Thursday, April 2, 2015

We Are Open!

Today Ashdown House opens for the 2015 season! Opening hours are 2pm - 5pm every Wednesday and Saturday. The house is open by timed tour only at 2.15,3.15 and 4.15pm.

Here are a few of the highlights of a visit to this most unusual of NT properties (and yes we may be biased but we think it is fabulous!):

The Landscape. The Sarsen Field is the first thing you see on the left of the drive as you approach the car park. This is open to everyone to walk in and is a fascinating are of Special Scientific Interest where the huge, ancient sarsen stones lie amongst the grass as they have done for thousands of years. Legend says they are an army turned to stone by the magician Merlin.

High on the hill to the east is the weathercock. If you fancy a climb up onto the Downs this gives a
wonderful panoramic view of the park and the surrounding countryside.

The woodland dates back to when this was a medieval hunting ground and the deer still live here.
Landscaped in the 17th century, the woods are full of walks and glades where you can picnic and play and catch sight of the wildlife. The badgers have been digging up the area around the grand avenue for almost 1000 years! There are also hidden geocaches, a tree trail and our Pixie Path. In the fields behind the wood the Balleroy ponies graze.

To the west of the park lies Alfred's Castle, an Iron Age encampment. Smaller than Uffington and Liddington forts it nevertheless commands a wonderful view and at one time controlled the track south from the Ridgeway. Anglo Saxon weapons have been found here; legend states it was the place where King Alfred rallied his army before the Battle of Ashdown in 871 AD.

The house. A stunning 17th century hunting lodge, Ashdown is
well worth a view for the  architecture alone. Of the interior, only the hall, grand staircase and roof terrace of the house are open to visitors because the rooms are privately let. However the wonderful
guided tour weaves the story of Ashdown and its owners over the three hundred and fifty years since it was built. From Queens and cavaliers to Victorian servants, the characters come alive!

We hope to see you soon!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Antiquities of Ashbury

One of the things I love about print on demand is that antiquarian books that previously you could only access by visiting the British Library are now available to own at a modest price. So it is that I am now the proud owner of Henry Miller’s book: “Some Account of the Parish of Ashbury in Berkshire etc” written in 1877. Henry Miller was a vicar and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. His book is short, a mere 17 pages, but it is fascinating on the history and folklore of the area and as a window into how the village was seen in the Victorian era. For example he bemoans the use of Sarsen stone and chalk in building because so many cottages are as a result dilapidated and “worthless rubble.” How times have changed!

Miller traces the history of the parish from 400 years before the Norman Conquest when it was first
mentioned as the boundary of the lands of Kinewulf, King of the West Saxons who ruled from AD 688 to 757. It was disputed land between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia for two centuries, the site of battles and encampments along the Ridgeway. He explores the legends and tales about Wayland’s Smithy, including the suggestion that it is the burial site of King Bagseek of the Danes, killed at the Battle of Ashdown. However Miller does not seem very interested in the rival theories over where the name of Wayland’s Smithy came from, or the old (even in his time) arguments about whether the name Ashdown is specific to this area or covered the whole area of the Downs.

He writes:

“To enliven a dull subject I may add that at a distance of about two miles below the hill… among a clump of trees, there is a large stone partly embedded in the ground…Weyland Smith hurled it from his forge at his familiar imp when he was attempting to run off. From the tears the imp is supposed to have shed, the spot is appropriately called “snivelling corner.” Snivelling Corner still features on the OS maps today and I have always wondered about the derivation of the name!


On the subject of Ashdown Park, Miller exercises some poetic licence as to which member of the Craven family bought it, when and why, and also gives some fanciful tales about the family. He does however fix the date for the building of the Victorian extensions to 1850, which was within thirty years of when he was writing. He also gives a tantalising glimpse into life in that country house: “In the modern billiard-room is a large picture representing one of the great coursing meetings held on the downs near the house.” This is the original picture by Stephen Pearce or which there is a copy at the top of the stairs. It was commissioned by a committee of coursers and presented to the Second Earl of Craven in 1862.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Illustrious History of the Craven Mixture

Of all the unusual connections to Ashdown House, the Craven tobacco mixture and the Craven A cigarette must surely be one of the strangest and most intriguing.

In its day the Craven Mixture, produced by the Carreras Tabacco Company, was world famous. The antecedents of the Carreras Tobacco Company business stem back into the eighteenth century (their products and advertising materials consistently bore the legend 'Established 1788'), and forebears of the family were Spanish apothecaries. The founder of the business was a Spanish nobleman, Don José Carreras Ferrer, who served with distinction in the Peninsular War and later established himself in London. He was a pioneer of cigar development and his son Don José Joaquin specialised in blending both tobacco and snuff.


As a supplier of tobacco to high society, Don José had many fashionable and distinguished customers, including George Grimston Craven, the 3rd Earl. George would frequent the Carreras store in Regent Street along with the rest of the rich and the fashionable. In 1860 Don José created the Craven Mixture especially for him. The blend spread in popularity throughout the world. It is no surprise that the Victorian wing additions to Ashdown House included a smoking room. This fits perfectly with the image of the 3rd Earl and his friends retiring after dinner to smoke their Craven Mixture!

The concept of the smoking room was quite a specific Victorian idea. Amongst other purposes, it was intended to restrict the smell of smoke to one room of the house since the smoke was considered to ruin the furnishings. Smoking rooms were frequently decorated in velvet - velvet drapes, velvet upholstery even velvet smoking jackets - as it was thought to absorb the smell. Smoking rooms also contributed to gender segregations since they were seen very much male preserves whilst the ladies spent the after dinner period in the drawing room. It would be interesting to know how the smoking room at Ashdown was decorated but whilst we have photographs of the drawing room none of the interior of the wings appear to exist.


Some of Don José's other tobacco brands also became world famous, including Guards' Mixture and

Hankey's Mixture. Over one thousand brands of cigar could be bought from Carreras, together with snuffs, cigarettes, pipes and all the usual requisites of the trade. After World War I Carreras developed the first machine made, cork tipped cigarettes and named them Craven A, a brand that also became a huge success and is still sold around the world today. When the renovations to the house took place in 2012 quite a few packets of Craven A were discovered, left by builders who had worked on the house in the past century.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On the Edge of the Wood

On a stormy day like today you can hear the wind roaring in the trees as soon as you step into the Ashdown woods. Although the eastern flank of the wood is protected from gales, if you cross the main avenue and head west towards the edge of the trees you enter a wilder place altogether. Here, as you follow the path around the edge of the 13th century park pale, you catch a view of the house lying to the south, looking deceptively peaceful in the sunshine.

Once you climb the stile, however, and head out
across the paddock towards Alfred's Castle Iron Age fort, the wind hits you with the strength to catch your breath and steal it away. Here the grass is grazed short by the Balleroy ponies. It's fortunate they are from Scottish Highland stock or they would be shivering out here on the exposed western flank of the hillside. Alfred's Castle might not be as huge or impressive as the forts at Uffington or Barbury or a dozen other places along the Ridgeway but this was a strategic point for the rulers that controlled this land, a vantage point giving the view south as well as northward to the old straight track. The sarsen stones of the ramparts - those that are left and are not buried beneath Ashdown House - peep through the rough grass. It's a place with an ancient feel to it that has never been worn away.

When I stand on the edge of Alfred's Castle I'm always reminded of the poem On Wenlock Edge by A E Housman, a different wood and a different county but a similar sensation of the past melding into the present. Alfred's Castle is a place where you can stand and dream - until the wind buffets you back towards the wood again and the trees close around you and offer shelter.

Do you have a favourite place where the past and present meet and where you go to stand and dream?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Who's Who of Ashdown House

One of the highlights of a visit to Ashdown House is the opportunity to view the portrait collection that adorns the walls of the hallway and stair. The portraits are a small part of the collection that Elizabeth the Winter Queen bequeathed to William Craven on her death. If every picture tells a story then these have a whole host of tales to tell. They are members of Elizabeth's family and her court, the people who formed an important part of her daily life, each with a story of their own.

The hallway itself is dominated by a large picture of William Craven, painted in
full armour, flanked by Frederick of Bohemia on the left and Elizabeth on the right. Also featured in the hall are Elizabeth's daughter Princess Louise Hollandine (pictured), the artist of two of the paintings in the collection, and her cousin Mary, Princess Royal, the daughter of Charles I. Mary married the Dutch ruler William of Orange and went to live in The Hague with her mother Henrietta Maria in the 1640s. To complete this family ensemble, there is also a portrait of Mary's mother-in-law Amelia, who was at one time Elizabeth of Bohemia's lady in waiting!

The first flight of steps introduces us to three of Elizabeth and Frederick's sons; Charles Louis, the heir to Frederick's princedom, the dashing Prince Rupert of the Rhine (pictured), whose life Craven saved in battle, and Edward, who made an advantageous marriage to one of the richest women in France. There is also an early portrait of their cousin Charles II, painted when he was only nineteen.

On the first landing are portraits of three of Elizabeth and Frederick's daughters; Elizabeth, the eldest, the "philosophical princess," a great scholar, Henrietta Maria, the tragic bride of Prince Sigismund of Transylvania, and Sophie,the mother of King George I, "the best queen we never had."

As you climb higher you pass soldiers and statesmen, Prince Christian of Anhalt, Elizabeth's cousin, who rode into battle with her glove as his talisman, and Frances Coke, the runaway bride.

The huge painting on the second landing of Prince Rupert, Colonel Murray and Colonel Russell is a story in itself, painted by William Dobson, court painter to Charles I, and richly decorated with symbols of loyalty. I've blogged about the Dobson painting before - like all the others in the collection it is well worth a view. Come and take a tour of Ashdown and step into the history of the house and the people connected to it!




Friday, March 14, 2014

The Mystery of the "lost King."

First it was King Richard III who was discovered under a car park in Leicester. Then part of King Alfred’s pelvis (or possibly that of his son Edward) was found in a box in a museum in Winchester. There is a sudden interest in “lost” kings.

Here at Ashdown we have a connection to two “lost kings,” Alfred himself, who fought at the Battle of Ashdown, and also the unfortunate Frederick, King of Bohemia.

There is something intriguing about the idea that the burial place of a historical figure is not known. In the case of Richard III the contested nature of his reputation gave the discovery of his burial site an extra dimension. Perhaps that is why it seems no one has gone looking for Frederick of Bohemia; his was a tragic and unsuccessful role in a bigger history. Perhaps it was felt he was best forgotten.

Frederick was born in 1596, and from 1614 ruled over the County Palatinate of the Rhine, a historical territory of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick married Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I in 1613 and they made their home in Heidelberg where Frederick transformed the castle and its gardens into a palace worthy of the daughter of a king. In 1618 the kingdom of Bohemia rebelled against its catholic ruler and invited Frederick to take the throne. Perceiving it to be his holy duty, Frederick did so, putting himself in opposition to the Holy Roman Empire and losing his throne a scant year and four days later at the Battle of the White Mountain. He, Elizabeth and their young family forced to flee into exile in Holland.

In 1632 Frederick had his best chance of regaining his ancestral Palatine lands. The Swedish King Gustavus
Adolphus had entered the Thirty Years War with significant success. In January 1632 Frederick travelled to Mainz to join the Swedish king’s forces. William Craven of Ashdown went with him and shortly after his arrival fought alongside the Swedish forces at the taking of Kreuznach Castle. This was the famous occasion on which Gustavus praised Craven for his courage in battle. Sadly Gustavus had less of a good opinion of Frederick’s abilities and refused to give him a command.  Instead, Frederick went to visit his Palatinate lands, which had been devastated during the ongoing conflict, with towns burned and ruined.

It was still Frederick’s hope that the Swedes would take the rest of the German lands from the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor and that after this he would be restored as ruler of the Palatine. In November Gustavus Adolphus won the decisive victory at Lutzen, but it was at the cost of his own life. Frederick wrote to Elizabeth telling her that he would be coming to fetch her now that his German lands would be restored to him. Alas it never happened. On November 19th 1632 Frederick died of plague in Mainz in Germany.

It was another sixteen years before Charles Louis, Frederick’s heir, finally succeeded to the Palatinate. In 1632 he was only 15 and his uncle, the Duke of Simmern, was appointed administrator of the Palatine lands on his behalf. Meanwhile Elizabeth corresponded with her brother Charles I about a suitable place for Frederick to be buried. His embalmed body lay in Mainz for many months before it was taken to the town of Frankenthal and interred.

Peace did not last long.  In 1635 Frankenthal was threatened by enemy troops and the Duke of Simmern felt it would be wise to move Frederick’s body for fear it might be dug up and desecrated. Simmern fled to Metz, in France, taking Frederick’s coffin with him. From there the intention was to take him to Sedan for reburial in the mausoleum of his uncle, the Duke de Bouillon.  With an increase in hostilities, however, it was deemed to dangerous to travel.

Reports vary as to what happened next. Some historians suggest that Simmern arranged for Frederick’s burial secretly in Metz. Others suggest that he finally took the body to Sedan in September 1637. However when the mausoleum at Sedan was opened in the early 20th century, Frederick’s body was not there. Where Frederick’s tomb is we do not know. Elizabeth made no reference to her husband's burial in any of her correspondence and thus preserved the mystery of the final resting place of this “lost king.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Welcome to the 2014 season at Ashdown House

The Ashdown House blog will re-open next month in preparation for the new season, which starts on 2nd April.  We'll be featuring new photographs and new articles for 2014 including stories from our visitors and guest blogs. A very Happy Spring to everyone!