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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?

Friday, 27 May 2016

Moving on

Flowers for A Bit About Britain's reader

If you haven’t visited A Bit About Britain for awhile, you may not know that the blog has a new site – click A Bit About Britain’s blog.

Gradually, most of the content from the old site will be updated and moved across – so apologies if my regular reader is suffering a bit of repetition, so to speak.

Even more apologies to the regular reader who hasn’t heard from me for ages and ages…  I’m still struggling to get on top of comments and, for technical and other reasons, it will be a week or three before this starts to be resolved.  Meanwhile, I hope you like the flowers.

And new posts have been scheduled for A Bit About Britain.  Did I mention the new site?

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The end of the beginning

This post is primarily addressed to the regular reader of A Bit About Britain.  You know who you are.  The bad news (everything is relative) is that this will probably be the last post here.  The good news is that A Bit About Britain has a new website, (imaginative, isn’t it?), where you will be able to read future posts.

A Bit About Britain

If you would like to follow A Bit About Britain’s posts in the future – and I really hope you will - you need this link to A Bit About Britain’s Blog Page. and you need to put this address into whatever method you have used previously to follow the site.  Do not use the main website address to follow blog posts.

Secondly, I want to apologise to all the fellow-bloggers that haven’t heard from me for awhile.  I have had to concentrate on building the new site, but I hope that something resembling normal service – whatever that is - will be resumed shortly.

A Bit About Britain

If you visit the new A Bit About Britain, you will see that it already has some content on it – though in fact it only went publicly live on 13th May.  I have to say that the experience of building the site has been – and still is - much harder than getting to grips with ‘Blogger’!  It has always been the intention that A Bit About Britain would be informative, as well as a bit of fun.  So, the new site offers a bit more about Britain, including timelines, lists of kings and queens – and a developing, but very simple, directory of attractions.  No shortage of ideas.

I hope Terribly Serious People won’t be upset by me quoting the great Winston Churchill out of context:

“Now this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

A Bit About Britain

Friday, 8 April 2016

The world's smallest police station

It’s asking for trouble, isn’t it, using superlatives?  Some smart-alec is bound to pop up and contradict your claim.  But it’s an eye-catching headline and we really shouldn’t allow truth to get in the way of a good story.

Smallest police station, Trafalgar Square, London

So, next time you happen to be walking across Trafalgar Square with a companion that you’d like to impress, stroll nonchalantly across to the south-east corner (that’s the bit closest to the Strand) and spy a small, round, stone, structure with an ornate lamp on top and a pair of black half-glazed doors.  Then ask your playmate, with a meaningful twinkle, “Now, what do you suppose that is?”  Once you’ve shaken your head in merriment at all the absurd suggestions made by your fellow traveller – toilet, Downing Street’s secret back door, tobacco kiosk, Nelson’s pantry, headquarters of Universal Export, etc – you can say, “Why, bless you, that’s none other than the smallest police station in Britain” (slight pause) “ – if not in the whole, wide, world.”   And before your associate has the chance to contest your assertion, you can further astound them – and the by now gathering crowd - with some additional knowledge, tempered with a touch of appealing humility, “Of course, there is a police kiosk in Carrabelle, Florida, in the USA, which is probably smaller; but nowhere near as nice.  And I’m just repeating something I saw on A Bit About Britain, so I could be wrong.  Anyway, isn’t it jolly spiffing?”

Your comrade will be so overwhelmed that they may even treat you to a glass of something in ‘the Clarence’ across the road on Whitehall.

Trafalgar Square has long been a focal point for public gatherings and, it must be said, a smidgen of rowdiness – with the occasional riot thrown in for good measure. This small police station was in fact a kind of observation post, created in the late 1920s by hollowing out the plinth that housed a gas lamp, dating from 1826.  Slits were cut in the side to provide 360 degree vision and a direct telephone line connected it to Scotland Yard, headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.  Apparently, it is large enough to hold one policeman or two prisoners (London’s criminals are quite small).  Once electricity was installed, the light flashed blue when the receiver was lifted (or when the telephone rang – it depends which account you believe) in order to alert other Constables to the possibility that something was amiss.  Whistles blew, truncheons were waived and men came running to assist, practising saying, “You’re nicked, mate,” as they went.

Smallest police station, Trafalgar Square, London

Legend has it that the lamp originated from Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory; alas, this is unlikely.  Alas, also, the tiny police station in Trafalgar Square is no longer in use.  I am not sure when it was decommissioned.  It is mentioned in a London guide published in 1979 (a photo shows it with dirty, cream, doors), and it seems to have been working then.  No doubt it gave way to cheaper CCTV.  Or maybe policemen are bigger now. More likely they couldn’t connect a PC to it…  The Met is helping us with enquiries on this and you will be the first to know what they say – though, obviously, they are quite busy catching bad people, so don’t hold your breath.

These days, the world’s smallest police station is apparently used as a broom cupboard by Westminster City Council. Seems like it’s made a clean break with its past.

Nelson, Trafalgar Square

Friday, 1 April 2016

Brimham Rocks

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

This attraction carries a SEVERE CHILD WARNING: if you are not the keeper of young children, or feel distressed or intimidated by the presence of hoards of loud, scurrying, sometimes barging, and seemingly unsupervised small humans, DO NOT visit Brimham Rocks during the school holidays. 

Brimham Rocks is an area of often curiously eroded rock formations in Nidderdale, near Pateley Bridge and about 10 miles from Harrogate, in Yorkshire.  Once owned by the monks of Fountains Abbey, the Rocks have been a tourist attraction for at least 200 hundred years.  Nowadays, they are a magnet for families, their dogs and walkers (sometimes with more dogs).  There is plenty of opportunity for adventure including, of course, clambering on, and falling off, the rocks.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

About 320 million years ago, half of Yorkshire was the delta of a huge river that flowed south from Norway and Scotland, depositing layers of granite sand which went on to form a hard sandstone, Millstone Grit.  Erosion, mostly during the last Ice age between 80-10,000 years ago, has worn away the softer rock, leaving harder rock exposed.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire

Some of the rocks have been given names – not personal names like Adolf or Goneril, but names which suggest the shape of the rock when viewed from a certain angle, such as ‘the Eagle’, ‘the Anvil’ and ‘the Fractious Child’ (I might have made the last one up).

Birch trees, controlling.

The habitat around the rocks includes heathland, bog and woodland.  So there is a variety of plants, including various mosses and marsh plants, heather, bilberry, oak, rowan and some particularly fierce birch trees, which have to be controlled by rangers.  The rangers’ remit unfortunately does not extend to some of the children.  Amazingly, Holly Blue and Green Hairstreak butterflies apparently manage to survive in this harsh environment.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

Since 1970, Brimham Rocks has been owned by the National Trust, who in addition to caring for the place provide a shop (which sells locally made bilberry jam), toilets, information and basic refreshments.  On a good day, it would be a nice spot for a picnic.  It is certainly an intriguing place to see, with some wonderful views, though the last time we visited it was like a home game at Old Trafford and we couldn’t wait to get into the nearest city centre for some peace and quiet.  We really shouldn’t have visited during the school holidays… The NT car park (free to members) was full and an enterprising farmer was offering spaces in a field for the princely sum of £4.00 for each vehicle.  We worked out that revenue that day would be at least £1,000 – not a bad little earner.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

Brimham Rocks have appeared in various kids’ programmes, apparently, but the height of their fame, until being featured by A Bit About Britain, was an appearance in the video for the Bee Gees’ You Win Again in 1987.  I’m sure you can find it if you want to.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

Friday, 25 March 2016

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

This is one of our friend Jenny’s favourite places and she said we should go; so of course we did.

Heysham (it is pronounced ‘hee-shum’, not ‘hay-sham’) sits on Lancashire’s coast at the southern end of Morecambe Bay.  I knew of it as a ferry port, offering services to the Isle of Mann and Ireland, as well as home to the popular nuclear power station and, frankly, had no burning desire to visit either.  But the village of Heysham is a peach and, beyond it, on a sandstone headland just above the parish church of St Peter’s Heysham, stands the ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel as well as some very curious graves.

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

St Patrick's is the site of a fairly rare early Christian chapel.  It is odd to think of our ancestors worshipping in this windswept spot, oh such a very long time ago.  The place is undeniably evocative, notwithstanding the aesthetic blemish of the power station looming to the south.  Power stations and car ferries are real newcomers.  It is relatively easy to shut these things out, even to dismiss the dog-walkers, and try to imagine what it must have been like before civilisation came.  For some reason, I had an almost overpowering vision of a Viking longship pulled up on the sand of Half Moon Bay.  It lay at a slight angle, oars shipped, sail neatly furled, the painted dragon prow staring and grinning lopsidedly.  Men were gathering driftwood for a fire on the beach; others explored, stretching, scratching, laughing and calling to one another.  Somebody sang.  Guards, several wearing chain-mail, stood watchfully on the low cliffs.  A time-memory, perhaps, somehow recorded and played back; or just my over-active imagination.

Half Moon Bay, Heysham, Lancs.

The Norse raiders and Irish pirates that once plied the sea routes in these parts would probably have been no friends of any Christians.  St Patrick was, they say, captured and taken from Britain to Ireland by pirates.  There is a local tradition that he established a chapel on the headland sometime in the 5th century, after being shipwrecked nearby.  If he did, it would probably have been built in wood.  Our sandstone ruins are later than that – 8th or 9th century – roughly 27’ long x 9’ wide and with a fine, decorated, Anglo-Saxon doorway.  Beneath them are the buried remains of an earlier, even smaller, chapel which was rendered, inside and out, with decorated plasterwork – it sounds as though it was an elaborate, important, place.  Early Christian chapels, usually simple, one-roomed, buildings, could be associated with a particular person, or saint, and often became places of pilgrimage or veneration.  Is that what happened here?

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

Just outside the chapel to the west is a group of six rock-cut graves, by which I mean they are actually hewn out of the bedrock.  Four are shaped to take bodies, two are rectangular, but all are far too narrow, and shallow, for normal corpses to be interred in them.  They are on an east-west orientation, so likely to be Christian, and have sockets cut into the rock at the heads, possibly to take wooden head crosses.  They were once protected, at least partly, by a wall.  These days, they are mostly filled with sea and rain water.  So far as I am aware, Heysham’s Stone Graves are unique in Britain.  They were carved before the Norman Conquest and possibly date from 10th century.

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

There are two more rock-cut graves south east of the chapel, though these are not quite on an east-west alignment.  Pre-Christian, or poor workmanship?

(Incidentally, Heysham’s Stone Graves feature on the cover of “The Best of Black Sabbath”, a double CD unofficial compilation released in 2000.  Put that in your pub quiz.)

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

The remains of about 80 burials, men, women and children, have been found in three adjoining cemeteries near the chapel, mainly to the south.  Some bodies had stone-lined tombs, some may have had coffins, some were placed in crevices in the bed-rock.  The central and larger of the three cemeteries once had a wall round it.  One particularly interesting burial was of a woman, wrapped in a fine shroud; in her grave was a bone comb of an Anglo-Scandinavian type from around the 10th century.  One grave contained a large stone carved bird’s had, which has been dated to the late 7th/early 8th centuries.  There are further burials in the chapel, dating from 10th – 12th centuries.

St Peter's, Heysham, Lancashire

St Patrick’s seems to have been a relatively busy place, then.  It declined, apparently, from the 12th  century onward because - it is speculated - people were making greater use of the parish church of St Peter’s.  This occupies a charming spot, overlooking Morecambe Bay, and you can imagine that a window seat might make even the most boring sermon tolerable.  But what puzzles me is that the church is said to date from 7th century – so probably contemporary with, or perhaps earlier than, St Patrick’s Chapel.  Why did the good people of Heysham need so much spiritual support, spread across two adjacent sites?  What was going on?  Whilst the church was evidently for the benefit of the parish, perhaps the chapel had more limited, private, use.  Or was Heysham some kind of religious centre in pre-Conquest Britain?

Heysham's Stone Graves

I’m off to dig out my copy of Ozzy and the boys doing “Paranoid”.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Halfway to Paradise

Billy Fury looks out over the Mersey from Liverpool's Albert Dock

A statue of 1960s pop idol Billy Fury stares out across the Mersey, where he used to work on a tug-boat.  Billy was hot stuff in his day.  Of course, no immediate contemporary of mine has any clear recollection of those far-off times, when Billy Fury made the girls swoon.  But you may be vaguely familiar with his biggest hit, a cover of Tony Orlando’s ‘Halfway to Paradise’; it spent 23 weeks in the charts in 1961 and got to No 3.  Did you know it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin?   You do now.  It is, undeniably, the sound of an era, full of scudding violins, teenage angst and unrequited love.  Have you looked at the lyrics of some of these compositions?  Surely, Halfway to Paradise is a metaphor.  Baby, please don’t tease. Teenager in love.  Clearly, as well as having to cope with a world that was still largely black and white, the kids of the 1950s and early 60s were in a permanent state of sexual frustration.

Billy’s follow-up, ‘Jealousy’, reached No 2, but was only in the charts for 12 weeks.  Overall, the lad had 24 hits in the 60s, which his fans like to point out was only 3 fewer than fellow-Liverpudlians The Beatles struggled to achieve over the same period – though actually the Fab Four did manage 11 more top tens and 17 more No 1s than Billy did.

Billy Fury, statue at Liverpool's Albert Dock

However, comparing the then ‘new’ music of groups like the Beatles, Kinks and Stones with artists like Billy Fury is unfair; rather like comparing Cole Porter with John Lee Hooker; honey with blue stilton.  I gather Billy started as an unashamed rock ‘n’ roller – and a pretty good one, by all accounts – but he is best known as a balladeer in the late ‘50s mould.  Very few of the top acts in Britain at that time successfully transitioned their clean-cut (but frustrated) selves through to the end of the next decade – Cliff Richard being one notable exception.

Like Sir Cliff, Billy was a bit of an imitation Elvis at first: handsome in a boyish kind of way, ready with the obligatory lip-curl and moody look, equally compulsory DA haircut, a reputation for hip-swinging, sexually-charged concerts, and a more than adequate voice.

Born Ronald Wycherley in Liverpool on 17th April 1940, two bouts of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a heart problem, which ultimately took his life too soon.  His break came when he came to the attention of leading pop impresario Larry Parnes, the Simon Cowell of his day, who the press dubbed ‘Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence’ - a reference that only those with an appreciation of pre-decimal currency will understand.  According to legend, Parnes was so impressed that he put the young, shy, Ron Wycherley on stage almost as soon as they met in 1958 at a gig in Birkenhead.  Parnes had a stable of teen-idol male artists, who he liked to rename as part of their route to stardom, a process which began with the highly successful Tommy Steele (Thomas Hicks) and went on to include Marty Wilde (Reginald Smith), Vince Eager (Roy Taylor), Johnny Gentle (John Askew) and Dickie Pride (Richard Kneller).  So Ronald Wycherley became Billy Fury.  Another signing was Joe Brown – who apparently refused to change his name to Elmer Twitch.  I so much want that to be true.

Billy Fury looks out over the Mersey from Liverpool's Albert Dock

The world of pop wouldn’t be the same without its mythology.  The Beatles (then known as the Silver Beatles) were among the bands Parnes auditioned as Billy Fury’s backing group.  Versions differ, but the popular story is that they were offered the slot for 20 quid a week provided they sacked their then bass player, Stu Sutcliffe, which John Lennon refused to do.  Anyway, the Beatles went on to tour Scotland with Johnny Gentle, and Billy Fury’s new backing group was The Tornados (who had a massive hit in their own right with 'Telstar').

Mersey ferry, MV Royal Iris

Sadly, Billy Fury died of heart failure in Paddington, London, on 28th January 1983 aged just 42.  The bronze statue which started this piece was created by Liverpool sculptor Tom Murphy and unveiled on 19th April 2003.  It was funded by Fury’s loyal fans and the ceremony was attended by hundreds of them.  Afterwards, a tribute concert was held, headlined by Billy-Ron’s younger brother, Albie (stage name Jason Eddie, as if Albie Wycherley didn’t roll off the tongue sufficiently well).  The statue was donated to Liverpool Museums and moved to its current location outside the Pier Master’s House in Liverpool’s Albert Dock in 2007.  From what I can make out, there is even now a very active Billy Fury fan club, In Thoughts of You (a hit for Billy in 1965) – link here to the Billy Fury fanclub website – as well as several tribute acts.

I think Billy deserves his statue, don’t you?  He certainly brought pleasure to a lot people (Halfway to Paradise notwithstanding). 

Let your imagination go and listen to the take a cold shower.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Pan in the Park

Peter Pan, statue, Kensington Gardens, London, W2

Peter Pan flew away from his nursery and landed beside the Long Water in London’s Kensington Gardens.  And there, on the very spot, Scottish author J M Barrie decided to erect a statue to his creation.  It has been there since 1912, the boy who wouldn’t grow up frozen forever in bronze, surrounded by adoring mice, squirrels, bunnies and – of course – fairies.  Do not say you don’t believe in them; clap your hands…don’t let Tink die!

The statue of Peter Pan in London’s Kensington Gardens is one of the capital’s icons.  Perhaps not quite on a par with the Houses of Parliament or the spot where I once saw in the New Year, but Peter Pan has a justifiable place in our affections.  Even so, unless you’re an enthusiast, or doing research, you probably wouldn’t go far out of your way to see his statue; however, if you’re wandering across Kensington Gardens, it is definitely a thing to do. 

Peter Pan, statue, Kensington Gardens, London, W2

Queue up and snap fast to avoid the almost inevitable photobomber.  You barely get the chance to wind back the imagination to apparently more innocent times, when all perambulators headed for Kensington Gardens, wheeled by the nannies of the filthy rich.  You try to picture the curious genius that was J M Barrie befriending the Llewelyn Davies boys who, we are told, inspired the tales of Neverland and gave their names to several of the characters – not least the Great Pan himself.  ‘Wendy’, incidentally, is an entirely fabricated name – a corruption of ‘Friendly’, inspired by a youngster who had trouble with the letter ‘R’.

Peter Pan, statue, Kensington Gardens, London, W2

James Matthew Barrie (Sir James, as he became) was born in Kirriemuir in 1860 and was a successful writer long before Peter Pan made his first appearance.  This was within a novel, The Little White Bird (in which he lands next to the Long Water), published in 1902.  The play Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up came out in 1904, followed in 1906 by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (reproducing the relevant chapters from Little White Bird) and, in 1911, Peter Pan and Wendy, which was the novel of the play.  Barrie’s relationship with the young Llewelyn Davies boys, George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas and their mother, Sylvia, has been a matter of debate.  The boys’ father, Arthur, died in 1907 and Sylvia, daughter of Gerald du Maurier, died in 1910.  Barrie had helped the family financially and became one of the boys’ guardians.  George was killed in 1915 fighting in the Great War, Michael drowned himself in 1921 and Peter, who apparently came to resent what he called “that terrible masterpiece” jumped under a train at Sloane Square in 1960.  John and Nicolas (Nico) died of natural causes in 1959 and 1980, respectively.

Peter Pan, statue, Kensington Gardens, London, W2

It seems an egotistical thing to do, to commission a statue of one of your creations.  Allegedly, Barrie had it erected overnight, without telling anyone.  He had influential friends, but that does seem pushing it a bit.  Still, I guess Barrie had good reason to feel proud of Peter, the Lost Boys, Tinkerbell, Hook and all the rest.  It is a magical tale, which still captures the imagination in this cynical, digital, age; though the plot and the characters are not without an intriguing element of darkness.  The Disney cartoon, Peter Pan, produced in 1953, is a highly sanitised version of the story.  Barrie said of the statue that it “doesn’t show the devil in Peter”, which must have disappointed its sculptor, Sir George Frampton, no end.

Barrie strikes me as a troubled soul.  He died in 1937, but in 1929 generously gave the copyright of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.  There’s another Peter Pan statue there, as well as others in Sefton Park, Liverpool, in Perth, Australia, Brussels, New Jersey, Newfoundland and Toronto.

J M Barrie

The character – and the author- have inspired countless books, TV productions and films, not least the aforementioned cartoon, Steven Spielberg’s enjoyable romp, Hook (1991) and the slightly sugary fictional Finding Neverland (2004) starring Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia.

Should you visit the statue, Royal Parks have installed a little gismo that reacts with your smartphone.  Swipe your ‘phone to get a personal call-back from Peter Pan.  Creepy. I gave it a miss - it seemed like a rather odd thing to want to do.

Finally, fans of Downton Abbey will be delighted to remember that Peter Pan’s statue is where Lady Mary delivered the devastating news to Charles Blake that she was having no more of him.  Visit ABit About Britain for exciting tales from history, personal rants and tawdry social gossip.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Cameron at the BBC – and a bit about Europe

BBC, London, headquarters, Portland Place

One of the splendid things about London is the likelihood of spotting a Well Known Person.  They frequent shops, pubs and takeaways, just like lesser mortals; it really is very charming to see.  “Ah,” I hear you say, “Britain is far too London-centric.  Celeb-spotting opportunities should be given to other worthy UK conurbations too, such as Birmingham and Scunthorpe”.

Anyway, there we were, walking toward the BBC headquarters at Portland Place – as you do – when we observed a cluster of individuals ahead, patiently waiting about 30 feet from one of the doors.  Nearby was a helmeted quartet of coppers with their nice shiny, white, motorbikes, and a squeaky-clean police Range Rover (also known as a ‘jam sandwich’).  Simultaneously, my eye was drawn to a scruffy, aggressive looking, herbert hanging about at the kerbside to our left, who stared at us in a challenging manner.  Flexing the sinews in my finely-tuned limbs as we passed, just in case they were needed, we speculated on the identity of the megastar people were thronging to see.  I clocked an elegant silver Jaguar XJ.  As we got closer, a smart, grey, Range Rover pulled in front of the Jag.  Nearby, like something from a movie, was a close-cropped-hair guy, wearing a rumpled mac and with a revealing coil of wire trailing from ear to underclothes.  Then it dawned: 10 minutes earlier, we had been watching Prime Minister David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show; could it be..?

Quartet of coppers, jam sandwich

Mildly excited, we mingled with the assembly.  Some possessed obscenely outsized camera lenses, wielded with an irksome arrogance which, I confess, potentially brought out the worst in me.  Others had neat little folding plastic stools, so that they could clamber up and get a clear shot without bothering anyone else overmuch.  Fortunately, I had my trusty Instamatic and good elbows.

Prime Minister's car

People came and went.  They were used to mingling with personalities – no doubt some had moved from Birmingham and Scunthorpe for that very purpose.  Close-cropped-hair guy had a friend, walkie-talkie-man; they never spoke, but you could tell they were associated in some way.  Close-cropped-hair guy spoke into his lapel.  The nearest door was lodged open.  People still came and went.  Then a compact, brisk, posse emerged, Mr Cameron at its centre, smiling and waving.  Close-cropped-hair guy had several near relatives, each sporting a similar curly bit of wire and distinctive don’t mess with me visage.  The PM got into the Jag, his cortège sped off in the direction of Westminster, the miniature mob dispersed and Mrs Britain and I walked up Regent Street in search of breakfast.

Crowd waiting for Cameron at the BBC

The day before, David Cameron had returned from Brussels heralding the momentous agreement he had made with the leaders of the other 27 members of the European Union.  To many, it was as significant as the Munich Agreement; and about as meaningful.  Some people obviously knew, or worked on the strong probability, that our Dave would be chatting to Andrew Marr the following day.  It occurred to me both how frighteningly vulnerable our elected representatives can be and how lucky we are to live in the kind of society where anyone can witness little scenes like the one described above.  I guess vulnerability is part of the price for the freedom we enjoy.  We don’t have the equivalent of jack-booted bully-boys telling us we can’t walk down streets too often, and those that are meant to serve us take a huge personal risk that some evil nutcase will try to blow them away.  God forbid it should ever happen to any of them – irrespective of whether we agree with their views.  Tragedy aside, life would change; civilised society would take a step back.  Close-cropped-hair guy and his mates have a tough job and, generally, manage to do it without too often alienating the public who, ultimately, pay their wages.

Prime Minister, Cameron

Unlike bumping into Madge at the lipstick counter, this celebrity encounter had a whiff of history about it.  We will remember standing outside the BBC after the Prime Minister of The United Kingdom had been discussing one of the most important decisions facing this country in a generation.  All things considered, Dave was looking remarkably fresh, I thought, despite the gruelling negotiations with all those tricky foreigners - to say nothing of spending most of his Saturday ensconced at No 10 with his just as tricky Cabinet colleagues – the first time that august body has met at the weekend since the Falklands War, we are told.

David Cameron

So, the UK will have its ‘in/out’ referendum on membership of the European Union on 23rd June 2016.  Should we stay, or should we go?  Views clash.  Will it be ‘Brexit’ – the excruciating abbreviation being used for ‘British Exit’ – or ‘Brayin’ – Britain stays in (my own invention)?  Everyone gets a vote, including, for some arcane reason, any citizens of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus who happen to be resident here.  What our business has to do with them, I know not.  On the bigger issue, despite believing myself to be reasonably intelligent and well-informed, I feel embarrassingly lacking in sufficient knowledge to decide which way to vote; and I suspect many of my fellow-Britons feel the same.  What I do know is that the issues at stake go far beyond the agreement David Cameron negotiated over 18/19 February, and which a cynic might say was partly for the benefit of the Conservative Party. 

Downing Street, guards, gates

I pray that the discussions go beyond the obviously important topic of immigration.  This is but one issue amongst the many, not least economics, security and sovereignty.

Membership of a frequently irritating, often dysfunctional, over-bureaucratic, would-be super state brings a multitude of benefits.  One of the biggest achievements of the European Project, possibly not always appreciated in Britain, is peace.  Europe has torn itself apart within living memory and the scars of war are still with us.  The likelihood of former enemies fighting each other now is so remote as to be laughable.  That’s a pretty good argument for people coming together – and trade is the obvious enabler.  I think that was why so many people in Britain supported membership of what was then called ‘the Common Market’ in 1973, when we joined our close neighbours and founding members: West Germany (as it then was); France; Italy; the Netherlands; Belgium; Luxembourg.  Somewhere along the way, the ‘Common Market’ became the ‘European Economic Community’ and then, simply, ‘the European Union’.  With 28 culturally diverse members, and more waiting in the wings, maybe we all have fewer things in common – though the advantages of coming together seems to be a constant.

BBC, Portland Place.

I suspect part of the problem is that we don’t really have an accurate sense of Britain’s place in the world, and haven’t had since 1945.

One thing’s for sure, we’re going to be hearing a lot about ‘Europe’ over the next few months.  Let us hope the debate stays courteous, reasoned and doesn’t degenerate into the kind of emotional and senseless ugliness beloved of mobs and trolls; it’s so un-British.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Backdrop to Jericho

Ribblehead Viaduct, snow, North Yorkshire.

Ribblehead Viaduct is one of the wonders of Victorian construction.  It also provides the inspiration for the drama Jericho, which premiered on UK TV in January 2016.

It’s not hard to be impressed by Ribblehead.  Not just because it’s quite big – it is a quarter of a mile long – but because it seems so remote.  Not that it is, really – not these days, anyway – and, sure, there are bigger and more spectacular bridges and the like in the world; but there is something deeply powerful about Ribblehead Viaduct.  It is a magnificent statement of our ancestors’ endeavours striking out across the bleakness of Yorkshire’s Batty Moor, but not conquering it.  Perhaps it’s the contrast between man and nature; sweet and sour; beauty and the beast – though I couldn’t tell you which was which.  And, frankly, on a bad day, they can both be fairly ugly.

Jericho, Ribblehead Viaduct

In any event, the Viaduct is a landmark when heading between Ingleton and Hawes, or when walking this part of the Dales.  It sits, conveniently, between two of Yorkshire’s peaks, the glowering knob of Ingleborough and Whernside’s whale-back hump.  Turn a corner or crest a rise and it comes into view.  “Oh,” you think – or say out loud – “There’s the Viaduct.”  As if its presence reassures us that all is well.  And, if you’re lucky or have done your homework, you’ll spot a steam loco of the Carlisle-Settle Railway, puffing its carriages across; magnificent.

Ingleborough, Ribblehead, Whernside

I suppose there is a certain comfort in continuity from the Victorian era, which shaped so much of modern Britain.  But it is the human story that adds so much to the Viaduct’s aura.  These days, a construction project like the Ribblehead Viaduct would demand a fenced area containing a few Portacabins providing site offices and messing facilities, with one sign apologising for any inconvenience and another listing the low number of accidents.  Workers would drive to site, or catch a ‘bus.  In the 1870s, shanty towns grew up around the more remote building sites.  The settlement at Ribblehead was called Batty Wife Hole.  Closer to the Viaduct was an engineering camp called Sebastopol, which had a suburb, Belgravia – no doubt intended for the better-off workers.  In the 1871 census, 74 buildings with 342 residents from 34 different countries are shown for what we might call the Ribblehead Complex.  Different sources suggest there were anything from 1,000 to 2,000 workers engaged at peak times – and there they lived, drank, fought, worked, were born – and died.  Many of them are buried in nearby Chapel-le-Dale, in unmarked graves.

Ingleborough, Carlisle, Settle, railway

Perhaps some were buried on the moor, victims of horrendous accidents – or murder.  Which brings me on to the TV drama, Jericho, the name for the fictitious settlement gathered about the equally fictitious Culverdale Viaduct.  Starring a big-bustled Jessica Raine (Jenny Lee in Call the Midwife), it comes across as a kind of hammy British Western, but without the fun provided by Red Indians or the 7th Cavalry.  It is, of course, a period drama, with all the essential ingredients these seem to demand; a rom without necessarily the com.  A cynic might point out the clichés of kind-hearted prostitutes, slightly mysterious brooding hero with a chest (Hans Matheson), boring class warfare and a general air of, “Eee, but it’s grim oop north”.  A cynic may also ask whether historical accuracy has been sacrificed on the altar of diversity and overseas sales by having an African-American site agent, Ralph Coates, played by the excellent Clarke Peters.  It would be wonderful to believe that Britain, which had founded an Empire partly on the proceeds of black slavery, was that socially advanced 150 years ago, despite its lead in abolishing slavery and other liberal credentials.  Quite bluntly, I would have thought that most folk back then were inherently bigoted and that a chap like Ralph Coates wouldn’t last long, even if he got there in the first place.  Further, I can’t help thinking that the actors in general seem to be rather well-dressed and altogether too clean.

Ribblehead Viaduct, Whernside, Batty Wife, Jericho.

I guess, at the end of the day, a TV drama does not need to be 100% accurate and, to some extent, disbelief should be suspended.  In any event, my observations might be unfair: it was tough back in them days (though not just in the north), Clarke Peters said in an interview that African-Americans travelled back and forth across the Atlantic prior to the American Civil War (so that's alright then - plus, we know that Batty Wife Hole was more cosmopolitan than many places are today) and I am advised that the kind-hearted prostitute isn’t a cliché.  Thank you, Dolores.

Ribblehead up close

Whatever, Jericho deserves enormous credit for shining a spotlight on a portion of our history that most of us probably know very little about.  It captures aspects of Ribblehead’s construction that the layman can only guess at.  The foundations of the 24 arches are 25 feet deep; the arches would have been surrounded with wooden scaffolding as the construction crept upward; men would have been swarming over the structure like ants, without a hi-vis or hard-hat in sight, pulleys and ropes swinging, cries and instructions whipped away in the wind.  Though not filmed at Ribblehead (apparently the main external location was Rockingstones Quarry, near Huddersfield), the sweeping vistas shown in the series, taking in the viaduct in progress against a background that resembles Ingleborough and the surrounding hills, are quite breathtaking.

Batty Wife Hole, Ribblehead.

You can’t help but wonder what they would have made of the TV show, those long-gone Victorian engineers, navvies, their women and children, camped in a temporary settlement with inadequate sanitation and a population larger than anywhere else nearby.  When they were finished, after five years, they moved on, leaving their dead and little else behind.  Many of the buildings were taken down, to be re-used elsewhere.  Now, hardly a trace remains and you need the benefit of an expert eye to see that they've been there; the Viaduct could have been built by invisible giants.

So, what next with Jericho?  At the time of writing, there’s still plenty of opportunity for something to go wrong with the blossoming romances, the narky navvies and the construction itself.  Me, I hope boy gets girl and that everyone finds happiness, like in all the best reality stories.  Most importantly, let’s hope they finish building the wretched thing before ITV commissions Series Two.

PS - Alas, the viaduct was not finished; Jericho may run to a second series..!

Friday, 5 February 2016

Bucklers Hard

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, history, Beaulieu

They used to build big ships on the New Forest’s tranquil, pretty, Beaulieu River.  Men of war that formed part of the Royal Navy’s ‘wooden walls’.  Vessels 150 feet in length, or more, with 70 menacing cannons poking through gun-ports and crewed by hundreds of officers and men.  Ships that fought Britain’s battles from the English Channel to the other side of the world.

It’s hard to imagine now.  Neat late eighteenth century brick cottages line the single, car-less, street in the tiny preserved village of Bucklers Hard.  Families stroll down to the river’s edge, from which the tink-tink sound of lanyards slapping against the masts of smart yachts drifts across the water.  The clink of glasses and bursts of laughter come from the Master Builder’s Hotel.  Rum and roll-necks mix with day-trippers.

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, history, Beaulieu

The cottages used to house the shipbuilders, the hotel was the home of Henry Adams, Master Shipbuilder between 1749-1805, the slipways, possibly the ‘hards’ or landing places, where ships were built and launched, are still there, the old supporting timbers yet visible at low tide.  Here, in the space of about 70 years from the 1740s, some 52 navy ships were laid down.  They included three ships that fought at Trafalgar in 1805 – the Euryalus, Swiftsure and Agamemnon.  The latter, a 64-gunner, was launched in 1781, saw action in the American and French revolutionary wars, again in the Napoleonic Wars, and was captained by one Horatio Nelson when he lost the sight of one eye at the siege of Calvi, in Corsica.  Agamemnon, said to be Nelson’s favourite ship, finally ran aground in the mouth of the River Plate, some 7,000 miles away from home, in 1809 and broke up; her wreck was found in 1993.

Bucklers Hard, old timbers, slipways, Beaulieu

All those ships from this tiny little place.  The last one to be built was a small cutter, Repulse, in 1818.

All the land hereabouts, and the river (including its bed), has been owned for centuries by the Montagu family.  Their seat is at Beaulieu (say ‘byoo-lee’), just a little upstream from Bucklers Hard.  That name, it seems, was first noted quite recently, in 1789, and comes from the Buckler family, or possibly the Dukes of Buccleuch (‘buck-loo’), ancestors of the present Montagus, plus ‘hard’ – local dialect for ‘a firm landing place’. 

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, maritime museum, Beaulieu

The story goes that the 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) was made Governor of the West Indian islands of St Vincent and St Lucia.  His dream was to turn Bucklers Hard, renamed ‘Montagu Town’ into a convenient, and profitable, place to import the islands’ main product, sugar.  However, the French chased the British out of the islands (ownership changed hands frequently during this period) and Bucklers Hard’s fortunes took another turn.  There was a demand for ships, the river location was excellent and the New Forest, once one of William the Conqueror’s favourite hunting grounds, had an abundance of the beech, elm and – most importantly – oak, needed for construction.  About 4,000 trees were needed to build a first rate ship of the line.  To clinch it, there were several iron foundries nearby.

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, history, Beaulieu

Shipbuilding at Bucklers Hard declined - some say when wood and sail gave way to iron and steam, others when the shipbuilders became unreliable.  The latter seems more likely, because wooden ships continued way beyond 1818.  Whatever – by the mid-19th century, the village had settled back into relative obscurity. 

Bucklers Hard, Maritime Museum

All that changed during the Second World War, though, when the river became as busy as it had ever been two centuries previously.  Buckler’s Hard was used as a repair depot for motor torpedo boats and towards the end of the war became part of the massive preparations for the D-Day landings in Normandy. Landing craft were repaired on the slips and crews were billeted in Nissen huts in the village.  Segments of the Mulberry Harbours, the floating structures used to land vital supplies in the aftermath of the invasion of France, were constructed nearby and towed across the Channel.

Maritime Museum, Bucklers Hard, Hampshire

You can happily lose yourself for several hours at Bucklers Hard, not least over a few beers in the Master Builders.  There’s a surprisingly fascinating Maritime Museum, which tells the story of the place and includes a walk-through reconstructed interiors of cottages, showing how the 18th century inhabitants lived, and The New Inn, where they played.

St Mary's Chapel, Bucklers Hard.

In addition to the expected bits about 18th century shipbuilding, including bewigged and powdered gentlemen with drawings and set squares, as well as some fascinating material about the part Bucklers Hard played in D-Day, there’s an intriguing exhibition about the SS Persia.

SS Persia was a P&O passenger liner, sunk by German submarine U-38 off Crete on 30th December 1915 with the loss of 343 lives.  Among those on board were the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu and his mistress, Eleanor Thornton.  Miss Thornton is believed to have been the model for the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ ornament on Rolls-Royce motor cars.  The ship went down in minutes and Eleanor Thornton did not survive – though Baron Montagu did.  SS Persia has subsequently been found and explored, possibly because it was reputed to have been carrying a fortune in bullion and jewels, and the exhibition includes many sad artefacts from the wreck.

Master Builder's Hotel, Bucklers Hard.

There’s also a bit in the museum about Sir Francis Chichester (1901-72), the first solo yachtsman to sail around the world following the old clipper route in 1966-67, who used to moor his boat at Buckler’s Hard.

Meandering down to the river, you’ll find a tiny chapel on your left, St Mary’s, which has been constructed in a former cottage.  Underneath is a cellar, believed to have been used to store smuggled goods in days of olde.

Bucklers Hard, slipways

Spotted on the river during a visit in 2009 was Motor Gun Boat 81.  This is one of the last surviving MGBs of World War II and saw extensive action, including during the Normandy landings.  And there it was, just sitting there.  She was built by the British Power Boat Co at Hythe, Southampton, in 1942 and I believe might now be in the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth.

MGB 81, Beaulieu River, Bucklers Hard.

Gunboats aside, it’s reasonably civilised place, is Bucklers Hard.  There’s a fairly unimpressive café near the car park and a fairly predictable gift shop; but, other than that, it’s lovely – and interesting.  It can get busy – and there are still working boatyards there.  River cruises are on offer and there’s a pleasant-ish, 2-mile, walk upstream to Beaulieu village, a charming place where there are more opportunities for refreshment and retail therapy, including a splendid old-fashioned sweet shop.  Nearby is Beaulieu Abbey, home to the Montagu family and the National Motor Museum.

The paths along the riverside are fairly good, though I suspect they can get muddy.  But the views of boats and birds between the trees and reeds are charming.  The Beaulieu River was called the Exe by the Celts: Beaulieu is obviously French; it means ‘lovely place – and it is.  It’s a short river - only about 12 miles from where it rises near Lyndhurst to where it spills into the Solent opposite the Isle of Wight.  As you stroll along, glance across at the east bank; there are the grounds of Exbury House, yet another grand pile – this one owned by the Rothschilds.  They are new kids on the street, however, only buying the estate in 1919.  But Exbury gardens are fabulous, especially when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in flower.

Beaulieu River.

More information about Bucklers Hard on the Bucklers Hard website.