Sunday, 29 March 2015

Runnymede, Magna Carta and the Anglesey Abbey connection

 Magna Carta is perhaps the most famous example from history of a monarch conceding powers to his subjects. The Great Charter of Liberties was agreed on the meadows of Runnymede in Surrey 800 years ago this year in June 1215.

Runnymede is today managed by the National Trust, but it very nearly was lost to development. Its open, natural character was only saved by the generosity of the Broughton family, who also went on to bequeath Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge to the nation. This link explains why visitors to Anglesey Abbey are able to see numerous references to Magna Carta in the collections on display in the house.

Magna Carta was a peace treaty between King John and his disgruntled barons, who had been angered by years of excessive taxation and arbitrary royal rule. The charter represented a colossal climb-down for the king, who not long afterwards reneged on the agreement and plunged the country into civil war.

But Magna Carta survived. After John’s death in October 1216 it was reissued in the name of his 9-year-old son and heir Henry III, in a smart piece of statecraft by William Marshal, the king’s regent. The move was enough to end the civil war and restore order.

Magna Carta went on to be reissued again several times by Henry III and his successors, each an attempt to unify the nation by reaffirming the limits of the king’s authority. King’s may have ruled by divine right, but Magna Carta demonstrated that they operated within some commonly agreed constraints.

Two clauses in particular remain of fundamental importance to us today – the freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and the right to a fair trial. These clauses are now regarded as the basis of our modern system of law and governance, and are the reason why Magna Carta is still venerated, 800 years on. The barons and King John himself could never have imagined it, but their actions on that June day in 1215 changed the course of human history forever.

Magna Carta has not always been held in such esteem in the country of its origin. By Shakespeare’s time, the charter had almost been forgotten (the bard’s play about King John does not even mention it). Its significance grew in the era of the Civil War, at a time when the limits of monarchical authority were again under intense scrutiny.

But in many ways we owe it to our American cousins for keeping faith with the Charter of Liberties. Its clauses directly influenced the USA’s founding documents, and some US states still keep Magna Carta on their statute books today.

This may explain why Urban Broughton, an English civil engineer who made his fortune in America, chose to take a house near the meadows after returning to England in 1912.

Urban had married the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, and the family’s fortune enabled them to acquire several properties in England.  Urban served as MP for Preston from 1915 to 1928, while his wife promoted charitable causes in her adopted country.

In 1921 Runnymede appeared on a list of Government property that was up for sale as development land. A huge local outcry ensued, and the coalition Government of the time was forced into a u-turn, withdrawing the 252 acres of meadowland from sale.

Ironically nothing at the meadows contained any link at all to the events of 1215. For centuries the grassland had been preserved as an open space not because of Magna Carta but because it was the venue for the Egham horse races.

The pressure for development meant that the meadows’ future was far from secure. Urban and his wife therefore offered to buy the meadows, in order to save them for the nation. Urban was nominated for a peerage, but died in January 1929 before he could assume the title.

Cara, his wife, became Lady Fairhaven, and his eldest son became the 1st Lord Fairhaven. Lady Fairhaven and her sons purchased the meadows at Runnymede in December 1929 in Urban’s memory, and passed them to the National Trust for protection in perpetuity.

Lord Fairhaven by this time had also acquired Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge.  For more than thirty years he carried out extensive improvements to the property, and filled it with fine art. A special gallery was built simply to display Lord Fairhaven’s collection of views of Windsor Castle, which include one of nearby Runnymede. His library meanwhile holds a unique edition of Magna Carta, produced to mark its 600th anniversary in 1815 and printed using gold leaf.

A special LiberTeas event will take place at Anglesey Abbey on Sunday 14 June of this year, as part of the Magna Carta 800 celebrations.

This article appeared in the Cambridge News on Saturday 7 March 2015

The National Trust guidebook to Runnymede and Magna Carta - written by me! - is out now. 

Bourne free

Bourne Mill in Colchester had a grand re-opening this week. On Wednesday, the mill was open for free to all-comers, to celebrate the fact that it has now moved to more regular, five-day a week opening hours. 

Previously, the building was open only on occasional Sundays and Bank Holidays. Now, it boasts a single member of staff, a cafe and shop, and a team of 25 or so (and counting) volunteers.

The Trust acquired the building in 1936, a consequence of an anonymous donation. I don't know if this was anything to do with the mysterious Ferguson's Gang, who donated Shalford Mill in Surrey to the Trust in 1932. The story of Ferguson's Gang is endlessly fascinating - I've already placed my order for the new National Trust book that is coming out about them soon.

The Mill itself is a charming building, on the edge of a delightful pond. The building dates from 1591, though it is on the site of a former medieval mill. 

In the 17th century it became a cloth mill, and then in the 19th century a corn mill. Its distinctive Dutch gables make it a very attractive building, in the midst of an area of 20th century housing. 

The machinery inside has been carefully restored, and was operating when I visited. 

 It will be a lovely spot for summer days - let's hope they come soon.

Visitors coming by car may also find themselves passing near the curiously named Stalin Road - one of a number of nearby roads named after wartime leaders.  

Sunday, 15 February 2015

On Northey Island

We had fabulous weather this weekend for a visit to the ever-fascinating Northey Island in Essex. Here are some photos.

The picture above shows clearly one of the sea walls that surround the farmland on the island. To the left is an area reverted to saltmarsh, with the scouring of mud caused by turbulence as incoming tides rebound off the sea wall itself. But at this point the sea wall is lower than the field to the right of it, and this wall was overtopped during the storm surge of December 2013. 

Fabulous new signage at the start of the causeway leading to the island.

The square shapes in the salt marsh are former oyster beds. 

Another stretch of sea wall, this time out in the marshes.

In the field on the mainland, flocks of geese were congregating. The noise they make when they are disturbed and take to the air is quite amazing. 

One of the deeper channels in the mud, at the end of a stretch of sea wall. The depth of the channel shows the power of the tide. Northey Island and its causeway serve a strategic function in slowing the impact of the tide as it approaches Maldon. It defends homes there from flooding, just as it was a defensive point in 991 AD when the vikings invaded (leading to the Battle of Maldon in that year).

View across to the wreck of a Thames Barge. Apparently this was placed here deliberately as a permanently moored floating accommodation. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Lavenham Guildhall

I attended my first carol concert last Sunday at my local village church - a reminder of the stirring power of traditional carols. Carols have a very interesting history, as this article by Carolyn Emerick shows. Emerick speculates that the carolling tradition was not so different from Halloween traditions of trick or treating, and that carols could in fact be heard all year round as well as at Christmas. They performed secular as well as religious functions, bringing communities together for celebration and conviviality particularly in the dark winter months.

I also visited Lavenham Guildhall last weekend, to see the newly presented interior of the building following an HLF-funded interpretation project. My visit reminded me that Lavenham Guildhall is in many ways the architectural equivalent of a Christmas Carol. Like carols, Guildhalls were created for a combination of spiritual and secular reasons. They were built at the bequest of individuals, as expressions of spiritual devotion, and were associated with particular trades and professions. Members would subscribe to the guild in order to ensure that a parish priest was available to care for the souls of all members. Guilds would in addition raise funds for the upkeep of their local church, and were a focus for communal and economic activity.

Corpus Christi Guildhall in Lavenham was built in around 1529 on the back of the huge wealth derived by the town from the woollen trade. The size of the building and its central location in the heart of Lavenham itself speaks to the wealth and prestige of the Guild’s original members. Not long after its construction, however, the Reformation spelled the end of Guildhalls in a religious sense, and the building has subsequently experienced a wide range of secular uses in the community: as a jail, a workhouse, an almshouse and a warehouse. It came to the National Trust in 1951 having been purchased and restored by Sir William Cuthbert Quilter in 1887.

The new interpretation scheme at Lavenham replaces the earlier use of the building as a town museum. In place of the traditional museum exhibits comes a sequence of rooms in which are told the stories of individuals who have been particularly associated with the Guildhall through the centuries. The lives of these individuals have been exhaustively researched for the purposes of the project, and are now summarised in beautifully designed hangings and wall mounts. Each room focuses on a different era in the Guildhall’s history, from its use as a Bridewell to its economic uses as a building integral to Lavenham’s woollen crafts and trades: spinning, dyeing and weaving.

I loved the design quality – the quality of the panels and displays, and the small details such as the clever painted shadows of objects on a shelf that was in one of the rooms. It feels that by removing the objects the building has been opened up much more and allowed to speak to us with its own voice, throwing new light upon the 500 years of history

It was also good to chat with a number of the volunteers. One told us a great deal about  spinning, and also explained how wool was dyed. We learned that the leaves of carrots, when boiled, can turn wool yellow. When we got home, we tried it – and were thrilled to discover that it worked!  

Lavenham Guildhall opens fully from the end of February, but much of the new presentation scheme can already be seen – and it is well worth a visit.

Merry Christmas to all, and all best wishes for the New Year

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Charter of the Forest

797 years ago today, a royal charter was issued that could be interpreted as the first ever piece of environmental legislation.

The Charter of the Forest, sealed on 6 November 1217,  was a spin-off from Magna Carta, the great charter of liberties originally agreed by King John in 1215. Magna Carta was a failure from the outset, since John reneged on its terms not long afterwards, leading him into direct war with his barons.

John’s successor, Henry III, reissued Magna Carta as a peace offering on his coronation in 1216, and it was reissued again the following year. The Charter of the Forest was separated out from the main Magna Carta in 1217 in order to provide more detail on what the monarch promised in relation to forest lands. Indeed, it was the separation of the two documents that led to Magna Carta being known as the ‘great charter’, to differentiate it from its shorter companion document. But what did the Forest Charter actually say?

As in the original Charter of Liberties, the clauses relating to forests represented a massive climb down for the king.  Whereas John and his predecessors had extended the boundaries of royal forests, Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest offered some measure of royal retreat. No more would the king claim the authority of Forest Law over such a wide area of land.  

No more would the pre-existing freedoms of people living in those forests – the freedom to gather firewood, to hunt animals, to erect mills on rivers and streams – be trampled on by the demands of the royal forest courts. Forests, after all, were a legal as much as physical entities – they were areas of land over which forest law prevailed, often wooded but not necessarily (since some heaths and much open wood-pasture was also classified as ‘forest’).

"all woods which were afforested by King Richard ... or...  King John ...shall forthwith be disafforested"

"Every free man shall agist his own wood in the forest as he wishes and have his pannage."

"No man henceforth shall lose life or limb for taking our venison"

The Woodland Trust has recently called for a new Charter forTrees Woods and People, to draw attention to the importance of trees and woods in our everyday lives. The work of 797 years ago continues to inspire new ways of thinking about our relationship with the natural world.

The full text of the Charter of the Forest can be seen here: 

Friday, 31 October 2014

On the origins of pumpkin carving....

Halloween as we know it today is in many ways an invention of the 1970s and 1980s, largely imported from the USA. But its roots run far deeper as a medieval Christian festival, the eve of All Saints’ day or Hallowmas (1 Nov) and All Souls day (2 Nov), on which candles were lit and bells rung as an aid to souls that lingered in purgatory.

Edgar, NT Pumpkin Support Coordinator

After the Reformation the Christian festival of Halloween faded away in many parts of the country. By the early 20th century Guy Fawkes night had assumed pre-eminence for many, although ‘punkie night’ continued to feature in some places, and involved the parading of lanterns made out of root vegetables. In other parts this time of year was known for ‘souling’, when people would visit each other to present soul-cakes as commemorations of the dead. Elsewhere, 31 October was also known as Mischief Night (Miggy Night in Yorkshire), when tricks were played on neighbours by knocking on their doors and running away, or swapping over the signs outside shops.

So if you are out trick or treating tonight, remember that there is more to this than simply a commercialised import from America – underlying it is a tradition stretching back more than a millennium, to mark a time of year when the spirit world was deemed closer than usual to its earthly counterpart.  

There’s plenty of spooking happenings at National Trust places too, from the scary trails at Sheringham and Peckover to Pumpking Carving at Dunstable, Sutton Hoo and Wimpole and Batty Halloween at Hatfield and Wicken Fen. It all sounds fantastic half-term fun!

(This based on Steve Roud's The English Year (2006))

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Mmmm Skyscraper, I Love You

 I was lucky enough to visit Balfron Tower this week, to see the latest innovation in the National Trust’s London programme. Balfron Tower is a hi-rise that dominates the landscape near Poplar in East London – or at least it did, before it was dwarfed in turn by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Balfron was designed by the architect ErnÅ‘ Goldfinger, whose modernist home in Hampstead is owned and displayed by the National Trust.

Goldfinger was a controversial enough figure in his day – so much so indeed that Ian Fleming (a near neighbour in Hampstead) used his name for one of his villains in the James Bond books. But Goldfinger was nothing if not an enthusiastic pioneer of new ways of thinking about life, buildings and the spaces around them. The 27-storey Balfron Tower, with its ‘streets in the sky’ connected from a single service tower, was a distinctive social vision aimed at providing a solution to post-war housing needs. It adjoins the equally visionary Lansbury Estate, named after the socialist George Lansbury, which had its origins as part of the Festival of Britain (1951).

Balfron Tower is now a building on the cusp of a new future. Its current residents are mostly artists and architects, who live there as the ‘guardians’ of the place. Soon, they will be leaving, as the place is taken over by Londonewcastle for refurbishment of the Grade II-listed flats.

Before it does, the Trust stepped in to show off one of the apartments in its 1960s hey day – the very apartment, in fact, that Goldinger himself moved into in 1968 in order to test the liveability of the place. The designer Wayne Hemingway and his daughter Tilly were invited to dress the flat at number 130 as if it was 1968 again, and a family were living there. There are echoes of the Domestic Wing at Anglesey Abbey therefore, in the recreation of a 1960s interior that will be familiar to many. From the winceyette  bedspreads to the posters of the Beatles and other pop stars of their day, the place was dressed with a lovely attention to detail. (Although I did wonder if the clean-shaven Beatles on the bedroom posters were a few years out of date for 1968?)

There is also an excellent guidebook, featuring the best ever cover I have ever seen on one of our guides. Inside, an attempt is made to link Goldfinger’s work with that of our founder, Octavia Hill, given that both shared a concern for the open green spaces between buildings. In truth, I think Octavia would have been appalled by the brutal modernism of Balfron Tower, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless that Goldfinger was in some way the heir to the housing endeavours that Octavia Hill had been pursuing in London a century earlier.

A more solid link between Poplar and the National Trust however comes with the figure of George Lansbury, the Suffolk-born radical socialist who became so closely associated with the east end, serving as councillor for Poplar and then Labour MP for Bow and Bromley. Lansbury’s public campaigns for social justice gave rise to the term ‘Poplarism’ as meaning the local defence of the less privileged against the demands of the centre. Lansbury went on to become the Commissioner for Works (in other words, heritage minister) in the National Government of 1929-31, and later Leader of the Labour Party.  (The Hyde Park lido on the Serpentine was known as Lansbury’s Pond, since it dates from his time in ministerial office.)
Lansbury, grandfather of the actress Angela Lansbury, knew Octavia Hill. The two of them sat on the Poor Law commission of 1905-09 (Lansbury would have been in his 40s at the time, Octavia in her 70s). They were on opposite sides, since Lansbury signed the Webbs’ minority report that heralded the beginnings of state welfarism, whereas Octavia signed the majority report in favour of reforms to the existing Poor Law system.  Lansbury went on to serve as vice-President of the National Trust in the 1930s, and was closely involved in the saving of Sutton House, a story told by Patrick Wright.   

So, although 130 Balfron Tower might be a time-limited ‘pop-up’, there are more links between Poplar and the National Trust than might first be the case.

PS Ageing hipsters will have noticed that the title of this blog comes from the Underworld album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. In a recent Guardian interview, Karl Hyde relates how the album was influenced by his late night walks around London, and was intimately informed therefore by the psychogeography of the city. “To me this album was Romford, Soho, Canary Wharf, the A13 corridor, the transition from a changing suburbia.” The perfect soundtrack to the Balfron experience?