KINGS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE has a superb perpendicular gothic chapel, whose construction commenced in about 1446 and took almost 100 years to complete. Its fabulously intricate fan-vaulting makes it one of the finest buildings in Cambridge, if not in all of England. Until recently, it was the one and only building in Cambridge that visitors to the city needed to see, even if they did not have time to see anything else. Although this continues to be the case, there is another building, which visitors should make time to see in addition to the chapel. Unlike the college edifice, this is not in the historic academic part of the city but in Mill Road, not far from the main railway station. Near the eastern end of this thoroughfare, which is rapidly becoming a ‘trendy’ part of Cambridge, you will come across a wonderful modern building set back from the road and separated from it by a pleasant, small garden. This structure is The Cambridge Central Mosque.
The mosque was completed in 2019 and designed by Marks Barfield Architects (London) in conjunction with Professor Keith Critchlow (1933-2020), who was Professor of Islamic Art at London’s Royal College of Art, and the garden designer Emma Clark. The designers of the mosque aimed (in the words of Abdal Hakim Murad, chairman of the Cambridge Mosque Trust) to create:
This has been achieved very successfully. The visually spectacular deep portico, reached after walking through a pleasant garden, is supported by clusters of curved timbers, which immediately bring to mind thoughts of the masonry fan-vaulting in Kings College Chapel. These clusters continue through the entire building, creating a sense of continuity of the exterior and interior spaces. The vaulting that reminds us of the mosque’s gothic relative at Kings College also evokes purely Islamic architecture such as one finds at the Alhambra in Spain. The outside of the building is covered with brickwork in two colours, the bricks being arranged to produce patterns which are contemporary versions of a traditional Islamic design. The centre of the mosque is topped by a single dome made in matt-gold coloured metal.
The glass walls that separate the portico from the interior of the mosque reflect the mundane houses opposite the mosque (across Mill Road). I do not know whether the designers intended it, but I felt that these reflections were a way of giving the impression that the garden and the world beyond the mosque is merging with the building itself, that the religious structure was merging with its secular surroundings. Whether or not this was the designers’ intention, this mosque deserves a place in the highest echelon of great British architecture alongside Kings College Chapel. The beauty of the chapel and the mosque, separated by many hundreds of years in age, both have the effect of taking one’s breath away in amazement.
THE SUNDAY MORNING SERVICE at the parish church, St Mary the Virgin, in Haverhill in Suffolk had just ended when we entered the building. My wife chatted with a priest, who said he knew little about this church’s history. She asked him if there were any other churches in the district worth a visit. He mentioned two across the county border in Cambridgeshire, at the villages of Bartlow and at Hildersham. The two churches have something of interest in common: unusual colourful paintings.
Bartlow’s St Mary’s church has a distinctive round bell tower. But this is not the only thing that is remarkable about it. It was built in the 11th or 12th century and modified gradually during the following centuries. A real treat greets the visitor on entering the building: some colourful 15th century wall paintings, two on the south wall and one on the north. They depict St George’s dragon (north wall), and opposite this on the south wall: St Michael weighing the souls on The Day of Judgement, and east of it another shows a portrait of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. The paintings existed long before the Civil War. On the 20th of March 1644, they were covered up with paint by Oliver Cromwell’s men under the command of William Dowsing (1596-1668), a fanatic iconoclast, also known as ‘Smasher Dowsing’. The frescos began to become uncovered in the 19th century, but it was only in 2014 that serious conservation work was undertaken on them.
The artists who created the wall paintings at Bartlow have been long forgotten, but this is not the case for the creators of the colourful chancel at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Hildersham. In 1806, the Reverend Charles Goodwin was appointed Rector of Hildersham. Ten years later, his son Robert was born. He studied at Clare College in Cambridge and whilst a student he joined The Cambridge Camden Society, whose aims were to promote the study of Gothic architecture and ‘ecclesiastical antiques’. This society grew to be a great influence on the design of Victorian churches.
In 1847, following the death of his father, Robert became Rector of Hildersham’s church. Soon, he began to consider how to ‘restore’ his church in accordance with gothic revival ideals. Amongst these ‘improvements’ was the painting of frescos on the walls of the chancel. These were executed using a novel technique known as ‘spirit fresco’, which made use of a complex mixture of beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin, and copal varnish. This technique, invented by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), produced durable images that were easier to produce than the traditional fresco technique used, for example, in renaissance Italy. The chancel at Hildersham was painted using the new technique by Alfred Bell, John Clayton, and Stacy Marks. They and many assistants produced a magnificent display of saints and religious scenes, all from The New Testament. They were painted in 1890 and are in wonderful condition. The two churches are just under 4 miles apart and both are well worth visiting. And, when you do go to these buildings, you will find light switches near their entrance doors. We might never have seen them had it not been for my wife engaging in friendly conversation with the priest at Haverhill.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, we paid a brief visit to Mersea Island, which is off the coast of Essex. While we were wandering around on the island, we spoke with a man, who recommended that we visit the isolated chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, which is not far from Bradwell-on-Sea, also on the coast of Essex. He thought that we would enjoy its tranquillity and the beauty of its surroundings. In early August 2021, we drove beyond Bradwell-on-Sea to a carpark, which is 785 yards west of the chapel known as St Peter-on-the-Wall. The building is about 300 yards west of the east coast of Essex on the Dengie Peninsula, the southern lip of the mouth of the River Blackwater. The chapel stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding coast and countryside.
Winding the clock back to the time when the Romans ruled Britain, we find that there was a fort named ‘Othona’ near the site of the chapel. It was one of a series of Roman forts created to protect Britain from Saxon and Frankish pirates, possibly built by a Count of the Saxon Shore, a Roman official, named Carausius, who died in 293 AD. A Roman road ran up to the fort, connecting it with places further inland. During the 7th century, the Romans having left Britain, an Anglo-Saxon holy man, Cedd by name, landed at Othona in 653.
Cedd (born c620) was one of four brothers. He had a religious upbringing and education in the monastery set up by Saint Aidan (c590-651) at Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria. Cedd became a missionary. After successes in the Midlands, he was invited by Sigbert, King of the East Saxons, who reigned in Essex, to bring Christianity into the area. Cedd sailed from Lindisfarne and landed at what was the ruined fort at Othona. He moved north later in life and died in 664 (of the plague) near Lastingham in Northumbria, where he had founded another religious establishment.
Cedd’s first church at Othona might well have been wooden, but soon he built one of stone, of which there was plenty lying about in the ruins of the fort. His stone church is built in what was then the style of churches in Egypt and Syria. Apparently, Celtic Christians, such as Cedd, were influenced by this style. Building a church in the ruins of a Roman fort mirrored that which had been built in the ruins of a fort by St Antony of Egypt. The location of the former fort on the Roman road might have appealed to Cedd as it would have facilitated ‘spreading the word’ inland.
The church that Cedd built used to have a chancel and possibly other parts, as it was part of a monastic complex based near Bradwell. Cedd’s church, St Peter’s, simple as it was and is still, can be considered the first cathedral to have been built in Essex. It is considered unlikely that the monastery Cedd created near Bradwell survived the Danish invasions. Soon after Cedd’s death, Essex was incorporated into the diocese of London and St Peter’s became a minster, the chief church in the area. When the parish church of St Thomas was built in Bradwell-on-Sea, St Peter’s became relegated to being a ‘chapel of ease’. Services were held three times a week there until at least the end of the 16th century. Sometime after this, the chancel was pulled down; the church was left standing as a navigation beacon; and the building was repurposed as a barn. As a barn it remained until the early 20th century, when the church was reconsecrated and restored in 1920.
The church is still in use. Services are held there under the auspices of the nearby Othona Community, based nearby at Bradwell-on-Sea. At present, services are held on Sunday nights in July and August at 6.30 pm.
We walked across the fields to St Peter-on-the-Wall, which is one of Britain’s oldest still standing and working churches. After some difficulty, we managed to open the one door to the church. We entered the building’s simple and peaceful interior. A colourful crucifix, created by Francis William Stephens (1921-2002) hangs high up on the east wall. St Cedd is depicted praying at the feet of Jesus on The Cross. The supporting stone of the simple stone altar has three fragments embedded in it. One of them was a gift from Lindisfarne, another from Iona, and the third from Lastingham. The altar was consecrated in 1985. Apart from a circle of chairs for congregants and a timber framed ceiling, there is little else in the church apart from a feeling of tranquillity, which can only be experienced by visiting this charming place. The man at Mersea Island, who suggested that we visit St Peter-on-the-Wall, did us a good turn.
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.
ACTON IS NOT usually given high priority on the list of places that visitors to London might compile. However, this district in west London, once a borough in its own right between 1865 and 1965, now part of the Borough of Ealing, is not devoid of interest. After a visit to our dentist, whose surgery is close to Acton’s High Street, we took a look around the area. Churchfield Street, filled with small shops and various eateries, leads east to Acton Central Overground Station.
Opened in 1853 as ‘Acton’ station, it was first a stop on the North and South Western Junction Railway. In 1925, it was renamed ‘Acton Central’. The original 19th century railway building built in about 1876, a rather too grand edifice for such a humble station, has now been converted into a pub/restaurant, whose menu looks appetising. Crossing the tracks, we reach Acton Park, about which I will say more later.
The name ‘Acton’ might derive from Old English words meaning ‘oak town’. At the beginning of the 19th century, the parish of Acton was mostly agricultural land with a small population of about 1400 souls. Between 1861 and 1871, the population increased from about 4000 to about 8300, reflecting the urbanisation of the area. By the mid-1880s, it had reached about 12000. No doubt the accessibility of London via the railway helped increase the area’s attractiveness for people wishing to live in leafy suburbs within easy reach of their workplaces in the centre of the metropolis. Many of the streets near the station are lined with substantial, well built houses.
Acton Park is an attractive, municipal recreation area with lawns, trees, bushes, a café, a putting green, and other facilities including a ‘skate park’ and a children’s nursery. At the northern edge of the park opposite Goldsmiths Buildings, there stands a fine stone obelisk. This was moved to its present position in January 1904 from its original sight in the grounds of the now demolished Derwentwater House on Acton’s Horn Lane. It commemorates James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater (1679-1816). The date of his death is significant, as I will explain.
James was the son of the 2nd Earl (1655-1705) and Lady Mary Tudor (1673-1726), whose parents were King Charles II and one of his mistresses, the actress Mary ‘Moll’ Davis (c1648-1708). James was brought up in France in the court of the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), ‘The Old Pretender’, son of the Roman Catholic King James II of England, who was forced to leave England by the Protestant William of Orange. James Stuart, encouraged both by a desire to re-establish the line of James II on the English Throne and by the French monarchy, made various attempts to gain the Throne of England. One of these was in 1715, a year after the Protestant Hanoverian King George I had become crowned King of England. In December 1715, The Old Pretender landed in Scotland, having sailed from France.
In 1709, James Radcliffe, whose memorial stands in Acton Park, sailed to England to visit his recently inherited estates in Cumberland and Northumberland. In 1715, he joined the conspiracy to put his companion since childhood, The Old Pretender, on the Throne of England. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but at first he evaded capture by going into hiding. At the Battle of Preston (9th to 14th November 1715), when the Jacobite forces fighting for The Old Pretender were defeated, Radcliffe was arrested and taken to The Tower of London. After various attempts to reprieve him, he was executed in February 1716. His heart was taken to a convent in Paris, where it remains. The monument was erected by Radcliffe’s widow, Lady Derwentwater, who was living in Acton at the time of his execution. Her home, Derwentwater House, which can be seen marked on a detailed map produced in the early 1890s but not on one published in 1914, stood where Churchfield Road East meets Horn Lane, where today the newish shopping centre, ‘The Oaks’, now stands. Edward Walford, writing in 1883, noted in connection with the house:
“It is said that the iron gates at the end of the garden have never been opened since the day her lord last passed through them on his way to the Tower.”
Acton Park was created in 1888, mostly on land that had been owned by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Across the road from the park and opposite the obelisk, you will see the elegant Goldsmiths Almshouses. This building was erected in 1811 and enlarged in 1838. They were built on land left to the Goldsmiths Company by John Perryn, in whose memory one of Acton’s residential roads is named.
Tree-lined Goldsmiths Avenue is just 360 yards north of Acton Central Station. Number 78 used to be named ‘Tilak House’ in honour of the Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). In early May 1907, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a freedom fighter and father of the idea of ‘Hindutva’, an expression of Indian nationalism which underlies the political philosophy of India’s currently ruling BJP party, held a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 at this house. The house was then the home of Nitin Sen Dwarkadas, brother-in-law of another Indian patriot who lived in London, Shyamaji Krishnavarma (1850-1930). Today, there is no memorial to this event.
Other attractions that caught my eye in Acton include St Marys Church (established by 1228, but the current building dates from 1865-67) and its nearby peaceful rectangular cemetery on West Churchfield Road. The Old Town Hall with its accompanying municipal offices was built on the site of the former Berrymede Priory. Designed by the architects Raffles and Gridley, the town hall was built in 1908-10, and extended in 1939. Berrymead Priory, a dwelling, is commemorated by a thoroughfare named Berrymead Avenue, where our dentist practises. It was built on the grounds formerly occupied by William Savile, 2nd Marquess of Halifax (1665-1700), who died here. The priory must have been lovely. Walford noted that it was:
“… a picturesque Gothic edifice of the Strawberry Hill type, and occupied the centre of several acres of ground, which are planted with fine trees and evergreens.”
One of the priory’s better-known inhabitants was the novelist and politician Edward Bulmer (1803-1873), Lord Lytton, who lived there between 1835 and 1836. In 1849, the place was purchased by the wealthy cavalry officer George Drafford Heald, who lived here briefly with his wife, the glamorous Irish born actress and courtesan Lola Montez (1821-1861), one time mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and also of the composer Franz Liszt, whom he had married in 1848. The Healds had to flee to France soon after their marriage, which contravened the terms of her divorce with a previous spouse. Lola and George’s marriage did not last long. However, the building named ‘Berrymead Priory’ lasted longer, until 1982 when it was demolished.
Our Lady of Lourdes, a small Roman Catholic Church built in 1902 in the Romanesque style, was designed by Edward Goldie (1856-1921), who built many other Catholic churches. This church is on the High Street close to another decorative public building, The Passmore Edwards Library, built in 1898-99 and designed by Maurice Bingham Adams (1849-1933) in what Nikolaus Pevsner describes as:
“… his typical rather bulging Baroque paraphrase of the accepted Tudor of the late Victorian decades.”
Adams also designed the Passmore Edwards Library in Shepherds Bush. There is more to Acton than I have described, but maybe what I have written might whet your appetite to explore a part of London that is somewhat off the tourist’s beaten track.
THE PARISH CHURCH in Thaxted, Essex, which was built in the English Perpendicular Style between about 1380 and 1510, is at first sight simply an impressive, attractive, typical example of this era of church construction. Recently, we were able to enter it and the lady who showed us around revealed that this was no ordinary, ‘common or garden’ church. During the early 20th century, it had been home to activity that you might not expect in a building such as this.
Within the church, there is a bronze sculpture by Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983). Mounted on a small wooden shelf, it depicts the head of Conrad Noel (1869-1942), who was the vicar at Thaxted from 1910 until his death.
Conrad was the grandson of the Earl of Gainsborough and son of Roden Noel (1834-1894), a Groom in the Privy Chamber, who left his exalted position after discovering radicalism. It was Roden who translated the words of “The Red Flag” into English. As a student at Cambridge, he had been a Cambridge Apostle. Conrad’s mother Alice (née de Broe) was daughter of a banker. Conrad was sent to school first at Wellington College and then at Cheltenham College. Then he entered Corpus Christi College Cambridge but failed to complete his course. After leaving Cambridge, he studied at Chichester Theological College, a high church Anglican establishment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chichester_Theological_College). It was here that Conrad began to conceive his unique ideas about socialist Anglo-Catholicism. By 1893, he defined his theology as ‘Liberal Catholic’, which Edward Poole explained in “Troublesome Priests: Christianity and Marxism in the Church of England, 1906-1969”, his master’s thesis in 2014, was:
“…a theology that looks to the orthodox teaching of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and the Early Fathers, combined with a democratic approach to churchmanship and the active participation of the congregation in worship.”
At first, Conrad found it difficult to become ordained because of his radical, socialist ideas. In 1894, the Bishop of Chester ordained him, and he became a curate in Salford, where Poole related:
“Noel began giving lectures on Catholic Socialism which were boycotted by the ordinary congregation but … were successful in drawing in large numbers of working people who had never attended Church. The indignant Church Wardens referred the matter to Bishop Jayne, resulting in an acrimonious interview between Curate and Bishop. Jayne accused Noel of having no respect for the long-standing congregation, and of irreverence by encouraging attendees to ask questions about Christianity in Church. Noel reminded Jayne of Jesus’ invitation to ‘all and sundry’, but Jayne dismissed the argument.”
Conrad married Miriam Greenwood in 1894.
Jumping ahead, in 1910 the socialist cleric, Conrad, was appointed Vicar of the Parish Church in Thaxted. His appointment to this position was offered to him by a local aristocrat, a former mistress of King Edward VII, Frances Evelyn (‘Daisy Greville’), Countess of Warwick (1861-1938), who had become to quote Christopher Hibbert in his biography of Edward VII: “… a dedicated socialist…” by 1906. Thaxted’s new vicar began revolutionising his parish almost as soon as he accepted the post. Mark Chapman, author of “Liturgy, Socialism, and Life” wrote that Conrad’s: “…first great battle was over the bible boxes, which were used by the richer parishioners to reserve their places in church, and which deprived many of the poorer members of the congregation of the best seats.”
Actions such as these caused some of the wealthier members to leave the congregation, but this did not worry Conrad. He made many changes in the church and its liturgical practices in order to democratise his parish church. He wanted the church to be for all, for the common people, a recreation of the spirit of the earliest Christians. To do this, he introduced music and dancing and folkloric activities. John Millbank wrote in relation to this:
“The joy of Thaxted was a wise joy. The liturgy and the music and the dancing were as essential to Christian socialism as work amongst the poor” (quoted from Chapman).
Conrad had a strong disregard for the church hierarchy, who, on the whole, disapproved of his methods of helping people to believe they were an integral part of Christianity rather than only its recipients.
Socialism flowed through Conrad’s veins. In 1918, he set up the ‘Catholic Crusade’, which was a socialist movement that would:
“… work through the Church for a new economic society basing itself on the laws and principles of the gospels and the prophets. “(Chapman).
In addition, Conrad was strongly against imperialism, especially the British Empire, and also firmly in favour of reviving the Arts and Craft aspects of the socialism of William Morris and John Ruskin. The latter could be seen in many of the activities organised under his guidance at Thaxted.
Poole explains that Conrad’s socialism was based on Marxism and he was in favour of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. His formation of the Catholic Crusade in 1918 followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which Poole notes:
“Noel saw the Revolutions… which brought the Bolsheviks to power, as evidence of a spiritual revival in Russia.”
Conrad hoped that a similar revolution would soon happen in the UK. Poole relates that later Conrad met Ivy Litvinov, wife of the Soviet Ambassador in London. She:
“…expressed to Noel surprise that a clergyman would celebrate the Bolsheviks despite their professed atheism. Noel responded that “dialectical materialism gave no true inspiration for the revolution, and that it was in spite of Marxist philosophy, rather than because of it, that those changes had taken place.”
Later when writing his autobiography, Conrad explained:
“I believe that the mystical element in the Russian people was much more the inspiration of the Russian Revolution than the appeal to the Marxian dialectic.”
By then, although still a socialist at heart, he was appalled by the Stalin-Trotsky split in about 1936 and he joined other clerics in the formation of the Anti-Stalinist Order of the Church Militant.
There is much more that could be discussed regarding Conrad’s idiosyncratic take on Socaialism and the Church, but I will concentrate on an incident that brought his church in Thaxted into the news in 1921. He had placed three flags in his chancel: the flag of St George, the tricolour of the Irish Sinn Fein, and the Red Flag of Communism. Students from Cambridge and also the ecclesiastical courts tried to remove them, but in vain. He preferred the flag of St George to the Union Jack, because the latter, he felt, ignored England and favoured plutocracy and British imperialism. As for the Irish flag, Chapman explained that it emphasised Conrad’s anti-colonialist ideals and the rights of national self-determination, for which WW1 had been fought. The Red Flag was chosen by Conrad because he felt that it:
“… was there to serve as a pointer to something more universal than a nation … it emphasised the notion of God as fellowship, and of the commonwealth and democracy of nations, none of which could be allowed to exist as an isolated entity…” (Chapman).
“During the First World War, Noel displayed the flags of the Allies in Thaxted Church. After the Russian Revolutions, he added a plain red flag to represent the workers of the world, and by 1921, it hung with the cross of St. George and the Sinn Fein tricolour on the chancel arch, and on May Day that year it was paraded in the church. By the following morning it, and the tricolour, had been stolen by Cambridge University students, leading Noel to place a notice outside reading “Stolen! Two flags from Thaxted church and two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) from the people by the rich.””
The flags chosen by Conrad caused great strife (known as the ‘Battle of the Flags’) in Thaxted, as Poole describes:
“On 24 May, Empire Day, some residents hung the churchyard with Union flags, which Noel then replaced with ‘mutilated’ versions in which St Patrick’s cross had been removed. At a meeting at the Thaxted Guildhall, protestors demanded that Noel cease preaching political and seditious themes. A crowd gathered outside the Church, and fights broke out between them and former policemen defending the church. Noel’s friends called on him to leave Thaxted for his own safety, but he refused. After a night of unrest, Noel wrote to his wife to describe the excitement of the evening, and to reassure her that “the flags of our religion are still flying.” Further scuffles followed when protestors tried to remove a new flag on 20 June, and on 26 June when demonstrators successfully burnt the red flag and hung more Union flags in the church. In July the red flag was burnt again, but local moderates finally took control of the opposition to prevent further violence. In January 1922, a petition calling for the removal of the flags was sent to Chelmsford consistory court and Noel defended his right to fly the flags, but by July he was instructed to remove them, and complied.”
Many years later, when WW2 was declared, Conrad:
“…mused on the irony that the flag that had been so reviled by his parishioners was cheerfully displayed alongside the Union flag as Britain and the Soviet Union fought Nazi Germany. In his view, “the very people who opposed it are now grateful that the USSR is pulling our chestnuts out of the fire”” (Poole).
The only flag of note that we noticed during our visit to Thaxted’s church is a banner sewn in 1917 by Conrad’s wife Miriam. It bears some words of JS Bach that were chosen by the composer Gustav Holst who had a house in Thaxted (I will discuss Holt’s involvement with Thaxted in a future essay).
When visiting Thaxted and its lovely church, it is hard to imagine that the place was once the location of so much violence and controversy. I am glad to see that Thaxted’s highly original parish priest is remembered respectfully within his church. A plaque next to his sculpted head reads:
“Conrad Noel. Vicar of Thaxted 1910-1942. He loved justice and hated oppression.”
These are fitting words by which to remember an unusual man who espoused both Communism and Christianity, who saw no incompatibility between these two belief systems that many others believe to mutually opposed. To summarise, quoting Mark Chapman:
“… it seems to me that Noel was a genuine visionary, although his practical solutions may have neglected some or even most of the complexities or realpolitik, he nevertheless sought to make the church an expression of the kingdom of righteousness, justice, and equality and thus a beacon in a desperate world.”
SOME ‘POSHER’ JEWISH people in west London tended to live around Bayswater. These prosperous members of the Jewish community arrived in Bayswater in the 19th century as the district began to be urbanised. Many of them had drifted westwards from Bloomsbury and the City (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp264-265). This migration placed them at an inconvenient distance from the synagogues they had been used to attending. So, in 1863, Bayswater Synagogue (at corner of Chichester Place and Harrow Road) was consecrated. This new place of worship was a branch of both the of the Great Synagogue (in the City north of Aldgate) and the New Synagogue (originally near Leadenhall Street, and then later in Great St Helens Street). Like so many Jewish buildings in mainland Europe, this synagogue was destroyed by the forces of Nazi Germany, during WW2.
In 1879, an offshoot of the now demolished Bayswater Synagogue was consecrated in St Petersburg Place, a short distance from the main road known as Bayswater. This, The New West End Synagogue, is now one of the oldest surviving functioning synagogues in Great Britain. At first sight, you might easily be mistaken for thinking that the huge red brick building with Victorian gothic architectural features, a rose window, and twin bell towers, is a church. And maybe that was the intention of the community that commissioned the building. Upwardly mobile Jewish people in Victorian England might well have preferred not to advertise their religious beliefs too much in a society that then had many prejudices against Judaism and other non-Christian religions. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place looks no more exotic or out of place than the Church of St Matthew a few yards north on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two and within sight of them that is unashamedly exotic in appearance, Aghia Sofia, the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road, which was consecrated only three years after the synagogue.
The desire of some Jewish people to ‘meld’ seamlessly with British ‘high society’ was not confined to England. Amos Elon writes about this in his inciteful book about the ‘emancipation’ of Jews in Germany, “The Pity of it All”, and what a dreadful fate it led to. It is my impression that amongst the few Jewish people, mostly of British and German origin, living in Victorian South Africa, there was the belief that economic and social advancement was not hindered by being somewhat discreet about their religious beliefs. This changed during the final few decades of the 19th century when many Jewish people began arriving from parts of the former Russian Empire, many from what is now Lithuania. Often much poorer than their co-religionists, who were already well-established in South Africa, they were far less reticent about expressing their religious beliefs and critical of the ‘established’ Anglo-German Jewish community, who had, in their eyes, become rather too lax about Jewish religious observance.
Returning to Bayswater and its mainly prosperous Jewish families, we can now travel less than a mile northwest to reach the northern end of Kensington Park Road, close to Portobello Road, in nearby Notting Hill, to reach the site of another, now disused, synagogue. This building, still standing but now repurposed, was not designed to mislead the onlooker into believing it was a church. As was the case in South Africa during the last few decades of the Victorian era, large numbers of Jewish people began arriving in London from Eastern Europe, and many of them settled in the crowded East End. In 1902, A Jewish Dispersion Committee, set up by the (Jewish) banker and philanthropist Sir Samuel Montagu (1832-1911), tried to attract some of these new arrivals to settle in areas away from the East End, like Notting Hill (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol1/pp149-151).
The former Notting Hill Synagogue at numbers 206/208 Kensington Park Road was opened in 1900 (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Index.htm), a little ahead of the formation of the above-mentioned committee. Presumably, it was worth opening because there must have been sufficient Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. By 1905, it had 281 members and ten years later, there were 250. Its ritual was Ashkenazi Orthodox, the same as that at the New West End Synagogue, but the congregants were less wealthy than those who attended the latter. Many of them were market stallholders or artisans, such as tailors and shoemakers (http://www.ladbrokeassociation.info/Churchesandotherreligiousbuildings.htm#Synagogue). They lived in what were at the beginning of the 20th century far less salubrious dwellings than many of those, who worshipped in St Peterburg Place. Although I do not know for certain, I doubt there was much socialising between the Jewish communities of Bayswater and Notting Hill.
The Notting Hill Synagogue was housed in a former church hall. Its memorial stone dated the 27th of January 1900 was laid by Sir Samuel Montagu. Although it was a discreet building externally, its interior with galleries for the women and girls was elaborate and attractive as can be seen in old photographs (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Photographs.htm). We have walked past it many times without realising it was once a place of worship until a friend told us recently about its former incarnation.
During WW2, the synagogue was severely damaged by a German bomb. It was restored and reconstructed. During the Notting Hill race riots in the late 1950’s, during the time that the fascist Oswald Mosely (1896-1980) was campaigning as a candidate in the election for the parliamentary seat of the local constituency, Kensington North, he set up his office close to the synagogue. On the 31st of January 1959, one of his supporters daubed the synagogue with the words used by the Nazis: “Juden raus”. Despite these traumatic events, the synagogue continued to thrive until the 1990s, when the size of the local Jewish population had declined. Rabbi Pini Dunner (born 1970), who had been invited to help in performing the ritual in 1992, when the synagogue, under the leadership of its charismatic Stuart Schama, was falling into decline, wrote:
“Notting Hill Synagogue was nothing like any shul I had ever seen. The congregants consisted of a motley group of mainly octogenarian men, characters out of some East End Jewish sit-com, each with his own catchphrase, many of them not quite sure why they were there week after week.”
The synagogue then closed, and amalgamated with the Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham & District Synagogue. Since its closure, the synagogue has been used as a ‘health club’. Currently (March 2021), the building bears the name ‘Teresa Tarmey’, a company that supplies various treatments (www.teresatarmey.com/).
The transformation of the former synagogue into a trendy beauty salon reflects that of Notting Hill from a relatively impoverished area into a prosperous area with high property prices, which is beginning to make Bayswater seem less attractive in comparison. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place continues to thrive. One of my cousins, who lives many miles from it, told me that it was well worth travelling to because its congregation is vibrant and life-enhancing, which is good to know because the mainly residential area surrounding the synagogue is usually rather sleepy.
MI5 WORKS TO HELP protect our democracy in the UK. Its architecturally unflattering headquarters stand looming above the southern end of Vauxhall Bridge. A few yards downstream from it, and directly facing the main entrance of the Tate Britain across the river, there is a small grassy triangle close to the river. In the middle of the green space, there is a bust on a pedestal. The bust depicts a man with a moustache, who is wearing two chunky necklaces and what looks like a bejewelled turban. This is a monument to Basaveshvara, who lived between 1134 and 1168 (actually, these dates are not certain: he might have lived c1106-1167). A panel on the side of the pedestal notes that he was:
“Pioneer of Democracy and Social Reform”
Various people and organisations supported the creation of this monument to someone of historical importance but until now unknown to me and, I would guess, to many other people wandering past the bust. As one of the organisations involved in its creation was The Government of Karnataka (in southern India), I reached for my tattered copy of “A History of Karnataka” (edited by PB Desai), which I picked up in the wonderful Aladdin’s cave of a bookshop, Bookworm, in Church Street, Bangalore, a city which I visit often. It has 8 index entries for Basaveshwara, who is also known as ‘Basava’, ‘Basavanna’, and ‘Basavaraja’, all of these being transcripts from various Indian language alphabets.
Basaveshwar was born of Shaivite Brahmin parents at Bagevadi, which is now in the Bijapur district in the northern part of Karnataka. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vrishabha’, the divine bull, Nandi, who carries the god Shiva. Early histories (the Puranas) described him as an incarnation of the god Shiva rather than a human being, but it is considered that he was certainly a real person. A devotee of Shiva, Basaveshwara was well-versed in both Kannada and Sanskrit learning. He was brought up in a social milieu in which people blindly adhered to the dogmas and rituals of Vedic Hinduism without bothering to understand the true spirit of religion. Desai wrote:
“Basava’s mind revolted against these ills and he decided to defy the existing order of things.”
After receiving the sacred thread, very roughly speaking a Hindu equivalent of the Jewish Bar-mitzvah or the Christian confirmation, Basaveshwara went to the Kudama Sangama, a temple complex at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha. In 2011, long before I had ever heard of Basaveshwara, we stopped briefly at the Sangama on our way from Hospet to Bijapur (now named ‘Vijayapura’), both in Karnataka. When we were there, the rivers had dried up and we saw signs advising visitors to beware of crocodiles.
Basaveshwara remained at the Sangama for about 12 years. In his time, as it is now, the Sangama was much visited by people from all walks of life. There, he met many scholars and learned men from all schools of Hindu belief. Eventually, Basaveshwara travelled to Mangalavada, the headquarters of Bijala II (c1130-c1167), the feudatory governor of the Kalachuri family (of the Chalukya dynasty). Soon, Basaveshwara became the Chief Treasurer of Bijala’s court. It was then that Basaveshwara:
“… started his new movement of religious and social reforms, treating all devotees of Siva [i.e. Shiva] as equal in all respects without the traditional distinctions of castes, communities and sects.” (Desai)
After about 20 years, BASAVESHWARA moved to Kalyana, the capital of Bijala, where his reformist ideas gained a great following. Bijala II, who had become suspicious of Basaveshwara, began crushing the movement inspired by Basaveshwara’s radical ideas that seriously threatened the traditional hierarchy that favoured the Brahmins, as well as advocating some hitherto unknown equality of men and women in spiritual aspects of life. For example, Basaveshwara sanctioned a marriage between the son of an ‘untouchable’ and the daughter of a Brahmin. Upset by this, Bijala sentenced the couple to death. Basaveshwara’s followers then plotted to assassinate Bijala, an act of which Basaveshwara disapproved. Realising that he could not restrain his angry followers, Basaveshwara retreated to Kudama Sangama, where he died. Bijala was murdered soon afterwards. Later, Basaveshwara became venerated as a (Hindu) saint.
These ideas sound familiar to those versed in the history of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived many centuries after Basaveshwara. Yet, Basaveshwara is relatively unknown compared with Gandhi. Basaveshwara was certainly a reformer as is stated on the base of his bust near Vauxhall Bridge and his radical ideas were undoubtedly democratic when considered in relation to the time when he lived. So, it is quite appropriate that from his bust, there is a clear view of the Houses of Parliament, a home of democracy.
The bust on the embankment was erected by Dr Neeraj Patil, born in Karnataka, a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth 2010-2011 and Dr Anagha Patil. It was unveiled in November 2015 by the current Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. It is appropriate that Modi inaugurated this memorial as his parents were members of what was officially recognised a socially disadvantaged community, whose emancipation would surely have been approved by the reformer Basaveshwara. And what is more, Modi is one of the first, if not the very first, of the Indian Prime Ministers, all democratically elected, who was not from a ‘high’ caste or social class such as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Rajput, and has completed at least one term of office. So, I feel that Basaveshwara does deserve a place within sight of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.
THE AUTHOR OF “Utopia”, which was published in Latin in 1516, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), had a house in London’s Chelsea. It was not far from Henry VIII’s manor house on what is now Cheyne Walk. The land in which More’s house was built was bounded to the north by what was, and still is, the Kings Road, to the south by the River Thames and between the still extant Milman Street and Old Church Street.
The house that was ‘L’ shaped in plan (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol4/pt2/pp18-27) when More used it as his out-of-town dwelling between 1520 and 1535, when he was arrested there and taken to the Tower of London. His arrest was in connection with trying to upset the marriage plans of his neighbour in Chelsea, King Henry VIII. More lived at Beaufort, to which he loved to escape from London and from the Court, and to spend time with his family and to write. It was here that he entertained many friends, among whom were the scholar Erasmus and the artist Holbein.
After Thomas More’s execution and the death of Henry VIII, King Edward VI granted Beaufort House to William Pawlet, 1st Marquis of Winchester (c1484-1572). Then, it passed through the hands of the Dacre family to William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598), and next to his son, Sir Robert Cecil (1563-1612). Cecil sold it to Henry (Clinton) Fiennes, Earl of Lincoln (1539-1616). The house and its grounds continued to move through different owners until it came into the possession of the physician and founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in 1738.
Sloane demolished Beaufort House in 1740 to “…strip it for parts…”, so wrote James Delbourgo in “Collecting the World”, his recent biography of Sloane. The demolition work was executed by a Quaker, Edmund Howard (1710-1798; detailed biography: https://ahsoc.contentfiles.net/media/assets/file/Edmund_Howard_by_J_Nye_SF.pdf). He was Sloane’s gardener in Chelsea. During the demolition, he was often in dispute with Sloane over money.. Howard observed that:
“… the receiving of money was to Sir Hans Sloane more pleasing than parting with it.”
Little remains of what Sloane demolished apart from a few brick walls. However, one fine relic, an elegant neo-classical gateway designed by Inigo Jones, was sold to Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) and placed near his Chiswick House.
The northwest corner of Thomas More’s Chelsea estate is a peaceful walled garden, which can be entered from Kings Road. Some of these walls are the Tudor brickwork from More’s time at Beaufort House. The north side of the almost square plot is occupied by a line of small buildings belonging to the Moravian Church Fetter Lane Congregation (Chelsea). These buildings, which include the curate’s house, a tiny chapel, and a meeting hall, once a church, face a large square patch of lawn with four fig trees in its centre. Closer examination of the lawn reveals that it contains numerous square gravestones that lie flush with the mowed grass. This is the Moravian Burial Ground.
Protestant missionaries from Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) founded a church in Fetter Lane in the City of London in 1742. The missionaries were hoping to travel to the British colonies to carry the Gospel to people out there, notably slaves. However, they realised that there was plenty for them to do in England and worked alongside British missionaries like the Wesleyans. The church in Fetter Lane survived until WW2 when it was destroyed by bombing. In the 1960s, the congregation moved to its present site.
The burial ground was established in the former stable yard of Beaufort House and the first burial was done in 1751. About 400 people have been buried in this cemetery. Amongst them was Henry, the 73rd Count of Reuss, brother-in-law of Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf (1700-1760). It was the latter who leased Lindsey House in Chelsea, built on the estate of Sir Thomas More, and used it between 1749 and 1755 as his base for missionary work in England. Zinzendorf was extremely critical of slavery (www.zinzendorf.com/).
At the south edge of the burial lawn, there is a stone pergola and an elaborately carved wooden bench backrest. Both were created by the sculptors Ernest (1874-1951) and Mary Gillick (1881-1965), who leased the site of the Moravian cemetery between 1914 and 1964 (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=KAC100). Mary designed the effigy of Elizabeth II used on coinage in the United Kingdom from 1953 to 1970. The long wooden bench is decorated with painted shields, showing the coats-of-arms of all the owners of Beaufort House and its estate from More to Sloane. It also has a brief history of Beaufort House carved into it.
From the oasis that is the Moravian Church’s ground, it is but a short walk west along Kings Road to the large Worlds End Distillery pub, which was already present in the 17th century. The present pub was built in 1897. It is: “… a public house in the gin-palace genre …” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391649).
As for the name ‘Worlds End’, this might not be as apocalyptic as it first appears because ‘end’ often used to mean ‘field’ in archaic English. Regarding the ‘World’ part of the name, Edward Walford wrote in about 1880:
“In the King’s Road, near Milman Street, is an inn styled “The World’s End.” The old tavern… was a noted house of entertainment in the reign of Charles II …The house was probably called ‘The World’s End’ on account of its then considerable distance from London, and the bad and dangerous state of the roads and pathways leading to it.”
The posh ‘Sloanes’* of Chelsea might regard Worlds End as truly the end of their part of the world because west of it the shops and dwellings on Kings Road seem far less opulent than those on the stretch between the pub and Sloane Square. At Worlds End, the ‘Sloanes’’ utopian world transforms into unglamorous routine inner-city life. Should ‘Sloanes’ carelessly stray as far west as Worlds End, they would have crossed over to the ‘wrong side of the tracks’.
[* a ‘Sloane’ is a fashionable upper middle- or upper-class, often young, person, especially one living in London and particularly in Chelsea; most definitely not Bohemian, but extremely bourgeois.]
IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.
During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:
“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”
Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.
Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.
The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features. The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.
There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.
It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.
The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.
A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:
“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”
This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.
The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.
My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries. We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.
We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.