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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?

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Balliol College

Balliol, Chapel Passage, Old Library, Oxford

Peeking past the porter’s lodge is looking through a window into another world; a world of privilege, beauty, tradition, history and at least a thousand stories.  Here is Balliol College, one of more than thirty academic communities that make up the University of Oxford.

Balliol, Oxford, Front Quad, Common Room, Library, Chapel

Across the quad from the porter’s lodge, cascades of pendulous wisteria hang nonchalantly above a border of cool blue forget-me-nots and fiery wall flowers, framed by a lush lawn and honey-coloured buildings.  In the chapel passage are columns of more than 300 inscribed names - the Balliol men who died during the two World Wars.  More than 200 of these perished in the First World War, including Raymond Asquith and Friedrich von Bethman Hollweg, sons of the British Prime Minister and German Chancellor at the outbreak of war in 1914.  Amongst those remembered from the Second World War is Adam von Trott, executed in 1944 for his part in the July Plot to assassinate Hitler.  The Victorian chapel, dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria (also known as Catherine of the Wheel), seems to resonate with the spirits of departed scholars; I am reminded of Mr Chips, reciting the names of the pupils he taught as their faces pass into, and out of, his reflective, mournful, memory.

Balliol, Chapel, St Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of the College

St Catherine’s association with the college dates back to the 13th century and her feast day, 25th November, has been the occasion of a formal dinner since at least 1549, when peacock was on the menu.  College buildings along Magdalen Street stand on the site of a pub called the Catherine Wheel – where, it is said, some of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators met in 1605.

Balliol, Chapel, east window, stained glass

The wisteria hangs from the 15th century old library, which joins the 15th century old hall at right angles by means of the 19th century Salvin Tower, forming the north-west corner of the quad, accessed via the library passage.  Here are the gates that were the main gates for the college for 300 years, and which allegedly bear scorch marks from the flames that consumed the Protestant martyrs, Latimer and Ridley, burned on Oxford’s Broad Street for their beliefs in 1555.

Balliol, grotesques, Old Hall

Balliol claims to be the oldest of the Oxford colleges and to have occupied the same site for longer than any other college in the English-speaking world.  Though most of its buildings are, in fact, Victorian, its founders were at the core of medieval Britain, parents of a king of Scotland (King John Balliol reigned from 1292-96) and the subjects of an old, if somewhat gruesome, romantic tale.  John de Balliol was a powerful landowner in England and France, with English estates principally based at Barnard Castle in County Durham.  The family originated from Bailleul-en-Vimeu in Picardy.  John himself was a loyal supporter of the English King, Henry III and married Dervorguilla, Princess of Galloway, a descendent of King David of Scotland.  John became embroiled in a land dispute with the Bishop of Durham, which he lost, and was consequently ordered to rent a house just outside Oxford’s town walls (approximately where the Master’s Lodgings are now) and to pay for 16 scholars to live there.  The traditional date for this is 1263.  One account even says that the Bishop of Durham had him whipped – which seems a little unlikely.  In any event, after John’s death in 1268, his widow provided the college with the means to continue by way of a capital endowment, formal statutes, a seal and a property for the students.  Back in Scotland, the devoted Dervorguilla had her husband’s heart embalmed and placed in an ivory casket, which she carried with her until her own death; she was buried with it in the abbey she founded in memory of her late husband, Sweetheart Abbey in Dumfries.

Balliol, Library Passage, doors on Broad Street, Latimer, Ridley, burned

Where would Balliol College be without this formidable woman?  Is it churlish to ask why they waited until 1979 before admitting female students?  Even so, the College had an uncertain time, trying to resist Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Pope in 1534 and often being short of cash.  During the Civil War, Balliol was allegedly forced to lend the King most of its money to help support the Royalist Army – a debt which its website makes clear has never been repaid.  For a time, it seems the College really struggled financially, security finally being derived in the 19th century from coal-rich estates in North East England.

Balliol, hall steps

It is easy to feel a sense of continuity with the past when wandering through the grounds, or gazing up at the portraits in the Hall.  It is also easy to feel rather impressed when you realise who some of Balliol’s ex-students were.  In no particular order, they include: John Wycliffe, 14th century translator of the Bible into English; 17th century diarist John Evelyn; author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and father of modern economics, Adam Smith; writers Hilaire Belloc, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and Nevil Shute (a personal favourite); poets Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne and Robert Browning; Nobel prize winning scientists Cyril Hinshelwood, Baruch Blumberg, Anthony Legget and Oliver Smithies; philosopher Richard Dawkins; military historian John Keegan; TV presenters Peter and Dan Snow; the BBC’s economic expert, Robert Peston; creator of the welfare state, William Beveridge - and more politicians, heads of state and prime ministers than you can shake a stick at.

Balliol, Oxford, hall interior

In fact, Balliol has produced no fewer than three British Prime Ministers (at the last count): Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath.  Dennis Healey and Roy Jenkins – both mentioned as potential premiers in their day – also studied at Balliol; as did two possible future contenders, Boris Johnson and Yvette Cooper.  Perhaps it’s something in the water.

Balliol, Fellows' Garden

On the way back from the hall, you’ll spot what looks like a tomb in the Fellows’ Garden.  Some, incorrectly, say that Princess Dervorguilla is buried there.  Apparently, it is a collection of fragments from long since demolished buildings; Balliol’s version of a garden ornament?

If you’d like to apply to Balliol College, or know a bit more about it, visit Balliol's website.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Memorial to Edward

Edward I, statue, Burgh by Sands

Death, of course, is a pretty serious affair.  I know I’m not alone in finding something compelling about the places where people are known to have met their ends; and something was compelling me to visit the place where one of England’s most formidable medieval kings, Edward I, snuffed it on 7th July 1307.  No doubt a psychologist would be able to offer an explanation for both inducements.

In any event, there is something fascinating about Edward.  Well-educated and highly intelligent, he brought stability to the land after the civil wars that blighted his father’s reign and is renowned as an effective monarch, a just law-maker.  At 6’ 2”, Edward towered over the majority of his subjects – hence his nickname, “Edward Longshanks”.  He was ruthless - as you would expect - and intimidating, with a reputation for having a furious temper; the Dean of St Paul’s is said to have died of fear in the king’s presence.  Yet was he tender too?  When his beloved wife Eleanor died in Nottinghamshire in 1290, he was so heartbroken that he ordered memorials to be built at every place her body rested on the way back to London, ending at Charing Cross.  Edward and Eleanor were clearly a devoted couple and had at least fourteen children together; he had another two with Margaret, his second wife.  But Edward was also a warrior, a crusader, conqueror, subjugator of the Welsh, builder of castles, persecutor of Jews, famed for his wars in France, Gascony, Flanders – and Scotland.  Painted on his tomb in the 16th century were the words, Scottorum malleus – ‘hammer of the Scots’ – which he tried very hard to do, though I’m pretty sure Edward was motivated more by his own 13th century sense of order, and power; rather like ‘the Godfather’, this was business, and probably not personal.  Neither he, nor I suspect any of his adversaries, were nationalists – a meaningless term in those far-off days.

Were the Scots grateful for all this attention?  Surprisingly, they were not.  But, even in England, Edward doesn’t always get a great press.

Memorial to Edward I, Solway Firth, Cumbria

A memorial stands on the very spot where he died.  It is on the English side of the Solway Firth, the large body of water that since 1092 has marked the border with south-west Scotland and which forms the mouth of the rivers Esk and Eden.  Edward was on campaign at the time, with an enormous army poised to ford the water, invade Scotland and settle things once and for all with his one-time vassal, Robert the Bruce.  Aging and ill, the king allegedly had dysentery:  apparently, he just couldn’t keep going (so to speak) and expired in the arms of his servants, aged just 68.  A memorial was first erected in 1685 (why did they wait that long?), though the current one dates from 1803, and it’s placed exactly where his tent was; don’t ask me how they know that.

To reach the memorial, you need to go through the tiny Cumbrian village of Burgh by Sands, west of Carlisle.  It feels a bit like bandit country: a couple of locals stared at me as I drove through; surely, they’re used to seeing other people by now?  They must have TVs and everything.  I waved, beamed at them and, gratifyingly, they looked cross.  Burgh is a pretty village, built where Hadrian’s Wall ran, with a must-see church, St Michael’s, and – potentially – a welcoming looking pub.

Edward I's memorial, died in his tent, 1307, invade Scotland

About a mile north of the village, the car bumps to a halt on a piece of gravelly mud.  You can make out the shape of the memorial in the distance.  I knew from a previously aborted attempt that my customary sartorial elegance would be misplaced, so I’d made a point of sporting a pair of scruffy jeans and had brought a pair of waterproof boots to change into.  It was just as well, because the track was even soggier than it looked, and badly maintained.  There was a piece of no man’s land, where the track ended near a pair of wrecked cars and the memorial lay in another direction.  I negotiated a particularly boggy bit, crossed a stile, jumped from one strategically placed stone to the next and headed off on the final leg.  It had only taken about 10 minutes, but it seemed like a trek to the end of the world.  The only sounds were the wind, gusting hard and hissing through the coarse grass, and the faintly ethereal warbling whistle of a passing curlew.  There was no sign of the Solway Firth, as such – I was probably too close to the ground to see it - but it seemed to be seeping up all around anyway.

The memorial was guarded by cows; not nice, quiet, bovine creatures, but curious, faintly menacing, ones with mad, staring, eyes.  I’ve known cows all my life (well, you do, don’t you) and I swear they’re getting more aggressive.  Anyway, I didn’t like the way these ones looked at me.  I could see the headline: “Middle-aged fattish bloke with camera mauled by flock of cows”.  Not prepared to go down without a fight, I picked up a stick and they backed away.

Memorial to Edward I, Cumbria, Burgh by Sands

I had wanted to spend some time at the memorial pondering on the life of this terrible and intriguing king.  I had even brought a Kit-Kat with me, as an aid to concentration.  However, it was not a place for quiet contemplation.  It was hard to picture a massive army camped hereabouts, banners waving, armour clanking, men calling to one another, the smoke from cooking fires in the air.  All I could think was, “What a miserable place to die”. The monument itself is pretty unexceptional and surrounded by a rusting iron fence – presumably to keep cows, Scots, Welsh etc out.  Depressed by the damp bleakness of the place, I just took a few snaps and left, making vaguely threatening noises at the cows as I went.

Cows, Solway Firth, Edward, monument

The Kit-Kat was eaten in the comfort of the car.  Not much of a visitor experience, I thought; but that wasn’t really the point.  Back in Burgh by Sands, which is definitely worth more than a casual glance, there’s a fine modern statue of Edward I on the village green, a gift from Story Construction to mark the 700th anniversary of the king’s death in 2007.  It was sculpted by Christopher Kelly and unveiled by the Duke of Kent.  It depicts a vigorous man in armour, brandishing a sword; Edward would have preferred to be remembered that way, rather than as a sick old man, expiring as his tired body failed him in a remote part of his kingdom on his way to yet another war.  His body lay in state for awhile in nearby St Michael’s, before its long journey south and burial in Westminster Abbey on 27th October.  The new king, Edward II, packed his father’s army up and sent it home.

Statue, Edward I, Burgh by Sands, Cumbria