Archive for the History Category

The Grotto, Stourhead

Posted in Caves, Fountain, Gardens, Grotto, History, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2016 by mysearchformagic

In the autumn I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire. With its pretty lake surrounded by wooded hillsides dotted with follies of all shapes and sizes, Stourhead has a dream-like quality about it, an eighteenth-century recreation of an ancient Roman paradise. It’s got its own version of the Pantheon, complete with grand portico, dome and marble sculptures, a medieval cross, and a even a quaint ‘Gothic’ cottage with rustic windows and a thatched roof.

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The beautiful Georgian landscape of Stourhead, Wiltshire

But surely the most atmospheric spot at Stourhead is the Grotto, constructed in 1748 for then owner Henry Hoare, and designed by Henry Flitcroft. Wealthy Georgian gardeners, it seems, had something of a taste for magic, and a dark and creepy underground cavern was an important element in any grand garden of this period.

From a distance the Grotto at Stourhead, which sits right of the shore of the lake, looks like nothing more than a huge pile of mossy rocks. On closer inspection, however, a set of twisting steps can be seen leading down to a shadowy doorway.

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The twisting staircase down to the Grotto at Stourhead

Beyond lies a dark – very dark – underground passageway, the only light coming from small apertures in the roof and the side, the latter offering wonderful views over the lake outside.

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Looking out onto the Stourhead Lake

Lined with flint, pebbles and tufa, the interior of the Grotto is constructed to resemble a rough natural cave. Since Henry Hoare was rather taken with ancient Rome, the grotto is inspired by the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, both of whom wrote numerous tales of magical, poolside caverns, which were often home to nymphs, monsters or even gods and goddesses. Neo-classical sculptures in the Stourhead Grotto add to the atmosphere of ancient mystery, with a gushing spring and pool decorated with a water nymph and some poetry inscribed into the floor:

Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep,
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;
Ah! Spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave,
And drink in silence, or in silence lave.

Further along, hiding out in a gloomy, water-filled cavern, sits a dramatic bearded river god, a spring from the River Stour pouring noisily from his urn.

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The river god in the Grotto at Stourhead

I may have visited the gardens at Stourhead a little to late to see the amazing autumn leaves which attract thousands of visitors every year, but in a way I was glad to catch it at a quieter moment. Wandering alone through the tunnels of the Grotto, the weak November sun setting over the damp Wiltshire hills, it really was possible to experience the sublime wonder of this magical place, and feel the thrill that has been enjoyed by visitors to this place for over three and a half centuries.

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The magical Grotto at Stourhead

Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Posted in Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , on October 9, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My last post featured a return visit to the lost gardens of Penicuik, a wonderfully wild park designed in the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. On the same day that I visited Penicuik, I also took the opporturnity to explore nearby Mavisbank, another house and garden created by Sir John which now lies in ruins. Just like Penicuik, Mavisbank is currently emerging from years of ruin and neglect, but still retains a remarkably magical atmosphere.

The easiest route to Mavisbank is along the river Esk, where a footpath has been created which leads from  the outskirts of the village of Polton along to the house and estate. The approach to the house itself leads up an old, overgrown driveway which is rather magical itself, giving just a hint of the faded grandeur to come.

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Built (and largely designed) by Sir John during the 1720s, Mavisbank was once a beautiful country retreat, with one eighteenth-century visitor exclaiming that it was more like Tivoli in Italy than Scotland. Since the nineteenth century, however, the house’s fate has been less happy – sold by the Clerks in 1815, it later became an asylum. By the 1950s the land around it had become a scrap yard, and in the 1970s the house was gutted by fire. Now it is a sad and fragile, but undeniably picturesque, ruin.

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

You don’t have to be a structural engineer to see that the ruins of Mavisbank are in a pretty bad way. Subsidence caused by mining in the area has taken its tool, which huge cracks snaking across the house’s buckling walls. In fact, parts of the building looks like they are only being held up by the network of scaffolding that pokes out from its windows and roof. On the rather damp afternoon that I visited, the place felt lonely and abandonded, empty apart from me and the flock of noisy rooks that seem to have taken up residence in Mavisbank’s shattered shell.

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A trust has been set up to rescue Mavisbank, however, and work has already been done to clear the land around it of bushes and trees and allow more public access. High on the hill behind the house can be seen the earthworks of what enthusiastic antiquarian Sir John believed to be a Roman camp, but is more probably some sort of medieval fortification. Out in front are the swampy remains of an ornamental pond that once sat at the centre of a carefully landscaped garden, and in the distance is a pretty pigeon house.

My favourite part of the house was the south side, which I suspect contained the service quarters. Featuing a deep basement, now filled with undergrowth but still retaining its wooden window frames, this wing was tantalisingly shadowy and eerie.

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

At one point it looked like Mavisbank would be lost forever, its ownership contested for years as it slowly crumbled. Now the Mavisbank Trust are working with Scottish Heritage and the local council to secure the future of the house and grounds, and preserve it for future generations.

In the meantime, it remains a marvellously evocative ruin with a uniquely magical aura.

For more details of the Mavisbank Trust and their work, click here.

The Standing Stones of Montneuf, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, History, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Readers of this blog will know that I am a regular visitor to Brittany, and that I enjoy nothing more than scouting out its many ancient sites – menhirs, dolmens, burial mounds, the place is littered with magical reminders of our ancient history. One of the best-known sites in the region is at Montneuf, where a recently restored set of standing stones attracts crowds of enthusiastic tourists every year. With its busy visitors’ centre, helpful information boards and regular educational events, this is a marvelous place, and is definitely well worth a visit…but magical it is not.

On my recent visit to Montneuf, however, I picked up a leaflet with a map of the surrounding area, and noticed that it featured a number of interesting-looking sites in the forests and moors that spread out around the stones. The weather was changeable, and I wasn’t wearing sensible walking shoes, but fired up with the notion of discovering some magic, I set off anyway, the map in my hand and a spring in my step.

The path into the forest of Montneuf, Brittany

The path into the forest of Montneuf, Brittany

The first location on my list was a site known as La Loge Morinais. The path led me into the forest, and drizzle began to descend from the darkening sky. On I walked, turning here and there as the map dictated. Soon I realised that I must have walked too far, and turned back to try another path. On it lead, but still no sign of the Loge. I could feel my socks getting damp, and the rustle of the rain on the canopy of leaves above my head was becoming more insisted. It was clear that I was lost.

I turned back again, took a long hard look at the map and then another at the forest around me. There was only one path left, so I took it, feeling rather pessimistic that I would ever reach my goal. And then suddenly there it was – a wooden sign pointing down a narrow path towards a clearing in the trees. At last I was there. I had found La Loge Morinais.

La Loge Morinais, Montneuf

La Loge Morinais, Montneuf

Once a huge covered passage grave, La Loge Morinais is constructed from immense slabs of local purple schist. Its cap stones may have fallen long ago, but at thirteen metres long it is still an impressive ancient monument, well worth the long treck and those damp socks.

Next my walk took me out of the forest and on to the moors of Montneuf. Luckily the sky had begun to clear, and I could take the time to enjoy the incredible views across the wild lanscape as I continued my search. I was all alone, with noone to be seen for miles around, so I was able to enjoy of the rare peace and tranquility of this unique place. My next target, La Roche Blanche, or White Rock, was much easier to find, and its distinctive name gives a fairly good idea of what to look out for.

La Roche Blanche on the moors of Montneuf

La Roche Blanche on the moors of Montneuf

There is more to this monument than just the large block of white quartz that gives it its name, however. As this photo shows, the block is surrounded by a ring of smaller stones, making a rather unusual group which is probably the burial spot of a high-status individual. On the day that I visited it was also encircled by a mass of purple heather. As I carefully stepped across it, I noticed a low hum emanating from the ground below me. Looking down, I saw that the heather was alive with hordes of buzzing bees, hard at work collecting pollen from the bright blossom.

It was just a short walk to the last site on my list. Also standing on the moors of Montneuf, although rather hidden by bushes and scrub, La Pièce Couverte is another passage grave which has lost its covering mound, its mighty stones now exposed to the open air.

La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

It may not be as imposing as La Loge Morinais, but La Pièce Couverte is notable for the ‘cup marks’ that decorate a number of its stones. Although quite hard to spot at first, once you see them these man-made hollows in the surface of the rock emerge all over the monument, an intriguing remnant filled with long-forgotten meaning.

The cup marks on one of the stones of La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

The cup marks on one of the stones of La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

The final stretch of my walk took me across more open countryside, past a lake and through a pretty farmyard busy with clucking chickens. Soon I was back at the main stone circle of Montneuf, with its crowds of tourists, cropped lawns and carefully tended paths. The magic I had found up on the moors and deep in the forest was gone, but the memory of it will surely stay with me for a long time to come.

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Little Compton Street, London

Posted in History, London with tags , , , , on July 6, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Under a traffic island in on a busy road next to London’s Soho district is perhaps not the most obvious place to look for magic. But strange things can be found in the most unexpected places.

A traffic island on London's Charing Cross Road

A traffic island on London’s Charing Cross Road

Back in Victorian times, Little Compton Street was a bustling lane which joined Old and New Compton Streets. In 1896, however, the area was largely demolished to make way for Charing Cross Road, and the street level was raised. If you look carefully, however, you can find an intriguing remnant of Old London right beneath your feet. Below the unassuming grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road can be seen a wall still bearing not one, but two street signs for the now-buried Little Compton Street.

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

Not quite a secret street perhaps, but this is still a rather magical remnant of London’s fascinating past, and one which most people pass over without ever even knowing it’s there.

The Alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, History, Standing Stones, Woods with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The huge complex of standing stones at Carnac in Brittany is, quite deservedly, world famous. With row upon row of huge megaliths running for kilometres across the landscape, it is hardly surprising that these stones have fascinated generations of antiquarians and now attract thousands upon thousands of tourists every year. The large numbers of visitors have inevitably had an impact on the fragile environment of Carnac, and as a result the majority of the stones are now kept behind fences, far from the fingers (and feet) of inquisitive day-trippers. So, although they are an amazing sight, the best-known alignments of Carnac can seem rather distant, untouchable, lacking that certain uncanny atmosphere that I love so much.

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

What few of the visitors to Carnac realise is that there is in fact one set of the stones which remains rather overlooked, and still retains a wonderfully air of magic. The stones of the alignements du Petit-Ménec, which sit at north-easterly end of the complex, might be smaller than some of their better-known neighbours, and may be rather hidden in woodland, but the fact that they remain open and unfenced means that visitors can still wander among them and get a real sense of their unique ancient mystery.

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Although they do appear on most of maps of the complex, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are not properly signposted, and lie quite a distance from the other megaliths beyond a busy main road. This is perhaps why they tend to be ignored by most visitors to the Carnac stones. Whatever the reason, I am rather glad that they are overlooked. Hidden in a quiet woodland, far from the crowds and their cars, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are a magic-hunters dream come true!

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

There are plenty of fabulous tales associated with the stones, including the (rather anachronistic) story that they were marching Roman centurions turned to stone by the wizard Merlin. Another legend tells that they are in fact a fleeing army of Pagans literally petrified by Pope Cornelius. All in all there are 101 standing stones in the Petit-Ménec group, with seven rows facing east and a further three facing north-east. Wandering amongst the stones in their peaceful forest, its easy to imagine yourself in some enchanted wood. I didn’t see any fairies, goblins or Korrigans on the day of my visit, but if I had, I am not sure I would have been that surprised. After all, I can’t think of a more suitable place for them than the magical alignements du Petit-Ménec.

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

Posted in History, Legend, Somerset, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If you’ve ever visited the world famous stone circles of Stonehenge or Avebury, you will know how incredibly popular they are with tourists. You will also quickly realise that bustling crowds of visitors are not particularly conducive to an atmosphere of magic at these ancient sites. On a recent visit to Somerset, I discovered the stones of Stanton Drew, which despite lying only a few miles away from those more famous circles, seem rather overlooked. As a result, these marvellous megaliths retain a strangely magical atmosphere.

The Cove, Stanton Drew

The Cove, Stanton Drew

There are in fact three stone circles in the fields around the village of Stanton Drew, as well as a group of three huge stones known as ‘The Cove’ in a pub garden next to the church. Recent geophysical surveys have uncovered evidence that the surviving stones are just part of a huge ritual site which is believed to be between four and five thousand years old. Today, although much of it has disappeared or lies hidden below the earth, Stanton Drew is recognised as the third largest collection of standing stones in England.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

On the day that I visited, the dramatic sky definitely added to the magical character of Stanton Drew. It is impossible to get a sense of the scale of these circles from a photograph, as they stretch across a huge area, disappearing into dips and over a ridge. Some of the stones are huge, massive lumps of licheny rock which cast long, dark shadows. Many have tumbled over and now lie pitted and mossy on the ground.

Dramatic skies over the standing stones of Stanton Drew

Dramatic skies over the standing stones of Stanton Drew

Like many ancient sites, Stanton Drew’s impressive stones have some interesting myths and legends attached to them. For centuries they were attributed to King Arthur, who was supposed to have set up the stones to commemorate a military victory, a story no doubt inspired by similar links made between the nearby village of Camerley and Arthur’s celebrated Camelot. Another myth tells that the circles are the remains of guests at a wedding party who unwisely decided to celebrate with dancing on a Sunday. Their punishment for breaking the sabbath was to be turned to stone, inspiring the site’s local nickname of “the fiddlers and the maids”.

One of the largest megaliths of Stanton Drew, Somerset

One of the largest megaliths of Stanton Drew, Somerset