Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Castles And Caves

Graffiti old and new on Wealden sandstone
  The Eden Valley is not, as its name suggests, a biblical location, but a historic and picturesque area of Kent. The charming River Eden lends its name both to the Valley and its principal town, Edenbridge, and the area is notable for its historic sites and its striking geology. The homes of Winston Churchill and General James Wolfe are here at Westerham, as well as the floral charms of Emmett's Garden, and the grave of Octavia Hill - philanthropist and founder of the National Trust - can be found at Crockham Hill.

The quirky rocky outcrops that occur throughout the area are of Ardingly Sandstone, and are notable for ancient weathering features such as honeycombing and polygonal cracking. The most significant outcrops can be found at High Rocks and Eridge Rocks, west of Tunbridge Wells... although smaller outcrops can be seen throughout the Eden Valley (as we shall see...).

Old postcard of High Rocks

Eridge Rocks (c) Malcolm Etheridge

A curious triangle of villages exists within the limits of the Valley, curious as all three of them are dominated by stately buildings. In Penshurst, the pinnacles of Penshurst Place soar proudly in parkland watered by the gently flowing Medway, that mightiest of Kent rivers. In Hever, the Castle sits within its moat in an impeccably manicured series of formal gardens. And in Chiddingstone, another Castle - actually a mansion - sits on the edge of a village so well preserved that most of it is owned by the National Trust. A village visited by Team Vulpine (Eldest and I) on a bright February day.


A footpath that begins at the rear of Hever churchyard skirts the Castle grounds, then meanders in an easterly direction before picking up an old coach track heading toward Chiddingstone. Here, along and around this coach track, can be found some wonderful examples of the geology so unique to the High Weald.

Eldest on Ye Olde Coache Tracke

Rocks and Roots

The epitome of Persistence

The Track from above

Across a couple of open fields, we approach the settlement of Chiddingstone itself. The village has a heavy Tudor flavour, and its one street veers suddenly to the right after it passes the church, in order to avoid the Castle grounds. At one time it ploughed straight through, but this was changed when the Castle grounds were landscaped in the 19th century.

One of the village's more recent relics

As we approach from the west, we notice an outcrop which some believe may have given its name to the village - the Chiding Stone. It may have been a Saxon boundary marker, as the name of the village is most likely derived from 'the stone of Chidda's tribe'.

The Chiding Stone

Local folklore asserts that the Stone was a seat of judgement, used for the humiliation of nagging wives. Some also fancifully assert that it was some kind of druidical altar. Neither theory has been blessed with provenance, although it would certainly be nice if they were true.

Information Board

As we travellers and explorers enter the village, we turn north and amble down the quiet street, heading for the Castle. To our right, the village churchyard contains a curious mausoleum in the shape of a gazebo.

The Mausoleum

This dates from 1736 and was built by Henry Streatfeild to house his family's burial vault. It is the most prominent monument in the grounds, which seems appropriate as Henry's home, Chiddingstone Castle, is the most prominent building in the village... and we now pass the Castle Inn and step into the grounds.

Chiddingstone Castle

 The present building dates to the 19th century but its predecessor, known as High Street House, was built in the early 16th century when the Streatfeilds were coming into prominence as iron masters, wool merchants and landowners in three counties.

Little remains of this earliest building, as it was pulled down in 1679 by another Henry Streatfeild (it was a popular name in the family) and rebuilt in a red-brick Restoration style. This lasted until the nineteenth century, when the architects William Atkinson and Henry Kendal created the building and grounds which stand now. It was also renamed from High Street House to Chiddingstone Castle, since the re-routed High Street no longer ran past the front door.

Octagonal Orangery in the grounds

The Streatfeild family sold the building in 1938 to Lord Astor, owner of neighbouring Hever Castle, who allowed it to be used by the Canadian Forces during World War II. Once hostilities had ended, it spent a few years as Long Dene School until being purchased, in 1955, by an antiques dealer and collector named Denys Eyre Bower. He opened the Castle to the public to display his collections, and they remain there to this day. Bower died in 1977 and a trust, the Denys Eyre Bower bequest, run the Castle now. In an example of historic continuity, its trustees include members of the Streatfeild family. The collections include artifacts from Japan and Egypt, as well as Stuart/Jacobite and Buddhist relics.

Into the grounds we stroll. The Castle is closed for the winter, although the grounds are usually kept open, with payment by honesty box. Eldest and I look at features such as the lake, the cascade, the ha-ha... and, especially, the lakeside Grotto.

Tunnel in the grotto...

...and its entrance

Hever Castle also has a grotto, hewn out of an old quarry, and it is reasonable to assume that one inspired the other, although it is no longer possible to know which one came first. The Hever grotto lies in a discreet part of the grounds, unmentioned in the guide books... but the Chiddingstone grotto, situated only a short distance from the village entrance, is a lot more blatant.

Back gate leads to a small courtyard

The tunnel curves...

What might we find in here?

...oh, good. Cave spiders.

The grotto is a little cluttered in places, with old fencing strewn at one point. And on the walls, some of those creatures I first encountered in an Iron Age subterranean monument in Cornwall, and later in a derelict Victorian fortification at Tilbury. Cave spiders, just hanging around on the walls guarding their egg-sacs, the creepy little perishers. I always feel like I'm in an Indiana Jones film when I encounter these.


Exploring the Chiddingstone grotto

The soft sandstone of the High Weald lends itself easily to quarrying and burrowing, and it would not have been difficult for the wealthy owners of Hever and Chiddingstone Castles to have such features added to their landscaped grounds... but, unknown to most visitors to these two stately piles, there is a third grotto in the Eden Valley. One which is a closely guarded local secret, and the origins and purpose of which is shrouded in mystery. Instead of being situated in the grounds of a grandiose dwelling, this one nestles in a rural location on farmland.

I was first alerted to its existence by a friend who used to live in the area, who described it as a 'rock temple'. Rather than give me directions, she sent me a link to the website of an Urban Explorer from Greenwich who surveyed the site in 2015. He described it as a 'Mithraic Temple', and was apparently the only UrbEx to have found and located the place, after what he described as 'relentless research'. However, he was as discreet as my friend, and neglected to mention its actual location.

I do so like a challenge. After exhausting the conventional lines of enquiry, I started thinking on a more lateral level. Last time I did that, I rediscovered the lost grave of an influential 18th-century poet. My instincts proved right on this occasion, too... after much referencing and cross-referencing of clues from diverse sources, I pinpointed the location of the subterranean 'Temple'.

Through a gap in a rock formation...

...is a hidden entrance!

Deep in the Eden Valley countryside we strike... scrambling up banks, winding through beech and birch, twisting around scrub... Eldest deviates to track a herd of fallow deer, and in the process finds a cervine skull. Another one for his collection. And then, after a scramble through untidy bracken, we find our destination right where I had pinpointed it.

Excellent! More spiders

The Gothic shape of the tunnel

This construction varies from the Chiddingstone grotto in notable ways. The tunnel is carved in an arch shape, and ends in a cruciform chamber. There are also considerably more arachnids skulking on the walls. Beyond its Gothic style,  its design is reminiscent of the Cotswold/Severn Long Barrows of the Neolithic, such as West Kennet and Wayland's Smithy.

Tealight scarring at the rear of the chamber

Fungal infection
Evidence of smoke damage from tealights show that the cave has received visitors other than us, although it is impossible to detect how long ago. Cracks in the walls show evidence of bat roosts... perhaps another reason this secret is a secret.

Back in the open

Graffiti next to entrance, dated 1900. What is a 'blagbor'??

The cave is certainly a curiosity. Nobody knows when or why it was constructed, yet the graffiti around its entrance - dating as far back as late Victorian times - suggests that at some stage, it was better known. Mithraic Temple? A nice idea, but unlikely. The cult of Mithras is associated with Roman soldiers, and there were no forts in the area. A grotto? Perhaps, and care was taken to carve it in a Gothic fashion, but to what purpose? It's in the middle of nowhere!

More graffiti, none of it recent

Another mystery. Shepherd's shelter?

Eldest and I complete our exploration of the 'temple' and emerge into the wintry Kent air, examining the graffiti carved into the sandstone by visitors past. Further along the outcrop is another feature, and another mystery. An alcove, carved into the rock. We decide, in the absence of any contextual clues, that it might be a shelter of some kind.

And off we go, to find a village with a pub that smells of woodsmoke. Today we have examined the rock formations of the Eden Valley, encountered a Chiding Stone, explored a grotto and located one of Kent's most closely guarded secrets. And its location, if you fancy a little exploring?

I'm not telling you.

It's a secret.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019


The tumbled beech nuts form a scatter,
Lay strewn across their Autumnal bed.
Amid the trees, the Wiccan wanders -
We watch like sentries as she muses and ponders -
Framed by whispering leaves of amber and red.

Her coven emerges, like faeries and sprites,
Post-modern shadows of dryads and wights,
They gather, in circle, upon the old tomb -
This ancient reflection of Earth Mother's womb -
On a day that brings balance between dark and light.

A brief flow of mizzle causes beech leaves to quiver,
The Equinox breeze causes Druids to shiver,
A sputtering flame, on charcoal to feed -
A rich slice of apple, a fine horn of mead -
A plea to the Old Gods, to hark and come hither!

A gift to the compass points, Earth Air and Fire
And West brings us Water, wet the old chieftain's byre,
As above, so below, the Mysteries are kept -
In our magical circle, on which Heavens have wept,
The breeze lifts our voices, raising them higher.

A blessing upon those who call themselves Bard,
A blessing on those whom the old ways keep guard,
Upon the old tump, o'er which centuries have groaned -
For which Watches are held, and Elements atoned -
Through sunfire's glare, and earth torn and marred.

Now spent, we disperse, through the light playful rain,
And next time at Yule, the chance may come again,
To rebuild the circle at Coldrum's sharp frost -
To revive the Mysteries and the old Chieftain's ghost -
And take up the Old Lore for spiritual gain.

(...for NRE, the girl with the darkest eyes and the brightest soul.)

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Lissom Reeds

Lunch was nice. Lunch was extremely nice, but I'm not surprised by this. If there's one thing the National Trust seem to do very well, it's soup. Carrot and coriander, on this occasion.


We're in the middle of a heatwave, so I'm enjoying my lunch on a picnic table outside the café, gazing across a road at the banks of the Thames in Surrey. The mighty watercourse is attractive here, its 'lissom reeds' disturbed only by the rummagings of waterfowl and the ripples from occasionally passing riverboats. It is a quintessential English scene, its serenity somewhat belying the fact that this area holds a remarkable and resilient place in the national psyche. I glance to my left, across a huge meadow. Somewhere in this vicinity, over eight centuries ago, a document was signed. Initially unsuccessful, it was re-issued many times and has since come to be regarded globally as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

Magna Carta.

King John signing the Great Charter

My appetite for soup has been sated, so now I need to do something about my appetite for history. I actually made a start on that before lunch, by paying a visit to the peaceful churchyard a short distance west at Old Windsor, and tracing the resting places of a few historical persons... the Regency courtesan, actress and author Mary Robinson, a wife of the playwright/politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the artist Thomas Sandby.

Tomb of Mary Robinson, the Regency celebrity known as 'Perdita'

I cross the road and glance back at the pavilion which hosts the National Trust café, and the two Portland Stone plinths that mark the entrance to this historic area. These were all designed in the 1930's by Edwin Lutyens, the celebrated sculptor responsible for the Whitehall Cenotaph and the fountains in Trafalgar Square (his godfather, after whom he was named, was Edwin Landseer, who sculpted the lions at the base of the Nelson Column). They were created to commemorate both Magna Carta and a local gentleman named Urban Broughton.

The Lutyen plinths

Urban Broughton, quite aside from his wonderful name, was an interesting chap. He was a civil engineer who emigrated to America in 1887, made a fortune, then returned to England in 1912 with a wife and two sons. He became MP for Preston, and used his wealth and connections for various acts of philanthropy. Nominated for a peerage, he sadly passed away in 1929 before he could take up his position in the House Of Lords.

In the meantime, trouble was brewing regarding the future of these historic watermeadows. In the aftermath of the First World War, there was a considerable public debt and the coalition government were eager to reduce it. One proposal was to privatise these watermeadows, as even the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, thought they would be an excellent venue for a fairground. In 1921, they were put up for auction.

This did not sit well with some people, including a remarkable woman called Helena Normanton. She was an ardent campaigner for women's rights, and became the first female barrister in England. She wrote to newspapers in protest, and gathered a group of supporters including the Marquess of Lincolnshire and local vicar Albert Tranter, who declared that he would 'throw into the Thames any auctioneer' who would attempt to sell the meadows.

The Government withdrew the sale, but Helena knew that the future of the meadows was far from secure. She continued to keep up the pressure, maintaining the high profile of Magna Carta's birthplace in the public eye. In 1929, Urban Broughton died, and his widow joined the cause. Now styled as Lady Fairchild, she and her sons purchased the meadows in 1929 and, two years later, donated them to the NT. Their future was secure..

I stroll along the riverbank, observing willows bowing and brushing the running water, watching waterfowl dabble and dragonflies dart. I glimpse the remains of Ankerwycke Priory, in the grounds of which stands a yew tree said to be 2,500 years old - making it the only structure in the landscape that was standing when Magna Carta was signed.

Ankerwycke Priory

The track is part of the Thames Path, which runs from Lechlade in Gloucestershire to within a few miles of my home in SouthEast Essex. Kipling, whose evocative home in Sussex is another NT property, wrote poetry about this stretch.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede!
     What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
      With tales of John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:-
'You mustn't sell, delay,deny,
A freeman's right or liberty.
It makes the stubborn Englishry -
      We saw 'em roused at Runnymede!

'When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
      They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine -
The curt, uncompromising "Sign!"
      That settled John at Runnymede.

'At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
      Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers!
Forget not, after all these years,
      The Charter signed at Runnymede.'

I reach a point where the road and the river begin to diverge. I cross, pass through a gate and stand at the edge of the watermeadows. To my left, the floodplain known as Runnymede. To my right, the floodplain known as Longmede. Ahead, the wooded slopes of Cooper's Hill. I stand at a crossroads of history.

The watermeadows

As I stroll toward Cooper's Hill, I consider the vissicitudes of Magna Carta, and its meaning across the centuries.

The discontent of the Barons began in the reign of the King's older brother, Richard the Lionheart. He spent a mere six months of his ten-year reign in England, the rest of his time being spent with the Third Crusade, fighting for his lands in France, or being held prisoner in Austria. This cost plenty of money, which Richard raised with a merciless series of taxes. When John came to the throne, he continued to hammer his Barons for money, mostly to defend his territories. He also developed a clique of favourites, many of them French, to whom he granted land and castles in England, and his court became infamous for intrigue and cruelty. He turned against one of his close allies, Baron de Braose, forcing him into exile, then imprisoning his wife and eldest son and starving them to death. The Barons reached a point where they had had enough, and began to discuss ways to curtail the monarch's almost limitless powers. John responded by capturing some baronial castles, but then the powerful City of London declared support for the Barons' cause. John found himself with no choice but to negotiate a settlement.

Magna Carta, as a bastion of freedom and democracy, is mostly symbolic. In reality it is mostly reactionary, seeking a return to older forms of governance and a balance between the various elements of the feudal system. The points with the most relevance today are those that deal with the right to a fair trial and the right not to be imprisoned unlawfully... elements that later formed the basis of Habeus Corpus.

One of the survivng copies of Magna Carta

John and the Barons met here at Runnymede, and on the 15th June 1215, the beleaguered King reluctantly capitulated to their demands and signed the Great Charter. By September, full of resentment, he reneged on the deal.

John announced that he rejected Magna Carta, and had the Pope annul it. This led, unsurprisingly, to the First Baron's War. John and his allies marched around the country, laying seige to rebellious castles such as Rochester (which was undermined and had one of its towers destroyed), while the Barons allied with Prince Louis of France, who crossed the Channel and laid seige to the loyalist Dover Castle.

Looking chuffed to bits, John signs the Charter

In October 1216, in the midst of this crisis, King John took ill at Newark and died of dysentery, although many have speculated that he was poisoned. The crown passed to his nine year old son Henry III, with the very able William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, acting as Regent. Marshall kicked out Prince Louis after the Battle of Lincoln and the naval Battle of Sandwich, and reissued Magna Carta in 1217. Some of its clauses were reissued in a separate document known as the Charter of the Forest, and to distinguish the two, the older document was called magna carta libertatum. It was reissued several times during Henry's reign to placate the Barons at rocky times, and also reissued by his son Edward I. It has been invoked ever since during periods of political uncertainty, and was considered an exemplar of democratic process by later politicians such as America's Founding Fathers.

John's tomb at Worcester Cathedral. The historian Dr Ben Robinson on the left, the historian Prince Vulpine in the background
I cross the meadow, pass the biodiverse Langham Ponds, and clamber through the woods to the peak of Cooper's Hill, the trees bristling with robins, corvids and nuthatches. I follow the road at the top of the hill until it takes me to the second and more solemn of the Runnymede memorials to be visited.

View of Windsor and Runnymede from Cooper's Hill, after EJ Niemann

The Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and unveiled in October 1953 by our new Queen. It commemorates over twenty thousand pilots who died in the Second World War.

The quote from the Queen, spoken at the opening ceremony, reflects the siting of the Memorial above Runnymede with its reference to 'free men'.

I descend through the woods, reaching the point where the trees give way to the meadow, and stroll along the treeline. Pretty soon, I encounter one of Runnymede's more recent memorials, the remarkable 'Writ in Water'.

Writ in Water

This was created by the artist Mark Wallinger in collaboration with  Studio Octopi. A plain circle, situated at the liminal point where the incline of Cooper's Hill meets the even ground of Longmede, its entrance takes you into a circular corridor which leads to an inner sanctum.

A round pool sits in its centre, light provided by an oculus that reflects the shape of the pool. Laser-cut into the steel rim of the pool are the words of Magna Carta's Clause 39:

'No man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land'.

They are in reverse lettering, and can only be read properly in the reflection. Writ in water indeed. The phrase comes from the epitaph on the poet John Keat's gravestone, still extant in Rome's Protestant Cemetery: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. It reflects Keat's mistaken belief that both he and his poetry would become forgotten after his death.

The pool and the quote

Wallinger explained,' I wanted to suggest fragility. The use of reflection to make the text legible plays against the idea of a law written in stone. Keat's words live anew when learned and repeated by the next generation. Similarly, although Magna Carta established the law and the nascent principles of human rights, the United Kingdom has no written constitution. What seems like birthright has to be learned over and over and made sense of. Whether the words are ephemeral or everlasting is up to us.'

I follow the edge of the field until I encounter another monument, the American Bar Association Memorial, more commonly called the Magna Carta Memorial. It was commisioned in 1957 as a Greek Temple in Portland Stone and, like the Air Force Memorial at the top of the hill, was designed by Sir Edward Maufe. Its central pillar reads 'To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.' It stands, an Arcadian echo in the Surrey countryside. One almost expects to see nymphs and satyrs peeping from behind the trees.

A Greek Temple in Surrey

Still further along the treeline is a patch of land gifted to the United States, and a flight of steps leads to the Kennedy Memorial.

American property, also in Surrey

Designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and unveiled by the Queen in 1965, in the presence of the late President's wife Jacqueline and his doomed brother Robert. It is a large Portland rectangle containing a quote from JFK's inaugural address: 'Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price,bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty.'

Kennedy Memorial

Nearby stands the Jamestown Oak, planted in 1987 with soil from the first permanent English settlement in North America. It commemorates the bicentenary of the US Constitution. Other trees in the area are fronted by plaques revealing their planting by various dignitaries over the years, including one in the grounds of the Bar Association Memorial that was planted by the Prime Minister of India.

Across the meadow, I can see the Lutyen building where I had my lunch. After my explorations I'm feeling somewhat peckish again, and my thoughts drift to the Thameside pub restaurant I passed earlier while driving here from Old Windsor, a nicely sited Harvester. I strike diagonally across the meadow to return to my car, passing the final art installation of the day: The Jurors.

The Jurors

Created by the artist Hew Locke, the installation consists of a dozen bronze chairs surrounding an invisible table. The chairs are richly decorated with 'images and struggles relating to past and ongoing struggles for freedom, rule of law and equal rights'. These images include allusions to suffragism, environmentalism, slavery and religion. Each explores the principles of freedom that the Magna Carta was meant to enshrine.

Back to the car, and a few minutes later I am safely ensconced in the Harvester that overlooks the river between Runnymede and Old Windsor. It is Ladies' Day at Ascot, and the Queen is in attendance; the local traffic is a little busier than usual. I order a refillable drink and a meal that originated in the maritime, and choose a window seat to await its delivery. The Thames rolls past, carrying egrets and canal boats, whispering through the lissom reeds as it rolls indefatigably toward the lively chaos of the capital. Its journey remains overlooked by an ancient Ankerwycke tree, a mighty yew with branches that shiver and whisper as they remember ages past, recalling times of flowing waters, of kings and pageantry and documents. As constant as the principles of liberty.