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.