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  • Whitehaven and Around From Old Photographs by Alan W. Routledge

    When asked by Amberley if I would put together, what would turn out to be my eleventh book based on old photographs of Whitehaven, it took a while to say yes because I felt there was not a lot more to add to the towns’ story. Fortunately, at much the same time I was asked by the Beacon Museum to look at a box of CDs and DVDs and catalogue what was on them. There were about 30 discs with large numbers of images stored on them. A couple had over 4000 images between them of which 3,095 were scanned image from glass plate negatives from the 1920s and 30s. These wonderful images seemed like a gift from the gods and I wasted no time in seeking and getting permission to use them in a new book, for which I am grateful to the Beacon Museum.

    Whitehaven & Around FOP 3 Around the Green Market in Whitehaven in the 1930s, with marketeers offering flowers and locally grown fruit and vegetables. (c. Whitehaven & Around From Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    I then set about the task of selecting some 250 images from the many images and quickly found life was not going to be simple because a very large proportion of the photographs had been produced in local studios and were of families and family events. Lovely pictures but no answers as to any who, what, when, where and why questions you may have. This reinforces the need to label up your pictures after you take them. I decided to lay out the book in 8 sections, each covering an aspect of life in Whitehaven. These included industries, education, recreation, shops and shopping and the outlaying villages and towns.

    The port of Whitehaven is situated on the west coast of Cumbria, some 50 miles or so from the Scottish Border by road or rail but only 28 by sea across the Solway Firth, the harbour is also the nearest on the mainland to the Isle of Man by a like distance. The Solway Firth is also well known for its magnificent sunsets viewed from the Cumbrian coast.

    Whitehaven itself straddles the St Bees Valley which rises steeply to 300 ft about the town centre. There are several claims that Jonathon Swift stayed at the High Bowling Green Inn directly above the harbour when he was an infant and that he based the tiny Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels on the equally small looking workers on the harbour and ships.

    Whitehaven & Around FOP 1 Commercial fishing often resulted in nets being damaged by snagging on rocks or wrecked ships which necessitated a mending session after nearly every trip. (c. Whitehaven & Around From Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    Whitehaven was to be invaded by enemy troops in a time of war when John Paul Jones led a couple of boatloads of sailors and US Marines in a raid on 23rd April 1778 to set fire to the ships in the harbour. Fortunately for the town the US Marines headed for the nearest pub – The Red Lion in Marlborough Street – returning to their boats having done no significant damage and in a condition described by Jones himself as confused. That was not to be Whitehaven’s last close encounter with the enemy when in 1916 a German U-Boat popped up outside the harbour and in 30 minutes fired 70 high explosive shells into Lowca Tar Works. Again only a little damage was done despite the shells hitting their targets. The damage was enough to close the works for a few days though.

    During WW2 the harbour became the home of the Danish national fishing fleet from where the fishing and sailing skills of the Danes did a great deal to keep up the countries food supply in dark times. After Whitehaven passed into the hands of the Lowther family in the 16th Century it began to trade with Ireland, particularly Dublin and Belfast. Selling salt, coal and manufactured goods and returning with beef, tallow and flax. Trade grew so rapidly that it required a proper quay to provide shelter for the increasing number of boats wanting a berth. The first stone built quay was erected in 1632 and the last major commercial facility – the Queens Dock – was opened in 1875.

    By 1750 Whitehaven was the third most important harbour in England after London and Bristol. By that time trade with Virginia and Maryland had grown to the point where Whitehaven was the biggest importer of tobacco except for Glasgow. The War of American Independence brought that trade to an end leaving only trade with the West Indies as a profitable venture and bringing the Slave Trade to some of the boat owners and merchants.

    Whitehaven & Around FOP 2 Haig Colliery (c. Whitehaven & Around From Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    The harbour slowly declined leaving only fishing as a commercial activity in the North Harbour today. It has since been delightfully restored and converted to recreational use, with a large marina. The Beacon Museum and a good quantity of artworks around the harbour are there to be enjoyed.

    Deep coal mining continued in Whitehaven until January 1986 when Haig Colliery finally closed. The chemical industry ceased in 2005 bringing an end the manufacture of sulphuric acid and phosphates. The Rum Story on Lowther Street tells the story of sugar, rum and the trade with the West Indies.

    Whitehaven and Around From Old Photographs concentrates on the 20th Century and documents changes, focusing on the 1920s, 30s and 60s. Though I am sure there is much more to learn about this wonderful old town of ours here is what I have found out so far.

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    Alan W. Routledge's book Whitehaven & Around From Old Photographs is available for purchase now.

  • Sittingbourne The Postcard Collection by Robert Turcan

    Sittingbourne The Postcard Collection features a collection of vintage postcards and photos dating back to Edwardian times and documents the transformation of the area's industry and history. It includes images of the surrounding villages, wartime photos and some of the paper mill, offering an insight into life from past decades.

    The author Robert Turcan, 66, has lived in the town all of his life and this is his fourteenth book he has had published on local history. His long standing interest in this subject is supported by a growing collection of topographical books and postcards. He also collects antique maps of Kent and Regency bank notes of this county's towns.

    Sittingbourne The Postcard Collection pic Greetings postcard (c. Sittingbourne The Postcard Collection, Amberley Publishing)

    The golden age of postcards was between 1902 and 1918. During this period, it is estimated that some 400 million cards were posted annually. Postcards were an everyday item in their heyday and provide a window into life in the town as it grew following the industrial revolution. When the railway line to London was built in mid Victorian times, the area's population boomed.

    The town's renowned products – bricks, paper and cement – were transported by sailing barges (built nearby) along the Thames. Agriculture played its part in improving prosperity, with fresh produce such as corn, fodder and fruit jams delivered to London. Now lonely and derelict, the wharfs and quays around Milton and Sittingbourne Creeks can be appreciated in their heyday from a group of atmospheric postcards pictured within.

    9781445662282

    Robert Turcan's book Sittingbourne The Postcard Collection is available for purchase now.

  • Strathclyde Traction by Colin J. Howat

    In preparing Strathclyde Traction, I must admit that one of the main problems was the selection process. Going through my collection, I initially narrowed the amount of photographs to approximately 2000, which ultimately had to be narrowed down many times before getting to the required 180 for the book. I would like to have used more but that is for the future.

    Strathclyde Traction pic 3 320321 (GW) at Partick with a Dalmuir-Cumbernauld Service. (Strathclyde Traction, Amberley Publishing)

    Fortunately, my whole railway photographic collection has now been saved on computer. Which was completed over a couple of years by scanning all my old black and white and colour slides and negatives.

    Moving on from my earlier book Ayrshire Traction the opportunity was taken to scroll through the archives and as Strathclyde is quite a large area itself, a varied selection of shots were available. There have been many boundary changes within Scotland over the last forty years but it has not really changed the railways. Scotland’s railways overall have expanded and although some line closures have taken place, on the whole there has been a refreshing outlook by both Strathclyde PTE and later Transport Scotland.

    In a wider context compared to other European countries, the UK has been incredibly slow in the electrification process. In Switzerland for example, 90% of their railways are electrified whereas in Scotland only approximately 40% has been done.

    Strathclyde Traction pic 1 Orange livery 314201 (GW) at Glasgow Central with a Glasgow Central-Neilston Service. (Strathclyde Traction, Amberley Publishing)

    The Orange livery that came out in the early 1980s was not only applied to the trains but also to the buses and the underground system. The underground trains were affectionately known as the “Clockwork Orange Trains” which was a reference to the film A Clockwork Orange made in 1971 by Warner Brothers and directed by Stanley Kubrick starring Malcolm McDowell.

    Railway photography like most photography has its own special delights and drawbacks. I have been out in all sorts of weather to get the rare shot. I think heavy rain is the railway photographer’s worst nightmare although I have also endured temperatures as low as -20 degrees. I have also encountered some alarming moments. I was once chased by a bull at Mossgiel farm near Mauchline. I have also walked a number of disused railway lines and have had interesting encounters with various animals! I have also met many members of the public some good, some not so good. Most people in my experience usually enter into good banter but there are a few who are not so accommodating. On the whole most people are pleasant but since the 07/07 bombings in London, understandably there has been a distinct downturn in trust from rail staff who are now much more vigilant at all stations with rail enthusiasts and visitors.

    Strathclyde Traction pic 4 380113 (GW0 at Western Gailes with a Glasgow Central-Ayr Service (Strathclyde Traction, Amberley Publishing)

    I have included in this blog some of the photographs that were not used in Strathclyde Traction but may be used in the future. As well as railway photography, I enjoy many other interests including walking with my two German Shepherds. When I started getting interested in the railway in the 1970s, I used to visit Bogside and Irvine signal boxes. I can remember being welcomed in, the smell of the coal fire and some chat always passed the time of day. Aye those were the days!

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    Colin J. Howat's book Strathclyde Traction is available for purchase now.

  • Reading 1800 to the Present Day by Stuart Hylton

    As you may gather from a book whose first chapter deals with the relationship between the town and the motor car, this is not a conventional local history. Most local histories start by taking you back to the earliest origins of a community (in Reading’s case, somewhere around 600AD). Either that or they are rooted in a particular (and often atypical) period of the communities’ history, such as one or other of the world wars or the Civil War.

    Reading 1800 to the Present Day pic 1 Queen Victoria in about 1893, shortly after her installation as a traffic hazard outside the Town Hall. (c. Reading 1800 to the Present Day, Amberley Publishing)

    Interesting and valid as both approaches are, what Edward I said to the towns guild in 1301, or how the community reacted to wartime rationing, does not necessarily add a lot (at least directly) to our understanding of the place in which we live, work and spend our leisure today.

    Over recent years, Reading’s mainstream local history has become ever more fully documented, through the efforts of myself and others, I was looking for a new way of telling the story – ideally one that might be relevant to a wider audience. What I came up with was more of a companion to modern Reading. Explaining how the town as we know it today came about; the institutions, the services, local landmarks, different means of transport, the economy, the shopping centre; in short, anything that characterises the modern town.

    I then looked in reverse at the history of these institutions to try and establish the point at which they took on a recognisably modern form. Anything preceding that is kept to a brief introductory context. The 1800 date in the title tended to be honoured in the breach – after all, the first hundred years of the motor car in the town since 1800 would have made for rather thin reading. (I had wanted to call the book The making of modern Reading, but the publishers wanted a more “does what it says on the tin” type of title).

    Reading 1800 to the Present Day pic 2 Queen Victoria in 2015, safely pedestrianised. (c. Reading 1800 to the Present Day, Amberley Publishing)

    This approach meant focusing on matters that might not normally be given a great deal of attention in a local history. Hence it goes into some detail about the tortured process by which the M4 motorway was planned and built, what became of the M31, the motorway that never was, and why the town centre roads are overloaded. The origins of the Reading Rock Festival, the towns major claim to international fame. How the town transformed itself from a manufacturing to an office-based economy and some of the architectural horrors that were committed along the way. To the evolution of the university, the police force and the welfare state in Reading, and the post-war transformation of the shopping centre.

    I have tried in each chapter to add a little to the readers’ understanding of why the modern town that they know is as it is – for better or worse. As other towns also find their mainstream local history increasingly well documented, this might be a new direction for inveterate scribblers on the subject, like myself, to pursue.

    9781445648316

    Stuart Hylton's book Reading 1800 to the Present Day is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Portsmouth by Steve Wallis

    I like Portsmouth. I find it a very varied city with lots of character and places to find out about. I admit that I have never lived there, but when I wrote a book on Portsmouth before, I enjoyed the exploring most of all.

    Portsmouth Naval Memorial The Portsmouth Naval Memorial (c.Secret Portsmouth, Amberley Publishing)

    So when Amberley asked if I would like to write a book on ‘Secret Portsmouth’ it seemed a good opportunity to find out more about the city and its history. And indeed that’s how it turned out – let me give you some examples of what caught my attention.

    First of all, something that most people from outside the area find surprising is that Portsmouth is actually an island city. This is only thanks to a narrow channel that separates Portsea Island on which it sits from the mainland – a channel that you can easily travel across without noticing it. But before the modern rail and road bridges, the separation was more obvious. This heightened the way that Portsmouth naturally looked to the sea, and a great deal of its history is bound up with naval and other maritime matters.

    For instance, this was the place from which Admiral Nelson left Britain on the voyage that led to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, while on the Esplanade there is a collection of memorials set up by returning ships’ crews in the 19th century to commemorate their oversea activities and their lost comrades.

    Southsea Castle Southsea Castle (c.Secret Portsmouth, Amberley Publishing)

    As the home port of the British navy, the place is full of fortifications that defended the town and its dockyards. And it wasn’t just attacks from the sea that was a problem – a series of 19th redbrick forts on the hill above the island were often mocked because their guns pointed away from the sea, but there was a real danger that an enemy force might land elsewhere along the coast and then attack the port from inland.

    Different areas of the city have vastly different characters: - there is the historic town that is now called Old Portsmouth, Spice Island that was outside the town’s walls and whose many pubs illustrate the freedom it had from the regulations of the town, the holiday resort of Southsea with lots of open spaces and the villages and hamlets engulfed by the expanding city where you can sometimes get a glimpse of what they were like when set in open countryside.

     

    Portsmouth Point The viewing area at Portsmouth Point (c.Secret Portsmouth, Amberley Publishing)

    Then there are the unusual places dotted around the city. Places like the road out to the Hayling Island ferry, looking like a small and isolated coastal village but down a road lined with concrete blocks left over from the Second World War. Or the little church at Wymering, hidden among the mainland suburbs, where relatives of Jane Austen are buried.

    I was also fascinated by how Portsmouth had expanded across Portsea and onto the mainland. Marshes were drained and made into parks and there was proper planning that made sure the new suburbs had the facilities they needed – pubs, shops, sports pitches and cemeteries. Among the many rows of 19th and early 20th century terraced houses there are lots of interesting features. Birthplaces of famous people, a church with the font in which Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens were both christened and a ‘Station Road’ that never had a railway station to lead to. And always the military connections – those famous people often had a father in the navy!

    And the stories of peoples’ lives really make a place. Like the riot caused when the locals were denied their rights to walk for free along one of the piers and part of the Esplanade that became known as the ‘Battle of Southsea’, or the doctor, one Arthur Conan Doyle, who didn’t have too many patients so used his spare time to write stories, leading to the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

    In fact, I enjoyed writing this book on Portsmouth so much, I think I might write another!

    9781445655161

    Steve Wallis' new book Secret Portsmouth is available for purchase now.

  • The Liverpool & Manchester Railway by Anthony Dawson

    the-l-m-r-1 A first-class coach, as depicted by Isaac Shaw in 1831. (Author's collection, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Friday, 17 September 1830. James Scott, Station Superintendent, resplendent in top hat, dark blue frock coat (with gilt ‘company buttons’) and white trousers checks his pocket watch.  Ten minutes to seven o’clock. All was bustle around him as passengers - all of them of the first class – clambered up into the primrose-yellow coaches, which sat waiting for them. Glancing along the train of four coaches; resplendent with the exciting names of Experience, Traveller, Despatch, and Victory. Fussing around are the porters, heaving heavy trunks and portmanteaus onto the roofs of the carriage. Seated on top, wrapped up from the elements in their watch coats are Johns and Hargreaves, the guards. It is their job to keep a good look-out for any dangers and to apply the brakes on the coaches upon which they are sat. Hargeaves, more senior of the pair, takes his place on the rearmost carriage facing forward and puts on his special wire-mesh spectacles to guard against any soot getting in his eyes. Johns takes his seat on the front carriage, but facing backward so as to be in visual communication with Hargreaves. In case of danger they each have a red, a green and a white flag.

    Some of the more curious gentlemen are dallying around North Star, the iron horse at the head of the string of coaches. Painted olive green with black lining-out she presents a compact, purposeful, look with her pair of large five-foot diameter driving wheels and powerful cylinders, set nearly horizontally, alongside the firebox. On her footplate are Thomas George and his mate John Wakefield. Suddenly the safety valve lifts with a whoosh, scattering inquisitive pigeons and passengers alike.

    the-l-m-r-2 Interior of the replica first-class coach, which sat six persons almost knee to knee: 'upholstered in French grey cloth with buttons and lace to match ... the upholstery is carried to a considerable height above the seats, padded head rests being included'. (Lauren Jaye Gradwell, 2016, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    At five minutes to seven, Scott instructs the large brass bell on the platform to be rung, to inform passengers still dawdling in the waiting room to hurry up, that their train will be leaving at seven o’clock sharp and there would be only a 50% refund on the cost of their 7s (about £10 in 2016) tickets. If any passengers had a complaint, they could write it in the ‘Passenger’s Diary’ found below in the booking hall. The tickets themselves are oblong slips of bright pink paper and had to be purchased the day before, and included the name, address, details of any next of kin, and the reason for travelling. Once booked, a passenger was assigned a numbered seat in a named coach. Each of the coaches sat eighteen in three sumptuous compartments, lined with French grey cloth; the seats stuffed with horse-hair and provided with arm - and head - rests; carpeted throughout and as plush as any drawing room of the best sort. It was a tiny padded cell of luxury.

    One minute to seven. Scott nods to the bugler stood to attention at the head of the train. All the train doors are closed. The luggage is secure. The guards are in their seats. With a twitch of his gloved hand, Scott signals to the bugler; he puts his instrument to his lips and sends off the train with the opening strains of ‘I’d be a butterfly’. Wakefield responds with a brief toot on his own bugle; Thomas George eases open the regulator and for a few moments North Star is lost in a cloud of steam from her open drain cocks. With a barely perceptible whoof, she begins to slowly move away, the polished steel valve levers beginning their hypnotic dance as she clatters over the Water Street Bridge and on to Liverpool, where they would arrive 90 minutes later.

    the-l-m-r-3 The precarious position of the guard, perched on the coach roof, is readily demonstrated: it is easy to see how they could freeze to death on a cold winter's night. (Matthew Jackson, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Such, perhaps, was the scene at Liverpool Road Station, Manchester on the first day of operation of what was the world’s first inter-city railway 186 years ago. Whilst not the first public railway (that was the Lake Lock Railroad in Yorkshire (opened in 1796)) nor the first to exclusively use steam traction (that was the Middleton Railway, Leeds, in 1812) it was the first double-track mainline inter-city railway; the first to have a working timetable; a written set of rules and regulations; and the first to develop a code of signalling and safety instructions. The Liverpool & Manchester, despite various false starts and the tragedy of the formal opening (15 September 1830) changed the world, not only in how people travel, but in what they wore, and what they ate.

    Henry Booth, the Secretary and Treasurer wrote:

    The most striking result produced by the completion of this Railway, is the sudden and marvellous change which has been effected in our ideas of time and space. What was quick is now slow; what was distant is now near.

    9781445661889

    Anthony Dawson's new book The Liverpool & Manchester Railway is available for purchase now.

  • Triumph 2000: Defining the Sporting Saloon by Kevin Warrington

    Is a simple form of transport a reflection of one’s personality?

    For many people a motor car is not just a simple means of personal transport, it is a reflection of who they are and of their status in life. Today, the prestige market for “executive” saloon cars is dominated by three German manufacturers: BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. But in the early 1960’s, certainly in the United Kingdom, the market was very different with local manufacturers having a near monopoly on supply and the market segmented very differently. Small family cars, a result of the helter skelter, stop go economy and fuel crisis brought on by the Anglo-French “Suez Adventure” were becoming popular. At the high end, well-appointed large motor cars with engines of around 3 litres and interiors finished more like country house drawing rooms than a car. In the middle sat a range of unadventurous and mundane models that, by repute, rusted before they left the production line and while they performed the task demanded of them, were neither adventurous or stylish.

    triumph-2000-1 Shown here is a Mark 2 model, a car that was to gain a slightly undesirable reputation as being the 'get away' car of choice for armed robbers. (Triumph 2000, Amberley Publishing)

    All this was to change in 1963 when the rival businesses of Standard -Triumph and The Rover Car Company each announced a new model that would create a paradigm shift in the motor trade by providing a new model that would offer the style and appointment of the existing three litre class, the performance of a sports car (certainly in the case of the Triumph), but be priced in the middle market area. That rival manufacturers were about to launch a new model that would turn upside down the established market segments and compete with each other was well known to each company for there had earlier been attempts to merge both businesses and historically, there were close family connections between the senior management of the two businesses.

    triumph-2000-2 Very early cars featured a two-tone dashboard covering that in certain colours was attrative, but could be quite garish with boled colours. (Steve Parkin, Triumph 2000, Amberley Publishing)

    “TRIUMPH 2000 – Defining the Sporting Saloon” tells the story of the Triumph model and how it established the market. The book starts with the origins of the Triumph company, one that like so many businesses that were to settle in Coventry had its foundations in sewing machines, bicycles and motor cycles before entering the world of motor cars. It tells of the perilous finances of the business leading to insolvency and eventual sale to the Standard Motor Company in 1945 where the Triumph name would be used to great success, initially on a range of highly successful sports cars and ultimately on the entire output. The chance meeting between senior executives of what was then called Standard – Triumph with Italian styling genius Giovanni Michelotti lead to a distinctive house style of cars that immediately suggested quality and sporting prowess. To the middle manager or professional looking for a suitable form of transport, the new Triumph or Rover was the solution. While the Rover 2000 expressed traditional “Britishness” and featured an innovative style of construction, the Triumph made great play of the company’s sporting success, which in the early 1960s was at its Zenith with multiple class wins both on the circuit at Le Mans and in rallying.

    triumph-2000-3 Inside the main assembly hall at Canley, saloons and estates are being assembled. (c. BMIHT, Triumph 2000, Amberley Publishing)

    Featuring many new and previously unpublished photographs, this book describes in detail the evolution of the car and Triumph’s efforts to substantially increase its performance through the addition of petrol injection. The first UK manufactured saloon car to feature such a system at a time where any form of fuel delivery other than by carburettors was restricted to the race track or exotic machinery with prices orders of magnitude more expensive than the Triumph. Such innovation was typical of Triumph; not always successfully.

    The book concludes by pondering whether had the Triumph brand survived the upheavals of the motor industry in the 1970s and the mergers with the volume car business of BMC not taken place. Would the aspiring successful business person of today now be considering the purchase of a Triumph rather than a BMW?

    About the Author:

    “TRIUMPH 2000 - Defining the Sporting Saloon” has been written by Kevin Warrington who has been Editor of the Triumph 2000 / 2500 / 2.5 Register club magazine “SIXappeal” for seven years and is actively involved in the management of the club. He is an enthusiastic writer and photographer, having started to take pictures when he was given his first Kodak 127 Brownie camera as a gift for his 7th birthday. “After 53 years, I think I am just about getting the hang of it”, he frequently says. Kevin’s family background has been in the motor and transport business for many generations, but prior to embarking on a writing and photographing career, he made his life in the computer industry where he did, as he describes if “just about everything”, starting as a designer, then a service engineer before moving into product management and eventually sales. A change of management and business strategy led to him leaving a very senior international management position in one of the largest software companies to pursue his own interests.

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    Kevin Warrington's new book Triumph 2000: Defining the Sporting Saloon is available for purchase now.

  • River Thames: From Source to Sea by Steve Wallis

    642466 River Frome CVR.inddFor me, writing about rivers started off in 2013 when I was discussing possible books with my contact at Amberley. He mentioned the ‘From Source to Sea’ series on rivers. I live in Dorchester in Dorset so what came to my mind immediately was the river Frome which flows past the town. This Frome is one of several of that name in this country, and runs entirely within Dorset. It passes lots of historic locations and scenic countryside, so that suited both Amberley and myself, and off I went! There were several surprises on the way to finishing the volume – like trying to work out if the accepted source of the river was really the true one when there were at least two other candidates (I came to the conclusion that the Frome proper only started when all these streams had joined together), and also one or two interesting encounters with flooding!

    9781445648293A year or so later I was getting ‘itchy feet’ to try another river, and spoke again to Amberley. The publisher was now looking for a book on a larger river, and after a bit of thought we decided on the Bristol Avon. This was relatively easy to reach from Dorset, and though quite a long river, it flows within a surprisingly small area – the Bristol Avon is some 75 to 80 miles long, but I worked out that a South Gloucestershire village called Pucklechurch is no more than 15 miles from every point along its looping course. There was even more controversy over the source – two rivers called the Sherston Avon and the Tetbury Avon join to form the Bristol Avon, and each has more than one candidate for its own source. In the end I gave up and tried to describe them all! Thereafter the river runs through some lovely countryside, much of it in the Cotswolds, and some superb towns and villages such as Malmesbury and Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, then the cities of Bath and Bristol. Using the river as a reason to explore all of this was great fun, though I didn’t quite fulfil the requirement of the book’s title, as the Bristol Avon flows into the Severn Estuary, which is not quite the sea!

    the-river-thames-1 Whitish colouration marking the river's occasional course. (River Thames, Amberley Publishing)

    By now I was getting somewhat addicted to following rivers around the place, and Amberley and I agreed that I should have a crack at the Thames. On the face of it this all seemed straightforward – I decided to concentrate on the generally accepted source of the river and not worry too much about an alternative (admittedly one with a good case) that starts up near Cheltenham, and there was no doubt where the river flowed to as it has a sizeable estuary that joins the North Sea. Admittedly there was a couple of hundred miles of river between these two locations, but I could worry about all that later.

    the-river-thames-2 Finally the flowing water appears. (River Thames, Amberley Publishing)

    So in early March 2016 I set off to look at the accepted source up in the Cotswolds. I parked a mile or two away and set off to follow a footpath to the source. Getting closer I started feeling somewhat disconcerted that I could see no river, then came upon the stone set up at the source. Checking my map and reading the inscription on the stone left no doubt that I had found the correct spot, but there was still the not exactly minor issue that I could see no water. There was some softer ground here, though, and the grass looked whiter along the supposed course of the river, so I started following this. I did so for a mile before I found a flowing river, and it was only when I got home and did some reading that I found about the variable flow of water here.

    the-river-thames-6 The Tower of London and Tower Bridge. (River Thames, Amberley Publishing)

    Anyway, over the next six months I followed the river in a series of daytrips, and once again there were lots of fascinating villages, towns and cities, historic locations and lovely countryside. There were also many pleasant surprises – for instance, I had expected the section in the Cotswolds to be the most scenic, but while the villages there are very picturesque the landscape is relatively flat, it was the part that flows past the Chilterns that I found the most dramatic and attractive. Then there was the realisation that most bridges had a pub by them – all clearly well located to take advantage of thirsty travellers, although the rural crossing with a pub at either end seemed a little excessive! Then there were the discoveries that the river’s rural setting survives well into London, and that south Essex is much hillier than I remembered. On the negative side I got caught in the London rush hour on the Underground and still cannot understand how people are able to go through that every day!

    All in all I am extremely glad that I undertook all this exploration, and while of course I heartily recommend the book to you, I must also admit that there is much more than I was able to include, and so I recommend equally that you go and explore the river for yourself.

    9781445657974

    Steve Wallis' new book River Thames From Source to Sea is available for purchase now.

  • The Mysteries of Stonehenge by Nikolai Tolstoy

    My lifelong enthusiasm for Celtic studies began about the age of twelve, when my inspiring preparatory school headmaster suggested I read Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels.  I at once became engrossed in Scottish history and that of the Gaelic Highlands in particular. A prior love of the stirring tales of King Arthur combined with this enthusiasm to lead me into an abiding desire to establish the historical origins of the Arthurian legend.

    By fortunate chance my five exceedingly happy years of undergraduate studies took place at Trinity College Dublin. Although my course was in Modern History and Political Theory, I was able to study Middle Welsh and Old Irish under the guidance of the formidably bearded Professor David Greene. I enjoyed a close friendship with his convivial colleague James Carney, and was privileged to know many of the giants of Celtic studies in those distant days, including Rachel Bromwich, Kenneth Jackson, Myles Dillon, Kathleen Hughes, and Nora Chadwick.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-1 Stonehenge (Courtesy Flickr Waaghals, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    All my allowance that I could spare was devoted to building up a collection of books on the subject – a pursuit which became something of an obsession. Indeed, Susan Gregory, my unforgettable companion of those halcyon days, in conversation with my stepfather Patrick O’Brian once gently criticized the extent to which I dwelt upon ‘ye olde folks’! Meanwhile, browsing in the entrancingly cheap Dublin bookshops permitted me to amass the beginnings of a library of books on Celtic studies. Today the collection has increased to several thousand works, and it is with some gratification I note that my 45-page bibliography to The Mysteries of Stonehenge comprises in its entirety books and off prints on the shelves around me as I write.

    I must here confess with shame that my command of spoken Irish and Welsh remains rudimentary. Although my wife and I found our first home in the forested heart of Welsh-speaking Powys, I have since enjoyed little opportunity to use the spoken word. In any case, my desire to master those two ancient languages remained focused on the ability to study early medieval texts.

    Apart from the riches of Dublin bookshops, I obtained many rare treasures in London from Griff’s, the Welsh bookshop in Cecil Court, and became close friends with its owners, the Griffiths brothers.  One summer vacation while still at TCD, I devoted myself to studying Teach Yourself Welsh.  Proud of my fancied progress, at my next call at Griff’s I began the conversation in Welsh.  Ever polite, William Griffiths inclined his head on one side with an expression indicating increasing bafflement at every word I spoke. Eventually, he enquired diffidently: ‘Was that Russian you were speaking?’ Realizing that learning from phonetics was far from representing (at any rate in my case) the path to fluency, I abandoned any attempt to become a Welsh speaker.

    My early interest was confined to efforts – often sadly jejune, as my youthful publications attest – to recover ‘realities’ lying behind our sadly deficient sources for Dark-Age history. This interest continues, and I hope to publish before long investigative studies of the historical Arthur (assuming there was one – as I believe there was), and the originally distinct mystery of the Holy Grail.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-3 'Merlin re-erects the Giant's Dance' (Courtesy British Library, Egerton MS 3028, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    However, my focus shifted considerably when in 1967 I bought Anne Ross’s classic Pagan Celtic Britain. Among other revelations, it made me realize that much I had assumed to be historical (such as the birth-tale of Arthur at Tintagel) proved to be mythical – in the authentic sense of the word. From this period my researches expanded increasingly into other spheres of knowledge: above all, Indo-European studies, together with comparative religion, mythology, and cosmology. At an ancillary level, I pursued investigations into the ultimate origins of religious belief, whether in anthropological or philosophical terms.

    Shortly after I married my dear (and patient) wife Georgina in 1971, my researches became of a sudden directed into a very different course of study. The national controversy provoked by my Victims of Yalta culminated in my book The Minister and Massacres, which was subsequently suppressed at the instance of an apprehensive British Government. By curious chance this occurred exactly two centuries after the previous book to have been officially censored – which was no less than Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man!

    However, I had in the meantime completed a study of the Merlin legend. The Quest for Merlin was published in 1985, in which I argued for an historical Merlin, whose legendary career and prophetic powers strikingly resembled those of Siberian shamans. In fact, my fascination with the Celts had never abated, and eventually I became free to pursue broader researches culminating in publication of my current book The Mysteries of Stonehenge.

    Over years of research it increasingly dawned on me that detailed examination of the earliest surviving Welsh and Irish literatures might provide access to a vastly older prehistoric past extending to the Bronze and even Neolithic Ages. While archaeologists have established with increasing accuracy how and when colossal megalithic structures like Stonehenge were erected, their explanations why such laborious feats were undertaken of necessity derived largely from informed speculation. However, scholarly works such as the classic Celtic Heritage by the brothers Rees, and more recently Proinsias Mac Cana’s The Cult of the Sacred Centre and John Waddell’s Archaeology and Celtic Myth pointed the way towards a radically distinct approach.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-4 Navel of Ireland at Uisneach (Courtesy Flickr Abi Skipp, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    It is hard now to recall the evolution of my labours over the years, but two critical points glimpsed at a formative stage of my researches stand out. The first was the twelfth-century imaginative ‘historian’ Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful account of Merlin’s transporting the gigantic monoliths of Stonehenge from the hill of Killare in Ireland. Killare lies beside Uisneach in Meath, a site famed in Irish medieval literature as the umbilical sacred Centre of the island.  Clearly, Geoffrey’s tale reflects misunderstanding of an archaic tradition that Stonehenge represented the corresponding Centre (Navel) of Britain. The fact that a mere handful of monoliths were to be found at Uisneach could have confirmed a belief that the originals had been removed to Uisneach’s ideological counterpart at Stonehenge.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-2 Possible routes for transportation of the Stonehenge bluestones (Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge (Simon & Schuster) Courtesy Pearon, Stonehenge p. 279, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    Again, archaeologists have established that the smaller (though still massive) ‘bluestones’ of Stonehenge were originally transported to the spot by a miracle of prehistoric engineering from Preseli Mountain in remote Pembrokeshire (Dyfed). Clearly, there must have been something exceptionally holy about their original site, but what that was could only be subject for conjecture. That is, until the significance of an episode in the early eleventh-century Welsh tale of ‘Pwyll, prince of Dyfed’ struck me.

    The story tells how the nobles of Dyfed, becoming alarmed at the failure of Pwyll’s queen Rhiannon to produce an heir to the kingdom, repaired to Preseli Mountain to seek a solution. Following the assembly, Rhiannon duly gave birth to a princely son. The gathering implicitly took place on a significant date in the pre-Christian British calendar. In early times the person of the king embodied his realm, so that extinction of a royal dynasty brought about sterility of the kingdom as a whole – the Wasteland of the Grail romances. All this suggests the motive for the transfer of the bluestones, which were believed to be imbued with magical power (mana) ensuring the perpetuation of the Monarchy of Britain, which in turn was focused on the mighty national Centre at Stonehenge.

    These factors led in turn to a succession of comparable discoveries, which after long years were finally published in my detailed study The Mysteries of Stonehenge. Together, they reveal much of pre-Christian myth and ritual, prominent among which were the Celtic doctrines of the soul and divine kingship, and explain how much of this cosmology came to be deliberately absorbed into Celtic Christianity.

    9781445659534

    Nikolai Tolstoy's new book The Mysteries of Stonehenge is available for purchase now.

  • Slavery in Roman Lincolnshire by Antony Lee

    Slavery was an accepted part of the economy in the ancient world. Defeated peoples might expect to have been enslaved by their conquerors, and the desperation of poverty could lead to children being sold to slave traders to provide money for the family, and even give the child an opportunity to avoid starvation. One thing that marks ancient slavery out from the practice in more recent centuries is that it was not restricted to specific races, meaning that slaves in the ancient Roman world came from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Roman slaves were not marked out by a particular costume or physical mark and this makes determining the extent of slavery difficult. The philosopher Seneca (4BC-AD65) commented that the senate once discussed introducing an item of slave dress so that they might be distinguished from free citizens, but it was recognised that this would be dangerous as it would lead to the slaves realizing that they were actually in the majority (On Mercy, 1.24).

    Broxholme slave figure Bound captive figurine from Broxholme, Lincolnshire (Portable Antiquities Scheme DENO-EB7C77) (Treasures of Roman Lincolnshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Slavery is an abhorrent practice in any age, and we should make no attempt to excuse it, but the experience of a slave was not universally consistent. The Greek slave living in a wealthy household on the bay of Naples, teaching rhetoric to the family’s children and allowed to earn some money in his spare time clearly had a very different experience of slavery to a Gaul forced to spend a hard and shortened life quarrying stone in a southern Spanish mine. Trying to reconcile these two extremes across the extent of the empire is difficult, though we should not forget that the latter greatly outnumbered the former. A unique aspect of Roman slavery is that manumission was a realistic ambition for some slaves, such as the Greek in the example above. A slave might expect to be freed by his master for faithful service, in his will, or after saving enough money to purchase his freedom. Once released, the former slave (known as a ‘freedman’) would be expected to further the interests of his former owners, and many continued to work in family businesses. Often taking the name of their former master, the freedman did not have the rights of a freeborn citizen, but could rise in the community and gain wealth and status in their own right. Significantly, their children would become full Roman citizens. It has been estimated that, at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, half of the population of Herculaneum were freed slaves or their descendants. In no other society, then or since, have former slaves been permitted to become such an integral part of the society that enslaved them.

    Slavery in Roman Britain is a subject that evokes much interest, and one that I discuss in my new book ‘Treasures of Roman Lincolnshire’. Direct archaeological evidence for slavery in Roman Britain is unsurprisingly slight, but sadly this does not mean that the practice somehow escaped our shores. Indeed, in the pre-Roman Iron Age, the taking of captives as slaves seems to have been a common result of inter-tribal conflict. Literary evidence for slavery exists in the form of a writing tablet from London, dating to c.AD75-125, recording the sale of a female slave (ironically named ‘Fortunata’), and lead curse tablets found at religious sites such as Bath and Uley (Gloucestershire) plead with various deities to punish the people who have wronged the author, si servus si liber - ‘whether slave or free’. Clearly, the economy of both rural and urban sites in Roman Britain was powered, at least in part, by slaves. One fascinating example is the tombstone of a woman called Regina, found at South Shields. She was a freedwoman and the wife of a Syrian man called Barates. Whether or not she was originally his slave is unknown, but she was a Briton of the Catuvellauni tribe of south eastern England, demonstrating that a person could even be a slave within their own country and their own culture.

    St Paul inscription Temple dedication inscription from Lincoln, set up by a freed Imperial slave (The Collection museum, Lincoln) (Treasures of Roman Lincolnshire, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the best pieces of evidence of a slave in Lincoln is a fragmentary inscription excavated at the site of the Roman forum in Lincoln in the 1970s. It formed part of a dedication, recording that a ‘freedman of the emperor(s)’ had rebuilt the town’s temple to the Imperial Cult. A slave owned by the emperor could have had many varied duties across the empire, such as involvement in provincial government or the running of centrally controlled industries such as mineral extraction or coin minting. This freedman, whose name is sadly lost and would doubtless have given us the name of the emperor under whom he gained his freedom, had obviously become wealthy enough to repair a major temple in a large Roman town. Perhaps more importantly, it shows us that he wanted to spend his money in such a way, emulating the custom of public munificence that marked the social aspirations of the middle and upper classes of the time. In other words, rather than showing resentment for his slavery, this freedman was going to great lengths to demonstrate that he was now a successful part of the culture that enslaved him.

    Other evidence of slavery can be found in a series of copper alloy figures, known only from Britain and Germany, of which three are known from Lincolnshire. These naked figures, likely representing males, are bound around the neck, hands and ankles. Their pose – the angle of the legs and the perforations through the centre – suggest that they were originally attached to larger objects. Their function remains unknown, but it seems clear that they represent the misery represented by human slavery. Their silent forms serve to remind us that despite the literary and archaeological evidence we have for ancient slavery in Roman Britain and Lincolnshire, the most important viewpoint of all is the one we cannot obtain – that of the slaves themselves.

    9781445664705

    Antony Lee's new book Treasures of Roman Lincolnshire is available for purchase now.

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