Friday 31 August 2018

Corners of Old Hertford

Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire (obviously), is not far from where I live, but it's a place I don't have reason to visit very often. It's an ancient town which history first mentions in 673 AD when an early synod of bishops was held in Herutford. However you spell it though, it's pronounced Hartford, and takes its name from a "hart", or male deer, which still serves as an emblem for the town. 

Hertford occupies a site at the junction of four rivers, the Rib, Beame, Mimram and Lea, and as you wander around you are never far away from pretty watercourses.

Layer upon layer of history survive here as each century has added to the town's character without (and this is what we should be eternally grateful for) ever completely obliterating what has gone before. There is, for example, a castle....

.....but most of what you can see here only dates from 1790 and is really just a big house prettified with fake battlements. Inside though can still be seen work from 1463 when Edward IV rebuilt what was then the gatehouse serving a much larger castle. The rest of that castle, which housed parliament during the plague years, has now gone. But look a bit closer and you'll find....

....massive walls which survive from when the castle was strengthened in 1170 - though they've been patched up and repaired from time to time since then. Look around a bit more and you might see.....

....this is the Norman motte, a small man-made hill which would have been occupied by a small fort to guard this strategic site.

But nowadays much of the castle grounds have become a lovely park - "out of strength came forth sweetness", I suppose.

In 1827 Peter McMullen (or perhaps Mrs Mc Mullen) decided that life held more for him than a series of failed apprenticeships and illegal activity, so he decided to found a brewery in the town. So successful was his business that it still has a strong presence in the town to this day. I think the wagon above is only used for advertising purposes!

The brass plate (bottom left) seems to indicate that these are the offices of McMullen's, while the elaborate architecture suggests that there's big money to be made from making beer.

This rather grand sign - you certainly can't miss it - can still be seen near to the town centre. 

I've got lots more pictures to show you from this charming town which will have to wait for another time. But I'll leave you with another photo of one of McMullen's pubs, The White Hart. This pub was patronised by Peter McMullen's father who joined the Fellowship Society at the pub. This organisation existed as a kind of social security system for its members who paid into a fund which then supported them during hard times. Ironically, according to the pub's website, the Society fined its members if they attended meetings "disguised by drink".

(Apparently this is the 800th post I've written for this blog and with any luck there's a few more to come).

Take care.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Hard Times In Old England

There's something very peaceful about wandering around the fields when the harvest has been gathered. Especially when someone else has done all the work! But I've recently been reading about a time when this countryside was a much less peaceful place.

Back in the early decades of the nineteenth century the farm-workers of Cambridgeshire, along with their brothers across the south of England went on the rampage, setting fire to corn ricks and haystacks, burning farm buildings, destroying farm machinery (particularly the threshing machines which they saw as a threat to their jobs) and threatening violence to farmers, clergymen and anyone else who represented the wealthier classes. This must have come as a huge shock to the authorities, especially if these workers were similar to the peaceable, passive, patient men that I knew when I worked on the farm.

And everything I read about them suggests that English farm workers have always been the same stolid citizens that I knew, whether it's books written about them or the very songs that they themselves sang in the pubs at night. Despite the fact that they lived lives of hardship and poverty in a world where the wealth was very unequally distributed, I only know one song that refers to "the hard times in old England" and it seems to be the exception that proves a rule - every other song I've heard suggests that they were "all jolly fellows that follows the plough". However, as I learned when I was a cheeky youth, you could only push these men so far! 

But what could have pushed them to go on such an orgy of destruction as took place in 1830? They must have known the risks they were taking - you could be hanged for much less in those days, and the people who acted as magistrates were the very ones they were targeting.

The economy of the whole country was in a bad state at this time with inflation making bread increasingly expensive - there were riots about this in Ely and Littleport earlier in the century which were dealt with harshly and did not spread to this part of the county. But there were other factors which continued to make life harsh for the farm workers.

The traditional way of hiring labour was through "hiring fairs" where men were taken to work for a year at a time. These men would be paid even if the weather meant they could not work on the land. They would not of course be allowed to sit around, but work was created to keep them employed. Many of the seemingly extravagant schemes, such as building a wall around large estates or creating ornamental lakes, were devised to absorb this source of labour. In the nineteenth century this system began to be replaced by men hired by the day, meaning that they had no job security at all.

The Enclosure Acts, whereby formerly scattered holdings were consolidated into more efficient farm units, also meant that less labour was necessary. But, more importantly, former commons were incorporated into the farms, robbing the village people of land on which to graze their cow or goats. The Enclosures also opened the way for some early mechanisation of agriculture, again meaning less work was available.

It gets worse! The government chose this time to change the Poor Law. This was never an easy option but the new laws made things even more harsh. As a result many chose a life of crime rather than be committed to the Poor House. A few clergymen spoke out against the changes but most sided with the landowners. In general terms the Church of England tended to support the rich rather than the poor - whatever the Bible has to say about it. This is hardly surprising; many of the clergy were the younger brothers of those that had inherited their fathers' lands. They were also supported financially by the lords of the manor and large landowners.

However these were times of change in the church too. I've written elsewhere about the dissident preachers who were forced out of their churches and, if they were not put in jail, had to preach their sermons in the woods. Unsurprisingly the hard-pushed farm workers tended to side with these men rather than those who they saw as part of the establishment.

All these changes led to the riots which took place. It's important to realise though that these men were not protesting about unequal opportunities, they took their drastic action because they and their families were hungry. And they did not seek to establish a new order, they merely wanted a return to the older system which, though harsh and unfair, at least ensured them some kind of security. 

Those who had taken part in the riots were quickly rounded up and tried by the magistrates. Many were sentenced to death or transportation. In the end though most of the sentences were reduced, probably because the magistrates still had to live amongst these people. Those sentenced to transportation were often held in this country, which accounts for the fact that some are recorded as returning to their villages at the end of their sentences. Many others emigrated to seek a better life in North America, Australia or New Zealand.

Take care.

Monday 27 August 2018

Symphony In Green

A series of green images from the Glasshouse Range at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Take care.

Saturday 25 August 2018

A Garden In August

I rather delayed my visit to the Botanic Garden this month, hoping that it might recover from the drought we had at the beginning of the month. Now Mother Nature is once again being overly generous with the gift of rain, and temperatures are back to what we're used to in these temperate isles. 

I showed my pass to the woman at the gate and was told that tree-felling was in progress. Although most of the garden was accessible some of the paths were out-of-bounds today. I therefore went in by a different route which took me past the Herbaceous Island Beds.

Much of the garden is organised to illustrate themes for teaching purposes but these Island Beds are much more like a traditional garden with flowers arranged for maximum visual impact.

Many of the flowers grown here are familiar sights in many gardens. I'm fairly certain that the striking red flower above is Helenium "Moerheim Beauty". 

You can see how the grass has greened-up after the recent rains. The garden does have its own borehole but had to irrigate sparingly this summer. 

I've mentioned the Systematic Beds before; they feature plants of the same family grouped together so that botanists can see the similarities and differences between the members of the group. These are the houseleeks which are making a nice display at this time of year. Some of the beds are less visually pleasing as the various components flower at different times of year.

This Dwarf Elder was also in the Systematic Beds. Not the sort of thing you might want in your garden as it was giving off a most unpleasant pong.

The ducks were milling around on the lake, this weather presumably being more to their liking.

I wandered over to the Glasshouses.

Here I came across this rather pretty plant which goes by the name of Christ's Thorn, from its savage barbs and perhaps because the flowers look like spots of blood. Quite what it can have had to do with the crucifixion must be in some doubt as the plant only occurs in Madagascar.

Then I got sidetracked into taking photos of the foliage in the various glasshouses. I'll show you some more later.

Take care.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Purple, Green And Gold

A morning's wander in the woods and hills around the RSPB's headquarters near Sandy. It's an area that has always fascinated me, since its scenery is so different from the land that surrounds it, and the wide fields of Cambridgeshire that I call home. Here on a narrow outcrop of sandstone, known as the Greensand Ridge, bracken and heather thrive amongst the heaths and mixed woodland. Come and take a quiet stroll in this land of purple, green and gold.

Despite the presence of the offices of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nearby the birds were not particularly plentiful or obvious. True enough, we did see a Buzzard on the Buzzard Trail and two sorts of Woodpecker on the Woodpecker Trail, though even the Nuthatches proved elusive on the Nuthatch Trail. On a brighter note we did see the nest of a pair of Hobbies, and Nightjars have been present for the first time in many years. But if you want to see Nightjars you have to come at night - the clue is in the name!

Take care.