National Trust Carriage Museum

As a writer, it’s very important to me to be able to describe, as accurately as possible, the lived experience of my characters. For my historical stories, this means undertaking extensive research. Not all research involves visiting libraries, reading historical accounts, and checking things out on the internet – all activities I enjoy, but some research is even more enjoyable, like this field trip to Devon.

My last post finished with a delicious lunch at Arlington Court – another perk of a research trip is not having to cook! But my day there was not yet complete; the main purpose of my visit was to see the National Trust Carriage Museum, housed in Arlington Court’s impressive stables.

The courtyard and original stables with clock tower

With the advent of motorised transport, horse-drawn carriages not only became redundant, but also turned into collectors’ items. Many were sold to rich collectors abroad. Concerned about losing part of our heritage, in 1966 the National Trust decided to create a representative collection of British carriages.

From an original bequest of eight carriages from the 6th Marquess of Bute, followed on by other gifts and loans, the National Carriage Collection was born. The stables at Arlington Court were chosen to house the collection, on the basis that Arlington was one of the few National Trust properties whose stables had not already been converted into a tea room, toilets or shop.

The colonnaded stable block was designed for Sir Bruce Chichester in 1864 by R.D. Gould, and could house up to sixteen horses, those owned by the family, as well as any belonging to visitors. It was usual for wealthy families to keep a range of horses for different purposes, like riding, hunting, and carriage work – much like people with money these days keep more than one car: one as a run-around, one for the family, one for show.

It is believed that the original stable block design was never completed, as the stables only form two sides of the courtyard – usually a stable block would have been built as a quadrangle. However, since 2003, a third side of the quadrangle has been completed. This is the modern extension, built specifically to house the museum’s growing collection and where the tour commences.

The Chichester family crest

Entering through the courtyard gates, the modern block is to the left, while opposite the gates and continuing to the right is the original nineteenth century building, with its clock tower. In my photograph, you can see the heron crest of the Chichester family below the clock tower.  I think it bears a remarkable resemblance to Liverpool’s famed Liver birds, do you agree?

 

I was completely taken by surprise at the sheer range of carriages on display, much like cars today with their different features, carriages were built for specific purposes and reflected their owners’ tastes and requirements. Some were designed to be driven by the owner, others were able to accommodate passengers in luxurious seclusion and comfort, while the unfortunate coachman remained outside in all weathers.

State Chariot with the owner’s crest on the door panel

 

Specially designed travelling carriages were intended for long journeys; they were often built with an extension to the front of the body known as a dormeuse boot, whose folding panels could be arranged to enable passengers to lie full length when they wanted to sleep.

Travelling Chariot

Other carriages did not have a coachman at all, but used a postilion, who would be mounted on one of the horses. If there were two pairs of horses, two postilions could be employed, one for each pair and mounted on the left side. Using a postilion was cheaper than employing a coachman and also afforded passengers more privacy. Another benefit was better control over the horses, say when manoeuvring gun carriages into battle. This way of driving a carriage can still be seen today at royal ceremonial occasions.

A town coach

A postilion boot is another item I learned about during my visit. This was a reinforced rigid boot that was used to protect the postilion’s right leg from battering by the carriage pole. I must look out for these next time I watch a televised ceremonial carriage procession.

The Museum also included in its displays examples of carriages that were built purely for show, to demonstrate their owners’ wealth and status. The most extravagant of these was undoubtedly the Speaker’s State coach, on loan to the Museum from the House of Commons. Unfortunately, because photography of this particular coach is not permitted, I am unable to include one here.

Kept in splendid isolation in a separate, light-controlled environment, it is truly spectacular – a magnificent symbol of the power and status of the Speaker of the House of Commons. My own first word on seeing it was ‘Wow!’ A word I heard repeated by everyone who entered the room.

The coach is thought to have been built for King William III in around 1698 and its last recorded use was by Speaker Thomas on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer in July 1981. The bodywork is intricately carved and has been painstakingly restored to its original gilded magnificence with beautiful painted panels on the doors depicting allegorical figures. It was definitely the highlight of the collection for me.

A travelling chariot with steps for viewing inside

Because of the fragility of many of the exhibits, visitors are not allowed to touch or handle the carriages. However, carefully placed steps allow one to peer through the windows and admire the opulence within …and some of them were very opulent indeed, upholstered in velvet fabric in vivid shades or dyed soft leather. I suppose they were the eighteenth century equivalent of today’s customised and pimped up super cars.

Stanhope gig
A spider phaeton

From the new building, the tour continued into the old stables block, taking in the Speaker’s State coach on the way. In the loft space above the stables were examples of more basic vehicles and exhibits, showing how coach suspension developed and improved over the years. Not sure I’d endure a long journey in a carriage though, the gentlemen and ladies who went on the Grand Tour must have been quite robust.

Finally, I found myself back on the ground floor and looking at the actual stalls where the horses were housed. I understand that horses are occasionally in residence there, but sadly none were around on that day.

The Victorian garden

By the end of a long and fascinating visit, there wasn’t much time left  – just enough to skip through the Victorian garden and admire the fountain before heading back home.

I learned such a lot at the Museum and the house itself was wonderful; Arlington Court is a place I’ll be sure to visit again.

A mini break in Devon

Recently I enjoyed a mini break in Devon. You might think that October isn’t the ideal month for a seaside trip, autumn in Britain can be either spectacularly warm and sunny or stormy and wet. I was lucky – I had three days of blue skies, bright sun, and fantastic sunsets.

A deserted beach in the early morning

My husband and I were visiting somewhere we’d only discovered twelve months ago, a small village on Devon’s north coast, with a beach renowned for its surf. Our previous visits were made in winter when it is very quiet, but this time, at the tail end of summer, there were quite a few more surfers, from tiny tots to people my age.

Surfers at dusk

 

Now neither of us is a surfer, but we both enjoyed walking along the clean, sandy beach each morning and evening, watching and admiring those hardier souls who ventured out into the waves. It looked such fun that I’m planning on investing in a wetsuit for my next trip; even if I can’t manage a surfboard I’m sure I can deal with a body board. I’m determined to give it a go, it looks amazing.

Of course, me being me, every trip I make becomes an opportunity for research, and this trip was no exception. Our first full day in Devon was spent at Arlington Court, a fabulous National Trust property near Barnstaple.

Arlington Court

The current house, built in 1823, stands not far from the site of the previous Georgian mansion, which had only stood for thirty years before succumbing to structural problems. The Chichester family who owned Arlington had established themselves in the area back in the fourteenth century, building up their wealth, power, and influence by judicious marriages to other wealthy families. The property was left to the National Trust by Miss Rosalie Caroline Chichester the only child of the previous owner, Sir Alexander Palmer Bruce Chichester, 2nd Bt. Rosalie never married and by leaving it to the National Trust on her death in 1949, she ensured the security of the estate’s future.

The staircase

The house, though large by present day standards, somehow feels like a family home. It is not overly grand or imposing, although the entrance hall with its white walls and dramatic staircase, which at the landing divides to form two galleries, is certainly impressive.

The Long Room

My favourite room was the aptly named Long Room; a large space that, by the clever use of hinged screens hidden behind Ionic columns, can be separated into three separate rooms: the Dining Room, the Ante Room, and the White Drawing Room.

Have a close look at the columns in my photo; they look like marble, don’t they? I thought so too, until I read the information panels. They are in fact made of scagiola, a material made of plaster mixed with glue and dyes, which can then be painted and polished to resemble marble. Perhaps the hero of my next book will have pillars made of this in his London town house?

Another feature of the dining room is the original wallpaper dating from 1839. I was reliably informed by one of the knowledgeable and friendly room guides that its green colour was due to the use of arsenic. Eeek!

The green patterned wallpaper in the dining room

The highlight of the Drawing room for me was the beautiful thirteenth century Flemish Psalter; a magnificent small manuscript with fantastic illuminations adorned with gold leaf. Having worked with similar objects for a large part of my life, it is lovely to see one so beautifully preserved and cared for outside of an academic archive.

Another room among the many open to visitors in this lovely house is the one Rosalie Chichester used as a child; it is full of books, ornaments, knick-knacks, and photographs, reflecting the interests of this inquisitive and intelligent Victorian teenager. I can imagine her spending happy hours cutting out the drawings and pasting them onto the large screen that resides in this room (see photo).

Decorated screen in Miss Chichester’s childhood day room

Well, I won’t bore you with details of every room of this wonderful house; you’ll have to pay your own visit. I’m sure you’ll find it worth the effort.

Our visit to the house concluded, we headed off to the stables and the National Trust Carriage Museum, which will be the subject of another of my blog posts. (I told you there was lots to see and do here.)

Before we explored further though, we stopped for lunch in the little café housed in the original old kitchen. Feeling greedy (well I was on holiday), I decided to have a scone for dessert. As you can see, I’d devoured half before I remembered to take a photo. It was seriously good!

Join me soon for more details of my trip to Devon.

Places

Bath

View of Bath

Another of my favourite places is Bath, that beautiful city so connected with Jane Austen and all things Regency. The first time I saw it, spread out across the hillside as we drove in, it took my breath away. It’s not surprising Bath is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site; the honey-coloured architecture is stunning even from a distance.

Pulteney Bridge

To anyone visiting for the first time, I would highly recommend one of the daily free tours given by the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides. Our guide, a knowledgeable retired architect, if I remember rightly, took us all around the city, pointing out the well-known and not so well-known features. These tours are a good introduction to the place and a way to get one’s bearings for later solitary explorations.  Of course, there are lots of other tours available, many of them themed according to interest, but for those on a budget, the free tour is an excellent alternative.

A cobbled street in Bath

You won’t be surprised to learn that I love wandering round without a plan or a set destination in mind. It’s a way of soaking up the atmosphere of a place, finding those hidden alleyways and squares that are off the beaten track. One of these little forays occurred on an early visit to Bath; my husband and I stumbled on a small flea market, full of stalls selling furniture, books, antiques. Well, I was in heaven! I love rooting round antique or second-hand shops and markets, there are usually so many interesting and quirky things to find.

The Pocket Magazine

That particular time, I managed to acquire a very battered, bound copy of The Pocket Magazine or Elegant Repository of Useful and Polite Literature for August to December 1795. The title page and part of the preface are missing, the spine is damaged and some of the stitching is exposed, but that little volume just fills me with joy. I love imagining who its first purchaser might have been; was it someone on a recuperative trip to Bath, taking the waters? Or were they a resident and perhaps an acquaintance of the Austen family who were in Bath from 1801 to 1806. Who knows …but isn’t it exciting to imagine?

Another inexpensive purchase were several mother of pearl gaming counters in the shape of fish; if you know your Pride and Prejudice, you will know that Austen references them as being used at Mr and Mrs Phillips’ home. Now, I don’t know for sure that my fish are genuine Georgian ones, but they are a memento of pastimes and diversions that have now disappeared.

Subsequent visits to Bath have entailed more walking and less retail therapy (though Bath is full of temptingly lovely shops); walking up Great Pulteney Street towards the marvellous Holburne Museum one can imagine what life was like for the well-heeled Georgian resident. Most of the beautiful Regency houses that line this broad street are now upmarket hotels and expensive apartments; if you walk round the back into some of the cobbled alleyways you will discover that architecturally, the rear of these buildings don’t always match the front facades for opulence. Some elements of building are indeed timeless.

At the rear of the Upper Assembly Rooms
A cobbled square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another favourite walk of mine is up Milsom Street; one of the main thoroughfares of the city. In my 1819 edition of Walks through Bath by P. Egan (better known for his Life in London), Milsom Street is described thus:

‘To those visitors who give the preference to active life and fashionable bustle, Milsom Street affords a most pleasant and lively residence; and whether in, or out of the Season, it is highly attractive; in short, it is the very magnet of Bath, and if there is any company or movement in the City, Milsom Street is the pulse of it.’

Title page of Pierce Egan’s Walks through Bath

High praise indeed! Milsom Street might not be quite the attraction it was in Egan’s time, but it is still a lively area and one can still see behind the modern shopfronts, vestiges of the commercial life of Georgian Bath.

Well, that’s my short guide to Bath. I may well do another post about other places to visit in this wonderful city. I feel I haven’t really touched the surface with this one.

Falmouth

View of Falmouth

I thought this week I would share with you some details of my latest story, as yet untitled. I refer to it as ‘Falmouth’, because that is where most of the action takes place, with brief forays into Oxford and Bath. It’s a departure for me, as it is set in the present day, not the Regency. However, there is a strong historical element, and also a hint of the supernatural.

My main character, an academically minded individual who makes a living researching wealthy patrons’ family trees, finds herself the owner of an atmospheric seventeenth century house, thanks to a generous bequest from her beloved and unconventional godmother.

Busy Falmouth harbour with National Maritime Museum on the right.

The house is situated just outside Falmouth, one of my favourite places in Cornwall. You can see why from some of these photos, taken on my last two trips there. For those of you who don’t know, Falmouth is situated on the south west coast of England and has the third deepest natural harbour in the world. The Carrick Roads is the name given to the estuary of the River Fal which meets the southern end of the English Channel near Falmouth.

St Mawes Castle

Because of its strategic importance, in 1540-2, Henry VIII built Pendennis Castle near what was to become the town of Falmouth and another castle across the bay at St Mawes; these were to protect against invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire and defended the Carrick Roads waterway at the mouth of the River Fal. The town of Falmouth itself was created shortly after 1613.

Ferry

To my mind, there is nothing nicer than taking the small passenger ferry from St Mawes to Falmouth and enjoying the views of boats either skimming the waves in the distance out at sea or bobbing gently at their harbour moorings. A note of caution though, it can get quite choppy when the wind is up!

Further up the river, another ferry plies its trade; this is the King Harry chain ferry. Established in 1888, this car ferry connects the Roseland Peninsula with Feock by crossing the Carrick Roads at a point roughly halfway between Truro and Falmouth. It is one of only five chain ferries in England.

Truro from the river

Another of my favourite trips along this waterway is the boat that runs between Falmouth upriver to Truro; Truro, the county town of Cornwall lies at the confluence of two rivers which combine to become the Truro River, which in turn leads into the River Fal, which then runs on to the Carrick Roads. See if you can spot the cheeky seal sunbathing in one of the shots taken from a boat trip up to Truro.

View from boat going from Falmouth to Truro (spot the seal!)

It was great being able to write about a place I’ve enjoyed spending time in and I’ve tried to work into the story some of these places, though I hasten to add that the houses and shops that my characters inhabit or visit are entirely figments of my imagination.

To get back to my story; when my heroine first arrives, she crosses paths with the most grumpy and rude man ever; or is he? When she gets to know him better she discovers he is not all he seems, but will she still find him as beguiling when she uncovers all his secrets?

Her house also holds its own secrets. There is the mystery of her godmother’s unusual and untimely death; attempted break ins, a hidden portrait of an enigmatic eighteenth century man, a journal from the past, all hint of more secrets to be uncovered and a mystery to be solved.

I’m enjoying writing it and I hope you will enjoy reading it when it’s eventually ready to be unleashed on the world. It’s certainly been a refreshing change to find most of the information I need available online, rather than having to head to my old workplace to consult out-of-print books and old maps.

Of course, I would dearly love another research trip to Falmouth, especially at this time of year; unfortunately, that’s not looking likely, not this side of Christmas anyway. For now, I’ll just have to rely on my memories of this idyllically located historic town.