Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Man Called Potto

In the village of Houghton, which we passed through in the last post, stands a bust to the memory of Potto Brown.

Potto Brown 1797-1871

With his upright posture, severe countenance and facial whiskers he looks like the head of a powerful Victorian family, which in the context of a small village he was. 

We'll get on to who he was and what he did in a moment, but first....the statue.

When it was decided on his death that the community wished to preserve his memory in bronze it faced a problem. You see, in his long life he was far too busy to ever sit for a portrait and no photographs were thought to exist either. All they had was a quick pencil sketch. At this point a farmer called Albert Goodman, a man with no artistic pretensions, took a lump of clay and made the model on which the statue was based.

Cottage in Houghton with a step made from an old millstone

Potto Brown was the son of the miller who ran the mill at Earith and who later moved to Houghton to run the mill there. His odd name came from the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Sarah Potto. He was educated at good schools but "That which is conventionally called education left strangely few traces upon him" as his biographer put it.

Houghton Mill today, covered in scaffolding!

So on leaving school Potto went to work for his father in the mill. When his father retired, having taken it into his head (rather late in life) to study medicine, Potto took over the running of the mill. He was a strongly religious man and a non-conformist. He was a lay preacher and is said to have prayed that God should make him rich and successful in his business ventures. And to help matters along the way he took along his business ledgers and prayed that his debtors should be able to pay him. This form of shaming meant that most people learned to pay him before the service commenced!

Houghton village.

He expanded his milling operations by building state-of-the-art steam-powered mills in St Ives and Godmanchester. Once the business was established and he'd become a wealthy man he set about spending the money on good causes. He was tireless in his philanthropy - "I don’t want to have a poking hut in heaven. I mean to have a large mansion and a park", he is supposed to have said. He'd been born into a Quaker family but after an argument became a Congregationalist. One of his first projects was to build a chapel in his home village so that non-conformists would have a place to worship.

The Chapel

He also founded two schools where the children of non-conformists could be educated, founded the St Ives Friendly Society and bought land for allotment gardens for the poor. He gave money for lifeboats, contributed to the building of a Free Church in Huntingdon and served as a magistrate too.

When the Free Church was being built in St Ives he gave £3,000 to the project, though he refused to contribute to the building of the steeple which he considered an unnecessary embellishment. As you can see in the photograph below, the townspeople managed to raise the extra £2,000 required for the steeple. You can also see that it's another building which is giving employment to scaffolding contractors at the moment.

St Ives Free Church on the Market Square

Potto entertained all kinds of guests at his house, from American anti-slavery campaigners to French Catholics. One imagines there must have been some lively conversations around the dinner table. Although he was a strict tee-totaler he would serve beer and wine to his guests - but only if they were over sixty!

His grave is in the yard of the little chapel which he built in Houghton, alongside other members of his family.

Take care.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Along The Great Ouse

The valley of the River Great Ouse between Huntingdon and St Ives is a very desirable place to live with a handful of extremely attractive villages. Everything is civilised and prosperous, paths are well sign-posted and maintained, perhaps just a little too manicured in parts - come with me and have a look.

We'll start on the Quay in St Ives with its view of the old bridge which dates from 1425. The building in the middle of the bridge is a chapel which in its day had a spiritual as well as a practical purpose. Travellers could stop and say a prayer before their journey or give thanks for safe completion of their travels. And they could at the same time pay the toll for using the bridge. In medieval times many bridges were built and maintained by the monasteries, so a single monk installed in the chapel could both bless the traveller and relieve him of some of his money.

We then enter the huge Hemingford Meadow which stretches nearly a mile along the southern bank of the Ouse. It floods every winter and when the temperature drops sufficiently becomes the biggest ice-rink in the country.

Into Hemingford Grey with its very peculiar truncated church spire. The spire is said to have been blown into the river by a hurricane in 1741 - and they haven't got around to replacing it yet!

The Manor, which was built in the 1130s, is reckoned to be the oldest continuously inhabited building in England. Although it's been added to and repaired over the centuries a surprising amount of the original building still remains. It was used as the model for Greene Knowe by Lucy Boston in her series of children's books. She lived at the Manor for over 50 years and was responsible for developing the beautiful garden.

A path through more riverside meadows leads into the next village, Hemingford Abbots.

The centre of the village is a conservation area with many thatched and historic buildings, including the Axe & Compass pub. No we can't; it's too early!

Lets go into the church instead. 
The elegant spire is a landmark for miles around and inside there are some interesting features too, including an old oaken roof with carved angels. They've all had their photos taken and some of them stand a good chance of appearing in this blog in the future. But for now we'll continue on our way.

Our path turns down a side street then crosses more meadows and a couple of strands of the river, which divides and forms several watercourses across the wide floodplain. We are making our way to Houghton Mill, an old watermill in the care of the National Trust. Unfortunately right now that care includes covering the whole structure with scaffolding as the building is in need of some gentle restoration.

If you want to see what the Mill should look like then you could do worse than to pop into Houghton church and look at the stained glass window that was installed to mark the millennium. 

It's another quaint and fascinating collection of old buildings, every bit as picturesque as those in Hemingford Abbots, even if it doesn't have such a melodic name. From here we turn around and make our meandering way, along the north side of the river, back to St Ives.

A path leads all around Battcock's Island, a parcel of land completely surrounded by rivers and streams, and used as grazing land. The views back across the river towards the Hemingfords are as choice as any in lowland England. If John Constable had been born here rather than in Suffolk his pictures would have been much the same.

Meet three girls. Just part of the team who work so hard keeping the grass short and well fertilised.

There are peaceful little waterways hiding away shyly all over this landscape.

We have to leave the river now and take a lane known as the Thicket Path, a very minor road which can only be used for access. And as there's nothing much down here anyway that's very little traffic at all.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly we're back with our old friend, the River Great Ouse, sun glinting off its mirrored surface as it sidles quietly towards St Ives.

Back in St Ives, this slender bridge leads over the river to Holt Island, a tiny but well-maintained nature reserve. Just time to wander over to see if anything's about.

Almost immediately I spotted this little chap and, remarkably enough, he sat around long enough to pose for a photo. It's actually a Grey Squirrel, albeit a black one or a melanistic individual. This strain is becoming increasingly numerous throughout this area.

And that's the end of the walk for today.

Walker's Log:

    Start: St Ives, Cambridgeshire 09:20
    End: St Ives, Cambridgeshire 14:05
    Distance walked: 8 miles (13 Km) 
    Notable birds: Buzzard, Green Woodpecker, Goldcrest. 
    Mammals: melanistic Grey Squirrel.
    Farm animals: Sheep, Cows, Horses, Alpacas. 
    Churches: St Ives (locked), Hemingford Grey, Hemingford Abbots, Houghton.
    People with dogs: 8
    Dogs with people: 10
    People just enjoying a walk: about 40 or so.
    Cyclists: 2
    Horse riders: 1

Take care.

Friday, 13 October 2017

On The Road To Duckpuddle Bush

Believe it or not there's a place a little further along this road called Duckpuddle Bush. It's nowhere near as quaint and picturesque as the name suggests but it sticks in my mind. Be that as it may, this by-road makes a good place to start a circular walk on the chalk hills south of Royston, just a few miles from home. I had my brother Les for company on this walk.

Our route commenced through woodland but emerged from time to time onto the Royston Golf Course where the Ladies' Autumn Meeting was taking place. It's a very undulating course and they probably did more strenuous walking than we did - and pulling a golf trolley as well. As you can see they have some grand views too out across the flat fields of Cambridgeshire, even though these are not particularly high hills.

Little glimpses of bright red beckoned through the trees and tempted the keen photographer away from the footpath to trespass along the field edge.

We then turned sharply south along the track to Therfield, leading through rolling arable fields. In spring these wide acres are home to dozens of hares, chasing and boxing as a prelude to breeding. They're probably here now but they're lying low and you'd be lucky to see them.

Les striding purposefully along the track. He looks like he's keen to get somewhere....

Ah, the Fox and Duck pub at Therfield. I can't treat you to a drink but you can see a photo of me enjoying one, a pint of Greene King IPA, and very pleasant it was too. Cheers, brother!

Walking Tips from John, Number 1 : When having a break in the walk, particularly one involving the consumption of alcohol, make sure that the next section is gently downhill.

So here we are descending gently along a sunken lane leading from Therfield down to an area known as The Thrift.

These wide chalky fields make simple sweeping patterns. You can soon have too much of this country but on this walk there's just enough to maintain interest. Last time I saw a herd of Fallow Deer up here and the time before that I had a close encounter with a Stoat a little earlier in the walk.

Today though the deer were kept away by a rather noisy tractor working the fields. You wouldn't expect to see much wildlife.....hang on, what's that?

Suddenly the sky was full of Red Kites. These impressive, agile flyers were almost extinct in this country till a few years ago but now I see them almost every time I go out for a walk in Hertfordshire. A few miles away, where I live, they are only seen occasionally.

There are lots of rose hips on the hedgerows at the moment, though the winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings, will be here soon and will make short work of them.

A rather tedious mile or so along a racehorse gallop leads to a short, sharp climb up into a beechwood nature reserve known as Fox Covert where a short stroll among the trees completed our circular walk.

Take care.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Flo's Story - Nutters

Resuming the stories from my late mother's life. As with many people her life settled down into a more regular routine as she got older and there are less anecdotes from more recent times. If you're thinking she became less energetic and gregarious then think again!

Nutters Close wasn't full of lunatics, but was named after the Nutter family who once owned Grantchester Mill. But the village was a very different place from Caldecote; the houses and cottages in Grantchester were being bought up by people working at the University in Cambridge, and one was more likely to see a croquet set on the lawn than a goat grazing. The new council houses, one of which was now our home, were only built because of the campaigning efforts of the village vicar and others who saw that there were no homes which could be afforded by young people. 

Flo settled into the house which would be her home for the next fifty years; no more moving from one place to another. But it was not the end of Flo and Ted's travels. The catalyst for this was a visit from Ted's sister, June, whom he hadn't seen since she departed these shores with her American husband, Bill, just after the end of World War II. None of us had realised how close Ted was to his little sister. When it was time for them to go June was in tears and wondering when they'd meet up again. Ted was quiet, as usual, but Flo knew he was hiding his pain. "We'll come to see you next year", blurted out Flo. 

Later in the day Ted said "What did you say that for? We haven't got the kind of money to afford that". Nothing else was said about it but with each of June's letters she was counting down the days till she'd see them again. Eventually it got to the point when something had to be done about it. Travel agents were visited, passports were obtained, travel insurance was arranged, currency was exchanged and tickets were purchased; all without too much difficulty, apart from Flo getting so excited in the travel agents that she forgot her own phone number and had to go for a walk around the Market Square till she remembered!

The plan was to stay overnight with Flo's mother in London before catching the plane. "Is there room in your case for me?" asked Flo's mum. "You can have my ticket and go in place of me if you want", said Ted. All this changed once they were airborne and Ted became a great enthusiast for flying as a form of travel.

 with nieces and nephews in Virginia USA

When arranging the travel insurance a price had been quoted, "How much more would it cost to double the cover?" asked Ted. It turned out to be not much more than the original figure. My father, cautious as ever, said he'd pay for extra cover. Just as well too; on the first morning in the US Flo contrived to fall downstairs and break her leg. When all the medical bills were totted up they had insured for just enough to cover the costs. They didn't let the accident stop them from enjoying themselves and it didn't deter them from returning to the USA, as well as visiting Ted's sister Dorothy in Canada, in the following years.

Bitten by the travel bug they also began having holidays in Europe - Malta, Yugoslavia, Portugal and Austria were all visited. Although they did go on some organised trips when they were at these places, their real love was just going off exploring on their own. Although neither of them ever owned proper walking boots or invested in such sensible things as maps or phrase books they got quite adventurous at times. One day in Austria they went up on a chair lift to a mountain cafe. On the way up Ted saw that there was a path leading up too, so next day they thought they'd walk up. It turned out to be further and steeper than expected and Flo ended up going on all-fours. But energy and determination won the day and they reached the cafe. When they went in there was a loud cheer and much-needed drinks were brought for them - people had been watching their progress up the mountainside and laying bets on whether they'd make it!

Take care.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Familiar Ground

Back in familiar territory as I took a walk from my own back gate into Meldreth village. One of the quaint cottages that stands along the High Street, mixed in with more modern housing, had what must be some of the last roses of summer blooming in the garden.

Behind the houses on the east side of the street runs the clear water of a stream which is rather ambitiously known as the River Mel and from which the village takes its name. And following along beside the stream is a pleasant footpath, populated this morning with numerous dogs taking their people out for some exercise.

Through the kissing gate and out into the meadow where a few assorted cattle graze and laze about.

Behind the churchyard someone's been raking up the leaves, though Autumn has hardly started yet. There's enough leaves on the trees to keep them busy for several more weeks. If I were in a less familiar place I'd hardly register such details, let alone stop for a photo. But here on familiar ground these details become important.

Crossing another meadow that should be home for a brown horse and a grey. Don't know where they are this morning. Maybe someone actually rides them.

My footsteps lead me to a secret path through the wood. There used to be signs at either end of this path but they've been missing now for over ten years, so only a few folk suspect the existence of this overgrown path. About midway along there's a sign with arrows pointing in both directions "Permitted Path". Encouraging and reassuring, but otherwise not particularly useful.

Out into Shepreth Meadow, a long narrow strip alongside the river.

It's the River Cam, also known as the River Rhee, making its sluggish way to Cambridge, like a rather reluctant scholar.

By the river stand some huge, ancient willows that have been in a constant state of decay for at least forty years that I know of. While some have succumbed to the blows of passing time, others remain defiant if battered.

There follows a bit of road walking into the village of Shepreth.

I wouldn't want you to think it's all woodland, streams and quaint cottages. Most of Cambridgeshire is agricultural land and, increasingly, new housing. But there are still places worth seeking out if you know where to look, if you're on familiar ground.

So if you go down here, through the little gate in the overgrown hedgerow, you'll come out into Shepreth Moor, which is not moorland in any normal sense, but an area of rough, unimproved pastureland. At the moment it's being grazed by these gorgeous little sheep, Manx Loaghtan sheep, a rare breed originating from the Isle of Man.

The walk began with some of the last roses of summer and, fittingly perhaps, it ends with surely one of the last butterflies, a Red Admiral. There's nothing nautical about these Admirals, indeed the name was once Red Admirable, which on this October morning makes perfect sense.

Take care.