20 September, 2007

A visit to the Chilterns

A trip out to see the West Wycombe, the Hellfire Caves and the Dashwood Mausoleum.
Arthur Mee calls West Wycombe unmissable. The whole village was purchased and preserved by the Royal Society of Arts, but they must have run out of money as they subsequently gave it to the National Trust after five years. The gem of the village is the church loft with its 15th Century beams. The village church (St Paul’s) is a red brick Victorian hall with a small apse, no doubt considered a mercy to the National Trust’s tenants, who no longer have to climb a very steep hill to get to the other church in the village.

The Hellfire caves were, in the romantic imagination anyway, used by members of the Hellfire club (half the ruling classes of England at that time) for satanic rituals. The very boring truth is that they were chalk workings for a road building scheme to relieve unemployment amongst agricultural labourers, although I dare say if you were an 18th Century unemployed agricultural labourer your boredom threshold digging out chalk for a shilling a day would be rather higher.

The Hellfire club really did exist, and they did hold dinner parties in the caves, including one spectacular one called the Banqueting chamber. After dinner the senior members of the club would cross an artificial river called the styx and go to the inner temple where they would have a thoroughly good time with the good time girls they had brought with them. So don’t believe the devil worship legends unless you want to include half the then cabinet in satanic practices. In spite of my railing against the enlightenment, they might have been G*dless wretches but they weren’t satanists.
After the caves it was time to wander up the steep hill to the Dashwood Mausoleum and church of St Lawrence(?). The hexagonal mausoleum, open to the sky contains the last resting place of the Dashwood family, containing memorials in a fine setting, although always locked.

The church was also locked up, but I saw its tower with golden ball on the top. 6 people can sit in the golden ball, or could before vandalism prevented it. The church looks to be worth another visit when I shall wear climbing boots.

All the time I was in West Wycombe it was raining. If I’d wanted sunshine, perhaps I should have stayed at home as home looked pretty fine.

Don’t trust the tourist information centre in High Wycombe. They gave me the correct bus to catch to West Wycombe but not the correct stop. I caught the bus from the Bus station with seconds to spare.

High Wycombe is famous for chair making, and they have a chair making museum. I didn’t see it though but it might be worthwhile seeing it next time.

On the way out the train was crowded and a woman said “I don’t care, I’m going into First and they can charge me if they like.” I didn’t like to say that there was no first class on the Chiltern line.

I ended the day with dinner in the Chiltern Court Restaurant in Baker Street station. This is the opulent setting where Sir John Betjeman began his excursion into ‘Metroland’. Now a JD Wetherspoon pub.

19 September, 2007

Silkingrad, Knebworth and Hatfield.

Stevenage, the first one of our new towns was founded in 1946 by the Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin in the face of considerable local opposition. Hence the original locals called it Silkingrad. Silkin had the last laugh however as his face lives for evermore on the iconic clock tower monument to the town’s progress.
A small village on the Great North Road the locals relied on highway robbery(strikethrough) meeting the needs of travellers for their living, until the coming of the railways in the shape of the Great Northern put a stop to that. The people went back to the land. Now the place is buzzing with industry, prosperity and more shops than you can shake a stick at. It has worn quite well in its 61 years.

The town museum is housed in the basement of the striking church of St George Stevenage, and shows the development from the 1980s to earliest times in that order which struck me as bizarre. Perhaps I just went round the wrong way so if you go ask the girl at the desk.

The museum can show you a Central Office of Information film “Charlie in the New Town” which is a cartoon where the eponymous hero (always wanted to use that word) recounts his former life and contrasts it with his new life as he cycles to work. It really made me want to move there. I might make it Harlow though.

I find it slightly bizarre that Stevenage advertises that no nuclear weapons are in the town. I should hope these are well out of the way in an airfield or submarine somewhere...

If you don’t go to rock concerts, Knebworth may not be on your agenda, or it might be a station you never stop at on a GNER™ train. I did not go to Lord Lytton’s tudor mansion, Knebworth House, but instead went to look at the church originally designed by Lutyens and opened in 1915 before completion. It then took the congregation 50 years to complete the church and by that time the costs had spiralled and they had to abandon the remaining parts of Lutyens design. There’s a guide book in the church that tells you about it. The church has two pulpits, although I suppose one is a reading desk, and I got the impression of rival preachers each declaiming from one of them to a bemused congregation.

There is a super organ in the church with its pipes arranged in two spirals, and the whole church is a simple and dignified setting for worship.

Hatfield station dumps you outside the gates to Hatfield House, home of the Cecils, the Marquesses of Salisbury. The Third Marquess is immortalised in Bronze to greet you at his gates. The admission to the grounds only rather put me off going in, and I could not see in St Ethelreda’s church, although I saw the iron gates that had been forged in Sussex using wooden fires, well before coal.

The Bishop of Ely had a palace here and its beautiful mellow brick lies beyond the stone church. Now the see is St Albans and the Bishop of Ely has left his palace to the Cecils.

Hatfield as new town however is scruffy. There was broken glass in the windows of shops that are still trading. There is a dowdy new town pub (these were to a standard plan and run by the government) however another pub had a lovely inn sculpture of an aircraft in flight.

I didn’t spend long in the new town.

17 September, 2007

Manchester and Macclesfield

A trip to Manchester which was as uneventful as these things always are, with a call on the way back at Macclesfield.

Macclesfield is up the hill from its railway station and a fairly steep climb it is too. A helpful map gave information about the surrounding areas but alas, Macclesfield itself is no great shakes. It was once a silk weaving town like Braintree, and like Braintree has a silk museum. Unlike Braintree it is housed in the former post office. Not really into silk so I didn’t visit.
The library is nicely housed in an old bank, very richly marbled.
“Bankers live in marbled halls
Because they encourage deposits and discourage withdrawals”.

There is a stump of a market cross in the market square and a classical town hall with two magnificent porticos. Arthur Mee regards the church as being particularly fine but as it was locked up I could not see the sedan chair that a lady had left in there 300 years ago (presumably on purpose). Nor could I see the vista of arches and the fine hammer beam roof. But I saw the outside through the rain.
Arthur Mee also tells of the Macclesfield boy who nearly killed the man who went on to father Queen Victoria, a rather extraordinary claim to fame that other towns might pass up. Although there was no plaque saying that he was born half way up a wall.

London Open House

Weekend long architecturefest. The top picture shows WillageLondon, some tube trains recycled into studio space for artists. The second picture shows the Queen Anne House in Grange Walk, Bermondsey. This house had been a pottery for many years leaving it virtually unaltered and a fine specimen of the style in architecture.

The third picture shows the oldest houses in Bermondsey.
I also visited the Hoxton Hall, the Geffrey Museum Almshouse and Lloyds of London.

13 September, 2007

St Albans

A visit to St Albans Abbey and Cathedral. St Albans is another romanesque abbey building, however some of the romanesque arcades fell down and was replaced by decorated gothic arcading. There are some fine wall paintings.

There has only been a cathedral here since the 19th century, as the diocese is of the modern foundation.

Evensong had another psalm calling for deliverance from enemies.

11 September, 2007

From Norwich it's the quiz of the week

Ignoring what NORWICH means at the foot of a letter* I had a day in Norwich today.

The title of this post refers to the Sale of the Century, a weekly 1970s quizfest from Anglia Television starring Nicholas Parsons and one of the few things they actually produced. Perhaps that's why the are still in business and other ITV stations like Southern and Meridian have folded.

I visited Norwich on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center [sic] and the Pentagon. Funnily enough six years ago I was in another Cathedral city, Salisbury, when the first news of these despicable acts by muslims came through.

Like Peterborough, Norwich Cathedral (the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity) is Romanesque but has some Gothic bits. One way to access the cathedral is through the Erpingham gate, which reminded me of Joe Orton's play 'The Erpingham Camp' concerning a holiday camp that's more like a prison camp.

The cathedral guide is more of a directed meditation than a guide book and doesn't give a lot away. There is a copper font, which was once a vessel used for making chocolate, now it gives new birth to Christians. The Bishop's throne (cathedra) in Norwich is behind the main holy table, where it would have been since the middle ages. It is a modern throne in oak and is set above what would have been a reliquary in pre reformation days, so that the influence of the relic would permeate the bishop. This is the sort of superstition the reformers had to contend with, and if they were a little over zealous at times, for example Thomas Cromwell's staff smashing stained Glass windows, the sentiments were good.

Edith Cavell seems to be following me around this week. She is buried in Norwich, and there is a sculpture of her near the Cathedral.

I went to find the Stranger's Hall, but this was surrounded by scaffolding so I couldn't take a picture. It was also shut. I didn't go into any museum or cultural attraction with the exception of the library. Many of Norwich's 52 churches were closed, but I went into one that had a Transport and General Workers Union banner for Norwich Busmen. Not sure whose church this was.

I didn't see the cell of Julian of Norwich. Julian of Norwich was a female anchorite who wrote of Jesus as 'she'. An early feminist.

This next picture shows Norwich market

After some aimless wandering round Norwich, including the bits they don't show the tourists, I went to Evensong in the cathedral. One of the psalms was 59, 'Deliver me from my enemies O my G*d,
Defend me from them who rise up against me'. This is quite a hard hitting psalm and seemed rather incongrous being warbled by a men and girls choir - Would have been better as a football chant.

*Nickers off ready when I come home. (Since you ask.)

10 September, 2007

A visit to Ealing and Kensington

I visited Ealing in the hope of going to Pitshanger Manor (see picture) but it was closed. Nevertheless, the Church of Christ the Saviour,Ealing was open. The church was deigned by Sir Gilbert Scott and later decorated in true Anglo Catholic style by the architect of Westminster RC Cathedral, G F Bodley. All the windows were blown out by a bomb during the second world war and replaced although a few fragments were incorporated when reglazed.

After this I went down to the Portobello Road, but it was not market day and most of the antique shops were closed, but the shops that were open were pretty rubbish, more souvenirs for tourists than serious antiques. Maybe won't visit again.

I then went to St Mary Abbots in Kensington, a chrch that was built in Victorian Gothic Style by Sir George Gilbert Scott, who estimated £35000 as the cost although it turned out to be £50000, Architects, eh!

It's a big parish church as befits a church with Kensington Palace in its parish and royal connections. Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, carved one of the monuments.

09 September, 2007

Twentieth Century churches of South London

A circular tour round some of the twentieth century churches south of the Thames.
Some were traditional in shape and others more radical. The best was St John's Peckham in Meeting House Lane. A truly beautiful church and dramatic setting for services.

The picture shows SS Philip and Mark, Avondale Square on a City Corporation Housing Estate on the Old Kent Road. Built in 1963 there are beautiful ceiling paintings although when I called after the service the incense was choking.

This is St John's Peckham, a very beautiful 20th Century church

This is St Katherines Eugenia Road

This is St Lukes Camberwell

08 September, 2007


Peterborough, St Peter’s town is an ancient city and designated new town on the Cambridgeshire - Nothants borders. I visited as part of my Cathedral Cities tour 2007. Starting out from Kings Cross I wondered if my day return would be valid on a GNER train, but I was fine, it was. I had a trip to Bretton to see the typically new town style suburb of Bretton and to see a library sale, which was rubbish. On the way back I got off the bus in a little village called Longthorpe. This had thatched cottages galore and a little church of St Botolph that had been built in the 13th Century and extended in the 20th. A pleasant little church. There was an English HeritageTM tower in the village also, which was only open to pre booked groups. It has, allegedly, the finest medieval domestic wall paintings in the country.

Back to town to explore, visiting the Co√∂perative Department Store and the beautiful Romanesque cathedral, stopping on the way to take a picture of the guildhall with butter market beneath. The Cathedral Church of St Peter (Peterborough – geddit?) and St Andrew was shrouded in scaffolding so I couldn’t see the fine West front of the 11th Century (the most magnificent portico in Europe allegedly). I could see the very fine painted ceilings, and it was worth going into the Cathedral for those. The paintings are not a Victorian painting like at Waltham Abbey but the genuine medieval article. The Sanctuary was entirely closed to the public but had Victorian mosaic work and a marble altar, although with a liturgically correct Holy Table in front of it (altarwise). Katherine of Aragon is buried here, as was Mary Queen of Scots who was dug up and reburied in Westminster Abbey. The Cathedral was very beautiful and worth a visit.

The Benedictine monks did not like the townspeople using the Cathedral, so the civic church of Peterborough is the Parish Church behind the butter market in a dip in the ground. Strangely this church wasn’t open so I couldn’t see in to it, but it looked big. The picture shows the Buttermarket.

I also visited St Mark’s Church which was in the Victorian gothic style having been built in 1855. There’s not much to say about this church, which was an averagely pleasant church with some workmanlike stained glass in the windows. I had a cup of coffee and a cake there at teatime, and good value it was too!

Edith Cavell was educated in Peterborough. She was later shot at dawn in 1915 during the first world war as she had assisted British and allied prisoners to escape.

I also visited the haunted Peterborough museum and allowed myself to be talked into going on the guided tour with the “visitor support officer”. I could have been round that museum in half an hour; the guided tour took two, although we did see the basement storage and the lab. The museum was an old town house that had been the Peterborough infirmary and there was evidence of that within the building, including slippery anti slip protection on the staircase and the site of a hoist used to lift immobile patients to the operating theatre.

The collection covers the story of Peterborough from earliest times to the present. Of the highlights there is a dinosaur discovered by one of the museum staff, the remains of a stone age murder, a bronze age sword, a Roman communion set, medieval stuff, some nineteenth century Prisoner of War art made with bone and a 1950s cooker. There’s a lot more than that of course and the Visitor Services Officer was a good guide, pointing out things that were particularly relevant and illustrating the building’s history. The lab was the old operating theatre from hospital days, and it was just about exactly as it was left.

The museums ghosts are numerous and include little girls, first world war veterans and a former scullion from the time when the museum was a grand town house. Most interesting. By then it was time to return home.