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Introduction

Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Winston Churchill's grave

Winston Churchill, Churchill buried, Bladon, Blenheim, Oxfordshire, bit about BritainThe final resting place of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is in a quiet corner of a peaceful English churchyard.  It was his own decision to be buried in Bladon, just a long stone’s throw from Blenheim Palace.  He is buried with his wife, Clementine Ogilvy Spencer Churchill.  Close to him are the graves of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, his mother, Jennie Jerome, his brother, Jack, and three of his children, Sarah, Diana and Randolph.  It is something of a Churchill plot; nearby is the grave of the glittering American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Churchill’s cousin.
Churchill is best known as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister and inspirational leader from 1940-45.  But for most of his life he effectively played a part in the transition from imperial, Victorian, Britain to the more egalitarian – and infinitely less powerful – nation that emerged from the Second World War.  Born on 30th November 1874 at Blenheim Palace, into the aristocratic Spencer-Churchill family, he was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, took part in one of the last British Cavalry charges at the Battle of Omdurman in 1889, was an adventurer, war correspondent, was captured by the enemy in the Boer War, escaped – and was a Member of Parliament from 1900 pretty much without break until just before his death.  He served in the trenches in the First World War, held great offices of state such as Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Admiralty.  He painted, was a successful author and built a brick wall at his home, Chartwell.  He was blamed, maybe unfairly, for the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, is still classed as a reactionary by many on the left of politics and was mistrusted by some of his contemporaries – who saw him as ‘unsound’, an unprincipled opportunist – partly for switching from the Tory Party to the Liberals and then back again.  As he said himself, “Anyone can rat; but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”
Churchill was certainly no saint, but it strikes me that his genius lay in his imagination and ability to see beyond the end of his nose, taking a longer view of history and future events than most people care to, or are capable of.  He died aged 90 following a massive stroke, exactly 70 years after his father, on 24th January 1965.  His wife, Clementine, followed him in 1977, aged 92.
Churchill buried, Bladon, St Martins, Oxfordshire, bit about BritainAmongst the 3,000 people that attended Churchill’s state funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral were 6 monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth II, and 15 heads of state.  US President Johnson did not attend, allegedly because Churchill had missed President Roosevelt’s funeral.  But ex-President Eisenhower was there, as was French President de Gaulle and ex-Prime Ministers Atlee and Eden.  Churchill’s coffin was taken by barge up the Thames, where the organisers were surprised to see the cranes of London’s docks dip in salute, and then to Waterloo Railway Station.  From Waterloo, the steam locomotive Winston Churchill took it to Long Hanborough in Oxfordshire, from which it is a short distance by road to St Martin’s Church Bladon.  There is a story that Churchill specifically wanted his coffin to pass through Waterloo Station, if de Gaulle outlived him; the obvious route to Hanborough is via Paddington Station.
Bladon is on the A4095 between the A44 (Woodstock) and Witney.  Parking is limited – if you do travel by car, please consider local residents.  You can walk to Bladon if you are visiting Blenheim Palace, about a mile to the north.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

York Minster

York Minster, cathedrals in England, Yorkshire, bit about BritainWhat can you say about this enormous Gothic church, apparently the largest in northern Europe?  Well, let’s start with the sheer size of it – 515’ (157m) long, 240’ (73m) wide and 233’ (71m) to the top of the lantern tower (that’s the one in the middle).  Mind you, I haven’t measured it myself and the dimensions do vary, depending which guide you read.  But, anyway, it’s big.

The soaring splendour, architectural beauty and sheer artistry of medieval cathedrals, particularly bearing in mind when they were built, never fails to astonish me.  It is hard for some of us to wrap our brains around the idea that any god would want people to go to so much trouble; but I’m so glad someone did – and who cares if our peasant ancestors were grovelling in the dirt and could have used the money to buy themselves a few little extra treats?

York Minster, cathedrals in England, Yorkshire, bit about Britain

Descendents of downtrodden peasants, then, will not resent having to pay an entrance fee to see inside York Minster (and another if you want to climb 275 steps up the central tower).  You’ll be even more delighted to learn that your ticket can be re-used as often as you like within 12 months - ideal, if you happen to live in Sydney, New York, or anywhere else really handy.  That said, York Minster dominates the City, is one of the ‘must do’ visits if you happen to be there - and, trust me, York is a place well worth going out of your way for.  The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, to give it its full title, is the seat of the Archbishop of York, Bishop of the Diocese of York and the second highest cleric in the Church of England after the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This is a working church in addition to being a huge tourist attraction (around 2 million visitors a year).  It also hosts a number of events, including concerts: on our last visit we only just missed seeing Aled Jones; how sad is that?

York Minster, Chapter House, cathedrals in England, Yorkshire, bit about BritainOnly a complete philistine would find nothing to admire in York Minster.  It houses the largest collection of medieval stained glass in Britain, for one thing.  But my favourites are the Chapter House (how does that roof stay up?!), Quire Screen (I like the archaic spelling, don’t you?) and the roof of the central, lantern tower.  The astronomical clock, a memorial to World War II air crews who flew from north east Britain, is fascinating.  The nave is absolutely stunning.  It is amazing to sit and listen to the choir, and the place is suffused with wonderful light.  Compared to other cathedrals, though, I do find York a little sterile and not particularly welcoming.  If it seems a little bare, perhaps this is due to it being stripped of most of its ‘Papist trappings’ during the reign of Elizabeth I and the fact that a new floor in 1730 apparently necessitated the removal from the nave of virtually all remaining tombs.

York Minster, Quire Screen, English cathedrals, Yorkshire, bit about Britain
The building you see now was largely constructed between 1220 and 1472, restored after damaging fires in the 19th century and, more recently, in 1984.  If you look closely, you will see that the Quire (or Choir) is slightly out of line with the Nave (or vice versa); I wonder if medieval builders were subject to penalty clauses?  There has been a church on the same spot since 627AD but the site has been built on since at least Roman times.  The Roman Basilica, where law courts were held and where, possibly, Constantine was proclaimed Emperor in 306AD stood there and the Principia, the military HQ, was next door.  The first ‘minster’ was a wooden church built specifically for the baptism of Edwin, King of Deira – the territory between the rivers Tees and Humber.  Edwin had been persuaded by his new wife, Ethelburga of Kent, to become a Christian - and I do like to think that no bribery was involved in this agreement.  Various stone churches replaced the wooden one over an uncertain period in history when York was variously held by Saxons, Danes and Norsemen, whose descendents were living there at the time of the Norman Conquest. 

York Minster, nave, English cathedrals, Yorkshire, bit about BritainWe should mention the ‘Horn of Ulf, though – one of the Minster’s many treasures.  Ulf was a Viking who owned land in and around York.  The story is that he gifted the land the Minster stands on to the Dean and Chapter and the horn – a decorated elephant tusk believed to have been carved in Italy by followers of Islam – was the deed of transfer.  I don’t quite get this, as there appears to have already been a church on the site – but it is not a well understood period in history and in any event I guess the Vikings, who were not initially Christian, could make their own rules.

It was the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who crowned William of Normandy King of England on Christmas Day 1066.  Resistance to Norman rule was met with the viscous and cruel ‘Harrying of the North’ in 1069, during which whole communities were laid to waste and the Minster was badly damaged.  It was then destroyed by a Danish army in 1075.  So the new Norman Archbishop, Thomas of Bayeux, set about building a Norman cathedral, a statement of temporal as well as spiritual power.

The remains of the Norman foundations, and many other treasures, can be seen in the undercroft.  A new exhibition in 2013, ‘Revealing York Minster in the Undercroft’ looks fascinating; it is due to be complete in 2016.  You can read more about it, and the Minster as a whole, on the York Minster website.

Featured on InSPIREd Sunday.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Another Place

Crosby, statues, Antony Gormley, Another Place, bit about Britain
You wouldn’t go to Crosby, just up the coast from Liverpool, for bathing.  The sand is soft, more like mud, and the tide can wash in with alarming speed.  But you might want to take a look at the one hundred 6’ high iron figures, cast from the artist Antony Gormley’s own body, standing like silent sentinels on the beach - and up to a kilometre out to sea.

Unlike the Angel of the North, Another Place appealed to me immediately, and made me think – in itself an uncomfortable and rare activity.  The figures seem to be watching and waiting for something, searching the horizon.  They are also curiously reassuring, timeless and proud.  I couldn’t work out whether there was a hint of deep nostalgia or quiet anticipation about them; maybe both.  But given the proximity to one of Britain’s largest ports, where millions must have arrived at or left this country, I get a sense of profound change; people coming here to find something better, or taking British genes all over the world for the same reason.  Sefton Council say they are a “poetic response to individual and universal sentiments associated with emigration – sadness at leaving, but hope of a new future in another place.”  That sounds a bit close to pretentious claptrap to me, though it does also seem similar to my own feelings.  The artist, on the other hand, maintains that the figures are “harnessing the ebb and flow of tide to explore man’s relationship with nature.”  So there you have it.

Crosby, statues, Antony Gormley, a bit about BritainI’m guessing you can make your own mind up, though.  I’d like to go again, at different times, because of course there will always be something unique about these figures, depending on the hour of day, season, weather, tide - and so on.  If you can’t go, there are some spectacular images of these things on the web – much better than my miserable offerings here.

The statues were previously on display in Cruxhaven in Germany, Stavanger, Norway and De Panne in Belgium.  In 2006, they were due to go to New York but everybody wanted them to stay – so they did.  Hurrah!

More information HERE.