Rock Follies

Some months ago I wrote a piece about Studley Royal water gardens, and how they were created by John Aislabie when he retired from government in disgrace at the end of the South Sea Bubble Affair.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was greatly responsible for the scheme which was intended to refinance public debt but lead to the financial ruin of many and enormous damage to the economy.  (As Britain faces Brexit we have a Chancellor who is luke warm about the process but seems powerless to prevent it – will he suffer a similar fate?)

Perhaps suffer is the wrong word to use in conjunction with Aislabie however because though his mansion no longer survives, it is clear from the expense he incurred developing the gardens at Studley that he was not financially ruined.  What I did not know was how much the reverse was true until I discovered recently that the 18th century leisure park developed by Aislabie and his son was far more extensive.

Continuing the down the watercourse from Fountains is the Seven Bridges Valley, where small stone structures criss-cross the stream running through a steep-sided gorge with more follies along the ridge.  It’s nowhere near as beautiful as Studley (which is perhaps why the National Trust don’t include it) but Aislabie’s guests would enjoy carriage rides across the little bridges as part of the whole experience.

But then I discovered Hackfall Woods, six miles away as the crow flies, but another steep valley populated by small stone structures which was also part of the Aislabie estate.

Arch Brexiter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father published a book describing how influential individuals might prosper in a future world of financial chaos, and his son seems bent on bringing that to fruition.  Taking the long view, I can’t help but think that there’s nothing new in this world.

My own financial situation has changed for the worse of late when I was made redundant, but all of these sites had something that is still free to me and is far more beautiful.  The natural world.

I’ve nothing against the stone follies.  I do object to the political ones.  But I managed one of my own.

Studley is a deer park home to three herds; fallow, sika and red deer.  And visiting in the autumn means the deer are in rut.  The stags are pumped with testosterone, and far more aggressive than usual.  Recommendations are that you keep at least 100 metres away.

Walking along the Seven Bridges Valley the air resonated with that growling belch that stags make at this time of year, but I thought they were all up on the ridge above me.  Until I rounded this tree and got a bit of surprise.  I stopped dead and let him move away though I didn’t take my eyes of him for a second.  I was glad of the metal cages that protect some of the trees trunks as I figured they would give me a start if I needed to climb.  Luckily he didn’t see me as a threat.


Foss & Nonsense

It’s a pity that global warming is the culprit, but something remarkable has happened in the UK and we’ve had a real summer (and it’s still only July at the time of writing).   At the risk of sounding ungrateful, this has had the effect of rendering almost everywhere I’ve been pleasurable and photogenic, with the consequence that my hard drive is bulging and I’m losing track of where I’ve written about and where remains on the to do list!  Buttermere in the Lake District has seen me loitering on its shores day and night twice this month and won’t make it to the blog, though here’s a sample of my time there.

Yesterday for example I went out to recce locations for a forthcoming model shoot, and based on her recommendation I went to a tiny hamlet called Beck Hole.  Actually I went to Goathland because the roads to Beck Hole were closed as a result of a landslip into the same valley where I wanted to go shooting.

Goathland is well-known to many people (not including me) as the location where the TV series Heartbeat was filmed, but you won’t be finding shots of its quaint retro look here because I was after somewhere more secluded.

And so I toiled up and down the slopes of Eller Beck in search of interesting waterside settings and was in need of new energy supplies before I even reached Beck Hole and the tiny 19th century Birch Hall Inn.   Sitting outside with a pint of Black Sheep was idyllic and I could easily have been tempted to another had I not been driving later.  I wonder if I would have felt the same had it not been a glorious summer’s day though.

In any event the restorative powers of a pint of bitter and dappled sunshine were enough to persuade me to try the opposite bank, where I saw both the scale of the landslip and the mountain rescue volunteers practicing for the worst should there be a repeat.    Upstream I went until I found exactly what I was looking for, a collection of boulders that would add interest to my shoot and provide contrast to the soft fragility of Mischkah, the model I’ll be shooting.

I also found Thomason Foss, or as it is tautologically described on the Ordnance Survey map of the area  Thomason Foss (Waterfall).  As any good Viking will tell you, a foss IS a waterfall, and of course this part of the country was once home to Norse settlers.

It may not have the drama of its numerous Icelandic cousins but it will do very nicely as a backdrop for my shoot.

Of course there’s every chance that normal British conditions will reassert themselves and it will be too cold and wet on the day we have booked.  Just as well Mother Nature agreed to pose for me in the meantime.


TA & the NT. An Open Letter.

Dear National Trust

On my recent visit to Hardwick Hall I wanted to get a photograph that included both the shell of the old hall and the Elizabethan structure that superseded it, but of course the topography of the site, combined with the plentiful trees makes that virtually impossible from the ground. Which is why I found a space at the edge of the car park, away from both buildings and people to launch my drone.

Not long afterwards one of the Trust volunteers appeared to ask if I was flying a drone which of course I confirmed. Her response was to demand that I return it and land immediately, informing me that drone flight was not permitted on any Trust property and that it was stated as such on their website. I had broken the rules and was treated accordingly.

A subtle deterrent to getting comfortable

I explained to her that I was already returning to land but she stayed to make sure the transgressor kept to his word. As I’d already explored the halls and grounds on foot I packed and left. Though the Trust are good at indicating areas where photography is not permitted in buildings, or seating that must not be used to aid in its preservation, there had been nothing to alert me to this ruling, so that evening I visited your website. Again the message was clear that permission for drone flights over properties would not be granted and a list of reasons was given. Reasons which were exaggerated to justify your case, for example:

National Trust: “CAA regulations state that drones should not be flown above or near to people. As our properties often have staff living or working on site, visitors present or have open access, unauthorised drone flying is both illegal and potentially puts people at risk.”

CAA graphic

CAA: stay 150ft (50m) away from people and property.

Now I get it.  The Trust’s prime objective is “to promote and look after places of historic beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation across England, Wales and Northern Island. Our core purpose is to look after special places for ever, for everyone.”   You are concerned that a drone hitting one of your properties would cause irreparable damage or serious injury to an employee or visitor, yet risk assessments have found that the size and weight of drones generally used by the public make this extremely unlikely (especially when flying with rotor guards as I was doing).  Add in the fact that they aren’t cheap so the pilot is no more likely to want that to happen either.

But of course a small risk can be completely removed with a blanket ban, and it’s your right to do so.  I’d just like to think that in this day and age you may be a bit more polite and adult in the way you do so.   Perhaps you should read Eric Berne or Thomas Harris on Transactional Analysis.  The “Controlling Parent” attitude you display may well produce a “Rebellious Child”. 

Oh, and a final thought.  Perhaps an article on your magazine, or more prominent signposting on your vast website might have saved me from my ignorance.

Get your clicks (on Route 66)

Passing the ruins of Brough Castle
The Teesside end of the route is marked by an artwork commemorating the area’s steelmaking history

America’s Route 66 may be one of the most famous highways in the world (thanks in no small part to Nat King Cole and others who have covered Bob Troup’s song over the last 70+ years), but England has its own cross-country highway, and one with a considerably longer history.

Rokeby Church

The A66, like its namesake runs east/west (or vice versa if you prefer) and links Cumbria to Teesside.  It’s one of the worst roads in the UK in terms of safety and there are a number of reasons for this.
For one, it’s the main route to The Lake District for many, so trippers and holiday makers hurry along it all year round keen to get to their hotel or guest house, or home to put the kettle on.  A good proportion of those travellers will be towing caravans, and as there are many stretches on the road where dual carriageways revert to single it the journey can be a frustrating one; always a recipe for unnecessary risks.  Add in the agricultural vehicles that are an outcome of the road cutting swathes through a lot of farmland, and the commercial vehicles struggling up the numerous hills as they traverse the country and the death toll is hardly surprising.  Coat the road with snow drifts blown in by high winds….   There are snow gates now that prevent access during such conditions but 20 years ago I had just reached the high point when the lorry in front of me jack-knifed and closed the road.  A long detour ensued.

Brougham Castle and the River Eamont

There’s another risk/frustration factor though, albeit one that only affects drivers rather than passengers.  The environment.

It’s an area rich in wildlife, where curlew, lapwing, oyster-catchers, buzzards and sparrow hawks are often spotted, whilst dippers and kingfishers are not.

The road has been here for millennia.  The Romans of course didn’t call it the A66, and they may not have established the route either.  They did build camps along the way though so recognised the value of the route, as did some other travellers from bygone days.

The road passes through gentle rolling fields, past Yorkshire Dales and Pennine moorland, skirts the lakeland fells of Blencathra and Skiddaw, and along the way passes castles, manor houses and farmsteads in various stages of dereliction or preservation.  The transition from east to west marked by changes in the stone used to build these structures; cold hard greys and ochres in the east; warm reddish browns in the west.

One of those manor houses is hidden by the landscape around it, but the perimeter fencing gives it away.  Rokeby Park is an 18th century Palladian villa designed by its architect owner Sir Thomas Robinson, who sold it later to the Morritt family who filled it with artistic treasures (but don’t permit photography).  Of these one gained some notoriety; a Velázquez originally titled “Toilet of Venus”, but now better known as the “Rokeby Venus”.  Sold to the National Gallery in the early 20th Century it was famously attacked by Mary Richardson, the suffragette, who badly slashed the work, though it has been successfully restored.
Velázquez supposedly based his work on a famous statue from antiquity (Hermaphroditus) so I feel fully justified in taking him as inspiration for my own pastiche.  Who knows where the road of creativity will take you?

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!

4 Funerals, No Wedding

St Clement’s, West Thurrock

When I was in Essex my friend Bee suggested a visit to West Thurrock.  Not my usual sort of territory for image hunting, West Thurrock’s position on the Thames means it is dominated by industries taking advantage of the riverside for the loading and unloading of raw materials and finished products.  The power station and cement works are gone now, and the Lakeside shopping centre brings an alternative set of 20th century angles, but you see my point.

Nevertheless there is still treasure to be found here; though it is well hidden.  Dwarfed by the Proctor & Gamble soap plant that surrounds it is a Grade I listed church with Saxon origins, though these are no longer visible.  St Clements (not the one in “Oranges & Lemons”) will be immediately recognisable to fans of romantic comedies as the setting for the funeral in Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant’s first collaboration.

St Clement’s, West Thurrock

You can usually tell you’re in the south of the UK when you see flint used in the construction of buildings; quality building stone was in shorter supply here than in the north, and St Clements combines materials including bricks to provide interest.  Being much softer the brick has allowed visitors throughout history to record their passing, though it’s in another sense of that word that St Clements made an impression on me.

Unable to gain access to the interior I spent a little time in the churchyard.  I’ve been in dozens of these places of course but they still provide surprises.  I’ve seen plenty of tombs (though rarely opened like this) and gravestones often have a tale to tell, but here there was something unusual.  Several of the graves featured a long narrow mounded slap along the top; something I’ve never seen before yet there were enough of them here to suggest that it was more than just fashion.  Was this an attempt to prevent grave robbery?  Perhaps not as they’d be relatively easy to lever off by a couple of determined body snatchers.  I’d be interested to hear any informed theories or explanations.

One final memorial marks a tragic event.  A group of 16 teenage naval cadets and their training officer were killed in August 1915 aboard the training ship Cornwall,  a sailing cutter when it was hit by a steam tug at nearby Purfleet.  (The tug captain should have “given way to sail”)  The boys were likely to be there as part of a sentence for delinquency but it proved to be a life sentence.`  Whether St Clement’s was the nearest church to the tragedy I don’t know, but it was probably the most appropriate place for the burials.  Though there are several St Clements the most notable was a former pope who was reputedly martyred by having an anchor tied to his neck and being thrown into the Black Sea.  He is the patron saint of sailors.