Sunday, October 29, 2006

Bristol beckons - 28 & 29 October 2006

SS Great BritainTo complete our alliterative month: Bellingham; Baldock; and Birmingham, we set off for Bristol. Saturday's highlight was a visit to the SS Great Britain. This ship, designed by the famous engineer Brunel, was launched in 1843. It was the first ship to be made of iron, the first to use a propeller instead of paddle-wheels, the first with a balanced rudder, in fact the largest and most technically innovative ship at that time. SS Great BritainAfter a long and eventful life it was, in 1970, rescued from the seabed in the Falklands, and brought back to Bristol and is now on display in the dry-dock where it was originally built. Given that the typical life for a ship at that time was 20 years, it is truly remarkable that, 160 years later, we can still go aboard.

It is an excellent exhibition: Not only can you take a tour of the ship and see the cabins and saloons, reconstructed, as they originally were, you can tour the kitchens, sailor’s quarters and engine room. SS Great BritainBut just as interesting is the chance to walk on the bed of the dry dock, and view the hull of the ship, the state-of-the-art balanced rudder and the revolutionary propeller, all under a glass sea. This glass sea is hermetically sealed and the humidity below the water line is kept below 20% RH as this is, apparently, the only way to halt the process of corrosion.

Our other visit of the day was to see the coral reef at the Wildwalk exhibition. This complex is a great place to take the family on a wet day, but sadly the walk-though coral reef, billed as the first in Europe, was not worth the entrance price. We finished the wet day at the Industrial History Museum, also on the waterfront.

It is one of the interesting facets of visiting places in the UK is that some labels take on a whole new meaning. What are simply ‘Southdown’ or ‘Romney’ sheep, ‘Jersey’ cows or ‘Ayrshire’ bulls back home in NZ, take on a whole new dimension when you walk the South Downs or drive through the Romney Marshes or Ayrshire. Similarly one does not think of the sturdy old Bristol Freighter, a common site from my youth, as coming from Bristol, it is just a name. So, it was interesting to see the display on the history of Bristol aircraft, to see old Bristol cars etc at the Bristol Industrial History Museum.

Clevedon Pier
Sunday was a beautiful day. After a circular walk that returned along the coastal path to Clevedon, we went to have a look at Tyntesfield. This linked neatly into our tour of the SS Great Britain the previous day as Tyntesfield belonged to the Gibbs family, who purchased the ship in 1850 and used it as a passenger ship to Australia. The Gibbs family were just merchants and traders until one of their agents signed an exclusive deal to ship guano in from South America, making them extremely wealthy almost overnight. As one contemporary (and probably envious) commentator said, “...[they] got rich from the turds of birds.”

TyntesfieldThe house is large and impressive. The NT only purchased it recently and restoration work is still in early stages. When Richard Gibbs, the last Gibbs to live there, died in 2001 his will decreed that house and contents be sold and the proceeds distributed to 19 nieces, nephews, cousins etc as his younger brother had indicated he did not want to inherit the stately pile. TyntesfieldThe National Trust launched a public campaign to raise money to buy it - and to prevent Kylie Minogue or Madonna from doing so. With a rather large grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund the NT closed a deal after a 26 hour meeting with the executors and agents. Pumpkin display at TyntesfieldOne interesting condition of the NHMF grant was that the NT had to open the doors to the public within 10 weeks of getting the keys. This shortened the usual NT opening timescale by about 8 years and enabled us to visit.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

How the other half lived - 21 & 22 October 2006

Sarehole MillThe weekend was spent in and around Birmingham, starting on Saturday with the Tolkien Trail. The first house his family lived in after returning from South Africa is still in an area of Birmingham, which used to be the village of Sarehole.

The Two TowersThe Sarehole Mill is open and must look just as it did to Tolkein. Nearby is Moseley Bog, the inspiration for the ‘Old Forest’ where Tom Bombadil lived. We then drove a few miles west to see the “Two Towers” (one a folly and one part of the Waterworks): inspiration for the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The mill pond

From there drove further west to Wightwick Manor. This house was built in 1887 and extended in 1893. The intention was to build a house which looked as if it had always been there, but to include all mod-cons of the time.

Wightwick Manor
Wightwick Manor, the 1893 additionOne of the first six homes in England to have electricity, it also had central heating and would have been extremely comfortable. We loved it, and, from the external appearance, were certainly fooled into thinking it was a Tudor house that had been lived in for generations. Sadly, it was actually only lived in for 50 years.

The sweet shopOn Sunday we took a very different tour through a series of homes, also operated by the National Trust. They have opened up the last remaining example of the 43,000 “Courts”, Back-to-back housing complexes, which were the standard form of working class accommodation in Birmingham from the early 1800s to the 1960s. Two dwellings looking onto the yard

The tour started in a house as it was in 1840, no lighting or plumbing, and we learnt the history of the actual occupants. As we moved through the five different dwellings we moved forward in time, until we heard about the final tenant, a tailor’s workroom and shop, only vacated in 2002 when the Trust took over.

This tour was excellent, and, as with all National Trust tours gave a glimpse of a life style we can only imagine. The yardUsually this is because the lifestyle in the “big house” was several orders of magnitude away from what we could ever hope to experience. In this instance it is our fairly normal lives that would beyond the imaginings of the inhabitants of “Court 15”. This was one of the smaller Courts so there would only be some 60 people sharing the same three outdoor, non-flush, toilets and two laundries; putting their tallow candles in tin boxes to stop the rats eating them; sharing the same tin bath between the 11 families on a daily roster; and living out their lives in a 60 sq m yard.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Village tour - 14 October 2006

This weekend we had a tour of lovely villages in the area around our accommodation base in Baldock.

Golf Course on the walkSaturday started with a walk from Thundridge passing right across a golf course and through three other villages followed by a drive from Hertfordshire to Cambridgeshire and back to Baldock. On the circular drive, our favorite villages were Buntingford and Ashwell. Great Chisell post millWe also visited two of the few remaining post windmills in the area.

The one-handed clock

An interesting feature of Buntingford is the, possibly unique, one-handed clock which may date back to 1558.

Wendens Ambo

Near the village of Bourn we came across some tumuli from Roman times

On Sunday, after a 6-mile walk based at Wendens Ambo we called at nearby Audley End House. This is a magnificent palace, and was originally the largest private house in England. The weekend's special house tours included a look at the second floor, an area normally closed to the public.

Audely End House
The builder of the current house (or what is left of it) spent £200,000 back when he was Treasurer to James 1 – most of the money coming from the Privy Purse, resulting in a spell of time in the Tower

BuntingfordWhittlesford Barley - note the foxhole on the pubBourn

Friday, October 13, 2006

Washington week - 5 to 11 October 2006

Mt Shuksan across Picture LakeIt was time to hop across “the pond” for a family visit in Bellingham, WA. While there we went back up Mt Baker, the local volcano and a prominent landmark, to see the autumn colours. Mt Baker and the autumn colours

When we were last there it was winter and the snow cover meant the road access finished at the ski lodges. Table Mountain

This time the road was open all the way to the top car park and from there we did the short climb up Table Mountain. (see more pictures)

Mt Shuksan across Picture Lake - February 2005Mt Shuksan across Picture Lake - October 2006
October 2006 ... contrasted to ... February 2005

Minter GardensWe also popped across the border into Canada to re-visit Minter Gardens. We had hoped that the autumn colours might be in evidence but were just a bit early to see the Maples and Acers in all their autumn splendour. (see more pictures)

Main display hall

Totally non-dependant on the season was the Seattle Museum of Flight: a place one could clearly spend days fully absorbing all the exhibits. We only had hours but enjoyed all we saw regardless.

Sunset over Bellingham marinaAll too soon our time in Washington was over Gotta catch that plane!and it was time to rush to the departure gate.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jane Eyre country - 1 October 2006

The Peak District is one of our favorites parts of England so this weekend we set out on a Jane Eyre discovery trip.

Wingfeild ManorCrich was our first stop after an excellent 2-hour trip from London. From there we did a 3 hour walk that went past Wingfield Manor: used in the current Jane Eyre BBC drama as the burnt out ruin of Thornfield Hall. It must have been a huge and impressive place in its day.   How they used to see the world

The walk allowed us to experience some of the peculiar delights associated with walking through the English countryside. Firstly, walking right though someone's farmyard and, secondly, being the first to walk across a freshly ploughed field. Oh the shame of it!We were also the first to walk across two fields newly sown with crops. Interior, Haddon Hall

Although perfectly legal, and following the marked public footpath, it actually feels quite criminal to do so and shortly after we received the “sentence” for our “crime”. Leaving the freshly sown field we found that we were also the first to walk up the track to the road, and the track was overgrown with nettles. Tall nettles and shorts do not mix!

The big friendly giantHowever, there is one aspect of country walking which can be a little daunting: herds of cattle that do not look overly friendly. One field had lots of cows and calves standing directly in front of the gate we were intending to use to exit the paddock. We walked through them, shouting to encourage them to move. At the last minute, we found that the cows had been concealing a huge bull, standing directly in front of the gate. Rather too late to retreat at that stage!

National Tramway MuseumAfter the walk we visited the National Tramway Museum just outside Crich. This is a wonderful collection of all types of trams and things to do with trams, beautifully displayed in a “village street” complete with relocated pub, shops, etc. We happened to visit on a special connoisseurs day when lots of extra trams were running and many other items were on show. The tram ride, which you paid one penny for, gave great views out over the Derwent Valley. The penny was a genuine old pre-decimal penny and was provided with your admission ticket. As a youngster, in the '50s, I remember my Dad putting me on the tram in Wellington and telling the conductor to take me to “the end of the penny section”. It was quite nostalgic to once again ride a tram for a penny. (see more pictures)

CromfordWe also explored Cromford and Edensor: the estate village for Chatsworth.Edensor

Edensor was apparently built for the 6th Duke of Devonshire using every available style in a popular architectural pattern book. The result is a fascinating, eclectic, collection of houses.

Chatsworth Estate may be our favourite part of the Peak District, but this has to be closely followed by the limestone valleys around the very attractive village of Hartington. This is also a compulsory stop to stock up on cheese (particularly stilton) at their excellent cheese shop.

Haddon Hall - alias ThornfieldHaddon Hall was used as the setting for Thornfield in the current BBC Jane Eyre production. We had a real sense of stepping back in time, when we visited the Hall on Sunday afternoon. After arriving home, we watched instalment two on TV, and enjoyed identifying the rooms being used.