31 January 2015

Cheshire walks: Around Pickmere Lake in the snow

Elated by last night’s dump of snow I headed out this morning to enjoy our white winter wonderland. I decided on a circuit of our local lake, Pickmere, with a slight detour to the lime avenue at Great Budworth, walking partly on the narrow country lanes and partly along some of the public footpaths that criss-cross local farmland. I’ve included a map of where I walked – the numbers mark the kilometres (this was about 6.5kms all up so quite a short wander) and the blue dots are the places where the following photos were taken (sometimes more than one at each spot) (a small selection of the 200-plus I took!). 

I hope you enjoy walking along with me – it was magical!

We start off via the footpath that runs along the top of Pickmere Lake. It's a favourite walk for local dog-owners.

Looking out across the lake. That’s the tower of the church at Great Budworth on the skyline.

On Park Lane, looking back across the lake. This is one of my favourite trees hereabouts.

Looking in the opposite direction, over the fields towards the Millenium Wood. There’s another footpath that heads in that direction and it's also a lovely walk - another day, another blog.

The lane heads through a small section of wood called Pickmere Rough.

Three photos from this spot. The first is looking over farmer’s fields on the other side of the Rough.

And, from the same spot, looking over the fields towards Great Budworth.

And the third shot looks over the fields towards Hield House Farm. As you can see, the clouds were looking threatening at this point so I started striding out for Great Budworth.

The magnificent lime avenue at Great Budworth. It’s a long planting that runs either side of this narrow footpath. I sheltered here while a hail and sleet shower passed through.

From halfway along the lime avenue, I headed down this public footpath across the local farmer’s fields.

There are a couple of photos from points along this footpath – this first one has the lime avenue on the right and looks towards the Church of St Mary at Great Budworth.

This path is very muddy during the winter months, but was made easier today by the covering of snow, though I had to be careful not to slip!

The footpath comes out on to Hield Lane, which changes its name at the bottom of this slope to Dark Lane (the border between neighbouring councils runs through at this point, changing from Cheshire East to Cheshire West and Chester).

Looking back towards Pickmere Lake, along one of the streams that feeds into it.


On Dark Lane now, looking back toward Hield Lane and Hield House Farm.


And my last shot for today, taken of my favourite trees in Earle’s Lane, before I headed home to dry my wet feet and warm up with a hot cuppa. I hope you enjoyed my stride in the snow as much as I did!

27 January 2015

It’s a sign: England, part one

Signs are another of my enthusiasms. Obviously, they can be useful and informative – they point the way, they warn of hazards, they welcome you to town, they try to sell you things. There are whole vocabularies of signs we learn to recognise from quite a young age (road signs, for example) and those that are essential for our well-being (safety signs in the workplace). These signs are usually regulated and painted in specific recognisable colours but other types of signage are multi-coloured and jazzy and just plain fun.

I’ve blogged before about signs that have caught my eye and my imagination, in Peruin Cambodia and in New Zealand. Here are some I’ve noticed during recent months living in England.


Hale Village sign
There are many pretty village signs here in England and the one marking the entrance to the lovely little village of Hale, in Merseyside, is a perfect example. It’s attractive and colourful and, though not physically accurate – the tower of St Mary’s Church doesn’t actually loom over the small cottages next to where local giant John Middleton lived, the sign advertises the town’s attractions in a much more subtle way than a huge neon sign. I’d definitely recommend a visit to this delightful town – you can read more about things to see here

Within Way, Hale
Let’s stay in Hale for a moment longer as that is where I photographed this intriguing street sign. According to one of the village’s websites (for some reason they have two) this road leads down to the old ford crossing of the River Mersey and was the route used by the army of Prince Rupert during its Civil War operations.

And, according to Ernest Broxap’s 2005 publication The Great Civil War In Lancashire, 1642-1651, ‘The ford at Hale was for a long time the principal pass over the Mersey between Liverpool and Warrington. It ceased to be generally used about 150 years ago; but almost within living memory horses were taken over by this way for hunting in Cheshire.’

The ford is no longer usable, of course, and it seems the name ‘Within’ may actually have its root in the word withy (or withe), the name for a strong flexible willow stem used to make things like baskets and fences.


Milepost on Trent and Mersey Canal
We move on to a different waterway now, leaving behind the River Mersey and heading to a section of the Trent and Mersey Canal near Northwich. The canal weaves its way through the English countryside for 93 miles, running from Preston Brook in Cheshire to Shardlow in South Derbyshire, and all along its length you can find mile posts like these, designed to inform passing river traffic of the distances to the canal’s start and end points.

The original cast-iron posts were made in the early 19th century to a standard design, with a circular post and embossed inscriptions on the faces of the moulded head, all painted in distinctive black and white. The post maker’s name and the date are shown on a quatrefoil on the front of the post – and here we have a little mystery. The milepost shown at left above (located near Marston, inscribed ‘Shardlow 84 miles, Preston Brook 8 miles’) appears as Grade II listed on the English Heritage register of protected structures, where it is described as showing ‘R&D Stone 1814’ for the maker’s details. In fact, as you can see in my photo, the details are ‘T&MCS 1977’, which seems to indicate that this is not the original milepost and that it was replaced by the Trent and Mersey Canal Society in 1977. The photo at right shows one of the originals, made in 1819, which sits two miles further along the canal, near Barnston. (I have emailed English Heritage to advise them of the change.)

200 sign on River Weaver at Dutton Locks
Staying with the theme of signs alongside waterways for a moment, here’s an intriguing sign I spotted recently while walking part of the Weaver Way, a trail than runs, as the name implies, alongside the River Weaver and the Weaver Navigation (the manmade parts of that waterway).

I was walking the section from Acton Bridge to Dutton Locks (for photos of that walk, see here) and found this sign beside the towpath just past Dutton Locks. Luckily, Colin Edmondson, the historian for the River Weaver Navigation Society, was able to provide me with some information about it. As I suspected, the concrete post marks ‘200 yards to a lock or swing bridge. Once a boat had passed the post, it was assured of its correct place in the queue. The first mention of them came in the rule book for 1853’:

A post placed at a distance of 200 yards above and below each lock. Vessel first coming within such distance shall have priority over any other vessel passing in the same direction. No vessel to moor within 200 yards of any lock, bridge or weir unless loading or unloading.

Colin believes the signs we see today are more recent replacements for the original posts, and probably date from the 1920s or 1930s. My sincere thanks to Colin for providing these fascinating details.

Cows and 40
“You have how many cows?” I know, I know. The number has nothing to do with the cow sign – it’s indicating the maximum speed limit for the following section of road – but the placement of the two signs together just tickled my fancy.

The cow sign is a fairly common sight in Cheshire where dairy-farming is now the dominant industry. As reported by DairyCo on their website, in 2010/11 22% of the UK’s milk production came from the Midlands, and Cheshire was the 4th highest milk-producing county, recording 742,479 litres. And I’m sure everyone’s heard of Cheshire Cheese, which may well be the oldest recorded named cheese in British history  it was reported in Thomas Muffet’s Health’s Imrpovement that dates from around 1580. 

House-name signs
In my Antipodean ignorance, I have always assumed that house names were somewhat pretentious, an affectation, particularly when attached to less valuable properties (‘Oaktree Manor’ attached to a cosy cottage, for example), or a frivolity (‘Dunroamin’ for the home of a settled retiree). In New Zealand that may well be the case but not here in the UK.

Though the Britain follows the standard, common in most English-speaking countries, of numbering houses in a street to facilitate postal and other deliveries (e.g. ’25 Frog Lane’), it is also quite common for properties to be identified solely by their name, especially in smaller towns (thus ‘Waterview Cottage, Frog Lane’). And this system also prevails in locations where there has been infill house construction subsequent to the numbering of the original houses in a street – it seems that it’s easier than renumbering the whole street or using the rather cumbersome method of adding a, b or c to a house number.

It seems an eminently sensible solution to me and, when you can buy such pretty house-name signs as these two examples, who wouldn’t rather have a name than a number?

22 January 2015

The 'Downton Abbey' frocks

The wonderful Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight has recently hosted a small but beautifully formed exhibition of ten gorgeous frocks, entitled ‘Style from the Small Screen’.  The designs of these frocks date from the period 1912 to 1923 – some were period originals, others were made in the 21st century but true to the style of the period. Many were used in the filming of my favourite television series, Downton Abbey, and worn by such glamorous women as Lady Grantham, Lady Mary Crawley and my favourite character, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

As so many of my friends weren’t able to get to the exhibition, I am publishing this blog to share the delights with you all. These garments, especially the evening dresses, are quite simply ethereal and a stunning endorsement of the designer’s creative skills and the dressmaker’s craft.

The photographs are my own and the words that accompany each item are taken from the exhibition labels. All are reproduced here with kind permission of the exhibitions team at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, for which I am extremely grateful.





Evening dress with train, silk satin, marquisette net and machine-made lace, trimmed with gold metallic lace (right)

Made by T & S Bacon, Young Ladies Department, Bold Street, Liverpool, about 1911-14

Before the First World War evening dresses were made from a variety of luxurious fabrics, including silk, satin and metallic lace. Like this dress, they were often layered to give a subtle effect of changing colours as the wearer moved.

Gift of Miss Catherine Holland, 1960. National Museums Liverpool


(This and the other dresses gifted by Miss Catherine Holland were donated to National Museums Liverpool in 1960 as part of a bigger collection of clothes from the Holland family. The Hollands were Liverpool ship owners, and partners in the firm of Lamport & Holt.)



Evening dress with train, silk satin, silk chiffon and marquisette net, trimmed with celluloid sequins and glass bugle beads (above and right)

Made by T & S Bacon, Bold Street, Liverpool, about 1910-12

Between 1910 and 1914 fashionable dresses became increasingly complicated in their construction. Their shirts were made from several layers of fabric, often cut asymmetrically, and bodices had high necklines. Evening dresses like this one usually had trains and were decorated with heavy glass beads and sequins.

Gift of Miss Catherine Holland, 1960. National Museums Liverpool

Day dress, silk with embroidered details. Hat, silk satin and printed silk (above and right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2009

This dress was designed by costume make Susannah Buxton and is largely constructed from new fabrics, with some original trimmings applied on top.

It was worn by the actress Dame Maggie Smith as the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham in series two of Downton Abbey, set in the period between 1916 and 1919. By that time, the fashion had changed, leaving the shirt straighter and shorter with no train. The Dowager’s brimless hat is till in the earlier toque style made recognisable by Queen Mary, the wife of George V. Dowager Countess Grantham’s costumes are made to create a look that dates back to her early Edwardian heyday, rather than the more up-to-date fashions worn by the younger members of her family.

Courtesy of Cosprop


Walking outfit, gros grain wool and silk, cotton lace inserts. Toque style hat, fine silk brocade with feather and fur trim (left)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2009

This suit reflects the obsession with military dress in the early 20th century, using frogging braid as the decoration on a simple but finely cut jacket. Although this is called a walking outfit, the long and narrow skirt would have made walking very difficult, ‘hobbling’ the wearer. These hobble skirts were very fashionable around 1912.

This garment was worn by actress Samantha Bond as Lady Rosamund Painswick, the wealthy sister of Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham. The hat is a toque style but designer and maker Susannah Buxton chose a smaller more stylish shape for Lady Painswick that worn by the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It perches on top of her head, to create a coquettish look.

Courtesy of Cosprop


Evening dress, silk with velvet and chiffon sleeves (above and left)

Acquired by Cosprop, London, made early 1920s

As the storylines in Downton Abbey move towards the 1920s fashionable styles change. There are also more original dresses surviving from this period which can be used for filming purposes.

Most of this costume is original to the period after the First World War. The shape of the dress is looser as women began to follow more active lifestyles. This style began predominately as daywear but quickly began to influence evening wear.

This dress was worn by the actress Zoe Boyle as Lavinia Swire, Matthew Crawley’s fiancĂ©e during season two of Downton Abbey, set between 1916 and 1919.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Evening gown, silk and silk chiffon, with applied silk folk motifs (above and right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2010

This dress was worn by the actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley during season two of Downton Abbey, set between 1916 and 1919. It was designed by costume maker Susannah Buxton. The garment is a mix of new fabrics with old panels. Although off-screen the age of the panels may be noticeable, on-screen the occasional flaw cannot be seen and so does not detract from the overall effect.

The colour red was chosen for Mary as it suits her skin tone but it also puts her at the forefront of the scene, emphasising her place in society. Significantly, Mary wears this dress a the dramatic moment when she tells Sir Richard Carlisle that they will not be married.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Maternity evening dress, silk crepe with applied glass beading (left)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2011

This dress was worn by the actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley during season three of Downton Abbey, set between 1920 and 1921. It was designed by costume make Caroline McCall and has been cut to allow extra room during Mary’s on-screen pregnancy. 

As Lady Mary likes to follow fashion even whilst pregnant, the dress has been made in two separate pieces and is heavily beaded, giving weight to the fabric and creating a draped look.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Tunic-style evening dress, silk net embroidered with sequins and glass bugle beads, reproduction silk under-slip, about 1920-24 (above and right)

Vibrant colour was an important element of evening dress during the early 1920s. Previously, black and subtle shades of other colours had been thought most appropriate but attitudes were changing. 

Together with glittering sequins and beads, bright colours typified the new, young feel of fashion at this time.

Gift of Mr T A Towers, 1973. National Museums Liverpool



Tunic-style evening dress, silk net embroidered with glass bugle beads, rayon silk under-slip, about 1921-23 (left)

By the early 1920s fashions in evening wear were changing. Tunic-style net dresses, completely covered with heavy glass beads and sequins, were extremely popular. 

Despite the practical, shorter styles encouraged during the First World War, hemlines became long again. They grew gradually shorter as the 1920s progressed.

Gift of Miss Catherine Holland, 1960. National Museums Liverpool


Tunic-style evening dress, printed crepe with diamante pearl and mirrored glass beading (right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2012

This dress was worn by the actress Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham during season four of Downton Abbey, set in 1922. t reflects the long, loosely draped style of the early 1920s, a fashion which was especially popular for evening wear.

Her character carefully chooses her dress styles, ranging from the theatrical fashions inspired by the French designer Paul Poiret of 1912-14, to the looser trends and fashions of the war years and beyond. As a Countess at the pinnacle of society, Cora would have been a setter of trends as well as a follower of fashion.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Shift-style evening dress, silk underdress, net overdress with coloured sequins and glass beading (above and left)

Acquired by Cosprop, London, made early 1920

This dress is typical of 1920s evening wear and was made during this period. It is quite fragile due to the weight of the beading which can cause the supporting fabrics to tear. The entire dress has been reinforced by handstitching new net onto the old, in order to conserve the beading and make the dress wearable for filming.

The dress was worn by the actress Janet Montgomery as Freda Dudley-Ward during the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas Special, which was set in 1923. Mrs Dudley-Ward was famously a mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII.

Courtesy of Cosprop





Evening dress, gold metallic lace, rayon satin under-slip and silk net trimming, about 1929-30 (right)

This dress belonged to Lady Helen Nutting (1890-1973), daughter of the sixth Earl of Airlie. She was married three times and spent much of her life campaigning for women’s rights, including their economic rights and divorce reform.

By the late 1920s evening dresses such as this were typically full-length and looked forward to the styles of the 1930s.

Gift of Lady Helen Nutting, 1961. National Museums Liverpool



Evening dress, silk crepe with applied glass bugle beads (left)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2012

This dress was worn by the actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley during season four of Downton Abbey, set in 1922. When Lady Mary wears this dress it symbolises the end of her mourning period for the loss of her beloved husband Matthew, who was tragically killed in a car accident.

During the early 1900s the mourning process required women to wear only black when they were first bereaved. After a few months purple, mauve and grey could be worn as a sign of half mourning.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Tunic-style evening dress, cream silk under-dress with front panel embroidered in silk flock Over-dress of black chiffon with gold metallic trim (above and right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2012

This dress was worn by the actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, the Countess of Grantham’s mother, during the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas Special which was set in 1923.

Martha’s brash American character embraces change and new ideas which is reflected in her style of dress.


Interestingly, despite the character’s onscreen age she has kept up with new trends in fashion and adapts them to suit her more mature figure. In contrast, the Dowager Countess Grantham’s style look back to the early Edwardian period of her younger days.

Courtesy of Cosprop