The Wind in the Willows

Hardwick_House_-_geograph.org.uk_-_635467
Hardwick House

And so on a beautiful autumn afternoon, with Patsy and Allyson and Aidan to the Pumpkin Fair in the grounds of Hardwick House, a seven-bedroom Elizabethan manor house located on the Thames in South Oxfordshire, with a beautiful river view.

The sun shone and the children played, and pizza and pumpkin soup were consumed; and for those with a keen interest in horticulture, the head gardener gave an impressively informative tour of the 900-acre Estate’s market garden, the theme of which was “know and embrace your natural friends and allow them to thrive so that they keep the predators at bay”. Good advice at any time!

Following that, the delightful Miriam Rose, daughter of the present owner, gave a straggling group of followers a brief tour of the incredibly well-preserved house.

Hardwick_cieling
The drawing room

Turns out, Hardwick House was built on top of the remains of an ancient dwelling recorded in the Doomsday book, part of which remains in the flint and chalk cellar walls. The main house was constructed in the 16th Century by the Lybbe family – soldiers, courtiers and winetasters to the Plantagent Kings. In 1643 the royalist Lybbe family were forced to flee during the Civil War, when the house was bombarded by Cromwell’s forces. King Charles I, possibly a friend of the family, also played bowls on the green at Collins End Common on the Hardwick Estate before he was finally beheaded.

When the Lybbe-Powyses fell on hard times in the late 1800s, Sir Charles Rose – a banker, MP and larger-than-life public figure, bought the estate and house. He and his wife were well connected in the arts and literary world and Kenneth Graham visited the house regularly, basing his book The Wind in The Willows at Hardwick (with influences from other Thames-side houses), and the character of Mr Toad on Sir Charles himself. Henry James also set the first scene of Portrait of a Lady in the gardens at Hardwick, and a number of other books of the time make mention of the house.

Sir Charles was a tennis, motoring, yachting, flying and horse-racing enthusiast, and built two Real Tennis courts at Hardwick, one of which is still very actively used. His paintings and furnishings still adorn many of the rooms.

And the good news? The East Wing of this glorious house is currently available to rent at £5000 per month, which will give you 7 bedrooms, 3 reception rooms, 2 bathrooms, and an immersion in the history and joys of country life as it was in the good old days that should last you a lifetime.


Extract from Chapter seven of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Toad is in prison, having been caught by the police after he stole a car:

Now the gaoler had a daughter, a pleasant wench and good-hearted, who assisted her father in the lighter duties of his post. She was particularly fond of animals, and, besides her canary, whose cage hung on a nail in the massive wall of the keep by day, to the great annoyance of prisoners who relished an after-dinner nap, and was shrouded in an antimacassar on the parlour table at night, she kept several piebald mice and a restless revolving squirrel. This kind-hearted girl, pitying the misery of Toad, said to her father one day, ‘Father! I can’t bear to see that poor beast so unhappy, and getting so thin! You let me have the managing of him. You know how fond of animals I am. I’ll make him eat from my hand, and sit up, and do all sorts of things.’

Her father replied that she could do what she liked with him. He was tired of Toad, and his sulks and his airs and his meanness. So that day she went on her errand of mercy, and knocked at the door of Toad’s cell.

     ‘Now, cheer up, Toad,’ she said, coaxingly, on entering, ‘and sit up and dry your eyes and be a sensible animal. And do try and eat a bit of dinner. See, I’ve brought you some of mine, hot from the oven!’

It was bubble-and-squeak, between two plates, and its fragrance filled the narrow cell. The penetrating smell of cabbage reached the nose of Toad as he lay prostrate in his misery on the floor, and gave him the idea for a moment that perhaps life was not such a blank and desperate thing as he had imagined. But still he wailed, and kicked with his legs, and refused to be comforted. So the wise girl retired for the time, but, of course, a good deal of the smell of hot cabbage remained behind, as it will do, and Toad, between his sobs, sniffed and reflected, and gradually began to think new and inspiring thoughts: of chivalry, and poetry, and deeds still to be done; of broad meadows, and cattle browsing in them, raked by sun and wind; of kitchen-gardens, and straight herb-borders, and warm snap-dragon beset by bees; and of the comforting clink of dishes set down on the table at Toad Hall, and the scrape of chair-legs on the floor as every one pulled himself close up to his work. The air of the narrow cell took a rosy tinge; he began to think of his friends, and how they would surely be able to do something; of lawyers, and how they would have enjoyed his case, and what an ass he had been not to get in a few; and lastly, he thought of his own great cleverness and resource, and all that he was capable of if he only gave his great mind to it; and the cure was almost complete.

When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries. Toad sat up on end once more, dried his eyes, sipped his tea and munched his toast, and soon began talking freely about himself, and the house he lived in, and his doings there, and how important he was, and what a lot his friends thought of him.

The gaoler’s daughter saw that the topic was doing him as much good as the tea, as indeed it was, and encouraged him to go on.

     ‘Tell me about Toad Hall,’ said she. ‘It sounds beautiful.’

     ‘Toad Hall,’ said the Toad proudly, ‘is an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence very unique; dating in part from the fourteenth century, but replete with every modern convenience. Up-to-date sanitation. Five minutes from church, post-office, and golf-links, Suitable for—-’


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And so to Deptford. . .

St Paul’s in Deptford is a Grade 1 Listed Building designed by the architect Thomas Archer, dating from 1730. It is one of the places of worship built following the 1711 Act for building new churches in London and its suburbs. These are generally known as the Queen Anne churches. The poet, John Betjeman, described St Paul’s as “a pearl at the heart of Deptford”, and it is indeed a remarkable and important example of English Italianate Baroque.

Thomas Archer was specifically influenced by two churches in the Historic Centre of Rome: the interior, by Francesco Borromini’s restyling of S. Agnese in Agone, Piazza Navona using Corinthian pillars, 1653 onwards, and the portico by the semi-circular porch of S. Maria della Pace, (which is just off the Piazza Navona) by Pietro da Cortona, constructed 1656-1661.

The church is remarkably well preserved and in 2000-2004 it underwent extensive restoration to return it to its full glory.

A few days after visiting St Paul’s I wrote the poem below:


And so to Deptford

St Paul's
St Paul’s, Deptford

And so to Deptford to St Paul’s
           where death lies buried
in the empty grounds
           where fresh-blown roses
are washed in the dew
           petals gone as a gust of breath
Here in the broken darkness
           the birds fly silently
from oak to ash to sycamore
           and strands of light
filter through the dying leaves
           Here we remember her hair
her lips and the shape of her smile
           the taste of her kiss
the gentleness of her voice

What lies beneath the ground
           is love and beauty
held on a threshold
           by the water’s edge
ready to be launched
           into a new infinity
built of stardust
           Smoke and shadows rise up
from neighbouring houses
           where bone to bone
young lovers lie
           locked in sweet converse
frail dust
           frail autumn dust
caught in the swirl of light
            Here the dreaming flesh cries out
the deathless voice of all the world :
           out of my love
her heart will not stir

These stones to praise thee :
           tall and lovely tender she is
a fabrication built of autumn roses
           of words that hover
light as leaves in the silence
           silks and cashmere
against my aching skin
           the warmth of burning coals
the ebb and flow of the river
           that carries our days
down to the sea

Search not my lips love
           unbind my hands
rise up to my caress
           let us stretch our bones
till daylight comes

John Lyons


A note on Deptford to place St Paul’s in its context: The deep ford which gave Deptford its name crossed the River Ravensbourne at what is now Deptford Bridge. It was on the ancient road from London to Canterbury and Dover, and Deptford is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One part of Deptford grew up here, beside the ford and the later bridge. The other part was the fishing village beside the Thames called Deptford Strand. There were fields between the two settlements until the nineteenth century.

In 1513 Henry VIII founded a dockyard at Deptford to build ships for the Royal Navy. In the eighteenth century a Victualling Yard was established alongside, where ships stores and provisions were assembled. The Dockyard closed in 1869.

After use as a cattle market and in other military and industrial capacities, the area is now being redeveloped for housing. The Victualling Yard remained until 1961. Its site is now occupied by the Pepys Estate. Samuel Pepys often visited the Dockyard when he was Clerk to the Navy Board, and his friend and fellow-diarist John Evelyn lived here, in the manor house called Sayes Court.

The Cross – a North Kensington Tale

canalFor the whole of the 1980s I lived in Ladbroke Grove, just up by Harrow Road and close to the Grand Union Canal. Saturdays I would do my grocery shopping in the market at Portobello Road and ferret through the stalls looking for CDs or second-hand books, anything that took my fancy. It was there I bought two priceless CDs featuring Joe Arroyo, possibly Colombia’s greatest salsero, bought them for a couple of quid each, and back in the days of vinyl, four of John Lennon’s solo albums also for a couple of quid each. There was a family butcher’s in the Golborne Road where the meat and the service were always excellent. I loved the colour and the buzz on the streets and loved being part of that community. There were the Rastas smoking ganja on the corners, and the Spanish and the Morrocans and the Portuguese, and so many other nationalities, and everywhere heaved to the sound of Bob Marley. Get up stand up, stand up for your rights!

Among the many characters in the area, and believe me there were many, there was a black man who used to carry a white cross. I would see him frequently in different parts of the borough but mostly in Ladbroke Grove, and on one occasion I even met him in the big supermarket up by the canal. He had put his cross down just behind one of the check-outs and was paying for his goods.

So the story below is actually a true story and it was published in my translation some years later in Managua, in the Saturday supplement of El Nuevo Diario along with the picture of a cross sculpted by the poet, Ernesto Cardenal. There are two parts to this story, the second of which was written some considerable time after the first, so I will post that part at a later date.


The Cross

ernesto crossLaminated white wood. An oak cross with white panels. The size of a man. A tall man, almost six foot six. A man with broad shoulders and a long neck. A man with short black hair. A black man, carrying a white cross. He says nothing as he walks along the street. Says nothing to anyone, but talks constantly to himself. Maybe he’s praying. Maybe not. He wears black trousers, worn at the knees. His trousers are tucked inside Wellington boots. His jacket is not black, but dark blue, the cuffs frayed. Under the jacket he wears a polo neck sweater, thin black wool. He goes up the street muttering under his breath and people gape at him as he goes. No one laughs in his face, but behind his back, people roll their eyes and a smile appears on their lips. An eccentric, carrying a huge white cross. Was a time in Virginia, a man could be crucified for less. The Klan would would have told him what to do with that cross, that’s for sure!

What do you think people think as he walks along with the huge cross on his shoulder? Does anyone offer to help him as he makes his way, offer to share the burden? Do they wonder where he comes from, or where he is heading? Do they even care?

Everyone knows what a cross is, its purpose. For all who see it, it recalls a story that they more or less know, and in which some of them more or less believe. A man died on a cross. Many men died on crosses. Only one is remembered for that.

Do the believers among the crowd look more kindly on him as he passes among them, or do they raise their eyes and smile, aghast at such exhibitionism?

He lives under the flyover, but away from the alcoholics and homeless beggars who hover around the underground station at night, who gather there in search of friendship, to share a bottle, a cigarette, a little bit of their despair. No one knows exactly where he makes his bed, but they are sure that it is at some point down by the crossroad. Nobody has ever seen him lying on newspapers next to the cross, but they imagine that that’s what he does. His life is a way of life, they think, those who see him on a regular basis. We all have a way of life, but few of us carry a cross daily, up and down the borough, perhaps even beyond. Maybe one or two curious souls wonder where his working day ends.

At some point does he halt? To eat or to rest his shoulders? Does he have friends along the way who offer him a warm drink, a bite to eat, a little respite to relieve his distress?

He looks to be about forty years and, despite the state of his clothes, in good health. You’d need to be healthy, especially to carry a weight such as the weight of such a cross.

A woman, in her early twenties, waits for a bus. Beside her, another woman, a little older, waits also. A thin drizzle is falling. The air is fresh and the two women are shivering as they talk. Their bus is late and they will be late. Late for work, late for life. One of the women takes a cigarette from a packet and lights it as she listens to her friend. Neither of them enjoys the work they do. A job’s a job, they think, something you do because you need to. It’s not a career, and certainly, not a vocation. One turns to the other who’s smoking and points out the man with the white cross. They smile, one to the other. A cross, of course, is not a job. Maybe he’s a carpenter, the smoker says to her friend, maybe he just made the cross, it’s been commissioned and he made it, and now he’s carrying it to the church.

Have you ever seen such a big white cross, the other woman asks the smoker, that size? Well, no, she says and shakes her head. The man has now passed them, is already far far away, little more than a dot in their line of vision. No, I never have, she says. No never have, my friend. A white cross is quite a sight. I don’t think a church would want a white cross that size, do you? The smoker nods. You’re probably right.

Would you sleep with a man who carried a white cross? Would you sleep with a man who carried a cross, full stop? It’s a question the smoker has never considered but all the same she entertains it just for a moment. No, she says, I don’t think so. No.

His eyes. When you look into his eyes, what do you see? Do you see a tormented soul, a soul brought to the brink of insanity? Or do you glimpse a little bit of kindness, a man who is all alone? Someone at peace with himself and his beliefs?

Imagine if a car were to run him over as he crosses the road. How would the driver feel? Guilty, of course, says the non-smoker. Guilty as hell.

In his eyes, which are hazel, there’s a sadness. The sadness of love. Did you know that love can make you sad? It certainly can. There’s always heartache at the heart of love, true love.

There’s a canal about 800 yards beyond where the women wait for their bus. Ducks and geese, and sometimes swans swim back and forth on the canal. Back and forth they swim, under the bridges. A thin layer of oil floats on the surface of the water, and at a certain angle and in a certain light, a rainbow effect is created. A white swan suddenly turns iridescent, just for a moment, when the reflected light falls on the background of its feathers. Maybe that’s their cross, to swim back and forth, under bridges. It’s no life! Not at all. Decorative nature, nothing more, nothing less.

Times were a black man would be killed for such a stunt in Virginia. Desecrating the cross, they’d say. Shot to death or strung from a walnut tree. Those days, hardly worth the trouble being born black.

You never saw a cross that size, that colour before?

These days, nobody would give it a second glance, and you can do whatever you want. Wear whatever you like, go wherever you want, carry a huge white cross. How times have changed!