FILTHY SLIPPERY MUD deterred us from exploring a section of the path running beside a stretch of Dollis Brook in north London. After abandoning our attempts to negotiate this slippery, squelchy, wet path, we decided to visit Golders Hill Park, one of our favourite open spaces in north west London. I have been visiting this park since I was a small child, for over six decades. Formerly, the park was the grounds of a mansion, built for Charles Dingley (1711-1769), long since demolished (see: https://adamyamey.co.uk/waugh-and-pitt-hampstead-north-end/).
We sat on a bench near to the North End Road entrance to the park, which is close to where the demolished mansion once stood. From our bench, we had a fine view of the gardens, lawns, and mature trees, sloping away from us. It is a view that reminded us of the landscaped gardens that sweep away from fine mansions such as can be seen at Compton Verney (in Warwickshire), Osterley Park, and Kenwood House. I mention Kenwood House in particular because the man who had a hand in landscaping its grounds, Humphrey Repton (1752-1815), was also involved in the design of the gardens, now park, of the former mansion at Golders Hill.
We walked around the park, first passing a deserted bandstand. Soon, we arrived in the part of the park, which I loved as a child and still enjoy as I approach my ‘second childhood’. It is a small zoo. Although many would question whether animals are happy to be confined to cages, these creatures provide much pleasure to city dwellers. There is a vast field that contains various types of deer and occasionally a rhea, which looks like a kind of ostrich. Most of the other enclosures in this small zoo are smaller than the deer enclosure.
An enclosure, which used to house flamingos when I was a child, contains a variety of exotic waterfowl including some with long, slender curling beaks. Close to this, there is a larger enclosure in which three or four ring-tailed lemurs pass the time of day.
Another large enclosure, slightly smaller than that where the deer spend their time, contains what for me is the highlight of the zoo. These creatures, which intrigue me, are wallabies. They are Bennett’s (red necked) wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus). If you wish to see these in their natural habitat, you will need to fly to western Australia or Tasmania. I have not yet discovered when these cute looking creatures from ‘down-under’ first began to be displayed in the park, but they have been present in Golders Hill Park ever since I can remember, and that includes the late 1950s. A sign attached to the fence around the area in which the wallabies live describes the antipodean creatures as ‘The Golders Hill Mob’.
During our latest visit today, the 10th of October 2020, we saw a creature we had never noticed before. It was a bird of prey, a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaguinea), which like the wallabies, is a native of Australasia. According to the notice attached to its cage, this handsome bird uses its beak to kill its prey by hitting it against a hard surface. Well, you learn something new every day.
As mentioned already, Golders Hill Park is amongst our favourite open spaces in London. In my early childhood, I remember being taken to the park and passing the public tennis courts where my parents played occasionally. Seeing the park, its lovely trees, its tiny zoo, and the tennis courts, was as usual an enjoyable experience. It was a good place to remember my parents with great fondness. One of them died forty years ago, and the other quite recently at the ripe old age of one hundred and one years.
WINDSOR CASTLE IS well-known to many people and much visited. However, what came before the castle was built is less known. Recently, we visited the place near Windsor which used to be the home of Britain’s royal rulers well before the Normans invaded the British Isles. Our trip began at the car park close to where the Magna Carta was signed in Runnymede in 1215.
We slithered through the mud and wet leaves on the path running along the bank of the River Thames from Runnymede to Old Windsor. The path runs past the large gardens of homes along the river and provides views of the occasional barges moored on both sides of the stream. We caught glimpses of a couples of swans but remarkably few other forms of bird life. Birds might have been in short supply, but not aeroplanes. Despite the decrease in air travel that has resulted from the covid19 pandemic, there seemed to be a ‘plane flying low over us every one or two minutes because we were walking beneath the flight path along which aircraft descend as they near Heathrow Airport. The low clouds meant that although we could hear them, we could not see all of the ‘planes.
We left the riverside path after having walked about a mile and followed a footpath to the church of Saints Peter and Andrew on the edge of Old Windsor. This lovely church with a sharp pointed steeple and flint walls is set in a graveyard with many picturesque funereal monuments and a tall redwood tree. The present building was constructed in 1218 to replace an earlier wooden church that was burnt down by French mercenaries in 1215 in response to King John’s recent somewhat reluctant signing of Magna Carta at nearby Runnymede (www.oldwindsorchurch.org.uk/history.html). I do not know who was paying these incendiary Frenchmen and wonder if President Donald Trump might not employ some people to create similar mayhem following his election defeat. Since 1218, the church, which was locked when we visited, underwent various modifications over the centuries including an extensive restoration in 1866 by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960).
Most of the present village of Old Windsor is of little interest to the visitor. However, its history is. Old Windsor existed before the formerly named ‘New Windsor’ or ‘Windsor’ as we know it today. The name ‘Windsor’ might be derived from Old English ‘Windles-ore’ or ‘Windlesora’ (meaning ‘winding shore’). The place now known as ‘Old Windsor’ is recorded in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an early history of the Anglo-Saxons. During that pre-Norman Conquest era, there was a royal palace at Old Windsor. The old palace continued to be used until the castle, the present Windsor Castle, began to be constructed in the reign of William the Conqueror. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” (published in 1876), the royal residence at Old Windsor continued to be used, maybe occasionally, until the reign of King Henry I, that is until between 1100 and 1135. The old palace has long since disappeared. Some archaeological remains of the palace were discovered in the 1950s and are kept in the Reading Museum.
We walked from the church to a main road (the A308) along a long road (Church Road) through Old Windsor. Apart from a few mildly picturesque old cottages near the church, it was lined with suburban dwellings lacking in architectural merit. The main road along which we walked back towards Runnymede is appropriately named ‘Straight Road’ because it is straight in comparison to the river that runs its sinuous course close by.
When we reached a short thoroughfare named Ousely Road, we noticed what looked like the gatehouse to a large estate at its far end. We walked up to what was definitely once a gatehouse, and which, to prove it, is named ‘Front Lodge’. Beyond it, a vast lawn ascended a slope towards a large house that was barely visible. By walking a short distance from the lodge, we reached the entrance to the Beaumont Estate on Burfield road to which Ousely Road leads. This estate is currently owned by the De Vere hotel group, but in the past, it had a far more celebrated owner.
The estate, which was originally called ‘Remenham’ after Hugo de Remenham, who owned the land in the 14th century, was renamed ‘Beaumont’ in 1751 by the son of the Duke of Roxburghe. In 1705, the then owner, Lord Weymouth, had a mansion built. It was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1764), who also designed St Martin in the Fields in London and the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. Sadly for us, in the early 19th century, the building was rebuilt and extended for its then owner, an ‘Anglo-Indian’ (i.e. a ‘Brit’ who had lived and worked in India) named Henry Griffiths, by Henry Emlyn (1729-1815), an architect based in Windsor. The impressive neo-classical portico on the present building was Emlyn’s work.
In 1786, the mansion was acquired (for £12000) by another man who was associated with India, Warren Hastings (1732-1818). Hastings had been the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) and along with Robert Clive (1725-1774), he was one of the founders of the British Empire in India. When Hastings returned to England in 1785, the House of Commons attempted to impeach him for misdemeanours he was alleged to have perpetrated whilst he was in India. He was eventually acquitted in 1795. During the first three years of his trial, Hastings lived in Beaumont House. In 1789, he sold it to Griffiths, already mentioned.
After several others had owned the estate, in Beaumont became a college, Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus and established in 1861. This institution flourished until it was closed in 1967. After becoming a computer training centre and then a conference centre, the estate was acquired by the company that owns the De Vere hotel group. When we wandered into the estate, there seemed to be nothing much happening there.
From Beaumont, it is a short walk to the National Trust Runnymede car park, from which we set off for nearby Datchet, which I will write about separately. If it had not been for the slippery state of riverside footpath, we would have returned along it and thereby would have likely never have come across Beaumont and discovered its interesting connections with British India.
THE BRENT IS a tributary of the River Thames. When I wrote about it elsewhere (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/33/), I mentioned that the two main tributaries of the Brent are Mutton Brook, which has its source in East Finchley and Dollis Brook, the subject of this piece.
“Dollis Brook rises on Moat Mount Open Space in Mill Hill … flows eastwards through Totteridge Fields … then through fields and open spaces to King George V Playing Fields. The brook then turns southwards and forms the eastern boundary of Totteridge past Totteridge Lane near Totteridge and Whetstone tube station … continues south through Woodside Park (where it merges with Folly Brook) and West Finchley … Dollis Brook then passes under Dollis Road and through Windsor Open Space to the Great North Way (A1). Near Bridge Lane in Hendon it merges with Mutton Brook to form the River Brent.”
One sunny Sunday morning, we joined the footpath that runs alongside the winding Dollis Brook at a bridge crossing it. Halfway across the bridge is the boundary between Laurel Way in the N20 postal district and Laurel View, which is in the N12 postal district. The footpath, which has a well-made surface, free of mud, is part of the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. By heading north, we entered an area named Whetstone Stray. During the 19th century:
“Whetstone Stray was once part of the Baxendale Estate. Joseph Baxendale had taken over Pickford Brothers, and the area of Whetstone Stray had been used as grazing ground for the 1000 or so horses used in their carrying business. … On the death of Joseph Baxendale in 1872, there were problems over the division of the land.” (https://whetstoneallotments.co.uk/)
The origin of this area’s name is uncertain, but it is likely to have something to do with either grazing horses or with land whose ownership is uncertain or land on which horses could be ‘strayed’. Whatever its meaning, this corridor of meadows and trees along which the Dollis Brook follows its very wiggly course makes for a pleasant place to walk. Although it was far from crowded, there were plenty of other people enjoying it. What struck us was that the folk that we met were a cosmopolitan bunch. We heard snatches of conversation in a wide variety of languages. This was a complete contrast to the meadows at Runnymede, which we had visited the day before. There, apart from a few tourists from the Indian subcontinent, most people appeared to be of Anglo-Saxon origin.
The northern end of Whetstone Stray is where it meets Totteridge Lane, close to Totteridge and Whetstone Underground Station. The name ‘Totteridge’ is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon root ‘tot’, meaning an ‘elevation’, and the English word ‘ridge’. An alternative etymology is that the name comes from the name of a Celtic deity ‘Taith’. The Underground Station, which is on the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, is above ground and a simple building of indifferent architectural merit. It opened as a station on the Great Northern Railway in 1872 and became part of the Underground network in 1940. The Waiting Room Café nearby provided acceptable coffee.
The Dollis Brook continues north after passing beneath bridge carrying Totteridge Lane. The Greenwalk also continues in the same direction. Whereas the Whetstone Stray is a fairly narrow densely vegetated stretch of land, the land through which the path continues is wider and less full of trees. It runs through open fields and parallel to the tracks of the Northern Line, which is almost hidden from view by bushes. However, the roar of passing trains is easily heard and the trains can be seen through gaps in vegetation. The path splits into two soon after leaving Totteridge Lane. One path closer to the Dollis Brook is for cyclists and another further from the still winding stream is reserved for pedestrians. The narrow brook is often hidden by the dense growth of trees and bushes alongside it. However, it can be seen that the riverbed makes many tight U-turns along its course.
After passing Brook Farm Open Space, the brook begins flowing from the west. Brook Farm no longer exists. Next, our path skirted the south edge of a vast open space called Barnet Playing Fields. We ended our outbound walk at Barnet Table Tennis Centre and then retraced our steps. As we walked towards Totteridge and Whetstone Station, the horizon was dominated by a less than attractive tall building. This was built as the headquarters of British Ever Ready Electrical Company. Then, it became offices for the London Borough of Barnet and was known as ‘Barnet House’. Currently, its future hangs in the balance while developers fight to get permission to get it converted to 256 flats, some of which would be amongst the smallest in London (some as small as 16 square metres). The building was completed in 1966 to the designs of R Seifert and Partners, who designed Centre Point close by Tottenham Court Road Station.
In summary, the walk beside Dollis Brook is yet another example of London’s wealth of pleasant open spaces where city dwellers can enjoy some of the pleasures of the countryside without leaving the metropolis.
IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.
Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):
“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”
The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm, It contains chapters such as:
“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)
“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)
“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)
The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:
“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:
“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”
Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.
In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.
On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:
“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”
The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932. They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.
During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”
This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.
The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:
“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”
‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.
Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed. Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.
Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away. From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.
While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.
EXTRACTING TEETH IS still a significant part of the job of a dentist.
When I qualified as a dentist in 1982, I joined the practice in Rainham (Kent) run by Julian U. He was a generally competent dentist and very skilful when it came to extracting teeth. If, as it happened from time to time, I was having difficulty removing a tooth, he would come into my surgery to apply his skill and experience to the problem at hand. Whenever he did this, he would work on the offending tooth, but would stop when he knew I would be able to complete the operation.
Julian could have easily finished the job himself, but he left it to me to do this for a good reason. He knew that if I removed the tooth, the patient would believe that it was my skill that contributed to the successful conclusion of the operation and therefore would not lose confidence in me.
Later in the day, after the patient had left, Julian would explain to me why I had had difficulties and how to avoid repeating the problem. He was a great mentor as I began my career in dentistry.
The NHS used to pay a standard fee for an extraction. If an extraction proved to be particularly difficult, involving bone removal for example, the practitioner could write to the NHS explaining why the operation was not simple and enclosing a radiograph (xray image) of the tooth in question. In these cases, the NHS used to pay a larger fee than the standard one.
On one occasion when I had not taken a radiograph prior to an extraction because I had assumed it would be simple, the operation proved to be very difficult. After completing it, I applied for the supplementary fee but did not receive it because I had not submitted a preoperative radiograph. I was furious not only because I had not been adequately remunerated for my effort but also because my word had been doubted.
Some months later, a distressed couple brought their infant to my surgery. The child had chewed on a keyring and it had got stuck between two teeth. Carefully, I cut through the ring and thereby removed it from the kid’s teeth.
Still smarting from my failure to convince the NHS that my extraction of a few months earlier was truly difficult, I wrote up my keyring removal and applied for a fee for this unusual procedure. I explained that neither had I taken a radiograph (because it was unnecessary) nor was I able to send them any evidence, such as the remains of the keyring because the parents had wanted to keep them. I waited patiently for the NHS to reply, which they did. To my great surprise, they believed my story without me sending any evidence and paid me a decent fee. Nowadays, it would be unwise to perform any extraction without having taken a preoperative radiograph. This is not for the purposes of seeking enhanced remuneration but to protect the practitioner should the patient decide to make a complaint against the dentist. Sad to say, but by the time I retired, preventive dentistry acquired a new meaning. In addition to preventing dental disease in patients, it has also come to mean preventing the dentist from litigation and defending him or her when malpractice is alleged.
LONDON IS BLESSED with an abundance of open spaces where one can exercise and enjoy reasonably fresh air. In addition to parks, woods, the banks of the Thames, and squares with gardens, the towpaths alongside canals provide visually fascinating places to walk, run, or cycle. These canals used to be important routes along which freight could be transported right across England before they were rendered practically redundant by the advent of the railways. Despite this, they have been maintained and give great pleasure to many people including my wife and me.
Today, the 6th of November 2020, we walked along a branch of the Grand Union Canal from Golborne Road (near Portobello Road), where I practised dentistry from 1994 until about 2001, to Paddington Basin, which only became accessible to casual visitors in about 2000, when it was redeveloped. We began our walk in Meanwhile Park at the base of Trellick Tower, a tall block of flats designed in brutalist style by Ernő Goldfinger and opened in 1972. The pleasant community park, created in 1976, runs alongside a short stretch of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, which was opened for use in 1801. We walked across the narrow park and onto the towpath. Although we have walked along this often, what attracted me this time in addition to the variety of barges and waterfowl was the variety of bridges that cross the canal and its towpath. I shall concentrate on these in this essay.
The first bridge we walked beneath is that carrying the Great Western Road over the canal. This is a cast-iron, single-arched bridge with the Union Tavern at its northern end. It looks like a Victorian design. Heading east, after walking beneath the sweeping curve of the Westway, an elevated motorway (the A40), the first bridge we encountered was that which carries the Harrow Road over the canal. This iron bridge with brick abutments is shorter than the previous one because the canal narrows temporarily as it passes beneath it. A few yards east of this, there is another bridge that crosses the canal to reach an old, derelict building that must have been a factory in the past. The bridge, known as the ‘Pipe Bridge’, has a roof and is completely enclosed with translucent panelling. It looks as if it was built in the last few decades and leads from the factory to a solid brick wall which serves as its abutment on the south bank of the canal.
Four hundred yards east of the Pipe Bridge, after passing the green space around the Church of St Mary Magdalene, we pass beneath a concrete footbridge with iron railings and decorative lamp posts that links Delamere Terrace and Lords Hill Road with Blomfield Road across the canal. The approach to the bridge from Delamere Terrace is an elegant helical ramp. This fairly modern crossing is known as the ‘Ha’Penny Bridge’ (i.e. half penny).
The towpath runs south east and alongside Delamere Terrace and reaches the building that houses the Canal and River Trust, the former Toll House. This is next to another bridge, a delicate-looking cast-iron structure with masonry abutments topped with distinctive lamp stands. This carries Westbourne Terrace Road (laid out in the early 1850s) over a constricted section of the canal. East of this the canal enters a vast triangular expanse of water, the junction of three waterways: the Paddington Branch from west London, its continuation towards Paddington Station, and the Regents Canal that leads to Camden Town and further east.
The poet Robert Browning, who lived near to this junction area, or possibly Lord Byron, is credited with christening this district as ‘Little Venice’, the name by which it is known today (https://londoncanals.uk/2010/01/17/the-history-of-the-place-name-known-as-little-venice-and-the-facts-that-are-ignored/). With its willow trees, colourful barges, a wealth of waterfowl, and some floating refreshment outlets, Little Venice is a popular place for tourists both local and from further afield. The small island in the middle of the watery space, inhabited only by birdlife, is called Browning’s Island.
We leave Little Venice by walking south east along the next section of the Paddington Branch canal. Soon, we reach another bridge, an undistinguished structure that carries the Harrow Road over us and another short, constricted section of the canal. The next 450 yards of the towpath on the west side of the canal has been redeveloped recently and is lined with eateries both on the shore and on boats moored alongside the shore.
After walking beneath a concrete bridge, the Westway Viaduct, carrying the Westway high above us, we soon reach a fascinating footbridge over the canal. The span across the water is approached by both curving staircases and spiral ramps. This suspension bridge is supported by cables fanning out from a tall pole on the eastern side of the canal. It is known as the ‘Harrow Road’ footbridge. Despite an extensive search of the Internet, I have not yet discovered who designed this structure, which is a visual delight in comparison with the next bridge we reach, an inelegant concrete span, which carries Bishops Bridge Road.
Shortly before the direction of the canal turns from south east to due east, we need to cross it over a curious looking modern footbridge that runs beneath what looks like a double wall of glass panels. This, the Station Bridge (Paddington Basin), leads from the east side of Paddington Station to a footpath leading to North Wharf Road. It was completed in 2004 by the Langlands and Bell partnership (www.langlandsandbell.com/work/).
Having crossed this distinctive bridge, we are now on the final stretch of this blind ending branch of the Paddington Arm of the canal. Next, we encounter another suspension footbridge with perforated metal panels along both sides of its footway over the water. This bridge leads to a car park next to a twentieth century block, part of St Mary’s Hospital. This is the Paddington Basin Footbridge designed by Sidell Gibson Architects.
A few yards further east, we cross a short blind-ended inlet by means of a short bridge known as The Rolling Bridge. Designed by the Thomas Heatherwick Studio and completed in 2005, this bridge curls up into a circle to allow boats to enter or leave the inlet. Routinely, this pointlessly complex yet interesting bridge is opened briefly at noon on Wednesdays and Fridays and at 2pm on Saturdays.
On Fridays at noon, or when necessary, the last bridge over the Paddington Arm, a few feet away from its eastern terminus, can be seen in action. At rest, the Fan Bridge (aka Merchant Square Bridge) looks unexceptional. However, when it is raised to allow passage of vessels it is extraordinary. As the bridge rises, it splits into sections resembling five blades of a pen knife when they are all opened, or a lady’s fan. The bridge is twenty feet long, was designed by Knight Architects, and completed in 2014. We were lucky enough to see this bridge open and then to watch it closing. You can watch this happening on my video at https://youtu.be/UGQERbGo_jU .
Beyond the Fan Bridge, the canal ends abruptly. Trellick Tower, where we began our perambulation was a landmark in modern architecture when it was built. The Fan Bridge, constructed 42 years later, is another exciting development in design. In between the tower block and the unusual bridge, we passed beneath or over several canal crossings representing various points in the history of bridge design, many of them adding beauty to a lovely waterway that provides pleasure for many people.
DRIVING ALONG THE NORTH Circular Road, I noticed a long wall over the top of which I could see what looked like the pinnacles of a Gothic revival garden folly. We were driving past Gunnersbury Park in West London and did not have time to stop. So, the next day, we drove back to the park and spent some time exploring it. What we found was a fascinating estate consisting of beautiful park land and a series of architectural delights. This is hardly far from where we live, but it was the first time that we had visited it. Had I not noticed what I did when on the North Circular Road, I am not sure that we would not have considered making a trip to find out what lies behind the wall next to which queues of slow moving traffic can often be seen.
The first impression one gets on entering Gunnersbury Park with its wealth of trees including many Cedars of Lebanon is that you are inside the grounds of a great house such as you can find at, for example, Ham House and Osterley Park. That impression is justified because Gunnersbury Park is basically what is left of the grounds of a mansion built in the Palladian style for the lawyer and politician Sir John Maynard (1604-1690) between 1658 and 1663. It was designed by the architect John Webb (1611-1672). Maynard died at Gunnersbury Park.
Between 1762 and 1786, Gunnersbury Park was used as a summer residence by Princess Amelia (1711-1786), who was King George III’s aunt (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000808). In 1761, she had bought the estate from George Furness (after 1688-1756). His father had been a ‘factor’ in the East India Company. George was a British merchant and politician as well as being an art collector. He was a Member of Parliament between 1720 and 1756 and had bought the property in 1739 from John Hobart (1693-1756), 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire, a British politician. Furness improved the grounds by employing the famous gardener William Kent (1685-1748). I am not sure how much of his original design has survived the passage of time.
Princess Amelia, the second daughter of King George II, did much to improve the grounds, by landscaping, arranging planting, and by adding ornamental buildings, which still add to the charm of the place. These buildings include the bath house and a neo-classical temple, which overlooks a circular pond.
The princess held fabulous parties at Gunnersbury. In “Handbook to The Environs of London” by James Thorne, which was published in 1876, the politician and intellectual Horace Walpole (1717-1797), author of the Gothick novel “The Castle of Otranto”, who attended some of these parties, is quoted thus:
“Ever since the late king’s death, I have made Princess Amelia’s parties once or twice a week … I was sent for again to dine at Gunnersbury on Friday, and forced to send to town for a dress-coat and a sword. There were the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Mecklenburg, the Duke of Portland, Lord Clanbrassil … The Princess, Lady Barrymore, and the rest of us, played three pools at Commerce till ten … While we were at the Dairy, the Princess insisted on my making some verses on Gunnersbury. I pleaded being superannuated. She would not excuse me. I promised she should have an Ode on her next birthday, which diverted the Prince; but all would not do.”
The next morning, Walpole composed three verses for the Princess. One of them (quoted in a letter from Walpole to HS Conway dated 18th of June 1786) reads as follows:
“Oh! Why is Flaccus not alive,
Your favourite scene to sing?
To Gunnersbury’s charms could give
His lyre immortal spring.”
Walpole admitted in his letter to Conway that his poem was not one of his best. He wrote:
“If they are but poor verses, consider I am sixty-nine, and was half asleep, and made them ex-tempore – and by command!”
Following the death of the Princess, the Palladian mansion was demolished in 1801. Its contents were sold by auction and the 205 acres of its grounds were divided into lots and sold at the same time. Most of their area was bought by Alexander Copland (1774-1834), who built a new house, which forms the basis for the present building, which now houses a museum, which is currently closed because of the covid19 pandemic. Copland, a builder and business partner of the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806), was a son of Alexander Copland and his wife Barbara (née Smirke). The Alexander, who bought Gunnersbury was a cousin of the architect Robert Smirke (1780-1867), whose brother, also an architect, Sydney Smirke (1797-1877) designed the Orangery, which was built at Gunnersbury Park in 1836, and has been restored beautifully.
Copland built The Large Mansion (now the museum). Either Stephen Cosser or Major Alexander Morrison, a retired East India Company officer who bought the plot from him, built the so-called ‘Small Mansion’ to the east of the Large Mansion, which is currently in a poor state of repair. A gardener explained to us that it was supposed to be cared for by one London borough whereas the Large Mansion was under the care of another. In 1828, the part of the estate with the Small Mansion was bought by Thomas Farmer, who lived there as Copland’s neighbour until 1835.
In 1835, Copland’s Large Mansion was bought by the banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836). After his death a year later, his widow Hannah (née Barent-Cohen; 1783-1850) used Gunnersbury Park as her second home and employed the architect Sidney Smirke to make alterations to it (https://family.rothschildarchive.org/estates/37-gunnersbury). Following Hannah’s death, her oldest son Lionel Rothschild (1808-1879), the first ever practising Jew to become a Member of Parliament, took over the property and enlarged its park as well as improving the house’s facilities. After his death and that of his widow Charlotte, the estate moved into the possession of their youngest son Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917).
In 1889, Leopold purchased the Small Mansion and thereby reunited the two parts of the original Gunnersbury estate. Under the ownership of the Rothschild family, many improvements were made to the grounds, some of which I will mention soon. After Leopold died in 1917, the estate was broken up and parts were sold off. In 1925, both mansions and about 185 acres of attached grounds were purchased for public use by the then Boroughs of Acton and Ealing. Now, the park and its mansions are maintained by the boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.
The Large Mansion is elegant but not as attractive as the one which was demolished long ago and can be seen in old drawings. Nearby, the temple that overlooks a pond is delightful and reminded me of some of the garden architecture at Stourhead (in Wiltshire). Wandering around the garden, you will come across the Gothic revival architectural features I saw when driving past Gunnersbury Park on the North Circular Road. These are built around ‘Princess Amelia’s Bath House’, a garden folly built in the 1780s. Not far from this, there are very picturesque ‘Gothick’ ruins near to the estate’s farm buildings. These might be the remains of the dairy mentioned above in the quote from Horace Walpole or possibly later additions to the grounds constructed by an owner who bought the Princess’s estate. One source (https://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/publications/the-journal/journal-10-2000/princess-amelias-bath-house/) suggests that what is now called the ‘Bath House’ might have been the dairy in Amelia’s time at Gunnersbury. Whatever its history, lovers of romantic Gothic revival ruins will get great pleasure from what can be seen at Gunnersbury Park.
The Orangery stands next to a large pond. This structure was built whilst the Rothschilds owned the estate. It was constructed in 1836, designed by Sidney Smirke. The family were responsible for another water feature on their estate. It has a name that intrigued us: the Potomac Pond. This almost circular water body is surrounded by a fence and almost hidden by the trees and other vegetation growing around its perimeter. It is only accessible to members of a local angling club. The Rothschilds had purchased a former clay pit and converted it into the pond. One of the claypit’s kilns was rebuilt to create a Gothic revival tower on its shore. This lovely folly, which would look at home in a painting by the German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), might have once been used as a boathouse.
I have described a few of the features that make it well worthwhile to visit Gunnersbury Park, whose history is not exactly simple. The place is so near to London and the M4 motorway, yet it feels so far away. If it were not the background roar of the traffic and the low flying aeroplanes descending towards Heathrow Airport, fewer than usual these days, it would be hard to believe you were not deep in the countryside.
THE RIVER WESTBOURNE may be known by few, but seen by many, living in, or visiting, London. Much of this tributary of the River Thames is hidden from view; it runs underground. The river rises in West Hampstead, passes through Kilburn and beneath Bayswater Road, flows through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, then runs into the Thames near the gardens of The Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the annual Chelsea Flower Show, (close to the Bull Ring Gate bus stop).
What I will refer to as ‘The Serpentine’ is really the combination of the Long Water (in Kensington Gardens) and the contiguous Serpentine (in Hyde Park). It occupies part of the valley of the River Westbourne and is thus the only part of this river that most people can see. The Serpentine was created between 1730 and 1733 for Queen Caroline (1683-1737), wife of King George II. The body of water was formed by linking several existing ponds fed by the River Westbourne and by water pumped from the Thames. Today, some of the water is supplied from borewells in Hyde Park. Prior to the creation of the Serpentine, two of the ponds were separated by a building called ‘Price’s Lodge’. The “Daily Post” dated 20th of April 1733 reported that:
“The old Lodge in Hyde Park, together with part of the grove, is to be taken down in order to compleat the Serpentine River.”
Price’s Lodge, formerly known as ‘the Cheesecake House’ was a place where the nobility riding around Hyde Park could purchase refreshments (https://georgianera.wordpress.com/tag/prices-lodge/). The newspaper quoted above refers to ‘The old Lodge’, which might possibly been a separate building from Price’s Lodge, which might have still been in existence and being used as a boat house in 1801, but it was no longer standing later that century.
We begin our stroll at the end of the Serpentine just across Bayswater Road close to Lancaster Gate Underground Station. It was here that after flowing beneath Bayswater Road that the River Westbourne flowed into the Long Water section of the Serpentine. The so-called Italian Gardens consists of four large basins or reservoirs, each with eight sides. There is a fountain in the centre of each of them and another in the middle of them. The reservoirs are set on a platform adorned with sculptures and a statue of Edward Jenner, of vaccination fame. The platform is about eight feet above the water level of the rest of the Serpentine. At the north end of the platform with the reservoirs and fountains, there is a decorative building with a central single chimney and roofed with Italianate tiles. Facing the fountains, the building has a loggia, a convenient shelter during a rain shower. Behind the loggia there is a large room housing machinery to pump the water that shoots out of the fountains.
Between the Italian Gardens and Bayswater Road, there is a relatively new café, The Italian Gardens Café, which overlooks the fountains. The café is next to a neo-classical structure which contains a concavity lined with wood panelling. Made in 1705, designed by Christopher Wren (of St Pauls Cathedral fame) and bearing the crest of Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714), this is the Queen Anne Alcove. This decorative building was moved to its present site from near Kensington Palace in 1868.
The four reservoirs, which make the Italian Gardens delightful, were built in 1861 and were intended to act as filter beds for the Serpentine. The loggia-cum-engine house was designed by Robert Richardson Banks (1812-1872) and Charles Barry (1823-1900). The sculptural features, including urns and nymphs, through which water flows from the Gardens into the Serpentine, were designed by John Thomas (1813-1862).
Moving on from the Italian Gardens southwards along the east side of the Long Water, you can, if you are lucky, spot birds such as herons and cormorants standing in the water near the opposite shore. After a short stretch along which the lake is well hidden from the path by vegetation you reach an open space in the centre of which there is a huge sculpture made of travertine stone, “The Arch”, presented to the park by its creator, Henry Moore (1898-1986), in 1980. Looking through the arch and across the Serpentine you can see the equestrian sculpture “Physical Energy” by the Victorian sculptor GF Watts. The two sculptures are in line with Kensington Palace, of which there is an unobstructed view from the Moore artwork. “The Arch” is irregularly shaped because it is based on the for of an animal bone that the sculptor had in his possession. A path leads away from the Serpentine to the Serpentine Sackler art gallery, which is often worth visiting. However, we will ignore that and continue to follow the Long Water in a south easterly direction.
Soon, we reach an elegant masonry bridge with five arches spanning the water. This was built in the 1820s to the designs of John Rennie junior (1794-1874), son of John Rennie, who designed the first Waterloo Bridge. The foot path around the Serpentine passes under each end of the bridge through semi-circular stone lined tunnels. The bridge marks the boundary not only between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park but also between the Long Water and the Serpentine.
Walking along what has become the north shore of the water because of the bend in the Serpentine, you will pass numerous waterfowl of various shapes and sizes, including swans, gulls, ducks, coots, moorhens, geese, and cormorants. Step carefully to avoid their squidgy droppings along the footway. As you approach the modernistic Serpentine Bar and Kitchen (designed as ‘The Dell’ by Patrick Gwynne [1913-2003] and built in 1964) at the eastern end of the lake, you will pass two boat houses and a shed where in normal times, small pedal-operated boats may be hired by visitors. Look away from these boat houses towards the parkland north of the water and you will spot a roughly hewn monumental stone, a granite boulder. This is the Norwegian War Memorial, presented by the Norwegian Navy and Merchant Fleet in 1978. On one side it bears the words:
“You gave us a safe haven in our common struggle for freedom and peace”,
and on another:
“Worked and shaped by forces of nature for thousands of years”, which refers to the stone itself.
The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen is at one end of the Serpentine. Walking around the back of it, you will notice a small monument that marks the spot from which a supply of water to the Abbey of Westminster was granted by King Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066). Further along the path, heading south, we cross a balustraded bridge with arches facing the Serpentine. Water from the lake flows under the path and emerges from beneath it just before it falls over a cascade (made in 1820) into the luxuriantly vegetated ‘Dingley Dell’. South of the bridge, there is an ornamental urn, the Queen Caroline Memorial, beneath which there is the following inscription:
“To the memory of Queen Caroline wife of George II for whom the Long Water and the Serpentine were created between 1727 . 1731.”
The path around the Serpentine begins heading west along the south shore of the lake. It is flanked by many trees including weeping willows. Eventually, we reach the Lido. The Lido includes a café and an outdoor bathing area, where bold swimmers, who are not averse to pondweed and sharing the water with waterfowl, can swim in the unheated water of the Serpentine. The front of the café is supported by a row of pillars with Doric capitals. A plaque attached to the wall facing the water commemorates the once leader of the Labour Party George Lansbury (1859-1940), who created the bathing area in about 1930. When the situation is normal, when there is no covid19 pandemic, swimmers use the bathing area throughout the year whatever the temperature of the water.
After enjoying a refreshment at the Lido, we move towards Rennie’s mighty bridge, passing first the Diana Memorial Fountain, opened by the Princess’s mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, in 2004. This curiously designed water feature consists of two streams of water that flow down curved slopes and meet each other at the lower end of the fountain closest to the Serpentine. Near this, there is a huge, rather unattractive, sculpture of a bird with a long beak. Titled “Isis”, this artwork was created by Simon Gudgeon in 2009. Its circular base has bands of metal inscribed with the names of supporters of the Look Out Hyde Park appeal.
A short stretch of foot path takes one from Isis to the beautiful bridge across the Serpentine. After emerging from the tunnel under the bridge, we find ourselves back in Kensington Gardens and alongside the Long Water section of the Serpentine, walking in a north-westerly direction. Looking away from the water, you will spot a single storey building with three arches each topped with triangular pediments. Built in 1734-35, this is Queen Caroline’s Temple, which might have been designed by William Kent (1685-1748). Opposite it and across the water you get a fine view of Henry Moore’s sculptural arch.
Further on, the pathway runs alongside the water, affording a good view of the distant Italian Gardens and many waterfowl perched on a series of wooden posts crossing the water. Looking away from the water, you will see a statue of Peter Pan standing above a collection of children and animals. Peter Pan is a character created by the author James Barrie (1860-1937), who lived on Bayswater. The statue was created in 1912 by the artist George Frampton (1860-1928).
A few yards further, and we come alongside the western edge of the Italian Gardens. Looking west, you can see a distant obelisk, a memorial to the explorer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864). Near the north west corner of the Gardens, there is a cute sculpture of two bears embracing each other. This metal artwork is placed upon a disused stone drinking fountain. A plaque attached to it notes that it commemorates the 80th anniversary of The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain & Cattle Trough Association, which was founded in 1859. If you get thirsty reading this plaque, then help is close at hand at the lovely Italian Gardens Café.
Finally, one more brief note about Queen Caroline, for whom the Serpentine was created, and which now provides much joy to many Londoners and others. When she inquired of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) the cost of enclosing the publicly owned St James Park to secure it for her exclusive use, he replied:
“Only three crowns”
By this, Walpole, the Prime Minister, meant the Crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland because what she was asking was politically impossible.
SINCE THE FOURTH OF JULY 2020, the anniversary of the day Britain lost a large American colony and when our worldly wise Prime Minister deemed it safe for all of us to be liberated from the constraints of ‘lockdown’ and encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, a policy that appears to have helped to spread the covid19 virus as well as restaurant owners, we have been roaming around the countryside, discovering what a beautiful country we inhabit. What has struck me when driving from A to B is the number of exceptionally attractive, yet not well-known, villages we have passed through. The village of Comberton in Cambridgeshire was one of these, which we nearly drove past without examining it. However, as time was on our side and it looked so lovely, we stopped there for a few minutes and took a stroll around.
We parked next to an oddly shaped small village pond in which clumps of reeds were growing. A small family of ducks wound its way between the vegetation, occasionally disappearing from view. At the far end of the pond, there is an old low brick wall. Behind it, there is a long two-storey house with a brick roof and decorative chimney stacks. Before describing some of the other lovely buildings in the village, let me give you a flavour of its history.
Sometime between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, someone dropped a polished Neolithic stone axe near where the village stands today. Somewhat later, the Romans built a villa near Comberton. Even later, the village’s name began to evolve, as is described on the village’s website (http://www.comberton.org/home/about-comberton/history-of-comberton/):
“A lot is said about the name of the village and its origins. It is believed that the name is of Celtic origin, possibly named after a landowner by the name of Cumbra. The Domesday Book (1086) has it recorded as Cumbertone. According to William Kip’s map of the area in 1607 Comberton is spelt as it is today and interestingly Barton is spelt Berton”
The village has several churches, which we will visit in the future. One of these is St Mary’s, is in the Early English style with later modifications. Another still extant place of worship is used by non-Conformists. There have been associations between non-Conformism and Comberton since as early as the 17th century. The Puritan William Dowsing (1596-1668), an iconoclast, visited the village in March 1643, and recorded:
“‘We brake downe a crucifix and 69 superstitious pictures we brake downe, and gave order to take downe 36 cherubims, and the steps to be taken down by March 25.’”
Prior to 1772, when a new road, a turnpike (now the A228), was built, Comberton was on the road connecting Oxford with Cambridge. Apart from the usual activities found in villages, such as butchery, bakery, saddlery, harness-making, inn keeping, blacksmithing, and so on, the place had one industry for a while. That was in the 19th century when Comberton became a small centre for mining coprolite, fossilised dung. This material used to be ground in a mill to produce a powder that made a good crop fertiliser. Judging by the good state of the houses and the high-quality cars parked near them, the inhabitants of Comberton appear make their living in reasonably well-paid jobs. Were I to have had a profitable career in or near Cambridge, this village might have been a good place to live.
Every village is unique, but many share the same features. In Comberton, we saw several houses with well-maintained thatched roofs. However, we also saw something I had never noticed before. Some of the houses had what you might describe as ‘hybrid’ roofs: partly thatched and partly tiled. One house near the village pond had something we have seen on thatched roofs in many other villages. That is, the ridge of the thatch is decorated with animals made of thatch. Here in Comberton, this one roof was adorned with thatch sculptures of four birds with long necks, that made me think they are supposed to be depicting geese rather than ducks or swans.
The village pond, which is across the road from a dental surgery and ‘Millionhairz’, a hairdresser’s salon, is encircled by an attractive low, neatly built stone wall that curves around the water in a visually pleasant way. On the green next to the pond, there is a timber post that supports a sign (erected 1977) with the name of the village and a two-sided picture above it. On one side, a priest is depicted handing fishes to three people with outstretched arms. This refers to years long past when herrings were handed out to the poor in the village soon before Easter. The other side of the picture above the village name depicts a farmer ploughing his field with a plough drawn by a horse. Behind the farmer high on a hill, there is a white coloured wooden windmill. This reminds us that once Comberton had two working mills.
Our visit to Comberton lasted no more than ten minutes partly because we had to reach somewhere to meet my cousin and because the weather was miserable: grey, cold, and wet. However, what little we saw of this delightful place made us realise that it was well worth stopping en-route to our destination. We have already driven through so many intriguing villages on our excursions through the English countryside. I would have liked to spend time in all of these, and hope to return to some of them in the future. I would rather spend time wandering around picturesque villages than sitting for hours in traffic jams, as happens so often these days.
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.”
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.