Thursday, 5 November 2009

Houses of the Gunpowder Plot

Today is Guy Fawkes' Night in the UK, the night on which we celebrate with fireworks and bonfires the thwarting of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Ashdown's connection with The Gunpowder Plot is tenuous, to say the least. The house was "consecrated" to Elizabeth of Bohemia by William Craven and it was Elizabeth whom the plotters intended to place on the throne of England as a puppet ruler in the event that they had been successful in killing both King James VI and I and his heir Prince Henry.

In 1605 the nine-year-old Elizabeth was living at Coombe Abbey with Lord and Lady Harington who had been entrusted with her upbringing and education. I have blogged about Coombe and its connection to the Gunpowder Plot earlier in the year and you can read about it here. In a curious co-incidence, the Craven family bought Coombe Abbey from the Haringtons in 1622, three years before they bought Ashdown and long before William Craven became the devoted follower of Elizabeth, the Winter Queen.

Coombe Abbey is in Warwickshire, and was at the centre of a thicket of properties associated with the Gunpowder Plot, some of which are lost and others that are still standing. Looking at the houses associated with the Plot shows how closely connected were the prominent Catholic recusant families who supported it, and how beautifully placed they were geographically to kidnap the young Elizabeth from Coombe and carry her off to a Catholic safe house.

Coughton Court, south of Coombe, was owned by the Throckmorton Family, who were prominent Catholics. In 1605 it was occupied by the family of Sir Everard Digby, who was one of the conspirators and the man deputed to abduct the Pricess Elizabeth from Coombe when Harington was lured away. My writing colleague Elizabeth Hanbury has blogged about her fascinating visit to Coughton Court here. It was in the drawing-room of the Coughton Gatehouse that the news was broken to Lady Digby and other Catholic supporters that the plot had failed and the conspirators, including her husband, were on the run. The gatehouse still stands as it was in the seventeenth century and visitors can enter the drawing-room where Thomas Bates, Catesby's servant, broke the bad news. The windows of the gatehouse contain heraldic glass commemorating the marriages of the Throckmortons to other prominent Catholic families including the Catesbys and the Treshams.

Ashby St Ledgers, to the east of Coombe, was the principal residence of the Catesby family. It was apparently at Ashby St Ledgers that the conspirators met to discuss the details of the Gunpowder Plot. They assembled in a room above the gatehouse that was private from the main house and also commanded a view of the surrounding area so that they were safe from the danger of sudden attack. Ashby St. Ledgers was also the place where Catesby amassed the armaments and gunpowder for use in the plot. The Gunpowder Plot Society relates that the "Gunpowder Plot Room" in the gatehouse "has its original paneling, and its atmosphere is such that it doesn't take much imagination to picture the plotters, sitting around, amid flickering candles, making their plans in here."

Huddington Court, the home of the Wintour or Winter brothers Robert and Thomas, is a stunning back and white half-timbered house said to have been built in 1340. Legend has it that the ghost of Robert Winter's wife wanders the gardens still waiting for her husband to return. The Gunpowder Plot Society was fortunate enough to be given a tour of Huddington and records the visit and details of many more of the properties associated with the plot on their excellent website.

One property far removed geographically from the focus of the Gunpowder Plot and yet devastatingly affected by the involvement of its owner in the Plot is Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire. Lyveden belonged to the Tresham family. Sir Francis Tresham's mother was a Throckmorton; the family were staunch Catholics and Sir Francis died in the Tower of London for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. The heavy recusant taxes paid by the family coupled with the disaster of Sir Francis's death meant that the Treshams were ruined and the house at Lyveden never completed. Today it stands as a 400 year old ruin to the memory of a plot that was foiled and the complicated tangle of family relationships and catholic loyalties that were destroyed as a result.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Ghosts of Ashdown Past!

The beautiful, warm sunny day today has drawn scores of visitors to Ashdown House and Park. The woods are at their best with rich autumn colours and although the house is open for a final time on Saturday October 31st, the park and estate will remain open all through the winter.

Saturday is, of course, Halloween, and if you are planning to visit I recommend the 4.15pm tour. By then the light will be starting to fade and as you walk through the woods at dusk and see the shadow of the house creeping across the lawns it will be all to easy to believe the stories of hauntings at Ashdown. The wind in the trees and the birds calling in the twilight can sound like the plaintive cries of the child who is said to haunt the woods. The long shadows of the stable hide the beams where a groom is said to have hanged himself in Victorian times.
I've had a number of paranormal experiences in my life but two of the nicest (in the sense that they weren't frightening!) happened to me at Ashdown. They were also two of the most convincing since they were witnessed by other people too, amongst them my ever-sceptical husband!

The first occasion was when we were taking the photograph that appears at the top of this blog, the partial eclipse of the moon one night over the roof of Ashdown House. We were standing on Alfred's Castle, in itself a compellingly atmospheric site. There was no one in the house and no lights were on. All the windows were shuttered. And yet as we stood there watching the full moon rise and the eclipse take a bite out of it, we both thought that we saw the figure of a woman standing in an upstairs window watching us.

The second time that the ghosts of Ashdown past sent a shiver down my spine, we were on a bat walk in the woods at night. About ten of us had gone out to look for bats and listen to their high-pitched calls as they hunted through the woods. We had seen the barn owls as well, hunting their prey along the rides, and as we walked back down the North Avenue the house was ahead of us. Again, there was no one there, no lights on and it was locked up for the night. Yet as we walked towards it we saw a soft golden light like candle or lamplight shining behind the windows of the first floor, and as we all watched, the light moved up the stairs to the next landing and we saw the shadow of a woman. As we drew near the house the light faded away and we were all taken aback to see that again the windows were all closed with the shutters, so how could it have been possible for us to see a light inside?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

A Dollar Princess at Ashdown House!

As Professor Kathleen Burke puts it in her excellent book "Old World, New World": "Beginning about 1870, the union of American money and the British aristocracy was a continuing theme in the Anglo-American relationship... there was something special about the earlier period: perhaps it was the number of such unions, or the amount of cash involved. Perhaps it was the sheer hard-headedness of many of the transactions. For whatever reasons, these fairy tales - or horror stories - provided the plot for many a newspaper article, novel and play."

One such marriage saved the Craven family fortunes in the late nineteenth century. Whilst the story of Cornelia Bradley Martin isn't as well known as some other "dollar princesses" such as Jennie Jerome or Consuelo Vanderbilt, it was every bit as glamorous. This picture shows Cornelia as a child and this link connects to a vintage bromide print of her in the National Portrait Gallery, dated between 1910 - 1914 when she was in her thirties.

Miss Bradley Martin was a mere fifteen years old when she first met the 4th Earl of Craven on her parents' Scottish shooting estate at Balmacaan. They married in 1893 in New York after a brief engagement. The bride was sixteen and had not "come out;" it was felt that the 24 year old Earl had stolen a march on other potential suitors by marrying Cornelia straight out of the schoolroom. The wedding took place in New York's fashionable Grace Church with acres of white satin and much exotic floral decoration including 40 foot high palm trees. An over-excited crowd thronged the street outside for a glimpse of the bride and at one point there was a near-riot when the public invaded the church and the police took an hour to clear it.

Cornelia Craven was herself descended from a notable American lineage. Her mother was the daughter of Isaac Sherman, who had made his fortune in the railroads. Her father, Bradley Martin, was descended from an old Albany family. Her parents had met at the wedding of Miss Emily Vanderbilt. The balls and parties that they gave featured prominently in the gossip pages of the New York Times although after some stern criticism of their opulent lifestyle in the early 20th century, they moved to Britain.

It was no co-incidence that in the same year as his marriage, the 4th Earl began a series of renovations at his main home, Coombe Abbey, which included the restoration of the fabric of the building, a partial re-roofing and improvements to the servants' quarters. Improvements at Coombe continued to draw on the Countess's wealth. In 1907, electric lighting was installed and given the vast size and expensive running costs of such a house it seems inevitable that without Cornelia's money, the Craven family would have had to sell Coombe Abbey much sooner.

The earl and countess adopted a classically wealthy aristocratic lifestyle at Coombe and also moved between fashionable watering holes and glittering society events. In a rather neat example of the Cravens' sense of style, it was reported that Lord Craven sported the longest cigarette holder in London! Quite a claim to fame!

The 4th earl died in 1921 in a mysterious yachting accident during Cowes Week, one of the events of The Season. He fell overboard from his yacht and drowned, a particularly odd end given that he was a good swimmer and was only 55 years old. His body was washed ashore two days after his disappearance. The police report noted, amongst other things, that he had the Craven family crest tattooed on his chest. Tattoes had become increasingly fashionable with the aristocracy during the Victorian period, popularised by the Prince of Wales and later by his son Prince George.

The death of the 4th earl dealt a powerful financial blow to the Craven family fortunes and Cornelia was obliged to sell off the contents of both the Bradley Martin house in Mayfair and of Coombe Abbey. Before Coombe Abbey was sold in 1923 she removed the fireplaces for her home at Hamstead Lodge in Berkshire. She was later to do the same with Ashdown House, removing fireplaces and panelling. Despite these economies, however, the Dowager Countess's establishment at Hamstead Lodge was very grand. She had a staff of 17 inside servants and 8 outside servants plus 19 gardeners. Gardening was her passion and she created "The Dreamland," a garden inspired by a dream she had in the early 1930s.

Visitors to Hamstead Lodge were very eminent; they included Queen Mary, Princess Marie Louise and continental royalty. The Churchill family were regular guests and entertainment was often sporting-themed, including racing weekend house parties and shooting parties. The Dowager Countess was also renowned for her stunning collections, including emeralds and china that had belonged to Marie Antoinette and jewellery that had belonged to the Empress Eugenie. Her staff included two "night-watchmen" who were effectively security staff to ensure that her jewellery and the Craven portrait collection were safe.

It was Cornelia Craven who gave Ashdown House to the National Trust in 1956. She died in 1961. The opulent style in which she and her husband the 4th earl had lived was emblematic of the Edwardian period and very reminiscent of the time a hundred years earlier when the first Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation and his Countess had lived a life of Regency glamour. The injection of her fortune into the family coffers was of particular benefit to Coombe but also to the remainer of the Craven estates. Hit hard by death duties and the decline of the country estate after the first world war, Coombe, Ashdown and eventually Hamstead Lodge itself were sold off and the glittering years of the Craven's "dollar princess" were gone forever.

The Ashdown Blog will be back on Halloween with a suitably spooky tale of ghostly goings on at Ashdown House!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Unspoilt England

Ashdown House is in the press again, this time featuring in a list from Candida Lycett Green of the places she loves in England. In her list Candida comments that "Ashdown’s remote downland setting stirs the soul as much as the chalk-white perfection of its architecture." Her article in the Times Online explains in lyrical language the appeal of the unspoilt places that can still be found in this country and describes the romance that thousands of years of history lends to different sites.

Many of the people who work at Ashdown Park or visit the house and estate recognise and understand that it is a very special place. They feel the spirit of the place. From the Bronze Age barrows on the nearby ridge, to the Iron Age hillfort of Alfred's Castle, from the sarsen stones linked by legend to Merlin to the paths through the medieval deer park, from the weathercock on the hill to the little white "palace" at its foot, there is a timeline of thousands of years of history at Ashdown Park that is recorded in the barrows, buildings, holloways and stones that men have placed here down the centuries.

As Candida Lycett Green also comments, these days you sometimes have to dig deep to find unspoilt England. Around here it can sometimes be almost obliterated beneath the bags of litter that people leave on the Ridgeway after a rave at the full moon, no doubt expecting that the mysterious tidy fairies will spirit their rubbish away. Or it can be threatened by the crop circles that appear in the local fields when those pesky "aliens" create something extraordinary without thinking that maybe in the process they are destroying something equally valuable. At times like that it is good to be able to dig deep and connect with the spirit of the place, to stand on the hills above Ashdown Park in a keen breeze and to feel "the continuance of things."

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Who designed Ashdown House? - A three hundred and fifty year old historical mystery!

Ashdown House is beautiful - but we don't know for certain who designed and built it because any papers and drawings relating to the design and build are now lost. This presents us with a fascinating historical mystery with a number of possible solutions. I'm a novice when it comes to architectural history but I love a good mystery and I have gathered together some evidence on the suspects/architects. I'll be asking you to vote at the end - or contribute your own theory!

So without further ado I introduce the first suspect. Step forward Sir Balthazar Gerbier! This is a picture of him by William Dobson (Who is also in the painting along with Sir Charles Cotterell). I'm not sure which of them is which though! There is also a painting of Sir Balthazar Gerbier in the National Portrait Gallery in London but I can't reproduce it here without permission so here is the link!

Sir Balt was quite a character. Born in the Low Countries, he was a courtier, diplomat, art advisor, miniaturist and architectural designer, in his own words fluent in "several languages" with "a good hand in writing, skill in sciences as mathematics, architecture, drawing, painting, contriving of scenes, masques, shows and entertainments for great Princes... as likewise for making of engines useful in war." Never knowingly undersold, he claimed to be descended from the Baron Douvilly although records show that his father was a cloth merchant. He was also said to be a spy. He wrote "A brief Discourse concerning the Three Chief Principals of Magnificent Building (1662) and Counsel and Advise to all Builders (1663) in which he made the famous claim that a staircase of a grand house should be wide enough to allow for a "person of consequence" to have two servants, one on each side as he or she ascended or descended, in case they needed anything!

The evidence in favour of him being the architect of Ashdown House: From 1660 he was working on a house for William Craven at Hamstead Marshall near Newbury, fifteen miles away. Summerson's seminal book on architecture suggests that Ashdown contains design flourishes that are very reminiscent of Gerbier's work.

The evidence against: He died in 1662 with the construction of Hamstead Marshall incomplete. The construction of Ashdown only commenced in 1661/1662. Did he have time to design the house?

Next, the favourite! I couldn't find any pics of Captain William Winde so here is a picture of Belton House, one of the houses that he designed. It looks like Ashdown, doesn't it! Yes, William Winde is the favoured candidate for the role of architect of Ashdown. He was William Craven's godson and one time Usher to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia (which reminds me of the bit in Blackadder when he says "nepotism!" as he is clearing his throat!)

The evidence in favour of Winde: See above! Also, he worked with Balthazar Gerbier on Hamstead Marshall and went on to have a distinguished career as a gentleman architect. He had been abroad during the last years of Cromwell's Protectorate, had seen the architectural styles developing in Holland and France and had studied under the French architect Mansart. Ashdown bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Chateau de Balleroy, which Mansart designed.

The evidence against: He would have been a mere 22 years when he designed and built Ashdown. He did his other domestic architectural work later in life.

Next up is John Webb. Webb was a pupil (and nephew) of Inigo Jones and as such received a training in classical architecture which enabled him to pursue a very successful career.

Evidence in favour: The Victoria County History states that Ashdown was "attributed to Webb" in the Dictionary of National Biography but I can't find this reference in the current edition.

Evidence against: Without any further evidence to support Webb's candidature this has to be very tenuous indeed.

The wild card: Sir Roger Pratt. Okay, so this is where the plot thickens, the mystery deepens and I, for one (and possibly I am the only one!), am intrigued.

The evidence for: Pratt was the architect of Coleshill House about 10 miles up the road from Ashdown and built in 1658 - 1662. This is the interior decoration of Coleshill (which burned down in 1952). The interior decoration of Ashdown is pictured below, on the right. The decoration above the doorway in the hall at Ashdown is identical to the one over the door at the stop of the stairs at Coleshill. Whilst it is hardly surprising that there are similarities in style between the work of architects designing at the same time and subject to the same influences, would another architect copy Pratt's design to the extent of reproducing it identically? Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Or is Pratt the architect of Ashdown House?

Evidence for: The striking resemblances between Coleshill and Ashdown, the fact that Pratt finished work on Coleshill roughly at the same time that work on Ashdown was started and the fact that Pratt was working locally to Ashdown.

Evidence against: None of the sources identify Pratt as the architect of Ashdown.

So what do you think? On the basis of the evidence, can we state with any certainty who designed Ashdown House? Or will it always remain a mystery?

Heritage Open Days!

The Heritage Open Days for 2009 run from 10th - 13th September and Ashdown House is proud to be a part of the celebration with free admission on Saturday September 12th. Heritage Open Days celebrate England's fantastic architecture and culture and what better way to do so than to visit this unusual and stunningly beautiful seventeenth century hunting lodge, unique amongst the UK's historic buildings. To coincide with this event I will be posting up a blog about the mystery of Ashdown's architect, some information on the different candidates and the evidence supporting each case. It's a real historical mystery! Read the clues - draw your own conclusions on the vision of the man (or woman!) behind Ashdown's brilliant white facade.

All of us who work at Ashdown are extremely proud that this season has seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to see Ashdown House. We are very happy to share this fascinating house and its history with all our visitors. And as we are currently enjoying such lovely late summer weather in Oxfordshire I should put in a word for the Ashdown estate as well. A walk in the woods is the perfect way to spend a sunny September day. Picnic in the grounds, climb to the top of Weathercock Hill for a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, commune with history at Alfred's Castle Iron Age fort or take a walk up to the four Bronze Age barrows and see the whole of the medieval hunting ground spread out before you. The National Trust's little gem of a house is waiting to welcome everyone!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The richest of the rich

Where did it all go right for the Craven family? It began with the birth in approximately 1548 of a son William, to Beatrix and William Craven in Appletreewick in Yorkshire. William was born in one of two cottages that now form part of the church of St John the Baptist in Appletreewick. He attended a "Dames School" in nearby Burnsall, a place where basic education was provided to the children of poor working families before they themselves were old enough to go out to work. In 1560 William got his big chance when he was chosen to be the new apprentice to Robert Hulson, a Burnsall man who had become a merchant tailor in London.

Based on Craven's later career one can speculate about his rise to riches. He was a clever boy who worked hard and was utterly determined to succeed. After he became a member of the Merchant Tailors' Company in 1569, Craven went into businesss with Hulson and when Hulson died he left his former apprentice £5, “a mourninge gown and my shop at Breedstreete corner of Watling Street with the lytle shoppe and warehowse thereunto adjoining, for a terme of three years.” This bequest was made to William "for failthful and diligent service to me done." He had evidently been a loyal and industrious business partner.

After Hulson's death Craven expanded the business and became a Warden of the Merchant Tailors Company on 4th July 1594. He married late, in 1597, when he was already a man of substance and could look for a wife who was younger but was of equal wealth and stature. Elizabeth Whitmore was the daughter of William Whitmore, another merchant tailor, and her brother George went on to be Lord Mayor of London. Elizabeth and William Craven had six children.

William was by now well on the way to making a fortune and moving up in the fluid social world of the Elizabethan middle class. Opportunities provided by trade gave men such as Craven a route not merely to money but also to influential municipal connections. He was elected Alderman of the Bishopsgate Ward of London in 1600, became Sheriff of London in 1601, was knighted in 1603 and became Lord Mayor of London in 1610. He made his money in the wholesale of cloth for the domestic market, providing, for example, cloth worth almost £600 for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth I. Later on in his career he became a moneylender to the aristocracy, and his debtors included Sir Robert Cecil, the 2nd Earl of Essex and the 9th Earl of Northumberland.
Craven was associated with a number of charitable projects in London and he also became a benefactor to Burnsall and Appletreewick. He paid for renovations to St Wilfrid's Church Burnsall in 1612, furnishing the main body of the church and the chancel with seats and "stalls of wainscot" and he walled the churchyard and had gates added. He paid for a bridge to be built over the River Wharf and had a causeway built from Appletreewick to the church. This was visible until the mid-20th century but is now buried. A rather charming verse was painted onto the church wall to record Craven's generosity:

This church of beauty most, repaired and bright,

Two hundred pouds or more, did cost Sir William Craven, knight,

Many other works of charity whereof no mention here;

True tokens of his bounty in this parish did appear.

His place of his nativity in Appletreewick is seen,

And late of London Lord City Mayor he hath been.

There is a second verse in a similar vein referring to "that bountiful knighte" and his genersoity once again! The total sum Craven spent restoring the church and its grounds was about £600, the equivalent of about £80,000 today.

Craven also built and endowed Burnsall Grammar School in 1605, giving £20 per annum to pay a schoolteacher and £10 for an usher (assistant schoolmaster). The scholars received free education in Latin and English but had to pay one shilling a week for tuition in Maths. The school statutes give a fascinating insight into both Sir William's benevolent paternalism and into the influence which the rest of his family were already exerting in local affairs. All documents relating to the governance of the school were to be kept in a chest in the schoolhouse. The chest had three locks and the three keys were held by the Rector of Burnsall, Sir William and his relatives Robert and Antony Craven. The keys were handed down through the family and the statutes decreed that they should be held by "two men of the name of Craven from the Parish of Burnsall" for as long as there were Craven descendents in the parish.

The school was built on land given by Sir Stephen Tempest, the local squire. The Tempest family had been well-established in the Appletreewick area for three hundred years; it would be interesting to know how they felt about the re-appearance of the newly rich and knighted Sir William Craven in a county where they had always been influential, especially as in 1601 Craven bought the manor house Elm Tree in Appletreeewick, which he re-named High Hall. It was situated opposite the cottage where he had been born. Again this seems a significant statement in Craven's rise to eminence.

When Sir William Craven died in 1618 he left a fortune of £125,000, the equivalent of £5.3 billion in today's values which enable his widow and sons to buy a considerable landed estate and his surviving daughters to marry into the aristocracy.

It was said of the later Cravens that Sir William made all the money and subsequent generations spent it. Whilst this is somewhat unfair, a look at the family tree serves to demonstrate the difference that one "boy-made-good" could make to the future of an entire family. Craven's eldest son William went on to become the first Earl of Craven, a notable soldier and the builder of Ashdown and other grand houses. His second son John became Baron Craven of Ryton. One of his cousins became Master of the Horse to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and another became her usher. Several other Craven nephews and cousins were knighted and married into the aristocracy. Perhaps the most interesting early descendent is Mary Craven who became Lady Andros. As a result of her connection to the first Earl of Craven she gained a place at the court of King Charles II and went on to marry Sir Edmund Andros, gentleman in waiting to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and later one of the early colonial governors of America. Mary died in Boston in 1688. It was a long way from Appletreewick and a graphic illustration of how high the Craven family had risen on the coattails of one man.

References: Dictionary of National Biography, , A Short History of Burnsall School by Stockdale and Townend, Burnsall Church and its Story by M L Dawson.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Herepath

The other day I came across the word "herepath" and didn't know what it meant so being a bit of a geek when it comes to words I looked it up on the internet. As a result I came across the website of the wonderful organisation The Friends of the Ridgeway. This is a great site for anyone interested in the Ridgeway, its natural history, geology, archaeology and history. They have some excellent articles on the legends and literature of the area and whilst I was browsing I came across an entire page on "The Herepath." This turns out to be an Anglo-Saxon term for Army Road and according to the article the greatest military activity near the Ridgeway in historic times was in the Anglo Saxon period because the Romans preferred to build their own army roads and did not use the Ridgeway. Indeed the road that runs from Wantage to Wanborough, along the northern line of the Downs but at a lower altitude than the Ridgeway was originally Roman in origin and called the Portway. This road, unlike the Ridgeway, was built along the spring line so that there was water available to travellers along the route. There was a Roman fort in the field to the south of Ashdown Park (which of course wasn't there at the time!) and a Roman villa was built into the Anglo Saxon site at Alfreds Castle and another only a mile to the west. These were rich lands for Roman agriculture, all part of the timeline stretching from the Bronze Age to the present at Ashdown.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Field of Dreams

To the south of Ashdown Park is a walk that takes you straight back into history. It begins, prosaically enough, in a layby near the water pumping station where you go through a gate into what I call the Field of Dreams. It's a bit like the Secret Garden; on one side you're standing by the road to Lambourn. On the other you're in Deep History.

On your right the remains of the medieval Park Pale of the Ashdown deer park sweep down the hillside, still imposing after hundreds of years. The park pale was erected in the Middle Ages when Ashdown was a hunting chase belonging to Glastonbury Abbey. It consists of a bank and ditch and in places it is still five feet wide and several feet high. Originally there would have been a paling fence on the top too high for a deer to leap.

As you cross the field, the remains of what look like a small camp come into view on your left. Some antiquarian books record this as a Roman fort although I have never been able to discover any details about it or find it on any maps. It's true that there were a number of Roman villas scattered across this part of the Downs, one of which was built into the centre of the Iron Age hillfort at Alfred's Castle. The current road along the Downs beneath the Ridgeway, the Portway, was a Roman Road to the major settlement at Wanborough. So it's possible there might have been a small fort nearby. As is the case with Alfred's Castle, you can see what look like banks and gateways, ditches, entrances and possibly the outline of internal walls.

A little further away across the field is an enormous barrow with a sarsen stone on the top and a ring of what I at first thought were sarsens around the base. On closer inspection they turned out to be tree stumps that looked almost petrified and I wondered if this had once been a site like Waylands Smithy that the Victorians had prettified by adding a ring of trees to complement the rugged beauty of the stones.

As you walk on across the wheat field you have a magnificent view of the park pale ascending the escarpment of Ashdown Upper Wood, a mysterious and ancient woodland with trees up to eight hundred years old and abundant wildlife. The path leads directly to a line of three Bronze Age barrows on the top of the hill. This was a Bronze Age tribal boundary and there are actually four barrows but one of them was sunken and now it is a pool in the winter. As you stand on the top of the hill looking at the sun on the gold dome of Ashdown House you can feel the years roll back. This is a place to come to dream.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Elizabeth of Bohemia and the Gunpowder Plot

In the UK current political climate where the scandal of MPs' expenses claims still rumbles on, newspapers have been drawing parallels with other historic political crises such as the Peasants' Revolt and the Gunpowder Plot. A lot of the comparisons aren't particularly valid - the Gunpowder Plotters, for example, may have planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament but they didn't have the support of the majority of the populace. It did remind me, however, of a connection to Ashdown House - and after all, that is what this blog is all about!

In November 1605, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James VI and I, was nine years old and was living at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire (the house in the picture at the top), an estate which, coincidentally, the Craven family later bought. Lord and Lady Harington, staunch Protestants, had been charged with "the keeping and education" of the young Princess, as was the wont with royal children in those days. At Coombe, Elizabeth was taught amongst other things, French and Italian, music and dancing. King James did not approve of the education of women, stating that: "to make women learned and foxes tame had the same effect - to make them more cunning." However I think we may assume that by most people's standards Elizabeth was well educated.

In November 1605 strange rumours of a plot to overthrow the monarchy were circulating in Warwickshire, which was a stronghold of Catholicism. On 6th November 1605 Lord Harington was warned of a threat to the princess and Elizabeth was taken for her own safety to the city of Coventry, for it was suspected that she might be seized should a rebellion take place. She was lodged in the city with an armed guard. Later, after the gunpowder plotters had been arrested and tortured, it emerged that it had been their intention to kidnap "the person of the Lady Elizabeth, the king's daughter, in Warwickshire, and presently proclaim her queen." The plan had been to seize her from Coombe Abbey and carry her off to Ashby St Legers, the home of Lady Catesby, mother of one of the conspirators.

It is said that when Elizabeth heard of the plot she declared that she would rather have died with her father and brother than become queen under such circumstances. Of course the plot to blow up parliament failed and when Elizabeth did become a queen it was of Bohemia rather than England. How different matters might have been...

We stayed in Elizabeth of Bohemia's apartments at Coombe Abbey, which is now a wonderfully luxurious hotel. I didn't sleep a wink all night for fear (and excitement) of seeing her ghost!! There will be more about Coombe on the blog in future.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Below Stairs - The Life of A Victorian Servant at Ashdown House

During the Victorian period the Craven family occupied Ashdown House on a permanent basis. This was the only time in the history of the house that it became a proper home and the nineteenth century census records give us fascinating details of both the family upstairs and the servants downstairs. This information is taken from a presentation I give about life at Ashdown in the Victorian period.

In fact the servants were not “downstairs” at Ashdown because the house was so small that there was no servant accommodation in the main building. During the Victorian period additional wings were added to the main house to convert it into the sort of dwelling suitable for a Victorian aristocrat and at the same time the servants’ accommodation was extended. The servants also lived in the two lodge houses and some had homes in Ashdown village. Others walked to work each day from Lambourn, Ashbury, Uffington, Idstone and the surrounding villages.

At Ashdown House the census returns for the nineteenth century illustrate beautifully how a Victorian servants hall would run. The upper servants were the steward or butler, the housekeeper, the cook, the senior lady’s maid and senior valet, the head gardener and the coachman. The steward’s room boy waited on them. They did not eat in the servants’ hall but separately in the butler’s pantry. There were two ladies maids, one for the Countess and one for her elder daughters. The ladies maids earned between £12 and £15 per annum. There were also two valets, one for the Earl of Craven and one for his brother. They earned more – naturally.

At Ashdown the butler’s pantry had cupboards for storage and a table for cleaning. The room was at the front of the house and it had a view of the approach to the house so that the butler could see visitors coming and open the door in advance. It was also his job to iron the newspapers in the morning! He was responsible for all indoor male servants except the valets. He was in charge of the silver plate (though it was the footmen who actually cleaned it), the drink and the table linen, and he was also in charge of the safe.

There were three footmen at Ashdown in 1871 plus one steward’s room man. The footmen waited at table at dinner. They also had duties outside including carrying in the coal, they trimmed the lamps and they stood around looking good! Servant tax was higher on taller servants and people often chose matching footmen because they looked elegant in their livery. They attended the family on outings in London such as to the theatre or opera, riding on the back of the carriage to stop children hitching a free ride. Footmen earned £15 - £25 and could also make a considerable sum in tips. At Ashdown we have a collection of footmen’s chairs from the eighteenth century which were designed so that the footman could sit down facing the back of the chair in order not to crush the tailcoat of his livery.

In the 1861 census the Ashdown House cook was male and French. This was extremely fashionable. He had three kitchen maids and one scullery maid to assist him and they worked in the South Lodge where the kitchen, bakery and brewery were situated. Having the kitchens away from the main house was ideal for the family because as well as reducing the fire risk it also kept kitchen smells away from the main house. Various cunning methods were employed to keep the food warm on its journey across the courtyard from kitchen to dining room. The kitchen and scullery maids at Ashdown were all in their teens or early twenties and they helped prepare the food and did the washing up. All the servants worked from 6am to 11pm. By the Victorian era the kitchen at Ashdown was quite advanced with complexes of roasting ranges, closed ranges, stewing stoves, boiling stoves, turnspits, hotplates and hot closets. Food was kept cold in boxes cooled with ice from the icehouse in the village behind the stables. Larders were kept cool by natural ventilation. There was also a specialised game larder at Ashdown because of the importance of shooting on the estate.

The housekeeper was in charge of the housemaids, of which there were three at Ashdown, and one stillroom maid. She was responsible for cleaning the house, looking after the linen, and providing, storing and preparing tea, coffee, sugar, groceries, preserves, cakes and biscuits. Afternoon tea (which was introduced in the 1840s) added to her responsibilities. She had a room of her own, was in charge of the stillroom, and also presided over a storeroom and closet. At Ashdown the housekeeper’s room contained the china cupboards and linen presses but was a parlour as well.

The housemaids were responsible for drawing the blinds and curtains – and closing the internal shutters at Ashdown - for bringing fresh water for washing before breakfast, at noon, before dinner and at bedtime, and for keeping the fires going. In 1850 the housemaids were paid between £11 and £14. They had a half-day off on Sundays, one evening a week free and one day off per month. Not exactly a generous allocation!

The census returns and estate records give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Ashdown servants in the Victorian era. In future pieces I will write more about the outdoor servants and their roles, and also about “Upstairs” – the life led by the Victorian Earls of Craven and their families. If you are interested in the role of Victorian servants drop me a line and I will be very happy to email this complete article to you.

Monday, 11 May 2009

The sale of Ashdown House - Another View

In the last week there have been two articles on the UK national press regarding the sale of the lease of Ashdown House.
One was in The Times. The other was in the Daily Telegraph, complete with pictures of the interior of the house. Now, I'm all for Ashdown Park receiving coverage in the national press. I can think of nothing nicer. Anything that brings more visitors to this stunning National Trust property, to admire the peerless architecture, share the fascinating history and admire the peace and beauty of the countryside has to be a good thing.

Maybe that is why I am so disappointed in the articles I've read because they make no mention of those aspects of Ashdown Park at all. In fact the crucial point - that the house belongs to the National Trust and it is only the lease that is for sale - seems instead to be presented as something of an inconvenience to a potential buyer who might have to tolerate tour groups "straying" (according to the Times) or "parading through the house" according to the Telegraph.

Excuse me? Am I missing something here? Here are the aims of the National Trust, taken directly from their website:

"The National Trust is a charity and is completely independent of Government. We rely for income on membership fees, donations and legacies, and revenue raised from our commercial operations. We now have 3.5 million members and 52,000 volunteers who gave 2.3 million hours in 2007/08. More than 12 million people visit our pay for entry properties, while an estimated 50 million visit our open air properties. We protect and open to the public over 300 historic houses and gardens and 49 industrial monuments and mills. But it doesn’t stop there. We also look after forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, downs, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, castles, nature reserves, villages - for ever, for everyone."

For ever, for everyone. National Trust properties are there to be shared. Visitors are to be welcomed. Those of us who have worked for the National Trust as volunteers at Ashdown House have been doing that for years, making the most of what the house has to offer with energy, enthusiasm, creativity. Wouldn't it be marvellous if the new tenants also shared the Trust's aims and aspirations - and our pleasure in welcoming visitors?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Down in the woods...

Deep in the ancient woodland at Ashdown Park is one of the rarest plants in the country. Herb Paris is not closely related to any other British wildflower and grows in damp spots in limestone soil in old undisturbed woodland areas. Old folklore names for this plant are One Berry (yes, because it has only the one fruit!) and True Love, probably because it can be used as an aphrodisiac!

In olden times Herb Paris was much esteemed and used in medicine, the type of plant that Brother Cadfael would definitely have wanted in his herbarium. It is poisonous, producing nausea, vomiting, vertigo, delirium convulsions, profuse sweating and dry throat and proving fatal to children and, interestingly, poultry (which would swallow it when pecking about free range), according to the ancient herbal books. But in small doses it has been found of benefit in bronchitis, spasmodic coughs and rheumatism. It relieves cramp, colic, and palpitation of the heart and the juice of the berries cures inflammation of the eyes. A cooling ointment is made from the seeds and the juice of the leaves for green wounds and for outward application for tumours and inflammations. The powdered root boiled in wine is given for colic. One or 2 scruples can act as an emetic, and it was even prescribed for madness, so as you can see it is a very versatile medicinal herb. Another use it was originally put to was as an antidote against arsenic poisoning. These days it is still used in homeopathy.

At Ashdown Herb Paris nestles amongst the dog mercury, wood anemones and late primroses, another beautiful reason to go down to the woods today and proof that parts of the hunting chase are very ancient woodland indeed.

Friday, 17 April 2009

King Arthur's Castle?

Although the history of Ashdown Park naturally focuses around the house that stands there today and the Craven family who built and lived in it, there are many other fascinating aspects of both history and legend in the local Ridgeway countryside.

The 200 years following the official withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in 410AD are known as the Dark Ages, the least well documented in the recorded history of the British Isles. The inhabitants of Britain were Romanized to some extent, especially in urban centres but by blood and by tradition they were primarily Celtic. Under the Romans, local chieftains had played an active role in the government of the territory, and some of these leaders took up the reins after the Roman officials were gone. Vortigern, who declared himself Hugh King of Britain in 425AD hired Saxon mercenaries and granted them land in payment for their services. By 440AD the Saxons had rebelled and were demanding more land and territory. Tradition and legend have it that a succession of Romano-British leaders rallied the population against Saxon raids and that one, Arthur, succeeded in defeating them at Mons Badonicus, the Battle of Badon Hill.

Where was Badon Hill? There are no contemporary records about the battle and precious little legend other than that it lasted for three days and nights. The site has been located all over Britain but a strong contender is Baydon, four miles from Ashdown. For a start the clue is in the name. It is an uncommon name – there is no other place in England called Badon or Baydon. But was it called Badon as far back as the 5th century? A medieval reference to it in the Salisbury charters refers to it in the Latin form Beidona and states that the origin of the name derives from Old English “Beg-dun” meaning a down or hill once noted for the berries gathered there. Gildas, writing in the 6th century, also Latinized the name as Mons Badonicus and Bede followed him.

Then there is location. The Saxons controlled the Thames just as the Danes would do five hundred years later when Alfred the Great defeated them at the Battle of Ashdown. The hill-forts that had originated centuries before show archaeological evidence of occupancy in the fifth and sixth centuries, suggesting they were used to evade and hold off the invading Saxon tribes. If the Romano-British forces held the great Ridgeway forts of Uffington Castle and Liddington Hill, then Baydon, on a ridge of high ground between the two would be an ideal place to stand and fight. And the link with Ashdown Park? Just to the west of the park pale, within sight of the house, stands the Iron Age hillfort of Alfred’s Castle. It is equidistant between Uffington and Liddington and it guards the approach to the Ridgeway from the south, beneath the Baydon Ridge.

If Baydon was the site of Arthur’s Battle of Badon Hill, should Alfred’s Castle more properly be re-named Arthur’s Castle?

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Things you CAN do at Ashdown Park!

Ashdown House and Park opened for the 2009 season at the beginning of April and I'm looking forward very much to taking my first tour round on Saturday April 11th. Recently a number of people have siad to me that they had considered visiting Ashdown but decided against it because there wasn't much of the house that was open to the public. This got me thinking - Instead of emphasising all the things you CAN'T do at Ashdown, why not point out all the wonderful things that you CAN do, which all go to prove what a fabulous place it is for a visit. So here goes:

1. You can go on a guided tour of the outside of the house, the hallway, staircase, cupola and roof and hear the story of the Craven family, owners of Ashdown. Trust me, it's worth the tour for the view alone which is said to be the best in three counties. Also if you like dolls houses you have to see Ashdown - lots of dolls houses are modelled on it!

2. You can visit the information centre where there are, amongst other things, interpretation boards for the house and the estate, a costume display, a timeline, a wonderful album of the pictures taken by the pioneering photographer William, 2nd Earl of Craven in the mid-nineteenth century, and lots of knowledgeable guides who can tell you all about the fascinating history of the place.

3. You can view the very fine seventeenth century portrait collection on display in the house, the dreadfully uncomfortable footmens' chairs and... um... the fascinating collection of early carved stag heads!

4. You can stroll in the formal parterre and gardens or wander through the woodlands, which are the remains of the medieval hunting forest. There you may see a huge variety of wildlife - birds of prey and woodland birds, deer, foxes even badgers - and beautiful flowers - primroses and woodland anemones at this time of year, and carpets of bluebells in a few weeks time.

5. You can visit the "lost" village of Ashdown, once a thriving community supporting the estate, where the marvellous Victorian stables still stand on the village green with a very cute weather vane on the top sporting an earl's coronet!

6. You can climb Weathercock Hill and walk along footpaths that take you all over the estate, including past three Bronze Age barrows and along the medieval park pale, originally designed to keep the deer within the hunting grounds. You can also see the Sarsen Field, a site of special scientific interest where there are stones with holes in them that were created by the roots of palm trees... If only we had that sort of weather now!

7. You can visit Alfred's Castle, the Iron Age Hill Fort built on the site of an earlier Roman Villa, reputedly the site of the Battle of Ashdown where King Alfred defeated the Danes in AD 871. Some very friendly horses live there!

8. Nearby on the ancient Ridgeway is Wayland's Smithy, an impressive neolithic burial chamber and Uffington Castle, White Horse Hill and Dragon Hill where Saint George, the patron saint of England, allegedly slew the dragon. No grass has grown where the dragon's blood fell ever since. Local legend also states that on the full moon the horse comes down off the hill to graze in the valley below...

9. You can follow the Michael and Mary Ley Line which passes through Ashdown, making it part of the mystical landscape.

10. When you've done all that you can go to the Rose and Crown Inn in the historic village of Ashbury for a delicious cream tea!!

Oh, and don't believe the National Trust handbook when it says there are no WC facilities at Ashdown House - there are!! Now, you have to admit that sounds like a very nice day out, doesn't it!