Friday, 31 August 2012

Catching trains to nowhere

The beach at Viareggio ... when Shelley’s body was washed ashore, Byron had him cremated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

An Irish political party once ran a ‘Yes’ vote campaign in a referendum with the word ‘Yes’ in many European languages. But they left the accent off the Italian word “Sí” and so ran a “Si” or “but” campaign.

It was one of those “Yes, but ...” days for me in Tuscany yesterday [Thursday 30 August 2012] as my paltry Italian and my colour-blindness made it difficult for me to read Italian train timetables and I ended up taking the wrong train, not once, but twice.

And all I wanted to do was to have a walk on the beach ... perhaps even a shirt swim in the sea.

I started off Montecatini Centrale, heading for Viareggio on the coast. There’s only one platform at Montecatini Centrale, and when the train arrived ... I hopped on.

By the time the train pulled out of the next station, Montecatini Terme, I realised I was heading east towards Florence and not west towards the coast.

Where could we hop off?

The Cattedrale di San Zeno in the Piazza del Duomo is at the heart of the centro storico in Pistoia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We got off at Pistoia, and set a few hours exploring a delightful city, with its mediaeval ramparts and its centro storico.

We first visited the Piazza del Duomo and the Cattedrale di San Zeno, or Cathedral of Saint John, with its beautiful Pisan-Romanesque facade that is crowned with a lunette by Andrea della Robbia. Inside, in the Capella di San Jacopo in the north aisle is a silver altarpiece that took two centuries to erect and that was completed by Brunelleschi.

In the crypt, at the back of a simple chapel, are the tombs of many part Bishops of Pistoia, while the side walls above are decorated with monuments to many more past bishops, including Alessandro di Medici who later became Pope Leo XI and had a short reign of only 26 days.

Beside the cathedral is the former bishops’ palace, now a museum, and opposite the west door of the cathedral is the 14th century octagonal Baptistry, with its distinctive green-and-white marble stripes.

After visiting the baptistry, we strolled through the maze of mediaeval sidestreets, visiting two other churches, before returning to the station and catching the right train –through Montecatini Centrale, Montecatini Terme and Lucca – to Viareggio and the coast.

When Shelley drowned at Viareggio in 1822 and his body was washed up on the beach, Byron had him cremated on the spot.

But there is nothing romantic about the beach at Viareggio. Instead it was disappointing. There is a beautiful long stretch of white sand, and it slopes gently into the sea. But the beach has been parcelled out and divided into lots by the local hotels, so that visitors and local people alike are corralled into a dirty corner at the end of the beach, beside the rocks.

This is Italian privatisation and dogmatic capitalism at their worst. There is even a sign warning that it is dangerous to swim because the lifeguard facilities are only for hotel guests.
The Chalet Martini (left) and the Gran Caffè Ristorante Margherita on Viale Regina Margherita in Viareggio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford (2012)

After a short swim we decided to give Viareggio a miss. We walked back along the tacky promenade at Viale Regina Margherita that looked more like Disneyland than coastal Italy – although we stopped to appreciate the Gran Caffè Ristorante Margherita, which had been a favourite of Puccini, and the Chalet Martini next door, dating from the 1860s.

It was back to Montecatini – if only we had boarded the right train towards Florence. We realised our mistake by time the train got to Pisa. There was no turning back, and it was just as well the train was going to Florence and not to Rome or somewhere more distant.

At Florence we found a train to Montecatini Centrale with little time to spare. As the train pulled out we caught another glimpse of the dome of the Duomo receding in the distance.

After a heavy day of travelling to nowhere and back several times, we had just enough time for a much-needed shower and to change.

The vineyard on the slops at Fattoria il Poggia outside Montecarlo, near Lucca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We joined a small group heading out for the evening to Montecarlo, near Lucca, to visit an olive grove and vineyard at Fattoria il Poggia. There were saw the olive presses used to press olive oil, drink wines from the grapes in the vineyard, and dined in the farmyard under the full moon.

We had soon put behind us all those missed trains and misread train timetables. As we raised our glasses, it was no longer “If” but “Yes.”

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A day in Florence starts the week in Tuscany

The Duomo of Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio seen from the terraces of the Uffizi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I spent most of Wednesday [29 August 2012] in Florence, on a guided walking tour of the city in the morning, and on a guided tour of the Uffizi in the afternoon.

This was my second visit to Florence, but a day never does justice to this city, and an afternoon in the Uffizi only gives you a tiny taste of what is in store in one of the greatest art galleries in the world.

We began our walking tour at the 11th century Baptistry in Piazza di San Giovanni, with its east door decorated with gilded bass bronze reliefs and the “Gate of Paradise.”

The Baptistry was built as part of the complex of the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome of the duomo is the city’s iconic landmark and stands along with the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Coliseum in Rome as Italy’s three most photographed sites.

We worked our way down Calzaiuoli and past the church and museum of Orsanmichele, before taking a detour through the side street and alleys to Piazza della Signoria, the civic heart of mediaeval and Renaissance Florence, with its sculptures, statues, fountains, Loggia del Lanzi, built by the Swiss bodyguards of Cosimo I, and the Palazzo Vecchio, the centre of Florentine political intrigue in the high Middle Ages.

The most photographed item in this square is the reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, although Michelangelo’s original is now housed safe from weather and human touch some distance north in the Accadmemia.

the Ponte Vecchio straddles the Arno at its narrowest point since 972 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We skipped quickly through the arcades of the Uffizi to the banks of the Arno to see the Ponte Vecchio, straddling the river at its narrowest point since the year 972, before returning to the Palazzo Vecchio, and then making our way past the palazzo where Leonardo da Vinci lived while he was working in Florence.

In the Piazza di Santa Croce, we admired the basilica, which is the burial place of many Florentines, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli; the statue of Dante; and the wide open square used once for burning heretics and still used once a year for the calcio storico, the local version of a rough-and-tumble mediaeval game of football.

The fading facade of the Palazzo dell’Antella in the Piazza di Santa Croce bears a mark that marks the halfway line on one of the oldest football pitches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After a pleasant lunch in Casa Toscana, off the Piazza di Santa Croce, we returned for the afternoon to the Uffizi.

But how do you summarise an afternoon in the Uffizi?

Fra Angelico. Giotto. Botticelli. Piero della Francesca. Raphael. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. A week in Tuscany, a month in Tuscany, could never do justice to one room in the Uffizi.

We gathered together again at the Baptistry in Piazza di San Giovanni and returned to Montecatini Terme, before going on to Tettuccio for a balmy evening with Verdi and La Traviata under a moon that was almost full.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

‘Peace of mind ... before all the clamours of success’

The Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore in Montecatini Terme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I have arrived in Tuscany and I am spending the next week at the Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore in Montecatini Terme, between Florence and Pisa.

I arrived at Bologna this afternoon, and over the next week I hope to visit Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and San Gimignano.

The story of the Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore is intimately linked with the history and fortunes of Montecatini Terme. The name Locanda Maggiore was originally given to five interconnected buildings that went on to become the major hotel in this Tuscan town.

The hotel, now called Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore, was given its present appearance by the architect Felice Bisleri.

As this spa resort declined in international popularity, the Locanda Maggiore closed in 1960. But a group of companies later decided to give the hotel back to the town, with its perfectly preserved halls and decorations dating back to the golden age of the most famous European locanda or inn.

From the beginning, the hotel has welcomed prominent national and international guests, including politicians, composers, industrialists, financiers, writers and musicians.

But perhaps the most interesting visitors were the composers Gioacchini Rossini, who was a guest here in 1852, and Giuseppe Verdi, who lived here between 1882 and 1900.

A marble plaque and portrait in the hotel lobby commemorate Verdi, who lived here from 1882 to 1900 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A marble plaque above a piano and beneath a portrait opposite the reception desk in the lobby says: “For many summers, until 1900, this was the graceful residence of Giuseppe Verdi who, tired of glory, would seek peace of mind among the green fields and the splendour of the sky, which he always put before all the clamours of success.”

But, while he was living in Montecatini, the Great Maestro from Busseto never put aside his work. Here he spent many hours working on his scores, and it was here he finished the fourth act of Othello, his last opera but one, which had its premiere at La Scala in Milan on 5 February 1887.

He is remembered in the hotel with such pride to this day that the portrait in the lobby is used to decorate the wrappings and packaging on the hotel soap, bath cream, shampoo – even the shower caps.

I’m off to Florence in the morning, but there’s a promise of a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata tomorrow evening.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Little to see ... all out at sea

There were few tall ships to see in Dublin port (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It was good to be back in Dublin for a day or two at the weekend.

After Choral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, sung by the Past Choristers, five of us went for lunch in the Italian Quarter, where it was good to catch up on the news from the past two weeks.

Later, two of us strolled on down the banks of the River Liffey to see the last day of the Tall Ships in Dublin.

However, only there were two ships to see, and the rest were out to sea.

Instead, the quays were crowded with stalls and with people.

We left early, only to hear afterwards that everything was shut down by the Garda (the Police) because of the danger of overcrowding.

The old and the new ... there Custom House reflected in the windows of the Ulster Bank on the quays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As we strolled back west along the south side of the river there were interesting reflections in the windows. But this was the last weekend this summer and I’m sure for many the overcast weather was as disappointing as the absence of tall ships to see.

Perhaps the coming week holds a promise of better weather and more sunshine. But autumn is around the corner.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

So, it’s farewell to Ealing today

Farewell to a monastic garden ... overhanging vines in the garden at Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

So, it’s farewell to Ealing today, farewell to the “Queen of the Suburbs.”

Farewell to Ealing Abbey, and the daily round of monastic prayers in the Benedictine tradition, with Mattins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and – at the end of each day – Compline.

Farewell to the Conventual Mass each morning.

Farewell to the Scriptorium, with its book-lined walls and book-covered tables, desks and chairs.

Farewell to the monastery garden, with its trees, the sound of babbling water, the beehives and overhanging vines.

Farewell to the Benedictine Centre for Arts and Studies at Overton House, and seminars on Latin and Liturgy.

Farewell to a garden friendly to the birds and the bees, to beasts and to me.

Farewell to the labyrinth that led me round in circles and brought me back to the centre.

Farewell to the leafy lanes beloved of John Betjeman, where ‘bell-haunted quiet falls’ on a Sunday.

Farewell to the Ealing of green spaces at Haven Green, Ealing Green and Ealing Common.

Farewell to the Ealing of Ealing Studios and Ealing Comedy.

Farewell to the Ealing of Charles Blondin, who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and lived in retirement at Niagara House in Little Ealing.

Farewell to the Ealing of Billy Smart, once owner of the best-known circus.

Farewell to the Ealing of Brentham Garden Suburb, which was before its time.

Farewell to the Ealing of Castlebar Road, which has no connections with Co Mayo

Farewell to the Ealing of Maria Fitzherbert, who lived at Castlehilll Lodge, married a king and never became a queen.

Farewell to the Ealing of Agatha Christie, whose grandmother in Ealing may have been morphed into Miss Marple.

Farewell to the Ealing of Nevil Shute, who lived in West Ealing before his father moved to Dublin in 1912.

Farewell to the Ealing of the Revd William Dodd, the ‘Macaroni Parson’ whose forgery led to his death on the gallows.

Farewell to the Ealing of Ealing Broadway, riots, tubes and trains.

Farewell to the Ealing of Michael Saward, hymns and a family of indescribable bravery.

Farewell to the Ealing where Margot Fontayne had her first dancing lessons.

Farewell to the Ealing where Thomas Henry Huxley spent his boyhood.

Farewell to the Ealing of Philip Lawrence, who once taught.

Farewell to the Ealing of Freddie Mercury, who studied at Ealing College of Art, when he was still known as Faroukh Bulsara.

Farewell to the Ealing of Dusty Springfield, who was known as Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien when she went to school here and later worked in Bentall’s in Ealing.

Farewell to the Ealing of John Henry Newman, who went to Great Ealing School with his brother.

Farewell to the Ealing of Father Richard O’Hallloran, a petulant and pugnacious priest from Ireland who battled with Cardinal Vaughan and was excommunicated.

Farewell to the Ealing of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

Farewell to the Ealing of Fred Perry and Lillian Board.

Farewell to the Ealing of Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, who was a teacher at Great Ealing School before being crowned King of France.

Farewell to the Ealing of Saint Benedict’s, where Chris Patten, Julian Clary and Peter Ackroyd went to school.

Farewell to the Ealing of Pitshanger Lane, with its Greek and Italian restaurants, it friendly coffee shops, talkative newsagents, useful laundrettes and dry cleaners, its village atmosphere, and to the Village Inn.

Farewell to the Ealing of Thomas Merton, who in The Seven Storey Mountain tells of living in Ealing for a time with his aunt and uncle.

Farewell to the Ealing of Saint Peter’s Church, where I received a warm welcome last Sunday morning.

Farewell to the Ealing that welcomed me warmly, to Ealing Abbey that extended warm hospitality and to the monks who became friends.

And in the words of John Betjeman,

Return, return to Ealing,
Worn poet of the farm!
Regain your boyhood feeling
Of uninvaded calm!


Receiving my certificate at the end of my course from Dom Ephrem Carr (centre), President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo, Rome, and Professor of Eastern Liturgies at Sant’Anselmo and the Patristic Institute, the Augustinianum, in Rome, and Dom James Leachmann (right), Director of the Institutum Liturgicum, Ealing Abbey, Professor of Liturgy, the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy, San’Anselmo, and guest professor, KU Leuven

I called to Kingston and found the ‘Bishop out of Residence’

The ‘Bishop out of Residence’ on the banks of the Thames at Kingston upon Thames (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2102)

Patrick Comerford

I had dinner last night with friends who live in Kingston upon Thames, in south-west London, about 10 miles from Charing Cross.

Kingston was once the place where the Saxon kings of Kent and Wessex were crowned by the Archbishops of Canterbury. Until 1965, Kingston was part of Surrey, and the administrative headquarters of Surrey County Council are still here. Today it is part of suburban London, but it retains many of its historical sites, and before dinner I had a walk around the town centre to look at some of them.

Kingston was occupied by the Romans and later it was either a royal residence or demesne. Kingston was built at the first crossing point of the Thames upstream from London Bridge and a bridge still stands on the same site.

The ruins of Saint Mary’s Chapel, said to have been the site of the coronation of the Anglo-Saxon kings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The name means “the king’s manor or estate,” and this place was first mentioned in 838 as the site of a meeting between King Egbert of Wessex and Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury.

In the tenth century, several Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned in Kingston, including Æthelstan (925) and Eadred (946). Other kings who may have been crowned there include Edward the Elder (902), Edmund (939), Eadwig (956), Edgar (ca 960) and Saint Edward the Martyr (975). Finally, and Æthelred the Unready (979) was crowned here by Bishop Oswald of Worcester in 978. Local historians claim these coronations took place in the chapel of Saint Mary.

All Saints’ Church is the only Grade I listed building in Kingston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We began our walking tour of Kingston at All Saints’ Church, the town’s 12th century parish church, set between the ancient Market Place and the main shopping centre. It is the only Grade I listed building in Kingston.

The present church, which was begun in 1120, is a cruciform church with a central tower and a four-bay nave, with perpendicular clerestory, choir, north and south aisles, transepts and chapels. The exterior is of flint with stone dressings and a parapet of stone battlements.

Inside, the church has a 14th-century wall painting of Saint Blaise, a 17th-century marble font attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, 12 bells and an 18th-century carillon and several notable monuments.

The original high wooden spire on top of the tower was struck by lightning in 1445 and was rebuilt in 1505. The tower was taken down to the level of the nave and was rebuilt in 1708.

Outside the south door of the church are some outlines marked by stones – all that remains of the Saxon church and chapel of Saint Mary, where the Saxon kings had been crowned. Saint Mary’s Chapel, which also contained royal effigies collapsed in 1730, burying the sexton, who was digging a grave.

The ‘Coronation Stone’ was moved to the market place and railed off in 1850 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A large stone was recovered from the ruins and has been pointed to as the Coronation Stone. In 1850, it was moved to the market place and railed off.

The statue of Queen Anne appears to preside over the Market Square in Kingston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Nearby, in the square in front of the old Market Hall, stands a fine gold-coloured statue of a later monarch, Queen Anne, who appears to be presiding benignly over the shoppers, the stall-holders and the coffee drinkers.

The Clattern Bridge over the Hogsmill River (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Clattern Bridge over the Hogsmill River is mentioned in 1293 as “Clateryngbrugge.” From there we walked through the streets, admiring some of the older Tudor buildings and the remaining coaching houses, including the Druid’s Head, which claims to be the first place where the dessert syllabub was made in the 18th century. It was here too that Jerome K Jerome began his novel Three Men in a Boat.

Late evening by the Thames looking across at the grounds of Hampton Court Palace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We then strolled along the south banks of the Thames, with its lively river frontage of bars and restaurants. On the other side, a tree-lined river bank fronts the expanse of the park at Hampton Court, built by Cardinal Wolsey in 1520.

But the building with the most amusing name is a bar called Bishop out of Residence. The name refers to the Bishop’s Palace, built here by the river here for William de Wykeham (1376-1404), Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England. He was born a peasant and died one of the wealthiest men in England, but seems to have spent little time at his palace in Kingston – and so a new pub is a reminder of old times.

And the it was back to dinner with good friends before returning through Richmond, Ham and Kew to Ealing Abbey.

‘Gazette’ report on Hiroshima Day commemoration


This week’s edition of The Church of Ireland Gazette [24 August 2012] carries this front-page news report and photograph. The report says:

‘Nuclear weapons morally abhorrent’
says Canon Comerford, Irish CND President


“The notion that any State could claim to be interested in democracy, peace, stability and progress while promoting, developing or threatening to use nuclear weapons is not just beyond credibility – it is morally abhorrent,” according to the President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Canon Patrick Comerford, who was speaking at this year’s recent Hiroshima Day commemorations at Dublin’s Merrion Square.

“There is no morality in a political system that depends for its survival on the threat to destroy the survival of all,” the Church of Ireland Theological Institute lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy told the gathering.

The other speakers were the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr Clare Byrne; the Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission at the Japanese Embassy of Ireland, Kojiro Uchiyama; and the Chair of Irish CND, Dr David Hutchinson-Edgar.

Canon Comerford said that in the current economic crisis, “where millions and millions of people around the world are living in poverty, without access to the bare necessities of life, more than $1 trillion a year is spent on weapons and €100 billion of that is spent on nuclear weapons. In a world racked by poverty, this is a moral outrage.”

He said there were more than 23,000 nuclear weapons in place today, “despite the fact that the Cold War is long over and almost forgotten. For as long as these weapons continue to exist, the threat they pose to humanity remains.”

He added that while the Irish Government’s foreign policy strongly endorsed nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, “these commitments are not matched by Irish financial policies”.

Canon Comerford pointed out that the National Pension Reserve Fund, according to its 2011 report, had investments of at least €23 million in international arms companies that produced single-use components for the nuclear weapons industry, and that AI B, which is in majority State ownership, lent $28m to a US company involved in the nuclear weapons industry in 2010.

“People are being refused mortgages, small businesses are being bled to death because their overdraft facilities are being called in, but Irish money is available to make nuclear weapons. This is outrageous,” he stated.

“Other countries that play a leading role in support of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament – such as Norway and New Zealand – prohibit the investment of State funds in companies involved in the nuclear weapons industry,” Canon Comerford said. “There is a similar ban in Ireland on investments in companies engaged in the landmine and cluster munitions industries. Why is the Government not ensuring a similar ban when it comes to the nuclear weapons industry?”

Friday, 24 August 2012

‘No, not Angles, but Angels’

With the Angels and the Angles at Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

There is a custom in monastic houses of eating community meals in silence. Often the silence is maintained gently by a monk reading during the meal from the Bible and the martyrologies. In Orthodox monasteries I have also heard readings from Patristic writings, and in Benedictine houses the readings are often from the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Last night during dinner, we heard from the martyrologies about Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, whose feast day is today [24 August]. And, like most evenings this week, we also heard some extracts from The Mitre and the Crown: A History of the Archbishops of Canterbury (2005) by Dom Aidan Bellenger and Stella Fletcher.

Dom Aidan Bellenger is the Abbot of Downside Abbey and former headmaster; Stella Fletcher is a lecturer and writer on history. His books include Medieval Worlds (2002) and two histories of Downside Abbey, while her books include the Longman Companion to Renaissance Europe (1999). Together, they have also written Princes of the Church: the English Cardinals. (2001).

Some of the accounts of the Archbishops of Canterbury sound amusing today, although you have to wonder how many of them spent much time in their diocese before the last century as most of them lived between Lambeth Palace and their country seats. Indeed, we heard last night of one archbishop who was enthroned by proxy. It makes you ask what kept him so busy that day that he had to send someone else along to let the chapter, the dean and God know that he had taken up his appointment – delayed by another appointment, perhaps.

The English Benedictines trace their story back to monasteries founded in the seventh century by Saint Wilfrid and Saint Benet Biscop, who were inspired by what they saw of the monastery at Canterbury, founded by Saint Augustine, who had been sent to England by Pope Saint Gregory.

Bede recalls the story of Pope Gregory seeing fair-skinned, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon boys being sold in the slave market in Rome, and asking: “Who are these people?”

“They are Angles,” was the reply.

Non Angli sed Angeli,” replied Gregory. “No, not Angles, but Angels,” After he became the first monk to be elected pope in 590, Gregory sent Augustine, Prior of his former monastery of Saint Andrew on the Coelian Hill in Rome, to England in 597 with a group of 40 monks.

The Saint Augustine Gospels, which are kept in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, are still used at the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Rowan Williams showed them to Pope Benedict XVI during the Pope’s visit to England last year, and they should get another outing next year when a new Archbishop of Canterbury is enthroned. br />
The chain of succession from Augustine’s Benedictines was broken with the Viking invasions of England. But the Benedictine tradition was revived with the monasteries restored by Saint Dunstan, Saint Ethelwold and Saint Oswald in the tenth century.

Inside Saint Benedict’s Church at Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

This Benedictine tradition in England survived through the Reformation, and it is interesting, listening this week in Ealing Abbey to realise that at least 16 of the Archbishops of Canterbury between the year 960 and the Reformation were Benedictine monks, including Dunstan, Lanfranc and Anselm, and another four were Archbishops of York.

IBenedictine monks who were bishops in Ireland have included John Stokes, Bishop of Kilmore, who was a Suffragan Bishop in Lichfield in 1407; John Chourles, who was Bishop of Dromore (1410-1433), but spent most of his time as a Suffragan Bishop in Canterbury (1420-1433); Robert Mulfield, a Cistercian monk of Meaux, who was Bishop of Killaloe but spent all that time as a suffragan in the Diocese of Lichfield from 1418 to about 1440; and Robert Blyth, Abbot of Thorney and Bishop of Down and Connor, who was a suffragan in the Diocese of Ely from 1520-1541.

In addition, at least 18 of the Reformation bishops were Benedictine or Cistercian monks. Today, there are more than half a dozen Anglican communities and houses in England who also follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, including Edgware Abbey, Malling Abbey, Saint Benedict’s Priory in Salisbury, Costock Convent, Mucknell Abbey, Alton Abbey and Saint Hilda’s Priory in Whitby.

It has been interesting to spend the past two weeks with the Angels and the Angles in Ealing Abbey. I return to Dublin at the weekend.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Reading ancient Greek and Latin texts in the Scriptorum

Working away in the Scriptorum, overlooking grounds of Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I’ve been working way for the past fortnight in the Scriptorum in the Institutum Liturgicum, on the top of floor of the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre.

The book-lined room overlooks the gardens and grounds of Saint Benedict’s Abbey, Ealing, and I’ve taken the occasional quiet stroll around the labyrinth beside the centre on Castle Road.

Over these two weeks, I have been working the guidance of Dom Ephrem Carr, President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo in Rome and Professor of Eastern Liturgies at the Patristic Institute, the Augustinianum, also in Rome.

In addition, I’ve been able to attend some classes in advanced Latin with Dom Daniel McCarthy, head of liturgy at the Institutum Liturgicum and a former lecturer in liturgy at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome.

During these past two weeks, under the guidance of Father Ephraim, I have been looking at Eucharistic texts or anaphora from the first four centuries of the Church. We have paid particular attention to three texts: The Apostolic Tradition (the so-called Hippolytus anaphora), the anaphora of the Testamentum Domini, and the anaphora in The Apostolic Constitution (Book 8).

We have been looking at the basic structures of the prayers, their Biblical roots, and the parallels between the texts and where they differ. Someunexpected times there have been delights as we looked at the original texts in Greek, Latin and Syriac.

This has then allowed me to take a fresh look at the three prayers in the second Eucharistic rite in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004). And this, in turn, has led me to going back to the origins of the Eucharistic prayers in the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, 1552 and 1662, as well as the 17th century prayer in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

It may sound boring or arcane to anyone who is not a liturgist, but it has been a refreshing and revitalising course, and has made me think afresh of how we pray the Eucharist.

The fruits and rewards of the course come not in finishing the essay or receiving the certificate, but in putting into practice what I have learned both in my lectures and in how I take part in the Eucharist.

There has been time to walk through the labyrinth at the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre at Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Monastic traditions ... part of the English way of life

Inside the Abbey Church in Ealing ... the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Following the daily cycle of prayer with the monks of Ealing Abbey, with the psalms, canticles, antiphonies, Scripture readings and prayers, I am working with the reality of a shared tradition in the Benedictine offices and the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.

Dom James Leachman, a monk of Ealing Abbey, Director of the Institutum Liturgicam here, and Professor of Liturgy at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Sant’Anselmo, Rome, says the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches are “two vigorous traditions” on these islands that “nourish the life of learning and prayer of millions of Christians.”

Writing in the current edition of the Benedictine Yearbook (2012), he says: “Both traditions find shared and deep root in British and Irish soil and in the history of our islands ... we are constantly present to each other.”

It could be said that he Anglican Reformation made the essentials of Benedictine spirituality and prayer life immediately accessible through the Book of Common Prayer.

At the heart of Anglicanism there is no one towering reformer, such as a Luther or a Calvin; nor is there one key theological doctrine, such as predestination with the Calvinists or Baptism with the Baptists, or a moral code such as pacifism with the Quakers. Instead, the Book of Common Prayer is the key to understanding the Anglican Reformation, giving the Anglican Reformation a clearly Benedictine spirit and flavour.

In addition, the basic principles that shape the Book of Common Prayer are Benedictine in spirit. For example, the spirituality of the Rule of Saint Benedict is built on three key elements that form the substance of the Book of Common Prayer: the community Eucharist, the divine office, and personal prayer with biblical, patristic and liturgical strands woven together.

The Anglican Benedictine monk and theologian, Dom Bede Thomas Mudge, once argued that the Benedictine spirit is at the root of the Anglican way of prayer in a very pronounced way. The example and influence of the Benedictine monastery, with its rhythm of the daily office and the Eucharist; the tradition of learning and lectio divina; and the family relationship among an Abbot and his community, have influenced the pattern of Anglican spirituality.

In a unique way, the Book of Common Prayer continues the basic monastic pattern of the Eucharist and the divine office as the principal public forms of worship.

On a regular basis, through the day, in the office and in their spiritual life, Benedictines pray the psalms. The church historian Peter Anson believed that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s great work of genius was in condensing the traditional Benedictine scheme of hours into the two offices of Matins and Evensong. In this way, Anglicanism is a kind of generalised monastic community, with the Book of Common Prayer preserving the foundations of monastic prayer.

As a monastic form of prayer, the Book of Common Prayer retains the framework of choral worship but simplified so that ordinary people can share in the daily office and the daily psalms.

Among the Caroline divines, John Cosin, George Herbert, William Laud, Jeremy Taylor and others produced a whole literature of personal and liturgical prayer that enriched Anglican spirituality even more and recovered additional elements of the Benedictine monastic heritage. This heritage nourished the monastic-like life of Nicholas Ferrar and his family in their community at Little Gidding.

By the 17th century, John Bramhall, Archbishop of Armagh, was lamenting the dissolution of the monasteries:

First, we fear that covetousness had a great oar in the boat, and that sundry of the principal actors had a greater aim at the goods of the Church than at the good of the Church ... Secondly, we examine not whether the abuses which were then brought to light were true or feigned; but this we believe, that foundations, which were good in their original institution ought not to be destroyed for accessory abuses ...I do not see why monasteries might not agree well enough with reformed devotion.

Nevertheless, the story of Nicholas Ferrar and his community at Little Gidding influenced many Anglican theologians, poets and writers, from George Herbert and Isaac Walton to TS Eliot. Later, many Benedictine houses were founded throughout the Anglican Communion in the 19th century.

Of course, Benedictine monasticism predates the divisions in the Western Church, and it could be described as a kind of “ecumenical anamnesis that makes a shared heritage present and living, and that opens up fresh horizons for ecumenical hope and commitment.

Nor has the Benedictine family forgotten its familial and historical ties with many cathedrals throughout the Church of England.

Before the dissolution of the monasteries, there were nine Benedictine cathedral priories in England: Canterbury, Winchester, Worcester, Durham, Norwich, Rochester, Ely, Coventry and Bath. Others before that had included Sherborne, Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey.

Many people are confused about whether Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey should be called cathedrals; indeed, the origins of the English cathedral priories vary, they differ in status, and their organisation differed too.

Where the bishop was a monk, he would act as abbot of the cathedral monastery and bishop of the diocese, but in the bishop’s absence all jurisdiction was delegated to the prior. Where the bishop was not a monk, he would appoint a prior as superior of the cathedral monastery.

After 1215, there were few Benedictine bishops and the cathedral priors were given the right to use pontificalia and to sit with the abbots in Parliament. The Benedictine cathedral priories, like all the religious houses in England, were dissolved by the crown during the reign of Henry VIII. What is often overlooked is that their dissolution was confirmed by the papal bull Praeclara in 1555 on the recommendation of Cardinal Reginald Pole.

In 1633, however, the papal bull Plantata gave the General Chapter of the English Benedictines the right to appoint priors to the former cathedral priories. Because the Benedictine abbeys of Gloucester, Peterborough and Chester had also become cathedrals, the bull appointed cathedral priors to these as well. Cathedral priors were appointed in the belief of England would soon become loyal to Rome and the titular priors would re-establish the cathedral priories.

When the Roman Catholic hierarchy was established in England in 1850, some people thought these titles would be quietly dropped, as it was obvious the old cathedrals would continue to be part of the Church of England. But the memory of the mediaeval cathedral priories remained and the cathedral priors continue to be appointed.

Staying at Ealing Abbey ... with a window onto the wider world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

For some people, the idea of a monastery in the suburbs in London must seem a contradiction in terms. But the efforts to establish a cathedral priory in the Diocese of Westminster continued. These efforts bore fruit in 1916 with the foundation of Ealing Priory, now Ealing Abbey, where I have been staying these two weeks. When Ealing Priory became Ealing Abbey in 1955, it was the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation.

Recently, some of the cathedral priors have been invited to join the chapters of the Church of England cathedrals from which they take their names or titles. When Dom Finbar Kealy of Douai Abbey was appointed the titular Prior of Canterbury Cathedral five years ago, he was invited to join the chapter as an ecumenical canon.

Many of the cathedral deans and chapters are keen to stress their Benedictine roots, some of them holding “Benedictine weeks” with groups of monks, led by the cathedral prior, residing for the week to sing the office and give a programme of lectures.

In addition, a ruling the Benedictine abbot who resigns is often invited to be become the titular abbot of an ancient abbey that longer has a monastic community. A former Abbot of Ealing is now the titular Abbot of Evesham. The nine abbeys whose stories and memories are kept alive in this way are: Lindisfarne, Whitby, Shrewsbury, Evesham, Sherborne, Tewkesbury, Bury St Edmunds, Westminster and Gloucester.

And, come to think of it, I never thought Westminster Abbey had a titular abbot. But it all goes to show how ecumenical co-operation can strengthen family bonds, and how much the Benedictines have remained part of English life.

There’s even an old cutting from the Daily Telegraph on the desk in my room in Ealing Abbey that says the Benedictine tradition is so rooted in English life and culture that: “Some claim to see the Benedictine spirit in the rules of Cricket.”

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The ‘leafy avenues’ of Betjeman’s Ealing

Betjeman’s Ealing was a suburb of ‘uninvaded calm’ and ‘leafy avenues’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

John Betjeman’s poem Return to Ealing, which I quoted yesterday when I was discussing my visit to Saint Peter’s parish, was first published as Lines written to Martyn Skinner before his Departure from Oxfordshire is Search of Quiet – 1961.

Betjeman’s friend, the poet and writer Martyn Skinner (1906-1994), is best remembered for his long poem The Return of Arthur, and was also a close friend of the Benedictine Dom Bede Griffiths.

Betjeman could be scathing about suburban developments around London, and once, during World War II penned the often quoted line for which many never forgave him:

Come, friendly bombs, and drop on Slough.

But if that is what he thought of Slough, he seems to have had a better liking for Ealing. The poet was a keen conservation campaigner, and with his support the Bedford Park Society succeeded in having Ealing Borough Society declare its first conservation area in 1969. Later, Betjeman provided a foreword for Ealing Walkabout: Journeys into the History of a London Borough by Kate McEwan.

His poem Return to Ealing was written over half a century ago, in 1961, even before the construction of the Great West Road. In my walks about Ealing, I think – despite his witty sarcasm – Betjeman enjoyed Ealing, but feared, just as the hayfields of Perivale disappeared, the looming expansion of Heathrow Airport would destroy the tranquillity of the skies above Ealing.

I wonder what he would make of Ealing if he were to return today.

The leafy surroundings of Betjeman’s Ealing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Return to Ealing, by John Betjeman

Return, return to Ealing,
Worn poet of the farm!
Regain your boyhood feeling
Of uninvaded calm!
For there the leafy avenues
Of lime and chestnut mix’d
Do widely wind, by art designed,
The costly houses ’twixt.

No early morning tractors
The thrush and blackbird drown,
No nuclear reactors
Bulge huge below the down,
No youth upon his motor-bike
His lust for power fulfil
With dentist’d drill intent to kill
The silence of the hills.

In Ealing on a Sunday
Bell-haunted quiet falls,
In Ealing on a Monday
‘Milk-o!’ the milkman calls;
No lorries grind in bottom gear
Up steep and narrow lanes,
Nor constant here offend the ear
Low-flying aeroplanes.

Return, return to Ealing,
Worn poet of the farm!
Regain your boyhood feeling
Of uninvaded calm!
Where smoothly glides the bicycle
And softly flows the Brent
And a gentle gale from Perivale
Sends up the hayfield scent.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Sunday morning in a lively and vigorous parish in Ealing

Saint Peter’s Church, Mount Park Road ... describes itself as lively and vigorous (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

In his poem Return to Ealing, John Betjeman recalls quiet Sunday mornings in the tree-lined suburban streets, and he writes:

In Ealing on a Sunday
Bell-haunted quiet falls …


“Bell-haunted quiet” fell on Ealing yesterday morning [Sunday 19 August 2012], and I had a choice of churches to go to. The nearest Church of England parish church went to Saint Peter’s, on the junction of Mount Park Road and Montpelier Road, a five-minute walk from Ealing Abbey.

Liturgically, Saint Peter’s is in the contemporary liberal Catholic tradition in Anglicanism, describing itself as lively and vigorous in its faith. The worship is focused on the 10 am Sunday Parish Mass, with vestments, music and incense. Evening Prayer is said every Sunday, with Book of Common Prayer Evensong on the first Sunday of the month and weekly in Advent and Lent. The church is open daily from 8.45 am to 6 pm, and sees this as an important part of its mission.

Mass this Sunday morning was celebrated by the new vicar, the Revd David Neno, and the preacher was the Reader, Susan Peatfield, who usually supervises the Junior Church and also preaches regularly. Saint Peter’s has two NSM priests who are assistant curates and share the liturgy and the work of the parish: the Revd Dr Margaret Joachim, who celebrating Mass this morning in another nearby Anglican parish church, Saint Barnabas on Pitshanger Lane, and the Revd Keith Stephenson.

Saint Peter’s has had a succession of well-known organists. The Director of Music, Mark James, who played the organ this morning, previously worked with the boy Choristers of Ely Cathedral as the Choir House Music Tutor. Saint Peter’s encourages active lay participation leading readings, intercessions and the offertory, and as Ministers of the Eucharist, and the liturgical procession this morning included two acolytes, a thurifer, a crucifer, the reader and the celebrant.

Over coffee in the parish centre afterwards, I received a warm welcome from the parishioners and was told that in recent years, there have been parish pilgrimages to Turkey and Syria. There was a lively Traidcraft stall, and I also heard the parish supports the Sudanese Development Programme and School run by Father Joseph Choufar, and an ordained Consultant Ophthalmologist working in Nigeria, and also supports ALMA – the link between the Diocese of London and the Anglican Church in Mozambique and Angola.

Saint Peter’s Church stands at the junction of Mount Park Road and Montpelier Road ... typical of the tree-lined suburban streets recalled by John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Peter’s stands at the junction of Mount Park Road and Montpelier Road. The parish is in the Deanery of Ealing and the Willesden Episcopal Area of Bishop Pete Broadbent within the Diocese of London. Saint Benedict’s Abbey is on its western side of the parish, central Ealing to the south, and the A40 and North Circular Road are on its eastern and northern fringes.

Both the church and the vicarage are within a Conservation Area and the parish is made up of mainly residential properties with just a few offices, shops and pubs, and a population of 7,051. Over 57% of these people describe themselves as Christian, unemployment levels are relatively low, and a high proportion of the people are in higher managerial or professional jobs. About 12% of the congregation are from ethnic and linguistic minorities.

The parish was formed in 1894 out of the parish of Christ Church (now Christ the Saviour on Ealing Broadway) to serve the growing suburban areas north of Haven Green. Before that the area had been served from 1882 by an iron church.

Saint Peter’s ... described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “the premier architectural work in Ealing” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Peter’s recently received a grant of £156,000 for high-level masonry repairs to the turrets, and part of the building is covered in cladding and scaffolding. But this is a Grade II* listed building, and Saint Peter’s rivals Saint Benedict’s at Ealing Abbey as one of the finest churches in Ealing. The architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described Saint Peter’s as described as “the premier architectural work in Ealing.”

The church was designed by John Dando Sedding, who was chosen from among three architects who entered a competition in 1889. His revised plan appeared in The Architect in 1890, and was complimented by The Builder: “The whole thing is a piece of real originality in design, which is refreshing to come across after seeing so many repetitions of old forms, Classic and Gothic.”

However, Sedding died before the building began, and the church was completed in 1892-1893 by his pupil Henry Wilson, who brought an Arts and Crafts approach to the design. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria’s third daughter, Princess Helena (Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein).

The church is built in free Gothic style, with a three-bay nave, two-bay choir, in yellow stock brick with stone mouldings, arches, quoins, buttresses and tracery.

The South Chapel in Saint Peter’s was built alongside the chancel in 1913 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Although the planned tower was never built, the structure has been added to continuously over the years, so that a side chapel, which now serves as the parish office, was built in the south transept in 1912, the proper south chapel was built alongside the chancel in 1913, and the Chapel of the Incarnation was refurbished as the War Memorial Chapel in 1919.

Later, the east wall was panelled in oak, a large carved oak reredos was installed, an oak screen was added to the west end of the chapel and the east wall was painted with angels and an Annunciation scene. A nativity scene was painted on the front of the chapel altar in 1928, a statue of Saint Peter was installed in 1948, a figure of Christ in Majesty was attached to the east wall above the high altar in 1958, and figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Michael the Archangel were added on either side in 1960. The animal carvings I could see in the choir include an elephant, a giraffe, an ox and a lion.

The large west window and the lack of stained glass means Saint Peter’s is filled with light (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Although a lack of funds in the early decades means very little stained glass was fitted in the church, this has made the church very light inside, and the church has two unusual architectural features:

(a) the enormous, deeply recessed west window divided into three lights by buttresses rather than mullions and in a mixture of gothic and art deco designs; and

(b) the internal piers that penetrate the roof and are completed with turrets that stick out halfway up and are connected by depressed arches.

The keys of Saint Peter on the gates into the church gardens and parish centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Across the corner from the church, a small park offers shade from the summer sun. Should I come back again on another Sunday, perhaps I shall find myself recalling those opening words of Betjeman’s poem:

Return, return to Ealing,
Worn poet of the farm!
Regain your boyhood feeling
Of uninvaded calm!
For there the leafy avenues
Of lime and chestnut mix’d
Do widely wind, by art designed,
The costly houses ’twixt.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A day in the West Country

A glass of wine beneath a spreading tree on the lawns behind the Talbot Inn in Quemerford, Wiltshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Everyone had said it was going to be a heat-wave in London on Saturday [18 August 2012], with temperatures rising to 30 or higher. But, with a day off, it seemed like a good idea to head out into the West Country.

I caught an early train from Paddington out through Slough, Reading and Swindon and through flat green and golden fields to Chippenham in north Wiltshire. From there, it was a short bus journey through farmland and fields to Calne, where I spent the best part of the day.

In cooler sunshine than London was experiencing, I enjoyed strolling around the town and walking out as far as the former village of Quemerford, which is now an extended part of Calne on the road out past the White Horse and on to Marlborough.

The gates into Holy Trinity Church, Quemerford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Quemerford House was recently placed on the market, and the old name plate on the gates has fallen off or has been removed.

But, apart from a cavalcade of vintage cars that passed through Quemerford with joy, it was a quiet and sleepy day in this part of Wiltshire, where time had little meaning.

A curious clock in Quemerford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After a stroll out in the countryside past Quemerford Farm, I returned to the Talbot Inn in Quemerford to sip a glass of wine and to read the Guardian before walking back into Calne.

The Tounson Almshouses,dating from 1682, and Saint Mary’s Church in Calne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I spent some more time in Calne, walking around the Green, through Saint Mary’s churchyard and courtyard, by the 17th century Tounson Almshouses, and by Doctor’s Pond, where Joseph Priestly is said to have “discovered” oxygen while he was working as a librarian for Lord Lansdowne at the nearby Bowood estate.

I have stayed at the White Hart, on the corner of the Green, on a number of occasions in recent years, and for a moment just wondered this afternoon whether I ought to have booked in there for the night, and lingered a little longer in the West Country.

Before catching the train back to London, I strolled around the old market town in Chippenham for an hour, and through the Saturday market.

As I was about to have a sandwich in a café by the Avon, I noticed seven swans a swimming in the river. But today’s weather was so good it was difficult to think of Christmas.

Seven swans a swimming in the Avon at Chippenham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

When I got back to Ealing Abbey, it was a balmy and bright evening. I strolled down to Pitshanger Lane and had dinner in the local Greek restaurant, Atlantis. The conversations were about Athens and Thessaloniki, Olympia and Lesbos, Rhodes and Corinth, Crete and how to get to Kastellorizo.

After the weather we’ve had over the last few months in Ireland and in England, the summer celebrations and the memories we can cherish are going to be important when it comes around again to singing about seven swans a swimming.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

From Ealing Abbey to Downton Abbey and Ealing Studios

Ealing Studios ... home of great British films (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

After lunch in Ealing Abbey on Friday afternoon [17 August] I strolled back down to the centre of Ealing to have a look at Ealing Studios, the oldest working film studio in the world and the only British studio that produces and distributes feature films as well as providing facilities.

Ealing Studios stands beside Pitzhanger Manor House, which I visited the day before, and both face onto Ealing Green, just off the High Street and Ealing Broadway.

The main office building facing Ealing Green is now part of the University of West London, and the studios have been developed in recent years into a “leading media centre” housing new stages and studios with state-of-the-art facilities for television and film-making.

But, putting today’s agenda aside, I was reminded how much I enjoyed the great Ealing classics and Ealing has always defined the British Film Industry, from producing the first screen version of Hamlet in 1912, through the 1940s and 1950s with classics that included The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport To Pimlico, and Kind Hearts and Coronets.

But Ealing Studios has moved on since then, and over the past 15 years five of the top 20 highest grossing British independent films, including the Saint Trinian’s franchise, have been produced here. Saint Trinian’s, starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Gemma Arterton, became the third most successful UK independent movie within months of its release in 2007.

Ealing has also been home too to Bridget Jones’ Baby, Downton Abbey, and Johnny English – all a long way, I think, from Ealing Abbey in so many ways.

Ealing Studios is the world’s oldest continuously working film studio, and the Ealing comedies of the 1950s still rank among the high points of British cinema, with stars like Alec Guiness, Alastair Sim and Peter Sellars. The story of Ealing Studios begins in 1902, when Will Barker, a pioneer of British cinema, bought the site in 1902. Basil Dean took over in the early 1930s and Ealing Studios was established.

A golden era of British film-making began when Michael Balcon joined Ealing Studios in 1938. He began making a series of real life dramas during World War II. Then as Britain laboured under post-war rationing, Balcon and his team produced a series of classic comedies that captured the spirit of the age.

They included The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. They have recurring themes that resonated with the social upheaval that came in the wake of World War II: the little people rising up against the establishment; an anarchic whimsy born out of real-life experience; a cast of characters embodying the confusion and moral ambiguity of the times; and, of course, raffish charm.

The BBC bought Ealing Studios in 1955 and over the next 40 years used the studios to create television productions such as Colditz, The Singing Detective and Monty Python.

Later the studios were bought later the National Film and Television School, but by the end of the 20th century they were in decline and were bought by new owners. Ealing Studios has since returned to its core business, producing high profile films like Notting Hill, Star Wars – Episode 2, and Bridget Jones 2.

Ealing Studios remain part of a great British tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But my favourite Ealing classics include these six:

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) tells the story of Louis D’Ascoyne, a distant poor relative of the Duke of D’Ascoyne, who plots to inherit the title by murdering the eight other heirs who stand ahead of him in the line of succession. In the course of his systematic but undetected elimination of the D’Ascoynes (all played by Alec Guinness), Louis becomes intimate with Edith (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of the D’Ascoynes he has murdered. This creates some tension with his long-time girlfriend Sibella (Joan Greenwood).

Once he has successfully executed his homicidal plan, Louis inherits the tile he has coveted for so long . However, in a strange twist of irony, he is implicated in a murder that he has not committed, is found guilty, and is imprisoned.

Passport to Pimlico (1949) opens with an unexploded bomb accidentally going off in the London Borough of Pimlico just after World War II. It reveals a trove of ancient documents, granting the area to the Duke of Burgundy. When the residents declare independence from Britain, the area is sealed off the government and services are cut off. Passport controls are set up, but the ‘Burgundians’ fight back. Eventually, the conflict is resolved by a very British compromise and they all celebrate with a street party as the rain begins to fall.

The scenes of well-wishers beating the siege to deliver supplies to the residents of Pimlico must have had a resonance at the time, for the film was shot in the same year as the Berlin Blockade. A generation later, Passport to Pimlico inspired the residents of Freston Road, a street in Notting Hill, to declare independence from the UK as Frestonia in 1977 and applied to join the UN. They even produced their own stamps and passports.

Whisky Galore (1949) is based on the real-life story of the 1941 shipwreck of the SS Politician and the unauthorised spiriting way of its cargo of whisky as Scottish islanders took advantage of an unexpected windfall. When 50,000 cases of whisky are stranded on a ship that runs aground, the inhabitants of a Scottish island sniff an opportunity. Unfortunately, a Home Guard captain (an Englishman) stands in their way.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1950) sees Alec Guinness play the part of Holland, a shy retiring man who dreams of being rich and living the good life. For 20 years, he has worked faithfully as a bank transfer agent for the delivery of gold bullion. One day he befriends Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a manufacturer of souvenirs. Holland realises that Pendlebury’s smelting equipment could forge the gold into harmless-looking toy Eiffel Towers that would allow him to smuggle the gold to France. The pair link up with two professional criminals, Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass), and the four plot their crime, with unexpected twists and turns.

The Man in the White Suit (1951) is about Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), a brilliant but obsessed young researcher, who invents a fabric that never gets dirty and never wears out. From this fabric he makes a white and luminous that wins plaudits from the factory owners. But the management and the unions realise his invention will put the textile industry out of business, and he falls foul of both sides as they battle against his invention.

The climax sees Stratton running through the streets at night in his glowing white suit, pursued by managers and workers. His suit begins to break apart as the chemical structure of the fibre breaks apart with time. Realising his yarn has a flaw, the mob tears off his suit. He is left standing in his underwear, but remains unbowed. It is another story from Ealing Studios of the common man against the Establishment.

The Ladykillers (1955) introduces us to Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), who rents a room from Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) as he plans a heist. His gang (Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green), posing as a string quartet, dupe the eccentric landlady into delivering the loot from the successful robbery at King’s Cross Station. But as they leave her house, she discovers the crime and decides to tell the police. The gang members draw lots to decide who shall be the lady-killer. This leads the criminals to double-cross and kill each other, leaving all the money in the hands of Mrs Wilberforce.

But these are not in any particular order – they’re just part of my growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.

What are your favourite Ealing Classics?

Friday, 17 August 2012

Visiting a country house in the suburbs and a suburban village

Pitzhanger Manor House ... a country villa beside Ealing Broadway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I strolled down to Ealing Broadway from Ealing Abbey late yesterday afternoon [Thursday], looking for bookshops, and ended up visiting Pitzhanger Manor House, off Ealing Green and Ealing High Street.

Because of Pitzhanger’s authentic period appearance, and its proximity to Ealing Studios, this old country house in the middle of a west London suburb, has featured in a number of films, including The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) and The Biographer (2000), in which it doubled as Kensington Palace.

The original manor house, Pitshanger Manor – and the spellings vary – stood about a mile or two north until the second half of the 17th century, near the centre of the modern Meadvale Road in the present suburb of Pitshanger. A second house, Pitzhanger Farm, stood on the site of the present manor house from about 1664. In the 18th century, this second house passed from the Wilmer family to Gurnell family of city bankers, and became known as Pitshanger Place.

A new house was built on the site in 1768 by George Dance. The architect John Soane, who had once worked for Dance, bought the place in 1800, along with an estate of 28 acres. He planned to use the house as his weekend retreat in the country and for entertaining.

He immediately set to work on building a new Pitzhanger Manor-House, and demolished most the older part of the house apart from the two-storey south wing designed by Dance.

Inside Pitzhanger Manor-House, designed by John Soane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The central section of the house, which was completed by 1804, uses many typical Soane features: curved ceilings, inset mirrors, false doors, and wooden panelling with many cupboards. The house is remarkably similar to his main London home at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now the Soane Museum.

Pitzhanger Manor House soon became what Soane saw as “a sort of portrait” – a public statement about his own idiosyncratic architectural style, with its stripped classical detail, radical colour scheme and inventive use of space and light.

However, Soane sold the house in 1810 and it then passed through several hands until 1843, when it became home to the daughters of Spencer Perceval, Britain’s only assassinated Prime Minister.

The house looks out on Soane’s gardens, now known as Walpole Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In 1900, the house was acquired by the local council as a Free Public Library. However, work on converting the building waited until the death of its last resident, Frederika Perceval, in 1901, and it opened to the public in April 1902. Soane’s ornamental gardens and parkland, including his bridge, entrance arch and lodge, became Walpole Park.

Restoration work began after the Library moved out in 1984, and the house opened to the public in 1987 as Ealing’s main museum.

Recent restorations have returned much of the house back to Soane’s original design (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The recent restorations have returned much of the house back to Soane’s original design, using extensive documentation at the Soane Museum, including bills, correspondence with contractors, diaries and drawings to build up an authentic picture of the house in Soane’s time.

The house is now a showcase of Soane’s design and further restoration of the remaining rooms is being planned.

A little corner of Greece in a west London “village” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Meanwhile, the name Pitshanger Village is retained in the area close to the original manor house. The village, which is a mile north of Ealing Broadway, and less than 10 minutes stroll from Ealing Abbey, is a small but busy local centre, centred around the shops in Pitshanger Lane, which runs parallel to and south of Meadvale Road, where the old manor house once stood.

Pitshanger Lane has numerous small shops, several cafés, two pubs, two churches, a library, a school, an Anglican parish church (Saint Barnabas) and a Methodist church side-by-side, a park named Pitshanger Park, and – to my delight for me – a Greek restaurant named Atlantis.

However, there is a hot debate locally whether the area is more accurately called Pitshanger. Some local people argue that the name “Pitshanger Village,” which was not used until after the 1980s, is an invention by estate agents to make the area sound more attractive.

But no-one can argue that Pitshanger Lane has a distinctive local identity and history despite being engulfed by the west London sprawl in the early 20th century.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Finding quiet corners in Ealing, the ‘Queen of the Suburbs’

Solid middle class, professional homes have made Ealing the ‘Queen of the Suburbs’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Ealing cherishes its reputation as the “Queen of the Suburbs.” Estate agents love using the title when they are trying to attract house-buyers, and I could see how during my strolls around Ealing over the past few days.

The population of Ealing grew rapidly after the arrival of the railway in 1838, and the village became a respectable town. The title “Queen of the Suburbs” was invented in the 19th century, signalling the determination of the residents to keep Ealing a resolutely middle class suburb.

As part of that resolve, the town council decided in the 1880s to allow solid homes for the professional middle classes only to be built here, and as a consequence the Victorian terrace houses found throughout other parts of London were pushed to the outer edges of Ealing.

But, with or without estate agents’ jargon, Ealing is now a pleasant suburb in West London and has preserved the feeling of being a proper town, with its Gothic-style town hall, a train station at Ealing Broadway, Ealing Common and Haven Green, which are only a few steps from each other, tree-lined wide streets, a good shopping centre with high street chains, and Ealing Cricket Ground.

Ealing Cricket Club is one of London’s top cricket clubs. The club has enjoyed great success in recent years, winning the Middlesex Premier League for the last seven seasons, and it is also the current holder of the Barbados Cockspur National T/20 cup.

The history of the club is closely linked with the local Anglican parish church. In 1869, when the Revd ES Carter returned to England from Australia, he became the curate of Christ Church, now the Church of Christ the Saviour on Ealing Broadway. In1871, he and Tom Hearne founded Ealing Cricket Club, and the first match was played that year.

Haven Green ... in places Ealing can feel like a small town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Despite media attention that focussed on the riots on Ealing Broadway last year, Ealing is quiet this August and even feels like a small town in some parts, with its own quiet corners that take me by surprise as a first-time visitor.

Ealing Borough has a rich cultural mix that includes Asian and Irish, an Irish pub on Haven Green, a Greek restaurant on the other corner that I hope to experience before the week is out, Japanese, Persian and Italian restaurants, Arab newsagents, Korean and Polish churches and Polish shops. Indeed, Ealing is the home of London’s large Polish community – which explains why Ealing is twined with a suburb of Warsaw.

I am staying at Ealing Abbey off Castle Bar Road, in the Castlebar and Montpelier area, where the houses are typical of solid suburban Ealing. Castlebar Road rises up from Haven Green to Castlebar Hill and Castlebar Park, which then winds down into Pitshanger Village, although Pitshanger Manor is on the south side of Ealing Broadway, on Mattock Lane.

But there is a lot more to explore around here – including Ealing Studios, just west of the centre of Ealing. Which is your favourite Ealing comedy?

Ealing’s Gothic-style town hall on Ealing Broadway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)