Revisiting England and Wales: Journey into the past in Berkshire Part 2

Return to the past…Honeybottom, Berkshire

August 2015

 Part 2— Tales of bravado and nostalgic musings.

 Please note that the personal WW2 images and quoted text relating to John’s wartime experiences in this post are the copyright of E J Saunderson’s children David, Joan and Thomas. Should any reader wish to gain access to the material please enquire via the comment section of this blog.

In the last post ‘Honeybottom and John S Part 1’ I wrote: some might consider driving narrow country lanes with sheets of glass at neck level a dangerous exercise. No doubt it was but when one is privy to our late friend John’s WW2 Royal Air Force service and post-war experiences as a test pilot a few sheets of glass at neck level was not a worry.

Glass at neck level will now be understood. I copied the following lines from John’s notes in 1972.

I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe

I’ve seen cities become firestorms

I’ve seen the Leverkusen gas works blow up

With the full moon above the cumulus clouds

I’ve stalked home through marble pillars stretching down to the sea

Let the Dove fly

Let there be peace soon time to die

EJ Saunderson 2003.

Leverkusen was, and still is, an industrial city on the east bank of the Rhine River near the city of Cologne Germany.

Is this how John saw the moon above the clouds? Image Photo credit:

E.J.Saunderson DSO DFC.

A DSO (Distinguished Service Order) was awarded to squadron commanders for distinguished service, especially in combat and a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) was awarded for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.

John in flying kit.

John joined the Royal Air force at the age of twenty-one soon after war was declared in 1939. By the time he was twenty-four he had risen to the rank of Squadron Leader. Early in his flying career he flew Vickers- Wellington bombers attached to 115 squadron. Later he transferred to the 627 Mosquito squadron.

First crew. John at starboard edge of photograph.

During the many hours I spent with John he never spoke of his wartime experiences in a heroic manner. John, like many other men and women who saw combat during WW2, internalised his experiences. However, there were occasions when he and I did commiserate about wartime events and I think the reason he was prepared to talk to me was because we were connected. The connection came from my interest in WW2 aircraft and my interest in history generally, an interest, which stemmed from Popular Mechanics and Flight magazines, the only reading material available to me post WW2. Flight dealt with the technicalities of flying, building of planes used during WW2 and the pros and cons of individual aircraft. At the time, I considered the best two aircraft were the Bristol Beaufighter and the Mosquito.

When John realised my interest, particularly in the Mosquito, he related a story about when he and twelve other Mosquitoes set off across the North Sea with the aim of mining the Kiel Canal in Germany. Not wanting to test my hazy memory I’m going to include extracts from his memoirs.

MINING of the KIEL CANAL.       ‘On the night, thirteen of us set off across the North Sea and crossed the Heligoland Peninsula losing height in steps to confuse the radar. Some aircraft ahead of us planned to drop flares in order to light the area but we could see the canal without them and they only seemed to illuminate us for the gunners…….We were told not to fly beyond a certain bridge on account of balloons put up against low flying aircraft. This was pretty scary particularly as the tracer shells were whipping past most unpleasantly. To make matters worse, I realised that I had gone a bridge too far and must be amongst the barrage balloons. At this realisation I went into a near vertical steep turn—not a very safe manoeuvre low down at night—-and managed to escape and climb away into the darkness.

The operation was successful, the canal was blocked by a sunken ship and the convoy was trapped. It was sad that we lost one aircraft but it could have been very much worse. Although not seemingly very entertaining at the time, it might be worth mentioning that I could actually see the gunners in their ‘coal scuttle’ helmets who were shooting at us from the bridges and, at one moment, a man in pyjamas trying to put out a flare in his garden’.

A mine destined for the Kiel Canal.

de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito. As a lad I considered the Mosquito a much more stylish aircraft compared to the Beaufighter. Image credit: Canadian Forces records, crown copyright expired. Wikipedia.

Bristol Beaufighter. Image credit: Imperial War Museum and in the public domain. Via Wikipedia.

The de Havilland Mosquito was a British built multi-role two crew aircraft adapted to many wartime roles. It was one of the few operational front-line aircraft of the era where the airframe was built entirely of wood and hence the nickname of ‘wooden wonder’.

Mosquitoes flew high-speed, medium and low altitude missions against factories, railways and other pin-point targets in Germany and German occupied Europe. The Mosquito had a ceiling height of 11 000 metres (36 000 feet) and had a top speed, depending on altitude and skin finish, of 587kph (365mph). John considered the Mosquito to be the finest aircraft in the air during WW2 and he reveled in its handling abilities at high speed. Another thing he marveled at, and was thankful for, was its ability to outrun enemy aircraft.

After the Kiel mission John carried out thirteen more bombing raids including four to Berlin. At the end of the thirteenth raid he had survived eighty-five operations and, as could be imagined, was very tired: ‘A photograph at the time showed me looking thin, white and old and so I tore it up’.

Barrage balloons tethered over Omaha Beach during the first days of the D-Day invasion June 1944. Image credit: Image in the public domain. Uploaded and edited to Wikipedia by mikaul 2007.

The purpose of barrage balloons, sometimes called blimps, was to make it difficult for incoming aircraft to line up with their target and destroy the aircraft if it came in contact with the tethering cable. Some configurations were fitted with an explosive charge, which pulled up against the aircraft ensuring its destruction. It should be noted that John was not involved with the D-Day invasion; I included the above photograph as it shows clearly how barrage balloons were tethered.

Previously I mentioned that John also flew Vickers-Armstrong bombers with 115 Squadron. Following is a story relating to the history of the Vickers-Armstrong bomber and John’s experiences whist flying with the squadron.

A Vickers-Wellington bomber. Image credit: Published by British Government and copyright free. Via Wikipedia.

BOMBING RAID OVER HAMBURG.       ‘We were sent out in all weathers even if fog was expected on our return. One runway was fitted with FIDO (Fog Investigation Dispersal Operations) which consisted of a row of burners designed to cut a tunnel through the fog. I twice had to use this facility, extremely effective but not for the faint-hearted. The idea was to do a blind approach through the fog and, if it all went well, one would emerge into a turbulent hell and land at high speed besides blazing burners. Around D-Day when things were rather busy, we returned from an unpleasant raid on Hamburg with very little petrol, a flat battery and the windscreen misted up…..

 When we got back a number of aircraft were in the circuit including one or more German night fighters shooting at anything they could see. With no electrics I was unable to contact control but as I was running out of petrol I decided to do a long low approach onto the runway   Unknown to me a Norwegian Lancaster had been shot at and was stuck on the runway with no lights. My new Zealand friend Steve Watts was in charge of night flying and because I was so late he had almost given me up until he heard me on my long approach. He had a red and green Verey pistol in his hands but, with quick intelligence, he decided not to give me a warning red because he knew that I would open up the throttles and go around again and certainly be killed. He told me later that it was not easy to do nothing and let me crash.

As we touched down I remember saying ‘I think we’ve made it Dickie’, almost the last words as we must have hit the Lancaster at nearly 100 mph…...

I had no idea what happened. Clarkson was thrown completely through the aircraft and I was trapped in the wreckage with the smell of petrol and one engine roaring over my head. I seemed to be all right apart from a bash in the face and blood running down my legs. I remember feeling enormously alert and amazement rather than fear, although apprehension that we could burst into flames at any moment. Fortunately I was able to break away the bits, which were holding me in then fall down through the wreckage. By this time I became very dazed and just stumbled away into the night until two airmen caught up with me and took me in. The next thing I remember was with my feet in a bucket of bloody water and being patched up by a dour Scottish doctor. The saddest thing about this incident was the fact that two of the Norwegians were killed in the crash but, as I wrote earlier, things were busy around this time and we had to get on with it’.

John (right) with Flight Officer Dickie Clarkson in front of a de Havilland Mosquito.

Fog Investigation Dispersal Operations comprised a series of lit petrol/kerosene burners lining runways. FIDO used massive quantities of fuel burning as much as 450 000 litres per hour and even more on longer airstrips.

In a Wikipedia entry relating to FIDO B. Main-Smith said ‘It is difficult for the modern (2008) resident to comprehend what World War 2 fogs were like. It was not uncommon for a person to be unable to see the hand at the end of an outstretched arm’. The post-war Clean Air Act hugely ameliorated UK fogs.

Pea soup fog Piccadilly Circus 1952. Image credit: Author unknown. According to Wikipedia this image is believed to be in the public domain. Via Wikipedia.

Before the introduction of FIDO many British bombers returning from night bombing missions could not land on fog-bound runways and as a consequence many were lost at sea. Pilots, knowing they were not going to be able to land on terra firma, bailed out along with their crew after pointing the aircraft towards the sea. This procedure amounted to enormous aircraft losses, especially when a night bombing raid comprised several hundred aircraft.

FIDO in operation as an Avro Lancaster takes off in deteriorating weather in 1945. Image Credit: Imperial War Musuem via Wikipedia. Photograph by Flt Lt Goodchild A.

Being a student of engineering I cannot but help describe how the Vickers-Wellingtons were built; following is what I have been able to dig up.

Vickers Wellingtons under construction during WW2. Image credit: British Government photograph. Via Wikipedia.

The Wellington airframe was made from duralium in a geodesic basket weave pattern. Attached to the duralium were wooden slats to which linen was glued. The linen skin was coated with aircraft dope, a plasticised lacquer, which tightened and stiffened the outer skin rendering it airtight and weatherproof. Duralium was the trade name for one of the earliest types of age-hardening copper aluminium alloys.

At its peak workers at the Vickers-Armstrong factory in England were churning out forty-eight units per week. The Wellingtons were also made in the USA where the assembly record was held: one aircraft completed in 48 hours. The English assembly crew challenged the American record and assembled a complete Wellington in 24 hours, setting a new world record. Today the wings for the A380 passenger aircraft are built where the once humble Wellingtons were made.

A damaged Vickers Wellington (1943). Image credit: British Government photograph. Via Wikipedia.

The above Wellington received a direct hit from ground fire in April 1943 and despite the loss of the rear turret, portion of the fuselage and its gunner, the pilot continued to bomb the target and eventually made it back to England. A sobering fact comes to mind: rear gunners (tail-end Charlie) had a 17% chance of surviving their first flight and only a 4% chance of surviving a second flight.

The Second World War came to an end 72 years ago and with each passing year fewer and fewer people are aware of or understand the hardship and trauma endured by those who served and the sense of loss experienced by those who were left behind. The statistics relating to Bomber Command are staggering and to think John survived 85 missions is outstanding. I spoke to John about this and he suggested to me his survival was simply due to luck. Following are some statistics associated with Bomber Command during WW2. I expect when you read them you will, like me, ask ‘why’.

Most aircrew were aged between 19 and 25. The average age of those killed was 22. Some were as young as 16 and there was at least one in his 60s. In total 364,514 operational sorties were flown and 8,325 aircraft were lost in action. The casualty rate was extremely high; out of 125,000 aircrew 57,205 were killed (a 46% death rate), a further 8,403 were wounded and 9,838 became prisoners of war. The number of British killed 38,462, Australians 4,050, Canadians 9,980 and New Zealanders 1,703.

Bearing these losses in mind it is easy to understand why combatants internalized their experiences. Many of those killed would have been friends of John and talking about it would have been just too painful.

Later in John’s career he was stationed at the Boscombe Down RAF establishment, which was used by both fighter and bomber squadrons. Many of the aircraft involved in the 1940 Battle of Britain were based there but its main role was that of an experimental station and an aircraft test centre.

When based at Boscombe John was asked to take an aircraft to Luton, which might sound like a relatively simple and danger-free operation but as John’s journal says, it was not so simple.

‘It is a curious fact that if you draw a line on the map joining Boscombe to Luton it passes just north of Newbury and exactly over my house (Honeybottom). As we were nicely on track we did pass over the house and I pointed this out to Roly [a pilot hitching a ride to Luton]. At that exact moment the engine stopped. I reassured Roly that the aircraft was not difficult to force land and, to his credit, he folded his arms and never said another word. I knew too well that the area was ploughed up or wired and not very suitable but with a northerly wind I reckoned it would be safe to cross Newbury and sneak into Greenham Common [runway]. The problem was that there were people and bicycles on the runway and, whilst they scattered when they saw me coming, there was a roll of barbed wire right across the runway and I realised that I was not going to clear it. It is fatal to stretch a glide over an obstruction so I had to bang the wheels into the runway short of the wire and jump it. This was quite an easy manoeuvre and I am not trying to pretend that it was heroic!

You may wonder what happened to the engine, and the answer was sabotage; a German prisoner working on the runway had put a few handfuls of chalk into the petrol.’

In the above extract John suggests that the ’jump the wire’ event was not an act of heroism but I beg to differ. Not long after the ‘jump the wire’ event John resigned from the RAF and at his farewell his commanding officer said, ‘Have you been to the moon yet, Saunderson? Take care that the Russians don’t get there first’.

John continues: ‘I was sad to resign my commission with the RAF but the idea of remaining in the service after the war seemed suddenly rather meaningless…… I did not want to get stuck in staff jobs and I reckoned that industry offered the best chance of indulging my interest in flying and engineering’.

Not wanting to divorce himself of the cockpit John went off to the Empire Test Pilots’ School with the aim of qualifying as a test pilot. After completing the course he joined the Percival Aircraft Company, which was developing a trainer aircraft called the Prentice. After a near fatal crash when putting the aircraft through spinning trials he delivered a scathing report to his superiors and after much discussion they reluctantly agreed to make modifications to the aircraft which included the turning up of the aircraft’s wing tips.

‘With reluctance I suggested that the company could save money by going    for polyhedral wings which entailed turning up the wingtips to a fairly steep angle. Not an elegant solution and if any observer happens to see one of these ugly machines I am prepared to shoulder some of the blame. Increased dihedrals did the trick although spinning the Prentice was never a pleasant procedure’.

Overall, John was not impressed with the aircraft’s performance: ‘It was heavy and sluggish to fly and had badly harmonised controls. Aerobatics were difficult and an acceptable roll almost impossible.

Over 370 were delivered to the RAF between 1947 and 1949 after extensive modifications were effected.

A Percival Prentice. Note the turned up wing. Image credit: RUTHAS

On occasions while John was in the Percival Company employ he was required to demonstrate aircraft to potential buyers. Following is an extract from John’s journal.

‘One amusing sale was to a very rich scrap dealer. After the demo he announced ‘I’ll ‘ave it’. When I suggested escorting him to the sales office so that he could sign contracts and pay deposits etc he merely said ‘B….that’ and gave me a cheque. He paid the full amount and, what fascinated me was he simply wrote Aeroplane on the centre foil showing no amount or date. He was rather a likeable rogue and actually learned to fly the aeroplane, although we were inclined to take cover when he appeared on the horizon’.

John finally resigned from the Percival Company and went onto establishing his engineering works. During our time at Honeybottom he had bouts of feeling unwell which he put down to a number of factors, namely food allergies and stress related to running a business and his wartime experiences.

‘I realised that I was very tired and strained for which, to a great extent, I must blame myself. With hindsight I realise that I should have taken a good long holiday after the war and not ploughed straight into quite stressful and demanding work.’

When we lived at Honeybottom in 1973 I discussed the stress of war with John and I got the impression in hindsight he thought he should have taken time to discover the spiritual aspect of his inner self.

John’s daughter Joan said when I spoke to her about his spiritual beliefs: ‘Yes, I would say J was a spiritual person….though not at all ‘churchy’. He thought deeply about these things and as you say he took the best from different religions and spiritual practices and applied them to his life. In latter life he became increasingly interested in faith healing. He had a lot of time for Eastern religions and always said that he might have been a Chinaman in a past life….so from that he must have believed in re-incarnation to some level’.

To quote John’s journal: ‘Basically we are all spiritual beings and we have a mind which is the driving force and expresses our individuality. One should not confuse mind with brain because brain is merely a very sophisticated computer used by the mind….. Let me conclude with some general advice, which I give without apology. Health depends on what you eat and what you think. Avoid drugs and medicines if at all possible. They are mostly toxic and only alleviate the symptoms…. Have I always practised what I preach? Not always I am afraid but here I am at 85 still going even if not very strong. I am not afraid of what’s in store for me: for in the words of my youngest son ‘You have won already’.

The world today is a complex one, in many respects it’s depressing. Terrorism, climate change, global waste and ultra conservative leaders coming to the fore worry me BUT the closing paragraph in John’s journal is sound advice for those of us who are concerned about the future of humanity and the planet.

‘Do not take life too seriously or yourself for that matter and if you can spread a little fun and laughter on the way so much the better’.

In a previous post I wrote briefly about a portrait of John hanging in his daughter’s house and since posting I have received an email from Nikky, the artist.

Below is an extract from her email, I include it to indicate that John not only had an impact on our lives but with other people he came in contact with.   ‘It is a few lifetimes ago for me but I do remember happy times staying with Joan and her brothers and John at Honeybottom very well………we were young students in our early twenties finding our way out into the world. I loved John!  What a marvellous combination of great qualities. A huge life force for joy and laughter and mischievousness!  But I saw too a certain fragile troubled quality…a sensitive man. An artist nature really.  I remember thinking that he must have been wickedly attractive as a young man.   We all had so much fun I learned a great deal from that relationship. One of several experiences that started me on a path to self-exploration, which has brought me now to my current life as artist and energy healer. Blessings love and light. Nikki’.

Bev placing wildflowers on John’s grave 2016, a sombre moment for us both.

The motto on John’s headstone, Per ardua ad astra,is the motto of the Royal Air Force (and some other Commonwealth air forces) and translates as ‘Through adversity to the stars’. The headstone has no reference to the Distinguished Service Order or the Distinguished Flying Cross John was awarded and when I asked his daughter why this was she said that John didn’t request it as he did not define himself by his wartime achievements and she didn’t think he would have wished it.

When Bev and went into the churchyard in search of his final landing place we had no idea where his grave was located but through some act which I cannot explain, I was drawn directly to a headstone and when I turned and faced its front, there it was.

John is buried in the grounds of the Parish Church of St James Winterbourne.

It’s rather ironic that John is buried facing a house on which there was a wind vane with two frolicking deer on the top. John had a distinct dislike of deer as they wreaked havoc in his garden.

The halcyon days of our first stay at Honeybottom came to an end in late November 1973. Prior to leaving I ascertained that Bev still wanted to marry me (I first asked her back in Perast Montenegro). Before she replied I told her that if she marries me we would go home, otherwise I was off down the Amazon by canoe…I never did get to see the Amazon!

Of course we didn’t fly directly to Australia but returned via Canada, Mexico and Fiji. Bev bought a wedding dress in the mountain village of Tasco in Mexico and we bought a wedding ring in Fiji.

Mexico was not our favourite country and we think it was because back in the 1970s there was poverty around every corner and behind every fence. Most of the photographs I took in Mexico were of people in the streets. Following are a few of them.

A face of Mexico.

At the time I thought this was an image of despair.

A smiling busker.

The smiling busker’s mate, a blind guitarist.

Blind faith.

The man with the lady had shuffled on his knees for around two kilometres to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  Devotees believe that the Virgin of Guadalupe has the ability to grant miracles.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the holiest place in Mexico and is said to be the most visited church in the world after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, because it is the only place in America where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared.

And here is a man with no knees. He sat on a wheeled board and pushed himself along using a block of wood in each hand. So much suffering that the likes of us will never know.

After seeing the poverty of Mexico and other countries we visited during the 1972/3 grand tour we returned to Australia with a live simply attitude.

Some years after arriving back in Australia we bought a small acreage north of Tamworth and not wanting to borrow money we built a mudbrick house and used recycled timbers wherever possible. I believed that borrowing money and having a mortgage meant that the lending authorities have you trapped and you spend most of your life paying them back. Once trapped one is not free to travel and follow dreams.

Interior of our mud brick house.

Even the labour of building a house and having children didn’t dampen our desire to travel. In 1984 we took our two boys aged 8 and 5 to Canada, Germany, Ireland, Thailand and England where they went to school. Our base in England was of course Honeybottom. John and his wife Elisabeth graciously took us in and we stayed in the oldest part of the house, the original honeykeeper’s cottage. The boys through their own choice called John and Elisabeth by their first names rather than Mr and Mrs, quite a change from protocol and I think our hosts were chuffed at being addressed by children so informally. Not in one’s wildest dreams would we have thought we would be back staying at Honeybottom with two boys some eleven years later. That’s the great thing about life, the future is unforeseeable.

We returned to England again in 1988 via Germany and Turkey. We travelled via our favourite city Istanbul and took the boys to the Gallipoli peninsula to visit their great grandfather’s resting place in the Lone Pine war cemetery. He was was killed along with 909 other Australians in the battle for Lone Pine in August 1916.

Taking tea in Turkey.

Christmas 1988 was spent at Honeybottom with the Saunderson family. John enjoyed reading Edwardian ghost stories to the boys, teaching them about the wilds of the nearby common, taking them metal detecting in a nearby field searching for Battle of Newbury artefacts and teaching them how to play croquet.

With the boys in the woods at Honeybottom.

John instructing the boys how to play croquet.

Amazingly, over thirty years later, the boys remember  their time at Honeybottom. Not so long ago we visited an antique bookshop along with our youngest son (37) who said, ‘This shop smells just like the library at Honeybottom’! Such memories from thirty years ago. It makes travelling with children so worthwhile.

Before bringing this Encountering the Past Part 4 to an end I would like to share with you a few photographs and stories relating to Welford Park, a large estate near Honeybottom where we were fortunate to visit in 1984 and again during this odyssey.

The late owners of Welford Park were friends of John and in 1984 he arranged for us to visit. The owners were absent the day we visited but Bev and I were fortunate to be allowed to wander the estate at will, and even permitted to wander unescorted inside the house. Not having been inside such an historic private building we were amazed at its décor, it was similar to the historic locations visited in the popular BBC Antiques Road Show. At morning teatime we were invited into the kitchen and served scones with jam and cream, chatting with the servants and listening to the downstairs stories of what went on upstairs.

Bev and I returned to Welford Park during this Encountering the Past and again we were allowed to wander the grounds. The estate and surrounds are still idyllic. Following are a few images taken around the estate.

The front entrance to the Welford Park house.

The house as it stands today is not how it was originally conceived. A building of this nature evolves. It was originally the site of a monastic grange back in Saxon times. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 under the hand of King Henry Vlll it was turned into his personal deer-hunting lodge.

The current house was commenced in 1650 and modifications and additions effected in the 18th and 19th centuries including the building of a massive dining room. These days the dining room is used for ten weeks as the green room for The Great British Bake Off. The Bake Off is a televised competition where contestants are judged on their skills at making cakes, breads, pastries and desserts of all kinds. The show has become a significant part of British culture and is credited with reviving baking throughout the United Kingdom.

The reference to green room may need an explanation. The specific origin of the term is lost however one story is that behind the scenes at Blackfriars Theatre there was a green room where actors waited to go on stage. In relation to the Bake Off show it is where most of the filming is done. In the early 1980s as part of a book promotion I appeared on a daytime television show and while waiting to join my host I waited in the green room. Waiting with me were the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team who gave me a personal demonstration of their ball skills. Amazing blokes with amazing skills.

River Lambourn which runs through Welford Park.

The above photograph was taken from a small stone bridge on the Wickham to Rood Hill Road. The view from the bridge is about the only view the general public get of Welford Park except for when snowdrops flower in the estate’s riverside beech woodland. The public being able to view the snowdrops in flower is a fifty-year old tradition and people travel to Welford Park from all over the world to view the event. The actual viewing dates vary: it depends on the state of the blooms but it is generally during February each year.

A group of double-flowered snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Image Credit: Redsim via Wikipedia.

Galanthus comes from the Greek word gala meaning milk and anthos meaning flower. There are over two hundred species and the Nivalis is prevalent in the Lambourn Valley. It is thought the snowdrops at Welford Park were planted by Norman monks, not only for decoration and as a symbol of purity but for use as a medicinal herb. The monks harvested them and rubbed a prepared extract on the temple of those suffering from ‘mal de tete’ (problems with an aching head).

The day we walked in the grounds of Welford Park the snowdrops were not in flower but the purple crocus were.

 Cyclamen in a wild garden.

Autumn crocus is believed to have escaped from monastery gardens where it was grown for its medicinal properties. If any reader can confirm the species above I would appreciate the confirmation.

Finally, before leaving Welford Park, we should have a close look at the estate’s main entrance gate and its quirky family crest.

The main entrance to Welford Park. Look closely at the boot on top of the gate.

The severed leg with boot and spur.

At one time in Welford Park’s long history major improvements were carried out and one was to erect the Eyre family crest over the main entrance gates. The inclusion of the boot was deemed necessary as an ancestor whilst fighting in battle lost his sword and needing something to defend himself, he grabbed a severed and booted leg of a dead colleague. The unorthodox weapon proved a success as he lived to tell the tale.

A Welford Park garden sculpture looking over the fence into the grounds of the Church of Welford St Gregory.


The Church of Welford St Gregory and the rear of Welford Park house.

According to the Domesday Book a medieval church located here was owned by Abingdon Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (I wrote about the period of Dissolution in the recent Chester post). The church, like the Welford Park house, has evolved and been subject to change over the years, although the church has been subject to more remedial work than the house. The church was completely dismantled in 1852 and during the work Saxon foundations were found beneath the early medieval remains. Some of the stones from the demolished church were used to build a winery in nearby Wickham. A Victorian era owner of Welford Park wanted the church back so the winery was dismantled and the church rebuilt. Looking at the church today there is no doubt that the Victorian stonemason responsible for the rebuild knew his stuff.

The Domesday Book: contains information relative to land ownership in England in the times of William the Conqueror. From the information gathered and entered into the book land taxes could be assessed. On my bookshelf I have a paperback copy of the book and it makes for enlightening reading if you happen to be interested in 1086-1088 land ownership in England! It was called the Domesday Book due to the irreversible nature of the information gathered. People compared it to the Last Judgement or Doomsday described in the Bible when the deeds of Christians written in the Book of Life were placed before God for judgement.

The tower is the only original part of the church, although during the rebuilding it was deemed unsafe so it was taken down and meticulously rebuilt. The tower is an unusual shape: it is round (uncommon in England). Near the top it merges to an irregular octagonal form and then topped with a needle spire. The description is based on my observations only so it might be best not to quote me in architectural circles.

Detail of the round tower stonework. How the masons achieved such a straight uniform curved profile does bear thinking about.

The church is constructed from flintknapped stones and the architectural features such as tracery windows and arches are sandstone.

Interior of St Gregory. I’m going to call the style Graceful Gothic.

The outside architectural elements of St Gregory are as graceful as the interior. The following image shows my meaning.

A beautifully crafted tracery window with a human and a dog’s head as imposts.

Many English churches were only decorated on the warm southern side and on that side well-to-do folk and church benefactors were buried. On the northern less sunny side the poor, divorcees and less desirable members of society were buried. Often the northern side of churches, as is the case with St Gregory, was devoid of decorations. The next photograph shows a very bland northern side tracery window.

Less impressive northern side of St Gregory church.

The lychgate and St Gregory burial ground.

Before mortuaries and at the time when the majority of people died at home the dead were wrapped in a shroud and taken to the lychgate where it remained (often watched over to prevent body snatchers from stealing the body) until the funeral service. The lychgate kept rain off the dead and had seats for the vigil watchers.

The burial ground surrounding St Gregory served the whole of the surrounding parish and according to one reference, the register of burials kept since 1559 indicates over 20 000 people have been buried there.

The side gate of the St Gregory churchyard. Note the different length hinges on the gate. The different lengths mean the gate will always swing shut if left open.

The inspiration for me to create this ceramic church (260mm high) came from our visits to the Church of St Gregory.

 That’s the end of this post. We hope you enjoyed sharing with us the life of a remarkable man and the history of the area around Honeybottom. It’s hard to believe that we have walked in the footsteps of giants like King Henry the VIII, Cromwell’s men and humble monks but that’s England…history and stories around every corner and in every nook and cranny.   Thanks to all our friends and people along the way who have made Encountering the Past in England and Wales so rewarding although at times sad.

Should you want to continue following our travels and writings click on FOLLOW. The next post takes us back to Wales where we visited friend Maggie. After Maggie’s post I will commence Encountering the Past Part 4 which takes us to the Tasmanian wilderness where we walked, camped and kayaked during the 1990/2000s.

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About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
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9 Responses to Revisiting England and Wales: Journey into the past in Berkshire Part 2

  1. John Parsons says:

    Many thanks for sharing your anecdotes and memories of John.

    I also had the great privilege of knowing John, from 1983 until his death. We played string quartets together on countless occasions, with the wonderful late-lamented Sylvia Pye, and her sister Jennifer Davies [now a lively 99-yr-old], with whom I was a ‘paying guest’ from 1983-5, and who is still a great friend. The three of them had known each other for many years. We would host these quartet sessions at each other’s houses with supper, sherry and plenty of wine, and there would always come a point during dinner where something would spark John off on some incredible story – often I would try and engineer these! These could be terrifying, unbelievable or hilarious; or all three. As you know, he could hold people in rapt attention, and I never knew him to repeat a tale. I recognise a couple of the incidents described above from such occasions.

    I can only reiterate what others have said: he had a brilliant mind and a real soul. He was a gentleman, a hero [he would hate that of course], a generous host, and a sensitive friend. I, like others, greatly miss him. One of my great regrets is that I couldn’t get to his funeral – my job at the time completely prevented it.

    You refer to his memoirs: have these been published, or are they available in any form?

    John Parsons

    • tbeartravels says:

      Hello John

      Thankyou for your comment re John S. Yes he was a remarkable person and in some ways he was a mentor for me. Bev and I often sat at the bottom of the steps at H.B. and listened to his musical efforts with friends. if I remember correctly there was piano, violin, viola and of course John on the cello.

      Thanks again for the comment. Fred and Bev P.S. I will email you re his writings soon.

  2. Mark Carhart says:

    I had the privilege of living in John’s flat in 1996-1998 while I was attending grad school. John was ever a gentleman, warrior and patriot. I miss him

    • tbeartravels says:

      Hello Mark
      Thankyou for the comment on the blog. Yes John was a real gentleman and our time with him was a quality experience. Bev and I think of him on a daily basis and we think our time at H.B. was the best time of our lives. We are still in contact with John’s children and we share thoughts of life without John.

      I am still writing the blog even though I am a bit behind. At the moment I am writing about the 4000km bike ride we did across France following the Eurovelo 6. Keep reading and thanks again for the comment.
      Fred and Bev

  3. Richard says:

    Hello, I contacted you a few days ago but it is possible that the message dod not arrive.

    I have some more information regarding the collision at RAF Graveley described in the post above.

    Could you please contact me as I am also in contact with a relative of the crew of the Lancaster in which the two gunners died and I would love to share my research with Squadron Leader Saunderson’s children and (ideally and with the permission of all concerned) put everyone concerned in contact with each other.

  4. raffaella says:

    Dear sirs, this is a very beautiful post. How interesting to read…
    I am writing to you from Italy, I have been very lucky to meet mr. John and his wife Elisabeth in 1982, I was an “au pair” at that time. My only regret in not having had the chance of seeing John once more, while I am still in touch with Elisabeth. She made me the honour of participating to my wedding in 2004. Thanks for remembering mr. John, I really loved him, he was a special person.

    • tbeartravels says:


      Thankyou for the comment re the post Revisiting England and Wales : Journey into the past Berkshire Part 2. Yes John had many admirers. I was pleased to be able to write about him. It is difficult to write bio’s as you never know how surviving family members are likely to react, however John’s children and friends who have read the post are pleased I wrote the story. It was not an easy one to write but now it has been posted and feedback is coming in I pleased I spent the time on it.

      Bev and I were sad that we didn’t get to see John before he died, I often mull over the fact.

      Thanks for the comment Fred and Bev

  5. Kevin and Sue Dewar says:

    Wow, this post was absolutely amazing and so, so, interesting.I have read it and re read it quite a few times as there is so much to take in.What an amazing person was John !!!. You were so fortunate to have him in your lives.
    Cheers Kevin and Sue.

    • tbeartravels says:

      Sue and Kevin

      Thanks for the comment re our late friend John the subject of the last post. Posts of a biographical nature have been the hardest to write as one has to consider the reaction of those closest to the subject who still alive.

      I think I could however consider more writing about people. Bev and I commence Encountering the Past Part 5 in August and the journey will take us to Vienna, Budapest, Italy, Sardinia, Corsica and southern France and as we travel I am going to write short bios of people we meet along the way. It will not be easy as the people I choose to write about might not speak English but I suppose it will be part of the challenge.

      Thanks again for the positive comment.

      Regards Fred and Bev

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