Sunday, May 03, 2015

Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey is the name of the town, its church is Waltham Abbey church. The town isn't on a main railway, we had to get a train to nearby Waltham Cross, which reputedly has an Eleanor Cross (and looks quite a pleasant place in the Wiki photo), but we didn't see it, only the rather unlovely bit of 60s town planning  round the train and bus station. The latter was closed for works, so we had to walk rather further in the rain and with Tom's still bad foot than we would have liked, but when the bus came the kindly driver made a special stop for us, unasked, right in front of the church (wonders are worked when one carries a proper orthopaedic walking stick), and when we arrived in Waltham Abbey proper, despite its being Good Friday and a public holiday, and rather rainy, we found it a lively, interesting and welcoming place.

A cheery little ecumenical procession carrying a big wooden cross, featuring various card-carrying and badge-wearing Christian denominations but also a number of friendly dogs, arrived in the church grounds at the same time, we said hello to the dogs and hastened away inside. A service was due to start in an hour, we were told, but we were welcome to look around in the meantime. The board outside the church said, in effect, that whatever brings you here, whether faith and worship or just curiosity and an interest in history, the place belongs to everyone and everyone is welcome. 

The church is known for its music, Thomas Tallis was the music master here at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The choir was practising various pieces, which made a good background, but there were plenty of people like us poking about, taking photos, chatting quietly in corners.

Indeed, there is more history in this pleasant but work-a-day Essex town and its church than you can shake a stick at, way back to early Saxon times. There are traces of burials and other things from the 6th century, then Offa (the one with the Dyke) built the first stone buildings over an older wooden one, then one of King Canute's (the one who didn't hold back the waves) thanes held sway over the area and further built up the church to enshrine a socking great miraculous cross he'd found in Somerset, and which his oxen insisted needed to be installed here. King Harold (the one with the arrow in his eye who lost at Hastings) was given it by Edward the confessor, and is fairly conclusively considered to be buried there, though the Waltham Abbeyites seem to have missed a trick; no digging up of bones, grand funereal traipsing round the town, all-day television coverage, primates of the church and minor royalty and descendants shipped in from Australia etc for poor old Harold as yet, though he has got this rather nice statue in an apse outside:

Henry II (the one who was married to Katherine Hepburn Eleanor of Aquitaine) built it up yet again while still flagellating himself for having Thomas Becket done in. It was huge, the present building and grounds are just a little stump of what it was

at the time when Henry VIII came along and dissolved it as an abbey foundation, and knocked a lot of it down again, so Thomas Tallis and many others had to seek new employment - they were mostly pensioned off quite reasonably, Tallis went to Canterbury - and the miraculous cross miraculously disappeared. The stones were used to build a grand big house for some of H8's friends, which is no more now than some ruined walls.

But it's still substantial, and full of fine things. There is 15th century doom painting in the light and airy lady chapel,

two creatures (perhaps called the Waltham imps, I thought, though I can no longer find a record of this) leer down at you from somewhere in the Middle Ages

and grand old Tudor families lounge around on grand old tombs, 

A 17th century merchant is buried here, too, with these rather beautifully rendered alabaster graven images of the stuff of his trade:

and in the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts mediaevalists, specifically William Burges, were given a free rein and went to town, with angels,

 Burne-Jones stained glass

 and a long painted ceiling featuring the signs of the zodiac:

I picked out Sagittarius for me,

Virgo for Tom (she looks a bit dour)

and Leo just because he's such a whimsical, story-book Victorian lion:

Pevsner, with typical mid-20th century snootiness, turns his nose up at Burges in general and his work here in particular, as 'robust ugliness'. But having spent much of my younger adulthood in South Wales, with visits to Castell Coch and Cardiff castle, and one or two of his domestic projects often pointed out on familiar routes, I've always retained an affection for his liveliness and colour and observant, typological, love of the natural world. And whether one cares to scoff or embrace, it did rather please me to see imagery not specifically Christian cheerfully embellishing a church.

Outside there are extensive grounds, with memorial plaques for people of the town with names that sound to hail from all corners of the world, as well as Mrs So-and-so, landlady of the Compasses, and water gardens, and the ruins of the house. 

(The finger post in the above photo points to Harold's grave, but there wasn't much to see).

All the knocking down and building up again has led to a motley and patchwork effect of different stonework and materials, in the walls of the church itself, and more recently the landscaping of the water gardens,

and all kinds of faces look out at you:

We crossed the  into the town proper, where plenty of places were open, public holiday notwithstanding, including a colourful, fragrant and diversely stocked Wiccan shop directly opposite the church, run by a lovely friendly couple, he hirsute, she with heavily kohl-darkened eyes, who chatted animatedly about their love of bee-keeping, archery and blacksmithing, and where we bought incense and a door-sign for my sister with a picture of a dragon and the words 'Please do not disturb, I am living happily ever after'  (we passed on the black candles in the shape of naked people).

There were plenty of old-fashioned pubs, I do miss pub-signs, I realise:

and there was a the celebrated Tony's Pie and Mash Shop, where I was brave enough to try stewed eels, which were kind-of OK but I wouldn't really recommend them on the same plate as the meat pie, however traditional it is, and a nice coffee and cake shop with coffee-and-walnut cake and more friendly people.

A good day out in a surprisingly rich and diverse place.


And now I must go and pack for another jaunt, a couple of days in Paris for our wedding anniversary. It may seem, it does to me, that our life consists of flitting from one pleasure trip to another, but it seems important to do these things now while we can, for who knows what the future holds? 


Lyse said...

Lucy vous avez fait un beau voyage tous les deux. En voyant ton article, je me suis dite: je vais suremnt voir un cimetière anglais, on nous en montre à la télé qui sont bien différents des nôtres, la prochaine fois peut être?
Bon voyage à Paris et bon anniversaire de mariage

Lucy said...

Merci Lyse!

C'est vrai que les cimetières sont plutot differentes; ici a Waltham il n'y a pas énormement de tombes, mais normalement il se trouve une cimetière a coté de l'église, - un peu comme les enclos Bretons - souvent assez serrée. Mais il existe des cimetières independentes aussi. Peut-être la plus grande difference est la verdure, beaucoup plus d'herbe et d'arbres autour de nos défunts! (Et moins de chrysanthemums!) Aussi on a plutot des pierres simples, moins des vraies tombes voutées (?).

La prochaine fois que je voyage là-bas je chercherai une jolie cimetière pour te montrer!

Roderick Robinson said...

But you didn't stop for the commercial, for shame. I like the Tudor family, both of whom appear to be levitating the hard way, ie, sideways, propped up on their elbows, eyes wide open, clad apparently in plastic though it must surely be leather; no, it can't be, whoever heard of a leather ruffe collar?

Immediately opposite, unfortunately juxtaposed in your list of labels, is the phrase "Dreadful puns" but I concluded this was pure accident. Anyway who am I to speak? I entered this post in a confused state of mind, having expected Walsingham rather than Waltham; the former being a very serious RC-ish place but with a somewhat contradictory name. Say it aloud and it sounds quite gay, even trivial - men with codpieces showing a leg.

You do these tours very well indeed, daring to pooh-pooh Pevsner who swings into and out of fashion according to whatever part of the century it is. I wish you a rewarding anniversary, wondering whether you will opt for new discovery or the reassurances that only Paris can now offer. Down by the Marais there is a brasserie (several steps up as I recall) with mahogany doors and oodles of brass (=brasserie?) fitments. The atmosphere inside is that of the Ship of Fools as it starts to sink. Virtually everyone reads a book and thus (for safety's sake) eats whatever it is with a spoon. Would that I could find it again, would that you might find it for me.

So Tom's a Virgo. Me too. Is this the case with all your admirers?

Lucy said...

Hello Robbie, just finished answering your comment on the last, can't keep up... Did I miss a pun? Damn. Is there an easy way to levitate then? I recently found a splendid series of authentic paintings on-line illustrating the rise and fall of the codpiece, unfortunately can't remember where and didn't bookmark it. I shall look out for your brassy brasserie but make no promises. As to my Virgoan admirers, well that's you and Tom then, and dear Joe might have concurred I suppose so as not to be ungallant, but I don't imagine there are any more. Admirers, that is to say, not Virgos (Virgoes, Latin plural...?) But I take the compliment from whence it comes, thank you. If they are it's probably because they want to take me in hand and reform my chaotic, idle and untidy ways and impose their Virgoan meticulousness and sense of order etc etc.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh, pub signs! So wonderful. And how I do miss old old old places like this.

Libras! Hurrah for Libras!

marja-leena said...

Fabulous post, and rather timely as I am in the middle of a huge tome: Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. Place names and history timelines get confused in my mind but I love these kind of stories After being to the UK and seeing Salisbury Cathedral and all that is even more special. Love your photos as always, the closeups are my favourites.

Happy anniversary, Lucy and Tom! Have a great time in Paris. That's where we celebrated our 40th after that trip to the UK, also in May.

Catalyst said...

Wonderful tour, Lucy.

And how I wish I had had you as a history teacher!

From a fond Taurus.

Ellena said...

Interesting field trip.

Happy anniversary Lucy and Tom!

Vive le couple!

tristan said...

love the pictures ... very well done !

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Enjoy the Paris jaunt and anniversarious activities and maybe there will also be time for you to take marvellous photos and write another of your marvellous reports. Yes, I would take you along as a guide anywhere and everywhere, I marvel at how you manage to combine erudition with joie de vivre and an unfailing eye for the undiscovered detail.

Stella said...

Here I am, late to the parade. i very much enjoyed the ramble through the history of W A and will not soon forget your wonderful images, especially the (bored?) reclining couple ... marvellous stonework.....and a Canada goose thanks to WA for taking one. Looking forward to the Paris album.

Zhoen said...

The reclining Tudor couple are... a little strange and awkward.

The ceilings would have gotten me through a mass, though. Something to gaze at.

HKatz said...

It's a richer experience to know the history behind these places; you pick up on more of the stories they tell you, even if some things will inevitably be a mystery (and maybe inspire you to make up your own fantastic stories).

I enjoyed all the faces peering out, especially the second imp. And the reclining figures on the Tudor tomb are unintentionally comical.

Anonymous said...

Hallo Lucy
Thankyou for this. I felt I was wandering and marvelling with you and Tom. Love the photos of the faces peering out at the world. The thought of coffee and walnut cake had me sighing!


Sheila said...

Well, I admire you, Lucy, and I am an acquarius, so there's that.

I love seeing these pictures. While I love many things about our life here, I do miss Europe generally. Today I went to the opening for a new art gallery in an old house here, probably built in the 1920's, maybe as early as 1900. I found myself immediately drawn to the doors and woodwork simply because they were older than anything we ever see.....and then realized they were probably hardly a century old.

The Waltham imps are fantastic, and I love Leo, but I do think my favorite photos are the ones of the edges of the buildings. Fascinating, all the juxtaposition of this and that, and just the invitation to imagine all the hands of all the people who brought that into being.....and that all these years later we are admiring their work, the simple work of stonemasons and workers who could probably not imagine the world we live in now.

Thank you for a little vacation to elsewhere.