Midlandia

Travelling up the Midlands, I stop off at Wallingford. It’s not a place I knew a great deal about, other than the sight of Taylor’s rather bizarre church spire from afar. Up close, the Georgian spire is no less odd, contrasting with the flint walls and with the Morris and Company stained glass. The interior is dusty and covered in cobweb. Even if maintained, it still has the feel of a derelict building. The nearby castle is a more clear case of ruination, with ivy covering the ruined walls and with much of it partially flooded due to the recent rains. Although the sun shines brightly while I walk around, the wind is still bitingly cold. The weather remains rather cold for the season; the Hawthorn has only just come into leaf and daffodils have only just flowered. Unsurprisingly, the sun soon gives up its place to black cloud and rain, which sets the tone for the Easter weekend.

Arriving in the Midlands, we visit Aston. The church of St Peter and St Paul surprises us by being open; I feel smug at noting the resemblance to St Martin’s in the Bullring and guessing the hand of Chatwin behind the design. The interior is rather more ornate than St Martin’s though, with elaborate baroque wall monuments, alabaster tombs, wood carvings on the pews and a hefty amount of Victorian stained glass. As is usual for Birmingham, the exterior of the church and graveyard are black from decades of industrial pollution. Were they anywhere other than Birmingham the church and Aston Hall would count amongst Britain’s finest buildings; as it stands they seem rather forgotten, penned in by the motorway and surrounded by industrial decay. The hall is rather impressive though; the entrance hall is composed of trome l’oeil landscapes and a frieze of animals like elephants and unicorns. The Jacobean plaster ceilings and wooden carvings form a recurrent feature throughout the house. Rooms are given up to exhibits like stuffed tigers from the hall’s day as a Victorian museum, civil war weaponry from a roundhead siege and chinoiserie tapestries. In the afternoon, I move on to Matthew Boulton’s Soho House, a counterpart to a visit to the Erasmus Darwin house in Lichfield a few years ago. Seeing replicas of Priestley’s electricity generator, Boulton’s sidereal clock, Russell’s painting of the face of the moon (a painting that could easily pass for a photograph with considerable detail of the moon’s geography) or even Boulton’s central heating system in the cellar, it seems odd to think of Birmingham as a great centre of manufacturing for everything from ormulu to coinage; today this district is one of the most run down and crime ridden in the city. The pictures of Handsworth in the house also seem rather odd, showing an arcadian view of woodland from the house. There’s even a replica of Boulton’s wooden hermitage, something that must strikes a rather oddly romantic note in what is otherwise a history of the Enlightenment.

The following day is taken up with a visit to Hereford Cathedral. The Romanesque pillars and gothic ceiling rather remind me of Gloucester or Tewkesbury, although the stone is obviously rather more pinkish. There also seem to be a very large number of stone tombs, as well Kempe’s stained glass being opposed to Piper’s tapestries. I also rather like the font, mostly for the stone beasts it rests on. Fake medieval monuments for Etherlbert and St Thomas have been erected, in vivid colours and gold leaf; I can’t make up my mind whether this seems rather kitsch or not. The day after is given to a visit to Shugborough. Not exactly the National Trust’s most beautiful property, at least some of the follies are open. The Temple of the Winds proves to have an ornate ceiling and stained glass, while the Chinese House is decorated with chinoiserie scenes inside. I also don’t recall having seen the rather whimsical cat’s monument or a pair of Chinese dragons before.

The final day in the Midlands takes me to Derbshire and Chatsoworth, a place I hadn’t visited since I was a child. I walk along the river Derwent, past the ruined mill, towards the house, which is partially covered in scaffolding as the stone is cleaned and the window lintels gilded. I briefly look at Queen Mary’s Bower, a raised platform with what might have been a garden at the top, which probably wasn’t used as an exercise ground for Mary Queen of Scots. I’m amused to see a wolf statue next to the entrance, given the recent filming of the Wolfman remake here. I’d forgotten how ornate Chatsworth is; only the English would decide to remake Versailles in somewhere as bleak as the peak district; the Capability Brown landscape only serves to make the country look even more forlorn and devoid of life. I’d entirely forgotten how ornate Chatsworth is, with the staircases and chamber ceilings painted by Laguerre, Thornhill and Verrio, the walls lined with tapestries and cordovan, furniture by William Kent and limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Classical statues line the walls; Sekhmet, Antinous, Hermes Roman gravestones and wunderkammeresque geodes, jewelled hawks, malachite clocks gifted by the Russian Tsar, Delft tulip vases and fossils. I particularly like one room with a fake door with a trompe l’oeil violin painted on it; fitting given that the paintings on all the walls and ceiling seem to challenge the normal two dimensions. The art collection is rather good, including Lucien Freud, Singer Sergeant, Pietro Annigoni, Panini, Millais Rembrandt, John Piper and Titian. Works by artists like Anthony Caro are dotted around the house. Unsurprisingly given the recent film, various pictures of Duchess Georgiana are in evidence, including the most famous by Joshua Reynolds. The sculpture gallery is filled with Canova, Thorvaldsen and Schadow, depicting Napoleon, Hadrian and Alexander while the grounds are filled with sculptures by Elizabeth Frink and a surprisingly good sculpture of Saint Bartholomew by Damien Hirst.

Walking round the grounds, past the Paxton greenhouses and Archer’s cascade, I notice some strange bright yellow arum lilies growing near a waterfall. A toad decides that its camouflage is sufficiently perfect that I cannot possibly be looking at it. A rather imperious rooster with orange feather tries to get out of the wind, with little noticeable success.

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