29 June 2012

Thence I Went: to Broughton Castle

Broughton Castle is a very special stop on my journey to retrace Celia Fiennes's travels because it was - and still is - the home of her family; her grandfather, the first Viscount Saye and Sele, lived here and is buried in the adjoining 14th century church. He was followed by Celia's older half-brother, then her nephew, who each inherited the title and estate. She visited often, undoubtedly more often than the journeys noted in her diary, and compares other country houses to its splendor. One look and it's easy to see why.

Broughton Castle, June 2012
I first visited Broughton back in May with some fellow gardeners who kindly indulged me as I abandoned them to meet Lord and Lady Saye and have a look at the manuscript of Celia's diary. As we drove through Oxfordshire and especially through the village of Banbury, I kept wondering how many times she had ridden through the same streets and lanes? How many of the ancient stone houses and churches would still be familiar to her? Had she seen the fields in spring blazing with rapeseed like we did?


I think Celia would approve of the way the castle has been restored, for even she described it as being "much left to decay and ruine" when her brother inherited. It was first built in 1306 by Sir John de Broughton and sold to William of Wyckham, Bishop of Winchester in 1377. It was a descendant of his, Margaret, who married Sir William Fiennes, second Lord Saye and Sele, and the castle has been in the Fiennes family ever since. The castle has undergone subsequent additions, remodels and renovations, alternately falling into a state of decay then being rescued by following generations. During the Civil War the castle was even occupied by Royalist forces (William Fiennes, Celia's grandfather, was one of the leading activists against the Crown).

Today it is still very much a family home, lived in, cared for, and appreciated by the many visitors who are often greeted by Lord and Lady Saye themselves. And may I say, they are absolutely delightful and were most generous in letting me see the diary on such short notice. Holding the diary, written by Celia herself over 300 years ago, and seeing her handwriting - so tiny and close - is a thrill I will never forget. Books bring an author's personality to life but seeing the original manuscript in her own hand just makes the writer more 'real'. It's awe-inspiring and very humbling to be able to actually touch a piece of history like this.

Me and Celia at the Broughton Gatehouse
I returned in June at Lady Saye's suggestion to see the garden at its peak. The walled Ladies' Garden, which is just over one hundred years old, is as romantic as the castle with roses spilling over archways, double clematis tumbling through borders, the heads of allium nodding in the breeze, and waves of lavender within box fleur-de-lis, all within the honeyed glow of an ancient brick wall.

The Ladies' Garden seen through the south gateway
The enclosed garden is only half an acre but with the borders outside the wall and along the moat, it feels larger. The views from without the wall are spectacular, stretching across the water to the countryside beyond, or bounded by rolling hills grazed by longhorned cattle and sheep, punctuated by huge oaks. A group from a local girls' school was being shown around while I was there and I heard several of the girls exclaim they wanted to be married here. Me, too!

Long border on the west parapet wall

The Ladies' Garden in summer
The best way to see the garden is from the roof. A tour of the house is essential to earn a view like this, and I wasn't going to miss it.


As I toured the rooms, marveling at the 15th century armor, portraits of ancestors and Civil War artifacts, what really struck me was the modern furniture in some of the rooms. This is no museum house sealed in aspic. It and its inhabitants have embraced both past and present and I'm reminded that when it comes to well crafted antique furniture in antique houses, there was a time when it, too, was modern.

Hand crafted oak bed and side table in the King's Room by Robin Furlong c.1992

Part of the upstairs gallery with portraits of the family
 I hope to be able to return to Broughton again and again over the years, to see how it changes and evolves. I always think it must be a daunting thing to keep a house like this going from generation to generation, and I'm sure there are more than a few challenges, but Lord and Lady Saye are justifiably proud of their inheritance and are genuinely keen to share it with others. I am indebted to them for allowing me to spend time with Celia, who I hope to know better and better as time goes on.


Broughton Castle is located about 3 miles from the village of Banbury in Oxfordshire, on the Shipston-on-Stour road from Oxford. If taking public transport from Oxford in the south, you can try the local bus (timetable here) but I'm told these can be unreliable. Trains run regularly from Oxford and a taxi from the station will run about £8 each way. From North Newington public footpaths will take you through the park.

The house and gardens are only open a few days a week in spring and summer, so check the Broughton Castle website for visitor information.

28 June 2012

Thence I Went: to Oxford

Ah, the 'city of dreaming spires'. I was just there yet it does feel like a dream...a much too short one. My mission was to continue following in the, er, hoofprints of Celia Fiennes only my modes of transport for this trip primarily consisted of my own two feet and motorized vehicles with four wheels operated by surly drivers. I'm sure Celia never encountered a surly guide during her travels. Right.

Celia visited Oxford sometime around 1694, and describes her visits to several colleges and the Botanic Garden. The last time I was in Oxford was in 2005, the day of the Underground bombings. My memories of the day being understandably filled with that dreadful event, I was excited to go back and see it again with fresh eyes and with Celia as my companion. I was also very fortunate to be given a tour of the Botanic Garden by the Gardens' Curator, Tom Price.

The Garden as it appeared in Logan's print of 1675 (, much the way Celia would have seen it.
OBG google map
OBG today (2010 google map)
Celia describes the Botanic Garden thus:

"The Physick garden afforded great diversion and pleasure, the variety of flowers and plants would have entertained one a week. The few remarkable things I tooke notice off was ye Aloes plant wch is like a great flag in shape, leaves and Coullour, and grows in the fform of an open Hartichoake and towards the bottom of each Leafe its very broad and thicke, In wch there are hollows or receptacles for ye Aloes. There is also ye sensible plant, take but a Leafe between finger and thumb and squeeze it and it immediately Curles up together as if pained and after some tyme opens abroad again, it looks in Coullour like a filbert Leafe but much narrower and long. There is also the humble plant that grows on a long slender Stalke and do but strike it, it falls flatt on ye ground stalke and all, and after some tyme revives againe and Stands up, but these are nice plants and are kept mostly under Glass's, ye aire being too rough for them. There is ye wormwood sage Called Mountaigne sage, its to all appearance like Comon sage only of yellower green, a narrow long Leafe full of ribbs; In yor Mouth the flavour is strong of Wormwood to the taste."

Founded as a Physic garden under Magdalen College in 1621, Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Great Britain. It was made possible by a grant of £5,000 from Henry Danvers, first Earl of Danby. In today's money that would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of £3.5 million, all of which was spent building the arches and walls, with those being finished in 1633.

Plants flourished here for a few reasons: the land was part of the flood plain of the river Cherwell which flows along the eastern boundary of the garden so there was probably a layer of nutrient rich sediment from the floods. Floods being counter-productive to growing plants that prefer not to have constantly wet feet, the ground level was raised using "4,000 loads of mucke and dunge" from the College cesspits. Instant fertilizer. Waste not, want not, eh?

Having exhausted the garden's budget on stonework, there was no money left to pay the first superintendent, Jocob Bobart, who for seven years 'made ends meet' by selling fruit grown in the gardens. It must not have been a terrible stretch, as the man was a wealthy tea merchant. In that time the garden went from zero plants to 1,600.

I managed to track down all but one of the plants Celia mentions - the 'humble plant' remains elusive. Both Tom and I were stumped as to what it could be, even with Celia's description. My friend Google gives the Mimosa as 'humble plant', which Celia calls the 'sensible plant', a name by which the Mimosa is still known today. Another plant that she would have seen, though didn't describe, is this enormous yew, planted as a topiary in 1645. You can see the pairs of topiary punctuating the north-south axis in the 1675 plan. This is the only one of those original plantings left. New yews have been planted near the entrance which give an idea what they would have looked like when Celia visited.


It would have been much smaller, but she would have seen it!

Back in Celia's day, the Civil War yew probably looked like these.

During my blissful walk around the gardens I also spied a few plants that I found both familiar and diverting.

A fellow CA native: Carpenteria californica. It smelled mildly of sun and cinnamon.
Dramatic Dranunculus vulgaris, a relative of the behemoth Amorphaphalus titanum. Both smell of rotting flesh. The Dranunculs was being pollinated by several flies no doubt expecting a carrion feast.

My favorite on Celia's list is the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica. When touched, the leaves do indeed "Curles up together as if pained." What I found interesting is only the leaflets that are actually touched close but when I ran my finger along the stem underneath, the entire leaf closed up. An aquatic plant with similarly bashful behavior is the Neptunia aquatica (good name for a water plant, no?), which I always stopped to pet when I passed it in the pond gardens at Longwood. Tom and I diverted ourselves for a few minutes torturing the Mimosa, and I imagine Celia must have done the same but she didn't have the technological marvel that is the modern day pocket camera to share it with her friends.

What Celia didn't see during her visit was the new area outside the walled garden, added after the Second World War. This garden was previously part of the Christ Church meadows, effectively providing the Gardens with two landlords; Magdalen College and Christ Church College. A large rose garden, beset with various rose plagues such as blackspot, has recently been turned over to veg in an appropriate historical nod as this area of meadowland was used for allotments during the war. One of the reasons behind the change is the Garden management's desire not to use noxious chemicals. Hurray, I say! Another large area of lawn has been recently redesigned to accommodate an experiment in sustainable landscape development and cultivation. The entire area has been direct sown with plant species found in dry-grass communities from the US plains, South Africa, and southern Europe into Turkey. Once established, the plants should thrive without any irrigation. Looks like I'll have to come back in another five years' time to see how it's progressing!

Sown last autumn and helped by the recent rains, things are now beginning to germinate quite rapidly

Foxy Eucomis

Celia also wouldn't have seen the glasshouses, which only appeared in 1766. The 'Glass's' that Celia refers to could have been an early type of Wardian Case, cold frame, or bell jars, since greenhouses in general weren't considered a necessary addition to the garden until the early eighteenth-century when William and Mary brought the fad of orangeries over from Europe.


The gardens are less than five acres with only a handful of gardeners to care for it, but it's a gem in the botanical world, not least for its history and longevity. And as a botanic garden ought to do, it's continuing the legacy of plant exploration, exploitation for medicinal and chemical use, and experimentation on new methods of cultivating plants, leading me to agree with Celia that the diversity of plant species really could keep a plant geek occupied for some time. Unfortunately I had a schedule to keep and didn't have as much time as I would have liked to see the many splendors of the garden. Guess I'll have to make a return journey!

When in doubt, punt.

The Oxford Botanic Garden is located on the High Street directly opposite the entrance to Magdalen College. Opening times, admission prices, and events can be found on their website. If, like me, you're taking public transport from London, Megabus and Oxford Tube busses stop at St. Clements, which is a 5 minute walk from the gardens.

A word of Caution to Megabus customers: The main pick up point in London for the Oxford-bound bus IS NOT at Victoria Coach Station! The stop is across the road, on Buckingham Palace Road directly opposite the library at stop 10. If you miss your bus, as I did because of the dodginess of the directions on their website (one of the entrances to the coach station fronts Buckingham Palace Road. Duh.), you will be required to buy a new ticket which costs one and a half times more than the original return ticket you booked on line. Beware! Be very 'ware!

24 June 2012

A Tale of Two Squares

two squares
Top: Leicester Square, London; photo taken around 9am on a Saturday
Bottom: General Gordon Square, Woolwich; photo taken around 7pm on a Friday

Sometimes fleeting impressions make the most lasting ones. Take these two squares, for example. The impressions were fleeting because I was just passing through, but lasting because of the stark contrast they formed in my mind.

Both squares have recently been redesigned as part of London's massive house-cleaning in preparation for the Olympics. Leicester Square has been around since 1635 when Lord Leicester purchased the land and built a house on it. The square was previously his front garden but had been common land before he bought it and had it enclosed. The parishioners appealed this enclosure and Lord L was made to keep that part of his land open. The actual square is still called Leicester Fields on the OS maps.

General Gordon Square is much newer, built in the late 1970's or early 80's after knocking down a bunch of buildings, including at least four public houses. Woolwich was once a great hub of military and industrial activity. I amused myself contemplating the pronunciation of Woolwich ('wool-itch'; the small w is silent) when I discovered that the etymological origin of the name actually means "trading place for wool". Go figure.

But let's examine them a little more closely. To commemorate the new Leicester Square, there's a plaque with a lot of blah-blah about the new and improved space being for public use and enjoyment. The design is clean with glistening new paving, shiny modern railings, and what appeared to be a diverting water feature surrounding the Shakespeare statue where jets of water spurt out of the pavement. The grass was green, the planting of box hedges was smelly, the trees provided a nice cool green shade. But something was missing. The square is meant for public use and enjoyment but other than the lady in the photo, there was no public presence. Granted, it was early on a weekend morning, but look closely and see if you notice what I did. This photo of the square in Victorian times should give you a clue:

Leicester Square c. 1880 (wiki)
At General Gordon Square, which I discovered thanks to the bus drivers' strike last week, the public were out in force. Also making good use of glistening paving and green grass, new trees planted with dedication plaques, and a jumbo-jumbo screen, people were hanging out to watch the football match and getting into the spirit with scrimmages of their own (is that the right word for kicking a soccer ball around? I'm rubbish with UK sports!).

What I want to know about Leicester Square is: Where are the benches!? Where is the invitation to sit and linger? The way it is now, Leicester Square doesn't invite the public to linger and enjoy; the absence of a place to pause for said enjoyment means the square is nothing more than a conduit for people to pass through (as I did) on their hurried journey to someplace else. General Gordon Square, by contrast, has seating in plenty. The retaining walls framing the lawn areas do double duty so there is no lack of invitation to sit, relax, and enjoy the big screen telly.

The redesigned General Gordon Square (

Perhaps the benches for Leicester Square haven't arrived yet? Perhaps the designer has created seating to match the sparkling new railings and gates and are waiting for the metal to cool? Perhaps they just forgot? Either way, if I were to vote on which square was a success of public use and enjoyment, I'd have to go with Woolwich in spite of the questionable future of that RBBS (Really Big Big Screen). How about you?

What the new Leicester Square wants is a few places to sit.

16 June 2012

Nosing Around

Today was the official public celebration of the Queen's birthday, known as Trooping the Colour. It's been an English tradition since the seventeenth century and I missed it. Why, you ask? Because I was looking for noses!


Well, I did spend the morning at the British Library reading Horace Walpole's scathing review of seventeenth century garden style and pouring over John Ogilby's maps of 1675, but I'm still miffed that I didn't even know about the festivities! I was so determined to get to the library early so I could be done by the afternoon and have a nice walk around London.

You see, I heard about this great walking tour which leads you to and regales you with the fascinating story behind the legendary Seven Noses of Soho. The tour is lead by an energetic and engaging fellow I met at the London Historians meeting earlier this month and anything that quirky automatically makes it onto my "must do" list. But I'm an impoverished postgraduate student and I was dithering because of the fee. Then, while walking to the British Library, the Good Samaritan in me was persuaded to part with some change - the exact same sum as the walking tour, in fact - by a homeless man seeking shelter for the night (I don't give out cash as a rule, mainly because I don't have much, but after living in LA and being approached all the time, I have a decent sense of who is in genuine need and who isn't. For several minutes I peppered the poor guy with questions to test his assertions that the money would be used to secure a bed in shelter and saw that his eyes were clear, his speech wasn't slurred, he had no tracks on his arms, and he actually engaged in polite conversation which told me he wasn't a lunatic. Maybe I was duped, but my conscious is clear and the guy seemed genuinely grateful and not a little bit surprised). Anyway, having parted with the walking tour fee, I embarked on the task of finding the noses myself.


My friend Google told me that the noses were part of an art installation and appeared back in 1997 as a protest against the intrusion of CCTV cameras (which are EVERYWHERE! You don't notice how many there are until you pick your nose up off the ground and start walking with it in the air). The artist, Rick Buckley, stuck about 35 noses around town and at least ten survive today.

Since the reason for the noses' appearance wasn't publicized, urban legends grew rife and the Seven Noses of Soho acquired a mythical patina. It's said that if you sniff out all seven, you will attain infinite wealth. Since I am, as I said, an impoverished postgraduate student who had just given my lunch money to a homeless guy, I thought I would test the theory. Maybe I should have taken the guy with me to find them! Lucky for me there doesn't seem to be a time limit established as to when one must see all seven because I only managed to find five and of those, two aren't in Soho.


I love stuff like this and I really get into the thrill of the hunt, as my determination to find as many of the huge painted Easter eggs as I could will attest. It's a great way to see new parts of a city that you might not see otherwise.


Some I found in the morning as I walked to the Library and I'm kicking myself now because one of them is at Wellington Arch, which is right near the train station I arrive at, and had I gone to find that one first I would have stumbled on the Trooping the Colour preparations and been able to see the whole thing. (Sigh.) But I guess all Things happen as they do for a Reason. Had I gone that route, I wouldn't have met that homeless guy and wouldn't have given him the money and he possibly would be spending another night on the streets. And I wouldn't have found any of the noses and wouldn't have pondered what it is to be 'infinitely wealthy' (I've decided it has nothing whatever to do with one's bank balance).

I would have been fascinated to see whether the urban legend surrounding this nose is true: reputedly this nose was created to mock Napoleon and is situated at just the right height for the cavalry troops from the Horseguards Parade to tweak it as they ride by.


The other thing about a quest like this is that it realigns your perspective. Usually people walk through their lives looking down. I spent the morning and afternoon stumbling around looking up. I realized it made me walk slower, I noticed more of my surroundings, and I saw things I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And as the wind howls outside, I'm sitting here feeling grateful that I have a roof over my head and a warm bed to sleep in. Yup. I'm wealthy, alright. Maybe there's some truth to the myth after all.

Boy, all this introspection is making me a bit weepy.

Pass me a tissue, will you, I need to blow my nose.

*The Seven Noses of Soho are all located within the square mile that is the Soho district of London, near Covent Garden. Two of them eluded me so if you know where they are, do tell! There are an additional two outside Soho that I've yet to go searching for.

05 June 2012

Open Garden Squares Weekend? Yes, please!

There will be no rest for the weary (though jubilant) this week! Although the Queen's Diamond Jubilee festivities officially end today, whence the many party and parade goers will be miserably back at work nursing headaches and hangovers, this garden history student's diary is packed full of wonderful events continuing through the end of the week.

Tomorrow, 6 June, there is a meeting of the London Historians in a pub near Westminster Abbey (and doesn't that just call to mind the Inklings meeting at the pub in Oxford? England is fantastic that way). This group is new to me and isn't focused on garden history, per se, but is a meeting of amateur and professional historians who love, well, history of all kinds and possess a fondness for this amazing city we live in and all the stories it has to tell.

On Friday 8 June there is a seminar at the Institute for Historical Research titled 'Gardens of Marrakesh: Back to the Future'. The garden history seminars are always interesting, informative - and free! - and the group is invited to dine together afterward.

The the pièce de résistance - London's Open Garden Squares Weekend - is this weekend 9 and 10 June, all day both days. This event also signals the end of this year's first annual Chelsea Fringe festival and what a wonderful way to draw the curtain on such an eventful spring. I'm looking forward to seeing as many gardens as I can, some that are completely new and unknown to me, plus the special events: How can I pass up World Wide Knit in Public Day!? I just might get some help on that sock that's been languishing unfinished in my bag.

If you're in London and still riding the tide of Jubilee adrenaline, you might want to check some of these out. And my fingers are crossed that the weekend is a bit less wet than the past few days.

04 June 2012

Liquid History

John Burns nailed it when he said, "The Thames is liquid history". He was a politician and historian, so he ought to know. I think he would have rather enjoyed seeing liquid history in the making yesterday.

Unless you've been living under a rock you know that this weekend marks Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and the whole city, country, nay, even the world is celebrating! Even if you aren't British or a citizen of the Commonwealth, this is an event worth noting. It's also an excellent excuse for a party with lots of cakes, little cocktail sausages, and bunting. One can never have too much bunting.

The last time this country saw a Diamond Jubilee was in 1897 when Queen Victoria (Elizabeth's great-great grandmother) celebrated 60 years on the throne. And here we are, 115 years later celebrating this historic moment and what better way than a pageant on the Thames!

Map of the Pageant route (

The Thames has been used for transport, both Royal and common for centuries. Back in the day, the Thames was the M1 of its time and since there was a whole string of royal palaces from Greenwich to Hampton Court it probably wasn't terribly uncommon to see the royal barge sail past. Today, it's quite a spectacle. Like the city, royal barges have gained somewhat in stature.

This is Prince Frederick's (eldest son of George I) barge, built in 1731 and designed by William Kent. The Queen has graciously loaned it to the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich where you can see it up close and personal. The elaborate carving of shells, mermaids, and sea monsters is gilded with gold leaf, the seats inside the cabin are plush red velvet, and the painted oars were manned by a crew of 21.

Fast forward almost 300 years to Queen Elizabeth's barge:


The times, they are a'changin'! Like it's historic predecessor, the carving on the prow features gilded sea monsters, mermaids, and swags. The plush red velvet was present, as were 10,000 flowers from Her Majesty's gardens.

Everyone is comparing the day to that famous image painted by Canaletto in 1747 depicting the Lord Mayor's Show.

My friend Celia Fiennes wrote of the Lord Mayor's show around 1698 and described the river as being "full of Barges belonging to the severall Companyes of London, adorned with streamers and their armes and fine musick". In some ways, little has changed in 300 years. Had she been there with me yesterday, Celia would have seen 1,000 boats of all types adorned with streamers, flags, bunting, and balloons. She would have seen flags of state, of the territories of the Commonwealth, the arms of the Queen, and she would have heard the 'fine musick' of pealing bells, live orchestras, pipe bands, and choirs all playing and singing as they traveled up the seven mile procession route.
Costumed rowers as they pass Somerset House as part of the Diamond Jubilee Flotilla, 3 June 2012

She would also have seen a spectacular crowd of over one million people waving Union Jack flags, wearing Union Jack hats, scarves, shirts, skirts, glasses, and carrying Union Jack umbrellas and tote bags. Bunting festooned bridges and buildings and the atmosphere, though wet, did nothing to dampen the spirits of those who waited more than seven hours in the rain and drizzle to see the flotilla and cheer on Her Majesty.


She would have heard the bells of St. Paul's and every other church near the river ringing out.

And she would have been amazed at the litter left behind. Seriously, people, you brought it with you, take it home.

But I digress...

News reports say the city of London and the Thames haven't seen anything like this in 350 years and who knows when they will again. I met people who had travelled from as far north as Scotland and from the very southern end of the south Devon coast to be a witness to history. Others no doubt travelled from across the world. I staked out my spot right up to the railing on the south bank next to the OXO tower before 9am and by 10 am the pavement behind me was packed. One of several jumbo screens was located behind me and relayed live footage of the procession from beginning to end. Before the live coverage started we were treated to news footage of the Queen's Coronation 60 years ago when she was only 25 years old. Then, as now, people lined the streets to catch sight of their new elegant queen. The reporter's words were just as applicable yesterday as they were in 1952 when he said:
"No wind-swept or rain damped sky could diminish the colors or the enthusiasm of the thousands of people waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen pass by".

It is, indeed, a proper boat, fit for a proper Queen.

There are some events in history worth standing in the rain for. This was definitely one of them!

The Daily Mail had this cool image of Canaletto's painting c. 1747 and the Jubilee Flotilla, 2012 from about the same vantage point. History, then and now.