The Knights Templars and a letter from Erasmus (was he gay???)

THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE is remarkably rich in mediaeval remains, many of them accessible to members of the public. Quite a few of these reminders of the past resulted from the mass closure of monasteries and nunneries by King Henry VIII during the 16th century. Denny Abbey between Ely and Cambridge is just one of many examples of the results of the king’s policy. We paid it a brief visit whilst driving between the two cities. We arrived there early in the morning before it was open to visitors, but without entering the compound, we were able to see most of what is on offer apart from the attached Farmland Museum, which we might visit in the future.

Farmhouse, formerly Denny Abbey

The abbey was founded by the Benedictine Order in 1159 (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/denny-abbey-and-the-farmland-museum/) and taken over by the Knights Templars in 1170. The Templars used the place to house old and infirm members of their order. Despite questioning the truth of the Pope’s suspicions about the Templars, King Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) yielded to Rome’s authority, suppressed the Templars in England in 1308-9, and confiscated their properties. In 1327, King Edward III gave the abbey to Marie de Châtillon, Countess of Pembroke (1303-1377), the founder of Pembroke College in nearby Cambridge. She converted the abbey into a Franciscan nunnery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denny_Abbey).  The nunnery became home to members of The Order of Saint Clare, often known as ‘The Poor Clares’. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1536 and it, like all the other ecclesiastical establishments closed by the king, became property of the Crown.

The last abbess at Denny was Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton (1467-1547), who headed the nunnery from 1512 until its dissolution. During her term as abbess, two of the nuns in her establishment were sisters of Sir Thomas Grey (Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset: 1477-1530), a student of the Dutch philosopher and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536). When Erasmus was in Basel in 1525, Grey persuaded him to write to the community at Denny. His letter was received, and in response the nuns sent him a gift, which was stolen before it reached him. When he learned what had happened, he wrote again. In his second letter, Erasmus wrote of:

“…the troubles of the time war everywhere, and wrath of princes, famine, and plague and divisions in the Church which tore families apart but comforted the ladies with the thought of the humility and strength of St. Francis and St. Clare and asked their prayers, not only for himself but for the conversion of the thief. He sent his greeting to the ‘most religious lady’ abbess, and begged her to greet Grey’s sisters for him by name.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp295-302).

According to one source, Erasmus was attracted to men. While serving as a canon in Stein (Holland), Erasmus:

“…supposedly fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul”, writing that “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly”” (www.hmoob.in/wiki/Desiderus_Erasmus)

Later, Erasmus, while teaching in Paris:

“… instructed a 21-year-old English-born student, Thomas Grey, who later became Marquis of Dorset. Erasmus was abruptly dismissed as Grey’s teacher, for making unwanted advances towards him.” (http://gayinfluence.blogspot.com/2012/04/erasmus.html)

Another source (“Erasmus” by Preserved Smith, publ. 1923) might well allude to this excessive friendship:

“…Thomas Grey, a young Englishman, of whom Erasmus was fond …”  

Erasmus was in Paris between 1495 and 1499, after which he lived and worked in England (Oxford, then Cambridge) for several periods over the next few years. Clearly, his abrupt dismissal did not deter Grey from writing to him about the nunnery at Denny Abbey. The presence of Grey’s sisters at Denny might have been a consequence of a possible Grey family connection with two other families that were intimately involved with it: the Coleviles and Massinghams.

After the closure of the nunnery, its refectory became used as a barn; the abbess’s lodge, originally built for the Countess of Clare, became used as a farmhouse; and its church, built in 1159, was demolished. Over the centuries, the farm on the former nunnery’s lands was privately owned. In 1928, Pembroke College (Cambridge) bought the plot, and it remained a farm until 1947, when it was leased to The Ministry of Public Works. It was later transferred into the care of English Heritage (founded in the 1980s).

We parked in a grassy field, watched by a small herd of cows, most of whom were seated on the ground, maybe anticipating a rain shower. The farmhouse, the building originally constructed for the Countess of Pembroke, still has doorways and windows in both the Norman and mediaeval gothic styles. A Norman archway was the entrance to the Templar’s church.  Some of these features, which must have once led into buildings now non-existent, have been bricked in. It has new roofing and some windows that were added long after it ceased to be part of the nunnery. Likewise with the large barn, once the refectory, it has two tall doors, which are later additions to the structure, as well as bricked in windows and archways that were used when the nunnery existed. Two lines of masonry almost flush with the ground mark the site of the nave of the now demolished church. Little else can be seen, although during the site’s opening times, visitors can see the remains of a mediaeval tiled floor.

Although little survives of the former Denny Abbey, its ruins are worth a short visit. And, while you gaze at it, you can marvel at the thought that you are looking at the remains of the only abbey in England to have been home to not one religious order but three different ones (www.dennyfarmlandmuseum.org.uk/content/things-to-see/history-of-denny-abbey). When we stopped to look at the place on a grey Friday morning in August 2021, I had no inkling that the great Erasmus had taken an interest in it, nor had I any idea that the scholar has been suspected by some of being gay. An anonymous writer denies this rather vehemently (www.erasmatazz.com/library/erasmus-the-hero/erasmus-was-not-gay/the-thomas-grey-affair.html). Whether or not Erasmus’s advances to Thomas Grey were of a homosexual nature or simply expressions of deep friendship and admiration of his intellect, it is for others to decide. Deciding whether or not to explore the remains of Denny Abbey is far less difficult than judging Erasmus.

A Hebrew dictionary and a lost abbey

NOT MUCH REMAINS of Ramsey Abbey in a part of Cambridgeshire, which used to be in the former county of Huntingdonshire. Like most of the monastic institutions in England, Ramsey Abbey was ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. Ramsay was closed in 1539.

Founded in 969 by Bishop Oswald of Worcestershire (died 992), this abbey in the Fens achieved great importance, rivalling Ely and Peterborough. Three centuries before the first college (Peterhouse) was established at Cambridge in 1284, Ramsey was a renowned centre of scholarship. In addition to theological matters, the scholars at Ramsey studied a wide range of other subjects. One of the most eminent scholars, Abbo of Fleury (c945-1004), was brought to Ramsey by Oswald in 985. Abbo brought much knowledge from both the Classical world and the Arabic world to Ramsey, where he stayed for 18 months. Another leading scholar was Byrhtferth (c970-c1020), who was well-known for his studies of English history. He also wrote a scientific compendium in about 990. This included material about mathematics, properties of matter, astronomy, and medicine.

Geoffrey of Huntingdon, who lived in the 13th century, was Prior of Ramsey Abbey for about 38 years. He was a scholar, with great fluency in the languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the Jewish people were expelled from Britain in 1290, he bought from them as many Hebrew texts as he was ablee to find, including from the synagogues at Huntingdon and Stamford. Under Gregory’s influence, Ramsey became a centre of Hebrew studies. From the books and texts collected at Ramsey, a priest, Laurence Holbeach (died c1420), compiled a Hebrew dictionary in about 1410.

When Ramsey was dissolved in 1536, the dictionary was amongst the many scholarly works taken (or stolen) from the monastery by Robert Wakefield (or ‘Wachefeld) of Oxford, where he taught Hebrew from 1530 until his death. Wakefield, who died a year later, was a renowned English orientalist and Hebraist who taught at famous universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Louvain, and Tübingen. What became of this dictionary, I have not yet been able to discover.  

Whether the dictionary remains in existence or not, I cannot say, but I do know that by visiting the small town of Ramsey, the visitor can see some remains of the former abbey. These include the remains of a gatehouse, which is now looked after by the National Trust and the Church of St Thomas à Becket, now a parish church. The latter was already constructed in the 12th century. It was probably originally built as a hospital or infirmary for the abbey, but by 1222, it had become a parish church. The aisles were rebuilt in the 16th century and the current west tower was built in 1672. The church contains some lovely stained-glass windows both behind the high altar and on the eastern part of the southern wall. These windows, created in the early part of the 20th century, were made by Morris & Co, a company founded by William Morris.

The former abbey has a connection with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in the nearby town of Huntingdon. In 1540, the estate of the former Ramsey Abbey was sold to Sir Richard Williams (1510-1544), also known as ‘Sir Richard Cromwell’. This man, who was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather, demolished most of the abbey, which was:

“… turned into a quarry, the lead from the roofs being melted down into fodders and ingots for sale to the highest bidder. Gonville and Caius college in Cambridge was built from the stone and Kings and Trinity were partly rebuilt. Stone from the Abbey also found its way into many local churches and other buildings” (https://ramseyabbey.co.uk/richard-cromwell/)

Richard’s son Henry built a Tudor house on the former abbey’s grounds. Henry’s son Oliver (born 1562), who was an ardent Royalist, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Oliver Cromwell, the famous Parliamentarian and ruler of England (the ‘Lord Protector’), lived in the house his father had built. This, the manor house, was sold to Coulson Fellowes in 1737 by the then owners, the Titus family. In 1804, the architect Sir John Soane enlarged the house. The building was further enlarged in 1839. Now the building houses Ramsey’s Abbey College. Currently the building looks far from being Tudor and by looking at its exterior, one cannot guess that it contains some remains of the early mediaeval abbey, on which it was built.

As a notice beside the remains of the gatehouse aptly states:

“After existing for nearly four centuries as the grounds of a private residence it is most fitting that a large part of the abbey site is now occupied by the Abbey College. The eighty or so monks in their black habits have been succeeded by a far greater number of students. Across the generations Ramsey has been the home of scholars who have sought to expand their knowledge of the world …”

I am certain that Bishop Oswald would be pleased to know although his scholarly establishment was closed by a King with dubious intentions, Ramsey continues to be a place of scholarship.

Slavery on the Brink

WISBECH IS A TOWN in northern Cambridgeshire, close to its border with Norfolk. It calls itself ‘The Capital of the Fens’. The River Nene runs through the town. One bank of the river, lined with many fine Georgian buildings is called the North Brink. The opposite bank is known as South Brink. At the eastern end of the Brinks, they are joined by the Town Bridge which crosses the Nene. Near the South Brink end of the bridge, there is a Victorian Gothic memorial.

The base of the memorial is square and contains three portraits in bas-relief. One is of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who is best-known for his work in the abolition of the slave trade, another shows a kneeling African man in chains, and the third depicts Granville Sharp (1735-1813), who was an abolitionist and the founder of the first settlement of freed African slaves in Sierra Leone. A statue standing above the base under a gothic revival canopy is a portrait of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech.

Clarkson, who deserves to be as well known as Wilberforce, studied at St John’s College Cambridge, where he wrote an essay in Latin, which asked the question whether it was lawful to make slaves of others against their will. This set him on the road to campaigning against slavery. He was active in this endeavour and helped Wilberforce to get the Slave Trade Act of 1807 passed by Parliament. This legislation did not abolish the slave trade outside the British Empire, but it did encourage British action to discourage other nations from practising it. It was Clarkson who encouraged Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, to introduce the first Bill against the trade. Clarkson collected much evidence about the horrific nature of the slave trade and used it as evidence in his many publications and public speaking events. Clarkson live for 13 years after The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. He focussed his later anti-slavery campaigns on, amongst other things, trying to put an end to slavery in the deep south of the USA.

The memorial to Clarkson in Wisbech was put up 1880-81. It was created to a design adapted from one originally proposed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). Though not nearly as grand nor as ornate, the memorial has a slight similarity to a slimmed down version of The Albert Memorial in London. I was pleased to see this statue of Clarkson because last year when visiting Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, we saw a monument to him that records the spot where, while walking from Cambridge to London, he had his revelation that his life should be dedicated to combatting slavery.

Ely to India and back

AT THE CORNER OF Lynn Road and St Marys Street in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire, there is a shop selling used books and an assortment of ‘objets’, all in delightful disorder. This shop, with a fine view of the cathedral, ‘Cloisters’ by name, is across the road from The Lamb pub. Apart from being a lovely shop with an informative, genial owner, Barry Lonsdale, it was once home to an interesting but lesser-known military personality. His story is detailed by a blog writer named Michael Taylor (https://www.blogger.com/profile/12276420943738372719) and I have summarised it below.  

 Billett Genn (1827-1917) was a son of Billett Genn (senior), who died in 1872, and Margaret (née Austin (http://ginn-hertfordshire.blogspot.com/2014/06/). It is probable that they lived in the house that now contains the Cloisters shop. In 1841, young Billett became an indentured apprentice seaman, a seven-year contract. For reasons unknown, Billett returned to England before his seven-year term was completed. In 1846, he signed up as a trooper in the 3rd Kings Own Light Dragoons, another seven-year contract. The Dragoons had been stationed in India for several years, arriving there in 1837 (https://amp.blog.shops-net.com/10388944/1/3rd-the-kings-own-hussars.html) for the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Billett arrived in India in time to become actively involved in fighting against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign of 1848/49. Billett took part in various engagements including the Battle of Chillianwala in January 1849. This battle was one of the bloodiest during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chillianwala), and one in which both the Sikhs and the East India Company claimed victory.

Genn was discharged and sent back to London in 1853, having been awarded the Punjab Campaign Medal. He returned to Ely where he became a schoolteacher in the city’s Needham School for poor boys. In 1867, he married Victoria Haylock. They produced seven children. Billett and Margaret lived at number 1 Lynn Road, which now contains the Cloisters shop. Margaret died in 1913 and Billett four years later. He was the last member of a family that had lived in Ely continuously for over 300 years. He was given a full military funeral.

Billett Genn was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the Punjab Campaign (www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/the-story-of-remarkable-ely-man-billett-genn-is-retold-4887142). An unobtrusive plaque affixed to the wall of the shop commemorates this fact. We had come to Ely mainly to see its truly remarkable cathedral, which surpassed all expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this city’s far from well-known connection with distant Punjab.

PS: The Genn family also owned The Lamb pub at some time

Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.

Dame Jane lies stone cold in the church

HER HEAD RESTS ON her stone-cold right hand with her elbow on a carved alabaster cushion. Her left hand is held lightly and limply against her left breast. She is a carved alabaster effigy of Dame Jane Cotton (1630-1692), widow of Sir John Cotton of Landwade (1615-1689). This sculpture of Jane Cotton lies against the north wall of the chancel of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the village of Madingley, close to Cambridge. The church is open until 4pm most days and we got there by 3.45 pm a few days ago in April 2021. So, we were able to have a good look at the interior of this building whose construction commenced in the late 13th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1127740).

Jane Cotton, who reclines close to the high altar, was the daughter and sole heir of Edward Hinde (c1598-1631) of the Parish of Madingley. Edward lived at Madingley Hall (www.thepeerage.com/p34969.htm#i349687), which is a few yards uphill from the church. Sir John Cotton did well by marrying Jane because by doing so, he acquired the manor of Madingley.

Sir John Hinde (or ‘Hynde’; c1480-1550; see: http://www.geni.com/people/Sir-John-Hynde-MP/6000000090158312935), Serjeant-at-Law and Member of Parliament, had been buying land at Madingley since the 1520s (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp166-171). In 1544, the manor of Madingley, which had been held by several trustees for about 100 years, was bestowed on him by law. He commissioned the building of the lovely Madingley Hall, which was constructed between 1543 and 1547. Edward Hinde, Jane Cotton’s father, was a grandson of Sir John Hinde.

Sir John left Madingley to his son Francis, who left it to his son William, who married a widow, Elizabeth. When William died childless in 1606, his widow Elizabeth took over all of the Hinde estates. She remarried and leased Madingley Hall to Edward, who was son of William Hinde’s brother Edward (died 1633).

Jane’s father Edward (died 1633) settled his lands on his eldest son Anthony, who died before him, fighting in Denmark, in 1612, when Denmark was fighting Sweden for control of part of Norway. Anne, Anthony’s widow, ‘sold’ her interests in the lands to her father-in-law Edward (died 1633). Anne and Anthony had a son Edward, to whom Anthony’s father (Edward, died 1633) had left all his lands, but the grandson, Edward, died in an accident in 1631. Jane Hinde then became the heir to her father’s lands. Had Anthony and his son not pre-deceased Jane’s father, she would not have come into possession of the Hinde’s estates, and neither would have they come into the hands of Sir John Cotton. The lands at Madingley remained in the Cotton family until the beginning of the 20th century.

Sir John, husband of Jane, was buried with his ancestors at Landwade in eastern Cambridgeshire. His daughter Jane is interred in the church at Madingley. Her monument stands near the northwest corner of the nave. She is depicted kneeling with a small book in her left hand. Jane was a spinster. She died in 1707. Not far from her monument stands a lovely carved stone font. Covered with geometric decoration, this was made in the 12th century and probably stood in an earlier version of the church. Nearby, the internal walls of the bell tower are decorated with damaged sculptures made of wood. They are:

“… probably the survivors of the cherubim, perhaps on the nave roof, whose removal William Dowsing ordered in 1644.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp173-176)

Although there is much to enjoy in the church at Madingley, it was Lady Jane Cotton’s reclining effigy that most sparked my curiosity. Looking into what is known of Jane’s heritage has revealed a little bit about the complexities faced by the ‘landed gentry’ when they considered who was to inherit their land.

The families mentioned are what some might describe, often expressing a sense of deference, as ‘old families’. What this means is that the family has sufficient documentary information to trace it back, maybe over many centuries, for many generations.  Well, if you think about it ‘old families’ are no different from other families because all of them must go back an awfully long way in history, even if the documentary evidence no longer exists.

Wind power and invention

THE ROAD FROM ROYSTON to Wendens Ambo is both winding and hilly, as well as passing through attractive cultivated countryside. East of the village of Barley (in Hertfordshire), we reached the crest of a hill and saw ahead of us a lovely windmill painted white standing on the side of the next hill.

We stopped in a small car park beside the mill that stands on the western edge of Great Chishill (Cambridgeshire) and slightly below the village. The Great Chishill Mill is currently undergoing restoration, although what we saw of it looked in good condition. The mill was built in 1819 on the site of an older mill. It incorporates some timber from an earlier mill built in 1721. It is a fine example of an open-trestle post mill, one of seven surviving examples in the UK. Of these seven, it is unique in having a fan tail. Let me try to explain this.

The mill housing with its four great sails is mounted high on a central post around which it can rotate. An arm, the ‘tail-beam’, projects from the rear of the mill housing downwards towards the ground. Two wheels are attached to the lower end of the arm. When the wheels are made to move around a circular track in the middle of which stands the base of the post supporting the mill, the windmill can be rotated so as to position it best to benefit from the prevailing wind. Usually, the mill is shifted by hand, but this is not the case at Great Chishill. A second smaller windmill, the fan tail, rotates in a plane perpendicular to that in which the main sails rotate. When the wings of the fantail catch the wind, they rotate. As they rotate, their movement is transmitted via cogs and rods to the wheels attached to the tail-beam that projects from the mill house. The wheels rotate, and thereby turn the main mill sails so that they catch the wind. Thus, the fantail automatically repositions the windmill when the wind changes direction.

Prior to the invention of the fan tail system, shifting the mill around on its post involved heavy manual labour. When Alfred Andrews inherited the Great Chishill mill from his father Job, he installed the fan tail system (www.greatchishillwindmill.com/about-the-windmill.html). Long before he did this, the fan tail mechanism was invented in 1745 by Edmund Lee (died 1763), a blacksmith working near Wigan, England. Although only one of the surviving post mills is fitted with a fan tail, other varieties of windmills can be found fitted with a fantail that repositions the primary sails of the mills.

Great Chishill village is close to the post mill and is well worth a visit. It has a fine parish church, St Swithun, founded in 1136 and some fine old houses. Some of these have thatched roofs decorated with animals made of thatch including a pair of boxing hares, a pheasant, and a cat. Once again, we have set out on a trip, this time to Saffron Walden, and chanced upon something fascinating and quite unexpected along our route.

Almost but not quite nude

IN THE EARLY 1980s, I travelled to the island of Mljet, which is off the Dalmatian coast of what was then Yugoslavia. It was notable for at least two features. One was that most of the island was out of bounds to motorised traffic. The other was that nudism was both tolerated and encouraged.

I had been introduced to nude bathing a year or two earlier when I visited Dubrovnik with some friends from Belgrade. We used to take a ferry from the city to the nearby island of Lokrum. At the island’s ferry station there was a sign. One arrow pointed to the ‘nudismo’ beach and the other to the ‘ne nudismo’ beach. The first time we headed for the nudismo beach, I expressed concern about my modesty. One of my Yugoslav friends told me:

“Don’t worry, there’s always someone on the beach who looks worse than you.”

Surprisingly, these words reassured me.

Our party on Mljet included four people from the British Isles, including me, and three Yugoslavs. One of us Brits and the Yugoslavs were well-versed in nude bathing, but two of us ‘Brits’, including me. were relative novices.

Recently, my wife and I visited the gardens of Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. This lovely place is home to several outdoor sculptures. One of these is a naked youth carved in white stone. Someone, most probably a visitor, had placed a pair of sunglasses on the sculpture, rendering the youth no longer fully nude. Seeing this reminded me of our holiday in Mljet.

My friend from London and I joined in the nudity that was expected on Mljet, maybe a little anxiously at first but we soon got to enjoy it. After a few days on the island, one of my Yugoslav friends pointed out that unlike the rest of our party, neither of us ‘novices’ were ever completely nude. Either we wore only a sun hat, or a wristwatch, or even just a pair of sunglasses like the statue at Anglesey Abbey.

It is odd what can trigger far-off memories. That statue with the sunglasses did manage to remind me of the wonderful times I spent in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.