27 February 2012

Holywell House

Last weekend I officially began a pilgrimage to retrace the steps (or should I say hoof prints?) of Celia Fiennes. Researching her travels has been, oh, let's face it, a royal blast, especially for someone so hard bitten by the travel bug. Trying to find the country houses and landmarks she talks of has lead me to some interesting places, albeit restricted to libraries and the internet. Until two days ago!

But first, a bit of background.

Once upon a time this scepter'd isle was positively riddled with great country houses, those venerable piles which served as the 'country seate' of the greatest noble families and fortunate merchants with enough cash to score a piece of land. Full of visions and ideas from their Grand Tour through Italy and Europe, young nobles educated in art and architecture returned and planned the changes, additions, or new houses they would build when the old man kicked off and they finally came into their inheritance. Inspired by the concept of the Italian villa - a house in the country - stately homes began popping up in the English countryside, with building works peaking between the late 17th and mid-18th centuries. Did I mention they also had spectacular gardens?

Many of these houses, along with their gardens, were remodeled through the centuries in the latest style - Palladian, Gothic, Victorian - and some were completely pulled down and built anew. Fast forward a few hundred years to the post-WW2 era when so many of these houses were knocked down it would make you run to your bed and bite your pillow. Things started getting bad after WW1 (if you follow Downton Abbey, and I highly recommend that you do, you'll have an idea what it was like), but progressed rapidly to worse after WW2. If the house wasn't destroyed by a doodlebug, chances are many of the male staff and heirs were lost in fighting, leaving no one to continue running the estate. The cost of keeping such a place going, with hundreds of staff, became difficult, for some, impossible.

Some sources say that by the 1950s a country house was being demolished every five days, with as many as 1,200 lost since 1900. I hope you have your pillow handy. There is some good news, though. Not all met their doom by the blow of a wrecking ball. Some of them burned down! One that I was trying to find was set to be donated to the National Trust when the flame from a torch being used to remove paint from a windowsill ignited the whole house and poof! The story goes the owner was inconsolable (pillow, please).

Well, now on to my story. One such house that no longer exists is Holywell House in St. Albans. Celia Fiennes visited St. Albans and writes briefly:

"Thence to St. Albans and so we enter Hartfordshire 12 mile: there is a very large streete to the Market place, its a pretty large town takeing all, the St Juliers [St Julians] and that at one end and the other end is St Nicholas [error?? - she would have passed close to St Michaels], where is a handsome church; the great Church which is dedicated to St. Albans is much out of repaire; I see the places in the pavement that was worn like holes for kneeling by the devotes of the Religion, and his votery's, as they tell you, but the whole Church is so worn away that it mourns for some charitable person to help repaire it; there are several good houses about the town one [Holywell House] of the Earl of Maulberoug [Marlborough] and one of Mrs Gennings [Jennings] the Countess Mother."

I'm sure she'd be happy to know that the great Church has been restored, and I'll write about that later. But what about Holywell House?  I put on my deerstalker, grabbed my pipe (not really, my parents read this after all), my magnifying glass and set to work. Here's what I found:

As with any journey, we begin with a map.


This is from Charles Smith's map of Hertfordshire circa 1808. You can clearly see St. Julians, St. Michaels, and the church of St. Albans, which Celia Fiennes mentions. Near the center of the image, just above the river, you see the location of 'Halloway House'. This is likely a corruption of the spelling 'Hallywell' which is a corruption of 'Holywell', which is the name of the road which takes its name from the holy well* located nearby. Close enough for jazz, I thought. Armed with that bit of info, I googled my way to this:

Holywell House c. 1806 (wikicommons)

Nice place. And I can't be sure but that's probably the bell tower at St. Albans in the distance. So, knowing that the house was called Holywell House and it was located downhill from the abbey, presumably on Holywell Road, I felt pretty confident I was getting hotter. Then this came along:

Holywell House, St. Albans from St. Stephens Road, copy of a drawing by Thos. Baskerville circa 1795
(St. Albans Museum)

This excited me even more because this is probably pretty close to the view Celia Fiennes would have seen! Psych!
Next I found this:

st-albans-cotton-mill Holywell House
From a map c. 1822 produced for Clutterbuck's The History of the County of Hertford

Very promising. Even though there isn't much detail in the planted areas of the gardens, it shows the extent of the grounds and their general style, which appear to be firmly in the English Landscape era of design, a style perfected and capably marketed by Capability Brown (which makes him responsible for the disappearances of all the gardens I'm studying, the villain!).

Drawing satisfactorily on my imaginary pipe, I then consulted the Ordinance Survey maps of the 1880's:

Holywell House 1880 OS
Click to embiggen

Scroll down the larger image and you'll find the location of Holywell House, along with the site of the holy well. Notice the lovely crescent with townhouses just across the street on the west side. Now for the magic:

overlay detail_edited-1

How do you like them apples!? I was curious about one thing, though. The OS map clearly shows the footprint of the house on the east side of the road while the painting clearly shows it otherwise, and since scale is always an issue with this kind of overlay (note that the bottom right corner of the painting doesn't align with the path of the river but clearly that's what it is), I wondered. Definitely a two-pipe problem. So I did what Sherlock would have done and consulted Watson (aka my tutor). Before he could respond I found this excerpt on-line from A History of the County of Hertford: volume 2 edited by William Page in 1908, detailing the residences and residents of Holywell Hill Road:

"...and Torrington House (Mr. A. F. Phillips), which last is on a part of the site of Holywell House, the seat of the Rowlatts and afterwards of the Jennings family, demolished in 1827. Sarah duchess of Marlborough was probably born here, and she and the celebrated duke occasionally lived at this house...(blah blah about a lady entomologist who lived at Torrington House)...At this point it may be noticed that a side road curves off to the west and meets the main road again a little lower down. This diversion was caused by an extension of the grounds of Holywell House into the roadway. The road, however, was reinstated in its direct course when Holywell House was pulled down."

Thank you, Mr. Page!!!

While I haven't (yet) visited the local museum, library, or archives to see if any plans or maps of the gardens at Holywell House exist, at least we have confirmed the location of the house, it's appearance near the time that Celia Fiennes would have seen it, and the design of the gardens in the mid-19th century.

And people thing garden history is boring!

So that's it. My quest has officially begun, and however long it takes, I'm going to track down each and every great house that Celia mentions. Some are easy and the grounds so extensive one could wander happily for days (think Chatsworth). Others have proven to be much more elusive but no less intriguing, especially when plans and paintings show what stateliness once existed.

Me (and Celia) near the spot where Holywell House once stood
A special note of thanks to Louise, University of Greenwich chaplain who arranged the student pilgrimage to St. Albans (more on that next time). She graciously stalked the road with me in search of the elusive Blue Plaque and spotted it! It was on the uphill side of the wall; walking down hill, we nearly missed it.

*Legend has it that Holywell Hill Road takes its name from the holy well located nearby. When the martyr St. Albans was beheaded it was said that his head rolled down the hill and fell into the well, thus rendering it holy. Another account has it that the well sprang up on the spot at which his head stopped.

19 February 2012

Garden Design Students’ ideas on display at Knole

One of the student design concepts to be exhibited
Press Release:

University of Greenwich students are putting on an exhibition of design, conservation and management ideas for the park and garden of Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent. The historic Grade I listed house has been owned by the National Trust since 1946. Its 1000-acre great medieval deer park is 90 per cent owned and managed by the Sackville-West family, and 10 per cent by the National Trust.

Lord Sackville says: "When I was first approached by the Garden Design students at the University of Greenwich, I had no idea what to expect. But I'm sure that you'll be as impressed and inspired by their work as I was. They have come up with some beautiful ideas that respect the history and spirit of Knole, while at the same time adding a contemporary twist."

The possible ideas come from 17 final year BA (Hons) Garden Design degree course students and one studying MA in Garden History that undertook the work as a historic garden conservation project on behalf of the Sackville-West family, who live in the house. The ideas are a mixture of modern designs and the restoration of some historic ones from previous centuries.

The exhibition will feature the student’s conservation plans, plus scale models of their work. They have looked at planting and management within the garden and park, and at some areas owned by the National Trust and open to visitors, such as the Brewhouse Tearoom courtyard, Green Court, and the car park.

Marian Boswall, Lecturer in garden design at Greenwich, says: "These are theoretical ideas for Lord Sackville and the National Trust to enjoy or employ as they wish. The student’s drawings and models show individual conservation, management and design ideas. Group projects explain and illustrate the history, geography and social life of the park and garden."

Designs for the Park and Garden at Knole, a free exhibition which begins in March, will take place in the 200-year-old Orangery, which was opened to the public in 2010. It is on the south side of the house, looking on to Lord Sackville’s private garden.

Exhibition opening times: Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 March, 11am – 4pm, Wednesday 10 March to Sunday 1 April, 10.30am – 5pm (closed Monday and Tuesday) and Tuesday 3 April – Sunday 15 April, 10.30 am – 5pm (closed Monday except 9 April). Please note that Lord Sackville’s private garden opens to the public, Tuesdays only, from April 3, 11am – 4pm.

Picture: A design by Harriet Farlam, 3rd year BA garden design student, to turn the current cafe yard into a covered dining area with a transparent dome.

Notes for editors:

Knole was built by the Archbishops of Canterbury in the 15th century. It was annexed by Henry VIII and remodelled in the 17th century by the Sackville family. It is one of the country’s most important and most complete historic houses, containing collections of unique upholstered furniture, silver, paintings and tapestries. The house, set in a great medieval deer park, has inspired writers, artists and visitors for centuries. Knole was the birthplace and childhood home of Vita Sackville-West, who went on to create the gardens at Sissinghurst. Knole was also the setting for Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Recently it was a location for the film The Other Boleyn Girl.

Find out more about Knole here.

For information about studying BA Hons Garden Design at the University of Greenwich, or the MA Garden History course.

10 February 2012

Out Came the Sun

Back when I was running garden maintenance in LA, my crews would laugh at me in the autumn because I refused to enter certain gardens without waving a stick before me. Apparently, autumn in LA is orb-weaver season, those webs were the size of wagon wheels, and those spiders all knew how tall I am! While I have the utmost respect for their architectural abilities I'm not what you'd call a fan, but neither do I scream and jump on tables when I see one in the room. Sometimes a curious fascination will make me stop and study a spider or its web in the garden, whence I can be heard muttering something profound and scientific like, "Eeew!"

So imagine the "ewww" which quickly became "oooohhh" when I read this news article about a golden cape woven of fabric made from the silk of spiders. I wasn't surprised since I'd been reading up on some of the activities amateur husbandmen (i.e. landed gentry with too much time on their hands) were up to on their estates back in the day, namely raising silk worms, but I wasn't aware that spider silk cloth was a common commodity in any age. Turns out it isn't. Requiring input from 1.5 million spiders over an eight year period plus the human skill involved would make this an obscenely spendy garment.

My favorite historical fiction series features as its heroine a time-traveling nurse who used spider webs as dressing for wounds, and scientists long ago learned that some spider silk is stronger than Kevlar (I believe there was talk of researching it for use in bullet proof vests, among other things), but to use it in the creation of a fashion piece? This I had to see.

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I always considered spiders to be industrious, but this! One look and, like a fly caught in a web, I was hooked. If you aren't saying something like, "Wow!", there is something wrong with you and I'm not sure we can be friends any more (kidding). But let's put this into perspective: this cape is made from two metres of fabric using silk from 1.5 million (yes, million) Golden Orb-Weaver spiders (eew!). It's the females who produce the naturally golden silk, giving the woven cloth this cheery color. The entire process of herding the spiders and harvesting the silk then making the thread and weaving the cloth took eight years. I could go into it, but you get a much clearer picture by watching this video:

Isn't that amazing!? And the idea isn't a new one. Almost as fascinating as the cape itself were some of the books shown in the display, one of which is a couple hundred years old and features an illustration of a sort of pillory to hold the spider while its silk is wound onto a swift.
the alpaida latro spider held in place for silk extraction
raimondo maria de termeyer, opuscoli scientifici d’entomologia di fiscia e d’agricoltura dell’abate, milan, vol.1, plate vi. 1807
simon peers collection

Now, I've used swifts at the yarn shops to wind a skein of yarn and I'm here to tell you either that is one gigantic spider (eeww!), or that is one Lilliputian swift!

While ogling over the display I overheard several interesting comments such as, "poor spiders", and polite debates as to the ethics involved in collecting the silk. Whatever your stance, allow me to remind you that no spiders were injured in the making of this cape. Besides, if you want to look at it that way, what's so different from harvesting spider silk vs. silkworm silk? Silkworms are still bred for their silk in Asian countries. And it might be a bit of a stretch, but how about the practice of harvesting a sheep's wool or a bird's feathers - practices that have been employed by humans for thousands of years to our great benefit (I just finished knitting a merino/mohair blend scarf and it is so warm and cozy. Ever so much better than acrylic.). Yes, there are humane and inhumane methods and I admit to taking an interest in the yarn companies whose products I purchase to ensure the sheep are well treated but all that aside, let's focus on the artistic skill involved here. You have to admit this is an astoundingly beautiful piece of work that took many, many people with mad skills a long time to achieve!
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I also liked that the embroidery design was inspired (inspidered?) by myth, folklore, and fairy tales, which were beautifully presented.
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Detail of the full-size watercolor illustrating the pattern with selections of verse that inspired embroidery; this bit is from Emily Dickinson's A Spider Sewed at Night.
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It gave me a whole new appreciation for our eight-legged friends (so long as they keep their distance), and the ingenuity and creativity of our own race. It also inspired me to pick up that lace shawl I started knitting a few months ago:
gingko shawl_edited-1
Ginkgo shawlette (pattern available on Ravelry; photo © FHCreations)

While not quite spider silk, the yarn I'm using is a wool/silk blend and even just a few rows in, it so far feels soft and decadent. I'm definitely in a gold phase, confirmed by the daffodils on my desk. At least I don't have to swish a stick around to enjoy those!

02 February 2012

Then You Saw It, Now You Don't

Yesterday I spent some quality time in the computer lab downloading images of Kensington Gardens, my Historic Garden Project site, from Google Earth. Did you know you can go back in time on Google Earth? It's amazing! Just look:

Rocque c. 1736

Can't fool you, can I? That's actually a map of the gardens drawn circa 1736 by John Rocque. As you can see from my previous post, they were still working the kinks out of the road system back then, much less mastering the intricacies of aerial photography.

Here's how the gardens look from the air now:
Google Map screen grab

And for a close up of the Palace:
2010 palace close up copy

This image is dated 2010 and you can see the fence and mobile construction offices, which are preparing for the new landscape work that's currently in process. More on that later.

But you really can go back in time on Google Earth, in this case, only to 1945:
1945 detail palace copy

I was really interested in features from previous historic layers so I started playing around and zooming in to see what, if anything, from the Rocque plan still existed. Obviously, the bason (now colorlessly and mathematically inaccurately called the Round Pond) can still be seen, as well as the Patte d'oie or goose-foot avenues radiating out from it. The Mount is gone, and the colorful flower gardens in front of the Orangery have been turfed over (yawn), as well as the amazing parterre designs north of the Palace. But check this out:

detail north palace gardens copy

Can you see it?

parterre evidence close up copy

It's a helicopter! Isn't that cool? I wonder who was visiting - could have been Will and Kate scoping the place out and choosing wallpaper (they're moving in to Great Aunt Margaret's pad next year, you know), or maybe it was one of the dignitaries or Obscenely Rich People who live in one of the mansions next door. One can only speculate. But isn't that cool - and not a little bit scary - that Google Earth is so zeroed in as to catch the image of a helicopter on the ground! Good thing the Germans didn't have this technology in the 1945, what?

Actually, as cool as the helicopter is, what you should have noticed, and what made me exclaim, "No frickin' way!" in the computer lab, are the tell-tale scars in the lawn of a long-lost design.
parterre collage
You should be seeing red
But wait - there's more! Here's another plan of the gardens circa 1705:

1705 plan of gardens and park

Notice the parterre design is slightly different than the 1736 plan. More contours in the middle square. Look what happens when you put it on top of the satellite image:

helicopter shot overlay 3
It's magic!

Wanna see that again?

helicopter shot overlay 3 copy
I'm not sure when the parterres were wiped out since they appear in their various iterations into the 1800's, the central portion above changing shape to a quadrant with a central basin at some point prior to 1860. And the area in the 1945 image shows tents, maybe? We know from documentation that soldiers were encamped in the gardens during the WW2. But the scars on the lawn! You can't see these tell tale impressions at ground level. Well, I couldn't, but that whole area is fenced off at the moment so I couldn't actually get down and sniff the ground to pick up the trail, so to say.

Being a garden historian is like being a garden detective, which is really loads of fun. We try to solve landscaping mysteries such as the Case of the Disappearing Parterres, which often just conjures up more questions like: When were the parterres turfed over and why? If there were practical (i.e. military) reasons, why weren't they restored afterward? In the new redesign being implemented east of the Palace now, why were the areas to the north and south of the building ignored? And finally, if it were up to me, what would I conserve/restore/recreate and why?

Well, that was fun, wasn't it? How much you wanna bet you all go scrambling to load Google Earth searching for evidence of lost landscapes! Happy hunting!

Edited to add: My tutor, Tom Turner, sent me a link which further explains the existence of the helicopter. Seems I wasn't that far off in assuming a member of the Royal Family was visiting! I find it interesting that this bit of earth is called 'the paddock' when the original stables were due west of the palace. Hmmmm...