Leader & Times Managing Editor Larry Phillips stands by Tradesman Alley, a passageway that was used by merchants to receive their good from delivery people rather than using the main entrance for customers.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Liberal’s Larry Phillips traveled to Olney to cover Pancake Day festivities in the ancient British city. These were his activities the day before the big race.
Monday morning started with a little better feeling of restfulness. I awoke around 8:15 (2:15 a.m. Liberal time), and soon got a text from Tony Lamming, the Pancake Day Board member in Olney who has been helping me immensely with all our plans.I told him I had a friend coming in from Milton Keynes that I wanted to bring along, and we agreed to meet at 10.
We met outside Colchester House and then started walking south on High Street, the main thoroughfare through Olney. He pointed out where the race starts, at a traffic signal light at the north end of the Market Place. My friend Terry had texted and said he would be arriving in about 10 minutes and we agreed to meet him at the bus stop in front of The Bull Inn, about 20 yards from the race start.
Terry Wares and I go back to childhood. Our parents were good friends and his mother and mine graduated together from Liberal High School in 1950. I was born two years and 22 days before Terry, and we ran together in high school - literally a lifelong friend. He has been a minister for about 25 years and now lives in Ireland with his wife, Mersa and five children. This was going to be his first Olney Pancake Day as well.
Once we had met Terry host from Milton Keynes and he left to return home, the three of us again headed south on High Street. Tony told us innumerable things about Olney. For example, in the olden times, private companies were responsible for firefighting. They were akin, he said, to insurance companies. If you paid for protection, they would place a plaque on the front of your home or establishment.
If a fire broke out, the first thing the firemen would look for was the plaque. No plaque, no putting out the fire.
He pointed out Hallelujah Corner, so named because it’s where the Salvation Army Band would set up years ago to play and raise funds.
Tony explained the Tradesmen Alleys or entrances. They weren’t allowed to enter stores or markets from the street to deliver their goods but rather had to enter small walkways which worked their way back behind the stores so goods could be delivered. There are also carriage or wagon entries.
The town was literally known as a “coach” town. It was on the road to London, and horse drawn coaches would stop at The Bull Inn (two coach entrances to the back stalls still remain.) to overnight and get fresh horses.
We worked our way to Church Street where the race course makes a turn to the left and narrows considerable. It’s the final stretch to St. Peter and St. Paul Church and the finish line.
At the church, we ran into Basil Margrave, Church Warden one of the pancake board members. He told Tony the engraved, silver tray (or salver) from Staats Jewelers in Liberal that was to be presented to Olney’s race winner had come in and was secure.
“I put it in the safe with the Olney Hymns,” Basil said with a grin, as if it was good enough for 300-year-old church treasures, it was good enough for the tray.
We also were able to enter the church (I hadn’t got past the front entrance foyer the day before), and we met the Rev. Claire Wood, rector of the church. She was very busy, but told us to make ourselves at home.
As we took photos of the magnificent stained glass windows, we met the church verger, Ken Noon. (A verger (or virger, so called after the staff of the office, Latin virga = twig, rod) is a person, usually a layman, who assists in the ordering of religious services, particularly in Anglican churches). He was pleased to inform us he would be the one to give the “Kiss of Peace” to the race winner. I interjected I would like that job, being from Liberal and everything, but that was quickly, and politely, disregarded.
One thing Basil did for us was fetch the keys to the bell tower. He was eager for us to see the improvements. The bells had been in bad shape and Basil was one of the people responsible for raising about 150,000 pounds to have the bells put back in operation.
The three of us, Basil wanted no part in it, started up the very narrow circular stone stairwell that people had used since the 1300s. It was strenuous. I told Terry all I needed to feel at home was to have my 40-pound suitcase in hand to really enjoy the moment. Winded, we made it the the bell pullers’ floor. There are 10 ropes with each bell a different key. There is a plaque there honoring the current bell ringers.
Now we headed up a wooden ladder, so old, the steps were foot-worn. There we got to see the internal workings of the bell clock, operating like new.
Up another stone circular stairs to the bells themselves. Ten huge bells of brass all sitting in new iron support beams. Tony showed us the tuning marks on the bells. Today,, it’s done with lathe-like trimming in the inside of the bell at the lip. He pointed out that in centuries past, it was tuned by breaking small chips of the edge.
Back safely on terra firma, we decided to pick up Tony’s wife, Sue, and go have lunch in the countryside.
Both Tony and Sue went to Liberal for the 2003 Pancake Day Race, and we discussed the difference in the two cities. I remarked there was a lot more farmland than I had counted on, and the remembered the isolation factor Liberal seem to have.
Sue told us she had ran the race in the late 1880s, and that she was terrified.
“I was afraid I would come in last or tumble over,” She said with a chuckle.
Lunch was sandwiches, soup and tea, and the view from the veranda was spectacular — the English countryside with a lake out front, including ducks and geese and the rolling green hillsides with ancient steeples visible on the clear, blue horizon.
Later, Rev. Wood said she was very surprised she got appointed to St. Peter and St. Paul.
“It was shock,” she said. “I applied fro the job just to see what it was going to be like and came to interview for the experience.
“I didn’t expect them to appoint me, it was a huge shock.”
Wood also realized the significance of the history of the church.
“It’s a real privilege when you think of John Newton and William Cowper, and you think of the others that followed,” she explained. “It’s a daunting experience.”
Though Wood has only been there two years, she said they are pushing hard on the international scene to get people to visit the church on pilgrimages.
“Internationally, the church is more famous than it is locally.”
They are sending brochures and letters around the globe trying to increase visitors to the church.
“They come from all over; China, Canada, America and a few from England,” she explained with a smile.
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