The Riddle Of Two Dead Cats (4 April 1975)
I was a little surprised to read in a recent issue of the Gazette that St Martin’s Church is now the only building in Fenny Stratford proposed to be listed for conservation on historical and archaeological grounds.
Only a little surprised, because since the war there have been a number of such surveys, proposals and recommendations and yet they might as well have not been made for all the effect they have had, especially in the Bletchley district.
In each survey the parish churches have been listed as a matter of course – and I would be the last to object to that. But the surveys have also included a good number of secular buildings and groups of buildings, many of which have since been demolished without any apparent objection from anybody – and many will remember how the Bletchley Rectory Cottages, though always listed, were saved only after a desperate struggle.
As regards Fenny, I note the reference to the “exceptional” guildhall, now incorporated in Valentin, Ord and Nagle’s factory. I also note that the proposals “suggest” two areas of special interest, one of them being the older surviving part of Aylesbury Street. But if previous experience is anything to go by, that can mean exactly nothing.
Talking of Aylesbury Street, I have always been interested in the good old building which now houses the outfitting business of Charles Mares Ltd. As many people must now know, this was Fenny’s Home Farmhouse – probably for 200 years and more before it became just a residence and then finally a shop.
Browne Willis founded St Martin’s Church in 1730, but he had long had the project in mind. In 1715 he made a rough sketch in pen and ink of the site and surroundings of what he hoped would be Fenny’s own church. This sketch, now in the Bodleian Library, shows the farmhouse as quite a substantial building for its purpose and day.
There is a single central, porched front door. Evenly spaced on each side of the door are three square windows. The ground floor façade is plain. The first-floor façade is half-timbered. Evenly spaced across it are six bedroom windows of the same size and shape as those below. Above that is a roof with three dormer windows. And crowning all are the two groups of chimneys – one on the eastern gable and the other more in the middle, that most Fenny people remember.
Actually, there were four spiralled chimneys on the first stack and eight on the second and they had been put there by some man of means, since most of them were purely decorative and not connected to any flue. Fenny lost a notable feature when they were pulled down and the dormer windows filled in not so very long ago. The pitch of the roof could indicate that originally it was of thatch, but its hatching in the sketch seems to show that, if so, it had already been tiled or shingled.
The reminds me of a grisly experience I had in those premises in 1953. Messrs Mares were then taking them over from Mr J. Wells, the previous occupier and outfitter. Workmen were converting the first floor into a maisonette for the incoming manager.
One day I was told that two skeletons had been found there, so I went for a look-see. Well, they were skeletons right enough, but they were those of two cats. The workmen had noticed that one bedroom ceiling was curiously low, so they investigated and found the space between the ceiling and the attic floor packed with straw and the two cats. These skeletons lay on either side of a heavy joist and were still grinning wickedly.
The finding of the skeletons made an amusing story, leading up to the denouement that they were simply those of two unfortunate cats who had apparently got into the ceiling and been unable to get out again.
Some years later, however, I read that at one time when a new house was being built it was the custom in the Anglian region deliberately to bury a dead cat or two in some such place to guard the house against the evil eye in general and against witchcraft in particular.
Since then I have been mighty curious about those cats. Has the house now lost its defences against a modern form of craftiness against which, it would seem, only the church is now proof?
And now let us spare a thought as the origin of the old “Back Lane,” which is now in substance Victoria Road.
Many old Anglo-Saxon settlements have these back lanes and it is generally accepted that they began as access ways from the tofts and crofts on the one side to the baulks of the cultivations strips in the open fields on the other. They led nowhere else and were not intended to. Today they would be called service roads.
As such, they pre-dated all subsequent take-overs and amalgamations into home farms and the like.
Could this have been the case at Fenny? Home Farm extended from Aylesbury Street to the bottom end of what is now Western Road, but so far as I know, this transverse back way had always to be left open, thus implying that it was older than the farm itself.
Further study might prove or disprove this notion, but it could worth undertaking.