Visiting Denver

MENTION ‘DENVER’ and most people will immediately think of a city close to the Rocky Mountains in the American state of Colorado. Recently, we visited Denver, not the city in the USA but a village in the English county of Norfolk. This small settlement lies a few yards west of the A10 road between Ely and Kings Lynn, immediately south of Downham Market. Norfolk’s Denver derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon words, ‘Dena fær’, meaning ‘the ford or passage of the Danes’. This name dates from the time that the Danes and Vikings were invading Britain after the Romans had abandoned it. Denver is located close to the River Great Ouse that flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn. It was this river that the Danish invaders needed to cross as they headed on their way to invading parts of England.

Denver windmill

The village of Denver is attractive and is arranged around its parish church of St Mary. Surrounded by its graveyard, the walls of this mainly mediaeval edifice, mostly 13th to 15th century, are made of large irregularly shaped boulders held together with mortar and trimmed with carved stone. Many of the village’s other buildings have walls constructed similarly, a feature that we observed in several other north Norfolk villages. St Mary’s has a square tower at its western end. Inside, its nave has a wonderful timber barrel vault ceiling decorated with carved features typical of gothic design. Otherwise, the church’s interior is simple without being plain. We could not spend too much time examining the place because we did not want to disturb a small group of elderly people praying aloud.

Denver has a tall historic windmill. This is on the western edge of the village and was built by John Porter in 1835 to replace an earlier mill on the same site. In 1863, a steam powered mill was erected next to the windmill. Further modernisation followed that. The large sails of the mill have gone, but the small fantail remains. The mill forms the centrepiece of a small complex of commercial enterprises housed in buildings that were formerly part of the mill compound. These include a café and a coiffure, aptly named ‘The Hair Mill’. Denver Mill is one of several lovely old windmills we saw dotted around northern Norfolk.

A narrow thoroughfare, Sluice Road, leads west from Denver towards the River Great Ouse, which is about 1.6 miles away. The road reaches a complex of sluice gates that regulate the levels of water in the river and other waterways including the River Wissey and the New Bedford River (man-made) that meet here. Now managed by The Environmental Agency, this set of sluice gates was first established, albeit in a simpler form, in 1651 by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677). It was he who introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England, mostly in East Anglia and the Lincolnshire Fens. He married an English woman, Katherine Lapps, and his descendants remained in England, having changed their surname to ‘Youdan’. In 1647, Vermuyden lived in Maiden Lane in London’s Covent Garden.

There are at least five modern, electrically operated sluice gates at Denver. By operating them judiciously, water levels in much of Norfolk and its surroundings can be regulated. The Duke of Bedford River was built by Vermuyden to shorten the distance that water had to travel to and from Bedfordshire. According to the season, this was either flood water or water needed for agricultural purposes. The system of rivers and canals regulated by the sluices at Denver is far from simple. So, I will not attempt to explain it, but visitors to this impressive water-controlling complex can read all about it on a series of informative panels posted next to the sluices.

Sluice Road crosses the River Great Ouse and other streams along bridges to which some of the sluice gate mechanisms are attached. Although the river system would have been quite different when the Danes invaded England, it is possible that where Vermuyden built his first sluice might be close to where the invaders forded the Great Ouse and lent their name to Norfolk’s village of Denver.

Perched on a sculpture

KENSINGTON GARDENS CONTAINS numerous works of art, one of which is a large piece by Henry Moore (1898-1986), a sculptor who is highly regarded by many people. It is a large irregularly shaped arch made of travertine, which stands overlooking the Long Water, the part of the Serpentine lake within the confines of Kensington Gardens. Presented by the artist to the park in 1980, its shape is based on that of an animal bone. I am not wild about Moore’s works, but this piece looks wonderful in its setting on the eastern bank of the Long Water.

Today, 19th of May 2021, whilst walking in Kensington Gardens I saw a heron standing on the western bank of the Long Water almost framed by the Moore arch. After circumnavigating the lake, we reached the point on the eastern shore where the sculpture stands. Through the archway you can see the eastern façade of Kensington Palace. Along the line that connects the palace and the sculpture, you can see another sculpture, “Physical Energy” by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904). The three items on this axis form a kind of timeline: the 18th century palace, the 19th century sculpture by Watts, and the 20th century sculpture by Moore.

I have walked past the Moore sculpture too many times to count, but it was only today that I saw a heron perched on top of it. I have seen geese and pigeons perched on it in the past, but this was the first time I saw a heron using it as a doubtless superb vantage point to survey its surroundings. Apart from the fact that I find herons beautiful, its close association with the sculpture struck a certain curious chord in my mind. Maybe, it was something to do with the fact that the words ‘heron’ and ‘henry’ share so many letters in common (3 out of 5). Whatever the reason, it was pleasing to see nature and art intimately in touch with each other.

A canal cruise and a cricket ground

BEFORE THE ADVENT of railways, transportation of goods across England (as well as Wales and Scotland) was heavily dependent on an extensive canal system constructed mostly in the 18th  and early 19th centuries. Freight was carried along these canals in the holds of long narrow barges, more correctly known known as ‘narrow boats’. They had to be narrow enough to negotiate some of the narrower canals that formed part of the canal network.  Prior to the development of steam and other kinds of engines, and even for some years after these became available, the narrow boats were towed by horses. These creatures walked along paths known as ‘towpaths’ that run along one or other side of a canal, except when a canal passed through a tunnel. In the tunnels there were no towpaths, and the boats were propelled by the feet of men lying either above the load on the boat or sometimes on planks projecting from the sides of the vessel, a process known as ‘legging’. The boatmen’s feet literally walked along the tunnel walls, thus moving the boat. Meanwhile, the towing horses walked over the hill through which the tunnel passed. All of this interesting but becomes even more so if you can experience a trip on a canal in a narrow boat.

Several companies offer canal trips between Little Venice (near London’s Paddington) and Camden Lock, east of it. We chose to travel on “Jason”, a narrow boat built in 1906 and one of the last of its era, which is still in use. “Jason” has been little modified compared to others that ply the route along the Regents Canal, a branch of the Grand Union Canal system. “Jason”, which was originally horse-drawn, has been fitted with a diesel engine that occupies part of the small rear located cabin that was once the home to a boatman and his family. Passengers sit in the long, narrow freight hold of the boat under an awning that was added when “Jason” was converted from a freight carrier to a tourist vessel, which has been doing the tours since 1951. Unlike most of the other tourist boats, there are no windows separating passengers from the exterior. This provides for great viewing along the route without the hindrance of sometimes not too clean glass, which might be encountered in other vessels.

The tour starts from a landing stage next to Blomfield Road, close to the cast-iron bridge that carries Westbourne Terrace Road over the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. At the other end of the trip, passengers disembark or embark next to the popular (not with me) and rather ‘tacky’ Camden Lock Market. The cruise between the two landing stages takes 45 minutes and is highly enjoyable. Travelling eastwards from Little Venice, we were given an extremely clear and intelligent commentary by a lady called Sarah. Various things she told us made a strong impression on me.

The Regents Canal that links Paddington Basin to Limehouse Basin in east London, where it leads to other canals, used to carry a wide range of goods, from coal to cocoa. The waterway passes under both rail and road bridges. Many of the latter have curved arches over the canal; are made of stone; and look older than the rail bridges, most of which have rectangular arches with roofs consisting of metal plates screwed together. Over the years, the tow ropes drawing the narrow boats have cut grooves or notches in the corners of the bridges next to the towpath. Some of the bridges have been protected from this damage by iron brackets placed so that the ropes passed over these instead of the masonry of the bridge. These metal protectors, which were easily replaceable, can now be seen to be notched where the ropes have abraded them.

“Jason”, like most other narrow boats, has a flat bottom and a shallow draught. This is because the water most of the canal system is quite shallow, usually not more than 6 feet deep. The bottom of “Jason” is made of wood (probably elm) and iron, a combination known as a ‘composite’ construction. Few narrow boats with this kind of construction exist today.

The most fascinating thing that Sarah told us related to the history of Lord’s Cricket Ground. In 1787, Thomas Lord (1755-1832), a professional cricket player, opened his first cricket ground in what is now Dorset Square (close to Baker Street Underground station). In 1809, Lord shifted his cricket ground to another location because the rent at his Dorset Square site became too high. The new location was on some disused ground just south of the present Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was where today the Regents Canal emerges from the eastern end of the 272-yard-long Maida Hill Tunnel. Let me explain.

In 1813, Parliament altered the route of the proposed Regents Canal so that it passed right through Mr Lord’s recently relocated cricket ground (www.lords.org/lords/our-history/timeline). Mr Lord was unhappy about this and was not prepared to give up his ground without first going to court. According to our guide, Lord struck a deal with the government. He agreed to move to a new site providing he was given all the earth that was excavated during the construction of the Maida Hill Tunnel. He used the vast amount of excavated earth to lay out the ground on which the present Lord’s Cricket pitches are now located.

Concerning construction, Sarah told us that not only had the tunnels been dug by hand, but also the entire canal system. Most of the manual workers were Irish and were known as ‘navigational engineers’, or ‘navvies’ for short. The base of the Regents Canal is lined with compressed clay to make it watertight, a difficult process when the canal was built.

The cruise between Little Venice and Camden passes through a variety of landscapes, ranging from disused industrial to almost bucolic. The canal passes through the northern edge of Regents Park, where it is lined with trees and parkland. In this stretch of the canal, it is difficult to believe one is in the middle of a huge metropolis and not in the deep countryside.  The waterway also passes through the London Zoo. On one side, if you are lucky, you can catch glimpses of African hunting dogs and the occasional warthog in their cages overlooking the canal. Opposite them on the northern bank of the canal is Lord Snowdon’s aviary, now devoid of birds and awaiting a new purpose.

The 45-minute cruise provides an enchanting view of several districts of London. The commentary provided by Sarah and what she pointed out along the route helps recreate in one’s mind the golden age of canal transport. We enjoyed the cruise in both directions and hope that many others will take advantage of the special experience that it provides. For booking details and other practical information, consult “Jason’s” website: www.jasons.co.uk/the-tour

Growing in the village stream

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”.

Gifts from India to an English village

LIFE DEPENDS ON WATER. A few days ago, at the end of March 2021, we drove to a village in Oxfordshire to see two old wells. They are no ordinary wells: they were gifts from India while it was still part of the British Empire.

Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row

Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886) was a British civil servant in India between 1826 and 1860. Brother of the novelist Charles Read (author of “The Cloister and the Hearth”), Edward was born in Ipsden, a village in Oxfordshire (www.oxforddnb.com/). He entered the East India Company in 1823. In 1832, he was transferred to Kanpur (Cawnpore), where he introduced opium cultivation to the district. In 1846, he became Commissioner to the Benares Division, a position he held until 1853 when he was moved to Agra.

Edward encouraged genial relations with the local Indian gentry and aristocracy. One of his Indian acquaintances, who became his good friend, was Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889), the Maharajah of Benares, who reigned from 1835 to 1889. During the years before the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (aka ‘First War of Independence’ or ‘The Indian Mutiny’), Reade and the Maharajah discussed much about England including the shortage of water that existed in Ipsden, the part of Oxfordshire where his family lived. Apparently, the villagers in this part of the Chiltern Hills had little or no access to clean drinking water, much as must have been the case for many villagers in India.

During the Rebellion of 1857, the Maharajah remained loyal to the British. In June 1857, the town of Kanpur was besieged by Nana Sahib and his forces. After 3 weeks, the British garrison surrendered under condition that the British inhabitants would be given safe passage out of the town. However, Nana Sahib decided to hold about 120 women and children and kept them housed in a house known as the ‘Bibighar’. This ended badly when some of the hostages were killed. Some of them tried to escape their grizzly end by jumping into a well at the Bibighar. This well became one of the most powerful images of the Rebellion in the minds of those who lived in Britain.

I do not know whether or not it was the tragedy at Bibighar that brought the conversations he had with Reade to the forefront of the mind of the Maharajah of Benares after the Rebellion was over, but in 1862, after his loyalty to the British had been formally recognised, he consulted Reade as to making a charitable gift to the poor people of Ipsden, whose plight he recalled. The Maharajah financed the construction of a well at Stoke Row, not far from Ipsden. It is also possible that the Maharajah remembered the help that Reade had given him when constructing a well in Azamgarh (now in Uttar Pradesh) back in 1831.

Work commenced on the well in March 1863. The well shaft was dug by hand, a perilous job for the labourers as they removed earth from the depths of an unlit and unventilated shaft, bucket by bucket. The shaft, 4 feet in diameter, was 368 feet in depth, greater than the height of St Pauls Cathedral in London, for this is depth of the water table at Stoke Row. Special winding machinery constructed by Wilder, an engineering firm in Wallingford, was installed. It is topped with a model elephant. The mechanism and the well stand beneath an octagonal canopy topped with a magnificent metal dome with circular glazed windows to allow better illumination. It resembles a ‘chhatri’ or architectural umbrella such as can be seen at war memorials on London’s Constitution Hill and on the South Downs near Hove.  The structure, restored in recent times, looks almost new today. Reade, who helped plan the Maharajah’s well, planted a cherry orchard nearby; dug a fish-shaped pond (the fish was part of the Maharajah’s coat-of-arms); and constructed an octagonal well-keeper’s bungalow next to the well. The profits from the cherries harvested from the orchard were supposed to help to finance the well, for whose water the villagers were not charged anything.  The Maharajah’s well at Stoke Row was the first of many such gifts given by wealthy Indians to Britain. Other examples include the Readymoney drinking fountain in Regents Park and a now demolished drinking fountain in Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

“Reade was wryly amused that an Indian prince should thus give a lesson in charity to the English gentry.”

The well at Stoke Row provided the locals with fresh water until the beginning of WW2, when, eventually, piped water reached the area. It provided 600 to 700 gallons of water every day. The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is relatively well-known compared to another Indian-financed well next to the parish church at Ipsden, where Reade’s grave is located. The well, whose winding mechanism is similar to that installed at Stoke Row, is not covered by a canopy. It stands by a cottage next to the entrance to the churchyard. It was presented to Ipsden in 1865 by ‘Rajah Sir Deon Narayun Singh of Seidpor Bittree’ (I am not sure where this is: these are the words on the well), who had, like the Maharajah of Benares, remained loyal to the British during the 1857 Rebellion.

The Ipsden well is deep but not nearly as deep as that at Stoke Row. A lady, who lives in the cottage beside the well, told us that she had tasted water from the well and it was ice cold, deliciously clean, and tasted pure, having been filtered by many feet of chalk through which it has seeped. She said that once a year, the local water board opens the well and takes a sample of its water to check its purity.

Both wells are worth visiting. We parked in Benares Road in Stoke Row close to the Maharajah’s gift. After viewing the well head and its surroundings, we bought hot drinks at the village’s shop-cum-café, which his run by a couple of friendly people from Zimbabwe. I am grateful to Dr Peter U for bringing the existence of this unusual well to my attention.

The lost well and a hidden river

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).

Shepherd’s Well, Hampstead; as it was during the early 19th century

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