Category Archives: Churton

A visit to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – Thomas Telford’s iron trough 126ft over the Dee

It is without question a marvel of modern engineering and a remarkable sight, but what strikes most people when they first see the 1000ft (c.305m) Pontcysyllte  canal aqueduct is that the handrail along the pedestrian walkway 127ft (38.5m) over the river Dee is only a few steps away from the other side of the narrow canal trough, which has no handrail at all to separate a boat user from a straight drop into the valley bottom.  Until you lean over the towpath’s handrail and look straight down, 127ft is a rather abstract number.  The photograph on the right shows me crossing it on a 40ft narrowboat in the 1990s on a two week canal holiday.  What you cannot see are the white knuckles with which I am gripping the tiller for dear life, in spite of having absolutely no fear of heights, because there was absolutely nothing between me and that drop.  The aqueduct, Grade I listed, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, is the longest and highest in Britain.  It’s a long way down.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct passing over the Dee valley at Trevor. Source: Dronepics Wales

Seen from below or from a distance, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a fabulous sight, not pretty but truly awe-inspiring, and it shows exactly what Pontcysyllte is:  an iron trough built on 18 vast tapering brick piers, with 19 arches.  It was all about function, nothing to do with aesthetics, and has no ornamentation to soften it, but the sheer ambition of it grips the imagination and makes one look beyond the factual details of the thing.  It really is superb.  There is a path leading down along the side of the approach to the aqueduct into the valley below, a long but well maintained track to the valley bottom, where you can walk along the Dee and get a long at the aqueduct from a distance.  That’s one for another day.

It was a beautiful day, absolutely flawless, with cerulean blue skies, a golden sun warming one’s face, and a brightness of autumnal colours that takes some beating.  After attending the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Churton war memorial, with a memorable and moving address, and a two-minute silence filled with birdsong, I collected the car first, the parent next, and we proceeded towards Trevor, on the A539 to Llangollen.  There’s a brown signpost pointing to the aqueduct’s pay-and-display car park at the Trevor Basin, which is the home of a number of canal boat companies today, but when it was built was used for the transhipment of coal, building stone, iron products, timber and bricks, much of which was brought to the canal wharf by horse-drawn waggons.

Map of the key canal features in the Vale of Llangollen. I have added a red arrow to show the best car park for Pontcysyllte. Click to enlarge. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal World Heritage Site

Thomas Telford and his chosen team

Portrait of Thomas Telford, who chose to be painted with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in the background. Engraved by W. Raddon from a painting by S. Lane.

The aqueduct (built (1794-1805) was part of the Ellesmere Canal project.  It is one of the many British civil engineering projects that has the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), ironmaster William “Merlin” Hazeldine (1763-1840) and master stonemason John Simpson (1755-1815) attached to it, three men who had brought their particular skills to many different joint projects and in doing so had developed an invaluable relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Thomas Telford started his career as a stone mason, working in London on buildings such as Somerset House, and had ambitions to develop his career as an architect.  When he became the County Surveyor for Shropshire, he worked on a great variety of building projects including, by his own estimation, 40 road bridges between 1790 and 1796, two of which employed iron in their construction.   Hazledine had initially trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  Hazledine and Telford, both Freemasons, had met at Salopian Lodge  in Shrewsbury in 1789 and become friends and professional collaborators.  On one of his earliest projects in Shrewsbury Telford hired a childhood friend Matthew Davidson to oversee works, and Davidson employed master stonemason John Simpson who worked on many of Telford’s projects. Telford described Simpson as “a treasure of talents and integrity.”

Although Telford is by far the best known of the three, he, Hazledine and Simpson worked together frequently on many different projects to produce some of the great civil engineering constructions of their era, mainly bridges.  All three were involved with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, where  Matthew Davidson also joined them, but the story of the canal starts before any of them were recruited to work for the Ellesmere Canal project.

Background to the aqueduct

The Trevor Basin today.

The big name in canal construction was James Brindley (1716-1772), who was responsible for building over 365 miles of canals by the time he died.  Brindely realized that any inland waterway network would need to connect to all the great navigable rivers that connected to the sea, including the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Trent, incorporating other important navigable rivers like the the Avon and the Dee.  Most of his canals were contour canals, wherever possible built on the level and avoiding slopes so that locks and lifts could be avoided.  The network was therefore a sprawling affair, but it revolutionized transport, avoiding roads that would become mired and impassable in winter, as well as unnavigable sections of rivers, and the riverine problems of drought and flood.  Water into and out of the canal system was regulated and therefore predictable, and allowed year-round transport.  The advantages became very clear very quickly, and manufacturing and trading businesses began to locate themselves at critical points on the canal network.  Eagerness to invest in infrastructure resulted in a canal boom in the late 1780s and 1790s.  Each new section of canal required an Act of Parliament, subject to Royal Assent, and Act after Act was passed as the network expanded.

The complex arrangement of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches is shown as a think blue winding line. The thick blue line is the Dee. The yellow lines are roads. Click to see a bigger version. Source: Wikipedia

In 1791 a proposal for a canal to link the Mersey at Netherpool (later renamed Ellesmere Canal) to the river Dee at Chester and the Severn at Shrewsbury was discussed by three Shropshire entrepreneurs, carrying mainly coal, iron and lime, supported by other goods as well.  It was decided that a branch would be needed to Wrexham and Ruabon and onwards, via Chirk, bypassing Oswestry at its west, to Shrewsbury in the south with a branch to Whitchurch in the east and another to Llanymynech.  Originally it was planned to run a branch from Ruabon to reach the Irenant slate quarries near Llantysilio, via Llangollen, but this was at first dropped and later revived for different reasons (discussed below).  That branch would in turn connect to the Montgomery Canal from Frankton Junction via Welshpool to Newtown in mid Wales (for carrying limestone, coal, timber, stone and slates).

This seriously ambitious plan found sufficient support for a surveyor to be hired and possible routes to be explored.   William Jessop, an experienced canal engineer, was hired to head up the project and oversee all of its different components.  After disagreements over the final route were resolved (albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction), the Ellesmere Canal proposal went through parliament and received its Royal Assent in April 1793.  There were still a lot of technical and logistical details to resolve, including how the canal was to cross the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.

It was clear that Jessop needed help, and although the internal promotion of William Turner was Jessop’s first choice, Telford was brought in without his input. It is not certain how Telford, increasingly bored with life as a county surveyor, managed to insert himself into this ambitious engineering project, but the canal was already generating considerable excitement in the area and it looks as though he heard of the position and sought the support of one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists, John Wilkinson, to help him secure it.  Jessop made it clear in his letters what he thought of having Telford, who he had never met, brought in against his wishes as his right hand man, and refused to attend the meeting that appointed Telford to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  In spite of this rocky start, Jessop and Telford seem to have hammered out a decent working relationship, with Jessop teaching Telford what he needed to know about canal construction, and Telford injecting some ideas into the project.  Like Jessop, Telford managed to broker a deal to enable him to carry out other projects when his personal presence was not necessary, and this enabled him to work on other civil engineering works whilst the Ellesmere Canal was being built.

Building the aqueduct

Work began at Netherpool on the Mersey, renamed Ellesmere Port, in 1793.  The 9-mile canal ran down the Wirral to meet the Dee at Chester, and went so well that it opened for traffic in 1795 and was an immediate success.  While this section was underway, discussions were underway about how the canal might cross the Dee.  The original idea presented to the directors by Jessop and Turner, and apparently not opposed by Telford, was a relatively low level stone channel crossing three stone arches, with step locks either side to manage the ascent to and descent from the level of the canal to the aqueduct.   This would have been an expensive option, requiring not only the locks but the management of the water that would feed the locks.  Even after this had been agreed in principle, concerns resulted in a new plan for an iron channel on stone columns.  It is likely that it was proposed by Telford and supported by Jessop partly because it would have reduced the cost as iron was lighter, easier to work and move, and cost less.  A sketch by Telford from March 1794 survives showing an early version of this aqueduct design.

Telford’s Grade 1 listed Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct in Shropshire, 1796. Source: Chris Allen, Wikimedia

In early 1795 Telford had the opportunity to try out a smaller, less ambitious version of the design at Longdon-on-Tern on the new Shrewsbury Canal, on which Telford was also working, as replacement for the incumbent engineer who had died mid-project.  Later in the same year he had built a fully navigable iron aqueduct on a canal that had none of the problems of leakage or shattering that had worried other engineers.  Whether or not this was taken into account by the directors of the Ellesmere Canal Company, they decided in the same year to go for the iron trough on immense stone piers that was eventually built.

Telford’s friend and frequent collaborator, master mason John Simpson soon joined him on the project.  Telford also brought in Matthew Davidson, his childhood friend of Telford, a stone mason, civil engineer and excellent organizer, to oversee the bridge works.  Telford and Davidson had worked successfully together on Telford’s Montford Bridge project of 1790 – 1792.  Shortly afterwards, William Hazledine arrived to establish an ironworks and take charge of the construction work for the iron ribs and the trough.  By assembling three men that he had worked with before and trusted absolutely, Telford was not only ensuring that the project was in good hands, but that he had a team who could operate in his absence. The foundation stone for the aqueduct was laid on 25th July 1795.

Jessop and Telford made wooden models to test the design for the trough, finding that 1000s of iron parts would be needed.  The cast iron for the aqueduct was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s new iron foundry nearby at Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.  Hazledine established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  When he built the Eaton Hall Iron Bridge at Aldford on the river Dee (described on an earlier post) it was from Plas Kynaston that the iron was shipped by canal.

After 1801 Jessop was much less involved and Telford also had interests elsewhere, and Telford was also involved in other projects, leaving Davidson, Hazledine and Simpson to run with the project.  The piers rose steadily, each built in turn from south to north by, at the peak of the project, over 500 men.  Jessop had been desperately worried from the beginning by the dangers to workmen’s lives of such tall piers, and safety precautions were taken very seriously, with the loss of only one life.  The iron parts were manufactured as needed at Plas Kynaston, and were numbered according to the order in which they would be needed so that only pieces needed at any one time would be delivered to the site.  First, ribs of iron were fitted to the piers, and then the trough was bolted on top, after which a wooden towpath was fitted to the side.  The entire project was finished in 1805, and opened on a sunny afternoon on November 26th 1805 at a grandiose ceremony followed by a lavish feast.  The entire cost for the aqueduct project was £47,018, which in today’s money translates as around £617,855 (National Archives Currency Convertor).

Metalwork over and under the arch at the left-hand Rhos y Coed bridge.

Although not as visible in the finished design, iron was also used in the Chirk aqueduct on the Llangollen canal where ten semi-circular masonry arches were crossed by a water channel with an iron bed plate and brick sides sealed using hydraulic mortar.  As well as in the aqueducts, iron was used in various ancillary structures too.  for example, Bridge 29, Rhos y Coed, at the Trevor Basin has visible iron metalwork supplementing the stone arch, and iron was used to cap the weir at the Horseshoe Falls.

The role of the aqueduct

Map from Nicholson’s Guide to the Central canal system, showing the stump end (framed in orange) of the planned Ruabon to Chester section of the canal, which was never built and now houses the attractive Trevor boatyard where the visitor centre is located. Source: Nicholson 1989

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct was almost immediately  in danger of becoming something of a white elephant, because its original role as a direct route to Wrexham and Chester was never fulfilled.  The section that led past Trevor Basin over the aqueduct was supposed to run straight on to the west of Ruabon, via Wrexham and on to Chester where it would link with the Wirral stretch leading to the Mersey and to the  Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal.  All that is left of the Trevor-Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester branch is a stump end occupied by the Trevor Basin, where the car park is located.  This is clearly visible on Nicholson’s map left, where the main line of the canal comes to a sudden, abrupt end.

The abandonment of this important part of the original plan was due to both engineering problems and financial issues.  There were only  two obvious engineering options – an enormous tunnel or a series of locks climbing towards Wrexham and another descending into the Cheshire plain where the canal could run along the flat plain to Chester.  The tunnel would have been appallingly costly, and it was difficult to know how the locks, by no means a low-cost option themselves, could have been supplied with the sufficient water.  Although other technologies were considered, they were rejected for reasons of practicality and cost.  This left the problem of where the water was to come from to feed the rest of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches.

Horseshoe Falls

At the far end of the Llangollen canal is Telford’s great arc of a weir, today known as the “Horseshoe Falls,” marking the point at which the Dee begins to feed the Llangollen canal.  An original survey had considered using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake  Tegid at Bala and through the Vale of Llangollen as a water source for the canal.  The idea had been to link the canal to a slate works, feeding the canal at the same time.  This proposal was now revisited.  The owner of Lake Tegid gave his permission and the plan was actioned.  At the Horseshoe Falls the canal is fed with water from the Dee via a sluice and meter, and today carries over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, emptying it into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal.  I will be posting more about the Horseshoe Falls weir on another day.  There is no turning point for vessels over 10ft long beyond Llangollen, so the final stretch is only used by minimal traffic today.

This means that the vast aqueduct, such a remarkable feat of civil engineering, would only ever lead to the relatively unimportant narrow section of canal and feeder to a complete dead end at Llantisilio after passing high through Llangollen.  This navigable channel is approached from the aqueduct by negotiating a sharp left-hand corner just beyond the exit of the trough.  Although this seems like a sad role for an aqueduct that should have carried many times the traffic that it eventually did, without the aqueduct there would have been no water to feed the rest of the system.

Even without the Ruabon – Chester link, those wishing to carry all their goods by canal were still able to connect to the main canal system, although to reach Chester they had to take a very long way round, and Wrexham was excluded completely.  The Llangollen canal still linked to the Shrophsire Union at its eastern end, from which the rest of the vast canal network could be reached.

  • Chester could still be reached by travelling the full length of the Llangollen canal to Hurleston Junction, just north of Nantwich, on the Shropshire Union Canal.  From here Chester was nearly 16 miles away.
  • Just to the north of Hurleston Junction was the Middlewich Branch, which headed east and linked to the Trent and Mersey Canal, from where Manchester, Stoke on Trent, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire could all be reached.
  • In the opposite direction, from Hurleston Junction the Shropshire Union ran directly to Birmingham, which was a vast junction for canals in all directions, including London on the Thames and Gloucester on the Severn.

The Cefn Mawr railway viaduct, which opened in 1848.

Along the line that the original canal would have taken, a cast iron tramway was built to connect local collieries and ironworks with the canal, the iron supplied by Hazledine.  This made the Trevor Basin a particularly important hub of activity, taken delivery of bricks, tiles, coal, iron limestone, slate and sandstone for transhipping along the canal.  It was also a boatyard, with  working narrowboats being built and repaired by Hills Boatyard in the dry dock next to the Visitor Centre (now occupied by a floating take-away café).  Later, there was an interchange with the steam railway.

Visiting Pontcysyllte

A small pay-and-display car park is available for visitors at the Trevor Basin, now the home of some canal trip and holiday companies.  There is also a pub with outdoor seating, and a take-away small café on a little boat next to the visitor centre.  There is a lot of disabled parking provided for in the small car park, which is reached from the A539 in Trevor, clearly signposted with brown heritage signposting.   The aqueduct is a very short walk from the car park, and the towpath heads for miles in both directions.

If, before or after crossing the aqueduct, you are interested in finding out more about the general context of the aqueduct and its location in relation to other parts of the canal, at the Trevor Basin there is a visitor centre, a small but nicely put together display space.  As well as a map of the area that takes up a wall and shows all the main features of the landscape and the canal system itself, there is a display of some of the tools that were used in the construction of the aqueduct, which are startlingly basic, and photographs and artists’ impressions of some of the supporting works, including the foundry at Plas Kynaston.  There are ring folders full of additional information, including facts and figures, that you can look through.

Walking the aqueduct itself is not for everyone.  The towpath is rock solid, with a tall handrail on the valley side, but only wide enough for two people, so there is a lot of stopping still to allow others to pass and there is nothing to stop you falling into the canal.  The canal is only just over 6ft (1.8m) wide, and beyond that is an unrestricted (no handrail, no nothing) drop 127ft to the valley floor.  A couple who I passed told me that they were determined to walk the full length and back, but were conquering their fears to do so, and they were gripping firmly to the handrail.

An alternative to walking is to cross by boat.  There are a number of short cruises that leave the Trevor Basin and run for about 20 minutes before turning and coming back (depending on which one you take and the time of year).

For those with uncooperative legs, everything is on the flat, so it is a very good walk for those who find uphill sections of walks difficult.  After rainfall, towpaths always become a bit muddy, and can be slippery, but even though we’ve had some rainfall recently, it was fine.  The towpath between Trevor and Llangollen is beautiful, and a good choice if you can face the aqueduct.

I noticed that one of the passenger boats said that it was suitable for disabled passengers, but I would recommend getting in touch with them first to find out about timings, prices and suitability for different types of disability.

Sources

Books and papers

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Lynn, P. A. 2019.  World Heritage Canal.  Thomas Telford and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Whittles Publishing.

Nicholson, R. 1989 (4th edition). Nicholson/Ordnance Survey Guide to the Waterways 2: Central. Robert Nicholson Publications and Ordnance Survey

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History https://historywm.com/articles/william-hazeldine-1763-1840  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/3358/1/Pattison12MPhil.pdf )

Websites

Canal and River Trust
Montgomery Canal
https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/montgomery-canal?gclid=CjwKCAiAp8iMBhAqEiwAJb94z7aIVzLoaYuqtwbDdRQsaUL73ssnmF_u1LpoURZmI9YxVUlrKi15whoCtxoQAvD_BwE

DronePics Wales
Pontcysyllte
https://dronepics.wales/pontcysyllte/

Engineering Timelines
Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct
http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=308

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
James Brindley
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Brindley
William Hazledine
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Crosley_(1802-1838)
William Jessop
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Jessop

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/

 

 

Object histories in my garden #7: Little fragments of willow pattern china – what are the stories?

Willow Pattern sherds found in a Churton garden

I defy any gardener, even in a modern home, to do any digging without finding a few pieces of willow pattern china.  It is so common that one barely notices it, whether it is found as garden fragments, encountered in antique shops or viewed as eBay listings.  It comes in all forms – plates, jugs, bowls, cups, saucers, tureens in all sorts of shapes and sizes, varying in quality from fine early examples to increasingly poor imitations as well as a few modern reinventions on fine china.  Early examples were hand-painted on porcelain, but as it became popular, transfers (described below) were used to cheaply replicate their finer predecessors.

Pieces of willow pattern found in a garden in Darland

The examples shown in the photo at above left were all found in my garden, and could date to any time between the 19th Century to relatively recent times.  None of them are fine porcelain, all stoneware, which means that they were built to be durable.  This does not mean that they were any less valued by their owners than finer bone china pieces, which are almost translucent, but either that their purchasers were unable to afford finer pieces, or that these were intended for everyday use.  In either case the sheer volume of china that we have dug out of the garden argues that if finer pieces were purchased, they were kept safely on display or only used for special occasions, because so far we have only found two finer pieces of translucent china.  It is a similar story with china dug out of a Darland garden by my parents (shown right).  In that early Georgian garden, belonging to a large house built by a prosperous land-owner, the pottery was all fairly coarse, although there is no reason to suppose that the owners did not purchase finer wares that were better cared for.

1930s willow pattern in red on white

In America, willow pattern is known as “blue willow,” but although the vast majority produced was in cobalt blue on white, there are also examples of red or brown, and even green on white, and there are some much later examples that were painted with multiple colours (and look both exceedingly odd and rather unpleasant).  Today willow pattern has fallen out of fashion, presumably because it is so formulaic and so commonplace, in spite of  attempts by some modern producers to reinvent it, but the history of willow pattern is an interesting one, even if the design itself has become rather tedious to the modern eye.

There are two strands to the invention of willow pattern, three stories to tell.  The first is how and when willow pattern developed, what influenced it, and why it became so ubiquitous.  The second story concerns the tale told by the pattern itself, which narrates a forbidden romance, a dictatorial father and an unwanted, ultimately vengeful suitor.

At the end I have a look at why the tale embedded into the willow pattern is fundamentally in opposition to Chinese morality, using two examples from Chinese literature.

A random sample of the smaller objects found in the garden

I have already used the terms “china” and “porcelain,” and will go on to mention stoneware, so here are some quick and dirty definitions:

  • Ceramics:  all items made by clay and hardened by heat.  A generic term used interchangeably with pottery.
  • China:  another generic term, referring to ceramics that have a pure white fabric, of the sort first seen in Europe on items imported from China
  • Porcelain:  from the Italian “porcellana.”  Porcelain is made of fine-grained clay which is then fired at very high temperatures that causes a transformation of the material called vitrification.  It is very thin, and semi-translucent.
  • Pottery:  objects made of fired clay
  • Stoneware:  fired at much lower temperatures than porcelain using inferior clays, and made into much thicker fabrics without any translucence.  Similar to earthenware, which is also made with coarse clays but fired at a higher temperature than earthenware and is superior in quality.
  • Transfers (discussed in more detail below):  Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.

The development and spread of the willow pattern design

This or a similar type of Nanking ware scene could have been the prototype for English willow pattern. Source: The Culture Concept Circle

I had always assumed that the willow pattern design was invented in China for the European export market in the late 18th Century, but this is not true.  It is certainly true that decorated china had been finding its way into Europe and America for two centuries before willow pattern was invented.  The East India Company began to purchase Chinese blue and white ceramics for the British market in the 16th Century when it was a luxury item.  It swiftly became very popular and continued to be in high demand even after the East India Company was deprived of its right to trade in 1833.  Private ships that began to import Chinese tea, still a high value import during the 19th Century, also brought back ceramics that were increasingly standardized and mass-produced for the European market.  Chinese producers had swiftly developed a sense of what themes, colours and designs Europeans and Americans liked, and they began to make them in great quantities.  Willow pattern was inspired by a type of blue and white porcelain called Nanking or Nankin Pattern.  It was made at Ching-te-chen / Jingdezhen and then sailed down the river Yangtze to the coastal port of Nanking from where it was shipped to Canton.  Canton was the main port at which foreign ships were allowed to trade, (the sole trading port until 1842) and here it was loaded on to European and American ships for the export market.  

An early design similar to the willow pattern on a creamware teapot.  Attributed to John Warburton, Staffordshire, England, c. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Although influenced by Nanking,  willow pattern was not imported from China; it was an English invention based on Chinese patterns.  The first version appears to have been produced in 1779 for Thomas Turner and his Caughley works in Shropshire, originally for a teapot, and then in the late 1780s on other objects, probably by apprentice Thomas Minton. 

Robert Copeland, in Spode’s Willow Pattern, acknowledges Caughley but points out that this was not the standard willow pattern, which he argues persuasively was developed by Josiah Spode, and initially called the Mandarin pattern.  It is not known if Turner, Minton or Spode had a particular story in mind when they began to produce their versions of the formulaic pattern, but a story soon emerged, and probably helped sales, raising the decoration from the level of a  mere pattern to the encapsulation of an exotic legend (albeit one thought up in an English porcelain factory).  It would otherwise be difficult to account for how popular the design became.  Other manufacturers also went on to make willow pattern.


The main features of the willow pattern design

The plates shown above exemplify the most common arrangement of the motifs that make up the willow pattern design, although there are sometimes minor variations.

A 19th century anonymous poem, of which there are numerous versions, summarizes the main themes as follows:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

The story behind the features on the plate can be fairly short or tediously long, but the essentials of the story can be summarized quite briefly.  Let’s have a closer look first at the main motifs that provide the cues for narrating the story.

The main anchoring feature of the composition is a two- or occasionally three-storey pagoda, usually just right-of-centre, approached by a path and a short flight of steps.  To the left of it is a smaller pagoda on the edge of the river.  A fence zig-zags across the front of the scene, blocking access to the approach path to the pagoda in its garden.

Behind the pagodas is a tree with big round discs that look like enormous pizzas.  Susan Ferguson has researched these and concludes that although they are usually referred to as apples (heaven help you if an apple of that size landed on you), and sometimes oranges, they are probably abstractions of circular spans of a Chinese conifer (needle clusters), a design that over the centuries has become so simplified that on the willow pattern the species of tree is completely unidentifiable.  In the absence of any other explanation that makes sense, I’m convinced.  A lush arboretum surrounds the pagoda.

A huge willow tree leans over the bridge, to the left of the pagoda, which gives the design its name, and usually has some sort of rosette- or round-shaped growths on the trunk.  Its long branches appear to blow lightly in the breeze.

The bridge crosses a narrow strait of water, met by a small building on the other side.  The bridge is being crossed by a woman at the front, a man in the middle holding a long thin box, and another man raising a stick at the rear.

Above left of the willow is a large expanse of water crossed by a man navigating a boat, heading towards the pagoda.  One or more cabins on the boat suggests that another person is inside.

In the distance at top left is an island with another pagoda, again surrounded by lush vegetation.

Overhead in the sky are a pair of birds facing each other, their wings spread to catch the breeze.

If the composition graces a plate, a tureen or a lid, the whole thing is usually circled with a loosely Chinese-themed geometric pattern, sometimes elaborated with leaves and flowers.  On teapots, cups and jugs only favoured portions of the entire composition may be shown.


The story of a forbidden romance and how to read a plate

The story is an invention, and English interpretation of scenes on Chinese export ceramics that had no such narrative.  It is probable that the story gained momentum as the willow pattern became more popular, becoming more elaborate over time.  The basics are these, although there are multiple alternatives:

  1. The pagoda, right-of-centre, the garden, and the weeping willow:  Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Koong-see who lived in a palace in China, a delightful sprawling pagoda in lovely ornamental gardens, with cherry blossom, apple trees, willows, streams, wildlife and birdsong.  Hidden within the pagoda, she is in love with a lowly office clerk named Changwho serves her father, a mandarin (senior official), and is far beneath her social standing. They meet every night beneath the willow.  Forbidden to marry by the Mandarin, she and Chang are in despair.  Both console themselves by caring for the birds in the garden, to which they are devoted and which are, in turn, devoted to them
  2. The mandarin’s daughter is promised to a warrior duke against her wishes:  The Mandarin has arranged for Koong-see to be married to the warrior Duke (a Ta-jin), who is even now approaching.  Much older than Koong-see, he brings a treasure chest as a gift for his future bride, also hidden from view.  Deaf to Koong-see’s pleas, her father insists on the marriage, erects a huge fence around the house and garden and imprisons her in a small pagoda overlooking the lake.  When the cherry blossom eventually blooms on the tree in the garden, the marriage will take place. 
  3. Three individuals are seen crossing the bridge.  When the Duke arrives, he, the Mandarin and guests celebrate with an excess of food and alcohol.  Chang enters the compound and seeing that the inebriated gathering has fallen asleep, he goes to Koong-see and they flee, taking with them the duke’s treasure, crossing the bridge over the river.  Koong-see is at the front, carrying a staff, the emblem of virtue.  Chang follows her, carrying the stolen treasure in a rectangular box.  They are pursued by the mandarin, brandishing a whip.  Sometimes a a fourth figure is shown, and this is the duke seeking to retrieve both his bride and, probably more importantly, his treasure.
  4. The pagoda in a distant land, top left.  Chang steals a small boat, and they couple sail to the north.  Having made good their escape, the couple sell the duke’s treasure and buy a pagoda in a distant place.  Having failed to find his daughter in spite of employing spies to track her down, the mandarin has the brilliant idea of releasing the birds that were so loved by Koong-see and Chang. The birds fly straight to the couple, with the mandarin’s warriors following close behind.  When the warriors discover the hideaway they set it alight. 
  5. The turtle doves in the sky.  Koong-see and Chang die in the flames, but unspecified gods looking down on the scene take pity on the devoted couple and transform them into birds so that they can remain together for eternity. 

An extended version, tears-and-all version of the tale, was published in The Family Friend, volume I, in 1849, and is extremely long-winded and tedious (as well as slightly sickly), but obviously pushed some of the right buttons in the 19th Century.  As well as the anonymous poem quoted above, there were a number of others as well, some of which are posted on the Potteries website here and the Willow Collectors website here.

Chinese morality versus English romanticism

The willow pattern design that grew out of these imports was not merely an English invention, but the romantic tale of runaway lovers that was developed to sell the design would almost certainly have offended Chinese morality.  The story was born of an unmistakeably western tradition, recognizable in the narrative concerns of star-crossed lovers, persecution by unwanted suitors and unreasonable parents, all of which are solidly  familiar from the Classical Greek tale of Hero and Leander, the 16th Century Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet, and many, many more.

The Butterfly Lovers. Source: ShenYunShop

There are some tales from Chinese literature that are superficially somewhat similar, but a closer look at them reveals culturally significant differences.  Two good examples are “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Han Ping and His Wife.”  

The story of the butterfly lovers concerns a rather complicated story about a woman disguised as a man, Zhu Yingtai, and her unsuspecting friend Liang Shanbo who eventually fall in love with one another.   Although women were usually prevented from becoming scholars, Zhu was allowed to study in the guise of a young man.  She meets a fellow scholar, and they become close friends, studying together for the following three years.  Liang remains none the wiser, but Zhu begins to fall in love with him.   Although tolerant enough to allow his daughter to study as a man, Zhu’s father expects her to return when he writes to tell her that he is ill.  She departs, and Liang accompanies his dear friend for part of the route.  Although she drops hints about her true sex, Zhu is unable to reveal her secret to Liang directly and intend invents a sister to whom she proposes that Liang should become betrothed.  She offers to set up a meeting.  Liang eventually visits Zhu, and finds that there is no sister and that Zhu is a woman.  Liang realizes he loves Zhu and they are both overjoyed for a brief period, but Zhu now reveals that her father’s illness was a ruse and he has betrothed her to a wealthy merchant.  Liang leaves, heartbroken, and although he tries to lead a normal life, soon dies.  Zhu, meanwhile, is prepared for her wedding.  The wedding procession forms, its route due to pass Liang’s grave.  As they reach the grave, a great wind blows up, stopping the marriage party in its tracks.  Taking the opportunity to pay her final respects to Liang at his grave, she begs for the grave to swallow her too, and in response to her pleas, it opens up and takes her in.  Zhu and Liang rise as butterflies, and fly away together for eternity.  

A second tragic romance, from a collection of early legends (The Man Who Sold A Ghost), is the tale of Han Ping and his wife also concerns lovers who were transformed into birds following the successful completion of their suicide pact.  Han Ping and his wife were deeply in love.  Han Ping worked for Prince Xang as steward.  His wife was very beautiful and the king, inevitably attracted, took her for himself.   Han Ping’s anguished protests were answered with imprisonment and hard labour.  Eventually his wife managed to send Han Ping a letter, a cryptic message written using allusions to lay out her plan for suicide, which each carried out.  In a separate letter to the king, she requested burial alongside her husband, but this was denied her.  They were buried in the same cemetery but far apart.  All was not lost. Two trees sprung up overnight and within only days were tall and strong, leaning towards each other, their branches intertwining.  Two inseparable lovebirds nested in the branches of the entwined trees, the spirits of the wronged Han Ping and his  wife.

A silk bed covering from Canton, showing the type of artistic device used to represent clusters of fir spines.  This might be the source of the enormous disks in the trees behind the pagoda in the willow pattern design  Source: Ferguson 2017

Although Chinese literature has stories of star-crossed lovers, acting on a forbidden love was counter to Chinese ideas of obedience and arranged marriage and would never be celebrated.  In the first case, even though Zhu is in love with someone else, she obediently, albeit unhappily, accepts marriage.  The gods intervene to allow the couple to live together as butterflies, but only after Zhu has behaved with honour according to her father’s wishes.  Although the couple were not married, they came to represent fidelity in marriage.  In the story of Han Ping and his wife, the two are already married and it is only when the wife is dishonoured by the prince that they are reunited as birds, again demonstrating the power of marital fidelity.

All of this is far more subtle than the rather simplistic willow pattern narrative, which celebrates love conquering all, but ignores the Chinese morality that would have seen the willow pattern story and its outcome as abhorrent.  Daughterly disobedience and unmarried, prohibited love would have been a serious breach of decency and integrity.  Fleeing paternal control would have been unthinkable, particularly as it left behind and honourable and broken-hearted father.  The theft of the Duke’s treasure would have appalled most Chinese people; the Duke, after all, was not the bad guy in the scenario, because arranged marriages were perfectly normal and his gift to his prospective bride was a gesture of great generosity.  A happy-ever-after outcome for the disobedient and ungrateful runaways, even in the form of turtle doves, would not have been sanctioned by Chinese moralists or the authors of Chinese literature.

Stoneware and transfers

Mid 19th Century transferware willow pattern trivet. Source: Inessa-Stewart’s

All of the willow pattern from my garden is robust transferware.  We have found porcelain pieces in other designs, some of them very fine, but the vast majority of it, including all of the willow pattern, is transfers applied to stoneware and earthenware.  Porcelain, almost translucent, was time-consuming to produce, often shattered during production, was usually hand-decorated and was therefore expensive to buy.  Stoneware an earthenware were much easier to manufacture, fired at lower temperatures and not hand-painted.  These solid wares were far more robust and suitable for everyday domestic use.  

It is often possible to find the edge of the transfer on bigger pieces of transferware, as on this corner of a large 1930s red-on-white Royal Venton plate.

Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture in the second half of the 18th Century, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics that could be produced by relatively unskilled workers rather than craft specialists.  Chinese-influenced ceramics, like many product that were once luxury products due to their exotic source and/or their expensive manufacturing process, began to be produced in inferior fabrics, became more affordable, and were therefore in more demand, both in Britain and America.  Once an appropriate fabric was developed, a quicker way of decorating the ceramics was required, and transfers were developed to meet this need.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.  The meeting of the demand for transfer wares was helped by the roll-out of the canal network and the improvement of trade networks that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  

Final Comments

A more recent interpretation of willow pattern (microwave safe, dishwasher proof).  Although it is a nice, clean design, there is a gap in the fence in front of the path to the pagoda, which rather defeats the object (and is more evocative of an English country cottage than a defensive barrier to prevent a daughter escaping).

The story behind the willow pattern design is far more interesting than the design itself.  Some of the earliest patterns, evoking original Chines designs, had considerable charm, but very soon a fairly rigid formula was developed that was repeated over and over again, with only a little occasional variation from one piece to the next.  As such it is more than a little tiresome.

It is entirely different when it emerges piece by piece from one’s garden, all of them minute fragments contributing to the house’s own story.  Over time, the people who lived here broke an awful lot of pottery!  The house was probably occupied by farming families for many years, with a sign of increased prosperity when the two original cottages were linked up to become a single building.   The earliest finds from the garden belong to the later 19th Century, well into the period when most willow pattern was stoneware.   Not the sort of thing that a labourer’s family would be able to indulge in, but probably affordable as Sunday Best for a slightly more affluent rural family.  I need to find out a lot more about who lived in the house before speculating further. 

Pealrich clock in the form of a willow pattern plate. Source: Amazon UK

It is interesting that willow pattern continues to be made and purchased.  The above picture shows a simplified version of the design, much less elaborate than earlier versions, much cleaner but also more sterilized.  I would not have thought that it is  the sort of story that would carry much appeal today, but the design itself obviously continues to be attractive to a modern audience.  A quick search on Amazon produced willow pattern oven gloves, a willow pattern mug that could be personalized, an embroidery kit, a large tea set, a “collectible” thimble, a cushion cover and even a clock in the form of a willow pattern plate (shown left).  A company called PRSC specializes in “deconstructed” willow pattern products, which take the motifs and arrange them in aesthetically pleasing combinations that abandon the narrative completely.

Deconstructed willow pattern. Source: PRSC

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, willow pattern obviously spoke to something in people’s imaginations.  Perhaps the very standardization and mass-production of the design enabled the exotic to be both familiar and comprehensible, even offering some level of reassurance.  By developing new and improved ways of manufacturing pottery and decorating it, and taking advantage of new modes of transport and communication, potteries making ceramics in the English Midlands were able to spread willow pattern throughout the UK and into America.  A decorative phenomenon, it is difficult to account for its success, but a success it certainly was.  It has left a legacy that continues to attract collectors and re-interpreters alike.

For other posts in my History in Garden Objects series click here or see the
link of the same name in the Categories list on the right.


Sources:

Books and papers

Copeland, R. 1999 (3rd edition). Spode’s Willow Pattern And Other Designs After the Chinese.  Studio Vista

Ferguson, S. 2017.  “Blue Willow”: Apples or Oranges?  Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin, 2017 Vol. XVIII No. 1.
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/bulletin_previews/articles/17_TCC_XVIII_No1_Blue_Willow_Apples_or_Oranges.pdf

Hsien-Yi, Y. and Yang, G. 1958.  The Man Who Sold A Ghost.  Foreign Language Press
Available online at:  https://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Literature/TheManWhoSoldAGhost-ChineseTalesOfThe3rd-6thCenturies-1958.pdf

O’Hara.  P.  “The Willow Pattern That We Knew”: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.  Victorian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 421-442
Available online with the academic site JSTOR digital library if you register (free): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828644?seq=1

Websites

East India company at home 1757-1857, University College London
The Willow Pattern Case Study:  The Willow Pattern Explained
https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-willow-pattern-dunham-massey/the-willow-pattern-case-study-the-willow-pattern-explained/comment-page-1/

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Willow pattern pottery
https://www.britannica.com/art/Willow-pattern#ref235738

Popular Culture in Modern China
The Butterfly Lovers – Response.  By Dr Liang Luo
http://chi430.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-butterfly-lovers-response.html

The Potteries – An A-Z of Stoke on Trent Potteries
The Willow Pattern Story
http://www.thepotteries.org/patterns/willow.html

Spode History
Spode and Willow Pattern. By Pam Woolliscroft
https://spodehistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/spode-and-willow.html

Transferware Collectors Club
What is transferware?
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/news-information/faqs

Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool
Story of the Willow Pattern, 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper
https://vgm.liverpool.ac.uk/blog/2021/willow-pattern/

 

Adventures with Churton honesty eggs: A user guide to Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauce

Both of these butter- and egg-based sauces, hollandaise and béarnaise, only take about five minutes to make, but an awful lot longer to prepare.  You will see many alternative recipes in books, but Mum’s was based on Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and that’s where I went when I had to start from scratch.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are based on a mix of base ingredients, but add different flavourings.   The basics usually include the following:  egg yolks, white wine vinegar, butter, peppercorns, and bay leaves.  The differences are described below.

Hollandaise is usually served used with fish and/or vegetables, and is traditionally made with egg yolks, butter and lemon juice.  It is a rich, buttery sauce that gives the kiss of heavenly life to poached salmon and asparagus.

Béarnaise accompanies steak and is defined mainly by armfuls of tarragon.   Another traditional differentiator is that it is  usually made with white wine and vinegar instead of lemon juice.

Breaking with tradition, my hollandaise and béarnaise both have the same base by using a same reduction as the base for both sauces.  I combine all three liquids, the lemon juice, wine vinegar and white wine and mix them together as a base for the reduction in both hollandaise and béarnaise.  The only differentiator in my version is that lots of tarragon is added to make béarnaise.  My reason for this blending of the two recipes stems from a comment of Elizabeth David’s that an hollandaise based on just butter, egg yoks and lemon juice is “apt to be insipid” and consequently she recommends the addition of a reduction of white wine or vinegar (as in béarnaise).  It works splendidly for me, but I would suggest that you experiment.  The only time I feel like doing an hollandaise the original way is with poached salmon, where the simplicity of the lemon, egg and butter mix is perfect.

Cover of the hardback version of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking,” Grub Street, 1960, 2007

On this occasion I was cooking a béarnaise sauce, so I used a huge handful of tarragon from my garden.  A couple of nights ago I found a ribeye steak from Bellis (farm shop and butcher in Holt) in the freezer.  The Bellis ribeye is wonderful, although I have no idea where they source it from.  It deserved special treatment, and as I have three big pots of French tarragon in the garden, and had a box of Churton eggs at the ready, here’s how I did it, resulting in a happily successful outcome.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was very gung-ho about how easy it is to make mayonnaise in my post on the subject,  which I think is fair enough because it is so easy when you know the two basic rules about how to handle it.  However, I am never gung-ho about Hollandaise or béarnaise, because they can go seriously wrong.  I’ve only screwed it up a couple of times, and I have now learned some excellent risk-avoidance techniques and one or two rescue solutions.  Preparation minimizes the risks, but  things can still go wrong, especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand. WOW is it wonderful, so the best thing to do is to prepare well and experiment on someone who won’t mind being a guinea pig.  Once you have the knack, and you will have it for life.

Important Preparation 

There are a couple of technical points to take into consideration, other than briefly editing out the conversation of your friends.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are all about preparation, and that’s not just about lining up your ingredients and equipment, but understanding how it’s all going to work, and how you may attempt to to recover it when/if it goes wrong.

First, both sauces have a terrible reputation for splitting, which means that after being heated, the oil in the butter separates from the other ingredients and you end up with a big oily mess on your hands.  Eggs should be at a nice cool room temperature before you start.  This is only a small part of the prep work, but it is an essential one.

Two, I have experimented and found that clarifying the butter makes life a lot easier.  I have no idea what the proper way of doing it may be, but I simply heated butter in a saucepan and poured it into a small jug.  White bits (solids) drop to the bottom of the jug leaving a translucent, bright yellow liquid on top.  The yellow bit is the clarified butter and the white bits need to be left in the bottom of the jug.  It means that you use a lot less butter, because it emulsifies much more efficiently, which is much better for the health.  That in turn means that it forms more quickly.  As a technique, it is also easier to prevent separation of the oil from the egg because you can easily control the addition of the butter, in drops and a slow trickle, to the egg and vinegar mix.  So I now always start off by separating my egg/s.  Keep the clarified butter somewhere warm so that it does not solidify.

Three, make sure you have some ice cubes in the freezer.  If everything starts to overheat you will end up with scrambled egg.  A bit of cold water helps, but if it is going too far too fast, lob in an ice cube, stir it rapidly until the sauce starts to go slightly lighter in colour and then haul it out.  That usually does the trick.

My impromptu bain marie, at the back, consisting of a glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water that heats the sauce, reducing the chance of splitting. The asparagus is steamed, but here it is waiting in cold water prior to cooking, after having its ends trimmed. Don’t worry – not all of this went on to my plate!  Some of it made a leek and asparagus soup.

Four, if you don’t have a bain marie (I don’t) you need to sort out a glass bowl (not metal) that will sit over one of your small saucepans.  Anyone who has worked with chocolate will be familiar with this.  The water in the pan must not come into contact with the glass bowl, and should simmer, not boil.  You are cooking your eggs with indirect heat, not direct heat, a bit like steaming.  However, no lid is required.  A wooden spoon must be to hand for almost constant stirring, so that the sauce is moved constantly into and away from the heat.

Five, and assuming that you are making a béarnaise for steak (which means a lot of tarragon), take hold of your tarragon and divide it in half, finely chopping all of the leaves.  Do not throw away the stalks, but snap them into short sections.  Keep half of the leaves on one side and put the other half of the leaves and all the stalks into a bowl of white wine vinegar, shallot, bay and white wine.  Leave it to infuse flavour into the vinegar for an hour or so.

SixWhatever gas  you are cooking on, what you want for the sauce is a light simmer, absolutely not a boil.  If the water is boiling, you run the risk of creating scrambled eggs, not a sauce.  I am cooking on Calor gas, not mains gas.  Calor and Butane burn hotter and make it difficult to maintain a low temperature.  I have a set of round, diffusing metal plates with handles that  sit over the top of my hob and diffuse the heat, allowing the water to become hot but preventing it from boiling.  

Seven, if you are intending to serve this in a jug rather than just plonking it onto plates alongside whatever else you are eating, remember that the jug (as well as the plates) needs to be warmed through.  If you pour warm hollandaise/béarnaise into a cold jug you will instantly lose the heat and end up with a cold sauce and, more importantly, you will raise the chances of it separating before it reaches the table.  

Eight, there are conflicting views in the literature on whether you should use salted or unsalted butter.  I use salted.  Salt helps the emulsification (thickening) process but you can also add salt to a sauce made with unsalted butter to taste.  Just be sure to add it early on in the sauce-making process so that it helps to emulsify the sauce.  I’ve tried it and it works, but unsalted butter with no additional salt is risky.

Nine, keep some cold water in a jug at the side so that if your sauce starts to over-thicken you can loosen it up.  Add a teaspoon at a time until you have the right consistency.  Cold water also helps to prevent the sauce over-heating and separating.

Ten, the vinegar mixture must go into the egg and butter hot.  Do not let it cool down.

Finally, bear in mind that the whole process is only going to take a few minutes once you have added the hot vinegar mix to the egg yolk and started adding the butter, no more than five minutes, possibly less.  Most of the time is taken up with preparation.  Whatever you are intending to serve it with, you either need to be good at delivering multiple time-sensitive dishes in one go, or alternatively persuade someone to look after the rest of the meal while you concentrate on the Hollandaise or béarnaise, because the latter can turn against you in just a few seconds.

If this is your first attempt, I would suggest that you keep an emergency back-up sauce or herb butter on one side.  For the latter, finely chopped herbs added into soft butter, and rolled in clingfilm to form a cylindrical tube of butter, and placed in the freezer for half an hour to solidify before putting it in the fridge works well.  Before serving you can chop it into disks that sit on top of your steak or fish and melt beautifully to form a gentle butter sauce.  If I was planning to do a béarnaise, as in this case, the herbs chopped into the butter would be tarragon.  If the béarnaise works, you can keep the herb butter in the freezer for a quick way to liven up a piece of steak or fish, or use it to make unusual, flavourful sandwiches.


Getting on with it

Everything else is fairly straight-forward, but there are a number of steps that cannot be avoided.   I usually avoid writing down step-by-step instructions because whatever the recipe, the outcomes depend so much on the ingredients used and the equipment employed, but there are some things that really must be taken into account.

  • I recommend clarifying the butter.  Like mayonnaise, the key trick here is to add the butter so slowly that you begin to seize up.  Mum used to add small lumps one by one and not add another until fully incorporated, the system that I used until just recently when I read that if you clarify the butter, it reduces the risk of separation and stabilizes it at the end.  That end moment, where the sauce is ready but you may be waiting for vegetables, fish or steak to cook, is a terrible waiting game when you hope that the sauce stays in one piece, but worry that it might split.  Clarifying the butter reduces the risk and the stress at one and the same time.  Keep it warm until you need it so that it doesn’t solidify.
  • Remember that if you are using a jug, this needs to be nice and warm to receive the sauce, as do the serving plates.
  • When you are ready to cook, first you need to heat up your vinegar mix until it just threatens to boil.  Turn down the heat until it is just simmering and keep a careful eye on it.  You are aiming to reduce it in order to intensify the flavour.  If you’re cooking for two, you’ll need about a tablespoon and a half of clear liquid, but a dessert spoon for one.
  • When it has reduced, strain out the flavourings and retain the flavoured vinegar.  The vinegar needs to be hot (very warm rather than boiling hot) when you add it to the egg yolk.
  • Make sure that the water in the pan of your assembled bain marie arrangement is hot and place your glass dish over the top.  By sealing the water pan with the bowl you will cause the water temperature to rise, so keep an eye on it to stop it boiling.
  • Separate your eggs and put your egg yolks (one per person) into your glass dish.  Add your vinegar (still warm) and mix it very rapidly into the yolks.  You now have a beautiful yellow fluid that will start to heat in the bowl over the water.
  • Add the remaining fine-chopped tarragon and give it a good stir
  • The sauce heating in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water, a quickly assembled bain marie

    Now your clarified butter (or small dice-sized chunks of butter) needs to be added, but oh-so slowly.  If your butter is clarified add it first in drips and then in a very slow and fine stream, stirring gently all the time and breaking now and again to ensure that it is fully incorporated.  If you are using chunks, make sure that each is melted before adding the next. I cannot repeat enough that you should go slowly.

  • Pause occasionally to ensure that the butter is being incorporated into the egg and vinegar mix.  Adding the butter is very much suck-it-and-see, but if you go slowly enough and keep stirring you should be safe.  There’s no clear guideline, because different butters emulsify the yolks at different rates, and egg yolks are different sizes.  
  • If it doesn’t emulsify properly, add another egg yolk and keep adding the butter.  That might produce rather more sauce that you were aiming for, but hey – it’s lovely stuff!
  • Continually make sure that the water is simmering, to heat the eggs, but not so hot that you end up with scrambled eggs.  If it begins to cook rather than heat, add either a little cold water or an ice cube to the egg mix.  Don’t forget to retrieve the ice cube before it melts.  You want to cool it down, not liquefy it.

Rescue

I’ve modified Elizabeth David’s recipes, as did Mum, but here are her originals on pages 118-9. Click to expand.

Don’t forget that if the water in the pan is too hot and the sauce starts to scramble, you can take it off the heat for a moment, and use ice cubes or cold water to help cool it down, stirring, and ensuring that the water in the pan has calmed down before placing the bowl back over the pan.  If the sauce is thickening too much, cold water is again a good solution, added gradually.

I have never successfully recovered an Hollandaise or béarnaise that has split completely (where the butter abandons the sauce and forms rivers of oil over a lumpy egg mixture).  I only ever twice split it in my early days of making this sauce.  Even following all the advice about rescuing a split Hollandaise, it was a matter of chucking it away and starting again or providing an alternative sauce.   But if you have used a rescue method that works, please do let me know.

The Final Product

Not an elegant presentation, but it tasted heavenly.  As I said, I was doing mine with rib-eye steak (with loads of black pepper ground over it), tender stem broccoli, asparagus and baby new potatoes (which, apparently unusually, I peel).  I like my steak cooked on an iron griddle pan, super-heated very quickly on the outside, which chars it but leaves it pink and moist in the middle.  The spuds were boiled, the vegetables steamed and the plate heated beforehand.  Terrible presentation, but in spite of that, it was a really  luxurious treat.

A classic vegetarian option that I have often served as a starter just because it’s so good, is asparagus Hollandaise (no tarragon).  Most fish works for a pescatarian option with Hollandaise, but salmon and swordfish are particularly good.  Strongly flavoured fish like tuna and mackerel won’t work.

Health and Safety

Your egg yolks will be cooked through when it comes to serving them, so don’t worry about serving raw egg.  You won’t.

Fat and cholesterol:  When I was editing this, I had also  been editing images of gravestones in Aldford and Farndon churchyards to go with a post on 19th Century Churton directory listings.  It reminded me that both hollandaise and béarnaise are exclusively for special occasions 🙂  All that egg yolk and butter!  To be handled with care, and reserved for special occasions, and avoid completely if you are trying to shed a few kilos.  But one of the most delicious things ever.  And don’t forget that if you clarify your butter you will use less than if you add it in chunks.

You can see my previous Churton egg adventures by clicking here.

Grown in my garden last week and already eaten

For no better reason than I am so chuffed that I actually grew vegetables, lettuces and cucumbers in this, the first summer after moving in.  Showing off, in other words, although none of them are ever going to win any prizes.  I don’t actually have a vegetable plot, because I have turned everything over to flowers, shrubs and a small orchard, so these were grown in pots on a small south-facing side-patio.

The marrow speaks for itself (my fourth so far).  At the back, the little yellow globes are cucumbers (I promise you).  At the front is one of many golden beetroot, which have the lovely earthy taste of purple beetroot, perhaps a little more subtle, but don’t leak colour into everything you eat.  I like them steamed or roasted.  Once steamed, they are great cold too, with vinaigrette.

The salad and vegetable plants, except for the globe cucumbers, were all bought as tiny plugs from Bellis in Holt, but my goodness they grew!  The cucumbers were bought from the Grosvenor garden centre.  All were planted in general purpose compost, with mycorrhizal and bonemeal (in a ratio of 1:3 handfuls) placed in the hole in the compost before the plant was added.  Then slow-release plant food was scattered over the top.   

I have grown herbs outside in pots for years, as well as nasturtiums.  The ones above are lollo rosso and little gem.  Oregano, marjoram, mint, thyme and particularly lovage and the fluffy bits of fennel foliage make for a really special salad.  The round nasturtium leaves and flowers are excellent in salads, and their seeds are a little like capers.  I have also grown lettuces in the past, but not on such a grand scale.  

Feeling rather pleased with myself 🙂

 

Look what’s coming to dinner: giant puffballs found on a grass verge

If you are lucky enough to find puffballs, especially giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), in your travels they must be eaten almost immediately as they simply don’t keep.  Put them in the fridge, and they will last maybe two days, perhaps three if your fridge is very cold.  Freezing them on the same day is also possible but they are not nearly as good as when eaten fresh.  I used to harvest them from the golf course when I lived in Aberdovey, but never did I collect any this enormous!  My father had a couple, I had a couple and a neighbour had one.  These came from a local grass verge that I was driving past, and I pulled over to go and retrieve them.  Because puffballs reproduce during the decay of the puffball (at which point it puffs off its spores), always leave one behind to ensure that there is a chance of them coming back next year.

A giant puffball looks a little like chicken breast when you slice through it.

As always, collecting wild mushrooms comes with a health warning.  It is easy to mistake puffballs for mildly poisonous earthballs when they are both very small and white, although earth balls quickly become dark as they grow whereas puffballs look pure white throughout their growth cycle, until they mature and the spores (like seeds) are ready to depart when they go creamy yellow.  They are pretty well unmistakeable when they reach a size bigger than a golf ball, but read more about them here on the excellent Forager Chef website.

Puffballs have a subtle mushroomy taste and a soft texture, both of which are quite unique and utterly delicious.  When they are big enough, they are fabulous cut into big slices and tossed in  sizzling butter and fresh sage.  Small ones can be cooked whole.

Slices of giant puffball at the base were topped with smoked bacon, black pudding, crispy sage leaves, spinach and a poached egg.  A terrible photo – I really cannot take photographs in artificial light!  I need to sort out a mini home studio.

There are a million ways of serving them, some gastronomic, others rather more down to earth.  Last night I had mine fried in butter (yes, I know, but how delicious), served at the bottom of a stack made up of a rasher of smoked back bacon, a slice of excellent black pudding, both done on an iron griddle plate over a high flame, with a handful of steamed spinach over the top and a poached Churton egg on the top of that.  Bliss.  I’ve been a bit off food recently, but I couldn’t wait to cook this.

For a vegetarian version, the puffball slices would be excellent cooked in garlic oil, and served on griddled sourdough toast with the spinach, courgettes, and crispy sage leaves, or with asparagus, perhaps with a drizzle of cream.  For me, the poached egg is a must with this meal.

However you cook giant puffballs, be careful not to overwhelm their delicate flavour.  I would not, for example, do them in a red wine sauce, but they go well in a white wine and cream sauce, or in a pasta carbonara.  They are also sensational as an accompaniment for steak, and go very well with chicken or pork.  As tapas, they are divine cooked in garlic and sherry.

 

Adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs: Garlic mushrooms, pancetta and courgette on toast, topped with a poached egg

After a divine curry last night, both invented and cooked by my father, whose approach to all cuisines is always creative and full of glorious flavour, I went for something rather more conventional tonight.  Mushrooms and garlic are a classic combination.  Some diced courgette, pancetta, finely sliced spring onions, parsley, oregano or tarragon and, if you fancy it, spinach (or wild garlic in spring) are great additions, as is a good dollop of cream or crème fraîche.  The poached egg on top is essential, as it rounds things off beautifully.

The mushrooms and pancetta are fried in butter until beginning to brown, at which point the diced courgette is added until it too is golden. The finely chopped garlic is then added, and when cooked through, some flour is sprinkled over the top of the mixture and stirred until it is invisible, helping to thicken the stock, which goes in as soon as the flour has been absorbed, just a little bit at a time, stirring constantly.

When the sauce reaches the consistency that you like, you might consider adding the following:  finely sliced spring onions or chives, chopped parsley and oregano and a few turns of the pepper mill. I also like to add a slosh of dry sherry  at this stage.   Mushrooms and sherry are a frequent combination in Spanish cooking, and work deliciously together.  I also like to add a handful of spinach at this point if I have some, which cooks through quickly as the egg is poached.   If the sauce is too thick at this stage, again add some more stock or water, a little at a time, and stir well to incorporate anything that might be sticking at the bottom of the pan.

Whilst this is gently heating through, the egg is poached and a slice of rustic bread or sourdough is griddled or toasted.  Poaching eggs is easy if a few basic rules are followed.  The eggs should be fresh and at room temperature.  The water should be boiled, and a glug of white wine vinegar added.  The vinegar helps the whites to solidify.  Create a swirl in the water, which helps to spin the egg whites around the egg yolk, and take off the heat.  It will now poach in the hot water, the whites becoming opaque as the egg begins to cook.  It takes about two minutes depending on the size of the egg.  Drain the eggs well in a slotted spoon or on kitchen paper to remove the traces of vinegar.

Back to the mushroom mix.  At the last minute, a small dollop of whatever cream you have to hand goes in.  I like either crème fraîche or sour cream, but ordinary single or double cream works perfectly well too.  Heat it through gently.  Then place the toasted bread on the plate (buttered if required), spoon the mushroom mix over the top of the toast and then place the the poached egg carefully on top of the mushrooms.  Scatter sea salt over the top of it all, and add a few turns of the pepper mill, and dig in!  It’s incredibly filling, so I don’t serve it with anything else.

Lots of variations are possible. If you have access to wild mushrooms, that makes it even better, but I had button mushrooms that needed using up.  Nearly all herbs will work, including sage, lovage, chervil and marjoram.  Diced aubergine goes well instead of or as well as courgette.  Bits of bacon or parma ham can substitute for pancetta.  Cream sherry can be used instead of dry if you fancy a slight hit of mellow sweetness.  Alternatively, instead of sherry, Marsala wine, which is utterly divine in all sorts of sauces, is excellent with this dish. It is not always easy to get hold of, and must be used with care or it takes over entirely.

A vegetarian version can be done by leaving out the pancetta.  If often do the vegetarian version, and it is delightful.

If you want to make it into a bigger main course, the mix works wonderfully as an accompaniment for pork or chicken.

More adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs

 

Object histories in my garden #6: A piece of a Hamilton / torpedo bottle

On the left is a complete Hamilton or torpedo bottle now in the Dumfries Museum. On the right is the fragment of a torpedo bottle found in my back garden. Source of image of Dumfries Museum bottle: Future Museum

I suspect we are coming to the end of the most interesting finds in my garden.  The new beds have been dug out and apart from three lilacs that are destined for the lawn, which will each have a circular bed around them for flowers, the digging has mainly stopped and we are now into laying membrane around trees and shrubs, over the top of which we are putting slate, wood bark and gravel.  This will help to keep down the weeds, and provide a variety of textures throughout the garden, but will seal any remaining objects in the ground, perhaps for future gardeners to find.  There are, however, still one or two pieces worth talking about in the existing collection of objects derived from the garden.

The torpedo bottle fragment from the garden

One of these finds, distinguished by the twist in the glass and its distinctive shape, is a fragment of a Hamilton / torpedo bottle.  Like the Codd bottle, described in a previous post, it was designed to keep gas in bottles of fizzy water.  The Codd bottle in some cases replaced the torpedo, which died out in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Both were eventually replaced by crown caps that still seal many fizzy drinks today, particularly beers.

Joseph Priestley by Henry Fuseli. Source: The Bridgeman Art Library, Object no.42670, via Wikipedia

Fizzy (aerated, effervescent or carbonized) water, occurs naturally in the form of springs.  My favourite is San Pellegrino.  In 1772 Joseph Priestly set out to produce an equivalent of the natural sparkling water from a famous spring in Pyrmont in Germany, and achieved success by dissolving carbon dioxide in water.  This achievement was considered so important that Priestly, a radical minister, was awarded the Copley Medal, the Royal Society’s most prestigious honour.  The Science History Institute’s website describes the process as follows: “He had dripped a little oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) on a mixture of chalk and water, caught the fixed air (carbon dioxide) that fizzed from the chalk in a bladder, and bubbled the fixed air through a column of water, which he then agitated at intervals.”  Natural spring waters, each with different properties, were used for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits from antiquity, and were similarly popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  Artificially produced carbonated water was also initially sold for its medicinal properties by pharmacists like J.F. Edisbury of Wrexham, who had his own mineral water works in Llangollen (and who has been discussed on a previous post), it was eventually mixed with fruit-flavoured syrups and sold to general consumers as a soft drink.

J.F. Edisbury and Co (Wrexham) advert showing a range of the carbonated waters that was stocked.  Source: The Wellcome Collection

It quickly became obvious that a solution was needed to keep the gas in the water once it was placed in a container.  At first earthenware bottles were employed by early producers such as Joseph Schweppe (the founder of Schweppes, of course), who set up his business in Bristol in 1794.  At that time, Bristol was a thriving port, third in importance only to London and Liverpool, and a hub for businesses of all sorts.  As Schweppe and other discovered, in earthenware bottles the gas soon escaped and the drink went flat.

Glass bottles closed with corks followed, but there were two potential problems with this approach.  First, a build-up of pressure in the bottle could cause the corks to fly out, resulting not only in a mess but, again, a flat drink.  Second, if the corks were not kept moist they shrank, with the same result – a flat drink and an unhappy customer.  This caused something of a problem between supplier and retailer.  The solution was to store bottles on their sides, but retailers were reluctant to go to this trouble because of the problems of stacking the bottles.

In 1809, William Francis Hamilton of Dublin filed a patent for a method of producing mineral water, which included a description of storage devices employed, one of which was a torpedo-shaped bottle with a tapering, rounded end that had to be stored on its side.  Torpedo-shaped bottles had already been in existence before Hamilton’s patent, and he seems to have been using torpedo bottles as one of a number of storage solutions.  However, the torpedo obviously won out and he apparently went into production of the bottles in 1814.  It took time for them to become popular, but by  the 1840s they were widely in use and they were used until the First World War.

Not all bottles are marked with manufacturer details.   Embossing only became popular in the latter half of the 19th Century, when it became something of a mania following the introduction of hinged moulds.  Usually the manufacturer’s name was added to the bottle, and was sometime accompanied by details of the product that the bottle contained.  The one in the photograph at the top of the page had none, but my fragment has embossed letters, which were built into the mould into which the molten glass was poured to produce the bottle.  The letters on my bottle are incomplete and show either “TERE” or “IERE” (the bottom of the T or I is missing).  It is possible that, if TERE, it read CHESTER, MANCHESTER, LEICESTER etc (all areas where mineral waters were produced), with the E representing the beginning of a new word.   Equally, the TER could be the last letters of WATER, and the E again the beginning of a new word.  The fragment of the final letter can only be a B, D, E, F or P.  Any guesses, anyone?

Lion Brewery (Chester) and Edisbury Chemist (Wrexham) bottles

The heavy embossing of the bottle indicates that this bottle was made in the late 19th Century, or later.  This is in keeping with the other bottles found in the garden:  from the Lion Brewery, Chester, J.F. Edisbury, Wrexham (both heavily embossed, the latter with a crossed-fox logo) and the Codd bottle.  Both the Hamilton / torpedo and Codd bottles were eventually made redundant with the introduction of crown caps, which Joseph Schweppe first employed in 1903.

 

Sources:

Books and papers

Hedges, A.A.C. 1975. Bottles and Bottle Collecting.  Shire Publications Ltd.

Hamilton, W.F. 1810.  Specification of the Patent granted to William Frances Hamilton.  The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, Sixteenth Volume, Second Series.
Available on Google Books: https://tinyurl.com/35bcf5tm

Websites

Future Museum
Hamilton Bottle
http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/life-work/social-history/home-life/housekeeping/hamilton-bottle.aspx

Science History Institute
Powerful Effervescence
https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/powerful-effervescence

Adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs: Seafood frito misto with tartare sauce

In Italy, frito misto usually describes food that has been given a coating of batter and then deep-fried.  On this occasion I deep-fried my seafood, but it was coated with flour rather than batter, so I may be playing fast and loose with the terminology.  Irrespective, it was delightfully crispy on the outside and beautifully hot and moist in the middle, which is at least in perfect keeping with the spirit of a frito misto.

In so far as tartare sauce is concerned, I often welcome the easy life that sauces in bottles provide, but tartare is always a problem for me as the bottled stuff is so very sweet.  I like my tartare sauce to be creamy but tart, with a lot of acidity.  Too much sugar ruins it for me, and by making the sauce myself I can modify the ingredients to suit my preferences.

This combination of crisp seafood and a soft but tart sauce can be served with whatever you fancy, which in my case is a salad based on garden lettuce and herbs supplemented with shop-bought items like cucumber and tomatoes that I have not yet started to grow (next year).

First, ensure that you have some kitchen roll to hand.  You will be using it a lot.

Next, dig out your eggs and make your mayonnaise (see my earlier post on how to make mayonnaise).  Lemon juice and/or white wine vinegar and a hit of mustard are standard components.  In the final stages of making the mayo, just as it begins to be fully emulsified, I add some herbs.  It’s a personal choice, but I like fresh dill, chives and parsley.  Don’t worry if the sauce becomes very solid, because that’s what you really need.  It needs to be structurally robust in order for the other ingredients to be absorbed without turning it all to liquid.  This is because other solid  ingredients are either wet or acidic.  Acid interferes with the emulsion and makes it much less viscous.

Your sauce should still be thick and gooey, so that when you touch it, it forms peaks like thoroughly whipped cream (just keep adding oil very slowly until it becomes nice and thick).  In the photograph it looks rather too solid for tartare sauce, but you are about to add sour cream and pickled veg to it, which will loosen in up a lot will and provide you with something a lot less viscous.  It is really important to have a good firm  base with which to work.

Sliced gherkins or cornichons and chopped capers are a great combination for tartare sauce.  If you add them straight from the jar, they will add the vinegar from the jar to the emulsion, and will loosen it up, causing it to become runny.  So I drain mine on multi-folded kitchen paper,  wrapping them and turning them now and again for a few minutes.  This removes the excess liquid and leaves you with all of the flavour.  The photo on the right looks a little ungenerous, but I was making a tartare for one.  Once dry, it can be added to the mayonnaise in the food processor and given a very quick whizz.  Remove from the processor and add to a bowl.

Add the sour cream a teaspoon at a time and gently fold it in.  The sour cream is glorious in the mayonnaise base, working with the dill, chives and parsley to provide a deliciously creamy setting for the the lemon, vinegar capers and gherkins, the combination providing real balance.  But do go slowly with the sour cream or you will end up with a soup rather than a sauce.  It will thicken up a bit in the fridge, but not sufficiently to rescue something completely liquid.  Here’s what it looks like, and do remember that although it firms up in the fridge it will relax and become more liquid as soon as it reaches room temperature.

My frito misto was based on seafood, using razor clams, prawns and whitebait, all delivered via Amazon from Morrisons.  Sadly, Amazon doesn’t deliver Morrisons products to Churton, but they do deliver to Rossett, and having a superior parent handily located there, I was able to place an order.  The razor clams are very difficult to source from anywhere else, and both their flavour and texture are unique.   All shellfish need to be extracted from their shells and dried in kitchen roll.  The patting dry will considerably reduce the spitting of the oil.

If you are cooking more than one batch you will also need to have the oven on, so that when you take out one batch and add another, you can keep the original batch warm.

The technique is very simple.  I have a deep-fryer but I rarely use it for fish, because it takes an awful lot of oil to fill it, and once used to cook fish, the oil cannot be used for anything else.  So I do mine in a saucepan large enough to handle whatever it is that I am planning to cook.  The key with floured fish is to get the oil really hot, or the flour falls off and you end up with naked fish and oil swimming in flour.  If you are using a thermometer the oil should be 350F or 180C, but if not just put in a piece of seafood and when it starts to sizzle instantly, you should be good to go.  I do have a kitchen thermometer but its batteries are dead since I moved in, back in February, so I have been using the latter system recently with great success.  Make sure that whatever you throw in is sizzling enthusiastically, because the moment you add another batch of seafood, the temperature will drop.  When you remove the first batch, put it in the oven to stay warm, and allow the oil to heat up again before putting in the next batch.

The fat from each batch needs to drain from the seafood, so have a plate covered in kitchen roll prepared in advance and keep tossing the seafood in the kitchen roll to reduce the oil remaining on the seafood.  It is never going to be a healthy meal, but removing the worst of the oil will improve both the flavour and alleviate a sense of guilt 🙂

Tip it all onto a pre-heated plate, tons of tabasco sprinkled over the top, your salad either on the plate or in a separate bowl (probably best if you have pre-heated your plates) and your tartare sauce on the side, with a chunk of lemon to sprinkle over the top and ENJOY! 

If you want to re-use your oil for another seafood dish, you can filter it through kitchen paper placed in a funnel into a jug or bottle.  The kitchen paper, acting as a filter, picks up all the bits of burnt flour and fish, leaving you with a clear oil.  It will still smell of fish, so seal it well.  I re-use an oil bottle with a screw top for mine.  Make sure that you label it clearly so that you don’t use it by accident for something else.  The fishiness could devastate another dish.  I only re-use it once before throwing it away, which means that this is a special occasion meal.

A lovely summer meal for al fresco dining.

More adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs

Comparing a Churton village postcard, the 1911 map and a modern photograph

1, Fourways. 2, Cross Cottage. 3, Hob Cottage. 4, The Old Red Lion, extension or combined with the earlier building?. 5, The Old Red Lion (former pub with half-timbered section, barely visible here but marked by three square planters). 6, Rowley Place (1-4). 7, New Cottage. 8, Stone House (formerly Stone Cottage and Lilac Cottage, now one house). On the other side of Stone House, and out of view in both postcard and photograph, is Cherry Tree Cottage, dating to 1610 and beyond it Wayside Farmhouse, Highway Farm and The Byre.

This is a tinted version of a black and white photograph used for this distinctive postcard of Churton.  I have seen several for sale on eBay, but all of them were unposted and unmarked, whereas I like to see the stamp, post mark, recipient address and to read the message.   This is a particularly good example.  The postcard was printed in Germany as many early postcards were. It has a Edward VII Halfpenny stamp (Edward VII came to the throne on the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, on 22 January, 1901, and died on 6 May 1910) and bears a Chester postmark dated April 16th 1911.  It was destined for an address in Bootle.  See the message at the end of the post.

On the photograph above and on the maps below, the red numbers have been added for ease of identification, but do not relate in any real-world way to the buildings themselves, none of which, apart from the homes that make up Rowley Place, were allocated Chester Road numbers, and all of which are known instead by their house names.  Several buildings are set back from the road today, and are not visible in the postcard, so have not been mentioned here but are shown on the top of the two maps below.  Note that numbers 4 and 5 refer to what make up the same residence today, but were clearly built at different times in the past.

Modern map of Churton from the Public Map Viewer, compared with the 1911 map (Cheshire Sheet LIII-3, a 1909 revision of the 1872-4 and 1897 -1898 surveys).  Between 3 (Hobbs Cottage) and 4 (part of the Old Red Lion), the thatched half-timbered house is still shown.

Many of the buildings and features shown in the photograph are still present today, but there is one notable omission. Eventually I hope to get to grips with the histories of individual buildings, including my own, but for the time being I have confined myself to playing “spot the difference” between the early 20th century postcard and the photograph I took in March 2021.

The most notable of the buildings that was in the postcard but is absent in the photograph is the half-timbered thatched building that sits between Hobbs Cottage (3)  and the Red Lion (4 + 5) on the photograph, a wonderful looking place that may date to the same period as Churton Hall Farm (in Pump Lane).  It was built directly onto the red sandstone bedrock, and has a small flight of stairs over the bedrock to reach the front door.  If anyone has any information about it, please get in touch.  Its site is now the driveway that gives access to The Nook, which is set back from the road.  A startling sight in the postcard is the regiment of telegraph polls, with seven rows of crossarms.

Almost completely hidden in the postcard is the Old Red Lion, which seems to have been thatched at that time.

Two buildings post-date the 1911 map:  Sandrock and New Cottage on the plot marked 7.   Most other changes are cosmetic, but like the the usual modernizations of window frames but a A  number of minor embellishments have been made to existing properties. The shutters have been removed from Fourways (1).  A sympathetic roof conversion has been fitted to  part of the former Red Lion (4), the porch over Fourways (1), has been changed for something a bit more effective and Hobbs Cottage (3) has been fitted with a small bay window on the ground floor and its brickwork has been rendered and painted.  A road sign for Pump Lane has been added to Cross Cottage since the photo in the postcard was taken (2).  At first glance I thought that the  same signpost pointing down Pump Lane to Coddington had been retained, but it has either been replaced or moved, because it is no longer in front of Hobbs Cottage.

Do get in touch if you have further insights.

As to transport, a novelty of the image compared to today is that there is no traffic thundering up and down!  Instead, there is a one man on horseback retreating down the road at a plodding pace, and a horse-drawn carriage with a small group of people around it, together presenting a very peaceful rural scene.  Ron Parker, who was born in the village, told me that when he was a child they used to play ball in the road.  Heaven help anyone who tried it now.

The note on the postcard was written on a Sunday evening at 6pm in April 1911 by one Jim (presumably Jim Rogers) to his mother Mrs Stanley Rogers.  It  says that they were just going out to attend the Congregational Church at Farndon, having been to “the Parish” in the morning.  This was presumably the Congregational chapel built in 1853, now a home named Chapel House.  The Parish church would have been either St Chad’s in Farndon or St John the Baptist Church in Aldford, depending on whether they were staying in Churton by Farndon or Churton by Aldford.  The two civil parishes were only combined to form a single parish in 2015.  The visitors had already been to Chester on a sunny day, when it was so warm that they had had to carry their coats, and on the following day they were making an early start for a trip to Llangollen.  It must have been quite a trek by horse-drawn carriage. Even with the warm weather, they were enjoying a fire in their sitting room on that Sunday evening.  Jim finishes the card by pointing out that “on the other side is a picture of the conveyance that brought us here”.

Churton seems like a rather remote spot for a holiday break, particularly when the means of getting there was horse and carriage, but that’s very much what this message appears to indicate.  It would be interesting to know the details of the end-to-end journey that ended in a horse and carriage ride into Churton.

If you own a used copy of this postcard (i.e. one that has been posted and has a stamp, postal mark and message), do share the details of it either by commenting here, or by getting in touch with me.  It would be good to build up a picture of the sort of experiences people had when they visited Churton, and to know why they visited in the first place.

 

Some photos from my 15 minute contribution to the Big Butterfly Count

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the Big Butterfly Count.  It goes on for another two days, so if you want to participate, have a look at their website.  It is an initiative to learn about what is happening with butterfly populations in the UK.  Well worth contributing.

I’ve submitted my count for my 15 minute slot, staring fixedly at the bed in which my two buddleias reside, along with roses, poppies and various other floral beauties.  In 15 minutes the Black Knight buddleia won hands-down in both the butterfly and bee popularity stakes, and the scent of the flowers was almost overpowering.  Here are some of the photographs that I took.

It was interesting to note that apart from the comma, these showy, large butterflies were completely different from the ones that I saw the other day at the lower end of the footpath that heads to the Dee from Knowl Lane.  Those were small, more understated butterflies, enjoying the hedgerows, including gatekeepers, speckled woods, meadow browns and small coppers.  Photos of some of them are on my earlier post about that walk, but a lot of them refused to land and be photographed.

Small tortoiseshell

Comma

Peacock, conspicuously bigger than anything else that turned up

Small White

Holly Blue. I had just watered the rose bed, and the Holly Blue
seems to have landed to take a drink.

Red Admiral

I was amazed by how big the peacocks were, compared with other visitors. How super to be asked to do something so enjoyable that happens to be useful too.  The small whites were the dominant visitors, followed by the peacocks.  There was only one holly blue during the 15 minute section, although I see them quite regularly in a given week.  There was also only one red admiral.  Like the holly blue, they are not infrequent visitors to the garden, but I generally see more of them when out and about.  Their caterpillars like nettles, and I have gone to an awful lot of trouble to remove all traces of nettles from the garden.