Category Archives: Aspects of Britain
Always aspiring to commit some of my life-experiences to paper in the form of a book-length narrative, I decided to join a local Writers’ Group. The principle of associating with others who are already on the journey is always a good starting point, and in my first writing competition with the group, they kindly awarded me the first prize, which included a glass goblet (I promised not to break it in the next 12 months!) and the princely sum of £15….. As we all know, the ‘journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and in the world of letters, your first literary prize (however small) can be your first important step.
The task at hand was to write 1000 words about some aspect of the history of Huntingdonshire. I took as my starting point a line from TS Eliot. The pictures have been added as illustration for the benefit of this post, and did not appear in the submitted piece.
If you came at night like a broken king…
I have cycled the lanes and byways of Old Huntingdonshire for nearly 40 years, and there is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new about this extraordinary little corner of the East Midlands. One day, about 25 years ago, having laboriously climbed over the wold from Hamerton, past the four houses and redundant church that make up Steeple Gidding, a road sign to Little Gidding beckoned me, teasing me along a narrow single-track lane that led to a cluster of buildings and a small church, it’s remoteness advertised by the tufts of grass growing down the middle of the lane. Little did I realise at the time that my unplanned visit that day might lead to a lifelong connection with this isolated little community which, over time, began to release some of its secrets.
“If you came at night like a broken king….”. This line, taken from TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartet ‘Little Gidding’, a poem inspired by his visit in May 1936, intriguingly points to the community’s past royal connections. Bear in mind that this tiny hamlet is so remote that even people living in the nearby locality have never paid a visit nor, sometimes, do they even know it exists. So how did a king find his way there, not just once, or twice, but three times?
It is a story set in the early 17th century. Nicholas Ferrar, a former businessman and prime mover in the Virginia Company, as well as a member of parliament, had given up his life in the city and had brought his extended family to a ruined farmhouse in west Huntingdonshire to begin laying the foundations of a contemplative religious community. In 1633 they unexpectedly received a visit from King Charles I on his way to Scotland, and their work on the Gospel Harmonies immediately caught his interest. The Harmonies were an attempt by the Ferrars to bring together parallel readings of the Bible so that they might be seen both separately and as a continuous whole. This was achieved by cutting and pasting diverse sections of the Bible so as to create a more fluent reading of the narratives. The King liked them so much, he asked them to prepare a special set of Harmonies of the Book of Kings and Chronicles, which were duly sent to the him the following year, richly bound and gilded in purple velvet.
Sadly, Nicholas Ferrar died before the King’s second visit to Little Gidding, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1642, on his way north to rally his troops at York and then to raise the royal standard at Nottingham, he once again stopped by Little Gidding, taking advantage of an opportunity to rest and receive refreshment. He first visited the little church of St John, the absence of images and icons telling him of the widespread local puritanical enforcements. “What will not malice invent?” he was heard to comment. Then after taking refreshment and inspecting the latest editions of the Harmonies, the King gave five pieces of gold to the widows of the community, money he had won playing cards the night before.
When the Civil War defiantly turned in favour of the Parliamentarians, the King had to make an escape from the siege of Oxford in April 1646, disguised as a servant, and he began to make his way north under the cover of darkness, sleeping and resting in safe houses during the day. His ultimate intention was to surrender himself to the Scottish army, with whom he thought he might meet with greater clemency. He travelled with two of his most trusted companions, Dr Hudson and Mr Ashburnam, and they arrived in Huntingdonshire in early May. The ‘broken king’ climbed the hill to Little Gidding, crossing the grassy meadow below the manor house, still known to this day as King’s Close, and were received warmly by the Ferrar family. Sadly, this warm reception of the King was to lead to the later destruction of part of the church, and the theft of all the plate and furniture of both house and church.
John Ferrar was aware that Little Gidding was not a convenient safe house for the King. His previous two visits were well documented and known publicly, and suspicion would immediately fall on them in the event of a search party roaming the area. So John Ferrar wisely accompanied the King to a safe house in nearby Coppingford, and it was from there that he made his way north towards Stamford. Charles finally put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, was transferred to Newcastle, and after nine months of negotiating with the Parliamentarians, was handed over to the enemy in exchange for the huge sum of £100,000, with promises of further funds for the Scots in the future. The fate of Mr Ashburnam is unknown, but Dr Hudson met with a grisly end at the hands of the puritans. He finally surrendered himself on the promise of favourable terms, but these were ignored by his captors. Like many other prisoners of war in Newark, he was thrown over the battlements into the river Trent.
When the Puritans learned of Little Gidding’s involvement in the King’s escape, the Ferrars hastily escaped, possibly to France, and left their estate knowing that it would be
destroyed and robbed in their absence. The whole of the west front of the church was destroyed, including the west gallery and the organ. The wood from the organ was used to build a fire where several of the estate’s sheep were roasted. The one notable thing that was recovered 200 years later was the brass eagle lectern, which had been thrown into a nearby pond, and is now housed for safe-keeping in Ferrar House.
However, despite this act of sinister vandalism, the restored church today is very much as the Ferrars would have known it.
Explain this one to me……..
A letter (probably a birthday card) was sent from Cornwall with a £2.25 stamp on it, clearly addressed to a lady in Queensland Australia, and it was delivered to our house in west Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom…….and not just once. Mystified by the first delivery which, admittedly, did bear our house number and three sequentially correct letters of our street name, Jenny took it to a main Post Office to make doubly-sure it was re-directed to the correct address. Even the staff at the Post Office had a good laugh at the Royal Mail’s failure. End of story……..?
No, the very next day we received just one item of mail. I highlight this because it wasn’t hiding amongst a load of other letters or junk mail, it was just one very large pink envelop, addressed in large lettering with a legibly clear ‘primary school’ style and, for a second time, some poor lady in Queensland Australia was being robbed of her birthday greeting.
This time, I took it to my local Post Office, asking the somewhat rhetorical question why any literate postman or woman would make such an elementary mistake, not just once, but twice……..or, is there more to come?
Watch this space.
…..and right outside my house, I am reminded of the famous ‘sakura’ (Japanese cherry blossom) of last year. Happy memories……
The use of optical illusions, or forced perspective, are common techniques in the art world, but when you come across one and realise that you yourself have been tricked…..well, that is some measure of the artist’s success.
In the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery the other day, after spending most of my time absorbed by the history of the city, Jenny asked me if I had seen the optical illusion on the ground floor. Of course, I hadn’t……even though I had walked right past it. So I went back to study it carefully, and as I approached it, this is what I saw…….……but then, as I stood in front of it, this was the ‘forced perspective’…..……and as I passed it (and apologies for the amateur videoclip) I got to see the full impact of the illusion…..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrIiCjvF8NA&feature=youtu.be
I haven’t quite mastered the technical know-how for uploading my tracks from my GPS via my smartphone. I know it can be done via Bluetooth (but my GPS is not enabled for that) or via a special OTG cable and an uploading app……or I could record the track on my phone using an app like Ride with GPS (RWGPS), but that is very heavy on battery and, lacking a dynamo hub on my bike to recharge the phone on the run, I would have to carry a recharging pack. All extra kit……
So for the stats-addicted amongst you, here are links to the tracks. But before you guffaw at the shockingly low average speeds (and I would do the same….quietly, of course), do remember that we climbed nearly 4000 metres (13,000 feet) in total, and some of the climbs were approaching 20%. But it was all good fun, nevertheless………..
For those of you happy just to see the mapped routes, scroll back to the previous four posts, and you will see they have been inserted into the text.
To have three successive sunny days in North Wales is little short of a miracle….but the BBC weather app even promises sunshine on our fourth, and last, day.
So how is it that a bunch of old whingers like us deserve such blessings? I’ve said this before elsewhere, the nation needs to tap in more to the creative energy of our generation. We stop for 5 minutes by the roadside to admire a view and chat about some issue of national importance, and the problem is solved before you can say ‘boo to a goose’.
I tell you, we have much to offer on behalf of the wellbeing of the nation…..but nobody listens to us.
However, luck and sunshine do sometimes desert us. A local farmer had been hedge cutting along this lane, and 40% of our little group (ie. 2) were ‘gifted’ a puncture.
It was nearly 60%, because I pulled a long thorn out of my back tyre…..but luckily it never managed to pierce the Kevlar coating inside the tyre. So at the moment, I am the only one in the group to be puncture free these last few days. But there’s still time….
And so, what about today’s route I hear you say. Well it took us north along the eastern ridge of the Conwy valley, meeting the sea at Colwyn Bay, heading around the headland of the Great Orme to Llandudno (where we stoked up on a Wetherspoon’s breakfast), then onto Conwy where some indulged in a rather long liquid lunch (hence the shorter ride….. ) and then back along minor roads to Llanrwst, our base for the trip.
It all makes stunning terrain for long cycle rides.
As we sat in a cafe, surrounded by working men having their morning coffee break, I asked the others: “So what do we contribute to the nation’s economy and wellbeing?”
Of course cyclists are seldom caught unawares by an unexpected question. Quick on the response, we heard the following: we buy (and wear out) bicycles, so need a constant stream of spare parts; we patronize cafes and pubs during mid-week quiet periods; we frequently need accommodation; we need bits of technology, clothes……and the list goes on.
So if you think retirement is a breeze, with nothing to do, devoid of any sense of responsibility towards the nation……I’m sorry to disabuse you of that idea. We ride our bikes and work hard for the national wellbeing…….QED
Today’s ride was (and I struggle to find adequate words) simply one if the very best day rides I can ever remember. The sunlight, the land and skyscapes, the views of peaks (and frequently of Snowden itself) and the panoramas of valleys and coastline were to ‘die for’. We laboured up climbs, hurtled down to lakesides, we forged our way through woodland and lingered at dramatic vantage points……what more could I say?
Well, not a lot that would be meaningful…..
…..doors to these historic buildings left open and a warm welcome with refreshments inside. Not only are these buildings a capsule of the religious past and present, but they also give us a unique insight into the heart and soul of a community. We have a singularly rich heritage in this country that is worth preserving.
Life is not just about the bike……just in case you had wondered. A journey to the south west to deepest Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, those remote islands so long associated with smuggling, shipwrecks, Augustus Smith (founder of Tresco Abbey Gardens), dramatic sunsets, pristine white sandy beaches, and the endless blue of the ocean as it meets the sky on the horizon.
No bikes (the longest stretch of road is only 3 miles), but a walker’s and nature lover’s paradise…..and if a bit of ancient history attracts you, they have found burial chambers and villages that go back to the Mesolithic age (6000 years ago?).
This is probably Jenny’s favourite place in the whole of the British Isles……it would be mine but for the danger of succumbing to ‘cabin fever’ after a few weeks.
Enjoy the photos.
On a recent four day trip over to the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, we were able to delve beneath the surface of some of the “history makers” of these bonny isles. Like any member of the National Trust or English Heritage, we enjoy learning about our history through the buildings that have been left the nation as an inheritance, invariably by the aristocrats and wealth-makers of bygone ages.
The perspective we get is, naturally, as seen through the eyes of the people who had influence……
……and influence is not just a natural result of birth or connections, but is fundamentally rooted in wealth. The size of your income and bank balance are hugely significant factors in your ability to influence the course of history.
In our thousands, we flock to gape in awe at the fabulous country estates owned by the rich of bygone days. We hear the tales and scandals of how they made their money and, often, how they squandered it.
But how often do we stop to think, and analyse, the ways in which they made their money? So often the misery and squalid living conditions of millions have been the result of their lack of munificence as employers. So often the success of their business ventures had its foundation in human abuse, child labour, inhuman working hours and conditions, low pay, subjugation of strikes, punishment of ring-leaders, eviction of tenants……and the list goes on. In Merthyr Tidfil, in the mid 19th century, average longevity among the poor was only 17.5 years. Why? Living conditions were so appalling that over 40% of children died in early childhood and, those that weren’t eventually killed by avoidable diseases, probably died as a result of some avoidable industrial accident, that could have been prevented by some basic security measures.
For the wealth-creating aristocracy, people were often seen as a replaceable commodity. Life had little value other than its potential to produce wealth for the master. On the altar of productivity, millions were sacrificed.
But on the brighter side, we also soaked up the beauty of the Brecon Beacons covered in their winter garb….
…and enjoyed the heritage trail around one of the UK’s smallest cathedrals…..
Just as the equator separates the north from the south, so the Greenwich Meridian separates the east from the west. The big difference being that the former is a geographical phenomenon dictated by the shape and movement of the earth around the sun. The latter is a man-made phenomenon developed to compliment the already understood notion of latitude…..which, of course, is ‘longitude’. The understanding of both was vital for sailors navigating around the world.
But I’m not a sailor, so what relevance has this to matters cycling? Not a lot, but on my ride out to Barton, near Cambridge, I happened to pass from west to east…….and after my tea and scone with a bunch of mile-eating roadies at Burwash Manor, I crossed back again on my way home. I even got off my bike and stood astride the two time zones, my left leg being a couple of micro-seconds behind my right leg……. People travel from far distant countries to pay a visit to our Greenwich Conservatory to do just that…..stand astride the time line……as they do the equator in countries like Ecuador.
But there was no evidence of a climate difference between the two time zones. The night before, I reckoned it had rained equally on both sides of the time line, and there was no way I was going to risk riding across this little torrent…….yes, believe me, there is a road beneath this.
Radio 4 is putting out some fascinating stuff these days. This year being the 8ooth anniversary of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that has had major repercussions through the centuries in many countries across the world, it was good to hear that Melvyn Bragg was entrusted with the presentation of its history over four programmes.
Believed to be the foundation stone of most modern democracies today, it was astonishing to discover that the first version of Magna Carta was denounced as unlawful by the Pope within weeks of its publication, re-establishing the king’s divine right to, not only be the law-maker in his own kingdom, but also to be above the law and immune from prosecution.
The death of King John, however, brought the child King Henry III to the throne, and the rebellious barons once again saw their opportunity to re-establish the principles of Magna Carta, which was finally ratified in 1225.
Though most of the clauses have now lost their relevance in modern democracies, the very principles on which they were based are still pertinent, and have helped lay the foundation of constitutions around the world, most notably that of the United States……to name but one.
A series well worth attention: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wtchv
I must be growing up and beginning to betray flickering signs of a new sensibility. Once again (will this become a habit?), I allowed the threat of icy roads to persuade me to leave my set of wheels in the garage, and don the little used walking boots for a two hour tramp over fields, along streams, around fish ponds, through woods and copses, breaking ice on virgin pools of water, picking up mud on rapidly thawing furrows………….
And at the end of it all, I tell myself……..I should do this more often. I accessed places that can’t be reached on a bike, was reminded of landmarks that can’t normally be seen by the casual passer-by, and rediscovered dells and niches, viewpoints and landscapes that merit a few moments of contemplation.
When out pedalling the miles, I frequently get distracted. Some distractions lead to unscheduled stops…….and this stop, some 20 miles (30kms) from my home, served to remind me of the importance of Norman Cross during the Napoleonic Wars, more than 200 years ago.
Norman Cross, some two centuries ago, was nowhere near any of the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars…….but that is precisely why it was chosen as the most suitable spot for creating the very first prisoner of war camp on these islands. Some 80 miles north of London, with ample water supplies and ready sources of food, it was remote enough to discourage French prisoners from trying to escape, but not too far away to make it impossible for the transfer of prisoners, as and when prisoner exchanges took place.
In the 15 years of its existence, some 30,000 prisoners passed through its gates, but the resident population seldom rose above 5000 at any one time. Over 1800 died of natural causes (usually some form of infectious disease), a few swapped sides and joined the British army, and still others chose to stay in this country after their liberation.
Prisoners at Norman Cross relieved the boredom by making ornaments from wood, bone and straw marquetry. These were often sold – there was a regular market beside the prison gates. Many of the objects made are on show at the Peterborough City Museum and Art Gallery where there is a gallery dedicated to the Norman Cross Depot.
The camp was closed in 1816, but it had established a tradition that would feature prominently in future wars, especially the two world wars of the last century.
The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France came in 1904 and in 1914 the Entente Cordiale Society put up a memorial column to the memory of the 1,800 prisoners who died at Norman Cross. The column – a Napoleonic Eagle – was an imposing sight for people travelling along the A1. However, in 1990 it was vandalised – the column was knocked over and the bronze eagle was stolen, never to be seen again.
The Norman Cross Eagle Appeal committee raised money to restore the memorial. When the A1 was rebuilt in 1998, the memorial column was re-erected on its original base on a new site, close to the site of the Depot. A bronze eagle, created by sculptor John Doubleday, was finally unveiled in April 2005.
I don’t regard myself as a pedant, and I try to avoid conversations that begin with “now, when I was a lad…” or “in my day…..” or even worse “in the good old days……”, when English was written and spoken properly…….but I have to confess that I am frequently amused by current uses and abuses of language.
We’ve all seen, by the roadside, garages that advertise “MOT’s while you wait” or signs that warn you a road is “Unsuitable for HGV’s”. Now the abuse of the apostrophe is so gaily rampant these days as to prompt a group of language conservationists to form the Apostrophe Protection Society…….I kid you not. If you are guilty of abusing an apostrophe in a public forum, they will hunt you down, ridicule you in public, and make an example of you before the international English-speaking community. If you get away with just a life-sentence in a high security lock-up, count yourself lucky!
Now, as some of you know, I take a ‘moderate’ interest in all things cycling, and I read a lot from a variety of periodicals, memoirs, travelogues, reviews and biographies. Cyclists, in general, are a relatively literate bunch. Some may lack imagination when it comes to writing about their reflections on a route or journey they have enjoyed but, generally, they can form sentences and
paragraphs, know roughly where full-stops, commas and apostrophes go, and get most of their spellings correct…….
Now, I did say only “most”, because there are a lot of pedallers out there who still can’t distinguish their ‘peddle’ from their ‘pedal’, or their ‘peddlers’ from their ‘pedallers’. I have just this minute read the following in an article: “….a tandem does really need two peddlers”. Now I really want to know if a pair of tandemists “will peddle their tandem to a car boot sale, so that they can pedal their wares”……or is it the other way around?
Excuse the unintended puns, but I hate tinkering with people’s (or is it peoples’) thinking, because to do so can mess with their ‘cycle-logical’ equanimity, but I really do need to know, when I climb on my bike, am I ‘hawking’ or ‘spinning cranks’?
Elsewhere in the world of cycling, there have been other developments in the use of language (and not just in cycling either). I’ve always thought of ‘podium’ only as a noun, but I now have to bow down to the superior intellect of our celebrated TV commentators who will quite happily say things like: “….now has Chris Froome done enough to podium at the end?”.
And if you always thought that ‘medal’ was only a noun……well, think again. It does actually exist as a verb meaning ‘to decorate with a medal’, but its usage has now been stretched to mean ‘ to win a medal’. Throughout the 2012 Olympics, we kept hearing things like: “….Wiggins is approaching the finishing line, and it looks as if he’s done enough to medal…..”….or is that to meddle? (Now I’m really confused).
So, what would the BBC’s erstwhile Brains Trust (or was that Brain’s Trust?) have said about all this?
Some of the most celebrated English naturalists seldom strayed far from their homes to make their astonishing discoveries. On my cycle route to Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago, I chanced by the home of Gilbert White in Selbourne, Hampshire, and learned that through painstaking observation of the behaviour of swallows in his own village, he concluded that they migrated to other lands during the winter. From that seed of observation sprouted the theory that many species of birds (and animals) followed the same patterns of behaviour.
Charles Darwin, the man celebrated for having the wisdom to unwrap the mysteries of evolution, spent 40 years living in Downe House with his wife and children. Apart from his 5 years travelling the globe with HMS Beagle, the bulk of his study took place in his home, and out on the 18 acres of land purchased with the house.
He spent 40 years patiently observing and conducting experiments, and the theory of evolution was only one of hundreds of theories that emanated from that small domestic environment. In fact, one of his major studies concerned the huge impact of the humble earthworm on the well-being of the planet. The last book he published before his death contained the results of his life-long study of the worm…….and this from a man who was being celebrated (and vilified) the world over for the ‘earthquake’ he caused amongst the thinking classes.
Darwin had the wisdom to publish and then withdraw to the peace and quiet of his home environment, allowing the intellectuals of his time to ‘clear up the mess’. So it is astonishing to discover that his theory of evolution, in the hands of opposing intellectuals of the time, was used to justify the arguments of opposite camps.
‘Social Darwinists’, on the one hand, argued in favour of the theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’ being applied directly to human society: allow the weak and the poor to die off, and the strongest and wealthiest will propagate the earth. (The foundation of the Nazi final solution…..?). On the other hand, Karl Marx himself embraced the theory in proposing the class struggle. If the poor and the weak are likely to suffer and die at the hands of the rich and powerful, then they should rise up and fight for survival.
If you visit Downe House in Kent, allow a whole day to take in the length and the breadth of this fascinating house. More than just a home to the Darwin family, it was the laboratory from which new thinking was to change the way we viewed the world.