Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, the third of eight children in an unremarkable Jewish family. Although her name will not be familiar to most people, it is no exaggeration to say that if her life had taken a different path, the course of the World War II and the fate of the free world could well have been catastrophically different.
After studying physics at university in Austria, Lise moved to Berlin where she specialised in the research of the effects of radioactivity and during the 1930’s led the team that discovered nuclear fission, the basic process of the atomic bomb. However, this was the period when the persecution of Jews was gaining momentum throughout Germany and Lise was lucky to make her escape across the border into Holland, travelling on to Stockholm where she continued her work. Her discoveries prompted Albert Einstein to write to President Roosevelt which, in turn, led to the Manhattan Project.
Lise visited the United States in 1946 with full press celebrity treatment, as “the lady who had left Germany with the bomb in her purse.”
You may well be wondering what all of this has to do with a Norman church situated in a small Hampshire village. The surprising connection is that following her death in 1968, Lise Meitner was buried in this very churchyard. For many years, until memories of the period began to fade, her grave was a place of pilgrimage by those who considered her to be the most significant woman scientist of the 20th Century who, had she been born a man, would undoubtedly have been awarded a Nobel Prize. Her importance to the science community was belatedly recognised in 1992 when element 109, the heaviest known element in the universe, was named Meitnerium in her honour.
Following our arrival at St James’ Church, while I photographed the church interior, I asked BQ to try and locate Lise Meitner’s headstone, not an easy task I thought in a churchyard that has been a burial ground for 800 years. But I should have had more faith, as when I finally emerged into the hazy March sunshine and wound my way through the numerous memorials, I finally came across a successful BQ pointing at a simple headstone with the poignant inscription; LISE MEITNER A Physicist who never lost her humanity.
It is Lise Meitner that we have to thank for discovering St James Church, a very worthy destination in its own right. It was only after reading an article about the historic reluctance to award or even recognise women’s achievements in science that led me on to researching the life of this remarkable individual.
St James’ Church was built in flint with stone dressings during the late Norman period, its medieval origins being immediately apparent on entering the building by the sight of St James’ ancient treasures, the wonderfully preserved early 13th century wall paintings.
On our arrival, the first things to catch my eye were the magnificent Magnolia Grandiflora next to a diminutive porch that I notice has been described as one ‘that could belong to an old farmhouse’. In sharp contrast is the large perpendicular south window, the main feature of the brick transept that was added in 1802. The glass in the window is late 15th century Flemish and is said to have been hidden in a nearby moat in order to avoid destruction during the reformation.
The colourful and pleasing interior has been enhanced by the installation of a modern system of LED strip lighting. We have seen nothing similar in any of our previous church visits and I applaud the person who made the bold decision which I am sure would not have been universally supported. But the result is quite magical.
The screen is 15th century and is surmounted by a Victorian beam. The vivid 13th century wall paintings can clearly be seen either side of the East window.
At the back of the nave is a gallery accessible by a narrow stair. The 19th century organ must have been a tight fit when it was installed but it does look and, I understand sound, quite magnificent.
The wall paintings are beautifully preserved thanks to the Priest of the day having the foresight to have them covered with lime wash before they could be destroyed as a result of Henry VIII’s 1538 injunction that “All images, to which any manner of resort is used by way of pilgrimage or offering, they must depose and sequester from all sight of men and suffer them no more to be set up”. This particular image of Thomas a Becket being killed by four of King Henry II’s knights would have been a prime target as Thomas a Becket had become a pilgrimage icon following his canonisation after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1173. The paintings remained hidden for over 200 years before being revealed in the 18th century.
The substantial south transept built in 1802 is essentially a memorial to Sir Bernard Brocas who had died in 1777. The tomb chest is surmounted by his effigy being cradled by a maiden at the moment of his death.
After centuries of serving as the cemetery for the parish of Bramley, the graveyard has carried out its final burial, not because of a lack of space but because of too much rain. A survey has identified that the water table levels are now higher than the Environment Agency permits for burials and we happened to arrive just as the final touches were being applied to what we were told would be the last headstone. A mystery remains however as to why the occupant of the grave appears to have died 3 years earlier!
Henry VIII is often mentioned in Dine and Divine, usually as the villain of the piece responsible for vandalising the various Saxon and Medieval Churches that we have visited and so, as it was close by, it seemed appropriate to visit The Vyne after leaving Bramley. This beautiful Tudor House was built between 1500 and 1520 for Lord Sandys, Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain. Lord Sandys had been a close companion of the King since the early years of his reign and the King visited him at the Vyne on three occasions, the last time, in October 1535, when he was accompanied by his Queen, Ann Boleyn. Shortly after that, the King decided he wished to be free to marry Jane Seymour and so trumped up charges of adultery, incest and treason were brought against Ann Boleyn. Lord Sandys after so recently welcoming her to his home now sat on the jury that found her guilty of all charges and, if that wasn’t bad enough, it was he who escorted her to the block where she was beheaded four days later.
The Sandys lived here until the mid 17th century when, as a result of the civil war, they fell on hard times and the estate was sold to Chaloner Chute, a wealthy barrister who would later become Speaker of the House of Commons. The Chutes owned The Vyne for the next 3 centuries before it passed to the National Trust in 1956.
BQ and I toured the ground floor where every room we passed through displayed as many paintings as could fit on the walls, although in the gloom it was certainly difficult to make out any detail. The circular tour brought us back to the entrance and from there I made my way up the ornate main stairs, described as ‘a symphony of Georgian neo-classical elegance’ leaving BQ to relax in the Staircase Hall where I could hear him grumbling to a long-suffering guide about the inadequate lighting.
The upper rooms are full of fascinating objects including a collection of ‘Corn Law truncheons’. These heavy black clubs were made in the early 19th century following the introduction of the Corn Laws that led to a steep rise in food prices. A group of between 300 and 400 farm labourers who could no longer feed their families, marched on the Vyne to protest, but were stopped by armed soldiers. Nevertheless the Chutes must have been very nervous and subsequently, twenty of the protesters were arrested of which two were hanged and the rest sent on a voyage to Australia.
The famous Hundred Guineas Oak. Over 600 years old, and now looking very frail, this is the tree that William John Chute refused to sell for timber in the 18th century for 100 Guineas in the misplaced expectation that it would increase in value. In the background is the 1630 summerhouse that was used for dinner parties.
The Queens College Arms.
There was strange irony in our choice of lunch venue considering all that had happened earlier in the day. We hadn’t pre-booked a meal, we just happened to notice an attractive looking eaterie on our way to Bramley and it seemed a convenient choice. However, on arrival, I noticed that the address was Aldermaston Road and I wondered, could this be the same Aldermaston that attracted all those tens of thousands of CND marchers in the 1950’s and 60’s. A quick check on google maps confirmed that indeed it was – the sprawling Atomic Weapons Establishment was situated just a short distance along the road.
Sometimes pub menus can be depressingly predictable, but here they were original and imaginative. The main courses were beautifully prepared and attractively presented and we particularly liked the trio of mini-puds which were small enough to be savoured without guilt.
What a Surprise
Hampshire is not a wool county so imagine my surprise when, after much searching, we found St James’ Church, and there facing us, was a glorious perpendicular window typical of those usually only found in counties that had grown wealthy from the textile trade. Had we at last come across a perpendicular style village church in this historically poor county? However it was all an illusion prepared by Sir John Soane in 1802 to house the Brocas Chapel, a local family of toffs of whom the tomb of Sir Bernard reclining in a young maid’s arms would nowadays cause much female derision.
After that shock the church settled down to be late Norman in keeping with most in the county but, yet again enhanced by very fine early wall paintings. Both Saint Christopher and Saint Thomas a Becket are thrillingly alive in the excellent lighting which MW kept harping on about. The Beckett portrait, according to a local guide, dates from within fifty years of his death, and it shows yet again the impact that this atrocity had all over Europe, turning Canterbury into a major pilgrimage centre – as popular as Lourdes is today. Once again close inspection of the walls suggest many more pictures are obscured under the plaster over which biblical passages were written, some of which still have partially survived.
The church is at the centre of a thriving village and gave every indication of being well used and attended. But enough of these matters as I was given my orders to search the graveyard for a headstone of a lady who invented the atomic bomb. In order to assist I was shown a photo of what I was looking for by MW. What I had not realised is the graveyard leaves the close environment of the church and branches out into the countryside. It was very daunting, but I was comforted by the sight of what I assumed was a gravedigger. Was I about to pick up a skull and proclaim that ‘I knew him’. Instead it turned out to be a mason placing the very last headstone in the graveyard. He was no help but looked slightly disturbed when I mentioned the bomb. “What, here!” he exclaimed. After a long and sometimes frustrating search the headstone was found and I was left wondering why a Jewish Austrian lady was buried here in an English village churchyard. I later found out that in 1908 she had converted to Lutheran Christianity and wanted to be buried close to her brother.
After my Hamlet experience in the graveyard, our visit to the Vyne further rekindled memories of the bard, as the guide told us that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had visited. This indeed was the home of Lord Sandys the monarch’s Lord Chancellor with whom, in the final play by Shakespeare, Lord Sands chases Anne Bullen and kisses her (presumably the Y on the Bard’s typewriter was broken) only to be interrupted by a group of disguised Hooray Henrys, including the Monarch in a mask, and so was born The Church of England. The passage of time changes little in human behaviour as the nobles of the land led by Lord Sandys trumped up a false charge against Anne however, the King in an act of charity reduced her sentence from being burnt at the stake to beheading. What a gent!
Both ladies featured in today’s visit had an enormous and lasting effect on the course of history, one by default and the vicious action of a depraved Monarch and his sycophantic court and the other by her intellect.
If this were not enough we then made our short way to The Queens College Arms where the dominating mural of students throwing their mortar boards in the air yet again inflamed my prejudices, as a man who was forced out to work at sixteen years of age. However the dining room was comfortable and inviting with an alarming variance in the waiting staff, almost ‘good cop bad cop’ but the food was excellent. At last I had learnt my lesson and avoided the tempting starters and cut to my main choice, a succulent breast of duck. An excellent innovation was the mini sweets which afforded a taste without too many calories.
Yet another excellent day in disappointing grey conditions.
- Roasted Duck Breast with braised cabbage and bacon, boulangere potatoes and dark cherry sauce BQ
- Spice Crusted Hake on garlic and rosemary potatoes with roasted tomato, red onion and wilted spinach MW
- A trio of mini puddings; Coffee and Walnut Panna Cotta, Black Forest Sundae and Apple and Sultan Crumble BQ & MW
- The House Merlot BQ
- The House Shiraz MW