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  • Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

    Escomb Church (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    In Search of the Mercians

    Writing an account of the history of Mercia from c. 605 to 1071 was not without its challenges. The primary sources are scant, often contradictory, and many were lost during the upheaval of the Viking raids. But it is possible to piece together the story of the ancient kingdom through careful examination of the sources. Anglo-Saxon England is a long way from us, however, not just in terms of time, but because a distinct line was drawn with the Norman conquest of 1066.

    This marker is most obvious when one looks at the landscape of England, for with the Normans came the castles, the rebuilt churches; the wooden halls and smaller Saxon churches disappeared in the main. Visiting locations with a palpable connection to Anglo-Saxon England is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the historian.

    But it is still possible.

    Repton, St Wystan's (Wigstan) Church - the crypt which housed the remains of Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    For a stunning example of a Saxon Church, one need look no further than Escomb in County Durham. Built of stone, it probably dates to the late seventh century. Why did it survive? It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably – ironically – survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.

    Escomb is a delight, but it doesn’t have the connections to the people about whom I’ve written. Luckily there are such places, and one of these is St Mary’s at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It is not a ruin, nor a shell, but a working church where services have been held since Anglo-Saxon times. It retains many of the original Saxon features. Another such place is the Anglo-Saxon crypt in St Wystan’s Church at Repton in Derbyshire.

    Repton had strong associations with the royal family of Mercia.

    Saint Guthlac, who was said to be related to the royal family, began his monastic life there and King Æthelbald, who had been a friend of Guthlac’s, was buried at Repton. A later king, Wiglaf, was buried there, too, but the church is named after his grandson, Wigstan, or Wystan. He was allegedly murdered during a dynastic dispute and he was said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandfather. The original crypt is still intact and can be visited. It was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. Standing here, one feels very much closer to history, knowing that there is no ‘possibly, maybe’. These kings, or at the very least their bones, were interred here.

    The remains of St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, the burial place of Æthelred and Æthelflæd, Lord and Lady of the Mercians. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    At Repton, too, there is a Viking burial ground. It is still being investigated and new findings were published whilst I was writing the book. The archaeologists are now reasonably certain that the burial pit dates to the time of the Viking occupation in the 870s, when Burgred, king of Mercia, was driven out of the country.

    But perhaps the place where I felt closest of all to my subjects was in Gloucester. A short walk from the cathedral are the remains of St Oswald’s Priory. Originally this priory was dedicated to St Peter, but the name was changed when the relics of St Oswald were translated there from Bardney in Lincolnshire. They were moved on the instruction of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and she was buried at the priory, as was her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

    Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals; some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. Yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Viking invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too.

    Æthelbald, Wiglaf, Wigstan, Æthelflæd and Æthelred: all feature prominently in the new book, and whilst many Mercians I’ve written about have statues to commemorate them – Cenwulf, Godiva, Wulfrun, and Æthelflæd too – I’m pleased that I was also able to visit locations which brought me closer to the real people.

    Annie Whitehead's new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for purchase now.

  • East London Buses: 1990s by Malcolm Batten

    The western terminus of East London's route 15 at Ladbroke Grove was changed to serve a new Sainsbury's store, opposite which East London's RML2709 stands on 25 March 1991. Note the route branding posters either side of the blind box. (East London Buses: 1990s, Amberley Publishing)

    The 1980s had seen profound changes in the way bus services were provided in Greater London. At the start of the decade nationalised London Transport had held a virtual monopoly on bus services wholly within the Greater London Area, as well as running the London Underground. They had been even larger before 1970, when the country area and Green Line express services were hived off to the new National Bus Company. But in 1984 London Transport was taken from under the control of the Greater London Council (which was to be abolished) and replaced by a new body London Regional Transport. Then from 1 April 1985 a new wholly owned subsidiary, London Buses Ltd, took on the operation of buses. The monopoly was to disappear, as under the 1985 Transport Act, the old system of route licensing was replaced by allowing open competition on commercially registered routes and competitive tendering elsewhere. London was spared competition but LRT was required to put routes out to competitive tender. In April 1989 London Buses was split into eleven regional operating units, plus London Coaches who ran the sightseeing operation.

    The 1990s were not going to be quieter! Route tendering would continue and be extended to all routes. The London Buses operating units could compete for these (including cross-border routes tendered by the counties adjoining London) but more profound change was coming for in 1994 as a process of privatisation of the operating companies took place. First to be privatised was London Coaches but all had been sold within a year. It was the intention that no one purchaser should be able to buy adjacent operating districts. East London was acquired by the Stagecoach Group. Their origin began ten years earlier in Scotland, but since then they had expanded rapidly, buying up former National Bus Company fleets and municipal operators, mainly in northern England. Stagecoach also took Selkent, which was adjacent but on the south side of the Thames. With only one route through Blackwall Tunnel and one through Rotherhithe Tunnel to connect them, this was not seen as posing a problem. The new owner of Leaside District, to the north and west of East London was an already familiar name – that of Cowie, the parent company of Grey-Green. They also took South London.

    Captial Citybus gained a major increase in their operations when they were awarded the contracts for several routes in the Walthamstow area in 1991 at the expense of London Forest, following their strike. (East London Buses: 1990s, Amberley Publishing)

    It should be noted that Forest District had been wound up before privatisation started. Following a two week strike over proposed pay cuts of c18% in order to win tenders in 1991, it ceased operating in November that year. Leyton garage and its vehicles were transferred to East London. Hackney passed to Leaside, while Walthamstow and Ash Grove garages were closed – Walthamstow lost its routes as the tenders it would have won were relocated to other companies.

    Major national bus-owning groups were emerging by the end of the decade, as a result of takeovers and selling-on of the former National Bus Company fleets, some of which had initially gone to management buy-outs. Stagecoach was one, Arriva was another, taking over the Cowie group of companies, and First Group were a third, acquiring the Badgerline owned companies such as Eastern National and Thamesway. All of these groups would eventually acquire one or more of the former London Buses districts.

    RMC1461 was restored to original appearance and Green Line livery in 1994. Although painted primarily for display purposes, it still saw use on the 15, as here at Paddington on 23 August 1995. When the route eventually lost its Routemasters in 2003, RMC1461 was donated to Cobham Bus Musem. (East London Buses: 1990s, Amberley Publishing)

    London Regional Transport was replaced by a new body London Transport Buses who would now administer route tendering amongst other things. One stipulation by them in 1994 was that buses on routes entering Central London must maintain an 80 per cent red livery. This was the beginning of the end for the variety of liveries that had sprung up since the start of route tendering. The variety would continue however in outer London. Several of the existing small fleets running tendered services were swallowed up by their bigger neighbours but LRT and LTB in turn encouraged new small firms to apply for contracts, sometimes with disastrous results when they got into financial difficulties.

    Vehicle-wise, the 1990s were especially noted for the rise and rise of the Dennis Dart single–deck model which soon became the mainstay of many fleets, and replacing many of minibus types which had typified 1980s thinking. The traditional London Routemaster seemed safe, as it had been decided to retain these on twenty-five trunk routes into central London. A refurbishment programme had begun from 1992 to extend their lives by up to ten years.

    In the latter half of the decade, accessibility became the watchword following the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Low floor single deck buses with wheelchair and buggy access began to enter service. Upton Park’s route 101 was one of those selected for the first conversions. Soon such vehicles entered service in bulk, replacing earlier Darts amongst the other types to go. In late 1998, the first wheelchair accessible double-deckers entered service on Arriva’s East London route 242. By the end of 1999 there were over 500 running in Greater London, and the 1000 mark had been reached before the end of year 2000.

    Malcolm Batten's new book East London Buses: 1990s is avialable for purchase now.

  • Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways by Colin J. Howat

    No. 90001 (HQ) at Glasgow Central with a dynamometer coach. This was a special coach used by BR to record track alignment and provide various other technical information mainly for the benefit of the civil engineers. Taken March 1988. (Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways covers virtually the whole of the electrified network across Scotland. The first electrification took place on the north side of Glasgow from 1960 when the Airdrie to Helensburgh line and branches in between were done. This was followed closely by the Glasgow South side when electrification spread to the Cathcart Circle, Neilston and Newton areas in 1962. In 1967, the lines between Glasgow Central and Gourock along with the Wemyss Bay branch were added to the system. Progress throughout the Central Scotland area has been steady since with now approximately 40% of the whole network now electrified. This book covers electric locomotives from humble Class 81s up to and including Class 92s with images from 1974 until the present day. I have also included shots of the APT (Class 370) and Virgin Class 390s (Pendolino) as they show the further development of the original AC locomotives. Technically the APT and Virgin Pendolinos are electric multiple units but I have included them as most people regard them as electric locomotives within a powered unit.

    No. 92031 (CE) “Schiller” stabled at Ayr Depot. This was an open day organised by EWS for staff and friends. This loco is still active with DB Cargo. Taken April 2002. (Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    The AC electric locomotive fleets are not among the most popular to have operated over Scottish metals. The 100 strong first generation of AC electric locomotives came from five construction groups. All were built to a common design theme stipulated by the British Transport Commision (BTC) design panel. Originally classified as AL1 – AL5, the fleets were later classified 81-85 and were the backbone of the modernised electric Scottish routes until AL6 (Class 86) locomotives emerged in the mid-1960s. The first generation fleets were not without operational problems and I feel if it had not been for the extension of the WCML electrification to Glasgow Central in 1974, some would certainly have been withdrawn much earlier than they were.

    The UK government gave the go ahead for the electrification of the WCML from Preston to Glasgow Central in 1970 and this was completed in 1973 with services between Glasgow Central and London Euston commencing from May 1974. In conjunction with this, the Hamilton Circle line from Newton and the Belshill route to/from Motherwell were also electrified. Next on the list was the Argyle Line between Kelvinhaugh Junction in the west and Rutherglen Central Junction in the east which allowed through running of trains between the south and north side of Glasgow. This also included a small spur at Rutherglen West Junction which allowed trains direct access from the Argyle Line to the WCML and thence direct access to/from Shields Depot.

    No. 86438 (WN) at Glasgow Central having just arrived with the overnight postal from London Euston. This loco is still employed by Freightliner. Taken February 1990. (Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1986 the Ayrshire area was added to the electrified network when the overheads were extended from Paisley Gilmour Street to Ayr, Largs and Ardrossan Harbour. However, in one of the more short sighted decisions made by BR and Strathclyde PTE, the track bed beyond Paisley Canal was lifted and houses allowed to be built on it. This has made it virtually impossible to re-open services to/from Kilmacolm. However, given the amount of houses that were compulsory purchased for the re-opening of the Waverley route to Tweedbank, nothing is impossible. Other parts of the Scottish network added in have been the Whifflet spur which allows trains to run from Motherwell onto the North Electric system. This was used extensively from December 1994 until December 1995 after the Argyle Line was shut due to severe flooding. The Larkhall branch was added in 2005 and the R&C line from Rutherglen to Whifflet via Mount Vernon was also electrified in 2014. The E&G line between Glasgow Queen Street and Edinburgh was finally opened up for electrics in December 2017. On the East Coast main line, the Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed line was electrified in 1989. This included the North Berwick Branch and in 1991 the line between Midcalder Jn and Carstairs was electrified allowing GNER trains from London Kings Cross direct access to Glasgow Central. Photographing electrics can be a challenge particularly from high locations as the overhead equipment creates obstructions which in turn affects focusing. Most of the shots in this book are taken from ground level. Some modern electric locomotives are so silent that they are literally on top of you before you know where you are particularly during windy conditions.

    Colin J. Howat's new book Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways is avialable for purchase now.

  • Saltdean From Old Photographs by Douglas d'Enno

    This postcard shows how Saltdean Bay would have looked early in the twentieth century. The only dwellings are the coastguard cottages put up in 1834. Sadly, the sea claimed four young lives here on 4 August 1912. All the boys were members of the Gonville and Caius College Mission, Battersea, and were camped at the time nearby Rottingdean. (Saltdean From Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m a local author and it has been 33 years since I wrote my comprehensive history of Saltdean. Long out of print, the book is hard to find and can command a high price. Fortunately, I have continued to build up my collection of cuttings, articles and photographs of the area and have presented the finest images from my collection in my new book, Saltdean from Old Photographs. The pictures displayed number some 240 and, despite the title of the book, some carefully selected very recent images have also been included.

    This fascinating volume has been structured to reflect the development of this seaside suburb over the last century, with the emphasis, not unexpectedly, on the inter-war years. In the earlier part of the book, there is a brief pictorial survey of Saltdean as a remote and sometimes forbidding location. This corner of Sussex has been a graveyard of ships down the years while the desolate foreshore was attractive to smugglers. As in more recent times, swimming was enjoyed by occasional visitors although the year 1912 saw the tragic drowning or four young men from a Mission Church in Battersea. Inland, hunting was enjoyed, as was target practice by members of Rudyard Kipling's Rifle Club.

    When resident in Rottinghdean from 1897 to 1902, Rudyard Kipling founded the village rifle club, believing it to be in the national interest that young men should learn to be competent shots. It was established during 'Black Week' in December 1899, when the British Army suffered many casualties in the Second Anglo-Boer War. The club was registered with the National Rifle Association in 1900 and was listed as having fifty-eight members. (Saltdean From Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    For centuries, the land was farmed from Rottingdean. Indeed, the handful of buildings in the area other than coastguard dwellings were a couple of stone cottages and three barns, two of which have survived following skilful conversion into a nursery school and a private dwelling respectively.

    One page rightly focuses on the founder of Peacehaven and Saltdean as we know them today, namely Charles Neville. Interesting new information has come to light concerning his family and commercial activities. It was through his entrepreneurial drive that the two buildings for which Saltdean is best known, namely the Lido and Ocean Hotel, came into being. Of course virtually all the residential development in the area was the work of his hand.

    In one section, the spotlight is cast on the war years, when both those buildings were put to good use.

    In the decades which followed, the community now familiar to us gradually developed. A number of dramatic images also depict events in this area, such as the overwhelming snowfall in 1966 and the damage wrought by the Great Gale of 1987.

    Celebrities are also rightly included; among their number were George Robey, Max Wall, Will Fyffe and GH Elliott. A surprising story is the death (almost certainly suicide) in Nutley Avenue of the ex-Duchess of Leinster in the 1930s.

    The book ends on an optimistic note, with the restoration – for the second time – of the downland memorial Harvey's Cross in July of this year. From its beautiful location, much of West Saltdean, with the sea beyond, can be seen.

    Douglas d'Enno's new book Saltdean From Old Photographs is avialable for purchase now.

  • Die-cast Aircraft by Paul Brent Adams

    German aircraft of the First World War often carried very elaborate personal markings, such as those on this Model Power Fokker D.VII fighter. The artwork is different on each side of the fuselage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    My interest in aviation began in the early 1970s with the 'Biggles' books by Captain W.E. Johns, himself a pilot in the First World War. I soon began building kits of the various aircraft mentioned in the stories. Then came my first efforts at writing, mostly about model aircraft. Once I began collecting diecasts in the 1990s, a few diecast aeroplanes also joined my miniature air fleet.

    People who collect real aircraft have a problem (other than the cost of real aeroplanes) which model enthusiasts do not have to worry about: even a small fighter plane is not going to fit into a normal-sized house. Model aircraft, being much smaller, are far more practical.

    This RAF Hawker Tempest of the Second World War is a partwork model. The code letters on the fuselage side identify the squadron flying the aircraft. The model has a display stand, but no undercarriage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    Model aircraft generally come in two forms: build-it-yourself kits; or complete models, in a variety of materials, including die-cast metal. Die-casts have been made for over a hundred years. Initially, they were mainly all-metal, but since the 1950s plastic has often been used for the smaller details. Plastic is in no way an inferior material to metal: it has allowed models to be given clear canopies and windows, previously these had often been depicted with silver paint.

    Most of the companies making die-cast models have concentrated on road vehicles, but several have also had extensive model aircraft ranges. Early models were all made as toys for children, but in recent years more highly detailed, and therefore expensive, models aimed at adult collectors have been produced by several specialist firms. There have also been several ranges of partwork models, which offer high quality models at very reasonable prices, along with a magazine giving background information on the real aircraft. Models aimed at collectors tend to be made to a limited number of well established scales; while toys are often made to fit inside a standard-sized box, so the scales can vary considerably.

    Corgi Showcase model of a Hawk jet trainer belonging to the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team. The canopy is black, and there is no interior detail. All Showcase models come with a display stand, but no undercarriage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    There are two ways to look at these models. Aviation enthusiasts are likely to collect examples that show the history and development of the aircraft the models are based on. Others might be more interested in the design of the toys themselves, and the ingenuity of the toy makers. Each company tended to have its own style of model making, which developed over the years.

    Among the British companies, Dinky issued their first aircraft models in 1934, with their last new releases appearing in 1975. In the years just after the Second World War, there were a number of small companies producing die-casts, including aircraft, but most would eventually disappear, unable to compete with the quality of Dinky. Corgi produced a model of the supersonic Concorde in 1969, and a few helicopters in the 1970s, but did not get serious about aircraft models until 1998 when the Aviation Archive series was launched. Matchbox began producing the Skybusters line in 1973, and these are still being produced today. More recently Oxford Diecast have made a growing range of aircraft models. Most European countries have had at least one or two makers of die-casts, and many of these have also produced model aircraft; as have various American firms. There are now a number of companies in the Far East making aircraft. This means that there is a vast range of both new and vintage models to be collected.

    The Douglas DC-3 airliner of the 1930s, from the Corgi Showcase range. All the windows are printed. Larger versions of the DC-3 and its military counterparts are included in the Aviation Archive series. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the easiest ranges to find today are the Matchbox Skybusters, and the Corgi Showcase line. Neither series is expensive, and is a good starting point for a collection. As the models are fairly small, they do not take up a lot of space. These two lines also show the difference between toys, made to be played with; and models, which are intended more for display. Current releases can be found in toy and model shops, while older models can be picked up at collectors' fairs. Unlike the internet, fairs give you a chance to actually examine the models before buying.

    Dating from the 1970s, the Skybusters range comprised a mix of military and civil aircraft, from the Second World War onwards. There were also a few fantasy designs, and these now dominate the range, but a number of more realistic models are still available. The Skybusters are intended as toys, and scales vary. All have a fixed undercarriage, usually with rather over-sized wheels. Propeller driven aircraft and helicopters have revolving propellers or rotors, but there are usually no other working features. The models can be a little chunky, as they need to be sturdy, but every aircraft is recognizable. The colour schemes range from reasonably accurate, to completely fictitious.

    The Matchbox Skybusters series includes both civil and military aircraft. The twin-engined Cessna 402 is on a 1970s style card, while the General Dynamics F-16A fighter is on a 1980s card. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    The Corgi Showcase series includes both vehicles and aircraft, made to a variety of scales. All the aircraft have a display stand, but no undercarriage (unless the real aircraft had a fixed undercarriage). There are no working features, other than the usual revolving propellers and rotors. Canopies and windows are often painted blue, black, or silver, just like in the old days before clear plastic. Colours and markings are highly accurate, and detailed. These are much finer models than the Matchbox Skybusters, but are more delicate. They are display models rather than toys to be played with. Showcase models are smaller than their Aviation Archive counterparts - some aircraft types are available in both ranges so collectors have a choice.

    Over the years both Skybusters and Showcase models have been issued in boxes, usually with a clear plastic window so you can see the contents; or in clear plastic blisters glued to a backing card. Some of the models have also been released in sets.

    Paul Brent Adams' new book Die-cast Aircraft is available for purchase now.

  • Peebles History Tour by Liz Hanson

    Two Doctors-One Town

    The small market town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders was home to two extraordinary medical doctors, born a century apart and whose experiences of the Royal Burgh vastly differed. Both men studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, were unflinchingly devoted to their individual career paths and both remembered for their legacies, but there the similarities end. Mungo Park, born in 1771 only practised in Peebles for 2 years before pursuing his passion, that of exploration of West Africa; in contrast, Dr Clement Bryce Gunn served the town for almost 50 years from 1885.

    Their stories not only demonstrate dedication to their chosen callings but reflect the social history and attitudes of the two eras.

    Home of Mungo Park. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    Mungo Park was the seventh of 13 children born at Foulshiels near Selkirk where his parents were tenant farmers. His father believed in good education and Mungo was a studious child, tending to keep his own counsel, and particularly keen on walking in the local hills to study flowers. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to the surgery of Dr Anderson in Selkirk where he gained experience of making medicines and the way of life of a country doctor, the latter not particularly appealing to him but he went on to finish his medical degree by 1791. His brother-in-law, James Dickson, was studying botanical science in London and put Mungo in touch with Sir Joseph Banks who offered patronage as an assistant surgeon on an East India Company ship travelling to Sumatra, whose main trading export was pepper. Apart from undertaking his medical duties, he found time to record and sketch specimens of fish and plants to present to Sir Joseph Banks. This trip proved to be the catalyst determining Mungo’s future.

    Little was known in Europe at this time about the topography of West Africa although there was a huge demand for African slaves as well as trade in ivory and gold. The African Association was founded in 1788 in London, with the purpose of discovering more about the interior of Africa, particularly ’the big river’ (The Niger) recorded by early pioneers. Several explorers had been recruited but had either died there or returned early but Mungo Park came back from Sumatra at an opportune time, hungry for more adventure and in 1795, aged 23, he sailed from Portsmouth, bound for Gambia. Over the next 2 ½ years he gradually travelled deeper into Africa, encountering hostility from the slave-traders, suspicious of his motives but generally being welcomed as long as he complied with local customs, particularly that of showing respect to the rulers of each kingdom by presenting gifts in return for permission to pass through their land. Mungo demonstrated remarkable courage and fortitude as the journey was fraught with dangers – whether to be attacked by bandits or wild animals, intense heat, shortage of water, theft, extortion and sickness. He did reach the Niger but was captured by Moors and kept prisoner, during which time he was also suffering from fever (probably malaria). Although he managed to get away from his captors, he was weak and impoverished and eventually collapsed. The Mandingo people provided a hut and cared for him during the next few months of the rainy season by which time he was strong enough to travel back to the Gambia, along with a caravan of 35 slaves.

    Mungo Park's surgery. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    Mungo arrived in Britain in December 1797 and shortly afterwards returned to Selkirk to write an account of his experiences. ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, performed in 1795, 1796 and 1797’ was published 2 years later. Meantime he married Alison Anderson, daughter of the Selkirk doctor with whom he was apprentice and their first child born in 1800. Mungo realised he could not earn sufficient money from his book and reluctantly went back to the medical profession by opening up an apothecary and surgery in Peebles in 1801 in a humble building on the High Street, described by William Chambers as ‘a miserable den’. Despite all the rigours of the African expedition, Mungo Park intensely disliked trudging out into the wilds of the Peeblesshire countryside to do his calls, although he was apparently a caring and compassionate doctor who, like Clement Gunn later, gave his services to the poor for free. He joined the Tweeddale Yeomanry, the volunteer cavalry formed during the Napoleonic Wars. His heart was set on African exploration however and in 1803 he was called to London to discuss a further visit on behalf of the British Government who were vying with the French to secure trade links. He came back to Peebles with a Moroccan man-Sidi Ombark Bouby- whom he hired to teach him Arabic, and who must have been a novelty to the locals who nicknamed him Ombark the Moor! He closed his Peebles practice in May 1804. Before departing for London he met up with his friend Walter Scott and whilst they were riding out on the Yarrow hills, Mungo’s horse stumbled and nearly threw him, an event which Scott perceived as a bad portent but to which came the reply from the doctor ‘Freits (omens) follow those who look for them’.

    Mungo left his pregnant wife in September1804 to join the British Military transport taking personnel to Senegal to curtail French colonisation in West Africa but was frustrated by continual delays, particularly because his inland journey needed to be undertaken in the dry season. Eventually the ‘Crescent’ sailed from Portsmouth on 31st January 1805 stopping at Cape Verde Islands to buy mules, then at the Goree Garrison for men of the Royal African Corps before beginning to sail up the Gambia River. The party encountered problems from the start; attacks by crocodiles and swarms of bees, dysentery and malaria, which all resulted in sickness and deaths. The stock of provisions was frequently stolen, local chiefs exploited them by extortion and throughout it all, there were storms, gales and torrential rain. After 115 days, only 12 of the original 45 men remained, and the survivors were weak or ill. Mungo’s determination to discover the course of the Niger caused him to behave like ‘a man possessed’ and this drive pushed him to overcome logic and common sense. Miraculously they did reach the river with 9 men but the carpenters who had been hired to build a boat in which to travel down it had all died, although they managed to procure a canoe. By this time, the 4 remaining men were in a desperate mental and physical state and protocol had gone out the window. Mungo did not seek permission from the chief of the Tuareg, downstream from Timbuktu, a disrespectful omission which merited attack from the shore. He frantically fired back, killing many natives. It is thought that the canoe finally hit rocks causing Mungo to drown. His contribution to the scientific world was significant through his chronicles and drawings but his reputation was tarnished by the second, fatal expedition. There is no doubt that his ‘calling’ was exploration rather than medicine.

    Clement Bryce Gunn, conversely, dedicated his life to that of a country doctor in Peebles, practicing there for almost 50 years. Born in Edinburgh in 1860, he and his 5 siblings were brought up by his mother who was widowed at the age of 33. All were studious and their lives revolved around learning, apart from Sundays which were devoted to church, with strictly no studying allowed; social life as we know it was virtually non-existent so this dimension of life had to be learned from scratch once starting work after University. Whilst attending Heriot’s School, however, there were annual excursions, the one in 1871 being to Peebles, the town in which he would play such an important role in the future. The family lived in Edinburgh’s New Town and Clement Gunn frequently encountered Robert Louis Stevenson who resided nearby, but who was yet to make a name for himself and was thought of as a rather eccentric and lazy youth, nick-named ‘’The Pirate’.

    'Lindores' - home and surgery of Dr Clement Gunn. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    During 1879, when Clement was studying Pathology, Physiology and Materia Medica in the run up to sitting the Second Professional Examination, he was asked to do a locum position for a general practitioner in Northumberland, a role that was permitted then, despite not being fully-qualified. He had to deal with conditions not previously encountered, commonly maternity cases but also an outbreak of scarlet fever, most visits being done on horseback-another new experience for this urban-raised man. These locum positions left him debilitated with exhaustion and he missed the following academic term, recuperating at the manse at Stitchill, where his eldest brother George was minister. Returning to Edinburgh for the winter term, he divided his time between university lectures, house-surgeon work in the eye department of the Royal Infirmary, administrative duties in the surgical department and Practical Dispensing in the Cowgate as well as voluntary work for the University Missionary Association; travelling between these locations involved an enormous amount of walking!

    Clement qualified in Medicine in 1882 and spent a relaxing few weeks in Stitchill before securing a general practice assistantship in Newport-on Tay in Fife where he worked very hard and was responsible for all the night calls, most of which were again done on horseback. He also learnt how to make plasters from sheep skins and prepared ointments in the kitchen, where the basic pot of lard was heated on the range. Throughout his writings, his spirituality is apparent, frequently commenting on the beauty of a night-time starlit sky, a sunset or the view to Northern peaks from the autumn-tinted woodland on the shore of the River Tay. He met his future wife when they were ice-skating on the local Lindores Loch and became engaged in 1885.

    By this time he had been in Newburgh for 3 ½ years and was looking for a vacancy to open his own practice. Peebles, which only had two doctors, was the location of choice and in October 1885, he arrived by train and booked into rooms at the top of the Old Town. Once the brass plate had been put up, he eagerly awaited the knock on the door…. but it was 6 weeks before the first patient called. In the event, she couldn’t afford to pay the fee, a situation Dr Gunn would experience often. His compassionate, selfless disposition and deep religious beliefs however, resulted in sympathy for the poor and throughout his tenure he treated the residents of the local poorhouse for free. He quickly realised the correlation between poverty and disease and demonstrated gratitude for his ‘privileged’ circumstances by giving as much as he could to the impoverished and was touched by the charitable attitude the sick-poor took to caring for each other. He was delighted when a Queen’s Nurse was appointed in Peebles and summarises his thoughts in his book ’Leaves From The Life of a Country Doctor’ :- ‘’We doctors are greatly indebted to these nurses for much valuable help and observation: and the poor have a greatly improved chance of recovery owing to their skilful, efficient and devoted nursing. It is borne in upon me that unless one is animated by the spirit of Christ, one cannot be successful either as a doctor or as a nurse. One must have spiritual insight if one is to approach the poor, the sick, the destitute and the fallen. Upheld by this inner vision, one can find courage, inspiration and determination to fight disease…not otherwise.’’ He lived and worked by this sentiment throughout his life.

    Celtic cross at grave of Dr Gunn. (Peebles History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    The Cross Kirk, once a Trinitarian monastery, had been utilised as the Parish Church since The Reformation in 1560 but required such extensive repairs that the Town Council had decided to build a new one at the foot of Peebles High Street. This had opened in 1784 but the design was aesthetically displeasing, as well as having frightful draughts, and the replacement was under construction when Dr Gunn came to the town. He was a devout Christian and church played a big part in his life; by the time he died, he had written about each Parish in Peeblesshire - ‘Books of The Church Series’- and was been responsible for the restoration of the Cross Kirk, now a tranquil sanctuary under the care of Environment Scotland. The proclamation of his marriage to Margaret Cameron was the first to be made in the new Parish Church after it opened in 1887.

    A country doctor was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and as Clement’s practice became established, the workload was onerous, frequently entailing long and arduous journeys in the pony and trap to remote dwellings. He records that one January he was called out on 16 nights, battling through atrocious weather, once making a round trip of 55 miles to see 4 patients; on this occasion he empathises with Mungo Park’s hatred of Peeblesshire weather! However, Clement Gunn embraced rural life and somehow found time to give talks to the local community, including some on natural history to the girls employed in the wool mills and first-aid lectures for the general population. He was appointed vice-president of the Burns Club and organised quizzes and competitions about his poetry in the schools. He was passionate about local history, particularly ecclesiastical and studied the Parish Records whenever he could. He conceived the idea of having Wardens of Neidpath Castle and of the Cross Kirk, the ceremonies of which took place during Beltane Week, the ancient annual festival. He was nominated as the first one and held the position at Cross Kirk from 1930 until his death in 1933.

    At the turn of the century, war broke out in South Africa between the Boers and the British. Dr Gunn treated the families of the deployed men without charge and also ran evening classes in stretcher-bearing. Subsequently, he commemorated the lost soldiers in a large wooden plaque, inscribed with brass letters, all of which he did with his own hands. This is displayed today in the Ex-Servicemens’ Club in the town. He was Surgeon-captain of the Royal Scots, in which capacity he was presented to King Edward VII at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. During the Great War, he was medical officer to 100 German POWs who were used to fell timber from Dawyck woods, as well as being in charge of the War Memorial Hospital on Tweed Green and attending the TB patients in the Sanitorium up Manor Valley. In 1925, he published Books of Remembrance for Peebles, West Linton and Tweeddale in tribute to all the local men who lost their lives in the war.

    Dr Clement Gunn’s dedication to the Peebles community, both medically and socially is inspirational and unprecedented. This devout, kindly man always acted with humility and was driven by his deep care and understanding of the human condition. His work was recognised by the town in 1922 when he was given the Freedom of the Royal Burgh of Peebles. The beloved doctor is commemorated by plaques in the Parish Church and Cross Kirk and he is buried in St. Andrews cemetery.

    Liz Hanson's book Peebles History Tour is available for purchase now.

  • Memorials of the Western Front by Marcus van der Meulen

    Le Touret Military Cemetery and Memorial, on the D171 between Béthune and Armentières. (Author's collection)

    Places of Remembrance

    This year marks the centenary of the Armistice, which ended the First World War. In the past four years commemorations of all sorts have taken place. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended the observation of the Battle of the Somme centennial at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, France, in 2016. And many smaller tributes have taken place across the Western Front. Modest crosses of remembrance have been placed in cemeteries and chapels by relatives coming on a pilgrimage considering those who suffered the horrors of the Great War 1914-1918.

    These commemorations have been an opportunity to revive the awareness, not only to recall the tragedies, but also to maintain the memorials, monuments and cemeteries raised in honour of those who lost their lives. One of these memorials that is currently undergoing renovation work is the Le Touret Memorial, designed by J.R. Truelove, a fine building in the British classical tradition. The entrance gives way to a peristyle and portico’s, providing a dramatic view of over the many tombstones. There are 13,400 British soldiers, their names engraved on the white walls commemorated here, who fell during the early months of the Great War. Driving back home from a short break in Northern France, we passed the site only a few weeks ago.

    Le Touret Military Cemetery and Memorial, on the D171 between Béthune and Armentières. (Author's collection)

    I first visited memorials in the region on a family holiday in the 1980s. My parents took my brother and me abroad, crossing the channel by ferry like so many Britons do every year. First stop in France was Arras. This ancient capital of Artois is a lovely historic town with a beautiful square where I as a young boy took one of my first photographs (my brother insisted I would take a picture of him holding something he found lying on the cobblestones). In the background of the image was the top of the Belfry. Like so many buildings it was completely destroyed during the war. My parents preferred to avoid the motorways, moving from town to village taking country roads and encountering that sense of being in a different country. Northern France is different from the North of England, from the Greater Manchester area, and one thing that struck me back then were the Crosses of Remembrance and the Memorials that seemed to be hiding behind every hill and between trees in every field. Cemeteries in the most odd locations, and beautiful classical buildings that inspired a young boy back home to draw architecture.

    Le Touret Military Cemetery and Memorial, on the D171 between Béthune and Armentières. (Author's collection)

    The decision made by the British government at the time to build cemeteries and memorials on site, in France and Flanders, and not to repatriate the bodies and remains to the UK, has had far on going implications. Relatives had to cross the channel to visit the graves of their beloved sons, cousins, brothers. The bodies of many thousands and thousands were never found, their names are engraved on the walls of structures that were erected as memorials. People from all over the world, from the UK and Ireland, from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, come here on a pilgrimage, honouring those who suffered and died during the First World War. Some of them leave letters or a tiny cross with a poppy, as personal tokens. The decision to build the memorials here, in France and Flanders, to erect the crosses of remembrance on the place where the officers and men gave their lives, often after a horrible time in the trenches, has forever changed the landscape into a field of remembrance.

    At Le Touret Memorial we stopped the car and went out. There is a strange attraction coming from these memorials and cemeteries. Looking not only as an architect at these beautiful buildings, monuments and sites, but at what they represent. The past years have seen renewed interest in memorials and cemeteries of the Western Front, and many have been renovated. French statues were restored, some repainted, by the local municipalities. The CWGC has done an incredible job renovating and upkeeping of all those Commonwealth memorials and cemeteries. Some of the work still going on, as at Le Touret. the maintenance, of course, of these memorials and cemeteries is not over after we commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War on 11 November this year. As we walked along the walls of the memorial, my eyes were strangely attracted by all these names written on it and started looking for that accustomed name. Surely there are others like me. And when that familiar name is found, that person suddenly becomes your A. Butler, your own relative. The memorial becomes what is represents, a shared heritage of a common past. Lest we forget.

    Marcus van der Meulen's new book Memorials of the Western Front: Places of Remembrance is available for purchase now.

  • Sheffield at Work by Melvyn and Joan Jones

    Advertisement showing Vickers' 'contribution to the British naval fleet up to August 1914'. (Sheffield at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    People and Industries Through the Years

    What we set out to do was to record employment change over nine centuries, emphasising the combination of continuity and innovation that has characterised the evolution of employment in industry and other occupations in the city. It has been a fascinating journey. Although already familiar with Sheffield’s industrial past, we have been delighted to record the talent, determination and skill of twenty-first century workers, both those pursuing traditional skills in a competitive market and those entrepreneurs engaged in a host of other industries and occupations. We are keen to champion their cause and to celebrate their achievements through this publication.

    Sheffield has been dubbed ‘Steel City’ but it was, and still is, much more than that. Sheffield grew prodigiously during the nineteenth century from an already substantial 91,000 in 1831 to over 400,000 by 1901 as a result of industrial expansion. But for centuries before that it had had a national reputation for its industrial products. Everyone knows the famous line from Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale written about the year 1390 about the miller stating that ‘A Scheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose’. A thwitel was a knife and Chaucer obviously believed that mention of a Sheffield knife would be as familiar then as a Cornish pasty is today. Nearly four hundred years later in 1779 Charles Burlington in The Modern Universal Traveller wrote that Sheffield was ‘the most remarkable place in England for cutlerywares’. During the nineteenth century the light steel trades continued to flourish in the town and in the surrounding villages and were joined by a completely new industry, heavy steel making and heavy engineering. This transformed the former mainly rural lower Don valley to the east of the old town. Even though Sheffield lay 80 miles from the sea, in 1910 it was claimed that three firms (John Brown’s, Cammells and Vickers) were capable of ‘turning out a battleship complete’ and on the outbreak of the First World War Sheffield was described as ‘the greatest Armoury the world as ever seen’.

    Charcoal making (detail from a painting by John William Buxton Knight). (Sheffield at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    It wasn’t all light and heavy steel trades. In the early 1840s George Bassett started his liquorice sweets business. Later, of course, the firm ‘invented’ Liquorice Allsorts. This came about, apparently, when a ‘rep’ was visiting a customer and an assistant accidentally dropped a tray of samples onto the floor. The customer liked the assortment and so Liquorice Allsorts came into being. In the 1920s the Bertie Bassett trademark was designed and with minor alterations is still being used. The firm is now part of the Maynards Bassetts group. In 1883 one of the best known food product firms was established – Henderson’s Relish, Sheffield’s answer to Worcester Sauce. The firm is still going strong today. In 1895 William Batchelor founded Batchelor Foods. The firm became famous for the production of processed peas (including ‘mushy peas’) and Cup-a-Soup. For a short period between 1908 and 1925 Sheffield had its own car industry. Simplex cars owned by Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse produced luxury cars and motor cycles. One of the few surviving examples can be seen on display in Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield. Perhaps the most unusual product was the disinfectant, Izal, produced for the first time in the 1890s by the iron manufacturing firm, Newton Chambers. It was a by-product of the production of coke for their blast furnaces. Their famous toilet rolls, initially given away to local authorities purchasing large quantities of Izal disinfectant for their new public toilets, were used to advertise the brand. Medicated toilet rolls went on sale to the general public in the 1920s and the firm went on to produce 137 disinfectant products that sold across the world.

    Advertisement for Izal products. (Sheffield at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Industrial growth had its negative effects. As early as the 1720s Daniel Defoe in A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain wrote that the streets were narrow and the houses ‘dark and black, occasioned by the continued Smoke of the Forges, which are always at work’. Even more evocative was J. B. Priestley’s comments in his English Journeys in 1933. He said that when he approached the city from the south it ‘looked like the interior of an active volcano’ adding that the smoke was so thick that it appeared the descending streets ‘would end in the steaming bowels of the earth’.

    Yet today Sheffield has the reputation of being the country’s greenest city. It had one of the country’s first green belts (1938) and 39,000 acres of the Peak District National Park lie within its boundaries. As you drive through or walk in the western parts of the borough, you have to shake yourself to realise that you are in a city of more than half a million people. The city also contains nearly 80 ancient woods, two of them covering more than 300 acres. Sheffield is the best wooded city in the country. What is astonishing is that the woods have survived because of their connection with local industry. They are full of charcoal heaths, charcoal before coal being the fuel for iron and steel making, and of the living archaeology (neglected coppice, stored coppice) of formerly worked trees that formed the raw material for the charcoal makers.

    Today Sheffield is a prime example of a post-industrial city. Its two universities attract more than 60,000 students to the city every year; the lower Don valley, described in the 1970s as an industrial wasteland, is now crowded with edge of town shopping, entertainment and sporting destinations. The Heart of the City scheme has also helped to modernise the city centre with its Winter Garden, Millennium Galleries, new hotel and water features.  But manufacturing still continues from large works like Sheffield Forgemasters that supplies forged and cast steel to the engineering, nuclear and petro-chemical industries worldwide and Liberty Steel at Stocksbridge that produces special steels for the aerospace, oil and automotive industries. Another Sheffield engineering firm, SCX Group, has completed the second year of a three-year project to construct a foldaway roof for No.1 Court at Wimbledon which will be ready in 2019. They constructed the retractable roof on Centre Court in 2009. At the other end of the scale individual craftsmen, known locally for centuries as ‘little mesters’, still produce knives and other bespoke products in small workshops. A surprising number of firms continue the centuries-old tradition of manufacturing a wide range of metal products. These include Burgon & Ball who manufacture 50 different patterns of sheep shears and are the most important makers of these shears in the world and Swann-Morton who export surgical blades and scalpels to over 100 countries.

    Melvyn and Joan Jones' new book Sheffield at Work is available for purchase now.

  • Type 4 Locomotives of British Rail by Andrew Walker

    Type 4 Pioneer at Sheffield. The first of what might be called BR's 'production' Type 4s, the 2,000 hp English Electric Class 40, entered traffic in 1958. (Type 4 Locomotives of British Rail, Amberley Publishing)

    Discovering the ‘Type 4s’

    There was a time when, as a novice train spotter in the mid-70s, I was not quite able to distinguish between the various types of diesel locomotive found on the BR network. My brother John had recently purchased an Ian Allan ‘Locoshed’ book, the 1976 edition, and we had pored over the lists of numbers, wondering when we might see examples of each particular class of engine. We soon realised that certain classes of locomotive were, at that time, allocated to depots on a regional basis. So for example, to see a Class 26 or 27 one had to go north, to Haymarket or Eastfield, whereas to see a Class 33 one had to go south, to Hither Green or Stewarts Lane. This accounted for the fact that these locomotives never put in an appearance on our regular visits to Leeds, Sheffield or York, our regular spotting haunts then. Early on though, we began to see plenty of Type 4s. We did not know they were Type 4s at that time, as the objective was simply to discover if we’d seen something new and to tick it off in the book. I well recall the time on one of the very first visits to Leeds, when looking at a Class 40 in profile, that I suddenly realised it had an ‘extra’ pair of wheels compared with the similar-looking Class 37s. It may have been on the same day that I saw a Class 45 for the first time and noted that it had the same wheel arrangement as the Class 40, but although superficially similar in appearance, with the three cab windows and the protruding nose, there were some differences – the large body side grilles, a slightly flatter and shallower bonnet.

    No more freight duties for these Type 4s. In the industrial surroundings of the works at Crewe, numerous Class 40s await their final visit to the scrapyard. In this early 1984 view Nos 40115 and 40088 stand in the sidings while in the background are Nos 40065 and 40023. (Type 4 Locomotives of British Rail, Amberley Publishing)

    If you are interested in something, it doesn’t take long to become knowledgeable about the subject. Those early experiences of trying to figure out what made a ‘45’ different from a ‘46’, and realising that a ‘40’ had more wheels than a ‘37’ seemed to last mere days – and perhaps they did. The nature of the discovery evolved into a more focused process – more like a quest I suppose. Finding out that a Stratford-based Class 47 might appear on a passenger turn at Sheffield led to routine heightened anticipation on visits there. Likewise, it was always a bit of an event when one of the Western Region’s named 47s, perhaps ‘Odin’, or ‘Cyclops’ turned up. The 46s contrived to make themselves slightly more interesting than the 45s, largely because there were fewer of them in service, but then the 45s provided a counter-balance because many of them were named, and that always added a new dimension which the 46s could not offer (with the exception of the mysteriously singular 46026). So it did not seem to take very long to start to mentally categorise the various classes and the individuals therein, to a kind of hierarchy of interest, much of which was based on rarity, actual or perceived. This has probably always been an intrinsic aspect of any ‘spotting’ hobby, whether it be trains or birds. To a Yorkshire-based enthusiast with limited travelling capability, a Western Region 47 from Old Oak Common was always going to rank above say, a Knottingley-based classmate. No doubt if I’d lived in Devon it would have been otherwise.

    Backdrop of Wild Boar Fell. A Carlisle to Leeds service approches the summit of the Settle & Carlisle line at Ais Gill on 17 June 1989. Large logo-liveried Class 47 No. 47597 provides the motive power for this service, which has been strengthened to ten coaches on this occasion. (Type 4 Locomotives of British Rail, Amberley Publishing)

    The 47s were always up against it, so to speak, in desirability terms. ‘Just another Brush 4’ was an oft-heard remark, understandably so when they outnumbered all other Type 4s by a substantial margin. Not only that, but the 47s did not even offer the differentiation factor that the 40s and Peaks achieved by having a range of headcode panel configurations. Until their conversion to uniform sealed-beam marker lights, the Peaks offered four possibilities in this respect – if one includes the original discs of the Class 44s. The ‘split headcode’ Peaks were perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing, but the two central headcode types, a singular panel or two square-ish adjacent panels, looked nicely balanced.

    An early revelation concerned the Class 40s. Pictures of some of these locomotives in the railway magazines would say, for example, ‘…40013, formerly ‘Andania’…’ and it became apparent that a sizeable contingent of the class had once been named but at some point the nameplates had been removed – every single one of them. Then I spotted the bolt-heads on the side of 40020 at Leeds, and on 40012 at Sheffield, and realised that these marked the spot. I read in several magazines and books that a decision had been made by BR to remove the nameplates, but there was never really a satisfactory explanation, nor was any responsible individual ever identified. I read that the motivation was to do with corporate uniformity, or perhaps that the 40s were no longer seen as top-link motive power and therefore unworthy of carrying names, but these seem very weak arguments. Why not just leave the plates where they were? There were no operational or reputational implications. Not long after finding out about the removal of the Class 40 nameplates, I discovered that the same had been done with the Class 44s. All ten were named shortly after construction, lending the collective nomenclature to the class, but again, someone somewhere in the BR hierarchy deemed it best to remove them en masse. Maybe it’s no big deal, but why do it? What benefits accrued? I would say none, but that’s just my opinion.

    The disappointment at being too late to see the 40s and 44s with their nameplates in situ did not, nevertheless, prevent a great affection building for them. The consolation was in trying to ‘collect the full set’ of named Class 45s, and in the excitement of seeing for the first time one of the 47s with truly gargantuan plates – ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel’ and ‘George Jackson Churchward’, their appearance making a day at Sheffield always truly memorable. They were the celebrities of their day.

    Andrew Walker and John Walker's new book Type 4 Locomotives of British Rail is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Exeter by Chris Hallam

    1068 and all that: Exeter, Gytha and the Norman Conquest

    Bayeux Tapestry (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    It is one of the most famous years in English history: 1066.

    Like 1936 and (perhaps) 1483, it was to be a year of three kings. In January, just five days into the year, Edward the Confessor, king of England since 1042, died. Harold Godwinson, a leading Saxon nobleman, succeeded him. The new Harold II had acquired a difficult inheritance, however, as he faced almost immediate attack from another Harold, Harald Hardrada of Norway who he managed to defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. However, as we know, King Harold II fared less well in the Battle of Hastings in October. Harold, in truth, probably wasn’t killed by an arrow in the eye as the famous Bayeux Tapestry appears to show but was certainly killed in battle just as Richard the Lionheart and Richard III would be in later years. His rival, William, Duke of Normandy won and was subsequently crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. Thereafter, England succumbed to a long period of Norman rule which, to some extent, has never ended.

    William the Conqueror (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    The above story is famous and mostly true. Edward the Confessor perhaps deserves more blame than has been traditionally attributed to him, for bequeathing England such chaotic situation in the first place. However, what is most questionable about the above account is the last sentence: William the Conqueror’s subsequent conquest of England, after his victory at Hastings, was in fact, much less smooth than the traditional version of events makes it sound.

    Exeter, in Devon, was one area which fiercely resisted William’s rule. Stirred into insurrection by the presence of Harold’s mother, Gytha, Exeter (then known as Escanceaster by the Saxons) openly revolted, refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to William. Angered, William returned from Normandy to deal with the rebels himself.

    A siege ensued, one of many Exeter would endure in the centuries ahead. Ugly scenes followed as William ordered one of the hostages that had been given to him as a sign of good faith to be publicly blinded. But the Normans suffered heavy losses. After nearly two weeks, Exeter surrendered but only on one condition, William would not punish the populace either physically or financially. William, facing rebellion elsewhere, acquiesced. Gytha, incidentally, seems to have been smuggled out just before the Norman king arrived. England, as a whole, didn’t fully come under Norman control until about 1072.

    The gatehouse of Exeter Castle id the oldest Norman castle building in Britain. (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    What happened to Exeter next? After the siege, the Normans tore down the houses that stood on the hill at the northernmost parts of the walled city and built Rougemont Castle (Red Hill, because of the colour of the volcanic soil), essentially to keep a watchful eye on Exeter’s potentially restless population. Today, 950 years later, not much more than the castle walls remain. But these walls do include the original Norman gatehouse, widely considered to be one of the finest examples of early Norman architecture still visible in the UK. It is certainly the earliest Norman castle building still in existence, predating the more famous White Tower at the Tower of London by about ten years.

    Ironically, as my colleague Tim Isaac points out in our bestselling new book, Secret Exeter, a flaw in the design of the gatehouse essentially made them useless from the outset. It is this very uselessness which has ensured their survival to this day. Lucky for us!

    Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam's new book Secret Exeter is available for purchase now.

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