The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Monday, 4 September 2017


If you fancy a stroll through history (literally) you could do worse than pay a visit to the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings near Bromsgrove in the West Midlands. Basically it's a huge estate where buildings that would otherwise have been demolished, or allowed to crumble away, have been lovingly gathered together and restored.

It's an interesting collection. You can find most things there. Some are obvious: there's a windmill, and a dovecote, and barns, and a stable. There's a former pub that's now the Edwardian tea room. Cottages of all ages give you a taste of life across the centuries, from Tudor times to post World War Two.

But it's the less obvious bits that I most enjoyed. For example there's the top off a redundant church from Smethwick. The spire of the 19th century St Paul's Church was made of wood, and by 1959 was severely rotten. It was replaced in the early 1960s with a fibreglass replica, which was lighter, and cheaper, than creating a new brick one.  But in 1963 the church burned down and only the spire and tower survived. A new church was built alongside it, but that was made redundant in 1996.

Chainmakers' workshop
There are various workshops including a fine example of a nail shop. And I don't mean a place where you can get acrylic extensions to your fingers! Back in the day nail making was a cottage industry and people had a workshop in their back yards. Chain making, however, was more organised and chain workshops had rows of anvils where individual makers would work alongside each other.

But I think my favourite part was the National Telephone Kiosk Collection. Yes, phone boxes through the ages are lined up around a yard and each one is  connected to one of three exchanges the museum owns. That means that excited children can phone each other (at a cost of 2p a call) and not realise that they don't have to shout. The REALLY fun part is that they need instructions to use a phone dial. They don't realise they have to take their fingers out of the slot once they've rotated the mechanism. Consequently they mis-dial a lot and end up talking to total strangers!

I found a Mk II kiosk with a phone that reminded me of my childhood, and of course the first thing I did was press Button B. For the youngsters and foreigners among you Button B was what you pressed to get your money back if your call wasn't connected. People often forgot, of course, and so enterprising children would rush in behind them and press the button to pocket the cash!  It was fourpence - but three successes brought you a shilling, and that was a big bar of chocolate!

There are also a few other things that aren't technically buildings, like a showman's wagon for example, and the wonderful roadmenders' wagon, both the type of thing it's trendy to take a holiday in these days.  How would the old roadmenders who used to travel round in the carts react to the idea that their old 'make do' accommodation is now considered a treat?

Avoncroft's was owned by Worcestershire County Council. There's a hard-looking bench at the back and a small cast iron stove that would have doubled up as cooker and heating in the original cart. They were towed behind the steamroller when gangs went out to fix potholes around the county. It was hardly the height of luxury, but somehow it has an air of romance about it; I can see how it might have the same kind of effect as the canary yellow gipsy caravan had on Toad in Wind in the Willows, and that the novelty would wear off just as quickly!

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Sent to Coventry

A fair in the old cathedral ruins
On the night of 14 November 1940 the German Luftwaffe carried out a bombing raid on Coventry and dropped incendiary devices across the city. It was considered a legitimate target because of its concentration of engineering firms:  cars, bicycles, aeroplane engines and munitions factories.

There was a story that Britain knew the German bombers were on the way because messages sent by the coded Enigma machines had been intercepted and translated. It was not possible to stop the planes without letting the German government know that Bletchley Park, the UK government's signals base, had cracked the Enigma code and so Coventry was sacrificed. The story has been denied by some former Bletchley Park workers, but like the lady once said, they would say that, wouldn't they?

Inside the new cathedral
At the time Coventry city centre was a well preserved medieval town with many original buildings still surviving. Among them was the magnificent cathedral. Its lead-covered roof was a serious victim of the incendiary attack. As the metal was hit, it melted, burned and dripped through the timbers onto the floor below. This devastated the building, which was more or less leveled overnight. Only remnants of the walls, and the tall tower survived, mainly because the floors below the spire were stone and were impervious to the heat.

The charred cross
The following morning as workers sifted through the wreckage they found two burned timbers lying in the form of a cross in the wrecked nave. The two were fixed together and the whole thing raised up to act as a symbol of the city's resurrection. That cross still stands in the modern cathedral that lies alongside the remains of the original. Surviving medieval roof nails were also collected and formed, in threes, into smaller crosses. One stands on the old altar at the eastern end of the old building.

In a single night more than 4,300 homes were destroyed, two thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged and a third of the city's factories were wrecked, including the main Daimler production centre. More than 560 people, including nine police officers, were killed.  

Coventry has, over the years, become a symbol of peace and reconciliation. A new cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, was constructed in the 1950s alongside the ruins of the old church. It is rich with symbolism, not just because of the charred beams and nails. In the Chapel of Unity are hundreds of paper birds which represent the story of Sadako Sasaki who contracted leukemia after atom bombs were dropped on her home city of Hiroshima. She planned to fold 1,000 origami cranes but didn't finish them before she died.