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Tag Archives: A-Z Series

  • A-Z of Jarrow by Paul Perry

    In the Saxon word Gyrwe, long since corrupted into Jarrow, there is considerable historical as well as etymological significance. A translation loosely means marsh or fen, from which we may discern that Jarrow took its name from what we know as the 'slake', a body of water. It is probable this marshland covered a far larger area than it has done in more recent years. Twice it was used as a haven by the Romans who anchored their vessels at the mouth of the River Don, and by King Egfrid who sheltered the whole of his fleet, and afterwards the Viking longboats from two notorious invasions. The local history from these times is fragmentary, but what we do know is, the River Don, in ancient times was not the little waterway we know today, being large enough to accommodate the vessels of invaders. Jarrow also claims the honour of having been a former Roman station and village. This we can ascertain from the Roman inscriptions found during the rebuilding of the church in 1783, and the discovery of two square pavements of Roman stones. The station, allegedly built by Agricola who erected forts from the mouth of the Tyne to the Solway Firth in AD81. In AD681 King Egfrid gave to Abbott Benedict Biscop, a grant of land, upon which to build a monastery at Jarrow, and this was to commence the history of our town.

    Dedication stone at St Paul's Church. (A-Z of Jarrow, Amberley Publishing)

    The names carved on the stone dedicated to St Paul's church in AD685 and the king and priest whose names are recorded among them have been partially obliterated, over thirteen centuries. The words themselves may still be read on the stone located above the west arch of the tower. Much of the primitive structure of the church still survives, including the oldest example of stained glass in Europe, and is entitled to hold the honour of being one of the oldest buildings in the country. At the time of the churches' dedication when it, together with the monastery rose from the flat marshland, the winding River Don, then a crystal stream rippling past and opening into the swelling Tyne, must have been a matchless scene of tranquil solitude. Meanwhile growing up in the Abbey of St Peter at Wearmouth there was a child called Bede who had been devoted to the service of the Lord and was called by Him to greater things. Bede commenced his education at St Peter's and by the age of twelve was installed with the brothers at the monastery at Jarrow. The child whose whole life was spent within the cloisters and church at Jarrow, grew up to be a man of great knowledge, humility and piety, saint, scholar and a man of science. In his cell was the lamp of English learning which attracted scholars from all parts of England and Europe. Bede's own works are voluminous and varied, mastering all that was known to man. The forty five works he left behind, apart from the various theological pieces included music, philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic and medicine. He was a whole encyclopaedia of knowledge. He was a skilled musician, he wrote and spoke Latin, and possessed the rare accomplishments of Greek and Hebrew, and an advocate of the English tongue, then in its infancy. He was the first English historian and his ' Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation' rapidly spread his reputation throughout Christian Europe.

    Bede's Well at Monkton. (A-Z of Jarrow, Amberley Publishing)

    From this little insignificant monastery on the edge of Christian civilisation, Bede dominated the intellectual brains of Europe for four centuries. His final work, the translation into English 'The Gospel of St John'. This was carried out under painful suffering and ailing health. This great man who toiled for the benefit of the English nation and his fellow brethren died from asthma on 26 May AD735, aged 62. He was buried in a porch at the church he cherished so dearly. Pilgrims flocked from all parts of England and Europe to pay homage at the tomb of the 'Father of English Learning'. Today, Bede's relics remain at Durham cathedral in a sepulchre befitting a man of such great wisdom and knowledge, who gained respect throughout the literary world.

    The names of the abbots of Jarrow, or Donmouth as it was often referred to, are recorded in the book, 'Lives of the Abbots of Jarrow', written after the monastery was plundered in Danish invasions, when the twin monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow were looted, Jarrow so severely it had to be abandoned and lay desolate for some 150 years. The Saxon Chronicle said of the invasions, the heathens ravaged amongst the Northumbrians and pillaged Ecgferths monastery at Donmouth, one of their leaders was slain, and some of their vessels wrecked by a great storm, resulting in severe loss of life. In the eleventh century, the Jarrow monastery was occupied by just a few brothers, when three monks from Durham, having fled from an army of William the Conqueror, sought shelter for themselves and the body of St Cuthbert. Aldwine, Ealfwin and Kinfrid were sent by William Walcher, Bishop of Durham in 1075, to restore the monastery but this was unsuccessful. As the centuries passed, further attempts were made to restore the crumbling cloisters, but by this time had suffered irreparable damage. Its Roman and Saxon ruins have lain undisturbed for centuries.

    Paul Perry's new book A-Z of Jarrow is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Reading by Stuart Hylton

    A-Z of Reading 1 The monument to Henry Zinzan in St Michael's Church, Tilehurst. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

    When the publishers said to me “how do you fancy doing a book on the A to Z of Reading’s local history” I knew straight away what I did not want the book to be. Reading is fortunate in having the key points of its local history well documented (perhaps I should put the word ‘fortunate’ in inverted commas, since I wrote part of that body of work). But I would not want this book to be simply those same key points in alphabetical order. I set out instead to find some sidelights into our town’s history that might be of interest, and at least some of which might be new to the reader.

    I tested my approach on the editor with a story about a local fish sauce manufacturer whose product was, in its day, as popular as the Worcestershire variety. It even earned a place in literary posterity by being referred to in Jules Verne’s Around the world in eighty days. Jules Verne obviously swung it with the editor and I was unleashed on the other twenty-five letters of the alphabet.

    It was then that I started to realise what I had taken on. ABC may be all very easy but my deliberations had not taken me as far as XYZ. How much history was associated with them? Z proved to be unexpectedly straightforward. Reading had a noble family of Italian extraction called Zinzani, whose association with royalty went back to the days of Henry VIII. There was even a street named after them and a monument to them in a local church, which solved the problem of illustrating the letter Z, for the publisher wanted copious illustrations.

     

    A-Z of Reading 2 Greyfriars Church, seen here in its derelict pre-Victorian restoration state. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

    Y led me to think of the mediaeval Yield Hall (or Guildhall) and the lane which bears its name. The trouble was the original yield hall vanished centuries ago and no image of it appears to exist. The current yield hall lane is by no stretch of the imagination picturesque. This led me to broaden the search to Reading’s peripatetic seats of local government, which over the years have included a derelict church, the remains of a mediaeval abbey, a Victorian complex designed by four different architects over more than a hundred years and a recently-demolished post-war office block. The link with the original Yield Hall was maintained via an early twentieth century photograph of the lane, by then occupied by an iron founder and pioneer motor mechanic.

    A-Z of Reading 3 The Beauclerc Cross, erected in the Forbury Gardens in 1909, 'somewhere near' where Henry I was thought to have been buried. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

    But X had me stumped, and the publisher’s stern instruction was that no letter was to be missed. I had to resort to a cheap trick. One of the Kings of England – Henry I – is buried somewhere amid the ruins of Reading Abbey. The trouble is no one knows exactly where. So this conundrum is discussed beneath the caption ‘X marks the spot – but Where’s King Henry?’

    Another constraint was the publisher’s requirement to keep to about 500 words per entry. Some topics were easily contained, like Reading’s Civil War army commander who was so unpopular that his own troops took advantage of a dark night and a dark alley to assault him. He was eventually beaten to death with his own wooden leg by the opposition. But others were much wider in their scope – such as elections. There space did not permit me more than a brief exploration of the elections of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – what I characterised as ‘Reading’s golden age of electoral corruption’.

    Even where the words come together readily, illustrations may be more elusive. Where do you find images to represent Reading at the time of the Domesday Book, for example? But while the format may have been more challenging than it first appeared, I hope the outcome has proved diverting, and will cast a little light on some neglected corners of Reading’s history.

    9781445670362

    Stuart Hylton's new book A - Z of Reading: Places - People - History is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Conwy by John Barden Davies

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

    9781445664392

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

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