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    At Slow Travel we are always on the lookout for the unexpected hidden gem and a visit to the English Martyrs Catholic Church in Goring revealed a completely unexpected treat – the faithful (if smaller) reproduction of Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. The story of how it came to be here is fascinating in itself but the results are astonishing. From the exterior the red-roofed church looks to be an architecturally dismal building – resembling an aircraft hanger or Nissen hut rather than a Catholic house of God. This impression immediately evaporates on entrance to the interior, where you are struck by the drama of the ceiling above. Reproduced in its entirety is the early 16th century masterpiece painted in fresco by Michelangelo, a cornerstone of the High Renaissance Art. It is two-thirds the size of the original, and therefore a mathematical achievement in a pre-digital age, as well as an extraordinary artistic success. In 1987 parishioner Gary Bevans visited Rome on pilgrimage and returned home inspired by what he had seen at the Vatican and sought permission to paint the glory of the Michelangelo creation on to a wooden vaulted surface fixed to the roof of this unprepossessing church. Sponsors were found, Dulux and ICI provided the acrylic paint and Gary, a sign writer by trade, and a self-taught artist, embarked on a five and half year task, while still carrying out his day job, to complete his mission. The result is stunning – above you God separates the light from the darkness, creates the sun, moon and plants, separates the sky and water and creates Adam and Eve. We see the expulsion from Eden, the Flood and the many Biblical figures and stories which feature from Pope Julius II’s original commission to Michelangelo. Even the windows of the Sistine Chapel are painted on to the roof to give an exact replica of the famous ceiling. It is a work of wonder. Gary Bevans himself is a remarkable man with devout faith in God. The volunteers speak of his humility – how he has received no financial gain for his labour and how he describes his own role in the accomplishment as “I was only the hand that held the brush”. Since the work was finished, he has become a Deacon of the Catholic Church, regularly conducting services there. The church has additional features of interest – the Martyrs’ Window depicts eleven famous men and women persecuted for their Catholic faith etched on to glass, and Peter the Fisherman’s window made by using glass recovered from a local convent is a theatre of the bright and colourful. There is also Gary’s own interpretation of the Last Supper. But it is the ceiling that will remain the longest and deepest in your memory. It is a very worthwhile visit – trolley mirrors enable you to look closely at the detail of the ceiling, and knowledgeable volunteers are on hand to answer questions. Certainly an interesting and unique experience. Visit the English Martyrs Church website >>


    Built in the 18th century, this immaculate house in Fitzrovia was home to two famous writers - George Bernard Shaw and L Ron Hubbard. Fitzrovia is an area of London with strong literary associations; George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf all lived and wrote here. Bernard Shaw lived in this house for a year with his mother in 1881, L. Ron Hubbard used the building as his London base of operations from 1956 and it is still owned by his organisation today, who do free tours by appointment. Number 37 is one of a row of pretty Georgian double fronted houses with wrought iron railings and Juliet balconies. From the outside there is no signage, just a discreet brass plaque underneath the doorbell. So long as you’ve got your appointment booked, ring the doorbell and you get welcomed in by a member of staff. First impressions are of polished wood, civilised furniture and mercifully on a hot day, the cool air of air conditioning. You are welcomed by a very personable member of staff, your bags are put in a safe place and then you start your tour in the reception on the ground floor, with the wall displays about L. Ron Hubbard's early life. Old black and white photos in polished wood frames tell a remarkable story of adventure and high achievement. Knowing very little about him, I was impressed at his exploits. Born in 1911 in Nebraska to a military father and a highly educated mother, he had a childhood of travels and adventures. One of the display cases has his scout badges from when he was an Eagle Scout at the age of 13 - apparently the youngest to ever achieve this honour at the time. He was an avid reader and developed an early interest in psychoanalysis and philosophy. Between the ages of 16 and 18 he travelled thousands of miles across Asia, learning about other cultures and their philosophies, and there are photographs of him on the ship he worked on, looking off into the distance as he explored little known lands. He studied engineering at university and continued his travels, becoming a glider pilot, and making a living writing pulp fiction. These are popular stories published on low quality paper made of wood pulp and he covered a multitude of genres - science fiction, adventure, westerns, mysteries and romance, gaining some success in the field. World War II saw him joining the navy, where he was in command of several vessels, but ill health meant he was admitted to a naval hospital, where he spent some time. My guide explained that it was during his time in hospital, where there were also lots of former prisoners of war, that he administered some of his early self-help theories. He could see that the ill were being medically treated, but also that they were not getting any better. Using his understanding of various philosophies learnt from his travels, he persuaded the staff to let him provide counselling services for some of these men. When they started getting better, he realised the impact that counselling could have on someone’s health, and he started writing about what he had learnt and what he was doing, eventually publishing everything in one volume, Dianetics, in 1950. Four years later, his followers set up the Church of Scientology, based on his research and work. It was in 1956 that he moved his London centre of operations into Fitzroy House, and the guided tour moves from the displays and photos and into his office. It is a lovely room at the front of the house, large windows with the sunlight streaming through, a polished wooden desk, heavy velvet curtains and framed prints on the wall. The room has been restored and set up exactly as it was, right down to the contents of the two display cabinets, which include a noiseless Remington typewriter. Just off this room is his secretaries room, an exact recreation of how it looked in the 1950s based on photographs. Desks, polished wooden floor, a window overlooking the back, bookshelves containing old box folders, wire in-trays, stacks of paper, office technology of the time; all that is missing is the secretaries, noise and cigarette smoke which must have hung in the air. The old fashioned technology was wonderful - so well looked after that it still all works today. Typewriters, Bakelite telephones, tape recorders, an early fax machine and best of all, a dictation machine which recorded onto vinyl records, really show how these rooms must have been a hive of activity when he worked here. The tour then takes you upstairs to several elegant rooms. Thick, soft carpets, classic seating, chintz cushions and polished wood furniture which gleams in the sunlight. I particularly liked the large room which is used for events today and which has several photographs taken by L Ron Hubbard who was clearly a skilled photographer - the early scenes of London show a much simpler time and a marked contrast to the London of today. There are displays on the walls which go into more detail about Scientology and how it became a global phenomenon. Several rooms are filled with bookshelves and dedicated to all of the books he published and these show you just how prolific he was as a writer. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records declared L. Ron Hubbard as the most prolific author of all time, publishing 1084 works between 1934 and 2006. 250 of these were fiction, and they are all laid out on the bookshelves in bright colours. Seeing them all together shows just how dedicated a writer he was. You leave the tour with a new understanding of the man behind the headlines as well as feeling as if you have spent time in a retreat from the noisy London streets. The whole house is immaculate: all polished wood, soft furnishings and candelabra lighting. It feels like a mixture of museum, time capsule, library, show home and study centre. It is a unique visit to a house behind a Georgian façade and the tour itself is really interesting: I really appreciated having a one on one tour as it meant I could ask countless questions. I was also really impressed at how they are happy to give up their time to any member of the public who asks for a tour, something the owners of most other historic houses are reluctant to do. Interior photographs © Fitzroy House Visiting Fitzroy House Email: Website: Fitzroy House Nearest tube station: Warren Street


    Wiltshire is renowned for its historic white horses and chalk badges carved high into the hillsides. The military badges carved into the hills of Fovant are well known, but they are not the only World War I badges in the area. The map of Australia had disappeared for decades but thanks to a remarkable group of volunteers, the map is now clearly visible and is the site of an annual service on Anzac Day to remember veterans. A Brief History of the Map of Australia The county of Wiltshire in southern England is on a seam of chalk which gives the county its rolling hills and the high chalklands of Salisbury Plain. Over the centuries the land has been transformed; by the ancient civilisations who gave us sites such as Stonehenge and the barrows, by the ancient farmers who adapted to the chalky grasslands, and by the military who have used much of the land for over 130 years. Since the 1890s, the British Army had been buying up land in and around Salisbury Plain. Centrally located in the UK, close to coastline and ports with good train links, it was open landscape with just a small rural population, and by the time World War broke I out in 1914, it was the perfect location to set up military bases, hospitals, training camps and to hold the increasing number of overseas soldiers. Fovant Camp was the most southerly of all of the many and varied camps, possibly chosen as it was already the site of military exercises, and a series of camps sprang up in the area. Soldiers would travel on the London to Exeter trainline and get off at the village of Dinton, and a spur line was built to take men and equipment to Fovant. Hurdcott Camp, near the village of Compton Chamberlayne, was just two miles east of Fovant, and was initially occupied by London regiments. Although there had been Australian soldiers at the camp since March 1916, by March 1917 it was exclusively taken over by Australian soldiers who were joining the war in ever increasing numbers, and it became their Command Depot No. 3. A mixture of training camp and convalescent camp, the fields around Naishes Farm were filled with trenches, huts, a powerhouse, theatre, a hospital for the wounded to convalesce and up to 4000 men. The men started carving the map of Australia into the chalky hillside in early 1917. The regimental badges in Fovant were already underway by then, a reminder of home for the men stuck there in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar weather and people. After the war, the camp was used to hold men awaiting repatriation on the boats back home. When the last of them had left, the huts were removed and the land returned once more to peaceful farmland, with only the chalk badges remaining as evidence of the years they had spent here. Uncovering the Map of Australia All of the badges suffered some decline over the years and during World War II, they were deliberately covered over in case enemy pilots used them as landmarks. After the war, the Fovant Home Guard Old Comrades Association (later the Fovant Badges Association) was set up to preserve the badges, and the 1950s saw the restoration of the Map of Australia, with Anzac Day commemorated on the site of the map. By the early 21st century however, the Association did not have the funds to look after the outlying badges, such as those at Sutton Mandeville and the Map of Australia, and soon they were covered in weeds and had faded into obscurity. Local resident, Helen Roberts, realised that the map she had seen throughout her childhood had vanished, and explored the area until she found it, writing a letter to the local paper in 2014 asking if there were plans to maintain it. The Fovant Badges were undergoing renewal in time for the centenary of World War I, but the Map of Australia was not being included in the renovations. A very determined lady, she got the farmer, the press and a handful of volunteers on the case and soon was given permission to restore the map. Every year since, she has led a small group of volunteers who have taken tools up to the top of that very steep hill, and hacked away at the weeds, refreshed the chalk and tidied the edges, so that the map is once again visible from the road which passes below. In 2023 I saw an article in the local paper, a plea for volunteers, and having previously done a stint on the ancient white horse in Uffington, I joined one of the 'working picnics' to help restore the map. It is a very chilled out affair. We met at Naishes Farm, a motley crew of locals and Australians who were either living or stationed in the UK. Grabbing some hefty tools, it was a steep but pretty walk up to the map, and then we each took a section to work on, removing all of the weeds and trimming the edges. We paused to enjoy the picnics we had brought along, with the kids from one Australian family sharing out the Anzac biscuits they had made, which seemed such an appropriate gesture. The views up there are incredible; the patchwork of fields stretching off into the distance and the clouds chasing across the vast open skies, skylarks could be heard in the woodland below us and birds of prey were circling above us. A tiny dot of a tractor was busily working in the fields, constructing a new vineyard. Helen pointed out where the camp was, where the trainline was, and it was so hard to look at such a serene place and think of how busy it once was with all those huts and thousands of men living, training and convalescing there. It is a peaceful place and very rewarding work, if slightly hard on underused muscles. Once shipshape, the map is the location of an Anzac Day service, just as it was in the 1950s, and Australian military and locals join to remember those who were stationed in the camp. The Anzac Day Service Every 25th April is Anzac Day. First held in 1916 to remember the antipodeans who had died fighting in Gallipoli, it is now a national day of remembrance for those who fought in both world wars. Again meeting at Naishes Farm, the group included some of the volunteers, locals, buglers as well as members of the Australian military who are currently deployed in the UK and on exercise on Salisbury Plain, helping to train Ukrainian soldiers. One special guest was Jill, who had come from Australia and whose father was stationed in the camp over 100 years ago. There were readings of diary extracts from inhabitants of the camp, the Last Post was played, a minute's silence was held in the bright sunshine high up on the hill, and the leader of the Australian army contingent gave a moving speech, thanking the people of Wiltshire for the ‘care and hospitality afforded to those soldiers,’ for ‘helping us honour their sacrifice and for the enduring restoration effort made in keeping their esteemed legacy alive.’ It was very moving, standing up there in the bright sunshine, watching the world move around below us while listening to the words of former inhabitants of the camp be brought to life by serving Australian soldiers. After the service, we all gathered in the village hall, which was once one of the huts used in the World War I camp. Over tea and cakes, Major Hand of the Australian Army presented Helen Roberts with a plaque of the map of Australia, in gratitude for all of the work she has done to preserve this important piece of Australian heritage in the Wiltshire countryside. Just over the road is the cemetery, where 35 soldiers rest, most of them are Australian Infantry and all died during the war. A walk around the graves brings the reality of what happened to them sharply into focus, and shows just how valuable the work of the volunteers is in preserving the map, as the only evidence of the sacrifices the soldiers made in travelling thousands of miles from home to fight a foreign war. The MOAT website has more information about the camp, or follow the Facebook page for more information about volunteering. I would urge anyone reading this to volunteer next year - it is a truly rewarding experience. If you can't, they always need donations to buy new tools for working on the map.


    A surprising find in a very pretty Northumbrian market town, Hexham Old Goal is the earliest purpose built prison still standing in England. It was completed in 1333, using stone from the Roman fort at Corbridge and has been through many incarnations before opening as a tourist attraction in 1980. Hexham Gaol was built on the orders of William Melton, 43rd Archbishop of York, to help him control the lawless border areas between England and Scotland. The region was plagued with bands of robbers, known as the Border Reivers and he needed a solid construction to keep many of these wrong-doers from causing further mayhem. It’s a small compact building and there are just three floors to see, accessed by a glass lift. The first visit is to the vaulted dungeon – which you can only see it from inside the lift, but you can get a sense of how it must have felt to be locked up here in the cold and dark. The ground floor has a display about crime and punishment in medieval times, with some good child-friendly comparisons between modern and medieval punishments. There are also some stocks to try out for the adventurous. There’s information about the area in the 16th century with a list of March Treasons, all punishable offences e.g. marrying a Scots woman! A display case of arms and armour, and a model of the Marches Warden help to set the scene. Upstairs there’s a look at daily life in the medieval and early modern period with an original bastle (defendable farmhouse) window. Information boards record how Hexham witnessed a severe riot in 1761 when a crowd gathered in the nearby Market Square to protest about changes for serving in the militia. 45 protesters were killed when fired upon by troops in the North Yorkshire Militia. After 1400 prisoners were taken from here on the very short walk to the courtroom of the Moot Hall. This building is one of the best surviving examples of a medieval courthouse, but is only open to the public on special Heritage Days. The prison closed in 1820 and has subsequently been used as a bank, solicitor’s office and, in WWII, a fire lookout tower. There’s not a lot in the way of artefacts to see, but the building itself is very atmospheric and so worth a visit.


    A great visit along part of a 19th century wagon way, built to transport coal to the Tyne river and later converted to an air raid shelter in WWII. There is plenty to learn about its construction and operation, with some good human stories too. You can take a 75 minute or 2 hour tour in small groups with very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. The 2 hour tour includes a short walk around this once heavily industrialised area, to help orientation when you go underground. Then the journey through the tunnel begins at the entrance in Ouseburn where visitors are issued with hard hats and torches. Chronologically the story is reversed, with the first half of the tour looking at the tunnel’s vital part in sheltering the citizens of Newcastle from German bombs, the second half focusing on its use to transport coal from the Leazes Main colliery to the river. The guides explain that before war began in 1939 plans had already been made to open up the defunct tunnels to protect people - for the most part Newcastle residents had no gardens for Anderson shelters, and Morrison shelters were unsuitable for sprawling tenement blocks. It took two weeks for engineers to find out how to access the tunnels. The higher levels had to have blast walls added because of the dangers of a bomb blast so near the surface. Once the level was more than 55 feet down it was deemed to be safe - it was not possible even to hear the planes or bombs, nor indeed the All Clear which had to be sounded by wardens’ whistles. A nurses’ station was positioned as soon as the area was safe, where patients were triaged in very little light. Nearby the wall was painted with canary yellow paint - gas detection paint, which would turn pink if gas got down into the tunnel. Bombing was heavy over Newcastle because of the many factories and docks in the North East. People could be down there for up to 10 hours as bombers coming back, using the river as navigation, would drop any unspent bombs on the city below. 141 people lost their lives in the bombing: the number would undoubtedly have been far greater without this vital shelter. 7000 people could be down there at any one time but there were wooden seats for only 2500. 500 3 tier bunk beds were provided with a strict hierarchy of users - kids on the top, pregnant or nursing mothers in the middle, essential war workers on the bottom. The toilet facilities are pointed out - an Elsan bucket - and it is explained that the only things to make this any easier was a modesty hessian curtain and plenty of strong smelling disinfectant. When the guides encourage the group to briefly turn out their torches, you get just a little glimpse of the horror this whole experience must have been for those compelled to dive underground into these damp dark tunnels night after night. Passing under Hadrian’s Wall, the story then goes backward in time to the construction of the tunnel. In 1839 there were coal mines everywhere and the coal was usually transported by horse drawn carts trundling through the centre of town, then being offloaded on to barges before eventually being taken to the coal ships waiting at the mouth of the Tyne. Two enterprising mine owners employed firstly an engineer and then 200 clay kickers to dig out the clay (later recycled into the bricks that line the tunnel). They then installed rails and eight wagons and used a simple system combing gravity and a stationary steam engine to move the coal directly to the ships. A masterpiece of engineering, opened in 1842 which could run 24 hours a day and saved 90% on transport costs. It operated until the colliery closed in 1860. There are plenty of good stories, including of the only unfortunate death within the tunnel, and the volunteers are happy to answer any questions. There is plenty of humour and fun within their delivery: they clearly enjoy enlightening and entertaining their visitors. 15,000 people now visit the tunnels every year - testament to their great success. Address: 53/55 Lime Street, Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2PQ The tours are run by the Ouseburn Trust and tickets have to be booked in advance through the website >>


    Bishop's Caundle is a small village in rural North Dorset, the sort of place where you expect pretty walks in the countryside and a good village pub for a refreshing drink afterwards. Home to a unique British icon, an early Victorian postbox which is still in use, you would think this would make for a good walk with a bit of history thrown in. Sadly, this is not the case. One thing you will notice when trying to plan a visit to the village of Bishop's Caundle is that there is a significant shortage of walks on offer in guidebooks or on the internet. We should have realised there was a good reason behind this, but a look at the OS map had shown that there were plenty of public footpaths available, so we took a risk, thinking maybe it was just so off the beaten path that no one had put anything online as yet. There is nowhere to park in the village but we ended up at the Village Hall which although it was closed, had a small car park. A sign informed us that parking was for patrons only, but with no other options available, that's where we ended up, feeling a bit uncertain but hoping people would understand. We had mapped out a circular route from the village hall to take us through some countryside to the country's oldest postbox and back again, using public rights of way. However, although the footpaths were clearly marked on the map, that did not seem to correlate with the real world. The first one we tried was behind a locked gate which we had to climb, and the path had been planted with crops. We walked round the edge of the field, so as not to damage to crops, but they had actually been planted right up to the edge. Every turn we took, assured by the map it was a public footpath, we found that the farmer had put up gates, fences, wires to block paths and that much of the signage had been removed. Where we did find signage, assuring us we were on the right track, wires had been strung across the path, leaving us very uncertain if a farmer was going to come charging out yelling at us to "get off his land". Most of the footpaths that we ended up on were so overgrown that it was impossible to see any sort of path at all. We tripped and stumbled over brambles, nettles were up to head height, our clothes got ripped and we ended up covered in scratches and bruises. Spot the footpaths... This was not just a fresh season of minor growth. This was years worth of neglect. We couldn't open gates because they were so overgrown. We had to hunt around for ages to try and find the paths - we could see the signs but there was just no access. In the end, we managed to get ourselves onto the road and gave up entirely on the footpaths. However, the roads are very narrow and very bendy; it was a hazardous experience with lots of cars having to break suddenly as they rounded the corner and saw us. We did our best to leap out of the way, but the verges too were overgrown and full of potholes, causing us further injuries. With much relief, we finally made it to the old postbox. Photos online had shown it sitting in front of two charming looking old cottages, covered in roses. Sadly, one of theses cottages seems to double up as a junkyard; a large area by the side of the road and the whole of the cottage garden was full of broken glass, old tires, endless broken boxes. It was an absolute shambles. It is such a shame when beautiful buildings happen to squalid people. The postbox itself is very nice, an octagonal shape painted red with a back drop of deep red roses climbing up the cottage behind it, but for some unfathomable reason, someone has decided to put a wooden pillar up behind the postbox. Why it is there is an absolute mystery and it just looks like someone is deliberately trying to spoil the appearance of this wonderful piece of British heritage. We walked back on more narrow roads to the village thinking we might get something to eat from the local community shop. It was shut, so we walked on to the local pub, the White Hart. It too was shut. A Saturday lunchtime in the middle of July and the only place open was a service station. We ended up drinking our water in the rather damp and unremarkable church, listening to the sounds of the traffic speeding past the door, before heading back to see if our cars had remained unticketed. It is always a disappointment to be made to feel so unwelcome; clearly this is a place where the farmers rule the roost and have no compunction about allowing the footpaths to get so inaccessible that people get injured and just give up. Combine that with a lack of facilities for visitors and I really would avoid the place like the plague. If you want to see the oldest working postbox, drive up to it, park next to the cottage inhabited by fly tippers, take a photo and drive on to somewhere else for a walk, food and where you will be made to feel welcome.


    St. Dunstan in the East is often touted to visitors as a 'Secret Garden', where the bombed out ruins of a church hide a garden filled with plants to create a beautiful quiet spot away from the crowds. The truth is somewhat different as it features in so many photoshoots and Instagram photos that it is actually a well known location. That aside, it is still a fascinating place and well worth a visit if you are in the area, for that small spot near the Thames encapsulates much of London's history. Wreathed in ivy and lush greenery, the ruins of the church of St. Dunstan in the East are a peaceful enclave away from the chaos and intensity of the banking institutions that surround it. A shell of a church with blackened walls, no ceiling and empty Gothic windows; all that remains intact is a bell tower designed by Christopher Wren. These ruins are Grade I listed and serve as a bleak yet beautiful reminder of the damage that has been inflicted on the city over the centuries. St. Dunstan's was a parish church built around 1100 AD near the Tower of London and River Thames. The church was named for Saint Dunstan, a 10th century monk born in 909 who spent much of his early life being taught by Irish monks in Glastonbury Abbey. He survived several illnesses including a near fatal childhood illness and being thrown in a cesspool where he contracted blood poisoning and ended up covered in tumours. He spent time in the courts of several Saxon kings, each time being falsely accused by jealous courtiers of involvement with black magic and the Devil. He was well known as a skilled musician and metal worker, and eventually, after many trials and tribulations, became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan was canonised in 1029 and was the favourite saint of the English until Thomas a Becket usurped his popularity. He had founded (or rebuilt) Stepneys church in 952 A.D. which was originally dedicated to All Saints, but rededicated to him after his canonisation, which is the church now known as St Dunstan in the West. The ruins you see are not the original 1000 year old building - it has been added to, replaced and repaired over the years, particularly in the 14th century. Three hundred years later the Great Fire of London in 1666 inflicted some serious damage - Pudding Lane where the fire started is a minute's walk away so it was in the thick of the fiery onslaught. It was patched up in the following years with a new tower added in 1668 as part of Christopher Wren's massive undertaking to rebuild the churches of London, and the steeple was added in 1701. The tower and steeple kept the Gothic style so that they blended in with the body of the church, there were carvings by famous sculptor Greenling Gibbons who also worked on the rebuild of St Paul's Cathedral, and an organ which is now at the abbey in St Albans. In the 19th century there were problems with the roof. The architects were going to rebuild just the roof but the church was in such bad condition that the whole building was taken down and built again, although the original tower was retained. It reopened in 1821. Built of Portland stone, it could accommodate up to 700 people and thrived as a parish church. Over 100 years later, 1941 saw the peak of the Blitz, a massive German bombing campaign that dropped 30,000 tonnes of high explosive over the UK, a large amount of which was over London. Much of the East End was destroyed, including this once proud parish church which was decimated, although the tower and north and south walls remained standing. Being too costly to repair, the Gothic ruins were turned into a public botanical garden in the 1960s, which opened to the public in 1971. Since then it has been a place of peace and refuge as the City of London grew around it, giving a small oasis of green amongst all the concrete and chrome. With a small lawn, mature trees including palm trees which lend a tropical air, an old sundial clock, a fountain in the middle which was built on top of the nave and encircled by benches, it is a beautiful spot for the city workers to enjoy in the summer, and for visitors to use for atmospheric photos. Any visit you make will inevitably see you watching women in flowing dresses posing in front of the arched windows and glancing coquettishly at the camera. The ruins are free to visit and are a delightful place to rest on one of the benches and watch the world go by. It is a great place to really spark the imagination, with its mysterious dark walls and empty windows, and is one of the few places left that people can get a glimpse of the damage caused by the Blitz in London, under the shadow or Wren's tower from that other period of mass destruction some 400 years earlier. The church is no longer in use as the parish was combined with nearby All Hallows by the Tower, but they do have occasional services there. The Wren tower is closed to the public as it is used for the All Hallows House Foundation which is a charity for health services. Visiting St. Dunstan in the East Opening Hours: 8am - dusk or 7pm, whichever is earlier The site is sometimes closed to the public for private functions. Ticket Prices: Entry is free How to get there: The nearest tube stations are Monument or Tower Hill.


    There are but a few remnants of Roman London underneath the office blocks and skyscrapers, most of them have been long since built over or destroyed, but a handful have managed to survive through to the modern day, and the Roman House and Baths in Billingsgate is one of them. A private house with its own bathhouse, its survival is unusual as despite having been found by the Victorians, who had little regard for such things, it was protected and preserved and is now open to the public on special guided tours. The Romans arrived in England in 43AD and quickly conquered the south, establishing Londinium in what is now central London. They remained for about 350 years and in that time London became a densely populated and thriving capital city, filled with all of the buildings you would expect in a major Roman city. Most of it has vanished, log since built over, but some sections of the Roman wall and a few buildings have been found, such as the Mithraeum and amphitheatre, both of which are open to the public as free museums. Billingsgate House is unusual as it is not open as a museum and still looks like an archaeological site. It has not been packaged into a museum format, there are no sound and light shows, no interpretation boards, multimedia screens or curated displays of finds in glass cases. Instead this is a raw and elemental dig site, hidden away underneath a very bland office building which can only be accessed by guided tour on certain days. The finds are packed away in cardboard boxes which line one wall, and a few visual aids sit on a table. The whole place has a very exclusive feel to it, you are not following in the footsteps of thousands of other tourists, this is very much off the beaten path, even though you are in central London. The entrance is through some nondescript doors and you wait for your tour in a bare concrete room before descending down narrow utilitarian steps to the basement. There is a small mezzanine level and metal walkways which take you over the ruins and two London City guides talk you through the history and show you around. This house is the only private house which has been found in London, and dates from around 190 AD. The house was originally built right by the Thames, which was far wider back then, and would probably have been U-shaped, although one wall has yet to be discovered. The bathhouse was built about 50 years after the house and was situated in its courtyard. It was a private bathhouse, not one of the usual public ones which the Romans are famous for, as they had a very social aspect to bathing. This one may have been built as a result of the nearby public baths closing down in about 200AD - this one is smaller and more functional, intended for use by the inhabitants of the house only. There is a model on display to show you how it would have looked. The bath house had three rooms, two of which had underfloor heating using the well known hypocaust system. You would enter into the frigidarium or cold room before moving into the caldarium or steam room, and then tepidarium or warm room, both of which had underfloor heating. The remains of the furnace can still be seen and is where a slave would have been feeding it with wood to generate the heat. People would have gone round the rooms several times, in a process of steaming, covering themselves in oil which would then have been scraped off with a special tool to remove the dirt. People would wear clogs on their feet to protect them from the heated floor. The whole system used in the construction was well thought out and you can see ventilation channels and gaps in the bricks and walls to avoid the buildup of smoke. There are no mosaics in the bathhouse, showing it was probably more functional than decorative or for showing off wealth but you can still see the tesserae tiles which were used. There is no indication of who would have lived there but archaeologists think it would have been a prosperous person who may have worked at the basilica, which is now under Leadenhall Market On display are a few tiles found which were found here, and common to building sites across time, a couple have paw prints in them and there is one with a badger's hoof imprint. The tiles were made in Hampstead Heath and the stone used to build the house was bought from nearby Kent. Not many artefacts were found in the house. The Roman walls were built in 200AD and were extended to include a riverside wall around 280AD which would have removed the view for the occupants of the house. The site was in decline by the third century and it clearly went through a change of use, possibly being turned into a boarding house, hotel, or even a brothel. You can see where one of the heating channels was bricked up to make it smaller so it was less costly to run. Eventually, the house collapsed in on itself and nature took over, alder trees grew amongst the ruins and the site was forgotten. The Romans left around 450 A.D. and the area inside the Roman walls remained unoccupied until the 880s. The Saxons had built Lundenwic, which is to the west of the Roman city, and only when their city was under threat from the Vikings did King Alfred move everyone back into Roman London and rebuilt the Roman walls. An Anglo-Saxon brooch was found at the site which dates from the late 400s, so people were exploring the undergrowth or perhaps blackberry picking over the ruins. There was also a metal coin hoard found in the hearth area which dated from 380AD. The Victorians used the site to build a Coal Exchange, coal being one of the mainstays of the economy. James Bunning the architect found part of the ruins when it was being built and unusually for the time, preserved them. Visitors could apply for special permission to go down to see them, although no one really knew quite what they were. The Coal Exchange was a majestic imposing building which was opened with much fanfare in 1848 by the future Edward VII in his first public appearance. In an act of architectural vandalism, the Coal Exchange was knocked down in the 1960s to widen Lower Thames Street, and some hideously bland office buildings were erected. During this process they found the rest of the house and bathhouse that you see today, preserving them in the basement. A visit here gives a fascinating glimpse into the historical underbelly of London, with its setting in a basement making it all the more intriguing; unsanitised, uncurated and with a tour from two excellent guides really is the best way to see it. How to visit the Roman House and Baths at Billingsgate You can find tour dates on Eventbrite - follow City of London Guides. Tours last just under an hour. They do not run year round due to having to maintain strict heat and moisture levels.


    Max Gate is the house designed and built by Thomas Hardy in the Dorset town of Dorchester, once he was a published and acclaimed author. Now owned by the National Trust, it is a substantial red brick villa set in a large garden, a marked contrast to the rural cottage where he was born. It was here he lived with both of his wives, both troubled relationships which led to some of his best work, but also led to the torment of his first wife, Emma. From his humble beginnings at the nearby Hardy's Cottage (which is also owned by the National Trust), and after his time spent working in London as an architect, Thomas Hardy bought a one acre site in Dorchester for the large sum of £450, and designed a two up, two down house for it, which was built by his father and his brother. He and his wife Emma moved in 1885, and Hardy was to live there for over 40 years until his death in 1928. Over the years, Hardy added to the house, starting in 1895 after achieving financial success when he published Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Rooms were extended, a huge extension was added at the back of the house, attic rooms were put in and a conservatory was added. By the time he died, he had three studies. Max Gate entertained the great and the good of the early 20th century literary world including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, A.E. Housman, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Holst, Siegfried Sassoon and T.E. Lawrence, who lived nearby and whose cottage is also open to the public. Thomas and Emma had met in Cornwall, and their courtship inspired his novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. They married four years later in 1874. It has been said that she forced his hand into marriage, then resented him, thinking she was superior as she was the niece of an archdeacon and that he had married 'up'. Friends said they did not get along at all, and they never had children, something which caused them both much unhappiness. Their marriage deteriorated over the years and she retreated more and more to her attic suite in Max Gate, to keep out of the way of her husband and his many visitors. By 1899 she was a virtual recluse and lived in the attic rooms she referred to as 'a sweet refuge and solace'. She died there in November 1912 at the age of 72, a lonely and resentful woman. Hardy’s discovery of her diaries after her death led him to write his greatest poetry, The Poems 1912-1913 in her memory - poems of grief and remorse, many of which are set in the house and grounds. In 1914 he married his secretary/researcher, Florence Dugdale, to whom he left the house on his death in January 1928. Florence ordered the house to be sold after her own death in 1938, and the proceeds to be placed in the Dugdale Trust. Hardy’s sister Kate bought the house to prevent it falling into the wrong hands, and it was she who left Max Gate to the National Trust in 1940. Visiting Max Gate The house is very much as you would expect a Victorian villa to look, filled with the formal arrangements and clutter of the era. Many of the rooms contain original possessions of Hardy's and show off his architectural skills. The Drawing Room, also called the Music Room, was designed to be light and airy and has unusually large windows for the time, which were intended to give views across the garden into the woods and hills beyond. Above the fireplace is Hardy's Venetian mirror and the original fire surround is covered in Delft tiles which he collected while on a cycling holiday in Holland. This room was for entertaining the many visitors received at Max Gate. The dining room includes some of the original furniture such as the scroll arm sofa, the writing bureau and the bookcases which are either side of the fireplace. Hardy designed special shutters for the windows to prevent people peering in on him and his guests, as towards the end of his life tourists would arrive in charabancs and then to try peer over the hedges and walls to see him. The painting on the left of the bookcases is called the Three Marys and was originally owned by the Reverend William Barnes, a Dorset poet and mentor to Hardy. Hardy cherished it and had the painting hanging in the dining room and then his study, but after his death it was sold by Florence, until it was bought and donated back to Max Gate by the Hardy Society. There are three studies in the house, one of which includes his desk, a kitchen which contains the original dresser and is now a café, and a staircase he designed himself which was deliberately wide enough to be able to carry a coffin down it without having to upend it. The Master Bedroom was where Hardy slept and eventually died in January 1928. He had wanted to be buried at Saint Michael's Church in nearby Stinsford with Emma and his family. However a contemporary thought he should be in Westminster Abbey to befit his status and in the end his family and followers compromised; his heart was removed while he still lay in bed, was sealed into a casket and is buried in Stinsford with Emma, while the rest of him was cremated and interred in Westminster Abbey. By far the most interesting room in the house is the small attic where Emma spent most of her time until her death. Emma Gifford had had an idyllic childhood, and was living in Cornwall with her sister when she met Hardy. He was captivated by her charm and she supported his goal to become a writer, helping him with research. She had ambitions to become a writer herself, and eventually began to irritate Hardy by talking of 'our' books, and of the emendations she had made to his work. She developed a fervent belief in religion and grew more eccentric in later life, possibly due to hereditary mental instability but probably more because of her unhappy life and marriage - Hardy's frequent infatuations with other women must have been hard on her. The attic rooms were built in the 1895 extension and she used them just as a daytime retreat until 1899, when she moved her bedroom there, calling the room her boudoir. By 1910, she was in poor health and didn’t leave the room much at all. Hardy wrote about the last time Emma played the piano, not long before she died. She suddenly sat down to the piano, played a long series of her favourite tunes and said at the end she would never play again, which she didn't. The day before her 72nd birthday, she felt really unwell and the following morning she was found by her maid in great distress and asking for Hardy. The maid rushed to Hardy and told him what was wrong - he told the maid to straighten her collar and only then went to see Emma, who died within five minutes. Hardy had her body brought to the foot of his bed, where it stayed for three days, while in her rooms he found two diaries - one called What I think of my Husband which gave a very harsh verdict of him, described by his second wife as being 'full of venom, hatred and abuse of him and his family' and which he swiftly burnt. The other one was a more affectionate account of her childhood and her early life with Hardy. He wrote a poem in The Poems of 1912 - 13 after she died, describing her spirit leaving her grave and visiting Max Gate, in which he wrote about her ghost wandering around unhappy at the changes such as the walls being repainted, her favourite daisies in the garden replaced by a formal border, and at the end of the poem she promises never to return. The implication is that Hardy has forgotten her very quickly after her death, which on the surface he probably had, as he moved Florence into Max Gate just a year later, and married her a year after that. Hardy and Florence met in1905 when she was only 26; within a year she was doing research for him in the British Museum and they were meeting regularly. For the next few years, Emma and Hardy competed for Florence's company with Emma becoming more and more affectionate towards her. Florence just seemed very sorry for her. Florence moved into Max Gate in 1913 to take charge of the household, but she was not well liked by the staff. They married in 1914, when she was 35 and he was 73, in a secret ceremony and she made big changes to Max Gate, getting rid of Emma's cats, completely redecorating the house and removing anything to do with Emma. Emma's attic rooms were locked shut. Florence didn't seem to fare much better than the original Mrs Hardy - he was still having infatuations with younger women, he was writing poems about eloping with women he knew as well as a short novel The Well-Beloved, which describes a man who falls in love with a woman, then with the woman's daughter, and then the woman's grand-daughter. He was described as a secretive person, and reading about his life in the house you can tell he was notoriously tight with money and food, and there is a mention that there was a high turnover of staff, not something you would expect in a happy Victorian home. It is not surprising that Florence destroyed so much of his work and writing after his death, and perhaps insisted on the house being sold after her own death, perhaps as a form of revenge on her husband and his literary legacy. The garden is a lovely one and has similarities with the beautiful cottage garden where he grew up, albeit far more formal and structured. Sadly though, you leave the house feeling slightly perturbed about his behaviours and the damage he inflicted on the two main women in his life. Visiting Max Gate Postcode: DT1 2FN Opening Hours:10.30am - 4.30pm Closed Monday and Friday Cost: £9 for an adult, free to NT members


    There are some restaurants which make for a truly unique dining experience, whether it is because of the food, the location or the ambience. The independently owned Sarastro has all three, but it is the décor which makes this a truly incredible place to eat and one which I would highly recommend to the Slow Traveller visiting London. On the corner of a fairly non-descript building on Drury Lane in Covent Garden is Sarastro, a Mediterranean restaurant which as been there since 1996. Named after a character in Mozart's Magic Flute, the restaurant is in the heart of London's theatre district. Drury Lane was once home to a grand mansion belonging to Sir Robert Drury in 1500, before the house and grounds were built over with rows of small houses and it eventually became one of the worst slums in the capital, famous for prostitution and gin palaces. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was first built here in the 1660s and the area soon became home to countless theatres as well as the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Today there are more than 20 theatres in the district and it is a mecca for culture vultures who visit for the wide range of entertainment on offer from highbrow operas to the ever popular musicals. Sarastro is located in an old pub, part of a larger complex that was built as social housing by the Peabody Estate. The building itself is rather bland, just a standard block of flats, but there is no mistaking where to find Sarastro. Covered in climbing plants, including huge arches which traverse the pavement, there are window boxes, hanging baskets, flowers in pots, ferns, shrubs and ivy everywhere. Interspersed amongst all the foliage you will find eclectic seating, lighting, statues, signs, all manner of curious things including a piano. The exterior gives you a good indication of what to expect, yet stepping inside for the first time will still leave you mouth agape. At the heart of the interior are gilt covered opera boxes converted into seating booths; the original opera boxes are from the nearby Royal Opera House, discarded when they had a refit. The top level only accessible by stairs, the booths underneath them have padded ceilings so you don't bump your head. The rest of the décor is a mishmash of opera and theatre props, rich fabrics and side lights. It is all jumbled together in no apparent order and creates such a rich visual display that you will spend most of your meal admiring the surroundings rather than talking to your companions. Piles of old books line the windowsills, paintings peer out at you from behind layers of decorations, Tiffany lampshades spread a colourful glow, random gold pipes cover the ceiling, and masks, mannequins, well worn ballet shoes and musical instruments hang from every available bit of ceiling. In the background music plays; it was 1920s music when I visited which created a wonderful vintage atmosphere as we sat there amongst the eclectic props. They do have live entertainment on some nights of the week with shows starting at 8.30pm. Thursdays is Swing and Motown, Fridays is Latin, Saturdays is 70s and 80s and Sundays is Opera and String Quartet. The food is excellent - Turkish Mediterranean with a choice of menus depending on what time you are eating, as this is a restaurant very much geared around the theatre crowd. The Pre-theatre set menu is available before 6pm and after 10pm, or there is an A La Carte Menu and a Set Menu. A trip to the loos is something else too, they are painted with colourful risqué scenes that make a visit far more interesting than you would anticipate. Service is quick and cheery. Make sure you ask for the Set Menu if that's what you want, otherwise you will be given the A La Carte menu. Bear in mind they automatically add a 12% service charge on to the bill. Book your table and look at menus on the Sarastro website >>


    London has several roof gardens on offer to the public, but the one above the Crossrail station in Canary Wharf is the largest of them all. Far superior to the more famous Sky Gardens, this garden is one where you can actually walk among the trees, rest on benches and listen to birdsong, and take your time to enjoy your surroundings, without having to book your visit in advance or get swamped by huge crowds. West India Docks on the River Thames were the first commercial wet docks in the country and once one of the busiest docks in the world. Once a place of thriving industry, they declined to almost nothing by the 1960s, suffering from changes in the shipping industry and technological advancement. The 1980s saw the start of the redevelopment of the area, with old dock buildings demolished or turned into riverside flats for the wealthy. Big business and the skyscrapers moved in, and Canary Wharf was formed. After a few initial hiccups and rivalry with the City of London for commercial supremacy, the area is now a high tech centre of multinational corporations; all shiny skyscrapers, gleaming steel and people in suits carrying briefcases, rushing around and looking important. For all of its glamour and fancy chrome restaurants, its does have a few decent parks and green spaces, one of which is the Crossrail Garden. Crossrail Place was first opened in 2015 and was the huge complex built around the improved rail infrastructure, created to open up parts of Canary Wharf. There are four levels of shops, cafes and other amenities above the underground station, the whole thing enclosed by a distinctive roof. 300m long and the largest timber project in the UK, the roof is open at points to allow natural light, air and rainwater in. These all benefit the plants which are growing in the roof garden - a free public space which is home to a wide variety of plants, including many species which first entered Britain through the original dock. The unique appearance of the cushioned looking roof was inspired by Wardian Cases - the special protective containers designed to safely transport specimens home from exploration overseas, a sort of early terrarium. The layout of the garden is said to be inspired by a ship's larder, filled with specimens being transported back. Many plants came back for commercial use, such as bananas, coffee and sugar, but others were just specimens of pretty and unusual plants and often ended up in places such as the nearby Kew Gardens and stately homes. As the park is directly north of Greenwich, home to the meridian which divides east and west, the garden is divided into the two geographic zones. The western half is filled with plants from the western hemisphere such as tree ferns, gum trees and strawberry trees, while the eastern half is filled with bamboos, magnolia and maples. Each is interspersed with flowering plants and shrubs. The best thing about the garden is that it does actually feel like a garden. It has paths winding through it, benches in shady spots and little hidden areas where you can just sit on a bench and relax. The rain comes in and you can feel the breeze on your face if you are standing under an open part of roof. In short it is the antithesis of the Sky Garden where they were forced to include a public space to get planning permission; so they threw a couple of plants in containers, make you book your time slot online and put you through airport style security before you are even allowed in there. This is the sort of garden where you just walk up there as and when you feel like it. There are a few people wandering around admiring the plants, or sitting and chatting on a bench, it feels like a normal park. There are not hundreds of people standing around with their phones out to take photos, or knocking back glasses of champagne just because it is for sale and they feel they should. There is the odd art piece amongst the foliage, a small café and some subtle lighting which keeps the place feeling safe without being intrusive. It is obviously more sanitised than you would find out in the countryside, but other than that it feels like a real piece of nature in the heart of commercial London. The Crossrail Garden is open every day until 9pm or sunset in the summer. It is free to visit and does not require advance booking.


    This unusual tree growing through stacked gravestones in Camden, North London, is believed to have been created by the author Thomas Hardy when he worked there in the years before finding fame for his novels. Having stood firm for 160 years, the tree was sadly felled by a storm in December 2022, but its legacy lingers on and there are plans for a suitable memorial to this unique feature in a London graveyard. Hardy was working in London after his early years in the far more rural Dorchester, where he grew up in poverty - living in one of the most beautiful homely cottages you will ever find, and which is open the public. His family were unable to afford education for him beyond the age of 16 and so he was apprenticed to a local architect. After working on various local projects such as the church next to the impressive Athelhampton House, he moved to London and enrolled in Kings College, joining Arthur Blomfield's practice as an assistant architect. In the mid 1860s, the Midland Railway was being created to go through what is now Kings Cross-St Pancras and the cemetery of St Pancras Church was needed for its route. The church is thought to be one of the oldest Christian sites in the country and had fallen into disrepair by the early 1800s. In 1847 it underwent a period of restoration with drastic changes being made to the building, and burials ceased in 1854 with the Extramural Interment Act, going instead to the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery which was opened in nearby East Finchley. In 1865 the Bishop of London hired Blomfield's firm to supervise the proper dismantling of tombs and exhumation of the graves, and Blomfield passed the task to his protégé Thomas Hardy. The bodies were moved without their headstones, leaving the problem of what to do with them. The solution was to stack them around a young ash sapling - possibly intended as a temporary measure, but they remained there and over the years the sapling grew into a tree, its trunk and roots growing through the stones. Hardy returned to Dorset after only five years in London, worried about his health, disliking the city and acutely aware of the social divisions amongst its inhabitants. He probably never gave the tree a second thought, but over the years its fame grew, for many symbolising the triumph of life over death, and it received a steady trickle of visitors. The church put up a hedge barrier to protect it and the ash survived for at least 160 years before a storm in December 2022 snapped the trunk and destroyed it for good. I was very lucky to visit it not long before its demise. There are plans to ensure that the gravestones remain protected and that some sort of memorial is maintained but what that will look like is yet to be determined.


    An old gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral has an unusual place in history as the inspiration behind the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thomas Thetcher, also known as the Hampshire Grenadier, died in 1764 after drinking a small beer, and would have remained entirely forgotten if he had not become the inspiration for the early sobriety movement. Winchester in Hampshire is a beautiful and ancient city; once one of the most important cities in England, both pre and post Roman era. It retains many of its old buildings including The Great Hall, home to an Arthurian round table which has been there for 700 years, Wolvesey Castle where the important Bishops of Winchester lived for centuries and of course Winchester Cathedral. The cathedral is the focal point of this now very upmarket town, and features on every visitor's itinerary. Most visitors walk past the few remaining graves in the the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. There are not many gravestones left outside, and most people will head inside to find the far more recognisable graves of Jane Austen or the early Saxon Kings, ignoring the tall, loquacious gravestone sitting quietly under a tree. The lengthy inscription reads: "In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12th of May 1764. Aged 26 Years. In grateful remembrance of whose universal good will towards his Comrades, this Stone is placed here at their expence, as a small testimony of their regard and concern. 'Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall, And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all'. This memorial being decay'd was restor'd by the Officers of the Garrison A.D. 1781. 'An Honest Soldier never is forgot, Whether he die by Musket or by Pot'. The Stone was replaced by the North Hants Militia when disembodied at Winchester, on 26 April 1802, in consequence of the original Stone being destroyed. It was again replaced by The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1966." So how did this inspire the AA movement? An American soldier serving in World War I was stationed near Winchester while waiting to be sent to the Western Front. Bill Wilson had had a troubled start in life and had recently discovered the joys of alcohol, finding it helped him with his social unease and lack of confidence. He saw the grave when visiting the cathedral and was struck by the similarity of the name Thomas Thetcher with that of a childhood friend of his, Ebby Thacher. It was soon forgotten when he returned to the States and became a businessman, whose career was often marred by his extreme drinking. After several stints in rehab, he finally managed to quit with the help of Ebby Thacher and a church group. He later published his famous book, Alchoholics Anonymous, about how to overcome alcohol addiction, writing about his visit to Winchester Cathedral and how the gravestone had caught his eye, describing it as an ‘ominous warning which I failed to heed". Ironically, the gravestone is warning not of excessive alcohol consumption but rather the reverse. At a time when drinking water was rife with all manner of disgusting effluent, people drank beer instead. It was unknown at the time, but the water was full of diseases such as typhoid and cholera, so drinking beer protected them from this as the alcohol content killed off the germs. Poor Thomas Thetcher had drunk a weak beer, too weak for the alcohol to kill off the germs, and had died as a result: "And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all" The grave has become something of a memorial for those who have been afflicted by the same illness as Bill, and you will often see the odd flower or token in front of the gravestone. Otherwise, Thomas Thetcher goes unnoticed. You can find the grave at w3w: shaves.keys.microchip


    Stonehenge sits on Salisbury Plain, a unique chalk ridge which covers much of Wiltshire and which is left mostly undisturbed as it is primarily military land, used for training and housing thousands of troops. This makes it the perfect place for wildlife and it is home to countless rare species of flora, fauna and fungi. A visit to the area can be about far more than stone circles when you look around you to see what is living amongst the stones and barrows. Stonehenge is often seen in isolation from the landscape around it, with all of the attention on the stones and what they meant to their original builders. Surrounded by ropes and security guards, it is easy to think of it as an entirely separate entity, yet the natural world, much like the original builders, does not recognise those recent man-made boundaries. For several species, Stonehenge is just home, a place to get treats from careless picnickers, or a location to visit on a long migration across the globe. All of those species, whether a jackdaw who lives in the lintels, a fungi who slowly creeps across the rocks or a butterfly who pops by over the summer, have a completely different view of those historic and ancient stones, and an appreciation of them can bring a whole new perspective to a visit to Stonehenge. Corvids: The Guardians of Stonehenge Salisbury Plain can be a bleak and forbidding place with a marked absence of much visible life, but the flock of ravens, jackdaws and crows keep the scene alive with their endless flight and fussing over the stones. In season you can watch the jackdaws nest, dropping twigs down the hole of a lintel until one catches on the sides and can be used as the basis for a nest. The rest perch on fence posts or casually stroll amongst and upon the stones, as if they know that their audience can't. Visitors are often surprised by the presence of the corvids which live in that lonely spot, and have done so for centuries, leading to them being seen as the 'Guardians of the Stones'. Not only can you see them flying over the stones and battling over twigs, they can get quite close to people, always on the lookout for an edible treat and having little fear of the intruders into their ancient home. “Another very unlikely spot is made use of by daws as a place to breed in, and that is Stonehenge. These birds deposit their nests in the interstices between the upright and the impost stones of that amazing work of antiquity: which circumstance alone speaks the prodigious height of the upright stones, that they should be tall enough to secure those nests from the annoyance of shepherd-boys, who are always idling round that place”. Gilbert White: Natural Histories and Antiquities of Selborne, 1788 Those of a more mystical persuasion interpret their presence as spiritually significant. Some see them as harbingers of death, and according to Druid tradition they're believed to bring about new changes (death to one phase of your life and the birth to another). Like anything to do with Stonehenge, the birds are not without controversy, as in recent years English Heritage have put mesh in some of the holes in the trilithons in an attempt to prevent nesting. This was noticed by an eagle eyed member of the public who tweeted about it to raise awareness, then submitted a Freedom Of Information request to find out what was going on. The heavily redacted documents confirm that they were indeed trying to prevent the birds from nesting in their traditional homes, but the reason was to protect the rare lichens which grow on the stones. Rare Lichen: Seawater on the stones Although it is widely accepted that Stonehenge is a mystery which will never be truly known, one of its lesser known mysteries is the presence of ancient lichen which can only usually be found by the sea. The stones are home to over 80 species of lichen; seven of them nationally rare and two of them exceptionally rare. One of these was identified in 1951 as "very rich, active and nearly pure unialgal growths of Hæmatococcus dræbakensis. I believed then that this alga was known only from pools in granite on a small island near Drobak in Norway ; I have learnt since that there is one doubtful record from Wales." (source) There are various explanations for its presence, the one that is the most exciting that the lichen was already present on the stones when they were transported to the Plain, having been washed in seawater. The more prosaic and likely explanation though is that they found their way here due to the way the stones are exposed to the elements on the Plain and that there is enough salt in the air coming off the coast to create their ideal living conditions. That being said, there is a good 30 miles between Stonehenge and the sea, and there are no other salt loving species to be found in the area, so they mystery remains. The lichen is currently being investigated by experts and there may be an answer yet. The Great Bustard: Back from the Brink Extinct in the UK after the last bird was shot in 1832, in recent years young birds have been hand reared and released onto Salisbury Plain, with a fair few sightings of them wandering around Stonehenge. The Great Bustard is one of the most elusive in the country as well as the heaviest flying bird in the world (up to 44lbs), and was once a common sight over the grassy plains of Wiltshire. The RSPB ran a project to reintroduce them in 2004, importing them from Russia with little success as they kept migrating back there, so eggs were then imported from Spain, whose Great Bustards were more similar in nature to those who had once been native to the UK and who were less inclined to migrate such great distances. The project has slowly become a success and is now monitored by the Great Bustard Group. Based in nearby Amesbury, you can visit their hide to see Bustards, or pay just £20 to spend 2 hours to have a guided tour of the project site and the hides, with all money going towards their upkeep and preservation. The Stone Curlew: Teetering on the brink There are two distinct populations of Stone Curlew in Britian - East Anglia and Wessex, and of these, Salisbury Plain and nearby Porton Down are particular strongholds. These areas are extremely important because they are relatively untouched by modern farming practices and remain the only area of level chalk grassland to have survived in the whole of Northwest Europe, the rest going under the plough. The RSPB set up the Stone Curlew recovery project in 1980s. The project monitors nests, rings chicks and keeps a watchful eye on breeding sites throughout the season. With help from the military who own much of the Plain and who run their own conservation programmes, they have worked successfully with farmers to double the population in recent years. Salisbury Plain is also home to many rare species of plants including orchids and grasses, as well as rare butterflies, insects and moths, many of whom can only survive in the unique, undisturbed chalklands of the hundreds of miles surrounding the stones. A visit to Stonehenge does not just have to be a quick sprint around the stones: you can walk around the woodlands and plains to find far more on offer. 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    A visit to the Poppy Factory is a unique and rewarding experience, providing a chance to step briefly into the world of poppy making and remembrance that dominates the national consciousness in November of every year. A registered charity, they provide employment and raise funds for military veterans from their historic site in Richmond, south-west London. The wreaths that you see laid at the Cenotaph and at war memorials around the country are made at the Poppy Factory with a great sense of pride and satisfaction. A visit to the factory and learning its history pays tribute not only to those who died in war, but helps to support those who have survived the physical and emotional trauma of military service. A Brief History of the Poppy Factory The horrors of World War I are forever etched into the national memory of not just the UK, but the other countries who fought alongside them. It was a brutal war and the early promises of, 'It'll be over by Christmas' soon changed, with men spending days on end, knee deep in mud and filth as the endless pattern of trench warfare was developed and they were risking their lives for little more than a few metres of land each time. The once peaceful French countryside became a pock-marked landscape of mud, death and disease. In the first spring of the war, 1915, the artillery shelling of the Western Front in France and Belgium had disturbed the ground to such an extent that poppy seeds, which had lain dormant for years in the soil and fertilised by the nitrogen from the bombs, burst into spectacular colour. Soldiers who had spent the winter in the damp and cold trenches marvelled at the sight, picked the poppies and sent them home in letters to their families or stuck them between the pages of their diaries. It was in that year also that the Canadian physician, John McCrae, serving in dressing stations in Belgium, wrote his poem In Flanders Field: In Flanders Field, the poppies grow Between the crosses, row on row The words resonated with so many who were left bereaved or severely affected by the carnage of the conflict, and the poppy began to represent lives lost, remembrance, and the hope for a peaceful future. The creation of poppies came out of the work of two women. An American professor, Moina Belle Michael, conceived the idea of selling red poppies to show support and gratitude for the troops after reading John McCrae's poem and vowed to, "always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping the faith with all who died." She was the first person to make and sell red poppies. Simultaneously, French school teacher Anna Guerin who was living in the USA, held poppy days in several states and wanted to spread the concept further afield. She decided to mass produce poppies from silk, employing women and children in war-ravaged France to make them. She tried to persuade the American Legion to adopt the symbol of the red poppy but was unsuccessful, so in 1921 she appealed to the newly formed British Legion and won the support of Earl Haig. The poppies were sold in return for a donation and that year, 9 million poppies were made and sold. Earl Haig saw the huge potential for raising money for those under his command who had suffered so much, and he now wanted a British supplier. Major George Howson, a survivor of the Western Front, had formed The Disabled Society in 1920 and was desperate to find help for members; ex-servicemen who had been so severely physically or mentally wounded that they could not return to their pre-war jobs. He proposed to Haig that a factory should be founded to make the poppies and that the employees should be disabled veterans. Haig agreed, Howson was given £2000, and within a few weeks a factory was established in the Old Kent Road with just five disabled servicemen. By 1924 the workforce had expanded hugely and the factory that year made 27 million poppies. In 1926 it moved to its larger, still existing premises at Richmond. In 1928 Howson instituted the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, and the factory also began the manufacture of crosses and wreaths as well as buttonhole poppies. From these early beginnings, the factory expanded to become a vibrant community, with flats built for the workers and their families, and a thriving “estate”, providing much needed income for those who otherwise would have struggled to find occupation and purpose in their lives. Women were allowed to become employees from 1959. The factory still employs ex-servicemen and although they no longer make the individual poppies, they still make the wreaths, including those you see placed on the Cenotaph every November. A Visit to the Poppy Factory In 2021, the Poppy Factory opened its doors to visitors, mostly in large groups but with some days reserved for individuals. The Visitor Centre was revamped and it now welcomes an increasing number of people each year who are keen to find out more about poppies and learn about the charitable work which takes place in this historic and pretty corner of west London. A visit begins with a short presentation about the origin of the poppy itself as a powerful and nationally recognised symbol of remembrance and of the circumstances which led to the foundation of the factory in 1922, four years after the ending of the Great War in 1918. Our tour guide vividly depicted the horrors of the trenches and the simple joy which would have been found in the bright red poppies growing amongst the bleak, war torn mud. She told us how poppies were placed in with letters and sent home, how they were something the soldiers actually could write about without fear of the censor's black pen. The visitors are then allowed to wander around the visitor centre which incorporates a museum and displays as well as more hands-on activities, including trying their hands at making poppies themselves. The original wooden block design devised by George Howson is used and you are encouraged to make them one-handed as so many of those early veterans were compelled through loss of limb to do. You are provided with stems, leaves, red flowers and black centres and given simple instruction by the kindly volunteers. You may keep a couple of your poppies and put any more in the box, ready for shipping to the British Legion who will sell them in the future. You can also make the wreaths that are laid on town and village war memorials every year. You leave your enthusiastic – but somewhat imperfect – efforts for the veterans to reshape later, and they too will be used when November comes around. The buttonhole poppies are no longer made here at Richmond as inevitably machines have taken over and they are now produced at a modern factory in Aylesford in Kent, but the veterans here continue to make the wreaths by hand, and some still live in those early flats in a nearby building. The Poppy Factory has always had royal patronage and today’s patron is now Queen Camilla. The Visitors Centre has many photographs of royal visits and also displays the wreaths laid at the Cenotaph. A new wreath had to be hastily made for King Charles III in November 2022 just two months after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The King himself was closely involved in its design. It features the outer ring of laurel leaves to symbolise bravery, honour and victory and the bow is similar to that of his grandfather King George VI. The wreath of the Prince of Wales also had to be remade for Prince William, and Queen Camilla also has a wreath made to her own specification. After the Remembrance Service each year these wreaths are collected, cleaned, dried and repaired so that they can be reused. Today the Poppy Factory’s role main charitable role is the support offered to survivors of more recent conflicts, and you can read some of their stories in the displays. Since 2001 it has helped over 1500 veterans with complex health and social needs, setting those with physical disabilities and those with PTSD on the road to employment and continuing to support them as long as the help is needed. One area of the Centre is devoted to the kind of assistance offered, with many letters and photos showing the gratitude that many feel. The visitor centre has a café which makes excellent coffee and delicate cakes, served in some very beautiful poppy crockery, which we just couldn't resist buying from the small gift shop on the way out. All of the entrance fee for the visit is donated to the charitable work finding employment for ex-service personnel. You leave with a strong sense that George Howson’s vision of 1922, that “disabled men should be given their chance”, is flourishing still over 100 years later. It is a fascinating and highly informative visit and one which is well worth making. Visiting the Poppy Factory Book your tickets: Poppy Factory website Nearest tube station: Richmond

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