Archive for the House Category

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.

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Return to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Castle, Caves, Gardens, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by mysearchformagic

It’s been well over a year since I made my first trip to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik, but I have thought a lot about this wild and wonderful place since that visit. Last week I was able to visit again, and explore more of its magical corners.

First on my list of things to see was Knightslaw Tower. Although it may look medieval, the tower was actually built in the middle of the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, an enthusiastic antiquarian with a taste for the ancient. When first constructed the tower could be seen from miles around, and dominated the rest of the Penicuik estate. Since its heyday, however, the tower has fallen into disrepair, and the high trees which have grown up around it hide it from the outside world. The result is a rather melancholy, but definitely quite magical ruin.

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

Next I walked on past the majestic ruins of the huge mansion of Penicuik House, built by Sir John’s son James in the 1760s, and into the valley below. Here I found the river Esk, which babbles its way down from here to nearby Roslin Glen, another of my favourite spots. Once over the river I crossed a field, heading uphill until I reached the Hurley Ponds.

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds are another of Sir John Clerk’s creations, part of his ambitious plans to landscape his park at Penicuik. Once used as fishing ponds, they have now largely returned to nature, spookily quiet apart from the odd quack from the resident flock of ducks.

Sir John was obviously rather partial to a magical experience himself, and evidence of this can be found in his construction of the Hurley Cave, a rock-cut underground passage which leads from the side of the hills closest to the house into this secluded valley. The original entrance to the cave was over a bridge across the Esk, where a cascade waterfall was constructed to add to the sense of drama. Visitors would presumably have been guided through the cave with candles or burning torches, and half way down would have found a carved Latin inscription Tenebrosa occultaque cave, beware dark and hidden things. The other end of the cave emerges from a rusticated stone doorway in the hill, and can still be seen today.

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Unfortunately vandalism and structural problems mean that the Hurley Cave has had to be locked up. Its heavy metal door does, however, have a large gap at the top which allows a glimpse of the dark depths beyond. I couldn’t resist sticking my camera into the gap and taking a picture. It offers an enticing hint of what lies beneath.

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Much work has been done to consolidate and preserve Penicuik House and its estate in recent years, largely thanks to the hard work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust. Apparently both the cave and the tower are on their list of works for the future, but restoring both will be an expensive job, and fundraising is ongoing. In the meantime I was happy to enjoy the overgrown, rather sombre mood of the lost gardens, and imagine the dingy depth of the Hurley Cave. I like to think Sir John would have approved!

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

For details on how you can support the sterling work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust, click here.

The Gardens of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, House, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Following my last post on the slightly faded but rather magical Chastleton House, this time I am going to take a closer look at the intriguing gardens that surround it. As the fine Jacobean house fell into decay during the twentieth century, its extensive grounds also became overgrown and wild, nature sneaking back in after centuries of careful planting and landscaping. Since the National Trust took over the property in the 1990s, they have been carefully tidying up the gardens, making them accessible once again, but still retaining their magical atmosphere.

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The gardens at Chastleton are filled with ancient trees and pretty flowerbeds. A kitchen garden has been re-established, and long-overgrown sections are gradually re-emerging following decades of neglect. Undoubtedly the most striking aspects is the formal topiary garden, a circular area filled with weird and wonderfully shaped bushes. Each bush was once carefully trimmed into a recognisable form, but now they are shadows of their former selves, their original designs hard to decipher.

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

One bush apparently represented a galleon in full sail, another a Greek vase, and yet another a teapot. Time has worn away the edges of the bushes, and now most of them are amorphous lumps giving only the tiniest hints of their past grandeur. Wandering around the topiary garden at Chastleon House, it is hard not to think of the surreal setting of Alice in Wonderland with all of its crazy characters and dreamlike locations.

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

A plan is available which identifies each and every bush in the garden, although guessing which was which is much more fun. It’s amazing how your mind can imagine just about anything once you get going. Just like the interior of the house, the gardens of Chastleton House were on the verge of rack and ruin when they were rescued just over twenty years ago, but while they have been preserved for future generations, their wonderful sense of faded opulence and intriguing mystery has also been retained.

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Exploring Chastleton House and gardens is a wonderful experience, and the property offers a great example of how a place can be conserved and maintained without losing its unique magic. Let’s hope this approach is taken elsewhere, and more of that magic, hidden in quiet, dusty rooms and shadowy, overgrown corners, can be retained and enjoyed for years to come.

The Magical Corners of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, History, House, Oxfordshire with tags , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by mysearchformagic

My recent trip to the Cotswold’s included a return visit to one of my favourite country houses, Chastleton House in Oxfordshire. Built between 1607 and 1612, Chastleton House remained in the same family until it was handed over to the National Trust in 1991. The fact that the family’s initial wealth quickly evaporated meant that little was done to the house, and the interior remained largely unaltered as it sank into a state of faded grandeur over a period of four centuries.

The faded grandeur of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The faded grandeur of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Realising what a rare opportunity Chastleton House presented, the National Trust decided not to restore it, but rather to conserve it just as it was. As a result, that faded grandeur has been preserved, and a unique atmosphere survives. Instead of the usual glitz and glamour you may associate with a stately home, Chastleton’s historic rooms have cracked ceilings, tatty furniture and creaky floorboards. Here and there are wonderful little corners, where the most mundane objects suddenly taken on an aura of magic.

A magical corner of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

A magical corner of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

There’s no teashop here, although you can buy home-made refreshments in the church next door, and no gift shop to speak of. Although I often have mixed feelings about the work of the National Trust and their apparently incessant drive to increase visitor numbers, in this case they have got it spot on. Only a limited number of people are allowed into Chastleton at any one time, so it is still possible to find yourself alone in this wonderful house, even if it is just for a moment. And it is in these rare moments that magic can happen.

A quiet, magical moment in Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

A quiet, magical moment in Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

There’s endless fun to be had poking about the nooks and crannies of Chastleton House, peering down the long, draughty corridors and into murky anterooms. It’s not many places that can truly be described as a time capsule, but Chastleton is definitely one of those places. As you wander around its dusty rooms, it is easy to forget the modern world outside, and imagine yourself almost anywhere in time. As you can see below, the gardens are rather wonderful too, but they definitely deserve a post all of their own, so I will save that magical treat for next time…

Looking out into the magical garden of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Looking out into the magical garden of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The Château and Village of Trégranteur, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Church, History, House, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I am off to Brittany again next week, and will be searching for magic of course. Thinking about my trip reminded me of a wonderful place I came upon by chance during my last visit to that part of the world, namely the Château and village of Trégranteur.

The Chateau de Trégranteur, Brittany

The Château de Trégranteur, Brittany

I was on a long, rather boring drive when I spotted an old rusty signpost for the chateau pointing down a narrow side road. On the spur of the moment, hoping to break up the journey, I decided to check it out. The grand 18th century château wasn’t actually open to the public, but could be viewed from the nearby road. In fact, with its closed shutters and firmly locked gates, it looked all but deserted. The village next to it was empty too, a bit of a ghost town, but all wonderfully magical. Next to the church stands the rare Colonne de Justice (Column of Justice) dating from the 17th Century, where every Sunday a local official would read out the latest orders and judgements.

The Column of Justice, Trégranteur

The Column of Justice, Trégranteur

As I wandered round the village, with its pretty old houses, many of them now empty and derelict, I also spotted a couple of interesting medieval religious carvings, both worn and covered in colourful mosses and lichens. I didn’t see another soul during the whole time I was there, apart from a couple of noisy, but thankfully friendly, dogs.

A medieval carving in the village of Trégranteur, Brittany

A medieval carving in the village of Trégranteur, Brittany

I’ll be reporting back from my Breton adventures soon!

A lichen-covered carving in Trégranteur, Brittany

A lichen-covered carving in Trégranteur, Brittany

The Spink, Charleston Farmhouse

Posted in Art, Gardens, History, House, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Following my climb up Windover Hill, I made the short journey west to Charleston Farmhouse. This beautiful place was once home to artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and played host to their circle of bohemian friends, now better known as the Bloomsbury Group.

The interior of the house, with its murals, painted furniture and fascinating collection of art and objects, is definitely magical. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside, so I wasn’t able to capture that magic for this blog.

The house and garden at Charleston Farm

The house and garden at Charleston Farm

However, the perfect English cottage gardens more than made up for that loss. A riot of colourful and perfume, the gardens of Charleston Farmhouse are an oasis of peace and quiet. It was while wandering through those gardens that I came across a small orchard. Hiding in the shadows of the surrounding trees, I found a strange, rather magical sculpture.

The Spink in the garden of Charleston Farmhouse

The Spink in the garden of Charleston Farmhouse

Further research has revealed that this sphinx-like beast, which is carved out of a large stack of bricks, was created by Vanessa’s son Clive Bell in 1931 and is known as the Spink. Just like the mythical beast that it is named after, the Charleson spink is a bit of an enigma, loitering silently in a quiet corner of the garden.

What is it thinking? Your guess is as good as mine…

The Château de Trécesson, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Ghosts, History, House, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve just got back from another trip to France, and just like the last time I have been tracking down more of Brittany’s magical castles. During this visit I made the journey to the picturesque château of Trécesson, which lies in a quiet, wooded valley not far from the town of Campénéac on the borders of the forest of Paimpont, a region steeped in myth and legend.

The château of Trécesson

The château of Trécesson

Much of the present-day castle seems to date from the 15th century, although it is assumed that there has been a fortress on this site for much longer. Its impressive towers and strong walls of the emerge from the depths of a wide, dark moat, and past the elaborate turreted gatehouse a small chapel sits next to a pretty 18th century wing.

The turretted gatehouse of the château of Trécesson

The turretted gatehouse of the château of Trécesson

Not surprisingly given its location near Paimpont, Trécesson has its own collection of supernatural legends. One concerns a ‘white lady’, the ghost of an unfortunate past resident who was bricked up into the walls of the castle by her own brothers for daring to marry the wrong man. A ‘headless curate’ haunts the corridors, and phantom card-players have also been seen in one of its bed-chambers, apparently indifferent to the terror that their appearance induces in hapless guests.

The overgrown avenue leading to the château of Trécesson

The overgrown avenue leading to the château of Trécesson

Despite these creepy stories, the castle seemed like a calm and quiet place on the day that I visited. A grand avenue of trees, now long-neglected and overgrown, leads up to the front gate. Most of the year the castle is closed to visitors, with only the exterior visible from the nearby road. However, the courtyard and chapel of this still privately-owned château are apparently open to visitors during the summer months, so you can be sure I will be back there soon in search of some more Trécesson magic…