Tuesday 31 October 2017

Two Families.

Our travels today take us to Croydon. No, not the one in south London, but a tiny village just a few miles from my home in Cambridgeshire. We'll visit the small, tumbledown church and learn something about two of the families who lived here in the past. First the church:

The tower appears to be held together by iron ties and the rest of the church seems to be a hodge-podge of materials and styles.

It's not just your eyes, that pillar really is leaning at that crazy angle. "That's all on the huh", as they'd say in Norfolk, meaning it deviates somewhat from the perpendicular. I've been in some rickety-looking churches in my time but this one certainly is a test of your faith!

It's a plain, workaday building which, whenever you visit, always seems to be in the middle of urgent major repairs. You'd expect no one but farmers and artisans to be buried here but, no, there's a plaque on the wall explaining that beneath these uneven floors lie the remains of three men called Sir George Downing. Even they would feel nervous if they could see the state of the stonework above their heads!

The first Sir George was born in about 1624 and rose to become a major figure in the politics of those troubled times. He is generally regarded as the man who brought about important and much-needed reforms in the nation's finances. He was responsible for the acquisition of New York from the Dutch and amassed a huge fortune for himself. Like anyone who survived these times without losing his head or at least his job he made plenty of enemies who labelled him a miser, a turncoat and a spy.

Oddly for someone who had risen from relative obscurity to great power and wealth, there is no grand monument to him in the church. But he is remembered in the name of Downing Street in London, home of the British Prime Minister.

The second Sir George was a civil servant who further enhanced the family fortune. He was the father of the third Sir George but was considered an unsuitable parent (?) so the young George was brought up by an aunt who arranged for him to get married at the age of 15 to his 13-year-old cousin. He too became a politician and built up a huge estate based on Gamlingay Park in Cambridgeshire.

It was when he died, childless, in 1749 that things get interesting. He left a complicated will which left his vast estates to his cousins but only if they had children. Failing this the money was to be used to found a new college in Cambridge. Well, those cousins did die childless, but that didn't prevent their wives and other interested parties contesting the will. Litigation dragged on for decades much depleting the fortune, though eventually the new college, Downing College, was built, with what remained of the money, in 1800.

So now on to our second family:

In 1843 the vicar of Croydon began to compile notes on his flock, all of whom were a far cry from the grand Downing family. Here's what he had to say about some of them:

"John and Bathsheba Hagger
He can't read. She can a little. He works for Mr Ellis". 

"They were married here and their children Christened in Croydon Church. Mrs Hagger is a very respectable woman and is our washerwoman. 
   1. Emma Hagger, aged 18. Can read.
   2. James Hagger, aged 15. Can read, a wild lad.
   3. Jane Hagger, aged 12. In the Sunday School, a very 
   sharp, clean girl and well behaved".

"Emma had a child by a man from a nearby village about a year since, and expected to marry him, but he deceived her. Saving this, she is a very well conducted young woman and a clean good servant, and has been much afflicted at her misfortune, and I believe on proper grounds". 

"Richard Hagger, brother to John Hagger, - He is aged and disabled in one hand,  very rarely attends church, and is a rough subject".

"James and Biddy Hagger - They can't read. He is much given to drinking, and also has a  son by his first wife. 
Biddy is an Irish Woman and, as far she knows, a Roman Catholic. She has a son and a silly daughter of the name of Nelson, by a former husband".

"William Hagger, son to James by a former wife, aged 26, is a sad drunken fellow".

Why this obsession with people called Hagger? As some of you already know, that's my name - John Hagger. So I asked my cousin Julie, who is knowledgeable about such matters, if they were related to us. Here's her reply:

"It seems very likely that we are related to the Haggers mentioned in these notes although our William's descendants moved away to Alconbury and Bourn.  There is another name in there you might like to look at again though -  William and Ann Pearce; they are our 3x great grandparents.  Their daughter Mary (who didn't actually have a "baseborn son", it was her sister's) married Edward Hagger of Bourn and they were the grandparents of our grandfather Ernest!"

So there you are - "sad drunken fellows" and "rough subjects" among my ancestors, but not, as far as I'm aware, any turncoats or spies.

Take care.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Treasures, Tales And Secrets

There's a fiendishly difficult quiz on Radio 4 called Round Britain Quiz in which teams of very clever people attempt to unravel multi-part cryptic clues. Questions like:

Q "Where might you go to remember a parson who collected wood from Flanders, a one-legged poet, the most beautiful woman in England a hundred years ago, and the friend of a boy who never grew old?"
A Why, the church at Cockayne Hatley, of course.

How so?

The church of St John the Baptist is a handsome looking building for a village church, but its location, tucked away down a rough farm track in a small isolated village, doesn't hold much hope of grand things hidden within. If I hadn't done a little research I might have turned away once I found it locked. But there was a sign telling me where to obtain the key, so off I pedalled back down the lane.

Armed with the key and the instructions to insert it upside down and turn it "the wrong way" I was soon inside what was obviously an unusual church. 

The village gets its odd name from the Cockayne family who were lords of the manor here for over 500 years. In 1806 the Rev Henry Cockayne Cust became both the squire and the parson for the village. Celebrating his first Christmas in the church he was shocked to find snow falling through the holes in the roof and settling on the altar. He vowed to restore the church to its former glory.

Now at the very time when Rev Cust was shopping for fittings for his church it so happened that churches and monasteries in Flanders, in the wake of the destruction caused by Napoleon's army, were ready to sell. I think it's safe to say that the dear Reverend got rather carried away with his purchases and bought more beautiful carved wood than he had room for.

As a result the choir stalls overflowed the chancel and had to be arranged in the nave as well. Eventually he somehow fitted everything in, though the huge pulpit he acquired had to be sold to a cathedral!

The quality and quantity of the carving is astonishing, most notably the panels behind the choir stalls in the chancel. These are the sensational 17th century ‘papal’ stalls from the Abbey of Oignies, in what is present-day Belgium, carved with the faces of various saints. The one in the centre above is St Gregorius, who held the office of Pope till his death in 604AD. It's surely the only representation of a Pope in an Anglican church!

So that's answered the first part of the question. For the second part we need to go outside.

In the churchyard stands this monument to W E Henley, a poet and friend of Rev H Cockayne Cust's dashing grandson, Harry. Henley, regarded as a great poet in his day, is chiefly remembered today for his poem Invictus which he wrote while a patient in hospital, thinking back to an earlier hospitalisation when tuberculosis of the bone resulted in the amputation of his leg. So there's our one-legged poet.

The poem Invictus crops up nowadays in the film of the same name, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Also it is an inspiration for the Invictus Games for wounded, sick or injured servicemen.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a friend of Henley and used his disability, his bushy red beard and booming laugh as the inspiration for Long John Silver.

Back in the church one can see the details of the Baptism of Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) who lived the early years of her life at the Hall at Cockayne Hatley. Although her father is listed as the Duke of Rutland everyone knew who the real father was - none other than the Rev Cockayne Cust's grandson Harry.

So that's the most beautiful woman in England a hundred years ago. Apparently the Hall was rented by the Duke of Rutland.....surely it can't be mere coincidence, was the old Duke just making it clear to everyone that he knew exactly where his daughter belonged?

It is believed that handsome Harry Cust spread his DNA liberally among the British aristocracy, probably improving their looks as a result! He didn't confine himself to the higher echelons of society either. He was almost certainly lingered long enough among the housemaids to father one Beatrice Stephenson who went on to marry a Lincolnshire grocer and become the mother of Margaret Thatcher!

You've probably worked out that the boy who never grew old was Peter Pan and his friend was Wendy. Our one-legged poet W E Henley was also a friend of J M Barrie, author of Peter Pan. More relevantly, Barrie was charmed by Henley's little daughter Margaret who referred to Barrie as her "fwiend" or her "fwiendy-wendy" and is said to be the inspiration for both the name and the character of Wendy. Margaret died tragically young and is remembered on the same memorial as her father.

So we've answered our question and, once again, found that there's more to discover in a little hidden part of the English landscape than most people would imagine.

Take care.

Friday 27 October 2017

When The Gravel's All Gone

A glorious, bright day.
Lets have a wander around Paxton Pits Nature Reserve.

Yes, I said "Pits",
these are not natural lakes but old gravel pits
in the valley of the River Great Ouse.

Now the gravel and sand have been extracted
they've been allowed to flood and provide a great home for wildlife,
even if today the birds were mostly Greylag Geese, Mute Swans,
Wigeon, Gadwall and assorted gulls.

The Silver Birches know that it's Autumn
though most of the trees haven't realised yet!

The whole valley is riddled with old workings,
now taken over once more by nature.

There are even woodlands
along the lake margins.

Gravel and sand extraction is still going on nearby
though a peacefuller scene is hard to imagine.

A few late flowers 
including Crown Vetch,
a straggling, untidy plant but with attractive flowers.

The gravel company partly finances the environmental work here,
compensation to the community for having to put up with 
the quarrying.

A cracking good place to walk
even when, like today, the birds were not co-operating.

That's not one of the pits,
that's the River Great Ouse itself.

And finally...
I used to care for a young man who was very fond of "diggers".
If he knew I'd been out walking and birdwatching he always used to ask if I'd 
photographed any for him - I usually had.
Though he sadly passed away when he was just sixteen
I still find myself photographing the diggers whenever I come this way.

Take care.

Monday 23 October 2017

The Inquisitive Traveller

More bits and pieces that I've collected on my recent travels:

The Village Pump

The village water pump used to be the central meeting place in many English villages, the place where news and gossip was shared while the collecting buckets of water for the family's use. This rather elaborate one stands in Watton-at-Stone in Hertfordshire and dates from the nineteenth century. It's rather grander than most with its own little shelter. The ornate pump is said to have started life as the barrel of a cannon, so has completed the transformation from killer to saviour.

For The Good Of The Community

The shop and Post Office in the village of Houghton proudly announces that it is "Community owned". In these days when everything has to make a profit many villages are losing many of their amenities. Although it's OK for those who can jump in their cars and shop in the nearest town, many people, especially the elderly, rely on local services. In another village the church has taken on running the Post Office and a tea-room. In the next village to mine the villagers have worked together to keep their local pub open.

The Day Who Played Many A Game

The grave of George Game Day is a rather grand affair standing in the churchyard in St Ives. Back in the days when only landowners could vote in parliamentary elections Mr Day hit on an ingenious scheme. He bought a small farm and then sold it off as 35 separate pieces of land, thereby creating 35 new landowners who would join with him in voting for the Whig candidate. Such shenanigans landed him in court but the scandal did not impede his political career and he became one of the most influential men in the town.

A Footpath Runs Through It

Visitors to these shores are often surprised at the number of footpaths and rights of way which are available to the walker. Although rules about diverting paths have been relaxed a bit lately it is still very difficult to legally prevent people from going where they've been going "since time immemorial". In the case of the building above, they got permission to build over the path but had to leave a convenient passage to allow walkers to go through.

The Village Blacksmith 

Just outside Houghton Church  is the grave of the village blacksmith, Thomas Garner, inscribed with a suitable rhyme:

My sledge and hammers be declined
My bellows too have lost their wind
My fires extinct, my forge decay'd,
My vice is in the dust all laid.
My coal is spent, my iron gone,
My nails are drove, my work is done.
My fire dried corpse here lies at rest,
My soul smoke-like soars to be blest

Take care.

Friday 20 October 2017

The Beauties Of Gloom, Drizzle And Decay

A murky and drab end to the week here in Eastern England. The sensible thing to do would be to curl up with a good book, or even tidy up the house, but I was seized by a sudden desire to go out for a walk. Once outside I realised that, because I'd been busy looking after my late mother for the last year or so, it was a long time since I'd been out on such a day. Strange to say I really enjoyed myself and found several small beacons of beauty shining through the mist and drizzle.

The old shed down by the River Mel is still there

Little fun guys climbing up on each other's shoulders
to climb up the tree

Leaves like red tears

A small bridge being gobbled up by the vegetation

Trees joining hands in a country dance
(or poles which have grown up around a tree-stump cut off at ground level)

A tiny yellow parasol
throws up a little sunshine

Field edge

Polished tree trunks and golden flakes

A small but determined backpacker

A feast for winter-visiting birds

Richness and variety

Better late than never! A buttercup bravely blooming in late October down on Shepreth Moor.

Take care.