There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 2 September 2016

Southwell: a Minster, a Workhouse and Some Apples

Today is my 66th birthday, which makes me very definitely an Old Git. I am unsure how this happened and I did try to stop it twice; at 25 and again at 60 I decided I was content where I was and resolved to stop aging. I failed.

So, accepting the inevitable, I celebrated my birthday by driving the 70 miles to Southwell for a day out.

Southwell sits in a rural triangle formed by the main roads connecting Mansfield, Newark-on-Trent and Nottingham. It is an old, pleasant and obviously prosperous town. Apparently all the money of north Nottinghamshire spins round this triangle before settling at the centre in Southwell and its surrounding villages.

I have always called the town Suh-thull – and as do most others, but Wikipedia claims that locals pronounce it as spelt. That may be right and there are several claimants for the site of the original south well, including in the Admiral Rodney pub.

King Street, Southwell with the Admiral Rodney 50m down on the right
A little further along is the 15th century Saracen’s Head. In May 1646 King Charles I spent his last night of freedom here (it was then, with macabre though unconscious irony, known as the King’s Head) before surrendering to the Scottish Army, who later sold him on to the Parliamentarians.

The Saracen's Head, Southwell
A short walk took us to Southwell Minster, the town’s largest and most important building. In the 7th century ‘minster’ designated a settlement of clergy living a communal life, it is now an honorific title historically attached to some cathedrals (notably York) and more recently granted to important parish churches.

Southwell Minster has been an important church for a millennium, but only became the Cathedral of the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham in 1884. Traditionally ‘cities’ were the sites of diocesan cathedrals but that link was broken in 1888. Although there are now many cities without cathedrals (like Nottingham*), almost all communities with cathedrals are cities. With 7,000 inhabitants Southwell would be a small city, though three times the size of the city of St David’s, but it remains, as it always has been, a town.

Southwell Minster
The unusual 'pepperpot' spires hide a stumpy tower over the crossing 
Once a Roman villa occupied the site but legend tells that a church was established here in 627 by St Paulinus, the first Bishop of York who was visiting and baptising converts. A Victorian stained glass window shows John the Baptist baptising Christ in the Jordan and beneath Paulinus, holding a model of the church (unusual in the C of E but common in Eastern Orthodox churches) facing a group of converts across a somewhat schematic River Trent (apparently near its confluence with the Jordan!) The model (partly obscured by the bars) is of the mid-19th century church and lacks the pepperpot spires as they burned down after a lightning strike in 1771 and were not replaced until 1880.

John the Baptist, the Jordan, the Trent and St Paulinus -
and a nativity scene thrown in for good measure
Southwell Minster
The Normans started building a new church in 1108 and finished around 1150, re-using much of the fabric of the Saxon church. A section of Saxon floor tiles – half a metre below the modern floor level – can be seen in the south transept and a Saxon tympanum remains in situ in the north transept.


Saxon tympanum, Southwell Minster
The nave is impressively Romanesque, though the barrel vaulted ceiling dates only from 1880 when it replaced a flat ceiling built after the 1771 fire.

The nave, Southwell Minster
The impressively carved pulpitum in the crossing dates from 1340.

Pulpitum, Southwell Minster
It was carved with humour and is full of detail.

Detail, pulpitum, outhwell Minster
In 1240, less than a hundred years after it was completed, the quire was demolished and replaced with a much enlarged English Gothic structure. It feels too big, and the change of style from the nave is so abrupt it is like walking into a different building. No doubt it all felt terribly modern at the time, 800 years later it looks (to me, at least) like a mistake.

The quire, Southwell Minster
The minster is also home to some fine modern works. Peter Eugene Ball’s Christus Rex in the nave is the most prominently displayed.

Christus Rex, Peter Eugene Ball, Southwell Minster
An exhibition of Peter Eugene Ball’s sculptures filled the chapter house and the artist himself was there. He works with driftwood and assorted found objects, coating them in copper and other metals. If I had a couple of grand spare I might now be the owner of Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for Godot, Peter Eugene Ball
Chapter House, Southwell Minster
The Stations of the Cross in sand cast aluminium by Jonathan Clarke are impressive and you are encouraged to touch the sculptures as you admire them.

Staions of the Cross
No 7 Christ Falls for the Second Time, Jonathan Clarke, Southwell Minster
The Bishop’s Palace next door was largely destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers, though Southwell generally escaped lightly. The Great Hall survived and is usually open to the public, but not today as it was booked for a wedding.

The Bishop's Palace, Southwell

The 19 Prebends of Southwell were senior clergymen who lived around the cathedral in comfortable circumstances in ‘prebendal houses’. The Prebends have gone, but 10 of their houses survive including the house of the Prebend of Rampton. Rampton village, 20 miles north of Southwell is best known for its Secure Hospital.

The West Gate of the minster and the Rampton Prebendal House, Southwell
Church Street runs beside the minster. In 1809 Mary Ann Brailsford planted some apple pips in her Church Street garden. After Matthew Bramley bought the house in 1846 a local nurseryman asked if he could take cuttings from the tree and sell the apples. Bramley agreed as long as they were sold under his name. Bramleys, too tart to eat but perfect for cooking, now account for 95% of the cooking apple orchards in England and Wales. The original tree survives and still bears fruit.

Church Street, Southwell
I do not claim the house with the apple tree is necessarily in this picture
We had soup and a cup of tea in a café  in King Street  then drove to the northern edge of town to the workhouse.

It is ironic that amid such prosperity the workhouse should be a major tourist attraction. Poor houses had existed for many years but Southwell Workhouse, built in 1824, was widely praised and after the New Poor Law of 1834 became the template for the Victorian Workhouse.

The driving force behind its establishment was the Rev John Becher. He became one of Southwell’s prebendaries in 1818 and later vicar-general. He was an earnest social reformer and was instrumental in setting up a local Friendly Society into which poorer residents could make payments, as insurance should they fall on hard times.


Southwell Workhouse
What the Rev John Becher would have made of common people picnicking in the grounds we can only speculate

He then turned his attention to poor relief. At that time the parish, which was responsible for paupers, practised indoor relief – the payment of small sums to the needy in their homes. Becher was concerned that this encouraged idleness and championed ‘outdoor relief’ in which paupers were concentrated in one building, the workhouse, where they were not permitted to be idle.

‘Outdoor relief’ was initially more expensive, but he thought that by making workhouse conditions sufficiently unpleasant only those in genuine need would go there and thus idleness (which he regarded as the greatest of sins) among the general population would be discouraged. ‘A good workhouse,’ he said, ‘is an empty workhouse.'

Paupers could easily be divided into the ‘blameless and deserving,’….

The Blameless and Deserving
Note the straight back, the submissive half-smile and the way she keeps a firm grip on the handbag holding all her meagre wealth
…by which he meant those too old and infirm to work, and the ‘idle and profligate,’...


The idle and profligate
This man has not worked for several years. Note the way he slouches on the bench - and he cannot even be bothered to wear socks
meaning any able bodied man or woman who was unemployed. Becher was dogmatic and inflexible and seemingly incapable of recognising ‘paupers’ as fellow human beings. I doubt I would have liked him, but I think he was well motivated, genuinely believing he was working to improve peoples’ lives and should be judged by the standards of his times. Some of his ideas, like ‘welfare dependency’ (not a phrase he would have used, but a concept he understood) have returned in modern Conservative thinking, indeed at times Ian Duncan Smith appeared to be channelling John Becher. He too should be judged by the standards of his times, and rather more harshly (in my pinko opinion).

By the 20th century residents were overwhelmingly the elderly and infirm. In 1929 workhouses were abolished and local authorities were encouraged to turn their infirmaries into municipal hospitals. Southwell Workhouse, Greet House as it became known, remained in use until the early 1990s, providing temporary shelter for mothers and children. It is now owned by the National Trust.

The workhouse had two wings, one for men, one for women who were rigidly segregated, even if they were married couples. Between the wings was the master’s office and accommodation. The wings were further subdivided into ‘infirm’ and ‘able bodied’ and again rigidly separated.

In the yards, men broke rocks or ground flour by hand. Women did domestic chores including the laundry. The pump in the yard still works.

Work Yard, Southwell Workhouse
Work was deliberately made tedious. Picking oakum, which could be done by children and involved shredding old ropes to be used to caulk new ships, had the added 'advantage' of damaging the pickers’ fingers.

Picking oakum, Southwell Workhouse
There would have been more old rope and more children - and less well dressed and well fed than these two
There are four segregated exercise yards at the back surrounded by high walls, though the master's windows were placed so he could spy on them all. In the tiny area by the front wall of the able bodied men’s yard, just out of his sight, a gaming board has been scratched in the brickwork.

Exercise yard overlooked by the Master's office
Little is known about workhouse furniture so the rooms are largely bare, though the master has a desk to sit at and a window to look out of. For everybody else walls were high and windows small so they could see little of the outside world. Workhouses were not prisons, inmates could discharge themselves any time they wished, but they could not come and go as they pleased. They could not take a country walk, or go into town, and as they wore workhouse uniform they would have been immediately spotted if they tried.


Master's Office, Southwell Workhouse
The style of the, not particularly comfortable, beds is guesswork, though marks on the floor show they are in the right places. There would have been another one in the space in front of Lynne.


Dormitory, Southwell Workhouse
The kitchen is probably accurate. The diet looked monotonous, with lots of gruel (wheat boiled in milk), porridge and bread. An allowance of 5oz of meat three days a week sounds generous by the standards of the time, though how much was bone and gristle is another matter. A large garden sits just outside the wall where today volunteers  grow a huge variety of vegetables. The same garden was cultivated by inmates in the 19th century, but the only vegetables they ever saw were potatoes.

Kitchen Southwell Workhouse
There were children in the workhouse, segregated from their parents (if they had any) and a teacher and schoolroom were provided to ensure a basic education. One of the anomalies of the workhouse system was that children inside often received better education than poor children outside – and there was medical treatment for those needing it, which they would have been unable to afford outside.

Schoolteacher looks scary
Schoolroom, Southwell Workhouse
Despite these advantages, life in the workhouse was clearly grim.

That evening I sat in my armchair with a glass of champagne while Lynne toiled in the kitchen preparing a birthday meal of venison paté and breast of guinea fowl on a bed of spicy lentils with a macédoine of vegetables. Mine is not a life in the workhouse (though I have occasionally been in the doghouse). I was lucky in the age, location and situation of my birth, and I have ridden that wave of good fortune ever since. In different circumstances I could have found myself in the workhouse, or worse, so I sipped and remembered to be grateful for life’s bounty – I think that is better than being unbearably smug (though sometimes…..

* I was referring only to C of E Cathedrals - Nottingham does have a Roman Catholic Cathedral

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