(IV) ECCENTRIC COUNTRY – ENGLAND

Peter Milward


Weblisher: BriFrancis, 2008

CONTENTS

 

<<Prev <<           >>Next>>

 

Preface:  English Humour in Pictures

 

Part I.  Ancient Eccentricities

1.       The Whale Stone

2.       Mysticism in Cows

3.       The Stone Dance

4.       A Dark Lighthouse

 

Part II.  Monuments of Madness

5.       Craziness from the Cradle

6.       The Ruins of Time

7.       Poetry amid Penury

8.       Play amid Ruins

 

Part III.  Castles in the Air

9.       Another Ruthless King

10.    Aftermath of a Masque

11.    Sheep at a Banquet

12.    Soldiers on Guard

 

Part IV.  Mad Mansions

13.    Disney in Cheshire

14.    The Haunted Hall

15.    The Shambles

16.    The Crooked Hall

 

Part V.  Holy Follies

17.    Converging Lines

18.    People on Pinnacles

19.    An Inclining Chancel

20.    The Spire and the Window

 

Part VI.  Queer Carvings

21.    Jacob’s Ladder

22.    Mediaeval Sumo

23.    An Indian Boy

24.    A Strange Saint

 

Part VII.  Comic Graves

25.  A Grave Figure-Head

26.  An Acrostic Epitaph

27.  The Church Cat

28.  Dead as Donkeys

 

Part VIII.  Unique Universities

29.  Funny Faces

30.  Spikes for Students

31.  Pig with Wings

32.  Fire!

 

Part IX.  Inspiration in Inns

33.  The Flying Horse

34.  The Fighting Cocks

35.  First and Last

36.  The End of the World

 

Part X.  Peculiar Publicity

37.  Touting for Tooth-Paste

38.  Bend or Bump!

39.  Upon My Sole!

40.  Private Property

 

Part XI.  Floral Folly

41.  The Anchor in Flower

42.  Sesame Street

43.  Floral Time

44.  British Bonsai

 

Part XII.  Animal Antics

45.  Cowardice of Cows

46.  Crossing the Road

47.  A Dog in the Water

48.  A Circus Cat

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Simplicity of the West 

 by Peter Milward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 AAFX: History of Christians in Japan  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LINKS

Who is Peter Milward?

Genesis of an Octogenarian

Blog Brittonia

All About Francis Xavier

BriFra

Who are the Jesuits?

Joining the Jesuits in Japan

About

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 A Lifetime with Hopkins  by Peter Milward

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

     Jacobean Shakespeare
by Peter Milward

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare the Papist by Peter Milward 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 Arise My Love by William Johnston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part IV.  Mad Mansions

 

13.       Disney in Cheshire

I don’t know if Walt Disney ever went to Cheshire, or anywhere in England.  Yet traces of his presence are to be found everywhere.  “It’s just like Walt Disney!” is our typical reaction to many an old building in England, not least in the North-Western county of Cheshire, and not least in the case of an Elizabethan manor house called Little Moreton Hall.

 

When I first set eyes on this manor house, I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Seeing is believing, they say, but I couldn’t believe my own eyes.  I could hardly think this was a real building, and not some mirage of the summer heat.  It looked as if it would fall to the ground at any moment, or as if it was in a state of suspended shock.  None of the lines formed by its timbers were straight.  All were crooked, whether horizontally or vertically.  They heaved up and down, this way and that, in all directions.  Yet presumably they have been heaving in this way for the past four centuries.  They were indeed a miracle at once of eccentricity and architectural expertise.

 

Sadly, I was unable to find out anything further about the place, as it was only open to visitors in the afternoon, and we only went there – on two occasions – in the morning.  For we had a tight schedule in the course of a day’s excursion.  So I still have no idea of what was in the mind of the original owner or his architect when they first put up the building.  And so I am left to my more or less inspired guesses.

 

Why, then, was this manor house built in such an odd manner?  My first guess is that the owner, or his architect, was a lover of trees, especially oak-trees.  So in the building of his house he wished to preserve the characteristic shapes of the trees he was using.  Of course, he had to remove their outer bark, and then he painted the wood black, in order to keep a pleasing contrast between the black timbers and the white plaster in between – according to that form of domestic architecture in Elizabethan England known as “half timber”.  In other words, it was his praiseworthy intention to keep his building as close as possible to his original, natural materials.

 

Another guess that occurs to my mind is that the owner was a typically eccentric Englishman with a hatred of straight lines and a love of everything twisted and crooked.  It was only a few years later, in what is known as the Elizabethan Renaissance, that English noblemen took up the opposite craze for things geometrical and Euclidian, especially in the building of houses and the growing of gardens.  Or it may have been precisely on account of this craze that my eccentric Cheshire gentleman, who was no doubt a religious “recusant”, wanted to assert his independence of courtly fashion.

 

Yet another guess is that the owner was a predecessor of Walt Disney, only unfortunate in living before the rise of the film industry and animated cartoons.  So his only means of giving expression to his unique genius was the building of this kind of manor house.  Not that he particularly hated straight lines or aimed at following nature, but that he was fantastic by nature, and even more fantastic than nature.  After all, where in the natural world, even in all the oak forests of England, do we come upon such remarkable fantasy as we find in this manor house?

 

But these are all theoretical guesses of mine.  So let me now summon my powers of fantasy and take a journey backwards in time to the Elizabethan age, when the owner and the builder of this house were alive.  And let me ask him for an imaginary interview on behalf of my modern readers.

 

“Now, Mr.Moreton, you have at last completed the construction of this impressive manor house, would you be so kind as to inform us why you decided to build this particular kind of house.  It is rather unique, as you must be the first to admit.”

 

“Yes, I am rather proud of the fact that it is unique.  In this area there are, in fact, quite a number of these half-timbered houses.  The contrast between the black of the oak timber and the white of the plaster in between does appeal to our West Midland taste.  All the same, I wanted to do something different from most of my neighbours.”

 

“Then what, pray, was the difference?”

 

“Well, what fascinates me is the challenge of force and tension.  In Gothic architecture one comes upon all kinds of natural forces pulling this way and that, and creating all kinds of tension.  These forces are mostly in stone, but in my house I wanted to reproduce them in wood, following the natural growth of the oak trees I have used for timber.  These forces amount, in my opinion, to a wrestling match in wood.  In my building, therefore, I wanted to arrest a moment of specially heightened tension.”

 

“Yes, you have certainly achieved your aim.  And now I can congratulate you on having maintained that moment for over four centuries.  May it continue for many ages to come!”

 

 

14.       The Haunted Hall

I wonder if there are any countries in the world harbouring more ghosts than little England.  There are so many old houses in England – where by “old” I mean going back at least two or three hundred years.  From our point of view even the Victorian age is relatively modern.  So if you go to one of those really old houses and ask, “Do you have any ghosts here?” there answer may well be, “Yes, we do indeed!”

 

For one, Henry VIII, by his single action in dissolving so many abbeys up and down England, must surely be responsible for the making of more ghosts than any other man in history.  So many of those abbey ruins are still haunted by the ghosts of monks who lived there.  In addition, by having two of his six wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, executed on a charge of adultery, he made two more female ghosts, one for the Tower of London and the other for his palace at Hampton Court.  What a terrible man he must have been!

 

In the course of my literary and historical pilgrimages we often visit and even stay at such old houses.  Then my invariable question to the proprietor on arrival is, “Do you have any ghosts here?”  And time after time the answer is affirmative.  Once the answer was non-committal, as the owner of the seventeenth-century hotel was unwilling to admit the presence of anything that might scare away prospective customers.  But then, to make up for his reluctance, the ghost in residence actually appeared one night to one of the students in my group.  She was so frightened!

 

If Henry VIII made more than his fair share of ghosts in the English countryside, his daughter Elizabeth I followed in her father’s footsteps, in this as in other respects.  An important historical fact that is somehow omitted in most Japanese textbooks of world history is that Elizabeth, no less than her father, was a persecutor of English Catholics, and not a few of them, particularly the priests, were put to an often agonizing death.  Surprisingly enough, I haven’t heard that any of these priests returned as ghosts, since as they were being dragged to their place of execution, they even prayed for the queen who was persecuting them.

 

All the same, so many mansions and manor houses that were built in the Elizabethan age still survive today in their distinctive Elizabethan style, and not a few of them are equipped with their ghost in residence.  Indeed, if there isn’t any ghost attached to such an old mansion, one can’t help doubting if it is really as Elizabethan as it is made out to be.

 

One such mansion I visited not far from Shakespeare’s Stratford, and thither I brought my Japanese group for an Elizabethan-style dinner.  It proved to be so much to my liking that the next time I came to England on a similar pilgrimage, I decided to stay there for several days.  It was on the latter occasion that I put my question to our host, and he replied with less hesitation, “Yes!”  This time, however, he added, “Don’t tell any members of your group about it till the time of your departure, since we have to use all available rooms and three members have to be assigned to the haunted room.”

 

So I said nothing about the haunted room, but I merely told our members that we were staying in a haunted house, where the ghost might appear in winter – that being the customary season for English ghosts to appear.  The owner of the hotel – of which the original name was Salford Hall, and which had only become a hotel in recent years – kindly obliged us by producing an imitation ghost of a friar for our Elizabethan-style dinner on the last evening we spent there.

 

The genuineness of the ghost story was confirmed by the existence in the mansion of an old priest’s hiding-place.  During the Elizabethan persecution search parties would often come to such houses looking not for any ghost but for a priest in residence, as the house had been in the hands of a Catholic gentleman.  For the safety of the priest a hiding-place had been devised in some unlikely location by a Catholic carpenter.  We were even shown a cupboard of books on one of the staircases.  When all the books were taken out and a secret latch was lifted up, the cupboard could be pushed back to reveal a dark hole with steps leading downwards.  It was so exciting!

 

Anyhow, when the time came for our departure by coach, I asked the three ladies who had shared the room, “Did you notice anything unusual during your stay in this room?”  “Not in particular,” they answered. “Only, it was such a delightful old-world room, it was a pity to leave it so soon.”  “Then,” I asked again, “you didn’t see any ghost there?”  “No,” they replied, “Was that the haunted room?”  They were so indignant when I gave them an affirmative answer, asking, “Why didn’t you tell us before?”  “In that case,” I said, “we would have had a serious problem of accommodation.”

 

 

15.       The Shambles

One characteristic often found in mediaeval houses is a tendency to lean over.  This isn’t necessarily what has taken place over a long period of time, as old houses, like old men, tend to become decrepit and to bend downwards and even sideways.  It is just the way they were originally built, as in the case of Little Moreton Hall.  In the Middle Ages, right up till Elizabethan times, English builders seem to have had no great love of straight lines.  Rather, they liked everything to be bent, twisted and crooked.  The cult of the straight line in architecture only came in with the Renaissance and the revival of Euclidian geometry.

 

Thus in a typical mediaeval house the first, or what Japanese prefer to call the second, floor leans out over the ground floor, and the third – if there is one – over the first, or second.  I don’t know the precise reason for such a structure, but I think it has something to do with the throwing out of garbage and dirty water.  So the unfortunate passer-by has to beware of such refuse.

 

This applies not just to lonely houses in the countryside, where there would be fewer passers-by, but also and even more to mediaeval cities such as York, which is to the North of England what Canterbury is to the South.  There one of the most picturesque streets is that known as The Shambles, namely the street that once ran with the blood of slaughtered animals.  The actual place when the poor animals, mostly cows and sheep, were slaughtered for food by the pitiless butchers was situated just off this street, but I suppose, from its name, that much of their blood flowed into it.  It sounds so gruesome.

 

Today, however, such gruesomeness has long since been relegated to what Shakespeare calls the “formless ruin of oblivion”, while only the picturesque quality of the street remains.  What makes this street particularly picturesque isn’t just its age, reaching back to Elizabethan times, but the above-mentioned structure of its Elizabethan houses, with the upper story leaning out over the lower.  In any case, it is rather a narrow street.  So the people standing at the windows of the second floor on either side of the street would only have had to stretch out their hands to touch each other.  At the same time, it must have made a delightful place for gossip, not to mention the throwing out of refuse on the heads of hapless passers-by.

 

One of the old houses on this street is a shrine devoted to the memory of one of the few ladies among the Catholic martyrs.  She was a pious old widow named Margaret Clitherow, who often gave shelter to priests – which was then a penal offence, punishable by death.  She was, therefore, arrested by the authorities and put on trial, but she refused to plead either “Guilty” or “Not guilty”, so as to avoid incriminating anyone.  So she was sentenced to be tied to the floor, with heavy weights laid upon her, till she was crushed to death.  Yet she forgave her enemies.  And so instead of becoming a vengeful ghost, she is now venerated as a holy saint, and her house in The Shambles is used as a chapel in which I have said Mass on more than one occasion.

 

Such a manner of execution, especially on a kind old woman, seems so shocking to us today.  We can’t help thinking of it as mediaeval in its barbarity.  Yet by mediaeval standards, and even by Elizabethan standards, it would have been shocking.  Naturally there was an outcry against it in other countries, where people were freer to express their opinions – whereas in England people found it wiser to keep their opinions to themselves.  Such, I may add, is the age when the great Shakespeare found it natural to compose his great tragedies.

 

Still, with the passing of time tragedy turns into comedy, and this street, which once ran with the blood not only of cows and sheep but also of Catholic martyrs, has become so picturesque.  No visitor to York can miss it in his prescribed itinerary, even if he spends most of his time there in the older Minster – as the cathedral is called.  Then the picture made by the street, as one looks up to the houses on either side where they seem to touch each other at the upper levels, is not only charming but also comic – especially as one thinks of hapless passers-by being showered with refuse from above.

 

Yes, I quite agree it is a primitive form of humour, not far removed from what is variously called “slapstick” and “black humour”.  Still, we can’t help laughing at it, as when a portly English gentleman steps on a banana-skin laid in his path, he slips on it and falls on the ground.  Then, we may imagine the passer-by getting angry and shaking his fist at the upstairs window, whose occupant has prudently disappeared from view and from earshot.

 

I may add that a friend of mind, not English but Maltese, once lived in such a house with a window leaning out over the street.  He told me how in his childhood he deliberately emptied basins of dirty water on the heads of pedestrians below, just for the fun of it.  It was so naughty of him!  But, as we say, “Boys will be boys”, especially when they live in such old houses, with such temptations to hand.

 

 

16.       The Crooked Hall

From Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, and Salford Hall in Warwickshire, we come to Shandy Hall in Yorkshire.  So many old houses in England bear the enchanting name of “hall”.  But what does the name mean?  Simply, it means a house with a large dining-hall.  In mediaeval times the dining-hall was the main room of a house – as it ought to be.  At one time, as we read in the Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf, which was composed in the eighth century AD, people not only dined in the dining-hall but also used it as a living-room (in bad weather) and as a bed-room.  There might be cosier rooms off the hall for the nobleman and his family, but he left his retainers to sleep on the benches or the tables of the hall.  It was so primitive!

 

One has also to remember that in those days heating wasn’t so simple or so scientific as it is today.  Rather, it was both romantic and economic to make one great fire of logs in the middle of the hall, round which everyone would gather in the long days of winter and tell each other ghost stories or thrillers about monsters, as in Beowulf.  Just imagine sitting round a blazing fire on a dark night, watching the flames leaping upwards and casting fearful shadows on the walls behind.  How easy it is then to imagine, and even to see all kinds of ghosts and monsters!

 

How spooky it is, and how appropriate for what Shakespeare calls tales for winter, especially at Christmas!  Yet again, how heart-warming it is!  There is even something humorous about it, as well as human – fitting in with the homely atmosphere of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  Ghosts may strike us with terror, when they are around.  But once they have disappeared, as in the first act of Hamlet, they may even become objects of humour.  Once they have disappeared, we can no longer take them seriously.

 

Anyhow, to return to the third of the three halls mentioned above, Shandy Hall, it isn’t so old, or so spooky, as the other two halls, though it’s just as quaint, if not quainter.  Its associations only go back to the eighteenth century, which is – as I have said – relatively modern by English standards.  It was the home for many years of the quaint vicar of Coxwold in the eighteenth century, the novelist Laurence Sterne, and its name is borrowed from that of the hero of his rambling novel, Tristram Shandy..  Once it was no doubt the vicarage for the vicar of the nearby church of Coxwold, but now it is a museum devoted to the memory of the quaint old novelist.

 

From the outside Shandy Hall can by no means be compared in size with either Little Moreton Hall or Salford Hall.  It is much smaller than they are, and much cosier.  But what I find so impressive, and so quaint, about this building is its chimney.  Once seen, it can’t be forgotten!

 

Here surely, one feels, is the home of the little old man in the nursery rhyme, who built a crooked house, and here is the crooked chimney to go with it.  Looking up at it from a certain angle, one sees it as impossibly crooked.  How on earth could it remain like that without falling, even for a year, let alone two hundred years?  It is a crazy miracle, performed by a crazy author.  What, I wonder, were his sermons like in the nearby church every Sunday?

 

The obvious parallel that occurs to my mind is with the leaning tower of Pisa, where Galileo made many of his famous experiments.  Only, I understand that tower was constructed in such a way as to lean over.  But as for this chimney, was it really intended to lean in this manner?  Or was it an accident that has become at once substantial and permanent?  For myself, I lean to the latter opinion.

 

Anyhow, if it has been built straight, like any other chimney, according to the requirements of Euclidian geometry, it wouldn’t have attracted anyone’s attention.  But its crookedness gives it a human as well as a humorous interest.  It may be taken to stand for that new approach to humour which became characteristic of English literature in the eighteenth century.  To outsiders it may seem odd and exaggerated, but to us Englishmen it seems homely, and even normal, reminding us of Christmas and “home, sweet home”.

 

 <<Prev <<           >>Next