Posts Tagged ‘History’

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As a child I visited Boston Manor Park frequently with my father but nothing apart from the children’s playground had stuck in my memory. I often catch sight of the Jacobean manor house when driving along the M4 motorway’s elevated section; the bit that links Heathrow airport with London. If you’re travelling towards London, the house is visible on the left-hand side at around the same time as the shiny GlaxoSmithKline monolith appears ahead of you on the right.

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Curious to see what it’s like, I decide to take Nora for a walk there. Expecting more or less an ordinary park, I am first rather disappointed and then surprised. Disappointed because the grounds appear very small, with only a small lawned area and a large pond immediately behind the compact house and stable block. I almost regret having paid for an hour and half’s parking. But we are surprised and rewarded by the discovery of a ‘nature trail’ leading down under the motorway into a mysterious other world that co-exists with the impatient roar of the traffic over our heads.

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The trail is really only a hint of a dirt path that descends out of a flowerbed into a boggy, overgrown mass of ivy and untended greenery. It’s quite off-putting. However, we persevere, with me cursing a lack of waterproof footwear, until we see what I suspect is the Grand Union Canal but turns out later to be a canalised bit of the River Brent, complete with barge and lock (I’m not showing you the side of the lock with the graffitied penises all over it).

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Despite the filthy water, a swan swims up to greet us and we are surrounded by the echoing calls of hidden waterfowl. Nora finds the inevitable pile of human poo and what looks like the skin of a fish and evades my attempts take it away from her. The smell makes me gag and I worry that she will get ill from eating it.

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A cyclist passes on the other bank where there is a well-maintained path but our side seems utterly desolate until a brown-haired man in his thirties wearing a striped tee-shirt wanders by looking aimless. I wonder if he’s a part of this place where nothing looks official or managed. There’s a ramshackle, padlocked, chicken wire gate that leads to more wasteland littered with old bits of tractor and more rubbish. It seems odd to fence in such abandonment. I wonder if the barge people have claimed it for their own since no-one else seems to care.

Beneath the motorway itself stretches an underworldly tarmac paradise, spacious and deserted. It feels strangely liberating to be somewhere so hidden from the mainstream of city life. It occurs to me that I should feel frightened but I don’t. However, I also don’t investigate further under the motorway. Not on my own with a rather unpredictable young dog.

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Looking at a map later, it appears that we might have found more open parkland had we gone on further towards the Glaxo building but, drawn in by the atmosphere of dereliction and isolation amid the busy-ness overhead and in the light industrial areas round about, this seems enough for one day.

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We resurface and return to the car, feeling mildly astonished to have been so close to tennis courts resounding to the noise of a game and council employees working in the children’s play area.

It turns out that I don’t even actually remember the playground.

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Usually, I’m pretty annoyed at hearing machinery on a beautiful morning. However, today the noise I’m listening to is a chap cutting my hedge.

I can’t quite express how happy this makes me after almost five years of cutting the rather long hedge myself, which has been exhausting and quite painful sometimes, as I have carpal tunnel syndrome and, frequently, tennis elbow – the latter most likely as a result of trimming the hedge. Afterwards, I always have a few days of numbness in my hands and pain in my forearms. I try to keep my strength up in the gym but wielding even a light trimmer at arm’s length for several hours takes its toll.

So after all this time the hedge was much taller than I wanted, as I couldn’t really give it the ferocious cuts it needed. And it became harder with each passing year as another couple of inches was added to its height, so Jay is taking a good eight inches off the top of the hedge today.

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But it’s only waist height, you might be thinking. Indeed, on the garden side, it’s only that high but on the road side it’s probably about eight feet high, so no fear of anyone peering over the top. And that’s part of what’s made it so hard for me to cut, for, in places, it’s not reachable from the garden because of its width. Teetering on a ladder in the path of the traffic has been part of the fun of living here.

Man cutting garden hedge

Of course, Jay has the right equipment: a petrol-fuelled hedge trimmer far heavier than I could wield comfortably for any length of time. I’m rather envious of it though.

fuel for hedge trimmer

An added thrill is the fact that Jay’s parents used to live at Spring Cottage in the 1960s and 70s. They sold it to the woman from whom I bought five years ago. So he was interested to see inside and he was able to fill me in about which improvements his parents had made to the place (the addition of bathroom and kitchen extension, and the demolition of several layers of wall and fireplace to reveal the original inglenook).

hedge cutting

I wonder if it feels odd to Jay to be cutting hedge that was most likely growing here when his parents lived here almost 35 years ago. I’m hoping I can perhaps get to see some photos of the cottage in the old days when he next comes. I find this kind of thing endlessly fascinating.

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This is Seven Sisters on the top of Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks. I can see it from my bedroom window and when I’m up there I can see the cottage in the distance, poking its roof up over the hills.

Seven sisters

The view from Cothelstone is wonderful; a full 360 degrees, on a good day, of fabulous countryside in all directions, with sights ranging from Minehead and Exmoor to the Bristol Channel and Wales on the other side.

Seven Sisters itself is a very useful local landmark by which to orientate yourself as you move around the Quantock area. You can see it from so many places and it makes it very easy to tell in which direction home lies. Comforting even in these days of GPS.

Only three of the original seven ‘sisters’ remain – they’re the big trees on the right of the picture. Exceedingly tall for this exposed location, they are very old and bend distinctively away from the prevailing wind. They will eventually die or be uprooted in a gale as is the way of things. The plan was that when they did, the smaller beech tree circle would be left to replace them… only now that won’t happen. For the mound of earth on which they are growing is special. It’s called a ‘pillow mound’. That means it’s thought to be an ancient rabbit warren (presumably from medieval times when large rabbit warrens were cultivated as a source of food).

English Heritage have decided that this unremarkable low, grass-covered rise is more important than the newer group of trees, planted some 40 years ago to augment the older tree circle. They will therefore be removed over four years to protect the mound on which they’re planted.

How the newer circle of trees is to be taken out without damaging the precious ground hasn’t been explained, but I noticed this morning that one of them has already been cut down. Presumably once the stump and root system have rotted sufficiently, they will be pulled out carefully. Then, eventually, there will another blank grassy mound with a wooden fence around it, as there already is a little further along on the hill, and that will be ‘history’.

New trees will be planted slightly somewhere else and it will be many, many years before there’s another Seven Sisters up on the hill big enough for people to remark upon from a distance.

I can’t help thinking that a living monument is being sacrificed for one that has been long gone. Let’s just hope that the original trees survive long enough for the latest circle of trees to establish itself, or else this familiar landmark will vanish for more than one generation. By then, those of us who love this place will also be history and its memory lost forever.

Postscript: An informed view – http://www.quantockhills.com/blog/view/conservation_conversations/

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My car parking spot is in the mostly disused entrance to the field behind my house – sometimes known as Three and Four Acre – usage rights over which now belong to Spring Cottage but whose ownership is the farm’s. Consequently, the farmer has been round on his annual hedge topping and trimming exercise, which has revealed an old sign on a gatepost that was previously hidden. Or perhaps I just wasn’t looking in past autumns.

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I’m very intrigued by what it says. I’ve tried to examine it in Photoshop and all I can make out are a B and an E. It looks like it was a red sign with white letters highlighted in black, but I could be imagining that.

Spring Cottage was once known as Ivy Cottage but it doesn’t seem to say that. It also isn’t the name of the farm, which doesn’t have a B in it. It could say something very prosaic like ‘Do not obstruct’, I suppose.

I quite like its mystery and the way it points to a previous time. It reminds me that I live in a place that didn’t get mains electricity until 1962 and drew its water from the spring running behind the house until around that time as well. One day, I too will be gone from here and I wonder whether I will leave behind anything for others to discover.

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I thought it was about time I wrote a post which had some words in it. More than a few, that is. To be honest, I haven’t had much that I’ve wanted to say about life here of late, so pictures have had to do. I love taking pictures and posting them and as I head into my fifth year at Spring Cottage, my experiences here are perhaps becoming a bit too repetitive to be of much interest – even to me. Perhaps writing about Owen, who came to service the boiler today and told me that the full 1,200-litre tank of oil might be about to start leaking, is not that much fun. But if I write about it here, then I might remember that I have to call him when it is next nearly empty so that he can fix the valve. See what I mean? I’m yawning already.

So, anyway, here’s a post about something I actually did. I’ve been driving past a sign for the Bakelite Museum in Williton for ages, meaning to stop and go in, but have never turned off the road to do so. But today I did more than nip into the Spar to buy some food.

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The museum is actually in a place rather charmingly called Orchard, just outside Williton. It’s a little hamlet with a little group of cottages nestling around a small, plain church by the side of a stream. Across the fields and up a slight hill the stream runs past an old 15th century mill, which has housed the Bakelite Museum for the last forty years or so, since it ended its milling life.

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The building itself is interesting if you want to see inside a traditional water-driven mill. It still has its Victorian milling machinery in place and you can almost imagine the grain, or whatever – apparently they even ground alabaster there – being ground deafeningly in its confined space.

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But back to the bakelite. The name of the museum is actually a bit of a misnomer, because what obviously started off as an interest in early plastics has clearly branched out into the collection of all things household up to, more or less, the middle of the last century.

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There was my parents’ cooker, which we got in the sixties when someone my mother worked for was upgrading to a newer model. Ours finally bit the dust in 1992. There was the first Hoover that I can remember having a go with as a child, a heavy old shiny metal model even then, and plonking great irons without a hint of a spray mechanism that I used until I left home in the 1980s (not those in the picture – those are really archaic). On and on it went: telephones, hair dryers, massage machines (what?) – such a trip down memory lane.

Someone obviously does a lot of dusting in there, although perhaps I just couldn’t see because the ground floor was rather dark. I couldn’t work out how the lights worked, so peered around mostly in the rather atmospheric half-dark. Upstairs it was brighter and I was tempted to go up to the third floor, which houses a rural life exhibition, but it was closed for fire safety reasons.

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I peered up the ladder-like stairs anyway because it was such a lovely old building to find myself in. I’m not the litigious sort and can take responsibility for my own actions, thank you, Mr Health and Safety.

The owner had said he had to go out so I felt a bit in the way and didn’t stay long. He was clearly happy to leave me there, poking around on my own and just told me to close the door when I left, but on this lovely almost summer’s day (not) I got cold rather quickly, so went off for a snoop around the cottages and church.

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No 2 Church Cottages (the one on the left) is to let, if anyone fancies it. According to Quantock Online, the buildings originate in the 16th century and were used for the brewing of church ales. These were the times before sanitation when people drank ‘small’ or weak beer instead of fetid water that made them sick.

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They’re the most ungentrified and cottagey cottages I’ve seen in a long time, probably because they are lived in by tenants rather than owner occupiers. Really rather lovely.  The occupants’ efforts seem mostly to have been put into some very fine vegetable gardens that surround the cottages. There’s also a beautiful orchard in full bloom to the side of the church. Well, there’d have to be with a name like Orchard.

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You’d have to carry all your belongings along a little track when you moved in but it would be an extraordinary place to live. It sort of boggles my brain to think that this place has looked pretty much like this (barring television aerials and telephone lines) for the last four hundred years.cottages from across kitchen garden

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Most British people of a certain age will remember a Chas and Dave song called Rabbit from the late 1970s/early 80s. I was reminded of it when I was looking through pictures I’d taken in other Novembers in Somerset.

I would love to know about the history behind the construction of this Georgian house whose doorway, with it’s beautiful fanlight, is literally covered with rabbits.

Situated in a quiet Langport side street but close to the main street at the end where merchants built their homes, it’s a relatively unassuming house but one could guess that whoever built it had some kind of business connected with rabbits. Rabbit was once, of course, a much greater source of meat than it is today, with historical records showing rabbit warrens being recorded as parts of properties with separate valuations. Rabbit skin would also have been a valuable source of warmth for winter clothing in the days before fleece and down clothing.

Coincidentally, I’ve just discovered this talk on Monday about Langport’s architecture seen through the eyes of Nikolaus Pevsner. Only wish I could go. But meanwhile I will just have to make do with British History Online in which I could get completely lost for hours at a time.

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Lest anyone think that I am living the dream, here is a part of it that is more nightmare.

This is one of the walls the so-called wash house at the cottage. Built at the same time as the main house around 1800, it was probably exactly that – somewhere the washing could be done, separate but not that far from the fireplace in the cottage where the water would have been heated. The cottage itself had no bathroom or kitchen at that time – they were additions in the late 1960s. Yes, that late. It was also in 1962 that electricity first came to the cottage. That probably sounds like a long time ago but that’s during my childhood, so it doesn’t seem so to me.

I often wonder about the lives of the people who have lived here over the last couple of hundred years – I have their names and should find out more about them. In the twentieth century, they were mostly older couples and widowed single people, in the nineteenth, families with children and even a lodger who was a weaver – nearby Spaxton used to be a centre for cloth manufacture way back. With no shops for two and a half miles, they probably made their own bread and got their eggs, milk and meat from the farm down the lane. They definitely will have grown their own vegetables. They would have had to walk everywhere, for the cottage is relatively remote and there isn’t space to keep a horse, although there’s a barn over the lane that might have been rented for that purpose.

I don’t feel very driven to repair this wall. It’s not doing anyone any harm and it has a kind of beauty about it; the wash house being built into the hill behind. I like the link with the past that being able to see under the very twentieth-century rendering allows. Although a bit of the ceiling did fall down the other week. Must get that fixed.

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It was only when I was adjusting this rather over-exposed photograph in Photoshop that I started to think about the detail it contained.

We are fairly used to seeing the initials ER to denote Elizabeth Regina, our current queen, on letterboxes around the country, as I’ve blogged about before. There are also a fair few examples of GR, for King George, the Queen’s father, and even a few VR for Queen Victoria.

However, the wrought iron lantern holder above the gate to the churchyard of the church of St Pancras in West Bagborough, Somerset, is the only example I can think of having seen of ER, for Edward Rex or King Edward VII, Victoria’s son, who came to the throne on her death in 1901. It is shown in situ below, with a rather newer gate beneath it.

We have to thank Edward’s accession to the throne for this little piece of local craftsmanship, probably the work of the local blacksmith, judging by the style of the letters above the arch. Even more revealing are the numbers for the year 1902, which seem to be adapted manufactured numbers (at least the ’2′ is), brought into the design by the person who made the arch. If this is really the case, it is a lovely example of the juxtaposition of the old and the new worlds at the start of the exciting new twentieth century.

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I should be at Spring Cottage this weekend but after the exhaustion and sadness of last weekend, I can’t face any more driving and, frankly, I want to be somewhere surrounded by friends and family. But here are some pictures of neighbouring Over Stowey that I took in mid February.

countryside around Over Stowey Somerset

Over Stowey churchyard

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war memorial Over Stowey cemetery

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WWI soldier's grave

I wonder about this First World War soldier and how he died – his is a lone war grave at Over Stowey. But I am glad that, at least, his body could be repatriated to lie in this country graveyard close to where he and his family spent their lives. It doesn’t say how old he was on his gravestone but I’ve done a bit of research and it seems he was born in 1887 and was one of five children born to a local family, who still live in the area. May he rest in peace beneath the Somerset skies and may we be mindful of the sacrifice that he and his family made, so that people like me – descendants of the fallout of another war – could wander in peaceful churchyards almost a century later.

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Terrible journey getting here today. It took five hours, which included a trip through central Bristol in an attempt to avoid a huge traffic jam on the M5. With my sense of direction this ended up being an elaborate detour which didn’t save me much time at all, as I ended up being funnelled back into the jam I’d tried to drive around. On the other hand, now I know how to get through Bristol on the A38 if it happens again. Which it will.

The silver lining was the trip out of Bristol under the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Severn at Bristol. Image courtesy of freefoto.com

Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Severn at Bristol. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1864.

What a wonderful piece of engineering and what a fantastic view. It looked more like something in north America than in the UK with the dramatic scenery of the  high sided rock faces flanking the Severn. This is a very sepia-ish picture of it but this is exactly the view I saw. Only it is far more dramatic than this rather twee picture shows. There is  huge road along the right hand side which runs beside some beautiful Georgian houses. Their view now completely spoiled by the road, of course. But one can only imagine how amazing it must have been when those houses were first built, overlooking the tidal Severn river, and then later when the bridge was opened.

When I got to Spring Cottage, I checked out the new cupboard the carpenter had built, which was fine and drove back down to Spaxton to pay him. Job well done. Then I lit a fire and did some work. My efforts with the fire were completely scuppered by the smoke billowing around the house, which resulted in frequent airings and creation of through drafts, rendering the house chilly again. I think I must get the chimney swept. I can’t imagine that it’s my incompetence at lighting fires, although I readily admit to knowing nothing at all about lighting fires or keeping them going. I must also buy a firescreen as one of the logs spat out some  bits that burnt a hole in the carpet!

Deercount: 39 – the fields below the Enmore road have been harvested and this brought out huge numbers of hinds and calves. Lovely! Although maybe not for the farmers.

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