DURING THE LAST YEAR or longer, we have visited plenty of ‘stately homes’ in England. Many of them are very fine works of architecture.Today, we visited Blenheim Palace for the second time in 12 months., It was built for the first Duke of Marlborough and is still home to some of his descendants.
Of the many grand homes that we have seen during our travels, Blenheim impressed me far, far less than many of the others. It is impressive in its bulkiness but, for me, it lacks the finesse that characterises so many of the other aristocratic homes we have visited.
PS: To be fair, Blenheim was not completed as originally planned because at some stage the funds for its construction became dramatically reduced.
BIRDS WITH TWO heads have fascinated me ever since I first became interested in Albania when I was about 15 years old. Just in case you did not know, the flag of Albania (and several other countries) bears an eagle with two heads. Another place that uses this imaginary bird with two heads as a symbol is a place I visit frequently: Karnataka State (formerly Mysore State) in the south of India. Currently (June 2021), unable to visit either Albania or India, we are on holiday in the English county of Cornwall. At least two Cornish families have employed this imaginary double-headed creature as a symbol: the Killigrews and the Godolphins. The famous banking family, the Hoares, also use the double-headed bird on their crest. A branch of this family might have originated in Cornwall (www.houseofnames.com/hoare-family-crest).
I do not know for sure when or why the two-headed bird was adopted by these leading Cornish families, but here is my theory. John (1166-1216), King of England from 1199 until his death, had a son, his second, called Richard (1209-1272). His older brother, who became King Henry III, gifted him the county of Cornwall, making Richard High Sherriff of the county as well as its duke. The revenues collected from his county made Richard a wealthy man. Cutting a long story short, Richard of Cornwall was elected King of the Germany in 1256, often a position held by candidates being considered for becoming Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This allowed him to become known as the ‘King of the Romans’. He was the ruler (but not the emperor) of the Holy Roman Empire, a position he held until 1272, when he was replaced by Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218-1291). Richard hoped to become emperor, but never made the position. His crest bore a single-headed eagle, but that of the realm to which he aspired, The Holy Roman Empire, employed an eagle with two heads. At this point, I enter the realm of speculation. I suggest (with no evidence to back this up) that some noble families in Cornwall, who might have been associated with Richard, might have borrowed the double-headed eagle of Richard’s German kingdom for use on their family crests to enhance their family’s importance. Or, they might have used it in deference to Richard. But, as my late father-in-law often said, I am only thinking aloud.
Recently, we visited Godolphin House, a National Trust maintained property just over 4 miles northwest of Helston. Set in lovely gardens, the house is what remains of a building that dates to about 1475, built by John I Godolphin. It was part of a far larger building, much of which is in ruins. It has a good set of stone outhouses. Godolphin built his house about 7 years after the death of the Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1405-1468), also known as ‘Skanderbeg’, whose coat of arms, helmet, and seal includes a double-headed eagle. I do not know whether Skanderbeg was aware of the Godolphins, but it is possible that the reverse might have been the case, as much was written about the Albanian hero, even soon after his death, and many members of the Godolphin family were well-educated.
The name ‘Godolphin’ is derived from several earlier versions of the family’s surname. In 1166, there was reference to ‘Edward de Wotholca’. A record dated 1307 mentions the family of ‘Alexander de Godolghan’, who died in 1349. It was he who built the first fortified residence at Godolphin, the name that the family eventually adopted. John I Godolphin demolished the first dwelling and replaced it with what was the basis for the existing building.
The Godolphins of Cornwall included several notable figures. Sir Francis I Godolphin (1540-1608) constructed extensive defensive works to protect Cornwall and The Scilly Isles against Spanish incursions, as well as improving the efficiency of his tin mines. His son William Godolphin (1567-1613) was a loyal supporter of royalty during the English Civil War. It was said that the future King Charles II visited Godolphin House and stayed in what is now known as the ‘King’s Room’.
Sidney, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645-1712) was involved in the Court and Parliament during the reign of Queen Anne, which ran from 1707 to 1714. His most important position was First Lord of the Treasury. During both Anne’s reign and that of her predecessor, King William III, he was strongly associated with the military career of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Sidney’s son, Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678-1766) was also a politician and a courtier. Although he was born in London, he represented the Cornish constituency of Helston, which is not far from Godolphin House. Francis worked his way up the governmental hierarchy to become Lord Privy Seal in 1735. a position he held for five years. In 1698, Francis married Henrietta (1681-1733), eldest daughter of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.
The Godolphins were spending hardly any time in Cornwall by the 18th century. From 1786, Godolphin House was owned by the Dukes of Leeds, who never lived there. Despite its now distant connection with the Godolphin family, their double-headed eagle can still be spotted around the house. There is a fine example in the Kings Room and several more on the hopper heads at the top of the rain collecting downpipes.
Whether or not birds with two heads fascinate you, a visit to Godolphin House, remote in the Cornish countryside, is well-worth making, not only to spot the mythical birds but also to enjoy fine architecture and wonderful gardens.
ROWERS AT THE 2012 Olympics would have become familiar with Dorney Lake. Built at great expense by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s alma-mater, Eton College, this 1.4-mile-long waterway, a rowing lake, was ready for use by 2006. From the air, it looks like a long, wide airport runway filled with water. Prior to 2012, it was used for several international rowing competitions. In 2012, the lake was the site of both the Olympic and the Summer Paralympics. The lake continues to be used for rowing and members of public are allowed to use the parkland surrounding it when events are not taking place.
We reached the outer fence of the rowing lake after crossing the elegant Summerleaze footbridge across the River Thames. It allows cyclists and pedestrians to travel between Bray (Berkshire) and Dorney (Buckinghamshire). The bridge takes its name from the company that built it in 1996. It was constructed originally to carry a gravel conveyor belt, which transported gravel from the construction site of the Dorney Lake across the river to the Summerleaze company’s gravel pits next to Monkey Island near to the village of Bray.
The view from the top of the footbridge is magical. The Thames flows briskly beneath it. Upstream the water flows around Monkey Island. Then it travels as a single stream beneath the bridge before being divided into two streams by another island a few yards downstream, Queen’s Eyot. On the chilly Saturday afternoon, when we crossed the bridge, several small cruisers and canoeists passed beneath us. If you are lucky, and we were, you can see the towers and turrets of Windsor Castle in the distance on the south-eastern horizon.
Looking upstream and through the trees on Monkey Island, you can catch a glimpse of part of the Monkey Island Estate, currently a grand hotel built in and around a house with a fascinating history (www.monkeyislandestate.co.uk/pages/our-story.html). Many people assume that Monkey Island is so-called because of the paintings of monkeys in one of the buildings on the island, but this is probably erroneous. The name is most likely derived from the island’s earlier name ‘Monk’s Eyot’. The monks lived in Amersden Bank near Bray Lock on the Buckinghamshire side of the Thames. Their monastery, a cell of Merton Priory, was in existence by 1187, but was dissolved when Henry VIII put an end to such establishments.
The Great Fire of London of 1666 gave the area around Monkey Island a particular importance. For it was from here that Berkshire stone (for details, see: http://hanneyhistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Berkshire_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf) was shipped down river to aid the reconstruction of London. Gravel from the damaged city was brought back upriver and dumped on and around Monkey Island. This resulted in both raising the level of the island to above flood level and providing a solid foundation upon which to construct buildings. Well, getting to know this was alone a good consequence of having crossed the Summerleaze bridge, but wait, there is more to follow.
An ancestor of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Spencer Churchill, Charles Spencer, the 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-1758), purchased the island in about 1723. He had:
“…seen the property whilst attending meetings of the notorious Kit-Kat Club at nearby Down Place in Water Oakley. The Club which met from 1720 purported to be a gathering of ‘men of wit and pleasure about town’ but beneath a facade of joviality had more sinister objectives concerned with the defence of the House of Hanover.” (www.berkshirehistory.com/castles/monkey_island.html).
The Duke had two buildings constructed on his recent purchase: a ‘fishing temple’ and a ‘fishing lodge’. The latter, constructed from wooden blocks that were cut to look like stone, still stands and is known as The Pavilion. Lady Hertford (1699-1754), Frances Seymour, later the Duchess of Somerset, writing in 1738, described the Pavilion as follows:
“He has a small house upon it, whose outside represents a farm – the inside what you please: for the parlour, which is the only room in it except the kitchen, is painted upon the ceiling in grotesque, with monkeys fishing, shooting etc., and its sides are hung with paper.”
The Monkey paintings, which still exist, were the work of a French artist Andien de Clermont (died 1783), who worked in England between about 1716 and 1756. Painted before 1738, they decorated the ceiling of what was once a banqueting room. It is now known as the ‘Monkey Room’.
By about 1840, the pavilion had become an inn, which could be reached by ferry from near Bray on the Berkshire side of the Thames. The hostelry became quite popular during the early 20th century, when its regular guests included King Edward VII and his immediate family. The authors HG Wells and Rebecca West enjoyed visiting the place. West makes many references to the island in her novel “The Return of the Soldier” (published in 1918). Here is an excerpt:
“So they went to Monkey Island, the utter difference of which was a healing, and settled down happily in its green silence. All the summer was lovely; quiet, kind people, schoolmasters who fished, men who wrote books, married couples who still loved solitude, used to come and stay in the bright little inn.”
In 1956, a footbridge was built from the Berkshire shore to the island. Additional accommodation was added to the original Pavilion in 1963 and then the inn became known as the ‘Monkey Island Hotel’. After a brief period of decline in the early 1980s, the hotel was restored and has become a successful luxury destination with a fine restaurant, which we have yet to sample.
Our friend who lives in Bray kindly introduced us to the Summerleaze footbridge from where we glimpsed the building on Monkey Island. She suspected that the place had an interesting history, and she was quite right. I will leave you with one more quote from Rebecca West’s novel, one which captured the atmosphere of the place well both when she wrote and today:
“…a private road that followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them—he described it meticulously, as though it were of immense significance—there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited back-water, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles, and to the left of that a low, white house with a green dome rising in its middle, and a veranda with a roof of hammered iron that had gone verdigris-color with age and the Thames weather. This was the Monkey Island Inn. The third Duke of Marlborough had built it for a “folly,” and perching there with nothing but a line of walnut-trees and a fringe of lawn between it and the fast, full, shining Thames, it had an eighteenth-century grace and silliness.”
YOU CAN NEVER PREDICT how much traffic you will encounter on the roads in and near London. So, we always allow extra time when making a trip, and often we arrive earlier than we had planned. Such was the case yesterday when we had arranged to meet some friends for a walk in Heartwood Forest, which is close to the village of Sandridge in Hertfordshire. We reached our destination about an hour too early and stopped in Sandridge to get a warm drink and to take a look around. What little remains of old Sandridge is attractive and is worth a visit despite its description in “Hertfordshire, a Shell Guide” by RM Healey:
“Subtopian clutter in a village that has ribboned out to join St Albans.”
We bought coffee in the well-stocked small village shop and heard its owner saying:
“I am still in business despite being surrounded by three Tesco Express supermarkets.”
Now, here is a strange coincidence. After dinner, when I had finally warmed up after our excessively chilled walk in Heartwood Forest, I settled down to continue reading the wonderful biography of John Churchill (1650-1722), the First Duke of Marlborough, by Richard Holmes, and read on page 110:
“On 14 May that year John Churchill was created Baron Churchill of Sandridge in Hertfordshire …”
The year was 1685. Well, I was staggered to read the name of the village, of whose existence I had not previously been aware and which we had just visited by chance earlier that day. I reached for my Shell Guide to Hertfordshire but found no mention of Churchill in the section about Sandridge. Somewhat surprised by this omission, I looked up ‘Sandridge’ in James Thorne’s “Handbook to The Environs of London”, published in 1876. Thorne revealed something about Churchill’s connection with Sandridge.
The manor of Sandridge was given to Sir Ralph Rowlett (before 1513-1571; see: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/rowlett-sir-ralph-1513-71) of Holywell House (St Albans, Hertfordshire), Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire and Master of the Mint of England (in1543), by Henry VII in 1540. When Sir Ralph, who had no heirs, died, it was passed on to his sister Elizabeth, the wife of Ralph Jennings (aka ‘Jenyns’; 1529-1572; http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Jenyns-10). Sir Ralph died in Churchill, Somerset. The Jennings family kept the manor for several generations. When Richard Jennings (c1619-1668) died, he left the manor to his three daughters, Barbara, Frances, and Sarah (1660-1744; the youngest). Sarah was probably born in Water End House, which was built by her grandfather John Jennings (Jenyns) and which I have described elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/07/23/why-go-abroad/).
In 1677 or ’78, John Churchill, then a colonel, married Richard’s daughter Sarah Jennings. Then, he purchased the other sisters’ shares in the manor of Sandridge so that he owned the whole property. This permitted him to gain his first aristocratic title, that of ‘Baron Churchill of Sandridge’. As a baron, he was able to sit in the House of Lords. However, his attempt to become an MP for his borough, St Albans, met with failure:
On reflection, it seems a bit strange that we did not notice any obvious indication in Sandridge of the connection of the celebrated John Churchill, ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill, with the village in the manor he acquired. Some months earlier we had visited the village of East Knoyle (in Wiltshire), where the architect Christopher Wren was born in 1632. Despite the fact that Christopher left the village with his family when he was only three years old, visitors to East Knoyle are left in no doubt about its famous connection.
What remains of old Sandridge is attractive, even in the appalling weather conditions that we endured whilst walking around it. The village’s name is derived from ‘Saundruage’ meaning a place of sandy soil worked by bond tenants (i.e., feudal tenants completely subject to a lord or manor to whom they paid dues and services in return for land). The earliest written record of the place is in a document dated 796 AD.
The most fascinating building in the village is the Church of St Leonards. Although its exterior looks in great condition, it contains some structural elements that were put in place in the 10th century. These include Roman bricks found at sites near and in St Albans (Roman ‘Verulamium’). The church was consecrated as ‘St Leonards’ by 1119. Later, the church experienced modifications and enlargements. Sadly, but predictably during this time of pandemic, the church was locked. So, we will have to make another visit to see this interesting building when things ease up. Likewise, the picturesque Queen’s Head pub next to the church was also closed, except for take-away meals.
The Queens Head was built in the 17th century and, maybe, earlier, but has had much later work done to it (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1102874). The pub sign has the portrait of a woman’s head. The lady depicted has long black hair and is wearing a garment that exposes her neck and upper chest but not her cleavage. One long ringlet of her hair, which ends in a helical coil, is draped over the front of her left shoulder, and her face is looking slightly towards her right. The portrayal on the pub sign resembles that of Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714) found in many better painted pictures. This might not be accidental on a pub that existed long before Anne was on the throne. For, Lady Sarah Churchill, John’s wife, was a court favourite of Queen Anne. Incidentally, it is one of three pubs in this tiny village.
Once again, a short stop in a small English village has been most rewarding both from the aesthetic viewpoint and also because it has caused me to learn yet more detail about the fascinating history of the country where I live. I am grateful to our friends in Hatfield for giving us an excuse to discover Sandridge, a place so close to London but until yesterday, not on our ‘radar’.