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  • SMJ Railway by John Evans

    To call the dear old SMJ railway ‘enigmatic’ would be rather excelling its virtues. It was created in 1908 from a jumble of lines that linked Olney, a small market town in Buckinghamshire, with Stratford-upon-Avon, a total length of just 79 miles. Its full name was the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a word you’ll notice, for every ten miles of its track. To say it ran from nowhere to nowhere might be stretching things a little, but you can get the measure of the operation by knowing that one of the components of this amalgamation in 1908 was called the Northampton and Banbury Junction Railway, whose rails somehow failed to reach either of these towns. Ambitiously, much of the SMJ was engineered for double track, but the huge twin-arched bridges were destined to see just one line, and a rather rusty one at that, pass beneath them.

    Last Rites 1 The huge bridge built to carry the M1 motorway over the SMJ near Roade. It was a waste of money as trains never ran beneath it. 29 April 1966. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Primarily it was built as part of a series of lines to transport high quality iron ore from the East Midlands to South Wales for smelting. But it was only ever a bit player in this business and the line’s historian, J.M. Dunn, once described the SMJ as a ‘poor and struggling railway' with ‘an unprosperous history.’ He added, with a nice turn of phrase, that it was a case of ‘the survival of the unfit.’

    To locals, it was known as the ‘Slow and Muddle Junction’ and regarded with some affection. After it became part of the mighty London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923, things carried on as normal. One coach trains rumbled through delightful countryside with a handful of passengers. But the line was much more important for freight, some of them using the route to make a rather circuitous journey from Bristol to London. Of course, it couldn’t last. When British Railways was created as a new nationalised industry in 1948, someone clearly found a piece of paper at the bottom of a filing cabinet saying a bizarre little network of lines through Northamptonshire and Warwickshire existed, and decided to take a look.

    Last Rites 2 Blisworth SMJ station on 5 April 1966, with some very nice looking Northamptonshire ironstone from Blisworth quarry awaiting movement. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    No doubt he was impressed by the relaxed way of life on the line (trains sometimes stopped so the engine crew could shoot rabbits to take home for dinner); but the fact that there were hardly any passengers may not have been quite so comforting. In 1951 and 1952 all passenger trains were withdrawn, years before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. This could have been the beginning of the end, but it was then agreed to divert some heavy freight trains along the western section of the route, and the SMJ enjoyed something of an Indian summer. Alas, it was not to last. The freight trains were sent elsewhere, the little ironstone quarries that provided business for the route closed and by the end of the sixties, the SMJ was but a fast-fading memory.

    Today you see its scar across the countryside, but as bridges are removed, farmers get to work ploughing and towns and villages undergo development the trail of the SMJ is looking very thin indeed. Just old goods shed here and there – an odd bridge appearing to stand in a field and some neat little houses in Blisworth labelled ‘SMJ’ (built for local employees) are among the more significant remains.

    Last Rites 3 Kineton Ministry of Defence depot on 23 June 1966, scene of our arrest while walking the SMJ. Who said being a railway enthusiast was boring? A small mishap is being cleared up. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Its memory is treasured, however, in lots of ways. For a start there is a society devoted to it. There are also lots of photographs. A friend, Bryan Jeyes, and myself, added to the stock of pictures in the mid-1960s when we walked the whole of the route, taking colour photos. (We also managed to get arrested at Kineton Ministry of Defence camp, which backs on to the railway, a story related in my Amberley book, Last Rites).  But apart from this bit of fun, we can proudly claim to be the last people to travel over the whole of the SMJ, even if it was on foot and not as the line’s founders intended.

    Much more exciting is the news that Towcester Museum, situated in a Northamptonshire town that was a major junction on the route, is to hold an exhibition for six months starting in late August. They have gathered together old signs, artefacts, photos, memorabilia and other reminders of the line, to mark 150 years since the first section, from Blisworth to Towcester, opened. There are many new folk living in the town whom will no doubt discover for the first time that their community once boasted a rather impressive railway station, right where Tesco now have a supermarket.

    To those of us who are old enough to recall the SMJ in action, the most significant – and apposite – survivor is the old station at Stoke Bruerne. True to form, this is nowhere near the village it purported to serve. It was opened in December 1892, one of two massively-built stations on the section from Towcester to Olney. Business wasn’t good, however, and just four months later the passenger service was withdrawn, never to be restored. Some trains had no passengers at all.

    Still, it has made a very fine house for many years and no doubt will continue to do so.

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    John Evans books Workhorses of the Big Four and Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard and available for purchase now.

  • Pirates: Truth and Tale by Helen Hollick

    Pirates. The word conjures a promise of exciting adventure, Caribbean islands, hot sun, blue sea, the Jolly Roger flag, a parrot or two, chests of treasure and a chap with a wooden leg, a patch over one eye and a gold hoop in his ear. Go on, admit it, you were tempted to utter a resounding ‘Arrr!’ weren’t you?

    The truth is, the pirates of the Golden Age, the early 1700s, were very far from our romantic Hollywood image. The truth of piracy is very far from the fictional tales.

    Pirates B) canstockphoto3695931 The common perception of a pirate. (c. jgroup, Pirates: Truth and Tale, Amberley Publishing)

    When Amberley approached me to write a book about pirates I was initially inclined to say no. There are dozens of books and internet blogs about pirates. What could I write that was different? Then I had an idea. I could look at pirates from the factual and the fictional side. I knew many facts because I write my own fictional series about a pirate, written for adults with a lot of swashbuckling adventure and a touch of fantasy (think Pirates of the Caribbean, Hornblower, Sharpe, James Bond and Indiana Jones all rolled into one). Would it be fun to explore these two different angles, using known characters such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny alongside Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow and Captain Hook, as well as my own creation of Captain Jesamiah Acorne?

    As a writer, once the idea had been conceived I just had to follow it through. The result is Pirates: Truth and Tales.

    Pirates were sea-based robbers, terrorists of the seas. Unkempt, untrustworthy rogues, with most of them ending up on the gallows. Most were originally sailors, either merchant seamen or Royal Navy. Some became pirates because other pirates attacked their ships and forced their victims to join them – especially those with a skill such as carpentry, navigation or best of all, medical knowledge. A surgeon was an enormous prize. Others turned to piracy out of desperation to survive, a wish to get rich quick, or because of plain boredom. One pirate, however, bought a ship, gathered a crew and went off ‘On the Account’ for no other reason than to escape his nagging wife. His name was Stede Bonnet, and he ended up dancing the hempen jig on the gallows. Divorce would have been easier.

    The word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran, which means to attack. In Ancient Greek culture pirates were looked upon as heroes, on a par with warriors. By Roman times they were less tolerated, and come the 15-1600s were either encouraged or loathed depending which country you were from and which war was being fought at the time.

    Pirates Map-Sea-Witch3-finalPrivateering was nothing more than legal piracy, but government and monarch sponsored. It all started with Sir Francis Drake and the war between England and Spain. There was nothing wrong, so thought Elizabeth I, with plundering Spanish ships. By the mid-to-late 1600s doing so was actively encouraged because Spain was still the enemy and Spanish galleons were carrying vast amounts of treasure from the Americas back home to Cádiz. That is, if they were not intercepted by the likes of Captain Henry Morgan (he of the rum-brand fame). But when a treaty of peace was signed, vessels were left to rot while sailors kicked their heels in various ports with nothing to do except drink and find ‘entertainment’ with the ladies.

    And then a Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed by a hurricane. At least eleven ships went down just off the coast of Florida, hundreds of men were drowned and the Spanish had a mad scramble to salvage what they could. As did dozens of others who realised there were easy pickings to be found in the shallows. The 1700s equivalent of a lottery win.

     

    Pirates ship A pirate's most important asset: his ship. The Lady Washington, better known as HMS Interceptor in the movie Pirates of the Carriddean: Curse of the Black Pearl. (c. Ifistand, Pirates: Truth and Tale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Caribbean trade routes were just starting to flourish. Tobacco, sugar cane and its by-product of rum had to be shipped from the American colonies to England. With little to no defence the ships were easy prey. By 1717 the rich merchants back in England were beginning to feel the pinch, and piracy had to be stopped. The law cracked down, all pirates were to be hanged if caught, and Woodes Rogers, a noted privateer in his own right was sent to be Governor of the Bahamas, based in the pirate haven of Nassau. Using his wits he offered a King’s Amnesty, which most pirates took, and adhered to. Those who did not, Charles Vane, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jack Rackham, Edward Low and a few other notables, thumbed their noses and returned to the sea. By 1720 they, and most of the well-known ones, were dead.

    The movies, TV shows, fiction, all depict pirates as heroes, charmers with a touch of redeemable rogue about them. Handsome eye-candy usually with an eye to a wench with a well-endowed chest rather than to a chest of gold. Remember Pugwash, the bumbling cartoon character of children’s TV? What of Hook in Peter Pan, a pirate indeed, but a gentleman character who went to Eton and spoke of ‘good form’. Then there’s Jack Sparrow – oh we all fell for Johnny Depp’s inspired character didn’t we? Although only the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl was good; two, three and four in the series were not. I await to make an opinion on the fifth, due out this summer 2017.

    The adventurous tales of derring-do far outweigh the truth. Frenchman’s Creek, Treasure Island, my own Sea Witch Voyages are popular entertainment reading. The romantic idyll of life at sea, a cool breeze blowing in the rigging, the crack of sails, the gurgle of the sea rushing past the hull – the occasional firing of a couple of cannons or making some innocent walk the plank all adds to the adventure. Would we be so keen, though, with the reality of weevil-ridden rancid food, scummy green drinking water, no medicines or medical supplies, no sanitation, no clean clothes – no clean bodies, and the daily threat of the noose to end it all?

    No thanks, I’ll stick with my Jesamiah Acorne and that Sparrer’ feller if you don’t mind! (for more information check out my author community page for my social media links.)

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    Helen Hollick's new book Pirates: Truth and Tale is available for purchase now.

  • The Princess's Garden by Vanessa Berridge

    I have just started on my second book for Amberley Publishing on the lives of Great British Gardeners. I will begin in the late sixteenth century with the herbalist John Gerard and come up to the present day, probably finishing with handsome Chelsea superstar Tom Stuart-Smith.

    The British have always been a nation of gardeners and exploring the lives of some twenty-five or more Britain’s greatest exponents is a good way of understanding this island’s history. For gardeners and gardening have always responded to and symbolised political and social upheavals in Britain down the centuries. Take, for instance, early gardeners John Gerard and the John Tradescants, father and son. They were men of their time, investing in colonial adventures, and indeed all travelled far afield as few members of their class would have done before the late sixteenth century. Interestingly, gardeners from the Tradescants’ time onwards have been accorded enhanced social status, with an eighteenth century gardener such as ‘Capability’ Brown dining regularly with dukes and sending his sons to Eton.

    The Princess's Garden 1 Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales by Allan Ramsay (1758). (© Bute Collection@ Mount Stuart, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    This is partly because of the unique symbolic role that gardening has played in British history. This symbolism, perhaps, reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, and is the subject of The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew, my first book for Amberley, recently reissued in paperback. Kew was founded in 1759 by Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales; the princess of the title. When the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1987, few people realised that it had been named not for Diana but for her rather less high profile predecessor. I wanted to find out why Augusta, her husband Frederick, Prince of Wales, and her botanical advisor John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, had been all but air-brushed out of history. As I researched the book I uncovered a colourful story of dissension in the royal family, and of kidnapping, dramatic childbirth, sibling rivalry, and adultery.

    So my book recounts the turbulent political and personal background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759, revealing the discord at the heart of the royal family. It also shows how gardening in the eighteenth century was highly political. What, you may ask, has gardening to do with politics? At that time – to adapt the feminist catch phrase of the 1960s and 1970s – the horticultural was the political. The gardens of the aristocracy – Stourhead, Blenheim, Houghton and Stowe – were all used to display political affiliation. The royal gardens at Richmond and later at Kew were also manipulated to put forward the regal and princely points of view.

    Augusta of Saxe-Gotha arrived in England, aged just seventeen, to marry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the elder son of George II and his intellectual wife, Caroline of Ansbach.  Detested by his parents, and indeed eventually exiled from court, this slightly wayward young man had to make his own way in life. He was befriended by Lord Cobham, the leader of the Whig opposition to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. There was no love lost between Frederick and Walpole, ally of Queen Caroline, so with the rogue Whigs looking for a figurehead and Frederick seeking a role, it was a political marriage made in heaven.

    The Princess's Garden 2 View from the Portico of Stowe House to the Park by Jacques Rigaud. (By kind permission of Stowe House Preservation Trust/Stowe School), The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    Cobham was the creator of the pre-eminent political garden at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he set out his agenda as a Whig leader. Britain had only been a nation since 1707, with the Act of Union in the year of Frederick’s birth. The early eighteenth-century landscape movement was a means of articulating on the land the political voice of the ascendant Whig aristocracy, engineers of the Hanoverian succession. At Stowe, a series of talented garden designers laid out the ground and constructed temples of follies which embodied Cobham’s political creed. The grounds were meant to be seen by the public; indeed, in 1717, Cobham opened the first ever visitor centre at the New Inn by the gate to Stowe.

    Influenced by this powerful aristocrat, Frederick began working on his gardens, first at Carlton House and subsequently, as he prepared for kingship, on his garden at Kew, expecting his noble advisers to lend a hand. He led fashion, as a letter from 1734 reveals: ‘There is a new taste in gardening just arisen, which has been practised with so great success at the Prince’s garden in Town that a general alteration of some of the most considerable gardens in the kingdom is begun.’

    The Princess's Garden 3 The White House, Kew by Johan Jacob Schalch (c.1760). (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    But his lasting memorial is not Carlton House, which was razed to the ground by his grandson, George IV, but the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Frederick died in 1751, before he could inherit the throne, and before he completed his plans. But Augusta took up his spade, declaring herself determined to make a garden which would ‘contain all the plants known on Earth’.  Implicit in this aim was an awareness of the economic potential of plants as Britain developed into a world trading power, forged through commercial muscle. Augusta’s vision for her garden was innovative, combining for the first time the landscape and the botanic in one garden – and eventually eclipsing Stowe which was much more revered in the eighteenth century. Kew is a research institution of international importance, and since 2003, a World Heritage Site, whereas Stowe is a museum to the values of the eighteenth century, which needs interpretation boards at every point.

    It’s an intriguing chapter in British history, which shows how gardens helped Britain, by then a constitutional monarchy, to create a distinctive new culture for itself. At every stage of our history, our gardens have represented major social and political trends – look at the Eden Project, or indeed the new Hive at Kew, which is invested with important ecological messages in the early twenty-first century.

    It is stories like these that I hope to tease out as I research the lives of some of our Great British Gardeners.

    Augusta, Princess of Wales, will be one of the stars of an important exhibition this summer and autumn at Kensington Palace in London. Enlightenment Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Making of the Modern World highlights three overlooked Hanoverian consorts and charts their major contribution to British cultural life in the eighteenth-century.  The exhibition runs from 22 June to 12 November.

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    Vanessa Berridge's new paperback edition of The Princess's Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew is available for purchase now.

  • Class 55 Deltics by Colin Alexander

    When first approached by Amberley in December 2015, I could scarcely have believed that nine months later I would have two books in print and on sale, with another two almost ready to go.  Amberley had spotted my Flickr photostream account and I was flattered when they asked me if I would fancy putting together a book on my favourite subject, namely the British Rail Class 55 ‘Deltics’.  How did this all begin?

    PHOTO 1 Here is a photo of Harry, after retirement, beside his last ‘box’, Howdon-on-Tyne, about 1970.

    My Dad had always been interested in railways and used to visit his uncle, my Great Uncle Harry, at work as a signalman at places like Heaton Junction, Newcastle.

    When I was only about two or three, Dad had built for me my first model railway, including a Triang Freightmaster set. I can clearly remember aged between about four to six years old, being taken up to the top of Newcastle’s Castle Keep, and to the old cattle market, both of which were great vantage points over Newcastle Central station, to see steam specials hauled by “Flying Scotsman”, “Sir Nigel Gresley” and “Clun Castle”.  There were also some interesting diesels such as the big yellow HS4000 “Kestrel” prototype, Clayton Class 17s with their centre cabs, and of course, the ‘Deltics’.

    Every summer holiday, always in Britain, would just happen to be near a preserved steam railway, and my mother was very tolerant, being dragged around corrugated iron sheds full of muck and rust to see a locomotive being restored from scrapyard condition to its former glory.

    PHOTO 3 My brother wasn’t as keen, but here he is posing with me at Plymouth with D1054 “Western Governor”.

    Some holidays revolved around the railway entirely, such as when we had two weeks in Cornwall in 1976, the long hot summer, and travelled from Tyneside to St. Ives by train and were able to enjoy the last summer of the ‘Western’ diesel-hydraulics, travelling to Newquay, St. Austell, Plymouth and Penzance.

    We attended the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway at Shildon in 1975, even talking my 79 year old grandmother along.  A twice-weekly fixture for Dad and I was the Newcastle and District Model Railway Society where many friends were made and great fun was had every November setting up and taking down the annual model railway exhibition.

    By 1978, aged 14, I was deemed old enough to venture out on the railway on my own and quickly developed friendships on the platforms of Newcastle Central that have lasted to this day.  For the princely sum of £2.60 a Northumbrian Ranger ticket could be bought which gave a week of unlimited travel between York and Berwick, and across to Carlisle.

    My only regret from these days was that I did not possess a decent camera.  I made do with a Kodak Instamatic until 1981 when I inherited my Dad’s ancient Agfa 35mm camera.  Its fastest shutter speed was 1/200th of a second, which meant it was only good for static objects in bright daylight.  Needless to say about 95% of my early railway photographs were either too dark, too bright, too blurred or off target due to parallax error.  The other 5% were simply unusable.

    PHOTO 4 In lunch hours I could race across to the footbridge on Leeman Road and watch ‘Deltics’ in their last months of service.

    While Dad was an engineering draughtsman on the Tyne & Wear Metro, when I left school I managed to get myself a trainee position in a similar line of work in BR’s Signalling and Telecommunications Dept at Forth Banks, Newcastle, starting July 1981.  This was an interesting time as there was still a lot of mechanical signalling about, and a lot of freight-only branch lines.  I was involved in the replacing of giant 1950s relays in the control room above the ‘wallside’ sidings at Newcastle Central, and also worked at Pelaw, Blaydon, Morpeth and Hendon in Sunderland.  Trainee induction was at Hudson House, York, on the site of the original York station.

    The second half of 1981 was notable for the number of ‘Deltic’ hauled railtours that were run, and I was able to travel behind these machines to Whitby, Hull, Bradford, Harrogate, Liverpool, Carnforth, Inverkeithing, over the Settle to Carlisle line, Aberdeen, Portsmouth and Bournemouth among other places.

    Class 55 pic 1 No. 55013 The Black Watch erupts into life in the centre road at York on 17 April 1981 (c. Class 55 Deltics, Amberley Publishing)

    By then I had become an active member of the Deltic Preservation Society which aimed to raise funds to save one of the locomotives from scrap.  I organised local events and delivered newsletters, and for my efforts was rewarded with an invitation to Doncaster Works in August 1982 to attend the ceremony when two Deltics were handed over from BR to the DPS.  The following day I was travelling behind them on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

    By then I had left my job on BR, realising that a life of dodging high-speed trains was not for me.  I was not too concerned because I had begun a love-affair with the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and the DPS’s two Deltics that were based there.  A few of my mates and I found ourselves volunteering both for the DPS and the NYMR.  We were signed up trainee firemen and as such would be rostered to a steam locomotive, which we had to clean and light-up to raise steam, at about 5am, in preparation for the driver and fireman arriving later.  We then got to spend the day riding on the footplate, learning how everything worked; and even shovelling coal in the firebox from time to time.

    By the time I had got myself a decent 35mm SLR camera in the mid-80s, I had gone off to Cornwall College to be a student of Graphic Design, and so my interest in railways took a bit of a back seat.

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    Colin Alexander's book Class 55 Deltics is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Conwy by John Barden Davies

    A-Z of Conwy 1 The suspension bridge, designed to blend with the architecture of the castle. (c. A-Z of Conwy, Amberley Publishing)

    I have been fascinated by the town of Conwy since I was very young, having been brought up in the nearby town of Colwyn Bay. My parents often took me to Conwy for the afternoon either in the car or for the twenty-minute bus ride. Even from that young age as I explored the castle, looked at the fishing boats on the quay, from where my mother bought fresh fish just landed off the boats, I somehow sensed that Conwy was different from the neighbouring towns of Colwyn Bay and Llandudno. Now I would say that Conwy is not just different, it is unique. It was always a treat to go to Conwy Fair when the little town was packed with people, and to listen with amazement to the banter going on between the stallholders and their customers. Since the middle of the twentieth century, I have watched with interest the changes in the town. I remember on one of our afternoon trips to Conwy standing on the suspension bridge and looking across the gap in the middle of the new bridge, just before it was completed.  Later, when I became more interested in history, I liked to read the books by local author and historian Norman Tucker, which included a definitive history of my home town of Colwyn Bay as well as many historical novels. His favourite historical period was the English Civil War and its impact on North Wales. One of his best books was ‘Castle of Care’ which told the story of Conwy in the Civil War.  In later years, he wrote a definitive history of Conwy, ‘Conwy and its Story’.  He and his wife were friends of my parents and my mother typed the manuscript for that book. In those days, of course, it was by mechanical typewriter. After reading the book, I became even more interested in Conwy. Little did I realise at the time that I would write two books about Conwy.

    A-Z of Conwy 2 The anchor commemorating the saving of 400 lives by the trawler Kilravock's crew. (c. A-Z of Conwy, Amberley Publishing)

    After I retired, I found that I had time to write. My first book, ‘North Wales Coast Tourism and Transport’ reflected a lifelong interest in public transport and tourism and I told the story of the how transport systems on the North Wales coast developed hand in hand with tourism.  Three years after that book was published, I was delighted when Amberley Publishing asked if I would write a book about Conwy in their Through Time series.  I already had a collection of old pictures and was able to obtain some more and also to take my own photographs in the town. By the end of the summer of 2014, the task was complete and the book was published in the autumn. The following year, I started to write again only this time about the inland resort of Betws-y-Coed. I was fortunate in already knowing that community well as I once lived there and so know many people who were able to help. This was published in the autumn of 2015.

     

    A-Z of Conwy 3 St Mary's Church, on the site of the twelfth-century Aberconwy Abbey. (c. A-Z of Conwy, Amberley Publishing)

    By the spring of 2016, my thoughts turned to yet another book. I approached Amberley and we discussed many options of what form my next book would take. We eventually agreed that I should write a book in their new A to Z series about Conwy, but what else could I say about the town?  Whereas the Through Time series describes a comparison of locations in the past and the present, the A to Z series tells one continuous story of people and places, as well as looking to the future.  I have often said to myself, “If the walls of the castle could talk, they would have many an interesting story to tell,” but of course they cannot talk and never shall, but people can talk. While preparing this book, I met many people. It was interesting to chat to the retired fishermen on the Quay who have many an interesting story to tell and are so willing to share their stories. This is living history, not just a dusty past. Almost every building in the town is listed, and has its own story of people who were associated with it. I soon found plenty to write about and plenty of places to photograph and was given much help and support by the people of Conwy.

    A-Z of Conwy 4 Plas Mawr as seen from High Street. (c. A-Z of Conwy, Amberley Publishing)

    Conwy is a small town where (almost) everybody knows everybody. The town is mercifully free from the major development of chain stores and most of its shops, pubs and cafes are independently owned, where the staff know their customers which leads to a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.  I like Conwy early in the morning before it gets crowded, when there is time to buy things in the small shops and have a cup of coffee and a chat. It sounds idyllic, but a walk around the town in the quiet early morning gives time to ponder on the town’s past, which was often violent during the English-Welsh wars and the Civil Wars. It is miraculous that so much has survived and in past centuries, as much of the town was burned down more than once.

    The future of Conwy hangs on a delicate thread. Its popularity with tourists from all over the world increases from year to year and the tourists provide employment for many people in the town. However, there is always the danger that over development could kill the very atmosphere that draws people to Conwy.  The town’s history in the past two hundred years has been about setting a balance and many a battle has been fought between the townspeople and those trying to overdevelop the town. Conwy is often accused of dwelling on its past, but it is the old buildings and the stories around them that draw in visitors. Up to now, common sense has generally prevailed, and although the town is not a museum, but a place where people live and work, it is important to remember it is the old buildings and old stories that attract people to this unique town.

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    John Barden Davies new book A-Z of Conwy is available for purchase now.

  • Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922 by Andrew Hyde

    In March, 2003 the US and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were implored not to proceed with what created arguably one of the greatest avoidable human disasters in recent history, resulting in a catastrophic loss of human life and the expenditure of eye watering amounts of treasure.

    Jihad 1 Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. Greece’s nemesis, Turkey’s liberator and founder of a modern state. (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

    Saddam Hussein, we were assured was a toxic influence in the Middle East, poised to unleash upon his neighbours all manner of nerve gases and other noxious substances. With his departure a new era of peace, stability and western style democracy would follow that would leave the region transformed for the better.

    Having been rightly demonised as a cruel dictator who was a threat to his neighbours and an evil presence in his own country, the mantra of regime change echoed through the corridors of power in Washington and London.

    Other world leaders, particularly those in France and Germany nevertheless remained sceptical, and many more were openly hostile to the concept of removing the tyrant and creating a new, ‘free’ Iraq.  Tens of millions of ordinary people around the world took to the streets to oppose military action, and national capitals echoed to the cries of those fearful of the death and destruction that an invasion would produce.

    Nevertheless, despite such opposition the operation proceeded, and in the days that followed the naysayers appeared to have been confounded as the Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of the coalition. Military victory was relatively swift, and for the Allies casualties unexpectedly light.

    Despite Blair’s insistence that the removal of the Iraqi dictator had left the country a better place, the subsequent descent of the nation into anarchy and civil war needs no retelling here.

     

     

    Jihad 2 Marshal Foch, President Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando and Sonnino. (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

    The parallels with the events of a hundred years ago in Turkey slowly emerged as the tragic drama in Iraq developed. It was this aspect of the story which I felt warranted revisiting, albeit through the prism of current events.

    Jihad – The Ottomans and the Allies focusses not on Iraq but Turkey, and charts the decline of a great empire which once straddled Europe, the Middle East and Africa and its transformation into a sovereign secular republic free from Western domination. In Iraq by contrast we experience an omni-shambles, where Western involvement has seen little but tragedy and chaos.

    In 1919, the Greek Prime Minister Eletherios Venizelos, sponsored by his British counterpart Lloyd George had embarked upon an ill-advised expedition to establish hegemony over Anatolia and reduce Turkey to the status of a vassal state. Whilst the discredited Ottoman regime in Constantinople meekly acquiesced to the insults heaped one upon the other, an alternative government was established hundreds of miles away to resist these same humiliations.

    Jihad 3 The grand plan to carve up Turkey and the Middle East like a cake (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

    Under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal, Nationalist Turkey rejected the imposition of an unequal treaty, the partition of its territory and perhaps most significant of all, successfully resisted the Greek invasion. Turkish honour was restored and peaceful coexistence between the new state and its erstwhile adversaries followed.

    Furthermore, the involvement of Britain as essentially the only supporter of Greek designs in Anatolia had serious and long lasting ramifications in other key geopolitical spheres.

    Lloyd George paid with his job for his stubborn support of the Greeks, and spent the rest of his life in the political wilderness. Britain’s rash assumption of military support from Canada and Australia saw those once amenable Dominions re-evaluate their political relationship with the Mother Country and for the first time assert what proved to be their own foreign policy doctrines.

    By waging war against a Moslem state, and threatening the Caliphate, Britain stoked up nascent nationalism in its Indian empire, particularly amongst her Moslem population. Those who had been relatively docile subjects expressed their growing concerns with respect to the fate of the spiritual head of their religion, which the British failed to address properly, leave alone attempt to satisfy. India’s Hindus, led by Mahatma Gandhi seized upon this schism to unite with the Moslems to pursue the wider aim of Indian independence.

    Jihad 4 Mehmet VI, the last Ottoman Sultan, who ended his reign crouched in the back of a British army ambulance. (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

    Britain’s participation in the Turkish imbroglio also fractured relations with France and Italy, damaging her ability to cooperate on wider global issues, challenges which had they been on more amicable terms, might have been ameliorated or avoided altogether. Among these most of all we may count Franco-British relations with Germany, and the imposition of a peace treaty at Versailles which sowed resentment and revanchist sentiments among the defeated foe, and helped to stoke the rise of Nazism.

    Equally, Italian resentment over the Allied failure to make good on their promises to encourage her to join the Entente in 1915, may possibly have avoided the sequence of events which led to her decision to throw in her lot with Hitler. Two developments with far reaching consequences.

    However, it is in the present parlous state of the Middle East that the legacy of British interference is now seen; disaster in Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria and many other parts of the region over the decades, where a little more tact and foresight would have been advisable.

    These musings are of course largely speculation, and benefit from the 50/50 hindsight of historical analysis. Nevertheless, one thing which any comparison between the Middle East of the 1920s and that of the present day tells us is that Western interference rarely heralds the outcomes that had been hoped for, and invariably makes matters a whole lot worse.

    9781445666150

    Andrew Hyde's new book Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922 is available for purchase now.

  • Tyneside Railways: The 1970s and 1980s by Colin Alexander

    I was six years old when the 1960s gave way to the 70s.  Man had landed on the Moon the year before, an event I remember watching on our old grainy black and white television.  Although steam had ended on British Railways in 1968, my Dad would take me to see any steam ‘special’ that visited Newcastle, and many of the local industrial railways still relied on steam power.

    Tyneside Railways 1 HS4000 Kestrel was a 4,000 hp prototype built by Hawker-Siddeley and is seen here leaving for King's Cross on 20 October 1969. (c. Tyneside Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1970, most of Tyneside was black.  Buildings were black, the river was black.  There was industry of all kinds lining both banks of the river, stretching from the west of Newcastle and Gateshead almost to the river mouth.  Shipyards, power stations, coal staithes, docks, chemical works, warehouses and coking plants competed for river frontage, and in the hinterlands, there were colliery headstocks as far as the eye could see.

    By 1990, a complete transformation had taken place.  Virtually all traces of all those industries were gone and the smoke-blackened buildings were cleaned up.  The steam-age railway with its semi-derelict stations had given way to an electrified main line and a smart new underground Metro.

    Tyneside Railways 2 Fenwick pit, east of Backworth, also in 1973 with NCB No. 16, built by Robert Stephenson & Hawthorn as late as 1957. (c. Tyneside Railways, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

     

    Anyone who’d left Tyneside in the 1960s and returned for the first time in the 1990s would scarcely have recognised the place; such was the magnitude of the change.

    Tyneside Railways: the 1970s and 1980s is intended to illustrate the many changes that took place on the railways and in the North East in general during a tumultuous twenty years both for me, and for Tyneside.

    Tyneside was widely acknowledged as being at the epicentre of the birth of the railway.  Long before railway mania gripped the rest of Victorian Britain, pioneering engineers on both sides of the Tyne were connecting collieries to the river by primitive wagonways to facilitate the export of coal.  Prior to this, it was only economic to extract coal close to navigable water, but the wooden wagonways of the 1700s allowed much more of the coalfield to be exploited.  While other areas of industrial Britain were digging canals, the wagonways of Northumberland and Durham would evolve into the ‘iron road’.  North-East men like William Hedley, William Chapman, Timothy Hackworth and of course George and Robert Stephenson were instrumental in replacing horse power through the steam revolution that would shrink nations and continents across the world.

    Tyneside Railways 3 On 19 August 1977, a Metro Cammell DMU is on its way around the North Tyne loop from Newcastle via Wallsend and Benton back to Newcastle again. (c. Tyneside Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    While the region always had its glamorous Anglo-Scottish express passenger trains, the railways in the North-East were dominated by freight services, and the North Eastern Railway had a virtual monopoly from the Humber to the Scottish Border on the transport of vast amounts of coal, iron ore, steel, fish and other goods traffic for decades.  This traffic continued after 1923 under the London & North Eastern Railway and into the early days of post-war nationalisation in British Railways’ North Eastern Region.  That freight traffic was to go into terminal decline through the 1970s and 80s as industries disappeared.

    The book includes many locations beyond the obvious Newcastle and Gateshead, visiting the suburbs to the east, the beautiful Tyne Valley to the west, as well as going slightly further afield to locations in the South-East Northumberland coalfield and almost to Wearside.

     

     

     

    Tyneside Railways 4 Along the River Tyne at Blaydon on 7 April 1984, pioneer Class 40 No. 40122/D200 with green livery restored is in charge of IZ69 the Knotty Circular Rambler that has travelled from Stafford to Carlisle and will return via Newcastle and Leeds. (c. Tyneside Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    I have tried to show a wide variety of motive power in the book, including preserved steam and BR diesel traction; steam, diesel and electric-powered industrial locomotives; Tyne & Wear Metro stock and even the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train makes an unlikely appearance.

    Recently, much of the North-East's rich railway heritage has seen a renaissance with some beautifully restored stations and bridges, and the region can boast some of the preservation movement's most precious relics.

    9781445662305

    Colin Alexander's new book Tyneside Railways: The 1970s and 1980s is available for purchase now.

  • Northumberland and Tyneside's War by Neil R. Storey and Fiona Kay

    Both Fiona and I have been captivated by and collected the stories, photographs and memorabilia of our local men and women who ‘did their bit’ since we were kids when we first heard some tales of the Great War from the veterans we knew back then. They would say with some pride that they ‘did their bit’ and would share some stories, usually tales that would bring a laugh or remember their comrades but they very rarely spoke of their own experiences in the conflict. They were men and women of a very different generation that have inspired a lifetime of research. Over the decades since, it is been proved again and again that one strand of research often leads to another and this is certainly true of Northumberland and Tyneside’s War.

    Northumberland and Tyneside's War 1 Cadre of recuperated soldiers ready to return to front line service with the Northumberland Fusiliers c. 1917. (c. Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    When researching our previous book ‘Newcastle Battalions on the Somme’ (Tyne Bridge) for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016 we found literally hundreds more first-hand accounts written home in letters from local servicemen and women serving their country between the years 1914 and 1918. The stories we discovered had been published in local newspapers, parish magazines and Regimental journals a hundred years ago, but have not been seen in print since. The public exhibitions and special commemoration events we helped to stage brought forward descendents who shared their family memorabilia and our research at the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, libraries and archive collections around the county brought more letters, manuscripts and ephemera to light.

    This remarkable body of first–hand material contained so many stories that were so evocative and powerful they had to be shared, not just because they contain accounts of battles, life in the trenches and significant moments in the First World War from a soldier’s point of view but because they also reflect so much of the character, courage, stoicism, modesty and humour unique to true Northern lads. From joining up and through training there was a spirit that never left them through the hell of war. The authentic ‘voice’ of the Geordie can also be found in the wealth of verse and songs they wrote. Some of these letters and verses are particularly poignant because they were written home on the eve of battle and proved to be the very last letters home for some of these men.

    Northumberland and Tyneside's War 2 One of the Zeppelin bomb craters at Bedlington with a fine turnout of curious locals on the morning of 14 April 1915. (c. Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Our book also includes accounts from the home front such as eye-witness reports of the first Zeppelin raid on Northumberland and stories of the local war hospitals that cared for thousands of returned wounded soldiers throughout the war.  The sterling work of a diverse array of local wartime organisations is also recorded, from the YMCA hostels and huts to ladies committees set up to supply comforts to the troops, hospitals, prisoners of war and the crews of minesweepers. Even the volunteers of the Elswick and Scotswood Bandage Party are not forgotten for they made and despatched 70,523 bandages to hospitals both at home and abroad between January 1916 and January 1919.

    Tyneside and Northumberland’s contribution to the war effort was truly outstanding. The mines of the North East provided the coal to power battleships all over the world and the shipyards along the Tyne built many of those battleships. Thousands of men marched out from those same pits and shipyards to answer their county’s call, indeed volunteers came from all walks of life and no other British city outside London raised more battalions of soldiers for Kitchener’s Army than Newcastle. There were 19 service battalions raised for the Northumberland Fusiliers between the years 1914-15 all bar one of them was raised in Newcastle. The exception was 17th (Service) Battalion (N.E.R. Pioneers) raised by the North Eastern Railway Company in Hull but it should not be forgotten that this battalion also included many men from Tyneside and Northumberland. The Northumberland Fusiliers had a remarkable 52 battalions during the First World War, twenty-nine of which served overseas. This made them the second largest line infantry regiment in the British Army, with only the eighty-eight battalions of the London Regiment to surpass them in greater number.

    Northumberland and Tyneside's War 3 A fine group of Necastle Munitionettes in their overalls, 1916. (c. Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the locally raised ‘New Army’ battalions were the ‘Newcastle Commercials,’ Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish, who faced the hurricane of machine gun fire on the First Day of the Somme in 1916.  No Regiment lost more men than the Northumberland Fusiliers on that fateful day. What is still more remarkable is the fact that just about every active service battalion in the British Army, every Corps, every branch of the Royal Navy (notably the Royal Naval Division) and Royal Marines could find Geordies within its ranks.  Indeed numerous English, Irish and Scottish Regiments can all be found actively recruiting men from Tyneside and Northumberland during the First World War and some of them ended up with Tyneside Companies of their own.

    The soldiers of the North have a long history and reputation for being good fighting men and their county regiment in 1914 was the embodiment of that spirit. The Northumberland Fusiliers finds its roots back in 1674 and was granted the seniority of the Fifth Regiment of Foot in the British Army, a seniority they were always proud of. They richly earned and upheld the Regiment’s traditions and nick-names of the ‘Fighting Fifth’ and the ‘Old and Bold.’ In 1914 Lord Kitchener himself said of them ‘I have often had occasion to thank Heaven that I had the Northumberland Fusiliers at my back. Tell them from me that I have often relied upon the Northumberland Fusiliers in the past and I know that I may need to do so in the future’ and Lieut-General Sir Brian Horrocks did not mince words in his introduction to history of the Regiment in the Famous Regiments series when he wrote of men from the Northern collieries ‘whom I have always regarded as making the finest infantry in the world.’

    We hope this book will add something original to the canon of works on the county of Northumberland, Tyneside and its people both at home and fighting abroad in the First World War and that the authentic voices of the lads and lasses published herein will speak to our readers with the same resonance that they spoke to us and leave with them the same legacy - they deserve to be Remembered.

    9781445669427

    Neil R. Storey and Fiona Kay's new book Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War is available for purchase now.

  • Manchester Ship Canal Through Time by Steven Dickens

    Manchester Ship Canal Through Time - Docks Trafford Wharf Nos 6, 7 and 8 Docks, Salford & Trafford Wharf, c. 1910. (c. Manchester Ship Canal Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Surviving near bankruptcy and opening in 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal was founded by Daniel Adamson, who first presented the idea to the Manchester business community in 1882.It was an amazing feat of Victorian engineering. A colossal structure, with huge lock gates and the unique Barton Aqueduct, it was the ‘international super-highway’ of its day. Shipping regularly crossed the Atlantic to Canada and the United States of America, and there were also regular services to Argentina and the Mediterranean in the early days. Vessels brought back to the Port of Manchester cotton, livestock, building materials and foodstuffs for sale on the domestic market. The canal was unlike those built previously, in that it had to be large enough to accommodate the biggest of ocean-going vessels at the time and lead to the foundation of Manchester Liners. These vessels were purpose-built to the exact dimensions of the canal and were sturdy enough to negotiate the worst Atlantic crossings. Manchester Liners headquarters were near the old Number Eight and Nine Docks, at the Port of Manchester, with their vessels a common sight on the canal, until it closed to traffic around 1980. Closure came about due to a combination of the growth in container traffic, for which the canal had not been designed, and long-term economic decline. In the 1960s containerisation on a large scale meant that vessels could no longer negotiate the Ship Canal’s limited lock space and traffic rapidly declined as the 1970s progressed. However, today the canal continues as a working waterway on a limited scale, servicing the industrial complex of Trafford Park and all points along its course, until it reaches the Mersey Estuary at Eastham and the Irish Sea beyond. There has also been talk in recent years of the development of ‘Port Salford’ and the expansion of commercial shipping activity as a result of this. Whether this development takes place remains to be seen.

    Manchester Ship Canal Through Time - Barton Oil Terminal Aqueduct c 1930 Barton Oil Terminal and Swing Aqueduct, c. 1940. (c. Manchester Ship Canal Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    The canal is about thirty six miles in length and begins at the Port of Manchester, now the retail, leisure and media complex at Salford Quays. Logistically, negotiating the whole length of the Ship Canal presents many more challenges today than it did when it was still a working-waterway some forty to fifty years ago – unless you are aboard a vessel that is! The canal has some magnificent examples of swing-bridges along its course, but getting close enough to them in order to observe their structure, or attaining the right angle for a photograph, is another matter altogether! Fencing has been ‘strategically’ placed along the canal’s length, particularly true of Barton Aqueduct, where I had to climb onto the structure in order to get the image I wanted. Sometimes I feel that the photographer would benefit from gymnastic training at times like these. Of course the canal is not maintained to the extent that it was when a fully working entity, so access is a little more difficult and care has to be taken.

    Manchester Ship Canal Through Time - Irlam Locks Railway Bridge CWS Factory Irlam Irlam Locks, Carrington Power Station, Irlam High Level Railway Viaduct and Former CWS Wharf and Factory Site, Irlam, c. 1894. (c. Manchester Ship Canal Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Living close to the Manchester Ship Canal, as I do, also has its benefits. Gone is the thick layer of oil that enveloped the surface of the canal some forty years ago. The canal, along with the rest of the Mersey Valley, has undergone an environmental transformation. At Irlam Locks, where there was once a soap-works, there are now swans and herons. All very different from the way I remember it in the 60s and 70s.

    The Barton Oil Terminal and dock, where my father worked, was a hive of activity in this era, benefitting from the oil-boom years of the 1960s. Oil tankers were constantly loading and unloading at the terminal and negotiating the tricky corner and narrowing of the canal, where Barton swing-bridge and aqueduct crossed. It was a 24/7 occupation, although there were many lighter moments, particularly on one New Year’s Eve in the 1970s, when a Polish tanker was being unloaded at the terminal. The captain had laid on a huge spread for the crew and those who were off-loading the tanker, including my dad, could not understand why the captain had brought his bike with him. Everyone was invited aboard to enjoy the festivities while unloading continued and all was going well, until my dad noticed that both the captain and his bike had disappeared. On enquiry it was explained to him that the captain had used his transport in order to cycle into the local town, where he was meeting a young lady. The crew appeared oblivious to their captain’s disappearance and to the fact that his bike had gone AWOL. One can only assume that it was a regular occurrence in every port of call.

    Manchester Ship Canal Through Time - SS Manchester Progress and Tug c 1938 Built 1938 by Blythswood Single screw turbine engine Coal fuel 13 Knots SS Manchester Progress and Tug, c. 1938. (c. Manchester Ship Canal Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Although the canal is now much less busy there is still some regular traffic, invoking childhood memories of waiting at Barton swing-bridge for huge ocean going vessels to silently glide past, whilst being carefully manoeuvred by their tugs. For me, compiling Manchester Ship Canal Through Time has brought back many memories like these, and I hope reading the book will produce many memories for you.

    9781445639727

    Steven Dickens' new book Manchester Ship Canal Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Lancaster The Postcard Collection by Billy F. K. Howorth

    Lancaster The Postcard Collection 2 Within Williamson Park stands the imposing structure of Ashton Memorial, which is one of the largest follies in Britain. (c. Lancaster The Postcard Collection, Amberley Publishing)

    Shortly after writing my first book A-Z of Lancaster I embarked upon writing Lancaster The Postcard Collection. The idea of presenting a town and its history using only postcards was an interesting and intriguing proposition allowing me to search for the most unusual and interesting illustrations available.

    The Lancaster that we see today is the product of centuries of development, expansion and redevelopment. If you look close enough you can still see signs of Lancaster's glorious past, however, as is the case with many cities, Lancaster unfortunately lost many buildings over the past century or so, and you could argue it is a shadow of its former self.

    Whilst setting about writing my book, I initially came up with a hit list of the places and sites that I wanted to include. No book on Lancaster would be complete without the obligatory images of the castle and Ashton Memorial, but finding images which were more obscure and offered a different insight were the real challenge. Lancaster is a fascinating city with a history stretching back to the Roman Occupation. The town grew in the Middle Ages and by the Georgian Period had a well developed port and was heavily involved in the Slave Trade. All of these periods have added to the fabric of the city and makes it a great place to explore.

    Lancaster The Postcard Collection 1 One of the most prominent structures on the Lancaster skyline is the imposing fortress of Lancaster Castle that has stood proudly on Castle Hill for over 900 years. (c. Lancaster The Postcard Collection, Amberley Publishing)

    I also decided that whilst the town over the past hundred years had developed and grown it would be interesting to contrast this with the reality of living in one of the surrounding villages and how life would have been for the inhabitants. For those who know the local area, Lancaster is located on the River Lune. Further inland the Lune Valley is home to many small, yet important, villages including Caton, Hornby and Wray. If you head the other direction you come across the Lune Estuary villages of Glasson, Cockerham and Thurnham which have a history connected to Morecambe Bay and Fishing.

    In the process of writing my book, I discovered that although many of the buildings in Lancaster still exist, their history and stories seemed to be less well known. Even people who live in the town seemed unaware of the interesting stories behind the facades. This allowed me to pick the sites both popular and less well known as the basis for my narrative. I decided that in order to show off the history of the town to its full potential, it would be best to split the town into rough areas so each chapter would act as a showcase for the sites and buildings within that part of the town. As you go through the book you can explore the sites along the River Lune, around Castle Hill and in Dalton Square and the book acts as a guide offering a potted history into each area.

    Lancaster The Postcard Collection 3 When we take a look at the local landscape in the area, there is one feature that has played a major part in local history – the River Lune. (c. Lancaster The Postcard Collection, Amberley Publishing)

    The final decision on what sites to include and talk about came down to how many postcards I was able to find. For some sites the choice was huge, every aspect and detail was pictured whilst other sites I struggled to even find a couple of images. Unfortunately, there were a few buildings that were not to be found on any original postcards and in order to maintain authenticity I decided not to include these. My aim throughout the process was to tell this history of the town through the most comprehensive display of postcards I could put together.

    I hope that readers of my book will find it both an interesting interpretation of the towns history, and also act as the starting point to look a little further into the history of Lancaster and its buildings.

    9781445668505

    Billy F. K. Howorth's new book Lancaster The Postcard Collection is available for purchase now.

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