Dizzying heights

Hanslope Church Open Day 2006
Hanslope Church Open Day 2006

For those of us who get the wobblies on the top of a pair of steps, all heights are dizzying.

So it beggars belief how by using only hand and footholds a steeplejack once climbed the spire of Hanslope church to replace the weather vane. The story is now well known and also how he eventually came to a sticky end.

But there’s another tale of such daring, when a firm of soda water manufacturers in Newport Pagnell needed the upper part of a tall chimney re-pointing. They called on the services of the aptly named William Upchurch, some years before he had been up the church steeple at Saffron Walden to fix a weather vane, at a height of some 200 feet.

However, at Newport Pagnell he worked at a lesser altitude and by driving hooks into the brickwork just fixed three ladders one above the other to the chimney. Then without safety ropes he carried out the task, often leaning precariously outwards. Not to be recommended, since he weighed more than 15 stone.

On the subject of chimneys, many old photos of Fenny Stratford show the tall and ornate examples that once graced a former farmhouse in Aylesbury Street. Some were dummies, for decoration, but all were removed in March 1928.

A few years later attention was needed to the less impressive replacements, by the removal of an elder tree growing out of the cement. Nowadays, perhaps the most impressive of domestic chimneys are those to be seen atop of Winslow Hall.

As for William Upchurch, he worked all over the country and was much in demand for repairing the lightning conductors on the very highest chimneys in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In fact due to their lofty prominence chimneys are often a prime target for lightning bolts, one of which in 1785 knocked down the chimney of a house in Weston Underwood.

Splitting the building, it demolished the corner of the adjoining premises, and a drunkard asleep inside was so terrified he promised to never indulge again.

In more recent years, the tallest chimneys were those of the brickworks, with the four of the Flettons brickworks demolished in 1970, some four years after its closure.