Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Local history - reading the runes

I took my father out to lunch a while back. We managed to get to the Bristol Arms at Shotley Gate just in time for lunch - an excellent prawn curry washed down with some Adnam's Ghost Ship. Afterwards, we wandered the foreshore, looking at the port of Felixstowe on one side, and the town of Harwich on the other - Shotley is sited on a peninsula between the Stour and the Orwell, so that there's river pretty much all round, and it takes a while to get your bearings.

Bristol Arms. Remember that.

We watched a Thames barge coming downriver; a great container ship heading for port; a little fishing boat steaming for the lock gates to Shotley marina. There's always something moving on the river. Oystercatchers were browsing the low-tide shoreline; we walked out along a spit of crushed seashell that hissed underfoot, and the birds rose to the air to move along the shore, settling again fifty yards away. Canada geese flew overhead. As we turned around and made our way back to Shotley Gate, the tide was coming in, silently and slowly; I wouldn't have realised, but when I looked for the little spit we'd been standing on, it was gone, only a little island remaining free of the water, perhaps not for much longer.

The village of Shotley itself is at the top of the hill, with Shotley Gate on the shore; you move from marina to farmland in five minutes' walk (or two minutes' drive). The port of Felixstowe with its massive cranes and bulky boxships seems marooned in a sea of green, an industrial landscape strangely out of sorts with the gentle farmland around it.

And the church, in fact, is nowhere near the village - it's stuck away in a tiny hamlet even further away from the river. It's an interesting church, part fifteenth century Gothic with a hammerbeam roof - rough ends to the timbers where the angels must have been hacked off in the Reformation - yet with an eighteenth-century classical chancel. Its tower, meanwhile, may once have been one of those wonderful East Anglian towers that stand tall and stately, dominating the estuary from its hill; but at some point it tumbled, and now it's short and stubby, ill-matched with the soaring clerestory.

Now I was looking for the royal arms over the chancel. There was a dark coat of arms there, but I didn't recognise them. Instead, the royal arms were hanging at the west of the church. So what was this coat of arms? I didn't recognise it at all.

The chancel is quite something. The east end has a Venetian window, finely classical, and the chancel arch too is a classical Roman form, in dark oak; all the furnishings are dark wood, too, though the standard of the carving is way below the standard of Grinling Gibbons. There are Moses and Aaron shown in their regalia on each side of the altar, rather provinicial but nonetheless attractive paintings; there's a plaster barrel vault, which somehow doesn't look quite straight; this is the triumph of sobriety, Protestantism, and good plain English architecture.

It turns out that the chancel was rebuilt by the rector, the Hon. Henry Aston. But he wasn't originally an Aston; he was a Hervey, and took his wife's name on his marriage. Now, Hervey is the family name of the Marquesses of Bristol, and despite the name of the peerage, they're relatively local - Ickworth Hall, Suffolk, having been their home till 1998.Guess who owned the right to nominate the rector? So the younger son of the first Earl of Bristol was given the job by his father. (Though on perusing the peerage, it seems to have been Charles Hervey who was rector here, not his brother, so there is some confusion in the sources; something's got garbled, as it so often does.)

Father shows me the next clue -  the tomb of John Hervey, 1840-1926, who was rector here for 56 years. His father, son of the first Marquess of Bristol, was first rector at Ickworth - well, naturally - and later, Bishop of Bath and Wells. (John was  his fourth child, and first son.)

Clued up, I start looking for more hints of the Hervey/Bristol connection. And there they are. A 1907 stained glass window which is a memorial to the third Marquess of Bristol - MP for West Suffolk, and Lord Lieutenant of the county.

Plenty of Herveys. That is, Bristols. And at this point, I remember the Bristol arms. Even though the pub is a mile or more away, down by the waterside, it has the same patronage as the church. The Herveys must have pretty much owned the village.

Shotley would still be a fascinating place if I didn't know about the Herveys. But when you read the runes, when you put the clues together, you see how the place has an added depth - you understand a little piece of history. (One reason that I am no fan of pub renamings such as the 'Woolie' in Norwich, which used to be, far more appropriately for a city where mercers and dyers made so much money, the Woolpack. Fortunately we have another Woolpack which still carries on the name.) It's one reason you'll often find me trying to read the Latin epitaphs in a country church, my lips moving as I make the effort of trying to remember whether this word is in the genitive or ablative case, and what locupletatus means.

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