Wednesday 30 May 2012


Just a short post about a little book, "The Observer's Book Of Birds' Eggs", that recalls a time when it was considered OK to go poking about in hedgerows searching out nests and taking an egg for your collection. Because, yes, though it horrifies me now, I once had a little collection of birds' eggs stored in a flat tin lined with cotton wool. 

Many hours were spent walking very slowly beside hedges, peering between the leaves in hope of finding a new nest. There were other places to search too - the margins of the farm ponds, in old buildings and even on the ground among the tussocks of rough grass. Sometimes I found a nest quite by chance while searching for a cricket ball that some schoolfriend had hit into the bushes.

When you got the egg home, if it didn't break in your pocket on the way, you had to make a small hole in either end with a needle then carefully blow the contents out. It sounds akin to murder to me now but that's what we did.

It was all many years ago, of course. Half a century ago I would guess since inside the cover it says that it was a birthday gift from my brother, and the fact that the message is in my mother's handwriting means that my brother must have been too young to have written it himself. Lets have a quick peep inside the book.
Top left I can see the egg of a Yellowhammer, or Yellow Bunting as we were supposed to call it at the time. Does anyone say Yellow Bunting any more? Or how about Hedge Accentor for the Dunnock? I remember my Yellowhammer's egg with its eccentric scribbly markings. Of course the eggs I really wanted to find were the sort shown below. Not much chance of finding any Puffin's eggs in rural Cambridgeshire. But that didn't stop me from looking!

Take care.

Monday 28 May 2012


This week is "Whitsuntide". Today is Whit Monday, though in the UK this may easily have passed you by. It always used to be a public holiday but in recent years the Spring Bank Holiday, as it's now known, has not co-incided with Whitsun and the old holiday is almost forgotten and certainly rather neglected.

It was once celebrated in a number of different ways in various parts of the country, often involving a deal of singing and dancing - both of which often proved to be thirsty work! In case you feel moved to song, here are the words to "The Whitsuntide Carol"

Now Whitsuntide is come you very well do know,
Come serve the Lord we must before we do go.
Come serve him truly with all your might and heart
And then from heaven your soul shall never depart.

How do you know how long we have to live?
For when we die oh then what would we give?
For being sure of having our resting place
When we have run our sinful wretched race.

Down in those gardens where flowers grow in ranks,
Down on your knees and to the Lord give thanks.
Down on your knees and pray both night and day,
Pray unto the Lord that He will lead the way.

Come all those little children all in the streets we meet
All in their pastimes so even and complete
It's how you may hear them lie, boast, curse and swear
Before that they do know one word of any prayer.

Now we have brought you all this royal branch of oak,
God bless our Queen Victoria and all the royal folk
God bless our Queen and all this world beside
That the Lord may bless you all this merry Whitsuntide.

The song was collected many years ago from one Thomas Coningsby of Whaddon, which is just a couple of miles from where I live. If you want to hear the tune, it was recorded by Peter Bellamy's Young Tradition back in the 1960s in typical uncompromising style. This link will take you there

Whaddon Church 

It is reported that Mr Coningsby recalled that on Whit Monday the men of the village went to the wood to cut oak boughs which they brought back to the village and laid on the doorsteps. They then went around the village as a group singing the carol. 

The words of the carol have a very Victorian feel to them. Quite apart from the reference to Victoria herself, the high moral tone is more typical of the 19th century than older times. My suspicion is that it's been got at by some Victorian clergyman, possibly the vicar of Whaddon. Many of the old songs were collected by rural vicars; they were educated men, of course, who had contact with people from all walks of life, they often had a musical education and also had time to undertake the task.

Unfortunately, in the spirit of the age, they often thought they could 'improve' the old songs, so words were tidied up, all bawdy references were removed and they tunes were sometimes changed from the old modal melodies to something which sounded better to their ears. But without their efforts many songs would have been lost forever.

The old tradition was revived recently in Whaddon village, complete with Morris dancers, though I saw no evidence on my visit to suggest that it was going to take place this Whitsuntide. Lets hope that I'm wrong!

Take care. 

Sunday 27 May 2012

Under Blue Skies

The last couple of days here have been glorious; pleasantly warm, a fresh breeze and cloudless, blue skies. Time for a gentle pedal through the countryside, stopping occasionally for refreshments and frequently to take photographs.

Take care.

Saturday 26 May 2012

City And Country

Here's another collection of interesting details gleaned from my travels in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire; everywhere you look in England you can find these fragments of history just waiting to be noticed.

The Tale Of The Yale

What are these two strange beasts above the entrance to Christ's College? They are known as "yales" and are mythical beasts based on the tales of early travellers. Their most distinctive feature is the horns which are always shown pointing forward and back. It has been suggested that the inspiration for such an animal was the Dinka tribe of Africa who train the horns of their cattle in just such a way. Incidentally the word "yale" completely defeats all on-line dictionaries. Unsurprisingly it also baffles Blogger's spellcheck facility - but then it also fails to recognise the word "blog"!

Mapping The Land

Scattered around the British countryside are these odd-looking three-foot (1m) high concrete pillars. They are relics from the great surveys which produced the Ordnance Survey maps of the nation. The surveying equipment was attached to the top of the pillars which were designed to be as stable as possible so that the maps could be updated regularly. They are no longer in use since the advent of satellite-mapping but still make useful landmarks. I remember leading a group of walkers across a rather featureless moorland in Wales, the fog was down and it was beginning to snow. I have never been more relieved to see a lump of concrete revealing itself through the mist!

Clever Gate

A double gate that converts to a kissing-gate - now that is clever. Seen on a Hertfordshire churchyard lychgate. It can open up to allow wedding or funeral processions, can be completely closed or, in the configuration shown, allow pedestrians in and keep animals out. As far as I'm aware this is a unique piece of ingenuity.

A Cambridge Secret

How many people standing waiting for buses in Emmanuel Street in Cambridge realise that a tunnel passes under the road between the brick buildings on either side? It is used by students and staff of Emmanuel College to walk from one part of the college to another without the risk of being run down by a bus.

Coat Of Arms

Every church in England should show their allegiance to the Crown by displaying the Royal coat of arms; after all the reigning monarch has also been the head of the Church Of England since the time of Henry VIII. However many churches seem to have forgotten about this obligation and you won't see many as fine as this one in Cottenham church.

Dead Ringer!

Sorry, couldn't resist that. Another disused telephone box in the English countryside. No longer needed now everyone carries a phone in their pocket.

Take care.  

Sunday 20 May 2012

A Place In The Sun

The mystic Isle Of Ely: low-lying, surrounded by marshland and swamp for much of the year, isolated and lonely beneath wild unruly skies. Where a dark breed of reticent, suspicious and self-reliant men eked a living, wild fowling or catching the eels that gave Ely its name.

Here the fiercely independent Etheldreda set up her monastery. Here the Danes came in the dead of night and sacked and destroyed the building. And Bishop Ethelwold defiantly rebuilt on a still grander scale. Stone was brought in by flat-bottomed boats and hauled up onto the riverside wharf.

When the rest of Albion's Isle fell to the invading Normans these men rose up and, under the command of the wily Hereward, fought back with daring raids and treacherous ambushes. The great Norman army was lured to destruction in the swampy darkness.

During the Middle Ages people travelled to St Audrey's Fair, tinkers, horse-traders, minstrels and ne'er-do-wells, to buy cheap trinkets and lace. The word tawdry, incidentally, derives from Saint Audrey.

In times past huge crowds gathered on the green in front of the cathedral to watch hangings and men burnt at the stake for heresy.

On the quayside foreign tongues could be heard as trading vessels from the Low Countries brought goods to the town and later as Dutch engineers came to drain the fens, much to the displeasure of the wildfowlers and reed gatherers who made their living from the wetlands.

In the nineteenth century displaced and starving agricultural workers gathered in the riverside pubs and planned the riots which took place in Ely and Littleport. A few weeks later in the Ely Courts men were condemned to death for their part in the unrest. Others were forced to join the chain gangs in Van Dieman's Land. 

During The Great War many men from the town marched away proudly only to perish in senseless battles in foreign lands. Their wives and children were left to mourn.

"When you look back tha's a funny old world and I sometimes can't make out how we got to where we're at"

Take care.

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Church At Willingham

The church at Willingham is really something special. The outside is attractive but does not give a clue as to what treasures lie within. Well, lets go inside and take a look.

The inside is unusually colourful and warm-looking. Regular travellers "by Stargoose and Hanglands" will have spotted what I'm getting excited about. Yes, it has lots of medieval wall paintings.

These two paintings, decorating either side of a lancet window are St Etheldreda and her sister St Sexburga (that really was her name!). Etheldreda was the foundress of the monastery at Ely which later became the Cathedral. The paintings date from 1244.

This splendid painting of St Christopher, done in 1380 or thereabouts, is considered to be the finest in the country. Click on it to enlarge and you'll be able to see the expressions on the faces and little details like the fish swimming in the water around the saints feet.

This remarkable painting of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth (soon to be the mother of John The Baptist) shows both women heavily pregnant, something which is hardly ever depicted elsewhere.

More painting can be seen above the Chancel Arch. This shows the entire scene of the Last Judgement, complete with Paradise on the left and Hell on the right, just to remind the congregation what fate might be awaiting them. The lower part of the Rood Screen is original 15th century work, while the upper portion was reconstructed in the 19th century from old drawings.

The wooden screen above dates from 1320 and is the oldest in Cambridgeshire. Even more remarkably it retains much of its original painted decoration. What look at first glance to be rough crosses are in fact made up of four green popinjays or parakeets.

Another beautiful wooden screen stands around the Lady Chapel. It is richly and somewhat idiosyncratically carved with some very odd symbols including this depiction of two gossips...

...see their long pointed tongues extending out to the left and right corners! there are also depictions of a Green Man, a rooster and assorted heads.

Further interesting little heads, one of which is shown above, adorn the armrests of the choir stalls. These heads are only about 6cm high.

This head is carved high on the wall. It shows the Rev John Watkins, the Rector of Willingham from 1890 to 1906, who donated £20,000 of his own money to restore the church. That's £1,800,000 at today's prices! Having let our eyes stray up so far shall we look at the roof? I rather think we should.

The magnificent oak roof is of a double hammer-beam construction and thought to have been made in the 15th century. But it was not made for this church. It was acquired when Barnwell Priory was knocked down in 1613. The angels, however were added in the 19th century.

I wrote in an earlier post about church musicians playing instruments including the serpent. Scott (the writer of an excellent blog "It Just Comes Naturally" ) asked what sort of instrument a serpent might be. Well, the carvers of the angels anticipated Scott's enquiry and helpfully provided the illustration above.

Back down at ground level there's an interesting14th century font with an elaborate wooden cover which was made to celebrate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee.

And the sedilia (seating for the clergy) and piscina (used for washing communion vessels) are of particularly elegant design. We could go on looking at more details in this splendid church, the leaflet which is available in the church for a very modest price points out many of them. And there is one very intriguing theory which it puts forward about the Sacristy (where vestments and parish records were kept).

This tiny annex, standing on the north side of the chancel, is a unique little piece of architecture . It was in existence in the 13th century and there is evidence that it was originally built as an Anchorhold where an Anchorite, or indeed Anchoress, was enclosed for a life of prayer and dedication. The booklet puts forward a rather compelling argument for this origin:
  • there is a narrow doorway, only opening to about 45 degrees, which would have allowed the recluse to take part in services.
  • a small window on the north side where food and drink could have been given.
  • the location on the north side would have meant that the penance would have been increased by receiving no sunlight.
  • a floor area of 140 square feet conforms to the Anchorite rule book.
I suppose we'll never know but whatever the truth behind the this and the origin of other features in the church we can't help but be impressed by the workmanship and faith which went into the construction of each church. Most of the people involved, nameless and forgotten, lie in the churchyard.

Take care.