Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Caversham Heights Society

MEMBERS were given two diverse but enthralling talks last month.

On January 4, John Mullaney, who for many years owned the Caversham Bookshop in Prospect Street with his wife Lindsay, was due to talk about the significance of Henry I (1100-1135) to Reading but in the end it was Lindsay who gave the talk.

John will speak at the end of the season on the importance of Reading Abbey.

Lindsay went into considerable detail about the Normans and the family feuds of William the Conqueror (1027-87) and his family and where Henry fitted in, interspersed with wry and humorous comments.

Henry was the youngest son of William I (the only one to be born in England) and was involved in various family feuds and intrigues.

Redheads and beards were frowned upon by the church because long hair was seen as being synonymous with either homosexuality or criminality.

However, because the Normans were descended from the hairy Norsemen of Scandinavia and because William II (Rufus, 1056-1100) was bisexual, the church proved powerless to exert its views.

These attitudes also meant that it was very hard to identify what Henry might have looked like from the various “portraits” of him. It is only recently that some degree of clarity has begun to be revealed.

But why Reading? Apparently it was of strategic importance to the Normans, being situated on the River Kennet and near the River Thames and not too far from the New Forest.

Henry was familiar with the place because he stayed in Sonning on numerous occasions.

Reading Abbey, with its associations with Cluny, the then largest abbey in Europe, was planned by Henry to become the burial site for future kings.

We now know that at that time it was the largest abbey in England.

Henry was, by every account, a great king as he:

lEnded private wars between barons by imposing draconian taxes and punishments.

l Introduced travelling law courts.

l Developed an efficient bureaucracy, including an exchequer that was the forerunner of today’s Treasury, and reformed the coinage.

l Clarified the roles belonging to the state and the church.

Above all, the economy thrived under Henry because his reign coincided with 30 years of peace.

His remains were brought from Normandy back to Reading for burial in the abbey following his untimely death from eating an excess of lampreys.

Yet few visitors to Reading would be aware of the existence of Reading Abbey, let alone Henry’s importance.

With the current exploration of the abbey ruins using the latest laser technology, who knows what the situation might become in a few years’ time?

On January 18 Hugh Granger gave a detailed and enthralling talk on life of Sir Barnes Wallis (1887-1979).

He explored Wallis’s humble origins, his scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, his mathematical tripos at Cambridge and his subsequent career with Vickers, where he designed the R100 airship that made its maiden flight in 1929 and subsequently crossed the Atlantic.

Wallis came up with practical solutions to aeronautical problems, which were always successful but were often rejected because he did not fit into the “right” mould.

He is best known for his design of the Wellington bomber, the bombs that destroyed the German battleship Tirpitz and the “bouncing bombs” that were used to destroy the Mohne and Eder dams in the Ruhr in 1943.

Even after the Second World War he continued to use his genius for design by developing the first swing wing aircraft used in the Tornado fighter and by developing plans for supersonic aircraft.

Given Wallis’s contribution to winning the war and his patenting of more than 140 designs, the scandal is how little recognition he was given by the political establishment for his efforts.

For example, Churchill never mentioned him in his history of the Second World War, perhaps because of his own conscience about the role of Bomber Command.

The society meets at Caversham Heights Methodist Church hall on alternate Wednesdays at 7.30pm, beginning with coffee at 7pm.

New members are always welcome. For more information, call Carol Cozens on 0118 946 1509 or Jill Hodges on 0118 959 5307.

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