Walls need not be dull
With decorative plasterwork
They can give joy
Walls need not be dull
With decorative plasterwork
They can give joy
ONE OF THE JOYS of travelling around in one’s own car is the ability to go almost anywhere one wishes and by any route, direct or indirect. Recently, we were driving along the A1141 between the Suffolk wool towns of Lavenham and Hadleigh when we noticed a small brown and white sign directing tourists to “St James Chapel”. We turned off the main road and drove along a narrow, winding by-road, which threaded its way through cultivated fields and small clumps of trees. We had no idea where the chapel is located and it was almost by chance that we noticed the small building, which is located well away from the lane. The best view of this tiny edifice is through a farmyard next to which it stands, otherwise it is well concealed by tall hedges.
Maintained by English Heritage, the chapel is approached via a narrow L-shaped passage between it and the hedges. A board close by gives the history of the place. The tiny 13th century chapel served the nearby Lindsey Castle, which was abandoned in the 14th century and now exists only as earthworks (www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=384905&resourceID=19191). During the 13th century, a lady called Nesta de Cockfield (c1182-c1248; https://our-royal-titled-noble-and-commoner-ancestors.com/p5161.htm#i154959), who was born near Lindsey Castle at Kersey, established a tithe (tax) to maintain the chapel of St James. Along with all other chantries (usually, chapels on private land), St James was closed in 1547 as part of the religious reforms instigated by King Edward VI.
The chapel was used as a barn from 1547 until the early 1930s, when it became designated as a historic monument. The building is built with roughly cut flints held together with mortar or cement. The entrance with its gothic archway and the windows are trimmed with well-cut stone blocks. The interior walls are not plastered and look the same as the exterior. On the south wall there is a niche or ‘piscina’ (used for draining water used in the Mass in pre-Reformation church services), which, like the windows, is topped by a gothic arch. Apart from the piscina, there is nothing else left within the chapel apart from the ghosts of those who prayed there many centuries ago.
The ceiling of St James is formed of the exposed timbers that support the roof, which is attractively thatched, and looks well-maintained. The north wall of the chapel faces the road across the car park of the farm next door to it.
Without a car or bicycle or horse, reaching the tiny chapel of St James would involve a tiring walk. Without a car and plenty of leisure time we would most likely never have visited this delightful remnant of East Anglia’s rich mediaeval heritage.
MANY SMALL PLACES in East Anglia have disproportionately large churches. Cley-Next-The-Sea (‘Cley’) is no exception. Its parish church of St Margaret of Antioch is one of the largest in northern Norfolk. It stands atop a hillock, which used to be an island only reachable by boat. The boats that reached Cley were not only those of locals but also foreign vessels bringing valuable cargos to Cley. According to Marjorie Missen, who has written a detailed guide to the church, it was at Cley:
“… that strong links were made with Hanseatic traders and it was in some measure due to their wealth that today we are able to wonder at the size and magnificence of St Margaret’s.”
Without doubt, this church is both impressive in size and contains much of remarkable beauty. Most of the church was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its external walls are of flint with stone dressing. Amongst the things that caught my eye during our first and, as yet, only visit to the church were the beautiful, vaulted ceiling of its south porch; the stone carvings on the 15th century font: they depict aspects of the Sacrament; the wood carvings on some of the choir stalls (miserichords); and stone carvings of musicians on the tops of columns lining the nave. However, what first attracted my attention to this church was part of its exterior.
A roofless gothic structure projects from the south side of the church at the place where one would expect a transept. This structure is affixed to the main body of the church but is blocked off from it. Once upon a time, this might have been accessible from within the church when or if it it formed the south transept. I have so far been unable to find any definitive explanation for the abandonment of the south transept and its decay. Ms Missen wrote:
“The large scale work on the transepts and nave are unlikely to have begun before about 1315, or even later. Although the transepts have been in ruins for some centuries the delicacy and tracery of the south window can still be appreciated.”
Interesting as this is, it does not provide any reason why the south transept and the north have been blocked off from the church and allowed to become dilapidated. It has been suggested by Simon Knott (http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/cley/cley.htm) that the transepts, whose construction began in the early 14th century, were never completed because of The Black Death, which reached Norfolk in 1349:
“The most beautiful is that in the south transept, elegant lights that build to a cluster of vast quatrefoils. This was competed on the eve of the Black Death, and is probably at the very apex of English artistic endeavour. But I think that it was never filled with glass. I can see no evidence that the transepts were completed in time for their use before the pestilence, or that there was ever a need to use them after the recovery from it. And, then, of course, the Reformation intervened.”
This seems a quite reasonable theory. Yet, it is only a hypothesis, and so the mystery lives on. Is the south transept a ruin or an uncompleted building? That is the question.
MY LATE MOTHER worked in the Sculpture Department of London’s St Martins School of Art in the days when it was located on Charing Cross Road, near Foyles bookshop. Amongst her colleagues at St Martins were Sir Antony Caro (1924-2013) and one of his pupils, Phillip King (b 1934). Both of these artists helped my mother to learn sculptural metal welding techniques in the early 1960s.
THIS SCULPTURE, which is on display in a glade within the gardens of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, reminds me of the kind of work Caro produced, but this was by his ‘disciple’ Phillip King. I like it, but cannot explain why, but it might not be seen as beautiful by everyone. My mother was mainly involved in abstract composition. This might have helped me me to become appreciative of this kind of art. .
HAD IT NOT BEEN FILLED WITH parked cars, Market Square in Lavenham (Suffolk in East Anglia) would probably be recognisable to those who lived in the town several hundred years ago. The square is surrounded by old buildings, many of which are half-timbered. The most impressive of these is the Guildhall that was built in 1529. This large building attests the former wealth of the town, when it was an important centre of the wool trade in East Anglia. In its heyday, cloth from Lavenham was sent all over Britain and exported to Holland and Spain via the port of Ipswich. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Lavenham was the fourteenth richest town in England.
Lavenham boasts a 16th century market cross. Market crosses were erected to indicate that an area had been designated as being a market square by a bishop, or a baron, or the monarch. Lavenham’s market cross is made of stone. A three stepped pyramid supports a slender column surmounted by a stone sphere. A metal plate informs the visitor that:
“The market cross was erected in 1501in accordance with the will of William Jacob”.
So, who was William Jacob?
Jacob was one of Lavenham’s wealthy clothiers, involved in the wool textile trade. Despite his surname, it was highly unlikely that he was Jewish because most Jews had been expelled from England in the 13th century (and it was not until the mid-17th century that Jewish people began returning). According to text on the website deverehouse.co.uk:
“William Jacob was the tenth wealthiest clothier and businessman in England, making an annual profit of 67 marks and with a gross turnover of 223 whole cloths (a gross turnover of £12m in today’s money, around 400 marks). On his death he paid for the erection of the market cross that is still there 520 years later. He did not branch into “straites” or “narrow cloths” and within 25 years of his death the cheaper narrow cloth was dominating the market and Jacob’s family were seeking other work.”
In his will, dated 1500, he wrote:
“I will have a cross made of my perpetual cost that shall be set upon the market hill in the village of Lavenham.”
The cross that was erected in Lavenham in 1501 was a copy of the market cross already present in the city of Cambridge. The Cambridge market cross has long-since disappeared. The stepped base is all that remains of the cross paid for by Jacob’s estate. The slender shaft that now stands on it was put up in 1725. It is interesting to note that far away in Florence (Italy) Michelangelo was beginning work on his famous statue of David in 1501. That sculpture was completed in 1504. Although many visitors come to Lavenham, many more visit Florence.
Suffolk was the most important clothmaking county in 15th/16th century England. William Jacob was one of the county’s 100 clothiers in business between 1480 and 1500. Other counties had far fewer members of this trade. Although William Jacob was the tenth most wealthy, the wealthiest was Thomas Spring III (c1474-1523) of Lavenham. By 1500, Suffolk was the most industrialised and urbanised county in Britain, but by 1700, the county had become a rural backwater. Suffolk and much of the rest of East Anglia might be regarded as a bit of a backwater nowadays, but it is a largely picturesque one with wonderful landscapes and a great architectural legacy due to its past prosperity during the golden age of the wool trade.
“IN TWO HUNDRED YARDS TURN LEFT on to Shoot Up Hill, and then immediately right onto Mapesbury Road”, commands a disembodied, strangely accented voice in the GPS navigation system. So many people are now using digital routing devices to find their way around that I wonder whether the need for roadside direction signs will disappear sometime in the future. I hope not because although many of these signs are mundane in appearance, some of them are quite distinctive. Recently, I saw one which is a veritable work of art.
The Pillar of Salt is not only a biblical tale, the fate of Lot’s wife when she looked back at the city of Sodom, but also the name of an unusual road direction sign in the heart of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (England). I had noticed this curiously designed signpost of Angel Hill in Bury St Edmonds on previous visits, but it was only a few days ago that I examined it carefully. It looks like a short lighthouse with arms projecting from it in three directions. Two of the arms have the names of places and road numbers (e.g. ‘MILDENHALL A1101’). A third arm bears the words ‘NO ENTRY’. The signpost looks distinctive but somewhat surprising in a square where it is surrounded by buildings that are mostly well over one hundred years old. It stands a few feet from the magnificent, massive gothic Abbey Gate, which was rebuilt in the 14th century.
A plaque at the base of the Pillar of Salt reads that it is:
“Considered to be the first internally illuminated traffic sign in this country.”
It was designed by Basil Oliver, the Architect to Bury St Edmund’s Town Council, and erected in 1935. The information on the plaque adds:
“It was granted special approval as it did not conform to regulations”.
The problem was that the sizes of the letters and numbers on the signpost did not conform to official standards. According to the britishlistedbuildings.co.uk website:
“The Town Council went to great lengths to find something worthy of this important location when increased motor traffic made signing essential. Basil Oliver advised on the design and at the time when road signs were being standardised under the 1933 Regulations, this sign is individual and probably unique. It was approved by the Ministry of Transport in June 1935 subject to the letters and road numbers being 5” [inches] high. This was a compromise since the new standard was for letters 4.5” high and numbers 6” high.”
Fortunately, this problem with the characters on the sign were resolved amicably.
Basil Oliver (1882-1948) was born in the Suffolk town of Sudbury a year after his parents had married in Hampstead, London. He attended school in Bury St Edmunds, where according to the website suffolkartists.co.uk he began his study of architecture. He continued his studies at Liverpool University; the Royal Academy School; and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. By 1904, he was articled to an architect in London. The website mentions:
“His best-known building is the Borough Offices, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk (1935–1937), described by Pevsner as ‘Neo-Georgian, tactful, and completely uneventful’…”
In contrast, I feel that his signpost in Bury is anything but ‘uneventful’ and it is not ‘tactful’, as it catches the attention by being almost the only ‘modern’ structure in an otherwise old-world environment.
Oliver lived and worked both in Suffolk and London. He died a bachelor in the town where he was born.
The Pillar of Salt, fascinating as it is, is not the main reason that people visit Bury St Edmunds. Many people come to enjoy the grounds that contain the ruins of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, once a significant Benedictine monastery. It was in the abbey church, now in ruins, that the barons of England met in 1214 to agree to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties. This was the forerunner to the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Within the ruined church there are two plaques commemorating that important gathering of the barons and listing their names.
Thus, Bury St Edmunds was the birthplace of both the Magna Carta and, also, the internally illuminated direction sign, two developments separated by a gap of 720 years. Much of the research for this short essay was done using the same technology that powers the GPS electronic navigation systems. Useful as these gadgets are, give me an old-fashioned direction sign any day.