“It’s where my family live”* (CH2)

Its perhaps a consequence of the reluctant study of my school years that some of the great authors I read at the time had any future appeal completely extinguished.  The burden of completing Nostromo was sufficient to deter me from reading Conrad ever again.  Eliot’s poetry was another victim, despite the fact that a line from The Waste Land was echoed as the title for another of the books on our reading list; Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.  Waugh fared magically better; his work being an easier read I went as far as reaching for some of his other works but I didn’t make it as far as Brideshead Revisited.  Nor did I watch the TV series.  Or see the film.

The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.*

_pw_9113So there you have it; a self-confessed Philistine!  And one who can walk the corridors of Castle Howard without the moments of recognition that come from entering a film location that he’s familiar with, or equally knowingly spotting where directors have taken liberties in moving seamlessly between locations that are often quite separate in reality.  I’ve done my share of that when skiing on Schilthorn or enjoying the gardens of Villa del Balbianello.  The point is that both the series and the movie were filmed here so that Castle Howard has become synonymous with Brideshead.

The interiors of a stately home can be as much of an attraction as the exterior, and in some cases more so.  Personally I’m less inclined to wonder at the table settings and bed linen than I am at the spaces and the artistry that has been applied to them but each to their own.  Consequently I didn’t linger too much in Lady Georgiana’s Bedroom (that’s how rumours start), the Turquoise Drawing Room (imaginative name) or many places in between other than the Great Hall.

Now you might think that access to these colourful chambers was the reason for the interest of location scouts, but the truth is a little stranger.  The magnificent great hall is mostly a restoration, but the original fresco inside the dome was Fall of Phaeton by Pellegrini.  The irony being that this myth tells of Phaeton losing control of his father’s chariot which carried the sun across the sky and the earth being in danger of incineration as a result and yet the artwork was lost when in November 1940 a chimney fire quickly spread through the property resulting in several rooms being gutted and the dome collapsing into the hall below.

I sought inspiration among gutted places*

Castle Howard Garden Hall complete with screen makeover

It was those rooms where filming took place since they provided a blank canvas for the set designers but in a setting with the high ceilings and grand doorways as standard.

What does it matter when its built if its beautiful?*

For years afterwards Castle Howard has traded on its Brideshead alter ego, though when I visited a new TV series was being aired  which was filmed here and at several other locations in Yorkshire where grand buildings stood in for royal palaces.  The series is an account of the early life of Queen Victoria and Castle Howard represents Kensington Palace.  Had they concentrated on a later period of her rein the house could finally have played itself.  She came here in August 1850.

* Quotations from Brideshead Revisited




Solent Running (Soton Part I)

If I’m completely honest I wasn’t thrilled when my employer told me I was off to Southampton this week. The distance played a part; the 300 mile drive was going to consume a big part of my Sunday, but aside from that the place itself didn’t have any positive associations. I’ve only been on two prior occasions; once flying in before then driving onto a different location, and the other, driving in before sailing onto a different location. You get the picture; I’d never felt the need to linger. Consequently, when I had no choice but to spend some time here as a result of my work, I had my eyes opened. Given the port’s location as an ideal embarkation point for Normandy and the success of the invasion that took place in 1066 it was bound to prosper at least in the short-term, so no surprises that Southampton achieved significance then. In fact, that prosperity continued long after the Normans had blended into our multi-cultural cocktail, the strange tidal patterns of the Solent giving the town a competitive edge for those trading by sea. What is more surprising is how much of the history remains, and what’s more, remains largely intact. You don’t have to walk far to encounter Medieval, Tudor, Regency and Victorian buildings, liberally peppered amongst the more modern constructions.

Like any other city, Southampton has seen its fair share of 21st Century carpetbaggers; the property developers building block after block of modern apartments, which here doubtless provide temporary accommodation for those needing a base of operations for their sailing exploits.

The affluence hasn’t percolated however, I was approached by more beggars on my stay than I can recall since I visited Nairobi or Kathmandu. The pubs are invariably out of the ordinary, with fascinating stories to tell. The Duke of Wellington goes back some 800 years, the Red Lion likewise, but with the added interest that Henry V held the trial of three conspirators in the building before sailing to Agincourt. The conspirators were not so lucky and were executed at the Bargate, an entrance to the old town which is also intact.

There there is the Juniper Berry, standing in the spot where Jane Austen lived, and the Grapes, a pub notorious for the fact that a handful of guests became so drunk there that they missed the departure of their ship. Nothing very remarkable there, but for the fact that the ship was The Titanic. Never has a hangover been so welcome. The Mayflower and the QEII are other maritime celebrities with strong associations. Even the hotel in which I find myself has played host to both Benjamin Franklin and Queen Victoria in its day. I just wish they’d decorated since.APW_5771_2_3 It seems then that I was wrong to underestimate Southampton. There’s more to the place than a football team that witnessed the golden years of Mick Channon.


The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society – Stereo Version

Britain’s longest reigning monarch to date has been Queen Victoria, who was queen for over 63 years (although as she became queen at 18 she had a good start).  Until now she was the only monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee which she did in 1897.  This was at the height of empire, and Britain was at the height of her powers as a result, so the celebrations were lavish.

Here in Whitburn the event was marked by installation of a drinking fountain in the village green, though in the decades that have followed it has suffered some wear and tear; the ornate bronze workings that topped the structure have long gone, and there is no longer a water supply.

Today marked the completion of the first phase of restoration of the fountain, funded by a collection amongst the village residents, and initiated by two leading lights of the village; John Shield, one of the churchwardens and his able assistant Ken Smith, the Rector.  The project was launched to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, and with this being the weekend of many of the official celebrations it seemed fitting to aim to complete the work in time for an official unveiling today

The first phase has seen a new inscription on the west side of the fountain, and a general clean up of the structure.  With a little research in Durham Records Office, it is hoped to be able to replicate the original metal work on top, and fit two ornamental covers over the concrete that was used to fill the holes left by the original spouts.

To mark the occasion in true celebratory style John suggested that residents along the main street in the village might wish to congregate for a picnic, and so one of those rare expressions of quintessential Englishness ensured.  Flags and bunting were strewn liberally, red white and blue clothing was virtually compulsory, and picnic blankets and tables disappeared under sandwiches, cakes, and bottles of fizz. 

Special mention must go to a particularly patriotic trifle…

Some 200 people were expected, but it felt like many more made an appearance, probably passers-by drawn by curiosity at the throng enjoying the sunshine on the green. John and his band set up outside his farmhouse to provide entertainment,

the kids enjoyed a bouncy castle,

and a moment of formality was provided when the Mayor officially unveiled the fountain.

We have only lived here for 9 years, but it was clear that there is still a community at the heart of the village who know each other well and it felt great to be a part of it.  We just need an excuse to do this on a more regular basis!

There were many people who could have featured on my blog today, but there was a woman near us who stood out as an obvious choice with her Pre-Raphaelite hair.  Actress, model and musician, Alicia was an English rose on this most patriotic of days.