I was lucky enough to go on a visit to the Charterhouse last week. It was our annual staff training day – we tend to go to interesting and/or historical lumps of architecture, and this was a wonderful place to explore.
The Charterhouse opened to the public in January 2017, but its history goes back to the 14th century. The story is diverse and fascinating, and the fabric of the buildings themselves is very special. It’s a cliche, but it walking around the place absolutely feels like stepping back in time. If you can visit, I highly recommend taking a tour as the guide we had was knowledgeable and very engaging. We had a wonderful day.
When I was starting to get deeper into my research of Charles Paget Wade for my book on his life at Hampstead Garden Suburb, I quickly realised one thing: Wade didn’t keep a diary. Not everyone does. But it’s always a disappointment – a tiny one, anyway – to find out that someone I’m researching didn’t keep a diary.
With a diary to use in collaboration with other forms of biographical research, so much more can be gleaned about a person. Without a diary, letters often fill in the gaps, and this is true for Wade, and it’s a big part of why I went to Gloucester Archives (although the majority of the holdings are letters to Wade, not from him).
Wade did write memoirs in later life, which have been hugely helpful in discovering more about the enigmatic man himself. But retrospective recollections can often be misleading, so first-hand documents are always helpful. With Wade, we have a number of these, including receipts for a great many of the shopping trips he went on, picking up antiques around the country. Using these, I’ve been able to piece together journeys and timelines.
But perhaps the most helpful of these records have been Wade’s own drawings, paintings and illustrations. As a draughtsman, Wade very diligently noted the date on his work, usually with the year, and quite often with the date or even the location. Naturally some were done on-site and others later, from memory. But these records go a long way to filling in other blanks in his movements.
Wade’s architectural work was often exquisitely detailed, while his illustrations – a number of which were used for a children’s novel – are more artful and fantastical. Alongside these he also did paintings – some of real locations, and others of imaginary worlds.
Thanks to the National Trust’s staggering Collections database I was thrilled to discover that Wade had painted several scenes at the south Buckinghamshire market town of Amersham – my home town.
Whilst living at Hampstead Garden Suburb (1907-1919), Wade went on a number of travels and tours around England, visiting quaint villages, churches and pubs, as much to trawl the antiques shops as to use the vernacular architecture as inspiration for his own works, both built and imagined.
At Amersham, Wade’s eye was clearly drawn to the 17th century town hall as well as the Crown hotel opposite, one of a number of historic coaching inns that line the high street.
Having discovered that Wade had painted some scenes centring on these buildings, I was pleased to have the opportunity this weekend to try and photograph them from roughly the same perspective. Thankfully, Amersham’s old town has changed very little since Wade visited in 1907-8 and, despite my rough positioning, it’s not hard to see the same scenes that Wade found compelling enough to paint.
One of the great things about being a member of the National Trust (oh yes, Lisa and I both very much feel as though we are that far into our twenties now) is the sheer choice of interesting places to visit.
But our most recent came from me scrolling through their excellent app to find locations not too far away which seemed interesting. And so the app led us to Lyveden New Bield, between Northampton and Peterborough.
The building is situated off a minor country road and remains hidden from view until you’ve bumped and rolled your way along a rough path leading to the National Trust car park. But when it appears it looks most peculiar.
A strong, solid outline of a building standing out on its own in beautiful rural scenery, although seeming not to have windows or a roof – surely a ruin? But no – this is a common misconception.
Although this Elizabethan ‘new build’ has the toothless look of a ruined castle or manor house, Lyveden was in fact never completed, after construction began more than 400 years ago.
And what a remarkable thing it is. Beautiful and very telling of the potential for how it could have been – and yet quite empty and heartbreaking. How rare to find not just a building of this age looking so fresh and sharp in places, but also to find one that was started, never finished – and then never demolished either. Just sat there, all lonely and… weird. But still no less beautiful.
Lyveden cuts a lonely figure perched out there in pristine fields, although it is flanked by a nearby cottage and primitive visitor’s centre (quite literally a shed, although the cottage is being converted into a tea room).
Just over the way is its neighbouring manor house; Lyveden was designed by Sir Thomas Tresham to entertain guests. This primary purpose is evident in the building’s layout. Entrance for 21st century visitors is via a low doorway to the rear – originally for servants.
With no interior floors or features – just holes where floorboards and joists would have sat – it takes a bit of imagination to understand the upper areas. But a handy audio guide does its best to explain the situation of various features of the house, while large recognisable features like fireplaces and doorways stand out.
The scale of the construction is also a bit tricky to get your head around. With no roof to close the space in, visitors are left to crane their necks up at the unusual framing of the sky, which is itself a remarkable feature of the place.
Overall, Lyveden is fascinating from a historical perspective just as much as from an architectural one. The remote rural setting is lovely too, and we were treated to seeing it under a slate-grey sky full of cloud as well as in bright sunlight with blue skies in the space of an hour or so. The mind boggles as to how the place must look in other conditions such as snow or fog.
What a wonderful place. I know we will return.
Meanwhile, having driven us from Milton Keynes to pretty Oundle in Northamptonshire, Lisa, the ever-eager driver, decided that we simply must be closer to the sea than usual…
Despite my apprehension that we must surely in fact be about as far inland as it is possible to get in England, we decided to drive out to the Norfolk coast to see the beach at Hunstanton, overlooking the Wash.
But that’s another story for another blog post, I reckon.
I finally had the opportunity to visit Snowshill Manor recently, the home of craftsman, architect and collector* Charles Paget Wade.
*and artist and photographer and poet and…
I developed a fascination for Wade during my time interning at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, the people responsible for the preservation of the north London suburb well-known for its beautiful architecture and layout.
Wade provided some of the illustrations for this book, including a wonderful map which shows the Suburb’s general layout. But while the map is at least mostly accurate, it is also embellished with wonderful little details, doodles and notes about the history of the area in which the Suburb lies.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that Wade was a rather interesting fellow, and I soon found that he had bought a large Tudor manor house in the Cotswolds after the end of the First World War and proceeded to spend the next thirty years of his life filling it with interesting objects and works of art from all over the world.
Wade was a magpie, spotting interesting and amusing objects at auctions and sales from the four corners of the globe, and his house, Snowshill Manor, became a sort of living museum, with Wade himself living in a nearby Priest’s cottage. The vast majority of the objects were procured in the UK, having been imported by previous owners over centuries. And although calling the collection eclectic would be an understatement, something all the items have in common is their craftsmanship. Wade was obsessed with beautiful, handmade objects.
The map in Unwin’s Hampstead Garden Suburb book, like many of his illustrations, was signed with the sweet epithet Charles Wade Made Me. Lisa and I recently borrowed this phrase for a couple of craft and photography projects, named Lisa Made Me and Lisa Took Me.
Detail of a map by Wade from Town Planning and Modern Architecture at Hampstead Garden Suburb by Raymond Unwin
Fortunately, Lisa wanted to visit Snowshill just as much as me, and so she drove us both from Milton Keynes to the Cotswolds where we found the most wonderful place.
Run by the National Trust since Wade left it to them prior to his death in the 1950s, Snowshill Manor sits in the pretty village of Snowshill amongst a large amount of land, and consists of the Manor House, beautiful gardens, and a few other buildings including the priest’s cottage Wade himself lived in.
The Wade family had a large sugar business based on St Kitts, and Charles Wade came into some of that money after the death of his father in 1911.
Wade first saw Snowshill Manor in a Country Life magazine he was reading in the trenches during the First World War, where it was advertised for sale by auction. The magazine he was reading was rather old by this point, and miraculously, by the time he got to Snowshill some time after the end of the war, the Manor was still for sale, by now derelict and engulfed in weeds. Wade snapped it up immediately, and he and a team of labourers set to work restoring all the various parts of the building which had been added to over its lifetime.
He also began filling it with interesting objects and art works, and that is how it exists today – not as a museum per se, but as a collection – a menagrie. Wade hated the idea of objects being locked away in glass cabinets, and wanted his items to be loved and enjoyed.
Wade certainly is a fascinating fellow. I’m very keen to learn even more about him, having seen some of his collections, read some of his diaries/poetry, and enjoyed some of his art work – including the photographs used to illustrate this blog post.
This desire for collecting interesting objects and having them be used and available came from his childhood, and we were told an interesting tale by one of the curators at Snowshill that his old battle-axe of a granny would occasionally let him explore the contents of a beautiful oriental cabinet if he’d been a good little boy. The cabinet is on show at Snowshill, and contains various objects of eclectic origin, all of them beautiful and no doubt intriguing to a curious young boy.
Indeed, everything on show at Snowshill is fascinating in its own way. There’s a heck of a lot of Oriental objects, including many Samurai suits of armour and something I found very interesting: some Japanese pillar clocks, from before European methods of time-keeping were introduced. But it goes far beyond the Oriental: there are rooms stuffed with bicycles, musical instruments, books, and so on.
The Manor house itself provides a wonderful backdrop to the collection, leading visitors around its winding staircases and up and down unusual levels showing how the building was added to and extended over time. Touches of Wade abound everywhere you look, including most of the rooms having appropriate names painted above the doors – names like Zenith, Meridian and Seventh Heaven.
Just as fascinating was Wade’s living quarters – the neighbouring priest’s cottage, for he never lived in the Manor house itself – with its arts-and-crafts furniture and decoration and rather primitive features. His curtained box bed looked awfully cosy, and the swing-seat by his kitchen table just reeked of the small boy who seems to have existed in Wade for his whole life.
I came away from Snowshill Manor enchanted not just by the beautiful house, nor its extensive collection, nor its knowledgeable and enthusiastic curators, nor its picturesque Cotswold setting, but also by the charming story of a man who had a childhood dream and carried it through into his adult life.
That story is so alive and accessible today that you feel like Wade himself might just be hiding around the next corner waiting to jump out in fancy dress as he often did for his own visitors.
All images used in this post are from Wade’s own collection. You can click each image to purchase a copy, or to browse others in the same collection. Their use here is by kind permission of the National Trust. All Rights Reserved.
One of the things I’m loving about my time in Milton Keynes (and there genuinely are a lot – I’m just being lazy about writing them up) is its weird and quirky planning and construction.
There are so many interesting little factoids and trivia about MK that start to emerge when you glance at a map or history book (and I do that with alarming tenacity).
Since buying a bike recently (my first new and very own bike since I was about ten!), I’ve been absolutely loving getting out and about on it, as well as just using it to get to and from work. Amongst MK’s weird and wonderful transport systems is the fantastic network of Redways* – cycling (and pedestrian) paths which criss-cross the city and mean you can get from one point to almost any other without ever crossing a main road (and only rarely crossing minor roads).
The Redways have opened up a sort of virtual landscape to me, and they’ve enabled MK to make sense to me, where before everywhere kind of just looked the same. It still does, of course, but I’m starting to get my bearings and I’m enjoying being able to correspond a point on a map with a place I can visit.
But where this process gets a little bit more intriguing than your bog-standard ‘navigating by map’ is when you go to a location on a map which… just isn’t really there in real life.
Milton Keynes was planned so precisely and so carefully that, inevitably, sometimes things didn’t go to plan. This results in quirks and oddities on the scale of whole neighbourhoods being paved, roads built and street names assigned… And then they are just left, as if abandoned.
One such neighbourhood (one of several, actually) can be found surprisingly close to Campbell Park, the new city’s central recreation area. I stumbled on it by accident, following my nose along another ribbon of Redway.
Suddenly, across the road from the park I found myself surrounded by roads that were laid, along with pavements and kerbstones, and lines of trees. But behind the kerb were no houses – no buildings at all. Just wasteland leading to another copied-and-pasted tree-lined avenue.
It was actually quite eerie – and this was on a sunny Saturday afternoon, when a minute or so before I’d been whizzing past Campbell Park’s cricket ground. And yet, suddenly, here was windswept silence, with only a distant hum of traffic and the wind in the leaves.
And what I might even love most about this whole weird place is that on all the maps that cover the area, the roads are all named. Above you can see down the length of Taymouth Place. Nearby turn-offs lead to Smithsons Place, Reliance Lane and Limerick Lane.
But nobody lives at these addresses, and there are no road signs. And yet they exist on maps and, presumably, in some sort of planning database. There is much for me to explore and investigate, clearly.
As before, but in reverse, it took just a few turns of my pedals before I found myself cycling past flats and a busy road once more. Now that I’ve found this place by accident, I’m taking a more concerted effort to find more. I’ve seen a few that are easy to find, opposite huge supermarkets and similar. Then there are those almost stereotypical junctions with spurs to roads that never got built.
I need to be careful about the tools I use for this mission. Google Maps is pretty accurate, but using the satellite maps and Street View imagery often only tells half the story – or less. The ‘current’ satellite view of my workplace still shows a hockey stadium, for example. And there is an adjacent patch of land to the one I talk about above, which appears to be in the same condition according to Google, but has since been built upon.
So, it’s a mystery story with a few tools necessary – a handful of maps, my bicycle, and a curiosity to seek out some of MK’s more surprising hidden gems. I’ll let you know what else I find.