Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Is The White Horse Really a Dragon?

To celebrate St George's Day I am posting up an updated blog piece from a couple of years ago. I hope you enjoy it!

Dragon Hill near Uffington in Oxfordshire is in local folklore the place where St George, the patron saint of England (and many other countries), slew the dragon. As "proof" of this deed there is a patch of chalk on the top of the hill where the grass never grows because it is said this was where the dragon's blood was spilt. It's a wonderful legend and a fabulously atmospheric site with the ramparts of Uffington Iron Age Castle looming above and the sweep of the Manger below. It is said that on the night of the seventh moon the ancient chalk figure of the Uffington White Horse comes alive and goes down to the manger to graze.

According to one legend, St George was a soldier in the Roman army who killed the dragon to save a princess in true fairy tale fashion. However as is often the case with legend St George has many incarnations and his story many different interpretations. You can read more about St George here.

Some people believe that the figure of the White Horse is actually a representation of a dragon in homage to
the legend of St George. Another intriguing possibility is that Dragon Hill takes its name from being the burial place of a Pendragon, an early chieftain of Britain. Legend links King Arthur Pendragon to the village of Baydon, which is only a few miles distant. The intriguing connections of myth and legend weave a powerful web around this part of the country.

You can walk to the Uffington White Horse and Dragon Hill from Ashdown House, or vice versa. It is only a few miles along the ancient track of the Ridgeway, past the long barrow at Waylands Smithy. White Horse Hill was this week named by the organisation VisitEngland as one of the top places to visit in the UK. A walk in this historic landscape is a mystical and atmospheric experience.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Jane Austen and King James II

At J in the A-Z of Ashdown House is the Austen family of Jane's fame. I've blogged about Jane's connection to the Cravens and to Ashdown House before and you can see the article here. Louisa, Countess of Craven, was a big fan of Jane's writing, declaring in 1816 that Pride and Prejudice was her favourite of Jane Austen's books, in preference to Emma which she still considered to be very fine. We are very pleased that we have a lovely exhibition board this season which gives some information on the links between the Craven and Austen families.

Meanwhile at J we also have King James II, a friend of the First Earl of
Craven who like his brother Charles and cousin Prince Rupert came to Ashdown for the sport and for other entertainment, no doubt. (Ashdown does has a very impressive wine cellar!) In my research I came across a curious story of how the house at Russley Park, which lies a mile or two away across the downs, was extended especially for a visit from James during the 1680s. Curious because with Ashdown only a few miles distant, why would William Craven entertain the King at Russley?

In a further fascinating twist, there is a legend that a secret tunnel cut through the chalk hillside connects Ashdown with Russley Park. If this is true then it's location is lost today but it does raise the question of what it's purpose could have been. Intriguing!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Ashdown House and the Heidelberg Connection

Last week we had the pleasure of a visit from Nichola Hayton, the President of the German-English Society in Heidelberg, who had come to Ashdown to view the splendid portrait collection bequeathed to William Craven by Elizabeth, the Winter Queen. During this 400th anniversary year of the marriage of Elizabeth and Frederick, the Elector Palatine, there is a series of celebratory events taking place in Heidelberg. The programme can be found here. The Queen is a patron of the festival and the British Ambassador commented that it "is a special expression of the friendship between our two nations." It was a great pleasure to talk to Nichola about the festival and Elizabeth's often overlooked role in 17th century European history.

Here at Ashdown House we are privileged to have a small part
of Elizabeth Stuart's portrait collection on display. It includes some very fine paintings from the 1620s and 1630s from the studios of several Dutch artists as well as the wonderful group portrait by William Dobson of Prince Rupert, Colonel Murray and Colonel Russell. We'd like to encourage art lovers to view this fascinating collection for themselves at Ashdown as part of the anniversary celebrations!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ice Houses and Iron Age Forts

In the A-Z of Ashdown we have reached I for the Iron Age hill fort and, most appropriately for the weather, Ice Houses. I have blogged about the Ashdown House ice house before - here - and I hope it doesn’t make anyone feel too chilly!

The Iron Age hill fort of Alfred’s Castle lies to the north west of Ashdown House. It is small as hill forts go with a single rampart bank and ditch but it has a large enclosure attached that in aerial photographs shows as crop marks. It is possible that a second ditch was re-used as part of the medieval park pale in 1204. The current bank was originally revetted with sarsen walls but when Ashdown House was built in 1662 these were robbed out to lay the foundations for the house. The antiquarian John Aubrey who passed Ashdown at the time recorded this act of historical vandalism!

Two excavations by Oxford University recorded Bronze Age origins for the site, dating from the 6th century BC. This is an interesting tie-in with the line of four Bronze Age barrows on the horizon, thought to mark a tribal boundary and with the Bronze Age artefacts found on Weathercock Hill. Evidence of an Iron Age roundhouse was found and also a Romano-British building dating from the 2nd to the 4th century AD.  The Roman building was a “villa farmhouse” of fairly high status with six rooms, several of which had an “opus signium” floor of stone and tile. The building was substantially built of stone and had painted walls but no hypocaust or mosaic floors. It is one in a series of early villas in the area.

In 1855 William 2nd Earl of Craven donated a copper Romano-British brooch and two bracelets found there to the British Museum.

Alfred’s Castle was originally known as Ashbury Camp and was given the name Alfred’s Castle in the 18th century when antiquarians wanted to tie it in with King Alfred’s Battle of Ashdown of AD 871. I’ve blogged about the battle in other posts (links here and here) and Ashdown has at least as good a claim to be the site as any, with Alfred’s muster at the hill fort. The Second Earl of Craven also donated a number of other finds from the estate that show Anglo Saxon origins including a knife, shears, spear heads, and a sword. There was also a Viking axe…

In modern times the author James Long used the archaeological dig at Alfred’s Castle as inspiration for his book Silence and Shadows.

There is currently no interpretation board at Alfred’s Castle as we are waiting for the final report from the Oxford University dig so that we can incorporate the details. However it is a site that is well worth seeing as part of the historical landscape.