The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Saturday, 8 April 2017


If you want a proper description of Greensted Church you could do no better than to visit fellow blogger Mike's A Bit About Britain because he'll include a lot of facts and his own brand of interpretation.  He's the reason we stopped off at Greensted en route south recently.

The Anorak read the blurb and looked around like a proper tourist but very little of the reality set in. It was the atmosphere that took hold, once the brash quasi-local with his loud, Estuary English voice, and equally annoying son, completed their brief inspection and moved on. "A mayt o mine wuz krissened ere. Are dere enny leeflits?" Well yes, there is an informative guidebook, but the Essex visitor didn't care enough to invest £2.

Wooden grave marker
The church is Saxon, although it stands on a site with evidence of earlier structures, and is rumoured to be the oldest stave built building in Europe. It's in a quiet corner of a quiet village and little disturbs the peace except an occasional bird call (and Towie tourist).

As you enter through the gate among the first things you spot is a wooden grave marker. I found no clue as to who is buried below it, though the Admirable Mike says it's a local landlord who lost a fight with a scythe. The rapidly deteriorating wooden cross looks shaped in sympathy.

There's a large tomb by the porch that tells you helpfully that it's a grave of a Crusader, dating from the 12th century.
Tomb of the unknown bowman
Looking at the outside of the church it's clear it's not your average place of worship. The walls are constructed from what look like bisected tree trunks, stood upright, side-by-side, more like a fortress than a church. But they are topped off with a beautiful tiled roof with pretty dormer windows that wouldn't look out of place on a country pub.  Then there's the wooden tower, clad in weatherboarding like some kind of seaside hut and topped by a witch's hat spire.

Inside is even more atmospheric. Entering through the cute 'dolls house' porch you find yourself in a dark space with heavily-carved beams, lit by a few, dark, stained-glass windows.

There's a wooden (appropriately) model of the church perched on the pulpit; an impressive eagle lectern; colourful tapestry kneelers; and those beams. The light (and my dusty camera lens) makes it almost impossible to get a good photo inside. And the angles prevent any decent shots of what's called the St Edmund beam.  Greensted is supposed to be one of the resting places of the body of St Edmund, first patron saint of England, on its journey from London to its final resting place. (Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. Big clue in the name there!) Edmund was tortured by the Danes, in numerous ways, for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. Eventually they beheaded him, and the beam shows his crowned head - minus body - and a fox. I don't know where the fox comes into the story.

So there you have it. Clearly it's a popular spot because there's a large designated parking area. Incidentally, I defy you to understand the signs if you are first to arrive.  They tell you to park at an angle, then unhelpfully include an arrow that points parallel to the hedge.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Big Ben

Visit the town of Hucknall in Nottinghamshire and you can't help but notice that a certain "mad, bad and dangerous to know" poet used to live in the area. There's at least one Byron coffee bar, there's a statue of him on the front of a local shop, and you'll find his grave in the church yard.

However, if you wander around the corner you'll find a rather larger monument, surrounded by an iron railing. Beneath the sod (as they say on a few Victorian headstones) lie the remains of one Ben Caunt, a bare knuckle fighter who rose to the giddy heights of Champion of England. He was born in Hucknall but moved around the country fighting various opponents.

He eventually settled in London where he became the landlord of the Coach and Horses pub in St Martin's Lane. (Which was destroyed by a fire in 1851, killing his two children, who are buried with him.)

 At 6 feet 2 inches and 18 stone, Caunt became known as "Big Ben" and there is at least one claim that he passed on the name to the large bell in the tower at the Houses of Parliament. There's no documentary evidence to back up the claim, and other Benjamins have been linked to the title. But it's a nice idea that the original Big Ben is buried a very long way from London.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Bolsover Castle

On a recent misty day we took a trip up the M1 to north Derbyshire and Bolsover Castle. Unlike many similar structures, it is genuinely right in the heart of the town.

In 1617 William Cavendish, who was to become the First Duke of Newcastle, inherited Bolsover Castle from his father Charles.

Charles died in the middle of creating the Little Castle, a mock Norman keep intended to act as a retreat from the family seat at Welbeck a few miles away.  William continued work on the site, completing a range of luxurious interiors depicting life from earthly pursuits to heavenly wonders.

William employed architect Robert Smythson, who was also responsible for the design of William's later home, Hardwick Hall, and Longleat House, now home of the Marquis of Bath.

Bolsover's Little Castle was the perfect place to hold lavish parties and to impress visitors with its exquisite detail. Elaborately carved fireplaces, Italian-inspired stonework and richly decorated panelling combined to show off the host's taste and fortune.

Guests entered through a Gothic doorway and into an ante room which was decorated with brightly painted panels.

Banquets and dinner parties were held in the Pillar Parlour, which gets its name from a central pillar formed by its arched ceiling. The panelling is decorated with faux graining and gilding, and at the focus of each arch the panels contain a painted illustration of one of the five senses.

The grand hall is decorated with paintings that depict the labours of Hercules.

They are designed to create an illusion of additional space because they incorporate pictures of the ceiling vaulting.

Perhaps the most impressive room on the upper floors is the Star Chamber, the main room used by the castle owners. Only family and very close friends would have been invited to see it. Again the panelling is richly decorated and English Heritage, which now manages Bolsover, has restored almost all of the paintings. Two have been left to show the actual state of the originals. The restored ceiling is wondrous.