Crossing the Camel

THE CONSERVATIVE CLUB in Cornwall’s Wadebridge has opened its doors to the general public. Visitors to the club of any political persuasion can enjoy superbly cooked food in its bar and dining room, which bears the name ‘Winstons’. The club, which is located at the higher end of Molesworth Street, is housed in a building that is far more than 100 years old. The street runs gently downhill towards a multi-arched stone bridge that crosses the River Camel.

Before there was a bridge across the river, the town now known as Wadebridge was called ‘Wade’ and stood beside a ford across the Camel, whose name probably means ‘crooked one’. Crossing the river by means of the ford was perilous. Before the bridge was built, a ferry became available as an additional means of traversing the wide stream. Becoming distressed by the number of people and animals that died whilst attempting to cross the river, the Reverend Thomas Lovibond, Vicar of Egloshayle, had the idea of building a bridge. This bridge was constructed between 1468 and 1485. It is said that its supporting piers rested on packs of wool. With the arrival of the bridge, the town of Wade became renamed ‘Wadebridge’. The chronicler and topographer William of Worcester (1415-c1482) mentioned the bridge as ‘Wade-brygge’ in 1478’.

 The bridge was widened in 1853 and again in 1963. It was refurbished in 1994. Although the stonework of the arches looks old, I am not sure how much of it is part of what was constructed in the late 15th century.

During the Civil War (1642-1651), Cornwall was a Royalist stronghold. Much of the rest of the southwest of England supported the Royalist’s opponents, the Parliamentarians. Wadebridge’s bridge was an important strategic location. In 1646, the Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) led 500 dragoons and 1000 horsemen successfully to take control of the bridge. The story goes as follows (www.cornwalllive.com/news/history/oliver-cromwell-came-person-take-511634):

“After losing the decisive Battle of Torrington in Devon on February 16, 1646, the Royalists escaped into Cornwall … [the] Parliamentarians, led by Thomas Fairfax, hunted them down and reached Launceston on February 25 and Bodmin on March 2 … On March 5 the Cornish Royalist leaders realised they were fighting a losing battle and surrendered the east of Cornwall to the Parliamentarians at Millbrook … A day later, as the battle moved westwards, Parliamentarian commander Oliver Cromwell and 1,500 of his soldiers descended onto Wadebridge to take control of the bridge and prevent its use by the Royalist army. The route across the bridge was considered to be of such strategic importance that Cromwell, who had been spending months mopping up resistance in Devon and Cornwall, personally led his troops there to capture it.”

The huge forces brought by Cromwell were either unnecessary or an effective deterrent because the Royalists withdrew without putting up a fight (www.wadebridgemuseum.co.uk/bridge.html).

The first motor car to cross the bridge did so in 1901. The crossing continues to play an important role in the transport network of Cornwall. The town is a charming small centre, well supplied with pubs, independent shops, and branches of supermarket chains. It is a part of the Parliamentary constituency of North Cornwall. Diners at, and members of, Wadebridge Conservative Club might (or might not) be pleased to know that the local MP since 2015 is Scott Mann, a Conservative. He was born in Wadebridge and attended its local state secondary school. I suppose that he must have dined or drunk at the Conservative Club where we enjoyed first class food. So, next time you are in Wadebridge, sweep aside any political prejudices you might harbour and head for Winstons at the Conservative Club and enjoy a great meal.

Sir Harry loses his head

LOSING AN ELECTION is probably one of the worst things that happens to politicians today. Several centuries ago, a politician risked facing a far worse fate: decapitation. Such was the ending that was suffered by a 17th century politician who chose to live Hampstead in north London, close to Westminster yet surrounded by countryside.

Sir Henry Vane (c1612-1662) is often referred to as ‘Henry Vane, the Younger’ or ‘Harry Vane’. Born into a wealthy family, he completed his education in Geneva, where he absorbed ideas of religious tolerance and republicanism. His religious principles led him to travel to New England. Between May 1636 and May 1637, he served as the 6th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While in America, he raised a large amount of money to be used for the establishment of what is now Harvard University. Soon, he came into conflict with other colonists. Barratt, an historian of Hampstead, wrote:

“…he soon found that his own ideas of religious independence and those of his friends were not in harmony. Their “tolerance” was shown in a cruel and rigid intolerance of everything that did not fit in with their own narrow Calvinistic views; Harry Vane stood for a larger humanity.”

Harry returned to England and became a Member of Parliament as well as a Treasurer to the Royal Navy (in 1639). He was knighted by King Charles I in 1640.

When the conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians broke out in about 1642, it was hoped that Harry would stick with the Royalists, but he did not. He became a solid supporter of the Parliamentarians. During the Commonwealth that followed Cromwell’s victory in the Civil War (1642-1651), he regained his position of a treasurer to the navy. Harry’s views on various things differed from those of Oliver Cromwell. By this time, Harry had moved to a house in Hampstead, Vane House, where, it is believed, he used to meet with Cromwell, Fairfax, and other prominent Parliamentarians. The poet Milton was also a visitor at Vane House. Barratt relates that when the question of executing King Charles I was being decided:

“…Vane refused to be a party to the sentence, and retired to his Raby Castle property in Durham, one of the estates his father settled on him on his marriage in 1640.”

Vane had married Frances Wray, daughter of Sir Christopher Wray, who was a Parliamentarian.

Harry became concerned when Cromwell barred him from the dissolution of the so-called ‘Long Parliament’ in 1653. Let Barratt expand on this:

“When Cromwell violently broke up the Long Parliament, his most active opponent was Sir Harry Vane, who protested against what he called the new tyranny. It was then that Cromwell uttered the historic exclamation, “O Sir Harry Vane! Sir Harry Vane! the Lord preserve me from Sir Harry Vane!” Vane was kept out of the next Parliament, and, still remaining at Raby, made another attack on Cromwell’s Government, in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Healing Question’. This was a direct impeachment of Cromwell as a usurper of the supreme power of government, and led to Vane being summoned before the Council to answer for his words.”

Harry’s actions led him to be imprisoned on the Isle of Wight.

Following Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, Harry returned to public life and his home in Hampstead. He was striving for Britain to become a republic rather than a continuation of the dictatorial Protectorship established by Cromwell and continued by his son Richard.

When King Charles II was restored to the throne, ending the Protectorship, Harry, who had not been party to, or in favour of, the execution of Charles I, was granted amnesty and hoped to live in retirement, contemplating religious matters that interested him, in his Hampstead residence. But this was not to be. Although the King was happy to forgive Harry, some of his advisors were concerned that, to quote Barratt:

“Vane’s ultra -republicanism was probably more objectionable to Charles II. than it had been to the Protector, and Charles had not been established on the throne more than a few months when the arrest of Sir Harry Vane was ordered.”

Harry was taken from his garden in Hampstead by soldiers on an evening in July 1660. After a short spell in the Tower of London, Harry spent two years as a prisoner on the Isles of Scilly. In March 1662, he was brought back to the Tower and faced trial at the King’s Bench. The charge against him was:

“…compassing and imagining the death of the king, and conspiring to subvert the ancient frame of the kingly government of the realm…”

The judges in this unfair trial had no option but to find him guilty. He was executed at the Tower.

I would not have been aware of this remarkable man had I not spotted a brown and white commemorative plaque in his memory on an old brick gate post on Hampstead’s Rosslyn Hill. The gatepost and a short stretch of wall are all that remains of Harry’s Vane House, which was has been demolished. It was still standing in 1878, by which time it had been heavily modified and:

“…occupied as the Soldiers’ Daughters’ Home. Vane House was originally a large square building, standing in its own ample grounds.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp483-494).

This was connected by a covered arcade to a school for soldier’s daughters. The building which housed the school still stands on Fitzjohns Avenue and has been renamed Monro House. The heavily modified Vane House, in which Sir Harry resided, was demolished in 1972. Its only remains are as already mentioned.

Once again, seeing a small thing whilst strolling around in London has opened a window that has given me a first view of an aspect of history that was almost, if not completely, unknown to me.

Oliver Cromwell in Essex

YOU CAN NO LONGER ENJOY a tankard of ale at the Sun Inn in the Essex town of Saffron Walden. However, you can still enjoy the fine pargetting (moulded sculptured plasterwork) that adorns it.

The building that housed the former Sun Inn was built in the 15th century. Late in the 16th or early in the 17th century, an upper floor was added. Indeed, one of the gables with fine pargetting bears the date 1676. This might have been the date when the present pargetting was created or when the upper floor was added, or even both. The former inn has an opening that allowed wagons and other traffic to enter the yard behind it.

The pargetting is described well in a website (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp228-260) as follows:
“… in the middle bay are two late 17th-century panels in plaster, one with a design of foliage and birds, and the other with a stocking; in the S.W. gable is a design of the same date in plaster, which consists of a circular panel divided into twelve segments; on each side is the figure of a man in a long coat, knee-breeches and high-heeled shoes; one figure holds a sword and buckler, the other a long club.”

One of the panels, that with the man with a sword and the other with a long club, respectively represent Thomas Hickathrift and the Wisbech giant (https://heritagerecords.nationaltrust.org.uk/HBSMR/MonRecord.aspx?uid=MNA108635). Thomas (‘Tom’) Hickathrift was a mythical East Anglian giant-killer, a giant of a man, whose exploits included slaying the Wisbech Giant.

Today (late 2020), the group of beautifully decorated houses that includes the former Sun Inn is empty. The ground floor of part of the building bears a shop sign ‘Lankester Antiques & Books’. Run by Paul Lankester of Thaxted in Essex, the shop closed after 48 years of business in July 2015. Another sign near it reads ‘The 14th century Old Sun Inn. Oliver Cromwell’s Headquarters 1647’. In 1647, when Cromwell’s New Model Army had won the first civil war for the Parliamentarians, they gathered in Saffron Walden. For various reasons the war weary army was becoming dissatisfied. Cromwell and his officers arrived in Saffron Walden on the 2nd of May 1647 to try to satisfy the troops’ various demands and to deal with their grievances (www.saffronwaldenreporter.co.uk/news/a-lasting-place-in-history-1-377880). He was unable to do so and returned to London after staying in the town for 19 days. 

Although the town has many other attractions, seeing this old building with its exquisite external decorations is on its own an excellent reason to pay a visit to Saffron Walden.