Sunday, 10 March 2019

Bartlow Hills

A landscape palimpsest worthy of the name is at Bartlow in Cambridgeshire, near to the northern Essex border. Here, the Victorians drove a railway line through a Roman burial ground laid out in the first century AD. The railway itself disappeared in the 1960s, not having anywhere near the longevity therefore of three of the Roman mounds, the central one (at 13 metres) the largest of its kind in northern Europe.
Victorian railway tunnel cutting into Mound 5 at Bartlow Hills

Whatever possessed the Victorians to think that this was a good spot for a piece of transport infrastructure? Not long before the railway arrived the mounds had been excavated, revealing a treasury of finds: containers of cremated remains, lodged within wooden chests that also included vessels of food and drink, flowers, box leaves, incense and traces of blood, wine and milk mixed with honey. The finds were taken to Easton Lodge in Essex, the home of the Maynard family, but the fire of 1847 that destroyed the Elizabethan mansion  at Easton also destroyed the majority of the artefacts (though some examples still survive at Saffron Walden Museum).

Mounds 4 and 7 at Bartlow Hills

Perhaps the removal of the treasures inclined the railway company to think there was no harm in driving a train track and tunnel through this most ancient of sites. There were originally eight mounds in total, and traces of a few more survive on private land adjacent to the three that still stand today. These three are now held in guardianship by Cambridgeshire County Council, meaning that the mounds are fully accessible for public visiting. It is well worth climbing the stairs on the largest of them, to take in the view from the top.

The footpath leading to the mounds begins in the churchyard of Bartlow church, itself well worth a visit because of the remnants of its elaborate wall paintings. Three of these survive too, details of late 14th-century decorative paintings depicting St George’s dragon, the weighing of souls by St Michael, and the bearded face of St Christopher. The church is one of only two round-towered churches in Cambridgeshire, and it is said that King Cnut ordered it to be built after the Battle of Assandun, when the Danes were triumphant over the English army of Edmund Ironside. (Sadly there is no evidence to support this theory, and the exact location of the Battle of Assandun remains unknown.)

St Michael, weighing souls, Bartlow Church

St Christopher, Bartlow Church

St George's Dragon, Bartlow Church

Bartlow Church, Cambridgeshire


Saturday, 5 January 2019

Enoch Girling put it out

One of my Christmas highlights was the series of Late Junctions on Radio 3 hosted by Stewart Lee. Lee’s passion for interesting (if obscure) music made for some very enjoyable discoveries, which included for me the Suffolk-based violinist Laura Cannell. Cannell’s recent album, Hunter Huntress Hawker, featured on the set list, and I subsequently discovered it had been recorded in St Andrew’s church, Covehithe, on the Suffolk coast.

This reminded me of the visit we made to St Andrew's in August last year, while taking our (now customary) Suffolk holiday. It was a somewhat typical late summer’s day – for which read grey, cold and rainy. I had not been to Covehithe before but had heard much about it – not least from the China Miéville short story. (Miéville once worked in Chapel Books in Westleton, not far from Covehithe.)

Covehithe is significant because half of the church is no longer there. The bulk of the 15th-century fabric is now ruinated, having been pulled down in the second half of the 17th century when the costs of repairing it had become too prohibitive. Instead, the parishoners downsized, and built a smaller thatched church on the footprint of the earlier one, abutting the still-standing tower.

The medieval ruins are evocative. But then so is the 17th -century church. Inside is a 15th-century font. Two curious medallions on the north and south walls record the rebuilding of the church with the words ‘James Gilbert put it out 1672’ and ‘Enoch Girling put it out 1672’. Gilbert and Girling were officers of the parish, who ‘put out’ the contract for the rebuild.  

St Andrew's church is now partly looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, and is well worth a visit.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

A Bray Library in Newport, Essex

Our village has the reasonably rare honour of having been given a Parish Library in the early 18th century. This was also known as a Bray Library, since it was a gift of the ‘Trustees for Erecting Parochial Libraries’ associated with the clergyman Thomas Bray (1656-1730).

Thomas Bray

Bray was a missionary and founder of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1698. His particular interest was in publishing Christian texts for circulation in the colonies – he spent time in Maryland, establishing parish libraries there in order to plant the Church of England in North America. On his return to this country in around 1701 he began establishing libraries of theological works in parishes here too. Perhaps 80 parish libraries were established in this way, of which Newport’s was one, having been founded in 1710.

The records of the SPCK happen to be held at the University Library, Cambridge. I invited a rare libraries expert from the University Library, Mark Purcell, to inspect what remains of Newport’s Bray library. The Library is held in the room above the porch, normally firmly locked, and accessible only via a very steep spiral staircase (albeit now nicely restored). The room itself is somewhat bare and very dusty. It consists of two book cases and a book cupboard – perhaps the original cupboard used for housing the Bray library, since the markings of where the catalogue would have been pasted can still be seen on the inside of the cupboard door. Various boxes of papers gather dust, and cobwebs and rodent droppings are much in evidence.

The original Bray Library cupboard
According to an excerpt from the official directory of Parochial Libraries, which Mark copied for me, Newport received 72 volumes in 1710. More volumes were added in 1834. The collection was given up in 1870 but then re-established in 1879 and further augmented in 1889 and 1896. Of the original 1710 volumes, only 49 remained by 1834 and then only 3 or 4 by 1959. Therefore, the Newport Bray Library is, unfortunately, nothing of the sort, since very few of the original books remain in the collection.

However, there are lots of books, perhaps 800 or so, many of them dating from before 1800. These must be associated with the periods of library augmentation in the 19th century. Mark wondered if the story of the Library is connected with what happened to the Newport Free Grammar School (now the Joyce Frankland Academy). The school was originally housed in the building now known as Church House, directly opposite the church, before moving to its new site in c.1878. Perhaps the building of the new school premises, and the removal of the school from the immediate vicinity of the church, was the reason why the room above the church was fitted out as a library room in around 1879. Certainly, Mark felt the fireplace now in the room dated from this time.

It seems a shame that Newport's Parochial Library is not often seen or used, but then the texts will be of little relevance to readers today (many of the earliest are in Latin or Greek). We already have a handwritten list of the books in the room, but perhaps there is work to be done to write this list up into a more detailed database, which could include a record of the various handwritten inscriptions inside (sometimes giving evidence of the provenance of individual volumes). The first task, though, would be simply to dust the room, though this is likely to be a filthy job that would then need to be repeated on a fairly regular basis.

Monday, 6 August 2018

8.16am, Monday August 6th

In his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, HG Wells prophetically imagined a history of the future. It was not an optimistic prospect. He anticipated a world war of colossal magnitude starting in 1940 and finishing in 1949. Aerial weaponry would be put to devastating effect, levelling entire cities. Wells postulated that humankind would be shattered as a consequence, and would face years of famine and disease. Only through the dictatorship of a technologically-driven elite would a new, utopian world order be established.

Wells’ vision certainly had an impact. It inspired Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come (1936), and was manifestly prescient about the outbreak of world war, even though this happened a year earlier than Wells anticipated, in 1939. 

In his prediction of the way technology could be harnessed for militaristic ends, Wells was perhaps mindful of the discoveries of the scientist Leo Szilard, whom he had met in 1929. Szilard was an émigré Hungarian physicist, who in 1933, the same year as Wells' book, conceived of the nuclear chain reaction process, which led to his patenting of the design for a nuclear reactor. Emigrating to the USA, Szilard became closely involved in the Manhattan Project, though he later expressed deep remorse that his scientific discoveries had been employed so directly to cause human death and destruction.

Monday 6th August 1945 will forever be significant, as the date that a USA B-29 Superfortress bomber dropped an atomic bomb, ‘Little Boy’, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The day had begun much like any other – a regular summer morning in a busy, bustling city, for a time Japan’s capital. A typhoon on 1 August had delayed the bombing raid, but now all was calm and peaceful. ‘The hour was early, the morning still, warm, and beautiful… Shimmering leaves, reflecting sunlight from a cloudless sky, made a pleasant contrast with shadows in my garden’, wrote Michihiko Hachiya, a resident who survived.

The B-29, nicknamed ‘Enola Gay’ by one of the pilots (after his mother's name), took off from Tinian. The ‘Little Boy’ bomb inside the plane looked to one of the crew members like ‘an elongated trash can with fins’. It was a gun-type fission weapon, whereby a quantity of uranium-235 was divided into two parts, and an explosive device fired one part into the other, triggering the nuclear chain reaction. Such was the potential volatility of the bomb that the explosives were only inserted into it after the plane had taken off on its fateful flight. A timer would enable just enough time for the plane to escape the force of the blast.  

The bomb was dropped just after 8.15am and fell for 44 seconds from the B-29, exploding 500 metres above the city, at the time of 8.16am. In an instant, the entire world had changed.

Surviving eye witnesses (from just outside of the city centre) recorded experiencing at first a blinding light, seemingly from nowhere but illuminating everything (in Japanese, a pika). It had a photographic effect, leaving shadows forever inscribed on surfaces, such as the famous shadow left by the unknown person captured sitting on the granite steps of one of Hiroshima’s banks.

Then came an intense heat, reaching 10,000 oF at its core. All animal and insect life in the vicinity disintegrated at a stroke: birds, insects, pets, mammals – all were instantly cremated. Human life within the hypocentre of the explosion suffered similarly, perishing in an instant from a 370m-diameter fireball. Many beyond the immediate radius did not die but instead suffered atrocious burns. ‘In my mind’s eye, like a waking dream, I could still see the tongues of fire at work on the bodies of men’

After the heat came the radiation, as the dust and ash swept up in the fireball – the famous mushroom cloud – fell to ground. Eyewitnesses recorded that the world suddenly went from blinding white light to dark grey and brown colours. The falling debris was referred to as ‘black rain’, and anyone caught up in it was at risk of a fatal dose of radiation. ‘There was a fearful silence which made one feel that all people and all trees and vegetation were dead’ said Yoko Ota.

The effect on human life was devastating. 70,000 died as a direct result of the bomb, and a further 70,000 would die in the weeks and months ahead from its poisonous effects. The after-effects meant that as many as 200,000 people in total were killed as a result of the bomb over a five-year period.

The effect on the city itself was equally destructive. Of Hiroshima’s 76,000 buildings, 48,000 were obliterated, and 70,000 were ruined.  Traditional Japanese buildings, many of them made from wood and paper, fell ‘as if they had been scythed’ (Robert Rhodes). The bomb levelled the city entirely, leaving behind just a few skeletons of buildings.

On a visit to Hiroshima earlier this year, I saw for myself how a modern city has been rebuilt out of this apocalyptic event. But at the heart of this city, near the hypocentre of the explosion, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum stands as a testament to the devastating effect of the Little Boy bomb. The experience is gruelling. But the overriding emotion at the end of it is one of hope and determination. The Peace flame outside the museum in the Memorial Park burns day and night, and won’t be extinguished until the last nuclear bomb has been decommissioned.

Also part of the Memorial Park is the ‘A-Bomb Dome’, the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall of 1915. This was one of the few buildings to survive the blast, but in a ruinated state, with the green-domed roof now a skeleton. Whereas other ruins have been supplanted by modern high-rise developments, this one has been deliberately left to stand as a reminder of the effects of the bomb. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conservation work has been carried out to ensure the building always looks as it did just after 8.16am on 6 August 1945. Only the greenness of the grass speaks to the eventual triumph of nature over human catastrophe. 

Quotes are taken from Robert Rhodes, The Making of the Atom Bomb (1988).

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Hampstead in Hertfordshire: A trip to Stansteadbury

My local history group recently went on a trip to Stansteadbury in Hertfordshire, organised through the excellent Invitation to View scheme.

Stansteadbury is a rambling manor house with multiple alterations from many different ages. It could almost be a different place each time you look, depending on which front you are facing, a concoction of Tudor, 19th and 20th century on one side, and classical Georgian box on the other. It truly has a bit of everything, but resolves into a pleasing amalgam of five centuries of organic growth and development.

Pevsner in his Hertfordshire volume likened Stansteadbury to a Hampstead villa relocated to the rolling Hertfordshire countryside. Perhaps he was suggesting that a house susceptible to so much fashionable alteration over time might be more suited to a smart London address than a place in the country. Nevertheless, Stansteadbury fits comfortably in its rural setting, just a few miles from Harlow but hidden alongside the A414 (which was laid out across part of the park).

Many houses in Hertfordshire and the surrounding counties were the creations of wealthy Londoners - lawyers, politicians, bankers - who wanted to establish themselves in country seats not too far from the capital. Stansteadbury was definitely one of these, being a monastic estate granted by Queen Elizabeth I to Edward Baeshe, politician and naval administrator. (Baeshe’s second wife was the daughter of Sir Ralph Sadler of Sutton House in Hackney.) Queen Elizabeth visited at least three times in the 1570s.

By 1678 the house had been sold to Paul Field, a London lawyer. In the 18th century the house was leased from the owners of nearby Briggens Hall, now a hotel.  By 1802 Stansteadbury was the home of Captain Robert Jocelyn. In the 19th century it came into the hands of the Trower family who remain there today.

In 1700 a view of Stansteadbury showed a double avenue approaching the house from the east, though that is now gone. The house is surrounded by outbuildings, walled gardens and parkland scenery (the licence to empark 300 acres was granted to Edward Baeshe in 1577).

The house is full of stories. The south side of the house was originally a forecourt, but this was replaced in the early 20th century by a terrace according to a design by Lutyens’ nephew, Derek Lutyens. On the west side is an entirely new wing, dated 1929, built  by William Trower for the domestic staff in the house - not realising of course that the era of houses such as this having extensive domestic staff was shortly to come to an end. During the Second World War Jeremy Bentham lived here - a consequence of Stansteadbury being the store for the UCL library collection which includes Bentham’s preserved body (his ‘auto icon’).

The lawyer Anthony Trower commuted daily from here to his London office, being in a line of London lawyers who made Stansteadbury their home. According to his obituarist,

Each morning he would walk across his fields to the railway station, and leave his gumboots in the signal box, where he kept his shoes for work. He always sat in the same seat on the same train, opposite the same man; half way through the journey they would swap newspapers - and not once, it was said, did they ever exchange a word.”

Afterwards we visited St James’ church, now owned by the Churches Conservation Trust and adjacent to the house. The church contains its original box pews, but no electricity (Christmas services are still by candlelight). A memorial brass of particular relevance to our local history group was that to William, son of Joyce Frankland. His early death in a horse-riding accident led to Joyce Frankland, another wealthy Londoner, establishing a school in our village to his memory.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Sisterhood of the Wheel

When I first moved to Newport, Essex, I was mystified as to what was making the strange sounds on Sunday morning. While the village could be beautifully still and quiet at this time, a regular swishing noise seemed to be emanating from somewhere. It didn’t take long to work out that the sound was being generated by the cyclists racing on the High Street outside, each of them with their own number marked in day-glo yellow on the backs of their racing jerseys.
Essex cyclist Alex Dowsett
We still get races taking place on the street outside our house. The long, straight-ish road, with its gentle climbs and declivities, seems perfectly suited to the sport. It was a revelation to hear that on-road racing of this kind had technically been illegal until the 1960s, though had been practised for at least half a century before then. Essex was particularly known for its cycling scene, with hundreds of clubs established, some of which remain very active. Police permission is now required before a race, or more correctly, a time trial, is held.
ERO D/Z 518/1 - the guest book of the Cock Tavern, Chipping Ongar, used by cyclists to record their stay
The occasion for this outbreak of reminiscences about the heyday of Essex cycling was a talk in our village by Dr Sheila Hanlon, an expert in women’s cycling history. Sheila traced the particular story of ‘ladies cycling clubs’, from the 1890s through to the present day. Ladies Cycling Clubs were a manifestation of the cycling craze of the 1890s, but as Sheila explained they had all sorts of other meanings too. Ultimately, they were a political movement, associated with the progressive idea (for the time) that women had independence, agency and autonomy. Sheila’s research has traced the connection between cycling and the campaign for women’s suffrage, for example, and it was timely to hear her paper in the year we mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.
The ladies' cycling craze of the 1890s - from
Women’s cycling clubs emerged in London and in northern English cities in the early 1890s. One of the first, the Hammersmith Ladies Cycling Club had as its President the actress Ellen Terry. The Graphic teased that one of its club rules was that ‘No gentleman was to be spoken to during our runs under any pretext whatsoever’. Despite the somewhat predictable scorn they attracted from male journalists, there were soon a great many such clubs, and the Ladies Cyclists Association was formed as an umbrella representative body. The link between cycling and progressive politics was apparent in the number of political parties that established their own cycling clubs, in particular on the left (such as the Clarion socialist cycling clubs). The Countess of Warwick, of Easton Lodge, Dunmow, Essex, was a noted cyclist about whom the song ‘Daisy, Daisy’ is said to have been written. She was a friend and associate of the campaigner WT Stead, who established the Mowbray House Cycling Association.
LCA meeting, from
The early cycling craze had lost some momentum by the time of the First World War, not least as motoring increased in popularity as a leisure pursuit. But cycle races were now becoming a more popular pastime, and in 1922 the Essex-based Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club was founded. The Rosslyn, typical of racing clubs at the time, made use of cycling huts that were established off the main road at Ugley, just down the road from Newport. Members would cycle out to the huts on a Saturday, often from homes in north London, spend the night in dormitories there before then devoting Sunday to race meetings. The huts were basic and lacked running water or electricity. Club members who came to the talk recalled having to pump up the Tilley lamps if they were first to arrive at the club, as well as the rules about male visitors being required to ring a bell to announce their arrival and leave by 930pm at the latest. Nonetheless, there was clearly much camaraderie between the men’s and ladies’ cycling clubs, as evidenced by the fact that so many of the women ended up marrying men from the other clubs.

Dr Sheila Hanlon and some of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycle Club members

Our talk was all the more interesting because a number of members of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club were in the audience, including PatSeeger who won numerous prizes in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Pat explained that her interest in the club was first sparked by the fact that she regularly cycled between London and Nottingham in the early years of her marriage. We were thrilled Pat and the other members of the Rosslyn (and other cycling clubs) were able to join us for Sheila’s lecture and the discussion afterwards – it made for a fascinatingly rich account of the vibrant Essex cycling scene.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Roman Holidays

Romans don’t seem to make much of a fuss over Valentine's day. This proved a welcome relief from the somewhat over-commercialised version of the day that is now marked in the UK. Hence, we were able to find somewhere to eat easily enough in Rome on Wednesday, without discovering that every trattoria was suddenly full of candlelit tables for two. Only at the top of the Spanish Steps did we observe one of Rome’s legion of street vendors trying (without much luck) to sell individual red roses to courting couples.

Keats-Shelley house at the foot of the Spanish Steps

There is an irony here: not only is Rome one of the world’s great romantic cities, but St Valentine himself was a Roman. Little is known of who exactly he was, but Valentine may have been either a priest from Rome, or the Bishop of Terni who happened to be staying in the city (or indeed it is possible that both martyrs have somehow come to be known as St Valentine). Either way, a beheading on the Via Flaminia to the north of Rome, in the time of Emperor Claudius (around AD 269-73), is what is really being marked on 14 February. 

St Valentine's beheading
Not that there was any connection between such gruesome events and ideas of romantic love – that was a later, medieval, fabrication, perhaps contrived simply because the date helpfully coincides with the first signs of spring, when lovebirds start to choose their mates and so on. (As ever, I take my information here from the endlessly fascinating book by Steve Roud, The English Year.)

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

It turns out that being in Rome for February half-term also meant we were there for another even older date in the Roman ritual calendar: Lupercalia (15 February). Lupercalia was a festival of purification, and ought to be better remembered, not least because the name of the month derives from februum (meaning ‘purgings’). The Roman festival involved the priesthood of the Luperci sacrificing goats and a dog and then, blooded and naked, running through the streets around the Palatine Hill administering lashings with their ‘shaggy thongs’. Receiving such a lashing was said to boost the fertility of childless women. The festival was likely to be pre-Roman in date, and links back to the foundation myths of the city itself (Romulus and Remus suckling on the she-wolf, and all that). Not surprisingly, Rome’s early Christian leaders attempted to end all such rituals, though it would seem the festival continued to be marked for some time subsequently, even by those professing the Christian faith.  


We did not see any evidence of Lupercalia being observed in the streets of modern-day Rome, as we searched (with some difficulty) for a reasonably priced lunch on the day we visited the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill. But we had been fortified in the morning by our trip to the Colosseum – a most amazing structure, where even the barest historical imagination is sufficient to bring the days of imperial Rome to life. It was said that the opening of the Colosseum in AD 80 was marked by a hundred consecutive days of games, during which 9,000 animals were slaughtered. The arena was built to hold 70,000 spectators and took 100,000 Jewish slaves to construct over a period of eight years from AD 72.

Another astonishing building we experienced was the 2,000-year-old Pantheon, built as a temple to all the gods but converted into a church in the 7th century. The Pantheon’s dome is constructed of blocks made from poured concrete, thicker at the base (6m) than they are at the top (1m), where a 6m-diameter hole (the oculus) lets in sunlight and rainwater. 

The dome of the Pantheon, with oculus

The hole is integral to the entire construction, apparently, since the compression ring that lines it helps to redistribute the tensile forces that otherwise might bring the dome crashing down. As it is, the dome is the largest unreinforced concrete structure of its type anywhere in the world. The proportions are beautiful: the diameter of the rotunda (142.2 ft) is the same as the height to the oculus, meaning that the whole thing would sit in a perfect cube, or that it could contain a perfect sphere of 142.2 ft diameter.

Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon continues to inspire engineers today, and no wonder that it was also an inspiration for 18th-century travellers. One of these was Robert Adam, the Scottish architect who spent time in Rome imbibing the classicism of the architecture at places like the Pantheon and Colosseum. He wrote to his sister to say,

“Rome is the most glorious place in the universal world. A grandeur and tranquillity reigns in it, everywhere noble and striking remains of antiquity appear in it”.

As I learned at an excellent lecture given by Jeremy Musson the week before our trip (part of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage celebrations), Adam’s particular inspiration was Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who depicted the Pantheon like this: 

Not far from where I live, Audley End house features a suite of rooms designed by Adam in the neoclassical style, when he was at the height of his fame after his return from Rome. How perfect therefore to travel such a distance to spend time in a foreign country, only to be better informed about one’s starting point. And that, surely, is the whole point of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage (for more information, do visit
Little Drawing Room, Audley End, from Jeremy Musson's book on Adam's interiors