The first, and probably still my favourite, novel I read by Peter Ackroyd, was Hawksmoor. Written almost 30 years ago, I’ve still never read anything like it; part detective story, part historical pastiche the novel blends and subverts real events and people from history. In the novel the eponymous Detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigates a series of murders which parallel murders committed by the architect Nicholas Dyer, an associate of Sir Christopher Wren.
Most of the churches built by Dyer in the novel (and which are “consecrated” by the murders) do exist and were the work of an associate of Wren’s called… Nicholas Hawksmoor. You get the picture. Ackroyd has willfully and effectively blurred the boundaries of time with events repeating themselves across the centuries so that the 18th and 2oth century events become indistinct from one another.
My work this week has taken me to Milton Keynes, a “new town” notable for bearing the names of two leading (and opposing) economists, a “stolen” football team, and its concrete cows. I’m probably not being fair, but none of my previous visits to the place have provided me with greater inspiration. That might change if ever I have time for a detour to Bletchley Park.
I’m not staying in MK though. My bed for the nights that I’m here is to be found in the town of Stony Stratford, a town whose origins are rather more historic. Stratford referring to a river crossing on a street, in this case the Roman Road of Watling Street. Markets have been held here since Norman times, and significant events have occurred here right up until the filming of Withnail and I.
On my arrival the first thing that caught my eye were the large brackets supporting shop and inn signs that extend well out into the high street.
I’ve never seen their like before, although the locals that I questioned about them found them unremarkable.
The main street is the High Street, both nominally and literally, for when sitting in the bar of my hotel, which is at the level of the original Watling Street, the modern-day road and pavement are significantly higher.
Stony Stratford is rich in historical buildings, boasting two medieval church towers, a number of coaching inns (The Old George where I’m staying is over 500 years old) and Shell House, a building of unique design within the town’s peculiar style. The architect is unknown but both Wren and Hawksmoor were working in the area at the time that much of the property was developed. There is plenty to suggest that Hawksmoor is responsible, but no evidence that has survived the passage of the years.
Perhaps Hawksmoor did study the occult as Dyer does in Ackroyd’s book. Perhaps he found a way to bend time and cast his net into the future (or should that be fuschia?)
Or maybe its just a cock and bull story. 😉