CYCLING BYGONES: Cycling Rambles by J.F.C.Ansell -1919
There is much to see in Northampton, and though it has many unattractive features is well worth attention. To begin with a railway yard is not very attractive to the antiquarian but the Castle station justifies its name by its proximity to all that is left of the former castle.
This, if its builder, Earl Simon, in or about 1109 followed the fashion of his time, consisted at first of a mound of moderate height supporting a tower of wood, afterwards replaced by stone, and an adjacent court or bailey. These works were defended on three sides by a ditch, avid on the fourth by the North Nene. But he did not long remain in possession of it. Early in the 14th century it had passed into the hands of the king and a royal castle it remained till it was sold by King Charles the First in 1629. Not that our sovereigns used it as a residence all that time; the last to do so was Richard II and we read of the usual houses within its precincts the chief being the great hall, with a large stained glass window over the screens at its lower end representing the parable of Dives and Lazarus. Later on being no longer wanted for defence, it was employed like several others as a prison and by the time of Elizabeth was already in ruins. At the Restoration of Charles II its remains shared the general demolition of the fortifications of the town. The subsequent history of the site may be told in a few words. In 1852 the L.8 N.W. railway purchased a small part of it in order to build a station for their Marker Harborough branch. Later, despite a petition signed by the whole county the remaining curtain walls were demolished, and the only fragment remaining is the postern built upon the boundary wall of the yard on the left as you go up the hill.
The most famous scene in the history of the castle—indeed the only one of which an account has come down to us in any detail is the trial and condemnation of Archbishop Becket at the Great Council held in the autumn of 1164. It is an oft-told tale. The chroniclers religious by profession are of course on the side of the saint and we have no contemporary writer on the other side — the king’s — to give his version of the story which is as follows; —
On an October evening the Archbishop and his retinue arrived at St Andrews Priory. For 2 or 3 days he excused himself on the plea of sickness from appearing before the Council which was assembled at the castle in the chambers opening from the upper end of the great hall, but on the 13th after celebrating the Mass of St. Stephen which contained the words of the psalmist: “the kings of the earth stood up and the rulers took counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed” he rode down to the castle and holding his archiepiscopal cross in his hand he strode up the hall into the apartment in which the bishops were sitting. A summons to appear before the King and his barons was met by an appeal to the judgment of the Pope, and an attempt being made to arrest him he flung out of the chamber and passing down the crowded hall and the shouts of “Traitor!” “Traitor! await thy sentence ” he mounted his palfrey unopposed and rode back to the Priory. That evening he summed a number of poor folk to share his supper and at dead of night disguised as a monk and with only three attendants he escaped by the North gate of the town to Lincoln whence he made his way without molestation to Sandwich and so across the water to Flanders.
I am afraid I rather upset my clerical guide into the ancient history of ecclesiastical Northampton. But his oily sanctimoniousness got on my nerves and I felt constrained to gird at him a bit. A man who could say in cold blood that he believes Genesis to be a true account of the origin of this earth and who could state that Christianity is a real living creed wants pitying for his simple-mindedness or condemning for his hypocrisy. The fact of human life streaming by as it was on a busy Saturday afternoon outside in the Market Place, with all its interplay of motives — pleasure, gain, greed, vice, or dire need and necessity, extravagance and a grinding poverty-stricken economy left him unmoved. He preferred to stand outside life’s stream and say all was right in the world for the godly and Christ walked with his elect. His narrow squinting eyes behind his pince-nez could not see facts for texts, and his narrower mind could not give him a vision of nature as a blind cosmic force & humanity as the dust beneath the lower grindstone. To his query why I was so insatiably curious over churches and so on — I staggered him by saying they interested me as works of art and as devotional places not at all. Culture and artistic appreciation for him were the prerogatives of the devout. How could the worldly appreciate the spiritual charm of genius —that heaven-sent gift of man? I asked him if he had ever heard of the pagan Greeks, and Romans ? Did they not produce works of art? Did they have heaven-sent inspirations ? And what of the men like da Vinci, of Cellini — and others ? The one an avowed agnostic and the other a sensuous beast and murderer. Where was their heaven-sent genius? The imbecility of arguing with such a narrowminded old fool or humbug drove me out into the Market.
Such scenes have interest — though bartering and trading humanity in the mass is not a pleasant sight. Why are factory-girls so easily noticeable? With their loud voices, manners, and clothes, & that cold-blooded appraisement of one another’s finery and their coarse epithets to their male admirers English factory girls seem a class to England quite exceptional. You cannot spot her like in Paris, or Brussels, Lille or Lyons, New York, Chicago or Boston, so easily. Anywhere in England you could tell them at once — and curiously enough they seem proud of their distinctiveness — accentuate, it in fact as much as possible.
The various flower-stalls made fine splashes of colour, and with the cloth and silk stalls did their best to brighten the rather drab appearance of an English market, which are nothing like so gay in colour or wood as those one sees abroad. The noise was deafening – and was made more so by a steam roundabout in one corner and the raucous occupants of swing- boats. With as great a degree of nonchalence as I could muster I had a go at a cokernut shie. For an expenditure of 2d. I was given three wooden balls, and these I threw as did my neighbours. I hit three cokernuts but whether I wanted them or not I never got them for my less lucky neighbours claimed all three as theirs and went away with them. They were welcome! A more unpalatable stuff I can’t imagine—though the liquid inside tastes pretty good. One would need the digestion of an ostrich to assimilate half the kinds of comestibles one can buy at these places. I marvelled exceedingly at the accommodation of three girls I was following round. In the space of an hour — they had an ice-cream wafer, an apple-pie, a dough-nut two bananas each, half-a-pound of hazel pears each, and about a pound of sweets, washed down by two glasses of lemonade and one sarsaparilla! I lost sight of them – then, and I do not know if they kept it up any longer. No wonder they looked so pasty-faced and potchey — though I expect some earnest socialist tub-thumper on this same square of an evening in the week or on Sundays would have it that it is caused by the sweating “Kapitalist” in his profit-making factories. That personal hygiene and diet wants to be taught as a first principle of citizenship seems to be the fact that is so patent you’d hardly expect to have hard work to get people to admit. The ranting reformer of course blithely overlooks it, or else lays the blame for such stupid ignorance on poor old Capitalism again.
Northampton is now a substantially built town but for several centuries the houses were mostly of wood or even of wattle and daub, roofed with thatch. It seems however to have escaped a general conflagration till the time of Charles II when the register of All Saints parish contains the following entry under the year 1675:—”While the world lasts remember September the 20th, a dreadful fire it consumed to ashes in a few hours 3 parts of our Town and chief church.” Like the great fire of London a few years earlier if it had only been more discriminating it would have proved a blessing in disguise, but the town-clerk of the day records the wind was very strong to blow ye fire on but it was God who blew ye bellows.” and All Saints fared no better than St. Pauls. All disasters of the kind originate in trifling accidents, and this one was no exception. According to the same authority a poor woman in a narrow lane near the castle was carrying a “few live coals in a fire shovell from her neighbours’ house to her own in ye lane to warme her dinner when the gale blew ye coals on to the thatche and ye fire sprede on to the thatch and as far eastwards as St Giles Church consuming all things in its path.” Among the buildings which escaped were St. Peters Church and the fine 16th century house a little way to the east of it which was then the mansion of the Hesilrige family. Though it was broad daylight the conflagration was visible for miles around in the country, and among the first to come to the rescue was the third earl of Northampton from Castle Ashby, seven or eight miles away to the east. Under his direction the fire was overcome, a relief was at once started and the rebuilding of the town was undertaken with as little delay as possible.
Today the great monument of the fire is the church of All Saints—at once a notable example of its style and a striking contrast to the other buildings of the town and of the county. Of the larger church which it replaced nothing remains but the tower and a small crypt. Indeed the present church is so much smaller that it fills little more than the space occupied by the chancel of the former one, and the tower once central now stands at the west end. Along the whole length of the west front runs the fine portico on the cornice of which you may read the legend King Charles II gave a thousand tun of timber toward the rebuilding of the Church, and of the town. What therefore can be more fitting than that the pediment should be surmounted by a statue of his late Majesty altered though he be in the garb of ancient Rome ?
The most remarkable feature of the interior is the fine 17th century roof culminating in its dome. Before the alterations of 1865 the side galleries projected as far as the pillars, but they were then set back as now — which was a scandalous piece of work – for it sewed absolutely no purpose and severely mutilated some exceptionally fine carpentry. It was done as an improvement – which it could scarcely be — nor was the destruction of the oaken screen of the chancel which the deplorable Gothic mania of that time could not tolerate, its pilasters and pediment decorated with the Royal Arms are now worked up into the doorway leading into the body of the church from the portico. At this time too, a massive pulpit of the cumbrous overloaded three-decker order with an elaborate sounding board surmounted by eagles stood in the centre of the nave in front of the chancel screen, and one might suppose that in a galleried church like this it would have been enough to move it to one side, but no the sentence of banishment was pronounced against it and the probability is it has Iong ago been broken up by some enterprising cabinet maker. The mayor’s seat of 1680 was, however, spared and finally about 1885 the chancel arch was re-shaped & flanked on either side by coupled columns to match the rest, and the unattractive east window was concealed by the present carved reredos.
As for All Saints it was apparently a cruciform church – “larger than many of our cathedrals” as one who remembered it before its destruction described it, with a nave and aisles extending 20 feet westward of the tower; on the hand the present edifice extends 10 feet beyond its predecessor on the east.
It is well-known that Northampton like Banbury was a great stronghold of the Puritans and it is considered probable that the once famous Puritan institution of prophesying originally started in this church. There is no doubt that religious reformers as far back as the Lollards had a following here. Thus the Mayor in 1392-one John Fox, was, it seems, a great champion of the movement this year a woolman of the town lodged a complaint against him before the king and council. Not only had he entered a new doctrine & introduced a certain pseudo-archdeacon then living “deliciously in ye house of St. Andrew” into the pulpit of the town church, “with a cap on as if he had been a doctor or master of divinity, but he had also caused another heretic — a mere outsider of a country parson to preach there who “asscended ye Pullpit wn ye Vicar of ye churche, after the offertory went to ye altar to sing his Mass, whom ye said Mair followed and took by ye back of his vestment to cause him to cease till ye said preacher had preached, and ye vicar answered “non possum.” The said Parson preached there his Lollardry in ye afternoon too to whom the said Richard Stormes worth cryed “Tu autem, tu autem,” to cause him to hold his peace: commanding him to come down upon which an uproare ensued and yt ye said Republican Richard was in danger of his life.”
In the Civil War when the town was in the hands of the Parliament, the same pulpit must often have been filled by innovators of a far more violent type than the sybaritic pseudo-archdeacon, but I have not come across any stories of “brawling within the walls of the edifice in those days, although in the churchyard is buried a noted leveller — Captain Wm Thompson—who after mutinying at Banbury “did march off under his sea-green colours to Burford where his brother and two others of his confederates were shot.” Captain William with a handful of other mutineers made his escape to Northampton whence after breaking open a jail and liberating three of his friends not to mention helping himself to the public money at the excise office he continued his mad career towards Wellingborough, but in Sywell Wood he was brought to bay, and after a desperate resistance slain.
Famous after the rebuilding of the church were the “bills of mortality” annually set forth by the Parish Clerk. So famous were they that they actually formed the basis of the tables issued by the various insurance companies until the State system of registry was instituted. For how long they existed in MS before 1736 I cannot find out, but from that year in 1871 when they were discontinued, they were printed, and to give a flavour to this dry bill of fare, it became the custom to print with them a copy of suitable verses. Thereby hangs a tale. Some 10 mile a south of Northampton across the Bucks border resided a middle-aged gent of leisure who had already acquired some respect as a writer of melancholy verse. One November morning in the year 1787 was informed that an old stranger wished to speak with him, but his own story is best:
“On Monday my last; Sam brought me word that there was a man in the Kitchen who desired to speak with me. I ordered him to be brought in. A plain, decent, elderly figure made its appearance, and being desired to sit, spoke as follows.—” Sir, I am clerk of the parish of All Saints in Northampton, brother of Mr. Cox the upholsterer. It is customary for the parson in my office to annex to a bill of mortality which he publishes at Xmas a copy of verses. You would do me a great favour, sir, if you would furnish me with one.” To this I replied: “Mr. Cox, you have several men of genius in your town, why have you not applied to some of them? There is a namesake of yours in particular, Mr. Cox the statuary, who everybody knows is a first-rate maker of verses. He surely is the man of all the world for your purpose!” “Alas! Sir, I have heretofore borrowed help from him, but he is a gent of so much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him.” I confess, to you, my dear, I felt tall the force of the compliment— implied in this speech, and was almost ready to answer; “Perhaps, my flood Friend, they may find me unintelligible too for the same reason.” But on asking him whether he had walked over to Weston on purpose to implore the assistance of my muse, and on his replying in the affirmative I felt my mortified vanity a little consoled, and pitying the poor man’s distress which appeared to be considerable promised to supply him. The wagon has accordingly gone this day to Northampton loaded in part with my effusions in the mortuary style. A fig for poet’s who write epitaphs upon individuals. I have written one that serves 200 persons!”
HaIf a dozen of these “effusions” in the mortuary –
style are printed in the authors poetical works, running front 1787 to 1793,
but the first and last stanzas of the first are enough!
“While 13 moons saw smoothly run,
The Nen’s barge-laden wave,
All these life’s rambling journey done,
Have found their home, the-grave.
So prays our Clerk with all his heart,
And, ere to quit the pen,
Begs you for once to take his part,
All answer all- Amen!
As a bit of a rest from architecture and archaeology I went and had a look at modern Northampton, and was no more in love with it afterwards, than of many another modern town I have seen though I must admit it is not so bad as some, nor quite as bad as it could easily be for a place with many factories.
It is amazing the names which streets get given to them. And the stupid naming of houses should be stopped. Fancy one of a wee street of houses being called “Fern Bank” when there isn’t a fern within ten miles and the only bank is the branch of the Loamshire Penny Bank at the corner of the main street 100 yards away! Ridiculous, I call it! When I’m well off and can afford to flout public opinion I shall have my house named either “Himalaya View” or “Cemetery View” or both. Then as to street names I recall an obscure little thoroughfare in Nottingham or Durham (or somewhere in that district!) which rejoiced in – or at least possessed—the grandiloquent name ” Bona Vista Crescent” I’ve forgotten most of the American I learned but presume that “Bona Vista” means “good view.” The only view I could find along this highly interesting thoroughfare was one of the local gasworks of which the “Crescent”—-as straight as a die — was very redolent.
Just so here in Northampton. But the jargon of names was in a way interesting for you fell to wondering what sort of people they were who gave their houses such names, and what sort of public- spirit had prompted the names of the streets. I like to observe these things.
But one does get some really dreadful knocks in this matter, and added to the execrable architecture it makes a ramble in a new town a depressing experience.
While on my jaunt one of those sudden storms came on – when the – as it is described in the papers— weather breaks – sort of rain came on. It rained saturated stair-rods! After chasing along to a doorway and squeezing into the little shelter it afforded another wayfarer who joined me in my refuse — made the fatuous observation “Bai Jove! It is coming down!” I suppose he would be an observant person- anyone could see it was coming down. It has that habit. It never goes up. And there was no need to make up a song about it doing just the ordinary kind of performance.
Jogging along over the now saturated cobble-roads back to the centre of the town I struck a greasy patch of road and promptly sat down among my bicycle. Standing on the edge of the side-walk to me was one of those long-faced, black-tied (but unfortunately not tongue-tied) vegetarians or valetudinarians or six-day adventists or something who are always ready on the slightest provocation to cough up fatherly advice of the gratuitous sort — far more ready, indeed than the average penny-in-the-slot machine is to deliver the goods in return for your French “penny” (The failure of these automatic machines to support the Ongtong and the League of Nations) simply outrageous).
Well, this long-faced gargoyle on the edge of the side- walk said: “Ah! Fools stand in slippery places!” My retort was a very clever and deadly one — mainly because it was original (to— somebody or other) “So I see,” I replied, ”and I wish I could.”
I managed to get my pedal spindle renewed and the crank straightened so I was none the worse for my spill — except in my temper and that I had quite a lot of Northamptonshire in my possession until it dried and I was able to brush it all off. And at the “Peacock” Hotel I “tea-ed” gloriously.
The Church of St. Sepulchre one of the fire round ones still standing in England was my next venue. It stands on the north side of the town nor far from the site of St. Andrews Priory. It is now a building of many styles to which all the centuries from the twelfth to the 19th, have each contributed its share. The circular part or round” is now provided with a steeple on its west side, and with a nave and three aisles on its east, but strip off all accretions and a circular nave with a short apsidal chancel is all that will be left. Such was the church founded by Earl Simon after his safe return from the first Crusade in 1099 fresh from the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem his first ambition would be to become the founder of a church of the same pattern in his own town. And in his choice of a site it would seem that he was guided not only by its proximity to his own residence but also by the fact that it already had its sacred associations. For as you enter the Perpendicular South Porch there is an Anglo Saxon sundial built into the Wall on the right the sole surviving fragment it may be of a still earlier church.
Of Earl Simons building very little more than a wall of the round with its 8 circular piers remains. As he saw it — these piers would support circular arches, and above them would be smaller arches of the same character opening into the triforium. Externally he would see too tiers of round-headed windows, the lower and larger tier lighting the ambulatory, the upper and smaller the triforium. Of all these windows only one in the lower tier and two in the upper are still unblocked. Above the sloping roof of the triforium he would see an 8-windowed clerestory crowned by a conical roof. The entrance would be on the west where the steeple now stands.
With various structural alterations it was continued down for another 2½ centuries, when a period of destruction and decay set in. The church fell into disuse, its eastern end was lopped off so that there were only two arches left east of the round instead of fire as at present, the tracery was torn from the windows and the round itself filled up for service with pulpit, pews and gallery. It was not till the year 1859 that rebuilding and reformation of the church were undertaken in memorium of the second Marquis of Northampton.
St. Peters – my last place to visit – is an unrivalled example of late Norman. Its richly decorated arcades and splendid tower arch make it the most attractive church in Northampton. In the latter half of the 12th century it was founded perhaps by Carl Simon III, & it appears at the first glance to be as untouched as when it was left by the builders, an impression which disappears on closer inspection.
Entering, the arcades are striking. Two long rows of arches of moderate height unbroken by chancel arch or any other structural division. In the nave every other column is compound with four engaged shafts, while the intervening ones are simple, slender, and bonded, thus producing a division into two double bays on either side with a single bay to the west of them – single because its other half is now swallowed up by the tower, from which the eastern sides of the dividing columns may be seen projecting and doing duty as responds. Thus were these beautiful arcades, mutilated, and as far as can be judged for no adequate reason. Granted that the tower had become unsafe and required rebuilding – yet why not have rebuilt it in its old position 10 feet to the west and so clear of the arcades? I have seen some deplorable restorations but I do really think this one is the limit. The belfry stage of the present tower points to the latter half of the 16th century and its rebuilding therefore probably took place at the same time. The elaborate arch which is now built into the wall of the west face of this tower above the window is supposed to have formed the recessed head of the doorway but its orders are now in one plane and the innermost has disappeared.
As for the chancel it had three bays with a sanctuary at the east end but 12 feet of the latter had long vanished and when the restoration of 1851 took place it was thought better to rebuild the east end altogether. Everything east of the arcades including the ends of the aisle is therefore of that date.
There is little else to detain the stranger in Northampton, and I made off to Towcester and Stony Stratford and the Bucks border.
Is it not surprising that so many people walk along a road without looking where they are going — in other words that one has to ring ones bell for the benefit of the people one is meeting and who are obviously lost in thought? Nobody expects folks to have eyes in the back of their heads, but I do say that they should be able to look where they are going.— even if they do not go where they are looking. I do not like ringing a bell at all, and to have to keep or lugging at the trigger for the benefit of peripatetic day-dreamers is a nuisance and makes for unfriendliness on the roads.
I am by no means in love with tarred roads, and must confess to a preference for the old natural and self-coloured roads of pre-motor days. Thoroughly to appreciate the defects of a tarred road one must have many miles of it on a hot day in summer, when the dazzle of the surface is extremely trying and a baked vapour seems to be given off in chunks. For the night cyclist, too, the black road has its disadvantages, for it reflects nothing of the light which is thrown upon it, whilst there are occasions when the shadows become most perplexing. On balance, however, I suppose that the tarred road is best for us, having regard to present-day conditions, which view is emphasized —in my case—by recent sight of a motor- char-à-bancs using tarred and untarred stretches of a main road. On the black portion of the highway the amount of dust raised was negligible, but so soon as the vehicle ran on to the untarred section, it instantly disturbed a cloud of dust. Gladly would I go back to pre-motor roads and conditions. That being out of the question, I make the best of tarred roads — and rejoice when I can get away from them. One only hopes that motorists will not too frequently take credit for having given us tarred roads. They are nothing to brag about.
I suppose it is a clear sign of inexperience when a cyclist mounts his (or her) machine from somewhere near the middle of the road in the face of approaching traffic, and people who do such a thing can learn wisdom only in the hard school of experience. A few evenings ago, as I was speeding to a town to get put up for the night. I saw ahead of me a young lady cyclist, who was evidently having an argument with her chain. As I approached, however, she apparently thought the machine was in order, and she decided to mount without delay from the middle of the road, notwithstanding proximity and that of a motor-cyclist who was rapidly overhauling me. Instinctively I put my ears back, for I knew perfectly well that the first thing the average cyclist does on mounting in this way is to wobble. That wobble arrived quite according to plan, and the front wheel turned at right angles across the road. Our fair friend managed to correct that, but she had apparently failed to convince the chain as to its proper function, and the screech which emanated from the transmission—or thereabouts—suggested that the power she applied had missed fire.
A more violent swerve followed, and at this moment both I and the motorcycle did the overtaking act. My back wheel graced the obstructive front wheel of the lady’s bicycle, whilst the eyes of the girl on the flapper- bracket of the motorcycle nearly popped out with fright. I had no room to manoeuvre, but I was determined that whatever else happened, I would avoid getting on close terms of acquaintance with the machinery of the motorcycle, thank you.
The incident just shews that people who are mounting a bicycle should be given a wide berth, while the folly of attempting the operation right in front of approaching traffic is obvious.
Towcester consists chiefly of one long street and though once an important stage on the London and Holyhead road would now be a more or less unknown name to the ordinary person were it not that an inclement autumn evening had compelled a certain benevolent personage to take shelter at the hospitable Saracen’s Head on the return from his unsuccessful mission to Birmingham. But in these degenerate, days there are no hostile encounters between the blues and the buffs to give its any relaxation from our daily round. There is not much to see and after a glance at the mound and the church I had a stroll in Easton Manor Park which stretches over the slopes on the opposite side of the Tove.
The church is built of that rich brown stone which was quarried in Whittlebury Forest, under a grant to the town of Edward the Fourth.
Stony Stratford is the place where the old Watling Street over which I am travelling forded the Ouse, and brings one to Bucks, but beyond that there is not much to interest one in it. It was here I held a little parley with myself as to how best to use up my last two days in the open and what route, to follow to London. After a leisurely conning over my map I decided to shrike across to Huntingdon, and go on from there to Cambridge via Ely, and come home down through Saffron Walden, Bishops Stortford, and Epping. So accordingly to turned partly North again, and was soon astride the Great North Road at Eaton Socon, and branched off at freeman’s Lodge for Huntington with a mind to have an hour’s punting on the river there or else a stroll along the banks — or perhaps just a quiet laze on the idly watching the scullery passing up and down. And I was minded to get some of the towns noted beer. It is an historic brew — and I was specially cautioned not to miss it by a great pub-caller and authority on home breweries.