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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?

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Mousetrap

Mousetrap, Agatha Christie, West End, visit London, Britain
All of you luvvies out there will know that ‘The Mousetrap’ is a play.  But it isn’t just any old play; it is the longest running show of any kind in the world and therefore, irrespective of theatrical merit, should possibly be on your list of Things To Do and See Before You Die.  No; perhaps that’s going a bit too far – but do put it on your list of Things To Consider When Visiting London.

The Mousetrap is a classic ‘whodunnit’ penned by the uncrowned queen of detective stories, Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (1890-1976).  It opened in the West End of London in November 1952, with Richard Attenborough and his wife, Sheila Sim, in the cast and has been continuously running there ever since, transferring from its original venue of the Ambassadors Theatre on 25th March 1974 to the larger adjacent St Martin’s Theatre without missing a performance.  The world premier (I doubt anyone thought it a particular landmark at the time) was actually at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, on 6th October 1952.  Agatha Christie originally wrote Mousetrap as a short radio play called Three Blind Mice, and did not think the theatrical version would run more than a few months.

The action is set “in the present”, but it is clearly sometime in 1950s England.  Recently married Mollie and Giles Ralston are preparing to receive their first paying guests at Monkswell Manor, when news comes on the radio of a ghastly murder in London.  One by one, the Ralstons’ visitors arrive, each one ranging from slightly quirky to certifiably bonkers.  One of these individuals is called Christopher Wren, so you know that Something Isn’t Quite As It Should Be.  The weather closes in, rain turns to heavy snow, Monkswell Manor gets cut off – and the arrival of a policeman on skis confirms your worst suspicions.  And you can take that anyway you want.

London theatres, St Martin's, Mousetrap, whodunnit, visit Britain
In Agatha Christie land, murder is unpleasant, and no doubt terribly inconvenient for the victim, but any attempt at grit or reality would be bad form and is decently avoided.  Mousetrap is more of a pleasing, and slightly intriguing, romp through 1950s middle-class eccentric home counties England than a sinister drama.  Therein lies part of its charm.  The performance we saw in April 2014 was jolly good with some frightfully spiffing acting from the whole cast, though I thought that Helen Clapp as Mollie Ralston and Gregory Cox as the mysterious Mr Paravicini were particularly convincing.  And, no – I won’t tell you what happens, because that would spoil it.  Indeed, they ask you at the end not to divulge ‘whodunnit’ – which is fair enough, I think.

The fun of Mousetrap is complemented by the experience of St Martin’s Theatre, which has a decidedly cosy auditorium and whose stage, prior to the Mousetrap’s arrival in 1974, has been graced by some of the great British thespians of all time.  The theatre first opened its doors in 1916 and, though it apparently underwent a major redecoration in the 1990s, it did strike me that some parts, including the toilets, somehow got missed in all the excitement.  The bar prices are appropriately extortionate and, when we gallantly gave our custom, the barmen were evidently seeing how long they could last without smiling.

So if you thought that the mousetrap was a device to catch small rodents, think again.

St Martin’s Theatre is in West Street, WC2H 9NZ – nearest tube station is probably Leicester Square.  Visit the official website for The Mousetrap and St Martin’sTheatre to find out more.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh, castle rock, Votadini, Gododdin

You can’t imagine Edinburgh without its castle - it is one of the City’s landmarks, dominating the skyline, perched on a seemingly impregnable, daunting, volcanic rock at the end of The Royal Mile.  On a bright day, perhaps at festival time and viewed through the colours of Princes Gardens, it is ambiguous, even beguiling; when it’s a dreich day, there is no doubt that this mighty, brooding, fortress does exactly what it says on the tin.

William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Wars of Independence, Edinburgh Castle
In Roman times the rock was occupied by a Celtic tribe known in Latin as the Votadini, whose territory spanned modern south-east Scotland and north-east England.  The descendents of the Votadini were known in Celtic as the Gododdin, with a stronghold they called Din Eidyn, or Eitin.  In 638 AD Din Eidyn was captured by the Angles (or Anglesc, ancestors of the English), whose Germanic language changed the ‘din’ (stronghold) to ‘burgh’ – hence Edinburgh.  By the 11th century or earlier, Scots – originally a tribe from Ireland – were dominating south-east Scotland.  The Battle of Carham (in modern England) in 1016 secured Scottish sovereignty at that time over this part of the world.  But, it’s amusing that the ancestors of the English got to Edinburgh before the ancestors of the Scots did.  Lol.  These days, of course, we’re all hybrids.

Edinburgh, sieges, black dinner, Kings of Scotland
By 1093, Edinburgh Castle was a royal Scots residence – though it was occupied by the English for 12 years in the 12th century.  At that time, it was mostly built of wood – stone walls were erected in the 13th century.  The castle fell to England’s Edward I after a siege following the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, and the English hung onto it until 1314.  Then, in one of the most daring assaults in history, Scots forces loyal to Robert the Bruce recaptured it by climbing up the rock at night.  Led by the Earl of Moray and guided by a young man called William Francis, who used to live in the castle and sneak out to visit friends, they completely surprised the sentries – and the castle was once again in Scottish hands.  A few months’ later, Robert the Bruce decisively beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.  For awhile, Edinburgh Castle lay abandoned – but in 1335 it was retaken by the English, only to be captured again by Scots posing as sailors bringing provisions, led by Sir William Douglas; the English garrison was massacred.

Edinburgh Castle was rebuilt under Kings David II and Robert II, becoming Scotland’s premier royal stronghold.  In 1440, the infamous ‘black dinner’ took place there, when William, Earl of Douglas and his brother David were invited to dine, then murdered.  In 1479, King James III’s brother Alexander, imprisoned for intriguing against his king, escaped on a rope dangling from his cell – and returned with an English army.

By the 16th century, the castle was increasingly being used as an arsenal and the Stewart kings were spending more time at the infinitely less draughty and more comfortable Palace of Holyrood at the other end of town.

Edinburgh, Mary Queen of Scots, Lang Siege, Covenanters
However, security demanded that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England, within the strong walls of the castle.  After Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, the Governor of Edinburgh Castle, Sir William Kirkaldy, refused to surrender what he saw as Mary’s castle to her enemies – which resulted in what is known as the Lang (long) Siege - of 1571.  With the help of guns on loan from the English, the besiegers finally prevailed and poor loyal Sir William was dragged to mercat cross in the city and hanged.  His head was subsequently displayed on the castle’s walls.

All was relatively peaceful until 1639, when Presbyterian Covenanters, unhappy with Charles I’s religious policies, occupied the castle a couple of times.  Then came the Civil War.  The Scots proclaimed Charles II king following the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649 and the influential Covenanters switched sides in support.  English Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell moved into Scotland.  The Covenanters were defeated at Dunbar in September 1650 and, once again, Edinburgh Castle found itself under siege; it surrendered in December.

Medieval cannon, garrison, armoury
Thereafter, the castle essentially became a garrison fortress.  The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 largely passed Edinburgh Castle by, and now it is claimed to be the most popular paid entry tourist attraction in Scotland, with more than 1.4 million visitors each year.

It isn’t just a mighty fortress, packed full of history and wonderful stories.  There are state rooms, built for and fit for kings, as well as several museums.  You can very easily spend a day at Edinburgh Castle.  Highlights include:

  • Rows of cannon line the battlements, from which there are stunning views of the city – and beyond.

David I, Margaret, Malcolm III, oldest building in Edinburgh
  • Mons Meg, a 15th century siege gun – made in Mons, Belgium, a gift to James II from the Duke of Burgundy in 1457.  It was used at various sieges, but could only travel 3 miles a day.  Mons Meg was fired in 1558 in celebration of Mary Queen of Scots’ wedding to Francis, the Dauphin of France.

  • The oldest building (not just in the Castle but in Edinburgh) is the lovely St Margaret’s Chapel, built c1130 by King David I and dedicated to his mother.

  • There are two regimental museums – The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (cavalry) and the Royal Scots museums.  Included in the former is the French Eagle Standard, captured by the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  The roots of the Royal Scots date back to 1633 – the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army – and the museum tells tales of battle honours won all over the world.

Napoleonic Wars, American War of Independence, Edinburgh prisons
  • Edinburgh Castle is also home to the National War Museum (of Scotland) and the Scottish National War Memorial.  20% of all Scots who enlisted in the British armed services during World War I did not return home.

  • Vaults where French, American - and other - prisoners of war were held – absolutely fascinating - and the Victorian military prison.

  • The Royal Palace – sumptuous apartments where James VI of Scotland and I of England – the first monarch of both countries – was born.

King James IV, hammerbeam roof, suits of armour, weapons, Edinburgh
  • The Honours of Scotland – essentially, Scotland’s crown jewels – and the ancient Stone of Destiny.  Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny since time out of mind, until it was removed by the English in 1296 and subsequently used in the coronations of most English and, since 1714, all British, monarchs.  The Honours were locked away after the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.  The author Walter Scott obtained permission to seek them out in 1818 and they were put on public display.  They are absolutely amazing – and there is a fascinating exhibition to go with them.

  • The Great Hall – built in 1511, with a wonderful hammerbeam roof, and lined with armour and ancient weaponry.

And, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh in the summer, you can experience the festival in the city and the military tattoo held on the esplanade in front of the castle.  The backdrop of the fortress is a dramatic setting to a magnificent display.

When you’ve done it, treat yourself to a wee dram – you deserve it.

Visit Edinburgh Castle’s website for more information.

Edinburgh Military Tatoo, pipers, massed bands

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

26 Turkish sailors

Turkish sailors, Britain, cholera, Gosport, Turk town, visit Hampshire
There’s a naval cemetery in Clayhall Road, Gosport, just to the west of Portsmouth on England’s south coast.  The cemetery is the final resting place for some 1500 British sailors and commemorates many more through various memorials.  It opened in 1859 and was the official cemetery for the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, which stood just up the road.  For some time, the route between the hospital and the cemetery was known as ‘Dead Man’s Lane’ due to the high number of funeral processions from the former to the latter.

Segregated behind a neat railing-topped brick wall, in a corner of the cemetery by Stoke Lake, are the graves of 26 Turkish sailors.  How did that happen?  In life, these were crewmen from two ships of the Imperial Ottoman Navy, the Mirat-i-Zafer and the Sirag-i-Bahri, which were paying a courtesy visit to Britain in 1850 and were anchored just off Gosport.  The ships stayed for several months and the men were welcomed ashore by the locals.  Most of those buried far from their homes died of cholera, some perished as a result of accidents during training.  I don’t know how many were victims of cholera, or whether they contracted the disease locally or elsewhere.  Cholera, a bacterial infection caused by contaminated food or water (as a consequence of poor hygiene) was certainly a killer in Victorian Britain.  According to the National Health Service, the last recorded case in England was in 1893 (sorry, it didn’t mention Wales or Scotland) and it only occurs now if contracted overseas.

Cholera, Turkish burials, Turk Town, Gosport

So that’s why there’s a corner of a foreign field for these Turks.  It’s a sad little story.  The memorial inscription reads, in Turkish and English:

“They set sail for eternity met their creator and here they are laid to rest.”

I have read that there is an annual memorial service held at this Turkish Naval Cemetery in southern England, attended by the Turkish Ambassador, but have not been able to discover when it takes place.  As a footnote, Gosport is sometimes referred to as ‘Turk Town’ – could this small cemetery be the reason?

Friday, 4 April 2014


Avro Lancaster, RAF Museum, Hendon, S-Sugar, visit Britain

If you visit the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, north London, you’ll find a massive aircraft hanger entirely dedicated to bombers.  Most of the aeroplanes on display in ‘Bomber Hall’ are World War Two vintage, some are more recent – and some aren’t bombers at all (so we’ll leave those out for the time being).  It is an uncomfortable contradiction that weaponry designed, of course, to kill and maim, can occasionally evoke intense feelings of pride and comradeship.  This is particularly true of aircraft and ships, in which (mainly) young men achieved amazing things, often as part of a close-knit team.  And how can something that is intended to perform such an ugly job at the same time sometimes also appear so beautiful?

Perhaps it is because I was brought up on a cultural diet that included Captain WE Johns, Nevil Shute, heroic biographies and a myriad of war movies (“On your tail, Algy.”), but some of these aeroplanes seem like old friends.  Making plastic Airfix kits at an early, impressionable, age can’t have helped.  So it is hard not to look at these machines without admiration and a sense of nostalgia - though I hasten to add that I wasn’t there.  “OK, Big Boy, starting my bombing run now.”

RAF, Flying Fortress, 8th Air Force, museum, London
Aerial bombardment remains one of the most controversial aspects of warfare.  Precision targeting is obviously preferable to indiscriminate blanket bombing, but is cold, clinical – and terrifying because of the seemingly unstoppable and intelligent power behind it.  Laser-guided missiles that can take out particular buildings were the stuff of science fiction when British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin claimed in 1932, that, “The bomber will always get through”.  In the 1930s, it was thought that any future war would be hallmarked by devastating air attacks against civilians, including the widespread use of gas.  The destruction of the Spanish town of Guernica by the German and Italian air forces in 1937 seemed to support this theory.  Immediately prior to World War Two, military expert Basil Liddell-Hart predicted 250,000 casualties in Britain in the first week of war.

Yet the German Luftwaffe never really seriously developed the sort of heavy bomber that the British and Americans did, relying on medium bombers and dive bombers that could be used as mobile artillery – dive bombers were more accurate than dropping bombs from a great height.  In the initial stages of World War Two, the main protagonists shied away from bombing civilians – though the Germans regarded both Warsaw and Rotterdam as legitimate strategic targets.  The RAF spent a lot of time dropping leaflets and some in Britain regarded the bombing of Germany as an outrage against private property.  The reality was that no one had the technical ability to hit specific targets with any real precision – whatever the propaganda said. 

Halifax bomber, Norway, attacks on Tirpitz, RAF Hendon
Baldwin was right – the bomber always got through, though the human cost was mutually appalling.  60,595 British citizens were killed during air raids on the UK in the Second World War.  The British, joined by the Americans from mid-1942, embarked on a strategic bombing campaign that was intended to reduce Germany’s ability to continue the war by hitting the means of production, as well as military targets.  Anything between 305,000 and 600,000 people, including POWs and slave labourers, died in Germany from Allied bombing between 1939-45.  It is estimated that perhaps 45,000 alone perished in the raids on Hamburg in July 1943 and up to 25,000 in Dresden in February 1945, when the concentration of high explosives on both occasions was so great that it caused firestorms – similar to the effects of an atomic bomb.  Royal Air Force and US Army Air Force (USAAF) crew were christened, Terrorflieger, ‘terror flyers’, by the Germans.  The fear of being caught in a bombing raid is, thankfully, incomprehensible to most of us; helpless, unable to retaliate or take much action that would guarantee survival for themselves or their loved ones, often the best people could do was wait, and hope, until it was all over. They were, on all sides, truly victims.

RAF Bomber Command included many nationalities – for example, Australian, Canadian, South African, Indian, New Zealanders, Polish – and American.  It suffered horrendous casualties; 55,573 air crew of Bomber Command died – an atrocious death-rate of 44%, the worst of any branch of the UK's armed services.  USAAF deaths were 26,000 out of 305,000 aircrew deployed in the European Theatre.  Many thousands more were wounded or taken prisoner.  Most of these were very young men, convinced they were doing a job that would win, or shorten, the war.

Lancaster bomber, RAAF, museum, London, Hendon
All of which is pretty sobering when you survey the impressive exhibits in ‘Bomber Hall’.  Here is a bit about some of them.

Avro Lancaster I
The ‘Lanc’, designed by Roy Chadwick and initially equipped with four Rolls Royce Merlin engines – the same powerhouse that drove the Spitfire – was the iconic RAF bomber of the Second World War.  More than 7,000 were built and it is believed 17 survive, though only two are still airworthy – one in the UK and one in Canada.

The one at RAF Hendon is S-Sugar, a famous aircraft that survived at least 125 operational sorties over Europe between 1942 and 1945, first with 83 Squadron based at Scampton, Lincolnshire, then with 467 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Vulcan aircraft, V bomber, scramble, 617 squadron, Scampton, museum
Avro Vulcan B2
The distinctive delta-winged Vulcan was one of the RAF’s ‘V bombers’, carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent until the advent of Polaris submarines in the 1960s.  They were operational from 1956 until 1984 and served in the Falklands War of 1982.  The aircraft had a range of more than 2,500 miles - and the wingspan of almost 100’ (30.3 metres) is massive!

The one on display flew with 617, 83 and 27 Squadrons RAF between 1961 and 1981.

Boeing B17G “Flying Fortress”
Called “the Flying Fortress” because it was so heavily armed, from 1944 the B17 was the mainstay of the 8th Air Force of the USAAF, “the mighty 8th”, operating from Britain over occupied Europe.  The USAAF flew by day, whilst the RAF worked at night.  12,731 B17s were built – it is said that one rolled off the production line at Boeing’s factory in Seattle every 90 minutes – and they were supplied to air forces all over the world, including the RAF.  The Brazilian Air Force was still flying them up to 1968.  Hollywood stars Clark Gable and James Stewart both flew in B17s.  They were massive aeroplanes, with a crew of 10.

The B17 at RAF Hendon was built in 1945 and was in service until 1956.  It was actually flown across the Atlantic to the museum in 1983.

USAAF B17, Hendon, strategic bombing campaign, RAF
Handley Page Halifax II
The Halifax took a major part in the night bombing campaign against Germany, dropping more than 25% of the RAF’s bombs.  But it suffered major losses and was restricted to less hazardous targets and duties from September 1943.

In April 1942, this particular aeroplane, W1048, attacked the German pocket battleship Tirpitz, anchored in a fjord near Trondheim, Norway, from a height of 200 feet.  It was badly damaged in the attack.  The pilot, P/O Don MacIntyre, a Canadian, skilfully managed to land the fatally wounded aircraft on the surface of a frozen lake.  All 6 crew got out alive: 1 was captured by the Germans and the others made their way to neutral Sweden with the help of the Norwegian resistance.  The Halifax sunk.  The wreck was discovered in 1971 and was recovered in 1973.  Amazingly, after 30 years in an ice-cold lake, the instrument panel lit up when connected to a battery.

B25, Mitchell, Pacific theatre of war, supplied to USSR
North American TB-25J
The B25 “Mitchell” was a highly successful World War II American medium bomber, supplied to air forces all over the world, including the RAF and the Soviet Union.  The US mostly employed it in the Pacific theatre and did not use it in Britain.  It was 16 Mitchells that took off from the carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo in the ‘Doolittle Raid’ of April 1942.

The aeroplane in the museum at Hendon was built in 1944 and served as a training aircraft with American forces until 1959.  It was used in two films, Catch 22 and Hanover Street (which I confess I’ve never heard of) and flew to Britain across the Pond in 1978.

Tornado jet, Panavia, used in Gulf War, Hendon RAF museum, bomber hall
Panavia Tornado GRIB
Not all of the aeroplanes at RAF Hendon are particularly ancient.  The Tornado was jointly developed by the UK, Germany and Italy in the 1970s and was also supplied to Saudi Arabia.  Although no longer in production, Tornados are still in service at the time of writing (2014).

The particular aircraft shown on display at the museum was built by British Aerospace at Warton, Lancashire in 1983.  It served in Operation Desert Storm, the Gulf War in 1991, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and with 617 ‘the Dambusters’ Squadron.  It was withdrawn from service in 2002.

The RAF Museum at Hendon is within easy walking distance of Colindale tube station – Northern (black) line, Edgware branch.  If you’re driving, there is parking on site – which is charged for – but entry to the museum is free.  From J4 of the M1 – left, left, steady, right, right, left, steady, hard left now Skipper.  OK Chaps, we're home; all switches off.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Great Stone of Fourstones

Glacial erratic, Forest of Bowland, the Devil, legends Lancashire, Yorkshire

Up on the moors on the edge of the Forest of Bowland is a large, box-shaped, chunk of rock.  It sits just inside North Yorkshire on the border with Lancashire.  With characteristic English wit and imagination, it is known as ‘the Big Stone’ or ‘the Great Stone of Fourstones’ – because there used to be three more, presumably smaller, stones which have long since vanished.  You can reach the Great Stone by climbing south out of the town of High Bentham along the more intriguingly named Thickrash Brow.  Cross the cattle grid and you’ll see it away to the west, at the end of a (normally rather soggy) path.  There’s a small pull-in for vehicles.  Or you can come at it from the other direction, across the bleak moors north of Slaidburn – not recommended in dodgy weather.

The stone is about 18 feet high and used to be a boundary marker between the two counties.  Experts think it was a meeting place in ancient times.  It’s a breezy location – there must have been cosier spots where tribal chiefs and what-not could have got together for a natter.  Perhaps they liked looking at the smashing view of Ingleborough away to the north east.  Some long-dead person has carved 14 steps in the side of the stone so you can clamber to the top.

Geographers will recognise the Great Stone of Fourstones as a glacial erratic – a piece of stone transported from far away by a glacier and left behind when the ice retreated 10,000 or more years’ ago.  Possibly during the course of its journey, it has been tumbled – the strata in the rock are about 90 degrees off horizontal.

That explanation is, of course, complete tosh.  Everybody knows that the Devil dropped the stone on his way to build the Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale about 11 miles away – though I suppose it’s possible that it was thrown across the Irish Sea by the giant Finn McCool (who built the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim).

Three Peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside, Pen-y-ghent