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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?

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Sir Christopher Wren lived here

Sir Christopher Wren, house, St Paul's, visit London
No he didn’t.  And neither did Catherine of Aragon.  What?!  Well, my reader may have seen the plaque on the wall of 49 Bankside, London SE1 – I know I have – which proudly says:

“Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral.”

And goes on to say:

“Here also in 1502 Catherine, Infanta of Castile and Aragon, afterwards first Queen of Henry VIII, took shelter on her first landing in London.”

The house is parked conveniently between Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre, a pretty little Queen Anne thing with cream render and red door, and is passed by hundreds of people every day.  Regrettably, it wasn’t built until around 1710, the year the new St Paul’s was finished – so, probably nothing to do with Chris and about 200 years too late for Cathy.

Allegedly, the plaque (which is of unknown age) was placed there in 1945 by the house's mildly eccentric owner, Malcolm Munthe.  Apparently, Sir Chris lodged a few doors further west, past the power station.  But it is said that the plaque was taken at face value by redevelopers working through bomb-damaged London after the Second World War, which might have saved the house from being flattened.

Cardinal Cap Alley, Globe Theatre, Tate Modern, power station
The location is an historic one, though.  The house stands on the site of an old inn called the Cardinal’s Hat, much frequented by the boisterous rowdies that used to indulge their beastly japes on Bankside.  Who knows, Shakespeare himself might have popped in for a swift pint after a show.  Samuel Pepys certainly did, no doubt prowling for comely wenches.  The pub has left its legacy in the name Cardinal Wharf and, to the left of No 49 you can see Cardinal Cap Alley – which apparently dates back to the 14th century.

There is a book, “The House by the Thames and the People Who Lived There” by Gillian Tyndall that reveals all.  I haven’t read it, but word is that it’s meticulously researched and chronicles the house’s owners almost from its first lick of paint.  The second coat is due any time soon.  I should stress that the property is in private ownership, not open to the public and you are asked to limit your gawping.

But, had Sir Christopher Wren resided there, he would have got a smashing view of his creation across the water – particularly after the Millennium Bridge had been built in 2000 (reopening in 2002 after serious wobble correction). 

Millennium Bridge, pedestrian, London, wobbly

I think Sir Christopher Wren would have appreciated this.

London at night, St Paul's, south bank

And he'd have found it easier to treat himself to a night out.

St Paul's, Paternoster Square, City of London sights

Hopefully, he'd have been delighted with this.

Plaques in London, Wren, Catherine of Aragon

But he had nothing to do with this.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

It's a sign!

I’m very proud to be British, but sometimes do wonder whether my fellow-countrymen really think things through.  I’m not talking about the easy stuff here, like domestic and foreign policy decisions, but the tough business of signage.  Of course, there are those that make money from flogging twee or allegedly amusing signs.  You get them for cars along the lines of, “Stupid person on board” or “Get any closer and we’ll need to marry”.  We like to put them on mugs, bags and T-shirts “Keep calm and carry on shopping,” “Other way up”, “Mother in laws are for life, not just Christmas” – that kind of thing.  But the signs that tickle me, and thereby qualify to be included in the august assembly of nutty notices, are those which are (probably) not intended to be amusing.

Spotting this law firm’s sign in a rainy Manchester street prompted a double-take.  Taking it as face-value, because they are solicitors and possibly reasonably bright (not necessarily true, I know) I suppose they are at least being refreshingly candid.  Perhaps other legal firms will be encouraged to own up too; we've always known they're out there, haven't we?  But presumably someone has paid money for this - so wouldn’t it be disappointing to discover that what Tuckers offer is a 24 hour service for criminals?

Don’t take my word for it, these things are all around us.  We know the obvious ones – “Heavy plant crossing,” conjuring up images of a giant cabbage sliming its way in front of your car.  Or those yellow signs on the roadside that say “Delays until January” – and you’re immediately thinking to yourself that you can’t wait that long.  When I was younger I used to giggle at “So-and-so – Family Butchers”. 

“No dogs!” said the notice on the tobacconists’ door.  I still remember my brother enquiring of the shopkeeper, a little wistfully – “Still out of dogs, then?”

We can probably take comfort from the certainty that Britain is not alone in this phenomenon.  But should we extend the field to packaging?  I’m wondering whether things like “May contain nuts” printed on the back of a packet of salted cashews (or a bottle of pickled squirrels) qualifies as a nutty notice.  But I will leave you with a couple of peaches from the extremely sensible town of Kendal, in Cumbria.  First, there was a shoe shop advertising a 3 for 2 offer.  Really, you couldn’t make it up could you?  But the winner was an emporium, which I later learned was some kind of dress agency, where you swap clothes you don’t like.  The sign said, “We specialise in unwanted gifts and impulse purchases.”  The urge to go in and say, “Excuse me, I have a sudden urge to buy something that nobody wants!” was almost too great.  It is a huge regret that I never did; sadly, the shop has been closed and turned into something much less exciting.  I have a photo of of the original sign somewhere but, irritatingly, can’t find it.

Anyway, it's all about accurate communication.  "Back soon - out to lunch."

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Helmsley Castle is ruined

Helmsley, castle, North Yorkshire, Duncombe, Feversham
So it’s official.  I’m guessing that the man who said, somewhat disparagingly, “Well, it’s just a ruin,” probably didn’t enjoy his visit to Helmsley Castle very much, poor soul.  He was half-right – Helmsley Castle is a ruin – however, not entirely; and I suggest it’s a pretty fine place for you to meander around in a leisurely fashion whilst soaking up the atmosphere – a gentle canter through British history from the Norman Conquest to the Civil War.  I wondered if I was allowing my affection for ruins (they say love begins at home) to get the better of me, so I checked out the comments on Trip Advisor.  One person mentioned that Helmsley Castle is a good place for a picnic, and another pointed out that it’s best visited on a dry day.  I wouldn’t disagree with either of those observations and I’m sure the Norman founders of the castle would be of the same mind.  Robert of Mortain, William the Conqueror’s trusted half-brother, idly picked at his Marmite and cucumber sandwich whilst Mrs Mortain poured a dark brown, steaming, cup of tea from the Thermos.  Nearby, the kids were playing Frisbee, their shouts of joy bringing grins to the scared faces of the men at arms.  “A bit deeper with that ditch, there,” Robert called good-naturedly to the group of contended workmen who were gaily building his new castle.  “Good job the rain’s held off, dear,” he commented to his wife.  “Perhaps we can get the barbie out later and have a couple of tinnies”.

Sculptures, Helmsley, North Yorkshire, English Heritage
Actually, it is generally thought that the builder of Helmsley Castle was one Walter Espec, a warrior who also founded abbeys, including nearby Rievaulx.  The castle would have been built mainly in timber sometime around 1120.  Robert of Mortain had certainly been granted the lands before that, and may well have started work on the two massive ditches which are similar to those at his castle in Berkhamsted.  From 1154-1478 the castle was in the possession of the de Roos, who surely deserve to have someone in the family called Kanga, but who were in any event powerful barons.  The name is sometimes spelt Ros (pronounced Roos) and Baron de Ros is one of the oldest titles in Britain.  Wooden palisades became stone walls and successive generations of Rooses improved the castle until, in 1478, Edmund de Roos (not Edmundo Ros) sold it to the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III.  After Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, Henry VII gave Helmsley back to Edmund (presumably he made a neat profit somewhere), but Edmund died in 1508 and that was the end of the Roos.  Now - the weather.

Tudor, Helmsley, Manners, Villiers, Duke of Buckingham
Helmsley Castle was then inherited by the Manners family, staunch Protestants, who converted the old medieval hall into a posh Tudor residence.  In 1632, the castle passed by marriage into the hands of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, hated favourite of James I and, later, his son Charles I.  If you’re minded to, you can walk past the very spot where George was murdered 300 miles away in Portsmouth in 1628.  Villiers Road in nearby Southsea is very nice.

Like many castles in the North of England, Helmsley was held for the King during the Civil War and besieged by Parliamentary troops.  Helmsley’s siege took place in 1644, from September to November, when the garrison ran out of food and surrendered to Parliament’s talented general Sir Thomas Fairfax, ‘Black Tom’.  He ordered it to be ‘slighted’ – pulled down so that it could not be used again – though he spared the residential block.  The 2nd Duke of Buckingham ended up marrying Sir Thomas’ daughter Mary in 1657, which might have been a neat ending, but the castle was subsequently sold to the Duncombe family, the Barons Feversham, who built nearby Duncombe Park and who still own the castle.

Helmsley, Yorkshire, Civil War, siege, 1644, Thomas Fairfax
So you can blame Parliament for the ruined state of Helmsley Castle today.  And a whole lot more.  But even if you can’t picture the place as a working fortress and home, or under siege, you can surely be impressed by those absolutely enormous ditches, remaining walls and the soaring but slighted east tower - with the fireplaces that would have heated long-forgotten rooms clearly visible.  The castle entrance, through the intimidating south barbican, is now defended by stylised bronze sculptures of warriors, which I rather liked.  The restored Tudor rooms in the chamber block provide a glimpse of the luxury that the Manners and Villiers families would have enjoyed and there’s a small, but interesting exhibition of local finds – canon balls, domestic knick-knacks and the like.  On top of that, the Castle is right next door to the town (or vice versa), a delightful place where I recall once drinking far too many creamy pints of Theakston’s Best far too quickly, followed up with rather too much Glenmorangie.  The memory puts ‘ruin’ in a whole different context. 

Helmsley, east tower, de Roos

Helmsley, picnic, Yorkshire, Theakstons, beer, Glenmorangie

For visitor information, see Helmsley Castle on English Heritage's website.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Up by the Riverside

Riverside Museum, Glasgow, Scottish Transport, trams
The Riverside is what used to be – and still is - Scotland’s transport museum, housed since 2011 on the north bank of the Clyde in Glasgow.  Riverside – see?  It's called branding.  Now, as my reader knows, I have never lied (my reader is a gullible chap), but this place didn’t totally grab me.  It’s not as though it doesn’t have any decent exhibits, because it has hundreds – indeed, thousands.  Nor is it that the displays aren’t any good – because many of them are really excellent.  It’s not even the fact that I could not spot any discernable logic to the cluttered layout – the fabulous Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, just down the road, bizarrely mixes Spitfires with stuffed animals and Salvador Dali - and it works.  No, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I just didn’t get the Riverside Museum.  But everyone else raves about it and it’s won awards and so on, including European Museum of the Year in 2013.

So, no one’s suggesting you shouldn’t go, because you really should.  It’s just not a place I plan to revisit very soon.

There was not enough space to show as many exhibits at the museum’s old home, which was opposite Kelvingrove Art Gallery.  The new museum cost £74 million, almost 30% of which came from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund (‘HLF’, if you’re in the know).  The building, a glass and steel thing, is constructed on the site of a former shipyard.  But the location is great, the SV Glenlee is moored outside (well worth a tour) and, once you’ve got over the feeling that you’re treading on part of Britain’s lost industry, the views can only get better.  I’m not sure the interior will stand the test of time – the décor is a fairly awful combination of pastel shades that, somehow, diminish some of the splendid objects on display.

Strathclyde Police Car, Highland Railway locomotive, Pakistani truck art, Glasgow, Scottish Transport
And there is certainly an eclectic mix.  A 1980s Ford Granada of the Strathclyde Police Force rubs shoulders with a Highland Railway Goods Class locomotive, built in 1894 by Sharp Stewart & Co at Springburn, and a colourful Pakistani-inspired piece of truck art.  The loco apparently appeared in the 1965 film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines – though, between the two of us, I can’t see how it would get off the ground.  There are some wonderful historic trams – clearly items of genuine nostalgic value for Glaswegians, judging by some of the comments I overheard.  There is an excellent reproduction of a Victorian/Edwardian street, using many original objects – though not quite as good as the one at York Castle Museum.  I was particularly intrigued by the preserved tube (subway) carriage – richly fitted out – and the ‘No Spitting’ sign.  Of all the personal habits that are best carried out away from public gaze, I wonder why they focussed on, or stopped short at, spitting.  Could this instruction be conveyed to certain footballers, do you think? Would they understand it?

No spitting, subway, Scottish transport, Glasgow underground
And then there’s the car wall.  Now, one thing that is indisputably superb about the Riverside Museum is that you can get up close and personal with many of the exhibits.  This is not some stuffy old place where everything is behind glass – though some things of necessity are, like the cakes in the café.  But there is a fabulous collection of classic cars mounted – admittedly rather impressively – on a wall, where you can only see or appreciate them en masse.  They have stuck bicycles and motorcycles up in the air/on walls too, presumably because they don’t have room to show them otherwise.  Bikes, motorised or otherwise, all look pretty much the same to me, but some of the cars were like old friends I couldn’t greet appropriately.  So that was disappointing; I still have bad dreams about it.

Car wall, classic cars, museum of transport, Glasgow, Scotland

On a closing note, like a whole raft of Glasgow’s museums, entry to The Riverside is free.  Visit the Riverside’s web pages at Glasgow Life, part of Glasgow City Council.

Tram, recreated Victorian street, recreated Edwardian street, Glasgow, transport, Scotland