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Sixty years after its first publication, Blue Guides is issuing this reprint of its 1953 guide to London.
It includes the original street and transport maps, floor plans of the major attractions, and detailed descriptions of a great city recovering after six years of war and the destruction of many of its buildings.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here»

 

16.01.2013
16:47

Cathedral picks: Exeter


At the far east end of Exeter cathedral lies the tomb-chest of Hugh Oldham (d. 1519), with his painted effigy reposing upon it.

Oldham rose rapidly in the church, and may have owed his preferment at least in part to the good opinion of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, in whose household he once served as chancellor. His nomination as Bishop of Exeter in 1505 may have come about with her help. Margaret was a member of the House of Lancaster, and Oldham himself was a Lancastrian by birth. His home village was near Manchester, and his educational foundations included Manchester Grammar School (and Corpus Christi College, Oxford). His chantry chapel is at the end of the south aisle. It is dedicated to St Boniface and St Saviour and bears the scars of the Reformation: not a single carved saint of the many that decorate the exterior still possesses its head. The altarpiece inside has been similarly disfigured. According to the cathedral guide, this iconoclasm was the work of the Dean of Exeter himself, in a bid to demonstrate his allegiance to the reformers.

The leitmotif of the chapel’s decorative scheme is the owl, which Bishop Hugh used as his personal device, constructing a rebus from it: HughOwldham. Once you start looking, you see owls everywhere: along the walls, on the ceiling, even embroidered on the kneelers.

15.10.2012
13:54

Visiting St Paul’s in London

News has just come in that the Occupy London protesters marked their first anniversary by chaining themselves to the pulpit of St Paul’s and reading out a ‘prayer’ criticizing St Paul’s for collusion in the world domination of big bad business. Cathedral staff, says londonist.com, were happy for the protesters to do this. I can’t help feeling a bit miffed, as if cathedral staff treat protesters better than they treat ordinary visitors. This is what it was like a month ago, when I went to St Paul’s to try to admire it, not to voice disapproval or chain myself to its furniture:

“If there are any pre-paid tickets please, anyone with any pre-paid tickets at all, if you’d like to just come to the front of the queue please, pre-paid tickets come right round to the head of the line….”

It was three thirty in the afternoon, on a warm, sunny Saturday. The line was extremely long, extremely chaotic and few of its members spoke English as a mother tongue. The guard was trying to be helpful but she had made no attempt to grade her language, to speak slowly or to remove superfluities from her sentence construction. Consequently the only people who understood what she was saying were ourselves. And we didn’t have pre-paid tickets.

So we waited. And then paid £15 each, were given a content-free handout with an inadequate floor plan and were helpfully asked to be aware that the cathedral would be closing at half past four.

That gives us an hour, we thought. We won’t need more than that.

How wrong we were!

We decided to make climbing to the top of the dome the first step. Or rather steps, because there are a lot of them. (Warning: if you suffer from claustrophobia and don’t have a head for heights, are pregnant, semi-mobile or even the slightest bit unfit, do not embark on this! Once you have started, there is no turning back.) The Whispering Gallery was good. From there you have a splendid view of the Thornhill monochromes in the dome. But “Whispering” has become a misnomer. An unfortunate guard is stationed there and her only role seems to be to bellow “No photographs! No cameras!” at visitors every few seconds. Here is the photograph I took after she shouted at me. I shouldn’t have done it, but the whole thing was beginning to get my goat:

Then we set off to the Golden Gallery, right at the top. This involves a very narrow, open-tread spiral staircase which shudders under the weight of climbers. Progress was extremely slow because at the top, on the look-out balcony, space is very limited and everyone has to wait until everyone else has been round, taken their photos (and with all the bullying indoors about not being allowed to, people go click crazy at the top) and begun the descent. There is one narrow stairway up and another down. For long, long minutes we were prisoners on the iron steps, suspended in space. But at least it meant we made friends with the people above and below us, who were amused by the barrage of signs saying “Way up”, as if there were any realistic alternative.

The views from the top, of the tiny remaining Wren churches crouching among recent office blocks, are worth the long haul to get there. Tate Modern and the Wobbly Bridge are in full view, so is Tower Bridge, the Shard, the narrow green canal that the great Thames river has become. Here is a photo taken from the top, of the Monument to the Great Fire:

By the time we had made our way back down, there was almost no time left to explore the rest of the cathedral. Guards were beginning to bustle about officiously, closing off aisles and transepts with lengths of municipal tape. It was a bit like being at an airport. We managed to crane our necks over one stretch of tape to get a full-frontal view of Nelson’s monument, but it wasn’t satisfactory. It is by Flaxman and is an important work of Neoclassical funerary sculpture. Not that Flaxman’s name is mentioned on the St Paul’s website. You need Wikipedia or a Blue Guide to tell you that. Anyway, it was hopeless trying to get a decent look at it. And by this time everything beyond the crossing had been barred off too, which I was upset about, as I had particularly wanted to see the monument to John Donne, which survives from the Old St Paul’s.

I sat on one of the plastic conference-room chairs that fills the nave and looked up to admire the dome. Thornhill’s monochrome scenes from the life of St Paul are really splendid. I would have liked to spend more time on them. I found myself getting interested in the subject of how a newly-built Protestant cathedral sought to make itself look Protestant, even though the exterior is Italianate and the floorplan is identical to any of the old Gothic cathedrals, built before the Reformation. But the atmosphere isn’t conducive to thoughts like that. The assumption is that the general visitor is too gormless to care and that anyone who does care will be able to gain special access on some scholar’s permit. Not the case. I was only in London for 24 hours. And I don’t want special access. I’m happy with the hurly burly of humanity around me. As long as they seem to be getting the best out of it. Which I’m not sure any of us were. “No photographs, no photographs!” shouted the guards, as some unfortunate visitor tried to snap a view down the nave as a memento. I began to feel so cross, and even crosser because I wondered if I was just being a ghastly blimp and a snob. Out of pique I snapped the dome, and felt a sense of triumph at having done so without being yelled at. Then I felt guilty, because I am usually a rule-obeyer. Here is the photo:

Didn’t manage to see The Light of the World or the Crypt, which the St Paul’s website tantalisingly describes as containing “monuments to conflicts and other outstanding achievements. Had the merest glimpse of Wellington, aquiline nose in the air, before we were hustled out.

We sat on the steps and felt miffed. Why? I suppose because we had paid £15 each and hadn’t had time to see enough. And had felt all the time that we were being shooed through a sheep dip. I know it’s difficult when there are so many visitors. But none of us were morons. We would have appreciated more adult-oriented treatment. It was lovely and warm on the steps. I noticed that the fluting on all the paired Corinthian columns which support the west porch has been filled in, to about chest height or higher. Why? I wasn’t sure who to ask. Next time I’ll bring my chains.

The Amphitheatre of Londinium

That the Roman city of Londinium boasted an amphitheatre was never subject of dispute. Its precise location, however, was unknown until comparatively recently. Excavations close to the old Roman road now known as Watling Street, during the construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery in 1988, revealed its stone foundations. Those are now preserved and open to the public, in situ where they were found, under the gallery.

The amphitheatre was built around AD 70, the same year that the Colosseum was begun in Rome. It was, understandably, considerably smaller, with seating for around 6,000 spectators as opposed to the Colosseum’s 75,000–although when you consider that 6,000 people represented about a quarter of the entire population of the city, it must have seemed a giant building indeed. Most of it was made of wood. Even in the following century, when it was improved and given stone entranceways, the tiers of seats would still have been of timber. The surviving remains are scanty: an illuminated backdrop showing scenes of raked seating and combatants in the arena gives a sense of the original dimensions of the building. In front of it is the surviving section of the eastern entrance to the arena, with side chambers that were perhaps guards’ houses or pens for wild animals. What is most remarkable are the preserved sections of timber drainage channel, complete with a silt sump to collect debris and prevent the drain from getting blocked. It operated by natural gravity, to flood the arena for mock sea battles, and to drain it again.

In common with most of the public structures of Roman Britain, the amphitheatre fell out of use in the 4th century, when the land fell prey to Scots, Picts and Saxons and when the emperors, harried by problems closer to home, stopped sending troops to defend this far-flung island. By the mid-fifth century, Londinium was an abandoned wasteland.

Backdrop of seating and pugilists
Section of preserved under-floor timber drain

The Gentry: Stories of the English

Adam Nicolson, HarperCollins, 2011

If you had to choose an English family you could call “gentry”, you might well go back to the early seventeenth century and seek out the Oglanders of Nunwell on the Isle of Wight, whose meticulous account-books for the years 1620 to 1648 still exist and remain within the family.

 

The Oglanders were not especially wealthy but they were deeply embedded on an estate that could sustain them and in a house that they loved dearly. They had their own supplies of beer and milk and there was a rabbit warren. Their income from rents and their own farmed land was around £800 a year, their spending—about which Sir John Oglander fretted continually—a hundred pounds a year less. They could look beyond their own farms to buy in French wine, cheese from Holland, prawns, lobsters and salmon.

The grander rooms at Nunwell had plastered ceilings, were panelled in oak and there was a broad oak staircase. Sir John knew his classic texts, Virgil and Ovid. A staff of thirteen met the needs of the family and Sir John was blessed with Franck, ‘a most careful thriving wyfe whoe was upp before me every daye’. They had seven surviving children, four boys and three girls. Sir John played his full part in local government and neighbours were freely entertained.

What could go wrong? Sadly, a lot. In 1630 Sir John’s heir, George, died of smallpox while abroad and the ravaged body could not even be brought back for burial. Sir John never recovered from the shock. Then the turn in politics in 1642, as the Parliamentary forces strengthened on the Isle of Wight, saw him lose all his official positions. He even spent some time in prison and died in 1655 an embittered man. He was not to know that in the Royalist recovery, his son William would become a baronet, that there would be good marriages and that the fortunes of the family would be sustained into the late nineteenth century. There are still Oglanders today, and some of their lands remain in the family.

However much we can recognize the Oglanders as “gentry”, Adam Nicolson knows that the class can never be easily pigeon-holed—and that is one reason why his book is a delight. He makes his way through the rogues and stalwarts, feisty women, and profligate heirs. Some eventually reach the nobility, others sink down towards yeomanry or move sideways into other professions. Nicolson shows an acute sense of all the possible gradations of “gentrydom”: who can hunt or dine with whom, what one can expect from richer cousins in times of crisis, where to find a wife who will not only bring in more land but keep the dining table brimming with good fare and the poorly-paid housemaids in order.

While many gentry stayed home, others were ambitious and ruthless. So the Lascelles from Yorkshire are involved in the slave trade and sugar, earning fabulous returns on their estates in Barbados while also siphoning off customs dues from the British Government (deftly using their political contacts to save them when they are found out). Who could not warm to Eliza Lucas, the daughter of the ‘Curtizan’ of her father George in corrupt Antigua? George adores her, educates her back in England and eventually leaves her in charge of the family estates in South Carolina when she is still a teenager. She manages them with total confidence between moments reading the philosophy of John Locke. Having spurned the ‘old gentlemen’ offered by her father, she snaps up a Mr Pinckney, widowed only two months previously, whose own substantial estates give her the social standing her background lacked. Lots of little Pinckneys followed.

Nicolson’s book is as much about Englishness as about stratagems for survival within a world where commerce and imperialist opportunities are providing better opportunities than land. Pitfalls abound, and lawyers, as always, benefit from contested wills or rash disagreements among neighbours, with a duel or two adding to the drama of daily living.  Emotions sometimes subvert everything. So Harry Oxinden, born in 1609, widowed by the age of thirty-four, falls helplessly for Kate, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a yeoman farmer. They do marry happily but then legal disputes erode their meagre capital so that the loved family home, Maydekin, has to be sold and they watch in grief from a small nearby cottage as the house is “gentrified” by its new owners.

The death of the English gentry took place not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth. Half of the families listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1863 were no longer there in the 1914 edition and that was before the First World War cut a swathe through male heirs and taxation diminished their falling agricultural income. By 2000 only one per cent of land belonged to what might be called a member of gentry, now reduced to some 500 families. In his final study, Nicolson returns to the Cliffords, who cannot agree among themselves whether they arrived in Frampton in Gloucestershire in 1080 or 1110. They are still there. There is an elegiac quality to this chapter. Rollo still shows an intense commitment to his neighbourhood, hopes to know exactly who is who, is on the parish council, is a joint Master of the Hunt, and generally oversees the survival, nurturing and very occasional destruction of local wildlife. Like most of these surviving gentry families, the younger generation of Cliffords are torn between the love of the countryside their family has farmed so long and the lucrative lures of jobs which pay or offer more intellectual excitement.

In the hands of a lazy writer, The Gentry could easily have degenerated into oft-repeated tales of eccentric squires culled from salacious diaries, but Nicolson is far too fine a historian for that. He has ferreted local archives with a sensitive ear for the worries and joys of those trying to keep an estate afloat and then pass it on to another generation. Some gentry are convivial and loved, others, likes the Hughes of Kinmel, unable even to lure guests to their palatial house built on the proceeds of a copper mine. All his subjects breathe life into an ill-defined class of those between the nobility and the tradesmen, who would like to think they represent the quintessence of what it is to be English.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon link below.

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Entertaining anthologies of writing–extracts from novels, letter, diaries, poems, histories, guide books–about or set in the destination.  Lively introductions to each excerpt make them a pleasure to browse, a mine of fascinating insights to enjoy at home or to supplement a guide book on site.

 

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Organised as an alphabetical listing of 153 of London’s most-visited museums, an important reference work for cultural visitors and inhabitants of London alike.

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