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A sunny day - just right for Kew Gardens!

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Greater London » Kew - 20 June 2012

semi-overcast 18 °C

We’ve been keeping a weather eye on the Met Office’s forecasts lately. Rain, you see, has become a regular feature of daily life here in England in recent months. Lots and lots of the wet stuff.

The best day last week – let me rephrase that: the only day without rain last week - was forecast to be Wednesday. So Wednesday it would be. You must have good weather for an outing to the Royal Botanic Gardens.

I come from a family of gardeners. My old dad, now weeding his allotment in the blue yonder, won the “Best Garden in Wembley Competition” so many times he was asked to stop entering to give someone else a chance! We only have a small, low-maintenance garden these days, so my wife gave me an all-expenses-paid trip to Kew for a birthday present. I wouldn’t have to do any of the gardening there, you understand - just look, make mental notes, take photos, enjoy…

Of course, I’d been to Kew before – but donkeys ago. It’s on the River Thames, near Richmond, by the way. Kew Gardens Station is easily accessible from the capital by London Underground District Line and London Overground services.

I recall that, in my childhood, I put a sixpence into a turnstile to get in. Yes, sixpence - 6d. That’s 2½p in today’s coinage - or at least it would be if we still had a ½p coin! My brother David, who’s even more ancient than me, remembers when it cost 2d, which equates to the fluff in the bottom of your pocket today.

When I tell you that it now costs £14 each for pensioners and a bit more if you walk without a stick and still have your own teeth, you’ll really see how long ago it is since I was last here. Mind you, my canny wife picked up a National Rail voucher that gave us 2 for the price of 1 on presentation of our rail tickets, so it only cost her 28,000 per cent more for each of us than on my last visit.

Anyhow, so it was that, in glorious sunshine, we entered these hallowed grounds. The weather forecast was correct, for a change. While it became overcast as the day went on, there wasn't a drop of rain.

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The estate has been here for many, many years, although it was only in 2003 that it was officially inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. You’ll need to read Kew’s website for a full run-down of its origins. In a recent incarnation, it was a pleasure garden for King George III – towards the end of the 1700s. The lofty Chinese Pagoda actually pre-dates even him, having been built in 1761; it’s still standing minus a quantity of carved dragons that had to be sold at some time in the past to repay a royal gambling debt. Unfortunately, the public aren't allowed to climb to the top any more - it's perfectly safe, but would cost millions to rebuild the staircase when it was worn out by visitors' footsteps.

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In King George III’s time, the estate was quite small. It was only when the gardens were adopted as a national botanical garden in 1840 that they were increased to 75 acres (30 hectares) and what we now consider an arboretum was extended to 270 acres (109 hectares) and, later, to its present size of 300 acres (120 hectares).

Many today will know Kew as a place of research and conservation – it’s world-renowned for achievements in these fields. In the 19th century, for example, it was the location of the successful effort to propagate rubber trees for cultivation outside of South America. The visitor to Kew won’t see all the behind-the-scenes work, but our entry fees contribute to its on-going scientific endeavours with a Millennium Seed Bank and Breathing Planet Programme, among other things.

Although extremely busy with visitors, particularly on such a fine day, the place is so large that we often found ourselves alone on the leafy pathways and tree-studded lawns. However, you don’t have to walk around this vast botanical funfair. For an extra £4 a head you can board the Kew Explorer on a hop-on-hop-off ride to seven key points around the estate. The driver gives an interesting commentary and waits at each stop so you can get off, or back on half-an-hour later. We got our bearings by doing the Explorer’s complete half-hour circuit around the perimeter of the estate, gaining valuable insight into the history, the planting and the buildings along the way. As it happened, we didn’t manage to return to all of the places we saw from the Explorer – the day simply wasn’t long enough.

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We’d entered by the Victoria Gate, one of four gates and the one nearest Kew Gardens Underground station. When the Explorer dropped us back to where we’d started, we found it was only a short walk to the Palm House. This imposing wrought-iron structure with hand-blown panes of glass was designed by architect Decimus Burton and built between 1844 and 1848. It must cost a fortune to maintain – I, for one, wouldn’t want the window cleaning bill, for a start. It wasn’t our favourite of the huge glasshouses, but magnificent just the same. Inside, it’s hot and humid – ideal for tall palms and other lush, well-tended plants from the world’s tropical rainforests, but not for us oldies on such a warm day.

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The small Waterlily House nearby was more to our liking. Although it’s supposed to be the hottest and most humid of Kew’s glasshouses, the water seemed to have a cooling effect - or was it the stiff breeze through wide open doors that had something to do with it? The lilies were notable for vibrant blue and yellow flowers, and the gigantic leaves of the Santa Cruz waterlily had to be seen to be believed. There’s a rose garden close by too, full of some really lovely old English varieties.

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Hopping back on the Kew Explorer, we rode sedately past the Temple of Bellona folly and through the Berberis Dell, to its first stop, the Temperate House. This, the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence, is twice the size of the Palm House. The gallery that runs high above floor level, reached by a winding iron staircase, gives some spectacular views over lush vegetation from the likes of South Africa and Australia.

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In October 1987, England experienced a great storm of hurricane proportions. It killed 18 people and caused devastation in numerous places. Most famously perhaps, the town of Sevenoaks in Kent became ‘Oneoak ‘overnight, having lost six of its seven ancient oak trees. Kew Gardens meanwhile lost a staggering 700 mature trees, many rare and centuries old, in just that one wild night. Some of that timber, as well as that from more recent felling of trees which have reached the end of their natural life, has been put to good use by the renowned sculptor David Nash. His works of art, carved mainly by chainsaw and axe, are exhibited throughout the gardens. There are some particularly good pieces on display in the Palm House and the Temperate House.

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From the Temperate House, we bravely followed clearly-marked paths to the Treetop Walkway. You can climb spiral stairs to reach the tree canopy, 18 metres (59 feet) above the ground; the less able-bodied and old folk like us can use a lift. The bird’s-eye view of trees from above is fascinating and quite a unique experience in this part of the world.

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Descending to terra firma, we discovered, after a somewhat circuitous search, the only compost heap we know that has a public viewing platform. Gardens on the scale of Kew generate tons of foliage waste every day. This area, busy with mowers and tractors hauling trailers, little sweeping machines and green-shirted gardeners with wheelbarrows, is said to be the largest compost heap in the whole of Europe. You could almost hear the bacteria at work. You could certainly smell them!

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Past the Waterlily Pond, with coots chasing around among lily pads and peacocks pecking at crumbs from a visitor’s picnic, we reached the long main lake with its elegant serpentine bridge, the Sackler Crossing. Around here, you might spot some of the estate’s resident waterbirds – red-crested pochard, tufted duck, widgeon, mandarin duck, and four types of geese (barnacle, bar-headed, greylag and Egyptian). We saw only some of them – and a pair of swans.

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Then, crossing one of the wide vistas, a feature to which the lost should always aim (and, believe me, it’s easy to get lost among these verdant acres), we entered the Bamboo Garden. Here, among 1,200 small, large and downright enormous bamboo plants, is a Minka House. This ancient Japanese farmhouse, designed without foundations to withstand earthquakes, had wattle and daub walls and logs tied together with rope. The likes of this are fast disappearing from the countryside of Japan and this one had already been moved a couple of times in its homeland before being sent to Kew as a gift for safekeeping. It looks quite at home here, but woodworm does seem to have had a field day on its timbers.

We’d planned to walk to the nearest Explorer stop from here but just missed the half-hourly departure. Instead, we meandered back along some of the many shrub-lined pathways, past Treehouse Towers, a large playground for children, complete with an educational Climbers and Creepers area, to the Victoria Gate.

During the day, we stopped for a sandwich and a cuppa at one of the cafés-cum-restaurants thoughtfully converted from existing buildings at strategic points in the grounds. The catering by an outside company, however, amounts to poor quality at high prices (£1.20 for a bag of crisps is a joke, £3.20 for two cups of tea in paper cups is simply a rip-off). Next time, we’ll bring a picnic. There are hundreds of bench seats scattered liberally throughout the gardens, some by the paths, some beneath trees, some in the middle of shrubberies.

Oh, and there’s a terrific little café called The Kew Greenhouse just a few doors along from boring old Starbucks, near Kew Gardens Underground Station, for excellent coffee before your visit and a real English cream tea on your way home. It's good - we had both!

There were lots of places in the gardens that we just didn’t have time to see - the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew Palace, David Nash’s Wood Quarry, the Davies Alpine House, the Duke’s Garden, the Mediterranean Garden… Of course, we didn’t make sufficient use of the Kew Explorer! Of course, we’ll be coming back another day soon!

*****

Since writing this blog, the Temperate House, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world, was closed for major restoration.
The five-year, £41m project was completed in May 2018.

*****

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:20 Archived in England Tagged gardens london flowers england kew Comments (0)

I saw the flame

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Hertfordshire » Welwyn Garden City - 11 July 2012

all seasons in one day 20 °C

The Olympic Games were last held here in the UK in July 1948, having been postponed since 1944 because of certain unpleasantness at the time. The main venue - for the Games, not the unpleasantness - was Wembley Stadium, within sight of which I'd been born only four years earlier.

I don't remember the Games - but then neither do Germany and Japan, who weren't invited to participate; they'd had a hand in that same unpleasantness.

Now the Games are coming to London again, starting later this month. To compensate us for not being able to buy tickets for any events worth seeing, a Torch Relay carrying a bit of the Grecian flame has been doing the rounds of towns all over the country. Today, it was the turn of Welwyn Garden City to welcome the runners and their torches.

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As I now live here and am highly unlikely to ever see anything to do with the Olympics except on telly, I ventured into town to witness the flame passing our way.

The car parks were free of charge, roads had been closed to traffic, and the fountain in the town centre had been specially filled with water from a nearby lake (despite rain almost every day for the past three months, we have a drought and a hosepipe ban so the fountain's usually turned off!).

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At least half of the town's 45,000 or so residents had turned out to line the streets. Many of them had bought flags, inflatable plastic flames, whistles, imitation gold medals, and helium-filled balloons.

Dozens of food stalls selling dubious delicacies from India, China, Thailand and the Caribbean had been set up along one of the main streets. Nearby, Jack FM, one of our local radio stations, had set up a stage to broadcast music by a variety of performers, at least some of whom were worth listening to. Craft stalls and local organisations peddled their wares from other covered stalls. The cafés were overflowing and virtually all the town's shops were open for business.

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As 1.30pm drew near, the pavements and open spaces along the route became packed with expectant crowds - children with Union Jacks painted on their faces, old ladies with Union Jack brollies, mums and dads with Union Jack flags and cameras at the ready.

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Police officers ushered spectators off the road and back onto to the sidewalks. Police cars and motorbikes with sirens sounding preceded official Torch Relay cars, sponsors' lorries and buses - CocoCola with free samples, Lloyds Bank with cheerleaders, Samsung with inflatable plastic thingies for waving.

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The sun came out.

Then, whoosh, along came a man in a white jogging suit carrying a flaming torch.

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Here comes the torch! Wave the flags. Applaud. Shout 'hooray'!

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Then, in an instant, it was gone.

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The heavens opened.

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We all got wet.

The torch continued on its way.

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:20 Archived in England Tagged england olympics welwyn_garden_city Comments (0)

Tradition - or an excuse for a party?

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Hertfordshire » Welwyn Garden City - 25 July 2012

overcast 20 °C

If there's one thing which would convince visitors to our fair shores that the English are barmy it would have to be: grown men and women wearing quaint costumes, bells on their legs and weird hats planted with flowers and feathers, dancing in a pub car park to the sounds of squeezeboxes and diddly-di-do songs while waving handkerchiefs in the air and menacingly clacking together wooden sticks.

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These strange affairs are called 'Morris dancing'.

They're ancient folk dances, once thought to be pagan rituals, with carefully-choreographed steps, accompanied by music played on one or more melodeons or accordions and sometimes with a rhythmic, booming drum and a wind-instrument or two for good measure.

Personally, I suspect it's all an excuse for a good booze-up; after all, you'll seldom see these dances performed anywhere except in pub car parks or outside the beer tent at a country festival! Of course, the dancers will tell you they're upholding traditions from days gone by while enjoying themselves dancing, singing and playing instruments - and, if there happens to be a pint of beer close by, it would be rude not to sup it, wouldn't it?

We recently enjoyed a demonstration of the art outside a pub in Lemsford, near Welwyn Garden City in the county of Hertfordshire (that's about 25 miles/40kms north of London for the non-Brits among you). Two groups, more correctly called Sides or sometimes Teams, performed from dusk to moonrise surrounded by cars and interested spectators. It was a fun evening for all concerned.

One Side was named Wicket Brood (their home town is Bricket Wood, near Watford. Bricket Wood > Wicket Brood, get it?). They were joined by the Letchworth Morris Men from the country's first Garden City, Letchworth, towards the north of the county. The two Sides were very different in dress and style, both traditional but one perhaps a little more serious than the other.

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A bit of history

I'm reliably informed that the term 'morris' derives from 'moorish' dance, known in the 15th century as 'morisk', 'moreys' or 'morisse', and becoming known by its present name in the 17th century. It was given the kiss of life in the early part of the 20th century and, in the 1930s, the 'Morris Ring' was founded by six groups of exclusively male dancers to ensure that the traditions could be handed down to future generations; one of those early groups was the Letchworth Morris Men. At that time, it was considered improper for women to dance the morris and, while Letchworth maintain the all-male tradition, there are now male, female and mixed Sides. One of these latter is the Wicket Brood.

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A word about styles

The Side from Letchworth dance in a style that's known as 'Cotswold morris'. Not surprisingly, they mainly perform dances customary to the area in and around the Cotswold hills, particularly in the counties of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.

They're all men, dressed in white shirts with coloured belts (called 'baldrics' - probably something to do with carrying swords once upon a time) across their chests, trousers that only reach down to their knees, and lots of jangling bells strapped around their calves over long white socks. They wear straw 'boaters' decorated with flowers or badges acquired at gatherings they've attended.

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There are usually six or eight dancers with much waving of big white handkerchiefs and banging of wooden sticks. A single, very accomplished melodeon player plays the tunes to which the Side dances. There's also a fool, appropriately attired with a jester's hat and colourful coat; in the case of the Letchworth men his coat had large bells and bunches of rosemary and lavender added to it. He encouraged dancers by shaking a tambourine and bashing them with a couple of inflated pigs' bladders!

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Wicket Brood's style, on the other hand, is known as 'Border morris'. They're a much larger Side of men and women, a group of more than twenty of them performing dances from the England/Wales border. Their style is much simpler, more vigorous and, to my mind, more fun-loving.

Border morris Sides wear 'tatter jackets', often just black but, in the case of Wicket Brood, the strips of torn fabric are multi-coloured, with mauve and green predominating. Even their miniature dachsund mascot has its own tatter jacket! They also wear hats - top hats, bowler hats, old trilby hats, many of them adorned with pheasant and peacock feathers. They have bells too, but fewer of them, tied in a strip just under their knees. Oh, and their trousers keep on going right down to their feet!

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Traditionally, male Border morris dancers also have blackened faces - in days gone by it was probably a disguise to prevent them being recognised. Wicket Brood use mainly mauve for their disguise, women painting pretty designs on their faces, while the men colour their beards if they have them. I was told by one of the men that the colour washes out with soap and water - well, they'd look daft with mauve and green beards except in a pub car park wouldn't they?

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The Side playing on this night had nearly an orchestra of musicians: three melodeon players, an accordionist, a saxophonist, a whistle or recorder player, and a big lady beating out the rhythm on a big drum.

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The whole thing is full of tradition. Even the Sides' committee members have names like 'squire' (the leader or administrator), 'foreman' (the trainer, responsible for the style and standard of dances), 'bagman' (the accountant or secretary) and 'ragman' (who co-ordinates the costumes). They take it all very seriously, even if us spectators think it's just a bit of fun.

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Jolly morris dancing is thought of as something peculiarly English, but I hear there are also Sides in many far-flung places - including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and various parts of Europe and Scandinavia. Well, they like their beer in all those countries too - which probably confirms my suspicion!

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:30 Archived in England Tagged england music welwyn_garden_city morris_dancing Comments (0)

'The most generous garden imaginable'

Europe » United Kingdom » England » East Sussex » Rye - 11 July 2012

all seasons in one day 17 °C

Today we had sunshine, showers and a riot - a riot of colour!

We journeyed, in a coach full of people "of a certain age" (like us), to Northiam, just off the road to Rye in the county of East Sussex - to the remarkable gardens of the late Christopher Lloyd.

If, outside your back door, you enter a jungle, or you have far too many plants stuffed into too small a place, or if you have flowers whose colours clash violently with those next to them, you'd be totally at home here at Great Dixter. It's a quintessentially English garden, gone mad!

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This was the family home of the highly educated, and some might say highly eccentric, gardener and author Christopher Lloyd. He died, aged 84, in January 2006. One of his two beloved dachshunds, appropriately named Dahlia and Canna, lives on and was evident in the plant nursery and a mosaic. Which of the two this was, I know not.

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His medieval house and its fantastic gardens are of such merit that they continue to be preserved and nurtured by his family's Trust and a bevy of gardeners. Although there are resident gardeners, they couldn't cope without the help of horticultural student volunteers. There's a photo below of a very rare sighting of one. Their tools and stuff are seen around the gardens, but the people themselves are usually hidden by foliage!

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Christopher Lloyd was one of the most liked and best-known horticulturalists in Britain - the gardening correspondent of The Guardian newspaper to the day he died and a writer of weekly articles for Country Life for over 40 years (we saw the neatly bound volumes weighing down shelves in his library). He and his gardens appeared frequently on television and he wrote countless books about mixed flower borders, shrubs and trees for small gardens, hardy perennials, gardening on chalk and lime soils, foliage plants, garden flowers from seed, and his favourite plant: the clematis.

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His house is almost as unique as his planting style. It was built in the mid-15th century and has the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country. New domestic quarters were added by renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens around 1910, as was another wing made up of a c.1500 hall dismantled bit by bit in nearby Benenden and tacked onto the side of the enlarged house.

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But it's the exuberant gardens surrounding the house, which will delight and amaze the visitor. Just take a look at some of the photos below. Yew topiary is set amid carpets of meadow flowers and grasses. The grass is deliberately left long to permit wild flowers to seed. It's later cut and composted. A tapestry of mixed borders stuns you with crimson against orange against silver. It's a series of 'rooms', each different, each designed to bring a smile to your face. Alarming sometimes, the colours often don't fit the keen gardeners' familiar palette of toning hues. Christopher Lloyd was unconventional in that he mixed colours that you might not normally entertain!

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This is not a neat and tidy display garden. It's positively neglected in places, there are dead or dying trees and shrubs, and the plant nursery seems to be more a place in which to grow plants to put into this garden rather than to sell you to put into yours. The greenhouses seemed quite disorganised - just like anyone's at home .

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Formality hardly exists here - there aren't any neatly mown lawns. Instead, meandering mown paths guide you through an expanse of meadows and narrow paved paths run alongside the borders. Some of these lead to dead-ends, some pass a generous bench seat, others lead you to a horse pond with big fish and red waterlilies or a sunken garden stuffed to overflowing with water weed and pink waterlilies. Some are clearly intended to get you lost in a maze of vegetation. Everywhere are plants by the hundred, all pushed together in unfamiliar mixings and almost invariably with no sign of bare earth between them.

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You won't find labels on plants around the gardens either - the great man disliked them. It was, after all, his personal garden and he knew all the plants' names anyway. His attitude was that, if you wanted to know the name of a particular plant, you only had to ask one of the gardeners (assuming you could find one amid all the foliage). In the tiny shop adjoining the plant nursery, there's a characteristically opinionated, ten point notice in his own words, explaining why there aren't any labels. Not least is his point that it's easier for people to take them out of the ground and put them in their pocket or handbag rather than write down a plant's name in a notebook, thereby negating the point of putting a label there in the first place!

In the preface to his book "In My Garden"*, Christopher Lloyd wrote:

"I find it impossible to take either myself or anyone else too seriously. Gardening, like living, should be fun. It can't be, much of the time, but we can do our best to make it so."

Yes, Christopher, you did do your best at Great Dixter and, yes, your garden is fun!

*Bloomsbury Publishing 1993, ISBN 0 7475 16596

P.S. The title of this blog - a sentiment with which I totally agree - is actually a quote from another gardening writer, Anna Pavord.

Posted by Keep Smiling 03:25 Archived in England Tagged gardens england great_dixter Comments (0)

An Invitation to View

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Cambridgeshire » Godmanchester - 9 August 2012

sunny 20 °C

Here's a mansion home with an unusual history. It's a history related to us when we visited Island Hall with friends last week - by the owner himself, Christopher Vane Percy (a descendant of Thomas Percy of the failed 1605 'Gunpowder Plot' fame), and his wife, Lady Linda (a member of the noble Grosvenor family) .

First, though, a word about the location of this delightful house. It's in the pretty little town of Godmanchester, which stands on the River Great Ouse in the county of Cambridgeshire. It's about 90 kms (55 miles) north of London.

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It's surprising what you can discover simply by looking at a town's sign. The one seen here depicts the River and a 'Chinese' Bridge that spans it, a Roman legionnaire, a Danish longboat, St Mary's Church, and a ploughman.

Godmanchester is known to have been continuously inhabited for more than 2,000 years - originally by Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons. It was the latter who gave it the name of Godmundceaster, meaning a "town of Roman buildings associated with a man called Godmund". Don't ask me who Godmund was - possibly, he was a Norse king. Certainly, it was the Danes who created the large expanse of water, seen in the photo below, near the town centre, now called the Mill Lade, for turning their longboats.

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Before them, the Romans had built a fort in the town to protect the junction of their roads from London to Lincoln and York (Ermine Street) and from Colchester to Chester, and it was the Anglo-Saxons who took the town by force from the Romans and gave it the name.

The Domesday Book mentions a church where St Mary's now stands, and the ploughman represents the large farming community that existed here at the time the town was first chartered by King John in 1212.

So, that's the history of the town in a nutshell - or on a sign anyway!

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Island Hall's history is equally complex. Unusually for such a grand house, it's slap-bang in the centre of the town, perhaps because the Jackson family who built it in 1749 wanted it to be a very obvious sign of their wealth. The red brick mansion was constructed in such a way that, whether you approached it from the town or from the river, it looked just the same, or at least it did in 1749. Alas, where a kitchen garden and stable block once stood amid parkland at the front of the house, there's now a school and a road among other things so, although the early-Georgian facade is the same, the front garden is now comparatively tiny. The back of the house (pictured above), however, still leads to a tranquil 1½ acre garden enclosed by 18th-century brick walls and mature trees, and across a neatly-mown croquet lawn to the river. There, a recreated bridge leads to the Hall's private two-acre island with its views towards the largest water meadow in the whole of England.

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The house was acquired by the great-great-grandfather of its present owner and remained a family home for about 150 years until it was requisitioned for military use during the Second World War. Christopher Vane Percy told us how the garden was torn up and covered by Nissen huts. Inevitably, the house itself suffered badly too and, at the end of the war, it was taken over by the local authority under the Emergency Housing Act. They converted the house into tiny flats and even used the old huts for accommodation. The family's connection with the house was now completely severed.

Mr Percy recalls having seen the house for the first time on a boating trip in 1957 and, although, at the time, he knew nothing of the house's history or his ancestors' connection with it, he had a schoolboy dream of one day living there.

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During the Firemen's Strike of 1977, perversely, a fire broke out on the ground floor of the house, in the flat of a lady who made hats, and despite the Green Goddesses' best efforts to put out the flames, this eventually gutted the south wing. The mansion was in a state of dereliction when, a year or two later, it was acquired for a fraction of its worth by one Simon Herttage who, aided by grants from the Historic Buildings Council, went on to spend time and money repairing the building.

In 1983, Mr Percy noticed, by chance, the now-restored Island Hall for sale in a small newspaper advertisement. He'd made a few bob from buying a dilapidated house in London and restoring it to become very valuable in the much improved housing market of the time. So, without telling his wife, he arranged for his solicitor to make an offer on the house he'd previously dreamt of owning. By the time he'd summoned up the courage to take his wife to view it, contracts had already been exchanged! The house had been rightly returned to the family which had owned it for so long in days gone by.

Since then, the process of restoration and redecoration has continued under the guidance of Mr Percy, who is both an award-winning interior designer and a regional chairman of the Historic Houses Association, and his wife Linda, who also happens to have a collection of prams which have found a new home here. In true designer fashion, not all is what it seems of course, but everything has been carefully decorated with taste and flair to resemble how the house might have appeared in its heyday. It's become a charming family home once again.

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Outside, the original 18th-century Chinese-style bridge connecting the garden to the island, a forerunner to the larger one in the town, was lost but has been faithfully recreated by its owners based on old photographs. It's a lovely spot from which to admire the house from a distance and to watch swans gliding past with their cygnets and shoals of fish darting through the weeds beneath. The present owners have also carefully recreated the cupola of the adjoining Mews House.

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Beyond the bridge, the island has been cleared of its post-war refuse, wild flowers have been encouraged and an avenue of elm trees, the first such new avenue in the county, has been planted. On a sunny day, like it was on the day of our visit, it's easy to imagine what a remarkably peaceful spot this would be for a family party or picnic.

So what's the 'Invitation to View' title of this blog all about? Well, not any old Tom, Dick or Harry can visit Island Hall. You can't just turn up and drink Lady Linda's cool elderflower cordial, eat her little triangular sandwiches and Victoria Sponge cake, or drink her 'builders' tea' out of dainty porcelain cups that she found at an antiques fair. Nor can you hear tales of ancestors and restoration from the charming man of the house without an appointment.

Oh no, you have to come to Island Hall on a group tour or, better still - like us, join other interested individuals on specific dates by contacting a unique organisation called Invitation to View. Look them up - there are lots of wonderful private homes not usually open to the public that you can visit, have a fascinating tour with their owners and, maybe, partake of afternoon tea into the bargain. We're off to another one in just a few months' time - and looking forward to it very much indeed.

Posted by Keep Smiling 05:43 Archived in England Tagged england houses invitation_to_view cambridgeshire Comments (0)

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