Travelling abroad at last

WE ARRIVED IN ENGLAND from India on the 27th of February 2020. Because of the covid outbreak, we had not left England until today, the 13th of September 2021. Some, especially those who live there, regard Cornwall as being another country, rather than part of England. We have visited that southwest county of what most people regard as England, since we arrived back from England. So, it would be pushing things if we said that we went abroad to Cornwall,

Today, we travelled abroad, leaving England for a few hours. To reach our destination we did not have to take covid tests or show evidence of double doses of vaccine or, even, show our passports. However, leave England we did. We crossed the River Severn to leave England and enter Wales. Crossing the Severn Bridge on the M48 did not require us to pay a toll as used to be the case, as the crossing is now free of charge. A few years ago, a toll was charged for crossing into Wales, but no longer; it has been abolished.

Tintern Abbey

Well, I hear you say, Wales is not exactly ‘abroad’, but when one has not left England for over 18 months, it will do as ‘abroad’. Wales has its own parliament and most signs, be they on the road or elsewhere, are bilingual (English and Welsh) and, if you are lucky, you will meet a speaker of the Welsh language. To us, crossing over into Wales, after so many moths without foreign travel, felt like going abroad.

We drove along the beautiful Wye Valley and stopped at the attractive ruins of the former Cistercian Tintern Abbey (Abaty Tyndyrn in Welsh), the first ever Cistercian foundation in Wales. At the ticket office, I expressed my joy at being abroad after so many months, and the cashier said to me in a gently Welsh accent:

“I like your style.”

We have visited Tintern Abbey (founded 1131) many times in the past and each time it has been a wonderful experience. Today was no exception. Set in a wooded valley, the ruins of the gothic buildings look great against the background of trees with dark green foliage. After spending about an hour in Tintern, we drove along roads which were mainly in Wales but occasionally crossed the border into England. When we reached Wrexham (Wrecsam in Welsh), we headed off north and east into England, our trip abroad having been completed.

The Knights Templars and a letter from Erasmus (was he gay???)

THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE is remarkably rich in mediaeval remains, many of them accessible to members of the public. Quite a few of these reminders of the past resulted from the mass closure of monasteries and nunneries by King Henry VIII during the 16th century. Denny Abbey between Ely and Cambridge is just one of many examples of the results of the king’s policy. We paid it a brief visit whilst driving between the two cities. We arrived there early in the morning before it was open to visitors, but without entering the compound, we were able to see most of what is on offer apart from the attached Farmland Museum, which we might visit in the future.

Farmhouse, formerly Denny Abbey

The abbey was founded by the Benedictine Order in 1159 (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/denny-abbey-and-the-farmland-museum/) and taken over by the Knights Templars in 1170. The Templars used the place to house old and infirm members of their order. Despite questioning the truth of the Pope’s suspicions about the Templars, King Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) yielded to Rome’s authority, suppressed the Templars in England in 1308-9, and confiscated their properties. In 1327, King Edward III gave the abbey to Marie de Châtillon, Countess of Pembroke (1303-1377), the founder of Pembroke College in nearby Cambridge. She converted the abbey into a Franciscan nunnery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denny_Abbey).  The nunnery became home to members of The Order of Saint Clare, often known as ‘The Poor Clares’. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1536 and it, like all the other ecclesiastical establishments closed by the king, became property of the Crown.

The last abbess at Denny was Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton (1467-1547), who headed the nunnery from 1512 until its dissolution. During her term as abbess, two of the nuns in her establishment were sisters of Sir Thomas Grey (Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset: 1477-1530), a student of the Dutch philosopher and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536). When Erasmus was in Basel in 1525, Grey persuaded him to write to the community at Denny. His letter was received, and in response the nuns sent him a gift, which was stolen before it reached him. When he learned what had happened, he wrote again. In his second letter, Erasmus wrote of:

“…the troubles of the time war everywhere, and wrath of princes, famine, and plague and divisions in the Church which tore families apart but comforted the ladies with the thought of the humility and strength of St. Francis and St. Clare and asked their prayers, not only for himself but for the conversion of the thief. He sent his greeting to the ‘most religious lady’ abbess, and begged her to greet Grey’s sisters for him by name.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp295-302).

According to one source, Erasmus was attracted to men. While serving as a canon in Stein (Holland), Erasmus:

“…supposedly fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul”, writing that “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly”” (www.hmoob.in/wiki/Desiderus_Erasmus)

Later, Erasmus, while teaching in Paris:

“… instructed a 21-year-old English-born student, Thomas Grey, who later became Marquis of Dorset. Erasmus was abruptly dismissed as Grey’s teacher, for making unwanted advances towards him.” (http://gayinfluence.blogspot.com/2012/04/erasmus.html)

Another source (“Erasmus” by Preserved Smith, publ. 1923) might well allude to this excessive friendship:

“…Thomas Grey, a young Englishman, of whom Erasmus was fond …”  

Erasmus was in Paris between 1495 and 1499, after which he lived and worked in England (Oxford, then Cambridge) for several periods over the next few years. Clearly, his abrupt dismissal did not deter Grey from writing to him about the nunnery at Denny Abbey. The presence of Grey’s sisters at Denny might have been a consequence of a possible Grey family connection with two other families that were intimately involved with it: the Coleviles and Massinghams.

After the closure of the nunnery, its refectory became used as a barn; the abbess’s lodge, originally built for the Countess of Clare, became used as a farmhouse; and its church, built in 1159, was demolished. Over the centuries, the farm on the former nunnery’s lands was privately owned. In 1928, Pembroke College (Cambridge) bought the plot, and it remained a farm until 1947, when it was leased to The Ministry of Public Works. It was later transferred into the care of English Heritage (founded in the 1980s).

We parked in a grassy field, watched by a small herd of cows, most of whom were seated on the ground, maybe anticipating a rain shower. The farmhouse, the building originally constructed for the Countess of Pembroke, still has doorways and windows in both the Norman and mediaeval gothic styles. A Norman archway was the entrance to the Templar’s church.  Some of these features, which must have once led into buildings now non-existent, have been bricked in. It has new roofing and some windows that were added long after it ceased to be part of the nunnery. Likewise with the large barn, once the refectory, it has two tall doors, which are later additions to the structure, as well as bricked in windows and archways that were used when the nunnery existed. Two lines of masonry almost flush with the ground mark the site of the nave of the now demolished church. Little else can be seen, although during the site’s opening times, visitors can see the remains of a mediaeval tiled floor.

Although little survives of the former Denny Abbey, its ruins are worth a short visit. And, while you gaze at it, you can marvel at the thought that you are looking at the remains of the only abbey in England to have been home to not one religious order but three different ones (www.dennyfarmlandmuseum.org.uk/content/things-to-see/history-of-denny-abbey). When we stopped to look at the place on a grey Friday morning in August 2021, I had no inkling that the great Erasmus had taken an interest in it, nor had I any idea that the scholar has been suspected by some of being gay. An anonymous writer denies this rather vehemently (www.erasmatazz.com/library/erasmus-the-hero/erasmus-was-not-gay/the-thomas-grey-affair.html). Whether or not Erasmus’s advances to Thomas Grey were of a homosexual nature or simply expressions of deep friendship and admiration of his intellect, it is for others to decide. Deciding whether or not to explore the remains of Denny Abbey is far less difficult than judging Erasmus.

A Hebrew dictionary and a lost abbey

NOT MUCH REMAINS of Ramsey Abbey in a part of Cambridgeshire, which used to be in the former county of Huntingdonshire. Like most of the monastic institutions in England, Ramsey Abbey was ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. Ramsay was closed in 1539.

Founded in 969 by Bishop Oswald of Worcestershire (died 992), this abbey in the Fens achieved great importance, rivalling Ely and Peterborough. Three centuries before the first college (Peterhouse) was established at Cambridge in 1284, Ramsey was a renowned centre of scholarship. In addition to theological matters, the scholars at Ramsey studied a wide range of other subjects. One of the most eminent scholars, Abbo of Fleury (c945-1004), was brought to Ramsey by Oswald in 985. Abbo brought much knowledge from both the Classical world and the Arabic world to Ramsey, where he stayed for 18 months. Another leading scholar was Byrhtferth (c970-c1020), who was well-known for his studies of English history. He also wrote a scientific compendium in about 990. This included material about mathematics, properties of matter, astronomy, and medicine.

Geoffrey of Huntingdon, who lived in the 13th century, was Prior of Ramsey Abbey for about 38 years. He was a scholar, with great fluency in the languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the Jewish people were expelled from Britain in 1290, he bought from them as many Hebrew texts as he was ablee to find, including from the synagogues at Huntingdon and Stamford. Under Gregory’s influence, Ramsey became a centre of Hebrew studies. From the books and texts collected at Ramsey, a priest, Laurence Holbeach (died c1420), compiled a Hebrew dictionary in about 1410.

When Ramsey was dissolved in 1536, the dictionary was amongst the many scholarly works taken (or stolen) from the monastery by Robert Wakefield (or ‘Wachefeld) of Oxford, where he taught Hebrew from 1530 until his death. Wakefield, who died a year later, was a renowned English orientalist and Hebraist who taught at famous universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Louvain, and Tübingen. What became of this dictionary, I have not yet been able to discover.  

Whether the dictionary remains in existence or not, I cannot say, but I do know that by visiting the small town of Ramsey, the visitor can see some remains of the former abbey. These include the remains of a gatehouse, which is now looked after by the National Trust and the Church of St Thomas à Becket, now a parish church. The latter was already constructed in the 12th century. It was probably originally built as a hospital or infirmary for the abbey, but by 1222, it had become a parish church. The aisles were rebuilt in the 16th century and the current west tower was built in 1672. The church contains some lovely stained-glass windows both behind the high altar and on the eastern part of the southern wall. These windows, created in the early part of the 20th century, were made by Morris & Co, a company founded by William Morris.

The former abbey has a connection with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in the nearby town of Huntingdon. In 1540, the estate of the former Ramsey Abbey was sold to Sir Richard Williams (1510-1544), also known as ‘Sir Richard Cromwell’. This man, who was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather, demolished most of the abbey, which was:

“… turned into a quarry, the lead from the roofs being melted down into fodders and ingots for sale to the highest bidder. Gonville and Caius college in Cambridge was built from the stone and Kings and Trinity were partly rebuilt. Stone from the Abbey also found its way into many local churches and other buildings” (https://ramseyabbey.co.uk/richard-cromwell/)

Richard’s son Henry built a Tudor house on the former abbey’s grounds. Henry’s son Oliver (born 1562), who was an ardent Royalist, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Oliver Cromwell, the famous Parliamentarian and ruler of England (the ‘Lord Protector’), lived in the house his father had built. This, the manor house, was sold to Coulson Fellowes in 1737 by the then owners, the Titus family. In 1804, the architect Sir John Soane enlarged the house. The building was further enlarged in 1839. Now the building houses Ramsey’s Abbey College. Currently the building looks far from being Tudor and by looking at its exterior, one cannot guess that it contains some remains of the early mediaeval abbey, on which it was built.

As a notice beside the remains of the gatehouse aptly states:

“After existing for nearly four centuries as the grounds of a private residence it is most fitting that a large part of the abbey site is now occupied by the Abbey College. The eighty or so monks in their black habits have been succeeded by a far greater number of students. Across the generations Ramsey has been the home of scholars who have sought to expand their knowledge of the world …”

I am certain that Bishop Oswald would be pleased to know although his scholarly establishment was closed by a King with dubious intentions, Ramsey continues to be a place of scholarship.

Lady with the lamp

ROMSEY IN HAMPSHIRE is a delightful small town with a spectacular parish church, Romsey Abbey, with many Norman and gothic architectural features. The edifice that stands today was originally part of a Benedictine nunnery and dates to the 10th century, but much of its structure is a bit younger. It rivals some of the best churches of this era that we have seen during travels in France. That it still stands today, is a testament to the good sense of former citizens of the town.

During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of The Monasteries in the 16th century, much of the nunnery was demolished. However, the establishment’s church was not solely for the use of the monastic order but also served as a parish church for the townsfolk. As Henry VIII was not against religion per se, and the need for a parish church was recognised, the townsfolk were offered the church for sale. In 1544, the town managed to collect the £100 needed to purchase the church and what remained of the abbey from The Crown. Thus, this precious example of church architecture was saved from the miserable fate that befell many other abbey churches all over England. However, what you see today was heavily restored in the 19th century, but this does not detract from its original glory.

The town of Romsey is 3.4 miles northeast of East Wellow, the burial place of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the social reformer and statistician as well as a founder of modern nursing. I had no idea that Florence was famous in the field of statistics. Her biographer Cecil Woodham Smith wrote:

“In 1859 each hospital followed its own method of naming and classifying diseases. Miss Nightingale embarked on a campaign for uniform hospital statistics … which would ‘enable us to ascertain the relevant mortality of different hospitals, as well as different diseases and injuries at the same and at different ages, the relative frequency of different diseases and injuries among the classes which enter hospitals in different countries, and in different districts of the same countries.’”

In 1858, she was elected a member of the recently formed Statistical Society. So, there was much more to Florence than the commonly held image of ‘the lady with the lamp’ during the Crimean War.

Florence was christened with the name of the Italian city, where she was born. Part of her childhood was spent at the family home of Embley Park, which is 1.8 miles west of Romsey Abbey church and close to East Wellow. Now a school, it remained her home from 1825 until her death.

Broadlands, which was built on lands once owned by the nuns of Romsey Abbey, is a Georgian house on the southern edge of Romsey. It was home to Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who was Prime Minister in 1856 when the Crimean War came to an end. Broadlands was Palmerston’s country estate. It is maybe coincidental that both Palmerston and Nightingale were associated with both Romsey and the Crimean War.

Palmerston is celebrated in Romsey by a statue standing in front of the former Corn Exchange. Florence has a more discreet memorial in the town. It is a stained-glass window within the Abbey church. Placed in the church in 2020, it was formally dedicated in May 2020. It depicts a young lady seated by a tree, her face turned away from the onlooker. Created by Sophie Hacker, the image depicts Florence seated on bench beside a tree in Embley Park. The tree in the window, a cedar, still stands in Embley Park’s grounds. The image is supposed to recall the moment when, as a young girl, she received her calling. Woodham Smith wrote:

“Her experience was similar to that which came to Joan of Arc. In a private note she wrote: ‘On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service’”.

The window includes the following words above her head:

“Lo, it is I.”

And beneath her:

“Here am I Lord. Send me.”

There are a few other words on the window, some in English and others in Italian.

A visit to Romsey Abbey church is highly recommendable. We thought that we had visited it many years before 2021 and arrived expecting to see an abbey in ruins. We were delightfully surprised to realise that we had mistaken Romsey with some other place, whose name we have forgotten, and instead we had discovered a church that was new to us and unexpectedly wonderful both architecturally and otherwise. Anyone visiting nearby Winchester with its fine cathedral should save some time to come to see the magnificent ecclesiastical edifice in Romsey.

An abbey no more: slavery and sightseeing

ENTIRELY JUSTIFIABLE FURORE over recent unlawful police killings of Afro-American citizens in the USA has heightened awareness of the history of unjust treatment of ‘people of colour’ under colonialism and slavery during years long passed. It was only after enjoying an afternoon in the lovely gardens of Anglesey Abbey near the city of Cambridge that I learned that this delightful place was once owned by someone whose fortune was at least partially derived from  exploitation of India and elsewhere by the East India Company. But first some history of the house, whose gardens we enjoyed despite the rain and gloomy grey late October skies.

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, abbeys, and other religious institutions in England. One of these was an Augustinian priory established near Cambridge by Richard de Clare in 1212. This was originally founded as the Hospital of St Mary during the reign of Henry I (that is between 1100 and 1135). The site of this religious establishment became the property of John Hynde, an important judge, who died in 1550. The religious buildings having been largely demolished, the next owner of the place, the Fowkes family who acquired it in 1595, built a Jacobean style house where the priory used to stand. The house incorporated some of the remains of the disbanded priory and abbey.

Later, the house became the property of Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), a Cambridge carrier from whose name the expression ‘Hobson’s choice’ is derived. Hobson maintained a profitable livery stable in Cambridge as well as arranging the carriage of mail between London and Cambridge. ‘Hobson’s choice’, a name derived after Hobson’s death is essentially the choice between ‘take it (i.e. the one thing on offer) or leave it’. Hobson’s son-in-law Thomas Parker and some of his descendants owned Anglesey Abbey (as the property became known). Later, the Member of Parliament for Malmesbury and then Cambridge, Samuel Shepheard (1677-1748), became owner from 1739. We will return to him later.

In 1848, the Reverend John Hailstone (1759-1847), an important geologist, a member of the Linnean Society as well as the Royal Society, bought Anglesey Abbey. He carried out many restorations and planted many trees in the Abbey’s extensive gardens, which we can enjoy today. Jumping ahead, in 1926, two brothers, Urban Huttleston Broughton (later ‘1st Baron Fairhaven’) and Henry Rogers Broughton, bought the property. They made improvements to the house, enhanced their collections of artworks, and developed the gardens. Henry moved out in 1932, leaving Anglesey Abbey to his older brother Urban, then Lord Fairhaven. Urban built a library to store his ever-growing collections of art works and books and restored the working Lode Mill on his property. When Lord Fairhaven died in 1966, the property was bequeathed to the National Trust. Sadly, because of the current covid19 crisis, we were not allowed to enter the lovely house to view his collection.

Between 1717 and 1720, Samuel Shepheard, an early owner of Anglesey Abbey, was involved with the East India Company (founded 1600 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I). He was elected a director in 1718. His father, Samuel Shepheard (c1648-1719), was one of the so-called ‘interlopers’ who used political connections set up The New East India Company in 1691. So, not much has changed in connection with the overlap of political influence and commercial interests since then! The ‘New’ company thrived alongside the older one for a few years before the two companies merged (https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w21536/w21536.pdf). Samuel’s father tried to involve his son in the promotion of the New East India Company and is alleged to have been involved in irregularities connected with his son’s political advancement (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/shepheard-samuel-ii-1677-1748). The on-line History of Parliament website includes the following about Samuel (junior):

“Concern for trade, and in particular his father’s commercial interests, suggest that he, rather than James Sheppard, twice acted as teller in that session: in favour of engrossing a bill to open up commerce with Africa; and in support of the second reading of a clause for a bill to encourage the tobacco trade.”

As for the former owner of Anglesey Abbey’s connection with India:

“Although serving as a director of the East India Company under George I, he did not seek advancement in the City, preferring the lifestyle of the country gentleman. The establishment of a residence at Exning probably reflected his association with the Cotton family, who were lords of the manor there.”

He became extremely wealthy:

“Dying ‘vastly rich’, he left the bulk of his estate to his natural daughter, who was celebrated as ‘the greatest fortune in England’, and subsequently married Charles Ingram, the future 9th Viscount Irvine.”

Exning is about six and a half miles north-east of Anglesey Abbey. Although Shepheard owned the Abbey, it is unlikely that he resided there as much as in Exning.

Samuel Shepheard was, as already mentioned, a director of the East India Company between 1718 (possibly 1717) and 1720. During that time, the company appears to have been, if not actually involved in, certainly interested in transporting slaves from Madagascar to North America in 1720 (“The William and Mary Quarterly”, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 548-577). To what extent Samuel Shepheard and his father were involved in the slave trade remains unclear. The National Trust are also somewhat opaque on this subject as their report (https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf) reveals:

“Shepheard was a wealthy merchant and Cambridgeshire Member of Parliament (MP) who served as director of the new East India Company and headed the South Sea Company. His father, Samuel Shepheard senior (c.1648–1719), was also an MP and merchant, building the family fortune on overseas trade. He was a founder member of the new East India Company and the South Sea Company, where he held the office of deputy-governor from 1713.”

Does the term ‘overseas trade’ include slavery? While we can not be certain whether or not either Samuel Junior or his father were involved in the slave trade, there is little doubt that the East India Company was not averse to it and might well have profited from it (see, for example: www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.2307/2715359?journalCode=jnh and https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1153&context=slisconnecting ), certainly in Africa and maybe also in the Indian subcontinent.

Should we let our enjoyment of Anglesey Abbey be disturbed by the knowledge that for a brief period of its existence it was owned by someone, who was involved in a company that ‘plundered’ India and was involved in the slave trade? By stating that Shepheard “… built the family fortune on overseas trade” to quote the National Trust in its report, which was triggered by the recent formation of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, we can get no closer to ascertaining whether we should have a bad conscience about visiting the lovely gardens of Anglesey Abbey or should simply enjoy the experience without being concerned with an ill-defined unsavoury part of its history. After all, as far as we know, neither of the Shepheards, father and son, can yet be tarred with the same brush as, for example, the disgraced Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston (1636-1721), whose lifespan overlapped those of the two Samuel Shepheards. And, furthermore, unlike some other stately homes whose fame is largely due to fortunes made by persons involved in slavery, Anglesey Abbey is not one of them. If anything, the glory and splendour of this house and gardens in Cambridgeshire is due mainly to the efforts of men who owned it many, many years after Samuel Shepheard Junior died.

Story of a tower

“IT’S THE TOWN’S SYMBOL, you see”, we were told by a friendly young man whom we met by chance in a churchyard in the town of Bruton in the county of Somerset.

“Never been up there myself, even though I’ve been living in Bruton all my life,” he told us, pointing at a tall tower on the summit of a hill overlooking the town.

“Where have you come from?” he asked us. When we replied ‘London’, he commented:

“Never been there myself. Have a good evening.”

Bruton is about 120 miles southwest of central London. The tower about which we had asked the young man is square in plan, is built of neatly cut limestone blocks, has three layers of windows, and looks (from below) as if it is missing its roof. The top parts of each of the four walls are triangular, looking as if they were once the side walls of gabled roofs.

The tower that stands in Bruton’s Jubilee Park is known as ‘The Dovecote’. The hill on which it stands rises steeply from the almost level fields of the public park. Birds, mainly pigeons, could be seen perching on the edges of the four gables at the top of the tower. It stands on a square plot 65 square feet in area and is situated on land over 300 feet above sea level, to the south of the centre of Bruton. Although it is tall, I have not been able to discover its height by searching the internet. That it has lost its roof, is recorded.

The tower stands in what was a deer park of about 30 acres established in about 1545-6 by the canons of the long-since demolished nearby Bruton Abbey (whose remains can be seen in the town). The park was later enlarged and surrounded by a wall. In the 18th century, the deer were removed. However, much earlier, in the 16th or, 17th century (actual date is uncertain although some of the timber used in the construction has been dated as being felled between 1554 and 1586), the present tower was built by the Berkly family. They acquired the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The tower was built to be used as a ‘prospect’ or ‘look out’ tower.

In about 1780, or maybe much earlier, the tower was converted to be used as a dovecote. Inside the tower, which we could not enter, there are roosting spaces (nesting boxes) for at least 200 doves. Long ago, pigeons and doves were an important food source. They were reared for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In 1915, the National Trust (‘NT’) acquired the freehold of the tower from Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare (1865-1947). Not only did Sir Henry give his tower to the NT, but also, more importantly, he also donated his family estate with its fabulous landscaped grounds at nearby Stourhead to the same organization in 1946. The Hoare family, about whom I hope to write soon, is also associated with another tower not far from Bruton, the Alfred Tower, which we have visited … but more on this anon.

Although we could not enter The Dovecote tower, we did one better than the young local with whom we spoke earlier; we walked up to its base.

The Angel Hotel

BLOG BURY

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.