Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Amberley Blog

  • 50 Gems of Cheshire by Mike Appleton

    The History & Heritage of the Most Iconic Places

    50 Gems in Cheshire is my third contribution to Amberley’s ‘Gems’ series and you’d think I’d have got the hang of it by now.

    50 Gems of the Yorkshire Dales was a jewel filled quest in a national park I knew like the back of my hand while although 50 Gems of Derbyshire took me to a different part of the country, I felt comfortable in the chocolate box villages and on the fells.

    Cheshire seemed an obvious port of call; being minutes from my home in Lancashire and relatively well known in terms of attractions and places to visit.

    Jodrell Bank… check… Sandbach… check… simple.

    Yet, this proved to be one the hardest projects I have undertaken because the county itself is a bit of an anomaly!

    Its current boundary covers roughly more than 900 square miles but historically was a lot larger. It took in the Wirral and stretched across to Black Hill, which is now in the Peak District and near Yorkshire.

    It also travelled as far down as Crewe and skirted along the Welsh border.

    Then, even though it is relatively flat, it has three distinct ‘tops’: the aforementioned Black Hill, which is the highest point in the historic county, but now effectively on the border between the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire and High Peak in Derbyshire – yes, it’s a Cheshire hill, in the Peak District near West Yorkshire! – Shutlingsloe and Shining Tor.

    Alderley Edge Mines take you underground as does Hack Green Nuclear Bunker. Stalybridge, near Stockport, is as far removed from Ness Botanic Gardens as you can get, as is Newton-Le-Willows, part of Merseyside, from the likes of Nantwich and Crewe.

    Then you could include Flintshire, which is now part of North Wales.

    How could I not include all these gems and thus stick to a modern 900 square mile restriction? In the end it was a relatively easy decision to take – but then I had to whittle the Gems down to 50!

    So old boundary, new boundary, there’s plenty of places to discover and the gems are designed to be visited in clusters. For instance, the Lovell Quinta Arboretum is a stunning collection of trees in the late Sir Bernard Lovell’s garden, the famous physicist and radio astronomer. It is a stone’s throw from Jodrell Bank and located in Swettenham, which is beautiful village in its own right. Delamere Forest has Hatchmere Lake as its neighbour while Parkgate and Ness can be visited in an afternoon.

    Here I present five of my favourites; I hope you enjoy them!

    Lovell Quinta Arboretum - Sir Bernard Lovell's 'reflection' pond. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Lovell Quinta Arboretum

    Sir Bernard Lovell created this fantastic arboretum in the grounds of the house he bought in 1948. His vision was to collect a variety of trees and shrubs from around the world, based on the four volumes of W. J. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles and establish them in this quiet part of Cheshire.

    It was very much a personal project – he was meticulous in keeping records, hand-drawn plans and a card index for each plant – and was at the heart of developing it as the years progressed.

    As an astronomy pioneer, that level of detail is more than reflected in his arboretum and his home village, from the creation of the reflection pond to the avenues and areas that symbolised major events in his life. In 1996, the site passed into the watch of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and is now with the Tatton Garden Society and the capable hands of Rhoderic Taylor, the curator.

    He looks after close to 2,400 plants, some of which are ‘champion’ trees, and others of international significance and importance. This is an amazing site with a varied and interesting collection. There is an honesty box in a prominent position, with a suggested entry fee of £2.50 per person, but to be honest, the walk is worth a lot more.

    Hack Green - A vast array of monitoring equiptment, as well as nuclear weapons. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Hack Green Nuclear Bunker

    Sometimes a gem stays with you for a long time. I’ve been fascinated with the history of the Cold War and particularly the aftermath of an attack ever since I discovered a Royal Observer Corps Post while researching another of the 50 Gems series. It opened up a whole new area of underground discoveries for this speleologist and reflection of the world I was growing up in when I was a lot younger.

    Visiting Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker married those two interests together and brought with it a sense of poignancy, empathy and terror I never expected. This was a site of preparation for a nuclear attack, an operational Cold War base, the foundation of civil defence in the region and a reminder of how far we’ve come since the threats of that period.

    Starting in the canteen, you tour around the base and get to see what life would have been like at Hack Green. Your tour includes where nuclear fallout would have been tracked by top scientists, communications and BBC broadcast centres, Home Office briefing and conference rooms and their still operational radio equipment, a ROC Post, bunk rooms, the actual equipment Thatcher used to signal the attacking of the Belgrano in the Falklands conflict and a whole lot more.

    It is incredible, stark, frightening and weirdly reassuring. The fact that the government had all this in place in the event of an attack, to make sure survivors had the best chance of living, is pretty sobering. The team at Hack Green have created something that is educational and entertaining, non-political and utterly fascinating.

    At the top of Black Hill. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Black Hill

    Reaching 1,909 feet, Black Hill isn’t a particularly majestic ‘mountain’ or somewhere that would be high on many peak bagger’s lists, but it retains a certain charm as well as being a real oddity.

    But the views on the way up to the summit are amazing on a clear day and getting to that point is relatively straightforward – from the A635 and along the well-paved Pennine Way, if you’re inclined to take that route.

    Its location makes it important too as I mentioned above!  It got its ‘bleak’ name because it was once covered in deep black bogs; exposed peat stripped back due to 150 years of pollution and wild fires.

    The difference between that description and the present day couldn’t be more contrasting as significant conservation efforts have taken place.

    Remedial work started on the 46-hectare site in 2003, aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, before the Moors for the Future MoorLIFE project came to the fore. They spread 50 million sphagnum fragments on the moorland to reintroduce sphagnum moss, a key peat-building moss. They also planted bog cotton and bilberry, and these are evident as you reach the summit.

    Gawsworth. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Gawsworth

    You only have to see the pictures here to understand what a beautiful village Gawsworth is.

    It’s peaceful, tranquil and its church is flanked by two pools, making it the most idyllic venue for a place of worship.

     

     

     

     

    Parkgate is an important salt marsh and has great views. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Parkgate

    For everything Cheshire has to offer, the last thing you would expect to find is a coastal resort.

    Parkgate was an important port towards the end of the seventeenth century, serving as a leaving point for Ireland. Originally, ships docked further in stream at Chester but as the River Dee silted, alternative disembarkation points were needed.

    The first was built at Burton but as the river became less navigable, a location was found just outside the boundary of Neston’s hunting park. Parkgate was that ‘post’ and it became a bustling hub with ships anchored in the main channel – passengers and goods transferred by tender. It retained that status until 1815 before the majority of trade with Ireland passed through Liverpool.

    The area is managed by the RSPB, who purchased it from British Steel in 1979. Hen Harrier, Merlin, Skylark, Redshanks and Short-Eared Owls all call it home – with even more arriving when tides flush out mammals and insects.

    Taking a walk along the Parade is like stepping back in time. The site of the Old Customs House, once a starting point for donkey rides, provides a host of information, while on the opposite side of the road is Mostyn House School from 1855, the Ship pub and places to buy local seafood and the resort’s famous ice cream.

     

    Mike Appleton's new book 50 Gems of Cheshire is available for purchase now.

  • Normandy Crucible by John Prados

    The Decisive Battle that Shaped World War Two in Europe

    The Allied Intelligence Advantage

    Cobra's breakout took American troops through a succession of ruined villages and towns. Here a Stuart tank and other armor passes a road control team on its way to find the Germans, July 27. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    The first-generation histories of D-Day and the Allied campaign in, and breakout from Normandy were written at a time when the success of Allied codebreakers remained a deep secret. Hence the contributions of ULTRA, an umbrella term for the product of work against the German codes, was lost to history. Since the 1970s and the revelation of ULTRA, conversely, this intelligence source has often been represented as omniscient, making the Allies supremely aware of every Nazi maneuver. Neither version is correct. There were inherent limitations on what potential ULTRA had, but given those boundaries, it is impressive what advantages the codebreakers provided for the Allied side in this decisive campaign in the West.

    For the European Theater, codebreaking activities were centered at Bletchley Park, location of the British Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS). By the spring of 1944 some 5,600 people here worked on deciphering, translating, or interpreting messages intercepted by legions of radio operators located throughout the war zones. British and Americans worked together. But what they could accomplish also depended upon what was possible. We have actual data on German communications for just one day—January 31, 1945—because Hitler’s operations staff chief, Colonel General Alfred Jodl chose to record the numbers. That day Fuehrer Headquarters fielded 120,000 telephone calls, sent or received 33,000 messages by high-speed teleprinter (geheimschreiber), and dealt with 1,200 radio messages. Only the radio messages—if intercepted—were fully vulnerable to decryption. Teleprinter traffic was proof so long as it went by landline (sometimes radio transmission became necessary). Between July and September 1944, for example, the Allies recovered an average of only 56 of the teleprinter messages daily, a minute fraction.

    The other key drawback was that ULTRA could provide only what passed over communications. For example, Hitler gathered the German commanders Von Rundstedt and Rommel at Margival on June 17 where they made a strategic decision to respond to the Allied invasion by means of a multi-corps offensive. Many German actions over subsequent weeks concerned gathering the forces for such an attack, finding a target, or countering Allied moves which could make the offensive impossible. But the only message traffic about Margival concerned Hitler’s movements or those of his generals.

    Vital to assisint the Normandy breakout, the French Resistance helped in all manner of ways. Here a Jedburgh team receives its final briefing in London before parachuting into France. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    Given those caveats, a survey of ULTRA revelations during the Normandy campaign shows just how valuable it was:

    – ULTRA plus radio direction finding identified the headquarters of the Germans’ Panzer Group West, hit by a powerful air raid on June 10, wounding its commander, Colonel General Geyr von Schweppenberg.

    – Hitler suspected his generals of defying orders to send more troops into the Norman port of Cherbourg, demanding a run down on the garrison. ULTRA got the June 18 response, providing Allied leaders with a complete order of battle on the Germans at Cherbourg.

    – On June 24 ULTRA could report that the II SS Panzer Corps, with 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, were arriving at the front, but that they had had to detrain in eastern France, almost a week earlier. This bespoke the effectiveness of the French Resistance and Allied air attacks in disrupting German communications.

    – On July 5 ULTRA warned that the powerful Panzer Lehr Division would transfer from the British to the American sector. This came in time for air attacks to block roads, delaying the move. A few days later ULTRA warned Panzer Lehr would attack.

    – To help General Montgomery’s operations, on July 10 and 14 ULTRA provided the troop list for German forces defending the Bourguébus sector.

    A platoon of 2nd Armored Division tanks waits outside a village on August 10 for orders to resume the advance. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    – When the Americans moved to break out of their end of Normandy by means of Operation Cobra, ULTRA provided a succession of intelligence tips—quickly, that German stocks of artillery shells were running short; on July 26 a complete order of battle for the defending German LXXXIV Corps; on the 28th and again two days later that the corps had lost contact with its entire left wing; on July 29 warning of a panzer concentration for an attack into the U.S. flank; and on July 30 notice that the battered Panzer Lehr Division had begun leaving the front.

    – During the first week of August ULTRA reported the concentration for what became the Germans’ Mortain offensive, and, when that appeared to fail, on August 9 a Fuehrer order to continue the attack, even though risking being caught in the developing Falaise Pocket. Ironically, Hitler sent his order by radio because, after the July 20 Plot, he did not trust the landline networks to transmit his directives.

    – On August 17 ULTRA intercepted six of the ten parts of the message from the German high command in the West to withdraw from Normandy, beginning the Nazi maneuver to escape the Falaise trap. That the Allies ultimately could not seal the Nazis in was a product of tense command decisions, German desperation, and field coordination problems, not a lack of intelligence.

    Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, an intelligence officer with Omar Bradley’s American army group, once wrote that 70 percent of the best came from combat intelligence, by which he meant aerial scouts, the Resistance, and prisoner interrogation. This list of ULTRA accomplishments shows that Kirkpatrick indulged in a bit of deception of historians. Alternatively, the 30 percent includes some pretty incredible intelligence, which went far towards ensuring Allied victory in Normandy.

    John Prados's new book Normandy Crucible: The Decisive Battle that Shaped World War Two in Europe is available for purchase now.

  • A149 Landmarks by Edward Couzens-Lake

    An Alternative Road Trip

    Castle Rising Castle, Castle Rising. Twelfth-century medieval fortification once owned by Queen Isabella of France. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    The road trip.

    Romance on the road. You, your car, the open road. A discovery waiting to happen, revelations that lie over the crest of the next hill.

    Jack Kerouac wrote of his own road trip as he travelled across the United States from east to west by bus, car and, when the latter two options weren’t available, via his own well-worn feet.

    If only we souls that hunger for adventure and the opportunity to spend every day driving into the sunset had the time and money for such an extravagance.

    But you don’t have to cross the Atlantic in order to hit the open road and, in doing so, find yourself.

    There are plenty of options to do so in England.

    England is a nation rich in road history. There are journeys to be made here and tales to tell that can be done over a weekend and on a budget.

    You can be your very own Jack Kerouac.

    St Mary's Church, Snettisham. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    Take the Peddars Way in Norfolk for example. It’s a 46-mile-long remnant of an old Roman road that some have suggested was ancient even before their sandalled feet first marched along its route. Then there’s Watling Street, the name given to the route travelled by the ancient Britons between Canterbury and St Albans. Another timeless route is the Icknield Way which links Norfolk to Wiltshire, following, as it does, high ground that includes the chalk escarpment that makes up the Berkshire Downs and Chiltern Hills.

    The sacred journey is as part of us as the air we breathe and countless atoms that make up our curious and ever exploring bodies. We are never still, we can never tarry a while at a given point A when our very being demands that we then seek out points B, C, D and many more beyond that.

    We cannot stand still. To take a journey is in our nature; it is at the core of our very essence.

    There is a romance to travel and a romance for the open road. Walt Whitman wrote of how he would, “…inhale great draughts of space; the east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine” in his poem The Song Of The Open Road.

    He knew. He felt it.

    And so have I. Always.

     

     

    Old Hunstanton Lighthouse and Ruins of St Edmund's Shapel, Hunstanton. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    The open road that beguiled me from an early age is a sinuous one that winds its way along the North Norfolk coast from Kings Lynn to Great Yarmouth. It is only 85 miles long, yet, for me, is one full of magic and wonder; of history ancient and modern and, above all, one that always leaves you wanting just a little bit more. A memorable journey indeed, one that will forever tempt you to keep going, on and on, negotiating its narrow straits, admiring abundant pretty villages and numerous views just so you can carry on turning the page in order to see what comes next.

    To the people that have long lived in the area, it is referred to, simply, as ‘The coast road’ whilst, to the suits and bland planners of Highways, it is referred to as the A149.

    Fetch a map. Let your eyes rest upon the very top of Norfolk, that stretch of coast where, if you travel due north from any of its wide-open beaches, you won’t hit landfall again until the frigid shores of the Arctic appear on the horizon.

    A wintry blast of cold air in the Arctic and one encountered in Norfolk are pretty much the same thing.

    Atop that part of the coast, the A149 wends its not particularly hurried way from one end of the county to another. We’ll travel it in a west to east direction, starting in King’s Lynn, formally Bishop’s Lynn but given the greater and grander title after it was ceded to the King from Bishop and Church in 1537.

    Harbour, Brancaster Staithe. Popular harbour with the sailing fraternity that also sustains a local fishing industry. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    A port that was once a member of the Hanseatic League and comparable, in importance, to Hamburg, Stockholm and Danzig.

    Where can we call upon the way?

    How about an ancient castle that once saw Isabella, the ‘she-wolf’ of France live within its mighty keep. Or via the railway station that once regarded European royal families and heads of state as regular visitors. Failing that, how about the lonely beach where a timber circle, as significant and ancient as Stonehenge was recently exposed and explored or maybe the nondescript meadow that was once home to a Roman fort, one which gives, according to those who know, “unparalleled insights” into the lives of Roman communities in Britain.

    “Unparalleled insights”. And in a nation that boasts of fine Roman settlements towns and cities as London, Bath and Winchester.

    All to be found on this one stretch of road. And all within the first twenty miles or so of its journey.

    You want more?

    Pier, Cromer. Grade II listed seaside pier. (c. Simon Moston, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    A landmark that was bequeathed by the last great ice sheet to cover this country. A church whose mighty 180-foot tower collapsed as the result of some over zealous bell ringing. Another church whose construction was abandoned due to the demands ladelled upon stone masons in the seventeenth century and which wasn’t completed until some 300 years later.

    Or the village that gave its name to one of the most famous cloths in the world, a distant home to the very finest weavers of Flanders came to call their own.

    All of the above. And so much more. A journey that takes the curious traveller through times and places a ’plenty that have made their mark on national or even world history. And all compressed into 85 miles of highway, a journey of discovery that Kerouac would have been proud to make.

    You can’t yet wear its t-shirt. But you can at least read the book. Be like Whitman. Travel this road and make both its east and its west you own.

    Explore. And prepare for delights.

    Edward Couzens-Lake's book A149 Landmarks is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Evesham by Stan Brotherton

    When writing this book I had two particular ideas in mind. First, I wanted to debunk a handful of long-standing local stories because, well, they have no basis in history (though they’re undeniably a bit of fun). Second, and much more importantly, there is a lot of “hidden history” which I wanted to explore and share.

    Pavement slab in Vine Street (installed in 2011) illustrating the vision of St Mary, plus two handmaidens, as witnessed by the swineherd Eof. (Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    Perhaps most famously there is the “Legend of Evesham”; which recounts how a local swineherd (named “Eof”) witnessed a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary. Is that true? It’s difficult to say; not least because it’s more of a philosophical (theological?) question rather than something which history can easily consider.

    Locally the “Legend of Evesham” is incredibly significant. It not only explains how Evesham got its name (“Eof’s ham”) but also why an abbey was founded here. That last point is key because before the abbey there was no town; only scrub and forest. The abbey was founded (700-ish); a town developed around it to serve the monks; then the abbey was dissolved (1540); and the town slowly but surely prospered and grew. This all begs a series of questions: Was there really nothing here before the abbey? Was there a “Roman Evesham”? What was this place called before it became “Evesham”?

    There is also the local legend that Lady Godiva is buried in Evesham. This story, along with other incidents from the town’s long history, is memorialised in a series of “history pavement slabs”. But is Godiva really buried in Evesham? The simple answer is ‘No!’ However, it’s interesting to unravel why folks think she is. The reason? It’s difficult to be certain, but it seems to be a simple matter of careless local scholarship.

    Details of the Eof statue created by Worcester-born sculptor John McKenna. (Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    Apparently there are secret underground tunnels running all around the town (with many said to run underneath the River Avon). To which any reasonable reader might reply: “Really? Secret tunnels? Under the river? You sure?” There’s certainly no historical or archaeological evidence of any such tunnels. Indeed, there’s a very clear and extensive lack of evidence. This, inevitably, begs the question of how this story began. Perhaps because some of the town’s medieval cellars are pretty big (plus there were large drains). Or because “secret tunnels” are a commonplace romantic staple. Or maybe perhaps because of a certain distrust of the monks; a sly insistence that they must have had secrets (and therefore they must have had “secret tunnels”).

    I am particularly grateful to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) for allowing me to use photographs of the fourth bell of Gloucester St Nicholas – a bell whose inscription links it undeniably to Evesham and its last “true” abbot, Clement Lichfield. Why is this bell in Gloucester? Almost certainly from the extensive trade in bells and metals which immediately followed the Dissolution. For the modern resident of Evesham, though, there is perhaps an obvious question: “Could we have our bell back, please?”

    Speculative image of Evesham Abbey by Warwick Goble (1862-1943). The abbey tower should sport a spire. (Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    There’s also the matter of Shakespeare. Evesham is incredibly close to Stratford-upon-Avon (about 15 miles); so did Shakespeare ever visit? There’s no direct evidence that he did; but there is the curious story of the ‘The Fool and the Ice’ which provides a contemporary local incident as possible inspiration to a line in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. There is also a local building known as the “Shakespeare’s Rest”. So, did Shakespeare rest at the “Shakespeare’s Rest”? Erm, well, no. The name was a little bit of Victorian entrepreneurial marketing. While the building itself is a lovely black-and-white Tudor survival; sadly there is no connection with England’s most famous son.

    The book dips into a wide range of mysteries, oddities, curiosities and puzzles. These range from surviving Celtic names, the possibility of an earlier Roman settlement, the foundation of the abbey, the burial of Simon de Montfort, the (tenuous) link with Shakespeare, Victorian curiosities, connections with J.R.R. Tolkien and Harry Potter, and ends with a collection of modern oddities.

    The fourth bell of Gloucester St Nicholas. (c. Churches Conservation Trust, Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    There is one curious connection which I felt I had to include: in New Jersey (USA) there is also a town called “Evesham”. Near that American town there was an expanse of land set aside as a reservation for the so-called “Brotherton Indians” (they called themselves the “Leni-Lenape”). As someone who bears the surname “Brotherton”, who is Evesham born-and-bred, and who knows that for at least three centuries there have been folks named “Brotherton” in Evesham (England), there is a most intriguing link. There is an official explanation: that the reservation was given its name to connate “brotherliness”. For myself, at least, this seems an unsatisfactory answer. Was there really nothing more to it than that? I have no idea; but hopefully in the future someone will research the question to provide a solid answer.

    The book is peppered with little blue boxes titled “Did You Know?”; sharing little-known snippets of local history ranging from some local rhymes (on history and weather), a rough-and-ready recipe for plum wine (known as “Jerkum”), and the origin of a bell-ringing method called “Evesham Surprise Major”.

    The book is also filled with photographs, plans and figures. There is a conjectural plan of the Anglo-Saxon minster (used with permission from Dr David Cox), a radically speculative Victorian plan of the long-lost Evesham Abbey, my own highly speculative plan of the town’s supposed secret tunnels, and a heavily cleaned-up street plan of Evesham c.1827. There is also a large image of the abbey’s seal; followed on the facing page by a detailed graphical explanation. Perhaps my favourite images are those of the unveiling of the statue of Eof in the Market Place (in 2008).

    In conclusion, this has been a fascinating book to write. When I began planning it, I thought I knew my home town pretty darned well. After all, I had already written a handful of local history books. However, during the process of writing, I found that there was so much more to uncover and question and research. My hope is that the reader’s journey will be the same: finding out that there is so much more to the picturesque English town of Evesham than might, at first, meet the eye. Enjoy!

    Stan Brotherton's new book Secret Evesham is available for purchase now.

  • Historic England: Worcestershire by Stan Brotherton

    Unique Images from the Archives of Historic England

    Worcester Road, South of the Unicorn Inn, Great Malvern. (c. Historic England Archive, Historic England: Worcestershire, Amberley Publishing)

    Historic England holds an extraordinary archive of images, both historical and new, of England’s amazing architectural heritage. This particular book represents a small and select slice from that remarkable collection. The trick for this book was working out a way to gather together a representative mix of photographs (say 50/50 in colour and black-and-white) from right across the county and across a range of interests. Where was I to start?

    As it turned out, it was exceptionally easy to start. I simply started trawling through the online archive of Historic England – https://archive.historicengland.org.uk – and noting all those images I thought particularly interesting. The next steps, however, were more time-consuming and intensive.

    Having assembled a collection of images, the next step was to analyse them by location. I wanted a good spread of images from right around the county; from the Cotswold Edge, Bredon Hill, the Malverns, the Vale of Evesham, the industrial northern edge of the county, the county town Worcester, and anywhere in between. Next was an analysis by type of location: that is, by city, industrial town, market town, and village. I paid particular attention to ensuring that every Worcestershire town was represented (typically many times): Worcester, Droitwich Spa, Evesham, Stourport on Severn, Kidderminster, Bromsgrove, Redditch, Malvern (Great, Little, Link and Barnards Green), Pershore, Bewdley, Tenbury, Upton on Severn, Alvechurch and Broadway.

    St Nicholas's Church, Church Lane, Dormston. (c. Historic England Archive, Historic England: Worcestershire, Amberley Publishing)

    As a separate exercise, I asked friends and relations what they considered to be the most notable and interesting places to visit in Worcestershire. Examples included the Elgar Birthplace Museum, Hartlebury Castle, Evesham’s Almonry, Harvington Hall, Morgan cars, Witley Court, Shelsley Walsh, and the Bull at Inkberrow (an inspiration for the pub in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers).

    There were also some images which I particularly wanted to include. I wanted to have an image of Lechmere House (Hanley Castle) so that I could talk about the local inspiration for some of P.G. Wodehouse’s wonderful stories. I also wanted a street scene from Great Malvern so that I could mention C.S. Lewis being inspired by a Malvern lamppost (shining through the falling snow) to write that iconic scene in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” which introduced Narnia. Additionally, I wanted to have an image of Dormston because I could then write how J.R.R. Tolkien would visit the area to visit his aunt Jane Neave (who lived in a farm known locally as “Bag End”).

    Pump Rooms, Tenbury Wells. (c. Historic England Archive, Historic England: Worcestershire, Amberley Publishing)

    Cross-checking these lists identified a handful of gaps – so it was back to the Historic England archive to find new images. On a couple of occasions there were no handy images available from the archive so I hunted out alternative sources (including the web, personal collection, friends and family).

    I now had an interesting and wide-ranging assembly of images. What, however, did they have in common? And how were they different? In other words, how could these images best be grouped?

    How about geographically, by area and place? However, with this approach there’s a risk that the reader will simply hunt out their own area of interest (for me it would be my home town of Evesham) and not worry so much about the rest.

    How about chronologically? That might work, but the end result would probably seem radically incoherent. After all, it might give the impression that the early days of Worcestershire were concerned solely with church-building, with later years specialising in country houses, and with later centuries focussed on industry. While that might indeed be true of the surviving architecture, it’s not true of the centuries themselves. After all, in every age there has been religion, business, wealth, village life, and more.

    Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blesses Mary the Virgin, Worcester. (c. Historic England Archive - Aerofilms Collection, Historic England: Worcestershire, Amberley Publishing)

    How about functionally? This doesn’t work cleanly because old buildings often have complex histories. A church might have since become offices (e.g. St Mary’s, Wythall) or been declared redundant (e.g. St George’s, Redditch). In a similar fashion, a country house might now be a tourist attraction (e.g. Witley Court) or a hotel (e.g. Farncombe) or a school (e.g. Pull Court) or just a ruin (e.g. Old Hewell Grange).

    The approach finally adopted was to loosely organise the images by theme with chapters on abbeys, village life, agriculture, churches, country houses, industry, and street scenes. Within each chapter the images could be further sorted chronologically (not exactly, but broadly). This meant for the first chapter (on abbeys) I could start with Worcester Cathedral (founded c.680) and conclude with Mucknell Abbey (moved to Stoulton in 2007). Interestingly, this approach left with me a stump of images which did not easily fit into any particular category – such as the Tenbury Pump Rooms, the Lickey Monument, and Treasure Island Amusement Park. How to cope with them? The answer was to create a whole new category called “The Surprising, Special and Curious”!

    Broadway Tower, Middle Hill, Broadway. (c. Historic England Archive, Historic England: Worcestershire, Amberley Publishing)

    The choice of the first image seemed obvious. The book is about Worcestershire, so we start with Worcester’s most iconic building – the Cathedral. The last was a bit trickier, but to me the answer also seemed rather obvious – Broadway Tower. After all, as the caption to that final image says: “It is, perhaps, the perfect place to end our current exploration. After all, from here, on a clear day, you can see all of historic Worcestershire.”

    Having sourced sufficient images and sorted out the organisation of the book, there remained one final job. To write the captions! The series brief stated that each caption should be a maximum of 50-60 words each in length. So for each of the final 150 images I ideally needed to write something which was interesting, informative, entertaining, and concise. For some places, this was wonderfully straightforward and I could write up a “potted history” (e.g. for Salters Hall). For other places, it was a trickier business and required a solid amount of research and consideration.

    There then followed the ongoing recursive process of thinking, researching, writing, reviewing, swapping out images, sourcing new images, and thinking again. After multiple revisions and re‑workings, I finally found myself with a completed manuscript and a looming deadline. Hopefully the reader will find the book an informative and entertaining read. As stated in the introduction, the aim of the book is “… to showcase this singular, wonderful and fascinating county. Hopefully the reader will be inspired to discover new places, or rediscover old ones.”

    Stan Brotherton's new book Historic England: Worcestershire is available for purchase now.

  • The Baltic Story by Caroline Boggis-Rolfe

    A Thousand-Year History of Its Lands, Sea and Peoples

    The palace of Sans Souci, seen from below the vine-covered terraces. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1969 I moved to Berlin with my husband, who was working in a liaison role with the Soviets. As a result, unlike most people from the West, we both went frequently into East Germany – in my case, a weekly shopping trip across the famous Glienicke Bridge to Potsdam being a regular event. While today the town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site is visited by large numbers of tourists who queue up to see inside the magnificent and well-restored buildings, my experiences fifty years ago were very different. At that time, despite being run-down, the quiet empty palaces and peaceful grounds where I could wander on my own had their own special kind of magic.

    It was here at Frederick the Great’s much-loved Sans Souci that I first came to learn something about his guest, Voltaire. Being still young and very ignorant at the time, I knew little of the Frenchman other than his name, but this early introduction would be the spark that ignited my later interest in the history of the whole region. After choosing Voltaire as the subject of my doctoral thesis, I discovered his writings regarding several of the great individuals of the area – including Peter I and Catherine II of Russia, Charles XII of Sweden, and, of course, Frederick of Prussia. These rulers later became central subjects in my lectures on cruise ships, where I then found just how much the Cold War had affected the experience and knowledge of the majority of my generation, people who had grown up learning almost nothing about the countries lying at that time behind the Iron Curtain. But even today there is little written for the average reader who wants to understand more about the background of this important part of the world, a region that extends all the way from Denmark to Russia. Some academic works focus on certain topics or areas, and an abundance of excellent biographies concentrate on the great individuals, but it seems that little has been published in English for the general reader regarding the other players. I love historical biographies, but their authors like the rest of us have to make decisions about what to include and what to omit. When reading these works, which closely detail the lives of their central figures, I find myself often wanting to know more about the neighbouring people with whom they came in contact. This has been one of the objectives of my book, even though it has meant that I have had to sacrifice some lesser points in order to give space to the wider field.

    Peterhov's Great Cascade with the Samson Fountain that commemorated the victory at Poltava. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

    With this broader search being my aim, I draw attention to the multiple connections that have historically linked the separate Baltic regions. From the days of the early traders, neighbours had begun to form alliances, often ratifying them by the exchange of a marriage contact. However, while these arrangements were intended to unite the different groups, all too often the reverse would be true as the dynastic arguments became bitter and gradually escalated into a full-blown conflict. But, despite their own repeated rivalries, throughout the centuries these regional lands would also be key players in the affairs of much of the rest of Europe. While Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Russia and Germany alternated as its leading players, the whole Baltic area would be a centre of east-west commercial activity, and a battleground during many of the continent’s most significant wars.

    Personally, I consider history is best served by looking at it from the angle of the people involved; this, I believe, gives the events a more human face. In the last century there was a turning away from histories of kings, queens, and emperors, all such studies being seen as politically incorrect because they did not prioritise the role played by the majority of people. While that is a valid point, yet I still believe that we cannot avoid focusing on those who were responsible for making the decisions. And, even while putting aside the fact that the vast numbers of poor and needy were in the main unable to influence affairs, for a historian there is an even bigger problem. For the most part, until relatively recently such people left little if anything behind to mark their daily struggle. Therefore, if we want to study history through the individual, we have to find our source material in the letters, documents, portraits and other possessions of the privileged few. Furthermore, even while accepting that it was the rich and powerful who were mainly responsible for the decisions that resulted in wars, massacres, taxation and even famine, we have to acknowledge that it was these same people who also gave us the magnificent art and architecture, scientific discoveries and inventions, transport and better communications, which we still enjoy today.

    Drottningholm Palace, which was rebuilt by Nicodemus Tessin 'the Elder' in the 1660s for the dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

    The Baltic Story is presented as a flowing narrative – in the manner of a French histoire, which is to say as both a story and a history. However, appreciating that not everyone has the same interests, I have constructed it in a way that allows each chapter to be read on its own. To avoid confusing the reader, I have tried to limit the number of individuals mentioned, and with all of them have attempted to give a rounded, honest picture that does not exaggerate their qualities or their failings.

    One thing that particularly struck me while I was writing the book, was the dread with which so many of the rulers faced the unenviable task that lay before them. Rather than being men and women with an unfair advantage in life, many would see themselves as the victims of circumstance – this being particularly true in the case of the later Romanovs. Even some of the ‘Greats’ would feel these pressures. Frederick and Catherine, those self-acclaimed ‘servants of the state’, who worked tirelessly to the end of their lives, would as they aged lose much of the confidence of youth and become steadily more disillusioned by the reality of the growing challenges that were facing them.

    While the book ends essentially with 1914, in a postscript I have set out briefly to summarise events in the twentieth century, when the countries towards the east of the region finally achieved the independence that they had so long sought. The successes of these nations therefore bring to a conclusion the Baltic’s important story that has for so long been largely overlooked by many English-speakers living in the West.

    Caroline Boggis-Rolfe's new book The Baltic Story: A Thousand-Year History of Its Lands, Sea and Peoples is available for purchase now.

  • The Countess 'Frances Villiers' by Tim Clarke

    The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey

    I did not really mean to write the biography of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753-1821).

    At school I had enjoyed history. So when I went to university to study law with a view to becoming a lawyer, I promised myself that I would retire early from the law and once more become a historian. I even identified the lady whose biography I would write.

    Unfortunately, some years before I could achieve my ambition, someone else wrote that biography – and there was no room for another.

    Frances, Countess of Jersey, mezzotint by Thomas Watson, after Daniel Gardner, (1774). (c. National Portrait Gallery, London, The Countess, Amberley Publishing)

    But in fact I was lucky. Somehow I lighted instead on Lady Jersey, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life, a leader of Society in the late 18th century. Writing her biography, the first one ever, was a wonderful journey of discovery which took me to some marvellous places, including the bowels of Chatsworth, the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian and the private side at Castle Howard. From these and other collections I used, in writing the book, some 500 printed sources dating back to the 18th century, many hundred contemporary press reports and thousands of original manuscripts.

    My research showed that the Countess was the victim of history. Mention her name and everyone thinks ‘Ah yes, the mistress of King George IV when he was Prince of Wales – the one who behaved so badly’. She was, they say, the woman who amongst her many other sins spiked Princess Caroline’s drinks to get her drunk, put Epsom salts in the Princess’s food to make her sick, tormented her by curtailing her liberty and in jealous pique at her dismissal by the Prince hounded him for years in revenge. In short, she is seen as a disreputable footnote to history with no more to be said.

    Based on that research my biography, whilst telling the untold story of her life, demolishes the pantheon of mythology which surrounds the Countess, even in the highest academic circles. Disreputable she was indeed. But she was also beautiful, witty, the epitome of style, and charming beyond belief. Indeed the press of her day christened her ‘the Enchantress’ – she could bend others to her will even against their better judgment. And I show that many of the specific stories which surround her to this today are false. In some cases they are just made up – for example she is accused of humiliating Princess Caroline by making her dress in white, a colour which did not suit her. In fact, Caroline’s mother, the Duchess of Brunswick, had recommended that she dress in white for the very reason that that colour did suit her. In other cases the acts of another Countess of Jersey are wrongly attributed to Frances. So it was not Frances Jersey who waltzed with the Emperor of Russia to annoy the Prince of Wales, it was her daughter-in-law, Sally, Countess of Jersey who did that. Wrong-doing was attributed to the lady with the reputation.

    George IV as Prince of Wales, by John Hoppner. (c. Trustees of the Wallace Collection, The Countess, Amberley Publishing)

    Still, there is no denying that she was disreputable. She lived in the fast set of Society. Her children had at least four different fathers and she had a continuous stream of lovers over 40 years. One was the Earl of Carlisle and another was his son, 30 years Frances’ junior. Another she discarded so he could marry one of her daughters. The most famous lover, when Frances 18 years his senior and was already a grandmother, was the Prince of Wales and this was where her reputation really suffered.

    Whilst mistress of the Prince, she became the most hated woman in the land, burned in effigy, her carriage pelted by the mob and ostracized by Society. Her actions whilst his mistress, and the Prince’s behaviour at her behest, destroyed forever the reputation of an already unpopular Prince, leading to the Times describing his death as King in 1830 as unregretted by his subjects. Indeed, his reputation, as a result of the Countess’s actions, was so bad that one future Prime Minister, Robert Peel, feared that the monarchy itself might fall.

    Frances Jersey, though, was not all bad. She was not, in a lot of respects, much worse than many of her contemporaries, just less discreet – even if some described her as Satan’s Representative on Earth. She was brave to the point of foolishness. She lived for the moment, and for herself. She fought for her children and she helped both the poor and her (rich) friends when they were in trouble. Her life had many ups and downs, and many dramatic twists, but she did what she thought was right, even if she was wrong – or Society thought she was wrong.

    History has been unkind to the Countess, she was vilified on her death and in the 200 years since no one has challenged the myths which surround her. Whilst another prime minister, Lord Melbourne, did indeed say to Queen Victoria when comparing the Countess to her contemporary beauties ‘she was a handsomer but a wickeder woman… little with large black eyes… very handsome’, for the first time since her death my biography of the Countess puts the record straight and tells the true story of a remarkable woman and a remarkable life.

    Tim Clarke's new book The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey is available in a new paperback format now.

  • Secret Rochester by Philip MacDougall

    Another Chapter in the Secret History of the Medway Towns

    A general view of Rochester as seen from the north, with both the castle and cathedral clearly visible. (c. Ewan Cambell MacDougall, Secret Rochester, Amberley Publishing)

    Strange it must have been in December 1812, when a fleet of twenty-two warships gradually, over a period of a few days, slowly made its way up the River Medway to moor within view of Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester. I say strange, because none of those ships were flying British flags, as each flew aloft the ensign of the Imperial Russian navy. As with other episodes in the history of the Medway Towns that I have previously written about in Secret Chatham (2016), Secret Rochester (2019) and soon to be published Secret Gillingham book, this is another little-known local event, but one of great significance.

    So why had the Emperor of all Russias, Tsar Alexander I, sent to Chatham such a powerful battle fleet? Quite simply, Napoleon was poised to march on St Petersburg, the Russian capital and the home of the Imperial fleet. To prevent that fleet being captured, it had been sent out of the country, guided by several ships of the British Royal Navy.

    The Guildhall. (Secret Rochester, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester at the time. Suddenly, in their midst was a massive force of 10,000 Russian seamen, of which only a few spoke English. While, maybe, only the officers were usually allowed to go ashore, entertained by some of the wealthy families in the area and given frequent banquets at the Guildhall in Rochester. They must have been a regular sight in their immaculate gold braided uniforms. In particular, local merchants especially profited by their arrival, frequently called on board the Russian ships to open a market for both men and officers. Not that problems didn’t occur. To feed 10,000 men, huge quantities of flour and meat were required, sometimes purchased locally by the Admiralty’s Victualling Board, with supplies for local residents occasionally falling short.

    The nearest I have got to mentioning this fleet in the ‘Secret’ series is in writing about Dr William Burnett, a naval physician who was put in charge of caring for the sick and wounded of the Russian fleet. It was this that led me to find out more about that fleet and why it came to the Medway. One thing I certainly learnt from Burnett and the writings of other naval physicians: it was a fleet not in good health. Scurvy, typhus and smallpox were not uncommon, with extra hospital ships having to be laid on for the care of those in fever.

    In having touched, occasionally, on the presence of that fleet in the Medway, and which returned to St Petersburg in May 1814, it has encouraged me to undertake further research into the background of that fleet. This is something I am currently doing, so expect more from me on this subject in the future. Incidentally, when Secret Gillingham is published, this will represent my sixteenth book on the Medway area and I love to get feedback from my readers.

    Philip MacDougall's new book Secret Rochester is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Sunderland by Marie Gardiner

    Extract from book:

    Cretehawser – The Concrete Boat

    Cretehawser, the concrete boat. (Author's collection, Secret Sunderland, Amberley Publishing)

    If you go down to the riverside at Claxheugh Rock (pronounced ‘Clatchy’ locally) in South Hylton, and the tide is just right, you might see an interesting lump of concrete shaped like a boat sticking up from the water. It may not look like much, but this is an interesting part of Sunderland’s history. You’d be forgiven for wondering if this was an art installation, after all, a concrete boat?

    To understand why, we have to go back in time a little, to the end of the First World War. The war was a huge drain on resources, raw materials had been siphoned off over the four years of conflict meaning that once the world returned to ‘normal’ these materials were scarce, so both here, and in the United States, shipbuilders looked towards a temporary solution: concrete. One of the potential issues with this was that traditional shipbuilders weren’t used to building with concrete, but the government was offering a lucrative programme for those who could fulfil the demand for the new boats, and so a new company was formed.

    A close-up of Cretehawser at low tide. (Author's collection, Secret Sunderland, Amberley Publishing)

    Cretehawser, the name of the tug boat in question, was built by the Wear Concrete Building Company in Southwick, who were part of larger shipbuilders, Swan Hunter. It was launched in 1919, the first of an order of eight tug boats. It was thought and hoped that concrete would be a cheap material to build with, but they actually turned out to be considerably more expensive than their steel counterparts, costing almost 40% more on average to make. As a result, the eight-tug order was reduced by the Ministry of Shipping, and the programme eventually scrapped.

    Some of the concrete tugs that had made it to fruition had short but eventful lives: Creterock crashed into a trawler, Cretecable ran aground, and Creterope was dismantled. So, what of Cretehawser? She ticked along in use as a tug until 1935, after which she was sold for scrap to the South Stockton Shipping Company Ltd. The remains (the ‘hulk’) was sold back to Sunderland, this time to the River Wear Commissioners who moored her in the South Dock to use as an emergency breakwater.

    Cretehawser was hit in an air raid during the Second World War, so she was towed up river to her current spot, near to where she was built. The council considered moving her during a redevelopment of the riverbank, but it was decided she was an important part of Sunderland’s heritage and left as a reminder of our short dabble into concrete boats.

    Marie Gardiner's new book Secret Sunderland is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Southampton by Martin Brisland

    In October 1971, Muhammad Ali was in a local supermarket in Hedge End. (Secret Southampton, Amberley Publishing)

    Saturday 15th July 2017 was a day to remember. Well it would be if only I could remember it. I know I was in bed having not been awake long. Then a thunderclap pain in the back of my head hit. I recall taking two paracetamol and lying down. It was about six weeks later before I was well enough to realise what had happened. I had had a severe brain haemorrhage which is fatal in 6 out of 10 cases. The main basal artery to the brain was bleeding. No warning signs at all. Out of the blue. I had two operations and spent eleven weeks in hospital. So many thanks to the Neuro unit at Southampton General Hospital and many other medical professionals who gave me a second chance.

     

    I am retired having spent my working life in Further and Higher Education jobs. A lifelong interest in local history led me to becoming a qualified tour guide and being part of See Southampton. When the chance to write the book came my other half was naturally protective and thought it might be too onerous a task but I was determined. It became my recovery project and gave me a real focus so I could spend less time worrying about the after effects of the haemorrhage.

     

    In 2004 a sculpture of the Spitfire was unveiled outside Southampton Airport. (Secret Southampton, Amberley Publishing)

    My main problem was not what to find to put into the book but what to leave out. Being a major port Southampton has so many stories to tell. A lot of the content I knew but the research led me to many other places. The city’s history goes back to a Roman settlement on the bank of The River Itchen. We then had Danes, Vikings, Saxons and Norman leaving their mark. Southampton was the major embarkation point for troops going to fight the Battle of Crecy in 1348, for Henry V’s troops en route to Agincourt in 1415. Later troops passed through on their way to the Boer War in South Africa around 1900, to fight in Flander’s fields in the First World War and in the Second World War with three and a half million Allied troops, including over two million Americans. Locals said they were “Overpaid, oversexed and over here”. A comment possibly justified by the fact that there were around 5,000 births locally fathered by US servicemen. They had money, chewing gum and nylons which obviously had an effect. Late in 1945 Churchill even arranged free passage on the Queen Mary for any local women who wanted to track down the father of their baby. Over half returned – possibly having found out that there was already a wife the other side of the pond. Southampton was also the ‘Home of the Spitfire’ and was therefore a prime enemy bombing target in the Second World War. About 70% of the inner town was destroyed. The post war Brutalist rebuilding was functional but is now tired. In recent years there has been much redevelopment and the place is being reborn. The two main sources of income today are: students with around 40,000 at our two universities; and the Docks with its famous double high tide which allows 550 mainly cruise and container ship movements per year.

     

    The boat that does not float. (Secret Southampton, Amberley Publishing)

    Secret Southampton is divided into sections on people, places and stories. One of my personal favourites is the day Muhammed Ali came to town. He was touring England in February 1971 promoting Ovaltine – the only product he ever endorsed. He went to a supermarket, signed tins then gave a press conference in his hotel. Another is the man who for the last 50 years has been building a full size boat in his garden. He is now very elderly, it will never be completed and is in poor repair. Symbolic of human dreams and ambitions that we may never realise but at least we tried.

     

    One of my aims in writing the book was for people to say “I have passed that many times but never knew the story behind it”. So far the feedback has been to that effect. It has led to a double page feature in the local paper, a local TV interview, some lovely reviews and many upcoming talks to local history groups. So once again thank you to the NHS for giving me the chance to be able to write Secret Southampton.

     

    Martin Brisland's new book Secret Southampton is available for purchase now.

Items 1 to 10 of 432 total

Page:
  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. ...
  7. 44