Feb 282022

The Capitol Building

The George Washington Memorial

This week I visited Washington, for the first time. Just my luck to find that everything was closed for President’s Day the first day after I arrived. But unlike British Bank Holidays, when it always rains, the Americans seem to have managed to train their weather so that it was a glorious day. Mind you, it was made up by the rest of the week when it was dismally cold and damp, but hey, one magnificent day is worth suffering for a little time afterwards!

Second World War Memorial







Not having been to the city before, I had pictures in my mind’s eye – of the Capitol building under siege from rioters, of the Lincoln Memorial and the crowds lining the waterway listening to the “I had a dream” speech, of the Presidential helicopter landing on the White House Lawn – but I had no idea how the  buildings all connected. It was fascinating to amble along the entire stretch of the National Mall – a big, almost traffic free, area leading from the empty Capitol Building, resplendent in gleaming white and looking like a wedding cake, down past the various Smithsonian Museums, to the Washington Memorial and on to the World War II memorial (which I found rather moving and poignant) and on to the Lincoln Memorial.


I had vaguely thought that there was ONE Smithsonian, not appreciating that this is the umbrella title for a whole collection of very separate buildings – one devoted to Air Travel and Space, one to the history of the Native Americans, one to the story of African Americans, another to Natural History, another to modern sculpture and Art, and so on. We popped into some of the exhibitions – all free of course.

Library of Congress – exterior














But the highlight, as far as I was concerned, was the chance to see the Library of Congress, situated behind the Capitol Building in a most impressive edifice. You need to book a timed entrance ticket online the day before visiting but it is well worth the hassle. What do you expect in a library – especially one claiming to have the biggest collection in the world. Books? Well, there aren’t any on view in the main part of the building, apart from a small collection showing the books belonging to Thomas Jefferson. He apparently gave his entire library to the American people after the Brits burned down the original collection, when we  attacked Washington and set fire to the White House 200 years ago.

What you see, instead of books, is a magnificent marble edifice, richly decorated in the Beaux Arts style, but very much trumpeting American superiority. The statuettes carry not candles, but electric lights (a US invention) while the cupids speak into an early telephone (claimed by the Americans because it was first trialed in  the US). There are impressive mosaic statues, fabulously decorated ceilings – and then you get a peep into the magnificent Reading Room.

Even this hall of learning is not where most of the books are kept. If you sell books in the States and want your writing to have the benefit of copyright you have to donate two copies, one of which will be stored in one of the gigantic warehouses which are located near the main LoC building. These are protected from fire, not by water sprinklers, but by inert gases. Interestingly the books are not stored by year, or author or subject matter – they are stored by … size.

The Reading Room

To get the very maximum of books into the shelving, all the books are measured and put onto the shelf of the appropriate size. God help the curators if  the guy with the bar code machine gets his records muddled – you would never be able to find anything. Anyway, nice to think that tucked away in the vaults will be a number of my books, all courtesy of Pen & Sword.

Getting back to the main LoC building: what really made it interesting were the guides – who were able to give a fascinating account of anything and everything to do with the building. There were dozens of them scattered in the entrance foyer, on the stairs – everywhere you looked. The building is one which Americans are immensely proud of – and why not?

Reading Room Ceiling

My interest in the LoC  arose originally because they acquired part of the  royal collection of 18th Century etchings and prints. George V decided that the caricatures etc, many of them lewd and politically incorrect, had no place in the royal collection and flogged the lot to the States. I think that this was some time back in the Twenties. Their gain is our loss, and I have featured many of the LoC prints at various times in my books. No, they weren’t available to view on this particular occasion – I would have needed to apply well in advance, but it was really interesting to see where everything is stored.

Statue of Minerva, in mosaics


I liked Washington. I couldn’t say I would want to spend weeks there, but it felt incredibly open and much of the central area is compact and ‘walkable’. We had a magnificent tapas dinner down on the Wharf – at least as good as anything I had in the twenty years I lived in Spain – plus an extraordinary meal in a Chinese Take-away recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide. They did say that the place had less atmosphere than the moon. Correct. They did say that the Peking Duck was sensational, and made up for everything. Correct. No matter that the rest if the food was pretty inedible, that duck was quite superb…

Apr 112019

In 1758 Richard Hall was living in the area of Southwark called the Bridgefoot when London Corporation decided “to do something” about London Bridge. Until 1749 it had been the only structure linking the North and South banks of the River Thames, but the medieval bridge was hopelessly outdated. I rather like the description of it as “a wall with holes in it” since ships were held up for days trying to pass through the narrow gaps between the arches. Pedestrians jostled and fought their way across the carriageway, threading their way round the shops and houses cluttering up the road.

A View of London Bridge before the Late Alterations engraved 1758 by Samuel Scott circa 1702-1772

A View of ‘London Bridge before the Late Alterations’ engraved 1758 by Samuel Scott and shown courtesy of the Tate Gallery

Parliament finally got round to tackling the problem in 1756 when it passed a Bill enabling the Corporation to  buy up and demolish the buildings littering the superstructure, and to improve the access routes. A passage of thirty one feet open for carriages, and seven feet on each side for foot passengers, was to be constructed and it was directed that there should be a balustrade on each side. The Corporation were authorised to demolish one or more of the central piers so as to create the new Great Arch.

Pulling down the shops and tenements, and dismantling the central pier would have caused chaos if temporary arrangements had not been put in place to enable pedestrians to continue to be able to cross the river. A decision was made to construct a temporary wooden bridge immediately along the western side of the stone bridge, supported on the starlings (lozenge-shaped buttresses on either side of the piers).

The improvements didn’t go down too well with the ferrymen who made their living transporting people across the river: there is every indication that it was a disgruntled river worker who set fire to the temporary structure on the night of 11th April 1758.


A reward of two hundred pounds was offered to catch the culprit but no-one was brought to justice. The temporary bridge had been totally destroyed in the blaze and workmen had to start all over again.

bridge 2

Grace’s Guide has this picture of the fire , and I can well imagine Richard rushing down to the river bank at eleven o’clock at night to see the blaze which had just broken out.

The British Museum site has this etching  showing the damaged bridge the day after the fire, with its central pier missing:

In the foreground you can see the timbers from the temporary bridge structure floating on the river. Ironically when the bridge repairs were finally accomplished it left the Corporation of London with a spare piece of land on the City side of the river (on the extreme left, just in front of the spire of the Wren church of St Magnus the Martyr). Here, my ancestor constructed a haberdashery shop and four-bedroom house  above – the original Number One London Bridge.

Nov 282017

Following on from my recent post about  the remarkable 18th Century palace at La Granja, near Segovia, here are a few more pictures to whet the appetite. The first five are all based on official photos used on postcards issued by ‘Archivo fotografico del Patrimonio Nacional’:

One of the fountains in its full majestic flow – well, it surely wasn’t when I visited!


The view from the centre of the main façade looking down the formal gardens….

Another view of the bed which wasn’t there….

The view of the building approached from the town

Extract taken from a fascinating ‘conversation piece’ showing King Philip V and his wife Isabella of Farnesio. He commissioned the palace – she swanned around in it.

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the buildings, scattered throughout the town, decorated with fine stencils. Here is just one example – in a long building now used by the Parador for its conference rooms etc:

And to end with, a picture of the clipped yew hedges enclosing rose beds, with the mountains beyond. And the Georgian Gentleman’s Dear Lady Wife adding distinction and class to an otherwise anodyne view…


Nov 272017

One of the advantages of being a Georgian Gentleman is that time-travel doesn’t only have to be backwards – it can also be sideways, giving a chance to explore what else was going on in the world while we in Britain were saddled with the Hanoverians… That’s my excuse for visiting the impressive royal summer palace known as La Granja in the small Spanish town of  San Ildefonso, near Segovia and some 80 kilometres north west of Madrid. It really is extraordinary – it shows that with  an endless pot of money, a whole army of architects all pulling in different directions and with a sense of humour (‘La Granja’ means a farm…) you can end up with a most impressive set of buildings, alongside beautiful gardens and enough fountains to sink a battleship. Well, if they were working…. normally the fountains operate at weekends in the summer but this year water shortages restricted the number of days when the fountains are in use. Somehow a fountain with no water erupting from every orifice is not unduly spectacular. In fact it is utterly pointless…

So to start with, the building or rather buildings. This is the impressive baroque façade of the ‘farmhouse’- I have to say it isn’t much like any other farmhouse I’ve ever visited…

To give you a better idea of the size of the ‘farmhouse’, here is a picture of the central part of the building, viewed from above a flight of cascades and fountains.

Actually there is a lot more on either side….




Yup, I think you can say that those royals lived on a rather different planet to the rest of us, even in the Georgian era! It was commissioned by Philip V – the first Bourbon King, and he wanted a summer retreat to get away from all those other palaces he owned around Madrid, so in 1720 he started on this. Clearly influenced by his grandfather, Louis XIV, who gave the world that understated little number Versailles, he spent a fortune on landscaping a sloping site situated near the area where earlier Spanish kings enjoyed  hunting – in the mountainous and heavily forested area of the Sierra de Guadarrama. The resulting gardens are amazing – the complete antithesis of everything Capability Brown stood for! Nothing natural, everything incredibly geometric and balanced.

Part of the building involved a cour d’honneur – a beautiful courtyard at one side of the building,  and known, I think I am right in saying, as the Patio de la Herradura :

Pulling back slightly to show one of a matching symmetrical pair of structures on either side of the courtyard:

From the town of San Ildefonso you get a totally different impression of the building   

To the right of the present museum entrance is the royal chapel – a stunning piece of recently restored baroque architecture, all the better for being totally empty at the time of my visit. Talk about gilding the lily! There is gold leaf absolutely everywhere, but I appear to have forgotten that photography is strictly forbidden…

Inside the palace there are a number of rooms containing tapestries – not my cup of tea at all – but also an impressive array of rooms utterly dominated by the floors (highly coloured Carrara marble) and ceilings (amazing trompe l’oeil representations of mythical battle scenes etc).. And then there are the chandeliers! Obviously it helps having a glass factory right in the town, so the poor workmen didn’t have to haul them very far, and they are certainly magnificent.

There would normally be the chance to view the Royal Bed – but as with so many other treasures in Spain, that has been nicked by Madrid and in its place a rather unimpressive 4-poster bed has been substituted, complete with very ordinary bedspread. This is what it is supposed to be:

Ah well, the floor is still impressive, the Madrilanos weren’t able to roll that up and take it away! The dining room, shown next, was also impressive, and indeed practically all the rooms, bar one, have amazing plasterwork ceilings. The one exception was a room destroyed by fire in 1918 – now fully restored, but with a completely plain ceiling, which I cannot be bothered to show!

Apparently the King, Philip V, intended to retire to this summer palace and use it as a retreat but in 1724 his son went and died, so the retirement idea had to be put on hold and what had been a much simpler edifice just grew and grew as it became a full-time centre of government.

It really is well worth a visit – and if you do go, try and stay at the Parador a few hundred yards away – it is a fascinating building, one of many in the town where exterior details have all been stencilled in, from window shutters to pediments, from columns to niches and statuary, complete with dark edges on one side to show ‘shadow’.

My thanks to Wikipedia for the first three pictures, and for the fountains at the end of this post. All the others I took myself using my wife’s phone …. I never can get the hang of new technology!


Aug 282017

Lyme Park – southern façade overlooking the lake

On my recent Northern Progress I visited Chatsworth and, on the following day, Calke Abbey. As I have blogged on both it seemed only fair to blog on the third stately pile I visited, Lyme Park near Stockport, not far from Manchester.

Most people seem to know it from the famous Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt scene from the BBC 1995 mini-series of Pride & Prejudice (although that was actually filmed in a water-tank using a body-double). The exterior scenes of the fictional Pemberley were filmed at Lyme, and it is quite interesting to see how shots have been ‘cut and pasted’ to make vistas seem adjacent to each other.



Lyme was originally of Tudor origin, although rather less of this remains because of the Palladian and Baroque overlays.  The house, the largest in Derbyshire, was redesigned by Giacomo Leoni as an Italian palace, around a courtyard, in the 1720s, and thus two of the facades are rather impressive and satisfying. The other two, to my mind, betray their attempted  modernisation in the Victorian era and seem far less pleasing.

The exterior clock face

Clock mechanism for the exterior clock

The garden and lakeside setting is lovely and I found much of interest in the interior of the building – the views of distant follies, the grand reception rooms, the elaborate ceilings, as well as the displays of items collected on foreign travels.













One room even contains not one but four clocks by the great clock maker Thomas Tompion

Thomas Tompion eight-day clock with Dutch mechanism

In the Library visitors can see the Lyme Caxton Missal – one of the most complete versions of a book of the liturgy of the Mass, printed by William Caxton in 1487 and bought by the National Trust, with Heritage and Lottery funding, for the best part of half a million pounds  nearly ten years ago.

The long Gallery at Lyme

I particularly liked some of the Elizabethan rooms – the long gallery, the stag room and the drawing room.














Surprise, surprise, I was slightly less taken with the Victorian bastardisations introduced by the architect Lewis Wyatt, but you can’t have everything.

There are fine wood carvings, attributed to Grinling Gibbons, and there are a feast of goodies to look at.

What was nice, on a warm August day and notwithstanding full car parks, was that the fellow tourists appeared to be spread quite thinly around the rooms – often you could find yourself alone, and able to explore at leisure. I suspect that everyone else was out looking for Colin Firth….

The staff were particularly knowledgeable and helpful, so well done to the National Trust and their happy band of volunteers.

View of the gardens from the roof

The Orangery

Lyme Hill, from an engraving on copper dated 1812

Aug 112017

I should have made it clear on my post yesterday that the images were from the Chatsworth webpage. Here are a few more odds and ends which I found interesting, using my own images….

Hand-painted wall covering in Chinese style

Underside of the staircase, with fine decorated walls and ceiling above

Splendid swag decoration above the doorway

You want painted ceilings, and statues in niches… you got it!

And to end with, one of those really tiny insignificant items which make Chatsworth so interesting – the Sixth Duke’s own theatre tokens, in ivory. Somehow going to the Vue cinema, or wherever, is not the same when you don’t have your own personalised entry token. Times have changed, and not for the better I fear!

Aug 102017

I was interested to get the chance to visit Chatsworth again, in the beautiful Derbyshire Dales. The occasion was the exhibition currently being shown there (on until 22 October) entitled “House Style, Five centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth”.

The range of exhibits is impressive – bits and pieces from the early days of the house, shown here in an early ‘birds eye’ painting, as well as a number of portraits etc relating to Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire,  and various things belonging to the Mitford sisters.

There are large numbers of fancy dress costumes used at Cavendish family parties over the years and some of them are most impressive.

And of course you also get to see the magnificent garden setting, influenced by William Kent and by Capability Brown, as well as the staggering interiors of this fascinating house. Many believe that it was Jane Austen’s inspiration for Pemberley and of course it was used in the film version of ‘Pride and Prejudice; starring Keira Knightly. So, it was interesting to walk up the magnificent staircase and look at the painted ceilings, to check out the fantastic wood carvings and architectural mouldings, to see the marble statuary such as the veiled Vestal Virgin, and to admire the hand painted wall coverings in the bedrooms.











I was especially interested in some of the memorabilia relating to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – her various portraits, as well as letters and jottings which she sent to her children – and miniature portraits of her daughters ‘Little G’ and ‘Harryo’.

All in all a most interesting visit. Not cheap, at £19.90 a head (no discount for doddery OAP’s) but it is a reminder how being a member of the National Trust spoils you by making you forget what it costs to maintain these historic houses and how much a realistic entrance fee has to be if it is to cover the enormous repair costs. You could spend days looking at the rooms and the exhibits. As it is, a long afternoon is fairly exhausting, but leaves you with the feeling that this really is the best of the best.








Take your pick – above, a pensive Georgiana in an unfinished portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and below it a wondrously lovely hat, with Georgiana somewhere underneath it, by Thomas Gainsborough

Sep 122016
Croome, with the church on the hill in the background

Croome, with the church on the hill in the background, shown courtesy of the National Trust

When I was considering which talks to select for the nine presentations I need for the cruise on board the Boudicca to the Cape Verde Islands in November I was fairly sure that I would include one on gardens and garden designs in the 18th Century. I then started to have second thoughts – after all, it is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and every man and his dog seems to be bringing out books on him and his gardens. Rather than jump on the band-wagon I decided to be my usual contrarian self, and do the talk as a hatchet-job on Brown – he was a vandal who destroyed stunning Elizabethan gardens, he was a copyist who merely followed where Bridgman and Kent had gone before, he was not as good a salesman as Humphry Repton with his marvellous little red books….

The Panorama, Croome

The Panorama, Croome

Dunstall Castle

Dunstall Castle







And then I went to Croome… it is situated just off the M5 motorway south of Worcester, and it really is a fascinating place to visit. Some 670 acres were acquired by the National Trust in 1996. More recently, just a few years ago the Trust was granted a lease of Croome Court after a period of half a century when it was used as a Roman Catholic School and then as a Hare Krishna centre. Neither set of users would appear to have done much to preserve or enhance Brown’s handiwork, and clearly the land surrounding the fine Palladian mansion had suffered from years of intensive agriculture, deep ploughing, timber extraction and so on.

So what we see now, before all the tree planting works being implemented by the National Trust come to fruition, is something similar to what Brown would have seen after he had completed his early rounds of landscaping, drainage and so on, but before his tree-planting scheme had been completed.

The 6th Earl of Coventry

The 6th Earl of Coventry

What I had not appreciated was that Brown was not just the park-land designer – he was the architect for the main house, designed for the 28-year old Sixth Earl of Coventry when he inherited the title and the estate with its Jacobean mansion house, in 1751. Apart from re-modelling the house, Brown the architect also called for the entire village of Croome to be razed to the ground, and all the inhabitants were moved out of view “round the corner” behind some trees. He didn’t think that the medieval church looked in place – so he pulled it down, and in its place left us a gothic church which to my mind looks slightly odd, divorced as it is from any obvious congregation and some distance from the Big House. Clearly it was seen by Brown as “just another eye-catcher” – almost a folly-on-the-hill. Not content with designing the main house, Brown was responsible for many of the interiors before handing over to Robert Adam in 1760. Perhaps slightly surprisingly, Brown left intact the seven-acre walled garden (one of the largest enclosed gardens in Europe at the time, and now privately owned).


Brown's grotto, shown courtesy of the Gardening Way Blog

Brown’s grotto, shown courtesy of the Gardening Way Blog

Several of the eye-catchers you can see around the horizon are not actually Brown’s – the Park Seat, the London Gate and the Temple Greenhouse were all designed by Robert Adam, while James Wyatt was responsible for the Panorama Tower and the Worcester Lodge. Between the two of them they also designed the ‘ruins’ comprising Pirton Castle and Dunstall Castle. Brown, however, was responsible for the lake and its bridges and the Island Pavilion, the Rotunda and the grotto. But I think what impressed me most was the realization of the extent of Brown’s powers as a water engineer. I believe he acquired these skills while working in the Fens before accepting the Croome commission.

When the young earl asked Brown to come up with suggestions for the site, it consisted of a boggy morass quite unsuited to farming or gardening. Brown had the skills to know how to drain the site, alter the water tables, construct stone-lined culverts and drains, and to draw the water off into a new pond. He quickly perfected the means to line his ponds with a twelve-inch layer of puddled clay (to stop water leakage).



Croome Church, standing in splendid isolation

Croome Church, standing atop the hill in splendid isolation

Fake, it's a fake! But boy oh boy, who's to know?

Fake, it’s all fake! But boy oh boy, who’s to know?

Stone drainage culvert by the Evergreen Shrubbery shown courtesy of the National Trust

Stone drainage culvert by the Evergreen Shrubbery shown courtesy of the National Trust

He then installed what was to become his signature feature – a sinuous serpentine pond resembling a river, which wound its way under Japanese-style bridges before disappearing out of view. In fact of course it isn’t a river – the artificial pond simply ends in a spot hidden from the house by a clump of trees.

The problem with this type of arrangement is that ponds tend to fill up with silt – soil carried down off the land in the rains. I see that when Brown arrived at Burghley he installed special silt ponds – holding-pools where the silt was allowed to settle rather than being washed down into the main pond. That way, each year the labourers could dig out the year’s silt and put it back on the land. But at Croome the silt was able to build up, and by the time that the National Trust came along, they had to shift 50,000 cubic metres of mud and sludge which was silting up the pond. The improvement to the site has settled in immediately and the lake area looks remarkably settled and ‘natural’.



Funny, ha-ha?

Funny, ha-ha?

Turned to stone I was, (while waiitng for Godot?)

Turned to stone I was, (while waiitng for Godot?)

All around the park Brown constructed ha-has (to control sheep and cattle without the need for intrusive walls and hedges). He also introduced carriage ways which wend their way circuitously around the park, so that you get “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” glimpses of the main house before, at last, your coach and four pulls up in front of the imposing entrance to Croome Court. It really is well worth a visit, and it has given me food for thought as to whether to include Brown in my next-book-but-one. First comes ‘Petticoat Pioneers’ – about women in the 18th Century who shifted paradigms and  made break-throughs in what was a predominately male world, but after that I am going to do one on Georgian Greats. On reflection I think Brown deserves the accolade of ‘great’. After all, any man who persuaded the landed gentry to pay him fees of many thousands of pounds was doing his bit to even-up the inexcusable gap between the rich and the poor. In doing so he helped elevate The Garden to a really significant and important feature of everyday life.



Brown may have designed “only” a couple of hundred gardens but many, many, more times that number were based upon copies of his ideas and designs. His work made him a wealthy man. The customer account ledgers of Drummonds Bank of Charing Cross, London, which are held in RBS’s archives, show that in 1768 alone he had receipts totalling £32,279 and that over the period of his working life he was paid more than half a million pounds. In modern money that makes Brown a multi-millionaire – a tribute to his abilities as a businessman as well as a garden designer. He also deserves credit as a water engineer – his ability to control water, put in dams and drains and to disguise such works so that they are almost totally hidden from view. The fact that he was also a first rate architect surprised me – but I am reminded that Humphry Repton had this to say about him: “Mr Brown’s fame as an architect seems to have been eclipsed by his celebrity as a landscape gardener, he being the only professor of the one art, while he had many jealous competitors in the other. But when I consider the number of excellent works in architecture designed and executed by him, it becomes an act of justice to his memory to record that, if he was superior to all in what related to his particular profession, he was inferior to none in what related to the comfort, convenience, taste, and propriety of design in the several mansions and other buildings he planned.”

For anyone interested, the National Trust are holding a belated birthday party for good old Lancelot, at Croome, on 25th September. You can find details here.

May 092016

Dennis Severs' HouseOne of the most extraordinary museums I have ever visited was the highly evocative house of Dennis Severs at 18 Folgate Street in London. Each room is unique, and reflects the fact that the 18th Century occupier of that particular room has just popped out for a break. The low lighting, the sounds, the smells are all done to re-create a perfect Georgian atmosphere. Visitors go round in small, silent groups, so no coach parties of children, no flocks of foreign tourists with motor-driven cameras a-whirring, just you and a few other lucky people tip-toeing through history.

This June sees some unique joint visits to Dennis Severs’ House and the Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet Street. The latter reflects the wave after wave of immigrants into the Spitalfields area, not just with the silk weaving Huguenots, but others right up until the 20th Century. And let’s face it, most of us come from families who were immigrants at one time or another. “Immigrants” just mean that people have yet to be assimilated into the melting pot. My lot were Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Anyway, the museum reflects all the diverse immigration waves over recent centuries and is one of those places where “the walls talk”. The joint venture is interesting because up until now it has been almost impossible to visit both museums on the same day – because of their very limited (and often conflicting) opening hours.

The first part, consisting of a tour of 18 Folgate Street, is to be followed by a short walk to Princelet Street and a tour around what has been described as ‘one of the most charismatic, moving, beautiful places in all London’. Apparently the joint tour is designed to take an hour and three quarters. Tours are at midday and at one p.m. and will be run on various days between 7th June and 25th June.

More information can be obtained via the website at www.dennissevershouse.co.uk  It sounds an interesting experience, and one I highly recommend if you are in London in June.

Oct 272015

1 YorkI recall doing a blog once before on Fairfax House in York (here) but felt it was time to update the post, having been to see round the house last week. Fairfax House had kindly hosted the conference on “Retail Shopping in the Eighteenth Century” and in addition to a highly enjoyable reception at Fairfax House we were able to look round the exhibition linked to the symposium. It was small, but it was beautifully formed, with display cabinets full of the minutiae of  the retail world – samples, advertisements, trade cards, shop signs and so on.

York 2The house is likewise on a ‘human’ scale: it has been described as “the most perfect example of an eighteenth century townhouse … anywhere in England”. Certainly you will come across larger and more impressive stately piles, but this was a townhouse, to be lived in by the family of Viscount Fairfax of Gilling Castle during the winter months. York 3It is compact, beautifully decorated and furnished, and there is little to remind you of the fact that for years the building was used as a dance hall and local cinema. As the guide book helpfully shows you, the bedroom of Viscount Fairfax  was at one stage used as the men’s loo. Thankfully the urinals have gone and the room is restored to its former glory! Much of the elaborate ceiling work was buried under layers of bright red paint, but the pains-taking restoration work in the 1980s has polished up this little gem so that it gleams like an emerald.

York 4Much of the furniture comes from the collection of Noel Terry (he of Terry’s chocolate fame) and it sits perfectly in the beautifully restored rooms. I was particularly impressed with all the staff – helpful, informative and enthusiastic, but also quite willing to leave you alone if you just wanted to soak up the atmosphere.

York 5I cannot show images of the actual exhibition for  copyright reasons: suffice to say that if you are in York, go see it. I skipped on the chance to see the Jorvik Centre, which I am sure is excellent, but instead wandered round the Shambles, saw York Minster, and went round the Castle Museum with its fine and evocative re-creation of a Victorian street scene. Oh, and I stumbled across a most excellent antiquarian bookshop in Micklegate Street, and came away with several  fascinating tomes on Hogarth, Rowlandson, Gillray and Constable. Mind you, I did feel a bit like  someone who buys books by the yard – I had a weight allowance on my return flight to Spain and therefore had to buy the books according to weight. It meant that there was no room for Sir Joshua Reynolds, but then, hey, that was no great loss as I am not his greatest fan…

York 6

York 7

And finally, because I am a Fairfax myself, descended on the wrong side of the blanket from the dear old Viscount, a picture of my own and only memento of the family – a tinder box kept by my ancestor Richard Fairfax.Fairfax tinder box 1 002