Faced with Porphiry

Luton Airport Parkway to Harpenden: a walk with Nicholas Faxton.

For a long time, not long ago (from February 2002 to March 2016), I used to wake early. I would leave the house at 6.30 and, by 7.40 approximately, I would be passing through Luton Airport Parkway railway station. In the afternoon, I would leave work early, and, by 5.40 approximately, I would be approaching the same station from the other direction. As I say, I did this every day, five days a week (barring holidays), for a little over fourteen years.

By being in the same place at the same time over such a long period of time (something that would, otherwise, only be experienced by a participant in a scientific experiment, or an art project of some kind), I could observe the landscape changing, in two ways. On the one hand, there were temporal, lateral changes : new buildings were built, old ones demolished, towns sprawled ; crops would rotate in their fields ; supermarkets changed hands, and their neon signs changed with them. Early on, a landfill site was gouged out from a patch of scrubland, festered and flared for some years in the early light, then slowly grassed over, leaving only a scattering of gas-relieving periscopes to warn of the space it had once occupied.

On the other hand, there were cyclical changes : I developed a minutely calibrated sensitivity to the light blooming, then shrinking and contracting again, until, at its lowest point (the Scandinavian months from November to January), the first point in the journey where I could see the outside world more clearly than my own reflection was the landscape immediately beyond Luton Airport Parkway ; it seemed to me unusually beautiful, even the shimmering pools and shining cupolas (or so they appeared in the subdued dawn light) of what was clearly a sewage farm.

Any sight (it is true) would have seemed sweeter to me than, and a relief from, the darkness visible in my reflection, and it is perhaps this, or a simple lack of curiosity, that prevented me from looking into what it was it was that I could see, and why that landscape, with its wooded slopes, its picturesque lakes, and the briefly glimpsed facade of a great house, seemed too good to be true, too true to nature.

About six or seven years into my making this journey, I discovered that the house I could see was called Luton Hoo, and that its grounds, rather than being a happy accident of nature, had been landscaped by Capability Brown. The house itself had been, in the course of several fires, through various iterations, designed first by Robert Adam, then by Robert Smirke. It had been owned by the Earls and Marquesses of Bute, “a Liverpool solicitor” and Sir Julius Wernher, an Edwardian diamond magnate. By the time it had occurred to me to visit the house, which apparently contained an art collection, that was no longer possible, it having been converted into an hotel in 2007.

A little earlier, I had become aware of a path that ran parallel to the railway line, seemingly a rough track. Sometimes there were cyclists, occasionally walkers, whose cloudy exhalations, on cold mornings, mimicked the steam rising from the sewage treatment beds. I could not see where they were travelling to, because the path passed from view as the train put on speed.  Shortly after the sewage farm, on the other, left hand, side of the track, I could see a path emerging from under a railway bridge, which led, in the middle distance, to a building which piqued my curiosity. Its purpose was not obvious, and, in its setting, between the sculpted contours of Capability Brown and the homely curves of arable Bedfordshire, it struck me as incongruous and unenglish (something Sicilian, a little Russian), without belonging to any more exotic style of architecture that I could readily identify.  Every morning (unless it was raining), I thought how much I should prefer to be walking that path to that building than continuing my journey to London.

Eventually (and you must remember here that the internet was not as informative in those days as it is now), I learned that the path was part of the Lea Valley Walk (which, in its later stages, and in a previous life of mine, I had lived near to and sometimes walked), that it followed the route of the old Luton to Hertford Railway, and that its second leg led from Luton Airport to Harpenden. It took me several more years before I found the time and the inclination to walk it, but have now done so three times, the first time in Autumn, the second in Spring, and the third in the last week of 2016.

Although the route is signposted at the exit to the station, my usual inclination to follow my nose (and my disinclination to walk alongside a dual carriageway) at first led me astray, but, after a few diversions, I emerged from an underpass


directly underneath a nose-to-tail train of aeroplanes, in the moment that they had burst through to take-off and were accelerating to gain altitude.


Having been on one of those planes some weeks previously, I felt the closed eyes, aching ears and surreptitious prayers ; I was relieved to be outside, on that path, perhaps the observed and not the observer.

I would say that, of the three seasons, the walk is at its best in Autumn (unfortunately, I appear to have lost the photographs I took of it on that occasion), but, on a clear and frosty morning, I caught it in its Winter best.


It resembles other paths which once were railway lines, in terms of its flora and occasional fauna, albeit, in its early stages, unusually well-stocked with mature trees (responsible, I suppose, for making its beginnings invisible from the train).

Curiously, by some trick of perspective, or by design, Luton Hoo itself cannot be seen from the path, only its grounds.


At one point, there is a bench before which three spirits of the Lea Valley loom to obstruct the view.


The figure on the left is Eric Morecambe, on the right is the founder of the Luton Sea Scouts (who apparently make use of the artificial lakes of Luton Hoo), and, in the middle, is Capability Brown himself.

For about half an hour the path and the railway proceed side-by-side, until, like two friends falling out on a walk, the path veers away to the right over a viaduct crossing the Lea itself, rounds the sewage farm (which is less attractive than it looks from the train), and, passing under a railway bridge, emerges at the beginning of the road that leads to the incongruous building (the path itself continues on to Harpenden).

The road, which has no footpath beside it, passes over the Lea, which, although the day had started brightly, was half-obscured by fog


before leading me to what announced itself as St. Charalambos, a Greek Orthodox Church.


If I had visited when I had first noticed it, I would have found an Anglican Church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, but that had been abandoned in 2008. Pevsner (I only know this because I have searched the internet) has this to say about it :

“1840-1 by Benjamin Ferrey. Neo-Norman. Facade has 2 large round Norman piers flanking the entrance, and open staircases with Norman colonettes turning left and right. Asymmetrically placed turret.”


The church has a modest churchyard, containing a scattering of small monuments, most of them, apparently, to the inhabitants of the small village of East Hyde, or to those employed, in some way, at Luton Hoo (one of them in the shape of a heart).



The churchyard slopes gently upwards to a precisely-trimmed wall of yew, through which is visible a monument of a type that I associate most with Highgate Cemetery (I lived nearby for some years, and used to stroll there when I had nothing else to do), whose proper name seems to be mausoleum  (the word that seems to suit is catafalque, but that is wrong).


This mausoleum (or catafalque ) belongs to, commemorates, and, presumably (I have never been quite sure of the mechanics of such interments), houses the body of Sir Julius Wernher (as we have seen, the one-time master of Luton Hoo).


The Mausolea and Monuments Trust describes it thus :

An exceptionally elaborate Gothic Revival monument.  The sarcophagus, which is faced with porphiry and supported by six bronze lions, is sheltered by a lavishly carved stone canopy.  The quality of both the materials and workmanship is of the very highest order.”


At its corners stand four quasi-angelic figures, each representing what I take to be a virtue (though in some cases, the symbolism is obscure to me).

In addition to Sir Julius himself (whose mortal remains occupy, I imagine, the great lead sarcophagus (faced with porphiry) itself), there are smaller plaques to commemorate his family, as follows:

Alice Sedgwick, Baroness Ludlow, 1862-1945 (his wife)

Lady Zia Wernher, 1892-1977 (his daughter-in-law)

Major-General Sir Harold Wernher, 1895-1978 (his second son)

Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd baronet, 1889-1948 (his son and heir)

George Michael Alexander Wernher (only son of Sir Harold), died at Reja 4 December 1942 aged 24 and buried in a military cemetery in Tunisia

Alex Pigott Wernher (youngest son), died at Ginchy, France September 10, 1916

One plaque is blank.*


Pharonically, within the enclosure of yew, but apart from the family, there are two smaller monuments, which read :

Harriet Sessions, 12 February 1934, for 39 years faithful housekeeper and friend of Sir Julius and Lady Wernher

Margaret : M. Eleanor Pryce, d. 29 June 1928, lifelong devoted friend of Julius and Lady Wernher


There is also a very small monument, completely obscured by moss, which might have commemorated a dog.

Although, on my first visit, I knew nothing of Sir Julius or his family, I recall feeling that this unexpected enclosure of yew and its porphiry-faced casket, to which I had been drawn, seemed somehow to contain a compressed weight of history, set against the lightness of the English countryside (or, as I wrote in a notebook, rather cheaply “A little corner of an English field that is forever Mitteleuropa“).

By my second visit, I was able to flesh out the bones.  I understood the connection with Luton Hoo (which, I learned, had been decorated by the designer of the Ritz Hotel). I knew that Alice, his wife, (nee Mankiewicz) was nicknamed “Birdie”, was painted by Sargent and, after the death of Sir Julius, had remarried a Lord Ludlow.  Sir Derrick (the second baronet) had married Theodora Romanoff (an exiled Russian noblewoman, though not related to the Royal Family).  Sir Harold’s wife “Zia” was born Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby, the daughter of an exiled Russian Grand-Duke (and grandson of a Tsar) who owned Kenwood House and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.  Tracing the web of family conections (by hopping from one Wikipedia page to another) soon spiralled vertiginously, back to Pushkin and forwards to a handful of Duchesses of Westminster, and other names, too numerous to mention, familiar from the society pages.

I picture Sir Julius selecting the spot where his mausoleum was to be built, fussing about its design, and riding out from Luton Hoo from time to time, (taking, I suppose, much the route I took), to see how the work was progressing (I am assuming it was built while he was alive), and, in time, a sad, grand, procession from the great house when it was time for him to take occupation of his chosen resting place. I picture, too, a succession of other sad processions taking the same route, in due course, to add new bodies (or, if not that, new inscriptions), and others, less sad, but still reflective, a short drive, or a pleasant walk on a Summer’s afternoon away to lay flowers or pay other respects. The mausoleum’s architecture echoes the mediaeval shrines that held relics of the saints, and seems calculated to invite pilgrimage. It is, of course, some time now since any descendant of Sir Julius has occupied Luton Hoo, and the number of those who can remember their occupation of the house, or most of those commemorated by the mausoleum, must be dwindling.  I wonder how many, other than me, have found themselves, impelled by some unknown instinct, making what feels as though it is, regardless of its object (I doubt Sir Julius, in life, was quite saintly), a pilgrimage of sorts, and how few of us could describe quite what drew us there, or what it might mean.

* From ‘The Camden New Journal’, 13 May, 2010 “An heiress to a vast diamond fortune who shunned her aristocratic family in favour of a quiet life in Highgate was found dead by a care­taker, an inquest heard.

Anna Wernher, daughter of Sir Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd Baronet, was found dead in her home in Langbourne Avenue on the Holly Lodge Estate in February. Described as a “recluse,” the inquest heard that she had cut all ties with her family, whose fortune was made by her grandfather Sir Julius Charles Wernher, 1st Baronet, in the diamond mines of South Africa. 

Alexander Wills, a close friend of Ms Wernher, said that she complained of feeling “very unwell” when he spoke to her three weeks before she was found.“It was par for the course because she was never feeling very well,” he said. “I didn’t take any particular notice and said to her ‘give me a ring when you’re feeling better and I’ll come and have some tea’.”  That was the last time Mr Wills spoke to Ms Wernher, who he described as “suspicious” of medical care. 

It is believed Ms Wernher will be buried in the family mausoleum in East Hyde, Bedfordshire.”


After leaving the churchyard, I retraced my steps and rejoined the path that led to Harpenden, where I enjoyed a toasted bruschetta and a cup of caffe latte, before taking the train home, passing back through Luton Airport at about, I suppose, 3.40.

Time taken : 2 hours approximately.

Degree of difficulty : very slight.



Dreams of Leaving

From December 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler


For a few years after they were married, our parents managed a butcher’s shop, the end building of a deformed 1930s’ crescent of ten shops, a series of white concrete cubes with elongated windows, unornamented, geometrical, exiguous. California had come to the outskirts of Northampton, futuristically prefiguring the society of consumption. The building was redolent of absent sunshine, leisure and romance ; although it was not long before the rain seeped through the flat roofs and in fungoid green stains on the inside walls, and subsidence cracks veined the already maculated concrete with black, and the parents separated and returned to the familiar red brick terraces from which they had unsuccessfully tried to anticipate their future release.” (Jeremy Seabrook : The Everlasting Feast)

I think I remember reading, some time ago, that W.H. Auden had once described his ideal as being to live “a Mediterranean life in…

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A Midlands Romance

From November 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler


ptdc0585-2“The only thing romantic in the Midlands is the names of the professional football clubs – and football, generally speaking, is not a romantic game …

The towns are, perhaps, not meant for summer, summer’s delights and summer’s games, and only when the fogs come down and blur their grim, unlovely lines and the street-lamps mingle with lights from stalls and shops to deck them out in a boisterous blaze do they become warm and human. 

Football is their proper game, and, seen in the lights of the trams as they sway over lines glittering in the December rain, the stop-press columns of the evening papers with their long lists of scores and results take on a mystic significance …”

Meet me on the corner when the lights are coming on and I’ll be there – I promise I’ll be there …”

Quotations from Dudley Carew (“To The Wicket”)…

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Transitory Things in Lamport

From February 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler


Lamport trees

Lamport is a small village on the road between Market Harborough and Northampton, which I have often passed through, but never made time to visit until last week, prompted mainly by reading “A Child Alone : the Memoirs of ‘BB’“.  ‘BB’ was the pen-name of D.J. Watkins-Pitchford, a naturalist, artist and author whose books I enjoyed as a child and have sometimes alluded to in writing this blog.

Watkins-Pitchford grew up in the Rectory at Lamport (now, inevitably ‘The Old Rectory’)*

Lamport Rectory Lamport Rectory

which is next door to the church of which his father was the Rector.

All Saints, Lamport All Saints, Lamport

and directly opposite Lamport Hall, the family seat (until recently) of the Isham family.

Lamport Hall Lamport Hall

Lamport Hall

As young D.J. was an imaginative child and kept at home rather than sent to school, he would have had plenty of time to contemplate the motto of the Isham family, which is inscribed at least twice on…

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Forgive What We Have Been, Amend What We Are

From October 2012.

The Crimson Rambler

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Lincoln Cathedral.  It has its fans (Ruskin, Pevsner) but – magnificent though it is

it seemed to me to have an uneasy atmosphere, something that suggested it was not quite happy in its skin.

The Cathedral was rebuilt and greatly enlarged by St Hugh of Lincoln, the exemplary 12th century Bishop, who was canonized shortly after his death. The Cathedral invites visitors to imagine themselves as mediaeval pilgrims visiting his shrine.  It’s true that many pilgrims would have been attracted by Great St Hugh, but more would have  there to venerate this shrine (what’s left of it) – the shrine of Little St Hugh.

Little St Hugh was a nine-year old boy, the son of a woman called Beatrice, who disappeared from his home on July 31st 1255.  On 29th August his body was found in a well in the…

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Twilight of The Bones

From March 2012.

The Crimson Rambler

“All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.” G. Orwell – England, Your England

Since the football club that I support moved to a ground that is inaccessible by public transport, I have been spending my Saturday afternoons watching a mixture of sides in the United Counties League – Harborough, Desborough, the Rothwell Corinthians, but mostly Rothwell Town (“the Bones”).

But, as the sign above illustrates, it looks like I shall have one less option for next season – or, at least, if the club survives, they won’t be playing at their long-time home at Cecil Street.

The club was founded (as “The Swifts”) in 1895, and have spent time in the Northamptonshire League, the Leicestershire League and the Kettering League…

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Peace And Light In Long Eaton

From December 2011.

The Crimson Rambler

I recently satisfied a long-nursed curiosity by visiting Long Eaton.  I don’t know about you, but I find that, if I hear an announcement about where a stopping train is going to stop often enough, I develop a growing urge to visit that place : I hear about Long Eaton several times a day – “Passengers for Langley Mill, Alfreton, Long Eaton and Derby change at Beeston …”.

I wasn’t there for very long (I managed to combine this trip with a visit to that other faraway place with a strange-sounding name East Midlands Parkway) but long enough to get the gist of the place, as it were.

The main thing to note about Long Eaton is that it is very long.  One very long road running alongside a canal with houses strung out alongside it.  The walk from the station to the centre of town took about half an…

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