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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, 25 June 2014

In search of the Golden Hind

Golden Hind, Bankside, St Mary Overie, around London Bridge
Someone posted a picture on the social network, Google Plus, labelled "The Golden Hind, London".  Only it wasn’t the Golden Hind at all – it was another vessel entirely, some massive tall ship.  A couple of days’ later, someone else posted a photograph which he claimed to be of the White Cliffs of Dover; it wasn’t – it was Beachy Head.  Now, it’s wonderful that folk want to circulate pictures of all the fabulous things to see in Britain (even if some of them are photo-shopped into ridiculous colours), but I know you will be shocked to hear that there are people out there who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about; they probably don't even know who took the photograph.  Yet the falsehood is out there in the ether, ready to trip up the unwary. You may think that’s a little harsh, bearing in mind these are almost certainly innocent, albeit lazy, errors.  But consider the disappointment that could result from confusion.  Imagine the consternation if someone muddled up St Pauls with the White House, or Brighton Pavilion with the Taj Mahal (no, no – not the one that serves a good Lamb Tikka – the other one).  A Bit About Britain may contain mistakes (and nuts), but at least we all know where we are.

Where was I?  I was going to enlighten you about the Golden Hind - of which my overseas reader may never have heard.  The Golden Hind was a ship, originally named the Pelican, which sailed in a small fleet of five vessels from Plymouth, England, in the year 1577.  They were on a mission to open up trade links with new countries and their leader was the infamous Francis Drake.  Drake was what the English, masters of euphemism, call ‘a merchant adventurer’, but what most people would call a pirate.  Under pressure, the English may reluctantly accept the term whilst pointing out that “he was our pirate, so that makes it OK”. 

Golden Hind, Francis Drake, captured treasure, sailed round the world
Drake’s interpretation of his mission was to loot any Spanish or Portuguese ship or settlement he could find, which I know many of you will find reprehensible (especially if you are Spanish or Portuguese).  He returned after 33 months, in September 1580, with a vast load of treasure, having sailed to the coast of what is now Brazil, through the Straits of Magellan, up the Pacific coast (landing in California), across to the Philippines, Java, round the Cape of Good Hope and home to Plymouth via the west coast of Africa.  Just before he rounded South America, El Draque renamed his ship the Golden Hind in honour of his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton, whose family crest was a golden female deer.  Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.  Of the five ships that set out, the Golden Hind was the only one to return, with a crew of 56 remaining men.  Good Queen Bess, Queen Elizabeth I, knighted Drake for his exploits on the poop deck of the Golden Hind in Deptford.  Her half share of the profits was more than the crown’s income for a year and enabled her to pay off her entire foreign debt – with loose change.  Just imagine the uproar if the honours system worked in a similar way today.

Replica of Golden Hind, visit London
The Golden Hind was put on display in Deptford – surely one of the first such examples of a public attraction – until it rotted away sometime in the 17th century.  There are three bits left - but they belong in other stories (see the Middle Temple for two of them).

The ship pictured is a full-size replica, Golden Hinde II.  It was conceived in 1968 by two American businessmen, Art Blum and Albert Elledge, who wanted to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Drake’s landing on the west coast of the USA in 1579.  Loring Christian Norgaard, a Californian naval architect, spent three years meticulously researching the right dimensions and materials.  There were probably no detailed design drawings for ships in Tudor times, and there was certainly nothing in existence for the Golden Hind.  The work was given, appropriately, to a Devon shipyard, J Hinks & Son of Appledore, and Golden Hind II was duly launched in 1973.  She has sailed all over the world, just like her illustrious predecessor - and even as far as Salford - but is now berthed, for the time being, at St Mary Overie Dock on London’s Bankside.

I have a more nostalgic recollection of another replica of the Golden Hind, moored in picturesque Brixham Harbour, Devon.  On a family holiday as a child, I vividly remember the excitement of wandering over this tiny ship.  It was only the words ‘ice cream’ that brought me back from the Spanish Main where, as Drake’s lieutenant, I swashbuckled my way to untold riches, sword in hand.  The ship was constructed in 1964 for a TV series and it is still there, still open to the public.  Both ships, actually, have had reasonably successful careers in film and TV.

Golden Hind, Bankside attractions, Golden Hind Brixham
What gets me is their size – they are diminutive.  Drake’s crew was meant to number about 70 (give or take); where did he put them all?  Where did he put the heaps of gold, which the Spanish had ransacked from the Incas etc?  I confess to being a little confused about the length of the Golden Hind, which I was sure was not much more than a cricket pitch (66 feet).  Indeed, one source said that the ship was 70 feet long, but another said it was double that.  Perhaps someone with nautical knowledge can shed some light on this apparent discrepancy?  120 feet seems a bit big to me.  In any event, irrespective of size, I wouldn’t fancy sailing round the world nowadays, let alone in Tudor times; I mean, they’d only just stopped falling off the edge hadn’t they?

For a bit more about the Golden Hind in London, visit the website for the Golden Hinde II.

For a bit more about the Golden Hind in Brixham, Devon, visit the website for the Golden Hind.  It will be featured on another post in the future.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Dunham Massey Gardens

Dunham Massey, one of northern England’s great country estates, is renowned for its gardens.  It is hard to think of a more pleasant way of spending an afternoon than strolling round this place.  We did just that with friends in early May.  There isn’t too much formality about Dunham Massey’s formal gardens and they don’t shout at you.  There are also acres of deer park - a popular place for families.  Here's a taster - 

Fallow deer, Dunham Massey, Altrincham

Deer, oh deer, oh deer.

Bluebells, woodland, Dunham Massey


Dunham Massey, rabbits, wildlife

Bunnies.  There are lots of them.

Garden borders, Dunham Massey


Pieris, Dunham Massey, gardens, park

A noble woodland Pieris.

Rhododendron, Dunham Massey Garden

White rhododendron (also in pink).

Tulips, Dunham Massey, spring.

Tulips.  They always remind me of Max Bygraves; unfortunately.  Take small rodents, sugar, pectin… and you’ll get tulips from hamster jam.

Fountain, Dunham Massey, Cheshire, gardens, North West England

A fountain.

As you can see, the weather wasn’t fantastic – but it was still a wonderfully stress-draining place to be.  Allegedly, it has Britain’s largest winter garden.  And there’s an enormous rose garden that could be a real sensory experience at the right time of year.

Also – checkout Stamford Military Hospital.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Vikings in Silverdale

Silverdale Hoard, Vikings, Norsemen, Lancashire
The place names of North West England are intriguing; there’s a mix of Old Danish, Norse, Anglo-Saxon and even Celtic.  In these days when issues of immigration and independence regularly appear in the news, it is perhaps healthy to remember that each one of us is a hybrid.  Now that we all live in a spirit of harmony as One Nation, it really is hard to imagine that any of us could ever again be remotely tribal…isn’t it?

So try to picture a time, around 900AD.  Cameron’s, Milliband’s, Clegg’s and Salmond’s ancestors are all living in mud huts, or perhaps haven’t quite made it out of the pond.  The roads are little more than trackways, very few buildings are constructed in stone and the countryside is more wooded than nowadays.  Alfred the Great had recently beaten the Danes and succeeded in (sort of), unifying some of the English under the Kingdom of Wessex, but the north west of what is now England was an uncertain place to be in.  The Celts, inhabitants of these lands since at least the Iron Age, had been assimilated by successive invaders, some retreating to the high fells, or had been forced away altogether.  Their remaining territories lay to the south in what is now Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, or to the north in Strathclyde.  The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria had given way to the Danish kingdom of York, which had major trading routes to Dublin through the region.  An area west of the Pennines, corresponding roughly with the northern part of present-day Cumbria, came under the control of Strathclyde.  Into this mix came Viking Norsemen, originally from modern Norway and Sweden, sailing their longships around the treacherous northern seas and arriving on the north-west coast of Britain, probably by way of Ireland, establishing power bases and settling as they went.  Vikings have traditionally had a bad press.  But not all invaders came to rape and pillage; many came to settle and the pragmatists amongst these different peoples must have tried to get on, to do business and inter-marry.

Viking jewellery, Danes, Norsemen, buried treasure, north-west England
Even so, we can imagine that the rule of law often relied upon whoever had the strongest sword.  And it was in this context at around that time that someone buried a hoard of treasure, which lay undiscovered for 1100 years and which is now known as ‘the Silverdale Hoard’.  Silverdale is a small, genteel, parish on Morecambe Bay in the county of Lancashire.  The finder was investigating a field with his metal detector in 2011, when he came upon a lead pouch or casket, buried at a depth of about 16” (400mm).  Can you imagine what it must feel like, to make a discovery like this?!  The location is appropriate, because the Silverdale Hoard consists of around 200 pieces of, mostly, silver.  So it is disappointing to discover that ‘Silverdale’ actually means ‘silver coloured valley’, from the shade of grey limestone thereabouts.  It is derived, apparently, from Old English (presumably Saxon) seolfor + dael – though I haven’t a clue what difference there is between Saxon dael and Norse dalr (they both mean ‘valley’).

Viking coins, Saxon coins, Arabic coins, hacksilver, treasure, Britain
I digress.  There are arm and finger rings – the kinds of objects that were prized and worn by warriors – as well as coins, fine silver braid and small ingots and pieces of hacksilver – from which slices were cut and used for payment, in lieu of coins.  The coins include Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Arabic loose change, indicating the extent of trade at the time.  Some of the items are fairly crude, others are exquisite.  It would be interesting to know where it all came from, which scientific analysis might reveal - but, regrettably, we are very unlikely to ever know how the hoard came to be there, or who owned it.  It must have been worth a small fortune at the time – it has been valued at £110,000 today.  The experts have identified it as Viking – though I don’t know whether this means Danish or Norse, because ‘Viking’ is a loose term applied to both (and can also be a verb).  Clearly, someone meant to come back for it and never made it.  In the 10th century, there must have been some kind of landmark nearby, like a tree or a building, used by the keeper to locate his (or her) treasure.  Was it a warrior's plunder, left for safekeeping while he went off to do battle?  Did it belong to a local, who spotted Viking longships in the bay and hid his belongings as a precaution?  Had someone stolen it from someone else?  Was it part of a gift or dowry?  Perhaps someone was moving house and, not wishing to trust everything to the back of the wagon, buried his valuables.  He then went to the Old Berserker’s Head in Lancaster for a few horns of ale, got beaten up by some sassy Saxons and sold into slavery.

The Silverdale Hoard is the third largest Viking silver hoard to be found in the UK to date.  The largest was the Cuerdale Hoard, discovered in 1840 on the banks of the River Ribble near Preston – the Ribble Valley was an important Danish trade route not that far from Silverdale.  We saw the Silverdale Hoard in the delightful Lancaster City Museum.  At time of writing (2014), it is on display in Preston – one of Lancashire’s less obvious tourist magnets – at the Museum of Lancashire.  More information at the Museum of Lancashire website

Vikings, horned helmets, warriors, raiders, settlers, traders
A Viking.  You can cut this out and colour it in.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Stamford Military Hospital

Stamford Military Hospital, 1st World War, medical services, operations

Situated in old Cheshire, to the south-west of Manchester and just outside the town of Altrincham, is Dunham Massey - one of northern England’s great country estates.  A thousand years ago, it was the property of a Saxon nobleman.  Now, you’ll find a mansion, originally Jacobean but looking predominantly Georgian, sitting comfortably in about 300 acres of deer park and surrounded by attractive gardens.

Dunham Massey, National Trust properties, Cheshire, north west England

But, for a brief period in its long history Dunham Massey became something else.  In 1917, the third year of the Great War, it was turned into a military hospital, one of many of Britain’s country houses to do so.  Indeed, more than 3,200 auxiliary hospitals were opened in Britain during the First World War to cope with the enormous casualties, which would otherwise have overwhelmed existing medical facilities. 

Bagdad Ward, Sister Catherine Bennett, Lady Jane Grey

The formidable Lady Penelope Stamford, mother of the 10th Earl, had originally proposed to open Dunham Massey as a hospital for officers only – but in the end had to cope solely with members of the hoi polloi, 281 (or 282 – accounts vary) of which passed through its doors between April 1917 and January 1919.  So, the sumptuous Edwardian saloon became a hospital ward, its marble-effect columns boxed off for protection, its furniture put into store; the foot of the grand staircase became an operating theatre and the great hall became a recreation room.

Great hall, Dunham Massey, echoes of the past.

The National Trust, which was given the estate on the death of the 10th Earl in 1976, has turned the clock back to those years and recreated the hospital in its original setting.  And they have done a remarkable job of it.  Good exhibitions aside, there are times when you feel as though you are drifting in and out of the past.  Walking along a corridor, you hear a gentle hum of conversation, footsteps, someone whistling ‘Tipperary’; a patient sits at a table reading a paper, gets up and leaves the room; a nurse applies bandages whilst chatting to the soldier who talks of his friends at the front; she winds up the gramophone and puts a record on.  Did you imagine that hospital smell in the ward?  On each bed is an account of one of the real occupants of a century ago – what his condition was, how he was treated – and you can find out what happened to him.  This is the real stuff of history – real stories about real people.  The National Trust has pulled much of this amazing reconstruction together from two key sources – the scrapbook of Lady Jane Grey, Lady Stamford’s teenage daughter who trained specifically to nurse the men, and a log recorded by Sister Catherine Bennett, who was in charge of the hospital.

Trench foot, foot powder.  Auxiliary hospitals in World War One.
The wounds and medical conditions that needed to be treated by medical staff, including the huge army of volunteer nurses, during the First World War were enormous.  Bullets that missed vital organs could still smash bones; shells blew off limbs or buried men alive; red-hot shrapnel tore hideous gaping holes in soft flesh; poison gas damaged throats and lungs, and caused exposed skin to blister.  Infection – the risk of which was exacerbated by the agricultural land that most men fought over – was a real problem.  Soldiers also suffered from debilitating, sometimes life-threatening, illnesses caused by the nature, circumstances and environment of soldiering and trench warfare, ranging from trench foot and fever to venereal disease.  For the first time, the medical authorities were forced to deal with psychological wounds too – what was known as ‘shell-shock’ at the time, nowadays referred to as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Great Hall, Dunham, Stamford, Grey, WWI.
There was, eventually, a complex chain of graduated care for British and Commonwealth casualties in the First World War.  Initial treatment may have been provided by stretcher bearers or at aid posts at the front line, if the casualty could be recovered.  Battlefield conditions meant that many wounded expired where they had fallen, often simply bleeding to death because no one could reach them.  Advance Dressing Stations were established close to the line and those who made it that far would receive immediate help there, before being transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station if the condition warranted further treatment.  With the humour of the time, three of these in the vicinity of the Belgian town of Ypres were christened, ‘Mendinghem’, ‘Bandagehem’ and ‘Dosinghem’.  Inevitably, many of the cemeteries in Belgium and northern France are located on the sites of former Advance Dressing or Casualty Clearing Stations.  A CCS was not designed for long stays; men that were deemed fit enough were sent back to their units, or to a Base Hospital for further treatment or possible evacuation to Britain.  Those that arrived in Britain either needed an extensive stay in hospital for the treatment of serious wounds, or rest and recuperation whilst they recovered.

Dunham Massey was an ideal place for the latter providing, as the National Trust says, ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’.  Here, the patients could convalesce in conditions that could not have been further removed from the horrors they had witnessed just 400 miles or so to the south.  The surroundings would also have been completely unlike anything that most of them had experienced before – worlds away from the far more modest rural or urban homes they had grown up in.  Dunham Massey must have been a very privileged place to be - the house continued as a family home for the Greys, but the men could play games like croquet and cricket in the grounds, take a boat out on the moat and even fish.

Electroconvulsive therapy, shell shock, WW1.

The recreated Stamford Military Hospital is a temporary exhibition so it really is essential that you visit Dunham Massey’spages at the National Trust website before you go.  Entrance to the house is on a timed ticket; you can still tour the other parts of the house that are open to the public, as well as the gardens and grounds.

Dunham Massey courtyard.