Walk: Albury Park

7 May 2012

Just as I stepped off the train at Clandon it started to rain. I thought I’d figured a neat short cut to Albury without quite realising it involved cycling over the North Downs. In the rain. With the wind in my face. Still it was downhill on the other side to Silent Pool, where I locked the bike and strolled through the Victorian village of Albury, all decorated brick, mock Tudor chimneys and – if you looked closely enough – wild flowers in the rain.

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Up the hillside to the Victorian church of St Peter and St Paul. Strange how ugly Victorian churches can be. A pile of red bricks surrounded by dismal cracked flagstones, it felt like a factory or a workhouse. Reminded me of the horrible brick church in the village where I grew up, Chavey Down. And the vast empty barn of a church round the corner from me, St Thomas’s, Streatham Hill. But in the rainy churchyard there were primroses and cowslips.

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter's church, Albury

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter’s church Albury

Up a deep muddy country lane in the rain to Albury Warren, conifer woods at the top, then through a gate into the 150 acre grounds of Albury Park, still dominated by  its Victorian mansion, the hillside landscaped with rhododendrons, and more flowers: I saw goose grass, dog’s mercury, white dead nettle, archangel, scads of dandelions but not many bluebells.

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Finally, I escaped the rain in the historic Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. This used to be the heart of the village till the early Victorian landowner turfed the villagers out, rebuilding their village a mile to the West. That explains why modern Albury is so Victorian in feel, and explains the horrible ‘new’ Albury church he built for them. He let the original medieval church slowly decay, till it was saved and restored in the 1920s and is now open to visitors, bare empty inside, except for a rare medieval wall painting – of St Christopher – and the florid family chapel designed by Augustus Pugin.

William Oughtred was rector here for 50 years in the 17th century. Who he? The leading mathemetician of his day who invented the slide rule in 1622, introduced the ‘x’ symbol for multiplication, and was tutor to Sir Christopher Wren. All that and a sermon every Sunday!

Moreover, Robert Malthus, the man who invented the gloomy Malthusian economics which dominated Victorian England, wrote his famous book here, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. It’s well worth reading in order to grasp the impact it had over the entire succeeding century. It was one spur for the drafting of the Poor Laws which led to the Victorian Workhouses which Dickens so railed against, and which Albury church so balefully reminded me of.

Malthus’s impact was felt not only here but in Britain’s Imperial colonies. In his wonderful book on Kipling, Charles Allen points out that it was the insistence of the Viceroy to India, Lord Lytton, appointed by Disraeli, that doctrinaire free market and Malthusian principles were followed during the famines of the later 1870s – directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indians from starvation – that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress and the beginnings of the struggle for independence. Malthus hovered over all Victorian thought like the threat of nuclear annihilation dominated the later 20th century…

England has such depth, such resonance.  All this history and significance packed into a little stone building by a tiny gurgling stream (the ‘river’ Tilling). And the pretty flowers, blowing all around in the steady English rain…

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

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