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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, 27 September 2014

Aira Force

Aira Force, Ullswater, visit Cumbria, about Britain

The advantage of Aira Force, a small but beautifully formed waterfall in England’s Lake District, is that you don’t need to be Sherpa Tenzing to get to it.  You do need decent footwear, working limbs and lungs, but that’s about it.  You can, of course, build a visit to the falls into a longer walk, but most visitors seem to arrive by car, take one of several alternative footpaths to the top of the falls, skid back downhill and drive on.  One path is very easy and relatively short – but it’s still a little rugged in places, so change out of your Jimmy Choos.

Aira Force, Gowbarrow, Cmbria, National Trust

Aira Force is where the Aira Beck tumbles off the high fells about 66’ (20 metres) vertically in a noisy gush of white foam, on its way down to Ullswater.  According to Wikipedia, ‘Aira’ comes from the Old Norse words eyrr for ‘gravel bank’ and á, meaning ‘river.  Fors is also a Norse word, common in these parts, meaning ‘waterfall’.

Waterfalls, England, easy walks, Lake District

The traditional route is about ½ mile from the car park through a wooded gorge to the top, across first one, then another, stone bridge.  The upper bridge gives a stomach-lurching view over the falls.  This was all once part of a medieval hunting ground, which was turned into the landscaped Victorian Gowbarrow Park, owned by the Howard family of Greystoke Castle.  The Howards created an arboretum, planting many specimen trees – including the rather lovely monkey puzzle pictured.  Along your way, you’ll spot a ‘wish tree’ – a trunk in which coins have been embedded for good luck, or to make a wish; they’re quite common in these parts.

Victorian, arboretum, Howard family, Ullswater, Gowbarrow

I have the distinct impression that the facilities at Aira Force are getting more sophisticated each time I visit.  These days, there’s a well-gravelled organised car park, reasonable loos, ticket machines (for parking) and even a little café selling ice creams.  By the time I next drop in, I shall expect to see the falls floodlit.

Aira Beck, Cumbria, English Lakes

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Brougham Castle

Medieval castle keep, Brougham castle keep, English Heritage, Cumbria, bit about Britain

I’m gazing up through the empty keep, where long-dead feet once paced across floors that have long-since rotted away.  Or maybe the timber was pinched and now resides in a nearby house.  In any event, here’s Brougham Castle, scenically sitting on the south bank of the River Eamont a couple of miles outside Penrith, just off the A66.  Someone should write a song about that road... get your kicks, on the A66…

River Eamont, castles, Penrith, Clifford family

Brougham means something like ‘village by the fort’ and Brougham Castle was built, sometime in the early 13th century, next to the site of a Roman fort, Brocavum.  King William Rufus had taken this wild part of the world from the Scots fairly recently; it was still bandit country.  The castle’s founder, Robert de Vieuxpont, was a loyal friend of King John and, at one time, was High Sherriff of Nottingham; perhaps he knew Errol Flynn.  Anyway, Brougham passed to the Clifford family by marriage and sometime around the year 1300 the 1st Baron de Clifford refortified it and constructed a new accommodation block, known as the ‘Tower of League’.  Its ruins hint at the luxury that must have been; sometime in the early 14th century, Edward I popped in to Brougham, and may well have stayed there.

Brougham, English castles, north west England, Brocavum Roman Fort
It’s an odd shape, is Brougham; but it does have a large and imposing keep.  I read in the blurb about the place that “The top of the keep provides panoramic views over the Eden valley.”  I’m sure it does, but, just to check it out, we climbed all the way up those steep, narrow, spiral staircases, round and round, leaning into the old walls, gasping and wheezing, until… we came to a locked gate.  I smell a risk assessment.  The only rewarding aspect to this pointless exercise was seeing a Roman tombstone in the ceiling; clearly, the medieval builders weren’t going to waste perfectly good pieces of dressed stone that happened to be conveniently lying around nearby.

Moving along: the 1st Baron de Clifford was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  In 1388, Brougham Castle was captured and sacked by the Scots.  But the Cliffords had other, safer, castles they preferred and Brougham apparently fell into disrepair.  It must have been in a reasonable condition by 1617, though, because in that year King James I (VI of Scotland) was entertained there.  It received more attention after it was inherited by Lady Anne Clifford in the 1640s.  This amazing woman restored a number of castles, including Skipton, Pendragon, Appleby and Brougham, where she died in 1676, aged 86.  She even created a garden on the site of the old Roman fort.

Romantic castle ruins, captured by Scots, James I visited
By the 18th century, Brougham had become an empty shell, then a ruin and tourist attraction.  Wordsworth featured it in a poem, “Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle” (to be honest, I was asleep by the end of verse two), and Turner sketched and painted it.  Today, it is an attractive, romantic, ruin, with families picnicking in the courtyard that once echoed with the sounds of a busy fortress, and kids exploring its moat and nooks and crannies.  I wonder what we will bequeath to future generations to visit and gaze at in wonder; shopping malls?

A final thought: there's a tiny museum next to the ticket office and among the exhibits are a couple of Roman tombstones.  One, in particular, caught my eye - 'To the spirits of the departed; Crescentinus lived 18 years.  Vidaris his father set this up.'  A sharp reminder that there are human stories going back at least two thousand years hereabouts.  

Brougham Castle is in the care of English Heritage.

Brougham, castle, Cumbria, Lady Anne Clifford

Brougham, gargoyles, medieval castles, Cumbria

Roman tombstone, Brougham, Crescentinus, Vidaris, visit Cumbria

Saturday, 20 September 2014

St Mary's, Studley Royal

Winged lion of Judah, St Mary the Virgin, Studley Royal, Victorian Gothic

Britain tends to shy away from highly decorated parish churches.  The older ones were stripped out when they were nicked from the Catholics by Henry VIII’s men, and protestant zeal tends toward plainer decoration.  There are, of course, exceptions; and the church of St Mary the Virgin at Studley Royal is a fine example.

Studley Royal Park, St Mar's church, William Burges, Victorian designer

Situated in Studley Royal Park, next to Fountains Abbey, St Mary’s is a relatively new church, consecrated in 1878.  It is one of those Gothic revival Victorian things, designed by William Burges for the Marquess and Marchioness of Ripon, and has been described as ‘flamboyant’.  I suggest a more colloquial term might be ‘slightly over the top’.  It is a riot of carved stone, marble, stained glass and gilt.  Or should that be ‘guilt’?  George Robinson, the Marquess (1827-1909), was a distinguished Liberal politician who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1874, though the Marchioness remained Church of England.  They are buried together in the church, in a vault beneath ornately carved marble effigies of themselves.

Organ, St Mary's, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire

Experts will tell you that Burges’s inspiration was highly eclectic, and I’m in no position to argue with that – even if I wanted to.  The exceptionally colourful chancel is like something out of the pages of a fairy-tale knightly romance, with a ceiling that depicts martyrs, apostles, angels and so forth.  Spot the winged lion of Judah, which is meant to represent Christ; it looks Babylonian.  The chancel contrasts with the relatively plain nave but, apparently, the whole place is rich in symbolism; Dan Brown would have a field day.

Chancel, St Mary's, Yorkshire, highly decorated church

St Mary’s is undeniably an astonishing place, with much in it to admire.  The workmanship is exquisite.  And there’s a sad story to go with it.  Twenty three year old Frederick Vyner, brother of the Marchioness, was one of a party of four tourists captured by bandits in Greece in 1870 and killed during an attempted rescue mounted by Greek soldiers.  Part of the cost of building the church was met from money that had been set aside for his ransom, but which was never paid.  His mother, Lady Mary Vyner, also commissioned Burges to build the church of Christ the Consoler at Skelton-cum-Newby in her son’s memory.

Church decoration, Gothic, high Anglican, visit Yorkshire

Font, Tennessee marble, Marquess of Ripon, Frederick Vyner

More information about St Mary’s Studley Royal at English Heritage’s website.

Linked to InSPIREd Sunday.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Through cloisters and gardens

Lacock Abbey, Ela, Countess of Salisbury, nunnery, Wiltshire

A garden walk takes us past pastel-shaded cottage-garden style borders, through a community allotment area, an orchard, rose garden and bosky wood.  The allotments are bursting with produce and colour, the fruit trees heavy and pendulous.  Beyond the woods, the Wiltshire landscape beckons: a flock of sheep cotton-balls its way across lush, green, fields; we merely await the imminent arrival of Little Bo-Peep to turn the whole place into a pastoral idyll.  A step along tree-lined paths to what might have been an old fish-pond ends abruptly at a ha-ha, where a couple sit, deep in intimate conversation; like guilty voyeurs, we turn quickly away and are relieved to be confronted with a wonderful view of Lacock Abbey.

Worcester apples, Lackock, orchard

Pastoral idyll, Wiltshire

Lacock Abbey was established between 1229 and 1232 by Lady Ela, Countess of Salisbury.  Ela founded two religious houses: Lacock, for Augustinian nuns, and Hinton Charterhouse in Somerset for Carthusian monks.  Both were in memory of her late husband, William Longespee who, in addition to his little problem (sometimes a sleepless knight?), was an illegitimate son of King Henry II.  So William was half-brother to kings Richard I and John.  He and Ela were a well-connected, powerful, couple and, rather disappointingly, Longespee actually means ‘longsword’.  Anyway, Lady Ela became Abbess of Lacock in 1240, lived to 74, a ripe age in those days, and was buried in the abbey church.  Much later, her tombstone was moved to the cloisters and reads: "Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns.  She also had lived here as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works."

Cloisters, Lackock Abbey, Harry Potter, film locations, Britain

The abbey prospered through the Middle Ages, largely due to revenue from wool - occasionally referred to as ‘white gold’.  It sustained a community of between 15 and 25 nuns, mostly ladies from well-to-do families, as well as the lay sisters who did most of the menial work.  When Lacock Abbey was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, it was bought by a Sir William Sharington in 1540 for the sum of £783.00.  Sharington, an ambitious courtier, demolished the abbey church and converted the remaining buildings into an elegant home – though he largely left the ground floor intact. 

Cloisters, Lacock Abbey, dissolution, Henry VIII Wiltshire

There is a story that Olive Sharington, William’s niece, was looking out of an upper window being serenaded by her lover, John Talbot, from below when, for some reason (possibly to elope), she jumped.  Allegedly, her skirts acted as a parachute, and she managed to land on her boyfriend.  You couldn't make it up, could you? He was knocked unconscious, but fortunately he recovered.  In any event, the property passed to the Talbot family by marriage sometime before the English Civil War, during which time it was garrisoned by the Royalists.  The Talbots survived.  The most famous, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) was an accomplished scientist and inventor of the negative/positive photographic process.  Fox-Talbot’s grand-niece, Matilda Talbot, donated the abbey, and most of the village, to the National Trust in 1944.

Warming room, cauldron, Harry Potter, Quirrell, Lacock

Thanks to the Sharingtons and Talbots, you can wander about the preserved abbey cloisters and adjoining rooms. And, as you do so, you can picture yourself at JK Rowling’s fictitious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; for Lacock Abbey’s film credits include ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince’.  The sacristy, where the abbey’s valuables would have been kept, was turned into Professor Snape’s potions class; the chapter house was where Harry found the unsettling Mirror of Erised and the Warming Room (which contains a real Tudor cauldron) became Professor Quirrell’s defence against the dark arts class.  You might recognise the cloisters, too, where Harry, his friends and Mrs Norris the cat, wandered.  Lacock Abbey has also been featured in other film and TV productions, including ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and 'Wolf Hall' as well as episodes of ‘Robin of Sherwood’.

Chimneys, Lacock abbey

Once you’ve done with all that, you can tour what is now a largely Victorian mansion on the first floor and pop into Fox-Talbot's photography museum.  Lacock is about 3 miles south of Chippenham in Wiltshire, and a magnet for tourists from all over the world.  The village, seemingly suspended in time, has featured in countless period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Moll Flanders and Cranford.

Medieval floor tiles, Lacock Abbey

Visit Lacock’s pages at the National Trust website.

Linking to InSPIREd Sunday.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Smugglers at the Star and Eagle

Star and Eagle, Goudhurst, St Mary's Church, smugglers, visit Kent
One of my favourite books as a boy was ‘Doctor Syn’, written by Russell Thorndike, brother of Dame Sybil.  First published in 1915, Doctor Syn is a tale of derring-do set in 18th century England.  By day, Doctor Christopher Syn is the genial, well-loved vicar of Dymchurch, a little village on the coastal marshes of Kent; but by night, he is - ‘The Scarecrow’, ruthless and fearsome ex-pirate and smuggler, outwitting His Majesty’s Revenue Men and looking after the material interests of his parishioners.  He comes across as a kind of Oxford-educated early superhero, with a touch of Robin Hood thrown in.  Though essentially dangerous, and on the wrong side of the law, you can warm to a man like Doctor Syn.  I suggest this is partly because the law can be a pompous ass and sometimes deserves to be humiliated, and partly because, deep down, we’d all like to do a bit of swashbuckling in our spare time.

Quite by chance not long ago, Head Office and I arrived at the Star and Eagle Hotel in Goudhurst (say ‘GOWD-HURST’), a straggling, pretty, village in the Weald of Kent.  Our route had been via another establishment that we had to vacate in haste, lest serious injury was done; but that is another story.  Suffice to say we were looking for a hostelry of character, with good beer, food and a comfortable spot to lay our weary heads for a few days.  And I must say that the Star and Eagle delivered in all respects.  The food had a strong Spanish theme and was excellent, the staff were charming and our room had a genuine four-poster in it.  The whole place is full of oak beams and, dating from the 15th century, reeks of history.  At the end of each day’s excursion, we (separately) savoured a tasty pint of Harvey’s Sussex Ale and a glass of inexpensive bubbly with a strawberry in it, whilst taking in the views of the wonderful Kent countryside and passing the time in idle chat before the rigours of dining began.  See – I can multi-task.

St Mary's Goudhurst, Hawkhurst Gang, 18th century smugglers
In the Star and Eagle, and St Mary’s church next door, we learned of the exploits of a group of notorious smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang, and of a battle that took place in Goudhurst on 21st April 1747.  Smuggling was rife in 18th century England, and particularly so in the south-east due to its proximity to mainland Europe.  It developed from the natural desire to avoid heavy import taxes imposed by the Government on luxury items such as tea, coffee, tobacco and spirits.  Usually, it took place with the connivance of the local population and, furthermore, often provided well-paid work.  Farmers who turned a blind eye to unlawful nocturnal goings-on may have found a small ‘thank you’ in the shape of a bottle of brandy left in a barn.  The illicit goods gradually made their way into the clubs, inns and salons of 18th century Britain and everyone made a profit – except for His Majesty’s Government.  It all sounds perfectly reasonable, and not unlike the adventures of my boyhood hero, Doctor Syn.  Some smugglers even had cute little nicknames, like ‘Footsey’, ‘Pouncer’ and ‘Funny Jack’; less cuddly was ‘Butcher Tom’.

However, the reality of smuggling was as far from romantic fiction as it’s possible to be.  Smugglers were often violent, brutal, thugs who achieved their ends by threats, bribery and extortion.  Some became a law unto themselves, at a time when there was no such thing as an organised police force.  Indeed, to cross a smuggler could seriously spoil a person's day.  The Hawkhurst Gang, named after the Kentish village not far from Goudhurst, was particularly nasty and operated from the 1730s until 1749 across an enormous patch of the south-east, from Kent to Dorset.  It is said that they could raise a force of 500 men if they wished to, and their members openly met in the Star and Eagle (then called the Olde Starre and Crowne), placing cutlasses and pistols on the tables.

It seems that by 1747 the good residents of Goudhurst had had enough of the Hawkhurst Gang’s thieving and homicidal activities.  According to the Kent and Sussex Courier, what brought matters to a head was the murder of a Mr Ballard from Tunbridge Wells, who was robbed whilst passing through Goudhurst and beaten so badly in the process that he died.  In any event, meeting in the Star and Eagle, the villagers formed the Goudhurst Band of Militia under the leadership of an ex-soldier, William Sturt.  The story goes that the Hawkhurst Gang captured and tortured one of the militia and sent him back to Sturt with the message that they intended to plunder every house in Goudhurst, murder every soul they could find and burn the place to the ground to teach the truculent villagers a lesson.  They even announced the date of their intended attack: 21st April.  Sturt organised defences around the area of St Mary’s and in the upstairs of the Star and Eagle.  Firearms were assembled, musket balls were made from lead off the church roof and women and children taken to safety.  The Hawkhurst Gang, masked and fortified with strong drink, duly attacked.  But they met fierce resistance: one, George Kingsmill, a Goudhurst man, was shot dead as he tried to batter the pub door down with his horse’s hooves; another, Bernard (or Barnett) Woolett was fatally blasted as his horse jumped the churchyard wall to attack the villagers.  The rest of the gang fled; the honest men of Goudhurst had won.

Star and Eagle, good food, smuggling, Goudhurst, Kent.
Later that year, the Hawkhurst Gang carried out an audacious raid on the Customs House in Poole, Dorset, capturing £500 worth of contraband tea which had been apprehended by customs men on the high seas.  Following this, two men were murdered in a particularly gruesome manner.  But the authorities were catching up: in 1748 the leader of the gang, Arthur Gray, was executed at Tyburn, followed in 1749 by Thomas Kingsmill, and others.  Thomas was brother of the George who had been killed outside the Star and Eagle; his body was gibbeted (exhibited) just outside his home village - Goudhurst.  More of the gang were subsequently tried and executed in Chichester, on the Sussex coast.  The Hawkhurst Gang’s reign of terror was over.

These days, where the only threat to peace appears to come from the traffic rattling along the A262, it’s hard to believe Goudhurst was anything other than the serene place it seems to be.  I should re-read my battered paperback edition of Doctor Syn (priced at 3 shillings and sixpence - 17½p), to remind myself that the vicar’s Scarecrow alter ego was nowhere near as terrifying as the real thing.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Church of the Templars

Effigies of knights, Knights Templar, Temple, London
Almost hidden, tucked away from the jarring bustle of London, you may stumble upon a church that was built by the Knights Templar.  Like all Templar churches, it is round - modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, site of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  The Order of the Temple, or Knights Templar, was a powerful pan-European medieval brotherhood of warrior monks whose story, including its associated myths and legends, has resonated down through the centuries.  And this was the Templars’ church within their London headquarters, a place of ritual as well as worship.  Once, it would have been in the midst of their compound, with its residential, recreational, administrative and military training areas.  Now, it is in one of those little oases of tranquillity that exist around great capitals, in this instance surrounded by members of the legal profession.  What does all this mean, and how did it come about?

Jerusalem fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1076, ending four centuries of tolerant Muslim rule.  Reports of Christians being persecuted were received in the west.  In 1096, the First Crusade was launched to stem the advance of the Turks and capture the Holy City.  So began a 200-year military struggle between medieval Christianity and Islam.  It was frequently barbaric; when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they butchered many of the defenders, which included Jews and, some say, Christians.  In any event, the Order of the Temple was established around 1119 with the aim of protecting pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.  Its founders were given accommodation in the royal palace in Jerusalem, on Temple Mount, rumoured to be built on the site of the Temple of Solomon - which inspired the name of this new brotherhood.  Initially, the order was a poor one, but it grew with Papal support and became immensely influential - and extremely wealthy.  Indeed, the Templars acted as bankers to the movers and shakers of medieval Western Europe, it is said accumulating a vast treasure in the process.  They were renowned militarily – and instantly recognisable in their iconic white surcoats with the red cross.

Round church, circular church, London, Britain
The Temple Church in London was consecrated at Candlemas 1185 at a ceremony conducted by Heraclius, the Crusader Patriarch of Jerusalem and probably attended by the King, Henry II.  Like many Templar churches, it is dedicated to St Mary.  An unusual 3-bay chancel was added to the church in the 1230s, in expectation that King Henry III and his wife would one day be buried there; in the event, Henry opted for Westminster Abbey.  I doubt that anyone knows exactly who is buried under Temple Church now, but it is famous for the intriguing effigies of nine medieval knights.  Not all of these can be identified, but they include Sir William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke (died 1219), one of the most powerful knights in the land, who had in younger days unhorsed Richard I, “the Lionheart”.  Marshall went on to become a mediator between Richard’s brother, King John, and the barons, as well regent for the young King Henry III.  Near his effigy are those of his eldest son, William (died 1231), 3rd son Gilbert (died 1241) and friend, Brother Aymeric de St Maur, Master of the Knights Templar in England.  It was in the round church that King John hotly debated the issues with his barons that resulted in the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 – and the two Williams and Brother Aymeric were amongst those who witnessed that unique event. 

Temple church, west door
Magna Carta is seen by some as a kind of early ‘bill of rights’.  It certainly helped lay the foundation for the Common Law of England, and the Temple Church is understandably proud of its association with it.

“No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the state of it.  No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.  To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

In 1291, Acre (now in modern Israel) fell to the Turks.  This was the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land and its passing ended the Temple’s original raison d’être.

On Friday 13th October 1307, every Templar in France that could be found was arrested on the order of the King, Philip IV (“the Fair”).  They were accused, amongst other things, of blasphemy, heresy, sodomy and, even worse, of worshipping a cat.  Under torture, many confessed and, later, were burnt alive at the stake.  Today, scholars believe that the reason for Philip’s actions were primarily financial (he needed money).  There was probably – then as now – ignorance of the Templars’ arcane observances; and perhaps they had become a tad too powerful for some people’s liking.  In England, and elsewhere, things moved more slowly than in France.  The brotherhood was not officially suppressed by the Pope until 1312 and then Templar property throughout Europe was either confiscated, or transferred to their great rival order, the Hospitallers - aka the Knights of the Hospital of St John (the Knights of Malta).  What happened to the Templars’ treasure is a mystery.  There’s a story that 20 knights escaped the purge in France, but no one knows what became of them…  To this day, conspiracy theorists and those who believe the Templars were guardians of lost knowledge, or a great secret such as the Holy Grail, continue to intrigue us all – and sell books. 

Inside round church, Temple Church, london
The Hospitallers were given the Temple by King Edward II in 1324 and, over time, began to rent space to colleges of the legal profession.  By the 15th century, these were well established as the Honourable Societies of the Middle and Inner Temple.  When religious orders were suppressed by Henry VIII, the Crown took possession of the Temple and the societies of lawyers continued as tenants.  In 1608, King James I granted, by Letters Patent, all the former Templar lands from Fleet Street to the Thames to the two societies, who have remained there ever since.  The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple and the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple are two of the four Inns of Court who hold the exclusive rights to call candidates to practise law at the Bar of England and Wales. The two Inns are obliged to jointly maintain Temple Church and its priest, the Master of the Temple – who has a mansion next door.

Temple, oblong church, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Temple Church, London
You’ll find Temple Church today by stepping through a gate just down from Ye Olde Cock Tavern on the south side of Fleet Street, opposite Chancery Lane.  Head down a small lane and Temple Church is on the left.  If the gate is closed, you may get through via Kings Bench Walk to the west.  The church is constructed from warm, Caen limestone and, to the layman, seems a mix of styles, Roman and Gothic.  What looks like a crenelated tower protrudes from the round church and the (slightly) newer oblong chancel seems as though it has been bolted on.  Externally it is an impressive, but inelegant, building.  It survived the Great Fire and was extensively renovated in Victorian times.  The view from the courtyard to the south has only been possible in recent years, since the ‘Lamb Building’ that once stood there was destroyed by German bombing during the Second World War.  The air raid that took place on 10th May 1941 lasted all night.  An incendiary bomb hit the church roof, the fire caught and spread, collapsing the old wooden roof of the round church onto the ancient effigies below.  The damage to them, and the church as a whole, was immense.  The church was not fully repaired until 1958 – the dedication service was attended by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Tom Hanks, A Bit About britain
The fame of the Temple Church has also reached a wider audience through Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and the film of the same name starring Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen and Audrey Tatou.  Wrongly, Professor Langdon (Hanks), Sophie Neveu (Tatou) and (the very irritating) Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen), come to the Temple Church in search of a “knight a pope interred”.  It’s always a curious thing, I find, walking in the footsteps of history.  Dan Brown makes the Temple Church sound like a Harry Potter film-set in imminent danger of being taken over by King Arthur’s Knights and a couple of demons.  The reality needs nothing more than a little imagination, and consideration of the place’s 800-year history.

Inside, Temple Church is surprisingly light.  It is distinctly two churches, though.  The round church draws you and the supine figures of the knights on the floor do, indeed, force thoughts of the long-gone people they represent.  You have to remind yourself that no one is there.  Beautiful, slender, columns of Purbeck marble soar up to the roof.  The chancel – the oblong church - is dominated by the amazing East Window, a gift from the Glaziers’ Company after World War Two, which depicts scenes from the Bible and London’s history.  Beneath this is an unusual wooden altarpiece, designed by Christopher Wren, sold in the 1840s, and retrieved in the aftermath of the destruction a century later.  The congregation sits facing the aisle and each other, Middle Templars on the north, Inner Templars to the south.  A new window was commissioned in 2008, to mark the 400th Anniversary of the Letters Patent; it is simple and graceful, and it was designed by the daughter of the designer of the east window.

History is respected at the Temple Church, but I get the impression that time is not allowed to stand still.  This is a church for now – which is also well-known for its music.  Check for opening and service times before you make special trip.  Visit the Temple Church’s website.

East window, Christopher Wren, Temple Church

Temple Church, where Magna Carta was drafted, London

Featured on InSPIREd Sunday.