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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Ho! Ho! Hum!

Trafford Centre, Christmas, Selfridges, Santa Claus
Spotted lurking outside Selfridge’s store in Manchester’s Trafford Centre, this pathetic looking Santa might struggle to make it through his Big Night.  Has he been recently exhumed?  Or perhaps there was an indelicate little accident involving Rudolf’s antlers.  What WAS the store thinking? - Poor old Harry S will be spinning in his grave*.  Makes me feel decidedly spry, particularly having successfully tackled all those little ‘jobs’ it is decided must be done before 25th December.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Every year?  Anyway, we’ve redecorated, rebuilt etc; I hardly recognise the place.

Which means that at last I have the opportunity to wish my reader, and anyone else that chances upon this little project and dips back every now and again, a very Happy Christmas and everything that is good for the New Year.  Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

*Awful after-thought: I assumed this Santa Claus was a model… 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas shopping in Glasgow

Glasgow city, shopping, style mile, Buchanan Street
I enjoy Christmas shopping, I honestly do – and I’m referring to the real, rather than the virtual, variety here.  There – I’ve said it; out of the closet at last and it feels great.  Clearly, this sets me apart from the stereotypical male; thank God.  Sometime, we’ll share a few beers, a hot curry and talk about internal combustion engines, the back pages and Which Girls We Really Liked In College; but not now – and I might skip the curry, to be frank.  Christmas shopping, then …Yes, the crowds are frustrating; no, I don’t know why everyone gets in the way.  And, because I never have a clear idea of what to get the missus, the kids, Aunt Maude etc - or enough money to buy them what I’d really like to - I end up tramping a ridiculously long way, visiting and revisiting the same shops, crossing things off lists, adding them back again, doing sums in my head and ending up with the thing I first thought of two hours earlier.  But I enjoy the sparkle, the sounds, the smells - and am not so old or curmudgeonly to deny a sense of child-like anticipation and warmth about the whole festive season thing.

Princes Square, Glasgow, shopping, Style Mile
Glasgow makes it a bit easier.  Unlike a lot of places, where you’re torn between the exhilarating thrill of trying to elbow yourself or your car into the city centre, or trek to the mind-numbingly boring uniformity of an Out of Town Shopping Mall, in Glasgow you can experience both.  Please take that anyway you want.  And, whilst you may visit particular places for particular shops – there’s only one Harrods in London, after all – Glasgow boasts all of the high street chains you can think of and more besides, all within walking distance. It’s known as ‘the style mile’.

So, here’s how it works.  Take a blank piece of paper and put an ‘X’ at the top; that’s a large shopping mall at the top of Buchanan Street called, appropriately enough, Buchannan Galleries.  In there, you’ll find a John Lewis and loads of other things – including a rather tempting place that sells lots of tasty malt whisky.  Draw a line to the left of your ‘X’ – no one can spell it, but that’s Sauchiehall Street running west-east into the Buchannan Galleries.  Sauchiehall Street is pretty much a pedestrianised shopping lane, with an M&S, BHS etc.  Draw another line down the paper from your ‘X’ – that’s Buchannan Street running roughly north-south.  More pedestrianised shopping, which includes a House of Fraser at the bottom, south end.  On the way, there are specialist shops and two smaller malls, Princes Square and Argyll Arcade on the right of your paper (east).  You probably won’t buy anything in either of them – they’re far too expensive for people like you; but they look great.  At the end of your line, write ‘Y’.  Now draw a further line to the right of that – this is Argyll Street, running east-west – more shops (including another Marks & Spencer – you feel spoiled, now, don’t you?).  The ‘Y’ is another shopping mall, the St Enoch Centre.  In the square outside that they often hold one of those Christmas markets, with stalls made to look like cut-away Nordic pine log cabins.  This is much more interesting than a department store, but a little too intimate for my liking.  It is, however, the ideal place to acquire any number of ethnic-looking curios, often made of feathers, wool, wood or leather, that you do not know the purpose of and didn’t know anyone wanted.  It is suggested you avoid buying the wife’s present here.  You can also sample delectable consumables such as Gluhwein, hog roast, crepes and all manner of salamis and cheeses.  Most stalls are staffed with people from exotic far away lands, like Germany, France, Mexico and Preston.  In Glasgow, everyone speaks English with a funny accent anyway; but do remember that is relative.

Glasgow Christmas, lights, retail
And all of this is just a haggis throw from Central Station – which is a splendid place, immortalised by Billy Connolly in the song “Last Train to Glasgow Central” (the tune being borrowed from the vastly inferior “Last Train to San Fernando” - listen to Billy Connolly singing "Last Train to Glasgow Central").

It goes without saying that you’ll experience much the same piped Christmas music in Glasgow’s shops as you will anywhere else in the UK from October onward.  But, instead of a Salvation Army brass band performing outside, you might just get some exciting pipes and drums. 

This is all very well, I hear you say, but what if you live in Skegness or Chicago?  Well, it should be absolutely clear that you can have a perfectly excellent retail experience elsewhere, and it would obviously be foolish to travel hundreds of miles just to do some Christmas shopping (incidentally, I am reliably informed that Glasgow’s shops are also open at other times of the year).  Our excuse was that we were visiting family and decided to make a weekend of it.  Which also allowed me to indulge in a full Scottish Breakfast.  I didn’t finish my Christmas shopping though; so next week I visited Manchester.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Feathers Ledbury, Battle of Ledbury, visit Ledbury, Herefordshire
We stumbled upon Ledbury because Hereford, the original destination, appeared to be closed. After travelling most of the day, we needed somewhere decent to stay, a good meal – and, between you and me, I was gasping for a decent pint. 

Ledbury suggests a certain promise as soon as you pull into it.  All those timber-framed buildings, quaint-looking little shops and beckoning pubs… There are an astonishing 173 listed buildings in Ledbury.  It’s not a huge town – population is around 10,000.  The name means something like ‘fortified place on the River Leadon’.  It was Liedeberge in the Domesday Book of 1086, though the place is more ancient than that – the ‘bury’ is old English/Saxon (Ledbury would have been in the old Kingdom of Mercia) and ‘leadon’ is from a Celtic word meaning ‘broad river’.  It’s a market town, which received its first charter from King Stephen in 1138.  Markets are still held on Tuesdays and Saturdays and you can buy all manner of yummy food and local produce in the town – fresh baked bread, cheeses, fruits, cider and hops.  The Market House on the High Street was built in 1617.

It’s hard to imagine anything much happening in Ledbury, unless you live there.  Yet in 1320, the army of Roger Mortimer, the 1st Earl of March, attacked and pillaged it.  Undoubtedly, they were after some of that scrumptious grub.  On 22nd April 1645, the Battle of Ledbury took place in the town, when Royalist troops under Prince Rupert surprised and bested the Parliamentarians commanded by Colonel Massey.  Fighting was fierce – bullet holes can apparently still be seen in the panelling of the Talbot Hotel – but reasonably brief, and it was certainly not the decisive engagement of the English Civil War; that came in June, at Naseby, where the King’s military capabilities were pretty much destroyed.

Ledbury Church, Ledbury museum, timber-framed houses, Herefordshire
In Ledbury, in 1735, riots against the turnpike road left several dead.  One Thomas Reynolds, aged 28, was arrested - many say unfairly - and taken to London to be executed.

Behind the old Market House is Church Lane, which leads to the relatively vast church of St Michael and All Souls’.  This dates from the 12th century, though it is believed that Christians were worshipping on the site 400 years’ before that.  Also on Church Lane is the local museum, Butcher Row House, which I found an awful lot more engaging than some of these places can be.  There’s a fascinating strip collage of the High Street, showing what various premises have been used for over the centuries; neat idea.

The town has literary connections and holds an annual poetry festival in July.  Some say that William Langland, who wrote Piers Plowman in the 14th century, was born in Ledbury.  John Masefield, Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, certainly was - a local school has been named after him.  “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky…”  I rather like the lines he left behind, addressed to his heirs:

Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.

Ledbury was also home to the Victorian romantic poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, apart from other things, wrote “Sonnet 43”, much loved of greeting card manufacturers (skip the next bit if you like):

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, - I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

John Masefield, Elizabeth Browning, Ledbury poets, Market House
Seems a bit over the top to me.  But there is a rather splendid clock tower on the High Street, part of the library, built in 1895 as the Barrett-Browning Institute.

Now, it’s not the intention to complicate matters by featuring accommodation here, but when you visit Ledbury you might want to drop into the Feathers Hotel, which dates from the 16th century.  We thought the place looked amazing and popped in on the off-chance that they had a room.  They did, and offered us a good rate (which was just as well, because we couldn’t afford the full price).  The room was amazing – luxury with exposed timbers, sloping floor etc.  I got my much-desired pint (or two) of good English ale, the meal was excellent and the service at dinner was superb. So, if you want to take a peek, here is TheFeathers’ Hotel website.

Ledbury lies at the foot of the Malvern Hills in the middle of some wonderful countryside.  It’s a short distance from other notable towns, like Great Malvern, Ross-on-Wye and Tewkesbury, and there are heaps of places to visit in the area.  Up until 2011, the Big Chill Festival had been held for several years in the grounds of nearby Eastnor Castle.  Here is the visit Ledbury website.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Christchurch Greyfriars

Visit London, Wren churches, destroyed in Great Fire, City Gardens
Christchurch Greyfriars is one of those places you stumble across in London without meaning to.  It is a peaceful garden planted in an old church where butterflies flutter, bees buzz, birds tweet and the traffic of a big city almost fades into the background.  The colours are mainly blue and white, with the odd splash of deep red.  The layout mirrors that of the church it replaced, with wooden towers representing columns, albeit festooned with climbers.  It is one of I don’t know how many such places superbly maintained by the City of London parks and gardens people, bless their little green souls.

The original church attached to a Franciscan monastery was built in the 13th century; the ‘greyfriars’ comes from the colour of the monks’ habits.  By the mid-14th century, this had become the second largest church in medieval London.  Inside, so ‘tis said, it was sumptuous, with seven altars, many marbled tombs and all the usual trappings.  The monastery was dissolved during the Reformation in 1538 and the exuberant interior of the church wrecked by religious hooligans.  Then it was totally destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, one of 87 churches lost in that disaster.  A new church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was constructed on the foundations of the old.  Amongst its features, allegedly, were pews made from the timbers of a Spanish galleon.  Alas, Christchurch Greyfriars became a victim to one of the most damaging air raids of London’s Blitz on the night of Sunday 29th December 1940, when an estimated 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiaries were dropped by the Luftwaffe.  The iconic picture of nearby St Paul’s Cathedral was shot the following day.  The shell of the church remains; the vestry is now a dental practice and the tower is a private residence.

London Blitz, January 1940, churches destroyed, BT bad customer service
I should have guessed that a place like this had a reputation for being haunted.  The remains of no less than four queens and other sundry famous folk were buried here.  In no particular order: the heart of Queen Eleanor of Provence (d 1291), wife of King Henry III; Margaret of France (d 1318), 2nd wife of King Edward I; Queen Isabella (d 1358) the “she-wolf of France”, wife of Edward II; and Joan de la Tour (d 1362), Isabella’s daughter and Queen of Scotland, all ended up in Greyfriars.  Isabella was, famously, lover of Roger Mortimer, who was executed for treason and possibly also initially buried at Greyfriars before being moved elsewhere.  Legend has it that Isabella was buried in her wedding dress with her husband’s heart in her hand.  Also interred here was Lady Agnes Hungerford, a great beauty, hanged at Tyburn in 1523 for her first husband’s murder, and the Mad, or Holy, Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, a nun executed for treason having prophesied the death of King Henry VIII if he married Anne Boleyn.  Apparently, Sir Thomas Mallory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, is also round about here somewhere…what happened to them all, I wonder?

Haunted London, ghosts in the City, Christchurch Greyfriars burials
The ghosts you need to watch out for are those of Elizabeth Barton, Queen Isabella, Lady Agnes, an unidentified monk – and a dog.  Rather amusingly, Isabella and Agnes don’t appear to get on too well and have been seen having a slanging match.

I sat there in this little oasis, happily chewing my sandwich, watching the butterflies, birds and bees all do their stuff.  Just across the road are the offices of my least favourite company, BT.  I briefly toyed with the idea of lobbying parliament to introduce capital punishment for really awful customer service.  Then I decided it would be quicker to call upon on the spirits that haunt this place, and ask them to pay a visit to the executive offices opposite.  Let that be a lesson to anyone who decides to take me on.

See the City of London's website for more about Christchurch Greyfriars.  The nearest tube station is St Paul's (Central Line - the red one).

Taking part in INSPIRED SUNDAY meme

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Treasurers' House

Visit York, ghosts, Frank Green, Roman Road
I’d never felt a burning desire to visit the Treasurers’ House in York; there are so many other things to see and do in that city.  Big mistake - put it on your list immediately.  For one thing, it is an outstanding house; for another, it is the location for one of Britain’s most intriguing ghost stories.  Plus it has a small, but very pleasant, garden.

The Treasurers’ House was the historic home of the treasurers of York Minster until 1547.  There has probably been a house on the site since Norman times – the first Treasurer was appointed in 1091 - and medieval masonry, possibly from the Bishops’ Palace that once stood to the north of the Minster, has been incorporated into the much altered building and gardens that you now see.  One of the external walls is largely 12th century – thought to be part of the original structure.  In fact, the site is even older than that; a colonnaded building stood there in Roman times and the house sits over one of the main Roman roads, the Via Decumana, which also runs underneath the neighbouring Minster.

Treasurers' House, haunted York, National Trust
The house was remodelled in the early 17th century, which resulted in the symmetry and shape of today’s building.  It subsequently passed through various hands, was extended, altered, split into different houses and by the end of the 19th century it was in a bit of a mess.  Then, in 1897, along came Frank Green.   What! - you’ve never heard of him?  Well, I hadn’t either.

Frank Green (1861-1954), educated at Eton and Oxford, was the son of a wealthy industrialist and an avid collector.  He purchased the three properties that together formed the Treasurers’ House (though I believe part of the original is now a hotel) and ‘restored’ them to what he felt was a more fitting state.  And the result is a real peach – 13 wonderful period rooms (and servants’ quarters in the attic).  This also provided a home for Frank’s large and eclectic collection of furniture, artwork, clocks - and so on and so forth.

Edwardian York, Frank Green, eccentric, industrialist, collector
By all accounts, Frank was a bit of a chap; an impeccably dressed dandy and socialite, he entertained the ‘A list’ celebs of the day – including the future King Edward VII – at his Treasurers’ House.  Some feel in retrospect that he was a little eccentric, mentioning things like his insistence that workmen wear slippers in the house and his habit of sending his laundry to London each week as examples  – although that all seems very reasonable, don’t you think?  In 1930, Frank retired to Somerset (as you do) and donated the entire house and its contents to the National Trust.  Yes, the boy had money.  There was a condition, though, and it was that everything should be left exactly as it was.  You can still see the studs in the floor that mark the precise spots where particular items of furniture should be located.  And Frank, who was 93 when he died, threatened to come back and haunt the place if his condition was not met.

Haunted York, Treasurers' House, bloodstains, cafe near the minster
Ah, so you’re thinking that Frank is the ghost?  Well, apparently spirits of the departed would bump into each other at the Treasurers’ House, if only they could, especially on the stairs.  And visitors often smell a ghostly cigar.  But the story you’re about to read started long before tobacco arrived in Britain and long before the Treasurers’ House was built.

In 1953 a young apprentice plumber, Harry Martindale, was working in the cellar trying to make a hole in the brick ceiling for a pipe.  He placed his ladder, unwittingly, on a section of Roman road that had recently been excavated 18” (46cm) below the floor.  At around about lunchtime, he heard some kind of blaring musical note – a horn, or trumpet, maybe.  It seemed to be coming from the wall, and got louder and louder.  Then, looking down from his ladder, Harry saw a figure of a man wearing a plumed helmet come through the wall.  Understandably, Harry fell off his ladder and landed on his backside.  Huddled in the corner of the cellar, he then clearly saw a Roman soldier on horseback after the first man, followed by 20 or so more soldiers marching two abreast.  They didn’t look in Harry’s direction, but seemed to pass through the opposite wall.  When they had all gone, Harry dashed out of the room and met the curator, whose first words were, “By the look of you, you’ve seen the Roman soldiers?”  One of the extraordinary things about this incident is the detailed descriptions Harry was able to provide of the men, which included things that were not known at the time.  The soldiers wore green tunics, short red skirts and carried large round shields, spears and wore short swords.  Incredibly, Harry described them as being unshaven and looking very weary – even dejected.  They were dark and short – appearing to walk on their knees; clearly, they were following the level of the original road that they had marched on sometime during the 4th century – which is the period Harry’s soldiers have been dated to.

Harry Martindale, Roman soldiers, Via Decumana

Visit the Treasurers’ House website for more information.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Scottish Parliament Building

Scottish Parliament Building, Edinburgh
Is this the ugliest public building you’ve ever seen?  Considering this is – or should be – a national statement, isn’t Scotland entitled to something a little more splendid?  Just a personal view, but from the front it looks rather like one of those sad, run-down, hotels built in the 1960s or 70s.  Internally, the stylish unfinished concrete and polished plywood d├ęcor reminded me of a shopping centre, constructed in the wake of bomb damage, that my hometown couldn’t wait to get rid of forty years’ ago.  Given the otherwise elegant architecture and stunning vistas Edinburgh offers, I confess to being a little surprised that this thing even got on to the shortlist.

And as it’s across the road from Holyrood Palace, you’d think they’d give Her Majesty something a little more inspiring to gaze at over her morning cuppa when she visits, wouldn’t you?

But the Scottish Parliament building has won prizes, so what do I know?  At least it isn’t boring, certainly not on the inside – the whole thing oozes irregular-shapes – but this, and the gaps between structures and the finishes used, must make it a maintenance nightmare.  The architect was a Catalan and Chinese granite was used in the construction – because of course Scotland possesses neither qualified architects nor any granite worth mentioning.  The construction cost was a staggering £414.4 million – ten times over budget – and it was three years’ late.  That, I’m afraid, suggests either an exceptional degree of bungling incompetence, or criminal mismanagement of public money.  Apparently, the building had a raft of defects – about £49,000 worth according to one report in 2013.  As of the year ended 31st March 2012, running costs (including members’ salaries) were £72.4 million.

Scottish Parliament Building, Edinburgh
Every now and again, you come across Scots who are rather cross about all of this.  Perhaps spitting mad would be more accurate.  I daresay other Britons are mildly concerned too.  It would be tempting, at this juncture, to rabbit on a bit about more justifiable ways of spending taxpayers’ hard-earned pay - education, care for the sick and elderly and other minor social responsibilities, for example; but of course I won’t.  It isn’t all bad, though; the debating chamber is a hemicycle (semicircle), designed to encourage non-adversarial discussion – unlike the mother of parliaments at Westminster.  That’s alright then.

In any event, whilst you probably wouldn’t want to go out of your way to visit the Scottish Parliament, entry is free and you might want to pop in out of interest – perhaps if you can drag yourself away from watching snails dodge the traffic.  In the interests of balance, I should close by saying that I met someone just the other day – an Englishman as a matter of fact (though of Welsh descent) – who thinks that the Scottish Parliament Building is the Bees’ Knees.

Visit the Scottish Parliament website for more information.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

National Coal Mining Museum

Coal Mining Britain, Coal Mining Yorkshire, visit Yorkshire
Steve wears an orange overall, white hardhat and is an ex-miner; one of those types that exude reassurance; the sort of bloke you instinctively like, and trust.  He gathers us in with a twinkling eye, his flock, without any fuss or rancour.  We queue, sizing each other up, the people that are going underground together.  Of course, no one considers the possibility that we may be down there longer than planned.  We exchange lighters, watches, cameras, phones, nasal hair-clippers (anything sparky, electronic or battery powered) for hard hats, miners’ lamps and power packs.  There’s good-natured banter between Steve and his colleagues.  No high-heels?  Good.  Those that want to can have their (last?) photo taken before going down.  Steve makes us all stand on the thick glass platform over a disused mineshaft and jumps up and down.  “Safe as houses,” he says with a satisfied grin.  “You try.  No – no, not there!”  Mock horror.

There’s a bit of nervous giggling as we enter t’cage to go down t’pit.  We squeeze in, eighteen of us and our amusing shepherd.  The steel concertina doors rattle shut and the hoist jolts down the shaft.  “Did you fix the brakes?” yells Steve at an invisible friend far above our heads.  No answer.  “Damn”, he says.

Steve’s guidance over the next hour or more, 459 feet (140 metres) underground is informative as well as amusing.  We are looking at a resource that was formed in the Carboniferous Period, between 354 and 290 million years’ ago.  That’s even older than my jokes.  He tells the story of coal mining from when this colliery, Caphouse, was first worked in the late 18th century.  Light was by candle in those days, which the miners provided themselves.  Children as young as 6 years old worked in mines – for example operating vents (doors) – in the pitch dark.  Women worked in mines too – particularly in Scotland, for some reason.  The public at large only became aware of this after a shocking disaster at Husker Colliery near Barnsley in 1838, when a mine flooded and 26 children died.  Victorian sensibilities were seemingly offended almost as much by the fact that it was common for both sexes to work half, if not fully, naked.  At any rate, the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 prohibited all females and boys under 10 from working underground in mines.  That was the Law, though some women wanted to continue whatever the Law said; it was usually a matter of economics.

Coal mines, working conditions, coal museum Yorkshire

Flooding was one hazard.  Others included the risk of being maimed or killed due to collapses in the mines, and blown up or suffocated by various types of gases - known as ‘damps’. Clearly, risks reduced with more protective legislation and increased mechanisation, but we all know they still exist today.  Miners were (and are) also prone to a raft of unpleasant medical conditions – lung problems, skin problems, ruptures, stunted growth, curvature of the spine.  “Can’t you stop talking about people dying?” a small boy asked Steve in piping, plaintive, tones.     

Caphouse Colliery, days out in Yorkshire
Gradually, pit ponies replaced human haulers in pits.  These creatures often didn’t see daylight, but it’s a myth that they all went blind from working underground, or that they were habitually mistreated – though conditions were obviously equally harsh for ponies as for humans.  In 1913, there were some 70,000 pit ponies working in mines in Britain – despite the invention of the steam engine; there were still 55 in 1984 and the last one, Robbie, retired in Wales in 1999.

Steve explained the working of a seam, and the increasing mechanisation of mining.  The newer machines are terrifying – enormous rotating drill heads steadily cutting through rock like some unstoppable, perverted and obscene monster.  Caphouse Colliery closed in 1985.  The machines are still interred there – probably millions of £s worth.

Back up on topsides (yes, we returned), you can take a peek round some really excellent museum displays and visit the pithead baths, which were installed in 1938, and other surviving parts of the colliery.  You can also meet Eric and Ernie – a couple of ponies – visit the venture playground and go round the nature trail.

Pithead baths, Caphouse, coal mining in Britain
The National Coal Mining Museum (I notice there’s a suffix in the title – ‘for England’) is heavily aimed at schoolchildren.  Yet unlike many attractions with a leaning toward a younger audience, this one does not patronise.  There’s more than enough to fascinate – and, I think, humble – most adults.  Would I have wanted to be a coal miner?  No.  We should have a huge admiration for those that were – and still are.

Only the blinkered believe that Margaret Thatcher killed coal mining in Britain.  It wasn’t even the 1980s miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill.  Pits had been steadily closing throughout the 20th century.  Output peaked in 1910 when 3,253 collieries produced 264 million tons of coal.  In 1920, the industry employed 1,248,000 people.  By 1980 that had shrunk to 211 collieries employing 230,000; in 1985 that was down to 133 collieries employing 138,000; by 2004 it was 19 and about 6,000 respectively.  I believe there are just 3 deep coal mines in Britain now, employing around 3,000.  From what I can make out, most of Britain’s coal now comes from Russia, Columbia and the USA.

You’ll find the museum on the A642 between Wakefield and Huddersfield.  More information from the National Coal Museum website.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Scarborough Castle

Yorkshire castles, haunted, siege, Scarborough, German bombardment English coast
Scarborough Castle dominates this Victorian seaside resort from a massive precipitous headland bulging up from the North Sea. It has a fascinating 3,000 year story to tell – but its fame is assured because the ghost of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s extremely close friend, is reputed to haunt it. If this prospect isn’t enough to put the willies up you, Piers’ headless spectre, allegedly, leaps out of the shadows, causing the unwary tourist to tumble down the sheer cliff face onto the fish and chip wrappers below. Which just goes to show that Piers must have been a pretty bad egg after all. He actually met his death 180 miles to the south, though, on Blacklow Hill, Warwickshire, where he was beheaded and run through on the orders - or with the connivance – of the Earl of Warwick. Maybe his spirit prefers the sea air at Scarborough.

Scarborough castle, Civil War, Piers Gaveston, George Fox, Yorkshire
There is evidence of settlement on the headland long before all that, however, from around 800BC and, in 1984, a Bronze Age sword was discovered. A thousand years’ later, in the 4th century AD, the Romans built a signal station on it – probably one of a coastal chain designed to warn of attacks from Germanic pirates. Then, skipping another 500 years or so (during which nothing happened unless you were there...), a Viking called Thorgils Skarthi arrived around 965AD and Scarthaborg was founded - Skarthi is an Old Norse nickname meaning ‘hare-lipped’ and borg (Old English burh) means ‘fortified place’ – so Scarborough means something like “Skarthi’s stronghold”. A chapel was built close to the old Roman signal station shortly after this and we assume a settlement grew up, probably in the sheltered harbour below the castle. But in 1066, the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada, set fire to the town and slaughtered many of the residents – shortly before receiving his come-uppance at the Battle of Stamford Bridge

By the 12th century, a serious fortress had been erected on the headland and from 1159 Henry II turned this into a royal castle. His son, King John, carried out extensive alterations – including the construction of a royal chamber block and hall. Indeed, John spent more on Scarborough than on any other castle – but perhaps he needed to, because repairs seem to have been a recurring need throughout its history. In fairness, it is an exposed site and, without ongoing attention, medieval castles tended to dilapidate. However, by the time of Edward I (1272-1307), Scarborough was one of the great castles of England. Edward held court – and Scottish prisoners – here. Piers Gaveston’s connection came in 1312, when he took refuge in Scarborough and was briefly besieged before giving himself up with the promise of safe conduct – a promise which, as we know, the Earl of Warwick did not feel bound to keep. The castle was attacked by the French during the Hundred Years’ War but, curiously, the Wars of the Roses seem to have passed it by. By the late 15th century it was in poor shape again, though Richard III stayed awhile in 1484, before going on to lose his crown to Henry VII and take up a long residency under a car park.

Vikings, Yorkshire, Hardrada, Pilgrimage of Grace
Scarborough Castle was briefly besieged by rebels in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace – a (mainly Yorkshire Catholic) revolt against Henry VIII’s church reforms – and one of the leaders, John Wyvill, was hanged in chains outside the town. It was under siege again in 1557 when Thomas Stafford, apparently something of a nutcase, walked in, proclaimed himself ‘Protector of the Realm’ and tried to incite rebellion against the Catholic Queen Mary, claiming that England would be overrun by Spaniards as a consequence of Mary’s marriage to King Philip of Spain. The castle was easily re-taken and Stafford was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Thirty two of his followers were executed too - at least some of them at Scarborough, where their bodies were boiled and tanned as a deterrent for others; it would work for me.

Things seemed to calm down a bit until the English Civil War broke out in 1642. Sir Hugh Cholmley initially occupied the castle for Parliament, but switched to the Royalist side. Apart from a brief and bloodless recapture by Parliamentary forces in 1643, Cholmley successfully held Scarborough and the castle for the King, providing an invaluable port, until 1645. After a long siege, during which the castle (and St Mary’s church below) were severely damaged Cholmley, with no food and only 25 men fit enough to fight, was forced to surrender; more than half of his original force of 500 had perished. A second – much briefer - siege took place when the latest Parliamentary commander, clearly a man of principles, also declared for the King because Parliament failed to pay the garrison. 

After the Civil War, the castle became a prison – one of its inhabitants from 1665-66 was George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), who complained that the conditions were appalling. However, apart from attacks by the Dutch and American navies in 1653 and 1779 respectively – obviously nothing to worry about - Scarborough’s military adventures seemed to have come to an end. A barracks had been built in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion (on the site of King John’s chamber) and a battery was established on the headland. But all was relatively peaceful for awhile.

Visit Scarborough, Victorian resort, castle, WW1, North Yorkshire
Everything changed for Scarborough at five minutes past eight in the morning of 16th December 1914. Two battle cruisers of the German Imperial Navy, Von Der Tann and Derrflinger, opened fire on the town. The attack was ostensibly an attempt to draw Britain’s Grand Fleet into battle. 200 shells were fired: the castle and its barrack block were seriously damaged, as were other buildings in the town below; 90 people were injured and 18 killed, including 14-month old John Shields Ryalls, who perished with his nurse, in her arms.

Most of Scarborough Castle is now in ruins. The castle gate and barbican, spanning the only reasonable approach, still impress though; Henry II’s great keep, so badly damaged in the Civil War, looms over you and the curtain wall extends along the south, until it disappears over the eroding cliff. The 18th century Master Gunner’s House includes some interesting displays. Other remains - John’s chamber and hall and the Roman signal station - can be seen in outline. When you think about it, it's surprising so much has survived.  The staff are friendly and it’s a bracing walk around the top of headland, with great views on a good day. So don’t visit Scarborough without seeing the castle. But keep an eye out for Piers Gaveston, the little tinker.

For more, click HERE.

Monday, 4 November 2013

National Memorial Arboretum

Shot at Dawn, British Army executions, Private Herbert Burden, Armistice Day, shell-shock victims, Andy DeComyn, places to visit in Staffordshire

Shot at Dawn: this shocking memorial commemorates the 306 British soldiers executed by the British Army for cowardice or desertion in the First World War.  They were granted posthumous pardons by the Government in 2006.  The statue, by Andy DeComyn, depicts 17-year old Private Herbert Burden of the Northumberland Fusiliers, blindfolded and strapped to an execution post, eternally waiting to be shot in the Belgian town of Ypres in 1915.  The names of all those executed are on the stakes that curve behind Private Burden like a supporting chorus.

Shot at Dawn is one of more than 250 memorials, military and civil, on 150 acres of soggy reclaimed gravel pit between the Rivers Trent and Tame in Staffordshire.  Inspired by visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the National Arboretum in the USA, Commander David Childs RN CBE wanted to establish a national focus for remembrance in Britain.  An appeal was launched by the then Prime Minister John Major in 1994, planting began in 1997 and the National Memorial Arboretum officially opened in 2001.  The land was gifted by French building materials firm, Lafarge; and I must say that when I visited, on a cold January afternoon, it was a sodden, frustrating, experience: the lesson is to take sensible footwear or go in dry weather if you want to explore.  And explore you should – preferably by foot, though there is a land train for those unable, or too tired, to do that.

Many of the memorials are stunning works of art.  But there are thousands – possibly millions - of stories behind all of them.  I have arbitrarily selected just three to, briefly, feature in this article.

POW memorials, Stalag XIB, XID/357, Remembrance Sunday, places to visit in Staffordshire, David Childs, National Memorial Arboretum
The evocative half-open gates honour prisoners of war from thirteen nations held in camps Stalag XIB and XID/357 from 1939-45.  The memorial is a replica of one built near the sites of the camps in Fallingbostel, Germany, and symbolises the liberation of 17,000 men by the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars on 16th April 1945.  Also remembered are those POWs that died, including during forced marches of disease, malnourishment and mistreatment as Allied armies closed in on the defeated Nazi regime.

We also see a detail from the magnificent National Memorial to the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, sculpted by Charlie Langton and Mark Jackson.  This shows the Greek warrior hero Bellerophon, slayer of the monster Chimera, mounted on Pegasus – the symbol of British Airborne Forces since 1941.  Beneath this, a life-size bronze paratrooper pulls his Bergen up the mound toward the statue.  The whole thing took two years to create.

The diversity of memorials at the NMA to those who have served their community, given their lives or who have suffered in some way, is enormous.  Military monuments are in the majority and the huge, emotionally charged, Armed Forces Memorial – a living tribute to lives still, sadly, being lost in Britain’s name - dominates the skyline.  But there are memorials to people from all walks of life, and a children’s woodland where individual youngsters, and babies, are remembered.

Parachute Regiment memorial, Airborne Memorial, Pegasus, Remembrance Day
Not all of the memorials are new.  It used to be normal for large employers to have plaques in their head offices commemorating the members of staff who served in, and did not return from, the 1st and 2nd World Wars.  Some of these memorials could be quite large, and ornate.  As businesses and organisations merge, and relocate, I know from professional experience that there is usually no longer any place for these testaments to long-gone employees.  So I was very pleased to see that some of them have found a home at the National Memorial Arboretum, rather than being forgotten and consigned to the scrapheap.

It is going to be awhile before the trees at NMA fully justify the name-tag, but that is to be expected – and it is a place that you could visit very frequently without taking it all in.  A variety of events are held there all year round and there is a daily service in the chapel near the visitor centre.  Of course, you’d expect particular activity around Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, 11th November.  More information from the NMA website HERE.

You can read a bit about Britain in the First and Second World Wars HERE and HERE.

The NMA is located near the village of Alrewas, just off the A38 between Lichfield and Burton upon Trent.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Paternoster Square, London

Paternoster Square, City of London, private spaces, investment banks, Stock Exchange

What’s happened to dirty old London?  I’ve been working in and around the place for the worst part of 30 years and I’m forced to admit it’s getting better.  Stumble across Paternoster Square and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in some other grand European capital.  It’s a bright, buzzy place, surrounded by investment banks (everybody’s got to be somewhere), the London Stock Exchange, restaurants and shops.  And, if you hadn’t guessed or didn’t know, St Paul’s Cathedral is a neighbour; ‘Pater noster’ means our father.

Once a livestock market, centre for the publishing trade, flattened in the Blitz and (apparently) subsequently unloved, the redeveloped Paternoster Square was fully opened for business in 2004.  It’s dominated by the 21st century 23 metre high Paternoster Square Column, which gives more than a nod to Wren and The Monument – it’s even topped off with a flaming urn; and, ingeniously, it doubles as a ventilation shaft.  On the far side, you might spot Temple Bar – Wren’s 17th century gate that once stood on Fleet Street marking the western boundary of the City of London.

The redevelopment was by the Mitsubishi Estate Co.  Interestingly and, for some, controversially, the open space is privately owned – which means you have no right to be there.

Be a rebel when you go; leave the Armani at home and wear something from M&S.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sizergh Castle

Sizergh, castles in Cumbria, Kendal attractions, Strickland
And, your tongue-twister for today – is pronounced ‘size-err’…which sounds a little West Country to me.  But it is, in fact, bang in the North West of England, just outside Kendal and a few miles from the Lake District.  I am told the name is derived from Old Norse ‘sigarith’, which apparently means ‘dairy-farm’.

However, there’s little of the dairy-farm about Sizergh Castle.  On the other hand, it’s not really a castle either.  It probably started out as a pele (or ‘peel’) tower – a defensive structure common in these once troubled border regions.  What you see now is more of a medieval house, with a fine 16th – 18th century interior that includes some splendid furniture and portraits.  Plus, it has rather lovely gardens.  There’s a very unusual, and impressive, limestone rock garden that was laid out by Hayes of Ambleside in 1926 (the firm is still there, transformed into one of those huge garden centres that sells un-horticultural stuff like scented candles and decorations).  Sizergh also has a fine kitchen garden – not something I’d normally get excited about before dinner, but it is downright impressive.  There’s an orchard, a couple of lakes – and beehives (if you’re not worried about supporting bees, you should be).  Plus – pleasant walks to be had through the grounds and beyond.  So it’s a good place to go to.

Sizergh, gardens, Cumbria, spring in the Lake District
Though the estate was given to the National Trust in 1951, Sizergh Castle is still lived in by descendents of the same family, the Stricklands, who acquired the place through marriage in 1239, when Henry III was on the throne of England.  My American reader may like to know that an early Strickland, Joan, married a Robert de Wessington – direct ancestor of a chap called George Washington.  Anyway - the Stricklands lived on the edge, when this part of the world was close to the frontier with Scotland.  A Strickland carried the banner of St George at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  During the Wars of the Roses, they took the Yorkist side.  They were Royalists during the Civil War of the 17th century – Sir Thomas Strickland fought at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, and was captured by the Parliamentarians.  They were also related to and friendly with another local family, the Parrs – Catherine Parr married Henry VIII in 1543, the last of his six wives.  But the Stricklands were Catholics – which isn’t a huge problem for most people in the UK today, but could be massively inconvenient during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  Amazingly, the Stricklands managed to emerge from all of that unpleasantness relatively unscathed; that, I suggest, was quite an achievement.

Sizergh, gardens, spring, Cumbria, Strickland
It is at this point worth mentioning that the male Stricklands mostly seem to have been called Thomas or Walter, with the occasional Robert thrown in for good measure.  But as you’re unlikely to be introduced, I don’t suppose it matters much.

You can see the Catholic connections in particular in the dining room at Sizergh where, as well as having the most amazingly ornate carved overmantle (nothing sinister about that – it’s just a wonderful piece of work), there are portraits of Charles II, his brother James II (looking like he has a very unpleasant smell on his upper lip) and the latter’s wife, Queen Mary of Modena.  On the opposite wall is a portrait of James and Mary’s son, James (‘the Old Pretender’ – oh yes!), who would have become James III if his father hadn’t been swept off the throne in favour of the Protestant William and Mary.  Over a doorway is a bust of Bonnie Prince Charlie, ‘the Young Pretender’.

When James II went into exile, Sir Thomas and Lady Winifred followed.  Before going, they placed Sizergh in trust with two family servants so that it could not be seized by the government.  These loyal employees kept the property safe until young Walter Strickland was able to return to England to reclaim his inheritance.  Incidentally, Lady Winifred was extremely close to Queen Mary of Modena and was with her when she died, writing afterwards that she closed her queen’s eyes.  Back at the ranch, the Stricklands took no part in the rebellions of 1715 or 1745, despite the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army marched close to Sizergh on the way south to Derby (see "The Last Battle" for more about this).

Catholics in Cumbria, the Reformation, Restoration, Glorious Revolution, 1715, 1745, Jacobite
The ‘inlaid chamber’ at the top of the tower is worth a mention.  This room is decorated with exquisite 16th century panelling.  But in 1891 it was sold to the V&A Museum to raise necessary cash.  It returned to the room it was designed for in 1999 on permanent loan, and was restored.  Not necessarily something you’d get at IKEA, but stunning nevertheless.

My favourite room though, is the old banqueting hall in the tower, with its 17th century refectory table and pewter.  On one wall is a huge 16th century broadsword.  It’s wonderfully atmospheric – the sort of place you could imagine having a great meal with far too much ale.

And then there’s the ghost.  It is said that a husband locked his wife in a room in the tower, to keep her safe from marauding Scots, whilst he went off to put an end to the danger.  But he did not return.  The poor woman starved to death and her wails can be heard when the wind is right…It’s all very unlikely isn’t it?

Sizergh, pele tower, banqueting, haunted, Cumbria
From junction 36 of the M6, take the A590 toward Kendal.  Follow the A590 on the first exit off a roundabout signposted for the South Lakes.  Turn immediately right off the dual carriageway to Sizergh Castle.

Visit the website for Sizergh Castle for more information.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Customer service in Britain

BT, complaints, bad customer service, unhelpful staff, call centres, Warren Buckley
Horrendous experience with BT, Britain’s leading telecommunications provider (possibly the world’s worst company?), as well as the twerps at Royal Mail, got me thinking about customer service in general.  If you’re a visitor to these fair shores you should know what to expect when spending your money with us.  If you live here, you already know what it’s like; you’ll be well aware of the cavalier, often bullying, style adopted by some of the UK’s major communications, financial services and public sector organisations.  But what visitors really need to know about happens at street level – not because some oik has messed up a direct debit or your broadband.

It’s hard to resist saying that customer service can be exceptional in Britain; so, make the most of it when you come across it.  But, bad jokes aside and to be fair, you should find that customer service is on the whole pretty good in smaller owner-operated retail outlets, restaurants and pubs.  Occasionally, you’ll come up against the salesman or waiter that thinks they’re doing you a favour, but intentionally bad service is rare.  However, indifference, or a lack of basic manners, is unfortunately universal – particularly in the larger chains.  Those amongst the latter that generally get it right include Booths (a family-run supermarket business in the north of England where, I am shocked to say, shopping is actually enjoyable), John Lewis (including Waitrose), most branches of Marks & Spencer, Pizza Express, TGI Fridays and Premier Inn (except their restaurants, which range from naff-awful to very good). There are two independent DIY stores local to me that put the big boys to shame, but I have found the folk at Wickes to be pretty good.
Booths Supermarket, good customer service, Kirkby Lonsdale, Kendal, Settle, Preston

Good customer service is nothing to do with intelligence; I sent a link to this post to the good folk at Booths and they ignored it; how stupid is that?

Motorway service areas and railway stations are in a class of their own – and are mostly a rip-off; one exception is Tebay, on the M6.  You may also come across the charming trait of ‘upselling’, whereby it is assumed you are an idiot who has forgotten that you need a large bar of chocolate, bottle of water, big sticky cake – or something else that you hadn’t asked for, but which the assistant helpfully reminds you about.

Misunderstood be easy is it to sometimes, so here are a few phrases/signals you may experience whilst out and about in Britain:

Which means…
“Good morning/afternoon/evening sir/madam, how may I help you?”
Madam.  Or Sir.
Sir.  Or madam.
I’m not your friend at all, but do imagine that I’m much tougher than you are, so don’t get cocky with me you miserable customer.
“Enjoy your meal”
a) Absolutely nothing; I’ve been told to say this.
b) The cat refused this earlier so I’ll be interested to see how you get on.
c) Enjoy your meal.
Masticating on chewing gum whilst talking to a friend
I don’t deserve to have a job and you are an irrelevance to me.
Doing something with the till roll and completely ignoring you
Not only are you irrelevant, but I’m also much more important than you are; and anyway I’m so stupid that I can only think of one thing at a time.
“How is the meal?”
a) Absolutely nothing; I’ve been told to say this and will be very confused if you complain.
b) I’m intrigued to see you haven’t thrown up yet.
c) How is the meal?
“How are you today?”
a) If you know this person, “How are you today?”
b) If you don’t know this person, you are up against trainers who are not only insincere but also socially retarded; don’t fight it unless you are feeling strong.  The best response to this naff enquiry is to say, “Actually, I’ve not been very well.”  And then provide a few gory details.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
I really hope there isn’t - hurry up, I’ve got a hot date and want to go home to wash my hair.
“Tall, grande or venti?”
The firm is fond of pretentious twaddle.
“If it’s not on the shelf, we ain’t got any.  Innit.”
I’m so dreadfully sorry, my friend, Tarquin, got the order wrong and we are clean out; but we are expecting a delivery next month.  God forbid you should think I can’t be bothered to drag my pimply arse into the warehouse to check the stock for you.
“Our computer system is, like, literally down”
The computer is feeling very depressed.
“The soup is, like, good.”
The soup is close to being edible.
“The fish is, like, off.”
I’m terribly sorry; the fish is so popular that we’ve sold out.  Please let me tempt you with an alternative tasty morsel from our wonderful menu.
“Sorry for the delay, we are, like, really busy at the moment.”
We got our staff levels wrong so you will have to wait even longer than you have already.
“You look great in that dress/suit/fluffy bunny outfit.”
They could be lying; get a second opinion.
“Did you see the match last night?  We decimated them.”
Every tenth member of the opposing team was taken out and shot.
“See you later”.
Goodbye.  (DO NOT mistake this for an invitation).