Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jane Austen – 22 May 2011

Jane Austen finished writing and published all her books while living in Chawton. These were her final years, before becoming really ill and moving to Winchester, where she died and is buried in the cathedral.

Her books are drawn on her life experiences of being the poor relation. Chawton House was provided by Jane's brother Edward, who became the heir for a wealthy relation, who had no children. Edward then provided this house free of charge for his mother and two sisters to live in.

It was so interesting to see where she lived and even the small table she wrote at. The house is now preserved as a museum commemorating her life.

From Chawton, we did a “Jane Austen Trail” which took us past Chawton Hall where her brother came to stay from time to time, the church and then on to the lovely town of Upper Faringdon, where Jane was known to walk to, to visit friends. This little town is as attractive as Chawton, and the walk was a circular route, returning via a disused railway line. It was amazing to think that in the 200 years since Jane lived in this area, the railways have come and gone, she certainly never saw a train.

Our return route to London, was via Old Basing. This has many lovely old houses, the most important in it's day, being Basing House. It was the largest private home in Tudor England, but sadly, less than 100 years after it was built, Cromwell's troups besieged the house on and off for three years, and finally defeated the Royalist family, and burnt it to the ground.

Today, it is a wonderful tranquil spot, with an interesting and informative film about the siege, and a visual reenactment in the large hammer-beam barn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Watercress Line 21 May 2011

The super warm and dry spring has fooled all the plants, and gardens are well ahead of usual. Clara was out of storage, and we left London for a weekend away in Alton. It's not possible to cover long distances with Clara, so this was a perfect distance to travel.

Our lunch stop was at West Green Gardens. This was looking picture perfect, roses blooming, the flower colour scheme of white, lilac and purple was wonderful, and clearly showing how summer-like it had become in just a week. These gardens combine all the best elements of an English garden. Water gardens, a lake, formal box hedges, vege garden that looks as good as a flower garden, as well as colourful flower borders.

A short distance away is Oldiham, an attractive market town when driven through, but behind the main street is Old Oldiham, which is a really lovely old town. The village stocks are still on display outside the church. From Oldiham we did a walk to the Basingstock Canal and along this as far as King John's Castle. This wonderful scenic picnic spot, was the marvellous fortified castle lived in by King John in the 13th century.

England is full of short-run railway lines, keeping a host of steam-train enthusiasts off the streets and out of the house. Last weekend we watched the steam trains running along the Spa Valley Line. From Alton we boarded the Watercress Line. Sadly, as it was the last run of the day, the train was not scheduled to return, so we did a short trip, to the first stop, crossed the tracks and caught the return train on the opposite side.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rhododendron Weekend 14-15 May 2011

The south-east of the UK has many areas over-run with rhododendron ponticum - a purple species of the Himalayan rhododendron, brought to the UK when the species was first discovered by the English, and which became a popular garden plant. However, they proved to be highly invasive, but in their short flowering period, extremely attractive. This year we made a point of catching them at their best.

Saturday started with perfect weather, and our plan was to walk the National Trust circular Woodland Trail on Leith Hill, which takes in the Leith Hill Tower and the Rhododendron Wood. Apart from a few 'wild rhododendrons', this wood is actually a rhododendron garden planted in the 1860's by Caroline Wedgewood, sister of Charles Darwin and wife of Josiah Wedgewood of Wedgewood potteries. The walk through the flowering rhododendrons was beautiful. Not all rhododendrons flower at the same time, but most of these were at their best.

The Leith Hill Tower was built in 1765, and the views from the top are amazing. The day was perfect for distance views, and we were able to see the sea on the south coast from one side, and the Docklands, St Pauls' and the new Shard of Glass in London, on the north side.

From here we drove through small picturesque hamlets, like Peasbury', along purple rhododendron lined roads to Abinger Hammer for lunch. We would recommend the tearooms there for a ploughman's lunch, and the town itself is delightful. Once a thriving town growing watercress, and with three mills on the river, it is small and quiet today, but watercress is still grown, and we were served a watercress salad with our lunch.

After inspecting the Framer's Market at Ripley, we called in again to see what was flowering at Wisley Gardens. Once again, rhododendron were the flower of the moment. They have an extensive area devoted to rhododendrons, and the colours were wonderful.

After such a feast of colour, we decided to finish the day at Valley Gardens in Windsor Great Park. The approach route along the A30, is also lined with purple rhododendrons, and Windsor Great Park is full of purple – very appropriate as this was always considered a regal colour.

The afternoon was so lovely, we decided to walk part way round the lake to the colonnades from Libya, given to George IV. They were set up here as a garden feature, alongside the largest man-made lake in the UK (when it was constructed in 1753).
This used to be a boating lake for royals in past eras. Today, it is open to the public, and a lovely walking and picnic spot. On the north side of the lake, is a springtime favourite spot of ours – The Punch Bowl. This area is a colour-feast in spring, with first the azaleas (see our visit xx), and today it was the turn of the rhododendrons.

When visiting 'High Rocks' in August 2009, we promised ourselves a return visit when the rhododendrons were flowering. Today was the ideal occasion, and the other purpose of the return visit, was the lovely old country hotel. We booked their excellent value 3 course Sunday Lunch. The food is Italian, as are all the staff, and for the first time, we experienced the style of Italian cooking we knew in NZ. The whole ambiance transported us back to what we would imagine Britain was like 50 years ago and was quite delightful.
The rock park was, this time, full of purple flowering rhododendron, and looked stunning. Today, the park was full of rock climbers. We met climbers who had had their weddings at the hotel, and photos against the grandeur of these amazing rocks.

This was a very popular excursion destination in Victorian times, and the trip can be recreated today, by catching a steam train from Royal Tunbridge Wells. The train can be seen from the restaurant, and there is a station at the bottom of their garden. Today, it was Thomas the Tank Engine steaming through.

We made another promised repeat visit, on the way home. Just north of Tunbridge Wells is the Riverhill Himalayan Gardens. When we visited previously, we realised these would also be stunning in rhododendron season. The whole hillside is a vista of different coloured bushes. As it is so sunny and sheltered, these were nearly finished (but still worth a visit), whereas the Rhododendron Wood yesterday, was at its best. rhododendron gardens appear to be very individual in their peak times.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Chelsea Set – 8 May 2011

After an introductory special at a new Spa in Chelsea, we set off to explore the area. The Thames is the obvious feature of the area, and the famous historic people who lived there, such as Sir Thomas Moore. Not far from the river is the home of 19th century writer, Thomas Carlyle. The home is just as he lived in it, when Chelsea was a quiet area away from the busy hub of London. The house was full of amusing quotes either written by him or his wife, or written about him. One we loved explained why his works were not widely read anymore, as he “wrote English with a German accent”.

A drink in a pub costs a small fortune in Chelsea. We stopped in a lively outdoor area, which used to be a Farmers' Market. Obviously popular with the young set, who had no problems with jugs of Pimms, 1/3 full of ice and costing over £20.

It is a beautiful area, not spoilt by change, (apart from inflation) a real pleasure just to wander and enjoy.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Back to the real world – 2 May 2011

Before heading home to London, we visited two properties near Kings Lynn. The first was Oxburgh Hall, a really photogenic moated manor house, one of the few which survived the post WWII years of death duties, and the desire to do away with the old and start afresh. Apparently two country houses of this calibre were being demolished each week during this era.
This makes houses like this even more special. The interiors are magnificent too, and surprisingly there are no problems with damp, despite the surrounding ,moat. All the lower bricks were triple fired, and totally impervious to water so there is no problem with the common British affliction of rising damp.

The next stop was just a mile or so up the road from Oxburgh, and also had a water theme. We found the Gooderstone Water Gardens on the web, and were intrigued with the history. A 70 year old retired farmer decided, in 1970, to take up his son's throw-away suggestion, and make a wet unproductive field into a water garden.
He spent the next 20 years moving large amounts of his “problem” field around, to make a series of ponds, rivers, bridges and walkways. Each are planted around with shrubs and flowers. I guess we liked the idea, that someone had achieved this project so recently, and wanted to see the result.

From here we set the SavNav to 'shortest' and enjoyed the variety of villages and countryside that came our way on the trip home.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Rood Screens of Norfolk – 1 May 2011

As promised by the BBC weather forecast, the sun was shining all over Norfolk, so we set out combining two AA drives to make a figure of eight, both passing through Norwich, and the western edge not far from Kings Lynn.

There were many lovely country towns, and one common feature seemed to be the old stone churches had 15th century rood screens. One of the finest in terms of paintings in the panels, was at Ranworth. An added feature of this church, was that for the first time we were able to climb a Parish church tower.
This is on offer in some cathedrals, but despite the thousands of village churches, we have never before seen an offer to climb to the top. The 89 old stone steps were followed by two ladders and a trap door out onto the roof. The view was great, looking over channels of the Broads. (The Health & Safety brigade have obviously paid as little attention to this corner of the country as the Rood screen destroyers did in the time of the Reformation.)

The widest screen was the 52 foot oak screen in Attleborough, with many painted panels intact. It had been removed and stored, which probably helped preserve it, others were whitewashed, which also preserved their medieval paintings.

On the eastern edge of the drive, we visited the lovely riverside town of Reedham, and beyond it took the small two car ferry, to save a 26 mile diversion, to visit Somerleyton Hall. This magnificent house appears to be Tudor, but although the original building within is Tudor, the Hall is actually a Victorian makeover, but a very skillful makeover. Not many original features remain inside the house, or in the grounds, as the Victorian makeover includes an aviary and an excellent yew maze – actually quite difficult to solve.

From here we visited the gardens at Raveningham. These would be more colourful in the summer, it is often difficult to time visits to English gardens at their peak.

King's Lynn – 30 April 2011

The traditional May Day Bank Holiday began today, so although we spent yesterday in London, we decided to still go away for the remainder of the long weekend.

A last minute decision allowed us to follow the sunshine, and the best area closest to London was Norfolk. We arranged accommodation in Kings Lynn, but before exploring the town, we did a circular AA tour starting and ending there.

The first stop on the tour was actually a lunch break for us, as it took 2.5 hours to reach here from London. Castle Rising is a great little town, with all the ingredients needed for interest – historic church, great almshouses a ruined castle and a brilliant little tearooms in a lovely period cottage with sheltered garden.

From here the tour passed by the Royal Holiday home at Sandringham, and nearby is Wolferton, a fascinating tiny town, which basically is only there because it was the Royal Railway Station. When King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra visited Sandringham, they alighted here at their own private train station. The train line is now gone, and the buildings are all private dwellings.

The tour continued through the lovely Burnham towns and onto Holkham Hall, where it was time for another cup of tea.

Down the road is the lovely town of Little Walsingham. This was a pilgrimage town, and there is certainly a wonderful feel to this town, and the tranquil old ruined abbey.

The route then took us through Castle Acre – another wonderful castle town, before reaching King's Lynn. After checking into a lovely room in our Victorian house hotel at Stuart House, we explored the town. This was once a prosperous port, dating back to the 12th century.
 There are many wonderful old buildings in the old part of town, adjacent to the river and old port. The church also dates from the 12th century, and is one of the largest for a town of that size, in the country. The town looks prosperous, and not suffering from the recession, we really enjoyed exploring it.