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Hilary Haydon, Brother At The Charterhouse

July 22, 2019
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.

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, and as illustrated upon the tomb of Thomas Sutton – the benefactor – by bubbles, symbolising the transitory nature of fame.

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. 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 twenty 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 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”

Visit The Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, EC1M 6AN

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At The Charterhouse

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Hugh Fowler permalink
    July 22, 2019

    Those naughty 18th Century Monks came very close to facadism with that new gatehouse.

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    July 22, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a beautiful life you describe for Hilary and his fellow travelers at the Charterhouse. Almost reminds me of the atmosphere in Trollope’s THE WARDEN. Particularly liked your description of their mailboxes that they are “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”

    Lovely pics too …

  3. Jan Marsh permalink
    July 25, 2019

    female figures on sculpted chimneypiece represent Minerva, Juno and Venus not three graces. with Juno in maternal aspect in pride of place

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