Posts Tagged ‘History’

I went back through my photographs today and realised that I’ve got very lazy about taking pictures, which I used to do with a passion when I first came to Somerset.

Weather vane

With the arrival of Nora the dog, now eighteen months old, the big camera’s excursions dwindled to only a few times a year. Then I bought a compact camera so that I didn’t have to lug the DSLR about and that kept me happy for a while, although I only really liked its ability to take pictures in low light. The rest of the images could be disappointing with the focus often not quite right. Being a bit longsighted doesn’t help and I’ve missed having a viewfinder. When I got a newer iPhone the photographic equipment’s outings stopped almost completely. It takes pretty good pictures and I can use Photoshop to improve the original, but I don’t enjoy it as much. So, although I haven’t made any resolutions this year — I hate the idea — I intend to go about a lot more with the big camera in 2015.

Here are some ‘proper’ photographs, then, that a recent photo request reminded me I had taken in 2010 in Montacute, a village centred around a late Elizabethan mansion, that I’ve blogged about before. They are not fantastic pictures. I don’t claim to be any kind of photographer but they remind me of a good day in a beautiful place.

Montacute House, Somerset


Tudor window with leaded lights

tudor window exterior


Chinese screen

Row of shaped trees

Signpost in MontacuteHouse in Montacute

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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.



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.



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.


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.



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.

man cutting hedge

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 –

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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.

old sign in hedge

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.

St Peter's and cottages

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.

inside the mill

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.

bakelite museum

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.

New World 75

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.

in an old mill building

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.

old cottages

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.

vegetable garden

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.

remote rural cottages

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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