I just love the parks we have in Southend. I was in one of them, Priory Park, on Saturday, along with my son, heading for its wonderful enclosed garden that I used to frequent in my younger days, and discovered an impressive new visitor centre right opposite the museum occupying part of Prittlewell Priory, which was established way back in the early twelfth century, and got to meet some of its helpful guides. One was particularly knowledgeable about the history of the place and its other associations with the past, and it gave me an opportunity to have a pleasant chat.
Something I did not reckon on when I stumbled across the visitor centre was a statement to the effect that the monastic order of monks that originally occupied the priority were Cluniac, which as I later found out had a significant presence in Western Europe in medieval times, contributing significantly to its spiritual and social life. I also found out that the land that came under the priory extended a lot further than Priory Park and went right up to the sea front. It was maybe a bit too much to establish much of a connection between the nearby find of the tomb of the Saxon prince built centuries earlier and the ongoing work researching those finds, but at least it got me thinking about Southend’s Christian heritage.
My interest in the Cluny monks began a few years ago when a friend, an elderly man, came of my house, situated just round the corner to Southend’s Cluny Square. One of the significant things he does is lead heritage tours, particularly in places like London and Cambridge, where he relates places of interest with Christians who made an impact on the culture that lived in and impacted those places. It was then that he mentioned the Cluny monks and the possible relationship with the name of my nearby square.
Admittedly, there is room for further research on the matter, particularly about this order, what it achieved locally, what made them tick and some of the conflicts, such as local antipathy to France, where the Cluniac order’s centre was (we were often at war) and the priory’s dissolution under Henry VIII. As is the practice of most municipal authorities, names given often had connections with things that went on in the further distant past and, while I don’t know what decision making process did take place that gave Cluny Square its name, I don’t doubt that nearby connection was a factor.
This all got me thinking when last night I chaired a meeting of the Cluny Residents Association (CRA). One of the items on the agenda concerned some feedback we got from people commenting on what was good and what was bad in the area and how we might go about improving it. One of the comments that had been made was “Cluny Square had the worst reputation in the town, now has the best”. While the truth of the statement might well be questioned, there was a feeling things are better now than they were. Another unresolved discussion was whether we should rename ourselves, partly due to the dubious reputation that Cluny Square had in the past.
I couldn’t help thinking about the Cluniac prayer: “O God, by whose grace thy servants, the Holy Abbots of Cluny, enkindled with the fire of thy love, became burning and shining lights in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.”
Maybe, my mission is helping to reclaim the area for the monks!