The slow train

IF YOUR TRAIN FROM CAMBRIDGE to London stops at Shepreth and Meldreth, you can be sure that you are in for a longish journey because only the slower trains halt at these stations. Over the course of many years, we have been travelling to and from Cambridge by train and as I enjoy looking out of the window, I have always noticed this pair of oddly named stations. Only recently, we visited both places by car and took a look around these lovely villages between Cambridge and Royston and close to the A10 road, which runs from London Bridge to Kings Lynn via Cambridge.

The ‘reth’ suffix in the two villages names means ‘stream’. Shepreth means ‘sheep stream’ and Meldreth means ‘mill stream’. There is archaeological evidence of settlements in both places long before the Romans invaded England. The Romans may have occupied part of the parish of Shepreth and their successors, the Saxons, developed the village of Meldreth. Both villages are listed in the Domesday Book (1086). Little appears to have been recorded in the history books about events in tiny Shepreth. The larger village of Meldreth also played no great role in the history of England but, in the 16th century, Christ College of Cambridge moved to its estate near the village to escape from the plague. Members of the Meldreth Local History Group might disagree with my assessment of Meldreth’s place in British history. Their superb website (meldrethhistory.org.uk/) details many aspects of the place’s past, but most of them are about the village rather than the wider world.  

I imagine that the building and opening of railway stations in the two villages in 1851 were major events in their history and development. Currently, the stations are served by Thameslink trains. The villages are popular places for commuters to both London and Cambridge.

Both villages are rich in historic buildings of great beauty. Many features of vernacular architecture can be found including many fine thatched roofs. A particularly charming old, thatched edifice In Shepreth is Corner Cottage, which is close to a more aristocratic looking building, Docwra House. This former manor house was built in the 17th century and then provided with later additions (www.docwrasmanorgarden.co.uk/history.htm). The village sign at Shepreth is suitably adorned with sheep, bales of fleece, a stream, a bridge, a water mill, and a leaping fish. The bridge, which we did not see, was built in the 17th century. It crossed the River Rhee, a tributary of the River Cam, in which sheep were washed, and was used by farmers taking sheep to the market in Cambridge.

At Meldreth, through which flows the tiny River Mel, a tributary of the Cam, we entered the parish church of Holy Trinity, whose construction began in the mid-12th century on the site of an 8th century church. Its square tower, nave, and chancel were all constructed in the 12th century. The church contains some fine brass chandeliers; an elaborately carved pulpit and choir stalls with wooden carvings; fragments of pre-Reformation frescoes; a lovely timber beam ceiling; some heavily whitewashed carvings supporting some of the ceiling timbers; and a mediaeval parish chest. The latter is one of about 150 surviving examples. It was made in Baltic pine with iron bands between about 1400 and 1420 and was used for securely storing valuable liturgical items (e.g., silverware, books, and vestments).  In addition to visiting the church, we drove through long village to its station, which up until our visit by car, we had only ever seen whilst speeding through it by train. However, we did not see any mills as suggested by the meaning of the name Meldreth.

We did not spend nearly enough time in the two villages as we fitted them into an already busy day of sightseeing. However, having sampled them, we feel that they merit a longer visit in the future. Once again, these places provide good examples of the wealth of historical features to be discovered in England’s rural areas.

Beef, mutton, and martyrs

COPENHAGEN FIELDS WAS an open space north of the Barnsbury district of London’s Islington. In the 17th century, the place was beyond the northern edge of London. As with other open spaces in 17th century Islington, it was an area where people whose homes had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 congregated with what belongings they managed to salvage. By the 18th century, Copenhagen Fields had become a place where large numbers of Londoners used to gather for political meetings.

Animals being led to Caledonian Market

According to William Howitt writing in his “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869), the fields acquired its name following a visit of the King of Denmark to his relative King James I (reigned over England, Scotland and Ireland from 1603 to 1625). A Dane built a house on the open space, Copenhagen House. The name ‘Copenhagen’ appears on a map published in 1695. Howitt reveals that Copenhagen Fields and its house became a place of recreation for Londoners:

“It became a great tea house and resort of the Londoners to play skittles and Dutch-pins. It commanded a splendid view over the metropolis, the heights of Highgate and Hampstead …”

As mentioned, Copenhagen Fields was connected with political activity; it was a place of mass protests. Not long after the French Revolution, there was a meeting in the open space:

“On the 12th of November 1795 a public meeting was summoned by the London Corresponding Society in Copenhagen Fields which was attended by more than a hundred thousand persons. Five rostra or tribunes were erected, and Mr. Ashley, the secretary, informed the meeting that it at each of them petitions to the King, Lords and Commons against the Bill for preventing seditious meetings would be offered to their consideration.” (www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/france/copenhagen.htm).

The best remembered protest that occurred in Copenhagen Fields was on the 21st of April 1834. Thousands of people commenced marching from there to central London in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who lived in Dorset:

“In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast but six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom.” (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/).

Many of those marchers began their procession from Copenhagen Fields:

“Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross. Fearing disorder, the Government took extraordinary precautions. Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, detachments of Lancers, two troops of Dragoons, eight battalions of infantry and 29 pieces of ordnance or cannon were mustered. More than 5,000 special constables were sworn in. The city looked like an armed camp.

By 7am the protesters began to gather marshalled by trade union stewards on horseback. Robert Owen, the leader of the Grand Consolidated Union and the father of the Co-operative Movement arrived.

The grand procession with banners flying marched to Parliament in strict discipline. Loud cheers came from spectators lining the streets and crowding the roof tops. At Whitehall the petition, borne on the shoulders of twelve unionists, was taken to the office of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. He hid behind his curtains and refused to accept the massive petition.” (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/story/mounting-protest)

In June 1855, Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert, opened the Metropolitan Cattle Market (later known as ‘Caledonian Market’). This market occupied most of the area of Copenhagen Fields. It was built to ease the congestion caused by driving live animals into the more centrally located Smithfield Market. Although at first many animals walked to the market from the fields where they were raised, the market was built close to the goods yards of the recently built Great Northern and North London railways (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Cattle_Market).

Cattle travelled (under their own ‘steam’) two hundred miles from Devon at two miles per hour, walking twelve hours a day. Sheep from Wales, also two hundred miles from Copenhagen Fields, would be trotting across England to London for twenty days. Some cattle travelled even further: over five hundred miles from Scotland. These fascinating figures can be seen on a sign located in the park that stands where the cattle market stood between 1855 and the early 20th century, when trade in live animals began to decrease. Later, the market area was used for selling antiques and bric-a-brac. The Caledonian Market finally closed in 1963.

Much of the old market area is now used for recreation. On the south side of Market Road, there are enclosed sporting areas. The northern side is an attractive little park. All that remains of the market are the Victorian cast-iron railings, which are in various states of decay, and the market’s clock tower, which has been beautifully restored. The tower is 151 feet tall. It used to stand amidst the now-demolished dealers’ offices and close to the also demolished abattoirs.

Just north of the tower, there is a small café which is named in honour of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Within it, there is a wall facing the serving counter. This has two murals commemorating mass protest. One of them, painted in a style reminiscent of social realism depicts people of many different ethnicities marching beneath a banner of The Islington Trades Union Council. This bears the words:

“Reclaim our past. Organise our future”.

The other mural commemorates the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Panels on the walls of the café and around the north entrance to the park are decorated with scenes from the history of the area in the form of silhouettes. Some of them show animals being driven through the countryside. Others depict market scenes and the shops in which the meat was sold. Circular panels mounted on the walls of the tower show old photographs of the market in its heyday.

Although the park is not as spectacular as many other London parks, it is worth visiting to see the magnificently restored market clock tower and the several plaques and illustrations that provide clear explanations of the area’s historical importance. In addition, the small café and surrounding buildings within the park are good examples of contemporary architecture. The Caledonian Park, the former Copenhagen Fields, is yet another fascinating feature that contributes to what is wonderful about London.

Hidden in Hyde Park

WE OFTEN CIRCUMNAVIGATE the Serpentine. Usually, when we stroll around this large body of water shared between London’s Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, we tend to look mainly towards the water with its busy groups of waterfowl, rather than inland away from the water. Today, in the last week of February 2021, we walked around the Serpentine yet again but this time as we rounded its westernmost end and began heading back along the northern shore, we noticed for the first time a clump of trees within which there is a group of buildings.

Sheep trough in Hyde Park

A wide path leads north from the water towards these buildings, first passing the small single storey Serpentine Lodge, which being close to the lakeshore footpath, I had noticed many times before. It was built in 1839 and was home to various officials connected with the park including the Head Park Constable Joseph Smith (1811-late 1880s), who was living there by 1871 and remained there until his death (https://ifthosewallscouldtalk.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/hidden-histories-serpentine-lodge-hyde-park-london/).  The lodge is now a private residence.  

Moving inland past the lodge, we soon reach an elegant brick-built two storey house with a triple bay on each side of the centrally located front door. This is the Ranger’s Lodge, which was built in 1831/2. It houses the park’s administrative offices. Attractive because of its age and lovely setting, it is not distinguished architecturally.  It stands next to a newer and far more elegant building, The Old Police Station. When I saw the chimney stacks which are built with layers of brick alternating with layers of white stone and the windows framed with white masonry, I was immediately reminded of the former police station and courthouse that stands on Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead. Both police stations, the one in the park (built 1900-02) and that in Hampstead (1912), were designed by the same architect, John Dixon Butler (1860-1920), who designed almost 200 police stations. Two police officers on horses told us that in the yard behind the station, there are stables for the horses of the Park Police.  The police station bears a memorial to Jack William Avery (1911-1940), a war reserve Metropolitan Police Constable, who was murdered near the station on the 5th of July 1940. He was stabbed to death by a homeless labourer named Frank Cobbett (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Jack_Avery). It was only in 2007 that the memorial plaque was placed in the park.

New Lodge, a large Victorian villa with at least three storeys, built in 1876, now a private residence, stands a few yards north of the police station. This lodge as well as others in the park, like Serpentine Lodge, can be leased from the Royal Parks as dwellings by private individuals and their families.  A footpath leads northwest from between the police station and New Lodge and soon passes a disused water pump enclosed within a square area delineated by iron railings. A few feet north of the pump, there is what looks like a large bath next to a vertical pipe that might have once provided water. The map of the park describes these two items as “old sheep trough and water pump”. The bath-like object was the trough and is marked as such on a detailed map surveyed in 1862-6. This map also marks a small “fire engine house”, which no longer exists.

Another structure that no longer stands is a few yards west of Serpentine Lodge. It is commemorated by a stone lying in the grass. The stone bears an inscription that says that it marks the spot where there once stood the ‘Receiving House of the Royal Humane Society’. It had been erected on land granted by The Crown in 1774 and was severely damaged by a bomb during WW2. Its story and that of other receiving houses is related in an interesting article I found on the Internet (https://ifthosewallscouldtalk.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/hidden-histories-serpentine-lodge-hyde-park-london/):

“In 1774 two London doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, formed the ‘Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned’ which later grew into The Royal Humane Society. The society was founded based on the doctors’ fears that people could be mistakenly taken for dead and thereby accidentally buried alive.

To combat this, a number of Receiving Houses were built along waterways in Westminster in the early nineteenth century. The Receiving Houses were designed as places where people could be taken into if they had gotten into difficulty in the water. A Receiving House was built in 1794 on the edge of the Serpentine…”

Judging by what is marked on a detailed map surveyed in 1914, the receiving house covered a considerably larger area than its neighbour, Serpentine Lodge.

Near to the marker for the former receiving house, there is an ugly black metal drinking fountain, marked on the park map as “Lutyens drinking fountain”. This was one of several similar fountains designed in 1950 by “Messrs Lutyens & Greenwood” (http://mdfcta.co.uk/fountains_lutyens.html). As the architect of New Delhi and Hampstead Garden Suburb, Edwin Lutyens, died in 1944, I imagine that the Lutyens who designed this ugly object might well have been his son Robert Lutyens (1901-1972), who published a book with his co-author Harold Greenwood in 1948.

The ugly drinking fountain no longer works. So, if you are thirsty having searched the hidden items that were new to us as described above, help is at hand a little further west, where there is an attractive modern wood-clad café kiosk, one of several of these designed trecently by the Mizzi Studio’s architects (www.floornature.com/).

At home with Henry Moore

PERRY GREEN IS A TINY hamlet near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire and was home to a sculptor whose works are often anything but tiny. Henry Moore (1898-1986) was born when Auguste Rodin, the ‘father of modern sculpture’, was 58 years old and about five years before another great British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, was born. Moore’s works have influenced the output of some of my favourite 20th century British sculptors such as Anthony Caro, Philip King, and Eduardo Paolozzi. Both Caro and King worked as assistants to Henry Moore.

M 11

In 1929, Moore married an art student from Kiev, a refugee from the Russian Revolution, Anatolia Radetzki (1907–1989), and the couple lived in Hampstead at 11a Parkhill Road, which Moore had rented in advance the year before. Their home was close to other leaders in the world of art including Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Roland Penrose, and Herbert Read. In those days, Hampstead was part of the nucleus of London’s artistic sphere.

In September 1940, the Moore’s home in Hampstead was damaged by bomb shrapnel. Henry and Irina moved out of London to Perry Green, where they began living at a farmhouse called Hoglands, which is a late medieval house, rebuilt and then remodelled in the 17th century. This and the land and other properties around it, which the Moores bought gradually, became the centre of his artistic production: his home and workshops.  In 1946, Irina gave birth to Mary, the Moore’s only child.

Rapidly and for the rest of his life, Henry’s artistic output, fame, and prosperity continued to increase. As his wealth grew, Moore, concerned about his legacy, established the Henry Moore Trust in 1977 with the help of his daughter. According to the Foundation’s website:

“The Henry Moore Foundation was founded by the artist and his family in 1977 to encourage public appreciation of the visual arts.”

As part of its activities, it has opened to the public Moore’s creative environment at Perry Green. Following the recent easing of the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’ restrictions, we took the opportunity to visit Moore’s lovely place in rural Hertfordshire.

We were able to visit some of Moore’s workshops including one that contains a huge collection of maquettes, small models or three-dimensional sketches for the artist’s visualisations of his ideas for larger works. Interspersed amongst these items, there are objects both man-made and natural (eg lumps of flint and skeletal bones) that Moore found and collected. Some of them inspired his creations. Seeing these maquettes alongside specimens of nature collected by the artist helped me see the connection between Moore’s work and natural forms.  

The gardens in which numerous finished sculptures are displayed are superbly laid out and well-maintained. Beyond the gardens, we walked through fields in which sheep graze overlooked by some of the larger of Moore’s creations on view at Perry Green. The sheep played a significant role in Moore’s creations; he often sketched them.

After stretching our legs and enjoying the lovely gardens and fields, we enjoyed hot drinks outside a well-designed modern building that serves as a café and visitor’s centre (including a shop where several books about Moore are on sale). One place that was closed to visitors because of the pandemic is the striking building housing the Henry Moore Archives. Originally, the archives were housed in a brick cottage of no architectural interest called Elmwood. Between 2012 and 2018, the architect Hugh Broughton and his project director, Gianluca Rendina added a large modern-looking extension to Elmwood. It is an attractive structure, which is larger than the old cottage and is clad in COR-TEN steel that has weathered (oxidised) to become a warm reddish-brown colour. Far more geometric and less organic than Moore’s artworks, the building, like Moore’s sculptures, makes a pleasing contrast to the bucolic surroundings in Perry Green. Incidentally, the modern visitor’s centre/café complex was also designed by the Hugh Broughton Architects practice.

Although I loved visiting the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green and can strongly recommend it as a wonderful day-out for anyone who loves the countryside and/or modern art, I have one reservation, which is purely personal. I have never regarded the body of Henry Moore’s sculptural works as highly as those of some other twentieth century sculptors. To be fair, some of Moore’s creations really impress and move me, but the majority do not. Often when I visit an artist’s or a historical figure’s former home, my appreciation of its former inhabitant increases, but, sadly for me, visiting Moore’s place did nothing to improve my admiration of his works. But, please do not let my aesthetic opinions deter you from driving down Hertfordshire’s narrow winding country lanes to Perry Green, where the garden alone makes the effort well worthwhile. I am looking forward to making another visit soon, not so much for the sculptures but for the sheer joy that the place gave me. Who knows, but another visit to Much Hadham might make me more sympathetic to Moore’s works?