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  • Secret Stafford by Robert Nicholls

    Essex Bridge at Great Haywood, the longest remaining pack horse bridge in the country built by the Earl of Essex to allow Queen Elizabeth I to cross the Trent. (Secret Stafford, Amberley Publishing)

    The writer, Arnold Bennett, says of Stafford: ‘It is England in little, unsung by searchers after the extreme’. However, it has played an important part in the nation’s history and has much to commend it, as many examples in the book bear witness. It is a town people often pass through or by-pass en-route to other places, but my book aims to prove that it worth making the detour to appreciate its hidden gems.

    The central core of Stafford has some pleasant little surprises comprising attractive streets and buildings, a few good tourist sites, and several characterful tea-rooms. It makes for an interesting trip. Parking is plentiful and a walking tour, such as my book offers, is a good choice. Indeed perhaps the biggest ‘secret’ of this book is the town centre itself, unexplored by many.

    A few questions you may ask: Just what is that building outline next to the Parish Church? Where were the town walls? And what is left of them? Is the castle next to the M6 really a Georgian folly? And prepare to be impressed by the largest Elizabethan timber framed house in England.

    Ingestre Church, the design attributed to Christopher Wren, perhaps the only building of his not built for the King. (Secret Stafford, Amberley Publishing)

    Away from the town the surrounding hinterland within the modern-day borough boundaries has its share of surprises too. Aristocratic estates, scenic canals, reminders of past industries and a fair collection of the odd and unusual are all within a 15 mile radius of the town.

    Where will you find the shortest telegraph pole in the world, the longest packhorse bridge in England, a canal built to resemble a lake (or was it ?), and the only church by Sir Christopher Wren outside of London?

    Some of the ‘secrets’ in this book are truly difficult to find without the directions given. The final resting place of the late Patrick, Earl of Lichfield, and a set of medieval glass furnaces reward the patient explorer, whilst another interesting family tomb is almost completely obscured by vegetation. A mile long walk down a muddy track leads to an historic folly that is very ‘far from the madding crowd’.

    Tixall Gatehouse, built to stand in front of Tixall Hall, now long gone. (Secret Stafford, Amberley Publishing)

    In Secret Stafford you’ll discover the answers to these questions, and many more revelations that will surprise you with every turn of the page. Intriguing local connections with famous figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots and Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien are also highlighted.

    So it would be a grave mistake to underrate Stafford. It is a place which deserves closer scrutiny.

    I have written local history books since 1985 having produced so far some 16 titles on a variety of topics, mainly concerning North West England. A few years ago I lived for a time just outside the boundaries of the Staffordshire Moorlands, when I researched, wrote and published three titles of a ‘curiosities’ nature in digital form. One of these covered Staffordshire.

    Amberley then offered to publish some of this material. The first of these 50 Gems of Staffordshire was published in late 2017 and Secret Stafford is the second. A further title on the County of Lancashire is to follow. Secret Stafford has required a good deal of extra in-depth research and exploration, but for me this has been a pleasure, as I discovered far more things of historical interest than I had thought existed in the area. I hope that readers will find as much pleasure discovering some of the places it mentions

    Robert Nicholls' new book Secret Stafford is available for purchase now.

  • Aberdeen in 50 Buildings by Jack Gillon

    Marischal College. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Aberdeen has all the appearance, and is furnished with most of the attributes, of a wealthy metropolis. It has all the public buildings which distinguish a capital. The streets possess the proper degree of regularity and elegance. It has busy crowds, in which the stranger soon loses himself; and its inhabitants, when inspected individually, are found to possess the dignity, the wealth, and the enlightened views, which are never to be found but in towered cities.

    The visitor enters the city by a long, spacious, straight, and regular way, denominated Union Street, which, when completed to the utmost of its designed extent, must turn out decidedly the finest thing of the kind in the kingdom. Previously to the opening of this way in 1811, the town was entered by a series of narrow tortuous streets.

    The most remarkable thing about Aberdeen in the eye of a traveller, is the stone with which it is built. This is a grey granite, of great hardness, found in inexhaustible profusion in the neighbourhood, and of which vast quantities, fashioned into small blocks, are annually exported to London, for the paving of streets. Though not polished, but merely hewn into moderate smoothness, this forms a beautiful wall, of a somewhat sombre colour it is true, but yet strikingly elegant.

    The Music Hall. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Aberdeen is a flourishing port, and is the seat of a set of active and prosperous merchants. It is the place where commerce first took its rise in Scotland. Having thus got the start by many centuries of every other commercial city, it has maintained all along to the present time a certain degree of advance; it is certain that in no other place is the mercantile science so thoroughly understood, or the commercial character carried to a pitch of such exquisite perfection.

    Aberdeen originally developed around St Katherine’s Hill, a prominence that stood in the middle of the present-day Union Street. The town was given royal burgh status in the twelfth century and the Castlegate, or Marketgate, was the historic heart of the medieval burgh. The harbour was fundamental to Aberdeen’s prosperity and the town’s economic importance.

     

     

    The Sir Duncan Rice Library. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The rapid growth of Aberdeen in the eighteenth century resulted in its expansion beyond the tightly confined medieval streets around the base of St Katherine’s Hill. A number of new streets were formed during this period of planned expansion.

    In 1794, Aberdeen town council requested the engineer Charles Abercrombie to provide plans to rationalise the muddle of old unplanned streets of an increasingly wealthy and self-assured Aberdeen to connect the town to the surrounding countryside.

    Abercrombie’s bold plan proposed a significant Georgian rebuilding of the city with two major new thoroughfares – one running westwards from the Castlegate to the Denburn, and the other north. An Act passed on 14 April 1800 approved the construction of the new streets – the road to the west became Union Street and the road to the north was King Street. These new roads represented major engineering enterprises and set the context of modern Aberdeen. Union Street was a particularly challenging project – the street had to cut through St Katherine’s Hill, required a series of arches and a bridge over the Denburn. The generous scale of Union Street allowed the construction of buildings of substantial size and importance, and established Union Street as Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare. The street was named to commemorate the union of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1801. John Smith (1781–1852), Aberdeen’s City Architect, and Archibald Simpson (1790–1847) were the leading architects involved in this great remodelling of the expanding city.

    The Town House and Tolbooth. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The predominant use of locally quarried grey granite up to the mid-twentieth century is a distinguishing feature of many of the city’s most important buildings, which gives them a distinct glitter in the sun and earned Aberdeen the sobriquet of the ‘Granite City’. The quality of the Aberdeenshire granite was internationally recognised and it was used for buildings around the world. The excavation of granite from the quarry at Rubislaw, which opened in 1740 and closed in 1971, created the biggest man-made hole in Europe.

    Aberdeen is a thriving city which has been synonymous with oil ever since the discovery of North Sea reserves in the 1970s. It has a proud and distinctive identity, a wealth of fine heritage buildings and more recent developments of outstanding quality. This has made the task of selecting fifty buildings to represent the best of the city’s architecture immensely difficult. This book takes the development of this rich and vibrant city as its broad theme, and includes buildings which seem to best represent the city’s long history.

    Jack Gillon's new book Aberdeen in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • Historic England: Southampton by Dave Marden

    The High Street in the 1890s before the tram system was electrified (Author's collection)

    I was pleased to be associated with the Historic England series for which I wrote about my home town of Southampton, a city that really doesn’t sell itself enough and visitors are quite often surprised at what there is to see. A walk around the ancient walls and quiet streets of the old town can reveal many unexpected and interesting things, and for added interest there are guided walks that take you into hidden medieval vaults and chambers.

    Although so much was lost in the wartime bombing, there is still much history to be seen from the Norman, Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. In fact, there is far more that could not be incorporated within the confines of the book but I was delighted to include references to Southampton’s working class districts that played such a huge part in its successful transformation from a small and elegant spa town to the great industrial port it became.

    Lower end of St Mary Street in early 1900s (Author's collection)

    The dozens of streets lined with tightly packed terraces, pubs and corner shops were a feature of my childhood and youth, all now gone along with the generations that grew up together, being dispersed to new housing estates on the outskirts of the town. Neighbours and neighbourhoods plucked and uprooted from their tight knit communities with hardly a trace left behind.

    I was also able to mention the bustling thoroughfares of East Street and St Mary Street that were magnets for shoppers and revellers away from the big stores of the High Street. St Mary Street itself could probably merit a book on its own with its Victorian edifices and huge variety of traders from the 1820s until the present day.

    This is the Undercroft Vault and entrance from about the 13th century (not the house above it!) one of many used to store wine and wool below the ancient merchants houses. Regular tours are given. (Author's collection)

    In the hectic hustle of modern times it is relaxing to stroll though the numerous parks in the heart of the city – on a hot summer’s day in the shade of the trees or in crisp winter sunshine dappled from their bare branches. It is always a delight. The Rivers of Itchen and Test provide year round employment and pleasure but the downside is that the huge port development has limited public access to the waterside. The town’s southern shoreline was lost to the docks of the 1840s and the entire West Bay was engulfed in the 1920s. The ancient west walls, which once looked out to sea, now watch over the mammoth West Quay shopping complex.

    The gigantic transatlantic liners may have disappeared after being replaced by air travel in the 1960s but the port now plays host to the even larger and more luxurious cruise ships and the world’s biggest container vessels. If you need a break from history, an afternoon by the sea at Mayflower Park will allow you to view these maritime monsters.

    Despite its huge transformation since the Second World War, Southampton still has lots to offer both locals and visitors alike with its ancient buildings mingling with modern developments. To tread in the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers, or to see where Jane Austen spent her time in the town are enjoyable experiences and just two of the many pleasures awaiting.

    Dave Marden's new book Historic England: Southampton is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Shropshire by John Shipley

    Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Shropshire has so many Gems to offer therefore limiting this book to only 50 Gems has proved to be very difficult. The beautiful border county of Shropshire is surely one of the loveliest in the kingdom. A history buff's dream with castles and historic sites galore. The county is also a walkers paradise with an abundance of hills, valleys and picture postcard countryside from north to south, from east to west, hikers are almost spoiled for choice.

    For those not into the more strenuous pastimes there are numerous historic towns to visit such as Shrewsbury and Ludlow with their medieval castles, listed buildings, and narrow streets (called shuts in Shrewsbury), plus a host of welcoming hostelries and restaurants. Not forgetting Bridgnorth with its Severn Valley Railway, the unique Funicular Cliff Railway, and historic buildings.

    Shropshire is a county with not one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Ironbridge Gorge (1986), and the Pontcysllte Aqueduct and Canal (2009), not forgetting its very own Lake District around Ellesmere, loads to experience for the discerning visitor. Shropshire has many iconic places: Coalbrookdale with eleven museums to visit, including the incredible Iron Bridge, an area that witnessed the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

    Sweeping through the county is the River Severn, Britain's longest river at 220 miles long, winding through five counties on its picturesque journey from mid-Wales to the Bristol Channel. Of course Shropshire not only boasts this river but has many others, a lot of them tributaries of the Severn, each offering lovely valleys and views to amble through, valleys such as the Teme, the Onny and the Corve, with a special mention to the River Clun, the inspiration for the famous piece by A.E. Housman:

     “Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun, Are the quietest places, Under the sun.”

    The iconic Iron Bridge at Ironbridge. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Shropshire is a county where one can walk through history from the ancient Bronze and Iron Ages, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and on up to the present day.

    There are many famous Salopians, heroes and pioneers such as Wolves and England footballer Billy Wright CBE, the first man to win 100 International caps for England, Sir Gordon Richards, 1904-1986, he was the first Jockey to be knighted. Raised in Donnington Wood, the first English flat-race jockey to ride 4,000 winners, and topped the winning jockey list for 26 out of 34 seasons between 1921 and 1954. In all he won a total of 4,870 races, then a world record.

    Shropshire has two world renowned golfers: Sandy Lyle MBE and Ian Woosnam OBE. Sandy was born in Shrewsbury on 9 February 1958, his father, Scotsman Alex Lyle, was professional at Hawkstone Park Golf Club. Sandy won two major championships: the US Masters, and The British Open, plus many other prestigious tournaments as well as representing Europe in the Ryder Cup both as player, 5 times, and as assistant captain to Ian Woosnam.

    Ian Woosnam was born in Oswestry on 2 March 1958, representing Europe in eight Ryder Cups. Woosie won the US Masters in 1991. He started playing golf at Llanymynech Golf Club, representing Shropshire County Boys in an eight-man team which included Sandy Lyle.

    Amongst Shropshire's other famous heroes is Captain Matthew Webb, 1848–1883, the steamship captain and famous swimmer who on 24 August 1875 became the first man to swim the English Channel. Born in Dawley, Shropshire, on 19 January 1848, the eldest of twelve children. He sadly died on 24 July 1883 whilst attempting to swim across the Niagara River directly beneath Niagara Falls.

    Charles Darwin statue, Shrewsbury. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    One of Shropshire's most famous sons is Charles Darwin, 1809 – 1882, a man venerated the world over. Charles Darwin was born 12 February 1809 at 'The Mount,' (now known as 'Darwin House'), which is situated in the Frankwell area of Shrewsbury, and was educated at Shrewsbury School. His famous epic five year voyage of discovery aboard H.M.S. Beagle began in December 1831 when aged 22 he signed up as naturalist to the surveying expedition. Over the next twenty plus years Darwin formulated his theories of evolution, delaying their publication until 1859. 'The Origin of Species,' expounding evolution through means of natural selection caused an uproar, splitting the scientific community; the Church of England described his work as heresy. Darwin's theory changed every known view on how the human species evolved. His forward thinking book is one of the most important ever written. His legacy is the basis on which we all live our lives. Each February, Shrewsbury celebrates its most famous son in the annual Darwin Festival.

    Doctor William Penny Brookes, 1809 – 1896, was born in Much Wenlock, and is best known as the man responsible for the re-birth of the Olympic Games. This impressive figure, with trademark long facial whiskers and stern expression began exercise classes in 1850 in response to his concerns for the health of the town's population particularly the local working men. Ten years later this developed into the Wenlock Olympian Society, an organisation that still exists. Dr Brookes vision of the Much Wenlock Olympian Games began in 1861, and included diverse activities such as: putting the stone (today's shot-put), jumping, cricket, quoits, plus races for wheelbarrows, and a penny-farthing bicycle race over a three-mile course. The kids of the town also got to have a go at events which included: history, reading, spelling and, wait for it… knitting! Sadly, Dr Brookes died, aged 87, a few months before the first modern International Olympic Games, which took place in April 1896.

    The ruins of Whiteladies Priory. (50 Gems of Shropshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Then we have soldiers: Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India; Admiral John Benbow; Lord Rowland Hill, the Duke of Wellington's right-hand man; Wilfred Owen, the famous World War One poet.

    Shropshire has a host of famous writers: Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) author of the Brother Cadfael stories; Mary Webb; Francis Moore founder of Old Moore's Almanac. Not forgetting Eglantyne Jebb co-founder of Save The Children.

    Many of the world's first are in Shropshire: the first Iron Bridge, opened in 1781, crossing the River Severn; the first 'Skyscraper' Ditherington Flax Mill; the first iron boat, built and launched at Coalbrookdale in 1787, to mention just a few.

    Shropshire has it all from the marvellous Shropshire countryside, hills and valleys, 32 castles, 25 hill forts (the best is Old Oswestry Hill Fort), 2 ancient dykes: Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke, stone-circles galore, an abundance of ghosts, and Cosford Aerospace Museum.

    Yes, Shropshire is a great place. Come and see for yourself.

    John Shipley's new book 50 Gems of Shropshire is available for purchase now.

  • Loughborough in 50 Buildings by Lynne Dyer

    Old Rectory, c. 1228. Close-up of the ancient walls. (Loughborough in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Loughborough. When I tell people I live in Loughborough, I am either asked “Where’s that?” or “Do you know Seb Coe / Paula Radcliffe / Liam Tancock / Tanni Grey-Thompson / Steve Backley [substitute here the name of any other sporting personality who may have been an Olympian or para-Olympian, recently]?” However, nobody ever asks me what it’s like to live so far away from the sea.

    It’s clear though, isn’t it, that since hardly anybody has heard of Loughborough, often doesn’t know where it is, and knows little, if anything, of its heritage, that it’s my job to change that. This was my purpose in writing a book entitled Loughborough in 50 Buildings.

    So, what makes Loughborough stand out from other UK towns? What about Loughborough is important – either to its own history and development, or at a national level? How is Loughborough at once different and yet, at the same time, the same as other UK locations? Why write a book about its buildings?

    The cemetery chapels viewed from the Leicester Road entrance. (Loughborough in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Well, an examination of the buildings of Loughborough, however brief, throws up both similarities and differences with other towns, and through a discovery of these buildings, the history and fortunes of the town become apparent. We may not have the listed buildings of, say Stamford (Lincolshire), nor the cathedral of Canterbury (Kent), the Tudor buildings of Stratford nor the suspension bridge of Newport (Monmouthshire), but we do have listed buildings, and a fair few locally listed buildings, not to mention a whole host of non-listed buildings, all of which give Loughborough its uniqueness and really are worth shouting about, and shouting loudly.

    The buildings I have chosen to include in Loughborough in 50 Buildings are a quirky mix of ages and styles, of form and function, and – shock - some of them aren’t actually habitable buildings, but structures of huge significance to the town. A temporal range is included, starting with an Iron Age hill fort and some of Loughborough’s earliest buildings like the Manor House, the Guildhall, the Old Rectory and the Parish Church. Then moving through the Georgian period, to the expansion of the town in Victorian times, and even greater expansion in the 1930s. Today, the town continues to develop and even some 1960s buildings get an entry, with 21st century buildings and structures bringing us bang up to date.

    The messenger factory viewed from Hospital Walk. (Loughborough in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Trades of yesteryear are represented in buildings like the Guildhall, the industrial units of Messengers, Morris and Brush, the service industries by the auction mart of Garton and Amatt and the banks of Lloyds and NatWest. The social life of the inhabitants of Loughborough are shown in the Sparrow Hill Theatre, the cinemas and bingo hall, as well as in the Temperance Hall and the town pubs. The educational life of both town and gown is evident from buildings like the Warner School and the university Towers hall of residence.

    The whole life span of Loughborough’s inhabitants can be traced from birth, perhaps at Radmoor House, to death and burial at the town cemetery. This book looks to the future with the impressive initiative to reinstate the Great Central Steam train line from Leicester to Nottingham.

    Loughborough in 50 Buildings is my first published book. Well, actually, it’s the first book I’ve ever written! I am a regular blogger (lynneaboutloughborough – no surprise there then!) and I write short articles for a variety of publications, but never before a full-length book. Was it difficult? In a word, ‘yes’! Finding time to dedicate to researching and writing as well as continuing to do the ‘day job’ and keep up with other interests and commitments, required a lot of planning and dedication, but it resulted in a great sense of satisfaction. Oh, and a good deal of self-doubt! What if I’ve got something wrong? What if people who read it come back to me with queries and questions, with counter-arguments and criticisms? Well, I have told people to do just that! Much of history is about an interpretation of the facts, and some of those facts are simply nowhere to be found, or are well-hidden, or have been superseded by further information coming to light that isn’t yet freely available. If my readers don’t tell me about things they think are wrong, about things where they have more information than I do, then I will never learn, and after all, life is one life-long learning journey.

    So, you may have a number of questions about Loughborough in 50 Buildings to ask me.

    Radmoor House viewed from Radmoor Road with its bay window facing the park. (Loughborough in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    What was your favourite building?

    I loved them all – that’s why I wrote about them! But, if I had to chose one, I think it would be Radmoor House. Its position along a residential street that is effectively a dead end (it used to lead through to the main ring road, but now only leads to the College buildings). Its sideways orientation facing a park, but surrounded by a substantial hedge on three sides, means that the full magnitude of the building is not visible from the roadside and one could easily walk past it without giving it a second thought or a second glance. Which is what I used to do when I was a student forty years ago, and which was why I was intrigued enough to investigate its history. And what a history it has!! Lived in by some prominent local industrialists, being a nursing home and the birthplace of many local people, and now a College building, this has to be my favourite.

     

     

    The former Odean, now Beacon Bingo. Hathernware partnered with red brick. (Loughborough in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Was there a group of buildings that appealed to you the most?

    Yes, I’d have no hesitation in saying I am absolutely fascinated by the numerous Art Deco buildings we have in Loughborough, all clad in Hathernware, and still as striking today as the day they were erected. This includes the current Odeon, the former Odeon (now a bingo hall), the building formerly associated with the local newspaper press, the Blacksmith’s Arms and a jewellery shop – to name but a few.

    What was most exciting thing about the writing process?

    For me, the most exciting thing about writing was the way everything seemed to be interconnected. The same Loughborough folk popped up in association with several buildings, the same architects designed a number of the buildings, the same builders were involved in erecting several buildings, the same brick manufacturers made the bricks used to build the buildings, and if I mentioned Hathern Station Brick and Terra Cotta Company once, then I mentioned it a hundred times. Apart from the local connections, there were moments when I could connect Loughborough to many other places in the UK. What place hasn’t got its connections with the Civil War? What UK church wasn’t renovated in the nineteenth century by Sir George Gilbert Scott? What town or city didn’t suffer from outbreaks of plague and cholera? Even the smallest of locations had a cinema at one time. And what hamlet, town or city hasn’t got a war memorial? Connections with nearby local places are made through architects like Watson Fothergill working in Nottingham and Newark, and the Goddards in Leicester and Kettering, and with larger cities like London in the use of Portland Stone, and the prolific use of polished Scottish granite across the country. And what connects Loughborough to almost the whole of the UK and much of the rest of the world? Taylors Bellfoundry. Hathernware (previously Hathern Station Brick and Terra Cotta Company), Ladybird Books and Loughborough University.

    Now that you’ve written one book, would you write another?

    Ah, that would be a ‘yes’! Secret Loughborough is due for publication in 2019!

    Lynne Dyer's new book Loughborough in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • Stoke-on-Trent in 50 Buildings by Mervyn Edwards

    Former Burslem Town Hall, 1994. (Stoke-on-Trent in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    One man’s meat is another man’s poison. It’s a hoary adage that often springs to mind when I consider the buildings of Stoke-on-Trent or indeed any other city. Stoke has a particularly poor building conservation record – which is a stomach-churning but very necessary accusation for me to make, considering the city’s undoubted and abiding reputation for creativity. Like many other areas – though not all – its building stock is a jarring mishmash of just over 190 listed buildings juxtaposed with concrete banana crates, soulless office and residential blocks and some particularly gruesome manifestations of post-war development.

    Part of the problem with Stoke’s architecture in the last sixty years has been the relative lack of originality. When I gaze, glumly, at many new buildings I see a tepid harking back to the past that attempts to give structures a dignity and gravitas. This is perhaps offered as a sop to the traditionalist but fails on two levels. Firstly, it is better to preserve the past rather than copy it. Secondly, we need to be designing exciting, high-quality, visually-challenging buildings that can be our proud legacy to future generations. Stoke is not alone in not having picked up the gauntlet. I never cease to smile when I read Thomas Hardy’s description of the High Street Hall in his 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge (he writes of fictional Dorchester). He scribes:

    “It was Palladian, and, like all architecture erected since the Gothic age, was a compilation rather than a design.”

     

     

    Walkers' Nonsuch factory, 2012. (Stoke-on-Trent in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Truth be told, some of the finest buildings in Stoke-on-Trent ape past architectural styles but are nevertheless a feast for the eye. Burslem Town Hall doffs its cap to several and is one of the city’s most handsome landmarks. However, there are very few post-Thatcher era buildings whose design can be described as being influenced by lateral thinking, eccentricity and daring.

    My book, Stoke-on-Trent in Fifty Buildings (2018) was never intended as a Top Fifty picked in order of merit. It deliberately lists some odd and hopefully annoying choices such as the Walker’s Nonsuch factory in Longton and the Vale Park football ground in Burslem – buildings that are of their time and tell a particular story.

    Port Vale vs Shrewsbury, 2013. (Stoke-on-Trent in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Stoke is sometimes too proud and too parochial to learn from other areas, but I am a huge advocate of comparing and contrasting. When you consider what other cities have achieved, could Stoke not be more madcap and more venturesome? Why can't we have shopping malls as architecturally risky as the Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre or the Selfridges building in Birmingham? Or exciting mixed-use development such as the canalside Nottingham One?   Could you imagine something like Blackpool’s famous Comedy Carpet in Market Square, Hanley? And, rising above it, an iconic structure such as the Dublin Spire? At the very least, can’t we have architecture that teaches, that rips up old paradigms and encourages cultural events or public art?

    Instead, Stoke, along with its development partners, comes up with ideas such as the tidy but timid Unity Walk shopping complex in Hanley – which has now been shelved – and pats itself on the back for its ingenuity. Granted, Stoke is not an affluent city, but if it is truly serious about emerging from the shadows of Manchester and Birmingham then it must find the will and the imagination to reject the safe and the mediocre and embrace pioneering design. It might take its cue from one of Staffordshire’s greatest figures, Reginald Mitchell, who remarked:

    “It is not good enough to follow conventional methods of design. It is essential to invent and evolve new methods and new ideas.”

    Mervyn Edwards' new book Stoke-on-Trent in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Peterborough by June and Vernon Bull

    West Hall - Longthorpe Tower. (Author's collection)

    Longthorpe Tower and its Mystical murals

    With tales of remarkable characters, unusual events and tucked-away historical buildings, Secret Peterborough will appeal to all those with an interest in the history of this fascinating city.

    Just one, of many examples of our ancient buildings, is Longthorpe Tower and its Mystical murals.

    Longthorpe’s Manor House had a three-storey tower added in 1310 to the fortified house that dates back to 1263. It was a farmhouse for about 500 years from the mid-1400s. The last agricultural occupier of Longthorpe tower and manor house was Hugh Horrell and it was he who found the famous murals (wall paintings) when decorating in 1946. The paintings are said to be the most comprehensive of any domestic medieval building in England (and possibly Europe) and they display a range of biblical, monastic and secular subjects.

     

    Longthorpe Tower taken from the Tower side c.1950s. (Author's collection)

    Many historians and archaeologists believe that Longthorpe Tower represents a unique example of the appearance of the private apartment of a man of means and taste in the early 14th century, and that it gives some indication of the learning and moral ideas of his period.

    The tower section of the manor house was possibly erected by Robert de Thorpe, steward of Peterborough Abbey from 1330, and tenant of the building.

    The paintings are generally dated to c.1330 with the decoration covering all the walls, the window splays and the vault. In the vault are the four Evangelist Symbols and David with his Musicians.

    Mural depicting the seasons. (Author's collection)

    These murals represent the Labours of the Months (e.g. pruning, digging, hawking etc.) along with various birds and animals, the Apostles holding scrolls with the articles of the Creed accompanied by personifications of the Church, a scene involving a hermit, the Seven Ages of Man, the Nativity, the Three Living and the Three Dead, a Wheel of the Five Senses and seated figures of Edward III and Edmund Woodstock.

    There are several other subjects, but the meaning is unclear owing to the loss of the accompanying inscriptions. The reason for the inclusion of Edmund Woodstock (1301–1330), 1st Earl of Kent and half-brother to Edward II, who was sentenced to death for supporting the deposed King Edward II, is ambiguous as he was the most important tenant of nearby Peterborough Abbey (Cathedral). It is generally thought that there may have been some political meaning to his depiction with his nephew, King Edward III. What is known is that the children and widow of the executed Edmund Woodstock were treated as members of Edward III’s Royal Household.

     

    West wall murals St Anthony. (Author's collection)

    All the illustrations combine religious and moral teachings with secular themes - including some unusual representations like the Wheel of the Five Senses. There is a related late 13th-century version at Tre Fontane Abbey in Rome, which depicts a wheel held steady by a King, possibly personifying common sense, with various creatures characterising the senses around its perimeter.

    The West Wall shows St Anthony and the basket maker above, and the philosopher and pupil below.

    Longthorpe Tower was given to the nation by Captain Fitzwilliam under the Ancient Monuments Act 1913. The Tower is presently managed by Vivacity an independent, not-for-profit organisation with charitable status on behalf of Peterborough City Council. The Tower house itself was sold in 1981 along with a single building plot for a bungalow to be built. The remaining agricultural buildings, previously part of Tower Farm and Tower House were sold separately for conversion to private dwellings.

    June and Vernon Bull's new book Secret Peterborough is available for purchase now.

  • Evesham's Military Heritage by Stan Brotherton

    Miniature manuscript illumination of a battle believed to be the Battle of Evesham. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Evesham’s Military Heritage? An interesting title and a fascinating subject; but how to write such a book?

    The challenge wasn’t the lack of material. Indeed, the opposite is true: there’s far too much. After all, entire books have been dedicated just to Simon de Montfort (Earl of Leicester) and the Battle of Evesham (4th August 1265); its context, characters, impact and implications. Instead, the challenge was to make the book relevant to a modern reader. After all an account of old battles, however interesting in itself, can hardly be considered pertinent to the current day.

    For me, the key to unlocking this puzzle was the word “heritage” and the related idea of “inheritance” (that is, something valuable handed down through generations). This simple thought allowed me to connect old events with modern times. I found this such a valuable angle that early drafts included the subtitle: “A local history of war and remembrance”.

    What to include? A mass of notes was narrowed down to four main topics: the Battle of Evesham (1265), the English Civil Wars, WWI and WWII. The first two were obvious candidates as Evesham had been the scene of major conflicts and suffered significantly. The latter two made good sense as they were significant events, closely felt, which are still actively remembered. Scattered throughout were shorter chapters on the contemporary remembrance of past events.

    Map of the Battle of Evesham, 4 August 1265. Godescroft is believed to be where Simon de Montfort was slain. (c. David Cox, Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    But why should a reader care? I thought there were three reasons. First, in the history of Evesham there are some compelling personal stories; including the death of Earl Simon (1265) and the extraordinary public service of Mrs Haynes-Rudge (1914-18). Second, studying Evesham’s military heritage provides a richer understanding of the town (including, most obviously, its street names). Third, the book sets out some of the (local) present uses of the past: how history has been routinely reclaimed and recycled to suit contemporary needs.

    Stained-glass windows in the Lichfield Chapel, All Saints', made by Powell & Sons (1882-83). On the left, Prince Edward is shown wearing robes (not armour), no shield, hands crossed, and his right hand lightly touching the hilt of a (mostly) concealed sword. To the right, Earl Simon is shown as a belligerent figure in full armour with sword drawn. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Interestingly, Evesham’s remembrance of its own military past has changed dramatically over time. The clearest example is with the Battle of Evesham (1265). The battle itself was brutal and horrific. Indeed, Robert of Gloucester (fl 1260-1300) described it as “the murder of Evesham for battle it was none”. Soldiers fleeing the battlefield were pursued and slaughtered. Local tradition tells us that Welshmen (from Earl Simon’s army) who fled towards Twyford were cut down at a place known as “Dead Man’s Ait”. Those fleeing back into the town were pursued and killed. Those who sought sanctuary in the parish churches, and Evesham Abbey, were followed and slain. Blood from the slaughter stained the very centre of the abbey (between the transepts, under the tower).

    For some twenty years (or so) after his violent death, Earl Simon remained a popular even populist figure. Indeed, there was a vigorous local “cult” dedicated to Earl Simon with prayers invoking him as intercessor. Inevitably this was soon suppressed by the king (after all Earl Simon was a traitor and had been excommunicated) and Earl Simon’s fame afterwards faded.

    The Simon de Montfort Memorial, 2010, set by red and white blooms ( the colours of his blazon). The inscription states: 'Here were buried the remains of Simon de Montfort.' This is most unlikely, thought his grave is probably quite close by. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early Victorian age Earl Simon’s reputation was, perhaps unexpectedly, powerfully revived. Wrapped up with a powerful move for parliamentary reform was a search for early champions of democracy. Earl Simon, who summoned a parliament in January 1265 to bolster his own power, was soon adopted and duly transformed into a heroic figure fighting for liberty. In Evesham in the 1840s, this new view was reflected in new local memorials; including an obelisk and church stained glass. At Evesham, in 1965, Earl Simon’s status as democratic hero received full official recognition. The Archbishop of Canterbury, supported by dignitaries including the Speaker of the House of Commons, dedicated the Simon de Montfort Memorial in Upper Abbey Park.

    Today, of course, things have changed again. The 750th anniversary of the Battle of Evesham (2015) was particularly marked by a large-scale re-enactment on the Crown Meadow. The original slaughter, transformed through time, has become the occasion for public entertainment and an excellent day out.

    The book Evesham’s Military Heritage embodies many levels of remembrance. Most obviously, the book considers how the military past has been remembered locally and, for the English Civil Wars, largely ignored. For WWI and WWII I made significant use of local memories, reports of local experiences, local poems, and most importantly excerpts from Eva Beck’s wonderful autobiographies. Additionally, the book is dedicated “in memoriam” to two local historians now sadly deceased (Mike Edwards and Gordon Alcock). I also included memories from my grandfather (who served in WWI) plus pictures from my father. In this way, the book not only discusses remembrance (and the way it has changed) but is also itself an act of remembrance.

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

  • Secret Swindon by Angela Atkinson

    The GWR hooter still in situ on what is now the McArthur Glen Outlet Village. (Secret Swindon, Amberley Publishing)

    The sprawling urban conurbation that is modern Swindon began life as an Anglo-Saxon defensible settlement atop a limestone hill. Old Swindon, known today as Old Town, grew into a sleepy market town. The chances are it would have stayed that way were it not for the Industrial Revolution.

    The subsequent acceleration in Swindon’s growth began 1810 with the construction of the Wilts & Berks Canal. The real transformative factor though came between 1841 and 1842 with the historic decision by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Daniel Gooch to establish their Great Western Railway works a short distance from Old Swindon. This led to the birth of another town: New Swindon.

    The town’s connections to London and the South West made it possible for many later industries to come to the town. Over the decades, Swindon’s engineering and manufacturing associations have run the gamut, from BMW to Honda, and Garrard record decks to Triumph lingerie – though they are all gone now.

    Today’s Swindon is a surprising, multi-, multi-cultural creative and cultural hotspot that is home to artists and writers of every genre and calibre. In Secret Swindon, I take a sideways look at all this and more.

    The story of how I got to writing this book has its roots twenty years ago this year, for 2018 is the silver anniversary of my move to Swindon.

     

     

    A new life in Swindon

    Before moving to Swindon I’d visited the place several times and found it to be a perfectly pleasant place. So, when the opportunity arrived to relocate I arrived with no negative perceptions. In fact, the converse was true for I left behind an area devastated by the wholesale pit closures of the 1980s.

    We had poor transport connections, no work, no prospects, no nothing.  Well – slag heaps, emphysema and mass unemployment. We had that.

    So, I came to Swindon. Within days I found work. Actual proper, full-time work. This one thing was little short of a miracle. You can’t know how magical that one thing was. Let alone the rest.

    I bought a house in West Swindon – a fifteen-minute walk from Shaw Ridge leisure park. Here we (my then 12-year-old daughter and I) found:

    • A swimming pool
    • An ice rink
    • A bowling alley
    • A cinema and oh joy of joys to a pre-teen daughter in the 1990s – a Pizza Hut

    I felt I’d pitched up in the land of milk and honey.

    So that’s my arrival in Swindon. I settle into full-time employment and building a life. I’m content with where I’m living, I like it well enough, it becomes home.

    But the real love affair with Swindon doesn’t begin then. Oh no. To get to the igniting of that flickering fire of fondness into a truly, madly, deeply red-hot love we have to fast forward about sixteen years to when I’m in my early 50s and compulsory early retirement comes my way.

    Fast forward another year and I began a joint English Honours degree at the University of the West of England.

    Becoming a Born again Swindonian

    Fast forward two more years. I’m now approaching the end of my second year at university and selecting modules for my final year. A travel writing module called “Moving Words’ piques my interest. A conversation with the module leader sparks a classic light-bulb moment and my Swindon blog, Born again Swindonian was… well born.

    As I progressed with what largely started as a means to an end, I learnt more and more about the area and all it has to offer – that’s when I truly fell in love with the place.

    It’s now around five years and 600 posts since I started blogging as Born again Swindonian. I’m still at it because there’s so much to tell.

    Late last year (2017) someone left a message on my blog. That someone was a commissioning editor for Amberley books. Would I be interested in writing Secret Swindon?

    Hell yes!

    Which brings us bang up to date and me a published author with Secret Swindon. Wow!

     

    Angela Atkinson's new book Secret Swindon is available for purchase now.

  • Caernarfon Through Time by Steven Dickens

    Caernarfon Castle and Slate Quay, c.1880. (Caernarfon Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    The Royal town of Caernarfon overlooks the Menai Straits and the isle of Anglesey. It is a port and holiday resort and is also noted for the substantial monument of Caernarfon Castle, whose construction was undertaken by King Edward I, as part of the English conquest of Gwynedd. It was one of the largest and most imposing fortifications built by the English in Wales. In 1284 the English-style county of Caernarfonshire was established by the Statute of Rhuddlan and in the same year Caernarfon was made a Borough, a county and a market town, and the seat of English government in North Wales. Today Caernarfon is a major tourist centre with its town walls, market and castle, first class attractions.  Travelling to the town has changed greatly since the construction of the A55 ‘Expressway,’ including several tunnels through the sheer rock of the North Wales coastline. In the 1970s when I first began to holiday in this area with my parents and visit my relatives, the journey beyond Llandudno was along a tortuous and winding coast road with 30mph speed limits and a single lane carriageway in many places. Whilst speed limits still apply, the journey takes less time and is of great benefit to those travelling to Holyhead for the Irish ferry.

    Floating Restaurant, Eagle Tower and Pont Yr Aber, Caernarfon, c. 1950. (Caernarfon Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    The town itself has also changed greatly, with many old buildings now beneath the route of the A55. However, the castle remains much as it appeared in my childhood, with the car park along the old Slate Quay still as packed as it always has been! Some childhood memories are now gone – there is no longer a ‘floating restaurant’ along the Slate Quay – once a popular destination for many tourists, and the roundabouts in the market square are gone, to be replaced by an open ‘multi-functional’ space for traffic, pedestrians and the market. The market, however, still remains a popular feature and is a big-draw in the summer months’ tourist season, especially in the fine weather we have experienced recently! However, there have been reports of localised forest fires in inland areas close to Caernarfon (and notably near Bethesda), reminding us of the potential perils associated with the heat and sun.

    Castle Square from Eagle Tower, c. 1910. (Caernarfon Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Compiling Caernarfon Through Time has brought back many childhood memories of my visits to the area and the times we visited relatives here, or spent our leisure time on holiday along the coast. Some forty years later it is still a popular destination for my children – especially the castle. I hope that the book will evoke some similar memories for the reader, as well as provide an informative and historic record of the way the district has changed over the last century.

    Steven Dickens' book Caernarfon Through Time is available for purchase now.

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