A peculiar post office

WHEN I WORKED AT MAIDENHEAD, I used to travel there by train from London Paddington. Many of the trains terminated at a station called Bedwyn, which serves Great Bedwyn. I visited this small town on the Kennet and Avon Canal for the first time only recently.  While driving through the place, I noticed a building covered with gravestones and other ornamental carving. My curiosity was aroused.

The name ‘Bedwyn’ might have been derived from ‘Biedanheafde’, an Old English word meaning ‘head of the Bieda’, which referred to a stream in the area. In 675 AD, “The Anglo Saxon Chronicle” recorded the battle of ‘Bedanheafeford’ between Aescwine of Wessex and King Wulfhere of Mercia, which is supposed to have been fought near the present Great Bedwyn. The will of King Alfred the Great (c848-899) makes reference to Bedwyn. In short, Bedwyn has been a recognizable settlement for a long time.

Bedwyn’s combined post office and village shop can be found in a long, rectangular brick building on Church Street. The wall at the east end of the edifice carries a depiction of the Last Supper and above it, God on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels. These sculptural panels are in white and blue and somewhat resemble the kind of things produced by the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robia (1400-1482). Three gravestones are attached to the west facing end of the post office. A wooden gate next to this end of the building is labelled ‘Mason’s yard’. The front of the building, facing the street, is adorned with carved funerary monuments including gravestones, some of which bear humorous inscriptions.

The shop is attached to a house with a front door framed by a gothic revival porch. A carved panel in the porch reads: “Lloyd. Mason.” I asked some of the customers queuing up to enter the shop/post office if they knew anything about the curious decoration of the building. I was told that the place had once been the workshop of a stone mason who specialised in funerary items. My informant said that most of the carvings attached to the building were test pieces made by the stonemason’s apprentices; rejected or uncollected items; and offcuts.

Benjamin Lloyd (1765-1839), who died in Bedwyn, started his stonemasonry business in 1790 (www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2825). He was responsible for some of the work done during the construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which began before he was born and was eventually completed in 1810. The company still exists. Now, it is run by John Lloyd, the seventh generation of the family to maintain the business (www.johnlloydofbedwyn.com/about-us). However, his premises have moved away from Bedwyn’s post office.

Benjamin Lloyd is buried alongside his wife Mary (1764-1827) in St Mary’s Church Burial Ground in Great Bedwyn. I do not know, but I would like to imagine, that their gravestone was made in the company Benjamin created.

A post office in a church

WEST HAMPSTEAD, FORMERLY known as ‘West End’ in the time, before the 20th century, that Hampstead was a small town separated from London. Now, yet another of London’s numerous suburbs, West Hampstead has several churches as well as a synagogue. One of these places of worship, St James Church, is worth entering because it is not what it seems from its external appearance.

The large Parish Church of St James, built mainly with red bricks, was erected in about 1887 (www.lwmfhs.org.uk/parishes/6-middlesex/28-hampstead). It was designed by Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899), the fourth son of CJ Blomfield, Anglican Bishop of London between 1828 and 1856, who encouraged much new church building during the 19th century. This large church could seat 1000 people (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp145-152#h3-0007) and has some fine 19th century stained-glass windows.

On entering the church through its electrically operated glass sliding doors, you will be surprised by what you find beneath its fine hammer beam timber ceiling. The west end of the nave is occupied by a post office, the first main-branch of a UK post office ever to be housed within a church. The north aisle of the church contains a children’s ‘soft play’ area, appropriately named ‘Hullabaloo’. The floor of the nave is filled with tables and chairs occupied by people of all ages, some enjoying refreshments from the church’s Sanctuary Café. All these things that you would not normally expect to find inside a church are part of The Sherriff Centre, a community organisation that began operating in 2014 (https://thesherriffcentre.co.uk/). The Centre’s activities also include a stationery store, a free food bank, live music as well as other events, free wi-fi, debt advice, and more.

Jesus is said to have thrown the moneychangers and others involved in commercial activity from the Temple in Jerusalem (“The Holy Bible”, John, Ch 2, v 13-16). However, he might have approved of the commercial activities within St James because profits from the sales outlets in the Centre are used to help finance charitable work. In addition to everything that I have already described about what goes on within St James, there is one more thing to mention. Despite the activities that you might not expect to find inside a church, regular religious Church of England services are held there. It is wonderful that St James, instead of becoming yet one more barely used Victorian church in London, has become a vibrant and beneficial part of a local community, catering to more than only just its by now small congregation.

Postage stamps in Albania

TIRANA Skand Sq with House of Culture and mosque

 

Recently, I read a blog (Click here) written by an Australian, who has visited North Korea twice. On one of his trips, he visited a museum or exhibition of postage stamps, many of which depict important leaders of the country. Given that it is against the law to deface pictures of these people, he wondered how careful postal officials would have to be when they cancel the stamps with the rubber stamps used for franking. One false move and the great leder’s face might become defaced. In that case, the postal official would risk punishment. This story reminded me of something that I observed in an Albanian post office when I was visting Albania in 1984. In those days, Albania was even more isolated from the outside world than North Korea and it was governed by a stern, repressive regime led by the dictator Enver Hoxha.

This excerpt from my book  Albania on my Mind describes what I saw:

I wrapped my books into a number of parcels, addressed them, and then began leaving the hotel to visit Tirana’s main post office. The Australian, who was travelling with us, spotted me in the lobby and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he askedwhether he could accompany me to the post office, as he,working as he did for the Australian postal service, was curious to see how things were done by the Albanian post…

… The clerk behind the counter in the Tirana post office offered no objection to the way that I had packed my parcels. He weighed them and then gave me numerous stamps to stick on them. I stuck them on and returned the parcels one by one. The clerk examined each of them to make sure that I had stuck the right combination of stamps on each packet.

Suddenly, he stopped, looked up at me, then at the parcel, before pointing at one of the stamps. In my haste, I had stuck it on upside down. He tore the stamp off the
parcel, and then replaced it the right way up, pointing at the portrait on it whilst saying:
Enver Hoxha.”
The Australian, who was watching this with wide-open eyes,
turned to me and said:
You know, it’s completely illegal to remove stamps from postage. It’s against all international postal rules.”

I did not know what to say, but admired the respect that even a humble postage stamp could inspire in one of Enver’s subjects.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND 

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Picture shows Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, Albania, in 1984