The Whartons of Winchendon – 4. Honest Tom

Thomas Wharton by Kneller c. 1710-15

Thomas Wharton by Kneller c. 1710-15

Continuing our weekly serialisation of Jonathan Law’s The Whartons of Winchendon (published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now), we learn more about Thomas Wharton: powerful political fixer, habitual liar, saviour of the nation and pox-ridden traitor…

And so, rather implausibly, in the last weeks of 1688, Tom Wharton became a great man. As one of the makers of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, he was lionized by his own party, the now dominant Whigs, and would soon become one of its ruling cabal. From early 1689 he was both a member of the Privy Council and Comptroller of the Household – the official with the important role of liaising between the new King, William III, and the House of Commons. He would soon be acknowledged as one of the handful of men who effectively ran the country while William was away fighting his French wars.

As William no doubt knew, he owed as much as to Tom Wharton as to any man alive: quite apart from his role in the Revolution, it was Tom, in the Convention Parliament of 1688, who had moved that William be made King, rather than some sort of regent. And yet the relationship between the two men would never be easy. William respected Tom’s energy and ability, but is said to have mistrusted him, fearing that he was a Commonwealth man at heart (if Tom Wharton and friends could dispense so easily with one king, then why not another?). There was also a basic difference in outlook. At bottom, William was keen to conciliate all parties who accepted the Revolution settlement – not least because he had no wish to become a creature of the Whigs. By contrast Tom Wharton remained openly and relentlessly partisan, a man who made no secret of his desire to purge his enemies, the Tories, from every area of public life, by any means available. These were, after all, the men who had sent his friends and allies to the scaffold in 1682 and 1685; the blood of the ‘Whig Martyrs’ was crying for redress. But given his calculating nature Tom’s motives were probably as much strategic as personal; his overriding aim was to leverage the triumph of the Revolution into a lasting ascendancy for his own party. Every opportunity must be taken to brand the Tories as natural enemies of English liberty and the Protestant religion – men whose support for the Revolution could never be anything but self-serving and insincere. “If you intend to govern like an honest man, what occasion can you have for knaves to serve you?” he would rasp at William, in the rough manner the King would come to resent, and perhaps even fear.

This word ‘honest’ was never far from Tom’s lips and it is worth pausing to consider what he could have meant by it. In Tom Wharton’s eyes, to be ‘honest’ was above all to be a defender of “the honest old Whig interest” and an enemy to the forces of “Popery and slavery”, at home or abroad. Personal probity was something else altogether. So it was that T. Wharton acquired his ubiquitous nickname – one deployed with great bitterness by his enemies and with a more nuanced irony by his friends: Honest Tom. For by any normal standards Tom Wharton was not an honest man.

“Of all the liars of his time he was the most deliberate, the most inventive, and the most circumstantial” concluded the Whig historian Macaulay. Political contemporaries would marvel at Tom’s ability to tell any lie that would gain his immediate end – and to appear quite unabashed when found out a week, a day, or an hour later. More puzzlingly, he would often seem to lie for lying’s sake, when a plain truth could have served him just as well. Probably, the roots of this lay deep in his early experience. Tom’s relations with his domineering, Puritan father seem to have bred a habit of dissimulation, and this became more deeply engrained in the dangerous political atmosphere of the 1680s. Inveterate womanizing must also have played its part – as Tom’s great enemy Jonathan Swift was quick to suggest:

He seems to have transferred those talents of his youth for intriguing with women, into publick affairs. For, as some vain young fellows to make a gallantry appear of consequence, will choose to venture their necks by climbing up a wall or window at midnight to a common wench, where they might as freely have gone in at the door, and at noon day; so [Wharton], either to keep himself in practice, or advance the fame of his politicks, affects the most obscure, troublesome, and winding paths, even in the most common affairs …

As if to rub it in, Tom Wharton told his lies with a nonchalant air that let his enemies know just how much of a damn he didn’t give. Although the Tories found this insufferable – Lord Dartmouth complained of “the most provoking insolent manner of speaking that I ever observed in any man, without any regard to civility or truth” – they never seemed able to land one back. As Macaulay notes, “neither invective nor irony could move him to anything but an unforced smile and a good-humoured curse”. Tom seems to have possessed to a rare degree that most useful of all political gifts: a genuine and imperturbable shamelessness (think Thatcher, think Blair). “He will openly take away your employment today, because you are not of his party” seethed one opponent, and yet “tomorrow he will meet or send for you, as if nothing at all had passed, lay his hands with much friendliness on your shoulders …” Honest Tom Wharton was one of those politicians who inspire not just disagreement or dislike but a real, blazing hatred.

All this, it should be said, was accompanied by great gifts of organization and man management. By 1694 or 95 Tom was regarded as perhaps the greatest party manager the House of Commons had ever known. The general elections of the 1690s also revealed his extraordinary ability to get in the Whig vote, by fair means or foul. “Such a master of the whole art of electioneering England had never seen”, Macaulay would concede, “as a canvasser he was irresistible.” Tom Wharton never forgot a face, or a name, or a voter’s favourite tipple. And once he had inherited his father’s wealth and title – in 1696 – his pockets were very, very deep. From this date, if not before, he can be counted a full member of the so-called Whig junto – the “five tyrannizing lords” regarded by many as the true rulers of England at this time. Having got his hands on real power, Tom also had an idea of what to do with it, putting his considerable weight behind two epochal pieces of legislation:  the 1701 Act of Settlement – the one that secured the Hanoverian succession – and the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland. In both cases the immediate motive was to block any future Jacobite restoration – and thus to create a world safe for Whig grandees; but in pushing these measures Tom Wharton, the fixer and tactician, can claim to have left a more lasting mark on English history than most.


View of the House and Gardens at Winchendon by Tillemans

View of the House and Gardens at Winchendon by Tillemans

Wharton’s rise to power suffered a serious check in 1702, with the death of William and the accession of Queen Anne, a staunch Tory of strong High Church views. Anne took grave exception to Tom’s morals and lack of religion (no doubt she remembered – as who could forget – the incident at Great Barrington and is said to have taken great pleasure in relieving him of his staff of office. Tom made the best of his new leisure by spending vast sums of money on Winchendon, his much loved country house in Bucks. The garden was remade in the Dutch style and graced with an enormous red-brick orangery – a declaration, no doubt, of Tom’s unchanging Revolution principles. A gardening project of another kind was initiated at Wooburn, the Thames-side estate he inherited from his father; in tribute to the pious old grump, Tom undertook to plant at least one specimen of every tree mentioned in the Bible. Other diversions were less innocent. Although Tom had remarried, mistresses came and went and no woman was thought to be quite safe in his presence. At the age of 60 he could still beat a man half his age in a duel – taking his old delight in disarming his opponent, forcing him to snivel for his life, and granting it with a shrug. He also rediscovered his passion for horse-racing, which often became the continuation of politics by other means; Tom would think nothing of transporting one of his prize mounts halfway across the country in order to deprive some Tory or High Church owner of a rich purse – which would then go straight into his election fund. By this time the ‘Wharton interest’ controlled some 25 parliamentary seats, including 10 in Bucks. In the general elections of 1705 and 1708 Tom threw himself into the campaign with his usual insane competitiveness, spending an estimated £80,000 of his own money on buying votes (in today’s terms, approaching £10 million).

Like her predecessors, Queen Anne would soon learn that you can’t keep an honest man down. The electoral successes of the Whigs brought the Junto lords back to power and Tom – newly created Earl of Wharton and Viscount Winchendon – was again a force to be reckoned with. Anne’s solution was to pack him off to Ireland, to serve as her Lord Lieutenant. The office brought near despotic powers and Tom deployed them in the usual enlightened style of the English in Ireland; the ferocious Penal Laws against Catholics were extended – although Tom appears to have been broad-minded enough to “whore with a papist” during his stay – and sales of employments and other kickbacks ensured that he left Dublin some £45,000 the richer (£5 million in today’s money). He also managed to incur the dangerous enmity of Jonathan Swift, whom he had unwisely passed over for preferment. In the 1710s Swift would keep up a relentless series of attacks on Wharton, who seems to have represented everything he most detested about a certain kind of Englishman and a certain kind of Whig. In his A Short Character of Thomas, Earl of Wharton and other writings Swift would eviscerate this “publick robber, adulterer, and defiler of altars” with a thoroughness bordering on the obsessive. Tom seems to have reacted with his usual sang-froid (in this respect, he must have been a satirist’s nightmare). Although Wharton was called back to England after only two years, a motion of impeachment was later quietly dropped: however gross, his peculations seem to have been within the understood limits of these things.

If the last years of Anne’s reign saw Tom at a low ebb – out of office and mauled by his opponents – apotheosis was only just around the corner. With the succession of the first George in 1714, Wharton’s hopes and plans and schemes of thirty years finally came to fruition; the future of limited Protestant monarchy seemed secured, the Tories were thrown into division and disarray, and the Whigs began almost half a century of uninterrupted power. As perhaps the chief architect of all this, Tom found himself smothered in honours; Lord Privy Seal; Marquess of Wharton and Marquess of Malmesbury; Marquess of Catherlough, Earl of Rathfarnham, and Baron Trim in the Peerage of Ireland. After a lifetime of noise and scandal, Tom was in danger of ending his days a revered elder statesman. To the younger members of his own party, in particular, ‘Honest Tom’ had become a legend; the “tutelary god whom our Whigs invoke and adore as the sole preserver of their country”, as the Duke of Portland put it. The Whig writer Abel Boyer agreed: for all the spite of the satirists, Lord Wharton had proved himself “the most active, most strenuous, and most indefatigable asserter of liberty; and the warmest and most inveterate enemy to popery and arbitrary power”.

To the Tories, however, Tom Wharton remained beyond the pale; Lord this or Marquess of that, he was still the man who once took a shit in a church (the story had grown: it was now Gloucester Cathedral, in broad daylight, on the high altar). In the Tory imagination, ‘Honest’ Tom would continue to loom large as an almost Satanic figure: not just another politician on the make, but a portent of godless power and lawless wealth – a truly dark lord. For Swift, Wharton remained quite simply ”the most universal villain I ever knew” and lesser writers followed in painting a picture of almost insane wickedness:

Industrious, unfatigued in Faction’s Cause,
Sworn Enemy to God, his Church and Laws,
He dotes on Mischief for dear Mischief’s sake,
Joins contradictions in his wondrous make …
Joins depth of Cunning with Excess of Rage,
Lewdness of Youth with Impotence of Age.
Descending, though of Race illustrious born,
To such vile actions as a slave would scorn …
His dignity and honour, he secures
By Oaths, Profaneness, Ribaldry and Whores;
Kisses the man, whom just before he bit,
Takes Lies for Jests, and Perjury for Wit,
To great and small alike extends his Frauds,
Plund’ring the Crown and bilking Rooks and Bawds;
His mind still working, mad, of Peace bereft,
And Malice eating what the P-x has left,
A monster, whom no Vice can bigger swell,
Abhor’d by Heaven and long since due to Hell.

 (Anon, 1712)

So: saviour of his nation or poxed-up maniac traitor from hell? On past form, it seems unlikely that Tom Wharton agonized much over the verdict of posterity. Having arranged the succession of the Crown, he was now concerned with his own dynastic issues: as much as old Lord Wharton, Tom was desperate for his son and heir to carry the great work forward (we’ll see how that turned out in the next two posts). Perhaps the last word should go to the age’s great arbiter of moral and philosophical questions, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury: Tom Wharton, he said, was the most mysterious human being that he had ever known.

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The Whartons of Winchendon – 3. Sawpit and Son

'Sawpit' Wharton in the 1680s

‘Sawpit’ Wharton in the 1680s

The Whartons of Winchendon is a new serialisation of Jonathan Law’s latest book, which is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now.

In this third episode we meet Philip’s son Tom Wharton, who rose to political power but also became embroiled in religious and domestic scandal. Did he really relieve himself in a church pulpit?…

As he entered his autumn years, Philip, 4th Baron Wharton could look back with some pride on a life spent in the service of three great but often embattled causes – the Reformed Protestant religion, the liberty of Parliament, and the dynastic ambitions of the Wharton family. His chief concern now was the grooming of young Tom, his son and heir, to carry the great work forward.

On the face of it, this might have seemed a desperate project. By the time he came of age, Tom Wharton had turned violently against the Puritan ethos of his father’s house – a world of “Geneva bands, heads of lank hair, upturned eyes, nasal psalmody, and sermons three hours long” (in the colourful words of Thomas Macaulay). Although he was already becoming known as a rider and owner of racehorses – Careless, Snail, and Wharton’s Gelding would all become legendary in the annals of the turf – Tom’s chief notoriety was as a rake and libertine. He was also making a name as a swordsman and duellist: a man who boasted that he had never issued a challenge, never refused a challenge, and – once engaged – had never lost a fight. Yet however wild his antics, Tom managed his rebellion so skilfully that he never provoked an open breach with his father, to whom he remained outwardly submissive. The son had clearly learned something from old Sawpit’s dealings with princes and Protectors. To his headstrong and occasionally reckless qualities, Tom Wharton added a strong dash of his father’s circumspection.

In the light of later events, Tom’s way of keeping a cool head in the midst of his indiscretions has a smack of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal – the difference being that Tom Wharton would eventually turn himself into a Great Man without any nonsense about reforming his morals. As in the Hal plays, too, there’s something a bit Oedipal about Tom’s relations with his devoted but oh-so demanding father. The Restoration bloods had a favourite bit of doggerel:

May it please God to shorten the life of Lord Wharton
And set up his son in his place,
Who’ll drink and who’ll whore
And a hundred things more
With a grave and fanatical face.

It was even whispered that Tom Wharton had written these words himself (as the world would soon learn, he had a way with a doggerel rhyme).


If Lord Wharton was insistent on one thing, it was that Tom should marry and marry well. After a long search a suitable bride was found, with Tom himself playing little or no part in the process. As well as being rich and well-connected, Anne Lee was clever, bookish, and serious minded; the couple married in 1673, when he was 25 and she just 14. Although Tom seems to have had no strong feelings about the girl – whose character and interests were so far from his own – the match was welcome for quite other reasons. Not only did he come into good money, but the old place at Winchendon now became his by way of settlement. Although he had few sentimental feelings, Tom seems to have loved his childhood home and the North Bucks countryside where he had first learned to ride. The house had another important advantage; with its relative remoteness, Winchendon allowed Tom to escape his father’s care, just as it had given the old lord his freedom from Cromwell. He could now pursue his various pleasures without risk of censure. At Quainton, a few miles to the north, he would build his own private racecourse – and (it is said) a house for his latest mistress. He also had an important new interest, and one that his father could wholeheartedly endorse; in 1673 Tom was elected MP for Wendover, the first of a long series of Buckinghamshire constituencies. With one thing and another, Anne could not expect a great deal of his attention.

Anne Lee Wharton

Anne Lee Wharton

If Tom could not work up much interest in his young wife, modern scholars have found Anne Wharton rather fascinating. An orphan almost from birth, she had been brought up mainly by a Puritan grandmother but also by her uncle, the notorious poet and libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Anne herself showed early signs of literary talent and continued to write throughout her marriage, producing lyrics, satirical pieces, and a full-length verse drama, Love’s Martyr. Although her work achieved little circulation in her own day, it was praised by the cognoscenti and has recently attracted the attention of feminist critics; Germaine Greer published some thirty of Anne’s poems in 1997 and a dozen more have since come to light. The one poem printed in Anne’s lifetime was almost certainly her best – a heartfelt elegy on the death of her uncle Rochester, whom she clearly adored.

As his parliamentary career took off, and Anne signally failed to produce the expected heir, Tom seems to have neglected her more and more openly. In the circumstances, it is hardly strange that Anne should have looked elsewhere – but curious that she turned to Tom’s younger brother Goodwin, a penniless eccentric. After an attempt to set up as an inventor, Goodwin had tried to solve his chronic money problems through a series of increasingly improbable ventures, including diving for sunken treasure in the Hebrides; with the ignominious failure of all these schemes, he was now pinning his hopes on alchemy and the acquisition of magic powers.

To his stoutly pragmatic family, Goodwin was at best a puzzle and at worst an incorrigible ninny. Possibly, it was a shared sense of exclusion from the Wharton world of wealth and power that drew the two together. Whatever the case, Anne clearly liked the young man and the two held several assignations in 1680-81. For the gory details we have to rely on Goodwin’s later memoir – an utterly bizarre but in its own way very candid document. Although only too aware that they would be committing incest as well as adultery, Anne had reached a point where she was prepared to risk her immortal soul, stating roundly that “she could be content to be damned rather than not have her desires”.  As it turned out, her fears were unnecessary. On his first nervous attempt to seduce her, Goodwin experienced an “ejection” of seed that made him “incapable” of further action. A second attempt would be baulked by the arrival of Anne’s period. Thereafter the heat seems to have gone out of the relationship, although Goodwin would continue to see her in dreams and visions for the rest of his life. If his memoir can be trusted, he would go on to enjoy similarly frustrated affairs with his own stepmother (Lord Wharton had remarried), not to mention three queens of England and two queens of Fairyland. But these are matters to which we shall return.

In point of fact, Goodwin may have had a very lucky escape. Anne had been experiencing health problems for some time and most scholars think that her symptoms – which included eye troubles and violent convulsions – indicate syphilis. If this is correct, then the obvious culprit must be Tom, who had presumably infected her with the disease and neglected to mention the matter, thus denying her such treatment as was available. There is, however, another possibility:  according to Goodwin, in the years before her marriage (at 14!) Anne had been “lain with long by her uncle, my Lord Rochester”. It is generally assumed that Rochester’s death, in 1680, had been caused by chronic alcoholism and a nice cocktail of STDs. By the summer of 1685 it must have been clear that Anne, too, was dying – and dying very hard; the poet Robert Gould would write movingly of her last agonizing weeks:

When ev’ry Artery, Fibre, Nerve and Vein
Were by Convulsions torn, and fill’d with Pain …

Although Goodwin used his occult powers to send several angels to her bed, he did not visit in person; Tom, it seems, did, and achieved some kind of reconciliation with Anne before her death that autumn, still aged only 26. When Tom brought the body back to Winchendon, he insisted that his wife was buried in fine silk, rather than the wool then required by law – a tiny act of amends that cost him a fine of 50 shillings. On the opening of Anne’s will, it was found that she had left her entire fortune to Thomas Wharton.


These years – the early 1680s – were also the years of Tom Wharton’s gradual rise to prominence in national affairs. During the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-83, Tom would be among those MPs who pressed most vigorously to exclude Charles II’s Catholic brother, James, from the throne – a group soon nicknamed the Whiggamores or Whigs. It was a time of violent faction and of plot and counterplot in which the country sometimes seemed to stand on the brink of a second civil war. In general, Tom navigated these dangerous waters with a tact and sense of timing of which his father can only have been proud; in his opposition to King and court, he seemed to know just how far he could push at any particular time without endangering the cause (or his own head). There is, however, one extraordinary exception to all this – an incident so grotesque that it would give his enemies ammunition for the rest of his life.

By 1682 there was a growing feeling that the Whigs had overplayed their hand, alienating by their violence many good Protestants who also had a devout belief in social order. In particular, the Church leadership had united behind James on the premise that a Catholic king would be less threatening than a Roundhead revival. It seems to have been a deep frustration with this state of affairs that prompted Tom to the most outrageous faux pas of his career. One evening that summer, Tom and his even wilder brother Henry – an infamous brawler – got drunk with a group of like-minded friends and broke into the church at Great Barrington in Gloucestershire. The intruders rang a ragged peal on the bells, cut the bell-rope, and committed further acts of vandalism, including ripping the church Bible. Worse still, before departing into the night, Tom had allegedly “pissed against a communion table” and “done his other occasions in the pulpit”.

The Great Barrington incident is the one occasion on which the recklessness of Tom’s private life seems to erupt into the calm calculation of his political career. An interesting question is what, if anything, this “grievous prank” says about his religious beliefs. Does the incident reveal the unreconstructed Cromwellian lurking under the Restoration rake? Or is it true that, as his enemies always said, Tom Wharton was really an atheist in dissenter’s clothing? From a political point of view, the evening’s work was clearly an embarrassment – and yet it did him less harm in the long run than might have been expected; it would not bar his path to some of the highest offices in the land. In our own irreligious but increasingly censorious age, we can only boggle at how a full-on pulpit-pooping incident, involving say Michael Gove or Yvette Cooper, would play with the focus groups or those all-important swing voters in key marginals. A Twitter storm there certainly would be.

As it happened, the scandal of Great Barrington was soon overshadowed by more deadly concerns. In 1683 the discovery of the Rye House Plot – a conspiracy to murder both Charles and James as a prelude to general insurrection – provided the government with all the excuse it needed to crack down on the Whig leaders, a procession of whom went to the scaffold or fled abroad. Historians still disagree about how far the plot was a serious threat and how far it was talked up by the authorities. Although Tom Wharton was not named among the suspects, a report that some of the plotters were hiding at Winchendon led to the house being searched from top to bottom; a modest cache of arms was removed – enough guns, swords, and body armour to equip perhaps ten cavalrymen. With all his wonted chutzpah, Tom argued for their return, pleading that these things were essential for his own safety: were there not poachers and footpads in Bucks, like anywhere else, and especially so in these unsettled times? We don’t know if he got his weapons back; but the matter went no further.

Despite the best efforts of the Whigs, James duly acceded to the throne in 1685 – an event followed swiftly by the debacle of Monmouth’s rebellion, a botched attempt to replace the new king with Charles’s illegitimate but Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth. Once again, the precise role of the Whartons is uncertain. Although there is every reason to think that they were approached by Monmouth’s agents, it seems they were far too canny to commit themselves beyond the point of return. Tom had spent a good deal of time with the Duke in his horse-racing days, and with his usual acute judgement of character seems to have decided that this was not a man to whom he wished to entrust his life. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Monmouth’s defeat there are stories of two carriage-loads of arms being removed secretly from Winchendon and put aside for future use (the time would not be long). It was at this moment, too, with wild accusations flying up and down the land, that old ‘Sawpit’ Wharton decided that it might be prudent to travel to the Continent for his health. According to Buckinghamshire legend, he would bury some £20,000 worth of treasure (in today’s terms, over £2 million) in the Chiltern beech woods before taking his leave, half expecting never to return. After a year in France and Germany, he would find his way back just in time for the General Amnesty. The treasure, it is said, was never found.

There is also a family tradition that while abroad old Philip found occasion to confer with William, Prince of Orange, the Protestant leader with the closest links to the English throne. Although historians have found no evidence for this, it would not be long before others would be looking in the same direction. In the summer of 1688 seven peers of the realm would write secretly to William inviting him to invade England; according to some accounts, the letter was drafted by Tom Wharton. Whether or not this is so, Tom clearly felt that the time for caution was past. He and his soldier brother, Henry, were now leading lights in the ‘Treason Club’, a group that met at the Rose Tavern in Drury Lane to arrange the army defections that would soon make James’s position impossible. Tom’s greatest contribution to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ may, however, lie elsewhere; he is generally credited with writing the words to Lillibullero, a song satirizing James’s Irish policy that would sweep through the army and then the country. Tom would later boast of having rhymed a king out of three kingdoms and sober historians would go a long way towards agreeing (Bishop Burnet would comment that “never did so small thing have so great an effect”). When William finally landed at Torbay, Tom immediately rode west with some 60 picked men and a large haul of weapons. Within days, King James would have fled the country never to return.


William of Orange lands at Torbay

William of Orange lands at Torbay

With the triumph of the Revolution, the great and palmy days of the Wharton family were about to begin. As the first important figure openly to declare for William, Tom’s future was assured; a grateful monarch would very soon make him a Privy Councillor, the first in a long string of offices and titles. As for old Wharton, his forty-year waiting game was at an end and he could live out the rest of his days in a spirit of nunc dimittis. He had seen the triumph of the three great causes to which he had given his life; the rights of Parliament were vindicated, a Protestant king was on the throne, and with the elevation of young Tom, who could say where the glories of the Wharton family might end? He could hardly know that in little over 30 years the family’s wealth, power, and titles would all have vanished like dew from the sheep pastures of Winchendon.

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The Whartons of Winchendon – 2. The Good Lord

philip wharton

Philip, Lord Wharton – by Van Dyke

The Whartons of Winchendon, is a new serialisation of Jonathan Law’s latest book, which is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now.

In this episode we meet Philip, 4th Baron Wharton, who was instrumental not only in the rise to power of his family, but also in the enshrinement of early English civil liberties. But as we will find in future episodes, his heirs would not prove so morally upstanding…

The story of the Wharton family and Upper Winchendon begins in 1637 – the last year of real peace before the Civil Wars. That September Philip, 4th Baron Wharton, married Jane Goodwin, heiress to large tracts of Bucks including the manors of Winchendon, Wooburn, and Waddesdon. When Jane’s father died in the Parliamentary cause, Philip – who already held extensive properties in the north – became one of the greatest landowners in the country. To enormous wealth he could add the advantages of stern good looks, a finely tuned political sense, and a reputation for piety that made him the idol of the Puritan clergy (who referred to him dotingly as “the Good Lord Wharton”).

With Parliament at length victorious, Wharton, a close friend and protégé of Cromwell, was widely seen as a man to watch. As Oliver knew well enough, the Good Lord had proved invaluable to the cause as a backroom fixer and committee man (as well, it seems, as a supplier of gunpowder). Of course, like any public figure, our man had his detractors, some of whom hinted that his contribution to the actual fighting had not been glorious: at Edgehill, his troops had been swept from the field by Prince Rupert’s cavalry and Wharton is said to have watched the rest of the battle from the refuge of a sawpit. True or not, the story inspired a nickname that would stick for the rest of his life: ‘Sawpit’ Wharton. Philip Wharton’s devotion to his political and religious views can hardly be questioned; but it was accompanied by an instinct for self-preservation that at times amounted to genius.

Something of this can be seen in his sudden decision, in late 1648, to abandon his London mansion and to settle at Winchendon. The timing can hardly have been an accident. Wharton’s move came only weeks after Pride’s Purge – effectively, the military coup that laid the foundations for Cromwell’s dictatorship. The reasoning that led ‘Sawpit’ to choose Winchendon, at that time one of his more obscure and modest properties, had everything to do with its location. His motives have been explicated most shrewdly by J. Kent Clark, the leading modern historian of the Wharton clan:

Lord Wharton wished to remain on the fringes of political action. At Winchendon … about forty-five miles from Westminster, he was within a very long day’s carriage ride from Whitehall, where in case of need he could use his personal friendship with the new governors to get favours for himself and his friends. In the normal course of things, on the other hand, he was far enough removed to keep the new regime at arm’s length and to parry, gracefully, Cromwell’s attempts to recruit him for service. Winchendon, in fact, may be seen as a symbol for Lord Wharton’s survival policy – later to be revived in the days of James II:  In revolutionary times, one may be friendly with unpopular rulers and even accept favours from them. To serve them, however, and to earn those favours may prove dangerous or even fatal.

Wharton doubtless had real misgivings about the nature of the new regime; but his move also exhibits the deep, ingrained wariness that would enable him to outlive seven rulers of England. By choosing a life of rural retirement, he managed to avoid any part in the events leading to the death of King Charles, thus hedging his bets against a future restoration. In this way he was not only looking after his own skin but also safeguarding his long-term dynastic ambitions (an heir, Tom, had been born earlier that year). Cromwell’s blandishments, which would eventually include an offer of marriage between the two families, were firmly but courteously declined.

As his family grew around him – there would eventually be eight children – Lord Wharton sat tight at Winchendon and devoted his time to godly pursuits and his purse to beautifying his house and garden. Andrew Marvell was a guest, and some scholars think that his great but slippery poem The Garden was written here, among the fountains and implicated parterres; if so, it makes a nice fit with Wharton’s sphinx-like character and the various ambiguities of his situation. Although the Good Lord was a staunch Calvinist, a man known to take a stern view of play-going and Sunday travel, his friendship with Marvell shows that he was no puritan in the vulgar sense. A morbid self-denial would never be one of his vices. Our man took great enjoyment in music and poetry, and the collection of Van Dykes and Lelys he had built up over 20 years was said to rival that of King Charles himself. Indeed, Lord Wharton seems to have combined piety with wealth, and the power that comes from wealth, with an enviable ease. He was no doubt more honest than his enemies allowed. As an old man his proudest claim was that he had never taken a bribe, and in the strictest sense he may never have offered one. Yet when it came down to it, Lord Wharton – like any magnate of the day – was firmly of the school of C. Montgomery Burns: if extreme wealth doesn’t allow you to bend your fellow man to your will, then what on earth is it for?

With the death of Cromwell in 1658, Wharton decided to close things down at Winchendon and moved the household to Wooburn, his mansion at Bourne End – only twenty-odd miles to the south, but a world nearer the centres of power, where things were developing with alarming speed. In May 1660, when the second Charles landed at Greenwich, the 4th Baron was amongst the first to greet him. Although in mourning for his wife, Lord W. had carefully replaced the buttons on his black velvet costume with diamonds; very clearly, it would not do for anyone to mistake his feelings at this time. He would likewise take an ostentatious part in Charles’s coronation, spending something like a year’s income on trappings for his horses.

Considering his past, this was all most prudent. Where many of his old associates went to the gallows, or suffered fines and confiscations, Wharton remained free to enjoy his gardens and his music and his pictures. However, it would be unjust to see the Good Lord as some kind of Vicar of Bray. In his religious convictions, at least, he remained entirely consistent. During the long years of Anglican and Royalist reaction, he would prove a tireless patron of the nonconforming clergy, some 2,000 of whom were driven from their livings. In return, these men would provide him with a nationwide network of support, and sometimes of intelligence. For thirty years he would walk a dangerous tightrope, making Wooburn a hub of resistance to royal policy while evading any serious consequences for himself or his family. At times, his footing appeared to wobble. In 1663 Wharton was named in connection with the Farnley Wood plot, a conspiracy to murder Charles and re-establish the Commonwealth; he seems to have been perfectly innocent, but had friends who were not. In 1676 an imprudent word led to his summary imprisonment in the Tower, although he was soon freed on grounds of age and infirmity (he would live for another 20 years).

Given all this, it is no surprise that Lord Wharton supported the moves afoot at this time to enshrine Habeas Corpus in English statute law; a key step in the evolution of English liberties, yes – but also a matter in which he had some personal interest. Indeed, some accounts go further and hint that Wharton’s role in securing the passage of the 1679 Act was a mysteriously decisive one. According to these writers, the Act only managed to pass the Lords by a species of chicanery. Knowing that the vote was going to be very close, the teller for the ‘ayes’ took advantage of a moment’s inattention by his opposite number to  count a particularly fat peer as five, thus carrying the Bill. You might think that this has every sign of being a tall tale, but the numbers are still there on the record – votes for 57; votes against 55; total number of peers in attendance 107. And, yes, some versions of the story have it that the teller for the ‘ayes’ on this occasion was none other than the Good Lord himself.

While old Lord Wharton was busy playing a wary and enigmatic role in the politics of the Restoration, the manor at Winchendon had remained empty and boarded up for some 15 years. However, the day came when his son and heir, young Tom, returned to the house on the hill, threw open the windows, and took up residence with his bride; it was 1673 and a new chapter in the history of this most remarkable family was about to begin.

wharton family tree simple version

The third instalment of The Whartons of Winchendon will appear on Tuesday, and continue weekly thereafter.

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Buy The Whartons of Winchendon: A Tale of Dynasty, Power and Madness at the Heart of Stuart England
for only £2.90 now from the Amazon Kindle store.

The Whartons of Winchendon – 1. The Lost Domain


View north from Upper Winchendon

The Dabbler is proud to present The Whartons of Winchendon, a major new serialisation of Jonathan Law’s latest book, which is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now.

By turns hilarious and tragic, it tells the tale of the rise and fall of one of the strangest families in English history. In this opening instalment, Jonathan sets the scene…

The village of Upper or Over Winchendon stands perhaps five miles to the north-west of Aylesbury, on a little limestone ridge that climbs some four hundred feet above the surrounding vale. Despite the modest altitude, views here are big. Look to the south and your eyes sweep straight across the Thame valley – a placid country of ploughed fields and muddy cow pastures – until they meet the sudden scarp of the Chiltern Hills, ten or twenty miles off. Turn north or west, however, and it’s a different picture – a jumble of small hills and half-hidden valleys, quietly rising and falling all the way to Oxford or to Buckingham. It’s an inviting prospect, to be sure, this ridged and rumpled country now softened by spring shadows: but a land that holds its secrets to itself.

I don’t often come this way but when I do I’m always struck by the same thought – a feeling of having crossed a watershed or hidden threshold. Half a mile south and you can be quite sure that you are in the busy, prosperous Home Counties, where every road or railway seems to pull inexorably towards London. But come up here, to Winchendon, and you are suddenly free of all that; the Tube map feels like a vague rumour as you mount the brow of the hill and look out across North Bucks to the misty fringes of Oxfordshire. You are standing on the brink of that terra incognita – mysterious even to most Brits – known as the Rural English Midlands.

The thought may be fanciful, but the landscape gives it a kind of credence. The villages here are smaller and more widely spaced than is the norm for south-east England – each one (Quainton, Ashendon, Chilton, Brill) perched on its own separate hill like some Tuscan fortress town. The M40 roars by on the west, but otherwise main roads are few and the lanes are narrow; nowhere here is on the way to anywhere else, and apart from the splendours of Waddesdon there’s little enough to bring the tourists. For all the proximity of Aylesbury, the country has a remote feel; hillsides are windy and open and here and there the sheep pastures are broken up by tiny patches of ancient woodland, grassy heath, and calcareous fen. This whole area once lay within the medieval forest of Bernwood – a favourite resort of Edward the Confessor – and there is still an ancient texture to the land; ridge and furrow corrugating the hill, old moats hushed under nettles, signs of a long-deserted village by the spring-line.

Of course, it’s workaday country really; but in this sort of deep England you’re never too far from something else, a hint or haunt of old battles, old magic, ancient sin. It seems oddly right that The Midsomer Murders is filmed round here – all those dark secrets lurking in an England so idyllic it’s almost camp. Interesting, too, that Professor Tolkien of Oxford walked this “small country of fields and tamed woodland” and drew on it for his Breeland  ­­– that border region where the cosiness of the Shire comes up against deeper intrigues, darker potencies. For the hilltop village of Bree (‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’) see the hilltop village of Brill – a few miles cross-country from Winchendon. There’s also a lonely, stand-offish farm whose name might ring a bell – Leatherslade, refuge and lurking place of the Great Train Robbers in 1963.

As for Winchendon itself, it’s a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place – no more than a dozen houses strung along the crest of the ridge, with a few farms tucked into the hillside. The one really unusual thing is a little astronomical observatory, plonked down in the fields like a futuristic egg. Otherwise, there’s a tiny Norman church on the crown of the hill, one of the few in the country without electricity (winter services take place by gas-lamp or candle). And almost hidden by trees, a rambling 17th-century house that goes by the name of The Wilderness; all chimneys and gables and blessed with the sort of looks that would make any writer itch to fill it with ghosts. Very remarkably, this was once just the business end – offices and kitchens – of a much grander place: a vast almost-palace of which nothing else remains. The gardens here were said to be amongst the finest in the kingdom, famous for their parterres and ranks of flowering fruit trees. You can still see the humps and bumps on the open hillside, marking the lines of walks, terraces, fishponds. Most strikingly, the course of the great carriage drive that swept across from the main Aylesbury road is still greenly visible (see picture at the head of this post – top centre to middle right).

wharton mansion

The Wharton mansion at Upper Winchendon c. 1720

For almost a hundred years this was the home of the Wharton family – hardly a name to conjure with now but at the turn of the 18th century one of the great powers in the land. Piqued by the odd bits of the story I’d come across, I thought I’d find some books, poke about in the county record office, see if I could put it all together. I’m very glad I did.

The rise and fall of the Whartons turns out to be an almost Shakespearian drama of faction and intrigue, high politics and low shenanigans – a story of complex, flawed, enigmatic characters whose actions more than once left a lasting trace on English history. On a private level, it is mostly a story of fathers and sons and the strange and sorrowful harms they do to one another (it deepens like a coastal shelf). And in case that sounds too ordinary, it is also a tale of incest, treason, alchemy, deep-sea diving, syphilis, ghosts, buried treasure, and a man who believed he had found the doors to Fairyland.

The second instalment of The Whartons of Winchendon will appear this Thursday, and continue weekly thereafter.

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Buy The Whartons of Winchendon: A Tale of Dynasty, Power and Madness at the Heart of Stuart England
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Michaelmas Goose


This coming Monday is Michaelmas, so you’ve still got time to get yourself a goose. Just make sure you don’t pick any blackberries afterwards. Professor Nick Groom explains….

September 29 is Michaelmas: the Feast of Michael and All Angels. It was also one of the four quarter days of the English business year, which meant that rents were due, and so consequently Michaelmas was a ‘flitting day’: tenants often moved to new lodgings and found new employment. By the First Statute of Labourers (1351), a worker could go to be hired at the nearest market town on the day after Michaelmas Day – that is, on 30 September – which was when pay rates were set at the Statute Sessions (sessions were also held at Martinmas, 11 November, and occasionally at Whitsun). Thus fairs held during this period were hiring fairs or ‘mops’, and workers for hire garlanded themselves with the signs or tools of their trade. As Thomas Hardy described it in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) ‘carters and waggoners were distinguished by having a piece of whip-cord twisted round their hats; thatchers wore a fragment of woven straw; shepherds held their sheep-crooks in their hands’.

Tenants who remained would offer their landlord a customary gift of a goose, a tradition recorded by George Gascoigne three hundred years earlier in 1575:

And when the tenauntes come to paie their quarters rent,
They bringe some fowle at Midsommer, a dish of Fish in Lent,
At Christmasse a capon, at Mighelmasse a goose:
And somewhat else at Newyeres tide, for feare their lease fly loose. (‘Flowers’)

Geese were a reminder of paying quarterly rents and were therefore associated with financial security and good luck in money matters: as the old adage has it, ‘If you do not baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all the year’. Jane Austen wrote to her sister in 1813 that she had dined on goose at her brother’s house on Old Michaelmas Day and hoped that this would ‘secure a good Sale’ of the second edition of Sense and Sensibility which was soon to be published.

Geese were traded at St Matthew’s Day and Michaelmas fairs as a winter staple – goose fat being good both for cooking warming winter stews and for keeping out the cold when rubbed on the chest. Nottingham Goose Fair originally ran for three weeks, selling geese for Michaelmas; it now runs for four days at the beginning of October. Tavistock Goosie Fair in Devon was also originally at Michaelmas but is now held on the second Wednesday in October. It is the subject of the renowned dialect song ‘Tavvystock Goozey Vair’ from 1912:

An’ uts ‘Aw thun, whur be ’e gwaine, an’ wot be ’e doin’ of there?
’Aive down yer prong an’ stap down long, tes Tavvystock Goozey Vair.’

And its, ‘Oh, then, where be he going, and what be he doing of there,
Heave down your prong and stamp along, to Tavistock Goosey Fair’;
a ‘prong’ is a pitchfork.]

Such songs about fairs and the produce they sold keep the events in popular consciousness even if they decline in reality. Sadly, live geese are no longer sold at Tavistock because of outbreaks of fowl pest in the 1950s and 1960s.

So at one time, goose was identified with Michaelmas as much as eggs are with Easter today, if not more so. Goose was a patriotic dish too: Queen Elizabeth I was supposedly dining on goose on St Michael’s Day in 1588 when she was informed that the Spanish Armada had been defeated. She consequently decreed that the victory should be celebrated annually thereafter with a goose dinner, which took over from the tendency, recorded in 1512, to dine upon horsemeat.

Michaelmas was also a time to prepare for the winter season in ways other than simply reserving goose dripping. It was the day when horses and cattle were brought down from upland grazing pastures, reflecting St Michael’s strong equine associations. This hearkened back to an ancient farming system based on the managed migration of flocks and herds, pre-dating the large-scale arable cultivation seen in the communal working of common open fields that later dominated the medieval period. It was a day on which to attend to associated chores as well, as the sixteenth-century agriculturalist Thomas Tusser advised:

Saint Michel doth bid thee, amend ye marsh wall
the breck & the crab hole, the foreland & all.

Tusser also recommends that nuts should not be gathered until after Michaelmas. Likewise, blackberries should not be eaten after Michaelmas because the Devil will have touched them (or even spat on them), and the eighteenth-century Gothic architect Batty Langley advised that winter pears should only be collected after this date. Oak trees cut at Michaelmas could forecast the character of the next year, and according to Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler (1653), ‘about Michaelmas’ swallows ‘leave us for a hotter Climate’, a sure sign that summer is over. Nevertheless, the Michaelmas-daisy (angelica) flowers on this day – although despite its delightfully old-fashioned name it is in fact a native of North America, welcomed to England as evidence of the colonial dimensions of gardening.

Building slowed down after Michaelmas, as did road mending, but some trades picked up after Michaelmas when the harvests were in. Brewers took advantage of the new hops, cider-makers of apples, and candle-making began in anticipation of long winter evenings. Michaelmas was also the ‘lawyers’ harvest’: one of four (now defunct) legal terms and also of the renewal of school, university, and Parliamentary terms. Hence in the seventeenth century ‘Paper, pen, and inke are much in request’ at this time of the year as legal, academic, and bureaucratic cultures are revived. And as students return to university, MPs return to Westminster, and we all begin to prepare for the winter, it would be good to revive goose dinners at Michaelmas. Goose is good stuffed with chestnuts and roasted. Prick the skin thoroughly, and roast uncovered at about 180ºC for 30 minutes per lb, regularly draining off and preserving the fat. A large goose can provide enough dripping for weeks of roast potatoes and fry-ups, and stock made from the carcass is a rich base for winter soups. Local suppliers can be found at British Goose Producers ( so we may all eat, drink, and be merry at Michaelmas!


nick groom the seasons

The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is now available from Atlantic Books.
Follow Nick Groom on Twitter: @Prof_Nick_Groom

Come to the Fair

Rudolf Ackermann, Bartholomew Fair, from Microcosm of London (1808)

Rudolf Ackermann, Bartholomew Fair, from Microcosm of London (1808)

Forget Glastonbury and the Notting Hill carnival – the Bartholomew Fairs of old would have dwarfed them, and far outdone them for debauched behaviour too. For his August post, Prof Nick Groom looks at England’s history of late summer fairs…

The end of harvest in England was usually celebrated in the last week of August with church wakes, public entertainment, and enthusiastic drinking – as imagined in the late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman through the allegorical figures of Gluttony and Hunger:

By that it neghed neer harvest and newe corn cam to chepyng;
Thanne was folk fayn, and fedde Hunger with the beste –
With good ale, as Gloton taghte – and garte Hunger to slepe.

This helps to account for the rise of St Bartholomew’s Day Fair, which usually commenced on or around 24 August. It was the crowning event of the summer season. Fairs were held throughout the late summer and early autumn, often on feast days – among them St Barnabas’ Day, Lammas-tide, Mary’s Nativity, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and St Matthew’s Day. Fairlop Fair was a huge fair held in July that was centred an ancient oak tree in Epping Forest; the tree was eventually blown down in 1820 and some of the wood was used to make the pulpit and reading desk of St Pancras Church on London’s Euston Road. Scarborough Fair, established in 1253, began on 15 August and at its height lasted for a staggering forty-five days. It too came to an end in the nineteenth century. Many other local and regional fairs have disappeared, and with them have gone local history, identity, and customs. This is in part due to the long decline of English agriculture, which has inevitably reduced the frequency and size of fairs. Common land has been enclosed and traditional grounds have been built over, thus removing possible sites. The Reformation also played its part by trying to insist that all parishes held their annual fairs or festivals on the first Sunday in October. Most significantly, though, there were radical changes in the seasonal rhythm of work. The move from an agrarian economy, where periods of intense activity such as the harvest were followed by others of relative idleness, to the regular factory working hours of the Industrial Revolution – and very long hours at that – meant that there was simply no longer any time to attend the great fairs.

The archetypal English August Bank Holiday event today is probably London’s Notting Hill Carnival, which has been running since 1965: it is a huge and dazzlingly diverse annual event – only Rio’s Mardi Gras is bigger. Open-air music festivals have also relentlessly gained in popularity, the most established being the Reading Festival (formerly Reading Rock) which also happens to take place over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Reading Festival was established in 1971 as ‘The National Jazz, Blues, and Rock Festival’; it was banned for two years in 1984-5 and is now twinned with the Leeds Festival. (I still have a t-shirt from the 1983 festival emblazoned with the lament ‘The Last Reading Rock’; I was there again when it was resurrected in 1986.)

Notting Hill Carnival and greenfield music festivals such as Glastonbury may be the most popular seasonal gatherings of twenty-first-century England, but they are dwarfed by past events such as St Bartholomew’s, or Old Bartlemy’s, Fair. This was the most famous – or notorious – of the annual fairs. It began in 1133 as a three-day cloth fair held the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield. But as London grew so did Bartholomew Fair, and it became a huge event in the city streets, not least because it was hard by Cock Lane with its many blandishments in the shape of brothels and bawdy houses. Old Bartlemy’s gradually drew fringe events, from dogs that danced the Morris to re-enactments of St George slaying the dragon to public executions: Bartholomew Fair was where the Scottish rebel Sir William Wallace was executed in 1305 by being hanged, drawn, and quartered, and subsequently Reformation and then Counter-Reformation martyrs were burnt there too. Notwithstanding such endorsements from the state, the Puritan Richard Brathwait nevertheless attacked the event in 1631 for moral turpitude:

No season through all the yeere accounts hee more subject to abhomination than Bartholomew faire: Their Drums, Hobbihorses, Rattles, Babies, Jewtrumps, nay Pigs and all, are wholly Judaicall. The very Booths are Brothells of iniquity, and distinguished by the stampe of the Beast.

Bartholomew Fair survived, however, and by the time the diarist Samuel Pepys visited in 1664 it had grown into a fourteen-day event. All manner of goods could be purchased there – from cheeses to horses to pedlary – and its circus performances included, for Pepys, ‘the best dancing on the ropes that I think I ever saw in my life’. Bartholomew Fair was a sub-culture with its own language, as Jonathon Green has recorded: a ‘bartholomew boar’ or ‘pig’ was an overweight gentleman, so named after the plentiful hog roasts; later, a ‘bartholomew doll’ or ‘baby’ was, frankly, an overdressed trollop, after the gaudy dolls sold there. In the eighteenth century Old Bartlemy’s took a historical turn and revived old ‘Mystery Plays’ that may have been performed in the fair’s earliest days, and in 1752, following the reform of the calendar, the opening of the fair switched to 3 September – Old St Bartholomew’s Day.

Exactly fifty years later, the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were taken to Bartholomew Fair by their friend the aspiring writer Charles Lamb. Wordsworth never forgot it:

What a hell
For eyes and ears, what anarchy and din
Barbarian and infernal – ’tis a dream
Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound.
Below, the open space, through every nook
Of the wide area, twinkles, is alive
With heads; the midway region and above
Is thronged with staring pictures and huge scrolls,
Dumb proclamations of the prodigies;
And chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,
And children whirling in their roundabouts;
With those that stretch the neck, and strain the eyes,
And crack the voice in rivalship, the crowd
Inviting; with buffoons against buffoons
Grimacing, writhing, screaming; him who grinds
The hurdy-gurdy, at the fiddle weaves,
Rattles the salt-box, thumps the kettle-drum,
And him who at the trumpet puffs his cheeks,
The silver-collared negro with his timbrel,
Equestrians, tumblers, women, girls, and boys,
Blue-breeched, pink-vested, with towering plumes.
All moveables of wonder, from all parts
Are here, albinos, painted Indians, dwarfs,
The horse of knowledge, and the learned pig,
The stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, ventriloquists, the invisible girl,
The bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The waxwork, clockwork, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, wild beasts, puppet-shows,
All out-o’-th’-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of Nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man – his dulness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to make up
This parliament of monsters. Tents and booths
Meanwhile – as if the whole were one vast mill –
Are vomiting, receiving, on all sides,
Men, women, three-years’ children, babes in arms.

Bartholomew Fair lasted another half-century, changing its site to Islington before eventually grinding to a halt in 1855.

Old Bartholomew’s Day was also the date of Barnet Horse Fair, known as the ‘Costermongers Carnival’. This fair once commanded a twenty-acre site in Hertfordshire and as late as 1952 over six hundred horses were traded there; it survives as a three-day festival at Greengates Stables. At its height, though, the Costermongers Carnival rivalled Old Bartlemy’s, and was roundly condemned in 1867 by the priggish investigative journalist James Greenwood. His account is worth quoting at length:

My first impression was my last, and still remains – viz., that Barnet Fair is a disgrace to civilisation. I have witnessed a Warwickshire ‘mop’ fair; I have some recollection of ‘Bartlemy;’ I was at Greenwich when, on account of its increasing abominations, the fair that so long afflicted that Kentish borough was held for the last time; but take all these, and skim them for their scum and precipitate them for their dregs, and even then, unless you throw in a very strong flavouring of the essence of Old Smithfield on a Friday, and a good armful of Colney Hatch and Earlswood sprigs, you will fail to make a brew equal to that of Barnet. It is appalling. Which-ever way you turn – to the High Street, where the public-houses are – to the open, where the horse-‘dealing’ is in progress – to the booths, and tents, and stalls – brutality, drunkenness, or brazen rascality, stare you in the face unwinkingly. Plague-spots thought to be long ago ‘put down’ by the law and obliterated from among the people, here appear bright and vigorous as of old – card-sharpers, dice-sharpers, manipulators of the ‘little pea,’ and gentlemen adept at the simple little game known as ‘prick the garter.’ Wheels-of-fortune and other gaming- tables obstructed the paths. ‘Rooge-it-nor, genelmen; a French game, genelmen; just brought over; one can play as well as forty, and forty as well as one. Pop it down, genelmen, on the black or on the red, and, whatever the amount, it will be instantly kivered! Faint heart never won fair lady, so pop it down while the injicator is rewolving! Red wins, and four half-crowns to you, sir; keep horf our gold is all we ask; our silver we don’t wally!’ Not in a hole-and-corner way this, but bold and loud-mouthed as goods hawked by a licensed hawker.

Disgusting brutality, too, had its representatives in dozens. There were the tents of the pugilists, where, for the small charge of twopence, might be seen the edifying spectacle of one man bruising and battering another; there was the booth of the showman who amused the public by lying on his back and allowing three half-hundredweights to be stacked on the bridge of his nose; there was the gentleman who put leaden pellets in his eyes, and drove rows of pins at a blow into a fleshy part of his leg; and there was a lean and horrible savage (a ‘Chicksaw,’ the showman said he was, ‘from the island of High Barbaree’) who ate live rats. Decidedly, this was the show of the fair. An iron-wire cage, containing thirty or forty rats, hung at the door, and beside it stood the High Barbarian, grinning, and pointing at the rats, and smacking his blubberous lips significantly. The sight was more than the people could stand; they rushed and scrambled up the steps, paying their pennies with the utmost cheerfulness; and, when the place was full, the performance was gone through to their entire satisfaction. The High Barbarian really did eat the rats. He set the cage before him, and, thrusting in his hand, stirred the animals about till he found one to his liking, then he ate it as one would eat an apple.

Other fairs have also survived. The first of September is St Giles’s Day, and a St Giles’s Fair is today held in Oxford on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday after 1 September. When I attended as a student in the 1980s I was astonished to find that there were sideshows of tattooed and bearded ladies, as well as the chance to meet ‘The Smallest Man In The World’, who seemed very happy with his lot. Within a year or two, these attractions had gone, replaced by more politically correct entertainments, although fortune telling by a half-dozen or so ‘original’ Gypsy Lees abounded, and there was a gnarled old fellow who proposed to guess your age. The first year I went I felt ridiculously pleased with myself when he thought that I was younger than I actually was; thereafter he was spot on every time – it was an uncanny feat.

But by September, we are in early autumn, and so unsurprisingly St Bartholomew’s Day is also a significant date for of weather prognostication. The forty days of rain from St Swithin, if they have come to pass, are over – ‘All the tears that St. Swithin can cry, / St. Bartlemy’s mantle wipes them dry’ – but then again, ‘If it rains this day [St Bartholomew’s Day] it will rain the forty days after’. And we now look towards autumn: ‘If St Bartholomew’s Day be fair and clear, / Then a prosperous autumn comes that year’. Summer is over: ‘At St. Bartholomew / There comes cold dew’.

nick groom the seasons

The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is now available from Atlantic Books.
Follow Nick Groom on Twitter: @Prof_Nick_Groom

The Feast of St Swithin or The Rain It Raineth Every Day

st swithin

Today is St Swithin’s Day, and if it’s raining you can expect another forty days’ worth of it. But why? As ever, Prof Nick Groom is our guide to English legends, lore and seasons…

In the Roman calendar, this month was named Julius to honour Julius Caesar. In English this was rendered ‘July’, which until the middle of eighteenth century was pronounced to rhyme with ‘truly’, hence the rhyme:

And Puppy-like there told him truly,
First leap he had was but last July. (Poems on Affairs of State, 1704)

July is the height of summer, yet there is violence in the air. Nature is red in tooth and claw: stags fight, sparrow-hawks hunt down partridge and ferrets catch rabbits, fowlers annihilate sparrows, and the corn is cut down by reapers. And July is the thunder month. In 1808 the month of July was so hot that the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that at least seven people died from the excessive temperature. That heatwave finally ended on 15 July with thunderstorms of such ferocity that one of the pinnacles of Gloucester Cathedral was destroyed and violent hailstorms devastated the south-west, with jagged fragments of ice up to a foot long falling from the sky.

July is also home to the best-known example of saints’ day weather lore we have. The 15 of July is St Swithin’s (or Swithun’s) Day. If it rains on St Swithin’s Day it will rain for forty days. As a seventeenth-century almanac has it,

In this Month is St Swithin’s day,
On which if that it Rain, they say
Full forty Days after it will,
More or less, some Rain distill. (Poor Robin)

Rain before the harvest could spell disaster, and consequently weather prognostication and prayers to tutelary saints were taken very seriously by agrarian communities and still survive in popular folklore today. Unfortunately, however, the example of St Swithin’s Day, renowned as it is, dramatically demonstrates the insoluble complications that are inherent in our calendar, and emphasizes that the calendar itself is the result of centuries of cultural history, rather than a stable, divinely sanctioned instrument of reliable forecasting.

Swithin was bishop of Winchester from about 854 until his death in 863. His feast day commemorates the anniversary of his translation (moving his bones) from the outside to the inside of Winchester Old Minster on that day in 971. Accounts of what happened next then diverg. There is a tradition that on the day of translation there was a heavy downpour, revealing the saint’s powers over the weather. This suggests that the story is a warning against the dangers of translating holy remains and relics, which were often sold or stolen. However a more detailed version is given by William of Malmesbury, writing about 1125. Swithin had apparently chosen his own burial plot to be a sort of posthumous mortification of the flesh:

On the point of bidding farewell to earthly life, on his authority as bishop he ordered those present to inter his corpse outside the cathedral, where it should be exposed both to the feet of passers-by and to the dripping of water from the eaves.

As this plan had been thwarted by St Swithin’s translation to the dry interior of the building, he caused it to rain for forty days until he was reinstalled outside. Weather forecasting on St Swithin’s Day is therefore an example of biblical meteorology: reading the signs and portents on a particular day to see into the divinely ordained future. If only, however, it were that simple.

Contrary to tradition, St Swithin’s remains were never returned to his ostentatious humility outside the Minster. Instead, he was moved twice within the cathedral and some relics were sent abroad before his shrine was destroyed during the Reformation. But there are other, much more significant problems with the St Swithin tradition. St Swithin’s Day was originally 2 July, the day on which he was buried in 863. This was his feast day in England, at least until 1149, and remains so on the continent. Stavanger Cathedral in Norway is dedicated to St Swithun (the local spelling), and interestingly there is a Norwegian proverb about the saint that likewise indicates his weather-wisdom:

On St Swithun’s day
if the clouds are stacked
it lasts to St Olaf’s day [29 July].

But irrespective of this, it transpires that the early Christians already had weather lore attached to the date of 2 July several centuries before St Swithin. This meteorological tradition invoked the early Roman martyrs Processus and Martinian, and predicted that if it rained on their shared feast day it would rain throughout the summer and drown the corn; and this association also survives in another piece of weather lore, which predicts

If the first of July it be rainy weather,
’Twill rain more or less for four weeks together. (Atheneum)

Such a claim is strikingly close to the St Swithin’s Day forecast, except that Processus and Martinian’s lore was based on Roman farming practices and Mediterranean weather patterns in about the second century AD. So in England, when St Swithin’s Day was moved to 15 July to celebrate the saint’s translation, this migration carried with it the established associations of rain.

The history of St Swithin’s Day therefore places the saint’s day itself rather late in the narrative, and the story of his proverbial weather wisdom therefore runs as follows. From late June and early July, farming communities are anxious about the imminent harvest and vigilant for rain. A number of sayings therefore emerged or were adapted from Roman lore in the earliest days of the Christian Church, to seek some foreknowledge of the incoming harvest. These sayings were focused on the beginning of July and consequently gravitated towards Processus and Martinian, who were later eclipsed by St Swithin when as an English bishop he became a more identifiable candidate for intercession rather than a pair of obscure Roman saints. When the feast of St Swithin was then subsequently moved to 15 July, St Swithin retained his status as a rain saint, and so the weather lore associated with him shifted by nearly a fortnight. So although the prediction that rain on St Swithin’s Day would last for forty days is quoted in an early fourteenth-century manuscript, even by then it had become hopelessly remote from the original date, and indeed the original country, that had generated the advice. Finally, both the old St Swithin’s Day (2 July) and the new St Swithin’s Day (15 July) are Old Style dates, based on the Julian calendar that was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1752. To adapt them to our current reckoning requires adding at least twelve days, which would take new St Swithin’s Day to 27 July, although perhaps ironically it would position old St Swithin’s Day to 14 July: all that explanation, then, for perhaps just one day’s difference…

Accounts of the St Swithin’s Day proverb often appear in British newspapers around 15 July. These accounts argue that the jet stream settles in mid-July, which sets British weather patterns until about the end of August: a southerly jet stream pulls depressions to Britain from over the Atlantic, resulting in wet weather, but a more northerly jet stream can attract sub-tropical fronts from the Azores. This is ingenious, but completely ignores the erroneous dating of St Swithin’s Day. It is, in effect, an example of recruiting science to prove a misinterpretation of cultural history – something that was already going on in the seventeenth century in Gadbury’s almanac Ephemeris, which provided a state-of-the-art astrological explanation for the proverb:

To make Saint Swythin weep, the Potent Sun
Doth Chronus smite by Opposition,
And, Venus too frowns with the same Aspect
Upon him also, heightening the Effect.

Perhaps we should return to old St Swithin’s Day, as calculated in New Style, for our weather forecasting (14 July) – although how that more authentic date will fare in these days of climate change is anyone’s guess. There are also alternative, less contentious, but perhaps in the end less useful prognostications: if the deer rise up dry and lie down dry on St. Bullion’s Day there will be a good goose harvest. (I must admit that I forgot to check how dry the deer were this year on 4 July.)

Apples, meanwhile, rely on being christened – or rained upon – by St Swithin’s Day before they are ready for picking, and by virtue of St Swithin’s identification with the rain and with cider he is also known as ‘the drunken saint’. Finally, old St Swithin’s Day has a sort of coda in the ‘dog days’, the season that precedes the rising of the Dog Star, Sirius. During this time the sun was believed to increase its heat and make these days the hottest of the year. The result of this was to induce sickness in humans and madness in dogs. St Swithin’s rains permitting, the forty dog days ran from 3 July to 11 August in ancient Rome; more recent estimates begin the dog days on 19 July and end them on 28 August.

This cat’s cradle of dates and folklore demonstrates how in England, the whole cycle of the seasons and consequently the comprehension of the weather developed as much as a series of cultural events as it did as a pattern for the agricultural year. All in all, it’s an abiding example of how culture and heritage can give a distinct shape to the calendar and to our national conversation on the weather, and to the very English preoccupation with rain. As Feste sings at the end of Twelfth Night:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

nick groom the seasons

The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is now available from Atlantic Books.
Follow Nick Groom on Twitter: @Prof_Nick_Groom

Dabbler Diary – English dogs and mad men

On a stage at the Festival of Nature – one of Bristol’s many, many spurious summer festivals – a man and a woman wearing flat caps with fox ears were performing a song about a rabbit going hop, hop, hop.

My girls were hopping away on the Floating Harbour’s cobbled ground. C, who is nearly five, hopped as if carrying out a grim duty; two year-old E was more of a happy clappy hopper. I was sitting behind them squinting into the sun and sweating gently into my shirt, wondering how old the singers might be. The man could have been anything from twenty-five to fifty, but that’s often the way with vegetarians. Solace was provided by a pint of pale ale in one hand, and in the other a pitta containing a lightly-grilled, responsibly-killed trout, freshly cooked for me minutes earlier and indescribably delicious.

The Festival was a sprawl of marquees concerned with wildlife – or, more commonly, with environmental campaigning. There’s always something new to environmentally campaign about, isn’t there. The BBC had a marquee, as did Bristol Zoo, the RSPB and many others of that ilk. Each had a fun activity for the kids to do, like making a falcon mask, tracing a leaf pattern or screaming in terror at a big cockroach. While having fun we were encouraged to recycle more, become more self-sufficient, use less water, become more aware of climate change, get closer to nature, leave nature alone by not building over it, be more local, be more global, and worry more about the prospects of various creatures including elephants, penguins and bees. I did my best, but as Sky Sports football pundit Paul Merson might say, it was a Big Ask.

The best thing in the Festival was a giant vinyl maze-tent on College Green called a Colourscape. The four of us trotted round the interconnected chambers in our capes, changing from red to pink to yellow to blue as we passed from one colour cube to the next.  Some sort of zingly-zangly ethnic music floated around, and we followed it until we came to a larger, light grey chamber containing a bald man sitting cross-legged on the floor playing a… oh I don’t know, let’s call it a Mongolian Glockenzither. We sat to listen along with other Colourscape visitors and then a beautiful, sturdy, café au lait-coloured lady with curly hair began a languid barefoot dance. How nice it must be, I thought as I watched her contort and writhe in the space before us, to be so utterly devoid of a sense of embarrassment.

Back on the Floating Harbour I wandered over to the poetry stage, where a student was performing rapid cod hip-hop verse to a small nonplussed audience made up almost entirely of other performance poets waiting for their turn. He was a brilliant rhyme-jockey and very funny, but kept forgetting his lines in his nervous state. I congratulated him as he had sat down again, flushed and quivering. Googling his handle, I was pleased to find some of his work on Youtube, and then saddened to read a strikingly ill-informed diatribe about Michael Gove, Islamic extremism and Academy schools that he’d written on Facebook. But at least he’s got time on his side. As for the rest of these Green types, if their anti-trade, anti-growth, anti-globalisation ideals were put into practice we’d all be living in filthy poverty and disease with the life expectancy of cavemen. Quite bonkers, the lot of them, as unworldly as hoppy infants pretending to be rabbits. But they do put on a good Festival.


In her Boys of Summer post Rita observed that it’s surely “a quintessential mark of Britishness” to resist efforts to “instil a strong sense of ‘Britishness’ in the populace”. A valid remark, though in the context (radical Islamic nutjobs taking over primary schools), David Cameron’s comments about the desirability of teaching ‘British values’ are understandable. By British values he doesn’t really mean Magna Carta or the Rule of Law so much as the ‘post-Blair’ virtues I described in a recent Diary: anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, anti-racism. The conflict between these values and Islamicist views of women, gays and infidels has been a sticky wicket for the metropolitan Left for years now. Well, we call them the ‘Left’ and they self-identify as such, but the ‘they’ we mean here have minimal interest in such traditional left-wing preoccupations as, say, worker control of the means of production. They are, however, prigs.

Anti-racism, anti-homophobia and anti-sexism are very fine values and they are now accepted as essential elements of the prevailing morality. Prigs misapply the values of the prevailing morality, or enforce them too zealously, or fail to discern the difference between important transgressions and trivial ones. They take a zero-tolerance approach to irreverence, eccentricity, cantankerousness and any form of apostasy. They make accusations to shut down debate. At best priggishness is incredibly annoying…

…At worst it undermines the very values it professes to defend. Accusing recent UKIP voters of being ‘racist’ because they oppose uncontrolled EU immigration is an example. The UKIP protest vote was primarily white working-class people objecting to white working-class immigration. ‘Racism’ means discrimination against a person or group because of their race. So either that UKIP protest is not racist, or the term ‘racist’ has been watered down until it is simply a synonym for ‘small-minded’ or ‘insular’ or ‘being a Little Englander’. So what can we call the BNP to indicate they are categorically worse?

Funnily enough, the England football team has in this World Cup been a victim of post-Blair priggishness when the FA sacked their captain and best defender John Terry after he was subjected to trial by Twitter. The criminal courts acquitted him of racial abuse, but out of fear of the Priggerati and on the grounds of ‘no racist smoke without a fire’, the FA punished him anyway. Habeus corpus was chucked out the window – and what could be less in tune with ‘British values’ than that? On the other hand, what could be more English than a soccer self-destruction, I thought as I watched Terry’s stand-in Phil Jagielka flailing around helplessly against the actual racial abuser Luis Suarez. Add Twitterprigs, then, to the long and multifarious list of sufficient but not necessary causes of English football failure.


In the midday sun of the last glorious day of last week I took a lunchtime stroll from my office up Lansdown Lane. As I passed the farm shop a farm dog – a mature border collie bitch, with the colouring of a Jason – came loping out to greet me. I acknowledged her presence and carried on walking, and the dog carried on with me. After an initial moment of wariness (as one always feels when approached by an uncertain hound) I was sure that, unlike Luis Suarez, she was able to control her instinct to bite human flesh and I began to enjoy her company. It was pleasant walking with a dog without being responsible for it. We were equals.

The tree-shaded lane was spotted with drops of sunlight and horse dung. Unseen birds twittered away, and for once I gave not a fig about my inability to identify them. The warmth was snoozy, the hills around as green and hilly as in children’s drawings and across the valleys distant sheep were groaning.  At the peak of the hill I took the last chomp out of my apple and hurled it over a gate into the meadow. The dog and I watched its arc until it landed and, for all I know, brained a shrew or something. We felt at peace with nature.

‘Come on then, girl,’ I suggested after a while, and we headed back down the hill, me occasionally stooping to pick up and throw an increasingly disgusting stick she’d taken to. At the farm shop gate I bid her goodbye but, reluctant to part so soon, she followed me all the way down to the office and even into it, much to the amusement of my colleagues. Eventually I managed to usher her out of the door. “Go home, girl, go on. Home!” She slunk away, looking hurt. “We’ll go again tomorrow,” I promised. “I’ll pick you up, same time same place.”


In a life-changing development – as life-changing as having children, or that day I discovered the trick of freezing lemon slices to add to G&Ts on demand – Mrs B and I have entered into a reciprocal babysitting arrangement with another couple. First Friday night we got we high-tailed it to King Street, which contains the highest density of great pubs in the universe. We had a quick drink in the King Billy then in scorching evening sunshine mooched across the crowded cobbles to Renato’s to eat a salty pizza and relive our student days.

When we used to frequent it in the mid-1990s, Renato’s was the only place on the street that could serve booze after 11pm but smoking was permitted everywhere. Also we had lots of friends to go with. That’s all changed but nothing else – the staff are as comfortingly surly as ever, the Funghi still contains your month’s recommended salt intake, and there are still the same signed actor photographs from 1980s Old Vic shows on the walls, including a callow Jeremy Irons and  Josie Lawrence in a pair of unforgiveable dungarees.

Alas, we had no time to pop into The Famous Royal Naval Volunteer, the new Belgian-style Beer Emporium or The Llandoger Trow, so after our pizza we elbowed through the outside drinkers and into The Old Duke, for a live dose of that age-old English cultural tradition, New Orleans jazz.

The Old Duke is one of those rare places that, when it is packed and swinging, makes you feel like there’s nowhere better you could possibly be. It is small and grubby and it takes an age to get to the bar, but what a vibe. The clientele ranges from adolescent to geriatric. There are jazz folk in porkpie hats and grungey men with Christ beards, crimson-haired girls with nose-rings and public schoolboys in blazers, there are gorgeous Hispanic students and a corner for fading white-haired homosexuals in attire ranging from motorcyclist to theatre director to antiques dealer, one of whom made an optimistic attempt to chat me up as I leaned over to order my round. Couldn’t blame him, I was pretty devastating in my new red checked shirt and navy jacket. “That’s a nice shirt, where’s it from?” he asked, inoffensively patting the sleeve. “TK Maxx, my friend,” I replied, winking. “Nothing but the best, that’s me.” I clapped him consolingly on the back and sauntered back to my wife with a pair of G&T like the heartbreaking sonofabitch I am, just as the band segued into a jazzy version of You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.


But she was not there at the farm shop gate when I walked past the next day. I looked about the yard for a few minutes, then carried on up the hill alone. The sun was behind clouds, there was horseshit a-plenty but no sundrops on the lane. A whooshing wind in the branches muffled the birdsong and sheepgroans. At the top of the hill I looked over the grey hills under a heavy grey sky. Dull light on the dab-fish ponds. Perhaps this is the afterlife we dread, I thought suddenly, not hellfire but an eternity in an empty landscape, with no lovers or children or friends, or crazy greens, or hapless queens. Just you on a hill, alone, forever, without your dog.

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A Walk in the Woods in Midsummer


Today is midsummer, and Professor Nick Groom turns his attention to the woods. Trees are a special part of our national identity, and they need us as much as we need them…

Woods occupy a special place in the imaginative topography of England. The greenwood is the haunt and habitat of Robin Hood, the contested pastoral setting of the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and a way into Faërie in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These woods are not the dark fir-forests of Teutonic myth and Grimms’ fairytales, but the spacious, sunny, broad-leaf, deciduous woods of middle England.

The reason why English woodland is so open, verdant, and young is because for at least a thousand years England has had comparatively little woodland – certainly much less than the rest of northern Europe – and has consequently had to manage it carefully – as Oliver Rackham points out in his charming book Ancient Woodland: ‘By the thirteenth century AD woodland management was a fully-developed art with conservation as its chief objective.’ There was, in other words, no vast Hercynian Forest across Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex, and what existed was not an idealized and aesthetic landscape but a dynamic working environment that was planned, cultivated, and maintained. Some English forestry initiatives only therefore date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the result of picturesque schemes to ‘improve’ scenic prospects or ‘restore’ imagined primal woods, such as the fabled Anderida Forest across the south of England.

There is, however, a strong appeal in planting trees, and it is important not to let the poison of the picturesque taint serious ecological conservation projects. Supported by the Woodland Trust and in an attempt to renew habitats and create more bio-diverse local environments, I have helped to plant hundreds of trees; it is humbling experience and I can only agree with Joseph Addison who on 31 May 1712 wrote that ‘the love of woods seems to be a passion implanted in our natures’. I planted with scouts and guides, but also with people nearly twice my age: they would never live to see these trees give shade for them to walk under – but then that was the point. Planting trees is a gift to later generations, a bequest of woodland charm. From the ardent Londoner Samuel Johnson to the peasant poet John Clare, English woods possessed a kind of magic. Hester Lynch Piozzi wrote of Johnson that, ‘Walking in a wood when it rained was, I think, the only rural image he pleased his fancy with’. Clare, on the other hand, wrote ‘Wood Rides’, an uncharacteristically sentimental poem in which the practicalities of the wood are blurred into a sort of ‘woodland ethnicity’, the poet careless of the flowers at his feet:

Who hath not felt the influence that so calms
The weary mind in summers sultry hours
When wandering thickest woods beneath the arms
Of ancient oaks and brushing nameless flowers

Woods can help us to overcome the trite expectations of the picturesque that are almost indelibly impressed in our culture. In his essay ‘Forest’ (1885), Richard Jefferies’ depiction of the autumnal woodland scene commences predictably enough, but then we are refreshingly reminded that this is a working, economic environment – and so much the healthier for that:

The soft autumn sunshine, shorn of summer glare, lights up with colour the fern, the fronds of which are yellow and brown, the leaves, the grey grass, and hawthorn sprays already turned. It seems as if the early morning mists have the power of tinting leaf and fern, for so soon as they commence the green hues begin to disappear. There are swathes of fern yonder, cut down like grass or corn, the harvest of the forest. It will be used for litter and for thatching sheds.

Trees are good to think with, they are gateways that lead us into understanding our environment and our identity. They are understandably writ large in the story of the nation, most clearly in the Navy’s insatiable demand for timber for shipbuilding, but also in more subtle and cultural ways: in half-timbered houses, in the stone foliage that effloresces in the Gothic architecture of churches, in the dark myths of Yggdrasil and the Tree of Knowledge. Not for nothing did the English identify with the oak tree, as eighteenth-century sailors sang with such gusto that ‘our castles of wood stand like castles of brass’ in their triumphalist anthem ‘Heart of Oak’:

Heart of oak are our Ships,
Heart of oak are our Men;
We always are ready,
Steady, boys, steady,
We’ll fight, and we’ll conquer, again and again.

This legacy haunts me as I walk through the woods, the trees trembling with meaning, as it is a legacy under perpetual threat. As early as 1956 the Forestry Commission’s scheme of supporting coniferous plantations was being heavily criticized in the Architectural Review as being ‘as deadly as any industrial squalor of the 19th century’ – in other words, comparable to factory developments. Our landscape is defaced where it most aspires to be natural, and we are cut us off from our history and from our culture. The conservation of woodland lies instead in older traditions of managed, indigenous forestry: the trees need us as much as we need them.

nick groom the seasons

The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is now available from Atlantic Books.
Follow Nick Groom on Twitter: @Prof_Nick_Groom

Dabbler Diary – An Encyclopaedia of Jonathan Meades

To the Watershed cinema and ‘digital creativity centre’, to hear Jonathan Meades talk about his new book. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, and my escort was the combative Islington-based journalist Pippa Tregaskis, who two years ago interviewed Meades for The Dabbler ahead of his bewildering BBC Four series on France.

Pippa made no effort to conceal her sneer at my 2001 Ford Focus Zetec when I picked her up outside Temple Meads station, and though as a rule I couldn’t give two hoots about car fashion, I found myself flushing with sudden shame at the unpeeling seals and rusting flanges and decrepit upholstery, and the crumb-encrusted child seats and the shoebox full of Bruce Springsteen CDs around which Pippa was forced to arrange her Samurai stilettos. To my further humiliation it became apparent as we drove off that John Denver’s Greatest Hits was still in the stereo. With Annie’s Song warbling away I tried to pass the thing off as ironic, asking Pippa if she’d ever considered the deep strangeness of  Denver’s oeuvre, being a mixture of good ol’ country cowboy-ism and absolute Green Party ecodrivel. “Where George Bush meets George Monbiot, a ha ha,’ I quipped weakly. Pippa did not laugh.

Changing tack as we passed St Mary Redcliffe, I tried trumpeting the architectural merit of the city, which Jonathan Meades described in Museums Without Walls as ‘benign anarchy’, and I listed some of its icons and ‘magnificent set pieces’: Clifton, King Street, the Wills Tower, Corn Street. With a sniffy wrist-flick Pippa dismissed the lot, stating that she’d lived in Bristol for three years in the noughties and had seen quite enough of the place (she had edited Epigram, the University’s student newspaper, a dreary but necessary step on her inexorable career path: St Willoughby’s School for Girls just outside Ludlow; gap year in Vietnam and Cuba; university stardom; gig reviewer for NME; Deputy Editor of The New Statesman; Features Editor of the Sunday Telegraph magazine).

As she tottered irritably along the cobbles of Queen’s Square I offered my arm, which she refused. For sure, my wife need not have had any concerns about my squiring this high-profile bombshell about town, because (1) as Rod Lidl put it in his usual crude way, ‘although physically Pippa Tregaskis boasts both the creamy voluptuousness of Camilla Long and the delicious pointiness of Marina Hyde, she also combines their venom and cruelty, and the only job likely to be on offer at the end of a date with her is of the hatchet kind'; and (2) she is of course entirely fictitious. It has occurred to me that when I am sufficiently far gone to have a delusional alter ego it will probably be a vicious female newspaper hack. It has taken a long time, but it seems I’ve finally got in touch with my feminine side.


The book about which Jonathan Meades was speaking was An Encyclopaedia of Myself, a new volume of childhood memoir in which he actually tells us very little of himself but a great deal about the weirdo friends and enemies of his parents (you learn far more about the formativeness of his early years in the film Father to the Man, which recalls his days driving round with his travelling salesman father, and the time it afforded him to develop ‘a love of place’).

The publishers sent The Dabbler a proof copy of An Encyclopaedia of Myself and I have to say that reading it was something like entering a personal literary heaven, as Meades conjures up one glorious Technicolor nutjob after another. As the blurb puts it, he gives us a population of “embittered grotesques, bogus majors, vicious spinsters, reckless bohos, pompous boors, drunks [and] suicides”). Which is just the sort of thing I like. So dense and relentless is the cast of loons, and so vivid the stage upon which they stalk – a vanished, 1950s Salisbury – that at times I experienced an ecstatic psycho/sensory overload, like a night in a forest, like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain. One twisting tale in particular, that of Major Christian – a sado-masochistic schoolmaster ­­– is so perfect in its balance of hilarity, horror, charm and pathos that when I got to the end I had to immediately read it again, which is very rare.

The great thing about Jonathan Meades is that he is a formidably intelligent man who hasn’t chucked his talents into the cul-de-sac of idiot savants, failures, cowards, agoraphobics, commies and mini-Machiavellis that is Academia. Also, he is a very funny man who doesn’t do panel shows. And an expert who isn’t an Expert. The only uninteresting thing about him is his anti-religionism, cited quite often in An Encyclopaedia of Myself, which is alas of the plonkingly literal Dawkins variety. But he’s easily the best thing on television, and this is quite possibly the most enjoyable memoir I’ve ever read. And there’s no sodding architecture.


At the Watershed, after a screening of choice Meades clips (including the world premiere of a gleefully tasteless Beeb-banned sketch in which men in balaclavas sing an INLA recruitment song to the tune of ‘YMCA’) and an entertaining interview with The Observer’s Rachel Cooke, the audience was invited to ask questions. Pippa Tregaskis and I both put up our hands. I wanted to ask a nice sycophantic patsy question about what the maestro made of the Bristol harbourside regeneration, but razor-elbowed Pippa got to the microphone first. “Following my interview with you about France,” she squawked, “one of the commenters on The Dabbler described your work as deracinated. Given your love of place, do you think this is a fair description? Well?”

Meades, in the flesh an unexpectedly large and suave man, blinked hard twice, sipped some water, and leaned forward to answer.


A list of questions I would have asked Jonathan Meades if I’d had the chance:

1) In an essay from 2005, included in Museums without Walls, you write that “Bristol’s genius resides in its benign anarchy”. I wonder what you think of the redeveloped harbourside, with its giant mirrorball (the Planetarium), Millennium Square, monstrous stag beetle statue, full-scale Matthew replica, working steam engines and squishy rubber Jack Russell dogs?”(PS. I love it!!)

2) I grew up in Portsmouth and although every adult seemed to hate the Tricorn Centre, as a child I accepted it as a Thing, and if I thought anything about it I found it pleasingly disorienting. Do you think that if we just left brutalist buildings alone until Price Charles’ generation died out, nobody would much mind them anymore? (PS. I’ve no idea!!!)

3) How on earth do your programmes make it past television’s Intelligence Filter, which requires the same point to be made at least six times in any half-hour documentary in such a way as to fall within the ken of the least intelligent conceivable viewer? And why are there no other programmes that slip the net?


A list of questions that Pippa Tregaskis would have asked:

1) Can you really remember all this detailed stuff about adults in your childhood or have you just made it all up?

2) Isn’t there’s a fine line between ‘making the shows that I’d like to watch’ and ‘disappearing up my own rear end’?

3) You complain about the Tricorn and other brutalist buildings being pulled down, but when you praise a building for its ‘up yours’ attitude, what right do you have to complain when the locals say ‘up yours’ back?

4) If religious faith is so moronic, how come there are so many interesting and good religious people, and so many dim and nasty atheists?


Meades, leaning forward, answered assertively that he was quite happy to be labelled ‘deracinated’, and that the logical end of rootedness was ‘blood and soil’. He didn’t address the possibility that the tension between his love of Place and his alien’s eye view of places (like Salisbury) is what makes his work so unusual and compelling. But is it really possible to be truly rootless? Only if you grow up in a fishtank. Even if, like me, you’re not quite sure what  your accent should sound like, there’s Englishness –  England’s language, literature (especially children’s literature), myths, phobias, tolerances and creaking systems, and its idea of a joke. Also your roots in what Meades (brilliantly) identified as The North.

Two other noteworthy things about Meades. First, he is under no illusions about the nature of Nature. He is unashamedly anthropocentric and doesn’t see why we need to be ‘polite to the Earth’. Talking of which, I quote from a recent Nige post about ‘Springwatch':

Last night’s show offered an especially edifying vignette from nature. The Springwatch cameras have been trained round the clock on a bitterns’ nest, where three chicks were successfully hatched – but alas, early yesterday morning one of the chicks was dead in the nest. Mother bittern tenderly took her late offspring in her beak, tilted her head back and painstakingly swallowed it. This was not easy – it was a well-grown chick – but mother bittern persevered until she had swallowed it entirely. But that was not an end of it: next mealtime, there she was again, regurgitating the semi-digested chick as food for her remaining brood, who tackled their sibling with gusto, but did not get very far with it. So the mother scooped up the remains and subjected them to further digestion. A second regurgitation proved successful and popular, and very little remained of the unfortunate chick.

Second, Meades is ‘interested in everything’, a skill he developed to counter boredom as a child. The plain truth is that I don’t really ‘get’ architecture as a cultural study – its aesthetic is elusive, its references confusing and its lingo always slightly beyond my grasp – but I like listening to Meades on architecture because everything is interesting when someone speaks or writes well about it.


On Bank Holiday Monday we crossed again the bridge into that land of glum magic and simmering resentment known as Wales, and for once it was warm and sunny. My old schoolfriend Martin was hosting a family barbecue. The children ran wild in the garden while the grown-ups sat around drinking expensive bottled lager and eating Waitrose sausages.

Cardiff, like Bristol, is full of deracinated middle-class graduates from dull English towns and villages, who stay on in their university city to have families because it’s got just enough culture going on and isn’t London. These are my people; I generally avoid them. We skewered olives with toothpicks and discussed the European elections. Or at least the left-wingers did: being able to express strong political certainties in a sanctimonious tone is the prerogative of the middle-class left. Centre-right dissidents alas can’t play that game without Spoiling The Whole Day. Oh well, we all have our cross to bear.

So when one chap described Michael Gove as an ‘odious individual’, and when another chap explained that UKIP had done well because the working man is at bottom a racist fool who gets tricked into voting wrongly, I let it all wash over and passed round the plate of Waitrose sausages, which were quite delicious.

Pippa Tregaskis, on the other hand, would have laid in to them, perhaps in her diary column in the Sunday Telegraph magazine. But then she’s a poison-tongued harridan. Indeed, she’s my poison-tongued harridan; I stole her from Jonathan Meades.

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