Category Archives: Travelling in England

The bliss of catsitting

I had an amazing time catsitting in London early last month. I was doing it for family members, so I’d met the cats a couple of times over the last few years (two of them, rescue cats that are thought to be mother and son). They’re house cats, so there was no fretting (from me) about whether they’d be safe in traffic, but at first I saw them very little, they didn’t have much to do with people in their early years, so they’ve been terrified of even the most well-meaning humans.

However – that was old news, they’d grown less timid in the last year or so, observed closely by my lovely rellies, and I was told (correctly, happily!) that they’d come into the bedroom to be with me if I let them. You can guarantee that I let them! And by the end of the first week, that’s what was happening – though one of them was still under the bed rather than on it with me.

At the end of the second week, the transformation was almost complete: both of them would lie on the (nice big) bed with me, and when I sat down in an armchair, or on the sofa, the brave one would leap up onto my lap, especially if I had a thin cushion there to make it easier to loll about. Even better, sometimes he’d leap straight onto my lap, but if I was in an armchair, he’d circle about me, like Simon’s Cat: jump onto an armrest, up onto the back, across the back, down to the other armrest, and then onto my lap, having claimed me completely as his own property.

A happy cat on my knee
A happy cat in my chair

I did get out and about a bit – I used to live in London, so I went up to Central London to meet a friend, and saw that the lions on the Houses of Parliament are actually being very rude to passers-by:

Parliamentary lions pull their tongues at tourists

And when I popped up to Euston (to take pictures of the Carreras Factory, for a later post on here) I saw a logo for a transportation firm that was just adorable:

Logo for a transportation company!

Back at the catsitting gig, the timid one never sat on my lap, sadly. And she never stopped hissing in fear when I happened to walk by her plate of food as she was feeding, though she did stop running away, that was something.  I absolutely loved the catsitting, though, and hanging out in a new-to-me area of London, especially with such gorgeous cats to  get to know better.

But I had the greatest compliment a cat sitter can have the next week, once my relatives were home: I was told that when the brave one jumped up on their laps, he looked at them like he expected someone else to be there! Me, I think! Life is good!

The Golden Cats of London

When I go walking in London, I keep my camera at the ready, and I noticed a trend: here and there are beautiful, golden cats, watching us and sometimes growling at us. They’re all beautiful, of course.

The first is this little chap below: in the street picture below him again, you can see the entrance to a building on the right hand side. There are two lamp-posts at the door to that building, and that’s where these little cats huddle together.

I’m cheating with the next one, because it’s not a moggy, it’s a lion, but it is golden. It’s on Prince Frederick’s Barge, at the Greenwich Museum. It was renovated a few years ago, and looks absolutely splendiferous, doesn’t it?

At St John’s Zachary, in the City itself, is another big cat, and it is utterly, utterly gorgeous. But fierce! It’s a leopard, and it was made by apprentices at the Rural Development Commission in Salisbury, managed by the Blacksmiths Company. It’s completely appropriate that the leopard is golden, as this land was once owned (starting in the fourteenth century!) by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Being right in the City of London, the area was badly damaged in the Blitz, but it was turned into a garden even during the war itself, and then afterwards, with all the rebuilding work going on, an effort was made to have a few green spaces. The leopard is pretty new, added during redevelopment work in the 1990s. At A London Inheritance, a fascinating photography blog, there’s a picture of the rebuilding work – I don’t yet have permission to post that picture here, so I’m just linking for now.  It’s the very first picture in that post.

In contrast, there really is a cat on the Cutty Sark, right here. This is genuinely known as a catshead! The function was to help secure the anchor, and in the fuller picture immediately below  our golden friend (who is tiny, you have to look hard to see him) you can see the anchor at bottom left. No one knows which came first, the name or the carving, but its produced some beautiful works of art, that’s for sure.

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Dick Whittington’s Magical Cat

At the beginning of this week, there was an article in The Guardian about a bequest to the Guildhall Library in London, from an American lady who’d lived in England since the 1950s, Ellery Yale Wood. She died three years ago, and it sounds like her executor is still in awe of her. Only a part of her bequest is about Dick Whittington and his famous cat – the rest is an eclectic mix of Harry Potter, children’s books, cameras, Manchester United … the list goes on.

And the library, of course, was the one founded by Dick Whittington himself, in 1425, so her bequest makes absolute sense. Some of her material will be included in the 900th anniversary celebrations to be held in 2025, and in the meantime, I hope we’ll be able to see some of it very soon.

I was at the Guildhall Library a few years ago, and part of their lovely statue of Dick Whittington and His Cat is my header! Here it is in full:

The wonderful mog is all over London, hospitals and pubs and everything in between is named after him. There are intimate little touches too: on the stairwells over the busy roads that lead to the Museum of London, Dick and his cat are ever present:

There are a few I haven’t photographed yet: the one in Archway, and the inside of the window at St Michael’s (I’ve got a photo of the outside, where you can see the cat, but it looks like it’s in shades of grey: not a very interesting photo!). There are some great pantomime adverts too, it’s one of the favourite panto titles in the UK.

Honouring the two of them isn’t a modern fashion by any means. The Bodleian in Oxford holds an eighteenth century board game, and there’s a seventeenth century woodcut held in Boston that shows them as well.  That’s easier to see than the others, so here it is, with Dick carrying the cat in case the dog goes for it:

Sir Richard Whittington by Thomas Fleet via Wikimedia
Sir Richard Whittington by Thomas Fleet via Wikimedia

What was the real story? Our Dick was Lord Mayor four times, did some good works including rebuilding Newgate Prison, and didn’t have a cat. That’s it!

As an assessment of the myth and it’s magic, I can’t better Nick Green’s analysis in his guest post at the utterly amazing steelthistles blog. But the myth itself is that his childhood was poverty stricken, and he went to London because he’d heard the streets were paved with gold. He lodged in the attic of a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren, and bought a cat for a penny (earned by shining shoes) because there were so many mice and rats.

Then Dick consigned the cat for sale on a voyage to the Barbary Coast (that is, he gave it away to be sold abroad, for profit). But he was disenchanted with London and started to return home to his poor village. And thats when he hears the voice, “turn again, Whittington”.

All ends well for Dick: he goes back to London, the cat has been sold on the Barbary coast and earned Dick a fortune, whereupon he marries the daughter of the family he works for.

Nobody talks about the cat! She’s been sold abroad (to the Barbary Coast, i.e. Africa, where cats actually come from), and that’s where she seems to have lived for the rest of her days. She’s better off there than with Dick Whittington, if you ask me.

All of this was very, very unexpected to me, and I’m almost relieved to go with the magic of the myth.

After reading the steelthistles blog, by the way, I was so impressed, I’ve just bought the fantasy novel Cat Kin, by Nick Green, so I’m really looking forward to that. Youngsters in London, cats are involved … it’s kinda sorta Dick Whittington! I’ll write a review on here later, but here’s a link for now.

 

A railway cat

Chloe is the queen, that’s the basic truth.  And her servants at Horsted Keynes obviously know this truth very well.

I haven’t been writing for a few months, I’ve had a lot of things going on – some good, some bad – but way back in March, I had a little trip to Horsted Keynes Station, on the Bluebell Railway Line, a tourist steam train that travels through some of the most beautiful countryside in England. The stations are pretty beautiful too – Horsted Keynes itself can be seen as Downton Station in the Downton Abbey series.

There’s a long history of railway cats on the Bluebell Railway: the brilliant Purr-n-Fur has a piece about five cats through the years that lived at various stations on the Bluebell line. The current cat at Horsted Keynes, Chloe, is pretty new, as her predecessor Gizmo only died in 2014, but she’s taking to it as to the manor born. It was raining hard the day I was there, so I mostly went to the carriage works facility, where the volunteers refurbish all the old rolling stock that they can lay their hands on – most of it was abandoned in the 1960s or earlier, so it’s in quite a state. Wonderful to see it being rescued now, and it’s a very popular attraction in a county of popular attractions.

Repairing the carriages
Repairing the carriages
Chloe avoiding fans
Chloe avoiding fans
Cat biscuits, in the carriage being repaired
Cat biscuits, in the carriage being repaired

I was desperate to get a good picture of Chloe, and she wasn’t at all interested that day, so the kindly volunteer I was chatting to told me that her biscuits were kept at a certain spot. I managed to restrain myself from rushing towards her just long enough to get a lovely snap of her finding the cat biscuits in their usual place … and later, of course, the only picture about cigarettes that I’ll ever publicise, advertising Black Cat Virginia tobacco cigarettes.

Black Cat Virginia cigarettes
Black Cat Virginia cigarettes

Even though the weather was so bad, I had a great day!

The Cat House in Henfield

I was out on a country walk a few weeks ago, based on a local village picked from the map more or less at random by my sister. Henfield is the charmingly medieval village name, and what should we find there but The Cat House. Amazing village, amazing house!

It’s a Grade II listed building now, since the 1950s, which is when the picture below was taken.

The lovely people at Francis Frith allow free use of their photos on websites, after a courtesy email, and I’m indebted to them for this. And this is part of the description on the British listed buildings site: “Probably 16th century timber-framed refaced with brick, now painted, on ground floor and with weather-boarding above, painted in imitation of timbering with figures of a cat holding a bird under the eaves.” And that really, really doesn’t do justice to the place – it’s so quirky, and so beautiful!

The quirkiness started with a nineteenth century owner, Bob Ward, who kept canaries. A canary was killed one day by a cat, owned by local churchman Nathaniel Woodard. Ward was enraged, to put it mildly: he put pictures of the cat, holding the bird, all round his house, so it would be seen by the churchman every time he passed the house on his way to the nearby church. Ward also put up strings of shells to rattle in the wind – presumably to disturb the cat on its future hunting forays. There’s also rumour of a black figure appearing at a small window, called the zulu hole, when the churchman walked by.

A 19th century painting by M. Russell, held by the Henfield Museum, shows how quirky the quirkiness got, shown immediately below. The Museum has been kind to me too, instantly allowing me to show this amazing painting, which was commissioned by Bob Ward himself.

M Russell, The Cat House HenfieldThis is real! Its not a hippy tangent from the 1960s, its a historically accurate depiction of what the amazing Bob Ward did over the years, painted in 1882. I think it’s fantastic, I was beside myself with joy when I discovered this photo.

 

The Henfield Hub website mentions that “Robert Ward bought a number of metal bird scarers – the cats that now line the upper storey – and positioned them all round his house, at ground level, threading a long string through them on which he tied a large number of bells. Whenever Nathaniel Woodward passed on his way to or from Henfield Church, pulling of the string saw him greeted by the sound of metal and bells to remind him of the ‘crime’ his cat committed.” That man must have really loved his canaries, and hated the cat.

My own photos are below, and I’m missing an overall view of the front, sadly – I was so entranced by the detail, I completely forgot. Never mind – I’ll be passing that way again, and I’ll make sure to get another view. Of course, it’s also a private house, owned and occupied, and that has to be respected too.

One of the many panels
One of the many panels

It does make me wonder about the phrase “the cat that ate the canary”, which seems to be an American saying according to this blog. Cathouse is an American phrase too – not one associated with actual cats, of course … Staying in America for a moment, cinema loves the phrase as well: there was a Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard film in 1939 called The Cat And The Canary, but the title was used as far back as 1912, in a silent short, and then in a full length film in 1927.  Thank you IMDB.

 

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The thatcher’s cat?

 

A little cat struts along the ridge of the thatch, tail held high and proud: the thatcher’s signature, or extra cat-ness?

 

 

 

 

Side view
Side view

 

 

Such a great afternoon out!

Catslides and totem poles

Catslide Roof, Priest House
Catslide Roof, Priest House

 

 

Sussex is quite a place to be a cat lover. I recently came across the term “catslide roof” at the Priest’s House in West Hoathly, for instance. Never heard of it before … online research seems to say it’s American, but whichever side of the pond it’s from, it’s definitely about a long roof, sloping from the top of a two-storey structure to the edge of a one-storey add-on. It’s irresistible to think of a cat losing it’s grip, maybe in a frost, and sliding down it, but no one seems to know. I’ve even seen references to a “catslide dormer”, so it’s obviously here to stay.

 

Puddy Cat at Lewes Totem Pole
Puddy Cat at Lewes Totem Pole

There are no cats on catslides. But if you go to the All Saints Art Centre in Lewes, there’s a cat on a totem pole – All Saints was de-sanctified 35 years ago, so the art is cute, not blasphemous. Anonymous, though, unfortunately.  The picture below shows the little mog at the top of the pole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cat at the top of the world
Cat at the top of the world

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brighton Oxfam loves cats too
Brighton Oxfam loves cats too

Sussex also has Brighton, of course, which I’ve covered before. But this little group in a well known charity shop was new to me, when I visited the other day. Adorable, as is the “not for sale” notice.

In the meantime, I’m devouring all three books of The Hunger Games, and as well as liking it much more than I expected, Buttercup the cat is taking up space in my brain. More of Buttercup in the next post.

The Amberley Museum Cats

When you love cats, you find them everywhere. So there I was, out for the day at the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum, indulging one of my other hobbies – industrial and agricultural history, which I find fascinating. They run courses on countryside skills too – pole lathe turning, for instance.

Anyway.

There I was, wandering over the rails of the little railway that runs throughout the site, when I saw this little scene. I had to look further, as you do, and found a touching story of the cats that lived and died here from the 1980s onwards. They were brought to the site by Ian Dean, the museum’s first director.  Chalk (the gorgeous white one) wandered away to live with a family nearby, as cats do, but returned when his brother became ill. His brother, Pepper, was only five when he died, but after that Chalk stayed at the   Museum for all of his long life, 21 years in total.

They were followed by Nelson, who had an even shorter life than Pepper, but was obviously just as loved.

Another cat is commemorated here, Miss Agatha – she has no Victorian Celtic grave marker, as the others do, but a little plinth, set with her picture – she too was loved.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThey’re all buried together, in a quiet spot at the edge of the museum proper, on a slight slope, with a good view of the rats and mice they loved to catch. It’s a sweet, serene little place, and I was so happy to have found it.

Hodge

Imagine the scene … high summer last year … too high, in fact, to do much serious sightseeing, and there’s always serious sightseeing to do in London. But me and my companion gave it up, for an hour or so, and instead we went to pay homage to Hodge The Cat.

Gough Square

What cat blog has not discussed Hodge the Cat? Not many, so now it’s my turn. First off, what a great location: it’s immediately north of Fleet Street, between Fetter Lane and Shoe Lane, but it’s so quiet, you’d never think it was in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the western hemisphere. And here’s a view of charming little Gough Square itself, you can see how beautifully Hodge is catered to, even now, hundreds of years after his death. Those wooden chairs that gather around him are really comfortable, too.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHis oysters are still there for him to claw at (oysters were cheap back then).  And he’s still sitting on Dr Johnson’s book … it’s only when you walk all the way round that you can see his plinth is definitely a book, from this angle it’s very clear.

 

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHe still gets his milk delivered, too – lots of it (okay, so this was sitting on the doorstep of some nearby offices, but it could have been for Hodge).

 

 

 

Hodge was the cat of Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous man of letters (which sums it up, really, today he’d be a web pundit, without a doubt) of the eighteenth century.  Even if you don’t know of him directly, you’ve probably heard of one of his best-known sayings: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.   He didn’t write directly about Hodge himself, we only know of the beautiful mog because of Boswell (the Watson to Johnson’s Sherlock, really) who said: ” I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

The statue itself was only unveiled in 1997, and apparently the sculptor Jon Bickley made it the right height for adults to hug.  He knew!  He really did.  I do wonder why Hodge was chosen, since Johnson says he liked other cats of his better – but I wonder if he was teasing?  Or embarrassed to be showing such affection?

Whatever the truth, Hodge is A Very Fine Cat indeed, just as the plaque tells us, and in the city which provides all that life can offer, the companionship of cats is an essential part of it all.

The Smithfield Cat

I was lucky enough to go to the church of St Bartholomew the Great, to see the Smithfield Cat, on a day when there was a 30 minute gap between two weddings – it’s a really popular church for that, being so old and so photogenic.

Most of all, it’s atmospheric, mysterious. The original nave of the church was lost when Henry VIII dissolved the priories along with the monasteries, so what is now the church is amalgamated from pieces of the original priory. Lots of nooks and crannies and tiny archways in thick walls. It’s absolutely beautiful.

The history of the immediate area is mixed: back in the twelfth century, it was a huge, open plain used for knights on horseback to joust. One hundred years after that, it was the place of execution for William Wallace, who fought so hard for Scottish independence, and later in the fourteenth century Wat Tyler of the Peasants’ Revolt was executed there too. Then, for five hundred years or so, it’s been both the site of the legendary Bartholomew Fair, and of the Smithfield Meat Market (which is still there! Very odd, since nowadays it’s right on the doorstep of the City of London financial community).

Sitting there all this time, since 1123 in fact, is the priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded just before the Meat Market, a great engraving of which has been put online by Victorian Web **

I do wonder if the Smithfield cat was a local moggy!  Maybe a cat that was adopted by the priors, or even by the builders of the priory? It wouldn’t have been in the nave of the church originally, the first nave is now the raised churchyard, according to the church guide.

And it’s still mysterious.

Technically the Cat is a corbel, a load bearing stone jutting out from a wall. When you see the Smithfield Cat described online, it’s often claimed that carved corbels are later than the St Bart’s interior, but just having a quick look at architectural history tells me that isn’t true. Lincoln Cathedral, for instance, was built at the same time as St Bart’s, and has a few very famous corbels (the images are copyright, so I can’t show them, sorry).

The Smithfield Cat looks a bit like the grinning Cheshire Cat … and it’s very, very high up.  A bit of a photo commentary below, as I really loved the place.

The entrance from West Smithfield.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The entrance to the church itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe cat is on the left of the pillar, high up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A close-up of the cat.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atmospheric or what.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

 

 

 

 

 

I only found the Cat because I asked a friendly verger – and although the whole place was bustling, she was very friendly, and led me directly to the right pillar. You know, the whole complex of buildings was built in the twelfth century; a medieval working man carved this Cat one winter, ready to be hoisted far into the air during the next spring, to be set in its place for getting on for eight hundred years now. The Cat is just a minor part of the priory, not even mentioned on their website, but weirdly I think he’s on Google. The interior of the church is available on streetview! I’ve no idea why, but it is, and if you go there, turn away from the altar and look up on high magnification, you have a sort of side view of the Cat. It’s badly lit (it’s a church!) but it’s there. Really, really something.

We need a real live cat to finish off, so here’s Miss Joan Brown, interviewed just over a year ago, who was the first lady to actually work in Smithfield Market, in 1945. She has a wonderful cat!

Joan Brown and her cat

 

National Cat Centre, East Sussex

I had an afternoon out at the National Cat Centre recently – a fascinating place. There’s a cafe and shop (a really good shop!) as well as a nature trail.

National Cat Centre

The whole thing has had a refurb and rebuild, as they only bought the site in 2002 – these are some of the catteries, which are beautifully designed. The stones in front are part of a flood defence.

Cattery space with flood defence

Everybody in the area is very proud of the visit that JFK paid to the site, just a few months before he was assassinated in 1963. His helicopter actually landed at the Centre itself, which is quite something – he was visiting the prime minister of the day Harold MacMillan, who lived close by.

They do a huge amount of work, of course – neutering, rehoming, education (lots of leaflets to download free from their website).  They get out and about a lot of the time too.

On the go

As an aside, it’s become a really good local alternative to Wakehurst Place, for locals to go have a coffee and a little walk – Wakehurst now charge for parking, they don’t have anything savoury in their free-to-access cafe, and they’ve dramatically downsized the amount of merchandise in their shop, which is weird. In contrast, the Cat Centre has free parking, lots of lovely nibbles in the cafe (it’s not as big, but there are outside tables too) there’s quite a bit of exhibition space, and even the 10 acre nature walk part of the site is free. Its an absolute bargain for a low-key afternoon out, with plenty of space for kids to run about.

Right next door is the Red Lion pub, a big, nineteenth-century country pub with modern facilities, and really friendly staff.

I had to pop in once I noticed their pub sign – which is a white lion. No one at the pub on the day knew why they had a white lion, but I thought it was pretty cute. There was more Macmillan/JFK memorabilia there too.

And here’s me, making sure I got every scrap of cat-related images I could find, I like the way this one sort of looks as though I’m a lion:I'm a white lion, really

Just to finish up, this is confession time. I didn’t see a single cat, I didn’t go into the catteries at all. I just saw dogs! But it was all very lovely.

I just saw dogs