Two archbishops, a biologist, and a Mayor of New York

OUR FRIEND MICHAEL G, who has been following my accounts of our motorised rambles around England since the ‘lockdown’ eased in July 2020, recommended that we should visit the village of Barley in northern Hertfordshire, a place he knows well. We followed his suggestion and were not disappointed.

Barley lies surrounded by deep countryside a few miles east of the town of Royston, which is between Baldock and Cambridge, whose station has signs that tell travellers that the city is “The Home of Ruskin Anglia University”. There have been human settlements in the area since the Bronze Age. The name ‘Barley’ has nothing to do with the crop of that name but is derived from the Old English words meaning ‘lea’ or ‘meadow’. There might also have been an Anglo-Saxon tribe based in Hertfordshire to whom this name referred. The Domesday Book recorded the village as ‘Berlei’, which might be derived from ‘Beora’s Ley’, meaning the woodland clearing of the Saxon lord, ‘Beora’ (www.barley-village.co.uk/about). In 2011, the village had a population of 662. It is a small place, bursting with interest.

The church of St Margaret of Antioch stands on a rise surrounded by a vast cemetery with many gravestones in different styles. The church with its curious spire, which we were able to enter, dates from the 12th century, but has many later modifications. In its structure, the viewer may discover elements of different styles of English architecture ranging from the 12th to 19th centuries.  The church is pleasant to the eye, but I found the name of the saint of greater interest than the church itself. St Margaret of Antioch, a saint whom I had never encountered before, is also known as ‘St Marina’. She lived in the 3rd to 4th centuries AD and was highly venerated in mediaeval times. According to an online encyclopaedia (www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Margaret-of-Antioch), her story is verging on incredible:

“During the reign (284–305) of the Roman emperor Diocletian, Margaret allegedly refused marriage with the prefect Olybrius at Antioch and was consequently beheaded after undergoing extravagant trials and tortures. Her designation as patron saint of expectant mothers (particularly in difficult labour) and her emblem, a dragon, are based on one of her trials: Satan, disguised as a dragon, swallowed Margaret; his stomach, however, soon rejecting her, opened, and let her out unharmed.”

Well, we had to go all the way to Barley to become acquainted with this saintly lady.

Margaret House, next to the church, is now a home for disabled folk and dementia sufferers. Parts of it closest to the church look quite old. Actually, they are not so ancient. Once the rectory, it underwent many modifications between 1831 and 1833, possibly following a fire. These were supervised and designed by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881), an expert in creating buildings in the mediaeval style (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1347406). Since Salvin’s time, the older building has been joined to a far larger modern edifice.

Across the road from the church and at a lower altitude, we saw a beautiful Tudor building, the ‘Town House’, which was formerly Barley’s guildhall. Sadly, it was locked up. It would have been fascinating to enter this well-conserved (highly restored) building constructed in the early 16th century, but during this time of plague that was not possible. In addition to this fine edifice, a short walk through the village will take the visitor past plenty of fine examples of dwellings that were built in the 17th century or possibly earlier. Many of them have overhanging upper storeys and most of them have their own distinctive appearances.

Barley is home to a family-run bus company called Richmonds. Many of their vehicles are parked either in an open space near to the Town House or another that contains a large garage with the name ‘HV Richmond’ above its entrance. Harold Victor Richmond, a former RAF pilot, acquired the fleet and premises of A Livermore in 1946, and his family has run the company since then (www.busandcoachbuyer.com/richmonds-coaches/). The bus garage is opposite a hostelry with a remarkable pub sign. The sign straddles the road. A beam running between two vertical supports is surmounted by painted silhouettes of a fox being chased by several hounds running ahead of two horses with their riders. Appropriately, the pub is called ‘The Fox and Hounds’. The fox is heading for the pub, which is what we did. Many years before us, the highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739) is supposed to have stayed at this establishment. The pub’s interior looks highly modernised. Michael G told me later that the original pub burnt down some years ago and what is seen today is a new building.

Opposite the bus garage, standing next to a war memorial, I noticed a sturdy wooden hut with a pyramidical roof that looked like an oversized sentry box or outdoor toilet cabin. It was probably built in the late 17th century and is known as ‘The Cage’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/herts/pp47-49). Restored in about 1970, it once served as the village lock-up (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1102583). It looks strong enough to have been very secure.

Returning to the Town House, we looked at a rock with a circular metal plate attached to it. Placed to celebrate the millennium (2000 AD), it lists some of Barley’s noteworthy personalities. They are William Warham (1450-1532), Thomas Herring (1695-1757), Thomas Willett (1605-1674), and Redcliffe Nathan Salaman (1874-1955). None of these names meant anything to me before we visited Barley.

William Warham and Thomas Herring both served the church in Barley before becoming Archbishops of Canterbury. Warham practised and taught law in London before taking holy orders and also became Master of the Rolls (in 1494), helping King Henry VII with diplomatic affairs. He served the church in Barley before becoming the Bishop of London in 1501. In 1503, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Herring’s career was almost as spectacular as that of Warham. In 1722, he became the rector of Barley and in 1743 he was the Archbishop of York. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

The name ‘Redcliffe Nathan Salaman’ intrigued me. I guessed he must have been Jewish and was proved correct when I looked up his biography. Born in Redcliffe Gardens in Kensington (London), son of Myer Salaman (1835-1896), a merchant who dealt in ostrich feathers, he was a botanist and the author of “History and Social influence of the Potato” (published in 1949). Redcliffe studied at St Pauls School in London, then ‘read’ Natural Science at Trinity Hall Cambridge, qualified as a medical doctor at the London Hospital in 1900. He did postgraduate work at the German universities of Würzburg and Berlin before becoming appointed Director of the Pathological Institute at the London Hospital and pathologist to the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park (https://ice.digitaler.co.il/ice2019/28). In 1903, he caught tuberculosis and gave up medicine. It was around that time that he and his family moved to their rural home in Barley, the large Homestall House.

Established in Barley, Salaman began work on plant genetics, guided by the biologist/geneticist and chief populariser of the ideas of Gregor Mendel, William Bateson (1861-1926), Master of St John’s College in Cambridge. Salaman worked on the genetics of that important food item, the potato. One of his major discoveries was of varieties of the tuber that were both high yielding crops and also, more importantly, resistant to the potato’s ‘late blight’ disease, which was the cause of the major 1845 Irish potato famine and other famines in Europe during the 1840s. In 1935, in recognition of his important work with potatoes, Salaman was elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society. His book published in 1949 was of interest because it combined archaeology, genetics and every aspect of the history of the potato.

Redcliffe, his first wife, the poet and social activist Nina Ruth Davis (1877-1925), and their family (six children) kept a kosher household in Barley and observed the Sabbath. They used to travel to London to celebrate Jewish high holidays. In 1926, following the death of Nina, he married Gertrude Lowy. Despite the ‘TB’, Redcliffe lived until he was 80.

The other worthy commemorated in front of Barley’s Town House is the 17th century Thomas Willett. The fourth son of Barley’s rector, a Calvinist, Andrew Willett (1562-1621), he sailed across the Atlantic to the British colonies in North America. He was put in charge of a Plymouth Colony’s trading post in Maine. Eventually, he became one of the assistant Governors of the Plymouth Colony and then the Colony’s Chief Military Officer. After New Amsterdam was handed over to the British by the Dutch in 1664, and the city’s name changed to ‘New York’. Willett became the first Mayor of New York in 1665. In 1667, he became the place’s third Mayor. It is amazing to think that someone born in tiny Barley became the Mayor of what was to become one of the world’s major cities.

Our short visit to Barley proved to be most interesting. Even if history does not fascinate you, this village has plenty to please the eye. I am most grateful to Michael G for bringing Barley to our attention.

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com