A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about flowers

Autumn colours and fungi

Emmetts Garden, Kent

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In the Rock Garden

A few days ago we paid a first visit to this fairly small National Trust run garden just off the M25 to the south of London. And what a delight it was!

The garden was developed in Edwardian times by Frederic Lubbock, a keen plantsman. He collected many exotic and rare trees and shrubs from across the world. Under the National Trust’s ownership it is gradually being restored to its former glory but is already a fabulous spot for a walk and for photography.

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View from near the entrance

There are wonderful views over the Kent Weald (this is one of the highest spots in the county) and a network of trails through the wooded slopes, in addition to the formal gardens. These include a Rock Garden, at its best in autumn when the acers glow red and orange; a Rose Garden; and planned areas of shrub planting to show off the more exotic specimens in a semi-natural setting.

Let me take you on a walk through the garden …

The Rock Garden

This was where we saw the most vivid colours as there is a great collection of Acers (Japanese Maple). There were also still some flowers in this sheltered spot.

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In the Rock Garden

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Acer in the Rock Garden

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In the Rock Garden

The North Garden

They are currently restoring this area to look more like Frederic Lubbock's original design, making more of the small pond at its centre. This is the highest part of the garden.

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The North Garden

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In the North Garden

Woodland Walk

Steps led us down to a path strewn with fallen leaves and prickly sweet chestnut cases. There were lots of fungi to spot among the trees, some of them tiny!

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On the Woodland Walk

The path led us to a viewpoint at the lowest point on the walk.

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View from Emmetts Garden

The South Garden

This is more open, with lawns dotted with trees, many of them vibrant at this time of year.

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Autumn colour in the South Garden

There were some interesting specimen trees, all labelled, and a white rhododendron having a late flush.

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Prickly heath bush from Argentina

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Rhododendron in the South Garden

While autumn is recommended as a special time to visit, I’m told by a friend that the woods are also stunning in the spring when the bluebells are flowering - and of course the Rose Garden would be at its best in the summer months. We will have to return ...

Posted by ToonSarah 03:30 Archived in England Tagged trees flowers colour garden autumn Comments (16)

Britain’s answer to the Grand Canyon

Cheddar Gorge and the Mendip Hills

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Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge cuts into the southern edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. At 137 metres deep it is hardly the Grand Canyon, but it is pretty impressive nevertheless! Unfortunately (in my view) its lower end is marred by touristic over-development, but as you travel up the gorge it becomes wilder, thankfully.

The southern side of the gorge is steepest and the most developed. There are several cave complexes within it. Some are usually open to the public, but we visited during the coronavirus pandemic and the caves were closed – a bonus in some ways as it meant the gorge was much quieter. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to see where Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, known imaginatively as Cheddar Man and estimated to be 9,000 years old, was found in 1903.

There are several cafés strung out along the side of the road, all also closed when we visited, and of course a shop selling the famous Cheddar Cheese. This was open but we didn’t go in.

While there is some development on the northern side too, it’s mainly restricted to a handful of shops by the car park at the foot and a sprinkling of houses, some of them rather attractive. Paths lead up between the houses to the open land above, which is owned by the National Trust. The most distinctive feature here is the so-called Lion Rock, and unlike some such features you see around the world, I think this one does look a bit like the animal for which it is named! I found photography here quite challenging because of the contrast between the sunny upper slopes and rocks, and the deep shadows lower down.

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Lion Rock, and early autumn colour

Tricky lighting in Cheddar Gorge

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Towards the top of the gorge the scenery becomes wilder. The road climbs steeply – it’s a popular challenge for cyclists and was used as part of the 2011 Tour of Britain race. There are several places where you can pull over and park to admire the view or go for a walk. There are a lot of rock-climbing routes and we saw several small groups just embarking on ascents, but they were still at the stage of sorting their equipment so I couldn’t get any interesting photos of them. But the light was better here for photographing the scenery, and we came across a number of the feral goats that graze the slopes, including a young kid and his (her?) mother.

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In Cheddar Gorge

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Mother goat and kid

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Goats in Cheddar Gorge

Deerleap

Instead of returning the way we had come, back down Cheddar Gorge, we continued to climb up into the Mendip Hills before turning south on a network of minor roads to the small carpark at Deerleap, from where I had read good views were to be had. Sure enough, the view from the car park itself was good, but even better from the public footpath that starts from here. We could see for miles across the Somerset Levels below, with the former island of Glastonbury Tor, which we had visited yesterday, clearly visible.

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View of the Somerset Levels and Glastonbury Tor from Deerleap carpark

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More views from the footpath

But we found more than just views, wonderful as these were, as the path led us across the fields to an area set aside as a nature reserve, with wildflowers dotting the grass.

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Late summer flowers on the Mendips

It must be lovely at the height of summer and was still a pleasant spot even in late September, especially on this sunny day. This gentle walk was a great way to round off our morning before returning to our base in Wells for lunch and an afternoon exploring the city.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:58 Archived in England Tagged landscapes animals flowers england views glastonbury cheddar_gorge Comments (16)

‘King John was not a good man …’

Runnymede

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The Magna Carta Memorial

‘King John was not a good man
He had his little ways.’

Or so A. A. Milne put it in his poem King John's Christmas. The barons of early 13th century England would have agreed. In 1215 England was in political turmoil. King John had become vastly unpopular; his disagreements with the Pope over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury led to a papal interdict against the country and the king’s excommunication, while the imposition of high taxes to fund the war with France led to mounting anger. In early 1215 the barons seized control of London and the king was left with no choice but to negotiate with them. The outcome of those negotiations was the sealing of the Magna Carta Libertatum, the Great Charter of Liberty – usually known simply as Magna Carta. The document held the king accountable to the rule of law, enshrined the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial (free men in those days meaning a relatively small number of noblemen), and established a council of 25 barons to oversee it.

The simplified account of our history usually stops here, suggesting that once the charter was sealed the matter was settled, but of course it wasn’t that simple. The charter lasted less than a year before being annulled, but subsequent kings revised and revived it in various forms, and it is still regarded symbolically as the basis for much of British law and the workings of our Parliament.

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The Thames at Runnymede

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, a water-meadow on the south bank of the River Thames, in June 1215. Runnymede offered neutral ground located between the royal fortress of Windsor Castle and the barons’ rebel base at Staines. Today the meadows and the hill above them are owned and managed by the National Trust.

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Runnymede landscape

There are several interesting memorials, lots of space for picnics and family fun, and pleasant riverside and woodland walks. I used to come here regularly as a child – it was a favourite family outing, an easy drive from our home in a north west London suburb. But I hadn’t been for decades, until the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent slight easing, coupled with an exceptionally warm and sunny spring / early summer, led to an increased interest in discovering the sights close to home. We have recently made two visits to Runnymede, and the photos on this page were taken during both of them, just a few weeks apart.

Magna Carta Memorial

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The Magna Carta Memorial

The monument to the sealing of Magna Carta sits on the slope of Coopers Hill, overlooking the meadow where that sealing is thought to have taken place. It was erected by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1957, reflecting the influence the document had on the US Constitution – it is said that the founding fathers turned to Magna Carta for inspiration and guidance when they drew it up.

The monument is in the style of a small Greek temple, with at its centre a granite pillar on which is inscribed ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law’. Some of the paving stones around it are engraved as records of visits by the ABA to rededicate the memorial on various occasions over the years.

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The Magna Carta Memorial

John F Kennedy Memorial

The US links to this site continue with another memorial on Coopers Hill, this one a little higher. The British memorial to President John F. Kennedy was jointly dedicated on 14 May 1965, by the Queen and Jacqueline Kennedy. It consists of a Portland stone tablet inscribed with a famous quote from his inaugural address:

‘Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.’

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The John F Kennedy Memorial

The granite sett steps that lead steeply up to the stone form part of the memorial. There are 50 of them, representing the 50 US states, and their attractive irregularity is a deliberate feature by the landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe, intended to symbolise a pilgrimage.

Commemorative trees

There are several oak trees planted near the Magna Carta memorial. One was planted by Narismha Rao, Prime Minister of India, in 1994, one by the Queen in 1987 to mark National Tree Week that year, and one also planted that year by John O. Marsh, Secretary of the US Army, marked by a plaque reading:

‘This oak tree, planted with soil from Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, commemorates the bicentenary of the Constitution of the United States of America. It stands in acknowledgement that the ideals of liberty and justice embodied in the Constitution trace their lineage through institutions of English law to the Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215.’

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The Jamestown commemorative oak

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The Jurors

Runnymede has changed little since my childhood visits, but there have been a few additions to the sights dotted around the landscape here, in the form of art installations. On the grassy meadow below the Magna Carta and Kennedy memorials is this group of twelve bronze chairs, created by artist Hew Locke to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 2015.

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Chris studying The Jurors

The designs on the chairs incorporate imagery representing key moments in the struggle for freedom, rule of law and equal rights. These include:
~ a representation of Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island
~ an image of the Exxon Valdez tanker which ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in 1989 (to serve as a reminder of corporate environmental responsibilities)
~ Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’
~ Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practice law in India who became a legal advocate for women in purdah who were unable to speak out for themselves
~ a march of blind trade unionists in 1920 to support the Blind Persons Act which established disability rights as a fundamental principle in British society
~ an Amerindian headdress above a forest and river clustered with nuggets of gold, drawing attention to indigenous land claims
~ an image of documents being shredded, as a reference to the redaction or destruction of documentation by regimes wishing to hide incriminating evidence of their activities (the National Trust website description of this chair references the invasion by citizens of the Stasi office in Leipzig, interrupting this destruction which we had learned about on our visit there a couple of years ago – see my blog https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/259/)
~ a hollow boab tree such as those used by police in Australia in the 1890s as temporary prisons for aboriginal prisoners
~ a boat carrying refugees

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Nelson Mandela's prison cell, and the Exxon Valdez

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The blind trade unionists' march, and Cornelia Sorabji

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Amerindian headdress, and hollow boab tree

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A boat carrying refugees, and another view of The Jurors

Writ in Water

While I found The Jurors to be both artistically effective and powerful, I was less taken by the other large installation, Writ in Water, which stands on the slope of Coopers Hill not far from the Magna Carta memorial. It should be impressive but somehow the combination of harsh sunlight and dirty water in its central pool made the inscription within the stone tower almost illegible. This inscription is engraved in a metal strip that frames the pool, but in ‘mirror writing’ so as to be read indirectly from its reflection – hence ‘writ in water’. It is taken from Clause 39 of Magna Carta:

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’

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Writ in Water

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Others have evidently been more impressed than we were, as the installation the RIBA National Award 2019, which recognises ‘buildings which have made a significant contribution to architecture in the UK’.

The Thames at Runnymede

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The Thames at Runnymede
~ houses on the opposite bank

But Runnymede isn’t all about history, and many of those who visit, possibly most, are here simply to enjoy its riverside setting – to walk a stretch of the Thames Path, to picnic and play in the sun, maybe enjoy an ice cream. There are also moorings for the pleasure boats and barges.

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Boats on the Thames

It’s hard however to escape the fact that you are very close to London, only just outside the M25 ring road. At the eastern end of the meadows you can hear the motorway traffic, across the river you see the probably rather expensive homes of commuters whose gardens slope down to its banks, and planes fly fairly overhead at regular intervals as you are in the flight path for Heathrow Airport. Or at least, they do so in ‘normal’ times – one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, I guess, was that our recent visits were rather more peaceful with only the occasional jet flying above us. Personally, however I would rather have the planes and no virus, as I am sure most would agree.

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Quiet stretch of the river, and Egyptian Goose

Coopers Hill and Langham Pond

On the other side of the meadows from the river are the wooded slopes of Coopers Hill, with various footpaths leading up to the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial which commemorates the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died during the Second World War and records the names of the 20,456 airmen who have no known grave. We haven’t yet made the climb to the top but this is definitely on the list for a future visit as the views are said to be excellent – nearby Windsor castle, of course, but also on a clear day the arch of Wembley Stadium and even the skyscrapers in the City of London.

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Meadow at the foot of Coopers Hill

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Meadows at Runnymede, and view of the Thames from Coopers Hill

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Dandelion clock

Where the wood meets the meadows is tranquil Langham Pond. This was created when the meandering River Thames formed an oxbow lake, and today is a wetland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The pond and surrounding meadow form a habitat that is considered unique in Southern England and of international importance. There are nationally scarce plants and insects here, including a species of fly unrecorded anywhere else in the United Kingdom!

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Langham Pond

But being unknowledgeable about flies I find myself drawn instead to the beautiful shades of green in this landscape, the water-fowl and the colourful dragon and damselflies. Here at least you can forget how close you are to London and imagine yourself deep in the country.

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Flags, Langham Pond

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Swan on Langham Pond

Above in the woods you can find wildflowers in the spring and summer, and of course the leaves will turn gorgeous shades of orange and red in the autumn, as they are largely deciduous. Another reason for a return visit later in the year!

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Path through the woods on Coopers Hill

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Ox-eye Daisies, and Red Campion

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More wildflowers

Statue of Queen Elizabeth II

In the Runnymede Pleasure Gardens to the east of the National Trust land, where families picnic and locals walk their dogs, stands a larger-than-life bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth II, placed here in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The work of sculptor James Butler, it was inspired by the famous 1954 and 1969 portraits by Pietro Annigoni. It may seem slightly ironic that the anniversary of an event that helped to restrict the power of the monarchy should be marked by the unveiling of a statue of the current monarch, but so it was – and supporters argued, perhaps fairly, that the Queen represents all that is good about our monarchy as it has evolved since those very different times.

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The statue of Queen Elizabeth II

In front of the statue two parallel timelines are etched into the paving stones – one the successions of kings and queens from King John to Queen Elizabeth II, while the other is described as a ‘democracy timeline’ highlighting significant evolutionary milestones in Britain’s democratic heritage.

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Dog roses at Runnymede

Posted by ToonSarah 10:49 Archived in England Tagged landscapes art birds flowers england monument history statue views river Comments (11)

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)

A very English county

East Sussex

In my previous entry I described our recent visit to East Sussex (and a bit of Kent). Here are some of the other places we have visited and enjoyed in the past:

Seven Sisters and Seaford Head

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Seven Sisters

One of the loveliest spots from which to view southern England’s classic chalk cliff scenery is here at Seven Sisters. They take their name, logically, from their number, and the line of seven white cliffs, especially when gleaming in the summer sun, is truly quite striking – and very photogenic.

The cliffs are the remnants of dry valleys in the chalky South Downs, which are gradually being eroded by the sea, creating this wave effect. As the Seven Sisters Country Park website explains,

‘The cliffs are receding at about 30-40cm each year on average. The process is intermittent with major falls occurring after heavy rain or rough seas, often two of three times per year. Where these falls occur they protect the base of the cliffs from the sea and usually there are no falls in the same places for eight or nine years until the sea undercuts the cliffs again.’

(The same web page, by the way, also has a nice diagram showing the contours of the cliffs and the individual names of each).

These views are only accessible on foot, although you can get fairly close by car, as this map shows: How to see the Seven Sisters. We have in the past followed two different routes. Firstly, parking near the Visitor Centre on the A259 (for which there is a charge) and walking along the lovely Cuckmere Valley for about three miles to the beach below the cliffs, Cuckmere Haven. From here you need to climb the hill to your right if you want to get the classic view in my photo above. You can also get a bus from Eastbourne, Seaford or Brighton to the park entrance.

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Seven Sisters from Seaford Head

Alternatively you can drive via Seaford to Seaford Head, where a free car park gives you access to several walking trails across the cliffs leading to the same hill-top view, from where you can descend to the beach for a closer look.

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The path down to the beach

Once there you can of course enjoy the views, but it’s also worth taking a closer look at your immediate surroundings. Wild flowers abound on these chalky cliffs (but please don’t pick them), there are shells and pebbles to pick over on the beach, rock-pools to explore for shrimp and other small sea creatures, and sea-birds galore.

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Seven Sisters from the beach, and in the Cuckmere Valley

Battle Abbey

At the eastern end of Battle High Street is Battle Abbey. This abbey, much of it now in ruins, was built by William the Conquerer to commemorate the thousands who died in the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings – which, despite its name, took place here.

The main attraction here is the opportunity to walk around the battlefield and learn about the events that shaped English history. That may sound dull, especially as an initial view of the area shows nothing more than a slightly muddy field, but the excellent audio tour populates the field in your imagination with soldiers and other significant players. When you first put on your headphones you are invited to choose a character to follow through the events of that day – a great way of bringing history to life. I chose one of the women who followed the soldiers and cared for the wounded, which gave me a very different perspective on the battle.

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Battle Abbey, evening light

There is also a small museum devoted to the history of the abbey, with various artefacts found during excavations. Nearby you can see the spot where King Harold is said to have died. You can’t go in the re-built abbey itself however as that is now a private school.

Bateman's

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Roses above the door

This lovely Jacobean house was once the home of the author Rudyard Kipling (from 1902 to 1936). It has been left just as it was when he lived there, decorated in his exotic oriental tastes. If like me you like to see where well-known books were written, you’ll like the study with his collection of books (many unsurprisingly from India) and the original illustrations for The Jungle Book, drawn by the Detmold brothers, which are displayed here.

Outside are pretty gardens to explore, with traditional roses and a lovely lily pond. This garden was laid out according to Kipling’s own design, which still hangs in his study. They run down to the River Dudwell with its working watermill, dating from c. 1750. You can also see Kipling's 1928 Phantom 1 Rolls-Royce in the garage here.

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The lily pond

Carr Taylor Vineyard

England may not be well-known as a wine-producing country but for some years now pioneers have been establishing vineyards in the southern counties and trying to change that image. At first their attempts were laughed at and their wines dismissed as sub-standard, but increasingly both the casual drinker and the wine connoisseur have come to take their efforts and their results much more seriously. Indeed some of the wines produced here have won awards in international wine competitions.

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Carr Taylor Vineyard
(early in the growing season!)

This site was first planted as a vineyard in 1971 and consists of 37 acres of land which slope gently towards the southeast, creating the perfect micro-climate in which to grow grapes. The owners claim to produce ‘a truly English style of wine which is crisp, aromatic, fresh and fruity’. Certainly we were impressed by those we tasted when we visited.

As well as tasting and shopping for wine (and a whole host of wine-related products) you can follow a trail around the vineyard, where signs along the way give information about the grape varieties grown there and how they are cultivated. All this is on a very small scale compared to in major wine-producing countries but is a novelty here in England.

Pashley Manor Gardens

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Pashley Manor - the house

Pashley Manor is a beautiful Tudor Manor House, although only its gardens are open to the public. But these are well worth a visit, and a walk around them will easily occupy an hour or two.

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Flowers at Pashley Manor

Nearest to the house, are several well planted formal gardens with beautifully planted borders. There is even a vegetable garden that looks more attractive than many flower gardens!

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The vegetable garden

Interspersed with the planting, and on the lush green lawns, are a number of sculptures by various artists, all of them for sale (no, I didn’t ask the price!) One section here holds a lovely swimming pool which would be so tempting on a hot summer’s day. The plants in the borders are labelled, so it’s easy to identify ones you might want to try at home, and there are also helpful gardeners working here and there, willing to stop what they’re doing and chat about the plants.

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One of the borders

Beyond these more formal gardens you come to a landscaped area with a woodland walk and a small lake. Everything is very photogenic, with carefully planned views. When we visited, though, I did have a small mishap with my camera, when a black swan on the lake attacked my camera when I was taking his photo and left a small dent in the bodywork with his bill!

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Beautiful but aggressive!

There is also a lovely café here and a small shop selling good-quality gifts and a small range of plants. Alternatively, there are picnic tables in the field where you park, although picnicking isn’t allowed in the gardens themselves.

Church of St George, Brede

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Church of St George, Brede

The small village of Brede lies about five miles (eight km) north west of Hastings. We stopped here for a drink at the village pub, and sitting outside our eyes were drawn to the attractive old church on the other side of the road, so when we had finished our drinks we crossed over for a closer look. It was the church of St George, originally Norman but with considerable additions over the centuries. It sits in a picturesque churchyard with wonderful views on one side over the Brede River Valley. We spent some time strolling around looking at the old gravestones and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. I found lots of details that appealed to the photographer in me.

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Fallen angel in the graveyard

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Lichen on an old tombstone

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View from the churchyard

Inside, the church retains some of its Norman features, including a window (at the west end of the north aisle) and the pillars of the south arcade. It is worth a quick look, but for me it was the exterior and churchyard that made this such a lovely spot.

De La Warr Pavilion

Bexhill-on-Sea is a quieter seaside resort than Hastings, best known for the De La Warr Pavilion on the seafront. It was built in the 1930s, the result of an architectural competition, in the Modernist style of that era. The architects, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, were leading lights in the Modern Movement. The project was initiated by the 9th Earl De La Warr, then Mayor of Bexhill – hence the name. His vision was of a public building that would put Bexhill on the map, culturally speaking. When he opened the new building, he described it as:

‘a modernist building of world renown that will become a crucible for creating a new model of cultural provision in an English seaside town which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town.’

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Staircase in the De La Warr Pavilion

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Staircase lighting

After some damage during the Second World War, and subsequent deterioration of the building, it was restored in the early 2000s and reopened as a contemporary arts centre, with one of the largest galleries on the south coast of England.

If you are interested in 20th century architecture this is a must visit. Its elegant lines epitomise the Modernist style at its best, in my opinion. Whether or not the current exhibitions are to your taste (they change regularly) do go inside to admire the staircase in particular.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this wander through some of the sights of East Sussex. There is lots more to see and do in this lovely county, and as I said, we visit quite often, so I will add another page to this blog when we’ve made some new discoveries.

But meanwhile I need to introduce you to Hastings, the town we visit most often …

Posted by ToonSarah 10:45 Archived in England Tagged landscapes architecture flowers coast history views church vineyard garden wine author Comments (7)

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