Thursday 31 July 2014

Denny Abbey And The Farmland Museum (3)

So at last we get to "The Abbey" though that's a name that might lead you to expect something rather more grand, but which also only hints at one aspect of this building's fascinating history.

Even at first glance the Abbey poses some interesting questions. 

  • Why are so many windows bricked up? 
  • How come there are two more modern looking windows?
  • What on earth is the purpose of the door at first floor level?
  • Why so many different building materials?
  • The gable ends - one is finished with wooden boards, one has no overhang at all and a third is a sloping 'mansard' roof - why?
  • Surely the foundations in the foreground are too substantial for a garden wall.

Round this side there are arches which are reminiscent of a church or abbey on the right of the building while the left-hand end looks more like a substantial farmhouse. And the bit in the middle can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be! Better look inside....

This is not what you expect when you visit a building in the care of English Heritage. Usually places are restored to something like their former glory or, if ruinous, are tidied up with neatly clipped lawns surrounding the remains. This is more like entering a building site!

The visitor is invited to play a kind of architectural detective game to piece together the history of the building, the outline of which is as follows:

                  1159 AD    A Benedictine Priory was built here and this was their church.
                  1170 AD    The buildings passed to the Knights Templar who used it as a sort of 'retirement home' and hospital.
                  1308 AD    The Knights Templar were suppressed for alleged heresy and the building became disused.
                  1327 AD    It was gifted to the Countess of Pembroke who made part of the building into a comfortable home while the rest became a convent for the order of Franciscan nuns known as The Poor Clares.
                  1538 AD    The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, though nuns were still recorded as living here several years later.
                  1544 AD    The buildings became a farm.
                  1947 AD    The farm began its long evolution into a museum.

In places the brickwork has fallen away to reveal the columns and arches of the earlier buildings. The different shapes of the capitals of the columns give vital clues to the various periods of building.

This is the great fireplace from its days as a farmhouse.

Upstairs there was even a device to supply warm water for washing....

A fragment of old mosaic flooring has been unearthed....

Everywhere there are puzzles to be solved by the architectural sleuth, though there are also information boards to supply the answers to the befuddled.

And these two scary chaps lurk in a hidden corner to surprise the unwary visitor. They are of course wax models, which seems to suggest that English Heritage might one day be going to present a more conventional tourist attraction.

Nearby a building which has long been used as a barn turns out to be the nuns' refectory. This is how it looks now.....

And here's an artist's impression of how it might have appeared in its heyday....

I really don't know what the long-term plans are for these fine old buildings. I rather hope that they don't go down the route of complete restoration with a tourism-friendly make-over. I enjoyed seeing the unadorned bones of the structure revealing its intricate history but leaving the imagination free to fill in the details. It seems to me to be a superb educational resource just as it is.

Take care.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Denny Abbey And The Farmland Museum (2)

In the last post we looked at The World Of Work, now lets explore the shops and cottages of the 1940s.

The Village Shop

To be really like the old-time village shops I recall as a boy in the 1950s
 this one needs to be more cluttered and untidy.
 And I'm too young to remember Sparky's shop
 which was an earlier version of our village emporium.
 I was told by my father that Mr Sparks kept his paraffin (kerosene) tank in amongst the groceries and frequently had to climb over sacks and boxes to find the item he was looking for!

No health warnings on these beauties! 

Every town and many villages would have a brewery.

I spy with my little eye...something beginning with O.
Yes, Owbridge's Lung Tonic which was advertised to cure
“all affections of the chest, throat and lungs”.
Asthma? Pneumonia? Lung cancer?????  Really?
Advertising standards were not so strict in those days.

The Farmworker's Cottage

Standing right in among the farm buildings is what is described as 
"a farmworker's cottage".
If it was then it's rather larger than many but 
architecturally very much in the Fenland style,
quite plain with very little overhang of the eaves.
Perhaps a farm manager's or farm foreman's dwelling.

The parlour.

The living room / kitchen.

Upstairs in the main bedroom.

And the back garden, though vegetables would be more likely than flowers.

A family was also visiting the house while I was there and
the children appeared to be charmed by this house from a bygone era.
But I don't think they'd spotted that there was no TV
and certainly hadn't noticed the, erm, "facilities"
which were of the "bucket and chuck it" variety.

Take care.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Denny Abbey And The Farmland Museum (1)

Denny Abbey and the Farmland Museum can be found in Waterbeach, six miles north of Cambridge. The Abbey is a partly ruinous building with a fascinating history and is cared for by English Heritage. The Museum, which grew out of a local schoolboy's collection, occupies adjacent farm buildings. Although some people might skip around in half an hour, I spent a full two hours wandering through and look forward to making a return visit.

The World Of Work
Lets look at part of the museum first, just because that was the way I went around. 

We start off by visiting a number of outbuildings which each look at an aspect of rural life in the Fens and the villages of the Fen edge. As you enter some of the buildings audio recordings spring into life. No music or any fancy editing, just the steady country voices of local people talking about what they know best. 

Willow trees are plentiful in the area and basket-making has long been an important cottage industry. Baskets can serve all kinds of purposes but what on earth is that weird contraption on the extreme left of the picture? That's a real local speciality; it's an eel-hive, used for catching eels. It is baited with worms and submerged in the watercourse. The eels are enticed into the  trap and sharp inward-facing spikes prevent their escape.

More information about eel-catching could be heard from the recording of the old-timer in the fenman's hut next door. There was also a fine collection of drainage tools hanging on the wall. Each of these spades has a specific use - the long, narrow one, for example, is used to dig a narrow channel to lay drainage pipes.

A little further along was this reconstruction of a dairy with butter- and cheese-making implements. There was also a fine collection of old milk bottles on the shelves.

In the old threshing-barn there were displays of tools connected with the various crops which were important in the locality. And what a magnificent old barn it was too!

Outside were more agricultural implements like this McCormick tractor, probably made at the McCormick/International Harvester factory in Doncaster, England, maybe some time during the 1950s.

Nearby was an old Massey Ferguson combine with an 8ft cut - tiny compared to some of the monsters in the fields nowadays.

Many other agricultural implements were scattered around amongst the buildings, but around the back of one of the buildings was a wheelwright's workshop. There was so much gear in here that it was probably much more cluttered that any craftsman's premises would ever have been. As a photographic subject however it was fascinating. So I'll leave you with some pictures....

I'll be back in a day or two with pictures of some more domestic scenes - the interior of a village shop and a 1940's farmworker's cottage. 

Take care.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Fixing The Windows

We haven't had any window-pictures lately. So for anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms (probably only me!) here is your latest fix.

Bright colours in Downham

Elegant reflections in Cambridge

Echoes of times past 

Cottage pelargoniums

A ghostly presence of a former
resident of Hatfield House

Fading shades of red

A Cambridge college

Patriotism and tradition

Bunnies ahoy!

Remembering the wisteria
of spring

Back to that first window for
a colourful semi-abstract.

Take care.

Monday 14 July 2014

Two Imaginations

"Cambridge Open Studios is a flourishing community of artists, craftspeople and designer-makers working throughout Cambridgeshire. Our aim is to help bring artists and local people together, providing opportunities for the public to visit workshops and studios of people working in a wide range of crafts and media...." said the leaflet which also gave dates and locations for around two-hundred studios in the area which will open their doors to the public at weekends throughout the month of July.

On Saturday I made my way to two studios in what-used-to-be-my-home-village of Grantchester. In this case, as it happens, the artists in question are local people too.

tess recordon

Step in out of the sunlight and into Tess's terraced house which has been transformed into a gallery for the occasion. The walls are lined with her landscape paintings which seem to hover on the cusp between abstraction and reality. These are British landscapes but certainly not the twee, picture-postcard scenes that turn up in so many places. The weather, atmosphere and feel of the land take precedence over any detailed rendition of reality. 

Tess pointed out a print of one of her favourite works, a mountain scene in shimmering, misty greys, "It's a bit of a cheat, really," she said, "I was on the Island of Mull but the weather was rubbish and it didn't really look much like that - but that was how it felt to be there!"

I went out through the back door, down the garden and into her studio. Just inside was a table strewn with painting materials, ("It's not usually as tidy as this!"), which included a selection of brushes. These are only used for mixing the paint, the preferred method of applying it to the canvas being to pour it on and let it run down, or else flick or dribble the paint on to the surface.

The walls bore vivid evidence of the technique! She then builds up layer upon layer of paint to give the final effect. When thin layers are applied the previous ones show through, though even when they are completely hidden they still have an effect on the finished result. OK, I'm not sure I really understood that, but I can't argue with the fact that these pictures have a depth and resonance which is otherwise hard to explain.

Despite the limitations of my photography I hope the detail above gives you some idea of how the overlapping layers build on one another. Or maybe we should really move back a few paces...

The view's an interpretation of Loch Torridon in Scotland, one of those magical moments that etches itself deep on the memory but then is gone forever - unless you are blessed with the ability to preserve it with oil paint. 

elspeth owen

A little further down the road one is invited to slip through a hole in the hedge and into the surprising world of potter Elspeth Owen. Elspeth inhabits an old wooden building which in a former lifetime was Grantchester cricket pavilion.

You pass the bicycle leaned against the logpile and go around to the front of the building which nowadays lurks amongst trees and vegetation.

I climbed the wooden steps for the first time in over forty years - and what were the ceramicist and her visitor discussing - cricket! Inside there were displays of Elspeth's pots nestling among found items and natural objects collected on walks, pictures, faded newspaper cuttings and a splendid collection of cobwebs! Everything seemed to have arisen organically and naturally, then settled comfortably down together.

Something clattered unexpectedly. Elspeth looked briefly alarmed but, once satisfied that it wasn't one of her pots which had crashed to the ground, she concluded that it must have only been a mouse. "Would you like to see some mouse-sculptures?" she asked and produced some walnut shells which had been artistically fashioned by a rodent intent on devouring the nourishment within.

Her pots have an ancient, rough-hewn appearance and seem to have been created by some long-lost civilisation. And maybe they have; everything about this place seems to hark back to a former time when time passed more slowly but to more purpose.

These "moon dishes" not only look as old as civilisation but also as fragile as eggshell. They also link to one of Elspeth's "projects": buy one and you can have it delivered by hand to any address in Britain or Ireland. She will spend the next year "unhitched from all push-button and on-off devices" delivering these and returning each full moon to celebrate beside the River Cam.

Nostalgia forced me to take a peek into the Home team changing room where the above installation was waiting for me.

Then it was outside again where artist and her public were engaged in a discussion about the correct name of a flower which had decided to self-seed and flourish in this secluded corner of England.

Take care.

I hope I'm not too far off target with what I've written above. If either of the artists should stumble upon this page and disagree with me they are welcome to comment and put me right!
For the rest of you here are the artists' own websites so you can check out their own words:

To see more of Tess Recordon's British Landscapes

And Elspeth Owen's pots: