A river and a canal

THE GREAT BED of Ware is eleven feet long and ten feet wide. Constructed at the end of the 16th century, this four-poster bed dwarfs the modern king size bed (six and a half feet by five feet). The Great Bed was housed in various inns in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire until the early 1930s when it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A few days ago, we visited Ware, not expecting to see its Great Bed but for other reasons. One of these was that it is a small town not far from Perry Green where the Henry Moore Foundation is located. Another was to see the upper reaches of the River Lea and the point along it where water enters the New River.

 

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The Gauge House and the New River emerging from underneath it

The 42 mile long River Lea, a tributary of the River Thames, rises near Luton in the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire, flows through Hertfordshire, and then makes its way south through parts of  northeast then eastern Greater London, reaching the Thames at Bow Creek. The river flows through the centre of Ware. A short walk (1.3 miles) along the bank of the river westwards from Ware, brings one to the start of the New River, which is not actually a river. It a canal built to bring fresh water from the clean upper reaches of the Lea into London.

The history of the New River involves the London district of Islington, where the reservoir that used to collect water from the New River was located. To quote from something I wrote a couple of years ago (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/44/):

“At the triangular Islington Green, Essex Road branches off from Upper Street at an acute angle. At the apex of the triangle, there is a statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631) sculpted by John Thomas (1813–1862). He stands bare-footed, wearing a ruff and breeches, which stop short of his uncovered knees and lower legs. Below his plinth, two carved children sit or kneel with pitchers between their legs. Once, they issued water, but no longer. Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur, was the driving force behind the creation of the New River water supply project. The 38-mile-long canal, which he helped to finance, was constructed between 1608 and 1613 …”

Roseberry Avenue in London’s Islington is now best-known for the Saddlers Wells Theatre. However, one of its near neighbours was of great importance in connection with the New River. Quoting from my piece again:

“Across Roseberry Avenue, which flanks Spa Fields, there is a large brick building with white stone trimmings, now a block of flats. Completed in 1920, New River Head House was designed by Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. Above two of its windows, there are carved inscriptions. One reads “Erected MDCXIII”, and the other “MDCCLXXXII”. These dates are 1623 and 1782 respectively, which are carved in archaic lettering. The inscribed stones must have been saved from an earlier building. The land on which the house stands was formerly the ‘New River Head’.

The New River, a canal constructed to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into London ended at the reservoir called ‘New River Head’. It was high enough above what was the city of London in the 17th century to allow the flow of water from it to be ‘powered’ by gravity alone (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp165-184). The brick-lined reservoir was constructed in 1623, when the first building at the reservoir, the ‘Water House’, was also built. The architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811), surveyor to the New River Company, repaired, enlarged, and refaced it in the 18th century. The refacing was done in 1782 … The old building, which had been enlarged many times, was demolished by 1915.”

Having seen the site of the destination of water carried by the New River, I was keen to see the point of its origin. Hence, our visit to Ware.

We parked near the centre of Ware in a car park (Burgage Lane) next to a footbridge that crosses the Lea. Then, we followed the riverside path after traversing the river. At first the path runs sinuously beneath trees that line both banks the stream. Their different coloured leaves are reflected in the water that ripples as waterfowl swim past. We met many other people enjoying their morning walks, but the path was never crowded.

After a short distance, the river flows around and between a network of islands and the path loses its lining of trees. Soon, there is open country on one side and on the other a series of modern industrial buildings partially hidden from view by occasional trees including lovely weeping willows. We reached the impressive weir of Ware. To enable boats to pass this hazardous waterfall, a lock exists. Ware Lock was first built in 1855 but looks as if it has been modernised since then.  Continuing west from the weir, we became aware of traffic noise as we approached the concrete bridge that carries the busy A10 dual-carriageway road over the river.

A third of a mile upstream from the road bridge, there is a tall brick house. It is not attractive and can be seen from afar in the flat landscape surrounding it. This building, The Gauge House, was built in 1856 to the design of William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), a son of Robert Mylne, who was involved with the terminal reservoir at New River Head in Islington (see above).  The building is constructed on an arch, a bridge that straddles the start of the New River at the point where water enters the canal from the River Lea. The ground floor of the building houses a mechanism for regulating the flow of water from the Lea into the New River. This is explained on the historicengland.org.uk website as follows:

“… [The] ground floor contains the gauge which measures the intake of water from the River Lee; it consists of 2 iron boats 5m long floating at Lee level which are joined by a chordal segmental iron beam 9m long, and the rise and fall with the level of the Lee controls the flow of water over the sluice which can be further adjusted by weights hung from the gate, the daily intake from the Lee being 22 1/2 million gallons.”

Another website, engineering-timelines.com, gives details of the predecessors of the Gauge House:

“At first, the flow from the river was monitored by a wooden ‘balance engine’ – a rocking beam-and-float device. It was later replaced with the Marble Gauge, built by Robert Mylne inside a Portland stone chest. Though now empty, this is still visible a little downstream.”

We were able to see the exterior of the Gauge House including the grille through which water leaves the Lea to flow under the building and that from which it flows from the House into the first stretch of the New River. The canal flows about 300 yards south before making a right angle beyond which it begins flowing east.  Having visited the London terminus of the New River and walked along attractive stretches of the canal lined by parkland in Canonbury, near Islington, I was very satisfied seeing where this historic waterway commences. We retraced our steps along the riverbank to Ware before driving to visit the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green.

Returning to the subject of beds, which is associated with the town of Ware, my mind leaps a quarter of the way around the world to Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In January 1994, we spent part of our honeymoon at St Margarets in Ooty, a guesthouse belonging to the ITC company. The room we occupied in this typical colonial style bungalow was huge. And it needed to be to accommodate the enormous bed that we occupied. This bed, whose width rivalled that of the Great Bed of Ware was not so long as the latter. Its sheets must have been specially made to fit this enormous bed.  Although there were only two of us sleeping in it, I think that that it would have been wide enough for four or five couples to sleep in it without it becoming overcrowded.

Both Ooty and Ware have their charms, but the latter is far more accessible from London especially in these times of restricted travel caused by the wholly unwanted presence of the Covid-19 microbe.  

 

 

At home with Henry Moore

PERRY GREEN IS A TINY hamlet near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire and was home to a sculptor whose works are often anything but tiny. Henry Moore (1898-1986) was born when Auguste Rodin, the ‘father of modern sculpture’, was 58 years old and about five years before another great British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, was born. Moore’s works have influenced the output of some of my favourite 20th century British sculptors such as Anthony Caro, Philip King, and Eduardo Paolozzi. Both Caro and King worked as assistants to Henry Moore.

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In 1929, Moore married an art student from Kiev, a refugee from the Russian Revolution, Anatolia Radetzki (1907–1989), and the couple lived in Hampstead at 11a Parkhill Road, which Moore had rented in advance the year before. Their home was close to other leaders in the world of art including Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Roland Penrose, and Herbert Read. In those days, Hampstead was part of the nucleus of London’s artistic sphere.

In September 1940, the Moore’s home in Hampstead was damaged by bomb shrapnel. Henry and Irina moved out of London to Perry Green, where they began living at a farmhouse called Hoglands, which is a late medieval house, rebuilt and then remodelled in the 17th century. This and the land and other properties around it, which the Moores bought gradually, became the centre of his artistic production: his home and workshops.  In 1946, Irina gave birth to Mary, the Moore’s only child.

Rapidly and for the rest of his life, Henry’s artistic output, fame, and prosperity continued to increase. As his wealth grew, Moore, concerned about his legacy, established the Henry Moore Trust in 1977 with the help of his daughter. According to the Foundation’s website:

“The Henry Moore Foundation was founded by the artist and his family in 1977 to encourage public appreciation of the visual arts.”

As part of its activities, it has opened to the public Moore’s creative environment at Perry Green. Following the recent easing of the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’ restrictions, we took the opportunity to visit Moore’s lovely place in rural Hertfordshire.

We were able to visit some of Moore’s workshops including one that contains a huge collection of maquettes, small models or three-dimensional sketches for the artist’s visualisations of his ideas for larger works. Interspersed amongst these items, there are objects both man-made and natural (eg lumps of flint and skeletal bones) that Moore found and collected. Some of them inspired his creations. Seeing these maquettes alongside specimens of nature collected by the artist helped me see the connection between Moore’s work and natural forms.  

The gardens in which numerous finished sculptures are displayed are superbly laid out and well-maintained. Beyond the gardens, we walked through fields in which sheep graze overlooked by some of the larger of Moore’s creations on view at Perry Green. The sheep played a significant role in Moore’s creations; he often sketched them.

After stretching our legs and enjoying the lovely gardens and fields, we enjoyed hot drinks outside a well-designed modern building that serves as a café and visitor’s centre (including a shop where several books about Moore are on sale). One place that was closed to visitors because of the pandemic is the striking building housing the Henry Moore Archives. Originally, the archives were housed in a brick cottage of no architectural interest called Elmwood. Between 2012 and 2018, the architect Hugh Broughton and his project director, Gianluca Rendina added a large modern-looking extension to Elmwood. It is an attractive structure, which is larger than the old cottage and is clad in COR-TEN steel that has weathered (oxidised) to become a warm reddish-brown colour. Far more geometric and less organic than Moore’s artworks, the building, like Moore’s sculptures, makes a pleasing contrast to the bucolic surroundings in Perry Green. Incidentally, the modern visitor’s centre/café complex was also designed by the Hugh Broughton Architects practice.

Although I loved visiting the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green and can strongly recommend it as a wonderful day-out for anyone who loves the countryside and/or modern art, I have one reservation, which is purely personal. I have never regarded the body of Henry Moore’s sculptural works as highly as those of some other twentieth century sculptors. To be fair, some of Moore’s creations really impress and move me, but the majority do not. Often when I visit an artist’s or a historical figure’s former home, my appreciation of its former inhabitant increases, but, sadly for me, visiting Moore’s place did nothing to improve my admiration of his works. But, please do not let my aesthetic opinions deter you from driving down Hertfordshire’s narrow winding country lanes to Perry Green, where the garden alone makes the effort well worthwhile. I am looking forward to making another visit soon, not so much for the sculptures but for the sheer joy that the place gave me. Who knows, but another visit to Much Hadham might make me more sympathetic to Moore’s works?

Some like it hot

MANY VARIETIES OF CHILLI, differing in size, shape, and colour, can be seen growing in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Seeing them recently, whetted my appetite to write something about these fiery food items and their relationship to Indian cuisine.

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Chilli is widely used in the multitude of different foods consumed in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is most likely that before the 15th century, this hot-tasting food ingredient was unknown in this part of the world.  Before its introduction to India, black pepper was used to add pungency to food. It was the European’s great yearning for valuable spices like pepper that brought them to the shores of the India, beginning with the Portuguese. It was these same seekers of spice who are believed to have introduced chillies to India from far away Latin America.

In early 1994, I made my first of many trips to India. In Bangalore, where I spent most of my time, I discovered the wonderful bookshops that the city still possesses. In one of these, I bought a book that has proved to be a useful mine of scholarly information about Indian food and its history, “Indian Food – A Historical Companion” by KT Achaya. Published in 1994, it cost 750 Rupees (about £12 in those days), which was quite expensive for a book back in 1994, but it has proved to be a valuable and useful addition to our book collection.  Much of the information that follows derives from the pages of this book.

One of the most interesting things I have learnt from Achaya’s book is that in ancient times, the inhabitants of the subcontinent, such as the Harappans and the Vedic Aryans, were keen meat eaters. Achaya wrote:

“No less than 250 animals are referred to in the Vedas, and 50 of these were deemed fit for sacrifice, and by inference eating.”

He added later:

“The abattoirs for domestic animals had specific names, like garaghatanam (beef), and shukarasnam (swine) … In the Rigveda, horses, bulls, buffaloes, rams, and goats were all described as being sacrificed for food… The Jataka tales list the flesh of the pigeon, partridge, monkey and elephant as edible. To this, the Brhat Samhita (6th century) adds buffaloes and lizards. At a shraddha ceremony, use of meat was very meritorious according to the Vishnu Purana (3rd or 4th century), and the meats listed are those of the hare, hog, goat, antelope, deer, gayal and sheep; both priest and performer partook of the meal.”

However, from the earliest of times, there were thoughtful Aryans who questioned the taking of animal’s lives for food, and gradually the trend towards vegetarianism grew.

Returning to chillies, Achaya suggests that they must have entered India quite early, but many centuries after the ‘creation’ of the Vedas. He quotes lines by the south Indian composer of Carnatic music Purandaradas, who lived between 1480 and 1564, which indicate that he was aware of the effects of chilli. The Portuguese, who introduced chillies to India, first landed on the subcontinent (near Calicut) on the 20th May 1498. So, they must have been quite a novelty when the composer wrote the lines (quoted by Achaya):

“I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used … fiery when bitten …”

Chilli was well received in India because, unlike pepper, it could be grown almost anywhere and had a pungency far greater than pepper. Unlike the Portuguese and later European invaders, chilli in its various forms was a welcome visitor to the Indian subcontinent.

Thus far, I have not written anything that is remarkably new to the well-informed. Now, I will describe something that fascinated me most in Achaya’s wonderful book. The author dedicates several hundred words including references to scholarly works about this topic. In brief, there is evidence that the continent of South America was visited by predecessors of today’s Indians long before Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492.

Amongst the wealth of evidence that Achaya describes, here is a sample. Indian deities feature in pre-Columbian sculpture: Ganesha with his rat; Vishnu’s tortoise ‘kurma’; two elephant heads with typical Indian ceremonial trappings; elephants with ‘mahouts’ wearing turbans; and a portrait of the last ruler of the Incas depicts him wearing a sacred thread the way that Brahmins do. A manuscript discovered in the Yucatan (Mexico) was written in the Kavi dialect of Java, which is derived from the Sanskrit and Pali languages. It records that a merchant, Vusulana, explored the coastline of what we now know as ‘South America’ in 923 AD, that is 569 years before Columbus made his discovery and a few years before Leif Erikson landed in Vinland (probably Newfoundland and New Brunswick). If we accept this and other evidence that there were interactions between the Indian subcontinent and pre-Columbian America, then we should not be surprised if the travellers who crossed the Pacific might have brought foodstuffs back to India.  

Some of these pre-Columbian imports might have been members of the Annona family: the sitaphal and ramphal. Convention dictates that these were imported from Latin America via the Cape of Good Hope, but some archaeological findings suggest that they might have been in India long before the arrival of the Europeans. Achaya cites the  discovery of sculptures of Bharhut (2nd century BC) and frescos painted at Ajanta (about 7th century AD) that depict a fruit looking very similar to custard apple (sitaphal), but points out that George Watt (1851-1930), the Scottish physician and botanist who worked in India, felt that it might be native Indian plants that were being depicted.

More convincing than the Annona fruits is the evidence that maize, a cereal that originated in Central America, was also being grown in India in the pre-Columbian age. Some of the evidence for this is the finding of maize pollen grains in ancient archaeological sites in the Kashmir Valley. Another intriguing discovery was made at the 12th century temple in Somnathpur near Mysore, where 92 female sculptures are all holding in their right hands “… an object looking remarkably like a corn cob.”

What I have written is based on a summary of knowledge published in 1994 in one book. It is likely that since then there has been further research on connections between India and America before Columbus, but I have not yet been able to access it.

  

Intriguing as the possible relationship between India and pre-Columbian America is, there is little doubt that the chilli, like the potato and the tomato,  only found its way into the Indian diet via the Portuguese and other European colonisers of the New World. So next time, you burn your tongue on a chilli lurking in a curry, you know who to blame.

Is the duck ok?

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THERE WAS A LOVELY restaurant on the estuary of the River Medway in the 1980s. Once, I took a friend, ‘P’, to lunch there. We sat down, and a waitress brought us some slices of baguette. When the owner of the restaurant came to hand us the menus, P said:

“This bread is delicious.”

The owner replied:

“We get it freshly baked from France every day.”

We were impressed. P ordered duck and I ordered something else.

As soon as the restaurant’s owner disappeared, the waitress reappeared. She came to our table and said in a low voice:

“Actually, the bread comes from Tesco in Chatham.”

We became less impressed by the owner.

Our food arrived. It was more than satisfactory. As we were finishing, the restaurant’s owner came to our table. He asked P in a manner that reminded me of John Cleese on “Fawlty Towers”:

“Duck ok?”

“Delicious,” P replied.

“That’s good … we’ve had a few complaints about our duck today,” the owner said, wandering off nonchalantly.

Seated above a cow

I HAVE WALKED PAST IT OFTEN, noticed it, but had never examined it carefully until a few days ago. I am referring to the statue of Edward Jenner (1749-1823) that surveys the formally arranged pools and fountains in the Italian Gardens at the north end of the Serpentine Lake. This body of water was created in 1730 at the request of Queen Caroline (1683-1737), wife of King George II.  Originally it was fed by water from the now largely hidden River Westbourne and Tyburn Brook. Now its water is pumped from three bore-wells within the confines of Hyde Park.

 

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Jenner is depicted seated in what looks like an uncomfortable chair, resting his chin on his left hand, his left arm being supported on an armrest.  The bronze statue was created by the Scottish sculptor William Calder Marshall (1813-1894). He also created the sculptural group representing ‘Agriculture’ on the nearby Albert Memorial. The Jenner sculpture was originally located in Trafalgar Square, where it was inaugurated in 1858 by Prince Albert, the Queen’s Consort three years before his demise. In 1862, the sculpture was moved to its present location in the Italian Gardens. Incidentally, the design of the gardens was based on those at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and were created in 1860 to the design of the architect and planner James Pennethorne (1801-1871).

Jenner, a qualified medical doctor, is best known for his pioneering work in developing protection against smallpox. This derived from his experimentation based on his (and other people’s) observation that the pus from blisters that milkmaids received from cowpox protected them against the far more serious disease smallpox. Justifiably, Jenner has been dubbed the ‘father of immunology’. So great was his achievement that Napoleon, who was at war with Britain at the time, awarded Jenner a medal in 1803, the year Napoleon was planning to invade Britain with his recently formed Armée d’Angleterre. The French leader said:

“The Sciences are never at war… Jenner! Ah, we can refuse nothing to this man.” (see: https://www.nature.com/articles/144278a0).

Maybe, these words of the great Napoleon can still teach us something about international cooperation generosity of spirit.

His fame in the field of vaccination overshadows Jenner’s other achievements in science and medicine. He was a first-rate zoologist. For example, his observations, dissections, and experiment established for the first time that the baby cuckoo is born with a depression in its back that allows it to displace the eggs of the  bird whose nest the cuckoo has colonised. The baby cuckoo ejects his or her host’s eggs without the help of the adult cuckoo, which has deposited her eggs in the nest of another species. Jenner published his findings in 1788. This was a few years before he established the effectiveness of vaccination in the late 1890s. He self-published his results in 1898 after his most important paper was turned down by The Royal Society.

Getting back to his statue in the Italian Gardens, there are two features that I had not noticed before examining it carefully recently. One of these is a depiction of the Rod of Asclepius on the backrest of Jenner’s seat.  The serpent entwined helically about a rod is traditionally associated with medicine and healing. Beneath the seat, there is a depiction of a cow’s head. This is appropriate symbolism given the importance of cows in the discovery of smallpox vaccination. The word vaccine is derived from the Latin word ‘vaccinus’, which in turn is derived from ‘vacca’, the Latin for ‘cow’. There is an object depicted below the cow’s head, which I fancy, using a little imagination, might be a stylised depiction milk maid’s cloth hat.

Jenner was not the only person experimenting with inoculation against smallpox, but he is the person best remembered for it because his results and reasoning convinced the world of the concept’s validity and applicability.

Although I do not find the monument to Jenner to be particularly attractive, it is one of London’s statues least likely to arouse anger as its subject had nothing to do with slavery. In contrast to many other well-known figures of his era, Jenner should be remembered for his important involvement in a development that has benefitted mankind for well over two centuries. I hope that his scientific descendants currently working around the world in laboratories will be able to create a vaccine to counter the Covid-19 virus as soon as possible.

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.