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.

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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

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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.