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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?

Friday, 11 September 2015

St Mary's, Ewelme

St Mary's, Ewelme, church, Oxfordshire, almshouses

I was looking for Geoffrey Chaucer’s Granddaughter – as you do.  In the process, I discovered a unique church and the last resting place of Jerome K Jerome.

Let’s start with Chaucer’s granddaughter, Alice de la Pole.  Alice was quite a lady, a duchess, with extensive lands in the Thames Valley, East Anglia and overseas.  She was born in 1404, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer and Matilda Burghersh.  Thomas inherited some of his father’s excellent connections and had a pretty illustrious career, serving as, among other things, Chief Butler of England, Constable of Wallingford Castle, a Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House of Commons.  His marriage to Matilda brought him the manor of Ewelme, in Oxfordshire.

Alice de la Pole, Chaucer's granddaughter

As a child, Alice was betrothed (some sources say married) to one of Henry V’s captains, Sir John Phelip, but he died of the flux (dysentery) at the siege of Harfleur in 1415.  She went on to marry Thomas Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, a renowned soldier and commander, who left Alice a widow when he was hit with a cannon ball at the siege of Orleans in 1428.  In 1430, Alice married her 2nd (or 3rd) husband, William de la Pole, Earl (later Duke) of Suffolk – who had actually been serving with the Earl of Salisbury, which was probably how he and Alice met.  William went on to negotiate the marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.  He was an early victim of the squabbles which led to the Wars of the Roses and was murdered at sea – beheaded with a rusty sword, according to some accounts, in 1450, his body dumped on the beach at Dover.  William is the Suffolk in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, and also features in Conn Iggulden’s excellent novel Wars of the Roses – Stormbird.  In any event, he and Alice appeared to have enjoyed a happy marriage until his death.  Their son, John, went on to support the Yorkist cause and marry Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister of King Edward IV and Richard III.  But the de la Poles fell from favour under the new Tudor dynasty and Alice’s grandsons were the last of the line: Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, was beheaded on the orders of Henry VIII in 1513; Richard was killed at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and William died in the Tower in 1539.

Thomas Chaucer, Matilda Burghersh, St Mary's, Ewelme

You’ll find Alice, though, one of the great ladies of one of the most turbulent periods in British history, in an amazing alabaster tomb at St Mary’s Church in her home village of Ewelme.  It was actually my mate Dave who put me on her track.  Dave’s a far more erudite chap than I am and the inspiration behind other notable visits, such as Swinbrook and Fox’s Pulpit.  “If you’re ever in the Oxford area and have time,” he murmured over a pint of fermented Gnat’s Spit one evening, “Pop into Ewelme Church.  Impressive tomb.”

Ewelme, church, doors, north entrance

Ewelme is an ancient place, possibly with Celtic origins.  It was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as Auuilme, from the old English (Saxon) meaning ‘place at the river source’.  I have seen variations on the theme, including Lawelme – ‘a spring source’, Aewhyme – ‘water whelming’ and even the Latin Aqua Alma – ‘sweet water’.  The village pond – a deep pool where fairies are said to play and which is reputed to have restorative powers – feeds watercress beds and thence flows into the Thames.  Legend has it that Henry VIII bathed in the pond (or was playfully pushed in by Katherine Howard) when staying at Ewelme Manor; hence it is known as King’s Pool.  Elizabeth I is rumoured to have dallied with her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the surrounding lanes.

Ewelme church, east end, chequerboard, Suffolk

The road to the village took me past the drear, slightly sinister, fences of RAF Benson into an attractive, but vaguely straggling, settlement past the watercress beds.  Only an idiot would miss the church completely and end up making an unplanned excursion round south Oxfordshire.  Note to self: next time, follow Parson’s Lane to the right – the clue’s in the name.  Finally, I pulled up by an old wall and got out.  There wasn’t a soul around and a sudden commotion a few feet above my head made me start.  Red kites, with their distinctive v-shaped tails, swooped; a lone crow seemed to be taking them on.

English flag, St George, church tower

The church is large, and pretty much rectangular, with a hefty central nave and a tower to the west, from which the English flag flutters proudly in the breeze.  Brick battlements enclose the roof and there is an attractive chequer-board pattern of stone and flint surrounding the significant windows on the east end.  The building is manifestly late medieval, squarer in shape than earlier styles.  It was built on the site of an earlier church by Alice and William sometime in the 1430s (parts of the tower are older).  They also built the adjoining almshouses for 2 priests and 13 poor men, as well as the nearby school; both are still in use.

Ewelme church, nave

The style of the church is, apparently, East Anglian; William undoubtedly brought craftsmen over from Suffolk.  The interior is still largely 15th century; it is beautifully light and relatively plain – except for the chancel and, to the south, a chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist.  Both seem surprisingly ornate, for an Anglican church; the walls are decorated with repetitions of the IHS Christogram, in black and red gothic lettering. In fact, there is something of interest wherever you look.  Throughout the church are various stone carvings in almost pristine condition – one, apparently, representing Edward III, Geoffrey Chaucer’s patron.  The elaborate wooden font cover – a gift from John de la Pole on Alice’s death - is 10.5 feet high, crowned with a figure depicting St Michael.  There are many 15th and 16th century brasses in the church and, in front of the ancient rood screen, the grave of Michael de la Pole, briefly 3rd Earl of Suffolk, who was one of the few English nobles killed at Agincourt in 1415.  We owe much of the preservation of St Mary’s to a Colonel Martyn, a Cromwellian commander who prevented the destruction that so many churches suffered at the hands of Puritan troops during the Civil War. 

Ewelme, font, font cover, church carving, Edward III

Within St John’s Chapel is the alter tomb of Thomas Chaucer (d 1434) and Matilda Burghersh (d 1436).  Brasses of Thomas in full armour and his wife are let into the marble top.  Around the sides of the tomb is a remarkable and colourful display of medieval shields of arms.

Chapel of St John, tomb, Alice de la Pole, IHS, Christogram, Ewelme

But I had come to see Alice, the indomitable duchess, who mixed with kings and queens and who died, aged 71, in 1475.  Her tomb is one of the most incredible pieces of artwork I have ever seen, with an elaborate canopy and the life-like carved figure of Alice resting on the chest that contains her remains.  Her head, wearing a coronet, rests on a pillow flanked by angels.  She wears her wedding ring on the third finger of her right hand and the order of the Garter on her left arm.  Beneath her tomb is a ghastly representation of the Duchess in death.  These carved memento mori (a reminder that you will die) were relatively common for the tombs of the very wealthy in medieval times – but they were extremely expensive and exclusive.  Ironically, the idea was to demonstrate humility - and hope that people would pray for the soul of the departed.  Many show astonishingly accurate anatomical detail and it is believed the sculptors can only have achieved this by using real bodies as models.

Alice de la Pole, Chaucer, granddaughter, tomb, Oxfordshire

Alice de la Pole, tomb, decoration

Alice de la Pole, memento mori, transi

Mentally breathless, I stepped outside.  It seems discourteous to visit a church without spending time in the churchyard too.  Just beyond the south door of St Mary’s Ewelme is the modest grave of Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859-1927), one-time teacher, actor, journalist, humourist and writer.  He is best known for his book Three Men in a Boat, which amusingly tells the story of the author’s adventures during a Thames boating holiday with his friends George and Harris – to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency – in the 1880s.  Inevitably, I have been prompted to re-read it; it tells, of course, of a vanished world, but the humour is gentle and Jerome periodically wanders off in a droll way on diversions to vaguely illustrate some point or other.  It was, so it is said, based loosely on his honeymoon - though I like to think not entirely.  I seem to recall that Three Men on the Bummel was quite funny too.  J K Jerome was born in Walsall and lived in later life at Gould’s Grove, a farmhouse south of Ewelme which is still there, though has been renamed ‘Troy’.  And there in Ewelme he rests, with his wife Georgina (known as Ettie), his sister, Blandina, and step-daughter, Elsie, beside him.

Jerome Klapka Jerome, grave, burial place

Isn’t it astonishing what you can get out of a visit to a church? 


Check out InSpired Sunday for other places of worship around the world.

Friday, 4 September 2015

South Lakes Zoo

Sumatran Tiber, South Lakes Safari Zoo, Cumria

This is a bit about South Lakes Zoo - or, more properly, “South Lakes Safari Zoo”, formerly South Lakes Wild Animal Park.  It is located just outside the small Cumbrian town of Dalton-in-Furness, on the edge of the English Lake District that attracts thousands of visitors every year.

South Lakes Safari Zoo, giraffe, rhino

I feel a little ambivalent about zoos and what-not.  Of course, they do much valuable work these days, preserving threatened species - most of which would probably have been perfectly OK if we’d left them and their habitats alone in the first place.  Zoos also increase our knowledge of the other beasts we share this fragile planet with.  But, let’s be honest, zoos are primarily designed to entertain by exhibiting incarcerated creatures.  I do get decidedly uncomfortable seeing some poor, diminished, helpless animal pacing up and down in its well-trodden path, looking forlorn and puzzled in a cage that is evidently far too small; can there be many sadder sights?  On the other hand, if conditions are reasonable, it is a privilege to see some of these creatures – and I confess to enjoying a visit to a decent zoo - as long as I don’t have to do it too often.

Ducks, terrapins, South Lakes Zoo, Australian Pathway

The English Lake District seems an unlikely place to keep and exhibit wild animals.  After all, it’s not exactly the warmest, or driest, part of the country – possibly that’s why lions, tigers, giraffes, rhinos etc decided sometime ago not to live there, voluntarily.  Then, given all the wonderful, unique, countryside on the doorstep – which is, after all, the reason people visit the Lake District in the first place – why would anyone want to spend time at a zoo?  Are there not zoos in other, less interesting, places?  I guess some people can only stand so much natural beauty, and discover that walking over hills and taking in the scenery isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Then, when they also notice they’ve brought children with them who need less subtle visual stimulation and are unable to walk, unaided, further than their bedrooms, the presence of a nearby zoo begins to make a lot of sense.

Kangaroos, marsupials, South Lakes Zoo, Cumbria

Never having had any problem with my own hypocrisy, I’ve visited South Lakes Safari Zoo several times.  As a zoologist of world renown, I should say that most of its inhabitants appear happy and to enjoy better conditions than some other zoos provide.  There is also a useful miniature railway which carries children, as well as fat old blokes, with ease.  However, a word of warning to disillusioned ramblers; you will still need to walk a lot.  When I last visited (2014), I required a long lie-down and a small tonic at the end of the day.  And, the place has ambitious expansion plans – so be warned.

Arctic wolves, wolf, South Lakes, zoo, Dalton

In fact, South Lakes Safari Zoo has had a chequered history.  In 1997, a 3-ton white rhino escaped (it burrowed under hut 3 and hid the sand in the roof).  Cornered in a field, the poor creature was shot dead by the zoo owner.  In 2014, a couple of capuchin monkeys went walkabout and, in addition, a number of sacred ibis were found enjoying themselves in the nearby countryside having, presumably, learned how to fly over the wire.  Some of these birds were also shot.  Far more seriously, and tragically, a young keeper was mauled by a Sumatran tiger in 2013; she died from her injuries shortly afterwards.  That was – and is - simply horrific.  I like to think that standards are high in the UK – and they probably are – but I don’t suppose any zoo is immune from escapes, serious accidents, or even breaches in safety.

Snow leopard, South Lakes, zoo, Dalton

The zoo’s owner, David S Gill, is a controversial figure who has been criticised by many for his views and behaviour.  I’m sure you can read all about this elsewhere if you’re interested.  At one time, he also owned a zoo in Australia.  Yet he has created an undoubtedly successful visitor attraction in this slightly marginal and wind-swept part of Britain, founding the zoo on what had been waste ground in 1991 and opening its doors in 1994.  Perhaps surprisingly, South Lakes Safari Zoo has often received the accolade of ‘the Lake District’s top attraction’ – though I have no idea how that is measured.  And the zoo is heavily committed to conservation.  Ironically, it has successfully bred the Sumatran tiger and the white rhino, both endangered species.

Macaw, South Lakes, zoo, Cumbria

South Lakes Safari Zoo is not laid out as a series of boring, depressing, cages.  There are interesting enclosures where the animals appear to enjoy a relative amount of reasonable space.  A number of aerial walkways take you right over some of the pens so you can often get amazing views of the inmates, including bears, big cats, rhinos and giraffes.  The ‘Australian Pathway’ conducts you through an enclosed area where the animals – including kangaroos, wallabies, emus and lemurs – are free to roam as you walk by.  It is possible to get up close and personal with some of these creatures, though I do worry a little about whether that is fair; and you do wonder sometimes who is looking at whom and which ones should be locked up at night.  Anyway, it’s a more fascinating place to visit than it might otherwise be.

Baboon, South Lakes, wildlife, zoo, Dalton

But - it can get really busy and there could be more room for people.  So, on a practical level, you might want to consider getting there early – parking and queues can both be a problem.  On the upside, you will enjoy the close proximity of your fragrant and ever-courteous fellow humans, all of their offspring, and will have particular fun playing the exciting game of ‘jump over the careless pushchair.’  The facilities get mobbed – there is a restaurant but think about taking a picnic in a rucksack.  Finally, check prices before you go; last time we went, children under 3 got in free, but everyone else paid full entry – which could be expensive for some families.

Prarie marmot, South Lakes Safari Zoo, Dalton, Cumbria

Ending with a little personal experience, the zoo was, unfortunately, once home to the Great Peeing Bat (magnachiroptera urinae) as well as a nasty little monkey that derived extreme pleasure from playing with itself in public.  I hope it was a monkey.  Then, during a subsequent visit, our ears were assaulted by a series of deep grunts, with a delay of several seconds between each one.  It not being anywhere near Wimbledon, we sought the source of this curious noise and came upon a small crowd gathered round two extremely large tortoises engaged in what might be, euphemistically, referred to as a very friendly act.  The (presumably) male tortoise appeared to be making heavy weather of the matter – though he could easily have been well over 100 years old (in which case, he was doing just fine) – and was being generously encouraged by the assembled throng.  Covering the memsahib’s eyes, we rapidly moved onto feeding the penguins.

Otters, South Lakes, wildlife, zoo

At this point, I’d normally add "find out more by visiting South Lakes Safari Zoo’s website", but at time of writing this merely seems to link to a Facebook page.