Yesterday we visited the National Trust property of Knighthayes in Devon, and although we have visited many times before, this was the first time we managed to catch magnolias in their glory. There are several magnolia trees in our village, smallish, between five and fifteen foot high, maybe some a little bigger, and I love their glorious display, the soft, velvety flowers, the pure colours, which are so striking against the leafless dark wood of the tree.

The magnolias at Knighthayes were extraordinary; as well as the smaller varieties we knew there were huge, wonderful trees with enormous plate-sized flowers, petals bigger than my hand and of fabulous colour. The day wasn’t brilliant, the weather wasn’t perfect, but the blossoms were.

Most of the trees we see now are hybrids, but these ancient trees have been on this plant for millions upon millions of years, before there were even bees – originally they were pollinated by beetles, which accounts for their massive and distinctive flowers. Fossilised magnolias have been found which are older than twenty million years, and related plants are even older, going back to nearly one hundred million years ago!

I’ve learned a new phrase,  ‘disjunct distribution’, which means  a distribution ”that has two or more groups that are related but widely separated from each other geographically’ so magnolias can be found naturally mainly in east and southeast Asia, but also in eastern North America, Central America, the West Indies, and  South America.

Their name was first given to them in 1703, in Martinique, where Charles Plumier named the trees he found after the famous botanist Pierre Magnol. as with most natural things, the tree has other uses than being spectacularly attractive, Chinese and Japanese medicine, as timber, the leaves as food wrapping, and the flowers are state symbols for Mississippi and Louisiana, and the national flower of North Korea.

As you might imagine there are many artistic connections, the films ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Steel magnolias’, and songs by The Grateful Dead and JJ Cale. However, perhaps the most famous, moving and tragic song which mentions magnolias is Billie Holidays ‘Strange Fruit’ which mentions the scent of magnolias – the trees from which many lynchings took place…

Off to Knightshayes

The weather isn’t splendid but that doesn’t deter us, we are off to the National Trust property, Knightshayes. This magnificent building, and all its lovely grounds was originally owned by the Heathcoat-Amery family.

John Heathcoat was born in Derbyshire  in 1783, and his family were farmers; however, he was one of the many scientists and inventors of the time he changed the world through an industrial not social revolution; he designed and patented a machine to produce lace, which had previously been made by individuals on pillows and cushions with pins and patterns, slow intricate work, often done as piece work in the lacemakers’ own homes. His ‘manufactury’ – or factory which was near Loughborough became a victim of a different revolution, the Luddite revolts and was burned down  in 1816. Undeterred, he  moved his basis and many of his of his workers, to Tiverton in Devon, and that is where we are going today. He established a new lace-works which brought employment to many of the local people too; by the last decades of the nineteenth century, his was the largest lace-producer in the world.

Being by now a very wealthy family, owning not only the factories, but also much of the land in the area, a descendent of the original John Amory, now Sir John Heathcoat-Amory, had built a beautiful and fabulous home overlooking his factory in the distance, and nestled in the Exe valley.

We have been many times before, but are looking forward to revisiting, meeting friends, and wandering round the house, and the gardens too if the weather cheers up!

A mythical voyage

My recent writings, the challenge towrite 50,00 words, led me to some curious places… I looked at the voyages of St Brendan the navigator, and Nicholas of Lynn

St. Brendan is known far more widely, beyond Ireland, because of his voyage from Europe across the Atlantic; many believe he actually reached North America, although there’s not much actual proof other than ‘belief’. Known as St Brendan the Navigator, or Saint Brendan of Clonfert he was born in 484 near Tralee in County Kerry; he was the son of Finnlug and Cara according to tradition and legend, but who can really say after sixteen hundred years.!  He may have died in about 577 at the  age of ninety-four – fantastic for those times – in County Galway.

He was born in tribal Ireland, untouched by the Romans except maybe for the very easternmost sea-boards, and probably belonged to the Altraige tribe. Saint Patrick had arrive in Ireland some fifty years before, taken as a slave from the hills of Somerset, possible even our village of Uphill, and he and his followers had converted many Irish people by then.

Brendan is most famously  known for his travels; even if none of the legends and stories is true, what is certain is that he did make a voyage, a remarkable voyage and may well have been one of the first Europeans to set foot on land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It has been difficult enough to find evidence of the Vikings who we now know did get to mainland North America, but to find the slight traces and provable evidence for some Irish monks making landfall fifteen hundred years ago is impossible.

The reason for his voyage, his mission, was to find the Garden of Eden, or the Isle of the Blessed, (Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum) and  the Promised Land of the Saints. His story was written three hundred years later in the ninth century, but there are many different versions; over one hundred manuscripts across Europe exist plus many translations and interpretations. His story may have  been sensationalised to make it more interesting or exciting.

The explorers – because really that is what they were, driven by the same interests, desires and ambitions as any other explorer, Columbus, Drake, Cook, Ranulph Fiennes…  – must have seen many amazing things, whatever the fabrication, fantasy and fiction of the accounts. They would have navigated by the stars, and as experienced seamen  they may have been able to ‘read’ the sea and the wind, and know their position roughly from where the sun was. They wouldn’t necessarily have known where they were, but they would be able to back track home – even if they were blown off course.

We are so ignorant in comparison, so easily lost in so many ways!

Finding something else

Sometimes a search for something can be in vain… and it can be something quite ordinary, a particular foodstuff you’ve read about, a book in a bookshop or an album in a music store – or even a bookshop and a music store in some places! You can be looking for a particular song you half remember, a half-forgotten poem, or a place you haven’t quite got the right directions to. Sometimes those searches can be in vain for what you’re looking for but sometimes you find something else instead, something completely different from what you expected!

We had that happen yesterday when we went off to a nearby village, Bleadon, to try and find the grave of Edin Clegg, a character I have become fascinated by; he was a man from Looe in Cornwall, possibly a Quaker, but just an ordinary man a grocer in the family business. During World war 1 he was a conscientious objector who got himself into difficulties by circulating an unwise text comparing the ordinary soldiers of Germany, the hated enemy to the ordinary young British men sent out to their deaths. Whether it was for this reason, or some other he left Looe and ended up in Bleadon, where died nearly forty years later, saving a young man from drowning.

We didn’t find Edwin but we did find a delightful little church, with some very interesting features in a beautiful simplicity. it seems there has been a church here since Saxon times, although there are few actually remains from that early period; apparently the dedication to two saints, Peter and Paul is an indication that there might have been a Saxon church here. In our own little village of Uphill, less than a mile away the old church of St Nicholas, built on Uphill hill, is supposed to be on the site of an earlier Saxon building – although, as yet, no trace has been found.


We didn’t find Edwin, but we will go back and look for him again, but we had a very pleasant tour and did find some interesting things!


A Saxon angel

Read about the church here:


Red cliff

I’m continuing my National Novel Writing Month challenge of trying to write 50,000 in November… I thought I wasn’t going to make it, now I’m nearly there! I’ve been looking at the river which enters the sea in our little village, the River Axe, and found there was once a quite important little sea port way inland on the way to Cheddar. The Axe was tidal up to Rackely, now it just bubbles its little way along past the highest peak in the Mendips…


From earliest times of organised transportation, there was a wharf of what must have been then an important if small river port of Rackley, Reckley or even Ripley ; it was situated below Crook Peak, which is only real peak of the Mendips; this limestone outcrop’s ancient  name derives from old English cruc, meaning peak, yet another tautological topographical name, Peak’s Peak.

The name Rackley apparently derives from the fact that the clay banks round here are red marl, a type of red clay most used for making pots; in fact the bank by the village was called ‘the Red Marl’, which can be seen nearby. This bank maybe the Red Cliff  which apparently (although it might just be writers guesswork and false deduction) gave its name to the village and that Radeclive comes from ‘red cliff’; maybe, another maybe the little place was Portus de Radeclive, a name which appears in documents more than seven centuries old. Portus may on the other hand just be ad description and not part of the name at all.

From here the Romans shipped leaden ingots from the mines and smelting works of Charterhouse and Priddy down to another wharf at Uphill. Uphill’s name comes from saxon times, what it might have been before then is unknown. The cargoes would have been shipped down the coast, across to the Roman ports in south Wales, or maybe even to Europe.  Later cloth and corn were also exports, particularly to Portugal.

There is nothing to see now of the old Rackley wharf, which dated back to about 1200, any original buildings have been subsumed into the farm and its outbuildings. This maybe what is now Rackley House all that remains of the port

Charming Seaford

A couple of days ago we visited the small Sussex town of Seaford; in its past the little town was more significant than now, in fact one of the Cinque Ports ( along with Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe) However, what brought prosperity and influence to the town, the sea, also destroyed that same prosperity and influence, and now it is a small and utterly charming little seaside resort.

It is a fascinating place, I really felt I could live there and feel very at home; full of history, full of interesting buildings, shops, places and people, a lovely beach, the sea facing across the channel to France, and lots of other interesting places within reach!

With this part of the coast being so close to France, travel across the twenty odd miles to the continent must have happened ever since there was a sea between ‘us’ and ‘them’; this was good for travel and trade, but bad for war and raids. In those early times, and right through the thousands of years to the relatively near past, the River Ouse entered the channel here; however, silting and shingle gradually made it more difficult to operate out of the little place, and following a major inundation, there were works to divert the river which now comes into the channel at the bigger port of Newhaven.


St Leonard’s church, dating from the eleventh/twelfth century

There is an Iron Age fort, or its site, overlooking the town, and the Romans established themselves here.  people must have lived here since those early times, but the first written comments on the place were by the Anglo-Saxons, when it was called Sefordt, and then Super-Fluvium- Saforda. Between then and now, as you might imagine, even for a small place, it is bulging with history, of smuggling, pirates, raids by the French, rotten boroughs, crooked elections, ordinary people trying to make a living for themselves and their families, trade, industry, war, wrecking… and now it is just an ordinary little town.

We only spent a few hours there, but I look forward to visiting again!