A medieval castle, a chestnut tree and Hercules

Chirk Castle is a magnificent medieval castle not far from where I live and I like to go there for a stroll around the garden and park. With its rounded towers it has a very distinct shape which reminds of Beaumaris Castle, another of the famous castles of Edward I along the north Wales coastline.

Chirk Castle was built by Robert Mortimer de Chirk between 1295 and 1310 to guard the Dee and Ceiriog valleys and as the local administrative centre. It has changed hands many times in the beginning with some of its owners being very important men of their age and recognised for their services to the crown. Even a future king – Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) – once owned it. But there is also another side to it. During the medieval period five of its owners were executed for treason, their estates seized by the Crown – caught up in wars that rumbled on for centuries.

Chirk Castle is the only Edward I marcher fortress that is still inhabited today and has been in the hands of the Myddleton family since 1595.

The gardens offer just the right mix of formality and lush flower borders with stunning views across the valley and the surrounding area. Actually the Hercules statue has probably the best view and he got here in a very ‘posh’ way – he was flown in by helicopter from his previous place in the lower woods. You will see a picture with a lonely plinth further down which used to be where he was positioned.

But it is worth to look beyond this and have a walk around the adjoining parkland. Various trails offer an insight into some interesting facts about the castle and the area and you might even see some wildlife and (almost) wild ponies.

And don’t miss the magnificent chestnut which has supposedly been here since the time of Henry VIII.

Even though I visit the house every time I’m there, I didn’t take any photographs as it is quite dark and my camera often struggles with these conditions. Best thing is to go there and explore it yourself. Chirk Castle is managed by the National Trust.

Erddig Park and its castle

It’s funny how you tend to write about places you travel to but hardly about the ones right at your front door. While visiting Erddig Hall and the adjoining park for the annual apple festival this weekend I realised, I had never written anything about this beautiful place just outside of Wrexham even though I visit it several times a year.

Erddig Hall is one of the country’s finest stately homes and, as well as the park, managed by the National Trust. In Erddig Park you can find the ingenious Cup and Saucer and the lesser known Motte & Bailey Castle. This old castle mound seems to be one part of the park which is often overlooked and not so well known. Even on beautiful sunny days when the park is enjoyed by many, you can have the old motte-and-bailey castle all to yourself. One of my neighbours, who lived in this area for more than 30 years, didn’t even know it existed.

When visiting Erddig Hall I like to include a little stroll through the country park so why don’t you join me. And yes, the park is much bigger than what you will see right now.

Even though the park might look like it was created by nature, it is actually the work of landscape designer William Emes who worked at Erddig from 1768-1780. He planted many trees and manipulated the flow of water across the park. His most famous feature is the Cup and Saucer waterfall.

One of the lesser know features of the park is the Motte and Bailey Castle that was incorporated into Emes’ design. Built by the Normans in the 11th century, the Motte and Bailey Castle’s purpose was to enforce their control over the local area. All that is left today are some earthen mounds hiding between the trees but once the castle would have dominated the skyline. When Emes started his work 700 years after the castle’s originial construction he planted an avenue of trees on its summit named Cathedral Isle. Back then the avenue was leading to a spectacular view over the surrounding landscape but nowadays the trees are just too high to see much.

The park surrounds the hall and offers, apart from the beautiful woods, many meadows and a lake – Llyn Erddig. Also included in the park is a section of Wat’s Dyke, a 40 mile long defensive earthen dam built in the 8th century.

I will do a proper post on Erddig Hall soon but as I had mentioned I was going there, I have included some pictures of the house and garden. It was nice seeing it so busy for the apple festival and I’m sure I’ll be back around Christmas for some Victorian Christmas inspiration.

A cabinet of wonders – Calke Abbey

Calke Abbey is not your average stately home, it’s more like a long-lost cabinet of wonders crammed with furniture, stuffed birds, mounted animal heads, books, tools and bric-à-brac wherever you turn. Calke Abbey, managed by the National Trust, tells the story of the decline of so many country houses during the 20th century. Having retained its peeling paintwork, slightly chaotic flair and overgrown courtyards it has only been restored to make it safe for visitors and stop further decline. And that’s its charm. Instead of a tidied glamorous country house, you enter the world of an eccentric and reclusive family who lived there for nearly 300 years and liked to collect things.

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Starting at the old stables

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It was amazing what you could find in those rooms. The idea with the ‘holes’ in the doors is brilliant.

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Once a place of hard work now more of a scrap metal heaven

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Quite an eclectic mix

From the stables you proceed to the main house.

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The mansion

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Love those little details

There are some glamorous rooms in this building and especially the state bed is magnificent as its colours are still vibrant due to the fact that it was stored away till the 1980s. But I don’t think I have ever seen so many stuffed animals outside a museum.

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Even though the rooms are massive they feel a bit crowded with all those animal displays.

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The room was quite high with an elaborate ceiling.

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They certainly knew how to live.

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The intricate details are well preserved.

My favourite parts where those that looked more neglected with the paint peeling off and the rooms just used for  storage.

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Not so glamorous anymore.

Well, if you like to collect things you better have a big house.

Well, if you like to collect things you better have a big house.

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The former kitchen

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Downstairs. There were even ferns growing on the wall as it was so damp.

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It makes you wonder how all those rooms looked like in their heyday.

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I wouldn’t use those chairs anymore.

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Interesting mix.

There’s also a long eerie tunnel leading to the private brewery on the estate and a church where family members have been buried. I particularly liked the walled garden as, even though it was maintained, it is not too neatly kept. And the orangery is a little treasure as well.

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The orangery

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The sculpture somewhat survived the decades, the wall not so much so.

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Slightly more tools than I have in my garden shed

There is much more to see as the estate is quite substantial and there is even an impressive ice house and a grotto, but I was intrigued by the the story of decline.

Bodnant Garden – A plantlover’s paradise

Once a year I get my family to stay with me for an extended visit and we usually end up traveling up and down the country visiting fascinating places. Our first stop this year was Bodnant Garden, a National Trust property overlooking the Conwy Valley in North Wales. Even though I had been several times before I never managed to see the famous and the UK’s longest Laburnum Arch and this year this was about to change. It is just beautiful.

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The Laburnum Arch. I suppose it looks even nicer with a bit of sunshine.

Bodnant Garden is a world-famous garden and noted for its botanical collections which it owes to its strong connection with the plant hunters and expeditions in the 19th and 20th century. Created by five generations of one family it offers spectacular views across Snowdonia and changes colours continuously thanks to its big variety of plant collections from all over the world.

Obviously there’s much more to see than I can show you here, so if you ever get a chance go and visit Bodnant Garden.

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Birmingham – brimming with history

When I first visited Birmingham on a backpack tour around England almost 20 years ago, it wasn’t love at first sight. It was a grey day with a persistent drizzle that didn’t dampen only my mood but also drained any colour and fun out of Birmingham. I was glad I stayed only for the day.

Since I moved to Wales, I have been back several times. Usually for my yearly fix of bratwurst and mulled wine at the German Christmas market and a bit of retail therapy. And I try to discover a new part of the city every time. Last year I had a nose around the newly opened library. This time, I arrived quite early on a sunny though cold day and decided to go for a walk along the Birmingham Canal,and around the city centre for a while before getting all christmassy.

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The atrium of The Cube

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The Cube is one of the newer buildings in Birmingham.

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Gas Street Basin

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Along the canal you get a feel for the industrial past of the city.

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Canal junction

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The area seems to be popular with graffiti artists as well.

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Not a single cloud in sight.

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Old and new. The building to the right is the new library. 

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The facade of the library.

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Two wheels – Birmingham Wheel and a statue outside the Hall of Memory representing the navy and holding a ship’s wheel

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King Edward VII

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Nice touch to an otherwise boring building

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This side of One Martineau Place has got a bit of a retro feel to it.

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Selfridges

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‘Back to backs’, the last surviving court of back-to-back houses in Birmingham managed by the National Trust. I was lucky to get a last minute place on one of the guided tours.

I have to say, I really enjoyed myself (and the bratwurst afterwards) and will have to come back on a summer’s day and see more of this city.

Getting in the Christmas mood

One of the stranger things in my job as a Graphic Designer is that I start working on Christmas designs when everybody else is thinking about summer picnics and trips to the beach while the sun is shining outside (one year I had to start the first Christmas design by the end of January). By the time winter and advent has arrived I am more or less sick of snowflakes, reindeers, Christmas trees and Santas and it takes some effort to get me into that Christmas mood again. Usually visiting a Christmas market with a mulled wine (or two) and a bratwurst helps.

I missed many events because I was spoiled for choice, running out of time or some days the weather was just too bad for my taste (I don’t mind it being cold as long as it’s dry).

I always like the atmosphere at the Chester Christmas market (and I don’t mean the Winter Wonderland!) and what better way to combine a visit to the market with some late night Christmas shopping and the Winter Watch Parade.

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So not the Christmas market but it looked pretty.

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The Winter Watch Parade is popular with young and old.

‘A Tudor Yuletide’ at Little Moreton Hall near Congleton in Cheshire was a bit different. The warm welcome drink at the entrance was much appreciated and I learned some things as well.

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Defying the rules of physics since Tudor times – Little Moreton Hall

‘Logically it should not still be standing up!’ but fortunately for us, Little Moreton Hall defied logic and physics for over 500 years. Also the Tudors, or those who could afford it, loved sweet flavours, a fact that sits quite well with me as I have a sweet tooth myself. I didn’t mind that the marzipan, or marchpane, looked like bacon, it was gorgeous.

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The Long Gallery, the reason why the building has its top-heavy appearance and has been described to look “like a stranded Noah’s ark” in the National Trust guidebook.

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The windows created interesting patterns

Saying that, I had to discover that I am not a fan of Tudor chicken paté. The volunteer had warned me I might be in for a surprise but I wasn’t prepared for this. Rose water, almost overpowering. Because the Tudors had a sweet tooth they even wanted their chicken paté to be sweet. Thanks, but no thanks.

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Live music in the hall that was set up for a feast.

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What Tudors would eat, if they were rich enough

The German Christmas market in Birmingham is one of the biggest German markets outside of Germany. I either get my yearly fix of mulled wine, bratwurst and Quarkbällchen (plain donuts) here in Manchester. I also managed to fit in some sightseeing and shopping which is always a bonus. But as last year, some people really should think about some of the aspects I wrote down in my personal code of conduct for Christmas markets.

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In need for some German Christmas treats

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It looks even prettier when night falls

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View from the library on the ice rink near the Christmas market.

Wrexham had some events on offer as well. The Victorian Christmas market is always nice and this year marked the first appearance of the Coca Cola Truck in town.

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Holidays are coming to Wrexham this year.

Chirk Castle was the setting for a medieval Christmas market this year. Unfortunately it rained when I visited so the courtyard with the market was deserted and everybody wanted to get into the tower for come craft workshops and the grotto. It also meant I head the other rooms in the castle more or less to myself.

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Due to the weather the courtyard was kind of deserted

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I wonder if one of the presents is for me…

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Not quite my idea of a Christmas menu

Finally I went to Erddig House, not for Erddig Glow which I heard was fantastic, but to take a look at some rooms that had been set up for Christmas dinner in the 1920s or 30s and all with real candles. It created a magical if quite dark atmosphere and was definitely worth the visit.

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Christmas in the 20s/30s – real candles were used in the chandeliers etc

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It was quite dark so you had to watch what you were eating. Thankfully the cooks were highly skilled.

Next up, hopefully, will be the Christmas market in my hometown Bonn in Germany on its last day and I will have myself another mulled wine or Feuerzangenbowle and bratwurst.

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My next and final destination – Bonn Christmas market.

Merry Christmas to you all!!

A French château in England – Waddesdon Manor

Built in the late 19th century by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the style of the great Renaissance châteaux of the Loire Valley, Waddesdon Manor sits on a hilltop overlooking Waddesdon village in Buckinghamshire.

Wanting a country retreat to entertain his guests, some features of Waddesdon were inspired by two particular Loire châteaux: the towers by those of the Château de Maintenon and the staircase towers on the north facade by the staircase at the Château de Chambord.

Some of the elaborate details of the manor.

The Parterre at the south front of the house is a fine example of the flamboyant, high Victorian style of gardening with their bedding displays and fountains. The grounds were a wonder of their day, too, as many large trees were successfully transplanted. This was such a special thing those days, that even Queen Victoria invited herself to view them in 1890.

Sculptures are key to the garden, creating focal points and ever new things to discover. Being mostly allegorical and mythological figures, they form one of the most important collections of 17th and 18th century garden statuary in the country.

When first built, guests of the manor enjoyed all modern comforts of the time like running water, central heating and electricity. Still it feels like a French château with lavish furnishings, chandeliers and lots of gold.

There are many more things to discover and spending a whole day almost didn’t seem enough.
Today Waddesdon Manor is part of the National Trust and administered by a Rothschild charitable trust.