Bay windows remaining from the mansion

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leith Hill Place

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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 —

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.

Bay windows remaining from the mansion

Sutton Hoo — the Story of a Find

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In late 1930s an intelligent and gentle lady looked out of the window of her cosy sitting room over the estate that she owned. Her name was Edith May Pretty.

Edith May Pretty
Sitting Room at Sutton Hoo House — reconstruction

He came from a wealthy family of a rich industrialist, who devoted his ample spare cash to educating his two daughters by taking them on around the world trips, with particular interest in ancient artefacts. While her younger sister got married, Edith remained with her parents and continued travelling until her father died. She was 42 when she married a man who had been in love with her since she was 18, and they bought Sutton Hoo, a large estate in Suffolk with a beautiful house on a hill, overlooking the river Deben.

Sutton Hoo Manor House
Sutton Hoo Manor House, now Tranmer House, in honour of the last owners who gave the estate to the British Heritage

The happy couple had a son, but soon her husband died, and Edith devoted herself to charitable work and her young boy, — and spiritual healing, which was a popular fad at the time.

1930s interior of Sutton Hoo House

Her health was failing, and she must have spent quite a while looking at the mounds across the ditch visible from the window of her sitting room. This is what she saw

View from the window of Sutton Hoo House

She heard stories of ghosts of warriors marching atop those hills. She also knew that they had been plundered hundreds of years previously, with some metal nails found, and she wondered if there was more to them than just spiritual apparitions.

Edith organised — and paid for — an archaeological dig, by a local archaeologist Basil Brown, who was recommended to her by the Ipswich Museum. This is his workshop, reconstructed in a little building next to Edith’s manor house.

Basil Brown’s workshop

A smaller mound excavated in 1938 revealed a ship burial, previously dug up by 19th century, yielding some ship rivets. Now this one, known as Mound 2, is built up to its original height.

Mound 2

In fact, all mounds had been ransacked, as became apparent during excavations later, some as early as 16th century.

The works returned in 1939, when Edith insisted that the biggest, Mound 1, was to be dug up.

The famous Mound 1 — what remains of it

And this is what they found — a ghostly imprint of a ship in the sandy soil.

The ship was filled with belongings of an Anglo-Saxon king.

Some of the treasures found at Sutton Hoo

Quite soon it became apparent that this is one of the biggest Anglo-Saxon finds in England. Dignitaries from the British Museum told Basil Brown to ‘move over’ — Edith insisted on his involvement and ensured that his job was secure, — this is the kind of woman she was.

Sutton Hoo site in 2017

What they found was a real treasure — in terms of both material and historic value. The 18 mounds sitting close together on one plot of land turned out to contain two ship burials (out of only 3 known in England), 6 cremation burials, a burial in a (possible) coffin and a burial of a young warrior and his horse.

Reconstruction of the horse harness found at Sutton Hoo

Some artefacts are in Ipswich museum and in the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo, but the whole of the most important ship burial in Mound 1- thought to be of Anglo-Saxon king Raedwald — is in the British Museum.

This was the generous gift of Edith Pretty — the courts established that everything belonged to her, and she donated the treasure to the nation, with the provision that it will be displayed in the British Museum. This was the most valuable gift made to the British Museum in the lifetime of the owner. Sadly, Edit did not live to see her gift on display. She died in 1942.

It was lucky that Mount 1 was excavated in summer 1939 — the First World War starting in autumn 1939, and the estate was commandered by the military, with the house being used as, and the fields as a training ground for military vehicles.

During the war the Sutton Hoo hoard was stored in Aldwych Tube Station and now form the main part of the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon gallery.

Sutton Hoo display at the British Museum

After the war the estate Edith’s son sold the estate, which became a farm. Edith’s will stipulated that the estate can be sold only on condition that the excavation rights belong to the family, who subsequently passed them to the British Museum.

After the death of the last owner in 1990s, Sutton Hoo became a National Trust property, and now offers a 1930s interiors reconstruction in the manor house, a visitor centre telling the history of Sutton Hoo finds, and, of course, a walk around the mounds, which brings us closer to the great mystery of the Dark Age Anglo-Saxons.

View of the house from the mounds
Visitor Centre



Bay windows remaining from the mansion

How to be a good tour guide — telling stories is the key!

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When I was doing my Blue Badge guide cause, one of the teachers told us that if a tour is interesting for children, it is more than suitable for adults — because it is interesting. One may quote dates and numbers, but it is the stories that bring history to life, and make it fun to go on a tour.

This is what I want to do — in my work, and now in this blog.

One of the best examples of exciting history story-telling that I ever came across is the British History Podcast. I came across is when researching Anglo-Saxons for the British Museum tour, and have been absolutely captivated by Jamie the presenter’s style.

British History Podcast

The website says, ‘The BHP is a chronological retelling of the history of Britain with a particular focus upon the lives of the people.’ 

Actually, it is much more than that. It is just the right mixture of meticulously researched historical content and a captivating manner of presenting it. To me, it goes like a detective story, with a cliff-hanger at the end of the episode!

The best example is the first Sutton Hoo podcast — a must for everyone doing Anglo-Saxons as part of  primary school history curriculum:

104 – Sutton Hoo: The Finding of Raedwald… and Rabbits

Lilia loved that one, and the first part of the following episode, which gives a vivid imagery of what it was like to be present at a cremation ceremony of a real life Anglo-Saxon, with sounds and smells of burning a body on a huge funeral pyre!

Well, some episodes are more exciting than others, but for me, every little detail of historic importance is worth knowing, and I am savouring every one of them, being only half way through Anglo-Saxons, and they are over 230 episodes, and only up to King Alfred!

It felt a bit weird at the start to listen to British History in an American accent, quite used to that after the first few episodes.

I became a member, not just because I can get special members only episodes and transcripts, but also I love supporting this great project. I met Jamie in person during last months’ BHP in London, and although I was there only briefly, it was a great pleasure to have a chat with the BHP team and other followers, hopefully, they will have more of those going in the future.

In the meantime, I will do my best to tell stories from history, from everywhere we go on our adventures.

Bay windows remaining from the mansion

Framlingham Castle

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Framlingham Castle goes back to the times of the Norman Conquest in the 12th century. It was in the possession of the Earls and Dukes of Norfolk, coming down to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, connecting it to England’s Tudor history. A prominent nobleman during the times of Henry VIII, he was the uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard — the two wives of Henry VIII, who lost their heads in the Tower of London.
But is it Henry’s eldest daughter Mary who put Framlingham on the historic map of England. Mary, Henry’s daughter from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was a clever little girl, well educated and doted on by both her parents, until Henry, replacing Catherine with the younger Anne Boleyn, sent Mary away from court and prohibited her from seeing her mother. The future must have looked very uncertain for a teenage Catholic Mary. Royal daughters’ lot was to be a pawn in diplomatic and political marriages, then being a submissive consort for a husband, often in a far away land… Yet, Mary was to become the first crowned Queen of England in her own right. Now that we have had a few queens on the throne, and generally think that a woman prime minister is better in sorting out the mess made by men, it is hard to imagine that until mid 16th century no one in England could image a female ruler. 
When Henry VIII’s son Edward VI died at the age of 15, there were only ladies left in direct succession. Protestant Lady Jane Grey, being the choice of Edward and his protestant ministers, did not stand a chance with the people — no one knew who she was! It was Catholic Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter, who had the support of the country. 
Mary had been given Framlingham Castle by her brother, and it was there that she fled on hearing of Lady Jane Grey’s succession. Only a few days later she was proclaimed queen, set off from Framlingham to London with an army of supporters — there was no need for it though, she was welcomed by the people with open arms.
Being a proper Queen, with all the power and pomp of Tudor England, did not make Mary happy, — nor she made the country happy, either. Trying to restore Catholicism, Mary ordered the burning of numerous Protestants, plunging the country into terror and earning her name in history as Bloody Mary.
Deeply religious, Mary thought she was doing the right thing by restoring the ‘true faith’, but God never gave her the one thing she always wanted — married in her late thirties to a much younger Prince Philip of Spain (who never showed much interest in her), she died childless after a couple of false pregnancies. 
So, we got another queen on the throne (Mary’s younger sister Elizabeth I), and the Dukes of Norfolk got Framlingham back — Mary gave the castle to them shortly after her accession.

From August 2016