Monday 23 March 2015

A Proper English Day Out - Thriplow Daffodil Weekend

We've been to Thriplow Daffodil Weekend before and if you stick around we may go again in the future. You can read about last year here should you so desire.

Back in 1969 the church roof in Thriplow was in need of repair - hardly a unique state of affairs in an English village. They'd always had a particularly fine display of daffodils in the village so people decided to open their gardens to the public and to serve tea from their own kitchens. The event raised £206, and thus encouraged, they decided to do it again the next year.

Thriplow Daffodil Weekend was born! Over the years it has raised over £400,000 for charities. Almost everyone in the little village does something to help out - manning car parks, printing posters, serving teas and all the many tasks involved in bringing the event to life.

Over the weekend between 7,000 and 10,000 visitors attend including coach parties from other parts of the country. And every year they manage to coincide with a fine show of daffodils, mainly because the village has such an abundance of different varieties.

  Apart from the daffs there is much to see: pony rides, the local blacksmith's shop, merry-go-rounds, morris dancers, stalls selling all manner of local produce, a basket maker, a magician, folk music, rock and jazz, a fairground organ, vintage cars and tractors, the raptor foundation and the RSPB have stalls, raffles, teas, fish and chips, beer and cider, trampolines for the children, ice cream, cart rides, organ music and a flower show in the church, history talks, bell-ringing demonstrations, working sheepdogs, stalls selling local produce......

Just as I was leaving a lady just in front of me suddenly stooped down and picked up something small and yellow from the road. "That was lucky!" she said. It turned out to be a small earring shaped like a daffodil. I thought at first she'd picked up something which someone else had dropped but, no, she had lost it herself earlier in the day and there it had lain, in the road with hundreds of people walking by - and no one had picked it up or trodden on it in all that time till, as luck would have it, she spotted it herself - now just how lucky is that?

Take care.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Curious Things

The Cellarer's Chequer
In Cambridge's Newmarket Road stands the church of St Andrew-The-Less, which is perhaps the least attractive of the city's historic churches, mainly because it is under constant attack from motor car exhaust fumes and vandalism. But a historic church it is (dating from 1190 AD) and an interesting one too in that it was once the church of Barnwell Priory. The Priory was at one time very wealthy and its buildings extensive.

That was until Henry VIII came along and closed it down, along with every similar establishment in the country. The stone from the buildings was re-cycled, re-purposed or stolen for other building projects in the city, including the Chapel of Corpus Christi College. All that remains today, apart from the rather sad church, is the little building above which is known as The Cellarer's Chequer and stands somewhat forlornly amongst more modern housing.

The Cellarer was reckoned to be the most important person in the Priory after the Abbot, for while the latter bothered himself with matters of the soul, the former was concerned with matters of the stomach in that he was in charge of ordering food and drink for the community. His Chequer was his office where he kept records of expenditure.

Cromwell's Head
When Charles II regained the throne of England he was determined to make those who had beheaded his father, Charles I, pay for their deeds. There was one important flaw in the plan: Cromwell and the co-signatories of the death warrant had themselves been dead for some years.

Undeterred by this detail, the new King arranged for the bodies to be dug up so that they could be posthumously beheaded. Cromwell's head was then placed on a twenty foot spike and displayed above Westminster Hall as a warning to others. Here the head stayed for a quarter of a century till it was dislodged by a storm and rolled into the gutter.

It was found by a soldier who may well have had Republican sympathies, he hid it away only to reveal its existence on his death bed. His daughter had no use for the rather battered head and sold it. It was exhibited in a private museum and then passed to other colourful owners. 

The comic actor and alcoholic Samuel Russell owned it for several years and used to pass it around amongst his drinking companions, causing further damage to the features. A man called Cox bought it and then sold it at a profit to three brothers by the name of Hughes. They exhibited it too, but few were interested in paying for the pleasure of becoming acquainted with it.

It passed into the ownership of the Wilkinson family who kept it for many years. Its authenticity was disputed but was eventually declared to be the real thing. The family kept it on the mantelpiece until in 1960 it was decided to give it to Cambridge's Sidney Sussex College, where Cromwell had briefly studied.

The college decided that they should bury it and keep the exact location a secret so that the well-travelled cranium could finally rest in peace.  

Meet Clare...
Clare the Tyrannosaurus Rex was commissioned as the centre-piece for Clare College's May Ball. The six-metre long sculpture by Ian Curran is apparently only a half-size model of the original fearsome beast! It now stands at the entrance of the Sedgwick Museum Of Earth Sciences - either welcoming or scaring off would-be visitors to the museum.

Glory, Glory....
My video of the Old Glory Molly Dancers has just reached the dizzy heights of 1,000 views on YouTube. Not exactly "viral" but still quite contagious for a lot of old chaps prancing about rather stiffly to very unfashionable melodies! For those of you who haven't a clue what I'm talking about here's a brief history of Molly Dancing:

  • back in Medieval England candles were kept burning in front of icons in the churches, one such was the Plow Light which was paid for by the ploughmen of the village.
  • the Sunday after Epiphany was held to be the start of the agricultural year and a special service took place in church to bless the Plow Light.
  • in order to pay for the light the ploughmen went out on the following Monday and danced to raise money. If people refused to pay the ploughmen threatened to plough up the path leading to the home of the non-contributor.
  • come the Reformation the icons were destroyed and the lights were no more.
  • however the ploughmen continued to dance and money was raised to support retired ploughmen and those who had fallen on hard times.
  • any spare money was quickly spent in the nearest pub.
  • in parts of the Fens the celebrations included a man dressed from head to toe in straw who was known as The Straw Bear. No one's quite sure where this tradition came from, though other "straw bears" are known from Europe and so they may have arrived with the Dutch workmen who came to drain the Fens.
  • in time the good works of the ploughmen became less important than the need to consume large quantities of ale and they frankly made such a nuisance of themselves that the authorities sought to ban the custom claiming it was no more than a form of begging.
  • however a few old men remembered some of the dances and tunes, so that when folklorists began to research the subject they were able to piece together a little of the old traditions.
  • one of the last places where Plough Monday was celebrated was the small Cambridgeshire town of Whittlesea. In recent decades the tradition has been very successfully revived as The Straw Bear Festival, an all-day celebration of dancing which takes place throughout the town.
and that's where I took the video which, if you haven't seen it before, you can see here:

Take care

Saturday 14 March 2015

The People's Art

A few of the many uncredited "works of art" to be seen on the streets of Cambridge

"International Cuisine"
(10ft x 8ft)
Emulsion paint on rotting boards

"Red, White & Blue" (detail)
(4ft x 7ft)
Gloss paint on  carved wood and plaster

"Instructions For Returning Cat" (trompe l'oeil)
(7ft x 2ft 6in)
Paint on disused door

"Homage To Mark Rothko"
(Big as a house!)
Paint on board and bricks

"Yarn-Bombing, Mill Road Bridge"
(4ft x several yards)
Wool on iron railings

"Warehouse Sunrise" (detail)
12ft x 8ft
Spray paint on textured board

8ft x 6ft
Spray can on re-sculpted garage door

be wor

8ft x 6ft
Spray can on steel door

Take care

Sunday 8 March 2015

The Bells Of Old England

A few weeks ago I was poking about taking unlikely photographs in the bell-tower of a church - doesn't everybody do that? - when in came a gentleman (the only word which would describe him accurately) and we fell into conversation about bells and bellringing. I've had to check some of this on the internet as some of the details I didn't catch and some I frankly didn't quite believe. So here's some of what he told me illustrated with photos of churches from the archive.

Great St Mary's, Cambridge

Bells have been used to call the faithful to prayer since the very dawn of  Christianity in these islands. Probably a monk walked through the streets ringing a handbell to announce that a service was about to be held. This was very necessary in a society where clocks were non-existent.

St Bene't's, Cambridge

But long before the Norman Conquest there were already bells in all the major churches. Surviving early churches like St Bene't's in Cambridge have towers that were clearly designed for bells.

St Margaret's, Kings Lynn

What little we know of the bells of that distant dark period of history suggests that the mechanism for ringing them was very primitive; the bells could be given a good clang but ringing with any accuracy or control was out of the question, though gradually new mechanisms were introduced, at first in the big cathedrals and abbeys.

Holy Trinity, Meldreth

Then came the Reformation and the destruction of the monastic abbeys and frequently the removal of bells from other churches. In the long term this apparent disaster may have done bell-ringing a huge favour; when bells began to be rehung the newest technology was used. This meant that the bell was mounted on an axle which was attached to a wheel. The rope was attached to the rim of the wheel and there was also a "stay" and a "slider" which allowed the ringing to be stopped and started at will.

St Mary's, Saffron Walden

In the following centuries bell-ringing increased in both popularity and sophistication as "Change Ringing" was developed. If you have, say, three bells in a tower you can ring them in different orders - 1, 2, 3; 1,3,2; 2,1,3 and so on, but the number of variations is rather limited. As you increase the number of bells the number of possible combinations increases rapidly. There is no attempt to produce a recognisable melody but rather to follow mathematical patterns of ringing.

All Saints', Cottenham

In many ways bell-ringing can be compared to modern sports; there was fierce rivalry between different churches and competition between those who wanted to ring, not only that but crowds were willing to turn out to hear the bells.

All Saints', St Ives, Cambridgeshire

All this sounds very wonderful, but those who are familiar with village sports will not be surprised to hear that drinking large quantities of beer also formed part of the attraction to the ringers. The fact that they were paid by the churches for their efforts meant that they also had funds to indulge their thirsts. There are plenty of pubs throughout England named "The Six Bells", "The Eight Bells" and so on, presumably celebrating their connections with their local team of ringers.

Eight Bells, pub sign, Saffron Walden

If the bell-ringers had confined themselves to sinking a few pints after the service then all might have been well. But often a barrel of beer was set up in the bell-tower and was consumed during the sermon and raucous behaviour was not unknown. They practised at all times of day, often locking the clergy out of their own churches!

All Saints', Barrington

Now long-time readers of "By Stargoose And Hanglands" might begin to make sense of that curiously pompous sign which we found in Barrington Church some time ago and which puzzled readers and me alike. To save you searching back here is what it said:

            1. The Bells are Holy Instruments dedicated to the Worship of God
and to be used only for His Glory. They must at all times be regarded and used
2. The Ringers obtain a part in the Sacred Ministry of Gods Church and must
behave always as His Ministers should do. 
3. The control of the ringing belongs by Law absolutely to the Vicar and the
Bells may only be used by such persons at such times and in such manner
as he may from time to time appoint.
4. Every ringer is expected to attend any Service for which he comes to ring
and to join devoutly in GODSWorship.
5. Drinking, smoking loud and boisterous talking or jesting and above
all disputing, are most unseemly amongst GODS Ministers in His House
and are hereby forbidden in this Belfry
                                                                                              Signed  December 1876
                                                                                                          Edward Conybeare
                                                                                                              Vicar of Barrington

and here's the original sign reflecting the Victorian attempts to clean up all aspects of worship in the Church Of England:

Bell-ringing survived Victorian reforms and improvements better than the architecture of some of our churches. There have been ups and downs but there are some 5,000 towers still in use for change-ringing in England while there are only 300 or so to be found elsewhere in the world. There's a good deal more which I've discovered over the last few days and it seems likely that I'll be bringing you a few more posts about this uniquely English tradition in the future.

Take care.