Singing and socialism in an Essex town

THAXTED IS A PICTURESQUE small town in Essex, about six and a half miles northeast of Stansted Airport. Apart from its numerous quaint old buildings, the town has three notable landmarks: an old windmill, a 15th century guildhall, and a large parish church, which was built between 1340 and 1510 during the time when Thaxted was an important centre for the manufacturing cutlery. Also, Thaxted is home to an annual music festival, whose existence derives from the discovery of the town by a composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), creator of “The Planets” and many other musical compositions, who was on a walking tour in Essex during the winter of 1913.

Gustav Holst in Thaxted

Holst, who was born in Cheltenham, was living in London by 1913 and teaching music at St Pauls School for Girls in Hammersmith, James Allen’s Girls School in Dulwich, and Morley College for adults in Lambeth. At the same time, he was busy composing.

Holst had come to study at The Royal College of Music in London in 1893. Soon after arriving in London, he became acquainted with William Morris (1834-1896) and attended meetings at the latter’s house in Hammersmith, where he would have heard lectures on socialism given by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and others. Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society (‘HSS’), which was led by Morris. Many of the socialists he met including Shaw were vegetarians, as was the composer Wagner, whom Holst greatly admired. As a student and a regular attender of meetings of the HSS, he became a vegetarian and at the same time developed a great interest in Hinduism (www.ivu.org/people/music/holst.html). He began studying Sanskrit at The School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india) and several of his compositions bear Indian-sounding titles, such as “Savitri” and another opera called “Sita”, and songs based on the Rig Veda.

According to Nalini Ghuman:

“In contrast to the vague musical orientalism in vogue during the height of the British Empire, Holst’s hymns, with their bona fide Indian texts, subjects, and musical elements, have often seemed decidedly ‘un-Indian’ to the uninformed ear: ‘Sound firm impressions of the East from a sane Western perspective’ declared The Musical Times; ‘They do not suggest a point further East than Leicester-square’ (Daily Telegraph); after all, explained the Manchester Guardian ‘many real Eastern musical ideas are frankly ugly and uninteresting’. Their Indian musical roots have long been denied by the composer’s biographers.” (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india).

However, Ghuman points out in her article that Holst did incorporate elements of Indian music, including emulating Vedic chanting and a South Indian mode, the namanarayani. You would need to be a serious musician with specialist interest in Indian music to be aware of these features whilst listening to Holst’s Indian inspired compositions.

Returning to his political leanings, major biographies of Holst tend not to focus much on his connections with socialism, but an informative article, “Gustav HoIst, William Morris and the Socialist Movement” by Andrew Heywood (Journal of the William Morris Society, vol 11, no. 4: 1996), shows that his involvement was far from inconsiderable. In addition to attending meetings of the HSS, Holst conducted its socialist choir, played the harmonium on the ‘official socialist’ cart, and was involved in the administration of the society. Heywood wrote that:

“In the light of his clear commitment to the socialist movement through 1896 it would seem likely that his involvement with the musical activity of the society did not stem from a lack of political commitment; rather it was an opportunity to serve the movement in a way which utilised his musical talents and interest.”

It was through the HSS that Gustav met his wife Isobel, who not only sang in the socialist choir but also, according to Heywood, was politically active in the society.

So, it was with a background of involvement with socialism that Holst walked into Thaxted in late 1913 and took such a great liking to the place that he rented a 17th century cottage there (actually, in Monk Street, 1 ½ miles from Thaxted) from its owner, the Jewish author Samuel Levy Bensusan (1872-1958). Thus began Holst’s several year’s association with the town. It was not long before he made the acquaintance of Thaxted’s vicar, Conrad le Despenser Roden Noel (1869-1942). After the cottage in Monk Street burnt down, Holst and his family lived in a house, The Manse (formerly known as ‘The Steps’), in the centre of Thaxted. Today, this is marked by a commemorative plaque.

Noel was not a run-of-the-mill country cleric. He was a Christian Socialist and a member of Social Democratic Federation, a founder member of the British Socialist Party, and for some time the Chairman of the Anti-Imperialist League, supporting the struggle for independence both in Ireland and India. Deeply committed to Christian socialism, social justice, and egalitarianism, Noel made sure that what went on in his parish church promoted these ideals. Noel’s biographer, Reg Groves, wrote that Conrad:

“…emphasised always that there was much more to making a new society than the acquisition of political power and the transfer of some property from the rich to the state, from one set of rulers to another. In this as in so many things, he was at one with the wisest of English socialists, William Morris, and much of what Morris said in prose and poetry and in the work of his hand, Noel tried to say in the group life he had developed at Thaxted”.

Noel and Holst shared socialist sympathies and more.

During Holst’s sojourn’s in Thaxted in between his heavy teaching and other musical commitments, he attended services led by Noel. It was after one of these held at Whitsun in 1915, that Holst, having heard the great potential of singers in the church, approached Noel and offered to give the choir the benefit of his professional skills as a trainer of vocalists. Noel, recognizing the splendid opportunity, soon had Holst become his church’s ‘master of music.’

Heywood explains that Holst’s:

“…first job was to train the choir for the church. Its members were drawn from the local population, and they achieved high standards with Holst. One member, Lily Harvey from the local sweet factory, was sent to London for professional training because of her exceptional vocal talents. In addition to his activities with the choir and playing the organ, Holst organised three major music festivals in Thaxted between 1916 and 1918.”

Lily was not the only person sent to London for musical training. The then young curate Jack Putterill, who was politically turbulent and played the organ, became one of Holst’s students at Morley College. Jack, who married Noel’s daughter, succeeded Noel as Vicar in 1942.

The festivals organised by Holst involved not only performers from Thaxted but also some of his students from Morley College and St Pauls as well as other musicians from outside the town. Each festival lasted several days, on each of which there were many hours of music making, both rehearsed concert pieces and much spontaneous music.

Holst not only helped make music in Thaxted but also composed there. The plaque on the The Manse, where he lived, is positioned on the outside of the wall of the room in which he composed. While living at Monk Street, he composed much of what was to become the well-known piece, “The Planets”. The “Jupiter” section of “The Planets” contains a tune or theme that Holst named “Thaxted” (you can listen to this familiar tune here: https://youtu.be/GdTpBSg7_8E). In 1921, “Thaxted” was used as the tune for the patriotic song “I vow to Thee, My Country”, whose words were written by the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918). Holst also composed pieces specially for Thaxted and its people. These works include a special version of Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices”, “Three Hymns for Thaxted” (later known as “Three Festival Choruses”), and a setting of the Cornish carol “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day” (hear it on https://youtu.be/Cz_0j__FDuc).

Although the last festival in Thaxted with which Holst was intimately involved was in 1918, he never lost touch with music making in the town, even after he moved from it to nearby Little Easton in 1925. Holst’s pupil Jack Putterill, an accomplished musician who was Thaxted’s assistant curate from 1925 to 1937 and its vicar from 1942 until 1973, helped keep the town’s musical life alive and vibrant. In the 1950s and 1960s, concerts with great orchestras such as The London Philharmonic and audiences in excess of 1000 were held in the parish church. In 1974, the hundredth anniversary of Holst’s birth, the first of what was eventually to become an annual music festival was held in Thaxted. By the 1980s, the Thaxted Festival had become a regular and respected part of the British musical calendar (www.thaxtedfestival.co.uk/).

Apart from the Festival and the house with the plaque in Thaxted, most souvenirs of Holst’s time in the town can be found within the cathedral-like parish church, which, incidentally, was once a candidate for becoming Essex’s cathedral (this honour was granted to the parish church in the centre of much larger Chelmsford). The church in Thaxted contains a photograph of Holst with singers and musicians at the Whitsuntide Festival held in 1916. Near this, there is some calligraphy with the words of “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day”. The church’s Lincoln organ built in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln (who worked between c1810 and c1855) was played by Gustav Holst and has been recently restored. Not far from the organ is a cloth banner, sewn by Conrad Noel’s wife, which was used in the 1917 Whitsuntide Festival. It bears the words “The aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation”. These words were written by the composer JS Bach (1685-1750) and were chosen for use on the banner by Holst. Near this banner, there is a bust of Holst’s friend and collaborator, Conrad Noel.

Both Holst and his student Putterill fell in love with Thaxted at first sight and were so strongly drawn to it that the town came to occupy important places in their hearts and minds. We first visited Thaxted in the early summer of 2020 soon after covid19 restrictions began to be relaxed sufficiently to permit travelling out of one’s immediate neighbourhood. Like Holst and Putterill, Thaxted made a special impression on us, so much so that we have visited it at least twice since our first encounter with it. Next year, we hope to be able to attend concert(s) at the Thaxted Festival inside a church that we have grown to love.       

An oval church in London

THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM in London’s South Kensington district was constructed between 1873 and 1881. It was designed by the prolific Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905). Almost hidden away but close to Oxford Street, there stands another distinctive building designed by Waterhouse. Dome decorative brickwork on the east side of the structure proclaims that it was built as:

“Kings Weigh House Chapel”, and:“These buildings were erected in the year 1891 for the worship and service of God”.

The complex of buildings on Duke Street faces the northeast corner of Brown Hart Gardens. They were designed to include a chapel and a Sunday school as well as other offices. The chapel derives its name from a former dissenters’ chapel that used to stand above the Kings Weigh House in Eastcheap. It was formed in about 1685 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King%27s_Weigh_House). In 1834, the site of the church was moved to larger premises at Fish Street, near London Bridge. Where it used to stand there is now an entrance to Monument Underground station. In 1882, the Fish Street site was compulsorily purchased bt the Metropolitan Railway. The Duke of Westminster offered the congregation a site on Robert Street (now Weigh House Street) and funds to construct yet another chapel (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/waterhouse/3.html). The church accepted his offer and their chapel designed by Waterhouse is what you can see today.

I have only seen the chapel’s decorative exterior with some Romanesque features, which were achieved using brickwork and contrasting whitish masonry, but have not yet entered it. However, I have seen pictures of its interior, which show that it is quite interesting. Apart from the impressive tower on the southwest corner of the church, I was struck by the oval structure that forms the bulk of the building. This houses the main place where the congregation worships. With the long axis of the oval running east to west, the oval ‘nave’ is surrounded above by an oval gallery with several rows of tiered benches (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol40/pt2/plate-23). I have not seen many oval churches like this but did see one in Edinburgh (Scotland), the neo-classical style St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church. In this case the long axis of the oval also runs east to west.

The chapel was bombed during a communion service in 1940 in October 1940, when two people were killed and the chancel was damaged. During most of WW2, the chapel was requisitioned as a fire watching centre, presumably because of its high tower, and also as a ‘rest centre’. After the war, the damage was repaired, and the church was rededicated in 1953. By1965, the congregation ceased using Waterhouse’s chapel. It was decided in 1966 to disband the church at the Duke Street site and sell it.

In 1967, the chapel was bought by the Ukrainian Catholics. They have used it as their cathedral in London. Its full name is now ‘The Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family’ (Українська Католицька Єпархія Пресвятої Родини в Лондоні). The church is open for services, usually either early in the morning and/or in the early evening (www.ucc-gb.com/cathedral). Sadly, we looked at the place mid-morning, but we will visit it again one day when there is a service in progress so that we can view its interior.

An isolated Anglo-Saxon chapel

A FEW MONTHS AGO, we paid a brief visit to Mersea Island, which is off the coast of Essex. While we were wandering around on the island, we spoke with a man, who recommended that we visit the isolated chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, which is not far from Bradwell-on-Sea, also on the coast of Essex. He thought that we would enjoy its tranquillity and the beauty of its surroundings. In early August 2021, we drove beyond Bradwell-on-Sea to a carpark, which is 785 yards west of the chapel known as St Peter-on-the-Wall. The building is about 300 yards west of the east coast of Essex on the Dengie Peninsula, the southern lip of the mouth of the River Blackwater. The chapel stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding coast and countryside.

Winding the clock back to the time when the Romans ruled Britain, we find that there was a fort named ‘Othona’ near the site of the chapel. It was one of a series of Roman forts created to protect Britain from Saxon and Frankish pirates, possibly built by a Count of the Saxon Shore, a Roman official, named Carausius, who died in 293 AD. A Roman road ran up to the fort, connecting it with places further inland. During the 7th century, the Romans having left Britain, an Anglo-Saxon holy man, Cedd by name, landed at Othona in 653.

Cedd (born c620) was one of four brothers. He had a religious upbringing and education in the monastery set up by Saint Aidan (c590-651) at Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria. Cedd became a missionary. After successes in the Midlands, he was invited by Sigbert, King of the East Saxons, who reigned in Essex, to bring Christianity into the area. Cedd sailed from Lindisfarne and landed at what was the ruined fort at Othona. He moved north later in life and died in 664 (of the plague) near Lastingham in Northumbria, where he had founded another religious establishment.

Cedd’s first church at Othona might well have been wooden, but soon he built one of stone, of which there was plenty lying about in the ruins of the fort. His stone church is built in what was then the style of churches in Egypt and Syria. Apparently, Celtic Christians, such as Cedd, were influenced by this style. Building a church in the ruins of a Roman fort mirrored that which had been built in the ruins of a fort by St Antony of Egypt. The location of the former fort on the Roman road might have appealed to Cedd as it would have facilitated ‘spreading the word’ inland.

The church that Cedd built used to have a chancel and possibly other parts, as it was part of a monastic complex based near Bradwell.  Cedd’s church, St Peter’s, simple as it was and is still, can be considered the first cathedral to have been built in Essex. It is considered unlikely that the monastery Cedd created near Bradwell survived the Danish invasions. Soon after Cedd’s death, Essex was incorporated into the diocese of London and St Peter’s became a minster, the chief church in the area. When the parish church of St Thomas was built in Bradwell-on-Sea, St Peter’s became relegated to being a ‘chapel of ease’. Services were held three times a week there until at least the end of the 16th century. Sometime after this, the chancel was pulled down; the church was left standing as a navigation beacon; and the building was repurposed as a barn. As a barn it remained until the early 20th century, when the church was reconsecrated and restored in 1920.

The church is still in use. Services are held there under the auspices of the nearby Othona Community, based nearby at Bradwell-on-Sea. At present, services are held on Sunday nights in July and August at 6.30 pm.

We walked across the fields to St Peter-on-the-Wall, which is one of Britain’s oldest still standing and working churches. After some difficulty, we managed to open the one door to the church. We entered the building’s simple and peaceful interior. A colourful crucifix, created by Francis William Stephens (1921-2002) hangs high up on the east wall. St Cedd is depicted praying at the feet of Jesus on The Cross. The supporting stone of the simple stone altar has three fragments embedded in it. One of them was a gift from Lindisfarne, another from Iona, and the third from Lastingham. The altar was consecrated in 1985. Apart from a circle of chairs for congregants and a timber framed ceiling, there is little else in the church apart from a feeling of tranquillity, which can only be experienced by visiting this charming place. The man at Mersea Island, who suggested that we visit St Peter-on-the-Wall, did us a good turn.

Flying the red flag in a country church

THE PARISH CHURCH in Thaxted, Essex, which was built in the English Perpendicular Style between about 1380 and 1510, is at first sight simply an impressive, attractive, typical example of this era of church construction. Recently, we were able to enter it and the lady who showed us around revealed that this was no ordinary, ‘common or garden’ church. During the early 20th century, it had been home to activity that you might not expect in a building such as this.

Conrad Noel

Within the church, there is a bronze sculpture by Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983). Mounted on a small wooden shelf, it depicts the head of Conrad Noel (1869-1942), who was the vicar at Thaxted from 1910 until his death.

Conrad was the grandson of the Earl of Gainsborough and son of Roden Noel (1834-1894), a Groom in the Privy Chamber, who left his exalted position after discovering radicalism. It was Roden who translated the words of “The Red Flag” into English. As a student at Cambridge, he had been a Cambridge Apostle.  Conrad’s mother Alice (née de Broe) was daughter of a banker. Conrad was sent to school first at Wellington College and then at Cheltenham College. Then he entered Corpus Christi College Cambridge but failed to complete his course. After leaving Cambridge, he studied at Chichester Theological College, a high church Anglican establishment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chichester_Theological_College). It was here that Conrad began to conceive his unique ideas about socialist Anglo-Catholicism. By 1893, he defined his theology as ‘Liberal Catholic’, which Edward Poole explained in “Troublesome Priests: Christianity and Marxism in the Church of England, 1906-1969”, his master’s thesis in 2014, was:

“…a theology that looks to the orthodox teaching of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and the Early Fathers, combined with a democratic approach to churchmanship and the active participation of the congregation in worship.”

At first, Conrad found it difficult to become ordained because of his radical, socialist ideas. In 1894, the Bishop of Chester ordained him, and he became a curate in Salford, where Poole related:

“Noel began giving lectures on Catholic Socialism which were boycotted by the ordinary congregation but … were successful in drawing in large numbers of working people who had never attended Church. The indignant Church Wardens referred the matter to Bishop Jayne, resulting in an acrimonious interview between Curate and Bishop. Jayne accused Noel of having no respect for the long-standing congregation, and of irreverence by encouraging attendees to ask questions about Christianity in Church. Noel reminded Jayne of Jesus’ invitation to ‘all and sundry’, but Jayne dismissed the argument.”

Conrad married Miriam Greenwood in 1894.

Jumping ahead, in 1910 the socialist cleric, Conrad, was appointed Vicar of the Parish Church in Thaxted. His appointment to this position was offered to him by a local aristocrat, a former mistress of King Edward VII, Frances Evelyn (‘Daisy Greville’), Countess of Warwick (1861-1938), who had become to quote Christopher Hibbert in his biography of Edward VII:
“… a dedicated socialist…” by 1906. Thaxted’s new vicar began revolutionising his parish almost as soon as he accepted the post. Mark Chapman, author of “Liturgy, Socialism, and Life” wrote that Conrad’s:
“…first great battle was over the bible boxes, which were used by the richer parishioners to reserve their places in church, and which deprived many of the poorer members of the congregation of the best seats.”

Actions such as these caused some of the wealthier members to leave the congregation, but this did not worry Conrad. He made many changes in the church and its liturgical practices in order to democratise his parish church. He wanted the church to be for all, for the common people, a recreation of the spirit of the earliest Christians. To do this, he introduced music and dancing and folkloric activities. John Millbank wrote in relation to this:

“The joy of Thaxted was a wise joy. The liturgy and the music and the dancing were as essential to Christian socialism as work amongst the poor” (quoted from Chapman).

Conrad had a strong disregard for the church hierarchy, who, on the whole, disapproved of his methods of helping people to believe they were an integral part of Christianity rather than only its recipients.

Socialism flowed through Conrad’s veins. In 1918, he set up the ‘Catholic Crusade’, which was a socialist movement that would:

“… work through the Church for a new economic society basing itself on the laws and principles of the gospels and the prophets. “(Chapman).

In addition, Conrad was strongly against imperialism, especially the British Empire, and also firmly in favour of reviving the Arts and Craft aspects of the socialism of William Morris and John Ruskin. The latter could be seen in many of the activities organised under his guidance at Thaxted.

Poole explains that Conrad’s socialism was based on Marxism and he was in favour of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. His formation of the Catholic Crusade in 1918 followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which Poole notes:

“Noel saw the Revolutions… which brought the Bolsheviks to power, as evidence of a spiritual revival in Russia.”

Conrad hoped that a similar revolution would soon happen in the UK. Poole relates that later Conrad met Ivy Litvinov, wife of the Soviet Ambassador in London. She:

“…expressed to Noel surprise that a clergyman would celebrate the Bolsheviks despite their professed atheism. Noel responded that “dialectical materialism gave no true inspiration for the revolution, and that it was in spite of Marxist philosophy, rather than because of it, that those changes had taken place.”

Later when writing his autobiography, Conrad explained:

“I believe that the mystical element in the Russian people was much more the inspiration of the Russian Revolution than the appeal to the Marxian dialectic.”

By then, although still a socialist at heart, he was appalled by the Stalin-Trotsky split in about 1936 and he joined other clerics in the formation of the Anti-Stalinist Order of the Church Militant.

There is much more that could be discussed regarding Conrad’s idiosyncratic take on Socaialism and the Church, but I will concentrate on an incident that brought his church in Thaxted into the news in 1921. He had placed three flags in his chancel: the flag of St George, the tricolour of the Irish Sinn Fein, and the Red Flag of Communism. Students from Cambridge and also the ecclesiastical courts tried to remove them, but in vain. He preferred the flag of St George to the Union Jack, because the latter, he felt, ignored England and favoured plutocracy and British imperialism. As for the Irish flag, Chapman explained that it emphasised Conrad’s anti-colonialist ideals and the rights of national self-determination, for which WW1 had been fought. The Red Flag was chosen by Conrad because he felt that it:

“… was there to serve as a pointer to something more universal than a nation  … it emphasised the notion of God as fellowship, and of the commonwealth and democracy of nations, none of which could be allowed to exist as an isolated entity…” (Chapman).

Poole noted:

“During the First World War, Noel displayed the flags of the Allies in Thaxted Church. After the Russian Revolutions, he added a plain red flag to represent the workers of the world, and by 1921, it hung with the cross of St. George and the Sinn Fein tricolour on the chancel arch, and on May Day that year it was paraded in the church. By the following morning it, and the tricolour, had been stolen by Cambridge University students, leading Noel to place a notice outside reading “Stolen! Two flags from Thaxted church and two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) from the people by the rich.””

The flags chosen by Conrad caused great strife (known as the ‘Battle of the Flags’) in Thaxted, as Poole describes:

“On 24 May, Empire Day, some residents hung the churchyard with Union flags, which Noel then replaced with ‘mutilated’ versions in which St Patrick’s cross had been removed. At a meeting at the Thaxted Guildhall, protestors demanded that Noel cease preaching political and seditious themes. A crowd gathered outside the Church, and fights broke out between them and former policemen defending the church. Noel’s friends called on him to leave Thaxted for his own safety, but he refused. After a night of unrest, Noel wrote to his wife to describe the excitement of the evening, and to reassure her that “the flags of our religion are still flying.” Further scuffles followed when protestors tried to remove a new flag on 20 June, and on 26 June when demonstrators successfully burnt the red flag and hung more Union flags in the church. In July the red flag was burnt again, but local moderates finally took control of the opposition to prevent further violence. In January 1922, a petition calling for the removal of the flags was sent to Chelmsford consistory court and Noel defended his right to fly the flags, but by July he was instructed to remove them, and complied.”

Many years later, when WW2 was declared, Conrad:

“…mused on the irony that the flag that had been so reviled by his parishioners was cheerfully displayed alongside the Union flag as Britain and the Soviet Union fought Nazi Germany. In his view, “the very people who opposed it are now grateful that the USSR is pulling our chestnuts out of the fire”” (Poole).

The only flag of note that we noticed during our visit to Thaxted’s church is a banner sewn in 1917 by Conrad’s wife Miriam. It bears some words of JS Bach that were chosen by the composer Gustav Holst who had a house in Thaxted (I will discuss Holt’s involvement with Thaxted in a future essay).

When visiting Thaxted and its lovely church, it is hard to imagine that the place was once the location of so much violence and controversy. I am glad to see that Thaxted’s highly original parish priest is remembered respectfully within his church. A plaque next to his sculpted head reads:

“Conrad Noel. Vicar of Thaxted 1910-1942. He loved justice and hated oppression.”

These are fitting words by which to remember an unusual man who espoused both Communism and Christianity, who saw no incompatibility between these two belief systems that many others believe to mutually opposed. To summarise, quoting Mark Chapman:

“… it seems to me that Noel was a genuine visionary, although his practical solutions may have neglected some or even most of the complexities or realpolitik, he nevertheless sought to make the church an expression of the kingdom of righteousness, justice, and equality and thus a beacon in a desperate world.”

A Russian cathedral and a Palladian villa

IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.

During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:

“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”

Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.

Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.

The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features.  The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.

There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.

It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.

The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.

A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:

“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”

This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.

The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.

My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries.  We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.

We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.

Around the market with Mansour

I CANNOT COUNT the number of times I have passed Johnson Market on my way between Koramangala, where my in-laws live, and central Bangalore. The market building stands close to the busy intersection of Hosur Road and Richmond Road. Recently, I went on a guided walking tour of the area around Johnson Market. It was led by my good friend Mansour Ali, who runs a great organisation called “Bengaluru by foot” (www.bengalurubyfoot.com). I had visited Johnson Market several times before on my own, but Mansour’s tour enhanced my experience of it and its surroundings.

Johnson Market was built in an indo-saracenic style in the early 20th century on the site of stables that housed horses, which were imported into India in 1824 from Persia by Aga Ali Asker who was born in Shiraz in 1808. Some of the stables still exist, incorporated into the structure of the market halls. Ali Asker was one of several brothers. While the rest of ghem returned to Persia, he stayed in in Bangalore where he died after carrying out much valuable public work. One of his grandsons, born in Bangalore, was Sir Mirza Ismail (1883-1959), a great Indian statesman.

Johnson Market is for selling food. In addition to vegetables (including exotic vegetables like Chinese pak choi), there is a wonderful fishmongers shop and a beef market.

Near to the market, stands ‘Koshys Automatic Bakery’, which was the first mechanised bakery in the city. A stall beside it sells bread, cakes, and delicious filled puffs.

At both ends of the long building housing the Islamic Educational Board of India on Richmond Road, there are gateways leading to Muslim shrines well hidden from the road. One of them is a Sunni shrine, and the other is Shia/Sufi. Soon after the birth of Islam believers in this religion split into two main groups: Sunni and Shia. The majority of Muslims in India are Sunni, a small minority are Shia. It happens that there is a concentration of Shia establishments close to Johnson Market. This might be because Ali Asker and his descendants, many of whom had homes in the area, were Shias. Each of the shrines or ‘dargahs’ are peaceful enclaves, which although close to the main road, feel far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The leafy shaded Mysore Tobacco Company compound is across Richmond Road facing the two dargahs. Surrounded by trees and luxuriant foliage, the main building is a delightful example of colonial Bangalorean domestic architecture. Its windows are partially covered with monkey top woodwork. The large front porch is rich in wooden latticework and rustic carving that hints of idealised quaint country cottages in far-off England.

All Saints Church, founded by the Reverend Pettigrew (founder of Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton School for boys) and designed in Victorian gothic style by the English architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and consecrated in 1870. It stands at the intersection of Richmond and Hosur Roads, and must have brought feelings of homesickness to Britishers living in pre-independence Bangalore. Stepping inside is like entering a village church in England. The garden surrounding the church contains a rich variety of plants, including a rather spindly olive tree, reflecting Pettigrew’s interest in botany. Tragically, part of this garden is under threat because the municipal authorities want it for use in the construction of a new metro line.

After visiting the church, Mansour took us to see another Shia dargah in a lane leading off Hosur Road. This shrine is connected with the battle of Karbala (600 AD) during which Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was slain by the caliph Yazid I. The shrine, which is revered by Shias, contains fine glass lamps and chandeliers which were probably made in Turkey over a century ago. Unlike mosques, where worshippers of different genders are kept separated, males and females can pray together in dargahs.

The Masjid e Askari is the only Shia mosque in Bangalore. Adjoining it, there is a recently built replica of a mosque in Karbala, the city close to where Hussain, sacred to the Shias, met his death. The replica, which is smaller than the original, is a beautiful construction with amazing mirror work mosaics in which words from the Koran are inserted in black tiling.

After spending three hours with Mansour, I felt that I had learnt much about the Shia branch of Islam and a great deal about a part of Bangalore which I have passed often without realising how interesting it is.

If you think you have seen the light, think again…

Hoop

 

My earliest memories of Hoop Lane (in Golders Green, northwest London) date back to when I was three or four years old, and therefore are rather vague. At that age, I attended a kindergarten in Hoop Lane. This was in the hall attached to Golders Green’s Unitarian Church (see photograph above), which was designed in the ‘Byzantine revival’ style by the architect Reginald Farrow (opened in 1925). It contains interesting artworks including a mural by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), which I have not yet seen.

The kindergarten was under the direction of Miss Schreuer, who lived a few doors away in Hoop Lane. My only lasting memory from my time there was when my father appeared at the school with a white beard and a red outfit, dressed as Father Christmas. A few years later, my sister and my cousins attended Miss Schreuer’s. One day while my sister was attending, I was allowed to return to the school to act as an older helper. One of my fellow pupils was the late Micaela Comberti (1952-2003), who was later to become an accomplished violinist. Her German mother and Italian father were friends of my parents.

I am not sure what became of Miss Schreuer, but I heard rumours that the end of her life was unhappy. Today, the hall, where her school flourished, is now a Montessori kindergarten. When I lived in the area (I left finally when I was aged thirty), I often walked past the school and the Unitarian Church. The latter had a panel facing the road, upon which posters with pious messages were posted. One that I will always remember said:

If you think you have seen the light, think again”.

 

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. If you wish to read the whole article, please visit:

https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/48/

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

Switch it off, please

Over the airwaves,

messages of faith are heard,

evangelising

 

radio

 

‘Mark’, the owner of the first dental practice where I worked after qualifying, told me that it is important to have a good relationship with the dental nurse with whom you work. He pointed out that on working days, the dentist often spends more of his or her waking hours with the nurse than with his or her spouse. During the 35 years I practised as a dentist, I encountered very few dental nurses with whom I could not get on amicably. Let me tell you about ‘Maria’, who was kind, resourceful, and remarkable.

Maria fled to the UK after having had what sounded like a horrendous childhood and adolescence in a troubled part of the world. She worked with me for several years. Sometimes, when needed, she worked as a dental receptionist in our practice. When, as they often did, patients came storming up to the desk, impolitely demanding an appointment without even saying “please”, Maria would calmly reply: “Good morning, Mr X. How are you? And how is your family?” Her polite questioning in a soothing voice quickly ‘civilised’ the patient’s approach.

Once, I was running very late, and the patient I had kept waiting had only 15 minutes left out of the 60 minute appointment I had planned for him. I said to this patient: “I have run so late that I really don’t have enough time to do what we planned.” Before the patient could answer, Maria said to me: “Don’t be silly, Mr Yamey, you can do it in time. I know it.” And she was right. I could not have done a decent job so fast if Maria had not been my assistant. When it came to the time to prepare the dental impression (mould) for the crown (cap) I was preparing, she mixed the two elements – the firm base and the low-viscosity material that picks up fine detail – simultaneously. Ambidextrously, she mixed one constituent with one hand and the other with her other hand. We finished the job to my clinical satisfaction in a quarter of the time I usually needed. “See, you can do it,” she said, “I have faith in you.”

You might wonder why I did not speed up after that when working with Maria. During that curtailed appointment, fortunately everything went smoothly without hitches. I preferred longer appointments so that I would have sufficient time to deal with unexpected problems and to relax the often-anxious patients.

Maria was very practical. In the practice where we worked, equipment often broke down. When this happened, a repair man, ‘H’, would be called to do just enough to get the heavily-used, well-worn piece of equipment to work again. On one occasion, an essential piece of kit stopped working. I told Maria to ring H. She said: “He’s not needed.” I asked her why. “I watched what H did last time the drill broke down. Let me try.” Maria fiddled with the equipment for a few minutes, and successfully repaired it.

Maria was a devout Christian.  She kept a small volume of the New Testament in a drawer in the surgery. Some of the words in it were printed in red. I asked her why, and she explained that the words that Jesus spoke were printed in red. Every now and then, she used to say to me: “All you need to do, Mr Yamey, is to accept Jesus in your heart, and your soul will be saved.”  Out of politeness, not wishing to offend her by questioning her great faith, I would say: “I need more time to think about it.”

We had a radio playing continuously in the surgery. Maria had tuned it to a non-stop evangelical Christian station. Various people speaking with strong North American accents spent hours describing how they had discovered Jesus. Like quite a few of my patients at that practice, many of the speakers on the radio had been locked up in prison. During their long incarceration, the radio personalities had had time to contemplate life, and during this contemplation they had discovered Our Lord and taken Him into their hearts. I found this radio station quite fascinating and listened to it avidly in gaps between appointments. Maria seemed less interested in the broadcasts. She wandered in and out of the surgery when she was not needed to help with a patient’s treatment.

Mr ‘C’ was a regular attender. He had a barely discernible North American accent. On one occasion, just as I was about to begin treating his teeth, he raised a hand, and said: “There are two things I can’t stand. One is coming to the dentist. The other is having religion stuffed down my throat. Maria, please switch off the radio.”

Maria turned it off without argument – she never argued. From that moment onwards, Maria never ever tuned the radio to that evangelical station. She was not only a wonderful assistant, but also sensitive and thoughtful.