SIGNS IN SAFFRON WALDEN, a town in Essex, pointed to ‘The Turf Maze’. We followed these from the centre of the town’s attractive market square and across The Common, a large grassy expanse, to its eastern edge, where we came across the Turf Maze. I was expecting to see a maze with paths separated by hedges, but what we found is quite different, and might not be a maze at all.
“The maze … consists of a series of concentric circles cut into turf, surrounded by a low bank. It measures c 43m from corner to corner, the main areas of circular paths being c 29m in diameter. It is laid in a unicursal pattern formed of seventeen linked circles, and has four linked outer horseshoe-shaped bastions or ‘bellows’ which are, like the centre of the maze, raised slightly above the main circular paths. The narrow shallow grooves which form the paths are marked by bricks and begin on the north or south sides of the maze.”
The word ‘unicursal’ means that the pathway through the ‘maze’ forms a single route without branching, typical of a labyrinth. This is in contrast with a true maze in which the path is ‘multicursal’, meaning that the pathway has branches. An elderly lady whom we met walking on The Common told us that once she walked from the beginning of the ‘maze’ to its centre, following its path and confirmed to us that although the path is long and winding, it never branches.
The Turf Maze at Saffron Walden, which is really a labyrinth, was already in existence by 1699, but is believed to have first been created in mediaeval times. If it had a purpose, this has been long forgotten. Since then, it has been re-cut numerous times. When this was done in 1911, bricks were laid along the path of the labyrinth to help preserve its form. These have been replaced from time to time and more recently cemented together. In 2000, the so-called maze was put into the ownership of the Town Council of Saffron Walden.
Jeff Saward, writing in “The Saffron Walden Historical Journal” in Autumn 2012 (https://saffronwaldenhistoricalsociety.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/saffron-walden-turf-maze.pdf), notes that the labyrinth in Saffron Walden differs from other such labyrinths in the British Isles in that its path runs between the turf ridges and not along them as is the case in most others. He also discusses the age of the labyrinth, suggesting it may have been created later than the mediaeval era, possibly in the 16th century. It might have been designed from a labyrinth, almost identical to that in Saffron Walden, illustrated in “The Profitable Art of Gardening”, by Thomas Hill, published in about 1563. Hill’s design was not original as it can be found illustrated in “Le Théatre des bon engins, auquel sont contenuz cent Emblemes moraulx” by Guillaume de la Perrière, published in 1539. Whatever its date of construction, the labyrinth is a fine thing to see in the small Essex town.
Talking to some ladies who were feeding the ducks at a pond near one of the town’s car parks, we learned that Saffron Walden has three other mazes (or labyrinths) apart from the ill-named Turf Maze. We hope to explore these on a subsequent visit to the town. While trying to find the entrance to the car park of the local Waitrose supermarket, we discovered yet another maze, namely the one-way road system of Saffron Walden.
HOLLAND HOUSE in Holland Park (west London) was built in the early 17th century (about 1604) in the Jacobean style. It was designed by the architect John Thorpe (dates uncertain: c1555-c1655), who is thought to be the creator of Audley End House in Essex. In 1939, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) attended a debutante ball at Holland House. Little did they know that this was to be the last great ball to be held at the house. After the German Luftwaffe began devastating London, Holland House was hit by twenty-two incendiary bombs during a ten-hour raid on the night of the 27th of September 1940. Much of the old house was destroyed apart from the east wing. Fortunately, the library and its valuable contents remained undamaged. A video (www.britishpathe.com/video/holland-house-damaged) made by Pathé News shows the house shortly after it was bombed.
The house remained as a ruin until 1952 when its then owner, Giles Fox-Strangways, 6th Earl of Ilchester (1874-1959), a Member of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England from 1939–1959, sold the remains of the house and its extensive grounds (now Holland Park) to the London County Council. Eventually in 1986, what was left of the building was transferred to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In normal, non covid19, summers, the now well-preserved remains of the house become the home of a temporary theatre where opera is performed. For many years, but no longer, the relatively intact part of the house was used as a youth hostel by the YHA.
Recently, I have acquired a facsimile edition of “History and Antiquities of Kensington” by Thomas Faulkner, which was published originally in 1820. I have also my own copy of an original edition of Volume 5 of “Old and New London” by Edward Walford, published in 1878. Both books were published when Holland House was still intact, and both contain engravings showing how the house looked both outside and inside. Faulkner’s book contains a lengthy detailed listing of all the artworks and books that the house contained. These items included several paintings by artists as famous as Teniers, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, and Hogarth, to name but a few. Luckily, most of the art treasures in the house were removed for safety before the outbreak of WW2. The illustrations, some of which I have reproduced, demonstrate how great a tragedy it was that Holland House no longer remains intact.
ON THE DAY BEFORE the second English ‘lockdown’ commenced in early November (2020), we drove to Abingdon Piggott to enjoy one more excellent luncheon at the Pig and Abbott pub. On this, our fourth visit in the same number of months, I enjoyed one of the best fish pies I have ever tasted. On our way to lunch and to satisfy our love of sightseeing, we visited Buntingford, a small town in the east of Hertfordshire.
As the ‘ford’ part of the town’s name suggests, Buntingford is on a river, the River Rib, which is a tributary of the River Lea. Also, the town lies on the course of the Roman road known as Ermine Street, which linked London with Lincoln. For many centuries, Buntingford, which is located just west of the Greenwich (or Prime) Meridian, was a staging post on the main road from London to Cambridge, the current A10. The town contains many buildings that were once coaching inns. Of these, only one or two still operate as pubs. Since this main road was diverted around Buntingford via a bypass constructed in the mid-1980s, the town, filled with historic buildings, has become a pleasant backwater.
The town’s name is most likely derived from ‘Bunta’, which was the name of an Anglo-Saxon tribe or its chieftain. A local historian, one Frank Bunting, writes (www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/buntingford/origin_of_buntingford_name) that there was once a village called ‘Bunting’, which was a few miles north of the present Buntingford. It is, he claims, marked on a map drawn in 1732 by Herman Moll (c1674-1732), which does not mark Buntingford, which was probably then too small to add to the map. Now, according to the historian, Bunting has disappeared and Buntingford is a town of some size. I have looked at an on-line copy of Moll’s map of Hertfordshire (https://www.archiuk.com/cgi-bin/slideshow_loop.pl?gallery_subject=herman_moll&filename2show=hertfordshire-old-map-1724-herman-moll.jpg&launchpage=old-map-index-page) and found that it marks ‘Bunting’ close alongside ‘ford’, the two words being separated by Moll’s simple plan of the town. It appears that Buntingford was significant enough to appear on Moll’s map and that the place called ‘Bunting’ probably never existed in this area. A document prepared by or for the Knights Templars in 1185 mentions the town as ‘Buntas Ford’.
Most of the older part of Buntingford lies alongside the long straight road, the former Ermine Street. It is here that you can see the former coaching inns, each with an archway leading to the courtyards behind them. There are also several other picturesque edifices dating back to the 18th century and earlier. At the south end of the High Street, there is a Church of England church, St Peters, which looks Victorian, but it was originally constructed in about 1615. It has undergone so much modification that its early origin is difficult to discern. Just north of this is the Manor House, a fine 18th century building, which now houses the offices of the Town Council. Next to this on the side of the road there is a wooden enclosure containing a hand operated water pump encased in timber. This was erected to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1897. The Black Bull pub opposite the Town Council is one of the few former coaching inns still serving as a hostelry.
Church Street that leads east from the Ermine Street winds downhill to the River Rib. It passes an attractive gothic revival cottage called ‘Fancy Hall’ (built 1825) and then a quaint old pub, the Fox and Duck (first licensed in 1711), which does not look like it was formerly a coaching inn. The River Rib flows just below the pub and can be crossed either by a bridge or a ford, which looks recently constructed. The ford after which the town got its name was where the Rib crossed Ermine Street.
Next, Church Road continues uphill on the other side of the river but with the name, The Causeway. It winds steeply uphill first passing a long brick wall, the boundary of a private property called Little Court, which I was unable to enter. This building was constructed in the early 19th century with bricks from an earlier building on the site that was built in 1598 and demolished in 1819 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1174663). The road continued seemingly endlessly up hill and into the countryside before ending at the isolated, flint walled Layston Church. This is St Bartholomew whose construction began in the 13th century if not before. The roof of its nave is of very recent construction (21st century) with a row of skylights below the roof tiles. The church is now used as a private dwelling. Known in the Domesday Book as ‘Ichetone’, the parish of Layston contained the town of Buntingford. Therefore, the now deconsecrated church of St Bartholomew used to be Buntingford’s parish church, a role now assumed by St Peter in the town.
In common with Washington DC, Buntingford has its own White House. Built in the 18th century, this is not the home of presidents, but probably served as a private residence. Opposite it, and high above the pavement and above a passageway leading to a car park, there is a small, picturesque clock with its own gabled roof. It is an example of a single-handed turret clock. It was already in existence in 1618, when local citizens paid for various alterations and repairs. The clock, which might have been first placed there in 1558, has undergone numerous modifications and improvements over the centuries but what we see does not look remarkably different to how it was originally. It contained a bell that was replaced in 1742 by the present one, which is sounded on auspicious and sad occasions including on the day of the funeral of Wellington in 1852.
I hope that I have written enough to persuade you to spend an hour or two in Buntingford, a town that is often bypassed at speed by motorists on the A10. Once again, we have found much of interest in a place in England that hardly gets a mention in guidebooks yet is full of beautiful historical sights. By the way, if you are in need of a coffee whilst in Buntingford, you would do well to visit The Buntingford Coffee Shop, which is almost beneath the ancient Town Clock.
MUCH OF GREATER LONDON is green space, which has not been built on. According to one source of information, Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (‘GiGL’; http://www.gigl.org.uk):
“Roughly 47% of Greater London is ‘green’; 33% of London is natural habitats within open space according to surveyed habitat information and an additional 14% is estimated to be vegetated private, domestic garden land.”
Of this ‘green space’, much is accessible to the public either free of charge (e.g. Regents Park) or for a fee (e.g. Kew Gardens). This piece is about an example of a type of green space in London that is open to a select few. I am referring to many of the gardens in London squares that are or were surrounded by residential buildings. Some of these (e.g. Gordon Square in Bloomsbury) have been taken over by local councils and are now open to the public in general. However, many of these garden squares contain gardens that may only be entered by people who are eligible to be able to pay a fee for a key to unlock them. Some of the squares confine those eligible for keys to residents in the square or in neighbouring streets. I know of one privately owned garden, that within Princes Square near Bayswater, which is open to anyone who can afford the annual fee. This square garden, being privately owned, is dependent for membership fees to ensure its maintenance. Those eligible to use the gardens within squares, whether privately or partially privately maintained, can be expected to pay something towards the maintenance of these often-beautiful local amenities.
Recently, a friend admitted us to the garden of Norland Square in Kensington. Like many of these limited access gardens, it is surrounded by formidable cast-iron railings. These railings were removed during the Second World War when metals required for war materials were in short supply. They were only replaced in 2007. Like most of these squares, the passer-by cannot see much within the garden beyond the railings because of hedges and other vegetation grown just within them to preserve the privacy of those using the garden. So, being allowed to enter Norland Square provided us a rare opportunity to examine the interior of one of these ‘secret’ gardens.
Norland Square takes its name from the Norland Estate, 52 acres of land bounded to the south by Holland Park Avenue, on the east by roads now named ‘Pottery Lane’ and ‘Portland Road’, on the west by the boundaries of the parishes of Kensington and Hammersmith (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp276-297). The northern edge of the estate was roughly 200 yards north of the present Wilsham Street. The estate passed through several owners in the 18th century. They lived in a mansion, demolished long ago, which used to stand close to the present number 130 Holland Park Avenue. The name ‘Norland’ was used as early as 1599 to describe the ‘Northlands’, the land in the northern part of the Parish of Kensington (north of the present Holland Park Avenue), which includes the estate (www.rbkc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Norland%20CAPS.pdf).
Writing in 1878, Edward Walford, author of a series of books called “Old and New London”, noted that during the reign of William IV, the then well-wooded estate belonged to one of the Drummonds, a family of bankers of Charing Cross. Prior to these occupants, the first to live in the former Norland House was Thomas Marquois (died 1802), ‘Professor of Artillery and Fortification’, who used the building as an academy to teach both civil and military subjects to sons of the gentry, who were hoping to join the British Army. According to the website about the Norland Estate mentioned above:
“Board and lodging, plus instruction in Greek, Latin, French, writing and arithmetic could be had for thirty guineas a year, but fortification, mathematics, navigation, drawing, geography, dancing, fencing and riding were all charged as extras. Marquois’ prospectus contains a plan of the academy and its grounds, which were indeed very well suited to his purposes. Besides the house itself there were stables, a manege or riding house, a fives court, a cricket ground, gravelled drives for hack riding, and an artificial ‘mount’ from which the various activities of the pupils could be kept under constant review.”
Marquois relinquished the property after only four years in 1765.
In 1825, fire destroyed Norland House. In 1838, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780-1854), clockmaker to the Crown, who then owned the Norland Estate, sold it and the ruins of the mansion to a solicitor Charles Richardson, who raised money to develop the estate for building purposes. The layout and design of the southern part of the estate, including Norland Square, was carried out by the architect Robert Cantwell (c1793-1859). The houses on Norland Square were leased to their first occupiers by Charles Richardson in 1842 and 1843.
Except for Norland Square Mansions on the south-west corner of the square, which has a few features slightly suggestive of art-deco style, the other houses surrounding the square are those built in the early 1840s. The mansion block occupies numbers 53 to 57 Norland Square. Interestingly, these plots do not figure in a list of the original lessees of the other plots in the square. Number 52, which neighbours the mansion block was leased to Robert Cantwell in 1842. A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows that where Norland Square Mansions stands today, there were no houses but instead a garden extending between number 52 and a house, now no longer standing, on the corner of the square and Holland Park Avenue (then named ‘Uxbridge Road’). On a map dated 1913, the position of the mansion block was occupied by a school. This same building, which has a different ground plan to the current block of flats was still present on a detailed map surveyed in 1938. So, it would be reasonable to say that the mansion block was built after 1938.
Getting back to the present, we found that the ‘secret garden’ in the centre of Norland Square is both attractive and well-maintained. In addition to an extensive lawn furnished with occasional wooden benches and a table, there are plenty of shrubs and trees. There is a small well-equipped children’s play area at one end of the garden and tennis courts at the opposite end. While we spent time in the garden, a couple of elderly women were taking their daily walk around it and a young lady was exercising her dog. Areas like this are invaluable during periods of ‘lockdown’ during the current covid19 pandemic, offering lucky city-dwellers a welcome respite from being ‘confined to barracks’ and if they are fortunate to have a garden, they provide a much larger open space to ‘take the air’ than their own smaller patches. We were both grateful and happy to have been able to see and experience what is usually hidden from us by iron railings and curtains of dense vegetation.
IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.
During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:
“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”
Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.
Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.
The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features. The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.
There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.
It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.
The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.
A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:
“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”
This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.
The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.
My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries. We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.
We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.
FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS between the mid-1970s and about 2003, I made occasional journeys between Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire and Eton in Berkshire. On each of these, I passed signs indicating roads to Datchet, yet it was only in November 2020 that we decided to take a look at this village near the River Thames and opposite Windsor.
Writing in 1876 in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”, James Thorne commented that Datchet in Buckinghamshire:
“… is a quiet genteel place of abode, dull and uncharacteristic in appearance; as such places usually are; but the neighbourhood is beautiful and interesting.”
While today Datchet continues to appear genteel, it is not as dull as Thorne made out. Much that Thorne might have seen had he visited it when researching his book can be seen today. For example, the Church of St Mary, which was built in 1860 on the site of an older one, which was demolished in 1857, is attractive despite having been completely rebuilt in Victorian Gothic style.
The church stands beside The Royal Stag pub. Although the front part of the pub facing the village green was added in the 18th century, the rear part that faces the churchyard dates back to 1500 or before (https://datchethistory.org.uk/streetshouses/the-north-greens/the-royal-stag/). Over the centuries, the older parts of this building have undergone modifications, but externally it looks quite old. The pub was visited by the astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) and his family and is mentioned in “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome.
The pub faces a green in the middle of which there is a memorial to those of Datchet, who fell in both World Wars. A plaque on the memorial relates that the men who fell in WW1 were fighting the combined forces of “Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria”. As far as I can recall, this is the first WW1 memorial I have seen that mentions Bulgaria.
Facing both the pub and the church across the green, there is a long half-timbered building with four gables. Thorne describes it as having five gables, but we could only see four. Between two of the gables, there is an area of roof tiling on which a sculpture of a cat appears to be chasing a sculpture of a rat. This building now divided into dwellings is collectively known as ‘Manor House’. Although much modified, this building might have been constructed in the late 16th century. The mock Tudor facing, which we see today, was added in about 1870.
A building named ‘The Old Manor House’ next to the building just described was rebuilt in 1955 on the site of a building constructed first in the 17th century. A row of brick cottages stands on the other side of the gabled building. These attractive old structures are, like their neighbour, timber-framed. They might be older than their larger neighbour. Their brick frontage was added either in the 17th or 18th century.
Another old cottage faces the London Road, which runs along the side of the churchyard. This is ‘Church Cottage’, which was built in about 1500 and has undergone little change since then. It is probably the oldest building still standing in Datchet. James Cottages, neighbouring Church Cottage, are far younger, having been built in 1853 to commemorate James Pearce, who had died in 1851.
I could describe some of the other old buildings that make Datchet a lovely place to linger for a while, but I hope I have written enough to intrigue you. Before concluding, I will tell you a bit about the village’s name, which is strange to my way of thinking. The excellent village website (https://datchethistory.org.uk) provides much interesting information about Datchet and reveals the following about the name. Current thinking links Datchet (‘Decetia’ in Latin) to the French town of Decize, a point in central France where the River Loire could be crossed with ease in Gallic and Roman times. The website observes:
“… Decize and Datchet have more in common than an unusual name; both were originally established on islands of high ground in the low-lying land of a major river route; the remains of Decize’s ancient fort is shown on the map as ‘oppidum’. Settlement sites like this are common, but it may still be significant that these two share such a distinctive name which is not found anywhere else.”
Although we spent less than an hour in Datchet, that was sufficient time to discover that far from being “dull and uncharacteristic in appearance” as claimed by the 19th century writer James Thorne, it is quite attractive even if not in the same league as villages such as Lavenham in Suffolk and Stow-on-the Wold or Bourton in the Cotswolds.
FILTHY SLIPPERY MUD deterred us from exploring a section of the path running beside a stretch of Dollis Brook in north London. After abandoning our attempts to negotiate this slippery, squelchy, wet path, we decided to visit Golders Hill Park, one of our favourite open spaces in north west London. I have been visiting this park since I was a small child, for over six decades. Formerly, the park was the grounds of a mansion, built for Charles Dingley (1711-1769), long since demolished (see: https://adamyamey.co.uk/waugh-and-pitt-hampstead-north-end/).
We sat on a bench near to the North End Road entrance to the park, which is close to where the demolished mansion once stood. From our bench, we had a fine view of the gardens, lawns, and mature trees, sloping away from us. It is a view that reminded us of the landscaped gardens that sweep away from fine mansions such as can be seen at Compton Verney (in Warwickshire), Osterley Park, and Kenwood House. I mention Kenwood House in particular because the man who had a hand in landscaping its grounds, Humphrey Repton (1752-1815), was also involved in the design of the gardens, now park, of the former mansion at Golders Hill.
We walked around the park, first passing a deserted bandstand. Soon, we arrived in the part of the park, which I loved as a child and still enjoy as I approach my ‘second childhood’. It is a small zoo. Although many would question whether animals are happy to be confined to cages, these creatures provide much pleasure to city dwellers. There is a vast field that contains various types of deer and occasionally a rhea, which looks like a kind of ostrich. Most of the other enclosures in this small zoo are smaller than the deer enclosure.
An enclosure, which used to house flamingos when I was a child, contains a variety of exotic waterfowl including some with long, slender curling beaks. Close to this, there is a larger enclosure in which three or four ring-tailed lemurs pass the time of day.
Another large enclosure, slightly smaller than that where the deer spend their time, contains what for me is the highlight of the zoo. These creatures, which intrigue me, are wallabies. They are Bennett’s (red necked) wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus). If you wish to see these in their natural habitat, you will need to fly to western Australia or Tasmania. I have not yet discovered when these cute looking creatures from ‘down-under’ first began to be displayed in the park, but they have been present in Golders Hill Park ever since I can remember, and that includes the late 1950s. A sign attached to the fence around the area in which the wallabies live describes the antipodean creatures as ‘The Golders Hill Mob’.
During our latest visit today, the 10th of October 2020, we saw a creature we had never noticed before. It was a bird of prey, a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaguinea), which like the wallabies, is a native of Australasia. According to the notice attached to its cage, this handsome bird uses its beak to kill its prey by hitting it against a hard surface. Well, you learn something new every day.
As mentioned already, Golders Hill Park is amongst our favourite open spaces in London. In my early childhood, I remember being taken to the park and passing the public tennis courts where my parents played occasionally. Seeing the park, its lovely trees, its tiny zoo, and the tennis courts, was as usual an enjoyable experience. It was a good place to remember my parents with great fondness. One of them died forty years ago, and the other quite recently at the ripe old age of one hundred and one years.
WINDSOR CASTLE IS well-known to many people and much visited. However, what came before the castle was built is less known. Recently, we visited the place near Windsor which used to be the home of Britain’s royal rulers well before the Normans invaded the British Isles. Our trip began at the car park close to where the Magna Carta was signed in Runnymede in 1215.
We slithered through the mud and wet leaves on the path running along the bank of the River Thames from Runnymede to Old Windsor. The path runs past the large gardens of homes along the river and provides views of the occasional barges moored on both sides of the stream. We caught glimpses of a couples of swans but remarkably few other forms of bird life. Birds might have been in short supply, but not aeroplanes. Despite the decrease in air travel that has resulted from the covid19 pandemic, there seemed to be a ‘plane flying low over us every one or two minutes because we were walking beneath the flight path along which aircraft descend as they near Heathrow Airport. The low clouds meant that although we could hear them, we could not see all of the ‘planes.
We left the riverside path after having walked about a mile and followed a footpath to the church of Saints Peter and Andrew on the edge of Old Windsor. This lovely church with a sharp pointed steeple and flint walls is set in a graveyard with many picturesque funereal monuments and a tall redwood tree. The present building was constructed in 1218 to replace an earlier wooden church that was burnt down by French mercenaries in 1215 in response to King John’s recent somewhat reluctant signing of Magna Carta at nearby Runnymede (www.oldwindsorchurch.org.uk/history.html). I do not know who was paying these incendiary Frenchmen and wonder if President Donald Trump might not employ some people to create similar mayhem following his election defeat. Since 1218, the church, which was locked when we visited, underwent various modifications over the centuries including an extensive restoration in 1866 by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960).
Most of the present village of Old Windsor is of little interest to the visitor. However, its history is. Old Windsor existed before the formerly named ‘New Windsor’ or ‘Windsor’ as we know it today. The name ‘Windsor’ might be derived from Old English ‘Windles-ore’ or ‘Windlesora’ (meaning ‘winding shore’). The place now known as ‘Old Windsor’ is recorded in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an early history of the Anglo-Saxons. During that pre-Norman Conquest era, there was a royal palace at Old Windsor. The old palace continued to be used until the castle, the present Windsor Castle, began to be constructed in the reign of William the Conqueror. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” (published in 1876), the royal residence at Old Windsor continued to be used, maybe occasionally, until the reign of King Henry I, that is until between 1100 and 1135. The old palace has long since disappeared. Some archaeological remains of the palace were discovered in the 1950s and are kept in the Reading Museum.
We walked from the church to a main road (the A308) along a long road (Church Road) through Old Windsor. Apart from a few mildly picturesque old cottages near the church, it was lined with suburban dwellings lacking in architectural merit. The main road along which we walked back towards Runnymede is appropriately named ‘Straight Road’ because it is straight in comparison to the river that runs its sinuous course close by.
When we reached a short thoroughfare named Ousely Road, we noticed what looked like the gatehouse to a large estate at its far end. We walked up to what was definitely once a gatehouse, and which, to prove it, is named ‘Front Lodge’. Beyond it, a vast lawn ascended a slope towards a large house that was barely visible. By walking a short distance from the lodge, we reached the entrance to the Beaumont Estate on Burfield road to which Ousely Road leads. This estate is currently owned by the De Vere hotel group, but in the past, it had a far more celebrated owner.
The estate, which was originally called ‘Remenham’ after Hugo de Remenham, who owned the land in the 14th century, was renamed ‘Beaumont’ in 1751 by the son of the Duke of Roxburghe. In 1705, the then owner, Lord Weymouth, had a mansion built. It was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1764), who also designed St Martin in the Fields in London and the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. Sadly for us, in the early 19th century, the building was rebuilt and extended for its then owner, an ‘Anglo-Indian’ (i.e. a ‘Brit’ who had lived and worked in India) named Henry Griffiths, by Henry Emlyn (1729-1815), an architect based in Windsor. The impressive neo-classical portico on the present building was Emlyn’s work.
In 1786, the mansion was acquired (for £12000) by another man who was associated with India, Warren Hastings (1732-1818). Hastings had been the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) and along with Robert Clive (1725-1774), he was one of the founders of the British Empire in India. When Hastings returned to England in 1785, the House of Commons attempted to impeach him for misdemeanours he was alleged to have perpetrated whilst he was in India. He was eventually acquitted in 1795. During the first three years of his trial, Hastings lived in Beaumont House. In 1789, he sold it to Griffiths, already mentioned.
After several others had owned the estate, in Beaumont became a college, Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus and established in 1861. This institution flourished until it was closed in 1967. After becoming a computer training centre and then a conference centre, the estate was acquired by the company that owns the De Vere hotel group. When we wandered into the estate, there seemed to be nothing much happening there.
From Beaumont, it is a short walk to the National Trust Runnymede car park, from which we set off for nearby Datchet, which I will write about separately. If it had not been for the slippery state of riverside footpath, we would have returned along it and thereby would have likely never have come across Beaumont and discovered its interesting connections with British India.
THE BRENT IS a tributary of the River Thames. When I wrote about it elsewhere (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/33/), I mentioned that the two main tributaries of the Brent are Mutton Brook, which has its source in East Finchley and Dollis Brook, the subject of this piece.
“Dollis Brook rises on Moat Mount Open Space in Mill Hill … flows eastwards through Totteridge Fields … then through fields and open spaces to King George V Playing Fields. The brook then turns southwards and forms the eastern boundary of Totteridge past Totteridge Lane near Totteridge and Whetstone tube station … continues south through Woodside Park (where it merges with Folly Brook) and West Finchley … Dollis Brook then passes under Dollis Road and through Windsor Open Space to the Great North Way (A1). Near Bridge Lane in Hendon it merges with Mutton Brook to form the River Brent.”
One sunny Sunday morning, we joined the footpath that runs alongside the winding Dollis Brook at a bridge crossing it. Halfway across the bridge is the boundary between Laurel Way in the N20 postal district and Laurel View, which is in the N12 postal district. The footpath, which has a well-made surface, free of mud, is part of the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. By heading north, we entered an area named Whetstone Stray. During the 19th century:
“Whetstone Stray was once part of the Baxendale Estate. Joseph Baxendale had taken over Pickford Brothers, and the area of Whetstone Stray had been used as grazing ground for the 1000 or so horses used in their carrying business. … On the death of Joseph Baxendale in 1872, there were problems over the division of the land.” (https://whetstoneallotments.co.uk/)
The origin of this area’s name is uncertain, but it is likely to have something to do with either grazing horses or with land whose ownership is uncertain or land on which horses could be ‘strayed’. Whatever its meaning, this corridor of meadows and trees along which the Dollis Brook follows its very wiggly course makes for a pleasant place to walk. Although it was far from crowded, there were plenty of other people enjoying it. What struck us was that the folk that we met were a cosmopolitan bunch. We heard snatches of conversation in a wide variety of languages. This was a complete contrast to the meadows at Runnymede, which we had visited the day before. There, apart from a few tourists from the Indian subcontinent, most people appeared to be of Anglo-Saxon origin.
The northern end of Whetstone Stray is where it meets Totteridge Lane, close to Totteridge and Whetstone Underground Station. The name ‘Totteridge’ is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon root ‘tot’, meaning an ‘elevation’, and the English word ‘ridge’. An alternative etymology is that the name comes from the name of a Celtic deity ‘Taith’. The Underground Station, which is on the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, is above ground and a simple building of indifferent architectural merit. It opened as a station on the Great Northern Railway in 1872 and became part of the Underground network in 1940. The Waiting Room Café nearby provided acceptable coffee.
The Dollis Brook continues north after passing beneath bridge carrying Totteridge Lane. The Greenwalk also continues in the same direction. Whereas the Whetstone Stray is a fairly narrow densely vegetated stretch of land, the land through which the path continues is wider and less full of trees. It runs through open fields and parallel to the tracks of the Northern Line, which is almost hidden from view by bushes. However, the roar of passing trains is easily heard and the trains can be seen through gaps in vegetation. The path splits into two soon after leaving Totteridge Lane. One path closer to the Dollis Brook is for cyclists and another further from the still winding stream is reserved for pedestrians. The narrow brook is often hidden by the dense growth of trees and bushes alongside it. However, it can be seen that the riverbed makes many tight U-turns along its course.
After passing Brook Farm Open Space, the brook begins flowing from the west. Brook Farm no longer exists. Next, our path skirted the south edge of a vast open space called Barnet Playing Fields. We ended our outbound walk at Barnet Table Tennis Centre and then retraced our steps. As we walked towards Totteridge and Whetstone Station, the horizon was dominated by a less than attractive tall building. This was built as the headquarters of British Ever Ready Electrical Company. Then, it became offices for the London Borough of Barnet and was known as ‘Barnet House’. Currently, its future hangs in the balance while developers fight to get permission to get it converted to 256 flats, some of which would be amongst the smallest in London (some as small as 16 square metres). The building was completed in 1966 to the designs of R Seifert and Partners, who designed Centre Point close by Tottenham Court Road Station.
In summary, the walk beside Dollis Brook is yet another example of London’s wealth of pleasant open spaces where city dwellers can enjoy some of the pleasures of the countryside without leaving the metropolis.
IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.
Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):
“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”
The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm, It contains chapters such as:
“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)
“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)
“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)
The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:
“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:
“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”
Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.
In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.
On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:
“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”
The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932. They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.
During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”
This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.
The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:
“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”
‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.
Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed. Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.
Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away. From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.
While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.