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Tag Archives: Local History

  • 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.

  • Now That's What I Call Preston by Keith Johnson

    My latest book 'Now That's What I Call Preston' covers the period from the dawn of the 1960s to the dawn of 1990, a time that helped to shape the Preston of today.

    Bus stops and shelters dotted around town were the order of the day before the central bus station was built. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    It was a period that began in the midst of redevelopment with slum clearance and home building well underway. Social attitudes were changing and great strides were being taken in industry, commerce, education, and the retail trade. It is book of pictures and paragraphs reflecting life in an ever growing town enabling the reader to cherish the memories and moments of those decades.

    To some this nostalgic journey might begin with a recollection of a stroll down Stoneygate as they built high rise apartments upon Avenham, or when the bulldozers moved in to finally demolish the old Town Hall, or perhaps when your mum took you to town to buy vegetables on the covered market, or to visit the butchers' shops on a busy, bustling Orchard Street.

    Tall cranes stand out on the skyline as the Avenham high-rise apartments take shape. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Others might clearly remember those rainy days on the old Ribble Bus station with its leaky corrugated roof, or recall the opening days of the new Central Bus Station on Tithebarn Street that became an award winning monument to Brutalist architecture. Whilst for some the cherished moments might have been on the dance floor of the Top Rank, or the Piper night club. Others may yearn for the days of the steam engines when a smokey, grimy scene greeted you on Preston railway station where trainspotters gathered during school holidays.

    It is true to say that when 1960 dawned it was a time for transformation with old buildings bulldozed into oblivion and new structures soon standing tall. The Victorian Town Hall, the old Ribble bus station, an old church or two, old ale houses, old cinemas and theatres, many a corner shop and endless rows of cobbled streets being swept away in the name of progress.

    Words of the planners talking of high rise apartment, office blocks and sprawling shopping centres filled the air, and then they became a reality. A period when traffic free zones, ring roads and motorways were planned and came to fruition. Whilst the transportation of people and goods came on in leaps and bounds on road and rail.

    Diesel locomotive Class 40 No. 40192 stands on platform 6 next to Butler Street in 1981. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the 'swinging sixties' Preston was striving towards a glorious Guild celebration that would reflect the attitude of the positive, proud people of Preston. That event kept the ancient traditions alive with pomp, pageantry and processions and provided a fair share of fun and frolics. Many of us proud to parade the streets in procession, or to just stand and stare.

    The increase in leisure time made the pursuit of pleasure more intense. For some the discotheque took preference over the dance hall and public houses could no longer provide just beer and skittles. Some old and familiar places of entertainment were disappearing, whilst other emerged to fill the void. The sporting scene was changing too, with many inclined to participate rather than merely spectate, and consequently the leisure centre and running track became fashionable. The old cold outdoor baths replaced by heated indoor swimming pools and the plimsolls making way for running shoes.

    Stanier-design steam engine No. 44680, known as a Black 5 and built in 1950 at Horwich. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Taking a peep at the endeavours of the Eighties gives us a chance to recall the transport and the traffic, the markets and their merchandise, the carnivals and the concerts, the road runners and Red Rose radio, cinemas and bingo halls, public houses and pub lunches, and the people on our streets. All helping to create a patchwork quilt of pictorial memories within the pages of the book.

    Perhaps you lived on the umpteenth floor of Moor Lane flats loving the central heating and the panoramic views, or were delighted when you could catch the high speed train to London; or maybe your girlfriend set the trend wearing a mini skirt or maxi coat, or perhaps your flared trousers and moustache were the height of fashion. Did you rush to Bradys to get the latest cassette tapes feeling it was the height of technology, or maybe you spent your working days in one of the many engineering workshops, or found yourself a job in one of the supermarkets that were emerging fast, or perhaps you studied at Preston's very own Polytechnic.

    You maybe thought that the E H Booths cafe was too posh for you with its linen cloths and got your refreshments from a Wimpey Bar, or discovered that the best burgers were at the real McCoy on Church Street and that a bag of chips wrapped in old newspapers was your idea of a tasty treat after a couple of pints of beer.

    No Preston Guild would be complete without the traditional brass bands and they turn out in force. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Yes, those were the days when the Lancashire Evening Post prospered on Friargate and queues would form for the hot off the press Final Edition, or on Saturday you might have eagerly waited for the 'Last Football' to appear with the final scores and match reports, barely an hour after the final whistle had blown. How proud were so many Preston folk when North End journeyed to Wembley for an FA Cup Final, and not so proud as they later plunged the depth of the Football League. Whilst others may have lingering memories of playing on the plastic pitch that replaced the grass as PNE strived to survive, or of playing football on Preston parks in ankle deep mud.

    In conclusion, reflecting on Preston during those thirty years, it was a place populated with people full of pride who left a rich legacy for future generations. A place that learnt lessons from the past to make a brighter future. A place that expanded rapidly yet still retained its parks and places of pleasure, a place that embraced the evolution in industry, retail and education ensuring employment for many. Its people held on to great traditions and saw Preston prosper, remain rightly proud and cherished by its inhabitants young and old alike.

    They say every picture tells a story, if that's the case I hope that along with the script it gives a reflection of life not so long ago and gives a glimpse at the Preston of yesteryear for the generations that followed.

    Keith Johnson's new book Now That's What I Call Preston is available for purchase now.

  • Wolverhampton Through Time by Alec Brew

    It was a single image which inspired me to write this book, a friend’s photograph of a solitary Austin Seven under the railway bridge at Compton sometime in the 1930s. I knew that a modern photograph taken from the same spot at any time, day or night, would show a whole stream of traffic in both directions. Even the bridge is no longer a railway bridge but carries the words Smestow Valley LNR, which does not stand for Long Neglected Railway as you might think, but means Linear Nature Reserve.

    St. Peter's Church from the Marketplace. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    In the end I never actually used this photograph, but chose from my own huge library of images of the City, collected over 30 years of writing about Wolverhampton’s history. What could be easier, I thought, than strolling round with a camera and learning if things had changed over the last century as much as I imagined they had changed? The very first photograph revealed a problem I had not envisaged.

    I decided to start with St. Peter’s Church, the focal point of the City atop the ridge on which it stands, with no high rise buildings allowed to block its dominance. I had an image from 1902 taken from just the other side of Lichfield Street, so I made my way to the same spot, and I couldn’t see the Church! There were too many trees in the way. Have trees recently been allowed to mature in urban churchyards to a degree they never were before?

    Nowadays, as seen above, trees have grown to obscure much of it and the Civic Centre encroaches on the right. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    A photograph featuring just trees did not seem too interesting, despite what it might reveal about ecclesiastical fashion. In the end I found another image of St. Peter’s from the other side, where there were fewer trees. This was a problem I had to resolve many times, and any Wulfrunian to whom I mentioned how annoyingly verdant the City had become, was just as surprised as I had been.

    I had expected to find the changes in the cityscape wrought by the 1960s planners, and their preferred medium of change, brutalist concrete. The beautiful Central Arcade and Queens Arcade replaced by the concrete tunnels of the Mander Shopping Centre. The Victorian High Level Station replaced by what looks like a huge public convenience. The Victorian Retail and Wholesale Markets swept away to make room for the Civic Centre, looking like a huge bunker from Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

    A Tilling Stevens TS6 trolleybus turns down Broad Street on its way to Wednesfield. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, I knew about the destruction wrought by the Ring Road, that wide noose thrown round the centre of Wolverhampton, which had flattened so much of it, and strangled the rest. In many cases it was hard to relate a photograph taken even as late as 1970 with what is there today. Where once there were communities, now there is just traffic.

    The other major change is the disappearance of those huge companies which dominated each area of the City; Goodyears, ECC, Bayliss Jones and Bayliss, The Sunbeam, GWR’s Stafford Road Works, and others. Where once workers walked from their terraced house just round the corner to the factory where their father and grand-father had worked, now there are new semi-detached houses, or offices, or acres of rubble, overgrown with buddleia.

    Broad Street - single-deckers had to be used on this route until the road under the railway bridge was lowered. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite being of an age when I view the World through nostalgia-tinted spectacles, it was not all doom and gloom, I was often pleasantly surprised by what I came to photograph. As I have related the trees were a big revelation, but often old buildings had found new, agreeable uses. Sunbeamland becoming apartments, the Queen’s Building once more becoming the focal point of the City’s transport hub, the Molineux Hotel becoming the City’s Archives, or Butler’s Brewery becoming the University’s Faculty of Architecture, though putting students in a brewery would seem fateful.

    Actually the biggest positive impact on the City has been the monumental growth of the University. When a Polytechnic had followed the fashions of Wolverhampton’s planners and built in fifty shades of hideous.  How ironic that the College of Art had been the ugliest building in the City, and how amusing, now that it has become the Faculty of Art, that the forest of phone aerials on the roof looks so much like a modern art installation. Now the University of Wolverhampton, its new buildings seem in keeping with their surroundings, and thankfully it has found new ways of using old buildings like the Criterion Hotel or the Fox Public House, which has saved them.

    I am sure that anyone who undertakes a similar exercise in depicting their town ‘Through Time’ will have similar takes to tell. While expecting to find ‘change and decay in all around I see’, sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised.

    Alec Brew's new book Wolverhampton Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Bristol A Portrait 1970-82 by Stephen Dowle

    This book first appeared in September 2016 in a large format edition which enjoyed a brisk sale. It is now re-issued in a more compact size and enlarged by the inclusion of extra photographs, bringing the total to nearly 150. I have tried to supply chatty captions giving personal observations and recollections: accordingly there is quite a strong "authorial voice" which, I hope, provides a more entertaining read than a mere recital of facts.

    The granary and flour mill at Buchanan's Wharf, built in 1884, was converted to flats in 1988. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    The photographs were taken between 1970 and 1982, when I was between the ages of twenty and thirty-two. Most of my contemporaries were either at the stage known as "sowing your wild oats", or had embarked upon its customary sequel, "settling down". The former mode of living struck me, even at that age, as a waste of one's precious time on Earth, whereas marriage, child-raising and mortgage-repaying were, in my case, to be deferred for some years. Taking photographs was one of my favourite pastimes, at first using a primitive pre-war camera my father had passed on to me when I was about twelve. Once I'd left school and could afford film and processing I began to travel around taking photos of the rapidly disappearing industrial townscapes of the Midlands and Lancashire. Those few who knew of it clearly regarded this as an eccentric occupation and I learned to be evasive about it. The photographs, in the form of 5X3½-inch "enprints" processed through my local branch of Hodders, the chemists, were mostly pretty dreadful. Nevertheless some of my favourite shots were taken in those early days with that first camera, and in recent times, with the aid of a flatbed negative scanner, it has been possible to improve greatly on the originals.

    Britol's pre-war shopping district. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    In the book's Introduction I relate how, in April 1970, I became a bus conductor and saw the newly flattened ruins of Bristol's Newtown district from the top deck of my bus. To me, still at an age when experience has a hormonally-fuelled intensity and over-heatedness, there was an uncanny beauty in the scene. I had been powerfully subject to nostalgia from an age when, logically speaking, I had not yet anything to be nostalgic about. I can only state that this was so: my surroundings were dear to me and any changes in them, even something as trivial as the felling of a tree or the realignment of a kerb, had the power to distress me. Within days of first seeing Newtown I went back with my camera to roam wretchedly among the weed-choked foundations and shattered pavements, filled with hopeless longing for what had gone and could never again be seen. I had sufficient self-awareness, however, to realise that in this experience pain was intermingled, more or less equally, with a morbid pleasure.

    Although I must have passed by often without taking any notice, I could not remember Newtown when it had been standing. I reached back into my memory but could never quite grasp hold. The most fascinating historical period is always that just beyond the reach of one's own recollections. By this time we, of the post-war baby-boom generation, had become accustomed to the process called "redevelopment". Having limbered up with the rebuilding of areas devastated by wartime bombing, the local authority planning departments – whose principle motive, as with any bureaucracy, is self-perpetuation – turned their attention upon other areas that could be regarded as in need of renewal. All this coincided with a boom in the value of property, a growth in demand for office space and, of course, a great increase in road traffic. Georgian squares and Regency terraces disappeared to make way for roundabouts and dual-carriageways, as working class "inner city" areas were flattened wholesale and their residents rehoused in tower blocks or grim estates at the city's edge. Not only Newtown, but also neighbouring Easton had been razed in the late sixties, and now as the seventies opened the Council flattened all the lower part of Totterdown for a road scheme that was abandoned even as the final demolitions were taking place. There were a number of specific outrages: the University and Royal Infirmary, between them, were allowed to violate the picturesque slopes of Kingsdown; the bombed Castle Street shopping centre was rebuilt, not on the same site, but a few hundred yards to the north in the old streets around Broadmead, which had been largely untouched by the air raids; St James's Square was destroyed for the enlargement of a roundabout. A scheme to construct a shoebox-shaped hotel on the slope of the Avon Gorge just below the Clifton Suspension Bridge, was only narrowly averted.

    Clifton Suspension Bridge. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    By the time I'd started taking photographs around Bristol, the early redevelopment frenzy had begun to run out of steam and attract public disfavour. It finally ground to a halt quite abruptly around 1975. This left many parts of Bristol in a kind of limbo: large areas had been cleared but not rebuilt; condemned buildings were reprieved and left empty awaiting a decision on their future; whole districts, such as the older, architecturally distinguished part of St Paul's around Brunswick Square, were left to rot – one suspected until such time as further deterioration would leave them beyond saving. Much though I deplored these things I would concede that they were interesting from a photographic point-of-view; there was no shortage of scenes for my camera to record. Many who read the original edition of the book remarked how shabby Bristol looked at the time. It was not my intention to emphasise this squalid aspect of the city: like most people I have a great affection for my native place and would not wish to do it a disservice. It was in the nature of the times and subject-matter that the book should paint a rather unflattering portrait.

    The preparation of the original book fell during an eleven-year exile in East Anglia, when it was difficult for me to keep abreast of developments in Bristol. I have since moved to South Wales and it has become easier to revisit my old haunts, which I now see as if with fresh eyes. My main impression is of a kind of visual sterility. Much that was distinctive about the city has given way to an even spread of ICLEI-sponsored sustainable development, dockside micro-apartments, low-rise Lego-brick offices, fake street furniture, sanitised “heritage” showpieces, pedestrianised shopping centres, bus lanes, wheelchair ramps, fraudulent retro paving, Veolia wheelie-bins, Caffè Nero outlets that were once post offices or police stations, nonsensical "installations" and rubbish sculpture and, everywhere, surveillance cameras. A worrying point is that every British city looks like this now. Everywhere looks like everywhere else. Local, and even national distinctions, become fewer and fewer. The whole world is becoming as bland and homogeneous as a blancmange, one place fairly indistinguishable from any other unless, here and there, by climate or terrain. Eventually there will be nothing to which anyone will feel any particular connection or allegiance. This, I suspect, is the intention.

    Stephen Dowle's new format paperback of Bristol A Portrait 1970-82 is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Lancashire by Robert Nicholls

    Although I was raised in Yorkshire – and traditionally there is no love lost between the two counties – I have grown to love Lancashire. My latest book ‘50 Gems of Lancashire’ celebrates this remarkable county and all it has to offer those who like to explore its treasures, especially those off the beaten track. And contrary to popular belief, Lancashire has far more areas of beautiful countryside that its traditional industrial image would suggest.

    Sambo’s Grave, Sunderland Point. (50 Gems of Lancashire, Amberley Publishing)

    The ‘gems’ is this book are either buildings, structures, locations or landforms that are either rare or unusual architecturally, or associated with a fascinating story which helps bring history vividly to life.

    One such story is that of Sambo, a young slave boy. The site where he is buried at Sunderland Point a few miles away from Lancaster is my favourite spot in the county. I did ponder whether to include this gem in the book. After all, the word ‘Sambo’ has some derogatory associations, despite the fact that the original book portrayed its characters favourably and set the book in India, not Africa. To settle the matter, I consulted some Afro-Caribbean friends, who responded: ‘It is his name, so who has the right to deny him his name or his little place in history?’, and ‘That’s part of my history, it has got to go in the book’. So I see this gem as honouring Sambo and those like him.

    Sambo was a black boy who died in 1736. Sunderland Point was a port for Lancaster, one of the stopping places in the 'triangular trade' whereby goods were taken from Britain to West Africa and traded for slaves, who were then transported to the Caribbean. Ships then returned to Britain carrying goods like cotton and tobacco, and a few slaves such as Sambo. Sadly he died here, reputedly of a broken heart when his Master went off on another trip. More likely he caught one of the diseases of the western world against which he would have had little natural immunity.

     

    The detailed inscription on Sambo’s Grave placed here in 1796. (50 Gems of Lancashire, Amberley Publishing)

    Sambo died in the building now called Upsteps Cottage, and was buried here, in the corner of a field next to a salt marsh, in unconsecrated ground. The grave remained unmarked until 1796 when a local schoolmaster raised some money for the metal memorial that contains his poetic epitaph.

    Another attraction for me about this particular gem is that it is so isolated and it takes some planning and determination to get there. If you are going there by car, you have to be aware that the access road to Sunderland Point is submerged by water twice a day. After that there is still a walk to find the grave, but once there you will be rewarded.

    Nowadays, one of the most enchanting elements is that the grave contains many mementos left in tribute by local school children. So young Sambo, who was once forgotten after his death, is now remembered by the young, and his story inspires them – and us – to more deeply reflect on these aspects of black history.

    Robert Nicholls' new book 50 Gems of Lancashire is available for purchase now.

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