Sunday, 25 October 2015

Bill Bryson on Avebury

A commissioner for English Heritage and acclaimed author (or so the critics say; I’ve never read any of his work) Bill Bryson, who’s travel guides grace the bookshelves of many a traveller’s collection I shouldn’t wonder, has made what can only be described as a scathing attack on the National Trust at Avebury. In his defence I must point out that Mr Bryson has singled out Avebury as his target and not the National Trust as a whole, who he has much respect for.

The National Trust at Avebury has a small inclusion in Mr. Bryson's latest book, ’The Road to Little Dribbing,’ where he claims to have ‘spent £31.89 before setting eyes on a stone’ a visit which left him feeling ‘grumpy.’

Bill Bryson remarks about Avebury have sparked a flurry of support for the National Trust and how it manages the Avebury experience.

Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Bryson’s points:

Firstly; I must challenge him when he says he spent £31.89 before ever seeing a stone. As you approach Avebury on the A4361 or B4003, you would have to be blindfold (not recommended when driving) not to see these impressive sarsens as they dominate the horizon from every approach.

Secondly; He remarks; ‘of fleecing' tourists visiting a stone circle.' Again he claims to have spent £31.89 before even getting a cup of tea. Parking in the National Trust car park will incure an all day charge of £7. This I agree is steep, there are no cheaper options available. I must confess if I were anywhere else and found myself facing a £7 tariff to park my car, I would look elsewhere. It would appear the National Trust expects you to stay all day.

Mr Bryson metions signage. I must say signage for the car park is woefully inadequate. I have lost count of how many times visitors to the Manor have remarked about missing the entrance to the car park which is often obscured by greenery. Countless times I have followed drivers on the A4361 on my way through Avebury who are crawling along before disappearing into the village, you just know they are desperately looking for somewhere to park.

Thirdly; Mr Bryson mentions he had to fork out £9.99 for a guide book. Guide books are free of charge and available in the Visitor Centre located in the Barn. If he is saying he purchased a guide book in the National Trust shop without being told he could obtained one for free then yes, maybe you have course to complain Mr Bryson, but then did you ask?

Fourthly; Mr Bryson further remarks that the site ‘lacked interpretation.’ I have to disagree. The Visitor Centre has much to offer about the site and what’s more is free to enter.

Fifthly; Probably the most scathing attack was directed at the Manor. Here Mr Bryson writes: 'I was particularly keen to see the manor house as I assumed it would be filled with Keiller's personal curios and archaeological treasures (they can be found in the Keiller Museum Mr Bryson which you eventually found). ‘But no. In what must be the cheesiest thing the National Trust has ever done, it had allowed the house to be made into a set for a now-forgotten BBC television series.’ He also quibbled about the £10 entrance fee. Is £10 too much? Well not when you consider it includes access to nine lovely, peaceful gardens. A fair price me thinks Mr Bryson.

In the main the visitor feedback from those who have managed to find the Manor (many remark about the signage) have been positive. Is it a ‘set?’ Yes of course it is, no matter how much the National Trust try to disguise it; it’s what the BBC does for heaven sake. However, let’s not forget it is also a showcase for historically, accurately handcrafted furnishing and art that take the visitor on a nostalgic trip through the Manor’s 450 year history whilst 'reflecting' on some of its key owners, including one Alexander Keiller. I think it wrong of Mr Bryson to expect the focus solely to be on Keiller. He must not forget there were many other notable and influential owners of Avebury Manor: Sir Willam Dunch; eminent lawyer and advisor to King Henry VIII and largely responsible for the first build here; Sir John Stawell, Royalist and MP; Sir Adam Williamson, Gov of Jamaica; Sir Francis Knowles, who’s discovery in the field of neurosecretion: the process by which certain nerve cells secrete hormones into the bloodstream, saw him exploit this concept, making skillful use of a variety of new techniques which he pioneered. The list goes on Mr Bryson. So I think it unfair of you to single out Keiller and expect the Trust to give him preferential treatment over the others I have mentioned. Especially when you consider he has a museum dedicated to his archaeological work at Avebury. Which brings me to my final point, or should I say your final point Mr Bryson. The admission charge to the museum. Is £4.90 too much for what is essentially a single room experience? Yes I think it is; enough said.

When Mr Bryson eventually found the stones, he wrote; they were ‘awesome and entrancing.’ Well, we got something right.

Avebury will not be to everyone’s taste, but then where is. As a volunteer of some 5 years, I can safely say and without bias that those visitors I have spoken with and there have been many, have gone home having had a wonderful and informative day.

Regardless of Mr Bryson's gripes and he is entitled to them. Avebury remains one of Britain's most visited sites and continues to enthrall folk by the thousands.


Saturday, 21 December 2013

Avebury Manor - New Beginnings

I was surprised to discover just how few people were blissfully unaware of Avebury Manors‘ existence; prior that is to the BBC makeover and subsequent television program that followed - The Manor Reborn. Strange when you consider the Manor lies within a stones-throw of a magnificent World Heritage site which attracts some 300,000 visitors annually. It was almost as if the National Trust (who acquired the Manor in 1991 from the official receivers following the bankruptcy of entrepreneur - Kenneth King) wanted to keep this little jewel in the Wiltshire countryside a secret.

Following the departure of the last tenant in 2009, which effectively left the Manor pretty much devoid of furniture and fittings, is was quite clear that something had to be done. Avebury Manor was making little money and the cost of maintaining it had to be addressed pdq. It was decided to open it fully to the public 2009/10 and theme each room as if an imaginary family were in the throws of “moving out.” To achieve this scenario, a few pieces of furniture and several packing-cases were placed in empty rooms and a selection of objects (crockery and the like) were positioned in such a way as to give the impression of...well, moving out.  Did it work? well apparently not, for in 2010 the BBC contacted the National Trust with a proposal. They were looking for an empty country house, the plan was to historically style, redecorate and furnish several rooms relevant to whichever property was chosen. In the running were Barrington Court, Somerset and Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, both worthy contenders. Avebury Manor was eventually selected by BBC series producer - Kate Shiers, who wanted, ‘somewhere where people could imagine living’. Well the Manor is certainly that now, but I do wonder whether the proximity to a World Heritage site may possibly have influenced Kate's final decision, after all, where better to showcase such a splendid project.

So, nine rooms were selected which when completed would reflect periods and key people in the Manor’s 450 year history: Tudor, Georgian, Queen Anne, Edwardian and early 20th century styles were magnificently recreated. Also earmarked for a Ground Force type makeover, was the neglected Victorian Walled Kitchen Garden. All this had to be completed in just six short months and on a budget of just £225,000 - phew! The final details were agreed by both parties and work commenced in April 2011.

Today the Manor can be enjoyed by all but with a new twist, well, new for the National Trust that is. For at Avebury Manor, unlike the majority of other Trust properties you’re positively encouraged to interact with all of the furniture and objects, the only exception being the exquisite Chinese wallpaper in the Dining Room which has been beautifully hand painted using water-based paints, a “no touching” policy exists here.

You will find no prickly deterrents on chairs, no ropes and no antiques, unless you consider the beautifully restored (by Hubble Sports) late 19th century three-quarter size mahogany billiard table and the marvellous 1904 Wellstood range; the latter saved by Neville Griffiths from a house in the Wirral earmarked for demolition. What you will find are carefully researched period replicas of furnishings and fittings which have been lovingly created by a team of expert craftsmen commissioned for the project by interior designer Russell Sage. Presenters Dan Cruickshank and Dr. Anne Whitelock contributed their extensive knowledge of architecture and historic design respectively and worked closely with the National Trust‘s curatorial staff to ensure historic accuracy. Finally, Wessex Archaeology were appointed to carry out a historic buildings survey. Dendrochronology analyses were undertaken to determine the date of the oldest part of the house. Results from samples taken from the lintel beam in the kitchen, revealed a felling date of around 1555 - 1580, confirmation that the kitchen was part of the original build.

Avebury Manor opened its doors in 2012 and has been enthusiastically received by over 70,000 visitors at the time of this post, some of whom are still a little unsure whether they are permitted to touch this or sit on that. Quite often volunteer room guides are approached and tentatively asked, “is it okay to…?”

The Avebury Manor experience is like no other, it is a break from tradition for the National Trust and who knows, in view of its growing success, it may open the door for similar projects in the future, I do hope so.

The BBC Team

Dan Cruikshank, well known as an architectural historian, on television and radio as well as the author of many books

Dr Anna Whitelock, historian, author, broadcaster and academic from University of London.

Russell Sage, is a successful interior designer with many prestigious projects to his name including. The Goring Hotel, Clerkenwell’s Zetter Townhouse and numerous Gordon Ramsay restaurants.

National Trust volunteers, who’s tireless dedication and hard work were invaluable, both in the Manor and the Victorian kitchen garden.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Avebury Manor Timeline

1114 - Benedictine priory founded on the site.

1378 - Priory is dissolved, a succession of chaplains take charge.

1411 - Priory passes into the hands of Fotherinhay College.

1545 - Fotheringhay College relinquishes ownership of the estate for other lands. The estate passes to the Crown.

1547 - The Crown grants Sir William Sharington of Lacock Abbey, ownership of the estate.

1551 - William Dunch, Auditor of the Royal Mint, buys the estate for £2000. The existing house is newly rebuilt between 1555-1580.

1581 - The Manor passes to William Dunch’s son, Walter.

1594 - Walter predeceased his father.

1595 - William Dunch’s widowed daughter-in-law, Debora and her second husband, Sir James Mervyn - High Sheriff of Wiltshire, become outright owners of Avebury Manor. Dovecot dispute saw Richard Truslowe defeated.

1640 - Sir John Stawell of Cothelstone buys Avebury Manor for £8,500 from Debora’s son William, named after his grandfather. Stawell is imprisoned at the end of the Civil War. Avebury is sequestered by Parliament.

1652 - Avebury sold to George Long but later reverts back to Sir John Stawell on the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Sir John’s son, then grandson inherit.

1694 - Sir Richard Holford, Master in Chancery, buys Avebury for £7,500.

1718 - Sir Richard Holford dies and leaves Avebury Manor to his widow Suzanna.

1722-1742 - Various sons of the Holford’s inherit Avebury: Samuel, Richard, Staynor and finally half-brother Arthur Jones.

1789 - Arthur Jones dies, passing the Manor to his chosen successor, Ann (Nanny) Williamson. Her husband, Colonel Adam Williamson, who was made Governor of Jamaica.

1798 - 'Sir' Adam Williamson dies suddenly at Avebury. The Manor passes to Richard Jones, Arthur Jones’s nephew from the 1742 era.

1816 - The Kemm family move in as tenant farmers.

1873 - The Jones family sell the Manor to brewer and politician Sir Henry Meux.

1883 - Ownership passes to Sir Henry’s son, also Henry. The Kemms’ remain as tenants till 1902.

1889 - Thomas Kemm dies at 83 leaving his two unmarried daughters, Everdell and Marian as tenants of the estate.

1900 - Sir Henry Meux junior dies.

1902 - The Kemm daughters move to Yorkshire, relinquishing their tenancy.

1902 - Sir Henry Meux’s widow lets the estate to Lt-Colonel Leopold and Nora Jenner.

1907 - The Jenners’ buy the estate from Sir Henry Meux’s widow. They lovingly restore the Manor adding the West Library c1920.

1920 - The Jenners’ sell Avebury Manor ‘farm’ to J Peake-Garland but retain the Manor.

1929 - Having lost money in overseas investments the Jenners’ are forced to lease Avebury Manor to the Benson family. The Jenners’ move to Bath, never to return other than to be buried side-by-side in St.James church Avebury.

1935 - The Jenners’ lease the Manor to Alexander Keiller.

1937 - Alexander Keiller buys Avebury Manor from the Jenners’ and establishes the Morven Institute of Archaeological Research.

1942 - The Morven Institute is disbanded and much of Keiller’s property, including the stone circle is sold to the National Trust for £12,000; the Trust declines to buy the Manor deeming it too expensive.

1955 - The Manor is sold to Sir Francis Knowles, a research biologist. Keiller dies at his home in Kingston Surrey. His widow Gabrielle, donates the Avebury museum and his collection to the nation in 1966.

1974 - Sir Francis Knowles dies.

1976 - Sir Francis Knowles widow, Lady Knowles, sells the Manor to Michael Brudenell-Bruce, 8th Marquess of Ailesbury.

1981 - The Brudenell-Bruces’ return to their ancestral home in Savernake Forest selling the Manor to Mr and Mrs Nevill-Glidden.

1988 - Entrepreneur, Kenneth King buys the Manor for £1 million with plans to turn it into an ‘Elizabethan Experience’ causing much local controversy.

1991 - The National Trust buys the Manor from the Official Receivers after Kenneth King is declared bankrupt. The Manor is leased to a private tenant on the understanding it must remain open to the public for a limited time.

2009 - Tenants lease expires and is not renewed. Manor is left empty but open to the public.

2010 - The BBC approaches The National Trust.

2011 - The BBC and The National Trust agree to an extensive themed makeover for the Manor and kitchen garden.

2012 - The Avebury Manor Project opens.


Avebury Manor Archives
British History Online
The Manor Reborn by Siân Evans, a The National Trust publication
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Wessex Archaeology

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Wiltshire Landscape Walk

Volunteers and staff stop off at Silbury Hill

An informative and enjoyable evening was had by volunteers and staff for Chris Penny’s Wiltshire Landscape Walk on 10th July. Stopping off at Silbury Hill, Wadden Hill and the West Kennet Avenue, culminated in a well deserved pint at The Red Lion pub. Could not have wished for a better evening; very warm.

Thanks to Chris Penny - Volunteers Coordinator. Very interesting mate.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Avebury: All in a Year’s Work

Avebury and the National Trust,

For ever, for everyone is a must.

Look at all the tasks we do,

Some of them may surprise you.

In the car park, help find a gap,

Sell a ticket, offer a map.

“What’s there to see? We have time to kill.”

A common question, “What’s Silbury Hill?”

In the Museum there are tickets to sell,

Guide books, maps and tours as well.

This is the place for directions too.

The first question often is “Where’s the loo?!”

Down to the farmyard, and into the Barn,

Everyone enjoys a really good yarn.

Family activities, bug hunts and trails,

Gather the kids for poems and tales.

In the Stables, directions they need.

Hunger for knowledge we love to feed,

Explain the objects in their cases.

Brighten their day, bring smiles to their faces.

Tours of the stone circles take an hour,

Surrounded by the bank, the height does tower.

Tales of destruction, masonry they pillage,

Used to construct buildings of the village.

During the summer season, on the garden gate,

We sit and admire flowers while we wait,

To greet the visitors to the Manor Reborn,

Through the gate and across the lawn.

Within the Manor, tales we tell,

Of Keiller and Jenner, Dunch as well.

Tours, room guides or conservation clean.

Decorate for Christmas, we’re all extra keen.

In the Tea Room and café, dishes to take,

Back to the kitchen, cakes to bake.

Laying the tables, posh china looks nice,

Cut the cake, mine’s a large slice!

In the garden, pulling weeds,

Taking cuttings and sewing seeds.

Topiary trimmed, then the yew hedge,

Mow the lawns and harvest the veg.

Come wind, rain or shine, we show the way,

Ensuring visitors enjoy their day.

All this work needs blood, sweat and tears.

And all freely given by our volunteers.

So if you have enjoyed this little rhyme,

And you could spare some regular time,

Please come and see us, email or phone,

Our staff cannot do it all on their own!

A poem by Michele

Curatorial and House Assistant

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Avebury Manor Tearoom

Image credit Richard Bradshaw

Voted best National Trust tearoom 2012; The Manor tearoom, originally the West Library,was built for Lt. Col. & Mrs. Nora Jenner in the early 20th century. It offers a relaxing atmosphere, table service, teas, coffee and a wide selection of cakes.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Avebury Manor - A Brief History

Avebury Manor dates from around the mid 16th century, recently confirmed by a dendrochronology analysis carried out by Wessex Archaeology. Samples taken from a ceiling lintel beam in the kitchen (the oldest part of the house) showed a felling date of between 1555 - 1580. The land the Manor occupies however is considerably older and in all probability had monastic connections.  There have been few excavations of note but those that have been permitted, have revealed several small finds which would indicate the site to have been occupied for at least a thousand years.

Earliest records of a building in the vicinity date from 1114, when King Henry I granted the estate to his chamberlain William de Tancarville, who in that same year gifted it to the Benedictine French abbey of St Georges de Boscherville, Rouen, Normandy. A priory house, probably made of timber, was established soon afterwards and may have stood close to where the current Manor is now situated. The priory was a small unit, just a few monks eking out a simple existence raising sheep and farming the land.

In 1378, England was at war with France which ultimately spelled expunction for the monastic order at Avebury. The last prior to leave Avebury was Stephen Fosse in 1379. Fosse was one of many monks expelled from England during that year. A succession of chaplains took charge of the priory until it finally passed into the hands of Fotheringhay College in 1411.

In 1547, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) the College exchanged the estate for other lands. The Crown took possession of the estate and granted ownership to Sir William Sharington who had recently purchased Lacock Abbey. At some point the priory was demolished or possibly remodelled leaving a small lay house.

In 1551, wealthy businessman, courtier and Auditor to the Royal Mint - William Dunch, purchased the house and estate form Sharington. Recent evidence now points to the Dunches’ being largely responsible for rebuilding a new house between 1555 and 1580.

In 1601 the east range was extended by Sir James and Mrs Debora Mervyn adding the south range and ornate porch over which are engraved their initials.

In 1740 Richard Holford (grandson of Sir Richard Holford) remodelled the Great Hall in the south range and the bedchamber above it inline with the latest fashions. The original stone gables (noted from a drawing in 1723 by William Stukeley) were removed by Holford to allow the construction of a deep coved ceiling which would later become known as the Queen Anne Bedroom. Queen Anne is believed to have visited the Manor during her reign, though the ceiling would have been in its original form at that time.

The final alteration came in the early 1900s when Lt-Colonel Leopold and Mrs Nora Jenner added the west library. In addition they landscaped the gardens introduced Yew and Box topiary.

Sarsen and limestone were used primarily for most of the building projects. It is likely, though not certain, that the sarsen stone would have come from the Avebury henge at a time when the stones were of little interest other than for building material.

Over its 450 year history, Avebury Manor has commanded significant importance in the village, surrounded by high boundary walls and formal gateways. Although not the most prestigious of country houses, it still retains an air of opulence with its impressive gables, deep mullion windows, tall imposing chimneys and beautiful topiaried gardens.