Beautiful, extraordinary and utterly magical – Watts Cemetery Chapel

I must confess that I’d never heard of the Watts Cemetery Chapel before our visit there a few months ago. The little building doesn’t appear to be well known, either locally or nationally. Maybe that’s because it’s hidden away in deepest, darkest Surrey, on the outskirts of a little village, languishing on a road to nowhere. Or maybe because it was designed by a woman, and has therefore – until quite recently – been under-appreciated by the male-dominated architectural establishment?

The designer in question is Mary Watts (1849-1938). She was the wife of George Frederic Watts (G F Watts, 1817-1904), one of the most accomplished painters and sculptors of Victorian Britain. Mary was herself a hugely talented artist, and when their village decided to create a cemetery to increase the capacity of the local graveyard she saw an opportunity to push herself further than she’d ever been pushed before. She offered to build for the village a mortuary chapel, which is a consecrated space in which bodies of the dead can lie briefly before burial or cremation. Mary’s loving husband, 33 years her senior and significantly wealthy thanks to his successful career as an artist, provided financial backing for the project.

The Chapel was built between 1895 and 1904, with a floorplan that is best described as a circle intersected by a cross. Mary’s work oozes with mystical symbolism, and the floorplan is just one example. She described it as “the Circle of Eternity, with the Cross of Faith running through it.”

From the outside, the Chapel looks like a Byzantine or Orthodox Church that has been lifted intact from its place of origin and incongruously deposited two thousands miles away in the leafy Surrey hills. It is built from small bricks made from a local red clay, and the exterior is decorated with a variety of intricate terracotta panels. These boast a complex array of symbols derived from Celtic, Romanesque, Jewish and Egyptian traditions.

Magnificent though it is, the external appearance of the building gives no clue to the wonders that lie within. The walls and vaulted ceiling are totally covered with rich, vibrant decoration. The senses are assaulted by the range of colours, by the glitter of gold and silver, and by a magical, metallic lustre. Angels stand in a circle around the walls, and in the centre of each group of them rises a Tree of Life, its roots entwined below like the arms of a crazed octopus. Above each group, a Seraph (a form of high-status angel) clad in “the crimson colour of love and life” raises its hands in a sign of blessing.

Taken as a whole, externally and internally, the Watts Cemetery Chapel is truly mind-blowing, so it is no surprise that the noted writer and broadcaster on architectural matter, Lucinda Lambton, wrote this about it:

It is no exaggeration to say that the Watts Cemetery Chapel is one of the most beautiful, one of the most extraordinary, original, marvellous and magical buildings in the whole of the British Isles!’

Lucinda Lambton

Interestingly, the decoration of the Chapel was a community endeavour. Mary encouraged local people to explore their own creative potential by getting them involved in making some of the external terracotta panels and internal decorative features. The faces that decorate parts of the vaulted ceiling are cherubim and are representations of local children who helped with the project.

Work on the project was completed in 1904, the same year that Mary’s husband G F Watts died. Appropriately, the casket containing his ashes was displayed in the Chapel, before later being buried in the cemetery. The Chapel, and the adjoining cemetery, continue to be used to this day. It is good to know that this wonderful, Grade I Listed building is not simply a tourist attraction, but continues to be used for its originally intended purposes. Long may it continue.

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Postscript: To learn a little more about the Chapel please view this brief video produced by the Watts Gallery Artists Village.

Kedleston Hall – a masterpiece that lasts all year

Kedleston Hall is yet another of our local stately homes that gets dressed up for Christmas, so one morning a couple of weeks ago we decided to check out its latest festive makeover. Poor Kedleston, Derbyshire’s forgotten treasure, is forever in the shadow of the local legend that is Chatsworth House. However, in my view anyway, the place is a seriously under-appreciated masterpiece that’s worth visiting at any time of the year, not just at Christmas.

Chatsworth, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, has a national profile and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. And very fine it is too, if bling is your thing. I like Chatsworth well enough, of course, but if given the choice I’d prefer to potter around Kedleston any day.

The Marble Hall

Kedleston Hall is an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical wonder. To build it, local bigwig landowner Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) flattened an entire village of the same name, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t have to endure unwanted encounters with the local peasantry while wandering his estate.

The Drawing Room

Behaviour like this was typical of men of his ilk at the time, and from a 21st century perspective is totally inexcusable. The only mitigation one might offer is that Curzon built a damned fine house on the land he so rapaciously reclaimed from his tenants, though I doubt that this was much of a comfort at the time to the poor people he made homeless.

The Library

Although the Curzon family still lives in part of the Hall, the property and surrounding parkland is now owned on behalf of the nation by the National Trust. Here’s what the Trust’s website has to say about Kedleston:

“Kedleston Hall is an extravagant temple to the arts designed by the architect Robert Adam…The house is framed by historic parkland and boasts opulent interiors intended to impress. Designed for lavish entertaining, Kedleston Hall displays an extensive collection of paintings, sculpture and original furnishings, reflecting both the tastes of its creators and their fascination with the classical world of the Roman Empire.”

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 13 December 2022

Neo-classicism may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works for me, The elegance and sheer beauty of Robert Adam’s work is breath-taking, and while I was looking forward to a bit of Christmas cheer at Kedleston I was concerned that it might detract from the majesty of the Hall’s state rooms. But I need not have worried: the Christmas decorations were tastefully restrained, and the Adam’s interiors remained the stars of the show.

The Saloon

Entrance to the mansion is via the grand Marble Hall. With walls boasting multiple niches that display statues in the classical Roman style, and lined by 20 soaring, fluted alabaster columns topped with elaborate Corinthian capitals, the Marble Hall is clearly a statement piece. It is designed to overawe visitors, to advise them that they have entered the home of someone richer, more cultured, and more powerful than they can ever hope to be. Know your place! it proclaims.

The Music Room

Equally impressive is the Saloon, a circular room rising 62 feet (19m) to a grand glass skylight. It was designed as a sculpture gallery, the style being based on the temples of a Roman Forum. The modest Christmas tree at its centre did little to distract our attention the sheer elegance of the room’s design.

Clockwise from Top left: The Library. Top right: Ante Room / Dressing Room. Bottom Right: The Saloon. Bottom Left: View through Ante Room / Dressing Room to the Christmas tree in the Saloon. Middle (bottom): The Dining Room. Middle (top): The Family Room

The other state rooms, including the Library, Drawing Room and the Dining Room, are equally impressive. And that’s the point. This place was built to impress, and it does just that. More than Chatsworth House, and more than just about every other stately home I’ve ever visited, it positively exudes the wow factor. I love Kedleston Hall just as much as I’m sure I would have disliked Nathaniel Curzon, the guy who commissioned this spectacular mansion…anyone with an ego that big must have been seriously bad news!

In the Deep Midwinter: Christmas at Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, is one of England’s foremost stately homes. It’s run as a business, depending for its survival largely on the income it generates by welcoming paying members of the public to explore the stunning house and massive ornamental gardens. As with so many visitor attractions, the Christmas season is vitally important for the health of the enterprise. This is even more true in 2022, as Chatsworth seeks to recover from the damage inflicted upon the business by Covid.

Chatsworth’s famous Cascade, which dates from around 1708, flanked here by rows of eerily lit trees

And when we visited a couple of weeks ago visitors were out in force to experience this year’s Christmas extravaganza. Here’s what the website told us to expect:

Deep Midwinter: A Nordic Christmas at Chatsworth brings to life the Christmas folklore and traditions of the Arctic and Nordic regions through a series of themed roomscapes. Sculpted ‘ice’ walls, tranquil pine forests, lanterns, traditional Nordic Christmas decorations and foliage foraged from woodlands and hedgerows across the estate evoke the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world at wintertime…

Our Nordic theme continues into the garden with an enchanting Christmas light trail. Experience our ‘northern lights’ over the Canal Pond, let colour guide you along Broad Walk into a glade of glowing lights and, for the first time, see the Maze illuminated and filled with festive music.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But sadly, it didn’t live up to expectations. In 2019, the last time we visited Chatsworth at Christmas, we were blown away by decorations on the theme of “a land far, far away.” This year, however, we were distinctly underwhelmed: the Nordic associations pretty much passed us by, and the decorations lacked impact. Worse still, we paid nearly £30 (USD 37) per head for the privilege.

Some grand stately homes in other parts of the country charge quite a bit more for their Christmas celebration – Blenheim Palace, for example – but, if recent television coverage is to be believed, they offer a lot more too. Clearly, £30 per head isn’t a fortune, but that’s not the point. The question is, does it represent value for money, particularly as we are currently in the midst of a nationwide “cost of living crisis”? I don’t think so.

One of the more attractive features of the “enchanting lights trail” in the garden.

Don’t get me wrong, our visit wasn’t a total waste of time. Parts of the garden lights trail were pretty good, while the best of the decorated rooms of the House were very well done. And if you’d never been to Chatsworth before the whole show probably made a good, although very crowded, introduction to the House’s splendours. But we know the place well and – based on what we saw in 2019, and what we paid for our tickets this time – we expected rather more. The photos I’ve used to illustrate this piece feature the highlights, but the majority of “the experience” was a lot more mundane.

Maybe they had a limited budget in 2022, as a result of Covid’s impact on revenue streams? Or did they spread their resources too thinly, by having “an enchanting lights trail” in the gardens as well as decorating the House (in 2019, the Christmas extravaganza was limited just to the House, and didn’t extend into the gardens). But I can’t help worrying that Chatsworth’s trading on its name, making a calculated underinvestment in this seasonal attraction on the assumption that people will turn up anyway, just because it’s Chatsworth?

Top left: The Painted Hall. Top right: Another room, another group of trees, and a stray speaker playing Christmas music! Middle right: The Library. Bottom: The Chapel. The golden statue between the trees is by the notorious contemporary British sculptor Damien Hirst.

If so, I fear that may be a bit short-sighted, as there are plenty of other stately homes around here that also put on a show at Christmas. People who shared our disappointment with Chatsworth’s efforts this time may well choose next year to get their seasonal cheer somewhere else, somewhere offering the prospect of seeing more while paying less.

Hopefully, this is a one off, and Chatsworth will be back on form in time for Christmas 2023. Until this year they’ve had a good track record, so we’ll probably give them another chance. I’ll report back 12 months from now!

Burton Agnes celebrates Christmas

Although Burton Agnes may sound like the upper crust villain of an Agatha Christie novel, the reality is altogether more interesting. Built between 1598 and 1610 near the village of Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Burton Agnes is a magnificent Elizabethan mansion that’s been associated with the same family for over 400 years.

Although the Hall is now managed by a charitable trust, the family still lives there. To help cover the cost of its upkeep, paying visitors are invited to have a poke around this Grade I Listed architectural masterpiece. And, inevitably, the period before Christmas is a great time to pep up the income stream.

The Great Hall

This, of course, is nothing unusual. Up and down the land the good, the bad and the ugly of British stately homes open their doors to the Great British Public at this time of year, anxious to milk the cash cow that is Christmas.

Some do a great job, investing heavily to decorate their mansions with festive frivolities that are sure to get their visitors into the mood for Christmas and, hopefully, will encourage them to return the next year. Others, I suspect, do the absolute minimum that they calculate is necessary to prevent the paying public demanding its money back.

Burton Agnes, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, felt like good value for money. The place was tastefully, but not excessively decked out in seasonal finery. They say that “less is more”, and whoever planned the Christmas decorations here clearly understands the benefits of measured restraint in such matters. The seasonal adornments seemed in tune with their setting rather than simply overwhelming it, which has been the case in some of the places we’ve visited over the years

To be honest, I would normally find it difficult to feel festive in mid-November, but by the time we left Burton Agnes I could happily have polished off a plateful of mince pies and knocked out a verse or two of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Roll on Christmas, I’m ready for you now!

The White Drawing Room

And, just as important, our visit to see the Christmas decorations also served as an introduction to a truly spectacular building. The Great Hall is just that, a masterpiece of plasterwork and panelling. The Long Gallery, with its barrelled ceiling, is light, airy, elegant (and very, very long!), while the White Drawing Room is comfortably tasteful. Although the decorations were great to see, the quality of the building itself shone through clearly.

Above: The Red Drawing Room. Below: The Long Gallery

Burton Agnes has been described by the author Simon Jenkins as ‘the perfect English house’ and as one of the twenty best English houses. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that there’s lot to admire in it. Mrs P and I have agreed that we’ll make a return visit at another time of year when the Christmas decorations have been removed, so we can get to know it a bit better.

In the entrance hall

Birmingham, the Venice of the North. Really?

In some circles Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands just 50 miles / 80km from Platypus Towers, is referred to as The Venice of the North. Really? Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the premier jewels in Europe’s cultural crown, “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.” Birmingham, however…

Difficult to believe this was taken in the very centre of Birmingham, the UK’s “second city”, population 1.15 million

Although its origins are much older, Birmingham owes its prominent position to the Industrial Revolution. Central to the city’s growth was the production of metal-based goods. It became known as “the city of a thousand trades”, where a myriad of small workshops employed skilled craftsmen to manufacture high quality finished products. It was dynamic and prosperous, but it was no Venice!

Comparisons with Venice are woefully wide of the mark, except in one particular regard: canals. Venice is a city of canals, and Birmingham too has a web of waterways dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These were excavated to bring in the raw materials needed by local workshops, and to carry away the finished goods they produced to markets throughout the country.

Pretty soon, Birmingham was at the heart of the national canal network. The city thrived, and the nation’s canals bustled with activity. But the development of railways in the mid-19th century heralded a change in fortunes for the canal network locally and nationally. Rail transport – and later, transport by road – proved quicker and therefore cheaper than the carriage of materials and goods by water. Birmingham’s canal network declined, and by 1980 all commercial traffic had stopped.

Once the lifeblood of the city, Birmingham’s canals morphed into fetid rubbish dumps and the warehouses lining them became neglected eyesores, derelict and anachronistic. They served no real purpose, and it’s easy to imagine that some bright spark might have thought it would be a good idea to fill in the waterways and bulldoze the associated buildings.

But fortunately, the City Council recognised that if they were sensitively restored, Birmingham’s canals could help drive the city’s regeneration. Work began in the late 1980s, and when we visited a few months ago we were able to see how this far-sighted vision has been put into practice.

Historic toll house, where users of the canal once paid for the privilege

Gas Street Basin is the hub of the city’s canal network, located in what is today the heart of Birmingham’s cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping districts. Here we walked along towpaths lined with vibrant cafés, bars, restaurants and modern buildings, and were also pleased to spot some fine examples of historic canal architecture. Several narrowboats were moored in the basin, adding to the area’s quaint charm.

As we continued our stroll along the towpath, past modern developments that included the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the National Sea Life Centre, we encountered plenty of pedestrians and dog-walkers, and some cyclists and joggers too. All were taking the opportunity to get some fresh air, away from the noise and mayhem of the frantic city centre streets.

Gas Street Basin

Meanwhile, colourful narrowboats chugged slowly along the waterways, offering holidaymakers and tourists an unexpected perspective on what is known as the UK’s “second city” (after London, of course!).

Along the way we stopped off for a drink at one of Birmingham’s most distinctive historic buildings. The Roundhouse was built in 1874 as a giant stable complex where 50 horses that worked on the canal could be housed. The need for the facility is long-gone (none of the narrowboats now using the canals are drawn by horses), and for some time the future of the building was in doubt.

However, creative minds have come up with a way forward: now run by a charitable trust, the Roundhouse has been repurposed as a visitor centre, café, display space and offices. It also acts “as a launchpad to explore Birmingham’s brilliant stories and place…[offering] canal-based kayaking, city walking tours, [and] boat trips.”

The Roundhouse, which once provided stabling for 50 working canal horses

As we enjoyed our mochas there was time to reflect on what a good job the city authorities have done in revitalising Birmingham’s canal network and infrastructure. While Birmingham is clearly nothing like Venice, the canals give the city a distinctive character that reflects its unique heritage. A canal network dating back over two hundred years could have become a serious burden to the city and its people in the 21st century, but visionary, enterprising developments have turned it into a genuine asset. Well done, Birmingham, I salute you!

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Postscript: Venice of the North

Birmingham is not the only place that has been labelled the Venice of the North. Other nominees include Saint Petersburg (Russia); Amsterdam (Netherlands); Giethoorn (Netherlands); Bruges (Belgium); Stockholm (Sweden); Copenhagen (Denmark); and Alesund (Norway). To which I can only say, get a grip, guys. Each of these places has its own merits, and should stand or fall by those merits rather resorting to spurious comparisons with another, very different place!

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Catching up with Chesterfield’s must-see snail!

We’d been meaning for ages to go visit the famed Chesterfield snail, but Covid got in the way and it wasn’t until a few months ago that we finally caught up with it. Not that there was much chance of it getting away. Snails are notoriously slow at the best of times, and this one’s chances of making a run for it are hampered by the fact that it’s 5 metres / 16 feet tall and fashioned from sheets of brushed stainless steel.

Mollusc sits in a small area of parkland at the edge of a housing estate, on land that was once home to the Markham Engineering Works. Why, we wondered, would anyone choose to erect an enormous steel snail here…or anywhere else, for that matter? The reason, it seems, is that ancient fossil gastropods have been found in the coal measures that are widely distributed around this area of Derbyshire. Sculptor Liz Lemon has made sure that none of the locals will ever forget this obscure piece of trivia.

Lemon also took inspiration from the industrial history of the site: the form of the Mollusc echoes the casings of huge turbines that were once manufactured at the Markham works before being shipped to hydro-electric power plants around the world. This chapter of Chesterfield’s industrial history is further honoured by inscriptions in the base of the sculpture bearing the replica signatures of former Markham employees.

Although the setting is incongruous, as a piece of artwork Mollusc is undeniably eye-catching. The gleaming shell’s spiral design is decorated with a series of “portholes” that reduce in size towards its centre. These, I understand, are lit up at night by blue and green fibre optic lights, but as we visited during daylight hours this intriguing feature was invisible to us.

Installed in 2003, the Mollusc is part of Chesterfield’s Art Trail. It, and more than 70 other pieces of public art, was funded from the local council’s “Percent for Art” scheme. Developers of schemes costing over one million pounds (USD 1.15m) are encouraged to include a work of art to the value of 1% of the total cost of the project, with a view to help “create a sense of place and add character to the built environment.”

I hope that the current financial crisis engulfing the UK doesn’t undermine the Percent for Art scheme. If the Mollusc is anything to go by, this is an enlightened initiative that can only enhance the character of Chesterfield’s urban landscape. Mrs P and I look forward to exploring other hidden gems on the Chesterfield Art Trail in 2023.

Sanitising history? Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet

Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, which is located close to Sheffield in the northern English county of Yorkshire, is one of the most complete early manufacturing sites in the world. From 1697 to 1933, scythes and other edged tools were made there. In its heyday this was a place of intense activity, where generations of skilled and unskilled people spent their entire working lives. Furnaces belched out heat and smoke, while forges and grindstones powered by four waterwheels – fed by the nearby River Sheaf – were used to pound and sculpt the steel into shape.

Workshops to the left. Beyond them, the Counting House, and beyond it some workers’ cottages

At its peak, in the middle of the 19th century, Abbeydale produced thousands of high-quality edged tools every year. The scythes made by its workforce were an essential tool of farm labourers, used to clear the land and harvest the crops grown on it. Many of the scythes were sold in the UK, while others were exported to the far-flung corners of the British Empire, including Australia, India and Canada.

Early in the 20th century the demand for hand tools began to fall as mechanised alternatives became available. The Abbeydale works finally closed in 1933. Restoration of the site began in 1960, and the Abbeydale Industial Hamlet Museum opened ten years later.

Closer view of the Counting House (left) and workers’ cottages (right), dating from the late 18th century

The Museum comprises a range of preserved buildings arranged around a grassed courtyard. The doors to these buildings are invitingly open, and in some of them the visitor can learn about the process for making a scythe. There were several distinct elements, starting with the making of blister steel. This would then be converted into crucible steel, which was later forged into blades. Finally, the blades would be sharpened on large grindstones, and then chemically treated to prevent rust.

Grinding wheels, once used to sharpen the blades manufactured on site

The workshop buildings boast various tools and pieces of machinery, some modest in size, others large and imposing, all unfamiliar and vaguely threatening to this impractical 21st century Platypus Man. Who knew that making an item apparently so basic as a steel blade could be quite so complicated?

A stack of used clay pots (crucibles), in which crucible steel was made. Crucibles were made on site and had to be discarded after being used twice.

Another door off the courtyard leads us into a worker’s cottage, immaculately dressed to give a glimpse of life in the mid-19th century. Somewhat grander, and set out as it might have been towards the end of the 19th century, is the Master’s House. There is also a Counting House, dressed as it might have been in the 1920s, the office where the works foreman and his clerk carried out administrative tasks essential to the running of the enterprise.

The Tilt Forge, where steel was shaped into the required size and shape of blade

Abbeydale is a fascinating, informative place to visit, offering glimpses of a way of life that feels very alien today. But I can’t help thinking it’s a somewhat sanitised account of how it was “back in the day”. Although on special occasions some of the machinery is still operated by volunteers, during our visit it lay silent. Surely, Abbeydale was never silent? And what about the heat of the furnaces, and the stink and the smoke and the filth, all of which were part and parcel of everyday life when this place was in business? None of this was evident or even hinted at when we were there.

One of four waterwheels on site. These powered various pieces of machinery used in the scythe-making process.

And the neatly grassed courtyard that sits at the heart of Abbeydale looks totally incongruous. Grassy green lawns in the middle of a chaotic industrial 19th century industrial site? I don’t think so! Clearly the courtyard, as well as the tools, bits of machinery and buildings lovingly preserved on site, tell only half the story.

Interior of one of the three workers’ cottages on site. Built in 1793, these housed keyworkers such as the grinder and forge man. Labourers would have lived elsewhere, somewhere less comfortable!

There must be at least a hundred reasons why it would not be possible or desirable, nor even legal, to faithfully recreate the realities of the day-to-day life of Abbeydale in its prime. That’s OK, the Museum still serves an important purpose as a learning aid for young and old alike. But we must never allow excellent museums like this – and for sure, Abbeydale is an excellent museum – to tempt us into becoming nostalgic for the world we have lost.

Interior of the Manager’s House, built 1838-42. Definitely a step up from the workers’ cottages.

Today, Abbeydale looks quaint. It’s well ordered, clean, immaculately presented and eerily attractive. It seems like a rewarding and comfortable place to earn a daily wage, and to live. But have no doubt, life was a living hell for the people who once worked there, engaged in hard and dangerous manual labour every day while earning a pittance. Never forget this, please, if you ever get the chance to visit Abbeydale, or any similar industrial or living history museum. Exhibits like these tell the truth, but never the whole truth.

The cathedral cat

We spot him first in the monastic cloisters that are attached to the Cathedral, rolling on his back and wantonly flashing his belly at anyone who will look in his direction. I hurry towards him, camera in hand, hoping to capture some cute video action. But he’s in no mood to be filmed and disappears through a doorway into the main body of the Cathedral. Mrs P’s still taking photos of the cloisters, so I wait for her. By the time we’re ready to follow my new feline friend into the main body of the Cathedral, he’s nowhere to be seen.

Norwich Cathedral

Work began on the construction of Norwich Cathedral in 1096 and was completed in 1145. It is a magnificent building, regarded – its guidebook informs me – as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. The monastic cloisters are the second largest in England, exceeded only by those at Salisbury Cathedral. Its cathedral close – that is, the area immediately around a cathedral comprising various properties that belong to it – is England’s largest.

Clerics and other Cathedral officers are housed or work in Norwich Cathedral’s close. And, as we are soon to learn, the close is also home to a cat who is famous the world over.

“Budge” the cathedral cat

Leaving the cloisters behind us, our minds are blown away as we enter the main body of the Cathedral. Stunning! Spectacular! Awe inspiring! The superlatives keep on coming, and we join other visitors in cricking our necks to admire the soaring roof. And yet, as we look around us, we see other visitors focussed on matters that are more grounded: the cat I spotted earlier in the cloisters is now sitting next to the pulpit, and has gathered a bevy of doting admirers.

Standing close by the cat is a member of Cathedral staff. Or maybe a volunteer, I’m not quite sure, but she clearly has an official role in this magnificent place. And she wears a slightly weary expression. I sense she’d rather be talking to us about the glory of God and the breath-taking building He has inspired. But instead she’s filling us in on the life and times of the Cathedral cat.

His name, we learn, is Budge, and he’s around five years old. He lives in one of the houses on the close, but spends most of his days in the Cathedral where he has become a bit of a celebrity. Budge has been known to gate-crash Cathedral events and make his presence known during morning prayers. He is popular with visitors, and the Dean is reported as saying that he brings comfort to those in torment:

“Sometimes people who come in are distressed, and we often find Budge sitting with them. I think some find him very therapeutic. Budge seems to bring people a lot of pleasure, and he is a very positive presence.”

Very Reverend Jane Hedges, Dean of Norwich Cathedral, quoted in this article on the BBC website, 25/12/2021

But like most cats his favourite hobby is snoozing, and it seems that there is nowhere in the Cathedral – including the altar – where he has not on occasion lain his sleepy head. A cat with a rare sense of style and a large helping of chutzpah, one Christmas he was even found sleeping in baby Jesus’s crib in the Nativity scene!

Having heard and enjoyed Budge’s story we bid him a fond farewell and continue our journey around Norwich Cathedral. Half an hour later we meet up with him again. He’s removed himself from his position by the pulpit, and is now curled up on a plush cushion that someone has thoughtfully placed on top of one of the choir stalls. He’s sleeping peacefully, seemingly unaware of his many admirers taking photos and selfies.

There’s no doubt about it – Budge is a superstar. Enter “Norwich cathedral cat” in the Google search box and the return is a massive 1.3 million hits! Like all superstars he has his own Twitter feed, and currently boasts 4,630 followers. At the top of his feed is this quote, which seems an appropriate tribute to a much-loved cat who spends most of his life in a Cathedral:

For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God

Excerpt from Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart

Christmas card on sale from Norwich Cathedral shop, 2022

Budge’s superstar status is confirmed by the fact that the Cathedral shop sells Christmas cards featuring him. The illustration shows him in front of a large Christmas tree, stretched out on a heating vent that is pumping warmth into the Cathedral. This is, reputedly, one of his favourite spots for a quick nap! Although it’s a bit depressing to find Christmas cards on sale nearly four months before the big day, it’s great to see the affection in which Budge is held and to know that he’s doing his bit to raise funds for the maintenance of his magnificent second home.

St Julian, her calling and her cat

Although he’s the undoubted star of the show, Budge isn’t the only cat to be seen at Norwich Cathedral. One of its stained-glass windows is dedicated to St Julian of Norwich, and in the bottom left-hand corner is the image of a cat.

The remarkable woman featured in the window was born in Norwich in 1342. The name with which she was baptised is lost to history. In 1373 she contracted the plague and experienced several mystical visions as she fought her terrible illness. After a miraculous recovery she determined to devote the rest of her life to God, becoming an anchoress (hermit) at the church of St Julian in Norwich and adopting Julian as her name.

Julian, sometimes also known today as Juliana of Norwich, Dame Julian or Mother Julian, spent all her days and nights in a small cell measuring just over 9 square metres (100 square feet). The cell had a window into the church which allowed her to receive holy communion during Mass, and a window to the street to enable her to give guidance and spiritual support to anyone requesting it. There was also a small window through which a maidservant could pass her food and drink.

Although hers was a holy existence it must also have been very lonely, and Julian is believed to have developed a close relationship with the cat that she was allowed to keep in her cell to control rats and mice. It is this relationship that is referenced in the stained glass.

Julian was controversially ahead of her time in describing God as both mother and father, and in calling Jesus our “true Mother” from whom we receive our beginning, our true being, protection and love.

One of her core messages was “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s an idea that we may all wish to cling to in these, the most turbulent of times.

Julian’s writings, the Revelations of Divine Love, are the earliest surviving works in the English language written by a woman. You can learn a little more about her by watching this short video that I tracked down on YouTube.

The video makes no mention of Julian’s relationship with her cat, understandably perhaps as this may be thought to trivialise a significant, holy life. Personally, however, I’m drawn to the idea that such an exceptional, mystical woman could develop a tender, caring relationship with a simple, furry hunter of rats and mice. In some circles Saint Julian is unofficially known as the patron saint of cats. I’m certain Budge would approve!

Lincoln Cathedral: tall tales and mischievous imps

Visiting Lincoln a few weeks ago, it was impossible to miss the Cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline. By any standard it’s a massively impressive building, but even so I was surprised to learn that in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries it was the tallest manmade structure in the world (around 160m), having claimed the title previously held by the Great Pyramid of Giza!

The Cathedral dominates Lincoln’s skyline

A brief history of Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror, who was anxious to stamp his mark on the territory he had captured from the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Work began in 1071 and after just 20 years the Cathedral was consecrated, but a couple of decades later it was ravaged by fire. More shockingly, in 1184 the building was partially destroyed by an earthquake.

One of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals

Earthquakes are very rare in England, and when they do happen damage is usually minimal. Not so in Lincoln in 1184, when the unprecedented event caused massive damage to a building that was not even 100 years old. Paradoxically, however, the earthquake was the making of Lincoln Cathedral.

The Sanctuary of St Hugh’s Choir, the most sacred part of the Cathedral

Undaunted by the scale of the challenge facing him, the incumbent bishop – Hugh – oversaw the building of a magnificent new Gothic-style cathedral. Although it included some surviving sections of the original building, it was altogether much larger and grander than its predecessor, and incorporated state-of-the-art architectural features such as flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches.  Thanks to the earthquake and Bishop Hugh’s response to it, today’s Lincoln Cathedral is reckoned to be one of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals.

Stained glass window in the Chapter House

The Cathedral became the world’s tallest building in the early 14th century, when a wooden spire was added to the stone central tower originally commissioned by Bishop Hugh. The record held until 1549, when a hurricane – almost as rare in the UK as earthquakes! – caused the spire to collapse.

View across part of the Cloister garth towards the central tower, which supported a wooden spire between C14 and 1549.

Had the spire survived, Lincoln Cathedral would have remained the world’s tallest building until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. The full-height tower and spire must have been a remarkable sight in medieval Lincoln, an otherwise unremarkable English provincial city.

The Cloister

The legend of the Lincoln Imp

Even without its record-breaking central spire, Lincoln Cathedral remains a magnificently imposing structure, a monumental masterpiece. And yet perhaps its most famous feature is – relatively speaking – tiny. The Lincoln Imp is a grotesque, a small carving situated at the top of a soaring stone pillar supporting two arches. Just 12 inches (30cm) in height, it would be easy to overlook if you didn’t know it was there.

Legend has it that one day Satan was feeling particularly mischievous, and decided some devilment was in order. To do his work he sent some badly behaved young imps out into the English East Midlands. One made its way to the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield where it made a mess of the local church spire (I wrote about the twisted spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield here), while two others were despatched to cause mayhem at Lincoln Cathedral.

Spot the imp!

The naughty imps lived up to the Devil’s expectations. They forced their way into the Cathedral and started to cause havoc by smashing windows, breaking furniture, dancing on the altar, throwing rocks and tripping up a priest.

An angel intervened and told the imps to behave themselves. But the imps were having a good time and decided the angel could safely be ignored. Wrong! The angel promptly turned one of the little devils into the stone image that visitors to the Cathedral still seek out today, thereby reminding all who see it that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The second imp did a swift risk assessment, didn’t like the answer it gave him, and made a run for it.

Who’s been a naughty boy?

Despite – or perhaps because of – its rebellious nature, the imp has become the unofficial emblem of the city of Lincoln. Locals have taken it to their hearts, nicknaming the city’s professional soccer team The Imps. Some pubs and bars in and around the city are named in honour of the imp, while the Cathedral shop sells various items, from fridge magnets and greetings cards to socks and earrings, all depicting the Devil’s tiny sidekick.

The legend of the Lincoln imp is just a piece of harmless fun. But its impact should not be underestimated, as it encourages people who might otherwise have little interest in architecture to explore the city’s magnificent Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral may no longer be the world’s tallest building, but it is still an awe-inspiring structure that’s well worth a visit.

Harlaxton Manor – where Americans learn about the Brits

The histories of the US and the UK are closely intertwined. Some might call it a love/hate relationship, but in truth it’s characterised primarily by confusion. I mean, why do the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road? And why can’t Americans learn to spell like the English? These are good questions, and hark back to the misunderstandings that arose during the Second World War when US troops based in the UK prior to D-Day were widely resented for being “overpaid, over-sexed and over here.”

Harlaxton Manor, built between 1832 and 1854

In a noble, but in all likelihood doomed attempt to bridge the great divide, the University of Evansville (Indiana) delivers an immersive British Studies course out of the architecturally splendid Harlaxton Manor, which lies deep in the verdant countryside of the county of Lincolnshire. The Harlaxton College website describes the course in these terms:

British Studies is a Harlaxton signature program, taught by British professors. It is a multidisciplinary program comprising two course options unified by a focus on the issues, historical and contemporary, and cultural trends, that both create and dislocate a sense of national identity in modern Britain. 

Harlaxton College website, retrieved 29/07/22

It must be a brain-frying experience for young students from the US to spend two semesters based in a building as extraordinary as Harlaxton Manor, but I hope they don’t think it’s in any way indicative of the way real Brits live, or have ever lived. Harlaxton is a fairy tale, simply one man’s breath-taking fantasy cast in stone, courtesy of the vast wealth at his disposal.

A potted history of Harlaxton Manor

The man responsible for Harlaxton Manor was one Gregory Gregory (1786–1854). That’s not the name he was born with, but he adopted it anyway, suggesting to me that he was at least one card short of a full deck.

Rear view

Gregory evidently came from a wealthy family. He inherited the land on which the Manor now sits, as well as an earlier Harlaxton Manor House dating from the 14th century. He was rolling in money – his inheritance included holdings in various canal and railway companies, as well as a number of coal mines.

So what does a man do when he has more money than good sense? What he does is to let the manor house he has inherited go to rack and ruin, and commission in its place perhaps the most extravagant English country house of the 19th century.

Gregory spent much of the 1820s attached to various British embassies overseas, although exactly what he was up to isn’t clear. But what is known is that during his time away from the UK he spent a fortune buying up works of art. He clearly had a burning passion for European art and architecture, and the money to indulge his obsession.

On returning to his native land Gregory wanted somewhere appropriately palatial to display his acquisitions, and thus was the Harlaxton Manor project conceived. He also had a grand vision, to fuse Elizabethan and Jacobean architectural styles with Baroque, and he hired some of the finest architects of the early 19th century to help him achieve it.

Is Gregory’s Harlaxton Manor a bold, imaginative and ground-breaking masterpiece, or simply an act of narcissistic self-indulgence by a wealthy man possessed of a somewhat delusional mind? Well, I guess the jury’s out on that one. But he was clearly making a statement, something along the lines of I’m so wealthy I can afford whatever I damned well like. Live with it! Modesty, subtlety and restraint were evidently not Gregory Gregory’s strong points.

The Gold Room

For what it’s worth – and I confess to knowing nothing much about architecture! – for me the design lacks coherence and perhaps a degree of good taste. Opulence in excess can be oppressive, and jumbles of monumental, bright and shiny stuff are not necessarily beautiful. Sometimes less is more, but Gregory Gregory would never settle for less when he could show off his wealth and status by having (a lot) more.

Having said that, Harlaxton has the wow factor and don’t we all need a bit of wow in our lives sometimes? But I wouldn’t want to live there, even if you paid me!

Work started on Harlaxton Manor in 1832 and ended with Gregory’s demise in 1854. After his death it passed through several owners. During the First World War, the grounds were used to train soldiers in trench warfare, and during the Second World War the Manor was requisitioned and used as the officers’ mess for nearby RAF Harlaxton. Three years after the war ended, the then owner Mrs Violet Van der Elst (inventor of the world’s first brush-less shaving cream!) sold Harlaxton to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

The Gold Room

The Jesuits’ intention was to use the Manor as a novice centre, where recruits new to the faith would be housed and honed. But things did not go as planned. The anticipated number of 200 novices on site proved wildly optimistic, and when numbers dropped to around 50 the Jesuits decided to cut their losses.

Harlaxton reprieved: the Americans save the day

In 1965, the Jesuits leased the Manor to California’s Stanford University, making it the first American university campus in the UK. Stanford remained at Harlaxton for four years, before moving their “Stanford in Britain” programme to another, less provincial part of the country. It was at this point that the University of Evansville stepped in, leasing the Manor from the Jesuits and opening its international study centre there in 1971. Sixteen years later, in 1987, the University acquired outright ownership and quickly set about making it their own.

The Morning Room

Today, during the regular academic year, Harlaxton College hosts over 300 students from the University of Evansville and various other US colleges and universities. During each summer around 1,000 further people attend summer schools, short courses and conferences, and a few lucky couples (loaded with cash, I imagine!) even get married there. Once or twice a year the College holds an open day when locals, and travellers from further afield like Mrs P and I, can visit and gaze in bewildered awe at Gregory Gregory’s architectural excesses.

Harlaxton was buzzing with visitors when we visited earlier this summer, our last trip out before succumbing to Covid. Everyone having a whale of a time. The open day was, as you would expect, impeccably organised and the hosts – all proudly sporting their college shirts – were unfailingly polite.

The Great Hall

At one point I fell into easy conversation with one of the Harlaxton crew, a young intern from Charlotte, North Carolina, pointing out to her that the signage directing visitors to the toilets referred to them as “restrooms.” I explained to my new friend that this twee euphemism is a North American confection, and would never, ever be encountered in a genuinely British public building.

Harlaxton Manor may be an extravagantly over-the-top British building nestled deep in the English countryside, but the signage, politeness and organisational polish on show that afternoon made it absolutely plain that we were on US soil. And it felt good!

British Studies? Good luck with that, guys!

My academic life ended many decades ago, but I can’t help but be intrigued by Harlaxton College’s British Studies course. What are they telling those poor American kids about us? Is any of it true? And who is to say what is true, anyway, in these days of division, disharmony and unprecedented change?

The Great Hall

The College website proclaims (boasts?) that the course is taught by “British professors.” That sounds like a good thing, but being British and bright doesn’t mean you necessarily fully understand Britishness…my passport proves I’m British and my Cambridge University degree suggests I’m quite bright, but have I totally nailed the essence of Britishness? No, probably not. Maybe I should sign up for the course!

But if I did take the course, I’d appreciate some foreign perspectives on Britishness as well those of the – doubtlessly estimable – “British professors.” Maybe we Brits are just too close to the subject to fully understand what’s going on here.

The Long Gallery

To its credit, Harlaxton offers a “Meet a Family Experience”, enabling students to get to know some ordinary Brits. In this way they are able to get up close and personal with aspects of British life that might be challenging to convey in erudite College lectures. If we lived closer than a two-hour drive from Harlaxton I’d be tempted to sign up, and then bore some poor unsuspecting youngster rigid with my limited, flawed insights on being British in 2022. I might even try to explain to him – or her – the rules of cricket, but only if I were feeling particularly mischievous.

I’m glad our American cousins, in the guise of the University of Evansville, stepped in to help save Harlaxton Manor, which, for all its architectural excesses, deserves to be saved. I’m also glad that the University is using the Manor as a base to increase mutual understanding between our two great nations. God knows, we both need all the friends we can get right now, don’t we?

Ante Room ceiling

But I fear that, however hard Harlaxton tries, the mysteries of British driving and American spelling will be with us all for some time to come!