Friday, 15 December 2017

Raleigh among the Rhododendrons

Sometimes I ask myself why I seem to be spending more time than usual on my current obsession: Raleigh 400. Probably something to do with my disturbed childhood. 

OK, I now know that the bloke in the hat with the droopy Mexican moustache and the baggy red pants is telling young Walter Raleigh and his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert that one day they'll cross the oceans and discover fabulous kingdoms and untold riches.

But when as a seven-year-old in my Gloucestershire village school I saw this copy of Sir John Everett Millais' 1870 painting - thousands must have been produced in the hope of inspiring kids to go out and rule the British Empire - I think I probably saw that outstretched arm as giving me a message of hope.

'One day you'll be free,' it told me. 'Over the wall, out of the building, away on that sky-blue sea, no more stupid times tables and dreary recorder practice. And uniforms? Forget it. Nobody wears them in Eldorado. Playground bullying is unheard of. Never again will you be thrown in the nettles. There are worlds out there that you can only dream about.'

It was also in Gloucestershire that I discovered the strange cruel world of Tudor England into which young Walter had been born. At a village antiques auction I was found reading a copy of Harrison Ainsworth's Tower of London - A Historical Romance. The dealer who had just bid successfully for it was so struck by my bookishness that he gave me the copy. Very generous of him. It turned out to be the 1840 first edition, illustrated by George Cruickshank.

The burning of Protestant martyr Edward Underhill on Tower Hill during the reign of Mary Tudor, according to 19th century author Harrison Ainsworth

This was one of the illustrations which gave me nightmares for some months. Later I discovered that every age has its cruel and compassionate aspects. Executioners in those reputedly grim past centuries were known to send invoices for their work to the authorities listing supplies of green wood: even heretics were allowed to be suffocated at the stake before being burnt.

Hoping for a successful layer cutting of this pretty rhododendron which I haven't been able to identify

Gloucestershire was also where I discovered the beauty of giant rhododendrons, living next door to the arboretum at Tortworth planted in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the third Earl of Ducie.

As children my brothers and I were free to roam in what seemed like hundreds of acres which surrounded what we called the Big Lake and the Little Lake.

It's good to see that Bristol-based volunteers have now taken it in hand as the Tortworth Forest Centre.   

And now, 60 years on, I find myself growing rhododendrons in my own mini-arboretum and living in the town where Millais did that painting, a few miles from where Sir Walter Raleigh was born in the village of East Budleigh. I'm even helping out at the museum next door to The Octagon, where the artist reputedly stayed. 

Realising that 2018 will be the 400th anniversary of Sir Walter's death on the scaffold made me wonder how many people in Devon and elsewhere will be marking the event. Reviving my blog has been an interesting way of finding out, allowing me once again to study the life of East Devon's greatest historical figure for the pleasure of Raleighphiles* all over the world. 

This will be the first of many blog posts both this year and in 2018 devoted to Sir Walter and his times. If you can't think why you've been directed to this blog, or have no interest in Raleigh just drop me a line at

But if you think you might be a Raleighphile I hope you enjoy receiving news about plans for the 400th anniversary and seeing my growing collection of Raleigh images.

* So Raleighphiles are not just fanatical cyclists. 

NOTE: I found other bloggers who had enjoyed Harrison Ainsworth's Gothic horror: pics at

The Tortworth Forest Centre website is at


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