Monday 31 October 2016

A Message From Pumpkinland

We don't really do Halloween in England, possibly because our farmers don't grow a surplus of pumpkins which they have to get rid of at this time of year! So when I was a child I'd hardly heard mention of  All Hallows' E'en. In more recent times the supermarkets have been only to happy to sell you a witch's outfit, some spooky spiders' web or a zombie mask, all tastefully made in the finest plastic the petro-chemical industry can produce.

But do we like to be scared out of our wits by supernatural happenings? Indeed we do, indeed we do. I spotted this strange weather-vane, suitably backed by a malevolent sky, in a Hertfordshire village. What can it mean? Does a witch dwell within, casting her spells to control the weather? I was too frightened to knock on the door and enquire! I hurried by without, I hope, being noticed.

Meanwhile here's a book that has somehow slipped unnoticed by me for many years. But a friend told me it was good and Penguin publish it under their Modern Classics banner so I thought I'd investigate.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle - Shirley Jackson
The rather Gothic house on the cover, pictured at dusk beneath threatening skies, should be enough to tell you that this is a suitable story to be reading at Halloween. 

There are no zombies, vampires or ghosts stalking these pages: nothing more scary than two young women, their cousin, an old man and some neighbours, in fact. The main characters have a wide range of psychological and mental problems between them and at least one is a mass-murderer, but they are the ones we are persuaded to identify and sympathise with. Meanwhile the neighbours behave as any rational human beings might, i.e. with cruelty, vindictiveness and violence borne of irrational fear. A jolly little party then. 

In this strange alien world - 1950s small town America(!) - things are never quite as they seem; the story has a Fairytales Grimm atmosphere to it, the innocent commit crimes, the crazy speak the most sense, those who try to help cause untold trouble, the wicked help and the reclusive see the world more clearly than those on the outside. It all reads like some elaborate metaphor or fable whose exact meaning is just beyond ones grasp.

The writing is entirely beautiful even if some people find the plot rather lacking in substance. I didn't, though I did find myself suddenly at the end of the book wondering if I'd missed some vital clue. Which of course makes me want to go back and read it again.

Meanwhile back in Pumpkinland....

Even when we do Halloween in England: 
                                                         we don't do it very well!

Take care.

Sunday 23 October 2016

An Old Geezer's Gazetteer

Every book should contain at least one list
every blog should have one too.
So...'s a list of East Anglian place-names 
that an ageing old fool
finds amusing or interesting...

Ugley, Cold Christmas, Good Easter,
 Pixie Green, Foxearth, Wormegay, Shelfanger,
 Westley Waterless, Stratton Strawless, Winfarthing,
 Blo' Norton, Pudding Norton, Puddledock,
Saddle Bow, Queen Adelaide, Melton Constable

rather unexpectedly,


Onehouse, Bumbles Green,
Margaret Roding, Kenny Hill,
Apes Hall, Bacon End,
Matching Tye, Matching Green,
Manea, (which is unfortunately pronounced Main-ee rather than Mania)
Hoo, Wix, Eyke, Steeple Bumpstead,
Rishangles, Rattlesden, Woolpit, Sweffling, 
Messing, Shellow Bowells,

and the rather tricky to pronounce

Happisburgh (HAZE'bro), Wymondham (WIND'em), Braughing (Braffing),
 Deopham (DEEP'em), and Belaugh (BEE'lo),

not to mention those sign-writers' nightmares,

Wiggenhall St Mary the Virgin 
Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen

 Nasty, Great and Little Snoring, Six Mile Bottom,
Ramsey Forty Foot, Kettlebaston, Prickwillow,
Wangford, Shipmeadow,  
Yelling, Sloley, Seething, Pidley, Three Holes,

as well as the quite beautiful

Walsham Le Willows, Gamlingay, Shingay-Cum-Wendy, 
Saffron Walden, 
Silverley and Layer de la Haye

Given a following wind we may visit some of them one day,
until then,

Take care.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

At Home With John And Ascelina Adgor

This is a place I've been meaning to show you for a long time, especially those of you who love the vernacular architecture of the old houses and cottages of England, as well as those who like to see hand-crafted building and woodwork.

This all began back in September 2015 when I attended the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust's day out at the Museum Of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket. The singing and playing take place in various old buildings which have been brought to the site and one of the first musicians I heard was Matt Quinn in a building known as Edgar's Farmhouse. I found out what I could and then returned to take more photos some months later.

It was immediately obvious that this was an unusual building. Inside it was just one large barn-like space, it had an earth floor and it no windows at all. At the end of the music session I searched out an information board which told me that the house dated from the fourteenth century and was built in the nearby village of Coombs for the Adgors, John and his wife Ascelina (now there's a name that should be revived). The family had survived the Black Death, which had swept through the county in the 1340s, and thrived and prospered farming the surrounding fields.

Over the years the Adgors became the Edgars - spelling always being rather fluid in those times - and succeeding generations adapted the original building to suit the needs of the day. We should not be surprised by this, after all we change our homes today to incorporate new fads and technologies, be it double glazing or open-plan living spaces, though the farmers of that time were happy to introduce windows of any kind and went from open-plan to separate rooms. By the twentieth century it looked like the photo, above right. Not only had it had an extra wing added but it had also been converted to have upstairs rooms. The house also had the additional refinement of chimney-stacks. 

Not that Mr and Mrs Adgor shivered through the fourteenth century winters without any form of heating. They had a fire alright, they merely hadn't invented the chimney just yet. So the fire was lit in the middle of the room and the smoke rose into the high roof space, finding its way out by any opening it could. Goodness knows there were plenty of holes through which it might escape - just look at the photos! And while you're looking you'll see, in the above photo especially, that many of the original beams are still in place and retain their smoke-blackened appearance to this day.

But what gets the experts excited is the method of construction. Without getting technical it's a stage in the development of such buildings which is seen in few other places and, as you can see, it's a rather more complex and advanced structure than might have been supposed. This was known about, or at least suspected, from examination of the adapted two-storey house back in 1958. But when the farm was about to be demolished to make way for new housing in 1970 it gave an opportunity to take the building apart, piece-by-piece, examine it, and then re-erect it on its present site in the museum. What we see today is the experts' best guess at how it was first constructed.

As Matt Quinn sang the old songs about sailors, farm-workers and highwaymen I couldn't help but wonder if any of these songs had been heard here in the distant past. Did old John and Ascelina once raise their voices and rattle the smoky beams above their heads with rustic harmony?

Take care.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Monday 10 October 2016

Searching The Desert For These Blues

You might go across the desert
Might travel through some mountain range

You might go across the desert
Travel through some mountain range

Ride through that lonesome canyon
And wind up in a place so strange

You might go across the desert
You might go across the deep blue sea

You might go across the desert
Might go across the deep blue sea

You might find a whole world waitin'
Inside of some old broken tree

Take care.

Friday 7 October 2016

Built With Stones From The Fields

I said in the last post that we'd have a look at Barton church this time. And so we shall, we just have to toddle up this little lane, past the neat white fence...

Notice the chimneys on the brick house, they're set at 45 degrees to the chimney stacks. There are several chimneys like it in the surrounding villages; probably just a quirk of a local builder who thought it gave a bit of extra class to his houses. The other house has a chimney built of the yellow "Cambridge" bricks which are a feature of the local area too: they look nice when they're clean but soon weather and fade to a dirty grey, especially in town.

Ah, here's the church. I hope you weren't expecting anything too grand. It's just a nice country church of the kind which has quietly done its job to the satisfaction of its parishioners for centuries. Parts of the exterior have been rendered which has preserved the fabric if not the character of the building. Where the original walls are exposed you can see that they're built of field stones - just any suitably sized stones turned up by the plough. In an area like this where there's no readily available source of building stone it's the obvious answer to the problem.

The tower shows a less obvious solution to a different problem - how to incorporate a staircase without it getting in the way of the bell-ropes. Some churches have a corner turret, others opted for a bulky squat tower, here the builder has brought the corner out to a point and incorporated small windows to let in the light. I bet he was an ancestor of the man who built the odd, angled chimneys we saw earlier!

Once inside I found a tall, airy building with sunlight pouring through the large windows. Everything looked well cared-for and there were still signs of the recent Harvest Festival celebrations. However what's most interesting is that pinkish patch on the wall, just one part of a set of medieval wall paintings. But "alas" and "alas".....

"Alas" 1 - although the painting is full of exuberance, spreading across much of the walls, the artist is clearly a local man and no Michelangelo. Even so there's great charm in his naive efforts like the knight on the left spearing a demon. The artist also seems fond of country themes - there's a picture of St Anthony with a pig, St John with a lamb and a fair representation of a horse being ridden by St Martin  as well as a picture of St Dunstan holding the devil by his nose.

"Alas" 2 - these paintings were whitewashed over following a visit in 1644 from William Dowsing, who was charged by parliament with removing "all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry" from the churches of Cambridgeshire. The paintings were re-discovered in 1929 and restored by Prof E W Tristram. Unfortunately the works, which were over 300 years old when they were covered up, have not fared particularly well and some are rather difficult to make out. This is a shame because they include the little-known saint, St Thomas of Cantelupe who, it is claimed, was born in the village.

My own feeling is that the paintings have an air of honesty, naivety and quaintness which more than makes up for their lack of quality and preservation.

Rather better preserved are the pulpit, which is dated 1635, and the screen which is thought to date from as long ago as 1370.

The carving on the screen clearly shows signs of its age but must once have been very fine indeed.

A rather inconspicuous little notice tells you that hidden beneath the red carpet in the chancel you'll find a brass to the memory of John and Margaret Martin who departed this life in 1593. It's a small memorial and Mr and Mrs Martin have had the indignity of being fixed to the stone floor by rivets through their heads. But at least it's still in place; so many have been stolen for the value of the metal.

But the sun was streaming in through the stained glass and, further enhancing the local, home-grown feel of the whole building, was falling upon the Harvest Festival arrangement on top of the simple stone font.

Take care.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Just Across The Fields

Those of you who are regular travellers with "By Stargoose And Hanglands" will know that I think nothing of walking or cycling miles to call in at forgotten churches in distant villages. It'll often include a train journey or hopping onto a rural bus to get even further afield. But somehow it's harder to kindle the enthusiasm to pedal a mile across the fields to photograph a place I've known for years.

I used to cycle through Barton every morning on my way to work. Sometimes on a summer's evening I'd wander over to The Hoops for a pint and I used to have friends who lived in the village. So lets start this brief nostalgia trip at the village duckpond.

Like most Cambridgeshire villages there's a lot of rather undistinguished twentieth-century housing, mostly semi-detached, brick-built houses, all very comfortable and practical to live in but lacking the character of older buildings. But if you look around you can usually find a few old cottages....

....and some rather finer dwellings.

Virginia creeper gets a foothold, softening the lines of some houses.

These board-clad houses are unusual to find in East Anglian villages, but don't you just love that wonderful heart-shaped gate?

This quiet road leads down to the church and the primary school too.

It's still got the old-style school sign, I think these were phased out in about the 1970s, but this one, on a back road, seems to have been overlooked. How many girls these days go off to school swinging a satchel, and how many boys wear caps and short trousers? I hope somebody saves some of these old signs for posterity.

The Hoops pub is still there.

And there are a few old thatched cottages to be found here and there.....

.....some with proper-job cottage gardens.

Cyclamen clusters around the old trees on the green.

And it's got a very nice village sign which celebrates the Women's Institute and the two pubs, The White Horse and The Hoops. The main part of the sign features the village duckpond and the church. Ah, I'll be getting to the church in the next post.....

Take care.