The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Kirby Hall Gardens

Kirby Hall was an Elizabethan show house, designed with the aim of attracting the attention of the monarch. Sadly, the Virgin Queen never visited, in spite of the efforts of two consecutive owners Sir Humphrey Stafford and Sir Christopher Hatton. The Hall passed through the hands of various members of the Hatton family and it is believed that Sir Christopher I's cousin (Sir Christopher II) laid out the original great garden alongside the house. However, it is his grandson (Sir Christopher IV) who indulged his interest in plants and developed the grounds into what became known as ‘the finest garden in England’.

That garden has been recreated by English Heritage, the current custodians of the property, but between the time of Sir Chris IV (1685 and beyond) and the 1930s, when the site was taken into state guardianship, it fell into disrepair, and eventually disappeared.
The view from the state rooms

But in the 1980s English Heritage began an archaeological investigation under the leadership of garden historian Brian Dix. The team gathered as many clues as possible to the garden's original layout, for example considering the colours and texture of soil across the site. During the excavations a spread of bent nails was found, indicating the positions of boards used to create the geometric patterns of the lawns and paths. Coupled with written texts, the evidence allowed developers to recreate the Great Garden as closely as possible to how it would have been in the 1690s.
Statue of Neptune

The garden is a fine example of 'cutwork', which consists of carefully manicured lawns separated by coloured gravel walkways. It is divided into four quarters or parterres. (From the French 'on the ground'.) The symmetrically-laid patterns of curves and straight lines reflect the symmetry of the house.  In contrast to the pattern on the floor there are carefully positioned statues, urns, seating, topiary and other features to give height to the composition.

The mount
The overall pattern was designed to be viewed from above and to the South end there is a grassy mount, where visitors could walk to the summit and look down on the garden. To the North is a red brick wall where a floral border incorporates flowers and plants typical of the era, including fruit trees trained along the brickwork to maximise the light they receive.

The view from the mount
Originally, beyond the mount was an area called the Wilderness. It was a heavily-planted area with trees and many, intersecting paths where visitors could stroll. It's not a wilderness in the current sense, rather a place to wander and to be offered many choices of direction, from the old English verb 'to wilder', which is also the stem of the word 'bewilder'.

In the late 17th century a garden was a definite status symbol and only a chosen few would have been invited to see it; but the design and planting were aimed at impressing them. Tantalising glimpses could be seen from the state rooms, so even those who were not escorted around the garden and shown the latest new species to be planted there would be well aware of its owner's importance.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Kirby Hall

The North front of Kirby Hall from the forecourt
In 1575 Sir Christopher Hatton acquired the house and lands at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. He was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and hoped that she would grace him with her presence at his new home. (As Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, did at Kenilworth.)
But it was not to be. Hatton waited in vain for her visit, and died deeply in debt because of the money he had spent on the grand house.

The loggia archway
Today it is a mostly roofless wreck, although much of the rich decoration can still be seen in the remains. It must have been a magnificent place, and Her Maj missed out by being such a spoil sport. (Of course, when royals visited in those days they brought a huge retinue with them and you were expected to look after them all for as long as it pleased Majesty to stay. You could still end up penniless, even if she did turn up!)

The Hall is listed Grade I and the surrounding lands Grade II*. This is an important place, in spite of its current state, and there is much to see. It was built that way. This is a show home, with the stress on 'show'. The house dates from a time when many - at least among the rich and gentry - were travelling abroad for the first time. Architecture was leaving behind the old, rambling, medieval 'build as you need' and moving towards classically influenced design. Much of Kirby Hall is clearly based on Roman and Greek buildings, including its symmetrical construction, its columns, and decoration.

Decoration including the Stafford Knot
Work on building the house began in 1570, by Sir Humphrey Stafford, and the knot from his coat of arms appears several times in the decoration. The knot is also part of the Staffordshire County badge, of course. I'm not sure whether the area or the family had it first. Poor Sir Humphrey died only five years later, so Sir Christopher continued the development after he obtained the site. And he built for spectacle.

The house was entered through a complex set of structures designed to extend a visitor's journey to the front door. Each stage more lavish than those before. Firstly there was a forecourt, entered by means of a number of ornate archways. That led to the North Front, behind which was the loggia, or covered gallery. Within the loggia were a series of rooms that would have been used for attending to guests' needs on arrival or departure.

Beyond that was the inner courtyard, leading to a grand porch at the entrance to the house proper. Throughout the approach, visitors would be reminded of the importance of their host by the ornate carvings depicting historical scenes and heraldic symbols.

Inside the house, guests entered through the great hall, two storeys high, with a minstrel gallery to one end. Stairs leading up to the state rooms were decorated with thick paint and sand to make them look like stone.

The bay windows
Among the other delights were the huge bay windows. Glass was an expensive commodity in the 17th century and so the two-storey, curved windows would have astounded visitors, whether they were viewed from outside, or the guest was able to look out through them. Even today they are impressive.

Sir Chris died in 1591 (still Queen-less) and the property passed to Sir William Newport, who changed his name to Christopher Hatton, and then, in 1597, to a cousin (called Sir Christopher Hatton!). More generations of Sir Christopher Hattons inherited until we reach SCH the Fourth. He was a great plantsman and he began to remodel the gardens when he moved into the Hall in 1685. It eventually became known as "ye finest garden in England".

Most of those gardens have recently been recreated by the now-owners English Heritage, although a huge area known as The Wilderness no longer exists. I'll do you a full post about the gardens in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, make do with a photo.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Little People

Richard Dadd's vision of the Hidden Folk
Fellow blogger Mike at A Bit About Britain recently did a post about Pentre Ifan, a Welsh ancient monument, and some of the stories associated with it. One of them is the belief that the site is visited by The Little People. He used the F word (F***y) but that's something I try to avoid at all costs. Here's a little something I wrote a while ago that explains why. (Yes, that is yet another blog under my influence!)

I grew up with a taboo on that word but I have never really thought about the reasons for it. So I've been doing some research. All the learned scholars I've been reading seem to bandy the word around with no care for the potential pitfalls.  However, Simpson and Roud (2000) state that the original English term was 'elf' and the F word arrived with the French influence of Middle English. There is also mention of a 17th century belief that saying the word would enable people to identify a witch.

There is no doubt that the Fae are seen as something not quite trustworthy. From the ancient stories of changeling babies to the more recent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Clarke) it is clear that any dealings with the Fair Folk must be carried out with extreme care. And wherever possible, carry a piece of iron. Various explanations exist for the idea that iron helps protect against the Fae. You can find one attached to the story I gave the link for in paragraph one.

Ashe (1990) links the idea to a possibility that belief in the Hidden Ones stems from a time when Iron Age peoples took over Britain from the Bronze age dwellers. He posits that in the early days of the Iron Age influx the indigenous people would have moved out of the way of the invaders with the sharp, iron weapons. They might have remained separate, but close to their old monuments; the mounds and stone circles they had erected for their dead and their religious rites. Hence the new Britons would have viewed them as rarely, and fleetingly, seen other-worldly creatures, associated with ghosts and the uncanny.

In their Field Guide, Arrowsmith and Moorse state that they have avoided using the F term because of its frequent misuse. They do not cite any potential harm from using it, but they do give a number of euphemistic terms, including the Fair Folk, the Forgetful Folk, the Night Folk, the Good Neighbours from the Sunset Land, Little Darlings and Mother's Blessing, among others.

Reader's Digest is more straightforward. In a 1973 encyclopaedia it states that few people chose to talk about their experiences with elves because they were believed to be fiercely private creatures. "Cautious believers," it says "prefer instead to use names such as 'The Good People', 'The Little People', or 'The Hidden People'."

Arrowsmith, Nancy & Moorse, George, (1977) A Field Guide to the Little People, Macmillan London Ltd.
Ashe, Geoffrey (1990) Mythology of the British Isles, Methuen, London.
Clarke, Susanna, (2004) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Bloomsbury Publishing
Reader's Digest (1973) Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain, The Reader's Digest Association Ltd.
Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press

Sunday, 10 July 2016


The Birdcage Arbour
There's a rather obscure hall and garden on the edge of South Derbyshire, which is very little known in spite of its architectural and historic importance. It's called Melbourne Hall, and it's in the village that ultimately gave its name to the Australian city, albeit via a rather roundabout route.

One of the reasons so few people have heard of it is because it's not open very often. Weekends and Wednesdays, April to September, with occasional extra days in August. and then only for four hours at a time. I live five miles from it and it's taken me 10 years to get there. I tried a few weeks ago but there was a blackboard at the entrance with "Gardens closed. Flood." chalked on it. Second attempt was more successful.

For anyone who bothers to check, Melbourne Hall has one of the most unspoiled gardens of its era - the very early 18th century. The original design was drawn up in 1704, but it was already becoming out of date by the time it was finished a couple of decades later. The likes of Lancelot "Capability" Brown and his ilk were doing away with the French style of geometric ponds, regimented lawns, classical statuary and long vistas by the 1730s, to make way for a more 'natural look'. (Of course their kind of nature frequently required re-routing streams and rivers, and the removal of whole villages if they spoiled the view. A most unnatural form of nature.)
complex wrought iron
Looking up through the dome

The view back to the house
But the then owner of Melbourne Hall, the Rt.Hon.Thomas Coke, decided enough had been spent on his gardens already, and he was unwilling to waste any more money bringing it up to date. Subsequent generations have followed suit, so Melbourne is now acknowledged as one of the best preserved examples of the style.

It's packed full of statuary, almost all of which is listed Grade I, but its crowning glory is undoubtedly its Birdcage Arbour, which stands by the pond at the southern end of the garden. It's exquisite.  It was designed and built by local blacksmith Robert Bakewell and is extremely ornate wrought iron, topped with a cupola rising to a tall finial. It is decorated with leaves and scrolls, caricature faces and sun disks.  Bakewell was paid the then princely sum of £120 for his work, but its production left him penniless. However, it vastly increased his reputation and he managed to find other work in and around Derbyshire, including the chancel screens at Derby cathedral and Staunton Harold church.

And how did Melbourne pass on its name to the Down Under town?
Well, in the mid 19th century it was the home of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne and Prime Minister of the UK. It was named in 1837 by Governor Sir Richard Bourke to honour him. Clearly the scandal caused by his wife Lady Caroline's affair with the poet Byron in 1812 had been forgotten by that time. A week is a long time in politics, as they say. Twenty five years is obviously even longer!

Monday, 4 July 2016


I don't think I've said but I once studied archaeology at university. I concentrated on British prehistory and had a special interest in maritime matters. That means I was fascinated by all kinds of craft from the simplest dugout canoe to a clinker-built Viking longship.

Derby Museum and Art Gallery has a rather impressive specimen in its archaeology department.  It's known as the Hanson logboat, because it was found in Hanson's gravel Quarry at Shardlow. (For those who are interested, Shardlow was an inland port during the height of canal transport. It still offers pleasure boaters a link from the Trent and Mersey Canal to the River Trent.)  If you ever drive east along the A50 you can see the quarry just before you reach junction 24 of the M1.

The boat was made from a single oak tree, about 3,400 years ago, during the Bronze Age. Scientists used radiocarbon dating methods to reach that conclusion.  Dendrochronolgy (tree ring counting) is a more exact science and it is possible with some wooden artefacts to determine exactly when the tree was cut down, but it requires the bark to define the last year of growth. If the bark is missing it's only possible to give a terminus post quem (time after which) for the object. In other words, if the outermost ring grew in 1434 BCE you can say for sure that the tree was cut down some time after that. But they haven't used dendrochronology on this boat.

The prow
On the other hand, they know that the tree was at least 400 years old when it was felled, because of its size. Such trees only grow in virgin forest and there are none of a similar size in the UK any more.

The boat contained large sandstone blocks, believed to have been its cargo. The rock was quarried a few miles away and was transported downstream, possibly to help build a causeway across the River Trent.