The Wormsley Library

On a private tour of the Wormsley Library, we had 15 minutes. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. Discretion is the watchword

I have previously written about the Wormsley Estate, so typical of the Chilterns: slightly bonkers, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably unknowingly walked past many times. All 2,500 acres flow between a deer park, ornamental lakes, the “Sir Paul Getty’s cricket Ground” and mock Tudor pavillion, an opera house, Wormsley Library and private castle; each notable in their own right, but all together on one estate? I am not worthy.

The late Sir Paul Getty’s first love was cricket, but high up on his list must surely have been rare books and manuscripts as he filled his Wormsley library with amongst many others: 12 – 15th century illuminated medieval manuscripts, the first edition of Caxton’s Canterbury Tales, Anne Boleyn’s Psalter and the first folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, no less. I really like the library, as it has a lived-in, welcoming feel, which is unexpected for somewhere that houses a collection of this importance. The chairs around the fire have the previous occupants’ impressions left behind and I wondered if they had sat fireside, and leafed through a precious volume with a familiar title, but we would most likely never see an original copy?

Invited on a private tour, with a robust schedule, we were ushered past the opera house with instructions not to photograph the private residence, nor further aggravate the already aggravated dogs who were going mad on the other side of the fence, so we tiptoed along roped-off pathways, stealing sideways  glances whenever we could.

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We had 15 minutes in the library. Never enough time in any library in my view, so taking a deep breath, I had to be on my toes to ensure I at least covered off the key contents.

A Pistol Book 1627
Hidden Treasure

Why is it that some books of such staggering historical and cultural significance can sometimes look like something picked up for a tenner at a car boot sale? The only indication they are rare is that they are in fact included on the bookshelves with this collection, and those with their pages open, delicate gold-flecked images and painful writing on display that the saying ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ really starts to take on meaning.

You can see images of Anne Boleyn’s beautiful Psalter at the Morgan Library & Museum New York.  This tiny book measures a mere 5-by-3 1/2 inches and bears Anne’s coat of arms and monogram combined with that of Henry Vlll. The 275 vellum leaves were written and illustrated in France between 1529 and 1532, and this is a French translation from Hebrew of the biblical Psalms. Takes your breath away.

fullsizeoutput_34faAnother gem is the first edition of the Canterbury Tales, the greatest work in Middle England printed by William Caxton in Westminster between 1476-77 is only one of seven complete or substantially complete copies, and the only one if private hands. Would you take that out and read by the fire? Perhaps not.

Located between Stokenchurch and Watlington, Wormsley Park operates as an organic farm and many red kites can be seen in the vicinity. Once extinct in England and Scotland, the birds were reintroduced into England in 1989 with Windsor Great Park being the release site. All did not go to plan and without the intervention of Sir Paul, who offered Wormsley Park instead, the project would have been lost, and along with it, what is now considered to be the icon of the Chilterns – the magnificent red kite.

In spite of an abundance of things to be showy about, you will find the Chilterns one of the least-showy places in England. You have to know where to look and whom to ask. I recommend signing up for a twitter account if you don’t already have one, that way you are bound to be in the know.

The Library is only available for a limited number of dates each year, as it is part of the family’s home. Wormsley’s knowledgeable librarians can host up to 25 guests at a time for tours of the collection. More information here,

Further Information:

Another local library that will knock your socks off, is the Rothschild Foundation at Windmill Hill, Waddesdon.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration.

A Brief History of…

In which eight rare medieval wall tiles are bought for £17 and are now priceless.

The Tring Tiles.

Tucked away on a side wall in the Medieval Galleries in the behemoth that is the British Museum, hang the enchanting Tring Tiles. Remarkable then, that despite such an immense archive spanning thousands of years, these eight tiles have been on a world tour and are now on permanent display.

The history of the Tring Tiles is so terribly brief, as not much is known about them, not even whether they were made in England, or in France.

They have been described as a ceramic religious comic strip of the life of a young Christ, almost like a 14th century Springfield cartoon. The yellow characters tell apocryphal tales about the childhood of Christ in a raw comic strip full of odd and unfamiliar images; Christ killing a school mate who has annoyed him, in another scene, a man dies because he spoilt a pool that Jesus made and he is brought back to life and simply walks away! I don’t recall being told these stories as a child.

Fashions come and go, and that extends to things ecclesiastical. During an early 18th century make-over of the Tring Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, the tiles were covered up and then stripped out in the early 1880’s, only to be offered for sale in the Dickensian-sounding local Curiosity Shop. The owner refused to say how he came by them. Happy to sell them on however, to a Rev Owen, who upon his death in Chelmsford in 1922, the tiles were disposed off amongst his personal and household items. They were bought by an antiques dealer for £17, and he sold them to the British Museum.

So much could have gone wrong through all of these transactions! And then another two tiles turned up in Tring and were gifted to the V&A. Will any more turn up one day…I hope the residents of Tring are thoroughly examining their cellars and garden walls.

Although not a common English method, I like to think they could have been made in the nearby Penn potteries, an important centre for decorative tiles that were destined for great houses and buildings across London and the South East.

Just like the Holy Trinity Penn ‘Doom’ painting that was very nearly lost if it weren’t for the rain, so too would these remarkable treasures have also been lost. Thank goodness for eagle-eyed folk and purveyors of all things curious!

Tring Tiles
“Eight tiles of lead-glazed red earthenware with decoration representing incidents from the apocryphal accounts of the infancy of Christ. Executed by scratching through and cutting away a white slip under a yellow clear glaze.’  British Museum
Artist: unknown
Maker: unknown
Origin: England. or France
Made: late Medieval, circa 13th century
The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Tring
Saint Peter & Saint Paul Tring
Further ideas on things to visit and places to explore in Tring

For more information on what to see and do locally in Tring and the Chilterns.

“Mama, Papa, I’m going to make a museum…” claimed the precocious founder of the Natural History Museum in Tring!

Good shot Terry!

I was eager to visit Stowe House and Gardens near Buckingham, once the county town of Buckinghamshire in the 10th century until Aylesbury assumed the mantle early in the 18th century. It’s fairly flat country with extensive farmland – a lot of sheep with their offspring – and the vista’s are impressive. The drive up Grand Avenue towards the house is just that, grand, and the road undulates towards the Corinthian Arch that will either intimidate or impress the guests.

England went mad: with the Easter weather forecast of doom for three of the four-day weekend, today was the day to get out. And get out everyone did! Up and down the land, queues formed for just about everything.

Having just renewed my National Trust membership, I was eager to visit Stowe House and Gardens near Buckingham, once the county town of Buckinghamshire in the 10th century until Aylesbury assumed the mantle early in the 18th century. It’s fairly flat country with extensive farmland – a lot of sheep with their offspring – and the vista’s are impressive. The drive up Grand Avenue towards the house is just that, grand, and the road undulates towards the Corinthian Arch that will either intimidate or impress the guests.

Stowe Gates
Corinthian Arch

The 200 hectare 18th century site is difficult to describe as it’s vast, filled with crafted and hewn landscapes, temples, bling, statues of long-dead grandees, columns and man-made lakes. Like an 18th century Nkandla, without a fire pool or helipad, this was an estate and home where money was no object. From humble beginnings and a fortune made from sheep farming, Sir Richard Temple began building a mansion in 1677. This building is now at the core of the current mansion and had a formal terraced garden with straight walks to the south and a walled kitchen garden close by. Transformed by Capability Lancelot Brown who worked here as head gardener and clerk of works from 1741 – 1751 he designed the grand vista’s we see today.

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Temple of Ancient Virtue

As you stroll through the grounds, structures appear from behind trees, or over the brow of a hill and I was unsure whether to take a closer look. Unlike it’s financier Lord Cobham, the hidden political meanings and cultural nuances he created were just too subtle for me.

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Temple of British Worthies

It’s a strangely unfriendly place, unsure now of its identity as the school, independent Stowe House Preservation Trust, and National Trust sit cheek-by-jowl, all playing their role in education, preservation and conservation.  Apart from the golf course that has its fairway right in front of the main house, so unless you want to be knocked on the head with a golf ball, it’s best to walk elsewhere. “Good shot Terry!” rang out in the spring sunshine.

We were hungry so make our way past endless refreshment queues and headed home, past the little princes’ and skipping princesses on their way to enjoy an Easter parade.

One more stop on the way home to savour a little gem; Old Thornborough Bridge, a wonderful 14th century ‘cut waters’ bridge design that diverted debris and allowed passing places for pedestrians and is what the original London Bridge probably looked like, but on a grander scale of course. This is the rural equivalent, and sits alongside the very busy A421 and is what I love about England: just like Avebury, the best bits can be enjoyed out in the countryside, often obscured, overtaken or ignored as we rush through the landscape, hardly ever finding the time to stop and savour. I am glad we visited Stowe!

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Old Thornborough Bridge

 

The Top Dog

A walk to discover ancient #Chilterns woodland archeology, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter.

A day to discover what lies beneath, turned into an altogether unexpected musical encounter, as I headed out to spend a morning learning about the archeology that litters the floor of Pigotts Wood, an ancient Chilterns woodland.

Pigotts Wood in spring
Pigotts Wood

Near High Wycombe, Pigotts Woods is really tucked away in the Chiltern Hills, and if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the woodland course on time, would have found many distractions along the way. The single lane wound its way up the hill with muntjac deer alongside the road, which suddenly opens up into a sunny field with Pigotts up ahead.

Inside Pigotts Wood
Inspiration on the walls

The Flying Scotsman

We assembled in the music room in what was the former home of Eric Gill, infamous sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker who was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He designed one of the most famous British typefaces, Gill Sans, used in the classic design system of Penguin Books and by British Railways, most famously perhaps as it was the typeface adopted by GNER for their flagship ‘Flying Scotsman’.

Now home to the Wheeler Robinson family for over 50 years, it was they who began the tradition of amateur music weekends where young musicians could tackle not only the symphonies of Beethoven, but even mounting their own Ring Cycle. Our host, Nick Robinson has continued this tradition and is a relaxed, affable man who was at one with his historic home. I liked him and loved his house; full of brick-a-brack and clutter, but I am sure each musical instrument, book and painting was there for a reason and not by casual design. I wonder how much the location influences the choices made and how each member performs on those weekends?

The courtyard at Pigotts Wood
A dazzling spring sky

Yellow bird nests and a pillow mound

I could instantly tell that, set around a grassy, sunny courtyard the converted barns and pretty cottages are very much lived in, relaxed in and enjoyed. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea whilst Nick told us more about his amazing house and music tradition before John Morris from the Chiltern Woodland Project, lead us off into the woods.

John was determined we would master the names of  woodland flowers including; Yellow Birdsnest, Coralroot Bittercress and Green Hellebore, to recognise the manmade features – sometimes with their give-way mossy mantle, but to the untrained eye, largely unrecognisable; property boundaries, iron slag and sites where charcoal was once made. John also showed us a pillow mound – a rabbit warren for rabbit farming – and how to recognise a special feature of the Chilterns woods and forests – a saw pit. The story goes that once a heavy log had been placed over the pit and secured into place with a hook called a ‘dog’, the man who worked on top of the log was the top dog and the one beneath (having to do all the hard work I suspect), was the underdog.

Within the wood, you can look out for the crucifix that Eric Gill designed which was carved by Donald Potter. It was nailed to a small beech tree in the Wood which Gill owned. He is said to have taken his daily constitutional to the Crucifix Tree where he read his rosary. Was that redemption he was seeking?

I was struck too, how once, absolutely everything had to be grown at the backdoor, farmed, or ingredients sourced and items made, as there weren’t many retailers to pop into to buy charcoal, a new shirt or the weekly groceries. If you weren’t making it yourself, in the main you got on without it.

The mighty beech trees in Pigotts Wood
The mighty beeches

A day to discover what lies beneath the woodland floor, turned into more than just looking at the obvious plants and animals. It was a morning filled with stories, unexpected historical links and folklore, all from such an unassuming hillside location. We returned to the house to enjoy my first picnic of the season. The weather being so warm, and Nick had a huge pot of homemade vegetable soup and stories waiting for us, including the infamous tale of the black bath . But that is a story for another time.

This is what I love best about the Chilterns: you set off thinking you will be doing one thing when in fact something quite different and delightful comes along. It’s such a cliche I know, but Pigotts really is a hidden gem, and my walks in the woods made more enjoyable as I test out my new-found wood-lore!

A view from Pigotts Wood
Up the valley

I was fortunate to attend an archeology event in the woodland, but Pigotts Wood is private and I ask that you respect the privacy of the homeowners here, as there is no public access to the wood nor from the track itself.

Further Information

Why should you explore the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with impressive churches and pretty villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find out here.

I visited Pigotts Wood in the spring, but the Chilterns have stories to share at any time of the year; winter, summer and autumn.

Repair and Refurbish

Who knew that we owe so much of our complex digital lives to the war-time activities of code-breakers toiling in secret during the Second World War at Bletchley Park?

In an unexpected location, in the middle of a nondescript town in Buckinghamshire, north west of London, sits a visitor attraction that is bound to keep the heritage hordes happy…somewhere to while away an afternoon immersing yourself in long-forgotten stories and past selfless lives.

Janet and John
Janet and John

I have often commented on the insatiable appetite for heritage and history and all that falls in between. The market is well served with providers who are only too keen to help you part with your cash to support their heritage cause. As with many other heritage sites, the balance to be struck between access and paying those bills can’t be easy, so finding your niche is important. Bletchley Park, once home to the code-breakers, has a long, glorious and complex history, to which I cannot do justice here, but suffice to say that finally, the location of such mind-boggling war-time work, so much of it top secret, can now bask in the visitor attraction and heritage limelight. Bletchley Park is fortunate in having found an excellent niche and relevance with ICT and the security headaches it brings to all of us today; with our many electronic devices, computers, encrypted passwords and daily dodging of online fraudsters who do their very best to break our personal codes.

Perhaps the Trustees would think it an overblown description of this as a Cinderella attraction following its transformation since it first opened in 1994 and successful £8 million Heritage Lottery funding that has enabled at least some of the site to be developed – much more to follow in the future and an annual visitor forecast of 250,000.

It was hard to tell from where the visitors originate, as most of us where plugged into our complimentary headsets (with impressive content) that cocooned us in a 1940’s world, with added comical gestures and expressions of our own. Some thoughtful displays and some not so, but we did enjoy the puzzles, code crackers and how to even work an Enigma machine.

Where would the heritage sector be without volunteers? In fact, where would the UK be without volunteers? There were a number of them dotted about, ready to explain the complex machinery and their impact, and to the chap who, with wit and confidence made the inner-workings of a Bombe Machine seem so obvious to the dull-witted such as myself, your contribution was inspirational!

There has been much written and broadcast of the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who for a time led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Now the focus of new biopic, the Imitation Game, he devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Turing’s pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several crucial battles. He was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 however, when such acts were still criminalised in the UK, that was to have tragic consequences.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

The further we got into the experience though, you could tell where the funding had stopped. The knackered toilets really felt like a 1940’s immersion experience (no pun intended), and it couldn’t have included customer training for the young staff who were working (and some relaxing) in the caff, where ‘spot something fresh, anything fresh to eat’ become pointless. Call me bias, but I always hold the Merlin Entertainments Group as a shining example of how staff need to deal with and interact with customers, they are fabulous. No matter what job is being done, they are always ‘in the moment.’

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Chess on the lawn was how we finished the visit, a fitting way to get our brains working, but I suspect nothing like the 9,000 Bletchley workers who at the peak of the war, toiled night and day on the 10,000 codes messages that flooded in from every theatre of war.

Today, July 29th, Bletchley Park’s Royal Patron, HRH The Duke of Kent, will officially open a major new exhibition telling the story of Codebreaking in World War One, The Road to Bletchley Park. The Duke will meet representatives of the exhibition’s sponsors, BAE Systems and Ultra Electronics, as well as visiting new displays and exhibitions updated since his last visit in 2009.

Entrance to the museum costs £15 (and is valid for one year), for adults and is free for children under 12. For further information: Bletchley Park