Castles etc

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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Visiting the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire in January with my daughter was a slightly spooky experience. Set in a field next to an ancient ridgeway with a wood nearby, these prehistoric stones still exude an air of power. The most important are ‘The King’s Men’, a Neolithic stone circle of over a hundred stones weather-worn into fantastical shapes (the exact number is unknown – legend has it that they are uncountable), dating from around 3000 BC.

Me, standing by one of the King’s Men stones

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Last year, a friend gave me Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes for my birthday. I knew who he was, of course, but although I had seen and enjoyed The Young Victoria, I hadn’t watched Gosford Park because I feared I’d find gaffes which would either infuriate me or make me cringe. Past Imperfect was, therefore, something of a revelation for its wit, acute social observation and terrific storytelling. As I read, I realized, with a sense of shock, that I knew exactly where Julian Fellowes was coming from because the story’s social background, as told by his anonymous narrator, was, in many respects, painfully similar to my own. He didn’t pull his punches and his depiction of the late 1960s amongst what rather too many reviewers patronizingly called the ‘toffs’ was spot on.

‘Past Imperfect’ by Julian Fellowes

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We’ve just past November 30th, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, so it feels appropriate to celebrate the 19th century transformation of that beautiful country.

Flatback Staffordshire figure: Highlander with deer (45 cms. high)

My parents lived in Invernesshire, in the Scottish Highlands, for many years and their house contained a number of things unmistakably inspired by Scotland, one of which was this large flat back Staffordshire figure of a kilted Highlander  with his arm around what looks like a small deer. I’ve always liked it – partly because it looks so absurd. There is a gun dangerously positioned beside the highlander’s left leg pointing upwards, (my brothers and I had to learn the ‘Never, never let your gun/ Pointed be at anyone’ rule before my father, an excellent shot, would allow us anywhere near a gun), and the figure has a horn at his waist. Why? To summon a gillie? Or does it contain gunpowder for the gun, though that seems unlikely.

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Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was a politician, a Prime Minister; a writer; a notable orator; and an indomitable war leader during World War II. During his long life, he was given almost every honour his country (and others) could bestow: Knight if the Garter, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, Nobel Prize for Literature, Fellow of the Royal Society, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and an Honorary Citizen of the United States, amongst others.

This post looks at his private country home – Chartwell in Kent.

Sir Winston Churchill, 1941, by Yousuf Karsh

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Only a few miles east of the Giant’s Causeway, perched on Northern Ireland’s basalt cliffs, the spectacularly-sited Dunluce Castle plunges straight into the Irish Sea. (Game of Thrones fans will recognize it as Pyke Castle, stronghold of the House of Greyjoy.)

Dunluce Castle has inspired many books and films. from C. S. Lewis’s Cair Paravel, the capital of Narnia, to ‘Game of Thrones’

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The story of Glenarm Castle begins with a murder. In 1242, John Bisset, a hot-headed young Scot of Norman origin, was implicated in the murder of Padraig, Earl of Atholl, after a tournament in Haddington, where John’s uncle Walter was beaten by the earl. In revenge, John murdered the earl, set fire to his house to conceal the crime, and fled to Ireland.

It was John Bisset who built the first castle at Glenarm on the Antrim coast, facing his old homeland. Bisset then fades from the castle’s history. But every castle worthy of the name needs a good murder in its founding story.

Glenarm Castle

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