Saturday, December 7th 2013
The weather was very dull and cold today and it didn’t seem worth going too far afield. This left me in a quandary but not so Tigger, who knew just where she wanted to go. To Upminster! And why not?
Upminster can be reached from Central London by tube train. It is in the east of Greater London, at the very end of the District Line (coloured dark green on tube maps). To a denizen of the inner reaches of the sea that is London, such far-flung creeks seem almost not part of London at all and Upminster certainly has a character all its own.
The fact that the first syllable of its name is shared with such terms as “up-market” and “upwardly mobile”, today seems strangely appropriate though the name has ancient origins, so ancient, in fact, that no one is sure where it comes from. It has been pointed out that “minster” doesn’t necessarily indicate a cathedral and sometimes just means a church and to the Anglo-Saxons, that is what it no doubt was. But what about the “up”? The best idea anyone can come up with is that the land around Upminster has always been flat, leading to the suggestion that the parish church, built upon a rise in the ground, might have been called “Up” to distinguish it from other churches lower down. It’s a possibility, I suppose. (Update October 12th 2014: see the comment by Tony Fox below.)
What follows is not an attempt to describe Upminster in all its glory – because we were far from seeing it all – but a few almost random views, collected as we walked around on a dull winter day. Don’t chide me for missing the best bits because I know we did, even if people do not necessarily agree on what are the best bits…
We arrived, as I said, by tube train. Sitting watching the countryside roll by, the journey to Upminster reminds the Inner-Londoner of at least two things. Firstly, the tube is a “proper” railway system, that is, it covers a huge area and some of its journeys are quite long, in time as well as in distance. Secondly, it’s easy to think that the tube just runs underground in the city but it in fact runs for many miles out in the open air like any railway and the views you see through the window are not only of shops, factories, warehouse and streets but sometimes include fields, hedgerows, cows and sheep. An optimistic assessment (i.e. that given by TfL’s journey planner) of the time it takes to get from Angel to Upminster is 45 minutes, but human beings would be wise to allow an hour.
The tube network is famous for its pretty and well designed stations, especially in the outer areas. Upminster’s station therefore comes as a disappointment. I have seen better looking garden sheds. It is perhaps relevant that the tube shares this unprepossessing box with the C2C railway, a train service that, as the name suggests, carries people to the coast, though that’s not really much of an excuse.
From Central London, tube and railway trains run alone side by side, albeit on separate tracks, but from Upminster, the railway train goes on alone.
Upminster has a long history, going back to the Middle Ages and in fact far beyond that, if you consider the area rather than just the town itself. For example, traces of Bronze Age settlements have been found and the Romans were here, of course. We saw buildings of various ages, from brash new builds to elegant old-timers. Some wore traces of their personal history, like this shop, today a wine emporium, but whose façade bears lettering (“TAYLOR WALKER & Co Ltd”) showing that it was once a pub.
Old buildings are not the only survivors. I managed to snap this old bus as it passed by on its way to Upminster station from the Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres. A member of the RLH series, this bus (RLH 61) seems to be quite well known, having been rescued and restored and pressed into service by a company called Ensign.
Upminster is big enough to have a typical selection of churches. At least two of them, St Joseph’s Catholic Church and the United Reformed Chruch, were holding bazaars. The URC also had a creche on the front lawn. The style of it made me suggest that the artist had his work cut out though it fell a little flat for me. The main question, though, was why the angel and sundry humans were worshipping an empty cradle. Is there some deep symbolic significance in this or did someone snatch the baby?
Further along, we come to Upminster’s parish church, dedicated to St Laurence. This saint (whose name is impartially spelt Laurence or Lawrence) was known for his great courage and his bad taste in jokes. (See here, for example.) Is St Laurence’s the “up” church or minster from which the town derives its name? This is quite possible because, although it has been modified and rebuilt many times, the tower contains masonry from possibly the 13th century, so this may well be the original church, compared with which all the others were “down”. As far as I could see, St Laurence’s was not holding a bazaar.
Upminster’s war memorial is slightly unusual in that it displays a Celtic cross rather than the more typical bronze statue of Victory tossing a laurel wreath. It was originally made to commemorate the dead of the First World War and was erected in 1921. Sadly, it had to be adapted later to include the dead of the Second World War. This adaptation seems to have occurred in two stages: first, the plinth had engraved on it the words “SACRED ALSO TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1939 – 1945 AND SUBSEQUENTLY” (note the use of the epithet “Great War” which is usually now applied to the 1914-18 conflict) and then side panels were added, listing the names of the WWII dead.
I of course took a professional interest in the public library. The present library was built in 1963 and is rather plain outside. Inside, however, it is light and pleasant and provides everything you need for a library. The staff were friendly and helpful and agreed to us taking photos of the mural.
My photo does not do justice to the fine mural. This was painted by Terry Fyffe, an artist from Australia, now living in Britain and acquainted with Upminster. The mural, completed in 2005, shows a timeline for Upminster, running from St Cedd on the left to a modern figure on the right. St Cedd was sent in AD 653 as a missionary and founded a church here. The modern figure represents Ian Dury (1942-2000), singer and band leader, who always claimed to have been born in Upminster when in fact his birthplace was Harrow.
The background shows an idealized view of the local countryside and certain famous buildings that include Waltham Abbey, the Tithe Barn, Upminster Hall and the Windmill. The group of people shown in the above detail comprises (from left to right) Andrew Branfill (1641-1709), whose family owned Upminster Hall from the 17th century to 1920; William Derham (1657-1735), sometime vicar of St Laurence, who famously conducted scientific observations from the church tower to determine the speed of sound (for example, see here); and General James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785) who, among other things, founded the Colony, later State, of Georgia. The horse’s and dog’s names are not recorded.
Upminster has plenty of shops, of course, covering everything from daily necessities to life’s little luxuries. Highly visible in Station Road (one of Upminster’s main streets) are Roomes Stores. I say “are” because there are apparently two businesses operating under the same name but independent of one another, one specializing in “Furniture and Interiors” and the other in “Fashion and Home”. I expect it all becomes clear once you visit their respective premises.
Size isn’t everything and this smaller business, a fishmonger’s (with a matching fish and chip shop opposite), offered a welcome splash of colour on a dull grey day in the form of the jolly-faced fisherman in his yellow oilskins.
Some towns have town signs and some don’t. Upminster does and a very nice piece of work it is. Finely modelled and painted, it shows Upminster Windmill, the Tithe Barn and St Laurence’s Church. (We did not manage to visit the Windmill or the Tithe Barn (aka “Museum of Nostalgia”) this time around, so they are pleasures held in reserve for another day.) The sign itself was made by Harry Stebbing Workshop and Joe Pattison of FJP Designs, working in collaboration. Joe Pattison designed, cast and painted the sign itself. As the illustrations of the FJP Designs site show, this collaboration has produced some beautiful work.
Before heading home, we took a bus down the hill to Hornchurch. We got off the bus at the Church of St Andrew, which sports a bull’s head on the roof.
Hornchurch grew up around the priory of St Nicholas and St Bernard, sited on a rise of land granted to the monks by Henry II. Its associated church probably stood where the Church of St Andrew stands today. The name of Hornchurch somehow arose from this, though no one quite knows how. The name seems quite early, and there is a reference to it in its Latin form in the Close Rolls in 1222, where there is mention of the Monasterium Cornutium. I don’t think it is known, either, when horns first decorated the church or were incorporated in a bull’s head. The horns, first thought to be lead, were found to be copper. The horns were stolen in 1999 and not recovered. The present set was installed in 2001. It has been suggested that the bull’s head may have something to do with the fact that by the 13th century, the town was known for producing leather and leather goods. The true origin, though, is lost in the mists of time.
Among the graves and tombs in the churchyard was this, presumably a family mausoleum, but it is so overgrown that even the building itself could not be seen, let alone the names and dates of the incumbents.
Exploring around the church, we received a slight shock to see someone apparently staring at us from a window, and a police officer at that. However, it turned out that this was a mere paper tiger or police officer, perhaps placed as a warning to vandals. Either way, an arresting sight…
The light was failing and there was a bus stop temptingly near, so we considered it was time to bring our trip to an end and turn for home. As I said at the beginning, on this visit we merely scratched the surface of Upminster and Hornchurch but, on the plus side, that leaves new discoveries to be made on another day.