Saturday, 18 March 2017

Late News From Our Roving Reporter

More snappy snippets of news and knowledge spotted from the saddle of a rolling bicycle as I trundled through the British countryside last summer. We like to be up to date so here we include items from nearly 300 years ago alongside more recent items that are only a year or so out of date 


In May I wandered in the vicinity of the village of Southill. An ornamental lake can be glimpsed through a gap in an estate wall and, further along, a perfect little church stands among trees. Just the kind of paradise that could be enjoyed by the privileged families of old England. But what I couldn't have guessed at on that beautiful spring morning was the dark cloud that has hung over the scene for 260 years.

For Southill was the home of the family of Admiral John Byng. Byng was baptised in the village church and at 13 years of age joined the navy, working his way steadily through the ranks to eventually become an admiral. It was a successful if unremarkable career, but Byng's story should be as well-known, if for entirely different reasons, as that of Nelson.

In 1756 he was put in command of a hastily assembled fleet of ships sent to prevent the French from capturing Minorca, which was under British control at the time. The whole expedition was ill thought-out, poorly manned and equipped, and too late in setting out to be effective. After a skirmish with the French Byng realised how hopeless his position was and, following a meeting with his senior officers, he decided to withdraw to Gibraltar to have his ships repaired and form a better plan.

When George II heard of this he accused Byng of cowardice and ordered him to return to Britain. He was arrested and found guilty of ‘failing to do his utmost’ to carry out his orders. He was sentenced to death by firing squad. The King could have overruled the verdict but chose not to. The Prime Minister and senior navy men were happy to have a scapegoat to cover for their own ineptitude and so the sentence was carried out despite many people realising that it was a complete miscarriage of justice.

Voltaire heard about the case and summed it up with these words ‘in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others’. Maybe it did "encourage the others"; it certainly casts the bravery of Nelson and later heroes in a new light to realise that failure to attack the enemy may have resulted in the severest punishment.

Byng's family, who had a long association with the navy, were understandably outraged and erected this memorial in their church: 

They are still seeking a pardon from the navy some 260 years later.

A Mansion For The Poor

This magnificent, elegantly-proportioned building stands in the village of Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket. It dates from around 1780 and was commissioned by several of the wealthiest members of the community, but not for themselves. It was known as "The House For The Poor Of The Hundred Of Stow" and was a workhouse for the homeless and destitute of the area. Every community had some sort of provision for the penniless but few were as palatial as this. Many of the Poor Law commissioners lived in the area and naturally wanted to enhance the character of their home area. Some may have even been jealous of such fine architecture; it's doubtful they would have enjoyed working under the strict regime within.

Mr Goose

You know how I like a good village sign. And this one from the Hertfordshire village of Sandon is a favourite of mine. It features a large white goose and might lead you to expect some quaint old English folk tale about a magical bird from long ago. But no, this is (or was) a real flesh and blood goose from quite recent times.

This goose used to inhabit Sandon village green and could often be seen sheltering inside the telephone box. What's more this goose firmly believed itself to be a duck and could sometimes be seen ushering ducks and ducklings across the village street. At other times it could be as grumpy as any of its kind.

But no more. A year ago the much-loved bird was reported to have been cruelly shot and the local police were called upon to investigate. Hard evidence was hard to come by as the corpse had been buried by a well-meaning parishioner. Police exhumed the body and found that it had actually been killed by a blunt instrument. As yet the murderer remains at large.

Out Of Sight

In 1610 work began on a new watercourse to supply fresh drinking water to the people of Cambridge. Thomas Hobson was one of those who organised and paid for the work and the new stream became known as Hobson's Conduit. Once in the town the water was channelled by way of roadside runnels and underground piping. In St Andrew's Street the sharp-eyed may spot this cast-iron cover marking its course.

I've mentioned before that Hobson is also remembered in the expression "Hobson's choice". He hired out horses from a stables within the town and rotated his horses strictly so that none was overworked. If you hired a horse from Hobson you had to accept the animal he offered you. So "Hobson's choice" means no choice at all!

This Little Bird

Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk is one of the many great places to watch birds in North Norfolk. It's quite a small place but it has an enormous church. This is a much more frequent state of affairs in East Anglia than one might expect and it's usually because these sleepy little villages were centres of the woollen industry in Medieval times. Here though the wealth was generated, not by wool, but by the wonderful port facilities that used to exist at Blakeney Haven, before the channels silted and sanded up.

So now the village has this huge church to look after (and pay for!). A little help is always appreciated.

And help came in the tiny form of an American White-Crowned Sparrow which, in 2008, flew 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to assist. This extremely rare visitor to these shores soon got all the many bird-watchers in the area very excited. A charity collection among the birders was made and raised £6,378 which paid for the restoration of the church's west window.

The little bird is now remembered forever in a small stained-glass panel in the window.

Take care.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Man Falls In Love With Door

It's often the case that when one pursues great beauty that something plainer but altogether more interesting captures the attention. Last week I was out taking pictures of spring flowers and blossom when I noticed an old wooden door.

It's tucked away behind one of the buttresses that support the tower of Grantchester church and gives access, presuming that it still opens, to the belfry. It's not even the most famous old door on the building; the door to the porch is rightly celebrated as being very ancient and historic. But this obscure little entrance is the one that has won my heart.

So here's a selection of its hidden charms:

I've really no idea how old this little door might be; it's rather exposed to the wind and weather so maybe it's not so ancient as it looks. However it has a similar construction to the porch door which is reckoned to be about 300 to 400 years young. The design of the nails and other fitments make it look old too, and it's whole width is achieved with just two planks of wood which must have been hewn from a venerable old tree.


A quick update on my home circumstances: I'm still taking care of my 87-year-old mother who is needing a lot of assistance with all aspects of her day-to-day life. As a result I'm not getting out and about very often, so this blog will be rather irregular for the foreseeable future. I'm still reading your blogs and enjoying your photos though I don't always manage to comment on them. Thanks to all those who have expressed their concern but, by and large, we're doing OK.

Take care.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Blossoms And Blooms

Signs of spring encountered on a stroll yesterday afternoon when the weather was superb.

Take care.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Digging The Countryside

My last post mysteriously re-publishing itself has set me thinking about other snippets that I've written in the past which might be worth re-visiting. At present I'm taking care of my mother and I'm not able to get out and about as much as usual, so this is also a way to keep putting the occasional post out there for your perusal and, I hope, entertainment and edification. For those who've read some of this before there's a bit more info on coprolites, or "dinosaur dung", at the end of the post.....

A Mound On The Ground

This neat little mound stands beside a footpath just a mile or so from my back door, though I was completely unaware of its existence till I was looking at a map of my local area. It's a burial mound constructed in the Bronze Age, probably for some local chieftain. These things were dotted all over the countryside at one time but many have disappeared beneath the plough. The farmers here have been dutifully ploughing around it for centuries. 

At one time it may have contained grave goods - earthenware pots and such like to help the dead person on their journey into the next world - though most of these mounds were excavated by enthusiastic archaeologists in the nineteenth century. You can find examples in almost any museum in the land.

Just A Ditch?

The Fens of North Cambridgeshire were once a large area of low-lying ground used for wildfowling, fishing and summer grazing. Despite their unpromising appearance they have been important to mankind since earliest times and many important archaeological sites have been discovered there recently - more of them some other time, I hope. 

The channel shown above is right on the edge of the Fens, one of the earliest areas to be drained. Its dead-straight course might make you think that it's a modern construction, but in fact it dates from the time when the Romans were occupying these islands. 

It not only served to drain the land but also acted as a canal allowing boats to bring goods in to the fen-edge villages. In fact pretty much all the drainage channels in the Fens are ruler-straight regardless of their age - you don't need to ask a mathematician or even a Roman engineer the shortest route between two points, any man armed with a shovel seems to know instinctively!

The Fleam Dyke

Stretching across the Cambridgeshire landscape for a distance of 5 Km, just over 3 miles, looking to the casual observer like an abandoned railway cutting is The Fleam Dyke. But it was actually constructed in at least three distinct phases between 330 AD and 620 AD and is a bank and ditch some 7 metres (23 feet) in height - an awful lot of men with shovels needed for that! 

As if that Herculean effort were not enough there are two less substantial linear earthworks to the south west and the even more massive Devil's Dyke stretching for some six miles to the east. All of them are thought to have been defensive lines constructed by the Anglo-Saxons of East Anglia against possible invasion by the Romano-British to the west.

To construct these huge defences must have taken a high degree of co-operation and organisation amongst the inhabitants. 

Hummocks On The Hillside

Just a short bike-ride from home there's the nearest thing we have to a hill around here and on it is a grassy meadow filled with hummocks and shallow trenches. Most people might pass by without comment but it's actually the site of the lost village of Clopton. Back in 1292 this place was large enough to have its own market, but numbers gradually dwindled till the land was sold off and the new owners reckoned sheep would be more profitable than people. The remaining villagers were evicted and the land laid down to pasture. 

An Odd-Looking Pond

In the little village of Harlton there's a large, oblong, shallow pond. In spring and summer it's an attractive, peaceful corner, though in the past it must have been a much busier place. There's a clue in the name of the lane, but just what was washed here?

Here's a description from of a similar task being undertaken in the valley of the River Thames:

"Near this ferry there is a sheep-wash;  the sheep-washing generally takes place about the end of May, before the summer shearing.  It is great fun to look on at this performance;  there are generally two pens above the wash, two divisions in the wash, and a large dripping-pen for the sheep as they come out.  At the wash at Ewelme the men seize the sheep by the wool,  and raising them up in the air, drop them on their backs into the water, where they float at first like huge corks;  very soon, however, nothing but their heads remains above.  They are progged along with sheep-hooks to a narrow place, on each side of which a man seizes them and ransacks their wool;  he then slips their heads underneath a bar, when they are allowed to swim away to the dripping ground.  On their first landing they stagger and fall with the immense weight of water carried in their wool;  but they soon get all right, and dry up beautifully white and clean.  The whole scene, with the dogs and men, is very lively and amusing."  - George Leslie Wallingford.

"Dinosaur Dung" - at last!

In my previous "accidentally published" post there was mention of the Coprolite mining rush of the nineteenth century. I'm not going to publish it for a third time (!) though you can read it here if you missed it.

But I did mention that these rounded phosphatic nodules which were mined from the fields around here were not actually dinosaur dung, as was first assumed, though I failed to say how they were formed for the very good reason that I'm not entirely sure! 

But though coprolites are found in other places which may well be dinosaur dung, our ones are not. Disappointing but true. Our Cambridgeshire ones are thought to have been formed by decaying matter on the floor of ancient oceans which then became embedded in later formations of clay. I've never found a clear account of this process though you can read about it here should you so desire:

Have fun.


Take care.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Some Entertaining Lamp Posts

(I was updating some information on this post and for some reason it's re-published itself with today's date. I've no idea why it did that, or how to change it, so here (with apologies to those who've read it all before) is a rather ancient post for your delight!)

.....the world seems so amusing everywhere that it is hardly worthwhile to travel. When I start out for the ends of the earth, I am stopped on the road by an entertaining lamp post.....
                                                                                                                              G K Chesterton.

That seems to be my problem sometimes. I keep having to stop and investigate something that any normal person would pass by. Here are just a few more things that I have encountered on my travels.

The Clock Tower

A well-known feature of the Cambridgeshire village of Fenstanton. It started off as a Market Hall in the 17th century. Later the building was converted to the parish lock-up, that is a cell where local miscreants could be detained until they could be dealt with by the local magistrates or, where appropriate, until they'd sobered up! Can you imagine that? Being locked up with a big clock ticking above you and chiming every hour - when you've got a hangover! Now that's what I call making the punishment fit the crime. Now of course it's just used for telling the time, not doing time.

Ron's Farm Shop

Quite nearby the clock tower is this establishment selling locally-produced vegetables. No supermarket shelves ever looked this attractive. The doors at first floor level suggest that the building was originally a hayloft.

Digging for Dinosaur Dung??

Well, no, not quite. But that's what the men who dug this hole thought they were doing. In the mid-19th century 'coprolites' were discovered throughout a large part of Cambridgeshire. These were rounded nodules of rock which were high in phosphate and which occurred perhaps 8 to 20 feet below the surface. These rocks could be ground down to make an excellent artificial fertilizer. It was suggested that they must be fossilized dinosaur dung and the word "coprolite" was coined, derived from the Greek for "dung-stone". It was later proved that this was not their origin, but the idea has persisted.

The method of mining was to dig a deep trench, then to dig away at one side of the trench and fill in from behind - much the same as digging the garden but on a much larger scale. Gradually the trench crept across the field and the coprolites were removed. Once they'd reached the other side of the field, of course, nobody could be bothered to fill the trench in, so several water-filled trenches are still to be seen in the landscape today, though very few people know what they are.

The industry formed the basis of the agrochemical industry in this part of the world. But the coprolite mining itself ceased as quickly as it had begun when guano (seabird droppings) began to be imported from the tropics.

An Old Sign

Up on a wall, beside a narrow alley in Cambridge is this sign. It catches the eye of the occasional tourist though most walk straight past. The age of the sign is somewhat debatable; it's been repainted at least once in my memory. But the name of the lane is perhaps more interesting. It recalls the time when the women of Cambridge could earn extra money by doing the laundry for the colleges. Laundress Lane is one place where they worked. Nearby Laundress Green, now a riverside park, was where the washing was hung to dry.

Henry VIII's Wooden Leg

High above the entrance to Trinity College stands this statue of the founder of the college. Look closely - in his hand, instead of a mace, is a wooden chair-leg. It was put there many years ago by students intent on an end of term prank. More recently another group of students climbed up and replaced the chair-leg with a bicycle pump. The authorities took a very dim view of this and arranged for a replacement chair-leg to take its rightful place in the monarch's right hand.

Take care.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A Close-Up Calendar













Take care.