FIRING OF THE FENNY POPPERS
I have found that by arriving at most towns before eight in the morning one has a reasonable chance of getting around without too many traffic problems, but thinking I was so close into London I determined to arrive a bit earlier than normal, and a good job I did, as the traffic and parking was building up rapidly when I arrived at the Long Stay carpark not too far from my destination for the day.
I was headed for Fenny Stratford, to see the Fenny Poppers being fired.
The Fenny Poppers are miniature cannons - similar in size and shape to a huge drinking tankard. At the bottom of each is a hole forming a breach for the firing. There are six of them, each weighing around 19lbs (8.6 kls), and every year on Nov. 11th they are filled with gunpowder rammed down with newspaper, and taken to be fired off in commemoration of the life of Dr. Thomas Willis who died 11th Nov. 1675.
The cannons were left by Browne Willis - Dr. Willis’ grandson - plus a bequest to fund a sermon to be preached in St Martin’s Church - which he had built as a memorial to his grandfatherearly in the 18th C. on the site of an old Chantry Chapel suppressed during the reformation. The bequest also funded a meal for local dignitaries after the firing.
Fenny Stratford once presumably a charming village has now been absorbed by Milton Keynes, known now as MK which seems to me a highly suitable nonemclature
MK was designated a town in 1967 taking its name from Milton Keynes a small village near the heart of its proposed 89 km2 (34 sq mi) As well as incorporating Bletchley, which I planned to visit later, it engulfed Fenny Stratford and about another fifteen or so villages. I recently read an article written by Sir Peter Hall shortly before his death bemoaning the current state of Town Planning and remembering the ‘glory days’ of the development of Milton Keynes. Having visited the place and read the article, unless I completely misunderstood what he was getting at, I must say my ‘gast’ is completely ‘flabbered’ and all my prejudices about Planning Officials suddenly feel totally and utterly justified.
Maybe I missed the ‘best bits’ of MK - to me itseemed to have heart nor soul, and very few of the folk I saw there or spoke to seemed particularly happy about the place. Afterwards I googled ‘What is it like living in Milton Keynes ‘ and came up with another Guardian article - here are a couple of quotes
I have lived there, and I want to offer an appreciation of Milton Keynes. I’m fond of the place. I grew up in the surrounding area – a 10-minute drive away – and until recently lived in a flat smack in the city centre, above a Café Rouge, opposite a Nando’s, a Zizzi, a Las Iguanas, with the Argos headquarters to the rear, a Jury’s Inn on one flank and an enormous Sainsbury’s on the other. Dear reader, you’re right: I was living the dream.
When people talk about Milton Keynes, they tend to mention two things: concrete cows and roundabouts. Why, you might ask, aren’t they marvelling over how one can get to Bletchley on the train in four minutes, Leighton Buzzard in 11 minutes, Cheddington in 17? Or how there are two Costas, two Prets and two Starbucks in the same shopping centre?
Was this tongue in cheek? It was MK - who can tell?
So having parked up and somewhat forlornly explored what I think was the Milton Keynes part of Milton Keynes I headed off to find the Fenny Stratford part of Milton Keynes and experience the long tradition of the Firing of the Fenny Poppers.
No one I spoke to seemed to be able to point me in the right direction and certainly no-one had an inkling about the Firing of the Fenny Poppers, but eventually someone gesticulated vaguely and said - Well I think there might be a church down there somewhere - and I headed off. Going along I could clearly see the remnants of the original village street of Fenny Stratford, with its church, shops and pubs, one of which had part of its roof blown off around 1854 when one of the ‘cannons’ exploded.
The poppers were to be fired at noon, two o'clock and four o'clock and I still had plenty of time when I got to the church. A car pulled up more or less as I arrived so I took the opportunity to ask if I was at the right place and if he knew anything about the Firing of the Fenny Poppers. I had struck gold. He and his brother who drove up a few minutes later, both lovely guys from a local family who had lived in Fenny Stratford since before MK had been a gleam in the Town Planner’s eyes - had for many years been in charge of the Fenny Stratford Poppers and the firing of them on Nov. 11th.
I was let into the church, which I would suspect is normally locked and it is quite surprisingly ornate inside - apparently it is very ‘High Church’. Plus I was allowed a close look at the miniature cannons prior to them being taken to the field for the firing of the various batteries - if that is the right word. And - even better - I was to be given the privilege of setting one of them off at the noon-day firing
Before the firing I took a bit of video of the cannons being loaded in the carpark, well away from the brazier which had been lit earlier in the day to heat the long curved firing rod - the end of which was heated at the brazier, then offered up to the breach to set off the charge - the explosion sending out clouds of shredded newspaper in all directions and filling the air with the smell of bonfire night.
And someone got a photo of me - in the red jacket at the end setting off one of the poppers!