Far from the maddening crowd

THROUGHOUT THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, our wise leader, Mr Johnson, has encouraged us to take exercise, to get out and breathe some fresh air. And, we have been following that sound advice, walking in our neighbourhood anything from two to five miles every day. Since the ‘lockdown’ has been eased recently, we have been driving out of London far enough to escape from the hurly-burly of the city.  Our latest excursion took us out westwards to a village on the River Thames called Hurley, which is upstream from the small town of Marlow. We chose our destination, the starting point for a riverside walk, almost randomly and had no idea what to expect when we arrived.

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Temple Lock

Hurley is a gem of a village. A ford across the River Thames might well have existed at Hurley before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Many of the older buildings near the river and including the heavily restored Norman church formed part of a Benedictine priory that was established by Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in about 1100 and was one of the richest men during the reign of William the Conqueror. His pious action at Hurley was strongly influenced by his second wife, Lescelina. The monastery was ‘dissolved’ during the great Dissolution of religious institutions carried out by Henry VIII, Some of the buildings including the priory’s cloisters have been picturesquely incorporated into newer buildings, most of which are used as dwellings.

A wooden bridge crosses a stream of the river to reach an island where Hurley Lock is located. We watched pleasure boats being lowered in the lock that allows ships to avoid the weir nearby. At the end of the island, another wooden bridge crosses back onto the right bank of the Thames. We walked beside the river, enjoying glimpses of it between trees whose branches dipped down towards the water. In addition to boats of all sizes from canoes to large cruisers and barges, the water is populated by ducks, andgeese. We also spotted plenty of insects that rest on the water’s surface and flit about hither and thither: water boatmen and pond skaters. Much of the path was flanked by deciduous woodland, mostly private property.

Another bridge, a long sweeping wooden structure took us to the left bank of the river. A short distance downstream from it, we reached Temple Lock. The river was so busy that boats had to queue up to wait for admission to the lock. With the river on our right and fields on our left, some with grazing cattle and sheep, we headed towards Marlow. The path was flanked by a profusion of wildflowers, many of them being ‘serviced’ by a rich variety of different kinds of insects. Before reaching Marlow, we had good views of Bisham Abbey across the river. The former Abbey was built in about 1260 as a manor house for the Knights Templar. Now, much of it remains, and is used as one of the UK’s National Sports Centres.  Close by, the reflection of the tower of All Saints Church, Bisham, shimmers in the water of the river that flows close to its western end. The tower was built in the 12th century, and, later, in the 16th century other parts were added to the original church.

Soon after seeing Bisham’s church, the elegant suspension bridge across the Thames at Marlow came into view. The present bridge was built between 1829 and 1832 and designed by William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), who also designed Hammersmith Bridge. The famous Chain Bridge in Budapest (Széchenyi lánchíd), which is a larger version of Marlow Bridge, opened in 1849 was also designed by WT Clark. It was built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark (1811-1866).

A slightly sensuous statue of a naked woman, apparently a nymph, can be seen near the Marlow Bridge. This early 20th century sculpture (1924) commemorates Charles Frohman (1856-1915), an American who was a famous theatrical manager who was drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. According to a notice next to the statue, it was erected on the spot from which Frohman used to enjoy watching the Thames.  Apart from the bridge and the statue, there was little in Marlow’s High Street that attracted us, and we walked back to Hurley the way we came. On the way back, we caught good views of Harleyford Manor, a handsome Georgian home on a grassy rise overlooking the Thames. Designed by Robert Taylor (1714-1788) for its owner William Clayton (1718-1783), a Member of Parliament for Bletchingley and then Great Marlow, it remained in the Clayton family until 1950. Currently, this protected building houses offices.

We returned to Hurley, having had a hugely enjoyable stroll along the river and plenty of fresh air. We met numerous people along the way, all of them greeting us friendlily. Many of them had dogs, and almost all of them took care to maintain ‘social distancing’. We drove away from Hurley and about half an hour later we were caught up in the hurly burly of London traffic, which was moving at barely snail’s pace around the Hammersmith one-way system. Annoying as it was, it was worth enduring after having had such a wonderful day by the river, so far from the maddening crowds.

 

Decorated walls

DURING RECENT TRIPS TO villages and small towns in Essex and Suffolk, we have noticed that some of the plastering on the external walls of buildings is decorated with patterns and illustrations in bas-relief instead of being flat and featureless, as it often is. I first became aware of this decorative plasterwork on a house in the tiny village of Tollesbury in Essex. As we begun to see more examples, my curiosity about it grew. When we visited Saffron Walden, we saw that the outer wall of a bookshop was covered with plasterwork with patterns and symbols. I decided that if anyone would know about this kind of plastering, it would be someone working in what looked like a serious bookshop.

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In Saffron Walden

I entered Harts bookshop and noticed two things. Firstly, the shop was very well stocked. It was a place where one might spend quite a long time browsing. Secondly, the shelving units looked very familiar. I mentioned to the sales assistant that the shelving resembled that used by branches of the excellent Daunt’s bookshop chain. She replied that despite its name, Hart’s is now a branch of Daunt’s. Saffron Walden is lucky to have such a fine bookstore. I asked the assistant about the plasterwork with decorations that was on her shop and other buildings in the area. Another customer overheard me and explained that what I was asking about is called ‘parget(t)ing’. According to Wikipedia:

“Pargeting derives from the word ‘parget’, a Middle English term that is probably derived from the Old French pargeter or parjeter, to throw about, or porgeter, to roughcast a wall.”

However, the frequently fine and intricate patterns and illustrations created on the plaster suggest that creating pargetting involves little if any ‘throwing about’ of plaster but rather much care in its application.

The patterns or drawings were/are often produced by filling moulds with plaster while the wall is being plastered. An important ingredient in the plaster used to create these three-dimensional images and to give them some cohesive strength is fibre. 

The website http://www.buildingconservation.com suggests that:

“English plasterwork became increasingly elaborate in the 16th century and the dramatic external decoration of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace (1538) was contemporary with early plaster friezes in the great houses. Some of the most opulent pargeting was produced over the next 150 years with a high point around 1660 (for example, Ancient House, Ipswich, and the Sun Inn, Saffron Walden), then the technique began to fall out of fashion.”

Later in the 19th century, some architects like Norman Shaw who were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement revived pargetting, but the effects produced were far less spontaneous looking than those produced by earlier craftsmen. The same website explains:

“The simplest pargeting takes the form of lines scratched with a stick across wet plaster to create, for example, a lattice within a border. More complexity comes from using fingers and combs or moulded templates, incising or impressing chevrons, scallops, herringbones, guilloches, fantails, rope patterns and interchanging squares.”

To create the images that can be seen in pargetting, the plaster used needs to have sufficient cohesive strength. This can be achieved by adding fibre to the plaster mix. According to the http://www.plasterersnews.com website:

“Early pargeting was always worked in lime plaster which had three main ingredients; lime, aggregate and hair … Traditionally it was probably cow or horse hair but BSE stopped them being used and imported goat and yak hair became popular.”

Modern craftsmen conserving pargetting sometimes use synthetic fibres instead of natural hair because some of the modern sources of natural hair have been washed and this removes natural oils, which prevent the hair dissolving in the plaster.

If you, like me, did not know about pargetting before, now you do. When the man in Harts bookshop mentioned ‘pargetting’, “The Archers”, the British radio serial set in a country village, sprung to mind. One of the memorable characters in this series, which was first broadcast in 1950, is a man called Nigel Pargetter. Sadly, his death was recorded in The Guardian newspaper on the 3rd of January 2011. The paper recorded:

“Pargetter, played by Graham Seed for almost 30 years, was felled by the combination of a loose slate, a flapping happy new year banner on the roof of his home, and the need for a rousing climax to the special half-hour 60th anniversary episode, which the producers promised would ‘shake Ambridge to the core’. It had been, the BBC said, ‘a tough decision’”

You will be relieved to learn that Grahame Seed, the actor who played the role of Nigel Pargetter, still thrives.  Nigel might be dead but pargetting still survives and serves to add visual interest to many buildings in East Anglia.

 

A beautiful bank

FOUR THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED FLOWERS of Crocus sativus needed to be picked in order to produce an ounce (about 28 grams) of saffron in the sixteenth century. I learned this from a magnificent guidebook to East Anglia, written by Peter Sager. The fields surrounding the town of Saffron Walden in Essex used to be filled with the crocuses that were the source of the precious food additive saffron. The saffron industry flourished around the town during the 16th and 17th centuries, but by the 19th century the fields that had once been filled with crocuses became filled with barley. Even though the precious product saffron is hardly produced any more, Saffron Walden is a pleasant small town filled with interesting old buildings. One of these, which is far from being the oldest, now houses the local branch of Barclays Bank.

The centre of the square marketplace in Saffron Walden contains a tall ornate Victorian drinking fountain. This was designed by J F Bentley (1839-1902; architect of London’s Westminster Cathedral) and erected in 1862 to commemorate the marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales. The sides of the marketplace are lined with interesting eye-catching buildings. The Saffron Walden Library on the west side of the square is striking. This building was once the Corn Exchange. It was built in about 1847, possibly designed by R Tress. There is a sculpted ram’s head above the neo-classical pillar-flanked main entrance, which is below an ornate clock tower. I noticed that depictions of animals also adorn the façade of the former Corn Exchange in Bury St Edmunds.  Peter Sager wrote that the ram is placed there in memory of the former, now demolished Woolstaplers Hall that once stood where the library now stands. During the 20th century, the building’s interior was modified to accommodate the town’s library, which was founded in 1832.

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The south side of the square has a building with a ground level loggia and elegant half-timbering covering the upper storeys.  It looks mediaeval at first glance. But it is much too well-preserved to be that old.  This Victorian construction, now the Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre, is also the Town Hall. The structure was built in 1761 and then extensively remodelled and enlarged in 1879 with money donated by George Stacey Gibson (1818-1883), a former Mayor of the town about whom I will soon reveal more.

The Saffron Walden branch of Barclays Bank is on the east side of the square and faces the library. The brick building that houses it, and which was designed by WE Nesfield (1835-1888) and built in 1874, is imposing. It has a large area of windows, each one framed by white masonry. A decorated lead frieze runs above the second floor and below the tiled roof with dormer windows and attractive brick chimney stacks. The main entrance is beneath a gothic arch, which is flanked by bas-relief depictions of birds with long necks and beaks, probably pelicans. Wooden doors near the entrance bear wood carvings that depict the letters “TG” and the date “1874”. Well-worn brass plates on the bank’s inner set of entrance doors read “Gibsons Bank”.

The first room that is reached from the entrance contains its original decorative features. These include a patterned stuccoed ceiling, a stone-framed fireplace with a colourfully tiled interior and fancy brass fire irons. There is wood panelling above the hearth and along the top of the windows in the wall separating this room from others deeper inside the building. The strip of panelling above the internal windows is richly carved with a variety of animals and birds. The rooms further inside the bank have been modernised to serve the requirements of current banking procedures.

Gibsons Bank, or to give it its full name ‘Gibson, Tuke and Gibson’, was also known as ‘Saffron Walden and North Essex Bank’, and ‘Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford Bank’. It was established in 1824 by the Gibsons, a local Quaker brewing family. In 1863, Murray Tuke joined the surviving member of the Gibson family as a partner in the bank, hence the ‘TG’ we noticed on the door. That surviving Gibson was Tuke’s brother-in-law, George Stacey Gibson.

George joined the family bank in 1836 and became a partner in 1840. In addition to attending to the bank and innumerable civic duties, he became a renowned book collector and a serious botanist. In 1862, he published a flora of Essex. “This identified over 1,000 species of flowering plants and ferns, including four that were found only in Essex. “Flora of Essex” sealed Gibson’s reputation as a botanist and for the next century it was regarded as the definitive work on Essex botany” (see: http://www.hundredparishes.org.uk/). He was also the ‘discoverer’ of five flowering plant species that were new to Britain in the early 1840s.  

After his father died in 1862, George had to dedicate most of his time to the bank, his work on the Town Council, and charitable commitments, many of which related to the Society of Friends. He died at the Devonshire House Temperance Hotel in Bishopsgate Street, City of London, from inflammation of the kidneys.

In 1896, the bank, which had been associated with Fordham, Gibson and Co of Royston since 1880, became one of the twenty banks that joined together to form the Barclays Bank consortium. Another bank to join this group in 1896 was Goslings in London’s Fleet Street. Happily, Barclays have managed to preserve some of the original architectural features of both Gosling’s and Gibson’s historic premises. Even if you do not need to cash a cheque or deposit some money, visits to both of these formerly independent banks will provide a feast for the eyes.

PS: I have concentrated on the buildings in the marketplace of Saffron Walden, but must tell you, dear reader, that there is plenty more to see in the town including a fine parish church, many picturesque old buildings,  and the impressive ruins of a mediaeval castle.

A quaint country town near London

I WONDER WHAT KIND OF MUSIC the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) who is famous for “The Planets” suite, would have written had he lived in Thaxted under the flight path of most planes landing at London Stansted Airport. Fortunately for him, he lived in this charming Essex town between 1917 and 1925, long before the airport was built. Despite its proximity to an airport that is very busy in ‘normal’ times and not far from a major motorway, picturesque Thaxted feels as if the progress of time has left it alone. Recently, we visited Thaxted for a couple of hours and felt that we had ‘discovered’ a gem of a place rich in half-timbered buildings and other historic edifices. And, it is less than a couple of hours drive from west London.

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The construction of the huge cathedral-like Gothic parish church of St John the Baptist, St Mary & St Laurence began in the 14th century. Much of the financing of this building, which we were only able to enter for about one minute, was derived from the profits of the local industry, cutlery. By the 13th century, Thaxted, which is noted in the 11th century Domesday Book, became a centre for cutlery manufacture. It then rivalled a now more famous centre for that industry, Sheffield. The poll tax returns of 1379 recorded that of 249 males living in Thaxted, 79 were cutlers, 4 were sheath makers, and 2 were goldsmiths (see; “Mesters to Masters: A History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire”, edited by C Binfield and D Hay). The cutlers lived in some of the fine buildings in the town. The well-preserved timber-framed Cutlers Guildhall makes for an interesting and beautiful focal point in the town’s broad high street, where Gustav Holst lived for a few years. The moot hall of this building stands above pillars below which there is a space open to the elements. Although simpler in construction, it brought to mind similar structures in Gujarat, the ‘mandvi’ in Vadodara and the ruined city of Champaner. We sheltered from a heavy rain shower under the arches of the Guildhall while we ate delicious sandwiches prepared at Parrish’s restaurant across the road.

It is not known why Thaxted became a centre of the cutlery industry for a few centuries. However, most are agreed that it was not because there were substantial deposits of the raw materials needed. The hamlet of Cutlers End a few miles outside Thaxted is a lasting reminder of an important source of Thaxted’s wealth in the Middle Ages.

An incredibly picturesque half-timbered building stands close to the Guildhall. Above one its doors, there is a name plate that reads: ‘Dick Turpin’s Cottage’. Unlike one of Thaxted’s famous inhabitants, Gustav Holst, it is unlikely that the highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739) either lived in the cottage or even in the town.

Apart from the splendid array of lovely old buildings that line the few streets that make up the town, there is another attraction within a short walk from the parish church. This is John Webb’s windmill, which was built in 1804. Its four long wooden blades (the ‘sweeps’) drive the milling equipment housed within a conical brick tower. It continued milling until 1907, when running it became uneconomical. It is the last survivor of several windmills that served the Thaxted district.

There are two quaint buildings near to the mill and the parish church. One of these is the long, low Chantry. This has a wonderful thatched roof and is at least three hundred years old. Opposite it, is another single-storeyed building, which was built in about 1714. It serves as an Almshouse. An informative website about Thaxted, www.thaxted.co.uk, states that this building was in 1830: “… occupied by sixteen aged persons: ‘13 widows, a man, a wife and a maid’”.

We saw all the places described in a leisurely couple of hours. We felt that we could have easily stayed much longer in this attractive place. Sadly, many who do not live in Essex or have not bothered to explore the county, feel that Essex has a poor reputation. This has no doubt been encouraged by bad-taste humour relating to ‘Essex man’ and ‘Essex girls’. The villages and towns in rural Essex easily outrival the busier and much more ‘twee’ villages in the Cotswolds.

PS Thaxted hosts an annual music festival, which cannot be held this year of the Covid pandemic.

A place of greater safety

RICHMOND-UPON-THAMES WAS NOT a place that I would have associated with refugees until we went for a walk with some friends along the Thames footpath on the right bank of the river. We started at Richmond Bridge and headed towards Twickenham. Richmond Bridge is a handsome stone structure built by 1777. It was the eighth bridge to be built across the Thames and is now the oldest surviving bridge crossing the river.

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Octagonal Room at Orleans House

A leafy footpath runs alongside the river in which pleasure boats and waterfowl can be seen. Soon we arrived at a carved stone monument, a twisted polygonal structure on which words have been carved in three languages: English, French, and Flemish. The base of the elegant but simple monument has the words “The Belgian Village on the Thames” and above them, the dates “1914-18”. Nearby, there are a couple of information panels describing the history of a Belgian settlement on the river between Richmond and Twickenham during WW1. A Belgian village? You might well wonder; I did.

On the 7th of October 1914, Charles Pelabon, a French engineer who had been working in Belgium arrived in Britain with some of his workers. By the start of 1915, he had set up a munition factory in a disused roller-skating rink in East Twickenham. The factory soon employed as many as 6000 workers, mostly recruited from the vast numbers of Belgian refugees who had fled their country after war had broken out. This led to the establishment of a sizeable Belgian community, with shops and Belgian schooling, between Twickenham and Richmond. Sadly, almost all physical traces of the community have disappeared. Where the factory once stood is now covered by blocks of privately owned apartments. Standing next to the elegantly designed monument, it is hard to imagine that this almost rustic stretch of the river was a hive of industrial activity and filled with people speaking in French and Flemish.

Currently, our government is holding out the offer of homes in the UK for up to many residents of Hong Kong. I wonder whether we will see the establishment of ‘Hong Kong Village(s)’ to accommodate ‘refugees’ from a part of China that is undergoing potentially serious changes to its hitherto special status.

Further along our walk, we reached the park surrounding Marble Hill House. This neat looking Palladian villa set back from the river was constructed between 1724 and 1729 and designed by the architect Roger Morris (1695 -1749). It was built for Henrietta Howard (1689-1767), who had been the mistress of the then future King George II. When she ceased to be the mistress of King George II, Henrietta bought land beside the river and built Marble Hill House, using the substantial financial settlement she received from the King.

Crossing a small lane, one leaves the grounds of Marble Hill and enters the smaller grounds of Orleans House, or, at least what, remains of it. The house was a fine Palladian villa built for the politician and diplomat James Johnston (1635-1737) in 1710 to the designs of the architect John James (c1673-1746). In 1720, an octagonal room in the baroque style, designed by James Gibbs, was added. This was used to entertain George II’s Queen Consort, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She regarded Johnston with ‘great favour’.

Between 1813 and 1815, Johnston’s house was home to another royal visitor, a refugee from France, Louis Philippe I (1773 -1850), the Duc d’Orléans. Soon after the execution of his father in 1893, he left France. Later, he returned to France where he reigned as King Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France, between 1830 and the year of revolutions all over Europe, 1848. A print by the French artist Pingret shows the King and Queen Victoria visiting Louis Philippe’s former home at Orleans House some years after his coronation. It was the first time that a British and French monarch had been together on British soil for 500 years (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe…/…/NrKCqDE8Q-arYJHipxLXDQ). Although most of the house was demolished in 1926, the octagonal room was saved. I noticed a fragment of masonry in the grounds close to the remains of the house. It bears a crest on which there are two fleur-de-lys symbols. In the 21st century, a new arts centre, including an art gallery, was built that incorporates the octagonal room, which has been restored to its former glory.

Further along the river near a disused ferry landing stage, we came across the home of yet another refugee, the composer and conductor (Sir) Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Born in Warsaw, Panufnik, a leading light in the Polish classical music community, ‘defected’ to the West in 1954 having become uncomfortable with the politically dominated cultural environment in Poland. He settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen in 1961. After marrying Camilla Jessel in late 1963, the couple bought the house near Twickenham that overlooks the Thames and now bears a light blue circular commemorative plaque with a red Polish eagle on it.

We returned to Richmond Bridge following the riverside path. We watched a plucky little dog rush into the water only to make a hasty retreat when swans hissed at him. Despite the birds’ unwelcoming threats, he dashed into the water several more times. We arrived back at Richmond Bridge after having enjoyed a pleasant stroll and seeing three places that have provided people from Europe with ‘a place of greater safety’, these being the words used by Hilary Mantel as the title of one of her novels.

Pillar of salt

“IN TWO HUNDRED YARDS TURN LEFT on to Shoot Up Hill, and then immediately right onto Mapesbury Road”, commands a disembodied, strangely accented voice in the GPS navigation system. So many people are now using digital routing devices to find their way around that I wonder whether the need for roadside direction signs will disappear sometime in the future. I hope not because although many of these signs are mundane in appearance, some of them are quite distinctive. Recently, I saw one which is a veritable work of art.

 

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The Pillar of Salt is not only a biblical tale, the fate of Lot’s wife when she looked back at the city of Sodom, but also the name of an unusual road direction sign in the heart of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (England). I had noticed this curiously designed signpost of Angel Hill in Bury St Edmonds on previous visits, but it was only a few days ago that I examined it carefully. It looks like a short lighthouse with arms projecting from it in three directions. Two of the arms have the names of places and road numbers (e.g. ‘MILDENHALL A1101’). A third arm bears the words ‘NO ENTRY’. The signpost looks distinctive but somewhat surprising in a square where it is surrounded by buildings that are mostly well over one hundred years old. It stands a few feet from the magnificent, massive gothic Abbey Gate, which was rebuilt in the 14th century.

A plaque at the base of the Pillar of Salt reads that it is:

“Considered to be the first internally illuminated traffic sign in this country.”

It was designed by Basil Oliver, the Architect to Bury St Edmund’s Town Council, and erected in 1935. The information on the plaque adds:

“It was granted special approval as it did not conform to regulations”.

The problem was that the sizes of the letters and numbers on the signpost did not conform to official standards. According to the britishlistedbuildings.co.uk website:

“The Town Council went to great lengths to find something worthy of this important location when increased motor traffic made signing essential. Basil Oliver advised on the design and at the time when road signs were being standardised under the 1933 Regulations, this sign is individual and probably unique. It was approved by the Ministry of Transport in June 1935 subject to the letters and road numbers being 5” [inches] high. This was a compromise since the new standard was for letters 4.5” high and numbers 6” high.”

Fortunately, this problem with the characters on the sign were resolved amicably.

Basil Oliver (1882-1948) was born in the Suffolk town of Sudbury a year after his parents had married in Hampstead, London. He attended school in Bury St Edmunds, where according to the website suffolkartists.co.uk he began his study of architecture. He continued his studies at Liverpool University; the Royal Academy School; and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. By 1904, he was articled to an architect in London.  The website mentions:

“His best-known building is the Borough Offices, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk (1935–1937), described by Pevsner as ‘Neo-Georgian, tactful, and completely uneventful’…”

In contrast, I feel that his signpost in Bury is anything but ‘uneventful’ and it is not ‘tactful’, as it catches the attention by being almost the only ‘modern’ structure in an otherwise old-world environment.

Oliver lived and worked both in Suffolk and London. He died a bachelor in the town where he was born.

The Pillar of Salt, fascinating as it is, is not the main reason that people visit Bury St Edmunds. Many people come to enjoy the grounds that contain the ruins of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, once a significant Benedictine monastery. It was in the abbey church, now in ruins, that the barons of England met in 1214 to agree to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties. This was the forerunner to the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Within the ruined church there are two plaques commemorating that important gathering of the barons and listing their names.

Thus, Bury St Edmunds was the birthplace of both the Magna Carta and, also, the internally illuminated direction sign, two developments separated by a gap of 720 years. Much of the research for this short essay was done using the same technology that powers the GPS electronic navigation systems. Useful as these gadgets are, give me an old-fashioned direction sign any day.

Why go abroad?

MANY OF MY FRIENDS AND acquaintances are itching to travel abroad after at least three months of enduring ‘lockdown’ caused by the Corona virus pandemic. Although I fully understand their wanderlust, I would not feel happy travelling abroad for quite a long time despite the easing of restrictions that is on the point of happening in the UK and elsewhere. I am not even happy about travelling on public transport despite the enforcement of wearing face coverings and attempts at separating passengers by so-called ‘social distancing’.

 

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Waterend House

We used to own a car until it decided to give up the ghost in the autumn of 2010. Living in Kensington with access to a rich network of public transport and the fact that we used it no more than twice a month, we felt that replacing it was unnecessary. So, for almost ten years we used buses, trains, minicabs, the occasional rented car, and more recently Uber cars. With the advent of the Corona pandemic, we gave up using public transport and confined our activities to where we could reach comfortably on foot, in our case not much more than two and a half miles from home. As it seems likely that Britain will not be free of risk from infection until eventually there is a vaccine for the infective particles, and that might be a long way off, we decided to travel in ‘splendid isolation’ by buying ourselves a motor car. Recently, we bought a small ‘pre-loved’ motor, and this has allowed us to widen our horizons, to roam around a bit more.

My wife and I are amongst those who prefer to travel to foreign parts and have therefore largely neglected the wonders that are literally on our doorstep: the joys of Britain beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Over the years, it has always struck us how different London is from the rest of Britain. Leaving London and travelling beyond sometimes as exotic to us as crossing international borders.

One part of England that is on London’s doorstep but is completely different is East Anglia (the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk). Much of Essex contains the eastern spread of the metropolis and is not too attractive, but further away from London the county is full of pleasantly delightful surprises.

Recently, we drove to the tiny village of Tollesbury near the River Blackwater, one of the numerous inlets on the coast of Essex. Nearby, is the estuarine port of Maldon, made famous for its granular salt that is highly regarded by cooks. We spent a couple of hours sitting in Promenade Park next to one of the streams of the River Chelmer. Unlike popular beaches like Brighton and Bournemouth, Malden is enjoyed mainly by the town’s locals.  The small town, which is on a hill overlooking the river contains many old houses and a fine church containing the grave of President George Washington’s great-grandfather.

Another trip, which I have described elsewher, took us to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. From there, we visited the Suffolk village of Clare. Dominated by the ruins of a castle and the superb perpendicular style Church of St Peter and St Paul’s, and containing several old pubs and other buildings, this small place was once important in the wool industry. Clare College in Cambridge (founded 1326) was so named in honour of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), an heiress of the Dukes of Clare. She gave the college a handsome endowment. The three red chevrons on the town of Clare’s coat of arms also appear as part of the coat of arms of the Cambridge college. We spent no more than half an hour in Clare, but that was sufficient for us to want to linger there longer on a future visit.   Our route back to London took us through other picturesque villages in Suffolk and Essex, all of which deserve future visits.

Shortly after our trip to Suffolk, we travelled a mere eighteen miles to Hatfield. Our friends took us from that small town deep into the Hertfordshire countryside to a tiny place where Waterend Lane crosses the upper reaches of the River Lea. We parked next to a lovely well-preserved mainly brick building, Waterend House. The historicengland.org.uk website describes it as: “An exceptionally complete example of a mid-C17 medium-sized country house”, and states that one of the fireplaces within it bears an inscription with the date 1692. I would have loved to visit its interior. Instead, we walked around the almost one-mile perimeter of a huge sloping field.

The field and its surroundings were a ‘breath of fresh air’. The upper part of the field was filled with ripening barley, which swayed like waves when the stems were caught by frequent strong gusts of wind. We walked up a steep slope and turned a corner to join the bed of a long since disused railway track. Near the corner of the field an old brick bridge still exists. Long ago, trains used to run below it. While our hosts’ two dogs sniffed their way around the field, M and G pointed out the various wild plants that flanked our path.

The lower half of the field was a sea of daisies. It looked as if the ground was covered with snow. The daisies were not alone. Small patches of blue flowered thistles and red poppies added to the picturesqueness of the scene. Every now and then, we spotted teazels, both green and fresh and, also, dark and drying out, towering high above the daisies. Along the side of the field that runs parallel to the riverbank, there were elderberries and elderflowers as well as many nettles. M pointed out something I had never noticed before. That is, the leaves of nettles are home to numerous ladybirds. In addition to the large numbers of these creatures I spotted many other small beetles, some of which resembled the ladybirds.

I felt that walking around the field, seeing the swaying crops and taking in the details of nature proved very uplifting and therapeutic after our spell of urban ‘lockdown’. It made me pleased that we had taken the decision to buy our own vehicle to explore the countryside on London’s doorstep, and eventually further afield. England outside London feels like ‘another country’ and is well worth exploring. And, in these times of health uncertainties, it provides a worthwhile alternative to the exotic destinations that we have chosen to visit in the past.

The Angel Hotel

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SOME CLOSE FAMILY FRIENDS used to live in Cambridge. My father had known Cyril S, a ‘don’ at one of the older colleges, since they were both students at the University of Cape Town. Every now and then in the 1960s, we used to be invited to eat Sunday lunch with the S’s in their lovely Victorian house in Cranmer Road. The S family always kept Siamese cats. Their litter tray filled with a greyish coloured gravel occupied part of the black and white tiled floor of the spacious ground floor toilet close to the house’s main entrance. Whenever I used that toilet, I was always afraid that I might step into the litter tray that was usually studded with feline waste deposits. I do not think that I ever did intrude on that part of the cat’s territory.

On one occasion, Cyril invited us to see his rooms in the college. When we were leaving, he said that we could walk across the grassy quadrangle, instead of around it as most ‘ordinary mortals’ must. He told us proudly:
“This is one of the privileges of being a don. I am allowed walk across the grass and I can take my guests with me.”

We could have driven easily straight to Cambridge from our home in northwest London, but we did not. Instead, we used to spend the Saturday night before our Sunday rendezvous in the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, a small city in Suffolk.

In those far off days, the ivy-covered Angel Hotel opposite the Abbey Gardens was an old-fashioned provincial hotel. The rooms had a curious ‘safety’ feature. The reason I put the word safety in inverted commas will become obvious when I tell you about the feature. Each room had a harness next to its window. The harness was attached to a strong cord, which was connected to a winding mechanism. Had there been a fire, each occupant of a room would in turn fasten the harness around his or her waist, and then climb out of the window. The mechanism was designed to lover the person slowly to the ground outside. The lowered harness could be cranked back up into the room for the next person to escape. Long before we did, the author Charles Dickens stayed at the Angel.

As a child, I could not understand why it was necessary to spend a night in Bury St Edmunds, when the following day we could drive back to London without a stop-over. many years later, it dawned on me that we were not actually breaking a long journey, but it was a way that my parents enjoyed having a night away from home.

Yesterday, the 28th June 2020, we made a day trip to Bury St Edmunds. After eating exceptionally well-prepared fish and chips bought at the amusingly named ‘The Cod Father’ fish and chips shop, run by Bulgarians, we strolled into the centre of the city. The ivy-clad Angel Hotel stands opposite the impressive mid-14th century Abbey Gate. Passing through the Gate tower, one enters the Abbey Gardens. This attractive park is filled with strange looking fragments of what was once a huge abbey complex. Most of them look like oddly shaped piles of stones. They are the rubble cores of what had once been covered with carved masonry. The masonry that adorns the exteriors of mediaeval churches and abbeys is simply a covering for structural cores consisting of rubble and cement of some kind. On some of the fragments in the Abbey Gardens, it is possible to discern the slots into which the carved masonry was placed. However, most of the rubbly remains have disintegrated to become forms that give little clue as to their original shapes.

There is more to the city than the Angel Hotel and the gardens containing the ruins of the abbey. Near the Abbey, there is a cathedral, St Edmundsbury, surrounded by pleasant grounds. At one side of the grounds there is a well-preserved Norman gateway with splendid Romanesque architectural features and a pair of gargoyles that depict serpents with their forked tongues. In the centre of the lawns in the cathedral grounds, there is a fine statue of St Edmund clutching a cross close to his chest. This was sculpted in 1976 by Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who was born in Thurlow, which is near to Bury St Edmunds. Frink was a close friend of my late mother. I remember meeting ‘Liz’ at our home, where she was a regular dinner guest.

Seeing the Frink sculpture (for the first time) and the Angel Hotel yet again reinforced my long-held affection for Bury St Edmunds and revived happy memories of the place and our visits to the family of Cyril S, who died suddenly in 1974. His death deprived the world of a lovely man with a great sense of wit and humour.

Some years later, I was staying with Cyril’s widow in Cranmer Road, when she made me a Bloody Mary cocktail. It was the first time I had tried this delicious concoction, and hers was one of the best I have ever tasted.

Climate changes

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DURING THE 1980s, I lived and worked just over fifty miles south-east of central London in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns in Kent. Usually, I drove to London on Saturday afternoons after my morning dental surgery session ended at 1 pm. Then, after buying innumerable gramophone records and later also CDs and seeing friends, I would spend the night at my father’s home before returning to Kent late on Sunday evening.

One winter Sunday evening, after visiting friends, who lived in South Hampstead close to the Royal Free Hospital, I began driving towards Kent. When I reached Lewisham in south-east London, snow began falling lightly. I thought nothing of it. By the time I arrived at the start of the M2 motorway, the situation had changed considerably. The motorway was under several inches of fresh snow. The few vehicles travelling at that late hour drove on a pair of groove-like tracks made in the snow by vehicles ahead of me. It was rather like the page in the song “Good King Wenceslas: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly … In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted’.

The snow continued to fall and by the time I reached the motorway exit west of the Medway Bridge, I decided that it might be better to drive through Strood, Rochester, and Chatham rather than along the motorway that by-passed these places along a hilly exposed rural route, which I believed might have been badly affected by the snow.

It was about 2am when I left the motorway. I joined a line of cars that was crawling slowly towards Rochester – a traffic jam at 2 am. Eventually, I drove across the River Medway on the bridge at Rochester. The traffic was slow moving and dense despite the time. I decided to leave the main road and follow a back road that wound around Rochester Castle and avoided the city centre. I drove about fifty yards upwards along a steep snow-covered lane and then the car would go no further. Its wheels were unable to grip the road and I slid down to the bottom of the hill where I had started. There was no choice. I had to re-join the slow procession of traffic crawling through the interlinked Medway towns.

When I reached Gillingham, it was long after 3 am. I turned off the main A2 road and drove, or rather slid, downhill along Nelson Road which was covered with deep snow. At my street, Napier Road, the snow was even deeper and had not been compressed by passing vehicles. I headed towards my house but could not reach it because my car became wedged in a drift of densely packed snow. It remained locked in the snow for over three weeks.

The following day, the Medway Towns were almost paralysed by the snow. However, the only stretch of railway that was still operating was between two neighbouring stations, Gillingham and Rainham, where my dental surgery was located.  I managed to reach my surgery by train in my Wellington boots and wore these whilst treating the few patients who decided not to cancel their appointments. The only patients who struggled through the snow that day were elderly people who considered that cancelling appointments was disrespectful to the professional. All those brave souls, who made it through the hazardous snow, were seeing me about false teeth.

Although the snow did not disappear from the Medway Towns for over three weeks, the rail service to London resumed quite quickly. So, I continued to make my weekly visits to the capital. Fifty miles from snow-covered Gillingham, London was free of snow. Exaggerating slightly, visiting London was like travelling from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Few of my friends in London could believe that my home in Kent had sufficient snow to keep most skiers happy.

The spectacular change in climates that I experienced that winter when shuttling between London and Gillingham occurred long before the concept of ‘climate change’ became widespread in the public eye.

The year 1889 and me

SOMETIMES, FAMILIARITY BREEDS contempt. In my case it was Hampstead. I lived close to this picturesque urban village in north London for the first thirty years of my life, visiting the place frequently and becoming very familiar with it.  During the following twenty-five years, although I did not regard it with great contempt, I ‘went off’ the place. Now, in my sixties, I have renewed my liking and appreciation of Hampstead’s uniqueness. My wife and I enjoy making excursions to Hampstead, often having coffee at Louis Hungarian Patisserie on Heath Street, where we went for our first ‘date’ back in about 1970.

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Yesterday, after having been confined to our locality for three months by fairly strict ‘lockdown’, we drove to Hampstead, and enjoyed cups of coffee, maybe not London’s very best but quite acceptable, at a tiny outdoor table next to Louis. I looked across Heath Street from where we were sitting and stared at the Hampstead branch of Tesco’s. This run-of-the-mill supermarket is housed in a building with light red tiling and brickwork with stone window settings. Above Tesco’s, there is an old sign in bas-relief that reads “EXPRESS DAIRY COMPANY LTD” and next to that, there is a plaque with the date “AD 1889”.

The year 1889 has had a special significance for me since I attended the Hall School, a prestigious preparatory school for boys near Swiss Cottage, between the years 1960 and 1965. The Hall School was founded in 1889 and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964, while I was still studying there. I do not know why, but since that anniversary, the date 1889 has always had a special significance in my mind.

The founding of a preparatory school in 1889 is one insignificant reason to remember this year. More importantly it was the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.  To celebrate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1889. A souvenir of that grand fair still stands today in its full splendour: the Eiffel Tower. This well-known landmark of Paris was inaugurated on the 31st of March 1889. I learnt that Eiffel’s Tower was completed in 1889 long after I had learnt about the date when my preparatory school was founded.

The French brothers Édouard and André Michelin were also involved in revolution, but not the political sort. In 1889, they ran a rubber factory and within a short time they had invented the air-filled pneumatic tyre. Since those early days, the Michelin company has been a major manufacturer of objects that revolve – rubber tyres.

To encourage and assist motorists, Michelin began publishing both excellent road maps and useful guidebooks. Some of the guidebooks contain recommended restaurants and hotels and others (the ‘Green Guides’) provide useful sight-seeing information for tourists. The awarding of stars for culinary excellence by Michelin has made or broken restaurants in France and elsewhere. To lose a Michelin star is a life-changing disaster for some chefs.   

I have been collecting Michelin guidebooks since just after I left the Hall School. Some of my earliest specimens were published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. Immediately after WW1, Michelin published a series of about ten special guidebooks to areas that were affected badly during the war. I have a few of these. They contain much information including photographs of places taken before and after the War. Many of the post-war photographs show sights that resemble the ruins of central Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb exploded. Heavy bombardment of buildings with ‘conventional’ weapons produced horrendous devastation.

When I began contemplating writing this piece, I knew about 1889 in connection with my old school, the centenary of the French Revolution, and the Eiffel Tower, but not about the foundation of Michelin. As for the former Express Dairy in Hampstead, the plaque with the date 1889 most likely refers to the year in which that branch of the Express Dairy Company was established.  The buildings on that particular stretch of Heath Street, which was built-up in the Victorian era, were constructed in the 1880s.

For many centuries, Hampstead has been the haunt of academics, artists, actors, politicians, and writers. So, it comes as no surprise that the former Express Dairy that I was staring at from my table at Louis has at least one interesting historical connection. In February 1916, the Bolshevik revolutionary Maxim Litvinov (1856-1951) proposed to Ivy Low, whom he married.  He proposed and she accepted inside the Express Dairy in Hampstead’s Heath Street (see: https://prod.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v06/n04/gabriele-annan/ivy-s-feelings). I doubt that I would have ever known that had it not been for the Hall School instilling in me a certain interest in the year 1889.