Thursday 31 January 2019

A Little Exploring

I had a bit of time to spare before the Molly Dancing began outside the Cutter Inn on Saturday, so why not do a little exploring?

My wandering footsteps soon rewarded me with this view of the magnificent Cathedral soaring above the other buildings. Unsurprisingly the Cathedral is a Grade I Listed Building, but perhaps a little less obviously the red telephone box in the foreground is also listed. And quite right too; it's one of the icons of England and was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. Interestingly a lot of the nineteenth-century work to preserve the Cathedral was overseen by Giles's grandfather, Sir George Gilbert Scott.

However, a building being listed does not guarantee that lots of work will be undertaken to preserve it, or that anyone will go and look at it, or indeed that anyone cares. I was making my way through the streets of Ely to seek out something that 99.9% of visitors never see.

Ely has plenty of historic listed buildings, 197 of them in all, and 191 of those are within the central square mile. Most of them are domestic dwellings, but there are also many important buildings which are part of the Cathedral complex - oh, and that telephone box!

As I walked along I noticed this old wall. It's patched and battered appearance tells of a long and interesting history. It may surprise you to learn that this is a Listed Building too. It's the first sign that we are entering a small area that is rich with history.

Here a former gate or door has been blocked up using large, square-cut building stone. Now the Isle of Ely has many wonderful things but, being composed of clays and gravels, it doesn't have any good quality stone. These have clearly been brought here from elsewhere, not to block up and old gateway, but as part of a building which has been demolished. And an important building at that.

Peering over a gate and between the high hedges you can just see a building known as St John's Farmhouse. Although it's been converted into a farmhouse you can clearly see an infilled arch which looks like part of a religious building. The Ordnance Survey map shows, in its fancy Gothic print with which it denotes historic sites, "Hospitals remains of".

The Knights Of St John seem to be a curious lot, dividing their time between fighting crusades and building hospitals, which gives them their other name, the Knights Hospitaller. These two aims came about from both protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and tending for any who were sick or injured. And that's what we have here - the remains of two hospitals, St Mary's and St John's, which were united in the year 1240.

Just around the corner you'll find this building which, although it seems to be used as a barn today, is actually the former St John's Chapel. St John's Farmhouse, that we saw earlier, is believed to be part of the Chapel of St Mary. Presumably, in the absence of medical knowledge, the monks who ran the hospitals did a lot of praying for the souls of those they tried to care for.

In the mid-sixteenth century Henry VIII seized all the lands of the Knights Hospitaller along with every monastic foundation in the land, even though he had no use for the buildings and many fell into ruins, or, as here, were repurposed as agricultural buildings. You can clearly see the lancet windows of the chapel, albeit that they've been rather crudely bricked up. The door beneath has a much more workaday look to it.

This door, on the other hand, is obviously part of the old chapel. Both buildings, the farmhouse and the barn, as well as two other buildings on the site which can't be seen from the road, are listed as Grade I, because of their age and historical importance. And if you look carefully there's a strangely carved stone above that door arch. 

Here's a close-up of it. It's rather weathered but experts who have examined it reckon that it shows a man sitting astride an ox and blowing some kind of horn. To me it looks as though he's sitting on the ox backwards which makes it even stranger. No one has any idea of the significance of the carving, but it's thought by some to date from as long ago as the eighth century. Worth going a few steps out of your way to see.

Take care.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Old Roads In The Chilterns

A bright sunny day. Time to get the boots on and get outside. Today's route starts at Letchworth and potters along ancient roads joining the villages of Ickleford, Pirton, Pegsdon and ending up in Lilley. Part of the walk was done last year but in the opposite direction.

I started off beneath the imposing Spirella Corset Factory, which is now a business centre though its walls still proclaim that they once manufactured "High Grade Corsets". A tatty path alongside the railway took me to streets of inter-war suburbs and then, rather abruptly, out into the countryside.

We are on the modern Icknield Way Trail which is a route for walkers following the line of England's oldest road. In its earliest form the Way was not so much a road as an idea and that idea was to follow the chalk ridge across the south of the country; the exact line of progress only gradually became defined and there were many variations running roughly parallel to each other. So while we're on a grassy road that time has passed by,  there is, just over one mile away, the modern A505 road which follows a parallel route across the country. It's much prettier and more peaceful where we are!

Our track leads us to Ickleford village - where the Ickneild way fords the River Oughton. 

It has a splendid old church which, of course, I had to have a look around and may show you more photos of one day. 

It also has a few pubs and is generally a busy and expanding place. But we need to get along on our journey.

My planned route from Ickleford to Pirton did not look overly exciting on the map and just threaded between arable fields. It is another old road, Hambridge Way, which was once part of one of the most important roads through the Chilterns. Though little used today it was not entirely peaceful; a lot of excited mewing, which I recognised as the call of Buzzards, made me look up to see no less than four of these large birds of prey being harried by a single Carrion Crow. They put up with it for a few minutes before they all fled in different directions leaving the Crow to sit in a treetop, presumably satisfied with his work!

The old track led me straight into the heart of Pirton. In the past Pirton was of great strategic importance as it could control everything that passed along the road. During the period of English history known as the Anarchy (1135 to 1153), when King Stephen's supporters battled for supremacy with those of Queen Mathilda to gain the crown, a castle was built here.

The wooden palisades and castle have long gone, but the earthworks, including the castle mound, can still be seen. I'm not going to show you any more of the village now as I hope to revisit in summer and do full justice to the site.

Instead we'll leave by Wood Lane, another formerly important highway. It climbs up very gradually, so that, though you're not aware of the gradient, you start to wonder why your legs aren't working as well as they usually do! Never mind, at least we are gaining some height.

So you start to dawdle and take photos of the patterns made by the crops emerging in the fields!

Or photos of the Old Man's Beard growing in the hedgerows. These are the seeding stage of Traveller's Joy, clematis vitalba, which grows in profusion on these chalky soils. It's native to this country though elsewhere in the world it's regarded as a pest. 

Remember the height we'd gained earlier? Now we're losing it all as the path descends once more. But the views are wide ranging and everything is clearly laid out so that only a fool could miss the path. Hang on a minute! We shouldn't be here! My excuse is that I was watching the Red Kites flying effortlessly over the grasslands as they searched for food. 

I soon sorted myself out and, after passing through the little cluster of houses known as Pegsdon, began climbing Pegsdon Hill on a wide grassy path with glorious views of Deacon Hill opening up on my left. 

After a short rest at the top of the incline I began following the rather muddy footpath south along the top of the ridge known as Lilley Hoo.

I joined Lilley Hoo Lane and found myself wishing that it was called Lilley Mar Lane - then I could sing WWII marching songs. OK, that's a terrible joke but I always get a bit silly towards the end of long walks!

Time to stop this nonsense and slip and slide down the path to Lilley and the bus to Hitchin, from where I can catch the train for home.

Walker's Log:

     Start: Letchworth, Hertfordshire 10:00
     End: Lilley, Hertfordshire 15:00
     Distance walked: 11.5 miles (18.5 Km)
     Total ascent 853 ft (260 metres)
            Notable birds: Red Kite, Buzzard, Skylark, Kestrel, Fieldfare, Meadow Pipit, Jay, Greenfinch, Song Thrush and most of the usual suspects.
     Churches: Ickleford, Pirton (both open) and Lilley (which I didn't visit).
     People with dogs: 6 including two ladies who had eight dogs between them!
     People just enjoying a walk: 6
     Cyclists: 0
     Horse riders: 2

Take care.

Sunday 27 January 2019

Good Golly, It's Molly!

(You will see that some of the dancers depicted in the post have blacked-up faces. This was done historically as a form of disguise so that people would not know who it was begging for money. There was never any real attempt to imitate black people; the ears, neck and hands are never blacked-up. Many modern dance sides are aware of possible misunderstanding and have changed their facial make-up, to bright colours, strange designs or just a few smears to make them look more like Victorian chimney-sweeps. One or two sides are determined to stick to the traditional black faces. 
I hope this explanation will be accepted, but also apologise to anyone who may be upset by the inclusion of these pictures here).

They were at it again at the weekend!

In the city of Ely as the good citizens were going about their shopping, when the boat club were out rowing on the river, while dogs were being walked in the park and tourists posed for photos in front of the cathedral, they gathered in front of the Cutter Inn and began dancing.

A car driver rounded the corner from Victoria Street and was confronted by.....

… dressed as women, women dressed as men, people in tweed or technicolour, men carrying brooms, someone pushing a pink plough, grunting and wheezing squeezeboxes, fiendish fiddles and devilish drums, knees lifted high and hands held higher, swinging and stamping and swaying and stepping.

Yes, it's those Molly Dancers again.

This is the traditional dance of the plough men of the Fens and parts of Eastern England. I've photographed it and written about it in various posts and if you want to know something of its history then I wrote about it back in 2014, in this post. But there are also other ways of looking at it.

Everything they are doing - dressing outlandishly, disguising themselves, dancing in the street, playing jaunty tunes and generally making a noise, behaving foolishly, sending up their superiors, drinking beer and having a good time - is guaranteed to annoy those in authority but, and here's the crux of the matter, not actually breaking any laws.

It's a very English form of expression, a gentle but meaningful thumbing of the nose at those in power and all that is staid and conventional. You can trace it from court jesters, mummers plays, through folk tales and songs, music hall and pantomime, the Goons, British pop and psychedelic music of the 1960s, Monty Python, street buskers and steam punks. And you can find elements of most of these incorporated into what passes as Molly dancing today.

Like all traditions Molly is constantly evolving - you need to put in a lot more effort to be outrageous in these permissive times (!) - but there is still respect for the history of the dances, or at least those few that have survived.

The purpose of all this tomfoolery was probably a very necessary safety valve for a discontented populace. And for centuries here in the Fens the poorer classes had much to be discontented about. 

Nowadays our problems are of a different kind, though a homeless man selling The Big Issue magazine reminded us that poverty is still with us.

Take care.

The following dance sides were in attendance: 

Tuesday 22 January 2019

January Tree, January Flower

Well, you didn't think Wandering John could go to the Botanic Garden and confine his meanderings to just one small area, did you? No, after I'd photographed the Winter Garden I drifted further afield and formulated an idea: how about if I were to select just one flower and one tree that happen to catch my eye each month? Lets give it a go....

Sierra Redwood - sequoiadendron giganteum

When it comes to catching the eye not much can compete with the Sierra Redwoods as they soar above everything else. These though are just babies, being only just over 160 years old and measuring only 30 metres in height. The biggest one in the world (in California) is over 80 metres high and has been on this earth for 2,500 years!

Even so these are some pretty impressive "babies"! I just had to take a photo like this, as I remember well the first time I stared up in awe at the size and strength of these giants. They must have been a little smaller then, and I was much smaller, being just four years old.

Now some six decades later I'm back once more in this safe, secret space under the tangled, downsweeping branches - and on this rainy day it's quite dry within.

Children are still very welcome here and the University sets about inspiring the gardeners and botanists of the future by scattering bright little signs all round the garden to make a trail for junior explorers.

Here's a picture of William Lobb, who is a figure of great importance to these trees, as he was the Victorian plant-hunter who brought back the first substantial supply of Sequoia cones, from which these very trees were grown. Apparently a portion of one of these historic cones is safely stored away somewhere in the University.

The bark of the main trunk is tough and fibrous but the branches can be exquisitely smooth and patterned, as well as being a rich and varied colour.

Now where can we find a stunning flower to photograph on a dull day in January?

Candelabra Aloe - aloe arborescens

… the Glasshouse Range of course! In the section devoted to plants from arid lands.

The Candelabra Aloe i
s native to Southern Africa where it tends to favour cliffs and rocky outcrops, but can grow anywhere from sea level to mountainsides. It used to be grown around kraals (livestock enclosures) as it soon formed a stock-proof barrier of prickly leaves, which were also unpalatable to grazing animals. Apparently the sites of old kraals can be found to this day by the large clumps of aloes that survive.

As well as bearing striking flowers it has been studied for possible medical uses, including treatment of certain cancers, hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity. It's been used in traditional medicine for centuries.

It's a pity that our climate is too cold for it to grow outdoors, so we'll just have to enjoy it here, with its flowers bent against the roof of the glasshouse.

Take care.

Monday 21 January 2019

A Touch Frawsty

After the grey, damp, cold weather of recent weeks, it was nice to wake up to a sharp hoar frost with sun breaking through the low mist. The old-timers used to pronounce the word "frost" as "frawst" in my youth, but somehow that old way of talking has slipped away, in this locality at least. I would like it very much if the weather forecasters occasionally said "Tha's a touch frawsty out there s'morning". Here, in ten photos, is what that frawst looked like yesterday.

Did you see the ballet-dancing trees in the third photo?
Incidentally that grey, damp, cold weather of the last few weeks could be described as "rawky", another word for my dream meteorologist!

Take care.