Island Hall, Cambridgeshire

Privately Owned
Island Hall was built in the 1740’s as a riverside mansion. After some changes of ownership is was requisitioned during the Second World War and used by the WAAF and then the RAF’s Pathfinder Squadron. After the war, the local authority took over the house and grounds under the Emergency Housing Act, converting it into 15 bedsits and also using the Nissen huts in the garden. By 1977, a major fire in the south wing left the house in a very sorry state. In 1978 it was bought by Simon Herrtage, who carried out a programme of restoration.
The present owner, Christopher Vane Percy, bought the house in 1983. He is descended from the Baumgartens, one of the original owners. Percy and his wife Lady Linda have continued the restoration and created the mature gardens.

The gardens extend over three acres, including an island in the Ouse reached by a Chinese bridge (second replacement of the 18th century original). The gardens are mostly laid out as lawns, and are shaded by a number of mature trees including a fine cypress visible from various angles, and various stands of shrubbery. All the garden planting dates from after 1983.
The main house has the same frontage front and back. The rear entrance, leading into a double height staircase hall, was the main entrance at a time when most guests arrived by river. The room continues through to the front door. This hall is attractively decorated and has a plasterwork frieze (restored). It has a stone-flagged floor, a screen of Doric columns and a handsome carved oak staircase. In the north wing are two rooms with wood paneling. On the first floor to the front is a fine reception room, and the tour includes two bedrooms in the north wing. The interior and its contents have a most pleasing appearance throughout.
Though the mews house with cupola looks original it has in fact been substantially restored and the cupola is a replica.

I visited the house through the ‘Invitation to View’ scheme. The house is not identified on the street other than by its appearance (see photos). Entrance is via the yard to the left. There is a free car park about 100 yards away on the same side of the road.

Renishaw Hall

North front Privately Owned
Renishaw Hall was built by the Sitwell family. The core of the house was built in the 1620’s, and it was extended in stages from 1793 to 1806, adding a grand dining room, kitchen area, drawing room and ballroom wing. Minor changes were made in the 1890’s and 1908-9. The house now has a long, symmetrical north front in a somewhat Gothic style, with crenellations.
On the ground floor are various well-decorated and furnished rooms, the more notable being the dining room with semicircular apse, the Library, the long Drawing Room and the Ballroom. The Ballroom is currently furnished as a grand sitting room. The Old Kitchen is preserved with some early contents, but was not used as the main kitchen after the 1940’s. The contents of the house include some good furniture, and paintings by artists patronized by the Sitwells, as well as family portraits.
The old stable block has an exhibition room devoted to the three famous literary Sitwells, Dame Edith Sitwell, Osbert Sitwell and Sacheverell Sitwell.
The substantial gardens to the south of the house have formal gardens near the house and informal areas further away. A number of pieces of statuary stand in the gardens.
Access to the house is by conducted tour.

Impressive frontages, interesting contents, attractive gardens.

North Front, centre
North Front, centre
Pond with fountain
“Swimming Pool”
Box hedge on island in pond
“Fish Pond”

Harlington Manor, Beds

Privately Owned
Harlington Manor was built as a hall house, perhaps in the late 14th century, but was altered or extended in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries and in 1937. Originally timber framed, it is now clad in brick. Internally it contains Tudor work, a late Restoration dining room, old fireplaces and some fine paneling. John Bunyan was interrogated and imprisoned here, and Charles II visited. There are some interesting contents. The house has pleasant gardens adjacent, and in the entrance yard stands a barn with some very old timbers.
The house is definitely worth a visit. I visited under the Invitation to View scheme, which includes tea and cakes, but you can also get Bed and Breakfast there.
The house is easy to find, as its boundary wall faces the war memorial at a crossroads in the middle of the village.

Pencarrow, Cornwall

House, E&S fronts Private (HHA).
Pencarrow House and Gardens lie in countryside near Bodmin. The house lies at the end of a valley and was built in the 18th century. Internal alterations were made in the 19th and 20th Century. The Inner Hall contains a cantilevered staircase and a large stove with hidden flue. The tour includes the Music Room (so-called), Entrance hall, Drawing Room, Inner Hall, Pink Bedroom, Nursery, Corner Bedroom, Bathroom, Boudoir, back staircase, Dining Room and Anteroom.
The house remains a family home and contains many furnishings and contents of interest.
The extensive grounds contain a number of features of interest. A walk from the house to the lake via the gardens and returning along the entrance drive with its interesting tree planting takes about an hour. Note the rockery of Bodmin granite and the Mole’s Garden along the stream.

Insect wood sculpture
Insect wood sculpture
Creepy trees along drive
Creepy trees

Loch Katrine cruise, Scotland

SS Sir Walter Scott
SS Sir Walter Scott

The loch is about eight miles long and under a mile wide. It serves as a water supply for Glasgow, the water level having been artificially raised, and there are restrictions on the fuelling of boats that can be operated on the reservoir.
There are two cruise calling points on the lake – at Trossachs Pier, essentially a car park with pier, cafe, cycle hire etc, and the settlement of Stronachlachar.
I took a cruise on the SS Sir Walter Scott, a steamship built in Dumbarton in 1900, before being transported to Loch Katrine. She was converted from coal to biofuel firing in 2007 and the forward cabin added.
(If you are wondering how the ship was transported here, it was assembled with nuts and bolts for trials, disassembled and carted to the loch, and riveted together at its destination.)
The cruise was very pleasant, and affords a view of the sides of the loch on the way to Stronachlachar and back. You can look down into the engine room and see the engine and the traditional brass engine telegraph.
The Sir Walter Scott is notably quieter than a diesel boat, so it is worth paying the small supplement to cruise on this boat rather than the other cruise vessel.
Energetic visitors can hire bicycles at Trossachs Pier, take the boat to Stronachlachar, and cycle back around the northern side of the loch.
Stephanie on board
Stephanie on board
Katrine lochside
Katrine lochside
Steamship engine
Katrine loch view
Katrine loch

Westminster – a restoration too far?

I usually write here about visits to heritage sites, but my eye was caught by the quoted costs for refurbishing the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). The buildings are subsiding and apart from that need general refurbishing of the fabric and an updating of the plant and services. The costs were first quoted as being in excess of £1 billion. Now the estimates span from £2 billion to an eye-watering £7 billion – the latter estimate including delays caused by not moving the MPs out, and likely cost inflation.
Being a member of the National Trust and also English heritage I am normally in favour of preserving old buildings, but spending this much on one project seems a restoration too far.
£7 Bn will be telephone numbers to most people so what could you buy for that?
500 big ticket restoration projects like Windsor £28m, Ightham Mote £11m, Catle Drogo £11m, Uppark £18m
Or £18 million for each one of the 380 properties in this blog.
or: Two large aircraft carriers.
or: A quarter of the HS2 project
or: resolve immediate Greek debt crisis
or: pay off NHS trust debts and re-fund
or: cancel most of proposed £12 billion welfare cuts
Mad, isn’t it?

So what’s there that is really worth preserving?
The medieval Westminster Hall is an amazing and ancient structure that should be preserved. And would be a shame to lose the iconic Gothic exterior of the Houses of Pariament. But the rest of it? Do we really want to spend billions preserving the Victorian interiors? I think not. The House of Commons, demolished by German bombing, dates from the 1940s/50s.

One can’t help reflecting that English Heritage was recently given a private charitable status so that maintenance of ancient monuments, formerly the responsibility of the Government via the Ministry of Works and irs successors, is no longer charged to the public purse. Maybe the same rules should apply to the Palace of Westminster?
At the very least, efforts by MPs to stay in place during the refit, thus increasing the duration of the project and greatly increasing costs, should be resisted.

Charlestown, Cornwall

Charlestown harbour with ship The harbour at Charlestown, on the outskirts of St Austell, was built in the 1790’s for the export of copper ore, but was later used for the export of china clay. Remains of the chutes and tunnel used for loading china clay can still be seen. The harbour, now Grade II listed, is a popular location for films and TV, and is also a port for visiting tall ships.
You can walk around the harbour and look at the old buildings free of charge.
Street parking is limited, and you will probably have to use one of the pay car parks. Fortunately the charges are not excessive.

Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre. I’m adding this here as it’s at the top of the harbour. Contains displays about various local wrecks, with photographs, and artifacts salvaged from wrecks. There are one or two videos, and displays about the Mary Rose, Titanic and Lusitania, which will be of interest if you haven’t seen similar elsewhere. It takes a couple of hours to go round and look at everything.

Outer harbour and lock
Outer harbour
Above inner harbour, C'town
Above inner harbour

Kempton Great Engines. London

Engine House ext
The Kempton triple-expansion engines are situated in Hounslow, West London, at a water treatment site. They were formerly used for pumping drinking water to a reservoir, but ceased operation in 1980, when the building and contents were declared a Grade II* listed monument. The site is now leased by Thames Water to a preservation trust.
One of the engines is in working order, and the other under restoration. These are the biggest engines of their type ever erected in Britain, and the working one is the biggest triple-expansion engine in the world still operating. Each stands 62 feet high, weighs around 1000 tons and generated 1008 Hp.
The handsome engine house is original and the walls are covered internally with glazed tiles. The colossal engines are still in their original positions, as are two steam turbine pumps and much ancillary equipment. One of the big engines is run on steaming days. There is a lot to look at, and you can get a guided tour to climb up on the non-working engine. This place really deserves to be much better known.
If visiting by road, the site is signed from the roundabout under the A316. Beware the speed bumps. Parking is under the flyover.
On an adjacent site is the self-described Hampton to Kempton Waterworks railway. This is a project to recreate the narrow-gauge railway that supplied coal to the site. So far, it consists of a loop of track in an adjacent field, and a steam engine and carriage. You can ride on it.

No.7 Triple Expansion Engine
No.7 Triple Ex. Engine
Turbine Floor
Turbine Floor
Narrow gauge Railway
Narrow gauge Railway

Duff House

Duff House, front
National Galleries of Scotland
Visited Duff House at Banff. The Georgian house is impressive and was designed by William Adam. It contains some interesting art from the National Galleries of Scotland, and other contents from Dunimarle.
The house formerly contained the art collection of one of its owners. Later it suffered use as a hotel, a nursing home, and a prisoner of war camp.
Visit date: May 2014

Drum Castle and Garden

Drum Castle
National Trust for Scotland
Drum Castle has a 13th century tower, almost windowless, with rounded corners, and attached to it is a Jacobean mansion. The tower was closed for repairs, but we looked around the mansion which has interesting paintings and furniture. We also visited the walled gardens, which feature roses, and had a walk in one of the woods.

Visit date: May 2014