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Whitstable

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Beach hut, Whitstable

The first time we went to Whitstable for a short break, a few years ago, we stayed in nearby Seasalter and made a couple of day trips into the town. We liked what we saw, and it was frustrating not to be able to easily spend our evenings here. So when we were considering ideas for a coastal staycation during the pandemic, renting a house in the centre of this appealing seaside town was a no-brainer!

The photos on this page were taken on both visits, March 2015 and October 2020.

Oysters

Whitstable is known for its oysters and a short distance west of the harbour you will find the Whitstable Oyster Company. The company claims to be able to trace its origins back to the 1400s. and to be one of the oldest companies in Europe. But the fame of the oysters of Whitstable goes even further back, almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered them and shipped them back live to Rome to be enjoyed as a delicacy at the best tables there. At the company’s peak in the 1850s it was sending as many as eighty million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market. By that time oysters had become so plentiful and cheap that they were regarded as the food of the poor, not the gourmet indulgence of today.

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Oyster shells

However in the twentieth century the industry began to decline due to a number of factors: cold winters, a parasite infection, two World Wars, the great flood of 1953 and changing tastes – notably the rise of the prawn cocktail!

In recent decades there has been a resurgence in the oyster industry. The company is now a family-run business, not only farming oysters but also running a highly-regarded restaurant in the old oyster stores. Walking around outside, the discarded oyster shells crunch under your feet – a sure sign you are in Whitstable.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company

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Sign at the Whitstable Oyster Company

The harbour

The harbour at Whitstable is very much a working one. Fish are landed and processed here, and there is a tarmac production site, with what it must be said is rather an ugly main structure. But I like the fact that it is functional as well as tourist-focused. Fishermen land their catch right next to the informal fish restaurants selling mussels, oysters and fish and chips; old fisherman’s huts are home to small craft shops and art galleries; locals walk their dogs, and tourists stroll, in the shadow of the tarmac factory.

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Whitstable Harbour

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Harbour scenes

In the summer boat trips run from here, out to see the wind farms and the offshore World War II sea forts which are visible on the horizon. These Maunsell Forts (named for their designer, Guy Maunsell) were built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries during the Second World War. They were used for anti-aircraft defence – during World War II, the three forts in the Thames estuary shot down 22 aircraft and about 30 flying bombs. They were decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1950s; some were used in the 60s as bases for pirate radio stations.

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Wind turbines and Maunsell Forts

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Birds in flight and Maunsell Forts

The Favourite

One boat not to be found in the harbour is the Favourite. This is a traditional Whitstable oyster yawl and was built by the Whitstable Shipbuilding Company based at Island Wall (west of the harbour and oyster company) in 1890. She was used by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company to dredge oysters from the beds off shore until 1939. She was machine-gunned by an enemy aircraft and began to sink, but was beached and dragged up the shore. When the sea wall was built she was moved and spent some time in a cottage garden before being acquired by a charitable trust who raised money for her restoration. Today she sits on display just behind the wall, very near where she was built. As she would have been built directly on the shingle beach the site around her was restored to look like a beach and now has a good display of shingle flora.

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The Favourite

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Flowers by the Favourite

Beach walks and beach-huts

Although Whitstable doesn’t have a traditional seaside promenade (and for me that is one of its charms), it is possible to walk the length of its beaches stretching some distance both east and west of the centre – a walk of about three miles in total. To the east you are walking along the foot of Tankerton Slopes. At first these are green lawns, sloping down to the sea. At their foot are colourful beach huts, one of my favourite subjects for photography in Whitstable.

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Beach huts, Tankerton Slopes

The footpath passes the Street, a naturally formed spit of land that extends into the sea and can be walked on at low tide.

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The Street

A key feature of Whitstable’s beaches are the breakwaters, a favourite perch for visiting gulls.

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The beach near Tankerton Slopes

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Breakwaters on the beach

Further along, the tamed lawns give way to a nature reserve, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the largest population in Britain of hog’s fennel can be found. Not being an expert in botany, and with no winter images on the information board, I am only about 80% certain that I photographed the right plant, but in any case I loved the sculptural shapes of its seed-heads.

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Hog's fennel - I think!

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Above Tankerton Slopes

Eventually in this direction you reach Swalecliffe Brook, a small stream running into the sea between Whitstable and the next town, Herne Bay.

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Beyond Tankerton - Swalecliffe Brook

This is the furthest we have walked in this direction, so let’s turn back now and head west.

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Enjoying the sea views

Walking west from the centre you pass the Favourite, mentioned above, and soon after arrive at one of Whitstable’s best-loved pubs, the Old Neptune or ‘Neppy’ as it is affectionately known. It makes the proud claim to be ‘one of only a handful of pubs to be found on the beaches of Britain’. It sits directly on the shingle and while it has a cosy interior, the main attraction for us and for many others is found outside where, even in these times of COVID, there are plenty of wooden tables and benches where you can enjoy a beer and maybe some fish and chips with a sea view. It was just about warm enough during our recent October stay to be able to stop off for drinks here on a couple of occasions.

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The Old Neptune

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View from our table at the Old Neptune

Beyond the Neppy are more beach huts and some attractive and interesting old houses. One of the latter was once home to the actor Peter Cushing, best known for his roles in the Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The house is marked with a blue plaque.

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Beach huts and boats

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Beach hut detail

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Colourful houses

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Peter Cushing's former home

There are also more breakwaters, whose rhythmically-spaced lines stretch away into the distance on either side, creating interesting photo opportunities.

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Looking back towards the town centre

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Breakwaters

When it’s time to turn back you can return the way you came or take the quiet road running parallel to the beach, Island Wall, to see more of Whitstable’s quaint houses.

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House detail

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Halloween in Whitstable

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Starling outside a Whitstable house

The town centre

I’ll finish in the centre of town which is in its way as appealing as the shore. There are plenty of independent shops selling upmarket clothing, books, jewellery, antiques and of course souvenirs. The latter include craft items and home decorations, perfect if you want to replicate the beach house look at home, although in our London terrace that is best restricted to the bathroom! The restaurants too are mainly independents, although there are a couple of Italian chains, and likewise the cafés, although again there is one chain coffeeshop. Of the pubs we liked best the atmosphere in the Royal Naval Reserve on the High Street, as the Duke of Cumberland (which we’d had a good lunch in on a previous visit) was rather cold and empty, perhaps because COVID restrictions prevented it from staging its popular live music evenings.

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Pub and antiques shop

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Cheese and gift shop

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Look for the details

Finally, take a look at these fun murals, most of them by an artist called Cat Man, which I spotted around the town.

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Whitstable murals

Posted by ToonSarah 04:57 Archived in England Tagged beaches buildings boats harbour england coast history pubs seaside details street_art Comments (23)

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)

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)

A university city

Cambridge

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King's College chapel from the Backs

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge (often shortened here to ‘Oxbridge’) are known the world over for the quality of the education they provide, their many illustrious alumni and their long history. They dominate the towns in which they are based, giving each a unique atmosphere. Both towns are within easy reach of London and make for an interesting day trip from the capital.

I recently spent a day in Cambridge exploring with friends (former work colleagues) who moved there some years ago. One works (and volunteers) at several of the colleges, and studied here too, at Clare College, so has privileged free entry to several of the paid-for sights (and can take in a visitor – me!) In a day it was of course only possible to visit a handful of the colleges but those we went to were beautiful, made more so by the wonderful September sun.

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Punting on the Cam near King's College

Incidentally, I learned from my unofficial guides that this is a great month to visit. There are slightly fewer tourists than in mid-summer, and the students are yet to return en masse after their long break, though there are some around. The college gardens are at their best – efforts are made to ensure that flower displays peak twice a year, in May for graduation and in September for new arrivals. How much the students notice and appreciate this is probably up for debate!

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New Court, St John's College

So join us on our walk around some of these historic colleges.

Getting to Cambridge

I took the train to Cambridge from London’s Kings Cross station – fast (non-stopping) trains take about 50 minutes. I was met at the station by my friends, and as it is some way from the town centre we caught a bus together. Their excellent suggestion was to start with coffee and a chat about the plan for the day.

Fitzbillies

Fitzbillies is truly a Cambridge institution, having been here since 1920, on the same corner site (although it has since expanded to take over the neighbouring property too). It is famous especially for its Chelsea buns – sweet, sticky, gooey cinnamon-laden swirls of yeasty dough.

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Fitzbillies

The bakery was founded by two brothers, Ernest and Arthur Mason, who used their demob money on return from the First World War to buy the shop. The Art Nouveau frontage they installed is still here (on the left in my photo above). The shop thrived and was run by the Masons until 1958, when they sold it to a Mr and Mrs Day. This was an era of enthusiastic cake consumption – Chelsea buns for parties and picnics, iced fancies for afternoon tea, and ornate creations for special occasions such as weddings. But by the 1980s supermarkets provided competition and could sell their cakes more cheaply than a family-run business such as Fitzbillies. The business went bankrupt, and the building was gutted by a fire in 1998, but it was bought, restored and reopened, trading successfully until 2011 when it went bankrupt again.

It was saved through the twin 21st century powers of social media and celebrity! A former Cambridge resident, now working in marketing in London, saw a tweet from the famous writer/actor/comedian Stephen Fry bemoaning the closure of a favourite bakery, and stepped in to save it along with her husband. So Fitzbillies is once more a thriving family-run business, and their Chelsea buns are as popular as ever!

So of course we had to order Chelsea buns with our coffees, justifying our indulgence a little by opting to share two between the three of us. And they were delicious, definitely living up to their fame! Then, fortified, we set off on our walk.

Pembroke College

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Old Court, Pembroke College

The first college we went to was Pembroke, on the corner opposite Fitzbillies. As with most of the colleges, only the grounds and chapel can be visited.

The college was founded in 1347 by Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke, and is the third oldest of the Cambridge colleges, and the oldest still on its original site. It was the first to have its own Chapel – that chapel is today known as the Old Library, having been replaced by a later one (more of that in a minute!) The college originally occupied just one court on the corner of Pembroke and Trumpington Streets, but in the 17th century it started to expand into what became known as Ivy Court (the original being of course Old Court) and in the 19th beyond this again, with the addition of a new library and several other buildings around what is known today as Library Lawn.

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Another view of Old Court

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Library Lawn with its statue of William Pitt, a former student

Meanwhile in the latter part of the 17th century a new chapel was commissioned, as the result of a vow made by a former student, Matthew Wren, now Bishop of Ely. While imprisoned in the Tower of London during the Civil War the bishop vowed that, if released, he would build a new chapel for his college, Pembroke. On release he proceeded to fulfil his vow, and chose as his architect his own nephew, Christopher. Thus this chapel, which was consecrated in 1665, became the first completed work of Christopher Wren, later to be Sir Christopher Wren. The east end of the chapel was later extended by George Gilbert Scott Junior, in 1880 – you can see the lighter stonework in the photo below.

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The chapel from Library Lawn

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Inside the chapel of Pembroke College

One modern addition, when we visited, can be seen on the right of the aisle in my first photo of the interior above. This curved cross is known as the Cross of the Migrants and was made by a carpenter from the Italian island of Lampedusa, Francesco Tuccio. He used some timbers from one of the many migrant boats which attempted the crossing to Lampedusa in 2016. The cross serves as a memorial to the 3,000 migrants who died in the Mediterranean that year. A sign adds that it is ‘also a challenge to us as citizens, voters, Christians, human beings.’ There is another similar cross made by Tuccio in 2013 in the British Museum: the Lampedusa cross. And you can read more about what inspired him to start making these crosses in this article from the BBC.

Fitzwilliam Museum

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Entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum

From Pembroke College we walked a little further along Trumpington Street, passing Peterhouse College, to see the recently refurbished Fitzwilliam Museum (as an aside, you can see now how Fitzbillies got its name!) The museum was founded in 1816 by Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, who bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and his library, together with funds to house them, in order to further ‘the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation’. The collection has increased over the years, with art and artefacts from all over the world, and is now considered one of the best small museums in Europe.

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Portico ceiling

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Restored entrance hall

The refurbishment of the museum has focused on the restoration of the stunning Victorian entrance hall known as The Founder's Entrance. We only went into the entrance hall to admire, and photograph, its grandeur – a visit to the museum itself could otherwise have taken up most of our day and is perhaps better left to a less clement day.

Queens’ College

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On St Botolph's Church

Retracing our steps down Trumpington Street and back past Fitzbillies and past St Botolph’s Church we turned down Silver Street to visit our next college, Queens’. This is one of the colleges for which a charge is made to visit, but Members of the University of Cambridge, such as my friend, and residents of the city, can enter free of charge and take one guest – so no need for us to pay!

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Door detail, Queens'

Queens’ is one of the oldest and the largest colleges of the university, and was founded in 1448 by Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. It was subsequently re-founded, in 1465, by the rival Yorkist queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. This dual foundation is the reason why the college is always known as Queens’, never Queen’s.

Entering through the Great Gate we came first to Old Court, built between 1448 and 1451. The Old Library, on the right as you enter, is one of the earliest purpose-built libraries in Cambridge and has what looks like a beautiful and elaborate sundial but is in fact known as a moondial. This tells not only the time of day but also the current sign of the zodiac, month and much more – see this full explanation on the college website: Reading the Dial.

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Old Court moondial and clock, Queens'

On our way through to the next court, the Cloister Court, we could see into, but not enter, the Old Hall, part of the original college. It was hard to get photos through the glass because of all the reflections of the lighting in the passageway, but I did my best, helped by one of my friends who tried to shade the light, with some success. The hall has a beautiful painted ceiling, a 19th century restoration which removed a flat ceiling that had been added in the early 18th. The left-hand portrait at the far end is Erasmus, who once studied here, and the central figure one of the foundresses, Elizabeth Woodville, while on the right is Sir Thomas Smith, a 16th century diplomat and former Fellow of Queens’.

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Old Hall, Queens' College

The Cloister Court is named for its cloisters which were built in the 1490s to link the Old Court with other college buildings nearer the river.

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Cloister Court

Adjacent to Old Court is Walnut Tree Court, named for the tree that grows on its lawn. The one we see today is a replacement for an earlier one in the same position, standing on the line of a former monastery wall. The court was built in 1616–18. On its north side (left on my photo below) is the college chapel, which we didn’t go into (I believe it may have been closed).

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Walnut Tree Court

Instead we walked back through Cloister Court to the river and the famous Mathematical Bridge. The is a story attached to this bridge, which links the two halves of Queens’ College. It is said that the bridge was designed and built by Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts, and that later some students or fellows tried to take it apart and put it back together. They were unable to do so and had to resort to holding the bridge together with nuts and bolts. Sadly perhaps, this story is a myth - the bridge was built in 1749 by James Essex the Younger to the design of the master carpenter William Etheridge, 22 years after the death of Newton. This doesn’t stop the Mathematical Bridge from being one of the most photographed sights in Cambridge and of course I had to take some pictures too, waiting for punters to pass under it and position their boats in aesthetically pleasing spots!

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The Mathematical Bridge

Incidentally, punting on the Cam is a traditional and very popular activity here. You can hire a boat to punt yourself, or join an organised tour where the guide punts for you. The sound of the commentary on these tours drifts up as you watch from one of the many bridges or walk along the river banks – so much so that it can distract somewhat from the beautiful views. Punting was first introduced in the early 20th century and was quickly embraced by the students as a leisure activity, and more recently by visitors to the city keen to experience it as they do.

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Punting under the Mathematical Bridge

We decided to break for lunch at this point and had a very pleasant meal at the nearby Anchor pub, which I somehow omitted to photograph! It has a terrace overlooking the Cam, which on this sunny day was completely full, but we secured a table only just inside the door so we still had the view but were out of the sun, which was maybe a good thing as it was pretty hot for September. The pub dates back to 1864 and is associated with the rock band Pink Floyd – Syd Barrett was a regular here and the band played here several times.

King’s College

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King's College from the Backs

After our lunch we continued our explorations, crossing back over the Cam to walk along what are known as The Backs, the green lawns on the far side of the river to the town, from where you get excellent views of several of the colleges – and none more so than King’s.

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On King's College Bridge

We crossed back over the river at King’s College Bridge. This took us to the lawn immediately behind the main college buildings, dominant among them the famous King’s College Chapel.

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King's College Lawn with Chapel, Gatehouse and Screen

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Above the Gatehouse, King's College

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Entrance to King's College Chapel

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Exterior details of the Chapel

When I was a child my mother would always insist on listening to (and in later years watching) the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s on Christmas Eve, despite being the most unreligious person I know! That pause for beautiful music amidst the frenetic preparations for the big day was as much part of our family’s Christmas traditions as Mum’s recipe for Christmas pudding and the timing of the opening of gifts (always after breakfast!) So I loved being able to visit the chapel where these services are held.

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In King's College Chapel

As with Queens’, my friend’s membership of the university allowed us free access to the chapel and grounds of the college (otherwise the charge is £10). The chapel alone is worth a trip to Cambridge in my view – it is stunning!

The chapel was founded, like the college itself, by Henry VI. But the king didn’t live to see the work completed, being murdered in the Tower of London in 1471 when little more than the foundations had been built. Work continued rather half-heartedly under Edward IV and somewhat more enthusiastically under Richard III who gave instructions that 'the building should go on with all possible despatch' and to 'press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed'. By the end of his reign the first six bays of the Chapel had reached full height and the first five bays were roofed with oak and lead and were in use.

But it was under the Tudors, first Henry VII and then Henry VIII, to finish the work, and they did so in a grand style. The main structure and the vaulting (the chapel has the world's largest fan vaulted ceiling) were funded by Henry VII – partly during his reign and partly through his will. It was Henry VIII who oversaw the fan vaulting, which was built in just three years between 1512 and 1515, and later the glazing and most of the woodwork. The most striking example of the latter is the rood screen, which separates the nave from the altar and supports the chapel organ. This was erected in 1532–36 by Henry VIII in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and you can see both their initials carved on it. It is considered an exceptional example of early Renaissance architecture.

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Henry VIII's initials carved in the rood screen

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Arms of Henry VIII, King's College Chapel

The Tudors were of course a royal family under pressure – recently come to the throne as a result of victory in the Wars of the Roses, and facing ongoing challenges from other claimants. Asserting their authority was highly important, and where better to do so than in the building of this magnificent chapel?

Much of the decoration here, therefore, has little to do with Christianity and much to do with the power of the ruling family. The arms of Henry VII appear above the entrance and are repeated all around the walls of the nave, below the choir. A feature on the university website describes them:

‘Each shield (or escutcheon) is flanked by heraldic “supporters”: a dragon on the left and a greyhound on the right. Carved from pale limestone, the slender greyhounds have collars set with jewels, marking them out as favoured members of a wealthy household. All the shields have holes in their left-hand corners. This is a reference to jousting: a knight would pass his lance through the hole in the shield in order to defend himself while tilting at his opponent.’

The greyhound is the symbol of the Beaufort family (Henry’s mother was a Beaufort) while the dragon is the emblem of the Tudors. It struck me how each pair of animals is posed slightly differently – I haven’t found any mention of this online, so it perhaps has no particular significance other than to demonstrate the skill of Henry VII’s master mason John Wastell and his chief carver Thomas Stockton, or even to relieve their boredom at creating multiple copies of their master’s arms!

Elsewhere you will see the crowned Tudor rose, the crowned portcullis (another Beaufort family emblem), and the crowned fleur de lis for his titular kingship of France. Look at my photo of the fan vaulted ceiling – roses and portcullises sit at the highest intersections.

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Fan vaulted ceiling, King's College Chapel

You have to look quite closely to find any religious symbols in the stonework, like the small instrument-playing angels I spotted high on the walls of the chancel.

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Carving of angel, King's College Chapel

The stained glass windows here are magnificent, and these do have a religious theme, depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. Even here though the politics of the time crept in. I found the following intriguing explanation in a Telegraph newspaper review of a book about the windows:

‘Henry VII studded the windows with stubby hawthorn bushes that symbolised his victory at Bosworth Field. As Henry VIII careered from one wife to another, the glaziers were called on to make subtle alterations to the windows: for example, Anne Boleyn's falcon badge was quietly translated into Jane Seymour's phoenix. … Henry was Solomon. Henry was Moses. Henry was David brandishing the head of a papal Goliath. Renaissance buildings, Tudor galleons and more naturalistic techniques humanised the illustrations.’

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Stained glass windows

Amazingly most of the original early 16th century windows, including the great east window behind the altar, survived both the ravages of Cromwell during the Commonwealth and the bombs of World War Two when most was taken out and stored safely elsewhere.

The only later window is the west one, added in 1879, but it holds its own among all the others.

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West window, King's College Chapel

The painting above the altar is the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, originally painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium. It was installed here in 1968, an operation that involved lowering the sanctuary floor and which was therefore not without controversy – especially as the painting is not considered one of Rubens’ best and as it clashes in style with the stunning east window immediately above it.

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East window, and Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

To the right of the altar a small side chapel serves as a memorial to those from the college (scholars, fellows, masters, staff etc.) who died in the two world wars. One very notable name to look for, near the top left of the WW1 commemorative plaque, is that of the famous war poet Rupert Brooke who died in 1915, aged just 18, from sepsis while with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. His most famous poem is The Soldier:

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WWI memorial plaque

‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’

I don’t think any number of photos can replicate the overall impression you get standing in this chapel, so do look at this virtual tour on the Kings College website to get the full effect.

More colleges and other sights

From Kings we walked past the Old Schools which house the Cambridge University offices and formerly housed the Cambridge University Library. My photos are of the entrance gate on the west side in a building designed by George Gilbert Scott (also responsible for the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial, among many others).

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The Old Schools

We walked through Senate Passage and emerged on to Kings Parade by Senate House. This is where all the university degree ceremonies are held. It was designed and built by James Gibbs in 1722–1730 , in a neo-classical style using Portland stone.

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Senate House from Senate Passage

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Senate House from King's Parade

We passed, but didn’t go into, Gonville and Caius College, named for its two founders. Gonville, Rector of Terrington St Clement in Norfolk, first founded the College as Gonville Hall in 1348. When it went into decline in the 16th century a former student and Fellow, John Keys, who also spelled his name as the Latin Caius, came to the rescue and re-founded his old College of Gonville Hall as ‘Gonville and Caius College’. My assumption is that the two stone figures above the Great Gate which show men holding buildings must be Gonville and Caius, and the third, in bishop’s robes, would perhaps be William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who executed Gonville’s will and appointed the first Master of the college (he also, incidentally, set up his own college, Trinity, which we will come to shortly).

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Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Next on our route was Great St Mary’s, the university church. Although we didn’t, it’s possible to climb the 123 steps of the tower for views of the city. The present church was constructed between 1478 and 1519, replacing two earlier ones on this sit, and the tower finished later, in 1608. There have been various restorations over the centuries including one by George Gilbert Scott in 1850-51, and most recently during the last century.

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Great St Mary’s, the university church

We continued our walk north along Trinity Street, passing the Great Gate of Trinity College which was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Above the gate is a carving of King Henry VIII who founded the College in 1546 – one of the very last acts of his life. It was formed by amalgamating two existing colleges, King’s Hall and Michaelhouse. Look carefully at the carving on my photo below – Henry is holding a chair or table leg in his right hand! It is thought that this was substituted for the original sword, but no one knows when, or how, although it seems likely to have been a student prank.

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Trinity College - statue of Henry VIII

Students, presumably freshers (first year undergraduates), were arriving here and I spotted these men in traditional bowler hats welcoming them at the old wooden gate.

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At Trinity College

St John’s College

A little further on we came to another Great Gate, that of St John’s College.

The statue above it is of St John the Evangelist, with an eagle (his traditional symbol and an emblem of the College). He carries a poisoned chalice with a snake twined around it, representing the legend that once, while at Ephesus, John was given a cup of poisoned wine to drink. Before drinking, he blessed the cup and the poison departed the cup in the form of a serpent.

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Above the Great Gate, St John’s College

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First Court, St John’s College

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St John’s College Chapel
from Trinity Street

Passing through the gate we were in the college’s First Court, from where we had good views of the college chapel’s impressive tower, the tallest building in Cambridge, which we had already seen in front of us as we walked along Trinity Street.

Front Court dates from the early 16th century though it has been considerably altered over the centuries, especially on the north side where this chapel was built. The chapel is relatively new by Cambridge standards, having been built between 1866 and 1869 to replace a smaller medieval chapel which dated back to the 13th century. The architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott (his name crops up a lot when you read about the college buildings of Cambridge!)

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St John’s College Chapel

The main part of chapel was closed so we could only peer at it from the entrance area through a wrought iron screen. I would like to be able to say that I didn’t see the ‘no photos’ sign until after I had taken this one!

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St John’s College Chapel

We carried on into Second Court, which was built from 1598 to 1602 and is far more intact than First Court, with a symmetry to its Tudor buildings.

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Looking back at the chapel from Second Court

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In Second Court

On the far side of the Second Court (the west) is another imposing gate, a copy of the Great Gate. Above the archway is a statue of Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, who financed the building of the court, which was added in 1671. I was taken by the little faces set into the archway – all different and all rather gargoyle-like in their ugliness!

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Statue of Mary Talbot

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Carving details

We walked through Third Court and little Kitchen Court, and from there out on to the Wren Bridge over the Cam. As the name suggests, the bridge was based on designs by Sir Christopher Wren, albeit for a bridge intended for a different place. I liked the goat-like statues adorning the gateway to this bridge.

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In Kitchen Court, and on the Wren Bridge

The Wren Bridge is the perfect vantage point for views and photos of Cambridge’s best-known bridge, the Bridge of Sighs. This was built in 1831 and is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, presumably because both are covered. University legend however has it that the bridge is named for the sighs of students as they walk from their rooms in one of the courts on the Backs (New Court, River Court, Cripps Court) to their tutors' offices.

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The Bridge of Sighs

On the far side of the Cam we had a lovely view of New Court, the first college court to be built on this side of the river. It was built between 1826 and 1831 in the Gothic Revival style, to accommodate the growing number of students. It has the flamboyance typical of that style, and in the September sunshine and with beautiful flower beds outside, looked like a very grand stately home.

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New Court, St John's College

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New Court from the Wren Bridge

The Round Church

St John’s was the last college that we visited. Feet were growing weary and I had a train to catch. So we decided to catch a bus back to the main city centre bus terminus from where I could catch a second bus to the station and my friends one to their home.

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The Round Church

We found a pleasant spot in which to wait for our bus, outside the Round Church (more properly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). This is one of just four medieval round churches still in use in England. It was originally built in 1130, modelled on the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and although it has seen many structural changes since then a sign outside proclaimed it the oldest church in Cambridge.

A fitting place perhaps to end our walk around this historic city.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:36 Archived in England Tagged bridges buildings architecture history city museum university chapel Comments (16)

Of Weald and Downs

East Sussex and Kent

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The beach near Rye, East Sussex

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With Paula & Kevin
in a Sussex pub garden

For quintessential English countryside only a stone’s throw from London you could do far worse than visit East Sussex. This lovely county truly has a bit of everything – pretty villages and interesting towns, centuries of history, coastal scenery and rolling downlands.

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Alex & Pete's cottage

To the west of the county lie the South Downs, while the east, along the border with Kent, shares with that county the area known as the Weald, a sandstone ridge which separates the chalk landscapes of the North and South Downs.

We have just returned from a lovely weekend visiting friends in this lovely county, prompting me to share some of its delights here. We’re lucky enough to have two sets of friends living here: Alex and Pete have a pretty cottage in Battle (site of the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings) while Paula and Kevin live in the seaside town of Hastings (which despite its name wasn’t the site of that famous battle!) This past weekend we were with the former in Battle and we took advantage of the summer weather to get out and about.

We visited two beautiful spots, Bodiam Castle and Sissinghurst. OK, I’m cheating a bit, as the latter is actually a few miles across the border into the neighbouring county of Kent. But it sits in the same High Weald area as Battle, so I hope I will be forgiven! In this entry I plan to tell you about those outings and in the next will introduce you to some of my other favourite places in East Sussex.

Bodiam Castle

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Bodiam Castle

There are many castles in England worth visiting, but what makes 14th century Bodiam stand out is its moat. This is the archetypal image of a moated castle. Although ruined it is sufficiently intact to look very impressive when seen from across the moat in particular.

The castle was built by a knight, Sir Edward Dallingridge, and designed to be both an effective defence against the threat of a French invasion (or peasants’ revolt) and an impressive family home that showed off his status and wealth.

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Bodiam Castle, with northern gatehouse and Barbican ruins in front (left of photo

There are two gatehouses but you can only enter through the one on the north side, in front of which are the ruins of the Barbican. A National Trust volunteer here pointed out the historic graffiti carved into the stone of the gate, which can also be seen on the southern Postern Gate. Some of this was made by soldiers of the Napoleonic period. It used to be thought that they were guarding prisoners of war in the castle, although that has since been disproved – they are more likely to have been simply stationed in the area. One of the inscriptions here is particularly clear – it was made by James Bryan, of the 35th Regiment of Foot, in 1819.

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Historic graffiti

But I was more fascinated by the volunteer’s explanation of these more cryptic carvings. They are known as Witches’ Marks, and were typically carved into buildings as a device to prevent witches from entering – the theory was that they would get lost in the maze-like patterns. These particular Witches’ Marks probably date back to around the time of the building of the castle!

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Witches' marks

Once inside you will find the various buildings which once stood around the central courtyard are much more ruined than the outside wall. It takes some imagination to visualise the chapel, great hall, living quarters etc., although the informative signs certainly help.

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Ruins of Bodiam Castle

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Chris up the tower

You can climb the spiral stone steps of the postern tower for views of the surrounding countryside and for a bird’s eye view of the castle’s layout. But the steps are steep and a little worn so I left that to Chris, who went up with our friend Alex while Pete and I remained on the ground, studying more of the graffiti.

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Chris's photo of me and Pete (and an oblivious stranger!)

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Historic graffiti

We also looked up at the murder holes through which guards could throw burning oil, rocks, scalding water, tar and other nasty substances on to invading troops, should they storm and enter the castle.

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Murder holes

This gate was the entrance for tradespeople but was also probably used as a private entrance for the family and for informal guests – hence the heraldry above the entrance.

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Heraldry above the Postern Gate

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Eagle owl

As you explore you see signs of Sir Edward’s wealth – a large number of fireplaces (33 – none of them in the servants’ quarters!), the chapel which once had beautiful stained-glass windows, the landscaped setting with water features.

Outside we saw an area set aside for children to try their hands at archery. There was also an eagle owl, one of several birds of prey to be seen at the castle, but owning to unusually hot weather they weren’t having any of their usual flying displays, understandably. So we headed back to the main entrance after our castle explorations to enjoy a much-needed cold drink and relax with a view of the pretty surrounding countryside

Sissinghurst Castle

Despite the name, Sissinghurst is more of a manor house than a castle. The original manor house was built around the end of the 13th / early 14th centuries. Nothing remains of that house apart from some sections of its moat. But in the 16th century a new Renaissance courtyard home was built here by the Baker family, with a new brick gatehouse and comfortable family accommodation.

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At Sissinghurst Castle

The house was leased to the government during the Seven Years War (1756-63) to be used as a prison camp for 3,000 captured French sailors. It is to them that we owe the ‘castle’ element of the estate’s name – they wrote home to their families, often referring to Sissinghurst as Chateau de Sissinghurst, and the name stuck. Unfortunately, they also destroyed much of the house.

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Building detail

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Weather vane

What survived was restored by the Mann Cornwallis family (their initials can be seen on the weather vanes which top the towers). This included the Renaissance gatehouse, stable block and several farm cottages.

But Sissinghurst owes much of its present-day fame to the couple who bought it in 1930 – Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. They fell in love with the estate and devoted much of the rest of their lives to creating a home here – restoring some of the buildings and adapting them for their needs, but most significantly, creating the garden that would make Sissinghurst famous. It was Harold who designed the series of separate ‘rooms’ but Vita whose influence is most strongly felt in the planting of these. She felt that plants should not be constrained but instead be allowed to tumble over paths in a more romantic style.

When the National Trust took over the property in 1967, five years after Vita’s death, they tidied up the garden, but more recently they have carried out research into Vita and Harold's original designs and vision for the gardens and are gradually restoring them to recapture these.

Climbing the gatehouse tower

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Tower gatehouse from the gardens

The first thing we did on arrival was climb the 78 stairs in the gatehouse. This is really worth doing and I was very glad I’d made the effort. On the way up you can stop in a series of rooms, of which the first is by far the most interesting. This is Vita’s writing room and has been left just as it was when she died in 1962. Actually, you can’t go in the room, only look from the doorway, as many of the books and other objects are fragile, but that is enough to give you a strong sense of the character of the room.

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Vita's writing room
Forgive the quality, it's a dark room and I didn't like to use flash

Further up in the tower you can see some of the graffiti left by those French sailors, and also, as you climb, see collections of coloured glassware and this little stained-glass monk in one of the windows.

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Stained glass in the tower, and historic graffiti

Once you reach the top the views make the climb worthwhile. As one of the staff had told us, you see no modern-day buildings at all, so these are the same views generations of previous inhabitants will have enjoyed.

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View from the tower

Looking down, closer to the tower, you can really appreciate the overall layout of the gardens and features of the estate in a way you can’t possibly do when on the ground. The series of rooms into which the garden is divided is clearly seen from here, and the various small buildings dotted around. Unusually Harold and Vita chose to make their home in several of these – they slept in the South Cottage, where Vita also had a flower room and Harold his book room (where he wrote); their two sons had bedrooms in the Priest’s House, which also held the kitchen; Vita wrote in the tower, in the room I have already described; and the library, also used for hosting visitors, was (and still is) in the former stable block opposite the tower. I found it hard to imagine living like this, until I realised that the garden is also part of the ‘house’ and walking through it from room to room would have been an almost hourly pleasure for the family.

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The White Garden from the tower

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View of the orchard from the tower

The library

Descending the tower we crossed to the nearby library which houses the couple’s extensive collection of 20th century books. Here we found a helpful volunteer happy to answer our questions about the furnishings and fittings, including the large painting of one of Vita’s ancestors, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset (1536-1608) being presented with petitions by his secretary, and a simpler work by one of the imprisoned French sailors depicting the Sissinghurst of his time.

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In the library

Exploring the gardens

We went to an introductory talk about the history of Sissinghurst, from which I have drawn some of the info above, and took a break for refreshments in the café, then started our explorations of the gardens. It has to be said that these weren’t at their best and I would love to return to see them perhaps earlier in the year (June would be great for the roses). Our dry hot summer has also hit some of the plants quite hard, but there was still plenty to enjoy.

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The gardens

The dahlias were looking pretty good, the White Garden had enough in bloom to be very pretty indeed, and elsewhere the borders held much of interest. Here is a selection of my best photos taken as we strolled around.

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In the gardens of Sissinghurst

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The White Garden

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In the White Garden

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Dahlias

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Some of the other flowers

It was a hot day, however, so we decided against a longer walk in the fields around the garden, and instead settled for excellent ice creams eaten in the shade of the Elizabethan barn. We checked out the shop where there was a sale on (but didn’t buy anything), and also the separate plant sale (ditto), before heading home, resolving to come again soon.

I'll finish with a few photos of some of the buildings on the estate - and one more of the gardens!

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In the gardens, and the stable block

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The old stable block

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Old cottage

Posted by ToonSarah 12:09 Archived in England Tagged landscapes buildings castles architecture flowers history views garden Comments (12)

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