Mistaken identity

One of the daughters of my former PhD supervisor was about to get married. As a friend of his family, I was asked to be one of the four ushers at the service, which was to be held at St Giles and St Andrews, better known as ‘Stoke Poges Church’, whose graveyard has been immortalised by the poet Gray in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. The church stands on land that was once owned by William Penn (1644-1718) after whom the American state of Pennsylvania is named.

Stoke Poges Church

As an usher, I was required to wear formal ‘black tie’. So, not possessing such clothes, I had to hire the necessary formal attire. I went to a branch of Moss Brothers, who hire clothing, and was fitted out with all the trimmings, morning suit, trousers, waistcoat, shirt, bow tie, and a top hat, but no cummerbund. Getting a top hat that fitted properly presented great difficulty to the assistant at the clothes hire shop.  He looked at my head knowledgeably with an air that suggested to me that he was an experienced clothing fitter. After a moment’s contemplation, he decided that I needed a certain size. The hat he chose by eye was far too small. It wobbled uneasily on the crown of my head. He selected another size. At this stage, I was still impressed that he appeared to be able to judge head size by eye. The next hat was far too large. It slipped right over my ears. I became less impressed with the fellow. Eventually, he found one that almost fitted my head; its rim rested on the tops of my ear lobes. That was the best he could do. I hired this and all the rest of the required ‘gear’.

Just before the wedding, I got dressed in my formal wear at the bride’s parents’ home. I had endless difficulties trying to get dressed in the two-piece waistcoat, which seemed to separate into two separate items whatever I did. One of my fellow ushers managed to get this on to me correctly as well as to fasten my bow tie (another skill I have yet to master). Sadly, I do not possess any pictures of me in this ‘get up’. Then, we set off for the church.

Of the four ushers, two were Christian and two were Jewish. The two Christians were on duty outside the church. The two ushers inside the church were Jewish by birth. I was one of them and the other was Victor, a friend of the bride. Victor, whom I had not seen for several decades, was one of my classmates at primary school in Golders Green back in the 1950s.  My duty as usher was to help people find a seat in the church and to hand out leaflets, which I referred to as ‘programmes’ until one lady with a plummy voice told me sternly:

“They’re not programmes, dear; they’re Orders of Service, don’t you know.”

Well, you learn something every day.

About 25 years later, I communicated with Victor, whom I had not seen since the wedding, via the LinkedIn website. We agreed to meet for lunch at an Italian restaurant near London’s Charing Cross Station as Victor was coming up to London from his home on the south coast. I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before Victor. When he came through the door, I recognised him. He had aged but was still recognisably Victor, even though his hair which had been red when we were children was no longer that colour. Red hair, or ‘orange’ as I used to call it as a child, fascinated me in my young days. I greeted him, and he shook my hand, saying:

“Hmmm … you are not the person I was expecting to meet.”

I was not sure whether to feel pleased or upset that he had mixed me up with someone else from his past.

Bob Marley and the waxworks

A BUILDING ON THE CORNER of Lancaster Road and Basing Street, a few yards east of Portobello Road, looks as if it was once a church. Attached to its brickwork is a plaque commemorating the fact that the building was once used by the reggae artist Bob Marley (Robert Nester Marley:1945-1981). While we were looking at the building, a friendly passer-by stopped and chatted to us, confirming that the building had once been used as a church, but also as a waxworks studio and, maybe, a synagogue for a time.

Whereas many Jewish people used to live near the building before WW2 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/Colville%20March%20Newsletter3.pdf), notably in nearby Powis Square, I can find no evidence that there was ever a synagogue where the church-like building stands. A detailed map, surveyed in the 1890s, reveals that this building was a ‘Congregational Chapel’. It was ‘The Lancaster Road Congregational Church Notting Hill’ and is described in “A Book of Metropolitan Churches and Church Enterprise” by William Pepperell, which was published in 1872. The Reverend Pepperell describes the origin of the chapel as follows:

“The foundation-stone of this chapel was laid by Samuel Morley, Esq., M.P., in July, 1865, when, although so recent, the whole of that part of North Kensington in which it is situated was open field, with here and there a dotting of new buildings commenced, and new streets laid out.  At the present time the occupied suburbs extend quite a mile beyond it either North or West.  The congregation worshipping here first assembled in smaller numbers in Westbourne-hall, where they kept together for between two and three years, always with a view to a separate building as opportunity offered … The form of service is what is understood as Congregational, and the Congregational Hymn-book is used.  An organ well suited to the dimensions of the building is efficiently employed by Mr. Charles Wetton, Jun., in aid of the devotional singing, which seems to lose nothing of its congregational life and character by the presence of the instrument.”

The authoritative British-history.ac.uk website confirms the date when the chapel was established and makes no mention of it ever having been used as a synagogue. It does state that the building was designed by James Rankin of St Marylebone and is now used for commercial purposes, its interior having been completely remodelled.

I could not find the chapel marked on a detailed map surveyed in 1914. This is not surprising because in the early part of the 20th century, the chapel became home to the workshop of Gems Waxworks (“Colville Conservation Area Appraisal”, published by RBKC in 2014). It was at this workshop that the model of the serial killer John Christie (1899-1953), who had a flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill (located at where is now Bartle Close and Andrews Square), was prepared (www.golbornelife.co.uk/colvillenewsletter1.pdf) in the 1950s for Madame Tussaud’s exhibition in Baker Street.

By 1970, the former chapel had reincarnated as the ‘Basing Street Studios”, established by Christopher Blackwell, founder of Island Records (began in 1959). In 1970, Led Zeppelin recorded his album “Led Zeppelin IV” at the studios. The same year, Jethro Tull recorded his “Aqualung” album at the same place. At one point in 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers were using the studios at the same time as the Rolling Stones. Bob Marley lived for a year at the studios in 1977 (www.timeout.com/london/blog/15-places-in-london-with-a-bob-marley-connection-051116). Early in that year he recorded his album “Exodus” there. Before that, in 1973, he recorded his album “Catch a Fire”, also at Basing Street. In addition to the works already mentioned, many other well-known songs and albums, including Queen’s “We are the Champions” and Band Aid’s “Do they know It’s Christmas”, were recorded at these studios.

In 1983, Trevor Horn (born 1949) and Jill Sinclair (1952-2014), of SARM studios, acquired the recording establishment in the former chapel. The plaque on the outside of the building was placed there by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, which is:

“… an African and Caribbean community organisation that provides products and services to the generic population of the UK and internationally” (http://nubianjak.org/).

Their plaque not only celebrates Bob Marley’s use of the former chapel and his fellow musicians Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, but also the memory of Jill Sinclair. When the plaque was unveiled by her widowed husband, he said:

“… So much great music was made in the building while it was open for over 50 years as a recording studio. This plaque commemorates my late wife Jill Sinclair who was a long time supporter of the local Jamaican company. She would be happy to see the community being recognised for the music culture brought to the local area.” (https://tiemotalkofthetown.wordpress.com/2019/10/08/bob-marley-and-the-wailers-honoured-with-blue-plaque-at-legendary-sarm-studios/).

Currently, SARM is based on nearby Ladbroke Grove.

Having seen this building and looked into its history, I feel sure that the Congregationalists who used to sing in the chapel long ago would be pleased to know that the building remained a place of song, even if what was sung there is somewhat different to what they used to sing.

The abolitionist’s country home: Wilberforce in north London

THE RIDGEWAY IN MILL HILL, with spectacular views over north London and the nearby countryside from each side of it, is a pleasant place to wander. St Pauls Church is a simple Gothic revival edifice. It stands across the road from the famous Mill Hill School (established in 1807) and one of a line of three war memorials separated from each other by a few yards. The church has a plaque attached to it that informs the viewer that it was built by the anti-slave trade activist and politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833), consecrated in 1833, and became a parish church in 1926.

While we were looking at the plaque, a man (a cleric) arrived by car, unlocked the church, and invited us inside. We asked him about Wilberforce and his connections with Mill Hill. He told us that the great abolitionist had lived in Mill Hill and was for a short while the neighbour of his friend Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), who is best known for his ‘founding’ of Singapore. Our new acquaintance explained that Raffles’ widow, his second wife, was buried in the churchyard of St Pauls (Mill Hill), but not the great man himself. Raffles, who was an abolitionist, was disliked by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of the parish of Hendon in which Mill Hill lay, who was sympathetic to slavery because his family had profited from slavery in Jamaica. Williams insisted that Raffles be buried outside the parish church rather than within it. Until 1914, the whereabouts of Raffle’s remains were unknown until they were stumbled upon by accident in a vault whilst the ground was being dug up to build an extension to the church. In contrast, his one-time neighbour, Wilberforce was interred in Westminster Abbey.

As an aside, but one which is important for me who has an interest in double-headed eagles, the Raffles coat-of-arms includes one of these imaginary creatures.

Returning to Wilberforce and Raffles, our informant told us that they were neighbours at Highwood Park (on Highwood Hill), 1100 yards northwest of St Pauls. William Hague, politician, and author of a biography of William Wilberforce (first published in 2008), wrote that the abolitionist moved into his new home in Mill Hill on the 16th of June 1826. Wilberforce wrote:

“I shall be a little zemindar, one hundred and forty acres of land, cottages of my own, etc.”

By ‘zemindar’, he was referring to ‘zamindar’, the Hindustani word meaning ‘landowner’. Wilberforce’s neighbour, Raffles, was already installed at Highwood Park when the abolitionist moved next door. Raffles wrote of his home there (quoted in “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne [publ. 1876]):

“A happy retirement … a house small but compact … Wilberforce takes possession tomorrow of the next-door house so that we be next-door neighbours and divided the hill between us.”

Sadly, Raffles died on the 5th of July 1826, shortly after his friend Wilberforce moved on to Highwood Hill.

Before moving to Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived for some time in Kensington Gore, which runs along the south side of Kensington Gardens. His home from 1808 to 1821 was Gore House, built in the 1750s and set in three acres of grounds. It had interiors designed by Robert Adam, but sadly it was demolished and eventually replaced by the Royal Albert Hall, which occupies the site of the house and its grounds. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Walford quoted Wilberforce as having written of Gore House:

“We are just one mile from the turnpike at Hyde Park Corner, having about three acres of pleasure-ground around our house, or rather behind it, and several old trees, walnut and mulberry, of thick foliage. I can sit and read under their shade with as much admiration of the beauties of nature as if I were down in Yorkshire, or anywhere else 200 miles from the great city.”

Highwood Hill on the edge of London would have provided the ageing Wilberforce with what he had enjoyed at Gore House but without being so close to the heart of London.

Prior to moving into Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived in Marden Hall in Surrey and at ‘The Chestnuts’ on Honeycroft Hill in Uxbridge. Unfortunate circumstances led to Wilberforce having to leave Mill Hill prematurely. These included financial difficulties arising from falling income from his land in Yorkshire and losses incurred by his son William. By the end of 1830, Wilberforce and his wife decided that they had to move out of their home on Highfield Hill. They moved to Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, and then later to East Farleigh in Kent.

Wilberforce felt that there was one disadvantage of Mill Hill when he moved there in 1826. The problem was that the nearest church, the parish church at Hendon, was three miles away. William Hague explains what happened next. Here is a summary of what he wrote. In Spring 1828, Wilberforce spent two months in London during which he approached the Church Commissioners regarding establishing a new church near his home in Mill Hill. At first, his plans for the church were welcomed by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of Hendon, who was, as already noted, unfriendly to the anti-slavery movement. However, once the construction of the chapel, the present St Pauls on the Ridgeway, began, Williams reacted vigorously against the idea.  Hague is not certain what caused this change of heart on Williams’ part. One reason might have been that there was an Act of Parliament that allowed the founder of a new church to select and appoint its vicar. Another was that Williams was known not to like the Evangelicals, which included Wilberforce and other promoters of the abolition of slavery.

Despite the difficulties raised by the Vicar of Hendon, the chapel was built, but remained a chapel rather than a parish church until 1926. We liked the simple architecture of the spacious church, but this view was not shared by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and his co-author Bridget Cherry, who wrote:

“A typical cheap church of its date in the Commissioners’ style…”

The church contains some attractive stained-glass windows. That above the high altar at the eastern edge of the church is a copy, in painted glass, of “Dead Christ and Three Marys” by Annibale Carracci (1557-1602). It was created by Charles Muss (1779-1824) and WG Hodgson and dated 1809. Muss was an enamel painter to King George IV. Three other remarkable windows were created more recently (www.stpaulschurchmillhill.co.uk/jubilee-window.php). One of them, illustrated above, depicts chains and alludes to Wilberforce and slavery; another commemorates the Middlesex Regiment, which used to have some barracks in Mill Hill; and the third celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

We drove to Highwood Hill to see what, if anything, is left of the houses occupied by Raffles and his neighbour Wilberforce. Highwood House, built soon after 1817 and much altered since, was hidden from view behind dense vegetation and by a building close to the road. Just east of this across the narrow Nan Clarks Lane, there is a decaying wooden signboard to which a metal commemorative plaque is affixed, which faces the main road, Highwood Hill (the A5109). The plaque bears the words:

“Site of Hendon Park residence of William Wilberforce from 1826 to 1831.”

Behind the sign, there is a newish wooden fence, the boundary of a small estate of large residential houses. Hendon park was:

“… a substantial brick building in 1756 … was rebuilt and stuccoed in the early 19th century … it had fallen into neglect by 1951 and had been replaced by three houses and Crown Close by 1961 …” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp21-23).

We left Mill Hill, having learnt much about two men, whose connection with the place we were previously unaware. There is far more to Mill Hill than this and I hope to write about other aspects of this lovely part of London in the future.

Near the shops: a chapel in Kensington

HIGH STREET KENSINGTON is not amongst my favourite London thoroughfares, but streets leading off it take one to places of considerable interest. One of these, Allen Street, offers a view of a building that outshines many of its close neighbours. But, before we reach this short side street, here are a few words about High Street Ken.

Even before the covid19 pandemic, High Street Kensington has been declining in importance as a centre of retailing activity. The retailing boom that made the street into a rival of, for example Oxford and Regents Streets, began in the mid-1860s. Prior to that:

“…most trading and manufacturing activity around Kensington High Street was on a small and local scale. An exception must be made of the Catholic candle-making business owned successively by the Wheble, Kendall, Tucker and Smith families from about 1765 until 1908. Its founder was James Wheble (1729–1801), scion of a prominent recusant family in Winchester. By 1766 at the latest Wheble was based in Kensington, and within a few years occupied miscellaneous properties on the present Barkers site, both in the High Street and on the west side of Young Street, where a warehouse was rated in his name from 1772 onwards.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp77-98).

This mention of candle making interested me because my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) established a factory making candles in King Williams Town in South Africa in the 1880s.

From the late 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Ken was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture. They are located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s.

In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have all conspired to make High Street Ken less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, has become slightly dreary.

Various short streets lead off the south side of the high street. One of them, Young Street, leads to Kensington Square, which is well worth visiting to explore its exciting range of houses dating back to the 18th century and earlier (see https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/). Another road, Allan Street, west of the station, leads south from the high street. This street was a quiet cul-de-sac until 1852 when it was extended southwards. After that date, many more buildings were erected along it including the extensive Wynnstay Gardens, luxurious mansion flats, which was constructed between 1883 and 1885 on a site previously owned by Thomas Newland Allen (1811-1899), who was born at Chalfont St Giles (https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/chalfont-st-giles-buckinghamshire). A monument to Captain Cook, the explorer, stands on the estate where Allen was born.

Wynnstay Gardens is not a particularly attractive set of buildings. However, south of it and on the other side of Allen Street, there is a lovely neo-classical building just south of Adam and Eve Mews, which runs along its northern boundary. For many years, I had noticed it from a distance when wandering along High Street Ken, but it was only yesterday that I decided to take a closer look at this church.

Currently called the ‘Kensington United Reformed Church’, it was originally named ‘The Kensington Chapel’. Built in 1854-55 and designed by Andrew Trimen (1810-1868), it replaced the Hornton Street Chapel (north of the High Street), which was built 1794-95 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp386-394#h2-0005). Trimen was a prolific architect and also published a book in 1849, “Church and Chapel Architecture with an account of the Hebrew Church. 1,000 authenticated mouldings”, which was (https://manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk/architects/andrew-trimen):

“… the first major publication to consider non-conformist architecture.”

The church, clad in ochre coloured Bath stone, and its impressive pillared portico,  is an elegant addition to an otherwise undistinguished street.  Its corner stone recalls that the church replaced the one in Hornton Street and that it was laid by the Reverend John Stoughton on the 26th of June 1854. If you walk along Adam and Eve Mews, you will notice a pair of doors at the east end of the north wall of the church. Above them are the words ‘Lecture Hall’. According to a plan of the original building, this led into a ‘schoolroom’ (built 1856) attached to the east of the church. This was used to accommodate ‘British’ and ‘Sunday’ schools.

John Stoughton officiated first at the Hornton Street Chapel, starting in 1843, and then in the new building in Allen Street until he retired in 1875. His congregation was far from uninteresting as this quote from John Stoughton’s book “Congregationalism in the Court Suburb” (published in 1883) reveals:

“It may be mentioned that Kensington, on many accounts, has long been a favourite place of residence for artists and literary men, and a few of these became some occasional, others regular hearers [i.e. members of the congregation]  … Curious characters at different periods, it may be added would come into the vestry to have a little chat; a gentleman during the Crimean War gravely proposed to the preacher of peace a clever scheme for blowing up Sebastopol; and at another time one of clerical appearance repeated, with extraordinary rapidity, long passages out of the Greek Testament.”

Stoughton was such a popular preacher that by 1871, none of the 1000 sitting places in the chapel would be left unoccupied.

The chapel was damaged by bombing in 1940 and only repaired in 1952-53. Today, the building stands in all its glory and hosts regular religious services for its Congregationalist congregation (it is an autonomous protestant church, which governs its own affairs), but parts of it are now used for non-ecclesiastical purposes. Next time you wander along High Street Ken, make the short detour to see what I consider one of the finer buildings in the area alongside the unusual looking Armenian Church in nearby Iverna Gardens.

An unusual feature

AN ELDERLY LADY WALKING with the help of a walking frame beckoned to us just after we had  walked around the Church of St Mary in the village of Guilden Morden near Royston in Cambridgeshire.  As with so many country churches we have visited since the onset of the covid19 pandemic, we had found that the church was locked up. However, the lady, who had called us over, was holding a large old-fashioned key and asked us whether we would like to see inside the church. I am so glad that we accepted her offer because she pointed out something that is very rarely found in English churches: a double rood screen.

A rood screen is often found in late mediaeval churches. Commonly made of wood and often ornate, the screens separate the nave where the congregation assembles from the chancel where the choir sings and the clergy officiate near to the high altar. The rood screen at St Mary’s in Guilden Morden, whose construction began in the 12th or 13th centuries, consists of two parallel screens on either side of a central passage leading between the chancel and the nave. It is decorated with some paintings of saints and on each side of the passage, there are small enclosures large enough for several congregants to sit during a service.

The lady, who pointed out the special nature of the rood screen, told us that in the past, the lord of one manor sat with family members in the ‘cubicle’ on one side of the central passageway and the lord of another manor sat in the cubicle on the other side. She told us that when she was a small child in the village, she had seen the local aristocrats occupying the rather cramped-looking booths between the parallel screens.

The website www.english-church-architecture.net doubts the church’s claim  that the double-rood screen is an original feature of the church. It quotes the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who:

“… declared it to be reassembled from the original rood screen and one or more parclose screens, to form “a double rood-screen, i.e. with a kind of pew left and right of a central passageway.  Three designs are represented, two very similar and clearly not too late in the fourteenth century, the third, early Perp.”  In fact, the early Perpendicular work forms the back of the screen and the re-used sections of parclose screens, if that is what they are, appear to have been built up against it on the side towards the nave.”

Whatever its history, neither my wife nor I had ever seen anything quite like that in British churches … and we have visited quite a few of them.

Before leaving the church and the kind old lady, I spotted the baptismal font that looks far older than the church. Our new friend thought it predated the present church. According http://www.british-history.ac.uk, the font’s basin is 12th century and the pillars supporting it are later.

Before we left the church and the lady locked it up, I asked her about the name Guilden Morden. She believed that it might mean something like ‘golden moor’. She was not far off the truth, which is that the name is derived from the Old English ‘Gylden More Dun’, meaning ‘Golden’ (rich or productive) ‘Moor Hill’.

Once again, a trip out of London into the countryside has proved to be not only refreshing but also enjoyable. England, from which we have always travelled abroad during the years before the current pandemic, is proving to be at least as interesting as the many far more exotic destinations we have been enjoying over the years.

Plague and graffiti

MANY ENGLISH CHURCHES REMAIN closed much of the day since the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic. During our recent roving around the countryside, we have found this to be the case and as a result have not been able to enjoy exploring the often interesting historic and architectural features within country (and urban) churches.

Drawing of Old St Pauls Cathedral in the church at Ashwell

When we arrived in the attractive Hertfordshire village of Ashwell near the town of Baldock that lies between London and Cambridge, we were pleased to discover that the Church of St Mary’s (Ashwell) was open. Despite the dustiness created by building works that were in progress, this church contains much of interest. In fact, the builders have uncovered remains of structures that existed possibly prior to the present church’s construction in the 14th century. These remains were revealed to us by a kindly lady, ‘M’, who helps run the church’s administration. She pulled aside some heavy plastic sheets to reveal where the builders had dug beneath the floor.

After viewing the excavations, M drew our attention to the west end of the nave, beneath the bell tower. The north wall of this section of the church has graffiti scratched into its wall. This is not the work of modern vandals but that of people living as long ago as the 14th century, a time of plague, pestilence, and much mortality (the so-called Black Death was at its peak from 1347 to 1351).

Some of the graffiti is in the form of inscriptions in Latin. According to a useful booklet, which we bought at the church, “Ashwell Church. Mediaeval drawings and writings. A Guide” by David Sherlock (publ. 1978), the inscriptions when translated include the following (to quote but a few):

“Just the first plague was in 1349”

“In 1349 there was plague and in ‘50”

“1000, three times 100, five times 10 [i.e. 1350], a pitiable, fierce violeny (plague departed); a wretched populace survives to witness (to the plague) and in the end a mighty wind, Maurus, thunders this year in the world 1361.”

Maurus refers to St Maur (512- c584), a disciple of St Benedict of Nursia. St Maur’s feast day was the 15th of January before 1969 and is now the 22nd of November. According to an article in the Irish Times (16th of January 1998):

“The late 1300s in Ireland were remarkable for the abundant rainfall, and also for a succession of fierce storms which caused frequent and widespread devastation in countryside. One of the worst of these, St Maury’s Wind, occurred on January 15th, 1362, and caused great damage, particularly in Dublin.”

These storms were most likely to have been the same as those recorded on the wall of Ashworth Church.

Fascinating as the inscriptions are, even more interesting is a drawing incised in the wall close to them. Although it is not known when it was drawn, it was probably before 1630. It is a detailed sketch of the old (pre 1666, Fire of London) Gothic St Pauls Cathedral in London. It depicts the old church before Inigo Jones re-faced it in 1630. The drawing includes the spire, which was destroyed by lightning in 1561. One authority has suggested (tentatively) that the drawing might have depicted Westminster Abbey, but this is unlikely even though Ashwell Church was under the control of the Abbott of Westminster until The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. The drawing in Ashwell has many resemblances to illustrations of the old St Pauls made in about 1550 by the Flemish Anton Van den Wynegaerde (1525-1571), and in 1616 by the British artist John Gipkyn (active 1594-1629). It is unlikely that whoever drew the image in Ashwell would have seen either of these pictures.

In addition to the image of St Pauls and the plague inscriptions, there are many other examples of mediaeval graffiti in the church at Ashwell. If our cousins in Baldock had not recommended us to visit nearby Ashwell, we might never have seen the fascinating graffiti described above. It was particularly poignant to see the souvenirs of plague that occurred so long ago during the current era of plague that is disturbing our lives so much.

Preaching prejudice

BLOG XMAS St Georges Day_1024

 

MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

Onion on top

ONION DOME SMALL

This piece, which is about onion shaped domes on some churches, was inspired by a chance discovery of a photograph of a church (see illustration) that I took somewhere in Slovenia about twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1975, I accompanied my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, and his wife, Margaret, both now no longer living, on their annual drive from Buckinghamshire in the UK to Platamon on the Aegean coast of northern Greece. It took about nine days in their Land Rover, which was towing a caravan that was to become their home in Greece for up to two months. Robert, a well-regarded physiologist, was also a keen naturalist as well as being interested in many other things. This excerpt from an unfinished biography of the Harkness’s that I began writing over a decade ago illustrate one of the varied interests that kept Robert happy.

Soon after we left our camping site on the following morning, we crossed the River Rhine and entered West Germany, where we began driving along its Autobahns. After some hours, we spotted the first of the many onion-domed church towers typical of southern Germany.

Robert speculated that there must be a line of places north and west of which it is almost impossible to find onion domed church towers. This idea made him think that there must also be an olive line north of which no olive trees grew, and a ‘karpousi’ (καρπούζι: Greek for watermelon) line below which watermelons grew. Original as this might seem, Robert’s concept of boundaries based on the presence of this or that particular item was apparently proposed earlier by a French author – it might have been Stendhal – who was writing about those nations whose inhabitants favour eating Brussels sprouts.

Islands of worship

IN HYDERABAD, BOMBAY, and Calcutta I have seen mosques or large dargahs (mausoleums) located on islands in the middle of roads. Traffic flows on both sides of the places of worship like river water flowing around a rock.

I mentioned this to my wife, who reminded me that London has at least two churches that stand on islands around which traffic flows. Two of them are on the busy Strand: St Clement Danes and St Mary le Strand. This got me thinking about other places where a place of worship stands in a position that forces traffic to move around it. Only one place springs to mind as I write this. There is a small church in a street leading off Syntagma Square in Athens (Greece) that stands on an island in the middle of a street ( or, at least it did when I last visited the city in 1980).

Why are these places of worship on traffic islands? Maybe, the shrines were built before roads were laid out or perhaps a road was widened leaving the holy places stranded in the middle of the enlarged thoroughfare.

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.