The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Simon Jenkins has raved about this book. I Never Knew That About England, by Christopher Winn, he says right on its elegant cover, is a marvellously entertaining and instructive read. This is true, and Mr Winn's wife Mai's illustrations are a fine enhancement. But will any other than inveterate pub quizzers and hopeless trivial pursuers rush out and buy this book? Mr Jenkins avers that it is an exciting new kind of guide to England, and to the extent that it provides acute summaries of rich detail on little-known locations and events, it succeeds well. However, as there are only a handful of facts on each of the historical thirty-nine counties of England, it would require a particularly masochistic traveller to use this book as a travel guide. This voyager would exhaust himself gadding about even one of the counties in search of the curiosities limned in this book, thinly spread on the ground as they are.

Armchair voyagers such as I in winter, struggling to find something new to blog about, should leap about in glee. Which is what I did when I got my mitts on this book earlier this week. Now I am trying to find some gems in Mr Winn's book to discuss and pontificate on.

Mr Winn admits early on that this book has nothing on London, which would require a tome entirely to itself, except for those suburbs that fall in the adjoining counties of Middlesex, Essex, Kent, and Surrey. (He has, in fact, written said tome already, but I haven't seen it, and shall await another opportunity to discuss it). Speaking of counties, he rues the modern accretions and politically or administratively required boundaries that have ruined the historic lay of the land. Old counties were demarcated by natural barriers such as hills or rivers, and having existed with fixed names since before 1066, provided a firm geographical and cultural reference. Today, however, with local government jurisdictions assuming greater prominence, cartographers abandon the old names; with that abandonment comes a loss of continuity and feeling of fellowship and belonging; worse, local authorities are fluid, so to tie our concept of geography to local government areas is to condemn the British people to a continually shifting geographical framework 1. Luckily, the original names, evocative and somewhat sticky, can still be discerned in maps (e.g. the one to the right, from the Association of British Counties).

I'll start with the counties neighbouring London because the chances are that I'll visit these sooner than those farther off. So here we go.

ESSEX Named after the East Saxons, a Germanic horde that settled here not much after Roman Britain began to collapse, it is the epitome of chav-dom, the British equivalent of the American trailer trash. (If you aren't sure whether you can count yourself one among these, feel free to take this test.) Now, if the current Essexoids are a bit, shall we say, materialistic and detached from God, it's not the fault of the Reverend Joseph Billio. In 1696, he arrived in Maldon, and preached of hellfire and damnation with such verve and passion that his name entered the English language. The idiom like the billy-o stems from his name, and as you may have guessed, it means with gusto, and - in usages such as my teeth hurt like the billy-o - indicate a superlative, an extreme.

Mr Winn attests to this etymology, as does a blue plaque to this effect in that quaint little town, but this page begs to differ and offers a rather compelling rebuttal.

Here's a quiz question: What is the oldest wooden church in the world? It is Greensted Church near Chipping Ongar, built with oak trees that grew in the time of the Romans. Only portions of the original structure dedicated to St. Andrew survive. But what is England's oldest church? It's the Chapel of St. Peter at Bradwell-on-Sea, built by the Saxons from the ruins of a Roman fortification at Othona. Founded by St. Cedd, Bishop of Essex, in AD 654, worship lasted here for over six centuries, but gradually, congregations dwindled, put off by the remoteness of its location. It was rediscovered in 1920. Check out a superb photograph of it here.

KENT. In the seventeenth century, Aphra Behn was sent by King Charles II as a spy to Antwerp in the midst of the Anglo-Dutch wars. She discovered a plan by the Oranges to sail up the Thames and destroy the English fleet at harbour. A true Cassandra, she was ignored; in 1667, verily, the Dutch sailed up to Chatham, sank three English men-o'-wars and, having captured the flagship Royal Charles, took it back to Holland with them. Aphra, shocked and saddened, returned to England and began to write plays and novel, gaining in the process, fame as England's first woman professional author and playwright. Oronooko, her most famous work, is based on the life of an enslaved African prince she had met in Surinam. She spoke once of that perfect tranquillity of life, which is nowhere to be found but in retreat, a faithful friend and a good library. My sympathy for this viewpoint is widely known, so I shall add that Behn was born in Wye, a little Kentish town. (A painting of her by Mary Beale is seen to the right of this paragraph.)

Continuing with Kentish literateurs, I should point out W. Somerset Maugham who asked for his ashes to be scattered at the King's School library in Canterbury. This had been his alma mater, and he had donated the library to the school. Canterbury, of course, is far more than just Maugham: remember Chaucer, the glorious Cathedral, and the reconversion of England to the Catholic faith by St.Augustine who founded a lovely abbey.

In a more poignant vein, Mr Winn writes about the marble tomb of the last of the Plantagenets. In 1485, a schoolboy was taken from his studies in Eastwell, Kent, to Bosworth Field, where a gloriously attired knight embraced him and said: Richard, I am the King of England, your father. The boy was instructed not to reveal his identity to anyone if the King were to be slain in a forthcoming battle, for then his own life would be in awful danger. As it turned out, the King, Richard III, did lose the battle (A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse! 2), and boy went back into hiding. At the end of his life, after sixty-five years as a labourer, he confessed his identity to Sir Thomas Moyle of Eastwell House. Moyle built him a little cottage and buried him in a rough marble tomb in the grounds of the now ruined St. Mary's Church.

Unfortunately, once again Mr Winn appears to be carried away by the romance of the story. While the death of a Richard Plantagenet is recorded in 1550 at Eastwell, the marble tomb attributed to him has been dated to 1480, so it clearly can't be Richard's 3. Perhaps Mr Winn is just a little more interested in reporting legends rather than accurate facts?

MIDDLESEX If there were western, eastern and southern Saxons, each naming a county, whither the northern ones? Clearly they have been hard done by, for all they received was the middling name of the Middles. These days, the desi strongholds of Pinner and Harrow and Stanmore, old towns of Middlesex, gleam with greenery, but other parts, Tottenham, for example, are industrial hellholes with little to dignify themselves. Such a differentiation in the quality of life is not necessarily mandated by history. Indeed, the last of the Saxon Earls, Waltheof, owned the lands forming the Manor of Tottenham5; his fort in Tottenham was later even touched by royalty - Scottish, to be sure. Robert the Bruce lived here as a child, and no doubt recalled it fondly when he was reduced to dwelling in caves and examining the fortitude of spiders4. At any rate, the old Saxon fort, renamed Bruce Castle, no longer stands. The current building dates from Tudor times. Towards the end of the 17th century, a thuggish nobleman, Lord Coleraine, drove his wife to suicide, locking her away in a tiny room below the clock. On a day in November she escaped and leapt to her death off a balcony, and is said to reappear on every anniversary of her death in one of the top windows.

On a more cheery note, the current system of naming clouds (you know, stratus, cirrus, cumulus, nimbus and associated variants) comes from an old resident of Tottenham. Luke Howard, an amateur meteorologist, is honoured at 7 Bruce Grove by a blue plaque. You won't find this fact in Mr Winn's book, but I thought I'd mention it in case my downbeat description of Tottenham depressed any reader with fond memories of that district.

SURREY I hadn't imagined that nymphs had survived up to the medieval period. Greek demigoddesses, these, no? Well, anyway, Mr Winn reports that one such nymph, bathing in a pond in Albury, was so startled by the sudden arrival of King John that she retreated to the deeper end. She then promptly drowned. The pond still exists, says Mr Winn, and its waters have remained as still and clear as crystal ever since, earning it the name the Silent Pool. If you listen carefully, you may hear the voice of a young girl singing. For some reason, despite the violent death of the nymph, the pool is a site of peace and tranquility. But if you do feel just a tad queasy at remaining by the water, feel free to take an invigorating and expeditious walk outta there. [Adjacent Impressionist rendering of the pool by P. Mountford6, c. 2001.]

Surrey is possibly the wealthiest of the counties surrounding London, and P.G.Wodehouse was born in Guildford, top town in the county. These two facts alone should make it worthwhile to visit: after all, an appreciation for filthy lucre and the works of Plum are what distinguish a middle-class desi from the hoi-polloi. I shall not dwell on either, though, and shall merely mention three other interesting tidbits about Surrey.

First, Ferguson's Gang. Every so often in the 1920s, a masked and cloaked posse would appear in the National Trust office in London, hand over notes as an endowment fund for some property or the other, endearingly refer to each other as Sister Agatha, Erb, Bill Stickers or Old Biddy, and then vanish into the streets. Nobody has ever been able to identify these people, but they turned out to have rescued derelict buildings and helped protect a lot of England's architectural heritage from demolition by ambitious builders. The Shalford Water Mill, near Guildford, restored and handed up to the National Trust, was their headquarters for a time. It is said that members were chosen by ballot; one even appeared at a BBC interview in a mask. Further gossip about these Robin Hoods of the Roaring Twenties can be had in Margaret Dierden's Scenes of Shalford Past. [The picture to the left is of a lovely detail from Shalford Mill, by Strussler.]

Next, the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking. Our pals the Captains live in Woking, and I'd bet they would be surprised to hear that the oldest mosque in Britain is in their neck of the woods. This was built in 1889 serving students from the nearby Oriental Institute. The Nizam of Hyderabad provided the funds and the mosque was designed the Victorian architect W.L. Chambers, and built under the aegis of a Hungarian Jewish academician, Dr G.W. Leitner, who also founded the Oriental Institute to train colonial Asian students in professional skills and impart to Europeans the knowledge required to work in the colonial services in India.

And finally, in Compton, Surrey, we have the wonderful mortuary Watts chapel, designed by Mary, the second wife of the Victorian Michelangelo7, G.F. Watts, and built by the local villagers. It is constructed entirely of terracotta, inside and out, and is embellished by murals depicting an admixture Celtic art and Art Nouveau. (Check out the ghostly infra-red photographs of this chapel by Andy Finney here.)

1. Association of British Counties, FAQ #2.
2. William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act 5, Scene IV.
3. Royal Bastardy in Medieval England: Part II.
4. Robert the Bruce and the Spider. Folk Legend.
5. Civic Heraldry: Manor of Tottenham.
6. Pete Mountford. Colourmount Gallery.
7. Guardian: Arts: England's Michelangelo


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