06 March 2018

East Sussex: post boxes

Here is a small offering of post boxes I spotted during a recent week’s holiday in East Sussex (always looking!).

The oldest was in the tiny hamlet of West Dean, in East Sussex not West, a charming collection of ancient houses nestled in a secluded South Downs valley behind Cuckmere Haven, a location more easily reached on foot than by car, a place that time seems to have forgotten. Amongst its many old treasures – there were also a medieval dovecote and a gorgeous terracotta bird on a rooftop – was this lovely old Victoria wall box, set in a superbly crafted flint stone wall.

To get a photograph of the George V wall box at Birling Gap (below left), I had to brave a howling gale and light, driving rain – that’s post-box dedication for you! If you don’t know Birling Gap, it’s at the eastern end of the mighty Seven Sisters chalk cliffs on England’s south coast. My photo, above, of this impressive landscape was taken in the same howling gale.

On the right, above, is another George V wall box, this one discovered in the small village of Brightling. This box is slightly unusual as it is a Ludlow wall box, one of the wooden – rather than cast iron – boxes made by James Ludlow & Son in Birmingham. The large black-and-white enamel name plate is the giveaway and this box is even more unusual as it doesn’t have the plate that lists location, post box number and mail collection times – there were holes where the plate was originally attached but, as you can see, it looks like someone’s since stuck a couple of stickers on the front instead.

Brightling was interesting for another reason too ... more on that in my next blog post.

04 March 2018

A tale of two East Sussex windmills

It didn’t take long for my friend Jill’s fascination with windmills to infect me, and these photogenic structures now captivate me with their intriguing stories and enchanting architecture. Here are two from my recent visit to East Sussex.

Stone Cross windmill
Built around 1875 and restored to full working order between 1995 and 2000, the Stone Cross windmill is, their signboard claims, ‘one of the finest tower mills ever built in England’. Its statistics are certainly impressive: a 38-foot-high (11.58 metre) five-level brick tower, which is 16 feet 6 inches (5.03 metres) in diameter at its base and 11 feet (3.35 metres) at the curb; and sweeps (the name for the mill’s revolving sails) spanning 64 feet (19.5 metres) and holding 174 shutters (the angles of which control the speed of the sweeps).

The mill still produces flour stone-ground in the traditional way, which sounds delightful and I’m sure would taste delicious but do remember that stone-ground means the flour may well contain tiny pieces of stone, which is one of the reasons why the teeth of people in the past got rapidly ground down. According to the windmill’s somewhat incomplete website, the building also contains a small museum and a cafe, though there are no details given of its opening times.

Windmill Hill windmill
We had driven past this windmill so many times on our way to places elsewhere but, as there are not a lot of spots to park, we’d never stopped ... until, one day in mid February, on the way back from Rye Harbour, Jill managed to squeeze us in to the back end of a bus stop for a few minutes. Unfortunately, the view from the roadside is marred by the power lines but we did sneak up a driveway for a slightly better view of the side of this mill.

There had been a previous windmill on this site – proving just how well this high point catches the breezes – but it was demolished prior to the construction, in around 1814, of the mill we see today. This is a post mill, one of the earliest types of windmill, which I now know means ‘the whole body of the mill that houses the machinery is mounted on a single vertical post, around which it can be turned to bring the sails into the wind’ (as opposed to the Stone Cross tower mill, where only the cap, not the whole body of the mill, is rotated).

Using one pair of French Burr stones and another of Derbyshire Peak stones, this mill also processed corn in to flour. Like the Stone Cross building, the Windmill Hill mill has undergone extensive restoration in recent years, through the work of a charitable trust and the tireless efforts of a multitude of volunteers. (You can read more on their website here.) I love that so many people are so passionate about preserving these remnants of Britain’s industrial and cultural heritage so that both the present and future generations can admire and enjoy them.

01 March 2018

Beautiful Bodiam

We had a cracking blue-sky day for our visit to Bodiam in East Sussex, and the castle, surrounded by its moat, looked picture-postcard-perfect!

The lord of the manor was soldier and knight, Sir Edward Dallingridge (or Dalyngrigge) (c.1346 – 1393), who had the castle constructed around 1385, in theory as a defence against local rebellion and possible invasion by the French but probably also a statement piece: ‘Look at how rich and powerful I am!’ As a power statement it certainly works.

And I imagine you would feel quite secure in a place like this, regardless of who was trying to attack. The original approach bridge over the moat was to the side, ensuring invaders made easy targets for the castle’s archers; the portcullis was so sturdy that parts of it still survive; and there are murder holes above the entrance porticos, meaning residents could pour hot tar and boiling oil on the uninvited.

Sir Edward gained the manor of Bodiam by marriage. Having accumulated wealth and reputation through fighting as a mercenary in France, he returned to England and wedded the heiress to Bodiam, Elizabeth Wardeux (or Wardedieu).

Dallingridge subsequently served as the equivalent of Member of Parliament for the local area, was made responsible for fortifying various areas of coastal Sussex, and became the most influential member of the local gentry.

The castle’s interior was likely dismantled during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) but you can still get an idea of the opulence enjoyed by Sir Edward and Lady Elizabeth, though I don’t think National Trust have done a very good job with their displays and storyboards, especially compared to other castles I have visited (see the magnificent Caerphilly here and here). The exhibition in the nearby pavillion was also undergoing refurbishment so I felt a reduction in the entrance fee would have been appropriate under the circumstances For the stiff-kneed also, a warning, the spiral staircases were steep, but the views from the towers and battlements were worth the effort.

All in all, a stunning property: the type of building every child imagines when they draw their first castles, and a dream for photographers, if you go right on opening time, to avoid the crowds. I’d love to see it again shrouded in brooding winter mist and a blanket of snow, or with autumn colour in its stately trees.

11 February 2018

Dorset: post boxes

My Christmas holiday host is well trained – she knows my predilection for old-looking post boxes and is happy to (safely) slam on the brakes when she spots one, or I yell “post box” in her ear. These are a few we spotted as we gadded about the highways and country lanes of Dorset (and the lucky last is from a hop over the border to Somerset).

First up (below left) is this slightly-the-worse-for-wear Edward VII box (DT2 73) that was attached to a post by the side of the road near the little hamlet of Up Sydling, a rather out-of-the-way place to be but we were chasing up my friend’s ancestors’ habitations.

In a much better state of repair and looking very photogenic in its old stone wall, was this lovely old Victoria wall box (DT2 52) (above right, and below) in the historic town of Cerne Abbas.

In the wall of a house in Sherborne, we found this rather unusual Victoria wall box (DT9 6). Named after its makers, James Ludlow & Son of Birmingham, it’s called a Ludlow wall box, and, unlike most old post boxes, which were traditionally made of cast iron, the Ludlows’ were made of wood, though they did usually have an enamel name plate on the front and a thin sheet of steel covering the door.

Moving forward in time, we found this George V wall box (DT9 37) (below left) conveniently positioned underneath the town’s notice board in a small village with the intriguing name of Ryme Intrinseca. And, below right, here’s another from Cerne Abbas, a George VI pillar box (DT2 98), also conveniently situated, in the town's main street.

This last (DT9 67) is the intruder from Milborne Port in Somerset and a relatively modern wall box from the reign of Elizabeth II. It looked freshly painted, in that wonderfully vibrant Post Office red that everyone recognises.

04 February 2018

Church of St Mary Magdalene, Barwick

St Mary Magdalene’s is a small church with a big history. Built of the local Ham stone, the main body of the church dates from the 1200s, while the chancel is a 19th century rebuild that incorporated earlier building fragments.

Barwick doesn’t get a mention in the Domesday Survey but, in 1228, Henry III granted the locals the right to hold a fair here and, in 1231, granted the right to hold a market at the local manor to William de Cantilupe, who held the local estate. St Mary Magdalene's was presumably founded around the same time and was originally a chapel of ease, providing a welcome resting place for travellers along the busy London to Exeter road.

Inside, the church has some lovely old Oak furnishings – the wonderful Jacobean carved panels on the pew ends caught my eye – and a very impressive, colourfully decorated organ. Though I doubt they were particularly old, the symmetric lines and patterns of the old floor tiles were lovely, as were the clean simple lines of the stained glass windows.

The building’s heritage value is recognised in its Grade II listing but the building is in need of major restoration work. According to the Historic England website, ‘The tower roof is in poor condition, the bell frame needs work undertaken and the nave and aisle roofs are also in poor condition.’ Because of this, the church has been placed on the Heritage at Risk Register, yet the congregation was unsuccessful in its 2017 application for a Listed Places of Worship Roof Repairs Grant. I hope the repair money is found soon as this wonderful old parish church is definitely worth saving.

28 January 2018

Shaftesbury: crumbs!

Not being English, I didn’t understand the significance of Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill. A quick google revealed that Shaftesbury had been founded as a fortified settlement (a burgh) way back in 880 by King Alfred the Great, and that the picture-postcard cottages of Gold Hill had been built around the 17th century.

But it was bread-making firm Hovis and now-world-famous film director Ridley Scott who forever implanted Gold Hill in the psyche of the English when they chose this location for their 1973 television advertisement. The ad (you can see it here) was subsequently voted ‘Britain's favourite television ad’, and people’s visions of Shaftesbury were forever linked with the image of that young boy pushing his bicycle up Gold Hill.

Gold Hill has also featured in episodes of those classic English comedies The Two Ronnies and Only Fools and Horses, in films, and on the covers of books – heck, it even has its own website

This modern bench is very well placed and a rather beautiful work of art.

As you can see, the apparently magnificent views of the beautiful Dorset countryside were somewhat obscured on the day I visited but I rather liked the evocative atmosphere created by the fog. It gave more of a sense of the hill’s long history.

At the bottom, looking back up.

My guide promised me a giant Hovis loaf but it was nowhere to be seen – apparently it was getting a bit mouldy around the edges and needed re-crusting, as this article explains.

21 January 2018

A glimpse of Sherborne Abbey

After a wander along, and in and out of the wonderful variety of shops in the main street of Sherborne, we detoured along a side street for a look at Sherborne Abbey. It was late in the day and the building was due to close in just fifteen minutes’ time, but we were able to have a quick look.

I was immediately spellbound! My eyes were constantly drawn upwards to the incredible ceiling, with its superb fan vaulting that looks for all the world like gigantic stylised branching trees, and which, I was amazed to learn, had been built in the 15th century, completed around 1490.

I’ve since read that there are many other noteworthy features to be seen and admired so I simply must go back for another visit to the abbey when next I am in Dorset. In the meantime though, those ceilings ...

13 January 2018

The Cerne Abbas Giant

You’ve got to wonder at the mind-set of someone who creates a 180-foot-high figure of a naked, aroused man on a hillside.

Now, you might well be thinking ‘But surely it’s an ancient fertility symbol?” Well, the answer is that no one knows for sure. 

There is no mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant in any historic record until an entry was made in 1694 in the church warden’s account book for St Mary’s Church in Cerne Abbas, which states that three shillings had been paid out for ‘repairing ye Giant’. 

As the figure’s outline is actually formed by means of a one-foot-wide by one-foot-deep trench cut into the underlying chalk and in-filled with more chalk, presumably the three shillings was for re-chalking.

Of course, though almost certainly not ancient, it could still be a depiction of a fertility symbol but what, then, is the reason for the 120-foot-high club? 

Interestingly, it is that very weapon that has led to speculation that the figure is, in fact, the Roman hero Hercules, who was often depicted naked, wielding a club in his right hand. As well as the club, scientific tests have revealed that the Giant used to have something draped over his left arm, though this chalk trench has since been grassed over. You may recall that the first labour of Hercules was to kill the lion that was terrorising the countryside around Nemea so Hercules was traditionally portrayed with the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his left shoulder.

(The image at right, showing the layout of the Cerne Abbas Giant with the obliterated line [in yellow], was created by Angelus, and was sourced via Wikimedia Commons.)

So, the Cerne Abbas Giant may well depict Hercules but the next question, naturally enough, is who decided to carve his outline on the hillside? Again, no one knows for sure.

One theory is that it was the work of the monks of the Benedictine Abbey at Cerne – a strange thing for monks to do, you might well think, but there is also a gigantic figure on the hillside close to the former Benedictine Priory at Wilmington in Sussex (you can see more about the Long Man of Wilmington in an earlier blog post).

The truth is that, unless some previously unknown historic record comes to light or some archaeological evidence is unearthed, we will never know who created the Giant or why. And I think I prefer it that way. Let him keep his mystery! 

01 January 2018

Christmas carols in Salisbury Cathedral

Though I’m not a religious person, one of the highlights of my Christmas holiday, staying with my friend Sarah in Somerset, was the Christmas Carol Service we attended at Salisbury Cathedral.

The Cathedral is an extraordinary building and was beautifully decorated for Christmas, with candles large and tealight-size lining the aisles. (I do wish they’d turned off, or at least dimmed, the main lights so we could’ve enjoyed the atmosphere with just the candles, though.)

We had to queue for an hour in the cloisters to make sure we got a seat – the place was full to bursting, and then sit inside for another hour before the service started but it was definitely worth the wait.

Though it was interesting to observe the process, I admit I ignored most of the religious part of the service. Sarah and I were there for the singing, though as we both had bad colds, the sounds we uttered were more like squawking and shrieking than anything remotely resembling singing (I even apologised to the man in front of me at the end of the service!).

(If you’re interested in seeing more of this stunning building, I blogged about my previous visit early in 2017, the cathedral by day here and by night here.)