Friday, October 9, 2015

Uncovering a History of Secrets

There's a small estate in the Buckinghamshire countryside where extraordinary things happened. 

The history of Bletchley Park is so intricately complex that I'm just going to give an overview of what happened here:

It started in 1938 when a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School came to a mansion on an abandoned plot of land. These people were government officials, academics and mathematicians who created a team of Codebreakers with a mission to crack the Nazi codes and ciphers.

The most famous cipher system cracked at Bletchley Park was the Enigma, but they also broke lower-level German and Japanese code systems. The ingenuity of Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman to create complex electro-mechanical devices, the Bombe, facilitated the Codebreakers by narrowing down the million, million, million possible Enigma wheel configurations to a manageable number for further hand-testing. It was reported by veterans at Bletchley Park who were interviewed for the audio guide that the work accomplished at the Park may have shortened World War II by two years. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, visited the Park in 1941 to show his support. When resources were needed, the heads of the Codebreakers appealed to Churchill, to which he responded with,"Make sure they have all the want extreme priority and report to me that this has been done." 

What is most amazing about Bletchley Park is the pivotal role women played, many of whom were between 18 and 24. Women worked in all roles at Bletchley Park - intercepting enemy codes, deciphering, translating, and analyzing the codes, couriering information, administrative and clerical work, operating codebreaking machines (such as Bombe and Colossus.) Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) were assigned to operate the Bombe machines. Women across classes worked together and were treated as equals within the Park, recognized and promoted based on their accomplishments and merits. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Center of Space and Time, and History

Greenwich was at one time home to one of the great royal palaces, and currently has a large park that was enclosed by Henry VIII for hunting deer. The royal palace (Palace of Placentia) has quite a history of its own ( 

What is of most important historical significance about Greenwich took place on a hill above where the palace stood in a collection of buildings, the Royal Observatory. Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park in 1675 and appointed John Flamsteed as his first Astronomer Royal. The Observatory was built to improve navigation at sea and 'find the so-much desired longitude of places' – one's exact position east and west – while at sea and out of sight of land, by astronomical means. 

Longitude is the exact position east and west. Without knowing how to measure it, ships couldn't accurately determine where they were. This was a major problem, especially on long ocean journeys when ships were making long voyages across the oceans and didn't have any visual clues for weeks at a time. A major shipwreck forced the issue to be solved and Parliament passed an Act declaring a reward for solving the longitude problem, should certain stipulations be met. It took nearly 60 years for the prize to be claimed. In the end it went not to a famous astronomer, scientist or mathematician, but to a little-known Yorkshire carpenter turned clockmaker, John Harrison, who invented four chronometers. His fourth chronometer, and the winner, changed navigation forever. 

The Royal Observatory is also the source of the Prime Meridian of the world, Longitude 0° 0' 0''. Every place on the Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line. The line itself divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth – just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres.

By international decree, the Prime Meridian is the official starting point for each new day, year and millennium. Prime Meridian is defined by the position of the large 'Transit Circle' telescope in the Observatory's Meridian Observatory. This was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely define Longitude 0º for the world. 

How did the center of the world become centered at Greenwich? Since the late 19th century, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich has served as the co-ordinate base for the calculation of Greenwich Mean Time. Before this, almost every town in the world kept its own local time. There were no national or international conventions to set how time should be measured, or when the day would begin and end, or what the length of an hour might be. However, with the vast expansion of the railway and communications networks during the 1850s and 1860s, the worldwide need for an international time standard became imperative.

The Greenwich Meridian was chosen to be the Prime Meridian of the World in 1884. Forty-one delegates from 25 nations met in Washington DC for the International Meridian Conference and voted 22:1 for Greenwich as Longitude 0º. The decision was based on the argument that naming Greenwich as Longitude 0º would inconvenience the least number of people. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Art as an Ending

Somerset House has a long history as a London royal palace. It also was a site for art, culture, and science, which continues to today. 

It was commissioned by George III and designed by Sir William Chambers, it was constructed between 1776 and 1801 on the site of the palace by Edward Seymour. Seymour was Edward VI's uncle and self-named Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset since Edward was too young to ascend the throne. As the new Duke and Protector, Seymour wanted a new palace suitable to his new rank. He began building his great mansion on land he already owned between the Thames and the Strand. Various monarchs have used the building and it has had its share of construction, demolition, and restoration by these monarchs and as a result of the Civil War, the plague, and the Great London Fire of 1665. The House fell into such disrepair in the 18th century that George III gave the site to the government for public offices, which found other purposes for the newly rebuilt Somerset House, completed in 1779. It became the center for the Royal Academy, the Government Art School, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries. 

The Royal Academy of Arts had their Exhibition Room in the newly rebuilt Somerset House until 1836, when the Academy moved to the National Gallery in 1836. 

The Royal Society is the oldest scientific society in Britain. They also took up residence at Somerset House in 1781 and stayed until 1857. One of the first scientific discoveries announced at a Society meeting after shortly moving to their new residence was by astronomer William Herschel of a newly discovered planet, Uranus.

These rooms are now the home of the Courtauld Gallery, which has an important collection of old master and impressionist paintings. Works are on display by French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist such as Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, and Seurat. I unexpectedly stumbled upon my favorite Mante, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

One of the exciting things about exploring is never knowing what you'll stumble upon. A curiosity about this royal palace and what had happened to it led me to discover not only a treasure trove of historical events that happened at this site but also one of my favorite paintings and some other outstanding works by some of my favorite artists. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Roman Town Today

The current city of Chichester is a cathedral city in West Sussex (and actually the only city in West Sussex). Chichester's history is sprawled across the city in its Norman, Tudor, Georgian, and Victorian architecture. Though the majority of Chichester appears to be of the Georgian period, with its Norman cathedral, Chichester is a Roman town. It has a long history as a settlement from Roman times and was important in Anglo-Saxon times.

The suffix of -chester or -cester to English towns are common indications that the place is the site of a Roman castrum, meaning a military camp or fort. The area around Chichester is believed to have played significant part during the Roman Invasion of A.D 43, as confirmed by evidence of military storage structures.

The city centre stands on the foundations of the Romano-British city of Noviomagus Reginorum, capital of the Civitas Reginorum. The Roman Road of Stane Street, connecting the city with London, started at the east gate, while the Chichester to Silchester road started from the north gate. The current plan of the city is inherited from the Romans: the North, South, East and West shopping streets radiate from the central market cross dating from medieval times.

Many typical aspects of Roman cities (walls, baths, amphitheaters) are found in Chichester. Thick Roman walls were discovered, lasting for one and half thousand years, but were then replaced by a thinner Georgian wall.

Roman baths were also found and are on display in a museum, The Novium, which preserves and showcases the remnants of the baths, as well as presentes a history of the area from pre-Roman to the twentieth century.

An amphitheatre was built outside the city walls, close to the East Gate, in around 80 AD. The area is now a park, but the site of the amphitheatre is discernible as a gentle bank approximately oval in shape.

Like many great English cities, I've visited that began as Roman towns (York, Chester, London), it never ceases to amaze me how far back English history goes. Though towns may look only a few hundred years old, they are in fact thousands of years old.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Ancient Castle as Stately Home

What would it be like to live in a truly authentic medieval castle today? 

Situationed in West Sussex, Arundel Castle serves as the principal seat and home of the family of the Duke of Norfolk and has been in the family's ownership or over 400 years. Unlike the adventure in Wales to Conwy Castle, which is a shell of its former glory, Arundel Castle is still a running and working castle, remodeled and restored after some historical disasters.

Arundel castle's history starts, as much of English history does, with William the Conqueror. He granted the earldom of Arundel to Roger de Montgomery, who built the castle in 1067. After a few reversions to the crown, the FitzAlan family received Arundel Castle in the thirteenth century and had it until 1580. The FitzAlan line ended when it was united with the Howard family in the 1500s when Mary FitzAlan, daughter to the nineteenth earl, became the first wife of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk. (This the same Duke of Norfolk from this entry who was executed by Elizabeth I for high treason. Arundel Castle was among the lands lost because of Norfolk's betrayal.) It was because of this marriage that the modern Dukes of Norfolk derive their surname as FitzAlan-Howard and Arundel Castle as their seat. The castle was later returned to the family. 

The castle underwent changes and restructuring to meet the requirements of the nobility throughout history. When Empress Matilda stayed at Arundel in 1139, apartments were constructed to accommodate her and her entourage, which survive to this day. The FitzAlans renovated and repaired the castle, and added to the well tower and a new entrance to the keep. A chapel was added in the fourteenth century.  The castle was badly damaged during the Civil War when it was besieged twice by the Royalist who took control, and then later by the Parliamentarian forces. The castle wasn't repaired from this damage until the 8th Duke began repairs, and the 11th Duke completed them. He desired to live and entertain at the castle over his other ducal properties. He designed and built the library, which has been revised and remodeled. The 13th Duke continued improvements to the castle, building a new suite of rooms for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's visit in 1848, and refurbishing all parts of the castle where the Queen may visit. 

The current castle was completed around 1900 by the 15th Duke and was one of the first English country houses to be fitted with electric light, service elevators, and central heating. The castle appears truly medieval from the outside, what with crenulations, towers, and arrow slits, but it has all the conveniences of the modern period within. 

A Private Library For All

Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, Member of Parliament, President of the Royal Society, was born in 1633 and died in 1703. He's most famous as a diarist of seventeenth-century life in London. He was also a lifelong book collector and had amassed quite a large library. One of the treasures of the library is the series of diaries Pepys kept from 1660 to 1669.

Upon his death, he directed in his will that his library should pass to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he was a Scholar. His directions precisely stipulation that his library be housed at Magdalene after the death of his nephew and heir John Jackson. 

Pepys' 3,000 volumes, bound specially for him, are to stand at the College as they were when he died, without addition or subtraction, 'for the benefit of posterity.' The volumes are kept as he left them, arranged 'according to heighth' in the book-presses which he had made for him in a naval dockyard. His catalogue, shelf-list, and library desk are still in use. 

The content of Pepys' library reflects a wide range of interests. Literature, history, science, music, and the fine arts are strongly represented. 

Pepys wrote, and I quite strongly believe, that a private library should comprehend 'in fewest books and least room the greatest diversity of subjects, styles and languages its owner's reading will bear.' 

Well said and practiced, sir.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A House Through Time

The history of Audley End closely aligns with key events in English history. 

Audley End was not always a grand manor house, but started existence as an Benedictine Abbey, until the Reformation when Henry VIII was confiscating the Church's lands and assets for the Crown. The Abbey was granted to Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, who converted the Abbey into a house. He married Elizabeth Grey, sister to Lady Jane Grey (of famed Nine Day Queen), and their daughter married Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who owned Audley end until he was executed by Elizabeth I in 1572 for high treason for conspiring with Mary Queen of Scots. The Howard family lost the estate of Audley End and their titles...until another stroke of history changed the family's fate. 

Audley's grandson, also named Thomas Howard, redeemed the family's reputation and gained Elizabeth I's confidence by his successful command of a ship during England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1566. Under James I, Howard was made 1st Earl of Suffolk and appointed Lord Chamberlain. With his newfound wealth and associations to the crown, Howard demolished Audley's original house to build a grander estate fit for a king. James I visited twice and, for the Jacobean period, Audley End was the largest privately owned house in England. 

It may have looked like this at one time:

Only the front section, a quarter of the original building remains today. To build this monstrosity of a house, Howard, as Lord Treasurer embezzled funds and was convicted of corruption, extortion, and bribery. The debt of building the house was the family's downfall and was inherited by later generations with the house for the next 120 years. King Charles II eased the family's debt by buying the house because of it's proximity to Newmarket races. The family remained on the property as keepers of the new palace. Charles II didn't use the house and his successor, William III, returned the house to family in 1701. 

By this time, the house had deteriorated and the architecture was out of fashion. The family, unable to afford repairing the house, began reducing it to the north and south wings. The 10th Earl of Suffolk solved the family's debts by marrying a wealthy brewery heiress, but because the had no children, the long association of this house with the historic Howard family ended. After the Earl's death in 1745, his wife sells off the contents of the house and a nephew inherits Audley End. The nephew, the first Earl of Braybrooke, restores the house by adding galleries, rooms,and storeys. He also hired "Capability Brown" to remodel the grounds with rolling green hills and Palladian bridges. The interior as it is displayed today were the efforts of the 3rd Earl of Braybrooke whose aim was to recover the Jacobean character of the house in the 19th century. Surviving Jacobean elements were repaired and new work in the same style was added. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Grand Tudor Estates

As mentioned in an earlier post, Kent has many large houses and gardens and excellent examples of Tudor architecture as illustrated by Hever Castle and Knole. 

(Kent also has an exceptional history that may be explored in a later post.)

Hever Castle is best known today as the birthplace of Anne Boleyn. It has had quite a history aside from this famous person. The gatehouse, outer walls, and moat were built around 1270. The castle was converted into a Tudor-style manor by the younger brother of Thomas Boleyn (father of Anne) in 1462. Anne was born in a small room on the second floor in 1501. I took a moment standing in what could have been the room that Anne was born into appreciate that I have seen the start and end of this remarkable woman's life. 

And of course the most famous man in her life stayed at the castle several times during his courtship of Anne. Henry VIII owned the house after the death of Thomas Boleyn in 1539, and then passed on to various other owners until subsequently passing to the Waldegrave family in 1557 until 1715. As Catholics, the family had a private oratory built on the second floor in 1584 to allow them to worship privately. (1584 was in the middle of Elizabeth I's reign and it wasn't completely safe for Catholics to be open about their faith. I enjoy the irony of the Catholic family building a private space to worship as a result of the effects caused by Anne Boleyn's impact on England.)

The next era in this house's history came in 1903 when none other than the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor bought Hever's castle and estates and restored it for his family's residence. Imagine living in a Tudor manor house, with the heavy dark wood wall and ceiling carvings, yet decorated in 20th century pastel and floral patterned furniture and the modern conveniences of telephones and bells. 

Astor's mark extended to the park and gardens. The Italian Garden was built and designed to showcase the statuary and sculptures Astor collected from Italy, some of which dates to over 2,000 years old. 

Knole was not a planned excursion, but well worth it! Built in the 15th century by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, Knole one of the largest private houses in England and a fine example of Tudor-style architecture. The house at one point it may well have been a calendar house which had 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards. The estate passed from the See of Canterbury, which received it upon Bourchier's death, to Henry VIII in 1537 and then went on to Elizabeth I. She gave it to her cousin Thomas Sackville in 1566, whose descendants the Earls and Dukes of Dorset and Barons Sackville have lived there since 1603.

As for the grounds and gardens, Knole has a large 26 acre walled garden 1,000 acre deer park. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Pilgrimage to Canterbury

On my third annual trip to England, it felt proper to finally make it to Canterbury as pilgrims did for hundreds years before I arrived today. Granted, I drove and didn't walk, but a harrowing experince the same to drive by myself on the left along narrow windy country roads and on large motorways. It was a relief to finally arrive and see the Cathedral's tower over the town.  

Canterbury was established as the "Cathedra" or seat, by the first archbishop St. Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory in 597 as a missionary to convert the pagan Saxons. He won over the will of King Ethelbert, the Saxon King, who had a French Christian wife. Ethelbert allowed Augustine and his followers to build a church outside of the city walls, at what is now the ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey.

Architecture styles range from Romanesque to Perpendicular to Gothic. The earliest part of the Cathedral is found in the crypt, which is Romanesque from around 1100 and has a small section of preserved wall paintings.The Great Cloister is an excellent example of Decorated Gothic with fan-vaulted colonnades as it was rebuilt in 1300. 

The Cathedral used to be a Benedictine monastery and the cloister is where the monks would study. Unlike in typical monasteries, the Cloister at Canterbury is on the north rather than the south side because of an old burial ground that was where the Cloister should have been. (Even on a sunny and windy September day, it was chilly in the Cloister so I can't imagine what the studying monks endured in the dead of winter!)  Thomas Becket, a onetime close friend of Henry II who appointed him as Archbishop of Canterbury, was chased from the cloister to the northwest transept (now called the Martyrdom) and murdered by four knights on December 29, 1170. The four knights allegedly acted on orders from King Henry II. Thomas Becket was considered a martyr because though he was once close friends with King Henry, sided with the church to protect the church's interest over the king's. 

Thomas Becket's body was first entombed in the crypt for people to view. It was during these viewings that miracles were said to have happened. The miracles were observed by two monks who wrote down the miracles into books that are part of the Cathedral's archives today. It was due to these miracles and healings that Thomas was canonized and Canterbury became a pilgrimage site, drawing thousands to be healed by St. Thomas. His shrine was housed in the Trinity Chapel in the quire until the Reformation in 1538. Henry VIII was trying to unify the church around him and he saw the shrine and pilgrimage to St. Thomas as a roadblock, and a source of wealth as well. All the gold and treasures left by the pilgrims went to the crown and St. Thomas' tomb was shattered and scattered to the unknowns.

St. Thomas' miracles, those written down by the monks, were made into stained glass windows along the quired. There isn't much stained glass left as most of it was destroyed in the Civil War. What survived is some of the oldest stained glass in England, as seen in the West Window. These pieces were removed and preserved from destruction of World War II's bombing. Most of the medieval parts of the was city was also destroyed, though parts of the medieval walls still stand. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Day of Gardens

With another fine day of sun, a cloudless sky and soft breeze, today's explorations around Kent centered on formal gardens. 

The first stop was Groombridge Place Gardens, dating from the 17th century, with many walks, gardens, and trails to explore around a moated 17th century manor house (close to the public). The estate belonged to British barrister and architect Philip Packer, a courtier to Charles II, built the present day house with the help of his friend Christopher Wren in 1662.

Packer laid out the gardens surrounding Groombridge Place from 1674 with the help of horticulturalist and famous diarist John Evelyn who designed a series of formal gardens arranged as "outside rooms" of the house.  The idea was to blur the boundary between indoors and outdoors which is a theme which became popular again in the twentieth century.  Some of the garden rooms at Groombridge also pre-empted modern design in creating an artfully "natural" landscape. Sir Conan Doyle was a regular visitor to Groomsbridge in the 18th century to take part in seances, his favorite garden being the Drunken Garden, called so because of its odd shaped hedges. He set the Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Valley of Fear" in the manor house. 

Among the formal gardens is a Secret Garden, behind a thick wooden door with a stream flowing over rocks and a bridge under a large mossy tree. It was supposedly in the Secret Garden that Packer died while reading a book in the sunshine on Christmas Eve in 1686

Next on to Penshurst Place, which has been owned by the Sidney family since 1552. Built in 1342 for Sir John de Pulteney, a London merchant and four-times Lord Mayor of London who wanted a country residence within easy riding distance of London. The original medieval house is one of the most complete surviving examples of 14th-century domestic architecture in England. After passing through the ownership of two of Henry IV's sons, Penshurst Place stayed in the crown estate for the rest of Henry VIII's reign. He used it as a hunting lodge until he gave it to Anne of Cleves in their divorce. The house and grounds was by Edward VI to his loyal steward and tutor, Sir William Sidney. Penshurst Place was the birthplace of the great Elizabethan poet, courtier and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney. In 1599, Queen Elizabeth I first visited Penshurst Place. One of the State Rooms in the house has been named after her, since the Queen would have used it to give audience on one of her many visits to Penshurst.

The gardens span 48 acres and include numerous uniquely designed gardens, such as a Union Flag Garden, formed from roses and lavender, the Flag Garden was opened by the Prince of Wales to mark the 400th Anniversary of Sir Philip Sidney's death in 1984. Opening directly in front of the House, the 16th-century Italian Garden is designed to be enjoyed from the State Rooms. The colossal project of Sir Henry Sidney in the 1560s, it is the centrepiece of the Garden and sets the style for the whole, with an oval lily pool and classical statue at its centre.

A rose garden:

And Diana's Bath:

It is not known who named it or why, but Diana's Bath was formed from an old mediaeval stock pond. Parapet walls were built around this in the16th century with steps added which descend into the water, often filled with lilies of all colours.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Walking with Churchill

This year's English adventures started off in Kent, which has plenty of country houses, castles, and it should with a name like the "Garden of England." And I will be seeing as many of them as possible over the next few days. 

Chartwell was Winston Churchill's home from 1922 until his death in 1965. I didn't see the inside of the house, though the outside is gorgeous red brick. Churchill's artworks are on display in the garden studio.

I wanted to take advantage of a sunny and crisp autumnal day by walking around the hillside gardens. Churchill's love of nature is evident in the landscape he created with lakes, which affords views over the Weald of Kent. Beyond the gardens is woodland with sub-dabbled trails.

And since I've just used the term, "weald" is an area of Southeast England between the North and the South Downs that crosses Sussex and Kent counties. This year's English adventures will have lots of opportunities for explorations of the Wealds. The Weald was once covered with a large forest and signifies "woodland" in Old English.