Forgive What We Have Been, Amend What We Are

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Lincoln Cathedral.  It has its fans (Ruskin, Pevsner) but – magnificent though it is

it seemed to me to have an uneasy atmosphere, something that suggested it was not quite happy in its skin.

The Cathedral was rebuilt and greatly enlarged by St Hugh of Lincoln, the exemplary 12th century Bishop, who was canonized shortly after his death. The Cathedral invites visitors to imagine themselves as mediaeval pilgrims visiting his shrine.  It’s true that many pilgrims would have been attracted by Great St Hugh, but more would have  there to venerate this shrine (what’s left of it) – the shrine of Little St Hugh.

Little St Hugh was a nine-year old boy, the son of a woman called Beatrice, who disappeared from his home on July 31st 1255.  On 29th August his body was found in a well in the vicinity of what is now called the Jew’s House (Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community, partly because the elder St Hugh had been well-known for offering them protection).  A Jew called Jopin (or Copin) was apprehended and confessed that the boy had been crucified as part of a ritual murder by a group of Jews assembled for that purpose.  He did so either because he had been tortured, or, according to other accounts, because he had been offered a pardon if he confessed.

At this point, King Henry intervened.  Copin (or Jopin) was executed and 90 Jews arrested and held in the Tower of London.  18 were hanged (for refusing to submit to the authority of a Christian court), the others pardoned and released.  The explanation for this seems to be that Henry could confiscate the wealth of those who had been convicted, and his brother could continue to tax those who had been released.

Meanwhile stories spread about Little St Hugh (for instance that when his body had been discovered the well had filled with a blinding light and the odour of sanctity) and there was a rush to canonize him.  He was mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, a popular ballad was written about him (later recorded in a bowdlerised, Jew-free version by Steeleye Span and others) and Lincoln Cathedral became a major and lucrative site for pilgrimage.

There is something very contemporary about this story.  We can imagine the successive news reports – “Fears are growing for a nine-year old boy from Lincoln who disappeared from his home on 31st July … police are appealing for any information about the whereabouts of nine-year old Hugh of Lincoln … the remains of a boy have been discovered in a well in the Steep Hill area of Lincoln

… a 39-year-old Jew is helping police with their enquiries …”  We don’t have to use too much imagination to picture the angry mob, or the clamour for an early arrest.  Perhaps there was a ‘Justice for Hugh’ campaign.  Accusations of ‘ritual abuse’, too, are not unknown in our own time.

Nowadays, when a child is killed, their shrine takes the form of a spontaneous eruption of flowers and soft toys.  In Lincoln they did things more formally and erected an impressive four storey Gothic edifice over the box containing Hugh’s bones.  This shrine was destroyed during the Reformation and Little St Hugh gradually became something of an embarrassment.  His feast day was removed from the Anglican calendar and the Roman Catholics claimed he had never been properly canonized at all.

The people of Lincoln seem to have been ambivalent about their famous son.  The Jews’s House is still there and is something of a tourist attraction.  There was an attempt to claim (in the early 20th Century) that the well itself had been discovered in the basement of the house, and postcards were sold of it.  The owner of the house later confessed that he had arranged for the well to be dug himself, in an attempt to stave off a threat to have the house demolished.

What to do about Hugh is also something of a problem for the Cathedral authorities.  At St Alban’s Cathedral, the shrine of St Alban has been reconstructed from what is left of the original (again destroyed during the Reformation).  This has not been attempted in Lincoln.  Instead the bones of  Hugh (who, of course, never asked for any of this) are relegated to an obscure aisle, accompanied by an apology which states (quite correctly) that “such stories do not rebound to the credit of Christendom” and ends “so let us pray: forgive what we have been, amend what we are, and direct what we shall be.”

To the casual observer, the chest looks as though it is designed to keep boots in, or umbrellas and I’m sure many a weary pilgrim has perched on it to take the weight off their feet.  All very pathetic, as they would have said in the 18th Century.

A Rum Do In Brixworth : Cricket At the Dallas Burston

I think I can say with some certainty that this has been the first flaming June that I would have preferred to have spent in Poland or Ukraine rather than in England.  Perhaps the weather has finally broken my spirit, though – as I explained in a recent post – the concentration of T20 in the fairest month of the year makes it a waste land for the non T20 fan, whatever the weather.  Or maybe, as I suggested in another recent post, I’ve simply overdosed on mediocre cricket.

Perhaps, though, all I need is a change of scene.  Much as I love Grace Road, there is a limit to the number of days anyone could spend there eating pie and chips in the rain without hankering after the glamour of Lviv or Donetsk.

So, I’ve arranged myself an itinerary for July that (weather permitting – which I don’t expect it to) should take me to Radlett, Edgbaston and Chesterfield (two grounds new to me and one old favourite).  But I thought I’d ease myself back into the world of cricket with a visit to a ground that I’ve often glimpsed from the bus to Northampton but never visited – Brixworth’s Dallas Burston Ground.

Brixworth is a large village that’s teetering uncertainly on the brink of becoming a small town (welcome to Northamptonshire – let yourself grow!) and there’s something about it that suggests it isn’t very happy in its skin, being very self-consciously A Village but looking increasingly to the outsider like suburbia.  There’s something obscurely odd about the cricket ground as well.

The first match at the Dallas Burston Ground was played in 2005.  Where they played before that I don’t know (I imagine it was a smaller, more rustic affair nearer the centre of the village).  The new ground is on the outskirts, overlooking  the Pitsford Reservoir (though you can only glimpse this from the ground) and was hewn out of farmland, which involved levelling a 20 foot slope.  You can still see the evidence of this at the ground (evidence, too, of why true Northamptonshire buildings have that characteristic reddish hue)

As at most new cricket grounds, the playing area at Brixworth is – to the naked eye – a perfect circle and perfectly flat.  I think this contributes to the sense of there not being something quite right about it.  Longer established grounds have generally accommodated themselves  to the existing landscape, respecting and making a virtue of its peculiarities of contour.  This feels artificial, imposed, almost Roman.

There is clearly some money around somewhere too.  There were posters everywhere for a visit by the Lashings XI.  In recent years they have attracted some publicity by signing Darren Gough and Devon Malcolm (who, I was informed by @LordBonkers when I met him on the bus back home, is now the President of the Club).  Malcolm did make an appearance at this game, watching from his vehicle parked at the top of the hill.

Dallas Burston himself (he is advertised around the ground) appears to be a former Northamptonshire GP who now runs some kind of healthcare and property development empire from the Old Rectory in Arthingworth.  He also seems to be  involved with polo.  This all sounds like what my Grandfather would have called a bit of rum do, but there you are.

The pavilion is a kind of barn conversion (very popular in this part of the world) –

divided down the middle by a wooden partition and with – possibly – a firm of chartered accountants tenanted in a kind of gallery.  It was quite grand, and I can imagine it being hired out very successfully for weddings and other exercises in corporate hospitality (if you want a corporate table for the Lashings game it will set you back £650.00) but it didn’t feel much like a cricket pavilion to me.

The real oddity of the ground, though, is the mock castle-cum-fort that overlooks the pitch.

All’s that left of this – or perhaps all there ever was – are the walls, with the interior being gradually reclaimed by scrubland.  I suppose this might have been erected to give the ground the feel of Galle in Sri Lanka, but I suspect it is evidence of some kind of failed crypto-Disneyland.  It offers some interesting views of the pitch

but also contributes to the feeling that this is a somehow a place of facades.

The game itself was between Brixworth and Finedon Dolben in the First (Premier?) Division of the Northamptonshire League. I ought to take more interest in this league.  My father played in it for Kettering in the ’50s and for Rushden in the ’70s and ’80s and  my mother’s father for Kettering when they were top dogs between the wars.  Even I once had a net at Rushden.

If you felt so inclined, you could attempt some kind of social history of the county by looking at the teams who have dominated Northamptonshire cricket – Kettering in the ’20s (when they were strong enough to beat a Northants XI containing most of their first XI),  British Timken in the ’50s (when Freddie Brown worked there as a ‘Welfare Officer’) and in recent years Finedon Dolben (who have won it in 10 out of the last 13 seasons).  I don’t think I’ve ever been to Finedon, but – like Brixworth – it is a large, quite affluent, village resisting being swallowed up by the expansion of its larger, less toney neighbour, Wellingborough.  I imagine a lot of its residents drive 4x4s.

It was a bit hard to see, on this showing, quite why they’ve been so successful, and I suspect the general standard of the league is lower than that of the Leicestershire ‘Everards’ League.  I certainly wouldn’t back Finedon against Loughborough, Harborough or Kibworth.

There didn’t seem to be much mingling between the two sets of supporters (and there were quite a few on both sides) – the Brixworth men sat in front of the pavilion, the Finedon contingent camped up on a grassy bank.  I suppose  this ornery suspicion of outsiders and near neighbours, at least, did give the occasion an authentic whiff of the old Northamptonshire.

If the ground made me feel uneasy, I seemed to have the same effect on it.  Seeing a scruffy looking man they didn’t recognise nosing round their pavilion and taking photographs, someone asked me – perfectly reasonably and politely – who I was and what I was doing there.  Presumably they suspected that I was a would-be burglar casing the joint.

Still, on to ‘fresh woods and pastures new’.  In Radlett, possibly (and possibly armed with a new camera, as this one seems to be suffering spots before the eyes).

Best Illuminated House Award For Christmas 2011

And this year’s winner in the Privately Owned  Listed Building category goes to the Tower House, Lubenham.

You don’t get the full effect from a still photograph, but the pink light shoots upwards like mercury in a thermometer, then ends with a starburst effect at the top.

The Tower House was originally an 18th century farmhouse.  The tower was added by racing enthusiast Jack “Cherry” Angell to commemorate his horse “Alcibade” winning the Grand National in 1865.  Alcibade is buried in a mound nearby (though, not, I think, in the adjacent churchyard).

A later owner, the Rev. Graham Dilley (no relation, as far as I know) used it as his vicarage.  The ballroom is said to contain a section of the ceiling from Lamport Hall, which the Rev. Dilley – also a sporting man – had won in a bet.  How very different to the home life of our own dear clergy.

Some local residents have commented that “it’s just like the Blackpool Illuminations”.  Well, it’s not that good, obviously, but still a very commendable effort.

Inexplicable Splendour : City Churches At Christmas

In the first week of December I spent a free afternoon walking from the heart of the City of London (and it does have such a thing) to Trafalgar Square.  I’ve always felt that this is the part of Christmas-time when London is at its most attractive (assuming that you aren’t completely broke, in which case it’s always fairly wretched).

There is a prickle of anticipation, but the shopping frenzy has yet to reach Maenad proportions, and the streets of the City itself aren’t yet full of impenitent bankers spewing Chateau Petrus into the gutters and waste bins.

My walk was in the opposite direction to the Sunday excursions that Dickens made when he was living in Covent Garden, and recorded in his essay “City Churches“, published in  “The Uncommercial Traveller“.  Dickens was writing at a time when the exodus of the residential population from the City had left its Churches attended on Sundays only by skeleton congregations (almost literally so in the case of St Mary Woolnoth) but before the C of E had done the sensible and unsentimental thing by demolishing many of them to pay for new churches in the growing suburbs.

What’s striking is how – a century and a half later – then unanticipatable life has returned to those churches that survived the cull.

In St Mary Woolnoth – sandwiched between the Mansion House and the Bank of England – the Vicar was conducting a two hour open service (“come and go as you please”) before a congregation of what might have been penitent bankers.  It was so packed it didn’t feel seemly to take a photograph.

Moving down Cheapside past St Mary-le-Bow (whose restaurant was doing a roaring trade), St Vedast (home to Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous),  the usefully occupied St Paul’s itself and St Bride’s (inspiration for wedding cakes everywhere), I stopped in at St Dunstan- in-the-East, which, like many other City Churches, has come to what, in footballing terms, would be called a ground share arrangement with the Romanian Orthodox Church.  The C of E holds lunchtime services during the week, and the Romanians have it at the weekend.  This results in some interesting cross-cultural and cross-temporal hybrids –


Progressing on to  the City boundaries, the Templar Church in the Temple (of which more anon) was having an open day (admission £3.00) –

and finally  to St Mary in the Strand, marooned on a traffic island in the middle of that street.  This has survived several attempts to destroy it, most recently a road-widening scheme.

As you can just about make out here, a small choir were rehearsing for a carol service.  This St Mary is the official church of the W.R.N.S., but the choir didn’t look like Wrens, and were probably from nearby King’s College,or perhaps the Courtauld Institute.

My walk also took me past the inexplicably splendid branch of Lloyd’s Bank, where T.S. Eliot used to work –

All Inexplicably Splendid.

Peace And Light In Long Eaton

I recently satisfied a long-nursed curiosity by visiting Long Eaton.  I don’t know about you, but I find that, if I hear an announcement about where a stopping train is going to stop often enough, I develop a growing urge to visit that place : I hear about Long Eaton several times a day – “Passengers for Langley Mill, Alfreton, Long Eaton and Derby change at Beeston …”.

I wasn’t there for very long (I managed to combine this trip with a visit to that other faraway place with a strange-sounding name East Midlands Parkway) but long enough to get the gist of the place, as it were.

The main thing to note about Long Eaton is that it is very long.  One very long road running alongside a canal with houses strung out alongside it.  The walk from the station to the centre of town took about half an hour, but, by happy chance, it took me past what I think it’s safe to assume is the town’s Jewel in the Crown.

I’m pleased to say that it’s the Library.  Just look at this –

Long Eaton Library 2

Pax and Lux – not, as you might think, advertisements for stuffing and beauty soap, but Peace and Light – and I think that all of us, in these oafishly disagreeable times, and not just the good folk of Long Eaton, could do with a stiff dose of both.

The interior lives up to the promise of the entrance with this stained glass window, apparently the work of one Andrew Stoddart of Nottingham (not the cricketer of the same name), depicting four muses of literature, poetry, music and painting –

Long Eaton Library Window 1

and I was particularly taken with this, which is almost a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon (“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”) 

Long Eaton Library Window 2

I think, if I were in charge of the internet, I would make it compulsory to display this at the top of every blog, forum and website in the land (or perhaps only the Guardian’s Comment is Free).

The Library is a Grade II listed building, and a more technical description (“The pediment has small dentillations and a mosaiced tympanum“, apparently) may be found here.

Fox At Bay

Meanwhile, back in the City of London …

The last few weeks have seen mixed fortunes for Foxes of various descriptions.  Foxy Loxy has been acquitted of murder, “Dr.” Fox has been forced to resign as a result of some incomprehensible imbroglio involving his “friend”, and – though I doubt too many tears will be shed in – say – Consett over this – I am sad to record the demise of J. Fox of London Wall, as a result, apparently, of “adverse trading conditions”.  It cannot have helped, either, that the rest of this late-Victorian block has been erased as collateral damage to the Crossrail works around Moorgate, leaving only the supposed birthplace of the poet Keats and a branch of the Carphone Warehouse standing.

As the frontage announces, J. Fox was founded in 1868, and specialised in the making and repair of bespoke umbrellas, supplying them to John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, James Bond and Steed of Avengers fame.

Quentin Lake, who has clearly looked into this more thoroughly than I have, describes it thus –

“The extremely stylish exterior was installed in 1936 and was, at the time, the latest in shop-front design. Curved non-reflective glazing later used at Heals on Tottenham Court Road was used for the windows, and the framework was made from black Vitrolite a type of black glass used in the 1930s and chromed steel. Two prancing silver foxes and a neon sign were the finishing touches. Inside, the shop is fitted with cabinets made of solid Canadian black walnut. The staircase boasts framed mirrors, with original advertising graphics dating back to 1868.”

Mind you, I suspect the real reason that this always raised my spirits so much whenever I passed it was that it reminded me of Grace Road.

The Tree Is My Seat That Once Lent Me A Shade

More news of the tree stumps of Little Bowden. 

This newly created stump is in the churchyard of the abandoned St Mary-in-Arden.

The anonymous tree-surgeon-cum-artist has thoughtfully fashioned a rather comfortable seat from the remains of the tree –

providing an excellent vantage point to sit and contemplate the abandoned church –

and muse on the changes wrought by time and the vanity of human wishes.

Perhaps our woodman has been reading William Cowper?


The Poplar-Field 

The poplars are felled, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade:
The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

Twelve years have elapsed since I first took a view
Of my favourite field, and the bank  where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat;
And the scene where his melody charmed me before
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

‘Tis a sight to engage me, if anything can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Short-lived as we are, our enjoyments, I see,
Have a still shorter date, and die sooner than we.

Illusions of Grandeur

Back in the Spring, I observed the imaginative solution adopted by Kettering Borough Council to the problem of having a Restaurant Quarter with no restaurants, only empty shops – (Facades) 

Now I see the practice seems to be spreading to London.

Exit St. Pancras and see how the works at King’s Cross are hidden from view by this lovely verdant hedge, a little piece of suburbia in urbe.

The trompe l’oeuil artist at work again.  Is it not somehow greener, lusher, more real than this genuine hedge in Market Harborough?

I do wonder whether this might not be extended to larger projects?  I’ve already a suspicion that – given the speed at which it’s going up – the Shard is made out of chicken wire and papier-mache.  Given that the purpose of these buildings seems to be to create a striking skyline when seen at a distance, from some imaginary vantage point –

rather than serving any useful purpose, I propose future high-rise buildings should be constructed at minimal cost using balsa wood, or possibly simple two-dimensional constructions in hardboard cut into interesting shapes and painted to look like prestige developments.

The only limit would the limit of the “architect”‘s imagination, and – if people didn’t like it – it could simply be removed and replaced with something else.  Perhaps – as a little jeux d’esprit to entertain and welcome our Olympic visitors – a hardboard Eiffel Tower or pop-up Taj Mahal could be made to appear on the horizon overnight?

In these straightened times, I feel all solutions – however outlandish they may appear – should be given serious consideration.  We must all think the unthinkable – however meaningless and impossible that might be.

I shall forward my proposal to the Mayor of London forthwith.

Fine Energies : Demolition at Moorgate

I’m afraid that circumstances have conspired to prevent me bringing you a full account of Leicestershire’s defeat on Sunday against Warwickshire in the 40 over league.  But I think this is an accurate graphic illustration of where the Foxes’  hopes lie at the half-way stage in the competition.

A row of shops opposite the entrance to Moorgate Station being demolished in connection with the Crossrail project (the white building in the background is part of London Metropolitan University).  Two or three doors away is the site of the inn where John Keats grew up (and may have been born) – now another, later, pub.

Keats wrote of a quarrel in the street that it was “a thing to be hated, but the energies displayed in it are fine” – which, I think, applies rather to this demolition (close- to it is an extraordinary sight and sound).  Also, I suppose, Leicestershire’s record in the CB40.

And Warwickshire’s hopes?  More like this – the soaring – if unfinished – riverside Shard  (snapped from a train window as I was on my way to some high-level talks in Bromley).