Glutton for Punishment

One of the advantages of living on your own is the freedom to indulge in whims.

This why only a couple of weeks after my unsuccessful attempt to find a beautiful sunrise over a frost covered Whitby I was setting my alarm for another 5.45 start, this time to try the coastal hamlet of Staithes.


I’ve been here before in the company of “one who got away” and so the town’s cobbled alleyways had nothing new to offer me beyond their emptiness so early in the morning, and consequently I found myself gingerly picking my way through brambles and briars on a hilltop called Cowbar Nab. Though owned by the National Trust I’m guessing they don’t want to give visitors encouragement as it’s predominantly a seabird colony.

Down below in the harbour I could see I wasn’t the first here. A man leaning over his tripod was presumably shooting the dockside buildings including the Cod & Lobster in the glow of the lamps that are dotted through the little town. No matter I was in good time for my objective; to see a sunrise breaking over the hills bathe the rooftops in warm, golden-hour light.

Instead my vantage point proved the perfect place to watch the clouds coalesce over those same hills so that any hope of seeing that golden light was completely extinguished. I know that you should never leave a sunrise too soon and so was patient enough to catch a trace of colour through the rain veiling the horizon, and again through the occasional fissures in the cloud but this wasn’t the scene I envisaged. I shot dozens of images but know all along that it would be question of choosing only one from among so many that differed only slightly as I tracked the light moving to the right.

Satisfied there was no more to be achieved I made my way down to the town in the vain hope of finding something interesting.  It’s hard to believe now looking at the handful of vessels that shelter behind the harbour walls or further up the Staithes Beck, but in the early part of the last century there were about 80 fishing boats operating here.

I reached the spot where my fellow photographer had stood earlier and tried a couple of long exposure images.  That’s when those clouds burst. First with rain, but then with hail driving from the North Sea.

One of the disadvantages of living on your own is the freedom to indulge in whims.


Mistaken Identity

Two days after seeing the Chapter House stairs in Wells Cathedral and mistakenly recognising them from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, I ventured to another county and a setting that I was certain had appeared in the film.  Perhaps I should make clear at this point that I’m not an obsessive following in the footsteps of Costner and Freeman, simply that so many classic English landmarks were crammed into that film.  Robin clearly clocked up a few miles criss-crossing the country for romantic interludes, dramatic battles and icy showers.

Bodiam Castle

There is a scene in the film where that most subtle of actors, Brian Blessed, in the role of Robin’s father rides out from his castle at night to die at the hands of the Sheriff’s men.  That castle was my next stop.  Or so I thought.

Bodiam Castle is a cinematographer’s dream; largely intact defensive walls form a neat square rising directly from the waters of broad moat. Shot in the cooler months with the addition of mist rising from the waters (or with plenty of smoke from the effects team) it makes for an atmospheric location.

Built in East Sussex towards the end of the 14th Century it’s purpose was to defend against a possible invasion from France during the Hundred Years War.  It is perhaps fortunate that the invasion never came, for the castle’s record as a stout defence is not a good one despite those impressive walls, and internal defences including “murder holes” in the two gatehouse ceilings.  During the Wars of the Roses Richard III sent a Yorkist force to besiege the castle and it seems as if the siege was short-lived or even non-existent for the castle was quickly surrendered by the Lewknor family who were then resident.  Shortly afterwards they were reinstalled when the pendulum swung back to the House of Lancaster under Henry VII.

Bodiam Castle

Two centuries later the castle was under attack once more, though in a different way.  Now occupied by the Royalist Lord Thanet, he was forced to sell Bodiam to pay fines imposed by Parliament in the wake of The Civil War.  The castle’s interior was dismantled as a result and the walls were left to the mercies of time until some restoration was carried out in the Victorian  era which continued when the National Trust took ownership in 1925, making it that ideal film location… but not for Robin Hood.  My memory failed me again it seems, though not entirely.

Back in 1975 the castle feature in a single shot as the home of the Swamp King in an entirely different medieval tale: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Kevin Costner & Morgan Freeman vs Graham Chapman and John Cleese?  Sort of mistake anyone could make!



On my short exploration of the parts of England that I don’t usually reach I eventually arrived at Hackney, and Sutton House.  Now Hackney is not just a place-name, without the capitalisation it is defined here as

Middle English: probably from Hackney in East London, where horses were pastured. The term originally denoted an ordinary riding horse (as opposed to a war horse or draught horse), especially one available for hire: hence hackney carriage or coach, and the archaic verb hackney meaning ‘use (a horse) for ordinary riding’, later ‘make commonplace by overuse’ (see hackneyed).

As a Tudor mansion standing in modern London’s East End, there is nothing commonplace about Sutton House, but it has certainly seen a lot of varied use over its lifetime, as evidenced by the varying decor as you pass through the Tudor kitchen and onto rooms decorated in Jacobean and Georgian Styles.

Head below street level and on one side of the property you’ll find a cellar with medieval foundations, and on the other an Edwardian chapel.  Lift trapdoors in the floor to see original beams, slide moving panels to reveal a patterned wall decoration whose design anticipated the panelling that now conceals it.  Some of the most informative staff I’ve encountered in a National Trust property are keen that you should miss nothing (including London’s oldest loo!).

The house was originally built for Henry VIII’s Secretary of State, Ralph Sadleir, (known to fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as Rafe Sadler) in 1535 at a time when the majority of buildings had the familiar Tudor timber construction of a frame of beams with the spaces between filled with wattle and daub.   Sadler’s choice of a different material marked this out as a grander building; one that was referred to as “the bryk place”, though a decade later he upgraded again and moved to an estate in Hertfordshire where on his death he was claimed to be “the richest commoner in England”.  I wonder what he would have made of some of the later inhabitants of his brick mansion.

Though bequeathed to the National Trust in 1938, the house’s location in one of London’s less than leafy suburbs left them unsure as to its viability, and so over the years it was rented out, abandoned, considered for conversion into apartments, and occupied by squatters.  This last fact produces another surprise for in the loft space you come upon a graffiti’d room that represents this period; as valid a historical record as any other.

One of the ways in which the Trust run’s Sutton House in an area where fewer history buffs are likely to visit is to use the property for community events and exhibitions, often in the former scrubland to the side of the property now restored as The Breakers Yard.  When I was there though the Trust were creating controversy with an installation of their own.   A number of Trust properties around the country hosted LGBTQ events and exhibits and a building as fluid as Sutton House played host to a series of beautiful photographs by Sarah Moore of black trans activist Munroe Bergdorf.  Perhaps Sadler would have been less surprised by this; he lived in a period when every female role on the stages of London’s theatres would have been played by a man.

Plenty of surprises then, and far from hackneyed.

Daniel Lobb’s The Grange (1998)

A Sanddancer among the Cockneys*

Rainham Hall in Essex has been described as

one of the finest and best preserved examples in England of a medium sized early Georgian merchant’s house

which seems a fairly narrow category to dominate but never mind.  The merchant in question was not a Londoner, he was born near to me in the North East.  John Harle, from South Shields, was hugely significant in the development of Rainham nevertheless.

Whether for love or for commerce he married a widow in 1718 whose wealth enabled him to buy the wharf at Rainham, dredge the river to make it navigable for vessels on the Thames and thus establish a viable trading base.  As he was a merchant for building materials, the construction of a house to impress with the quality of his wares was the next logical step.  Rainham Hall is that house, the gates of which bear the initials of John and his financier Mary.

The house has seen a number of uses over its lifetime, including being used as a day nursery in the 1940’s, but was finally acquired by the National Trust in the ’50’s, though it did not open to the public until very recently.  The unfurnished rooms are interesting for the patina of age, but I was drawn to the exterior where a fabulous garden provided an unexpected scene of tranquility in the heart of this Essex town.

As is so often the case, the great house and the parish church are near neighbours, and here I found the most interesting subjects of all (with the enthusiastic assistance of some “mature” Essex Girls who were preparing the church flowers).  John Harle was here, though surely deserving of more respect than to lie beneath a radiator with his second wife.

The church of St Helen & St Giles was built in 1170, long before Harle’s day, and so is full of interesting features that have been accrued over the centuries since.  The arch separating nave and chancel is Norman, there are 15th century memorial brasses, medieval paintwork shows through later plaster in places, a 13th century door that originally hung outside in the 12th century Priest’s Entrance, and etched into the wall behind its new location a piece of 16th century graffiti.  This represents a two-masted sailing ship of the era called a “cog” and was probably inscribed by someone who sailed on such a vessel.  Nearby there is a piscina set into the wall, a basin from the 12/13th century used to wash the communion ware.

The organ, which is still in working order, looks extremely old too, but due to some inconsistency in the use of capital letters in the church’s information leaflet I can’t state with certainty whether it relates to The Restoration (a period in 17th century English history) or the 19th century restoration undertaken on the fabric of the building.  I’d confidently say the former but I’m far from an expert on these instruments.  Perhaps I should have asked the Essex girls.

*Technically the residents of Essex are not cockneys (that is traditionally a descriptor for those born in the City of London “within sound of Bow Bells”,) but the accent has spread across the South East.

666 is no longer alone*

* Genesis – Supper’s Ready


People attach special significance to certain numbers whether they’re religious, freemasons, or just seeking the advantage of a little luck.  Depending on which sources you read, any number from 1-25 (and many more beyond that including the number of the beast in my title) has special meaning in the bible.

One such person was the recusant Sir Thomas Tresham, an Elizabethan nobleman who constructed a number (sorry, couldn’t resist) of properties where his obsession with symbolism took shape, and significant shapes at that.  The numbers 3,5 and 7 were particularly important to Tresham, three because Christ rose on the 3rd day, because of the Holy Trinity and perhaps because it has parallels with his surname, which is of Norman origin.  The five may be more significant to Islam (Five Pillars), but for Tresham related to Christ’s wounds, the Pentateuch, and was symbolic of God’s grace.  Seven is used so commonly within the bible: there are seven deadly sins, seven trumpeting priests bring down the wall of Jericho, there are seven pillars of wisdom, and so many references to seven in the book of Revelation that that alone would justify the number’s importance.

All of this is necessary as background to another National Trust property visit; this time to Lyveden New Bield, an Elizabethan Garden Lodge, designed by and built for Tresham, but never completed.  Tresham was a catholic at a time when this was injurious to your health, but despite this sought ways to proclaim his beliefs to the world in tangible, but obscure ways as an architectural way of giving the authorities the finger.

Whilst the building may resemble a burnt out shell, the truth is that it was never completed because Tresham had problems with some other numbers; 12 children, including 6 daughters requiring dowries, numerous fines imposed and the financial impact of long periods of imprisonment due to his religious beliefs (catholics were seen as a threat at a time when Philip of Spain had designs on removing our protestant Queen) meant that he died with huge debts.  Hearing that the estate was bankrupt the builders walked off leaving the structure much as we see it 400 years later.

Seen from above, the perfectly symmetrical structure forms a Greek cross with bays at the end of each arm comprising 5 windows (the dimensions of these bays feature the same number but my memory fails me at this point).  There are 3 rooms on each of the floors, the fourth arm of the cross being used for a staircase.  Taking into account the basement servants area there are 3 floors.  Now so far this could all be seen as coincidental, but look more closely at the exterior.

There is an incomplete inscription at the top of the building (Gaude Mater Maria) and a little lower a frieze of 7 repeating panels, each of which features a religious symbol (Judas’ bag of silver, a chi-ro featuring the 3 nails of the crucifixion, the IHS monogram incorporating the ladder used at the crucifixion, and some that remain a mystery).

At the bottom of each wing are sets of three shields; none yet carved with arms, some still rectangular.  The perimeter of each wing is 81 feet (3×3 squared), and were I more expert in semiotics I could go on.

There’s plenty more here too including the graffiti of visitors throughout the centuries who left their own inscriptions, and Elizabethan gardens which are still being investigated (recently discovering a labyrinth).

Despite being seen as threat for his Catholicism, Tresham’s resistance went no further than these symbols.  His son Francis was more active.  He took part in the Gunpowder Plot, but that’s a whole other story!

“You’ll know it when you see it!”…

…is how I referred to the difference between baroque and rococo when discussing decoration with one of the National Trust volunteers at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire.   I’m afraid that the same does not apply to you dear reader as I shall explain.

For nearly four centuries this has been home to the Verney family, and through their own trust they manage the estate jointly with the NT; which means for example that you must pay the National Trust to visit the house and church, but pay the family to include the gardens. More importantly because they still live there (though not in the public rooms) and have ancestral portraits on display, you cannot take photographs inside. This is the singularly most jaw dropping collection of plaster, wood, and papier-mâché mouldings, carvings, and flooring I’ve seen… and I can’t share any of it!!!!!!  You will have to imagine my disappointment since you don’t know what you’re missing.

The house itself might mislead you into expecting something more modest, being smaller than nearby Stowe, but what you see today is literally just a fraction of what stood here in the past.

Claydon House, Bucks

The proximity of Stowe is part of the reason for this.  Earl Temple bankrupted himself in his determination to ingratiate and impress; the Verney family were not to be outdone… and suffered a similar fate.  The present structure was once just the west wing, mirrored to the east and joined by a huge rotunda with a domed roof.

Before demolition

The project was never completed internally as Sir Ralph Verney fled abroad to escape his creditors and on his death his niece inherited.  Just 20 years after construction ended the far more frugal Mary Verney demolished two-thirds to create the more manageable structure that exists today.

View from Claydon House

Part of Sir Ralph’s problems may have arisen due to his employment of Luke Lightfoot for the interiors.  The premier wood-carver of his day, was also a swindler (perhaps Lightfinger would have been more appropriate) who diverted materials and craftsmen to other projects.

Caricature of Sir Harry Verney Bt MP. Caption ...
Caricature of Sir Harry Verney Bt MP. Caption read “Bucks”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Mary died she had no descendants and so the property was left to a half-sister, on condition that she change her name to Verney.   With the estate now in good financial order who was going to quibble about a name, and so the Calverts became the Verneys and a new line took ownership which lead to Sir Harry Verney providing a home not only for his second wife Frances, but also her sister Florence.  Their surname was Nightingale.

English: Sir Edmund Verney (1590-1642)
English: Sir Edmund Verney (1590-1642) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An interesting family story then, but there is one member who I’ve overlooked in the tale.  Back in 1600 Sir Edmund Verney died leaving two sons by different mothers.  The eldest, Sir Francis, might have expected to inherit the estate, but instead it was left to his half-brother Sir Edmund (perhaps the name was a clue to the father’s preference).  Francis fought a legal battle to challenge this but was unsuccessful so became a mercenary and pirate, converting to Islam and dying in Sicily.   I’ll bet he wouldn’t have worried about photographers!

Subtle Verney Family memorial dominating the nearby Parish Church

A Very Different Houghton

A few years ago I posted about a visit to an annual fair in Houghton-le-Spring, a former mining town in the North East of England, so as I drove through the village of Houghton in Cambridgeshire I couldn’t help but contrast the two.  Strangely enough this village too has an annual “feast” though in the summer rather than the autumn, but there the similarities end.  The Houghton of my childhood, like much of the North East has seen a great deal of deprivation, whereas this was a chocolate box village of thatched and timber-framed cottages.  I didn’t photograph any of them.

This wasn’t from any sense of bitterness, merely a reflection of the fact that I was here only for a short lunch break on my way further south, and so I continued to my objective on the far side of the village, an objective that has historically caused problems for the villagers.  It is a water-mill.

There has been a mill here for over a thousand years and for much of that time it was owned by a monastery of Benedictines.  When the abbot sought to increase the power to the mill in 1500 he did so by diverting the river (The Great Ouse) which resulted in Houghton being flooded.  Naturally the villagers weren’t happy and some sort of riot/protest ensued.   They were certainly upset enough to be persistent because it was another 15 years before they were granted permission to channel the river themselves in case of any future emergency.

That building reverted to the Crown when Henry dissolved the monasteries (I sometimes feel I write that in every other post on here) and in the 17th century a new building was constructed; the one we see today, which continued to produce flour until the 1930’s when industrialisation finally took its toll.

That might have spelled the end for Houghton Mill, but the local residents were clearly better disposed to it by now. They bought the structure and maintained it in partnership with the National Trust, although for forty years or so it was run as a Youth Hostel, presumably to generate some income for its upkeep.

Now it is run purely as a visitor attraction and the Trust went so far as to install new millstones so that they could produce flour once again, though they are only allowed to do so once a week due to the impact they have on the river levels when they do so.  The Great Ouse is one of our longer waterways and many barges and longboats still navigate its waters.  All the same bags of flour are available for sale at the onsite shop.

As I ducked around looking for angles to view the machinery it occurred to me how many cobwebs and beetle holes pointed to other visitors beyond those encouraged by the Trust.  I suspect that flour might be fortified with additional protein.