397 Spanish prisoners held in in Torquay

FOR PERSONAL REASONS King Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries and similar establishments in England during the 16th century. Many of their buildings were destroyed or left to disintegrate. Their lands were sold or given to new owners. Some of them incorporated the remains of the monastic structures that they had acquired into new buildings. A good example of this can be seen in Devon’s Torquay. It is the remains of Torre Abbey.

The abbey was founded by members of the Premonstratensian Order in 1196. By the time of the Dissolution in 1536, Torre Abbey was the wealthiest of the houses of the Order in Britain. In 1539, the monastery was given over to one of King Henry VIII’s commissioners. After that, the first leaseholder of the former abbey and its lands was the lawyer Sir Hugh Pollard (?1498-?1576). What was left of the monastic buildings was incorporated into a large house built for Thomas Ridgeway. After several others had owned the property, it came into the hands of the Cary family in 1662. In 1740, the residential building was remodelled in the Georgian style, which is what can be seen today. This family retained ownership of the abbey remains, the house, and its lands, until 1930, when a member of the family sold them to Torquay Borough Council. Since then, the house has been used for municipal administrative purposes and during WW2, it was occupied by the RAF.

Near to the main house, there is a large, intact tithe barn. This was constructed in about 1300. In the summer of 1588, the Spanish sent a large fleet, the Armada, to invade England with the intention of restoring the Roman Catholic religion in what had become a Protestant country. The Spanish failed miserably, and many of them became prisoners of war. Francis Drake (c1540-1596) forced one of the Spanish vessels to surrender and as a result captured 397 Spanish prisoners. They were held in the tithe barn for 23 days before they were transferred to Exeter. As a result of this, the barn is now known as The Spanish Barn. during WW2, the RAF used it as a gymnasium. Now, the barn is hired out for weddings and other special occasions.

The remains of the abbey, the barn, and the house built within the abbey ruins, overlook a park, a small golf course, and a few yards away, the waves in Tor Bay. The abbey grounds are a short walk from the commercialised harbour area in the centre of Torquay, and provide a pleasant contrast to the latter.

An invisible abbey and Vietnamese food

THERE IS A SUPERB Vietnamese eatery on London’s Bermondsey Street, called Caphe House. After eating a tasty banh mi, a baguette filled with meat and fresh vegetable, a dish no doubt inspired by the French occupation of Vietnam, and a pho, a clear broth with meat, vegetables, and noodles, we crossed the road to examine a sculpture. This eye-catching artwork had not been present when last visited Caphe House, sometime before the pandemic and well before October 2019. It consists of a row of seven piles of stone carvings of differing heights, resembling short totem poles. Made of Portland stone, Bath stone, marble and other materials found in the River Thames, this was created in 2020 by Austin Emery and members of the local community.  Over 100 members of the community made carvings in a workshop, and these have been assembled by Emery to create what we saw, an artwork named “Cornerstone”. Cornerstone also incorporates fragments from Southwark Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge Station, and bones from the Thames.

Cornerstone, a sculpture in London’s Bermondsey

After admiring this unusual and intriguing sculpture, I spotted a notice nearby. It relates to the history of Tanner Park, where the sculpture stands, and includes the following:

“… Originally part of the grounds of Bermondsey Abbey the site of the Park was later in use as a Tannery …”

Reading this notice, I realised that this was the first time I had seen mention of an abbey at Bermondsey.

There had been an abbey in Bermondsey since the early 9th century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Abbey). This was centred on the site of the present-day Bermondsey Square, about 390 yards south of the Cornerstone sculpture. The abbey to which the notice at Tanner Park refers was a Benedictine abbey, which was dedicated to St Saviour and was founded in the early 11th century. A wealthy religious establishment, it was, like so many other similar institutions,  dissolved by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, in 1537. But where was it?

By 1822, only tiny fragments of the abbey were still standing. Today, nothing remains, although occasional archaeological digs have exposed parts of it, albeit temporarily.  Fathome’s map of Southwark compiled in 1643-48 shows that then the abbey was still standing intact in its grounds (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol6/pp117-133). According to one writer (https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/bermondsey-abbey/), who does not give the source(s) of his information, the site of the abbey was:

“The abbey lands extended from the present church of St Mary Magdalene, across today’s Tower Bridge Road.”

A map included by this writer marks the abbey church as lying along Abbey Street with the nave to the west of Tower Bridge Road and the chancel east of it. A wall plaque (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/bermondsey-abbey) which I have not yet seen informs that the abbey:

“… occupied ground between Bermondsey Street, Abbey Street, and Grange Walk…”

The church of St Mary Magdalen stands on Bermondsey Street just before its crossing with Abbey Street. This stands on the site of a church that existed in 1290 and which served lay workers of the abbey. This was demolished in 1680, but the late mediaeval tower was kept. It was rebuilt ten years later. During the 19th century, the exterior was covered with rendering and various other architectural modifications were made both internally and externally (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_Magdalen_Bermondsey). Apparently, the church’s mediaeval arches are visible inside the tower behind the organ and the church also contains some mediaeval stone capitals that might well have been parts of Bermondsey Abbey. St Mary Magdalen is the oldest surviving building in the area. It is open occasionally. I have entered it once, but that was long before I knew about the mediaeval remnants it contains.

Despite the fact that Bermondsey Abbey is now merely a historical memory, Bermondsey Street is an interesting place to visit. Amongst its attractions are Peter Layton’s glass studio, where you can watch glassblowers creating fantastic artworks in glass; Rachel Eames Gallery, which often has good exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works; The Fashion and Textile Museum; The White Cube (Bermondsey), which hosts spectacular shows of contemporary art; and the Cornerstone sculpture, described already. I suggest starting your visit with an early lunch at Caphe House, rounding it off with Vietnamese filter coffee, and ending it with another good coffee at the cheekily named, quirkily decorated Fuckoffee café.

Out on the tiles in North Yorkshire

YORKSHIRE IS RICH in the ruins of abbeys and other religious institutions, which were all dissolved (closed down) by Henry VIII in the 16th century and left to decay. The better known of Yorkshire’s ruined abbeys include those at Fountains, Rievaulx, and Whitby. In the North Yorkshire district of Ryedale, there are the extensive ruins of a former Cistercian abbey, founded in 1137 and called Byland Abbey. Having visited ancient but still intact and well-preserved Cistercian monasteries in various places in France, I have a reasonable idea of what these places look like. What I particularly liked about the ruins at Byland was that although much of the old stonework has been taken away and incorporated in other buildings, sufficient remains not only of the abbey church but also of the many buildings (e.g., the refectory, the cloisters, the chapter house, and the abbot’s house) that made up the monastic settlement. Having seen the monasteries in France I was able in my mind’s eye to create an image of how Byland might have looked in its heyday.

Apart from its great beauty as a ruined church, the abbey’s vast former church has something that I cannot recall ever having seen at other ruined abbeys I have visited. Exposed to the open air and risking being trod upon by visitors are many quite large expanses of mediaeval floor tiling. Many of the fired clay tiles still bear their coloured glazes. There are patches of tiling where they are laid out in circular geometric patterns. It was surprising to see such a great number of these tiles because even in many of the still intact British churches and cathedrals, such ancient flooring is quite rarely preserved to such an extent as in the ruined Byland Abbey.

I was told that when the abbeys were dissolved by Henry VIII, their roofs were removed, and this ensured that the buildings became unusable and fell into decay. The west end of Byland’s huge church contains the remains of a masonry circle that was once the frame for an enormous rose window, believed to be a prototype for the rose window that still can be seen at York Minster. While the Minster is a sight not to be missed, so is Byland Abbey. The latter might not have such a spectacular location as the ruins at Whitby and Rievaulx, it is, in my opinion, a far more interesting place to explore.

The Knights Templars and a letter from Erasmus (was he gay???)

THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE is remarkably rich in mediaeval remains, many of them accessible to members of the public. Quite a few of these reminders of the past resulted from the mass closure of monasteries and nunneries by King Henry VIII during the 16th century. Denny Abbey between Ely and Cambridge is just one of many examples of the results of the king’s policy. We paid it a brief visit whilst driving between the two cities. We arrived there early in the morning before it was open to visitors, but without entering the compound, we were able to see most of what is on offer apart from the attached Farmland Museum, which we might visit in the future.

Farmhouse, formerly Denny Abbey

The abbey was founded by the Benedictine Order in 1159 (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/denny-abbey-and-the-farmland-museum/) and taken over by the Knights Templars in 1170. The Templars used the place to house old and infirm members of their order. Despite questioning the truth of the Pope’s suspicions about the Templars, King Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) yielded to Rome’s authority, suppressed the Templars in England in 1308-9, and confiscated their properties. In 1327, King Edward III gave the abbey to Marie de Châtillon, Countess of Pembroke (1303-1377), the founder of Pembroke College in nearby Cambridge. She converted the abbey into a Franciscan nunnery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denny_Abbey).  The nunnery became home to members of The Order of Saint Clare, often known as ‘The Poor Clares’. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1536 and it, like all the other ecclesiastical establishments closed by the king, became property of the Crown.

The last abbess at Denny was Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton (1467-1547), who headed the nunnery from 1512 until its dissolution. During her term as abbess, two of the nuns in her establishment were sisters of Sir Thomas Grey (Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset: 1477-1530), a student of the Dutch philosopher and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536). When Erasmus was in Basel in 1525, Grey persuaded him to write to the community at Denny. His letter was received, and in response the nuns sent him a gift, which was stolen before it reached him. When he learned what had happened, he wrote again. In his second letter, Erasmus wrote of:

“…the troubles of the time war everywhere, and wrath of princes, famine, and plague and divisions in the Church which tore families apart but comforted the ladies with the thought of the humility and strength of St. Francis and St. Clare and asked their prayers, not only for himself but for the conversion of the thief. He sent his greeting to the ‘most religious lady’ abbess, and begged her to greet Grey’s sisters for him by name.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp295-302).

According to one source, Erasmus was attracted to men. While serving as a canon in Stein (Holland), Erasmus:

“…supposedly fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul”, writing that “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly”” (www.hmoob.in/wiki/Desiderus_Erasmus)

Later, Erasmus, while teaching in Paris:

“… instructed a 21-year-old English-born student, Thomas Grey, who later became Marquis of Dorset. Erasmus was abruptly dismissed as Grey’s teacher, for making unwanted advances towards him.” (http://gayinfluence.blogspot.com/2012/04/erasmus.html)

Another source (“Erasmus” by Preserved Smith, publ. 1923) might well allude to this excessive friendship:

“…Thomas Grey, a young Englishman, of whom Erasmus was fond …”  

Erasmus was in Paris between 1495 and 1499, after which he lived and worked in England (Oxford, then Cambridge) for several periods over the next few years. Clearly, his abrupt dismissal did not deter Grey from writing to him about the nunnery at Denny Abbey. The presence of Grey’s sisters at Denny might have been a consequence of a possible Grey family connection with two other families that were intimately involved with it: the Coleviles and Massinghams.

After the closure of the nunnery, its refectory became used as a barn; the abbess’s lodge, originally built for the Countess of Clare, became used as a farmhouse; and its church, built in 1159, was demolished. Over the centuries, the farm on the former nunnery’s lands was privately owned. In 1928, Pembroke College (Cambridge) bought the plot, and it remained a farm until 1947, when it was leased to The Ministry of Public Works. It was later transferred into the care of English Heritage (founded in the 1980s).

We parked in a grassy field, watched by a small herd of cows, most of whom were seated on the ground, maybe anticipating a rain shower. The farmhouse, the building originally constructed for the Countess of Pembroke, still has doorways and windows in both the Norman and mediaeval gothic styles. A Norman archway was the entrance to the Templar’s church.  Some of these features, which must have once led into buildings now non-existent, have been bricked in. It has new roofing and some windows that were added long after it ceased to be part of the nunnery. Likewise with the large barn, once the refectory, it has two tall doors, which are later additions to the structure, as well as bricked in windows and archways that were used when the nunnery existed. Two lines of masonry almost flush with the ground mark the site of the nave of the now demolished church. Little else can be seen, although during the site’s opening times, visitors can see the remains of a mediaeval tiled floor.

Although little survives of the former Denny Abbey, its ruins are worth a short visit. And, while you gaze at it, you can marvel at the thought that you are looking at the remains of the only abbey in England to have been home to not one religious order but three different ones (www.dennyfarmlandmuseum.org.uk/content/things-to-see/history-of-denny-abbey). When we stopped to look at the place on a grey Friday morning in August 2021, I had no inkling that the great Erasmus had taken an interest in it, nor had I any idea that the scholar has been suspected by some of being gay. An anonymous writer denies this rather vehemently (www.erasmatazz.com/library/erasmus-the-hero/erasmus-was-not-gay/the-thomas-grey-affair.html). Whether or not Erasmus’s advances to Thomas Grey were of a homosexual nature or simply expressions of deep friendship and admiration of his intellect, it is for others to decide. Deciding whether or not to explore the remains of Denny Abbey is far less difficult than judging Erasmus.

A Hebrew dictionary and a lost abbey

NOT MUCH REMAINS of Ramsey Abbey in a part of Cambridgeshire, which used to be in the former county of Huntingdonshire. Like most of the monastic institutions in England, Ramsey Abbey was ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. Ramsay was closed in 1539.

Founded in 969 by Bishop Oswald of Worcestershire (died 992), this abbey in the Fens achieved great importance, rivalling Ely and Peterborough. Three centuries before the first college (Peterhouse) was established at Cambridge in 1284, Ramsey was a renowned centre of scholarship. In addition to theological matters, the scholars at Ramsey studied a wide range of other subjects. One of the most eminent scholars, Abbo of Fleury (c945-1004), was brought to Ramsey by Oswald in 985. Abbo brought much knowledge from both the Classical world and the Arabic world to Ramsey, where he stayed for 18 months. Another leading scholar was Byrhtferth (c970-c1020), who was well-known for his studies of English history. He also wrote a scientific compendium in about 990. This included material about mathematics, properties of matter, astronomy, and medicine.

Geoffrey of Huntingdon, who lived in the 13th century, was Prior of Ramsey Abbey for about 38 years. He was a scholar, with great fluency in the languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the Jewish people were expelled from Britain in 1290, he bought from them as many Hebrew texts as he was ablee to find, including from the synagogues at Huntingdon and Stamford. Under Gregory’s influence, Ramsey became a centre of Hebrew studies. From the books and texts collected at Ramsey, a priest, Laurence Holbeach (died c1420), compiled a Hebrew dictionary in about 1410.

When Ramsey was dissolved in 1536, the dictionary was amongst the many scholarly works taken (or stolen) from the monastery by Robert Wakefield (or ‘Wachefeld) of Oxford, where he taught Hebrew from 1530 until his death. Wakefield, who died a year later, was a renowned English orientalist and Hebraist who taught at famous universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Louvain, and Tübingen. What became of this dictionary, I have not yet been able to discover.  

Whether the dictionary remains in existence or not, I cannot say, but I do know that by visiting the small town of Ramsey, the visitor can see some remains of the former abbey. These include the remains of a gatehouse, which is now looked after by the National Trust and the Church of St Thomas à Becket, now a parish church. The latter was already constructed in the 12th century. It was probably originally built as a hospital or infirmary for the abbey, but by 1222, it had become a parish church. The aisles were rebuilt in the 16th century and the current west tower was built in 1672. The church contains some lovely stained-glass windows both behind the high altar and on the eastern part of the southern wall. These windows, created in the early part of the 20th century, were made by Morris & Co, a company founded by William Morris.

The former abbey has a connection with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in the nearby town of Huntingdon. In 1540, the estate of the former Ramsey Abbey was sold to Sir Richard Williams (1510-1544), also known as ‘Sir Richard Cromwell’. This man, who was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather, demolished most of the abbey, which was:

“… turned into a quarry, the lead from the roofs being melted down into fodders and ingots for sale to the highest bidder. Gonville and Caius college in Cambridge was built from the stone and Kings and Trinity were partly rebuilt. Stone from the Abbey also found its way into many local churches and other buildings” (https://ramseyabbey.co.uk/richard-cromwell/)

Richard’s son Henry built a Tudor house on the former abbey’s grounds. Henry’s son Oliver (born 1562), who was an ardent Royalist, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Oliver Cromwell, the famous Parliamentarian and ruler of England (the ‘Lord Protector’), lived in the house his father had built. This, the manor house, was sold to Coulson Fellowes in 1737 by the then owners, the Titus family. In 1804, the architect Sir John Soane enlarged the house. The building was further enlarged in 1839. Now the building houses Ramsey’s Abbey College. Currently the building looks far from being Tudor and by looking at its exterior, one cannot guess that it contains some remains of the early mediaeval abbey, on which it was built.

As a notice beside the remains of the gatehouse aptly states:

“After existing for nearly four centuries as the grounds of a private residence it is most fitting that a large part of the abbey site is now occupied by the Abbey College. The eighty or so monks in their black habits have been succeeded by a far greater number of students. Across the generations Ramsey has been the home of scholars who have sought to expand their knowledge of the world …”

I am certain that Bishop Oswald would be pleased to know although his scholarly establishment was closed by a King with dubious intentions, Ramsey continues to be a place of scholarship.

A village, a school, and Jemima Puddleduck

LONG MELFORD IN Suffolk is a village that I have passed through several times. It was only during our most recent visit in August 2021, when we stopped there to see its church and Melford Hall that I realised that the place has a connection with Highgate School (in north London), which I attended between 1965 and 1970.

Melford Hall sits on land that was once owned by the abbots of St Edmundsbury. As with all monastic property, it passed into the hands of King Henry VIII when he ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The king with an eye to profit rather than the prophets sold the properties he had confiscated to wealthy buyers (nobles, merchants, and lawyers). Melford Hall and its lands were sold to a local lawyer, William Cordell (1522-1581). His father was a personal assistant (‘steward’) to Sir William Clopton, a lawyer and owner of Kentwell Hall at Long Melford. Young Cordell was sent to study law at Lincolns Inn and was called to the Bar at the early age of 22. An active politician during the reigns of Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I and a founder of the Russia Company, William Cordell acquired great wealth. It was he that bought the estate at Long Melford along with its stately home, Melford Hall. In addition, he married Sir William Clopton’s granddaughter, heiress to estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Cordell did not build Melford Hall, but he did modify it in various ways. However, he did build the nearby Hospital of the Holy and Blessed Trinity in 1573. Situated across from the cathedral-like parish church, this was an almshouse for 12 aged men and women. The Great Church of The Holy Trinity stands behind and above the almshouse. It is a superb example of 15th century gothic architecture and is distinguished by having a separate Lady Chapel, which cannot be entered from the church, at its east end. It is one of the only parish churches in the country, which was never part of an abbey, to have such a feature. Within this fine church, Sir William Cordell’s elaborate sculpted tomb can be found in the chancel to the right (south) of the high altar. He died childless.

Amongst other important roles, William Cordell became Recorder of London. He succeeded his acquaintance, another lawyer from Lincolns Inn, Sir Roger Cholmeley (c1485-1565). Sir Roger was the founder of Highgate School during the final months of his life. This is the school I attended many years later.

Thomas Hinde, author of “Highgate School. A History” wrote that after Cholmeley, William Cordell was the school’s greatest early benefactor. Connected with two other educational establishments, St Johns College in Cambridge and Merchants Taylors’ School, Cordell became a Governor of Highgate School in 1576.

When I was at Highgate, it only admitted boys. Some pupils, including me, were day boys, and others were boarders. The boarders lived in one of four houses: School House, The Lodge, Grindal House, and Cordell House. Grindal was named to commemorate Bishop Edmund Grindal (c1519-1583), who helped establish Highgate School and Cordell was named to honour William Cordell. Until We visited Long Melford, I had no idea about the reason for giving Cordell House its name.

Returning to Melford Hall, once the home of William Cordell, it has passed through many generations of the Hyde Parker family, who acquired the hall and its grounds in 1786 from a descendant of both William’s sister and his cousin, Thomas Cordell. In 1890. The Reverend Sir William Hyde Parker (1863-1931) married Ethel Leech (1861-1941) in 1890. Ethel had a cousin, who has become extremely well-known, the children’s author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). She used to visit the Hyde Parkers at Melford Hall, where she stayed occasionally. She used to draw and sketch many features of the hall and its grounds. We were shown one of the bedrooms in which she used to sleep. Nearby in a glass-fronted display cabinet, you can see a toy duck, wearing the outfit that Beatrix had created for it. This duck was the inspiration for her book “The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck”, which was first published in July 1908.

I had seen photographs of Melford Hall, which made me want to visit it, and I was not disappointed. However, I had not expected to learn that the Hall and the village have connections with both Beatrix Potter and one of the earliest benefactors and governors of the secondary school I attended in Highgate. Our visit to Long Melford certainly broadened our minds, as the popular saying goes. I will leave you with how GK Chesterton, who attended St Paul’s School rather than Highgate, expressed this idea in his “The Shadow of the Shark”:

“They say travel broadens the mind, but you must have the mind.”

Mediaeval in a modern metropolis

A SHORT REMNANT OF the old Roman city wall, which used to surround London, runs just south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate, which itself is on the southern edge of the Barbican complex. The garden of Salter’s Hall lies where once a moat ran along the outer side of the wall. And on the other side of the wall, between it and the wide road called London Wall (the A1211), there are the remains of a mediaeval structure, which look as if they might have been the lower part of a gothic tower. These ruins can be examined close-up or a few feet away, seated at a table under the awnings of Barbie Green, an Australian-style, contemporary eatery, which serves good coffee. The restaurant is relatively new, but the ruins have been there far, far longer. Oddly, although we have passed this area often, it was only yesterday, 16th of August 2021, that we first noticed them.

A notice next to the ruins explains that they are all that remains of the tower of St Elsyng Spital, which was also known as ‘The Hospital of St Mary within Cripplegate’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/london/vol1/pp535-537). This hospital was founded in 1330 by the merchant, a mercer, William Elsyng as a college for priests and to provide shelter and other assistance to London’s homeless blind people (https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.538317). A victim of the Black Death, he died in 1349.  Following his instructions, after his death it became an Augustinian priory, which survived until it was dissolved in 1536 during the reign of King Henry VIII. After its dissolution, the parishioners of the nearby St Alphage Church, which had become derelict, purchased the church of Elsyng’s establishment. According to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, the 14th century tower, whose remains we saw, was incorporated into the structure of St Alphage. St Alphage was demolished at the end of the 16th century and its parishioners used what was left of Elsyng’s priory church, which was eventually replaced by a newly built church on a different site in 1777 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Alphege_London_Wall).

The well-maintained ruins consist of several tall gothic arches connected to each other by walls made of roughly hewn stones and mortar. Most of the arches are arranged around what was once the base of a tower. This mediaeval site is surrounded by modern buildings, lies beneath a sinuous elevated oxidised metal walkway. It is sandwiched between the fragment of London’s Roman Wall and the busy London Wall dual carriageway. Part of the joy of stumbling across this relic of pre-Reformation architecture is that unlike so many others we have seen on our travels, it is in the heart of a modern metropolis rather than a rustic environment.  

Small though it is in comparison with its modern surroundings, finding this reminder of London’s distant past, founded long ago by a philanthropic merchant, was a delightful surprise. Even today, so many centuries later, philanthropy thrives in the heart of the old City of London in the form of the descendants of the guilds, of which The Salters, whose hall I mentioned above, is just one example of many.

PS: The nearest Underground station is Moorgate

A line of lovely houses in southeast London

ONCE A VILLAGE in Kent, Deptford is now a riverside suburb in southeast London, just west of Greenwich. We visited Deptford to see the exhibition of contemporary art, which our daughter has curated. It is being shown at ArtHub in Creek Road and finishes on Sunday, the 25th of July 2021. So, hurry if you wish to see it.

Deptford is becoming not only a trendy place to be, rather like Dalston has become, but it also attracts artists and art galleries. Maybe, Deptford’s proximity to Goldsmiths College, which educates many kinds of creators, might explain its emergence as a new artistic district of London. Whatever the reason, Deptford now has an exciting and rather edgy feel about it.

Deptford, which I plan to explore further in the future, has a long history. Its Creek was a harbour for shipping as far back as the 11th century, if not before. King Henry VIII developed an important dockyard at Deptford. Eventually, it was involved with shipbuilding. Many ‘men-of-war’ vessels were launched here. The dockyard thrived until it was closed in March 1869.

Doubtless there is much history to relate about Deptford, but I will mention only one thing and that can be seen today. Albury Street runs east from Deptford High Street and lies just north of the lovely baroque St Pauls Church designed by Thomas Archer and built between 1712 and 1730. 

Albury Street, Deptford, London

Originally called ‘Union Street’, Albury Street was laid out between 1705 and 1717. The south side of the street, which is paved with cobbles (or maybe setts), has been rebuilt with modern dwellings. The north side is lined by the original terraced houses built by a local bricklayer, Thomas Lucas. These brick-built dwellings are distinguished by their beautiful porches, each of which has a pair of lovely woodcarvings that support the canopies above each doorway. Many of these have been restored sensitively.

Just who lived in these houses, which would have been remarkably superior in both appearance and construction for what was then a small village outside London, is subject to some uncertainty. Famous characters such as Admiral Benbow and Horatio Nelson have been mentioned, but much doubt surrounds the likelihood that they lived in this street.

In brief, a visit to Deptford is worthwhile not only to see what remains of Albury Street but also to enjoy the vibrant atmosphere and multi-ethnic nature of this corner of London.

Imitating the great: gothic in Winchester

THE CITY OF WINCHESTER has one of the longest gothic cathedrals in the continent of Europe. Built from 1091 onwards under the auspices of Bishop Walkelin, a relative of William the Conqueror, the bulk of the gothic part of the edifice was erected in the 14th century in the Perpendicular style of gothic. What was created, is exceedingly beautiful and gives a great sense of space. It is a masterpiece of gothic stone masonry. The cathedral stands not far from another large building, also built in a style of gothic inspired by what was achieved during mediaeval times.

This near neighbour is far younger than the cathedral. It is the 19th century Winchester Guildhall, which was constructed between 1871 and 1873. It stands on the site of St Marys Abbey, which was taken over by Henry VIII in the late 1530s during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The remains of the abbey, which was known as ‘Nunnaminster’, persisted until the 17th century, after which they were removed. Today, some excavated remnants can be seen behind the Guildhall.

Guildhall, Winchester

The Guildhall was built in the gothic revival style to the designs of the architects Albert William Jeffery (1840-1915) and William Skiller (1838-1901), who also submitted a design for a town hall for Hastings in Sussex. Tragically, Skiller committed suicide in 1901 (http://hastingschronicle.net/archives/architect-hangs-himself/). The Guildhall was later extended by J. B. Colson (1820-1895), who was the surveyor of Winchester Cathedral.  The original building is rich is features borrowed from mediaeval gothic, but it is topped by roofing styles that remind the viewer of French ‘chateaux’. One source summarises the Guildhall’s appearance as:

“ Gothic, symmetrical, with a middle tower and this as well as the angle pavilions provided with French pavilion roofs”; and as having a “deeply vaulted porch” at the entrance — for all this part “[t]he style is Second Pointed,” while Colson’s long extension is “much plainer”” (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/winchester/1.html).

Without doubt, the cathedral is a far finer building than the Guildhall, but both are impressive in their own ways. The cathedral’s integrity depends on its gothic features that have both structural and aesthetic functions, whereas in the case of the Guildhall these features have a greater decorative than structural purposes.

The Guildhall is an example of so-called ‘gothic revival, which lovers of London’s St Pancras Station and Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) will appreciate’. Years ago, I read “The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste”, written by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) in 1928. One thing that impressed me was, if I recall correctly, that the author queried whether the gothic style of architecture ever really died out in England, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Clark suggested that the gothic style continued to be used. In other words, what is described as ‘gothic revival’ is simply a continuation of the early use of this style. It is my impression that by the 19th century, when, for example, the Winchester Guildhall was built, architects were often simply borrowing features of earlier gothic buildings, as, for example Winchester Cathedral, and applying them often more mechanically than artistically. Often when the gothic style was being used structurally, as is the case in many churches built during the Victorian era, it tends to be imitative rather than creative, as is the case in the great mediaeval cathedrals and other churches. There are a few exceptions, where the 19th century architect manages to use the gothic style both structurally and artistically, as for example in the Church of St Augustine in London’s Kilburn.   Be that as it might be, The Guildhall does not lack in good aesthetic features and adds positively to the rich tapestry of the architectural scene in the historic centre of the city. I recommend visitors to Winchester not to concentrate all their time at the Cathedral but to spare some to view the Guildhall before seeing the other sights of the city.

A chapel that became a barn

PHILIP’S NAVIGATOR BRITAIN is a detailed (1 ½ miles to the inch) road atlas covering England, Scotland, and Wales. It is extremely useful for finding one’s way through Britain’s maze of narrow country lanes if, like us, you do not make use of GPS systems. One of the many features of the maps in this atlas is that it marks old buildings and other sites of interest in both towns and deep in the countryside. Recently (June 2021), we were driving around in rural Wiltshire, having just visited the small town of Bedwyn when I spotted that there was an old chapel nearby, close to the hamlet of Chisbury.

The area in which Chisbury is located is the site of an ancient hill fort in which archaeologists have found artefacts from the Palaeolithic era, as well as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The fort, whose earthworks are still discernible, was later used by the Romans. Long after the Romans had left England, the manor house of Chisbury was built within its site.

In the 13th century, the Lord of Chisbury Manor built a ‘chapel of ease’, St Martin’s, close to his manor house. According to Wikipedia, such a chapel is:

“…a church building other than the parish church, built within the bounds of a parish for the attendance of those who cannot reach the parish church conveniently.”

The chapel of ease at Chisbury was built to serve the household of the Manor House as well as villagers nearby, to save them having to travel to the nearest parish church which was in Great Bedwyn.

In 1547, during the Reformation of The English Church, the chapel, like many other places of worship in Henry VIII’s realm, ceased to be used. Instead of being demolished, as so many ecclesiastical buildings were at that time, the chapel was re-used as a barn. The barn continued to be used over several centuries until 1925, when it was designated a building of historical importance. Now, it is maintained by English Heritage. This re-purposing of a place of worship reminded me of what I saw when I visited Albania in 1984. At that time, religion of any sort had been made illegal by the Stalinist regime led by Enver Hoxha. Mosques and churches had either been demolished or re-purposed as sports halls, cinemas, and for other non-religious uses.

The chapel of Chisbury is beautiful. The glass has been long lost from its windows. Trees can be seen from within the chapel through its carved stone gothic windows. The ceiling of the chapel is timber framed, but I suspect that these are no longer the original timbers. The roof is thatched. The floor is at two levels, higher at the west end than the east. Steps lead from one level to the next. The two levels might reflect the fact that the chapel is built on a steeply sloping hill.

On the inside of the west wall of the building, close to the way into the chapel, there is a faded red painted circle enclosing a cross. Symbols like this were painted on to the walls of buildings during the consecration ceremonies of building about to become churches. What you can see in the chapel at Chisbury must have survived many centuries. Maybe, it has been touched up from time to time.

It is written that Jesus Christ was born in a kind of barn surrounded, as the story goes and many artist have depicted, by farm animals. I wonder whether this went through farmworkers’ heads as they used the former chapel as a barn for a variety of agricultural purposes.

Had it not been for builders working nearby, the chapel would have been silent except for birdsong. I am glad we made the small detour to see this delightful relic of mediaeval life in England.