Sunday, 25 April 2010

Exhibition of sculpture in caves

The sandstone caves in Tunnel Road in the centre of Reigate were used as an air raid shelter during World War 2. There are 4 or 5 open days each year, hosted by Malcolm Tadd and the Wealden Cave & Mine Society.
This exhibition of sculpture called "Reconnect" is by Zita Ra for her MA Fine Art show at the University of Brighton.

The sculptures and caves can be seen by the public in Reigate on Saturday 8th May 2010. I can highly recommend this innovative exhibition and congratulate the organisers. A special event not to be missed!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Surrey's Commemoration of People, Places and Events

There is a one-day conference on Monday 24th May, 9.30am-4.00pm at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, organised by Surrey History Trust and Surrey County Council.

I sent them the list of notable local citizens that previously I presented to the Reigate Society a year ago and it will be interesting to hear what happens.

Update: 29th May: nothing.

Monday, 19 April 2010

My mug

The postman has just delivered my new mug from the Welsh Shop in Newport. It's ever so educational because it says "Duw Duw! Well I Never!" - the first Welsh expression I have ever learned. Now you see, this is because Welsh miners were signed up as Royal Engineers in World War 2. They were sent here to south east England with their special skills and techniques to mine the new bunkers for South Eastern Command, all in the utmost secrecy of course. It was one of these miners who accidentally let the cat out of the bag to Mr Foan the barber in the High Street. Hence the reference and brilliant play on words in one verse of my special poem by Barrie Singleton:

Welsh miners exclaiming “dieu dieu!”
Drilled tunnels for Monty’s HQ.
Soon South Eastern Command’s
Subterranean band
Were installed ‘gainst what Gerry might do.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Reigate's horses

Visitors to Reigate might be unaware of its equine history. There isn't a single horse or even a donkey alive in the central part of the town nowadays, whereas there were several at the stables in Reigate's Priory Park as recently as forty years ago.

There is actually a rather high class wooden rocking horse which has been used as the symbol for Reigate Priory Museum since it was founded in the 1970s. The museum is open during school term times on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and additionally for special occasions such as Heritage Weekend in September each year. At the top of the grand staircase is the rocking horse which used to belong to Mr Clifford Price, former headmaster of Holmesdale School and Reigate Priory School. It was adapted from a fairground horse.

The unique notebook illustrated is one I had made as a gift for CHASE children's hospice.

This second photograph shows the 2010 remains of the beautiful old thatched stables looking from Park Lane with the Priory Park and hills in the background. This is where Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited many of her champion racehorses who were trained here over the years. Surrey County Council is responsible for the site. My mother wrote in her book, Discovering Reigate Priory: "In 1997 the buildings were sold for conversion into desirable homes" but there have been no signs of developments since then except decay, neglect and arson.

Reigate Priory's ancient horse ponds were just by the new Pavilion, (now covered up); 6 strong horses were needed to pull carriages up Reigate Hill; do you know about the famous Reigate Mare, or a horse called Plowman which had won the Prince's Plate at Newmarket, the hunting horse that was so admired by King Louis XV that it was given to him, and Reigate's American Countess Beatty who loved to hunt?

Friday, 16 April 2010

Horse chestnuts in the park

Dear Reigate and Banstead Borough Council,

May I please bring to your attention the text on your leaflet obtainable from the Pavilion.

"Tree number 13: Horse Chestnut - Aesculus hippocastanum arrived in Britain in the 17th Century. The name derives from the inside of a conker shell that is shaped like a horses hoof."

Would you please let me have the source of that information and get it corrected.

As a biologist educated by the great tree expert, Professor Alan Gemmell, I cannot accept an explanation that a conker shell is shaped like a horse's hoof! Was this an April Fools joke or a Spot the Deliberate Mistake game?

Some accurate and logical explanations for children and adults alike are given here:
with references and photographs of the horseshoe leaf scars.

"The name refers to the nuts being fed by the Turks to ailing horses."

"As a primary school teacher, the explanation I have used most often is the shape of the leaf scar ..."

In view of the fact that Reigate Priory was home for centuries for numerous horses of the highest quality and their famous breeders, I am currently writing an article about this for publication on the internet and as a chapter for a book. So I look forward to hearing that you are going to amend the text and consider scrapping the remaining leaflets. I shall keep my copy as a souvenir however.

Thank you.

Grace Filby (Ms)
Former Head of Science and Head of Special Educational Needs at Reigate Priory Junior School.

All photos and text on this site are copyright Grace Filby 2009-2010 except where credited and referenced accordingly.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Reigate's role in motoring history

If you are very lucky, you can see these treasured veteran and vintage motor cars on display at special occasions in Reigate. This particular one was a garden party for the residents of a nursing home in July 2009. The enterprising manager at the time asked me for a few local contacts, so it was no trouble at all to put him in touch with the owner of the cars, Bryan Goodman. Bryan is an authority on motoring history and author who lives just round the corner from the nursing home. What a stunning collection and a joy to behold.

Since then I have acquired an original page from the Illustrated London News, November 21st 1896, which beautifully illustrates the famous day when the first motor cars arrived at Reigate - on the inaugural run from London to Brighton. The drivers stopped here for lunch at the White Hart Hotel, which was in those days at the top of Bell Street. Note the magnificent full page illustration by artist H.P. Seppings Wright with his amusing observations alongside. In the right hand corner, in the background is the entrance to Reigate's Tunnel Road - historic in itself as the gift of Lord Somers in 1824 and the first road tunnel in the country.

It must have been some major achievement to get the 'Red Flag Act' repealed in Parliament. Just one year before, it had become law that a man had to walk 60 yards in front of any vehicle waving a red flag - there was a speed limit of just 2 miles per hour in towns! The annual London to Brighton Emancipation Run - not a race - has commemorated this common sense liberation most years ever since. No wonder there is an additional drawing in the bottom right hand corner if you look very carefully. It's a patriotic display of flags flying high, along with the notice "REIGATE WELCOMES PROGRESS". The whole artwork bears close scrutiny and is now carefully preserved in a double glass frame, with a photograph of the unique occasion on the reverse.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Reigate's Royal Navy connections

Reigate's majestic wooden ship,
complete with crow's nest for a bird's eye view

One doesn't expect to find a wooden sailing ship in the middle of a country park for the children to play on, so let's look at why there is this one in Reigate Priory Park.

Well, Reigate Priory was founded in medieval times by Augustinian canons (monks, that is, for those not familiar with the word). Being in such a pleasant and healthy setting, it also had a role as a hospital, with a Guest House or Infirmary on the east side, underneath what is now the Priory car park. In fact, ancient human skeletons are known to be in the sacred ground by the main building - sadly there is no visible acknowledgement of this nowadays as a mark of respect.
When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, instead of destroying this one, he gave the whole area to one of his most esteemed supporters, Lord William Howard. He was the uncle of Anne Boleyn, Henry's 2nd wife and also Catherine Howard, Henry's 5th wife, and the king appointed him Lord High Admiral. They were such friends that they went hunting and played tennis together. It was on 8th June 1541 that Lord William and Lady Margaret became the owners of Reigate manor, as a family home just 20 miles from their house in Lambeth for official duties.

During the next 140 years the Howard family and their descendants owned Reigate Priory, but it wasn't all "smooth sailing" for Lord William and his wife however. As the old stone monastic building was being modernised into a Tudor mansion, complete with brick-built Tudor Tennis House and stabling for the hunting horses, the King became furious with his wife, suspecting her of infidelity. He imprisoned her uncle and aunt in the Tower of London - 'forever'! After some months, the King relented, released them and returned their properties, so what a relief it must have been for them to return safely to Reigate in 1543. Such drama!

Their son Charles was just seven years old at the time, spending much of his childhood in Reigate. As he grew up, he also came to be very highly regarded and famous too. He often went to sea with his father. His bride was Catherine, the new Queen Elizabeth I's closest friend and First Lady of the Chamber, with the great responsibility of supervising Her Majesty's wardrobe and her jewels.

With his noble parentage, the Queen appointed young Charles, above others, as Lord High Admiral to lead the Navy - 'and Army prepared to the seas against Spain'. Yes, for the history books, this was the Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham and First Earl of Nottingham who had the leading role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. How grand it would have been to have total command of the fleet, with the Ark Royal flying the Howard standard, just like the one carved into the top of the Tudor fireplace here at Reigate Priory! He had the advantage of Sir Francis Drake as second-in-command.

Lord Charles Howard, who foiled the Armada
and prevented subsequent Spanish invasions

Reigate's famous link with the defeat of the Armada explains the modern beacon at the southern edge of the grassed parkland, which was installed in 1988 to commemorate 400 years since the Armada along with a massive fireworks display. Oddly, the beacon was lit whereas to be historically accurate, the original array of beacons across the country were to be lit only if the Invasion took place (which of course it never did). You see, we had the military tactics of an excellent Lord High Admiral, plus an excellent second-in-command, plus better sailing ships. Naturally, the weather would have had something to do with it too.

To this day, Reigate can be proud of the Ark Royal , having adopted the modern version: in 1914 at the start of World War 1, a seaplane tender was given the name, taking part in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. Ready for World War 2, in 1937 the Navy's second ever purpose-built aircraft carrier was launched as the Ark Royal. That one successfully tracked and helped to sink the Germans' flagship, the Bismarck, much to Hitler's fury! The Ark Royal was a key target now and was actually destroyed near Gibraltar, not long afterwards. The current Ark Royal aircraft carrier, launched 1978 has just recently 'set sail' in 2009 after a £12-million refit. It is 210 metres long - 683 feet.

The Reigate Unit of the Sea Cadets Corps is also named Ark Royal.

Returning to Charles Howard and England's safeguarding of 1588, we should note that Her Majesty did not authorise any funds for the welfare of the injured and disabled sailors, so he bore the expense himself. Later he founded the Chatham Chest which funded the creation of the Royal Chelsea Hospital.

The next naval link with Reigate was in the 17th and 18th centuries when the very wealthy and influential Parsons family took ownership. Sir John Parsons was Commissioner for Victualling for the Royal Navy since 1683. His brewing business in London was popular for its strong stout, known as "Parson's Black Champagne". For ship's biscuits, oatmeal was the main ingredient so this is why Sir John Parsons encouraged the growing of oats and the milling via numerous windmills locally. This was also big business, with large amounts of money owed by Sir John to at least one oatmealman in Bell Street, it emerged in a trial for murdering his housekeeper. His face was recognisable from a description in the press; having run away, he was caught out and as a result, he was hanged. Dare I suggest that, without the security of the money he was owed, and with the sudden news of a baby on the way he had reached the end of his tether...?

Early in the 20th century, Reigate Priory was a popular place for the 'Marlborough set' on lease and for house parties. Who should be visiting again in the summer of 1911 but Winston and Clementine Churchill! This was exactly when he was made First Lord of the Admiralty. Now he needed to have some key discussions with Lord Jackie Fisher, a much older and very experienced First Sea Lord cronie of his. Where would be an ideal location for a comfortable long weekend? Reigate Priory of course. He commented on the 3 day meeting in his diary, so did Lord Fisher, whose brain, he wrote, was buzzing like a hive of bees - and naturally there is the Guest Book to check signatures. Disappointingly, the Churchill biography by Roy Jenkins bears no mention of Reigate Priory itself. His team of researchers must have had no idea of the significance of the place and 'dumbed it down', referring to it as just a country house in Surrey, as I recall. I didn't bother to read the rest of it.

As a result, Churchill's priority decision was to convert the Royal Navy from Welsh coal to oil. He then asked the now retired Fisher to solve the question - to "crack the nut" of the "riddle" of supply of oil. Fisher accepted the challenge, suitably delivered with a touch of eloquent flattery along with his personal, direct request in writing. Of course it made sense that the Welsh miners had skills to be expertly employed in the Royal Engineers, digging subterranean bunkers - including the secret one in Reigate's chalk hill 30 years later.

Now who else was a naval friend of Winston Churchill from those pre-WW1 days? None other than the young and dashing Admiral David Beatty. He married the fabulously wealthy American, Mrs Ethel Tree and went on to achieve great successes in sea battles during WW1 with his famous battle cruiser flagship, HMS Lion. What a powerful symbol. Incidentally, a lion is the coat of arms of the Churchill name. Ethel meanwhile, had her own large sea-going yacht named Sheelah. With no expense spared, she had this kitted out as a hospital. She staffed it with leading surgeons and nurses, personally took part in the caring for injured sailors and organised huge amounts of fundraising for the sailors' families.

By 1919, Admiral David Beatty was rewarded by the British Government to the tune of £100,000 and created an Earl, Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord. His official residence was now the Mall House in Admiralty Arch, yet he and his wife had several properties around the country. Still , London was not peaceful enough for Ethel, who had suffered increasingly from depression and loneliness when her husband was away. When the opportunity came up in 1921 to buy the historic Reigate Priory with such maritime connections, that they were already so familiar with from various visits, this country property became their next acquisition. It was as a result of this purchase at £35,000 by the newly promoted Earl and his Countess that the 19th century dining room ceiling now became modernised and painted gloriously with gold! The Admiral's Daimler and the Countess's Rolls-Royce became their chosen forms of land transport and they entertained lavishly, honoured by the company of the King and Queen at dinner in London. We know that even some minor iron gates on the premises were painted gold, whereas others, the Park Lane gates and railings, dating back to 1720 and of a vintage comparable with Cheyne Walk, Chelsea were of huge value. By this time, the stately brick pillars had been adorned with stone pineapples on top.

What happened in the wintertime? Nature takes over. The hunting horses on the estate would be in their stables whereas Priory Lake would freeze up, much to the enjoyment of Countess Beatty and her visitors as a temporary site for a skating rink, complete with coloured lanterns and a magical party atmosphere!

On a sombre note, lest we forget, it was Earl Beatty with the greatest dignity, who made a speech to the crowds on the official unveiling of the Borough's War Memorial in 1923. Earl Beatty is himself commemorated in Trafalgar Square, directly behind Lord Nelson. He received a state funeral and was laid to rest in St Paul's Cathedral alongside Lord Nelson. There is a school named after him in Toronto, Canada. After all, the Canadian Army was stationed here in Reigate too "with their drawl and their chrome", during WW2 before they were shipped off to Normandy on D Day.

Now I hope that explains why we have a whopping great wooden ship in the middle of Reigate Priory Park, and a Churchill Fellow to tell you about it. I hope that also explains why it is named the Grey Lady...? I cannot offer any explanation why this stately galleon should be described on an official website as just a "pirate ship" but perhaps no-one had ever told them about the REAL maritime history, with all its gunpowder, blood and gore.

The last of Reigate's famous admirals,
with a commanding view over Trafalgar Square and its famous pigeons

Reference 1: 'Discovering Reigate Priory - the place and the people' 1998
Author: Audrey Ward
Editor: Grace Filby
Publisher: Bluestream Books, 1 Howard Road, Reigate RH2 7JE
Proceeds are for Reigate Priory Museum

Reference 2: 'Churchill's Secret Reigate' illustrated lecture by Grace Filby featuring a specially commissioned poem by Barrie Singleton, 2009.
A DVD and summary are available.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Wartime memories of Sarah Churchill by Myra Collyer

Please click here to read the only approved account of Myra Collyer. She has given permission for it to be available on the internet as she feels that unauthorised reports give a false picture of her life and that of Sarah Churchill.

In particular we wish to point out that Myra Collyer did not go on the stage after the war. Sarah Churchill's role during the war in both camps was as Production Manager of plays and concerts, never actually performing in them.