Monday Photo

Is This a Gargoyle, or is it Just Grotesque?

Church grotesque

The Monday Photo

This is St Firmin’s church, at North Crawley. There are quite a few carvings on the outside of this church that are fairly similar to the one in the photo, but does that make them gargoyles or grotesques?

A gargoyle is a projecting water spout that throws rainwater clear of the church. It will be just below roof level, it will be a figure or a head of some kind, and it will usually have a lead pipe protruding from its mouth.

A grotesque lives up to its name; it is grotesque. But it doesn’t have a spout.

This example meets the first two requirements, but there’s no lead pipe, and there doesn’t seem to be a hole where one might have been, even though it’s the type known as a mouth puller.

I found it difficult to be sure just from the photo, so I went back to North Crawley for another look. The carving isn’t very high up; it sits on the corner of the nave and I could see it fairly well, but still I was not sure.

There are five other figures like this on the nave, all at the same level. I had a good look at them too and now I’m sure. This is not a gargoyle. None of them are. The four carvings near the top of the tower, now they are gargoyles, though not all of them still have their lead pipe.

But where do these names come from?

You’ve probaly noticed that gargoyle sounds very like gargle, and both words derive from the 15th Century French word gagouille, meaning throat.

Grotesque, though, is a later word. At the turn of the 16th Century, basement rooms from emperor Nero’s palace were excavated.

These cave like rooms had been decorated with imaginative and fantastic human and animal figures, and with symmetrical patterns of foliage and tendrils. Renaissance Europe went wild for these “cave paintings”, or in Italian, pittura grottesca.

This style of decoration became popular, and was called grotesque in much the same way that arabesque or moresque was used to describe Islamic art. But in the end the word became more and more associated with the fantastic and bizarre figures we see on Gothic architecture.

The ones on North Crawley’s church certainly were not known by these names when they were carved in the 11th Century, so what were they known as then?

We think that in the middle ages they were called babewyn; it means baboon. Or in other words, what they are is monkey business.

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Lights Round Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes estate globe lighting

The Monday Photo

This is one of the original street lights designed for Milton Keynes. Part of a complete system of street furniture for the new town, lights like these began to be installed in the new estates around 1975. This one is in Woughton on the Green.

This is the type used on smaller estate roads, so it has a square brown column with a globular lantern on top. There were several designs; all pretty similar on the outside, but with various different internals.

Main estate roads had globe lights too, but they were mounted on an arm that stuck out sideways from the square brown column.

To produce a cohesively designed town, in 1978 the Milton Keynes Development Corporation produced a brochure with diagrams and plans for lighting, signs, bus shelters and seating. Everything was designed to be durable with easy maintenance.

One design example is MKDC’s park bench. All steel and painted black, it has a single tube at each end, bent to form the legs and the end of the seat and backrest. A single sheet of perforated metal stretches between the tubes to form the rest of the bench. The thousands of round holes means the seat will not hold rainwater.

As you travel around Milton Keynes, keep an eye out for the street furniture that was part of the original new town. There’s still quite a lot of it.

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The Flag of Tibet

Tibet flag raising day

The Monday Photo

Tibetans are not allowed to raise their flag in their own country, Tibet being occupied by Communist China.

But once a year the flag is flown in Milton Keynes, and this year, as before, it was raised in the garden of the Buddhist temple at North Willen lake.

Usually 70-100 people attend the event but because of Covid this wasn’t possible. Only six people could be in the temple, and only six runners could take a flag each around the lake. This man was one of them.

The Tibetan flag is full of symbolism. The six red bands on a dark blue sky are for the six original tribes of Tibet, and a pair of fearless snow lions represent Tibet’s unified spiritual and secular life. The lions stand on a great snowy mountain, the great nation of Tibet. Between them they hold two jewels; symbols of reverence to Buddhist principals.

At the peak of the mountain is the sun, shining over all. The yellow border represents the spreading teachings of the Buddha. The flag was designed by the previous Dalai Llama, the 13th, in 1916.

The ceremony took place on Sunday 16th May, the day before the social distancing rules were eased. I don’t know yet how the relaxed rules have now changed for religious events.

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It’s Grand on the Canal

Grand Junction mile post

The Monday Photo

This cast iron sign is on the towpath of the Grand Union canal, at Woughton on the Green, Milton Keynes. But what does G. J. C. Co. stand for?

This was the Grand Junction Canal until 1929, But when the railways took away much of the canal trade in goods transport, It was taken over and became part of the Grand Union canal, in a merger of several other canal companies.

This stretch was built at the end of the 18th Century. It ran from Braunston in Northants, down to the Thames at Brentford in West London.

Canals follow the hill contours, so you might think that canals take a very indirect route. But it’s not much further to Braunston from here than the same journey by road, at 36 miles instead of 32. As the crow flies, it’s under 28 to the junction at Braunston.

Boaters can get a good idea of how long a canal journey will take. To work it out they assume an average speed of three miles an hour, and add to that ten minutes for every lock.

At three miles an hour those 36 miles to Braunston will take you twelve hours. The 21 locks you’ll pass through on the way will take you 210 minutes, or three and a half hours.

Altogether you’ll be looking at a total of sixteen and a half hours; a two day journey if you don’t stop.

By the modern road you could easily get there in an hour, but it would have taken a lot longer by road when the canal was first built, especially in the winter.

I wonder how long it would take to do the trip now, by bicycle along the towpath.

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All the way to London

Welsh Lane  Bucks  a drover's road

The Monday Photo

If this cyclist turning right near Stowe School could follow the route he’s just turned on to all the way to the end, he would be at Bangor in Wales.

As the sign says, this is Welsh Lane and it’s a drove road, once used to take livestock from the far North West of Wales all the way to London.

This drove road comes into Bucks just to the West of Biddlesden. From this crossroads it heads onto the A422 and into Buckingham, heading for the capital.

If you look down Welsh Lane you can see that the hedges are far apart, this was ideal for drovers as it provided plenty of grass for their animals as they travelled. So important were the drove roads that enclosure acts stipulated a minimum distance between hedges on these routes.

The last known long distance drove was in 1900, taking Welsh sheep over 200 miles from Tregaron in central Wales to Harrow in London. It probably didn’t come this way, being more likely to go through Oxford and the South of Bucks.

The Other Way

The other road at this crossroads is Stowe House’s Oxford Avenue, and its trees were originally planted in the 1790s. This avenue is well over a mile and a half long. It leads from a stone gatehouse with entrance pillars on the Buckingham to Brackley road right up to the North side of Stowe School.

At the gatehouse end there’s a turn opposite to Water Stratford, where I found the tiny Norman church of St Giles for last week’s Monday photo.

I didn’t know at the time but the Boycott Farm Shop (see the sign in the photo) does very good sausage rolls, and it seems from their website that they sell pork pies too. I do like a nice pork pie, so I’ll be going back that way soon.

If you want to know more about the drove roads in mainland Britain, the Local Drove Roads website is the place to visit. I’ve spent already some time on it and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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Norman is as Norman Does

Church tympanum  Water Stratford

The Monday Photo

As soon as I saw this arch, I realised I was looking at a Norman church. The giveaway is the three rows of concentric zigzags or chevrons around the edge.

But really, I thought it might be Norman as I rode past it on my motorcycle, just yesterday. The church’s solid, compact and simple appearance made me turn the bike round and park up for a better look. This is St Giles’s church, in Water Stratford.

That semi-circular panel between the arch and the door lintel is called a tympanum, and the carving is of Christ in Majesty. This doorway, and the nave it’s in are believed to have been built in around 1135.

There’s another tympanum on the other side of the church, above a door in the chancel.

The lintel is carved with a miniature blind arcade, and if you want to see a full sized blind arcade you can find one on Stewkley’s Norman church.

Those knotted designs on the tops of the door pillars (the capitals) are carved with the cable motif. Those horizontal slabs between the ends of the arch and the capitals are the imposts, though I don’t know what the motif carved into them is called.

The church is very simple. There’s the nave, a tower that used to be much taller, and a chancel. The whole building is not much more than about 75 feet long. Of course, I couldn’t go in and didn’t try. I look forward to the time when I can go into a church and look around inside again; shouldn’t be too long now.

Water Stratford used to be called West Stratford until around 1436, and “Stratford” means there was a ford for a Roman road near this spot. The Roman road ran between Bicester and Towcester, but another one branched off it to Stony Stratford, from just North of the village.

It’s amazing what you find if you have your eyes open.

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