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  • Secret Dover by Jeff Howe

    Dover’s Quite Alright

    Dover holds a particular fascination for me. I don’t really know why, I don’t live there.  It’s just another run-down seaside town, suffering still from the effects of war-time bomb and shell damage, and population stagnation. Since then various economic impetuses have caused many buildings of monumental style and importance to be demolished; as recently as the 1990s, concrete pilings for ‘The White Cliffs Experience’, a new type of interactive visitor centre, were knowingly driven through part of a Roman fort. But to quote Jim Cairns, Mayor of Dover during WWII, “Dover’s quite alright…we are all very busy doing our jobs… we have our problems”, and Alderman Cairns’s words probably ring as true today as they did in 1942. Dover’s hustle and bustle is as busy as that of any other Kentish coastal town. So what makes this such an interesting place?

    Advert for 'The Magic Flute' featuring Esme Atherden and her future husband, Walter Hyde, 1899. (c. The Era, Secret Dover, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, there is the Iron Age hill fort that is the site of Dover Castle, the Bronze Age boat discovered during a road building project, and the Western Heights which has the largest system of 19th century fortifications in this country. But for me it’s the little things about Dover that make it such a fascinating place. For example, the Flat Earth Society was founded here in 1956. Also, there was once a defensive military canal where today container trucks thunders along the town’s main road, much shorter, but with the same purpose of defending against Napoleon’s hoards, just like the impressive Royal Military Canal at Hythe just along the coast.

    More recently, Walter Hyde, the prolific Wagnerian tenor of the early 20th century sang at Dover Town Hall in 1904 and 05. He also married a local girl, Emma Atherden from the Pier District, an area now non-existent and once referred to as a slum. This was by the Western Docks and largely inhabited by mariners and their families, full of tumble-down houses, pubs and churches, where folk lived cheek-by-jowl.

    The effects of the flame barrage at Studland Bay, Dorset, 1940. (c. Flame Over Britain, Secret Dover, Amberley Publishing)

    In a February 1957 broadcast of The Goon Show Moriarty gives Neddie Seagoon the deeds to the English Channel with a proviso that Neddie insures it against fire. Luckily, Moriarty and Grytpype-Thynne also happen to be wandering insurance agents, and they sold Neddie a policy with a £48,000 payout should the Channel catch light, for just 18 shillings. I always wondered if The Goon Show had any idea that there was such a plan to set light to the Channel just 17 years earlier. In ‘Secret Dover’ you will find a photograph of the 1940 anti-invasion flame barrage. This consisted of a set of large oil tanks and a pump house secreted in a ditch on the Western Heights, their purpose was to set light to the surf had a German invasion force arrived. This would have been used in conjunction with other fixed defences, such as the ubiquitous pillboxes and wire entanglements on the beach to repel the invaders. I think this is a textbook case of fact being stranger than fiction! I found the photo of Dover’s flame barrage tanks on Facebook, posted by a Dover resident who watched them being removed in 1991. And I’m convinced that there are secreted in people’s lofts in Dover and every other town in this country, shoeboxes of old photos waiting to see the light of day again, and these will amaze us with once familiar vistas.

    The music-hall comedian Harold Montague who played the Promenade Pier in 1905.

    These more esoteric odds and ends form the basis of ‘Secret Dover’. 22,000 words about the harbour; the blitz; Matron Louisa Stewart, stalwart of the military hospital during the Great War; Harold Montague who sang his new song, “When Maud Put Her New Bathing Costume On” in the Promenade Pier Pavilion around 1905; roof repairs to the Castle’s keep, and much more.

    I’ve been picking old Dover apart for approaching 30 years, and I think ‘Secret Dover’ is a culmination of my favourite bits, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop now. I mean, think about it; who else is going to uncover the intricacies of Maximillian Ball’s 18th century ‘Britannia Coffee House’, decipher Jatt Church’s last will and testament (he was Clerk of the Cheque of Dover Harbour, and died in 1808) and get to grips with Archcliffe Fort? After nearly three decades there’s still much to fascinate.

    I think Jimmy Cairns had a point.  Dover is quite alright.

    Jeff Howe's book Secret Dover is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Forest of Dean by Mark Turner

    A native of the Welsh border town of Monmouth, I was from an early age aware of the Forest of Dean. Although situated predominantly in the neighbouring English county of Gloucestershire, the forested area spreads into Wales just beyond Staunton village. Undeterred by the county boundary, it creeps on down the slopes towards my childhood home on Monmouth’s Hadnock Road, beside the River Wye. I was no more than six or seven years of age when my parents would take me walking on summer days up through the dense woods towards a hilltop clearing near Staunton. This provided a splendid panorama that my father would proclaim to be ‘the finest view in England’. My mother would then produce sandwiches and a flask of coffee from a wicker basket and we’d enjoy a simple but satisfying picnic. On more than one such occasion we caught sight of a deer wandering nearby and it was common to hear the mewing calls of buzzards circling high above. These were happy days indeed.

    The Long Stone, Staunton. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    A few years later I took to exploring a little deeper into the Forest. Together with a school-friend who, like me, paid scant regard to personal safety, I clambered over and around Staunton’s impressive Buckstone and Suckstone boulders, and then went on to edge precariously over disused railway bridges that crossed the River Wye. On one memorable occasion my chum and I decided to explore the damp and musty interior of a long-disused railway tunnel on the course of the Wye Valley Railway, but retreated hastily on finding the darkness virtually impenetrable. Still later, as a teenager, I was taken into a Forest coal mine near Coleford – this activity reinforcing my impression of the Forest as a somewhat dark and mysterious landscape, full of secret places.

    Within a few years I left Monmouth and its neighbouring Forest area, later settling in the picturesque North Cotswolds, on the other side of Gloucestershire. I never lost my love of the Forest, though, and often returned to explore unfamiliar parts of the district. By this time I’d begun writing books about the county and its folklore, discovering the Forest to be a rich source of material. As a schoolboy I’d occasionally overheard yarns about bears being killed in the Forest, and stories of ghosts and apparitions were far from uncommon. In more recent years numerous people have reported seeing big cats, such as leopards and panthers, in the Forest – some of these sightings being particularly credible. Within the past twenty years, too, a significant wild boar population has colonised the Forest, following escapes and illegal releases.

    Roman Temple remains at Lydney Park. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    Subsequently finding that of the many outsiders who knew of the Forest’s existence, few knew much about the place, I decided to set about writing a book on the district. My intention was to produce an accessible history of the Forest of Dean, focussing especially on all the kinds of secret places that had fascinated me since childhood. In the course of my research and exploration of the wooded areas I encountered wild boar on several occasions, although not at close quarters. Apparently there are now around 1,000 of these animals roaming the woods and there is talk of them having to be culled. The big cats are much more elusive, although one doesn’t have to search hard to find someone who claims to have seen one. Indeed, a trusted personal friend of mine saw what he believed to be a panther or leopard on the edge of the Forest a few years ago. On reporting the incident to the local police he was met with shrugged shoulders and an assurance that his was one of many similar reports.  As for bear-killings, however, research revealed that the stories were indeed true – relating to an incident of 1889, when two muzzled and chained performing bears were killed at Ruardean by a mob from Cinderford. Fines followed, as did endless taunts of ‘who killed the bears?’

    The former Lea Bailey Gold Mine, Mitcheldean. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    Included among the many lesser-known places described in Secret Forest of Dean are visible reminders of the many different peoples who have occupied the Forest through the centuries. There are Bronze Age standing stones, Iron Age hillforts and numerous signs of the Roman occupation – each of these sites possessing an air of mystery and secrecy. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Forest’s natural resources were being exploited on a grand scale, with coal and iron mines springing up all over the place. Mining was arduous and dangerous work, however, and loss of life was not uncommon. Several memorials to those who died can be seen in the Forest, although these are not always easy to locate.  Secret Forest of Dean will prove useful in this respect, too, describing and pinpointing these monuments. A rail network was created to service these industries, with tramways and railway lines criss-crossing the Forest and running down to the River Severn and River Wye.

    Dilke Railway Bridge, Cinderford. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    Eventually, of course, the coal and minerals became exhausted and one by one the mines closed. The last of the big pits closed in the mid-1960s, almost all of the railways, too, closing over a similar period. Today there is little obvious evidence of these industries, although poignant and curious relics are there to be found by enthusiasts. A number of these old bridges, tunnels and former lines – which are described in Secret Forest of Dean – evoke a real sense of nostalgia and wistfulness. Fortunately, many of the Forest’s former railway track-beds and industrial sites have been imaginatively used to create cycle-ways, viewpoints and nature reserves. Today the district is a popular holiday destination for those wishing to explore the ancient Forest of Dean and neighbouring Wye Valley. Secret Forest of Dean is likely to appeal to holidaymakers and local residents alike. Caution is advised, though – reports of ghosts and apparitions, alien big cat sightings and ‘rampaging’ wild boar continue to circulate in what is undoubtedly a somewhat secret and mysterious part of Gloucestershire!

    Mark Turner's book Secret Forest of Dean is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Loughborough by Lynne Dyer

    The secret that is the town of Loughborough

    There’s nothing secret about Loughborough, now is there?! Everyone’s heard of it; everyone knows where it is; everyone knows what it’s famous for, and everyone knows who its famous inhabitants are - right? Err, well, possibly not!

    Welcome to Loughborough. (Secret Loughborough, Amberley Publishing)

    Wherever I get into conversation with people, whether while on holiday, or visiting other towns on day trips, talk often turns to the hometown. Seems not everyone does know that Loughborough is a landlocked market and university town, in the heart of the English Midlands, and that it’s the biggest town in the county of Leicestershire after Leicester itself. Some folk, however, have heard of the town through its university, a high hitter in many university league tables, and having a focus on sport, sports technology, and engineering, as well as other subjects.

    So, I thought this is where a book about secret Loughborough might just come in handy! Of course, with Loughborough itself being, if not a bit of a secret, then at least not very well-known, I found the challenge presented by writing a book about Loughborough’s secrets to be immense, as there was so much to share!

    Somehow, I had to have a starting point, and that turned out to be quite a difficult point to find!! When I began to think what some of Loughborough’s hidden secrets might actually be, I kept coming back to the idea of the hard and the easy quiz questions: if you don’t know the answer then surely the question is hard to answer, but if you do, then the answer is easy. And so it is with secrets: if you know about something then it is not a secret but if you don’t, then it probably is.

    The James Eadie affiliation. (Secret Loughborough, Amberley Publishing)

    Few of Loughborough’s secrets were actually created to be secrets, or meant to be secrets. Some knowledge about Loughborough’s story may have simply been lost in the passage of time, hence rather than being secrets they are more forgotten. Other secrets may be hidden because we take them for granted, perhaps walking past them every day.

    The question that was useful in helping me to decide what to include in the book was “why”. Of all the ‘W’ questions – ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’ and ‘why?’, I think ‘why?’ is perhaps the one that requires the most research, but, paradoxically, can also leave many questions unanswered. The other useful question I asked was ‘how?’, which, again, led to some interesting discoveries.

    Following an introduction in which I unearthed some tantalising information about Loughborough, the book is divided into eight chapters that delve more deeply into Loughborough’s history. Firstly, my investigation focuses on some of the pub names that have appeared in the town down the years and what these mean, before revealing evidence of some forgotten brewery affiliations. In this first chapter I also discuss some of the street names in the town, including a group of newer ones which are located and linked to the nearby Beaumanor Hall, which was a ‘Y’ listening station during the Second World War. I reveal evidence of long-gone local iron founders who created physical street signs, like those for Freehold Street and Cobden Street.

    Shakespeare Street, once Loughborough's best-decorated street. (Secret Loughborough, Amberley Publishing)

    In the next chapter I pull together some of the town’s history through its association with nature, be that birds like peacocks, ducks and swans; horses like Songster and Sunloch; trees like the horse chestnut on the Ashby Road or the cedar tree on the university campus, or Loughborough’s success in the annual ‘In bloom’ competition.

    One of the key messages I took away from the training I received to become an accredited Leicestershire Tour Guide was to consciously look at buildings for evidence of the history, but more specifically to look up beyond the usually modernised shop fronts when in a town or city. When leading people on guided walks around Loughborough, not only do I encourage people to look up, but also to look down, and indeed to look all around, as there are so many hints and nods to Loughborough’s history that we simply walk past or over every day without giving them a moments thought. In this chapter I delve into the meaning behind some of the plaques found on local buildings, and look at some of the murals and sculptures that adorn the town. Railings, old and new, that exist, practical, yet at the same time beautiful, are fascinating and I try to discover why they have been made and so placed.

    Welcome to Dishley, home of Robert Bakewell. (Secret Loughborough, Amberley Publishing)

    Hosiery was a very important industry in Loughborough, so I included a selection of names of hosiery firms in the book. Most have long since left the town, and their buildings been converted for other use: one of these, the factory of I & R Morley, is currently being redeveloped into flats. In addition to hosiery factories, iron founders and brickmakers, engineering and pharmaceutical companies have also been important in the development of the town. Perhaps Loughborough firms whose names are familiar to many include Ladybird Books and Taylors Bellfounders, both of which I include in the book.

    In the chapter on people who have some connection to Loughborough, I’ve highlighted a range of people from across the ages – including Henry VII and Robert Bakewell, John Skevington and Thomas Cook – and from across a range of areas – film and reality television stars and sports stars. In the chapter that follows I discuss groups of people and societies like Chartists and Luddites, and friendly societies like Oddfellows and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, oh, and a visit to the town by Buffalo Bill!

    Totem pole milepost, Woodbrook Way. (Secret Loughborough, Amberley Publishing)

    At the beginning of this post I mentioned the university, and there is much more information in the book, including the history of the site, the history of the university, a bit about its new London campus, and a description of some of Loughborough’s other connections with London, much teased out from hidden clues.

    In the closing chapter I describe the Earl of Moira’s sale, which goes a long way to explain how the Loughborough of today developed. Burleigh Hall is discussed earlier in the book, but Garendon Hall is covered in this final chapter. After investigations into ghosts and fairies, gravestones and milestones, a signpost to the resources and knowledgeable volunteers at the Local and Family History Centre in the public library brings the book to a close.

    The book is peppered throughout with my own photographs of such curious things as street signs, commemorative plaques, drain covers and bricks, as well as the more expected ones of like sculptures, buildings, books and … fairy homes!

    My intention when writing this book was to tell the reader the history of Loughborough through some of its secrets. My consideration of what exactly to include in the book and what to leave out, and my detailed research of so many aspects of Loughborough’s history mean that I have plenty of material to write another couple of volumes in this series! Now I just need readers and if, of those readers, just one exclaims, whilst reading this book: “I didn’t know that!”, then I will have achieved what I set out to do.

    Lynne Dyer's book Secret Loughborough is available for purchase now.

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