Wednesday 28 October 2015

"Reuben's Corner" Once Again.

About three-and-a-half years ago I went on a walk which took me through the village of Ashdon in North-West Essex and it sparked memories of a book I'd read a long time ago. I wrote about it on this blog and it received lots of nice comments from regular readers. But over the years there's also been an occasional comment from strangers to the blog, but not strangers to Ashdon or to the book. So here's the original post once again with welcome interjections from those unexpected visitors.......

"Reuben's Corner" is one of those tatty little paperbacks that has hung around for a long time, has been picked up on countless occasions and is now looking rather the worse for wear. It's a simple story of Spike Mays' childhood in the early part of the twentieth century. The reviewer from The Sunday Times, no less, thought it a better book than 'Cider with Rosie', so it's a mystery why it has so long been out of print; though second-hand copies are available at very reasonable prices. And Mr Mays just happened to grow up in Ashdon, in Steventon End, Ashdon to be precise. I've long wanted to pay a visit to see if anything remained of Reuben's Corner.

I don't usually take much notice of Anonymous but I was glad to receive this information: 

If you weren't aware, Mays's book has recently been republished (by Abacus) with a 'Misery Lit'-style cover and cringeworthy renaming: "The Only Way Was Essex". Available now from all good booksellers, tax-dodging online retailers and doubtless an aisle in Tesco, alongside all those other identically-marketed "We was poor but happy" memoirs. 
(non-British readers may need to know that The Only Way IS Essex is the name of a TV programme in the UK - no, you don't want to see it!)

Walton's Park was where Spike Mays worked as a houseboy on leaving school. By poking a camera over the top of the wall I was able to get a view of the house.


This moved Penelope to share this snippet:

Used to live in Ashdon as a small child (my father built four bungalows there, and we lived in one), and have followed the hunt across the land belonging to Waltons Park. Wonderful memories! Thanks for reviving them! 

I walked on past Place Farm, where he worked later. In the prologue he remembers the farmhands walking to work in the early morning - Toe-Rag Smith, Walt Stalley, Poddy Coote, Wuddy Smith - their cheerful voices and the plod of their hobnailed boots on the gravel road. No sound of boots now; everyone had driven off in their cars to work in town. Instead a woman jogged by in pink running shoes!

More recently, 14 July 2015, Jan Pearson added a comment:

I have just discovered this - albeit a bit late in the day - and was delighted to see Toe-Rag Smith get a mention. He was my Great-Grandfather!

Place Farm

But, thanks to the book I suppose, Wuddy is not forgotten - Wuddy's cottage on the corner now bears his name....

....and Walt Stalley's remembered too....

....though of The Bonnet pub, which the author recalls fondly, the only evidence is now the sign on the wall of what is now a private house.

I wonder how often the inhabitants of these idyllic country retreats think about the real lives lived by the former occupants. For the book documents a lot of suffering too - the malnutrition, the poverty, the dreadful price paid by many in the First World War.

Kathy Bowry commented on 16 December 2013 

My mother Marion Weir 'found' Spike for Eyre Methuen when general book editor there and editing Colonel A D Wintle's diaries. (Spike was his batman in the Royal Dragoons). All Spike's books are still a brilliant read and it is marvellous that he is still in print.

The windmill which is mentioned in the book is still to be seen looking down over the village. The postmill has now been fully restored to something like its former glory.

Wandering on, lost in my thoughts - and lost geographically too, as it happens - I strayed down beside the little River Bourn. What a wonderful place to spend ones boyhood even now. Especially now, in fact, when good food, good housing and a good education can be taken for granted by so many. I promised myself that I would return in spring or summer. (I still haven't done that).

Kathy Bowry was back again on 2 April 2015 to give a further recommendation:

Spike also co-wrote a book with his best friend Chris Ketteridge 'Five miles from Bunkum: a village and its crafts' also published by Eyre Methuen, published 1 January 1972.

I eventually arrived at where I'd hoped to be, the village church. I didn't find any gravestones inscribed with the name of Mays, but several other surnames mentioned in the book were there. There was just one more place I'd hoped might still exist and my way out of the village would lead me to the site. And there it was....

....Ashdon Halt, where the railway once passed near to the village. The cinder trackbed was still there with the platform alongside, as well as the old railway carriage (the remains of it, at least) that once served as a waiting room....

.....inside someone had made a sign: "ESTIMATED TIME OF ARRIVAL 1886"

Chris Cornwell added on 19 January 2014

I also bought a copy of "The Only Way Was Essex" only to find it was a reprint of "Reuben's Way", itself (presumably) a reprint of "Reuben's Corner". I also googled Mays to find your excellent account of your "pilgrimage". I will be following in your footsteps . . . Richard Church in the Foreword mentions S L Bensusan who wrote about estuary life in Essex..... Finally may I recommend Out of Essex by James Canton, particularly the chapters on Shakespeare and J A Baker.

Thanks again to everyone who has visited and commented.

Take care.

Friday 23 October 2015

Autumn's Gift

A leisurely afternoon's stroll around some of the little-visited gardens of Cambridge. Many of those hurrying through the city streets are unaware of these places. Here is Autumn's gift to them.....

....for the tattooed man singing to the accompaniment of the pneumatic drill on the building site....

....for the Muslim woman in the black hijab and pink Skullcandy headphones....

....for the man in the business suit striding urgently down Regent Street clutching a tin of  Whiskas cat-food....

....for the young woman sitting on the pavement begging for change....and reading War And Peace....

....for the person dressed as a polar bear jogging around Parker's Piece (no, I don't know why)....

....for the busker playing the spoons....

....for whoever has to pick up all the litter left in the city centre every morning after the reckless, selfish behaviour of the merry-makers of the night before....

....for weary, bearded man carrying a camera and trudging along Station Road to catch the train....

....ah, that was me!

Take care.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Addressing The Issue

Another selection of oddities encountered at various addresses I've visited recently....

Number One

No. 1, Brookside, Cambridge, is a curious address in itself. Why? Because it's not in the street called Brookside at all. Brookside is nearby but it's over on the other side of Bateman Street. No. 1 stands fair and square in the University Botanic Gardens and used to serve as the main office administering the garden. On the lawn at the back of the building there is a fine-looking apple tree. A sign tells us that it's ....a descendant by vegetative propagation of a tree which grew in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham and which is reputed to be the tree from which fell the apple that helped Newton formulate the theory of gravitation. Don't you just love the precision of the language; obviously the work of a 
true academic.

As you can see it's a substantial orb and, if it fell on your head, would certainly make you think!

Carved Wood

This splendid piece of woodwork would not look out of place in a grand house or even a church, but it's actually to be found in the bar of the Three Swallows pub in Cley, North Norfolk. Cley (and it's pronounced Cly rather that Clay or Clee) is a fine centre for bird-watching. If you're ever that way look into the Three Swallows for a pint and a good meal.

If you're in Cambridge then you may find this outside the pub....

Holy Pig!

Recently I showed you the splendid "pile of books" bollards that stand outside the Cambridge University Library and which have prompted one or two noted academics to publicly display their lack of humour. Jack (Naples and Hartford in Seasoncommented that he thought that "Cambridge has enough serious stuff that a bit of whimsy can easily be accommodated". Indeed it can, Jack, indeed it can. And, just to prove it, outside Westacott House, the Anglican Theological College in Jesus Lane Cambridge, is this little piggy, an iron boot-scraper of unusual design.

Address Unknown

These little birds have been turning up in all sorts of odd locations around Cambridge, the work of an anonymous nocturnal artist. Local people refer to them as "the herons" though I'm not really sure exactly which bird is represented.

Angels On Moto Guzzis?

Well, not Hell's Angels, that's for sure, since this rugged-looking machine was parked in a churchyard in Norfolk. It's a 1985 Moto Guzzi 500cc army bike with its original leather panniers as used by the Dutch army and NATO forces. Incidentally I read recently that a hoard of 20 military bikes of this make had been discovered on a military base in Macedonia where they'd been sitting untouched for 30 or 40 years.

Even Odder Addresses
Three signs from my travels. It may not surprise you to learn that I used to live in Nutters Close for many years. In addition to these I've also seen a Cold Hands Lane, Dog Kennel Lane and Major Haddock Close. 

Take care.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Steam-Power, Horse-Power

On a dull day like today it's good to be able to look back a few weeks to the Bedfordshire Steam And Country Fayre and to have a closer look at some of the exhibits, both mechanical and animal.

I'd never considered just how many of these machines were manufactured, with makers in even small East Anglian towns like Thetford, Leiston, St Ives and Kings Lynn as well as bigger places like Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester; or even the variety of purposes to which the machines were put.

This is "Margaret", a showman's engine from 1922. The role of these great beasts was to tow the fairground rides from town to town and then to power the roundabouts and other amusements. But the first engines were used for agricultural purposes, to power threshing machines and for ploughing. These were nearly all owned by contractors who moved between farms. Then there were steam rollers used for road-building and huge road locomotives that were used for moving large loads along the winding British roads.  

The curious-looking contraption above is a steam-wagon and was built by The Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co. of Leeds in 1905. It has a transverse boiler which as well as saving space was said to avoid problems when climbing steep hills. Below is a 1926 Foden Steam Wagon. I don't know if it was once used for advertising the beer or if the owner just liked drinking it.

Newquay Steam Beer was the brainchild of one Michael Cannon who was much impressed by the Anchor Steam beer from San Francisco. In 1987 he set out to create a similar craft beer in his Redruth brewery. Redruth is not a particularly trendy part of Cornwall, but Newquay is the nearest thing that the county has to California - well, there are a lot of people with long hair and surfboards anyway - so Newquay Steam Beer was born. You might have thought that the American company would have had their lawyers all over this in an instant, but in a preposterously audacious move Cannon succeeded in preventing the San Francisco brewery operating in Britain, claiming that "steam" was an old Cornish word for strong beer, a claim of dubious veracity, to say the least.

An American-made Stanley steam car built in 1910. In 1906 a Stanley steamer set the astonishing world record time for an automobile over a mile course in 28.2 seconds. Yes, that's 127 mph (204 Km/h)! It's a wonder that the internal combustion engine ever caught on.

"Queen Of Hearts" in the foreground built by Aveling & Porter in 1907, is a "convertible engine" in that it can be changed from a conventional engine to a steam-roller. Thomas Aveling was instrumental in the early development of the steam traction engine. Early engines were used as a source of power for agricultural machines but could not move under their own power, having to be towed from one job to another by six horses. Aveling could see the absurdity of the situation, "It's like six sailing vessels towing a steamer!" he exclaimed, and set about making the first road-going machine.

Measuring the horse-power of steam engines has always been a matter for debate. Although manufacturers quoted a "nominal horse power" this is usually considered to be an underestimate. No such problems with the vehicle below.... 

The heavy horses traditionally used in the UK are Shires, Clydesdales and Suffolk Punch. Unlike their mechanical counterparts they don't have a nameplate on the side which makes them harder to sort out! Of the beautiful, matched pair seen above, for example, one is a Clydesdale while the other is a Shire. And no, I can't remember which is which!

A family story about horses:

My maternal grandfather had a coal delivery business in the Kings Cross area of London between the wars. He always kept five draught horses, like the one above, to haul the carts. He was very particular that each horse had a rest day each week as he realised that his livelihood depended on them. However one horse went lame and he gently nursed it back to fitness. 

When he was satisfied it had fully recovered he put it to work and found that though it seemed fine it retained a slight limp when pulling away. Unfortunately for him this was spotted and he was taken to court accused of cruelty to the animal. Now my grandfather, perhaps as a result of the coal dust he encountered every day, had rather watery eyes and had to wipe them frequently. The newspaper reporter who was present saw a chance to conjure up a story, "Man weeps in court", and then went on to say how he was the father of four children and to stress the fact that, though he was a coalman, he wiped his eye with a snow-white handkerchief. When the story was published so many well-wishers sent money, to pay the small fine which the court imposed, that my grandmother had to write to the paper to implore people send no more. 

Take care.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Jesus College Chapel

When you stroll along Jesus Lane in Cambridge, if indeed you do pass that way as it doesn't look that promising, the College is scarcely visible. You may see the entrance to the Master's Lodge with a prominent sign telling you that it's Private and you may spot an iron gate, left ajar, but leading to a narrow lane lined with bicycles. There's nothing to say Hey, come on in and look around but nothing to tell you that you can't either.

So in you go, past the bikes, through the gatehouse and into Jesus College. Once inside you'll find everything very spacious, calm and ordered; you may find yourself wanting to go up to the students ambling through this paradise and tell them that the rest of the world is not like this at all. 

But lets suppose that you keep this urge under firm control and you content yourself with exploring the buildings. You'll find buildings of all ages surrounding the neatly trimmed lawns; buildings from the 1960s right back to the twelfth century. This is a bit of a surprise as the College was not founded till 1496 under the name of The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge. The Saint Radegund bit coming from the fact that the College appropriated the buildings of the old St Radegund Nunnery which dated back to 1157. 

The name Jesus College, which is used nowadays, comes from Jesus Chapel which the college inherited from the Nunnery. The history of the building is complex and any account of its architectural development includes lots of probably's and maybe's. I don't intend to bore you with them here, lets just step inside and see what there is to see.

The Chancel is the showpiece of the building, rather dim and atmospheric with lots of rich dark wood and stained glass - a nightmare for taking photographs in fact! 

The glass in the tall, narrow lancet windows in the east end of the chapel is full of deep colours, just right for windows of this age. But not, I'm afraid, the original glass. That was all smashed by Protestant iconoclast William Dowsing, who held it all to be far too idolatrous for his strict interpretation of the Bible. The glass we see today was designed by Augustus Pugin, based on a few fragments which survived Dowsing's vandalism.

There are two organs standing right next to each other, the one on the right having amazing painted panels - again the work of Pugin.

The dark, almost black, carved wood has some interesting features too, some of it Medieval and some later imitations.

Up above in the crossing tower and the nave there is more painted woodwork from the Victorian era, dating from Bodley's restoration. It was designed by William Morris and painted by Frederick Leach.

The coffin lid (above) dates from the thirteenth century and is probably that of Bertha, a benefactress of the nuns who were here at that time.

But perhaps the most famous and striking work on show in the Chapel is a set of stained glass windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones which were commissioned in 1912. More of Burne-Jones's work can be seen in the windows of the nave. It's one of the finest collections of Burne-Jones stained glass in the country, even though it veered away from the scholarly reconstructions undertaken by Pugin. Shortly after the glass was installed it was announced that William Morris & Partners, with whom Burne-Jones was associated, would cease to make stained glass for churches.

Outside again I was taken by these strange and alien shapes, some of the wackiest topiary you're ever likely to find....

Take care.