Sunday, 12 July 2015

Visiting Ironbridge - A World Hertiage Site

By:  Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

  I was asked to look after a holiday group from Kent who were      having a short break holiday in the Midlands.  I was delighted, as this was a great opportunity to show them some of the most interesting landmarks and developments of the Industrial Revolution in Central England.
Staying in a hotel close to the River Severn in the canal town of Stourport, we started our study of the area looking at the development of the canal system which revolutionised transport from the mid 18th century.  Stourport was developed approximately 250 years ago as an inland port where the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal joined the River Severn.  As such Stourport was a pioneer town of the canal age and is the only town in the country to have been built as a result of a canal. 
Steam train on the Severn Valley Railway
We travelled on to Kidderminster to enjoy a scenic journey on a steam hauled train along the Severn Valley Heritage Railway. Railways were to transform Britain in the 19th century.  They were originally developed to move raw materials and finished goods to and from the factories in Victorian times. They greatly expanded the economy and stimulated the iron and steel industry.   Railways opened up a new world of travel for everyone.
The River Severn as seen from the
Iron Bridge

The highlight of the group holiday was a visit to the World Heritage site of Ironbridge.  We drove alongside the picturesque gorge, which, back in the 18th century the scenery would have looked very different.  It would have been scarred by heavy industry; blast furnaces were producing iron, factories were involved in the manufacture of bricks, tiles and ceramics and the coal, clay and ironstone mines were lining the banks of the gorge. Forges would have been belching forth smoke and the noise of machinery would have filled the air. Now, a very different view presented itself to us, nature has reclaimed the gorge, the industrial buildings had disappeared, and the wooded banks of the river Severn looked lush and green.   A visit to the Ironbridge Gorge museum was necessary to show us what it was like back in the 18th and 19th centuries.  This was fascinating, a model of the gorge showed us all the industrial sites. More models, photographs, explanations and a video helped to recreate the time of Ironbridge's heyday in Victorian times.
Ironbridge - A World Heritage Site
We moved on to continue our tour and went to the historic iron bridge to take photographs, walk across it and to visit the Toll House at the far end of the bridge. 
This was the first iron bridge in the world, built in 1777-1779 by Abraham Darby III. It was intended to demonstrate the expertise of the ironmasters of the area and it was a spectacular success.  This was cutting edge technology of its time, and artists and engineers came from all over the world to see it.  Even today it's impressive.

A Street Scene at Blist Hill Museum
 We continued to Blist Hill Museum, where they've recreated a Victorian town and where you can experience the sites, sounds and even smells of a bygone era.  We exchanged some of our money into £.s.d, and were able to shop using old money again.  I bought some yeasty smelling freshly baked bread rolls from the bakers, whilst others bought traditionally cooked fish and chips for their lunch.

Taking a ride at Blist Hill Museum
We experienced all sorts of activities. We travelled on the mine railway into a clay mine, we went up the incline and travelled along the streets on a horse and cart.  We had a guided tour around a blast furnace. 

A Squatters Cottage, Blist Hill Museum
We explored various cottages and even saw and looked around a Squatter's cottage, which had to be built in a day and have a lighted fire in the hearth with smoke rising up through the chimney in order for it to be allowed to stay in situ and the Squatter and his family have permanent residence.

The group had a very enjoyable time and the holiday exceeded all expectations.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Visiting Chastleton House - film location for Wolf Hall

By - Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

Arriving at Chastleton House
Hilary Mantel's award winning historical novel Wolf Hall, chronicling the rise of Thomas Cromwell, was mainly filmed on location in South Wales and the South West region of England. This was brilliant because most of the properties belonged to the National Trust, and were ideal places to visit with my groups.  As always, the preparations were shrouded in secrecy because the BBC production team were paranoid about spoilers.  I discussed the film with my group, which they had very much enjoyed, however we were curious as to how the BBC were going to recreate the Tudor period back in King Henry VIII's time. 

The Courtyard
Having discussed the TV production we decided to visit Chastleton House in the Cotswolds just on the borders of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.  As we arrived there was a signpost in the courtyard pointing out a small exhibition to show how the house was rearranged to cater for the filming some of the scenes, which was very helpful.  I hasten to add, Chastleton House was just one of many locations for the film.  Before we even entered the house, we crossed the courtyard where Thomas Cromwell's father had worked as a blacksmith and a brewer.  The exhibition showed us the changes made to the courtyard and the buildings which really took us back to the film. We remembered and discussed the scenes where Thomas Cromwell had flashbacks to his youth where his drunk and brutal father had kicked and beaten him within an inch of his life. 

Cardinal Wolsey's Bedroom
The inside of Chastleton House was used for several very different scenes.  The photograph on the left is how a visitor would see the great parlour today, it has a particularly fine ceiling and a tapestry depicting a musical party in a country house garden.  In the film this became a guest bedroom in the Seymour's house where Thomas Cromwell slept during King Henry VIII's progress.  You have to imagine the room without the dining table and chairs. Imagine a four poster bed with curtain hangings and bedspreads in front of the tapestry, the wall lights disguised and out of shot, and you have the scene.

The dining hall at the Seymour's house
Chastleton House has a medieval screen passage and hall which was in keeping with a Tudor Manor House.  In the 16th and early 17th centuries the hall would have been used for receiving guests and as a place where the household would have gathered.  In the film Wolf Hall this room was converted to the dining hall of the Seymour's house.  King Henry VIII was having dinner with his courtiers and the Seymour family, when he surprised everybody by falling asleep. It was Jane Seymour who got up from the table and went to wake the King.  A small deed but it got her noticed....
The Long Gallery

This long, barrel-vaulted room was where the family would take their exercise on a cold and wet day.  In the film this is where Thomas Cromwell had a long chat with Anne Boleyn as they looked out of the window to watch King Henry VIII accepting the resignation of his Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More.
Homemade tea and cakes in the churchyard

The story of the family who owned Chastleton House from 1612 - 1991 before handing it over to the care of the National Trust is a fascinating one.  To have seen the film Wolf Hall and to be able to recognise the rooms as you explore the house is very exciting.  I can most certainly recommend a visit.
Refreshments were available in the church next door and, as it was a sunny afternoon, we sat outside amongst the gravestones enjoying cups of tea and homemade cakes.

Friday, 24 April 2015

A Prehistoric Landscape in Wiltshire

By: Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

Looking across Avebury Stone Circle
To be able to travel back in time and see a man-made Neolithic landscape that is over 5,000 years old is pretty incredible. 
The stone circle at Avebury is the largest in the world. It's 14 times larger than Stonehenge, was built about 500 years earlier, it takes up an area of 28 acres and is a mile to walk all the way around.

Information board showing Avebury
would have looked in Neolithic Times
My coach group were full of anticipation about their visit to a prehistoric henge monument.  However before we got to the village, I was able to point out Windmill Hill, where, as far back as 3,500 years BC, the late stone age people had formed a settled community, and had started farming and domesticating animals. This was long before the stone circles were built.  Although nothing remains of their camp above ground, archaeological digs on Windmill Hill had uncovered lots of buried objects such as stone tools and pottery showing that the local people were trading and socialising with different tribes from places as far away as Cornwall and the Lake District.
Admiring the stones
As we drove through Avebury my group were starting to see large unhewn standing stones. It was a glorious day, perfect for a walk and my group were keen to have a look around.  We parked the coach and walked towards the site.  An information board along the route helped with the interpretation of the stone circle.  Originally 170 -180 stones had been dragged from the surrounding area on wooden rollers and placed upright within a very large, deep ditch surrounded by an earth bank.  Over the years many of the stones were taken away, broken up and the fragments could be seen in walls and buildings around the site, but there were enough stones to get an idea of the importance of area and marvel at the construction and man-hours taken to create it all. The reason for building can only be guesswork, but a museum in the stables of Avebury Manor House was well worth a visit and showed that Avebury Stone Circle was just part of a group of prehistoric sites, so the display helped to put the whole area into context.   We enjoyed the museum and stayed for some refreshments, before continuing our journey.

Monday, 20 April 2015

A Guided Coach Tour to the Real Downton Abbey

Arriving at Highclere Castle
My coach group were all avid fans of the television series Downton Abbey and had admitted to being glued to their television sets on Sunday evenings to watch the popular period drama, and discover the latest developments in the lives of the aristocratic family and their staff that lived there.  There was no doubt they were really looking forward to visiting the stately home used as the set of the fictional Yorkshire pile of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their family. 
The photos of Downton Abbey, sorry - the photos of Highclere Castle, are of the ancestral home of the present 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, which has been seen in every episode of the five series of Downton Abbey. 

Familiar view of Highclere Castle as
Downton Abbey

First question was where is it?  Highclere Castle is not in Yorkshire as one would imagine but in Hampshire on the Berkshire - Hampshire border, just off the A34 south of Newbury.
A folly known as Jackdaws Castle
built 1743
We arrived at our destination early and caught a glimpse of the now very familiar tower as we drove up the mile long driveway.  We had timed tickets for entry into the house so, with an hour and a half to spare, we had the opportunity to either wander around the park designed by Capability Brown, or admire the gardens and / or visit the Egyptian Exhibition.  An earlier Earl of Carnarvon had been a very keen amateur archaeologist and along with his archaeological expert Howard Carter had spent many years exploring the ancient Valley of the Kings, where Egyptian pharaohs were buried.  They had famously discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun (1336BC - 1327BC) and the story is recounted in the cellars of the Castle, so I headed for the exhibition and found it very interesting.

Waiting at the entrance
At 12.30pm we queued at the front door to show our tickets to see the house and to look at the rooms, many of which had become very familiar through our Sunday evenings in front of the television. 

Unfortunately photography wasn't permitted inside Highclere Castle, otherwise I would have been snapping away nineteen to the dozen.  The first room that we saw was instantly recognisable as Lord Grantham's study.  It was the library which was a very large room separated by tall gilded ionic columns, surrounded by mahogany and gold bookcases with over 5,600 leather bound books.  A lot of the Castle furniture was used in the film, but a desk that had been put by the window for Lord Grantham during the series, was no longer in place - had it been antique furniture belonging to the Castle or was it a film prop?

The date of building & family motto
The soaring Neo Gothic Great Hall, around which flow the state rooms was magnificent.   It had a feature stone fireplace and arched stone walls with a decorated frieze all the way around featuring carved and painted heraldic shields of the generations of the Carnarvon family. The beautiful 17th century painted and hand tooled leather panels on the lower walls was very unusual and very rare but it softened the appearance of the room and made it look more cosy.  The whole image is even more impressive than how it appears on the television because on the screen you don't see its full height, that it has a glass roof and is surrounded by a stone carved gallery at first floor level.   The state dining room was again very familiar with the large central dining table as well as paintings, including the equestrian painting of King Charles I by Van Dyke, on the walls.  All it needed was the Crawley family to be seated around the table and you'd be back in the period drama.  We saw more state rooms and some bedrooms but not the servants quarters. 
The 'below stairs' area was created at the Ealing studios and many of the actors and actresses playing the servants hardly ever visited the castle.
Afternoon tea in the grounds of
Highclere Castle
After our self-guided tour we all agreed that it had been a lovely day, and to finish we would enjoy a cream tea in the converted stables at the back of the house, part of the original Elizabethan Manor that hadn't had the Sir Charles Barry make-over. 
We found some tables and cast our eyes round for Mr Carson, Thomas or Alfred. There wasn't a Butler or a Footman to be seen.   I reminded everyone of the lovely lines of the Dowager Countess of Grantham "It's our job to create employment.  An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the country as a glass hammer."   We all had to pitch in and do our own fetching and carrying, which brought us quickly back into the modern world to sitting around sipping tea and discussing which way of life we would prefer.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Celebrating Chedworth Roman Villa's special anniversary

By:  Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

Tesserae used to make a mosaic floor
As a tourist guide, I love anniversaries as it highlights the importance of our visitor attractions and encourages people to visit or revisit the area. This year, 2014, the National Trust have been celebrating 150 years since the re-discovery of Chedworth Roman Villa by the Victorians in 1864, and 90 years since the site came into the Trusts' possession in 1924.   Extra events, tours and talks have been added to the annual programme which have been very interesting.
In 2012 Lottery funding provided money for a new award winning conservation building which was erected to cover and protect a section of the villa, which greatly improves the visitor experience. With raised walkways, people can  marvel at the mosaics, imagine the finely painted walls in the numerous rooms, discover how the Roman central heating worked and get a much better idea of the luxurious living of the very wealthy, in Roman times. 
The new conservation building
This summer archaeologists made a new and surprising discovery. They found and unearthed yet another mosaic in what they presume would have been the grand reception area. It was on show to the public for a few weeks in the summer but has been re-covered to save it from further damage by the weather until funding is available for another building to be built to protect and preserve it.

The villa's existence was supposedly discovered by accident in 1864 when a gamekeeper ferreting for rabbits found tesserae in the ground around a burrow.  Realising that this could be an important discovery he reported his find to the landowner Lord Eldon and the digging started with great enthusiasm. Victorian archaeology wasn't as thorough as today and detailed records were not made, so unfortunately there are gaps in our knowledge which wouldn't have happened if the dig had taken place more recently.

An artists impression of how Chedworth Roman Villa
looked c. AD 350
Today, there is much information on show, to help with  the interpretation of the Chedworth site. On the left there is an artists' impression of how they think the villa looked around AD350.  It became one of the largest and was probably owned by one of the wealthiest Romano British families in Britannia at that time.  It wasn't just a home it was a farmstead with a large labour force working to produce food for the region with probably some of the produce exported to other parts of the Roman Empire.

Site map showing location of Chedworth
Roman Villa to the Roman Roads and

A site information board shows the location of other villas in the area at the time, and shows how close they were to the Fosse Way - the military road built by the Romans to link Exeter with Lincoln which ran through Cirencester, the 2nd largest Roman town after London.  Chedworth villa, the best surviving villa in the area was built in a very sheltered valley, it had a good water supply, being close to springs spouting water from the nearby hill and it faced south.  Just little way away, the River Coln flowed towards the river Thames.
The Visitor Centre, Café and Shop
I can recommend Chedworth as an excellent place to visit with the family, so keep a look out for special events. There's a visitor centre and café.  The staff and volunteers are very helpful and are only too please to pass on as much information about the Roman Villa as possible.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Autumn Colours at Batsford Arboretum in the Cotswolds

by Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

Although the English summer has ended, there's still lots to see and do in and around Gloucestershire. This last week I've taken several groups on guided coach tours of the Cotswolds and we've called in to Batsford Arboretum, which has one of the largest private collections of trees in the country.  We've soaked up the glorious autumn colours as the leaves on the trees have changed from green, to hues of gold, orange and red.
In among the collection of magnificent trees, which are from around the world, are Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum), deciduous trees with a graceful habit and beautiful foliage, which at this time of year turn the most striking colours. Also there are trees and bushes resplendent in masses of coloured berries, cones, seed pods, flowers and spent foliage - its quite breathtaking.

The advantage of visiting Batsford Arboretum is that there is an easy walk from the car park to a new and very large visitor centre, with a sizeable café.   The food is good and is reasonably priced and there is an extensive shop and a very good plant centre, so there is plenty to see and do for those whose mobility isn't good or the rain comes and shelter is needed.

The Batsford estate was inherited by Lord Redesdale in 1886, and he immediately set about building a new house overlooking the Evenlode Valley.  In 1890 he began developing the land around it as a woodland garden with 'Asian Influences'.  In the past, Lord Redesdale had worked for the Foreign Office and had spent a long time in China and Japan, so there are oriental style bridges crossing streams, a Japanese Rest House, sculptures of a Budda, a Foo Dog and some Japanese Sikka deer in amongst the trees.

In 1919 Gilbert Hamilton Wills MP, later 1st Lord Dulverton bought  the estate.  In 1956, his son, the 2nd Lord Dulverton set about restoring the gardens after long neglect due to the 2nd World War.  The 2nd Lord Dulverton had a fascination and special interest in trees and began creating a new arboretum within the garden.  The arboretum has become established, the colours and varieties of trees have created a beautiful park and it is what we enjoy today and there is lots of interest throughout the year.

I look forward to taking people back in the spring when there are  displays of flowering bulbs – swathes of snowdrops, daffodils, narcissi and bluebells.  There's the beautiful blossom of the magnolia trees, the flowering cherries as well as the exotic Davidia Involucrata tree especially when the white bracts appear and dangle like handkerchiefs from its branches.


Thursday, 13 February 2014

A Visit to Warwick Castle

By: Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

The other day I took a group of holidaymakers from New Zealand to visit a top tourist attraction in the Heart of England, the impressive Warwick Castle, one of the best examples of a medieval castle in England.  It provided a wonderful day out for the group who explored the various exhibitions, watched a falconer training his owl, they climbed the castle mound, walked along the walls and saw the gardens. 
Warwick Castle has been home to many generations of the rich and powerful Earls of Warwick who have been key players in English history. 
During the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1485) members of the Houses of York (whose symbol is the White Rose) and Lancaster (whose symbol is the Red Rose) – branches of the Plantagenet Royal family descended from King Edward III, fought a series of battles to gain the throne of England.
Preparations for the Battle of Barnet
At Warwick Castle you can see the preparations for the Battle of Barnet. Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, was assembling a great army to fight the Yorkist King, Edward IV, who was holding Lancastrian King Henry VI prisoner in the Tower of London.  The Earl wanted to restore Henry to the throne. 

Warwick the Kingmaker was killed during the Battle of Barnet and the Lancastrian army, which he led, were routed. King Edward IV’s army was victorious. Although Edward IV had defeated the Earl of Warwick and his army, he soon heard that Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s wife and her son Edward, Prince of Wales who had been in exile in France, had landed at Weymouth with an army and were on their way to assist the Earl of Warwick finally destroy Edward IV.  Although they arrived too late for the Battle of Barnet, they continued marching north raising supporters as they travelled and were making their way to Wales to meet with a larger army who would fight for their cause.
Edward IV, anticipating their plans intercepted the Lancastrian army at Tewkesbury and after a bloody battle, they were again routed and victory for King Edward IV was finally secured.

The photograph on the left shows the 16th Earl of Warwick preparing to have his armour fitted at Warwick castle on the eve of the battle.  Further in to the exhibition you can see Fortune, the Earl's war horse armoured and robed in Warwick's distinctive colours and motif.  The blacksmith alongside a furnace hammering metal and preparing the horseshoes, the whitesmith burnishing the armour, the cannon, cannon balls, longbows, arrows and other weapons of war being completed.  The whole household were involved in the travel arrangements and battle preparations.  They were expecting a great victory.  Instead the Earl was slain on the battlefield. never to return to the castle.
Warwick castle has many more things to see including the fine state rooms, the exhibition of the great Royal weekend party of 1898 when Edward Prince of Wales was the guest of honour, and many demonstrations in the castle grounds.