Sunday, 6 February 2011

Pinning down the Brimstone Butterfly: 200 posts later!

Somewhat to my surprise I have reached my 200th post. When I first started writing this online journal I simply saw it as being an anonymous repository for my thoughts and views on a range of topics as well as being a welcome outlet for my more creative side. I was encouraged to set up a blog by friends who enjoyed reading my post on other websites. Consequently I have not hesitated to expand on posts I have used elsewhere on occasion.

In my very first post I explained why I had chosen to name my blog “The Brimstone Butterfly”. I was inspired by a photograph I took in the summer of 2009. As I walked around the Hertfordshire countryside I chanced upon a wonderfully coloured butterfly feasting on knapweed. On that particular day there were myriad brimstone butterflies fluttering around the fields close to my friends’ house in Hitchen. My attempts to take a photograph of them were constantly thwarted by Ellie, my friend’s late lamented greyhound, who I was dog-sitting at the time. Every time I managed to get near enough to get a close-up a boisterous Ellie would bound over to me, causing the insect to take flight. Later, I found myself intrigued by its name, brimstone having rather satanic overtones for such a glorious insect. I also liked the idea of a butterfly flitting from one subject to the next without apparent rhyme or reason as I am wont to do.

One of the biggest influences on my blog was an early post which led to the Guardian newspaper commissioning me to write an article for them. Having had friends praise the quality of my writing, it gave me the confidence to send on spec the broadsheet an outline for an article based on my experience of being trapped in a house fire, which I had taken from one of my posts. A week later I found myself corresponding with one of their editors, Emma Cook, and expanding my post into a full page article. Very little was changed by Emma except a couple of lines at the beginning of my article to put it into greater context and a line removed at the behest of the Guardian solicitors. Although I have a print copy of the article it can also be found on the Guardian archive. The Guardian article led to the BBC getting in touch with me to invite me on to one of their Saturday Live Radio 4 broadcasts as a studio guest. Again, thanks to the internet, my dulcet tones can still be heard (about 35 minutes in) on the podcast.

I now tend to imagine that I have an editor silently reviewing my posts before I publish them. Thus I try to limit myself to a maximum number of words per post, which is why descriptions of my visits to stately homes are usually in instalments. I always endeavour to give a flavour of a place from my own personal perspective. Thus, the 16th century wooden spiral staircase at Eastbury Manor House with the large time-worn gaps between the treads rather intimidated me, as you can tell from my voice on the soundtrack.

Unfortunately I managed to lose a multitude of photos and videos when my PC crashed last summer. Luckily the ones on my blog were saved and I also had copies of digital images dating from before 2007. I have been able to reuse some of the latter on my web site. Occasionally they will demonstrate how a location has changed over the years: an example being Chapel Court at Hampton Court Palace, which was turned in a Tudor privy garden two years ago. Before that it had served as a private garden for the grace and favour apartments. My images captured both gardens. Other examples include the statue of Bacchus in the cherry gardens at Ham House. In October the statue had already been covered to protect it from winter frosts and snow. An earlier film showed it uncovered. Likewise, the display in the Duchess of Lauderdale’s stillroom had been significantly greatly altered since I had first filmed it.

Buying a digital camera proved invaluable for my blog. It has enabled me to capture images with the kind of detail I often miss with the naked eye. As far as possible I try not to include images of other visitors or ensure that they are not readily identifiable.  Costumed guides are fair game but I ask permission if they are on their own. I adopt the same approach towards friends.

I love to gem up on earlier accounts of the places I visit or of their occupants. British History online has proved invaluable for providing a wealth of such local history. Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn loved to hobnob with the great and the good of their eras so their respective diaries are a great source of gossip and obscure information. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, produced his own travel guide in the early 18th century and I have consulted other now online guides dating back to earlier centuries. Guidebooks bought at the specific location are prime reference material as are the guides of course. The latter are usually more than willing to talk at length, the more so if there are not many other visitors around.  I place a great importance on tracking down the original source for any quotes I use.  Search engines are a must for such a task. The arrival of the likes of Project Gutenberg has similarly proved a boon now that I no longer summon have the resources of the British Library at my disposal. Dragging my light from under a bushel, I have an almost photographic memory for the kind of references I scatter liberally amongst my posts. The internet merely ensures that I can confirm the veracity of a comment I have drawn from memory. If I am not certain as to the reliability of an account I revert to declaring “It is thought” or words to that effect.

Chenies Manor House in Bucks is an excellent example of how even professional historians can come unstuck from time to time. All being well, I hope to travel to the Tudor manor house of Chenies in the spring.(Revised 4 April 2011. I have now written my account of my visit to Chenies). I went with the Partridge and her siblings to visit this historic house one Bank Holiday. I remember hearing the guide pointing out where Henry VIII had stayed and the reason why one part of the complex had fallen derelict. A few years later Time Team paid a visit to Chenies. One of their archaeologists had produced the guide for Chenies I still possess. It had been produced in good faith based on the available archaeological evidence. Time Team came up with a very different interpretation of the site. They realised that the current buildings were built after Henry’s demise and therefore he could not have stayed in them. In fact they discovered the remains of what would have been his bedroom under the modern day car-park. Likewise, their interpretation for a ruined wing was that the house had once been a principal country seat for the Russell family. However over time it became less important and they rented it out until it served as a farm house. Consequently, with its change in use there was neither the need nor the means to maintain the splendid state rooms in which Tudor kings and queens and their retinue had been entertained and this part of the complex had been demolished. The latter was a very different account to what I had originally been told. As an amateur historian I strive to ensure my account is as accurate as I can make it, but I make no pretence that it is a work of rigid academic scholarship, the more so since even rigid academic scholarship can go awry.

Gadgets that have had a lasting influence on my blog as well as proving to be sources of unexpected amusement and entertainment are those that record statistics. They allow me to track where my readership is based, how they access my site and which posts attract the most attention. That was how I discovered the particular appeal of my visits to stately homes. Unfortunately I have nothing prior to May 2010.  I have ascertained that my posts on Dido Elizabeth Belle, Charlton House and Eastbury Manor House have all proved highly popular as has a post on the shop windows of Bond Street at Christmas. I am especially pleased about Charlton House and Eastbury Manor House as they are not that well known even within their respective localities so anything that brings them to the attention of a wider audience is to be welcomed. I am intrigued by readers from Finland who have been attracted to my alternative version of Finnish history. They do not seem to have been put off by my attempts to write playlets in Finnish, although I imagine their command of English is far superior to my command of Finnish if my relatives are anything to go by.I am tickled pink that some of my readers are based in the very places I write about. In the first instance I am sure they come to check what I have written about their august building. Nevertheless I find it gratifying that they often chose to stay to read posts about subjects which have nothing to do with their particular workplace.
Another way I find out more about my readers is through their comments, which I value as, prior to my accessing statistics, they were the only evidence I had that I was not writing in a complete vacuum. Sometimes those comments are passed on to me by friends, who have recommended the blog to colleagues. It is odd to think that colleagues of friends occasionally know far more about what has been going on my life than my nearest and dearest. I was touched by a recent comment about the Old Palace Croydon:

 “Thank you so much for writing this! I just stumbled upon it while I was searching for items on Sir Christopher Hatton, whom I knew had been made something important by Queen Elizabeth I at my old school, but I couldn't remember what. Lord Chancellor!

"How I envy the modern schoolgirl reading a book on Tudor history in the very chamber that those men who had helped shape it had also spent many an hour in quiet contemplation." Just to let you know, whenever I sat upon those windows to read, I always felt extremely privileged and grateful to be taught in such a historical building. How many people could say they went to school in a real palace, and were taught geography in Queen Elizabeth I's bedroom? Not many, I'm sure. I loved my time at Old Palace and always appreciated the chance to learn there. So did many of us. Maybe I'll go back for a tour, and perhaps lead one myself!”

My favourite posts have included those on Igtham Mote (the latter being one of the first places I wrote about in detail and which I intend to revise) and the post containing a video of Ellie the Greyhound. I was so glad I had downloaded a host of videos and images of Ellie onto her owners' pc as I lost mine when my own pc crashed.  
I cannot predict the lifespan of this Brimstone Butterfly. As I said at the start, I am amazed that the site has lasted so long. I still have a backlog of posts to add and all being well there are many more stately homes I can visit when the main season begins again in the spring. In the meantime, I would like to thank you Gentle Reader for taking the time to peruse my jottings and hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have taken pleasure in writing them.  

The Brimstone Butterfly 
February 2011