Monday, 20 October 2014

A Special Place

As you may remember, if you're a regular visitor to this site, we've been enjoying a bicycle ride through the lovely Hertfordshire countryside. Although the county is criss-crossed by major roads and has a large population you can easily leave all that behind and find open spaces and special places if you venture along the minor roads. But you need to keep your eyes open......

....or you might miss a little track like this one which will take you to a little fragment of history. We are in the tiny village of Clothall, not far from Baldock, and you turn off the narrow, winding road onto this almost hidden lane which, like stepping through the looking glass, leads to another world.

At the bottom of the lane stands this ancient lamppost leaning tipsily among the autumn trees. And as you turn the corner you find yourself in a silent and timeless churchyard with a perfect little country church.

The church was mostly constructed in the fourteenth century (though parts are older) and is slightly unusual in that one enters through a door in the tower.

This must be rather inconvenient when a service is about to take place since there are bell-ropes hanging down in what would normally be the porch so, presumably, the congregation has to pass between the bell-ringers in order to enter the church.

The very rustic old door still bears the name of the man who made it several centuries ago - John Warren.

Inside, the church is plain and simple with an air of tranquillity which seems to have seeped into the stonework from generations of prayer and meditation. Even a disreputable old heathen like me feels some sense of reverence here. But it would still be quite easy take in the atmosphere then step outside again, closing the door gently behind you.

If you did that you'd have missed seeing something rare and rather wonderful. The east window is very old and of an unusual design. Stained glass generally exhibits the style of the particular time when it was made. There are subtle variations which experts can detect, allowing them to attribute certain windows to certain artists, but this is not always apparent to the casual observer.

But this window has a style all its own. There are two similar works to be seen elsewhere and these may well be the work of the same craftsman.

The window features "medallions" depicting Christ, the four Evangelists and Mary Magdalene.
The picture of Mary is interesting in that great prominence is given to her hair, probably in the belief that she was the same Mary who washed Christ's feet and dried them with her hair. It's also been suggested that this piece of glass was originally in the Mary Magdalene leper hospital which stood nearby.
There are also many small individual diamond-shaped panes which are decorated with birds, some of which are local to the area while others are exotic or perhaps fanciful. All in all a remarkable piece of work.

Time to step outside again and savour this little piece of England that time has forgotten. Most of the modern world seems to hurry by without stopping, though clearly some local people still come to clean the church and care for the graveyard. And just occasionally some weary cyclist leans his bike against a tree and comes in to nose about.

And I'm glad I did.

Take care.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Jack And Jane

A couple of stories from my travels yesterday.

Jack O' Legs

I know, I've got a bit of an obsession with village signs! The one in the village of Weston depicts a very large man shooting an arrow in the direction of the village church - but why? There, as they say, hangs a tale. And just under the sign is where the tale hangs. In an act of generosity and a certain amount of laziness, I've photographed it for you so you can read it in the original - and I won't have to type it out!

Well, we'd better make our way to the church and see if it's true.

And there it is, just inside the gate, the grave of Jack O' Legs, the Weston giant. The two stones mark his head and feet. He was certainly a big lad. Those stones are 14 feet apart according to my stride!

Obviously the story has become exaggerated over the years, but can there be even a grain of truth in there somewhere? Giants occur often in the folktales of these islands; there are both good giants and bad ones. In the case of evil giants, if you substitute "powerful landowner who bullied all the peasants in the area" for "giant", then the stories usually make sense. For good giants, like our Jack, the explanation is usually a man who was brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to stand up to the bullies.

The road between Baldock and Graveley is to this day known as Jack's Hill and there's a field nearby still known as The Cave. It seems likely that Jack was a highwayman who operated along this stretch of road. And anyone who robbed the rich would soon become a hero to the poor whether there was any re-distribution of wealth or not.

Jane Wenham

Jane Wenham, on the other hand was very real. She lived, for most of her life, in the village of Walkern. She was poor but generally regarded as a wise woman. She was also feisty and argumentative. And that was enough to get her a unique, but unenviable, place in history. 

Here is her story:

Jane was born in about 1642. In 1696 her first husband, Philip Cooke, died suddenly in suspicious circumstances. Within two months she had married Edward Wenham. After a couple of years Edward deserted her and shortly after that he too died suddenly. Rumours began to circulate about Jane.

In 1712 she asked a farmhand, Matthew Gilson, for a handful of straw. This was probably for her to make into straw plaits; these were made by many poor people in the area who then sold them on to the hat-makers in Luton. Gilson refused and Jane walked away muttering to herself. According to Gilson he then felt strangely compelled to run to Ardeley to gather straw from a dungheap. The farmer, John Chapman, denounced Jane publicly as "a witch and a bitch" for casting a spell on his farmhand. And that might have been that.

But Jane went to the local magistrate to bring a charge of defamation. The local vicar intervened and suggested that the farmer pay her one shilling and advised her to be less quarrelsome in the future. Jane was not content with this and said she would have justice "some other way".

Then the vicar's servant girl chose that moment to twist her knee. She was sent to the local bone-setter to get it fixed but she was found later with a bunch of sticks wrapped up in her gown and a tale about having been met by an old lady who cast a spell which sent her running about the countryside, in spite of her bad knee. The vicar told her to throw the sticks on the fire and then, according to the superstitions of the time, the witch would appear.

In walked poor old Jane.

In order to establish whether she was a witch or not she was made to recite the Lord's Prayer. Out of nervousness she stumbled over the words. At this point some kind of mass hysteria seems to have overcome the local population and all kinds of odd behaviours were noted - there were unexplained deaths, a sudden increase in the number of village cats and previously respectable people acting strangely and standing on their heads - all of which were blamed on the old woman. 

The judge at her subsequent trial, Mr Justice Powell, was said to be a jolly old fellow who clearly didn't believe in witches. When told that Jane had been seen flying he remarked that there was no law against it. However the jury found her guilty and the judge had no alternative but to condemn her to death. 

But, despite the widely held belief that she was the last person to be put to death for witchcraft, that was not to be her fate. The judge quickly got a royal pardon for her from Queen Anne and as a result she was able to live out the rest of her natural life - though she wisely chose not to do so in Walkern.

The cottage above is often known, erroneously, as The Witch's Cottage. She certainly lived in this road but not apparently in this house. As you can see below the name of the cottage may well have added to the confusion but Wych Elm, a tree, has nothing to do with witches.

Apart from the nameplate you can also see some nice pargetting, or decorative plasterwork on the photo above. But that's enough of giants and witches; it's time to hit the highway (or rather by-way) once again.

Take care.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Pedalling Through October

I've been on my bicycle today. The weather has been mostly glorious and, unusually, there seemed to be a fair and reasonable division between uphills and downhills and although there weren't many backwinds there were no headwinds either.

And where have I been? Regular readers who enjoyed the exploits of the Twin Foxes will perhaps be pleased to hear that I've been exploring parts of their old stomping ground - the parts that haven't been built over.

I started out from the market town of Baldock, which is just a fifteen minute train ride from home. That's south into Hertfordshire where the countryside is just a little more up-and-down than Cambridgeshire. And so it proved to be as I pushed the pedals round heading to the village of Graveley. Daniel Defoe complained about the road when he passed this way, though it was the muddy state of the so-called highway that upset him.

I'll spare you the road and transport you immediately to Graveley with its lovely village pond.

And a fine old farmhouse. There was more to see too, but for now lets get a bit further along our way to Chesfield.

Chesfield is one of Hertfordshire's deserted villages. Well, nearly deserted; there's still a farm here, just behind the ruins of the old church.

Although Hertfordshire is a rather built-up county there are still plenty of roads like this and I stayed on them most of the day. And, for those from distant parts who enjoy the wackiness of English placename pronunciation, it's HART-f'd-sheer or, if you've been to a posh school, HAR-f'd-sheer.

Who says England is a crowded island? Plenty of space here. Though the countryside is only like this because of our strict planning laws which prevent urban sprawl. 

Into the village of Walkern with its ford in Church Lane. I decide against riding through and timidly took to the raised footway.

Walkern's quite a busy little village with pubs and shops as well as some attractive cottages and gardens. 

But, after buying my lunch in the village shop, I backtracked and headed towards Weston, though not until I'd eaten my meagre purchases sitting on the verge, just near the signpost you can see in the picture above.

That's Weston church tower poking its head above the trees. Lets have a quick look around the churchyard...

Off to the quaintly-named Clothall next. Yes, I know we seem to be in a terrible hurry today but do you really think I didn't investigate these places? Of course I did - and you'll hear a bit more about them in future posts. But for now lets just enjoy the scenery...

There were just a few autumn hues here and there; we haven't had the kind of cold snap that turns all the leaves at once.

You don't see many sheep around here; most of the farms are largely arable. I could have taken the main road from here, but of course I didn't.

That's a real minor road....moss growing down the middle!

Take care.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rain, Rain, Go Away....

It's been a day of grey skies, clouds and rain. In short we've had the kind of day that those from foreign lands think of as typical English weather but that we seldom really experience. If I'd written down the plan of where I intended to go, it would now be lying soggily in the gutter. So whadya do?

The garden of The Crossing House at Shepreth

That's right. Look back at photos taken in parks and gardens back in the summer. 

By the roadside in Meldreth

In a ditch - I can't remember where!

Botanic Gardens, Cambridge

Christ's Pieces - a public park in Cambridge

A church garden in Wisbech
Take care.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Two Of A Kind

Oral history is slippery stuff. Stories told and re-told have a life of their own and often drift away from their basis in truth. It can happen even during the lifetime of the characters in that story, as a myth builds around their exploits. Sometimes these characters enjoy the fame and play up to it. Their neighbours add little flourishes and humorous twists to the story. The story travels further from home and achieves a gloss and polish untainted by the coarse facts. Time then adds a further layer of romance. Even in this digital age bits and pieces get copied from one context to another and the tale is re-written once again.

Meet the Twin Foxes!

Their tale (and you can believe as much or as little of it as you want) has been gleaned from a variety of sources, most of which are accessible to any persistent nosy-parker on the internet. I'll list these at the end - if I can find them again!

Back in 1857, deep in the Hertfordshire countryside Mr and Mrs Fox were blessed with twin boys. They were identical in every way and the parents then added to the ensuing confusion by giving them very similar names; one was christened Albert Ebenezer Fox while his brother was Ebenezer Albert Fox. They got their names from the Ebenezer Baptist Chapel which stood in Albert Street where their father was a lay preacher. He also farmed ten acres of land and, although the family were not wealthy, they were undoubtedly respectable country people. 

To avoid mixing them up their father put a blue ribbon on Albert and a red one on Ebenezer.....or was it the other way around? Either way the boys learned at an early age to swap them so that their poor perplexed parents didn't know which of them to blame for their persistent pranks. But what the boys really enjoyed was being out in the woods and fields around their home. Here they developed a taste for what's known, when wealthy people do it, as "country sports" and is enjoyed by kings and lords. But, when poor people are engaged in it, is called "poaching" and is punishable by law.

By the age of eleven the twins were setting traps and snares and at thirteen they'd got their first gun, stolen of course. The judge threw out the case as he wouldn't believe that such young boys could have done such a thing. A month later they were caught again and fined ten shillings. This was the start of their lives of crime which amassed them around two hundred convictions. Heaven knows how many crimes they got away with.

A list of their crimes reveals that most of them centred around poaching: taking a pheasant, night poaching, stealing pigeons, assault on a gamekeeper, assault on police, stealing potatoes, stealing a pair of trousers......the list goes on, all petty crimes for which, despite their re-offending, they never received a sentence of more than twelve months in jail with hard labour.

Despite their constant incursions into other people's property and regular differences of opinion with the law they were, to some extent, tolerated by landowners and magistrates (often the same people). They were always able to find a good gun-dog for those who wanted one and their rural skills made them very good at hunting out troublesome foxes. They also ranged widely to carry out their nocturnal transgressions and so didn't become too much of a nuisance to any particular farmer.

And somehow they became famous - or rather infamous. Their frequent court appearances often found their way into the local papers as they were often highly entertaining. Although Ebenezer (or was it Albert?) was a quiet, taciturn man, his brother was an outrageous comic. After their early adventures the boys learned never to go out together on a poaching trip. For, if they were apprehended, the police were easily confused as to which brother they had caught. They provided alibis for each other and sometimes in court called each other by the wrong names until the magistrates gave up in total bafflement.

On one occasion Ebenezer was in court accused of poaching in Hitchwood. With an expression of injured innocence he told the court that he was only in the wood on that moonlit night in order to polish up his hymn-singing! To add weight to his story he produced, with a flourish, a battered Baptist hymn book and waved it at the court. The alibi was somewhat weakened by the cloud of pheasant feathers which flew from his pocket at the same time!

The brothers also had times of going straight and worked as builders. This included labouring on the new police station. When the building was finished however they found themselves out of work and out of funds. There was nothing but to revert to their old ways. And so it was that they became the first prisoners to be incarcerated within the walls they had just constructed.

Their fame spread across the land as other papers, always on the lookout for a good story, reported their exploits. Their story was even picked up by The New York Times. In 1900 the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, was travelling through the area and even he wanted to meet the famous poaching twins. Albert was summoned to The Marquis Of Lorne Hotel where he drank beer with the king, a fact that Albert was not reticent in mentioning to the court at future trials.

Their notoriety also came to the attention of Sir Edward Henry, head of the Metropolitan Police who used the twins to prove the worth of the latest advance in forensic science - fingerprinting. He was able to show that even identical twins would have different prints. Some say that the twins were among the first criminals to be caught using this technology.

The combination of the hard outdoor life and the hard labour in prison began to have an effect on Ebenezer's health and in 1926 he was discovered unconscious in the woods having run away from hospital so that he could spend his last hours in his beloved countryside. Landowners, magistrates, farmers and judges all came to his funeral. Albert passed away in 1937, aged 79.

The land where they ranged so freely has disappeared under a tide of housing, much of it the new town of Stevenage. In an attempt, perhaps, to hold on to something of the rural heritage of the area, there is a pub called The Twin Foxes and also a housing estate named after the two old scoundrels.

Take care.

Wikipedia -
New York Times article -
Pub history article
Family history society -
"Our Stevenage" -
History of Preston in Hertfordshire -

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Playing With Water

I have a friend who loves water, who can sit for hours and watch it coming from the tap, who tries to scoop it up with his hands and who laughs at just the sound of it running. 

This is because of learning difficulties and a chromosomal abnormality.

But I think he may be right anyway. The two of us have spent many happy hours playing with water and sometimes I feel as though I glimpse the joy and beauty that he sees.

The coolness. The shininess. The running, dripping freedom of its movement. Reflections. Distortions. The darkness and the brightness. The jangled mirrors and the splinters of light. The elaborate curlicues of mystery. Well, I told you he saw it differently to us. 

There are colours in there that we might not see. Shapes that come and go without our noticing. Patterns that just slip through our fingers. There's music that we might not hear. Maybe a rhythm that we don't know how to dance to.

My friend understands this so much better than I do. He doesn't fit into the drab world that the rest of us have created. I can only watch him and guess at what he sees. 

I've got another friend plays with water too. She colours it, splashes it, lets it drip and run down the walls. She spends all day shut inside a room with her memories and dreams, conjuring up magic out of nothing. The water dries and stains the paper. She goes to the tap and brings more. It dances and sparkles as she conjures, experiments and casts her spells. She delights in the patterns and movement. 

This is because she's an artist.

She closes the door and steps out into the evening rain. Her head is still full of pictures of lakes and rivers, seashores and marshes, storms and waterfalls. 

He watches the raindrops on the kitchen window and wonders how long till bathtime.


And, like I promised in my last post, although it's not much to do with water, here is a freaky picture of fungi for you. All I've done is turned up the colour to show you what's hidden from our eyes. Maybe some reptile or bird of prey has eyes that can recognise these colours. Just because we can't normally see it, doesn't mean it's not real.

Take care.