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 The town finally lost its right to elect MPs as a result of the Reform Act of 1832 and saw its borough status withdrawn a few years later.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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112. Aberconwy House – 26/4/2017

Conwy is not a big town so it didn’t take long to walk from the bridge up to Aberconwy House, which is on the corner of High Street and Castle Street. Apart from the castle and the church, it is the town’s oldest building, with parts believed to be as old as 14th century, although its present construction was completed sometime in the 16th century. Ideally located not far from the quay, it has served mainly as a merchant’s house, but also spent some years in the 19th century as a Temperance Hotel.

The rooms of the house are presented to show several different periods in the building’s history. The kitchen and dining room are designed around the time of Captain Samuel Williams, a prosperous slate, copper and lead trader, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, while the Great Chamber upstairs has an earlier feel and is furnished as it might have been when the merchant Evan David owned the property in the 17th century. During the Civil War, there was said to be a great divide in Conwy society, with Royalists and Parliamentarians in constant battle. Many of the town’s older buildings were destroyed during this time but the volunteer told us that Aberconwy may well have been home to a Parliamentarian spy, which would account for its survival.

The bedroom upstairs takes us forward in time again to the period when the house was run as a Temperance Hotel by William and Jane Jones. The town would have been full of inns and pubs at this time – many of them likely to be fairly rowdy – but the hotel offered a safer and more wholesome option for travellers, albeit at a slightly inflated cost. As with the bridge, a visit to Aberconwy House doesn’t take long but the volunteers can tell you more about the town and the castle as well as the properties owned by the NT. We were interested to hear about the various ways in which Conwy Castle has fallen to the enemy over the years; it seems that it is fairly impregnable and can be held by only a minimal number of men… unless the enemy dresses up as tradesmen or builders and walks right in through the back door!

Highlights: A varied history

Refreshments: None (although I can highly recommend Parisella’s Ice Cream Parlour just up the High Street from Aberconwy House – fantastic ice cream sundaes and crêpes)

Purchase(s): None

Companion(s): Mum

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111. Conwy Suspension Bridge – 26/4/2017

Conwy Suspension Bridge with the castle as backdrop

After a beautiful walk around Bodnant Gardens, we headed back up to Conwy, which is a lovely old walled town, with a castle dating back to Edward I’s reign in the 13th century, a bustling quay and a multitude of coffee shops and eateries for the hungry tourist. The quayside is also home to the smallest house in Britain so that’s worth a quick glance.

Conwy is also home to two National Trust properties, one of which is the only bridge on my list. Conwy Suspension Bridge is particularly striking in that some of the suspending chains connect directly into the old castle so anyone crossing into the town is met with the imposing sight of the fortress looming above. The bridge was the work of the revolutionary engineer Thomas Telford who was simultaneously overseeing the construction of the Menai suspension bridge between Anglesey and the mainland. It was built in 1826 and immediately made life easier for visitors to Conwy who had previously had to rely on ferry transport – or a long detour – to reach the town. The towers of the bridge were built to look like castellated gateways and were once stained to match the colour of the nearby castle. Unfortunately, views of the bridge are now slightly spoilt by the two-lane road bridge – built in the 1950s to improve access – on one side and the railway bridge on the other.

The last car passed over the suspension bridge in 1958 and today it is only open to pedestrians. Fortunately, you no longer have to pay a toll; in the 1890s, it would have cost one old penny (1d) for a pedestrian to pass over, although this doubled to 2d if you had a barrow, bicycle or horse with you, and if the horse was pulling anything the cost went up again. Unlike the Dartford Crossing, though, you only had to pay once, with the toll covering the return journey too. In a nice touch, the Trust issues visitors to the Toll House with a ticket to indicate they have paid their 1d and you can then use this to get into Aberconwy House in the town.

I was also interested to read in the guidebook that each item of mail was also charged a penny to cross the bridge and between 1826 and 1836 the Conwy and Menai suspension bridges raised £101,708 from postage charges alone!

The Toll House on the opposite side of the bridge from the castle is open to visitors and displays four rooms as they would have been when David and Maria Williams were living there in 1891 with their four children. They had to be on hand to collect the tolls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but David still found time to grow produce so he could feed his family and supplement their income by selling spare vegetables to the toll payers. The vegetable garden has apparently been recreated but unfortunately we didn’t notice it, which is perhaps easily done as the imposing bridge and castle in the opposite direction do tend to grab your attention.

Highlights: Up close and personal with a feat of engineering

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook (also covers Aberconwy House)

Companion(s): Mum

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110. Bodnant Garden – 26/4/2017

I have just worked my way through Bodnant Garden’s 64-page guidebook, which gives you an idea of how much there was to see. Located on hillsides sloping down (sometimes fairly sharply) to the River Hiraethlyn, it has a huge variety of botanical sights, from formal gardens, lawns and terraces to the wilder Dell with its giant sequoias, trickling water and pretty bridges. There is also open parkland with a carpet of daffodils (sadly over), swathes of woodland and both natural and manmade lakes and ponds.  The garden is particularly known for its laburnum arch, which is a sight that thousands of people travel to see in late-May/early-June, but although we missed out on that I wasn’t at all disappointed as we timed things exactly right for the azaleas and rhododendrons. The words ‘stunning’ or ‘spectacular’ spring to mind but even these don’t really do justice to how Bodnant looked today, with the rhododendron family delivering bursts of colour everywhere you turned. I must have taken about 20-30 pictures of those alone so it was a real challenge picking which ones to include here.

Bodnant is actually world famous for its rhododendrons, with its red Rhododendron forrestii and the 300 hybrid rhodies raised and registered by the garden both qualifying as National Collections. It also has three other recognised National Collections: magnolia, embothrium and eucrypha. There are reported to be 115 different known rhododendron species in the gardens today, although it is believed that there are others that have lost labels and are growing incognito.

The Old Mill

The Bodnant estate (previously known as Bodnod) dates back to the 17th century, and some of the landscaping from the Georgian period still exists, but the garden really came to life after 1874 when the property was acquired by industrialist Henry Pochin, who as well as his work on the garden also remodelled the house to create the Victorian stone building that exists today. The house is still occupied by Pochin’s descendants and the future generations – first his daughter Laura and her husband Charles McLaren (the first baron, Lord Aberconway), then their son Henry, his son Charles and his son Michael – have also made their own significant contributions to the gardens. Such is the family’s importance in the gardening world that both Henry (the second baron) and Charles (the third) also served time as Presidents of the Royal Horticultural Society.

View from the Top Rose Terrace, including the Lily Terrace, the Pin Mill on the Canal Terrace and the Carneddau Mountains

It was Henry that gave Bodnant Garden to the National Trust in 1949, with a deed allowing him and his heirs to continue involvement with the garden and to maintain ownership of the house and wider estate. Henry was also a particularly important member of the family in terms of the garden’s development, overseeing the creation of the five terrace gardens between 1904 and 1914 and working closely with plant hunters to bring a vast collection of international plants to Wales, including specimens from China, India, South America and the Himalayas.

The many Head Gardeners who have served at Bodnant over the years have also been important to the garden’s development, including three generations of Puddles – Frederick, Charles and Martin – who managed affairs for 85 years between 1920 and 2005 and are worth a particular mention, not only for their efforts, but because they are called Puddle and are being added to the list of novel names I have come across on my travels!

Britain’s tallest tree (or at least some of it!)

The more recent Head Gardeners should also be given some accolades as they continue to work on improving the visitor experience, with new sections of the garden regularly being opened. For example, the Winter Garden opened in 2012, the Old Park in 2013, the Yew Dell in 2014, the Far End in 2015 and Furnace Hill and Meadow in 2017.

Other things I would recommend you seek out at Bodnant include Britain’s tallest tree (yes, it’s a sequoia) and the Old Mill, which is a nice resting spot on a tour of the garden, with a small refreshment kiosk and toilets. We took a break on a bench overlooking the Mill and met a robin who beat the Plas yn Rhiw chap for bravery. This one actually came and sat on my knee before hopping over to the arm of the seat where he posed happily for a photo. Sorry if you’d prefer another shot of the dazzling rhododendrons here but I couldn’t resist putting my new friend in the blog.

Highlights: Rhododendrons and azaleas; the Dell; the terrace gardens

Refreshments: Hot chocolate and toasted teacake

Purchase(s): Guidebook; silver necklace from one of the on-site craft shops

Companion(s): Mum

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