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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, 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.