Sorry about the punning title. I generally hate headline puns in the media but I have to capture your attention somehow. We visited Cheddar Gorge today so I thought I might write a little something especially as we haven’t been up to much lately. However a few things might amuse or interest.
Recently we attended the sixtieth birthday party of an old chum from my days in London living in Garrett Terrace, Tooting Broadway and Balham. He looks just the same as then except for the grey hair which isn’t uncommon now that 60 is the new 40. The party was held in the garden which was indeed lovely as it had what we initially thought was a river, then a canal, as we approached the house alongside it, that had a side channel that ran through the garden creating a small island reached by a charming little footbridge. To complete the picture there was a rustic summer house and a hen coup that was home to two chickens who roamed the garden pecking and scratching. The food was excellent, the company varied and stimulating and to cap it all off we were treated to live music from our friend’s niece and a fellow musician.
On our way back down the canal we saw a notice about its history and low and behold it all fell into place for the water was actually being conducted on an aqueduct and was on its way to supply London with some of its freshwater and this aqueduct had been built originally by none other than the same RS Holford who built Westonbirt House and created the arboretum, just outside Tetbury, that we know so well, all on the back of the fortune that he made from supplying freshwater to London. And this aqueduct is still supplying water to London today albeit under the control of Thames Water.
On our way home the next day we visited Hughenden Manor, the home of “Dizzy” Disraeli, well known author, imperialist and confidante of Queen Victoria. What made this a little different from the usual OTT statement of power and bombast was that it was not those things but rather perhaps the closest we have come to a genuine home. The rooms all spoke of a married couple, for he was indeed very happily married, making a comfy retreat for themselves.
Many country houses found themselves being enlisted in the war effort as hospitals, homes for evacuees or military centres for one or other requirement. In the case of Hughenden it was used as a secret intelligence base code-named “Hillside”. The UK Air Ministry staff at the manor analysed aerial photography of Germany and created maps for bombing missions, including the famous “Dambusters” raid.
That evening we stayed at a hotel out in the countryside called Fanhams Hall which was a Jacobean house that had gone through many changes so typical of these places ending up as a corporate training centre for the likes of Sainsburys before finally becoming a hotel. As a result it was a bit like actually staying in one of the country houses that we so often visit complete with ornamental gardens and extensive grounds that had been landscaped in Japanese style for one of the families that owned the property. They were a little bit under maintained but still very pleasant to stroll around in the evening especially as we had the place to ourselves. The place still seems to focus on providing training facilities to corporates and was very quiet on the night of our stay. We were the only people in the dining room for dinner which was actually rather nice and the staff were very attentive not having much else to do.
We recently visited Great Chalfield Mansion and garden, a fifteenth century house that starred in “Wolf Hall” as the home of Thomas Cromwell. Another location used by the series was nearby Lacock Abbey which I have written about in the past.
In complete contrast another recent trip was to Stourhead, a country house in the Palladian style with spectacular grounds covering 265 acres that “has at its centrepiece a magnificent lake reflecting classical temples, mystical grottoes, and rare and exotic trees”. An interesting sidenote to the current gardens is that we in fact get to see them in a much more mature state than that of the original creators for whom the many trees, bushes and shrubs would have been quite immature and small. The fairly ludicrous follies scattered around the place are testimony to the huge surplus wealth appropriated by these people and also the fantasies that they chose to fulfil with it. The gardens boast the following nuttiness: The Temple of Flora (not the margarine, the goddess of flowers), the Grotto ( a sub-Ludwig of Bavaria effort), the Temple of Apollo (filled with pseudo-Greek statues), a Palladian bridge to nowhere, and the Gothic Cottage. The house had been in the Hoare family since 1717. The son of a horse-dealer, Sir Richard founded Hoare’s bank in 1672. The bank continues to this day but I am delighted to be able to tell you that the dissolute Sir Henry Ainslie Hoare, who inherited Stourhead on the death of his uncle in 1857. Subsequently Ainslie’s flamboyant lifestyle forced him to leave the bank and auction Stourhead paintings, furniture and books. He left Stourhead in 1885. The last Hoare to own the property was Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare who, in order to preserve the estate intact gave it to the National Trust in 1947. Hooray!
The Kennet and Avon canal runs through Bath and we often take walks along it either to the west or the east. Recently we drove out to see the Dundas aqueduct which carries the canal over the River Avon and the railway line and the Avoncliff aqueduct which carries it back again. These were built to reduce the need for locks by helping to keep the canal a level track. The Dundas aqueduct is also the junction between the Kennet and Avon Canal and the largely derelict Somerset Coal Canal. The short stretch of the Somerset Coal Canal still in water forms Brassknocker Basin, used for boat moorings, cycle hire and a café and is next to Dundas Wharf where the small tollhouse, warehouse and crane still stand.
The gorge itself is spectacular and is so unexpected. As one crosses the lovely Mendip hills the landscape begins to take on a wilder, rougher aspect. The flora becomes scrubbier, more like a heathland and then suddenly one is descending into the gorge which rears up on either side with vertical rock faces in places soaring to almost 400 feet while to road winds tightly down to emerge in Cheddar itself, although not before having passed by the coach park at the bottom and the rather tawdry strip of tourist shops and cafes that line the road. This is a depressing place and presents to us two opposing views of the world – the privately owned and commercial and the publicly owned not-for-profit. Another analogy might be commercial TV versus the BBC.
This is because the south side of the gorge is owned and administered by the Marquess of Bath‘s Longleat Estate. The cliffs on the north side of the gorge are owned by The National Trust. Every year both of the gorge’s owners contribute funds towards the clearance of scrub bush and trees from the area. Follow these links to see the difference:
I can do no better than to quote from Wikipedia:
“Most of the commercial visitor activity in the gorge is on the Longleat-owned south side, including access to the two main commercial show caves and the visitor centre, which is operated by Longleat-owned company Cheddar Gorge and Caves Ltd under director Hugh Cornwell. Due to the fact that tourist numbers have dropped through the show caves from 400,000 a year in the 1980s to 150,000, in 2013 Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weymouth who runs the Longleat estate on behalf of the family trust, proposed installation of a 600 metres (2,000 ft) 18-gondola cable car estimated to cost £10M, taking visitors from the entrance area to the caves directly to the top of the south side cliffs. The National Trust have opposed the proposed development, stating that it will spoil the view and cheapen the experience, creating a “fairground ride” that will make the area feel more like an amusement park. If planning permission is gained in Spring 2014, then operations would start in Spring 2016.”
I offer these two pictures as evidence of the of a long, slow slide into a tawdry decline.
Westonbirt in Autumn
To finish on a less sour note, we walked in Westonbirt arboretum last week to see the first signs of the autumn colours. We have been tracking the seasons here through the year and will be returning to see more of the glorious reds and browns.