Tuesday, February 19, 2008

History and mystery

Andrew and I have been making a point of getting out and seeing our surroundings, and we've tried to include Enfield and not just central London. There doesn't seem to be much going on in quiet, suburban Enfield, but we've discovered quite a bit of excitement lurking underneath the surface. "Lurking" sounds so ominous, but just you wait and see.

A couple weeks ago, we walked up to Forty Hall, a stately home and grounds that are now owned by the local council and open to the public. We didn't go inside the house because we ran out of time, but we did wander around the gardens. There were some beautiful trees, including a tremendous magnolis, and the place was filled with young families and people walking their dogs. There were ducks and swans in the lake and squirrels playing in the trees, and no cars within hearing distance. It was really lovely. Always on the lookout for informative signs, we found some that gave us a brief history of Forty Hall. Now, we knew from previous research that most of what is now Enfield used to be a royal hunting ground, but we didn't know that it extended all the way to Forty Hall, which is a 30-minute walk north of where we live whereas the rest of the old hunting estate is away to the south west. Apparently there was even a palace where Forty Hall now stands, and Henry VIII often stayed there. I can see why; there are some beautiful views from the hill top. We look forward to enjoying the park this summer.

This Sunday, we explored another nearby spot, Trent Park. This land also used to be part of the orginal hunting estate, and when the land was broken up into smaller pieces and sold off, Trent Park was bought by a family that later included the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. The family home that was built in the 1920s is still there and part of Middlesex University's campus now. Winston Churchill was apparenty a friend of the family and stayed with them sometimes to relax in the countryside.

As with Forty Hall, we didn't know any of the history behind the park. We took the bus up to the park and had quite a walk to get to the entrance. Along the way, we had a nice picnic overlooking the campus sports fields. We even got to see part of a field hockey game. Once we got into the park proper, we realised we had made another promising discovery. The park is beautiful, with broad, hilly fields just crying out for a game of frisbee or a summer nap. It being much too cold for that on Sunday, we kept up a brisk pace and walked all through the park. There wasn't much to see in the way of attractions; it was mostly just trees, but there were two notable exceptions. One was a huge stone obelisk built in 1707 in honor of the birth of the son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The back of it is covered in graffiti, some spray painted recently and some carved long ago.

The other attraction didn't look like much at first. In fact, we almost missed it. We were wandering through the atmospheric woods when I spied another informative sign. We walked over to it and saw what it described: a rectangular moat surrounding a small raised area of earth. The sign said that there was a settlement there around 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of two or three small buildings, some roof tiles, and bits of chain. There is nothing left now, but as I looked over the moat at the little island, I noticed a speck of bright light. I thought it was just the sunlight filtering through the trees, but I could still see it, even when I moved. We walked over the thin strip of land that crosses the moat to investigate.

My speck of light turned out to be a lighted candle, which was bizarre because there was no one there. We couldn't see or even hear anyone in the surrounding forest. The closer we looked, the stranger it got. There were vines and tree branches gathered and shaped into a makeshift shelter over what looked like a shrine. There were several candles inside, a couple of them still burning. Hanging in the trees nearby were colourful ribbons, feathers, beads, windchimes, and crystals. Someone had built a campfire recently, too. We assumed it must be a hangout spot for some local kids and wondered that it hadn't been cleaned up by the park rangers. We explored the rest of the island and found four more shelters, each one bigger and more elaborate than the last. It was like stumbling on the hiding place of a mysterious cult, except that for every intricately formed wreath or artistically placed candle there was a cheap plastic toy or mismatched ribbon hanging from a branch. Come to think of it, though, it did look like a modern day shrine, like you see set up by friends and family members after a tragedy. There were no teddy bears, but there was that particular blend of plasticky kitsch and natural beauty. Bemused and mystified by the place, we moved on through the park, stumbling at last on the last sight of the day: a group of real-life, honest-to-goodness gypsies around an illegal campfire. We laughed and figured maybe they had built the little island shrines. Only later did we realise we were wrong.

Once we got home we did a bit of research. The island, we learned from the sign, was called Camlet Moat. We remembered it only so we could look it up later. Well, apparently Camlet used to be called.....Camelot, and some people think that's where King Arthur lived! So the shrines were pagan shrines to his memory. It seems silly to think that King Arthur would have lived in Enfield, but there are other alleged King Arthur connections in the area. One real life figure who did live at Camlet Moat was Geoffrey de Mandeville, who was a mover and shaker in royal affairs during the Middle Ages, as well as a crusader, and is considered by some people to have been the most likely candidate among the crusading knights to have discovered the Holy Grail. So some people think that the Holy Grail could have been buried there. Further "evidence" that we read about takes us back to Forty Hall, where someone claimed to have discovered, in the lake, an iron cross enscribed with Arthur and Guinevere's names and a passage in Latin. He took the cross, and when the local council demanded its return and he refused, he was put in prison for a year. He never did reveal the location of the cross and was found, hanged, in his apartment, taking the mystery to his grave.

Enfield is turning out to be much more interesting...and spooky...than we had imagined.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Wow if only you had realised! We'll toss discs and gormandize a picnic lunch or two when sister and I arrive.