Thursday 28 June 2018

The Subterraneous Mr Scott

Many a fortune was made in the malting and brewing industries of Ware. And in 1768 John Scott inherited his father's wealth. John was able and ambitious but beneath the surface of the astute businessman there lurked a poet and a dreamer. Though he worked diligently at his financial affairs his growing resources allowed him to indulge his artistic temperament, timidly at first but then with increasing confidence.

In the extensive grounds of his house he built a small summer house where could be alone to compose his poetry. One of his verses hints at the plans that were taking shape inside his head:

O for some secret shady cool recess,
Some Gothic dome o'erhung with darksome trees,
Where thick damp walls this raging heat repress
Where the long aisle invites the lazy breeze!

Although he wrote lots of poetry he was better known for his prose works which concerned the Poor Law, vagrancy and the turnpike roads. In these he displayed very Liberal attitudes for his day. 

He married a local bricklayer's daughter called Sarah Frogley and, being a poet, John had a term of endearment for his sweetheart - he called her "Frog"!

Some time in the 1760s Scott took his pick-axe and began burrowing into the hillside in his garden. He was assisted in this operation by men he refers to as his "rustic assistants" who were probably labourers on one of the roads which Scott built nearby. Scott had a dream to build an underground grotto.

The walls of this Grotto were to be decorated with shells which were collected from many distant parts. Collecting sea shells and decorating buildings with them was a fashionable thing to do in those days.

The Grotto, as it exists today, is made up of six underground chambers connected by narrow tunnels which are large enough to admit a six-foot (1.83 m) tall adult, though passing anyone coming in the opposite direction can only be accomplished with difficulty. The largest chamber is illuminated today though you need a torch to negotiate the rest of the complex.

There are many alcoves accommodating seats and there are ventilation shafts bringing in fresh air from outside.

And nearly every surface is decorated with shells, flints and occasional fossils. But what on earth (or perhaps I should say "beneath the earth") is it all for?

Since Scott's time the Grotto has had a chequered history including being owned by a showman who opened it to the public at sixpence a time. Obviously it suited his purpose to invent all kinds of fanciful stories about the dark past of this mysterious cavern.

But the truth is probably that it was no more than an elaborate "garden feature" in much the same way as we might have a "water feature" in our gardens today - something for visitors to admire and wonder at, as well as displaying the owner's wealth and good taste.

And John Scott did attract many visitors to his Grotto, most of whom signed the large visitors' book which he kept. This would have suited Scott as he needed to keep in touch with the influential people of his day but did not like to visit London as he disliked crowds and feared the constant threat of diseases which abounded in big cities of the day. This way the people came to visit him.

And picked out in tiny shells is the name of the one who may have inspired Scott's creation - children who visit nowadays love to hunt out the word "Frog" on one of the walls.

The Grotto's existence was threatened when the garden was mostly sold off for modern housing. No one knew quite what to do with this subterranean curiosity and it became neglected and falling into disrepair. It was eventually repaired in the 1990s and a small memento of that time was incorporated into design - the little blue and red chip in the photo above is a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Take care.

Much of the above information was gleaned from the lady who welcomed visitors to the Grotto and also from the excellent booklet by David Perman. Anyone wanting to visit should note that it's only open on Saturday afternoons and Bank Holiday Mondays during the summer months. It has to be closed all winter as a colony of bats hibernates within. 

Tuesday 26 June 2018

The King's Mead

The Hertfordshire towns of Hertford and Ware are doing their best to join together and only the valley of the River Lea, which floods in winter, prevents them from doing so. It provides a green breathing space between the two. As soon as I left St Leonard's church behind I found myself on a low bluff overlooking the valley.

The River Lea at this point (in fact for much of its length) is officially known as the River Lee Navigation as it has been adapted to take barges and other boats. The spelling "Lea" or "Lee" is almost interchangeable, though "Lee" is generally used for the man-made features while "Lea" is favoured for the natural features. Generally.

Nowadays its all very peaceful with just the odd leisure craft chugging by. In its heyday however the towns of Hertford and Ware were the heart of the malting and brewing industry and the waterway was busy with cargo boats.

These riverside meadows are known collectively as King's Mead and are managed as a wildlife reserve, being mainly important as a wintering ground for wildfowl.

The watercourse in the above photo is known as the New River, though it's not a river at all but a man-made channel to take clean drinking water from Hertfordshire to London. It's not particularly "new" any more either, having been constructed in 1613! It's still in use today to top up London's reservoirs. The building shown is called the New Gauge and was built in 1856 to measure the amount of water being drawn off from the river.

Today there are many walking and cycling routes following both the River Lee Navigation and the New River through the valley.

Or you can take to the water and paddle your way slowly downstream. If you get good there's always the Lee Valley White Water Centre, just a few miles away in the Olympic Park!

As you get towards Ware there's a unique collection of waterside gazebos, or "Dutch Summerhouses" as they are sometimes known. These were constructed back in the reign of William of Orange when all things Dutch became fashionable. They were mostly built by wealthy merchants who wanted a peaceful place away from the bustling streets of Ware.

And finally, on a small bridge crossing the New River I discovered this old sign, full of just the kind of pompous verbosity that always amuses me.

" ....if the registered axleweights of the several axles of the HEAVY MOTOR CAR and the axle-weights of the several axles of the TRAILER exceed in the aggregate FIVE TONS..." 

Sheer poetry!

Take care.

Sunday 24 June 2018

The Church The Saxons Built

A perfect little Saxon church, not hidden away in the depths of the countryside as you might imagine, but in Bengeo on the outskirts of Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire, just twenty miles from central London. Of course it's seen a few changes in a thousand years but the basic plan and construction are as near to the original church as any you'll see.

On the doorpost as you enter you may notice this odd little circle scratched into the stone work. It's not just the work of idle hands waiting for the church to open though. In the centre there used to be a spike which cast a shadow on to the stone, like a sun dial. It's a medieval Mass Dial, the radial scratches indicating the time of the next mass - an essential thing in days when no one had watches.

The door posts themselves are thought to be Saxon survivals, but the door itself is "newer", dating from the fourteenth century!

Inside everything is as plain and simple as can be. At one time box pews were in place though these were a later addition as in the early church everyone was expected to stand for services. The chairs, covered by plastic sheets, are strictly for our soft modern society, for the church is still used for some services and also weddings and occasional concerts - the acoustics are said to be very good. There is however a larger modern church nearby which is the main church in the parish.

Aha! Longtime readers of this blog will be saying, "That looks like a medieval wall painting, whitewashed over in the seventeenth century and recently re-discovered". And they would be dead right. There were other paintings too which are badly faded and as I was examining one, trying to make sense of the faint outlines, a gentleman acting as a steward to show people around the building, produced a watercolour painting done at the time when these works were uncovered. It showed how much detail had been lost forever.

He also drew my attention to the crudely carved face on one side of the chancel arch. Its purpose now lost in the mists of time.

The chancel arch may also be from the Saxon period. The work might appear rather rough-hewn and basic - but it's still standing after 1,000-odd years!

The piscina (where the communion vessels are washed) dates from the 12th or 13th century.

The tiny stained-glass window in the chancel is however the work of the Victorian restorers. At that time the church was neglected and semi-ruinous and it was only through the efforts of a family living nearby that the church was saved. Luckily though funds were limited so, although the building was saved, much of the church was unaltered.

I left the church to continue my walk (more of that net time) but there's time to show you a couple of random shots, also taken in Hertford, later in the day as I walked to get my train.

The gentleman depicted above is the Rev Samuel Stone who was born in Hertford and went on to become the co-founder of Hartford, Connecticut.

And standing nearby is what's called "The Old Verger's House" which is thought to be the oldest domestic building in the town. It dates from around 1450.

Take care.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Pedalling Placidly On

As you travel by rail from my home village towards Baldock there's a line of low, bare chalky hills on your left hand side. If you were to take a bicycle and pedal laboriously to the top of those hills you'd find yourself in an intricate landscape of small villages, even smaller hamlets (that are usually called "ends" or "greens" in this part of the country) and isolated farms. All of these are connected by a confusing network of quiet roads, lanes and bridleways just waiting to be explored.

We're now just out of Baldock, following a bridleway leading steadily uphill and already we're among flowery meadows.

Those of you with long memories may recall that I once wrote about the writer George Orwell getting off the train at Baldock and walking to Wallington, where he'd rented an old cottage. This is the road he would have travelled. Did he tramp along feeling he'd never get there? Or did he relish the clean air and the sense of isolation?

As I arrived in the village the trees formed a triumphal arch over the road and, bless them, they'd strung up flags around the village hall! No, it was probably more to do with the recent royal wedding than my unannounced arrival.

Just outside Wallington there's a view out across the wide fields of the chalk edge. I pedalled on, through Redhill and then to Rushden and Southern Green, for the very good reason that I'd never been there before, despite having passed nearby on numerous occasions.

Like many secluded, out-of-the-way places, the once tumbledown cottages have been snapped up by wealthy buyers and turned into impossibly pretty rural retreats. Without this influx these places would be more or less deserted as modern farming employs so few people.

The road became a lane, the lane became a track, and the track became a bridleway leading through a small wood. In case anyone's concerned, yes you are allowed to cycle on bridleways in this country as long as you are considerate towards horse-riders.

I was glad to see the farm as I needed to get on to its approach road to make my way down towards Blagrove Common.

Blagrove is not as extensive as perhaps the photo makes it look and it appears to just be a rather unkempt grassy field. To discover its charms you need to get down to ground level...

Orchids. The common is a small area that has never been ploughed or indeed properly drained and the natural vegetation still flourishes. There are Early Marsh Orchids, Southern Marsh Orchids and Common Spotted Orchids here and plenty of hybrids too. Added to that is the fact that both pale and darker forms exist, so sorting them out is a job for experts. 

I was happy to have a brief look at them, verify that they did indeed look different and leave it at that.

My route then followed almost forgotten sunken lanes with just occasional glimpses out between the hedgerows. Buzzards patrolled above the tree-tops, I think they were looking to raid any unattended birds' nests. The Rooks thought so anyway and soon saw the bigger bird off.

This gorgeous little Tortoiseshell butterfly posed for a few brief moments atop the thistle, just long enough for one photo. Meadow Browns were also abundant but were even less co-operative, flitting incessantly between flowers as if spoilt for choice. 

Near Therfield I was surprised to see this Pyramidal Orchid blooming. They should be here on these chalk hills but this was the first I'd noticed. 

And so to the last leg of my journey, the rough track leading mostly downhill towards the town of Royston, with far-reaching views across the flat countryside of Cambridgeshire.

Take care.

Monday 18 June 2018

Mary And Dan

A chance today to go back to the lives of two people we heard about in previous posts, two people who led entirely different lives, separated by three centuries but just a few miles geographically.

Mary Plomer (1575 - 1605) 

If you read the post "Pastoral Scenes" you may remember the little church at Radwell which, I said, had an interesting memorial to Mary Plomer inside. Well, lets pop inside and see it.

And here it is standing in the chancel. Mary died, aged just thirty, shortly after the birth of her eleventh child. Ten of her children are represented kneeling at her feet, boys on the left of the picture, girls on the right. Two of the boys are set back a little behind the others which was the conventional way of showing that they had pre-deceased their mother. 

The eleventh child was depicted by an effigy held in Mary's arms, old photos show it, but it's now been removed for safe-keeping. This child was shown wrapped in a Chrisom cloth, which babies wore for a month after their baptism to protect the mark of the cross which had been made with the Chrisom oil. This practice ceased in 1552 when the Church decided that it was just a superstition, though it clearly carried on a few more years in this part of rural Hertfordshire.

Mary is shown holding an hourglass, a symbol of mortality and passing time. Sad that Mary's time passed all too quickly.

Dan Albone (1860-1906) 

Some of you may remember the remarkable, though largely unknown, Dan Albone from Biggleswade, inventor of the modern bicycle and the agricultural tractor. After introducing him to you I found myself in Biggleswade again while walking the valley of the River Ivel and here I found another memorial to him and what's more I came across more information about the man and it seems I sold him short as he achieved even more in his short life than I knew.

You see I have a strong childhood memory of crouching down by the back door of my childhood home while my Dad fixed his bike. First he turned the bike upside down, which in itself was something I'd never seen before. Then he got some spanners and proceeded to take the wheel apart - and there they were, something I'd never suspected before. Little shiny silver balls called ball-bearings. Fascinating to a small boy. Of course I didn't know at the time but that was one of Dan Albone's ideas; he invented the ball-bearing, without which the cyclist's life would run a lot less smoothly.

In his youth Dan broke many records on his innovative bikes and later went on to form one of the first cycling clubs. His home in Biggleswade became a gathering point for cyclists from all over Europe who came to see the latest inventions and get advice and help.

The world's first tandem.
Designed by Wilson & Albone 1886
As well as the child-seat that I mentioned a few weeks ago he also invented the parcel carrier for the postal service. Oh, and he was one of the first people to tinker with the idea of fitting a motor to a bike, even coming up with a motorised bike especially designed for female riders - it had the power source mounted on the back wheel, well away from the voluminous skirts of the day.

And one day, while looking at one of his agricultural tractors it suddenly struck him that such a machine could be covered in iron plates for use by the army. Thus was born the first armoured car.

While cyclists, farmers, military men, motorists, motorcyclists, mums and postal workers had much to thank Dan for, there was one person who didn't always appreciate Dan's sudden inspirations - his wife was often awakened in the early hours of the morning by him leaping out of bed to rush down to his workshop to try out some new idea!

Take care.

Based largely on the internet article: