122. Coughton Court – 1/9/2017

From the second you walk into Coughton Court (pronounced Coaton), you will be assailed by Throckmortons, with virtually every inch of wall covered with family portraits. Twenty generations of the family have lived there since 1409 when Sir John Throckmorton married Coughton heiress Eleanor de Spiney and their distant descendants still occupy parts of the house today. They also seem to have been a highly fertile family so there were consequently a lot of potential subjects for said portraits. The family tree in the back of the guidebook is a double-page spread but even that is heavily edited to include only the more important family members. Hardly surprising considering that just one specific Throckmorton pair – Sir George, the third owner of the house, and his wife Katherine Vaux – had 19 children and 112 grandchildren!

One can’t help but associate this prolific level of procreation with the fact that the Throckmortons were a staunch Catholic family, but I imagine it probably had more to do with the attitudes of the time (when extending a family’s numbers and influence was very much the thing) and with the obviously fertile genes in the Throckmorton line. Luck must also have played a major part as it is surprising that such large numbers of mothers and their children survived during a time when childbirth and childhood could be fairly risky enterprises.

A Catesby and Throckmorton marriage in 1578

Whatever the background to the explosion of Throckmortons during the 16th and 17th centuries, it has left them with a family tree that is also chock full of interest: in one generation alone, two Throckmorton daughters married into the Catesby and Tresham families – both names that are familiar to many through their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot – and another married Sir Walter Raleigh. (Thomas Tresham, who married Muriel Throckmorton, has already appeared in this blog as the builder of Lyveden New Bield, something of a shrine to his Catholicism.) Much further down the family line in the 1900s, a sister of Clare McLaren-Throckmorton (the current resident of the ancestral home) married Roald Dahl.

The story of the Gunpowder Plot is currently being exhibited in the Yellow Drawing Room and if you can manoeuvre around the other visitors in the fairly cramped space, you can learn a lot of interesting facts about the plot and the plotters, their backgrounds and their various fates, which ranged from not very nice to pretty grisly… all except for one wily priest who managed to escape to the Continent with life and limbs intact.

Although no Throckmorton was directly involved in the plot, both Robert Catesby, the primary conspirator, and Francis Tresham – as mentioned above – were cousins. Coughton Court itself, though, was very much embroiled in the story as it was intended to serve as a safe house for the plotters. At the time, Thomas Throckmorton was absent from the house, which was being rented to one of the conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, who was supposedly there to ‘hunt’ but who was actually planning to kidnap the King’s 9-year-old daughter as a later part of the enterprise.

There is very much a Tudor feel to Coughton Court: the timbered wings on either side as you walk towards the rather grander Gatehouse (itself also built in the 1500s) are very much Tudor in appearance, while wooden panelling inside the house and the spiral stone staircases up to the top of the tower also date the property. The hidden priest’s hole (built over two storeys so that if the top hole were to be discovered, the one below may be overlooked) is also clear evidence of the house’s history and its religious leanings during Elizabeth I’s reign. The house has gone through some tough times since then, having been badly damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War and being set alight by a Protestant mob about 20 years later. It was sympathetically restored each time though, while later modernisation was also conducted with great respect for its history.

Although Catholicism coursed through the veins of the Throckmortons, there is always a black sheep of the family and in this instance it would be Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (the uncle of the more faithful Throckmortons who married into the Tresham and Catesby families). He chose to convert to the new Protestant religion after serving in the household of his cousin, Catherine Parr, and he prospered at court, first under Henry VIII and then the short-lived King Edward VI. Amazingly, he survived a trial for treason during Bloody Mary’s reign, but although serving as English ambassador in France, he could never convince Elizabeth to bring him back to court when she later succeeded her sister, despite shamelessly showering her with gifts. I am not at all sure I would have liked Sir Nicholas.

In terms of what to see at Coughton, there are few particularly outstanding rooms in the house, although the wood-panelled Dining Room is quite impressive, as is the Saloon with its grand entrance down a wooden staircase, while the Priest’s Hole is worth a shivery look as you imagine a poor priest hiding away down there as the hunters seek him out. The views from the Tower are also worth taking in on a clear day.

I was also very impressed by the gardens. I took a stroll along the Riverside Walk, through the Bog Garden and orchards and back through the sizeable kitchen garden to the more formal Walled Gardens with the various ‘rooms’ housing fountains, herbaceous borders, strongly scented lavenders and wisteria ‘trees’. I tried to get into the two churches that are on site but one seemed to be locked and I couldn’t find the way to the other one. There are two because one is Protestant and the other – added in 1851 – is Catholic. It was only in 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to worship openly again and opened the doors of Parliament to Catholics, something of which Sir Robert Throckmorton, the 8th baronet, quickly took advantage. (There are a lot of Roberts in the Throckmortons’ line; they may have been keen to procreate but clearly couldn’t be bothered to think up new names… since 1450 no fewer than eight Roberts have owned Coughton.)

Another couple of things that really caught my eye at Coughton were the velvet cope on display in the Tribune room and the Steward’s Cup in the Dining Room. The former is an ornate 16th century purple velvet garment embroidered with gold thread, which is said to have been the work of Katherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting and which has been restored by the National Trust’s specialist textile workshop at Blickling Hall. It is a stunning item, particularly if you get a volunteer to shed a little more light on it with his/her torch. The other item – the Steward’s Cup – is a horse racing trophy won by the 9th Baronet’s horse Herald at Goodwood in 1877; this is of personal interest to me as I once knew the owner of a horse called Hard To Figure, who failed narrowly to win the Steward’s Cup in the 1990s. Seeing the stunning silver trophy on the sideboard brought back fond memories of the old grey sprinter and happy days at the racecourse.

Highlights: The Throckmortons’ Catholic history; the Gunpowder Plot exhibition; the Walled Garden

Refreshments: Pepper, tomato and cheese tart with salad and roast potatoes; Jammie Dodger ice cream cone (one of my readers likes to see what I ate on my visits so this one is for her – I could have had a plain old vanilla cone but I decided she’d appreciate it more if I plumped for one of the specials instead!)

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton’ by Elizabeth Speller from the excellent secondhand bookshop

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Lyveden New Bield whose builder Thomas Tresham was related to the Throckmortons by marriage and was father of the Gunpowder plotter Francis Tresham

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121. West Wycombe Park, Village & Hill – 31/8/2017

There are some properties that seem to scream ‘Grand Tour’ at you and West Wycombe is bellowing it from the rooftops. The east and west porticos would fool any approaching visitor into thinking they had been dropped into ancient Greece or Rome, while the interior of the house has Rome written all over it, from its ceiling paintings – many copied from existing artwork in the Villa Farnesina and Palazzo Farnese in Rome and painted by Italian father and son Giuseppe and Giovanni Borgnis – to its columns and stone floors. The house is also filled with art and artefacts collected by Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet, on his own Grand Tour.

Temple of the Winds

The property first came into the Dashwood family in 1698 when it was taken on as part of a family settlement by brothers Francis and Samuel. The former was knighted a few years later to become Sir Francis Dashwood, the 1st Baronet, and he boosted the family coffers by marrying well and on multiple occasions. In fact, he seemed quite careless with his wives, losing three Marys before settling for an Elizabeth who outlived him. It was his son, the next Francis, who was responsible for the Palladian villa that stands here today and for the many changes to the landscape around the house, including the erection of numerous temples and follies in the park.

The 2nd Baronet actually managed the very clever trick of being both a pillar of the community and a brazen libertine. The tales of his private club – more properly called the Monks of Medmenham or the Society of Saint Francis of Wycombe but perhaps best known as the Hell-Fire Club – are believed to be over-exaggerated but almost certainly involved drinking, mock-religious ceremonies, dressing up and close interaction with the fairer sex. Perhaps disappointingly, most of their activities took place at Medmenham Abbey and not in West Wycombe’s Hell-Fire Caves, which can be visited on the hill overlooking the village (not National Trust).

There are several portraits of the 2nd Baronet in the Dining Room, including one of him wearing a turban and holding a rather large glass of wine and another of him dressed as a Pope. The counterpoint is the more serious portrait nearby and this montage of paintings seems to sum up his character: the fun-loving libertine and the more serious politician (briefly Chancellor of the Exchequer) and philanthropist.

I have passed the village of West Wycombe on the M40 many many times since I started this challenge and have even stopped there once to visit the Hell-Fire Caves. However, the opening arrangements mean that West Wycombe Park itself has not been the most convenient of visits. When the house was handed over to the National Trust by the 10th Baronet in 1943, an agreement was reached that it would only open to the public for three months a year on five afternoons a week. This arrangement has never altered so it is only open in June, July and August and is closed on Fridays and Saturdays. I nearly missed out again this year but just scraped in under the wire, visiting on the property’s very last open day of 2017. Phew!

The current 12th Baronet and his family still live at West Wycombe Park and retain ownership of all its contents, a situation that the Trust has to juggle at a number of its properties. I imagine some relationships with incumbent families are easier than others and I have no idea how well this particular one works but, for all of the strict limits on opening, there was at least little evidence of the family moving things around willy-nilly or randomly selling works of art as I have encountered at a few other properties to date. It must also be said that Sir Francis Dashwood, the 11th Baronet (who died in 2000), dedicated himself to restoring much that had suffered over the years so some of the rooms we see today would have looked very different before his intervention. You could say that the house’s history is book-ended by two Francises: the 2nd Baronet who created the original house and parkland and the 11th Baronet who restored it to its 18th century glory.

During the week entry to the house is by timed ticket and guided tour only (with free flow on Sundays), but I always appreciate a guided tour and enjoyed the 40-minute trip around the eight state rooms. There was perhaps less information about the family than I might have hoped but the guide certainly drew attention to all the notable features and contents of the property.

The highlights for me inside the house were the Borgnis ceilings, the Music Room and the Entrance Hall. As I mentioned above, many of the ceilings were copied from examples in Rome and the Music Room ceiling is particularly fascinating as the Roman ceiling was slightly smaller than the space available at West Wycombe. As a result, Giuseppe Borgnis cleverly added some extra clouds at one end and two extra handmaidens at the other so as to fill the space. The size of the Music Room (which is largely empty of prominent furniture) is perhaps the first thing you notice when you walk in, just before you inevitably look up to the ceiling. Lower down, though, I was also particularly impressed by the panelled dado with inlaid woods that runs all around the room and is not something I have seen (or noticed) elsewhere. The Music Room is also home to not one, not two, but three paintings of Venus and Cupid, with the 2nd Baronet apparently rather fond of the Goddess of Love, perhaps unsurprising considering what else we know about him.

The Music Temple (with Mausoleum and St Lawrence’s Church spire on the far hill)

After my tour of the house, I decided to take a walk around the lake to see as many of park’s temples and follies as possible. The lake was looking a little sorry for itself during my visit and is clearly crying out for some rain to top up the underground aquifers. As a result, the Cascade was less of a cascade and more of a dry stone slope, while anyone falling into the lake from the banks is more likely to get dirty rather than wet right now. It also made it hard to imagine the 60-ton frigate that was once anchored here in the 2nd Baronet’s day. I still enjoyed the walk, though, and took in the Round Temple, Temple of Apollo, Temple of the Winds, Music Temple and Temple of Venus as I made my way from the south front of the house all the way back to the car park. I also saw a couple of soaring red kites, which are prolific in this part of the country. I didn’t have time to visit the Mausoleum and St Lawrence’s Church on the opposite hillside but they are clearly visible from below and even made it into a few of my photos.

West Wycombe suffers a little from a lack of visitor facilities, perhaps due to a wish on the family’s part that it remains more of a home and less of a tourist attraction. There is no tearoom on site and the toilet block in the car park is a temporary structure that is perhaps brought in each season (although there are other toilets available at the house). However, the car park is just steps away from the village where there are three pubs to choose from or you can head up the hill to the Hell-Fire Caves for refreshments.

I nearly had to dig out my black mark once again as West Wycombe became the third property I have visited this year to have run out of guidebooks. In this case there was at least the excuse that I had arrived on the last day of opening but I still had a little moan to the man who greeted me on reception and he defended his property’s reputation with great success, telling me to pop in on my way out and he’d see if he could dig one up in the meantime. I took that with a pinch of salt at the time but should never have doubted as there it was waiting for me and I was even given a discount as it was the old guidebook that will be replaced next season. So thanks very much to that gentleman for making a blogger’s life a little easier.

Highlights: The Music Room, the Borgnis ceilings, the Entrance Hall, the temples

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Thomas Stapleton of Greys Court was a cousin of West Wycombe’s Francis Dashwood and a member of his Hell-Fire Club

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120. Bourne Mill – 18/8/2017

Another day, another mill! But if this challenge has taught me anything, it is that every single property has its merits and this is no exception: not only is it a simply lovely spot just a stone’s throw from the heart of Colchester, but it also took me in a totally new milling direction, with its early focus on textiles rather than grain.

Following a satnav to Bourne Mill from the A12 takes you right through the heart of Colchester with its busy roads and roundabouts, but shortly after you turn off the Mersea Road out of town, the view of the old Mill overlooking its tranquil pond opens up on the right-hand side. It is certainly a strange situation: a haven for wildlife and history nestled right in the middle of a modern residential area. (There isn’t a great deal of parking available at the mill itself – enough for just two or three cars – but finding nearby street parking shouldn’t be too difficult.)

Built in 1591 by local dignitary Sir Thomas Lucas, the mill has served various purposes over the years, but perhaps the most interesting was its initial use as a fishing lodge and fulling mill. I understood the fishing part, but I had to ask the helpful volunteer about fulling, which is a process through which wool is turned into a more useful felt-like material. This seems to involve cleaning or scouring the wool to remove the oils and grease and then thickening it. The first part of the process originally involved such delightful substances as urine, but as time went on fuller’s earth (now I know where that name comes from) emerged as a more popular substitute… I wonder why! Meanwhile, the thickening process seemed to involve simply hammering the wool into submission. It seems that beating it causes barbs in the wool to stick together like Velcro, which tightens the weave. The finished cloth was then hung out to dry on the land around the mill so I stood at the window and lost myself for a moment, imagining the fields and the lines of cloth flapping in the breeze. But then I imagined the smell of urine wafting in off those fields, which well and truly burst that imaginative bubble!

Bourne Mill certainly provides a brief education in textile milling and there is also a useful map outside in the garden, which shows the various routes taken by the cloth before and after its Essex milling. In addition, though, there were a few interesting sideshows that I thought could have been presented to visitors in more detail. Sir Thomas Lucas and his descendants sounded like they had a fairly colourful history and I would like to have known a little more about them, while brief mention was also made of damage to the mill caused by the Colchester Earthquake of 1896. I have just read Sarah Perry’s book ‘The Essex Serpent’, which also mentions the quake, something I knew nothing about before. It is likely that you can learn more about this in a town museum but it is a surprising part of Essex history that obviously affected the mill and would make for another interesting display. This may be a small property, but with an important family and an earthquake in its past in addition to its milling history, I think it would be possible to pull together an interesting little guidebook.

In later life, Bourne Mill turned to grain milling, which was less interesting to me, so I wasn’t all that disappointed that the upstairs part of the mill – where the grain and flour would have been hoisted up and down – is closed to visitors at the moment and the wheel is not operating at all. This is due to the discovery of deathwatch beetle in the building so hopefully these unwelcome visitors haven’t done too much damage. Where some critters are decidedly unwanted, others are greeted with more enthusiasm and the coots and herons (including a juvenile) on the pond were an added bonus.

Coot club

I certainly wasn’t expecting such a pretty spot just minutes away from Colchester town centre so even if the fulling and milling doesn’t appeal to you, do stop by for a cup of tea overlooking the pond. And if you add a crumbly scone to your order, I am sure the coots will welcome you with open wings.

Highlights: A pretty spot; an education in ‘fulling’

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Fruit jellies (don’t judge me, I like to make at least a little contribution and there was no guidebook to buy!)

Companion(s): Mum

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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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