Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s house, Kent

Winston Churchill is very famous. You can tell this because his house, Chartwell, belongs to the National Trust and as well as the usual stream of parents with young children and retirees milling about, it also sees whole busloads of actual tourists flocking in to visit it too.

Chartwell, Winston Churchill's house

Which is a shame as Chartwell is a very nice house. A really very nice house. A house so nice, in fact, that it is currently at the very top of places Mama would like to live in. Somehow, however, I do not think the National Trust will be giving it up any time soon.

Chartwell from the swings

Of course, what Winston Churchill is actually famous for, unless it is indeed his house, is a bit of a mystery to me.

Perhaps it is for being an artist. There are a lot of his paintings scattered about the house itself, and even more in a purpose built studio nearby. Yes, he must have been a famous artist. Although if I am honest, I am not at all sure that he was a very good one. Mama was inclined to be polite about them with the very approachable guides, who were full of little anecdotes about Winston’s life and habits at Chartwell. I suspect this is probably damming.

Apparently, he also liked to write. But although Chartwell has a vast number of books, unlike the paintings, very few of them seem to be by the great man himself. I expect this means that it was probably more of a hobby. Certainly his habit of marking the place a book had came from with a small stuffed animal, some of which are still in situ, shows a certain frivolousness of approach.

That said, Mama tells me he mostly went in for weighty historical tomes. I am not quite sure why, if this is the reason he is so revered, Churchill gets more visitors and a much nicer house than Thomas Carlyle, who was also famous for his exceptionally long history books. Unless it has something to do with the fact that Churchill was, I am told, considerably less popular with the unpleasant sounding Hitler than Carlyle.

I am also at a loss as to why people kept giving Churchill presents. There is a whole room at Chartwell devoted to them. I entertained the brief thought that the gift of antique Russian salad bowls from the ever popular Stalin was signalling that Winston Churchill’s area of expertise was, in fact, being a chef, but the kitchen was small and quite basic, so I suspect not.

Very nice conservatory style dining room though. And conveniently close to the food preparation area, unlike the majority of these National Trust historic houses we tour. Perhaps Churchill was a pioneering architect? A wall in the garden with an important looking plaque that says that Winston built it himself with his own two hands, suggests being big in the construction business in someway is a possibility.

He might have been an actor, mind. There’s another room in Chartwell for his collection of costumes, which oddly enough are mostly military in some way. A character actor, then. I’m afraid we lost interest a bit when we discovered we were not allowed to try them on ourselves so I didn’t pay that much attention. Of course, he might just have been a collector. Who seems to have bothered a lot of apparently well known people for signed photographs of themselves over the years. Statesmen mostly. I wonder if Churchill was an impressionist?

What I think is most likely, though, is that Winston Churchill was a naturalist. That’s definitely the angle the National Trust is working in its efforts to entertain us children. We picked up a bird trail from the entrance, although we clearly should have got the insect one too as Chartwell is positively bugtastic.

Bug in brambles at Chartwell

In fact, unlikely as it may seem as a path to international fame, Winston Churchill was clearly a celebrity entomologist, with a particular enthusiasm for butterflies. He even had his own butterfly house to hatch out new cabbage whites for the garden, which the National Trust dutifully keeps well stocked in his memory. We were thrilled to see an actual chrysalis or two while we were there.

Butterfly house at Chartwell

There are also a lot of nesting swallows flitting about the eaves of the roof. But we have those too without any effort whatsoever on Mama’s part, so I do not think that cultivating them was Churchill’s raison d’être, no matter how much we enjoyed watching them.

Plus, there is a much beloved and semi famous cat, Jock, at Chartwell (although NOT in the house itself one of the guides said firmly, when my Outstanding big Brother asked), and surely no serious ornithologist would stand for that, even if he is dead. We, on the other hand, were delighted to spot Jock. My Outstanding Big Brother has a blithe disregard for the available evidence that cats, unlike dogs, take less than kindly to small unknown children bounding up enthusiastically to pet them. Jock was thankfully used to this sort of behavior and tolerated it well.

Jock the cat at Chartwell

Although not, obviously, to the point of actually allowing himself to be stroked.

Still, the bird trail gave my Outstanding Big Brother an excuse to head straight for the ponds to check out the geese, and BLACK SWANS, the latter being particularly thrilling as they are allegedly very aggressive when approached, something which we were of course fully determined to test out as soon as we heard about it.

I dunno, maybe having kids has mellowed them, but they didn’t charge us, even though we got within a good fifty metres of them and their signets before Mama dragged us off to gaze longingly at the swimming pool.

A SWIMMING POOL? Was the man a fitness guru now too?

Either way, Mama coverts that swimming pool. What a view.

The view from the swimming pool at Chartwell

I covert the wendy house. Which also has amazing views. It belonged to one of Chruchill’s daughters originally; now it belongs to the visiting children. To be honest, Mama thinks the wooden fruit, veg and hot dogs in the play kitchen could do with a bit of a refresh as they were looking a bit battered and thin on the ground the last time we went. From this I gather that the one thing Winston Churchill definitely is not famous for was his domesticity, or having children, or having grandchildren.

Of course not, says Mama, who is inclined to add something sharp about the way in which praise of parenting skills is generally considered to be something of a compensation prize for women rather than serious grounds for admiration at this point.

Marycot at Chartwell

As long as my Outstanding Big Brother and I could continue to have a lot of fun coming up with increasingly bizarre culinary combinations for Mama to sample, we were good though. And it’s wonderful how we will enthusiastically participate in a good game of *pretend* to mop, sweep, tidy and clean up. Mama says.

Over the other side of the lake, there is a large field perfect for picnicking in, rolling down or combing through the grass for insects.

Bug in the grass at Chartwell

But the main attraction here are the giant swings hanging from a number of the trees. Suitable for people of all sizes, you can go on slow ones, romantic ones, fast ones, high ones and downright alarming ones, and all of them have more stunning views! Highly recommended.

Swing at Chartwell

There are also some natural play areas in the woods. One is a sort of camp, complete with very comfortable hammocks, and the other is called a Dormouse Den, for reasons which escape all of us, but where you can jump from one wooden mushroom to another. They are lovely cool places to escape the heat of the day if you so wish, or the rain if that is your problem. I am not sure they were actually around in Winston’s day, unlike the swings, but you can certainly discover some really excellent bugs there, which is clearly why they have been built.

Bug on wood at Chartwell

But just as you think you have got Churchill pegged, you realise that what with the swimming pool, the lake and the goldfish pond, Churchill clearly had as much of a thing about water as my Outstanding Big Brother and me. He was a big fan of the pond next to the formal walled gardens (great flowers, mainly the preserve of Churchill’s wife, so at least I was able to rule out plant guru from his list of accomplishments, dunno who was responsible for the orchard and the extensive kitchen garden, and even more wonderful ants, which were presumably Winston’s contribution). Landscape gardener?

Roses at Chartwell

We therefore rounded off our visit in an unusually contemplative manner, sitting and staring meditatively at the large orange bodies milling around just below us, in much the same way Winston Churchill is said to have done while thinking about beetles or somesuch. Could have been there for hours, but Mama declined to brave the rush hour traffic on the M25.

Goldfish pond at Chartwell

Chartwell, then, is clearly a must for all the bug enthusiasts out there looking to see a more personal side of a pioneer of the field, and there sure are a surprisingly large number of them. But Churchill, for all his butterfly prowess, seems to have been a man of many parts, and so practically anyone will find his house and him interesting. In addition, Chartwell is set in such lovely and varied surroundings that should you just want a nice outdoor location to roll around this is a wonderful place to spend time and explore. Definitely worth a visit.

More Information

Chartwell’s page on the National Trust’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the trick that fooled Churchill.

Address: Mapleton Road, Westerham, Kent, TN16 1PS

Opening: 11am to 5pm. You’ll need a timed ticket to visit the house, and on busy days your slot could be several hours after you arrive. The house is closed from November to March, but you can still visit the gardens and the studio.

Admission: Adult: £14.30, child: £7.15, family: £35.75. There are also cheaper tickets for the gardens and the studio only. National Trust members, of course, get in for free.

By car: There is ample parking, which is free for National Trust members. Chartwell is well signposted from the A25, which is off junctions 5 or 6 from the M25.

By public transport: The 246 London bus route runs from Bromley, including Bromley North and Bromley South Stations, to Chartwell. Local stations with trains out of London are at Edenbridge (4 miles away), Oxted and Sevenoaks (6 miles away each).

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

The walk up to Dunstanburgh Castle along a section of the Northumberland coastline is one of the best bits about it, or would have been had we not chosen it to break up the second day of our journey from the centre of the known universe (London) to the barabaric wilds of nowhere (Edinburgh) on the windiest day EVAH.

Dunstanburgh Castle is a massive ruined fortification begun in the early 1300s by someone who wanted to set himself up in opposition to the king.

This did not go well for him.

But the castle went from strength to strength, being an excellent place to harry the Scots from, until the Wars of the Roses, when fierce fighting for its control between the supporters of the red flower and supporters of the white flower led to it falling into disrepair and eventual decay.

People really felt strongly about horticultural matters back in the day, huh? Good thing we don’t get het up enough about inconsequential disagreements to go about fighting each other over them now.

But back to the approach, through land owned by the National Trust.

Firstly, its fabulousness is because the path runs along the seashore. Now, it’s not a sandy beach, nor even pebbles, just rocks and I have no idea whether or not it is particularly good for swimming, but the rocks are very scramblable and, even better, there are lots of rock pools! We had an excellent time for about an hour climbing around looking for small seawater creatures. Found some too! Couple of snaily things, a few shrimps, some wriggly water bugs and a dead crab. Plus, the oyster catchers seemed not to be expecting us and let us sneak up quite close before flapping away.

Dunstanburgh Castle beach and Craster

Secondly, there are sheep. SHEEEEEP! ‘Nuff said. But these sheep do not just stand there chewing grass at you, they come down to the beach, climbing impossibly along a precipitous track to get there. Cool!

Thirdly, the gorse was in full bloom when we were there. I’ve never seen gorse before and its flowers are bright yellow. My favourite colour! It’s pretty startling in this landscape. Gorse is great.

Fourthly, when you do emerge from the water’s edge, you get an excellent view of the sprawling ruins in the distance over fields of gently rolling grassland. It’s very picturesque.

Dunstanburgh Castle from afar

And basically, the rest of the hike is you getting closer…

Dunstanburgh Castle a bit nearer

…and closer…

Dunstanburgh Castle nearly there

… and closer and noticing new details and angles, and getting to take lots and lots of photos of the same thing. If you are Mama.

Dunstanburgh Castle up close

But there’s that word. Distance. Some things are small, Mama, and some things are far away, and Dunstanburgh Castle is quite a walk on half a packet of rice cakes. Especially when the aforementioned wind is so strong that you can stand there with your arms outstretched and lean into it and not fall on your face.

Mama and my Brilliant Big Brother did that a lot at first.

Some while later (an eon later in my opinion), Mama was finding that strong gusts made it hard to catch her breath, and had a moment’s doubt about carrying on. But the castle was demonstrably nearer (a bit nearer, Mama), and having come so far, she thought we might as well push on.

By the time we were on the final approach, Mama was carrying me, which is unheard of, and I was wailing, which isn’t, but in honour of the occasion I was keening, ‘wind, wind go away, come again another day,’ over and over again in a small unhappy voice. A version I composed myself, people! And even my Brilliant Big Brother had stopped bounding around the fields in the hope of flushing out more sheep from behind some gorse.

Still, we really were very close now, and Mama was hopeful that the still imposing stone walls might provide some kind of shelter.

But in fact, worse was to come.

Because the thick walls of the gatehouse turned out to be funneling the wind through the tunnel-like entrance and magnifying it to a very high degree, as well as whipping up stinging grit into our faces and eyes. Mama just about made it through, with a determined sort of head down trudge, and she hauled me along after her with My Brilliant Big Brother in her windshadow. But he only got half way before his hat was whipped off his head, and as he turned and grabbed for it, the wind caught him and he was blown right back outside.

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse

He was not happy. He also could not make it back through on his own. In fact, on his own, he could barely stand up.

Luckily, just as Mama was about to plunge after him, a kind passer by rescued his headgear and helped him negotiate the opening, and we all retreated to the shop to recover our shattered equilibrium. Mama even splurged on two chocolate insects in an attempt to cheer us up.

Unfortunately this didn’t really work and once we discovered that being inside a former tower did not really lessen the windiness in any way, we refused even to attempt to explore the rest of the ruins, preferring instead to squat in the lee of one of the walls and stare mournfully at the tunnel we would have to go through again to get out.

Inside Dunstanburgh Castle

So we decided to cut our losses and leave.

The fact that the howling gale was behind us on the way back did not really make it any less unpleasant, and we were all three thoroughly miserable for the length of the journey. I think Mama had it worst though as she had to carry me, complaining, the whole way and put up with my Brilliant Big Brother, his enjoyment thoroughly destroyed, hanging on her arm, complaining, too.

At the end of this very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very long walk was Craster village.

Craster

Craster’s main role in life is to be a pretty fishing village supplying its centrally placed smokehouse with seafood worth making very smelly. It clearly has something of a seaside holiday cottage industry as well, but is far enough off the beaten track that it does not consist just of amusement arcades and frozen fish and chip shops. We were spoilt for quality food emporium choices, really, given its size but in the end its café was just what we needed. We refueled on the sort of food we enjoy, and Mama had kippers. Which, she remembered half way through, she doesn’t actually like very much, but when nearly in Scotland and actually at the source of such things, how could she not?

By the time we got back to the car, we had already turned The Day We Nearly Got Blown Away into an exciting and memorable adventure in our minds, and certainly we were so thoroughly tired out that we were perfectly happy to be stuck in a nice warm and above all unwindy car for another half a day. Not even getting stuck in a traffic jam outside Edinburgh because somebody’s lorry had been even more unfortunate than us and had actually blown over and was blocking the road could upset us now. Although I think Mama was less thrilled, given how much the car was shifting about in the wind on some of the more exposed sections of the A1, and having driven 700 miles to get away from such nonsense as sitting in queues of cars.

Anyway.

If you do not choose ridiculous weather to visit in, or if your children are old enough or fat enough to be able to stand on their own two feet in a gale, Dunstanburgh Castle has a bit of everything. A nice gentle walk with good views, interesting rockpools to splash about in, ancient ruins to explore, pleasant and not overly touristy places to have lunch, and locally caught seafood. Should you go, and you should if you are in the area, you will almost certainly enjoy it more than we did.

Unless it is raining.

More information

Dunstanburgh Castle’s page on the English Heritage website.

Dunstanburgh Castle on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about cycling into the wind.

Address: Dunstanburgh Road, Craster, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 3TT

Opening: Mon – Sun 10am to 6pm during the summer, until 4pm in autumn and spring. In winter it is only open at weekends.

Admission: The National Trust and English Heritage have done a deal seeing as how you can;t get to the castle without walking through NT property, so Dunstanburgh Castle is free for both English Heritage and National Trust members. Otherwise it’s £4.90 for adults and £2.90 for kids over 5.

By car: Dunstanburgh Castle is 8 miles north east of Alnwick, and well enough signposted from there that Mama did not get lost trying to find it. There is a decent sized reasonably priced pay and display car park in Craster. The Castle is then a 1 1/2 mile walk.

By public transport: There are two buses which stop in Craster, the Arriva service X18 and the Travelsure 418. The nearest train stations are at Chathill and Alnmouth, both of which are a good 7 miles away from the castle, apparently.

Morden Hall Park Country Show, London

Mama was curious when she heard that Morden Hall Park was having their annual Country Show. It might be the National Trust’s little green oasis in South West London but it’s still three hours of traffic jams away from being free of houses everywhere you look. She thought, in fact, that there might be a touch of the artificial rural themepark about the affair.

Luckily, within five minutes of arriving we were sat on the ground at the edge of a large square of grass watching terrier racing. Which did not go well. Rather than just chasing the lure up and down, the dogs kept catching it, despite the fact it was pedalled enthusiastically but somewhat ineffectually by means of a converted exercise bike. Plus, terriers, being small, were pretty hard to see running in the middle of the arena anyway. Mama was delighted. No coldly slick professional tourist fleecers here! Hurrah!

Terrier racing at Morden Hall Park Country Show

There were a lot of other shows, most involving animals, throughout the day and they were all fab. The small pony jumping display was about as cute as it is possible to get without actually being cats, in boxes, on Facebook.

Ponies at Morden Hall Park Country Show

The large shire horse equestrian trick riding and danceathon came complete with the bareback strip tease, which has got to be a plus in anybody’s book surely, although Mama chose just that moment to wander off for an ice cream so perhaps not.

And then there was the crotchety elderly gent who rammed a nail through his nose, confused my Splendid Big Brother by offering to make him a balloon animal and then presenting him with a long straight tube which turned out to be a worm, or possibly a snake, or even a caterpillar, but redeemed himself in our eyes for this betrayal by breathing fire LIKE A DRAGON.

Not forgetting the ferret racing either, an event my Splendid Big Brother was so keen to see that we had to stay for a good hour beyond what I thought was strictly necessary. Of course, Mama ended up bribing me by winning TWO WHOLE TOYS via what she thinks was a suspiciously easy fishing game designed to (successfully) convince my Splendid Big Brother and me that their parents’ hitherto unsuccessful attempts to win a giant fluffy bunny on such attractions have been unusual bad luck, so it wasn’t all bad. Plus, extra goes on the trampolines!

And the ferrets were well worth the wait as they raced through a course consisting mostly of tubes, especially because the person in charge made a point of wiping the ferrets over our hair a couple of times after they had finished each round. He said it was because ferrets need to be kept flexible so you need to circle them around a lot. Mama thinks it was pure mischievousness, because the very pungent ferrety smell followed us all the way home. In fact, Mama thinks she may never get rid of the memory of it.

Best of all, we thought, was the bird of prey display. Now Mama feels that the bird of prey display at the Scottish Owl Centre had the edge, because while the handlers here at Morden Hall Park Country Show were clearly practiced at working a large arena, it still wasn’t quite the same as being overflown on every other pass by a large feathered shape.

But then on the other hand, because the Scottish show is indoors, you don’t get the thrill of watching a MASSIVE white hawklike bird soaring and swooping freely up, over, through and around the audience for about five minutes while attempting to catch the tidbit whirled by the man standing in the middle of the field. AWESOME. Literally. Especially because we got to be some of the lucky few children picked to sit inside the grass square the better to experience it even closer up.

Falconry at Morden Hall Park Country Show

In fact, the opportunities to get up close and personal with a large number of farm animals were something we urbanites really appreciated about the Morden Hall Park event. What was great here was that it wasn’t just about touching, but also interacting. So as well as gazing blissfully the ponies through a fence, we got to brush them down. As well as admiring the rabbits over a wall, we sat down with them on our laps and fondled their floppy little ears. And we didn’t just tempt the lambs with grass from the outside of their pen, we also went inside and bottle fed them.

Which turns out to be more of an extreme sport than I had imagined, because those lambs were really hungry when we started! It’s a good thing, Mama thinks, that I have had plenty of practice in defending myself against toy snatching attacks and similar by my Splendid Big Brother, because a less doughty child might have been a bit put out by being rushed by four footed beasts who were definitely on the larger side of lambhood. As it was, though, I loved it, and my Splendid Big Brother was beside himself with joy. We did that, in fact, twice.

Sheep at Morden Hall Park Country Show

Big up, in short, to the Totally Alive team, who were the animal experiences outfit providing all of the furry action at the Country Show.

Things Mama could have spent more time looking at if we had let her included the demonstrations of traditional crafts such as blacksmithing and basket weaving.

Basketweaving at Morden Hall Park Country Show

She also could have lingered round the historical battle re-enactors and the Renaissance fair archers for longer.

Historical Reenactment at Morden Hall Park Country Show

And there were a lot of stalls selling what Mama would probably call interesting handmade knickknacks and we called too far away from the bouncy castles. Which were large, plentiful, included those giant inflatable slides I REALLY enjoy and overall FABULOUS! And Mama will give them this. They may have advertised that each go would last a mere five minutes, but we got considerably longer.

In fact, the only thing that Morden Hall Park Country Show didn’t seem to have was an amateur misshapen vegetable growers prize, a lopsided homemade cake contest or a competition to see who could produce the piece of handicraft most unlike anything seen on Kirsty’s Homemade Britain. Disappointing. Maybe next year. Mama’s Victoria sponge is really something and deserves to be far more widely known about.

So all in all, Mama thought this was a well-arranged event and well worth spending our bank holiday Monday at. The Country Show at Morden Hall Park is now over, of course, but the organisers, Oakleigh Fairs, run these basically every weekend up and down the South East almost all year round and I am sure that the animal acts, sideshows and rides are pretty much exactly the same at all of the ones that aren’t, y’know, promoting Christmas. So you might want to see if there is one coming to a venue near you anytime soon. Because we really enjoyed ourselves.

And of course, for Morden Hall Park, there’s always next year.

More Information

Oakleigh Fairs website.

Totally Live website.

Morden Hall Park’s page on the National Trust’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making your own cloak.

Address: Morden Hall Road, Morden, London, SM4 5JD

Opening: The Country Show was open 10am to 5pm. Morden Hall Park itself is open dawn to dusk.

Admission: Tickets for the Country Show were £7.50 for adults and £3 for kids over 5. You could buy cheaper ones in advance via the web. Some attractions cost extra, but the live animal shows and handling were free. Entry to Morden Hall Park itself is free.

By tube: Morden (Northern Line) is a 500 yards walk along Aberconway Road.

By tram: The Phipps Bridge stop sets you down right at the back gates.

By bus: There are a fair number of bus routes that serve the surrounding roads.

By car: Morden Hall Park has, good lord, a car park. In London! I know!!! Which isn’t huge, but still. For the fair, they threw open a few more fields for cars too, which Mama wishes she had known they were going to do before she took us via the very convoluted public transport routes from our area.

The tram’s great though. Use the tram!

Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, UK

Driving through the eastern side of England is a very odd experience. This is because many of the roads stick up out of the surrounding fields. It’s like driving along the top of a wall. Wheeeee! Mama says the land has shrunk. The water has been drained out of it. Sounds about right. My nappy certainly gets much bigger and heavier as the night goes on.

Wicken Fen is an exception to this. Preserved in its more original waterlogged state by the National Trust, it is a haven for wildlife, fascinatingly reddy brown water, reedbeds full of tall waving fluffy ended grass called sedge and people wanting to get out for a nice walk in the open air. Like us and Granny and Grandad.

The Fen at Wicken Fen
Sedge!

Wicken Fen has a number of different trails suitable for all walking styles, inclinations and abilities, but after a period of relentless damp they were keen for us not to do the squishiest one because of the time it would take for the path to recover from the hordes of our fellow half termers enjoying the first glimpse of sun for ages. Despite Mama actually remembering our wellies for once!

Since fens practically define the word squishy when it comes to the texture of the ground underfoot, this could have proved tricky for our stated aims for the day. Luckily, the team there have planned for what could possibly be a fairly regular occurrence, and built a 1.2 km boardwalk path, which lifts you right out of the water but allows you to roam quite extensively around the wetland. It also has the advantage of being wheelchair, pushchair and small legs accessible.

Boardwalk at Wicken Fen
No mud at all!

This route takes in what are presumably some of the highlights of the place. There are two windmills, both a traditional one for pumping water out of the surrounding area, and a more modern one for putting it back should the British summer surpass itself when what you want is to foster a particularly damp wildlife habitat.

Windmill at Wicken Fen
Windmill!

There are also two hides, both of which proved to be good value for bird spotting. The first looks out over a number of feeding stations which were teeming with small birds. Goldfinches? Greenfinches? Chaffinches? Collared doves? A good variety of tits? This hide had them all and probably a few more I have already forgotten. Much excitement. Helpfully, there are pictures on the back wall so that you can look up any species that elude you.

We also saw a rat. Or possibly a vole. Opinion was divided. Either way, that was thrilling too.

The second hide looked out over the reed beds, and was a bit dull at first. Until, that is, a huge form heaved itself up into the sky and flapped this way and that for a few minutes. Mama thought it was a heron, a bird we see often on the Thames, although she was a bit puzzled about where the legs and stabby beak were. My Brilliant Big Brother scoffed his rejection outright, and a spirited discussion ensued until Granny sided with him. Granny knows about birds.

That, Granny said, is a marsh harrier.

Having spotted a few other hawklike hovering birds of prey on the journey to the Fen we were duly impressed by the massive step up in size of this one. Mama wonders what it eats. Small children, perhaps?

Or a montjac deer? Which we also saw. As frequent frequenters of Richmond ‘the poo’ Park, you would think we were a bit over deer, but this one was soooooo small and cute! I hope the marsh harrier didn’t spot it.

Actually, even if you can’t see the birds, you can hear them and it was very noticable how different the calls coming from the fen are from the urban song birds, cooing pigeons, croaking rooks, and squabbling magpies we usually listen to. And no sqwarking green parrots either, which has got to be a bonus.

Sadly, the animal interest was mostly confined to the first half of the walk. If the damper trails are more accessible, you can make it out to the loomingly large birdwatching towers at the back of the Wicken Fen reserve and try your luck further there. I am also assured by local Claire of Mud and Nettles that wild pony sightings are a regular occurrence on the much longer walk on the other side of the river, which must be BEYOND COOL!

As it was we had a look at the open water channel the National Trust runs boat trips round in the sunnier months and then headed fairly briskly down the back straight to the tea room. Which also had a small play area of woven living willow dens and numerous children to hang out with. Result!

Play area at Wicken Fen
Den!

Next door to this, there is an indoor Visitors Centre where you can pick up scavanger trails, do some crafting or look at a variety of items from the fen under microscopes.

After we had all fortified ourselves in different ways, with coffee, cake or recreational fun, we went off to have a look at the traditional Wicken Fen worker’s workshop and cottage. The workshop was pretty cool, with its boat, it’s wickerworked items, photographs of the fen dwellers of old doing baffling fen dwelling things, and satisfyingly gruesome decorations in the skulls of different small fen animals the fen dwelling humans had killed.

Workshop at Wicken Fen
Wicker!

The cottage itself was not officially open, but the very kind volunteers invited us in anyway and told us all about it.

Cottage at Wicken Fen
Cottage!

The fact that it was pre season probably made it a more authentically dank experience than normal, and Mama found it a bit depressing, especially when added to the story of how diphtheria ravaged the children of the cottage in one horrible week. Central heating, electricity, large windows and inside toilets, Mama says, have a lot to recommend them. Although she also says it was a shame that Papa was not there to find out that the British can make efficient ovens with chimneys designed to retain heat rather than funnel it straight out of the house as quickly as possible when they really want to make bread.

Last stop on the way back to the car park was the chicken run, and so, topped up with animal sightings once again, and let loose on the muddly puddles in the carpark to boot, we ended the day triumphant.

Chickens at Wicken Fen
Chickens!

All in all, Wicken Fen is good for a run around in a variety of different weather conditions, and suitable for all members of the family. It’s great. And we’ll be back when the sun has dried up the soggy paths a bit more.

And, of course, so we can see the horses!!!

More Information

Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the National Trust.

Address: Lode Lane, Wicken, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 5XP

Opening: The fen is open from dawn to dusk year round. The rest of the facilities are available 10 – 5, except the cottage, which is open a bit later between mid March and mid October.

Admission: Adult: £7.15, child: £3.50, family: £17.75. National Trust members are FREE.

By car: There is a large parking area close by. Free to National Trust members, £2.50 to everybody else. The fen is south of Wicken (A1123), 3 miles west of Soham (A142), 9 miles south of Ely, and 17 miles north-east of Cambridge via A10.

By train or bus: Ely is 9 miles away. That appears to be your lot a far as public transport is concerned.

Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey

Back in the spring, Mama had a yen to experience the full glory of the season, which is difficult in the centre of London. So she hatched a plan to take us out into the countryside to admire the new blooms.

Crocuses, she thought. Daffodils. Tulips. Azeleas. And so on.

Since we also have National Trust membership, she thought we could do this smelling the flowers at one of their properties. She chose Claremont Landscape Garden, on the grounds that it is, like, a garden. Gardens are always chock full of flowers, right?

Wrong.

In fact, when it comes to Claremont, the important word is ‘landscape’.

Still, we all had an excellent time and we highly recommend the place. But that is a story for another day. And we found carpets of crocuses just down the road in Battersea Park. So that was alright.

But never one to give up easily, at half term, Mama, who loves autumn with the passion of one whose birthday is slap bang in the middle of it, decided we would try again to revel in the fact that we live in a country where the change from summer to winter (and winter to summer) is protracted and quite beautiful.

This time she chose the National Trust’s Winkworth Arboretum.

Winkworth Arboretum is basically a sort of botanical garden devoted to more than 1000 types of trees spread over 9 acres. It has a nice steep tree-covered hill leading down to a big lake ringed with trees at the bottom and a large tree-studded meadow, and also an extensive, conveniently flat, very treey area at the top.

Winkworth Arboretum in autumn

Trees look good in autumn. This time nothing could go wrong.

And it didn’t.

The boathouse at Winkworth Arboretum

They even have a field full of lamas and horses next to the car park! Which, Mama would like to reassure everyone with the same obsession as her, is both free to National Trust Members and extensive. Useful, as many people seemed to have had the same thought as her about Winkworth being a good place to catch some yellowredorangebrown leaves.

Lamas at Winkworth Arboretum

This was ok though. Winkworth is such a big place that it absorbed the large number of visitors beautifully and didn’t feel crowded at all.

One of the cool things about National Trust places is their tendency to have children’s trails for every major holiday. This one was a full-on Halloween themed one with riddles dotted about the most accessible area of the wood to match to the pictures of ghosties, goulies and aliens we picked up from the entrance. My Spooktastic Big Brother loves riddles, and so this was just to his taste. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find many of them as we left the safety of the pushchair friendly, walking stick amicable area and went for a more challenging extended ramble, mainly because Mama promised us a large expanse of water.

It was a bit of an effort getting Babushka down the very steep steps, and you should have heard her when Mama picked the scramble route back up again. There are, Mama would like to assure everyone, easier routes down and up. But we like a challenge, and in the end Babushka rose to it, albeit with an extended sit down at the top of the climb.

The lake was everything we could have hoped for, with not only plenty of ducks and geese to amuse my Spooktastic Big Brother, but also an area where I could sit and poke my stick in the water. Mama cut our enjoyment a bit short though because my Spooktastic Big Brother managed to get water in his wellies.

Geese at Winkworth Arboretum

Probably because Mama wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Mama was looking at the trees. Winkworth Arboretum, the tree zoo, has a huge variety of leaves to admire the changing colour of. Every shape, every colour, every texture. We had an excellent time collecting some of the more interesting ones. But what Mama was really there for was the view from the meadow. From there Winkworth really shows off its a tree-filled slope of autumn blazing away back up the hills you have just slid down.

Winkworth Aboretum in autumn from the meadow

The view from the top of the hill over the top of the trees to the sheep-dotted fields opposite isn’t bad either.

The lake at Winkworth Arboretum

Lovely. Says Mama. We were more interested in the GIANT MUSHROOMS.

Giant mushroom at Winkworth Arboretum

And the natural playgrounds in at least two different locations, where the climbing frames, obstacle courses and dens are made of sticks, with the odd bit of help from some twine or a bit of canvas sheeting. Hours of fun.

Den at Winkworth Arboretum

If Mama had to quibble, she would say that enjoying late October leaves in a such warmth that we were all down to T shirts after half an hour is frankly wrong.

This is hardly Winkworth’s fault though.

The unseasonable weather did mean that Mama was persuaded to buy us ice creams in the inevitable National Trust cafe, replete with all the scones and cake you might expect from such an institution, so there’s that too. The inside is not large, but there was plenty of outside seating, and another play area with a wigwam to keep us occupied while the adults drink their coffee.

Basically, Winkworth is an excellent place to go for a good outdoor ramble with all your relatives. There are paths for every sort of walker, including dogs, both long and short routes, scrambles and more gently sloping pathways. And whereever you go, and, probably, whatever season you go, you will find plenty to look at and amuse yourself with as you walk around. We enjoyed it a lot. We will certainly be back in spring to see what trees can offer us that flowerbeds can’t.

More Information

Winkworth Arboretum’s page on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the history of British woodlands.

Address: Hascombe Road, Godalming, Surrey, GU8 4AD

Opening: Autumn/ Winter – 10am to 4pm. Spring/ Summer –  10 am to 6pm.

Admission (with gift aid): Adult: £7.20, Child: £3.60, Family: £18.00. National Trust Members: FREE.

By car: There is a large car park, free to National Trust members.

By public transport: the nearest train and bus stops are in Godlaming, which is 2 miles away.

Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s House, London

The point of going to other people’s houses is to play with a different set of toys. Sometimes you also have to put up with sharing with other children, which is why I like going to Granny’s. There I only have to fight for control of the horsey train ball sandpit set with my Marvellous Big Brother and get the dedicated attention of a besotted grandparent or two thrown in as well. But you have to take the rough with the smooth and some children are quite easily manipulated.

So I was hopeful when we rocked up to the house of Mama’s acquaintances, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, just over the river. Especially as it was a nice tall house in a clearly genteel area. Lots of kids I thought. Expensive toys I thought.

Thomas Carlyle and quote about gunpowder
PD via Wikimedia Commons

We rang the bell and an adult, who turned out to be neither Thomas nor Jane, ushered us straight into the lounge.

That’s when it started to go wrong. There weren’t any kids and I couldn’t see any toys. I immediately set off to look for them both, and Mama decided to take the opportunity presented by the seeming absence of her hosts to have a good nose round.

What we found was quite a lot of that oldish kind of furniture and a whole bunch of knick knacky stuff of the type Mama seems to think should not be touched. Great staircases though, really nice and steep and just when you think you have got to the top there’s another one.

It’s nice to know that even Victorians are obsessed with building extensions. The Carlyles’ is a sort of massive study at the top of the house in a specially designed sound proofed room. Which isn’t sound proof, apparently. Thomas goes on about that a lot, Mama says.

There were also a whole load of both painted and photographed portraits of a rather ruggedly handsome gent of varying age, occasionally with a really fashionable beard. Mama says it’s Thomas and he hates them all. She told me some of the things he says about them, which are written on bits of paper next to the pictures. Odd thing to do, but then adults are odd.

Thomas Carlyle and a quote about history
PD via Wikimedia Commons

Mama’s favourite painting was one of the room we started in, with Thomas and Jane somewhere in the background. Apparently Jane hates this one, so presumably Thomas keeps it up as revenge for her insisting on displaying his face on every other available surface. She dislikes it because the painter told her it is how she will be remembered in 100 years time, and she considers that, therefore, she will be famous for having a really ugly tablecloth and a freakishly large lapdog. She is definitely right about the tablecloth. They seem to have changed it since the picture, but it is still outstandingly unattractive. Also, check out that carpet!

A CHELSEA INTERIOR by Robert Tait, 1857, in the Parlour at Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row, London.
©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Thomas, on the other hand, is famous for writing extremely lengthy history books full of German-inspired impenetrably complex sentences accompanied by a huge number of made up words which have subsequently became inexplicably popular. Mama says that nobody reads them now. Perhaps the Internet generation cannot handle seven hundred volumes just to get through the childhood of some foreign king from back in the day.

Mama says it also has something to do with the fact that he is on the wrong side of most of the major political and moral debates of the Victorian age, and also that he was very popular with an unpleasant sounding little boy called Hitler.

Thomas Carlyle by Whistler
PD via Wikimedia Commons

Papa says he should have known it was all a Brit’s fault. Mama then points out that Thomas is a Scot, and that 45% of Scots agree he is officially not her problem.

So now he is more famous for the large number of letters he and his wife have written. And for the fact that they apparently have a spectacularly bad marriage, although Mama is hoping that is mere Internet gossip. It isn’t much in evidence in the house itself, unless you count a particularly exasperated sentence by Jane about the difficulties of living with a dyspeptic man of genius, which Mama doesn’t, mainly because she found herself nodding emphatically in recognition.

JANE CARLYLE a portrait at Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row, London
© National Trust / Geff Skippings

The letters are great. Mama says Jane is a frustrated blogger whose trenchant wit, descriptions of domestic disasters and ruthless dissection of all those who came into her circle would have made her a definite hit. Thomas turns out to be an excellent source of inspirational quotes and pithy one liners for Internet memes. She also thinks he would have very much enjoyed being the inspiration for this cartoon:

Duty Calls by xkcd.com

All in all, it’s a shame they seem to eschew computers.

Luckily, Carlyle’s unappealing views do not seem to have stopped him having a lot of visitors for him to argue with, or rather at, in person, many of whom are quite famous in a middle class intellectual kind of way, Mama says. Charles Darwin comes to tea! Shame he wasn’t there when we were.

Thomas wrote a few sharp but very vivid lines about him and his works, including ‘I have no patience whatever with these gorilla damifications of humanity’. Also on display. In fact, Thomas’ short, sharp but vivid little pen portraits of lots of well-known Victorians both near and far litter the house, along with their views about him. Which mostly boil down to ranty, bad tempered and very very wordy, but you’d guessed that already. Another thing I’m not sure I’d leave lying around if it were me, but it certainly amused Mama a lot.

Once we’d searched all over the house, in the bedrooms and the kitchen and the upstairs living room and so on, we went out into the little garden. Nice spot, and there’s a little bench where you can sit and eat your sandwiches if you get really hungry waiting for your hosts to turn up and serve coffee, or if you have doubts about Jane’s housekeeping skills. Kings Road with its million coffee shops and restaurants is just round the corner if you didn’t plan ahead in this way.

Mama and Papa used the opportunity to have a brief ponder about why it is that the English used to build tall, thin but not, in the end, very sizable houses, and then leave a whole plot out back untouched. No real conclusions were reached. I smelled the flowers. Mmmmmmm.

Thomas Carlyle and quote about love
PD via Wikimedia Commons

All in all, it was definitely a visit the adults enjoyed more, mainly because they can read. Mama in particular has found herself absolutely fascinated by the couple and has been digitally stalking them ever since. But it isn’t a huge property and so there wasn’t time to actually get bored.

Plus, as I said, staircases! You can’t go wrong with staircases.

More Information

The Carlyle house on the National Trust website.

The Carlyle letters online.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say probably much more briefly than Carlyle about Oliver Cromwell’s name.

Address: 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London, SW3 5HL

Opening: March – November, Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 4.30pm.

Price: Adults £5.10, Children £2.60. Free to National Trust members.

By bus: The 170 bus from Victoria stops right next to Thomas’ statue on the banks of the river Thames. Cheyne Walk is just behind.

By tube: Sloane Square and South Kensington (Circle and District lines) are about a 15 minute walk away. Or there’s Victoria (Circle, District and Victoria lines, and railway station) and the 170 bus above.

By car: “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom,” says Thomas. Go by car and you can do both!

 

Osterley Park and House, London

Osterley Park and House is a country house estate on the edge of London belonging to the National Trust, which Mama finally persuaded Papa to join last year.

The problem with the National Trust, from Papa’s point of view, is the Russian Revolution, who sounds very nasty indeed. This is because the Russian Revolution stole Papa’s family estate and sent our relatives off to Archangel. Or shot them. I thought Archangel sounded like a nice place to live but Mama says no. Too chilly. And being shot certainly sounds like it might sting a bit. Either way, landed gentry being forced to give up their houses is a sore point, and Papa regarded the National Trust with a certain amount of distaste.

Mama, on the other hand, thinks that National Trust membership is the minimum requirement for a certain standard of living, and being dragged off to Richmond ‘The Poo’ Park once too often meant that Papa was also open to the idea of finding other places to go. With National Trust membership, for the princely sum of £100 odd quid a year per family you can get access to what turns out to be quite a large number of properties in the London area (and beyond). So as soon as the tickets were emailed, off we went to look at our first house.

Osterley Park

Osterley Park was Mama’s choice. Mama has a secret vice – the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer – and one of the actual historical characters who makes regular cameo appearances in such things is Lady Jersey, influential leader of fashion. Osterley Park was one of her houses.

Except that much to Mama’s disappointment, really it wasn’t. Oh, it belonged to her, but she didn’t seem to spend much time there. No, Osterley Park is really the house of her Grandparents, the banker Sir Francis Child and his wife, and it was never properly lived in again after they died. The perils of cutting your daughter off because you disapprove of her choice of husband, but at the same time leaving your vast wealth to your female grandchild, who can then choose to marry a man with extensive estates of his own that she prefers, never having spent much time at Osterley because of the aforementioned estrangement.

It’s a cautionary tale, Mama.

The House itself is a lovely building, a sort of classical take on the tower of London, but while the downstairs formal rooms are well kitted out with all the opulence you could wish for, the upstairs is more sparsely furnished. The National Trust has only recently taken back the task of slowly tarting the place up to something more like its former glory again. This is quite interesting, Mama thinks, as it gives an insight into what her £100 is doing apart from funding a national Victoria sponge mountain or tempting unsuspecting aristocrats into giving up their birthrights, and worth making Osterley Park somewhere to visit on a regular basis to see the changes. It seems to be slow going. You’ve got plenty of time. If you can’t, you can follow the progress of the Breakfast Room renovations, for example, via a blog.

Luxurious interior at Osterley Park

Of course, the bit we children liked best was the basement. My Outstanding Big Brother and I have never really taken to dressing up and so the box on the first floor left us a bit cold, and the other activity suggested to us – counting the ridiculously huge number of roses worked into the mouldings in each room – didn’t appeal to my numeracy-adverse fauna-obsessed flora-disinclined Outstanding Big Brother much either. The basement, on the other hand, has a narrow corridor to scamper wildly along without fear of knocking into something expensive and, as we arrived back at the beginning again fairly quickly, around it turned out. We also played hide and seek in the coal cellar.

The basement at Osterley Park

Mama liked the kitchens. Obviously someone at some point had a fascination with kitchen equipment and so the basement also houses some very snazzy but curiously unused looking cast iron oven ranges, which must have been the last word in domestic appliances 100 years ago or so. Mmmmmmmmm. Says Mama.

Outside there is everything to gladden two active children’s hearts. There is a lake with ducks my Outstanding Big Brother and I were not allowed to chase. There are farm animals and horses, which are all quite happy to come up and say hello or, in the case of the cows, follow my Outstanding Big Brother along the length of the fence, much to his delight. The parkland is heaving with dogwalkers, some of whom let us throw balls for their dogs. And in the more maintained gardens there is a natural play area with logs to climb on and jump off. Plus some nice plants and flowers. Mama says.

A cow at Osterley Park

There is also a café. Mama adds ‘of course’ because this is the National Trust, which I have decided must mean ‘house-napping with cake’. It is housed in an old stable block – you eat your lemon drizzle cake in a former horse stall. Mama is torn between feeling this is vaguely unsanitary and being thrilled to her bourgeois soul, which would also like to live in a barn conversion. Mainly she is thankful that one stall has toys and chalk boards in it so that she can sip her coffee in peace. But the best thing about the café was that outside I found another toddler whose scooter I could steal and who I could mug of his cheese puffs.

All in all Osterley Park is a stately home without too much state to distract the parents from letting kids run round the grounds but with a good back story. Apparently they also have quite a bit on at the weekend and in school holidays. Mama has bookmarked this piece of information. Watch this space.

More information

Osterley Park’s page on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about the regency romances of Georgette Heyer.

Address: Jersey Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 4RB (sat nav TW7 4RD).

Opening: Fully open 12 noon – 4pm from 1st March, although the house proper and the basement are open on different days. Until then, the park is open 8am – 6pm all week.

Price: Free to National Trust members. Monday and Tuesday are half price for non-members.

By train: Nearest station is Isleworth (1 ½ miles).

By underground: Osterley on the Piccadilly line is 1 mile.

By bus: The H28 and H91 stop within 1 mile.

By car: Parking is free for National Trust members, £4 otherwise.