Abbey Park


As ‘Wolf Hall’ mania now reaches fever pitch across the kingdom Thomas Wolsey is back in fashion. It’s 500 years since he was sent his cardinal’s hat from Rome, and appointed Archbishop of York and Chancellor to Henry VIII, positions of unthinkable power for the butcher’s son from Suffolk. Wolsey grew up among the stench and blood of the slaughterhouses of medieval Ipswich: in a supreme act of self-compensation he built himself a palace at Hampton Court where ambergris was burned in golden braziers, while in the gardens medicinal herbs and red & white Tudor roses perfumed the riverside parterres.
Here it used to be said that the Cardinal (who was secretly discreetly married) infected the King with syphilis by whispering in the royal ear. Though as Marisa Berenson says in “Cabaret”:

“This is not, I think, founded in fact!”

When Wolsey rode forth on his crimson-caparisoned mule from this refuge – the mansion that so fatally inflamed the jealousy of his King – the Cardinal would tuck cinnamon, box, vinegar-soaked sponge & sprigs of herbs up his nostrils to ward off the noxious emanations of his native class. As children we spent hours sticking oranges with cloves to hold at our noses in admiring emulation. You had to be very careful to stud the cloves very closely or the fruit would rot and collapse in on itself like a punctured ball, a mass of wasted corruption.

You see, the Cardinal has never been out of style with we Leicester people: he came here in 1530 to lay his bones among us, dying of a broken heart en route for London to face charges of treason. So mercifully he met his end in a clean if austere monastic bed at Leicester Abbey, instead of on a scaffold at Tyburn surrounded by his own living entrails and tortured memories of the butcher’s shop. Those bones are now modestly marked by a slab among the ruins of the Abbey that Henry VIII dissolved only a few years later; this is now Abbey Park, overlooked by the old Wolsey Works, once a knicker factory, now converted into luxury apartments. But the Cardinal’s head, the old trademark in scarlet and gold mosaic and with a preservation order on it (all the piquant ironies of this!), still gazes out from the top storey across the bus lanes, the newly demolished fly-over, the River Soar and the canal.

My mother worked in the Park in the late 1940’s with her best friend Anne. They were studying horticulture at Reading University and this was the holiday homework. Anne’s parents would occasionally treat them to lunch and – greatly daring – a glass of cider at The Grand Hotel. Then the girls would come over faint during the long hot afternoon in the Park greenhouses and, all soporific like The Flopsy Bunnies, take a nap on the duck boards among the lobelia, salvias, geraniums and French marigolds destined for the floral clock. Most days Elizabeth and Anne ate at the British Restaurant opposite the Park gates – cottage pie was sixpence and while you ate it you could have the pleasure of watching your neighbours washing their hands in the drinking water jugs.

Later, in the 1960’s, we would be shown the long shady bank by the boating lake frequented by wartime courting couples. Hard-boiled old gardeners had once prowled around here ogling girls’ Bisto-browned legs and searching for loose change that had fallen unawares from soldiers’ pockets. Small fortunes were to be made over a hot weekend in the days of half-crowns and florins. The lake was extensive, brown and very shallow: a bit whiffy in warm weather and full of muddy islands of tree roots frequented by coots, moor hens and Canada geese. Willows trailed everywhere and as you madly rowed or paddled your boat you could feed the ducks with Mother’s Pride. It was intoxicatingly exciting and the annual treat on the last afternoon of the summer holidays – in those days in late September. In my head the dingy smells of lake water and goose-droppings are all mixed up with those of dahlias, the grey flannel of the winter school uniform (laid out ready, itchy and menacing on the spare room bed), crab paste sandwiches and the peculiar aroma of tea poured from a Thermos flask.

My favourite screen Wolsey was Terry Scott in “Carry On Henry”, dressed up in Anthony Quayle’s cast-off scarlets from “Anne of a Thousand Days”. As he sips from a goblet, the Cardinal murmurs confidentially to Joan Sims as the Queen:

“I can recommend the porter.”

“Send him up to my room after dinner” she replies.

Oh, that delicious Tudor humour!

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