The birthplace of democracy

IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when  Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.

Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):

“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”

The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm,  It contains chapters such as:

“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)

“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)

“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)

The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:

“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:

“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”

Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.

In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.

On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:

“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”

The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932.  They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.

During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:

“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”

This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.

The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:

“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”

‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.

Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed.  Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed  in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.

Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away.  From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.

This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.

While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.

A lovely surprise in west London

DRIVING ALONG THE NORTH Circular Road, I noticed a long wall over the top of which I could see what looked like the pinnacles of a Gothic revival garden folly. We were driving past Gunnersbury Park in West London and did not have time to stop. So, the next day, we drove back to the park and spent some time exploring it. What we found was a fascinating estate consisting of beautiful park land and a series of architectural delights. This is hardly far from where we live, but it was the first time that we had visited it.  Had I not noticed what I did when on the North Circular Road, I am not sure that we would not have considered making a trip to find out what lies behind the wall next to which queues of slow moving traffic can often be seen.

The first impression one gets on entering Gunnersbury Park with its wealth of trees including many Cedars of Lebanon is that you are inside the grounds of a great house such as you can find at, for example, Ham House and Osterley Park. That impression is justified because Gunnersbury Park is basically what is left of the grounds of a mansion built in the Palladian style for the lawyer and politician Sir John Maynard (1604-1690) between 1658 and 1663. It was designed by the architect John Webb (1611-1672). Maynard died at Gunnersbury Park.

Between 1762 and 1786, Gunnersbury Park was used as a summer residence by Princess Amelia (1711-1786), who was King George III’s aunt (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000808).  In 1761, she had bought the estate from George Furness (after 1688-1756). His father had been a ‘factor’ in the East India Company. George was a British merchant and politician as well as being an art collector. He was a Member of Parliament between 1720 and 1756 and had bought the property in 1739 from John Hobart (1693-1756), 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire, a British politician. Furness improved the grounds by employing the famous gardener William Kent (1685-1748). I am not sure how much of his original design has survived the passage of time.

Princess Amelia, the second daughter of King George II, did much to improve the grounds, by landscaping, arranging planting, and by adding ornamental buildings, which still add to the charm of the place. These buildings include the bath house and a neo-classical temple, which overlooks a circular pond.

The princess held fabulous parties at Gunnersbury. In “Handbook to The Environs of London” by James Thorne, which was published in 1876, the politician and intellectual Horace Walpole (1717-1797), author of the Gothick novel “The Castle of Otranto”, who attended some of these parties, is quoted thus:

“Ever since the late king’s death, I have made Princess Amelia’s parties once or twice a week … I was sent for again to dine at Gunnersbury on Friday, and forced to send to town for a dress-coat and a sword. There were the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Mecklenburg, the Duke of Portland, Lord Clanbrassil … The Princess, Lady Barrymore, and the rest of us, played three pools at Commerce till ten … While we were at the Dairy, the Princess insisted on my making some verses on Gunnersbury. I pleaded being superannuated. She would not excuse me. I promised she should have an Ode on her next birthday, which diverted the Prince; but all would not do.”

The next morning, Walpole composed three verses for the Princess. One of them (quoted in a letter from Walpole to HS Conway dated 18th of June 1786) reads as follows:

“Oh! Why is Flaccus not alive,

Your favourite scene to sing?

To Gunnersbury’s charms could give

His lyre immortal spring.”

Walpole admitted in his letter to Conway that his poem was not one of his best. He wrote:

“If they are but poor verses, consider I am sixty-nine, and was half asleep, and made them ex-tempore – and by command!”

Following the death of the Princess, the Palladian mansion was demolished in 1801. Its contents were sold by auction and the 205 acres of its grounds were divided into lots and sold at the same time. Most of their area was bought by Alexander Copland (1774-1834), who built a new house, which forms the basis for the present building, which now houses a museum, which is currently closed because of the covid19 pandemic. Copland, a builder and business partner of the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806), was a son of Alexander Copland and his wife Barbara (née Smirke). The Alexander, who bought Gunnersbury was a cousin of the architect Robert Smirke (1780-1867), whose brother, also an architect, Sydney Smirke (1797-1877) designed the Orangery, which was built at Gunnersbury Park in 1836, and has been restored beautifully.

Copland built The Large Mansion (now the museum). Either Stephen Cosser or Major Alexander Morrison, a retired East India Company officer who bought the plot from him, built the so-called ‘Small Mansion’ to the east of the Large Mansion, which is currently in a poor state of repair. A gardener explained to us that it was supposed to be cared for by one London borough whereas the Large Mansion was under the care of another. In 1828, the part of the estate with the Small Mansion was bought by Thomas Farmer, who lived there as Copland’s neighbour until 1835.

In 1835, Copland’s Large Mansion was bought by the banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836). After his death a year later, his widow Hannah (née Barent-Cohen; 1783-1850) used Gunnersbury Park as her second home and employed the architect Sidney Smirke to make alterations to it (https://family.rothschildarchive.org/estates/37-gunnersbury).  Following Hannah’s death, her oldest son Lionel Rothschild (1808-1879), the first ever practising Jew to become a Member of Parliament, took over the property and enlarged its park as well as improving the house’s facilities. After his death and that of his widow Charlotte, the estate moved into the possession of their youngest son Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917).

In 1889, Leopold purchased the Small Mansion and thereby reunited the two parts of the original Gunnersbury estate. Under the ownership of the Rothschild family, many improvements were made to the grounds, some of which I will mention soon. After Leopold died in 1917, the estate was broken up and parts were sold off. In 1925, both mansions and about 185 acres of attached grounds were purchased for public use by the then Boroughs of Acton and Ealing. Now, the park and its mansions are maintained by the boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.

The Large Mansion is elegant but not as attractive as the one which was demolished long ago and can be seen in old drawings. Nearby, the temple that overlooks a pond is delightful and reminded me of some of the garden architecture at Stourhead (in Wiltshire). Wandering around the garden, you will come across the Gothic revival architectural features I saw when driving past Gunnersbury Park on the North Circular Road. These are built around ‘Princess Amelia’s Bath House’, a garden folly built in the 1780s. Not far from this, there are very picturesque ‘Gothick’ ruins near to the estate’s farm buildings. These might be the remains of the dairy mentioned above in the quote from Horace Walpole or possibly later additions to the grounds constructed by an owner who bought the Princess’s estate. One source (https://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/publications/the-journal/journal-10-2000/princess-amelias-bath-house/) suggests that what is now called the ‘Bath House’ might have been the dairy in Amelia’s time at Gunnersbury. Whatever its history, lovers of romantic Gothic revival ruins will get great pleasure from what can be seen at Gunnersbury Park.

The Orangery stands next to a large pond. This structure was built whilst the Rothschilds owned the estate. It was constructed in 1836, designed by Sidney Smirke. The family were responsible for another water feature on their estate. It has a name that intrigued us: the Potomac Pond. This almost circular water body is surrounded by a fence and almost hidden by the trees and other vegetation growing around its perimeter. It is only accessible to members of a local angling club. The Rothschilds had purchased a former clay pit and converted it into the pond. One of the claypit’s kilns was rebuilt to create a Gothic revival tower on its shore. This lovely folly, which would look at home in a painting by the German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), might have once been used as a boathouse.

I have described a few of the features that make it well worthwhile to visit Gunnersbury Park, whose history is not exactly simple. The place is so near to London and the M4 motorway, yet it feels so far away. If it were not the background roar of the traffic and the low flying aeroplanes descending towards Heathrow Airport, fewer than usual these days, it would be hard to believe you were not deep in the countryside.

A small village near Cambridge

SINCE THE FOURTH OF JULY 2020, the anniversary of the day Britain lost a large American colony and when our worldly wise Prime Minister deemed it safe for all of us to be liberated from the constraints of ‘lockdown’ and encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, a policy that appears to have helped to spread the covid19 virus as well as restaurant owners, we have been roaming around the countryside, discovering what a beautiful country we inhabit. What has struck me when driving from A to B is the number of exceptionally attractive, yet not well-known, villages we have passed through. The village of Comberton in Cambridgeshire was one of these, which we nearly drove past without examining it. However, as time was on our side and it looked so lovely, we stopped there for a few minutes and took a stroll around.

We parked next to an oddly shaped small village pond in which clumps of reeds were growing. A small family of ducks wound its way between the vegetation, occasionally disappearing from view. At the far end of the pond, there is an old low brick wall. Behind it, there is a long two-storey house with a brick roof and decorative chimney stacks. Before describing some of the other lovely buildings in the village, let me give you a flavour of its history.

Sometime between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, someone dropped a polished Neolithic stone axe near where the village stands today. Somewhat later, the Romans built a villa near Comberton. Even later, the village’s name began to evolve, as is described on the village’s website (http://www.comberton.org/home/about-comberton/history-of-comberton/):

“A lot is said about the name of the village and its origins. It is believed that the name is of Celtic origin, possibly named after a landowner by the name of Cumbra. The Domesday Book (1086) has it recorded as Cumbertone. According to William Kip’s map of the area in 1607 Comberton is spelt as it is today and interestingly Barton is spelt Berton”

The village has several churches, which we will visit in the future. One of these is St Mary’s, is in the Early English style with later modifications. Another still extant place of worship is used by non-Conformists. There have been associations between non-Conformism and Comberton since as early as the 17th century. The Puritan William Dowsing (1596-1668), an iconoclast, visited the village in March 1643, and recorded:

“‘We brake downe a crucifix and 69 superstitious pictures we brake downe, and gave order to take downe 36 cherubims, and the steps to be taken down by March 25.’”

Prior to 1772, when a new road, a turnpike (now the A228), was built, Comberton was on the road connecting Oxford with Cambridge. Apart from the usual activities found in villages, such as butchery, bakery, saddlery, harness-making, inn keeping, blacksmithing, and so on, the place had one industry for a while. That was in the 19th century when Comberton became a small centre for mining coprolite, fossilised dung. This material used to be ground in a mill to produce a powder that made a good crop fertiliser. Judging by the good state of the houses and the high-quality cars parked near them, the inhabitants of Comberton appear make their living in reasonably well-paid jobs. Were I to have had a profitable career in or near Cambridge, this village might have been a good place to live.

Every village is unique, but many share the same features. In Comberton, we saw several houses with well-maintained thatched roofs. However, we also saw something I had never noticed before. Some of the houses had what you might describe as ‘hybrid’ roofs: partly thatched and partly tiled. One house near the village pond had something we have seen on thatched roofs in many other villages. That is, the ridge of the thatch is decorated with animals made of thatch. Here in Comberton, this one roof was adorned with thatch sculptures of four birds with long necks, that made me think they are supposed to be depicting geese rather than ducks or swans.

The village pond, which is across the road from a dental surgery and ‘Millionhairz’, a hairdresser’s salon, is encircled by an attractive low, neatly built stone wall that curves around the water in a visually pleasant way. On the green next to the pond, there is a timber post that supports a sign (erected 1977) with the name of the village and a two-sided picture above it. On one side, a priest is depicted handing fishes to three people with outstretched arms. This refers to years long past when herrings were handed out to the poor in the village soon before Easter. The other side of the picture above the village name depicts a farmer ploughing his field with a plough drawn by a horse. Behind the farmer high on a hill, there is a white coloured wooden windmill. This reminds us that once Comberton had two working mills.

Our visit to Comberton lasted no more than ten minutes partly because we had to reach somewhere to meet my cousin and because the weather was miserable: grey, cold, and wet. However, what little we saw of this delightful place made us realise that it was well worth stopping en-route to our destination. We have already driven through so many intriguing villages on our excursions through the English countryside. I would have liked to spend time in all of these, and hope to return to some of them in the future. I would rather spend time wandering around picturesque villages than sitting for hours in traffic jams, as happens so often these days.

Under pressure

THERE IS A LOVELY STRETCH of the railway from London Paddington to Devon and Cornwall. It is between Exeter and Newton Abbot. The train runs from Exeter along the western shore of the wide estuary of the River Exe, then along the seashore between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth (often between the base of cliffs and the sea), and finally turns inland to run along the shore of the broad River Teign to reach Newton Abbot. This scenic stretch of track helps make the trip to the far southwest extremely pleasant.

In August 2020, our friends in Torquay took us by car to Teignmouth and other points along this scenic rail route. It was fun to stand near the track and watch trains rushing past. One of the places we visited on that trip was the small village of Starcross, where a small passenger ferry crosses the Exe, carrying pedestrians, cyclists, the crew and their small dog to and from Exmouth. Near the Ferry embarkation point which is reached by crossing the railway via a footbridge, I spotted something quite surprising for this day and age of concerns about health and safety. A small gate (‘kissing gate’ variety) for pedestrians allows people to cross the tracks to reach the beach beyond them. This crossing is unguarded and permits folk to walk across two lines of track along which trains hurtle every few minutes. A sign exhorts those foolhardy enough to make use of this crossing to “Stop, Look, and Listen”.

Near the pier where one boards the ferry at Starcross, there is a brick building with white stone facings and a tall square brick tower. This edifice that has an industrial appearance stands close to the railway lines. In days gone by, it was a pumping station for a railway whose trains were propelled by compressed air, the so-called ‘Atmospheric Railway’.

The South Devon Atmospheric Railway, which followed the route taken by trains today, ran between Exeter and Plymouth. The construction of the westbound line from Exeter, The South Devon Railway, gained Parliamentary authorisation in mid-1844. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was the engineer in charge of constructing the South Devon Railway. Given the then current power of steam locomotives, he decided that they would not have sufficient strength to deal with some of the gradients along the route. He opted to use propulsion generated by gases under pressure – the atmospheric system.  One of the pioneers of atmospheric railways was the English engineer and politician Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda (1813 –1885), whose ideas influenced Brunel.

Trying to put it as simply as possible, here is how I understand that the atmospheric railway system worked. A cylindrical metal traction pipe was laid between the railway tracks. This pipe had a longitudinal slit facing upwards. The slit was sealed shut by leather flaps that kept the pipe airtight when it was filled with compressed air provided by a series of pumping stations along the line. The building we saw at Starcross was one of these units, whose engines could generate between 45 and 82 horsepower.

The pumps injected air into the slitted longitudinal iron pipes (20 inches in diameter), whose leather flaps prevented escape of the gas. The trains using the atmospheric system were pulled by specially designed traction cars. Each of these cars was attached to a piston that fitted snugly within the air pipes running along the track. The attachment of the piston to the traction car was fitted with a mechanism that opened the short section leather flap immediately beneath it. The compressed air exerted pressure on the end of the piston, causing it to move along the pipe. Being attached to the traction car, the motion of the piston caused the car to move along the tracks. As the traction car was attached to the carriages, they were pulled along by the air-propelled traction car. As soon as the traction car moved along the track, the part of the flap that had been open momentarily, then closed, and the next short section opened briefly. What I have described is an oversimplification that ignores how the system dealt with points, level crossings, etc.  More detail is available for those interested on various websites (e.g. https://railwaywondersoftheworld.com/atmospheric-railway.html and on Wikipedia).

This system of propulsion was able to propel trains at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, although this speed was rarely attained. It also allowed trains in the late 1840s to overcome gradients that would have been too challenging for the steam engines at that time. The system was abandoned in about 1848. The leather valves caused numerous problems. Air leakage was one of these. Throughout the year, the leather dried out and became too stiff for use.  In winter, frost also damaged their flexibility. Throughout the year, they provided food for rats, whose activities were detrimental to their efficient functioning. The rat story is oft quoted but WG Hoskins, author of the much-respected book “Devon” notes that the atmospheric railway:

“… was a complete failure mainly because of the decomposing action of water and iron on the vital leather component of the valves … In September 1848 the line was worked by locomotives and the ‘Atmospheric Caper’ was abandoned for good, after more than £400,000 of the company’s money had been wasted. Brunel had made a tremendous mistake …”

I wonder whether with today’s synthetic rubber the experiment could be repeated, thus creating a railway system that makes little use of diesel engines. I suppose that electrification of the line might be a more practical solution.

Today, the largest relics of the short-lived Atmospheric Railway are the well-built pumping stations such as the one next to Starcross Station and the ferry embarkation point. It was built in 1845 and designed by Brunel. It consists of two blocks and the tall, solid looking chimney (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1097684). In 1869, the east block, which used to house the boilers, was converted for use as a Wesleyan chapel, and served this purpose until 1950.  The west block used to house the beam engine that used to compress air. This block was later converted to an engine shed for housing steam locomotives until 1981, when it became home to a museum related to the Atmospheric Railway. In its heyday, the Atmospheric Railway was powered by 11 pumping stations, of which only four remain standing (Starcross, Totnes, Dawlish [not much left to see], and Torquay). There is one other souvenir of the ill-fated system at Starcross. This is a pub opposite the station. It is called ‘The Atmospheric Railway Inn’. Sadly, the covid19 pandemic has resulted in it deciding to remain closed for the foreseeable future.

I had never heard of the Atmospheric Railway until we visited our friends in Torquay. Had it not been for their suggestion that we took a trip across the River Exe on the ferry, I might never have noticed the former pumping station at Starcross and remained in ignorance of Brunel’s adventurous experiment in railway technology.

Story of a tower

“IT’S THE TOWN’S SYMBOL, you see”, we were told by a friendly young man whom we met by chance in a churchyard in the town of Bruton in the county of Somerset.

“Never been up there myself, even though I’ve been living in Bruton all my life,” he told us, pointing at a tall tower on the summit of a hill overlooking the town.

“Where have you come from?” he asked us. When we replied ‘London’, he commented:

“Never been there myself. Have a good evening.”

Bruton is about 120 miles southwest of central London. The tower about which we had asked the young man is square in plan, is built of neatly cut limestone blocks, has three layers of windows, and looks (from below) as if it is missing its roof. The top parts of each of the four walls are triangular, looking as if they were once the side walls of gabled roofs.

The tower that stands in Bruton’s Jubilee Park is known as ‘The Dovecote’. The hill on which it stands rises steeply from the almost level fields of the public park. Birds, mainly pigeons, could be seen perching on the edges of the four gables at the top of the tower. It stands on a square plot 65 square feet in area and is situated on land over 300 feet above sea level, to the south of the centre of Bruton. Although it is tall, I have not been able to discover its height by searching the internet. That it has lost its roof, is recorded.

The tower stands in what was a deer park of about 30 acres established in about 1545-6 by the canons of the long-since demolished nearby Bruton Abbey (whose remains can be seen in the town). The park was later enlarged and surrounded by a wall. In the 18th century, the deer were removed. However, much earlier, in the 16th or, 17th century (actual date is uncertain although some of the timber used in the construction has been dated as being felled between 1554 and 1586), the present tower was built by the Berkly family. They acquired the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The tower was built to be used as a ‘prospect’ or ‘look out’ tower.

In about 1780, or maybe much earlier, the tower was converted to be used as a dovecote. Inside the tower, which we could not enter, there are roosting spaces (nesting boxes) for at least 200 doves. Long ago, pigeons and doves were an important food source. They were reared for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In 1915, the National Trust (‘NT’) acquired the freehold of the tower from Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare (1865-1947). Not only did Sir Henry give his tower to the NT, but also, more importantly, he also donated his family estate with its fabulous landscaped grounds at nearby Stourhead to the same organization in 1946. The Hoare family, about whom I hope to write soon, is also associated with another tower not far from Bruton, the Alfred Tower, which we have visited … but more on this anon.

Although we could not enter The Dovecote tower, we did one better than the young local with whom we spoke earlier; we walked up to its base.

From small acorns tall oaks do grow

THE BUILDING MATERIALS COMPANY TARMAC is not a company that you might immediately associate with leisure activities. Yet, today, our good friends in Hertfordshire, Gareth and Moyna, took us with their two dogs to a park that has largely been created by Tarmac. Panshanger Park is owned by Tarmac Holdings, who extract sand and gravel from the area. After taking what they need, they restore the ground they have dug to render it attractive to humans, wildlife, and cattle.

William Cowper (c1665-1723), First Earl Cowper and once the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, acquired the Cole Green Estate, which includes the land on which Panshanger Park is situated, in about 1700. His descendant the Fifth Earl Cowper commissioned the architects Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807) and then later William Atkinson (c1774-1839) to design a house to replace the existing one. It was designed in the ‘Regency-Gothic’ (Gothic Revival) style and its construction commenced in 1806. The grounds of the new house were landscaped by Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who also landscaped the grounds at London’s Kenwood House. Seeing the grounds at Panshanger reminded me of those at Kenwood. Sadly, the house was demolished in the early 1950s. All that remains of it is a grassy mound and the roofless ruins of the extensive orangery, whose supporting pillars and lintels remain. The lintels bear a bas-relief of floral wreaths, crumbling in parts. The ground in front of the mound sweeps down towards a lake, just as is the case with the lawns in front of the still extant Kenwood House.

A path leads from the remains of the orangery through woods towards an enormous oak tree circled by protective cast-iron railings. This huge oak tree is said to be the largest maiden oak in the country. It is defined as ‘maiden’ because it has never been subjected to pollarding (artificial control of growth by trimming selected branches). One of the tree’s long branches has grown towards the ground and, unusually for oaks, set down new roots, rather like what is commonly found in banyan trees. This tree is said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Whether she planted an acorn or a sapling, we cannot say. My uneducated guess is that planting a sapling rather than random acorn would have been a more reliable way to be sure that the tree would thrive. The tree trunk’s circumference is at present 75 feet (www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/489/137/panshanger-great-oak.html) and increasing because the tree looks remarkably healthy.

Saplings taken from this royal oak have been used to grow the Prince Consort Oak in the Forest of Dean, and another in the same forest planted  (as an acorn) by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as another tree planted by Sir Winston Churchill, which has outlasted this former Prime minister.

Apart from the amazing oak tree and the intriguing remains of the Panshanger orangery, the park is well worth visiting to enjoy its views of lakes, its variety of trees, the long-horned cattle grazing in the fields, and the lovely vistas of the valley of the River Mimran and the rural Hertfordshire landscape. It is gratifying to see that a company, whose activities, such as digging gravel and sand, can easily wreck the countryside, have managed to carry out their work and at the same time to preserve the estate in superb, unsullied condition. Once again our friends in Hertfordshire have opened our eyes to another wonder in the depths of the English countryside.

An old bridge on the moor

POSTBRIDGE IS A TINY SETTLEMENT in the middle of Dartmoor on the banks of the East Dart River, a tributary of the River Dart. The road that passes through the hamlet crosses the river over a venerable stone bridge (built in the 1720s). A few yards away from the bridge, there stands a far older bridge, a so-called ‘clapper bridge’.

The clapper bridge consists of four stone abutments (piers) spanned by three wide slabs of granite, each weighing about 6.5 to 8 tons. It is a simple but elegant structure, which has survived for many centuries. The bridge was most probably built to allow pack horses carrying tin to cross the stream on the way to Tavistock on the west side of Dartmoor. It was already in existence in the 13th century and is one of only 40 surviving examples of this kind of river crossing in the British Isles.

When we arrived at Postbridge during our journey from Cornwall to Somerset, the clapper bridge was crowded with camera-laden tourists who spoke German. Some of them were impolite, shouting at us rudely to get us to move off the clapper bridge so that they could get better photographs. Despite their uncultured behaviour, it was good to see that the bridge is still being used, albeit for leisure purposes. However, this is a far cry from what is depicted on a nearby pub sign: a horseman dressed in a red jacket riding his horse over the ancient bridge,

Peter Pan and Long John Silver

COCKAYNE HATLEY IS A BIG name for a tiny rural settlement in Bedfordshire, close to the county’s borders with both Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Today, it consists of a small parish church and a few buildings about one hundred and fifty yards away. Its population in 2007 was 75 souls. Over the centuries, the place has had various names: Hettenleia (10th cent.); Hatelai (11th cent.); Bury Hattele (13th-15th cent.); Hatley Port, and then from the 16th century as Cockayne Hatley. The name ‘Hatley’ is from the Old English words ‘haett’ and ‘leah’, meaning ‘woodland clearing on the hill’. The first part of the place name, Cockayne, was added to Hatley in the 15th century after John Cockayne (died 1429), Chief baron of the Exchequer, acquired the manor in 1417.

We travelled to Cockayne Hatley to see its church, built during the 13th and 14th centuries and dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was locked up and we did not have enough time to ring the person who holds the keys. However, we took a stroll around the church’s well-maintained small graveyard and found some graves and memorials of great interest.

A pinkish granite stone records the death of Margaret Lindsay (died 1941), whose husband, Lt Col WG Cooper DSO, died in 19?8. What interested me was its Indian connection. WG Cooper had served in India in ‘The Poona Horse’. He was in 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse, a unit of the Bombay Presidency. His wife Margaret was born in India, the daughter of Peter Stephenson Turnbull, Surgeon General of the Government of Bombay and later, Honorary Physician to the King. William and Margaret married in Bombay Cathedral. The Poona Horse was founded in about 1820, and served in the two world wars, and after India became independent, it served in the India-Pakistan conflicts of both 1965 and 1971 (by which time Cooper was no longer living).

A white stone memorial close to Cooper’s records the death of Private Herber Saunderson in 1919. A Canadian serving in the 17th (Reserve) Battalion, Canadian Infantry (www.roll-of-honour.com/Bedfordshire/CockayneHatley.html), he was aged 40 when he died. He was born in Cockayne Hatley, and then moved to Ontario (Canada) after marriage.

A few feet away from the Canadian’s gravestone there is a black stone monument dedicated to the memory of the crew of a Liberator KN 736 aircraft, which crashed in nearby Potton Woods on the 18th of September 1945. Four men were killed and three were saved as well as a dog called Bitsa. Local people came to their rescue. None of the men who were killed were buried at Cockayne Hatley.

Apart from the graves with military connections, there is one which has many literary associations. The monument to William Ernest Henry and his family is in the art-nouveau style and is the most prominent memorial in the tiny cemetery.

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) was, according to that font of all knowledge Wikipedia, “…an English poet, critic and editor in late Victorian England.” At the age of twelve, he began suffering from tuberculosis. This resulted in him having to have the lower part of his left leg amputated sometime between 1868 and 1869. Incidentally, Henley was looked after by the eminent Dr Joseph Lister (1827-1912), founder of surgical sterile techniques. The amputation led to an important landmark in British literature. Henley was a good friend of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), author of “Treasure Island” (published 1883). It is said that Stevenson’s well-known character, the pirate Long John Silver, was inspired by his “… crippled, hearty friend” (www.britannica.com/biography/William-Ernest-Henley).

Poor old Henley fell out of a train in 1902. This accident caused a flare up of his tuberculosis, which caused his death in 1903. He was cremated at a crematorium near his home in Woking. His ashes were interred in the graveyard at Cockayne Hatley where his daughter was buried. This brings us back to fictional pirates: not Long John Silver but one with a hook instead of a hand: Captain Hook (created by JM Barrie [1860-1937]), who was an enemy of Peter Pan.

Ernest and his wife Anna (née Hannah Johnson Boyle; 1855-1925) married in 1878. They had one child, Margaret, who was born in 1888. The author of “Peter Pan”, JM Barrie, was a friend of the family during Margaret’s short life. Unable to pronounce the word ‘friend’ the small child called her friend Barrie ‘fwendy-wendy’. As a result of this, Barrie used the name ‘Wendy’ for Peter Pan’s female companion in his famous children’s book, “Peter Pan”. It was published in 1904. Margaret did not live long enough to see it; she died in 1894, aged 5. She was buried at Cockayne Hatley, the estate of her father’s friend, the politician and editor Henry John Cockayne-Cust (1861-1917). The monument to Margaret is on the back of that to Ernest and his wife.

Although our visit to Cockayne Hatley was brief, it turned out to be full of interest. If we had not visited the place, we would have been unlikely to have ever heard of William Ernest Henley and his family’s contribution to the richness of British literature. One of the many things that gives me pleasure during our forays into the English countryside is observing things that trigger my curiosity and often generate new interests for me.

An unusual feature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clock on a wall

I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.

In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.

Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.

We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.

Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.   

Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.

The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:

“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”.  Another website (i.collector.com) listed:

“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”

It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.

The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.