Thursday, September 11th 2014
Stoke Newington, in the borough of Hackney, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons who built it on a ridge beside Ermine Street, the Roman road leading from London to Leeds. The first mention of this place dates to Norman times, 1086, when its name appears as ‘Neutone’. According to scholars, this name means something like “new town in the wood”. I am not sure when “Stoke” was added to the name or why but it is a frequent element in names of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Spin the clock forwards to the late 18th century and we find a Quaker city merchant, philanthropist, anti-slavery campaigner and general good egg, called Jonathan Hoare, building a house here on a pleasant parcel of land. The house was built on a rise and through the property ran a section of Sir Hugh Myddelton’s New River, adding amenity to the site. Jonathan Hoare was obviously happy with his acquisition as he called it Paradise House.
The position of the house on a slope means that while it has two storeys in the front, it has three storeys at the back. Perhaps this trick allowed the addition of a servants’ wing that was not visible from the front where the gentry would arrive.
In the 19th century, the estate passed into the possession of Augustus Clissold, hence its modern name. Augustus shuffled off his mortal coil in 1882 and then, as now, developers began circling like vultures. Then appeared our two heroes, members of the Metropolitan Board of Works, called John Runtz and Joseph Beck. They persuaded the authorities to maintain the estate as a public amenity and, as a result of their efforts, Clissold Park opened in 1890.
Attached to the wall of the house is a Victorian drinking fountain. It was erected in 1893 by Rose Mary Crawshay in memory of her three sisters who apparently all died in 1834 aged 1, 3 and 4 years, respectively. The fact that they all died together and that a drinking fountain (a source of clean water) was chosen as their memorial suggests that they all perished in the typhoid epidemic of 1834. Rose Mary (1828-1907), who would have been 6 years old when her sisters died, went on to marry a rich industrialist, Robert Thompson Crawshay, in 1846. This enabled her to perform works of charity and to establish the Byron, Shelley, Keats in Memoriam Prize Fund, a unique award for female literary scholars. Who or what is the figure whose face surrounds the spout? He looks like a clown or jester but the hanging globes, reminiscent of fruits, suggest he may be the Green Man or some other symbol of spring and rebirth.
Pictures of the park and Clissold House tend to include the spire of St Mary’s Church which stands nearby. This, in fact, is St Mary’s New Church, built in the 1850s as a replacement for the 16th-century Old Church which was by now too small in view of Stoke Newington’s increasing population. The Old Church, however, still remains and is used for various activities. Both churches are Grade II* listed.
As mentioned above, the New River runs through the park though all that is now visible is an L-shaped section. Once a vital part of London’s water supply, Hugh Myddelton’s brainchild is largely covered over but parts of it remain visible, as here, to provide a welcome decorative element in the environment. If people appreciate it, so do water fowl. We spotted coots, ducks and the now inevitable Canada Geese (Branta Canadensis). These rather handsome birds have settled here and given up the migratory life for a mess of potage. Well, not potage as such, but the good grazing and the handouts of human food so readily available in public parks and gardens.
Regarded as a pest by some, because of the mess and the noise they make (the unmistakeable honking of an excited flock of Canada Geese is hard to miss), these birds possess a quiet dignity, whether floating on the water or waddling across the grass. As you approach, they stand and eye you speculatively. Well, you might just have a biscuit or a sandwich to share…
The park has a small menagerie and the above goat, one of a pair, is an inmate. There is also an aviary containing a selection of exotic birds. Though I don’t approve of keeping birds in cages, I have to admit that they are entertaining to watch. The birds are protected by layers of stout netting and, while this is a sensible precaution, it makes photography next to impossible.
The menagerie has a small herd of fallow deer. They live in a large enclosure with plenty of cover and we had begun to doubt whether there were in fact any deer. But suddenly, there they were, comfortably ensconced in a grassy clearing. We immediately had 5 pairs of eyes and 5 pairs of ears focussed on us.
Not contained by any cage but flying free, this dragonfly came to rest on a handrail and I managed to snap it before it took fright and flew away.
Near the Robinson Crusoe Gate (Stoke Newington was known for the number of Dissenters among its inhabitants and Daniel Defoe lived here for some time) stands another memorial drinking fountain in the centre of a well kept garden.
The fountain was installed in honour of our two above mentioned heroes who rescued the estate from the developers. An inscription reads as follows:
IN GRATEFUL RECOGNITION
OF THE UNTIRING EFFORTS OF
AS LEADERS OF THE MOVEMENT
BY WHICH THE USE OF THIS PARK
WAS SECURED TO THE PUBLIC FOR EVER
You might reasonably expect that a drinking fountain 124 years old, and one installed less out of necessity than as a memorial, would no longer function. Happily, you would be wrong. The park, the house and the fountain were refurbished this year in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the opening of the park.
Pressing the buttons on the spouts soon revealed that the water was flowing as freely as ever. Even the dog bowls were kept topped up from the upper basins.
A no doubt practical though somewhat quirky principle is at work here. When you run water for drinking, some naturally escapes into the bowl beneath the spout and runs away through a hole. The evacuation hole of each upper bowl is connected to the dog bowl on exactly the opposite side of the fountain. The run-off then enters the dog bowl and tops it up. There must be an interesting criss-crossing of pipes inside the fountain.
I like to think that our two heroes would be both amused and touched that the fountain raised in their honour still functions as a reminder of their noble efforts to keep the park free for public use.