The History Anorak

The History Anorak

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.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Humber

The Humber Bridge spans the Humber estuary just outside this year's City of Culture, Hull. To mark the city's place as a centre of culture a number of its structures have been given listed building status - including the bridge, which is now officially Grade I.

At the time of its construction, (it opened in June 1981) it was the longest bridge of its kind in the world. As a measure of architectural development it now stands at only eighth. It's a significant landmark and recognised for miles around. It has come to symbolise the city, appearing on many of its publicity materials.

Before its construction the route from bank to bank across the estuary went via Goole and passed across a rather smaller swing bridge. The leading roads had high accident rates and often faced difficulties in poor weather.

The view from the deck
The central span is 1,410 metres (4,626 feet - or around 200 yards short of a mile) and is suspended between two towers 155.5 metres (510 feet) tall. although both towers are vertical they are further apart at the top than the bottom, owing to the curvature of the earth.

Oh, and everyone locally remembers the summer of 1976 when the area around the bridge (and much of the rest of East Yorkshire) suffered a plague of ladybirds. The insects settled on the bridge, wriggling into small crevices and setting work back weeks while constructors cleared them away from sensitive parts of the structure!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Arbor Low



Arbor Low, Derbyshire is a prehistoric henge monument, that is, it consists of a circle of stones set inside a circular ditch with a bank enclosing the complete structure.  It is unclear what henges were used for but it seems likely that whatever went on there was designed to be seen only by a few chosen people. The bank around the monument would have made it impossible to see activities within the stone circle from outside. Perhaps observers sat on the inner side of the bank, but it would still have been available to only a restricted few.

Bank and ditch arrangement
The site is a Neolithic one, built around 5,000 years ago from locally quarried limestone. Superimposed on it is a burial mound dating from the Bronze Age, which was excavated in the 19th century and found to contain two urn burials.  The stones would originally have been upright but they are all now fallen over. There are a number of entrances to the circle that show as gaps in the bank and there is some evidence that a processional way might once have led from the south because there is a linear earthwork close to the southern entrance.  About 250 metres away on a horizon to the south west is another Bronze Age burial mound called Gib Hill. It too lies over an earlier monument, a Neolithic long barrow that probably pre-dates the circle.


Arbor Low stands on private land behind a farm at the top of a fairly steep hill. The view from the site is extremely dramatic as it is possible to see for a very long way. Whoever built the site must either have wanted the mound to be visible from a great distance or to be able to see anyone approaching it.
(This post was originally published as part of the HistoryAnorak website.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Dolly Shepherd

Last weekend we visited a local craft trail where the wonderful art of yarn bombing was on display. Trees, lamp posts and other street furniture had been wrapped in colourful knitting and crochet all on the theme of flight. Among the displays was one about a woman called Dolly Shepherd, who was a new name to me. 

A decorated tree dedicated to Dolly
Dolly Shepherd (1886-1983), born Elizabeth Shepherd, was a parachutist and fairground entertainer in the Edwardian era. Born in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, as a teenager she went to work as a waitress in a North London cafe so she could afford to see a concert by the composer John Philip Sousa. While there she overheard two men talking about needing a girl to act as 'target' in their shooting act, and volunteered.

She immediately became known as a daredevil and, in 1905, she ascended to 4,000 feet on a trapeze slung below a hot air balloon, descending by parachute. This became a regular act, but on one occasion she made the descent with another girl whose chute failed to open.

Dolly carried the girl to the ground but the descent was too fast, and both were severely injured. Dolly was paralysed for many weeks but fought her way back to health and returned to her high flying act at a show in Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire. 

She continued her flying tricks throughout her life and never showed fear. On one occasion she almost hit a steam train on her descent but the driver had the presence of mind to blow his whistle, and the blast diverted her into the nearby canal.

She flew with the Red Devils display team a few years before she died at the age of 96.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Kirby Muxloe

William Hastings was Edward IV's lord chamberlain and made a small fortune in the post. As a result he could afford to build himself a luxury home on the family estates in Leicestershire.

Hastings chose a plot of land at Kirby Muxloe where the family already had a manor house. The new fortified house was built entirely out of brick, an expensive and fashionable material only recently introduced to England. Hastings brought craftsmen from the Netherlands to make the bricks on site because too few people here knew the skill.

However, the house was never completed because Hastings fell foul of the ambitious Duke of Gloucester, later to be Richard III, who accused him of conspiracy and had him executed in 1483.

The land remained in the family's possession until 1630, but only one tower was ever finished, although it's still possible to see how impressive the house would have been. Most of what remains today is footings for the outer walls, but the gatehouse stands proudly to welcome you on site.

Although it was also never finished, the gatehouse shows how well designed the building was. You can still pick out the pattern of dark bricks (known as diaper work) on the frontage.

In addition the castle had gun ports and a moat to aid its defence.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Wallingford Clock

The Wallingford Clock. A replica of a 14th century clock at St Albans Cathedral. The original was designed and constructed by Richard of Wallingford who was abbot from 1327 until 1336. As well as sounding the hours the clock has an astronomical section that shows the position of various stars, the sun and the moon. It can also predict lunar eclipses.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Heritage catering

Well, dear readers, the regular visitors among you will know that Mr Anorak and I spend many days a year visiting heritage and historic sites so that I can bring you my thoughts on them through this blog.  I'm sure that, for many of you, the reason you read me is because you enjoy similar visits.  And, like us, you probably enjoy a trip to the tea room as part of your treat.

We sometimes plan our visits around the tea room at the venue we choose.  For example, this weekend we planned a trip to Boscobel House, the place where Charles II hid while escaping from Cromwell's troops after the execution of his father Charles I.  It's about an hour from where we live, so finding something to eat as part of the deal was quite important.

(If you want to know where we live take a look at the map on English Heritage's website and find that large, oval shape in the middle with no EH properties in it. Then find the centre of that oval and you'll be close to our house!)

So, we checked out the EH website to see whether Boscobel would make a suitable destination. It warns you that the tearoom is an independent business and even tells you that it doesn't accept plastic payments. So far, so good. It actually says: "Situated within the old stables, the tearoom serves home-made cakes, light lunches and hot and cold drinks."  Sounded reasonable. So off we went.

Fortunately, we have EH membership, so we didn't pay to get in.  It was 12.30, so we went straight for lunch. There were precisely five things on the menu. (If you don't count cakes. We're both diabetic, so we don't count cakes.) Two of them had bacon in, the other three had cheese. So we ordered bacon sandwiches. Except there wasn't any bacon. So why were they still on the (chalked) menu board?

The waitress/whatever began a long tale about her woes and how the people from yesterday didn't leave a list of what was used up, like they were supposed to do. I don't care about how the system works. I asked why the two bacon items hadn't been crossed off the board so I didn't choose it in the first place?  No chalk, apparently. And no damp cloth either, I assume.

This was two and a half hours after the place opened and nobody had done anything about visiting the two supermarkets within 15 minutes drive and buying some bacon. No-one had attempted to get any kind of alternative food, in fact, no-one seemed to give a dingo's kidney about customer service.

This isn't good enough English Heritage!  Don't let an unprepared, unprofessional bunch of wasters damage your image. We left. Not just the cafe, but the site. We didn't spend anything in the gift shop. And we're unlikely to go back. We're also unlikely to renew our EH membership when it comes up either.

MUST TRY HARDER!

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Stand and deliver

Richard (Dick) Turpin is well known as a highwayman, a career that holds a certain air of adventure, even though it means he held people up at gunpoint and stole their property. The truth about him is, however, rather sordid.

In spite of the romantic tales that have grown up around him and his horse Black Bess (who never existed) the man was a violent thug. In his native county of Essex, Turpin belonged to a notorious group of marauders called the Gregory Gang. They would invade isolated farmhouses and terrorise any female occupants to make them give up their jewels. In one case Turpin roasted an old woman over her own hearth until she told him where her valuables were hidden.  He is also known to have murdered a few people during his raids.

Eventually his exploits led him to leave London and the south, heading for Yorkshire, where he took on the name of John Palmer. He financed his lifestyle by carrying out horse and cattle rustling forays into Lincolnshire, and it is at this stage that he took up highway robbery in earnest.

He was also a bit of an idiot. Rather than keep his head down in York he returned from a poor hunting expedition one day and shot his landlord's prize rooster to make up for his losses.  Naturally the landlord complained, but Turpin threatened to shoot him too!

So Turpin was arrested and hauled off to York Castle while the charge against him was investigated and lots of complaints about "Mr Palmer" Came to light from around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire so he stayed in the dungeons in York. However, while he was there he wrote to his brother in Essex, asking him to find some evidence in London that would provide an alibi. But his tightwad brother refused to pay the postage and so the letter was returned unread.

By a stroke of luck it fell into the hands of Turpin's old schoolmaster, who recognised the handwriting. So, in spite of the letter being signed "John Palmer", it became known that Turpin was living under an alias. His early exploits were revealed alongside his later offences, and Turpin was sentenced to death.

His father appealed to have the sentence commuted to transportation, but to no avail. On April 7, 1739, he was taken to Knavesmire, a marshy area outside the city, where York racecourse now stands, and hanged. He was just 33 years old.  He's buried in an unremarkable graveyard close to where York Station now stands, and his grave bears both the names he carried in life.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Crippled

This strange contraption is called a builder's or painter's cripple. It's a wooden structure designed to offer a platform for workers to stand on while repairing or decorating windows. This one was found in the cellar at Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire, an English Heritage property which is being conserved 'as found'.  There's an illustration of one in use in a painter's handbook from 1830.

I can find nothing about the word's etymology so I'm assuming it got its name because of what happened if a builder fell off one.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Greensted

If you want a proper description of Greensted Church you could do no better than to visit fellow blogger Mike's A Bit About Britain because he'll include a lot of facts and his own brand of interpretation.  He's the reason we stopped off at Greensted en route south recently.

The Anorak read the blurb and looked around like a proper tourist but very little of the reality set in. It was the atmosphere that took hold, once the brash quasi-local with his loud, Estuary English voice, and equally annoying son, completed their brief inspection and moved on. "A mayt o mine wuz krissened ere. Are dere enny leeflits?" Well yes, there is an informative guidebook, but the Essex visitor didn't care enough to invest £2.

Wooden grave marker
The church is Saxon, although it stands on a site with evidence of earlier structures, and is rumoured to be the oldest stave built building in Europe. It's in a quiet corner of a quiet village and little disturbs the peace except an occasional bird call (and Towie tourist).

As you enter through the gate among the first things you spot is a wooden grave marker. I found no clue as to who is buried below it, though the Admirable Mike says it's a local landlord who lost a fight with a scythe. The rapidly deteriorating wooden cross looks shaped in sympathy.

There's a large tomb by the porch that tells you helpfully that it's a grave of a Crusader, dating from the 12th century.
Tomb of the unknown bowman
Looking at the outside of the church it's clear it's not your average place of worship. The walls are constructed from what look like bisected tree trunks, stood upright, side-by-side, more like a fortress than a church. But they are topped off with a beautiful tiled roof with pretty dormer windows that wouldn't look out of place on a country pub.  Then there's the wooden tower, clad in weatherboarding like some kind of seaside hut and topped by a witch's hat spire.

Inside is even more atmospheric. Entering through the cute 'dolls house' porch you find yourself in a dark space with heavily-carved beams, lit by a few, dark, stained-glass windows.

There's a wooden (appropriately) model of the church perched on the pulpit; an impressive eagle lectern; colourful tapestry kneelers; and those beams. The light (and my dusty camera lens) makes it almost impossible to get a good photo inside. And the angles prevent any decent shots of what's called the St Edmund beam.  Greensted is supposed to be one of the resting places of the body of St Edmund, first patron saint of England, on its journey from London to its final resting place. (Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. Big clue in the name there!) Edmund was tortured by the Danes, in numerous ways, for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. Eventually they beheaded him, and the beam shows his crowned head - minus body - and a fox. I don't know where the fox comes into the story.


So there you have it. Clearly it's a popular spot because there's a large designated parking area. Incidentally, I defy you to understand the signs if you are first to arrive.  They tell you to park at an angle, then unhelpfully include an arrow that points parallel to the hedge.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Big Ben

Visit the town of Hucknall in Nottinghamshire and you can't help but notice that a certain "mad, bad and dangerous to know" poet used to live in the area. There's at least one Byron coffee bar, there's a statue of him on the front of a local shop, and you'll find his grave in the church yard.

However, if you wander around the corner you'll find a rather larger monument, surrounded by an iron railing. Beneath the sod (as they say on a few Victorian headstones) lie the remains of one Ben Caunt, a bare knuckle fighter who rose to the giddy heights of Champion of England. He was born in Hucknall but moved around the country fighting various opponents.

He eventually settled in London where he became the landlord of the Coach and Horses pub in St Martin's Lane. (Which was destroyed by a fire in 1851, killing his two children, who are buried with him.)

 At 6 feet 2 inches and 18 stone, Caunt became known as "Big Ben" and there is at least one claim that he passed on the name to the large bell in the tower at the Houses of Parliament. There's no documentary evidence to back up the claim, and other Benjamins have been linked to the title. But it's a nice idea that the original Big Ben is buried a very long way from London.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Bolsover Castle

On a recent misty day we took a trip up the M1 to north Derbyshire and Bolsover Castle. Unlike many similar structures, it is genuinely right in the heart of the town.

In 1617 William Cavendish, who was to become the First Duke of Newcastle, inherited Bolsover Castle from his father Charles.

Charles died in the middle of creating the Little Castle, a mock Norman keep intended to act as a retreat from the family seat at Welbeck a few miles away.  William continued work on the site, completing a range of luxurious interiors depicting life from earthly pursuits to heavenly wonders.

William employed architect Robert Smythson, who was also responsible for the design of William's later home, Hardwick Hall, and Longleat House, now home of the Marquis of Bath.

Bolsover's Little Castle was the perfect place to hold lavish parties and to impress visitors with its exquisite detail. Elaborately carved fireplaces, Italian-inspired stonework and richly decorated panelling combined to show off the host's taste and fortune.


Guests entered through a Gothic doorway and into an ante room which was decorated with brightly painted panels.

Banquets and dinner parties were held in the Pillar Parlour, which gets its name from a central pillar formed by its arched ceiling. The panelling is decorated with faux graining and gilding, and at the focus of each arch the panels contain a painted illustration of one of the five senses.

The grand hall is decorated with paintings that depict the labours of Hercules.


They are designed to create an illusion of additional space because they incorporate pictures of the ceiling vaulting.

Perhaps the most impressive room on the upper floors is the Star Chamber, the main room used by the castle owners. Only family and very close friends would have been invited to see it. Again the panelling is richly decorated and English Heritage, which now manages Bolsover, has restored almost all of the paintings. Two have been left to show the actual state of the originals. The restored ceiling is wondrous.