Monday 26 September 2016

Hello, Me Old Duck!

 Hmmm...who's that person sitting on my patch of grass?

 You can get back in the river if you want,
I'm going to take my usual place.

 That's my mark, see,
my speculum,
It means I have the right to sit here

 I'm warning you!

 I should think so too!

That's sorted that out then.

Take care.

Saturday 24 September 2016

The Foster Family

In Trumpington there's a street called Foster Road. It's just a rather plain residential street, though in its time it was probably rather forward-looking, being built around three sides of an open space. But Ebenezer and Richard Foster, the two brothers after whom it's named, left plenty of monuments of their own around the city.

Perhaps the best known, certainly the one that dominates the skyline, is Fosters' Mill, though lots of people call it Spillers as that was the company who owned it most recently. Nowadays it's been converted to stylish apartments. The Fosters owned three mills in the centre of Cambridge but the University blocked all attempts to build a railway anywhere near the town centre, so in 1898 Fosters built this huge mill next to the railway station, away from the centre. The castellated turret on top always looks to me to be a little act of defiance towards their opponents.

They did not confine their activities to milling flour but also got into banking, originally in these rather attractive premises in Trinity Street. The building has had a number of uses in its long life including being The Turk's Head coffee bar. The rooms above were at one time occupied by the poet, painter, occultist and mountaineer, Aleister Crowley and his lover, the female impersonator Jerome Pollitt. Crowley said of his time at Cambridge, "I was surrounded by a more or less happy, healthy, prosperous set of parasites".

By the end of the nineteenth century the Fosters banking enterprise had outgrown its quaint Trinity Street premises and commissioned a magnificent new building by the architect Alfred Waterhouse. It exudes the grandeur and confidence of the late Victorian era and many tourists photograph it believing it to be something to do with the university.

Although it's now occupied by Lloyds Bank it still says "Fosters' Bank" above the door.

The clock tower with its ornate clock face gives some idea of the elaborate decoration within. As it is still used as a bank they are understandably concerned about security and so photography is not allowed inside. However the door is always open during the day and I strongly recommend anyone passing to take a look. You'll find the central banking area to be high and light with a magnificent domed roof, the whole area being lined with colourful, glazed, ceramic tiles. In its way it's every bit as impressive as some of Cambridge's more celebrated interiors.

Both Ebenezer and Richard went on to be Mayor of Cambridge, as did their descendants Charles Finch Foster and Henry S Foster. Ebenezer and his heirs resided in Anstey Hall in Trumpington, which is now a wedding venue.

Richard Foster was also the major backer of The Roman Baths which were constructed in Jesus Lane. It was, however, not the resounding success to which the family had become accustomed and closed down after less than a year, the folks of Cambridge much preferring to bathe, for free, in the river! The building then became for many years the meeting place of The Pitt Club, a right wing University political society. Believe it or not the elegant rooms are now occupied by Pizza Express. Thus have the mighty fallen.

Take care.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Natural Selection

A selection of books about nature and landscape that I've been reading recently: 

Foxes Unearthed by Lucy Jones

There's no animal that provokes such complex emotions in our islands as the fox. It's by no means as simple as "all country folk want them exterminated and city people think they're cute". Country dwellers are often full of admiration for them, while urban foxes are frequently not tolerated. 

Lucy Jones (whom British readers might remember being interviewed by Chris Packham on the Springwatch TV programme) investigates the matter from all possible sides in this fascinating and well-written book.

You'll find out what makes naturalists, huntsmen and hunt saboteurs tick; as well as the fox, both urban and rural, of course. 

Deep Country by Neil Ansell

Just one man's time spent living in a remote Welsh cottage with no modern amenities - a kind of Welsh Walden, if you like. But here's the difference: I've read and re-read this several times while I always struggle with that other book, picking it up, putting it aside, going back to the beginning.... 

There's a kind of deep philosophy and spirituality in these pages but it's hidden away in the everyday happenings and events - lighting the fire, mending the roof, friends visiting, going on walks, watching the birds, digging the garden, a bit of forestry, helping out with some ornithological research...

This is a book about patience, belonging, calm, harmony, understanding,  acceptance...yep, I like it!

Collected Writings 1933-1989 by Peter Scott

Anyone who's stood on the Norfolk coast on a midwinter's evening to watch the geese fly across the darkening sky to their roost will be touched by a little wild goose madness. So it's no surprise that I find this collection of Peter Scott's writings enthralling; he is after all the man who set up the Wildfowl Trust to protect and promote the well-being of these mysterious birds. 

The early stuff is fascinating as he moves from wildfowling to research to conservation. He was right there at the beginning, figuring out ways to net birds and ring them, and how to interpret the findings. He visits the interior of Iceland to find where the birds nest, journeys to Antarctica and even slips in a short story about being torpedoed during the war.

The essays and articles are written for children's books as well as for more learned publications, so there's a fair bit of repetition as he explains things to various audiences. But all that doesn't matter - it's his endless enthusiasm that shines through.

60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallack

An exploration of the life and scenery to be found at the latitude of the Shetlands, the adopted home of the author. So we venture from Shetland to Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia and the Scandinavian lands, before returning once more to Shetland. 

Besides exploring the geographical, historical and political realities of these marginal lands, Malachy Tallack meets some diverse characters and has some interesting adventures and discoveries, but more importantly it's about a young man finding his way in the world and trying to reach a safe harbour, having been ripped from his moorings following the death of his father.

The Invention Of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Alexander von Humboldt's name survives today in the names of many geographical features - there are mountains, counties, an ocean current and even an area of the moon named in his honour - but few these days would be able to tell you much about him. But Andrea Wulf can, and does, in this grand book.

Humboldt was one of those infuriating scholars who wouldn't settle down to study and pursue a regular career. Instead his insatiable curiosity forced him to travel as much as he could, at least till the money ran out. He wanted to understand everything he saw - botany, geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy.....and he was always seeing connections and parallels within his various fields of interest.

It was in synthesising all these strands that his true importance lies and it can be argued that he was the first ecologist and the first person to realise the influence of man on the environment.

Most biographies end with the death of their subject but this one goes on to consider his influence on others - Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Thoreau and John Muir all read his works and were changed by them. Quite a list for someone who's largely forgotten these days.

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

There are a lot of books about the English Lake District and all of them seem to be written by people who've come from elsewhere. This is the only one I know that's been written by a Lakeland shepherd, albeit one who's been away to university. 

As an insight into the working life of a modern day farmer it's about as good as you'll find; it's all there - the quad bikes, foot and mouth disease and the economic tightrope of balancing the books, as well as the scenery, social hierachy and ties to the land.

But even more relevant are his observations about the tourists, poets and authors who have a very different relationship to the wonderful landscape of the lakes and fells.

Take care.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Well, I'll Be Bloggered!

Another round-up of lost lambs that wander the forgotten fields and neglected pastures .......oh, complete the image for yourselves!

Stitches In Time

In St Albans Cathedral are the two collage/tapestry panels above, a collaborative work by the artist and calligrapher, Susan Llewellyn Elvidge and several hundred schoolchildren and volunteers. It shows the early history of the cathedral and is a very interesting read. Will these survive the centuries as so much else in the cathedral has? Will future generations marvel at a time when human beings had time enough to stand and read such stuff, let alone create such a work?

When The Rainbow Nation Was Pink

When I was little my granny asked me what I'd like for Christmas. "The world, Granny", I replied. When the grown-ups had stopped laughing they found out that what I wanted was a globe - which was more within my gran's budget. The map above shows how a small part of the world was back then. How things change!

Protection 1

Another in the occasional series of fire insurance plaques that turn up from time to time on my travels. Displaying one of these meant that the householder had paid their fire insurance premiums and, should their property catch fire, they could expect the fire brigade financed by their insurance company to attempt to douse the flames. In theory this meant that without the plaque your house would be left to burn down. 

In practice this rarely happened because the firemen were all volunteers who lived locally so would almost certainly help their neighbours, whether they'd paid up or not. And it was in everyone's interest - residents, firemen and the insurance companies - that the fire did not get out of control; if it did it could burn down several buildings costing local people their homes and the insurance companies lots of money.

Protection 2

Early fire engines were mostly hand-carts pushed along by the fire crew. Horse-drawn carts did exist for the purpose but the long-winded business of catching the horse in its paddock, fitting the harness and backing the beast into the shafts made the arrangement impractical for most situations. In addition you had to have a horse that wouldn't panic on seeing a roaring conflagration.

There weren't many steam-driven fire appliances either and this one, from the Suffolk town of Needham Market, was the last to ever attend a fire when it was called out to a blaze in the village of Little Finborough in the year 1940.

Cornerstones Of Faith

On the corners of the tower of St Botolph's Church in Cambridge are four sculptures. They always used to be the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and maybe they still are, but at some time the old statues have replaced by new ones that look more like some pagan deities or characters from ancient folklore. More research needed.....

....meanwhile I see that the villages of Thriplow, Foxton, Fowlmere and Shepreth have an appropriately named vicar....

A Wave Farewell

A small but perfectly proportioned work of art on a door in a Cambridge side street. Not, alas, in the hamlet of Cat's Bottom, which we visited recently.

Take care.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Calling In On Clare

the little town of Clare in Suffolk

lots of old buildings,
some half-timbered,

and some with decorative plaster-work
or "pargetting"

This extravagant example
is partly a museum,
partly a holiday let.

It has a scattering of small shops,
independent traders.

An interesting display
of old bottles.

A fine old church,
built during the town's boom period,
when wool ruled everything.

Nowadays the tourist rules,
though it's still a busy little town.

The Swan pub.
Set in the wall above the pub door
is a mighty oak beam
with a carved swan and other symbols
It's thought to be the oldest pub sign
in England.

And there are still some workaday establishments,
the kind that have largely disappeared elsewhere.

And a huge ancient man-made mound,
with the remains of a castle on top.

You can shop for antiques
if that's your thing,

or sit in the sun 
 and enjoy 
 a cuppa.

Take care.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Long Church, Short Visit

Long Melford is a long village, two-and-a-half miles from one end of its main street to the other, and it has a long church as well, it's believed to have the longest nave of any parish in England. And of course it's got a long and interesting history too.

There's been a church on the site since Saxon times but the main body of the church dates from the late fifteenth century. It's immediately obvious that it's much too big for a village church, but at that time this sleepy corner of Suffolk was the economic, agricultural and industrial powerhouse of the nation. And the reason was wool. This building and others like it were financed by wealthy merchants and farmers with one eye on the hereafter and the other on enhancing their power and reputation in this life.

These "wool churches", as they are known, attract a constant stream of visitors during the summer months and this particular one even has a gift shop tucked in the corner - something you frequently encounter in our great cathedrals but seldom in a village church. The upkeep of these ancient buildings demands that all sources of revenue are utilised. 

Remarkably much of the stained glass at Long Melford is medieval and really worthy of much greater examination than I had time for. Another time, perhaps.

The reredos is a detailed and intricate piece of sculpture and on the right of the picture above you can glimpse one of the many memorials to the great of the parish.

Much more modest is this tiny but charming scene showing the Adoration of the Magi. It dates from as long ago as 1350 and is a rare survival from those times. It was discovered buried under the floor during the eighteenth century, having perhaps been hidden there at the time of the Reformation. It's worth clicking on the image to enlarge it: on the left you can see the midwife plumping up the pillows behind Mary's head and there are two calves peering out from under the bed, meanwhile on the right of the picture is, I suppose, Joseph, exhausted by the business of childbirth, and sleeping with his head on his staff.

At the east end of the church there is a small Lady Chapel which is quite separate from the rest of the church.

These ladies, on the other hand, are central to this and every other church in the land, as they are the ones responsible for the cleaning, brass polishing, flower arranging and all those other jobs which go largely unnoticed (unless nobody does them!).

The tower, which looks just right for the rest of the church, it may surprise you to learn (it surprised me anyway) is of a completely different date to everything else. It's a Victorian structure built around a seventeenth century brick tower and is the work of George Bodley whose work we've seen elsewhere, usually church and college renovations in the Arts and Crafts style. When he put his mind to it he could also do Victorian Gothic too, which blends in almost seamlessly with the Gothic Perpendicular of the nave and chancel.

And so, all too soon, farewell to one of the finest churches in the East of England.

Take care.

Friday 9 September 2016

Pictures Of Past Times

The Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket has many re-creations of rooms from the past - domestic rooms, school rooms, shops and workshops - presented to you here as if they are works of art in an exhibition, which in a way they are.  

Take care.