The unbearable flatness of the present

What shocked me about Yeovil was that the town had no museum open to the public. The Museum of South Somerset closed about ten years ago and its collections were put into store, available for inspection on request but not to the casual visitor. I could not imagine that this would still be the case ten years later but it is so. It’s depressing that a town of 45,000 people, large by Somerset standards, should have so little interest in its history (that sentence requires unpacking, of course, – who has so little interest, which politicians, which sections of the population and what history?).

With tough government cuts to local government finance, the ruling local politicians clearly did not regard the history of the town as so important as to spare it from the axe. And lean local government, doing what it is bound to do by statute and leaving other responsibilities to the private sector has been the spirit of the age. I’ve not been aware either of popular unrest at the lack of a museum. although I’m sure that I’m not alone in deploring it.

Museums haven’t disappeared altogether – there is a motor museum at Sparkford not far away, a museum on the history of the naval air force at the Yeovilton air base. And various museums of rural life and those attached to country houses such as Montacute. But these are private businesses, perhaps of good quality but giving only a partial, specialised view of the past. However, they seem to thrive and to have captured the public’s interest in the way that the public local museum’s dutiful plod from the artefacts of pre-history through the various local industries does not. The development reminds me of the waning and disappearance of the old department stores and their replacement by small specialized shops.

Even the museums that are open worry about lack of interest in their collections and how to increase footfall (and revenue). It’s not hard to understand the temptation to attract the public by more aggressive marketing and to make the museum into entertainment. But I think this road is full of pitfalls and I don’t like it. The chatty circulars even from the venerable British Library make me cringe. I hope very much that the wonderful Victorian room at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester with Thomas Hardy’s study will survive the makeover. But reading about the tour of Dippy the Dinosaur while the museum was otherwise closed and looking at the bookshop, a shadow of its former self, with a justified selection of Hardy’s novels on display together with  a heap of anywhere items, doesn’t make me feel optimistic. Hopefully, it will be better when the Covid-delayed move back is completed.

Jimmy’s fete and Caentel’s weorp

Yesterday, I went by train on the fine country branch line from Yeovil to Dorchester, across the river valley and then into the limestone hills through Yetminster, where you change for Ryme Intrinseca and through Maiden Newton for Cerne Abbas with its scanty monasterial remains and the chalk giant on the hillside, once visited by women of the tract wanting to improve their fertility (not sure whether the giant worked for men as well but I kissed my then wife while looking at it and have four children in all, one pre-giant and three post-giant so there may be something in it).

Dorchester is the county town and also the cultural centre of the county with its records office and museum which has a good library of Dorset books. I wanted to check what they had on church history, especially on the ambitious programme of rebuilding in the nineteenth century (after eighteen century neglect, the authorities were perhaps eager to promote the church as a means of social control against the background of the French revolution and the expressions of discontent about the suffrage).

I found a few interesting books but there wasn’t as much as I’d hoped. Nineteenth-century church restoration does seem to be something of a gap to be filled by research. Perhaps the diocesan (church) library at Salisbury would offer more.

I have to think, however, about how much time and effort I’m prepared to devote to this subject. My aim is to have a living relationship with Dorset and to be able to understand what I’m looking at/reading about. I like to be able to dip into Dorset from time to time but don’t want the study of Dorset to close over my head so that there is no room for other things that interest me. I now feel that I know enough about Dorset churches to have a framework for further visits and thought but I should probably move on to another topic rather than becoming engrossed in the equivalent of a PhD. Among other things, I’d like to look at the large houses of the county, their architecture, of course, but also their effect on the community around them, on enclosure, agriculture and on landholding over the past couple of hundred years and up to the present.

Again up to a certain level without getting bogged down so I shall probably decide to read about this for a definite period.

After I’d done the serious stuff, I started browsing through the rest of the museum library’s collection. Surprisingly they still have a card index. The Museum obtained a large amount of lottery funds for an extensive rebuilding and extension. Their move back into the building was probably seriously delayed by covid so they had not really settled down in their refurbished quarters. I’m very nervous about the rebuild as I fear that the process of making the museum more “community-friendly” may damage some of the things I loved about the old museum, but that’s a long topic for another blog post.

I found some information about my great great grandfather in an old book of reminiscences about my ancestor’s village Marnhull published by the Women’s Institute in 1940, reproduced below. It’s not the most flattering story but I think that my popping up in St Gregory’s Church in sackcloth and ash to make an official apology on behalf of the latter day Kendall family for their nineteenth-century loose chatter might be overdoing it a bit.

“Jimmy Kendall, who kept the Crown Inn, was the leading man in running the old Marnhull Club fete and prepared the dinner on Club Day. he was talking to an excise officer outside the Crown Inn, when Harry Cressy passed, driving a [horse-drawn] van with a relative beside him. Jimmy passed a remark to the excise officer, whether the van was licensed to carry women.  The excise officer made enquiries and in due course a summons was issued against  Harry Cressy. This resulted in a local bad feeling against Jimmy Kendall. A short time later an effigy was found hanging from an elm tree in “Bowling Green” (just below the Crown). It remained there a few days, was then taken down, put in a coffin and a procession of “mourners” paraded the village.  When outside the Crown, the coffin was let drop with a bump on the road. There was a “widow” dressed in white in the procession, which proceeded to the field “Wood” (opposite the “Blackmoor Vale”) where the “burial” took place.

This was known as “Jimmy’s Fete” (? fate).

This reminds me of the custom of the Skimmington Ride which Hardy refers to in the Mayor Casterbridge, where villagers stage a noisy mock serenade directed at someone who had outraged what the villagers regard as public decency (perhaps in cases of adultery).

The pub where my great great grandfather, James Kendall, was the publican was portrayed in Tess of the D’Urbervilles as the Pure Drop Inn I believe the date when he (and later his wife) managed the pub more or less coincides with the presumed date of the events in Tess.

I’m very happy about this Dorset connection with Hardy and Marnhull.

I also found out a bit more information about my great grandfather, Christopher Kendall. I knew he was a carpenter but he was apparently, more particularly a wheelwright, like his son Harry Kendall, my grandfather who died in 1895.

It’s amusing when there is a chink in the curtain of forgotten history providing information about long veiled ancestors. I must attend to my archive so that it doesn’t get forgotten again!

There used to be another manor in Marnhull called Kentlesworth, the location of which is unclear. I believe the surname of our family may derive from this name. I found an etymological explanation of the name Kentlesworth. The latter part is from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word “weorp” (the p I suspect is a misunderstood Saxon “th”) meaning farm or enclosure. The Kentle is said to originate from the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon name Caentel, so that it would be “Caentel’s Farm”:If this is correct, the family surname originates far back in history and long before the Conquest from an Anglo-Saxon called Caentel.

There are a number of other place names in West England where Caentel forms part of the name. This is, of course, speculative but it seems not unreasonable.

There is also an important Cornish-Welsh poet with a name resembling Kendall, whom I made efforts to appropriate as an ancestor but as the evidence was non-existent (I couldn’t prove a link between Marnhull and Cornwall), I reluctantly have to regard this as less likely). There are also villages in the area with “Caundle” as part of their name from the River Caundle, which is another possibility but I think that when adopting a surname, it would seem intuitively more reasonable for a person to be named as being of a manor than of a river, though “of Caundle” as one of the villages would be a more convincing candidate.

More evidence could perhaps be obtained if I brushed up my Latin and mediaeval clerk’s latin and consulted the manorial records to see what the history of surnames was like in the area (were there were many “Kendalls” in the Caundles, for instance).

Somerset and Dorset

My journey to West England began with a taxi driver who wasn’t up to speed with the road closures around Waterloo. We orbited round the station for a while before making a successful landing (decently, he reduced the price). Then our train had to make a lengthy detour because of a broken rail at Winchester. We became so late that the next train caught up with us and they turfed me off the train before my final stop so that they could send it back to London. Sensible in normal times but a dubious step during a pandemic. I managed to avoid the crowds and the unmasked but at the expense of sitting close to a family with a young child offering a broad range of turbulence services. Having had four children, I’m tolerant towards them in trains but on this occasion, I hoped fervently at every stop that they would get off but, of course, they accompanied me all the way to the seaside at Weymouth, where I missed the connection to my final stop, Yeovil in Somerset. But these tribulations were only a minor dent in the good mood, almost dreamy euphoria, that I always feel when returning to the area that is home for at least 30 per cent of me.

My original plan was to stay in Dorchester to use the libraries there and continue with my Dorset church project. But this year, the English, barred from everywhere else except South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and Dubai, are flocking to the traditional seaside resorts and the coastal strip was fully booked. But it’s not bad to be inland, close to where I lived as a teenager in a town full of memories; standing in a telephone kiosk with my mother wondering at the ancientness of the place as she dialled the operator to be connected with an aunt in a village not 10 miles away. That aunt worked from home stitching parts of gloves together for local firms. And sitting on the fine old green Southern National double decker to Martock, seeing another bus to the village of Tintinhull in front of us and associating it with the word tintinabulations, the ringing of bells that I’d picked up somewhere. It was a wonderful place for a boy from the more mainstream, almost suburban Sussex coast. And later, after we’d moved to the west on my father’s retirement, as a teenager in a Yeovil cinema in my pyjama jacket which I’d persuaded myself looked chic, disturbed at my companion’s reasonable reaction that I was wearing a pyjama jacket. I didn’t repeat this sartorial experiment. The past is a strange place – they (and me) do weird stuff there.

Yeovil is also a fine name, “the vil” probably being misunderstood by the Normans as being like “ville” which they would have been familiar with. In fact, it probably comes from a Celtic word meaning a fork in a river. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have taken the word over and “gaffel” today means “fork” in Swedish. It’s interesting that the Anglo-Saxons took over so few Brythonic Celtic words but they did use a lot of Celtic river names and here even a word associated with rivers.

I’ve mostly worked translating a contract since I got here and tomorrow I have a company’s interim report to do. But after that I’m free for the rest of the week. Thoughts about restoring old buildings have been floating through my mind. I must get hold of some material about the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris. It’s interesting because some of the parts destroyed in the fire were not ancient but the nineteenth century work of Viollet-le-Duc (the spire). I wonder how or whether they will replace these, as well as how they will deal with the really ancient wood trusses that were destroyed and played a part in the ease with which the fire spread. They will presumably be replaced by something more modern and safer, but how will they (or have they) put that on top of ancient masonry not built to bear greater loads. There are differences in French approaches and attitudes to restoration/extension of old buildings. According to my prejudices, the French are less sentimental, more prone to making an elegant modern statement attractive by contrast. I shall be interested to see where they have landed and will search for articles when I get back to base in ten days or so.

Hertfordshire safari

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Waking up in a chill English hotel room, it takes me a while to extricate myself from the confused jumble of the Financial Times, hearing aids, spectacles, my Pradaxa necklace and other existential flotsam and jetsam on the bed where I’d thrown myself after an intensive day helping a paralysed friend get a computer to the repair shop.

It was complicated to start with as we didn’t understand which button to press to lower the wheelchair to avoid decapitating my friend on the roof of the not altogether suitable vehicle. But once on our way, weaving across Hertfordshire from Borehamwood to Watford, it was smooth enough, even enjoyable.

The computer repair man was kindness itself, coming out to our vehicle and explaining how all might not be lost on the hard disk despite the computer’s reluctance to start.

I’ve hardly met anyone new for the past year while my friend has met lots of carers but not been out of the care home so we are both diversely dazed. But I’m impressed as well by meeting so many people who probably aren’t paid that much with poor working conditions who could easily respond to the direness of life grimly or bureaucratically but who were instead prepared to help someone who needed a break.

I didn’t like Borehamwood to start with. I found  it run down, suburban, tatty without much architectural or other interest. But it’s growing on me – there are many odd shops, stores selling Romanian, Bulgarian and other East European foods, which I fear may fade away post-Brexit but which are a welcome change from the bland sameness of modern retail. There’s also the Elstree film studios, with hopeful clusters at the side of the approach roads looking for a glimpse of famous figures unknown to me. It all makes for a quirky mix although I wouldn’t want to live here.

And later  today, I’ll travel down to Islington to meet other later friends. London has become a city of shades and memories for me, where old friends have died or moved on in life and not been replaced as I am not involved in any social activity  here. But I enjoy being there and meeting those that remain, although the bad air and general bustle overpower me now.

In a couple of days time, I will resurrect another old friend, my west country self, when I travel down to Dorset to round off my Dorset church project. I am going to spend time in the libraries of Dorchester and see what they have to offer on nineteenth century church restorations. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about this – the development of neo-gothic, architectural and aesthetic aspects, the impact, positive and negative on historic buildings, the details of the building process (where did the stone used come from, etc., which builders, architects were involved),the influence on restorations of ideological developments within the believer community (and the social composition of the Anglicans and relationship to non-conformism and the latter’s neo-gothic buildings), the response to the wave of restorations and growing resistance. This would be good to round off my project but this plan is too massive, too much of a time swamp if done well when I want to shift focus to other projects. I think therefore that I will make a preliminary study of how such a study might be written, its components/structure/important issues and what material is available and where but not actually produce it; as much as I can achieve in a week, to be continued in small spurts when I feel I want to think about Dorset but not so much that Dorset closes over my head and gets in the way of other work that is important for me.