The town of Hitchin and the novelist Georgette Heyer

KEEN READERS OF NOVELS by Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) will have come across the name ‘Hitchin’ in several of her stories. For example, in “The Foundling”, Belinda sighs, and then says:

“She went to a place called Hitchin, but I don’t know where it is, and I only recall it because it sounds like kitchen, and I think that is very droll, don’t you, sir?”

She receives the reply:

“But Hitchin lies only a few miles from here! I daresay no more than six or seven, perhaps not as much! If you think you would like to visit this friend, I will take you there tomorrow! Do you know her direction?”

Later in the story, there are frequent mentions of Hitchin and a ‘Sun Inn’ in the town. There used to be an inn with that name on Sun Street, where currently, there is a Sun Hotel. In another novel, “The Reluctant Widow”, Hitchin is the name of the landlord of an inn, ‘The Bull’ in Wisborough Green, a village in West Sussex.

Old world in central Hitchin

It is only in recent years that I have begun to read the wonderfully crafted historical novels by Heyer, but I was aware of Hitchin even as a young child. In those now far-off days, when I lived near Golders Green in north London, I was a collector of bus and train maps and an enthusiastic observer of buses. One of the buses that passed through Golders Green and along Finchley Road was the Green Line route number 716 that travelled all the way from Chertsey in southwest London to … you have probably guessed … Hitchin, far north of London in Hertfordshire. It was only today (11th of May 2021) that I finally got to visit Hitchin. I had read that it has a picturesque historic town centre and what we found surpassed all expectations.

A 7th century document states that Hitchin was the centre of the Hicce people, ‘hicce’ being Old English for ‘the people of the horse’. By 1086, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Hitchin was described as a ‘Royal Manor’. The town’s name is also associated with the River Hiz (pronounced ‘hitch’ by some), a short stretch of which flows in front of the eastern end of the centrally located St Mary’s Church, which is mostly 15th century with an 11th century tower. Later, the town thrived because of  the wool trade; vellum and parchment making; tanning; rope-making; malting; and its coaching inns, such as that mentioned in Heyer’s novel. Hitchin was a staging post for coaches travelling between London and what road signs in the south of England call ‘The North’. The town is not far from the current A1 trunk road.  Many of the inns have long since closed, but their picturesque buildings, most of which look mediaeval, or at least pre-Georgian, still stand and can often be identified by the large archways leading from the street into yards behind them. Grain trading was another important activity in the town. Its former Corn Exchange still stands in the Market Square, but its use is no longer what it was built for.  

Despite the 20th century improvements in transport links to London, making Hitchin into a convenient place for commuters, the historic town centre contains a remarkably high number of old buildings lining its mediaeval street lay-out. These old throughfares surround the lovely, large Market Square, which like many towns and cities in mainland Europe, was filled with tables and chairs for people to enjoy refreshments from the many eateries that surround it. A covered arcade leads off the square and provides a weather-proof place for refreshments. Nearby, there is a modern market area with stalls with conical roofs. We were fortunate to have arrived on a day, Tuesday, when this market is working.

Our first impression of Hitchin was extremely favourable, but because we had planned to do so much more sightseeing that day, we did not spend nearly enough time there. We hope to revisit this place again soon. I can strongly recommend the Hitchin to anyone who wants to get a flavour of ‘Ye Olde England’ without having to travel too far from London.

Flying the red flag in a country church

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

Conrad Noel

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

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

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

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

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

Conrad married Miriam Greenwood in 1894.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later when writing his autobiography, Conrad explained:

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

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

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

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

Poole noted:

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

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

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

Many years later, when WW2 was declared, Conrad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writing on the wall

WE USED TO DRIVE to France during the early 1960s when I was a child and before the M2 motorway was in use. The first part of the drive was from London to Dover and prior to the opening of the M2, it was a slow journey because the main road went through numerous small towns in Kent instead of bypassing them, which the M2 does. To break the tedium of the lengthy drive, I used to count how many Esso filling stations we passed as well as the number of Fremlin signs along the road. I liked the name Fremlin, but in my childhood, I was unaware that this was the name of a brewery based in Maidstone (Kent) and founded in 1861. It is a long time since I passed the time on journeys by counting signs such as Esso and Fremlins, whose name appealed to me. Recently, we drove through the centre of Hertford (in Hertfordshire) and I spotted several buildings bearing a name that intrigued me because we have friends with the same name (as surname). The name is McMullen and it, like Fremlins, is the name of a brewery.

Peter McMullen (1791-1881), the son of a Scottish nurseryman, founded his first brewery at Railway Street in Hertford in 1827. It was his wife’s idea. She suggested that it would be better to open a brewery rather than to continue his hitherto rather unsatisfactory life poaching and undertaking failed apprenticeships (www.mcmullens.co.uk/about-us/our-history).  Given that the first railway station opened in Hertford in 1843 (www.hertford.net/history/railway.php), Railway Street must have had another name when the brewery was established. The business was expanded in 1860 by his sons Alexander and Osmond McMullen, when they took over the brewery. They bought some other breweries and opened several pubs run by tenants. By 1910, McMullen was one of 1284 brewing companies that were in business in the UK. By the 21st century, it was one of the 38 of these that remains.  Now in 2021, it is run by the sixth generation of Peter McMullen’s family (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMullen%27s_Brewery).

One of the first beers brewed by Mcmullen, which has been available since 1833, was Mcmullen AK. This and several other brews are cask ales. The company also produces bottled beers including McMullen Hertford Castle, which is named after Hertford Castle, where Queen Elizabeth I visited frequently during both her childhood and her reign. The castle still exists: the remains of an early motte; Norman encircling walls; the so-called Gatehouse, built by Henry VIII; and other more recent additions. Incidentally, the Castle was the home of The East India Company College between 1805 and 1809, which then moved to Hailey, also in Hertforshire. The college’s presence in Hertford was before McMullen began producing beer in the town.

The company produce an IPA (Indian Pale Ale), suitable for exporting to tropical climes, but I do not know whether this was ever shipped out to India. The company’s history relates:

“The McMullen relationship with IPA can be traced back to the 1800’s when Peter McMullen recorded the brewing of an East India Pale Ale with connotations of the brew being commissioned to quench the thirst of the British Army at the East India Company College originally in Hertford.” (www.mcmullens.co.uk/blog/2019/04/mcmullen-rebranding#.YJKaSrVKhPY)

Well, you do not have to travel as far as India to sample beer brewed by McMullen. It can be drunk in pubs in the English counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Middlesex, Berkshire, Bedfordshire, and more (www.mcmullens.co.uk/our-locals).

After seeing the name of our friends prominently displayed on buildings in Hertford, I rang them and asked them whether they are related to the brewing family. As far as they know, they are not, but they did tell me that there used to be a pub near where they live in north London, which did serve McMullen’s beers, but sadly that has now gone out of business.

Next time, we visit the charming town of Hertford, one of the things I plan to do, which I have not yet done, is to sample some of McMullen’s beer or maybe beers.

PS: One building prominently bearing the name McMullen in Hertford was part of a former seed merchants, A McMullen, established by a brother of Peter Mc Mullen.

Adam’s brother and Jane Austen

IRRIGATED BY MANY STREAMS, branches of several rivers, notably the Lea and the Beane, the town of Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire in eastern England. Some parts of this historic place with its numerous water-filled channels recalled distant memories of Brugge (Bruges) in Belgium but the architecture differs considerably from what one sees in the Belgian city. We made our very first visit to Hertford on the 2nd of May 2021 and were surprised by its richness in old buildings and waterside parklands. Amongst the edifices in the historic centre of the town, we came across a well-restored brick building on Fore Street. It, the massive though elegant Shire Hall, now the home of a Crown Court, dwarfs its neighbours. Apart from its size and elegance, its architect attracted my interest.

Shire Hall, Hertford

In 1627, a Sessions House was constructed on the site of the present Shire Hall following the issue of a charter by King Charles I (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1268930). By the mid-18th century, it was considered to be too small. An Act of Parliament issued in 1768 during the reign of King George III led to raising money to build a new shire hall. The specifications were sent out to various architects, and amongst the six short-listed were the now very famous Robert Adam (1728-1792) and his far less well-known younger brother James Adam (1732-1794). The new structure was to incorporate:

“…2 courts, a room for the Corporation of Hertford, and both with and without a County Room.”

 The Adam’s brothers won the contract to carry out the above along with the addition of a previously unspecified Assembly Room.

James Adams took charge of the project, which commenced in April 1769 and was completed in April 1771. The arcaded ground floor was used by the Corn Exchange until 1849, after which date a separate edifice for the Corn Exchange was built in 1857-58 on Fore Street. James Adam built far fewer buildings than his better-known brother Robert. James and Robert, both born in Kircaldy (Scotland), started their architectural practice in London in 1758. Not only did they design buildings but also, they provided detailed designs for their interior decoration and furnishings; they provided what could be described as a ‘holistic’ design service. James collaborated with Robert on several other projects apart from the Shire Hall in Hertford. These include the now mostly demolished Adelphi buildings near London’s Strand and Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire.

The Assembly Room in the Shire Hall, which was used for concerts and theatrical performances, is supposed to have inspired Jane Austen (1775-1817) when she was writing her novel “Pride and Prejudice”, part of which is set in the fictional ‘Merytown’, which she might have based on Hertford. The Assembly Room featured as the ballroom in Austen’s novel (http://wardtimes.info/hertfordshire/east-herts/hertford/news/what-now-shire-hall-hertford). Here is a little extract from Chapter 3 of the book:

“An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs. Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping, when an answer arrived which deferred it all. Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies, but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve he brought only six with him from London—his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room it consisted of only five altogether—Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.”

The above-mentioned assembly room was that in the Hertfordshire town of Meryton to which the wealthy Mr Bingley had recently arrived from the north of England.  Although the Assembly Room, mentioned in the novel, is thought to be that in the building designed by the Adam brothers in Hertford, at least one authority identifies Meryton not with Hertford but instead with nearby Ware (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/dighum/2016/12/01/mapping-pride-and-prejudice/). Yet another informant felt:

“Re-reading Pride and Prejudice, I have to say that Meryton bears a strong resemblance to Hertford. But it also feels remarkably like Harpenden. And what about Ware?” (https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/people/finding-jane-austen-s-hertfordshire-7217568).

Stepping aside from the identification of the fictional Meryton in “Pride and Prejudice”, I must not forget to mention the large clock attached to the Shire Hall, which projects over Fore Street. Supplied by the Hertford bell founder and clockmaker John Briant (1749-1829), this clock with two faces was erected on the Shire Hall in 1824. It still works and now has a mechanism regulated by a radio signal from Rugby (www.hertford.gov.uk/town-clocks/).

Apart from the Adelphi, which I have seen several times, but until now did not know it was associated with James Adam, the Shire Hall is the first building of which I was aware of James’s hand in its design. I noticed that a plaque attached to this building makes no mention of Robert Adam but only of his brother. It reads:

“Shire Hall. Designed by James Adam. Built 1769-1771”

I do not know whether one can conclude from this that James’s contribution to its design was considerably greater than that of his brother, if he had any involvement at all. In any case, the large structure has a magnificent presence in amongst the smaller and often older buildings amongst which it stands.

A bridge across the River Thames and a personal loss

JUST UNDER A YEAR AGO, we visited Cookham in Berkshire, a small town on the River Thames, with our friend ‘H’. I first met H and her widowed mother in about 1975 at the home of some dear friends, my PhD supervisor and his wife. My wife and I used to see H about once a year until about 1999 at the home of our mutual friends. Then, we lost touch. A few years ago, H and I reconnected via social media and we kept promising that we should meet up again. It was only in about July 2020 during a relaxation of the covid19 regulations that we finally met face to face. Our meeting was in Cookham, where we enjoyed an exhibition at the small Stanley Spencer Art Gallery. After having coffee together – it was the first time that H had been to drink coffee outside her home since mid-March, we walked through the rain to Cookham Bridge and crossed it, admiring the lovely views of the Thames.

Cookham Bridge

The roadway on Cookham Bridge is so narrow that traffic must be regulated by signals at both ends of the crossing. These signals allow traffic to flow in single file in one direction for a few minutes, and then in the other. While we walked across the bridge, I noted its lovely decorative iron railings, which can be seen in a painting, “Swan Upping at Cookham” (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/spencer-swan-upping-at-cookham-t00525), painted in 1915-19 by Cookham’s famous artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

It was not until April 2021 that we revisited Cookham with some friends and walked along the Thames Path, which passes under Cookham Bridge. It was then that I noticed what we had not seen with H: the interesting Victorian ironwork structure supporting the crossing. A sign screwed onto one of the pontic’s metal panels reads: “Pease, Hutchinson, & Co. 1867. Engineers & iron Manufacturers. Skerne Iron Works. Darlington”. The Skerne Iron Works were:

“…run by a Quaker partnership trading as Pease, Hutchinson and Ledward. The Skerne company built its reputation upon plates for ships, boilers, and particularly bridge building, and at its peak employed 1,000 workers.” (www.gracesguide.co.uk/Pease,_Hutchinson_and_Co)

The iron bridge, supported by pairs of slender iron beams (filled with concrete) with cross-bracing rods, was opened in 1867 to replace an earlier wooden bridge that was opened in 1840. The existing bridge was when it was constructed the cheapest bridge across the Thames for its size (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cookham_Bridge). Until 1947, it was a privately owned bridge for which users needed to pay a toll. It was owned by the Cookham Bridge Company. In 1947, Berkshire County Council bought the bridge, and the toll was abolished. An octagonal house still stands next to the bridge across the river from Cookham. It is the early 19th century toll house built in 1839 by a Mr Freebody (https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/Monument/MBC19500).

At the Cookham side of the bridge stands The Ferry pub, close to where there used to be a ferry across the river. This old, half-timbered inn, now a mid-priced eatery, has a lovely terrace by the river, from which the bridge can be viewed as well as the waterways leading downstream to Cookham weir and the lock that bypasses it.

Recently, a close relative of H contacted me. He had found my details in the address book in H’s computer. It came as a shock to learn from him that H had passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. When we had last seen her late last year, she was looking hale and hearty. Apparently, one Saturday, she began feeling extremely unwell and on the following day she expired. We were terribly upset because we got on so well with her and were planning outings with her once the covid19 socialising restrictions were eased. They were relaxed but not in time for us to be able to see H again. As we drove through Cookham on our most recent visit, we kept seeing places that reminded us of our meeting with her last summer.

Our friend with whom we crossed Cookham Bridge last year has crossed from this world into another, where I hope that she will be reunited with her parents, our mutual friends, who introduced her to me and then later to my wife, as well as Sir Geoffrey Howe and Elspeth, his wife, with whom she worked happily for many years. H will be sorely missed.

Bacon and a village in eastern England

OUR DETAILED ROAD atlas – yes, we are still using one of these in preference to ‘GPS’ – marks ‘churches of interest’. One of these is at Little Dunmow in Essex and was labelled ‘priory church’. As we were nearby, we made a small detour to the tiny village of Little Dunmow and found the superb gothic structure standing near some small modern dwellings. As is frequently the case, the church was locked up, but someone suggested that if we asked the lady who lived in one of the nearby houses, she would most likely open it for us. We knocked on her front door and a neighbour looked into her back garden, only to discover that she was not at home. Another of her neighbours suggested that she might be out walking her dog. We saw several ladies out walking with their dogs, and the third one we asked happened to be the one with the key to the church. She opened the church for us, and we had a good look around its interior.

The Flitch Chair at Little Dunmow, Essex

The church of St Mary in Little Dunmow is all that remains of what was once a huge priory church. In fact, it is what was once the Lady Chapel on the south side of the chancel. The rest of the church and the Augustinian Priory, to which it was attached, was demolished in the 16th century following the passing of the Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1535 during the reign of King Henry VIII. Some of the great area that was once occupied by the priory and its large church now contains the village’s extensive cemetery.

The Augustinian Priory of St Mary the Virgin was founded by Geoffrey Baynard in 1106 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp175-180). In 1086, at the time of the Domesday Book, Geoffrey was “immediate lord over the peasants after the Conquest, who paid tax to the tenant-in-chief” (https://opendomesday.org/name/geoffrey-baynard/) in various parts of East Anglia including Essex. The parish church of Little Dunmow, whose remains we see today, was established by Geoffrey’s mother Lady Juga Baynard (https://www.magnacartabarons.info/index.php/the-towns-and-villages/little-dunmow-essex/), two years before the formation of the priory.

The north wall of the existing church was the south arcade of the chancel of the former priory church. The arches through which one could have passed from the Lady Chapel into the now demolished church have been filled in with masonry, but the original supports of the arches remain intact. The south wall of the current parish church has four large gothic windows and on the eastern wall another, which allow a great deal of light to suffuse the church. Probably, these date from 1360 when the chapel was, according the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner writing in his Essex volume of “The Buildings of England”, opulently remodelled. The red brick bell tower at the western end of the edifice was added in 1872 and Pevsner describes it as being “… a silly NW turret.”

The church’s well-lit interior has a wonderfully spacious feel beneath its ceiling lined with simple dark timber beams. Apart from enjoying the place in its entirety, several features attracted my interest. Two alabaster effigies, a man and his wife lying down with carved animals at their feet, commemorate Walter Fitzwalter (died 1432) and his wife Elizabeth (née Chideock, died 1464). Walter was the grandson of Robert Fitzwalter (1247-1346), First Baron Fitzwalter. And, more interestingly, Robert’s father, Robert Fitzwalter (died 1235), feudal baron of Little Dunmow, was one of the barons who opposed King John and made sure that he adhered to what was contained in the Magna Carta, which he signed in 1215. A modern plaque on the eastern wall of the church honours his memory.

The pair of effigies are located next to the north wall of the church, west of an alabaster effigy of a now unknown woman, also located next to the wall.  Information in the church suggests that she might have been the mother of Walter Fitzwalter, or Matilda, the daughter of Robert, the Third Baron, or even Maid Marion of Robin Hood fame.

Another curious feature within the church is a wooden chair with carvings made in the 15th century, using wood with 13th century carvings. This, the Dunmow Flitch Chair, is a unique piece of furniture. Its seat is wide enough to comfortably seat two adults. It was used during the so-called ‘Flitch Trials”, which still take place in Great Dunmow every four years:

“The ancient Flitch of bacon custom rewarded a couple who had been married in church and remained ‘unregreted’ for a year and a day, with a flitch of bacon. The claimants had to swear an oath kneeling on two sharp pointed stones in the churchyard. They were then carried through the village to be acclaimed.” (www.magnacartabarons.info/index.php/the-towns-and-villages/little-dunmow-essex/)

A flitch of bacon is a side of bacon (half a pig cut lengthwise). The trials were held at the priory church in Little Dunmow until 1750, and were later revived in the 19th century following the publishing in 1854 of “The Flitch of Bacon”, a novel written by William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882). In the preface to his story, the author hints at the origin of the tradition:

“”Among the jocular tenures of England, none have been more talked of than the Bacon of Dunmow.” So says Grose, and truly. The Dunmow Flitch has passed into a proverb. It is referred to by Chaucer in a manner which proves that allusion to it was as intelligible in his day as it would be in our own. The origin of the memorable Custom, hitherto enveloped in some obscurity, will have found fully explained in the course of this veracious history. Instituted by a Fitzwalter in the early part of the Thirteenth Century, the Custom continued in force till the middle of the Eighteenth—the date of the following Tale.”

According to the novel, the couple attempting to win the flitch of bacon had to came to the priory church at Little Dunmow, where they were subjected to a trial with witnesses, jury, and judges, to assess whether their marriage had been without blemish for a year and a day. On arrival at the priory church, Ainsworth related, the couple:

“… kneel down on the self-same spot, and on the self-same stones, where, more than four centuries ago, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife knelt when they craved a blessing from the good prior. Benedicite! fond pair! Ye deserve holy priest’s blessing as well as those who have knelt there before you. Bow down your gentle heads as the reverend man bends over you, and murmurs a prayer for your welfare. All who hear him breathe a heartfelt response. Now ye may look up. He is about to recite the Oath, and ye must pronounce it after him. The Oath is uttered.”

Having been awarded the flitch, we learn that:

“All is not over yet. Ye have to be placed in the antique chair, and, according to usage, borne on men’s shoulders round the boundaries of the old Priory, which in the days of your predecessors stood hereabouts. And see! the chair is brought out for you. It is decked with rich though faded tapestry, woven with armorial bearings, which ye must know well, since they are your own, and with a device, which each of you may apply to the other—Toujours Fidèle.”

Well, our road atlas marked the church at Little Dunmow as being “of interest”, and having visited it, we can assure you that it is of very great interest.

King Richard the Third, Henry Irving, and James Bond

SHEEP WITH THEIR LAMBS were grazing or resting in the sunshine in a meadow beside the roadway leading to the entrance of Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Although the main house at Greys Court was closed (because of the covid19 pandemic) when we visited the estate in April 2021, there was plenty to enjoy in the gardens and fields that are contained in its extensive grounds. The highlight for me was the formal garden enclosed within ruined stone walls that extend from two sides of a tall tower topped with crenellations.

Grey Court House

Greys Court has an interesting history, most of which I have summarised from what is contained in a good guidebook published by the National Trust, to which Greys Court and its grounds were donated in 1969. I have also consulted “Elizabeth’s Rivals” by Nicola Tallis. The tower and the attached ancient wall are the only remains of what was constructed by the De Grey family, who had been living on the estate since (or before) the Domesday book was compiled in the late 11th century. One of the family, Walter de Grey (died 1255), Archbishop of York, was a supporter of King John when he was forced into signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

In December 1346, the then owner of the estate Sir John, 1st Baron Grey of Rotherfield (1300-1359) was granted a licence to ‘crenellate’ Greys. What this means is that he was authorised to surround his home with a fortified curtain wall. It is the remains of this mediaeval wall that surrounds the walled garden that attracted me. After Robert, 4th Earl of Grey died in 1387, the estate passed to his daughter Joan, who was married to Lord John Deyncourt. Then, it was inherited by their daughter Alice, who married Lord William Lovell (died 1455). Through this marriage, the estate became owned by the Lovell family.

When Alice died in 1474, she left Greys to her grandson Francis Lovell (1456-c1487), who managed to ‘back the wrong horse’ by being a supporter of the Duke of Gloucester, who became King Richard III. After fighting alongsid the king, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth (1485), the Crown confiscated Greys and awarded it to Jasper Tudor (1431-1495), uncle of King Richard’s successor, King Henry VII. In 1514, Greys was leased to a member of Henry VII’s court, Robert Knollys (died 1521). His rent was a single red rose to be paid each Midsummer.

Sir Robert’s son Sir Francis Knollys (1511-1596), a devout Protestant, spent most of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) abroad, returning following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, who was a cousin of his wife Catherine (1524-1569), whose mother was Mary Boleyn (sister of Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn). One of Francis’s many important jobs was guarding the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.

Sir Francis demolished much of the mediaeval Greys Court building and rebuilt it with three gables in the Elizabethan style. His renewed building is what we see today as Greys Court House. One of his reasons for this and other constructions was that he hoped that he would be able to host Queen Elizabeth there, but she never visited. The works were carried out between 1559 and 1596. Francis’s son Sir William Knollys (1544-1632) inherited the Greys estate. It is thought that Shakespeare’s character Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” was based on William. The Knollys family made several modifications and additions to the buildings on the estate but by the late 17th century they began to lose interest in maintaining it. Lettice Kennedy (died 1708), the last of the Knollys to live at Greys sold it to James (or William, according to one source: “Greys Court Volume 2 – Historic England Research Report”: research.historicengland.org.uk) Paul in 1688. Mr Paul and his wife Lady Catherine Fane had a daughter Catherine, who inherited Greys Court. The daughter, Catherine, married Sir William Stapleton (1698-1739) in 1724. Thus, the Stapleton family acquired the property.

Sir William was wealthy.  Some of his money came, as the National Trust discreetly puts it:

“…also from sugar plantations in Antigua and Nevis, acquired in the 17th century.”

His son, Sir Thomas Stapleton (1727-1781) inherited Greys. He was a member of the infamous Hell-fire Club along with its principal member and founder, his cousin Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) of nearby West Wycombe. Sir Thomas did not live at Greys Court but arranged for the transformation of the mediaeval remains into ‘Gothick’ follies including the addition of the crenellations that can still be seen on the Great Tower. He also added the two-storey bow windows to Knolly’s Elizabethan house after his marriage to Mary Fane in 1765. She was responsible for many more modifications of the house and its outhouses.

The Grey estate remained in the Stapleton family for several generations, but it was only in 1874 that another male member of the family, Sir Francis Stapleton (1833-1899) began living in it. With no heirs, he left it to his nephew Miles Stapleton, who showed no interest in the place, eventually selling it to a widow, Mrs Evelyn Fleming, in 1934. Both her sons became extremely well-known. Ian Fleming was the creator of the fictional character James Bond. Ian’s brother Peter was an adventurer, soldier, and travel writer, whose life was far more exciting than that led by James Bond. Mrs Fleming was hoping that Greys would be a place where her son Peter could write between his travels, but his marriage to the actress Celia Johnson in 1935 put an end to this idea. So, she sold the property in 1937. The buyers were Sir Felix Brunner (1897-1982) and his wife Elizabeth (1904-2003).

Sir Felix was grandson of the politician and industrialist Sir John Brunner (1842-1919), who was one of the founders of the Brunner Mond & Co chemical company, which became part of ICI in 1926. Sir John was also a supporter of Octavia Hill (1838-1912), the founder of the National Trust, which was formed in 1895. Incidentally, Octavia was also involved with saving London’s Hampstead Heath from disappearing by being built on.  As well as serving in WW1, Sir Felix was a Liberal politician. He stood in various Parliamentary elections but was never elected to become an MP. In 1926, he married the actress Elizabeth Irving (1904-2003), a granddaughter of the famous actor Henry Irving (1838-1905).

In 1969, Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth donated Greys Court to the National Trust and continued to live there. After she was widowed, Elizabeth continued to live at Greys Court, where she died in 2003. During their occupation of the Greys Court estate, the Brunners did much to improve and beautify it, rendering it one of the loveliest National Trust properties that I have visited so far.

I had never heard of Greys Court until a few weeks ago when we drove past a road sign pointing at a road leading to it. As we had never come across the name before and were curious about it, we returned a few weeks later and discovered what a gem of a place it is.  While it is relatively simple to describe its history, the opposite is the case when it comes to describing its appearance. Photographs help to do justice to its attractiveness but the best way to appreciate it is to visit it yourself.

Growing in the village stream

MANY PEOPLE ENJOY eating watercress. I quite like it, but it is not my favourite.  I prefer eating its close and more piquant relatives: mustard and wasabi. As its name suggests, watercress is an aquatic plant that lives in a watery environment. It could almost be considered an edible water weed. This April (2021) we visited Ewelme, a small village in Oxfordshire, where watercress is cultivated in the river that runs through it. We had come to Ewelme to see its alms-houses and school, which were built in about 1437 and are still being used for their original purposes. I will relate more about these in the future.

On our way to the village, we met some cyclists, who told us about the watercress cultivation in Ewelme and recommended that we took a look at the set-up. I was interested to see it as I had never (knowingly) seen watercress growing. Also, I was curious because I have often walked past Willow Cottages on Willow Road in Hampstead. It was in this row of dwellings that Hampstead’s watercress pickers lived many years ago. They gathered the crop from streams flowing on nearby Hampstead Heath.

The name Ewelme is derived from the Old English ‘Ae-whylme’ meaning ‘waters whelming’ or ‘source of a stream or river’. In the early 13th century, the place was known as ‘Eawelma’. The spring after which the village is named is just north of Ewelme. Water from the spring that flows through the village is in Ewelme Brook, which is a short tributary of the nearby River Thames. It meets the Thames 1.2 miles upstream from Wallingford Bridge. Watercress grows best in alkaline water such as flows in Ewelme Brook, which rises in the chalky Chiltern Hills.

The watercress beds can be found in Ewelme near the northern end of the High Street, northwest of the attractive village pond that forms a part of the Brook. They were established in the 19th century. Watercress from Ewelme was taken to Wallingford from where it was carried further afield by train. In 1881, the idea of a rail link between Ewelme and Wallingford was mooted, but the line was never built. It was in that year that:

“…Smiths of Lewknor and South Weston, who were established at Brownings by 1881, and created cress beds along the roadside stream probably in stages. The business continued until 1988, with cress initially transported from Watlington station for sale in the Midlands, Covent Garden, and Oxford.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol18/pp192-234)

The Ewelme watercress beds were abandoned in 1988 but restored by the Chiltern Society after 1999. This organization continues to look after them (https://chilternsociety.org.uk/event/chiltern-society-ewelme-watercress-beds-conservation-volunteers-6/2019-02-02/).

The watercress beds at Ewelme are a series of rectangular enclosures in a widened part of the stream. The cress grows, floating on the water in the enclosures. Pairs of enclosures are arranged sequentially like shallow steps in a staircase. The shallow water flows rapidly from one enclosure to the next through small gaps in the stone barriers that demarcate them. Swarms of watercress leaves on their stems almost fill each of the enclosures, deriving nutrients and water from the continuously changing water flowing through their roots. I imagine that picking the crop involves wading in the watery watercress beds.

Although Oxfordshire is no longer one of the major counties for watercress cultivation, what can be seen at Ewelme is pleasing to the eye. The counties where most of this plant is now grown include Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Hertfordshire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watercress). Alresford in Hampshire, near Winchester, is known as the UK’s watercress capital.

Although I am not keen on raw watercress, I prefer it served in a soup. My late aunt used to make a superb watercress soup using fresh watercress added at the last minute to a homemade vegetable stock. We have tried making it with meat stock, but this was not nearly as nice because the fresh taste of the almost uncooked watercress gets masked by the flavour of the stock.  With this small bit of culinary advice, I will leave the watercress beds of Ewelme and wish you “bon appetit”.

A historic town hall

FIRST WORLD WAR veteran William Frederick Stone died aged 108 in January 2009. He moved to Watlington in Oxfordshire in 1986 and lived the rest of his life in this small town. A popular figure in the town, he would have often passed the place’s Town Hall, which had been in existence even longer than him.

The name Watlington is probably derived from ‘tun’, meaning ‘fence’ or ‘enclosure’, and the people of ‘Wacol’ or ‘Waecol’, who also gave their name to the famous old road known as Watling Street. The town is close to another ancient cross-country route, the Icknield Way (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icknield_Way). There is evidence that there was a settlement at Watlington in the 6th century AD. The current street layout was already established by the 14th century and that there were inns in the town by the following century. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), Parliamentary troops were billeted in the town on the night before the Battle of Chalgrove Field on the 18th of June 1643, a battle in which their opponents, the Royalists, were victorious (www.britishbattles.com/english-civil-war/battle-of-chalgrove/).

Twenty-one years after the battle, in 1664, Watlington’s town hall was built by Sir Thomas Stonor (c1626-1683). He lived at Stonor Park, which is 4.7 miles south east of Watlington. The Stonor family were Roman Catholics and retained their faith throughout the Reformation and suffered for that during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The brick town hall is unusual in that no two of its sides are equal in length and none of its corners are right angles (www.watlingtontownhall.com/history.html). Part of the ground floor is an arcade open to the outside air. This area was formerly used to hold markets. The first floor of the building served as a grammar school in the 19th century. The clock mechanism on the second floor is said to have come from the studios of the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren. This is not the only timepiece on the outside of the building. The other is a sundial, which has been gilded with 24 carat gold. The town hall was extended in the later 17th  or early 18th century (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101369012-town-hall-watlington#.YH28eehKhPY)  and was restored faithfully in the 20th century. Currently, the first-floor room, the former school, and beneath it, the under croft, are available for hire for social and other functions.

We came across the town hall quite by chance when driving home from visiting the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row. Today, we revisited the town on our way back from seeing several other places in Oxfordshire, about which I hope to tell you in the near future. Driving through England on roads other than motorways takes one through small towns and villages and many of these have features worth stopping to examine. Apart from the town hall, Watlington is a charming old place with several half-timbered buildings, cafés, and shops. Once again, a day trip to the countryside near London has proved rewarding.

A beautiful bank

LOVERS OF ARCHITECTURE will find much to enjoy amongst the buildings that fill the historic centre of the university city of Cambridge. Amongst the sea of old colleges, which are rich in fine architectural features, there are some attractive buildings whose existence are not solely due to the requirements of academia. One of these stands at the southern end of Sidney Street. Formerly Foster’s Bank, this picturesque edifice faced with alternating stripes of red and white and topped with a highly decorative clock tower, now houses a branch of Lloyd’s Bank.

Ebenezer Foster (1776-1851) and his brother Richard, both born in Cambridge, founded their bank in 1804. The bank was originally founded for the workers at the three mills that the Fosters owned (www.findagrave.com/memorial/181142444/ebenezer-foster). Because the university would not allow the Fosters to build railway lines to their mills, they constructed another mill close to the existing railway lines. This mill is now called Spillers Mill. The Foster family lived at Anstey Hall in Trumpington (near Cambridge) from 1838 to 1941. Ebenezer died in Trumpington. Ebenezer was Mayor of Cambridge in 1836, and later a county magistrate, then the High Sheriff in 1849. In addition to other public positions, he was a governor of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Ebenezer’s obituary in “Cambridge Independent Pres” on Saturday the 31st of May 1851 noted:

“Mr. Foster was at the head of the first banking and mercantile establishments in the town. It is unnecessary, therefore, to say that his life was one of great activity and usefulness; and it is not too much to say that in every occupation, whether public or private, his conduct commanded universal respect.”

Before 1891, Fosters Bank was housed on Trinity Street in what was once the Turk’s Head:

“The rather attractive Tudor shop on Trinity Street now occupied by a clothes shop was once the Turk’s Head Coffee House, one of the earliest coffee houses in the country (17th century). It was much frequented by students. The upper floors later became the Turk’s Head Carvery, but it is now entirely given over to floral prints. The building was once the home of Fosters’ Bank, which later moved …” (www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~ckh11/cam.html).

Years ago, in the late 1960s, four of us, three friends and myself, ate a meal at the Turks Head. The bill for the four of us came to 14/6 (72.5pence) and we gave the waiter 15/- (15 shillings: 75 pence). My friends were horrified when I told the waiter:

“Keep the change.”

For, even in those far-off days, sixpence (2.5 pence) was a rather mean tip for a bill of 14/6.

In 1891, the bank building at the south end of Sidney Street, once Foster’s now Lloyd’s, was completed. It was designed by the architects A and P Waterhouse. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was the eldest of eight children. One of his siblings, Edwin Waterhouse (1841–1917), was one of the founders of the accountancy company Price Waterhouse (now incorporated into PWC). Alfred’s son Paul (1861-1924) joined his father’s architectural practice in 1884, becoming a partner in 1891, the year that the Foster’s Bank building was put up in Sidney Street.

Alfred Waterhouse and his practice were responsible for the design of many impressive buildings in the Victorian era. One of them, which is very well-known, is London’s Natural History Museum. Slightly less famous but equally impressive is the Prudential Assurance Building in London’s Holborn. This building is opposite numbers 337 and 338 High Holborn, which survived the Great Fire of London of 1666, and were restored by Waterhouse.   Apart from the bank in Cambridge and the Cambridge Union building, he also designed buildings associated with the following colleges: Jesus, Gonville and Caius, Pembroke, Girton, and Trinity Hall.  The bank in Cambridge is one of seven designed by Alfred Waterhouse.

I have entered the former Foster’s Bank only once. The glass-ceilinged banking hall is a riot of colour, its surfaces covered by tiles with sculpted surfaces. The octagonal clock tower is topped with a sharply pointed octagonal roof, one of the city’s many spires. The clock faces with their Roman numerals are made with tiling in several colours. Although now a branch of Lloyds, the name Foster can still be seen clearly above the main doorway.

When you next visit Cambridge, by all means admire Kings College Chapel and other architectural gems within the various colleges, but do spare some time to enjoy the former Foster’s Bank building on Sidney Street before visiting the nearby marketplace, which I always enjoy.