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Winter 2021 Highdown Gardens
Despite the rain and cold, a lot of work going on behind the scenes to open Highdown Gardens, we hope in Spring this year. There is also a lot of work developing a new Highdown website this Winter, which I am providing the content for MooCow website developers, as well as juggling the delights of homeschooling and DIY. I am very lucky that I can escape into looking at the past and all the amazing stories surrounding Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern, with their remarkable cast of visitors who visited from 1918 to 1968.
Highdown Research Journey, part 19
During my research this year I have noticed that Lady Sybil Stern’s role at Highdown Gardens and in local politics has been mostly ignored as recorded history focused on Sir Frederick Stern’s horticultural skills. However, there are now clues that point to Sybil’s connections with suffragists – the group of women, mostly middle and upper class, who used peaceful campaigns to try to get the right for women to vote from the 1890s. In frustration at the slow pace of the suffragists another group, the suffragettes, took militant action ‘Deeds not Words’ to the horror of male politicians and glee of the media up to 1914.
The first clue about Sybil’s politics is in the Jewish Chronicle which mentions a drawing room meeting that Sybil attended and contributed to the Union of Jewish Women before she married Frederick in 1918, see Research Journey part 12. This Union promoted Jewish women’s social services and was like a job agency to help Jewish women train to be teachers or nurses. It appears to have attracted women into other wider activist roles.
The next big clue I found at
West Sussex Record Office, in Chichester, is in the amazing time machine that is the
Highdown Visitors Book. At the bottom of the page for 7 February 1928, there is the title Sussex Liberal Women: Mass Attack, see
photo above. Thanks to Diana Wilkins @Vote100Lewes who ‘translated’ the
signatures and made interesting connections. The list of 8 women who assembled at Highdown Tower seem to be
Liberal suffragists who helped the Liberal party to spread the word across
Sussex that all women could now vote in the next election.
The Highdown group included: Ida Swinburne (film producer and Liberal politician), Evelyn Marion Bryce (from a wealthy Liberal party family), and Lettice Fisher (economist, historian and founder of National Council for Unmarried Women and her Child aka Gingerbread ). Sybil was the secretary of this campaign and was the chairperson at public meetings in Worthing and Chichester. It would be great when the archives are open again to discover more of Sybil’s involvement in politics.
Highdown Research Journey, part 18
The Battle We Forgot
Have you heard about the Battle of Beersheba? Ask an Australian. It has links to the creator of Highdown Gardens, Frederick Stern. After the disastrous landing of Gallipoli in 1915 (in which Stern survived as an officer in the Westminster Dragoons, see replica cap badge above) the British and Commonwealth forces had problems defending the Suez Canal, in Egypt, against the powerful Turkish Army in Palestine (now Israel). It was decided that they were going to have to push North into Palestine and defeat the Turks. It became a fast moving mobile campaign involving men, horses, camels and trains. The logistical nightmare was to find water for all the animals and men.
By the Autumn of 1917 after many battles starting in the Sinai desert there came the plan to attack the huge fort at Beersheba (now Be’er Sheva) in the Negev desert. This is where a young Jewish Captain Stern comes in as he earned a Military Cross here on the 31st October 1917. At the moment we do not know what he did to achieve this medal (some records lost in Blitz and archives closed due to Covid) but there are hints of clearing barbed wire under heavy Turkish machine gun fire. The now forgotten battle is described in this dry official description in the 1919 edition of ‘A Brief Record of the Advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force’ published by the Palestine News,
On 31 October the former Yeomanry regiments (now XXth Corps)
advanced: “231st and 230th
Brigades attacked Beersheba at 0830 on the left of 60th Division, 10th
East Kents (Buffs) and 12th Norfolks leading the attack. Their
objectives were the main Turkish trench-line immediately south of the Wadi
Saba. Stubborn resistance was met with but all objectives were taken by 1330.
Later in the day 230th Brigade crossed the Wadi Saba and rolled up
all the hostile defences as far north as the Beersheba-Tel el Fara road.” Translated: the British were in big
trouble until the Anzac cavalry saved the day. This victory helped to open up the routes to Jerusalem.
Frederick Stern was quickly promoted to Major and received an OBE in 1918. But he hardly talked about his experience in the War. His only comment I have found was that there were never any Rabbis serving on the front line trenches to help the Anglo-Jewish soldiers and he wanted to get more Rabbis into the Army (Jewish Chronicle 9 May 1919. see blog part11 ). This story continues with Stern’s role in the 1919 Peace Conferences and meeting Lloyd George and Lawrence of Arabia…
Highdown Research Journey, part 17
How Does Your Research Grow?
Over the last 12 months I have collected a lot of new research about Highdown Gardens and the remarkable Frederick and Sybil Stern. My next challenge: how to present this information as a summary. As a list or a report that nobody reads?
I prefer to mix in images and text to grab the attention of the reader/audience. During the summer I started to build up a layer of visuals using the fantastic Comic Life software. The result is the picture above, based on a family tree template.
this shows the ‘big’ picture of what I have discovered working with volunteers
and the amazing network of librarians and archivists who have revealed parts of the many
stories of the Highdown jigsaw. There are more stories to come…including international banking and a desert battle.
Highdown Research Journey, part 16
To Zoom or not to Zoom
It’s strange presenting a Zoom talk. There is no immediate audience reaction and the weird ‘feedback’ technical pauses are very disconcerting. However, the big advantage is that your audience can be hundreds or thousands of miles apart so you could be developing an international network, all thanks to a laptop and free software. And it’s sometimes useful to have a couple of props such as a Newmarket horseshoe and a lump of Sussex chalk, see photo above.
I am rambling about this as last 2 months I have been invited to talk twice about the Highdown research so far. In June it was for the Jewish Country Houses network (via University of Oxford) and in July it was for the Association of Heritage Interpretation (or AHI). It was a good exercise in editing 9 months of work into about 40 PowerPoint slides for peer review. So far, reaction has been really positive and possibly some new connections are being made for Highdown Gardens…..
Highdown Research Journey, part 15
June 2020. During this weird time, I have discovered a new hobby with my kids: climbing chalk pits in the Sussex Downs. So far, we have bagged 3 chalk pits. At our last conquest at Malling Down, near Lewes, I noticed a whole side of exposed chalk at the top of our climb, see photo. I immediately thought of letters between architect/landscape designer Sir Edwin Lutyens and Frederick Stern of Highdown Gardens fame. I had seen these on my visit to the amazing Royal Botanic Gardens archive at Kew in December.
Lutyens had been asked to design the Australian First World War Memorial at Villers Bretonneux, in the Somme, France at the start of 1937. It was to be built on a chalk ridge and Lutyens needed urgent advice on chalk loving plants. Stern obliged with a detailed list of plants including: ‘Munstead’ lavender, Scotch Rose and Cotoneaster horizontails. What is interesting is Stern’s suggestion in preparing the chalk, seen later in Stern’s book “A Chalk Garden”.
From Stern to Lutyens 15th Feb 1937: “To plant successfully on chalk soils it is essential to break up the hard chalk under the top layer of loam. This can either be done if on a big scale by very deep ploughing. If not on a large scale, by double digging, as long as the chalk is broken up with a pick. It is unnecessary to take out any chalk, so long as it is properly broken up to a depth of 2 feet. In this way the roots of the plant can get down into the rubble chalk and thereby get moisture.”
Highdown Research Journey, part 14
May 2020. Imagine my surprise going into Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, in February, to find a forgotten portrait of Lady Sybil Stern. Here it is, a charcoal portrait (I think) by Juliet Pannett from 1970. I had a meeting with the curators and while talking to them wondered about Sybil’s side of the family.
In the Jewish Chronicle, from 1910 to 1920s, there was mention that Sybil’s father Sir Arthur Lucas was a painter, with links to the Pre-Raphaelites. But it is very hard to find any information on him or his paintings. So, I used a low-tech method and asked the Worthing Museum curators if they had any reference books. And to my delight, the curators brought out two big hardbacks, published in late 1970s and 1980s: ‘The Dictionary of British Artists 1880 to 1940′ by Johnson and Greutzner.
The art detectives confirm that Arthur Lucas was indeed a landscape painter! He exhibited from 1883 to 1909, his wife and other daughter Joan were also painters exhibiting in London galleries from 1903 to 1909. It appears both Joan and dad exhibited at the Royal Academy. Meanwhile cross-refencing this with Sybil’s 1972 obituary, from the Worthing Herald, it mentions she was studying art in Belgium before 1914. Another part of the jigsaw emerging…
Highdown Research Journey, part 13
Normal Service Will Resume…soon
April 2020. I am writing this while in sunny lockdown, on the British south coast, listening to haunting choral music on BBC Radio 3 (fed up with depressing news channels). Just before the big freeze announcement I was going to ramble more about my new discoveries about Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern. But last two weeks suddenly side-tracked with a new routine with my partner and kids: part-time teacher; full-time Red coat (did that part-time before the big C); sharing neighbour; patient grocery queuer; and sometime online food hunter.
However, my Highdown client still wants me to write and edit text (hooray), but that means I have to go into flexible logistics mode. I can’t use my usual co-working desk space in downtown Brighton. So, I have found my old, small collapsible camping table (last properly used 2013). When not in teaching mode I hunt any spare space in our house, then ‘book’ it with table erect, humming laptop, swivel chair and tea mug.
Also, to stop cabin fever, I try to go into our tiny garden every day and potter around enjoying the sights, sounds and smells. I enjoy watching the city bumblebees doing lazy loops. And I really enjoy the splashes of yellow narcissus at the moment, as seen in this photo above.
Next blog…Lucas Arts
Highdown Research Journey, part 12
February 2020. What links Highdown with a microscope, toxic cocktails and recycled Home Guard note paper? These are some of the ingredients used by Frederick Stern to study plant cells and discover their chromosome numbers and grow hybrid plants. However, for this cell spotting Frederick needed very dangerous chemicals such as osmium tetroxide (can cause blindness) and colchicine (abdominal pain and death).
Looking at Stern’s papers at Kew and consulting the archivist Sarah, at the John Innes Centre there emerges the scientific side of Stern. From the summer of 1945 Stern received advice and toxic chemicals and possibly a microscope from the John Innes team! He created a laboratory in the basement of what was Highdown Towers as witnessed by his nephew the writer James Stern. I also cross referenced the Highdown Visitors Book (see blog part 1) and discovered that from the 1940s young cell biology scientists including Gordon Rowley and the amazing E.K.Janaki Ammal (hello BBC/Netflix/Amazon a series about her?) visited Highdown.
Stern was advised by Len LaCour who worked at John Innes and co-wrote the textbook ‘The Handling of Chromosomes’. Len advised Stern to use his book, see illustration above from it. I found Stern’s notes written on old Home Guard message paper, all from the Kew Archive. What is even more fascinating is that by 1946 Len asked Stern to become involved in an early citizen science project to count chromosome numbers of two types of narcissus. What a transformation of Stern - from playboy to scientist.
Highdown Research Journey, part 11
January 2020. Finally discovered more about Frederick Stern’s charity work in the Jewish community from 1920s to1960s. I first found his obituary from the Jewish Chronicle from July 1968 which describes his passion for horticulture as ‘chief hobby’. Before that it has two paragraphs about his work for the Jewish School for Deaf Children in Wandsworth, Jewish Memorial Fund, Jews College and the Anglo-Jewish Association. What is fascinating that most of the gardening histories about Frederick make no mention of this aspect of his charity work or his culture.
If we take the Jewish Chronicle time machine further back Frederick was making a big noise immediately after WW1 when he became one of the founders of the Jewish Memorial. As an Officer of the British Army in the Middle East he heard Jewish soldiers complaining about the lack of Rabbis : “In Gallipoli he never saw a Rabbi. In Palestine he saw three, but never in the front-line trenches. He came home with the conclusion that he ought to do something.” Jewish Chronicle 9 May 1919.
What about Sybil Stern’s voice? Again, thanks to the Jewish Chronicle archives we can go back to 1918 and discover that Sybil was a member of the Union of Jewish Women when she was Miss Sybil Lucas. She attended a meeting with Mrs Spielman, Mrs Henriques, Miss Adler, Miss Cowen, and Miss Myers in a London drawing room. They discussed what would the army of female war workers do now the war was finished? See below a great clue to Sybil’s war work: “Miss SYBIL LUCAS who has for some time been at a War Pensions Office, related some of her amusing experiences in connection therewith, and said they still needed workers, as there was a possibility of their continuing another two or three years.” Jewish Chronicle 13 Dec 1918.
Next blog…the Highdown laboratory…
Highdown Journey, part 10
January 2020. Started the new year testing Highdown tree trails at a local school, organised by Creative Waves duo Nadia and Vanessa. With 90 kids we discovered they knew a lot about tree structure but not how they were once collected. I went into improv mode and did a role-play using volunteers, the class room and a high table. We pretended the Sterns telephoned their friends the Kingdon-Wards to ask if they could collect a rare tree from the Himalayas. The highlight was to ask the children playing Frank and Jean Kingdon- Ward to climb onto a desk to get a tree cutting. Ok might not be correct, and concerns with safety on a desk, but got their attention!
The role-play was influenced by reading Jean Kingdom Ward’s My Hill So Strong published in 1952. The Kingdon-Wards were regular visitors to the Sterns, as seen in the Highdown Visitors Book. Frank was first employed by Frederick in 1920s, in a syndicate of wealthy collectors, to collect chalk loving plants in what was Upper Burma. From a 21st century viewpoint the book is paternalistic, especially about some of the Indian porters they employed to get into Tibet. However, have to admire Jean’s courage walking hundreds of miles in extreme mountains, extreme weather, awful blister flies, and surviving an earthquake - just to collect plants with Frank! Would they be now regarded as eco-pirates? Now and again a detail jumps out in Jean’s book, such as footwear:
“ Before we left Jorhat, we had each had a pair of English boots re-soled, but today, after only ten marches, one of my new soles parted company with the upper, and the other was in much the same case. I had hoped to keep my best nailed boots for rougher conditions higher up; but that was not to be…”
Highdown Research Journey, part 9
December 2019. Wow image above drawn on parchment almost 400 years ago. It shows a post-windmill on top of Highdown Hill. Amazing to have a glimpse of this wooden structure - pure time travel. This is a detailed view of a colourful map to be found in the Chichester West Sussex Record Office.
From my research so far: thousands of years this Hill was used as a crossroads, lookout point, arable farm land, and a bronze age B&Q (want a new spear guv?). It became an important Saxon burial site, then a windmill site. The Hill was above a large chalk pit what later became Highdown Gardens.
The windmill attracted some characters including miller John Olliver from the18th century. To quote windmill expert Peter Stenning: “John Olliver’s main claim to fame was as an eccentric local poet with a morbid outlook, who built his tomb 27 years before his death (can still see it today on the Hill). He also built a summer house near the proposed site of his tomb in 1765 in which to contemplate his fate and admire the superb views…” from Some Mills, Myths and Mysteries of Highdown Hill.
Highdown Research Journey, part 8
December 2019. Whoa. Pause. Digest. Finally got up to the Kew Gardens archive to discover, with Highdown colleague Annelise, thousands of letters and invoices to Frederick and Sybil Stern and Frederick’s notebooks. It became information overload. Need several visits to get a proper big picture of their life.
Amongst the letters typed, scribbled, punched and stapled to the Sterns I discovered that some of the papers were singing to me. Yes, sounds weird, see blog 7. What I mean is that very strong voices jumped out at me from the letters I read, especially from two regular visitors to Highdown and Sybil:
- Plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward, including his wistful description sitting on top of Highdown Hill at start of WW2.
- Plant scientist Janaki Ammal‘s joy in sharing her discoveries with the Sterns of new plant chromosome numbers. And making them a proper curry.
- Sybil Stern’s long form essay on observing Prince Edward’s visit to Highdown in 1933.
It’s a lot to take in. Thanks to my visitor’s map, see blog 2 I have managed to navigate my way over the many names I saw. More clues from letters from staff of the John Innes research centre that Frederick evolved into an amateur plant scientist. So, did Highdown have a laboratory? But no trace at Kew of any of the Stern’s Jewish charity work…
Highdown Research Journey, part 7
November 2018. Found a fantastic wee guide book to Worthing written in 1805 by a John Evans. This is in Worthing Library reference section and one of those unique documents that sings to me. No, I am not on any mind-altering drugs. I was busy trying to locate early tourist records of Highdown Hill and came across this great book, see photo above.
Mr Evans (down from London) has a great description of the view from the top of Highdown Hill (on a sunny clear day). He could see across the English Channel to the Isle of Wight “…rising like the back of a huge monster out of the ocean..” In fact, 215 years later, that is still a good way to describe the view to a new visitor to Highdown Hill.
Highdown Research Journey, part 6
November 2019. Switching over to look at stories of Highdown Hill as part of research and display project with volunteers at Worthing Museum. Interesting to learn from the Museum archaeologist James that archaeology also has changes of fashion interpreting the past. Words such as ‘invasion’ and ‘immigrants’ written in 1930s dig reports of Highdown Hill reflect the concerns of the time and still echo today. But were the Saxons invaders or settlers?
Meanwhile…James showed me amazing bits of bones (serious Saxon cemetery at Highdown) and even more revealing what appears to be dull bits of rubble, see photo above. In fact, you are looking at jigsaws from several time machines, some 3000 years old. And on bottom right are the remains of a 200-year-old pipe stem that might have been used by the eccentric miller of Highdown.
Highdown Research Journey, part 5
October 2019. I did not expect to meet my grandmother’s ex-boyfriend. Through my internet searching I found that for almost 50 years, groups of East End Jewish kids had annual camping trips at Highdown Hill next to Highdown Gardens. This was because the organiser Basil Henriques was a cousin of Sybil Lucas the wife of plantsman Frederick Stern. The groups were part of the Oxford and St Georges club who did much to get East End Jewish kids off the streets. Such a contrast to the aristocratic names who visited Highdown Gardens according to the Highdown Visitors Book, see blogs 1 and 2.
The Jewish Museum kindly sent me photos possibly of campers at Highdown. They could not identify most of the faces. I had a shock looking at one of them from 1930s as a I recognised a grinning lad. I rushed to my front room where there is a photo of my Grannie Dora on top of motorbike with 2 lads in 1930s Essex, see above.
The grinning lad at the back of the motorbike was exactly the same chap who was in the Jewish Museum photos yomping around Highdown. All I remember Dora telling me about the Jewish lad behind her was that they almost married and he was called Geoff. I have never had a family link to a heritage project before. Feel like I am crossing over so many links in this project. Curiouser and curiouser…
Highdown Research Journey, part 4
October 2019. I got a call from Worthing Library that there was a ‘lost’ book of photos that possibly featured Highdown plants and people. Indeed, it was a great album of large black and white prints featuring many close up of plants. Even better it also has photos of people in it, such as this great one of Frederick Stern behind the very tall fox tails (proper title I am told eremurus) at Highdown possibly late 1930s.
I think when Lady Stern died in 1972, photograph albums and Stern’s papers were scattered to different archives around the south east of England. The problem for me is there is not, at time of writing, a list of where everything was sent. So, it’s a detective hunt….next Kew Garden archives.
Highdown Research Journey, part 3
October 2019. The Garden team at Highdown allowed me to look at boxes of lantern slides hidden away in a cupboard. I was amazed at the quality, especially the colour slides I think taken by Frederick Stern probably end of the 1930s. Above image of the famous chalk garden in glorious colour.
These slides were used by Stern for his public lectures including local garden clubs and the RHS. What is strange out of the many slides I have seen, hardly any show people. And there a few slides showing plant chromosomes. Was Stern a scientist? I am just staggered with yet another layer of Highdown information I was not expecting.
Highdown Research Journey, part 2
Mapping the Visitors
September 2019. To understand the amazing Highdown Visitors book (see blog 1) I created this map of some of the most interesting visitors that jumped out of the pages over 50 years. There is a whole social mix here from Jewish aristocrats (many related to Frederick and Sybil Stern, owners of Highdown) top left to the young horticulturists, plant scientists and plant hunters to the right.
I will be visiting the Kew Gardens archive and hope to use this map as quick reference when needed. This was created using my favourite graphic software Comic Life, see previous blogs below.
Highdown Research Journey, part 1
The Time Machine
September 2019. I discovered this amazing Highdown Visitors
Book: it is a time machine. It has been waiting to
be viewed sitting at the West Sussex Records Office in Chichester. I think this
will be a valuable key to understand the people who visited Highdown Gardens. The Gardens were created by Frederick and Sybil Stern from 1909 to 1971.
It is one of the best Visitor Books I have seen as: 1) you can read most of the signatures and 2) it contains snapshot photos of VIP visitors mostly 1930s British royals and a hilarious photo of Lloyd George and daughter marooned in the pond at Highdown’s chalk gardens. So many names to track from different parts of Frederick and Sybil’s life.
UP TO HIGHDOWN
My latest wee job finds me at the ‘hidden’ park that is Highdown Gardens established by Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern from 1909. These gardens sit on part of the West Sussex South Downs overlooking the English Channel, near Worthing.
In my first weeks of research I have stumbled across Anglo-Jewish aristocrats, Planthunters (forget Indiana Jones), amazing female Botanists from India, the British Royal Family and groups of East End kids. All these people visited Highdown from 1920s to 1950s. And then there are the amazing rare plants Sir Frederick grew on chalk soil - claimed to be impossible 100 years ago.
So I am recovering from information and visual overload. Hopefully as my role as content developer I can soon help staff and volunteers develop these amazing stories into a small heritage display and self-guided tours .The display will be at the to-be refurbished former gardener’s bungalow, see photo. This will be ready for public opening in summer 2020. All funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Watch this space…
STORY MAPPING. Here is some work in progress for the Churchill’s Chartwell audio garden guide for the National Trust. I am using the amazing map of the estate designed by Lisa Holdcroft (cheers mate) as a template then I add story headlines using Comic Life software (see earlier blogs). I am now working through 32 stories using Word templates adding in detail for each headline with its original source (many of the stories are ‘recorded’ in the letters from Winston to Clementine called the Chartwell Bulletins). This raw content I am creating will be handed over to the scriptwriters to create their magic. So far I am pushing the Comic Life software to its max (only a couple of crashes!) but I am driving a MacBook Pro so fingers crossed.
Discover the story of cut flowers from Chartwell. See the audio track link below.
An audio track
Some work from the Chartwell oral history volunteers that reveals some hidden stories about the Chartwell gardens - from the past and now…
Medals and comics
Some more visitor evaluation for Chartwell (National Trust) former home of Winston and Clementine Churchill. We were looking at Winston Churchill’s medals case display. Should we use digital tablets to help tell medal stories and provide extra seating? My colleagues interviewed visitors then I gathered all the findings and had a think how to present them.
I used cheap ComicLife software to produce this summary. The great advantage of using this rather than a spreadsheet is that I can quickly use quotes from visitors. And speech bubbles are a great way to edit long text as you can only fit in about 10ish words per bubble. This visual comic style document is very useful in planning meetings. It also keeps funders happy as evidence of work in progress.
IT’S A TYPEWRITER WINSTON, but not as you knew it…
This month (December 2018) I have been busy helping with visitor room testing at Chartwell. One of the rooms that we tested with visitors was the former Secretaries Office. This has been described as the hub of Chartwell as it was a very important commuications centre for Winston Churchill. It usually had two secretaries staffing it with typewriters and a telephone switchboard from the 1920s to 1960s.
As well as testing audio-visual kit (audio slideshow or Pathe newsreel worked well) I loaned my old student manual typewriter. And it was a hit with visitors. Children and younger adults were fascinated with the simple technology and actually surprised by the physical part of finger bashing on the keys. Older visitors reminisced about learning to type and the sounds of typewriters (ting). So the dwell time increased as visitors either shared experiences or had a go at typing (very popular with family groups). And my typwiter survived the experience - built to last!
This is a unique project I helped to organise for the National Trust over the last 10 months. All started with paperwork then ended up with wood, concrete, scaffold poles and power tools.
SOCKS AS A TIMELINE? NO WAY?
Watching an old episode of the BBC childrens’ “Me Too” I was laughing then pondering the use of 100 socks to represent a 100 year old timeline to introduce changing clothes fashions.
The teacher in this episode explained to his class that each sock represented a year. So, forty years was 40 socks down the washing line set up in the class room.
What a great idea to capture anybody’s imagination who is usually turned off by a graphic wall of dates and facts. How can I introduce socks into my future heritage work? Not sure if I have a spare 100 socks. Mmmm…..well…..
Proposed new Chartwell treehouse designed and to be built by Highlife for the National Trust. Note the slide on the left. This came out as the most popular ‘interactive’ demand from Chartwell visitors and consultation at Croydon Library. See article below.
IF YOU GO DOWN INTO THE WOODS soon...
So my first surprise job for the National Trust was to
organise the planning and build of a new treehouse at Chartwell in Kent, UK
inspired by the one Churchill built for his kids back in 1923. After a long
planning procedure we now will be building it this summer in the woods at Chartwell.
realised that treehouses fascinate people until I did some ‘market research’ at
Croydon Library last autumn. It was one of those topics that people smiled at
whatever their age. And then there is the history of treehouses
that involves hermit priests, vain princes, merry Parisians, DIY part-timers
and of course architects.
Meanwhile, I am also juggling for the National Trust at Chartwell (funded by the Heritage Lottery): managing a family guide leaflet; assisting oral history volunteers; followed by working with silversmiths and opera prop makers to make replicas of some of Winston’s favourite objects. The things we do in the heritage sector…
Coming next for me…commissioning replica medals (and other objects) as part of a Heritage Lottery funded education project for Chartwell. This house with amazing gardens and woods was the family home of Winston Churchill, now part of the National Trust. This medal show his favourite dairy cow Beatrice who won top prize at the Kent County Show in 1949.
From freelance to starting work at the National Trust. It’s been a busy year!
Sound cushions interactive at High Lodge, Thetford Forest, Norfolk, Forestry Commission, England. Part of unique Sound Trail, not including the jet sounds above.
ENGAGE THOSE AUDIO SENSES - a call to museums, galleries and heritage sites.
week I had an epiphany on a family visit to High Lodge in Thetford Forest,
Norfolk. As well as wow huge outdoor play equipment and a sculpture trail they
have a… sound trail! When I looked at
the handy mini map, as provided by the Forestry Commission, I scratched my head
and said, “no way is this possible – sound interactives, outside?” Just then a military jet boomed overhead as it soared away from the airbase next door.
you imagine a more difficult brief than creating sounds in the middle of a
forest with no access to electricity or digital technology? So the designers
came up with low-tech methods including squeaky woodwind ‘cushions’ you could jump on
(see photo above) and huge metal glockenspiels! This really slowed down my
family as we all wanted to have a go on these simple interactives. It created a
special atmosphere as we became aware of the different areas of the forest.
This Thetford Forest experience made me realise (again) that many museums, galleries and heritage sites are not daring to use simple audio interactives as a method to engage their visitors with a vital sensory tool. Perhaps they cannot be prepared to take risks (attitude or budgets?) like the Forestry Commission can? We should all go down into the woods today and discover simple audio ideas before the bears start their picnic.
My new job as Visitor Experience consultant for the National Trust at Chartwell started last week. I am helping the team to interpret stories about Churchill (yes, he of hats and cigars), his family, staff and friends. First project: build a tree house! I am amazed by the gardens, very calm. If you sit on a bench at lunchtime you can be gently surprised: watch the apple trees rustling in the wind; swifts dancing high above; visitors chatting in the distance; the ‘plop’ of a conker pod falling down and opening its treasure in the grass; and an aloof Jock the cat wandering by to hunt mice. Hats off to Mr Churchill for designing this unique space.
TUDOR DISCO or experiments with a ceiling, mirrors and a torch.
Last month I was busy training the staff at the Cowdray Heritage Trust with a new style of tour in the empty shell of the Cowdray Ruins. This was once a huge mansion damaged in 1793 by fire then ivy and the weather. To help staff interpret the stories I tested simple low-tech props (inspired by the classic BBC TV game show The Generation Game) for visitors to use.
My favourite ‘room’ is the Tudor Porch of Honour built for Henry VIII. It has the remains of an amazing Renaissance carving on the ceiling. This space became my ‘play’ laboratory as I used different types of mirrors to view the detail such as finding four faces hidden in all the delicate carvings. I then pondered about the use of colour.
Historians think that gold leaf and bright bold colours would have covered this ceiling. Today it is just a plain sand colour. As it’s a Grade 1 listed property you can’t stick anything on it. But you can project light on it. After some on-line research I used an LED flashlight with rotating stage light (or disco torch - costs a tenner). The idea is that the guide chooses a visitor with long arms and they point the torch to the centre of the ceiling and look up in awe, see the photos above. This simple use of projected colour gives an idea of the use of bling used to decorate the Porch. From Tudor to Disco…
I-SPY. INTERACTIVE BLAST FROM THE PAST
If you have seen an earlier post (D.I.Y Nature Trail) I mentioned my childhood memories of I-SPY. See in this photo 3 examples I found in the attic. Back in the 1970s I used to collect and swap these booklets with other kids in the neighbourhood. They were written by Big Chief I-Spy. If you completed a booklet and got high scores for answering the questions you could get an Order of Merit (we were easily pleased back then).
I never got to the top score but it did make me stop and look for clues either on a rainy day or long boring family car travels. Remember, this was years before the web or mobile apps. I really liked ‘THE SKY’ booklet as it echoed the huge following of the Space Race in 1970s. The I-SPY series has been rebooted but with glossy photos seems to have lost the original feel.
Working in heritage interpretation there are still lessons we can learn from these wee books: keep it cheap; keep it simple; keep offering prizes; keep them coming.
Transporting huge and heavy metal sculptures through a flood, then wet concrete? This happened to me 10 years ago in the setting up of the new Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking. One of my ultimate problem solving challenges, but I worked with a great team who managed to get the sculptures to safety. The things we do for Art…
It’s official. I am a heritage catalyst. Now to find the magnesium ribbon….
Here is my quick guide to museum interactives over the last 100 years or so thanks to a certain Time traveler author. This has just been published in the Association of Heritage Interpretation summer 2017 Journal. Spot the typos (ahem). It was a fun article to write as I was determined to get away from traditional academic blah blah writing.
D.I.Y. NATURE TRAIL or WHAT POO IS THAT?
Last weekend with friends and a gaggle of kids (4 yrs to 11 yrs) we set off to discover the 480 foot (146 m) high isolated Mount Caburn at the Sussex south coast, UK. It’s supposed to be the remains of an Iron Age Fort but with over 100 burial sites archaeologists now think it was a huge posh graveyard for the Celts to dominate the valley below.
the rush to prep the picnic I also made simple hand drawn trails in 3 notebooks to keep the kids
occupied and get them to do some looking around, see photo above.
Despite the fierce wind the kids really got it into the trail and with my
trusty sticky tape we even created a mini flower press.
As there was lots of animal poo, on the slopes, the kids became fascinated in also
identifying that yuk stuff. So we recorded that new evidence and stuck in some genuine sheep’s
wool. After the visit I realised that: 1) You don’t always need an app to explore, low-tech is very practical esp with the British weather. 2) I had in fact based the D.I.Y. trail on my childhood experiences of using the classic I-SPY series of booklets from the 1970s.
What’s in my kitbag? Part 4. TOY BRICKS AND RECYCLED CARD
Here’s a short video I made 11 years ago using stop motion animation to recreate the scene when I presented my exhibition ideas, in 2005, to the Crystal Palace Football Club management and sponsors. This was to celebrate the Club’s centenary anniversary funded by Croydon Council and Nestle.
I think the management were expecting some flashy videos or graphics, instead I plonked a toolbox on the table and took out these toy bricks and recycled card to represent the profile of the 3 main stands at Selhurst Park. I declared (after lots of discussion with fans before) that they could echo the design of the stands in the exhibition build. It was a successful presentation and we got the approval to proceed with the project.
I have used this DIY craft technique for presenting layouts for exhibitions at the Lightbox: ‘Alien Invasion’ and ‘The Story of British Comics So Far…’ For more about the Crystal Palace Football project, see the WATCH page on my Acme website.
Me in action at the MUSEUM FREELANCE event at the Canal Museum 13/3/17
I was part of a wee team that only had 5 minutes to talk about the tools in our ‘kitbag’. I opened my presentation by declaring “…sisters and brothers we are all catalysts…” then focused on benefits using Comic Life software, see photo below, and use of toy bricks and card to communicate themes at start of an exhibition project, see above in the next video. And yes, the original King Kong is in the background.
Thanks to the organisers Christina Lister and Marge Ainsley and the Canal Museum, London
What’s in my kitbag? Part 3. COMIC LIFE
You can make simple photo stories using templates from Comic
Life made by Plasq.com. Drag a jpeg over, drop into your template of comic frames and start to make your story.
Then you can add comic speech bubbles and even colour effects. It’s simple to
use (has quirky sound effects) and unlike other photo/graphic software cheap to buy a license. It’s very
popular as a teaching tool. Above photo shows the basic version in action but with a difference…
Over the last
10 years I have also used Comic Life to present potential themes and ideas at
the start of a heritage or gallery project. I just use the Comic Life speech bubbles to create ‘spider
diagrams’ or now called information graphics. You can see in the photo I am working out the themes for the Comics exhibition at the Lightbox and editing the text to the bare bones. The final result is the overlay on right. It’s
great for formal presentations as it’s eye catching. For Heritage Lottery applications it’s very useful to break up
the monotony of Word or Excel documents with a clear page of ideas created in PDF
Here is a video I just edited on behalf of the Hayward family to show some examples of the late Julian Hayward’s paintings and prints that he created after he retired from teaching furniture design. What was fun was to use Robin Haywards (son of Julian) microtonal tuba music as audio on this video collage. The artworks you see and more will be on display this summer at the Grange Gallery in Rottingdean, near Brighton, UK.
PUFFIN CLUB. EVENTS BLAST FROM THE PAST.
Found these amazing magazines from the 1970s Puffin Club that I joined as a wee lad. This was the ‘youth wing’ of Puffin Children’s Books aka Penguin Books. The ‘Puffin Post’ magazine was like a grand chaotic school magazine production with a mixture of short stories, word puzzles and cartoons, Quentin Blake made illustrations for the Post. The back pages had the proactive ‘Puffin Happenings’ section for children to join their local Puffin Club meetings for games and meet a children’s author or book illustrator.
I remember going to hectic Puffin meetings with games, involving words of course, in large gardens and saying ‘hi’ to a terrified author, then demanding a choccy biscuit. I am amazed at the organisational skill and data collecting the Puffin Club did in 1975, long before affordable computers and social media. Looking at the old ‘Puffin Post’ pages there is a big tip for museums and heritage sites today how to engage with children and families: create regular fun events and newsletters.
Some of my travel journals with work in progress or doodles. A spiral bound notebook also on show with origins of comics history interpretation ideas.
What’s in my kitbag? Part 2. TRAVEL JOURNALS.
The most essential bit of my kit are travel journals. I used tiny lined notebooks from Rymans which were fine for lists but useless to show ideas in meetings. But, one day I walked into an art store and discovered the Seawhite of Brighton travel journals. These books for me are a mixture of a notebook and sketchpad, with heavy cartridge paper ideal for: doodles, spider diagram plans or even water colour drawing. The A6 versions have alternate lined pages. They also have a ‘secret’ inner pocket so you can keep business cards or old ticket stubs or anything else wee.
The other big advantage of these travel journals is that they have a chunky feel and are protected by hardback cover (ideal for tea mugs) with a handy elasticated band to keep the book closed. At the moment I have 2 journals on the go, an A5 for work ideas and an A6 for everyday inspiration and doodles, see the photo above. I also use the A6 travel journals as a mini scrapbook if anything from newspapers or magazines catches my eye. I often use the A5 travel journals for presentations as easy to show ideas in progress. Unlike smartphones the travel journals don’t need a battery.
MULTI-MEDIA BLAST FROM THE PAST. Electro-sculptor Ken Gray
Here is some 1978 footage that was donated by Ken’s wife at a memory day for the Friends of the Pepper Pot. What I like about this video is Ken’s keen enthusiasm for visitors to explore his electro-sculpture by themselves; and for arts and science to work together. This was also the ethos of the Experiments in Art and Technology group of artists and engineers in 1970, based in the USA. And now that sense of exploratory learning is back with the STEAM education movement as seen at The Exploratorium.
- Winter 2021 Highdown Gardens
- Highdown Research Journey, part 19
- Highdown Research Journey, part 18
- Highdown Research Journey, part 17
- Highdown Research Journey, part 16
- Highdown Research Journey, part 15
- Highdown Research Journey, part 14
- Highdown Research Journey, part 13
- Highdown Research Journey, part 12
- Highdown Research Journey, part 11
- Highdown Journey, part 10
- Highdown Research Journey, part 9
- Highdown Research Journey, part 8
- Highdown Research Journey, part 7
- Highdown Research Journey, part 6
- Highdown Research Journey, part 5
- Highdown Research Journey, part 4
- Highdown Research Journey, part 3
- Highdown Research Journey, part 2
- Highdown Research Journey, part 1