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  • Secret Margate - 'The remarkable secret life of Turner’s Mrs Booth' by Andy Bull

    On the face of it, there aren’t many secrets about J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). His Margate connection is very well-known. The Turner Contemporary gallery, built by the harbour at the very spot where he lodged, makes the link between Turner and Margate very clear and evident. He was sent to school here, and returned many times in later life, painting the sunsets which he called ‘the loveliest in Europe’.

    Turner Contemporary. (c. Bejamin Beker, Secret Margate, Amberley Publishing)

    Yet for my book Secret Margate I discovered a very powerful, personal story, concerning the person Turner lived with in Margate: Sophia Caroline Booth.

    Today we know Mrs Booth’s name, and that she was his landlady, but very little else about her. The view from the Turner Contemporary is the one the artist saw from her home, Harbour House, on Bank Side Quay.

    When Sophia and Turner met, she was soon to be widowed for a second time, and twenty years his junior. A relationship developed, which Turner chose to keep secret. Mrs Booth’s story deserves to be better known, and she should be acknowledged not just as a footnote in a great man’s life, but as the remarkable woman she was. Turner and Mrs Booth lived together for eighteen years, for the bulk of them in Margate.

    One small clue in the town hints at a tragic, little-known story about Sophia, and suggests that there is much more to be discovered about her. That clue is on her gravestone in St John the Baptist church at the southern end of Margate High Street.

    Sophia Booth's grave at St John the Baptist. (c. Nick Barham, Secret Margate, Amberley Publishing)

    While Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, Sophia’s name, almost completely obliterated by time, appears at the very bottom of a gravestone headed by the name of her son, John Pound Booth, ‘The beloved and only son of John and Sophia Caroline Booth, who died June 26th 1832 in the [and here the figure is obliterated by time] year of his age.’

    If that figure were legible, it would record that John Pound Booth was only six when he died, of cholera, which swept the town that year, and may also have infected his mother. His death was not the first tragedy to scar the life of Sophia Booth.

    Sophia was born Sophia Nollte, to parents of German immigrant descent, in Dover 1799. She married her first husband, a nineteen-year-old Margate fisherman called Henry Pound, at St John the Baptist on 3 February 1818 when she was twenty-two. They had two sons, Joseph Henry and Daniel. This marriage was to prove tragically short. In the early hours of 22 March 1821, Henry Pound and his brother set out from Margate harbour in the Queen Galley, a small fishing boat, with five others. Returning that afternoon in rough weather, the boat was caught on the treacherous Margate Sands and broke up. All lives were lost. The tragedy left seven young children fatherless, and the Kentish Gazette published an appeal for charitable donations ‘with a view to alleviating the distress of the surviving relatives which in several respects is very great’.

    Three years later, the widowed Sophia suffered a further tragedy, when her five-year-old son Joseph died. Widowed and again bereaved, Sophia struggled to cope. Little wonder then, that only the next year she married the much older John Booth, who described himself as ‘a gentleman of Margate’. She was twenty-six, he was sixty-three. Within a year they had a son, John Pound Booth, whose tragic end is recorded at the top of the gravestone described above.

    Deeply concerned for his wife’s health, John Booth amended his will, leaving the substantial sum intended for his now-dead son to her, saying that this was ‘in consideration for the bad state of my wife Sophia Caroline Booth’s health and in consequence of the lamented death of my son John Pound Booth’.

    The Shell Lady - Anne Carrington's tribute to Sophie Booth. (c. Nick Barham, Secret Margate, Amberley Publishing)

    When Sophia and Turner met, she was living with her elderly second husband at Harbour House. When Mr Booth died, Sophia was only thirty-four, but already twice widowed and mourning the loss of two sons. Turner was also recently bereaved: still deeply affected by the death, in 1829, of his father William, to whom he was enormously close. William had worked as his son’s studio assistant for thirty years, and Turner suffered bouts of depression following his passing.

    Turner would travel down to Margate on the so-called Husbands’ Boat, used by the men of London at the weekends to join their families who were staying, or living, in the healthier air of Margate.

    He clearly adored Sophia, wrote her love poems and gave her sketches, but did he ever paint her? The Tate has a work described as A Sleeping Woman, perhaps Mrs Booth and some experts believe that the erotic sketches Turner produced in his last twenty years were inspired by his love of Mrs Booth.

    The relationship seems to have suited them both very well. Sophia was financially independent and undemanding, and Turner was almost entirely wrapped up in his art. Sophia seems to have stepped into the emotionally and practically supportive role previously filled by Turner’s father. She died twenty-seven years after the artist, who succumbed to cholera in 1851.

    Sophia does have a public tribute in Margate. At the far end of the harbour wall is a modern sculpture of a shell lady entitled Mrs Booth. The 12 ft bronze was created by Anne Carrington, who says of it: ‘The sculpture is a scaled-up version of the tiny shell lady ornaments which are sold in the souvenir shops on Margate sea front. What I like about this sculpture is its unlikely size and setting as the shell lady is granted all the civic respect of a local hero.’

    Andy Bull's new book Secret Margate is available for purchase now.

  • Lost Derby by Maxwell Craven

    Loss, in environmental terms, is not necessarily a bad thing, but is an inevitable consequence of growth, modernisation, changing demographics and the demands of technology. It is a necessary thing, but needs to be managed, which is why the 1948 Town and Country Planning Act was adopted by the government of Earl Attlee. If one has a legal and statutory framework to work to, change can indeed be managed so that the best of what is already in place – buildings, landscapes, streetscapes – can be protected and the requirements of the modern world fitted round them in such a way as not to devalue them.

    Iron foundries sprang up from the 1780s, closely followed by brass founders, one of whom, Sir John ('Brassy') Smith, established his firm in 1844, later moving it to Cotton Lane and eventually having a nationwide reach. (c. Maxwell Craven, Lost Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    There is also the problem of human nature. Loss of the familiar can be traumatic and, whatever the reality of that loss, to look back on it in comparison with what has succeeded it creates nostalgia; the rose-tinted spectacles of times past, re-inforced by well-remembered and loved familiar surroundings. Change inflicted upon ordinary people de haut en bas inevitably causes pain.

    Yet change must come, and we have to endure the loss of the familiar to some extent and very often what replaces it can come to be enjoyed in its turn, softened by the passage of time. Historic buildings, however, are more than just pieces of equipment in which we live, work, buy & sell, or enjoy ourselves. They are very often the product of a creative process which starts with the architect in concert with the person paying the bills and moves through the creators: sculptors, artists, masons, bricklayers, joiners, stuccadori and so on. An architect designed building, however humble or workaday, is as much a work of art as a painting.

    The difference is that a building also has utility and cannot be moved into a gallery to be admired when time-expired. People who seek to make impressive profits from re-development and local politicians hoping to cut a dash, frequently have a problem remembering this. Which is why the 1948 Act gave us listing and subsequent legislation, adding scheduled ancient monuments, conservation areas, world heritage sites and so on.

    Derby is no different to any other medium sized semi-industrial settlement although, thanks to its history, it punches well above its weight in the historical baggage it carries, along with elements of the built environment that reflect that history.

    After four centuries of Roman rule, the original core of Derby at Little Chester was re-fortified by the Danes, who were ultimately evicted from the area in 918, after which modern Derby was founded nearly a mile further down the Derwent.

    The Old Mayor's Parlour, Tenant Street, was the largest fifteenth-century timber-framed town house in England when it was unforgivably demolished by the council in 1947. (c. Maxwell Craven, Lost Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    A prosperous county town grew up and from the early 18th century gradually became a leading site for the burgeoning industrial revolution. By 1723 we had England’s first factory in the Silk Mill, soon to re-open as the Museum of Making, an attraction of national standing. Derby was home to two members of the Lunar Society, the intellectual cockpit of the English Enlightenment and their circle included such creative men as Joseph Wright, Joseph Pickford and Peter Burdett – who painted them, built for them and inspired them. Then came Jedidiah Strutt and Thomas Evans with their cotton mills, a series of modernising Improvement Acts and ultimately the Railway age. Which refocused the industrialisation of the City from luxury products to engineering, ushering in an age from which the City, renewed, is only just emerging.

    Thus the 18th century gave us ‘high end’ products: silk, clocks, scientific instruments, fine porcelain, pottery, decorative ironwork, spar ornaments and cement render, whereas the 19th gave Derby heavy and railway engineering, iron and brass founding, narrow tapes, silk trimmings, and brickmaking alongside continuing prestige manufactures.

    The last century saw many of both these decline, especially the heavy industry, although the coming of Rolls-Royce cleverly combined ‘high-end’ products with a new aspect of engineering, the automotive. That, driven by the exigences of conflict, gradually mutated from luxury cars into aerospace. In the present era, aerospace continues, whilst the decline and re-invigoration (through de-nationalisation) of the railways, has revived many aspects of railway engineering, now almost as high-tech as aerospace, along related developments including those related to the digital age, in themselves an element of a totally new industrial revolution.

    All this has led to a continuous growth in population, which itself presents considerable challenges, and has driven environmental loss and renewal just as powerfully as the demands of industrial change. The key to achieving a balance between necessary development, and harmful destruction of historic environments, is to acknowledge the need to provide for quality of life and the retention of an urban environment which remain humane in scale.

    In the early 1970s the DRI was still expanding rapidly, at the expense of the terraced streets to its south. (c. Maxwell Craven, Lost Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early 1970s, there was much destruction of historic buildings and environments going on in Derby, but without much in prospect to replace them, leaving only empty spaces, frequently turned into ad hoc car parks.  Come the prosperity ushered in during the 1980s, and the battle then was to get new buildings on these sites of real quality, but this was often a losing battle.

    Today the fight is to get humane scale, good quality, new buildings on the remaining empty land, without resorting to thoroughly inhumane residential tower blocks, much canvassed by business leaders (who do not have to live in them or near them). This concept of living uniformly packed vertically into compact units, goes back to Le Corbusier, a grim Anarcho-syndicalist, who believed that the mass of people should live where they are told to live. His famous Unité d’Habitation was just such a misguided piece of utopianism, wherein people were to be decanted into tiny living spaces in huge brutalist blocks, producing a dystopian nightmare which came to fruition throughout the Soviet Empire, not to mention post war London, Birmingham, Glasgow and other places. Where pleasant municipal semis were discarded as outmoded under this philosophy.

    Miraculously Derby, ever a little behind the times, escaped all that. Only one municipal high rise was built, a mere eleven stories, quite well designed and low-set, barely visible. The worst was the DRI Nurses’ home, 15 storeys and on a hill, demolished in 2017.

    Some losses have been entirely unnecessary, some preventable, others not. Thus, as the reader proceeds through the images assembled here they will be able to make their own judgements. But in the end it is important to stress that for all the lost city on display below there remains in Derby the core of a fine Georgian Market town which, with its later overlays, is still easy to discern and enjoy, aided by the friendly people who inhabit it and the compact size of the City centre still with its Medieval street plan.

    Maxwell Craven's new book Lost Derby is available for purchase now.

  • Now That's What I Call Newport by Jan Preece

    Through Rose Tinted Glasses

    Another mass protest, one more horrific crime, more explosive over-reactive reporting from a media feasting on other people’s misery.

    The Gaer Estate. Named after the Gaer Hill fort it is a sprawling array of characteristic flat-roof houses layered into the hillside. (c. Jan Preece, Now That's What I Call Newport, Amberley Publishing)

    I often wonder how todays’ events will be recorded by the current diarist, the story teller and the historian. How will our lifestyle be seen by the next generation?

    That which I have written to date, for Amberley, has been Historic in flavour, and as far as I can make it, historically accurate. The question of evidence, and its validity, is a subject which the student of History or Archaeology will have drummed into their souls, primary, secondary, subjective, objective; words which will bring dread to the majority of students during their period of initial study into the wonderful and enlightening past.

    Is it written or spoken, is this an original image or has it been digitally manipulated. There are many ways of authenticating the age of an artifact which for the sake of our sanity should perhaps be accepted as a given. So just how far do we allow these guide lines to influence our manuscripts, articles and books?

    The Boys Brigade in High Street, passing some of Newport's best-known shops. (c. Jan Preece, Now That's What I Call Newport, Amberley Publishing)

    Are we technicians? Or are we story tellers. These are the question we must ask. Do we produce reams of stodgy facts or something that skips round a central theme in a light and entertaining manner, conjuring up a deep rooted personal joy brought about through touch stone and reminiscence.

    How does one become an authority or an expert on a subject, when he or she has never experienced life in the period in which they declare their expertise?  In most cases this can only be achieved by the study of other peoples’ experiences, their records, and opinions. Do we then, as writers take this information and add our own opinions, or restrict our story telling to that which we have lived through and have experienced?

    I personally think there is a logic behind the concept that no one can be called an expert in a field which they have never personally known.

    However on the flip side of the coin, one is laid bare to the accusation of Looking at events through Rose Tinted Glasses, when one writes from memory and personal experience.

    Autumn's mists and fog were more severe when industry made its contribution. (c. Jan Preece, Now That's What I Call Newport, Amberley Publishing)

    In my latest book for Amberley Now That's What I Call Newport I look at the ancient borough of Newport, the city of Newport, the port of Newport – call it whatever – if it is your home from birth, or you have spent a significant part of your life here, then you will have memories, good or bad, which will become that ultimate touchstone.

    The 1960s offered massive cultural changes, a refreshing openness, and a more liberal approach to life. These changes came, not from governments or politicians, but from the streets, generated by a new and inspirational adventure in the world of music and other arts.

    While cultural changes swept across the country, changes in the manner in which we lived were fortunately slower to arrive. The terraced street, the factory and the corner shop were still in force, albeit for just one more decade in some cases.

    The home of the ghostly Mr Murenger, keeper of the keys. Be the last one to leave the pub, if you dare. (c. Jan Preece, Now That's What I Call Newport, Amberley Publishing)

    When others eventually decided, on our behalf, to abandon the lifestyles of the previous 200 years, our homes were designated as slums, and our shops became unfit for purpose and were included in local demolitions. Local factories and industries faded from view as the new ways paid little respect to the working man.

    Flats on estates, clinical soulless and boring, rose upwards from the green zones that once allowed cattle and sheep to graze and provided a Sunday venue for the picnic and the seeker of open spaces.

    Newport has endured decades of what I personally consider to be unnecessary change and turmoil. However, the common theme of self-styled entertainment and community action has always been the focus of the Newportonian. Carnivals, fêtes, home-spun music and theatre, great bands and a willingness to be a part of something old, yet good, still prevail.

    In producing this work, I confess that many of my own preferences show through. I hope that those who were also a product of the 1940s will share the belief that the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were the good years, rich with memories and experience.

    Loving the moment and the characters of yesteryear, loving the town and the personalities of the day, this is a nostalgic look at the period, a work of reference and of pleasure. Now this is what I call Newport!

    Jan Preece's new book Now That's What I Call Newport is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Aberdeen by Lorna Corall Dey

    Places-People-History

    “I’m really intrigued by this one and have been pretty distracted by it all day.”

    Castlegate. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    The words of a reporter from Aberdeen’s Evening Express on receiving a review copy of A-Z of Aberdeen. Such a positive response from someone fielding innumerable publications straight off the press is heartening for, by its nature, the A-Z is selective and subjective and might have proven to be too personal, too close to me as the author. It appears this has not been the case.

    Aberdeen Grammer School. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Compiling A-Z of Aberdeen I was something of a hostage to fortune, for Aberdeen is a city with a long, long recorded history, and during the last thousand years or so many great lives were lived, and countless notable events occurred. As I explained in the introduction to the book the areas covered were picked because they were of special interest to me or stood out in the context of Aberdeen. In the end one hundred and twenty-five topics were included, many illustrated with photographs, but another volume could easily look quite different. Indeed I had to remove several entries from the original draft due to sheer lack of space.

    As a historian my natural inclination was to head back in time – trawling through out-of-print books or old newspapers for lesser-known anecdotes or detail which will add flourish to the contents. To find curiosities that will stick in the minds of readers.

    William Wallace, Guadian of Scotland. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    I love quirky items such as the story I stumbled across of a natural feature which has disappeared from the city and was known as the Roon O (Round O.) The O was a dip in the landscape formed by boulders scouring away at land during the last ice age in what became the area of Ferryhill. Once a little church was said to have stood upon the Roon O. One night its minister and elders were indulging in a spot of illicit gambling when a great flash of lightning lit up the kirk and Auld Hornie (the Devil) was seen dancing there as church and its sinners were drawn down into hell. Perhaps pause for thought for those residents living in the vicinity of the Roon O today.

    Being a city renowned for its education Aberdeen has been a cradle of many a great intellect – people who influenced politics, science and social thinking not only in Scotland and the UK but across the world. Aberdeen has always been an outward-looking town with its mercantile tradition but also because of its two universities and their strong links with prestigious European seats of learning. Some of the greatest minds who contributed to that remarkable intellectual force of the 18th century. The Scottish Enlightenment, honed their intellects in Aberdeen – such as Thomas Reid who founded the Scottish Philosophical School of Common Sense and the innovative educationalist, George Turnbull.

    Trawlerman in the 1970s. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Several of the cities curiously named places and buildings get mentioned in the book such as the Monkey House and Monkey Brae, the Vennel, Patagonian Court and Froghall. There are tragedies, too, such as the high loss of life from the whaling ship, Oscar, when it sank at the mouth of the harbour. That was a natural calamity but another tragedy that was man-made was the despicable treatment of innocent women and men convicted of witchcraft in the town who were dipped into the harbour from the cran (crane) or partly strangled and burnt.

    Aberdeen being a Scottish city there are the inevitable unicorns – an ancient emblem of the nation. As a former shipbuilding port the odd zulu is included for good measure. Ships carry cargo and maritime trade in and out of Aberdeen has been controlled through the institution of Aberdeen Harbour notably the oldest surviving recorded business in the UK with records stretching back to 1136. The city is also the proud home of the oldest surviving co-operative business, Shore Porters’ Society, dating from 1498.

    Aberdeen rowies. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Ten centuries after Ptolemy of Alexandria recorded a place called Devana by the River Diva (Dee) on his 2nd century globe, the community later known as Aberdeen has flourished as an international city of trade, engineering, fishing, woollens, granite, ideas. A vital servicer of the British empire, the UK centre of oil and gas production while retaining its unique character because of its relative isolation from the central belt of Scotland. This is a place where a distinctive dialect of Scots known as the Doric is spoken.  Doric has its own vocabulary and pronunciation, the result of the many peoples who lived around this part of Scotland from Scots to Scandinavians and perplexes many a visitor to the area.

    Another vital ingredient that demanded inclusion in the book is that culinary delicacy that is quintessentially Aberdeen – the rowie, roll or buttery. The origins of this half bread, half pastry are unknown although some suspect they were produced as an alternative to bread for the city’s fishermen away at sea for days at a time. David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones (once Zowie Bowie), developed a taste for the rowie when he spent part of his childhood in Aberdeen with his city nanny, Marion Skene. Nowadays Duncan makes his own rolls which prompts the expression ‘from Zowie Bowie to Zowie Rowie.’

    This is a real dip into book packed with information but as the reporter quoted at the top commented it isn’t an easy book to put down either.

    Lorna Corall Dey's new book A-Z of Aberdeen is available for purchase now.

  • Kent in Photographs by Bryan Phillips

    We have the power

    Power down, Port Richborough and Pegwell. (Kent in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    Richborough in Kent is well-known for a number of reasons. One of these is its link to history and the Roman invasion. A large site of a Roman fort was discovered many years ago and it shows the evidence of underfloor heating along with structures that would have made a significant impact on anyone seeing the stronghold. Now run by English Heritage the fort still holds its magic with the feeling of treading on the very ground those Romans did so long ago.

    Another less well known location, now confined to history is Richborough power station. Our power in the UK is generated by a number of facilities across the country and until a few years ago, Richborough added to this, providing a well needed balance to the southern end of the chain. Now that there are the undersea cable links to France and other providers, the older power stations are no longer required. Richborough was therefore demolished but the site remains as an interconnection across the National Grid.

    The demolition was the subject of a local competition to select someone to push the button to start the process. This was won by a schoolboy but as the project was delayed he was left waiting for a while until he could claim his prize. The demolition of the towers was quite a talking point locally but the transformation of the site into a green energy supply link was enough for the clearance to be concluded. The image from Kent in Photographs shows a view before the demolition took place.

    Wetland habitat, Pegwell Bay. (Kent in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    On the doorstep of the towers is Pegwell Bay, a coastal nature reserve. It is a peaceful haven and great spot for bird watching as well as hosting picnic sites and leisure walks for anyone visiting. It is a great example of nature reclaiming its land as the area was a former hovercraft landing site and once abandoned, the greenery returned and with the mudflats and saltmarsh being rich in potential food, many wading birds can be seen at various times throughout the year. Several artefacts from the recent past can still be found such as steps, bollards and cats eyes but the basic transformation is relatively complete. It is said to have been visited by Vincent Van Gogh who remarked "The ground we walked on was completely covered with large grey stones, chalk and shells...the sea, as calm as a pond, reflecting the delicate grey sky."

    Pegwell is also the place where invaders have landed over centuries. Romans, Vikings and Christians are amongst the most notable latterly St Augustine in AD597 bringing Christianity to Britain for the first time. St Augustine also has a commemoration not far from the site in the form of a cross somewhat off the beaten track now with modern road incursions. Finally the area is able to show in its geology some of the history with ammonites found in the chalk which were alive some 80 million years ago, the area being at that time very much under water.

    All the above are very much available for locals and travellers alike and within easy reach for anyone around the south east coast of Kent.

    Bryan Phillips's new book Kent in Photographs is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Cheshire by Mike Appleton

    The History & Heritage of the Most Iconic Places

    50 Gems in Cheshire is my third contribution to Amberley’s ‘Gems’ series and you’d think I’d have got the hang of it by now.

    50 Gems of the Yorkshire Dales was a jewel filled quest in a national park I knew like the back of my hand while although 50 Gems of Derbyshire took me to a different part of the country, I felt comfortable in the chocolate box villages and on the fells.

    Cheshire seemed an obvious port of call; being minutes from my home in Lancashire and relatively well known in terms of attractions and places to visit.

    Jodrell Bank… check… Sandbach… check… simple.

    Yet, this proved to be one the hardest projects I have undertaken because the county itself is a bit of an anomaly!

    Its current boundary covers roughly more than 900 square miles but historically was a lot larger. It took in the Wirral and stretched across to Black Hill, which is now in the Peak District and near Yorkshire.

    It also travelled as far down as Crewe and skirted along the Welsh border.

    Then, even though it is relatively flat, it has three distinct ‘tops’: the aforementioned Black Hill, which is the highest point in the historic county, but now effectively on the border between the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire and High Peak in Derbyshire – yes, it’s a Cheshire hill, in the Peak District near West Yorkshire! – Shutlingsloe and Shining Tor.

    Alderley Edge Mines take you underground as does Hack Green Nuclear Bunker. Stalybridge, near Stockport, is as far removed from Ness Botanic Gardens as you can get, as is Newton-Le-Willows, part of Merseyside, from the likes of Nantwich and Crewe.

    Then you could include Flintshire, which is now part of North Wales.

    How could I not include all these gems and thus stick to a modern 900 square mile restriction? In the end it was a relatively easy decision to take – but then I had to whittle the Gems down to 50!

    So old boundary, new boundary, there’s plenty of places to discover and the gems are designed to be visited in clusters. For instance, the Lovell Quinta Arboretum is a stunning collection of trees in the late Sir Bernard Lovell’s garden, the famous physicist and radio astronomer. It is a stone’s throw from Jodrell Bank and located in Swettenham, which is beautiful village in its own right. Delamere Forest has Hatchmere Lake as its neighbour while Parkgate and Ness can be visited in an afternoon.

    Here I present five of my favourites; I hope you enjoy them!

    Lovell Quinta Arboretum - Sir Bernard Lovell's 'reflection' pond. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Lovell Quinta Arboretum

    Sir Bernard Lovell created this fantastic arboretum in the grounds of the house he bought in 1948. His vision was to collect a variety of trees and shrubs from around the world, based on the four volumes of W. J. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles and establish them in this quiet part of Cheshire.

    It was very much a personal project – he was meticulous in keeping records, hand-drawn plans and a card index for each plant – and was at the heart of developing it as the years progressed.

    As an astronomy pioneer, that level of detail is more than reflected in his arboretum and his home village, from the creation of the reflection pond to the avenues and areas that symbolised major events in his life. In 1996, the site passed into the watch of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and is now with the Tatton Garden Society and the capable hands of Rhoderic Taylor, the curator.

    He looks after close to 2,400 plants, some of which are ‘champion’ trees, and others of international significance and importance. This is an amazing site with a varied and interesting collection. There is an honesty box in a prominent position, with a suggested entry fee of £2.50 per person, but to be honest, the walk is worth a lot more.

    Hack Green - A vast array of monitoring equiptment, as well as nuclear weapons. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Hack Green Nuclear Bunker

    Sometimes a gem stays with you for a long time. I’ve been fascinated with the history of the Cold War and particularly the aftermath of an attack ever since I discovered a Royal Observer Corps Post while researching another of the 50 Gems series. It opened up a whole new area of underground discoveries for this speleologist and reflection of the world I was growing up in when I was a lot younger.

    Visiting Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker married those two interests together and brought with it a sense of poignancy, empathy and terror I never expected. This was a site of preparation for a nuclear attack, an operational Cold War base, the foundation of civil defence in the region and a reminder of how far we’ve come since the threats of that period.

    Starting in the canteen, you tour around the base and get to see what life would have been like at Hack Green. Your tour includes where nuclear fallout would have been tracked by top scientists, communications and BBC broadcast centres, Home Office briefing and conference rooms and their still operational radio equipment, a ROC Post, bunk rooms, the actual equipment Thatcher used to signal the attacking of the Belgrano in the Falklands conflict and a whole lot more.

    It is incredible, stark, frightening and weirdly reassuring. The fact that the government had all this in place in the event of an attack, to make sure survivors had the best chance of living, is pretty sobering. The team at Hack Green have created something that is educational and entertaining, non-political and utterly fascinating.

    At the top of Black Hill. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Black Hill

    Reaching 1,909 feet, Black Hill isn’t a particularly majestic ‘mountain’ or somewhere that would be high on many peak bagger’s lists, but it retains a certain charm as well as being a real oddity.

    But the views on the way up to the summit are amazing on a clear day and getting to that point is relatively straightforward – from the A635 and along the well-paved Pennine Way, if you’re inclined to take that route.

    Its location makes it important too as I mentioned above!  It got its ‘bleak’ name because it was once covered in deep black bogs; exposed peat stripped back due to 150 years of pollution and wild fires.

    The difference between that description and the present day couldn’t be more contrasting as significant conservation efforts have taken place.

    Remedial work started on the 46-hectare site in 2003, aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, before the Moors for the Future MoorLIFE project came to the fore. They spread 50 million sphagnum fragments on the moorland to reintroduce sphagnum moss, a key peat-building moss. They also planted bog cotton and bilberry, and these are evident as you reach the summit.

    Gawsworth. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Gawsworth

    You only have to see the pictures here to understand what a beautiful village Gawsworth is.

    It’s peaceful, tranquil and its church is flanked by two pools, making it the most idyllic venue for a place of worship.

     

     

     

     

    Parkgate is an important salt marsh and has great views. (50 Gems of Cheshire, Amberley Publishing)

    Parkgate

    For everything Cheshire has to offer, the last thing you would expect to find is a coastal resort.

    Parkgate was an important port towards the end of the seventeenth century, serving as a leaving point for Ireland. Originally, ships docked further in stream at Chester but as the River Dee silted, alternative disembarkation points were needed.

    The first was built at Burton but as the river became less navigable, a location was found just outside the boundary of Neston’s hunting park. Parkgate was that ‘post’ and it became a bustling hub with ships anchored in the main channel – passengers and goods transferred by tender. It retained that status until 1815 before the majority of trade with Ireland passed through Liverpool.

    The area is managed by the RSPB, who purchased it from British Steel in 1979. Hen Harrier, Merlin, Skylark, Redshanks and Short-Eared Owls all call it home – with even more arriving when tides flush out mammals and insects.

    Taking a walk along the Parade is like stepping back in time. The site of the Old Customs House, once a starting point for donkey rides, provides a host of information, while on the opposite side of the road is Mostyn House School from 1855, the Ship pub and places to buy local seafood and the resort’s famous ice cream.

     

    Mike Appleton's new book 50 Gems of Cheshire is available for purchase now.

  • 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.

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