Sunday 26 July 2015

The Tale Of Mucky Porter

I first encountered the name of Mucky Porter on one of Norfolk Green's buses; they often commemorate famous local characters on their vehicles. Recently I saw the Ouse Washes Molly Dancers doing a dance with the same name. A little bit of research uncovered the tale which I re-tell below....

When the day drew to a close and the men gathered in the pubs, the spirit of story telling would descend as suddenly as November darkness on the misty fens. The labours of the day, the trudging behind the plough, the pursuit of wildfowl on the undrained marshes, the gathering of reeds for thatching, would be forgotten in the glow of the fireside.  Words would stitch together the tattered remnants of history and make a handsome tale. Listen.

In the village of Southery there was just such a pub, but, on the long-ago night of which we speak, strangely empty and quiet.  No one knows which pub it was. No, that's not  true. Everyone can tell you which pub it was; they just don't agree on the matter, that's all.  So in this pub, which might have been this one or might have been that, the innkeeper was totting up his takings at the end of the day. If the sparse coins glinting in the candlelight foretold his fortune then the future looked bleak indeed. But just then his melancholy thoughts were cut across by a sharp rat-tat on the door.

He opened the latch to find two fine gentlemen, such as you seldom see in a village like Southery, standing at the door. "Excuse our intrusion upon your domain, good sir. Would you be the man they call Mucky Porter?"

 "I might be" said the fenman "Depends who's asking."

"Tell me, what do you think of Cromwell?"

"Not much. Truth to tell he'll be the ruin of me. All my customers are off fighting with him instead of spending their money with me."

"And what about the King?"

"Not much either."

"We are persuaded that you're the finest man in the area at finding the way across these treacherous and uncertain swamps. Would you be prepared to guide the King and his companion to Huntingdon."

"Depends how you ask" said the shrewd innkeeper.

The gentleman took out a bag of gold coins and laid it before him. "S'pose I might be able to help then. Tell the King to be here at first light."

"The King is already here" said the gentleman smiling.

"In that case we'll start right away. Now first you got to leave that gold here; I don't fear the marshes but if things go badly in Huntingdon I might not be returning, then who will provide for my family?"

"But how do I know I can trust you?" said the King. The innkeeper reached into his pocket and took out a feather and a knife. He then split the feather with the knife and handed half to the King. "This is a feather from the grey geese who winter out on the fen. All true sons of the fen will help any other fenman who carries one. It's a matter of honour. Now outside to the barn with you, we'll need some old sacks to cover them fine clothes if we're to get anywhere without being noticed. Your two fine horses will have to stay here too and you can ride on my old mare. If we're challenged say nothing. And always, always look down at the ground as if you're an old fen-slodger like me."

So they set off in the darkness, winding this way and that through the marshy ground, avoiding the villages and going where few would dare to venture. When they got near to Huntingdon they learned that Cromwell's men were surrounding the town. Of course they were intercepted. Mucky Porter reached into his pocket and took out the split feather. "A poor traveller struck down with the ague," he said pointing to the sack-draped figure,  "we need to get help." Cromwell's orders had been to let no one through but seeing the feather they waved him past.

The King was quickly reunited with his dukes and Mucky Porter slipped out of the town unseen as only a fenlander might. The King's fared less well however and he was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. The night before his execution he asked for and was granted a meeting with Cromwell. "I know that you must do what you must do" said the King "I only crave that you grant me what is my right" And the King produced the split goose feather. 

Cromwell, as a fenman himself, knew the meaning of this and that he should help the King. He pondered on the problem all night but in the morning, having not reached a decision, the execution went ahead. When Cromwell's men heard the story they threw their goose feathers at Cromwell's feet and went back to the fen.

And that might have been the end of our story. But some years later, when Mucky Porter was having an afternoon nap, there came another knock at the door and an even more elegantly dressed gentleman stood at the door. "I've often heard the tale of how you helped my father find his way across the fen and I should like to reward you properly" said the gentleman "Come with me"

The innkeeper knew who the gentleman must be and went to get his horse. The young King stared in astonishment at the fine horse on which Mucky Porter was mounted. It was, of course, the offspring of those two horses left in the stable long ago.

They rode out to the newly-drained land. "Now how much of this land would you like?" asked the young King.

"I reckon I'll have from this track here to them trees in the distance. How much land is that?"

"I believe you have several acres there. Take it. It's yours."

And to this day that bit of land is known as the Methwold Severals and is still farmed by a family by the name of Porter.

Take care.

Friday 24 July 2015

Friends Of The Friendless

Growing up in a village called Caldecote I was always dimly aware that there were other villages in the area which had the same name. Recently I had a special reason to visit one of them. And you'd have to have a good reason to go to such a tiny place, comprised of just seven houses and a disused church.

Poor old church! Tucked away behind a farm and not used for many a year. What could be going on in such a place?

Remote and forgotten it may be but it's not as out of touch with the present century as the photo suggests. These are members of Chiltern West Gallery Quire who are there to raise money for The Friends Of Friendless Churches a small charity that cares for and preserves old and redundant churches like this one.

In pre-Victorian times many of our churches had a gallery at the western end which would house not only a choir but also a band of village musicians. Often they would sing to locally composed tunes and I was delighted that this quire includes in its repertoire several hymns from "the Meldreth book". This notebook was once the property of the village blacksmith in the village of Meldreth, where I live. 

This blacksmith had some sort of rudimentary musical education and was therefore appointed the leader of the band. His book contained the versions of the hymns which were sung a century or two ago in my parish church. The book was found in a car-boot sale by one of the members of the Chiltern West Gallery Quire.

I was hoping to record a video of the band but the sound of the wind in the trees (and in the microphone, despite the windshield) made the recording just about unlistenable. So here's a link to The Marsh Warblers performing a West Gallery hymn, sensibly recorded indoors to give you some idea of the style and sound.

Meanwhile inside the church....

....the pews were pressed into service to display an exhibition of quilting by the Icknield Quilters.

Take care.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

A Stroll Through Newnham College

I recently found myself in a part of Cambridge where I seldom venture; not because it's remote or inaccessible but just because I have no reason to be there. However I knew there was something very special to see, as I used to go there many, many years ago. Soon I was making my way along Newnham Walk towards an impressive entrance.

Not many tourists find their way here either, even though it's less than ten minutes walk from Queens' College which is very firmly on their itineraries. So if you're ever on Silver Street bridge just wander away from the city, cross Queens Road and go along Sidgwick Avenue to Newnham College.

On the sunny July afternoon when I visited there were a few elderly ladies making landscape paintings but no other visitors at all. This time of year, after the exams have finished but while the gardens are still at their best, is the ideal time to inspect all the college gardens. Kings Parade was seething with tourist groups but here there were none.

Now, how is it that I used to come here to one of the leading ladies' colleges in the University of Cambridge? No, it's not what you're thinking (unfortunately), it's simply that my mother worked here, cleaning the students' rooms, for a while and as a schoolboy I sometimes came with her in the holidays. 

Her boss was a sour-faced old spinster whose only satisfaction in life seemed to be ensuring that the young ladies in her care had as miserable a time as she undoubtedly had. She would have been even more grumpy had she known how many muddy footprints my mother removed from the windowsills every morning!

But, like those nocturnal visitors, we digress. Newnham was founded in 1872 as a house where women who wished to attend University lectures could reside. These women were not members of the University and could only attend at the discretion of the lecturer. One of those who championed the rights of these young women was Henry Sidgwick of Trinity College who went on to be co-founder and long-time benefactor of the college.  

Land was purchased and buildings erected as the new college expanded. Luckily the architect Basil Chamneys was employed at the outset in 1875 and continued to design further developments for the next thirty-five years. This gives the various buildings a wonderful unity.

Basil Champneys designed buildings in an array of different styles but for Newnham employed what was known as "Queen Anne revival". In other hands this style often became a bizarre parody of itself but at Newnham everything is light, poised and tasteful.

The more central colleges have quite cramped sites but here there are huge lawns and spacious gardens to wander in. The only areas where one is not allowed to intrude are those left for wildlife; an innovation not seen elsewhere.

A recent comment on my post about the Sidney Sussex gardens mentioned the great minds who had wandered there through the ages. So here's a list, in no particular order, of the more notable alumnae of Newnham: the primatologist Jane Goodall; the actresses Eleanor Bron, Miriam Margolyes and Emma Thompson; historians Mary Beard and Lisa Jardine; researcher into DNA, Rosalind Franklin; the Suffragettes Clara Rackham and Frances Parker; the feminist writer Germaine Greer; poets Sylvia Plath, Marianne Morris and Elaine Feinstein, mathematician Phillipa Fawcett; broadcasters Joan Bakewell and Claire Balding; political activist Pat Arrowsmith; Rabbi Julia Neuberger; authors Margaret Drabble, Ali Smith, A S Byatt, Josephine Bell and Iris Murdoch; politicians Dianne Abbot, Anne Mallallieu and Patricia Hewitt; Olympic rowing medallist Anna Watkins; Under Secretary-General of the UN Margaret Anstee, (to name but a few!)

Take care.

Sunday 19 July 2015

The Chapel Of Sidney Sussex

Most, if not all, of the Cambridge colleges have chapels. The most famous, of course, is the huge and magnificent structure at King's, but others are interesting and often beautiful too. At Sidney Sussex College it would be easy to pass through without realising there's a chapel here at all, though the courtyard named "Chapel Court" is a bit of a give away.

The picture above shows Chapel Court and the only real clue here is the tall window on the right, but if you go in through the central doorway and turn right you'll find yourself in an unexpectedly long and beautiful place of worship.

It looks and feels different from all the other college chapels I've visited with some of the finest wood panelling you're likely to find anywhere.

Before the founding of the college the site was occupied by Franciscan friars, so it's no surprise to find a fine wood-carving of St Francis, albeit quite a modern work.

There is much speculation that the college was a Puritan foundation. This is based largely on the fact that the chapel is aligned north-south rather than east-west and also, of course because of its association with Oliver Cromwell. However at that time Cromwell was not an important political figure and there were also plenty of Royalists at Sidney Sussex.

The chapel has undergone huge changes during its history. Of the Franciscan foundation nothing significant remains; even the stones used in the building were pilfered for the construction of Trinity College. The chapel of 1600 was replaced in 1776-82 by a building designed by James Essex. But what we see today is the work of T H Lyon who lengthened the chapel in 1912 and employed Reed of Exeter to undertake the wood-carving that gives it such a unique atmosphere.

There is such a wonderful balance between intricately carved details and simple plain wood panels showing the natural beauty of the wood-grain. Even so it's surprising to find such a comparatively small and plain organ.

The centrepiece of the whole Chapel is this fine painting...

It's the work of the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Pittoni and was purchased by the college in 1783. He was something of a specialist in these grand religious works. 

Another splash of colour is provided by the remarkable stone used to make the floors. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the wood that I didn't notice the floors till I was making my way back out to the gardens.

Take care.

Friday 17 July 2015

Visiting Sidney

If you're in Cambridge and want to see Sidney then you should first proceed to Sainsbury's supermarket. Just across the narrow street is a small wooden door behind which you'll find Sidney.

Sidney Sussex College was founded in 1596 as Lady Frances Sidney Sussex College after its foundress. Regular readers of this blog might remember it as the final resting place of Oliver Cromwell's rather battered and well-travelled head. (If you click on the green print you'll be able to enjoy the gory story in all its glory). 

If you make your way from Hall Court, pictured above, into Cloister Court.... can then make your way around the back to the gardens where it's difficult to realise that you're very close to the bustling city centre.

You shouldn't see the last view because, apart from the fact that the gardener will have moved his wheelbarrow, you'll be trespassing on the Master's Garden. I know this because I spotted this sign on the way out....

Don't go there but have a look at the rest of the grounds instead...

So if you're ever in Cambridge and find yourself outside Sainsbury's, in the company of the man selling the Big Issue magazine, just wander across the street and see if Sidney is receiving visitors.

You can have a look at the Chapel too, not as grand as some others but infinitely preferable to the frozen food aisle in the supermarket. We'll have a look at the Chapel next time.

Take care.

Tuesday 14 July 2015


A few of the characters to be seen at Ely Folk Festival last weekend....

The Ouse Washes Molly Dancers
from deep in the Fens.

Taking it easy
and taking in the music.

Do I look good in these?

The young...

...and the not so young.

For those of you who haven't found Hannah Sanders on YouTube yet -
here's Hannah Sanders on YouTube...

Relax, enjoy and....

take care.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Ely Folk Festival 2015

The observant and analytical among you will have figured out by now that John was at Ely Folk Festival on Saturday. It's not the biggest festival in the world, or indeed in Cambridgeshire, but it is one of the nicest and friendliest and can always be relied upon to unearth talent which you might otherwise not have noticed. 

Like most other people I always try to plan a way to get around to see everyone and everything.

But it's difficult - so very difficult. On the way in I heard an unaccompanied female voice come floating high and clear through the air....

....Hannah Sanders. I'd heard she was good but I didn't realise she was that good! Beautiful traditional and contemporary songs, with guitar and dulcimer backing sending me cartwheeling back to the early days of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.

Enough to inspire you to go and buy a guitar, or make you give up entirely!

There's Morris dancing too, some more traditional than others! Gold Star Morris from Norwich (above) and the Gothic alternative, Hemlock Morris from Bedford (below).

Meanwhile what's this in the main marquee?

A bluegrass band from Essex, England? The New Essex Bluegrass Band are just that, all gathered round a single mic in traditional bluegrass style. The choreography involved in getting each soloist up front at the right time is worth watching itself. And the music's good too.

Lots of activities for children too, including painting this wonderful bus. They've been painting all weekend and they ain't done yet!

It was great to catch the three-part acapella harmony of Artisan. They've been singing together all over the world for over thirty years, but it's a long time since I've heard them live.

Then it's time to take a breather before the evening concert. Because I needed to catch a train home I could only see the first couple of hours, but it worked out that I saw two acts that I'd been looking forward to.

The unusually named Hut People are a wonderfully hard-working and entertaining two-man band. Sam Pirt plays accordion, does a bit of Quebecois foot-percussion and dancing while Gary Hammond plays a wide assortment of percussion instruments including plastic pigs - I kid you not! Add to this a repertoire of tunes from all over the world and madcap humour and you've got The Hut People.

Finally, for me anyway, Nancy Kerr And The Sweet Visitor Band. She's been making music with various combinations of musicians for eighteen years or so - and it's all good! A great fiddler, a fine singer and recently she's been writing some wonderful songs too. We'll let her finish this post with her usual flamboyance...

...take care.