Friday 30 November 2018

The Odd And The Rich

Today, Friday, I went for a walk in the grounds of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, a place where such diverse personalities as Winston Churchill and Freddie Mercury have strutted their stuff (the former - a friend of the well-connected Lytton family who owned the house for centuries, the latter - at one of the many outdoor rock festivals which have helped pay for the upkeep of the mansion in recent decades). The house is closed for the winter but the footpaths through the grounds are still open.

I'll show you some more of the walk in the next post but for now I'd like to tell you a little about some of the Lyttons. The house hasn't always looked like this; part of the old house is in there somewhere but the fantastic concoction we see today is the result of Victorian renovations carried out for Elizabeth Bulwer-Lytton, whom a biographer once described as "that odd rich old woman". Besides the fantastical appearance of her abode she also carried out a lifelong argument with the vicar of the church which stands just a short distance away in the grounds.

Whatever the cause of the disagreement it led to her banning her own employees (most of the local people) from attending church. She even carried on the argument from beyond the grave as she had a mausoleum built on her own property rather than being interred in the churchyard with her ancestors. 

Whatever her other failings, her son Edward was greatly affected by his mother's death and ordered that her room must be preserved as it was at her death - and it's little changed to this day. Not that he was immune to his mother's quarrelsome temperament; when he married in 1827 she disapproved of the match and withdrew his allowance, forcing him to work for a living. He worked tirelessly at a writing career as well as being a politician but, despite considerable success in both careers, their extravagant lifestyle put the marriage under stress and the couple separated.

He wrote novels, plays and poetry in a wide variety of genres and though his work is largely forgotten today in his day he was regarded as one of England's foremost writers, he was as famous in his day as the young writer who came to visit in later years - Charles Dickens, no less. 

Even if you've never heard of Bulwer-Lytton's writing, you'll know some of the phrases which he introduced into the language - "the great unwashed", "pursuit of the almighty dollar" and "the pen is mightier than the sword" are all his. He also began one novel "It was a dark and stormy night...." and that has inspired not only Snoopy but also an annual competition for bad writing.

His wife - or rather his ex-wife - Rosina Bulwer Lytton also published a novel, "Cheveley, or the Man of Honour" which harshly lampooned her former husband. Then when he stood for parliament she spoke out against him with such venom that he had her committed to a lunatic asylum. Public protests led to her release but she continued her campaign against him for the rest of his days.

The couple had two children, one of whom, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, went on to become Viceroy of India. He and his wife Edith had five children who survived to adulthood, and it's their second daughter, Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton, who is probably the most interesting.

She was born in Vienna, then spent her early years in India before coming to the family home at Knebworth. She rejected the aristocratic lifestyle and became reclusive. When she inherited £1,000 she gave it to Mary Neal's Esperance Club for working-class girls from London's East End. Through this connection she got to know many of the Suffragettes who were conducting a militant campaign to gain women the right to vote.

At first she was very much against the violent protests of the Suffragettes, but was eventually persuaded that no other course of action would be effective. In 1909 she was imprisoned twice for throwing stones at Lloyd George's car, but the authorities released her when they realised that she was the daughter of the former Viceroy of India and had a brother in the House of Lords. While in jail she self-mutilated cutting the letter "V" into her chest. She had intended to carve the words "Votes For Women", from her chest to her face, but was prevented from doing so by the prison guards. Upon her release she wrote letters complaining of the inequality of treatment for persons of differing backgrounds.

The following year she rejoined the Suffragettes under the name Jane Warton, had her hair cut in an unflattering style and dressed in dowdy clothes. She then deliberately got herself arrested again and joined the hunger strikes, which imprisoned Suffragettes were using to protest at the way in which they were being treated as criminals rather than political prisoners. This time the prison had no idea that they were dealing with a member of the aristocracy and she was brutally force fed. Upon her release she wrote of the mistreatment she had received and though some MPs disbelieved her story they were quickly countered by her brother. Shortly afterwards she had a heart attack and several strokes which affected one side of her body. Undaunted she wrote an influential book on prison reform with her other hand.

When the Suffragettes ceased their militant campaign at the outbreak of the First World War she lent her support to Marie Stopes and her fight to establish birth control clinics. As her health declined further she went to live with her mother at Homewood, a house on the Knebworth estate surrounded on three sides by woodland but with views out over farmland. She died aged just 54 and lies in the family mausoleum built for her disputatious great grandmother.

Take care.

Thursday 15 November 2018

A Garden In November

Stand by for more photographs of autumn colour on this November post from Cambridge University's Botanic Garden as the season continues in this part of the world.

The Garden is also the venue for a photography exhibition  which will continue until December 20th....

….the standard of photography is absolutely superb and can also be viewed here:

The sun is very low in the sky at this time of year making some shots impossible but also giving unusual effects at times....


A botanical joke:

Lots of children want to know if there are any deadly plants in the garden. Yes, indeed there are. In fact there's one so dangerous that if you lie down underneath it for just ten minutes you will certainly be dead. What is it?

A waterlily!

Take care.

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Around The Mere

I visit Fowlmere Nature Reserve fairly regularly - far more often than gets recorded on this blog anyway - and have been doing so, on and off, for the last 25 years, since I first came to live just a few miles away from it. I've shown you some pretty pictures of it over the years but this time I thought I'd give you more of a guide to the walk around. With luck some of the photos will be attractive too!

Having driven, or cycled or walked, along the single-track-with-passing-places road and found the entrance you'll see two little wooden huts. These are ambitiously known as the Visitor Centre and sometimes there'll be someone there to welcome you. The one on the left is the new one which has recently been added. There's always a hand-written list in the window of what's been spotted during the last month.

If you turn left you'll pass through some scrubby trees before you encounter the boardwalk, which also provides a convenient place for youngsters to go pond-dipping. (Can grown-up people go pond-dipping? I've never seen anyone doing so).

At the end of the boardwalk the trees and reeds conspire to make a beautiful scene with a slightly oriental feel, especially on cold, misty mornings. There are several alder trees here and in winter you may find flocks of Siskins and perhaps a few Redpolls feeding high up in the twiggy branches.

Just on the left is the Spring Hide (Spring as in water coming to the surface) where you can sit quietly and watch the birds - if they are in a co-operative mood!

Even if they are not it's a lovely place to sit anyway. The dead branch sticking up at a 45 degree angle near the middle of the photo is a favourite perch for Kingfishers - that's why it's been put there - but you need either patience or else luck to see one.

The path leads on past a tree fitted with a nest-box for owls which is often occupied by Barn Owls and there's a conveniently placed bench too.

On the left there's a rough meadow which, though it's not part of the reserve, is always worth scanning with the binoculars. Fallow Deer are often seen here and can crop up anywhere in the area, as can the little Muntjac Deer.

Further along there's a small building which is called the Watercress Hut, because that's what the mere was once used for - growing watercress commercially. 

From here there's an extra little loop that takes you into an intriguing bit of land which is wooded and threaded by small streams. It's an excellent area to find some of the less conspicuous small birds - Wrens, Goldcrest, Tree Creeper, Bullfinch and so on.

If you follow the path to the edge of the reserve you'll find a small spring, an area of reeds  and, rather unexpectedly, a picnic table!

Having made your way back to the main trail around the reserve you can begin the walk up the far side of the reserve. There are lots of bushes bearing berries which are popular with the visiting winter thrushes, and the path also follows alongside a clear chalk stream where brown trout can sometimes be seen.

I couldn't find any fish for you today but did find a place where the sun was glancing off the ripples just so and showing the clarity of the water.

We turn away from the stream now and go through more trees and past this extraordinarily contorted lump of wood which seems to be the remains of a tree which was uprooted years ago.

The view above can be had from the Drewer Hide, named in memory of "Carl Drewer 1970-1985, who loved nature all his life". Appropriately this is a hide specifically designed for young people.

The walking is all very easy and in fact the whole circuit is now wheelchair accessible, I've helped young people (and my mum) to go around in their chairs on many occasions - though, come to think about it, I also pushed one rather adventurous young man around before it was made accessible! 

Before you know it we're back at the start and here's a five-star bug hotel constructed by the Young Wildlife Explorers. But where is this mere, John?

In two or three places as you wander around you can spot the Reedbed Hide, which is reached by a short path and stands on stilts in the middle of the 41 hectare (100acre) reserve, overlooking the main body of water.

Today, apart from one Snipe and a couple of Mallards, there was hardly anything to be seen but there is a large picture in the hide of what you might see if you're fortunate....

I've seen all the birds illustrated here at one time or another, you just have to keep coming back regularly - and not spend too much time taking photographs!

Take care.

Monday 12 November 2018

November Gold

The streets around here are not paved with gold - not as far as I know anyway - but yesterday afternoon I took a stroll to the village woodland where there is treasure for all who visit.

Take care.