Travelling abroad at last

WE ARRIVED IN ENGLAND from India on the 27th of February 2020. Because of the covid outbreak, we had not left England until today, the 13th of September 2021. Some, especially those who live there, regard Cornwall as being another country, rather than part of England. We have visited that southwest county of what most people regard as England, since we arrived back from England. So, it would be pushing things if we said that we went abroad to Cornwall,

Today, we travelled abroad, leaving England for a few hours. To reach our destination we did not have to take covid tests or show evidence of double doses of vaccine or, even, show our passports. However, leave England we did. We crossed the River Severn to leave England and enter Wales. Crossing the Severn Bridge on the M48 did not require us to pay a toll as used to be the case, as the crossing is now free of charge. A few years ago, a toll was charged for crossing into Wales, but no longer; it has been abolished.

Tintern Abbey

Well, I hear you say, Wales is not exactly ‘abroad’, but when one has not left England for over 18 months, it will do as ‘abroad’. Wales has its own parliament and most signs, be they on the road or elsewhere, are bilingual (English and Welsh) and, if you are lucky, you will meet a speaker of the Welsh language. To us, crossing over into Wales, after so many moths without foreign travel, felt like going abroad.

We drove along the beautiful Wye Valley and stopped at the attractive ruins of the former Cistercian Tintern Abbey (Abaty Tyndyrn in Welsh), the first ever Cistercian foundation in Wales. At the ticket office, I expressed my joy at being abroad after so many months, and the cashier said to me in a gently Welsh accent:

“I like your style.”

We have visited Tintern Abbey (founded 1131) many times in the past and each time it has been a wonderful experience. Today was no exception. Set in a wooded valley, the ruins of the gothic buildings look great against the background of trees with dark green foliage. After spending about an hour in Tintern, we drove along roads which were mainly in Wales but occasionally crossed the border into England. When we reached Wrexham (Wrecsam in Welsh), we headed off north and east into England, our trip abroad having been completed.

The Knights Templars and a letter from Erasmus (was he gay???)

THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE is remarkably rich in mediaeval remains, many of them accessible to members of the public. Quite a few of these reminders of the past resulted from the mass closure of monasteries and nunneries by King Henry VIII during the 16th century. Denny Abbey between Ely and Cambridge is just one of many examples of the results of the king’s policy. We paid it a brief visit whilst driving between the two cities. We arrived there early in the morning before it was open to visitors, but without entering the compound, we were able to see most of what is on offer apart from the attached Farmland Museum, which we might visit in the future.

Farmhouse, formerly Denny Abbey

The abbey was founded by the Benedictine Order in 1159 (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/denny-abbey-and-the-farmland-museum/) and taken over by the Knights Templars in 1170. The Templars used the place to house old and infirm members of their order. Despite questioning the truth of the Pope’s suspicions about the Templars, King Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) yielded to Rome’s authority, suppressed the Templars in England in 1308-9, and confiscated their properties. In 1327, King Edward III gave the abbey to Marie de Châtillon, Countess of Pembroke (1303-1377), the founder of Pembroke College in nearby Cambridge. She converted the abbey into a Franciscan nunnery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denny_Abbey).  The nunnery became home to members of The Order of Saint Clare, often known as ‘The Poor Clares’. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1536 and it, like all the other ecclesiastical establishments closed by the king, became property of the Crown.

The last abbess at Denny was Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton (1467-1547), who headed the nunnery from 1512 until its dissolution. During her term as abbess, two of the nuns in her establishment were sisters of Sir Thomas Grey (Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset: 1477-1530), a student of the Dutch philosopher and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536). When Erasmus was in Basel in 1525, Grey persuaded him to write to the community at Denny. His letter was received, and in response the nuns sent him a gift, which was stolen before it reached him. When he learned what had happened, he wrote again. In his second letter, Erasmus wrote of:

“…the troubles of the time war everywhere, and wrath of princes, famine, and plague and divisions in the Church which tore families apart but comforted the ladies with the thought of the humility and strength of St. Francis and St. Clare and asked their prayers, not only for himself but for the conversion of the thief. He sent his greeting to the ‘most religious lady’ abbess, and begged her to greet Grey’s sisters for him by name.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp295-302).

According to one source, Erasmus was attracted to men. While serving as a canon in Stein (Holland), Erasmus:

“…supposedly fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul”, writing that “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly”” (www.hmoob.in/wiki/Desiderus_Erasmus)

Later, Erasmus, while teaching in Paris:

“… instructed a 21-year-old English-born student, Thomas Grey, who later became Marquis of Dorset. Erasmus was abruptly dismissed as Grey’s teacher, for making unwanted advances towards him.” (http://gayinfluence.blogspot.com/2012/04/erasmus.html)

Another source (“Erasmus” by Preserved Smith, publ. 1923) might well allude to this excessive friendship:

“…Thomas Grey, a young Englishman, of whom Erasmus was fond …”  

Erasmus was in Paris between 1495 and 1499, after which he lived and worked in England (Oxford, then Cambridge) for several periods over the next few years. Clearly, his abrupt dismissal did not deter Grey from writing to him about the nunnery at Denny Abbey. The presence of Grey’s sisters at Denny might have been a consequence of a possible Grey family connection with two other families that were intimately involved with it: the Coleviles and Massinghams.

After the closure of the nunnery, its refectory became used as a barn; the abbess’s lodge, originally built for the Countess of Clare, became used as a farmhouse; and its church, built in 1159, was demolished. Over the centuries, the farm on the former nunnery’s lands was privately owned. In 1928, Pembroke College (Cambridge) bought the plot, and it remained a farm until 1947, when it was leased to The Ministry of Public Works. It was later transferred into the care of English Heritage (founded in the 1980s).

We parked in a grassy field, watched by a small herd of cows, most of whom were seated on the ground, maybe anticipating a rain shower. The farmhouse, the building originally constructed for the Countess of Pembroke, still has doorways and windows in both the Norman and mediaeval gothic styles. A Norman archway was the entrance to the Templar’s church.  Some of these features, which must have once led into buildings now non-existent, have been bricked in. It has new roofing and some windows that were added long after it ceased to be part of the nunnery. Likewise with the large barn, once the refectory, it has two tall doors, which are later additions to the structure, as well as bricked in windows and archways that were used when the nunnery existed. Two lines of masonry almost flush with the ground mark the site of the nave of the now demolished church. Little else can be seen, although during the site’s opening times, visitors can see the remains of a mediaeval tiled floor.

Although little survives of the former Denny Abbey, its ruins are worth a short visit. And, while you gaze at it, you can marvel at the thought that you are looking at the remains of the only abbey in England to have been home to not one religious order but three different ones (www.dennyfarmlandmuseum.org.uk/content/things-to-see/history-of-denny-abbey). When we stopped to look at the place on a grey Friday morning in August 2021, I had no inkling that the great Erasmus had taken an interest in it, nor had I any idea that the scholar has been suspected by some of being gay. An anonymous writer denies this rather vehemently (www.erasmatazz.com/library/erasmus-the-hero/erasmus-was-not-gay/the-thomas-grey-affair.html). Whether or not Erasmus’s advances to Thomas Grey were of a homosexual nature or simply expressions of deep friendship and admiration of his intellect, it is for others to decide. Deciding whether or not to explore the remains of Denny Abbey is far less difficult than judging Erasmus.

Mediaeval in a modern metropolis

A SHORT REMNANT OF the old Roman city wall, which used to surround London, runs just south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate, which itself is on the southern edge of the Barbican complex. The garden of Salter’s Hall lies where once a moat ran along the outer side of the wall. And on the other side of the wall, between it and the wide road called London Wall (the A1211), there are the remains of a mediaeval structure, which look as if they might have been the lower part of a gothic tower. These ruins can be examined close-up or a few feet away, seated at a table under the awnings of Barbie Green, an Australian-style, contemporary eatery, which serves good coffee. The restaurant is relatively new, but the ruins have been there far, far longer. Oddly, although we have passed this area often, it was only yesterday, 16th of August 2021, that we first noticed them.

A notice next to the ruins explains that they are all that remains of the tower of St Elsyng Spital, which was also known as ‘The Hospital of St Mary within Cripplegate’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/london/vol1/pp535-537). This hospital was founded in 1330 by the merchant, a mercer, William Elsyng as a college for priests and to provide shelter and other assistance to London’s homeless blind people (https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.538317). A victim of the Black Death, he died in 1349.  Following his instructions, after his death it became an Augustinian priory, which survived until it was dissolved in 1536 during the reign of King Henry VIII. After its dissolution, the parishioners of the nearby St Alphage Church, which had become derelict, purchased the church of Elsyng’s establishment. According to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, the 14th century tower, whose remains we saw, was incorporated into the structure of St Alphage. St Alphage was demolished at the end of the 16th century and its parishioners used what was left of Elsyng’s priory church, which was eventually replaced by a newly built church on a different site in 1777 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Alphege_London_Wall).

The well-maintained ruins consist of several tall gothic arches connected to each other by walls made of roughly hewn stones and mortar. Most of the arches are arranged around what was once the base of a tower. This mediaeval site is surrounded by modern buildings, lies beneath a sinuous elevated oxidised metal walkway. It is sandwiched between the fragment of London’s Roman Wall and the busy London Wall dual carriageway. Part of the joy of stumbling across this relic of pre-Reformation architecture is that unlike so many others we have seen on our travels, it is in the heart of a modern metropolis rather than a rustic environment.  

Small though it is in comparison with its modern surroundings, finding this reminder of London’s distant past, founded long ago by a philanthropic merchant, was a delightful surprise. Even today, so many centuries later, philanthropy thrives in the heart of the old City of London in the form of the descendants of the guilds, of which The Salters, whose hall I mentioned above, is just one example of many.

PS: The nearest Underground station is Moorgate

After Armageddon? An art installation

ORFORD NESS IS a desolate strip of land on the Suffolk coast. Separated from the rest of the county by the lower reaches of the River Alde, it was used for testing military technology during much of the 20th century. While it was in the hands of the military, it was strictly out of bounds for everyone except those who were authorised to be there. It was a highly secret military area, more about which I plan to write soon.


In the early 1990s, the Ness was handed over to the National Trust, who developed it and the decaying remains of the military establishment as a visitor attraction and nature reserve.
This Summer (2021), an organisation called Artangel, who “…collaborate with artists who defy boundaries to give form to extraordinary ideas,” (www.artangel.org.uk/about_us/), have placed several intriguing art installations on Orford Ness. One of these, which I particularly liked, is called “The Residents”. It was created by Tatiana Trouvé, who was born in Calabria and grew up in Dakar, Senegal.


Her installation is housed in a concrete structure half buried in shingle and called Lab 1. It was in this bunker, built in the 1960s, that detonators for Britain’s atomic bombs were tested for their resistance to vibration and other forces that might set off detonators at inappropriate times, for example, when being carried in aircraft.


Like most of the rest of the deserted military establishment on Orford Ness, Trouvé’s collection of objects in the disused, dilapidated bunker, creates an intense feeling of a post-Armageddon world. The artist populates the space with a variety of objects, such as suitcases, cloth bags, books, quilted mattresses and rugs, and a transistor radio. All of these objects look as if they have been discarded by people fleeing an horrific disaster. All of them are painted to look life-like, but none of them are real; they are all cast in either aluminium or bronze. This is also the case for the life-like seashells attached to the gate through which the observer looks at this created scene of despair.


Surrounded by acres of shingle covered with distorted, rusting fragments of metal and discarded lumps of concrete, the installation housed within Lab 1 gave me the feeling that I was being given a glimpse of what I hope never to experience: the world following a nuclear catastrophe.

From small acorns tall oaks do grow

THE BUILDING MATERIALS COMPANY TARMAC is not a company that you might immediately associate with leisure activities. Yet, today, our good friends in Hertfordshire, Gareth and Moyna, took us with their two dogs to a park that has largely been created by Tarmac. Panshanger Park is owned by Tarmac Holdings, who extract sand and gravel from the area. After taking what they need, they restore the ground they have dug to render it attractive to humans, wildlife, and cattle.

William Cowper (c1665-1723), First Earl Cowper and once the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, acquired the Cole Green Estate, which includes the land on which Panshanger Park is situated, in about 1700. His descendant the Fifth Earl Cowper commissioned the architects Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807) and then later William Atkinson (c1774-1839) to design a house to replace the existing one. It was designed in the ‘Regency-Gothic’ (Gothic Revival) style and its construction commenced in 1806. The grounds of the new house were landscaped by Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who also landscaped the grounds at London’s Kenwood House. Seeing the grounds at Panshanger reminded me of those at Kenwood. Sadly, the house was demolished in the early 1950s. All that remains of it is a grassy mound and the roofless ruins of the extensive orangery, whose supporting pillars and lintels remain. The lintels bear a bas-relief of floral wreaths, crumbling in parts. The ground in front of the mound sweeps down towards a lake, just as is the case with the lawns in front of the still extant Kenwood House.

A path leads from the remains of the orangery through woods towards an enormous oak tree circled by protective cast-iron railings. This huge oak tree is said to be the largest maiden oak in the country. It is defined as ‘maiden’ because it has never been subjected to pollarding (artificial control of growth by trimming selected branches). One of the tree’s long branches has grown towards the ground and, unusually for oaks, set down new roots, rather like what is commonly found in banyan trees. This tree is said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Whether she planted an acorn or a sapling, we cannot say. My uneducated guess is that planting a sapling rather than random acorn would have been a more reliable way to be sure that the tree would thrive. The tree trunk’s circumference is at present 75 feet (www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/489/137/panshanger-great-oak.html) and increasing because the tree looks remarkably healthy.

Saplings taken from this royal oak have been used to grow the Prince Consort Oak in the Forest of Dean, and another in the same forest planted  (as an acorn) by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as another tree planted by Sir Winston Churchill, which has outlasted this former Prime minister.

Apart from the amazing oak tree and the intriguing remains of the Panshanger orangery, the park is well worth visiting to enjoy its views of lakes, its variety of trees, the long-horned cattle grazing in the fields, and the lovely vistas of the valley of the River Mimran and the rural Hertfordshire landscape. It is gratifying to see that a company, whose activities, such as digging gravel and sand, can easily wreck the countryside, have managed to carry out their work and at the same time to preserve the estate in superb, unsullied condition. Once again our friends in Hertfordshire have opened our eyes to another wonder in the depths of the English countryside.

All that remains is …

OUR GOOD FRIENDS IN HERTFORDSHIRE always take us out into the countryside for a walk with their two friendly dogs. Invariably, we visit countryside that is both beautiful and contains something of interest. This time, we parked in the small hamlet of Thundridge (in Hertfordshire), which is located on what was once the Roman road, Ermine Street (from the Old English ‘Earninga Straete’). This thoroughfare linked London with York. We set off by walking along a small road named Old Church Lane. This soon becomes a footpath that runs alongside the River Rib, a tributary of the River Lea, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames. The Rib merges with the Lea in the town of Hertford.

We walked past a vast field in which some grassy crop was growing. Far across the field there was a small wood. A church tower could be seen rising from amongst the trees. We followed another path towards the clump of trees and soon arrived at the tower. This tower and a graveyard is all that remains of the church of St Mary and All Saints (some call it ‘All Hallows and Little St. Mary’ and others ‘Thundridge Old Church’), which was demolished (apart from the tower) in 1853, when a new church was built in Wadesmill. The tower was constructed of flint and mortar in the 15th century. The rest of the church, now demolished, was built in the 11th to 12th centuries. A Romanesque archway now set into the eastern wall of the tower is the only visible remains of that former church.  Although this ruined tower might well appeal to those who find ruins romantic, it is in a bad condition with some of the structure covered with corrugated iron sheeting and other parts with graffiti. There are some plans to conserve it and others to demolish it to make room for new housing.

The reason that the old church was demolished was that the old manor house, which was close to the old church, was demolished in the 19th century. Consequently, the population of Thundridge moved nearer to the new manor house that was built where the church built in 1853 now stands.

Just before we reached the old church tower, we passed a field which had a long grass-covered trench running along it. This is the remains of a moat built long ago when Thundridge village was located near to the the old, now demolished church. The banks of the moat were liberally studded with mole hills. This moat is believed to have been dug in mediaeval times. What remains of it is ‘D’ shaped and encloses an area bounded by sides of approximately 660 feet north to south and by the same east to west. The moat enclosed the site of the former manor house.

Having seen all that remains of Thudridge Old Church, we retraced our steps to Ermine Street, crossed the fast-flowing River Rib, and then ate an enormous roast lunch in the garden of the nearby Feathers pub in Wadesmill, which is about two minutes’ walk from Thundridge.

Hummus in Hampi (south India)

MANY PEOPLE WILL HAVE EATEN HUMMUS, the chickpea-based dip, but far fewer will be familiar with Hampi, which is the location of an extensive archaeological site in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The village of Hampi contains the fantastic ruins of what was once one of the world’s greatest cities, rivalling Ancient Rome and second in size to Beijing, the world’s largest city in the 16th century. The metropolis, known as ‘Vijayanagara’, now in ruins, was the fabulously prosperous capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which thrived between about 1336 AD and 1565 AD, when it was defeated by a group of Moslem sultanates. After this, the city began to decay, leaving the spectacular ruins that can be explored by visitors today.

BLOG HAMP 1

The ruins of Vijayanagara lie mainly on one side of the River Tungabadra. They are distributed over a large rocky area rich in huge boulders – almost a lunar landscape. We first visited Hampi in about 1997, when there were relatively few tourists clambering amongst the ruins of temples, palaces, stepwells, and miscellaneous other buildings. Since then, we have visited the place another four times. On each successive visit, we have noticed an increase in fellow visitors, both Indians and foreigners. With the increased visitor footfall, there has been ever growing deterioration and damage to the ruins. This is especially noticeable at the Vitthala Temple. It was intact in 1997, but when we last visited a few years ago, it was in a miserable state, with plenty of damaged carvings and being propped up by ugly pillars of grey concrete blocks. Sad as this is, this is not what I want to dwell on in this piece.

India has become a popular destination for Israelis, particularly the younger ones. India is probably a complete contrast to Israel, which I have never visited. In brief, to Israelis India must seem far more ‘laid back’ than their highly organised country. Many Israeli visitors to India visit Hampi to ‘chill out’ and relax.

During one of our stays in Hampi, we took a walk along one bank of the River Tungabadra. We came across a couple of riverside eateries advertising that they served Israeli food. As it was near lunchtime and our daughter and I love hummus, we entered one of these establishments, whose menu included the chickpea paste that we enjoy so much. Also, I was curious to try hummus in India. It was then not a food item I was expecting to see on sale a few years ago. Now, it is becoming available in select food stores such as branches of the upmarket chain Nature’s Basket.

We sat down on a rickety looking terrace overlooking the river and, with mouths watering, and ordered a portion of hummus with pitta bread. It took quite a while to arrive as the hummus was made fresh whilst we waited. When it arrived, the pitta looked remarkably similar to an Indian chapati, rather than an Arabic or Turkish pitta. As for the hummus, this was disappointing to say the least. Its colour was acceptable, but its texture resembled lumpy rice pudding rather than even the coarsest hummus. As for the taste, there was little to report: it was unseasoned and tasteless. I dread to think  what a direct Israeli guest would have made of, or said about, the hummus we were served at Hampi. I had not the heart to send it back to the charming locals who had produced it, but neither was I hungry enough to finish it.

The Angel Hotel

BLOG BURY

SOME CLOSE FAMILY FRIENDS used to live in Cambridge. My father had known Cyril S, a ‘don’ at one of the older colleges, since they were both students at the University of Cape Town. Every now and then in the 1960s, we used to be invited to eat Sunday lunch with the S’s in their lovely Victorian house in Cranmer Road. The S family always kept Siamese cats. Their litter tray filled with a greyish coloured gravel occupied part of the black and white tiled floor of the spacious ground floor toilet close to the house’s main entrance. Whenever I used that toilet, I was always afraid that I might step into the litter tray that was usually studded with feline waste deposits. I do not think that I ever did intrude on that part of the cat’s territory.

On one occasion, Cyril invited us to see his rooms in the college. When we were leaving, he said that we could walk across the grassy quadrangle, instead of around it as most ‘ordinary mortals’ must. He told us proudly:
“This is one of the privileges of being a don. I am allowed walk across the grass and I can take my guests with me.”

We could have driven easily straight to Cambridge from our home in northwest London, but we did not. Instead, we used to spend the Saturday night before our Sunday rendezvous in the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, a small city in Suffolk.

In those far off days, the ivy-covered Angel Hotel opposite the Abbey Gardens was an old-fashioned provincial hotel. The rooms had a curious ‘safety’ feature. The reason I put the word safety in inverted commas will become obvious when I tell you about the feature. Each room had a harness next to its window. The harness was attached to a strong cord, which was connected to a winding mechanism. Had there been a fire, each occupant of a room would in turn fasten the harness around his or her waist, and then climb out of the window. The mechanism was designed to lover the person slowly to the ground outside. The lowered harness could be cranked back up into the room for the next person to escape. Long before we did, the author Charles Dickens stayed at the Angel.

As a child, I could not understand why it was necessary to spend a night in Bury St Edmunds, when the following day we could drive back to London without a stop-over. many years later, it dawned on me that we were not actually breaking a long journey, but it was a way that my parents enjoyed having a night away from home.

Yesterday, the 28th June 2020, we made a day trip to Bury St Edmunds. After eating exceptionally well-prepared fish and chips bought at the amusingly named ‘The Cod Father’ fish and chips shop, run by Bulgarians, we strolled into the centre of the city. The ivy-clad Angel Hotel stands opposite the impressive mid-14th century Abbey Gate. Passing through the Gate tower, one enters the Abbey Gardens. This attractive park is filled with strange looking fragments of what was once a huge abbey complex. Most of them look like oddly shaped piles of stones. They are the rubble cores of what had once been covered with carved masonry. The masonry that adorns the exteriors of mediaeval churches and abbeys is simply a covering for structural cores consisting of rubble and cement of some kind. On some of the fragments in the Abbey Gardens, it is possible to discern the slots into which the carved masonry was placed. However, most of the rubbly remains have disintegrated to become forms that give little clue as to their original shapes.

There is more to the city than the Angel Hotel and the gardens containing the ruins of the abbey. Near the Abbey, there is a cathedral, St Edmundsbury, surrounded by pleasant grounds. At one side of the grounds there is a well-preserved Norman gateway with splendid Romanesque architectural features and a pair of gargoyles that depict serpents with their forked tongues. In the centre of the lawns in the cathedral grounds, there is a fine statue of St Edmund clutching a cross close to his chest. This was sculpted in 1976 by Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who was born in Thurlow, which is near to Bury St Edmunds. Frink was a close friend of my late mother. I remember meeting ‘Liz’ at our home, where she was a regular dinner guest.

Seeing the Frink sculpture (for the first time) and the Angel Hotel yet again reinforced my long-held affection for Bury St Edmunds and revived happy memories of the place and our visits to the family of Cyril S, who died suddenly in 1974. His death deprived the world of a lovely man with a great sense of wit and humour.

Some years later, I was staying with Cyril’s widow in Cranmer Road, when she made me a Bloody Mary cocktail. It was the first time I had tried this delicious concoction, and hers was one of the best I have ever tasted.