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Entries about architecture

England’s smallest cathedral city

Wells

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Wells Cathedral and Cathedral Green

We recently spent a few days in the Somerset city of Wells, often described as England’s smallest city. In fact, the City of London is smaller, but doesn’t feel like it, surrounded as it is by all the rest of Greater London!

Wells gets its name from the three wells found here – two in the Bishop’s Palace gardens and one in the market place. Thanks to them the Romans settled here, and after them the Anglo-Saxons. King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church here in 704. Two hundred years later it became the seat of the diocesan bishop, until in 1090 the bishopric was moved to Bath. Arguments ensued between the canons of Wells and the monks of Bath until 1245 when Pope Innocent V resolved the dispute by creating the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The cathedral was built around the same time, cementing Wells’ role as the principal seat of the diocese.

The main sights in the city all centre on its role as the bishop’s seat – the cathedral itself, the cathedral green and nearby Vicars’ Close, and the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. These all lie within a walled precinct known as the Liberty of St Andrew.

Wells Cathedral

The cathedral is dedicated to St Andrew, as are the city’s three wells. Parts date back to the 10th century but most of it was built during the 13th. As it was never a monastic cathedral it survived the Dissolution of Henry VIII and the Reformation intact. It has been called Europe's first truly Gothic structure.

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The West Front, Wells Cathedral

The west front is broad and is said to have one of the most impressive collections of medieval sculpture in the western world. Almost 300 of the original 400 statues remain. According to the cathedral website, ‘They appear quite differently today to how they looked in the Middle Ages, when much of the Cathedral was painted inside and out in bright colours’. I think I prefer them like this, in the soft yellow local limestone.

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Two of the many statues

Inside, the fan vaulted ceiling is attractively painted, and the central tower supported by striking ‘scissor’ arches. These were added in the mid 14th century to prevent the tower from collapsing. This 1313 addition to the cathedral had been too much for the foundations, causing large cracks to appear in the tower’s structure. This elegant solution to the problem has become one of the building’s most beautiful features.

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The interior, with the famous scissor arches

There is some wonderful stained glass, most famously in the so-called Jesse Window. This dates from 1340-45 and depicts the Tree of Jesse (the family and ancestors of Christ), with the Nativity at its centre. Again from the cathedral website: ‘Dating from about 1340, it is still remarkably intact – it narrowly escaped destruction during the English Civil War and was protected during the Blitz of World War Two – so what we see today is much as the medieval glaziers designed it and as our ancestors viewed it before us.’ Unfortunately, COVID restrictions on access to the smaller areas of the cathedral meant that we were only able to peer at this through a screen at the far end of the choir, but we got some idea from there of its artistry and level of detail.

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The Jesse Window

The Chapter House was also off-limits, but there was plenty to see in the main cathedral building, including the astronomical clock in the north transept - the second oldest surviving clock in England after the one in Salisbury Cathedral. It dates from about 1325 and still has its original medieval face, although the mechanism was replaced in the 19th century with the original being moved to the Science Museum in London, where it still operates. In addition to showing the time on a 24-hour dial, its innermost circle shows the days of the lunar month and the phases of the moon. The astronomical dial presents a pre-Copernican view, with the sun and moon revolving round a central fixed earth.

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Astronomical clock, and one of the Stations of the Cross

I also liked the Stations of the Cross with colours that reminded me of Orthodox icons.

We followed a set route around the building, marked out on the floor to ensure social distancing – a necessary evil at the time of our visit. This led us to explore the tranquil Camery garden, laid out to the east of the cloisters on the site of the 15th century Lady Chapel of which only the foundation stones remain. The rest was dismantled during the 16th century so that timber and lead could be sold to provide much-needed funds to the cathedral. There were some good views of the cathedral tower to be had from here and some pretty late summer flowers to photograph.

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In the Camery Garden

We finished our tour by following the marked route, the ‘Pilgrim’s Footsteps’, around the cloisters. These date mainly from the 15th century and have been quite recently restored. The walls display monuments to illustrious locals, and/or those wealthy enough to afford an ornate cathedral memorial. My eye was caught by one in particular, to a soldier who served under a ‘Great General’ (I assume Wellington) and died in the Battle of Waterloo. Also commemorated is a young boy of the same family who was only five when he died and yet ‘had strong religious impressions’ – not something I feel would be said of today’s five year olds!

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In the cloisters

Vicars’ Close

Just to the north of the cathedral, still within the precinct of the Liberty of St Andrew, is a short street known as Vicars’ Close. Its houses were built in the 14th and early 15th centuries as homes for the group of priests who served in the cathedral, the Vicars Choral. This is said to be the oldest purely residential street in Europe to have its original buildings surviving intact. Unusually it was built with a deliberate narrowing towards the end furthest from the cathedral, to make it look longer than it is (and of course viewed from that far end it looks shorter). There were originally 22 houses on the east side and 20 on the west, but after the Reformation, when clerics were permitted to marry and households consequently became larger, some of the houses were knocked together and there are now 27 in total.

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Vicars' Close

At the north end of the street is the Vicars’ Chapel and Library, while at the south end, as you enter from the cathedral side, is an arched gate cut into the Vicars’ Hall. On the cathedral wall opposite the latter is a second clock face of the cathedral’s famous astronomical clock, driven by the same mechanism.

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Clock on the exterior of the cathedral, and detail on one of the houses in Vicars' Close

The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop’s Palace lies on the south side of the cathedral. It has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years and is a Grade I listed building. It is surrounded by a wall and moat intended to provide a defence if needed, although in practice it was never called into use for that purpose. However, the moat also serves to channel the water from the two wells in the grounds (which give the city its name).

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Moat around the Bishop's Palace

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By/in the moat

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The defensive wall from one of the towers

The main part of the palace was built in the 13th century, with additions in the 14th and 15th. Today the great hall is in ruins, and part of the rest of the structure still in use as the bishop’s house, but you can visit some of the rooms in the palace, where displays cover the history of the building and the bishopric. There is also a chapel, but that was closed for restoration when we visited.

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The ruined Great Hall

In any case we were more interested in touring the beautiful gardens, especially as it was a lovely late September afternoon. The area around the great hall is laid out as lawns, including a croquet lawn. Elsewhere there are pretty flower beds surrounding one of the main features, the pools formed by the springs themselves. From here there are lovely views of the cathedral.

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Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden

Nearby is a 15th century well house. A sign explains that in 1451 the then bishop, Bishop Beckynton, granted the town a supply of water from the wells within his garden. A cistern inside the well house collected water which was forced through pipes to the outlet in the marketplace. From here the water ran down gutters at the side of many of the streets, washing away blood and offal from the butchers’ shops. You can still see the water flowing in these gutters as you walk around the city, although I believe today’s butchers are no longer in the habit of using it to dispose of their waste! On the roof of the well house is a statue of the bishop’s favourite hunting dog.

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Dog statue on the well house

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Michaelmas daisies and butterfly

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Seed-head

Gates to the Liberty of St Andrew

There are three ancient entrances to the precinct – the Penniless Porch, The Bishop's Eye and Brown's Gatehouse, which were all built around 1450. The first of these leads to the cathedral green from the market place and is so-called because beggars used to wait there to ask for alms from those attending services.

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The Penniless Porch

The Bishop’s Eye also leads from the market place but towards the Bishop’s Palace. Brown’s Gatehouse lies to the north of these on Sadler Street and has been incorporated into a hotel, The Ancient Gatehouse. We ate dinner in their Italian restaurant one evening and afterwards I took some night shots of the cathedral from just inside the gatehouse.

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Wells Cathedral at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:19 Archived in England Tagged buildings streets architecture england history houses garden cathedral Comments (13)

Dodging the showers and dining in style

North Yorkshire

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View from Rievaulx Terrace

Driving regularly between our home in London and our ‘second home’ in Newcastle, we pass through Yorkshire every time, usually speeding through on the A1M motorway. We also make annual visits to Swaledale (see my page on Grinton: ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’). Recently however we decided to break our journey home with an overnight stay at somewhere rather special – somewhere I have wanted to visit for some time (wait and see!). Before that stay, there was time earlier in the day to see some of the sights in the area around the busy little town of Helmsley.

Rievaulx Terrace and Abbey

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The path through the woods,
Rievaulx Terrace

Not having done my homework as thoroughly as I would do for a major trip abroad, I hadn’t realised until we arrived that Rievaulx Terrace and Rievaulx Abbey were two separate properties – the former under the care of the National Trust and the latter under English Heritage. Arriving at the turnoff for both we were faced with a choice and opted for the Terrace, at least as our initial stop.

What had started as quite a bright but windy day in Newcastle had by now turned showery, but as we parked the latest shower stopped and we made our way to the ticket office hopeful of being able to explore without getting wet. The friendly lady there explained about the separate sights (so if we wanted to see both we would have to pay twice) and suggested a walking route that should bring us to the larger of the two ‘temples’ here just as it was opened up for one of the talks that take place a few times each day.

Rievaulx Terrace is a wonderful example of the 18th century taste for the Romantic in landscape gardening. The land here was originally part of the estate of the abbey but after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century it passed into private hands and was owned by several local aristocratic families before being bought by Sir Charles Duncombe in 1687. The Duncombes were already wealthy local land-owners; their Duncombe Park estate adjoins this one. By 1747 both properties were in the hands of Thomas Duncombe II, who returned from his Grand Tour full of ideas about the development of his estate, in particular Rievaulx Terrace. Like others of his generation he planned to create his own idealised landscape, inspired by the scenery of Europe he had so admired on his travels, and unlike many of them he had the perfect spot in which to do it, overlooking one of the features held dear by the Romantics, a magnificent ruined abbey. And not content with that, he also included two picturesque temples, one at either end of the terrace.

Our walk took us along a woodland path to emerge near the first of these, the Tuscan Temple. This is kept locked as its floor is too precious to allow anyone to walk on it. The tiles are medieval, taken from the abbey below – a fate suffered by many of these religious structures after Henry VIII had wielded his royal powers.

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The Tuscan Temple

At this point the route turns back on itself, paralleling the woodland path on a wide strip of green lawn. To our right were the woods; to our left was a steep partly wooded escarpment. Breaks in the trees, thirteen in all, allowed for views down to the abbey below. As befitting the Romantic tradition, each of these views is like a framed painting, offering a different perspective on the ruins. And, again in the Romantic tradition, the effect seems totally natural while in fact being carefully designed.

Rievaulx Abbey

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Views of Rievaulx Abbey from the Terrace

Rievaulx was one of the great Cistercian abbeys of England prior to its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538. It was founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France. Originally the abbey buildings would have been of wood. The first stone structures were erected towards the end of the 12th century and the impressive church completed in the 1220s.

At the time of its dissolution in 1538, the abbey consisted of 72 buildings. These were, as was usual following dissolution, confiscated, rendered uninhabitable and stripped of any valuables such as lead, before being left to fall into ruin. The site was granted to the Earl of Rutland, one of Henry's advisers, and later was sold to Sir Charles Duncombe, a wealthy London banker, along with other land in this area.

Just as the Duncombe family’s many guests would have done, we strolled the length of the terrace admiring the different perspectives of the ruins. Many of them would no doubt have stopped to sketch or paint a watercolour; we in our turn took photos, of both the views of the abbey and our immediate surroundings.

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Bee and wild flower

The Ionic Temple

At the opposite end of the terrace to the Tuscan Temple is the Ionic Temple. Its interior replicates the sort of grand dining room that would have been found in the stately homes of that era. Here the Duncombes would have entertained their guests with delicious meals prepared for them by servants in its basement kitchen.

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The Ionic Temple

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The temple’s design was inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome which Thomas Duncombe II would no doubt have seen on his Grand Tour. We arrived here as hoped while the building was still open, and although we had missed the start of the talk by the docent, we were in time to hear his description of its star attraction, the painted ceiling. This is the work of an Italian painter, Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis, who came to England around 1753. The central panel depicts Aurora, Apollo and the Muses, and is based on Guido Reni’s mural in the Palazzo Rospigliosi in Rome. Around it are other mythological scenes.

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In the Ionic Temple

Below, the table is set for dinner as it would have been when the Duncombes and their guests arrived here after their stroll, with Worcester porcelain, and a set of twelve mid-18th century mahogany dining chairs.

The docent explained that when the family fell on harder times and entertained less, the basement was converted to serve as a garden store. Our arrival at the temple had coincided with the start of a heavy shower, so after the docent had finished his talk and we had taken a few photos, we went outside and down the short flight of stone steps at the side into this basement area.

Nowadays it appears to be used for exhibitions about the history of the terrace and temples. There were panels describing some of the wildlife to be found on the terrace, some examples of the garden tools that were stored here, and a temporary exhibition which I found very interesting: A Tale of Two Sketchbooks. This described the artistic lives of two young 18th-century women artists from contrasting backgrounds. One was Ann Duncombe, daughter of Thomas who built the terrace, and the other Effie Silver, a child of the Foundling Hospital who had found work as an assistant to an artist through the intervention of one of the hospital’s famous patrons, Hogarth. The exhibition focused on their chance meeting on the terrace when Silver’s employer was working for the Duncombes, painting family portraits. It took me a while to realise that much of their history, and even their very existence, is fiction, although the historical background is real, and what I took to be facsimiles of their sketchbooks are in fact new works of art created for this exhibition.

Helmsley Walled Garden

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In Helmsley Walled Garden

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In Helmsley Walled Garden

When the shower had passed, we headed back to our parked car to decide where to go next. We considered a visit to the abbey ruins below but decided instead to drive into Helmsley where there might be more to do if the weather worsened. A friend in Newcastle had recently visited and enthused about the walled garden there so we took a chance on the weather, parked as recommended in the busy long-stay car park (this is clearly a popular town with visitors to Yorkshire) and followed the footpath to the gardens.

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Glasshouses, Helmsley Walled Garden

Helmsley Walled Garden occupies the site of the former vegetable garden of the ‘big house’ at Duncombe Park. After WW1, the garden was leased out for use as a commercial enterprise. This closed down in 1982 and it fell into disuse and became overgrown. In 1994, a local lady Alison Ticehurst, who had been looking for a place to develop her ideas on horticultural therapy, decided to buy and restore the garden. It was a mammoth undertaking as it had by then turned into a complete wilderness, but she persevered, helped by her family and volunteers, and created the beautiful gardens we can see today. Sadly Alison died suddenly and at a relatively young age, in 1999, but not before she had realised her dream, and the garden continues to thrive and to provide therapeutic support for many. It is also a very pleasant place in which to spend an hour or so.

By the time we arrived the sun was shining again, but we opted to have a light snack in the café at the gardens before exploring them. We had reason to want to be very hungry this evening (wait and see!) so just had a coffee (not very good) and cake (excellent), enjoying the warm sun through the glass roof and the grapevines all around.

After a while the sun became too warm, so we went to pay our entrance fee for the gardens themselves – just as a very black cloud appeared overhead. And we had got no further than the glasshouses when the heavens opened, and we were forced to take shelter. No matter – there was plenty to interest us here in the glasshouses – thistles laid out on the wooden shelves to dry, attracting loads of bees, colourful geraniums and other flowers in pots, and a water-colour artist at work.

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Bee and thistle in the glasshouse

When the shower blew over we went out to explore and spent a happy hour meandering along the paths, and taking lots of photos. The garden is divided into a number of ‘sub-gardens’ – the Clematis Garden, the White Garden, the Hot Border, the Long Border, the Orchard, Alison’s Garden. In some the flowers had taken a bit of a battering in the rain, in a few the blooms were passed their best, but there was still lots of colour and lots to photograph.

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The White Border

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In the orchard

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In the clematis garden

Beyond the walls are the photogenic ruins of Helmsley Castle. The first castle on this site was a wooden one, built in the early part of the 12th century, with stone construction starting at the end of that century. It grew over the next two hundred years, with the impressive East Tower, a chapel and living quarters. In the 16th century the old medieval hall of the castle was converted into a comfortable ‘modern’ Tudor mansion and the chapel into a kitchen. It passed down through generations, and at the end of the 17th century was sold to Sir Charles Duncombe – the same Sir Charles Duncombe who also bought Rievaulx Abbey. When he died his sister Mary's husband, Thomas Brown, inherited the castle. He promptly changed his surname to Duncombe, had a country house built on the estate, which he called Duncombe Park, and left the castle to fall into the picturesque runs so beloved at that time. It is still owned by the same family (now the Barons of Feversham after an early 19th century Charles was raised to the peerage).

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Helmsley Castle from Helmsley Walled Garden

Helmsley

When we left the gardens, we opted not to visit the castle, as we had already seen a bit of it from the gardens, and instead had a stroll around the town. It has some attractive buildings and a striking memorial to William, the 2nd Baron of Feversham, in the middle of the market square.

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The monument to Lord Feversham

But that same square was marred by all the parked cars and the pavements crowded. The large number of signs outside the houses (‘Private property, no parking’; ‘Drive in constant use’; ‘No access’; ‘Not a public footpath’ etc. etc.) said a lot about the impact of tourism on this small community, although no doubt it is great for the local economy.

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All Saints Church, and Helmsley Castle from the town

We had a quick look at the exterior of the church, All Saints, which although dating in part from the 12th century is largely the result of a significant Victorian make-over. But rather than linger in the town we decided to make the most of the sunshine, which seemed now to be firmly with us, and visit another of Yorkshire’s ruined abbeys.

Byland Abbey

With the weather improving all the time, and having not paid a visit to Rievaulx Abbey, we couldn’t really miss stopping at Byland, especially as we had to drive right past it to reach our destination for the night. What is more, although like Rievaulx and Helmsley Castle, Byland is under the care of English Heritage, there is no fee charged for admission! I had expected therefore to find very little to see here, but that is by no means the case.

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The west front

In its day Byland was one of the largest Cistercian abbeys in the country. The great church with its magnificent west front and rose window was the inspiration for a similar window at York Minster. The buildings whose ruins we see today were mostly constructed in the 12th century and the abbey thrived through to the 14th. It acquired considerable land and derived much of its income from sheep farming. But during the 14th century it suffered a series of setbacks. Byland, Rievaulx and several other religious houses in this area were pillaged by the victorious Scots as revenge for the English attack the Cistercian abbey of Melrose. The Black Death also hit the abbey population hard, both monks and lay brothers.

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View of the church from the west front

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Church ruins

By the early 16th century it was starting to recover and rebuild its economy, but then Henry VIII dissolved all religious houses in the country when he declared himself head of the Church in England in 1533. Like Rievaulx and others, Byland Abbey was stripped of all valuable materials before being given to a favoured local aristocrat – in this case, Sir William Pickering. The Byland estate later passed through various hands, and the abbey’s stones were gradually taken to serve various purposes – building local cottages, decorating the gardens of Myton Hall in Swalesdale. The high altar and a small alabaster image of the Trinity are both now at nearby Ampleforth Abbey. What remained fell into disrepair and then into ruin.

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Remains of the south (left) and north transepts

Following excavations in the 1920s much of the original plan was revealed, and what remained of the church, cloisters and other buildings preserved. As well as that great west front you can still see some of the 13th century tiled floor, especially in the south transept. Parts of some other walls still stand, the cloisters are easy to trace, and a number of other rooms are labelled such as the parlour and kitchen.

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Medieval tiles

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Church ruins from the domestic buildings to the south

The Black Swan at Oldstead

I became aware of chef Tommy Banks and his Michelin-starred pub restaurant in Yorkshire through the TV programme Great British Menu. I was impressed by his ethos of ‘field to fork’ – fresh seasonal ingredients, produced locally (most on his parents’ nearby farm or in the pub’s own extensive kitchen garden) or foraged for in the hedgerows and woodland around Oldstead, and presented with creativity but without forgetting that taste is foremost. Banks was Britain’s youngest Michelin-starred chef in 2013 and won Great British Menu in 2016 and 2017, and more recently has been a judge on the programme. So having been so impressed I looked up the Black Swan and realised that it was not too far from the route we take regularly between London and Newcastle, and back again, and that although a stay here would be a splurge, it was not an unaffordable one. As I am closing my small business this year to go into ‘almost’ retirement, I decided this would be the perfect treat with which to mark that closure and blow some of the profits!

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The Black Swan at Oldstead

Oldstead is little more than a hamlet – just a cluster of cottages reached along a single-track road from Byland Abbey. We arrived towards the end of the afternoon, parked behind the pub and went to check in. There are no bedrooms in the pub itself, with some being in a block behind and the remainder in cottages just a few metres away in the village. We were in one of the latter, so we grabbed our overnight bags (leaving most of our luggage in the car – we had been in Newcastle for nine nights and had quite a lot with us!) and followed the friendly receptionist to our ‘home’ for the night.

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Our cottage - our room is bottom left

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Our bedroom

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Our bathroom

Although not large the room was stylish and welcoming, and we had a sizeable bathroom with rain shower and huge copper bath-tub! We settled in and made use of the wifi to check emails, and I sorted through the photos I had taken during the day.

If you book a stay here a table is automatically reserved for you in the restaurant and breakfast is included in the package too – all you need to pay for on top are any drinks. We made a start on those with a pre-dinner drink in the cosy bar. And most of the drinks too reflect Banks’ ethos, being innovative and derived from local produce. I tried the local (Yorkshire-made) gin, Rare Bird, and Chris had a vodka and tonic.

The menu here is a set tasting menu, although if you mention any allergies, food aversions etc. in advance alternates will be provided. Our first course was a mushroom quiche, but forget any idea you may have of a slice of eggy cheesy set custard on a pastry base! This little work of art was served in the bar with our drinks and set the tone for a truly memorable experience – or rather, a whole evening of such experiences! Starting with the ‘pastry’, which was made with dried cep powder, this was a multi-layered mushroom feast in miniature – perfectly formed and absolutely delicious.

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Mushroom quiche

We were then escorted upstairs to our table to enjoy the rest of the meal. Chris ordered the accompanying drinks package too, but realising that would probably be more alcohol than I could comfortably appreciate (I have to manage my intake because of medication) I instead asked for advice and selected just a couple of the wines in the package. The advice was good (and also practical, with wines towards the lower end of the £6 - £118 (per glass!) range being proposed, and served in small amounts so that I could sample several.

The full menu was:

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Scallop with Sun Gold Tomatoes
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Raspberry & Elderflower
'ice cream sandwich'

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Monkfish with New Onions
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Potato with Fermented Celeriac

Mushroom Quiche

~o~

Crab and Pea
Beetroot Salad
Sour Bread and Sour Butter
Raw Oldstead Deer
Scallop with Sun Gold Tomatoes

~o~

Monkfish with New Onions and Lemon Verbena
Potato with Fermented Celeriac
Lamb with Courgette and Girolles

~o~

Raspberry and Elderflower
Strawberry and Woodruff
Chicory and Potato
Root Vegetable Toast

But those simple labels don’t really give any idea of the complexity of flavours within each dish. Each was presented with a full explanation of the ingredients, delivered by waiting staff who clearly love their work and the food they serve. The drinks too came with a description, and I know from what Chris told me (and the sips he offered me!) that all went perfectly with the dish they accompanied.

It’s hard to pick out highlights but if I was pressed to do so I would probably pick the mushroom quiche, deer carpaccio, lamb and (surprisingly) the dessert made with chicory and potato, which tasted for all the world as if it were made with vanilla ice cream, salted caramel and coffee!

None of the dishes was large, naturally, so at the end of the meal we felt pleasantly full rather than stuffed. We strolled back up the road to our room in the cottage, with a sky full of stars overhead.

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Kitchen garden views from our breakfast table, and from the car park

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we returned to the pub/restaurant and enjoyed a delicious breakfast of home-made granola, brioche with strawberry conserve and a ‘full English’, at a table with a view of the kitchen garden. Then it was time to check out and set off on the long drive home, but not before resolving to return to the Black Swan one day.

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Cat in the garden

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Sheep grazing nearby

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Swallow on a wire

Posted by ToonSarah 11:28 Archived in England Tagged castles architecture flowers restaurant history ruins views village pubs garden abbey Comments (19)

In Metro-Land

Ruislip

Ruislip is a pleasant suburb in north west London, with an ancient village at its heart which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. It is also the town where I grew up, and where my parents continued to live until old age and ill health necessitated a move away for the last few years of their lives.

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Domesday Book info in the library

When the Doomsday Book was written, in 1086, Ruislip was known as Rislepe, ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow’, and (as I was always told as a child) had more pigs than human inhabitants. These pigs roamed the extensive woodlands, and Ruislip Woods remain to this day, although smaller than they once were.

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With my sister by Ruislip Duck Pond
- I am on the right

The village grew up around the 13th century parish church dedicated to St Martin. The barns belonging to the former Manor Farm, just to the north of the church, still stand. Nearby is the village duck-pond, where as a child I loved to throw bread to the ducks.

Ruislip remained quite small, and rural, until the coming of the Metropolitan railway at the start of the 20th century. At first the new line and station were used mainly by Londoners wanting to escape to the country for a day, but soon the charms of living here lured many to move out to the suburbs, and development in Ruislip mushroomed. The population rose from 6,217 in 1911, to 72,791 in 1961, and growth was especially fast in the 1930s, as the many houses from this era testify.

This was the period of Metro-Land, a vision of a suburban idyll developed as part of a Metropolitan Railway advertising campaign designed to lure workers away from their cramped homes in Central London and out to a supposed ‘paradise’ that was rural in appearance and lifestyle and yet was in easy reach of their jobs in the capital.

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Metroland poster
- (from wikicommons)

The notion was simple: the railway would buy the farmers' fields that lay either side of the newly expanding railway line and build on them. But while the posters that formed the bulk of the campaign showed a sylvan landscape where ladies in hats picked flowers and drifted through sun-speckled meadows, and families picnicked in perpetual sunshine, of course the building programme destroyed the very landscape that these posters seemed to sell. Meanwhile, the occasional attractive mock-Tudor house shown in those same posters was the exception rather than the norm – most of the construction being of functional brick and pebble-dash terraces.

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Typical 1930s terraced housing

I lived for ten years of my childhood in such a house – a comfortable if uninspiring family home in a street of many more such. But we were happy there, and it was a vast improvement on the tiny flat in Regents Park where my parents had started their married life together. The Metro-Land lifestyle was later immortalised by the poet John Betjeman:

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Ruislip Gardens station today

‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt's edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.’

Ruislip Gardens was my home from the age of four to fourteen, and I would often watch those red trains (or the 1960s maroon equivalents) from my bedroom window, as I waited for my father (not Elaine!) to alight and come home from work.

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Our (2nd) Ruislip home

Later my parents were able to buy a house in Ruislip proper that more closely fitted the mock Tudor poster image, an attractive early 1930s house. Living here as a teenager, and starting to take an interest in the history of Ruislip (now that we lived nearer to its historic heart), I was fascinated by the anecdotes of a neighbour, a woman then in her seventies, who had lived here since the street was first developed. She remembered having to wear rubber boots to walk across the fields that separated her house from the station, changing there into smart ‘town shoes’ and leaving the boots and a lantern with the station-master, to be collected on her return for the night-time walk home. Those fields have long since been covered by other streets and other houses, and even today development is on-going, with some of the larger houses built in the 1930s being pulled down to make way for modern apartments or smaller family homes.

But something of that earlier sense of living a little apart from the hustle of the city remains, and the modern-day equivalents of Betjeman’s Elaine still alight from tube trains each evening and breathe, no doubt, a sigh of relief at being somewhere calmer and quieter. For me, a city-lover, Ruislip now seems too quiet and remote from the action to appeal as a possible home, but I still have that same sense of a slower pace of life whenever I visit and I can understand why Ruislip still lures people to move here with a desire to experience that Metro-Land lifestyle.

And the ancient heart of the former village is still there...

St Martin’s Church

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St Martin's Church

The church of St Martin’s was built in 1245 and probably stands on the site of earlier wooden and Norman stone churches. A stone from the latter was found in the grounds, and some Norman stones appear to have been incorporated in this structure, as well as Roman tiles indicating that prior to all the churches a pagan temple may have stood here.

The name St. Martin is believed to have been given to the church by the Benedictine monks of the Bec Abbey, after Martin of Tours, a saint in Normandy. Ruislip had been given to the Abbey of Le Bec-Hellouin in 1087 by a Norman lord, Ernulf de Hesdin, who himself had acquired this land after the Norman Conquest. The present structure is of flint and stone, and has a bell tower added in the 15th century. This houses eight bells which are still rung every Sunday, I believe.

Inside there are some medieval wall-paintings, a priest’s door and two ancient wooden chests. The pulpit is from the 17th century and the stained glass from the 19th and 20th. I always look too for the memorial to Lady Mary Bankes, which bears this inscription:
‘To the memory of LADY MARY BANKES, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq, the wife and widow of the Honourable Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of his Majesty's Court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of his Majesty King Charles I, of blessed memory, who, having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this. She had four sons: 1. Sir Ralph; 2. Jerome; 3. Charles; 4. William (since dead without issue), and six daughters.’

My first school in Ruislip, which I went to from the ages of five to eleven, was named for Lady Mary – Lady Bankes School. The school’s crest bears an image of a castle, intended to represent Corfe Castle in Dorset. Lady Mary Bankes grew up in Ruislip as a member of the local ‘big’ family, the Hawtreys, and married into the Bankes family who owned the castle in the small village of Corfe. Following the death of her husband during the Civil War, she bravely and successfully defended the castle during a siege in 1643. However, during a second siege in 1646 an act of betrayal by a member of her garrison led to the castle’s capture by the Parliamentarians. They allowed her to go free out of respect for her bravery, but deliberately demolished the castle resulting in the dramatic ruin which today dominates that village.

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St Martin's Church details

St Martin’s was substantially restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1870 and the lych-gates added at that point, which do set off the building rather nicely. It is today a protected building, having received Grade B listed status as an Anglican church in 1950. Located at the top of the busy High Street, both it and its churchyard are a peaceful haven from the bustle of shopping and well worth turning aside to visit. Unfortunately when I was last there a small weekday service was in progress (this is a very active parish church as well as a historic site) so I had to content myself with just one shot of the interior taken from the porch. I will have to go back!

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Inside the church, and detail of the lychgate

Almshouses

Backing on to the churchyard of St Martin’s Church is a row of 16th century almshouses. Originally this was a single dwelling, built in 1570 and serving as the parish house. It was converted in 1616 into ten small alms- or church houses (five at the front, five at the back, each with one room downstairs and one up) to provide accommodation for the poor and needy of the parish.

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The almshouses from the churchyard

The block was known as the Church House, and there are many old references in the parish accounts to its inhabitants, which give an idea of the need for such a facility:
'June 1665 – Widow Fearne of the Church House, several times in her sickness, 13s 0d
Mar 1666 – Paid to John Bates for carrying 50 bavins (bundles of kindling) to Widow Fearnes, 1s 9d
1726 – Moving three women to the Church House, my cart horse, 15s 0d
Paid the carpenter taking down the beds and setting them up, 3s 0d.'

In 1787 the vestry agreed to give poor families living in the Church House ‘a bed and bolster, a pair of blankets, a pair of sheets and a rug each’. In 1789 it was decided that more room was needed to accommodate the poor and destitute, so a purpose-build workhouse was constructed on a site near Copse Wood. But poor families continued to live here too, for some time at least.

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The almshouses from Eastcote Road

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Window detail

In 1938 four of the tiny cottages were knocked together to form a house for the verger, and in the 1950s the middle four were also knocked together, this time to accommodate the curate. These were used until the mid 1970s, but the buildings were by then in a bad state of repair and threatened with demolition. They were saved however, modernised, and now form four flats and a maisonette owned by a Housing Association.

Manor Farm: the Great Barn

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West side of the Great Barn

There was a farm on this site (at the northern end of what is today Ruislip High Street) from the 9th century until relatively recently, and several buildings remain from various periods in that farm’s existence. Of these the Great Barn is the most impressive and the most noteworthy. It dates from the latter part of the 13th century, around 1280, and is the second largest barn in Middlesex (the largest is in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport), being 120 ft (36.6 metres) long and 32 ft (9.75m) wide. It was built with oak, probably from nearby Ruislip Woods, in a design known as an aisled barn, with smaller out-shoots running alongside the main supports under a single roof.

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East side of the Great Barn

The barn has been very well-preserved over the centuries and, along with the rest of the Manor Farm site, was restored with Lottery funding in 2007/2008. It is regularly used for local events, including crafts and farmers’ markets. It makes an impressive setting and the bustle of human activity is dwarfed by, and therefore serves only to emphasise, its great size. But we are very lucky to have it. At the start of the 20th century there were plans to develop this site for housing and all of Ruislip’s historic buildings, with the exception of St Martin’s Church, would have been lost. Amazingly (even for those days I think), no one seemed to oppose these plans, and it was only the intervention of the First World War that halted building work before it had barely begun. When, in 1919, work was able to resume, it was significantly reduced in scale owing to the poor economic situation of those times, and before the historic buildings had been affected the Royal Society of the Arts had stepped in and designated a number of buildings in Ruislip that should be preserved, including not only this barn but other buildings on the Manor Farm site and beyond, such as the old post office.

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The great doors of the Great Barn

Manor Farm: the Little Barn

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The raised threshing floor

Very near the Great Barn is another, somewhat smaller but still impressive. This is the Little Barn or Tithe Barn, and since 1937 has been the unusual location for Ruislip Library – a library I once worked in (many years ago!)

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Old beams in the Little Barn roof

This barn is of more recent origin, having been built in the 16th century, and is a Grade II listed building. Despite its conversion into a library, and the further modernisation that took place in 2007, its original role is still very apparent in its high beamed roof (with many original timbers) and other features, such as the slightly raised floor at one end – the former threshing floor. The windows have heraldic shields, one of which is of Kings College Cambridge, the estate’s earlier owners.

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The library from the bowling green

Just south of the Little Barn is a bowling green, on the site of the farm’s former rick-yard. Looking across this towards the library it is not too difficult to imagine the rural scene that was the norm here until just eighty or so years ago.

Manor Farm: the house

The third of the larger buildings on the Manor Farm site is Manor Farm House itself. This is an early 16th century house that was built of the site of a motte-and-bailey castle. The latter is thought to have been a wooden structure dating from soon after the Norman Conquest, built for Ernulf de Hesdin who had been given control of the manor of Ruislip in recognition of his loyalty to William the Conqueror. This castle in turn was built within an earthwork, possibly from the 9th century, that has been traced in an almost complete circle round the old village of Ruislip.

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Manor Farm House and moat

The castle does not appear in the 1086 Domesday Book and so could have been demolished or changed significantly by that time. But it is known that at some point a priory was also built within the moated area, under the aegis of the Benedictine Bec Abbey of Normandy. The Abbey had been granted Ruislip by Ernulf de Hesdin around 1087 and held it for 300 years.

The site was appropriated by the Crown and granted to King’s College in 1451, and the priory abandoned, falling into ruins. Those ruins would still have been here, however, when the Manor House was built between 1506 and 1511 over a number of building seasons, from Easter to Michaelmas. The house was built in the latest style of the period and was designed to showcase the wealth of the owner, with a decorative frontage and moulded ceiling beams.

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Manor Farm house seen from the cow byre

The house served two purposes: courthouse and farmhouse. Courts were held here until 1925, and the farm remained until the 1930s. Court cases were heard twice a year in the main hall of the house. Two types of court were held:
Court Leet – cases involving land disputes, assaults and minor offences;
Court Baron – administrative matters, deeds, wills etc.

Of course the house has been somewhat altered over the years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the windows and doorways were replaced and an extended kitchen was installed, with the latter being replaced in 1958 when the house was modernised. Today it serves as a meeting place for various community groups, such as the Women’s Institute, and can be hired for conferences. The line of the old moat can still be traced around the garden.

The Duck Pond

At the southern end of the Manor Farm complex is the duck pond. I have many happy memories of coming here as child to feed the ducks – a valued treat.

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The Duck Pond

The pond though was not originally intended for ducks but for the farm’s horses, who would have been washed down here. Today the pond has given its name to the twice weekly Farmers’ and Food markets that take place in and around the Great Barn – the Duck Pond Markets.

The River Pinn

The River Pinn gives Ruislip its name, albeit indirectly. Ruislip derives from "Rush leap", a reference to the rushes that lined the river and the fact that here it was just narrow enough to be leapt over – although I have to say that I would not attempt such a feat! Maybe it has widened over the years?

The River Pinn rises on Harrow Weald Common and flows through Pinner and Eastcote before reaching Ruislip, and from here flows on to Ickenham and Uxbridge, where it passes through the grounds of RAF Uxbridge and Brunel University. It then continues on to Cowley where it joins the Frays River (a branch of the Colne) at Yiewsley. In total it is about 12 miles (19 kilometres) in length. In the past it has been prone to flooding (I remember one year in particular, probably around 1973 or 74, when several nearby streets were closed because of it), but some work has been carried out in recent years to reduce this.

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River Pinn, Kings College Fields

In the centre of Ruislip it flows through a fairly narrow strip of green space, with a pleasant walk alongside it, and to the east through the open spaces of King’s College Playing Fields (named for the former owners of the land in this part of Ruislip). This walk is part of the longer Celandine Walk, which follows the entire length of the river. But even if you don’t want to do the longer walk, a stroll by the river is a relaxing way to spend an hour or so in Ruislip.

Ruislip Woods

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Park Wood

Ruislip may be largely a built-up area today but a significant vestige of its rural roots remains in the large tract of woodland to its north. This is the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London and is important enough to have been designated a National Nature Reserve.

These woods are the remnant of ancient woodland after land was cleared for settlement and crops in medieval times. They consist of four separate woods: Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood and Bayhurst Wood. The woods were mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, when they provided foraging for pigs and timber for building and firewood. Later, timber from these woods was used in the construction of the Tower of London in 1339, Windsor Castle in 1344, the Palace of Westminster in 1346 and the manor of the Black Prince in Kennington. They were coppiced on rotation throughout the years with the timber sold to local tanneries. By the time King's College took ownership of the manor, after it was confiscated from the Abbey, the woods were let for sport, with pheasants kept for shooting.

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Park Wood

Today the woods are crisscrossed with footpaths and bridleways, and many locals (and some from further afield) enjoy walking and riding here. There is a large variety of tree, plant and animal species. The most common trees are hornbeam, oak and beech – in particular, the mixture of hornbeam and beech in Bayhurst Wood is considered unusual. The information board below gives some idea of the extent of the woods still standing here.

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Sign in Park Wood

Modernist houses

In Park Avenue, near the woods, a row of three houses stands out from the rest. A whole estate of these Modernist style houses was planed for this part of Ruislip, but these three were the only ones to have been built. They were designed by the partnership of Connell, Ward & Lucas and completed between 1935 and 1938. They are now Grade II listed, meaning that they are considered of special architectural and historic interest.

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Modernist houses in Park Avenue

The Polish War Memorial

If a local is giving you driving directions to Ruislip it is quite likely that they will tell you to leave the main A40 road out of London ‘at the Polish War Memorial’. This impressive memorial has stood at this junction since 1948 when it was erected to commemorate the contribution of the Polish Air Force to the Allied victory in the Second World War, and to honour those who died. Many of those Polish airmen had been based at nearby Northolt Airport, and many chose to stay on in west London after the war, not wanting to return home to Soviet-occupied Poland.

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The Polish War Memorial

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The memorial was designed by Mieczysław Lubelski, who had been interned in a concentration camp during the war. It is made from Portland stone and Polish granite, with bronze lettering and a bronze eagle, the symbol of the Polish Air Force.

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I hope you have enjoyed this little wander through my one-time home - a typical and unremarkable London suburb at first glance, but with plenty of history for those who seek it out.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:03 Archived in England Tagged churches buildings trees architecture london history river houses woods family world_war_two Comments (18)

Cracking the code

Bletchley Park

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Sign at Bletchley Park

We have been meaning to visit Bletchley Park for some time, our desire to do so increased by seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ a few years ago, and finally we went – and immediately decided to return soon! There is so much to see here, and luckily entrance tickets are valid for a year, so a repeat visit makes even more sense.

Background history

In 1938 the mansion of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire became the base for a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School. Tensions in Europe were growing, and their job was to set up and run intelligence activity from the house, chosen for its location near to, but not in, London. When tensions seemed to ease the base was closed down, but reopened when war broke out. The work that was undertaken here became vital to the Allied war effort, with ground-breaking inventions which shaped the future of computing science – a perfect illustration of the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention!

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Signage at Bletchley Park

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Signage

Today this site is rightly regarded as a hugely significant part of the history of Britain’s role in World War Two, but it might not have been. In the early 1990s there were plans to demolish Bletchley Park and build housing here, as part of the ever-growing new town of Milton Keynes on whose southern fringes it now lies. After public outcry and campaigning Milton Keynes Council was persuaded to declare most of Bletchley Park a conservation area. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and in 1994 opened the site to the public as a museum. With financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from commercial and private sponsors, the museum has gradually grown to become a major attraction – and is continuing to expand and develop additional parts of the site.

Introductory displays

As soon as we arrived, parked the car and started to walk towards the building housing the entrance and visitors centre we were left in doubt where we were, as the stylish signage echoes the coding theme.

We exchanged our pre-purchased online tickets for actual paper ones at the desk and were given a map of the site. The obvious place to start was with the exhibits in the visitor centre, where we watched a short introductory film tells the story of the part played during WW2 by those working at Bletchley Park. There was one of the famous German Enigma machines in a display case (we were to learn much more about these during the course of our visit) and an overview of the processes followed in deciphering enemy messages.

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Enigma machine

The Enigma machines used a system of rotors to scramble the 26 letters of the alphabet. Its settings were changed daily, based on secret key lists, while some other settings were changed for each message. The receiving station needed to know and use the exact settings employed by the transmitting station to successfully decrypt a message. Much of the work at Bletchley Park focused on identifying the encryption settings each day in order to decipher and translate the messages sent by the German army, air-force and navy.

After exploring these displays, we took a break over a coffee in the café here and studied the map we had been given. It was already clear that we couldn’t see everything on this first visit so we determined our priorities and set off to look around.

The lake

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View of the Mansion from the lakeside path

Walking around the small lake in the centre of Bletchley Park you can get a good overview of the layout and see how a family estate was transformed into a top-secret base. The mansion lies across the water, looking every bit the small-scale stately home it once was, but scattered on either side are the many huts, wooden and brick, that were built to house the various operations – first just a couple, then growing in number as the war progressed and the work carried out here became ever more critical to the war effort.

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Brick huts by the lakeside

Information boards at intervals describe daily life for the staff working here – the hardships (long shifts, spartan conditions (especially in the winter months) and the impossibility of telling anyone, even close family, what you were doing) – but also the small pleasures of games of tennis, skating on the lake in winter, forming friendships and romances.

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The lake with heron and bluebells

The Mansion

The ground floor of the Mansion, as the old house at the heart of the estate is known, is open to visitors and has a number of rooms of interest. We were welcomed on entering by a docent who told us that photography was allowed, if not for commercial purposes, and recommended that we look up at the ceilings as they are quite varied and attractive – he was right!

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The ceiling of one of the Mansion's rooms

The office of Commander Alastair Denniston, head of the British Government Code and Cypher School (known as GC&CS), has been recreated in great detail in the Mansion, and was our first taste of the way in which the atmosphere of those war years has been so effectively captured here. In-trays are full, piles of papers lie on the desks, pencils at the ready, typewriters with sheets inserted. On the notice board are announcements of a dance and a concert (social activities were seen as very important in keeping morale high), and a reminder to ‘carry your identity card always’.

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Commander Alastair Denniston's office in the Mansion

A sign describes a historic meeting which took place in this room in February 1941, which it credits as ‘the beginning of the United Kingdom / United States special relationship’. Four US military personnel came to Bletchley Park to discuss an exchange of information on Japanese and German codes and cyphers. This was some months before the US was to enter the war, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even those working here were unaware of the visit, apart from Dennison, his senior team and his personal assistant, recruited to the meeting to ‘pour glasses of sherry’.

The library at the other end of the hallway is similarly recreated to show as it would have looked when in use as a Naval Intelligence office. There are cigarette stubs in the ashtrays and empty, coffee-stained cups beside them. Hats and coats hang on the coat-stand and a cardigan is draped over the back of a chair with a handbag carelessly left on its seat. As elsewhere, the re-creation is based on old photographs and accounts of those who once worked here.

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In the library

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Other rooms in the Mansion are used for exhibitions, one of which is devoted to the Roll of Honour which lists all those believed to have worked in signals intelligence during World War Two, both at Bletchley Park and at other locations. There are photos of a few of them, sound recordings of the memories of just a handful, and an online resource which relatives can use to search for information on ancestors who worked here.

There was also a special temporary exhibition on the work of one of the most significant of the codebreakers, Bill Tutte, whose research in the field of graph theory was of enormous importance in the development of the techniques used here. I have to say though that the explanations of his work and its application to codebreaking were well over my head! I therefore quote Wikipedia on the significance of his achievements:
‘During the Second World War, he made a brilliant and fundamental advance in cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher, a major Nazi German cipher system which was used for top-secret communications within the Wehrmacht High Command. The high-level, strategic nature of the intelligence obtained from Tutte's crucial breakthrough, in the bulk decrypting of Lorenz-enciphered messages specifically, contributed greatly, and perhaps even decisively, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.’

The garages

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Stable block, and Sunbeam Tourer detail

Behind the Mansion are the garages in what was once the stable block, which house several interesting vehicles. They include a Sunbeam Tourer used in the 2001 film ‘Enigma’ starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, which we hadn’t seen but which sounds interesting – I plan to look out for it.

There is also a 1938 Austin Ambulance, used for the same film and also for the TV series ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, which I have seen. It tells the story of a young evacuee and stars John Thaw. Both vehicles were donated to Bletchley Park by the film company, owned by Mick Jagger, which made ‘Enigma’.

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1938 Austin Ambulance

The cottages

Next to the garages is a row of cottages around a stable-yard, presumably built to house staff when this was still a family estate. These were the location for some of the early codebreaking successes, before the various huts were built to accommodate the fast-growing operations here. It was in these cottages that Enigma was first cracked by an all-British team including Dilly Knox, Mavis Lever and Alan Turing. They aren't open to the public - I got the impression that they are in use as private residences.

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The Cottages

Hut 3

The highlights of our visit for me were the codebreaking huts, numbered 3 and 6. In these huts Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence. They have been brilliantly restored and presented in a fashion that recreates the war-time atmosphere, bringing to life the world of the codebreakers in a way that makes the huts seem almost haunted by them. The rooms are ‘dressed’ to resemble what they once were when the codebreakers worked there, and as you enter each you can hear the voices of actors engaged in realistic conversations about their work, and also their off-duty lives. In some rooms there are also projections of actors on the walls, but I think I found those where there was only audio the most effective of all.

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Corridor and desk in Hut 3

A sign as you enter Hut 3 explains:
‘You are now standing in one of the most secret areas of BP where deciphered messages were translated and analysed. Early on in the war the resulting intelligence was sent to MI6 and a limited number of senior army and RAF personnel. The evocative sights and sounds will help you to imagine what happened here. The scenes are set in 1940-41, and are based on the words and memories of BP veterans.’

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Teleprinter office, Hut 3

One of the larger rooms is that which housed the Watch, where a sign explains:
‘Work at BP went on round the clock. In this room there were four Watchkeepers on each shift, led by Watch 1. Most were civilian experts on German, able to fill any gaps in the deciphered messages before translating them. As they had no military experience, special Military Advisers helped compile the final reports.’

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The Watch

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In the Watch

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Hut 6

This was perhaps the beating heart of Bletchley Park. According to its sign,
‘Some of the most important codebreaking of the war took place in this hut. Little survives to tell us what it looked like inside, but the hut itself remains a witness to those tense times. Images, props, sounds and words are based on Veterans’ recollections and photographs taken later in WW2. They help to conjure up events here on just one date – 28 February 1941 – the day a crucial enemy cipher was broken.’

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A room in Hut 6

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The corner of an office, Hut 6

To capture the sound, as well the images, of this hut I shot some bits of video in a few of the rooms, which I later edited together:

We took a break at this point to eat a light lunch in Hut 4 which was formerly a WW2 naval intelligence codebreaking hut, but which now houses the café. Then we continued our explorations in another of the restored huts.

Hut 8

While the work in Huts 3 and 6 was focused on German army and air-force messages, Hut 8 was devoted to cracking the even tougher to decode naval messages. It was here that the famous Alan Turing did his most famous work, concentrating on this more complex Naval Enigma because ‘no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself.’ Turing devised a number of techniques to speed up the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish Bombe method, which used a machine (a forerunner of today’s computers) to work out the settings for the Enigma machine. This work ultimately enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped to win, and to shorten, the war. His office in Hut 8 has been recreated exactly as it would have looked in World War Two.

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Alan Turing's office

Other parts of this hut are devoted to hand-on ‘experiments’ illustrating ideas about probability and chance, and explaining how these are critical to an understanding of codebreaking. The codebreakers looked for what they called ‘cribs’ – predictable repeated phrases (e.g. weather reports) which could give a clue to the day’s encryption settings.

Huts 11 and 11A

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In the window of one of the huts

Our final stop for the day was in the huts which housed the Bombe machines, developed by Alan Turing from some earlier Polish ones which had been shared with the Allies at the outbreak of war. The machines featured multiple drums representing the rotors of an Enigma machine, which could whizz through all the different possible permutations for the settings each day. Hundreds of these machines were operated by Wrens, here and in outstations in other parts of the country. It was boring and oppressive work, with the women running the machines during long shifts in dark, stuffy rooms, as the displays here make clear.

By now though the museum was getting busier, including with several school groups, and it was harder both to study the displays and to take photos. We found it difficult to follow the detailed explanations of the technology behind the Bombes, so decided in the end to leave this section and the other remaining buildings until the future visit we had already determined to make.

But if you can’t wait till then to find out more about the Bombes, check out the museum’s website’s description of its Bombe Breakthrough exhibits.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:25 Archived in England Tagged lakes architecture history museum details world_war_two Comments (15)

Britain’s maritime legacy

Greenwich

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View over Greenwich and beyond

When people ask on forums where they might go on a day trip within easy reach of central London I often suggest that they look no further than Greenwich.

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River view from a Clipper

It offers history in abundance, elegant buildings, fascinating museums, an attractive market, bars and restaurants to suit all tastes – all in a lovely riverside setting. And to crown it all, you can stand on the Greenwich Meridian, from which the world’s time and all east/west distances are measured.

You can travel to Greenwich by water (river bus or sightseeing cruise) or rail in less than an hour from central London. And a day wouldn’t be enough to see and do everything here, so you will be spoiled for choice.

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Greenwich Pier

My own favourite way to travel is by Clipper, the river buses that ply the Thames. They cost a fraction of the tourist sightseeing cruises and while you don’t get the commentary that those offer you don’t pay their high prices either. You can catch the boats from several points including on the South Bank (near the London Eye) and by the Tower of London.

Seating on board is plentiful (maybe less so during the rush hour) and there is a snack bar where you can buy coffees, beer and wine, crisps and chocolate etc. The boats are fully wheelchair accessible and there are accessible toilets on board. All in all, this is a very comfortable way to travel.

The boats arrive at a pier right next to the famous Cutty Sark, so that’s as good a place as any to start our explorations.

The Cutty Sark

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The Cutty Sark

This beautiful ship was built in Scotland in 1869 as a tea clipper – the fast sailing ships which brought tea from China to Europe. Every season merchants competed to be the first with the new crops by employing the fastest ships, so the Cutty Sark was designed for speed – her owner John Willis had ambitions for her to be the swiftest of all the clippers. Between 1870 and 1878 she made eight voyages between London and Shanghai, taking manufactured goods and wine, spirits and beer to be sold in China and returning with her precious cargo of tea. But she never did win that annual race to be first with the new season’s tea.

By the end of that decade steamships had started to dominate the tea trade as they were able to use the newly opened Suez Canal (sailing ships needed to stay in the open sea to get the trade winds). So the Cutty Sark started to take different cargoes around the world: coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881. The 1880s and ‘90s saw her mainly carrying wool from Australia, and she established herself as the fastest vessel, the ‘last chance’ ship to make the English wool sales each January. But steamships moved into this trade too. For a while the Cutty Sark was under Portuguese ownership, sailing between Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, before returning to Britain in 1923 when she was bought by Wilfred Dowman who restored the ship to a close approximation of her appearance as a tea and wool clipper. She was used as a training ship for cadets but her condition and usefulness gradually declined. In 1954 however she was taken over by the National Maritime Museum who brought her to Greenwich where she has remained ever since.

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The Cutty Sark seen in the distance from a Greenwich street

She sits in a dry dock here, as she has done since she was towed here. Initially restored then, and opened to the public, she was again thoroughly restored between 2006 and 2012, a process that was held back for a while by a major fire. Luckily some of her most ornate parts, such as the figurehead, were not on board at the time because of the restoration process, so these escaped the blaze.

It is some years since I was on board, but I remember especially the large collection of figureheads which fascinated me as a child and continued to do so as an adult. These date mainly from the 19th century and came from a variety of merchant vessels. They portray characters from history, legend and literature, such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Disraeli, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot. The Royal Museums of Greenwich website explains more:

‘Figureheads are carved wooden sculptures which decorate the prow of a sailing ship, and were thought to represent the vessel’s spirit. It was believed that they offered the crew protection from the harsh seas and safeguarded their homeward journey. The figureheads were also used to identify a ship—one of a range of subjects would be chosen, reflecting the name of the ship from mid-18th century onwards.

The figureheads in The Cutty Sark Collection were produced by professional figurehead carvers, who lived and worked by the docks. Hard woods, such as oak or teak, were used and might have been treated with resins to increase the figure’s resistance to water, rot and wear. They were lovingly cared for by the crew, who took great pride in the appearance of their ship and its figurehead. The superstitions of seamen meant that the figurehead held great significance to those on board and they would go to great lengths to protect it.’

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The Cutty Sark figurehead on a stormy day

The Cutty Sark’s own figurehead is a young witch named ‘Nannie’ who was a character in the poem 'Tam O'Shanter', by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. In this poem the witch chases Tam dressed only a ‘cutty sark’—an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. You can read the full story on the Maritime Museum’s website.

Old Royal Naval College

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The Royal Naval College

The river bank in Greenwich is dominated by the stunningly elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College. And don’t just take my word for it – UNESCO described this as the ‘finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles’!

The buildings were the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the City’s churches. One look at the domes that crown the main buildings tells you that – they are so reminiscent of his most famous work. They were built between 1696 and 1712 to house the Greenwich Hospital, a home for disabled sailors, on the site of the former Greenwich Palace. The latter was a Tudor royal palace – the out-of-town pleasure palace of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I was born here and loved it too, but under the Stuarts it fell into disuse and, by the middle of the 17th century, into disrepair.

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More views of the Royal Naval College

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The domes are very reminiscent of St Paul's Cathedral, Wren's most famous work

The new buildings were the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers. Wren gave his services free of charge, as did his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor, because of the charitable nature of the project. His design was the result of restrictions imposed by the then queen, Queen Mary II, who didn’t want her view of the river from the Queen’s House to be blocked – hence the division into two main blocks and the consequent very pleasing symmetry. You can see in my photo below how the Queen’s House, nearer the camera, can peep between these two blocks to see the river beyond.

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The Queen's House and Royal Naval College from the park

Greenwich Hospital was closed in 1869 as with more peaceful times there were fewer seamen in need of the facility. The buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval College which needed to expand from its original Portsmouth base. For over 100 years sailors trained here, at first just men and then from 1939 onwards, women from the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the so-called WRENS. In later years there was even a training facility for nuclear-powered submarines which necessitated a small nuclear reactor on the site (unknown to local residents in Greenwich who might not have been keen to have such a thing on their doorstep). The college closed in 1998 as the numbers in the Navy were declining and sailors could now be trained alongside their Army and Air Force equivalents in the Joint Service College at Shrivenham.

Today the college is maintained and run by a charitable foundation which provides access to the three main attractions, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, Painted Hall and Chapel. All are open daily with free admission, and there are also regular events held here. Even if you aren’t coming to see any particular sight or attend any event, a stroll around the grounds is a real pleasure, especially on a sunny day when the architecture is to be seen at its best and the river sparkles in the background.

The Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College

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The Painted Hall

This hall is one of my favourite sights in Greenwich, and I never tire of introducing visitors to its glories (although on my most recent visit that wasn’t possible as it was undergoing major restoration during the summer of 2018). It was built by Wren to serve as the dining room for the naval veterans. After its completion in 1703 James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the walls and ceiling, and instructed to include many references to the importance of the navy in Britain’s fortunes.

Thornhill was paid only £3 per square yard for the ceiling, and just £1 per square yard for the walls. However, he did receive a knighthood in 1720 (the first English artist to receive this honour) and is generally considered to have created the finest painted architectural interior by an English artist. The work took him 19 years and as a result of his achievement here the Painted Hall was felt to be now far too grand for its intended purpose! Instead it became a visitor attraction - one of London’s first tourist attractions in fact. ‘Respectable’ visitors were admitted for 3d (the equivalent of about £1.80) and could hire one of the resident Pensioners to give them a guided tour.

It was also a place for significant events to be held. For instance, in 1806, 3 months after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of Horatio Nelson was brought to lie in state here. A side room today is devoted to Nelson memorabilia. Between 1824 and 1936 it was home to a naval art gallery, displaying about 300 naval-themed paintings.

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Domed ceiling in the entrance of the Painted Hall

But back to Thornhill and his artistic masterpiece. On my first visit here, a few years ago now, I realised that I had seen the hall some weeks earlier in a BBC history programme about the Georgian monarchs, but had not registered then where it was. A happy coincidence, as I was able to recall some interesting information from the programme to share with our weekend guests. Well, I thought it was interesting! If you would also like to know more about the paintings (and don’t have the ‘benefit’ of my half-remembered explanations!) you can book a place on the daily tour (free, at 11.15 am) or pick up a leaflet for just 50 pence. This will explain all the scenes and the mythology and symbolism attached to them. On the main ceiling, for instance:

‘Enthroned in heaven are King William and Queen Mary. Above, the sun god Apollo sheds his light, while Peace, with her doves and lambs, hands an olive branch to William. He in turn hands the red cap of liberty to the kneeling figure of Europe.’

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William and Mary

On the ceiling of the upper hall is Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs. The TV programme I saw pointed out that Thornhill had relegated the old regime to the ceilings and in doing that had portrayed them as aloof and out of reach of ordinary people.

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George I and family

In contrast, the new king, George I, is shown on the far wall of this upper hall as a family man, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Appearances are deceptive however; the truth is that he and his oldest son, also called George, hated each other, and there is a hint of this in the posing of the two figures, as the younger George turns pointedly away from his father (wearing a blue cloak towards the lower right corner of my photo). Also notable is the man standing in that bottom right corner by the pillar looking out at the viewer, as this is Thornhill himself.

Royal Naval College chapel

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The Chapel at the Royal Naval College

Facing the Painted Hall across a lawn is its symmetrical partner, the chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Its neoclassical interior was the work of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton, and is considered one of Britain's finest 18th century interiors.

The intricate mouldings of the ceiling are picked out in Wedgewood blue, a restful contrast to the splendours of the Painted Hall’s decoration. It was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth and its intricate central ornaments carved, rather than cast in moulds.

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Chapel ceiling

Much of the rest of the decoration follows a maritime theme, appropriate for the worshippers for whom it was built, the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. There is a ship’s anchor design in the centre of the black and white floor and wood carvings on the pews that resemble ropes.

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Showing the painting above the altar

The painting above the altar is by an American artist, Benjamin West. It depicts St. Paul on the island of Malta, where he miraculously survived being bitten by a snake. According to the account in the Acts of the Apostles, the weather was cold and wet, and the Maltese showed their hospitality by lighting a fire for Paul. As he gathered firewood, and laid it on the fire, a viper attached itself to his hand. He shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill-effects from the bite.

Various monuments in the vestibule commemorate the achievements of great sea-farers. Of these the most prominent is the marble Franklin Memorial which commemorates Sir John Franklin and the crews of the ships Erebus and Terror who lost their lives in the famous ill-fated 1845 expedition searching for the North West Passage.

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Detail of the Franklin Memorial, and statue of Charity

Also in the vestibule are four statues representing the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Meekness. My photo is of the statue of Charity. An inscription on the base of the statue reads: 'Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.'

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Carving details in the chapel

National Maritime Museum

This museum is located in a wing that had been added to the Royal Naval School in the 19th century, which was converted for its new purpose after the college left Greenwich in 1933, being finally completed only in 1951 (delayed no doubt by the war). It also has a new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, added in 2011 to house special exhibitions, a café and a library.

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The National Maritime Museum

The museum tells the story of the history of Britain at sea, including maritime art, maps and map-making, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments. Its separate wing at the Greenwich Observatory focuses on time-keeping and astronomy. The children’s gallery has lots of hands-on fun, including loading cargo, a galley where you can ‘prepare food’ and a canon to shoot at a pirate ship. Other galleries cover a range of sea-faring themes including exploration, naval warfare and trade. One area focuses on maritime London, looking at life on the Thames, the growth of the docklands and how institutions like Lloyd’s of London and the Baltic Exchange were formed. Another celebrates the life of Lord Nelson and victory in the Battle of Trafalgar.

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Figureheads collection

I particularly like the display of ships’ figureheads dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, when the art of carving these was at its height. In the same area is the gilded state barge which was built for Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1732.

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Details of Prince Frederick's Barge

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Prince Frederick's Barge, and statue of William IV outside the museum

There’s a pleasant café here too (at the rear), with outside tables which afford a lovely view of Greenwich Park – worth a refreshment stop even if you aren’t visiting the museum. While here, have a look at (well, you won’t be able to miss!) Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’. This was originally commissioned by the Greater London Authority for the Fourth Plinth project and was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in May 2010. It now has a permanent home here outside the Sammy Ofer Wing.

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Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

The Queen’s House

The Queen’s House was designed by Inigo Jones, who had studied Roman and Renaissance architecture in Italy, and is considered England’s first Classical building. His design reflects the Renaissance ideals of mathematical, classical proportion and harmony – for example the Great Hall here is a perfect cube. Much of its original splendour has been lost over the centuries, but you can still see the ceiling of the Queen’s Bedchamber painted in the ‘grotesque’ style, the wrought-iron balustrade of the Tulip Stairs (which was the first centrally unsupported spiral staircase in Britain), the painted woodwork of the Great Hall and its impressive geometrically-patterned black and white marble floor.

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The Queen's House

The house was built for Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, who wanted a pavilion at Greenwich to serve as a place of private retreat and hospitality. The story is that the king gave it to her as a gift to apologise for swearing in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his favourite dogs during a hunt. She however died before it could be finished and work only restarted when James's son Charles I gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria. It was finished in 1638.

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A ceiling in the Queen's House

The house is supposedly haunted and a famous ‘photograph of a ghost’ was taken on the Tulip Staircase. You can see this photo and read all about it on the website: https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/we-recommend/attractions/queens-house-ghost

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The Tulip Staircase in the Queen's House

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Another view of the staircase, and a decorative detail

The house holds a significant collection of paintings, including works by Gainsborough, Hogarth and Reynolds among others. One highlight is the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, which has recently been restored to reveal the original colours after centuries of dirt and discoloration. It portrays the queen as a ruler in command of the seas and has been instrumental in shaping our vision of her.

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The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

The Queen’s House website explains:

‘Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor. Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. She is draped in pearls – symbols of chastity and the Moon.

Numerous suns are embroidered in gold on her skirt and sleeves, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers over the New World, and above can be seen a covered imperial crown: both signal her potency as a ruler, not just of England but also as a monarch with overseas ambitions.’

The Royal Observatory

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The Royal Observatory's Flamsteed House on the hill

Crowning the hill that forms Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory and the nearby Planetarium. The original part of the observatory is Flamsteed House (1675–76), which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. The ‘Time and Longitude’ gallery tells the story of the quest to find longitude at sea in the age before satellite navigation. You can also see the Astronomers Royal's apartments and the Octagon Room designed for the observation of celestial events such as eclipses, comets and planetary movements.

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The Royal Observatory South Building

On top of Flamsteed House is one of the world's earliest public time signals, the bright red Time Ball, which is visible from some distance as my photo above attests. This was added to signal the time to ships on the Thames and to Londoners in general. It was first used in 1833 and still operates today. Every day at 12.55 the time ball rises half way up its mast; at 12.58 it rises all the way to the top; and at 13.00 exactly, the ball falls, thus providing a signal to anyone who happens to be looking. Of course, you need to know to be looking, so you have to have a rough idea of the time already for this to be of help!

In front of Flamsteed House is the Meridian Courtyard. Here you can stand on the world-famous Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the Prime Meridian of the World, 0º of longitude. Every spot on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line, which divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth just as the Equator divides the northern and southern ones.

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The set of measures

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Standing on the Meridian Line

It has always seemed a bit unfair to me that you have to pay for this, probably because (puts on ‘grumpy old woman’ voice) when I was a child you could enter the courtyard and stand on the line freely. So I was gratified on a recent visit to find that you don't have to go far to be able do just that. If you look to the right of the courtyard gate (through which everyone will be peering for a glimpse of the line) you will see an old clock on the wall (an early example of an electronic clock) and below it a set of standard British measures.

To the right of these is a black metal kissing gate, leading to a narrow path that runs below the observatory's courtyard. You only have to walk a couple of metres along this to see the line running down the wall and crossing the path in front of you. Space is tight for photography but it's perfectly possible to stand on the line and get that souvenir shot, as my Virtual Tourist friend from Estonia, Mare, demonstrates.

I should add that I'm not for a minute recommending that you don't visit the observatory, which is very good, but if you don't have time for that or aren't very interested, at least you don't have to miss out on seeing the famous Meridian Line.

By the way, you don't even have to visit Greenwich to stand on the Meridian. This map shows other locations in the UK where it is marked.

As well as enjoying all that the Observatory has to offer, a climb up the hill in Greenwich Park is rewarded with some wonderful views as you can see. The elegant buildings of the Old Naval College, the Queen’s House and the Maritime Museum lie at the foot of the hill. The Thames flows beyond, with lots of river traffic coming and going. And on the far bank rise the dramatic skyscrapers of London’s Docklands. Further to your left (the west) you can see some of the buildings of the City, the Shard and even the London Eye.

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View from the hill

But if you can’t manage the hill, there are still good views to be had along the river bank, as my photo below shows.

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Canary Wharf from Greenwich

Greenwich Market

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Entrance to the market

As a contrast to all the history that surrounds you at Greenwich I think it is fun to spend some time in the lovely market. This is tucked between some of the streets in the town centre and has a variety of stalls but with three main focuses: crafts, antiques and street food.

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Wood turner

On one visit we bought a beautiful hand-turned wooden bowl as a wedding gift for friends. Each of these pieces is unique, so they aren’t cheap, but they are well worth the price. The same applies to some other of the crafts-people selling here, but you can also get lower-priced jewellery and pretty items for the home.

One of my most interesting purchases here, from one of the antique stalls, was a photo album which really captured my imagination. It dates from the 1930s and shows the travels of an English couple (I assume) in north Africa, pre-war Germany and the Mediterranean.

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Old photo album

I was so intrigued by this that I scanned all the photos and created a website in the hopes of tracing some information about those captured in them: http://sarahwilkie8.wix.com/travel-1930s-style. So far, sadly, no one has been able to identify them although one friend did point me towards some ships’ passenger inventories of the time which unfortunately failed to come up with any likely names.

At one end of the market there is a cluster of food stalls selling the cuisines of several countries: Brazilian churros, Indian street food, Ethiopean vegetarian dishes, sushi, noodles and much more.

Around the edge of the market are some interesting little shops with goods likely to appeal to those who also enjoy the market – more crafts, quirky fashions, art and items for the home. I can happily spend several hours (and more than a few pounds) here! There is also a good pub, the Coach and Horses, where I have had several pleasant lunches. As well as a cosy interior it has some tables outside in the market.

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In the market

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The Coach and Horses

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Inside the Coach and Horses

The O2

To the north of this main centre of Greenwich is an area called, unsurprisingly, North Greenwich. Here you will find the (currently named) O2 arena. In the run up to the year 2000 a number of Millennium projects were planned for London. Despite some teething problems, most people agreed that the new bridge was a great success, once it stopped wobbling, and of course everyone enjoyed the fireworks! But the biggest project, the Millennium Dome, was something of a PR and financial disaster – failing to capture the public’s imagination and attract the visitor numbers that would have covered the cost of building it. Perhaps that was because of the rather didactic nature of the exhibition it housed, the Millennium Experience. This was intended to be a World’s Fair style showcase of British life and achievement, but most of its 14 zones were lacking in content and rather dull (I know – I took my mother-in-law along and we were neither of us wildly excited by it, though I remember feeling that it was not as bad as some of the media had suggested).

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Looking north east from Greenwich Park
The Millennium Dome / O2 is visible centre left

The building itself also received mixed but largely unenthusiastic reactions. It is an interesting one however, its design full of symbolism. A huge white (today rather grey) ‘tent’ is supported by twelve yellow poles, one for each month of the year or each hour of the clock face – a nod to the nearby Greenwich Meridian and the importance of time to this part of the country. And it is 365 metres in diameter, one for each day of a (non Leap) year.

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View from the upper tier of the O2 -
tennis tournament

After the end of 2000 the exhibitions were dismantled, and for a while just the roof of the dome remained, a bit of a white elephant. There was much debate about what to do with it, and many more disparaging remarks. Eventually though it was developed as a sports and entertainment complex, with multiple venues sited under the main roof and a network of restaurants, shops, offices and housing around it. Today it is home to a cinema, bowling alley, a number of chain restaurants and an arena that hosts sporting and music events. In a fairly recent development you can also climb the roof for a view of London with a difference (and no, I haven’t done that – yet!!) But we did come here a year or so back to see the Masters tennis event, and were impressed by the excellent views even from our upper tier seats, so I think we’ll be back to see the rejuvenated Dome again.

There is even more to do in Greenwich than I have included here, as I haven’t talked about sights I am yet to visit (such as the Fan Museum). But I hope I have convinced you that it is well worth the trip from central London to spend a day here!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:04 Archived in England Tagged art skylines boats architecture london park history views church market river city museum science Comments (17)

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