Category Archives: Writers

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

Rudyard Kipling’s Beloved Bateman’s

 

1fac83c7-7594-479b-a24f-4643c42663f6The Nobel prize-winning British author Rudyard Kipling died on January 18, 1936 in his beloved country home, Bateman’s, aged 70. The house is deep in the rural countryside of East Sussex, close to the site of the Battle of Hastings.

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Public Domain portrait of Rudyard Kipling, from John Palmer’s 1915 biography

I have to confess I’m not really familiar with much of his work, but I loved visiting the home where he and his wife chose to spend the last 34 years of his long and productive life.

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They bought the house in 1902.  It had  no bathroom, no electricity, and running water was only downstairs. But Kipling wrote, “Behold us, lawful owners of a grey stone lichened house–A.D. 1634 over the door–beamed, panelled, with old oak staircase, and all untouched and unfaked. We have loved it ever since our first sight of it.”

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The house is now in the hands of the National Trust.  Most of the furnishings are from Kipling’s happy time there. It is hard for us to appreciate just how famous this man was even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but the house was a peaceful retreat from Kipling’s busy life–he was active in politics and journalism, besides literature, all his life.9313938c-3171-478f-ad25-bc04c49b1791

His wife Caroline ran his affairs, working tirelessly in a tiny hidden office with a window looking out into the entry way, above and to the right of the fireplace.  She kept an eagle eye on the many people who knocked on the door, seeking time with the great man.  Not many were admitted when he was working in his study, pictured below. (We should all probably have someone like Caroline to turn off our internet when we want to get something accomplished).

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Kipling spent a good part of his working life in India and Africa, writing about both the glories and pitfalls of British imperialism.  He wrote with foreboding about the difficulties–and the morality–of maintaining the global British Empire, which was still in its heyday during Victorian times.

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In 1915, at the outbreak of World War I, Kipling’s son John was wild to join the fight.  He was rejected by both the Royal Navy and the Army because of poor eyesight.  So Kipling used his connections to get his son into the Irish Guards. John Kipling was killed in the Battle of Loos, aged 18, having been sent in with reinforcement troops.  He was last seen stumbling blindly on the battlefield, possibly from a face wound. His childhood bedroom, pictured above, is a poignant memorial to a lost son.

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I especially liked the dining room. The walls are covered with embossed leather brought from India.

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Above the fireplace is a painting that everybody in the family hated, but it was too good to get rid of. (Or maybe it was a gift from someone who was not to be insulted? I have items like that in my house, but I generally just get them out when the giver is visiting). The painting really is pretty ugly. It seems to show a naked crying baby, maybe with a mother or nanny wondering what to do.

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Mr. Kipling’s chair was placed so that his back was always to the hated painting.

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I think the kitchen must have had modern conveniences in the years leading up to Kipling’s death in the house in 1936.  Now, it’s a serene mostly-empty space where National Trust volunteers and staff dry flowers from the gardens.

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Literary fashions come and go, even for Nobel prize winners.  Having seen Rudyard Kipling’s country home, maybe I’ll find the time to dip into his writings. I’m sure Mr. Kipling would appreciate a visitor.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

Happy Birthday, Emily Bronte!

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte was born on July 30, 1818. Her brother Branwell, an aspiring poet and portrait painter, composed one of the very few images of her. His sister Emily was painfully shy, hardly speaking with anyone outside the family. But she was a bold artist.  Her novel, Wuthering Heights, is still startling in its passion and social critique.

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Branwell  was the only son in the family and great things were expected of him. I think poor Branwell suffered from what we might now call Preacher’s Kid Syndrome: a need to act out, just because his father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, was such an upright man. Branwell studied painting, in between bouts of drinking, taking opiates, and getting fired from various gigs as a tutor–for which his father had taken great pains to educate him. In around 1834, at age 17, Branwell painted the group portrait above. It is now one of the most treasured works in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the centerpiece of a special Bronte exhibit I saw last spring.

Why is this rare painting folded in the middle?  We’re lucky that it still exists, damaged as it is. The portrait, together with the profile of Emily, traveled to Ireland with Charlotte Bronte’s widower after her death as a young bride. It appears that a heartbroken Arthur Bell Nicholls shoved the portraits of his beloved Charlotte and her sisters on top of a wardrobe in an Irish farmhouse, out of sight and out of mind.

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The churchyard where all the Brontes are buried (except Anne, who died at Scarborough and was buried there) is just outside the door of the parsonage. Living there, walking every day past the graves of so many loved ones who had died so young, must have been unbearably sad.

By the time Charlotte died, shortly after her marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Branwell, Emily and Anne were already dead. Most likely they died of either tuberculosis or infectious diseases from the poor sanitation in the village. (Branwell more or less drank himself to death). Nicholls stayed in Haworth for several years to care for his father-in-law. Nicholls eventually remarried. His widow finally discovered the paintings (housecleaning, no doubt) in 1914.

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Sadly, it seems that Branwell had erased himself from the family portrait. This fact was not known until the 1950s, when the oil paint became more transparent with age. Now, it is clear that there was once a man’s figure between the sisters.  Did Branwell already have such a low opinion of himself? Was he ashamed to be seen with his much-more-virtuous sisters? Or did he feel he could not do justice to his own wonderfulness? Or was this possibly a portrait of his father, who took a very dim view of Branwell’s nights spent in the local pub or worse?  We’ll never know.

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The London exhibit also contains items such as Charlotte’s tiny boots. The caption says that for outdoor wear, the boots were most likely worn with wooden platens strapped to the soles for a little protection against mud and snow. How did the Bronte girls manage to walk for miles in the rugged North Yorkshire moors in footgear like this?

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Last year I made a literary pilgrimage to Haworth in Yorkshire.  The town still looks much the same as it did when Emily composed her novel about wild forbidden love on the moors. I was lucky enough to stay at Ponden Hall, a house where the Brontes were regular visitors. It’s now a family home, a lovingly run bed and breakfast, and a venue for  gatherings of artists, writers, and Bronte fans. The charming hosts go out of their way to show all visitors around their historic home.  In the photo below, the bookcase is a hidden door into a secret library. The Bronte girls used to visit the house, a couple of miles from the parsonage, to use the library.

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It’s possible to actually sleep in the “box bed,” shown above, with the little window that reportedly inspired Emily to write her famous scene where the ghost of Cathy appears outside the window, begging to be let in.  Her forbidden and guilt-ridden lover Heathcliffe staggers out onto the moors in desperate search of her. (Did I sleep in the box bed? No, but maybe next time! Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe!)

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights," Public Domain

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights,” Public Domain

In 1939, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon played the lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe in the classic romantic film based on the novel.  Since then, there’s been a 2011 film version that makes explicit the racism that Emily only hinted at in her novel, by calling Heathcliffe a “gypsy.” It’s on my list to watch.  There’s a 2009 miniseries, too.

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Did I venture onto the wild moors myself?  Only partway.  I had a broken foot, thanks to a super-klutzy fall just before I left on my trip.

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But I’m determined to hike the moors.  Next time, I hope I’ll be able to follow the signposts and get just a little bit lost in the wild countryside that inspired Emily Bronte and her sisters.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, history and literature of Europe and the British Isles!

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

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Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre burned to the ground on June 29, 1613.  It was rebuilt in 1614 and operated until about 1642, when the Puritan movement in England closed theatres, and demolished in 1644. The American actor and producer Sam Wanamaker organized a group that worked tirelessly for decades to build a replica, based on drawings and best guesses.  Construction had begun when Mr. Wanamaker died in 1993; performances began in 1997.

I finally made it to the Globe this month, and I’ll go again every chance I get. Lately I am rediscovering London, after avoiding the city for years because of the expense, the crowds, the pollution, and on and on. I’ve been tootling around the English and Welsh countryside instead, loving the small towns and villages and historic homes. But London is still glorious.

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I saw a wonderful production of Shakespeare’s “A Misdummer Night’s Dream.”  Of course, photos are not allowed during performance, and I would not want them to be. But I did snap some photos before the performance began. The “rude mechanicals” were Globe staff members in this production, and they regaled the audience with jokes and instructions before the show got underway.

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My vantage point was from the uppermost gallery, with a roof and wooden benches–still cheap as theatre tickets go, but not as cheap as the “groundlings” places at 5 pounds apiece.  It’s standing room down there, as it was in Shakespeare’s time, and there’s no shelter from the rain.  It rains a lot in London. No umbrellas are allowed, but people wore raincoats and ponchos, and obviously had a good time.  The rain was only on and off, and not many people left during intermission. It looked like a lot of fun down there. I would do it.

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But I was glad enough to have a thatched roof over my head, a plain wooden bench and the cushion which I hired for a couple of pounds extra. After a day chasing around London and standing in museums, the old dogs were barking.

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The setting on the Thames, a few hundred yards from the site of the original Globe, is part of the revitalised South Bank nightlife area.  It’s lively and fun and feels perfectly safe, at least along the river walk. St. Paul’s Cathedral, which earlier that day held a Service of Thanksgiving for the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, looms majestically across the Thames.

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Outside of London (tootling around in a rental car) we took in some other Shakespeare sights, including my favorite, Ann Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Long live the Bard!

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dear William!

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“Chandos” portrait, thought to be William Shakespeare, circa 1610, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, I’m revisiting an old post about one of my many treasured Shakespeare experiences.

Some years ago, I found myself with a lot of Frequent Flyer miles that were about to expire.  No one was free to travel with me.  So I treated myself to a solo trip to England.  I decided to see as much live theater as I possibly could. In the course of two weeks, I saw 18 plays.  Some days I doubled up and took in a matinee plus an evening performance.  I saw plays at grand theaters, in the London equivalent of “Off-Broadway,” and in tiny rooms above pubs.

At that time, to get to Stratford-upon-Avon, I had to take a train from London, then transfer to a bus.  (Now, there is a convenient train that goes all the way to Stratford).  I had dreamed for years of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company in their home theater, the Swan. One evening, I saw a very fine production of a Shakespeare play with the actors in modern dress.  Which play, you might ask?  I think it was Romeo and Juliet, but I can’t be sure. (On the train, I met a woman who had saved the program from every theater performance she had ever attended.  Although she was a theater professor, I thought that was a little obsessive.  Now I wouldn’t mind having all my programs).

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The Dirty Duck pub, Stratford-upon-Avon, photo by Lindsay Dearing, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The next morning, I went to the bus stop for the trip back to London.  Just outside The Dirty Duck, the pub still frequented by theater folk and tourists alike, I spotted an actor I had seen the evening before.  I stopped and complimented him on his performance.  He seemed delighted to be recognized; he had only a medium-sized part.  I’m thinking maybe he played Juliet’s father. I know how much talent and hard work it takes for any actor to get even a non-speaking, spear-carrying part in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I did remember his performance, I thought he stood out in the character, and told him so.  He thanked me graciously.  Just then, the bus pulled up and I got on.

The bus was about to pull away from the curb when the actor jumped up the steps with a great theatrical flourish. He stood beside the driver, peering down the aisle at all the passengers.  “I am looking for a LADY,” he intoned, in his best Shakespearean elocution.  He spotted me and moved up the aisle toward me.  He took my hand, bowed low with a great stage flourish, kissed my hand, and made a great show of presenting me with a perfectly ripened peach.  Everyone on the bus applauded, he took a very grand bow, and he was off with a jaunty wave.

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Like all artists, actors pursue their passion even though they know they are very unlikely to gain riches or fame. I wish I could remember the name of this actor, who shared a magical personal moment with me and went out of his way to entertain a busload of non-paying strangers.  Did all this happen 26 years ago?  Yes, it did.  Travel memories are lifelong!

I’m off to England, and looking forward to seeing a play in the Globe Theatre in London. Photos to follow. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!

Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House

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On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote a loving letter to her husband, Leonard Woolf, and walked out of her country home in rural Sussex, Monk’s House.  She made her way to the nearby River Ouse.  On its banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded in, and drowned.  Her body was recovered almost 3 weeks later. She was 59 years old.  She was a central figure of the intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group, whose influence is still felt.  Virginia herself was an avant-garde novelist who changed the shape of the English novel with works such as Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse.

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Last year I visited Monk’s House, now a National Trust property. I was thrilled to walk in the footsteps of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

Virginia had suffered bouts of debilitating depression for much of her life, but she had always recovered. Between illnesses, she was a fun-loving friend and a wonderful conversationalist.  But she needed a certain amount of “alone” time in order to create.

WritingShedIn her country garden, she spent long hours composing her ground-breaking novels and thoughtful essays in her writing shed. It is furnished just as she left it.  It looks as though she just stepped out for a stroll through her flowers.

One of Virginia’s most famous works is the long essay “A  Room of One’s Own,” in which she examined the need for women to have solitary time and space in order to create. She knew all too well that most women had no writing shed or other personal space. Maybe her need for creative time and space is what prompted a friend, Lady Ottoline Morrell, to describe Virginia as “this strange, lovely, furtive creature.”

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Inside the house, I could imagine long and lively discussions at the dining table, with the likes of Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, and H.M. Forster, not to mention Virginia’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell.VWBR2

Her bedroom was originally added to the house as a writing studio.

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But Virginia liked the airy room so much she decided to sleep there.  I would too.

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Naturally, there are books everywhere in the house.

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The drawing room is cosy, set up for long evenings of reading and conversation.

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Are these his-and-hers chairs?  I can imagine Virginia in one and Leonard in the other.

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After her death, Leonard had Virginia’s ashes buried in their beloved garden. A bust of Virginia stands nearby.  Her admirers leave stones beneath it.

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Later, Leonard’s own ashes and bust took their places near hers. In her final letter, Virginia sadly explained that she could not bear another episode of what she called her “madness.” Possibly she suffered from what we would now call bipolar syndrome. At any rate, she described hearing “voices.” The last line of her final letter read, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

The photo  at the top of this post is from the article cited below, “Virginia Woolf: The Woman Who Remade the Novel,” by Jonathan deBurca Butler. The photo, of Virginia in 1902, is by George C. Beresford. The article is an excellent summary of Virginia’s life, her sad death, and her continuing influence on modern literature.

http://www.independent.ie/life/virginia-woolf-the-woman-who-remade-the-novel-34572892.html

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Monk’s House is wonderfully maintained by the National Trust. Charleston Farmhouse, where Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell lived, is nearby.  I would highly recommend a visit to both.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

 

Mary Anne Disraeli: the Woman Behind the Man

Why is a Victorian carriage door prominently displayed on a wall at Hughenden, the country home of Queen Victoria’s friend and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli? The Prime Minister himself removed it from the carriage and preserved it as a tribute to his wife, Mary Anne. One evening the ambitious politician and his doting wife set off from his London house to Parliament, where he was to deliver a very important speech.  When the carriage door was closed, it slammed shut on Mary Anne’s thumb. What did she do? She suffered in silence, all the way to Westminster. She didn’t want to upset the man before his speech. A placard next to the carriage door explains that Mary Anne said not a word until Disraeli was safely out of the carriage and on his way into the corridors of power.  The placard remarks drily that her words when her thumb was released were not recorded.

 Mary Anne was 12 years older than her husband, and the marriage began as one of convenience. But it grew into a true love match.

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According to the guidebook sold at Hughenden, Disraeli was a novelist and something of a playboy in 1830s London. He had written a novel, Vivian Grey, which was a thinly veiled self-portrait of a young man on the make. His friend Bulwer-Lytton described him thus: he wore “green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low sleeves, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, his hair in ringlets.” He cut a wide swath through bohemian London salons, finally gaining an entree into the highest circles. He tried five times for a seat in Parliament before he won an election.  His maiden speech was a disaster; he was shouted down. What worked in drawing rooms did not work in the House of Commons.  He famously ended by saying, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”

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Mary Anne, my photo from Hughenden guidebook

 

What Disraeli needed was a rich wife. He met Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1832, when she was just another older married woman he enjoyed flirting with.  He thought her “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” which according to the guidebook meant “incessant chatterer.” But her deep-pocketed husband obligingly died in 1838, leaving her a rich widow. Her appeal increased and Disraeli married her in 1839.
Disraeli soon learned what a treasure he had found.  He wrote, “There was no care which she could not mitigate, and no difficulty which she could not face. She was the most cheerful and the most courageous woman I ever knew.”  High praise indeed; Disraeli had known and depended on many, many women in his rise to power in Victorian England.

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A visit to Hughenden is a window into the Victorian past.

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The estate is under the care of the National Trust, and beyond the quintessentially Victorian rooms there’s a surprise, new since I first visited years ago. The estate was a secret location for surveillance work which was crucial to victory in World War II.  This work was so secret that not even the National Trust knew a thing about it until very recently.  I’ll be writing about what went on in the wartime rooms and the icehouse soon.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!