Cockayne Hatley lies lost in far eastern Bedfordshire where the country rises and falls like a gently swelling sea. In a network of forgotten and disused lanes, the tiny dead end hamlet with its oasis of trees around the church on the crest of a rise is stranded among vast fields of wheat, rape and peas. Mile-wide deciduous woods shield the land from the north wind. Once the hamlet was surrounded by the largest apple orchards in Europe. Mr. Alexander Whitehead who was responsible for planting them bought the estate in 1929. A colourful entrepreneur, he used a form of pyramid selling to build his orchards and invited people to become tree- holders for a subscription. He then encouraged his existing tree holders to recruit others. By 1939 there were 1000 acres of Cox’s Orange Pippins stretching to every horizon. The estate was later bought by the Co-operative Society who grubbed up the orchards in the 1970s because they were deemed unprofitable.
In earlier times the estate had been the domain of the Cockaynes and their Cust cousins for nearly five hundred years. In 1806 Henry Cockayne Cust became the ‘Squarson’, (the squire and parson), of red brick Cockayne Hatley Hall and the gingerbread stone Church of St John at its gate. Extremely devout, he had been dismayed to find, while conducting his first Christmas service, that snow was falling on the altar. Over the next twenty five years he set about the church’s restoration and ended with the most astonishing and eclectic display of continental woodwork in the country. Ever since, the elegant triple aisled church has been a place of pilgrimage to antiquarians.
In the early part of the nineteenth century and the wake of Napoleon’s army, countless churches on the other side of the channel sold their cast offs to hovering antique dealers who, in turn, found a ready market in England. Henry bought the bulk of his church fittings from a Belgian dealer in Charleroi. They include the sensational 17th century ‘papal’ stalls from the Abbey of Oignies which was ravaged during the Napoleonic invasion of Flanders and the lavishly carved panels on the chancel walls. Henry re- ordered the church making collegiate style stalls facing each other on either side of the widened aisle. He reset the brass memorials of his Cockayne ancestors in prominent positions, placed wooden angels in the roof, created screens with the lattice work of old confessionals, installed the hexagonal pulpit from St Andrew’s , Antwerp (dated 1559) and the decorated organ carved with straggling garlands. Everywhere is a feast to the eye: the stained glass alone is worth a detour. There are some beautiful bits of 13th century glass rescued from a Yorkshire church and set into the window of the north chapel.
The church yard boasts a handsome monument to the poet and playwright W.E. Henley. ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul’, he wrote in his poem England, my England. As a young man he suffered from tuberculosis resulting in the amputation of a leg and was treated in Edinburgh where he met Robert Louis Stevenson. They collaborated on a number of plays and Stevenson used Henley to develop the character of Long John Silver. (Their friendship later ended in a bitter quarrel.) Henley was also close to J.M Barrie whom he called ‘friend’, a term of address which Henley’s four year old daughter Margaret interpreted as ‘fwend’. She then adapted ‘fwend’ to ‘Fwendy-Wendy’. Margaret died before her fifth birthday in 1894 and is buried beside her father but her memory is immortalized in Barrie’s Peter Pan as being the inventor of the name Wendy: a popular girls’ name ever since.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Smb1001