Saturday, May 13th 2017
We have already visited Chelmsford once before (see A look at Chelmsford) but we did not see all of it then nor we will do so today. In his book Essex, Nikolaus Pevsner writes ‘A walk through the town does not afford much excitement. But it is pleasant, because the centre has remained singularly unaffected by the coarser and louder forms of commercialization. The main streets are architecturally quiet…’1 That was forty-odd years ago but Chelmsford does not seem to have changed hugely in the interim.
In case you want to locate it with reference to London, here is a map (click for the corresponding Google Map):
Chelmsford seems to have originated in about 60 AD when the Romans created a settlement here called Caesaromagus which comprised a market town and a fort. It gained prominence as the half-way point between London and Camulodunum (Colchester). Two rivers run close by, the Can and the Chelmer, and the Romans built bridges over them. During Anglo-Saxon times, the bridges presumably collapsed and the settlement became known as Ceolmaes’ Ford (the initial ‘c’ pronounced as ‘ch’), though whether that is a person’s name, I do not know.
(The similarity between Ceolmaes and the name of the River Chelmer should not be allowed to confuse the issue. It seems that the name Chelmer was applied to the river only from about the late 1500s. In Anglo-Saxon times it was known as Beadewan Ea, i.e River Beadewan.)
We arrived by train and disembarked at Chelmsford Station. The railway reached here in 1843 but the present station was built in 1985, modified in 2016. From the station, we set out, as we usually do, to wander as fancy took us and to see what we might discover.
Near the station stands a building that I would characterize as having a quality of quiet dignity and elegance. That is unsurprising since it was built by Quakers in 1826 as a Friends’ Meeting House. They sold it in 1957 when they moved to a new meeting house. I photographed it on my last visit (see here) when it was looking somewhere sad and neglected. It has now been refurbished as an American-style bar and diner called Grand Central. We went inside and sampled their milkshakes.
There has been quite a vogue for retro 1950s-style ‘American’ diners in the last few years. It reminds me somewhat of a similar vogue a couple of decades ago for dressing up pubs as ‘Western’ bars. The latter seem largely to have disappeared and it remains to be seen how long the American diners will survive before people tire of them and something new pops up to take their place.
Marking a contrast with the American bar is the nearby traditional Victorian pub. Called the Railway Tavern, it stands in rather curious isolation between two roads, causing me to wonder whether there were once buildings either side of it that have been demolished. Built probably in the mid-1800s, it has survived so far is still going strong as far as I can see.
Chelmsford’s War Memorial stands in front of the City Council Offices in Duke Street. It is relatively plain, compared with some of the more flamboyant examples to be seen in other cities, but possesses a quiet dignity. The Portland stone monument, designed by E.J. Miles, who was the Borough Engineer at the time, was erected in 1923 to commemorate the fallen in the Great War, as indicated by the original inscription:
MEN OF CHELMSFORD
WHO FELL IN THE
Sadly, as with so many First World War monuments, it had to be adapted three decades later by adding another inscription:
WHO FELL IN THE
It is now Grade II listed.
A decade or so after the installation of the memorial, the Civic Centre was built behind it. It contains the Council Chamber which is these days available for hire. I liked the sweeping staircase and the clamshell decoration, incorporating the city’s coat of arms, above the door. Chelmsford became a city, as did a number of other towns, in 2012, in celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee.
Should you wish to leave a message when the Civic Centre is closed, you can post a note or letter in the antique posting box that stands near the door. I am intrigued by this as it is of no model that I have been able to find, yet it was obviously designed as a post box. Perhaps it was made abroad but, if so, how did it come to be here?
This memorial statue commemorates the the achievements of Giulielmo Marconi who opened the world’s first radio factory in Chelmsford, giving this city a place in the history of modern communications. Marconi later sent the first transatlantic radio message to America from Cornwall in 1901. The statue shows Marconi, in a somewhat balletic pose, albeit uncomfortably encumbered by the wire wound around his legs, holding a telephone handset or a microphone. From his left hand, dramatically flung outwards, emanates a lightning flash. He stands upon a small model of the terrestrial globe, criss-crossed with cables.
Although Chelmsford did not become a city until 2012, as noted, it had acquired a cathedral in 1914. In this year, the Diocese of Chelmsford was created and the Church of St Mary the Virgin was promoted to cathedral status. Later its saintly patronage was extended to include St Peter and St Cedd, giving it the rather lengthy name of Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Peter and St Cedd. The present church dates from rebuilding in the 15th, 18th and 19th centuries. It is Grade I listed.
The sculpture above the chancel arch is ‘Christ in Glory’ and is by Peter Eugene Ball.
The ceiling above the nave is very colourful and rather impressive.
The ceiling above the chancel, though less brightly coloured and differently styled, is no less impressive.
The cathedral possesses a good selection of stained glass windows.
Removal of the old organ had revealed a chancel window that had been blocked off. It was decided to fill the space with a painting on a suitable topic and Mark Cazalet was commissioned to create a work entitled The Tree of Life.
The Cathedral is the proud owner of not one but two organs. They are called respectively the Nave Organ and the Chancel Organ, after their positions, and roles within the church. The more colourful of the two is the Chancel Organ whose brightly painted pipes are shown above.
It is unsurprising in a church to find a sculpture representing a mother holding a child. Usually, it is the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child as a baby or a toddler. This sculpture in St Peter’s Chapel might, at a quick glance, seem to be a modern take on the same topic. However, the title, The Bombed Child, tells us that this is something different. It represents a mother holding the corpse of her dead child, killed by a bomb blast. The alternative title, Pietà, links it with that other traditional representation of mother and son, the Virgin cradling the body of her crucified son. It is by Georg Erhlich who was himself displaced by the chaos and horror of war.
Of all the fittings on the Cathedral, I think that this, the pulpit, is the least felicitous. To be honest, it looks like someone’s old tin bath twisted out of shape and scarcely disguised with a few splashes of gold paint.
Churches are often decorated on the outside with gargoyles and figures of saints. At a quick glance you might mistake this figure of St Peter (easily identifiable because of his key) for a medieval rendition but a closer look confirms that it is modern. Apart from the crispness of the figuring, the saint is wearing modern era fishing boots and the key to unlock the gate of Heaven takes the form of a giant Yale key! It is by Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones.
On our way back to the station, we stopped to take a look at this memorial to Sir Nicholas Conyngham Tindal (1776-1846). A son of Chelmsford and a lawyer of repute, he was deemed meritorious enough for his fellow citizens to erect a monument to him in 1850. The inscription praises him as ‘THE IMAGE OF A JUDGE, WHOSE ADMINISTRATION OF ENGLISH LAW DIRECTED BY SERENE WISDOM ANIMATED BY PUREST LOVE OF JUSTICE ENDEARED BY UNWEARIED KINDNESS AND GRACED BY THE MOST LUCID STYLE WILL BE HELD BY HIS COUNTRY IN UNDYING REMEMBRANCE’. What it does not mention, perhaps with good reason, is that Sir Nick was a member of the legal team charged with defending Caroline of Brunswick, then wife of George IV, against a charge of adultery brought before the House of Lords in 1820. Though the scandalous Caroline was undoubtedly guilty, her defence succeeded in getting the case dropped, no doubt to the chagrin of George IV who hoped to use a guilty verdict to secure his divorce. You can read about the more than eccentric Caroline here, should you wish to do so.
1Pevsner, N. & Radcliffe, E, Essex (The Buildings of England), Penguin 1974.