Trip to the Vyne – a National Trust property

It was the last day of our week off and we had been working through my list of places to visit. We decided to go to the Vyne, a former Tudor country house and grade I listed building owned by the National Trust in Hampshire.

It was a good day for it – the weather stayed dry for our entire visit, which I was particularly happy about because the Vyne is situated in spacious grounds with gardens and woodland, and you can do a number of walks.

We began by taking a look around the grounds . We even ventured into the children’s play area because there were some carved wooden creatures and insects that S wanted to show me. They were really cool, but I had to handle with care because of the bird poo! Still, I thought it was a nice feature to have in the play area, and blind people rely on tactile representations to know what small creatures and insects look like,. You can’t really touch a butterfly without hurting it.

As we arrived around lunchtime, we decided to have lunch before venturing into the house and doing our walk. The café area was quite full, so we decided to go outside and munch our sausage rolls on the picnic tables there!

We don’t have a National Trust card at the moment, but if you are likely to go back multiple times or visit other National Trust properties, it will save you money in the long-term. Disabled people can take someone with them for free. I hate the word carer and wish we could be like the more progressive countries who call them assistants or companions, rather than this archaic term, but the free ticket is definitely helpful. I would struggle to enjoy a trip to a property like this without an assistant to read information and help me get around. (This is a general comment about the term that is used everywhere, and not directed specifically at the National Trust)

If you don’t have a card, the price of your ticket depends on whether you want to go round the house as well. We did, so that was our next stop.

Your ticket for the house has a 30-minute window, during which you need to enter the house. However there is no restriction in terms of how long you can spend in there.

The house tours are self-guided, but there are plenty of volunteers around in the various rooms who are happy to give you further information or ask questions. We mainly read the information from the displays, which gave you an insight into what it was like living in the house, and the work that went into the recent restoration project. There was also an insect trail for children, which told you about the different insects that liked to munch on the wood or other items that the trust wants to preserve.

The house was built by William Sandys, who later became Henry VIII’s chamberlain, and throughout its lifetime, it had famous visitors such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1535, Elizabeth I, and Jane Austen. Later it became a safe place for World War II evacuees.

The Vyne used to be much larger – it’s still big now, but the building is about 1/3 of its original size. I can’t imagine how much it must have taken to heat it in winter or to keep it clean!

The Vyne remained the property of the Sandys family until it was sold in the 17th century to Chaloner Chute, a barrister and speaker of the House of Commons, whose family owned it until the 20th century. They were responsible for downsizing it, but also for improving the access routes – something that had been complained about in historical documents. The Vyne was given to the National Trust in 1956.

On entering the house, there was a tactile model, which made it much easier for me to imagine the shape of the building and how the building as a whole looks.

Apart from this, as blind people go, I’m not particularly tactile when going around exhibitions. If there is a cool tactile thing, such as the statue of a horse that S found, I will touch it. But I can’t say how much can be touched otherwise, because we didn’t really ask about that and I don’t randomly touch walls and things as we’re going round!

I think the biggest surprise for me was the lay-out of the house and the way that a lot of the rooms were connected by doors, rather than all coming off a main hallway. The main bedroom had a couple of doors into it, which I’d find really disconcerting!

If you want to see how you would have looked in Victorian costumes, there are a number of items of clothing to try on. Not sure I like the image of me in a maid’s bonnet, but there was a dress that I rather liked!

It was clear from the information about the roof restoration project just how much work and how many people had been involved – sometimes taking parts of the roof apart, brick by brick, labelling the bricks so that they could be put back in exactly the right place, and then putting everything back together once the restoration work was finished. The house was fully reopened in 2018 – some parts could not be accessed during the restoration project because of the ongoing work. The project cost 5.4 million pounds.

Conservationists were also involved in a book cataloguing project, logging and restoring books from the 2500 book collection from the old library. The books can only be stored in rooms whose floors will support the substantial weight!

We didn’t buy any, but if you’re interested in second-hand books, there’s a second-hand book shop in the house, as well as the main shop on site for souvenirs or local products.

Even though there were a fair few people walking around the house, once we’d finished our tour and gone into the woods, we hardly saw anyone. Actually I think this was my favourite part, just walking around and enjoying the nature. There were a number of designated trails, depending on how long you wanted your walk to be, and there is information about the trees so that you can do bark rubbings. I didn’t, but perhaps this is something we can go back and do later.

We didn’t see any deer, but apparently they live in the woods. There were plenty of birds though, and ducks on the river. There is a clearly defined path and it was really peaceful walking around through the trees. There are also social projects, which empower people by providing them with new skills, whilst at the same time helping with the conservation work outside.

Have you been to the Vyne? Do you have a favourite National Trust property? Let me know in the comments!

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The siege of Basing House

On Easter Sunday I found myself sipping a glass of wine in a pub garden. Nothing unusual there, apart from the fact that as I sat there, waiting for our Sunday lunch to arrive, the chatter around me was of muskets, battle strategies, gunpowder, and the King.

We were having lunch at the same pub as a group of mainly cavaliers, ready to defend Basing House in a re-enactment of a battle during the Civil War.

The history

Basing House was built in Hampshire by the Paulet family, and it was a popular place for royalty to visit. Queen Mary spent her honeymoon there in 1554, and Queen Elizabeth stayed there on four occasions. You might think this is an honour for those loyal to the crown, and in many ways it was, but it was also incredibly expensive. Just imagine your guests could bring up to 2000 people in their entourage, and you’re responsible for feeding them all! It’s even rumoured that part of the house was pulled down to make it less attractive to royal visitors.

In terms of the Civil War, Basing House was under siege between 1642 and 1645. Eventually it fell to Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads, but the people of Basing House didn’t give up easily. By 1644 they had already survived one attack by Parliament’s forces, in which even the women got involved – lobbing rocks and slate tiles down on the men below. After several attempts, Cromwell’s forces gave up, partly due to the snow, and partly due to the news that 5000 troops were coming to assist those in Basing House.

That wasn’t the end of the story though and in March of 1644, the Royalist army took refuge with their allies at Basing House, following a battle that they had just lost nearby. That meant more mouths to feed, and more strain on the supplies, some of which had been intentionally destroyed in the last siege to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Better to have less supplies than to watch your enemies feasting upon them, as was the case in 1643.

In July 1644, following a fight in nearby Odiham, which resulted in many of the Basing House foot soldiers being captured, Parliament forces surrounded Basing House, bombarding it from all sides and preventing fresh supplies getting in. Things were beginning to become desperate. However strong your walls are and however well you can protect them, if your enemy prevents new supplies from getting in, you’re going to starve. Food was running very low and they had only enough left for just over a week.

The Marquess of Winchester, who owned Basing House, sent requests for assistance, but it was felt that the 40-mile round trip from Oxford would be too dangerous and that two many troops would be lost in skirmishes along the way. It was in fact the Marquess’s wife with her powerful connections that eventually got people to listen and send some aid for those under siege.

It wasn’t just a case of winning by brute force either – tactics had to be employed such as wearing the enemy’s colours, skulking through the darkness, and those from inside the walls scaring off the attackers temporarily so that allies, and later supplies (including food and 12 barrels of gunpowder), could enter.

Finally the house did fall to Cromwell’s forces, but not before it had successfully defended itself several times.

What happened on Sunday

After our lunch, we went to buy our tickets and wait in a cordoned off area for the actors to arrive. The re-enactment was performed by the Sealed Knot, which travels around the country bringing history back to life.

Soon the King’s troops arrived and stood in formation, waiting for the Parliamentarians to come down from where they had been camped the night before – or perhaps from another pub! It was a hot day after all!

After a skirmish with pikemen and musketeers on both sides, we followed them all to a field where the front of the fortress had been set up, along with cannons and reinforcements.

There was also someone with a microphone who was trying to explain what was going on. As someone who couldn’t see the action, this was particularly useful – both to understand what they were doing, but also because he was telling us facts from history, and explaining the reasons behind the decisions that each army made. Really his microphone could have done with being louder, but I caught most of it, despite the battle cries, musket fire, and roaring of cannons!

The drums were also ever-present. I believe this was standard practice anyway, but back in the real second siege, it had been foggy, so once the reinforcements had stopped being stealthy, the drums were probably also useful when visibility was poor.

S filled in the gaps by describing what was going on, and tried to warn me when the cannon was about to go off! With so much going on, it must have been so hard to make sure that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, especially when each line of musketeers was supposed to be firing together. They were close enough to hurl insults at one another, but fortunately there weren’t any women hurling roof tiles this time!!

The cannon kept going all the way through. What must it have been like to know that the walls protecting you were under constant bombardment from something like that.

The Royalist army were certainly happy when the reinforcements turned up to help them out and mean that they could hold on to Basing House for one more year.

It was loud, and it was obvious that they were fighting, but you didn’t see bodies all over the floor. I got the impression it was a balance between conveying history, whilst still being an event that families could attend, without the grim reality of war. There were people of all ages there, and even a few dogs!

I went more for the history than the battle reenactment, and it somehow feels more real when you’re standing near the place where these things actually happened. I remember studying this period of history in primary school. In those days, I couldn’t understand how a country could become so divided. Now I don’t find it so hard to believe.

Have you been to anything like this? Let me know in the comments.

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Anne Frank’s house

I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was about 13 years old. I was old enough to understand the seriousness of the story, but it was only when, around 20 years later, I stood in the rooms where Anne and her family, plus four other people, had gone into hiding during the Second World War, that I began to get a glimpse of how cramped and terrifying life must have been for them.

If you want to go to Anne Frank’s house during a visit to Amsterdam, you really have to book in advance because the tickets sell out very quickly.

My partner and I went there in May. There are audio devices that you can borrow, which are activated when you are in the correct area. This meant that my boyfriend had to take me to the activation points, but I didn’t need to do anything to the device to make it work. The explanations and diary extracts were available in a number of languages. There is also information to read and there are some artifacts to look at in the various rooms.

It’s a self-guided tour and you are let in in groups so that the building doesn’t become too full. My partner guided me around. It’s fine for a relatively fit blind person, but anyone with restricted mobility may find the steep steps difficult. Throughout the tour, there is information about the life of the Frank family before, during and after their time in hiding, and part of the story is told through extracts from Anne’s diary, which range from descriptions of everyday happenings, to her deepest thoughts, hopes and fears.

Anne Frank was born in Germany, where she lived with her parents and older sister Margot until 1933, when the family moved to the Netherlands, following concerns about Hitler’s rise to power. They felt safe there for a short time, but the sense of freedom was short-lived because Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and life became increasingly difficult for Jewish people there too.

One of the things that struck me was that the family didn’t suddenly find themselves in a situation where they needed a place to hide. Things were getting progressively worse. Anne listed a number of things in one of her earlier diary entries such as Jewish people weren’t allowed to ride the tram, use swimming pools, be outside after a certain time, visit the houses of non-Jewish people etc. So it was a creeping misery. Maybe, in the beginning, some people thought it would never end in a situation where people were fleeing for their lives or looking for somewhere to hide. But it did. If you don’t stand up to bullies, unfairness, or smaller injustices, they gain power and momentum until people really are powerless to stop them. I think there’s a lesson in there for us, too.

When Anne’s older sister Margot was called up to be sent to a German labour camp, Otto Frank, Anne’s dad, and the only survivor of the eight people who went into hiding together, decided to take his family into hiding with the help of his employees.

I am someone who needs time alone. Not time away from my partner, but time away from lots of people in general. If I don’t get it, I can become grumpy. And yet day after day, these 8 people were in that small series of rooms, with nowhere to go. No opportunities to go outside for a walk. Nowhere to get away.

Not only that, but they had to entrust their survival to complete strangers. I don’t just mean the people who were keeping them alive by bringing provisions, but they had to trust each other. No flushing the toilet during the daytime. No loud noises. NO accidentally letting a door slam shut. No dropping things on the floor. What about in the summertime if people got hay fever? No sneezing! Doing any of these things could have resulted in them all being found and captured. Trusting family members and complete strangers with your life like that must have been really hard on the nerves.

The family of four, plus four other people, hid in this small series of rooms behind a slidable bookcase for two years, until they were discovered on 4th August 1944. It is not known how they were discovered or if someone betrayed them. They were first deported to a transit camp and then sent on to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Anne later died of typhus in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

Anne wanted her diary to be published after the war, and in 1947, her father made sure that this wish came true. Now it has been translated into more than 60 languages and has been read by children and adults all over the world.

As we came out, we were immediately back in the world of parties and happy people having fun. The loud hustle and bustle of a city full of people enjoying themselves. Such a stark contrast to the place that we had just left behind. It made me want to go out and enjoy life because life is so precious, whilst at the same time not forgetting what we had just witnessed. How persecution of people based on race or religious belief can lead to such misery and cruel loss of life.

Have you read the diary of Anne Frank?

Amsterdam

Have you been to Amsterdam? What did you do there?

Click on the link if you want to find out about the cheese tasting event that we attended in Amsterdam on a previous visit.

I didn’t check out this link because it’s a visual presentation, but apparently you can look inside the Anne Frank house on this page

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Jane Austen’s house

Jane Austen’s house

During my week off, we went to Chawton in Hampshire, to have a walk and visit Jane Austen’s house. The house is open to the public as a museum, and you can walk around the house, seeing where Jane lived and wrote her books. There is also a learning centre, where you can watch a short video about Jane Austen’s life and books. The video shows you around the house, but anyone who only listens to the video can still understand what is going on.

Outside there is a garden, where you can learn about the herbs that a family living at this time would have used.

Inside the house, all but one of the rooms are open to the public, and there is a selection of 41 objects, which help visitors to understand more about what life was like in a village home over 200 years ago. The objects include Jane’s writing table, (a very low desk – I can’t imagine that she was very tall!), and a bookcase that belonged to her father, George Austen. You may not be able to see all of the objects at once as they are being rotated throughout the year. 2017 is the 200th anniversary of Janes death in 1817. She died aged only 41 years due to an illness.

Downstairs you can see where Jane worked and wrote her manuscripts, and upstairs you can go into the bedrooms, including the one that Jane shared with her sister Cassandra. There are no audio guides, so my partner read the information as we walked around the house.

Following her father’s death, Jane, her sister and mother needed to find somewhere to live. Her brother Edward made the house in Chawton available to them, and this is where Jane spent the last eight years of her life, revising the three manuscripts she had written previously, writing three more novels, and starting one which was never finished due to her health problems.

In many ways, she had a lot of freedom to write and pursue her own interests there, as her sister Cassandra took over much of the work of running the house. The house was shared by Jane, Cassandra, their mother, and a female friend, who was a close friend of the family. They were frequently visited by other family members. Jane had six brothers, one of whom was instrumental in getting Jane’s books published.

Examples of Jane’s work include Pride and Prejudice, (the only one of the books that I have read so far, and one which I would definitely recommend!), Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and and Mansfield Park. Don’t forget that you can also get a free book by signing up for Audible using the link on my audio book page.

I did enjoy the Pride and prejudice film, particularly as it stayed close to the plot of the book and true to the clever and witty dialogues, but I’m generally a “the book was better” kind of girl! I was far less impressed by the recent Pride and Prejudice with zombies film, but then I do usually find anything to do with zombies rather pointless!

Although it’s not thought that characters in the books were based on specific people, the depth to the characters leads me to believe that she drew on her experiences of people around her. It’s believed that some of the close relationships between sisters, such as the one between Jane and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, was based on Jane’s own close relationship with her sister Cassandra. I think everyone has come across someone as irritating as Mrs Bennet, and a long-suffering, strong man of few words like her husband!

After Jane’s death, Jane’s mother and sister lived in the house until they died. After this, it was used for workers on the estate until it was sold in 1947, when the museum was established.

After our walk around the house and garden, we bought some lemon gingerbread from the gift shop, and headed to the nearby café, Cassandra’s, for a late lunch.

If you’re interested in Jane Austen, or you have a more general interest in life in the past, I’d recommend that you visit this house and museum.

You can find more information on the Jane Austen’s house website. This post contains affiliate links.

Listen to the podcast episode

I’ve also produced a podcast episode about Jane Austen’s house. You can look for Unseen Beauty on Apple podcasts (previously known as iTunes), or wherever you get your podcasts. Alternatively, you can listen to it here:

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