Surrey

Cobham, Surrey: Painshill Park

This post is slightly bittersweet for me to write, because if we had gotten married on 28th November as planned (our 12th anniversary), we would have also gone to Painshill Park on the 7th November for a pre-wedding photo shoot, and I was super excited to bust out my witch hat and take a bunch of fun Halloweeny pictures with all the foliage. But the reality is that lockdown happened, we had to move our wedding to the 4th of November (with only two days’ notice) so it didn’t get cancelled, and even though we technically could have still gone ahead with the Painshill photo shoot, it seemed a bit redundant to do a pre-wedding shoot after we were already married, not to mention the fact that we had just paid a photographer to photograph our wedding, and couldn’t really afford two photo shoots in the same week. Don’t get me wrong, I do really like most of the photos we ended up with, but a lot of the poses weren’t ones that I would have necessarily chosen, and it makes me a bit sad to look at these photos of Painshill and think what we could have done there. Oh well, I guess there’s nothing stopping us from doing it next autumn if we really want to, but it won’t be quite the same.

 

But I digress. This was actually the second time we’d been to Painshill Park, as it is quite close to us by car. The first time was about eight or nine years ago when Marcus dragged me there in the middle of the winter to get some fresh air, and I was not a happy camper. It was so long ago that I hadn’t even started blogging yet, which is why I never posted about it. But this visit was so much better, coming as it did on a warm day back in September, except for a bit of confusion on arrival.

  

Painshill’s website said that due to Covid, pre-booking was required unless you were a member, or had a Gardener’s World or Historic Houses card, or National Art Pass. Straightforward enough, except for when you went to the booking section of the website, it didn’t mention National Art Pass at all and said you had to pre-book unless you were a member or had one of the other two cards. We decided to take our chances and just turn up, but were even more uncertain when the signs in the carpark also failed to mention Art Pass. And when we reached the entrance and tried to explain that we hadn’t pre-booked because we had Art Pass, the woman standing there had no clue what we were talking about. Fortunately, another staff member overheard and swooped in to save the day, so we were able to buy tickets on the spot (£9 normally, Art Pass gets you a 25% discount). They seemed to have remedied this error on their website, so hopefully other visitors with Art Pass won’t have the same issue (the reason we didn’t pre-book just to be on the safe side was because they didn’t offer discounted tickets online). And since they’re a park, they remained open to the public during lockdown.

  

I don’t think we had even walked the entire length of the park (probably due to my crankiness about the cold) when we visited years ago, because whilst I remembered some follies, I didn’t recall quite this many! Painshill Park was built between 1738 and 1773 by Charles Hamilton, the 14th child of an earl who clearly had lots of money to blow. The garden was inspired by his trips to Italy, and his goal was to create a “living painting” through landscaping and the creation of various follies. One would assume there was originally a manor house of some sort as well, but if there was, it’s not there now. Some of the original follies have disappeared too, but Painshill is gradually restoring them, which is probably why I don’t remember quite so many on our first visit, because some of them weren’t actually there then!

 

Be prepared for a lot of walking (they offered us a golf cart rental when I booked the photo shoot, which I probably would have taken them up on just to not have to hike in shiny silver heels), but you will be rewarded by discovering grand vistas and delightful follies at every turn, including a Turkish tent, Temple of Bacchus (this was only rebuilt recently), mausoleum, gothic temple, and more! My personal favourite thing is the Crystal Grotto, because I love a grotto; unfortunately, due to Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside (nor could we climb the tower at the other end of the property), but I still enjoyed walking around the outside.

 

We also enjoyed discovering the hermit hut hidden in the woods, which we missed on our first visit (in the weird Georgian tradition popular in grand estates, Charles Hamilton tried to hire someone to live as a hermit in the hut and sit in quiet contemplation to add to the ambience for his visitors, but the hermit was apparently found in the local pub shortly after being hired, which put an end to the idea of a live-in hermit pretty quickly. However, assuming you could hook up some electricity, plumbing, and a supply of books, I think I’d be fine with holing up there for a while in the summer months, especially if I could visit the cafe for cake), and the waterwheel. Painshill is right next to a motorway, so you will be distracted by the roar of traffic if you’re at the outer limits of the property, but it’s so big that you can easily pretend to be in bucolic countryside for most of it, especially when you’re by the lake that runs alongside most of the property.

 

I have to confess that though I was of course keen on the idea of getting photos at Painshill because of all the follies and lovely fall foliage (I mean, I assume it has lovely foliage judging from some of the photos on their website, but I don’t actually know because it was still pretty summery when we were there), the thing that completely sold me was the cafe. We stopped to have a tea and cake after all that walking, and I selected the jaffa cake cake (not a typo). The woman working there immediately praised my choice, and I can see why. It was similar to the biscuit (or is it a cake?) but so much better, with a soft orange sponge, orange curd, and a dark chocolate glaze. I wanted more, and I thought if we had photos there, I could easily sneak in another piece (or two!).

 

It’s rare I enjoy a walk, but clearly follies (and nice weather and cake!) are the key, because I had a very nice time indeed on this visit. I’d definitely recommend if you fancy a walk and some cake, and I still think it would be a fab place for a photo shoot. 4/5.

Deepdene, Nonsuch, and Cissbury Ring: A Medley of Walks

Since we’ve had use of a car on various occasions over the past month, we’ve used it as an opportunity to explore some of the countryside within an easy drive from SW London. Back in mid-August, I had taken a day off work (I’ve actually been off for a lot of August and September, since I was saving up all my annual leave in the hope things would improve enough that we’d be able to travel safely at some point in the summer, and when that didn’t happen, I found myself with an awful lot of “staycation” time to use before October), and had made up my mind the night before to go check out Deepdene Trail, near Dorking, without bothering to consult the weather, which is always a mistake. Sure enough, the day dawned exceptionally cold and rainy, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to go somewhere, so I grabbed my big parrot-handled umbrella (purchased at the Mary Poppins musical last year), Marcus took a waterproof jacket, and off we went.

 

When we left our house, it was only drizzling, but by the time we got to Dorking, it was absolutely pissing it down! And the only parking we could find was in the middle of town, about a mile away from the start of the trail, so I was already pretty cold and unhappy by the time we got to it (we subsequently discovered numerous places we could have parked that would have been a lot closer, so don’t be like us). Deepdene was at one time a grand estate owned by the Hope family (of cursed diamond fame), containing a manor house, a variety of follies, and other delights, but all that survives today are the gardens, the family mausoleum, and a few other random bits and bobs that I’ll get to in a minute. We first headed for the mausoleum, and I was not pleased when we followed the signs to the top of a hill only to be led straight down again when we reached the top. Due to the relentless rain, the hill was very muddy and slippery, so I had to take teeny tiny steps so I didn’t fall on my ass and ruin my giant purposely ripped goth sweater (I actually bought two of the stupid things in different colours because they’re really comfy).

 

Unfortunately, the mausoleum was more than a little underwhelming – I just didn’t find it all that aesthetically pleasing, and given the awful weather, I didn’t think it was worth the effort it took to get there. But I still really wanted to see Coady the lion, who is a replica of one of the two lion statues that used to sit in the gardens, mainly because they’d bothered to give him a cute name (he was made of Coade stone, so kind of a pun), so we then had to walk back in the opposite direction (back up mud hill again) to find the gardens, which were at the bottom of the most uncomfortable set of stairs I’ve ever walked down. For real, they were made up of pointy stones of all different shapes and sizes that literally hurt to walk on, even though I was wearing sneakers. Marcus was a fair way behind me, so I don’t think he heard the full extent of my complaining, but I was bitching to myself the entire way down. And they were slippery because of the rain, so trying not to slip whilst still walking quickly enough to minimise the pain stressed me out even more.

 

But Coady was pretty delightful, albeit a lot smaller than I was expecting. I was picturing a full-on Trafalgar Square sized lion, and got one only about two feet long! Fortunately, the gardens were also home to the cute tower you can see me standing on at the start of the post, and a crumbling, graffiti-covered folly of some sort where we hid out from the rain for a bit, since the sound of the drops pattering on my brolly was starting to give me a headache. Unfortunately, the gardens now look out on some kind of unattractive yard full of building materials surrounded by fencing, and we ran into a couple of dead ends before we found the way out (since I was NOT walking up those stairs again).

 

You will notice that I look wet and miserable in every photo, which pretty much sums up the experience of the walk. Neither one of us could wait to get home and change into dry clothes, but we did stop at the M&S in Dorking to grab some crisps, since I was starving and didn’t want to get carsick on the way back, as I’m wont to do on an empty stomach, and I was really not impressed to see that not a single member of staff was wearing a mask. Dorking’s a cute town otherwise, though there isn’t much to do unless you’re into antiquing, and I was perfectly happy to be on my way. As you can see, Deepdene Trail is not without attractive features, and I think it would be a perfectly fine walk in nice weather, but definitely don’t try it in the rain like we did!

 

We had slightly better weather for Nonsuch Park, which is located in Ewell/Cheam. Those are not places I would normally visit (no offence if you live there, but they’re not exactly tourist attractions), but I’ve always been intrigued by Nonsuch Palace (pronounced none-such, despite the spelling), which originally stood here, and was built by Henry VIII to be the best palace ever. After Henry died, it went through various owners before eventually passing to Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II, who had the place demolished, but honestly, it was probably falling apart before then, since I remember reading somewhere that most of Henry VIII’s palaces were crappily built. He tended to want things built quickly that looked impressive, but they ended up having shoddy workmanship. The only reason Hampton Court is still standing is because it was built by Cardinal Wolsey, who did value quality over quantity! Poor construction aside, I bet the palace did look amazing, and I would have loved to have seen it, but all that’s here now is a park and a Georgian manor house that they rent out for weddings and such, though I don’t think you can go inside unless you’re attending an event.

 

Most of the park is just grassy fields – to be honest, I think Richmond Park is nicer – but there were formal gardens near the manor house that contained some nice topiary and trellises and things, and I was relieved to not have to keep my distance from scary deer for a change. Most importantly, I found the memorial bench shown above left, which I thought was adorable and funny and certainly a cut above the normal boring “in memory of” or “he loved this park” benches. We walked around for about an hour and then the wind started to pick up and the rain clouds were a comin’, so we headed back home to avoid a repeat of Deepdene, especially as I was wearing my I Love Lucy replica dress that would have become real see-through real quick if it got wet (Lucy definitely wore petticoats and a slip with it, but I wasn’t!). I’m glad we checked it out, but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way for it again.

 

Finally, I wanted to go to the seaside at some point on a day when the weather was nice, and since I knew I would be eating ice cream (my main reason for visiting the seaside), I thought we should probably go on a walk first, so we decided on Cissbury Ring, which is managed by the National Trust and is located not far from Worthing, in West Sussex. The carpark is free, which is unusual for a National Trust property, but I guess you get what you pay for, because there were no maps or signage of any kind, and we were just left to make our way up the hill, assuming that was the right direction to go for a hill fort. But we definitely took a wrong turn somewhere, because we found ourselves hiking up a really steep bit through a poo-filled pasture, though we made it in the end. Maybe this is my own ignorance of neolithic sites coming through, but when I heard “hill fort” I was picturing ruins of some sort. Nope, it is literally just the top of a big ass hill that you walk around. Apparently there used to be flint mines here, but you wouldn’t really know it to look at the nothing that is here today.

 

Well, I shouldn’t say nothing, because they had wild ponies! For some reason, these didn’t intimidate me as much as farm horses do, I guess because they were intent on eating and paid me no attention whatsoever, but I did feel bad for them because all their heads were being completely attacked by flies. If you watch TV in Britain, you’ve probably seen that Lloyds advert where all the horses go running up to the people on a beach, and they get to shower them with sugar lumps, etc. Well, I bank with Lloyds, and I’m still waiting for my free horse to show up, who I will name Bill Withers (because horses have withers…it’s a pun!). So I thought maybe this was my moment at last, and Bill Withers was in that field waiting for me, and he’d run up to me and we’d be together forever and I could ride him to work and have him kick people who pissed me off. In case he needed help finding me, I started walking past the horses calling, “Bill Withers, Bill Withers,” but didn’t get a response. I guess he might still be out there somewhere (because a Lloyds advert wouldn’t just lie to me, would it?), but sadly, he wasn’t at Cissbury Ring. So I cheered myself up by singing “My Lovely Horse” instead. I’m sure the other people there thought I was strange, but they shouldn’t have really been standing close enough to hear me anyway, frankly.

 

We headed to Worthing after, which was fortunately nothing like the horrible extremely non-socially distanced pictures I’ve seen of Bournemouth, where people were packed so close together on the beach they could barely move. It wasn’t really that warm, and it was a weekday, so we had a large stretch of coast to ourselves where I could dip my toes in (only a bit though, the water was cold!). Sadly, despite what the internet said, the Worthing branch of Boho Gelato didn’t open until 4, so we ended up having to drive all the way to Brighton so I could get my fix (which is farther than you’d think because traffic) from the main branch of Boho Gelato (the one in Worthing only has half the amount of flavours anyway, so I can’t say I regret going to Brighton in the end, even though finding parking was a nightmare, and I had to queue for half an hour to get my gelato). I can’t see any reason why I would ever go back to Cissbury Ring, since I am totally not a fan of walking up hills (or walking down them for that matter. It hurts my knees), and it didn’t even have a Coady the lion to keep me entertained, but at least I saw it once!

Surrey: Lavender Fields and a Walk through Puttenham

As I said in my previous post, we wanted to take advantage of our rental car as much as possible whilst we had it and venture into the countryside a bit. A friend of mine is always raving about the lavender fields near Epsom, and the end of July/early August is peak lavender season, so we’d thought we’d give it a go. Unfortunately, apparently everyone else in London had the same thought, because the place was completely rammed, even though it was early afternoon on a Monday. With cars queuing down the road just to get in the car park, and another queuing system set up once you got out of your car that didn’t look like it was allowing for proper social distancing, plus the £4 charge just to walk around a field, I was most decidedly not keen, so we gave up on that idea. (I had to laugh when I saw the lavender farm posted on Secret London’s Instagram a few days later. Sorry mate, secret’s out.)

However, all was not lost, because we spotted another lavender farm down the road that made a point of advertising their free admission. The fact that the car park was almost empty probably should have been a clue that there was a reason it was free, if the appearance of the place as soon as we got out of the car didn’t make that clear. Still, we’d come all that way, so we persevered. And boy, it’s good we did, since you can see all the fun attractions we spotted! There’s the random hay bales and empty greenhouses surrounded by hoarding, and the big dirt/rubbish heap.

 

And of course the beautiful lush ankle-high lavender fields, filled with millions of bees and other insects that flew up into our faces when we walked past. Just like being in Provence (actually, sort of, since I don’t like Provence much either, but their lavender is definitely more impressive)! There was a small stall set up selling lavender products, but I think lavender in food is vile, and I’m not all that keen on lavender soap either, so we went home empty handed. I probably shouldn’t be too hard on them, because they are a new farm and it takes time for lavender plants to grow to impressive heights, and at least we didn’t pay for the experience or have to encounter other people in a significant way, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it or Mayfield Lavender Farms, which is the insanely crowded place down the road, to anyone at the moment. Total waste of a trip.

 

Our walk in the North Downs was more successful. We used to go for walks in the North and South Downs quite frequently back when we had a car, but I’ve never been very into walking, so we would usually have to combine it with a visit to an ice cream shop so I had some motivation. However, we sold our car back in 2016 to finance our trip to New Zealand, and have only rented them occasionally since then. So we thought it might be nice to visit the North Downs again, since I’ve gotten sick of Richmond Park even though I’ve really only started going for regular walks there fairly recently. (I know I’m lucky to live near it and have a massive green space to use practically on my doorstep, but it does get old after a while. There’s just too many damn people to dodge.) I checked out the North Downs walks on the National Trails website, and we settled on the Puttenham Circular based mainly on the length of the walk (I get real sick of walking after 4 miles or so, so 3.5 miles is usually perfect) and the ease of driving there (I think Marcus may also have been enticed by the mention of hops, though we didn’t end up seeing any).

  

I was definitely irritated for a lot of this walk because the sun was much too strong, even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, but I actually enjoyed following the route I downloaded from the National Trails site rather than the clearly marked trails everyone else was following, both because it meant we were the only people on our particular walk, and because it made it feel more like a scavenger hunt since I had to keep looking out for landmarks to know where to turn. On the downside, the fencing seems to have changed since the walk was written, and we were definitely lost for a bit, though we came out where we were supposed to in the end; also, there were portions of the walk where you had to walk along a winding road that had lots of blind corners, and even though there wasn’t much traffic, I was so paranoid I was going to get hit by a car that I fairly sprinted along those stretches to get back into a field again.

 

Most of the walk was just fields and small stretches of woodland, but we walked through the village of Puttenham, which was quite quaint (though undoubtedly still expensive to live in, as it’s close enough to London to be considered a commuter town), with a parish church and some oast houses (still not totally clear on what an oast house is, other than that it relates to hops somehow, but no matter). We also came across various fields full of horses, which was a bit stressful at one juncture where we had to open a gate right next to a horse. I warned the horse I was coming from across the field so it didn’t freak out, and tiptoed very quickly around it in case it tried to kick me or something (I was never one of those girls that loves horses. They kind of make me nervous because they’re so jumpy themselves. I feel more comfortable with cows because I think I’m a bit of a cow whisperer). I spared you the view of a different horse’s giant erect penis in the photo at the start of the post, which I took from an angle where the tumescence is blocked by the horse in front of it.

All in all, it’s not a terrible walk in dry conditions if you bear in mind that “gently undulating” is code for “there are lots of hills,” and don’t go in actually expecting to see hops, because we certainly didn’t (maybe it’s for the best. One of us might have ended up like Fanny Adams). The various “dog fouling” signs made me laugh anyway!

 

Woking, Surrey: Brookwood Cemetery and the Necropolis Railway

Since we needed a car to go cherry picking anyway, we rented one for the entire week and I took a bit of time off work so we could do some things that were actually fun (unlike cherry picking). I have to admit that I was tempted by the Grayson Perry exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath, which I was fully intending on visiting before Covid happened, but I ultimately decided that was farther than I wanted to go in a day as it meant I would definitely have to use a public toilet at some point, and I am still not keen (I did admittedly have to use one at the orchard where we went cherry picking, but I didn’t see anyone else using them, and they came fully equipped with cleaning supplies which I availed myself of before and after, so it’s not quite the same as a heavily-used public toilet in a city would be. Still not ready for that!). So we settled on doing a few walks within an hour’s drive instead, because although I am definitely more of a city woman at heart (saying that makes me think of the I Love Lucy where Lucy tries to scare off Cousin Ernie by dressing up as a “wicked city woman”), this pandemic has forced me to embrace the countryside due to it being blissfully free of other people. One of these walks was in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, which I have wanted to visit for ages, and this provided the perfect opportunity.

 

Brookwood Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Western Europe, and also contains a separate CWGC-run cemetery, which is impressive in itself, but the main reason I wanted to visit was because Brookwood was once the home of the Necropolis Railway, which I am endlessly fascinated by (it’s just so perfectly gothy Victorian). If you’re a regular reader, I’m sure you’ve heard me mention London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, which were opened in the 1830s and 1840s as garden cemeteries in what were then the outskirts of London, in an attempt to solve the problem of London’s overcrowded burial grounds. However, after all the burial grounds within the City of London were closed in 1852, the authorities were worried there still wasn’t enough room in the cemeteries around London to accommodate future burials, and the London Necropolis Company was established to find a solution. They decided to start a massive cemetery (at one time the largest in the world) in Surrey, and transport bodies there from London by railway. Although demand was never quite as high as the company anticipated, the railway opened in 1854 and successfully ran until 1941, when part of the line was bombed, and the company decided not to rebuild the railway as it was no longer economically viable in the age of the automobile. In the years the railway was operational, the trains ran from a special station in London Waterloo to two different stations within the cemetery – one for Anglicans, and one for Non-Conformists – and the trains were divided into first, second, and third class carriages, just like a normal train. This wasn’t only because class distinctions persisted even after death (though they definitely did), but because the trains also carried mourners who were snobbier about that sort of thing than a corpse would be. The trains would depart from London at 11:35 am, and leave Brookwood at 2:30 pm (the journey took anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour throughout the railway’s history). Mourners were sold return trips, whilst the corpse only had to buy a single fare.

 

There is absolutely nothing about this that I don’t find amazing. I’ve only seen photos of the exterior of the trains (when I attended a lecture on the subject at the Frederick W. Paine Funeral Museum in Kingston a couple of years ago, which probably merits a post of its own someday) but I bet the interiors were a masterwork of gothic elegance. Travelling by rail feels like a very sophisticated way to have a funeral, though I guess you wouldn’t be able to enjoy it yourself. The second Necropolis Waterloo station, which opened in 1902, is still standing (the earlier one was demolished), although it obviously doesn’t house the railway today, and I know roughly where it is (I’ve almost certainly walked past without realising), so I will definitely go investigate when I feel more comfortable with using public transport again (I don’t want to end up the guest of honour on a Necropolis train just yet). Sadly, neither of the stations in Brookwood are still standing – the North Station was demolished in the 1960s, and the South Station survived as a snack bar until the 1970s, when it was destroyed by fire (I know the idea of a snack bar in a cemetery might sound weird, but as someone who visits a lot of cemeteries, I honestly think it’s a nice idea, provided people weren’t just throwing their rubbish all over the place. Cemeteries shouldn’t be scary to people; they should be seen as a lovely place to enjoy nature and visit your dead relatives) – so other than the old platforms, which we didn’t manage to find, there isn’t a whole lot relating to the railway itself to see, but it is still a really big cemetery with plenty of Victorian gravestones, so I wanted to have a look.

 

You can actually still travel by train if you’re so inclined, but it is with notoriously unreliable South Western Railway, rather than what I assume was the punctual Necropolis service, and you’d be going to Brookwood Station in the nearby village of Brookwood rather than the cemetery itself, but since we had the car to use, and the whole point was to avoid public transport, we drove. There is still a North and South Cemetery, though those now have lots of small divisions, including Catholic sections, a Muslim section, an Oddfellows burial ground, and most intriguingly of all, a Zoroastrian section (intriguing because I thought one of the key tenets of Zoroastrianism was sky burials, and there didn’t seem to be an area for that here (though there was a natural burial section elsewhere, which I assume means being buried without a coffin or grave marker rather than just having your body left in a field), but they did have some splendid mausoleums, as you can see below left). There is also quite a large military cemetery for WWII soldiers, including an American cemetery (it was a bit surreal to see the American flag flying proudly over it in the middle of the Surrey countryside).

 

Because people are still actively buried here, it was more well-kept than the Magnificent Seven, but there were still quite a few overgrown and neglected areas, which is a shame (I actually quite enjoy the aesthetics of the overgrown sections, but I feel bad for the people buried there with broken tombstones that never get replaced). I do wish there were still more things relating to the Necropolis Railway, because despite attending the lecture and reading all I’ve been able to find on it, I still want to know more. Marcus did manage to find a sign stating that the site where the South Station used to stand is now a monastery, but they don’t really want people walking back there, so we didn’t investigate further. During normal (non-Covid) times, they run tours tracing the route of the railway through the cemetery, so I am definitely keen on attending one of those in the future, especially if it allows you to access areas of the cemetery the public isn’t normally allowed in.

  

There are a handful of famous people buried here, including John Singer Sargent, Robert Knox, and William De Morgan, but the only one I really wanted to see was Edith Thompson, who was hanged in 1923 after her lover, Frederick Bywaters, killed her husband Percy. There was nothing to implicate Edith in the murder, other than the fact she was having an affair with Bywaters and had mentioned that she wished her husband would die in some of her letters to him, but apparently that was enough for the jury, who sentenced her to death. Even though she is still mentioned on signs within in the cemetery, when I googled it to try to find the exact location of her grave, I found out that Edith was exhumed and moved to City of London cemetery in 2018 to be buried with her parents in accordance with her wishes, so good for Edith, but bad news for people hoping to see her grave here (and also weird considering what I said earlier about the burial grounds within the City of London closing in 1852. I guess they must have relaxed the rules at some point).

 

Although it wasn’t the most impressive cemetery I’ve ever seen, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t really anything relating to the railway left (I knew there wasn’t much going in, but I was at least hoping the platforms would be a bit easier to find), it is still a large cemetery with some interesting monuments and gorgeous sequoia trees (supposedly the first to be planted in Britain), so it was worth visiting, not least because it was somewhere quiet where we didn’t have to worry about people not social distancing! (I’m sure they must still hold funeral services here, but there were none on the day of our visit, and aside from a handful of other visitors who were easy to avoid, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.)

  

 

 

Guildford, Surrey: Clandon Park

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Well, we joined English Heritage last year, and have moved on to the National Trust this year, what’s happening to me?! (other than becoming more middle class, apparently). Yes, I’ve been known to talk some crap on them (and this post is no exception), but it when it comes right down to it, I still visit their properties and walking trails enough that a membership makes more sense than paying for everything individually (since they seem to own the whole of the North and South Downs).  Plus, although they do have the annoying policy of closing the houses yet leaving the grounds of their properties open in the winter (Because that’s what people want to do in the winter; walk around in the cold and look at dead gardens.  This literally makes no sense to me.  I understand they need to do conservation work, but why not just close off a room or two at a time, and leave the rest of the house open? Just add this to the long list of things I don’t understand about the world), it still seems like a higher proportion of National Trust houses are open relative to English Heritage ones.  So, my boyfriend and I broke in our shiny new (albeit flimsy…they couldn’t spring for plastic?  But I probably shouldn’t bitch too much since they sent us free binoculars) membership cards with a visit to Clandon Park, near Guildford.

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Clandon Park is one of the many slightly generic stately homes owned by the National Trust (that all start to blur together after a while).  The only reason we selected Clandon Park over other similar houses was its easy driving distance, and the fact that it had both an old operating theatre and a museum on the premises. But beware, if you’re not a National Trust member, it’s about a tenner to see the property, and it’s just not worth that much.

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Anyway, we started with the military museum (covering the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment), because on their website it looked very much like the old-school military museums I had so enjoyed in Winchester.  Unfortunately, although it had some suitably amusing mannequins, it wasn’t half as good as the Winchester museums.  Part of this was because there was a sign outside advertising the dress-up box, so the place was filled with unruly children and their weary parents, who just seemed to let them run amok (and meant there was no chance that I was going to be able to try on a hat).  But it also just wasn’t as good; it seemed like there wasn’t really that much in there, and the signs weren’t written in the same charming old-fashioned style as in Winchester.  I don’t know, it didn’t really do it for me, for whatever reason, but I feel kind of bad saying that because the man working there was nice enough, and it’s not his fault that so many damn children were running around.

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The museum and restaurant and everything were all technically within the house building, but you had to go upstairs to see the decorated rooms that the family used to use.  The house was owned by the Onslows, which means nothing to me (they were nobility, but unmemorable nobility), and was built in the 1720s, in a Palladian style, to replace an earlier Jacobean house that sat on the property.  The family crest included six birds, and they obviously took that to heart, because there was a bird motif going on throughout the house.  The main room on the first floor was the Marble Hall, which, being all marble and unheated, was freezing cold.

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However, it contained some interesting decorative details, from the large bird paintings, to the arm shaped lamp holders on the walls, and the elaborate Greek mythology themed ceiling.  The Marble Hall is where you can sign up for guided tours, and then wait around for said tours to start, so it’s lucky there was plenty of stuff to look at, since we spent a bit of time milling around in here.  I know, I know, I don’t like guided tours, but they were free, and the only way you got to see some of the rooms, so we signed up for the attic tour.

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While we waited for it to start, we checked out some of the other rooms, including the operating theatre, which was there because the house was used as a hospital during the First World War.

 

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There was also an attractive library, and a dining room where we had the “privilege” of watching them do conservation work, which I personally think is a ploy to be able to charge people full admission price during the winter months when some of the rooms are closed (because seriously, conservation work is not exciting to watch), but I digress…  I was keenest on the display cases full of random crap, including a lock of George III’s hair, and depressingly, a pistol that was used to put dogs down at an early “humane” shelter.

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It was at this point that an old lady sitting in the corner of the room yelled at us for taking pictures (we half-suspect she may have been an Onslow hanging about to make sure people didn’t disrespect the property, since she seemed pretty intensely concerned), so all the photos of the interior are from rooms on the first floor, before we knew it was an issue.  It’s fine if they don’t allow pictures, but the sign at the entrance said (and I quote), “we welcome amateur photographers,” so I think if photography was only allowed in certain areas of the home, there really should have been another sign saying so.  I don’t need to be made to feel like a jerk when we genuinely didn’t know any better (I feel like a jerk most of the time anyway).

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Anyway, though I have no pictures of the second floor, it was mainly devoted to the pottery collection of a Mrs. Gubbay (who I guess lived in the house, or was an Onslow descendant, but this was never explained).  I think I mentioned a long time ago how I once wanted a set of these stupid Georgian looking musician frog figurines, until I realised they cost thousands of pounds.  Well, old Mrs. Gubbay had a similar set, only with monkeys (though obviously frogs are better than monkeys, but some people have more money than taste), and a bunch of creepy harlequin figurines.  The ceramic birds were alright though, I like birds.

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At this point, it was time to go see the attic, so we dutifully trooped off with the group up a few staircases.  The attic is primarily used today as storerooms for various National Trust properties, so it’s full of cool old crap we only got a brief glance of (like a room full of extremely creepy torso mannequins belonging to the military museum), but at one point the family was living up there, and renting out the rooms downstairs to boarders, so there was lots of neat Victorian wallpaper.  And there was one room with three toilets!  One of them was an actual private stall; a snazzy Victorian toilet added by one of the gentlemen of the house so he and his friends wouldn’t have to go downstairs when playing billiards, but the other two were just sitting out on the floor, right next to each other.  Apparently the room was used as lodging quarters for the nurses when the house was a military hospital, so maybe the toilets dated to then…I just hope there was some kind of partition around them when the poor nurses had to use them!

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We then headed out to explore the grounds.  The Onslows own hundreds of acres of land, but only seven of them were given to the National Trust, so all they have is the ground the house sits on, and a bit around it that seems to include some sort of folly.  Or maybe it was an ice house?  Or wine cave?  It was cool looking, whatever it was, but a sign explaining it sure would have been nice.

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The other main object of interest on the grounds was the Maori meeting house.  One of the Onslows was a bigwig in New Zealand (presumably a colonial governor or some such), and he was evidently popular enough that the Maori allowed him to ship one of their meeting houses back to England.  It remains the only meeting house outside New Zealand, serves as a religious place for the Maori, and tends to be visited by Kiwis when they’re in the UK for sporting events and the like.  You’re not allowed to go inside, except on special occasions, but I was able to get a pretty good look at the Tiki interior through the window.

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All in all, I wasn’t super thrilled with the house, but it wasn’t the most horrible National Trust property I’ve visited either.  It could be improved vastly by better signage, and maybe more helpful staff…there was a point where I was admiring some miniatures in a corner, and mused out loud what the one piece could be used for; the woman working in the room just stared at me blankly while I leafed through the brief descriptions in the room’s informational binder in search of an explanation.  I mean, I don’t like it when people are too aggressively helpful, but on this occasion I actually had a question, and was just ignored, so some happy medium would be nice. This review sounds more bitchy than I had intended, which I suppose means I really didn’t enjoy Clandon Park very much at all. So, 2/5, and here’s hoping I can enjoy this National Trust membership more when all their properties are open in the spring.

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Surrey, UK: Polesden Lacey

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I feel like I’ve been slightly lazy since I’ve been back in the UK.  I’ve been home for over a month, and haven’t managed to visit any museums in all that time.  In my defence, our America roadtrip was pretty tiring, and we went to loads of places, so I think I needed a little break, and I’ve also been busy trying to get stuff ready for the application for permanent settlement I have to make next month.  So, this is the only UK post before I’m back in America again for the holidays- sorry about that!  But today’s post is on somewhere in Britain – Polesden Lacey.  We’ve probably passed signs for it about a million times during our various wanderings around Surrey, but it is a National Trust property, so I was feeling meh about visiting until I read that they had some Christmas festivities on.  Funny how the promise of tinsel can be such a powerful motivator.

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Polesden Lacey didn’t look all that Christmassy from the outside.  Although they’d made a show of serving up mince pies and mulled wine, and got a brass band in to play carols, the leaves have only just turned in Britain, so it felt far more autumnal than wintry (this is one of the reasons I go back to America every year during December.  I like to see snow at Christmastime).   But the house was meant to be decorated, so we parted with 11 quid each for the privilege of seeing it (the pricing was also a bit weird; there’s a £6.66 charge just to enter the grounds, but then an extra £4 for the house, which for some reason came out to £11 something, so I don’t know if they threw secret Gift Aid in somehow?  The normal price should have been £10.80 for both, so it was kind of odd).

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The trees leading up to the house had one string of lights half-assedly strung up on them, honestly it probably would have been better if they hadn’t even bothered, so we wouldn’t have seen what a lame attempt it was.  There were no lights on the exterior of the manor, at least none that were visible by day, but upon entering the house, most of the rooms had Christmas trees in them.  It was a pretty standard National Trust property; one of my biggest problems with them is that because they are responsible for so many buildings, most of their houses feel pretty generic (as do the special events) and this was no exception.  It was a perfectly attractive house, but there was nothing special about it.  As is typical, only maybe a quarter of the rooms were open to the public, and in this case, it was probably even less than that, since we weren’t allowed upstairs.

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Their Christmas theme was the “Three Kings,” a play on the three magi wherein the three British kings who had visited Polesden Lacey (Edward VII,George V, and George VI) would be portrayed by costumed actors.  Disappointingly, only Edward VII and George V were there that day; Edward was much too thin and George wasn’t quite beardy enough, but I didn’t really speak to either of them (aside from a nod of acknowledgement at Edward) so I can’t critique their acting skills.  That was another problem; the house was swarming with costumed employees, but only one of them took the time to talk to us.  The others basically ignored us and directed all their energy at the children, which annoys me.  Of course the Santa stuff is for kids, but I certainly think I would have appreciated the history of the house far more than most kids would.  Also, they were meant to have mulled wine and biscuits in the kitchen, but only mulled wine was there, and I had to push through a crowd of people to access it.  Promising me biscuits and then not having any is a sure-fire way to get on my bad side.

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Anyway, the history of the house, as far as I could suss out for myself, was that it was owned by some Mrs. Greville woman in the Edwardian era, who clearly enjoyed entertaining royalty, including a number of Indian princes, in some overly gilded room (although there was no mention of the other sort of entertaining, which is odd, given Edward VII’s bawdy reputation).  She declared that George VI (just plain old Bertie at the time) would be her heir, but going by Wikipedia, that never happened, although this was never explained in the house.  Despite having iPads strewn about, there was a distinct lack of information available.

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They did have some kind of treasure hunt thing for children, so perhaps they fared better.  There was also a Santa in the library, who I steered well clear of.  He freaked me out as a child, and I’m not particularly keen now (freaked out is perhaps an understatement; there was a Santa that rode around in a fire engine in my town, and I’d hide under my bed when I heard him coming, and would have to be dragged out kicking and screaming to go accept my candy cane.  And you could forget mall Santas entirely!).

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There were of course extensive grounds, but it was cold and all the gardens were dead, so we only walked through part of them.  There were a lot of random huts around the place, and some chickens clucking away in their pen.  I did enjoy the lawn chairs, which featured black and white pictures of famous visitors to the manor; my favourite was of George VI and Elizabeth in snazzy hats, pictured above (probably taken during their honeymoon, which they spent on the estate).

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They’re meant to have one of the largest shops of any National Trust property, so we poked around that for a little while and bought some postcards, but it was just the standard National Trust stuff (though I am most intrigued by St Clements flavoured curd.  Get on that, Fortnum’s!).  We decided to have some tea and cake to warm us up after walking the grounds, but the cafe only had muffins and flapjacks, which I think you’ll agree are not cake, so I had to end up going home to bake a cake to satiate my cake-lust.  Don’t get me wrong, I love muffins, but not when I’m craving tea and cake specifically.

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Basically, I left hungry and not knowing anything more about Polesden Lacey than I did before my visit, so I wasn’t a very happy camper.  It wasn’t terrible, but when I compare it to somewhere like Stan Hywet, which does a different theme every year, and has the grounds and each room of the mansion decorated to the nines, I can’t help but feel what a poor effort it was.  The decorations inside Polesden really just consisted of a tree here and there, and not much else.  In fact, I think it might be better to forget about the seasonal offerings altogether and visit in the summer, when at least you’d be able to see the flowers in bloom, and maybe view the first floor of the house.  2/5 – not Christmassy enough for my liking!

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Reigate, Surrey: Reigate Caves

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Last Saturday began much like every other weekend – with my boyfriend and I sitting around eating waffles in our jimjams, and debating what to do whilst waiting for vintage episodes of The Simpsons to come on.  Excitingly, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t like every other weekend, as we had actually found a reason to leave the house!  I’m totally a list-maker, though unfortunately, not well-organised enough to keep them all in one location.  One of the many lists I have is on Google Maps, and includes various attractions around Britain I want to visit.  We’ve already been to most of the caves within an easy drive from London, but Reigate Caves were ones we hadn’t visited, due to them only being open 5 days a year.  I happened to check their website for the next open day, not really expecting it to be any time soon, only to find out it was that very Saturday!  With a destination sorted, we hopped in the car, Reigate bound.

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The Reigate Caves consist of three separate caves (which aren’t actually caves as such, but old sand mines, which is fairly typical of “caves” in the Weald): Baron’s Cave, which is under the old Castle grounds, and the Tunnel Road Caves, which are opposite each other under (appropriately enough) Tunnel Road.  It was £3 for Tunnel Road Caves, and another £2 for Baron’s Cave, both of which included a guided tour.  The whole enterprise is run by the Wealden Cave Society, who honestly seemed like delightful people.  We began with a tour of the Western Caverns, led by a guide who was seriously pretty great.

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He was very laid back, to the point where he would just start talking whenever he got to a point of interest in the cave, whether or not the group was with him.  I thought that was fantastic, because why should everyone have to wait for stragglers?  That way, if people with children wanted to hang back, and didn’t really care about the tour, the rest of us didn’t have to wait for them to catch up.  There was a second guide to bring up the rear, to ensure the stragglers didn’t get completely lost, and help answer questions.  The main guide also reminded me a bit of Chris Packham (they had the same w’s for r’s speech thing going on), which I think is part of why I liked him so much, since I adore Chris Packham, (and agree with him that pandas are completely overrated).  He was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the caves, which I always like to see (people with slightly eccentric interests, that is, as I have many of those myself).

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The caves are currently owned by a gun club, who normally have target practice in the caves, though obviously not when the tours are going on.  Therefore, the caves were littered with spent casings, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the target areas.  I’m no fan of guns (perhaps surprising coming from an American), so I felt slightly uneasy at the start, until it became apparent that no one was going to emerge from a hidey-hole and start shooting at us.  Otherwise, I’d say the dominant feature of the caves was sand, which was apparently also scattered with bits of broken glass, so it’s probably not the best place to wear open toed shoes.

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The caves have what is an extensive, yet strangely poorly documented history.  Obviously, their main use was as a source of sand, which was used for glass making, ink blotting, and to soak up spillage on local pub floors, which I’m told is what gave rise to the local saying, “happy as a sand boy,” (which I must start using) as the sand boys would get a free drink at each pub they delivered sand to, thus ending up plastered by the end of the day.  During WWI, they were used to store explosives, which likely would have resulted in the complete annihilation of Reigate had any of them actually gone off. During WWII, the townspeople used it as a bomb shelter, which I also have to question the efficacy of, as sand isn’t the sturdiest material, but thankfully, it was never put to the test.  It seems like mostly what people did in them was carve things into the walls, judging by the enormous amount of graffiti (which included an excellent war-era caricature of Hitler, which I was unable to get a picture of).

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Me and some face graffiti

Being man-made, the caves had reasonably high ceilings, so might have more appeal for claustrophobics than the average cave. Though there was a large skull carved into one of the walls, which might manage to freak someone out if the caves themselves hadn’t.  I reckon the tour lasted about 35-45 minutes, after which we entered the Eastern Caverns, which were self-guided (though naturally, required hard hats).

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HAA!

The Eastern Caverns detailed more of the history of the caves with the use of posters (though our guide had already covered most of it during the tour), and featured things like a recreation of a bomb shelter (complete with scary sound effects), a Cold War room, and a men’s urinal trough.  I think it was meant to be more of a “spooky” experience, as they had fake bats hanging throughout for children to count, and little signs with a ghost on them, which is of course exactly my cup of tea (Earl Grey, two sugars and a splash of milk).  It even had authentic smells (as did the stairs leading down to Tunnel Road, come to think of it) thanks to a paraffin lamp, which also had the effect of making the air authentically smoky.

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Finally (after procuring a cookie sandwich from a local bakery, as there was no ice creamery on the high street.  Get on that, Reigate!), we hiked up the hill to Baron’s Cave, following the directional bat signs.  We were given lamps this time, in lieu of hard hats, and caught up with a group who had just begun the guided tour.  This guide was rather dour compared to the first one, but he was still informative (and was quite stern with an exceptionally bratty child, which I appreciated).  Baron’s Cave was originally constructed in the 11th century as part of Reigate Castle, and was probably used primarily as a wine cellar, and alternate exit from the castle.  It is also rumoured to have been the meeting spot for the barons on their way to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta (hence the name), which is pretty cool.

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As such, although it was much smaller than the other caves, it had even older graffiti, including carvings of a horse and cow.  Most of the stuff we saw was from the 18th century, although much of it goes back even further, but has been covered over by newer carvings.  Other than the graffiti, the main attractions were a staircase that once led to a pyramid on the castle grounds, but now leads to nothing (though the pyramid is still there, and you can go up and see it!), the wine cellar room, and a random T-Rex.

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You can just see him hiding in the back. Rawr!

I’m happy we discovered the open day in time to go, because the Reigate Caves were a very nice experience.  I’m rating them as 4/5, and certainly better than Chislehurst Caves.  I think the fact that the Cave Society run the tours help turn it into a quality experience, as they clearly have a vested interest in all things underground.  The only other open days this year are the 13th July, 10th August, and 14th September, so I’d definitely recommend heading down to Reigate on one of them to take in the cavey goodness.

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