Sunday 28 February 2016

A Bumpy Ride

The Cambridge University students were out on the river this week doing what they've been doing for over 120 years, racing against one another in the Lent Bumps. We had a post about this a couple of years ago which baffled many of you. So here's another attempt to explain what's going on.

The river at Cambridge is too narrow to allow boats to race side by side or overtake safely, so a different kind of race had to be devised.

The boats race in groups of seventeen and start at various points along the river with one-and-a-half boat lengths between each boat. The fastest crew from the previous race starts at the front with the second fastest behind them and so on down the line.

The idea then is to try to catch up with and bump the boat ahead. Once a bump is achieved the crews involved pull over to the side of the river to let the following crews past. As you will see in the video later, this does not always go as smoothly as it might!

Sometimes bumps occur within a few hundred yards of the start, while others chase the whole length of the course to no avail. For the next race the crews involved in a bump change places in the start order. 

Successful crews decorate themselves with ivy - there being a lack of laurel leaves along the river bank.

So here's a video which I hope captures some of the excitement, exuberance and exertion of the event. There are four races featured - two Women's races and two Men's. Hold tight!

A quiet afternoon on the river - not.

Take care.

Friday 26 February 2016

Seven Saints

"What a monumental piece of architecture! How long did it take to build this beautiful place?" 
"Oh my, this is quite breathtaking. Is there anything modern as beautiful.....?"

...just two of the comments about St Albans Cathedral received after my last post. In a sense they are still building it, as they have been since the first church was erected on the site over 1500 years ago. Lets look at one of the latest additions....

In April 2015 something happened here for the first time since the Reformation: seven painted statues were installed in the Pulpitum or Rood Screen niches. The sculptor, Rory Young, has been five years working on the project. The screen itself was erected in 1349-50 and appears to have been built in a hurry; it was the time of the Black Death and it seems that the monks were anxious to keep themselves very separate from the common people and pilgrims who visited the church and the Shrine of St Alban.

There have been statues in these niches before - the originals were smashed during the Reformation. Although the new statues fit in perfectly and are timeless in their beauty and craftsmanship, there are two wearing modern spectacles and the friar second from the left is holding some playing cards. Just exactly who are these seven?

St Alban: Back in the third century AD a Romano-British citizen called Alban gave shelter to a man fleeing persecution. The man was a Christian priest and Alban was so impressed by his courage and conviction that he asked to be taught more about his faith. Soon the authorities started to close in on the priest, whose name was Amphibalus. Alban insisted that they swap clothes to allow the priest to escape.

Alban was arrested instead and the judges, who were less than pleased to realise that they had been fooled, ruled that Alban should receive the punishment due to Amphibalus. Alban refused to renounce his new-found faith and was taken to be executed. The first executioner refused to do the deed and a replacement had to be found. It is said that the latter's eyes dropped out when he cut off Alban's head.

Alban thus became England's first Christian martyr. Once Christianity had been established in England, the site of his death became a place of pilgrimage and the old city of Verulamium became known as St Albans. 

St Amphibalus: The name of Amphibalus is not mentioned in early accounts of Alban's story and first occurs in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, around eight hundred years later. He may well have misunderstood a Latin text, as amphibalus is a name for a priest's robe. 

After Alban's death Amphibalus is said to have returned to his native South Wales where he converted many more to his faith. However it was at Redbourn, four miles from St Albans, that he was eventually caught and stoned to death. 

Some 800 years later St Alban is said to have appeared to a monk called Robert in a vision and led him to the site of Amphibalus's grave. Miracles are said to have occurred on the spot and his bones were removed to St Albans where a shrine was built to him. It was destroyed during the Reformation but the fragments were rediscovered during nineteenth-century renovations and were reconstructed in the Cathedral.

George Tankerfield was a cook from York who burned at the stake as a Protestant martyr in 1555 in St Albans. He was originally a Catholic but, seeing the cruelties inflicted on those of Protestant faith, he became a Protestant himself.

His wife was tricked into bringing Tankerfield to his persecutors and Foxe, in his Book Of Martyrs, records that the good woman attempted to run the captor through with a meat skewer. When unsuccessful in this attempt Foxe writes, with some satisfaction it seems, that she then managed to throw a brick and hit him squarely between the shoulders.

Tankerfield's main crime was an inability to keep his mouth shut, if he had he may well have survived as many others undoubtedly did. However, unlike many who like the sound of their own voices, Tankerfield was as courageous as he was outspoken and died a heroic death.

The book which the statue holds is an exact reproduction in paint of a Bible printed in 1550, such was the amount of research that went into this project.

Alban Roe: Just as you think you're getting the measure of these martyrs - a brave, pious but rather dour lot - up pops the relentlessly cheerful cantankerousness of Alban Roe. Roe was born in Suffolk in 1583 and was one day trying to convert a Catholic to the Protestant cause when he found himself being defeated in every argument and was surprisingly converted to Catholicism himself. He entered a college in France to prepare for the priesthood, but despite being popular, he managed to fall out with the authorities in an argument about, of all things, some cupboards near his bed. From there, having been expelled, he entered a Benedictine Priory. Having been ordained he returned to join the Missions in Britain and was immediately deported. 

He returned twice more and was eventually imprisoned in The Fleet Prison for 17 years. The regime was remarkably relaxed and Alban was able to wander off out of the jail during the daytime as long as he returned to his cell at night. As he had no church he set about converting the lost souls he encountered in the inns and taverns. In order to befriend them he would play cards with them. This outraged the Puritans who would have had him thrown into jail were he not already a prisoner! 

While still in prison he contrived to have several religious tracts translated and printed. Eventually all his "extra-curricular activities" could be disregarded no longer and he was thrown into the much more secure Newgate Gaol and charged with treason. Clearly he had done nothing treasonous in the normal sense but, since the monarch is the head of the Church of England, all Catholics of the time ran that risk. He became something of a celebrity prisoner and had many visitors, one of whom smuggled items into the jail so that he might celebrate Mass. 

At his trial Roe made a complete mockery of the court by refusing to enter any plea and then refusing to be tried by "ignorant men". It seems that the judge may have feared that there might be unrest if Roe were sentenced to death and tried to have a quiet word with him to defuse the situation. However this did not go well and in the end the jury took only a minute to find him guilty. 

Even at Tyburn, the site chosen for his execution, Alban Roe preached a jovial sermon to the assembled crowd about the meaning of his death, then further held up proceedings by asking the Sheriff if his life might be spared if he became a Protestant. When he was told that it would, he pointed out to the crowd that his crime was clearly not one of treason but merely the result of religious intolerance.

St Elisabeth Romanova: The daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, Elisabeth was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe and had many suitors. She eventually married a Russian Grand Duke, much to the displeasure of her grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Her husband Sergei was instrumental in expelling 20,000 Jews from Moscow. In 1905  he was assassinated by Socialist Revolutionaries. Elisabeth spent a long time in prayer and as a result visited the assassin in prison and told him she forgave him. 

She then sold all her possessions and with the money raised she set up a convent. She opened a chapel, a school, a hospital, an orphanage and a pharmacy in its grounds and dedicated the rest of her life to helping the poor of Moscow.

Despite her good works she was still, in Lenin's eyes, a member of the aristocracy and in 1918 she was arrested. Later the Bolsheviks took Elisabeth and her fellow prisoners and threw them into a pit, tossing a hand grenade in after them. Later the singing of hymns was heard from the pit so another grenade was thrown in and then a brushwood fire was ignited over the pit. 

When the sculptor was creating her statue a curious event is said to have occurred: a butterfly came into the studio and settled on her, refusing to move. Some time afterwards the sculptor discovered a photo of Elisabeth wearing a butterfly broach, which was said to be one of her favourite jewels.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and 
theologian. His many written works on theology are however overshadowed by his involvement in anti-Nazi campaigns in Germany.

He was one of the first to speak out against Adolf Hitler. As early as 1933, when the Nazis had first come to power, he made an address on the radio warning of the dangers of a cult surrounding the Fuhrer. His speech was cut off in mid-sentence and it's not difficult to surmise who pulled the plug.

Bonhoeffer was one of the few churchmen who roused himself from indifference and fear to continue the fight against Hitler's regime throughout the war. His activities included infiltrating the German secret service where he acted as a courier passing information to the resistance movement. In this position he was able to find out the scale of Nazi atrocities which only deepened his resolve the overthrow the regime.

He certainly knew about the plot to assassinate Hitler and he was arrested and placed in a concentration camp. He was executed by hanging along with co-conspirators in 1945.

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was shot and killed by gunmen while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel in 1980. He had been a vocal opponent of injustice and political repression in San Salvador.

He was born in 1917, the son of a carpenter, and after three years schooling was trained in that trade by his father. However those who knew him were not surprised when he asked to train for the priesthood.

By the time of his assassination he was a huge celebrity in El Salvador, his weekly radio sermons were broadcast across the country and attracted huge audiences. Each week he read out a list of all those who had been killed, tortured, imprisoned or who had "disappeared"; it was the only source of information of what was happening for most of the population.

Romero's funeral was the biggest demonstration that El Salvador had ever seen with a quarter of a million mourners from all over the world. He was finally made a saint by the church in 2015.

So there we are - seven saints and martyrs spanning 1,700 years of human history, half the world and many branches of Christianity. They all died as a result of intolerance and intimidation. They are represented here to remind us all, Christian or otherwise, of humanity's inhumanity and in the hope of future reconciliation, understanding and peace.

Take care.

Wednesday 24 February 2016


Time to look around  St Albans Cathedral. One thing that strikes you as you visit different cathedrals in England is that they're not all the same. Every one has an individual history which is reflected in their architecture and fittings. As you walk around to the visitors' entrance you can't help but notice that St Albans Cathedral is big, 183 yards (167 metres) from one end to the other. The great bell tower dates from the eleventh century and is built with bricks which are even older, having been salvaged from the old Roman town.

It stands upon the place where St Alban was buried, having been executed for refusing to renounce his Christian faith over 1,700 years ago, at the very birth of Christianity on these islands. I'll tell you more about the Saint and his story in the next post. The place became a major focus for pilgrimages and a huge medieval abbey grew up around the site. What is now the Cathedral was the Abbey Church at that time.

Unsurprisingly, in the light of its external dimensions, it also has the longest nave in England. Although there has been much building over the years a surprising amount of the Norman church remains. 

These massive pillars in the nave still have their original medieval painting. This was discovered beneath the whitewash which had hidden them since the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Each pillar would have had a small altar beneath it and pilgrims would have prayed at each pillar on their way to St Alban's shrine.

On the above picture you can just about see the rounded Norman arches. The paintings were done by various artists, including one Walter of Colchester. You won't find anything like them in any other great church in England, and very few as well-preserved in smaller churches.

Paint and colour have survived here in all sorts of places, giving some idea of what our old churches must have looked like in earlier times. The ceiling in the bell-tower is actually a replacement and shows the brightness of the original colours. In fact it's not actually a replacement as the old ceiling has been preserved above the new one. You can also see the geometric patterns on the underside of the arches.

The High Altar Screen looks in remarkably good nick for 1484 and I was not surprised to learn that the statues in the recesses had been restored in the late nineteenth century. The lines of the screen led ones eyes upwards, as it was designed to do, though my heathen eyes stopped short of heaven and fell upon.....

....the painted ceiling of the Presbytery. It looks like it might be stone vaulting, but was in fact constructed entirely from wood way back in the thirteenth century. The wonderful decoration was added a couple of hundred years later.

The ceiling in the Quire, which was where the monks prayed separately from the congregation, still has its square panels which were painted in the medieval period.

And so we come to the Shrine of St Alban which has been the goal of so many pilgrims throughout the ages. Beside it, to the left of the picture above, is the only surviving example in the country of a wooden Watching Chamber. It's where monks would have sat to supervise pilgrims visiting the Shrine. It has some fine wood carving....

The symbol of St Alban is the rose. Every year, around the 22nd of June (which is claimed to be the anniversary of his death) roses are placed around his Shrine to honour his martyrdom. From the raised area of the Shrine you get a fine view of the beautiful Lady Chapel at the eastern extremity of the Cathedral.

We'll be back again at St Alban's Cathedral in the next post to see something more modern, but with deep roots in the past. You might have glimpsed it in a couple of the photos earlier in this post.

Take care.

Monday 22 February 2016

The City Of St Albans

You don't expect, having travelled on the Number 301 bus from Hatfield railway station through a landscape of traffic lights, advertising hoardings and retail outlets, to suddenly find yourself in a street market thronged with an almost medieval atmosphere of chattering townsfolk, with ancient houses teetering over brightly-coloured stalls. 

But that is exactly how it felt when I arrived on a grey and unpromising day in St Albans. I'd come to see something rather special which I'd read about, something which I'll get around to showing you towards the end of the week. First though I wanted to enjoy this unexpected little fragment of an older Britain that had somehow infiltrated the urban sprawl and traffic fumes just a few miles north of the M25 motorway.

A busker - nay, a troubadour - sang in a narrow alley opposite the Olde Sweet Shoppe.

The market, which describes itself as the most vibrant in the south of England, was granted a royal charter back in 1553, though it is documented as far back as the ninth century. To quote from the St Albans website "Where else could you buy a whole salmon, cut-to-size foam, healing crystals or herbs all in one place?"

Now you might think that the building above is a church tower but in fact it's nothing to do with any church, it's just a clock tower.  It stands 77 feet (23 m) high and dates from 1412 and is one of only two similar structures in the country.  

The building above is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub, one of several buildings that claim to be the oldest pub in England. The evidence for its claim appears to be rather scanty to say the least, but it is old and it sells beer - what more do you want? There's a nice park nearby too, fancy a walk?

Town parks are not my usual choice for a bracing stroll but there are reasons for being here. You see, even when this place was a medieval market town it already had a long and interesting history. The rather enigmatic bits of stone paving above are actually old foundations. Foundations of the town gates. The gates of the Roman town. 

St Albans was known to the Romans as Verulamium and where we are walking is Verulamium Park. That wall in the photo above is the Roman city wall, the Romans occupying the site from about 50AD onwards. There must still be a lot of undiscovered Roman remains under what is now parkland though most of the stone was removed to construct later buildings such as the huge Abbey which once stood nearby; this bit of wall having only been left because it was in dense woodland.

A low concrete building stands in a rather isolated part of the park and once inside you can view a remarkable Roman mosaic floor which has been unearthed at what was once the site of a considerable Roman villa. Those of you who, like me, have carried the word hypocaust around in your head since school days will be delighted to see this.....

Yes, it's the remains of a Roman underfloor heating system, quite probably a lot more efficient than the heating in my house! 

Back out into the park once more my eyes were attracted to a mighty building on the horizon. It's the cathedral, the former Abbey church, and it's not such a surprise to me as I'd walked past it earlier in the day, in fact you can see its tower in the very first picture. It's where we need to be heading next and I'll tell you a bit about it next time.

Take care.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Madness And Beauty

As I warned you in an earlier post, the Cambridge Botanic Garden is holding another Orchid Festival. This year the theme is The Orchid Hunters, so here are some tales of those remarkable men, interspersed with pictures of some of the beautiful blooms on view.

In 1818, so the story goes, one William Swainson was collecting plants in South America. He sent a box of specimens to London, using orchids as a packing material. On arrival one burst into flower and started "orchid fever" as everyone marvelled at the beauty of these exotic plants.

However the story is probably just a myth, Swainson knew exactly what he was doing and the plants, in all likelihood, were carefully tended when they reached London. 

What was very real however was the craziness which followed, with plant hunters penetrating jungles and remote mountain ranges in search of orchids. Partly this was fuelled by the sheer number of orchid species, but it was also because no one at the time knew how to propagate the plants successfully, so huge numbers of plants were sent back to Europe, many not surviving the trip.

One of the largest collections was at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. The head gardener at the time was Joseph Paxton, who later went on to find fame as the architect of the Crystal Palace. He dispatched two of his gardeners, Wallace and Banks, in search of new species. They were warned to "beware of bears and women, both of which were hindrances to the placid life of a plant collector". Their trip turned out to be anything but placid and they were both drowned in a turbulent river. Paxton took the tragedy very personally and never organised another expedition.

One of the leading collectors was Benedict Roezl who was employed by Frederick Sander, a German who ran a very successful orchid business from St Albans in Hertfordshire. Despite losing a hand in an accident in Cuba, Roezl discovered over 400 species and had more then forty named after him.

One unfortunate group of orchid hunters was captured and held hostage in Papua New Guinea. They were eventually rescued by Indonesian troops, but not before two had been beheaded. Others perished elsewhere; dysentery taking David Bowman, yellow fever being the fate of Gustavo Wallis, while William Arnold was drowned in the Orinoco.

In 1901 a party of eight set out for the Philippines in pursuit of rare species. One was eaten by a tiger, another was dowsed in cooking oil and burned to death, and five more disappeared without trace. The single survivor returned with 7,000 orchid specimens.

One rare orchid was described by  J. J. Smith in 1932, but was lost to cultivation till it was rediscovered during the Second World War by the piratically-named Captain Neptune Blood (you couldn't make this up, could you?). Blood might have been forgiven for having things other than orchids on his mind at the time as he was busy avoiding the attentions of the Japanese army.

Even modern day orchid hunters can get into scrapes as Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder discovered in 2000 when they were captured and held for nine months by FARC guerillas in Central America.

Little did I realise, when I was trundling around the local garden centre looking for an orchid for my mother, that I was joining such a daring and dangerous group of men!

Take care.

Friday 19 February 2016

A Land Of Springs And Little Rivers

Around here we call almost any watercourse a river. If you can step across it then it'll be a ditch, otherwise it will have the grandeur and distinction of riverhood. They may be baby rivers but they're rivers nevertheless.

I leaned the bike against the fence to photograph this farm pond at Shepreth - the place of sheep. And there are still some sheep to be found around the village.

Just across the road is the little River Shep, just a couple of yards wide and not very long either. It rises from springs in a strange nook of land between the villages of Melbourn (the mill on the stream) and Fowlmere (the mere of the birds).

These days the mere of the birds is a nature reserve, RSPB Fowlmere, though it has had other uses in the past and may have once been seen as less charming - an old document records it as Foul Mere ! Lets park the bike and have a wander around.

The shallow mere and the reedbeds surrounding it are a magnet for birds, mostly fairly common ones though you never know what might turn up. In the past this area was used to produce watercress. Springs bubble up here in many places making it ideal for wildlife.

The warden and volunteers have recently cleared and opened up many of the ponds and streams around the reserve. Robins and Blackbirds were singing in the bushes and close by I heard the pig-like squeal of the elusive Water Rail, a secretive bird of the reedbeds.

The Water Rails are here all the time, though you don't usually see them unless the mere freezes up when they become a bit reckless and venture from cover. Other birds like Marsh Harriers and Bitterns turn up from time to time.

This wet land is ideal for alder trees which provide food in winter for flocks of small birds including Siskins and Redpolls.

The clear streams are home to many small fish, at least until the Kingfisher finds them!

Some of the birds spotted today:
Wigeon, Teal, Snipe, Greylag Geese (noisy things!), Green Woodpecker, Little Grebe, Sparrowhawk, Siskin, Goldfinch, Bullfinch, Yellowhammer, Barn Owl.....
I also saw some Fallow and Muntjac Deer.

Oh, and Mallards of course! But the sun was declining in the west so I climbed back on the bike and headed for home.

Take care.