Friday, 17 November 2017

Losing an Empire - Take 1

Another straightforward history blog this week. It's about Napoleon, as posts about l'Empereur seem particularly popular.

We all know that Napoleon finally lost his empire at Waterloo. What people often forget was that this was the second time he had lost it.

Napoleon was initially defeated in 1814. His series of brilliant military victories were followed by some dramatic defeats – notably the failure of his Russian campaign.

For the attack on Moscow, Napoleon gathered his forces into a spectacular Grand Army of 680,000 men. Although the force was hampered by the condition of the roads as the Russian winter approached, Napoleon successfully reached Moscow and occupied the city. The conventional wisdom of warfare at the time was that once your capital was lost you admitted defeat and sued for peace. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Czar Alexander was unsporting enough not to surrender, so Napoleon found himself stuck in Moscow with no obvious way forward. The situation would have been bad enough in any case, but much of Moscow was destroyed by fire – either as a result of carelessness by the French or deliberate arson by the Russians. Napoleon was now stuck there with winter setting in and no obvious way forward. After a month, he moved his forces out of the city and attempted to engage the Russians, but the Czar's army avoided a pitched battle.  

Supplies were running short and his army was no longer in any position to continue an offensive campaign. Napoleon decided to retreat.

Painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov

The retreat from Moscow has become the stuff of legend. The French army had a policy of living off the land, foraging for food in the countryside that it was moving through. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying food stores in all the areas that the French would have to move through. Unable to find food, struggling with roads that had turned to mud under the weight of the traffic, trapped in the Russian winter without proper winter clothing and constantly harried by Russian troops who refused to form up for battle but who raided the column mercilessly, Napoleon’s Grand Army was reduced, according to some estimates, to just 22,000 men.

The losses suffered by the Grand Army were never to be made good – there simply weren't enough men of fighting age available to replenish their ranks.

Napoleon now faced the wrath of the Russians, the Prussians and the Austrians. What is often forgotten is that, by moving against Russia, Napoleon committed the classic error of European strategists and found himself fighting a two front war. When we talk about Wellington's Peninsular campaign we usually think of it as being confined to fighting in southern and central Spain and Portugal. Napoleon had had significant successes in Spain but once he left the country and concentrated his efforts on Central and Eastern Europe, the French armies there were noticeably less successful. By 1814 Wellington had driven them north and actually crossed the Pyrenees into France itself. He prepared to march on Paris, but was too late. The combined Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies had already got there.

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray


With the fall of Paris, the French government (unlike Czar Alexander after the fall of Moscow) surrendered to the Allied powers. Napoleon, whose armies were south of the city, wanted to advance northward and try to recapture it, but the government no longer supported him and his marshals refused to carry out his plans. On 11 April 1814, Napoleon signed his abdication as Emperor and he then headed south to Fréjus (near Cannes) where he boarded the British ship HMS Undaunted, which was to carry him into exile on Elba.

A word from our sponsors


The Napoleonic wars provide the background to my series of books about James Burke. Napoleon's exile to Elba was, as we all know now, was not to mark the end of his influence in France. Even while he was exiled, Bonapartists were plotting his return and their attempts to assassinate Wellington is the starting point for Burke at Waterloo.

After being unavailable in the UK since summer, all three books about James Burke are being republished by Endeavour in January and February next year. I'm hoping that they will be available to pre-order in December and I will certainly be writing more about that over the next few weeks.

Burke served in the peninsula too. My book about his activities there has already been written, but publication depends on sales of the first three. In the past I haven't been able to work myself up into the paroxysms of anger that many authors show over book piracy, though I know that there are people who have stolen my books. Sadly, nowadays piracy is getting so bad that it is affecting people's ability to publish. If you enjoy the Burke books, please buy them. If you don't pay for them my publishers won't commission any more, which would be a shame as I've enjoyed writing them and I know many people have enjoyed reading them.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exciting news!

I've changed the header on the blog. The new one is not a thing of beauty, but it's there temporarily to let everyone know that the James Burke books are about to be republished by Endeavour Press. There will be new covers then and a new header here.

The last few months have been very frustrating for me because my books have been unavailable outside North America since I left Accent Press. When I left Accent the idea was to be published by Endeavour Press, but I didn't realise how long it would take for my books to become available again. Actually, it was only a few months, but when you have had six books published and suddenly nobody can buy any of them it leaves you feeling a bit bereft. I'm therefore really excited and delighted to say that I have a re-publication dates for all my books.

The first to come will be the three existing books about James Burke and publication dates will be:

JAN 5: Burke in the Land of Silver
JAN 19: Burke and the Bedouin
FEB 2: Burke at Waterloo


All three books should be available to pre-order a month before publication. They will be published as Kindle e-books, which are available exclusively through Amazon. They will also be published in paperback, although they may not be available immediately the e-books are out. You can order paperbacks through your local bookshop, but you are much better off just going to Amazon.
The John Williamson books are also being republished by Endeavour and will be coming out in February/March.
I will be saying a lot more in the next few weeks about James Burke and why you should be reading the books, but for now I just wanted to let you know that we have a definite publication date. Readers in the United States and Canada have been able to buy my books all year through Simon & Schuster, but it has been frustrating not to be able to sell my boys to UK readers since I moved publisher in the summer. Everybody has told me that Endeavour are brilliant publishers and I am hoping that James Burke will be able to get to a much larger audience from January 2018.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Armour then and now

My research efforts have taken me down the sewers of Paris, onto the battlefield at Edgehill, and even through the snows of the Andes on horseback. Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier than that. My son has, for the past nine years, served as an officer in the Royal Logistic Corps of the British Army. His first-hand experience of trying to stay awake on sentry and how long it takes to dig a trench have filtered into the life of James Burke and his colleagues. These days, however, you are more likely to find him in a lab coat than in the mud as his current work sees him providing technical advice on ammunition and equipment. In between answering questions from the Army and police he occasionally has time to discuss the colour of gunpowder smoke or the explosive power of a 19th century mill (wait for the next Burke book). Here he is to talk about his personal pet subject of military history: body armour.
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Body armour is an often overlooked piece of equipment. It isn’t as sexy as guns so tends not to get much screen time in Hollywood. Besides, in a movie it’s easier to just have your baddies miss than protect your heroes with ceramic plates that would cover up their toned abs. The exception is found in history. When we watch films set in the days of yore you can’t have a shot without a knight in his armour astride a noble steed.


And yet, a little over 200 years later Sharpe and Burke were fighting Napoleon dressed like this:

Renactors from the British 95th Rifles


Cut forward 200 years again and the fashion has swung the other way. Today’s soldiers go to war almost as armoured up as their medieval counterparts.

US solider, Iraq 2008

Why the change? Why the change back? The answer lies largely with one man.

The story of defence technology is a perpetual cycle of better weapons leading to better armour, leading to better weapons. In the 1300s the longbow was the guided missile of its day. The bleeding edge of military technology, her devastating bodkin arrows were cutting down armies in a similar way to the machine guns of the First World War. However, by the 16th century, the longbow was already being phased out in favour of firearms. The thin plate of Richard of York just couldn’t stand up to a bullet and armour was becoming ever thicker, heavier and all encompassing. Pretty soon knights were being lifted onto horses by winches, but the gunpowder and firearms development kept pace. By 1530 arquebuses so large and powerful they resembled portable cannon, complete with support stands, were in use in Spain and Italy. The days of the heavy knight were over.

By the time of the English Civil War, the use of armour was limited. With the demise of individually commissioned knightly armour came the opportunity to dress your armies in uniforms. In England, the Civil War marked the beginning of the idea of uniformed armies. At the start of the war, the infantry on both sides wore their civilian clothing but gradually the idea of issue clothing took hold. The Parliamentarian forces were more likely to wear some sort of uniform, as the Parliamentarians had more financial resources (they controlled London with its economic power) and were thus better positioned to provide clothing to their troops. An early order from Parliament said “that all soldiers should have delivered unto them at their first marching coats, shoes, shirts and caps, in all to the value of seventeen shillings for every man”. The issue of armour, though, was limited. Helmets, backplates and breastplates were issued to pikemen, though often only the front ranks would be armoured, the rest relying on thick leather or cotton clothing to provide them with some sort of protection. Musketeers usually didn't wear armour at all.

Civil War soldiers at Edgehill (Thanks to the Sealed Knot)

As an aside, it's worth noting that the clothing here was "uniform" in the sense that standard clothing was issued. Uniforms were not used to distinguish between opposing armies. People often wore coloured sashes to indicate which side they were on. Given the quality of dye technology at the time, the colours were often not that clear and there were frequent instances of clashes between different units on the same side or, indeed, of people failing to attack the enemy because they were unaware of which side they were on.

Cavalry was a different matter. There was no central supply of uniform to the cavalry by either side. The dress of cavalry troops was left to the commanders and often reflected the personal vanity of the senior officers. (This remained this case with some units even in the Napoleonic Wars.) The King's Lifeguard of Horse became known as "The Troop of Show” because of the fineness of their uniform. Most cavalrymen wore leather coats known as "buff coats" which were considerably more expensive than the clothing issued to the Foot. The average cost of a trooper’s buff coat was between twenty-five and thirty shillings with officers coats costing considerably more. Back and breastplates were supposed to be worn over the coat (although, in practice, they often weren't). The armour and thick leather did offer practical protection, but the clothing worn by cavalry officers was at least as much about display as functionality.

Today’s Household Cavalry wear armour as a nod to their past. Photo by Marco Verch

By the time of Waterloo the British had almost completely done away with metalwork on their uniforms. The French Carabinier-à-Cheval still wore breastplates (cuirasses) and after the battle British intelligence agents were sent to investigate the dead to see how they had performed. The results were not good.

Cuirass holed by a cannonball at Waterloo
It seemed that the days of body armour were over. Conventional wisdom held that it was not possible to stop a bullet with anything that could be worn on the man and for 50 years the engineers and scientists of the day stopped trying, in much the same way they had given up alchemy 100 years before; it simply couldn’t be done.

Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in Australia in 1854. In October 1878 he, his brother and two friends killed a sergeant and two police constables. The “Stringyback murders” caused the Kelly gang to become outlaws: a parliamentary act authorised police or private citizens to kill them without trial. However, Ned and his gang evaded capture and embarked on a series of ever more daring bank robberies. By the time the Act lapsed in 1880 the reward for the Kelly gang was £8,000.

In June of 1880 the police tracked and surrounded Kelly and his gang to a hotel in Glenrowan. A shootout ensued that lasted most of the night and, as day broke, Kelly made his break. A large man, he seemed to tower over the police in his knee length great coat and head obscured in the morning mist. The police would, according to fokelore, later describe Kelly as a demon or the devil as he moved coolly amongst the bullets, seemingly unharmed by the firepower raining down on him. Eventually he was shot in the leg by police sergeant Steel and the truth came out.

As their robberies had become more dangerous, Kelly and his gang had commissioned a blacksmith to make them suits of armour out of ploughs. Each weighed around 40 kg and covered the head, shoulders and thighs. Worn under their greatcoats it wasn’t immediately visible to the police, who had dismissed intelligence reports of the Kelly gang’s imperviousness to bullets as tall tales. However, with Kelly down and a high profile trial and hanging to follow, the truth was plain to see and the press ran with the story everywhere.

Kelly’s armour is still on display in Victoria, complete with 18 bullet strikes
The story of Kelly’s armour was the talk of the civilised world. (Imagine if today the Hatton garden robbers had been found to use newly discovered force fields or teleporters.) Questions about why British troops weren’t using Kelly-style body armour were even asked in parliament. The four suits of armour were split up and sent across the globe (even today there is some confusion about where they all ended up) and Europe’s armies and scientists turned to developing Kelly’s suits into mass producible equipment. Thirty years later the militarisation prior to the First World War would accelerate technological innovation yet further and by the outbreak of war suits not dissimilar to Kelly’s were on display amongst all the major powers.

The Germans favoured a 'lobster' armour that was fairly effective but heavy and cumbersome. (It tended to be reserved for machine gun crews who didn't need to move a lot.)

German WWI “lobster” armour. (Photo by Halibutt)
The British design was generally considered better, as the bravery citation for Lt. Hugh Cowell Kinred, 14th Bn. Gloucester. Regiment, reveals: "For conspicuous gallantry. When a bomb thrown by the enemy fell at his feet in the trench, he at once threw himself on it, and was blown into the air and much bruised and cut by the explosion, his life being saved by his steel waistcoat. His plucky action saved many casualties."


As body armour proved itself in battle over and over again, it became increasingly prevalent. Although in 1914 very few soldiers were equipped with any sort of armour, by the end of the war the Brodie helmet would become synonymous with the British Tommy. Body armour was here to stay, all thanks to the notoriety and ingenuity of four bushrangers from Victoria.

A Word from our Sponsor

I love writing these blogs – or getting other people to write for me – but the idea is to encourage you to read my books. I've been fairly quiet about this lately because since the summer they have only been available in North America. Come January, though, all three of my books about James Burke and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars will be republished by Endeavour Press. They should be available on pre-order soon after Christmas. I'll be writing a lot more about this between now and then, but if you could promise yourself that you will buy one as a slightly delayed Christmas present, I'd be thrilled. Wonderful as it is to know that so many people read and enjoy this blog, it would be nice if that translated into more sales of the books.

Thank you.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Some news and some pretty pictures

Here we are with the end of another week fast approaching and it's time for me to produce my weekly blog post. 

I generally turn out around a thousand words a week on a range of subjects. I try to keep it vaguely focused on history or writing, but tango and other things do sneak in. Fortunately I enjoy producing my blog, which is a good thing because I spend quite a long time doing it. I'm thrilled that thousands of you read it. I know very few of you actually "follow" it – largely, I suspect, because unless you're on Google+ (and who is?) there's no real point. You can follow me on Twitter (@TomCW99), though, and get a link to every new blog post as it comes out. I’d appreciate the Twitter follows: I have 560 at present and people tell me I should have more.

Writing the blog is an opportunity for me to write about things that interest me and, when I'm lucky, to connect with some of my readers. I'm always hoping to hear from people through the ‘Comment’ box at the bottom of the page, although I know that not very many people will write. Please do – I read them all and it's always appreciated.

What's bringing on this burst of introspection? Well, since the summer the blog really has been a labour of love. In theory it helps me sell my books, but unless you live in North America (where you can buy my stuff through Simon & Schuster), you won't have been able to get hold of anything I've written. This is because I have been changing publishers and publishing schedules mean that there is a hiatus between leaving one and taking up with another. However, this week I've been told that Endeavour Press will be publishing all six of my books in fairly rapid succession starting in January next year – which is now just two months away. This means that over the next few weeks you can expect to see slightly more about why you should buy my books and rather less about tango.

For now, though, as you've been kind enough to read this I'm just throwing in some nice pictures of dancers that I've taken over the years (plus one that someone took of me).

London

Paris

Iceland

La Boca - Buenos Aires

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A word to my American friends

At the moment, my books are not available in the UK. They are shortly to be republished by Endeavour Press, but until that happy day you can only buy them in North America, through Simon & Schuster.

I blog about once a week and, given that I'm not selling any books in my own country, I see this as largely a public service. The public certainly seem to appreciate it, because I know lots of you read it. What I didn't realise, until I did my sums today, is that about a third of my blog readers are from the USA. So this is just to say that if you would like to click on THIS LINK and buy one of the books, I really would be most awfully grateful. Think of it as a contribution to my blog writing efforts – though if you read the book, you might find that you really enjoy it.

Thank you.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Edgehill: the first great battle of the English Civil War



Monday marked the 375th anniversary of the battle we now call the Battle of Edgehill, but what was known all those centuries ago as the Battle of Kineton. It was the first great battle of the English Civil War, an inconclusive affair which, nonetheless, left thousands dead and wounded. Estimates of the number killed vary wildly, but a casualty figure of 2,500 casualties (dead, wounded or captured) is often quoted.

There is still a small village at Kineton, but where much of the fighting took place is now Ministry of Defence land and closed to the public. Once a year the Kineton Officers' Mess hosts a dinner in commemoration of the battle and invites representatives of the sealed Knot, a Civil War re-enactment organisation. There is a talk by somebody who knows about the battle (this year it was Mr F Baldwin) and a small display of Civil War drill. I was lucky enough to be a guest this year, and, besides enjoying an extremely good meal, I now know much more about the battle than I did a fortnight ago.

Edgehill was a battle fought by accident. The Royalist army, led by Charles I came across scouts from the Parliamentarians, under the Earl of Essex, quite unexpectedly on a Sunday morning when the Parliamentarian forces were planning to observe the Sabbath. Essex himself was at church at Kineton.

Charles probably drew up his plans for the battle on the hill, more or less where you can see what looks like a castle tower in the photo below. It's actually a pub called the Castle, which wasn't there at the time.


Although a modern commander would enjoy the advantages of such high ground, 17th-century warfare was different. There were definite advantages to being at the top of a slight slope, but battles had to be fought on more or less flat land. Pikemen were key to battlefield strategy. An indication of the length of the pikes is given in the picture below and you can imagine the difficulty of manoeuvring over rough country, even without a hill. In order for pikes be used effectively, the infantry had to move as a solid block – an isolated pikeman would be a dead pikeman. Battles were therefore fought on ground that was more or less flat, preferably without too many fields and hedges to get in the way.



Both Charles and Essex wanted a battle that day. Although they had not been planning to meet, both saw the opportunity to deal a resounding blow against the enemy and stop the Civil War almost before it had started. It's likely that many of the troops believed that the whole thing was going to be over in a matter of months and they, too, wanted the chance to resolve the issue quickly.

Fortunately for the commanders, the land between Kineton and Radway was flat and relatively open, with streams and hedges marking off the sides of the field which made it harder for the forces to be flanked. The picture below shows what Charles I would see below him nowadays, although things have changed a lot with the area now being heavily cultivated and broken up into fields.

Charles' view was probably less misty. In 1642 the day was cold with light rain, but visibility was good, as opposed to the warm overcast weather in 2017.



Both armies drew up with cavalry on their flanks. The white farmhouse in the centre of the picture below marks the left of the Royalist line.


The right flank probably extended to beyond the brown field in the centre of this photograph.


This gives some idea of the size of the battlefield. The two armies totalled almost 30,000 men, although many of the Parliamentarians did not actually reach the field in time to fight – including, notably, one Oliver Cromwell.

The Royalists achieved early victories with successful cavalry charges on both wings, but as is often the case with cavalry, horses and riders became overexcited and galloped all the way to Kineton – lost in the mists in the photographs. Some of the Parliamentary horse rallied and returned to the field where they were able to give crucial support to the infantry while the Royalist infantry remained without cavalry support.

The result can be seen as a draw. The cavalry battle was won by the Royalists but the Parliamentarians probably got the better of the infantry fighting. However, the level of carnage left both sides withdrawing to lick their wounds and the next day the armies faced each other but neither moved forward to fight. After that the Parliamentarians yielded the field, making it technically a Royalist victory. Charles, however, failed to take advantage of his temporary control of the roads to London and remained in the area – seizing Banbury, of all places. (It's hardly a major strategic town – barely more than a village really.) The failure of the Royalists to take the opportunity to march directly on London may have undermined their chances of winning the war. By the time Charles did turn his attention to London, Parliament was ready for him and his inability to take the capital, with its arms manufacturers and its significant financial resources, crippled the rest of his campaign.

The English Civil War was horrendous. Four per cent of the entire population of England died during the war – probably nearer to 10% of the young men essential to an economy that was still largely agricultural. The casualty rate in Ireland was substantially higher: the exact level is still the subject of controversy. Yet nowadays, the English tend to romanticise it and the dinner night did provide a wonderful spectacle of men in very impressive uniforms. (There were women, too, but we’ll pretend they were all men for the purposes of historical accuracy.)






Are these Cavaliers or Roundheads? I've really no idea, as each regiment was uniformed differently (if the soldiers had uniforms at all) and they could tell which side they were on only by the sashes they tied round themselves ahead of the fight and most of this lot aren't wearing any sashes. The Royalists wore read and the Parliamentarians orange, which on a rainy day with dye technology fairly primitive meant that the differences weren't as clear as one might hope. The situation was further confused at Edgehill when some Parliamentarian cavalry defected en masse to the Royalists in mid battle, but forgot to change their sashes. Many of them were killed by their new allies.

Civil wars are always messy. The English Civil War was very messy indeed.

A word from our sponsor

My books are all available in the USA and Canada (click HERE for the link). Endeavour Press will be republishing them in the UK soon. If you contact Endeavour (info@endeavourpress.com) they will know that you are waiting for the books. That can't slow things down, can it?

Thank you.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Living with history



A few weeks ago I blogged about Marble Hill House and English Heritage’s plans for the property. I'm coming back to this because I think that the way that we fit historical buildings and landscapes into our modern world is important. This post provides a bit of an update and some more detail on the issues that "heritage" can raise.

The essence of English Heritage’s plan is to carry out improvement works in the park and to develop significant parts of the park back toward more what they might have looked like in the 18th century. They have done detailed archaeological work and the plans are not fanciful, but based on the best possible evidence that they can gather. For those (and there are many of them) who believe that heritage is about restoring our historic past, the proposals are an exciting opportunity to restore grounds which were significant in the development of the English garden. For many local residents, this is a bunch of historians messing with a much loved park in order to rebuild something that may or may not have been there two and a half centuries ago.

Marble Hill Park

I leaned rather toward the second point of view and drafted a post attacking English Heritage and their plans for widespread tree felling. The words “Jane Austen theme park” may have appeared. Fortunately, I sent the draft to English Heritage for comment and John Watkins, their Head of Landscape and Gardens came to talk me through the plans and explain where I had got them wrong.

I learned a lot about the history of the park and quite a bit about the trees, but mainly I learned how the planning system is hardly the best way forward in moving projects like this to a satisfactory conclusion.

Woodman spare that tree

Marble Hill House is set within a small area of woodland (described as “wild wood”). The vegetation is mainly self-seeded. There is a lot of holly, ranging from small bushes to large trees. There is a thick canopy and little light reaches the ground, which is largely covered with ivy. A few animals – mainly squirrels and foxes – live there, but the density of the trees and the amount of ivy means that it is not an especially helpful habitat in terms of biodiversity. There are strong arguments that from the point of view of maintaining the grounds and improving the health of the trees generally, some clearing and coppicing would-be a positive step.

The house from the north

So far, so uncontroversial. Unfortunately, Richmond Council, in the interests of ensuring that no trees were unnecessarily removed, asked for a survey that counted every individual tree or shrub in the wood and a note of each one that was to go. The result was headlines like this one on Twitter.


A petition has been set up and, at the time of writing over 2,800 people have already signed it.

It’s a petition I would once have been happy to subscribe to, but two hours of looking at the site with Mr Watkins has made me see it in a somewhat different light.

Firstly, the majority of the 300+ "trees" are small, damaged, or near the end of their life. Anybody interested in the health of the woodland must appreciate that the current density of trees and uncontrolled undergrowth is not a healthy eco-system. The woodland floor gets little sunlight and is covered in ivy. It does not support wildlife. Some of beautiful trees in the area are difficult to see because of the scrub surrounding them and all of the trees suffer because they do not they do not get the light or nutrients they need to grow. Removal of many of these "trees" would not worry anybody who has been in and looked at them up close.

There are trees in the area which should be preserved. It's possible to argue about the merits of individual trees. For example, we looked at a yew that is scheduled for removal because of damage to the trunk which, it is argued, means it is not a healthy tree. However, looking at it with Mr Watkins he agreed that there is certainly room for disagreement on the point. There are several trees where it's not really possible to make a final decision on removal or retention at this stage, but the planning process means that all the trees that might be removed have to be listed. It would clearly be better if the planning consent was in two stages – one for the smaller shrubs that are definitely coming out and then a careful consideration separately of the larger trees that may or may not be removed later. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the way that planning applications work.

This oak show significant storm damage but is structurally sound and will be retained

More seriously, the details of the trees that are to be removed have been released ahead of the details of the trees that are to be planted. My concern that the current blocks of woodland will be replaced with a much more open view containing a few neatly laid out trees such as may have been planted in the 18th century turns out to have been mistaken. Yes, some trees will be removed and there will be a small number of trees planted in neat rows very unlike what is that at present. However, the northern margins of these blocks will be built up with additional planting to maintain the same sort of appearance from the north, whilst opening the area up to visitors. At present, the whole area is fenced off as the vegetation is thick and the ground-cover not conducive to walking.

Butcher's broom in the woodland. So called because it was traditionally used by butchers to clean their blocks


Some people will still be unhappy with the planned changes, but many people will be reassured if they only knew what they were. In any case, whether you like the proposed changes or not, it would surely be helpful if they were clearly explained ahead of any planning decision. The idea that the planning consents could be given in stages is surely worth looking at.

Butcher's broom again. This is a female plant (with berries)

Restoring the original gardens

Some of the problem with the discussions of what is planned for Marble Hill is that there are two distinct aspects to the work. Part of it is essentially about woodland management but this is being done in the context of attempts to restore the original 18th-century garden plan. As I explained in my previous post about Marble Hill, the gardens are important in tracing the development of landscape gardening in England. Henrietta Howard’s plans seem to combine the strict formality of gardens from the 17th century and before with the more informal approach to landscape that was, arguably, to find its finest expression in the works of Capability Brown.

English Heritage will argue that the restoration of parts of the 18th-century gardens in the apparently incongruous environment of a modern municipal park is actually very close to the original concept which saw different kinds of land-use sitting alongside each other. Whether the hidden pathways and wooded areas of an 18th-century garden actually make aesthetic or practical sense next to a 21st-century rugby pitch is a serious question and one which I think deserves to be seriously addressed. It does go to the whole question of how we protect England’s historical heritage within the context of the modern world. I'm not sure that the planning process is the best place to be having this discussion.

Self-seeded elm in the woodland. English Heritage at looking at possibly reintroducing elms to the park
I was very sceptical about the whole idea, but I must admit that John Watkins makes a convincing argument. When you explore these blocks of wild woodland in detail, sometimes stepping over the fence into areas that are not generally open to the public, a surprising amount of the 18th-century plan is still visible. Unfortunately, you really do have to be there together with an expert. The sheer quantity of vegetation means that photographs, whether taken at ground level or from the air, basically show lots of leaves. It's only when you stand with a guide you can see the gaps in the trees where open rides would have led through the woodland area all that time ago. One of the blocks has a more open area hidden at the centre. There is lots of ground-cover but no larger trees. The 18th-century plan shows that there was a secret flower garden at this point and English Heritage intend to restore it. A surprising amount of Lady Henrietta Howard's landscaping is still preserved, although it is visible only to a landscape archaeologist.

Living with heritage

It seems that everybody locally has a view on whether or not their favourite tree should be chopped down. (In at least one case, sadly, it must be, because the roots are beginning to attack the foundations of the house.) They all care about whether the whole of the park should still be open to dog walkers – a substantial element of the park using community. They care about the playing fields and the children's playground and the future of the local cafe. All these issues are being aired, but there doesn't seem to be any forum for a serious discussion of the heritage issues.

English Heritage are trying hard to engage with the public, as evidenced by the amount of time that they have been prepared to give to me, but this appears a dialogue of the deaf. English Heritage are only now learning just how deeply people feel about a park which many of them have been using on an almost daily basis since they were children. (The number of people who stood up at a public meeting and presaged their remarks with the statement that they had been walking their dogs there for over 40 years was eye opening.) Local people, on the other hand, know little, if anything, about the historical importance of the grounds and see only vandals who want to attack treasured woodland. How this mutual incomprehension is ever going to resolve itself into a plan generally acceptable to everybody is not clear. I would love to think that this blog might be a starting point. If anybody does want a conversation, you could begin by posting in the ‘Comments’ below. 

Valuing heritage

Any discussion of English Heritage's plans for Marble Hill – and, indeed, for many other sites – can't ignore the financial constraints that English Heritage works under. In this country we claim to be very proud of our heritage and it brings in a lot of money from tourists as well as giving much pleasure to the many people who visit heritage sites every year. Yet English Heritage has moved from being a government-funded organisation supported by taxation to being a charity which will soon be expected to raise the money that it needs to maintain England's heritage by charitable contributions.

Realistically, people are not going to put enough money into collection boxes for them to keep places like Marble Hill properly maintained. (If you do want to support English Heritage financially, you can join HERE.) The result is that many sites are now expected to generate income to cover their costs. Hence the plans for an on-site cafe, which have raised many complaints locally. Despite concerns that trees will be felled and the nature of the site will be changed, the cafe will not have any significant effect on woodland or on the park’s landscape. This is not to say that it's necessarily a good thing, but it does seem to be a necessary thing unless we are to accept that the park should not be properly maintained.


If the cafe doesn't raise the sort of money that English Heritage are hoping for then the plans could leave us with an elaborate exercise in landscaping that will soon become overgrown, dirty, and (given the number of hidden spaces in the woodland) potentially squalid and dangerous. Alternatively, English Heritage will have to make up the shortfall from its other income, leaving other properties short of resources. 

Of course, if this really is our English Heritage, one solution would be for the government to fund improvements to the landscaping from taxation, but while politicians can find money for their pet vanity projects, heritage funding is a victim of austerity and likely to remain so. English Heritage’s plans are therefore defined almost as much by the financial realities as by any ideal view of how the park should be presented. 

Acknowledgements

Whilst I'm not sure that I share English Heritage’s vision for Marble Hill, I do acknowledge that they are doing their best to meet what they see as their remit. English Heritage put significant resources into what is essentially a municipal park that they never asked to take responsibility for but which they were landed with as a result of the political changes discussed in my previous post. The park is, as I hope my photographs show, an amazingly beautiful place, free for anybody to enter and enjoy. Just because I may not agree with their future plans, doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the efforts that they are making.

I'm particularly grateful to Kate Pitt and John Watkins of English Heritage for giving me so much of their time and answering some very ignorant questions, and to the on-site archaeological team for explaining to amateurs like myself how they know so much about what the gardens would have originally looked like.