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Tag Archives: Secret series

  • Secret Exeter by Chris Hallam

    1068 and all that: Exeter, Gytha and the Norman Conquest

    Bayeux Tapestry (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    It is one of the most famous years in English history: 1066.

    Like 1936 and (perhaps) 1483, it was to be a year of three kings. In January, just five days into the year, Edward the Confessor, king of England since 1042, died. Harold Godwinson, a leading Saxon nobleman, succeeded him. The new Harold II had acquired a difficult inheritance, however, as he faced almost immediate attack from another Harold, Harald Hardrada of Norway who he managed to defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. However, as we know, King Harold II fared less well in the Battle of Hastings in October. Harold, in truth, probably wasn’t killed by an arrow in the eye as the famous Bayeux Tapestry appears to show but was certainly killed in battle just as Richard the Lionheart and Richard III would be in later years. His rival, William, Duke of Normandy won and was subsequently crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. Thereafter, England succumbed to a long period of Norman rule which, to some extent, has never ended.

    William the Conqueror (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    The above story is famous and mostly true. Edward the Confessor perhaps deserves more blame than has been traditionally attributed to him, for bequeathing England such chaotic situation in the first place. However, what is most questionable about the above account is the last sentence: William the Conqueror’s subsequent conquest of England, after his victory at Hastings, was in fact, much less smooth than the traditional version of events makes it sound.

    Exeter, in Devon, was one area which fiercely resisted William’s rule. Stirred into insurrection by the presence of Harold’s mother, Gytha, Exeter (then known as Escanceaster by the Saxons) openly revolted, refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to William. Angered, William returned from Normandy to deal with the rebels himself.

    A siege ensued, one of many Exeter would endure in the centuries ahead. Ugly scenes followed as William ordered one of the hostages that had been given to him as a sign of good faith to be publicly blinded. But the Normans suffered heavy losses. After nearly two weeks, Exeter surrendered but only on one condition, William would not punish the populace either physically or financially. William, facing rebellion elsewhere, acquiesced. Gytha, incidentally, seems to have been smuggled out just before the Norman king arrived. England, as a whole, didn’t fully come under Norman control until about 1072.

    The gatehouse of Exeter Castle id the oldest Norman castle building in Britain. (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    What happened to Exeter next? After the siege, the Normans tore down the houses that stood on the hill at the northernmost parts of the walled city and built Rougemont Castle (Red Hill, because of the colour of the volcanic soil), essentially to keep a watchful eye on Exeter’s potentially restless population. Today, 950 years later, not much more than the castle walls remain. But these walls do include the original Norman gatehouse, widely considered to be one of the finest examples of early Norman architecture still visible in the UK. It is certainly the earliest Norman castle building still in existence, predating the more famous White Tower at the Tower of London by about ten years.

    Ironically, as my colleague Tim Isaac points out in our bestselling new book, Secret Exeter, a flaw in the design of the gatehouse essentially made them useless from the outset. It is this very uselessness which has ensured their survival to this day. Lucky for us!

    Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam's new book Secret Exeter is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Chepstow by Louise Wyatt

    Chepstow Castle, viewed from Castle Dell. (Secret Chepstow, Amberley Publishing)

    Chepstow has always caught my eye when travelling through the Wye Valley; it’s quaint, historical and has that olde-worlde market place buzz about it. There are the fantastic remains of Chepstow Castle and all the history that holds but one thing I’ve always done on my travels, and regarding my love of history, is wanting to know about the un-told stories, the local history of a place, the unknown parts of a town – especially one with such a history as Chepstow.

    The one thing I love about writing for Amberley’s Secret series is I get to indulge all of my inquisitiveness! With the help of fabulous resources such as old newspapers, British History Online and old books, it becomes a labour of love searching for all the secret history. Chepstow had many resources thankfully and thus Secret Chepstow was born, my second book for the series.

     

    Looking up from the residential road towards remains of the Neolithic burial chamber, which is typical of a Severn-Cotswold-type chamber, as described by GGAT. (Secret Chepstow, Amberley Publishing)

    I deliberately avoided donating too much of the book to the Castle. Whilst it is beyond doubt a magnificent ruin with many famous custodians over time, there are many books available out there; therefore, I stuck to a timeline of the Castle’s history. However, visiting the place and taking photos was very enjoyable.

    My first surprise was discovering Chepstow didn’t actually exist until 1067-71 onwards, when William FitzOsbern, a distant cousin and boyhood friend to William the Conqueror, started the building of Chepstow Castle. The original inhabited areas on that particular geographical location was the suburb of Thornwell, just south of modern-day Chepstow. Within the housing development it is now, are the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, still with stones atop the grass mound. I imagine in Neolithic times it was quite a desolate place, with the marshes down to the Severn estuary. Near to this chamber is the old farmhouse, Grade II listed and now converted into flats. Despite having a wall around it and the car park adjacent, one can only wonder at what the views were like when it was a working farm (it was in its dying throes of a working farm as late as 1956). Thornwell reputedly took its name from the thorn tree that grew by the well near the farmhouse. Archaeological excavations discovered the well in early 2007 and thought to be medieval in origin. Although left in situ, it is now covered by modern buildings. I’m no geographical whizz, but I believe it to be somewhere under the nearby Tesco/Homebase.

    Thornwell Farm House from the Wales Coast Path. (Secret Chepstow, Amberley Publishing)

    Nearby Bulwark was home to the Silures, a fearsome tribe that ruled the land around this area. They defeated the Romans in AD 52 although were to eventually succumb to Roman power. However, despite looking like just an empty field now, thanks to past excavations we know this area held round timber housing, farms for brewing, bread-making and raising cattle.

    The earliest known Norman Priory built in Wales was that of Chepstow. Now the site of a Tesco car park, the Priory Church remains as St Mary’s. Here lies the tomb of notable residents and historical figures such as Henry Marten, a close friend of Oliver Cromwell, (whom Martens Tower at the Castle is named after). Parliamentarians took Chepstow in 1645 during the Civil War and Cromwell himself is said to have stayed in a nearby house. Although taken by Royalists in 1648, Cromwell retook Chepstow and spent money on reinforcements. After the restoration of the monarch under Charles II, Marten was found guilty of regicide and imprisoned for twenty years to his death in Martens Tower (possibly called Bigods Tower previously).

    Parish records of St Mary's in Chepstow, showing the burial of Kezia Dutheridge. (Kind thanks to St Mary's for loan of the register book, Secret Chepstow, Amberley Publishing)

    Also in St Mary’s is the tomb of Elizabeth Browne who married the Earl of Worcester and became a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn – it is said she helped smear the name of Anne Boleyn during her trial. There is also the glorious tomb of Margaret Cleyton who died in 1627 and had twelve children! A wealthy benefactor who gave much to the town of Chepstow.

    However, to me, the following is what secret history is all about – the simple death register entry of a Kezia Dutheridge (middle line):

    I came upon the name John Dutheridge whilst researching census records on Chepstow Workhouse. I noted how his entry read he was an orphan – not uncommon in a workhouse – and a scholar (so being educated within the workhouse) but was aged only seven. For some reason, I put his name into a simple Google search. To my amazement, a few pages in, his name crops up in an old newspaper report. That lead me to search old newspapers, birth and death registers to build up a picture. And thanks to him growing into a rogue, he left bit of a trail! He spent time in Abergavenny Asylum, Usk Gaol, Monmouth Gaol and regular readmissions to Chepstow Workhouse.

    Part of the graveyard on the north side of St Mary's, with eighteenth-century graves and Church Row cottages in the background. (Secret Chepstow, Amberley Publishing)

    A Kezia Dutheridge was on the Workhouse census as giving birth to a son, John, but she passed away the same quarter and year. With a surname like that, I summarised this was the same John I had found (whose census dates added up) and Kezia, aged 24, had died in childbirth. She had a pauper’s grave at St Mary’s, as did John when he died. Thanks to the kind people in St Mary’s at the time, I was able to take a photo of the death register for Kezia. Unfortunately, although Monmouthshire Council state pauper graves are marked with a ‘P’, I failed to find them in the graveyard and no one at the church at the time I was researching knew exactly where they were. But by mentioning the Dutheridges in my book, I hope it highlights the intrigue of local history and local people against a backdrop of warrior kings and rich architecture. They may have had a pauper’s grave but in a graveyard of a church built by a mighty warlord that is thankfully still around after 950 or so years.

    Louise Wyatt's new book Secret Chepstow is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Stafford by Robert Nicholls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Secret Peterborough by June and Vernon Bull

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

    Longthorpe Tower and its Mystical murals

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

    Mural depicting the seasons. (Author's collection)

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

  • Secret Swindon by Angela Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

    A new life in Swindon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Becoming a Born again Swindonian

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

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

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

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

    Hell yes!

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

     

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

  • Secret Luton and Secret Bedford by Paul Adams

    Mossman Hearse – The Victorian hearse at Stockwood Park from the Luton Mossman collection, driven by Dracula in 1968. (Author's collection, Secret Luton, Amberley Publishing)

    Writing a local history book would appear to be a reasonably straightforward task. If you know your area and your subject then the book almost writes itself. For the two titles that I have contributed to Amberley’s ‘Secret Towns’ series – Secret Luton which appeared in 2017 and Secret Bedford which is published July 2018 – I found that things were not that easy.

    This was entirely due to the fact that from the outset I made a rod for my own back, something that was intentional, but ultimately was to make better books of each. In both cases I decided that if the reader already knew about it then it wasn’t a secret and the fact would either be ignored or only mentioned briefly in passing. For Luton this meant dismissing the town’s famous hat industry and ‘The Hatters’ themselves (Luton Town FC), and giving no place to either Vauxhall cars or Luton Airport (sorry Lorraine Chase).  In Bedford, noted eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard and the earlier Puritan preacher John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, are conspicuous by their absence, as are the town’s indigenous brick making and lace industries.

    The Grand Theatre in the former Waller Street - now a lost building. (C. Old Photos of Luton FB group, Secret Luton, Amberley Publishing)

    Both Secret Luton and Secret Bedford demonstrate an eclectic undercurrent of local history that is decidedly off the beaten track. I also felt that it was important to explore the connections with subjects that have personally interested me for a long time, namely true crime, film making, music and ghosts! I also wanted each book to be practical, which is why both end with a guided walk around the town centre pointing out locations, buildings and other features of interest.

    George Mossman (1908-1993) from Caddington on the outskirts of Luton is one of the un-sung heroes of the British film industry. His collection of horse-drawn coaches and carriages, the finest in the country, was donated to Luton Museum in the early 1990s and is on display at the Stockwood Park Discovery Centre. If you watch any British period film from the 1950s and 1960s, the chances are that the coaches in it were supplied by the Mossman Company, and in many cases George Mossman himself plays the coachman. Horror fans who take a trip to Stockwood Park can see in person several vehicles used by the famous Hammer Films including the Victorian hearse driven by Christopher Lee in the 1968 Dracula Has Risen From the Grave as well as coaches used in 1958’s Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter from 1974. Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who was also filmed around Luton in the early 1970s, while Bedford’s film and television connections include 1965’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and the comedy classic, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, which was filmed in numerous locations in and around the town.

     

     

    The giant airship R101 photographed at its mooring mast at Cardington, Bedford. On 5 October 1930 it crashed in France with the loss of forty-eight lives. (Secret Bedford, Amberley Publishing)

    Although urban development has taken place in Bedford through the years, the layout of its main streets and many historic buildings remains the same. The noted architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), creator of the iconic Natural History Museum in London, designed the town’s Shire Hall, while another architect Francis Penrose (1817-1903), who held the same position as Surveyor of the Fabric of St Paul’s Cathedral once occupied by Sir Christopher Wren, also worked here. When researching Luton’s architectural history, it became clear that many fine buildings from the town’s past have been lost. One such casualty is the old Grand Theatre which was officially opened in 1898 by the Edwardian beauty Lillie Langtry, former mistress of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales.

    The mysterious world of the paranormal is both well represented in both towns. The first ‘official’ investigation into a haunted house in 1947 involved Luton Council which was requested to lower the rates of a building alleged to be haunted by the ghost of Dick Turpin! In the 1970s, the daughter of the famous Scottish materialisation medium Helen Duncan (1897-1956) also lived in Luton and ran a Spiritualist centre in the town. Bedford has strong connections with another medium, the Victorian William Stainton Moses (1839-92), but its most interesting ghost story is one that connects the flamboyant psychical researcher Harry Price, the investigator of the famous Borley Rectory, with the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the ill-fated R101 airship which left Cardington on the outskirts of Bedford on 4 October 1930 never to return.

    Hardingstone Grave – The grave of the unknown victim of the ‘Blazing Car Murder’. (Author's collection, Secret Bedford, Amberley Publishing)

    Bedford’s Corn Exchange is intimately associated with the wartime concerts of Glenn Miller. The American bandleader was based in the town and left nearby Twinwood Farm on 15 December 1944 never to be seen again. There is also a proud history of music making – the BBC Symphony Orchestra was based here during the Second World War – and British premieres of major orchestral works by composers such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich were given in wartime broadcasts by Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Henry Wood. Nearer to our own times, the popular violinist Nigel Kennedy gave his first profession performance with the Luton Symphony Orchestra in 1984, while the town was a major centre for the development of punk music and culture in the mid-1970s.

    Where true crime is concerned, Bedford Prison’s status up until the 1960s as a hanging prison brought several notorious murderers both to the town and the gallows. They include the 1961 ‘A6 killer’ James Hanratty and the earlier perpetrator of the 1930 ‘Blazing Car Murder’ Alfred Arthur Rouse whose victim has to this day never been identified. In 1944, the Luton Sack Murder gripped the town when an unidentified body was retrieved by factory workers from the River Lea. This proved to be Irene Manton whose husband ‘Bertie’ Manton escaped the hangman but died in Bedford Prison in 1947. The Sack Murder involved the celebrated London pathologist Professor Keith Simpson whose celebrated cases include the murders at Rillington Place and ‘Acid Bath’ killer, John Haigh.

    These are just a few of the facts and figures which go to make up the secret history of these two seemingly unassuming Bedfordshire towns.

     

     

    Paul Adams' books Secret Luton and Secret Bedford are available for purchase now.

  • Secret Chesterfield by Richard Bradley

    The Crooked Spire, Chesterfield's wonky landmark. (Secret Chesterfield, Amberley Publishing)

    My first book, Secret Chesterfield, published February through Amberley, was an accidental conception. It was never one of my life's ambitions to write a book about Chesterfield – it just sort of happened. I had been working on an ongoing survey of Derbyshire folklore and calendar customs, past and present, and had made a list of potential publishers who specialised in local history to approach, Amberley being one of the companies was on my hit list. In 2016 I discovered that Amberley in conjunction with the Historical Association had run a national history book competition – but only saw this after the closing date. I saw by chance that in 2017 the competition was being re-run – this time three days before the deadline. I managed to squeak an entry in in time – but didn’t win.

    However, the unexpected consolation prize was that shortly after the competition deadline I was contacted by Nick Grant of Amberley and asked if I wanted to write a title for them. Err, OK then. Seemed like too good an offer to refuse! Having been sent a list of the local history strands that Amberley published, the one that appealed to me the most by far was the 'Secret’ series one. Chesterfield was mutually agreed on the area to focus on as I had quite a bit of material from my existing research covering the area. Although I hadn't grown up there myself, most of my family comes from the surrounding towns and villages. I didn’t really possess the requisite time, inclination or discipline required to write a comprehensive history of Chesterfield from the founding of the town to the present day, but the 'Secret' series was just up my street, focussing on the history that had fallen through the cracks in the pavements. The worst indictment for 'Secret Chesterfield' would be for a member of the townsfolk to read it from cover to cover and think, 'Well, I knew all that already!' It was a fun challenge hunting out obscure facts and episodes that it seemed most people wouldn’t know about.

    George Stephenson, inventor of straight cucumbers. Oh, and public railways. (Secret Chesterfield, Amberley Publishing)

    I studied History at A Level, but the exalted activities of Louis XIV lavishing his subjects’ money on extending his vanity project palace at Versailles and the tedious ins and outs of British political history of the 1800s had failed to inspire me, and I subsequently received a ‘D’ (there were six of us in my History class; two of my fellow students got results good enough to net themselves a place at the University of Cambridge). On a personal level, the publication of Secret Chesterfield goes some way towards atonement for my rubbish A Level result.

    The visuals were an important part of the project, the 'Secret’ series requiring 100 images to illustrate them. As a non-driver, I passed through Chesterfield on the train most weeks taking my son to visit his grandparents. Throughout the summer and autumn months, as we were picked up at Chesterfield Station I would ask my parents if we could just make a brief detour before driving over to their house in order that I could photograph an ice cream factory/milestone/remains of an oilwell at the back of a garden centre/abandoned churchyard for inclusion in the book. The most surreal moment came when I rang them up en route to meet us and asked if they had a spare cucumber, which I then balanced precariously on the palm of the statue of the town’s illustrious adopted son George Stephenson outside Chesterfield Railway Station, to illustrate his perfectionist zeal for growing immaculately straight cucumbers. This act drew glances from passing commuters which ranged from puzzlement to mild alarm.

    I also enjoyed sourcing the archive images for the book. I have collected postcards on and off for years, so added a few new (old) postcards of Chesterfield to my collection for the purposes of illustrating the book, as the author guidance notes I received from Amberley explained that old postcards are generally OK to use from a copyright point of view. I also sweet-talked various local groups including the Dronfield Heritage Trust, the North East Derbyshire Field Club, and the Chesterfield Astronomical Society (who let me use some wonderful images of their observatory, tucked away down a cul-de-sac in Newbold, being built in the 1950s) into kindly allowing me to use old photos from their collections, which really do add a lot to the book.

    The finished article: town pump Princess Diana well dressing, 2017. (Secret Chesterfield, Amberley Publishing)

    The thread of part of my narrative for a ‘Secret’ history ended up being spoilt rather unexpectedly (and spectacularly) during the course of the writing process. I was including a chapter on ‘Water’ in the book in which I planned to include the Chesterfield well dressings. This practice, of producing a design using natural materials (flower petals, moss, bark, pine cones wool, etc.) in thanks for the gift of water during the summer months, is a well-known phenomenon largely peculiar to Derbyshire. However, it is much more readily associated with the villages of the limestone White Peak areas of the Peak District such as Tideswell, Youlgrave, Buxton and Wirksworth. The fact that Chesterfield had produced dressings since at least 1864 seemed to me a greatly-overlooked fact. However, one of the teams of dressers in 2017 (when I was writing the book) decided to choose an image of Princess Diana as a subject for their well dressing, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death in a Parish car smash as well as the fact that along with Prince Charles she had opened the towns shopping centre development, The Pavements, in 1981. The end result, whilst entirely heartfelt, turned out a little – shall we say – wonky. It was widely shared on the internet, provoking reactions ranging from sarcasm and hilarity to genuine anger – firstly among locals (several of whom commented they never knew Chesterfield made a well dressing, thus vindicating my original line of approach), and then as the story spread like wildfire from citizens of countries around the world. Although the ‘secret’ of the Chesterfield well dressing was now well and truly out, Diana still had to go in the book, it was too good a story to omit.

    How could you earn £10 just from looking in shop windows? Why was the former leader of Chesterfield Council once dressed as a pig and paraded around in a wheelbarrow? Why is a black puddle full of leaves at the back of a garden centre a site of national significance? What was the 19th Century Rector of Staveley’s unusual hobby? How did a troupe of elephants help to bring down an illegal betting ring? Why did the village cross the road? Find out the answers to all these questions, and more, in Secret Chesterfield.

    Richard Bradley's book Secret Chesterfield is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Falkirk by Jack Gillon

    Robert Buchanan. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    Robert Buchanan – Falkirk’s Bard

    Falkirk in Central Scotland is a small town with a big history and, unlike many other towns, its own bard.

    Robert Buchanan was born in Falkirk’s Steeple Land on 22 June 1835. His father was a baker who worked in and later owned the Pie Office at the steeple. Robert attended Falkirk Parish School where he was ‘not noteworthy for either his regular attendance or overwhelming love of his studies’. On leaving school he was apprenticed as a currier in his Uncle John Gillespie’s business at the foot of Bell’s Wynd. However, his ‘constitution was delicate’ and he did not have the ‘bodily strength necessary for such laborious employment’. At the age of twenty-two Robert was nominated to Her Majesty’s Customs and was appointed to a position at the port of Grangemouth.

    After ten years at Grangemouth, Robert was promoted to a position in Dublin and later to Londonderry. Although Robert’s career prospered in Ireland, he was homesick for Falkirk – his ‘dear auld toon wi’ grey spire crowned’. His wife, Margaret Rankine, a fellow Bairn of Falkirk, passed away from consumption in July 1874 and her remains were returned to Falkirk for internment. The loss of Margaret was a severe blow to Robert and despite plans to return to his native town, he passed away in Londonderry on 31 December 1875.

     

    The Pie Office, High Street. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    Robert was known at school as a ‘ready rhymer’ and, from 1856, contributed poems to the local paper on a regular basis. His poetry is noted as being distinguished for its ‘light, fanciful grace and airy turn of thought and rhythm.’ A collection of his poems was published in 1901. These feature a number of works dedicated to Falkirk and the ‘Glories of Grangemeouth’.

    His poem ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’ was written for a reunion of the Bairns of Falkirk living in Glasgow. It was set to music composed by John Fulcher, and was first performed by the local singer Michael Rennie at the Glasgow Trades Hall on 26 January 1866, where it was ‘warmly applauded by the assembled Bairns of Falkirk’. The tune was arranged for the Falkirk Iron Works Band and played at most of their public appearances. It was for a time Falkirk’s anthem (the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ of the Falkirk Bairns); for many years it was sung at ‘all convivial gatherings held in the ‘dear auld toon’ and wherever the Bairns of Falkirk congregated. It was even introduced into the curriculum of Falkirk board schools.

     

    ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’:

     

    The dear auld toon, wi’ grey spire crown’d

    In happy langsyne days,

    We wandered, sun and tempest browned,

    Amang they glens and braes;

    We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet,

    Our hearts beat aye the same,

    And time can never memory flit

    Frae thee, our dear auld hame.

     

    CHORUS

    For we canna forget the dear auld hame,

    Gae wander where we will;

    Like the sunny beam o’ a simmer’s dream

    That lingers near us still.

     

    We mind where Carron silvery flings

    Her white spray o’er the linn,

    And dashing doon the woodland sings,

    Wi’ bubbling, brattling din;

    And love blinks o’ a bonnie e’e

    We won by Marion’s Well,

    Twines every round life’s stormy sea,

    A fairy plaited spell.

     

    Wha wadna lo’e thee? Dear auld hame!

    Wha round thee hasna shared

    That sacred fire that laid De Graeme

    Within the auld kirkyaird?

    And strewed thy field wi’ horse brave,

    Wha focht in Freedom’s name,

    And bleeding won an honoured grave

    In building Scotia’s fame.

     

    Oh, dear auld hame! tho’ toiling years

    Hae left us sere and grey,

    A glimpse o’ langsyne ‘mid our tears

    Turns dark’ning nicht to day.

    We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet,

    Our hearts beat aye the same,

    And time can never mem’ry flit

    Frae thee, oor dear auld hame.

     

    The unveiling of the momument to Robert Buchanan. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1899 a proposal to erect a monument to Buchanan to ‘perpetuate his memory’ was suggested in the columns of the local paper. In less than three months, £38 and 10s was raised by subscription for the proposed monument. The subscriptions were

    donated by those that ‘had the privilege of personal acquaintance with Buchanan, and who admired him for his poetic gifts and his qualities of head and heart’ and ‘those of a later generation who were happy to support one who had sang so sweetly of the dear auld toon’.

    The ‘chaste and imposing’ monument to Buchanan was unveiled in Falkirk Cemetery on 30 September 1899. Despite torrential rain a large crowd gathered for the ceremony, including one of Buchanan’s daughters, who had travelled from Liverpool to attend the event. The unveiling ceremony ended with a rendition of the ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’, which it was reported ‘touched the hearts of everyone that attended’.

    Perhaps a recital of ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’ should be revived for present-day events in the town.

    Jack Gillon's new book Secret Falkirk is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Wrexham by John Idris Jones

    John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson (1728-1808). (Secret Wrexham, Amberley Publishing)

    I have already done Secret Chester and found this new work Secret Wrexham is nothing like it, it’s like chalk and cheese. Chester, as we all know, is charm personified. You go back to the Romans, who set its street pattern, and historically it was rich with traders and merchants who occupied its varied locations in the town’s streets, marked by ‘the rows’, making it an unique feature.

    The town of Wrexham has no such rich history. It came alive with the Industrial Revolution; before that, it was a small town with markets; rural and not industrial. The river Clywedog ran through it, and supplied water to the new factories, and to leather works. John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson was the main man who was involved in the industrial works of Wrexham. Buried in an iron coffin, they say. Coal came out of the ground in some 26 sites; some of the pits were huge; four had shafts descending some 2,000 feet. So the miners needed accommodation; Ruabon and particularly Rhos had rows of dwellings where families crowded-in.  In the present economy, some of these sell for a low price. So coal transformed the town of Wrexham. Then iron-ore was mined as well, and the iron-and-steel industry prospered. They say that cannons were created here for the wars 1780-1815. The small town, in a hundred years, was transformed into an industrial hub.

    Bersham colliery. (Secret Wrexham, Amberley Publishing)

    The strange thing is that ‘Wrexham’ is in two parts.  Firstly there is the town, of some 60,000 folk. Then there is the rest of Wrexham County Borough, which actually has a bigger population.  In Minera there used to be lead works, very bad for your health. In a short walk, out of the town, you enter rich farmland. The most charismatic is the Ceiriog Valley, some 13 miles of it, the road turning and twisting as it follows the trout-rich River Ceiriog.

    Pontcysyllte has the astonishing aqueduct, designed by Telford; it is 336 yards long, a width of four yards and a height of 126 feet. It is still in fine working order, despite its origin in being completed in 1805:  narrow-boats cross it frequently. There are three other spectacular bridges on this part of the Dee.

     

     

    Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. (Secret Wrexham, Amberley Publishing)

    The man who gave his name to Yale University, USA, Elihu Yale, lived in Wrexham; he is buried in the local church.

    Offa’s Dyke runs through the area; built in the late eighth century, to keep the Welsh in order!

    The village of Marford has peculiar architecture; echoes of children’s stories in its pointed-top windows and doors.

    Erbistock has a popular pub/restaurant on the bank of the Dee.  Overton in 1292 received a charter from King Edward 1st. Hanmer, close to the English border, is where Lorna Sage grew up.  She is famous for her book ‘Bad Blood’.

    So, here is a lot to cover; much variety; from the industrial to the agrarian. My book is full of my photographs of Wrexham and I hope I have done justice to an area that is much more than a centre of industry.

    John Idris Jones' new book Secret Wrexham is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Hayes by Louise Wyatt

    Yeading Meadows, Yeading Nature Reserve - also known as The Greenway to many locals. (Image courtesy of Dudley Miles under Creative Commons 2.0, Secret Hayes, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m very grateful to my editor Becky Cousins for the opportunity in the first place, as Secret Hayes is my first traditionally published book. And many thanks to the publishing team for such a fabulous series to write for (I’m on my second book for the series, Secret Chepstow) and for such a professional job for turning my Word document into something so pleasurable. I tried not to dwell on the facts more commonly known – such as George Orwell being a teacher there in the 1930’s – but searched for facts such as finding out just who those fanciful tombs in the local Norman church belonged to.

    I had always imagined myself a fiction writer so delving into the historical non-fiction world was a tad scary, but boy did I enjoy it! I have always been fascinated by uncovering unknown facts, be it at home, holiday or just out and about. Hence why I began my blog after breaking my ankle in 2012, about places I had visited and things I had found out. When I was mobile again, I began blogging about walks I had been on and buildings – sometimes ruinous and sometimes not – that I had stumbled upon. Discovering a pile of rubble in some woods that just so happened to be the remains of an important strategic castle in the twelfth century really fired me up!

    Sketch of Hayes parish in 1874 by Thomas Mills. (Secret Hayes, Amberley Publishing)

    I had to start with what I knew plenty about – the town I grew up in. Now a busy suburb of London, cut up on all sides by Heathrow, the M4, M40 and so on, I knew it wasn’t always so. When I was growing up, we had such good times – fields to play in, shops nearby but also able to retreat to a quiet place. It was during writing Secret Hayes that I found out just how important those ‘fields to play in’ were; now classified nature reserves with SSSI status they are more than just fields. It is an important snapshot of what was and what is still thriving, to show how the eco-system can survive in such a densely populated area and giving the local people a fabulous piece of breathing space.

    Despite all the housing developments, old and new, there are still pockets of history all around. I had always known there were ‘old buildings’ a bus ride away, but only by researching this book have I been led to understand Hayes has a central conservation area, listed buildings and award-winning open green areas that are remnants of an ancient forest and old farms; amazingly, a couple of farms are still in living memory of residents – development has been quite hard and fast when looking at things via a timeline.

    Comparing ‘then’ and ‘now’ photographs was mind-boggling during research, especially when you know the area well. How the pub that had ‘always just been behind the traffic lights’ was actually the oldest in Hayes, a main coaching inn back in the day and opposite a village-green type pond. All long gone, apart from the pub. Also discovering via research that the area where you grew up probably had higher crime statistics on a one-to-one ratio than modern day was bit of an eye-opener too; the isolation, the difficulty in connecting to main routes, as it seems even the Romans bypassed the little corner of Hayes we know as Yeading. Discovering newspaper articles of the day about dastardly deeds in an area you know was very engrossing!

    The 1086 entry for Hayes, noting 108 households and fifty-nine geld (taxable) units, including meadow, woodland and pasture worth £30. (Professor John Palmer and George slater on opendomesday.org.uk, Secret Hayes, Amberley Publishing)

    I was extremely fortunate to get my hands on an original book entitled History of Hayes by Thomas Mills, written in 1874. The author signed the inner cover and the book was dedicated to a family member, Sir Charles Mills, who happened to be Lord of Hillingdon at the time. I found it extremely difficult to make the connection between them and time – as well as my word count – was running out! I had noticed whilst researching credible sources I had found online that they constantly had this book in their bibliographies and when I Googled it, there was the only copy available on Amazon. A tad expensive but I just had to have it. Not only did it help give me a fabulous insight to the Hayes of the late 1800’s, it was very special holding a book of that age in my hands. In fact, I was almost too scared to hold it and it is now safely tucked away. Thomas Mills’ detailed sketches and beautiful descriptive language as eye-witness accounts transported me to a Hayes that was the village it always had been, up until the early 1900’s.

    Hayes will probably go on to be continually developed but I’m hoping my book will enable people to realise that beneath their feet is history; that buildings exist in Hayes that have been there when the area was an idyllic backwater – although I do use the term idyllic loosely. Many people were poor, they had farms to work, miles to tread to the nearest market town (in this case, Uxbridge) and Yeading in particular appears to have been a hard place to live, with its farms, then brickfields and isolation. But the area is still remembered fondly by many and if one cares to look closely, pockets of the meadow, woodland and pasture that were mentioned so long ago in the Domesday Book are still there.

    Louise Wyatt's new book Secret Hayes is available for purchase now.

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