Saturday 26 August 2023

Leaving Shropshire

And so the last day of our holiday dawned on Friday the 23rd of June. 

Upon drawing the cowshed's curtains, it instantly became clear that the weather gods had decided to commiserate with us, having prepared a grey canvas of a sky and even shedding a few tears. Now, although we could definitely have done without the latter, we were adamant not to let the weather nor the inevitable last-day-of-the-holiday blues, spoil the day. 

In order to occupy our minds and fill our hearts with gladness instead of sadness, we were off to make use of our National Trust Touring Pass one final time and visit the 8th property of our two-week stay.

We even left Shropshire behind, crossing the border into Herefordshire. Our property of choice: Berrington Hall, a Neo-classical mansion about 3 miles from Leominster, set in Capability Brown's final landscape and gardens.

A steady drizzle accompanied us on our way up and still persisted while we were parking our car, so we took our umbrellas with us. I'm pleased to report, however, that they never made it out of the bag Jos was carrying them in.

There was the usual excitement about our Touring Pass at the ticket office, the person in charge taking the opportunity to explain the procedure to a trainee. 

Having finally been admitted, our first port of call was the Walled Garden, which we entered through the ornamental gate on the bottom left in the first collage. Rabbits were once again denied entry so we were admonished to make sure to close the gate behind us.

The National Trust has recently launched an ambitious campaign to conserve Capability Brown's rare surviving Walled Garden, which was built of warm red brick in an unusual horseshoe shape.

Like many kitchen gardens, it fell into disuse during the Second World War, but it still contains flower borders, an orchard of historical local varieties of apple, and an extensive vegetable plot, which continue to serve the needs of the house.

However glorious the flower borders were, it was the orchard which particularly enchanted us.

Herefordshire is historically famous for its orchards, so it's only fitting that heritage varieties of apples that have fallen out of modern cultivation have been replanted here. We loved wandering around on the pathways cut through the meadow grass and wildflowers - No Mow May had apparently been continued well into June here - and delight in the apples' often weird and wonderful names.

What about Pig's Nose Pippin, Ladies Finger of Hereford, or Maiden's Blush?

And no, Jos wasn't tired already. Nevertheless, he made sure to enjoy one of the famous National Trust deckchairs for a final time this year.

With forecasted highs of 20°C, I'd started out wearing both a cardigan and my denim jacket, but I'd already removed the latter by then, sufficiently warmed up by excitedly darting around the garden.

My denim maxi skirt from Think Twice got another outing, this time combined with a pink short-sleeved thin knit jumper (a retail sales bargain), a green wooden necklace by Les Cordes by way of a charity shop, and my beloved bargain-of-the-century Clarks Cloudsteppers.

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the garden - and making sure we closed that gate behind us - we made our way towards the courtyard at the back of the mansion. Here, a set of stone steps leads down to the Servants' Quarters in the basement. 

Always a favourite part of our visits to such properties, we loved exploring where the butler, footmen, housekeeper and maids worked, offering a sense of what working life was like for people in service during the Georgian period and beyond.

The wooden sink is where the maids would wash up and, according to the label attached to the tap, it was designed to reduce the risk of chipping or cracking the expensive tableware used upstairs.

I particularly loved the fascinating array of quirky old-fashioned cures which would have been kept by the housekeeper. 

Although I won't be keeping an onion as a cure for baldness, the cures for noise of the ears and giddiness might come in handy. But even if Dr. Quincy recommended the slimy juice of snails as a cure for weakness and consumption in the 18th century, the mere thought of snail water or syrup of snails is enough to make me feel ever so slightly faint!

Back on ground level, we decided it was time for a spot of lunch, so we purchased egg and cress sandwiches from the tea-room in the Old Servants’ Hall. 

After eating these outside on the courtyard terrace, we rounded the corner for a visit to the mansion proper.

Berrington Hall was created as a country retreat more than 230 years ago for city banker and businessman, Thomas Harley and his wife Ann Bangham, who wanted to escape to the country. After buying the estate in 1775,  Harley commissioned Capability Brown to lay out the park, which has spectacular views west towards Wales and the Black Mountains.

In 1778 he also called in Brown’s son-in-law, Henry Holland, to design him a new house in the latest French-influenced Neo-classical style.

There's quite a contrast between the red sandstone exterior, which is austere and deceptively plain, and the richly decorated light and elegant interior.

The interior is characteristic of Holland’s refined Louis XVI style which, not having visited Paris until after the completion of Berrington Hall, he gleaned from the illustrations in contemporary French Neo-classical pattern books.

Holland brought in the finest craftsmen: there was a specialist painter and slater, carver and gilder, and even a scagliolist from Italy. Scagliolia was a technique for making plasterwork columns, sculptures and other such features resemble more expensive stones such as marble. 

The blue marbled columns in the boudoir (above, top left and right) and those in the Staircase Hall with their Corinthian capitals (below, top and bottom right) are perfect examples.

The Staircase Hall is the core of the house, rising through its full height to the domed skylight above.

Henry Holland was a master of dramatic staircases and the Staircase Hall at Berrington Hall is amongst his most spectacular achievements. It is a cantilever staircase, meaning it appears to be unsupported, and the stair rises clockwise around three sides of the room, while the fourth is spanned by a shallow arch.

One of the jewels in Berrington's collections is the magnificent mid-18th century court Mantua or formal gown, which came up for auction in 2016. Because it was described as having belonged to Ann Bangham, wife of the Hon. Thomas Harley, it was bought for Berrington. 

The fabric is cream ribbed silk brocade with coloured silk and gold threads woven through it, and is in extremely good condition. Indeed, it may have been worn only once, probably at court, as Thomas Harley served as a Privy Councillor to King George III.

The deconstructed Mantua gown arrived at Berrington Hall in 10 pieces. To understand its construction and structure, the team at Berrington commissioned Michelle Barker of The Georgian Costume Company to make a replica, before their own conservators carefully reconstructed the original.

Several Mantua replicas are on display on the first floor, together with a handful of replicas of other gowns believed to have been worn by Ann Bangham, in an exhibition called  'A Dress Fit for a King'. 

There are dress-up opportunities galore, which obviously we were unable to resist!

Back outside, we contemplated going for one of the waymarked walks on the estate but in the end we decided against it, vowing we would come back for these next year.

Instead, we sat ourselves down on a bench overlooking the undulating sweep of grassy parkland with the lake shimmering in the distance. We were starting to feel a bit maudlin by now ...

Nevertheless, we thought one final round of shortbread and cappuccinos wouldn't hurt!

So, that was it. We packed our bags that evening and set our alarm clock for early the next morning, when we reluctantly said goodbye to the cowshed for another year.

As we'll be going on another adventure in about a week's time, I'll be starting another series of travelogues very soon. However, before we go, I'll be squeezing in another catch-up post, in which you'll be glad to note I'm slowly but surely starting to feel like my old self again.

See you soon!

Sunday 20 August 2023

As far as the eye can see

As we're well past August's half-way point by now, I thought it was high time to wrap up what was left of the month of July after my previous non-travelogue post.

Frankly speaking, I haven't been feeling myself lately, and as I already hinted to problems with my left eye, I wanted to give you the short version of what's been ailing me. After all, I've been sharing my life's ups and - thankfully only few - downs with you for almost 7 and a half years!

So here goes: the ophthalmologist detected some damage to my left eye's optic nerve and, although my eye pressure is low, I failed my field of vision test miserably with my left eye, while it was near perfect with my right. The verdict's that I've got Low-Tension Glaucoma. There's some minor loss of vision  which often - and most significantly when my eyes are tired - makes me feel unbalanced, in both senses of the word. This, in its turn, has been causing anxiety attacks and hyperventilation, for which I've been given medication. I've also been prescribed daily eye drops, for the time being to be administered to my left eye only.

It's not my intention to turn this into a sob story, particularly since I know a lot of people - like Ally - have got it so much worse, so why don't I dust myself off, pick up the pieces and ... show you some of the outfits I've been wearing in the second half of July?

Take this jade green vintage frock sprinkled with white, light green, yellow and pink flowers. I wore it on a rare day during the month's penultimate week when I had enough energy left after work to step into the garden for outfit photos.

I picked both yellow (necklace, belt and ring) and pink (flower brooch) for my accessories. Although not matching any of the colours in my dress, I wore a comfortable pair of red shoes by the Portuguese Kiarflex label. This is one of only a handful of pairs of non-sandal shoes I'm able to wear barefooted without causing rubbing and blisters. Everything but the belt was bought second-hand.

With my colleague being on holiday, I have been working 5-day weeks in July. However,  Friday the 21st of July was Belgium's National Holiday, so that I was able to stay at home and sleep in that day!

My life-saving journal tells me I packed away the unsold items of our flea market stall, filling a couple of bags for the charity shops in the process. The weather was a strange mixture of clouds and sunny spells, with lots of wind, and highs of about 20°C.

We only briefly nipped outside to take photos of my red, green and white outfit. If I'd been a loyal Belgian, it would have had to be black, yellow and red, but that's not a combination I'm particularly partial to!  The dress was another old Think Twice find and once again, the only retail item is the belt. 
Note that I was wearing the same shoes again, which this time do fit in with the colour scheme!

The rest of the day was spent reading Sarah Water's Night Watch, which I loved, but which left me a bit confused at the end, feeling there were quite a few loose ends. 

Sunshine was conspicuous in its absence on Saturday and once again the mercury didn't climb much higher than 20°C. 

My energy levels had somewhat returned after a good night's sleep, so I rid the upstairs rooms of most of the dust bunnies which had gathered there while our backs were turned.

I also ventured outside to water the plants under the awning and those which live in pots in the passageway.

The changeable weather hasn't been kind to our Hydrangeas: the combined forces of alternate harsh sunlight and heavy showers have slowly but surely faded their colour, from brightest blue to lavender to cream with a tinge of pink at the heart of each individual flower. But aren't they gorgeous in every stage of their decline?

In between showers - as yes, we were treated to some of those as well - we took photos of what I was wearing that day.

Charity shopped back in May, it was my pleated skirt's first outing.  At first, I was at a loss what to wear with it, as its pattern of pastel blue, pink and green foliage had me stumped. Then, while halfheartedly rummaging through a pile of lightweight long-sleeved blouses, I came across the Morris & Co x H&M blouse I found at Oxfam at the tail end of 2020. I opted for wine red accessories - all charity shopped - and a black stretchy belt, which incidentally was the only item I bought new.

With the possibility to go for a walk ruled out by the weather, we drove to the charity shop in nearby Mortsel to drop off our bags of donations. And surely it would have been rude not to have a wee rummage while we were there? 

There was nothing whatsoever on the bookshelves nor on the clothing rails which tickled my fancy, but the jewellery display near the tills came up trumps with these four brooches, which set me back at total of € 2. 

It looked as if the weather gods had decided that Summer was on its way out in July's final week. Although the temperature hovered around 20°C and we were treated to the odd sunny spell, it was mostly overcast and showers were rife.  In short, the kind of gloomy weather which makes one's head go foggy. Or, in my current circumstances, foggier!

One day, as I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I grabbed my bag and coat and escaped outside.  It was well before my actual lunch break time when I walked into the direction of the picturesque traffic free Conscienceplein, a square which has the feel of an Italianate piazza, and which is only a couple of minutes' stroll from my office.

The square's undoubted eye-catcher is the Sint-Carolus Borromeus church, which was commissioned and built by the Jesuit order between 1614 and 1621, and considered the most important Baroque church in the Low Countries.

Much to my surprise, I found its doors open as I was under the impression the church could only be visited from 2 pm onwards. Turns out it closes between 12.30 and 2 pm, so that, whenever I pass the church during one of my regular lunch breaks, its doors are closed.

Obviously, I wasted no time in going inside and, while I was taking photos with my phone's camera, my brain fog disappeared completely.

Once inside, the impressive high altar draws your attention.  During services, worshippers can gaze at the gigantic ‘screen’ that hangs behind it: a painted altarpiece over five metres in height. A unique historical system of pulleys and grooves means that you are able to see three different canvases here – it used to be four – in the course of the year. Rubens is believed to have been involved in the design of the high altar, particularly its wide, black marble surround.

The church's interior is stunning, its opulence almost impossible to capture on camera. I just snapped away right, left and centre, concentrating on the two long rows of wooden confessionals decorated with sculptures of angels. The one on the bottom right is guarding the steps leading up to the richly decorated pulpit. 

The Lady Chapel, which is situated on the south side of the church, is a perfect example of baroque interior architecture. There are many decorative elements, such as garlands, masks, flowers, shells and angels on the ceiling. 

I was in the middle of admiring these, when a church attendant came up to me and told me they were about to close. 

No outfit photos were made that week, so let's move swiftly to Saturday, the 28th of July.

It was another day of pottering and not doing very much at all, on which the temperature reached the dizzy heights of 22°C.

I was wearing another skirt which got its very first outing. Originally from Veritas - a well-known Belgian chain selling haberdashery, hosiery and the like - it came home with me from a charity shop at the end of last Summer. 

My King Louie blouse and wooden beads were charity shopped as well, while I picked up the vintage brooch in an antiques shop in Shrewsbury. 

Both my ring and belt were retail buys, the latter one of my recent sales bargains from Veritas. Yes, them again!

Although windy, it looked set to remain dry on Sunday so we wasted no time in going for a long overdue walk. After driving to a local beauty spot, but failing to find parking space, we ended up at Den Brandt, one of the cluster of parks on the edge of Antwerp which also includes Middelheim.

As usual, we entered via the picking garden, where our eyes are always instantly drawn to the little Gautam Buddha on his perch in the left-hand corner. We panicked as we couldn't immediately spot him but, drawing nearer, we saw that he'd escaped his perch and was now sitting on the grass!

We continued our walk past the park's many beauty spots, and stopped for photos on a wooden bridge with a view of the wedding cake castle beyond.

I'd picked an as yet unworn Diolen Delight from my wardrobe, a rare vintage charity shop find over Winter. Its funky pattern of blue dots just begged for a spot of yellow. 

My accessories were a mix of retail and vintage. The brooch, which is hardly visible in the photo is the one on the right here, found in a vintage shop in Bishop's Castle on the very first day of our holiday.

So, that was it for now. Thank you for bearing with me.

It'll be time for the final part of my travelogue in my next post. Until then, take care my friends.

Tuesday 15 August 2023

The memory like a cloudless air

Hello friends and readers, and welcome to the penultimate episode of my travelogue. It's good to see that some of you aren't bored by my travels yet and that you are joining me again!

I confess I've been procrastinating though, as the events of this particular installment took place just one day short of eight weeks ago, and I expect I'll be feeling quite bereft when eventually I finish my last travel post in a week or so. 

You might also have noticed a decrease in frequency in my posting, as I've been forced to limit my screen time, particularly when a hectic day at the office has left me reeling and suffering from sore eyes. 

But I regress! Back to the subject at hand, which is the glorious, gold-framed day we spent at Wightwick Manor on Wednesday 21 June. The memory of this day - as well as the string of other blissful ones which made up our holiday - really is like a cloudless air. I borrowed the title from the words written on the mantelpiece in the manor's Acanthus Room, in its turn borrowed from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem In Memoriam Section XCIV [“How pure at heart and sound in head ”].

The air might not have completely cloudless that day, but those drifting in the slightly hazy blue sky were of the innocent variety reminiscent of fluffy wads of cotton wool. My journal, in which thankfully I diligently noted these things each night, tells me the mercury climbed to a gentle 22°C.

The journey from the cowshed to this magnificent manor on the outskirts of Wolverhampton took us just over an hour, and it was late morning when we presented our Touring Pass to the slightly baffled staff manning Visitor Reception. 

Our visit was a repeat one, as we were here last year as well. As the splendour of this Victorian manor housing an impressive Pre-Raphaelite art collection had been almost too much to take in in one take, it was clear from the very start that we would be back. 

And here we were! In contrast to last year, though, it was nothing short of a relief that enough volunteers were present to open up both the gallery and the upstairs rooms!

After a stroll around the house and stable block housing the shop, second-hand bookshop and tearoom, to stretch our legs and to get our bearings, we decided to visit the Malthouse Gallery first.

Those of you who have been following me around for a while might remember that last year, in spite of the shortage of volunteers, they found someone to open the gallery especially for us. No private view this time, but there weren't too many visitors cluttering up the space either.

In partnership with the De Morgan Foundation, the Malthouse Gallery displays drawings and paintings by the pioneering female artist, Evelyn De Morgan and the creations of her husband, the foremost ceramicist of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William De Morgan. 

The De Morgan Foundation was established by Wilhelmina Stirling, Evelyn De Morgan's younger sister.

She proudly displayed her vast collection of works by her sister and brother-in-law at her home, Old Battersea House in London, until her death in the 1960s.

During her lifetime, Wilhelmina Stirling collected nearly 70 oil paintings and 600 pieces of ceramic by the De Morgans and was well-acquainted with other imminent collectors of Victorian Art, including the Mander family of Wightwick Manor.

So close was her friendship with the Manders and such was their interest in safeguarding the collection, that they offered for the entire De Morgan Collection to be stored at Wightwick Manor – away from harm in the London Blitz – during the Second World War.

Since at least 1997, when Wightwick accepted a bequest of De Morgan pictures and ceramics from Wilhelmina and Evelyn’s niece, Phyllis Pickering, curators here have mooted the idea of a De Morgan Gallery being made from the old Malt House building, an ambition which was finally realised in 2016.

Same as last year, we had trouble tearing ourselves away from the gallery, but we made it back outside eventually when our grumbling stomachs decided they were in need of sustenance.

Putting their patience to the test, we wanted to have a peek into the formal garden with its topiary peacocks first, but a peek was literally all we got as for some reason the various entrances to the garden were closed off. Instead, we strolled to the lawns at the front of the house and, while Jos was taking a breather on a bench, I walked to the so-called Mathematical Bridge, built in 1949 and inspired by its namesake at Queen's College, Cambridge. Apparently, it crosses a road called Wightwick Bank and connects the main gardens with a small wooded area on the eastern side of the road but, same as last year, it was closed off. Admittedly, it did look quite ramshackle ...

After a lunch of sandwiches, ordinary ones for Jos and toasted ones for me - we took a deep breath and entered the marvellous manor.

Built by Edward Ould in 1887, with an extension dating from 1893, for wealthy industrialist Theodore Mander, the house is a true Arts & Crafts treasure trove, with notable wallpapers and fabrics by William Morris, glass by Charles Kempe and tiles by William de Morgan. 

Theodore and his wife Flora’s passion for Victorian art and design started the collection of Pre-Raphaelite works of art including pictures by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais, and was added to by their son Geoffrey. 

The house was gifted to The National Trust by Geoffrey Mander in 1937 and grade I listed in 1950.

Of particular note is the Great Parlour, created in 1893, its size and scale rising through two storeys completely unexpected. The initial impression is of a 15th Century great hall converted to a late Victorian sitting room. In medieval fashion there are no doors, just arches from the 'screens passage'.

To intensify the medieval effect, Charles Kempe coloured the roof and fireplace and his stained glass featuring Saints George, Andrew and Patrick fills the windows. Kempe's coloured plasterwork frieze suggests that the Parlour was perhaps enhanced in Elizabethan times. The frieze illustrates the ancient Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice with appropriate quotations from the poets Milton and Addison. But you're not to be deceived: the frieze includes a kangaroo and the true date '1893' is prominently carved above the fireplace!

Wightwick Manor might be a Victorian era house built to resemble an Elizabethan style manor house but it is equipped with all of the mod cons of the late 19th century, including electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating and even a venting/cooling system!

After passing through the Billiards Room and Dining Room, we ascended the visitors' staircase with its gorgeous yet fragile Japanese rush matting dado, subdued green paintwork and Morris 'Willow Boughs' wallpaper. 

The staircase leads to the visitors' rooms, all named after their original decoration, among them the Indian Bird Room with its Royal Worcester Aesthetic Movement moon flasks on the mantelpiece (see two collages up, bottom right). Together with Rossetti's painting of Jane Morris (the redhead above the grand piano in the first interior collage), I wouldn't have minded taking them home with me.

The Pomegranate Passage behind the Great Parlour links the visitors' rooms, family rooms and servants's wing. Here, a wall hanging based on Burne-Jones's painting 'The Mill' (a small part of which you see top centre in the above collage) is taking pride of place, with a helpful and knowledgeable volunteer explaining it was embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework in about 1908.

The final part of our visit took us through the servants' wing which, being fascinated by all things kitchenalia, is always a favourite with us. 

Almost square-eyed from trying but failing to take it all in, we went for a walk in the grounds, skirting the Upper and Lower Pools and walking on muddy woodland paths until, after passing the tiny thatched Grigg House, the formal garden once again came into view.

We'd stopped in front of Upper Pool for outfit photos. Both my denim skirt and short-sleeved knit cotton jumper were worn previously, as were my beloved Clarks Cloudsteppers. 

Much to our delight, as we approached the formal garden, the team of gardeners was removing the barriers which had kept us from entering earlier that day. Apparently, they'd been doing some maintenance work and resowing of the grass paths. 

In 1904, the Manders employed the foremost Lancashire Arts and Crafts garden designer, Thomas Mawson, to lay out their garden. The death of Flora Mander in 1905 meant his designs weren't fully implemented, but he returned in 1910 and added the South Terrace. The design and principles of what he wanted are still clear today.

We were quite parched and gasping for a drink by now, so we returned to the tearoom for our customary cappuccinos and some chocolate and caramel shortbread to tide us over until dinner. 

After a browse in the second-hand bookshop and the Old Manor shop with its room dedicated to Arts and Crafts and William Morris inspired products, it was time we said our goodbyes to Wightwick Manor once more.

On our way out, a backward glance was rewarded with this view of the magnificent manor's sprawling façade. 

It was only when I was researching this post that I found out that, starting from July, and expected to last for the next three years, essential conservation work is taking place on the exterior of the manor The National Trust was awarded a Museum Estate and Development (MEND) grant for a total of £658,260, which also inspired the project’s name, ‘The Big MEND’.

The National Trust is contributing £139,320, taking the total project cost to just under £800,000.

So, when we next see the manor, the above view might well be partly covered in scaffolding. But we'll be back, that's for sure.