Archive for history

The Gardens of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, House, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Following my last post on the slightly faded but rather magical Chastleton House, this time I am going to take a closer look at the intriguing gardens that surround it. As the fine Jacobean house fell into decay during the twentieth century, its extensive grounds also became overgrown and wild, nature sneaking back in after centuries of careful planting and landscaping. Since the National Trust took over the property in the 1990s, they have been carefully tidying up the gardens, making them accessible once again, but still retaining their magical atmosphere.

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The gardens at Chastleton are filled with ancient trees and pretty flowerbeds. A kitchen garden has been re-established, and long-overgrown sections are gradually re-emerging following decades of neglect. Undoubtedly the most striking aspects is the formal topiary garden, a circular area filled with weird and wonderfully shaped bushes. Each bush was once carefully trimmed into a recognisable form, but now they are shadows of their former selves, their original designs hard to decipher.

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

One bush apparently represented a galleon in full sail, another a Greek vase, and yet another a teapot. Time has worn away the edges of the bushes, and now most of them are amorphous lumps giving only the tiniest hints of their past grandeur. Wandering around the topiary garden at Chastleon House, it is hard not to think of the surreal setting of Alice in Wonderland with all of its crazy characters and dreamlike locations.

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

A plan is available which identifies each and every bush in the garden, although guessing which was which is much more fun. It’s amazing how your mind can imagine just about anything once you get going. Just like the interior of the house, the gardens of Chastleton House were on the verge of rack and ruin when they were rescued just over twenty years ago, but while they have been preserved for future generations, their wonderful sense of faded opulence and intriguing mystery has also been retained.

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Exploring Chastleton House and gardens is a wonderful experience, and the property offers a great example of how a place can be conserved and maintained without losing its unique magic. Let’s hope this approach is taken elsewhere, and more of that magic, hidden in quiet, dusty rooms and shadowy, overgrown corners, can be retained and enjoyed for years to come.


The Magical Corners of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, History, House, Oxfordshire with tags , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by mysearchformagic

My recent trip to the Cotswold’s included a return visit to one of my favourite country houses, Chastleton House in Oxfordshire. Built between 1607 and 1612, Chastleton House remained in the same family until it was handed over to the National Trust in 1991. The fact that the family’s initial wealth quickly evaporated meant that little was done to the house, and the interior remained largely unaltered as it sank into a state of faded grandeur over a period of four centuries.

The faded grandeur of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The faded grandeur of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Realising what a rare opportunity Chastleton House presented, the National Trust decided not to restore it, but rather to conserve it just as it was. As a result, that faded grandeur has been preserved, and a unique atmosphere survives. Instead of the usual glitz and glamour you may associate with a stately home, Chastleton’s historic rooms have cracked ceilings, tatty furniture and creaky floorboards. Here and there are wonderful little corners, where the most mundane objects suddenly taken on an aura of magic.

A magical corner of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

A magical corner of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

There’s no teashop here, although you can buy home-made refreshments in the church next door, and no gift shop to speak of. Although I often have mixed feelings about the work of the National Trust and their apparently incessant drive to increase visitor numbers, in this case they have got it spot on. Only a limited number of people are allowed into Chastleton at any one time, so it is still possible to find yourself alone in this wonderful house, even if it is just for a moment. And it is in these rare moments that magic can happen.

A quiet, magical moment in Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

A quiet, magical moment in Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

There’s endless fun to be had poking about the nooks and crannies of Chastleton House, peering down the long, draughty corridors and into murky anterooms. It’s not many places that can truly be described as a time capsule, but Chastleton is definitely one of those places. As you wander around its dusty rooms, it is easy to forget the modern world outside, and imagine yourself almost anywhere in time. As you can see below, the gardens are rather wonderful too, but they definitely deserve a post all of their own, so I will save that magical treat for next time…

Looking out into the magical garden of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Looking out into the magical garden of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Le Chêne de Guillotin, Brocéliande

Posted in Brittany, Legend with tags , , , , , , on May 7, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I’ve already written about the Val Sans Retour, a distinctly mystical part of the Forest of Brocéliande, and the strange legend surrounding the Jardin aux Moines nearby. Not far away can be found le Chêne de Guillotin (the Guillotin Oak) a huge, ancient and magical tree with a fascinating history.

The Guillotin Oak

The Guillotin Oak

The size of the tree, which clocks in at 16 metres high and almost 10 metres in circumference, suggests an age of around 1000 years. Links have been made between the tree and the 12th Century prophet Éon, who lived somewhere nearby, and as such the tree is sometimes referred to as the Chêne Éon. More famously, this mighty oak served as a refuge for the Abbot Guillotin, who hid in the huge crevice which can still be seen in the trunk, during the troubled times of the French Revolution.

The crevice in the trunk of the Guillotin Oak

The crevice in the trunk of the Guillotin Oak

Peering inside today, visitors can find a small, dark space – cosy enough perhaps, but not somewhere that you would want to linger for long. It served its purpose for the Abbot though, who stayed there for many days and lived to tell the tale.

Inside the Guillotin Oak

Inside the Guillotin Oak

I visited in early spring, when the tree looks stark and lifeless, but in the summer it sprouts a canopy of vibrant leaves, and is obviously still growing strong despite being one of the oldest living things on earth.

Medieval Sculptures, Malestroit

Posted in Art, Brittany, History with tags , , , , on December 2, 2012 by mysearchformagic

Sitting on the banks of the river Oust in south east Brittany, Malestroit is a charming little town. Its historic quarter is made up of a maze of narrow streets and alleyways lined with crooked medieval houses, and at its heart sits the imposing church of Saint-Gilles, parts of which date back to the 12th Century. Despite its picture-postcard perfection, Malestroit doesn’t get much of a mention in guide books, and retains the atmosphere of a sleepy French market town. As a result, it is a place still filled with little pockets of magic.

One of the most remarkable features of Malestroit is the strange sculptures that decorate many of its oldest buildings. Depicting biblical figures as well as fantastical creatures, these carvings were intended to be both decorative and informative, designed to amuse but also to remind the locals of the pleasures and pitfalls of sanctity and sin.

The south facade of the church of Saint-Gilles

The south entrance to the church of Saint-Gilles offers its most spectacular aspect, the bright crimson doors surrounded by a mass of beautiful, sometimes bizarre sculptures. On the left side Sampson struggles with a lion, attempting to pour honey into its mouth as an act of charity, on the other a large Ox sits quietly, proudly displaying its impressive horns. Below Sampson, an acrobat tumbles head over heals, a symbol of those who have fallen from the path of goodness.

An acrobat somersaults into sin

Round the back of the church, in a quiet, shadowy alleyway, can be found the Fountain of the Golden Lion. The water that fills its deep basin emerges from a spring which was has been venerated since Celtic times, its importance probably leading to the creation of the town of Malestroit itself. Today it has an air of gloomy neglect, the carved Romanesque head which decorates it covered in moss and mildew.

The Fountain of the Golden Lion

Just a few metres away in the town’s main square stands a tall, oak beamed house known as the Maison des Singes, which is covered with more weird and wonderful sculptures. Carved in wood, these figures are even more bizarre than those on the church. Most famous is the bagpipe-playing hare which looks anxiously over its shoulder, while a nearby pig sports a bulky buckled belt.

The famous bagpipe-playing hare of Maletroit

The pretty Rue des Ponts leads down to the river, an impressive sight with its wide weir gushing noisily alongside a large mill. Next to the site of one of the town’s now demolished gateways stands one of Malestroit’s most historic houses. Along the base of its balcony sits a row of cheeky faces carved into the end of the ancient oak beams. Grinning devils with stubby horns and lolling tongues stare out defiantly at the Oust, an attempt perhaps at holding back the yearly floods which play havoc in this part of France.

Its reassuring to see that our ancestors had a sense of humour just as strong as their belief in the power of magic!

A cheeky devil

Find out more about magical Malestroit at

Dennis Severs’ House

Posted in London with tags , , on July 20, 2012 by mysearchformagic

Spitalfields has been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London for over two centuries. It has suffered ups and downs over the years, the elegant Georgian houses degenerating into Victorian slums, only to be gentrified in recent times; but despite the creeping encroachment of the City which surrounds it, Spitalfields still retains pockets of magic.

In 1979 Dennis Severs spotted the potential of a  run-down George I terraced house in Folgate Street which still possessed much of its 18th Century charm. He then set about bringing the place back to life, not with the pedantic precision of a conservator, but with the theatrical eye of a born showman.

The Kitchen
Photo by Roelof Bakker

“With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house’s 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul.”

Severs passed away in 1999, but the incredible house that he created still exists, cared for by a band of devotees and friends who keep his unique vision alive.

The facade of 18 Folgate Street, with its fretwork window decorations and the gas light above its Regency door case, suggests that there is something different about this house. Once inside, the ‘spell’ begins to unfold, and as you wander from room to room, up the narrow creaky staircase to the bedrooms or down into the cosy warmth of the kitchen or the mildewy cellar next door, you find yourself on a trip back in time. Dennis Severs’ House is a Hogarthian genre scene brought to life.

The Dining Room
Photo by Roelof Bakker

The house is packed with the ephemera of everyday life in Georgian England. The tables are set for dinner, half-drunk glasses of wine next to crumb-laden plates, clothes are laid out on the bed awaiting their owner, a black cat saunters around with little interest in the visitors who creep quietly through its rooms. Severs himself lived in the house, surrounded by all of this stuff, without central heating, electricity or any such modern luxuries. He often acted as guide, although his habit of showing the door to visitors who broke his ‘no talking, no questions’ rule earned him a rather scary reputation. “You either see it or you don’t” was his mantra, and those who didn’t share his magical vision were given short shrift. Nowadays the custodians of the house are not quite so fearsome. “Silent Night” is the best time to go; visitors are requested not to talk, and the rooms are illuminated by flickering candles and amber firelight. At Christmas the house is decorated with extravagant displays of candied fruit and paper chains, the atmosphere sharpened with the rich smell of spices and mulled wine.

The Master Bedroom
Photo by Roelof Bakker

I’ve introduced a few people to Dennis Severs’ House, and I’ve yet to find anyone who isn’t enchanted by it. This is not ‘heritage’, it’s certainly not a museum, and many of the items in there are not ‘genuine’ or even historically accurate. Instead what you will find is a wonderful piece of theatre, bringing the past to life in a way that is never tacky or kitsch. With its candle-lit interiors filled with the fug of port fumes and wood smoke, the whisper and giggle of invisible residents drifting through from the half-shut doors of adjoining rooms, 18 Folegate Street looks, smells, sounds and feels like a Georgian home in a way that most historic houses never do. Severs created his own narrative for the building around the fictional Jervis family, whose faces stare down from gilt-framed portraits. Whether loitering the in opulent drawing room or shivering in the draughty garret, for the half an hour or so you spend in Dennis Severs’ House, you’ll almost believe you too are part of its magical story.


Posted in Italy with tags , , on July 11, 2012 by mysearchformagic

What better place to start the search for magic than my favourite city? Naples is absolutely unique, terrifyingly beautiful and beautifully terrifying, a city of wonder that never fails to shock, amaze and delight me.

The attraction wasn’t instant. On my first visit as an 19 year old on my way to Pompeii I was overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos, but then the streets around about the station are not a nice place to be. The true heart of Naples is the centro storico, an area with over two thousand years of history. Layer has been built over layer, each civilisation obscuring the one below it, creating a city which stretches from the black depths of ancient caves to the pinnacles of lofty church towers hundreds of metres above.

Via Tribunali (image taken from

The centro storico seems to have largely rejected the creeping globalisation of the last century; you won’t find any Starbucks here, and there are no McDonalds. The Neapolitan fast food of choice is doughy pizza, which drips with soft cheese and sloppy tomato sauce. The coffee comes in the thimble-sized cups and is drunk standing at the counter of a tiny, windowless bar.

Naples is not a city for the faint hearted. A walk down the narrow, shadowy alleys of the historic centre involve taking your life in your hands as you jump to avoid the buzzing mopeds or beaten up cars which speed through the crowds. These guys slow down for no-one, and they’ll make very sure you know they’re there with persistent use of their high-pitched horns. It’s not unusual to see a whole family perched on a scooter, Mum and Dad either end and babies stuck precariously in the middle, all helmetless of course, rattling down a pedestrian-filled street at bullet speed. There’s no such thing as ‘health and safety’ in Naples.

The words ‘faded grandeur’ hardly begin to describe what you will find in Naples. Look up from the busy cobbled street and you will see the immense facades of baroque palaces, now divided into pokey flats, their gutters sprouting bushes, their walls cracked, pitted and covered with graffiti. There are hundreds of grandiose churches, but many of them are now boarded up, their dark, crumbling interiors hidden behind firmly locked doors.

An alley in the Centro Storico
(image taken from

The people are as friendly as they want to be, and you are warned not to carry or wear anything expensive or easily grabbed. This is a shockingly poor town, where people exist on the very edges of survival. The men are dark and brooding. They look like they want to either fuck you, or kill you, or both. The women are loud, brazen and unapologetic. Neapolitans make good friends but terrifying enemies. In this town, death is never far away; most of the churches are lined with the relics of long-departed, now obscure saints, ranging in size from tiny slivers of bone up to complete corpses in gilded cases. The life-sized bronze skulls which decorate the entrance to the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco are a stark reminder of our own mortality.

One of the bronze skulls in Via Tribunali (image taken from

Naples is somewhere that I will be returning to again on this search, and in this blog I will no doubt be returning to it in more detail. There’s mystery everywhere here, every winding alleyway promising something unexpected. It’s dilapidated, falling down in places; who knows what will be left of it in fifty year time? There’s certainly no money to spend on restoration or conservation. For the Neapolitans, these disintegrating edifices are not buildings of historical importance or architectural gems, they are just places to live as best they can. It’s one of the few Italian cities that doesn’t feel like a theme park, with most of the tourists here just passing through on the way to the coast or one of the nearby islands which dot the bay.

If you want to visit somewhere filled with a sense of potential magic, Naples is the real thing. If you think you’ve got the nerve, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Spaccanapoli (image taken from