Castles etc

This week I’m in Rochester, an important naval town on the River Medway which flows into the Thames. There is a huge amount to see in Rochester from Roman times onwards, but today I’m looking at one house.

Being a Charles Dickens fan, I have long wanted to visit Restoration House, supposedly Dickens’  inspiration in Great Expectations for Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House, that ‘large and gloomy’ place, full of dust, cobwebs and shadows and lit only by candlelight. It is here that the young Pip is entrapped by Miss Havisham’s desire to seek revenge, through him, for her lover jilting her so cruelly on her wedding day.

Restoration House

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It wasn’t until I visited Bulgaria that I realized what a challenging history it’s had. It lies between the River Danube (with Romania) to the north, the Black Sea to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south and Serbia and Macedonia to the west. Historically, its borders have always been under threat and, over the centuries, they have expanded and contracted. 5000 years ago, they were invaded by the Thracians who came from Asia, bringing the Bronze Age with them. The Romans, coming up from the south, staked their claim to the country in the 1st century AD. In AD 300, the Emperor Constantine moved his capital to nearby Byzantium, renamed it Constantinople and Bulgaria, inevitably, became part of his Empire. By the 9th century, Bulgaria had converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity.

Nessebar: Greek Orthodox Church of Christ Pantokrator

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I have long been a fan of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837); and his London home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now Sir John Soane’s Museum, is one of my favourite places. I love its quirkiness, its ingenious use of light – long horizontal windows in strange places, like just below the ceiling and skylights letting in light from above – and the unexpectedly vibrant colours he liked to use.

Sir John Soane by Sir Thomas Lawrence, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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When I was a child, The Armourer’s House by Rosemary Sutcliff, set in Tudor London,, was one of my favourite books. So when I heard that the Islington Archaeology & History Society had arranged a visit to The Armourers’ Hall, I jumped at it.

My first glimpse inside the Armourers’ Hall didn’t disappoint. I loved the red-carpeted staircase with a suit of armour either side and weapons on the walls. 

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Recently, I re-visited Westminster Abbey; I hadn’t been there for years – the last time I went, there were few visitors and you were allowed to go wherever you wanted. What I remembered was the soaring Gothic architecture and the wonderful fan vaulting of the ceiling. I loved St Edward’s shrine and the various chapels of the early English kings and queens; and I was able to wander round and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of 800 years of prayer, largely uninterrupted.

St Edward’s the Confessor’s shrine.

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Today, I’m removing myself from wet, chilly and windy London and re-visiting Plovdiv, a town I’d love to see more of. First, a bit of history to set the scene. The earliest evidence for Plovdiv is a Neolithic settlement; it was later settled by invading Thracians, expanded by Philip II of Macedon who named it Philippopolis, and, in due course,, it became part of the Roman Empire. The photo below of the archaeological excavations of the Roman Odeon below, shows how closely packed the layers of history are. You don’t have to dig very deep to find something surprising. But more of that in a minute.

Excavations of the Odeon in Plovdiv

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Recently, I saw the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill exhibition at that extraordinary Gothic extravaganza, Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of the author, letter writer, and passionate collector of the Fine Arts, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace was the son of the politician and statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, and rich enough to do what he wanted: travel in Italy, buy art and antiques, and live the life of a cultivated man of leisure. His tastes were unusual and original – and he had the money to indulge himself.

Strawberry Hill: note the Gothic windows, tower and chimneys

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The Worshipful Company of Salters is one of the twelve medieval Great Livery Companies of the City of London, and number 9 in the order of precedence. It was first licensed as a Guild in 1394, under King Richard II, to protect its members who worked in the all-important salt, pepper and spice trade. In medieval times, both sea salt and rock salt were essential to the economy: it preserved food in the days before refrigeration; it was also used in the dyeing trade to fix colours, and in the leather making process. Members of The Salters’ Company became experts in the chemical possibilities of sodium chloride.

Two members of the Worshipful Company of Salters’ Company, Anthony Lybster and Chris Cockcroft, about to show visitors round.

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We are getting towards the end of January; the temperature on Thursday slumped to 4C and the wind was bitter. My fingers turned white, even with my Alpaca wool gloves on, and the forecast shows that it will remain 6C at best for God knows how long. I’m not a winter person; cold just makes me want to hibernate.

The gardens at Ninfa

I long to be somewhere warm and Italian; somewhere with flowers, trees, shade as well as sunshine, flowing water and romantic ruins. Ideally, I want to be transported to the gardens amid the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. I cannot think of anywhere nicer – especially when, back in England, it’s so cold and wet.

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