Sunday 30th August 2015
This morning we checked out of our Premier Inn in Highwycombe, north of London and ventured to ancient St Albans Abbey Church for the 9.30am Family eucharist. It was fantastic to see children running into the church with their parents puffing behind and it was difficult to get a carpark in the next door St Albans’ School carpark.
The very large cathedral was basically full and once the children came back from their learning activities for Communion it was decidedly full and delightfully noisy. The hymns were all oldies but goodies and sung enthusiastically eg Dear Lord and Father of Mankind to the traditional tune..one of my favourite hymns…Good to hear it again and we finished with Charles Wesley’s “Ye Servants of God, Your Master proclaim..”
The sermon by the Dean, the Very Revd John Jeffrey was on the Gospel from Mark 7:1-8 ..Jesus’ dispute with the pharisees over external rules and internal values. He spoke about shame and guilt societies. Shame societies care less about what folk do provided the external stuff is well handled. Guilt societies major on personal responsibility for doing good even if no one is watching. Christian societies have traditionally been guilt societies and it gets a bad press today because of course too much guilt can lead to depression and other psychological illness.
Nevertheless the Dean argued that a sense of guilt is a good thing which provokes our conscience and challenges us to the highest standards whether other folk are aware or not. For, as Jesus argued to the Pharisees it is what comes out of a person’s heart in speech and action that matters, not just keeping up appearances, Christian or otherwise.
We came away from St Alban’s with a sense of excitement for the Christian community there. They have a Christian education leader and an advertised program which included a five week course on Abraham, another in Intermediate Latin and a third study group on the Greek New Testament!
As for the cathedral building, they are about to celebrate their 900th anniversary from their Norman beginnings so there is an old stone Norman abbey section to which a later Gothic flint covered vast extension has been added. The stone rood screen in front of the crossing remains and new sanctuary furniture sits in front of it for the family service.
The more traditional 11.00am service meets “on the abbey side” and the organ sits atop both and meets both needs. They have effectively created two separate worship centres and although it could be said that the architectural line from front to back has been permanently interfered with, my view is that it is a triumph of ecclesiology over architectural intention. The ancient Cathedral has adapted to the C21st and is alive and kicking. We came away very encouraged.
After church we journeyed from St Albans across to encounter Waddesdon House the amazing Baroque mansion built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874 and bequeathed by his descendant James de Rothschild to the National Trust in 1957. On first sight we felt we were back in the Loire Valley looking at a French Chateau with its turrets and towers and formal gardens and this was certainly Baron Ferdinand’s goal. This is once again a massive house with multiple storeys and many rooms.
Inside, however, the house is deliberately structured more like an art gallery as the Rothschilds have been serious collectors for generations. Making their money from the English banking system they have, over several generations, build up quite outstanding collections of paintings (English portraits, Dutch masters and some more modern material), one of the world’s largest porcelain collections (mainly Sevres but some significant Meissen), substantial collections of C18th and C17th French furniture, clocks, tapestries and carpets, musical instruments, lace, buttons, a full scale working aviary, fountains, and exhibition spaces for modern art events. Phew! No doubt I missed plenty e.g. all the amazing interior wall panelling no longer required in huge aristocratic hotels and homes in Paris. Currently a major sculpture exhibition of the work of G E Moore is on view.
Just discovered how to add all these at once…now have to work out captions! Above left is the formal parterre garden visible from all the formal reception rooms in the house; above right is a small “green dining room” for intimate gatherings. The modern light fitting has cutlery sticking out at all angles but iPhone photography is again defeated. Below is just a tiny sample of bits and pieces that appealed to us.
This extraordinary light fitting has a clock beneath (for telling visitors when to leave?) and a birdcage above (if the conversation flags?)
This elaborate C18th Franch desk makes me think I should update my plywood study desk at Berwick! The huge Meissen turkey and the goat to follow are items made to order. We saw six of these at Longleat but unfortunately managed to delete the photos after a rush of blood finding space on the iPhone!
The two vast Guardi paintings of Venice in this entry hall do not look much but they are actually huge and would barely fit in a standard tfbv lounge room. The Goat as above is Meissen
Everything at Waddesdon is over-sized. I am still some distance from this garden urn which must have required a crane to place it. It is huge! The collection is still growing as the Rothschild Foundation is still behind the collection. This evocative painting of a boy making a house of cards is by C18th French artist Jean-Simon Chardin.
These are all Sevres plates and this is a tiny fragment of three large rooms full of Sevres porcelain opened by the Queen in 1993
These are two of the Bakst “Sleeping Beauty” panels which are quite wonderful in a specially designed round room. The poor unfortunates sitting below are, like we were we, exhausted patrons trying to look excited by wonder after wonder.
The house sits high on a hill in Aylesbury with a vast forest and cultivate arboretum surrounding it before you come to the manicured lawns and formal gardens. It would be a week’s work to view carefully everything this magical place has to offer. We gave it three hours and retreated to Cambridge through some heavy rain for a quiet night. Our conclusion is that although this house is quite majestic, our preference is for the humble, straightforward and more homely atmosphere of the William Morris country retreat by the Thames in Kelmscott. Too much of a good thing may well be too much of a good thing!