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Tag Archives: Wiltshire

  • Westbury Cement Works by Simon Knight

    The chimney standing tall over the partly demolished site. (Credit Simon Knight, Westbury Cement Works, Amberley Publishing)

    When I started covering the demolition of the cement works, I hadn’t originally planned on turning my time spent there into a book. But as the hours spent on site accumulated, I began to realise that there was more to the place than just old, dusty buildings. It was a place that was once alive. It was a place that was important. And it was a place that should be remembered.

    Once I knew that there was to be a book on the horizon, it changed my approach to my visits to the noisy site; where machines slowly tracked around digging, hammering and cutting up the remnants of a once thriving industry. I now had to make sure that I took plenty of still images from both the drone and ground-based camera, rather than just shooting video; I had to record as much as possible. And with thoughts of the book constantly with me during those visits, I would begin to explore the cement works with renewed intrigue.

     

     

    Kiln construction in 1962. (Credit Tarmac Ltd., Westbury Cement Works, Amberley Publishing)

    I was given permission to use archive black and white pictures that were taken during the construction of the site. I love taking pictures and I love looking at pictures and I found it truly fascinating trawling through them all. There were pictures taken during the construction of the two huge rotary kilns, the chimneys, the quarry, the entire construction had been documented. Looking back in time at a place that I had become so familiar with only added to my fascination of the works.

    I now also had the perfect excuse to spend more time with something that I am truly passionate about – wildlife. I would spend hours walking over the long since used clay pile in search of butterflies, reptiles and wild flowers. The wildlife that lived at the back of the site lay in juxtaposition with the silence shattering and ground shaking machinery that that operated on a daily basis for eighteen months. Despite the disturbance, life went on for the mammalian, avian and reptilian life that inhabited the cement works. The highlight of my time spent with the wildlife was watching a family of Peregrine falcons. I was in the privileged position to be able to watch the parent birds rear their three chicks whilst I was concealed away in a building that once delivered cement clinker via a conveyor belt. It was dusty (as was the entire place) and uncomfortable, but it was worth every minute.

    Female Peregrine. (Credit: Simon Knight, Westbury Cement Works, Amberley Publishing)

    I also learned of a far more ancient form of wildlife that once existed at the works. During the excavation of the clay that was used in the cement making process, many prehistoric fossils were unearthed. The fossil rich Kimmeridge clay, present as a sedimentary layer under the works, was a graveyard to many prehistoric marine reptiles from the Jurassic period, around 150 million years ago. The most famous of these reptiles was ‘Doris’, an eight metre long pliosaur. Her story would eventually see her end up with a new resting place, at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. When I was in the museum photographing Doris, I couldn’t believe that the first visit to the works had led me to this very moment, where I was stood facing the fossilised remains of one of the most ferocious marine predators that ever lived!

     

     

    The life-sized model of Doris displayed in the Bristol Museum. (Credit Simon Knight/Bristol Culture, Westbury Cement Works, Amberley Publishing)

    Some of the time spent on site was frustrating and not so enjoyable. There were days when the weather wasn’t cooperative. Wind and rain would ground the drones and made stills photography challenging, sometimes impossible. Probably the most frustrating issue to deal with was when parts of the demolition didn’t go as planned. Occasionally there would be a building or structure that wasn’t prepared to give up its fifty-year grip on the land. This would lead to me being on site for most of the day, when the plan had been for that particular part of the works to be on the ground before the morning was out. During this time all I could do was hang around and wait.

    Of course, from a demolition perspective, the highlight of the entire eighteen months was the works iconic 400ft tall chimney coming down. The landmark that was visible and known for miles around, came crashing to the ground at 7am on 18th September 2016. It was an exciting and nervous morning for my crew of four that had set up cameras and piloted drones to record the memorable event. It was a morning that none of us will forget.

    The fallen chimney. (Credit Simon Knight, Westbury Cement Works, Amberley Publishing)

    This was my first book, and it did feel somewhat strange when I received my copies of it. Here I was, holding a book that had been professionally published – with my name on the front! It was something that I had dreamt about for a long time. I mean, doesn’t everybody want to write a book? But now it had actually happened, it didn’t feel real somehow. I was proud of it, I knew that much, but there was also some trepidation lurking within – how would it be received?

    Something else that was very strange to me was having to do the local press pieces. I never produced the book to get attention. I’m a somewhat shy and quiet person and I am not a huge fan of being on the lens side of the camera, so being interviewed by the local press was a very alien experience to me to say the least!

     

     

    Simon Knight posing for the Wiltshire Times with some of the former cement works employees. (Credit: Siobhan Boyle/Wiltshire Times, Westbury Cement Works, Amberley Publishing)

    What was very enjoyable though was the small get together that I organised with Nigel Osman (the cement works site manager) for some of the works former employees to celebrate the launch of the book. It was lovely to meet them, and they had some fond memories of life at the cement works. Some of them hadn’t seen each other for years and a good time was had by all. These were the people that I had really produced the book for.

    One employee said something to me that meant more than anything anyone could have said. It struck a chord with me and proved that to some people at least, the book meant something. He said, ‘It’s good that you have taken the time to do the book. This place employed generations of family members, was a good employer and it’s important that it’s remembered’.

    This really did mean a lot to me. This was the reason I produced the book and I now knew that it had been worth the effort.

     

    Simon Knight's new book Westbury Cement Works 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.

  • The Mysteries of Stonehenge by Nikolai Tolstoy

    My lifelong enthusiasm for Celtic studies began about the age of twelve, when my inspiring preparatory school headmaster suggested I read Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels.  I at once became engrossed in Scottish history and that of the Gaelic Highlands in particular. A prior love of the stirring tales of King Arthur combined with this enthusiasm to lead me into an abiding desire to establish the historical origins of the Arthurian legend.

    By fortunate chance my five exceedingly happy years of undergraduate studies took place at Trinity College Dublin. Although my course was in Modern History and Political Theory, I was able to study Middle Welsh and Old Irish under the guidance of the formidably bearded Professor David Greene. I enjoyed a close friendship with his convivial colleague James Carney, and was privileged to know many of the giants of Celtic studies in those distant days, including Rachel Bromwich, Kenneth Jackson, Myles Dillon, Kathleen Hughes, and Nora Chadwick.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-1 Stonehenge (Courtesy Flickr Waaghals, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    All my allowance that I could spare was devoted to building up a collection of books on the subject – a pursuit which became something of an obsession. Indeed, Susan Gregory, my unforgettable companion of those halcyon days, in conversation with my stepfather Patrick O’Brian once gently criticized the extent to which I dwelt upon ‘ye olde folks’! Meanwhile, browsing in the entrancingly cheap Dublin bookshops permitted me to amass the beginnings of a library of books on Celtic studies. Today the collection has increased to several thousand works, and it is with some gratification I note that my 45-page bibliography to The Mysteries of Stonehenge comprises in its entirety books and off prints on the shelves around me as I write.

    I must here confess with shame that my command of spoken Irish and Welsh remains rudimentary. Although my wife and I found our first home in the forested heart of Welsh-speaking Powys, I have since enjoyed little opportunity to use the spoken word. In any case, my desire to master those two ancient languages remained focused on the ability to study early medieval texts.

    Apart from the riches of Dublin bookshops, I obtained many rare treasures in London from Griff’s, the Welsh bookshop in Cecil Court, and became close friends with its owners, the Griffiths brothers.  One summer vacation while still at TCD, I devoted myself to studying Teach Yourself Welsh.  Proud of my fancied progress, at my next call at Griff’s I began the conversation in Welsh.  Ever polite, William Griffiths inclined his head on one side with an expression indicating increasing bafflement at every word I spoke. Eventually, he enquired diffidently: ‘Was that Russian you were speaking?’ Realizing that learning from phonetics was far from representing (at any rate in my case) the path to fluency, I abandoned any attempt to become a Welsh speaker.

    My early interest was confined to efforts – often sadly jejune, as my youthful publications attest – to recover ‘realities’ lying behind our sadly deficient sources for Dark-Age history. This interest continues, and I hope to publish before long investigative studies of the historical Arthur (assuming there was one – as I believe there was), and the originally distinct mystery of the Holy Grail.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-3 'Merlin re-erects the Giant's Dance' (Courtesy British Library, Egerton MS 3028, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    However, my focus shifted considerably when in 1967 I bought Anne Ross’s classic Pagan Celtic Britain. Among other revelations, it made me realize that much I had assumed to be historical (such as the birth-tale of Arthur at Tintagel) proved to be mythical – in the authentic sense of the word. From this period my researches expanded increasingly into other spheres of knowledge: above all, Indo-European studies, together with comparative religion, mythology, and cosmology. At an ancillary level, I pursued investigations into the ultimate origins of religious belief, whether in anthropological or philosophical terms.

    Shortly after I married my dear (and patient) wife Georgina in 1971, my researches became of a sudden directed into a very different course of study. The national controversy provoked by my Victims of Yalta culminated in my book The Minister and Massacres, which was subsequently suppressed at the instance of an apprehensive British Government. By curious chance this occurred exactly two centuries after the previous book to have been officially censored – which was no less than Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man!

    However, I had in the meantime completed a study of the Merlin legend. The Quest for Merlin was published in 1985, in which I argued for an historical Merlin, whose legendary career and prophetic powers strikingly resembled those of Siberian shamans. In fact, my fascination with the Celts had never abated, and eventually I became free to pursue broader researches culminating in publication of my current book The Mysteries of Stonehenge.

    Over years of research it increasingly dawned on me that detailed examination of the earliest surviving Welsh and Irish literatures might provide access to a vastly older prehistoric past extending to the Bronze and even Neolithic Ages. While archaeologists have established with increasing accuracy how and when colossal megalithic structures like Stonehenge were erected, their explanations why such laborious feats were undertaken of necessity derived largely from informed speculation. However, scholarly works such as the classic Celtic Heritage by the brothers Rees, and more recently Proinsias Mac Cana’s The Cult of the Sacred Centre and John Waddell’s Archaeology and Celtic Myth pointed the way towards a radically distinct approach.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-4 Navel of Ireland at Uisneach (Courtesy Flickr Abi Skipp, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    It is hard now to recall the evolution of my labours over the years, but two critical points glimpsed at a formative stage of my researches stand out. The first was the twelfth-century imaginative ‘historian’ Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful account of Merlin’s transporting the gigantic monoliths of Stonehenge from the hill of Killare in Ireland. Killare lies beside Uisneach in Meath, a site famed in Irish medieval literature as the umbilical sacred Centre of the island.  Clearly, Geoffrey’s tale reflects misunderstanding of an archaic tradition that Stonehenge represented the corresponding Centre (Navel) of Britain. The fact that a mere handful of monoliths were to be found at Uisneach could have confirmed a belief that the originals had been removed to Uisneach’s ideological counterpart at Stonehenge.

    the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-2 Possible routes for transportation of the Stonehenge bluestones (Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge (Simon & Schuster) Courtesy Pearon, Stonehenge p. 279, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

    Again, archaeologists have established that the smaller (though still massive) ‘bluestones’ of Stonehenge were originally transported to the spot by a miracle of prehistoric engineering from Preseli Mountain in remote Pembrokeshire (Dyfed). Clearly, there must have been something exceptionally holy about their original site, but what that was could only be subject for conjecture. That is, until the significance of an episode in the early eleventh-century Welsh tale of ‘Pwyll, prince of Dyfed’ struck me.

    The story tells how the nobles of Dyfed, becoming alarmed at the failure of Pwyll’s queen Rhiannon to produce an heir to the kingdom, repaired to Preseli Mountain to seek a solution. Following the assembly, Rhiannon duly gave birth to a princely son. The gathering implicitly took place on a significant date in the pre-Christian British calendar. In early times the person of the king embodied his realm, so that extinction of a royal dynasty brought about sterility of the kingdom as a whole – the Wasteland of the Grail romances. All this suggests the motive for the transfer of the bluestones, which were believed to be imbued with magical power (mana) ensuring the perpetuation of the Monarchy of Britain, which in turn was focused on the mighty national Centre at Stonehenge.

    These factors led in turn to a succession of comparable discoveries, which after long years were finally published in my detailed study The Mysteries of Stonehenge. Together, they reveal much of pre-Christian myth and ritual, prominent among which were the Celtic doctrines of the soul and divine kingship, and explain how much of this cosmology came to be deliberately absorbed into Celtic Christianity.

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    Nikolai Tolstoy's new book The Mysteries of Stonehenge is available for purchase now.

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