A Day on the Oxford Canal

There’s nothing like messing about in boats on a warm, late spring day…

The building of the Oxford Canal was first brought into action with the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1769.  Beset with difficulties – mostly financial – its total 78 mile length wasn’t completed until 1790.  Linking the industrial Midlands region of England with the south of the country, the cost-cutting that was required has allowed the canal to claim it is one of the most scenic.   This is partly due to the canal following the contours of the land giving the canal numerous bends, rather than the more usual (and more expensive) building method of cutting a straight line through the landscape.

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Although the northern section from its start at Coventry to Napton was straightened in the 1820s, the southern section to its end at Oxford where it enters the River Thames (giving access to London) remained unchanged.

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Once completed the canal became one of the busiest and most profitable in England and, unlike many others, prospered even after the coming of the railways.  Barges carrying coal to London were still plying their trade as late as the early 1960s.  Today, the railway rules and often follows the same route.

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However, the Oxford Canal is still one of the busiest waterways in the country, only now with leisure traffic.  On the day of our attempt at barging it was pleasantly quiet and we shared the canal with few others. The only hint of an industrial past was the working barges of the Canal & River Trust, the charity responsible for maintaining the two thousand miles of waterways in England and Wales.

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Travelling at a speed slower than walking pace isn’t for everyone – I found it a little frustrating – but it does give ample opportunity to admire the scenery, buildings and wildlife.  The tithe barn at Upper Heyford, built around 1400AD, is magnificent.  More images of the barn, which is privately owned, can be seen by clicking here.

 

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One of the cost-cutting methods used in construction was to incorporate a section of the River Cherwell into the canal.  The problem that this created with variable water flow is still an issue today.  Another saving more readily visible are the locks: fewer in number and deeper, many have single gates instead of the more usual two.

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Manoeuvring such a large boat is a surprisingly quick skill to master but there are always other, more savvy boat people around that are happy to assist or advise when needed.  Our boat was hired from the yard at Little Heyford and we travelled north, meeting up with friends for a bankside picnic before returning to the marina.

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A daytrip – or perhaps a longer holiday on a barge – is definitely to be recommended even though I found the pace a little too slow.  The next time I am on one I shall remember the words of Pooh, that wisest of bears:  “Rivers know this: there is no hurry.  We shall get there one day.”

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Click on any of the photos to enlarge

Links:

The Oxford Canal – a more detailed history

The Canal & River Trust

Boat Hire – Lower Heyford

 

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A Great Game?

A series of faded, sepia photographs have always been a mystery to me, just something else put into a cupboard and forgotten.  Handed down through the generations they recently came to light once more and looked at with renewed interest.  Who were these people and what connection might they have to my family? Two of the images were signed and with this name as my starting point the tale of their origin began to emerge.  The story that is unfolding only deepens the mystery for they were part of the ‘Great Game’, a term I hadn’t come across before.  Now, for me, it has two meanings: warmongering and my struggle to seek out the truth behind them.

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Rudyard Kipling brought the ‘Great Game’ into everyday circles by using it in his novel Kim, published in 1901, although the term had been in use for many years before that.  It described the cat and mouse rivalry between the British and Russian Empires that lasted throughout the nineteenth century.

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Britain, alarmed at Russia’s expansion southwards, feared that Afghanistan would be used as the gateway to an invasion of India.  To avoid this, troops were sent to install a puppet government in Kabul but within four years order was breaking down and the garrison was forced to retreat.  Caught in a series of ambushes, Afghan warriors slaughtered all but one of the 4500 troops and 12000 followers. By 1878 the British invaded again following the Afghani’s refusal to allow a diplomatic mission to visit. A treaty was signed and the army withdrew leaving a small staff in Kabul: in the autumn of the following year they were killed leading to full-scale war – the Second Anglo-Afghan War.  Travelling with the British army was a freelance photographer, John Burke, and it is his signature that appears on my photos.

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History, as we all know, has a habit of repeating itself and sadly the rivalry between Russia and the West over Afghanistan has continued.  Inspired by John Burke, the war photographer Simon Norfolk has carried out a new series of images.  Intriguingly, he lists all of Burke’s plate numbers – the two of mine that are numbered are left blank so perhaps this is the first time they have been seen; rather an amazing thought.

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All that is left now – and no mean feat – is to identify the places and the regiments and to find out where (and if) my family fit into all of this. I have been helped along the way by enthusiasts from a Facebook group.  One of them, Arnie Manifold, has an ancestor that fought there and it is his medals that are shown in the image below.  Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we discovered his face on one of these old photos?

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To view Simon Norfolk’s website and more information on John Burke, click here

To find out how a series of colourful postcards, brought back by my father from WWII, led to the discovery of a German fairy-tale castle, a love affair and an epic poem, click here.   

The Scottish Pineapple

The statement “I have been living in a Pineapple” may give cause for surprise but is, in fact, quite true for I have just returned from a brief trip to Scotland.  To stay in a building that puts a smile on your face whenever you catch a glimpse of it ought to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list – if it is, The Pineapple is the place to go.

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Originally part of the Dunsmore Estate, it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1974 and leased to the Landmark Trust who undertook its restoration.  Neglected for very many years, the Pineapple proved to be in remarkably good condition for every ‘leaf’ was designed to prevent water collecting within it and damaging the stonework.  The remainder of the property was very unstable and derelict.

The Scottish Pineapple

When the two walled gardens were enclosed at Dunsmore in the mid 1700’s there was no ‘big house’ attached.  They were purely used for producing a supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to be sent to the Earl of Dunmore’s home in Argyll. It was some years later (it is thought) that the Pineapple was added as a folly and summerhouse, probably after the Earl’s return from Virginia and the Bahamas where he was Governor.

The Scottish Pineapple

Why a pineapple?  In the eighteenth century, pineapples were a rare luxury that had become associated with wealth and hospitality.  They began to appear on pillars, railings and weather vanes and, indoors on fabrics and wall coverings.  The building of The Pineapple was, perhaps, the grandest of all grand gestures.

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Although the building is of such high quality in both its materials, cratsmanship and design it was barely recorded in contemporary writing and its designer remains unknown.  One possible reason for this is that it may have been just a little too ‘over the top’ even for flamboyant Georgian taste.  It is even quite probable that the Pineapple may have been painted. The doorway of the undercroft is a very accurate timber carving of Ionic pillars beyond which stone steps lead to the raised northern lawn.  From this lawn there is level access to the summerhouse.

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Either side of the Pineapple are two small cottages, formerly gardener’s bothys.  These have been fully restored by the Landmark Trust to create holiday accomodation with living room and kitchen in one and bedrooms in the other.  The north garden and the Pineapple room are for the private use of guests, the south lawn and gardens are open to the public.

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To be able to grow pineapples required specialist knowledge and skills as well as additional warmth.  Glasshouses flanked the south wall and were heated by the use of specially constructed hollow walls.  At the foot of these, fires were lit and flues within the wall drew the heat upwards, warming the brickwork.  The four decorative urns to either side of the Pineapple conceal chimneys and because of there similarity to those at Casino Marino in Dublin (to read about this extraordinary building click here), it has been suggested that the designer could be Sir William Chambers although there is no documented evidence to suggest this.   At intervals on the southern side of the walls I found sliding stones which could be removed presumably to allow the heat to escape.

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In 1820 William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery in London, designed a house in the Tudor Gothick style.  Dunsmore Park’s glory was, however, short-lived for by 1911 the family had left although it remained occupied until 1964 after which it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin visible across the fields from the Pineapple.  Another ruin, now very unstable, and also visible from the Pineapple, is the Elphinstone Tower.  Of earlier origin, built about 1510, it became the family vault of the Dunmore family in 1836 with a church built alongside a few years later.  This was demolished in the 1960’s.  Their fascinating stories will be subjects of this blog in due course.

The Scottish Pineapple

The Scottish Pineapple

With so much history and beautiful scenery close by – Loch Lomond is only a short drive away – the Pineapple makes a great and intriguing place to use as a base for exploring the area.  The grounds are open free to the public all year but the building is at its best during the hours when you are alone to enjoy its eccentricity and splendid isolation.

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The Pineapple at night

Links:

The Landmark Trust

The National Trust for Scotland