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  • Secret Evesham by Stan Brotherton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Historic England: Worcestershire by Stan Brotherton

    Unique Images from the Archives of Historic England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Baltic Story by Caroline Boggis-Rolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Countess 'Frances Villiers' by Tim Clarke

    The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Secret Rochester by Philip MacDougall

    Another Chapter in the Secret History of the Medway Towns

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

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

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

    The Guildhall. (Secret Rochester, Amberley Publishing)

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

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

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

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

  • Secret Sunderland by Marie Gardiner

    Extract from book:

    Cretehawser – The Concrete Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Secret Southampton by Martin Brisland

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

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

     

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

     

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

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

     

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

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

     

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

     

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

  • East London Buses: The Twenty-First Century by Malcolm Batten

    FORTY YEARS LATER

    RTs at Barking garage in 1976. (Author's collection, East London Buses: The Twenty-First Century, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1969, when I started photographing London buses, the AEC RT type double-decker was a major part of the fleet. First introduced in 1939, only 151 were built before manufacturing ceased in favour of military vehicles. Production restarted after the war and eventually 4,825 would be built, along with 1,631 of the similar looking Leyland RTL type and 500 RTWs – Leylands with 8ft wide bodies rather than 7ft 6in. Between them, these replaced the trams and all the pre-war and wartime buses. Withdrawals started with service cuts in 1958, and the Leylands had all gone by 1970, but there were still some 2,500 red RTs with London Transport in 1971. Nearly 500 green examples had passed to London Country Bus Services when that company was formed in 1970.  However, the last examples were withdrawn on 7 April 1979. Their final route was the 62, worked by Barking garage in east London.

     

     

    RTs lined up again at Barking garage 30.3.19. The nearest RT is one that has been repatriated from Canada. (Author's collection, East London Buses: The Twenty-First Century, Amberley Publishing)

    It seems fitting that having just completed the final part of my East London Buses trilogy East London Buses: The Twenty-First Century, we have just celebrated forty years since the end of these iconic buses – the predecessors of the equally famous Routemasters. On Saturday 30 March an Open Day was held at Barking garage, now owned by Stagecoach East London. Preserved RT types ran over the former 62 route and the erstwhile 23C to the (now demolished) Creekmouth Power Station. There were others on display at the garage and at the Go-Ahead London garage in River Road. Nearly fifty RT types were on display. Some of these had been exported to Canada for sightseeing work after withdrawal and have now been repatriated. At 4.00pm a parade, led by the prototype RT1 ran from Barking garage to the town centre and back. Some buses displayed the same last day blinds that were carried back in 1979.

    It was a fitting tribute to a class that served London so well and the Open Day was well patronised by enthusiasts and the general public. It was particularly poignant for me as I missed the last day forty years ago as I had to work on Saturdays in those days – retirement brings some benefits!

    Malcolm Batten's new book East London Buses: The Twenty-First Century is available for purchase now.

  • Britain's Greatest Bridges by Joseph Rogers

    One thing to note about my first Amberley title, Britain's Greatest Bridges, is that it falls short of thoroughly explaining the detailed engineering methods, techniques and construction concepts that naturally apply to some our nation's most important structures. There is a reason for this.

    Generous access for cyclists and pedestrians on the south side of the Severn Bridge makes for a great run between England and Wales. (c. Karen Rogers, Britain's Greatest Bridges, Amberley Publishing)

    The book stemmed from a love for travel, which for me began in 2010 when school had abruptly finished and life in an exciting and endless world invited me to explore and wander, before the grips of employment took hold. In being unleashed on the British landscape, I sought to truly appreciate what exactly the vast numbers of villages, towns and cities had to offer, and in doing so came across a number of distinct landmarks that made a meaningful impression on the adolescent mind.

    One such feature was bridges. A two night break based at the M5's Gordano Services saw me take an excursion running across the Avonmouth Bridge during a cold and clear evening, which resulted in an experience that forced unrivalled adrenaline through the veins, trapped between the fast flow of traffic and the silent depths of the river below. Shortly afterwards, I was doing the same from England to Wales, taking advantage of the first Severn Bridge's generous walkways and the ability to stand so isolated above the Bristol Channel, whilst being in the thick of a major feat in roadway expansion.

    Over subsequent years, this want to become intimate with such landmarks, particularly those with candid public access, became an addiction of almost a decade thus far and one no doubt to last my entire lifetime. The opportunity to shed light on, and share a liking for, some of Britain's greatest bridges was one pounced upon, not to dissect tension, compression, concrete and iron, but instead to celebrate icons of culture, history and geography by including the patently obvious, but also those whose place might not be fully recognised without some understanding of its place in the local landscape.

    Though part of a larger failure to impose the car on Glasgow, Kingston Bridgenow successfully carries ten lanes of traffic via the M8 motorway over the Clyde. (Author's collection, Britain's Greatest Bridges, Amberley Publishing)

    The Kingston Bridge in Glasgow is a good example of this, seeing coverage in the book for being undeniably brutal when viewing the Clyde in all its glory. Its inception might have been somewhat disastrous and repairs long-lasting, but with the accolade of Europe's busiest bridge and a place in a music video for local band Simple Minds, it became notable enough for inclusion as one of the greatest. Some would say greatest failure, greatest concrete blot on the landscape, or greatest umbrella from the Scottish weather, but nevertheless a great bridge indeed.

    The sheer size of the Humber Bridge alone marks it as one of the greatest structures in Britain, though at one point it stood globally at the forefront of bridge-building. (Author's collection, Britain's Greatest Bridges, Amberley Publishing)

    Similarly the Humber Bridge, whose construction has been widely celebrated in all formats, was a dead cert for the title, given its feats. As once the longest bridge of its type in the world, much is to be applauded in its design, length, height and technology, especially given its age. But also of interest is its very function, bypassing a route of approximately 50 miles, and linking two sides of the River Humber previously united only under the geographical Humberside banner. Crossing the estuary had been the want of previous civilisations, including the Romans, and doing so by boat became popular over subsequent centuries. It was not until the prominence of the automobile and the industrial advances made by both Kingston-upon-Hull and Grimsby became a factor that the need for a more permanent structure materialised. The bridge's very existence tells swathes about the area's progression and place in British history and this is arguably just as important as the science behind that existence.

    To the book's general audience, the point of celebrating, what are labours of love for engineers and architects, is to instil a sense of awe and pride in simply using or seeing these objects in the wider narrative of Britain's geography. Outlining a brief history and noting obscure facts and trivia might not erect the enthusiasm of those at the forefront of creating and maintaining our treasured spans, but hopefully can perk the interest of the general explorer in appreciating the wider and more subjective feelings that arise from exploring the UK in all its variety. After all, who better to judge the greatness of such structures, than those that use them?

    Joseph Rogers's new book Britain's Greatest Bridges is available for purchase now.

  • Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan

    Headlines like this one blared from every newspaper in the U.S. (Author's collection, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

    My last two books—A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West, and The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation—were set in the American West of the 19th century.  But I didn’t want to be tagged as just a historian of the Old West, so I decided my next book would involve a 20th century subject. When an editor friend suggested Apollo 11, which of course was the first lunar landing, I didn’t embrace the idea. As a boy I had read a great deal of science fiction, and like many boys followed the U.S. manned space programme and the Space Race with the Soviets, but I wasn’t sure space was the right subject for me, since it involved a lot of science and that subject wasn’t one of my favorites in school. So I lodged the idea in the back of my head and continued to look for my next book subject. But the idea kept sneaking its way into the front of my mind, and at a certain point I realized it might work.

    So I took a look at what had already been published about Apollo 11. There were quite a few books on the entire space program, or parts of it, and several on the entire Apollo programme, but not many on just Apollo 11. Reading science fiction supplied a sense of wonder that I didn’t find in any other kind of reading, and I wanted a book that did that for the “real” SF of the space program. After all, it involved space, and spaceships, and voyaging to another world in our solar system, and it involved great danger—and of course it was tremendously exciting.

    Apollo 11 launches at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969, from pad A, launch complex 39. (c. NASA, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

    I didn’t find a book on Apollo 11 that gave me that sense of wonder. Most I read either weren’t well-written, or they didn’t cover the full story, or they let the science and technology—and there’s a LOT of that—overwhelm the story and make it hard to read if you don’t have a degree in astronautics. Many were written by science writers who were familiar with the science involved but didn’t seem to realize that most readers weren’t.

    So I decided to take the subject on. But there were a few other reasons I wanted to write this book.

    Most people living today weren’t alive, or old enough to remember, the first moon landing in July 1969. And this is a thing: if one has lived through a significant historical event, when it permeates your experience through various media, you know it happened. You were there, so to speak. But if it happened before one could remember the event, you’re not absolutely sure it really happened—yes, it’s in history books, but so is medieval history, and who’s sure of what happened back then? Even worse, there are some people who steadfastly refuse to believe that it actually happened. Some of those people just prefer to believe in conspiracies, and are not open to evidence and facts. But for open-minded people, I thought a lively and accurate account of one of the most significant events of the 20th century was needed, and might counter that disturbing anti-science (and anti-fact) strain that is far too prevalent in today’s world.

     

     

    Armstrong during the lunar surface EVA, staning near the LM. (c. NASA, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

    As I began researching the book, a few more reasons emerged. A simple yet obvious reason is that this is just a great story, and one which works on several levels. It’s one of the great tales of adventure and exploration. It’s also a chronicle of the Space Race, which of course was just the most visible element of the Cold War—and most people today don’t realize how serious that was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Free World was combatting the intended worldwide domination of totalitarian communism. It also involves some fascinating characters—not only the extraordinarily courageous astronauts and cosmonauts, but others behind the scenes: engineers, flight controllers, designers and planners, and yes, even some rocket scientists, who helped make it happen. Few people knew the stories of these “hidden figures.”

    There’s one more reason, and it’s personal, and it goes back to what I mentioned earlier: the love of a young person—me, specifically, but also, I think, millions of others—for that sense of wonder that we got, or get, from SF, or the “real” SF of manned spaceflight. I tried to transmit that feeling in Shoot for the Moon, especially in the first few paragraphs of Chapter One, which begins, “One Saturday morning in October 1957, a fourteen-year-old boy in the small farming town of Fremont, Iowa, woke up to find the world a different place. . . . .” If that sentence intrigues you, then you might be one of the people I wrote this book for. I hope so.

    James Donovan's new book Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11 is available for purchase now.

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