Friday, 29 July 2016

A short guide to Durham

One of the first things to do when visiting the ancient City of Durham is simply stop and stare at one of the most magnificent settings for a cathedral that could be imagined. Nature supplied the site in that the River Wear has created a deeply incised valley and a narrow peninsula with steep sandstone bluffs that are mainly wooded.

It was to this spot that, in AD 995, the monks of Lindisfarne brought the body of St Cuthbert, who had died in AD 687. The legend of why Durham was the final resting place of the saint’s bones is that the monks were told in a vision to seek a place called Dun Holm, and they only discovered where this was when a milkmaid was overheard saying that her cow had wandered off and was probably at Dun Holm. The monks therefore followed the milkmaid, found the cow, and also the ideal place to end their journey. They promptly built a wooden church to house St Cuthbert’s remains.

The original church was replaced by a cathedral, built in the Romanesque style, that was begun in 1093, took only 40 years to build, excluding the towers, and is largely what can be seen today.

A good way of appreciating the splendour of this building from the outside is to walk the path that runs alongside the river. There are in fact two paths, one on each side, but the best views are from the outer path, looking across the Wear up at the three towers of the Cathedral. The walk takes about 30 minutes to complete, and is definitely to be recommended if favour of trying to see the views from the roads that are slightly higher up, as the trees get in the way.

The interior of the Cathedral is every bit as breathtaking as the exterior. Durham Cathedral is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture to be seen in the world, being remarkably complete. It has many features of interest that cannot all be described in a short article, but the visitor will doubtless be impressed by the lofty stone-vaulted ceiling, the massive stone pillars with their varied geometrical decorations, the Shrine of St Cuthbert with its pillars of local marble including easily seen fossils, the Galilee Chapel containing the tomb of the Venerable Bede, and the “Sanctuary knocker”, on the north door, which is a very rare surviving example of Romanesque metalwork (although what you can see is actually a copy of the original, which is carefully preserved).

Although the Cathedral is undoubtedly the greatest attraction of Durham City, it is not the only one. The bishops of Durham originally occupied Durham Castle, but in 1832, with the founding of Durham University, the bishop moved to a new palace at Bishop Auckland and gave the castle to the University. It is still a University building, occupied both as a college and for student accommodation.

Because it is a working building, the Castle can only be visited on a 45-minute guided tour, such tours being more frequent during college vacations than in term time. Although the main keep was largely rebuilt after the University took over, visitors can still see the 15th century kitchen and the Norman chapel, and can climb the massive hanging staircase.

Durham offers a number of interesting museums around the City. These include the Museum of Archaeology housed in a former fulling mill and accessible via the “inner” river path mentioned above.

Slightly out of town to the south is the University’s Oriental Museum which has collections of Chinese jade, Japanese woodblock prints and Arabic calligraphy. Nearby is the Botanic Garden which contains plants from around the world, both outdoors and in glasshouses, and a collection of tropical insects. A one-hour science trail offers many interesting discoveries for explorers of all ages.

In the other direction, namely north of the city centre, is the Durham Light Infantry Museum, to which is attached the Durham Art Gallery. The former houses exhibits relating to this famous former regiment, and the latter specialises in modern and contemporary art, mounting a series of temporary exhibitions.

June and July are good months for visiting Durham, as there is a lot going on. The second weekend of June is when the Durham Regatta is held. This event goes back to 1834 and is therefore nearly as old as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (and has taken place more often). July is Festival month, with arts and music events taking place at various locations, particularly the International Brass Festival for the first two weeks and the Durham Miners Gala on the second Saturday.

There is a lot to see and do in the city of Durham, and even more in the towns and countryside that are only a few miles away!

© John Welford

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Monument, London

One of London’s most impressive monuments is just that – “The Monument”. It was built in 1671-7 as a reminder of the Great Fire of London of 1666, and it stands very close to Pudding Lane, the street in which the fire started in Robert Faryner’s bakery before spreading to destroy about 80 per cent of the old city of London. The height of the column, 202 feet, is supposed to be the distance from its base to the bakery.

The fire destroyed 87 churches as well as Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the rebuilding owed a huge amount to the efforts of Sir Christopher Wren who designed not only the new Cathedral but many of the replacement churches and The Monument as well – the latter in collaboration with Robert Hooke.

The Monument comprises a single fluted Doric column on a large square base. It is unusual among London’s monuments and memorials in that members of the public can, for a reasonable fee, climb the 311 steps of a spiral staircase to the viewing platform near the top. In times gone by the view was more extensive than it is now, due to all the high-rise buildings that have appeared in London’s business district in recent decades, but the climb is still worth the effort, even now – and the exercise is good for you!

At the top of The Monument is a flaming golden urn, to symbolise the fire, and at the base there are inscriptions and reliefs by Caius Gabriel Cibber. Part of the original inscription blamed “Papists” for starting the fire – a self-deluded Frenchman confessed to the “crime” and was hanged, although he could not possibly have been responsible – but the words were erased in 1830 after the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed.

© John Welford

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Ashby Canal, Leicestershire

The Ashby Canal is unusual among British waterways in several respects. For one thing, it doesn't go to the place after which it is named, and in fact it never did--although it came close!

For another thing, it proceeds for 30 miles through gently undulating countryside without a single lock. It is therefore ideal for the novice narrow-boater who just wants to get used to steering a boat round lots of twists and turns without having to worry about negotiating locks. On the other hand, "doing the locks" is great fun too!

The canal was originally built to transport lime and coal southwards from the works and mines near Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire. The canal links to the Coventry Canal near Bedworth (Warwickshire), and hence directly to Coventry and indirectly to Birmingham, and via the Oxford and Grand Union canals to all points south. For boaters on the Warwickshire Ring with two days to spare, a trip up the Ashby and back is well worth the trouble.

The first plans for the Ashby Canal included a link to the River Trent at Burton, but this was soon seen as being over-ambitious. Indeed, it was envisaged from a very early stage that when the canal reached the point where locks would be essential, a series of narrow-gauge tramways would connect the canal to the mines and limeworks. The canal itself therefore only ever reached as far as Moira, which is about three miles from Ashby.

The first disaster to hit the canal was the realisation that the coal reserves at Ashby were nothing like as great as had been thought. There would therefore not be the traffic to allow the canal to make a profit, and any thoughts of extending the canal to the Trent were shelved for ever. Good fortune then arrived, in the shape of extensive coal seams being discovered at Moira itself, so the canal found itself a purpose almost by accident. Moira coal was of such high quality that it was in demand as far south as London, and the route to get it there had just been constructed!

However, the second disaster was caused by the very thing that made the canal a success. When you take coal out of the ground, you almost always create subsidence as the layers above the coal seams press down to fill the holes that have been created. This happened in the Measham area, just south of Moira, in 1918 and again in 1966, the end result being that the present canal is about eight miles short of its original length.

As things stand, the canal ends near Snarestone, which is a tiny village with an excellent pub, but not much else. To go the whole length, you have to go through the Snarestone tunnel, which is 250 yards long, but until recently you could only go less than half a mile before needing to turn round and come back through the tunnel. However, a further stretch has already been restored, adding another half mile of navigable waterway. Work is in progress to extend this length even further.

The coalmines at Moira have long been abandoned, but the village now has a new lease of life as the headquarters of the National Forest, which is a scheme to transform a huge area of central England, much of it blighted by its industrial and mining heritage, into woodland and forest. The visitor centre at Moira, Conkers, is an excellent place to learn about how a forest works and its wildlife, as well as being an adventure centre for all ages. The plan is therefore to bring the Ashby Canal back to Moira so that the industrial history of the area can be linked seamlessly with its new role.

The Ashby Canal Association  has been working hard over a number of years to achieve this goal, and there is already a 1.5 mile stretch of usable canal running alongside the Moira Furnace, but it is unconnected to any other waterway. It is no longer possible to use the original route for the stretch between Moira and Snarestone, so the plan is to make use of a disused railway line through the small town of Measham.

For much of its length, the Ashby Canal meanders through open countryside. Because it sticks to the 300 foot contour for the whole of its length, and villages in this area tend to be built on hilltops, the canal passes within sight of several settlements without actually going through them.

One exception is the town of Hinckley, towards the southern end of the canal. This is an ancient town founded on the hosiery industry, but the canal skirts its western edge, passing close to a modern industrial estate and the Triumph motorcycle factory. The Limekilns pub is worth a visit, as it is built where the canal passes underneath the A5 trunk road, which was originally the Roman Watling Street. The building appears to be on two floors if you are on the road, but three if you are on the canal.

Close to its halfway point the canal crosses the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field, fought in 1485 between England's just and rightful king, Richard III, and the foul usurper Henry Tudor. What was formerly presumed to be the battlefield site is well marked out along a circular pathway that offers a good, brisk walk, and there is also a visitor centre. However, recent discoveries have revealed that the battle actually took place about half a mile away.

If you moor up at the battlefield you can also take a trip on the Battlefield Line Railway, which is a preserved four-and-a-half-mile section of the former Ashby and Nuneaton Joint Railway. Throughout the summer there are regular services between Shenton (battlefield) and Shackerstone. The canal passes close to all three stations on the line, although it takes six miles to do so! The Shackerstone Railway Society has preserved a large number of steam and diesel locomotives, many of which make regular trips along the line.

The thing most worth seeing on this beautiful stretch of water is the English countryside at its peaceful best. Canals attract wildlife in droves, and you will almost certainly see family groups of swans, ducks and moorhens either swimming around between the reeds or looking hopefully at you for titbits. You may also see herons, birds of prey and, if you're really lucky, kingfishers. Look out for water voles as well.

© John Welford

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Some places of interest in Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire has much to offer the visitor, apart from the tourist traps of Blenheim Palace and Oxford itself. Here are a few suggestions of less well-known attractions, all of which are cared for by English Heritage.

(Follow this link for some other suggestions, all of which date from prehistoric times)

North Leigh Roman Villa (see photo above)

This is between Woodstock and Witney, to the north-west of Oxford. The villa must have been very impressive when occupied (it dates from the 4th century AD) as the outlines of more than sixty rooms can be seen, including evidence of underfloor heating. No stonework other than footings can be seen today, but there is a fine mosaic floor to admire, although it is covered by a building to protect it from the elements.

Deddington Castle

There is not much of a castle to be seen here, as most of the original stonework had disappeared by the beginning of the 15th century – no doubt re-used by local people for their own buildings. The castle was built by Bishop Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, but his structure would have been wooden, with stonework only being added in the 12th century. The original builders made use of a pre-existing mound that could have dated back to Iron Age times, but they then developed the typical Norman pattern of an inner and outer bailey, protected by ditches and walls. It is the mound (“motte”) and ditches that can be seen today. The outer bailey is particularly large, and today it forms a pleasant place in which to walk and admire the magnificent trees that have been planted over the years to form a virtual arboretum.

Deddington is about six miles south of Banbury on the road to Oxford.

Minster Lovell Hall

Not far from Witney, Minster Lovell Hall was built by Lord William Lovell in the mid-15th century. William’s grandson, Francis Lovell, was one of the chief supporters of Richard III; he survived the Battle of Bosworth and continued to rebel against Henry VII. There is a legend that his ghost haunts the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall.

Be that as it may, the ruins of this extensive manor house beside the River Windrush are well worth a visit. You can also see a virtually intact medieval dovecote, although only from the outside.

North Hinksey Conduit House

Just to the west of Oxford is a reminder of past efforts to provide clean water at a time when water-borne diseases could kill thousands. Built in the early 17th century, this small building, which resembles a stone chapel, was where Otto Nicholson channelled water from the Hinksey hills into a lead pipe that led to Oxford. This system was used until the late 18th century. Only the outside of the building can be visited.

Abingdon County Hall

Abingdon, although only about five miles from Oxford, was once the county town of Berkshire, to which it belonged until 1974. The County Hall was completed in 1684 from a design by Christopher Kempster, who was a student of Christopher Wren. It is therefore an excellent example of baroque architecture, comprising a large chamber built on arches, beneath which markets could be held. The building was the county courthouse for some 200 years, but it now houses the town’s museum. Given that Abingdon is one of the oldest continuously-occupied towns in England, the period covered by the exhibits is exceptionally long. During the summer, visitors can climb to the roof of the building for excellent views towards the Cotswolds in one direction and Oxford in the other.

© John Welford

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral is one of England’s architectural masterpieces, made all the more stunning by its location in the fens of north Cambridgeshire, such that it can be seen rising majestically from its flat surroundings from many miles away.

The name “Ely” means “eel island”, and it was indeed an island when first settled by monks led by St Ethelreda in the 7th century. The first abbey was destroyed by the Danes in the late 9th century and only rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery in 970.

The present cathedral is Norman in origin, its construction having begun in 1083. William the Conqueror had experienced considerable resistance in this area, notably provided by the semi-legendary figure of Hereward the Wake who took advantage of his local knowledge of routes through the marshy fens to mount a guerrilla campaign against the Normans. William’s response was to build structures that would cow the locals into recognising his regime’s superiority, and Ely Cathedral was one such building.

The cathedral took several centuries to complete, with long periods of inactivity dividing the building of various parts, so the architectural styles that can be seen today include Romanesque, Early English Gothic and Decorated Gothic. The cathedral in its present form was virtually complete by 1340, with only minor changes and restorations taking place since then.

The west front is one of the earliest parts, and is a fine example of a Norman fa├žade, although very unusual in its design. Ely Cathedral was originally built with two pairs of transepts, the second pair being at the west end with a tower rising between them. This arrangement is unique to cathedrals in Britain.

However, three major changes were made later, two of them by design and the third by accident. In the 13th century a large two-storeyed Galilee porch was added in front of the tower. In the 14th century the height of the tower was increased by the addition of an octagon flanked by four octagonal turrets. In the 15th century one of the transepts collapsed and was never rebuilt. This therefore gives the otherwise impressive front a curiously lop-sided appearance.

The nave of the cathedral was built between 1110 and 1130 and is therefore Romanesque in style. It is long and narrow, and the three stages of arcade, tribune and clerestory are perfectly proportioned to lead the eye upwards. Unfortunately, there is no stone vault but a wooden ceiling that was painted in the 19th century and is something of a disappointment.

However, this is forgiven and forgotten when the visitor reaches the crossing and encounters one of the most splendid features of any cathedral anywhere, namely the Ely Octagon. The original central tower, built in 1100, collapsed in 1322. This was not unusual in medieval cathedrals, as they tended to be built with thousands of tons of stone resting on inadequate supports.

At Ely, the decision was made not to rebuild the tower as it had been but to create something that was wholly original. Due to the damage caused by the falling tower, which also destroyed part of the choir, the opportunity was taken to widen the crossing and erect the Gothic equivalent of the Classical dome. The octagon is of stone but its vaults do not bridge the complete gap, which at 69 feet in diameter would have structurally impossible. Instead, at the centre rises a lantern which is built of wood with external lead facings.

To build the lantern, eight massive oak beams, each 63 feet long and more than three feet thick, were erected, being supported on hammer-beams. The glass around the lantern lets in shafts of light that illuminate the centre of the crossing and create an amazing effect as one walks underneath. Looking up, one sees a perfect 8-pointed star, brightly lit on a fine day, in the roof of the lantern. The construction can best be appreciated on closer inspection, which can be done via a guided tour of the octagon.

Although the lantern as seen today is the result of extensive restoration by George Gilbert Scott in the mid-19th century, he stuck very closely to the original design.

At the east end on the cathedral is the choir which dates mainly from the 13th century, being an extension of the original small Norman choir. This is work of the very highest quality, beautifully proportioned and with splendid ornamentation, especially at the tribune level. Unlike the nave, the choir is stone vaulted with ribs soaring upwards to meet in carved bosses at the apex.

The Lady Chapel at Ely is of interest for being the largest in England and having the widest medieval vault in the country, at 46 feet. It was begun in 1321, the building being almost detached from the main cathedral, but work was interrupted by the tower falling the following year and it was not completed until 1373. What is seen today is far removed from how it would have looked before the Reformation, as the building was devoted to the life story of the Virgin Mary, with brightly painted carvings, and this was anathema to the Protestants who removed virtually all the decoration to leave only foliage carvings.

Another victim of Protestant zeal was the shrine of St Etheldreda, which was destroyed in 1541, with only an engraved slate marking its location.

One 17th century bishop was Matthew Wren, whose young nephew, Christopher, designed a Gothic-style door on the north side of the cathedral. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps the replacement of a tower with an octagon was part of the inspiration for designing a dome for the new St Paul’s Cathedral, where a massive tower had been a feature of the old one.

Ely Cathedral is one of England’s “must-see” cathedrals, alongside others in eastern England, notably Norwich, Peterborough and Lincoln. It will always retain its ability to impress on first sight as the “ship of the fens” hoves into view.

© John Welford

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, Postman's Park, London

The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice was the brainchild of George Frederic Watts, a Victorian painter and philanthropist who thought that public recognition should be made of ordinary London people who had died while trying to save others. The Memorial can still be seen in London today.

George Frederic Watts

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was a very popular artist during his lifetime (a painter and sculptor) but he is not as highly regarded today. His works, many of which were portraits, were symbolic and allegorical and intended to give uplifting messages to their viewers.

He has been described as a philosophical artist and a “preacher in paint”, but the preaching, while striking a chord among his fellow Victorians, is less welcome in modern times. In his own words, he sought to “condemn in the most trenchant manner prevalent vices” and give “warning in deep tones against lapses from morals and duties”.

Perhaps it was ironic that his first wife, the actress Ellen Terry who was 16 years old at the time (he was 30 years older), did not share his high moral aspirations and eloped with another man only a year after the wedding!

A great admirer of royalty, Watts proposed his Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice as a contribution to the celebrations to mark the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, but the idea was turned down at the time. It was not until 1898 that he was able to turn his idea into reality.

The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

The plan was to commemorate the selfless actions of ordinary people who had died while trying to save others. This would be done be placing ceramic plaques, giving details of their deeds, on a public wall where people could read what they had done.

A wooden loggia was designed by Ernest George, an architect and painter. The loggia provided shelter for anyone reading the plaques, for which space was made available for 120 of them.

Postman’s Park

The Memorial was placed in Postman’s Park, an open space in the City of London not far from St Paul’s Cathedral. This area was opened as a park in 1880, being the site of adjoining former churchyards. It takes its name from the fact that it was next door to the former General Post Office and workers from there used it during breaks from work.

Collecting the stories and mounting the plaques

George Frederic Watts was only able to start the project late in life, being in his 80s when the first plaques were made and mounted in the loggia. Indeed, at the time it was opened in 1900 there were only four plaques in place. By the time of his death in 1904 (at the age of 87) only another nine had been added.

Watts’s widow Mary (his second wife who was, like his first, more than 30 years his junior) then took on the role of commissioning the plaques.

Watts had spent many years collecting stories of self-sacrifice, and Mary’s task was therefore to work down his list and raise the funds to get the plaques made. These were initially made by William de Morgan, a well-known ceramicist. She also commissioned a memorial to her husband to be set alongside the plaques.

Unfortunately, De Morgan stopped making ceramics in 1907 and Mary Watts was forced to go to another supplier, namely Royal Doulton. These were not of the same quality or colour as the originals. Eventually, Mary Watts decided that she could not continue the project as she wanted to concentrate on building a chapel and gallery devoted to the memory of her late husband.

The Memorial is therefore unfinished to this day. Instead of 120 plaques there are only 54. Of these, three were added during World War I, one in 1927 and the final one in 2007. The original design allowed for five rows of plaques, but the top and bottom rows remain empty.

 Some examples of the plaques

The stories told on the plaques clearly cannot be complete, and they are therefore frustrating in what they are forced to leave out. Even so, they say enough to make it clear that the people in question deserve to be commemorated.

Here are some examples:

William Donald of Bayswater. Aged 19. Railway clerk. Was drowned in the Lea when trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed. July 16 1876

Mary Rogers. Stewardess of the Stella. Mar 30 1899. Self sacrificed by giving up her life belt and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship.

Henry James Bristow. Aged eight – at Walthamstow. On December 30, 1890 – saved his little sister's life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock.

Daniel Pemberton. Aged 61. Foreman LSWR. Surprised by a train when gauging the line hurled his mate out of the track saving his life at the cost of his own. Jan 17 1903.

And the most recent plaque:

Leigh Pitt. Reprographic operator. Aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself. June 7, 2007.

It has to be said that there is more than a little Victorian mawkishness and sentimentality about this Memorial, but even so it does commemorate real people who died while saving others, and their stories would almost certainly have been forgotten were it not for the efforts of George Frederic and Mary Watts.

© John Welford

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The statue of Hodge in Gough Square, London

London teems with statues and memorials to famous men and women, but sometimes one can happen across one that commemorates an animal, one such being the life-sized bronze of “Hodge” in Gough Square, which is just north of Fleet Street.

The statue of Dr Johnson’s cat “Hodge”

17 Gough Square was the home of Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84). Johnson was no great lover of men but was extremely fond of his cats, of which he had several. Hodge’s claim to fame was that he got a mention in James Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson”.

Boswell, who did not like cats, thought he would please Johnson, during a visit to Gough Square, by remarking that Hodge was “a fine cat”. Johnson replied that he had had other cats whom he preferred but then thought that Hodge was giving him a less than friendly look. He therefore tried to make it up to him by saying: “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.

The statue, which is on a plinth of Portland stone in Gough Square (pedestrianised) shows Hodge sitting on top of a copy of Dr Johnson’s famous “Dictionary of the English Language”.

Also on the dictionary is an empty oyster shell, which reflects the fact that oysters were Hodge’s favourite food – they were considerably cheaper in the 18th century than they are now and were regarded as the food of poor people rather than the rich. Johnson bought Hodge’s oysters in person, because he thought it demeaning to his manservant to ask him to fetch the cat’s food.

The statue (by John Bickley) dates only from 1997 and it serves a double purpose, which is symbolised by the dictionary. Inscribed on the plinth is a Latin phrase which translates as “He refined and corrected”, the “he” being Major Byron Caws, who worked with H W Fowler on the “Concise Oxford Dictionary”, first published in  1911. The statue was erected by Major Caws’s grandson and thus commemorates two lexicographers as well as the “very fine cat” of the older one.

© John Welford