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!