30 June 2013

Blades and boats on the beach at Bray

Watching the women’s race in Bray Regatta from the seafront this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

It’s only a few days since I wrote about messing about in boats on rivers and my regrets that I had never learned to sail, scull or row. It is, as I said last week, a Wind in the Willows thing for me.

But rowing on rivers is quite a different sport from coastal rowing. Still, it was a pleasant surprise when I went to Bray for a short walk on the beach this afternoon that the Bray Regatta was taking place today [30 June 2013].

After the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this morning, five of us went for a lingering lunch in Beirut Express in Dame Street that continued until 3.30 p.m.

It looked as though it might rain, but two of still decided to head out to Bray for an ice cream and a short walk on the beach.
School summer holidays mean that Bray is going to be crowded on Sunday afternoons for the next few weeks. And that crowding is compounded by confusion created by new road markings, parking lots and a new cycle path that are all still in the middle of construction and being laid out.

Blades on the beach at Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As we walked along the promenade, we had a fine view of the regatta, which was based on the southern end of the seafront. Bray Regatta normally takes place in July, so this was additional afternoon delight.

According to local tradition, coastal rowing involves crews of four with one sweep oar each, and a coxswain, in wooden clinker-built boats. The East Coast Rowing Council was formed in 1936, and looks after rules about the sizes and weights of skiffs, regatta dates, ensuring races are fair, and so on for clubs in Co Dublin, Co Wicklow and North Wexford.

Clinker skiff-type boats were once working boats along the east coast, and skiff racing has its origins in hobbling. Hobblers were freelance pilots, and competition was strong among them to be the first to board approaching ships between Lambay Island and Wicklow Head.

Hobbling involved considerable risks and required considerable skills on behalf of the oarsmen. This explains the origins of rowing clubs around the old pilot stations at Ringsend and East Wall in Dublin Port, Dun Laoghaire, Dalkey, Bray, Greystones, Wicklow, Arklow, and Courtown.

These clubs can be seen training along the East Coast between April and September in racing skiffs that are 25-ft long (7.6 m), clinker-built, double-enders.
Clinker skiff-type boats on the beach at Bray during this afternoon’s regatta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Bray Rowing Club hosted today’s regatta on the southern end of the Seafront, with men’s and women’s crews from other clubs, including Dun Laoghaire and Wicklow, taking part.

Bray Rowing Club is one of the oldest clubs, and took part in the Dalkey Regatta in 1875. It was a successful club in the 1930s, but went into decline during World War II. The club was revived in the early 1950s, and was re-established in 1970.

The Bray Regatta normally takes place in July, but for some reason it was moved to the last Sunday in June this year.

We walked back from the southern end of the beach along the shoreline as the women’s race was taking place. There was a swell in the water but the rain held off, as the rolling waves were gatling along the beach in quick succession in a sweep from south to north.

3038 Walking along the beach in Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerfo9rd, 2013)

29 June 2013

An evening in an old palace to
hear about a bishop’s travels

A secret panel in a bookcase leads into another room in the Bishop’s Palace in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The great and the good gathered in the Old Bishop’s Palace in Kilkenny last night [Friday 29 June 2013], and the former dining room was transformed to bring us back to the 18th century and to give us a taste of the lifestyle of Richard Pococke, the enigmatic if not exotic 18th century Bishop of Ossory and travel writer.

We were there for the launch of Rachel Finnegan’s new book, her third volume of The Grand Tour Correspondence of Richard Pococke and Jeremiah Milles. The book was launched graciously by Professor George Huxley, who taught for 20 years at Queen’s University in Belfast as Professor of Greek, and who is a former Assistant Director of the British School at Athens, where Rachel has also worked.

Replicating 18th century life in Bishop Pococke’s former dining room in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The former Bishop’s Palace, which had been Pococke’s home as Bishop of Ossory, is now the offices of the Heritage Council. There too last night were Pococke’s present-day successor, Bishop Michael Burrows, and a collection of Rachel’s colleagues from the academic and classical world.

There too were the Revd Professor John Bartlett, who worked closely with her in Trinity College Dublin, and who published an account of Pococke’s travels in Lebanon in 1738, and many of her colleagues from Waterford Institute of Technology, including Dr Richard Hayes, Head of the School of Humanities, who introduced the evening programme.

Richard Pococke (1705-1765), later Bishop of Ossory, and his younger cousin Jeremiah Milles (1714–84), later Precentor of Waterford Cathedral (1736), Dean of Exeter (1762) and President of the Society of Antiquaries, set out in 1734 and 1736 on two tours of continental Europe, which they recorded in their travel journals and letters, mainly to Pococke’s mother and to their uncle, Thomas Milles, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

Early last year, I reviewed her first volume for the journal of the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East. Now this third volume – the final in the series – reproduces 43 of the 48 letters (with summaries of the remaining five) Pococke wrote to his mother from the time he sailed from Livorno to Alexandria in September 1737, until his arrival three years later at Messina, where he was obliged to undergo a period of quarantine.

These letters provide a complete and continuous account of the bishop’s three-year voyage through the “Sultan’s dominions,” including Egypt, the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Asia Minor, Turkey, the Greek islands and mainland Greece. His daily entries in his journal offer immediate and intimate accounts of the architecture, customs, landscape, climate, natural history and cuisine of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 18th century.

The letters are written in a light and amusing style, intended to entertain and placate his anxious mother, and offering us an alternative view to that of Mrs Delany that he was “the dullest man that ever travelled.”

This volume concludes with an appraisal of Pococke’s reputation as a travel writer and theologian, and introduces an obscure satirical poem (Meekness and Ambition, or the Hypocrite Detected) which, published in 1765, the year of his death, attempted to discredit his name as Bishop of Ossory.

The stairs in the former Bishop’s Palace in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Dr Rachel Finnegan read Classical Philology at Trinity College Dublin and NUI Maynooth, spent two years at the British School of Archaeology in Athens and now lectures at Waterford Institute of Technology. She taught me classical Greek in Trinity College Dublin in 1987. The course was organised by the Classical Association of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy, and followed a course prepared by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers and Cambridge University.

A secret garden? ... looking from a corner of the Deanery garden into the grounds of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Before last night’s book launch, we parked the car at the Deanery, beside Saint Canice’s Cathedral, and after a pleasant stroll through Kilkenny we had an early meal in the Hibernian on Patrick Street.

After the book launch, we were brought on a guided tour of the Old Palace, by Michael Starrett, Chief Executive Officer of the Heritage Council, and had interesting discussions with Colm Murray, the Architecture Officer.

Saint Canice’s mitred head above the door into the former chapel in Kilkenny Palace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We were shown the secret panel that looks like part of a book case but opens into another room, the former chapel with the head of mitred hear of Saint Canice over the door, and the 14th century tower, the Venetian windows overlooking the gardens across to the new Bishop’s House, and the formal portraits of many past bishops – all looking far more sober and staid than Pococke in his Oriental attire on the covers of Rachel’s three volumes.

Rachel Finnegan (ed), Letters from Abroad: The Grand Tour Correspondence of Richard Pococke & Jeremiah Milles, Volume 3: Letters from the East (1737-41) (Piltown, Co Kilkenny: Pococke Press, 2013), 336 pp, ISBN: 978-0-9569058-2-6 (€19.95).

Pococke Press: admin@pocockepress.com; www.pocockepress.com

Venetian masks in a shop window in High Street in Kilkenny last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

27 June 2013

Finding more than Hobson’s Choice
in a few quiet corners in Cambridge

A view of Sidney Sussex College from Green Street, Cambridge, on Wednesday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I spent an afternoon in Cambridge yesterday [Wednesday 27 June 2013] after the annual conference of Us (USPG) came to a close at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon.

I had a few hours on hand before catching a flight at Stansted, I had some shopping I needed to do before going on holidays, and I wanted to drop into Sidney Sussex College too.

At this time of the summer, Cambridge is busy with graduation ceremonies and bustling with tourists. But it is always a much better choice to spend a few hours strolling through the streets of Cambridge in the warm glow of summer sunshine than sitting around over endless cups of coffee in an over-heated departure lounge in the airport.

I had a late lunch in Baroosh, previously the B Bar, in Market Passage and just a few steps away from Sidney Sussex College.

Hobson Street behind Sidney Sussex College takes its name from Thomas Hobson, who gave Cambridge Hobson’s Conduit and gave the English language ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The street behind Sidney Sussex College, running from the junction with Sidney Street and Saint Andrew Street at Christ’s College to King Street, is Hobson Street. Hobson’s Passage is used to store bins and as a narrow shortcut between Hobson Street and Sidney Street, where it emerges between Waterstone’s bookshop and a former cinema.

The street and the lane take their name from Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), who built a conduit to supply water to much of Cambridge in the early 17th century but who is best remembered outside Cambridge for the phrase “Hobson’s Choice.”

Thomas Hobson lived in Chesterton Hall, had extensive estates in Grantchester, and was one of the great benefactors of Cambridge.

A blue plaque on Hobson House at 44 Saint Andrew’s Street recalls Thomas Hobson and ‘Hobson’s Workhouse’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A blue plaque on what is now Hobson House at 44 Saint Andrew’s Street mentions his workhouse, the Spinning House, also known as “Hobson’s Workhouse,” where the poor were housed and given simple work such as spinning.

Between 1610 and 1614, Thomas Hobson built Hobson’s Conduit as a watercourse to bring fresh water into Cambridge from springs at Nine Wells, near the village of Great Shelford, at the foot of the Gog Magog Hills.

However, the whole plan was originally the brainchild of the Master of Peterhouse, Andrew Perne. Cambridge was plagued by the plague in the 16th century, when many of the university staff and students were dying as the townspeople, making no distinction between town and gown. They slowly realised that the plague was killing people not because of God’s condemnation or judgment, but because of poor sanitary conditions. The ditch around the town was clogged with sewage and rubbish and was a major cause of disease.

In 1574, Perne proposed diverting a stream from Nine Wells through Cambridge. At the same time, he also proposed digging the King’s Ditch to improve sanitation. The design was revived by the Master of Sidney Sussex College, James Montagu, and was built at the expense of the university and the town.

What remains of the conduit flows beside Trumpington Street and past Brookside, where it is at its widest. An octagonal monument to Hobson at the corner of Lensfield Road was once formed part of the Market Square fountain but was moved in 1856 after a fire in the market. The flow of water runs under Lensfield Road, and then along both sides of Trumpington Street in broad gutters towards Peterhouse and Saint Catharine’s College, and also Saint Andrew’s Street. The conduit currently ends at Silver Street.

The waterway came to have Hobson’s name because not only was he involved in building it, but he also endowed the Hobson’s Conduit Trust for its maintenance. The new river was dug from Vicar’s Brook near Long Road to the conduit head at the end of Lensfield Road as a joint venture between the university and the city. There the flow of water was divided into four separate branches with different functions.

The east side of Trumpington Street, where Hobson’s Conduit is known as the Pem ... on the other side it is the Pot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The original Trumpington Street branch still functions as sluices along Trumpington Street, where it is known on the east side as the Pem (after Pembroke College) and on the west side as the Pot (after Peterhouse).

At this time of the year, the city council controls the flow of water through the sluices letting water flow in the open conduits in Trumpington Street between April and September, with feeds running into Peterhouse and Pembroke College.

The Market Place branch was completed in 1614, and brought fresh water to the Market Fountain in the centre of the Market Place. However, the flow of water to this branch was cut off in 1960.

Saint Andrew’s Street Branch, which was added in 1631, flowed from the conduit head along Lensfield Road and Saint Andrew’s Street towards Drummer Street. There it split into feeds running into Christ’s College and Emmanuel College, as well as a public dipping point. Much of the open conduit along Saint Andrew’s Street was covered in 1996, but it can still be seen the conduit opposite Christ’s College, where people waiting at the queue sometimes think they are stepping over a broken drain.

The Parker’s Piece Branch was the final branch. This ran from the conduit head towards Parker’s Piece to feed a cattle pond, but when the pond was filled in in 1827.

Bicycles outside Sidney Sussex College ... today’s equivalent of Hobson’s horses? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Hobson was also a carrier, delivering mail from Cambridge to London. He had large stables with 40 horses at the George Hotel on Trumpington Street, which is now part of Saint Catherine’s College. From there, he rented horses to university students and staff – perhaps horses then were the equivalent of bicycles in Cambride today.

Hobson’s practice in renting his horses has given the English language the popular, but often misused, phrase “Hobson’s Choice.”

Hobson’s choice is not “Morton’s Fork,” a choice between two equivalent options that may lead to undesirable results, nor is it dilemma, which is a choice between two undesirable options; it is not a false dilemma, where only two choices are presented although there are others, nor is it a Catch-22, which is a logical paradox.

When Hobson realised his best horses were being over-worked, he began a pattern of rotation requiring customers to choose the horse in the stall closest to the door. This prevented the best horses always being chosen and being overused.

His retort to objections was: “Take that or none,” or “Take it or leave it.” It was a choice that came to be known as Hobson’s choice.

Thomas Hobson was buried in an unmarked grave in the chancel of Saint Bene’t’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hobson was a resident of Saint Bene’t’s Parish, and in 1626 he presented a large Bible to the church of St. Benedict. When he died in 1631, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the chancel of the church. Milton wrote two humorous epitaphs on Hobson, one which refers to the cart and wain of the deceased.

Saint Edward’s Passage ... an attractive and quiet corner of Cambridge, away from the busy throng of summer tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I dropped into Sidney Sussex after lunch, and then I strolled back through the centre of Cambridge, along King’s Parade, and found myself browsing through second-hand books in a quiet corner of Saint Edward’s Passage. This alleywayruns from King’s Parade to Peas Hill around the rails of the Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr.

The green growth around the church, the white-walled houses, and the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops in this narrow laneway make it an attractive and quiet corner of Cambridge.

Saint Edward’s is known as the ‘Cradle of the Reformation’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1525, Robert Barnes preached the first sermon of the English Reformation in Saint Edward’s, which has been known since as the "Cradle of the Reformation.”

The chaplain at Saint Edward’s is a Royal Peculiar, outside the diocesan structures of the Church of England. The chaplain, the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, was one of the lecturers at the summer school in Sidney Sussex College organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in 2008, when he spoke about “True and False Holiness.”

“True and False Holiness” is not an example of Hobson’s Choice, of course. But if you are left waiting in departure lounges at Stansted Airport for the last flight, and most of the outlets have closed, you’re often left with Hobson’s Choice when it comes to coffee – a choice not between good coffee and bad coffee, but between whatever coffee is on offer (good or bad), or no coffee at all.

I’ll be back in Cambridge again next month, spending a week at Sidney Sussex for the 14th International Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, from 14 to 19 July.

26 June 2013

Bridging the challenges of local mission and global mission

The bridge at the lake in High Leigh ... this morning we talked about bridging the gap between local mission and global mission (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference of Us – the Anglican mission agency formerly known as USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) – comes to a close today.

We have been meeting for three days at the High Leigh Conference Centre on the edge of Hoddesdon, in rural Hertfordshire.

The conference theme has been ‘Brave Steps’ and at our closing session this morning, we were invited to consider the development of Us programmes focused on churches in Britain and Ireland. Our discussions were facilitated by Janice Price, who is Church Relations Adviser with Us, World Mission Policy Adviser for the Church of England, and the author of World Shaped Mission.

We talked about our understandings of local mission and the challenges of global mission in our parishes, and we were asked: How can Us help you to address the challenges of local and global mission in your parish?

Dr Peter Rookes spoke of world mission being the local experience in the Diocese of Birmingham, with the variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds that make up multicultural Birmingham. His motto for dialogue in a multicultural context is: “Speak with pride and listen with respect.”

Seen in a corner behind the terrace at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Last night in High Leigh, Canon Richard Bartlett, who is also a member of the board of USPG Ireland, launched this year’s Harvest Pack. This includes worship materials, sermon notes, Bible studies, intercessions and fundraising ideas for churches, community groups and schools.

The worship materials in the pack are inspired by this year’s Harvest Lectionary reading (John 6: 25-35), the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6: 1-14) and the work of Us in the Philippines.

More resources – including collection envelopes, a short film and a PowerPoint presentation – are available at www.weareUs.org.uk/harvest

The Church of Ireland and USPG Ireland presence at this year’s conference also included Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel and Ossory, who chairs Us Ireland; Canon Arthur Barrett and Gerard O’Callaghan from Rossory Parish in the Diocese of Clogher; Jan de Bruijn and Linda Chambers de Bruijn; Nola Nixon from Ballymore Parish in Tandragee; and the Revd Lyn Gibson, who with me represents the Church of Ireland on the council of Us. This morning we were also joined by my colleague at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, David Brown.

Morning Prayer this morning was led by the Revd Canon Rob Jones of Worcester Diocese. The conference comes to a close with the Eucharist celebrated by the Right Revd Dr Jacob Ayeebo, Bishop of Tamale in Ghana.

Looking out at the lawns and the countryside at High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The unusual story of a house with an Irish name

Rathmore House on the High Street in Hoddesdon has links in the past with the church ... but how did it come to have an Irish-sounding name? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I have been at the High Leigh Conference Centre five times in the past seven years (2006, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013). Strolling through Hoddesdon again yesterday afternoon, I wondered once again how Rathmore House on the High Street came to have such an Irish-sounding name.

The house is striking visually because of the woodwork at the entrance doorway, which is a good example of the Queen Anne Style, although it is Georgian and dates from 1743. The brickwork around the windows has beautiful pointing, and at the top there is an interesting cornice.

Today, Rathmore House is the offices of a solicitors’ practice. But to many generations in Hoddesdon, this house at 56 The High Street was known as “the Doctor’s House.” I still have to discover how it came to be known as Rathmore House, but I learned earlier recently that one of the many doctors who practiced there and who helped to popularise it being called “the Doctor’s House” lived at High Leigh.

An early tenant in 1467 was Walter Fader, who held the property under Sir John Say. He was buried in Amwell Church, and it was in his grave that William Shakespeare’s friend William Warner was buried in 1608.

The original house was bequeathed by some unknown owner to the Guardians of the Chapel in Hoddesdon, and they held onto it until the old house tumbled down in 1739.

In 1743, the ground was let by the parish to John Borham, who was given a building lease for 99 years at £1 a year. He built this interesting, three-storey house, with its fine Doric doorcase, and his initials are interlaced in the fretwork over the door. John Borham built a fine new house, a three-storey structure in red brick. Above the doorcase, he also engraved the date 1746 in Roman numerals.

Borham owned the Lynch Mill, and is believed to have been the son of an earlier John Borham, who had built the Quaker Meeting House in Marsh Lane. (The present Quaker Meeting House is at the end of Lord Street, on the walk from High Leigh into Hoddesdon.)

By January 1812, the house was owned by Dr James of High Ground – the house now known as High Leigh only acquired that name after it was bought by Robert Barclay from the missionary and banking family, in 1871. Dr James had previously brought smallpox vaccinations to Hoddesdon, and he became the first of a long line of doctors to practice at Rathmore House.

However, a special vestry meeting when it was found that several entries in the vestry book had been erased so that it appeared Rathmore House was held on a 500-year lease and not on a 99-year lease.

The discovery led to a fraught dispute, and Dr James pointed out that he had bought the house in the belief that he held it on a 500-year lease – the 99-year lease was due to run out by 1843.

The dispute between the doctor and the vestry ran on for almost three years, and was only resolved through the mediation of Thomas Nicholson, steward to Lord Salisbury, the local magnate.

When the original lease ran out in 1843, the property was sold to a Mr Stokes. But the house continued to be used by a succession of GPs for their practice. They included Dr William Locke from Penzance, who came from the same family as the philosopher John Locke; Dr William Gosse, who emigrated to Australia; Dr Robert Ingram Stevens; Dr Manning, Dr WH Sturge and Dr L West.

Dr Gosse later emigrated to Australia. One of his children was a land surveyor and became the first European to climb Uluru, which he named Ayres Rock.

Dr Manning was largely instrumental in starting the Hoddesdon Dispensary for the benefit of the poorer people of the town, and the surgery continued until the advent of the National Health Service.

Rathmore House remained the “Doctor’s House” in Hoddesdon until the mid-20th century, when it was superseded by purpose-built surgeries. It now houses the solicitor’s practice, Duffield Harrison, and the house retains its Georgian elegance. However, I still have to find out why it was given a name with such Irish resonances.

25 June 2013

It’s a ‘Wind in the Willows’ thing

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing”

Patrick Comerford

I suppose it’s just a childish thing. But ever since childhood, I have enjoyed the idea of messing about in boats on the river.

Perhaps it’s a throwback to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which was essential childhood reading for everyone in my age group, with all those stories about Mole, Ratty (who is, in fact, a water vole), the donnish Mr Badger and Toad of Toad Hall.

In my teens, my father brought rowing on Lough Ramor in Virginia, but – despite having a good swimming pool at school – I never learned to swim until I was 35, and it is only in recent years that I have started to regret that I never learned to scull or row, or for that matter never learned to sail. When I am in Cambridge each year, I enjoy watching those who are rowing, sculling and punting on the Cam, and I have enjoyed being on a punt once or twice.

Broxbourne hosted the Canoe Slalom events at the Olympic Games last year (2012), and Hoddesdon was supposed to host other canoeing events at Dobb’s Weir, but the water was polluted and the events .were moved further south on the Lee Valley.

I am in Hoddesdon this week for the .annual conference of the Anglican mission agency, Us, which is the new name for UPG, the United Society for Propagation of the Gospel. I am staying on the ground floor in a room near Willow Hall … perhaps I could just imagine staying at Toad Hall, even if I am not around for one of the 50-minute weekend river cruise available at from Dobb’s Weir.

There are some great stately homes in this area, such as Luton Hoo and Brocket Park, and they could easily have been inspirations for Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows. There are castles, old waterside pubs, gazebos and a busy boating centre at Broxbourne with boats for hire, day trips and cycle hire.

The four-mile walk goes through some of the greenest – and bluest – spaces in the heart of the Lee Valley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

High Leigh is less than two miles from the railway station at Broxbourne. So, this afternoon I fulfilled a long-time dream of walking a four-mile riverside walk that starts and finishes close to Broxbourne Station. This walk goes through some of the greenest – and bluest – spaces in the heart of the Lee Valley. The surrounding reservoirs and marshes are home to many species of birds, some rare breeds and many parts of the Lee Valley have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The River Lea, which rises at Leagrave in Bedfordshire, is 98 km (58 miles) long, and much of its last 43 km (27 miles) from Hertford was turned into a canal from 1767 by the engineer John Smeaton. Occasionally the navigation leaves the river to follow Smeaton’s new channels, and meandering stretches of the Old River Lea can be seen nearby.

The river’s name has at least 25 different spellings – in addition to Lee and Lea, the names Lay, Ley, Leye, Lyge and even Lyzan have been used in the past, and by 1520 the spelling was Lee. But in the 19th century the Ordnance Survey decided to use both Lee and Lea. Today, the valley is usually known as the Lee Valley, but the river is the River Lea, while the canal sections are called the Lee Navigation. Is it any wonder then that the River Lee Navigation and the River Lea are often confused?

The original River Lea was made wider, deeper and new courses cut during the Industrial Revolution to allow better access for cargo-carrying barges. Grain and malt were brought from Hertford down to the Thames and timber and other cargo were carried back north. The new route was then renamed the River Lee Navigation. But at times during the walk at Broxbourne it is possible to pick out the original River Lea running alongside the River Lee Navigation.

The story of the original River Lea can be traced back over 1,000 years. It figures in the Treaty of Wedmore between King Alfred and the Danes, and later still it occurs in the Domesday Book. What are now quiet waterways were once filled with barges carrying cargo to and from London. Today, this is a place for pretty narrowboats carrying only passengers on their leisurely journey through this blue corridor.

This stretch of the River Lee is rich in wildlife and is the home to many species of mammals, birds and insects including Canadian geese, mallards, blue tits, and dragonflies and the more elusive such as the water vole – there goes Ratty from The Wind in the Willows once again, although mink are making this creature an increasingly rare sight in England.

Fine houses and lavish gardens with their willow trees spill over onto the west banks of the New River (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At the west side or back of Broxbourne Station we began our walk along the banks of the New River, where, fine houses and lavish gardens with their willow trees spill over onto the west banks. Here too is Broxbourne Pumping Station, a Grade II listed building, was built by the Victorians in 1886 to pump water from below ground to double the output of drinking water for London city.

The path continued for over a mile along the side of this constructed water course, built in the early 17th century to bring drinking water from local springs to London. Almost 400 years on, this river still supplies London with drinking water and also provides a beautiful environment for people to enjoy.

We were parallel with Hoddesdon when we turned east and made our way through the fields down a narrow path, crossed the railway line at a level crossing (gingerly), and after a quarter of a mile found ourselves at the Lee Valley Caravan Park. From there, it was a few paces to Dobb’s Weir, with its original sluice machinery.

On the west side of Dobb’s Weir, we were in Hertfordshire, on the east side we were in Essex, and we stopped at the Fish and Eels pub (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

On the west side of Dobb’s Weir, we were in Hertfordshire; as we crossed over to the east side, we were in Essex. There we stopped at the Fish and Eels pub, and we whiled away half an hour by the waterside, with glasses in hand, watching life go by.

The Fish and Eels is the departure point for 50 minute round-trips on the River Lee with the Lee and Stort Boat Company at weekends and on bank holidays. But there were no boat trips today, and we headed south along the tow path to Carthagena Lock.

East is east, and west is west, and the Greenwich Mean Line runs through Carthagena Lock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1889:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

The Greenwich Mean Line runs through the lock, dividing the eastern and western hemispheres of the world. We are away from everything here, apparently, yet at the centre of the world.

The Lady of Lee Valley and the Pride of Lee offer 50-minute pleasure cruises on the river (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

To the east was Admiral’s Lake, said to be one of the best feeding sites for bats in the Lee Valley. On the west bank, two passenger boats, the The Lady of Lee Valley and the Pride of Lee were moored with passengers disembarking after a 50-minute pleasure cruise that can be booked at the Lee Valley Boat Centre.

It was just another half mile south along the towpath to the Lee Valley Boat Centre on Old Nazeing Road and the beer garden of the Crown pub. The boat centre is an ideally place for exploring this part of Hertfordshire. From Easter to the end of the October, the centre offers Day Boats and the hourly hire of electric boats, rowing boats, pedaloes and a Canadian canoe. The centre also offers short breaks from three-four nights or weekly with three chalets with verandas overlooking the Mill Stream, a backwater of the River Lee.

The Crown pub ... at the end of this afternoon's walk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We finished our walk at the train station at Broxbourne, where the sun was still shining. From there we made our way back through Broxbourne and Hoddesdon to High Leigh.

On a warm summer’s day like today, I can agree with Ratty who says in The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing.”

Messing about on the river ... a pleasure on a warm summer’s day


Appreciating what we have and what we can do

A walk by the lake at High Leigh near Hoddesdon this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The main speakers at the Us conference in High Leigh this week are Floyd P Lalwet, Provincial Secretary of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines (ECP), and the Revd Fedis Nyagah, Church and Community Mobilisation Process Facilitator, working throughout Africa and with Us in Zimbabwe.

‘Brave Steps’ is the theme of this year’s conference for Us, the Anglican mission agency formerly known as USP – the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – at the High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire.

Floyd was formerly the head of ECP’s development office and this morning [Tuesday 25 June 2013] he shared experiences from his church’s commitment to human rights and social justice.

He spoke of the ABCD approach to development in the Philippines: Asset-Based Congregational Development.

Floyd wondered whether we had lost the capacity to help people to imagine and to dream of a better world.

When the Philippines Episcopal Church gained autonomy from the Episcopal Church in the US (ECUSA), it remained financially dependent, and needed to move from autonomy to financial independence, relying on its own sources of revenues, from 2010. But by 2005, the PEC had a budget surplus, and began to “appreciate what we have and what we can positively do with what we have.”

The Us Harvest Pack this year, ‘Bring What You Have,’ focuses on the work in the Philippines.

Fedis spoke later this morning about her work with CCMP (Church and Community Mobilisation Process), spearheading a faith-based approach to community empowerment in Zimbabwe and Kenya that radically challenges the idea that poor people need to be dependent on aid to end poverty.

She was once one of the youngest ordinands in Kenya, and has worked in rural villages in Kenya and Zimbabwe, in the slums in Nairobi, and is now one of four “super trainers,” working with the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA), helping to build new trainers. Her work is supported by a variety of agencies and organisations, including Us, the Mothers’ Union, and Lambeth.

She encouraged us to share her approach, which she said is about “starting where we are and doing it now.”

Reflections on the lake at High Leigh this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier this morning, Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory spoke about brave steps in the story of Saint Columba and in the two passages he selected for our Bible study: Isaiah 40: 1-11, which opens with the familiar words, “Comfort, O comfort my people;” and Matthew 3:1-6, which tells of the proclamation of Saint John the Baptist, whose feastday we were celebrating yesterday.

Although this Gospel passage uses a misquotation in the Septuagint from the original Hebrew in Second Isaiah, the two stories talk of a destination that is not fixed, but where it is clear that the journey is going to be costly.

Bishop Michael recalled that Christianity became established in Ireland within the space of a year or two, and the transition to a Christian society was relatively harmonious, without any great martyrs. Many of the early Irish saints regretted that the Irish Church had no “red martyrs,” and so spoke of a white martyrdom that involved giving up all to where God would lead.
They were “destination-less,” and did not know where they were going on this journey of peregrinatio or pilgrimage, which involves leaving home for a self-imposed exile and wandering for the love of God. Saint Columba set out on a voyage not knowing where he was going, but went on to establish his monastery at Iona, which became a great centre of mission.

His story involved Saint Cainnech of Aghaboe – now identified as Saint Canice with the cathedral in Kilkenny in the bishop’s diocese – running after him one shoe missing – yet another example of “Brave Steps” in mission.

He wondered whether we too often fence God’s grace by closing God’s future, and he reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom, which was a walk to a life of service.

Saint Columba’s Iona was not remote or out in the wilderness, but was a hub at the centre of maritime trade at the time. We can misinterpret Saint Columba if see him as a voice crying in the wilderness, rather than a voice calling people to go out in Brave Steps.


24 June 2013

‘Brave Steps’ ... the experience of the Church walking by faith

A triptych in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, of Saint John the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ ... a theme in the prayers and readings at the Us conference today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today has been the Feast of the Birthday of Saint John Baptist [24 June], and in my own way I have been marking the anniversary of my ordination as a priest.

This afternoon also saw the opening of the annual conference of Us – the Anglican mission agency formerly known as USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) – which is taking as its theme ‘Brave Steps.’

We are meeting until Wednesday [26 June] once again in the High Leigh Conference Centre on the fringes of Hoddesdon in semi-rural Hertfordshire.

Canon Rob Jones, who led us in worship at different times during the day, reminded us of today’s feastday in his prayers and in the readings.

Tomorrow morning, Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory will lead our Bible study, and the two main speakers will offer perspectives from the Philippines and Tanzania will offer perspectives on the conference theme, talking about how we walk by faith, not by sight. The theme ‘Brave Steps’ draws on the verse in II Corinthians 5, where the Apostle Paul says: “for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

Earlier in the day, Janette O’Neill, the CEO of Us, introduced her report on the past year, with her highlights and achievements of the past year illustrated with recollections of her visit to Matabeleland in Zimbabwe and reminders of the work of the former the Railway Workers’ Mission in what was once known as Rhodesia.

She was delighted to find on the Day of Pentecost that the church that mission had founded was no dead church, but is a Church that is alive and thriving, working with women with HIV+ and supporting church plants.

During the day, we heard reports on the work of Hands on Health in Malawi, where childbirth fatality rates are still high, and on work in Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Tanzania, South Africa and Brazil. There were reports too on links with Anglicans in Cambodia, St Vincent, Central Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Bangladesh, the Indian Ocean and Palestine.

Canon Edgar Ruddock described the Wall in Palestine as the “Great Divide,” and said it is always shocking for pilgrims to come face to face with the Wall, which he described as “a wicked symbol of all that has gone wrong in the land that we call Holy.”

Bishop Jacob Ayeebo of Tamale said the biggest challenge he faces is one of human resources. His diocese covers half the size of Ghana, but he has only 14 clergy.

Bishop Paul Shishir Sarker of Dhaka in Bangladesh, spoke of the challenges facing his church, including the challenges of the rise of militant Islam, corruption, climate change, human trafficking, and tragedies such as collapse of nine-storey factory building. In the aftermath of that tragedy, his diocese supported rescue teams, and appreciated the prayerful support from partners. He said his Church is small, yet “when we know we have sisters and brothers in other countries, we have hope.”

The main speakers at the conference are Floyd P Lalwet, Provincial Secretary of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines (ECP), and the Revd Fedis Nyagah, Church and Community Mobilisation Process Facilitator, working throughout Africa and with Us in Zimbabwe.

Floyd was formerly the head of ECP’s development office and is sharing experiences from his church’s commitment to human rights and social justice. Fedis is spearheading a faith-based approach to community empowerment that radically challenges the idea that poor people need to be dependent on aid to end poverty.

A plaque in Saint Michael’s Church, Bishop’s Stortford, recalling Cecil Rhodes and his father, a former Bishop of the parish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Irish people delegates at the conference met earlier in the day over coffee and lunch in neighbouring Bishop’s Stortford – the birthplace of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the “Rhodesia” referred to by Janette O’Neill later in the day.

I walked around Bishop’s Stortford during the morning, eager to see many of its Tudor, 16th century buildings, and its architecturally interesting Gothic parish church. But, that’s a story for another day.

The Black Lion ... an old Tudor inn in Bishop’s Stortford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Visiting ‘the deepest Essex few explore’ and
Hertfordshire ‘clothed … in summer green’

‘Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates, / Sweet uneventful countryside’ – John Betjeman’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in the High Leigh Conference Centre on the fringes of Hoddesdon for the annual conference and council meeting of Us – the Anglican mission agency previously known as USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

This morning, in my prayers, I remembered and gave thanks for my ordination to the priesthood 12 years ago on 24 June 2001 by Archbishop Walton Empey in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

I arrived at Stansted Airport this morning, and for the next three days I am staying at High Leigh, close to the the paired, neighbouring towns of Hoddesdon and Broxborune. Their proximity of these towns to Stansted Airport and the railway station at Broxbourne means they are within commuting distance of North London. And yet both towns have beautiful buildings that date back to the late mediaeval period, and I am surrounded by beautiful countryside.

Hoddesdon and Broxbourne are on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex, two counties that encapsulate all that the poet John Betjeman saw as brash and over-developed in the area immediately north of London. Yet these two counties still contain so much that typifies the English countryside and picture-postcard English towns and villages.

I imagine that Irish visitors hardly glance at much of this countryside and the charming towns and villages as they speed by on the Stansted Express to Liverpool Street Station and London. How often do they cast a glance at the fields and countryside described by Betjeman as

…Clothed, thank the Lord, in summer green,
Pale corn waves rippling to a shore
The shadowy cliffs of elm between,

Colour-washed cottages reed-thatched
And weather-boarded water mills,
Flint churches, brick and plaster patched,
On mildly undistinguished hills

In his poem ‘Hertfordshire’, Betjeman recalls trudging through these fields in his childhood, and he returns to this area, perhaps at this time of the year, to find some of those fields are still there, but the Hertfordshire he knew as a child has been devastated by the spread of urbanisation,

Its gentle landscape strung with wire,
Old places looking ill and strange.

One can’t be sure where London ends,
New towns have filled the fields of root ...

Tall concrete standards line the lane,
Brick boxes glitter in the sun …

But in the sunshine and “summer green” this week, I expect to enjoy some walks through these “mildly undistinguished hills” and lanes, and through welcoming fields, to find some timber-framed houses and pubs, and, perhaps, some “Flint churches, brick and plaster patched.”

The White Swan on the High Street in Hoddesdon … a timber-framed Hertfordshire pub rated by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “visually the most striking timber-framed inn in the district” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘Hertfordshire’ by John Betjeman

I had forgotten Hertfordshire,
The large unwelcome fields of roots
Where with my knickerbockered sire
I trudged in syndicated shoots;

And that unlucky day when I
Fired by mistake into the ground
Under a Lionel Edwards sky
And felt disapprobation round.

The slow drive home by motor-car,
A heavy Rover Landaulette,
Through Welwyn, Hatfield, Potters Bar,
Tweed and cigar smoke, gloom and wet:

“How many times must I explain
The way a boy should hold a gun?”
I recollect my father’s pain
At such a milksop for a son.

And now I see these fields once more
Clothed, thank the Lord, in summer green,
Pale corn waves rippling to a shore
The shadowy cliffs of elm between,

Colour-washed cottages reed-thatched
And weather-boarded water mills,
Flint churches, brick and plaster patched,
On mildly undistinguished hills—

They still are there. But now the shire
Suffers a devastating change,
Its gentle landscape strung with wire,
Old places looking ill and strange.

One can’t be sure where London ends,
New towns have filled the fields of root
Where father and his business friends
Drove in the Landaulette to shoot;

Tall concrete standards line the lane,
Brick boxes glitter in the sun:
Far more would these have caused him pain
Than my mishandling of a gun.

The Essex of John Betjeman has pretty, picture-postcard, market towns, with colourful timber-framed and gabled town houses and cottages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

According to Betjeman, the neighbouring county of Essex is “a stronger contrast of beauty and ugliness than any other southern English county.” He says, “Most of what was built east of London in the 19th and 20th centuries has been a little bit cheaper and a little bit shoddier than that built in other directions. Southend is a cheaper Brighton, Clacton a cheaper Worthing, and Dovercourt a cheaper Bournemouth.”

On the plus side, he says Essex “also has the deepest and least disturbed country within reach of London … flat agricultural scenery with its own old red-brick towns with weather-boarded side-streets.”

For Betjeman, “The flat part of Essex … is part of that great plain which stretched across to Holland and Central Europe.”

This morning, I have been visiting a part of Essex close to Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford, which is on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex. Betjeman describes this area as “undulating and extremely pretty in the pale, gentle way suited to English watercolours. Narrow lanes wind like streams through willowy meadows, past weather-boarded mills and unfenced bean and corn fields.

“From oaks on hill-tops peep the flinty church towers, and some of the churches up here are as magnificent as those in neighbouring Suffolk – Coggeshall, Thaxted, Saffron Walden and Dedham are grand examples of the Perpendicular style. Thaxted, for the magnificence of its church and the varied textures of the old houses of its little town, is one of the most charming places in Britain.”

Essex is often – and wrongly – regarded as a poorer sister of neighbouring Suffolk. But I agree with Betjeman that Essex looks its best in sunlight, “when the many materials of its rustic villages, the brick manor houses, the timbered ‘halls’ and the cob and thatched churches, the weather-boarded late-Georgian cottages, the oaks and flints, recall Constable.”

It is worth exploring John Betjeman’s ‘deepest Essex few explore’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Essex, by Sir John Betjeman

“The vagrant visitor erstwhile,”
My colour-plate book says to me,
“Could wend by hedgerow-side and stile,
From Benfleet down to Leigh-on-Sea.”

And as I turn the colour-plates
Edwardian Essex opens wide,
Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates,
Sweet uneventful countryside.

Like streams the little by-roads run
Through oats and barley round a hill
To where blue willows catch the sun
By some white weather-boarded mill.

“A Summer Idyll Matching Tye”
“At Havering-atte-Bower, the Stocks”
And cobbled pathways lead the eye
To cottage doors and hollyhocks.

Far Essex, – fifty miles away
The level wastes of sucking mud
Where distant barges high with hay
Come sailing in upon the flood.

Near Essex of the River Lea
And anglers out with hook and worm
And Epping Forest glades where we
Had beanfeasts with my father’s firm.

At huge and convoluted pubs
They used to set us down from brakes
In that half-land of football clubs
Which London near the Forest makes.

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.

I see the little branch line go
By white farms roofed in red and brown,
The old Great Eastern winding slow
To some forgotten country town.

Now yarrow chokes the railway track,
Brambles obliterate the stile,
No motor coach can take me back
To that Edwardian “erstwhile”.

23 June 2013

‘Hope of future glory’ in the ‘Quilt of Hope’

The Quilt of Hope at the West Door of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning, meeting and greeting people at the door of the south porch before taking my stall for the Cathedral Eucharist.

The celebrant was the Revd Robert Lawson, and the preacher was the Precentor, Canon Peter Campion.

This morning’s setting was William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices and the Communion Motet was O sacrum convivium, a setting by Thomas Tallis of a Latin text written by Saint Thomas Aquinas:

O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur.
Recolitur memoria passionis ejus,
mens impletur gratia,
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

O sacred banquet, wherein Christ is offered up.
We recall the memory of his passion,
our souls are filled with grace,
and hope of future glory is given us.

Turning to walk back down the cathedral with the choir and clergy, I was struck by the “hope of future glory” in the bright and delightful colours in the Quilt of Hope, hanging on the West Door of the Cathedral.

The Quilt of Hope was launched on Friday 14 June to support the Women’s Group of Open Heart House as part of the events marking Irish AIDS Day last Sunday [16 June 2013]. Open Heart House is an innovative and diverse project that challenges the social stigma and the associated isolation of living with HIV+. It is Ireland’s biggest peer support network of HIV+ people.

Open Heart House facilitates a space for HIV+ women to meet, to talk about the challenges they face in life, their partners, their children, their successes, their failures and fears, their deepest emotions and hopes, and to offer strength and support to each other.

Too many people associate HIV+ and AIDS solely with developing countries. However, it is a global issue that can affect anyone, anywhere.

I wonder why HIV seems to have slipped off the agenda in Ireland. It is no longer a major media topic or a topic for public conversation. Yet it is estimated that HIV affects 6,629 people and their families in Ireland, and it is still a frightening reality for many people.

The Quilt of Hope was created by women from Open Heart House as a positive representation of women living with HIV+ in Ireland and to highlight and overcome the issues that women experience living HIV+ and AIDS.

The idea for the quilt arose in conversation among the women, who were inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt of 1987, which was exhibited in the Mansion House in Dublin in 1991.

Work began last October, and the quilt was completed within two months by 13 women and three supporting volunteers. They met twice a week, and as they worked on the quilt they shared their stories, and laughed together and cried together as they worked on each patch.

The women who created this quilt are: Annette (Ireland), Sharon (Zimbabwe), Mary (Ireland), Tigist (Eritrea), Sandra (Ireland), Anne (Ireland), Margaret (Ireland), Mopule (South Africa), Pauline (Ireland), Debra (Ireland), Nichola (Ireland), Mamie (Ireland) and Bella (Botswana). They were facilitated by Sandra King, and supported by volunteers Niamh Murphy, her mother Patricia Murpy and Georgia O’Callaghan.

Their dream is that this quilt should travel around the world, reminding society that there is life after an HIV+ diagnosis. They hope that when HIV+ women see this quilt they will add their stories and their dreams.

Open Heart House is at: http://www.openhearthouse.ie/

22 June 2013

Reinventing the wheel ... or square tyres for square wheels?

Square Tyres and Square Parts ... signs seen in Tallaght this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

So often we joke about reinventing the wheel. But I was taken aback by this business sign opposite the Stadium in Tallaght late this evening.

Two of us had spent the afternoon in Portrane with my Lynders cousins, handing over gifts collected for the charities in Romania and Albania supported by Hand to Heart, and for the great sale at The Quay on the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The broad stretch of sand on the Burrow Beach in Portrane, Co Dublin, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Although yesterday was Midsummer’s Day, there was no sign of summer on the wide stretch of sand below us. The tide was out, and a few families were playing on the beach, but the rain was coming down in bursts and small showers.

After a few hours at the Quay, we stopped again at Donabate, but the rain was still pouring down, the waves were choppy, and the rain showers could be seen far out in the Irish Sea.

Mist and rain on the beach at Donabate this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We drove on down past the Island Golf Club and along the southern rim of the peninsula. The tide was out and the estuary between Donabate and Malahide looked more like mud flats and marshland. In the choppy waters, our people were making brave attempt at sail-boarding.

Square Parts ... Square Tyres ... Square Wheels ... Square Cars or reinventing the wheel? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

On the way home, I had to stop when we saw this sign in Tallaght. I wondered: Do you need to have Square Wheels to have Square Tyres fitted? And apart from Square Parts, do they fit round parts, triangular parts, pyramidical parts?

It reminded me too of the old adage that when the new shopping centre was built in Tallaght a few decades ago it was called the Square because no-one on the site could spell Pyramid.

Yes, I was up early this morning. The international and sporting event of the day must have been the first test match in the Lions’ tour of Australia, with dramatic tries and a even more dramatic climax.

Meanwhile, there is no need to feel like a square peg in a round hole. Plan ahead for that sale in Portrane on the August weekend. It makes a difference to many people in Romania and Albania.

Midsummer arts festival at
Sidney Sussex College

Patrick Comerford

I hope to back in Cambridge later next week and to drop into Sidney Sussex College – but I’m going to be too late for this year’s Sidney Sussex Arts Festival.

The programme for this – the third bi-annual Arts Festival – includes an interesting mix of music, comedy, theatre, cinema sculpture and more.

The festival takes place today [Saturday, 22 June 2013] and includes a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which I saw on the lawns of Saint John’s College when I was staying in Sidney Sussex the year before last – a performance of Les Sauvages, the final self-contained act of Rameau’s baroque opera. Les Indes Galantes, and a talk by Sidney’s composer-in-residence Eric Whitacre.

The Festival was launched last night with a special concert featuring Sidney’s current artists-in-residence, the Tippett Quartet.

The Festival comes at the end of what is known in Cambridge as May Week, and for one day at the end of May Week, Sidney Sussex Arts Festival is taking over the college and its beautiful gardens, offering a series of acts, concerts, talks and exhibitions. This year’s festival includes music, poetry, visual art, film, dance and theatre.

Most acts are organised, directed and created by students, but they also included a number of delights from the local community. The festival is family-friendly, with a children’s area with face-painting, games and perhaps even a donkey!

Families and children of all ages are welcome in Sidney’s magical midsummer gardens today.

The Tippett Quartet has performed at the BBC Proms, national and international festivals and has been featured frequently on BBC Radio 3, and has received praise from the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph and Gramophone Magazine.

Eric Whitacre is one of the most popular and performed composers of our time. His first album won a Grammy last year, reaped unanimous five star reviews and became the No 1 classical album in the British and US charts within a week of release.

Today’s programme also includes a talk by the talk on Sidney’s history by Dr Richard Humphreys, who recently published Sidney Sussex College: A History (2009).

The college gardens are the venue for an exhibition of contemporary sculpture by local artists.

The college kitchens are displaying their prize-winning culinary artistry, with chocolate-making demonstrations and an opportunity to buy their creations.

There are screenings of short films from Cambridge Cinema Shorts, who hold the Strawberry Shorts Film Festival every year on Midsummer Common.

Cromwell's Head, a popular band set up by Sidney students, promises a unique take on well-known pop to vintage soul.

And there is much, much more on offer.

The programme runs from 2 p.m. this afternoon until 9.30 this evening … or later.

Everything should be back to normal when I drop in on Wednesday afternoon. But I can look forward to a full week in Sidney Sussex later next month when I am back for the annual summer school of the Orthodox Christian Studies from 14 to 19 July.

The wisteria in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in bloom in mid-May, stretching the length of Hall and Chapel Courts. This photograph, taken on19 May by the Fellow Communications Officer, Dr David Beckingham, is looking from Chapel Court to Hall Court

21 June 2013

River cruise with a touch of
Famine and Fiscal disaster

Looking south towards the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road from Grand Canal Basin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Midsummer’s Day arrived with mixed weather today: it was raining this morning, but after a short time at work, two of us headed into the city centre, and the sun was shining by the time we reached Christ Church Cathedral.

After lunch, we went on board the Spirit of Docklands for a different view of the city, the quays and the docks – this time from the River Liffey.

Our 45-minute tour started at Bachelor’s Walk, between O’Connell Bridge and the Ha’penny Bridge.

The tide was low, and so instead of heading west under the Ha’penny Bridge, we turned east and were brought under O’Connell Bridge, and continued under the new, as-yet-unnamed bridge that is still being built, under Butt Bridge, Sean O’Casey Bridge and Samuel Beckett Bridge, and on down the river as far as the East Link Toll Bridge.

Our guide offered good-humoured insights into the history of Dublin and of the River Liffey, from the arrival of the Vikings over 1000 years ago, to the rapid development of the city during the 18th and 19th centuries, to the birth of Dublin as a major European capital, and up to the subsequent decline and more recent redevelopment of Dublin’s Docklands.

Gandon’s grandeur … the Custom House seen from the River Liffey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We passed Liberty Hall and Gandon’s masterpiece, the majestic Custom House, heard the story of the Royal and Grand Canals, of the Point Depot, the U2 studios at Grand Canal Dock, and the demise of the docks and the cross-river ferries.

We heard too how much of present-day Dublin stands on reclaimed land, including Trinity College and the Spire in O’Connell Street.

It is Midsummer, and yet our guide delighted at the summer weather. “Summer has arrived on a Friday,” he told us with a chuckle. “Last year, summer was on a Tuesday.”

The never-completed headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank … a skeletal reflection of financial failure (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Because of the tidal conditions today, our journey came to an end at Custom House Quay instead of Bachelor’s Walk, beside the Famine emigrant ship, the Jeanie Johnston.

The Jeanie Johnston is docked permanently beside the Famine Memorial commissioned by Norma Smurfit and presented to the City of Dublin in 1997. The bronze sculptures on Custom House Quay were designed and crafted by the Dublin sculptor Rowan Gillespie as a commemorative work dedicated to Irish people who were forced to emigrate during the Famine in the 19th century.

The location of this sculpture is poignant: one of the first voyages of the Famine period was on the Perseverance, which sailed from Custom House Quay on Saint Patrick’s Day 1846 with 210 passengers. They all landed safely in New York two months later on 18 May 1846.

The betitled “Mr Bertie Ahern” … seeking to stand out from the crowd in the heart of Famine and Financial Disaster (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The names of sponsors are in bronze plates embedded in the ground surrounding the memorial. It is typical of the arrogance of a former Taoiseach that alone among the names he had himself described in a plaque as “Mr Bertie Ahern,” when every other sponsor – from the designer John Rocha or the actors Gabriel Byrne and Daniel Day Lewis, to the Irish international footballer Roy Keane, from television presenter Gay Byrne to the former Taoiseach John Bruton – is remembered simply by first name and family name, without honorific.

This cloying after dignity lacks any sense of decorum. But it also reflects the insensitivity of the man. How appropriate, I thought, that the Taoiseach who presided over the greatest financial crisis on this island – apart, perhaps, from the Famine – should have his name in the ground close to a sculpture that recalls forced emigration, and beside so many icons of the financial disaster for which he continues to refuse to accept any responsibility or blame – failed banks, failed financial houses, vacant office blocks and the almost empty shopping mall at CHQ.

I had to call myself back to mind to think again of the true significance of Rowan Gillespie’s sculpture. Here a scraggy dog, there a forlorn father or a bewildered mother.

A distressed father carries his dying or dead child … part of Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Famine’ memorial on Custom House Quay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As I gazed on the image of a distressed father carrying a dying or dead child over his shoulders, I thought too of today’s Syrian refugees, the unconscionable violence that is the indulgence of every party to the conflict in Syria, and the slow response by politicians to relieve their distress as they play with the politics of the Middle East.

We are facing another humanitarian crisis on our doorstep. Have learned nothing from the disasters of the past?

A taste of Greece in Corfu on Parliament Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After our river cruise, we strolled through the new financial heart of Dublin, and then back through Temple Bar to Christ Church Cathedral, for Evening Prayer in the Choir Stalls.

Earlier in the afternoon, we had lunch in Corfu, the Greek restaurant on Parliament Street – a vegetarian mezze for two, two glasses of wine, and two Greek coffees were so appropriate on Midsummer’s Day.

Because of those tidal conditions, there were only two sailings on the Spirit of Docklands today [Friday 21 June 2013], at 13:15 and 14:15. There are two again tomorrow [Saturday], at 14:15 and 15:15, but there is none on Sunday due to tidal conditions.

So check the schedules before planning your journey. Unlike the Viking Splash, you do not get to wear silly hats and to shout at passing tourists. But you get a new perspective of Dublin – try it before summer comes to an end.

The ‘Spirit of Docklands’ at Bachelor’s Walk this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)