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  • A149 Landmarks by Edward Couzens-Lake

    An Alternative Road Trip

    Castle Rising Castle, Castle Rising. Twelfth-century medieval fortification once owned by Queen Isabella of France. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    The road trip.

    Romance on the road. You, your car, the open road. A discovery waiting to happen, revelations that lie over the crest of the next hill.

    Jack Kerouac wrote of his own road trip as he travelled across the United States from east to west by bus, car and, when the latter two options weren’t available, via his own well-worn feet.

    If only we souls that hunger for adventure and the opportunity to spend every day driving into the sunset had the time and money for such an extravagance.

    But you don’t have to cross the Atlantic in order to hit the open road and, in doing so, find yourself.

    There are plenty of options to do so in England.

    England is a nation rich in road history. There are journeys to be made here and tales to tell that can be done over a weekend and on a budget.

    You can be your very own Jack Kerouac.

    St Mary's Church, Snettisham. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    Take the Peddars Way in Norfolk for example. It’s a 46-mile-long remnant of an old Roman road that some have suggested was ancient even before their sandalled feet first marched along its route. Then there’s Watling Street, the name given to the route travelled by the ancient Britons between Canterbury and St Albans. Another timeless route is the Icknield Way which links Norfolk to Wiltshire, following, as it does, high ground that includes the chalk escarpment that makes up the Berkshire Downs and Chiltern Hills.

    The sacred journey is as part of us as the air we breathe and countless atoms that make up our curious and ever exploring bodies. We are never still, we can never tarry a while at a given point A when our very being demands that we then seek out points B, C, D and many more beyond that.

    We cannot stand still. To take a journey is in our nature; it is at the core of our very essence.

    There is a romance to travel and a romance for the open road. Walt Whitman wrote of how he would, “…inhale great draughts of space; the east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine” in his poem The Song Of The Open Road.

    He knew. He felt it.

    And so have I. Always.

     

     

    Old Hunstanton Lighthouse and Ruins of St Edmund's Shapel, Hunstanton. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    The open road that beguiled me from an early age is a sinuous one that winds its way along the North Norfolk coast from Kings Lynn to Great Yarmouth. It is only 85 miles long, yet, for me, is one full of magic and wonder; of history ancient and modern and, above all, one that always leaves you wanting just a little bit more. A memorable journey indeed, one that will forever tempt you to keep going, on and on, negotiating its narrow straits, admiring abundant pretty villages and numerous views just so you can carry on turning the page in order to see what comes next.

    To the people that have long lived in the area, it is referred to, simply, as ‘The coast road’ whilst, to the suits and bland planners of Highways, it is referred to as the A149.

    Fetch a map. Let your eyes rest upon the very top of Norfolk, that stretch of coast where, if you travel due north from any of its wide-open beaches, you won’t hit landfall again until the frigid shores of the Arctic appear on the horizon.

    A wintry blast of cold air in the Arctic and one encountered in Norfolk are pretty much the same thing.

    Atop that part of the coast, the A149 wends its not particularly hurried way from one end of the county to another. We’ll travel it in a west to east direction, starting in King’s Lynn, formally Bishop’s Lynn but given the greater and grander title after it was ceded to the King from Bishop and Church in 1537.

    Harbour, Brancaster Staithe. Popular harbour with the sailing fraternity that also sustains a local fishing industry. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    A port that was once a member of the Hanseatic League and comparable, in importance, to Hamburg, Stockholm and Danzig.

    Where can we call upon the way?

    How about an ancient castle that once saw Isabella, the ‘she-wolf’ of France live within its mighty keep. Or via the railway station that once regarded European royal families and heads of state as regular visitors. Failing that, how about the lonely beach where a timber circle, as significant and ancient as Stonehenge was recently exposed and explored or maybe the nondescript meadow that was once home to a Roman fort, one which gives, according to those who know, “unparalleled insights” into the lives of Roman communities in Britain.

    “Unparalleled insights”. And in a nation that boasts of fine Roman settlements towns and cities as London, Bath and Winchester.

    All to be found on this one stretch of road. And all within the first twenty miles or so of its journey.

    You want more?

    Pier, Cromer. Grade II listed seaside pier. (c. Simon Moston, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    A landmark that was bequeathed by the last great ice sheet to cover this country. A church whose mighty 180-foot tower collapsed as the result of some over zealous bell ringing. Another church whose construction was abandoned due to the demands ladelled upon stone masons in the seventeenth century and which wasn’t completed until some 300 years later.

    Or the village that gave its name to one of the most famous cloths in the world, a distant home to the very finest weavers of Flanders came to call their own.

    All of the above. And so much more. A journey that takes the curious traveller through times and places a ’plenty that have made their mark on national or even world history. And all compressed into 85 miles of highway, a journey of discovery that Kerouac would have been proud to make.

    You can’t yet wear its t-shirt. But you can at least read the book. Be like Whitman. Travel this road and make both its east and its west you own.

    Explore. And prepare for delights.

    Edward Couzens-Lake's book A149 Landmarks is available for purchase now.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Secret Hereford by David Phelps

    Seven secrets of Hereford

    The Rothewas Ribbon, a mysterious and now buried ancient discovery. (Secret Hereford, Amberley Publishing)

    The Rotherwas Ribbon

    It seems likely that Herefordshire was an important pre-Roman settlement area, given the large number of hill-forts. This was confirmed in 2006 when, in preparation for a new road, archaeologists discovered, just to the south of the city, a mysterious Neolithic structure made up of a single layer of stones, fire cracked (heated and then dropped into cold water to shatter, the earliest known example of this practice) and laid in a sinuous series of curves up a hill. They were interspersed with quartz pebbles so that, in sunlight, the ribbon would have glinted like a large white snake and, in the moonlight, it would have glowed as if the nearby river Wye was climbing up the hill.

    Despite the Ribbon’s unique status, Herefordshire Council was determined to go ahead with the road and it was covered by tarmac.

     

     

    The Saxon Wall

    Hereford was a border town and, in the early ninth century, faced dangers from both the Welsh and Viking raiders. Aethelflaed, Alfred the Great’s daughter, set about making Hereford defensible, with strong stone walls behind which the county’s inhabitants could retreat. Over time, as danger seemed less likely, they fell into disrepair, only to be quickly repaired when a new threat appeared. However the original Saxon stone walls can still be seen, behind a block of flats, the only Saxon stone defences currently openly visible in England.

    Hereford Cathedral is still the most substantial building in the city. (Secret Hereford, Amberley Publishing)

    Hereford Cathedral

    Hereford is where it is for two reasons. First was its strategic position at a major ford over the river Wye and the second that the Early Church decided that it would be a good place for the centre of a diocese, probably sometime in the middle of the seventh century. The first, wooden, building was burnt down by the Welsh in 1055 and re-built by the Normans in stone. It was enlarged over the following centuries whenever the cathedral came into a bit of money and so is a fascinating mixture of architectural styles.

    It was not always as we see it today, but once had two towers and a spire. Unfortunately, on Easter Monday 1786, the West Tower collapsed and, during a subsequent survey, it was found that the spire on the Central Tower was unsafe and had to be taken down and was never replaced. This was a time when the diocese did not have access to a lot of money and it took many years for a shorter and more modest West Front to be built.

    The Preaching Cross

    Dominicans, called Black Friars from the colour of their robes, arrived in Hereford in 1246, but were not popular with the Bishop or the already established Gray Friars, who saw them as competition. After a certain amount of violence the Dominicans were allowed to build a priory to the north of the City which gradually became a major institution, but suffered the fate of all such religious bodies on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and privatised. It eventually became an almshouse for old soldiers, which might be the model for Chelsea Hospital, on the instigation of that most famous of Herefordians, Nell Gwyn.

    The most substantial reminder of the Dominicans is the Preaching Cross, now tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city in a quiet park, and the only surviving example of a friars’ preaching cross left in England.

    The Black Lion, the oldest pub in Hereford. (Secret Hereford, Amberley Publishing)

    The Black Lion

    Built in 1575, it is the oldest surviving pub of Hereford. Naturally it is also considered the most haunted. Fourteen separate ghosts have been identified. The epicentre of the hauntings is the upstairs Painted Room, which contains Elizabethan depictions of the dangers of breaking the Ten Commandments as well as unexplained footsteps and noises. The story goes that the building was once an orphanage and one of the ghosts is that of a small girl that the pub staff have christened Alice. More threatening is the ghost of a man in a hat, who has been known to tap customers on the shoulder.

    The Market Hall

    Set in the very centre of Hereford, it was described by a visitor in 1642 as the stateliest in the kingdom. Built in 1576 when Hereford had a reputation for fine woodcarving, it had three storeys and was supported by twenty seven walnut pillars. The first floor was for the city magistrates, the top for meeting rooms for the fourteen guilds of the city and the open ground floor provided space for a market. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had fallen into disrepair and the decision was taken to remove the upper floor as a cost saving measure but no one liked the result and, in 1861, the whole building was demolished. Nowadays that would be considered a piece of short sighted vandalism.

    The original Nelson's Column, raised thirty years before they built one in London. (Secret Hereford, Amberley Publishing)

    Nelson’s Column

    When Admiral Nelson visited the city in 1802 the populace regarded him as the most important visitor since Charles I visited in the Civil War. Huge crowds turned out to watch him leave the house in Broad Street where he had been staying. Naturally there was severe shock when news reached the city three years later that he had been killed at the battle of Trafalgar.

    A public subscription raised money to build a memorial in the Castle Green, but unfortunately the money did not run to a statue as was originally planned and the column was surmounted by a simple urn. Still it did mean Hereford had a Nelson’s Column thirty years before the one in London. Until the middle of the nineteenth century a muffled bell peal was rung by the city churches every year to mark the anniversary of Nelson’s death.

    David Phelps's new book Secret Hereford is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Southwark and Blackfriars by Kristina Bedford

    It was a great pleasure to spend the summer heatwave of 2018 photographing the ‘highways and by-ways’ of Southwark and Blackfriars for Amberley’s Secret local history Series, and discovering gems which lie behind façades I had casually passed by in the past, such as the massive Universal Testing Machine constructed by David Kirkcaldy in The Grove, Southwark.

    Kirkcaldy’s Testing Works. (Secret Southwark and Blackfriars, Amberley Publishing)

    Kirkcaldy’s Testing Works relocated to 99 Southwark Street in 1874, southeast of Blackfriars Bridge, where the machine may be viewed today in what is now Kirkcaldy’s Testing Museum.

    This pioneering firm assessed component parts to be used in the construction of London Bridges such Battersea and Hammersmith, the old Wembley Stadium in 1923, and Skylon, a steel “Vertical Feature” built on the South Bank for the Festival of Britain in 1951, which appeared to float above the ground with no perceptible means of support – like the post-war economy, according to a popular joke – dismantled in 1952 on the orders of Winston Churchill, who deemed it too expensive to re-erect elsewhere. The company’s protocols combined microscopic analysis with robust physical stress-testing, stretching and twisting materials to breaking-point to measure the forces entailed.

    It also contributed to inquisitions into accidents, such as the Tay Bridge disaster of 28 December 1879, when the first rail bridge across the Firth of Tay between Wormit in Fife and the city of Dundee collapsed while a train was crossing from the South during a fierce windstorm, leaving no survivors. David Kirkaldy was himself born in Dundee in 1820, and prior to his migration to Southwark worked for Robert Napier and Sons shipbuilding works between 1843 and 1861.

    A short distance eastward along Southwark Street stand two further examples of mid-Victorian buildings of industry, the Menier Chocolate Factory (now a vibrant arts complex) and the elegantly neo-classical Hop Exchange, both featured in Secret Southwark and Blackfriars.

    Kristina Bedford's new book Secret Southwark and Blackfriars is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Horsham by Eddy Greenfield

    A-Z of Horsham is not just another book on Horsham. It is not a bland visitor guide to the town, nor is it a gazetteer of familiar landmarks. Instead, it is a journey of discovery of the people and events behind these landmarks – sometimes shocking, sometimes amusing, but always fascinating (I hope!). I have aimed to dig beneath the surface to find the hidden, long-forgotten and lesser-known aspects of Horsham's long and diverse past. In fact, I was determined that A-Z of Horsham was not going to just re-tell the same old stories about the same old places that can be found in innumerable books you may find on the shelf. I was aiming to write a book that would be of equal interest to those who are already quite familiar with Horsham,  as well as those who know little of its past.

    St Mary the Virgin Church. (A-Z of Horsham, Amberley Publishing)

    With stories from the prehistoric Horshamosaurus to the spate of earthquakes in 2018, it was of course impossible to produce a definitive history of the town, but a peek at the contents will quickly alert the reader that they will be taken on a journey across many eras and many subjects. Some familiar town landmarks are mentioned, but the book is by no means an A-Z street atlas of what can be found where – the anecdotes about each one is perhaps not what the reader may at first expect. The Anchor Hotel is certainly an historic and prominent building, but the book actually tells the unusual tale of how it was the centre of several marathon feats of human endurance. Similarly, St. Mary's Church is not full of dates and numbers, but draws the reader to notice some of the less obvious features of the building that can be seen such as the twisted spire, grotesque corbel table carvings and even a stuffed owl!

     

    An ornate gatehouse at Christ's Hospital School. (A-Z of Horsham, Amberley Publishing)

    Christ's Hospital can be found as the entry for E (for Education) and uncovers tales of incidents during the school's construction rather than re-telling the histories of its famous scholars. O covers the Old Town Hall, but you are more likely to learn of a Victorian prank involving a horse cart and paving slabs, or how there almost came to be no town hall at all, rather than the mundane activities that took place within its walls. The former King's Head is the subject of Y, but the reader will actually be introduced to a series of cruel public auctions of seized property held there as opposed to a mere listing of patrons and landlords over the centuries.

    The most difficult thing about writing A-Z of Horsham (aside from trying to get clear photos amongst the crowds – often having to wait a considerable amount of time to quickly snap a photo, and getting many strange looks from passers-by!) was deciding what to write about. Many letters could have had multiple entries, and so it became a matter of deciding what to include in the space provided. As I acknowledge in the introductory chapter, many of the entries are worthy of an entire book in their own right, but I have attempted to give as much detail as possible on each entry. In some ways, this aided in ensuring I kept a strict focus on writing only about the more unusual aspects. I also opted to give over more space to one or two subjects that I personally found particularly interesting, intriguing or shocking and that I had not come across in any other book I have read on Horsham over the years. I hope that I managed to strike the right balance overall.

    The infamous St Leonard's Dragon in Horsham Park. (A-Z of Horsham, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the many tales readers will come across in the book include the time Billingshurst villagers took matters into their own hands by ducking an abusive husband, how the Horsham town gaoler found himself accused of witchcraft, a smuggler accused of stealing his own horse, a Persian princess buried at St. Mary's Church, infamous prisoners held at the town's gaols, why the local Royal British Legion once had a swastika pennant, how the town struggled against the plague, the corruption that led to Horsham becoming a thoroughly rotten borough, an uprising of the town's poor in the 1830s, why children were forcibly taken under armed guard to Shipley, a plethora of notable visitors and foreign royals who visited Horsham, how Horsham seems to attract abnormally large hailstones, and several tales of the supernatural and UFO sightings.

    There are tales of plague and witchcraft, the famous and the infamous. Spies, internments and prison camps feature in several chapters. Weird weather, zany buildings and paranormal encounters are contrasted with political corruption, royal visits and wartime air raid incidents. With publication coinciding with the very first Horsham Year of Culture, there are stories that will surprise, shock and amuse, I hope that A-Z of Horsham will fascinate and intrigue the reader from start to end and perhaps lead to you start exploring what lies concealed behind the visible façade of this ancient town for yourself. One thing is for sure: once you have finished reading the book, you'll never look at Horsham the same way again!

    Eddy Greenfield's new book A-Z of Horsham is available for purchase now.

  • Norfolk's Military Heritage by Neil R. Storey

    September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and after  five years of special events, exhibitions and projects to commemorate the First World War this book looks at the long military history of the county of Norfolk from its early fortifications and conflicts between the Iceni and the Roman occupiers right up to the end of the Second World War, hopefully there will be many stories and images that will be new to the reader, even if they have enjoyed studying local military history for many years. That's the enduring grip such a subject has on a historian, there is always something new to discover, even if you think you know a subject well.

    Iron Age fort at Warham, near Wells. (C. John Fielding, Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Norfolk is one of England's largest counties, it still has thousands of acres of rich, fertile agricultural land and has had human settlements since the earliest times, along with their resulting conflicts. Add to this a coastline stretching nearly 100 miles from The Wash to Hopton-on-Sea with a number of natural harbours and navigable waterways and dear old Norfolk has been a target for raids and invasions down the centuries too. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why Norfolk people have a natural propensity for standing up for themselves and what they believe is right. Famously, in ancient history the Iceni were led in battle by Queen Boudica in a campaign that almost drove the Roman occupiers out of the British Isles and that fighting spirit remains in the blood, mingled with that of the Saxons, Vikings and Normans.

     

     

    Castle Rising, built more as a symbol of power and status than a fortification, is surrounded by some of the most impressive earthworks in Britain. (Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    I wanted to show a variety of perspectives of the earliest fortifications, not just those visible at ground level and John Stevens kindly allowed me to use some of his brilliant aerial photographs of Norfolk's remarkable early fortifications such as the Warham 'Ring,' Burgh Castle and Castle Acre, and even took a few more especially for the book. Notably, during our exceptionally dry summer of 2018 the marks of the ancient roads buildings and walls of Venta Icenorum the Roman administrative centre that was established over the old Iceni settlement at Caister St Edmunds, had not been quite so clearly seen for years and having seen many of the old images of the site in black and white from when it was first discovered it was great to see them in colour at last.

    Norfolk people have risen in rebellion on numerous occasions against oppression and to defend their way of life, notably during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 and Kett's Rebellion of 1549. Ultimately they faced forces that were larger and far better armed than them but rise they did and made their point.

     

    Members of the Norfolk Riflr Volunteers striking camp 1872. (Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    During the English Civil War despite being predominantly in favour of the Parliamentary cause both Royalists and Parliamentarians made their stands in the county and many Norfolk men joined Regiments that fought in some of the notable actions of the war around the country. Captain Robert Swallow raised the 'Maiden Troop'of Cromwell's Ironside cavalry in Norwich and ultimately Norfolk formed part of the Eastern Association which proved to be the backbone of the Parliamentarian forces by late 1644.

    Norfolk fighting men have demonstrated their steadfastness and courage in battle again and again, notably through two World Wars. Lieut-General Sir Brian Horrocks summed this up in his special introduction to the volume on The Royal Norfolk Regiment in the Famous Regiments series in which he said:

    'The Royal Norfolk Regiment has always been renowned for its steadfastness and reliability in difficult situations. In fact it is the sort of Regiment which all commanders like to have available in order to plug a difficult gap. This staunchness has been developed over the years, for wherever the fighting was fiercest, climatic conditions most vile and the odds against victory most daunting, the 9th Foot was sure to be there.'

    The unveiling of the Thetford War Memorial by Major General Sir Charles Townshend on 4 December 1921. (Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    This spirit is also reflected through the service of Norfolk personnel in the Royal Navy, in the Royal Air Force and even among those on the home front through dark times, danger and disaster.  The veterans many of us knew from the First World War are now all gone and sadly those who answered the call on both the home front and on active service during the Second World War are fading away too. I hope, in some small way, this book will encourage new generations to appreciate their experiences and sacrifices and will provide inspiration and a good starting point for future research.

    Norfolk has been the scene of riots, rebellions, sieges and military actions over past centuries and the landscape is dotted with earthworks, defences, moats, fortified manor houses and latterly pillboxes and other fixed defences from the First and the Second World Wars. Some of these are now long gone, others are ruins and some remain remarkable bastions to this day. This book does not attempt to be encyclopaedic but I hope it will highlight some of the most interesting places and inspire a visit to those open to the public. Above all I hope it will introduce the story of our local regiments and our military past to anyone with a budding interest in the subject be they Norfolk born and bred, resident or visitor and deepen their appreciation of Norfolk's rich military heritage.

    Neil R. Storey's new book Norfolk's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

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