Saturday, 22 December 2012

Season's Greetings from Ashdown House

Very best wishes for a Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year from the Ashdown House Blog!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Lost Prince National Portrait Gallery Exhibition

Last week I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London to see the exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life and death of Henry Stuart. Henry was the eldest son of King James VI and I and the elder brother of Elizabeth of Bohemia, and he died tragically young at only eighteen years old. The exhibition was fascinating on several levels, not only for the light it threw on Henry's life and the wider context of the early Jacobean court but also for the links to Elizabeth.

This exhibition celebrates Henry’s life, his interests, influences, and his place in the wider world. It is a glorious display of art and artefacts from the early 17th century. From the letters Henry wrote to his parents as a child to the highly-decorated armour he wore, the exhibition splendidly illuminates 17th century life in the court of the young heir to the throne. There are full length portraits and tiny miniatures. There is even the wooden effigy that was made to lie on top of Prince Henry’s  coffin, now missing the head and hands, which had been modelled in wax.  The exhibition is sumptuous in its reflection of the riches of the Jacobean court but it is also tragic. It was fascinating to see the expectations that had been riding on Prince Henry and the way in which his public image as a heroic, martial ruler was being built. It was also moving to see the genuine grief that erupted on his death, from the devastation felt by his family to the outpouring of grief on the streets to see the brightest star of the next generation go out: “Our Rising Sun Is Set.”

There was a lot of interesting information on Elizabeth as well and the exhibition provided a wonderful insight into her relationship with her brother. The first portrait of Elizabeth on display was the full length one of her painted by Robert Peake the elder when she was seven years old. Peake was a favourite portraitist of the royal children. The picture was commissioned by John, 1st Baron Harington of Exton, in whose household at Coombe Abbey Elizabeth grew up until the age of 12.  Harington's son, Sir John Harington, was a close friend of Prince Henry and there is a matching painting of Henry and John with a similar background. This depicts a hunting scene and could have been painted with Coombe as background.

John Harington's role in Henry's life was also very curious. It was a period when young men were expected to travel  to complete their education (similar to the Grand Tour of the 18th century.) Foreign travel was, however, dangerous to the health.  William Craven's youngest brother died on such a foreign tour in 1636. So John Harington travelled on Henry's behalf since it was too risky for the heir to the throne to go abroad and he sent back detailed reports of the places he visited. Like Henry, Harington died young, aged only 23, his promise unfulfilled. A print of him in the exhibition shows him holding a baton, the symbol of military command.  Contemporaries considered him the very epitome of a virtuous Protestant knight.

There was also a portrait of Henry on display that had been part of the Craven Collection until it was sold off in 1966.  This had been commissioned by or given to Elizabeth of Bohemia. This really did make me speculate on the relationship between Elizabeth and William Craven (again!) A portrait collection was considered a very personal possession - Charles I inherited most of the art collection that had belonged to his mother and his brother, for example - so for Elizabeth to bequeath her collection to William Craven was, I think, most significant. 

Amongst the other portraits was a dazzling miniature of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, Elizabeth's husband, and a stunning sea piece depicting the departure of Elizabeth and Frederick for the Netherlands after their wedding.  Prince Henry was a great supporter of the marriage between Elizabeth and Frederick even though his mother was not, and he was planning much of the entertainments and celebrations for the wedding when he died. He and Elizabeth were close; they wrote affectionate letters to one another in their youth and after Elizabeth came to court at the age of 12 they spent much time in each other's company and had a genuine bond. This was demonstrated when Henry died. His last coherent words were to ask for his sister. After he died she did not eat for two days and cried ceaselessly. The other portrait of Elizabeth in the exhibition was painted in 1613, shortly before Elizabeth's marriage and just after Henry's death. In it Elizabeth wears a black arm band on the sleeve of her gorgeously-decorated gown and also an elaborate black locket containing an image of her dead brother. Elizabeth and Frederick's son and heir was named Frederick Henry for her brother and the poet Henry Peachum wrote the poem "Prince Henrie revived" to commemorate the birth. It was clear that there were hopes that Prince Henry's intelligent and courageous spirit would live on in his nephew.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Ashdown Park Farmhouse

We are at the letter "F" in the A - Z of Ashdown and today I am blogging about Ashdown Park farmhouse, which is situated in Ashdown village, on the green. There are records that state that the farmhouse originally had a date stone over the door with the date inscription of 1617. I'm not sure whether the blank stone that is there now is new or whether the inscription was destroyed. Either way it is a pity that the original carving no longer remains.

I used to assume that date stones such as these marked the year of building but apparently that is not always the case. At Ashbury Upper Mill, for example, there is a date stone in the wall from 1792, which was not the year of build but marked the year when the building underwent major restoration. If the same is true of Ashdown Park farmhouse this makes sense of the suggestion that the building has an earlier, medieval core. The Ashbury estate came into the Craven family in 1625 so the renovation of the farm earlier in the century took place when the estate still belonged to the Essex family.

A lot of additional work was done to the farmhouse in the 18th century when it was extended. Many of the features, including the windows, are late 18th century. I think it's a beautiful building in a lovely position on the village green.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Exhibition

The letter "E" in the A - Z of Ashdown represents Elizabeth of Bohemia, her eldest daughter Princess Elizabeth Palatine and also a number of members of the Craven family whose names began with the letter E. Today, though, I am blogging about the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which is entitled "The Lost Prince: The Life and death of Henry Stuart." There is a link here.

Henry, eldest son of King James I and VI, was the elder brother of Elizabeth of Bohemia. He was said to embody all the princely virtues and his death from typhoid at the age of eighteen caused widespread mourning and led to the accession of his younger brother Charles instead. The exhibition explores Henry's life and the reaction to his death. Amongst the paintings and artefacts on display are some featuring Elizabeth and the whole exhibition gives an insight into the Jacobean court. A must for all fans of the period!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

In the style of Downton Abbey!

We have reached the letter D in the A - Z of Ashdown House. D is for a number of things relating to the history of Ashdown; there are the deer, for a start, since Ashdown Park or Aysshen Park as it was known then was originally a medieval deer park belonging to Glastonbury Abbey. Then there is the rather intriguing dew pond that used to exist by the coaching stables but has dried up now. And there is William Dobson, whose magnificent portrait of Prince Rupert, Colonel Murray and Colonel Russell hangs on the second landing. Oh, and it features a dog, and I have blogged previously about Boye, Prince Rupert's most famous dog.

Today what caught our eye for the letter D was a link to Downton Abbey. Fans of the programme may have seen this gorgeous house on the right, which is Sir Anthony Strallan's home in the series. It is Hall Barn in Beaconsfield, in the 17th century the home of Edmund Waller, the Poet Laureate and Royalist. The house was built before 1675 and is surrounded by 17th and early 18th century pleasure grounds, park and woodland. Waller was banished abroad for a time and travelled widely in France and Italy.

Like Lord Craven at Ashdown, Waller brought back ideas of the continental style of architecture and this is evident in the style of his "new" house at Beaconsfield, which is contemporaneous with Ashdown. The architectural similarities between the two houses are very striking. Call us biased, but we think that these two are amongst the most gorgeous houses around!

Friday, 28 September 2012

Ashdown House in Views Magazine

Interrupting the A - Z of Ashdown to bring you the news that Ashdown House is featured in the current edition of the National Trust's magazine for heritage and conservation staff, Views. The theme of the edition is sport and recreation and the article gives an insight into the connections between Ashdown, the Craven family and the sport of flat racing. You can read it here, on the National Trust website, and also check out the other fascinating articles in the current and previous editions of the magazine.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Craven Chapel at Ashbury Church

When it comes to the letter "C" I admit that I am once again spoiled for choice on Ashdown related topics. There is Craven in Yorkshire, where the Craven family originated. There is the family itself. There is Coombe Abbey, the family seat in Warwickshire. There is the Ashdown cricket team, the chapel, Carpenter, Lord Craven's horse, the chalk out of which the house is built, the cupola on the roof, Princess Charlotte, daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, and King Charles II, Elizabeth's nephew... It seems to me that I will have to return to a number of "C" topics! But for now "C" is for the Craven Chapel at Ashbury Church.

The first church at Ashbury was built for the Abbot of Glastonbury sometime before AD 947 when it is mentioned in the abbey chronicles. A number of monks from Glastonbury lived at Ashbury when it was a monastic grange and the manor house in the village dates from Glastonbury tenure. Subsequent to the Saxon church a Norman one was built on the same site. The earliest parts of the current church date from the 12th century. Local legend has it that there was a prehistoric stone circle in the field behind the church and that some of these sarsen stones now form the bank between the churchyard and the old holloway to the south.

In 1926 the chapel in the North Transept was furnished as a memorial to Evelyn, Dowager Countess of Craven, widow of the 3rd Earl of the 2nd Creation and the last member of the Craven family to live at Ashdown House. It is said that the Countess would ride over the Downs from Ashdown on the path that leads directly from the church to the house and would enter via the old Norman door in the south wall.

The chapel is dedicated to St Hubert, Bishop of Liege, who died in 727 and is the patron saint of hunters. The stained glass window is based on a print by Albrecht Durer and shows a scene from Hubert's life. Also inside the chapel are delicate and beautiful pieces of lacework worn by Evelyn Craven at her wedding. A tablet on the wall records all those who contributed to the memorial, including Evelyn Craven's daughter-in-law Cornelia Craven, her sister Lady Haldon and niece the Honourable Florence Palk and her sister-in-law Lady Emily Van de Weyer. Possibly the most interesting name on the list was that of the People's Refreshment House, an association started in 1896 by the Temperance Movement to encourage the serving of soft drinks in inns and public houses. I wondered whether the Rose and Crown in Ashbury had at the time been managed by the People's Refreshment House, as many pubs on estates were. Also fascinating is a list of the eighteen members of the Ashdown House chapel choir at the time of Evelyn Craven's death in November 1924.

Outside the chapel in the main body of the church are two stained glass windows that were apparently taken from the chapel at Ashdown. One of these windows is dedicated to the memory of George Grimston Craven and dates from the late 19th century (George Grimston Craven died in 1883). The other window, more mysteriously, is said to be 15th century. If this came from Ashdown chapel it would be fascinating to know where it was originally, before the chapel was built.

The Church of St Mary's in Ashbury has a wonderful timeless and peaceful quality about it that one finds in country churches that have been standing for hundreds of years on the spot where other places of worship stood for thousands of years. Evelyn, Countess of Craven, a local girl from Shrivenham originally, is part of that fabric of history. As far as I know no member of the Craven family was buried at Ashbury so it is even more special to have the little chapel dedicated in the Dowager Countess's name.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Bronze Age Barrows and Balleroy Ponies

We're on B in the A - Z of Ashdown! B is for all sorts of Ashdown-related topics: The 1000 year old badger sett in the woods which is mentioned in the records of the medieval hunting chase, the rare and not so rare butterflies that fill Ashdown's glades in the summer months and the variety of birds that nest in the trees there.

There is also the beer. South Lodge, as well as containing the kitchens for the main house, was also the brewery. At a time when water was not safe to drink, beer was the staple beverage for men, women and children ( a low-alcohol version, small beer, was served to children.) The beer brewed at Ashdown was so good that the Cravens sent a carriage every week from Hamstead Marshall to fetch their supply.

 Also on B we have the Bronze Age barrows that can be seen on the line of the hill to the south west of the house. There are three round barrows visible on the skyline but also a pond barrow which is only visible on the ground as a depression sometimes filled with water. It is said that these barrows mark a Bronze Age territorial boundary. Certainly they are situated so as to be in clear sight from miles around.

And finally B is for the Balleroy Highland ponies. Balleroy is the name of the chateau in Normandy which is said to have inspired the design of Ashdown House. William Winde, Ashdown's most probable architect, was a pupil of the French architect Mansart who designed Balleroy in 1626. The stud that is now based in Ashdown village breeds handsome Balleroy highland ponies with a very sweet temperament!

Friday, 31 August 2012

The A-Z of Ashdown

Today we are starting a new feature on the blog, an A-Z of Ashdown covering various aspects historical, geographical, mythical and others that defy categorisation! I did consider doing a reverse alphabet and starting with Z but I think there will probably be a few letters we'll be scraping around to find topics for and Z is probably one of them. So I'll start with A, which has a number of potential Ashdown-related topics.

First there is Ashdown - the physical location, the "down covered in ash trees" which features in the Anglo-Saxon records as the generic name for the entire line of the Downs. This was the site of the Battle of Ashdown and local tradition places the battle on the land between Alfred's Castle and the Bronze Age Barrows to the south (more of them when we get to B!)

Then there is Ashdown House itself and Alfred's Castle, the Iron Age settlement. There is also the historic village of Ashbury, of which Ashdown became the "big house" in 1662. Ashbury has its own 15th century manor house, an ancient church, parts of which go back to the Norman period, and lots of other interesting historical features. It definitely deserves a blog piece.

There is also the airfield. During the Second World War there was an airfield to the north of the Mile Drive, by Red Barn Cottages. It ran east to west and there is still a gap in the trees where it cut through that is visible from the path that runs down from the Ridgeway to Red Barn. Parts of the old metal
interlocking landing strip can apparently be seen in the garden of Old Forge in Ashbury. British, American and Canadian troops were stationed at Ashdown (more on them when we reach W!) and they flew Spitfires and Mustangs out of the airfield (this is attested to by the paintings of Spitfires and Mustangs that were found on the walls of the drawing room after the troops had left. There was also a lifesize painting of Rita Hayworth!) There was a canteen at Red Barn and some of the crockery is still being dug up out of the fields whenever they are ploughed.

Local people remember two plane crashes at Ashdown. The first was a Mustang that caught fire as it was coming in to land. The second was when a plane that was landing at the airfield collided with a motorcyclist on the B4000. There are various memories of the Second World War recorded as part of the Ashbury Living History Project. We don't have much written information on the role of the Ashdown airfield so if anyone knows anything of Ashdown's wartime history, please get in touch!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Keith Blaxhall

Today on the blog we would like to commemorate Keith Blaxhall, who died last Saturday. Keith was Head Warden at Ashdown House for many years, loved the estate deeply and always spoke of what a very special place it is. He was hugely knowledgeable about all aspects of Ashdown and was always generous in sharing his knowledge and expertise with others. I know many colleagues and friends will have their own special memories of Keith. I will always appreciate the time he took to encourage my writing about Ashdown and make available to me all the papers and documents he had on the history of the house and the estate. We had many chats about different aspects of the estate's history, from Bronze age archaeology to the Second World War airfield. He showed me the holloways running through the woods and where the rare Herb Paris grows.

Keith was also very active in the Coleshill Auxilliary Research Team and in their tribute to him they write: "He leaves a wife and family and a huge void in the hearts of local historians." A beautiful summary of Keith's contribution and the impact of his loss. Thank you, Keith.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Last Phase of the Conservation Project

Ashdown House is now closed until August 24th for the final phase of the conservation project, which involves the dismantling of the scaffolding and the decoration of the interior. The house will be open on Saturday 25th August although the portrait collection will not be back in place until September nor will the roof platform be open. It's been a long and complicated project but it has also been a fascinating one, revealing so much about the house and its history. We are very excited that the fully restored Ashdown House is about to be revealed!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Kreative Blogger Award

Thank you to Mrs Black’s This ‘n That for awarding the Ashdown House Blog the Kreative Blogger Award! We are all very honoured. Look out for a black cat on your visits to Ashdown as Minerva the shoppe keeping cat can sometimes be seen strolling around the grounds. We love her eclectic blog!

Upon acceptance of such award it is traditional that the recipients carry out the following instruction. We are to share with you 10 things you may not have previously known about us, and to recommend 10 blogs that are worthy of the Kreative Award.

So here are ten things you may or may not already know about Ashdown House:

Elizabeth of Bohemia never saw Ashdown, the house William Craven built for her, because she died before it was completed. However her son, the dashing Prince Rupert of the Rhine did visit the house, as did his equally dashing cousin King Charles II.

The entwined initials of William Craven and Elizabeth were carved onto the original gateposts at Ashdown.

The house has a box parterre garden because this was considered a “masculine” garden design to complement the hunting lodge which was considered to be a “masculine” building.

There is said to be a secret passageway cut through the chalk connecting Ashdown to the manor house at Russley Down several miles away.

At the beginning of the 18th century Ashdown was used by Jacobites plotting the restoration of the Catholic succession.

There was an icehouse at Ashdown. There's a blog piece about it here. There may not be much of it left now but it was a jolly interesting building in its time!

The weathervane on the roof of the Victorian stables is original and features a coach and horses and also sports an earl’s coronet!

The Craven state coach was painted gold with a blue velvet interior and was even more elaborate than that belonging to Queen Victoria. It is now housed in the Carriage Museum at Arlington Court which is well worth a visit.

Ashdown is haunted by the ghost of stable lad and by the sound of a baby crying in the woods. Some of us have heard the crying and also seen shadowy figures and candlelight behind the shuttered windows of the house. Over the years there have been several other ghostly sightings as well.

There is only one staircase at Ashdown and no servants’ stair. The staircase turns in an anti-clockwise direction to allow a right-handed swordsman the advantage when fighting down the stair.

10 blogs we recommend:

There are so many wonderful blogs out there and we already feature some we follow on our sidebar. Here we’ve chosen a few that represent the different aspects of our interests at Ashdown, including history and natural history.

Number 1 London - The best address in London! A blog with an interest in England past and present.

The Purple Empire - All about butterflies from the National Trust expert, Matthew Oates.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory The blog of the world famous bird observatory on the wild and beautiful island of Fair Isle. 

Hoydens and Firebrands - Various fascinating aspects of 17th century history.

Status, Scandal and Subterfuge - Frances Bevan writes about the history of the St John family and their mansion Lydiard Park. Not only did the St John and Craven family intermarry, the St Johns were also involved in the Jacobite plotting of the 18th century (see above!) 

Two Nerdy History Girls - Two great historical authors who consistently reveal extraordinary and fascinating facts about many different aspects of history.

Untold Lives - The British Library sharing stories from the past.

Puppy with a Purpose - We have to confess to a vested interest here. Puppy with a Purpose is the blog of our very own guide dog puppy in training, Rochester, and is all about his experiences as he learns to be a fully qualified Guide Dog. Rochester is sponsored by Swindon Guide Dogs and pays lots of visits to Ashdown, enjoying running in the woods in his time off duty!

 Jane Austen's World - Bringing Jane Austen, her books and the Regency period alive. We are very proud of the Craven/Austen connection here at Ashdown House!

Georgian London - Fascinating and fabulous!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Ancient Trees of Ashdown

There are many old trees in the woodland at Ashdown Park and two that The Woodland Trust has identified  as being officially "ancient.". There is no precise definition of an ancient tree but there are some guiding factors: They are trees of interest biologically, aesthetically or culturally because of their age, they are trees that are in the ancient stage of their life, and they are trees that are old relative to others of the same species. Trees grow at different rates and so a 100 year old willow or birch tree would be ancient whilst a 200 year old beech would be only just starting to age, a 200 year old oak would be beginning to mature and a 200 year old yew would be very young!

At Ashdown our two ancient trees are both beeches. One has a girth of 4.96 metres, the other a girth of 5.15 metres. It's difficult to assess the age of a beech on the basis of girth alone but both of these trees are several centuries old and may well have been standing when the house was built 350 years ago. Accordingly, as a tribute to Ashdown's anniversary this year, we have unofficially named them the Elizabeth Beech and the William Beech. Elizabeth stands on the back boundary of Hailey Wood. William stands at the back of Upper Wood. Both stand beside the medieval Park Pale. According to the Woodland Trust this is no co-incidence; many of the surviving ancient trees in the UK stand in what were once Royal hunting forests and medieval deer parks. It's wonderful that at Ashdown we have this link with the early history of the estate.

The Ashdown Park Pale was built in 1204 when the Ashbury estate belonged to Glastonbury Abbey and Ashdown was a hunting forest. Park pales consisted of a bank and ditch with a wooden palisade, or fence, 
on the top. They were designed to let the deer in through gaps in the pale called deer leaps, but once inside the emparkment the deer could not get out again. At Ashdown the entire existing wood was emparked.  Changes to the estate and the parkland during the 18th and 19th centuries have altered the appearance of the landscape, and the park pale that surrounded Middle and Hailey Woods has mostly been either ploughed out of the fields, demolished or worn away, although the later ha-ha is still visible. 

However to the south of the sarsen field and most particularly around Upper Wood, the park pale is still a magnificent earthwork rising up to 9 metres high on the escarpment of the hill. The photograph above shows the remains of the park pale where it intersects with the Lambourn road to the south of the estate. There is a footpath that runs up the back of Upper Wood (where the William Beech stands) and around the top of the park pale and from this vantage point you get a superb view of the surrounding landscape. You can also see what a huge embankment the park pale originally was.

There is one other verified ancient tree at Ashdown that is currently not on the map. A couple of years ago English Nature paid Ashdown a visit to assess the elm avenues. In the course of their work they also discovered an oak tree on the edge of Upper Wood. Measurements taken showed that this oak was old enough to be part of the original 13th century hunting forest. In honour of its ancient status and the connection to Glastonbury Abbey this has therefore been named the Glastonbury Oak. We are very proud to have ancient trees at Ashdown. They are living relics that inspire awe and mystery and have helped to shape our history.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Caversham Park - A King's Prison

On Monday I had the great pleasure of talking about Ashdown House on BBC Radio Berkshire’s History Hour. It was wonderful to be invited and I hope it brings in some more visitors to see “our” special house. Ashdown gets so little publicity and is such a jewel – it deserves to be more widely known!

Visiting Caversham Park for the interview was in itself a treat because it was one of the Craven estates that I had not previously seen. The parallels with Ashdown are striking. Both can trace their origins back pre-Conquest and both were established as hunting chases in the 13th century. During the medieval period one of Caversham’s most famous owners was William Marshal, a close advisor to both King Richard I and King John, who rose to become regent for Henry III. William Marshal was the embodiment of the chivalric ideal and a celebrated knight. Arguably there are parallels there with William Craven five hundred years later.

The Craven family acquired Caversham Park in the early 17th century as part of their extensive investment in land. By 1643 it had been sequestered by the parliament along with all of William Craven’s other estates apart from Coombe Abbey. King Charles I was imprisoned at Caversham in July of that year. As at Ashdown, trees on the estate were felled to build Cromwell’s Navy. The Elizabethan manor house and the estate suffered much damage during this period but when William Craven regained his lands in 1660 he rebuilt Caversham Park, probably with William Winde as the architect. By 1689 it was the sixth largest house in Oxfordshire. (Like Ashdown, Caversham has moved county!) It was sold on Craven’s death in 1697 and came into the Cadogan family.

The terrace at the front of the house dates from the Georgian period when Capability Brown landscaped the grounds. The current mansion, however, dates from the 1850s. I was allowed a special peek into the grand Victorian reception rooms on the ground floor. The atrium, (pictured above) which was once the entrance to the stables, is particularly impressive.

I’m looking forward to doing more research into Caversham Park during the period of Craven ownership so if anyone has any information, please get in touch!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ashdown in the Media!

On Monday 2nd July at 2.00pm the fascinating story of Ashdown House will be featured on BBC Berkshire's History Hour! BBC Berkshire is situated at Caversham Park which by a happy chance was once one of the First Earl of Craven's estates. It was confiscated during the English Civil War and Charles I was imprisoned there.

There will be a report on the show and on Caversham Park itself here on the blog next week. Meanwhile over on Twitter we are posting up regular photographs of Ashdown, the house, the woods and the estate, showing all the unusual aspects of the house and its history not always visible to the visitor.

The picture above is of the Coleshill frieze, a collection of the gilded plasterwork decoration from Coleshill House that is normally on display in the hall at Ashdown. Coleshill, built 10 years before Ashdown, will be another fascinating topic for a future blog piece. The plasterwork gives an idea of the type of glorious design that would once have graced both houses.

Follow us on Twitter at @AshdownHouseNT!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Diamond Jubilee Beacons

On the night of Monday 4th June four thousand beacons will be lit across the UK to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Locally, there will be a beacon lit at the top of Ashbury Coombe at 10pm and another at White Horse Hill.

The lighting of beacons across the UK has a history spanning centuries. Used in the past as a means of communication and warning in times of war, the beacon chain has also become a sign of unity and celebration.

The records of the Ashbury estate make reference to the beacon built in 1588 to warn of the coming of the Spanish Armada. In those days there was an Armada beacon on Alfred's Castle hillfort, one in a long line stretching along the Ridgeway and south to the coast. In those days the men responsible for watching and waiting and for lighting the beacon if necessary lived at Red Barn. Although Red Barn Cottages have been demolished now they were occupied into the 20th century and for many years housed the gamekeepers who worked on the Ashdown estate, in particular the Jones family.

It is inspiring to think of the history of beacons along the Ridgeway, no doubt stretching back thoousands of years, and the way that the celebration on Monday night connects us to the past.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Creation of the Ashdown Estate

Ashdown makes its first appearance in written history in a charter of 947AD. This document, held in the records of Glastonbury Abbey, shows a grant of land by King Eadred of the West Saxons in "Ayssehudun" to one of his thanes, Edric.

How good is your Anglo-Saxon? I must admit I struggled a bit with this having not studied the language since I was at university, but it makes fascinating reading and when you read it in conjunction with an Ordnance Survey map you can still recognise - or hazard an informed guess - as to where some of these places are (Although I imagine such poetic descriptions as "Bucca's Pool and Lippa's tree stump are, sadly, lost forever). So here is the Anglo Saxon description of the boundaries of the 947AD estate of "Ashdown":

"Erest of Buckansticke (tree trunk) west on Buckanmer’ (Bucca’s pool-possibly on Frognam Down, Lambourn Corner) to þan Ruancrundele (Rough chalkpit) þanon mide ward Burnestowe (?bathing place) to þan stone þanen west endlangsmalweyes (along the narrow way) on þare crundel (chalkpit) bi est þa Ertheburgh’ (east of the earthwork - though this may be an error for ‘west’) and so north on rizt to Hordenstone, þane to elden berwe (old barrow)and so endlangdiches (along the ditch) north to þan Whytestone, þan to Stanberwe (stone barrow) þare, þanen to þe litel berwe (little tumulus) þanen endelangmeres (along the boundary) to Middildych (middleditch) þanen north to rizt weye on þan ston on midderiztweyes (north to the Ridge way to the stone in the middle of the Ridge way) an so to Loppancomb’ (the upper part of Loppa’s valley) þar, forth endlangfurth (furrow) on rizt to Merewelle (boundary stream-just north of Icknield way) endlangstremes to Folanruwers (uncertain) over þan ridde (possibly ‘clearing’) to þan stone whytoute þar Irwelond’ (stone outside the ploughed land) þar forth to þan beche (stream valley) þan to Piwanmer’ (uncertain) of Piwanmer on Lippanstubbe (Lippa’s tree stump) þar on Kinggesdych (King’s Ditch) endlangdych to Melanbrok’ (mill stream-probably the mylen broc flowing through Shrivenham) of Melanbrok’ on Lortanbrock (Lorta’s brook, probably connected with Lertwell) þanen on Lortanberwe (Lorta’s hill or tumulus), so up endlangfurtz (along the furrow) to Mereberwe (boundary hill or tumulus), þanen out to þan wydem yate (wide gate) of þan zate to þan horestonford (boundary stone ) to Rammesbury (raven’s camp-likely to be on Weathercock Hill) yate, of Rammesbury so forth endlangweyes to Buckanstick’.

(This is adapted from Margaret Gelling’s description in The Place Names of Berkshire.)

My interpretation of  the estate is that it starts near Lambourn Corner, south of Ashdown House, on the Ashbury to Lambourn B road. I visualise it running along the footpath that heads west towards Botley Copse before turning north and running up to the Ridgeway passing Alfred's Castle on the right. Crossing the Ridgeway it comes down to the Roman road, crosses that too and turns east at Lertwell, where there is the "pest house." It skirts the northern edge of the village of Ashbury, running along the King's Ditch which I think is the point where the modern road turns sharp right as you drive north out of Ashbury towards Shrivenham. By the mill on the Melanbrook in what is now Kingston Winslow it turns south again and heads  back up to the Ridgeway, continuing south along the top of Weathercock Hill and back to the tree trunk at Lambourn Corner. I'd be thrilled to hear from anyone local who has their own interpretation of where the boundary might run.

This description places "Rammesbury" the "Raven's Fort" where King Alfred's Battle of Ashdown was said to have taken place in 871AD at Weathercock Hill, where there are still ravens to this day.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Open for Visitors!

Today I had the thrilling experience of taking the scaffolding tour to see the conservation work that is taking place on Ashdown House. I urge everyone (assuming that you are not on another continent or afraid of heights!) to come to Ashdown and take this tour while you can because it is an amazing experience! The tour first ascends three flights to look at the replacement of the chalk stone blocks on the walls. Visitors are then taken up to the viewing platform above the roof. At this stage you are four storeys up and on a level with Ashdown's flat roof and cupola, the top of which is currently suspended to allow work on it to take place. This part of the tour has a lot of "wow" factor! From here you can see the replacement of the Cotswold slate roof, the work that is taking place on the flat roof and the cupola, and the massive leaning chimneys of Ashdown. You can also look out through specially appointed "windows" to view the surrounding countryside.

The house itself is also open, albeit without our fine portrait collection whilst the conservation work is ongoing. Tours of the house and gardens will be taking place as well as the scaffolding tour, and the Information Centre has a new display.

Practical arrangements: Ashdown House is open on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons from 2pm to 5pm. First opening day is Wednesday 4th April. The woodlands are open every day except Fridays. Scaffolding tours take place on Wednesdays only, the first tour starting at 2.15pm. Places are limited, so please be prompt. For safety reasons no under 18s can take the scaffolding tour and no people in inappropriate footwear. Sensible shoes and boots, please!

We hope that you enjoy visiting the house and seeing it not only in its 350th anniversary year but at a time in its history when so much exciting work is taking place.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


The horse in this fine painting is Carpenter, a hunter belonging to the second Lord Craven (1668 - 1711). Carpenter, a grey, was said to be William Craven's favourite horse. He is pictured here against a backdrop that could well be the Lambourn Downs close to Ashdown. The picture was part of the Craven Collection until sold in the 1980s.

Carpenter was painted in 1701 by Robert Byng, a pupil of Sir Godfrey Kneller. Byng also painted a portrait of Craven's two sons William and Fulwar, both of whom went on to inherit the Craven barony. Not much is known about the second Baron Craven, the grandson of a cousin of the first Earl. He was 29 when he succeeded to the Craven estates and to the barony but not the earldom. His main seat was at Combe Abbey and according to Penelope Stokes' invaluable book "Craven Country" a contemporary described him as "fat and fair, fond of field sports and the bottle." He was a typical Tory squire of his day. He married Elizabeth Skipwith, sister of Sir Fulwar Skipwith of Newbold Hall, another Warwickshire landowner. She died in childbirth. William held the traditional offices of High Steward of Newbury and Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire.

William commissioned a survey of all his estates, of which there were twenty six (!) listing the tenants and their leases. At this time the Uffington estate, of which Ashdown was the big house, was one of the largest of his holdings.

In the painting, Carpenter is held by Lord Craven's black page. It seems likely that Lord Craven, who was a Lord Proprietor of Carolina, brought some of his household slaves to Britain to work as servants. From the late 17th century a black page was a fashionable accessory in many aristocratic households. At the end of the 18th century the First Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation is recorded as having at least one male black servant working at Hamstead Marshall.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Treasure in the Attic

With the conservation work at Ashdown moving into it's spring phase it was time for a group of us to meet up with the National Trust's regional archaeologist Gary to have a look at the finds from the work in the roof. Disappointingly for those of us who were not-so-secretly hoping to find some Charles II gold half-guineas or a pearl necklace belonging to Elizabeth of Bohemia, there was nothing quite so exciting. In fact the process was rather like sorting through a collection of filthy hoover bags on a windy day. Here John models the latest in all-weather archaeological finds sorting gear!

So the finds were not dramatic but they were instructive in terms of the building of the house. There were plenty of bits of 17th century lath and plaster wall with some splendid examples of 17th century handmade nails. There were some beautiful roof tiles with the original wooden pegs in them and one small piece of glass from the original cupola.

The guys from the current renovation project came over for a look and were particularly impressed by the broken tea cup left by workmen in the 1920s. There were newspapers and cigarette packets from the 1980s including a packet of Embassy slim panatellas. A lot of smoking seemed to have been going on near the 17th century wooden roof beams! There was also a rook's nest, a dead rat and a dead bat. Treasure indeed.

The most mysterious find was a series of little handwritten labels with words such as "curialis" and "resttecouche" on them. Also the name Maisey. Any help with the interpretation of these would be most welcome.

Elsewhere the work is providing a fascinating insight into the original structure and build of the house. Evidence has been found of the dormer windows that feature in the Kyp engraving of Ashdown from the early 18th century. The cupola has revealed secrets of it's original design, with moulded timbers and sixteen panels, some of glass others trompe oeil. Much more on these discoveries on the blog later. And here is a picture of our favourite find so far: Details of the 1927 Derby chalked onto a roof beam, maintaining the Ashdown tradition of a keen interest in racing.

Friday, 6 January 2012


When Capability Brown landscaped the grounds around Ashdown House in the 1770s one thing he could not introduce was a water feature. Until Ashdown was connected to mains water in the 1940s the only fresh water supply was from the wells derived from springs on the estate. There was also a "dew pond" by the old stables and a dip in the field shows the spot where this used to be.

The villages along the Portway, the old Roman road from Wanborough to Wantage, grew up along the spring line. This is where the water that had percolated through the chalk came out, forming streams and springs. At Upper Mill in Kingston Winslow they dammed the stream to power both the upper and lower mills. There was a spring in the garden of one of the cottages that was used by the entire village. In Ashbury the springs fed the watercress beds below the Manor.

Higher up along the Ridgeway there has never been a water source which was one of the reasons that the Romans preferred the lower route. At Lambourn, site of one of King Alfred's palaces, there is a "winter bourn" a river that is supposed to be seasonal, flowing in the winter and drying up in the summer. Its source is in the woodlands and it derives from a series of springs. The water falling on the Downs takes three months to work its way through the chalk and emerge as a river. It's water is beautifully clear.