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  • Secret Rutland by Daniel J. Codd

    The Development of ‘Secret Rutland’

    The idea for Secret Rutland may be said to have developed from two basic concepts.

    View of Hambleton from Rutland Water. The submerged hamlets of Nether and Middle Hambleton lie to the left. (Author's collection, Secret Rutland, Amberley Publishing)

    From a personal perspective, I have always been fascinated by Rutland Water as a feat of human engineering, although I accept that had I been born a generation or so earlier I might have had quite a different opinion on its at-the-time controversial development. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by a particular story that I heard on a number of occasions while walking the water’s edge: that, when the conditions were right, the bells of a church could be heard tolling beneath the waterline. This was because while developing Rutland Water ‘they had to flood some villages’. Only the latter part of this anecdote is partially true, but I was intrigued by the way that an old folkloric theme – that of the bells of submerged churches still tolling underwater – had become reinvented to fit a modern damming project like Rutland Water.

    The second concept concerned an observation that Rutland as a county warranted books about itself only infrequently. In fact, Rutland in literature seemed to suffer from a predisposition to be included within books on Leicestershire, almost as an afterthought. This seemed a little unfair, although somewhat understandable because between the 1970s and 1990s it was amalgamated into that neighbouring county. Although a small part of England, Rutland appeared so deserving of a book of its own that the idea for Secret Rutland was proposed. The outcome was by no means guaranteed – after all, there are UK towns with larger populations than the whole of Rutland put together! But with so much untapped history and local lore, the opportunity to devote a work wholly to Rutland proved to be viable one.

    Martinsthorpe - deserted scenic, possibly haunted, and somehow symbolic of Rutland. (Author's collection, Secret Rutland, Amberley Publishing)

    County folk proved very forthcoming with snippets of data for the work. One of the great joys of preparing the book was that it provided the opportunity to explore every corner and aspect of England’s smallest county. I had already made a resolution that I would visit every single parish church, large or small, since these are traditionally where a phenomenal amount of local knowledge can be gathered. But particularly enjoyable were the necessary excursions into Rutland’s beautiful open countryside. I was continually amazed how, even in Rutland, one could still find that they were out in the ‘middle of nowhere’.

    As an example, one exploratory walk the reader may find extremely rewarding proved to be the one from Manton to Martinsthorpe. Martinsthorpe is a deserted village so loftily positioned that it provides commanding views of the surrounding countryside, with church spires distantly visible in each direction, and Rutland Water shining like a giant mirror away to the east. Medieval earthworks surround the one remaining house at the spot, the post-medieval Old Hall farm. This is currently deserted, and the explorer will find no company out here apart from the sheep – and possibly the ghost of a civil-war era messenger said to haunt this windswept site. The point is that I found this spot to be classic Rutland – reminiscent of a beautifully tranquil, slightly removed time capsule that might be a metaphor for the county as a whole. This was just one of many rewarding and inspirational jaunts into the heart of Rutland.

    Barrowden's cryptic stone. (Author's collection, Secret Rutland, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, as is always the case, not everything made it into the final work. Many are the poignant memorials to the sons of Rutland lost in the Great War, particularly inside Uppingham’s school and church. In the end just a small handful of these were observed in the finished publication to reflect the county’s sacrifice. But other sombre memorials can today be found within and without all of Rutland’s churches (except Teigh), including for instance the poppy-decorated cross at Market Overton dedicated to Lieutenant Vincent Wing, killed in 1917. The roses in the churchyard here were planted in his honour. Even if it were not the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, these would still be sites worth seeking out, as are the modern stained glass windows at Edith Weston and South Luffenham reflecting Second World War activity in the county. Another story omitted from the finished book concerned the deeds of the Parliamentarian soldier and independent thinker Robert Overton, who died while under house arrest at Seaton in 1678. A brass plaque to his memory can be found at Seaton’s church. And elsewhere in the county, near to the village pond at Barrowden, one cottage has an older stone block incorporated into its wall, which bears a cryptic inscription. This appears to be for the attention of anyone gazing upon coffins being taken into the church, for it tells them that they will themselves inevitably die! These places of interest are reminders that Rutland has yet other secrets not included in Secret Rutland!

    They are also reminders that every parish in Rutland has its own story to tell, naturally, and Secret Rutland could have evolved into an explanation of each village’s development, focusing on halls that no longer stand, the sites of village ponds and wells that have been filled in, who owned the local blacksmith in 1927, where the sheep-washes could be located, and so on. This would undoubtedly also have been an interesting project, although such a then-and-now approach to Rutland had already been touched upon in Amberley’s Through Time series. Nonetheless, to a certain extent, snippets of parish development have been mentioned incidentally throughout the finished publication. Also included in Secret Rutland are many ‘secret’ stories from Rutland’s past that have until now been hidden in the archives, as well as a smattering of local colour in the form of folk-lore. But the main objective of the book is hopefully to highlight to the reader, be they Raddle-folk or tourists, the hidden items of interest that may yet be sought out and observed … that is to say, the evidences of Rutland’s fascinating story which are still there to be seen, even if they take some finding!

    Daniel J. Codd's new book Secret Rutland is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Cambridge by Andrew Sargent

    It is difficult to write something fresh about a place which is as well known and loved as Cambridge. The run of colleges along The Backs are a vital part of our national heritage, and King’s College Chapel is familiar the world over from the televised Christmas Eve broadcast of Carols from King’s.

    Friends asked me to justify offering a new book. The answer is that, while a small slice of the town is a national treasure visited by millions every year, most of its long history passes them by. The focus on the colleges means that much else is hidden in plain sight; more is tucked away and forgotten. I studied and lived in Cambridge for fifteen years, and was aware that even in that time I barely scratched the surface.

    The Mathematical Bridge at Queens' College, originally designed by William Etheridge in 1749, has been rebuilt several times. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    Secret Cambridge is probably unique in its approach. It explores the whole town, not just the famous colleges, and it takes in the whole story of Cambridge from its Roman origins to the present day. But it is not just a history: it also looks for the places where events happened, and traces the surviving physical clues to the past – things you can see and touch. It will be as stimulating for Cambridge residents who want to know more about their town as for visitors.

    There was a town here, beside the Cam, a thousand years before the first scholars made it their home. That town continued alongside the growing university, the two becoming increasingly intertwined and their relationship becoming ever more complex. It is easy not to appreciate today, but for much of history Cambridge was a transport hub. It was an important river crossing and the last bridging point before the fens and the sea. It was also the highest navigable point for seagoing vessels, a place where cargoes could be transferred between road and water. The city arms still show three ships riding at anchor beneath a bridge.

    The Saxon tower of St Ben't's Church is the oldest structure in Cambridge. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    The Roman conquerors were quick to recognize the strategic importance of this crossing point, and a bridge was soon built. A small settlement sprang up on the bluff overlooking the crossing to service passing travellers, while a suburb grew up on the opposite bank along what is today known as Bridge Street. This settlement – barely a town – appears in itineraries under the name Duroliponte. In the fourth century AD the hilltop town, though not its suburb, was surrounded by a wall; its course is preserved in the street plan.

    Despite this Roman history, the settlement disappeared in the succeeding ‘Dark Ages’ – this was true of most British towns. There was no Cambridge at this date, although archaeology has discovered a lot of rural activity within the area of the modern city boundary. The settlement by the river crossing reappears in the documents in 875 when the Viking army over-wintered there. Notably, this was the first use of the place name Granta Brycge. In other words, someone (perhaps King Offa of Mercia) had built a new (presumably timber) bridge at this important location, and it would be reasonable to imagine a small settlement of entrepreneurs had sprung up around it. From this point onward, the town grew. About 50 years later, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex and son of Alfred the Great, cemented its importance by creating a burh (a fortified place) which became the administrative centre for his new shire. The oldest building in Cambridge, the 11th-century tower of St Bene’t’s church, is a relic of the thriving late Saxon town.

    The earthen motte of the first Norman castle offers wide views over the town. Other castle buildings lay beneath the Shire Hill and car park. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    The conquering Normans left their stamp in the form of the castle motte (or mound) which commands the view from the top of Castle Hill. Meanwhile, the Norman town prospered, in common with many market centres across the region. What marked Cambridge out was the annual Stourbridge Fair. Originally granted by King John as a fundraising venture for the leper hospital on Newmarket Road, it developed into the most important fair in England, attracting merchants from across Europe.

    The game-changing date was 1209. Oxford University temporarily suspended itself in protest at an unusually severe outbreak of violence by the townsfolk, and its scholars scattered. Most subsequently returned to Oxford, but a group decided to settle in their quiet fenland haven. At first they were probably unnoticed, but gradually the tensions between the civic and academic communities grew. As the conflict intensified, nobles, and even the King himself, were pressed into service in support of one side or the other. The university gained the upper hand, and it was only in the 19th century that relations began to be normalized.

    The great hall of 1290 and seventeenth-century chapel of Peterhouse, Cambridge's first college. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    Today the name Cambridge immediately brings to mind the many beautiful and venerable colleges. The early scholars, however, lived simply in rented lodgings. In the 13th century the friars and monks built their own monastic houses in the town where members of their orders could study. The foundation of the first college, Peterhouse, is reckoned from 1284 when Bishop Hugh de Balsham of Ely established a band of scholars in some buildings beside the church of St Peter without Trumpington Gate (now called Little St Mary’s). Even so, it was many years before the small community could afford to erect any new college buildings. Other wealthy and powerful donors followed the Bishop’s lead, resulting in the dramatic remodeling of the town centre which created the Cambridge we know today. A road named Milne Street which ran parallel to the High Street (now St John’s Street-Trinity Street-King’s Parade) was swept away; many houses were bought up and a church was demolished to make way. Unlike today, these first colleges were for graduates only; undergraduates were left to find accommodation around the town. The need to control their unruly behaviour formed part of the drive for students to live in colleges.

    One of the most striking features of Cambridge is the way the countryside seems to wind through the town. It is possible to follow the river from Grantchester to Fen Ditton walking only a couple of short sections on the pavement. This gives the town a unique atmosphere.  Inevitably, it is in part a legacy of the university and colleges’ stubbornness which forced most suburban development to the east of the historic core.

    Today both town and university are growing. The university must add new facilities if it is to maintain its remarkable position as a world leader. As the fields of West Cambridge succumb to these pressures, this flexible town looks towards a new phase in its colourful life.

    Andrew Sargent's new book Secret Cambridge is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Richmond & Swaledale by Andrew Graham Stables

    Queen Cartimandua - an Iron Age Soap Opera

    Stanwick Fortifications SE. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Brigantes were an Iron Age tribe who lived throughout the north but mainly inhabited the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham. Their name actually means 'upland people' or 'hill dwellers’, a very appropriate appellation when the Pennines are at the heart of their territory. After the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, the Romans pushed north defeating Caractacus in 51AD and Boudicca in 61AD, but the Queen of the Brigantes chose to collaborate with the Romans. She is even credited with handing the British resistance fighter Caractacus over to the Romans, after he fled north hoping for sanctuary from another indigenous tribe. It should be remembered that Britain was not a nation at this time, but was rather a collection of independent and sometimes hostile tribes, who may have had longer held grievances with their neighbours than the Romans.

    Stanwick Fortifications Sign. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    Just to the north of Richmond are the Stanwick Fortifications, where it is believed the main residence of the Brigantes and their Queen, Cartimandua, was established. By 68AD, York and Catterick were the main northern bases for the Roman invader on the eastern side of the country, Chester being the largest on the west. They protected the main routes north and particularly the Pennine crossing, now known as the A66 or Stainmore Pass. The Catterick fort was situated on the river Swale less than a day’s march (10-12 miles) from the main concentration of Brigantes at Stanwick and excavations at the Stanwick site do show extensive trade with the Romans, demonstrated by pottery and glass objects. This clearly shows there must have been a form of communication and acceptance of the Mediterranean power on the edge of their lands. During excavations at the site hundreds of artefacts were discovered including a money hoard, chariot harnesses, swords and a horse face plate. Some of these are stored and sometimes displayed at the British Museum in London.

    Stanwick Fortifications still visible. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Stanwick site covers a huge area, with the 700 acres of land still clearly defined by the visible and very obvious earthworks, and to put the size of the site into some perspective, the famous Iron Age site of Maiden Castle at Dorchester is a mere 47 acres.

    The historical soap opera that unfolded at this time involved Cartimandua’s husband, who was called Venutius, and it is believed he came from the Carvetti tribe who inhabited Cumbria, maybe as part of a marriage alliance. He was anti-Roman and didn’t agree with his wife’s policies of cooperation with the invaders, which must have led to arguments, as Cartimandua divorced him and instead took his armour bearer as her lover. As you might imagine Venutius was a little upset with this dishonour, so he gathered other disaffected nobles and followers to attack his former wife. The Romans were distracted following the death of Nero and the political turmoil in Rome and Venutius managed to win, taking over the tribe, now hostile to the Roman forces.

    Stanwick Map overmarked to show area. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    By late 69AD the distractions in Rome were resolved and the Romans gathered their forces and very quickly defeated Venutius. There is no further mention in the histories to the fate of Cartimandua, no mention of her death and she seems to have simply fade away from history. This defeat of the Brigantes was the catalyst for the Roman expansion north and they moved from York and Chester, eventually reaching at least as far north as Dundee. This push north only took 10 years and before much longer the Romans established control over the whole of the north of the country.  They eventually fell back to Hadrian’s Wall which became the northern extent of the empire in the 120’s.

    The significance of this lovers tiff is huge, leading to Roman domination for the next 350 years and it all happened in the countryside surrounding Richmond and Swaledale.

    Andrew Graham Stables' new book Secret Richmond & Swaledale is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Dumfries by Mary Smith

    When burials in churches were banned in Scotland.

    Plaque on the site of the monastery. (Secret Dumfries, Amberley Publishing)

    One of my favourite parts of Secret Dumfries was a quote from Alf Truckell’s preface to the 1928 edition of McDowall’s History of Dumfries. He gave a colourful and somewhat startling account of events in the year 1607, taken from the town’s Privy Council records: ‘A man tries to strangle a boy with a garter and throws him in the Mill Dam in March: the King’s messenger comes through the town in May, to find the inhabitants dressed in green and armed for the May Play: a couple of Baillie’s sons take up the cry “a Lorebourne”, their fathers repeat it: shots are fired and horses wounded: the Messenger and his men flee: church burials have been outlawed some years before, a family break open the church door with tree-trunks and bury a dead relative within, whereupon another family hurry home, grab a corpse, and bury it, and a third family dig up an uncle and are about to bury him when the Law finally turns up…’

    I was especially intrigued by the references to church burials and how determined people were to defy the law and bury their relatives within the church itself. I had no time to do further research into when and why burials inside churches became illegal.

    I read the extract at the launch of Secret Dumfries and was delighted when someone emailed me a part of an article from a magazine which said The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland outlawed church burials, which it deemed idolatrous, in 1576. Anyone breaking the new rule could be suspended from the church until they repented publicly (did they have to remove the body?) and minsters who allowed the practice would also be suspended.

    St Mary's Church. (Secret Dumfries, Amberley Publishing)

    There were other good reasons for discontinuing the burial of bodies within the church. Before the Reformation wealthy and influential people such as the lairds (landed estate owners) were buried inside the church – sometimes beneath the family pew. This reduced the space available for the congregation. Also, bodies were not always interred very deeply and the smell of decomposition would have been unpleasant to say the least. Parishioners sometimes brought their dogs to church and dogs like nothing better than to dig up bones.

    I almost included a paragraph in Secret Dumfries saying this practice of sometimes shallow interment inside churches gave rise to the expression ‘stinking rich’. I’m so glad my word count was at its limit and I didn’t because, according to the website https://www.phrases.org.uk, apparently the expression only came into use in the twentieth century.

    The 1576 act was repeated in 1588, 1631 and in 1643, which is probably a good indication of people’s resistance to it. One rather extreme, and unpleasant, example occurred in 1607 in Durisdeer, near Dumfries. Adam Menzies, laird of Enoch had buried his young son in his family’s aisle of the kirk. Sir James Douglas, a staunch Presbyterian, of Drumlanrig had servants dig up the child’s body and rebury it in a shallow grave away from the church. Adam Menzies and his wife, who had just had another child, were understandably very upset. Despite being attacked by the minister, he reburied his son’s body in the kirk and appealed to the Privy Council. Although he was breaking the law regarding burials inside a church, the Privy Council took his side, allowing his child to remain in the family’s burial aisle.

    As for the family who used tree trunks to break down the door in the Dumfries church and set off a chain reaction as quoted at the start of this article, I was very pleased to learn his identity. According to Maureen M. Meikle in her book, The Scottish People 1490-1625, it was a John Irving who wanted to bury his mother.

    Mary Smith and Keith Kirk's new book Secret Dumfries is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Aldershot by Paul H. Vickers

    What is ‘secret’ about the history of Aldershot? The story of Aldershot’s growth from a small, rural village to the famous ‘home of the British Army’ and a thriving town has been told in various publications, including my previous Amberley titles Aldershot’s Military Heritage, Aldershot Through Time, and Aldershot History Tour. However, within the overall narrative there are many lesser-known stories of people and events which add to the richness of Aldershot’s history and give added insights into the making of the town’s unique character.

    The promontory of Caesar's Camp, seen from Long Bottom. (Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    The impression is sometimes given that Aldershot’s story only begins with the arrival of the Army in the mid-nineteenth century, but the area has been inhabited since ancient times. Secret Aldershot begins by delving back into early history and looking at some of the mysteries of archaeological sites such as Bat’s Hog Stye and Caesar’s Camp, the medieval village and the great landowning families, and how even tiny Aldershot was not immune from the violence of the English Civil War.

    Some of the stories revealed in the book were genuinely ‘secret’ as the files were highly classified when they were created and have only recently come into the public domain. The plans for defending the garrison against German invasion in World War Two were, of course, a wartime secret. Study of these reveals not only disagreements among generals about what were the priority area for protection but also that work on the defences progressed so slowly that they were unlikely to have been any real obstacle to an advancing invader. Equally classified were details of an underground headquarters into which the command staff would have moved in the event of attack from land or air, and how a Tunnelling Company of Royal Engineers struggled to build this in extremely difficult conditions and against a tight timetable. Moving to the Cold War era, the previously Top Secret 1960s mobilisation plans for Aldershot in the event of a nuclear world war have only recently been declassified and made available at the National Archives, and details are published for the first time in this book.

    Print of 1872 showing Fell's Aldershot railway viaduct. (Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    There are numerous events which were notorious at the time but have since been forgotten, such as the problems with maintaining law and order for both the civilian and military authorities. Owing to sensational stories in the national press of trouble and vice in Aldershot’s many pubs, beer-halls and cheap music halls, Aldershot gained a reputation for crime, drunkenness and immorality. Notoriously, in 1861 Captain Pilkington Jackson, who was ordered by the Secretary of State for War to report on conditions in Aldershot, said the town was “inhabited principally by Publicans, Brothel Keepers, Prostitutes, Thieves and Receivers of stolen property”, which predictably caused outrage among the local citizens when this was published in the national press. Such was the reputation of Aldershot that into the story came Victorian and Edwardian moralists and campaigners who were determined to reform the town and turn soldiers away from temptation to the paths of virtue.

    The Infirmary Stables, c. 1993. (c. AMM, Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite these early scandals, Aldershot has a great deal to be proud of. It was the site of many pioneering developments. Here the first steps were taken towards military aviation, with the establishment of the Royal Engineers’ Balloon School and experiments not only with balloons but also with man-lifting kites. With the huge numbers of animals used by the nineteenth century Army, important advances were made in early veterinary science and animal welfare, and the veterinary hospital established for the care of Army horses was a “state of the art” facility. There were also some novel innovations which failed, such as John Fell’s experimental military railway of 1872, of which there is now no trace left but for a short time looked as if it could have transformed military transportation.

    Aldershot Town FC, Southern League champions, 1929-30. (c. AMM, Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    To Aldershot’s various entertainment venues came many performers who went on to become household names, and it is amazing that in a town like Aldershot you could have seen the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Even in the 1980s, up and coming bands played Aldershot’s West End Centre, including the Stone Roses, Pulp, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, and many others. In the world of sport, Aldershot has seen many more famous names and sporting events than most towns of its size, with international footballers playing for Aldershot FC in the war years, the great cricketer Don Bradman and the Australian test team playing against the Army in the 1930s, and in 1948 some of the Olympic Games events were held here.

    It was very satisfying and enjoyable to write Secret Aldershot and to tell these forgotten stories, which I hope readers will find interesting, revealing or amusing.

    Paul H. Vickers' new book Secret Aldershot is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Romsey by Ian Dickerson

    The jam factory chimney. (Courtesy of the Vine family collection, Secret Romsey, Amberley Publishing)

    Romsey is a small market town nestled on the River Test and caught roughly midway between Winchester, Salisbury and Southampton in the South of England. It may be small but it has a lot of history. Sure it’s not as old as nearby Amesbury, which is just twenty five miles or so away and dates back around five thousand years, but with an Abbey that’s been around for over a millennium there’s plenty to tell.

    And therein lies a problem for unsurprisingly in a town this age, there have been plenty of people keen to tell the town’s story, starting perhaps in the eighteenth century with Dr John Latham, who amongst other things prepared for publication seven quarto volumes on the history of Romsey Abbey. Then there’s a local history society that’s been around for over forty years and who have published numerous books on the area and aspects of its history. Was there really room for one more?

    Having lived in the town for nigh on two decades and written a number of books on various subjects I was really hoping there was. I wanted to do something to celebrate a town that my family and I love.

    The research was fun; I dug into the history books and learnt about Ethelflaeda, who used to run the town’s nunnery and stand naked in the River Test in the middle of the night reciting religious chants for hours on end…which was interesting. Then I delved into one of the local history group’s publications called ‘So drunk he must have been to Romsey’ which was a great title for what turned out to be simply a list of pubs that used to be and could still be found in the town. Not really a book, more a catalogue.

    So I picked up another one, The Story of Romsey, which tried to encapsulate three thousand years of history—yes, it started with the history of the area in 1000 BC—in, erm, seventy-six pages. Granted it mentioned the likes of Jane Wadham, a niece of Queen Jane Seymour and Henry VIII’s third wife (in case you were wondering), who was a nun at the Abbey. She married John Foster, a local priest, causing great scandal. I’m sure they’d both be bemused to discover that they both have roads named after them on a new local development, and that you can walk from one to the other in just a couple of minutes. But when trying to tell a story of that scale in just a few pages, well let’s just say it lacked narrative.

    Front page of the Daily Mirror commemorating the death of Florence Nightingale. (Secret Romsey, Amberley Publishing)

    We even went on a tour of the town given by one of the leading lights of the historical society. It was interesting enough but only after the event did I realise what bugged me about it; it was all about the buildings, the river and their respective histories. It wasn’t about the people. We met in the town centre, under a statue of Lord Palmerston, a nineteenth century British Prime Minister who was born and indeed died at Broadlands, a stately home on the outskirts of the town. He didn’t get a single mention in what was quite a lengthy talk.

    I realised that was it; the crux of my book and what was missing from the talk; the secret Romsey was the people and the community. Sure, buildings play a part, after all they don’t just build themselves. But it’s the people who live in them, the people who make them what they are.

    So with renewed focus I set about my work and I discovered more stories about the people of Romsey; poor Mrs Arter, a dung collector in the early 19th century who drowned when she dropped her kettle in a local stream and tried to rescue it; Arthur Gregory who was hauled into court for exceeding the five mile an hour speed limit with a 12 ton steam engine; and more well-known local folk like Florence Nightingale, David Frost and the Rev. W.E Awdry.

    And I spoke to people, many of whom had lived in Romsey all their life. One mentioned the smell of warm strawberry jam that would creep through the town on a summer’s day thanks to the jam factory that was on the main thoroughfare. Another mentioned how the community came together to build a boat for the boy’s brigade and yet another, well, she was the widow of the town’s newspaper editor for many years and boy did she have some stories. And some photos—many of which she was kind enough to let me use in the book.

    I learnt a lot about my home town in writing this book. Hopefully readers will too!

    Ian Dickerson's new book Secret Romsey is available for purchase now.

  • 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.

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