Discover, Chester at Christmas


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Cradled in the curve of the River Dee, the city of Chester glistens, snow atop its ancient towers and covering the streets below in a soft white blanket. Hewn from the red sandstone on which it stands, the city seems to glow in the winter light. Roman walls surround its bustling heart, the bells of the cathedral mingling with the hubbub of the market as Christmas draws near. At night, mythical creatures and shimmering angels wind their way along the medieval streets and squares, as a traditional Winter Watch parade marks a centuries-old ritual.

Chester was founded by the Romans circa 75-79 AD, as they moved to quash the tribes of northern Britain. It began life as an army camp, strategically positioned on high ground overlooking the Dee. The Romans called their fortress Deva, the British name for the goddess of the river, and it was the largest in the country. The modern name derives from castra, Latin for fortified camp. Surrounded by defensive walls, it was well positioned as a potential military capital of a fully occupied Britain and a base from which to invade Ireland.

Today, the walls enclose the city for almost two miles and are the most complete circuit in Britain. Four main gates arch over roads that converge in the city centre, a street plan which would have been familiar to the people of Deva. Chester is best seen by walking its walls, descending down flights of timeworn steps to explore the architectural gems and intriguing tales of this unique city.

 

Bustling riverside

The Romans built Deva just below a natural harbour in the Dee, and the city’s fortunes have always been closely bound to the river.

“Although, at 70 miles, the Dee is not a particularly long river, it’s always been hugely important, both for trade and as a leisure facility,” says Paul Blessing. He knows the river well, as the skipper of pleasure cruises along a seven-mile stretch for the last four years. “But its course changed over the centuries as sand washed upriver from the estuary, silting it up. In Roman times, the harbour was a big tidal pool at the bottom of the west wall, and ships came right into the city. Chester was a prosperous port right through the medieval era, but all that went when the river became unnavigable.”

As the river flows into the city today, it passes beneath the Old Dee Bridge, which marks the site of the original Roman crossing. Spanning the river in seven arches, the sandstone bridge was built in 1387, replacing earlier structures swept away by floods. As one of the key entry points into the city, it originally had watchtowers and a drawbridge, the last of which was demolished in the 18th century.

Just upstream from the bridge cascades Chester Weir. Constructed in 1093 by the first Earl of Chester, known as Hugh Lupus or Hugh the Wolf because of his ferocity in battle, it is the oldest weir in Britain. It provided a head of water to power Hugh’s valuable corn mills, which until the early 20th century stood at the far end of Dee Bridge. Chester’s citizens were obliged to take their corn to be ground at the mills, and the millers were resented. Such was their reputation for giving short measures that ‘miller of Dee’ became a slang term for a charlatan. Hugh Lupus also profited from selling fishing rights to the salmon for which the Dee was renowned. The weir incorporates a salmon leap; a series of steps to help the fish upstream to spawn.

The Dee came into its own as a tourist attraction in the 19th century, when the opening of the railway brought sightseers to the town. “Excursions by barge, which were actually large rowing boats that could hold as many as 30 passengers, were really popular with the Victorians,” says Paul. “By 1896, there were more than 500 craft for hire along the Dee. I love meeting visitors to the city, and I expect it was just the same for them.”

Today, cruises along the Dee leave from the Groves, an area along the riverbank first laid out in 1725 when promenading became a popular social event. It was further developed in the 1880s with refreshment stalls and a bandstand to entertain the crowds that came to enjoy the fresh air and scenery. In 1923, the 277ft long Suspension Bridge, the only footbridge across the river, was built to link the Groves with Queen’s Park and open meadows on the opposite side.

 

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A proud church

On a plateau overlooking the Groves stands the church of St John the Baptist. Worship on this site is believed to long pre-date Christianity, but in 680AD a church was built here. By then, Chester was a thriving burgh in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. According to legend, the King, Æthelred, was told in a dream he should build a church where next he saw a pure white hind. Hunting in the forest outside the city wall, he came across just such an animal. 

Today, only remnants of Æthelred’s church survive, although king and hind are remembered in the beautiful stained glass of the west window. The present-day building is largely Norman, constructed in 1075 as a cathedral church when the bishop’s see was transferred from Lichfield to Chester. The nave is particularly fine, with columns 17ft (5m) in circumference supporting a tiered arcade. A remarkable 14th century painting decorates one of the pillars. It is a lucky survival, as life at St John’s has not always run smoothly.

“At its height, the church was almost twice as long as you see it today,” says Liz Roberts, Green Badge Tourist Guide of Chester. “But after the Dissolution under Henry VIII, when it was stripped of its cathedral status, the eastern end was abandoned and fell into ruins. Before that, in 1468, the central tower collapsed, and the west tower fell approximately 100 years later. As if that wasn’t enough, in the English Civil War, Cromwell’s troops broke into the church, smashing it up and using it as a barracks. The bell tower was used as a high point to fire cannon into the city walls. This probably weakened it, and in 1881, it, too, fell.”

The remains of the old church form a romantic backdrop to St John’s, ivy overrunning crumbling stone, in wintertime brushed with frost. One of the curiosities of the ruins is a wooden coffin, placed high in a wall. Dated to the 14th century, it is inscribed with the legend ‘Dust to Dust’. “No one knows whose it is, but like all good churches, St John’s is said to have a ghost,” says Liz. “He talks to people in a strange language; Anglo-Saxon, perhaps? He’s said to be one of the monks searching for his bones.”

Another intriguing legend concerns King Harold. Many at the time believed he survived the Battle of Hastings and, having initially fled abroad, returned to England to spend the rest of his life as a   hermit in a cell attached to St John’s.

 

Arena for gladiators

Alongside St John’s lie the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, first discovered in 1929 during nearby renovation work of a convent school in Dee House. “It’s the biggest stone-built amphitheatre we know of in England,” says Liz. “It could seat approximately 7,000 people. Unfortunately, not much stone remains now, and two-thirds of it lies under more recent buildings, but you still get a sense of what it must have been like. It was a military amphitheatre, with a larger than usual arena in which soldiers were trained. The townspeople could also go to watch gladiators, mock hunts and bear baiting.”

A mesmerising glimpse into the lives of Deva’s soldiers can be gleaned through tombstones which have been excavated, depicting the lives of those they commemorate. One shows a cavalryman on his horse, naked ‘barbarian’ beneath its hooves; a junior officer holds his staff of office and a writing tablet. Stone altars have also been discovered, bearing pleas to the goddess Minerva and the genii, or guardian spirits. An altar inscribed “Dedicated to the goddess Nemesis, by Sextius Marcianus after a dream” was found at the entrance to the amphitheatre. “Nemesis was the goddess of retribution, and gladiators would often pray to her,” explains Liz.

More artefacts can be found in the Roman garden. This quiet space alongside the east wall was laid out in 1949 to display fragments of columns and other stonework found across the city. A closer look at the city wall here reveals that part of it has been repaired. This marks the place where the Roundheads based in St John’s church finally breached the wall in September 1645. Citizens loyal to the king desperately tried to fill the gap with soil, woolpacks and even bedding.  

From the tower on the north-east corner of the wall, King Charles himself watched as his troops, sent to reinforce the city after the breach, were defeated in the battle of Rowton Heath. The King fled the city over Old Dee Bridge to Denbigh in north Wales. The people of Chester held out against the parliamentarians until they were reduced to starvation, finally surrendering in 1646.

To the Rows

Climbing onto the wall at the Roman garden, it is a short stroll to Eastgate and down to the heart of the city. The present gate, a graceful sandstone arch, was constructed in 1768. It is surmounted by an ornate clock, which has become synonymous with Chester. Topped by a cupola and supported by a sinuous metal frame, the clock was erected in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It was made by renowned clockmakers J B Joyce of Whitchurch, who, until it was mechanised in 1992, sent someone to wind it every week.

Eastgate leads to the centre of Chester, marked by the medieval High Cross, from which radiate four main streets. Here, magical in the sparkle of the Christmas lights, are the black and white timber buildings which make up the town’s unique Rows. Although at first sight the Rows look like single-storey buildings, they actually contain two tiers of shops and cafes, the upper storey creating the ‘roof’ of a walkway over the lower. The upper Rows can be accessed by flights of weathered stone steps, which originally had names such as Butter Steps and Honey Steps, after the shops to which they led. On Bridge Street is Britain’s oldest existing shopfront, the Three Old Arches, which dates from 1274.

“Our black and white buildings are truly wonderful,” says Liz. “Many have fine carvings and painted figures, such as Bishop Lloyd’s Palace, which was built for the Bishop of Chester, or the Bear and Billet pub, originally the townhouse of the earls of Shrewsbury.

“My favourite is Leche House, now a sofa shop, which is one of the best preserved medieval houses in the Rows. Parts of it date back to the 1400s, and the undercroft beneath is even older. Katharine of Aragon is reputed to have stayed here, and the owners displayed her symbol, the pomegranate, in the decorative plasterwork, as well as Tudor roses, crowns and the Prince of Wales feathers. There is a squint, through which unsuspecting guests could be spied upon, and a priest’s hole. But to me it’s some graffiti etched into a window that really strikes a chord: ‘Charming Miss Oldfield  1736  J Griffiths’. I imagine him, lovesick, staring across the street at the woman he adored.

“Of course, as the centre of Chester is built over the Roman town, many of the buildings contain even older remains. There can’t be many other places where you can tuck into a baked potato next to the remains of a Roman hypocaust, or look down on columns from legionary headquarters in a sandwich shop.”

 

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Market tradition

Chester’s impressive town hall stands on the marketplace, its Gothic Revival tower rising 160ft (49m) into the air. In front, clustered tightly around the town’s brightly decorated tree and buzzing with noise, are the wooden stalls of the Christmas market.

By the medieval period, Chester had a thriving twice-weekly market as well as an annual fair, and its trade was organised into guilds. The city boasted its own mint and an assay office for hallmarking silver. It was particularly noted for leather working, and for clothing and textiles. The Shoemakers’ (note to subs: apostrophe dropped and both before and after the ‘s’ in various references) Row still stands in Northgate, where the fish and butter markets and Shambles were also found.

Carole Faulkner has run a shop on Northgate for more than 30 years. “With all our wonderful soil and pastureland, Cheshire has always been famous for its dairy foods, and Chester always made the most of it,” she says. “We sell hand-matured cheeses here, and there’s a big interest in local produce. We supply pubs and restaurants across the city. I like to think we’re continuing in the market tradition.

“Chester is still a city, but it’s small,” she says. “There’s almost a village atmosphere, and Christmas is a great time to be here. I’ve had people turn up in the shop with an accordion, and everyone joins in the carols. It’s a time to enjoy sharing good food and drink. I feel very part of the city.”

 

Christmas at the Cathedral

Right in the centre of the city stands the building that has been the Cathedral since the mid 16th century. The patron saint of Chester is St Werburgh, an Anglo-Saxon princess who took holy orders and established many of England’s convents. She was known for her powers of healing and kindness to animals. Her bones were brought to Chester from Staffordshire to protect them from marauding Danes, circa 907. The church in which they were placed later became a Benedictine monastery, before being designated the Cathedral of Chester in 1541, as part of Henry VIII’s changes to the church in England.

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The exterior of the building exudes a calm and enduring beauty beneath its worn sandstone pinnacles and central tower. Within, it is full of treasures, including the nave mosaics on the north wall, magnificent stained glass and unparalleled wood- and stonework.

“The cloisters are wonderfully atmospheric and convey a very powerful sense of the Benedictine past,” says Nick Fry, the Cathedral’s bedesman. His role dates back to the founding of the cathedral. “King Henry appointed six men to say prayers, morning, noon and night; hence the name bedesman, because they used the beads to say their prayers,” he explains. “They were paid £5 13s 4d a year and received seven pints of beer a day, which I’m waiting to be restored. I wear a red robe with a rosary hanging from my belt and a Tudor rose on my left breast in memory of the King.

“My greatest joy is seeing the building in all its moods. It’s never the same two minutes running and it’s a real privilege to be part of the life of this building, if only for a second or two in time.”

“I’ve always had a fascination for medieval architecture and the cathedral is a source of endless detail. The intricate carving of the 14th century quire is truly exceptional. It’s not just the quality of the craftsmanship which is extraordinary but also the variety of subjects, including medieval humour, natural history, pilgrims and even an elephant with horses’ hooves. Just standing in the quire transports me back to the 14th century, to a very different world where everything had a symbolic meaning. It’s rather like learning another language, and it’s wonderful to reveal this hidden world to our visitors.”

“In particular, Christmas is a magical time here. For the past few years, the cloisters have been lined with decorated Christmas trees during December. These are sponsored and raise money for charity. The sight of so many illuminated trees in the medieval cloisters is really amazing, and it smells wonderful. We have huge numbers of visitors coming for services, for special school events, for concerts and, of course, to see the trees. The beautiful Chester Cathedral Nativity figures are placed in the nave. These are three-quarter lifesize copper sculptures of Mary, Joseph and the Magi, which were commissioned from a local sculptor, Tony Evans. Mary, Joseph and the donkey were commissioned in 2013 and the Three Wise Men in 2015.

Winter pageant

Every December, the people of Chester take to the streets for the Winter Watch parade. The tradition dates back to the 11th century when, one Christmas Eve, the city came under attack. Thereafter, a watch was set for three days before Christmas. A procession, headed by the mayor and aldermen along with the dignitaries of the Cathedral, walked to the common hall on Northgate. There, the keys to the city were handed to a special watch, who patrolled the city walls. Once the city had been deemed safe for the night, a great banquet was held to rejoice. Over the years, the watch came to mark the official start of Chester’s Christmas.

The watch parade today is a fantastical pageant which begins and ends outside the town hall in Abbey Square. Antlered giants, skeletons and dragons roam through darkened streets to the rhythmic beating of drums. Fire-eaters blow flames into the night, and Roman trumpets sound in honour of Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn, when master served servant and social rules were turned upside down. Revelry and celebration are in the air, and Chester is safe for another year.

Words: Di Wardle  Photography: Colin McPherson

Cut deeply into the rock behind the north wall, the Shropshire Union canal is spanned by a narrow bridge which seems almost crushed between the weight of the banks. Seemingly insignificant, its name, the Bridge of Sighs, belies its grim history. Until 1807, Chester city gaol was housed in the Northgate, its dungeons carved into the stone beneath. It was infamous for the ‘Deadmen’s room’, a windowless “dark and stinking place” where condemned prisoners were chained. They were led to a chapel over the Bridge of Sighs to pray before execution.

After the gaol was demolished, the present-day Northgate was built in 1810 by noted architect Thomas Harrison, who spent much of his life in Chester. Inspired by the Acropolis in Athens, he also designed a new Assize court, with impressive stone portico, at Chester Castle. Completed in 1815, the complex also included a military barracks and an armoury, and remains the site of the county courts today.

The best persevered part of the original castle is the Agricola Tower, the first gateway to be erected on the site of the wooden fort built by the Normans. On its first floor is the stark but serene chapel of St Mary de Castro. Here, beneath layers of grime from the tower’s one-time use as a gunpowder store, was discovered a series of rare wall paintings. Depicting horses, angels and stories from the Bible, they date back to the 1240s.

 

The stretch of land running outside the western wall is known as the Roodee. The unusual name derives from the Anglo-Saxon words rood and eye, meaning island of the cross. It tells of a time when an island existed in the harbour which then lapped against the city wall. Legend has it that a statue of the Virgin Mary washed up on the shore of the island, and a cross was erected to mark the place where it was buried. 

Centuries later, the area had become dry ground, and each year the town guilds would play an increasingly rowdy game of football on the Roodee. The guilds would first meet with the mayor and aldermen at the cross, to offer homages; the Shoemakers guild brought a football, the Saddlers a ball of silk, and the Drapers a silver arrow. Then the game would begin. By 1539, it was leading to so many injuries that mayor Henry Gee decided it should be banned. In its place he instigated a horse race, the prize for which was a silver bell.

Today, the Roodee is home to Chester’s 65-acre racecourse, the country’s oldest continuous race meeting, where horses compete over a mile and a furlong. The stump of the cross is still visible a little way off the track.

Not only did mayor Henry Gee play a part in creating one of Britain’s best loved sports but he also lent his name to the horses themselves.

A very British cup of tea...

In a garden tucked in from the sea, the first tea grown in England is cultivated

Tregothnan is the producer of the first tea grown in England, and indeed the UK. It may be known as the most British of brews but, historically, tea leaves have come from India, China, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Today, this valuable crop grown in Cornwall is being turned into very special brews that have found favour even in the traditional home of the camellia.

The estate, on the banks of the Fal estuary, is home to members of the Boscawen family, who have lived here since 1334. As well as the 150 acres devoted to growing tea bushes, there is a 100-acre botanical garden and thousands of acres of farm and woodland. The Boscawens have a long history of botanical endeavour. Two centuries ago, they sponsored plant hunters and brought rhododendrons, rare trees and ornamental camellias from across the globe to the estate.

Inspiration from India
It is the evergreen Camellia sinensis shrub that produces the leaves from which all tea comes, whether it is black, white or green. A native of South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is today cultivated across the world in tropical and subtropical regions. Camellia sinensis is one of the few species of camellia that contains caffeine. While there are others, such as Camellia japonica, C. sinensis is favoured as a tea crop due to its flavour.

In 1999, Tregothnan’s owner, Evelyn Boscawen, and his garden director, Jonathon Jones, came up with the idea to grow tea, inspired by an early flowering magnolia from north India and the ease with which the ornamental camellias grew.

Camellia sinensis plants grow well in acidic, well-drained soils, with an ideal pH of 4.5-5.5. They require warm, moist conditions with at least 39in (100cm) of annual rainfall. The ideal aspect is south-facing, with protection from extreme weather. All these conditions are found at Tregothnan.

“The key thing for these plants is the microclimate here,” says Jonathon. “We are far enough inland to be free from salt-winds, and we have an 18m deep sea creek running through the estate, which means we get relatively warm weather in winter. On top of that, we have all the usual things that tea needs: the right rainfall, soil pH, shelter belt and aspect of land.”

The following year, thanks to a scholarship awarded by the Nuffield Trust, Jonathon was able to visit tea gardens across the globe. “I deliberately went to the widest spectrum of gardens that I could find,” he says. “I didn’t just go to successful tea gardens, I went to those that were struggling. It’s a very diverse and complicated industry. It is done in so many different ways.”

On his return, he continued to experiment and research. He had collected cuttings and seedlings on his travels and started to propagate tea plants from them. “I was busy testing the theory, and convincing myself, that this was going to be an industry, not just a novelty attached to the garden,” he says.

Donated tea plants
As word began to spread of the estate’s plans, advice started to come in from botanists and other experts. “The reception was amazing. One of the country’s foremost authorities on tea cultivation, the late Dr Rex Ellis, would paint watercolours showing me how we should grow our tea. He sent me an essay telling me in no uncertain terms what I’d got wrong and what was going to work. It was really valuable.” Other retired tea growers gave their lifetime collection of tea bushes which they had brought back to the UK.

As a result of these donations, today there are 35 different varieties of tea bush on the estate. These include Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, C. sinensis var. assamica and their own cultivated varieties, including C. sinensis ‘Tregothnan Himalayan Valley’, C. sinensis ‘Tregothnan Coombe’ and C. sinensis ‘Tregothnan Selection’.

Each variety occupies a different garden or plantation on the estate. Each plantation is no bigger than an acre, to reduce the risk of spreading disease. Each acre contains approximately 1,000 tea bushes planted in rows approximately 203ft (62m) apart. Tens of tons of tea are now produced here every year.

Not all of the 150 acres are fully productive. Bushes are first picked when they are three to four years old, with about 10 per cent of the bush plucked. At this age, a bush yields approximately 50g of tea at its first plucking. This increases to 100g in year six to seven when the bush reaches maturity.

Tea bushes can last for hundreds of years. Some in China are more than 400 years old, so there is very good reason to believe that the tea bushes at Tregothnan will survive for many more decades yet.

Cuttings are taken from healthy mature plants to propagate new plants. These cuttings are potted and kept moist and warm in a greenhouse. When the cutting has firm roots and is producing new growth, it is repotted. These young plants will remain in nursery beds for approximately 18 months when they are placed in the tea garden. Thousands of plants are propagated each year.

Left to their own devices, Camellia sinensis plants will grow into a tree. However, in cultivation, the bush is kept to waist height by pruning. This takes place at the end of the harvest season. Every seven years, the bushes go through a deep prune, where they are stripped back to their main branches to encourage new growth and renew the plants.

The main harvest season lasts from April to October. “There is no hard and fast rule on that,” says Jonathon. “We might have a really mild January or February and get our first leaves then. Since 2005, when we made our first sale, we’ve found that we can harvest on almost any day of the year.”

Premium harvest
In peak season, up to 20 pickers will start plucking at dawn. The young leaves are pinched from the bush and carried in baskets slung over the arm. The first rush of leaf buds coming from the tea bushes in early spring is known as first flush. Having stored a winter’s worth of nutrients, these leaves are considered the premium harvest and are used to make Tregothnan’s Single Estate tea.

Depending on the weather and the growth rate of new shoots, the plant is plucked again approximately seven days later. This is referred to as the plucking round. As growth slows down towards the end of the season, the plucking round is gradually extended to between 7-14 days until the plant no longer produces new growth.

White tea is made from the bud of the bush, while green tea and black tea is from the first two leaves and bud. “The final type of tea is down to what you blend with the leaf and how the tea is processed,” says Jonathon.

After plucking, leaves are spread out onto wire mesh racks, approximately 3ft by 6ft (91 x 183cm), in a steel walk-in container for several hours and left to wither. The purpose of withering is to reduce the moisture content in the leaves and make them pliable, ready for further processing. 

Next, the withered leaves are placed in muslin cloths and rolled between the hands, releasing juices and intensifying flavour. This takes place in the same room. The length of time this process takes depends on the batch size and the type of tea being produced. It can take anything from a few minutes to more than an hour. “The longer and more vigorous the rolling, the stronger the resulting flavour,” explains Jonathon. “We’re about to release a very strong breakfast tea using four different camellias from across the estate that will go through a very abrasive rolling process to create a really rich, full-bodied black tea.”

The third step is fermentation, or oxidisation, a process that started with the rolling. In this enzymatic process, oxygen reacts with compounds inside the leaves, affecting the tea’s flavour, aroma and colour.

For small batches of tea, rolling will often be enough to oxidise the tea to the desired level. Larger batches remain in the steel containers for longer or are placed in a wooden chamber, where the temperature is kept below 30°C, and left to further ferment. The degree of oxidisation varies depending on the desired result. For Tregothnan’s green tea, fermentation is replaced by steaming to retain lightness of taste and the green colour.

Once the leaves have been oxidised to the preferred level, they are transferred to a drying room, another steel container, where they are dried using heaters to makes the leaves shelf-stable, ready to be sorted and packed. The whole bush-to-cup process takes just 36 hours.

A tea for every occasion
“Our teas vary a great deal,” says Jonathon. “The delicate crispness of our green tea is very different to our bold and malty Classic tea. Some teas need to be light and refreshing, whereas others need to be more full-bodied.”

Tregothnan sells six teas: an exclusive Single Estate; a Classic Blend, with leaves from Tregothnan blended with leaves from Assam; an Afternoon Tea, a blend of Tregothnan leaves and Darjeeling; Earl Grey, a blend of Cornish leaves and Assam, infused with bergamot oil; Great British Tea, a stronger blend of Tregothnan and Assam; and a Green Tea, a blend of Tregothnan and leaves from China.

The tea is processed and packaged on-site, apart from the production of the pyramid tea pouch, which is outsourced. The distinctive boxes were designed in-house by Tregothnan’s marketing manager Bella Percy-Hughes. “We’ve also made use of the creative talent pool that we have in Cornwall,” says Jonathon. “We’ve had input from students at Exeter University, based on the Cornwall campus, and the arts community in St Ives.”

Challenges overcome
Today, Tregothnan is a flourishing tea plantation, but it has faced challenges. There were times when Jonathon feared that he had undertaken the impossible. An early crop was decimated by a freak gale. Rabbits, which have left other camellia alone, have joined deer and pheasants to cause problems, plucking some varieties bare.

“What I’ve learned is that when you try to do novel things, you get attacked by novel pests,” says Jonathon. Netting around the young tea plants helps to keep these predators at bay. Once the bushes reach a certain size, they become more resistant.

Jonathon’s perseverance has paid off, and the future for the Tregothnan estate’s tea is looking bright. “If we had given up after the early hurdles, we’d never have all this,” he says. The aim is to continue to focus on quality and sustainability, and to still be a successful operation 100 years from now.

As the sunlight strains through the mist onto the rows of tea plants, the feeling is one of quiet pride. Finally, a great British institution has found a home in Britain.

Words: Emma Inglis  Photography: Alamy

Beer from the Black Country

A family business in the Black Country produces beer the traditional way...

Solid and confident, the traditional Victorian building that is home to Bathams Brewery towers over the surrounding homes of Brierley Hill, West Midlands. Within the walls of this family-run business, a malty fragrance tickles the nostrils, especially pungent when the weather is damp. Rising and swirling steam is another indicator that brewing is in full swing.

The Bathams are a family born to brew. Five generations have been involved in creating the beer, which has become legendary in the Black Country. The brewery is entering its 140th year of operation, with its 11th pub opened in October last year.

“My great-great-grandfather Daniel started the business in 1877,” explains Matt Batham, the current joint owner alongside his brother Tim. “It’s thought that Daniel regularly helped out at a local brewhouse, the White Horse Inn in Cradley, before becoming the landlord, which is when his passion for brewing was sparked,” he says. “Our newest pub is called the King Arthur because the name Arthur has been in the family for three generations. It was our father’s name and he steered the business through some tricky times.”

Matt is certain the family tradition for brewing will continue. One of his nieces, Claire, keeps the Plough and Harrow, a Bathams pub in nearby Kinver. Another, Alice, has an MA in practical brewing and is taking a job with a smaller brewery.

Bathams brews three beers. “Our best bitter is the mainstay of the business,” says Matt. “Our other regular is mild ale, which was voted best mild in the Midlands by Camra.” The third beer is a Christmas special, XXX, or Christmas Brew as some customers call it. It is a very strong ale, at 6.3 per cent. “We brew XXX in November, and it’s sold while stocks last. Our customers start asking in October when it will be ready.”

Bathams also produces a bottled beer, brewed to the same recipe but pasteurised and dispensed differently. “As well as serving Bathams in our own pubs, we have a number of free trade accounts in the area,” explains Matt. Privately-owned and free from brewery ties, these pubs can choose their supplier. 

The brewery uses three main ingredients in its beer: malted barley, hops and yeast. “The barley comes from Tuckers Maltings, based at Newton Abbott in Devon,” says Matt. “It is only one of four malt houses in the country to produce malt in the traditional, rather than mechanised way. The hops are locally sourced from the Wye Valley.”

The yeast is re-used and is 20 years old now. “Yeast from each brew is collected and saved for the following week. It has adapted to the conditions and environment of our brewery, so is exclusive to us,” he explains. “During the process, the yeast separates. Some of it dies, which goes to make animal feed or yeast extract. The live yeast is constantly monitored to ensure it is in top condition.” The water needed for brewing comes from Severn Trent.

Matt has ventured outside the region, supplying his beer to North Wales, Liverpool, Manchester and the East Midlands, but stays mostly local to the West Midlands and Worcestershire, due to demand.

The brewery remains committed to traditional methods. The raw ingredients are taken to the top of the tower and work their way down through various processes until the beer barrels finally roll onto the lorries at ground level. “We still use open fermenters, and we use open copper mash vessels. There is always a brew bubbling away,” says Matt.

Bathams’ most iconic pub is the Vine Inn, on the brewery site. It is also known as the Bull and Bladder, as it used to have a butcher’s shop within it. The pub is rich in Victorian ambience, with a tiled front corridor, engraved glass partitions and ornate carvings. The quote “blessing of your heart – you brew good ale” emblazoned across the top of the building is taken from Shakespeare’s The Gentlemen of Verona.

“We are proud of our heritage and have a great future before us,” says Matt. “Opening a new pub, when all around the country many are closing, shows the confidence we have in our brewery.” 

Words Julie Brown Photography Clive Doyle

SHEPHERD'S HAVEN

Once a safe place for newborn, orphaned lambs, a lovingly restored shepherd's hut now provides cherished sanctuary for one man and his dog

Tucked within a quiet Norfolk garden, the curved iron roof and silver-grey weathered wooden walls of
a traditional shepherd’s hut contrast gently with the greenery of spring. Chickens and ducks shelter beneath it, while homemade preserves are stored inside it. 

Today, it is a quiet, peaceful place for owner Ian McDonald and his wife, Carol. In its heyday in the late 19th century, however, it would have provided much needed shelter for a working shepherd. Towed out to the fields in early spring by horses, the hut was the solitary shepherd’s home throughout
the lambing season. 

There were few home comforts. Measuring 9ft high, by 7ft 6in wide and 12ft 6in long (2.75 x 2.3 x 3.8m) it was big enough to house its single occupant and one or two lambs. There would have been a rudimentary wooden bed but no mattress, a stove, storage box for medicine and food, and possibly a cage for orphan lambs. This was often placed under the bed, allowing
the shepherd and lambs to share body warmth on cold nights. 

Ian and his family have owned the hut since 2003. It was in a derelict state when he and Carol first saw it at School Farm in their village of Barford, Norfolk. Rotting away, trees were growing out of the roof. The hut’s neglected state and obvious need for care instantly attracted them. “I just saw the hut and thought it was interesting,” says Carol.  

History in the making

Using a forklift truck and a trailer, they transported the hut back to their house on the other side of the village. “Unfortunately the front axle fell off when we lifted it up as the wood was so rotten,” says Ian. Undeterred, he set about a thorough restoration. At the same time he started research to find out more about shepherd’s huts and their history. 

Several months were spent carefully taking the crumbling structure apart, recording every detail. “I measured and drew everything.” This was done so he would know exactly how to
put it back together correctly. He also visited the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse rural history museum in nearby
Dereham. They had two huts, and also gave him the number
of a woman who had researched the subject. She put him in touch with former shepherd and shepherd’s hut enthusiast, Gerald Beavis, from Cambridgeshire. All provided useful information for his restoration work.

Eventually, Ian was ready to begin the task of rebuilding his hut. An electrical engineer by profession, he was helped by what he learnt during a four-year coach-building apprenticeship in his youth. This provided him with the woodwork, metalwork and welding skills needed for much of the work. The restoration took approximately two years. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says.
“It was a way of coming back from work and unwinding.” 

A hut with heart

Today, the hut is warm and cosy. On a bright spring day, it is full of sunshine, with a gentle woody smell. Birdsong is heard through the open door. The interior is lined with pine and the floor is made from pitch pine salvaged from a chapel in Suffolk. There are two comfortable wicker chairs and a set of shelves. 

“I love coming here,” says Ian. “When you step inside, you could be anywhere. It is so peaceful. As a child, I always wanted a den, somewhere to go and hide, and to keep my treasures. Even as an adult, it is great to have a hideaway.”

Over the years, the hut has been used to hold parish council meetings and children’s sleepovers. Carol uses it as an art studio, her paint box and jars of brushes sitting on a small folding table. Underneath is a large wooden box. “It is a genuine shepherd’s chest and was given to us by a shepherd,” says Ian. Hanging by the door is
a selection of old tools accumulated over time, including sheep shears and a crook. In one corner is a small Victorian coal-burning stove.
“We have tried to keep it as authentic as possible,” he says.

A varied past

As part of his research, Ian traced his own hut’s story back to 1945 when it was bought to house a German prisoner of war, Hans Lenzen. He had been sent to work for Eddie Simmonds, of School Farm. Towed 15 miles by tractor from Hall Farm, Rackheath, it cost £7.

Hans appears to have lived in the hut until he was declared free of his PoW status in 1947. He married a local woman and remained in East Anglia. Ian managed to contact him, but Hans’ age prevented the pair meeting. Instead, his son Robin visited and gave Ian copies of his father’s papers. These included his PoW documentation and discharge form from the Luftwaffe. He recalled his father describing the hut as a basic, cold place where he struggled to dry his clothes in winter. 

For the following 20 years, the hut was used as a farm store and dog house. Rodney Brown, the owner of the haulage company that moved the hut for Ian, recalled choosing a puppy from a litter born in it in the 1960s. “He helped me move the hut for free as he had fond memories of it,” says Ian. 

The hut’s past uses are an important part of its attraction for Ian. “The history really gets me,” he says. “I love the fact it has evolved from a shepherd’s hut to a home for a PoW to a farm store and a dog house, and now we have prolonged its life. It makes it something special and gives it an atmosphere.

“I am fascinated by the history of how and why these huts were used, as well as the huts themselves. Sometimes there were notes written in the huts themselves, as the shepherds recorded information they might need onto the wooden walls.” Unfortunately, this was not the case with Ian’s hut as the original lining was tarred sackcloth.

Saving farming heritage

Ian is keen to share his knowledge to encourage others to rescue these huts. To this end, he has set up a website with links to the specialists who helped him. The site also records historic hut manufacturers and has a section on their history as well as practical tips. 

“I want people to save these pieces of our industrial heritage while they are still out there,” he says. “I love the skill and craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into building the huts in the first place, but it’s their history that makes them so special.”  

A labour of love

Ian restored his hut in sections, starting with the ironwork. Most of this was reusable, apart from the bolts, which had been corroded by the tannin from the wet oak. The four cast iron wheels and the axle swivel plate were sandblasted to remove rust. Next they were sprayed with hot zinc to protect them from future damage. Replacements for the bolts were commissioned from a company in Sheffield to old Imperial standards. “I wanted the hut to be built how it was originally. Where that wasn’t possible, I used new parts made to old specifications,” explains Ian.

The original wooden axles had to be replaced. Plywood patterns were cut, then new ones were made from solid oak at a nearby sawmill. These were bolted to the chassis with specially made 16in (41cm) bolts. Wrought iron pieces came from the Sheffield ironworks.

“The chassis sat on wet ground for at least 40 years as the wheels and axles sunk into soft soil. A screwdriver could be pushed through the 4in thick timber,” says Ian. Four new side panels were made from oak and pine. A new curved corrugated iron roof was sourced from a specialist who makes pig arks. The door was made of larch and the window frames of oak. He then assembled the hut with the help of some friends. 

Finally the outside cladding, made of green or unseasoned larch planks, was attached. Butted together vertically, a much narrower larch plank or joining strip was placed over the gap between each plank. This allows for movement in the wood. In the summer the planks shrink, opening up a gap between them. The joining strip ensures the walls remain sealed. The wood has room to expand with the winter wet without buckling. The woodwork is now treated annually with preservative.

Huts on wheels

The earliest known mention of shepherd’s huts dates back to 1596. English writer Leonard Mascall mentioned a ‘cabbine upon a wheel’ used
by shepherds in a work on rural life. Their popularity peaked in the 19th century, with some continuing in use until after
the First World War. 

Thomas Hardy gives a detailed description of Gabriel Oak’s shepherd’s hut in Far From the Madding Crowd. “The inside of the hut was cosy and alluring... In the corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were ranged bottles and canisters of simple preparations pertaining to ovine surgery and physic... On a triangular shelf across the corner stood bread, bacon, cheese and a cup for ale or cider which was supplied from a flagon beneath... The house was ventilated by two round holes like the lights of a ship’s cabin, with wood slides.”

Out of lambing season, the huts were used to supervise sheep folding at the end of the year. This was the practice of using sheep to fertilise fields. A small area would be fenced off and the animals left to graze on root crops. Once these were consumed, the flock would be moved onto the next section. The land would then be ploughed and the nutrients in the sheep droppings returned to the soil. The ammonium nitrate fertilisers developed after the First World War rendered this process obsolete. 

As changing agricultural practices saw shepherd’s huts fall out of use, many slid into disrepair, gently rotting away where they stood. Some were even broken up and burned. A resurgence of interest at the end of the 20th century has seen many surviving huts rescued and renovated for use once more.

Contact: www.shepherdhuts.co.uk

Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Richard Faulks