May 19, 2017

Five little challenges

A couple of weeks ago we visited Brodsworth Hall and I shared the garden with you. At the time I promised a return to take a look at the inside.  It's a fascinating place and I can't possibly do it justice in a single post, so I thought I'd approach it from a different angle. Let's take a look at the challenges of looking after a house of such an age and in such a dilapidated state. You'll be surprised how much it has in common with your own housekeeping - and how much is different.

Brodsworth has a unique way of pointing out the problems it faces in conserving the furniture and fabrics. Rather than making you squirm with tales of nastiness they have introduced wonderful, fluffy toy models of the pests living around the house. Like this "woolly bear", for example,which represents the larva of the carpet moth. As you can see from the photo within the photo - the real thing isn't quite so cute!

Let's face it, nobody enjoys dusting but leaving it in place in a historic house is not an option. Dust is not an innocuous substance that can be easily swept away with the wipe of a cloth. In fact, if it's been in place long enough its chemical properties change and it starts to stick. Meanwhile, those chemical changes can affect the object the dust lies on, damaging the surface. Cleaning is a careful process, because rough handling can cause more damage than the dust! You can see some of the tools they use in the photo.

Most of us, particularly those in older homes, have at some point suffered the arrival of the small, grey intruder Mus domesticus - the house mouse. They cause two sorts of damage - basically one from each end. Firstly, they gnaw. They'll eat their way through anything that poses a barrier for them. Their sharp teeth will go through most things and nothing is really safe. This includes cables, so there's an increased risk of fire. The other end, of course, produces some disgusting stuff. Did you know, for example, that mice pee constantly?  It's partly so they can tell where they are. When in doubt, follow the smelly trail home. But they also leave nasty little black packages. which aren't just dirty, they're corrosive.

One problem a large house faces is needing a lot of fireplaces. And a lot of fires means a lot of chimneys. But once the house starts to close down the chimneys aren't maintained and fall victim to bird nests.Then, when the nests are abandoned, the pests move in. One such is the golden spider beetle, and once it gets bored with nest material it is partial to wool, with ensuing damage to the house's carpets!

Then there's a problem you might not have expected. You might remember from the previous post that the last resident of the house, Sylvia Grant-Dalton, was fond of pets. You might also remember that we discussed the possible identity of Binkie Pippy, named on a headstone in the pet cemetery. Well, Binkie and Pippy were actually two animals, spaniels, and for a lot of their lives they were never allowed outside. So when English Heritage took over the house and began the programme of conservation they found a lot of 'evidence' of the dogs' presence. Dog urine is acidic, and there were many holes in curtains and carpets as well as extensive staining.

So, on that fragrant note, I suggest you drop by Tricky's FAST blog to see what more pleasant topics people have found this week!

May 12, 2017

Five things: the Cinque Ports

Entrance to Walmer Castle
There is a group of old towns on the south east coast of Britain called the Cinque Ports. The name is Norman French and means "five ports" because that's how many of them there originally were. Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. New Romney, however,  was damaged by storms and its harbour silted up, so its place was taken by Rye, which was already associated with the group in a way described below.

The five initially joined forces to create a military and trade association to defend the area against potential threats from the English Channel but the arrangement is now completely ceremonial.

The first team must have been proud of the name because they never changed it, in spite of enrolling lots of other towns to support them. Rye (mentioned above) and Winchelsea, were designated "Antient Towns" and the many other places were deemed to be 'limbs' of the original five. At its height the Cinque Ports alliance included 42 towns and villages - but quarante-deux ports doesn't have the same ring to it.

Among them were Bekesbourne, Bulverhythe, Eastbourne, Bexhill-on-Sea, Pevensey, Reculver, Sarre, Walmer, Ramsgate, Brightlingsea, Birchington, St John's (part of Margate), Margate, Folkestone, Ringwould, Woodchurch, Kingsdown and West Hythe. (This is not an exhaustive list!)

Incidentally, it's pronounced "sink ports" not "sank" like proper French would be. But then, Happisburgh in Norfolk is pronounced "Hazebruh" so what does the south east coast know?

In 1155 the Cinque Ports received a Royal Charter to maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need. The towns were expected to provide 57 ships for 15 days service each, but in exchange residents were exempt from a number of taxes and had various rights - one of which was the right to break into someone's property in order to build sea defences! They were also allowed to keep some of the salvage from shipwrecks. Such privileges made the area a haven for smugglers because the revenue men stayed out of their way. 

Over the years flood, high tides, the French and other marauding forces changed the coast in many ways. Erosion and geological movement mean that Sandwich, for example, is now three miles inland. Hastings harbour was sacked by the French in the 13th century and the town no longer acts as a port. (Though it's a lovely fishing town, but they haul the boats up onto the beach.)

In keeping with their current ceremonial status the Cinque Ports today have an official leader called the Lord Warden. The title has often been held by Prime Ministers or other big wigs. Pitt the Younger was Lord Warden in the 18th century and around 20 years later the role went to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Winston Churchill was appointed, as was The Queen Mother. The current holder is Admiral of the Fleet Michael, Baron Boyce. One thing they all have in common is that the post gives them the right to live in Walmer Castle - though these days they tend to have a ceremonial annual week, rather than permanent residence.

Like lots of things in this fair country, the Cinque Ports are a remnant of an older time that are now completely irrelevant, but they impress younger countries who can’t trace their traditions back 200 years, let alone nearly 1,000. They’re pointless. But we can’t quite bear to get rid of them.

Now go over to Tricky's FAST blog to see more Fives on Friday. 

April 28, 2017


Brodsworth Hall - note the scaffolding
Just outside Doncaster there's a magnificent Victorian pile called Brodsworth Hall. To cut a long story short it fell on hard times after WWI and began to crumble gradually away so that, by the time English Heritage took it over in the 1990s, it was a faded remnant of its former glory.

In opposition to how most heritage organisation behave, EH decided to consolidate it 'as found' rather than restoring it. Today it's in the middle of a massive project to make it safe and suitable for visitors. It's wrapped in scaffolding and largely sheathed in plastic.

The gardens, however, are magnificent. Glorious sunshine gave me the chance to wander round and see them in their full wonder.  Here's some photos:
View to the hall across the fountain garden from under the laburnum arch. I'm determined to go back and see it when it's in flower. End of May should do it.
Round the back of the hall is a sweet little pet cemetery with carved headstones for the various animals. One says simply 'Polly parrot' while others give hints such as 'good boy', so I'm assuming that was a dog. There are no clues as to the species of Binkie Pippy, however. Sounds like a bunny to me!

The grounds are scattered with statuary and ghostly white figures in various degrees of dress stand around looking classical. I kind of liked this young lady feeding the pigeons. 

And then there was the real wildlife.  You get a hint of the colour from the fountain garden in this shot so the delightful robin isn't easy to spot, but he sat there singing his heart out for a while and seemed happy to have his photo taken. 

Now off you go over to Tricky's FAST blog to see the other Five on Friday posts. Happy weekend all. 

April 21, 2017

Tanner or Barker

Samples of leather
The Anorak made a recent trip to a wonderful museum in the West Midands town of Walsall, dedicated to one of its traditional trades - leather making. There's a fascinating display there about the surnames that have developed from various skills involved in producing and using leather. Were any of your ancestors employed in leather making and use?

1 Leather production
There are lots of processes required in the production of leather and each one has resulted in surnames to identify the jobs. Such as:
Skinner - who skins the beasts
Tanner - who tans leather
Barker - another word for tanner
Currier - a leather dresser

2 Boots and shoes
Footwear is probably one of the commonest uses for leather, even today. It's given rise to a few names too.
Boot - one who made boots
Chaucer - a shoe maker: from the French word chaussure, meaning shoe

3 Other leather goods
And there are lots of other leather goods that all had their own specialist skills. For example:
Glover - who made gloves
Gant or Gaunt - another name for a glover, from the French gant
Bracegirdle - a belt maker
Purser - who made purses
Badger - a bag maker (and nothing to do with black and white animals at all!)

4 Saddlery
Making saddles and associated horse harness and tack was a very skilled job with lots of different styles for racing, hunting, and even side-saddles for the ladies.
Sadler - obviously one who made saddles
Burrell - less obviously a saddler, from the French bourrelier
Sellers - also from the French, sellier, or saddler

5 Associated metalwork
And to hold all the leather harness bits together you need lots of specially shaped metalwork, collectively known as lorinery. Walsall had plenty of associated lorinery factories that supplied the leather workers. Their skills also gave us some associated surnames.
Lorimer - a maker or dealer in lorinery
Buckler - made buckles
Sperrin - made spurs

And there you have it. Lots of hidden information in your name!  Now go across to Tricky's FAST blog to see other fives this Friday.

April 14, 2017

Shell Grotto

As promised last week we're paying another visit to Margate Shell Grotto. Here are five photos of the mysterious structure.
A view down the tunnel
There are a number of shell-decorated follies and grottoes in the UK but, unlike the majority, the grotto in Margate was created using native species - mainly mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters. Only four shells among the 4.6 million are exotic: two Caribbean queen conches and two Pacific giant clams.

This is just one of the weird things about the 104 feet long tunnel in Grotto Hill. The grotto takes the form of a winding passage that splits into two, forming a circle, then ending with a square space called the altar room. At the point where the path splits the ceiling rises to a dome with a gap at the top that allows some natural light to enter.

Looking up into the dome
The shells form a series of panels along the walls, each with complicated designs incorporating symbols and  pictograms that have been interpreted in several ways. Some people see little but attractive patterns, others have identified astrological signs, representations of ancient gods, phallic designs, and other mystical themes.

Detail from the Aries panel

According to local legend the grotto was discovered in 1835 when local landowner James Newlove decided to dig a duck pond. His son Joshua found a strange hole in the ground and James lowered him through it to see what lay beneath. The boy reported seeing pictures and a cave.  Estimates of its age vary from several thousand years, to Victorian folly.

Part of the 'skeleton' panel

Other ideas have included the suggestion that the site was prehistoric; it might have been a Templar Chapel; or Newlove built the tunnels himself. Whatever the truth, the grotto became a tourist attraction within a couple of years, earning Newlove a considerable income.

Detail of a pattern - with old graffiti!

It's been open to the public ever since, and it recently underwent a programme of restoration to prevent water damage. A new project was launched in 2012 to replace missing 'roundels'. Some parts of the patterns were created by fixing them to circles of slate, which have since fallen away. Those slates are now being repaired.

Now drop by Tricky's FAST blog to see other Five on Friday posts.

April 10, 2017


It's April, and the month began with such beautiful weather that I couldn't help but remember Robert Browning's poem Home Thoughts from Abroad:

O, to be in England
Now that April 's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

Our recent trip south also reminded me of something my Dad used to say - that the seasons march up and down the country at approximate walking speed. The apple trees of the Kent orchards were all in beautiful blossom whereas here in the Midlands the buds had yet to break. On our return our local trees are catching up.

Of course, April's also the month in which the cuckoo is known to arrive and traditionally across England there used to be Cuckoo Fairs to mark the season change and the arrival of Spring. Many involved releasing a cuckoo from a basket, though in Marsden in West Yorkshire they used to build a fence around a cuckoo's nest to try to make it stay longer.

April 07, 2017

Margate 5

Sorry for a very brief Five this week. We've been away for my birthday.  Where?  Margate. (It's in Kent.) So here's five things from there.

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea.  Hundreds of men and women up and down the country risk their lives regularly in rough and hazardous seas to go to the help of others. There's a rescue boat near the harbour arm in Margate.

This clock is on the tower of the tourist information office, known as the Droit House, a building which used to act as the customs house and also the place where ships paid fees to enter the harbour.

The artist JMW Turner said Margate had the finest skies in all of Europe.  And I have to admit they've been pretty good this week.

Turner was a bit of a rogue and in later life lived in Margate with a Mrs Booth - seaside landlady. While there he was known as Mr Booth, even though he had a wife and children back home in London.  There's a sculpture on the harbour arm that's called Mrs Booth, and it's shaped like a souvenir shell lady - except it's MUCH bigger.

And finally - hidden in a back street away from the town centre is a mysterious cave. 104 feet long and decorated with 4.6 million shells. No-one knows who made it, when or why, but it was discovered in the 1830s and opened as a tourist attraction very shortly after. It deserves a post of its own - so watch out for more about it later.

This has been a very bitty Five on Friday post. Now head over to Tricky's FAST blog to see others that have been put together with much more care than mine!