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Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leith Hill Place

St. George being the Patrol Saint of England, his day, 23rd April is duly marked by Classic FM (our favourite radio station) as the day for English composers. They have played lots of them, most hardly known to the general public. Apart from a handful, who are famous internationally, and Ralph Vaughn Williams is one of them.

We visited Leith Hill Place, his childhood home.

Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Lying amidst Surrey hills, this modest house was built in 1600s and in mid 18th century acquired its classical Palladian look. A hundred years later it was bought by Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the Josiah Wedgwood of the famous pottery works. He retired from the family business to settle in this remote countryside home with his wife Caroline, who was the sister of Charles Darwin (the very same who gave us On the Origins of Species) – she was his cousin. Joe’s sister Emma married Charles Darwin. With the families so closely related, the Darwins were frequent visitors to Leith Hill Place, and the upper rooms of the house, on the 3rd floor, were reserved for Charles to work in when he came to stay.

Darwin's room
Darwin’s room

Currently those rooms feature a ‘soundscape’ – a series of audio recordings, telling the story of Vaughan Williams, as visitors move from room to room.

It was Caroline who organised the planting of the rhododendron forest in the grounds.

Joe and Caroline Wedgwood had three daughters. One of them, Margaret, married the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams. The young family lived in Gloucestershire, but after Arthur died in 1875, Margaret and her three young children came to live with her family in Leith Hill Place.

Leith Hill Place
Leith Hill Place

Her youngest son Ralph, born in 1872, began piano at the age of 5 with  his Auth Sophy, who also lived at the house. Having composed his first piece later on that year, he was not too keen on the piano, preferring the violin, which he began learning a year later. He was also fond of playing the small organ, which was installed in the entrance hall of the house – the servants having to pump it, which, apparently they did not enjoy much!

The organ is no longer there, instead, visitors can play the piano in the hall.

Ralph did grow to love the piano – one of the few original Vaughan Williams’ artifacts in Leith Hill Place is his piano, which he owned later in life when he lived in London, and composed most of his famous works on it, including The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams' piano
Vaughan Williams’ piano

Ralph went to a boarding school and later on to Charterhouse School, where his musical talent was encouraged to develop further.

Coming home during the holidays, Ralph wondered through the park and picturesque Surrey countryside, developing a taste for folk songs and tunes that he heard in the local villages and inns.

View from a top window
View from a top window

In 1890 Ralph left Charterhouse School to study at the Royal College of Music and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, and this was the end of his connection with Leith Hill Place.

After the death of Ralph’s mother and aunts, and of his elder brother Harvey, Ralph inherited Leith Place and gave it to the National Trust in 1945. It was leased to other members of the Wedgwood family, and in later years was a boarding school.

In 2013 it was opened to the public as a Vaughan Williams museum, displaying only a few photographs and information boards, although the National Trust website says they are working on developing the museum further.

Leith Hill Place - waiting for a new futureLeith Hill Place – waiting for a new future

Ralph Vaughan Willams went on to become of the most influential English composers. He wrote concert pieces (like the famous Lark), songs, operas, ballets, chamber music and symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Alongside Cecil Sharp, he collected English folk songs, which were included into Cecil Sharp’s series Folk Songs of England. Vaughan Williams was President of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, their home, Cecil Sharp House, includes a library named in his honour – Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Vaughan Williams’ compositions are deeply rooted in English folk and Tudor music, and amongst his most famous works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), and the London Symphony.

Vaughan Williams has been composing for over 50 years, only stopping when he went to the front during the First World War. He was in this 40s, and too old to be conscripted, but joined the medical core anyway, risking his life on the battlefields of France, and damaging his hearing, which was a cause of deafness for him at the end of his life.

Ralph has not forgotten his childhood home – and Leith Hill has not forgotten him – in 1905 Vaughan Williams helped Leith Hill Music Festival for amateur musicians, and was its principle conductor until 1953. The Festival is going strong, with a varied programme of events for 2017 – www.lhmf.org.uk

Vaughan Williams was composing until his death in his London home in 1958. His ashes are interred near the burials of Purcell and Stanford in the north choire aisle of Westminster Abbey.

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Jousting at Knebworth House

Going round stately homes on a fine holiday weekend you can come across Jousting – re-enactment of knights in colourful armour tackling each other on horseback. This has been a popular summer theatrical entertainment from 1970s.

Jousting at Knebworth House
Jousting at Knebworth House

During Middle Ages jousting had a practical purpose – preparing knights (and their horses) for warfare. This was also the opportunity for the noblemen to demonstrate their skills and courage.

The term comes from Old French joster, which in turn has a Latin origin iuxtare meaning ‘to approach or to meet’. Two knights gallop towards each other, aiming to strike the opponent’s shield with a long blunt lance, knocking their weapons off or unsettling them from a horse. The English nobility spoke Old French since William the Conqueror, but by the time of Henry VIII we have an English word for it – tilt, which originally meant a barrier to separate the knights charging towards each other, and the tilt-yard is where this competition took place.

The tilt-yard at Knebworth House
The tilt-yard at Knebworth House

The knights wore heraldic signs over their armour, and so did the horses, on capes called caparisons.

Jousting at Knebworth House
He was a French knight, Marquis du Lyon

As the sport developed, in later Middle Ages, it became more chivalric, and more regulated. There was a series of competitions, some of them involving agility and horsemanship skills, like charging towards a quintain – a wooden figure with two ‘arms’, one to be hit with a lance, and the other one holding a spiky club, which, as the quintain swings round, would hit the knight on the back if he was not quick enough to avoid it.

The Black Knight aiming at the quintain
The Black Knight aiming at the quintain

Another skill was to pick up rings with the lance, and to pin an object from the floor.

Trying to pick up a sponge from the ground with a spear at full gallop
Trying to pick up a sponge from the ground with a spear at full gallop (they mostly failed)

It was a popular sport with English nobility right up until 17th century, gaining more the status of a pageant, rather than training for battle.

And this is what we have today – a staged show, with knights in bright regalia, covering armour and horses, performing equestrian tricks and engaging in mock battles. The Knebworth House event had four knights from two opposing camps battling each other for the ‘Excalibur’ – pulled from a stone, obviously, by a little boy from the audience.

Jousting at Knebworth House

Jousting at Knebworth House

We were sitting by the side of the Black Knight – the ‘baddie’ of the show.

The Black Knight
The Black Knight

Lilia was very taken with him, and so was I, for his superb control of his horse, effortlessly doing sideways walks, prancing and charging from the spot, without obvious effort from the rider.

The Black Knight and his beautiful horse
The Black Knight and his beautiful horse

The Black Knight

He lost, however, being the ‘bad guy’… Lilia insisted on watching the second show of the day, hoping for a different outcome, – no such luck, the second performance was exactly the same as the first one.

The Black Knight lost!
The Black Knight lost!

The entertainment was excellent – watch out for jousting events throughout the country in summer. Lilia certainly wants to see it again (hoping for the Black Knight to win….)

  

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Camellias

March is the month of Camellias. I have three blooming in my garden.

The Birchen Grove Camellia
The Birchen Grove Camellia

Chiswick House has 32 in the conservatory alone – home to the oldest collection of camellias under cover in England.

Chiswick House Camellias
Chiswick House Camellias

Camellias come from Eastern and Southern Asia. Botanist Karl Linnaeus, who classified all our plants, named it after the missionary and botanist Georg Joseph Kamel, who worked in the Philippines and described a species of this flowering bush. There are 100-300 species of camellias, and around 3,000 hybrids, two thirds of those being Camellia Japonica, the most wide spread type grown in the UK. Abundant in gardens in Japan and China for centuries, camellia arrived in this country in the 18th century, with the efforts of plant hunters and the East India Company, – the latter provided transport and wealthy patrons, who could afford to pay for rare plants from exotic countries. A keen gardener Robert James, Lord Petrie, had camellias in his garden at Thornton Hall in Essex in 1739 – the first mention of the plant growing in this country.

Just under 100 years later, the camellia collection was established in the Chiswick House Conservatory. In 1828 the Duke of Devonshire replaced the fruit in his conservatory with the latest fashionable import – camellias from China.

Chiswick House Conservatory
Chiswick House Conservatory

The rarest plant in the Chiswick collection is Middlemist’s Red. It was brought from China by Londoner John Middlemist, who had a nursery in Shepherd’s Bush and supplied plants to Kew Gardens. This tree is one of the two currently known in the world – the other one being in Waitangi in New Zealand.

Middlemist's Red - one of the world's rarest camellias
Middlemist’s Red – one of the world’s rarest camellias

The most curious one is Pompone – On one tree flowers can be red, white, or variegated (more than one colour). This variety was brought from China to Kew in c.1810, and went by the name of Kew Bush.

Pompone - multi-coloured camellia
Pompone – multi-coloured camellia

Outside the conservatory bushes grow bigger, with masses of flowers – however, the get ‘bitten’ by cold air and wind at night, and go brown at the edges… this affliction affects my camellias every year….

Camellias in the grounds of Chiswick House
Camellias in the grounds of Chiswick House

Camellias come in a variety of flower forms – single, semi-double, double (paeony, anemone or rose form), – and colours – white, red, pink or variegated.

Single flowered camellia
Single flowered camellia (Birchen Grove)
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House Conservatory
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House Conservatory
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House gardens
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House gardens
Double flowering variegated Camellia in my garden
Double flowering variegated Camellia in my garden

There’s another type of camellia that we all love – and consume – every day of the year. Camellia sinensis gives us leaves for our tea. For years I’ve been trying to grow this one, – despite being hardy enough to be grown commercially in the UK, I found it not as hardy as your big flowering bushes, but this one is not looking too bad at the moment – in my conservatory.

My tea plant
My tea plant