusual collection of plants, particularly in the Monocot Border and in the Lower Garden where plants have been chosen primarily for the novelty and diversity of their foliage. Another issue that affects the choice of plants is the fact that Mottistone is a ‘dry’ garden, with the only watering taking place in the rose garden and the kitchen garden. All the other plants are simply left to sink or swim (perhaps not the best choice of idiom in this instance!) and as a result, the gardeners tend to choose a lot of subtropical Mediterranean and southern hemisphere plants. I imagine Mottistone would be a fairly popular posting for the Trust’s more adventurous gardeners as experimentation and change seem to be very much part of the job.

For anyone with children (or anyone older with a sense of fun), Mottistone has a great collection of flowerpot men dotted around the grounds. They each have novelty names with the likes of Nanny McPea likely to appeal to kids, while we were particularly tickled to come across Captain Jack Marrow and Benedict Cucumberpatch.

There is a small tea garden at Mottistone, complete with some sheltered tables for more inclement days, and I would recommend passing through even if you don’t want any refreshment as The Shack located there gives some insights into Sir John Seely’s former career. The Shack was once used as the summer office and country retreat of Seely & Paget architects, a partnership between John Seely and Paul Paget. Together, they restored and extended Mottistone Manor for Seely’s father, the 1st Lord Mottistone, but were perhaps best known for creating the art deco building that now stands at Eltham Palace in south east London.

Before leaving Mottistone, we popped into the Church of St Peter & St Paul, which is just across the road from the gardens. Thankfully, the Cucumberpatch wedding does not warrant any lasting attention here; instead, there is an interesting display about Jack Seely, the 1st Lord Mottistone, and his horse Warrior, who together survived the First World War when so many of their human and equine companions perished. Jack Seely wrote a book entitled simply ‘My Horse Warrior’, which was published with illustrations by Sir Alfred Munnings so I may try to track that down as it sounds like their experiences would make for a very moving story.

Highlights: The Lower Garden with its unusual subtropical plants

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Light Behind the Window’ by Lucinda Riley (from secondhand book stall)

Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets

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114. Bembridge Windmill – 3/6/2017

For the second of the Isle of Wight visits, we headed off to Bembridge, which is at the complete opposite end of the island from The Needles. Bembridge is home to a windmill and a fort, both of which are NT-owned, although only the former is on my list.

Now I must admit that I am already slightly over-milled at this stage in my challenge as, despite a generally varied portfolio, the National Trust does seem to have a surfeit of mills, both individually and as parts of larger estates. I have already visited a few and am aware that there are a fair number still awaiting me up the road, so the enthusiasm for milling is waning a little. However, in Bembridge’s favour, it is a windmill rather than a watermill and I have only come across one of those before: Stembridge Tower Mill in Somerset, which wasn’t actually on the list and a place I only photographed in passing.

Stembridge’s claim to fame is that it is the last thatched windmill in England and Bembridge has a couple of claims of its own: Claim to Fame 1 – it is the only surviving windmill on the Isle of Wight; and Claim to Fame 2 – it is the subject of a sketch by JMW Turner (albeit an unfinished sketch).

The precise date of the construction of the windmill is not known but it was certainly built early in the 18th century and stopped work for the final time in 1913. It later served as a lookout post and HQ for the Home Guard in WWII but was given to the Trust as a nearly derelict building in 1958. There is little detail about the restoration in the guidebook but I imagine it was a fairly extensive project to get it back to a state suitable for visitors.

Inside the mill, you can climb three steep ladder staircases to the very top and learn about the milling process from top to bottom. I admit that I am not particularly enthralled by the mechanics of milling, but even I was impressed by the Great Brake Wheel on the top floor, which joins the power of the turning sails to the horizontal Wallower via large cogs. I was also surprised to learn that the central Upright Shaft is actually made from a single oak tree trunk, which runs through three floors of the mill. On the bottom floor, you can also learn about how to translate the Dutch language of windmills, with stationary sail positions supposedly indicating certain things, such as a celebration or a death in the family, or even just that the miller has ‘gone to lunch’.

There is a good little guidebook available to outline the milling process and this also gives a timeline of Bembridge’s millers between 1746 and 1913, including a James Hunt but sadly no Windy Miller (only readers of a certain age will remember him!). There was also one George Cook who was found frozen to death at the mill in January 1811. It would be nice to think that someone was aware of the Dutch traditions at that time and placed the sails into the mourning position to mark his passing.

Highlights: Change from a watermill!

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets

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113. The Needles Batteries – 2/6/2017

When considering the two ends of the Needles Headland on the Isle of Wight, the expression ‘chalk and cheese’ has never seemed more appropriate. The chalk is there in literal abundance, with bright white cliff faces and the famous sea stacks of The Needles themselves, but I really meant that the phrase summarises the difference between the landward end with the bustling Alum Bay family attractions (which some might call cheesy – I couldn’t really comment as I didn’t go in) and the seaward end where my Trust Challenge took me this weekend.

Visitors by car to the NT batteries and landscape have to park at Alum Bay and walk along the headland or hop on the seasonal Needles Breezer bus (which is not run by the Trust and costs an arm and most of a leg for the very short trip). I would recommend the walk if you’re at all able – it’s less than a mile and as you walk up the hill from the Alum Bay car park and around the corner, you are immediately transported into a peaceful haven with only the occasional bird cry to break the silence (I would add the proviso that we were there on a sunny and calm day – I’m not sure it would be quite as peaceful with a sea gale blowing!)

At the end of the headland the Old and New Batteries, which overlook the famous sea stacks and lighthouse, are separated by a short walk and several decades. The Old Battery was first built in 1863 as a defence against a French invasion that never came. When larger guns were introduced it was found to be too small and the New Battery was constructed higher up the hill in 1895 (meaning that it’s not particularly new after all!). The Old Battery then became a Fire Command Post with position finding equipment established there to inform the gunners of potential targets. The Port War Signal Station was added in 1940 to monitor all shipping movements in the Solent during WWII and was later used as a coastguard station before a new one was built at a better vantage point in the early 1990s. Today the Signal Station houses a rather compact and bijou tearoom.

There is plenty of information at the Old Battery about its military past, including child-friendly displays about the soldiers’ lives. I thought the information about the production and handling of shells and cartridges was particularly interesting, including the rather basic safety measures introduced, e.g. lamps hidden in recesses behind glass to avoid any flame coming close to the gunpowder, clothing specific to the room so gunpowder was not transferred outside on uniforms, and windows that are hinged to blow upwards and outwards in the event of a big bang. There are also some very big guns on display for those with destructive interests and a 3D model of the site, which shows the gun emplacements lower down the cliff. You can also descend a narrow (and I mean narrow) spiral staircase and follow a tunnel to the very end of the headland where a searchlight emplacement was added at the turn of the century. For today’s visitors, it has a good view of the Needles and information about the lighthouse.

Around the edges of the Old Battery, you will also find display boards about local shipwrecks, which I found really fascinating. I particularly liked the story about the tangerines that escaped a stricken ship in 1947 and found their way into local homes, introducing some children to the fruit for the first time as rationing had made them extremely rare.

Moving on to the New Battery, you leave the potential French and actual World Wars behind and find yourself immersed in the Cold War instead. Although the New Battery was originally planned for guns, its role changed significantly in the 1950s when it became a testing station for Britain’s space rockets. Between 1954 and 1972, the Battery was known as Highdown and was swathed in secrecy. Its location made it ideal for the tests as it was a long way from the nearest inhabitants of the island and tucked behind a hill so the sounds of the rocket testing deflected out to sea. Today, the Battery houses displays about the Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets, which were tested at Highdown before being launched from a site in Australia. Black Knight was successful in launching Prospero, the one and only British satellite to reach orbit via a British rocket. And it’s still there now, passing overhead twice a day.

Another interesting fact about the batteries is that, although there were soldiers stationed at The Needles for over 80 years between the 1860s and the 1940s, the only times they ever engaged with an enemy were during WWII when they fired on torpedo boats and aircraft. All in all, as batteries go, this has always been a fairly peaceful one, which seems to suit its beautiful location.

Finally, the Needles Batteries were nearly given a black mark when I arrived as I was told that the guidebooks had sold out with a new version waiting to be printed, leaving me with the prospect of questioning and recording the answers of every member of staff I met or photographing every display board so I could be confident in writing up my visit. Fortunately, our trip to the tearoom coincided with that of a group of NT staff members and they were extremely friendly and helpful, supplying me with a copy of an old guidebook free of charge, and showing great interest in the blog and its progress. So if they ever read this, big thanks from a grateful blogger… they’re just the latest of many great people I have come across in my NT travels to date.

Highlights: Multipurpose stories; the views of the Needles; shipwrecks

Refreshments: Tea and a flapjack

Purchase(s): None

Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets

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