Pillar of salt

“IN TWO HUNDRED YARDS TURN LEFT on to Shoot Up Hill, and then immediately right onto Mapesbury Road”, commands a disembodied, strangely accented voice in the GPS navigation system. So many people are now using digital routing devices to find their way around that I wonder whether the need for roadside direction signs will disappear sometime in the future. I hope not because although many of these signs are mundane in appearance, some of them are quite distinctive. Recently, I saw one which is a veritable work of art.

 

BLOG PILLAR 3

 

The Pillar of Salt is not only a biblical tale, the fate of Lot’s wife when she looked back at the city of Sodom, but also the name of an unusual road direction sign in the heart of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (England). I had noticed this curiously designed signpost of Angel Hill in Bury St Edmonds on previous visits, but it was only a few days ago that I examined it carefully. It looks like a short lighthouse with arms projecting from it in three directions. Two of the arms have the names of places and road numbers (e.g. ‘MILDENHALL A1101’). A third arm bears the words ‘NO ENTRY’. The signpost looks distinctive but somewhat surprising in a square where it is surrounded by buildings that are mostly well over one hundred years old. It stands a few feet from the magnificent, massive gothic Abbey Gate, which was rebuilt in the 14th century.

A plaque at the base of the Pillar of Salt reads that it is:

“Considered to be the first internally illuminated traffic sign in this country.”

It was designed by Basil Oliver, the Architect to Bury St Edmund’s Town Council, and erected in 1935. The information on the plaque adds:

“It was granted special approval as it did not conform to regulations”.

The problem was that the sizes of the letters and numbers on the signpost did not conform to official standards. According to the britishlistedbuildings.co.uk website:

“The Town Council went to great lengths to find something worthy of this important location when increased motor traffic made signing essential. Basil Oliver advised on the design and at the time when road signs were being standardised under the 1933 Regulations, this sign is individual and probably unique. It was approved by the Ministry of Transport in June 1935 subject to the letters and road numbers being 5” [inches] high. This was a compromise since the new standard was for letters 4.5” high and numbers 6” high.”

Fortunately, this problem with the characters on the sign were resolved amicably.

Basil Oliver (1882-1948) was born in the Suffolk town of Sudbury a year after his parents had married in Hampstead, London. He attended school in Bury St Edmunds, where according to the website suffolkartists.co.uk he began his study of architecture. He continued his studies at Liverpool University; the Royal Academy School; and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. By 1904, he was articled to an architect in London.  The website mentions:

“His best-known building is the Borough Offices, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk (1935–1937), described by Pevsner as ‘Neo-Georgian, tactful, and completely uneventful’…”

In contrast, I feel that his signpost in Bury is anything but ‘uneventful’ and it is not ‘tactful’, as it catches the attention by being almost the only ‘modern’ structure in an otherwise old-world environment.

Oliver lived and worked both in Suffolk and London. He died a bachelor in the town where he was born.

The Pillar of Salt, fascinating as it is, is not the main reason that people visit Bury St Edmunds. Many people come to enjoy the grounds that contain the ruins of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, once a significant Benedictine monastery. It was in the abbey church, now in ruins, that the barons of England met in 1214 to agree to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties. This was the forerunner to the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Within the ruined church there are two plaques commemorating that important gathering of the barons and listing their names.

Thus, Bury St Edmunds was the birthplace of both the Magna Carta and, also, the internally illuminated direction sign, two developments separated by a gap of 720 years. Much of the research for this short essay was done using the same technology that powers the GPS electronic navigation systems. Useful as these gadgets are, give me an old-fashioned direction sign any day.

The Angel Hotel

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SOME CLOSE FAMILY FRIENDS used to live in Cambridge. My father had known Cyril S, a ‘don’ at one of the older colleges, since they were both students at the University of Cape Town. Every now and then in the 1960s, we used to be invited to eat Sunday lunch with the S’s in their lovely Victorian house in Cranmer Road. The S family always kept Siamese cats. Their litter tray filled with a greyish coloured gravel occupied part of the black and white tiled floor of the spacious ground floor toilet close to the house’s main entrance. Whenever I used that toilet, I was always afraid that I might step into the litter tray that was usually studded with feline waste deposits. I do not think that I ever did intrude on that part of the cat’s territory.

On one occasion, Cyril invited us to see his rooms in the college. When we were leaving, he said that we could walk across the grassy quadrangle, instead of around it as most ‘ordinary mortals’ must. He told us proudly:
“This is one of the privileges of being a don. I am allowed walk across the grass and I can take my guests with me.”

We could have driven easily straight to Cambridge from our home in northwest London, but we did not. Instead, we used to spend the Saturday night before our Sunday rendezvous in the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, a small city in Suffolk.

In those far off days, the ivy-covered Angel Hotel opposite the Abbey Gardens was an old-fashioned provincial hotel. The rooms had a curious ‘safety’ feature. The reason I put the word safety in inverted commas will become obvious when I tell you about the feature. Each room had a harness next to its window. The harness was attached to a strong cord, which was connected to a winding mechanism. Had there been a fire, each occupant of a room would in turn fasten the harness around his or her waist, and then climb out of the window. The mechanism was designed to lover the person slowly to the ground outside. The lowered harness could be cranked back up into the room for the next person to escape. Long before we did, the author Charles Dickens stayed at the Angel.

As a child, I could not understand why it was necessary to spend a night in Bury St Edmunds, when the following day we could drive back to London without a stop-over. many years later, it dawned on me that we were not actually breaking a long journey, but it was a way that my parents enjoyed having a night away from home.

Yesterday, the 28th June 2020, we made a day trip to Bury St Edmunds. After eating exceptionally well-prepared fish and chips bought at the amusingly named ‘The Cod Father’ fish and chips shop, run by Bulgarians, we strolled into the centre of the city. The ivy-clad Angel Hotel stands opposite the impressive mid-14th century Abbey Gate. Passing through the Gate tower, one enters the Abbey Gardens. This attractive park is filled with strange looking fragments of what was once a huge abbey complex. Most of them look like oddly shaped piles of stones. They are the rubble cores of what had once been covered with carved masonry. The masonry that adorns the exteriors of mediaeval churches and abbeys is simply a covering for structural cores consisting of rubble and cement of some kind. On some of the fragments in the Abbey Gardens, it is possible to discern the slots into which the carved masonry was placed. However, most of the rubbly remains have disintegrated to become forms that give little clue as to their original shapes.

There is more to the city than the Angel Hotel and the gardens containing the ruins of the abbey. Near the Abbey, there is a cathedral, St Edmundsbury, surrounded by pleasant grounds. At one side of the grounds there is a well-preserved Norman gateway with splendid Romanesque architectural features and a pair of gargoyles that depict serpents with their forked tongues. In the centre of the lawns in the cathedral grounds, there is a fine statue of St Edmund clutching a cross close to his chest. This was sculpted in 1976 by Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who was born in Thurlow, which is near to Bury St Edmunds. Frink was a close friend of my late mother. I remember meeting ‘Liz’ at our home, where she was a regular dinner guest.

Seeing the Frink sculpture (for the first time) and the Angel Hotel yet again reinforced my long-held affection for Bury St Edmunds and revived happy memories of the place and our visits to the family of Cyril S, who died suddenly in 1974. His death deprived the world of a lovely man with a great sense of wit and humour.

Some years later, I was staying with Cyril’s widow in Cranmer Road, when she made me a Bloody Mary cocktail. It was the first time I had tried this delicious concoction, and hers was one of the best I have ever tasted.