Monday 27 February 2023

Out Of The Ruins...

 ...came forth more photographs. During the last excursion, in search of ruins in Bedfordshire, I took a lot more photos than I needed, some of which were not much to do with my intended aims and others that just didn't fit in. Come and have a peek inside my scatterbrained approach to gathering photographs.

A more imaginative representation of the ruined Houghton House - maybe I do believe in ghosts (just a little bit!).

Though it's not ghosts, but trolls, who inspired this post. Although all the comments I get here are polite and encouraging, I do get occasional phone calls criticising my efforts - "You didn't make much of that church, brother!" OK, Les, here's a few extra pics.

Here's a different view of Clophill Old Church, emphasising the huge windows either side of the nave.

And here is what's left of a consecration mark, which indicates where a bishop has sprinkled holy water in order to consecrate the building. There should be twelve of these crosses, inside or outside the church. Three remain at Clophill.

And in the churchyard there's a little path made with stone slabs and inscribed with what I imagine are the words of members of the community. There's a long-distance footpath that follows the Greensand Ridge, we really must explore some of it in the summer.

A quiet corner of the churchyard, with views to the farmland beyond. We also wandered down to see the "new" church, built to replace this one.

I think you can see how much the villagers loved their old church from the way the replacement has been built in similar style.

At some stage during the day my eye alighted on this budding twig, silhouetted against the grey sky.

At Houghton House I failed to show you one of the pair of horses that came to greet us.

And this is the grand avenue of trees as you approach the House. It must look very pretty in autumn.... or spring.... or summer.

Houghton House is unusual in that every side of it was designed to impress. This is also thought to be the work of Inigo Jones, the first person to take classical designs from ancient times and incorporate them into his buildings.

Then it was time to make our way back down the avenue of trees. Just as we got back to the car.....

....the house was illuminated by a stray shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds. It didn't last long, though the cloud layer did begin to lighten a little.

At Ampthill (it's Ampt-hill, by the way, not Amp-thill) a Robin was there to greet us with a burst of song. To be truthful, these little birds are fiercely territorial and their song is one way of defending their territory against others of their ilk, and they sing all year round.

Besides the Catherine Cross, which I showed you last time, there's also the Ampthill Camp Memorial Cross. In 1914, Lord Kitchener, speaking in the House of Lords, appealed  for any former officers who were qualified to train men for the army to come forward. The Duke of Bedford, who was a former Colonel, applied and within a few weeks huts were erected and a training camp established on his park. After the war the Duke went to great lengths to discover how many men who had passed through the camp had died in battle and paid for this memorial to the 707 men lost.

The sombre skies seemed entirely appropriate for such a sad period in world history, though I wouldn't have minded a few more drifting sunbeams to light up the landscape on our walk.

That's your lot for today!

Take care.

Saturday 25 February 2023

Going, Going, Gone

We've been constructing buildings on these islands for over 5,000 years, so you might expect that there'd be ruins to explore at every turn in the road, but this is clearly not so. Even in today's throw-away society most derelict structures are taken down and tidied away, so that the sites can be redeveloped for other uses. Finding satisfying ruins to photograph is not easy. Lets take a trip out to the area around the small Bedfordshire town of Ampthill and see what we can find.

Going.....Clophill Old Church

Clophill is just over three miles from Ampthill and after parking in a modern street we found ourselves trudging up the Old Church Path in drizzly rain, as generations of churchgoers must have done in times past. But it wasn't lack of fitness or resolve that led the parishioners of the mid-nineteenth century to replace their old church with a new building, more conveniently situated in the heart of the community. The population had simply outgrown their place of worship.

The burial ground, however, continued to be used and the Old Church became a mortuary chapel. The chancel and porch were demolished at this time. There was a slow deterioration in the fabric of the building, but the final blow came in the nineteen-fifties when thieves removed all the lead from the roof. The carved roof-beams were taken soon afterwards but by more legal means; they were to be used in the new church.

What remained of the building became heavily vandalised and was also associated with satanic cults. It was later claimed to have been just a group of students who arranged the whole thing as a "joke". Recently the site has been tidied up by the efforts of the local community - they've even built a viewing platform at the top of the tower which you can climb up to if you arrive at the right time.

Going.....Houghton House

We moved on to Houghton House, a property belonging to English Heritage, which you get to along a single track farm road and where there's space in the car park for no more than eight cars. In summer most people must walk up from Ampthill - there are some advantages to visiting on a rainy day!

There's nothing to welcome you to Houghton House but a small information board and a couple of rather bedraggled ponies. It wasn't like this in 1621 when the Dowager Countess of Pembroke received King James I in her newly-completed mansion. Sadly the Countess didn't enjoy her house for long; she died later that year from smallpox.

The house then became the country seat of the Bruce family, who later sold it to the Duke of Bedford as a home for his son. That son died in a hunting accident and the house passed to the grandson, who let the extensive grounds to a neighbour. He later tried to rent out the house but found, surprisingly enough, that no one wanted to live on a windswept hill with wonderful views over someone else's parkland.

By 1794 the house, still unoccupied, was becoming a liability so the Duke decided to strip out anything valuable and sell it. This included the roof, the staircase (which can still be seen in a nearby hotel) and anything else that could be salvaged. He then sold what was left to his neighbour, the Earl of Upper Ossary (great name that!), who included the romantic ruin as a feature in his park, which had been landscaped by 'Capability' Brown.

Although I love a good ruin, one can't help but regret what was lost. The once grand entrance above, for example, was probably designed by Inigo Jones, one of the most respected and innovative architects of the time.

It won't surprise you to hear that such evocative remains have given rise to reports of "shadowy figures", "a young girl in old-fashioned clothes" and even "a dark knight on horseback". You can, if you want, see an unconvincing film on YouTube of a group of enthusiasts trying to prove the existence of the ghosts. Some claim to have heard a man's voice shouting "Get out!", while others interpret the two syllables as something more forceful and Anglo-Saxon, but expressing much the same sentiment!

One person who was definitely here was W.M who left his mark in 1846 - graffiti is nothing new.

Gone.....Ampthill Castle

As the title implies there's nothing at all left of our final "ruin". The cross seen above marks the approximate site of the castle. It's called "Catherine's Cross" and takes its name from Catherine of Aragon who was staying here in May 1533 when she learned of the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII. But there's more to see on a stroll around the park.

The grounds here are part of the estate of the Earl of Upper Ossary, of whom we heard earlier, and this is the very land which was re-modelled by 'Capability' Brown. The idea of his landscaping was to try to emulate the views imagined and painted by the artists of the day.

I think he succeeded in his aims, though you'll have to decide whether my photo has captured the essence of the view he created. The small lake and clumps of trees are just the kind of features you'd expect to find in a 'Capability' Brown vista.

He also provided viewpoints for his patrons' homes. Yonder, to delight your eyes, lies Ampthill Park House, built for Upper Ossary's noble Earl.

We made our way back to the car park, well satisfied with our trip out on a morning of such unpromising weather.

Take care.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Spring Propaganda

Springtime in England, although much praised by writers and poets, nevertheless finds it necessary to operate a finely-tuned propaganda machine. At regular intervals, from February onwards, it organises brief spells of weather to convince all optimists that the dull, dreary days are gone forever and from now on it will be a gentle freewheel all the way into the summer. One such day was at the beginning of this week.

We found ourselves in the familiar setting of Fen Drayton Lakes bird reserve, but with unusually blue skies and pleasantly warm temperatures - no need for gloves and scarves anyway.

Suddenly everything looks brand new: the murky winter skies are doused with a good sprinkling of sunshine, the breeze playfully ruffles the reeds, and even the muddy footpaths become springy turf beneath our boots.

Regular readers will know that I have a small obsession with photographing reeds and rushes, particularly when they are backlit by the sun.

Even if I didn't like them, it would be tricky to keep reeds out of my photographs here at Fen Drayton. It's hard to imagine that just a few decades ago this was a working quarry, excavating sand and gravel for the building industry.

How could you not think that spring was already here? How could you even imagine that just a couple of days later it could be as overcast and drizzly as it is just outside my window as I write this? They're even talking about sleet and overnight frosts again.

'Tis all propaganda, I tell you! And speaking of which....

Here come some proper ganders (sorry!). A mixed group of Greylag Geese and Canada Geese were disturbed from their sunbathing on the riverside meadows.

As impressive as Concorde in its way! And not even native to these shores; Canada Geese were brought here to beautify wildfowl collections, but it didn't take them long to escape and establish themselves in the wild.

The path alongside the River Great Ouse was uncharacteristically dry and made for easy walking.

More reeds, John? Yes, I'm afraid so, but cut the old chap a bit of slack, sometimes he photographs some very weird stuff, like tree-shadows on the side of a shed....

See what I mean? Back to the scenery....

There were surprisingly few people about enjoying this fine day, that's the advantage of being retired and able to get out and about during the week, I suppose. But there was something abroad which I hadn't expected....

Not a very convincing photo, I'll admit, but you'll just have to believe me that it's not a discarded yellow handkerchief, but a Brimstone butterfly out enjoying the sunshine. It steadfastly refused to settle so I had to try to snap it on the wing, which proved to be very tricky. Brimstones are one of the few butterflies that can come out of hibernation on any sunny day in winter and then go back into hibernation and thus survive.

It's doubtful that there's anything for a butterfly to feed on at this time of year. However we face no such problems: we're about to make our way to The Bridge at Clayhithe for a hearty pub lunch. 

Take care.

Thursday 16 February 2023

An Anchor In The Fens

In order to locate this Anchor you need to head towards the village of Sutton-In-The-Isle, then turn off a street with the unlikely name of The America and trundle down Bury Lane. Here you will find The Anchor, a traditional pub which nowadays, I believe, also operates as a cafe and guesthouse. Last time I passed this way the place had closed down, but it appears to have been rescued.

The building dates from the seventeenth century, when it was constructed to house workers who were digging the New Bedford River, which was part of the scheme to drain the Fens. We can set off on our walk southwards along the top of the flood bank that those men built, alongside the river.

Over most of its length this man-made river follows a ruler-straight line, but here it's forced to curve around the slightly higher land which is the most westerly edge of the Isle Of Ely. The lands over the other side of the waterway are the Ouse Washes, a large area which is allowed to flood in times of high rainfall. The road beyond The Anchor is often under water in winter.

The depth of the floodwaters on the Washes varies from place to place and at the moment the "Goldilocks" area, where the birds agree that everything is "just perfect", is right here. The birds were mostly too distant for the camera, however the 'scope revealed a few hundred Black-Tailed Godwits and Wigeon, as well as half-a-dozen Great White Egrets, one of which is just visible in the photo above.


Over on the arable fields on our left there was a large flock of Whooper Swans (only part of which is shown here). Sorry about the rather misty picture but that's how conditions were, though I hope it gives you some idea of the Fens in winter. Have pity on the poor bird-watcher who has to scan through the entire flock, trying to find the rarer Bewick's Swans, which are only slightly smaller and have less yellow on their beaks. There weren't any! 

Above is a fine example of a Fenland footbridge - no wonder that in times past the fenmen used to prefer to vault across the drains and ditches on long poles!

We'll now wander back to where our car's parked, near The Anchor, have a cup of hot chocolate, then walk northwards along the floodbank.

As long as it's not too muddy, which it wasn't, the floodbank makes for excellent walking - dead flat, no need for a map and raised up enough to see over the surrounding countryside. And plenty of excuses to stop to look for birds - whether they're there or not!

A long, narrow pit beneath the floodbank is used for fishing and the "scarecrow" you can see is, I imagine, an attempt to keep Herons from stealing the fish. The fishing platforms look to me to be both unnecessary and unsafe.

The Washes here appeared to us to be exactly the same as those we'd seen earlier, but not to the birds, who shunned these soggy meadows as being distinctly inferior.

The path brought us to Mepal Gault Hole (they have such a poetic turn of phrase in the fens) where the local clay (or gault) was dug for making bricks and perhaps for re-enforcing the floodbanks. It can also be good for birds and Les spotted an overwintering Chiffchaff, which vanished before I could find it, probably because a Marsh Harrier appeared overhead.

We carried on as far as Mepal before turning back.

Another view of the reeds at the Gault Hole. I just can't resist photographing reeds in winter.

A quick roll-call of "poetic" place-names in the vicinity of Sutton Gault: Tubb's Drove, The Gullet, Between Ditches Drove, Foulmire Fen, Cradge Bank, Hundred Foot Drain and Grunty Fen. Only relieved by Jolly Bankers Bridge, the "bankers" in this case being the hard-working labourers who built the floodbank, not the posh boys from the City of London.

Someone asked recently whether I carried the big tripods and telescopes so adored by proper birdwatchers. The answer is no, just binoculars, and the small 'scope and cheap monopod that Les is using above. I think he'd just found a Grey Wagtail.

And here we are, as if by magic, back at The Anchor. No, we didn't go in as it showed no sign of being open and, besides, we still had some of that hot chocolate left in the flask.

Take care.