‘Thurifer’ goes to Wales, and returns to London


The railway journey from Shrewsbury to the heart of Wales is charming. (Has Michael Portillo done it?) A small, rickety, clattering train speeds along. Although much of the track (some of it single track) goes through cuttings of abundant foliage, there are many gaps to admire the Shropshire hills and the Welsh valleys. There were also several stops by request: those who wished to alight needed to inform the driver at the beginning of the journey, while those who wished to board put out a hand on the platform. That might be a cheaper alternative to the HS2 route between London and Birmingham.

A visit to the triangle of Powys, Herefordshire, and Shropshire afforded three particular treats. Berrington Hall is a neo-classical mansion built between 1778 and 1781 by Henry Holland for Admiral Lord Rodney. If the exterior is severe and solemn, the interior is more warmly domestic in scale. There are no grand or palatial salons but more intimate, yet generous, rooms with some good pieces of furniture, at least on the ground floor. The first floor is given to exhibitions: modern embroidery when I was there. The real joy, however, was Capability Brown’s (Holland’s father-in-law) last landscape, and magnificent it is. He did not live to see it. We can enjoy the maturity of his vision in this quintessential English parkland. In Old Radnor the church of St Stephen has several notable features. The font is an enormous boulder, certainly pre-Norman and probably sixth century. The expansion of the late 14th-century church (now the north aisle) into the broad, generously wise church today can be seen clearly in the architecture even without the help of the excellent new edition of Pevsner (a series that is one of the glories of the age). There is an exquisite 15th-century stained glass window of St Catherine of Alexandria, several medieval floor tiles, a very fine east window by John Hardman of Birmingham, and an outstanding elegant 16th-century organ case, claimed to be “the earliest surviving organ case in the British Isles.” Uniting the whole church is a rood screen that stretches its entire width: chancel and both aisles. The Victorian restoration sadly stripped away the remnants of medieval gilt and painted panels; but it remains impressive and is one of the longest screens in existence.

The parish of Richard’s Castle is an odd one. It is 15 square miles, has a population of about 400 and straddles two counties (Shropshire and Herefordshire), and has a stunning, glorious parish church, which seats more than the parish population. It was built in 1892 at the expense of Mrs Hannah Foster by the eminent architect Norman Shaw. It soars in magnificent isolation above the countryside. Constructed in accordance with 14th-century Decorated principles, its stones are immaculately cut and its southwest tower and south door, reached by several broad steps, are imposing. Internally the nave, chancel, and a south aisle are beautifully proportioned. Dramatic colour is provided by a glittering reredos, recently restored after an act of vandalism, by Charles Buckeridge, a pupil of George Gilbert Scott. It may be described as “Comperesque”, but has a distinctive personal touch. There is no stained glass, so light floods through the many large clear windows and it seems as if the church is floating despite the massiveness of the structure. Previously unknown to me this was a thrilling find. I am grateful to the friends who suggested it and also provided a magnificent dinner of spinach ravioli stuffed with goat’s cheese and a runny egg yolk, ballotine of chicken, local cheeses and a mulberry soufflé that was delicious beyond words.

Earlier in the year I was at St Mary le Strand for a lunchtime concert by the Zeitgeist Chamber Orchestra. Founded in 2013, the orchestra comprises young professional players and singers: recent alumni of Oxford, Cambridge, and Bristol Universities as well as all the London Conservatoires. They are an ensemble to look out for and, better still, to hear. Wagner’s romantic Siegfried Idyll, a birthday gift for his wife, was sympathetically performed. It was followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1. The conductor and founder of the Orchestra, Sam Poppleton, described it as “preposterously difficult” and effectively as a concerto for each player. They gave a thrilling performance, with committed and concentrated playing. Given we hear so much criticism of the young it is good to see a group of enthusiastic and accomplished young people acquit themselves with such distinction. www.zeitgeistchamberorchestra.co.uk

Arthur Marshall is a name some older readers may remember and younger ones perhaps ought to know. He was schoolmaster and also performed in comedy programmes on the wireless, as it was known. He achieved greater fame and prominence on television as a panelist on “Call my Bluff” and a reliable raconteur on chat shows. He wrote a humorous column for the New Statesman, when it was worth reading, and many book reviews. He was the epitome of smiling, impish good-humour. I picked up a slim paperback of some of his writing in a second-hand book shop for £1 and thoroughly enjoyed his wit and whimsy. If you can, seek him out. Anyone who could describe the late (and in her way, great) Barbara Cartland as an “animated meringue” deserves to be remembered.

Another of those odd coincidences: stuck in traffic in Trafalgar Square, not an unusual occurrence, I idly noted the number of flagpoles round about. Not surprisingly, given the number of Embassies, High Commissions, public and government buildings around, there are quite a few. A van drew up opposite, and emblazoned on the side was the legend “The Flagpole Specialist.” Those in need of such an estimable professional service might consult their website: www.theflagpole specialist.co.uk. A Happy Christmas to you all.