A Travellerspoint blog

Cracking the code

Bletchley Park

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Sign at Bletchley Park

We have been meaning to visit Bletchley Park for some time, our desire to do so increased by seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ a few years ago, and finally we went – and immediately decided to return soon! There is so much to see here, and luckily entrance tickets are valid for a year, so a repeat visit makes even more sense.

Background history

In 1938 the mansion of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire became the base for a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School. Tensions in Europe were growing, and their job was to set up and run intelligence activity from the house, chosen for its location near to, but not in, London. When tensions seemed to ease the base was closed down, but reopened when war broke out. The work that was undertaken here became vital to the Allied war effort, with ground-breaking inventions which shaped the future of computing science – a perfect illustration of the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention!

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Signage at Bletchley Park

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Signage

Today this site is rightly regarded as a hugely significant part of the history of Britain’s role in World War Two, but it might not have been. In the early 1990s there were plans to demolish Bletchley Park and build housing here, as part of the ever-growing new town of Milton Keynes on whose southern fringes it now lies. After public outcry and campaigning Milton Keynes Council was persuaded to declare most of Bletchley Park a conservation area. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and in 1994 opened the site to the public as a museum. With financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from commercial and private sponsors, the museum has gradually grown to become a major attraction – and is continuing to expand and develop additional parts of the site.

Introductory displays

As soon as we arrived, parked the car and started to walk towards the building housing the entrance and visitors centre we were left in doubt where we were, as the stylish signage echoes the coding theme.

We exchanged our pre-purchased online tickets for actual paper ones at the desk and were given a map of the site. The obvious place to start was with the exhibits in the visitor centre, where we watched a short introductory film tells the story of the part played during WW2 by those working at Bletchley Park. There was one of the famous German Enigma machines in a display case (we were to learn much more about these during the course of our visit) and an overview of the processes followed in deciphering enemy messages.

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Enigma machine

The Enigma machines used a system of rotors to scramble the 26 letters of the alphabet. Its settings were changed daily, based on secret key lists, while some other settings were changed for each message. The receiving station needed to know and use the exact settings employed by the transmitting station to successfully decrypt a message. Much of the work at Bletchley Park focused on identifying the encryption settings each day in order to decipher and translate the messages sent by the German army, air-force and navy.

After exploring these displays, we took a break over a coffee in the café here and studied the map we had been given. It was already clear that we couldn’t see everything on this first visit so we determined our priorities and set off to look around.

The lake

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View of the Mansion from the lakeside path

Walking around the small lake in the centre of Bletchley Park you can get a good overview of the layout and see how a family estate was transformed into a top-secret base. The mansion lies across the water, looking every bit the small-scale stately home it once was, but scattered on either side are the many huts, wooden and brick, that were built to house the various operations – first just a couple, then growing in number as the war progressed and the work carried out here became ever more critical to the war effort.

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Brick huts by the lakeside

Information boards at intervals describe daily life for the staff working here – the hardships (long shifts, spartan conditions (especially in the winter months) and the impossibility of telling anyone, even close family, what you were doing) – but also the small pleasures of games of tennis, skating on the lake in winter, forming friendships and romances.

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The lake with heron and bluebells

The Mansion

The ground floor of the Mansion, as the old house at the heart of the estate is known, is open to visitors and has a number of rooms of interest. We were welcomed on entering by a docent who told us that photography was allowed, if not for commercial purposes, and recommended that we look up at the ceilings as they are quite varied and attractive – he was right!

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The ceiling of one of the Mansion's rooms

The office of Commander Alastair Denniston, head of the British Government Code and Cypher School (known as GC&CS), has been recreated in great detail in the Mansion, and was our first taste of the way in which the atmosphere of those war years has been so effectively captured here. In-trays are full, piles of papers lie on the desks, pencils at the ready, typewriters with sheets inserted. On the notice board are announcements of a dance and a concert (social activities were seen as very important in keeping morale high), and a reminder to ‘carry your identity card always’.

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Commander Alastair Denniston's office in the Mansion

A sign describes a historic meeting which took place in this room in February 1941, which it credits as ‘the beginning of the United Kingdom / United States special relationship’. Four US military personnel came to Bletchley Park to discuss an exchange of information on Japanese and German codes and cyphers. This was some months before the US was to enter the war, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even those working here were unaware of the visit, apart from Dennison, his senior team and his personal assistant, recruited to the meeting to ‘pour glasses of sherry’.

The library at the other end of the hallway is similarly recreated to show as it would have looked when in use as a Naval Intelligence office. There are cigarette stubs in the ashtrays and empty, coffee-stained cups beside them. Hats and coats hang on the coat-stand and a cardigan is draped over the back of a chair with a handbag carelessly left on its seat. As elsewhere, the re-creation is based on old photographs and accounts of those who once worked here.

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In the library

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Other rooms in the Mansion are used for exhibitions, one of which is devoted to the Roll of Honour which lists all those believed to have worked in signals intelligence during World War Two, both at Bletchley Park and at other locations. There are photos of a few of them, sound recordings of the memories of just a handful, and an online resource which relatives can use to search for information on ancestors who worked here.

There was also a special temporary exhibition on the work of one of the most significant of the codebreakers, Bill Tutte, whose research in the field of graph theory was of enormous importance in the development of the techniques used here. I have to say though that the explanations of his work and its application to codebreaking were well over my head! I therefore quote Wikipedia on the significance of his achievements:
‘During the Second World War, he made a brilliant and fundamental advance in cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher, a major Nazi German cipher system which was used for top-secret communications within the Wehrmacht High Command. The high-level, strategic nature of the intelligence obtained from Tutte's crucial breakthrough, in the bulk decrypting of Lorenz-enciphered messages specifically, contributed greatly, and perhaps even decisively, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.’

The garages

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Stable block, and Sunbeam Tourer detail

Behind the Mansion are the garages in what was once the stable block, which house several interesting vehicles. They include a Sunbeam Tourer used in the 2001 film ‘Enigma’ starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, which we hadn’t seen but which sounds interesting – I plan to look out for it.

There is also a 1938 Austin Ambulance, used for the same film and also for the TV series ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, which I have seen. It tells the story of a young evacuee and stars John Thaw. Both vehicles were donated to Bletchley Park by the film company, owned by Mick Jagger, which made ‘Enigma’.

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1938 Austin Ambulance

The cottages

Next to the garages is a row of cottages around a stable-yard, presumably built to house staff when this was still a family estate. These were the location for some of the early codebreaking successes, before the various huts were built to accommodate the fast-growing operations here. It was in these cottages that Enigma was first cracked by an all-British team including Dilly Knox, Mavis Lever and Alan Turing. They aren't open to the public - I got the impression that they are in use as private residences.

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The Cottages

Hut 3

The highlights of our visit for me were the codebreaking huts, numbered 3 and 6. In these huts Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence. They have been brilliantly restored and presented in a fashion that recreates the war-time atmosphere, bringing to life the world of the codebreakers in a way that makes the huts seem almost haunted by them. The rooms are ‘dressed’ to resemble what they once were when the codebreakers worked there, and as you enter each you can hear the voices of actors engaged in realistic conversations about their work, and also their off-duty lives. In some rooms there are also projections of actors on the walls, but I think I found those where there was only audio the most effective of all.

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Corridor and desk in Hut 3

A sign as you enter Hut 3 explains:
‘You are now standing in one of the most secret areas of BP where deciphered messages were translated and analysed. Early on in the war the resulting intelligence was sent to MI6 and a limited number of senior army and RAF personnel. The evocative sights and sounds will help you to imagine what happened here. The scenes are set in 1940-41, and are based on the words and memories of BP veterans.’

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Teleprinter office, Hut 3

One of the larger rooms is that which housed the Watch, where a sign explains:
‘Work at BP went on round the clock. In this room there were four Watchkeepers on each shift, led by Watch 1. Most were civilian experts on German, able to fill any gaps in the deciphered messages before translating them. As they had no military experience, special Military Advisers helped compile the final reports.’

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The Watch

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In the Watch

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Hut 6

This was perhaps the beating heart of Bletchley Park. According to its sign,
‘Some of the most important codebreaking of the war took place in this hut. Little survives to tell us what it looked like inside, but the hut itself remains a witness to those tense times. Images, props, sounds and words are based on Veterans’ recollections and photographs taken later in WW2. They help to conjure up events here on just one date – 28 February 1941 – the day a crucial enemy cipher was broken.’

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A room in Hut 6

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The corner of an office, Hut 6

To capture the sound, as well the images, of this hut I shot some bits of video in a few of the rooms, which I later edited together:

We took a break at this point to eat a light lunch in Hut 4 which was formerly a WW2 naval intelligence codebreaking hut, but which now houses the café. Then we continued our explorations in another of the restored huts.

Hut 8

While the work in Huts 3 and 6 was focused on German army and air-force messages, Hut 8 was devoted to cracking the even tougher to decode naval messages. It was here that the famous Alan Turing did his most famous work, concentrating on this more complex Naval Enigma because ‘no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself.’ Turing devised a number of techniques to speed up the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish Bombe method, which used a machine (a forerunner of today’s computers) to work out the settings for the Enigma machine. This work ultimately enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped to win, and to shorten, the war. His office in Hut 8 has been recreated exactly as it would have looked in World War Two.

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Alan Turing's office

Other parts of this hut are devoted to hand-on ‘experiments’ illustrating ideas about probability and chance, and explaining how these are critical to an understanding of codebreaking. The codebreakers looked for what they called ‘cribs’ – predictable repeated phrases (e.g. weather reports) which could give a clue to the day’s encryption settings.

Huts 11 and 11A

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In the window of one of the huts

Our final stop for the day was in the huts which housed the Bombe machines, developed by Alan Turing from some earlier Polish ones which had been shared with the Allies at the outbreak of war. The machines featured multiple drums representing the rotors of an Enigma machine, which could whizz through all the different possible permutations for the settings each day. Hundreds of these machines were operated by Wrens, here and in outstations in other parts of the country. It was boring and oppressive work, with the women running the machines during long shifts in dark, stuffy rooms, as the displays here make clear.

By now though the museum was getting busier, including with several school groups, and it was harder both to study the displays and to take photos. We found it difficult to follow the detailed explanations of the technology behind the Bombes, so decided in the end to leave this section and the other remaining buildings until the future visit we had already determined to make.

But if you can’t wait till then to find out more about the Bombes, check out the museum’s website’s description of its Bombe Breakthrough exhibits.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:25 Archived in England Tagged lakes architecture history museum details world_war_two Comments (15)

Britain’s maritime legacy

Greenwich

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View over Greenwich and beyond

When people ask on forums where they might go on a day trip within easy reach of central London I often suggest that they look no further than Greenwich.

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River view from a Clipper

It offers history in abundance, elegant buildings, fascinating museums, an attractive market, bars and restaurants to suit all tastes – all in a lovely riverside setting. And to crown it all, you can stand on the Greenwich Meridian, from which the world’s time and all east/west distances are measured.

You can travel to Greenwich by water (river bus or sightseeing cruise) or rail in less than an hour from central London. And a day wouldn’t be enough to see and do everything here, so you will be spoiled for choice.

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Greenwich Pier

My own favourite way to travel is by Clipper, the river buses that ply the Thames. They cost a fraction of the tourist sightseeing cruises and while you don’t get the commentary that those offer you don’t pay their high prices either. You can catch the boats from several points including on the South Bank (near the London Eye) and by the Tower of London.

Seating on board is plentiful (maybe less so during the rush hour) and there is a snack bar where you can buy coffees, beer and wine, crisps and chocolate etc. The boats are fully wheelchair accessible and there are accessible toilets on board. All in all, this is a very comfortable way to travel.

The boats arrive at a pier right next to the famous Cutty Sark, so that’s as good a place as any to start our explorations.

The Cutty Sark

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The Cutty Sark

This beautiful ship was built in Scotland in 1869 as a tea clipper – the fast sailing ships which brought tea from China to Europe. Every season merchants competed to be the first with the new crops by employing the fastest ships, so the Cutty Sark was designed for speed – her owner John Willis had ambitions for her to be the swiftest of all the clippers. Between 1870 and 1878 she made eight voyages between London and Shanghai, taking manufactured goods and wine, spirits and beer to be sold in China and returning with her precious cargo of tea. But she never did win that annual race to be first with the new season’s tea.

By the end of that decade steamships had started to dominate the tea trade as they were able to use the newly opened Suez Canal (sailing ships needed to stay in the open sea to get the trade winds). So the Cutty Sark started to take different cargoes around the world: coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881. The 1880s and ‘90s saw her mainly carrying wool from Australia, and she established herself as the fastest vessel, the ‘last chance’ ship to make the English wool sales each January. But steamships moved into this trade too. For a while the Cutty Sark was under Portuguese ownership, sailing between Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, before returning to Britain in 1923 when she was bought by Wilfred Dowman who restored the ship to a close approximation of her appearance as a tea and wool clipper. She was used as a training ship for cadets but her condition and usefulness gradually declined. In 1954 however she was taken over by the National Maritime Museum who brought her to Greenwich where she has remained ever since.

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The Cutty Sark seen in the distance from a Greenwich street

She sits in a dry dock here, as she has done since she was towed here. Initially restored then, and opened to the public, she was again thoroughly restored between 2006 and 2012, a process that was held back for a while by a major fire. Luckily some of her most ornate parts, such as the figurehead, were not on board at the time because of the restoration process, so these escaped the blaze.

It is some years since I was on board, but I remember especially the large collection of figureheads which fascinated me as a child and continued to do so as an adult. These date mainly from the 19th century and came from a variety of merchant vessels. They portray characters from history, legend and literature, such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Disraeli, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot. The Royal Museums of Greenwich website explains more:

‘Figureheads are carved wooden sculptures which decorate the prow of a sailing ship, and were thought to represent the vessel’s spirit. It was believed that they offered the crew protection from the harsh seas and safeguarded their homeward journey. The figureheads were also used to identify a ship—one of a range of subjects would be chosen, reflecting the name of the ship from mid-18th century onwards.

The figureheads in The Cutty Sark Collection were produced by professional figurehead carvers, who lived and worked by the docks. Hard woods, such as oak or teak, were used and might have been treated with resins to increase the figure’s resistance to water, rot and wear. They were lovingly cared for by the crew, who took great pride in the appearance of their ship and its figurehead. The superstitions of seamen meant that the figurehead held great significance to those on board and they would go to great lengths to protect it.’

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The Cutty Sark figurehead on a stormy day

The Cutty Sark’s own figurehead is a young witch named ‘Nannie’ who was a character in the poem 'Tam O'Shanter', by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. In this poem the witch chases Tam dressed only a ‘cutty sark’—an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. You can read the full story on the Maritime Museum’s website.

Old Royal Naval College

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The Royal Naval College

The river bank in Greenwich is dominated by the stunningly elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College. And don’t just take my word for it – UNESCO described this as the ‘finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles’!

The buildings were the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the City’s churches. One look at the domes that crown the main buildings tells you that – they are so reminiscent of his most famous work. They were built between 1696 and 1712 to house the Greenwich Hospital, a home for disabled sailors, on the site of the former Greenwich Palace. The latter was a Tudor royal palace – the out-of-town pleasure palace of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I was born here and loved it too, but under the Stuarts it fell into disuse and, by the middle of the 17th century, into disrepair.

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More views of the Royal Naval College

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The domes are very reminiscent of St Paul's Cathedral, Wren's most famous work

The new buildings were the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers. Wren gave his services free of charge, as did his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor, because of the charitable nature of the project. His design was the result of restrictions imposed by the then queen, Queen Mary II, who didn’t want her view of the river from the Queen’s House to be blocked – hence the division into two main blocks and the consequent very pleasing symmetry. You can see in my photo below how the Queen’s House, nearer the camera, can peep between these two blocks to see the river beyond.

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The Queen's House and Royal Naval College from the park

Greenwich Hospital was closed in 1869 as with more peaceful times there were fewer seamen in need of the facility. The buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval College which needed to expand from its original Portsmouth base. For over 100 years sailors trained here, at first just men and then from 1939 onwards, women from the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the so-called WRENS. In later years there was even a training facility for nuclear-powered submarines which necessitated a small nuclear reactor on the site (unknown to local residents in Greenwich who might not have been keen to have such a thing on their doorstep). The college closed in 1998 as the numbers in the Navy were declining and sailors could now be trained alongside their Army and Air Force equivalents in the Joint Service College at Shrivenham.

Today the college is maintained and run by a charitable foundation which provides access to the three main attractions, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, Painted Hall and Chapel. All are open daily with free admission, and there are also regular events held here. Even if you aren’t coming to see any particular sight or attend any event, a stroll around the grounds is a real pleasure, especially on a sunny day when the architecture is to be seen at its best and the river sparkles in the background.

The Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College

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The Painted Hall

This hall is one of my favourite sights in Greenwich, and I never tire of introducing visitors to its glories (although on my most recent visit that wasn’t possible as it was undergoing major restoration during the summer of 2018). It was built by Wren to serve as the dining room for the naval veterans. After its completion in 1703 James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the walls and ceiling, and instructed to include many references to the importance of the navy in Britain’s fortunes.

Thornhill was paid only £3 per square yard for the ceiling, and just £1 per square yard for the walls. However, he did receive a knighthood in 1720 (the first English artist to receive this honour) and is generally considered to have created the finest painted architectural interior by an English artist. The work took him 19 years and as a result of his achievement here the Painted Hall was felt to be now far too grand for its intended purpose! Instead it became a visitor attraction - one of London’s first tourist attractions in fact. ‘Respectable’ visitors were admitted for 3d (the equivalent of about £1.80) and could hire one of the resident Pensioners to give them a guided tour.

It was also a place for significant events to be held. For instance, in 1806, 3 months after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of Horatio Nelson was brought to lie in state here. A side room today is devoted to Nelson memorabilia. Between 1824 and 1936 it was home to a naval art gallery, displaying about 300 naval-themed paintings.

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Domed ceiling in the entrance of the Painted Hall

But back to Thornhill and his artistic masterpiece. On my first visit here, a few years ago now, I realised that I had seen the hall some weeks earlier in a BBC history programme about the Georgian monarchs, but had not registered then where it was. A happy coincidence, as I was able to recall some interesting information from the programme to share with our weekend guests. Well, I thought it was interesting! If you would also like to know more about the paintings (and don’t have the ‘benefit’ of my half-remembered explanations!) you can book a place on the daily tour (free, at 11.15 am) or pick up a leaflet for just 50 pence. This will explain all the scenes and the mythology and symbolism attached to them. On the main ceiling, for instance:

‘Enthroned in heaven are King William and Queen Mary. Above, the sun god Apollo sheds his light, while Peace, with her doves and lambs, hands an olive branch to William. He in turn hands the red cap of liberty to the kneeling figure of Europe.’

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William and Mary

On the ceiling of the upper hall is Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs. The TV programme I saw pointed out that Thornhill had relegated the old regime to the ceilings and in doing that had portrayed them as aloof and out of reach of ordinary people.

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George I and family

In contrast, the new king, George I, is shown on the far wall of this upper hall as a family man, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Appearances are deceptive however; the truth is that he and his oldest son, also called George, hated each other, and there is a hint of this in the posing of the two figures, as the younger George turns pointedly away from his father (wearing a blue cloak towards the lower right corner of my photo). Also notable is the man standing in that bottom right corner by the pillar looking out at the viewer, as this is Thornhill himself.

Royal Naval College chapel

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The Chapel at the Royal Naval College

Facing the Painted Hall across a lawn is its symmetrical partner, the chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Its neoclassical interior was the work of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton, and is considered one of Britain's finest 18th century interiors.

The intricate mouldings of the ceiling are picked out in Wedgewood blue, a restful contrast to the splendours of the Painted Hall’s decoration. It was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth and its intricate central ornaments carved, rather than cast in moulds.

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Chapel ceiling

Much of the rest of the decoration follows a maritime theme, appropriate for the worshippers for whom it was built, the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. There is a ship’s anchor design in the centre of the black and white floor and wood carvings on the pews that resemble ropes.

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Showing the painting above the altar

The painting above the altar is by an American artist, Benjamin West. It depicts St. Paul on the island of Malta, where he miraculously survived being bitten by a snake. According to the account in the Acts of the Apostles, the weather was cold and wet, and the Maltese showed their hospitality by lighting a fire for Paul. As he gathered firewood, and laid it on the fire, a viper attached itself to his hand. He shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill-effects from the bite.

Various monuments in the vestibule commemorate the achievements of great sea-farers. Of these the most prominent is the marble Franklin Memorial which commemorates Sir John Franklin and the crews of the ships Erebus and Terror who lost their lives in the famous ill-fated 1845 expedition searching for the North West Passage.

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Detail of the Franklin Memorial, and statue of Charity

Also in the vestibule are four statues representing the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Meekness. My photo is of the statue of Charity. An inscription on the base of the statue reads: 'Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.'

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Carving details in the chapel

National Maritime Museum

This museum is located in a wing that had been added to the Royal Naval School in the 19th century, which was converted for its new purpose after the college left Greenwich in 1933, being finally completed only in 1951 (delayed no doubt by the war). It also has a new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, added in 2011 to house special exhibitions, a café and a library.

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The National Maritime Museum

The museum tells the story of the history of Britain at sea, including maritime art, maps and map-making, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments. Its separate wing at the Greenwich Observatory focuses on time-keeping and astronomy. The children’s gallery has lots of hands-on fun, including loading cargo, a galley where you can ‘prepare food’ and a canon to shoot at a pirate ship. Other galleries cover a range of sea-faring themes including exploration, naval warfare and trade. One area focuses on maritime London, looking at life on the Thames, the growth of the docklands and how institutions like Lloyd’s of London and the Baltic Exchange were formed. Another celebrates the life of Lord Nelson and victory in the Battle of Trafalgar.

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Figureheads collection

I particularly like the display of ships’ figureheads dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, when the art of carving these was at its height. In the same area is the gilded state barge which was built for Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1732.

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Details of Prince Frederick's Barge

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Prince Frederick's Barge, and statue of William IV outside the museum

There’s a pleasant café here too (at the rear), with outside tables which afford a lovely view of Greenwich Park – worth a refreshment stop even if you aren’t visiting the museum. While here, have a look at (well, you won’t be able to miss!) Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’. This was originally commissioned by the Greater London Authority for the Fourth Plinth project and was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in May 2010. It now has a permanent home here outside the Sammy Ofer Wing.

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Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

The Queen’s House

The Queen’s House was designed by Inigo Jones, who had studied Roman and Renaissance architecture in Italy, and is considered England’s first Classical building. His design reflects the Renaissance ideals of mathematical, classical proportion and harmony – for example the Great Hall here is a perfect cube. Much of its original splendour has been lost over the centuries, but you can still see the ceiling of the Queen’s Bedchamber painted in the ‘grotesque’ style, the wrought-iron balustrade of the Tulip Stairs (which was the first centrally unsupported spiral staircase in Britain), the painted woodwork of the Great Hall and its impressive geometrically-patterned black and white marble floor.

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The Queen's House

The house was built for Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, who wanted a pavilion at Greenwich to serve as a place of private retreat and hospitality. The story is that the king gave it to her as a gift to apologise for swearing in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his favourite dogs during a hunt. She however died before it could be finished and work only restarted when James's son Charles I gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria. It was finished in 1638.

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A ceiling in the Queen's House

The house is supposedly haunted and a famous ‘photograph of a ghost’ was taken on the Tulip Staircase. You can see this photo and read all about it on the website: https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/we-recommend/attractions/queens-house-ghost

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The Tulip Staircase in the Queen's House

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Another view of the staircase, and a decorative detail

The house holds a significant collection of paintings, including works by Gainsborough, Hogarth and Reynolds among others. One highlight is the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, which has recently been restored to reveal the original colours after centuries of dirt and discoloration. It portrays the queen as a ruler in command of the seas and has been instrumental in shaping our vision of her.

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The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

The Queen’s House website explains:

‘Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor. Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. She is draped in pearls – symbols of chastity and the Moon.

Numerous suns are embroidered in gold on her skirt and sleeves, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers over the New World, and above can be seen a covered imperial crown: both signal her potency as a ruler, not just of England but also as a monarch with overseas ambitions.’

The Royal Observatory

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The Royal Observatory's Flamsteed House on the hill

Crowning the hill that forms Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory and the nearby Planetarium. The original part of the observatory is Flamsteed House (1675–76), which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. The ‘Time and Longitude’ gallery tells the story of the quest to find longitude at sea in the age before satellite navigation. You can also see the Astronomers Royal's apartments and the Octagon Room designed for the observation of celestial events such as eclipses, comets and planetary movements.

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The Royal Observatory South Building

On top of Flamsteed House is one of the world's earliest public time signals, the bright red Time Ball, which is visible from some distance as my photo above attests. This was added to signal the time to ships on the Thames and to Londoners in general. It was first used in 1833 and still operates today. Every day at 12.55 the time ball rises half way up its mast; at 12.58 it rises all the way to the top; and at 13.00 exactly, the ball falls, thus providing a signal to anyone who happens to be looking. Of course, you need to know to be looking, so you have to have a rough idea of the time already for this to be of help!

In front of Flamsteed House is the Meridian Courtyard. Here you can stand on the world-famous Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the Prime Meridian of the World, 0º of longitude. Every spot on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line, which divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth just as the Equator divides the northern and southern ones.

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The set of measures

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Standing on the Meridian Line

It has always seemed a bit unfair to me that you have to pay for this, probably because (puts on ‘grumpy old woman’ voice) when I was a child you could enter the courtyard and stand on the line freely. So I was gratified on a recent visit to find that you don't have to go far to be able do just that. If you look to the right of the courtyard gate (through which everyone will be peering for a glimpse of the line) you will see an old clock on the wall (an early example of an electronic clock) and below it a set of standard British measures.

To the right of these is a black metal kissing gate, leading to a narrow path that runs below the observatory's courtyard. You only have to walk a couple of metres along this to see the line running down the wall and crossing the path in front of you. Space is tight for photography but it's perfectly possible to stand on the line and get that souvenir shot, as my Virtual Tourist friend from Estonia, Mare, demonstrates.

I should add that I'm not for a minute recommending that you don't visit the observatory, which is very good, but if you don't have time for that or aren't very interested, at least you don't have to miss out on seeing the famous Meridian Line.

By the way, you don't even have to visit Greenwich to stand on the Meridian. This map shows other locations in the UK where it is marked.

As well as enjoying all that the Observatory has to offer, a climb up the hill in Greenwich Park is rewarded with some wonderful views as you can see. The elegant buildings of the Old Naval College, the Queen’s House and the Maritime Museum lie at the foot of the hill. The Thames flows beyond, with lots of river traffic coming and going. And on the far bank rise the dramatic skyscrapers of London’s Docklands. Further to your left (the west) you can see some of the buildings of the City, the Shard and even the London Eye.

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View from the hill

But if you can’t manage the hill, there are still good views to be had along the river bank, as my photo below shows.

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Canary Wharf from Greenwich

Greenwich Market

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Entrance to the market

As a contrast to all the history that surrounds you at Greenwich I think it is fun to spend some time in the lovely market. This is tucked between some of the streets in the town centre and has a variety of stalls but with three main focuses: crafts, antiques and street food.

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Wood turner

On one visit we bought a beautiful hand-turned wooden bowl as a wedding gift for friends. Each of these pieces is unique, so they aren’t cheap, but they are well worth the price. The same applies to some other of the crafts-people selling here, but you can also get lower-priced jewellery and pretty items for the home.

One of my most interesting purchases here, from one of the antique stalls, was a photo album which really captured my imagination. It dates from the 1930s and shows the travels of an English couple (I assume) in north Africa, pre-war Germany and the Mediterranean.

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Old photo album

I was so intrigued by this that I scanned all the photos and created a website in the hopes of tracing some information about those captured in them: http://sarahwilkie8.wix.com/travel-1930s-style. So far, sadly, no one has been able to identify them although one friend did point me towards some ships’ passenger inventories of the time which unfortunately failed to come up with any likely names.

At one end of the market there is a cluster of food stalls selling the cuisines of several countries: Brazilian churros, Indian street food, Ethiopean vegetarian dishes, sushi, noodles and much more.

Around the edge of the market are some interesting little shops with goods likely to appeal to those who also enjoy the market – more crafts, quirky fashions, art and items for the home. I can happily spend several hours (and more than a few pounds) here! There is also a good pub, the Coach and Horses, where I have had several pleasant lunches. As well as a cosy interior it has some tables outside in the market.

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In the market

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The Coach and Horses

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Inside the Coach and Horses

The O2

To the north of this main centre of Greenwich is an area called, unsurprisingly, North Greenwich. Here you will find the (currently named) O2 arena. In the run up to the year 2000 a number of Millennium projects were planned for London. Despite some teething problems, most people agreed that the new bridge was a great success, once it stopped wobbling, and of course everyone enjoyed the fireworks! But the biggest project, the Millennium Dome, was something of a PR and financial disaster – failing to capture the public’s imagination and attract the visitor numbers that would have covered the cost of building it. Perhaps that was because of the rather didactic nature of the exhibition it housed, the Millennium Experience. This was intended to be a World’s Fair style showcase of British life and achievement, but most of its 14 zones were lacking in content and rather dull (I know – I took my mother-in-law along and we were neither of us wildly excited by it, though I remember feeling that it was not as bad as some of the media had suggested).

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Looking north east from Greenwich Park
The Millennium Dome / O2 is visible centre left

The building itself also received mixed but largely unenthusiastic reactions. It is an interesting one however, its design full of symbolism. A huge white (today rather grey) ‘tent’ is supported by twelve yellow poles, one for each month of the year or each hour of the clock face – a nod to the nearby Greenwich Meridian and the importance of time to this part of the country. And it is 365 metres in diameter, one for each day of a (non Leap) year.

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View from the upper tier of the O2 -
tennis tournament

After the end of 2000 the exhibitions were dismantled, and for a while just the roof of the dome remained, a bit of a white elephant. There was much debate about what to do with it, and many more disparaging remarks. Eventually though it was developed as a sports and entertainment complex, with multiple venues sited under the main roof and a network of restaurants, shops, offices and housing around it. Today it is home to a cinema, bowling alley, a number of chain restaurants and an arena that hosts sporting and music events. In a fairly recent development you can also climb the roof for a view of London with a difference (and no, I haven’t done that – yet!!) But we did come here a year or so back to see the Masters tennis event, and were impressed by the excellent views even from our upper tier seats, so I think we’ll be back to see the rejuvenated Dome again.

There is even more to do in Greenwich than I have included here, as I haven’t talked about sights I am yet to visit (such as the Fan Museum). But I hope I have convinced you that it is well worth the trip from central London to spend a day here!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:04 Archived in England Tagged art skylines boats architecture london park history views church market river city museum science Comments (17)

On England’s east coast

A visit to Suffolk

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On the banks of the Deben in Waldringfield

We recently spent a couple of days on the coast of Suffolk in the region of England known as East Anglia, catching up with old friends and enjoying some October sunshine. We visited a few of the coastal towns, staying overnight in one of them, Aldeburgh. Although we weren’t here for long it reminded us of what we like about this county – its shingle beaches, boating communities and big skies.

Woodbridge

We left our home in Ealing just after breakfast, having waited for the worst of the rush hour to pass, and braved the northern stretches of the M25, which wasn’t as bad as it sometimes is. We then took the A12 up past Chelmsford and Colchester, and on towards Ipswich. We were due to meet our friends at a pub in Waldringfield, on the River Deben east of Ipswich, but we were early (having factored in possible hold-ups) so carried on a short distance further to Woodbridge, in search of coffee.

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Old door, and boat decoration, Woodbridge

Woodbridge also lies on the Deben and is best known for its Tide Mill. We were here many years ago and had vague memories of good views down by the river, so once we’d parked the car we headed in that direction.

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Woodbridge Tide Mill

The Tide Mill has stood here on the banks of the Deben for over 800 years. The earliest record of a mill on this site dates back to 1170. It was owned by the Augustinian Priors for around 350 years until Henry VIII confiscated it, and for the next 28 years it was in royal ownership before being sold by Elizabeth I and passing to private ownership.

When it closed in 1957 it was the last commercially working tide mill in England. The building was saved in 1968 and restored, before being opened to the public in 1973. It is now one of only two tide mills in the country still producing stone-ground wholemeal flour.

Even if we had had time to visit though we would not have been able to, as in October it opens only at weekends and the school holidays (and not at all from November to March). But our Thursday visit to Woodbridge was serendipitous in another respect, as this turned out to be the only day of the week when the cheerful red Suffolk Coffee Pod visits the town. It was parked down by the tide mill, with several tables and chairs set out on the river bank offering gorgeous views downstream. One table was vacant, the smell of strong espresso hung in the air – we had found our perfect spot!

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Woodbridge Tide Mill and River Deben
You can see the bright red Coffee Pod in front of the mill!

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The view from our coffee spot

After finishing our coffee we had a brief stroll along the river before walking back to our car for the short drive back south to Waldringfield.

Waldringfield

Our friends had booked a table for lunch at the Maybush Inn, which like the tide mill in Woodbridge has a lovely location right on the River Deben. We had a leisurely meal in the conservatory overlooking the decking, which was crowded on this exceptionally warm October day, and with views beyond to the river.

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On the banks of the Deben in Waldringfield

After lunch we went our separate ways – our friends to their homes on the outskirts of Ipswich and Chris and I driving north again towards Aldeburgh, where we had booked a room for the night.

Aldeburgh

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The beach at Aldeburgh

Unlike Woodbridge, Aldeburgh sits right on the North Sea coast, with a long shingle (pebble) beach typical of this coastline. This beach still has a working fishing fleet – you will see the boats pulled up on the shore and traditional black huts selling fresh fish and shellfish.

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On the beach at Aldeburgh

In the 16th century this was a leading seaport, with a flourishing ship-building industry. Much of the Tudor town has been lost to the sea but the Moot Hall, dating from 1520, still stands opposite the White Lion Hotel where we stayed. Today it serves as the town museum and houses the Town Clerk’s office. A sign explains that this once stood in the centre of the town but the two streets and four rows of houses to its east have long been washed away.

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The Moot Hall
(now a museum)

Having checked into the White Lion we went out again to explore. We took lots of photos on the beach opposite, where another photographer had set up a photo of a chair perched in the pebbles near the water’s edge – I have no idea why but we made use of his staged photo opp nevertheless!

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On the beach at Aldeburgh

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The Scallop from a distance

We then walked north along the sea front towards the Scallop, a four-metre high stainless steel scallop shell which sits on the shingle. This is the work of renowned local artist, Maggi Hambling, and is a tribute to local composer Benjamin Britten. The shell is pierced with the words, ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’, from his opera, Peter Grimes.

Interestingly, the Scallop looks different from different angles – from the distance as we approached it appeared more like a beached whale than a shell.

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The Scallop

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Details of the Scallop

We had dinner that evening in the White Lion’s Brasserie Bleu (hotel guests get a 10% discount), preceded by a drink in the bar (excellent local gin, Fishers, by the way). The meal was delicious, especially my locally caught dressed crab.

After a good night’s sleep in our small but cosy room, and a yummy breakfast, we checked out of the White Lion. We took a few more photos on and around the beach near the hotel.

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Fishing hut

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Boats on the beach

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Beach details

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Old house near the beach, and statue of Snooks the dog

The statue of Snooks is a tribute to a local GP, Dr Robin Acheson, and his wife Nora, also a GP. Snooks, who followed his master as he made his calls and became a familiar sight around the town, got his name because the family ate tinned snook (a sort of fish) from Africa during the Second World War.

We then returned to the car to drive the few miles south to Orford.

Orford

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View of Orford village from the Quay

Orford sits on the River Alde, which separates the village from Orford Ness, a long shingle spit formed by longshore drift along the coast from places further north – I have already mentioned the erosion at Aldeburgh, and Dunwich to the north has also been badly affected with most of its 13th century buildings, including eight churches now either totally lost to the sea or in ruins because of it. Orford Ness is a protected area and designated National Nature Reserve. It can be visited by ferry but even if we had had the time I don’t think these were operating due to high winds.

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Orford Quay

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At Orford Quay

We parked in a ‘pay and display’ car park near Orford Quay which lies just beyond the main part of the village, along the river. Despite the wind, which made it hard to hold the camera still and to keep my hair out of my eyes, there were some more great photo opps here, with distant views of the Orford Ness lighthouse, some battered old boats and views inland towards the village.

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Orford Ness lighthouse

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By the river in Orford

We walked a short distance along the river then returned to the quay where we found welcome refuge from the wind in the Riverside Tearoom, with good espresso and great views from our window table.

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Orford Castle from the Quay, and fishing hut near the Riverside Tearoom

Returning to the car we drove back up into the village where we were fortunate to find roadside parking. We took a stroll through the village, passing the church which is dedicated to St Bartholomew. The main structure was built in the 14th century, but it was the 12th century chancel ruins attached which caught my eye, and my lens.

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St Bartholomew's church

We didn’t go inside the church but instead continued to the castle keep. Orford Castle was built between 1165 and 1173 by Henry II to consolidate his power in the region, but only the keep still stands, surrounded by the earth-covered works of the outer fortifications.

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Orford Castle

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Sign and gatepost at the castle

We decided not to explore the castle fully, nor to linger any longer in Orford, as we knew the roads back to and around London (the dreaded M25!) would be busy on a Friday afternoon. Instead we planned to stop for lunch somewhere further south, to break the journey, and settled on Dedham, just off the A12 on the Suffolk/Essex border.

Dedham

Dedham is a fairly substantial and very attractive village which has given its name to the surrounding countryside on the banks of the River Stour – Dedham Vale. This area is also popularly known as Constable Country, after the famous artist John Constable who captured these landscapes in his work (most famously at Flatford Mill in East Bergholt, the scene of the Haywain). Constable was a pupil at the local grammar school, walking here along the river valley from Flatford Mill which his father, a corn merchant, owned.

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Building details in Dedham

We parked at the far end of the main street and strolled back, checking out the various hostelries with a view to lunch. We had intended to eat in one of the pubs, but after two good meals yesterday and a cooked breakfast, were not as hungry as we might have been. So when the Essex Rose tea house caught our eye, with its extensive menu of lighter meals, we opted for that and were very happy with our choice – friendly service, good granary bread for the sandwiches and refreshing Tiptree juices.

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Pub sign, and the Essex Rose

After lunch we visited the church of St. Mary the Virgin opposite the tea rooms. This was built in the latter part of the 15th century, the last medieval 'wool church' (that is, financed through the donations of rich wool merchants and farmers) to be completed in the country.

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St. Mary the Virgin, Dedham

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Porch detail, St. Mary the Virgin

Today the church was decorated for the harvest festival and featured what must be the best such decorations I have come across. In one corner a whole tableau had been created, with hay cart, fruit and vegetables, and animals (chickens, sheep, hares – none of them real, I should add!)

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Inside St. Mary the Virgin

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Harvest Festival time at St. Mary the Virgin

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'The Ascension' by Constable, and family memorial

Whatever the season the church is still worth a visit. Its most noteworthy feature is a painting by Constable of ‘The Ascension’, which a sign explains is ‘the best of only three religious paintings by John Constable, all of which were painted for churches in his native Stour Valley.’ The sign goes on to tell how the painting was commissioned by a cousin of Constable’s, Edward Alston, in order to gain favour with the Archdeacon of Canterbury who was responsible for licensing public houses – guess what, Alston was a brewer! But the archdeacon refused the license and later died, so Alston reneged on the contract with Constable. This was a considerable financial blow (the commission was worth £200) but he did still finish the painting – although, as the sign points out, the lower half ‘shows less commitment than the upper.’

I was also intrigued by one of the memorials which commemorated not only a local family but also ‘their dear nurse and friend’.

After leaving the church we decided that it was high time we hit the road again, trying to beat the worst of the Friday afternoon traffic around London. We failed! So it was a less than enjoyable drive home, but worth it for the very pleasant time we had spent in Suffolk.

Posted by ToonSarah 08:35 Archived in England Tagged churches art boats castles coast history village river sculpture seaside Comments (15)

A university city

Cambridge

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King's College chapel from the Backs

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge (often shortened here to ‘Oxbridge’) are known the world over for the quality of the education they provide, their many illustrious alumni and their long history. They dominate the towns in which they are based, giving each a unique atmosphere. Both towns are within easy reach of London and make for an interesting day trip from the capital.

I recently spent a day in Cambridge exploring with friends (former work colleagues) who moved there some years ago. One works (and volunteers) at several of the colleges, and studied here too, at Clare College, so has privileged free entry to several of the paid-for sights (and can take in a visitor – me!) In a day it was of course only possible to visit a handful of the colleges but those we went to were beautiful, made more so by the wonderful September sun.

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Punting on the Cam near King's College

Incidentally, I learned from my unofficial guides that this is a great month to visit. There are slightly fewer tourists than in mid-summer, and the students are yet to return en masse after their long break, though there are some around. The college gardens are at their best – efforts are made to ensure that flower displays peak twice a year, in May for graduation and in September for new arrivals. How much the students notice and appreciate this is probably up for debate!

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New Court, St John's College

So join us on our walk around some of these historic colleges.

Getting to Cambridge

I took the train to Cambridge from London’s Kings Cross station – fast (non-stopping) trains take about 50 minutes. I was met at the station by my friends, and as it is some way from the town centre we caught a bus together. Their excellent suggestion was to start with coffee and a chat about the plan for the day.

Fitzbillies

Fitzbillies is truly a Cambridge institution, having been here since 1920, on the same corner site (although it has since expanded to take over the neighbouring property too). It is famous especially for its Chelsea buns – sweet, sticky, gooey cinnamon-laden swirls of yeasty dough.

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Fitzbillies

The bakery was founded by two brothers, Ernest and Arthur Mason, who used their demob money on return from the First World War to buy the shop. The Art Nouveau frontage they installed is still here (on the left in my photo above). The shop thrived and was run by the Masons until 1958, when they sold it to a Mr and Mrs Day. This was an era of enthusiastic cake consumption – Chelsea buns for parties and picnics, iced fancies for afternoon tea, and ornate creations for special occasions such as weddings. But by the 1980s supermarkets provided competition and could sell their cakes more cheaply than a family-run business such as Fitzbillies. The business went bankrupt, and the building was gutted by a fire in 1998, but it was bought, restored and reopened, trading successfully until 2011 when it went bankrupt again.

It was saved through the twin 21st century powers of social media and celebrity! A former Cambridge resident, now working in marketing in London, saw a tweet from the famous writer/actor/comedian Stephen Fry bemoaning the closure of a favourite bakery, and stepped in to save it along with her husband. So Fitzbillies is once more a thriving family-run business, and their Chelsea buns are as popular as ever!

So of course we had to order Chelsea buns with our coffees, justifying our indulgence a little by opting to share two between the three of us. And they were delicious, definitely living up to their fame! Then, fortified, we set off on our walk.

Pembroke College

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Old Court, Pembroke College

The first college we went to was Pembroke, on the corner opposite Fitzbillies. As with most of the colleges, only the grounds and chapel can be visited.

The college was founded in 1347 by Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke, and is the third oldest of the Cambridge colleges, and the oldest still on its original site. It was the first to have its own Chapel – that chapel is today known as the Old Library, having been replaced by a later one (more of that in a minute!) The college originally occupied just one court on the corner of Pembroke and Trumpington Streets, but in the 17th century it started to expand into what became known as Ivy Court (the original being of course Old Court) and in the 19th beyond this again, with the addition of a new library and several other buildings around what is known today as Library Lawn.

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Another view of Old Court

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Library Lawn with its statue of William Pitt, a former student

Meanwhile in the latter part of the 17th century a new chapel was commissioned, as the result of a vow made by a former student, Matthew Wren, now Bishop of Ely. While imprisoned in the Tower of London during the Civil War the bishop vowed that, if released, he would build a new chapel for his college, Pembroke. On release he proceeded to fulfil his vow, and chose as his architect his own nephew, Christopher. Thus this chapel, which was consecrated in 1665, became the first completed work of Christopher Wren, later to be Sir Christopher Wren. The east end of the chapel was later extended by George Gilbert Scott Junior, in 1880 – you can see the lighter stonework in the photo below.

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The chapel from Library Lawn

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Inside the chapel of Pembroke College

One modern addition, when we visited, can be seen on the right of the aisle in my first photo of the interior above. This curved cross is known as the Cross of the Migrants and was made by a carpenter from the Italian island of Lampedusa, Francesco Tuccio. He used some timbers from one of the many migrant boats which attempted the crossing to Lampedusa in 2016. The cross serves as a memorial to the 3,000 migrants who died in the Mediterranean that year. A sign adds that it is ‘also a challenge to us as citizens, voters, Christians, human beings.’ There is another similar cross made by Tuccio in 2013 in the British Museum: the Lampedusa cross. And you can read more about what inspired him to start making these crosses in this article from the BBC.

Fitzwilliam Museum

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Entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum

From Pembroke College we walked a little further along Trumpington Street, passing Peterhouse College, to see the recently refurbished Fitzwilliam Museum (as an aside, you can see now how Fitzbillies got its name!) The museum was founded in 1816 by Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, who bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and his library, together with funds to house them, in order to further ‘the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation’. The collection has increased over the years, with art and artefacts from all over the world, and is now considered one of the best small museums in Europe.

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Portico ceiling

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Restored entrance hall

The refurbishment of the museum has focused on the restoration of the stunning Victorian entrance hall known as The Founder's Entrance. We only went into the entrance hall to admire, and photograph, its grandeur – a visit to the museum itself could otherwise have taken up most of our day and is perhaps better left to a less clement day.

Queens’ College

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On St Botolph's Church

Retracing our steps down Trumpington Street and back past Fitzbillies and past St Botolph’s Church we turned down Silver Street to visit our next college, Queens’. This is one of the colleges for which a charge is made to visit, but Members of the University of Cambridge, such as my friend, and residents of the city, can enter free of charge and take one guest – so no need for us to pay!

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Door detail, Queens'

Queens’ is one of the oldest and the largest colleges of the university, and was founded in 1448 by Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. It was subsequently re-founded, in 1465, by the rival Yorkist queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. This dual foundation is the reason why the college is always known as Queens’, never Queen’s.

Entering through the Great Gate we came first to Old Court, built between 1448 and 1451. The Old Library, on the right as you enter, is one of the earliest purpose-built libraries in Cambridge and has what looks like a beautiful and elaborate sundial but is in fact known as a moondial. This tells not only the time of day but also the current sign of the zodiac, month and much more – see this full explanation on the college website: Reading the Dial.

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Old Court moondial and clock, Queens'

On our way through to the next court, the Cloister Court, we could see into, but not enter, the Old Hall, part of the original college. It was hard to get photos through the glass because of all the reflections of the lighting in the passageway, but I did my best, helped by one of my friends who tried to shade the light, with some success. The hall has a beautiful painted ceiling, a 19th century restoration which removed a flat ceiling that had been added in the early 18th. The left-hand portrait at the far end is Erasmus, who once studied here, and the central figure one of the foundresses, Elizabeth Woodville, while on the right is Sir Thomas Smith, a 16th century diplomat and former Fellow of Queens’.

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Old Hall, Queens' College

The Cloister Court is named for its cloisters which were built in the 1490s to link the Old Court with other college buildings nearer the river.

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Cloister Court

Adjacent to Old Court is Walnut Tree Court, named for the tree that grows on its lawn. The one we see today is a replacement for an earlier one in the same position, standing on the line of a former monastery wall. The court was built in 1616–18. On its north side (left on my photo below) is the college chapel, which we didn’t go into (I believe it may have been closed).

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Walnut Tree Court

Instead we walked back through Cloister Court to the river and the famous Mathematical Bridge. The is a story attached to this bridge, which links the two halves of Queens’ College. It is said that the bridge was designed and built by Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts, and that later some students or fellows tried to take it apart and put it back together. They were unable to do so and had to resort to holding the bridge together with nuts and bolts. Sadly perhaps, this story is a myth - the bridge was built in 1749 by James Essex the Younger to the design of the master carpenter William Etheridge, 22 years after the death of Newton. This doesn’t stop the Mathematical Bridge from being one of the most photographed sights in Cambridge and of course I had to take some pictures too, waiting for punters to pass under it and position their boats in aesthetically pleasing spots!

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The Mathematical Bridge

Incidentally, punting on the Cam is a traditional and very popular activity here. You can hire a boat to punt yourself, or join an organised tour where the guide punts for you. The sound of the commentary on these tours drifts up as you watch from one of the many bridges or walk along the river banks – so much so that it can distract somewhat from the beautiful views. Punting was first introduced in the early 20th century and was quickly embraced by the students as a leisure activity, and more recently by visitors to the city keen to experience it as they do.

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Punting under the Mathematical Bridge

We decided to break for lunch at this point and had a very pleasant meal at the nearby Anchor pub, which I somehow omitted to photograph! It has a terrace overlooking the Cam, which on this sunny day was completely full, but we secured a table only just inside the door so we still had the view but were out of the sun, which was maybe a good thing as it was pretty hot for September. The pub dates back to 1864 and is associated with the rock band Pink Floyd – Syd Barrett was a regular here and the band played here several times.

King’s College

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King's College from the Backs

After our lunch we continued our explorations, crossing back over the Cam to walk along what are known as The Backs, the green lawns on the far side of the river to the town, from where you get excellent views of several of the colleges – and none more so than King’s.

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On King's College Bridge

We crossed back over the river at King’s College Bridge. This took us to the lawn immediately behind the main college buildings, dominant among them the famous King’s College Chapel.

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King's College Lawn with Chapel, Gatehouse and Screen

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Above the Gatehouse, King's College

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Entrance to King's College Chapel

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Exterior details of the Chapel

When I was a child my mother would always insist on listening to (and in later years watching) the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s on Christmas Eve, despite being the most unreligious person I know! That pause for beautiful music amidst the frenetic preparations for the big day was as much part of our family’s Christmas traditions as Mum’s recipe for Christmas pudding and the timing of the opening of gifts (always after breakfast!) So I loved being able to visit the chapel where these services are held.

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In King's College Chapel

As with Queens’, my friend’s membership of the university allowed us free access to the chapel and grounds of the college (otherwise the charge is £10). The chapel alone is worth a trip to Cambridge in my view – it is stunning!

The chapel was founded, like the college itself, by Henry VI. But the king didn’t live to see the work completed, being murdered in the Tower of London in 1471 when little more than the foundations had been built. Work continued rather half-heartedly under Edward IV and somewhat more enthusiastically under Richard III who gave instructions that 'the building should go on with all possible despatch' and to 'press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed'. By the end of his reign the first six bays of the Chapel had reached full height and the first five bays were roofed with oak and lead and were in use.

But it was under the Tudors, first Henry VII and then Henry VIII, to finish the work, and they did so in a grand style. The main structure and the vaulting (the chapel has the world's largest fan vaulted ceiling) were funded by Henry VII – partly during his reign and partly through his will. It was Henry VIII who oversaw the fan vaulting, which was built in just three years between 1512 and 1515, and later the glazing and most of the woodwork. The most striking example of the latter is the rood screen, which separates the nave from the altar and supports the chapel organ. This was erected in 1532–36 by Henry VIII in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and you can see both their initials carved on it. It is considered an exceptional example of early Renaissance architecture.

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Henry VIII's initials carved in the rood screen

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Arms of Henry VIII, King's College Chapel

The Tudors were of course a royal family under pressure – recently come to the throne as a result of victory in the Wars of the Roses, and facing ongoing challenges from other claimants. Asserting their authority was highly important, and where better to do so than in the building of this magnificent chapel?

Much of the decoration here, therefore, has little to do with Christianity and much to do with the power of the ruling family. The arms of Henry VII appear above the entrance and are repeated all around the walls of the nave, below the choir. A feature on the university website describes them:

‘Each shield (or escutcheon) is flanked by heraldic “supporters”: a dragon on the left and a greyhound on the right. Carved from pale limestone, the slender greyhounds have collars set with jewels, marking them out as favoured members of a wealthy household. All the shields have holes in their left-hand corners. This is a reference to jousting: a knight would pass his lance through the hole in the shield in order to defend himself while tilting at his opponent.’

The greyhound is the symbol of the Beaufort family (Henry’s mother was a Beaufort) while the dragon is the emblem of the Tudors. It struck me how each pair of animals is posed slightly differently – I haven’t found any mention of this online, so it perhaps has no particular significance other than to demonstrate the skill of Henry VII’s master mason John Wastell and his chief carver Thomas Stockton, or even to relieve their boredom at creating multiple copies of their master’s arms!

Elsewhere you will see the crowned Tudor rose, the crowned portcullis (another Beaufort family emblem), and the crowned fleur de lis for his titular kingship of France. Look at my photo of the fan vaulted ceiling – roses and portcullises sit at the highest intersections.

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Fan vaulted ceiling, King's College Chapel

You have to look quite closely to find any religious symbols in the stonework, like the small instrument-playing angels I spotted high on the walls of the chancel.

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Carving of angel, King's College Chapel

The stained glass windows here are magnificent, and these do have a religious theme, depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. Even here though the politics of the time crept in. I found the following intriguing explanation in a Telegraph newspaper review of a book about the windows:

‘Henry VII studded the windows with stubby hawthorn bushes that symbolised his victory at Bosworth Field. As Henry VIII careered from one wife to another, the glaziers were called on to make subtle alterations to the windows: for example, Anne Boleyn's falcon badge was quietly translated into Jane Seymour's phoenix. … Henry was Solomon. Henry was Moses. Henry was David brandishing the head of a papal Goliath. Renaissance buildings, Tudor galleons and more naturalistic techniques humanised the illustrations.’

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Stained glass windows

Amazingly most of the original early 16th century windows, including the great east window behind the altar, survived both the ravages of Cromwell during the Commonwealth and the bombs of World War Two when most was taken out and stored safely elsewhere.

The only later window is the west one, added in 1879, but it holds its own among all the others.

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West window, King's College Chapel

The painting above the altar is the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, originally painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium. It was installed here in 1968, an operation that involved lowering the sanctuary floor and which was therefore not without controversy – especially as the painting is not considered one of Rubens’ best and as it clashes in style with the stunning east window immediately above it.

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East window, and Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

To the right of the altar a small side chapel serves as a memorial to those from the college (scholars, fellows, masters, staff etc.) who died in the two world wars. One very notable name to look for, near the top left of the WW1 commemorative plaque, is that of the famous war poet Rupert Brooke who died in 1915, aged just 18, from sepsis while with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. His most famous poem is The Soldier:

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WWI memorial plaque

‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’

I don’t think any number of photos can replicate the overall impression you get standing in this chapel, so do look at this virtual tour on the Kings College website to get the full effect.

More colleges and other sights

From Kings we walked past the Old Schools which house the Cambridge University offices and formerly housed the Cambridge University Library. My photos are of the entrance gate on the west side in a building designed by George Gilbert Scott (also responsible for the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial, among many others).

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The Old Schools

We walked through Senate Passage and emerged on to Kings Parade by Senate House. This is where all the university degree ceremonies are held. It was designed and built by James Gibbs in 1722–1730 , in a neo-classical style using Portland stone.

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Senate House from Senate Passage

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Senate House from King's Parade

We passed, but didn’t go into, Gonville and Caius College, named for its two founders. Gonville, Rector of Terrington St Clement in Norfolk, first founded the College as Gonville Hall in 1348. When it went into decline in the 16th century a former student and Fellow, John Keys, who also spelled his name as the Latin Caius, came to the rescue and re-founded his old College of Gonville Hall as ‘Gonville and Caius College’. My assumption is that the two stone figures above the Great Gate which show men holding buildings must be Gonville and Caius, and the third, in bishop’s robes, would perhaps be William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who executed Gonville’s will and appointed the first Master of the college (he also, incidentally, set up his own college, Trinity, which we will come to shortly).

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Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Next on our route was Great St Mary’s, the university church. Although we didn’t, it’s possible to climb the 123 steps of the tower for views of the city. The present church was constructed between 1478 and 1519, replacing two earlier ones on this sit, and the tower finished later, in 1608. There have been various restorations over the centuries including one by George Gilbert Scott in 1850-51, and most recently during the last century.

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Great St Mary’s, the university church

We continued our walk north along Trinity Street, passing the Great Gate of Trinity College which was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Above the gate is a carving of King Henry VIII who founded the College in 1546 – one of the very last acts of his life. It was formed by amalgamating two existing colleges, King’s Hall and Michaelhouse. Look carefully at the carving on my photo below – Henry is holding a chair or table leg in his right hand! It is thought that this was substituted for the original sword, but no one knows when, or how, although it seems likely to have been a student prank.

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Trinity College - statue of Henry VIII

Students, presumably freshers (first year undergraduates), were arriving here and I spotted these men in traditional bowler hats welcoming them at the old wooden gate.

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At Trinity College

St John’s College

A little further on we came to another Great Gate, that of St John’s College.

The statue above it is of St John the Evangelist, with an eagle (his traditional symbol and an emblem of the College). He carries a poisoned chalice with a snake twined around it, representing the legend that once, while at Ephesus, John was given a cup of poisoned wine to drink. Before drinking, he blessed the cup and the poison departed the cup in the form of a serpent.

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Above the Great Gate, St John’s College

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First Court, St John’s College

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St John’s College Chapel
from Trinity Street

Passing through the gate we were in the college’s First Court, from where we had good views of the college chapel’s impressive tower, the tallest building in Cambridge, which we had already seen in front of us as we walked along Trinity Street.

Front Court dates from the early 16th century though it has been considerably altered over the centuries, especially on the north side where this chapel was built. The chapel is relatively new by Cambridge standards, having been built between 1866 and 1869 to replace a smaller medieval chapel which dated back to the 13th century. The architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott (his name crops up a lot when you read about the college buildings of Cambridge!)

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St John’s College Chapel

The main part of chapel was closed so we could only peer at it from the entrance area through a wrought iron screen. I would like to be able to say that I didn’t see the ‘no photos’ sign until after I had taken this one!

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St John’s College Chapel

We carried on into Second Court, which was built from 1598 to 1602 and is far more intact than First Court, with a symmetry to its Tudor buildings.

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Looking back at the chapel from Second Court

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In Second Court

On the far side of the Second Court (the west) is another imposing gate, a copy of the Great Gate. Above the archway is a statue of Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, who financed the building of the court, which was added in 1671. I was taken by the little faces set into the archway – all different and all rather gargoyle-like in their ugliness!

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Statue of Mary Talbot

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Carving details

We walked through Third Court and little Kitchen Court, and from there out on to the Wren Bridge over the Cam. As the name suggests, the bridge was based on designs by Sir Christopher Wren, albeit for a bridge intended for a different place. I liked the goat-like statues adorning the gateway to this bridge.

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In Kitchen Court, and on the Wren Bridge

The Wren Bridge is the perfect vantage point for views and photos of Cambridge’s best-known bridge, the Bridge of Sighs. This was built in 1831 and is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, presumably because both are covered. University legend however has it that the bridge is named for the sighs of students as they walk from their rooms in one of the courts on the Backs (New Court, River Court, Cripps Court) to their tutors' offices.

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The Bridge of Sighs

On the far side of the Cam we had a lovely view of New Court, the first college court to be built on this side of the river. It was built between 1826 and 1831 in the Gothic Revival style, to accommodate the growing number of students. It has the flamboyance typical of that style, and in the September sunshine and with beautiful flower beds outside, looked like a very grand stately home.

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New Court, St John's College

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New Court from the Wren Bridge

The Round Church

St John’s was the last college that we visited. Feet were growing weary and I had a train to catch. So we decided to catch a bus back to the main city centre bus terminus from where I could catch a second bus to the station and my friends one to their home.

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The Round Church

We found a pleasant spot in which to wait for our bus, outside the Round Church (more properly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). This is one of just four medieval round churches still in use in England. It was originally built in 1130, modelled on the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and although it has seen many structural changes since then a sign outside proclaimed it the oldest church in Cambridge.

A fitting place perhaps to end our walk around this historic city.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:36 Archived in England Tagged bridges buildings architecture history city museum university chapel Comments (16)

Britain’s first Christian martyr

St Albans

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The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, from the Vintry Garden

Saint Alban, or Saint Albanus in the Latin form, is generally considered to have been Britain’s first Christian martyr. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium to the north of Londinium (modern-day St Albans) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and the city’s abbey church is home to his shrine and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries.

While the date and place of his martyrdom, and the exact circumstances, are both subjects for considerable debate, there seems to be little doubt that he did have some connection to the city which now bears his name.

On a practical note, St Albans makes for an easy and enjoyable day out from London, being less than 20 minutes by train from St Pancras Station. I visited a friend there recently and we enjoyed a little photography walk around the abbey and surrounding streets.

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

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The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

The cathedral and abbey church of St Alban, to give it its full name, is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. It stands on the spot where the saint is believed to have been buried after being executed for his faith.

The details of his martyrdom are as I mentioned rather hazy, with several conflicting accounts (for example, giving either Verulamium or Londinium as the location) so I will reproduce here that given on the abbey’s own website:

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Shrine of St Alban

‘Alban is believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the third century in the Roman city of Verulamium, in the valley below the present Cathedral. The earliest versions of his history say that he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution. This was a Christian priest, originally un-named but later called Amphibalus in the re-telling of the story. Alban was so moved by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to be taught more about Christianity, then still a forbidden religion.

Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. Instead Alban was arrested and brought before the city magistrate. Alban refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman gods. When asked to identify himself he declared: ‘I am called Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things’.

The magistrate ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest. He was brought out of the town and up the hillside to the site of execution where he was beheaded. Despite escaping, Amphibalus too was later arrested and martyred at Redbourn, a few miles away. Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery now located by modern archaeological digs to the south of the present Cathedral. Alban is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage.’

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Carving by the door we used

When we visited the abbey was undergoing some major building work, the construction of a new welcome centre, which meant that some entrances were inaccessible and others, including the one we used, partially obscured by hoardings.

Once inside however, any building work was hidden from sight and we could wander around freely. And I mean freely – unlike some other English cathedrals admission here is free, and they even offer free tours, although of course donations are welcome. The suggested £5 is reasonable, given the historical significance of the building and its sights.

While I didn’t find this the most attractive of cathedrals either outside (it is rather squat and solid) or in, I did delight in the wealth of detail I found here:

The shrine and chapel of St Alban

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The shrine of St Alban

St Alban’s shrine is the most significant feature of the abbey church. The base, dating from 1308, is of Purbeck marble and supports a modern red and gold canopy under which rests a shoulder-blade said to come from the original relics of the saint’s body. The canopy is embroidered with English wildflowers, commemorating Bede’s description of Alban going to his execution up a hill ‘adorned with wild flowers of every kind.’

The shrine is housed in a small chapel behind the choir, with carvings of saints, including John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, looking down on him.

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Statues of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary

On one side of the chapel is the medieval wooden watching loft, the only surviving example of one in the country. It dates from around 1400 and is decorated with carvings of what seemed to me to be small angels, although they are very worn. From here the monks and local people would keep watch over the shrine.

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The watching loft

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Detail of carving on the watching loft

The shrine of St Amphibalus

On the other side of the watching loft is another stone shrine, in a rather poor condition (and badly repaired at some point in the past, it seems). This is the shrine of St Amphibalus, the Christian priest to whom Alban gave shelter. Its poor condition can be explained by the fact that after the Reformation and Dissolution the Lady Chapel at the east end of the abbey church had been used as a school, and separated from the rest of the building by a wall built in part from the stone of this shrine and also St Alban’s.

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The shrine of St Amphibalus - detail

While the latter has been restored, this one is awaiting attention. A sign nearby explains that it is hoped that soon it will be possible to carry out a more sympathetic restoration.

The North Transept

From St Amphibalus’s shrine we came next to the North Transept which has this magnificent rose window with modern stained glass. The latter was added in 1989 and unveiled by Diana, Princess of Wales.

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The rose window

When we were there the North Transept was displaying a mosaic replica of the Bayeux Tapestry made from 3 million tiny pieces of steel left over from industrial textile manufacturing. The mosaic is 64 metres long and very intricate – a real labour of love by artist Michael Linton, who took 33 years to complete the work.

The High Altar Screen

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The High Altar Screen

The backdrop to the choir is the ornate High Altar Screen. This was restored in the late 19th century and Harry Hems of Exeter was commissioned to carve and replace the statues in 1899 – the originals having been destroyed at the Reformation.

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Details of the screen

The figures include one of the most famous of the abbey’s former monks, Nicholas Breakspear. In 1154 Nicholas became Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope.

The South Transept

I found various intriguing details in and around the South Transept, which is largely given over to the inevitable gift shop and an information desk. High on the wall I spotted this green-winged angel looking down on the bustle below. The cathedral has one of the oldest and most extensive series of medieval wall paintings surviving today, ranging from the late 12th century to the 16th century, and this is no doubt an example of these although there was no sign to tell me its exact date.

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Wall painting

Nearby I spotted the Maynard family vault. These were clearly both affluent and influential, judging by the size and ornamentation of the vault. Researching a bit later, I found that John Maynard was the local MP in 1553 and 1554. This ornate plaque commemorates his son, Raffe, as well as Raffe’s wife and his mother (John’s wife). I liked the slightly doggerel style of the poems that describe the three, but especially the women who were it seems paragons of virtue:

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Maynard family vault

‘Heere lyes intombed a woman worthie fame:
Whose virtuous life gives honor to her name:
Few were her years, she died in her prime,
Yet in the worlde fulfilled she much tyme:
Which virtuously she spent providinge still
The hungry bellies of the poore to fill:
Unto the God of heaven thrise every day,
With great devotion saint-like did she pray …’

And:

‘Lo here intombed lyes a widowe worthie prayse:
Who in the feare of God devoutly spent her days:
With charytable almes relevinge still the poore,
For empty handed none departed from her doore.
A mirror in her tyme for virtues of her minde:
A matron for her years, the like is hard to finde:
Beloved bewayled of all in life and death was she:
An honor to her sex as any of her degree …’

We didn’t walk the full length of the cathedral, thrown off our route a little by the detours necessitated by the building work. I will have to go back, as the nave is the longest in England (at 85 metres) and is separated from the choir by another screen which has very recently (2015) been augmented by the addition of seven statues of martyrs, including St Alban and St Amphibalus, and looks well worth seeing.

To finish our visit for now, here is a selection of other details I spotted, and liked, in the abbey:

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Inscription on a wall in the South Transept, and another part of the Maynard vault

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I have no idea who these represent, but I liked them!

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Stained glass window, and candle holder

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Carving detail

Near the cathedral

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In the Vintry Garden -
grapevine

There are some pleasant green spaces in the vicinity of the cathedral, including the Vintry Garden. The name of Vintry has been used for this area since the 14th century and is said to derive from the abbey vineyards – grapes are grown against the brick wall as a reminder of those times. For many years though this area was used as the monks’ graveyard. After the Dissolution in 1539 much of the land belonging to the abbey was sold off and this garden became the property of one of the houses on the nearby High Street (then Market Street). For much of the 20th century that building housed Barclays Bank but in 1974 the local council negotiated a lease for the land. Excavations revealed not only the monks’ graveyard but also the 19th century layout of the garden, which has largely been replicated in today’s version. There are pretty views of the cathedral from here (both my photos at the top of this page were taken in the garden)

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The Verdun Tree

Not far away is the Verdun Tree, a chestnut grown from a conker which came from one of the last trees left standing after the First World War Battle of Verdun. This tree was planted here in 1976 to mark the 60th anniversary of the battle. The descriptive sign next to it tells the story of the battle and also points out, interestingly, that ‘a horse chestnut is in fact in many ways appropriate to mark a battle, as the starch from its conkers is an essential component of cordite – unlike gunpowder, an almost smokeless explosive.’

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On the Verdun Tree

Clock Tower

After our visit to the cathedral we walked past the medieval clock tower, built between 1403 and 1412. A sign on the wall explains that it has a large curfew bell dating from 1335.

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Clock Tower and its doorway

The same sign points out a few historic details about this old part of the town. The Dauphin’s troops were stationed here in 1216 (hence the name of one of the streets, French Row). And King John of France was detained in the nearby Fleur de Lys inn in 1356. Anther sign on the tower marks the former Eleanor Cross that stood near here. This was one of a chain of crosses (the most famous is at Charing Cross in London) that were erected by her husband King Edward I to mark the resting places of the body of Queen Eleanor as she was brought from her place of death, Harby in modern-day Lincolnshire, to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

The Museum and Gallery

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Busker on Market Street

We had a walk through the market where my friend bought some fruit and I avoided buying a bracelet! By now we were well into the afternoon but before I headed back to London (refreshed by a cup of coffee and a chat at her home near the station) there was time to pop into the newly opened museum and gallery in the restored Town Hall.

We saw the beautiful Assembly Room on the first floor where in the past dances would have taken place, now to be used again for civic functions. On the ground floor the old courtroom has been turned into a café, and some of the cells beneath it are now toilets!

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In the museum - staircase and assembly room chandelier

We didn’t have time to properly look at the exhibits, nor was there time on this visit to St Albans to explore the Roman theatre and hypocaust (underfloor heating system) on the outskirts of town. I remember visiting these as a child however, so am keen to go back one day soon to see them again.

So watch this space ...!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:25 Archived in England Tagged shrines architecture history church museum garden cathedral Comments (9)

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