Travel for research


Pix & notes: Coughton Court

I visited Coughton Court in 2009, on the first trip I made purely for book research. It was June Coughton Courtand every rose in England was blooming. I was staying in Stratford-upon-Avon and eccentrically insisted on using public transportation to get around. The bus driver on the A435 seemed surprised and disgruntled at having to stop at this unusual place to let me off and rigorously refused to understand my English. Luckily, some of the passengers — old folks with shopping baskets — leapt to my assistance. You don’t get that kind of fun when you drive!

The Throckmortons

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, from the National Portrait Gallery

Members of this illustrious family have been living in this spectacular house since the mid-sixteenth century, which makes them ancient in our day, but newly feathered in Francis Bacon’s. The gatehouse was built by Sir George Throckmorton, who found time between sessions of Parliament and opposing King Henry VIII’s break with Rome to father 8 sons and 9 daughters. A busy man!

And a long-suffering wife, Katherine Vaux, daughter of the first Baron Vaux of Harrowden and Elizabeth FitzHugh, descendant of Edward III. Sir George spent some harrowing months in the Tower for his pro-Catholic words and deeds, but he managed to escape hanging, probably thanks to his wife’s excellent connections.

The irresistible Sir Walter. Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, from the National Portrait Gallery.


His successor at Coughton Court, eldest son Robert, was equally committed to the Catholic cause. His Wikipedia page has obviously been edited by a Catholic — the word ‘persecution’ appears repeatedly. Watch out for those loaded words, boys and girls! ‘Prosecute’ is a neutral term describing a legal action. ‘Persecute’ is a drama word, identifying a villain and a martyr. Since two of Sir Robert’s grandchildren and one of his sons-in-law were actually convicted of conspiring to assassinate the queen, I would suggest the phrase “justifiably suspicious of” to describe the attitude of the government toward the Throckmortons of Coughton Court.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton was the fourth of Sir George’s sons. He was brought up in the household of Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife and a committed Protestant. (This was undoubtedly one of those child-rearing exchange programs the upper class engaged in back then.) He thus had the advantage of being on board with the new religion from the get-go. He became one of Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted diplomats. His daughter Elizabeth married Sir Walter Raleigh in 1591, getting both her and Sir Walter in hot water with the queen.

The National Trust has owned the house since 1946, although Throckmortons continue to live there today and manage the nursery.

The gatehouse

dining room Coughton CourtI scanned these photos from the National Trust souvenir book. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house ourselves. The exterior pix are all mine. That’s the gatehouse from the front at the top of this post.

The house has a priest hole, but those things are deuced difficult to take pictures of. There is also a winding stone staircase leading up to the roof, whence you’ll find a magnificent view. Apparently this was a popular destination for dinner guests in the eighteenth century. I can imagine women in Regency dresses climbing that stair, or women wearing bum rolls to bell their skirts, but I don’t see how Georgian panniers could possibly fit.

The dining room, like most of the gatehouse, was extensively repaired and remodeled in 1956, bedroom coughton_courtpresumably by the National Trust. The lovely oak paneling and the marble chimney-piece date from the time of Charles I, who was James I’s second son. Bacon must have known him.

This room, called the Tapestry Bedroom, is a composition of Victorian elements. In earlier centuries, that tester would have been the real thing, covering the whole bed to keep rats and other things from falling on you while you sleep. It would support full curtains too, to keep out those dangerous drafts.

The gardens

The house is interesting, but it’s far from the main draw. Coughton Court has extensive grounds and several connected walled gardens, all of which are breathtakingly beautiful, especially in late June, when I was there. The grounds are 25 acres and every inch is beautifully landscaped. There isn’t a view on the property, any way you might turn, that isn’t stunning. I’d love to visit again in a different season.


National Trust. 2002. Coughton Court Warwickshire: House and Gardens. Norwich: Jarrold Publishing.


Pix & notes: Kew Gardens

I posted pix of the palace last month. This month I’m going to share more photos of the glorious gardens at Kew. I’ve been there twice and will happily go again next time I visit England. It’s an ideal place to spend your jet lag day, out of the urban hustle-bustle, surrounded by greenery and flowers, with kew2well-tended walks and tempting cafes.

It isn’t cheap. Tickets for adults are L15.50 =~ $19.50 =~e18.30. And it’s a bit of journey: you take the Green District line west to Richmond, which is in Zone 4. But you can stay all day. Stroll, eat, browse the shop, visit the palace and the greenhouses, take a nap under a tree…

The exotic garden at Kew Park

The village of Kew, being handy to Richmond Palace, became a locus in the sixteenth for the grand houses of courtiers attending upon their Tudor monarchs. The 300 acres that are now the gardens were once farmed as part of one of those estates.

kew-chinese-pagodaThen during the eighteenth century, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, the Dowager Princess of Wales, enlarged the exotic garden that Lord Capel John of Tewkesbury had created, no doubt to show off the unusual plants he had collected from the expanding British empire. Curious structures were built to enhance the landscape, like the Chinese pagoda, built in 1761 and still there.

The gardens were formally adopted by the Crown in 1840, so to speak, becoming Royal Botanic Gardens. The first director, William Hooker, gradually enlarged the gardens to their present size, 300 acres.

The Palm House

The first thing you see as you begin your tour is an enormous greenhouse. This photo comes from Wikimedia Commons; I failed to get a good shot of this very large building. This amazing structure was erected between 1844 and 1848, designed by architect Decimus Burton and iron-maker Richard Turner. Wikipedia tells us that “it is considered the world’s most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure.”

It’s astounding to enter inside and be suddenly enveloped in rich, warm, wet, tropical air. I didn’t takekew-palm-house pictures inside either, fool that I am. I visited this place before I realized how useful photos are for a person who writes a weekly blog.

I did take pictures of the Queen’s Beasts, however, who guard the magnificent greenhouse. The sign says “Each of these ten beasts was once used as an heraldic badge by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II’s forbears and together they symbolize the various strands of the royal ancestry The plaster originals were made by Mr. James Woodford O.B.E., R.A. and placed in front of Westminster Abbey annexe for the coronation of Her Majesty in 1953. These replicas in Portland stone are by the same sculptor and were presented in 1956 by an anonymous donor.”

I really need a griffin like this one of Edward’s. It could guard my front porch.

The Bull of Clarence
The Griffin of Edward
The Griffin of Edward
The Unicorn of Scotland
The Unicorn of Scotland
The Lion of Mortimer
The Lion of Mortimer


Kew Science

astonishing trees
From the collection of astonishing trees


These gardens aren’t just for strolling and refreshing the city-dweller’s weary soul. Kew Gardens is a major global scientific resource. The botanical collection contains 8.5 million items, according to their website, which “represent over 95% of known flowering plant genera and more than 60% of known fungal genera.” Jiminy Christmas!

Botanists and lovers of growing things, including fungus, can explore a great deal of information about Kew’s collections and the research conducted there online. But I just go there to look at the curious trees, the fields of mind-blowing bluebells, other marvels collected over the several hundred years of the garden’s evolution.


These photos were taken on May 16, 2013. I think I’ve shown you some of them… or is it deja vu? Anyway, the bluebells were at their peak and utterly hypnotic. I strolled slowly through these meadows, enraptured by the glorious blueness of it all. Every now and then I’d vaguely notice another person, strolling enrapture through the glorious blueness of it all. Rapture! Blueness! Serenity! For only $20 and 30 minutes on a train. If you’re ever in London in mid-May, go! Go! Drop everything and go!






bend in thames
A bend in the Thames for a last look