Thursday, 19 October 2017

Ebenezer's Answer

Any empathetic, socially-aware person living in England back in 1900 could see that there was something going seriously wrong with our towns and cities. Now anyone could say that today of course, but that doesn't mean it's easy to put it right. And it wasn't any easier then, but one man grappled with the problem and came up with a possible answer - Letchworth Garden City (!), a whole new town, built from scratch, according to more enlightened principles.

That man was Ebenezer Howard. He was not a town planner and he was not an architect, in fact he was a failed farmer and newspaper reporter who found work as a shorthand typist. But in his spare time he mixed with socialists, reformers and intellectuals. And, also in his spare time, he wrote a book called "Garden Cities Of To-Morrow" in which he set forth his vision for a better way of urban living.

Within a few years his ideas gathered momentum and his prototype new town began to be built. Most of the key features still remain - provision of public spaces, low density housing, separation of traffic and pedestrians, ideal population of around 30,000, decent housing free of slums. It also seems to be supplied with more fountains than any other town* of comparable size! (*Although it likes to refer to itself as Letchworth Garden City it's not really a city at all).

Other ideas have faded over the years: initially the project was heavily funded by the Quakers who wanted the town to be alcohol-free. There was even a temperance pub, The Skittles Inn, though the idea never really caught on and many residents went to nearby villages for alcoholic refreshment. The Skittles is now an adult education centre. There are also a few pubs in town, but not as many as in other similar sized places.

The Spirella Company Of Great Britain, manufacturer of corsets, was one of the firms which was attracted to the new town. As you can see it doesn't look like a traditional factory from the outside, but more like a country house. Even so new methods like re-inforced concrete and steel frames were used in the construction (of the buildings, silly, not the corsets!)  And inside  it was even more revolutionary, offering baths, showers, a library, gymnastics classes, free eye-tests and even bicycle repairs for its workforce.

The most interesting feature of Letchworth today is its wide variety of architectural styles from the early part of the twentieth century. Although it hardly rates as a tourist attraction at the present time I can foresee a time when it will. I'm old enough to remember when we ignored or, worse, destroyed Victorian architecture, though now we cherish it - these things go in cycles. Above is the Art Deco cinema which still has many original features despite being largely refurbished inside.

And below is the Town Hall...

....built in 1935.

And that's a detail from roof of The Arcade, a pedestrianised indoor shopping area. The kind of thing you can find in any town today, though at the time a radical innovation.

But you won't find anything like this anywhere else in the world...

It's called The Cloisters and was built for the Quaker, Miss Annie Jane Lawrence, who founded a college for the study of psychology in the building - or rather around the building for Miss Lawrence was an advocate of outdoor living and insisted that her students had healthy bodies and healthy minds. Her motives for founding the school were that her students should go out into the world and effect the social change which she thought desirable. 

She also organised concerts and organ recitals on a grand scale to enrich the lives of her students and the people of the town.

The whole building was constructed according to the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement and cost her a fortune. The building was taken over by the army at the outbreak of WWII and Miss Lawrence's health was too frail to ever resurrect her dream again.

In a slightly less ambitious way the town still promotes the outdoor life through its parks like Norton Common and many of the main thoroughfares are still like walking through forest glades...

But one person's dream.....

...can be someone else's nightmare! There are plenty of leaves to clear up each Autumn!

There's a lot of very stylish houses built in the manner favoured in the early decades of the twentieth century. And at very stylish prices too; I didn't find out where the poorer folk live.

But this unassuming dwelling....

....was for a time the home of Ebenezer Howard himself. I'm sure a lot of modern planners and architects would benefit from living in the buildings that they create.

Now this you might be forgiven for thinking is an old cottage that existed before the town was built - but you'd be wrong. This is the drawing office which Barry Parker, one of the chief architects responsible for building houses in the town, had built for himself. To me it seems an absurd anachronism, but it shows the traditional ideas which underpinned the building of the town.

I always like to show you historic sites of cultural significance. So here, my friends, is the UK's oldest gyratory traffic flow system or roundabout, dating from 1909 (circa). 

And finally, for no real reason other than to demonstrate that the town is not without a sense of humour, is the wonderfully-named outlet for re-cycling of antique furniture, "Mackay's Junk & Disorderly"!

Take care.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Man Called Potto

In the village of Houghton, which we passed through in the last post, stands a bust to the memory of Potto Brown.

Potto Brown 1797-1871

With his upright posture, severe countenance and facial whiskers he looks like the head of a powerful Victorian family, which in the context of a small village he was. 

We'll get on to who he was and what he did in a moment, but first....the statue.

When it was decided on his death that the community wished to preserve his memory in bronze it faced a problem. You see, in his long life he was far too busy to ever sit for a portrait and no photographs were thought to exist either. All they had was a quick pencil sketch. At this point a farmer called Albert Goodman, a man with no artistic pretensions, took a lump of clay and made the model on which the statue was based.

Cottage in Houghton with a step made from an old millstone

Potto Brown was the son of the miller who ran the mill at Earith and who later moved to Houghton to run the mill there. His odd name came from the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Sarah Potto. He was educated at good schools but "That which is conventionally called education left strangely few traces upon him" as his biographer put it.

Houghton Mill today, covered in scaffolding!

So on leaving school Potto went to work for his father in the mill. When his father retired, having taken it into his head (rather late in life) to study medicine, Potto took over the running of the mill. He was a strongly religious man and a non-conformist. He was a lay preacher and is said to have prayed that God should make him rich and successful in his business ventures. And to help matters along the way he took along his business ledgers and prayed that his debtors should be able to pay him. This form of shaming meant that most people learned to pay him before the service commenced!

Houghton village.

He expanded his milling operations by building state-of-the-art steam-powered mills in St Ives and Godmanchester. Once the business was established and he'd become a wealthy man he set about spending the money on good causes. He was tireless in his philanthropy - "I don’t want to have a poking hut in heaven. I mean to have a large mansion and a park", he is supposed to have said. He'd been born into a Quaker family but after an argument became a Congregationalist. One of his first projects was to build a chapel in his home village so that non-conformists would have a place to worship.

The Chapel

He also founded two schools where the children of non-conformists could be educated, founded the St Ives Friendly Society and bought land for allotment gardens for the poor. He gave money for lifeboats, contributed to the building of a Free Church in Huntingdon and served as a magistrate too.

When the Free Church was being built in St Ives he gave £3,000 to the project, though he refused to contribute to the building of the steeple which he considered an unnecessary embellishment. As you can see in the photograph below, the townspeople managed to raise the extra £2,000 required for the steeple. You can also see that it's another building which is giving employment to scaffolding contractors at the moment.

St Ives Free Church on the Market Square

Potto entertained all kinds of guests at his house, from American anti-slavery campaigners to French Catholics. One imagines there must have been some lively conversations around the dinner table. Although he was a strict tee-totaler he would serve beer and wine to his guests - but only if they were over sixty!

His grave is in the yard of the little chapel which he built in Houghton, alongside other members of his family.

Take care.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Along The Great Ouse

The valley of the River Great Ouse between Huntingdon and St Ives is a very desirable place to live with a handful of extremely attractive villages. Everything is civilised and prosperous, paths are well sign-posted and maintained, perhaps just a little too manicured in parts - come with me and have a look.

We'll start on the Quay in St Ives with its view of the old bridge which dates from 1425. The building in the middle of the bridge is a chapel which in its day had a spiritual as well as a practical purpose. Travellers could stop and say a prayer before their journey or give thanks for safe completion of their travels. And they could at the same time pay the toll for using the bridge. In medieval times many bridges were built and maintained by the monasteries, so a single monk installed in the chapel could both bless the traveller and relieve him of some of his money.

We then enter the huge Hemingford Meadow which stretches nearly a mile along the southern bank of the Ouse. It floods every winter and when the temperature drops sufficiently becomes the biggest ice-rink in the country.

Into Hemingford Grey with its very peculiar truncated church spire. The spire is said to have been blown into the river by a hurricane in 1741 - and they haven't got around to replacing it yet!

The Manor, which was built in the 1130s, is reckoned to be the oldest continuously inhabited building in England. Although it's been added to and repaired over the centuries a surprising amount of the original building still remains. It was used as the model for Greene Knowe by Lucy Boston in her series of children's books. She lived at the Manor for over 50 years and was responsible for developing the beautiful garden.

A path through more riverside meadows leads into the next village, Hemingford Abbots.

The centre of the village is a conservation area with many thatched and historic buildings, including the Axe & Compass pub. No we can't; it's too early!

Lets go into the church instead. 
The elegant spire is a landmark for miles around and inside there are some interesting features too, including an old oaken roof with carved angels. They've all had their photos taken and some of them stand a good chance of appearing in this blog in the future. But for now we'll continue on our way.

Our path turns down a side street then crosses more meadows and a couple of strands of the river, which divides and forms several watercourses across the wide floodplain. We are making our way to Houghton Mill, an old watermill in the care of the National Trust. Unfortunately right now that care includes covering the whole structure with scaffolding as the building is in need of some gentle restoration.

If you want to see what the Mill should look like then you could do worse than to pop into Houghton church and look at the stained glass window that was installed to mark the millennium. 

It's another quaint and fascinating collection of old buildings, every bit as picturesque as those in Hemingford Abbots, even if it doesn't have such a melodic name. From here we turn around and make our meandering way, along the north side of the river, back to St Ives.

A path leads all around Battcock's Island, a parcel of land completely surrounded by rivers and streams, and used as grazing land. The views back across the river towards the Hemingfords are as choice as any in lowland England. If John Constable had been born here rather than in Suffolk his pictures would have been much the same.

Meet three girls. Just part of the team who work so hard keeping the grass short and well fertilised.

There are peaceful little waterways hiding away shyly all over this landscape.

We have to leave the river now and take a lane known as the Thicket Path, a very minor road which can only be used for access. And as there's nothing much down here anyway that's very little traffic at all.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly we're back with our old friend, the River Great Ouse, sun glinting off its mirrored surface as it sidles quietly towards St Ives.

Back in St Ives, this slender bridge leads over the river to Holt Island, a tiny but well-maintained nature reserve. Just time to wander over to see if anything's about.

Almost immediately I spotted this little chap and, remarkably enough, he sat around long enough to pose for a photo. It's actually a Grey Squirrel, albeit a black one or a melanistic individual. This strain is becoming increasingly numerous throughout this area.

And that's the end of the walk for today.

Walker's Log:

    Start: St Ives, Cambridgeshire 09:20
    End: St Ives, Cambridgeshire 14:05
    Distance walked: 8 miles (13 Km) 
    Notable birds: Buzzard, Green Woodpecker, Goldcrest. 
    Mammals: melanistic Grey Squirrel.
    Farm animals: Sheep, Cows, Horses, Alpacas. 
    Churches: St Ives (locked), Hemingford Grey, Hemingford Abbots, Houghton.
    People with dogs: 8
    Dogs with people: 10
    People just enjoying a walk: about 40 or so.
    Cyclists: 2
    Horse riders: 1

Take care.

Friday, 13 October 2017

On The Road To Duckpuddle Bush

Believe it or not there's a place a little further along this road called Duckpuddle Bush. It's nowhere near as quaint and picturesque as the name suggests but it sticks in my mind. Be that as it may, this by-road makes a good place to start a circular walk on the chalk hills south of Royston, just a few miles from home. I had my brother Les for company on this walk.

Our route commenced through woodland but emerged from time to time onto the Royston Golf Course where the Ladies' Autumn Meeting was taking place. It's a very undulating course and they probably did more strenuous walking than we did - and pulling a golf trolley as well. As you can see they have some grand views too out across the flat fields of Cambridgeshire, even though these are not particularly high hills.

Little glimpses of bright red beckoned through the trees and tempted the keen photographer away from the footpath to trespass along the field edge.

We then turned sharply south along the track to Therfield, leading through rolling arable fields. In spring these wide acres are home to dozens of hares, chasing and boxing as a prelude to breeding. They're probably here now but they're lying low and you'd be lucky to see them.

Les striding purposefully along the track. He looks like he's keen to get somewhere....

Ah, the Fox and Duck pub at Therfield. I can't treat you to a drink but you can see a photo of me enjoying one, a pint of Greene King IPA, and very pleasant it was too. Cheers, brother!

Walking Tips from John, Number 1 : When having a break in the walk, particularly one involving the consumption of alcohol, make sure that the next section is gently downhill.

So here we are descending gently along a sunken lane leading from Therfield down to an area known as The Thrift.

These wide chalky fields make simple sweeping patterns. You can soon have too much of this country but on this walk there's just enough to maintain interest. Last time I saw a herd of Fallow Deer up here and the time before that I had a close encounter with a Stoat a little earlier in the walk.

Today though the deer were kept away by a rather noisy tractor working the fields. You wouldn't expect to see much wildlife.....hang on, what's that?

Suddenly the sky was full of Red Kites. These impressive, agile flyers were almost extinct in this country till a few years ago but now I see them almost every time I go out for a walk in Hertfordshire. A few miles away, where I live, they are only seen occasionally.

There are lots of rose hips on the hedgerows at the moment, though the winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings, will be here soon and will make short work of them.

A rather tedious mile or so along a racehorse gallop leads to a short, sharp climb up into a beechwood nature reserve known as Fox Covert where a short stroll among the trees completed our circular walk.

Take care.