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Learning through Landscapes


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Scroll down for the latest - Stowe Landscape Gardens..

Text will be added shortly to accompany the other sets of photos already added below.

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Photographs and comments made following a set of visits in June 2013.  We were based in our caravan near Shipton-under-Wychwood.  The weather was at first glorious but later on, overcast, and finally, repeatedly wet.

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The Rollright Stones are near Long Compton in Oxfordshire.  There are actually three locations with stones, two close together by the roadside and the third a short walk away.  A layby is close to the monument known as the King’s Men and the King’s Stone.  Notices by a footpath gate mention a visitor fee.  What might be a collecting box for cash just inside the gate has no label, and might be nothing of the sort.

On our visit, there were several people there.  Maybe the nature of the site induces quiet, or perhaps the rural location and beautiful weather we enjoyed induces a relaxed and thoughtful mood.  Everyone wandered around, taking photographs and talking in low voices.  The main site has a circle of stones known now as the King’s Men.  Across the road, in a field made accessible through another gate, is a single monolith known as the King Stone.  It is protected by an iron fence.  The third site has four stones known as the Whispering Knights, again protected by a fence.  A fifth stone lies on the ground.  These have to be reached along a path round the edge of a field, itself fenced to keep walkers off the crops.  It is only this site, which has information, in the form of an interpretive panel shown above.  So visitors who don’t visit the Whispering Knights find no information at all.

The Whispering Knights are stones erected in the Early Neolithic period, perhaps around 10,000 BC.  They formed a dolmen, probably used as a burial chamber, with the stone on the ground having been a roof capstone before it collapsed.  The circle of the King’s Men is 33 metres across and has 77 stones.  It was built in the Early Bronze Age around 3,000 BCE.  Across the road – and not shown here – is the King’s Stone, solitary and standing prominently on a rise with an excellent view across the countryside.  No one can be sure about its age and original purpose, or the reasons for the circle of stones making the King’s Men.  Their present titles date back to a tale recorded by William Camden in 1610.  It claimed that a king with his knights met a witch who turned them all into stone, some of the knights being cast under her spell well away from the main party.  Camden had earlier speculated that they commemorated some ancient victory in battle.  But even the modern view that the Whispering Knights were actually stones making a burial chamber cannot be held with any certainty since human remains have not been found.  They could have existed once, but been removed later.

By the way, the name Rollright might be a corruption of the Old English Hrolla-landriht, meaning "the land of Hrolla".

So modern visitors enjoy the countryside, ponder on the mysterious origins of the monuments and apply whatever reasons for their building that they fancy.  Commemoration?  Astronomical tool?  Sacrificial site?  Ritual location?  The only honest conclusion is - we just don’t know.  We can learn much, but not everything, from this piece of landscape,

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We visited Chedworth Roman Villa.  It was one of the biggest Roman villas and close to no fewer than five other villas near to the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lincoln.  Cirencester and Cheltenham are nearby.  The village of Chedworth is over the hill to the south.  This is remarkably attractive, gently hilly and generously farmed countryside.  The Roman site is in the valley of the River Colne.  A freshwater spring was one of the attractions in 120 AD when work on Chedworth began.  Around the spring, the Romans built a shrine to the water nymphs.  At first, there were separate buildings, but these were reorganised into a continuous range later with dining, sleeping and bathing rooms, heated by a hypocaust system of underfloor hot air.  By the fourth century AD there was another set of guest and bathhouses, so that people could enjoy either dry-heat or damp-heat bathing suites.  Some metres to the southeast a temple was erected.  Another building stood to the northwest.

After being abandoned later, the villa remains were raided for building stone.  It was only in 1864 that the existence of a settlement by the Romans was discovered when a gamekeeper named Tom Margetts was digging for a ferret.  The land was owned by then by the Earl of Eldon.  Because he was only 19, he had a guardian, James Farrer, the MP for South Durham and an antiquarian.  The Earl financed excavations by Farrer over a two-year period.  He also paid for a fine mock-Tudor house with a museum room to house some of his guardian’s discoveries.  Just three years after the excavations were completed, a railway branch line was constructed close to the Roman villa, destroying the site of the Roman building standing separately to the north-west.

In 1924, Chedworth Villa was acquired by the National Trust.  Over the years further excavations took place, conservation work carried out and visitor facilities improved.  Last year, a new cover building for the fine foundations of the western range of buildings with their mosaics and under-floor heating.  Incorporated in them are raised walkways, hidden lighting and a sensitively, low-key, audio-visual enhancement in the dining room area.  This shows animated silhouettes on a wall accompanied by the quiet chatter of ‘diners’.  There is a teaching room in the new building with plenty of objects to handle and table games to play. 

A good guidebook is on sale in the Trust’s shop, plus many other books on Roman history.  It is interesting to see that an old form of on-site communication has returned here: hand bats.  Out by the north-side remains there is a lidded box with four wooden hand bats, one of which is seen in the photo above.  Set into the face of the bats are pages of text and graphics about the site.  These can be read while walking round.  An interactive handset with games for children or guided tour for adults can be used.  It has a display screen and sound.  On occasion, two costumed interpreters give demonstrations and tours while presenting themselves as people of the time.  An events programme adds more, from gladiator-type combats to archaeological investigations.

That dreadfully overused cliché, ‘step back in time’ should be subject to on the spot fines.  All we can do is attempt to discover, by one means or another, something of the history being hinted at by landscape fragments like those at Chedworth.  The villa is a very good example of how well it can be done, thanks to an outstanding archaeological site in the hands of a highly competent charity.

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Sometimes, the interesting place in a landscape is relatively small – and difficult to find.  That was the case when I looked for the Church of St James the Great in South Leigh.  I was on the way in to Oxford on the A40.  I had come across a mention of the church in a book somewhere.  It’s not a major tourist attraction – just some wall paintings in a church.  Yet many old churches are indicated with white-on-brown signs at road junctions.  Not this one.  The first turn, east of Witney, is along a single-track road with passing places.  After a good distance and only a vague notion that I was close to South Leigh, it was getting obvious I had made a wrong turn.  Out came the quarter-inch AA road map.  At that scale, a small village doesn’t show in detail.  But I backtracked to a likely junction to a new road.  South Leigh straggled along it.  An interesting pub called the Mason’s Arms appeared.  Then – Church End lane.  Always a good clue!

You never know if a church is going to be locked.  St James’s was open.  Inside, the treasured late medieval paintings were visible.  They’re one of the best collections in the country.  Photographing them wasn’t easy in the low light.  A bit of post-production was needed to make them easier to see in the group above, which explains the poor quality.

I could imagine the villagers standing for a service in the church – in the 15th century there were no pews.  Perhaps there were candles and rush lights, but the windows would have been the main illumination and they were not big.  Medieval churches were places of worship.  They were also places of instruction, propaganda for a largely illiterate congregation.  This was the point in their limited landscape for what little learning they acquired.  The priest, the service and the graphic scenes around them reinforced ideas of the punishments or rewards awaiting beyond the grave on Judgement Day.

Over the chancel arch is a ‘doom painting’.  It shows the dead rising from their graves on Judgement Day.  Some are sent, weeping, to hell.  Others make their way to heaven.  To the right is a painting of St Michael weighing the sinfulness of mortals in the scales of justice (photo at top, right).  Just visible (and marked off here by a white line) can be seen an earlier painting showing through.  I have enlarged it with the same white line, above the title line.  While the oldest parts of the church were erected in the 12th century, additions and changes were carried out over the next three hundred years.  Between 11871 and 1888, restoration work repaired and changed parts of the building.  The paintings were uncovered and the St Michael picture repainted at twice its original size.

John Wesley preached in the church in 1725, delivering his first sermon.  The pulpit he used is still there, shown in the photo above.

The landscape of medieval South Leigh would have seemed isolated to most of its inhabitants.  The forest closed in round the strip-fields and cottages.  St James’s church and the manor house will have been prominent reminders of the overlordship of church and state.  St James’s would have been the social focus, and the dissemination point for the news of the time, as well as the tidings of life in the hereafter.

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We made an all-day visit to Stowe Landscape Gardens near Buckingham.  Even so, we didn’t get round all of the Gardens and the famous Stowe House that they serve will need another trip, another day.  The Gardens are owned by the National Trust, the house by a separate Preservation Trust.  Stowe School occupies several buildings and private ground to the side of the House and Gardens.  It is a co-educational boarding school rated as one of the leading independent educational establishments in the country.  The combination makes this one of the biggest and most interesting attractions – if you like eighteenth century theme parks, that is! – and we started by discovering a new jewel of an addition opened only last year.

Since our previous visits, the National Trust has re-orientated the visitor approach.  Instead of entering the Gardens near to the house, visitors follow signs taking them along the Grand Avenue from the direction of Buckingham, just as people would have approached the house years ago.  It duplicates some of the sense of anticipation that 18th century travellers must have felt.  We left our car on the new car park – well landscaped with new shrubbery planted – and walked to the main entrance.

That was where we enjoyed our first, delightful, surprise.  The way in is under an arch to a small courtyard, part of what was begun as the New Inn of 1792.  The sign shown in the photo above told caught our attention.  Going through a door alongside took us into something we had not realised existed – the reconstruction displays of the Inn.  Even though we had not reached the entrance desk and showed our membership cards, we, and everyone else who cared to, were free to wander around inside.  And although I, for one, have great respect for those Ladies and Gentlemen who Volunteer to look after rooms on display, it was quite refreshing that there were none around.  The best are attentive but discrete – the worst are desperate to have you spend half an hour listening to their well-rehearsed lecture on every item present on show.

The description on the sign points to the kind of rooms shown.  They don’t include bedrooms, but range from a kitchen with its hand-pumped cold water supply to a small dining room and a sitting room, or parlour.  In the kitchen, there is an example of a roasting jack, with a (plaster) ham hanging inside an iron hood.  It faced an open fire when cooking, the hood reflecting heat back on to the ham.

In the sitting room, there was a writing table with quill pens in a holder.  I don’t suppose that the traveller who wrote up a journal each evening would then send a letter home with the words ‘wish you were here’.  Yet from the early days of travelling, the writing up of a journal and the occasional letter home was important, not only to reassure the folks  back home that all was well, but also in helping to spread the word about the latest interesting destination.  Like Stowe Gardens.

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After exploring the New Inn at Stowe, visitors enter a smart new visitor facility.  The National Trust has been doing a great deal to make the new arrangement of good quality.  There isn’t a further history display at this point, just the usual ticketing/café/shop combination.  As usual, the emphasis in the shop is on good taste gifts with a nice smell of lavender upping the ambience.  Matching the goods on offer with the customers arriving is an essential in order to help support the very expensive demands of property conservation and preservation.  I always finish up wishing there was more than the main guidebooks on the shelves.  There is the typical retailing trap for shop managers, though.  If they stock products other than their own label, they are liable to be undercut by online sellers.  National Trust members are just as adept at window shopping at attractions but buying online when they get home.  There are some good remaindered books in some NT properties.  It’s a bit hit-and-miss whether you can find something useful. 

We spent two or three hours going round the Stowe Landscape Gardens Even then, there was a whole circuit of pathways we had to leave out for a future occasion.

The focal point of the gardens is Stowe House.  That long approach road mentioned above impresses visitors in cars just as it did when they were in horse-drawn carriages.  The effect continues when walking round – just as the original owners intended.  A dynasty of Temple-Grenvilles owned Stowe between 1571 and 1921.  Among them, they included a few Sirs, Earls, Marquesses, Barons and Dukes.  They behaved like landed gentry by gentrifying their land.  The house sits at the centre of property including extensive farmland, some of which still carries recognisable patterns of roads, lodge houses and the farm buildings themselves.  In 1889 the last male owner, the 3rd Duke of Chandos and Buckingham, died and the fortunes of the estate began to get complicated.  It passed to the Duke’s daughter, who tried to sell it, without success.  She then rented it out for five years after which it was empty until Lady Mary Morgan-Grenville, the Duke’s daughter, returned to live there after her husband died.  Between her death in 1908 and 1921, her son owned Stowe.  Debts built up.  He sold it for £50,000 to a Mr Shaw, who intended presenting it to the nation, but such a move requires a large endowment to go with it to provide for the upkeep, and Mr Shaw didn’t have the money.  So he sold it, to a group who set up a school in the house.  There was further buying and selling of parts of the grounds, but in 1989 an anonymous donor put up the money to present the gardens to the National Trust.  Today, the school – one of the leading public schools in Britain – owns several new buildings and sports grounds, and the National Trust owns the gardens.  Between these two bodies, there is a jointly owned trust caring for the house.

The cash-strapped 3rd Duke had felled most of the timber around the house to raise money, and sold off many of the statues from the gardens.  The house became a liability for the school as it concentrated on the new buildings it required.  By the time, the National Trust got involved, the situation with the grounds had become serious.  As the two charitable bodies surveyed the cost of restoration, they found that £40m was needed for the house and £10m for the gardens.  Money was found from English Heritage and private donors.  The work continues today, replacing lost statues with replicas and making the house secure and properly presented.

So what is now Stowe House and Landscape Gardens has a whole library of tales to tell from its rise and fall and rebirth.

The whole complex was utilitarian – house, food and flower gardens, pleasure gardens, farmland and woodland – but also, propagandist.  In this respect, it was no different from other great estates of its time.  Its architecture, layout and decoration was meant to reinforce the position of its owners through a series of redesigns over the centuries.  The intention was also to show off ideas about the running of estates to the prominent visitors who came.  There were three main phases of design.  The first was for a fine house supported by what was needed to live there – food, cash profit and leisure pursuits.  Next came the period when the food and profit functions were moved away so that a landscaped park could be developed, full of heroic monuments that drew attention to the political and cultural opinions of the man in charge.  The third phase saw a softening of the gardens into a private Elysium, withdrawn from the public life of London.

We toured the gardens.  Making a left turn at the end of the approach lane took us to a point on the main axis of the gardens, stretching from the house to the lake and pavilions looking back at the property.  The top photo above is a panorama-sweep from one pavilion to the other, so the path is actually a straight line!  Just visible in the distance is the house, framed by trees.  Out of sight to the left of it are the main school buildings and a golf course.  You can’t see a game of cricket that was being played in front of the house by mixed-gender teams (it’s now a co-educational school).  The lady about to catch her death of cold is Venus in the Rotondo.  The Palladian Bridge crosses an arm of the lake.  At the top of a rise near the bridge is the Gothic Temple.  Other statues and monuments commemorate, among others, Saxon deities, Captain Cook the explorer, Lord Cobham (of whom more in a moment), Queen Charlotte and a works foreman, named William Nelson, who was in charge of building at Stowe at one time.  There are monuments extolling Ancient Virtues, Pastoral Poetry, Contemplation, Concord and Victory, and British Worthies.

There used to be a Temple of Modern Virtues.  This was designed as a ruin.  One of the owners of Stowe was Viscount Cobham (rather appropriately himself a Temple) who was in government until he fell out with the Prime Minister, Horace Walpole over foreign policy and then the introduction of Excise Duty.  In disgust, Cobham resigned, returned to Stowe, and began to add new monuments there making some sharp political points.  The Temple of Modern Virtues was a ruin, just as he considered British political life.  His Temple of British Worthies was a collection of people he thought ranked as the great and the good (no Walpole here, of course).  Busts of the Black Prince, Queen Elizabeth I, John Hampden, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Sir Francis Bacon, Inigo Jones and William Shakespeare are among the sixteen set out here to be lauded.  Under each is a carved inscription recording why he, or she, was thought worthy. 

Viscount Cobham began to lead a branch of the Whigs political party.  By speeches, debate, writing and the use of his monumental estate he set out to impress the establishment of his day. 

Below: The Temple of British Worthies

Image: Stowe Gardens - Temple of British Worthies

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