Sunday, 28 August 2016

Making the World A Better Place

I like supporting charities. Amidst the chorus of bad news from the media, it really cheers me up to think that people are spending their time trying to do good stuff, and I love reading each charity's newsletter to hear how they are making the world a better place.

Which is, indirectly, why I found myself at Twyford Farm (below), in deepest Sussex, last week. 

Years ago,  I wrote an article about English hedgerows and met a man called Robin Page.   Journalist, countryside writer and sometime politician, he is full of energy and quite a character, and he's based in a farm in Barton, Cambridgeshire. The farm is called Lark Rise, and it teems with the wild creatures, insects and flowers that you'd expect in an old fashioned corner of the English countryside.

In the  long-ago 1990s, when I visited Robin, the land around Lark Rise had was being farmed as agribusiness, with pretty well every hedge, tree and natural feature bulldozed in order to create enormous fields. These were managed and harvested in the most efficient and profitable way, as if the fields were a huge outdoor vegetable factory.  I found it distinctly "Twilight Zone" to leave Lark Rise and walk into those huge, flat, boring, businesslike Cambridgeshire fields.   Not a bird singing, not an animal stirring, not a bee buzzing... it really did not seem right.

It was such a contrast, in fact, that I joined the charity Robin had just founded. In it, he planned with characteristic energy, to show that commercial farming could coexist with conservation and wildlife.  It is called The Countryside Restoration Trust (click the link to see their video). Over the years since I joined, the CRT has acquired more land in Barton and acquired properties in another 10 areas of  Britain.  

Somehow I never went back to Lark Rise farm, nor did I meet Robin again, nor visit any of the CRT's other properties.  But last week, it was sunny and I was looking through their latest newsletter, when on impulse I decided to go and stay in the b&b run at Twyford Farm, some 35 miles south of London in Ashdown Forest. This farm, previously used for breeding Welsh Ponies, was gifted to the CRT in 2013.  It had become rather run down in some ways, and I'd been reading in the newsletter how the tenants, Bob and Liz, had been working like mad to get it into shape.

After a rather long trip to Sussex, caused by getting lost, despite the GPS (my fault), we finally reached Ashdown Forest.  About 1,200 acres in size, it was a nobleman's hunting forest in the 11th century, but by the 20th century it had become famous as the haunt of Winnie the Pooh. Author AA Milne lived here when he wrote "Winnie the Pooh" and the illustrator, E.H. Shepard, visited the area to sketch his illustrations.  There's a website about Pooh locations here.

But we didn't go in search of Pooh. It was all we could do to find the farm.  Down a narrow lane we went, then up a track, and finally, there was the gate we were looking for...

It is not dilapidated any more. In the last couple of years has been repaired, redecorated and modernised just enough, but not too much. (This was a big plus for me. I like to be comfortable but hate it when old places have the authenticity taken out of them.).  There were several friendly, clean and obedient dogs who were very happy to make friends with us, sheep on the hillside, cows on the heath, lots of books on the shelves about nature and wildlife, even animal faces on the cushions...

As in many old farmhouses, there is a lot of space. Guests have their own dining and sitting room plus the use of an amazing south facing terrace...  but it must be confessed there isn't a great deal of head-room at times. As you can probably estimate from the doorway shown below, the folks who built the farm around the 16th century must have been little more than five foot tall.Still, you do get used to the door height pretty fast... a couple of bangs on the head each did it for us. 

We spent our time quite simply, mostly in chatting with Liz, Bob and a couple of other guests, and going for walks. We could roam anywhere on the farm, and the the exceptionally beautiful woodlands and heathland around was criss crossed with public footpaths and bridleways. 

Although something is known of the farm's history, there is still much to discover. About ten minutes walk from the farmhouse, we turned down a track and found ourselves by a large pond, surrounded by reeds, rushes, and both wild and what seemed to be naturalised garden flowers too. Beneath the trees, with the evening sun shining through the leaves, it was a lovely place to linger as the summer twilight fell.  

I noticed some interesting specimen trees had been planted around the pond,  making it seem even less like a regular farm pond and more like someone's private retreat. It was puzzling, because the land has been farmed for years, and farmers don't usually have too much time to hike out in order to sit  and contemplate such a scene. Perhaps I'll discover the story behind it some day.   

Twyford Farm has a small herd of cattle which it grazes in Ashdown Forest. Despite its name, the Forest contains quite a bit of open heathland, and cows have been grazed here for centuries.  One day we took a walk in an area called Chelwood Vachery.   Nearby monks used it for their cows in the 14th century, but now most of the area is overgrown with trees.  

The monks went long ago, but at the start of the 20th century, a wealthy MP called Sir Stuart Samuel built a grand, (some might even say overbearing) mansion in the Vachery. It seems he had a formal garden near the house, but a more naturalistic area further away, and by the 1920s the garden boasted a terraced area with a sequence of linked pools, complete with sluices, colourful rhododendrons, a folly bridge and a miniature version of the cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge winding down the hill - the latter was created using rocks brought all the way from Somerset.

But as you can see, these acres of garden were abandoned a long time ago and are now quite overgrown.  The area is being cared for by volunteers, but they don't attempt to bring it back to its former glory. Even in its overgrown state it is charming. It is certainly wildlife-friendly and is also a bit peculiar, really, since the water running through the valley is a chalybeate stream - so full of iron that it shines red as rust when the sun catches it directly. 

  Here is a photo of the folly bridge, which is far bigger than its role deserves, since it only spans this tiny river. Our footpath, however, winds through another arch in the bridge, towards stepping stones which cross the river again.   It was all very green and mysterious, with birdsong the only sound.

Can you imagine that bridge when it was new?  It seemed to me that in its heyday it could have been a great place to have 1920s fun

Just down the lane from Twyford is another interesting farm.   Plaw Hatch and its next-door-neighbour Tablehurst Farm are owned by a cooperative - a sort of crowdfunding farm ownership scheme.   Bob, with decades of experience looking after cattle, said that their cows are in pretty good shape, and the people there are businesslike as well as charming, friendly and welcoming.   If you want to find out more, please take a look at their extremely interesting website

We took a little stroll around the farm, and saw some of the cows waiting to be milked.  Like many farm animals in summer, they were troubled with flies, and were making full use of a brush fixed up for their use.   

 I didn't photograph a group of kids who were looking at the cows being milked in the little parlour, but at the sales desk, beneath a mural of a leaping cow, I was able to see through a glass window to the cheese-making next door,

 The farm buildings were old, and full of character...

We wondered what the peculiar little building was on the right, below.  It had a bell, so we thought it might be a schoolroom, but the near-circular chamber inside wasn't anything like a schoolroom - too small and such an unusual shape.   There was a Victorian date carved somewhere. Any ideas, anyone?

I think there's a pop up coffee shop at the farm on some days of the week, and possibly also a bar (they do sell local beer).  The farm shop sells all kinds of biodynamic foods, raw milk, cheese, and what we thought was the the best yogurt we'd had, ever.  Sadly, I think it's only available at the farm, but if you should ever happen to see any, do give it a try.

You could spend many days exploring Ashdown Forest, but there are also quite a few stately homes, animal attractions and National Trust properties nearby. (With, of course, those ever welcome National Trust teashops.) 

My favourite local NT property is Sheffield Park and Garden, designed by the famous landscape designer Capability Brown.   Only the parkland and garden belong to the National Trust, but the "Strawberry Gothic" style Sheffield Park House still exists (it is now private apartments). You can glimpse part of it below, overlooking Capability's landscaping.  It is quite a pile. 

Turn the other way, and this is the view that the people in the house see.

 I particularly liked the red water lilies, but then I'm always a sucker for water lilies.  

This summer we haven't had all that many consecutive days of good weather.  I was grateful that we used what we had at Twyford Farm, but eventually the clouds gathered and the rain set in again.  I returned to London, feeling pleased at having seen some of the work the CRT does and reflecting that I 'd probably never have visited the area otherwise.  Because it really is awkward to reach from our home, you know, even though I actually read the map just fine on the way back...  

Monday, 15 August 2016


I don't know if it is just me but it hasn't seemed like summer till now. Not only weeks on end of drab greyness, but the general angst, recriminations and arguments around the referendum also made everything seem grey. But now the sun has come out, and the Olympics are here (or, rather, in Rio) and the atmosphere is lighter.  Our local housing co-op had its own Olympic Games and it was great for the kids that the adults turned out to organise them a relay, sprint and all the favourites like egg and spoon and sack race.

We decided to do a couple of the things we'd been waiting for summer to do. One of them is to revisit Abbey Wood. It's now an unremarkable suburb in SE London, but in years gone past it was a hub of power, the site of Lesnes Abbey, whose monks once owned everything for miles around.  They were closed down in the 16th century and the remains of their huge, grand abbey are being regenerated as part of a Heritage Lottery Scheme, A new turf roofed visitor centre is being built, as well as a new garden like the monks might (or frankly might not) have had.

It has cast iron gates representing grass (I think)  and rather odd sculptures which are supposed to represent beehives (I think). So not the easiest garden to interpret, so far. I've found a description of what it will ultimately be like (follow the link here),but the main thing is that it is an attractive place to be, which is what really matters in a garden.

The monks' fish pond, previously overgrown, has been opened up for wildlife studies with a boardwalk, and generally the site is getting more of the attention it deserves.

Just round the corner by those trees in the picture above, is a stupendous play area with a climbing wall, bike track, every imaginable sort of play equipment, an outdoor gym a parkour zone and goodness knows what else, and it was great to see lots of kids and families picknicking and playing.

The woodland that stretches out from the abbey is very ancient,  part of the great Wildwood which used to cover so much of the London area.  Over 900 species of invertebrates, and 300 species of plants have been recorded here, and it has a fossil bed, ponds and some heathland too, plus quite a few butterflies I didn't recognise.   Most of all it is a wonderful woodland to walk through and we stopped and chatted with quite a few people who come here every day, either to walk their dogs or to get a bit of peace and quiet. 

The heather is fully out in the heathland glades. If it had only been lavender, what with the hot sunny weather, I could almost have thought I was in Provence....

In a lonely glade, someone had carved my ideal chair from an old treetrunk.  And very welcome it was after a few miles.

There are several ponds. There's a heron in the background with a mother duck and her ducklings swimming.

and plenty of blackberries, particularly delicious ones.

Since the sunshine continued, we went a couple of days later to Wisley, in Surrey, the chief garden of the Royal Horticultural Society.  We try to go a few times a year to see the garden change with the seasons.  If you haven't been to WIsley, let me show you my house (in my dreams) Naturally there would be a team of Wisley horticulturalists standing by to look after the acres of grounds. 

And label all the plants.... like this one whose leaves look as if they are speckled by sunlight filtering in through the trees.   

Here was my favourite curiosity.  It hardly looks like a flower at all. 

At this time of year, the wild areas come into their own. This part of the garden features plants which grow wild in the British Isles.

So that's what I'm up to. Mostly, just enjoying hanging out in the summer and making the most of the sunshine. 
I hope you're enjoying your late summer too.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The last couple of weeks.

So what have I done in the last couple of weeks? Bits and pieces. I finished some Lewis Carroll work, and went with my friend to see "Men and Chicken" one of the weirdest films I've seen. In it, five seriously dysfunctional brothers make gruesome blackly humorous discoveries on a remote Danish island.  I can't describe it. And I certainly don't recommend you to watch the trailer. Like most trailers, it makes you not want to see the movie.   I'd say it's not very politically correct, but my friend adored it. 

We saw the last of the roses, at least for now. Some of the bushes will bloom again at the end of the summer. 

 On Wednesday I happened to be passing the Jewish Museum in London's Camden Town and realised I'd never ever been inside.  It's a modern building hidden inside an old one, and larger than it looks at first. My favourite exhibit was this cape, the property of Doris Benjamin, a nurse in World War 2.  Like the other nurses, apparently Doris begged  regimental badges and shoulder flashes from the men that she nursed, and sewed them on her cape. A nice way to remember them, and a discussion point for the patients, too, I bet.  

About half a mile away, in Primrose Hill, I spotted some bas-reliefs decorating the large, grand 1950s stone doorway of Cecil Sharp House. Named after England's most famous folk-song collector, Cecil Sharp House is the HQ of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and its library is a treasure trove of curious customs and songs going back centuries.  

This carving shows a Hobby Horse, a creature in English folk dancing.  The Hobby takes all shapes and forms and often disrupts the dance by weaving in and out of the dancers, or else it dances on its own.  They must go back many hundreds of years, possibly even before Christianity. This one makes me think of a witchdoctor as it capers about.  

Cecil Sharp House runs all kinds of activities, some rather unexpected - I even once attended a class to learn how to dance the quadrille (don't ask) and last time I went with T's cousin, there was a whole Regency costume ball going on in the basement. I snapped this pair queuing up for coffee in the interval. 

 At present Cecil Sharp House has a display of artworks it has commissioned or bought over the ages, including a gigantic patchwork quilt from 1992. This is one of the panels. 

And for those of you who have not had enough of English folk dancing, this is the Shepherd's Hey mentioned in the panel. The first few minutes will probably be enough, and the jingly sound is the bells on their legs, in case you aren't familiar with morris dancing. 

T and I went to the British Library's exhibition "Shakespeare in Ten Acts" about the way Shakespeare performances have been reinterpreted over the centuries. It reminded me of all kinds of movies and performances I've seen, and made me long to see Derek Jarman's wonderful "Tempest" again. (Here's one of my favourite clips -  Elisabeth Welch singing "Stormy Weather."

And I spotted this Shakespeare teapot, which I would love to own. 

Saw a White Admiral butterfly - don't remember having seen one before. 

And the heather was out in a sandy bit of Hampstead Heath, London felt as if it was miles away. 

I had a staring match with Ol' Four Eyes, the cat. First time I saw him peering in through the window, those markings gave me quite a shock. 

And caught the end of a beautiful sunset.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Ten Miles in Kent, Hop Picking and a glimpse of Japan.

This week has been notable because we got some SUN, after what seems like months of gloomy skies and rain.  I've been spending some of the time in planning another trip to Japan. I went in 2014 in connection with my book on Lewis Carroll, and of course, Tony took the chance to come too.  The experience turned out to be so interesting - from the curious thatched houses of Gokayama, to the historic deer herds of Nara and, of course, the food -  that we decided to go again if the chance came up.  

As it happens, London's Burgh House museum is running an exhibition of Japanese photos, "Kyoto Dreams," by a photographer colleague, Jeremy Hoare.  So I went along to take a look with more than the usual interest, and, of course, caught up with Jeremy too. Here he is with his Japanese wife Chisako, next to some striking images of geishas. Most were snapped in semi abstract "paparazzo style"  to offer glimpses of these curious, stylised entertainers in their off duty moments.    

Chisako probably has one of the more unusual jobs in London - she is a professional kimono maker, and it seems that Kitsuke, the art of dressing in a kimono, has fans of all nationalities in London. In fact, Burgh House ran a kimono fashion show only last April.  I might post about Burgh House one day. It's an elegant old mansion which was rescued and is now run by the local community. It always has something interesting to see, and there's a pretty garden where you can eat.  (Burgh House also happens to be a PokemonGO Gym, if that is your thing). 

 "Kyoto Dreams" is on till Sunday. 

After the sun appeared, T and I decided to go for a long walk. So we took the train to Sevenoaks in Kent with my National Trust pass to hand. 

 There are two great National Trust houses very near Sevenoaks, which is now a London dormitory town. The nearest is Knole, one of England's largest houses, which was originally thought to have been a Calendar House, with 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 12 entrances. (I love this idea)  Knole is a startlingly short walk from Sevenoaks High Street, and as soon as you step into the estate, you really do feel as if you are in a different world. This is the last surviving medieval deer park in Kent, with hills, valleys and more towering chestnut trees than I could ever count. 

The deer are semi wild, but friendly and used to people.  

Before long I spotted the house in the distance.... but we didn't go in this time. 

Instead, we walked past it, and across a golf course....

...then came to the curious little folly building which you see in the photo below. It is called The Birdcage, and it was built by one of the 18th century owners of Knole, Lord Amherst, to store all the pheasants he shot on his hunts. I suspect the gamekeeper lived there too.  The present gamekeeper is said to live there, anyhow, though I don't suppose he has dead pheasants hanging from the ceilings these days.
The cottage is approached by a  "ruined" arch, another folly which was created at the same time the house was built. It's in no recognisable style, but apparently it re-used carved stones from another, long demolished house not far away.

There are deer everywhere.  Or at least they are mostly deer. 

On and on we went, through groves of enormous, and very old chestnut and oak trees, some of which are obviously hundreds of years old. 

...and eventually we left the estate and continued down tiny lanes, footpaths and bridleways instead. 

Kent is a beautiful county, and midweek hardly anyone seemed to be about on the paths and bridleways. Except we did meet a woman with a dog, which snarled menacingly at us.  "Oh, don't worry about her. She's only like that because she never sees anyone," she said, making me wonder if she might be some kind of greenwood hermit who only ventured out at lonely times.  

Eventually we passed thes buildings below, and a notice told us that we were now on the Ightham estate, which surrounds the other National Trust house nearby, Ightham Mote.  These sheds don't look much but they have an interesting history, for they are hoppers huts. 

A hundred years ago, whole streets of Cockneys from the East End of London would come down to Kent each year and pick hops. They didn't get paid much for their hopping, but it was the nearest thing they got to a holiday, and from all accounts it was a happy time (though personally I feel the estate could have put some windows in the sheds for them.)  The hop picking experience is captured in the little film below, from 1929, (which also promises silk stockings, I see.) So the hop pickers camped in these shelters and cooked their food on campfires outside - though I'm not sure where they washed the silk stockings. Now, the huts are closed and cobwebbed.

Finally, between the trees and down in a hollow, there was Ightham Mote. 

As its name suggests it is surrounded by a moat, just glimpsed to the left and right of this old stone bridge below.  

When I was young I visited Ightham Mote, and was shown around by the charming elderly owner. Although it was - sort of - open to the public, we were the only visitors, and I've never forgotten how strong the house's own personality was, as it sat, dilapidated but dignified, getting older and older and older in its remote little valley.  Eventually, it passed to the National Trust, which did extensive and much-needed repairs, restored the garden and generally spruced it up, adding the usual shop and cafe to please the many visitors who help pay for its upkeep. I was sad that it had lost its romantically melancholic atmosphere, but it is still a wonderful place, in a slightly different way.    

Like many old houses, it has been adapted and modernised over centuries, and is full of strange corners and curiosities. This long newel post at the bottom of a staircase very battered, and I wondered who the staircase guardian is supposed to be. I don't suppose anyone knows, but I bet he was a familiar figure to many who grew up in the house in the past. 

Ightham Mote also has the country's one and only Grade 1 Listed doghouse, seen below. It was created for a St. Bernard called Dido, then became home for two tiny lap dogs.  It's now all ready for a new tenant, I hope it gets one someday! 

My favourite room on the earlier visit was the living room which is decorated with faded but still spectacular 18th century Chinese handpainted wallpaper.  The room was still my favourite, although I felt there might be rather too many knick knacks around for my taste. The room has two wonderful fireplaces, one finely carved in white

with what look like wood spirits or green men, and tiles that were put in at a later date.

The second chimneypiece runs across most of the opposite wall, and it is what the friendly volunteer guide (seen below) called the "Marmite Fireplace,"  (Marmite is something which, according to the ads, you either love or hate.)  I loved it.

The top section reminds me of the kind of painted Elizabethan tombs you see in old churches, with little coloured figures poking their heads out in high relief. 

The lower part is mostly varnished wood, with a splendid iron fireback. 

I could have spent longer in the house and gardens, but didn't have time before it closed at 5 pm. But the walk back to Sevenoaks, just under a couple of hours away through the woods, was good too, with low golden light pushing through the branches and sliding down the hill.

I squeezed right inside a hollow oak and looked up. 

And Knole seemed deserted, but for the deer.   It was too late to see inside, but I'll be back.  Three cheers for the National Trust! 

   If you get the chance to do the walk yourself, it's ten miles round trip, with a few hills and the chance to have tea at Ightham Mote. You'll need an OS map to find the footpaths and byways - they're clearly marked.  

Blog Archive