Tuesday, 22 June 2021

WI Roundup

OCTOBER was a busy month for the society.

Following the annual meeting on October 5, members were enthralled by a fascinating, well-researched and informative talk by Tony Weston entitled “Thames crossings — from a ford to a flight, 2,000 years of getting to the other side, across, under and above the River Thames”.

At 215 miles long from its source, where there is virtually no water, to its exit into the North Sea, the Thames is the longest river in England.

For thousands of years it acted as a barrier between tribes and kingdoms and the only way of getting across was either by wading, swimming or in a boat.

The Romans built the first bridge across the river at Staines but when they left London Bridge fell into disrepair and it was another 500 years before it was replaced by a more substantial bridge.

The original was eventually destroyed by a 240mph tornado which struck London in 1091. (It is claimed that the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down originated from this time, although it is more likely that it was inspired by the Great Fire of London in 1666 that destroyed the then seven-storey London Bridge with its shops and 200-plus homes.)

Thus when William the Conqueror arrived in 1066 he had to go all the way to Wallingford before he could cross the river safely at Duxford, near Oxford, where there were fords.

It was Wlliam I who declared the Thames to be a royal river but it was left to William II (1056-1100) and Stephen (1090-1154) to build a new bridge.

For centuries the main means of crossing the Thames was by ferry. The oldest known one was Gravesend to Tilbury, recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.

It was from here that Elizabeth I addressed her troops before the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1197 Richard I sold the river to the Corporation of the City of London, which thereafter controlled what was and wasn’t allowed.

It was not until the reign of Henry VIII that watermen, or ferrymen, were licensed to carry passengers.

Of the hundreds of public ferries that once existed only a handful still exist, for example, Woolwich, Hampton, Twickenham, Gravesend to Tilbury and Hilton Docklands to Canary Wharf.

During medieval times it was the monasteries that built several bridges (Wallingford and Radcot in 1200 and Caversham in 1231). These had pointed arches like the monasteries but only a few survive.

Their real importance was in providing revenues, by way of tolls, for anyone using them. They were also often the sites of battles between rival armies.

During the 18th century there were many competitions and designs for new bridges over the river.

Real change came in 1869 when Isambard Kingdom Brunel began building the first tunnel under the river. The most famous one is the Blackwall Tunnel. In more recent years a new approach has been undertaken, namely a means of flying over the river.

Perhaps the most bizarre idea of crossing the Thames is the so-called Garden Bridge but this is still mired in controversy and may never be built. All in all, this was an interesting talk.

On October 12 a coach- load of society members went to Windsor and then Dorney to be shown round Dorney Court, a medieval manor house first mentioned in the Domesday Book and rebuilt in Tudor times.

It has been owned by the same family, the Palmers (loosely related to the Palmers of Huntley and Palmer fame), for more than 400 years.

Going round the house was like a tour through English history thanks to the furniture, paintings and architecture.

Because the house receives no government funding, the owners have to rely on using the house and gardens for filming, weddings and corporate functions, for which it is an ideal setting.

On October 19 members were entertained and enthralled by Shaun McCormick’s personal insights into the “Queen’s bodyguard of the yeomen of the guard”.

After serving in the army for 25 years, Shaun became a yeoman of the guard in 2000 and has been based at St James’s Palace since then.

Founded by Henry VII as a bodyguard “to support the crown and protect and guard the body of our Lord the King”, it has done precisely that for the past 532 years and is the oldest bodyguard in the world. It was originally made up of fighting men but today it is largely a ceremonial body of volunteer ex-servicemen.

Each time there is a state occasion, such as the opening of Parliament, a visiting head of state, or a lying in state, investitures, garden parties at Buckingham Palace or the Maundy Thursday services, the yeomen of the guard can be seen.

Because yeomen discovered Guy Fawkes beneath Parliament on November 5, 1605 they are still responsibible for checking the cellars at each state opening.

The warders at the Tower of London are also part of the yeomen of the guard.

Since the reign of James II (1683-1701) the guard has consisted of 79 men, six officers and 73 yeomen.

The guard’s badge and emblems on the men’s tunics have the rose of Henry VII, the thistle of James VI of Scotland and James I of England, the insignia of George I of Hanover and the crown of the House of Windsor.

Until 1945 only ex-army personnel were allowed to become guardsmen. Then former RAF personnel were allowed to apply and in 2012 the same right was given to the Royal Navy. There are two women on the waiting list.

What made this talk so interesting was not only the information provided, together with humorous quips, but the artefacts that Shaun had brought with him — the hat, knee-length trousers, long skirt, scarlet stockings and suspenders, halbard and cross belt, the sword and silver-tipped cane. Everyone was amazed at the sheer weight of the uniform.

For most listeners, this was a memorable evening.

Meetings of the society are held every alternate Wednesday at Caversham Heights Methodist Church in Highmoor Road at 7.30pm. New members are most welcome.

We are in the process of developing a new website, so for further information, call Carol Cozens on 0118 946 1509 or email her at rooster10@btinternet.com or call Jill Hodges on 0118 959 5307 or email her at irishjill@southcote.net

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