Archive for November, 2010

Sir Christopher Wren, the famous 17th century architect, left his mark on Stonehenge – but in a quite unexpected way. His name is skillfully chiselled into one of the 40-tonne sarsens that watches over the dig.

Christopher Wren Grafitti - Stonehenge

Christopher Wren Grafitti - Stonehenge

Was Christopher Wren a Mason ?

“Records of the Lodge Original, No. 1, now the Lodge of Antiquity No. 2”
mention him as being Master of the lodge.

Christopher WrenOne of the most distinguished architects of England was the son of Dr. Christopher Wren, Rector of East Knoyle in Wiltshire, and was born there October 20, 1632. He was entered as a Gentleman Commoner at Wadham College, Oxford, in his fourteenth year, being already distinguished for his mathematical knowledge. He has said to have invented, before this period, several astronomical and mathematical instruments. In 1645, he became a member of a scientific club connected with Gresham College, from which the Royal Society subsequently arose. In 1653, he was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, and had already become known to the learned men of Europe for his various inventions.

Christoher Wren

Christoher Wren

In 1657, he removed permanently to London, having been elected Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College. During the political disturbances which led to the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Commonwealth, Wren, devoted to the pursuits of philosophy, appears to have kept away from the contests of party. Soon after the restoration of Charles II, he was appointed Savillian Professor at Oxford, one of the highest distinctions which could then have been conferred on a scientific man. During this time he was distinguished for his numerous contributions to astronomy and mathematics, and invented many curious machines, and discovered many methods for facilitating the calculations of the celestial bodies. Wren was not professionally educated as an architect, but from his early youth had devoted much time to its theoretic study. In 1665 he went to Paris for the purpose of studying the public buildings in that city. and the various styles which they presented.

He was induced to make this visit, and to enter into these investigations, because, in 1660, he had been appointed by King Charles II one of a Commission to superintend the restoration of the Cathedral of Saint Paul’s, which had been much dilapidated during the times of the Commonwealth. But before the designs could be carried into execution, the great fire occurred which laid so great a part of London, including Saint Paul’s, in ashes.

Wren was appointed assistant in 1661 to Sir John Denham, the Surveyor-General, and directed his attention to the restoration of the burnt portion of the city. His plans were, unfortunately for the good of London, not adopted, and he confined his attention to the rebuilding of particular edifices. In 1667, he was appointed the successor of Denham as Surveyor General and Chief Architect.

In this capacity he erected a large number of churches, the Royal Exchange, Greenwich Observatory, and many other public edifices. But his crowning work, the masterpiece that has given him his largest reputation, is the Cathedral of Saint Paul’s, which was commenced in 1675 and finished in 1710. The original plan that was proposed by Wren was rejected through the ignorance of the authorities, and differed greatly from the one on which it has been constructed. Wren, however, superintended the erection as master of the work, and his tomb in the crypt of the Cathedral was appropriately inscribed with the words Si monumentum requiris, circumspice; that is, If you seek his monument, look around.

Wren was made a Knight in 1672, and in 1674 he married a daughter of Sir John Coghill. To a son by this marriage are we indebted for memoirs of the family of his father, published under the title of Parentalia.

After the death of his wife, he married a daughter off Viscount Fitzwilliam. In 1680, Wren was elected President of the Royal Society, and continued to a late period his labors on public edifices, building, among others, additions to Hampton Court and to Windsor Castle. After the death of Queen Anne, who was the last of his royal patrons, Wren was removed from his office of Surveyor-General, which he had held for a period of very nearly half a century. He passed the few remaining years of his life in serene retirement. He was found dead in his chair after dinner, on February 25, 1723, in the ninety-first year of his age.

Notwithstanding that much that has been said by Doctor Anderson and other writers of the eighteenth century, concerning Wren’s connection with Freemasonry, is without historical confirmation, there can, Doctor Mackey believed, be no doubt that he tools a deep interest in the Speculative as well as in the Operative Order.

The Rev. J. W. Laughlin, in a lecture on the life of Wren, delivered in 1857, before the inhabitants of Saint Andrew’s, Holborn, and briefly reported in the Freemasons Magazine, said that “Wren was for eighteen years a member of the old Lodge of Saint Paul’s, then held at the Goose and Gridiron, near the Cathedral, now the Lodge of Antiquity; and the records of that Lodge show that the maul and trowel used at the laying of the stone of Saint Paul’s, together with a pair of carved mahogany candlesticks, were presented by Wren, and are now in possession of that Lodge.” By the order of the Duke of Sussex, a plate was placed on the mallet or maul, which contained a statement of the fact.

C. W. King, who was not a Freemason, but has derived his statement from a source to which he does not refer (but which was perhaps Nicolai) makes, in his work on the Gnostics (page 176) the following statement, which is here quoted merely to show that the traditionary belief of Wren’s connection with Speculative Freemasonry is not confined to the Craft. He says:

Another and a very important circumstance in this discussion must always be kept in view: our Freemasons (as at present organized in the form of a secret Society) derive their title from a mere accidental circumstances connected with their actual establishment. It was in the Common Hall of the London Gild of Freemasons (the trade) that their first meetings were held under Christopher Wren, president, in the time of the Commonwealth.

Their real object was political-the restoration of monarchy; hence the necessary exclusion of the public and the oaths of secrecy enjoined on the members. The presence of promoting architectures and the choice of the place where to hold their, meetings, suggested by the profession of their president, were no more than blinds to deceive the existing government.

Doctor Anderson, in the first edition of the Constitutions, makes but a slight reference to Wren, only calling him “the ingenious architect, Sir Christopher Wren.” Doctor Mackey was almost afraid that this passing notice of him who has been called “the Vitruvius of England” must be` attributed to servility. George I was the stupid monarch who removed Wren from his office of Surveyor-General, and it would not do to be too diffuse with praise of one who had been marked by the disfavor of the king. But in 1727 George I died, and in his second edition, published in 1738, Doctor Anderson gives to Wren all the Masonic honors to which he claims that he was entitled.

It is from what Anderson has said in that work, that the Masonic writers of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, not requiring the records of authentic history, have drawn their views of the official relations of Siren to the Order. He first introduces Wren (page 101) as one of the Grand Wardens at the General Assembly held December 27, 1663, when the Earl of Saint Albans was Grand Master, and Sir John Denham, Deputy Grand Master. He says that in 1666 Wren was again a Grand Warden, under the Grand Mastership of the Earl of Rivers; but immediately afterward he calls him Deputy Wren, and continues to give him the title of Deputy Grand Master until 1685, when he says (page 106) that “the Lodges met, and elected Sir Christopher Wren Grand Master, who appointed Mr. Gabriel Cibber and Mr. Edmund Savage Grand Wardens; and while carrying on Saint Paul’s he annually met those Brethren who could attend him, to keep up good old usages.”

Brother Anderson (on page 107) makes the Duke of Richmond and Lennox Grand Master, and reduces Wren to the rank of a Deputy; but he says that in 1698 he was again chosen Grand Master, and as such “celebrated the Cape-stone” of Saint Paul’s in 1708. “Some few years after this,” he says, “Sir Christopher Wren neglected the office of Grand Master.” Finally he says (on page 109) that in 1716 “the Lodges in London finding themselves neglected by Sir Christopher Wren,” Freemasonry was revived under a new Grand Master. Some excuse for the aged architect’s neglect might have been found in the fact that he was then eighty-five years of age, and had been long removed from his public office of Surveyor-General. Brother Noorthouek is more considerate. Speaking of the placing of the last stone on the top of Saint Paul’s-which, notwithstanding the statement of Doctor Anderson, was done, not by Wren, but by his son-he says (Constitutions, page 204): The age and infirmities of the Grand Master, which prevented his attendance on this solemn occasion, confined him afterwards to great retirement; so that the Lodges suffered from many of his usual presence in visiting and regulating their meetings, and were reduced to a small number.

Brother Noorthouck, however, repeats substantially the statements of Doctor Anderson in reference to Wren’s Grand Mastership. How much of these statements can be authenticated by history is a question that must be decided only by more extensive investigations of documents not yet in possession of the Craft. Findel says in his History (page 127) that Doctor Anderson, having been commissioned in 1735 by the Grand Lodge to make a list of the ancient Patrons of the Freemasons, so as to afford something like a historical basis, “transformed the former Patrons into Grand Mastefs, and the Masters and Superintendents into Grand Wardens and the like, which were unknown until the year 1717.” Of this there can be no doubt; but there is other evidence that Wren was a Freemason. In Aubrey’s Natural History of Wiltshire (page 277) a manuscript in the library of the Royal Society, Halliwell finds and cites, in his Early History of Freemasonry in England (page 46) the following passage: This day, May the 15th, being Monday, 1691, after Rogation Sunday, is a great convention at Saint Paul’s Church of the Fraternity of the Accepted (the word Free was first written, then the pen drawn through it and the word Accepted written over it) Seasons, where Sir Christopher Wren is to be adopted a brothers and Sir Henry Goodrie of the Tower, and divers others. There have been Kings that have been of this sodality.

If this statement be true-and we have no reason to doubt it, from Aubrey’s general antiquarian accuracy-Doctor Anderson is incorrect in making him a Grand Master in 1685, six years before he was initiated as a Freemason. The true version of the story probably is this: Wren was a great architect-the greatest at the time in England. As such he received the appointment of Deputy Surveyor-General under Denham, and subsequently, on Ocnham’s death, of Surveyor-General. He thus became invested, by virtue of his office, with the duty of superintending the construction of public buildings.

The most important of these was Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the building of which he directed in person, and with so much energy that the parsimonious Duchess of Marlborough, when contrasting the charges of her own architect with the scant remuneration of Wren, observed that “he was content to be dragged up in a basket three or four times a week to the top of Saint Paul’s, and at great hazard, for £200 a year.”

All this brought him into close connection with the Gild of Freemasons, of which he naturally became the patron, and subsequently he was by initiation adopted into the modality Wren was, in fact, what the Medieval Masons called Magister Operis, or Master of the Work. Doctor James Anderson, writing for a purpose naturally transformed this title into that of Grand Master-an office supposed to be unknown until the year 1717. Aubrey’s authority, in Doctor Maelsey’s opinion, sufficiently establishes the fact that Wren has a Freemason, and the events of his life prove his attachment to the profession.

Whether Sir Christopher Wren was or not a member of the Fraternity has long been debated with lively interest. The foregoing statement by Doctor Mackey gives the principal facts and we may note that two newspapers announced his funeral, Lost boy (No. 5245, March 2-5, 1793) and the British Journal (No. 25, March 9, 1723).

Both of them allude to Wren as “that worthy Freemason.” Brother Christopher Wren, Jr., the son of Sir Christopher Wren, was Master of the famous Lodge of Antiquity in 1729. The subject is discussed in Doctor Mackey’s revised History of Freemason also by Sir John S. Cockburn, Masonic Record, March, 1923, in Square and Compass, September, 1923, and many other journals, as well as in Records of Antiquity Lodge, volume i, by Brother W. H. Rylands, and volume ii, by Captain C. W. Firebrace, there is much additional and valuable firsthand information favoring Wren’s active connection with the Fraternity, some items personally checked by us at the Lodge itself.

Brother K. R. H. Mackenzie in the Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia says,

There can be little doubt that Wren took a deep interest in speculative as well as operative Masonry (see Book of Constitutions) and that he was an eminent Member of the Craft cannot be doubted, but the dates respecting Wren’s initiation are vague and unsatisfactory, none of the authorities agreeing. It would seem certain, however, that for many years he was a member of the old Lodge of Saint Paul’s, meeting at the (Bose and gridiron, in Saint Paul’s Churchyard.

Brother Robert F. Gould (History of Freemasonry, me ii, page 55) says, The popular belief that Wren was a Freemason, though hitherto unchallenged, and supported by a great weight of authority, is, in my judgment, unsustained by any basis of well-attested fact. The admission of the great architect-at any period of his life-into the Masonic fraternity, seems to me a mere figment of the imagination, but it may at least he confidently asserted, that it cannot be proved to be a reality.

Rev. A. F. A. Woodford, Renning’s Cyclopedia of Freemasonry, says, In Freemasonry it has been general for many years to credit Sir Christopher Wren with every thing great and good before the ” Revival,” but on very slender evidence. He is said to have been a member of the Lodge of Antiquity for many years; “and the maul and trowel used at the laving of the stone of Saint Paul’s, with a pair of carved mahogany candlesticks, were presented ” by hind and are in the possession of the Lodge.

Doctor Anderson chronicles him as Grand Master in 16S5; but according to a manuscript of Aubrey’s in the Royal Society, he was not admitted a Brother Freemason until 1691. Unfortunately, the early records of the celebrated Lodge of-Antiquity have been lost or destroyed, so there is literally nothing certain as to Wren’s Masonic career, what little has been circulated is contradictory. It is, of course, more than likely he took an active part in Freemasonry, though he was not a member of the Masons Company; but as the records are wanting, it is idle to speculate, and absurd to credit to his labors on behalf of our Society what there is not a title of evidence to prove.

Brother Hawkins, an editor of this work, also prepared for the Concise Cyclopedia of freemasonry, the following summary of the arguments on both sides of the question at issue: Those who contend that he was not a Freemason reply as follows:

1. No reference to the convention mentioned by Aubrey has yet been discovered elsewhere, and it remains uncertain whether it ever was held and whether the proposed adoption of the illustrious architect took place or not; also it is inconsistent with the dates given in the 1738 Constitutions.

2. In the Constitutions of 1723, he is only described as lithe ingenious architect,” without any hint of his being a Freemason.

3. It is incredible that Doctor Anderson, when compiling the 1723 Constitutions, should have been ignorant of the details of Wren’s Masonic career which he gave so from in 1735; moreover, he has claimed as Grand Masters are most all distinguished men from Adam downwards, though there was no such office as Grand Master until 1117, and his dates are inconsistent with that given by Aubrey.

4. Subsequent writers all quoted from the 1738 Constitutions and therefore their evidence is worth no more than Doctor Anderson’s, and no such records as Preston refers to can now be found, nor can the legendary history of the candlesticks and the mallet be authenticated. Such are the arguments for and against Wren’s connection with the Craft; those who claim him as a Freemason must reconcile as best they can the conflicting dates given by Aubrey and Anderson: and those who regard his membership as equally a fable with his Grand Mastership must somehow explain away the contemporary evidence of the two newspapers that in the year of his death called him ‘ ‘ that worthy Freemason.”

– Source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freema

External links:



The only way to get close up to the stones and see 5000 years of grafitti carved onto them is by joing in private access tout.  This is where you visit Stonehenge when the site is closed to the public, usually at sunrise or sunset. 

If you look very  closely at the heel (south west view)stonesits even possible  to se a funny carved handshake?

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Stone Age humans had to evolve a higher level of intelligence before they were able to develop real tools like axes, scientists have proved.

It took early man almost two million years to move form simply using sharp stones to more complex tools like a stone axe.

Scientists used computer modelling and tiny sensors embedded in gloves to assess the complex hand skills that early humans needed in order to make two types of tools during the Lower Palaeolithic period, which began around 2.5 million years ago

Stone Age man took two million years to move from simple stone tools to more complex ones like handheld axes

Stone Age man took two million years to move from simple stone tools to more complex ones like handheld axes

Researchers from Imperial College London employed a craftsman called a flintnapper to faithfully replicate ancient tool-making techniques.

The flintnapper created two types of axes wearing he data glove fabric to record hand and arm movements during the production of sharpened flints or more complex handheld stone axes.

This enabled the scientists to rule out motor skills as the principal factor for holding up stone tool development as both types were equally complex to produce.

Until now some scientists believed that it took Stone Age man so long to develop real tools because early humans may have had underdeveloped motor skills or abilities.

Bbut this study confirms that the evolution of the early human brain was behind the development of the axe.

The team say that comparing the manufacturing techniques used for both Stone Age tools provides evidence of how the human brain and human behaviour evolved during period.

Neuroscientist Dr Aldo Faisal said ‘The advance from crude stone tools to elegant hand-held axes was a massive technological leap for our early human ancestors. Hand-held axes were a more useful tool for defence, hunting and routine work.

‘Interestingly, our study reinforces the idea that tool making and language evolved together as both required more complex thought, making the end of the Lower Palaeolithic a pivotal time in our history.
‘After this period, early humans left Africa and began to colonise other parts of the world.’

They also believe that the development of hand-held axes may have also coincided with the development of language, as these functions overlap in the same regions of the modern and early human brains.

The results showed that the axe required a high level of brain processing in overlapping areas of the brain that are responsible for a range of different functions including vocal cords and complex hand gestures.

In the future, the team plan to use their technology to compare tools made by Neanderthals, an extinct ancestor of humans, to glean insights into their brain development.

Explore more:

Imperial College

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1326880/Why-Stone-Age-man-needed-evolve-brain-power-make-axes.html?ITO=socialnet-twitter-dmailscitech#ixzz14sKuiH4U

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The British Flag: a symbol of Unity

The Union Jack is a transnational flag full of historical significance. It represents the union of different countries and the growth of a family of nations whose influence extends far beyond the British Isles. This far-reaching influence is still seen today in the incorporation of the Union Jack in other national flags such as that of Australia. The British flag is called the “Union Jack”, an expression that needs to be explained.

The Union Jack is a fine expression of unity as well as diversity. The British flag incorporates the national symbols of three distinct countries, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact its name “Union Jack” emphasises the very nature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a union of nations. The flag is also known by another name, this too, emphasising the idea of union: the “Union flag”, perhaps a less common term but a little more precise. The countries comprising the British Isles are not inward-looking or isolated states with an insular mentality; together they constitute a powerful union that has spanned centuries. Recent devolution that gave Scotland its own Parliament and Wales its own Assembly has also emphasised the importance of individual national identities within the union without affecting the essential unity of Great Britain. On the contrary, it has strengthened it. Recognition of, and respect for national identities are an essential ingredients for effective union. The Union Jack symbolises all this: respect for individuality within a closely knit community.

The “Union Jack” or “Union Flag” is a composite design made up of three different national symbols:

st_georges's_cross st_andrew's_cross
St. George’s Cross,
the flag of England
St. Andrew’s Cross,
the flag of Scotland


St. Patrick’s Cross,
the flag of Ireland

The cross represented in each flag is named after the patron saint of each country: St. George, patron saint of England, St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland and St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

The image below renders the idea of the union of the three flags forming one unified, transnational Flag.

The image below renders the idea of the union of the three flags forming one unified, transnational Flag.


No mention has been made of the Welsh flag. The Welsh dragon was not incorporated into the Union Flag because Wales had already been united to England when the first version of the Union Flag was designed in 1606. It is, however, in common use:

welsh dragon
The Welsh Dragon


The first step taken in the creation of the flag of Great Britain was on 12th April 1606. When King James VI of Scotland became king of England (King James I) it was decided that the union of the two realms under one king should be represented symbolically by a new flag. Originally It consisted in the red cross of England superimposed on the white cross of Scotland on the blue background of the Scottish flag as in this illustration:

Thus we have the first flag of the union called, in fact, the “Union Flag”.

What was meant to be a symbol of unity actually became a symbol of international controversy. The English resented the fact that the white background of their cross had disappeared and that the new flag had the blue Scottish background. On the other hand the Scottish resented the fact that the English red cross was superimposed on the Scottish white cross!! The old adage says you cannot please everyone but this first version of the Union Flag seemed to please no-one!!

Apparently there was an unofficial “Scottish version” that attempted to rectify the sense of injustice that the Scottish felt at this innovatory flag. A distinct reference was made to this version when the King visited Dumfries in 1618. Here is what it looked like: 


The controversy was destined to last!! There is conflict in the best of families!!

However, the flag was usually restricted to use at sea until the two kingdoms of Scotland and England were united in 1707. It was most probably from this use at sea that it got the name “Jack” (“Union Jack“). It was usually flown at the bow end of the ship, from the jack staff.

An attempt was made to modify the flag under Oliver Cromwell. A harp was placed in the centre, representing Ireland. However, the original design was restored along with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The flag continued to be used in its original form until Jan. 1, 1801. At that time, with the union of Ireland and Great Britain, it became necessary to represent Ireland in the Union Flag and so the cross of St. Patrick was include thus creating the flag as we now have it. When the southern part of Ireland gained its independence in 1921 and became the Irish Free State no alteration was made to the Union Jack.

The name “Union Jack” became official when it was approved in Parliament in 1908. It was stated that “the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag”.

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Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes Effigy

Guy Fawkes Effigy

The tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires actually began the very same year as the failed coup. The Plot was foiled in the night between the 4th and 5th of November 1605. Already on the 5th, agitated Londoners who knew little more than that their King had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving. As years progressed, however, the ritual became more elaborate.

Soon, people began placing effigies onto bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, and sometimes those of the Pope, graced the pyres. Still today, some communities throw dummies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope on the bonfire (and even those of a contemporary politician or two), although the gesture is seen by most as a quirky tradition, rather than an expression of hostility towards the Pope.

Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, which is called “the Guy”. Some children even keep up an old tradition of walking in the streets, carrying “the Guy” they have just made, and beg passersby for “a penny for the Guy.” The kids use the money to buy fireworks for the evening festivities.

On the night itself, Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight; and fireworks displays fill the sky.

The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its Bonfire Night festivities and consistently attracts thousands of people each year to participate.

Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain. The tradition crossed the oceans and established itself in the British colonies during the centuries. It was actively celebrated in New England as “Pope Day” as late as the 18th century. Today, November 5th bonfires still light up in far out places like New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605

In 1605, thirteen young men planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Among them was  Guy Fawkes, Britain’s most notorious traitor.

After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact, decided that violent action was the answer.

A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics. Today these conspirators would be known as extremists, or terrorists.

To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder – and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords.

But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. Was the letter real?

The warning letter reached the King, and the King’s forces made plans to stop the conspirators.

Guy Fawkes, who was in the cellar of the parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th, was caught, tortured and executed.

It’s unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder, we’ll never know for certain.

Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called “the State Opening of Parliament”. Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition.

On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way, whether they are celebrating Fawkes’ execution or honoring his attempt to do away with the government.

Doing something different this November 5th – Go to the Ottery st Mary Tar barreling night

Roll Out the Barrel
Pagan Traditions survive in Devon Town

Driving through the main square of Ottery St Mary on the afternoon of November 6th, the only townspeople I see are two elderly gentlemen with sturdy little dogs and a young girl on a bicycle. The quiet Devonshire town in the beautiful Otter Valley shows no signs of the previous night’s revelry. Nearly a week before, on October 31st, the annual festival had started with the traditional procession through the village, complete with Carnival Queen and Princesses and brightly-coloured floats sponsored by local groups.

The final day, November 5th (Guy Fawkes’ Night), culminates in rituals far more hair-raising than the traditional bonfire and fireworks enjoyed by the rest of the country. Before dawn, the local people come out into the streets and fire ‘cannon’ – hand-held pieces of piping which are filled with gunpowder and fired in the traditional way, to create an almighty flash and a loud bang. This is repeated at 1pm and again at 4pm.

However, the real treat is kept for the evening, when thousands of people from across the county and beyond congregate to watch barrels full of burning tar being rolled up and down the streets and through the main square. This is an extremely ancient tradition, possibly older than that of the unhappy Guy Fawkes himself. Fire festivals around the time of Halloween are deeply rooted in British folklore and have been connected with the ritual burning of witches. It is a great honour to be allowed to take part in the barrel rolling and this has continued in some local families for generation after generation.

The weather was against us, both windy and raining hard and we arrived late, around 8pm. It was only a short walk into town from the car park, along the main street past the softly floodlit church. All the roads had been closed since 5pm and the reason was clear: all the public areas were filled with people from elderly pensioners to tiny children, watching the burning barrels and frantically trying to dodge as they came closer and then moved off again. The barrel rollers carry the barrels on their shoulders and protect their hands with dampened sacking. They run back and forth with the barrel until they can no longer stand the heat and then they pass it to the next person in line. The more experienced bearers achieve this by whirling the barrel around their heads until their successor is ready to accept it.

Some of the rollers are quite sedate, clearly experienced, travelling up and down amongst the crowd. Others are keen to prove their strength and race along, taking the crowd by surprise and scattering people in their wake. All end up sooty from head to foot. As I watched, one teenager’s hair caught fire but was rapidly extinguished by his neighbour. The emergency services stand by for more serious situations. Barrels are rolled at designated times at various sites across town, mostly associated with and sponsored by the nearest pub. They start with the smaller barrels for women and boys in the afternoon and progress to ever-larger barrels carried by the men late into the night. As the evening progresses, so the drinking takes effect, the atmosphere becomes wilder and the experience more hazardous. It is not unknown for people to break the glass shop fronts of the main square as the throng heaves to and fro.

For those who lose their nerve or simply want to take a break from the main spectacle, there is a vast bonfire with a traditional Guy on it down by the water. Across the river from the bonfire are the bright lights of the travelling funfair, with all kinds of stalls and rides. The thousands of visitors are catered for by mobile vans selling everything from candy floss to hog roast and the pubs are open all night, although you’d be lucky to get a drink with the numbers of people who gather there. The most highly prized souvenir of the evening is one of the metal rings from the burnt out barrels.

Since the traditional rolling of burning barrels at Lewes in Sussex was banned following a tragic accident some years back, this is probably the most important festival of its kind. The exemplary organisation of the Ottery event has warded off similar threats but be warned: on a damp night the car park becomes a marsh and if you don’t want to go through a change of clothes and several car washes, you might do well to join one of the many coach parties run from Exeter.

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels link

Have a safe ‘Guy Fawkes’ night

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For 400 years, bonfires have burned on November 5th to mark the failed Gunpowder Plot.

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Engineers are to carry out emergency repairs on an 18th Century bridge in Bath after cracks were found in a support.

Subsidence was found in a basement built into the base of Pulteney Bridge.

Pultney Bridge

Pultney Bridge

Bath and North East Somerset Council (Banes) said mortar from previous repair work had shifted but there was no danger of the bridge collapsing.

The council wants to close the historic structure to traffic, but some residents are objecting to the plans.

Banes says the bridge – a Grade I listed structure – is unsuitable for modern traffic.

They submitted a closure plan before the current repair work was needed.

However, some residents fear the bridge’s closure would cut them off from the city centre.

The issue had been due to go before the council on 3 November, but this has now been put back to some time in 2011.

A temporary scaffolding system is being put in place to support the bridge until permanent repairs can get under way.

History of Pultney Bridge

Pulteney Bridge (Photo Bath and North East Somerset Council)

Pulteney Bridge is one of the most admired buildings in a beautiful city.

Pulteney Bridge is one of only four bridges lined with shops in the world, but Robert Adam’s creation has more than novelty value. His graceful composition is one of the unqualified successes of English Palladianism and provides the perfect integrating link between two halves of a Palladian city.

Across the River Avon from Bath lay the 600 acre estate of Bathwick. This was entirely rural when it was inherited by Frances Pulteney in October 1767, but its potential was obvious. No other English spa could rival Bath in this period and the city was in the midst of a building boom. Frances was married to an Edinburgh lawyer, William Johnstone Pulteney, and this energetic and frugal Scot immediately began to make plans to develop his wife’s estate. His first problem was that the only direct route from Bath to Bathwick was by ferry. By February 1768, he was conferring with Bath City Council about a new bridge. At first Pulteney contemplated just a simple, functional bridge, designed by a local architect, but by the summer of 1770 the brothers Adam were involved and the plans had undergone a dramatic change.

Pulteney Bridge by Thomas Malton 1785 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

Pulteney had approached the Adams with his new town in Bathwick in mind. We may guess that Robert Adam then suggested putting shops on the bridge. He had visited both Florence and Venice, where he would have seen the ancient Ponte Vecchio and the striking Ponte di Rialto. But the most direct influence on Adam was clearly Andrea Palladio’s rejected design for the Rialto. Stripped of its heavier ornamentation, this tribute to ancient Rome emerged from Adam’s hands as the coolest of English understatements.

England also had housed bridges of medieval origin, but by the 18th century these were being seen as impediments to traffic. Adam’s designs therefore caused some consternation in Bath. The Corporation, who had not been consulted, wrote to Pulteney in protest. They evidently thought it perverse that after London and Bristol had cleared their bridges of houses, he was proposing to bring this outdated phenomenon to Bath. But Pulteney remained adamant. Perhaps the prospect of the bridge paying for itself through shop rents appealed to his love of economy. Pulteney Bridge by Thomas Malton 1779 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

Adam planned a row of eleven small shops on each side, with staircases to attics above. Lofty Venetian windows formed the centrepiece of his design for the river façades, while matching Venetian doors faced the street. These were echoed in a pattern of recessed, columned windows, creating an interesting play of light and shadow for passers-by. Malton’s aquatint gives us our only view of these lovely street façades, subsequently much altered.

Pulteney Bridge was complete and ready for occupation in late 1773, but tenants were slow to come forward. The shock of the American War of Independence had fallen like an axe on Bath’s development. The plans for Bathwick were shelved and for many years, Adam’s elegant and urbane bridge led out onto meadows, rather than a Palladian townscape. When building eventually began in March 1788, it was Thomas Baldwin, a Bath architect, who provided the detailed plans. Pulteney Bridge was left as Adam’s only work in Bath.

Pulteney at least had the tact to see Adam to his grave before desecrating his handiwork. On 26 March 1792, less than a month after Adam’s death, a lease of most of the bridge was granted, with Baldwin’s plans for conversion to larger shops. The roof was raised and the windows transformed into bays. No doubt it all made sound commercial sense, but Adam’s street elevations were utterly ruined.

This was just the first of many distortions of Adam’s original vision. Disaster struck in September 1799, when a pier gave way after high floods. The remaining pier collapsed when the river rose in a great storm in November 1800. The houses on the north side were so badly damaged that Pulteney seriously considered dismantling the whole structure and building a single-span iron bridge, designed by his protégé Thomas Telford. But in the end only the north side was rebuilt. Adam’s pavilions were reduced to token pediments, but at least the design had unity.

It was not to last. 19th-century shopkeepers altered windows, or cantilevered out over the river as The north side of Pulteney Bridge in 1872 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)the fancy took them. By 1948, the buildings had become pathetic travesties of the original design, as Walter Ison sadly noted.

But the tide was already on the turn. Bath City Council showed concern to retain the Adam features of the bridge as early as 1903, when the south-west pavilion had to be moved. In January 1936, Pulteney Bridge was scheduled as a national monument. The Council already owned a few of the shops on it; now they bought the rest and the following year the City Surveyor carefully traced Adam’s own plans and designed a restored façade.

But war intervened. The restoration was finally executed in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Then in 1975 the Georgian Group partially restored the southern street facade to mark European Architectural Heritage Year. Now the restored bridge is a delight to photographers and one of the enduring images of Bath that visitors take away with them.

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