Wednesday, 26 February 2014


Farnham Castle: the remain of the keep

Another of our regular walks with Viv & Giles. I have driven through Farnham many times, but never had a close look and I planned this walk by combining a walk on the AA website with the town's Heritage Trail available from the Farnham Town Council website.

We started at the Farnham Park car park and were quickly greeted by a view of the Castle keep. The castle was founded by Henri de Blois in 1138. Henri was a younger brother of King Stephen and was Bishop of Winchester from 1129 until his death. The Castle was held by Parliamentary troops in the Civil War and like Corfe Castle was deliberately put beyond military use after the war.

The Castle remained an official residence of the Bishops of Winchester until 1927 and Farnham Park was originally the smaller of two deer parks which were enclosed around 1376. We started our circuit by following a beautiful avenue of beech trees.

At the far side we turned left and followed the perimeter, turning left again at the Upper Hale entrance to cross the park and emerge below the Castle. We were surprised by how large and how rural-seeming the park was.

We were soon in Castle St, where we turned left towards the town centre to immediately pass the Andrew Windsor Almshouses of 1619. They were initially founded for "eight poor, honest, old and impotent persons", as we were informed by two of the Trustees. There was some suggestion that as an enthusiast for almshouses, I should maybe aspire to live there, but it was agreed that I couldn't meet all the criteria. Pevsner is quite disparaging about these almshouses, finding them homely in comparison with the Georgian splendour down the hill. Perhaps inevitably, I find them rather charming.

We walked down the hill past some fine Georgian buildings, noting that one or two housed shops which were now vacant: we thought it would make sense to return this part of the town to residential use.

Then we turned right and left to find ourselves in the Lion and Lamb centre.

Most of this is a recent invention, but it has some charm, and the houses on the left here look quite old. We now turned right into West St and especially admired a series of Georgian buildings on the right.

After a brief look at the Museum, an unsuccessful foray along a side turning at least produced a wonderful spring sight: this lovely blossom.

We returned to West St and followed Church Passage to reach St Andrew's Church. It is a late 14th and 15th century church "violently" restored by Benjamin Ferrey in 1855. Pevsner, whose judgement this is, thinks that the best part is the tower and I wholly agree. It was just a bit frustrating that I could not fit it all into my photo.

We crossed the River Wey, previously seen at Pyrford and Tilford, but here here quite small and insignificant.

After an most enjoyable lunch at Loch Fyne, we followed Union Road and South St to turn into The Borough. At the junction with Castle Hill is the Town Hall with the familiar, but slightly surprising, market-like stalls outside. The Town Hall actually dates only from 1934 and was built in a neo-Georgian style to replace a "brash" (Pevsner) Victorian one.

The building to its right is the interesting Bailiffs Hall, originally of 1674, but rebuilt after the Town Hall was completed. Only the side remains of the original building.

We climbed the hill to reach the castle again and were delighted to be able to explore the grounds, seeing Bishop Waynefleet's Tower of 1470. Waynflete pioneered the use of red brick, also used in the construction of Hampton Court Palace and many Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. The windows are 18th century and this led us to think the tower must be much later. It is a very impressive structure. The Castle's website says that the two sundials refer to the passing hours with Latin mottos:
• “Practereunt” (“They pass by”) [to my eyes it says "proetereunt]
• “Imputantur” (“They are reckoned unto us”)

We then had a brief look at the keep and enjoyed the view over the inner courtyard with St Andrew's church tower and the Surrey countryside beyond.

Conditions: sunny and quite warm.

Distance: about 4.5 miles.

Rating: four stars. Full of interest. The castle and the almshouses were the highlights for me.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Richmond upon Thames

Richmond Green

I had learned that Richmond boasted no less than six sets of almshouses and so it seemed a natural choice for a walk on a sunny Friday afternoon. I found this walk on the invaluable London Footprints website. You begin at the railway station and loop around towards the magnificent Green, passing the Richmond Theatre of 1899 by Frank Matcham. Pevsner calls it a "remarkably self-assured contribution to The Green". I pictured only the upper storeys because a large delivery van was blocking the rest.

Richmond Green is "one of the one of the most beautiful [surviving] urban greens" (Pevsner) and was originally the jousting field for Henry VII's nearby palace of Richmond. It is a large almost diamond shaped area of grass, surrounded by roads with many large and impressive houses facing it. In the south west corner there is a group of early 18th century houses and a little further on Maids of Honour Row, built in 1724 for the Maids of Honour of the then Princess of Wales.

At the end of this block a plain Tudor gateway (Henry VII's arms are above the arch) leads into Old Palace Yard, what remains of Richmond Palace.

In front is The Trumpeter's House of about 1708 and off to the right is The Trumpeter's Inn a skilful Georgian pastiche of 1954-6.  Old Palace Lane leads down to the river Thames. You turn right to pass under the 1848 railway bridge.

Now immediately on the right is Old Deer Park, where I used to watch London Welsh play rugby when I was a teenager. It was established as a hunting park by James I in 1603. The two obelisks were sighting marks for an Observatory built for George III, a keen amateur astronomer, in time for the transit of Venus in 1769.

You now follow the tow path to Richmond Lock, cross the river there, walk back on the opposite side and cross Twickenham Bridge to rejoin the towpath and walk back towards Richmond. This is Richmond Lock from Twickenham Bridge. The structure, which is both lock, weir and slipway as well as a footbridge, was built in 1894 and is the furthest downstream of all the locks on the Thames.

Soon you reach the lively area around Richmond Bridge, completed in 1777 and now the oldest bridge on the river.

You carry on along the riverbank, eventually taking a left to cross the road and enter Terrace Gardens, where you climb up to join Richmond Hill. Just before the viewing terrace at the top there is an amusing statue of Aphrodite by Allan Howe. It was erected in 1952 to replace a cast iron fountain which was melted down during the war. It was thought by some to be in bad taste and was soon christened Bulbous Betty. I was put in mind of the Floozy in the Jacuzzi (official name The river) that we recently saw in Birmingham.

I enjoyed the well-known view from the terrace, although as it was into the setting sun, no picture was possible, and headed down Richmond Hill. On the right is an extraordinary castellated building which was once called Ellerker House, the home of the Houblon sisters, of whom more in a moment. It is now a school.

Turning right into The Vineyard I soon found the first of the almshouses which had drawn me here: Michel's Almshouses were founded in 1695, rebuilt in 1811 and extended in 1858.

A little way along the street on the other side side are Bishop Duppa's Almshouses. Brian Duppa was variously Bishop of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester and had been tutor to Charles I. He founded almshouses in Richmond in 1661 and they were rebuilt in their current location in 1852, having fallen into disrepair. Happily the fine original main entrance was retained, with various inscriptions over it including one to God and Charles.

Next along The Vineyard are Queen Elizabeth's Almshouses dating originally from 1600, but rebuilt in 1767, 1857 and 1955 in a sort of neo-Geo style. You follow The Vineyard along the winding route to its end and then walk some various alleys and small streets to reach Sheen Road. Here you find the Houblon Almshouses of 1758.

They were founded by Rebecca and Susanna Hoiublon, the daughters of Sir John Houblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England. On his death in 1712, his widow and daughters came to live in Ellerker House.

At this point the London Footprints walk route heads back to Richmond Station, but I turned right along Sheen Road in search of the two further sets of almshouses that my research had located. After a few hundred yards I reached the Church Estate Almshouses on the left hand side.

The charity was established in 1558 by the will of Thomas Denys who gave some properties to the church to provide for the poor of Richmond and by 1844 the Trustees had decided they had enough assets to build 10 almshouses. They are a lovely group in yellow brick with red brick detailing.

A few feet further along Sheen Road is the final set of almshouses: Hickey's Almshouses, built in 1834 with the accumulated income of the legacy of William Hickey who in 1727 left his property in trust to provide pensions for six men and ten women

There is a an imposing gateway with cottages either side and two ranges of houses at right angles to each other, with a central chapel in the main range. Now, finally, it was time to return to Richmond station and head home.

Conditions: bright and sunny, though cool.

Distance: about 4.5 miles.

Rating: four and half stars. Remarkably interesting and varied.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Costa Rica: Reflections

In the primary rain forest

We had a holiday in Costa Rica in January and I described some of the things we did in posts about La Paz Waterfall Garden, Selva Verde, Arenal Volcano and Selvatura. Here I want to reflect on what we learned from the experience and what impact it had on us.

Costa Rica is a small country. Its population is 4.5 million and it covers an area of 20,000 square miles - compare England with its 53 million population (the population of the whole UK is 63 million, both figures from the 2011 Census) and 50,000 square mile area.

We were intrigued to learn that the country is officially neutral and abolished its armed forces in 1948, using the money to provide comprehensive education and health systems. (Certain armed forces functions reside in the Police however.)  This is evidence of the visionary leadership which seems to be something of a national characteristic.

Tourism is the number one industry and Costa Rica is well known as a destination for eco tourism. After a long period of deforestation, the first national park was set up in 1963 and there are now over 190 national parks, biological reserves, wildlife refuges and similar entities. This means that an incredible 30% of the land is now protected.

 Scarlet macaws

We learned that the next big step in nature conservation is now being taken: the creation of biological corridors on a national scale linking together the numerous separate parks and reserves. This is very impressive. The Making Space for Nature report for DEFRA (the Lawton report) concluded in 2010 that "the essence of what needs to be done to enhance the resilience and coherence of England’s ecological network can be summarised in four words: more, bigger, better and joined." But unlike in Costa Rica, nothing much has yet happened.

Costa Rica can claim to be home to almost 5% of the identified living species on the plant. Our tour guides were all very proud of the number of species of butterflies, birds etc - even if the numbers quoted were a bit variable. (They were also notably well-informed and passionate about their subject, and proud of their country.) To take a single example, there are generally accepted to be about 18, 000 species of butterfly in the world and Costa Rica has 1600-2000 of them. This is more species than are found in the USA or the whole of Africa.

 A white-faced monkey

There seem to be two main reasons for this incredible richness of wildlife. Firstly, there is its geological history. About 3 million years ago the evolution of the earth's land mass had reached a point where north and south America were separate land masses with a gap between them. At that point, a movement of tectonic plates pushed up the land bridge that now exists as Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Plants and wildlife have been dispersing across that bridge from north and south ever since. And bird migrations continue in both directions.

Secondly, the country contains a wide range of different habitats: lowland rainforest and montane cloud forest on both sides of the central chain of mountain, montane and sub-alpine zones at higher altitudes, tropical dry forest in the north, wetlands and coastal zones.

 Roseate Spoonbills and other wetland birds

We found however that it was surprisingly difficult to see butterflies in the wild and we spent some time wondering why this was. It became fairly clear that there are not a lot of wild flowers in most of the habitats we visited and we read that gardens, rather than the wild, were often good places to see butterflies. Secondly, we learned that the very best time for butterflies was in the rainy season when many of them breed. We went in the more popular (with tourists anyway) dry season. This is in fact only truly dry in the north, the Guanacaste region; elsewhere it rains all year round and is simply a bit less wet at this time of year.

But probably the main reason was that the diversity of wildlife already noted means that there are a great variety of predators for butterflies at each stage of their life cycle. So there are plenty of species, but not many of each of one. And finally, many are only found in specialised habitats or times of year, so you would never be able to see all species in a short period of time spent in a few places. Now we understood something that had puzzled us when we were planning our trip: why were there so many butterfly houses? I had in a rather purist way insisted that I didn't want to visit any of them, but it didn't take too long to realised that this would be self-defeating and I succumbed. I am glad I did! At least, unlike butterfly houses in other countries, there were only native species.

A Blue Morpho in the Monteverde butterfly house

Predation of butterflies leads me to a rather banal, but important, overall conclusion. With so many species there is a much more complex hierarchy of predation or food chain. At the top level for example, there are the big cats, jaguars, cougars and pumas.  Nature has a much more raw, tooth and claw, fight for survival quality than we are used to in England.

Green poison-dart frog

This in turn leads to a truly incredible array of symbiotic and parasitical relationships, elaborate defence systems based on toxins of various kinds on the one hand and disguise and mimicry on the other.

Here are just a few examples:

Some trees have a symbiotic relationship with species of ant: the tree provides food for the ant, while the ants fight off any other species which tries to attack the tree.

There are a number of brightly coloured poison-dart frogs, including the tiny Blue-jeans frog (bright red with blue legs). This is an example of the aposematism in which markings are indicative of unpalatability. (Incidentally, the poison-dart frog does not in fact shoot poison darts as one might imagine: its secretions were allegedly used by Amerindians to coat the tips of their blow-darts.)

When palm trees are attacked by insects they secrete toxins at the eaten edges of leaves. At least one palm tree has evolved to have leaves which look as though they have been previously attacked.

Finally, consider these two butterflies: the Postman on the left and the False Postman (same colours, different arrangement) on the right.

This is another example of mimicry. The Postman is poisonous and if the False Postman was not it would be an example of Batesian mimicry, where a non-toxic species evolves to take on the look of a toxic one as a means of defence. Alternatively, in Mullerian mimicry, a number of similar species are all poisonous and have evolved a similar colour scheme. This is thought to increase their collective safety by making it easier for predators to learn what not to eat. (To be honest I am not sure which type is being displayed by this pair of butterflies.)

We also learned the answer to one of the great nature questions: what are wasps for? In Costa Rica at least, species of small parasitic wasps have a complex symbiotic relationship with certain fig plants, in which they are central to the plants' ability to reproduce.

In conclusion then, understanding something about these interdependencies and mechanisms was more interesting and enlightening than simply spotting various exotic species and was the real pay-off of our trip. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Kingston Blount to Swyncombe (The Ridgeway 5)

Shirburn Hill

We met up with Merv and Pud to resume walking the Ridgeway, pleased that it was not raining, but wondering what it would be like underfoot. These unvoiced concerns increased when we approached Kingston Blount to find the road closed because of flooding! However, we were able to park in nearby Aston Rowant and walk along a track to join the Ridgeway. There was some debate about whether we should go back and do the missing bit some time in the future, but it was agreed that the section from Aston Rowant was more or less the same distance, so we need not.

We headed south west along the straight Ridgeway path, finding the going a bit heavy but not too waterlogged. We passed Beacon Hill, where I had a wonderful afternoon photographing butterflies on the Aston Rowant nature reserve last July. Then walked under the M40, noticing how dramatically the noise dropped on the west side: it's blown towards the east side by the prevailing wind.

We continued in the same direction on a grassy track with the Chiltern hills on our left side and Shirburn Hill curving round to meet the path. We became conscious of a lot of dogs barking. A kennels? What? A a break in the hedgerow revealed a partial answer: a number of people were heading across a large field towards us, all with dogs. Were they engaged in a hunt on foot? A drag hunt? Were they in fact in drag? So basically we had no idea, but at least we had a laugh. It was otherwise desperately grey.

A bit further other we came to a landmark we had been expecting: the point where The Ridgeway crosses the Oxfordshire Way. We crossed this point from the other direction in May last year when were doing the Wheatfield to Pishill section.

We crossed a couple of roads on the outskirts of Watlington and soon saw the wonderfully named village of Britwell Salome across the large field. Salome turns out to be a corruption of De Sulham, the name of the medieval landowners - sadly nothing to do with the biblical Salome, the femme fatale in Oscar Wilde's play.

Now The Ridgeway takes a sudden turn to the south, climbing through Dean Wood and then descending slightly to the lane that leads to Swyncombe church, where we had left the car. The familiar landmark of Didcot power station was in view across a grassy landscape.

Conditions: grey, cold, some icy showers, but getting gradually brighter.

Distance: 6.6 miles (31.2 covered so far).

Map: 171 (Chiltern Hills West).

Rating: three stars. Visually unexciting, though no doubt it would have looked better on a brighter day.

Friday, 7 February 2014


The Council House

We met up with Sally and Malcolm for our latest excursion. We have got into a run of urban walks and today it was the turn of Birmingham. Once we had managed to extricate ourselves from the maze of New Street station we walked along New Street, which remains a grand and characterful street - unlike say Oxford Street in London. I was especially taken with this building faced with pink terracotta.

We turned right into Bennett's Hill to pass the site of the house where the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones was born. At the top we found two fine bank buildings: the original Bennett's Bank on the left, now a bar. The inside was typically spacious.

Opposite, there is a one-time branch of Midland bank with external columns suggestive of a classical temple.

We now walked along Waterloo Road, developed no doubt in the 1820s and turned the corner at the end to be confronted with the imposing Council House - what would be called the city hall anywhere else. It was built between 1874 and 1879 and was designed by Yeoville Thomason. The sculpture in the pediment showing Britannia receiving the manufacturers of Birmingham. The mosaic above the main door is by Salviati of Murano.

In front is a water feature by the sculptor Dhruva Mistry called The river. It is apparently known by the locals as "the floozy in the jacuzzi". We somehow failed to spot Anthony Gormley's Iron:Man statue. One for next time.

In the background can be seen the Town Hall, an extraordinary Roman-revival building of 1834. The architects were Joseph Hansom (of Hansom cab fame) and Edward Welch. Hansom also designed the Roman Catholic cathedral in Arundel.

I have a map which names it as the Old Town Hall, as if the Council House was a later replacement, but it was in fact built as a Concert Hall and for public meetings. From Wikipedia, I learn that it was created as a new home for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, which had been established in 1784 to raise funds for the General Hospital, after St Philip's church became too small.

We turned round the side of the Council House, where the entrance to the City Art Gallery can be found, and passed the monument of 1880 to Joseph Chamberlain in Chamberlain Square.

Next we went through the ambitiously named Paradise shopping centre to emerge in Centenary Square where the extraordinary new Library of Birmingham is located. It was designed by Francine Houben of the Dutch practice Meccanoo. It formally opened in September 2013.

We then passed through the International Conference Centre to reach the canal and detour to the right to see Gas Street Basin. This was where the Worcester and Birmingham Canal met the Birmingham Canal in 1773. The owners of the latter insisted on a physical barrier between the two canals and for 40 years, before a lock was built, cargoes had to be man-handled between the two.

Retracing our steps, we walked along the Birmingham Canal to another junction, known as Old Turn Junction, with a roundabout in the middle and turned right following the canal for a while and then leaving it to contune along Charlotte St in same direction.

This brought us to the Georgian St Paul's square, with St Paul's church (1779, by Roger Eykyn) in the centre.

From here, we followed Ludgate Hill and Church St to reach St Philip's Cathedral.

The first impression is that it is rather small to be a cathedral and it turns out that it was indeed built (in 1715; architect Thomas Archer) as a parish church. When Birmingham became a diocese in 1905, the first bishop decided that a new cathedral was not a priority and that an existing church should be adopted instead: St Philip's was chosen.

The cathedral has a pleasing 18th century air, and is in many ways similar to St Paul's church. Its crowning glory is four stained glass windows by Burne-Jones dating from 1885-7 and 1897 depicting the nativity, the crucifixion, the ascension and the last judgement. This is the nativity.

Temple St leads from the Cathedral back to New St. We stopped for an absolutely excellent lunch at San Carlo.

Conditions: delightfully bright and sunny, if quite cold.

Distance: three miles or so.

Rating: four and half stars. So much to see.