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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, 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.