We've been spending most of our weekends outside of London in the last few months, which has been rather lovely, particularly since many of these weekends have involved trips to various parts of England which I've never visited before. While I do love travelling to strange and distant lands, there's something very pleasant about hopping on the train on Friday evening and arriving somewhere a few hours later - and with such little fuss! - only to wake the next morning surrounded by great natural beauty. It's all too easy to forget, especially living in London, that England is full of so many beautiful and fascinating places.
This past weekend we headed up to Lincolnshire to investigate Compass, new contemporary art commissions at Woolsthorpe Manor, Grimsthorpe Castle and Ayscoughfee Hall produced by arts-organisation Beacon. Beacon had organised a bus to take us, and a large group of other art enthusiasts, from Lincoln around to each of the various sites and works. We had a grand old time and covered a lot of Lincolnshire ground to boot. We spent a wonderful evening with the directors of Beacon - John and Nicola - who left London 13 years ago to buy up and convert an old Methodist church in a little village outside of Lincoln and some of their friends, who also left London (some five years ago) to buy up and convert an old Methodist church in a different little village outside of Lincoln. Apparently there are a lot of unloved Methodist churches to be had in Lincolnshire.
Even though I'd seen pictures of Newton's house many times before, I somehow didn't quite make the connection in my head between hearing the name Woolsthorpe Manor and Newton's home until we were walking into the grounds of the house. It seems silly to be so excited simply by virtue of being in the same house where Newton was born and then came back to work during the plague years of 1666-7, but the history of a place like that makes me feel absolutely electric. We even ate an apple off a tree in the garden, though why they have one particular apple tree fenced off, as if it were irrefutably the apple tree from which Newton's apple of gravity fell, I have no idea. History as tourist attraction.
We went also to visit the John Vanbrugh-designed Grimsthorpe Castle, (Vanbrugh was commissioned in 1715, though there has been a house on the site since 1516) though we we unable to go inside, the exterior of the house and its gardens were lovely enough to keep our eyes entertained for the 30 minutes or so we were there. Finally, our tour took us to Spalding and the utterly bizarre Ayscoughfee Hall. The original building dates to 1451 and, in terms of the building's central structure, remains much unchanged. In terms of decoration, the building has changed superficially as much as one might expect in a building more than 560 years old. There's a Gothic-looking Victorian front facade and, excepting the dark, Victorian library, most of the interior rooms resemble a series of enormous Georgain fondant fancies. Heritage Lottery funded a three-year "sympathetic restoration" project which completed in 2006, but I haven't been able to find out much about what the building looked like pre-restoration on the internet. A conservator's report, which indicates that the restoration was carried out under the aim of bringing the building back to how it might have looked when the Johnson family lived in it at the end of the seventeenth century, reminded me of Robert Pollidori's photographs of Versailles. History by its nature is not fixed, but restoration demands history stand still at a precise point of reference - it's like putting a blue plaque on a building and denying the memory of all others who lived there. How would one go about restoring a house or a building so that each of it's previous histories, previous lives, live together in harmony? I have not the slightest idea how one would begin or even what the end result might look like, but I do know that it wouldn't look like Ayscoughfee Hall.