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Hilary Haydon, Brother at Charterhouse

April 11, 2014
by the gentle author

Unlike the hermit monks of the medieval priory that once stood upon this site, the current Brothers at the Charterhouse are a sociable bunch and thus I was able to pay a visit upon Hilary Haydon, the third-most senior Brother, who took me on a tour of the accommodation this week.

Seniority – in this instance – is based upon how long a Brother has been resident at the Charterhouse, not age. Yet Hilary has a rather more vivid way of expressing it. Gesturing to the pigeon holes for mail, he explained that as residents die the labels of those remaining get moved up. “You start here and then you move along, until you drop off the end,” he informed me with startling alacrity.

It made me realise that residence in the Charterhouse affects the Brothers’ sense of time – inhabiting these ancient stone walls induces a certain philosophical perspective upon mortality, setting the span of an individual’s life against the centuries of history that have passed here. It is both a consolation and an encouragement to recognise the beauty of the fleeting moment, as manifest in the immaculately-tended gardens alive with bluebells and tulips this week, and as illustrated upon the tomb of Thomas Sutton – the benefactor – by bubbles, symbolising the transitory nature of fame.

Upon a bright spring day, I crossed the wide lawn that sets the Charterhouse apart from the clamour of Smithfield, aware that my diagonal path, bisecting the velvet greensward, passed over the largest plague pit in the City of London in which sixty-thousand victims of the Black Death were interred. Arriving at the entrance, I cast my eyes up to the fifteenth century gatehouse of the former Carthusian Priory. Henry VIII met with greater resistance from the monks here than any other religious order and thus he had John Houghton, the prior, cut in four and his right arm nailed to the door.

Yet this grim history seemed an insubstantial dream, as I entered to discover Hilary Haydon waiting in the gatehouse to greet me and looking rather dapper in a linen jacket, ideally suiting the warmth of the April afternoon. He led me along stone passages and into hidden courtyards, through the cloisters and the Great Hall and the chapel, with its flamboyant monument of fairground showiness for Thomas Sutton.

My wonder at the quality, age and proportion of the architecture was compounded by my delight at the finely-conceived planting schemes of the gardens and it was not difficult to envisage this elaborate complex as a Renaissance palace, which it became for the Howard family through three generations until they sold it to Sutton in 1611. The wealthiest commoner in England, he endowed his fortune upon a school and almshouses here, entitled ‘King James’ Hospital in Charterhouse.’ Daniel Defoe described it as “the noblest gift that ever was given for charity, bu any one man, public or private, in this nation.”

Four centuries later, the school has moved out to Goldalming, leaving Smithfield in 1872, yet the almshouses still flourish – offering sheltered accommodation to forty Brothers. Formerly a barrister in the City, Hilary came here seventeen years ago when he became a widower. “I have never regretted it,” he assured me with an emphatic grin, “Meals appear, your room is cleaned and the community is supportive.” Hilary revealed to me that among the Brothers, there are solicitors, barristers and priests, as well as an actor currently understudying for ‘The Woman in Black,’ the stage manager of the original production of ‘Oliver!’ and – as we entered the refectory – he introduced a distinguished-looking gentleman as the ballet critic of The Sunday Times.

Each morning, the Brothers are woken by the chapel bell at ten to eight. “I use it as an alarm clock,” confessed Hilary in a whisper, “I attend chapel only for funerals and when I read the lesson.” Breakfast follows in the Great Hall at eight-twenty, succeeded by morning coffee at eleven, lunch at one and afternoon tea at three – and thus time is measured out in the benign conditions of the Charterhouse. “A very silent brother who sat next to me came into lunch one day and died beside me,” Hilary admitted, “As it happens, there was a doctor who was only at the other side of the table and he was across the table like lightning – it was a beautiful way to go.”

The fifteenth century gate to the monastery is encompassed by an eighteenth century structure

Doorway and cubby hole for passing food through at the entrance to the former priory, dissolved in the fifteen-forties and  bricked up ever since.

Graffiti from the days this was the refectory for Charterhouse School

Chimney piece of the three graces and a chest that may have belonged to Thomas Sutton

The Great Hall

Bluebells and an ancient fig tree just coming into leaf at the entrance to the Charterhouse

Looking through to the chapel, with the relic of a door damaged an incendiary bomb

Thomas Sutton, the founder, has lain here for four centuries

Bubbles symbolise the futility of wordly fame

Vestments await the priest in the chapel

Graffiti carved by the bored schoolboys of the eighteen-fifties in the chapel

Note the spelling of “Clarkenwell” upon the memorial stone set into the floor

In the chapel

Eighteenth century dwelling built over the ancient gatehouse

Hilary Haydon in the cloister at the Charterhouse - “It’s always cool in here”

Tours of the Charterhouse are available by clicking here

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jonathan S permalink
    April 11, 2014

    Very nice – this is one visit that I will look to make when visiting London later this year.

  2. April 11, 2014

    Fantastic photos – what a wonderful place to live. So glad this has not been destroyed! Valerie

  3. Elisabeth Mellen permalink
    April 11, 2014

    What a delight to read about this charming gentleman whom I also met, actually while on my way to Charterhouse earlier this year to take part in a museum education focus group. I was on the bus from Hackney and was unsure of where to alight, and fortunately spotted an impeccably attired gentleman who I was sure would know, and he did. Your readers might be interested to know of the partnership with the Museum of London which will soon open the Charterhouse to the public and limited schools visits as part of a regeneration of the area. Brothers will be intrinsically involved in the project, through giving tours of their home.

  4. April 11, 2014

    A place of peace and meditation — in the midst of the big city jungle!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. April 11, 2014

    Such a wonderful place – all services in the chapel are open to the public and I highly recommend these to any churchgoers out there!

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 5, 2014

    There seems to be a font in the background of one photo of the chapel. My great grandfather’s eldest child was baptised at St Thomas Charterhouse 3rd March 1861 so I wonder if this was the actual font that was used? This is another lovely interesting post, one of so many with family connections for me. Thank you.

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