Well Impressed by Eleanor!

The last three days of my solo trip to Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and this time it was the first and last places I visited that I found most impressive. It turns out that Edward I didn’t just build socking great castles and that the direct ancestor of the modern skyscraper is in, of all places, Shrewsbury….

First up was a village in Northamptonshire called Geddington to see the Eleanor Cross, which I’d read about in a book a while back. I don’t know quite what I expected, maybe something along the lines of a typical market cross? The Eleanor Cross certainly exceeded expectations:

To explain this one, we have to go back to 1290. Edward I had gone North to indulge in his usual pastime of duffing up the Scots when his wife, Eleanor of Castile, was taken ill (she had been following on behind, which was quite normal for Eleanor – she’d even been to the Holy Land on crusade with her husband). They headed east towards Lincoln but unfortunately, Eleanor died before they got there at a little place called Harby.

Her body was taken back to London for burial at Westminster Abbey, and Edward had a memorial to Eleanor erected at each of the twelve places where the entourage stopped overnight along the way:

The thing that struck me when I read about these crosses is that I lived in London for several years without having any clue how Charing Cross gets its name…….

Only three crosses survive, at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham (nowadays known as Waltham Cross for obvious reasons), though the one at Geddingstone is apparently in the best condition. It’s certainly impressive.

You can even still make out the coats of arms of Ponthieu (Eleanor’s mother was Countess of Ponthieu, and Eleanor inherited the title from her) and of Castile:

Geddington looked to be quite a historic village, so it’ll be worth another stop sometime. As it was, I’d had to park SOK with two wheels on the (very wide at that point) pavement, so didn’t dare linger….

It wasn’t very far from Geddington to the village of Lyddington and the Lyddington Bede House. Thankfully, Lyddington is one of those villages with a very straight and wide main lane running through the centre of it, so I had no problem at all parking SOK by the village green.

The Bishops of Lincoln had a palace at Lyddington from around the 13th century. It’d have been a handy location for them, slap bang in the middle of the diocese and about half way between Lincoln and London:

The current buildings date back to the 15th century. Here’s an impression of what Lyddington would have looked like in the early 16th century:

The Bishop’s Palace is the building right next to the church (after the dissolution of the monasteries, the great hall behind was pulled down).

In 1551 the estate was granted to William Cecil (who was Secretary of State at the time). Following the Act for the Relief of the Poor in 1597, which encouraged the founding of charitable institutions, William’s son Thomas Cecil had the Bishop’s Palace converted into a home for 12 poor bedesmen (“poor, needy or impotent people”).

There were also rooms for two women, who basically got to skivvy as housekeepers and carers for the twelve men in residence!

From the way the place is presented nowadays, the ladies did seem to get larger rooms than the men….

To move into the Bede House, you basically had to apply to the Cecil family, providing whatever supporting evidence you could – letters from the local clergy saying how you were an upstanding member of the community etc etc. Oh, and you most definitely had to be “free of lunacy, leprosy or the French pox”! Incredibly, the Bede House was occupied right into the twentieth century.

One final titbit of information – Henry VIII stayed here for a few days as guest of the Bishop of Lincoln in 1541 (he stayed at Gainsborough Old Hall, which I visited earlier this trip, on the same progress to York).

I drove under the Welland / Harringworth Viaduct on the way back to the camp site. What a structure!

Three thousand navvies descended on the Welland valley to construct the viaduct between March 1876 and July 1878. It’s 1166 metres long, has 82 arches, and is the longest masonry viaduct across a valley in Britain. The list of materials used is quite sobering – 19,000 cubic feet of stone, 20,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 30 million bricks!

To be absolutely honest, I was pretty underwhelmed by the two places I visited on Saturday. Perhaps I was just getting tired, or perhaps they really weren’t anything special…..

My first stop was Boscobel House and the Royal Oak. Boscobel House is an early 17th century house….

…. and the Royal Oak is, erm, not the original tree:

The story here is that the future Charles II returned from exile in 1651 in a bid to take his throne (his dad Charles I having by this point lost his head). Charles was defeated at the battle of Worcester and then spent six weeks on the run, trying to get back out of the country whilst being hunted by parliamentarian troops. He then had to hang around in exile for a few more years until we got round to asking him if he’d like to be king after all….

Anyway, Charles rocked up at Boscobel early one morning, where he was helped by five brothers called Pendrill. During the daytime, it was deemed too dangerous to have him in the house, so he went into the nearby forest and spent the day hiding up an oak tree in the rain. He was then hidden in a priest hole in the attic overnight before continuing his journey the next day.

The original tree (yes, I’m sure they knew exactly which tree!) was dead by the end of the seventeenth century, hacked to bits by folk wanting souvenirs (there were no tree preservation orders back then!). We are assured that the current “Royal Oak” was definitely grown from an acorn from the original tree. Unfortunately, this tree was severely damaged in a storm in 2000 (which is probably why it looks so puny) but not to worry, they roped another Charles in to solve the problem – Prince Charles visited and kindly planted a sapling near the poorly tree back in 2001.

The main thing I found interesting was how this place has been a tourist magnet for over 350 years now (from the early tree hackers through the Evans family, who ran it as a tourist attraction in Victorian times, to English Heritage today). Which just goes to prove that there really is a sucker born every minute… Oh well, I suppose it’s given a few hundred pubs up and down the country a name…..

Bentham Hall, not far from Ironbridge in Shropshire, was my second stop of the day. It’s a late 16th century country house. To be honest, the most interesting thing about it was that it’s been booked for filming a period drama starting in a couple of weeks’ time, and they’ve been told that the place has to look neglected:

I really liked the fake vines hung on the front elevation, though they did make me think more of a horror film than a straightforward period drama! You can imagine the profuse apologies for the weeds out front from the National Trust staff manning the visitor reception (and the unnecessary assurance that some of them are fake plastic weeds!), and the traumatised weeding overdrive the gardeners round the back seemed to have launched into!

The most interesting thing inside (I didn’t attempt to take photos as the place was just too busy) was a carved oak panel showing Charles on the run, which it was suggested could well have been one of those carved from the original Royal Oak….

On my way home on Sunday, I made time to stop off at the Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings:

This is a work in progress – the original buildings are being refurbished but you can walk round the outside and there is a temporary visitor centre with some very good displays and an interesting film. Once the work is complete (2021), there’ll be a new visitor centre and cafe on the ground floor of the main mill building, with office space above.

Basically, this is the world’s first iron-framed building, completed in 1797 and known at the time as Ditherington Flax Mill. The interior looks very much like many of the Manchester mills that have been converted into apartments in recent years, and the diagram of what it would have looked like in operation (which actually shows a Leeds mill under the same ownership) will look very familiar if you’ve visited the National Trust’s Quarry Bank Mill at Styal.

The rationale for introducing iron frames to buildings wasn’t really to build higher (the flax mill is only five storeys high); it was to improve fire resistance by building predominantly in steel and brick, the use of timber in mill construction having made them particularly susceptible to fire.

The flax mill’s location in Shrewsbury isn’t really that surprising when you think about it. Shropshire was iron central back then. As an example, the world’s first iron bridge (after which the town of Ironbridge is named) was opened here in 1781.

One bit of information brought home just how pioneering the construction of the flax mill was: the ten storey Home Insurance Building in Chicago is regarded as the grandfather of the modern skyscraper, having been the first to use a steel frame – but it wasn’t built until 1885, a full 88 years after Ditherington Flaxmill. 88 years is a long long time.

After the flax mill closed in 1886, the site was used as a maltings between 1897 and 1987 (where barley would be turned into malt for brewing by soaking, drying, and then roasting it).

All really interesting stuff – it’ll definitely be worth going back once the new visitor centre is open. Here’s a little titbit from the information in the visitor centre – they made their own bobbins here (after our trip to Stott Park Bobbin Mill, we’re quite into bobbins!):

We’ll have to keep an eye out for any Shrewsbury bobbins on our travels!

It was back home for me on Sunday afternoon, which should give me enough time to open the post and do SOK’s laundry before Mark arrives back from his Pyrenean adventure on Monday evening……

It should then be a reasonably quick turnaround before out next adventure. We’re off to Scandinavia…..

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