Brandon On The Up

I don’t know whether it was the clarification of the meaning of “gate” in my recent Ripon post but I found myself musing on another place-name that is common in the Durham area, where we have  Framwellgate Peth,  Crossgate Peth, and Peth Lane in the vicinity of the city, and just a little further afield the village of Brancepeth.

If you’re familiar with the accent in the North East of England you wouldn’t expend much effort in guessing that “peth” means path, but you’d only be half right; it also implies that it’s a steep path.  Given that Durham, like Rome, is a city on seven hills the frequency of the word is explained.

And so on one of the recent uncharacteristically sunny spring days I set out for Brancepeth with camera bag and trusty copy of Pevsner (the book is older than I am!).  I’ve passed through the village many times but never stopped.  Time to put that right.

On those earlier trips I used to enjoy the glimpses of the castle visible in the distance, yet no such reward awaited me this time.  Had I just missed it?  Had the road been slightly rerouted? New properties built to obscure what Pevsner referred to as “one of the greatest thrills one can experience in the county”?  He is less complimentary about the castle itself (which being largely 19th century he describes as “operatic scenery” than he is about that view.  Consequently I was relatively unconcerned that the stronghold is in private hands and closed to the public.  (Nice tea room in the barbican though!)

My object was much smaller; the nearby church of St Brandon.  “Aha” I thought; “Brandon’s Path – Brancepeth”.  Maybe, but a local legend tell of an enormous “brawn” (wild boar) that terrorised the area in 1208.  A stone was placed to commemorate the slaying of the beast, so there could be some truth in it, but as the church predates this I’m sticking with my preferred view.  The church tower is 12th century but there’s evidence of Anglo-Saxon origins.

With my new liking for all things carpentry I was looking forward to discovering “the glorious woodwork” in a Gothic Revival style.  Installed mid 17th century, Pevsner states that there is no better place to study the style than here in Brancepeth, which is where the age of my copy becomes a problem.

On September 16th 1998 fire swept through the church, doubtless fuelled by that glorious woodwork, and temperatures reached 1200°.  Estimates suggest that the church was 20 minutes away from complete destruction when the fire was brought under control.

Astonishingly in these days of falling attendances the building has been restored, and with craftsmanship worthy of the structure’s history.

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There has even been a silver lining.  Medieval decoration has been revealed by the loss of plaster coverings and a multitude of medieval grave slabs that had been repurposed as window lintels were discovered in the debris and now displayed prominently on the church walls.

The imagery of these slabs used to cover graves is interesting.  All bear a central cross running the length of the slab, though some of these crosses are elaborately decorated, perhaps to resemble a “tree of life”.

The additional engraving of a sword to one side of the cross is clear indication that the man beneath the slab was a warrior, but several also bore a smaller symbol on the opposite side.

At first I thought these were mason’s compasses, but I later learned they were shears symbolic of a woman being buried beneath the slab.  Men as protectors, women as providers of clothing.

Sexual stereotypes of the middle ages!


Vieja (Habana 54)

Havana-15Old Havana was my favourite part of the city, so you can imagine that I expected to be similarly enthralled with Plaza Vieja, the Old Square.  The name is slightly misleading; when this open space was first created in the mid 16th Century the Plaza de Armas was already the city’s main square, so the newcomer was unsurprisingly named Plaza Nueva then.

The plaza became home to wealthy Creole Habaneros, their balconied residences providing perfect viewpoints for the fiestas, parades, bullfights and executions that took place in the square in the centuries that followed, the changing times reflected in further changes of name.  By the 18th Century it was Plaza del Mercado, Market Square.

So with all this history I had high hopes for the plaza, that it would be full of buildings like this, the art nouveau Palacio Vienna Hotel, built in 1906 and now seemingly in a state of suspended restoration.Havana-4

Unfortunately my dreams were in vain.

The presence of retailers whose target market is completely at odds with a population struggling to make ends meet told me that the square’s purpose now is to cater for the wealthy tourist, the buildings repaired and repainted to a state of perfection that wouldn’t be out of place in Disney theme park.  Prettified and sterile.

Still I suppose it embodies elements of its history, a new square, a plaza for the wealthy, a plaza for commerce.  It just didn’t feel like a Plaza Vieja.

£13.2m – Roof not included

Despite having declared that its portfolio of stately homes was complete, in 2008 the National Trust was presented with an opportunity too good to miss; to purchase Seaton Delaval Hall.  With half of the funds required available from the trusts reserves, they had just six months to raise the remaining £6.3m, a huge sum of money for a building that was an empty shell, with an interior that had been exposed to the elements for years as a result of a major fire.  Even the wing that had been occupied by Baron Hastings, whose death duties had forced the sale, was empty for 160 years before he moved in.

So why all the fuss?

The radical playwright and architect (strange combination) Sir John Vanbrugh is the answer.  The man designer of Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace was also responsible for Seaton Delaval Hall, and indeed it was his last great project, dying before the building was complete.APW_6435_6_7

Open to the public for nearly four years, the property is rich in photographic possibilities, and whilst I’ve been here before, the Trusts restoration work means that there is always something different to consider.

The main hallway is the most stark, but the exposed brick and plaster work gives it a unique charm, as do the statues that bear the scars of fire, weather and even air rifle target practice.  These are due for examination and restoration this year, but are currently “bandaged” with wire and plastic sheeting to hold them in place.

The Hall is a Smörgåsbord of shadows and textures, with light pouring in from open doorways and windows at several levels.

An extensive cellar has limited appeal, APW_6284 but is reached at either side of the Hall by  magnificent spiral staircases.  I could (and have) spend hours working to capture interesting shots here.  Maybe its just me.

The stable block is just screaming for an interestingly lit fashion shoot,

and there are photogenic details aplenty.

It doesn’t stop with the interior either and though the building lacks the original domed roof APW_6290 it nevertheless retains an imposing grandeur.

There are formal gardens,

but Mother Nature is not to be outdone by Vanbrugh and provides some interesting elements of her own.

It doesn’t matter that the restoration work won’t be completed in my lifetime, it remains an impressive edifice.  A giant laid low that will slowly rise again.


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