Saturday, August 23, 2014

An English Summer: Day Six: The Dorothy L. Sayers Conference in Cambridge

Gargoyle at medieval St. Wendreda church, in the village of March, Cambridgeshire
So excited at being here I didn't sleep very well, but Jan walked me into town, stopping for coffee on the way.  It's probably a half-mile or so to Downing College, but a lovely walk across Cambridge, and the college is very serene and beautiful, too, in 18th century Palladian style.  I was there for the annual Dorothy L. Sayers conference, and here are the notes that I wrote up afterwards for the Lord Peter Wimsey ( and Piffle lists (, members of both of whom went to the conference.
Downing College
 St. Clements Church, Outwell

I was lucky enough to spend yesterday at the Dorothy L. Sayers Society AGM in Cambridge. It was a glorious golden day such as Lewis Carroll used to write about happening at The Other Place, and equally filled with gargoyles. By those, I don't mean the dear Piffle and Lord Peter people (and some Girls Own list people) it was delightful to see after so long. I will fail if I try to mention them all, but there was Alan Jesson of course, Big Ruby Solitaire (Claiborne Ray), The College Cat and Tom (Gillian and Gregory Hill - well I called him Tom, not sure if he liked it, and not exactly sure if his name is actually Gregory either), Kate Lambert, Catherine McKiernan, Lesley Simpson, and most warmly for me, old friend the Half-Hedgehog (Robin Leidner), with whom I used to correspond on Sayers and the Jews and Sadie Schuster-Slatt. (Miss Schuster-Slatt, the irritating American outsider, has long been my "nom" on the lists.)
Along the Fens

The Fens as seen from the Bus

I  wasn't staying at Downing College but with professor friends elsewhere in the city, but it did mean I had to walk half across the city to get there, so only arrived sadly rudely in the midst of Alan's charming talk. I did hear the young engineering gentleman who told us all about the mechanics of fens and sluices and locks and guillotine doors, which was a most lively, interesting talk. His wife is expecting momentarily, and the lady who introduced him made a very funny joke about childbirth and sluices that doesn't come across somehow when I try to tell it.
Rev. Alan Jesson's talk

The College Cat and the Half-Hedgehog
Claiborne and me 

Half-Hedgehog at St. Wendreda's
Mrs. Christopher Deane (right)

There was a very nice lunch, sandwiches and bhaji and things, and scrumptious meringues with strawberries, and then at 1 PM we set out in two coaches on the Fens tour. The countryside looked so green and lovely as we drove first to St. Clement's Church, Outwell, then St. Peter's Church, Upwell (where I have visited before, when Alan was still rector there), and lastly the Church of Saint Wendreda in March. All were glorious, and at St. Clements we were treated to tea and perfectly lovely cakes baked by parishioners. I bought a set of postcards showing the medieval demon and Apostle wood carvings that adorn the church. I found St. Wendreda's extremely interesting, too. This is the church of which John Betjeman said it was "worth cycling 40 miles in a head wind to see." It was founded to honor St. Wendreda in the 7th century, and I was very taken by her name and those of her sisters, Etheldreda and Sexburgha, which would do very well as alternate names for our cats. (Pindar would be Wendreda, Martial Ethel, and little demon Catullus, Sexburgha.) Anyway, the building is mainly 14th century and the double hammerbeam interior angel roof of 1523 with 120 carved angels is a wonder. I actually preferred the gargoyles studded all over the outside of this very curious and marvelous place.
A delicious, churchy tea
An elegant dinner

We were back at the College by 6:30, for drinks on the lovely lawn and then dinner in the handsome hall, everyone dressed elegantly. Very fine dinner, too: salad lyonnaise, lamb with red wine cabbage and dates, and cake with sorbet. As it was dark and I was very tired from the day I rather wisely took a cab home!

Miss Schuster-Slatt

The famous double hammerbeam angel roof at St. Wendreda's

 Gargoyles at St. Wendreda's


Cambridgeshire view from the bus...Oh England!



Anonymous said...

Well, who would have thought that such a God-forsaken-looking place as March (my train between Peterborough and Ely frequently stops there) could have such an old and beautiful and interesting church!! I sincerely beg its pardon. Love the JB quote which I must remember next time I pass through. Lovely day for you, Diana, full of friends and fens. Barbara

Jay Fahey said...

So jealous of your trip, of every stop, of every friend, of every bite. I must read Dorothy Sayers again; I'd forgotten about her. Thanks to you, I'm learning what a "fen" is.....

Diana Birchall said...

Have to agree, Barbara, March looks a bit bleak, no there there - but clearly St Wendreda's is the "there"!

And Jay, the Sayers book that this Fen excursion was all about, is of course The Nine Tailors. You can't be in those places without thinking about it, and it will all be so vivid in my mind when I retread it next!

Anonymous said...

Here I liked the photos which look up. Ellen