After effects

MY FIRST TRIP TO TURKEY was in 1960. I had just finished primary school and was about to start preparatory school (8 to 13 years old) after the summer holidays. That summer we were travelling to Turkey, to Istanbul, where my father was a delegate at a conference. It was deemed necessary to have vaccinations to reduce the risk of contracting typhoid and cholera.

Our family doctor’s surgery in London’s Golders Green was close to my primary school. I had decided to get my ‘jab’ and then to go to school to help organise the annual sports day. When I arrived, I was assigned a task related to the high jump competition. At first, all went well. Then, after a few minutes, I began shivering and felt lousy. I excused myself and made my way home. I spent the rest of the day and the following in bed and the arm in which I was injected felt both painful and heavy. A few weeks later, I was given the second of the combined cholera and typhoid jabs. However, there was little or no after reaction.

Since that jab back in the summer of 1960, I have had numerous, indeed an uncountable number of, vaccinations. Each of these was accompanied by a small amount of discomfort at the site of injection, but no more than that. This was the case until early February 2021.

In February 2021, I was given the first of the two doses of the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine to counter covid19. Within hours of the jab, I began feeling unwell. I did not feel as sick as I did after the first typhoid/cholera jab, but I was not at my best. I did not lose my appetite, nor did I develop an elevated temperature. This feeling of being a little bit ‘below par’ lasted no more than 36 hours. So, it was with some apprehension that I attended the clinic for my second jab in mid-April.

My general medical practitioner, whom I had consulted for another matter, advised me to take two paracetamol tablets (2 x 500mg) just before the jab and another two later in the day. Her advice seems to have been good. Now, nine hours after the jab, I am writing this piece and feeling far better than I did after the first shot of the vaccine. I had been told that just because one has had a reaction after the first injection, it is a matter of pure chance whether one has any reaction after the second. Maybe the paracetamol is working or perhaps I have just been lucky. In any case, I feel happy that I have had the full vaccination as is currently advised.

Coffee al fresco

THE COVID19 PANDEMIC has, for the time being, made drinking inside cafés a thing of the past. If you wish to enjoy a beverage, be it a cappuccino, cortado, americano, a hot chocolate, or even a humble cup of tea, you can buy it at a counter and then enjoy it outdoors, come rain, snow, or shine. In the absence of restaurants and pubs, with the exception of take-away foods, this has become one of the few little treats, apart from the joys of nature, available to those who wish to enjoy a bit of life out in the open air.

Not long ago, whilst exercising in London’s Hampstead district, we came across a particularly lovely place to obtain hot drinks and a selection of snacks, both sweet and savoury. They are being served under a canopy illuminated by strings of ‘fairy lights’ on a terrace overlooking the sloping garden of Burgh House.

Built in 1704 during the reign of Queen Anne, Burgh House was, according to the historian of Hampstead, Thomas Barratt, first owned by a Quaker couple, Henry and Hannah Sewell. Barratt remarked:

“…the house gives the idea of Quaker severity of style combined with a good quality of work.”

The house acquired its present name in 1822, when it was the residence of the Reverend Allatson Burgh (1769-1856), who was for a time vicar of St Lawrence Jewry (http://www.burghhouse.org.uk/about-us/history-of-the-residents-of-burgh-house#revburgh). He was also the author of a book about church music. Prior to the cleric, the house was occupied, between 1776 and 1820, by the upholsterer Israel Lewis (1748-1820) and his wife Sarah, both known for their good deeds. Lewis was a supporter of the non-Conformist Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead. The family also provided assistance to the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his brothers. On the 16th of October 1818, the poet wrote to his brother, who was living in the USA, George Keats (1797-1841):

“Mr Lewis has been very kind to Tom all the summer. There has scarce a day passed but he has visited him, and not one day without bringing him or sending some fruit of the nicest kind.”  (“The Letters of John Keats: Volume 1, 1814-1818”)

Burgh House is close to the former chalybeate wells of Hampstead, which were famed for their alleged curative properties. Before the Lewis’s lived there, it was the home of the chief physician of the Wells and a promoter of the benefits of its water, Dr William Gibbons (1649-1728) and his wife Elizabeth. They lived in the house between 1720 and 1743, Elizabeth continuing to live there as a widow.

After Burgh’s death in 1856, the house named after him became the officers’ mess and headquarters of the Royal East Middlesex Militia between 1858 and 1881. The house was then privately owned by several other people, the last of whom were Captain George Louis St Clair Bambridge (1892-1943) and his wife Elsie (1896-1976). Mrs Bambridge’s father was the writer Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay (India). The Bambridges lived at Burgh House between 1933 and 1937. During that time, the ageing Rudyard was a regular visitor.

After the Bambridges left Burgh House for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, the venerable building faced dilapidation until it was taken over by Hampstead Borough Council in 1946. It was then used for social functions such as wedding receptions.

After a long campaign and much fund-raising, the house was opened to the public as a museum in 2006. In addition to displaying items of historical interest, concerts, talks, and other cultural events are also held there. The concerts are held in a music room that the Reverend Burgh added on to the building when he occupied it.  All these life-enhancing activities have come to a halt during the covid19 pandemic. The pleasant and attractive outdoor café is helping to keep the community spirit alive until rates of infection decrease sufficiently to allow at least some return of the cultural activities that we used to enjoy.

The Burgh House café is open from Wednesday to Sunday. Should you visit Hampstead when the café at this place is closed, there are another three Hampstead places, from which we enjoy collecting hot beverages:

Ginger and White in Perrins Court

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead High Street

Matchbox Café in South End Green

There are also a couple of telephone kiosks that have been converted to tiny cafés both in Hampstead High Street and Pond Square, but we have never sampled their wares.  

Confined in Japanese occupied Manchuria

PARTICLES OF SNOW, whisked by the breeze, were whizzing about in the air in random directions and eventually reaching the ground this early February afternoon in London. I had just finished my midday meal with some nutritious fermented cabbage and was wondering what to write. Maybe, it was the kimchi that helped me remember an old friend who spent some of his working life in Manchuria, which is close to Korea, the home of this weirdly delicious fermented food substance, or was it something else that has brought him to mind?

Sir Norman had already retired from Britain’s diplomatic service when I first met him in the mid-1970s. An accomplished musician, a string player, he used to perform in concerts given by a fine amateur orchestra based west of London, whose treasurer was both a player in it and a friend of mine. Usually, after concerts, my friend and her husband hosted a coffee party at their home for the conductor and selected patrons of the orchestra. Sir Norman was a patron, and it was at these parties that I first got to know him. The few tales that he related about his years as a diplomat fascinated me.

On graduating from university, Sir Norman had a good command of several modern European languages as well as Latin and Greek. He told me that it was typical of the diplomatic service that they decided that his first posting was to Japan, where he was to have a role in the interpreting of a language he did not know: Japanese. Being a good linguist, he was able to learn it.

During the late 1930s, he was sent to Shanghai in China for a year (1937-38). When he arrived, a war between China and Japan was in progress. He told me that every afternoon, he would sit taking tea on the roof of a building in the European cantonment of the Chinese city. As he sat there, he could see shells shooting overhead. They were being fired at the Chinese on one side of the Yangtse River by the Japanese artillery on the other side. This went on day after day for several months. Then one day, the shelling stopped suddenly and for good. Sir Norman wondered why.

Soon after the shelling ceased, he met some senior officers of the victorious Japanese forces. He asked them why the fighting that had been dragging on for so long had ended so abruptly. The officers explained that the Chinese soldiers were mostly mercenaries. Once the Japanese had ascertained how much to pay them to stop fighting, they stopped.

Later, Sir Norman was transferred to Manchuria, where he was the Acting Consul General in Dairen (now ‘Dalian’).  He was serving there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. After that incident, the Japanese authorities in the city of Dairen ordered him not to leave the consulate building, in which he lived. They cut off his telephone and forbade him to use his wireless to listen to radio broadcasts. Frequently, Japanese officers used to visit his premises to check that the radio was inactivated. Sir Norman, who told me that he had never been much of a technological wizard, told me more about the radio. He said that he had unscrewed a wire in the radio, which rendered it inoperable, and left it disconnected whenever he did not want to use the apparatus. With a smile on his kindly face, he explained to me that whenever he wanted to listen to a news broadcast, it was a simple matter to reattach the wire. During the time that he was being held under house-arrest, none of the Japanese officials who had visited to check on him had ever bothered to examine the radio properly.

In about 1942, the Japanese transported Sir Norman to Tokyo and eventually he was transferred into Allied hands. He said that at no time was he treated badly by the Japanese. In fact, he was looked after by them very well.

The last time I saw Sir Norman was not long before he died. We went to visit him at his home, whose lovely garden ran down to the bank of the River Thames.  He was in good spirits, recovering from a hip replacement. He told my wife and me that both of his hips had prosthetic joints and that every few years they required replacing.

“It’s like changing a car’s tyres, you know,” he explained cheerfully, “except that it lays you up for a few weeks each time.”

Although I did not meet Sir Norman as nearly as often as I would have liked, I feel privileged to have been able to hear about historical events from someone who experienced them first-hand.

Sir Norman died in 2002. Sitting at home today in early February 2021, watching whisps of snow swirling in the air, whipped up by a strong cold wind, had brought him to mind. I am not sure that it was because of the kimchi I had just eaten that made me think of him. I wondered if I had recalled him because just as he was confined in Manchuria, we are also being confined, or at least being restricted in our freedom to move around. Unlike him, we have plenty of access to communications from the outside world, much of which arrives in ways that Sir Norman did not live long enough to experience. However, like him, we are currently limited in our movements. We can leave home, which Sir Norman could not, but we cannot travel as far from it as we had become accustomed to doing before the onset of the covid19 pandemic. Sir Norman used to sit out the several weeks of recovery from his hip surgeries patiently. I suppose that we must also wait patiently, but for far, far longer.

This time last year

WE MARRIED TWICE. That is to say that Lopa and I had a civil marriage in a registry office in October 1993 in London’s Chelsea Town Hall and then a religious marriage in mid-January 1994 in my in-law’s garden in Koramangala, a district south of central Bangalore. Both ceremonies were memorable and meaningful but the one in Bangalore was more colourful, and far lengthier than that in London.

Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, we were in India. Just before leaving for India in November 2019, we celebrated our English anniversary with our daughter at a French restaurant in London, the Poule au Pot, where one can enjoy typical classic French cuisine in a dimly lit but pleasant environment.

Mid-January 2020 found us near the port of Mandvi in Kutch, formerly an independent princely state, a largely arid, desert region, now part of the Indian State of Gujarat. We were staying with Lopa’s cousin and his wife in their lovely remote and spacious 150-year old farm house, which has been in his family for several generations. Informed of our anniversary, they decided to treat us to dinner at a nearby resort close to the sea. After the meal, we walked to the car under a star-filled clear sky and returned home. There, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed a dessert that Lopa’s cousin’s wife, an accomplished cook, had made specially for us.

A year later, a few days ago, we celebrated our ‘Indian’ anniversary in London. Interestingly, the temperature in wintry London was higher than it was when we were in Kutch (at night), but there was far less sunshine. This year, in the midst of strict ‘lockdown’ conditions necessitated by the covid19 pandemic, we celebrated alone, and not at a restaurant. We had a celebratory cup of coffee outdoors and enjoyed a good home-cooked meal prefaced by gin and tonics. Had we been in India as we often are in January, but not in Gujarat, which is teetotal, we would most probably also have celebrated with ‘g and t’ but sitting outside under the stars on a warm evening in southern India.

Little did we know when we were enjoying ourselves in Kutch last January, that a year later, the idea of visiting India, let alone leaving London, would be out of the question. Well, as my late father used to say, rather annoyingly when misfortune struck:

“Such is life”, or “These things happen.”

Cholera in Hampstead and spread of disease

THIS IS NOT ABOUT our current plague, the covid19 pandemic, but an earlier one that occurred occasionally in the 19th century. In many countries today, millions of people live with plague and disease and might even accept it as a part of daily life. Fortunately, until recently this was not the case in the UK. However, in the 19th century when diseases and their transmission were less well understood than currently, living conditions in the UK were considerably less healthy than today, disease was rife, and life expectancy was not great. While walking amongst the picturesque steeply sloping back streets of Hampstead village in North London in late November 2020, we spotted a carved stone plaque high on a wall of a house, currently Heathside Preparatory School, on New End (at the point where the street makes a right angle and becomes north-south instead of east-west).

The plaque reads:

“This building was erected by voluntary contributions for a dispensary and soup kitchen. It was intended as a thank-offering to Almighty God for his special mercy in sparing this parish during the visitation of cholera in the year 1849. The site was purchased in 1850 and the building completed in 1853.

He shall deliver thee from the noisome pestilence. Thomas Ainger M.A. incumbent”

As you will discover soon, not everyone in Hampstead was spared from cholera in 1849. One of those, who was afflicted, not in 1849 but five years later, unwittingly made a great contribution to science.

Thomas Ainger (1799-1863), who was born in Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire and studied at Cambridge University, was awarded ‘perpetual curacy’ of St Mary’s Hampstead in 1841, a position he held until his death (http://hampsteadparishchurch.org.uk/data/magazines_2013.php?id=897). He was:

“An energetic parish priest and poor-law guardian; helped to found schools and a dispensary; enlarged his church and promoted the building of new churches in the district around Hampstead.” (https://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/).

Today, we can have injections that radically reduce the chances of suffering from cholera, but that was not the case back in 1849, when the mechanism by which the disease spreads was not yet understood. One case of the disease that significantly helped to further knowledge of its spread occurred in Hampstead in 1854.

Dr John Snow (1813-1858), who led the way in hygiene and anaesthesia, suspected that cholera was spread via drinking water. He demonstrated that cases of the disease were clustered around particular water sources. During an outbreak of cholera in 1854 in London’s Soho district, which was centred around a pump in Broad Street, now Broadwick Street, he found that by removing the handle from the pump so that the locals could no longer draw their drinking water from there, the local outbreak of cholera was brought to an end. The pump in Broad Street was only three feet away from a leaking cess pit and its water was contaminated by waste matter (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/broadstreetpump.html). Snow theorised that the cause of cholera was not as previously thought a ‘miasma’ in the air, but something in drinking water. Now, let Stephanie Snow continue the story (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2002; vol.31: pp 908–911):

“In 1849, the London Medical Gazette had suggested that in regard to Snow’s theory, the experimentum crucis [i.e. critical experiment] would be that the water conveyed to a distant locality where cholera had been hitherto unknown produced the disease in all who used it. One of the cholera victims Snow had traced through his Broad Street investigation was a widow who lived in Hampstead. She had a regular delivery of water from the Broad Street pump as she preferred its taste. Her last delivery was made on 31 August and by 2 September, having drunk the water, she had died from cholera. Snow regarded this as ‘the most conclusive’ of circumstances in proving the connection between the water pump and the cholera outbreak.”

The widow had lived at ‘West End’, which until the 19th century was that name of what is now West Hampstead.

The plaque in New End suggests that Hampstead Parish was ‘spared’ from the cholera in 1849. That was almost true. In that year, Hampstead had 8 deaths from cholera per 10,000, whereas many areas of London reported between 100 and 200 deaths from cholera per 10,000 (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/publichealth118_387_394_2004.pdf). The rate of cholera fatalities in its area was determined by the location of its drinking water supply.  The uppermost rates of deaths from cholera in 1849 were exceedingly high compared with even the highest rates of covid19 infection anywhere in the UK during the second half of 2020.  

John Snow had been alerted to the existence of the widow in Hampstead by Reverend Henry Whitehead (1825-1896), a vicar in London’s Soho district, who was at first sceptical of Snow’s theory of the water-borne transmission of cholera (http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/whitehead.html) and favoured the idea that cholera existed as an airborne ‘miasma’. Although Snow and Whitehead differed on their ideas on the transmission of cholera, they decided to work together. Peter Daniell and David Markoff provide more detail (www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-soho/) about the widow in Hampstead:

“Whitehead was able to tell Snow about a widow living in Hampstead, who had died of cholera on the …  2nd September [i.e. 1854], and her niece, who lived in Islington, who had succumbed with the same symptoms the following day. Since neither of these women had been near Soho for a long time, it was impossible that they could have contracted the disease through breathing in the polluted air of the area. Intrigued, Dr Snow rode up to Hampstead to interview the widow’s son. He discovered from him that the widow had once lived in Broad Street, and that she had liked the taste of the well-water there so much that she had sent her servant down to Soho every day to bring back a large bottle of it for her by cart. The last bottle of water—which her niece had also drunk from—had been fetched on 31st August, at the very start of the Soho epidemic. This was just the sort of evidence he needed to prove the argument of the miasmatists wrong.”

If we had not noticed the plaque in Hampstead, I doubt that I would have become aware of the West End widow’s role in the unravelling of the method of transmission of cholera. Below the plaque and on the same wall, there is a pink granite object, which looks like a broken drinking fountain. This bears the date ‘1859’, five years after the large outbreak in Soho, and I hope that people did not contract cholera by drinking from it. It was in that year, that Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) began his programme of improving London’s sewerage system. This helped to reduce the out breaks of cholera, but there was at least one more in the East End of London in 1866.

A year has passed

EXACTLY A YEAR AGO, at the end of November 2019, we were staying at the Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta. Every morning after breakfast, I would set out for a morning walk on the golf course as the air temperature began to climb rapidly towards 30 degrees Celsius. Being careful to avoid the golfers and their shots, I wandered away from the club buildings towards the far reaches of the luxuriant course. On my way, I passed the numerous obese dogs that hang around the club waiting for careless human snack eaters to drop bits of food. Further on, apart from the occasional players, I greeted the white egrets, which hastened away as I approached them. Then, as the club buildings grew smaller as I walked away from them, I often came across the jackals that sun themselves on the bunkers and putting greens. As I aimed my camera towards them, they would look at me suspiciously before slinking slowly into the clumps of bushes and shrubs dotted about in the grounds. Some mornings, I watched horses being taken for exercise and every morning I encountered people, both slender and not so sleek, either running or walking, usually viewing the screens on their mobile telephones. That was a year ago. And after leaving Calcutta, we told our friends and family there that we were sure to be back again in a year’s time.

It is said that one should not count one’s chickens before they hatch. Little did we know back then in Calcutta that a year later at the end of November 2020 we would not be in Calcutta in the Indian winter warmth, but in Bushy Park (near Twickenham) on a misty morning when the air temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius. We had visited Bushy Park about a month or so earlier in bright sunshine when the large carpark was almost full of cars. Today, on the last day of November, the carpark was less than a quarter full and the mist almost hid the tops of the tallest trees. The damp air felt bitterly cold, a feeling enhanced by the gloomy grey sky overhead that became visible as the mist dispersed.

Despite the greyness and cool air and our frozen hands, we enjoyed a brief walk in the Woodland Gardens, which are surrounded by a fence to stop the entry of the local wildlife, not jackals as in Calcutta but numerous deer, formerly the prey of the aristocratic hunters of yesteryear. A stream winds through the woodland area, widening sometimes to become like a pond. No egrets here, but plenty of ducks, gulls, and a few Egyptian Geese. Nor were there any golfers with their caddies and trolleys. Instead, there were plenty of parents, mostly younger than us, with their infants in buggies, and also some grandparents. Instead of being able to retire to the Shamiana bar, after the walk, for a coffee or, more likely in Calcutta, a tea,  we headed for a small window in the otherwise closed Bushy Park Pheasantry Café to buy hot drinks to take away. The wooden tables and chairs under the trees nearby were, as a notice put it: “Out of Bounds”, just as Calcutta is for us now, because of the blasted covid19 pandemic.

Methods are being employed to attempt to reduce the spread of the virus both here in the UK and in India. Much emphasis is put on trying to minimise association with other people. We try to do this as much as possible, but this does not stop us from getting out and about.  In contrast, many of our friends and family in India have been far more cautious than many in the UK, hardly leaving their home for weeks and months on end. I am not at all sure that we could manage to remain inside our flat for so long especially if the weather here was as warm and sunny as it is in India. We wrap up warmly and venture out into the cold whenever possible and that has helped to keep us feeling sane during this frightening plague. As a Norwegian said on BBC Radio 4 some weeks ago:

“There is no such thing as bad weather. There is just bad clothing.”

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.

Why go abroad?

MANY OF MY FRIENDS AND acquaintances are itching to travel abroad after at least three months of enduring ‘lockdown’ caused by the Corona virus pandemic. Although I fully understand their wanderlust, I would not feel happy travelling abroad for quite a long time despite the easing of restrictions that is on the point of happening in the UK and elsewhere. I am not even happy about travelling on public transport despite the enforcement of wearing face coverings and attempts at separating passengers by so-called ‘social distancing’.

 

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Waterend House

We used to own a car until it decided to give up the ghost in the autumn of 2010. Living in Kensington with access to a rich network of public transport and the fact that we used it no more than twice a month, we felt that replacing it was unnecessary. So, for almost ten years we used buses, trains, minicabs, the occasional rented car, and more recently Uber cars. With the advent of the Corona pandemic, we gave up using public transport and confined our activities to where we could reach comfortably on foot, in our case not much more than two and a half miles from home. As it seems likely that Britain will not be free of risk from infection until eventually there is a vaccine for the infective particles, and that might be a long way off, we decided to travel in ‘splendid isolation’ by buying ourselves a motor car. Recently, we bought a small ‘pre-loved’ motor, and this has allowed us to widen our horizons, to roam around a bit more.

My wife and I are amongst those who prefer to travel to foreign parts and have therefore largely neglected the wonders that are literally on our doorstep: the joys of Britain beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Over the years, it has always struck us how different London is from the rest of Britain. Leaving London and travelling beyond sometimes as exotic to us as crossing international borders.

One part of England that is on London’s doorstep but is completely different is East Anglia (the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk). Much of Essex contains the eastern spread of the metropolis and is not too attractive, but further away from London the county is full of pleasantly delightful surprises.

Recently, we drove to the tiny village of Tollesbury near the River Blackwater, one of the numerous inlets on the coast of Essex. Nearby, is the estuarine port of Maldon, made famous for its granular salt that is highly regarded by cooks. We spent a couple of hours sitting in Promenade Park next to one of the streams of the River Chelmer. Unlike popular beaches like Brighton and Bournemouth, Malden is enjoyed mainly by the town’s locals.  The small town, which is on a hill overlooking the river contains many old houses and a fine church containing the grave of President George Washington’s great-grandfather.

Another trip, which I have described elsewher, took us to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. From there, we visited the Suffolk village of Clare. Dominated by the ruins of a castle and the superb perpendicular style Church of St Peter and St Paul’s, and containing several old pubs and other buildings, this small place was once important in the wool industry. Clare College in Cambridge (founded 1326) was so named in honour of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), an heiress of the Dukes of Clare. She gave the college a handsome endowment. The three red chevrons on the town of Clare’s coat of arms also appear as part of the coat of arms of the Cambridge college. We spent no more than half an hour in Clare, but that was sufficient for us to want to linger there longer on a future visit.   Our route back to London took us through other picturesque villages in Suffolk and Essex, all of which deserve future visits.

Shortly after our trip to Suffolk, we travelled a mere eighteen miles to Hatfield. Our friends took us from that small town deep into the Hertfordshire countryside to a tiny place where Waterend Lane crosses the upper reaches of the River Lea. We parked next to a lovely well-preserved mainly brick building, Waterend House. The historicengland.org.uk website describes it as: “An exceptionally complete example of a mid-C17 medium-sized country house”, and states that one of the fireplaces within it bears an inscription with the date 1692. I would have loved to visit its interior. Instead, we walked around the almost one-mile perimeter of a huge sloping field.

The field and its surroundings were a ‘breath of fresh air’. The upper part of the field was filled with ripening barley, which swayed like waves when the stems were caught by frequent strong gusts of wind. We walked up a steep slope and turned a corner to join the bed of a long since disused railway track. Near the corner of the field an old brick bridge still exists. Long ago, trains used to run below it. While our hosts’ two dogs sniffed their way around the field, M and G pointed out the various wild plants that flanked our path.

The lower half of the field was a sea of daisies. It looked as if the ground was covered with snow. The daisies were not alone. Small patches of blue flowered thistles and red poppies added to the picturesqueness of the scene. Every now and then, we spotted teazels, both green and fresh and, also, dark and drying out, towering high above the daisies. Along the side of the field that runs parallel to the riverbank, there were elderberries and elderflowers as well as many nettles. M pointed out something I had never noticed before. That is, the leaves of nettles are home to numerous ladybirds. In addition to the large numbers of these creatures I spotted many other small beetles, some of which resembled the ladybirds.

I felt that walking around the field, seeing the swaying crops and taking in the details of nature proved very uplifting and therapeutic after our spell of urban ‘lockdown’. It made me pleased that we had taken the decision to buy our own vehicle to explore the countryside on London’s doorstep, and eventually further afield. England outside London feels like ‘another country’ and is well worth exploring. And, in these times of health uncertainties, it provides a worthwhile alternative to the exotic destinations that we have chosen to visit in the past.