Dusty no more: a town on the Thames

HENLEY-ON-THAMES is located at the Oxford end of a bridge across the River Thames, which separates the county of Oxfordshire from its neighbour Berkshire. Located on the old main road between London and Oxford, it retains much ‘olde-worlde’ charm. Its streets are lined with many buildings that were constructed in the 18th century and before. Some of these used to be coaching inns but are no longer. However, some of the hostelries that served wayfarers in times long ago are still serving thirsty and hungry customers today, for example: The Red Lion, where William III might have visited, now an upmarket restaurant; and The Catherine Wheel, now a branch of the Wetherspoons company. On a recent visit in April 2022, we enjoyed superb coffee at Pavilion on The Market Place, close to the Town Hall.

Beer lovers will not need reminding that Henley is the home of Brakspear & Sons, the brewery company. Founded in Henley in 1722, beer was brewed in the town since then, although some of the comapany’s products are now brewed elsewhere. Many of the brewery’s older buildings, now converted for new purposes, can be seen alongside New Street. The company’s offices are now located on Bull Courtyard off Bell Street.

The stone bridge across the river was built in 1788. It is the finishing place of the annual Henley Royal Regatta held in summer, ever since its inception in 1839. Near the bridge, stands Henley’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which has a 16th century tower. The exterior walls of the southeast corner of the church is an eye-catching chequerboard of alternating masonry and flint squares. The church’s interior has been much modified by the Victorians. The churchyard north of the church is surrounded mainly by almshouses. Immediately next to the north side of the church stands a two-storied, half-timbered building, the Chantry House, some of whose beams come from trees felled in 1461 (according to scientific dating methods). Between 1552 and 1778, this edifice housed a school. Since 1923, it has housed the Parish Rooms.

The churchyard is filled with many gravestones. One of them immediately attracts the visitor as it is surrounded by generous amounts of fresh flowers. It is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who died in Henley. In the 1990s, Dusty lived by the Thames at Hurley near Henley. While in the area, she suffered from several bouts of breast cancer, the cause of her demise. Her funeral at St Mary’s in Henley was attended by many of her fans and leading lights in the British popular music scene including Elvis Costello, Lulu and the Pet Shop Boys. According to her wishes, Dusty was cremated, and some of her ashes were scattered in Henley and the rest in Ireland.

Dusty was not the only music celebrity to have lived in Henley. A man we met outside his house in the town reminded us that the Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001) had also lived in the town. He also mentioned that Henley’s former MP, the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had attended meetings in his home, and that he could tell us a thing or two … but he did not!

Remembered with yellow flowers

THE NORTH FLOWER Walk in Kensington Gardens runs east from the Italian Gardens. It is both close to, and parallel to, Bayswater Road. About 280 yards west of the Italian Gardens, there is a small, low rectangular memorial stone in a flower bed next to the North Flower Walk. In springtime, a large bush behind it bursts into yellow flowers. It is a forsythia plant.

The North Flower Walk used to be a part of what was once the ‘berceau’ or ‘walk of shade’. According to a document published on the Royal Parks website, this was:

“… a delicious and appealing place to stroll for the monarch on the way to … the site of the Bayswater ‘Breakfasting House’…”

Today, the Walk is filled with walkers, their children, their dogs, joggers, and the occasional cyclists.

The memorial stone celebrates the botanist and horticulturalist William Forsyth (1737-1804). A founding member of The Royal Horticultural Society (founded 1804), he was also the Curator of The Chelsea Physic Garden (from 1771) and Superintendent of various royal gardens including those of Kensington Palace (from 1784). The plant genus Forsythia, a member of the olive family (Oleaceae), was named in his honour.

A poet in Hampstead and Rome

THE SHORT-LIVED POET, John Keats (1795-1821) resided briefly in Hampstead in what is now called Keats House. In my new book, “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” *, Keats:

“… took a great liking to Hampstead and settled there in 1817. He lived in Wentworth House, which was later renamed ‘Keats House’. The house in Keats Grove was built in about 1815 and divided in two separate dwellings. One half was occupied by Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842), a poet and friend of Leigh Hunt and the other half by Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789–1864), a literary associate of Hunt and a visitor to his home in the Vale of Health. Keats became Brown’s lodger. This was after Keats had visited his neighbour Dilke, with whom he became acquainted following an introduction by the poet and playwright John Hamilton Reynolds (1784-1852), who was part of Leigh Hunt’s circle of friends.”

Keats remained in Hampstead until 1820, when, ailing, he left for Italy to try to improve his health. Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived in Hampstead’s Vale of Health, noted in his autobiography that Keats died in Rome and was buried in the English Protestant cemetery near the monument to Gaius Cestius. Amongst his graveside mourners was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who also had spent time in Hampstead.

Had Keats not travelled to Italy, he would have probably died in Hampstead. If that had been the case, it would have been likely that he would have been buried in the graveyard of St John’s, Hampstead’s parish church on Church Row, where the artist John Constable rests in peace.

Bust of Keats in St Johns, Hampstead

Within the church there is a memorial to Keats, a bust, dated 1894, within 100 years of the poet’s birth. A gift from admirers of Keats in the USA, it was the first memorial to Keats in England. The story of the bust is related on the church’s website (https://hampsteadparishchurch.org.uk/data/keats_bust.php) as follows:

“Anne Whitney, a Boston sculptor (1821-1915) carved her original bust of Keats in 1873. The marble bust was inscribed Keats and not signed. It was exhibited the same year at Doll and Richards, Boston. It was owned by the artist until 1915 when it was bequeathed to Fred Holland Day. Day exhibited it at Boston Public Library in the loan exhibition of his Keats memorabilia in 1921 to mark the centenary of the poet’s death. The Keats bust was given by Fred Holland Day to Keats House and Museum shortly before he died, and its arrival was acknowledged by Fred Edgcumbe the curator of Keats House and Museum on 2 November 1933, the day of Day’s death. The marble replica of the bust inscribed KEATS AW (monogram) 1883 was carved by Anne Whitney in 1883. It was exhibited by F. Eastman Chase, Boston, and presented by Americans, as the first memorial to Keats on English soil, to Hampstead Parish Church on 16 July 1894. The bust remained in position until March 1992 when it was stolen. It was seen by Judith Bingham, the composer, when it was about to be auctioned at Finchley in May 1992. It failed to reach its reserve, Judith Bingham recognised its identity and it was returned to the Parish Church.”

The Keats bust is near the Lady Chapel, in which I saw a remarkable painting by Donald Chisholm Towner (1903-1985), who lived in Hampstead, in Church Row from 1937 until his death. The church’s guidebook revealed:

“The Altar Piece in the chapel was painted by Donald Towner of Church Row, in memory of his mother. True to the medieval tradition Towner used a local resident as the model for Mary, his nephew for John and his own mirror image for Christ.”

What is remarkable is that the three figures are depicted standing in Church Row. St John’s church can be seen in the background.

Apart from the bust and the painting, the church is well worth visiting to see its lovely architecture and to enjoy its peaceful atmosphere.

*My book is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92

They had no choice

ARMISTICE DAY IS celebrated annually on the 11th of November, the day that fighting came to an end in WW1. The day is to celebrate and:

“…remember all those who gave their lives in service to their country since 1914.” (https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/get-involved/remembrance/about-remembrance/armistice-day). It was not only humans who sacrificed their lives, either willingly or less willingly, but also animals, who had been employed in warfare. A monument on a wide traffic island in London’s Park Lane was constructed to remember these four-legged creatures who lost their lives prematurely during battles from which they were unlikely to gain any benefit.

Erected by The Animals in War Memorial Fund (www.animalsinwar.org.uk/) and unveiled in 2004, this dramatic monument consists of a semi-circular Portland stone wall with a gap near its centre. Two bronze horses laden with military equipment are depicted walking towards the gap. and beyond the gap, a bronze sculpture of a running dog can be seen. The western part of the concave side of the wall has bas-reliefs depicting, horses, elephants, and camels. The eastern side of the concavity bears several inscriptions including one with the words “They had no choice”. The convex surface of the wall bears stylised silhouettes of horses. The monument was designed by David Backhouse and was inspired by the book “Animals in War” by Jilly Cooper.

“They had no choice” is a poignantly appropriate sentence on a memorial to creatures who were taken into fields of battle innocent of their likely fate. Seeing this moving monument made me think that these same four words could easily be applied to the numerous Indian participants in WW1 and WW2 who were sent to Europe as ‘volunteers’ innocent of their horrendous destination by their rulers in the Princely States of India, who wished to please the British, whom they served. Had these unfortunate servicemen known what they were about to face, some of them might have objected. That option was not one that would ever been open to the slaughtered animals commemorated on Park Lane.

Don’t be fooled by Jack the rip-off

I USED TO PARK our car in Kensington’s elegant Edwards Square when going to work at my dental surgery in West Kensington. From the square, either I walked to work, or I caught a number 28 bus. When I felt lazy, I used the bus. The nearest stop to Edwards Square is outside a row of three Iranian food shops and their neighbour, the Apadana Iranian restaurant, which is a pleasant place to enjoy Persian cuisine. While waiting for the bus, I used to stare idly at the Persian shops with their outdoor stalls where fruits, especially piles of pomegranates, are displayed.

Today, more than four years since I retired and even longer since I last stood at the bus stop, we visited the Iranian stores to buy a bunch of fresh tarragon. While my wife was making the purchase, once again I stared idly at the colourful shops, some of whose windows are filled with stacks of tins of Iranian caviar from the Caspian Sea. It was then I noticed something I am sure I have never seen before.

What I saw was a newish circular blue commemorative plaque on the wall between one of the shops and Apadana. The plaque reads as follows:

“Kensington & Chelsea. JACK THE RIPPER 1891-1899. Also known as Dr SSA Hasbro. Surgeon & Restauranteur LIVED HERE”

At first sight, this looks like one of many commemorative circular blue plaques, which can be found all over London. On closer examination, there are several things that are worrying. Rarely, if at all, do these blue plaques in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea bear the words “Kensington & Chelsea”. Often, they bear the words “English Heritage” or “Greater London Council” (or one of its predecessors: GLC or LCC).  Another problem is the dates given. Do they refer to the period that Dr SSA Hasbro lived in this spot, or what? The next problem is that the true identity of Jack the Ripper has never been determined. As for Dr SSA Hasbro, all references to this name on Google direct one to the plaque under discussion, including an article by Lucy Elliott.

Ms Elliott wrote an article about blue plaques in “The Kensington Magazine” (September 2020 issue). With regard to the plaque for Dr SSA Hasbro above the Iranian establishments in High Street Kensington, she wrote:

“It is not known when this suddenly appeared but certainly gives visitors to the area, pause for thought (and quite enough consternation for the residents too). Definitely a fake.”

She is most probably right.

It is a little bit worrying is that the so-called Jack the Ripper, who is commemorated on this misleading sign, is said to have been a restauranteur and the plaque is almost directly above the Apadana restaurant.

A viaduct in Cornwall and a man who died for his country

THE SMALL CORNISH village of Luxulyan has a fine old parish church, which is dedicated to Saints Ciricius and Julitta, both of whom are new to me. This edifice was built in the 15th century and restored in the 19th (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1158407). The northern aisle of the church was filled with used books for sale when we visited it.  A weathered Cornish cross stands close to the west end of the church. During the 19th century, this was brought to its present location from Three Stiles (near Consence). The church and its churchyard, along with the tiny village are charming, but what caught my eye and raised my curiosity was a building bearing the name ‘Captain TC Agar-Robartes Memorial.’

Treffry Viaduct near Luxulyan in Cornwall

The name Agar-Robartes intrigued me. My interest in it increased when I saw a small stone memorial near the River Fowey in Lostwithiel. It bore the words:

“Royal British Legion, Lostwithiel Branch, 1932-1997. Opened by Lady Robartes.”

Things became clearer after visiting the magnificent Lanhydrock House, originally constructed in the 17th century, and reconstructed quite faithfully after a huge fire in 1881. The house was created by John Robartes (1606-1685), 2nd Baron Robartes of Truro, 1st Viscount of Bodmin, and 1st Earl of Radnor. One of his many descendants, Anna Maria Hunt (1771-1861) married Charles Bagenal-Agar (1769-1811). One of their three sons, Thomas James Agar-Robartes (1808-1882), assumed the surname ‘Robartes’ in 1822 and tacked it on to his Agar surname. One of his ten grandchildren was Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes (1880-1915), the ‘TCR Agar-Robartes’, whose name is on the building in Luxulyan.

Thomas was educated at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford. He was elected to represent the South-East Cornwall constituency as its MP in 1906. However, he was unseated a month after the election because of infringing some electoral regulations. He had been found guilty of bribery and other offences. Nevertheless, he was re-elected in 1908. His election campaign was based on support of free trade and reform of temperance laws. In August 1914, Thomas signed up as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Bucks Hussars, and then in 1915, wanting to see action on the battlefront, he left for France as an officer in the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. In June 1915, he was promoted to become a captain. During the Battle of Loos in September 1915, he was shot in no-mans-land and never recovered.

The building, a working man’s institute and reading room in Luxulyan, which bears Thomas’s name, was first conceived in 1913, but only began to be used as such in 1924, when the edifice was completed. Naming it after Thomas is explained on a website page about the building (www.luxulyanpc.co.uk/Luxulyan_Memorial_Institute_32056.aspx):
“ Tragically, as we know, young Tommy Robartes of Lanhydrock died after receiving wounds rescuing a comrade from one of those fields of battle. He had been well known and liked in the village, often coming to visit, accompanying the land agent dealing with tenants. The village picked up its interrupted thoughts on the Institute and Reading Room idea; whether the idea of a Memorial to Tommy, or just asking the Lanhydrock estate for a piece of land came first, is not clear, but it was agreed that a piece of land from the estate for a Memorial Institute was acceptable to all.”

Having already offered £50 towards building the Memorial institute, Dr Nathaniel T Coulson then offered a further £100 on condition that Thomas Agar-Robartes’s name was on the hall. Dr Coulson, who is described in the website, interested me because of his profession:

“He was born in Penzance in April 1853, abandoned by his drunken father at the age of 10 years and bound over to the farmer at Penquite Farm, Lostwithiel. He then spent some years in the British Navy and first arrived in San Francisco in 1875. For a while he worked for a stock-broking firm and wrote for several daily newspapers. In 1884 at the age of 30, he became a student at the dental department of the University of California, where he graduated after two years, receiving his degree as a Doctor of Dental Surgery. He was a member of several fraternal organisations, and generous with donations to many worthy causes. Among others in England, he helped finance the establishment of Coulson Park, Lostwithiel, in 1907. He travelled back here on several occasions, also visiting India after his retirement…”

So, that explains the hall that we saw in Luxulyan. I am not at all sure which ‘Lady Robartes’ is the one whose name appears on the British Legion monument in Lostwithiel, which bears the words “Opened by Lady Robartes”. If a Lady Robartes opened the branch in 1932, who was she? Only one of Thomas’s brothers married, Arthur (1887-1974). His wife, Patience Mary Basset, whom he married in 1920 might have been the ‘Lady Robartes’. Alternatively, she might have been one of Thomas’s sisters: Mary Vere (1879-1946) or Julia (1880-1969) or Edith (1888-1965) or Constance (1890-1936). If on the other hand the words refer to the inauguration of the monument in 1997, then I cannot offer any suggestions.

Luxulyan is worth visiting not only to see the things I have already mentioned, but also the impressive, massive, granite combined aqueduct and viaduct near to the village. It carries water and a railway track over the River Par. Known as the Treffry Viaduct, it was completed in 1844 and designed by the engineer and mining entrepreneur Joseph Treffry (1782-1850).

Until we visited Luxulyan, I had never heard of the Agar-Robartes family. Once again, visiting Cornwall has resulted in finding places and persons of great interest. The more I see, the more I want to know.  

Ely to India and back

AT THE CORNER OF Lynn Road and St Marys Street in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire, there is a shop selling used books and an assortment of ‘objets’, all in delightful disorder. This shop, with a fine view of the cathedral, ‘Cloisters’ by name, is across the road from The Lamb pub. Apart from being a lovely shop with an informative, genial owner, Barry Lonsdale, it was once home to an interesting but lesser-known military personality. His story is detailed by a blog writer named Michael Taylor (https://www.blogger.com/profile/12276420943738372719) and I have summarised it below.  

 Billett Genn (1827-1917) was a son of Billett Genn (senior), who died in 1872, and Margaret (née Austin (http://ginn-hertfordshire.blogspot.com/2014/06/). It is probable that they lived in the house that now contains the Cloisters shop. In 1841, young Billett became an indentured apprentice seaman, a seven-year contract. For reasons unknown, Billett returned to England before his seven-year term was completed. In 1846, he signed up as a trooper in the 3rd Kings Own Light Dragoons, another seven-year contract. The Dragoons had been stationed in India for several years, arriving there in 1837 (https://amp.blog.shops-net.com/10388944/1/3rd-the-kings-own-hussars.html) for the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Billett arrived in India in time to become actively involved in fighting against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign of 1848/49. Billett took part in various engagements including the Battle of Chillianwala in January 1849. This battle was one of the bloodiest during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chillianwala), and one in which both the Sikhs and the East India Company claimed victory.

Genn was discharged and sent back to London in 1853, having been awarded the Punjab Campaign Medal. He returned to Ely where he became a schoolteacher in the city’s Needham School for poor boys. In 1867, he married Victoria Haylock. They produced seven children. Billett and Margaret lived at number 1 Lynn Road, which now contains the Cloisters shop. Margaret died in 1913 and Billett four years later. He was the last member of a family that had lived in Ely continuously for over 300 years. He was given a full military funeral.

Billett Genn was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the Punjab Campaign (www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/the-story-of-remarkable-ely-man-billett-genn-is-retold-4887142). An unobtrusive plaque affixed to the wall of the shop commemorates this fact. We had come to Ely mainly to see its truly remarkable cathedral, which surpassed all expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this city’s far from well-known connection with distant Punjab.

PS: The Genn family also owned The Lamb pub at some time

Dame Jane lies stone cold in the church

HER HEAD RESTS ON her stone-cold right hand with her elbow on a carved alabaster cushion. Her left hand is held lightly and limply against her left breast. She is a carved alabaster effigy of Dame Jane Cotton (1630-1692), widow of Sir John Cotton of Landwade (1615-1689). This sculpture of Jane Cotton lies against the north wall of the chancel of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the village of Madingley, close to Cambridge. The church is open until 4pm most days and we got there by 3.45 pm a few days ago in April 2021. So, we were able to have a good look at the interior of this building whose construction commenced in the late 13th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1127740).

Jane Cotton, who reclines close to the high altar, was the daughter and sole heir of Edward Hinde (c1598-1631) of the Parish of Madingley. Edward lived at Madingley Hall (www.thepeerage.com/p34969.htm#i349687), which is a few yards uphill from the church. Sir John Cotton did well by marrying Jane because by doing so, he acquired the manor of Madingley.

Sir John Hinde (or ‘Hynde’; c1480-1550; see: http://www.geni.com/people/Sir-John-Hynde-MP/6000000090158312935), Serjeant-at-Law and Member of Parliament, had been buying land at Madingley since the 1520s (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp166-171). In 1544, the manor of Madingley, which had been held by several trustees for about 100 years, was bestowed on him by law. He commissioned the building of the lovely Madingley Hall, which was constructed between 1543 and 1547. Edward Hinde, Jane Cotton’s father, was a grandson of Sir John Hinde.

Sir John left Madingley to his son Francis, who left it to his son William, who married a widow, Elizabeth. When William died childless in 1606, his widow Elizabeth took over all of the Hinde estates. She remarried and leased Madingley Hall to Edward, who was son of William Hinde’s brother Edward (died 1633).

Jane’s father Edward (died 1633) settled his lands on his eldest son Anthony, who died before him, fighting in Denmark, in 1612, when Denmark was fighting Sweden for control of part of Norway. Anne, Anthony’s widow, ‘sold’ her interests in the lands to her father-in-law Edward (died 1633). Anne and Anthony had a son Edward, to whom Anthony’s father (Edward, died 1633) had left all his lands, but the grandson, Edward, died in an accident in 1631. Jane Hinde then became the heir to her father’s lands. Had Anthony and his son not pre-deceased Jane’s father, she would not have come into possession of the Hinde’s estates, and neither would have they come into the hands of Sir John Cotton. The lands at Madingley remained in the Cotton family until the beginning of the 20th century.

Sir John, husband of Jane, was buried with his ancestors at Landwade in eastern Cambridgeshire. His daughter Jane is interred in the church at Madingley. Her monument stands near the northwest corner of the nave. She is depicted kneeling with a small book in her left hand. Jane was a spinster. She died in 1707. Not far from her monument stands a lovely carved stone font. Covered with geometric decoration, this was made in the 12th century and probably stood in an earlier version of the church. Nearby, the internal walls of the bell tower are decorated with damaged sculptures made of wood. They are:

“… probably the survivors of the cherubim, perhaps on the nave roof, whose removal William Dowsing ordered in 1644.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp173-176)

Although there is much to enjoy in the church at Madingley, it was Lady Jane Cotton’s reclining effigy that most sparked my curiosity. Looking into what is known of Jane’s heritage has revealed a little bit about the complexities faced by the ‘landed gentry’ when they considered who was to inherit their land.

The families mentioned are what some might describe, often expressing a sense of deference, as ‘old families’. What this means is that the family has sufficient documentary information to trace it back, maybe over many centuries, for many generations.  Well, if you think about it ‘old families’ are no different from other families because all of them must go back an awfully long way in history, even if the documentary evidence no longer exists.

Philosopher’s stone and UFOs

A SCULPTED STONE stands in a small garden on the north side of All Saints Church in London’s Notting Hill. We have walked past it often during the various ‘lockdowns’ and over many years before these were deemed necessary, always remarking on its satisfying appearance but without questioning its significance. Yesterday, the 8th of March 2021, we entered the garden and examined the abstract stone artwork. It stands on a circular stone base inscribed with the words we had never noticed before:

“JOHN MICHELL 1933 _ 2009 WRITER GEOMETER NATURAL PHILOSOPHER”

By chance, the church was open, and we entered. There, we met one of its clerics and asked him whether the word ‘geometer’ meant anything to him. Like us, he had no idea about that or about Mitchell. My curiosity was aroused. There is plenty about John Michell on the Internet, but to a simple-minded chap like me, it is mostly rather weird, but that will not prevent me having a stab at trying to unravel why he was worth commemorating with a stone in Notting Hill.

Michell’s early life was conventional (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell): educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, where studied languages but missed examinations by oversleeping; trained as a Russian interpreter for the Royal Navy; painted and exhibited his works; and worked briefly as an estate agent and chartered surveyor.  In 1966, by which time he had moved into one of the properties he managed in Notting Hill, its basement became the London Free School, an alternative community action education project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Free_School). Around this time, Michell began publishing works on unidentified flying objects (‘UFOs’) and many other unexplained phenomena. His first book, “The Flying Saucer Vision”, published in 1967, was probably:

“… “the catalyst and helmsman” for the growing interest in UFOs among the hippie sector of the counter-culture.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Michell_(writer)).

This work introduced links between UFOs and ley lines, proposed by Alfred Watkins, (1855-1935), which some believe criss-cross the countryside and act as markers for extra-terrestrial spacecraft crewed by aliens who assisted human society early in the history of mankind. Along with two subsequent books, notably his “The View over Atlantis”, and other publications, Michell became an influential figure who believed in the:

“ “sacred geometry” of the Great Pyramid. Alfred Watkins’s ‘The Old Straight Track’ had come up with the concept of ley lines in 1925. John took it much further, believing that these alignments of traditional sites were a kind of feng shui of the landscape. They made up a sort of Druids’ transport system, he said, which harnessed a mysterious power that whisked large rocks across the countryside.” (www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/06/john-michell-obituary)

As time went on, Michell delved deeper and deeper into phenomena like these. His knowledge of the hidden forces was used to help design the pyramid stage used at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. It was because of him that Glastonbury an epicentre of New Age ideas and events (www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html).

Unfamiliar as many of his ideas and theories are Michell was a serious thinker:

“His approach uniquely combined the thought of Plato and of Charles Fort. Blending scholarship and deep intuition, John often returned to his favourite subjects: Platonic idealism, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, leys and alignments, megaliths, astro-archaeology, strange phenomena, simulacra, crop circles, UFOs, the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and the nature of human belief.” (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell)

You have heard of Plato, but Charles Fort (1874-1932) might be less familiar. This self-taught American researcher and writer, a contrarian, specialised in discovering and considering the many examples of phenomena that defied explanation by conventional (accepted) scientific methods and theories. When Michel wrote an introduction to one of Fort’s books, “Lo!”, he remarked:

“Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.” (quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort).

Not being inclined to philosophy, it would be unwise for me to attempt to explain how Michell’s ideas display the influences of both Plato and Fort.

Michell felt it necessary to question orthodoxy. His book on the identity of the true author(s) of Shakespeare’s plays, “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” examined this question thoroughly but received mixed reviews. Several of his other publications questioned the commonly accepted archaeologists’ interpretations of their findings, suggesting that their refusal to take ideas about ley lines seriously was a grave error. In the 1980s, two academic archaeologists investigated his ideas and found that he had erroneously included natural rocks and monuments that were created far later than during the prehistoric era as markers for his supposed ley lines. When the replacement of feet and inches by the Metric metre was introduced, Michell objected strongly to the abandonment of a measurement that he believed dated back to earliest times and established an Anti-Metrication Board to oppose the change.

Michell had one son, Jason Goodwin, born in 1964. His mother was the writer Jocasta Innes (1934-2013), who was married twice to Richard B Goodwin. Jason, a Byzantine scholar, is a well-known, prize-winning author, whose books my wife has enjoyed greatly.

Michell became a cult figure in Notting Hill, associated with the ‘local vibe’ and The Rolling Stones. He took members of the group to Stonehenge to scan the heavens for saucers (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html). He smoked marijuana regularly, publicly encouraged the use of mind-altering drugs, and, surprisingly, his favourite newspaper was the right-wing oriented “The Telegraph”. At Notting Hill, he lived at number 11 Powis Gardens, within easy reach of All Saints Church, where the stone monument to his memory can be found. It was sculpted by John de Pauley, who explained (www.constructingtheuniverse.com/JM%20Memorial%20Sculpture.html):

“’The idea for the sculpture comes from Neolithic stone spheres. Their purpose remains a mystery. The geometrical construction is of a Platonic solid, 12 projecting tumescence making an icosahedron.”

Knowing this and a little about Michell, it seems an entirely suitable memorial to a bold and original thinker.

Finally, that word ‘geometer’: it is simply the name given to a mathematician, who studies geometry. One of Michell’s may paintings has the title “The Geometer’s Breakfast”.

A local working-class heroine

COLVILLE SQUARE GARDEN in North Kensington is seventy-two yards east of a section of Portobello Road, where stalls with various foods do business most days of the week. The square was laid out in the1870s by the local developer George Frederick John Tippett (1828 – 1899). By the 1950s, the area around Colville had a large proportion of the local ‘black’ community, numbering about 7,000 (https://citylivinglocallife.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/colville-community-history-newsletter-issue-18.pdf), living there.  Conditions in the locality became particularly bad not least because of the activities (www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmpeople/infamous/peterrachman.asp) of the notoriously unscrupulous local Polish-born landlord Peter Rachman (1919-1962). Unfortunately, in addition t0 Rachman’s poor behaviour with his mostly impecunious tenants, the area became seedy and crime ridden. Since those days, things have looked up and the area has become a far more pleasant place to live and visit.

Colville Square Gardens is a typical London square surrounded by residential buildings. Long and thin. it runs parallel to Portobello Road between Colville Terrace and Talbot Road. Much of the garden is used for recreational activity and includes a play area for young children. At the south-eastern corner of the square, there is a decorative iron gate leading to a nursery and pre-school. The gates bear the words:

“In memory of Pat McDonald”, and her dates:

“1940 – 1986”

A small, rather indistinct plaque next to the gate records:

“Pat McDonald. Working-class heroine. Lived and worked in North Kensington from the 1960s until her death in 1986. She was the driving force behind the campaigns for better housing, more play-space, and new nurseries. May her fighting spirit live on.”

There is no mention of who placed this memorial.

Pat’s endeavours to improve the care of children under the age of five began in about 1967 when she:

“… and a mothers group ‘commandeered’ a local vicar and started a playgroup in the vestry of a local church … The booklet to commemorate Pat McDonald’s life tells through reminiscences how this became Powis Playgroup in All Saints Church Hall, which gained a grant for equipment from the Pre-school Playgroups Association.” (www.academia.edu/28663809/Activism_and_organisation_Creating_a_community_nursery_in_1970s_Notting_Hill).

And this is almost all that I have managed to discover about North Kensington’s local heroine. It seems that the poor lady’s life ended tragically. Two websites allude to her tragic, premature end. From one of them (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=34069), we learn:

“The Colville Nursery Pat McDonald gates are dedicated to the People’s Association community activist play worker, who was murdered by her husband.”

The association was most likely the ‘Notting Hill People’s Association’, which was set up in 1966 to:

“… to widen access topeople with grievances and problems and to resolve them with legal advice – to resolve the individual problems but also to campaign on more general issues.” (www.unionhistory.info/britainatwork/emuweb/objects/common/webmedia.php%3Firn%3D1618+&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk).

Once again, whilst walking along a street which I have used hundreds of times, I came across something I had never noticed before. This time it was the quite conspicuous gate in memory of a social reformer and the far less conspicuous memorial plaque close to it. I pride myself on being reasonably observant, but clearly, I have not been nearly as aware of my surroundings as I believed.