St Johns Wood and the Crimea

THROUGHOUT MY LIFE, I have been visiting or passing through St Johns Wood in north London. I have often noticed a street called Woronzow Road. It lies between Primrose Hill and St Johns Wood Underground Station. Whenever I have seen this road, I have wondered about the name ‘Woronzow’, but uncharacteristically I have always been too lazy to find out anything about it.

Recently, we visited Wilton House in Wiltshire, not far from the city of Salisbury. Home to the Herberts, the Earls of Pembroke, for many centuries, this is a wonderful place to visit, to see its gardens, the house itself and the outstanding collection of old master paintings within it. The decoration of the rooms that we saw is superb and is kept in good condition by the house’s present occupants, the family of the current, the 17th, Earl of Pembroke. It was whilst visiting this splendid country seat that my ears pricked up hearing the guide mention the name ‘Worontzow’.

In 1808, the widowed George Herbert (born 1759) remarried. His second wife was Catherine Woronzow (1783-1856). Her father was Semyon Romanovich Woronzow (1744-1832), Russian Ambassador to England from 1796-1806, who died in London and was buried in the Pembroke’s family vault. Catharine, who became Countess of Pembroke, did a great deal to improve Wilton House to create much of what we can see today. She is buried in the nearby church of St Mary and St Nicholas, which was built in a neo-Romanesque style between 1841 and 1844. It was built at the instigation of Catharine and her son Sidney Herbert, the 14th Earl of Pembroke (1810-1861).

Between October 1853 and February 1856, the last years of Catharine’s life, Britain was at war with Russia in what is known as The Crimean War. Between June 1859 and July 1861, Sidney Herbert was the Secretary for War in the British government. During the campaign, a supply route called the ‘Woronzow Road’, no doubt named in honour of Catherine’s noble Russian family, ran along the Crimean coast past Sebastopol. Thus, there was once a Woronzow Road in The Crimea. This was an important supply route for the British forces bringing much-needed material south from Alma and Calamita Bay towards Sebastopol. In the winter of 1854, the British lost control of this vital supply route and had to rely on goods reaching them by a far more difficult track,

One of Sidney Herbert’s great contributions to the war effort in the Crimea was his asking Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) to travel to Scutari (now, Üsküdar in Istanbul) with 38 volunteer nurses. She and her team helped to dramatically improve the treatment of the many soldiers who contracted diseases such as cholera and typhus whilst in the Crimea. Incidentally, Florence never visited the Crimea, but remained working in the Turkish city. Herbert and his wife had first met and become friendly with Florence Nightingale in Rome in about 1847.

Now let us return to St Johns Wood in London. Catherine’s father, Semyon Worontzow, lived in the district. The road, where he lived and whose name has intrigued me for decades, is now called ‘Woronzow Road’. It was named after him in 1843. It was not until 2002 that the Russians erected a monument to him on the thoroughfare named after him.

A chapel that became a barn

PHILIP’S NAVIGATOR BRITAIN is a detailed (1 ½ miles to the inch) road atlas covering England, Scotland, and Wales. It is extremely useful for finding one’s way through Britain’s maze of narrow country lanes if, like us, you do not make use of GPS systems. One of the many features of the maps in this atlas is that it marks old buildings and other sites of interest in both towns and deep in the countryside. Recently (June 2021), we were driving around in rural Wiltshire, having just visited the small town of Bedwyn when I spotted that there was an old chapel nearby, close to the hamlet of Chisbury.

The area in which Chisbury is located is the site of an ancient hill fort in which archaeologists have found artefacts from the Palaeolithic era, as well as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The fort, whose earthworks are still discernible, was later used by the Romans. Long after the Romans had left England, the manor house of Chisbury was built within its site.

In the 13th century, the Lord of Chisbury Manor built a ‘chapel of ease’, St Martin’s, close to his manor house. According to Wikipedia, such a chapel is:

“…a church building other than the parish church, built within the bounds of a parish for the attendance of those who cannot reach the parish church conveniently.”

The chapel of ease at Chisbury was built to serve the household of the Manor House as well as villagers nearby, to save them having to travel to the nearest parish church which was in Great Bedwyn.

In 1547, during the Reformation of The English Church, the chapel, like many other places of worship in Henry VIII’s realm, ceased to be used. Instead of being demolished, as so many ecclesiastical buildings were at that time, the chapel was re-used as a barn. The barn continued to be used over several centuries until 1925, when it was designated a building of historical importance. Now, it is maintained by English Heritage. This re-purposing of a place of worship reminded me of what I saw when I visited Albania in 1984. At that time, religion of any sort had been made illegal by the Stalinist regime led by Enver Hoxha. Mosques and churches had either been demolished or re-purposed as sports halls, cinemas, and for other non-religious uses.

The chapel of Chisbury is beautiful. The glass has been long lost from its windows. Trees can be seen from within the chapel through its carved stone gothic windows. The ceiling of the chapel is timber framed, but I suspect that these are no longer the original timbers. The roof is thatched. The floor is at two levels, higher at the west end than the east. Steps lead from one level to the next. The two levels might reflect the fact that the chapel is built on a steeply sloping hill.

On the inside of the west wall of the building, close to the way into the chapel, there is a faded red painted circle enclosing a cross. Symbols like this were painted on to the walls of buildings during the consecration ceremonies of building about to become churches. What you can see in the chapel at Chisbury must have survived many centuries. Maybe, it has been touched up from time to time.

It is written that Jesus Christ was born in a kind of barn surrounded, as the story goes and many artist have depicted, by farm animals. I wonder whether this went through farmworkers’ heads as they used the former chapel as a barn for a variety of agricultural purposes.

Had it not been for builders working nearby, the chapel would have been silent except for birdsong. I am glad we made the small detour to see this delightful relic of mediaeval life in England.

A peculiar post office

WHEN I WORKED AT MAIDENHEAD, I used to travel there by train from London Paddington. Many of the trains terminated at a station called Bedwyn, which serves Great Bedwyn. I visited this small town on the Kennet and Avon Canal for the first time only recently.  While driving through the place, I noticed a building covered with gravestones and other ornamental carving. My curiosity was aroused.

The name ‘Bedwyn’ might have been derived from ‘Biedanheafde’, an Old English word meaning ‘head of the Bieda’, which referred to a stream in the area. In 675 AD, “The Anglo Saxon Chronicle” recorded the battle of ‘Bedanheafeford’ between Aescwine of Wessex and King Wulfhere of Mercia, which is supposed to have been fought near the present Great Bedwyn. The will of King Alfred the Great (c848-899) makes reference to Bedwyn. In short, Bedwyn has been a recognizable settlement for a long time.

Bedwyn’s combined post office and village shop can be found in a long, rectangular brick building on Church Street. The wall at the east end of the edifice carries a depiction of the Last Supper and above it, God on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels. These sculptural panels are in white and blue and somewhat resemble the kind of things produced by the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robia (1400-1482). Three gravestones are attached to the west facing end of the post office. A wooden gate next to this end of the building is labelled ‘Mason’s yard’. The front of the building, facing the street, is adorned with carved funerary monuments including gravestones, some of which bear humorous inscriptions.

The shop is attached to a house with a front door framed by a gothic revival porch. A carved panel in the porch reads: “Lloyd. Mason.” I asked some of the customers queuing up to enter the shop/post office if they knew anything about the curious decoration of the building. I was told that the place had once been the workshop of a stone mason who specialised in funerary items. My informant said that most of the carvings attached to the building were test pieces made by the stonemason’s apprentices; rejected or uncollected items; and offcuts.

Benjamin Lloyd (1765-1839), who died in Bedwyn, started his stonemasonry business in 1790 (www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2825). He was responsible for some of the work done during the construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which began before he was born and was eventually completed in 1810. The company still exists. Now, it is run by John Lloyd, the seventh generation of the family to maintain the business (www.johnlloydofbedwyn.com/about-us). However, his premises have moved away from Bedwyn’s post office.

Benjamin Lloyd is buried alongside his wife Mary (1764-1827) in St Mary’s Church Burial Ground in Great Bedwyn. I do not know, but I would like to imagine, that their gravestone was made in the company Benjamin created.