Little Gidding

Little Gidding Feb 2019 1

While the tower is closed in the winter, I plan to make visits to other historic sites.

Little Gidding has been on my “list” since 2014, and at last I’ve managed to get there.  It’s not far.  About 15 miles at most, but in the depths of countryside, and accessed by very minor roads.  It’s not on the way to anywhere, and you have to be really motivated.

More about the history of the chapel, and the Ferrar family here.

The place has a definite atmosphere, partly because of its extreme remoteness, partly because it has been a place of devotion and prayer for nearly 400 years.

Little Gidding Feb 2019 3

Since the mid-twentieth century, if it is known at all by the average person, it will be because of the poem “Little Gidding”, by T.S.Eliot.  This is the last of the sequence “Four Quartets”.  This is a deeply difficult poem, by a one of the most cerebral poets of the twentieth century.

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Forty five years ago, when I was a student, allegedly studying English Literature at university, (in reality spending most of my time consuming tea and cake and riding my bicycle about the place), I avoided the Four Quartets as being impossibly dry and boring.  It didn’t help that one of them was actually called “The Dry Salvages”.  We struggled through “The Waste Land”, dutifully taking notes as to what it was all about, and lighted thankfully on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as it seemed jollier in tone.  “”I grow old … I grow old …..  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled …”

I don’t think I ever got as far as the Four Quartets, which are near the back of “The Collected Poems”.  At any rate, there are no pencilled notes in the pages of my copy.

Of course, after my return from the chapel, I opened my “Collected Poems of T.S Eliot”, and was surprised.

Lines which, in my distant youth, never having been near the place, would have meant nothing at all, now had some significance, particularly as I visited during the “midwinter spring” – an extraordinarily warm and pleasant February day.

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Here is a picture of the hedgerow,

Little Gidding blossom Feb 2019 1

“blanched for an hour with transitory blossom

Of snow, a bloom more sudden than that of summer, neither budding nor fading”

It’s hawthorn blossom, of course, and later in the spring, we will get the hugely weightier cherry blossom:

“If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges white again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness …”

Blossom 23 April 2018.jpg

These lines also make sense now, which would have been gobbledegook before:

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The road is very rough, and literally the end of the road, a long country track miles from the village of Great Gidding.  The pig-sty is no longer there, but the farm-house to which it would have belonged is, and now a place of retreat for religious study.  The tomb is right in front of the door, it’s at the bottom right of my photo below.  And the facade, well, I wouldn’t call it dull, but I suppose some might see it as such.

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“If you came at night like a broken king,” again a mystery to a callow 19-year-old, is a reference to the visit of King Charles I, after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby in Northamptonshire.  (Ten hours away on foot, maybe 3-4 on a fast horse).

The arms of King Charles I, in a 19th century stained glass window inside the chapel, commemorate its use as a place of refuge for the defeated King.

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For such a tiny, remote place, the history and legend, the atmosphere and significance, are huge.  I’m so glad I made my visit at last.


The Cromwell Museum,and the Cromwells

My second historic visit during the winter closed season was to The Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon

This is a wonderful spot, just 14 minutes away by train.

Exterior door of hospital building 2

The building itself is of great interest, being a Norman stone construction, all that remains of the old Hospital of St John, built to provide hospitality for travellers and pilgrims in the 11th century.

It became Huntingdon Grammar School after the dissolution of religious buildings by the Tudors.  Oliver Cromwell himself went to school there, and it was still in use as a school into the 20th century.

It is not to be confused with the house in Ely,  where Cromwell moved in 1636, from Huntingdon, where he was born.

Inside, the Cromwell Museum is crammed with original exhibits, all beautifully labelled, and there is a small shop with a selection of interesting books and pamphlets.  The Museum is free and a very friendly and well-informed volunteer answered all my questions.

There are many superb portraits.  As you come in through the door, this wonderful, sad-eyed Charles I (copy of a Van Dyke), greets you.

Copy of Van Dyke portrait, on loan

Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth is interesting in her own right, as mother of nine children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood.  She is particularly interesting to residents of Peterborough as after the Restoration she lived out the rest of her days at a rather splendid manor in Northborough.

Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Oliver 2



Cromwell’s son, Richard, briefly inherited the Protectorate, before it became evident that he was totally unsuitable for the job.

Richard Cromwell, heir to Oliver, resigned Protectorate

His favourite daughter, another Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Cromwell, favourite daughter of Oliver

Besides Northborough, we at Longthorpe Tower have some other links with the Cromwells.

Oliver’s great-grandfather was Richard Cromwell,  (born Richard Williams, the nephew of Thomas Cromwell, who took his uncle’s surname).  Richard was intensely active on behalf of Thomas Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries.  He received  property at Brampton and a large share of the estates of Ramsey Abbey as a reward for his services.  On 15th October 1538, Richard, travelling from Cambridge to Ely, Somerhsam and Ramsey, wrote to his uncle: “As sone as we have done at Ramsey, we go to Peterbor and from thence to my house, and so home”.  He signed the letter as “the most bounden nephew of Th Cromwell.”

Peterborough Abbey was surrendered on 29th November, 1539.  The nearby houses of Thorney, Croyland (Crowland) and Spalding followed, on 1st December, 4th December and 8th December respectively.

The commissioners’ instructions were to  “take inventories of plate, jewels and goods, and leave the same in custody of the governors, except such principal jewels, plate, ornaments or other things as shall be thought mete for the king’s majesty.  They shall with all speed survey all possessions.  They shall cause the governors and religious to change their habits immediately.  They shall certify … what lands be most convenient for the king, and … they shall certify if there be any stately manors or other possessions lying commodiously for the king.”   ***

There were two manors at “Longethorp” both listed in the Abbey inventory made, extremely promptly, and in great detail, on 30th November.  The old manor, where Thorpe Hall is situated now, was managed by Johannis Villers, and the “new” manor, whose bailiff was Thomas Phillip, was at the site of the Tower.

This seems odd to us now, because, the Tower is much older than the present Thorpe Hall.

Both manors were owned by the Abbey, and later passed into private hands.  Thorpe Hall, a mere half mile from Longthorpe Tower,  was built for Oliver St John, Lord Chief Justice to Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate.  Oliver St John’s second wife was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite niece, Elizabeth Cromwell.

We often suggest to visitors who do not know the area that Thorpe Hall is an excellent place to visit after they have finished at the Tower.  It is a beautiful 17th century mansion, with lovely gardens which can be accessed, a cafe and a gift shop.

External view 1

The Lord Protector allowed St John to loot what was left of Peterborough Abbey outbuildings, the monastic remains, to build the Hall.

Carving looted from Abbey ruins 2

This piece of sculptured stone is being used as a path marker.

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A fish, looks like a carp from the huge teeth.  Thorpe Hall is situated between the Abbey and the monastic fishponds at Longthorpe, which still exist.  This pile of stone is being used as a stand for assorted plant containers from the gift shop.

The old carriage house , stables on right

The stable yard , with carriage doors ahead.  The stables, now used as the gift shop, are on the extreme right of the picture.

You can walk over this field to access the medieval fishponds from the Hall.  The land still belongs to the Hall (which is currently owned by the Sue Ryder Foundation).

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The land was sheep pasture when it was owned by the Abbey, and has been used as grazing or meadow ever since.  I like to think, as I walk, that I am stepping in the footprints of the medieval monks.

Two miles further on, is Peterborough Cathedral, all that is left of the once-great Abbey.  It was ransacked by Puritan troops during the Civil War, and any tombs and stained glass which had survived the dissolution were not so fortunate this time.  The Cromwell family, Thomas, Richard (of the sixteenth century) and Oliver, between them, did enormous and irreparable damage to the fabric of religious buildings nationwide.

It is therefore particularly surprising that All Saints’ Church, in the centre of Huntingdon, directly opposite the Cromwell Museum, has kept its patronal saints in the niches on the external walls.

All Saints Church ext patronal saints 1

All Saints Church ext patronal saints 2

One of the major desecrations of the churches all over England resulting from what we call “The Reformation”  was the removal of all images, whether in stone or stained glass.

St Mary's Church Stamford 1

St Mary's Church Stamford 2

These two empty niches are both from St Mary’s Church, Stamford, nine miles away.

It is very surprising that the church in Huntingdon centre, directly opposite the Grammar School and not far from the house where Oliver Cromwell was born, (now a care home), escaped this desecration.

All Saints Church ext Musicians

Medieval musicians, on the exterior, are of interest to Tower volunteers, as we have a theme of musicians in the roof of the painted chamber.  Such stone images are rarely seen, not simply because of man-made destruction, but also because of weather-erosion.

Peterborough, as I recorded in my first post here, is far more interesting than it first appears, and has links to most of the major events in English history.

*** Quotations taken from “The Last Days of Peterborough Monastery”, by W.T. Mellows, printed by the Northamptonshire Records Society, 1947.






Anglo Saxon Manuscripts, The British Library

Runes copied in the 10th century

Runes, 10th century, picture British Library

In winter, the Tower is closed, so it is a good time to spend on reading and visiting other sites.

I resolved this year to make one visit per fortnight to a historic site or museum,  quite an ambitious target.

In January, I achieved my goal.

The first visit was to the British Library, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts exhibition.  It closes on 19th February, and is well worth a visit.

One of my co-volunteers at Peterborough Museum was surprised one day by a visitor who approached one of the Peterborough Abbey documents and began reading aloud from the ancient script.  It transpired that this visitor, an American Professor from Harvard University, had come to London to visit the British Library exhibition.  On being told that a particular manuscript was temporarily on loan to Peterborough, he came up to our Museum to see it!   Our exhibition has now closed, but the BL one is still open until 19th February.

The BL exhibition is billed as a “Once in a Generation” chance to see many otherwise widely dispersed items all collected together, with interesting information attached.  British Library Ezra

The Codex Amiatinus, loaned from Italy.  Picture: British Library 

This was my favourite, a huge book over a foot in height,.

“Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete Latin Bible. It is one of three giant, single-volume Bibles, made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century. Two of these Bibles were made for the church at Wearmouth and for the church at Jarrow: fragments of one of them survive.

In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith took the third and finest volume on his final journey to Rome, intending it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. He died en route, at Langres in Burgundy, leaving his monks to complete the mission. Since that time, Codex Amiatinus has been cared for in Italy, renowned as the most accurate copy of the Vulgate translation made by St Jerome (d. 420).” (from British Library website).

More information can be found here.

I love the bookcase.  The design of a serious bookcase, complete with solid doors and shelves, has not changed much in over 1300 years.  Here’s mine:

Bookcase like Ezra

That gives me the most amazing feeling of continuity.  How wonderful that traditions of real books have survived and been passed down all those years.