Gone for a barton in Bruton

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.

No longer on the main Road

BYPASSED BY TIME

ON THE DAY BEFORE the second English ‘lockdown’ commenced in early November (2020), we drove to Abingdon Piggott to enjoy one more excellent luncheon at the Pig and Abbott pub. On this, our fourth visit in the same number of months, I enjoyed one of the best fish pies I have ever tasted. On our way to lunch and to satisfy our love of sightseeing, we visited Buntingford, a small town in the east of Hertfordshire.

As the ‘ford’ part of the town’s name suggests, Buntingford is on a river, the River Rib, which is a tributary of the River Lea. Also, the town lies on the course of the Roman road known as Ermine Street, which linked London with Lincoln.  For many centuries, Buntingford, which is located just west of the Greenwich (or Prime) Meridian, was a staging post on the main road from London to Cambridge, the current A10. The town contains many buildings that were once coaching inns. Of these, only one or two still operate as pubs.  Since this main road was diverted around Buntingford via a bypass constructed in the mid-1980s, the town, filled with historic buildings, has become a pleasant backwater.

The town’s name is most likely derived from ‘Bunta’, which was the name of an Anglo-Saxon tribe or its chieftain. A local historian, one Frank Bunting, writes (www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/buntingford/origin_of_buntingford_name) that there was once a village called ‘Bunting’, which was a few miles north of the present Buntingford. It is, he claims, marked on a map drawn in 1732 by Herman Moll (c1674-1732), which does not mark Buntingford, which was probably then too small to add to the map. Now, according to the historian, Bunting has disappeared and Buntingford is a town of some size.  I have looked at an on-line copy of Moll’s map of Hertfordshire (https://www.archiuk.com/cgi-bin/slideshow_loop.pl?gallery_subject=herman_moll&filename2show=hertfordshire-old-map-1724-herman-moll.jpg&launchpage=old-map-index-page) and found that it marks ‘Bunting’ close alongside ‘ford’, the two words being separated by Moll’s simple plan of the town. It appears that Buntingford was significant enough to appear on Moll’s map and that the place called ‘Bunting’ probably never existed in this area. A document prepared by or for the Knights Templars in 1185 mentions the town as ‘Buntas Ford’.

Most of the older part of Buntingford lies alongside the long straight road, the former Ermine Street. It is here that you can see the former coaching inns, each with an archway leading to the courtyards behind them. There are also several other picturesque edifices dating back to the 18th century and earlier. At the south end of the High Street, there is a Church of England church, St Peters, which looks Victorian, but it was originally constructed in about 1615. It has undergone so much modification that its early origin is difficult to discern.  Just north of this is the Manor House, a fine 18th century building, which now houses the offices of the Town Council. Next to this on the side of the road there is a wooden enclosure containing a hand operated water pump encased in timber. This was erected to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1897. The Black Bull pub opposite the Town Council is one of the few former coaching inns still serving as a hostelry.

Church Street that leads east from the Ermine Street winds downhill to the River Rib. It passes an attractive gothic revival cottage called ‘Fancy Hall’ (built 1825) and then a quaint old pub, the Fox and Duck (first licensed in 1711), which does not look like it was formerly a coaching inn.  The River Rib flows just below the pub and can be crossed either by a bridge or a ford, which looks recently constructed. The ford after which the town got its name was where the Rib crossed Ermine Street.

Next, Church Road continues uphill on the other side of the river but with the name, The Causeway. It winds steeply uphill first passing a long brick wall, the boundary of a private property called Little Court, which I was unable to enter. This building was constructed in the early 19th century with bricks from an earlier building on the site that was built in 1598 and demolished in 1819 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1174663). The road continued seemingly endlessly up hill and into the countryside before ending at the isolated, flint walled Layston Church. This is St Bartholomew whose construction began in the 13th century if not before. The roof of its nave is of very recent construction (21st century) with a row of skylights below the roof tiles. The church is now used as a private dwelling. Known in the Domesday Book as ‘Ichetone’, the parish of Layston contained the town of Buntingford. Therefore, the now deconsecrated church of St Bartholomew used to be Buntingford’s parish church, a role now assumed by St Peter in the town.

In common with Washington DC, Buntingford has its own White House. Built in the 18th century, this is not the home of presidents, but probably served as a private residence. Opposite it, and high above the pavement and above a passageway leading to a car park, there is a small, picturesque clock with its own gabled roof. It is an example of a single-handed turret clock. It was already in existence in 1618, when local citizens paid for various alterations and repairs. The clock, which might have been first placed there in 1558, has undergone numerous modifications and improvements over the centuries but what we see does not look remarkably different to how it was originally. It contained a bell that was replaced in 1742 by the present one, which is sounded on auspicious and sad occasions including on the day of the funeral of Wellington in 1852.

I hope that I have written enough to persuade you to spend an hour or two in Buntingford, a town that is often bypassed at speed by motorists on the A10. Once again, we have found much of interest in a place in England that hardly gets a mention in guidebooks yet is full of beautiful historical sights. By the way, if you are in need of a coffee whilst in Buntingford, you would do well to visit The Buntingford Coffee Shop, which is almost beneath the ancient Town Clock.

A small town in South Africa

B 11 Barkly East evening BLOG

 

MY MOTHER AND THREE OF HER four siblings were born in King Williams Town (South Africa) in the home of their grandfather Franz Ginsberg, who became a Senator in the South African parliament in 1927. They spend the first few years of their lives in the tiny town of Barkly East in the Eastern Cape. Their father, who ran a general store, was also the town’s Mayor until he died in the early 1930s.

My mother migrated to England in 1947. Her sister, my aunt, and one of her brothers arrived in England in the 1950s. Both of them had vivid memories of their childhood in Barkly East, which they happily shared with me.

In 2003, we made a trip to South Africa in order to see places associated with my ancestors, who migrated there from Europe during the 19th century. We hired a car to travel between these scattered places. One of them was Barkly East.

Before leaving England, I discussed Barkly East with my aunt and noted what she told me. During one of these discussions, she drew a sketch map of Barkly East,  marking on it various places she recalled. I took her map to South Africa with me.

Barkly East was established in 1874. In 1885, my maternal grandfather’s uncle Sigmund Seligmann, who came to South Africa from Ichenhausen in Bavaria in about 1865. His nephew, my mother’s father, took over Seligmann’s store in the first decade of the 20th century and ran it along with Mr Blume.

Barkly East was an important commercial centre for the many sheep farmers and wool producers in the district. It began to decline greatly when the usage of motor vehicles increased and farmers were able to reach the far larger centre the town of East London.

When we arrived in Barkly East in 2003, we found a town with almost empty streets that gave little or no feeling of its once prosperous past. It looked like a place on its ‘last legs’, a bit like London is now during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’.

On our first day we visited the office of local newspaper,  the Barkly East Reporter,  which was then run by the two Mollentze brothers. They welcomed us and told us a lot about Seligmann’s shop, a place where you could buy everything from a needle to a tractor.

I showed my aunt’s map to the brothers. Despite the fact that she had left the town on the early 1930s, they said her map was very accurate.

Using her map, we found the location of her father’s store, which burnt down in the 1960s. The firm’s wool storage warehouse still stood. It was near to the small street where my mother and her siblings spent the first few years of their lives. It stands next door to the house once owned by Mr Blume.

We were keen to see inside my mother’s childhood home. A young man, probably a teenager,  was sweeping the front porch. His name was Frikkie. We explained our interest in the house. Without hesitation, he showed us around the house despite his parents being at work in their café located near a bridge named after my mother’s father.

It made my spine tingle wandering around the building where my mother was a child. Not having seen it before I was unaware that many internal changes had been made to the building since my mother’s family sold it after my grandfather,  the Mayor of Barkly East, died at an early age.

After my mother’s family left Barkly East, their large house was used for a time as a nursing home before being reconverted to a family residence. My aunt’s two children visited Barkly East in late 2019. They found the old family home, but were unable to enter it. Currently, it houses the offices of the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC). How the tide has changed! In my mother’s childhood, the only non-Europeans who would have entered the house were domestic servants.

We also visited the tiny museum in Barkly East,  where we were welcomed by its curator. Like other curators of local museums in other small South African towns we visited, the curator in Barkly East was concerned about their future in the light of lack of both funding and footfall. She told us about the six or so Jewish families in Barkly East. The last of these, the Bortz family, to leave the town had moved elsewhere a few years before our visit.

The curator said that the Bortz family home had stood empty since they left. Then, after rummaging in a drawer,  she showed us a small metal object in the palm of her hand, and said:

“I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I prised this off the frame of the front door of their empty house long after they left. I took it for the museum. Had I left it there, it would have been taken by someone else eventually. Are you able to tell me what it is?”

It was an empty mezuza, a casing for a prayer scroll that Jewish people attach to the doorframes of their homes and sometimes also within them.

On the last day of our visit to Barkly East,  we visited its extensive cemetery, overlooked by a sad looking shanty town. The small Jewish cemetery containing 11 graves, mostly damaged but identifiable was surrounded by a fence, separated from the resting places of white skinned gentiles. Even after death, apartheid exerted its unsavoury influences. The graves of non-Europeans were in a part of the cemetery well separated from the final resting places of the Europeans.

We left Barkly East, the place where my grandparents enjoyed dinner parties, fly fishing, tennis, and golf, as the snow began to fall on the town. We met many lovely people there during our brief but moving visit to the place where my mother lived for the first decade of her life. I am only sad that she died 23 years before our visit. I would have loved to talk with her about what we saw so long after her childhood.