Lost and found … in Cornwall

MY COUSINS IN CORNWALL live not far from a place called Withiel. The mainline train from London to Penzance usually stops at a station called Lostwithiel. The latter is just over 7 miles southeast of Withiel as the crow flies. Yesterday, the 26th of July 2021, we decided to visit both Withiel and Lostwithiel. Despite its name, Lostwithiel on the River Fowey is much easier to access than Withiel, which is deep in the Cornish countryside.

Mediaeval arch in Lostwithiel

The ‘lost’ in Lostwithiel has little if anything to do with being unable to be found. There is agreement that ‘lost’ is the Cornish word for ‘tail’. It is likely that Lostwithiel derived from the Cornish ‘Lost Gwydhyel’, meaning ‘tail end of woodland’. The village of Withiel is known as ‘Egloswydhyel’ in the Cornish language. This means ‘church in woodland’. Having found out that Lostwithiel is not actually lost nor ever has been, I will compare the two places.

Withiel, far smaller than Lostwithiel, is small village with a fine old church, St Clements and a few, about twenty at most, houses arranged around a rectangular open space. The parish church, which I have yet to enter, originated in the 13th century. It was rebuilt in granite in the 15th and 16th centuries and looks far too large for such a small village and its neighbouring communities including one called Withielgoose. The rebuilding was instigated by Thomas Vyvyan (late 1470s – 1533), the penultimate Prior of Bodmin before the Reformation. He was a Cornishman educated at Exeter College (Oxford), who was instituted in the rectory of Withiel in 1523,  and then at St Endellion Church in 1524.  Withielgoose, which is tiny place that includes the word ‘withiel’, has nothing to do with geese. The name derives from the Cornish words ‘gwyth’, meaning trees; ‘yel’, of unknown meaning; and ‘coes’, meaning ‘wood’.

Tiny Withiel has at least one interesting historical figure apart from Thomas Vyvyan, Sir Bevile Grenville (1594/95-1643). Educated at Exeter College (Oxford), he was a Member of Parliament and a Royalist. He was killed at The Battle of Lansdown (5th of July 1643) in the English Civil War. The historian of the Civil War Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674), who served the Royalists during the conflict, wrote of Sir Bevile:

“…to the universal grief of the army, and, indeed, of all who knew him. He was a gallant and a sprightly gentleman, of the greatest reputation and interest in Cornwall, and had most contributed to all the service that had been done there.”

From small Withiel, we move to the town of Lostwithiel, an attractive place that seems not to have become as great a tourist attraction as have many other picturesque places in Cornwall. The town was established in the early 12th century by Norman lords, who constructed Restormel Castle nearby. It was a stannary town, which meant that it could manage the collection of ‘tin coinage’, a duty payable on tin mined in Cornwall. Most of what was collected entered the coffers of the Duchy of Cornwall.

In the 13th century, Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall (‘Edmund of Almain’; 1249-1300) built both the Great Hall in Lostwithiel and the town’s church tower. Edmund was son of Richard of Cornwall, 1st Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans (king, not emperor, of the Holy Roman Empire) between 1257 and 1272.  The tower is still standing as are also the remains of the Great Hall, built between about 1265 and 1300, making it one of the oldest non-ecclesiastical buildings in Cornwall. It was a large complex of buildings, which was badly damaged during the English Civil War. What remains is an interesting set of mediaeval buildings and the old Exchequer Hall, now known as ‘The Duchy Palace’. Later used as a Masonic Hall, some of its windows contain six-pointed stars as used by the Masons. A crest on one of its walls is the earliest version of that of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has long since been replaced by the plume of feathers used today. The Cornish born (in St Austell) and world-renowned historian Alfred Leslie Rowse (1903-1997) wrote that in the mediaeval era:

“… the real centre of Duchy administration was Lostwithiel; here the various offices, the shire hall where the county court met, the exchequer of the Duchy, the Coinage Hall for the stannaries’ and the stannary jail, were housed in the fine range of buildings built by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall…”

So, Lostwithiel was once important as an administrative centre, but it has now lost this role.

The River Fowey flows through Lostwithiel, passing meadows where people picnic, and children play. The river, though wide, is shallow enough for youngsters to play in safely. The river is crossed by a magnificent multi-arched, stone bridge, which is so narrow that it is only wide enough for one single motor vehicle. The crossing has six pointed arches. It was constructed in the mid-15th century. Its parapets were built in the 16th century and an additional flood arch was added in the 18th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1327324).

We wandered around Lostwithiel for a while and saw many fine old buildings apart from those already mentioned. One of them is the Museum, housed in the former Corn Exchange (a Georgian building), and the former Grammar School. We also spotted an ancient Cornish cross in the parish churchyard. Lostwithiel is a place to which I hope to return to spend more time there. In comparison to Withiel that is far more lost from sight, Lostwithiel has plenty to interest the visitor.

Crossing the Camel

THE CONSERVATIVE CLUB in Cornwall’s Wadebridge has opened its doors to the general public. Visitors to the club of any political persuasion can enjoy superbly cooked food in its bar and dining room, which bears the name ‘Winstons’. The club, which is located at the higher end of Molesworth Street, is housed in a building that is far more than 100 years old. The street runs gently downhill towards a multi-arched stone bridge that crosses the River Camel.

Before there was a bridge across the river, the town now known as Wadebridge was called ‘Wade’ and stood beside a ford across the Camel, whose name probably means ‘crooked one’. Crossing the river by means of the ford was perilous. Before the bridge was built, a ferry became available as an additional means of traversing the wide stream. Becoming distressed by the number of people and animals that died whilst attempting to cross the river, the Reverend Thomas Lovibond, Vicar of Egloshayle, had the idea of building a bridge. This bridge was constructed between 1468 and 1485. It is said that its supporting piers rested on packs of wool. With the arrival of the bridge, the town of Wade became renamed ‘Wadebridge’. The chronicler and topographer William of Worcester (1415-c1482) mentioned the bridge as ‘Wade-brygge’ in 1478’.

 The bridge was widened in 1853 and again in 1963. It was refurbished in 1994. Although the stonework of the arches looks old, I am not sure how much of it is part of what was constructed in the late 15th century.

During the Civil War (1642-1651), Cornwall was a Royalist stronghold. Much of the rest of the southwest of England supported the Royalist’s opponents, the Parliamentarians. Wadebridge’s bridge was an important strategic location. In 1646, the Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) led 500 dragoons and 1000 horsemen successfully to take control of the bridge. The story goes as follows (www.cornwalllive.com/news/history/oliver-cromwell-came-person-take-511634):

“After losing the decisive Battle of Torrington in Devon on February 16, 1646, the Royalists escaped into Cornwall … [the] Parliamentarians, led by Thomas Fairfax, hunted them down and reached Launceston on February 25 and Bodmin on March 2 … On March 5 the Cornish Royalist leaders realised they were fighting a losing battle and surrendered the east of Cornwall to the Parliamentarians at Millbrook … A day later, as the battle moved westwards, Parliamentarian commander Oliver Cromwell and 1,500 of his soldiers descended onto Wadebridge to take control of the bridge and prevent its use by the Royalist army. The route across the bridge was considered to be of such strategic importance that Cromwell, who had been spending months mopping up resistance in Devon and Cornwall, personally led his troops there to capture it.”

The huge forces brought by Cromwell were either unnecessary or an effective deterrent because the Royalists withdrew without putting up a fight (www.wadebridgemuseum.co.uk/bridge.html).

The first motor car to cross the bridge did so in 1901. The crossing continues to play an important role in the transport network of Cornwall. The town is a charming small centre, well supplied with pubs, independent shops, and branches of supermarket chains. It is a part of the Parliamentary constituency of North Cornwall. Diners at, and members of, Wadebridge Conservative Club might (or might not) be pleased to know that the local MP since 2015 is Scott Mann, a Conservative. He was born in Wadebridge and attended its local state secondary school. I suppose that he must have dined or drunk at the Conservative Club where we enjoyed first class food. So, next time you are in Wadebridge, sweep aside any political prejudices you might harbour and head for Winstons at the Conservative Club and enjoy a great meal.

A bridge across the River Thames and a personal loss

JUST UNDER A YEAR AGO, we visited Cookham in Berkshire, a small town on the River Thames, with our friend ‘H’. I first met H and her widowed mother in about 1975 at the home of some dear friends, my PhD supervisor and his wife. My wife and I used to see H about once a year until about 1999 at the home of our mutual friends. Then, we lost touch. A few years ago, H and I reconnected via social media and we kept promising that we should meet up again. It was only in about July 2020 during a relaxation of the covid19 regulations that we finally met face to face. Our meeting was in Cookham, where we enjoyed an exhibition at the small Stanley Spencer Art Gallery. After having coffee together – it was the first time that H had been to drink coffee outside her home since mid-March, we walked through the rain to Cookham Bridge and crossed it, admiring the lovely views of the Thames.

Cookham Bridge

The roadway on Cookham Bridge is so narrow that traffic must be regulated by signals at both ends of the crossing. These signals allow traffic to flow in single file in one direction for a few minutes, and then in the other. While we walked across the bridge, I noted its lovely decorative iron railings, which can be seen in a painting, “Swan Upping at Cookham” (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/spencer-swan-upping-at-cookham-t00525), painted in 1915-19 by Cookham’s famous artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

It was not until April 2021 that we revisited Cookham with some friends and walked along the Thames Path, which passes under Cookham Bridge. It was then that I noticed what we had not seen with H: the interesting Victorian ironwork structure supporting the crossing. A sign screwed onto one of the pontic’s metal panels reads: “Pease, Hutchinson, & Co. 1867. Engineers & iron Manufacturers. Skerne Iron Works. Darlington”. The Skerne Iron Works were:

“…run by a Quaker partnership trading as Pease, Hutchinson and Ledward. The Skerne company built its reputation upon plates for ships, boilers, and particularly bridge building, and at its peak employed 1,000 workers.” (www.gracesguide.co.uk/Pease,_Hutchinson_and_Co)

The iron bridge, supported by pairs of slender iron beams (filled with concrete) with cross-bracing rods, was opened in 1867 to replace an earlier wooden bridge that was opened in 1840. The existing bridge was when it was constructed the cheapest bridge across the Thames for its size (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cookham_Bridge). Until 1947, it was a privately owned bridge for which users needed to pay a toll. It was owned by the Cookham Bridge Company. In 1947, Berkshire County Council bought the bridge, and the toll was abolished. An octagonal house still stands next to the bridge across the river from Cookham. It is the early 19th century toll house built in 1839 by a Mr Freebody (https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/Monument/MBC19500).

At the Cookham side of the bridge stands The Ferry pub, close to where there used to be a ferry across the river. This old, half-timbered inn, now a mid-priced eatery, has a lovely terrace by the river, from which the bridge can be viewed as well as the waterways leading downstream to Cookham weir and the lock that bypasses it.

Recently, a close relative of H contacted me. He had found my details in the address book in H’s computer. It came as a shock to learn from him that H had passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. When we had last seen her late last year, she was looking hale and hearty. Apparently, one Saturday, she began feeling extremely unwell and on the following day she expired. We were terribly upset because we got on so well with her and were planning outings with her once the covid19 socialising restrictions were eased. They were relaxed but not in time for us to be able to see H again. As we drove through Cookham on our most recent visit, we kept seeing places that reminded us of our meeting with her last summer.

Our friend with whom we crossed Cookham Bridge last year has crossed from this world into another, where I hope that she will be reunited with her parents, our mutual friends, who introduced her to me and then later to my wife, as well as Sir Geoffrey Howe and Elspeth, his wife, with whom she worked happily for many years. H will be sorely missed.

A castle, a bridge, and the law

RIVER CROSSINGS HAVE often had great historical significance. The small town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire has been a place for crossing the River Thames since Roman times or maybe even before. According to “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names” by someone with an interesting name: Eilert Ekwall, a fascinating book that I picked up for next to nothing at a local charity shop, the town was known as ‘Waelingaford’ in 821 AD, as ‘Welengaford’ in c893 AD, and ‘Walingeford’ in the Domesday Book. The meaning of the name is ‘The ford of Wealh’s people’, clearly referring to a river crossing place. It is said the William the Conqueror used the ford. Today, a fine bridge with many arches crosses the river.

Wallingford Castle

There has been a bridge at Wallingford since 1141, or before. The construction of the first stone bridge was probably constructed for Richard, the first Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272), a son of King John, who became King of Germany (Holy Roman Empire) in 1256, a title he held until his death. Some of the arches of the bridge may contain stonework from the 13th century structure. Much of the present bridge dates from a rebuilding done between 1810 and 1812 to the designs of John Treacher (1760-1836). During the Civil War (1642-1651), four arches were removed and replaced by a drawbridge to help defend the besieged Wallingford Castle.

The huge castle was built on a hill overlooking the town; the river – an artery for water transport in the past; and, more importantly, the bridge, which was an important crossing place on the road leading from London to Oxford via Henley-on-Thames. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, the castle was used a great deal, being used as a royal residence until Henry VIII abandoned it. During the Civil War, the castle was restored and re-fortified and used as a stronghold by the Royalists. It was of great importance to them as their headquarters were at nearby Oxford. To simplify matters, the Parliamentarians began laying siege to Wallingford Castle in 1645. This initial attempt was unsuccessful because the besiegers had underestimated the strength of the castle’s fortifications. After the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Naseby (14th June 1645), Wallingford was one of only three strongholds in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) still loyal to King Charles I. A second siege of Wallingford commenced on the 14th of May 1646, shortly after the Parliamentarians had laid siege to Oxford. The latter fell on the 24th of June 1646, but Wallingford held out until the 22nd of July 1646 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallingford,_Oxfordshire). The castle was demolished in November 1652.

The castle grounds are open to the public. Here and there, few and far between, there are ruins of what must have once been a spectacular castle. Within the grounds of the former castle, there are several informative notices that give the visitor some idea of which part of the castle used to stand near the signs. From the grassy areas that formed the motte and bailey of the castle, there are fine views of the river below and some of the town.

Although our first visit to Wallingford was brief, I learnt that the judge Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) had presided as the Recorder at Wallingford from 1749 to 1770. “So, what?”, I hear you asking. At first, I hoped that he was something to do with the road, where we lived in Chicago (Illinois) in 1963: South Blackstone Avenue (number 5608). But I think that thoroughfare was more likely named after the American politician and railway entrepreneur Timothy Blackstone (1829-1900). The Wallingford Blackstone, who lived in the 18th century, was most probably a distant cousin of Timothy’s father (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Blackstone). Related or not, Sir William Blackstone had an extremely important influence the legal affairs of the USA.

Having studied at the University of Oxford and the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar, Sir William taught law at Oxford for a few years. Just before resigning his prestigious academic position in 1766, he published the first volume of what was to become a best-seller, a real money-spinner, “Commentaries on the Laws of England”. Eventually, this work was completed in four volumes. They contain:

“… first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law, developed from the Roman law, to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commentaries_on_the_Laws_of_England)

The “Commentaries” are widely regarded as being the definitive sources of common law in America before the American Revolution. Blackstone’s writings were influential in the formulation of the American Constitution. His words embodied his vision of English law as a method of protecting people, their possessions, and their freedom. Blackstone’s ideas are well exemplified by this quotation from the “Commentaries”:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This is known as ‘Blackstone’s Ratio’.

Leaders of the American Revolution recycled the idea with words such as:

“It is of more importance to the community that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…” (John Adams; 1735-1826), and:

“…it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer…” (Benjamin Franklin; 1706-1790)

As already mentioned, Sir William presided in the court in Wallingford from 1749 onwards, three years after being called to the Bar. During his career, he served as a Tory Member of Parliament a couple of times: for Hindon (1761-68) and for Westbury (1768-70). In the House of Commons, he was:

“…an infrequent and ‘an indifferent speaker’: during the seven years 1761-8 only 14 speeches by him are recorded, mostly on subjects of secondary importance. Very learned and original, over-subtle and ingenious, in major debates he showed a lack of political common sense.” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/blackstone-william-1723-80)

The Blackstone family owned a large estate at Wallingford including 120 acres of land by the River Thames. He died in Wallingford and was buried inside St Peter’s Church, which is close to the bridge over the river.  

What little we saw of Wallingford, its castle, its riverside including the Thames towpath, its attractive market square, and streets rich in historic buildings, during our brief visit recently, we saw enough to whet our appetites for a future and lengthier visit.

A tunnel, a bridge, and a round building

IF THE RAILWAY authorities did not prevent people from wandering along the track as many people do in India (for example), taking a photograph of an amazing construction at the base of London’s Primrose Hill would be simple. But, wisely, they do not encourage people to risk their lives on tracks that carry high speed trains from London’s Euston station to places north of it. The remarkable edifice to which I am referring is the eastern entrance to the Primrose Hill Tunnels that originally carried lines of the London and Birmingham Railway (‘L&BR’) underground between Primrose Hill Road in the east and Finchley Road in the west. Short of trespassing on the tracks, the best place to see the entrance is through the railings on the north side of King Henrys Road a few feet east of Primrose Hill Road.

The Roundhouse

The Primrose Hill tunnels were the first railway tunnels dug in London and some of the first in the United Kingdom (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1329904). The tunnels had to be built strong enough to withstand the weight of houses that were to be built above them. The land beneath which the trains pass is part of the Eton Estate (owned by Eton College). When the railway was being laid in the early 19th century, the Estate raised objections initially, worrying that running a railway through a deep cutting would reduce the saleability of the land, the Chalcot Estate owned by Eton, through which it ran. However:

“The L&BR bought off any possible College obstruction by agreeing to put the line in a tunnel through the Chalcots Estate. From an engineering viewpoint this was unnecessary as the rails were never more than 50 ft below the ground surface, and side slopes of 1 on 2 were specified initially. A tunnel had the merit of using no land, the surface being preserved for building …” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

Digging the tunnels was not without danger. Workmen got killed. When this happened, their bodies were taken at first to be laid out in a local hostelry, The Chalk Farm Tavern. This place in Regents Park Road was rebuilt in 1853-54 and its new building is now home to Lemonia, a popular Greek restaurant. So, next time you are enjoying a plate of tzatziki or a souvlaki, just remember that years ago there was a mortuary for railway navvies near your table.

Today, there are two tunnels commencing at Primrose Hill Road. The northern one, nearest Adelaide Road, was the first to be built, in 1837. The southern one, nearest King Henrys Road, was built about 40 years later. Part of Eton College Estate’s requirements of the L&BR was:

“… the mouth of the Tunnel at the eastern end shall be made good and finished with a substantial and ornamental facing of brickwork or masonry to the satisfaction of the Provost and College…” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

The portals at this end of the tunnel, which can just about be seen from King Henrys Road, are grand and impressive examples of neo-classical Italianate masonry. The northern portal, the first to be constructed, was designed by William H Budden, who was appointed as an office assistant to the L&BR in May 1834 (https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16826/1/Railway%20tunnels%20recovered%203.pdf). The newer southern portal is a replica of the earlier one.

The graffiti-covered iron railway bridge that is 530 yards east of the tunnel, quite close to the house on King Henrys Road once occupied by the Indian politician and lawyer Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), is easy to see, but far less attractive than the tunnels’ magnificent portals. Now a pedestrian and cycle bridge, it carries the northern section of Regents Park Road across the tracks. The present bridge, made of iron, was constructed in 1846 to replace an earlier one built in brick in 1839 (http://primrosehillhistory.org/?p=388). Until 1992, passengers could board and disembark from trains at a station at the northern end of the bridge. Opened in 1859, this station was named ‘Hampstead Road’, then ‘Chalk Farm’, and finally ‘Primrose Hill’.

Whereas the Primrose Hill Tunnel portals can only be glimpsed with great difficulty, the largely brick-built Roundhouse, a few yards south of Chalk Farm Underground Station, is impossible to miss. Located close to the railway tracks a few yards east of the Regents Park Road footbridge, this circular building was built as a railway locomotive shed in 1846-47. It was designed by Robert Benson Dockray (1811-1871), who had been an Assistant Engineer during the construction of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1835 (https://www.locallocalhistory.co.uk/ctown/p001/pages39-42.htm).  The building was made circular because in its centre there was a turntable for moving the locomotives that were stored on tracks radiating out from it.

In 1967, the then disused Roundhouse was converted into a huge theatre. From the 1970s onwards, I used to attend occasional performances there. Amongst these, I particularly recall a somewhat raunchy show put on by the Grande Magic Circus, a French company, and many years later, an incomprehensible performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream”, which was performed in a variety of Indian languages by a troupe of acrobatic gymnasts. In recent years, a sculpture by Antony Gormley has been placed on the roof of a modern annex of the Roundhouse.

Private functions are also held in the Roundhouse. On one occasion, we were invited to a bat-mitzvah held there. Drinks and canapés were served in the circular upper floor gallery that runs around the circular auditorium. I was extremely surprised when one of the other guests came up to me and after looking me up and down, said:

“You must be in the fashion business.”

For a moment I was flattered, then I wondered whether he had had one too many or was visually impaired.

Monkey Island

ROWERS AT THE 2012 Olympics would have become familiar with Dorney Lake. Built at great expense by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s alma-mater, Eton College, this 1.4-mile-long waterway, a rowing lake, was ready for use by 2006. From the air, it looks like a long, wide airport runway filled with water. Prior to 2012, it was used for several international rowing competitions. In 2012, the lake was the site of both the Olympic and the Summer Paralympics. The lake continues to be used for rowing and members of public are allowed to use the parkland surrounding it when events are not taking place.

Monkey Island

We reached the outer fence of the rowing lake after crossing the elegant Summerleaze footbridge across the River Thames. It allows cyclists and pedestrians to travel between Bray (Berkshire) and Dorney (Buckinghamshire). The bridge takes its name from the company that built it in 1996. It was constructed originally to carry a gravel conveyor belt, which transported gravel from the construction site of the Dorney Lake across the river to the Summerleaze company’s gravel pits next to Monkey Island near to the village of Bray.

The view from the top of the footbridge is magical. The Thames flows briskly beneath it. Upstream the water flows around Monkey Island. Then it travels as a single stream beneath the bridge before being divided into two streams by another island a few yards downstream, Queen’s Eyot. On the chilly Saturday afternoon, when we crossed the bridge, several small cruisers and canoeists passed beneath us.  If you are lucky, and we were, you can see the towers and turrets of Windsor Castle in the distance on the south-eastern horizon.

Looking upstream and through the trees on Monkey Island, you can catch a glimpse of part of the Monkey Island Estate, currently a grand hotel built in and around a house with a fascinating history (www.monkeyislandestate.co.uk/pages/our-story.html).  Many people assume that Monkey Island is so-called because of the paintings of monkeys in one of the buildings on the island, but this is probably erroneous.  The name is most likely derived from the island’s earlier name ‘Monk’s Eyot’. The monks lived in Amersden Bank near Bray Lock on the Buckinghamshire side of the Thames. Their monastery, a cell of Merton Priory, was in existence by 1187, but was dissolved when Henry VIII put an end to such establishments.

The Great Fire of London of 1666 gave the area around Monkey Island a particular importance. For it was from here that Berkshire stone (for details, see: http://hanneyhistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Berkshire_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf) was shipped down river to aid the reconstruction of London. Gravel from the damaged city was brought back upriver and dumped on and around Monkey Island. This resulted in both raising the level of the island to above flood level and providing a solid foundation upon which to construct buildings. Well, getting to know this was alone a good consequence of having crossed the Summerleaze bridge, but wait, there is more to follow.

An ancestor of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Spencer Churchill, Charles Spencer, the 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-1758), purchased the island in about 1723. He had:

“…seen the property whilst attending meetings of the notorious Kit-Kat Club at nearby Down Place in Water Oakley. The Club which met from 1720 purported to be a gathering of ‘men of wit and pleasure about town’ but beneath a facade of joviality had more sinister objectives concerned with the defence of the House of Hanover.” (www.berkshirehistory.com/castles/monkey_island.html).

The Kit Kat Club, about which I have written before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/29/kit-kat-in-hampstead/) also used to meet at the Upper Flask pub in Hampstead Village.

The Duke had two buildings constructed on his recent purchase: a ‘fishing temple’ and a ‘fishing lodge’. The latter, constructed from wooden blocks that were cut to look like stone, still stands and is known as The Pavilion. Lady Hertford (1699-1754), Frances Seymour, later the Duchess of Somerset, writing in 1738, described the Pavilion as follows:

“He has a small house upon it, whose outside represents a farm – the inside what you please: for the parlour, which is the only room in it except the kitchen, is painted upon the ceiling in grotesque, with monkeys fishing, shooting etc., and its sides are hung with paper.”

The Monkey paintings, which still exist, were the work of a French artist Andien de Clermont (died 1783), who worked in England between about 1716 and 1756. Painted before 1738, they decorated the ceiling of what was once a banqueting room. It is now known as the ‘Monkey Room’.

By about 1840, the pavilion had become an inn, which could be reached by ferry from near Bray on the Berkshire side of the Thames. The hostelry became quite popular during the early 20th century, when its regular guests included King Edward VII and his immediate family. The authors HG Wells and Rebecca West enjoyed visiting the place. West makes many references to the island in her novel “The Return of the Soldier” (published in 1918). Here is an excerpt:

“So they went to Monkey Island, the utter difference of which was a healing, and settled down happily in its green silence. All the summer was lovely; quiet, kind people, schoolmasters who fished, men who wrote books, married couples who still loved solitude, used to come and stay in the bright little inn.”

In 1956, a footbridge was built from the Berkshire shore to the island. Additional accommodation was added to the original Pavilion in 1963 and then the inn became known as the ‘Monkey Island Hotel’. After a brief period of decline in the early 1980s, the hotel was restored and has become a successful luxury destination with a fine restaurant, which we have yet to sample.

Our friend who lives in Bray kindly introduced us to the Summerleaze footbridge from where we glimpsed the building on Monkey Island. She suspected that the place had an interesting history, and she was quite right. I will leave you with one more quote from Rebecca West’s novel, one which captured the atmosphere of the place well both when she wrote and today:

“…a private road that followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them—he described it meticulously, as though it were of immense significance—there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited back-water, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles, and to the left of that a low, white house with a green dome rising in its middle, and a veranda with a roof of hammered iron that had gone verdigris-color with age and the Thames weather. This was the Monkey Island Inn. The third Duke of Marlborough had built it for a “folly,” and perching there with nothing but a line of walnut-trees and a fringe of lawn between it and the fast, full, shining Thames, it had an eighteenth-century grace and silliness.”

An old bridge on the moor

POSTBRIDGE IS A TINY SETTLEMENT in the middle of Dartmoor on the banks of the East Dart River, a tributary of the River Dart. The road that passes through the hamlet crosses the river over a venerable stone bridge (built in the 1720s). A few yards away from the bridge, there stands a far older bridge, a so-called ‘clapper bridge’.

The clapper bridge consists of four stone abutments (piers) spanned by three wide slabs of granite, each weighing about 6.5 to 8 tons. It is a simple but elegant structure, which has survived for many centuries. The bridge was most probably built to allow pack horses carrying tin to cross the stream on the way to Tavistock on the west side of Dartmoor. It was already in existence in the 13th century and is one of only 40 surviving examples of this kind of river crossing in the British Isles.

When we arrived at Postbridge during our journey from Cornwall to Somerset, the clapper bridge was crowded with camera-laden tourists who spoke German. Some of them were impolite, shouting at us rudely to get us to move off the clapper bridge so that they could get better photographs. Despite their uncultured behaviour, it was good to see that the bridge is still being used, albeit for leisure purposes. However, this is a far cry from what is depicted on a nearby pub sign: a horseman dressed in a red jacket riding his horse over the ancient bridge,

A bridge and a king

 

KINGSBRIDGE IS A SMALL town in South Devon. It lies at the head of an inlet of a ria (a completely submerged river valley) upon which the better-known and more popular resort of Salcombe is also located.

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 Many histories of Kingsbridge relate that the town resulted from the union of two neighbouring settlements, the neighbouring royal estates of Alvington and Chillington. Kingsbridge was formed around a bridge (possibly, a draw-bridge) that connected the two at the head of the inlet of the ria. The bridge was built by the 10th century. So far, so good, but today there is no bridge in the town of Kingsbridge.

If you drive from Kingsbridge towards Dartmouth via the A379 road, you will soon arrive at the New Bridge west of the town. This not so new bridge with five arches was built in 1845 and restored several times since then. It crosses Bowcombe Creek, another branch of the ria. This bridge is not, and has never, ben inside the town of Kingsbridge; it is well outside it. It is not, as has been suggested to me by several locals, the bridge that gave the town its name. So, where was the bridge?

By chance, I found a book about the history of Kingsbridge on-line. It is “Kingsbridge and its Surroundings” by SP Fox, published in 1874. This is the only source that I have found so far that mentions the site of the bridge in Kingsbridge. On page 10, the author noted:

“Nearly at the lower end, Fore Street is crossed at angles by Mill Street and Duc’c [now called Duke] Street, the former on the west side, leading to West Alvington and Salcombe; the latter on the east, in the direction of Totnes and Dartmouth, and uniting the towns of Kingsbridge and Dodbrooke by a very small bridge.”

The old bridge mentioned by Fox no longer exists, but the two streets mentioned do. Duke Street, which used to run through from Fore Street to Church Street near to the present Duke of Prussia pub (according to a late 19th century map), is now a cul-de-sac on which you can now find the main entrance to a popular fish and chips shop called ‘The Cod Father’. Mill Street is still a road leading towards West Alvington and Salcombe.

Where Fox describes the bridge, there is no sign of a ditch or stream today. Maybe, long ago there might have been a ditch or stream across which the bridge straddled. At the head of the inlet of the ria in Kingsbridge, there is a small arch, which might be the outlet to a formerly visible stream, which has long since been covered.

To add some complexity to the story, a modern source (https://kingsbridge.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/B13-Kingsbridge_Devon-Historic-Market-and-Coastal-Towns-Survey-Report.pdf) suggested that the bridge after which the town was named was not within the town itself but some way outside it:

“The exact site and function of the bridge is of great interest, as clear documentary evidence for an  Anglo-Saxon bridge in Devon is rare (Henderson and Jervoise 1938, 29; Hoskins 1954, 147), and, in the present context, because the development and character of the town, like its name, can be expected to have been fundamentally linked with that of the bridge and its highway. The attraction and shaping of urban growth to main roads and river crossings is a strong pattern across medieval Devon (Slater 1999). The detailed map analysis for the urban survey indicates that the early bridge may have crossed   the River – between routes later altered to become Love or Boon’s Lane on the west side, and Quay Street on the east – downstream from a tidal ford on the Mill Street-Duke Street route and below the extent of the medieval town…”

So, we cannot be certain of the location of the old bridge.

The coat of arms of Kingsbridge consists of a three-arched bridge surmounted by a royal crown. Whether or not the bridge had three arches is not at all certain, but the fact that it linked two royal estates justifies the presence of the crown. If the bridge was located where Fox believed, there was hardly enough width for a bridge with three arches.

But who was the king? It might well have been King Edgar, ‘The Peaceful’, who reigned from 959 to 975 AD. For, it was during his reign that a charter relating to boundaries dated 962 AD mentions the existence of a ‘king’s bridge’. That could also mean that the bridge was in existence before that king’s reign.

So, regardless of the actual position of the bridge after which Kingsbridge is named, we can be certain that the name is justified as there was a bridge somewhere in or near the town and it had royal connections. Whatever the origin of the name, the town of Kingsbridge is well worth a visit.

A narrow escape

IN AUGUST 2011, MY WIFE was invited to attend a Loreto House school reunion in Calcutta (Kolkata). As I had never been to the city before, I accompanied her. While my wife took part in the daily activities with some of her former schoolmates, I explored and fell in love with Calcutta.

Throughout our five day visit to the city, the monsoon rain fell heavily and incessantly. I walked around Calcutta, often wading through filthy water that submerged my feet and lapped around my ankles. This hardly affected my enjoyment of the delightful decaying city, in some respects India’s own distinctive version of old Havana in Cuba.

One day, I visited Jorasanko, the palatial residence of the Tagore family, whose members included not only the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath but also artists such as Abanindranath and Gaganendranath.

After seeing around the fascinating rooms of Jorasanko, I sploshed through the flooded streets towards the Hooghly River. On my way, I walked along a busy street lined with shops and filled with crowds of people. A steady stream of rickshaws pulled by thin sinewy men and each laden with two or three passengers made its way through the busy throng. The huge wheels of these vehicles keep the passengers high above the water flooding the streets.

I noticed that some shops, often clothes and textile merchants, were giving hot food to some passersby. At one of these shops, I asked about the food distribution. It was explained to me that during Ramadan, it was considered to be a virtuous thing to feed the poor.

Eventually, after crossing a wide road clogged with slow moving heavy traffic, I stepped onto the Howrah Bridge, a gigantic steel bridge, a Meccano lovers dream, which traverses the River Hooghly. It was constructed between 1935 and early 1943.

At first, the bridge crosses over a large market that runs along the riverbank. Then, after a few yards, it is over the water. I walked along the downstream facing pedestrian walkway, dodging many porters carrying heavy and bulky loads on their heads. I took numerous photographs until I was two thirds of the way across the bridge and met a policeman with an ancient rifle slung over his back. Politely, he informed me that photography was forbidden on the bridge. By then, I had sufficient images stored in the memory of my camera.

Once over the river, I headed through the streaming rain and thick crowds to a boat station close to the Howrah railway terminus. My plan was to travel on a river bus downstream to a landing stage not far from Park Street.

I bought a ticket which was printed on very poor quality paper, that had to be kept dry to avoid it falling to pieces. I asked someone on the floating platform at the water’s edge if the boat that was approaching was heading for my planned destination. I received what I believed was an affirmative reply, and then boarded a relatively empty boat with plenty of free seats. We set off.

To my surprise, the boat headed upstream rather than downstream. Soon, we passed beneath the Howrah Bridge. We sailed a long way upstream away from the city centre. The banks of the river were lined with unattractive industrial buildings and these were punctuated by occasional bathing ghats.

I disembarked at the boat’s first stop. Had it not been raining so heavily, I would have exited the boat station to take a look around the area. Instead, I bought another flimsy ticket to return to Howrah. This time, I asked several people at which of the two floating embarkation pontoons I should board the downstream boat. I waited close to the water while a large crowd of fellow passengers gathered behind me. I wanted to be sure of embarking first.

The boat approached where we were all standing. I could see from afar that it was packed to the gills with people. When the boat was about 18 inches away from the pontoon, I felt a great push from behind me and I was catapulted across the water towards the approaching vessel. Luckily, I was able to grab something on the boat and this saved me from falling into the water and being crushed between the boat and the pontoon.

The boat was stuffed with people. I am sure that sardines are less tightly packed in tins. I wanted to try to take a photograph to capture an image of this crowd, but I could not because so great was the pressure exerted by those around me that I was unable to raise my hands from beside my body.

I looked around and noticed there were few life saving flotation items. Had our boat sunk, few on board would have survived.

It was a great relief to disembark at Howrah. I was drenched, somewhat shaken, and hungry. I decided to take a taxi to Flurys in Park Street, a European style tea room that served what I was yearning at that moment: toasted club sandwiches.

I boarded a battered yellow Ambassador taxi in a car park near the railway station. We moved forward into a mass of other similar taxis. The crowded taxis were so close to each other that it felt that they were all welded together. It took almost an hour for my driver to skilfully manoeuvre his taxi a couple of hundred yards on to the bridge.

At last, we arrived at Park Street, where, slightly drier because of sitting for ages in the taxi, I settled down at a table in Flurys. I ordered my sandwich and savoured the peaceful atmosphere in the tea room.

On my third visit to Calcutta at the end of 2019, we visited Flurys but, sadly, we were disappointed to find that its food and service was no longer as good as before. Fortunately, the scruffy Nizams at New Market, which serves parathas stuffed with meat and omelettes, remains as good as it was in 2011 and many years before.

Despite my near escape from severe injury or worse, my enthusiasm for Calcutta and its people continues to grow and grow.