Accidental Braintree

Monday, April 24th 2017

We had meant to go to Basildon today. However, when we bought our train tickets from the ticket machine at our departure station, someone (no names, no pack drill) typed the word ‘BRAINTREE’ instead of ‘BASILDON’. Why, I don’t know. One of those strange little quirks of fate. So, anyway, and albeit by accident, we went to Braintree.

Braintree is in the county of Essex and forms one point of a slender triangle whose other points are occupied by Chelmsford and Colchester. The settlement that was to be Braintree grew up on the banks of the River Brain from which it evidently takes its name. ‘Brain’ and its cognates are common Celtic names for watercourses and mean little more than ‘river’. Even so, the derivation of the name of Braintree remains obscure and is argued over. Several possible etymologies have been proposed but at this late date, none can be proven. A selection will be found in the etymology section of Wikipedia’s Braintree, Essex.

Braintree Station
Braintree Station

Braintree is a railway terminus. Here you literally reach the end of the line and you either stay or go back from whence you came. The  railway reached here in 1848 but this station, Braintree’s second, was built in 1865 and is Grade II listed. To be honest, I did not really take to Braintree and found it rather dull. There follow a few items that attracted my notice as we rambled around the town.

The old Post Office
The old Post Office

Post Offices are buildings I always look out for when visiting an unfamiliar town. In times past, they were always large and rather grand. Nowadays they are being sold off and their business moved to ‘post office shops’, indistinguishable except by their signage from any of the other shops in the street. One cannot argue with economic necessity, of course, but our admiration of these buildings is now perforce tinged with nostalgia.

Mercury's head is above the door
Mercury’s head is above the door

The Post Office was aware of its importance in maintaining communications nationally and with the rest of the world. Its adoption of the figure of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, as its symbol was obvious and appropriate. This post office features the head of Mercury above the door. Designed by architect David Dyke, in the robust red-brick style of the inter-war years, it was built in 1931 and is now a Job Centre.

Braintree Public Library
Braintree Public Library

We paid a visit to the public library which was built in 1997. We find libraries interesting in themselves but while we were there we had a look at the books on Braintree and Essex.

The Embassy Cinema
The Embassy Cinema
Now a pub

This solid-looking building is, or rather was, the Embassy Cinema, which opened in 1935. It succeeded the Picture Palace Cinema of 1912 on the same site. Under several different managements and names, it continued operations until 1993. Subsequently, it was bought by Wetherspoons, a company well known for its love of converting interesting buildings, and opened as a pub called The Picture Palace, in which role it has continued up to the present.

Braintree Town Hall
Braintree Town Hall

This is Braintree’s Town Hall. The tower contains bells that can still be rung though I don’t know whether they ever are. Now Grade II* listed, It was designed by Vincent Harris and opened in 1928. A large donation towards the cost was made by William J. Courtauld. The Courtauld family had opened a silk mill here in the 19th century and continued thereafter to have a strong influence on the town.

Market Place Drinking Fountain
Market Place Drinking Fountain

In the Victorian era and even later, donating drinking fountains was a popular way for people to show their philanthropy or to gain public notice. How useful and important such installations were I am unsure. Certainly, obtaining clean water for drinking and cooking was not always easy before the modern era. Drinking fountains were also provided by temperance groups to give thirsty folk an alternative to the pub. A moulded inscription tells us that this fountain was ‘Presented to the town of BRAINTREE by G. COURTAULD MP. 1882’. Older photographs show a different lamp, for example here. The present lamp was originally surmounted by the figure of a flying owl but that has disappeared.

The Boar's Head
The Boar’s Head

Braintree, like any old established town, has plenty of pubs, though some have by now been ‘repurposed’ owing to the decline in the pub trade. This is the Boar’s Head which was probably first built in the 15th century to an H-shaped plan with a central hall. I don’t know how much of the original structure remains as we did not go in.

The White Hart
The White Hart

The timber-framed White Hart at Bocking End is said to be even older, dating from the 14th century with a new wing added in the 18th. In the 19th century it became a coaching inn, servicing coaches travelling to and from Norwich and other towns.

The Victorian Water Tower
The Victorian Water Tower

This is a Victorian (1857) water tower at Swan Side. No longer required for its original purpose it will probably be converted for residential use.

Church of St Michael
Church of St Michael

To be honest, I saw St Michael’s and dismissed it as yet another Victorian parish church. We did not go inside or even go very close to it. However, it turns out that it has a much longer history than one might suppose from a quick glance at the exterior. Historic England accords it a prestigious Grade II* listing and tells us in its listing that the church was first built in the 12th to 13th centuries, enlarged in the 15th to 16th and then underwent three episodes of restoration in the Victorian era.

Our attention had been distracted from the church by the curious structure in front of it. I gawped at it in amazement.

Fountain
Fountain

At present the fountain is dry but I understand that there are plans to restore the flow at great expense. An inscription informs us that the fountain, designed and created by John Hodge c.1938, was ‘THE GIFT OF WILLIAM JULIAN COURTAULD ESQ.JP. OF PENYPOT HALSTEAD TO THE TOWN OF BRAINTREE IN MEMORY OF KING GEORGE V’.

Boy with dolphins
Boy with dolphins

The main figure is a boy holding two rather small dolphins. At his feet is an otter standing on its hind legs and there are four other otters around the bowl, all similarly standing. Apparently, when the fountain is working, they spout water. According to Historic England, which gives it a Grade II listing, ‘This fountain exhibits a good deal of playfulness’ and at least one local newspaper applies to it the adjective ‘iconic’. No to both: this fountain is simply grotesque. For the reputation of the town it should be made to quietly disappear.

We retired to a cafe for tea and then made our way to the station. On such a short visit, we possibly missed a lot of what Braintree has to offer but from what I did see, I am in no mind to return to find out.

Town sign Town sign
Town sign

The town sign bears Braintree’s coat of arms. An explanation of its symbolism will be found here.

________

1Essex (The Buildings of Egland) by Nikolaus Pevsner, Third Revised Edition, 1999, ISBN 0140710116.

Copyright 2017 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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Nunhead Cemetery

Sunday, April 23rd 2017

By the time that Queen Victoria came to the throne and consequent upon the continuing expansion of London’s population, burial grounds attached to churches had become full, in some cases with unpleasant results. Between 1832 and 1841, seven new burial grounds, sited around the outskirts of London, were commissioned by the government. Later known informally as the ‘Magnificent Seven’, they were privately owned. One such was the All Saints Cemetery that opened in 1840 in Nunhead, then a small hamlet surrounded by farmland. Lying within what is now the Borough of Southwark, the cemetery is sited upon a hill, providing fine views over the City and as far as the North Downs.

All Saints was run by the London Cemetery Company, owners also of Highgate Cemetery. Faced with financial difficulties, the company gave notice in 1969 that it would close the cemetery. As a result of campaigning by local residents, the Borough of Southwark took over ownership in 1975.

The aspect of the cemetery today is that it has been neglected with minimal upkeep being maintained. Tombstone and memorials have fallen or crumbled and the trees and bushes, some of them exotic, have spread freely. on the positive side, however, the cemetery now plays the role of an important urban nature reserve and a park for human visitors.

The i am you tree
The i am you tree
Totem Pole sculpture by Morganico, 2014

We left the bus on the edge of Peckham Rye Common and walked from there. Here we found an imposing sculpture, carved from an old tree, by artist Morganico. The artist’s Website dates it to 2015 but the correct dates appears to be 2014 – see here.

The Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh Castle

Coming upon this pub, we thought of stopping for a rest and refreshment. It turned out to an expensive stop. We had our drinks and then prepared to leave. I went to pick up my shoulder bag that always accompanies me on outings. It wasn’t where I thought I had left it. We looked all around but could not find it.

What do you think if a bag that you think you had with you is no longer there? If you are me, you wonder whether it is your memory playing tricks. My memory often lets me down and I could not be certain that I had brought my bag with me though, equally, I could not imagine leaving home without it. Tigger too was sure that I had brought it. Should I have made a fuss, reported the loss to the police? Because of my uncertainty, I did neither. I hoped that I had left the bag at home but that hope of course turned out to be false. Someone had stolen my bag while we were in the pub.

I think I know how it was done – it was a theft by distraction – and the identity one of those involved, but as I cannot prove this, I must not name suspects.

Happily, the loss was not great in financial terms – a backup battery for my iPhone, a cheap pair of binoculars and a few other odds and ends – but it is annoying nonetheless and I wish an evil fate on the perpetrators.

All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead
All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead

We at last reached the gates of the cemetery. They are decorated with these rather odd iron symbols which appear to represent flaming torches held upside down. Here is a close-up view of one of them:

Reversed torch
Reversed torch

Nunhead Cemetery, as it is generally called, was designed by James_Bunstone_Bunning (1802-63) and is Grade II* listed.

View from inside the gate
View from inside the gate

Stepping through the gates, one has this view with the surviving chapel in the background. We turned along the path going off to the right.

The West Lodge
The West Lodge

Nunhead Cemetery has two lodges, known as the East Lodge and the West Lodge, respectively, designed by James Bunning and built around 1844. Both are Grade II listed. The photo pictures the West Lodge which consists of a single storey with a basement. In their day, the lodges would presumably have accommodated cemetery staff, obviously no longer the case. The West Lodge was converted and rented to council tenants but subsequently passed into private ownership under the government’s right-to-buy legislation. I don’t know the present status of the East Lodge which was until recently in a dilapidated condition and in need of restoration (see here).

The Scottish Martyrs Memorial
The Scottish Martyrs Memorial

Nearby, two paths converge and at their intersection stands a column. It is the Scottish Martyrs Memorial and bears the date MDCCCXLI (1841). The ‘Scottish Martyrs’ (not all were Scottish) were a group of men campaigning for the voting rights that we today take for granted. They were charged with sedition, brought to trial and transported to Australia. An information board provides a good outline history of the event and you can read it here. The memorial was funded by public subscription and is Grade II listed. (And, yes, it is slightly off the vertical – that’s not my poor camera work!)

Below are a few more views of the cemetery. It should be borne in mind that what looks untidy and overgrown to us looks like a haven to wildlife. It is right that a careful balance be struck between an historic site that can be comfortably visited by the public and a semi-wilderness where wildlife can find refuge and a living-space.

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Though many of the graves are in a ruinous condition, some show that their occupants are still remembered.

Nunhead Cemetery Chapel
Nunhead Cemetery Chapel

Situated at the top of a broad path and visible from the entrance, is the Grade II listed Nunhead Cemetery Chapel. It stands to one side of the path because originally there were two chapels. Though the cemetery was built mainly for burials under the aegis of the Church of England, a small section of it was dedicated to Non-Conformists. Two chapels were built, one for Anglicans and one for Non-Conformists, both designed by Thomas Little in Gothic style.

The Anglican Chapel
The Anglican Chapel

Unfortunately, the Non-Conformist Chapel was destroyed during WWII bombing and nothing of it remains.

Chapel interior
Chapel interior with artworks on display

Neither did the Anglican Chapel escape unscathed, however, for it fell victim to an arson attack in the 1970s which destroyed the interior and the roof. The building has been stabilized but remains a shell.

Looking from the Chapel towards the entrance
Looking from the Chapel towards the entrance

Whether or not you like cemeteries, a visit to an historic one like Nunhead is always interesting and on a bright day like today provides a pleasant park-like space in which to stroll. Tomb hunters will find many names of historic importance here and a huge array of tomb designs, from the minimalist to the flamboyant, to mull over. The Website and blog of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery can be consulted for more information and news.

Copyright 2017 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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Boston

Saturday, April 22nd 2017

Boston lies in the county of Lincolnshire and is the main town of the Borough of Boston. It sits beside England’s biggest sea inlet and estuary, called the Wash. For a brief history of Boston see here. As the map below shows, Boston is almost due north from London. When the railway first came to the town in 1848, the line from London was the main route to the north and Boston was an important station. Those days have passed, however, and going to Boston from London today requires at least one change of train.

Boston on the map
Boston on the map
(Click for Google Map)

Today, we had to break our journey at Sleaford and take a shuttle train from there to Boston. While on the station at Sleaford we noticed that a family had taken up residence there.

Dad arrives with food...
Dad arrives with food…
And goes off for more...
And goes off for more…


A couple of pigeons had built a nest on top of a cabinet holding a cctv camera. We couldn’t see the eggs but there must have been some because the female was sitting still and quiet in the nest while the male flew in and out bringing her food.

This provides people with a rare opportunity to see a side of pigeon life that is usually kept away from public view. I am sorry that I shall miss the rest of the story – the appearance of the fledglings, their first attempts to fly and so on.

Boston Railway Station
Boston Railway Station

We at last reached Boston’s Victorian railway station and admired the entrance arcade which has been restored to its original 1850 appearance. A new booking hall was added in 1911 but the former entrance was restored in 1992-3.

We then set out to explore Boston. What we found was a town full of fine buildings of historic and aesthetic interest. There was so much, in fact, that I can only provide a few samples in this post. If you know and admire Boston, you will no doubt miss some of your favourite buildings but difficult choices had to be made about what to include and what to leave out.

Swan House

Swan House
Swan House

Near the station stands the first of our discoveries, a handsome building with a swan on top, called Swan House. Originally an industrial building now converted for residential use, Swan house was was a factory making bedding with the goose feathers for which Boston was famous. In was built in 1877 to replace a previous factory that was destroyed by fire and only later became known as Swan House. The present swan atop to the building is a glass fibre replacement for the original. Why a swan, I wonder, when the trade carried out within was the manufacture of bedding made with goose feathers? Perhaps the owners thought that ‘Swan House’ sounded more elegant than ‘Goose House’.

I might add here that thanks are owing to Boston Borough Council, Heritage Lincolnshire and The Boston Preservation Trust for the plaques and information boards installed throughout the town to help us understand and enjoy the buildings we are seeing and visiting.

Municipal Buildings
Municipal Buildings

This beautiful building with its unusual ceramic finish was opened in 1904 (architect James Rowell) as the town’s Municipal Buildings. Here were to be found not only the Council Offices and the Mayor’s Parlour but also the Fire Station, the Police Station and Police Court (complete with cells and exercise yard), the School of Art and the Public Library, the latter a beneficiary of a financial contribution from Andrew Carnegie.

Shodfriars Hall
Shodfriars Hall

I will admit that on my first sight of this building I was sceptical as to whether it was what it appeared to be. For one thing, it is very large and the subsidence and warping that you expect to see in genuine Tudor buildings weren’t evident. I thought it might be a ‘Tudorbethan’ construction of the 1930s when such were common. However, a plaque on the side tells us that the original 15th century building was subjected to remodelling and restoration by John Oldrid Scott (son of the rather more famous George Gilbert) in the 1870s. Historic England nonetheless accords it a Grade II* listing and, in a separate report (NB PDF file), goes into its complex history in more detail.

Town Bridge
Town Bridge

The town of Boston sits on the River Witham. Depending on your point of view, the Witham either becomes, or drains into, the River Haven, which itself empties into the Wash beside the outfall of the River Welland. Boston grew up in the neighbourhood of a ford across the Witham but that wet crossing was iater improved by a series of bridges. One such was built by John Rennie in 1806-7. According to Historic England, this bridge was ‘largely rebuilt 1913 by John Webster’, although they state that ‘The site of the bridge was moved slightly southwards from the site of the C18 and earlier bridges’. Other sources have it that the 1913 bridge replaced the old one which was demolished. I am unable to arbitrate between those two views.

The Custom House
The Custom House

Following the east bank of the river southwards, we came to Custom House Quay (previously called Packhouse Quay) which served as the town’s port until Boston Dock was opened in 1882. It would have been a busy and thriving port with goods arriving from, and sailing to, ports all around the world. The port’s custom house was built in 1725 to replace an earlier one. It is Grade II listed.

Fydell House
Fydell House

Nearby stands the striking Fydell House, built 1726 for the Fydell family. Various notables lived in the house over the generations, until 1934 when it was faced with demolition. Opposition to this led to the formation of the Boston Preservation Trust who were able to buy the house and preserve it for posterity. It has been awarded a Grade I listing.

Boston Guildhall and Guildhall Museum
Boston Guildhall and Guildhall Museum

Next door to Fydell House is this ancient building that was originally the Boston Guildhall, home of the religious Guild of St Mary. It was built in the 1390s and merits a Grade I listing. Today it is a museum. A notable feature is the large kitchen – members of the Guild of St Mary clearly liked to dine well. To sum up the building’s long history, I can do no better than to quote the information board:

Boston Guildhall was built in the 1390s for the Guild of St Mary whose members comprised some of Boston’s wealthiest and most influential merchants. Upon the dissolution of the religious guilds by Henry VIII, the Guildhall subsequently became the first Town Hall; also serving as a court and gaol, as well as other occasional uses including warehousing. The Pilgrim Fathers were tried and held in the Guildhall in 1607 for trying to leave the country without the consent of the crown, before ultimately reaching Leiden in Holland and then sailing on the Mayflower to the New World in 1620. The courtroom and cells are still to be seen in the Guildhall…

Boston Coat of Arms
Boston Coat of Arms

On the gate of the Guildhall is displayed this colourful plaque showing Boston’s coat of arms. This in fact is the coat of arms granted to the town in 1568. It was replaced by a slightly modified version in 1974. In the centre, upon a black shield are three coronets, representing the three large landowners of Boston in 1568, the Duke of Richmond, the Duke of Suffolk and the Duke of Brittany. Above the shield at the top is a wool pack with a ram on it, symbolizing Boston’s historic importance in the wool trade. The motto PER MARE ET PER TERRAM means ‘By sea and by land’ and what more fitting symbol for this concept than two mermaids? Some think, however, that there is more to this than meets the eye and that the mermaids in fact represent Anne Boleyn and Princess Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, who had connections with the town.

Late 15th Century Muniments Chest
Late 15th Century Muniments Chest

To visit the museum thoroughly and learn all it has to tell you would take many hours but ours had to be a short visit. There was a lot of information on display and interesting artifacts such as the muniments chest shown above. We also peeped into the cells where the Separatists, later known as the Pilgrim Fathers, were held pending their trial.

A view of the Guildhall Kitchen
A view of the Guildhall Kitchen

The kitchen is palatial and has a number of ovens and fireplaces with spikes for roasting meat. A looping sound track suggests the presence of an irascible chef and his sous-chef assistants as they prepare a dinner for the Guild members.

Court Room
Court Room

This ground floor room was perhaps originally the council chamber for the Guildhall but later it became a court room. It lacks the usual fixtures of a courtroom and it is thought that when the court was to be in session, furniture had to be brought in and set out appropriately. A looping video recounts typical cases that would have been heard here and the punishments likely to have been meted out. Perhaps the most controversial from our modern point of view was the case of the wife, condemned for scolding her husband and being forced to wear a scold’s bridle, a cage-like accoutrement fitting over the woman’s head and incorporating a plate that projected into her mouth and held her tongue down flat and spikes to discourage movement. The punishment was as much the public humiliation and mockery as the physical discomfort.

Spiral staircase
Spiral staircase

In the middle of the floor was the top of a steep spiral staircase leading to a lower level to which visitors did not have access. What was its purpose? I have no idea. I thought at first that it might be for bringing prisoners into the court but then I remembered that the cells were on a level with the court. Unsolved mystery!

Quaker Meeting House
Quaker Meeting House

After viewing the museum, we continued our rambles and visited the Unitarian Church whose schoolroom is used by the A. J. Dance School and by Boston’s Quakers as their meeting house.

Part of the Dominican Friary
Part of the Dominican Friary

Our attention was attracted by this obviously ancient building. A plaque tells us that it once contained the refectory of the Dominican Friary. Parts of it date from the 14th century but it was rebuilt in 1309. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the building went into decline and was finally rescued by the Boston Preservation Trust and turned into a theatre and arts centre. We went in and had a cup of tea!

Exchange Building
Exchange Building

This large and imposing building dates from the late 18th century when the then Boston Corporation sought to improve the aspect of the west side of Market Place. Thomas Lumby designed the building which was to contain dwellings in the upper level and a fish market on the ground floor to replace the market fish stalls lost to the development. Later, the fish market was discontinued and the space it occupied converted into municipal offices. These changes occurred in the mid-19th century when the name Exchange Building started to be used. These days, the ground floor consists of retail units and the upper floors accommodate offices. The building has a Grade II* listing.

Boston Market
Boston Market

We paid a quick visit to Boston Market which operates every Wednesday and Saturday in the appropriately named Market Place. The market has been in existence from at least the time of Henry VIII.

Boston Central Post Office
Boston Central Post Office
Now closed pending conversion for new use

In Wide Bargate, on its corner with Park Gate, we found the Central Post Office. This building, we thought, was obviously Edwardian, its style being so much like many others of that period. Just to make sure, we looked for a date, as post offices of the period usually include a plaque with the date under the royal cipher. We could find no date, though we did notice on an adjoining wall (not the post office itself) in Park Gate a small plaque bearing the number 1935. Here was a little mystery. So…

Boston Library
Boston Library

We betook ourselves to Boston’s public library and ransacked the local history section. Books that we might have expected to help us, such as Pevsner, didn’t even mention the post office, while those that did all gave the spurious date of 1935. Sure of obtaining correct data from what I thought of as an impeccably reliable source, I went online with my iPhone and sought Historic England’s list entry for the post office. Imagine my incredulity to find that this bastion of expertise and accuracy also quoted the 1935 date! (I have to say that this has severely shaken my confidence in Historic England whose records I now treat with caution.)

Despite this setback I was determined to get to the truth and so I continued searching online. My luck was in because I discovered an excellent site with the name British Post Office Buildings and Their Architects : an Illustrated Guide. Did this site have an entry on Boston’s Central Post office and did it give a date? Yes, to both, and you can read that carefully researched page here. It proved, by citing irrefutable evidence, that the true date of completion of the post office was 1907, right in the Edwardian period as we had supposed. I have retained the URL of that site and emailed my appreciation to its author!

These fine old post offices are closing all over the country. We cannot argue with economic necessity, of course, but it is sad to see them put at risk or being ‘developed’ for some unsuitable alternative use. This post office is also closed and awaiting its fate. Historic England has at least given it a Grade II listing so let us hope this provides a measure of protection for this fine old building.

Centenary Methodist Church
Centenary Methodist Church

This remarkable structure is the Centenary Methodist Church, built in 1839 by Stephen Lewin and still in use. It has received a Grade II* listing despite being partially destroyed by fire in 1909 and having to be rebuilt. We did not visit the interior and I will say no more about its history. You can find more about this in the Historic England listing or, more succinctly on the site of Heritage Gateway.

St Botolph's Church
St Botolph’s Church

As you move around Boston, you continually notice a tower in the background of most views. The tower is tall and fairly slender and it is therefore puzzling when you learn that it is affectionately know as ‘the Stump’. The tower belongs to the Church of St Botolph, the saint, so it is thought, who gave his name to the town. ‘St Botolph’s Town’, it is alleged, became eroded to give ‘Boston’. St Botolph’s is one of the largest parish churches in England and possesses one of the tallest medieval towers with an approximate height of 272 feet or 83m.

There were churches on the site from very early times but construction of the present one started in 1309. The tower was not begun until 1450 and work on it continued until the first couple of decades of the 16th century. Why it is called ‘the Stump’ is uncertain and although there are various theories about this, none has been proven correct.

We went inside for a look.

Interior view, St Botolph's
Interior view, St Botolph’s

The font
The font

The pulpit
The pulpit

As the view from outside the church correctly suggests, the inside is also very large and it would take a long time to catalogue all of the church’s features and treasures. The above samples will suffice for now.

Boston had kept us busy and the evening was approaching. So was the time of our train. We found a friendly little pub where we could relax for a while over tea and then we started back to the station.

The Stump from St Botolph's Bridge
The Stump from St Botolph’s Bridge

I took my last photo of the ubiquitous Stump from St Botolph’s Bridge. This is a pedestrian bridge across the Witham that was installed in February 2014, replacing an earlier bridge.

Boston left us with the feeling that we had seen a lot but by no means all of it. Much remains still to be seen and enjoyed. Perhaps we will return another time and capture some more of the intriguing town of Boston.

Copyright 2017 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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