Letters home, 2001, July 29

29 July 2001

Dear Mum and Dad

I have landed a very nice job as a Technical Support Analyst on the Help Desk for Sainsbury’s head office in Rennie House, Rennie St, Southwark.  Pronounced SUTHic.  The place is often confused with Suffolk because lots of Brits can’t say the th in Suthic, so it comes out suffok anyway and people say to me, “Oh, you’re working in Suffolk – that’s a long way from St Albans ….”

Now Mum’s mother was Elsie Orange, eldest daughter of Edward and Helen Orange.    Helen was originally Helen Hinkley and she was born in 1865 and lived at 53 Union St, Southwark.  When she left for NZ in 1883, she left from a very good place to leave. It’s easy to picture the Dickensian pea-soup smogs and imagine peering through slit eyes as you pick your way to work through the grubby brick buildings listening for the trains hissing and rattling noisily overhead.  She was a nurse in London, did you know? I don’t think Mum ever met her – she died in 1928, and Mum would have been 7 at the time.  Also, and she divorced Edward Orange in 1924, so it’s quite possible she would have had nothing to do with the Orange family, including Elsie, after that.  

However – back to Southwark.  I was very surprised indeed when I was asked to go to 168 Union St for my job interview with Sainsbury’s and I had a brief look around the area that afternoon.  Since then, I’ve taken to walking all around the Bankside area that Helen would have been familiar with and I have been looking for anything older than 1883, so that what I am looking at, she would have seen.  Well, there is a lot.  

Firstly, her house is still standing.  It’s just the shell and is being refurbished for business premises, but many of the houses around it are still in 1883 condition and you can easily get a sense of the dust, grime and poverty of the area.  It was primarily a warehouse district and many of the Victorian era buildings still standing, although converted to modern use mostly as offices, have retained the lifting gear attached to the outside walls.  

She would have been familiar with the Southwark Cathedral, which was called the Church of St Mary Overie when she lived there – it became a cathedral in 1910 and it’s only a few streets away.  She would have been familiar with the stories of The Clink – the prison that gave all others the name.  It’s just a few streets away, even though it wasn’t an active prison when she lived there, the rubble from a huge fire in the area in 1814 was still there in 1883 and its underground vaults still exist, too. It was the prison for the Duke of Winchester in Winchester Palace and it started life in the 1300’s.

It’s a really horrible place.  Southwark has been home to prostitution and crime since Saxon times.  The Duke of Winchester “regulated” the brothels and owned a large section of Bankside since King Stephen gave it all to the Bishop of Winchester in the 1130’s. As you can see the title has become a secular one. The Clink was his private prison and he held life and death over its inmates until the prison was destroyed in 1780. Incredible. In its turn it was a firstly a prison for the population under the Bishop/Duke’s control, then it was a prison to hold Catholics for Henry Viii, then to hold Protestants for Mary, then reverted to holding Catholics for Elizabeth 1.

Its last use for most of the 18th and 19th centuries was as a debtor’s prison.  For all of this time, the owner could extract fines and payments from the inmates.  He made an awful lot of money out of misery.  I saw in an issue of last week’s Metro newspaper that the Duke of Winchester is the wealthiest man in Britain.  He owns 300 acres of inner London and is worth 10 billion pounds.  So now you know it; there is wealth, power and respectability in being a pimp. There is a little bit of Winchester Palace still standing – a wall and a large rose window – and under that is the Clink. In Clink St, of course.  The palace itself, in its heyday, was inside a fully-walled area of about 200 acres; all that’s left today is that bit of wall with the window, and the remnant of the Clink.

She would also have been familiar with St Paul’s Cathedral towering over the Thames on the other side of the river, and all the other works of Sir Christopher Wren in the area built in the late 1600’s, early 1700’s.  His chief mason, by the way, was a man called Edward Strong who was a citizen of St Albans and is buried here in St Peters Church. The Blackfriars bridge Helen crossed to get to The City from Bankside is the same one I cross to get to work.  It’s called the Blackfriars New Bridge, built 1860 to replace the original bridge built in the 1760’s, by an engineer called Rennie, incidentally.  

She would have been familiar with the Blackfriars rail bridge, too, that crosses the Thames and swings through Southwark on a big brick viaduct.  I suspect that then the arches would have been open, but today they are bricked up for lockups – and there is a very large amount of space to be let under the arches of a rail bridge.  Blackfriars Bridge would have looked a quite a bit different from what I can see today because on the Southwark side of the bridge was a huge Romano-Greek building in stone called the London, Chatham and Dover Railway station.  

On its facade were carved the destinations you could travel to by rail in those days.  Part of the facade was placed in the railway building I walk through, so I was able to read what she saw: Paris, Moscow, St Petersburgh, Rome, Marseilles – lots and lots of places on the Continent.  Maybe it gave her itchy feet …  There were two other interesting things I found out – one was that the City of London ends on the other side of Blackfriars Bridge.  I always thought the City ended on the north bank, but at least in the case of Blackfriars Bridge, the City extends right over it and a few yards on the south side.  The other interesting thing is that Blackfriars Bridge, Tower Bridge, London Bridge and one other (I think Waterloo) belong to The Bridges House Trust.  It was given property in London, I think by Henry Viii, and it looks after those four bridges, including replacing them when necessary, “without recourse to public money.”  In other words those four bridges were built and are maintained entirely without calling on taxes or rates.

Ivor Adams, my cousin on my grandmother Sadie Tearle’s side, who has worked in The City most of his life, said that Bankside was the haunt of the Teddy Boys in the 1920’s and 1930’s and even today, in spite of all the upgrading that has been done there, areas just to the south, like Elephant and Castle, North Peckham and Peckham, are still poverty-stricken and crime-ridden.  If you stay close to the river, you’re ok. It’s very nice.  In Southwark, there are two named areas close to the river.  One is called South Bank and extends from Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge and the other is called Bankside and extends from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge. I work in South Bank.  

I walked 7 minutes from work down The Thames Walk to the Tate Modern, a coal-fired electricity station that has been converted into the largest indoor space I have ever seen. And they use all this space for an art museum. Free admission, too.  I could only spend 10 minutes there but the building outside is massive in brick, dominated by a tall red-brick chimney that has been a feature of the Bankside skyline for nearly a century.  Inside, it is light and airy and there are overhead cranes quietly tucked away waiting to move large and heavy exhibits.

The last night of Music in Marshalswick turned out to be the best night of them all because it was a celebration of Elizabethan madrigals. The choral group was about 20 strong with 8 men and the group was usually divided into four voices and sometimes six. They sang these really lovely, lilting tunes from the 1500’s, many with direct reference to Queen Elizabeth I, for whom they were actually written, but some also were religious pieces.  

It’s interesting that musicians and poets of the time wrote about religious and secular things in the same idiom. And it’s also interesting that some madrigals are still being written – Vaughan Williams wrote a couple for QEII’s coronation and Aaron Copeland, the American, wrote some, too. But arranging “Home Boys Home” as a madrigal is rather like a Barber Shop Quartet singing Heartbreak Hotel in 4-part harmony; it sounds pretentious and insincere. The modern madrigals lack the romance and feel for the genre that the Elizabethans had and those songs were uplifting and so, so sweet.  

We found ourselves at a loose end a couple of weekends ago, so we drove up to Stockwood Park in Luton.  Now, I have driven past the park lots of times and always promised myself that I would call in to see the Mossman Collection – whatever that was – but I had never got around to it.  It was a bright sunny day and Elaine said her kids had told her the whole thing was free, so since they had recommended it, we thought we’d go and see what it was all about. It was a revelation.  

The first thing we saw was a gypsy caravan exactly the same as the one Graeme made.  It was mounted on a dray with the front steering wheels able to swing in under the tray of the caravan, a centre section of the roof lifted for head clearance and lots of carving and colourful paintwork all over it. Graeme’s caravan could have showed the constructor a thing or two about craftsmanship, though. It wasn’t rough by any means, but Graeme’s was better.

After that, there were sections on display of the crafts and farming activities of the 1800’s; brickmaking (10 million bricks a year in Luton alone) haymaking, poaching, hatmaking (the Tearles of Stanbridge were heavily into strawplaiting and hatmaking) the blacksmith, heart and soul of every village in the country, as well as displays of kitchen life and home crafts such as tatting and lacemaking.  It was very impressive, the displays were detailed and had authentic clothing and tools.

Stockwood was originally a large farming mansion very close to Luton, but its owners sold it to the council and in the 1960’s the council demolished the house, but left the grounds and the tall imposing brick wall that enclosed the grounds.  Inside the grounds they have set up Victorian gardens and some large hothouses.  Inside one of the hothouses is the cafe. Nice.  That was all we had time to see and we’ll have to go back to see what the Mossman Collection is all about, but it’s free, so one day when we are at a loose end and want something interesting to do for free …

Last Saturday afternoon we went to Harlington, of all places, to see The Pirates of Penzance. Actually, they were really good.  I haven’t seen the show since Rotorua Girls and Boys High schools combined to put it on when I was in high school.  They made their own costumes and set and hired a very good set of lights. Remember “Poor Wandering Heart,” and that beautiful trilling that Mabel does that sounds like a skylark?  Well, this Mabel did it really well; I still wake up in the morning with that powerful impression of her sparkling eyes and perfect pitch and I can’t rid myself its simple, clever little tune.

Harlington is one of those little villages with a very old centre of Tudor houses heavily cloaked with protection orders and surrounded in expensive modern houses.  It even has its own railway station and almost everyone who lives there gets on the train and goes to London every day.  It’s the same train I use. When they are on their way home these are the stations they pass and in this order: Blackfriars, City, Farringdon, Kings Cross, St Albans, Harpenden (another little, expensive, commuter village) Luton Airport Parkway (you catch a free shuttle to Luton Airport), Luton, Leagrave, Harlington, Flitwick (you call it FLITTick) and Bedford. They travel from Southwark to Bedford in about an hour.  

In the morning the train also stops at Gatwick airport and terminates at Brighton.  Although I don’t know of anyone who commutes from Bedford to Brighton every day, I do suspect that some commute to and from Gatwick because it’s a very big airport and it would need lots of engineers and IT people, so why not from Bedford?

At the bottom of our hill is House Lane, which goes in a more or less northerly direction to Sandridge and above the lane are large fields of rape and barley.  For most of the last three weeks there has been a gradual reddening of the rape field so we walked down to see what was happening.  The rape field in full flower is bright, bright yellow and very dense because the raceme of the rape plant is about 8 inches high with about 100 flowers on it.  Spread that densely over a 50-acre field and you can see how the colour could become so intense.  As the yellow died away, the red colour had been spreading and intensifying and now we could see what it was.  Poppies.  Here they call them field poppies to distinguish them from cultured varieties.  

I thought they were weeds, probably brought back from France and Belgium on the clothes and in the pockets of soldiers of WWI. But I’m wrong.  William Cowper, English poet and man of letters during the 1700’s was in St Albans recuperating from mental illness and he wrote about the field poppies of St Albans, so they have been here for a while and this spectacular display of massed blooms lasting about 2 weeks is repeated almost every year; it’s just that some years, like this year, are better than others.  

So Elaine and I have become much more thoughtful about English wildflowers. They are not weeds, they are real plants and Jennie and Thelma are very enthusiastic about them, as was Clarice.  I thought why get excited about weeds?  I’m beginning to see why. Remember last spring we went up the hill to see the bluebell wood?  The bluebells have a 10,000 year history here.  The ground was set up for them by the retreating ice at the end of the last Ice Age and they come up, flower and die away early in spring before the other forest floor creepers and greenery get a start.  

There are bluebells all through Europe, but they don’t mass anywhere there like they do here. It seems that the timing of the poppies is just as fortuitous.  The rape flower drops and the poppies are tall enough to catch the light while the rape seed pods are ripening.  The bright yellow turns to bright red. Alongside the roads are massed bunches of pink blooms held stiffly like feathers on tall spikes – there is plenty of hemlock, but the pink blooms are packed together rather than just scattered about. Thelma says they are willow weed. Jennie says that all these things are governed by the seasons, which are so pronounced here, so that without having to read a calendar, the person who can read the wildflowers can tell exactly where in the year she has got to.

While we were inspecting the poppy display, Margaret Martin, who was staying with us on holiday for a while, asked us for a couple of flint stones that she could take home.  That’s not difficult – pick and field stone and it’s flint.  As the glaciers retreated north about 10,000 years ago they left this land smoothly undulating but the terminal moraines are heavy in clay and water-rounded flint stones.  I thought I’d have a go at being a new-age Stone Man, so I picked up a couple of likely looking flints and banged them together. Nothing.  Why didn’t they shatter and give me a nice axe or something?  

I threw first one then the other very hard down onto the road.  Still nothing, they just bounced away. So I picked up a broken one that had a very obvious flaw in it and looked around for a stone to bang it with.  I decided I’d try a nice round stone because it would probably be stronger than a broken one and, holding the broken one in my left hand whacked it on the flaw with the round stone.  This time the flawed stone broke nicely into two.  I then whacked the very edge of the break and with a satisfying little ping a shard fell off.  When I picked it up and examined it, my little shard had a razor edge and a thick, blunt edge. It could easily cut meat held as it was in my fingers, or be mounted into a piece of wood with glue (they used resin) or tied in with string to make a slicer or a scraper. In ten minutes I’d gone from 21st Century Man to Cave Man.  Elaine and Margaret both reckoned I’d only make it to Neanderthal, but I’d still have been able to carve the roast.

My last piece of good news is that Elaine has successfully finished her QTS. That means she has qualified teacher status. We were both flomoxed when we arrived here to discover that Elaine’s NZ teaching qualifications and experience counted for nothing.  She had been recruited in NZ for supply teaching in England by Select Education and they hadn’t told her this rather important fact.  For the past two years, Elaine has been teaching in England as an untrained and unqualified teacher, even though for most of the past year she has been the mentor for a teacher in training.  Britain has an acute shortage of teachers – about 10,000 too few and it is heavily recruiting in NZ, Australia and South Africa.  

Because it doesn’t tell these people that their qualifications and experience are not recognised and won’t be paid for, they come here in all innocence and don’t know for months firstly that their are on the lowest pay a teacher can get, but they also don’t know that if they don’t get their QTS in two years, they won’t be allowed to continue teaching and therefore will have to go home when their money runs out.  Accidentally or not, Britain gets lots of highly qualified and experienced teachers almost for free.  The QTS usually take one to two years, but Elaine was allowed to do hers in six months.  She has now finished and will be paid at the proper rate in due course.  It also means, of course, that she will be able to continue teaching if she wants to.

Yesterday we got half of one our oldest wishes – to go to Luton Hoo.  As you know, Luton Hoo was the house used in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.  There was the long drive through trees and a front view of a quite magnificent house. All week we had seen advertisements for a Robin Hood Fayre at Luton Hoo, so we had to go and the half of the wish that came true was the long drive through the trees.  

The house has been sold and a hotel corporation is turning the house into a luxury hotel so sooner or later we are going to get the second half come true.  However, the fayre was a beauty and well worth going to.  As we drove up to it, we could see large white pointed tents with St George flags on the tallest poles and lots of bunting hung between them.  There were lots of re-enactments of rural life in the 1350s and there was also an ensemble playing music from the Tudor period and there was an American playing a range of musical styles using a hammer dulcimer. It’s quite a wide instrument with a peg to hold it off the ground and the musician plays it by tapping the strings with felt-tipped, curved little hammers.  It makes a very pleasant resonant sound like a clavichord, but much more mellow.

The music he was playing wasn’t particularly old, but the hammer dulcimer is certainly a Mediaeval instrument.  I mentioned to him that my younger brother makes Appalachian dulcimers and he said that the Appalachian dulcimer had a Northern European history, quite different from that of his own instrument.  Just inside the gate as we walked in was a group re-enacting family life in the 1350s.  They had a long, heavy wooden table with earthenware dishes and wooden plates.  

The women were wearing white linen full-length dresses drawn at the neck and sometimes with a tunic dress over the top.  The men wore woollen breeches, white linen blouses in much the same cut as the women and with jerkins over the top.  It was very warm clothing for such a hot and sunny day.  They were cooking meat patties for lunch.  In a small enclosure next to this little group were three colourful tents with knights and soldiers showing off their swordsmanship and demonstrating the use of Mediaeval pikes.  

In another enclosure off to the right there was a stage where small groups of musicians with Mediaeval instruments played traditional English tunes, some of which I recognised from Shakespearean plays – not that Shakespeare was Mediaeval, of course, but they always take a few liberties. On the same stage another group played a variation on the St George and the Dragon story that we had seen in a mummers play in Romeland, St Albans. They always play this story for its laughs, but St George killed the dragon and got the ever-thankful girl. She was so thankful it hurt laughing.

It’s just wonderful going to events like this and it’s one of the reasons we like being here so much.  At last we are in touch with the roots of the culture that made us who we are and we can understand better why we love the things we do.

Lots of love

Ewart and Elaine