This old window
Has been witness to much history
Over the years
This old window
Has been witness to much history
Over the years
FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS between the mid-1970s and about 2003, I made occasional journeys between Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire and Eton in Berkshire. On each of these, I passed signs indicating roads to Datchet, yet it was only in November 2020 that we decided to take a look at this village near the River Thames and opposite Windsor.
Writing in 1876 in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”, James Thorne commented that Datchet in Buckinghamshire:
“… is a quiet genteel place of abode, dull and uncharacteristic in appearance; as such places usually are; but the neighbourhood is beautiful and interesting.”
While today Datchet continues to appear genteel, it is not as dull as Thorne made out. Much that Thorne might have seen had he visited it when researching his book can be seen today. For example, the Church of St Mary, which was built in 1860 on the site of an older one, which was demolished in 1857, is attractive despite having been completely rebuilt in Victorian Gothic style.
The church stands beside The Royal Stag pub. Although the front part of the pub facing the village green was added in the 18th century, the rear part that faces the churchyard dates back to 1500 or before (https://datchethistory.org.uk/streetshouses/the-north-greens/the-royal-stag/). Over the centuries, the older parts of this building have undergone modifications, but externally it looks quite old. The pub was visited by the astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) and his family and is mentioned in “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome.
The pub faces a green in the middle of which there is a memorial to those of Datchet, who fell in both World Wars. A plaque on the memorial relates that the men who fell in WW1 were fighting the combined forces of “Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria”. As far as I can recall, this is the first WW1 memorial I have seen that mentions Bulgaria.
Facing both the pub and the church across the green, there is a long half-timbered building with four gables. Thorne describes it as having five gables, but we could only see four. Between two of the gables, there is an area of roof tiling on which a sculpture of a cat appears to be chasing a sculpture of a rat. This building now divided into dwellings is collectively known as ‘Manor House’. Although much modified, this building might have been constructed in the late 16th century. The mock Tudor facing, which we see today, was added in about 1870.
A building named ‘The Old Manor House’ next to the building just described was rebuilt in 1955 on the site of a building constructed first in the 17th century. A row of brick cottages stands on the other side of the gabled building. These attractive old structures are, like their neighbour, timber-framed. They might be older than their larger neighbour. Their brick frontage was added either in the 17th or 18th century.
Another old cottage faces the London Road, which runs along the side of the churchyard. This is ‘Church Cottage’, which was built in about 1500 and has undergone little change since then. It is probably the oldest building still standing in Datchet. James Cottages, neighbouring Church Cottage, are far younger, having been built in 1853 to commemorate James Pearce, who had died in 1851.
I could describe some of the other old buildings that make Datchet a lovely place to linger for a while, but I hope I have written enough to intrigue you. Before concluding, I will tell you a bit about the village’s name, which is strange to my way of thinking. The excellent village website (https://datchethistory.org.uk) provides much interesting information about Datchet and reveals the following about the name. Current thinking links Datchet (‘Decetia’ in Latin) to the French town of Decize, a point in central France where the River Loire could be crossed with ease in Gallic and Roman times. The website observes:
“… Decize and Datchet have more in common than an unusual name; both were originally established on islands of high ground in the low-lying land of a major river route; the remains of Decize’s ancient fort is shown on the map as ‘oppidum’. Settlement sites like this are common, but it may still be significant that these two share such a distinctive name which is not found anywhere else.”
Although we spent less than an hour in Datchet, that was sufficient time to discover that far from being “dull and uncharacteristic in appearance” as claimed by the 19th century writer James Thorne, it is quite attractive even if not in the same league as villages such as Lavenham in Suffolk and Stow-on-the Wold or Bourton in the Cotswolds.
“HISTORY IS BUNK”. So, said Henry Ford in 1916. Although he meant something different to what I understood by those words, I feel that they apply very well to the history lessons that I had to suffer at school until I was about 14 years old. It was not that I had no interest in history when I was a child but the way it was taught at the schools, which I attended, put me off studying the subject any longer than I needed.
At the Hall School in Swiss Cottage, which I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, history was one of the subjects that had to be learnt in order to pass the Common Entrance examination that would admit me to a private secondary school. Each school year, we began British history with the arrival of the Romans in Britain and worked through the centuries until we reached the end of the 19th century. The emphasis was on chronology of events rather than what happened, and why it did, and, what were its consequences. We were being trained to answer idiotic examination questions such as:
“Put the following in chronological order: Archbishop Laud, the Corn Laws, Lady Jane Grey, Plassey”
To know their dates was important. To understand their roles in the history of Britain or elsewhere seemed irrelevant. You are probably beginning to get the idea of why history taught like this failed to capture my interest.
Something unpardonable about the teaching of history at the Hall was that although we had to learn the dates of important battles that the British fought overseas, we had no idea of their significance. It was like learning about a series of football or other sporting results. For example, it was long after leaving the school that I began to understand why our ‘team’ was sent abroad to fight Napoleon. It was not simply to notch up yet another British victory at, say, Waterloo, which is what I was led to believe at the Hall, but to combat a force that was invading most of Europe. The same is true of British victories in India and North America. It was vaguely satisfying to know that we had ‘scored’ well at Arcot, Plassey, and Quebec, but I was not aware that the reasons for these battles were ever explained to us.
Well, with the help of my mother, who spent many hours of my spare time cramming the historical facts into my head, I was successful at the Common Entrance examination and gained admission to Highgate School. As far as history was concerned, things did not improve at my new school. Our class was taught by the eminent historian AW Palmer, who eventually gave up teaching to devote his time to writing books on a variety of historical subjects, many of which I now find interesting. However, it was our fate to have to study the history of the USA. We had a textbook with an orange cover, whose title and author I have long forgotten. Neither this nor Mr Palmer managed to excite in me any interest in the undoubtedly exciting history of the USA. So, when we were given the choice of dropping either physics or history, I abandoned the latter. In my time at Highgate, history was alternative to physics, geography to chemistry, and Latin to woodwork. I chose chemistry and Latin in addition to physics.
When I was about 16, I used to walk from our family home to Finchley to visit my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz and his wife Gwyneth. I was fond of them as well as their two children, one of whom was named after me. Gwyneth taught history at a local school and quickly realised that although I was not taking her subject at school, I was, in fact, quite interested in it. She recommended that I read a series of books written by the historian Alistair Horne. He wrote history in such a way that reading it was as enjoyable as reading a gripping novel. Everything he included in his narratives was reliably sourced. His books are both scholarly and engrossing. Through reading these books and discussions with Gwyneth, my interest in history grew and grew. I am eternally grateful to her for this.
If, God forbid, I should ever decide to study for another degree, I would head for a course in modern history. Far from being ‘bunk’, history is most important. As someone said to me recently:
“The future is a plant that grows in the soil of the past.”
And in the words of the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), who influenced Bertrand Russell among others:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I hope that we can learn from the past (by studying history) and avoid repeating the mistakes, which were made then, in the future. But maybe, I am being a little bit over-optimistic.
NOBODY IS PERFECT, and that includes all of those ‘great’ men and women whose lives are remembered with statues. Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without questioning (or even after questioning) nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.
Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without or with questioning nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.
Consider Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). He was not a person that I would have enjoyed meeting, even for a brief drink in a pub. From what I know of him, he was power hungry and greedy and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
Undoubtedly, money derived from his endeavours has been spent on good works including the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which began funding bright young scholars from 1902 onwards. Many academic and other fine accomplishments have been achieved by the recipients of these awards. However, some of them are now criticising the way that Rhodes exploited/plundered Africa to produce his wealth. Given that these scholarships, funded by what some might describe as ‘dirty money’, are awarded to people with above-average intellectual abilities who could easily have examined Rhodes’ history, I find it strange that the recipients did not question the morality of the origins of what was being offered to them before receiving and spending it. Some recipients justify accepting the scholarships by saying it is a way that Rhodes’ debt to Africa can be partially repaid. Maybe, but would you feel comfortable if, say, the infamous Kray Twins or Al Capone offered to use some of their ill-gotten gains to fund your education? Would you justify accepting their money by saying that although they killed people and committed crimes like theft, it was good that they were using someone else’s wealth to repay their debt to society? Few people would justify erecting statues to either the Kray Twins or Al Capone.
Unlike Capone and the Krays, Rhodes was not breaking any British law when he was plundering Africa to glorify the British Empire and line his own pockets. From the viewpoint of the great majority of ‘white’ British people, his contemporaries, Rhodes was doing a good job during his lifetime for the Empire and his native land, Great Britain. Statues were erected in his memory by those who had benefitted from his life’s work. Those people were mostly, if not all, ‘white’ people. The monuments were put up during an era when racial prejudice went unquestioned and people ‘of colour’ lacked any public influence.
Times have changed. The racial situation, the rights of ‘people of colour’, is also changing, albeit too slowly. Recent and not so recent events across the Atlantic in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” have justifiably heightened popular consciousness and questioning of the worthiness of those, like Rhodes, whose statues adorn our lands.
So as Vladimir Ilych Lenin, discredited by some, and many of whose statues have been toppled, asked in 1902:
“What is to be done?”
What is to be done with the statues of celebrated people with flaws in their personalities? One could pull them down as has been the case with many statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a slave owner in Bristol. Apart from temporarily assuaging the temper of an assembly of aggrieved folk, the toppling or destruction of a statue might have few or no lasting beneficial effects.
It would be far better to remove the statues from positions of great public prominence to more discreet locations (maybe to museums) and to label their plinths with inscriptions that summarise the subjects’ both good and bad actions. Also, it would be a good idea to educate children and other students to understand that just as there are two competing teams in a football match, there are two sides to a person’s personality: a good one and a bad one. It is the balance of these that needs to be judged. In the case of Rhodes, the bad wins, but in the case of, say Edward Jenner (of smallpox vaccination fame), whose statue can be found in Hyde Park, his good features easily predominate.
Finally, destruction of statues and monuments worries me because they are part of remembering. If we know that a monument commemorates something that should not be repeated, such as slavery, let it remain, suitably labelled, so that we do not run the risk of unpleasant aspects of history repeating themselves. For as the philosopher George Santana (1863-1952) wrote in 1906:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
IT IS ALWAYS PLEASING to read about a subject that is new to me. A friend gave me a copy of “Fall of the Double Eagle” by John Schindler. It deals with the conflict between Austria Hungary (‘AH’) and its enemies Russia and Serbia at the beginning of WW1.
Schindler’s book is clearly written and engaging. It reveals a tale of truly lethal incompetence, that of the military leaders of AH during their pointless attacks on Galicia and Serbia. These were confrontations whose aim appeared to be to satisfy the egos of the arrogant leaders of AH’s military.
With the exception of skilful use of radio interception of Russian signals, everything else that the leaders of AH’s military laid their hands on led to the unnecessary deaths and injuries of a horrendously large number of brave and loyal soldiers. These soldiers, drawn from all of the numerous ethnic groups in the AH Empire, were united in their loyalty to their Habsburg rulers and very brave in battle. However, the incompetence of their superiors rendered their bravery pointless and in most cases their actions resembled those of lemmings running towards a lethal ending.
Despite knowledge of recent examples of modern warfare, the Anglo-Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the AH high command made little or no attempt to update military equipment and tactics/strategies. Schindler describes this well, and also the unwillingness of the AH government to invest money on bringing the military up to date. Consequently, when the AH armies came into conflict with the Russians and Serbians, courage and bravery were futile in the face of superior artillery and tactics.
What Schindler describes brilliantly in his book is a tragic epic of incompetence. The military leaders of AH should have had, but did not appear to have had, very bad consciences in the light of the number of fatalities caused by their negligence.
Reading Schindler’s fascinating compendium of official arrogance, refusing to learn from experience, and lack of foresight, during the first years of WW1, made me have worrying thoughts about what is going on around us today during the current pandemic.
I recommend Schindler’s book to anyone interested in WW1 and/or the importance of competent planning by governments.
PS: The inclusion of some maps might have been helpful to assist the reader in following the exciting descriptions of some of the campaigns described.
SINCE THE IMPOSITION OF ‘LOCKDOWN’ in the UK, use of public transport has been discouraged, as has wandering too far from home when taking exercise. While not exactly ‘confined to barracks’, the distance that we have been allowed to move away from home has been limited, more or less to the amount of distance that we can manage to walk (or, not in my case, cycle) comfortably, without exhausting ourselves. This meant that for many weeks we have been walking around our local area. A friend of ours in Dublin told us, half-jokingly, that during the Irish lockdown, he felt that he had got to know every blade of grass in his neighbourhood. I understood what he was saying. For me, greater familiarity with our immediate locality has not bred contempt for it, but the opposite. We have been walking along small streets we never knew existed and discovering interesting details in those thoroughfares that we thought we knew so well.
I have been walking along Sheffield Terrace, which leads off Kensington Church Street, two or three times a week for the last 25 years, yet it was only yesterday that I noticed a small square metal plate on the wall of a house in that thoroughfare. It recorded the fact that the author GK Chesterton was born in that house on the 29th of May 1874. A few doors away on the same street, there is a much larger and far more obvious plaque commemorating that the founder of the Church Army, Prebendary Wilson Carlile (1847-1942) had lived there. I had often noticed this memorial, but I had never noticed the far more discreet memorial to Chesterton, which looks like a simple grey wall tile from a distance.
Sheffield Terrace leads to the northern end of Hornton Street, which is marked on 19th century Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Campden House Road’. Hornton Street leads south and downhill towards High Street Kensington. Once again, this is a street along which I have walked several times a week over a period of at least 25 years. Various roads lead off Hornton Street. The short Pitt Street is one of these. On the corner of Pitt and Hornton Streets, there is a faded rectangular sign that I have always assumed carried the words ‘Hornton Street’. However, I had not looked at it closely enough until yesterday.
I do not know what made me examine the faded sign closely, but I am glad that I did. Some of the letters on it have disappeared. The following are just about visible, and even more so on enhanced digital photographs: H, O, R, N, …, D, G, E. The last three letters are not ‘E, E, T’, which you would expect to see if the sign had read ‘Hornton Street’. I wondered if the sign had originally read ‘Hornton Lodge’. I went home and searched for ‘“Hornton Lodge” Kensington’ on Google.
One of the most useful things that came up amongst the Google search results was an offer on eBay for two pages of the issue of “Country Life” magazine, dated 21st of March 1968. These pages contain an article about Hornton Lodge on Pitt Street. The article bore the title “Serene Vision of a Modern Interior”. It describes the interior of a house built in 1948 on a bomb site and owned by Mr and Mrs James Melvin. The house, a long rectangular building, was called Hornton Lodge. The fading sign is all that remains of the house described in the magazine. Currently, builders are erecting a new building on the part of the plot nearest to the corner where the sign can be found. This new construction is, according to a planning application submitted in December 2019 by Nash Baker Architects, to replace an:
“… early post war semi-detached property … constructed circa 1948-49, on the site of a former villa known as ‘Hornton Lodge’. The architect/owner, James Melvin, was a partner in major architectural firm: Gollins Melvin Ward Partnership. However, at the time it was constructed, the firm was in its infancy, and this project was a modest family home for a young architect and his family; designed with modernist intentions during a time of austerity.”
I found references to a ‘Red House’, also referred to in at least one item, maybe erroneously, as ‘Hornton Lodge’. The Red House was built by Stephen Bird in 1835. It was also known as ‘Hornton Villa’. This was not the property on Pitt Street demolished by a bomb in WW2 because it stood across Hornton Street opposite the western end of Holland Street, which is south of Pitt Street. A future president of the USA, Herbert Hoover, lived at that address between 1907 and 1918. Hornton Villa, The Red House, was demolished in in the 1970s, and on its site stands the architecturally undistinguished Customer Service Centre of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
There is more evidence of a Hornton Lodge, quite distinct from the Hornton Villa, mentioned above. Joseph Foster’s “Men-at-the-bar : a biographical hand-list of the members of the various Inns of Court, including Her Majesty’s judges, etc.” (published in 1885) published the address of a barrister Richard E Webster (1842-1915; called to the Bar in 1868), Lord Alverstone, as “Hornton Lodge, Pitt Street, Kensington W”. He became Attorney General between 1885 and 1886. Even earlier than that, “Allens West London Street Directory” (published in 1868) lists a Theodore Aston as living at Hornton Lodge.
Close examination of a sign that I have passed and seen many thousands of times, assuming it bore a simple faded street name, has revealed that I had never looked at it carefully enough before. The constriction of my field of activities to a small part of London has, to my surprise, heightened my powers of observation rather than blunted them, which could have easily happened when visiting the same locality repetitively.
Soon, the faded sign on the corner of Pitt Street will either be removed or become even more illegible. I am glad I noticed its clue to the past before either of those things happen.
Last year, I published a book about an almost forgotten but important aspect of Indian history that began to interest me after visiting an almost completely unknown memorial in western India (Kutch, to be more precise).
Since then, I have shown the book to various knowledgeable readers and also revisited the memorial.
Those who have read the book have made valuable suggestions on how to improve it, including changing the title so that its subject matter is far more obvious to a potential reader, adding a preface and a time-line, and re-ordering the subject matter.
When I re-visited the memorial in Kutch, I met people, who showed me things I had not seen or even been aware of on my first visit. They also gave me new information. In addition, I have done further reading of source material, some of which I had not known about earlier. In addition, I have obtained photographic images that I did not possess before.
I felt that since I published my original text, a new expanded and, I hope, much improved version was necessary. My ideas needed a renaissance, so to speak.
I am now awaiting a proof of my new book, and will keep you informed of developments.
AFTER AN EXCITING DAY exploring Gopipura, an old part of Surat where my wife’s father’s family lived until over 100 years ago, we spent the following day seeing some of the better known historic sights of the city.
The castle on the bank of the River Tapi was built by the Muslim Tughlaq dynasty to defend Surat against attacks by the Bhils. It was later modified by the Mughals, the Dutch, and then the British.
Until the River Tapi silted up, Surat was an important international port city with a very active involvement in import/export activity. The silting up and the British acquisition of what became Bombay led to a decline in Surat’s prosperity. Over the years, its castle gradually fell into great disrepair.
Now, the castle is being painstakingly repaired. About half of it is currently open to visitors. The castle is being reconstructed using materials and techniques that archaeologists have discovered whilst investigating what has been left of the original structure. The result is a brand new version of what was most probably how the castle was before it began to disintegrate.
The rooms inside the castle recreate their original appearanc as deduced from archaeological examination. The rooms house a beautifully displayed collection of items portraying the history of Surat. A magnificent job has been done.
A man at the ticket booth of the castle reccomended downloading an app called “Surat Heritage Walk”, which is a very useful and well designed guide to the historical landmarks of the city.
After viewing the castle from a bridge that crosses the Tapi, which is how trading vessels would have seen it in days of yore, we visited the Christ Church (Church of North India) built in 1824. This simply decorated church has memorials to several Victorians, whi died in Surat.
We drove past the Mughal Sarai constructed in the reign of Shah Jehan. This large building was a hostel where pilgrims travelling between Surat and Mecca could be accommodated. Shah Jehan was first to encourage pilgrims going to Mecca to sail from Surat rather than travel overland or to embark on ships from Persian ports.
The Khudawan Khan Rojo, a mausoleum built in the mid 16th century, is newer than most of the medieval mosques that survive in Ahmedabad but, like them, it is rich in features adopted from Hindu and Jain temple design. The mausoleum contains the grave of its builder, Khudawan Khan, a military commander who was killed while fighting the Portuguese in about 1559/60.
The mausoleum described above is beautiful and impressive, but not ‘over the top’. The mausoleums in the Dutch, Armenian, and English cemeteries, which are close to each other and surrounded by crowded Muslim neighbourhoods, have to be seen to be believed. Many of the mausoleums are flamboyant structures with domes and details suggestive of both the art of India and the orient and also the Greek and Roman empires. These fantastic final resting places of Europeans who became rich in Surat are curiously exotic and ridiculous at the same time. The exuberance of the funerary architecture exceeds that which I have seen in European cemeteries in Calcutta and Fort Cochin. These monuments should not be missed by visitors to Surat.
As we drove between the places described above, we passed numerous old buildings, often in bad states of repair but rich in finely crafted decorative features.
After our tour, we lunched at Shukan, a restaurant that serves vegetarian thalis. As a meat eater I am not usually keen on vegetarian food, but what we were served at Shukan was much to my taste. The chef is a Rajasthani ‘mahraj’ (usually a Brahmin chef). His food was light but well flavoured. Unlike chefs cooking in the Surat traditional way, he used garlic, onions, and crushed peanuts. Yet, his dishes were not sugary as we found in other parts of Gujarat, notably in Ahmedabad and Saurashtra.
Although amongst the larger cities I have visited in Gujarat, Surat has fewer major tourist attractions than others (such as Ahmedabad, Baroda, Junagadh, and Bhuj). However, it has a visually exciting urban texture and vibrancy. The two days we allotted to our first visit to Surat was not long enough. We hope to return for longer in the future.
The City of London, the traditional business district of London that stands on the site of the old walled London of Roman and mediaeval times, is full of delightful surprises. Although much of the area was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and the aerial bombing in the 1940s, what has persisted to a remarkable through the ages is the mediaeval street layout.
Another charming feature are the narrow alleyways that pass between or even through buildings. Step through some of these, and suddenly you find yourself stepping back into history.
Recently, we ‘discovered’ Ball Court, which leads south from Cornhill just a few yards west of the Church of St Michaels Cornhill. A narrow alley leads beneath a building to a wider courtyard open to the sky. Two sides of this rectangular space are occupied by Simpsons Tavern, a pub (and chop house) established in 1757. Ball Court itself is even older than the tavern, appearing on a map dated 1746.
I can not tell you why Ball Court has that name, but I feel sure that there must have been a good reason, but it had no name on the 1746 map. In any case, when in London, leave the main streets, explore, and enjoy!
Recently, I was walking along the South Bank close to London’s National Theatre when I saw two friends approaching each other. One said to the other:
The other replied:
“I am a tourist everyday.”
This got me thinking that I am also a tourist every day. Since I retired in September 2017, my time is more or less my own. However, I do not sit at home bemoaning the fact that I have no work to do. On the contrary, I love my freedom to do what I wish.
Almost every day, when not travelling abroad or to some other part of the UK, I visit somewhere in London. It may be local or more distant, it does not matter where. Wherever I go, I discover something new, something that either did not exist before because it is newly built or opened or something that has been around for ages, which I have never noticed before.
London is so rich in experiences and sights that even a person like me, who has lived there for over 60 years, can always find novelty when stepping out of the house. Every time I leave home, I enjoy and appreciate London. Every day, I become a tourist in my own city.