28 November 2014

Happy National Gutters Day!

Today is National Gutters Day here in the United Kingdom. Fascinating, right? Right?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I frequently develop ‘fascinations’ about things – see, for example, my recent blogs on Weathervanes, wind vanes and weathercocks and Turret toppings, amongst others.

Exeter Cathedral

Well, during my holiday here in the UK last summer, my insatiable curiosity led me to photograph the many and various designs of guttering, downpipes and hopper heads (those funnel- or box-shaped receptacles at the top of the downpipes) I noticed on the numerous historic buildings I visited. Now I’ve discovered this annual celebration of gutters so what better day to regale you with the engrossing details of these incredibly necessary objects and to share the photos I’ve gathered.

One of the lovely buildings at Port Sunlight

Left: Lyme Park; centre: John Rylands Library, Manchester; right: Chirk Castle

Guttering is, of course, a very practical invention – buildings do not survive long without the means to rapidly and effectively jettison rainwater – and it was the Romans who first brought the notion of good water management to Britain. They even had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina (who, not surprisingly I suppose, also protected sexual intercourse in marriage!).

Following their successful invasion of England in 1066, the Normans instigated the construction of huge numbers of castles, manor houses, churches and more, throughout the land, and these buildings, with their stone roofs, towers and turrets, required gutters and gargoyles to throw the water clear of their walls. Though unverified, it is thought that the first downpipe was erected in Britain in 1240, to protect the newly whitewashed walls of the Tower of London.

Left: Tower of London,; centre: Dunham Massey; right: Westminster Abbey
The destruction of church buildings that began in 1536 after Henry VIII’s decree for the Dissolution of the Monasteries was, amazingly, a good thing for gutters because large quantities of lead became available. This lead was repurposed and reshaped into hopper heads for use on England’s many great houses, and the hopper heads were decorated with designs and dates, a fashion that continued when the use of cast iron replaced lead in the late 1700s.

Cast iron was cheaper and more plentiful than lead so gutters, downpipes and hopper heads became commonplace on smaller houses and the fact that the iron was cast meant it could also be patterned. During the Victorian period, hopper heads became rather ornate, their designs more detailed, and downpipes might have embossed motifs or barley-twist patterns. 

Battle Abbey

All Hallows by the Tower Church, London

Sadly, this fashion died out in the mid 20th century when cheap plastic guttering began to replace cast iron, and guttering is now mostly plain and angular, with no ornamentation. Fortunately, there are still some craftsmen manufacturing replica guttering for the refurbishment and restoration of historic buildings, and they maintain the old tradition of adding ornamentation and dates to their work, as can be seen from the more recent dates in some of my photos.

National Gutters Day does, of course, have a more practical purpose than simply celebrating the gutters of the past. The day came into being in 2002 and was the brainchild of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). It is the finale of National Maintenance Week, ‘an awareness campaign designed to encourage everyone who owns or looks after a building to take a few simple steps at the beginning of winter to ensure that their property is ready for anything that the season can throw at them, especially in these increasingly wet, windy and unpredictable days’.

Left: Hailsham Parish Church; centre: Church of St Peter and St Paul, Hellingly; right: Sidmouth Parish Church

All Hallows by the Tower Church, London

It’s an eminently sensible cause. For me, though, today is about paying tribute to the craftsmen who created all the wonderful designs to be found on the hopper heads of Britain’s glorious old buildings and celebrating the ornate guttering of centuries past. Happy National Gutters Day!

St Mary and All Saints Church, Great Budworth

St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London

20 November 2014

Cheshire treats: The benches at Tatton Park

What finer pleasure can there be than sitting on a bench in a garden! 

The beautiful gardens at Tatton Park have some of the most charming benches I’ve ever seen in a garden. The diversity of their designs is exquisite and they have been perfectly situated. I guess that’s one of the benefits of a garden with over 200 years’ history. 

These are just some of the reasons I can think of to sit on a charming bench in a delightful garden: to admire the view; to rest your weary feet; to listen to the warbling of birds; to soak up the history and the atmosphere; to smell the flowers and the evocative scent of pine trees and flowering limes; to dream; to marvel at the various bench designs; to chat to friends; to imagine; to share gardening tips and advice; to appreciate the design and structure of the gardens; to lose yourself for a time; to glory in the sunshine; to escape from the outside world; to laugh at the antics of squirrels; to people watch; to smile at the fluttering of butterflies and the buzzing of bees; to feel refreshed by the delicate pitter patter of rain; to hear the rustling of the leaves in the wind; to read a book or write a poem; to take off your shoes and feel the soft grass beneath your feet tickling your toes… The people whose quotes I’ve featured below are rather more profound than me.

"Sitting in your garden is a feat to be worked at with unflagging determination and single-mindedness - for what gardener worth his salt sits down. I am deeply committed to sitting in the garden." Mirabel Osler

"Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still." T.S. Eliot

“I was just sittin’ here enjoyin’ the company. Plants got a lot to say, if you take the time to listen.” Eeyore

"To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment." Jane Austen

“Sitting in a garden and doing nothing is high art everywhere.” Michael P. Garofalo, Pulling Onions

“I don't generally like running. I believe in training by rising gently up and down from the bench.” Satchel Paige

“She was sitting in a garden more beautiful than even her rampaging imagination could ever have conjured up, and she was being serenaded by trees.” Lynn Kurland, Spellweaver

“Truly, the bench is a boon to idlers. Whoever first came up with the idea is a genius: free public resting places where you can take time out from the bustle and brouhaha of the city, and simply sit and watch and reflect.” Tom Hodgkinson

“A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.” Napoleon Bonaparte

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.” Maya Angelou

Read more about the gardens at Tatton Park on their website, then plan a visit. Whatever the season there is somewhere stunning to see and you can check out all these beautiful benches. And do let me know if you find some I've missed!

18 November 2014

Cheshire treats: Great Budworth

The little village of Great Budworth must be one of the most picturesque settlements I’ve ever seen.

I first visited when I was here in Cheshire in the summer of 2014. We walked down the street admiring and photographing the old houses, each one resembling a scene from a chocolate box, with an exuberance of colourful flowers creating gorgeous displays in hanging baskets and window boxes.

I often feel people neglect the impression a nice entranceway can make on visitors and passers-by. Not the folks of Great Budworth – they’ve nailed it. Their obvious pride in their village and their own homes is a pleasure to see and, even now, in mid-November, when the shorter days and cooler autumnal weather mean the summer flowers have gone, the doorways of Great Budworth are a visual delight.

Whether it's the intricate designs of the door hinges, a nice knocker, the warm red of the old bricks or the cute little outside lamps, there's something about each of these doorways that really appeals to me.

I took these photographs during an outing last weekend when, after mooching around the village for perhaps an hour, I walked the public footpaths that criss-cross farmers’ fields and circle Pickmere Lake back to Wincham. But that, as they say, is another story …

So, congratulations to the people of Great Budworth. I hope my readers also enjoy these doors and that they might inspire you to spruce up your own entranceway.

13 November 2014

Cheshire walks: Shakerley Mere

Last Sunday I went for a stroll around Shakerley Mere, a man-made lake that was originally a quarry for the sand used to make coloured glass. Between 45 and 50 metres underground in this area lie glacio-fluvial deposits of sand and gravel deposited during the last glaciation. At Shakerley, when the sand extraction dried up in the early 1960s, those fine chaps at British Industrial gifted the mere to Cheshire County Council as a recreational park. The quarry site gradually filled with water and created the mere we see today.

The reserve is roughly triangular in shape and the land flat so the 1.4 kilometre walk around is a breeze for all ages and takes no more than half an hour at a leisurely pace – though it will take a lot longer if you search almost every inch of the trees and scrub for fungi, as Sarah and I did. The main path is suitable for wheelchairs and baby buggies and, with tables and seats scattered around the lakeside, this is also a lovely place to picnic beneath the birch and oak.

The pretty woodland around the lake’s edge provides a welcome home to a variety of birds and plants, dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies (though we didn’t spot flutterbies of any kind on this rather windy, autumnal day). Our waterbird sightings included gaggles of Canada Geese, flocks of black-headed gulls, many Mallards, a Muscovy duck and an Aylesbury duck, a mute swan, one black cormorant, a couple of moorhens and coots.

Mute swan, left, and Aylesbury duck, right

Canada geese galore!
Apparently, lots of cormorants join the flocks of black-headed gulls that enjoy Shakerley for a spot of winter roosting, and the great crested grebe is resident in all but the most severe weather. Unfortunately, we missed seeing the grebes and the occasional herons that feed on fish fry and amphibians along the mere edge. We also missed the kingfishers that are year-round residents and we’ll need to go back for sightings of the oystercatchers that visit during the summer months.

For the fisherman, the Mere is stocked with carp, bream, roach and perch. The water is leased by Lymm Angling Club and, for the keen visiting angler, day permits are available.

As well as the woodland, there is also a small area of heathland in the south east corner of the reserve and it is a Site of Biological Importance (note the capital letters!). Invasive trees and shrubs have to be kept from invading this area so I imagine there’s a bit of scrub-bashing goes on here from time to time. Heathland is a habitat created by man – early man cleared the trees and shrubs, rain washed most of the minerals out of the dry, sandy soil so only plants like heather will grow in the altered habitat.

Some of the fungi we found

The heathland at Shakerley is made up of heather and cross-leafed heath, with cotton grass and rush growing in the damp hollows, and coarse purple moor grass growing between the heather plants. Also, Shakerley Mere is the only place in Cheshire where Marsh St John’s Wort can be found – just thought you’d like to know that!

Perhaps you’re also curious, as I was, about the name Shakerley. Well, the mere sits near the tiny settlement of Allostock, which dates back to at least the 13th century and has strong connections to two old families, the Grosvenors and the Shakerleys. According to Wiki,

‘In 1453 the Shakerleys inherited Hulme Hall and about 1000 acres of Allostock’s 3000 acres, through the female line. Several of the Shakerleys are buried in the Shakerley Chapel in the south aisle of Lower Peover Church where memorials may be seen including one to Sir Geoffrey Shakerley who fought for the King in the Civil War. At the Battle of Rowton Moor near Chester [in 1645], Sir Geoffrey rowed across the Dee in an old tub with his horse swimming beside him. Roundheads were blocking the roads and he needed to warn the King. The King hesitated with his orders. Sir Geoffrey rowed back but arrived too late and the battle was lost. In Lower Peover Church the Shakerley crest (a hare and a wheat sheaf) can still be seen on several of the box pew ends. The pews were reserved for the Shakerley tenants. In 1720 the Shakerleys built Somerford Hall (now demolished) as their main residence and Hulme Hall became a farm house.’

The very grand Somerford Hall before it was demolished. Photo courtesy of Matthew Beckett www.lostheritage.org.uk

Pretty autumn colours and even more Canada geese
The only down side about this lovely place is its proximity to the M6 motorway. The constant whizz of cars zooming by on the side of the trees rather spoils the calm of an otherwise tranquil setting. But let’s not end on a negative note … the trees were wonderful, dressed in their autumn colours, the fungi were prolific and fascinating, the birdlife was plentiful and keen to interact (read: feed me bread please!), and the place wasn’t too crowded. In my book, those are all the ingredients for a perfect walk!

08 November 2014

Autumn in Cheshire

I was hoping to arrive in time to see the last of the autumn colour here in Cheshire before the winter wind and rain blows it all away, and I’ve been lucky. In just a week, here’s what I’ve been privileged to see, accompanied by the thoughts of others who’ve appreciated autumn in their turn.

Dunham Massey

‘No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.’ John Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose

Tatton Park
‘I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.’ Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks

Delamere Forest

‘There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves.’ Joe L. Wheeler

Dunham Massey
‘Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.’ Jim Bishop

Neumann's Flash, Northwich Community Woodlands
‘The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cottons into its winter wools.’ Henry Beston

Tatton Park
‘Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.’ Samuel Butler

Northwich Community Woodlands

‘The tints of autumn...a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost.’ John Greenleaf Whittier

Tatton Park
‘And I rose / In rainy autumn / And walked abroad in a shower of all my days...’ Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems

Dunham Massey

‘Autumn that year painted the countryside in vivid shades of scarlet, saffron and russet, and the days were clear and crisp under harvest skies.’ Sharon Kay Penman, Time and Chance

Dunham Massey
‘Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods and day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.’ William Allingham

Delamere Forest
‘Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.’ George Eliot

Dunham Massey

‘For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.’ Edwin Way Teale, Autumn Across America.