Thursday 30 November 2017

Enchanted Ground

The lake at Wimpole Hall in glorious winter sunshine with hardly a soul about, but the day didn't start like that.

The Hall itself is closed for the winter and the statues and stonework are all snugly wrapped up against the frost. The formal gardens are also in hibernation but the National Trust keeps the extensive grounds open for walkers to explore at this less crowded time of year. So it was a surprise, and a shock, to find a seemingly endless stream of buses and cars pursuing me as I pedalled my bicycle up the drive. "Schools' cross-country running championships!", the lady at the car park told me.

Oh dear. 

I thought I'd walk up to the lakes anyway and hope it was not on the route of the race, even though the sky was grey, obscuring the sun that had been forecast.

I soon forgot about the runners and indeed I saw nothing more of them; by the time I got back after my walk their buses had departed and they were no doubt back at school enjoying their school dinners - everything tastes better after a run in the cold!

Besides these two fine swans there was a lot of bird-life around the lakes - Tufted Ducks, Mallard, Shoveler, Wigeon, Coot, Greylag Geese, Black-Headed Gulls, Jay, Green Woodpecker and Treecreeper. 

Eventually after much hanging about and waiting the sun came out, suddenly there were clear blue skies, though it was still chilly.

These are not natural lakes but were formed by the damming of a small stream as part of the landscaping of the park by Capability Brown. “We tread Enchanted Ground... Mr. Brown has been leading me such a Fairy Circle and his Magic Wand has raised such landscapes to the Eye...” wrote Jemima, Marchioness de Grey.

In 1751 designs had been drawn up for a "castle ruin" by Sanderson Miller, who was the leading designer of such "follies". It was eventually built as part of Capability Brown's plan. In recent times the Folly had been neglected so that the make-believe ruin was in danger of becoming a real one. However, at considerable cost, it has now been made safe so that visitors can once again wander beneath its towers and arches.

Up behind the Folly there's a belt of woodland atop the low hills. It was also part of the grand design for the grounds though now is an important refuge for wildlife - nothing obvious or spectacular but a habitat for beetles, bats, bugs and birdlife as well as lots of fabulous fungi...

The path winds through the trees cresting small rises and then descending into muddy bottoms until it suddenly emerges into open country.

I think I always take a picture from this spot, overlooking Cobb's Wood Farm, whenever I pass this way.

Then I rejoined the minor road back to the Hall.

Take care.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Snaps And Snippets

Time for a few more snaps of odd things seen on my travels, interspersed with some snippets of news from The Norfolk Annals published in the nineteenth century.

In the small Cambridgeshire village of Wicken there stands this stone pillar, all that remains of the market cross which has stood on this site since 1331, when one Humphrey Bassingbourn was granted the right to hold a weekly market on the green.

It is thought that in earlier times markets had sprung up around the old preaching crosses which were erected as places of worship before churches were built. I suppose that these would have been in central places within the community where a number of people could congregate, so it made sense for trade to occupy the same sites.

However as religion and trade became more organised it became desirable to separate the two activities. The surprising thing is that such a small settlement should have had a market at all.


Aug 16 1854.—On this date was published an extract from the “New York Express,” giving particulars of a confession of murder by a soldier named Thomson, then stationed at Halifax, North America.  He stated that when at Norwich eight years previously he was on terms of intimacy with a woman named Ann Barber.  A quarrel had occurred between them, and he had thrown her into a canal.  The crime had so preyed upon his mind that he determined to give himself up to justice and allow the law to take its course. Two police-officers came to Norwich, investigated the affair, and elicited the following remarkable facts: Thomson had indeed  had an affair with Ann Barber and thrown her in the canal. However they also had occasion to interview a local man who told them that in the month of August, 1846, he was fishing for eels in the river  when he heard a scuffle, a shriek, a splash, and the sound of retreating footsteps.  He immediately rowed to the place and assisted out of the water a young woman, who refused to give him her name.  She went away, and no report was made to the police.  In 1850 Anna Barber was again seen in Norwich.  It was evident, therefore, that the remorse which impelled Thomson to make his confession was groundless.


When we wandered through Babraham recently we saw a field of sheep, but I failed to mention the importance of the village to the development of sheep-farming.

In 1822 Jonas Webb became the tenant of Church Farm. He acquired a small flock of the then rare Southdown sheep. He began a programme of selective breeding to develop a larger, heavier animal with a better fleece. These were exported widely and a statue of Webb now stands in the village, paid for by friends and farmers across the world.

This pioneering farmer was also a noted breeder of Shorthorn cattle.

Fittingly the Babraham Institute, just down the road, which carries out  research into molecular biology, has a building named after him.


July 27 1868.—Mr. Simmons ascended in his large balloon from the Victoria Gardens, Yarmouth, and descended at Caister.  On August 6th he made an ascent from the Greenhill Gardens, Norwich, and descended in Horstead Park.  Mr. Simmons, on August 13th, exhibited the balloon in Norwich Market Place, where, in a captive state, it made several ascents.  The aeronaut, accompanied by Mr. William Maris, then ascended to the height of 10,000 feet in the space of two minutes, when the balloon drifted away in a north-easterly direction.  The passengers made a perilous descent near the sea coast.  They narrowly escaped with their lives by jumping out. The balloon, blown out to sea, fell into the water two and a half miles off Sheringham.  The voyage from Norwich lasted only fifteen minutes.


The photo on the left, looking straight up from Senate House Passage in Cambridge, showing the gap between the Senate House and Gonville and Caius College, will have to serve as an illustration of a phenomenon which I can not show you in any other way.

In the 1930s a book was written under the pseudonym of Whipplesnaith. It was called The Night Climbers Of Cambridge and detailed climbing routes up various college buildings and across the rooftops. It included the Senate House Leap, the jump between the two buildings in the picture.

A secret society existed (and still exists) within the University, which dedicates itself to such nocturnal acts of derring-do. It's easy to imagine how this all started: the college gates are locked at night, but this would prove little deterrent to high-spirited and imaginative young men who sought ways to climb back in. The secrecy was to protect them from the college authorities.

If their identities remain secret their exploits are occasionally very public. Who else would be responsible for decorating the four spires of King's College Chapel, 150 feet (45 metres) above the ground, with Father Christmas hats, as happened in 2009?


Aug 28 1826.—Ten thousand persons were attracted to the neighbourhood of St. James’s Hill, Norwich, to witness the performances of “Signor Carlo Cram Villecrop, the celebrated Swiss Mountain Flyer from Geneva and Mont Blanc,” who was to exhibit “with the Tyrolese pole, 50 feet long, the most astonishing gymnastic flights never before witnessed in this country.”  It was a hoax.


High on a wall in Cambridge's Regent Street is the carved stone on the right, unseen by 99% of those passing by.

Between the dates 1851 and 1934 is a representation of an owl perched on the side of a pestle and mortar. Beneath is an inscription which I think reads "Sciendo et Girando". I can't remember much of my schoolboy Latin but I think it's something to do with "knowledge" and "stirring", which would make sense since this was once the premises of an apothecary or pharmacist.


Jan 12 1827.—A bull driven along St. Martin’s Street, Norwich, entered the Bess of Bedlam public-house, and rushing upstairs made its way into a room where a musical party was held.  The animal was dislodged with great difficulty.


This house in Great Abington, Cambridgeshire, has the name of "Jeremiah's Cottage" and is said to be named after Jeremiah Blagden who lived there.

According to legend Jeremiah was a well-known highwayman who operated along the road which runs through the parish.

All this sounds highly unlikely to me - I've never read the book    Highway Robbery for Dummies(!) but I'm sure that anonymity, or at least elusiveness, was a requirement for being a highwayman. Having all and sundry knowing your name and address would have surely led to an abrupt curtailment of ones career and prospects.

Take care.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Handiwork For The Knees

Lets pop back to Great Abington church which we visited on a walk last week...

It's a lovely old church - some of it dating back to the thirteenth century - and it's in a pleasant situation, just across the winding River Granta from its sister church in Little Abington.

Inside it's surprisingly light, the result of the large clear windows. Apart from one large monument of a knight with his sword there wasn't much that caught my eye till....

....I looked down. I often wonder at the workmanship involved carving the wood and stone but, lets face it, I wouldn't have a clue how to do any of it. But I do know a little about these as my mother embroidered several for her church in Grantchester and I designed one for her and even had a little go at the stitching. 

Here's a selection made, not by my mother, but by the parishioners of St Mary's, Great Abington.....

Besides the ones illustrated here there were also many to the memory of departed loved ones. The proper name for them is "hassocks" but everyone nowadays seems to call them "kneelers", as that's what they are used for - protecting your poor old knees from the cold, hard floors when kneeling to pray.  

There are many long hours of patient and precise stitching on display here.

Take care.

Friday 24 November 2017

Early Morning, Late Autumn

A set of photos taken on a crisp, sunny morning in late November while wandering the intricate maze of footpaths around my home village. It's my favourite time of day to be out and about, whatever the season - when I can drag myself out of bed! I post these here as a reminder to myself to get out there as often as possible!

Take care.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Hidden Treasure

You'll like Hildersham. It's a small, quiet village and it's not really on the road to anywhere else. You'd have to have a special reason for passing this way. 

My special reason was to visit its church which is tucked away through the little gate and behind the big tree. You could easily miss it.

Once inside the churchyard you'll find that although it's hidden from the road it sits on a little terrace with a view out onto the sheep pastures that lie alongside the river. The churchyard, at this time of year, lies serenely beneath a carpet of golden leaves. Jays squabbled up in the high branches and a grey squirrel watched me from the low wall.

When some building work was being carried out in 2015 an ancient burial site dating from about the year 900 AD was unearthed, showing that this had been the spiritual centre of this little village for well over 1,000 years. But what I've come to see is something more modern. We need to go inside.

It's rather dim and gloomy as the windows are all richly coloured glass, but already you can see that the chancel is something special. So special that the area is fenced off and alarmed, so can only be viewed from the chancel arch. After messing about with the camera settings to try to get the best photos I could, I hit on a brilliant idea....

Turn the lights on, John!

What we have here is a glorious piece of Gothic revival, Anglo-Catholic church decoration by the famous stained-glass workshops of Clayton & Bell. It dates from 1890 and was carried out under the supervision of Rev Robert Goodwin and his sister, Elisabeth Hemmington-Goodwin. It would have been unusual for a woman to be allowed much say in such matters in those times, but she easily secured influence by paying for the whole project!

The wall paintings are especially important as, though Clayton & Bell's firm made plenty of stained glass they didn't often tackle murals. True fresco painting (the application of pigments to the still-wet plaster) which worked so well in countries like Italy, was usually unsuccessful in Britain as the climate was too wet and cold for the process to dry quickly enough. To overcome this a whole new process known as spirit fresco was developed by Thomas Gambier Parry and was used at Hildersham.

The reredos, that's the carving behind the altar, was made by the Cambridge firm of Rattee & Kett - there's always lots of work available for stone-masons in the buildings of the University.

I loitered for a while longer, admiring what I could see of the frescoes and stained glass and rather hoping that someone might just appear and grant me access to the chancel, but that was not to be.

All this glory could have been lost in 1972. The paintings were in need of some restoration and the Parochial Church Council  were faced with the decision of whether to try to raise the then huge sum of £3,000 for the work or to whitewash it over. The decision to preserve the paintings was decided by a single vote!

I switched off the lights and made my way outside, wondering at the strangeness of it all.

We used to have richly coloured churches till the Protestant iconoclasts declared war on all paintings and sculpture in churches according to their interpretation of the Bible.

Then in Victorian times, at the height of the industrial revolution, a group of people decided that they wanted to return to the old ways.

In a tiny Cambridgeshire village the vicar and his sister became so committed to this idea that they spent huge amounts of money to decorate their little church. The vicar and his architect even went on holiday together to Europe just to look at the medieval churches there.

The lady who had paid for the paintings never lived to see their completion. A few years later a book was written about the history of the church and didn't even bother to mention the wall-paintings.

As we've seen the local community were almost on the point of destroying the work in the 1970s. 

Now it's considered a national treasure, but one that not many people seem to be aware of and few seek out. If this was in a London museum or art gallery people would be willing to queue around the block or pay to see it.

Surprising what there is to see if you take the time to look.

Take care.