Sunday, April 27, 2008

Before you can blink, the Bluebells are back - 26 April 2006

It is Bluebell time again, winter is past, spring is here: the snowdrops and daffodils have cheered us and now it is time for the bluebells.

WendoverWhat a magnificent pallet of colours awaits in the beech forests around us here: the intense green of the bluebell leaves; the purple haze of the bluebell flowers floating just above the forest floor; the mottled mid-browns of last season's leaves carpeting the paths and open spaces; and the young fresh green of the new season's growth bursting from the branches, held in place by the grey-brown columns of the tree trunks. Cover it all with a clear blue sky and it is as close to spring perfection as you can hope to come.

Coombe Hill MonumentNot far northwest of London is the attractive little town of Wendover and that was the base for our bluebell walks. Leaving Wendover we walked southwest and climbed Coombe Hill which affords views over Chequers. The walk then joined the Ridgeway long-distance route back to Wendover. After a lunch break we left southeast, still following the Ridgeway as it circled round to the north through Hale Woods and Wendover Woods before leaving the Ridgeway and finally heading southwest, back to Wendover; all told, we covered some 10 miles.

Coldharbour CottagesWendover is home to the Coldharbour Cottages which were part of Anne Boylen's dowry to Henry VIII, while the Wendover Woods are home to the smallest bird in Europe. Had we known what we were looking for we may well have seen one of these rare Firecrests.

Although the two walks promised bluebells, and to a certain extent, both delivered, there was not a stunning display to be seen on either. Ashridge Estate BluebellsThe closest place to here to be awed by bluebells is in the Ashridge Estate and since we were so close we called by there on the way home. The estate has a few special pockets of bluebells but there is one that is simply stunning and, understandably, very popular at this time of year. We first visited in 2002 and although we were probably a week before the display would be at its peak, it was still worth the detour to visit this special area.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Not the way we planned it - 20 April 2008

The path callsThe weekend focus was to be an MG Club Run from Stansted services on the M11 to the Bressingham Steam Museum near Diss. Because the run started quite early on Sunday morning we decided to travel to the area on Saturday and stay overnight nearby.

Chipping OngarThe weather pundits were most gloomy all through the week and we were not sure that the weekend would be on at all. However, as the week progressed the weather forecasters became less and less pessimistic and the promised torrential all-day rain slowly became "overcast with sprinkles", so mid-morning Saturday we set off via Epping Forest to Chipping Ongar. After a look around we went on to High Ongar where we went for a 6-mile walk in the intermittent drizzle.

The old hangerAn old airfield perimeter road
The walk spent quite a time on and around what we guessed was an old WWII airfield. There were many old roadways and even an old hanger but no evidence of the runways themselves.

Country CottageSunday morning was quite foggy as we set off for the start of the MG Run and that may have been our undoing as we needed the headlamps and foglamp and they drained the battery to the extent that the car would not run smoothly. The newly replaced dynamo and/or regulator had failed so there was no battery charging happening. At the start of the run we needed a pushHigh Ongar start to get the car going but after only a mile it was very clear that the day was over for us and as the rest of the cars streamed by we sat on the side of the road and waited for the AA man to come. He told us that there was no possibility of us making it back to London so he towed us back to our local garage.

High OngarSince we were home earlier than we expected and the weather was better than they had promised we went for a walk up to to Harrow on the Hill for another wander round the school that has been there since the 1650s and the church site that was first consecrated in 1094.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Berkley - 13 April 2008

MinchamptonThe Vale of Berkley was our focus today as we visited towns that are situated on both sides of the Severn River. This area has been settled for aeons, as evidenced by a walk we did around Minchampton and it's Common, following old prehistoric earthworks. The whole area around there has stunning views over the valleys on either side.

DursleyFrom Michampton we drove down through Uley and Dursley to Berkley. This town is fairly boring, but Berkley Castle is impressive, not least for still belonging to the Berkley family since it's beginnings in the 12th century. Berkley CastleThe tour started in the 12th century Keep, and moved on through the more 'modern' 14th century parts including the Great Hall. There is a lot of history associated with the family’s ownership of the house, and we were shown the wall that Cromwell's troops took 3 days to blast through. The family negotiated with Cromwell to keep their house, on the condition they did not rebuild the breach in the walls.

Gloucester CanalWe also saw the cell where Edward II was held for 5 months while his captors hoped he would die from the fumes emanating from the rotting corpses in the dungeon just outside the cell. It is rumoured that when this failed his captors took matters into their own hands and killed the King in a most gruesome and painfully unpleasant manner.

Frampton On SevernNorth of here we visited the Gloucester Canal, second only in size to the Manchester Ship Canal. Our final stop was the fascinating town of Frampton On Severn, which is close to but actually not on the Severn at all. The interesting feature of this town is the 22-acre green, which makes a very pleasant walk around the old and attractive manor houses, and several village ponds.

Cotswolds - 12 April 2008

Butter Market at NewentLast summer's floods focused the country's attention on the areas of Gloucestershire near the Severn River. Our weekend's accommodation was at Stonehouse, in the centre of this area and on Saturday we explored the area north of Stonehouse.

Tewkesbury and Upton Upon Severn were often in the news during the floods. Upton Upon Severn is a very attractive town, built on the banks of the river.

Tewkesbury AbbeyTewkesbury is built at the confluence of the Severn and Avon Rivers, and became an island during the floods. There is nothing outwardly to be seen today, except a marker on the boating club showing the incredible level the water got to. This is a much larger town than Upton, and was a very important and wealthy town in past centuries. This is reflected in the large and impressive Abbey purchased back from Henry VIII, after the dissolution, by the townsfolk for £453.

St Mary's Church at KempleyBetween these two towns, we did a side trip to see a very different place of worship, dating from 1120. St Mary's Church at Kempley, has some of the best original wall-paintings in the UK, the oldest complete roof in the country and two doors made in 1120. This little church is quite stunning.

From here we travelled south to the very pleasant town of Painswick, known as 'The Queen of the Cotswolds'.
Painswick windowPainswick churchyard yews
99 yew trees, all neatly clipped surround the church: apparently the devil stops the 100th tree from growing!

Painswick Rococo GardensNearby the town are the Painswick Rococo Gardens. Following discovery of a painting of the gardens as they were in the 18th century, the garden has been restored in the original style and, because this style was only popular for a brief period, these are now the only remaining rococo gardens in Britain.

From here we had an enjoyable country tour on narrow back roads to the very pretty town of Bisley, which cascades down a hillside. An interesting local legend is that Princess Elizabeth died while staying here, and rather than face ChalfordKing Henry 8th's wrath, her nurse and the family she was staying with; after failing to find a suitable replacement girl, replaced her with Neville Blunt, a son of Henry's illegitimate son. Neville thus shared a family likeness to the King but not, as has often been remarked upon, to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother. From here we travelled down the valleys to Chalford, a town once full of mills, and finally to Stonehouse.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Minsters and Mansions - 6 April 2008

Part of Southampton's old city wallsThe forecasters promised snow overnight, and we woke up in our hotel room in Southampton, to find a white world outside. It was truly beautiful, as we drove out of Southampton, across the New Forest. But first, we did a walk in freezing temperatures around the old Southampton Town Walls. There are many sections still intact, one of which was the old sea wall.

Highcliffe CastleFrom there, we drove through snow-covered fields to Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch. This building is stunning in both design and location at the top of seaside cliffs. But the outside appearance is deceptive as the inside was destroyed by 4 separate deliberately lit fires in 1968. Photographs from 'Country Life' show how magnificent this Victorian 'Castle' was, and it seems a wicked waste. It is currently undergoing a very long restoration project by its current owners - the Christchurch City Council.

Wimborne MinsterFrom here we drove through the seaside towns of Bournemouth & Poole to Wimborne Minster. This is a gem of a town. The Minster is stunning inside and out, and has interesting features, such as a grenadier striking the bells outside every 1/4-hour, and an astronomical clock inside. Along with the usual tombs and effigies inside, is a chained library, sadly not open on weekends, although a video gives a good look at it. The Minster is also home to the only ‘brass’ to mark the burial site of an English monarch, King Ethelred.

Wimborne Minster modelWimborne Minster is also home to a 1/10-scale model of itself. Opened in 1951 it fell into disrepair in the 80s before being rescued and re-opened in 1991.

Our final destination was Breamore House. We made it in time for their final tour of the day. It is a beautiful Elizabethan house, built in the traditional E shape. Breamore HouseThe tour takes in a lot of the house, and was one of the better tours we have done. All contents are original to the house, and it is still lived in the descendants of the one family who have been there for 250 years. They also have a countryside museum, but we didn't have time to do justice to this.

A good inch of snow still covered the motorway banks on our way home along the M3. It would appear that the snowstorm was extensive.

Nautical notables - 5 April 2008

The Portsmouth Spinnaker TowerMany projects in the UK seem to run over time and over budget and the one we visited today was no exception. The Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth ran 5 years over time and cost 4 times it's original budget of £9 million but, nevertheless, we enjoyed our visit to this, the tallest accessible structure in the UK outside of London.

Visibility was excellent, and it is in a beautiful spot with a harbour; inlets; and ferries going across the river mouth, View from the observation deckto the Isle of Wight and further afield to Europe: so plenty to see and changing all the time.

Looking down through the glass floorPortsmouth also has an excellent visitor attraction in its Historic Dockyards. We had purchased a special combination ticket, and we only just managed to see everything in the one day. A more leisurely visit could be spread over a weekend. We choose to take our included harbour tour after the Tower. This was a lovely sea-level look around the area we had seen from above, with a commentary.

HMS TrafalgarWe found all of the attractions in the Dockside area very interesting, but probably enjoyed the restored Victory best of all. Nelson's flagship was rebuilt in 1922, and it is an amazing look at warships of the 1800s.

Mary Rose cannonOlder still is the recovered wreck of Henry 8th’s warship, the Mary Rose. This is still in a sealed building, being sprayed with a mixture of wax and water. The museum of artefacts found on and around the ship is incredible. The fact that so many objects survived 500 years under water is amazing. There are also many bronze cannon, looking like new. One amazing fact is that it took 36 acres of oak forest to build a relatively small ship like the Mary Rose: one wonders how many acres for something the size of the Victory.

HMS WarriorThe most 'modern' ship is HMS Warrior. Launched in 1860, she combined sail and steam engines, and is a fascinating look at life at sea 150 years ago.

There is a Navy Museum, with a room devoted to Admiral Nelson. It's interesting to realise he was a celebrity figure in his day, in a similar way to popular footballers today in the UK. Adjoining this museum, is a room housing the original sail from his ship The Victory, complete with all the cannon holes and major vertical rip.All ship-shape It had been put aside to mend, mislaid, and then rediscovered. It is thus the only surviving sail from that period and the largest conserved fabric artefact in the world.

The whole area has been redeveloped, with a harbour-side walk, a large Outlet Shopping Centre beside the Spinnaker Tower. All in all a very full day out, and one which we would recommend.