BRUTON IN SOMERSET lies along the River Brue. Most of the old town is high above the river on its steep banks. Narrow passageways run along the steep slopes, connecting the High Street with the riverbank below. These steep passageways in Bruton are called Bartons. The word ‘barton’ means ‘farmyard’ in Old English. However, why these passages are called ‘bartons’ in Burton is a bit of a mystery despite the fact that there used to be farmsteads close to the town.
AN HOUR IN TRURO is hardly enough to get to know the county town of Cornwall well, but it is long enough to discover that the city’s centre is attractive and interesting. In 1876 the Diocese of Truro was founded and in the following year, it gained the status of ‘city’, making it the southernmost city in mainland Britain. Until the diocese was established, the county of Cornwall including the Scilly Isles and a couple of parishes in Devon were in the Diocese of Exeter. Given that the Christian faith was well established in this southwestern part of England at least 100 years before the first Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed, it was high time that Cornwall had its own diocese and archbishop.
Between 1880 and 1910, a gothic revival cathedral designed by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) was constructed on the site of the 15th century parish church of St Mary. Parts of this old church were incorporated into the new cathedral and the top of its granite spire stands in a garden next to it. One of only three British cathedrals with three spires, Truro’s cathedral was the first new cathedral to be built in England after many centuries. Although a relatively recent structure compared with many of Britain’s other cathedrals, it is a fitting design for the mediaeval heart of the city with its narrow winding streets.
The name Truro might be derived from the Cornish words meaning ‘three rivers’ or ‘the settlement on the River Uro’. In any case, Truro has a river running through it, which helped stimulate the growth of the city’s prosperity. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the tin mining industry added to Truro’s wealth. Lemon Street, where we parked, is evidence of that; it looks like a Georgian street in Bath or some parts of London. The arrival of a direct railway line between the city and London in the 1860s provided a further boost to the city’s success. Earlier in mediaeval towns, Truro, which is inland and therefore difficult to reach by seaborne foreign invaders, became an important port. In addition, it was a stannary town, where revenue from the tin industry was collected, yet another source of the town’s wealth.
Our brief first visit to Truro (at the end of a long day out) has whetted my appetite for another lengthier exploration of the city, which at first sight seems to have many interesting features to excite tourists who have an interest in history.
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.’
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.
MY COUSINS IN CORNWALL live not far from a place called Withiel. The mainline train from London to Penzance usually stops at a station called Lostwithiel. The latter is just over 7 miles southeast of Withiel as the crow flies. Yesterday, the 26th of July 2021, we decided to visit both Withiel and Lostwithiel. Despite its name, Lostwithiel on the River Fowey is much easier to access than Withiel, which is deep in the Cornish countryside.
The ‘lost’ in Lostwithiel has little if anything to do with being unable to be found. There is agreement that ‘lost’ is the Cornish word for ‘tail’. It is likely that Lostwithiel derived from the Cornish ‘Lost Gwydhyel’, meaning ‘tail end of woodland’. The village of Withiel is known as ‘Egloswydhyel’ in the Cornish language. This means ‘church in woodland’. Having found out that Lostwithiel is not actually lost nor ever has been, I will compare the two places.
Withiel, far smaller than Lostwithiel, is small village with a fine old church, St Clements and a few, about twenty at most, houses arranged around a rectangular open space. The parish church, which I have yet to enter, originated in the 13th century. It was rebuilt in granite in the 15th and 16th centuries and looks far too large for such a small village and its neighbouring communities including one called Withielgoose. The rebuilding was instigated by Thomas Vyvyan (late 1470s – 1533), the penultimate Prior of Bodmin before the Reformation. He was a Cornishman educated at Exeter College (Oxford), who was instituted in the rectory of Withiel in 1523, and then at St Endellion Church in 1524. Withielgoose, which is tiny place that includes the word ‘withiel’, has nothing to do with geese. The name derives from the Cornish words ‘gwyth’, meaning trees; ‘yel’, of unknown meaning; and ‘coes’, meaning ‘wood’.
Tiny Withiel has at least one interesting historical figure apart from Thomas Vyvyan, Sir Bevile Grenville (1594/95-1643). Educated at Exeter College (Oxford), he was a Member of Parliament and a Royalist. He was killed at The Battle of Lansdown (5th of July 1643) in the English Civil War. The historian of the Civil War Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674), who served the Royalists during the conflict, wrote of Sir Bevile:
“…to the universal grief of the army, and, indeed, of all who knew him. He was a gallant and a sprightly gentleman, of the greatest reputation and interest in Cornwall, and had most contributed to all the service that had been done there.”
From small Withiel, we move to the town of Lostwithiel, an attractive place that seems not to have become as great a tourist attraction as have many other picturesque places in Cornwall. The town was established in the early 12th century by Norman lords, who constructed Restormel Castle nearby. It was a stannary town, which meant that it could manage the collection of ‘tin coinage’, a duty payable on tin mined in Cornwall. Most of what was collected entered the coffers of the Duchy of Cornwall.
In the 13th century, Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall (‘Edmund of Almain’; 1249-1300) built both the Great Hall in Lostwithiel and the town’s church tower. Edmund was son of Richard of Cornwall, 1st Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans (king, not emperor, of the Holy Roman Empire) between 1257 and 1272. The tower is still standing as are also the remains of the Great Hall, built between about 1265 and 1300, making it one of the oldest non-ecclesiastical buildings in Cornwall. It was a large complex of buildings, which was badly damaged during the English Civil War. What remains is an interesting set of mediaeval buildings and the old Exchequer Hall, now known as ‘The Duchy Palace’. Later used as a Masonic Hall, some of its windows contain six-pointed stars as used by the Masons. A crest on one of its walls is the earliest version of that of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has long since been replaced by the plume of feathers used today. The Cornish born (in St Austell) and world-renowned historian Alfred Leslie Rowse (1903-1997) wrote that in the mediaeval era:
“… the real centre of Duchy administration was Lostwithiel; here the various offices, the shire hall where the county court met, the exchequer of the Duchy, the Coinage Hall for the stannaries’ and the stannary jail, were housed in the fine range of buildings built by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall…”
So, Lostwithiel was once important as an administrative centre, but it has now lost this role.
The River Fowey flows through Lostwithiel, passing meadows where people picnic, and children play. The river, though wide, is shallow enough for youngsters to play in safely. The river is crossed by a magnificent multi-arched, stone bridge, which is so narrow that it is only wide enough for one single motor vehicle. The crossing has six pointed arches. It was constructed in the mid-15th century. Its parapets were built in the 16th century and an additional flood arch was added in the 18th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1327324).
We wandered around Lostwithiel for a while and saw many fine old buildings apart from those already mentioned. One of them is the Museum, housed in the former Corn Exchange (a Georgian building), and the former Grammar School. We also spotted an ancient Cornish cross in the parish churchyard. Lostwithiel is a place to which I hope to return to spend more time there. In comparison to Withiel that is far more lost from sight, Lostwithiel has plenty to interest the visitor.
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.
DESPITE THE RAIN, we decided to walk along the path by the River Thames, proceeding upstream from Hammersmith. I had done this before, but never ventured beyond (i.e., upstream) the attractive church of St Nicholas, Chiswick, in whose graveyard you can find the funerary monument to the painter, William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose former home is nearby, and another to the Italian patriot, Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827). After walking along a riverside pathway that passes several recent, moderately attractive, but probably immoderately priced, housing estates, we reached Chiswick Pier at Corney Reach, whose name commemorates the now demolished Corney House, where Queen Elizabeth I was once entertained by the Earl of Bedford, who owned the place (www.chiswickw4.com/default.asp?section=info&page=conhistory29.htm).
Several lovely old houseboats are moored next to the pier. Near the jetty there is a noticeboard explaining the history of each of these vessels. Soon after this, the riverside path enters Dukes Meadow. Up to Barnes Bridge, which is a combined rail and pedestrian crossing over the river, the meadows form a grassy promenade running parallel to the Thames. Beyond the bridge, the meadows widen out and extend to Great Chertsey Road that crosses Chiswick Bridge.
The history of Dukes Meadow is recorded in a detailed essay by Gillian Clegg (https://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/dukes-meadows-the-threats-to-its-rural-survival/), from which I have extracted most of the following. In the past, the Meadow were low lying farmland and orchards prone to occasional flooding. The land was owned by the Dukes of Devonshire and cultivated by the Jessop family, then later farmed by John Smith of Grove Farm. Incidentally, one of the Dukes, William, the 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), who had owned nearby Chiswick House in the 18th century. He had both enlarged the house (in 1788) and extended its grounds. At one time, the grounds of Chiswick House must have neighboured the Dukes Meadow. Ms Clegg noted that it was miraculous that the meadows survived as such considering the plans that were proposed for making use of it during the early 20th century.
Two plans were conceived for the ‘development’ of Dukes Meadow. The first was a housing scheme that was to be named ‘Burlingwick’. Clegg wrote:
“On 19 April 1902 The Times newspaper reported that ‘an influential body of capitalists’ had negotiated successfully with the Duke of Devonshire for 330 acres of land for a building plan to be called Burlingwick. The promoter, manager and developer of this scheme was Jonathan Carr, the developer of Bedford Park.”
Had this gone ahead, it would have created housing for up to 400,000 people and 330 acres of green land would have been lost to bricks and mortar. Fortunately, for reasons that are not now too clear the scheme was abandoned in about 1906.
1914 saw the next threat to the Meadows. The Brentford Gas Company planned to cover 80 acres of the Meadow with a huge gasworks. The people of Chiswick and other areas raised strong objections. The London “Times” of 6th February 1914 published its doubts about the scheme, which it said went against all the principles of good town planning, suggesting:
“…that land ripe for building – such as the Chiswick orchard farm – near the heart of the metropolis should be utilized for parks and garden settlement.”
The plan was scrapped, but what the “Times” had alluded to was later realised, but in a then novel way.
In 1923, the local council bought 200 acres of land from the then Duke of Devonshire. The land was to be used as a public recreation area complete with a riverside promenade, a bandstand, and a children’s area with paddling pools. All of this cost the council much money. To recoup some of what they had spent, they made an agreement with the Riverside Sand and Ballast Group. As Ms Clegg explained, the company:
“…was allowed to extract at least five acres every year in exchange for £1,500 an acre.”
The extraction of gravel proceeded from 1924 until 1937 and caused considerable damage to the area. Ms Clegg explained that when the land was finally returned to the council in 1948:
“The gravel pits were filled in, mainly with rubbish brought from inner London, and the area re-landscaped. Dukes Meadows has been described as one of the earliest and most impressive examples of restoration.”
Today, the promenade remains but I saw neither a children’s play area nor paddling pools, which still exist. The bandstand, which stands within a sunken circle lined with steps on which the audience can sit has a hexagonal tiled roof supported by six plain pillars. It is flanked on two sides by spacious shelters, also with tiled roofs. All their roofs are designed so that the angle (or degree) of pitch reduces noticeably about two thirds of the way from the top. Judging by their appearance, I would guess that these structures were built back in the early 1920s. This is confirmed by their appearance in a photograph taken during those years. Also visible in this picture are the unusual, twisted railings, looking like sugar-candy, running alongside the water, and supported by concrete posts with rounded tops. These are still in place today as are their concrete supports which bear simple decorative patterns. Some balustrading can be seen lining the waterfront near the bandstand (see quote below).
Part of the promenade leading towards Barnes Bridge from the Chiswick end of the Meadow is arranged in the form of two long steps. I have no idea why, but maybe they were once used by spectators watching boat races on the river. An article written in 1924 describes the popularity the Meadow with people watching the annual university boat race (http://dmtrust.dukesmeadowspark.com/newriversidepleasaunce.html):
“…in fact so many thousands of people availed themselves of this vantage point last Saturday week at the small admission fee charged by the Council, that over £1,000 net was raised towards the promenade project.”
However, currently a line of bushes obscures sight of the river and the suburb of Barnes across it from these steps. A planning document produced in November 1923 (http://dmtrust.dukesmeadowspark.com/ariversideboulevard.html) sheds a little light on these steps:
“The Scheme, which received the first prize and was submitted by MR A. V. Elliot, of Chiswick, is reproduced on this page. It shows a series of terraces with a plateau of turf, showing seats and rustic shrubberies at intervals, and with a central feature of a bandstand and stone balustrading including a flight of steps and a causeway admitting to the river at all states of the tide.”
We enjoyed our stroll along the Dukes Meadow promenade even though the sky was grey, trees were dripping, and raindrops were falling intermittently. On our way back along the Thames Path to Hammersmith, we stopped at a charming Italian eatery and delicatessen on Chiswick Mall. The place, which is run by Sicilians, is called Mari Deli & Dining, and merits a visit to enjoy a good espresso, at the very least.
JUST UNDER A YEAR AGO, we visited Cookham in Berkshire, a small town on the River Thames, with our friend ‘H’. I first met H and her widowed mother in about 1975 at the home of some dear friends, my PhD supervisor and his wife. My wife and I used to see H about once a year until about 1999 at the home of our mutual friends. Then, we lost touch. A few years ago, H and I reconnected via social media and we kept promising that we should meet up again. It was only in about July 2020 during a relaxation of the covid19 regulations that we finally met face to face. Our meeting was in Cookham, where we enjoyed an exhibition at the small Stanley Spencer Art Gallery. After having coffee together – it was the first time that H had been to drink coffee outside her home since mid-March, we walked through the rain to Cookham Bridge and crossed it, admiring the lovely views of the Thames.
The roadway on Cookham Bridge is so narrow that traffic must be regulated by signals at both ends of the crossing. These signals allow traffic to flow in single file in one direction for a few minutes, and then in the other. While we walked across the bridge, I noted its lovely decorative iron railings, which can be seen in a painting, “Swan Upping at Cookham” (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/spencer-swan-upping-at-cookham-t00525), painted in 1915-19 by Cookham’s famous artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).
It was not until April 2021 that we revisited Cookham with some friends and walked along the Thames Path, which passes under Cookham Bridge. It was then that I noticed what we had not seen with H: the interesting Victorian ironwork structure supporting the crossing. A sign screwed onto one of the pontic’s metal panels reads: “Pease, Hutchinson, & Co. 1867. Engineers & iron Manufacturers. Skerne Iron Works. Darlington”. The Skerne Iron Works were:
“…run by a Quaker partnership trading as Pease, Hutchinson and Ledward. The Skerne company built its reputation upon plates for ships, boilers, and particularly bridge building, and at its peak employed 1,000 workers.” (www.gracesguide.co.uk/Pease,_Hutchinson_and_Co)
The iron bridge, supported by pairs of slender iron beams (filled with concrete) with cross-bracing rods, was opened in 1867 to replace an earlier wooden bridge that was opened in 1840. The existing bridge was when it was constructed the cheapest bridge across the Thames for its size (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cookham_Bridge). Until 1947, it was a privately owned bridge for which users needed to pay a toll. It was owned by the Cookham Bridge Company. In 1947, Berkshire County Council bought the bridge, and the toll was abolished. An octagonal house still stands next to the bridge across the river from Cookham. It is the early 19th century toll house built in 1839 by a Mr Freebody (https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/Monument/MBC19500).
At the Cookham side of the bridge stands The Ferry pub, close to where there used to be a ferry across the river. This old, half-timbered inn, now a mid-priced eatery, has a lovely terrace by the river, from which the bridge can be viewed as well as the waterways leading downstream to Cookham weir and the lock that bypasses it.
Recently, a close relative of H contacted me. He had found my details in the address book in H’s computer. It came as a shock to learn from him that H had passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. When we had last seen her late last year, she was looking hale and hearty. Apparently, one Saturday, she began feeling extremely unwell and on the following day she expired. We were terribly upset because we got on so well with her and were planning outings with her once the covid19 socialising restrictions were eased. They were relaxed but not in time for us to be able to see H again. As we drove through Cookham on our most recent visit, we kept seeing places that reminded us of our meeting with her last summer.
Our friend with whom we crossed Cookham Bridge last year has crossed from this world into another, where I hope that she will be reunited with her parents, our mutual friends, who introduced her to me and then later to my wife, as well as Sir Geoffrey Howe and Elspeth, his wife, with whom she worked happily for many years. H will be sorely missed.
MANY PEOPLE ENJOY eating watercress. I quite like it, but it is not my favourite. I prefer eating its close and more piquant relatives: mustard and wasabi. As its name suggests, watercress is an aquatic plant that lives in a watery environment. It could almost be considered an edible water weed. This April (2021) we visited Ewelme, a small village in Oxfordshire, where watercress is cultivated in the river that runs through it. We had come to Ewelme to see its alms-houses and school, which were built in about 1437 and are still being used for their original purposes. I will relate more about these in the future.
On our way to the village, we met some cyclists, who told us about the watercress cultivation in Ewelme and recommended that we took a look at the set-up. I was interested to see it as I had never (knowingly) seen watercress growing. Also, I was curious because I have often walked past Willow Cottages on Willow Road in Hampstead. It was in this row of dwellings that Hampstead’s watercress pickers lived many years ago. They gathered the crop from streams flowing on nearby Hampstead Heath.
The name Ewelme is derived from the Old English ‘Ae-whylme’ meaning ‘waters whelming’ or ‘source of a stream or river’. In the early 13th century, the place was known as ‘Eawelma’. The spring after which the village is named is just north of Ewelme. Water from the spring that flows through the village is in Ewelme Brook, which is a short tributary of the nearby River Thames. It meets the Thames 1.2 miles upstream from Wallingford Bridge. Watercress grows best in alkaline water such as flows in Ewelme Brook, which rises in the chalky Chiltern Hills.
The watercress beds can be found in Ewelme near the northern end of the High Street, northwest of the attractive village pond that forms a part of the Brook. They were established in the 19th century. Watercress from Ewelme was taken to Wallingford from where it was carried further afield by train. In 1881, the idea of a rail link between Ewelme and Wallingford was mooted, but the line was never built. It was in that year that:
“…Smiths of Lewknor and South Weston, who were established at Brownings by 1881, and created cress beds along the roadside stream probably in stages. The business continued until 1988, with cress initially transported from Watlington station for sale in the Midlands, Covent Garden, and Oxford.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol18/pp192-234)
The Ewelme watercress beds were abandoned in 1988 but restored by the Chiltern Society after 1999. This organization continues to look after them (https://chilternsociety.org.uk/event/chiltern-society-ewelme-watercress-beds-conservation-volunteers-6/2019-02-02/).
The watercress beds at Ewelme are a series of rectangular enclosures in a widened part of the stream. The cress grows, floating on the water in the enclosures. Pairs of enclosures are arranged sequentially like shallow steps in a staircase. The shallow water flows rapidly from one enclosure to the next through small gaps in the stone barriers that demarcate them. Swarms of watercress leaves on their stems almost fill each of the enclosures, deriving nutrients and water from the continuously changing water flowing through their roots. I imagine that picking the crop involves wading in the watery watercress beds.
Although Oxfordshire is no longer one of the major counties for watercress cultivation, what can be seen at Ewelme is pleasing to the eye. The counties where most of this plant is now grown include Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Hertfordshire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watercress). Alresford in Hampshire, near Winchester, is known as the UK’s watercress capital.
Although I am not keen on raw watercress, I prefer it served in a soup. My late aunt used to make a superb watercress soup using fresh watercress added at the last minute to a homemade vegetable stock. We have tried making it with meat stock, but this was not nearly as nice because the fresh taste of the almost uncooked watercress gets masked by the flavour of the stock. With this small bit of culinary advice, I will leave the watercress beds of Ewelme and wish you “bon appetit”.
THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR, fought in 1805 in the waters off Cape Trafalgar on the Atlantic coast of Spain, was a major victory for British naval forces under the leadership of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). Sadly, it was after that battle that Nelson died, having been hit by a bullet fired from the French vessel “Redoubtable”. Most people are familiar with Trafalgar Square in central London, which commemorates the great victory. Fewer people might be familiar with a riverside hostelry in Greenwich, which also celebrates the battle.
The majority of visitors to Greenwich concentrate mainly on the Cutty Sark, the Royal Naval College, the Greenwich Meridian, the Naval Museum, and Greenwich Market. The Trafalgar Tavern is, I suspect, not on everyone’s list of things that must be seen on a visit to Greenwich. It is located on the riverbank immediately east (downstream) of the former Royal Naval College (now partly occupied by the University of Greenwich).
Before dealing with the tavern, let me digress a little about the origin of the name Greenwich. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, first written in the 9th century, the place was called ‘Grénawic’ or ‘Gronewic’, meaning ‘the green village’. The Scandinavian invaders of Britain might have given it a name meaning ‘the green reach’. The Domesday Book of 1086 lists it as ‘Grenviz’. In 1291, a document called it ‘Grenewych’, which is close to its current name. During the 18th century the hitherto principally naval town also became a popular resort.
The Trafalgar Tavern was built in 1837 to the designs of the architect Joseph Kay (1775-1847), who helped to design the centre of Greenwich, on the site of an older inn, The Old George Tavern. In 1830, the owner of the Old George had wanted to enlarge his premises, but his ideas were sabotaged by the architect he had employed, who could see great potential for the inn and then decided to acquire the pub for himself (www.trafalgartavern.co.uk/history). The new owners of the pub submitted numerous plans for enlarging it until at last in 1837, they got the go ahead to proceed. The elegant building, with bow windows covered with canopies, looking out over the river, that exists today is what they built and re-named The Trafalgar Tavern in 1837.
The tavern’s name was well-chosen. After Nelson was shot, his body was returned to England, where it landed at Spithead. Eventually, Nelson’s embalmed corpse was transferred to Greenwich Hospital, where it was examined (https://www.navyhistory.org.au/the-preservation-of-horatio-lord-nelsons-body/). On the 5th of January 1806, the body lay in state in the magnificent Painted Hall of the hospital. The pub’s name was chosen, according to the Trafalgar’s website, because of its proximity to this place, which is about 200 yards away. In accordance with his wishes, Nelson was buried at St Pauls Cathedral.
Writing in 1876, James Thorne noted that the Trafalgar and other riverside inns in Greenwich were “… all celebrated for their whitebait dinners…” The Tavern’s history website explains that the whitebait were cooked after being caught fresh from the Thames. From the late 18th century onwards it became the fashion for parliamentarians to travel by boat from Westminster to Greenwich to discuss politics discreetly over a dinner of whitebait at one of the riverside hostelries, including the Trafalgar, which was favoured by the Liberals and The Ship that was favoured by the Tories (www.foodsofengland.co.uk/whitebait.htm). The writer Charles Dickens visited the Trafalgar frequently. It is said that he based the wedding dinner scene in “Our Mutual Friend” in the inn. I did a word search of an online edition of the novel and failed to find the name ‘Trafalgar’. However, it has been noted that the dinner took place in “…a dinner at a hotel in Greenwich overlooking the Thames…” (https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/mstone/44.html). Some of the other notable visitors to the Trafalgar include William Makepeace Thackeray, JMW Turner, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli.
After WW1, the Trafalgar became used as a home for retired sailors. Later, it was used as accommodation for serving naval officers. In 1968, the place was restored to its original Victorian glory and it became a pub once again. Since then, well at least until the covid19 pandemic, the place has been serving drinks and food including whitebait, although the source of this ingredient is unlikely to be the water flowing past the Tavern.
THE NAME ‘TYBURN’ evokes thoughts of executions in many people’s minds. For, amongst the trees growing by the River Tyburn, there were many executions carried out in mediaeval and later times. Eventually, the place where these fatal punishments were performed was moved westwards to near where Marble Arch stands today. Amongst those who lost their lives, there were many unfortunate Roman Catholics, who were regarded as traitors because they wished to adhere to their religion. Today, the Tyburn Convent and Church stands at the eastern end of Bayswater close to the ‘Tyburn Tree’ the site of the executions (https://www.tyburnconvent.org.uk/tyburn-tree).
The River Tyburn, now no longer visible, was one of several of the so-called ‘lost rivers’, tributaries of the River Thames that have been buried beneath the city of London. The Tyburn crossed what is now Oxford Street somewhere west of Marylebone Lane and east of Marble Arch, and then flowed southwards towards Green Park and then to the River Thames. Its exact course from Green Park to the Thames has been long forgotten because no reliable early map of the stream exists. It is also believed that the course of the river might have been altered several times.
According to Nicholas Barton in his informative “The Lost Rivers of London”, the Tyburn has or had one source at Shepherds Well in Hampstead and another in the grounds of the former Belsize Manor (on the present Haverstock Hill). Then it flowed south through Swiss Cottage towards the present Regents Park. There, it is carried in a pipe across the Regents Canal towards Marylebone Lane.
Various footpaths lead from the east side Fitzjohns Avenue that runs from Hampstead to Swiss Cottage. These paths bear the names Spring Path, Spring Walk, and Shepherd’s Path. They are all just north of Lyndhurst Road. Near the corner of Lyndhurst Road and Akenside Road, which runs south from it, there is a circular stone plaque bearing the words:
“For the good of the public this fountain is erected near to the site of an ancient conduit known as The Sheperd’s Well”
The drinking fountain, which was placed by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association has been removed, leaving only the metal plate placed by the Association affixed to the pavement. The drinking fountain is said to have been near the conduit known as Shepherd’s Well, but I wondered where exactly was it located.
A glorious Victorian Gothic building called Old Conduit House stands between the site of the circular plaque and the corner of Lyndhurst Road and Lyndhurst Terrace (formerly known as ‘Windsor Terrace’). This building might possibly have been named in memory of the Shepherd’s Well water conduit. This house was built in about 1864 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379406). A detailed map surveyed in 1866 marks the building and, more interestingly, a spot labelled ‘Conduit Wells’, which is in what was then open country a few yards west of Old Conduit House, near where Fitzjohns Avenue (not yet built in 1866) meets Lyndhurst Road.
Edward Walford writing in his “Old and New London” published in the 1880s reveals:
“Down till very recently, Hampstead was separated from Belsize Park, Kilburn, Portland Town etc. by a broad belt of meadows, known as Shepherds’ or Conduit Fields, across which ran a pleasant pathway sloping up to the south-western corner of the village, and terminating near Church Row.”
This pathway ran along the course of what has become Fitzjohns Avenue. Walford continued:
“On the eastern side of these fields is an old well or conduit, called the Shepherd’s Well, where visitors, in former times used to be supplied with a glass of the clearest and purest water. The spring served not only visitors but also the dwellers of Hampstead with water, and poor people used to fetch it and sell it by the bucket.”
From this description, it seems likely that what was marked on the 1866 map as ‘Conduit Wells’ was, in fact, the Shepherd’s Well. A map dated 1860 (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=3&zoom=13&annum=1860) shows ‘Shepherd’s Well’ in the same spot as the Conduit Wells on the 1866 map. Walford added that unlike other springs around Hampstead (e.g. The Chalybeate Well in Well Walk), the water of the Shepherd’s Well did not have a high mineral content. The probable location of the Shepherd’s Well is close to the Junction of Lyndhurst Road and Fitzjohns Avenue, probably a short distance south west of the end of Shepherd’s Path.
Having traced the probable location of one of the sources of the Tyburn, where it gained life in Hampstead, we can reflect that it was beside the elm trees that used to grow along its banks near Oxford Street that the lives of many people, both innocent and guilty, came to an end. That was before the site of execution was moved westwards to where Marble Arch stands today. The