Monday 31 October 2011

As I Rode Out...

Just a few more intriguing oddities that caught my attention as I pedalled my bicycle through the backroads of England.

The Old Guildhall

In the village of Whittlesford stands this imposing medieval building known as The Old Guildhall. The guilds were an important part of medieval life. There were two sorts of guilds: craft guilds, which were organisations formed by various trades to maintain standards and fair dealing, and also social guilds which gave assistance to the poor. They also helped with building roads, bridges and other things which were for the public good. But they became victims of their own success and were seen as a source of possible rebellion. In 1547 an act was passed which confiscated their lands and wealth. Many of the craft guilds escaped since they had influence in high places but the social guilds perished and many poor people found no help when they most needed it.


Most of those lovely cottages which I've photographed have walls made of "clunch", which is just relatively hard bands within the chalk which forms the low hills of southern England. As it is rather susceptible to frost-damage it is usually concealed beneath a layer of plaster, but here you can see the bare bones of the building. The advantages of clunch is that is very easily carved and shaped so the blocks could be cut very accurately. The delicate carving seen in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral is also of clunch so this humble cottage has a rather superior ecclesiastical relation.

Famous Son Of Barley

When cycling through the village of Barley I came upon this monument to Thomas Willett who was born in the village in 1605 and went on to become the first mayor of New York. The same plaque also celebrated a famous geneticist and two Archbishops who hailed from this small place. We don't all be country bumpkins and village idiots, see.

Staddle Stones

In an earlier post I talked about an old granary and explained how they were raised off the ground on mushroom-shaped stones. I said I'd show you a picture of some, but of course they turned out not to be as plentiful as I imagined. But here at last is a splendid example of a granary standing on staddle-stones (even if the name on the side does say, probably incorrectly, "Staddle Barn"). You can see that a mouse or rat would find it difficult to get in - the steps are a modern addition.

A Sign Of The Times

And a rather sad sign; another pub has closed down leaving only its now empty sign. This one has become a private house, others have been transformed into restaurants, Chinese take-aways or offices. A pub near here which had the splendid name of "The Olde English Gentleman" now serves Indian food. 'Nuff said.

"Slasher's Shop"

This little building used to strike fear into the heart of every small boy for miles around; for here resided "Slasher" Osbourne, the demon barber. Old Fred, for that was his real name, had a regular clientele of aged farm-workers who liked "a decent haircut". The short-back-and-sides was the speciality of the house, and Fred could certainly cut it short. I even heard one of his farming friends say "If 'e'd cut it any shorter I wouldn't a been able ter shut me eyes!".
But show some sympathy, dear reader, this was the late nineteen-sixties - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones - every schoolboy tried to let his hair grow a little over his collar. Then mother would send you off to get a haircut at that nice Mr Osbourne's. I remember trying to grow my side burns and was quite proud of my efforts. Fred seemed to show some enthusiasm for the project as well, "Would sir like the sideboards on or off?" he enquired and to my surprise he left well alone and carried on shaving the rest of my head. By the time he got to the other side however he'd forgotten all about our plans and shaved the other sideburn off regardless.
 They used to say that one brave boy went in and announced that he wanted a Beatle haircut. He got a short back and sides. "That's not how the Beatles have their hair", he complained. "They will if they come in 'ere" said Fred.

Take care.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Messing About On The River

Messing about in boats
messing about with cameras,
plenty of people
were messing about on the River Cam in Cambridge.

drifting up river

peering under bridges

riverside wandering

waiting for...well, punters (!)


A postcard image


cruising past Kings'

Y 042 and friends

bridge folk

a gate with a lens in it

done with messing about for another year

Take care.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Friday 28 October 2011

Ely Cathedral

On a clear day when  was a child it was what you always looked for on the horizon; Ely Cathedral, the "ship of the fens", sailing serenely above the flat fenscape. 

The Cathedral was founded in 673 AD by St Etheldreda, it was sacked by the Danes in 870 and then reconsecrated in 970. By the way, if you think Etheldreda had an unusual name then you've never met her sister, Sexburga. I kid you not!

Part of the beauty of Ely is that it rises so effortlessly above the rooftops without any competition from modern structures. Also the buildings in its immediate vicinity are also of some antiquity and interesting in themselves. What on earth the medieval cottage dwellers thought about this huge building rising up in the midst of their tiny town I can not imagine.

But rise it did, building and rebuilding went on over the centuries; some craftsmen must have worked on it all their lives. The nave dates from the Norman period. It is extremely long, high and narrow with rows of identical columns and arches. 

A table with a mirrored top allows you to observe the painted ceiling without getting a stiff neck!

If you put the camera on top of this mirrored table you can get an interesting picture like the one above. Don't tell them I told you to do it!

In 1322 the Norman crossing-tower collapsed and had to be rebuilt. The largely wooden, octagonal structure was designed by Alan de Walsingham and is the chief glory of the building today.

To stand there and gaze upward to the superb lantern with the choir singing, even if they were only practising, has brought a tear to the eye of at least one big man not usually given to such emotion.

Back down to earth for an elaborately carved Norman Doorway, with a detail on the right showing the intricacy of the work.

The Lady Chapel dates from the 14th century and feels amazingly light and airy, though when it was built it had stained glass in the windows and the stonework was richly painted so its appearance would have been much different.

Two ladies were engaged in arranging flowers to decorate various parts of the building. They seemed reluctant to be photographed but were happy for me to snap their handiwork.

This memorial, one of many, caught my eye. It's thought to represent St Hugh of Lincoln, who was said to be a devout but humorous man who could become very upset at any injustice. He once refused to take up a post till the king had rehoused poor people who had lost their homes in order that a monastery could be built. At his feet is his pet goose, though sadly both St Hugh and the bird have been decapitated.

Outside a woman was feeding the ducks I'm sure St Hugh would have been delighted! And so back to the rainy streets of the market town.

Take care.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Pagans, Punky Night And Ray Parker Jr

Having taken a few pictures with a Halloween theme I thought I'd write a few words about the subject. I have a small problem here: I don't know anything about it! So I turned to my ancient book about ancient customs in England, which contained very little information; and the internet, which contained a great deal. There's a connection - the book and I come from England, the internet contains lots of entries from the USA.

The fact is that Halloween was not celebrated in England, at least not until the supermarkets started selling witches hats and plastic spiders. I never heard mention of Halloween when I was growing up. How could this be?

Much of what we now accept as 'part of Halloween' appears to have evolved from Ireland and from there spread to North America as many Irish people left their homeland for the New World. Its deepest roots are undoubtedly pre-Christian and are based upon the rituals associated with the changes of the season. Mid-winter, mid-summer, the coming of spring and the end of the harvest were all recognised and celebrated from earliest times.

With the coming of Christianity the old festivals took on a Christian element. So Christmas was celebrated in mid-winter, Easter at springtide and so on. This accounts for mid-winter symbols, such as yule logs, holly and ivy and robins, being associated with Christmas, and fertility symbols - eggs, rabbits - getting attached to Easter. We shouldn't be surprised by this; Christianity, with its origins in warmer climes, lays down no rules for how such things as the winter solstice should be marked. So people just got on and did what they'd always done at that time of year.

But back to Halloween. "Hallow" is just an old word for "saint", so All Hallows' E'en (or eve) just means the evening before All Saints' Day, similar to Christmas Eve And New Year's Eve being the day before their respective holidays. But tagged on to this Christian idea is the old Celtic fire festival - "Samhain" - with its bonfires, ghosts, evil spirits and jack'o'lanterns.

How about England? Didn't they recognise the autumn equinox? Didn't they like a good bonfire? You bet they did! One custom was that at the end of harvest the old scarecrow, who had served them well throughout the growing season, was burned on a bonfire. Now, doesn't that sound a bit like the burning of Guy Fawkes on November 5th? In fact it's the only logical explanation, after all the original Mr Fawkes - the one who tried to blow up Parliament - was not burned at the stake at all. Just another case of ceremonies getting mixed up. (I remember that at the time of the "poll tax" lots of "Guys" bore an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Thatcher!)

In Somerset they also had "Punky Night" where, on the.last Thursday in October (tonight), children went from door to door begging for candles for their jack'o'lanterns and threatened householders with the following rhyme:

"Give me a candle, give me a light. If you don't, you'll get a fright"

which sounds a lot like "trick or treat" to me.

Something to think about:
In reading what I could find out about Halloween I came across a common misconception: the idea that the people who believed in pagan myths and customs were doing so out of some mystical belief in the past which defied all notions of common sense and learning. This was not really the case; they were just making sense of the world in the best way they could at that time. We may know the scientific reason for the lengthening and shortening of the days, for the growth of plants and the coming of floods, drought or famine, but they did not and were not aware of the ancient origins of their beliefs.

In much the same way, when we do a mathematical calculation, we are not aware that we are following the beliefs of Arab mathematicians of centuries past; we are just doing what we are sure is correct. If subsequent generations discover that 2+2=5 then they will regard us as foolish numbskulls who blindly folllowed the word of ancient mystics in the light of what they regard as common sense. For us, 2+2=4 and we can't see any other argument. And those people from the past couldn't see any other argument either.

And another thing....
If the idea that these age-old customs are constantly undergoing change is a strange concept, then consider this: Next week I shall be organising a "Halloween Disco" for the pupils at school. Here we shall see Harry Potter-inspired wizards dancing to "Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker Jr and Michael Jackson's "Thriller". What would the Ancient Celts make of that?????

Take care (especially if the Punkies are about).

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Pedaller's Tale

A few more curiosities spotted while pedalling my bicycle along the highways, byways and sly ways of East Anglia. While the west and north of the country have been subjected to rain and floods, the weather here in the east has been perfect for getting out and about. And so that's what I've done. And here's what I've seen.

Hares On The Roof

Talk about mad March hares! As you may have guessed from the unlikely location and the rather stiff pose these are not the real thing but imposters made of straw, the artistic creation of the thatcher. Some say that they're the thatchers trademark but more likely they've been requested by the householder. While it's true that some regard the hare as a lucky omen there are just as many, if not more, who associate the hare with bad luck.

An Unfinished Castle

In the mid-twelfth century England was in a state of anarchy. Henry I died and left his daughter Matilda as his successor but she was usurped by her cousin Stephen of Blois. Eighteen years of fighting ensued during which time the barons caused endless trouble. One Geoffrey de Mandeville, once a supporter of Stephen, based himself in Ely in the Fens and made a great nuisance of himself by raiding the fen-edge towns and villages. The fenland was an undrained marsh at that time making Geoffrey's stronghold impregnable. King Stephen ordered that the Fens be surrounded by castles, one of which was to be at Burwell. But before the castle was completed Geoffrey was mortally wounded in a raid, so work ceased. You can still see the mounds and earthworks of the castle to this day. 

"Checkpoint Reality"

Way back in the 1960s this lamp post, which stands in the centre of Parker's Piece in Cambridge, was painted boring local-authority green. Persons unknown, who were definitely young and quite possibly students, decided  to paint it in "psychedelic colours". They made a wonderful job of it and added the name "Checkpoint Reality" which sounded suitably meaningful without actually meaning anything at all! After a while fashions changed, the lamp post was returned to a more sober hue and that, as they say, was that. But folk memory is long, if not always completely accurate; amazingly someone has recently scratched "Reality Checkpoint" on the paintwork (bottom right). Did someone's mum or dad tell them about it? We shall never know.

Dutch Houses

There are several such houses with Dutch gables and altogether foreign-looking architecture in and around the fens. They are probably associated with the Dutch engineers who oversaw the draining of the land for agriculture.

Beware Ye Beggarly Vagrants

Spotted high up on a cottage wall in Langley Upper Green.

" order of  the Magiftrates all Perfons found begging in this Parish will be taken up by the Vagrant ACT and Punifh'd as the Law Direct"

Just a reminder that it wasn't always possible to wander aimlessly from village to village. All "off-comers" were regarded with suspicion if not downright hostility. The first people to walk for recreation, probably the romantic poets and friends, were often thought to be spies or else insane, an allegation which they did little to refute by reciting poetry at the top of their voices during their perambulations.

Take care.