May 26, 2017

Kirby Muxloe

William, Lord Hastings was a favourite of King Edward IV who made a small fortune during the Wars of the Roses and decided to spend it on a very impressive new house at Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire. The village was the site of an existing manor house belonging to his family, who also owned nearby Ashby de la Zouch Castle.

Unfortunately William's fortunes changed when Richard, Duke of Gloucester - later Richard III - seized the throne and took a dislike to  him. Richard had William's head chopped off, and work on the wonderful house stopped, with just one tower completed, in 1483.

Just one complete tower
However, what remains of the castle shows what a magnificent structure it was going to be. Built in the wonderful new material - brick - which was the height of fashion and very expensive at that time. The never finished gatehouse is probably the most impressive part still remaining. It has ornate brick work and dark patterns built in to the rich red courses that symbolise William in happier times.

Decorated in darker brick
A few technical terms: course means a horizontal row of bricks; diaper work is a pattern of bricks in a different colour from the main body, particularly in the form of a criss-cross design; bricks have short ends - headers - and long ends - stretchers; bond is the way in which headers and stretchers are mixed to create the overall pattern. Flemish bond has alternate headers and stretchers in a course, English bond has alternate courses of headers and stretchers. (More about bricks here)

Magnificent spiral stairs
Kirby Muxloe is surrounded by a moat, and there were gun ports built into the gateway. There's no evidence that these were ever planned to be defensive structures, however. They might just have been for show, as a display of William's position and power.

Now off you go over to Tricky's FAST Blog to see other Fives this Friday!

May 19, 2017

Five little challenges

A couple of weeks ago we visited Brodsworth Hall and I shared the garden with you. At the time I promised a return to take a look at the inside.  It's a fascinating place and I can't possibly do it justice in a single post, so I thought I'd approach it from a different angle. Let's take a look at the challenges of looking after a house of such an age and in such a dilapidated state. You'll be surprised how much it has in common with your own housekeeping - and how much is different.

Brodsworth has a unique way of pointing out the problems it faces in conserving the furniture and fabrics. Rather than making you squirm with tales of nastiness they have introduced wonderful, fluffy toy models of the pests living around the house. Like this "woolly bear", for example,which represents the larva of the carpet moth. As you can see from the photo within the photo - the real thing isn't quite so cute!

Let's face it, nobody enjoys dusting but leaving it in place in a historic house is not an option. Dust is not an innocuous substance that can be easily swept away with the wipe of a cloth. In fact, if it's been in place long enough its chemical properties change and it starts to stick. Meanwhile, those chemical changes can affect the object the dust lies on, damaging the surface. Cleaning is a careful process, because rough handling can cause more damage than the dust! You can see some of the tools they use in the photo.

Most of us, particularly those in older homes, have at some point suffered the arrival of the small, grey intruder Mus domesticus - the house mouse. They cause two sorts of damage - basically one from each end. Firstly, they gnaw. They'll eat their way through anything that poses a barrier for them. Their sharp teeth will go through most things and nothing is really safe. This includes cables, so there's an increased risk of fire. The other end, of course, produces some disgusting stuff. Did you know, for example, that mice pee constantly?  It's partly so they can tell where they are. When in doubt, follow the smelly trail home. But they also leave nasty little black packages. which aren't just dirty, they're corrosive.

One problem a large house faces is needing a lot of fireplaces. And a lot of fires means a lot of chimneys. But once the house starts to close down the chimneys aren't maintained and fall victim to bird nests.Then, when the nests are abandoned, the pests move in. One such is the golden spider beetle, and once it gets bored with nest material it is partial to wool, with ensuing damage to the house's carpets!

Then there's a problem you might not have expected. You might remember from the previous post that the last resident of the house, Sylvia Grant-Dalton, was fond of pets. You might also remember that we discussed the possible identity of Binkie Pippy, named on a headstone in the pet cemetery. Well, Binkie and Pippy were actually two animals, spaniels, and for a lot of their lives they were never allowed outside. So when English Heritage took over the house and began the programme of conservation they found a lot of 'evidence' of the dogs' presence. Dog urine is acidic, and there were many holes in curtains and carpets as well as extensive staining.

So, on that fragrant note, I suggest you drop by Tricky's FAST blog to see what more pleasant topics people have found this week!

May 12, 2017

Five things: the Cinque Ports

Entrance to Walmer Castle
There is a group of old towns on the south east coast of Britain called the Cinque Ports. The name is Norman French and means "five ports" because that's how many of them there originally were. Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. New Romney, however,  was damaged by storms and its harbour silted up, so its place was taken by Rye, which was already associated with the group in a way described below.

The five initially joined forces to create a military and trade association to defend the area against potential threats from the English Channel but the arrangement is now completely ceremonial.

The first team must have been proud of the name because they never changed it, in spite of enrolling lots of other towns to support them. Rye (mentioned above) and Winchelsea, were designated "Antient Towns" and the many other places were deemed to be 'limbs' of the original five. At its height the Cinque Ports alliance included 42 towns and villages - but quarante-deux ports doesn't have the same ring to it.

Among them were Bekesbourne, Bulverhythe, Eastbourne, Bexhill-on-Sea, Pevensey, Reculver, Sarre, Walmer, Ramsgate, Brightlingsea, Birchington, St John's (part of Margate), Margate, Folkestone, Ringwould, Woodchurch, Kingsdown and West Hythe. (This is not an exhaustive list!)

Incidentally, it's pronounced "sink ports" not "sank" like proper French would be. But then, Happisburgh in Norfolk is pronounced "Hazebruh" so what does the south east coast know?

In 1155 the Cinque Ports received a Royal Charter to maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need. The towns were expected to provide 57 ships for 15 days service each, but in exchange residents were exempt from a number of taxes and had various rights - one of which was the right to break into someone's property in order to build sea defences! They were also allowed to keep some of the salvage from shipwrecks. Such privileges made the area a haven for smugglers because the revenue men stayed out of their way. 

Over the years flood, high tides, the French and other marauding forces changed the coast in many ways. Erosion and geological movement mean that Sandwich, for example, is now three miles inland. Hastings harbour was sacked by the French in the 13th century and the town no longer acts as a port. (Though it's a lovely fishing town, but they haul the boats up onto the beach.)

In keeping with their current ceremonial status the Cinque Ports today have an official leader called the Lord Warden. The title has often been held by Prime Ministers or other big wigs. Pitt the Younger was Lord Warden in the 18th century and around 20 years later the role went to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Winston Churchill was appointed, as was The Queen Mother. The current holder is Admiral of the Fleet Michael, Baron Boyce. One thing they all have in common is that the post gives them the right to live in Walmer Castle - though these days they tend to have a ceremonial annual week, rather than permanent residence.

Like lots of things in this fair country, the Cinque Ports are a remnant of an older time that are now completely irrelevant, but they impress younger countries who can’t trace their traditions back 200 years, let alone nearly 1,000. They’re pointless. But we can’t quite bear to get rid of them.

Now go over to Tricky's FAST blog to see more Fives on Friday.