Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Ebenezer Place, Wick: the world's shortest street

Ebenezer Place, in Wick, northern Scotland, has the distinction of being the shortest named street in the world, at 206 centimetres (81 inches).

This situation came about when Mackays Hotel was built in 1883. The building was wedge-shaped, which meant that it had one very short side. The town council decreed that, because this side also contained the main entrance which was on neither street that ran along the two long sides, the street on that short side would need to be given its own name.

Not surprisingly, there is only one address on Ebenezer Place – Mackays Hotel at Number One!

© John Welford

Monday, 28 November 2016

Durham Castle

If you are visiting Durham you should definitely include Durham Castle on your itinerary. However, there are a few things about such a visit that are a little out of the ordinary.

Durham Castle was originally built by the Normans in the 1070s and, like most castles in Great Britain, there has been a considerable amount of alteration and fresh building work done in the intervening centuries. The purpose of building a castle here was that King William I (the Conqueror) needed a strong base from which to complete his conquest of northern England, which had proved to be very difficult.

He delegated the task of securing the northern counties to the bishops of Durham, who were known as “Prince Bishops” from 1076 to 1837. During this time, therefore, the Castle was the official residence of the Bishop of Durham.

However, in 1832 the University of Durham was created, and from 1837 the Castle became the central focus of the University. The Bishop moved out (to Bishop Auckland) and the Castle became University College Durham, which is still its status today.

This means that the visitor is seeing not only a castle but also a working college of a university. If the visit is made during term-time there are quite likely to be students and staff moving about, which in turn means that visitors have to be escorted around the castle and there are many areas that are “out of bounds”.

Three tours are held each day – at 2.00pm, 3.00pm and 4.00pm – and tickets can be bought in advance (£5.00 each) at the old university library on Palace Green just outside the Castle.

The tours are conducted by college students who are not only highly knowledgeable but also very personable and willing to answer questions about student life as well as the history of the Castle. The guide will make clear at the outset that photography is allowed outside the buildings but not inside.

The tour does not include the Castle keep, which consists almost entirely of student rooms. Instead, the group of visitors is taken first to the Great Hall, which is used these days for formal college meals. At one end is a gallery in which are displayed weapons and armour that date from the Civil War – the armour was used for test purposes to see how well it kept musket balls out!

The Tunstall Chapel is next on the itinerary, with its fascinating carved misericords (upturned seats so that a worshipper could stand and rest at the same time). The passageway leading to the chapel contains a very rare feature, namely a Norman archway that is probably the best of its kind anywhere. It was the original entrance to the Castle, and was therefore ornately carved, but it was preserved from wear and tear by being covered in plaster for centuries and also because an outer wall has now been built to create the passageway which thus keeps protects the archway from wind and weather.

The “black staircase” dates from the 17th century. It was originally designed to be free-standing, but it soon became clear that it would need pillars to support it. Unfortunately even these are now showing signs of serious strain which mean that only the lowest section of the staircase can be used. An interesting feature of the staircase is the pineapple design of its finials, made at a time when pineapples were extremely rare in England – to display a pineapple, even a wooden one, was a sign of one’s wealth. Unfortunately, the carver of these pineapples had clearly never seen a real one!

Perhaps the most remarkable survival from the past is the Castle’s original Norman chapel that has remained virtually unaltered for more than 900 years. The walls are five feet thick apart from one place where the wall could, if necessary, be breached from the inside to provide an escape route from the Castle. Six round pillars support the roof, and the capitals of the columns are decorated with carved reliefs that are only partially inspired by Christian iconography. There is, for example, a pagan “green man” and the earliest known representation in the country of a mermaid.

The Castle tour is well worth the fiver, and you might consider the student’s suggestion of an extra contribution towards their tuition fees (or beer fund) not to be at all unreasonable!

© John Welford

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Downing Street, London

Downing Street is at the heart of Britain’s government buildings in London, but the man after whom it is named surely does not deserve to be commemorated in this way.

Downing Street

It is not a very long street, consisting of a cul-de-sac leading off London’s Whitehall between the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office. However, it contains two particularly well-known addresses, these being Prime Minister’s official residence at Number 10 and that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Number 11. Behind their famous front doors lies a warren of corridors and offices in which the business of government is done, with the actual living accommodation only occupying two modest apartments on the upper floors.

You will be hard pressed to find numbers 1 to 8, which have long since disappeared, although there is a Number 9 which houses the office of the Government Chief Whip, and a Number 12 which is the Chief Whip’s official residence.

Sir George Downing

George Downing was born in Ireland in 1623. He was a nephew of John Winthrop who was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Downing went to America to study, being one of the very first graduates of Harvard College.

On returning to England he joined the rebellion against King Charles I and served Oliver Cromwell as the organiser of a network of spies. During the Commonwealth period after the execution of King Charles, Downing held office in the Treasury and was one of those who tried to persuade Cromwell to declare himself king, but without success.

Downing was in Holland as an ambassador when Cromwell died and his son Richard failed to continue the Republican dynasty. Sentiment in England had changed, leading to the enthusiastic welcome given to the restored King Charles II. This clearly presented a danger to someone who had been a loyal supporter of Cromwell.

However, Downing was able to persuade the new king that he had mended his ways and would be as loyal to him as he had been to Cromwell. He also had some secret documents in his possession that he was happy to hand over to the king as proof of his good intentions.

The trick worked, even to the extent that Downing was knighted, given his old Treasury job back, and also granted a tract of land near St James’s Park that includes the present site of Downing Street.

While in Holland, one of Downing’s roles had been to track down royalist enemies of the Commonwealth. Now that he was the king’s man he proceeded to betray several of his former colleagues and friends who had escaped to Holland. These were men who had signed Charles I’s death warrant and whose own lives were now forfeit. By arranging their deportation back to England, Downing was condemning them to death.

Further honours came Downing’s way, including a baronetcy, a seat in Parliament and considerable wealth. He died in 1684.

Downing’s reputation

Samuel Pepys considered Sir George Downing to be “a perfidious rogue” and it is not difficult to see why, although Pepys was also a loyal government servant under King Charles II. Nobody loves a turncoat, especially one who was willing to betray his former friends and cause their deaths in order to gain power and wealth for himself.

However, it was on his land that the street was laid out that contains some of the most important buildings in London, and the name has never been changed. Some might say that the twists and turns that government ministers perform in their day-to-day business is being done in a place that is well named, given the slippery character of the man whose name the street bears to this day!

© John Welford

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Doncaster is an industrial town in South Yorkshire that has a long history but is probably best known for its racecourse that stages the classic St Leger horse race every year in September.

Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Doncaster is in South Yorkshire, about 20 miles northeast of Sheffield in the low-lying area of the Don Valley. The town currently has a population in excess of 125,000 but it is the administrative centre of the larger Doncaster Metropolitan Borough that is home to more than 300,000 people.

It is known mainly as a centre of industry, based on the coal mines that were formerly active in the area. It grew rapidly in Victorian times due mainly to the development of an important facility for building railway locomotives and rolling stock.

The history of Doncaster

The “caster” element of the place-name is a clue to its origin during Roman times, when the fort of Danum was built where an important Roman road crossed the River Don.

The place became a Saxon settlement and appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Donecastre. King Richard I granted a charter to the town in 1194 and in 1467 King Edward IV allowed for the election of a mayor.

The ancient streets of Doncaster have names such as Hall Gate, Baxter Gate and St Sepulchre Gate, which suggest that the town might have been fortified at some stage. However, there is no evidence that this was the case, with the word “gate” simply meaning “street”.

There are also street names, such as Priory Place and Greyfriars Road, that indicate the former presence of religious orders of which no other evidence remains.

During medieval times Doncaster was an important trading centre.

Doncaster remained loyal to the Crown during the English Civil War and was granted the status of a “free borough” by King Charles II as a reward.

The heyday of Doncaster came in the 19th century when the coalmines were developed and the railway reached the town. The Great Northern Railway opened its Locomotive and Carriage Building Works in 1853. This factory played an important role in the development of Britain’s railways, with more than 2000 steam locomotives built there up to 1957.

Other industries that became established in Doncaster included a tractor factory (which closed in 2007), synthetic textiles and confectionery.

Doncaster Racecourse

The history of horseracing at Doncaster goes back to the 16th century, although the current racecourse (two miles east of the town centre) was established in 1776. Doncaster continues to host the world’s two oldest named races, the Doncaster Cup and the St Leger.

The latter takes its name from Colonel Anthony St Leger who inaugurated the race in 1776. It was first run on the current Town Moor course in 1778, as a flat race for colts and fillies over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 132 yards. It is the oldest of the five English “classics” and also the longest in distance run. It is run every year in September.

Things to see in and near Doncaster

The Mansion House was completed in 1748 and is one of only four civic mansion houses in England (the others are in London, Bristol and York). It was built as a place for corporate entertainment rather than as a residence, and some of the rooms bear witness to this purpose, notably the splendid ballroom with its musicians’ gallery. The Mansion House can be visited on specified open days.

Doncaster Minster, built in 1858, is an important example of Victorian gothic architecture. It is notable for its 170-foot bell tower and the enormous organ, built by the German firm of Schulze and Sons, that is widely regarded as one of the finest in an English parish church.

The Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery includes many interesting items, including a Roman shield that was found locally, as well as an altar from Roman times that bears a Latin inscription.

“Aeroventure” is the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, housed in the original hangars of what used to be RAF Doncaster. Exhibits include several complete aircraft, of which one is a replica of the plane in which Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel in 1909. He later took part in an airshow at Doncaster Racecourse.

Cusworth Hall, on the west side of the River Don, is an 18th century mansion that houses the Museum of South Yorkshire Life. The beautiful grounds are also open to the public.

Conisbrough Castle, to the southwest of Doncaster town but within the metropolitan borough, is notable for its preserved Norman keep that is 92 feet high and with walls up to 15 feet thick.

Doncaster is not on the usual tourist trail, but a visit could prove to be unexpectedly rewarding.

© John Welford

Monday, 21 November 2016

Barlestone in Domesday Book

The following is the entry for Barlestone (Leicestershire) in Domesday Book, which was commissioned by King William I in 1086:

“Ralph and Arnold hold of Hugh in Berulvestone (i.e. Barlestone) 3 carucates of land, less 1 virgate. There is land for 2 ploughs. 6 villans with 2 bordars have these ploughs there. There is woodland 3 furlongs long and 2 furlongs broad. It was worth 10s; now 40s.

Geoffrey holds of Robert 1 carucate of land and 1 virgate in Berulvestone. There is land for 1½ ploughs. There are 2 villans with 3 bordars having 1 plough. It was worth 8s; now 10s.”

Some explanations:

Carucate = the area that could be ploughed with an 8-ox team
Virgate = one quarter of a carucate
Villan = a villager who was subject to the lord of the manor but enjoyed certain rights
Bordar = a cottager who was of lower social status than a villan

The values, in shillings, relate to what the land was deemed to be worth before the Norman conquest in 1066 and what it was worth at the time of the survey, according to the commissioners .

Today, Barlestone is home to about 2,500 people. It has a school, a pub, three churches, a village shop and post office, a doctor’s surgery, a dental practice, a fish-and-chip shop, an Indian restaurant, a Chinese takeaway, two hairdressers, a football club, a bowls club, and regular buses to Leicester and other neighbouring towns and villages.

It has come on a lot since 1086! However, it is still surrounded by farmland and the odd bit of woodland.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Courtauld Gallery, London

London’s Courtauld Gallery is well worth a visit. Although relatively small it contains several well-known paintings that are of international importance and which can be viewed at leisure in a relaxed environment that is usually free from crowds.

The Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery is an integral part of the Courtauld Institute of Art, which was founded in 1932 by Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947). Both men were extremely wealthy (Courtauld’s fortune came from the family firm of Courtaulds Ltd, a multinational textiles and chemical company) and both were avid collectors of works of art, particularly, in Courtauld’s case, of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Their collection formed the core of what is now available for view at the Courtauld Gallery, together with the results of further gifts and bequests. The fact that the Courtauld Gallery is a “collection of collections”, rather than the result of a deliberate purchasing policy, means that the masterpieces on view do not represent the whole sweep of the history of art but are particularly strong in some areas and weak or absent in others.

An important aspect of the Courtauld Gallery is its setting in 18th century Somerset House designed by Sir William Chambers (1723-96). As well as the splendid rooms with their moulded plasterwork and painted ceilings (mostly restored), the steep stone stairs that connect the three floors are themselves a work of art with their perfect proportions. It must also be said that there is a lift for those who cannot manage the stairs!

Visiting the Gallery

One of the great advantages of visiting the Courtauld Gallery, in London’s The Strand, is that it is small enough to “do” in two or three hours, unlike the vast collections of The National Gallery or Tate Britain, where one is forced to be selective on a single visit. This means that the treasures one can see are more likely to linger in the memory because one can afford to spend more time looking at each one and not be overwhelmed by sheer quantity.

Since 1989 the collection has been housed in the north block of Somerset House, where The Strand meets Aldwych close to Waterloo Bridge. It is therefore within easy reach of several other London art galleries, such as The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Tate Modern on Bankside, and the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. The nearest Underground station is Temple (District and Circle Lines) and a number of bus routes stop just outside the door.

The Courtauld Gallery, being private, is not usually free to enter, although the charge is not unreasonable and there are concessions including free entry for full-time UK students and university staff. The gallery is open every day from 10am to 6pm.

On entering the archway that leads to the courtyard of Somerset House, the Gallery Shop is on the left (often some bargains to be had!) and the gallery entrance is on the right.

What you can see

There is one room on the ground floor, this being devoted to Medieval and Renaissance Art. The works are mostly devotional in character, including altarpieces and triptychs from the early 14th century.

A series of rooms on the first floor begins with the High Renaissance, including works by Botticelli and Cranach. Particularly notable is the collection of Italian “cassoni”, these being marriage chests in which a bride’s possessions would be carried in procession from her parental home to that of her new husband. These were often works of art in themselves, with their splendour reflecting the wealth of the bridegrooms who commissioned them. The examples on display here are of extremely high quality.

The collection of paintings includes some very fine works by Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Francisco de Goya, Giovanni Tiepolo and others, many being of international importance, but the Courtauld Gallery is justly famed for its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works, including many world-famous works.

Among these are Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere”, completed shortly before Manet’s death in 1882. This features a barmaid, who may also have been a prostitute, who stands ready to serve and who is reflected in a mirror behind her. In the reflection she is looking straight at a male customer, who is therefore the viewer. This large painting demands a long view, and the visitor can spend as much time doing so as they wish.

Another painting of global importance is Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (1889) which was painted after the artist mutilated himself having quarrelled with his friend and colleague Paul Gauguin. In the same room are two paintings that Gauguin painted while he was living in Tahiti, namely “Nevermore” and “Te Rerioa” (both 1897).

The Courtauld’s collection of paintings by Paul Cezanne is particularly good, thanks to Samuel Courtauld’s interest in the artist. These include his iconic “Montagne Sainte-Victoire” of 1887 and his later “The Card Players”. Another artist who is well represented is Edgar Degas, including his “Two Dancers on the Stage” (1874). Other famous painters of the period whose works can be found here include Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

On the second floor can be seen works from the 20th century by artists including Amadeo Modigliani, Henri Rousseau, Wyndham Lewis, Vanessa Bell and Ben Nicholson. This floor is used for temporary exhibitions, so what is on display one month may be completely different the next.

As well as paintings there are many other objects on display throughout the gallery, including sculpture, ceramics, silverware, furniture, keyboard instruments and other objets d’art.

A visit to the Courtauld Gallery is a pleasant and rewarding experience, achieved largely by the fact that the art on display is presented on a scale to which the visitor can easily relate. The atmosphere is not that of a huge gallery but of a town house, albeit a very grand one, that happens to have some splendid pictures on the walls. The visit is definitely worth the entrance fee and will linger long in the memory.

© John Welford

Friday, 28 October 2016

The clowns' annual church service

Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, London, becomes a very different place every year on the first Sunday in February. This is when clowns from all over the world celebrate the Joseph Grimaldi Memorial Service and most of them turn up in costume!

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was an English actor (of Italian descent) who developed the clown character of the traditional English pantomime into an independent entity. He invented the idea of every clown having a unique pattern of make-up, usually based on white face paint. Clowns were at one time always known as “Joeys” as a tribute to Grimaldi.

The Dalston church service has been held since 1959, and the clowns have been allowed to wear full costume and make-up since 1967. The service, which is non-denominational to reflect the varied religious convictions of the attendees, is held to give thanks for laughter in a church that has a permanent memorial to Joseph Grimaldi in a stained-glass window that depicts scenes from his life.

Anyone can attend the service, if there’s room, but must not be surprised if a juggling clown arrives on a unicycle or the vicar blows bubbles from the pulpit!

© John Welford