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!

The Wicked Uncle

Rosalind Thornycroft Richard III On an unusually beautiful morning of our perfect Indian summer I awoke feeling like the Mole in The Wind in The Willows, possessed of a great urge to get out of the house and do something a bit different. So I put up an egg sandwich and hopped on the first bus into Leicester to see for myself what is afoot with the remains of Richard III in the newly designated Cultural Quarter. The Cathedral is full of screens behind which they are digging out the grave in the crypt and then the new tomb will lie above in the nave. There’s a newly planted herb and flower garden outside graced by a statue of the last Plantagenet in Bosworth armour, with a spicy nip of catmint from beneath his mailed feet, but no alley cats to roll in it. This part of town has been greatly smartened up. That sharp scent in the clear silky air persuaded me to give the accompanying exhibition a miss: it’s permanent so no doubt I shall go eventually but it seemed to be too lovely a day to be indoors with all the flashing lights and booming sound effects. All museums have a certain airlessness about them, some of the most famous being the most oppressive. There are too many fast food cafes for one thing and too many sealed windows. It’s a new kind of stuffiness to that of the old days. I remember the smell of the old Leicester Museum in New Walk, just a few minutes’ stroll away from Richard. It is now greatly changed and modernised: the menagerie of stuffed animals which so entranced and secretly terrified me as a child have all gone. I realise now that the pungent odour that hung over everything then must have been some kind of embalming fluid: and maybe the emanations of the partially unwrapped bitumen-blackened mummies in a shadowy back gallery. Like a lot of Leicester people I can’t get too excited about King Richard in death. Our vicar thinks he should have been left alone in the privacy of his car park, not dug up to make a Roman holiday. I’m with her there. I think we have far too many exhumations in this modern craving for certainties. Exhumation is a dreadful and solemn thing, traditionally performed by the light of torches as though it were something shameful: the participants holding cologne-soaked cloths to their faces, and prayers said as spades jar against rotting wood and eternal stone. Nowadays it is all sanitised and glossed over by easy talk of DNA and glib scientific journalistic niceties. Poor old king, his bones all spread out on a table for the world’s press to peer at. How would Richard have smelled in life? Probably not that bad. The folk of the late middle ages were rather cleaner than their immediate descendants. They didn’t for one thing have the fear of washing and bathing which came on rather later due to cranky medical theories, sewage-polluted rivers and water-borne diseases. Medieval people liked hot baths, often taken communally. The habit had been brought back by the Crusaders, along with such expensive and desirable niceties such as soap, attar of roses, incense, spices, damask and silks. Jolly pictures of naked ladies in the bath show them still wearing their hennins, veils and cauls, the bare head still being regarded as the most erotic and private part of the anatomy. MIMI_MMW_10A11_069V_MIN_1-650x482 So Richard would have had his baths; washed his hair occasionally; dried and mopped himself with linen towels. All very necessary after being half boiled in a suit of armour all day whether in battle or for arms practice. Skin might be rubbed with bunches of herbs or with grains of musk; it was also rinsed, massaged and toned with primitive blends of what we should think of as eau de cologne – concoctions such as the 14th century Queen of Hungary Water, the European best-seller (to be taken internally, too) of rosemary, marjoram and pennyroyal. It was Richard’s clothes that caused problems: the damp of those stone castles must have permeated everything, despite being laid up in cedar chests and layered with dried rose petals and lavender. None of the garments apart from the shirts were washable; and underwear as such was unknown. The furs so essential for warmth were not all properly cured and the tanning processes of leather relied heavily on the use of human excrement. The most popular method to deter moth was the hanging of one’s clothes on poles above the open pit of the latrine. So you can see for yourselves that a certain whiffiness would have been only exacerbated by the attempted camouflage of civet, musk and ambergris. Picture the scene! The Tower, the sleeping Princes, the reeking bottled spider scuttling up the winding stair..but all that is another story…

Smells of the Old Midlands

When I was an infant in the 1950’s my grandmother regaled me with endless stories of her own childhood back in the ’90’s. So eager was I for these tales and so deeply I drank from the well of reminiscences that the sights and smells of late Victorian Leicester seem still just within my reach. What is lost, though, is the atmosphere of the 1840’s when my great grandparents were born. They seem to have sealed up their childhoods from their own young so I have no conception of working class Nottingham at the time of the Crimean War and the Great Exhibition.
My great grandfather’s elder brother Jack is supposed to have been stupefied with brandy before having a leg amputated at Scutari. He would then have been only in his early teens. His sisters (as well as his mother, Sophia) were all in the lace industry from a very young age, whether at home or in the factories: the census lists them as tighteners, straiteners and carders. Lace girls were said to be proud of their hands (whitened sometimes with arsenic washes) and came in for much stick from the moralists for blowing their earnings on cheap perfumed hair pomades, ribbons and skin lotions. Maybe we can still catch a whiff of crudely scented bear grease, perspiration and sebum from the little terraced house in St Mary’s. No doubt Sophia brewed up herbal tisanes to be offered with six penn’orth of laudanum to alleviate the pains in her son Jack’s stump when it throbbed in the damps from the Trent. Her husband was a cobbler from a long line of boot repairers so a reek of leather and twine hung in the air, mixed with the metallic tang of nails, oil and bodkin; the steam from the copper, the lines of wet laundry, the endless cooking.
My great grandfather Francis seems to have gone first into the army and then the police before finding his life’s work in public health. He moved to Leicester, married the spirited dressmaker Emma and fathered 11 children. Francis devoted much of his career to the eradication of smallpox epidemics, being all too familiar with the smell of rotting apples that was said to announce the presence of the disease. He reported unfit food & sour or watered milk in local shops, and worked until he died on the job aged 78. For relaxation he fished, and raised auriculas and profusely scented pheasant’s eye narcissi in the back garden .
My grandmother remembered her mother’s horror of monkeys: the arrival of a barrel organ in the road, with a fez’d marmoset aloft, sent Emma shrieking to her bedroom to bury her head in the pillows. There was a monkey next door too, prone to scorching its behind on the kitchen range. From further down the road came the tang of green apples and blood on that famous day when a neighbour severed her finger while making pies. There were favourite mint and dripping sandwiches for supper; and the whiffy gas lighting which turned everyone’s face a spectral greyish green after dark. Even in the early 1930’s my mother remembered the lamp-lighter coming down the streets through the dusk.
I was both tickled and impressed when I reread Beatrix Potter’s miniature novel of Gothic horror – The Tale of Mr Tod (1912) – to recognise my great grandfather’s anti-smallpox tactics in Tod’s policy to eradicate the stench of badger. Potter critics are always saying she got her facts wrong here: that badgers are famously clean creatures. So they may be, but they do have a distinctly piggy smell which has nothing to do with dirt. My father kept one some 50 years ago: she was a dear and used to run up the sitting room curtains, but she exuded a very pungent aroma, that’s for sure. Anyway, here is Mr Tod’s fumigation plan, almost identical to grandfather’s methods at exactly the same date:
‘ I will get soft soap, and monkey soap, and all sorts of soap; and soda and scrubbing brushes; and persian powder; and carbolic to remove the smell. I must have a disinfecting. Perhaps I may have to burn sulphur.’
Before you ask, we don’t stock monkey soap at Les Senteurs. But we can supply the smell of sulphur!