Monday, July 25, 2011

Sydney Gardens, walking for pleasure in Bath

Imagine to yourself, my dear Letty, a spacious garden laid out in delightful walks, bounded with high hedges and trees, and paved with gravel; part exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, goves, grottoes, lawns, temples and cascades; porticoes, colonnades, and rotundoes; adorned with pillars, statues, and paintings; the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps, disposed in different figures of sun, stars, and constellations: the place crowded with the gayest company, ranging through blissful shades, or supping in different lodges on cold collations, enlivened with mirth, freedom and good humour, and animated with an excellent band of music.

The wonderful description of a pleasure garden above was written by Tobias Smollett in his book, Adventures of Humphry Clinker. Pleasure gardens developed naturally from the custom of promenading, and in Bath the concept was taken a step further with Sydney Gardens when the traditional promenading area was combined with a scheme of houses so that the owners could look upon green spaces as if they owned the land. Thomas Baldwin, the architect to the Pulteney family who owned the estate drew up the first plans, but only one of his terrace's was completed before financial problems hit in 1793. Great Pulteney Street was completed, as were the houses in Sydney Place where Jane Austen came to live in 1801. Bath stopped at this point, the countryside stretched beyond, and a ten minute walk took you into town, much as it does today. You can see why the Austens would have chosen this end of the city. They were country people at heart, and Jane wrote of walking in the gardens and visiting the labyrinth, a maze, every day.
Constance Hill wrote about the interior of number 4, Sydney Place a hundred years after Jane had left.
We sat in the pretty drawing-room with its three tall windows overlooking the Gardens. The morning sun was streaming in at these windows and falling upon the quaint empire furniture which pleasantly suggests the Austen's sojourn there. The house is roomy and commodious. Beneath the drawing-room, which is on the first floor, are the dining-room and arched hall from which a passage leads to a garden at the back of the house. The large old-fashioned kitchen, with its shining copper pans and its dresser laden with fine old china, looked as if it had remained untouched since the Austens' day.

A silver token was issued to each shareholder as a free pass into the pleasure garden, and you can see the coin featured what we know as the Holburne Museum today. Back then the museum was a hotel and tavern at various different stages, and sitting (as it still does) at the end of Great Pulteney Street made a fabulous focal point at the end of this classically inspired vista. The museum has recently undergone extensive re-modelling, and the new exhibitions inside are wonderful. There is a lovely cafe at the back where you can enjoy some refreshment, inside and out, and you can get a sense of what it must have been like to attend 'public breakfasts' in Jane Austen's day.

Sydney Gardens opened in May 1795 with the Tavern building known as Sydney House nearest to the city, containing dining rooms and meeting rooms. There were two wings on both sides of dining cubicles, a movable orchestra, and a space for fireworks. There was a main, wide walk, and narrower pathways leading off into shrubberies and winding walks. The New Bath Guide (1801) describes them as 'serpentine walks, which at every turn meet with shady bowers furnished with handsome seats, some canopied by Nature, others by Art'. There were waterfalls and pavilions, alcoves to enjoy tea, urns, statues, swings, castle ruins, and a labyrinth, said to be twice as large as Hampton Court's.
The gala Jane Austen attended on 4th June 1799 was spoilt by rain, so she went to the repeat performance two weeks later. She enjoyed the fireworks and illuminations, but not the music which she avoided by not arriving until nine o'clock!

Jane Odiwe

Friday, July 22, 2011

Deliciously Gothic – a visit to Strawberry Hill

I recently visited Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), now restored to its original Gothic splendour at a cost of nine million pounds. It really is the most astonishing building which both ravishes and startles the eye.
Readers will remember that in Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, Horace Walpole is the god-father of the heroine, Horatia Winwood, though Horatia herself is not particularly keen to visit Strawberry Hill in case she’s expected to ‘fondle his horrid little dog, Rosette, who was odiously spoilt, and yapped at one’s heels.’ Personally, I found the place enchanting.

Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1765. It was an immediate success and has been in print ever since. Walpole himself said of it, ‘I gave rein to my imagination; visions and passion choked me.’ The story opens with a huge, black-plumed helmet crashing down and killing Conrad, son of the tyrant, Manfred of Otranto, on his wedding day. Not unnaturally, the bride, Isabella, is terrified and attempts a mid-night escape through a gloomy vault. The story is full of ghosts, a statue which pours blood, prophecies, torments and a spooky forest cave. All splendid stuff and Walpole’s imagination didn’t stop there.

Back in 1749, he’d bought Chopp’d Straw Hall in Twickenham, a higgledy-piggledy, ‘gingerbread’ house whose quirkiness he wanted to retain. Palladian symmetry did not interest him; what he wanted was mystery and surprise. He set about creating a Gothic building, full of irregularities and filled with ‘gloomth’, a word he coined for the Otranto-like effect he sought.

He took inspiration from a variety of places. The staircase going up from the hall is based on the library staircase in Rouen Cathedral, for example; the pierced Gothic arches in the library echo the side door of the choir in old St Paul’s; a chimney-piece is inspired by an archbishop’s tomb in Canterbury cathedral. The house manages to be both over the top and elegant in a slightly decadent way. I loved it.

The pièce de résistance, however, has to be the gallery with its crimson damask walls and splendid ceiling, a miracle of papier-maché fan vaulting in white with gold leaf which almost blinds the eye. Everything has been specially designed to add to the room’s ambience. I just loved the door knobs, for example, in brass with enamel inlay.

If you want to be inspired and refreshed (they have an excellent tea- room, too!), look no further. Strawberry Hill is the place for you.

Photos by the author. Top: Strawberry Hill outside. Centre: the gallery. Bottom: door knob and keyhole plate

Elizabeth Hawksley

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Most Unusual Palace

I had been meaning to visit Kew Palace for ages, ever since I saw a TV programme about its restoration, so a sunny June day was perfect to show it off in the setting of Kew Gardens which surround it.
The brick house - it is far too domestic and small-scale to be thought of as a palace - was built in 1631 by a Flemish merchant at a time when many wealthy men had a Thames-side home to escape from the dirt and noise of London. It was built on the foundations of an Elizabethan mansion, possibly once owned by Robert Dudley.
Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of George II, built his own country retreat, the White House, almost opposite this old redbrick house - a good distance from the rest of the family who used Richmond Lodge as their retreat: he did not get on well with his siblings, it seems!
Frederick died in 1751, apparently as a result of an infection following a blow from a cricket ball - Wisden's Almanac cannot record many cricketing deaths, I imagine, and certainly no other royals! His son, shy George, succeeded his grandfather in 1760 and he and his wife Charlotte set about producing a large family - nine sons and six daughters. They used Richmond Lodge, but as the sons grew up the elder two, George (later Prince Regent and George IV) and Frederick (The Grand Old Duke of York of the nursery rhyme), went to live in the red brick house which became known as Kew Palace.
When the unfortunate king first fell victim, in 1788, to the "king's malady" - the little-understood porphyria - he was forced to stay at the White House then and again in 1801. It held such unpleasant memories for him that he had it demolished in 1802 once he recovered.
Then in 1804 he fell ill again and Kew Palace was the only sizeable building that afforded the necessary privacy and peace. It was renovated (it even had water closets installed, the one on the third floor is shown, left)  and the family used it extensively. In 1810 the king went into a severe decline from which he never recovered and the family, his unmarried daughters in particular, settled into a quiet domsticity that would not have been out of place for a middle class family of retiring habits.

The ground and first floors have been beautifully restored. The king's library, the dining room where he was tricked by his doctors into confinement in 1801 by the tale that he was to meet the queen at Kew, the queen's boudoir with its fashionable decor, the drawing room and the bedrooms of the queen and Princess Elizabeth are all perfectly in period but the third floor was abandoned in 1818 after the queen died at Kew and has been left conserved rather than restored so that the structure of the building can be seen. In many ways it is even more atmospheric and haunting for being so stark and it was here that the Princesses Augusta and Amelia spent their quiet and rather lonely years at Kew, both of them yearning to get married and escape.
Meanwhile their eldest brother George was launched on a career of excess and indiscretion that included a totally unacceptable and illegal marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert.
When George III died in 1820, and the Regent was finally monarch, Kew was far too humble and quiet to suit his tastes. The royal family never used it again and it fell into decline until restoration began in 1996.
Now it is a charming little palace, filled with ghosts and an air of quiet melancholy. Hanging in my writing studio I have a reproduction toile de jouy fabric, designed in the late 18thc, that shows George III and his family enjoying the rustic pleasures of life in the grounds at Kew: it is good to think that sometimes, despite everything, they were happy there.
Louise Allen

Sunday, July 17, 2011


One of the locations in the book I'm currently working on is the village of Perranarworthal. During the late C17th and early C18th it was a bustling and important place. Perran Foundry, built by the Fox family and partners was sited beside the river, then deep enough then for ships importing coal, timber and iron ore, to sail right up to jetties just a few yards from the Norway Inn. Built in 1829-30, the inn was an important coaching stop on the Truro - Falmouth road.
A short distance along the road towards Carnon Downs is Tullimaar House. Secluded and invisible from the road it was built in 1828 for Benjamin Sampson who was originally a mine carpenter. Born in 1770 he held the post of Manager at Perran Foundry and became a shareholder. He also founded the gunpowder works at Kennal Vale, and his investment in Tresavean Mine made him a fortune. He lived at Tullimaar until his death in 1840. Since then the house has been the home of many distinguished residents including Sarah Parkin, former mistress to George III, who spent her last years there.
More recently Tullimaar was occupied by American troops during the latter part of World War II and General Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed at the house for two weeks in the run-up to D-Day in 1944.
Princess Marthe Bibesco, the Franco-Romanian writer, bought the house in 1957 and lived there until 1973. From 1985 until his death in 1993 the house was home to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sir William Golding. If only walls could talk!

Jane Jackson.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Regency Dancing? Sort of ...

Last weekend, as many of you will know, was the RNA conference at Caerleon, near Newport, in Wales. A fantastic time was had by all. Much laughter, quite a lot (!) of wine, and huge amounts of inspiration, both from the sessions we attended and from discussion with fellow authors. For those who have never attended an RNA conference, you missed a treat.

One of the sessions was Regency Dancing. Not an academic lecture on the subject, but REAL dancing, on our two left feet. Well, my two left feet, anyway.

I can tell you that it looked nothing at all like the elegant performances in the prints in the latter part of Louise Allen's post on 19th June. For a start, we were all female. And then, not one of us had thought to wear Regency costume. Or corsets! One or two very well-prepared participants had thought to wear proper dancing shoes. For the rest, it was an assortment of trainers, ordinary outdoor shoes, sandals, and bare feet with tastefully painted toenails.

We lined up in rows to form sets. I was dancing with Louise Allen, I as the man, she as the lady. Not perhaps the most sensible allocation of roles, as Louise is at least two inches taller than me. Twirling her under my arm was not one of our more elegant moves, I'm afraid.

We had a go at two different Regency dances, both called waltzes, but neither of them what modern viewers would think of as waltzes. One was danced in sets of 6 (3 couples); the other was danced in sets of 4 (2 couples). There were strong similarities with country dancing, with similar steps and moves, but in the limited time we had to learn the dances, it was quite difficult to remember all the moves and to get them in the right order. There was no such thing as a waltz hold; holding hands was as far as it got.

I fervently hope that no one was taking pictures, as some of our attempts ended in chaos. But I really did enjoy it, in spite of the confusion, and I would love to try it again.

Next time, I'll take a pair of dancing shoes. I might even find some corsets, so I can have a Regency lady's straight-backed posture as well.


Thursday, July 07, 2011

Life in the Country Town

One Wicked Sin, book 2 in my Scandalous Women of the Ton Series, is out in the UK this month and I am very excited about it! I have been doing a series of radio and newspaper interviews to promote the series and one of the things that has fascinated readers is the idea that One Wicked Sin is set in Wantage when it was a parole town.

The idea of a small county town having to accommodate an influx of foreign prisoners fascinates me. At the end of the eighteenth century Wantage had the reputation of being very rough; as well as the prisoners of war, it's permanent population was swollen by the navvies working on the nearby Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal. There were reports of fights in the local inns between the townsfolk and the "incomers," and visitors to the area were warned not to visit Wantage as it was the sort of place where you might be robbed, beaten or worse.

I've always enjoyed reading reports from local newspapers of the era and from these one can gather all sorts of information on local life which often was a great deal stranger than fiction. I've included a few examples here just to give a taste of news from the English country towns.

From the Bury and Norwich Post, January 1801: "The following extraordinary incident took place at St Ives on Monday. A bullock walked into the passage of the Royal Oak public-house in the town and the staircase door being open, it went upstairs into the dining-room and ran with such violence against the front window (which was a sash) as to drive the whole window-frame into the street... It received no material injury."

From The County Chronicle, August 1801: "The young gentlemen of Eton, on leaving school for the Midsummer vacation, took their annual aquatic excursion to Surley-Hall... The young gentlement exhibited great skill in rowing, and were all attired in fancy dresses. In the evening some beautiful fireworks were let off and the day concluded with festive mirth and innocent entertainment."

From The Suffolk Chronicle 1815: "It is with the deepest regret we learn that a riotous disposition has shewn itself in the parish of Gosbeck... On Tuesday last, twenty deluded persons assembled and in a wanton and most disorderly manner they destroyed two threshing machines and threatened to destroy others."

From the Norfolk Chronicle, March 1806: "Tuesday morning last, we understand, an affair of honour was conducted between Captain RN and GT of the militia in garrison. A brace of pistols was discharged without effect. Upon the seconds interfering, the affair was honourably terminated. The cause of the misunderstanding we are not acquainted with."