Category Archives: Aspects of Britain
Let me do an unashamed plug for the City of Culture. Ah, come on……really…..you don’t know what I’m talking about? Whenever I mentioned to friends that we were going for a few days to the City of Culture, those who knew what I was talking about replied something like this: “What, you’re going to ‘ull? Why? Who in their right mind goes to ‘ull?”.
That reaction is, sadly, all too common. Kingston upon Hull (to give it its full name), the place that nobody visits because it is out there, on a limb, and you never go near it on your way to anywhere else. The people who end up in Hull only do so because they are actually going to Hull……..for some strange reason (apparently). The place that everyone loves to mock……but I’m now going to put the lie on that.
Hull is a happening place, especially now it has been elevated to the status of City of Culture. It began the year with an almighty bang, with a firework display second only to what happened on the Thames at New Year. Go to Hull this year and you will find museums bulging with special exhibitions, art galleries with veritable masterpieces, theatre and musical events going on in the most unexpected places. The Ferens art gallery has a Francis Bacon and a stunning Rembrandt. The University Art Gallery is displaying BP prize winning exhibits. The Museum Quarter in the old town will keep you happily engaged for hours, from the history of slavery and its abolition (William Wilberforce was MP for Hull), to a splendidly bedecked museum of transport and street life (including a whole section on the history of the bicycle).
You can take a taxi ride that introduces you to the past and present of the city, or take a walk over the Humber Bridge wearing a pair of headphones, listening to readings, poems and music that will enhance your walk. We spent a whole morning in the aquarium known as The Deep, happily absorbed in the dazzling variety of sea creatures, competing with excited toddlers and their parents for space next to the aquaria.
The day’s activities over, one evening we escaped to nearby Beverley, to its Minster, and let the dulcet tones of the Minster choir waft over us at their choral evensong. The other evening was spent back at the Museum Quarter where the History Troupe, under the leadership of Rob Bell, led us engagingly through the history of the Great War, digging beneath the surface to reveal the fortunes and misfortunes of the many thousands of Hullensians who fought and died in that dreadful conflict. In Run for the Line, the story celebrates the life of the outstanding HKR rugby player, Jack Harrison, scorer of a record 52 tries in one season. But we are constantly brought back to the hardships suffered by the people of Hull, to the deaths in the Pal’s battalions which were decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and of the 7,500 men who perished and the 25,000 other casualties who were left maimed, both physically and mentally, by the brutality of warfare. The readings and the songs were scripted from the collection of narrative poems written by Rob Bell, entitled Sharp Street, and the power of the music alongside the descriptive narrations left the audience deeply moved.
Before 2017 is out, make a decision to spend some time in Hull. Ignore what all your friends say about the city. As likely as not, they will never have been there. I guarantee you will be entranced.
I love it when a visit to a historic country house in the UK throws up a bit of obscure history that didn’t quite make it into the A level history syllabus. And this is precisely what happened when we recently visited Farnborough Hall in Oxfordshire.
I am sure, like me, you will have heard of the window tax, used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries in several countries, as a way of raising revenue for the crown. Instead of the income tax we pay today, families then were taxed on the number of windows (above a certain number), meaning that those with the biggest properties were taxed more heavily than the rest. Because some wily home owners started bricking up windows, thereby reducing their tax bill, in 1792 William Pitt had a brainwave. In addition to taxing windows, he imposed a tax on the number of clocks and watches owned by people. The resulting effect was exactly the same. People got rid of surplus timepieces, the bottom fell out of the clock-making industry, and pubs and inns started doing brisk business because they were often the only establishment in a community to have a clock. Yes, you’ve got it….locals would pop in to check the time and be distracted by the merchandise.
The few clocks that were made during this brief period (lasting only about 6 months), came to be known as Act of Parliament clocks, and I’m sure if you are an owner of one dating from this time, you will be sitting on a fortune.
Time to book your place on Flog it! or the Antiques Road Show.
Stopping for a rest and refreshment in a small village churchyard, my gaze fell on a nearby headstone. Edna Jones, born 10 years before the start of WW1, had died at the ripe old age of 102…….a good innings and a high score, if you forgive the abuse of cricketing terminology. She had outlived her husband by 20 years who, himself, had enjoyed a much better than average innings. As I chewed on an energy bar to replace lost carbs, I began to ‘chew over’ a few thoughts on this lady’s life. If she had been born 4 years earlier and had still lived to be 102, her life would have spanned 3 centuries. By no means a unique accomplishment, because it does happen the world over, especially in countries like Japan……but it is still very rare.
Back at home, I wanted to check out a few facts to put this achievement into context. When Edna was born, at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy in the UK was only 50 (worldwide only 30), so Edna had more than doubled the average longevity. The birth of the NHS in 1948 did much to improve health and hygiene, but by that time, Edna was already 44 years old, roughly the equivalent of entering into old age, so she had survived a lot of the terminal possibilities before the advent of free health care.
It is astonishing how rapidly the average age of longevity has risen in the 20th century. In 100 years in the UK, it has risen from 50 to just under 80, the equivalent of an extra 12 months of life every three years (put simply, every three days an extra day). Quite astonishing really.
Back in the early 1980s, as I was invigilating a long tedious A level examination, I remember reading a question on the General Studies paper related to longevity and the payment of pensions to senior citizens. Apparently, the actuarial tables used to determine payments (35 years ago) were based on the average person working to the age of 65, and dying within the next 18 months. Today, conversely, one of our greatest concerns as a society is the imbalance the number of senior citizens is causing the country’s economy, and the added pressure placed on social and healthcare services. On the one hand, medical science continues to stride forward in its endeavour to extend the average life span, but the net result is the huge increase in the need to support the diminishing quality of life amongst people who have far outlived their biblical ‘three score and ten’ years.
So, where do we strike the balance…….?
Many things in life have a corresponding counterpart, an anti-dote, as it were. For thirst it is drink, for hunger it is food.
After a hectic day in Cambridge, Jenny excitedly exhausted after hours of Christmas shopping, I suffering from a surfeit of ‘over-browsing and over-borrowing’ in Cambridge Central Library, we sank into the warm melodious harmonies of a King’s College evensong, and all was mysteriously right with the world once again……
Always aspiring to commit some of my life-experiences to paper in the form of a book-length narrative, I decided to join a local Writers’ Group. The principle of associating with others who are already on the journey is always a good starting point, and in my first writing competition with the group, they kindly awarded me the first prize, which included a glass goblet (I promised not to break it in the next 12 months!) and the princely sum of £15….. As we all know, the ‘journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and in the world of letters, your first literary prize (however small) can be your first important step.
The task at hand was to write 1000 words about some aspect of the history of Huntingdonshire. I took as my starting point a line from TS Eliot. The pictures have been added as illustration for the benefit of this post, and did not appear in the submitted piece.
If you came at night like a broken king…
I have cycled the lanes and byways of Old Huntingdonshire for nearly 40 years, and there is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new about this extraordinary little corner of the East Midlands. One day, about 25 years ago, having laboriously climbed over the wold from Hamerton, past the four houses and redundant church that make up Steeple Gidding, a road sign to Little Gidding beckoned me, teasing me along a narrow single-track lane that led to a cluster of buildings and a small church, it’s remoteness advertised by the tufts of grass growing down the middle of the lane. Little did I realise at the time that my unplanned visit that day might lead to a lifelong connection with this isolated little community which, over time, began to release some of its secrets.
“If you came at night like a broken king….”. This line, taken from TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartet ‘Little Gidding’, a poem inspired by his visit in May 1936, intriguingly points to the community’s past royal connections. Bear in mind that this tiny hamlet is so remote that even people living in the nearby locality have never paid a visit nor, sometimes, do they even know it exists. So how did a king find his way there, not just once, or twice, but three times?
It is a story set in the early 17th century. Nicholas Ferrar, a former businessman and prime mover in the Virginia Company, as well as a member of parliament, had given up his life in the city and had brought his extended family to a ruined farmhouse in west Huntingdonshire to begin laying the foundations of a contemplative religious community. In 1633 they unexpectedly received a visit from King Charles I on his way to Scotland, and their work on the Gospel Harmonies immediately caught his interest. The Harmonies were an attempt by the Ferrars to bring together parallel readings of the Bible so that they might be seen both separately and as a continuous whole. This was achieved by cutting and pasting diverse sections of the Bible so as to create a more fluent reading of the narratives. The King liked them so much, he asked them to prepare a special set of Harmonies of the Book of Kings and Chronicles, which were duly sent to the him the following year, richly bound and gilded in purple velvet.
Sadly, Nicholas Ferrar died before the King’s second visit to Little Gidding, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1642, on his way north to rally his troops at York and then to raise the royal standard at Nottingham, he once again stopped by Little Gidding, taking advantage of an opportunity to rest and receive refreshment. He first visited the little church of St John, the absence of images and icons telling him of the widespread local puritanical enforcements. “What will not malice invent?” he was heard to comment. Then after taking refreshment and inspecting the latest editions of the Harmonies, the King gave five pieces of gold to the widows of the community, money he had won playing cards the night before.
When the Civil War defiantly turned in favour of the Parliamentarians, the King had to make an escape from the siege of Oxford in April 1646, disguised as a servant, and he began to make his way north under the cover of darkness, sleeping and resting in safe houses during the day. His ultimate intention was to surrender himself to the Scottish army, with whom he thought he might meet with greater clemency. He travelled with two of his most trusted companions, Dr Hudson and Mr Ashburnam, and they arrived in Huntingdonshire in early May. The ‘broken king’ climbed the hill to Little Gidding, crossing the grassy meadow below the manor house, still known to this day as King’s Close, and were received warmly by the Ferrar family. Sadly, this warm reception of the King was to lead to the later destruction of part of the church, and the theft of all the plate and furniture of both house and church.
John Ferrar was aware that Little Gidding was not a convenient safe house for the King. His previous two visits were well documented and known publicly, and suspicion would immediately fall on them in the event of a search party roaming the area. So John Ferrar wisely accompanied the King to a safe house in nearby Coppingford, and it was from there that he made his way north towards Stamford. Charles finally put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, was transferred to Newcastle, and after nine months of negotiating with the Parliamentarians, was handed over to the enemy in exchange for the huge sum of £100,000, with promises of further funds for the Scots in the future. The fate of Mr Ashburnam is unknown, but Dr Hudson met with a grisly end at the hands of the puritans. He finally surrendered himself on the promise of favourable terms, but these were ignored by his captors. Like many other prisoners of war in Newark, he was thrown over the battlements into the river Trent.
When the Puritans learned of Little Gidding’s involvement in the King’s escape, the Ferrars hastily escaped, possibly to France, and left their estate knowing that it would be
destroyed and robbed in their absence. The whole of the west front of the church was destroyed, including the west gallery and the organ. The wood from the organ was used to build a fire where several of the estate’s sheep were roasted. The one notable thing that was recovered 200 years later was the brass eagle lectern, which had been thrown into a nearby pond, and is now housed for safe-keeping in Ferrar House.
However, despite this act of sinister vandalism, the restored church today is very much as the Ferrars would have known it.
Explain this one to me……..
A letter (probably a birthday card) was sent from Cornwall with a £2.25 stamp on it, clearly addressed to a lady in Queensland Australia, and it was delivered to our house in west Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom…….and not just once. Mystified by the first delivery which, admittedly, did bear our house number and three sequentially correct letters of our street name, Jenny took it to a main Post Office to make doubly-sure it was re-directed to the correct address. Even the staff at the Post Office had a good laugh at the Royal Mail’s failure. End of story……..?
No, the very next day we received just one item of mail. I highlight this because it wasn’t hiding amongst a load of other letters or junk mail, it was just one very large pink envelop, addressed in large lettering with a legibly clear ‘primary school’ style and, for a second time, some poor lady in Queensland Australia was being robbed of her birthday greeting.
This time, I took it to my local Post Office, asking the somewhat rhetorical question why any literate postman or woman would make such an elementary mistake, not just once, but twice……..or, is there more to come?
Watch this space.
…..and right outside my house, I am reminded of the famous ‘sakura’ (Japanese cherry blossom) of last year. Happy memories……
The use of optical illusions, or forced perspective, are common techniques in the art world, but when you come across one and realise that you yourself have been tricked…..well, that is some measure of the artist’s success.
In the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery the other day, after spending most of my time absorbed by the history of the city, Jenny asked me if I had seen the optical illusion on the ground floor. Of course, I hadn’t……even though I had walked right past it. So I went back to study it carefully, and as I approached it, this is what I saw…….……but then, as I stood in front of it, this was the ‘forced perspective’…..……and as I passed it (and apologies for the amateur videoclip) I got to see the full impact of the illusion…..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrIiCjvF8NA&feature=youtu.be
I haven’t quite mastered the technical know-how for uploading my tracks from my GPS via my smartphone. I know it can be done via Bluetooth (but my GPS is not enabled for that) or via a special OTG cable and an uploading app……or I could record the track on my phone using an app like Ride with GPS (RWGPS), but that is very heavy on battery and, lacking a dynamo hub on my bike to recharge the phone on the run, I would have to carry a recharging pack. All extra kit……
So for the stats-addicted amongst you, here are links to the tracks. But before you guffaw at the shockingly low average speeds (and I would do the same….quietly, of course), do remember that we climbed nearly 4000 metres (13,000 feet) in total, and some of the climbs were approaching 20%. But it was all good fun, nevertheless………..
For those of you happy just to see the mapped routes, scroll back to the previous four posts, and you will see they have been inserted into the text.
To have three successive sunny days in North Wales is little short of a miracle….but the BBC weather app even promises sunshine on our fourth, and last, day.
So how is it that a bunch of old whingers like us deserve such blessings? I’ve said this before elsewhere, the nation needs to tap in more to the creative energy of our generation. We stop for 5 minutes by the roadside to admire a view and chat about some issue of national importance, and the problem is solved before you can say ‘boo to a goose’.
I tell you, we have much to offer on behalf of the wellbeing of the nation…..but nobody listens to us.
However, luck and sunshine do sometimes desert us. A local farmer had been hedge cutting along this lane, and 40% of our little group (ie. 2) were ‘gifted’ a puncture.
It was nearly 60%, because I pulled a long thorn out of my back tyre…..but luckily it never managed to pierce the Kevlar coating inside the tyre. So at the moment, I am the only one in the group to be puncture free these last few days. But there’s still time….
And so, what about today’s route I hear you say. Well it took us north along the eastern ridge of the Conwy valley, meeting the sea at Colwyn Bay, heading around the headland of the Great Orme to Llandudno (where we stoked up on a Wetherspoon’s breakfast), then onto Conwy where some indulged in a rather long liquid lunch (hence the shorter ride….. ) and then back along minor roads to Llanrwst, our base for the trip.
It all makes stunning terrain for long cycle rides.
As we sat in a cafe, surrounded by working men having their morning coffee break, I asked the others: “So what do we contribute to the nation’s economy and wellbeing?”
Of course cyclists are seldom caught unawares by an unexpected question. Quick on the response, we heard the following: we buy (and wear out) bicycles, so need a constant stream of spare parts; we patronize cafes and pubs during mid-week quiet periods; we frequently need accommodation; we need bits of technology, clothes……and the list goes on.
So if you think retirement is a breeze, with nothing to do, devoid of any sense of responsibility towards the nation……I’m sorry to disabuse you of that idea. We ride our bikes and work hard for the national wellbeing…….QED
Today’s ride was (and I struggle to find adequate words) simply one if the very best day rides I can ever remember. The sunlight, the land and skyscapes, the views of peaks (and frequently of Snowden itself) and the panoramas of valleys and coastline were to ‘die for’. We laboured up climbs, hurtled down to lakesides, we forged our way through woodland and lingered at dramatic vantage points……what more could I say?
Well, not a lot that would be meaningful…..
…..doors to these historic buildings left open and a warm welcome with refreshments inside. Not only are these buildings a capsule of the religious past and present, but they also give us a unique insight into the heart and soul of a community. We have a singularly rich heritage in this country that is worth preserving.
Life is not just about the bike……just in case you had wondered. A journey to the south west to deepest Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, those remote islands so long associated with smuggling, shipwrecks, Augustus Smith (founder of Tresco Abbey Gardens), dramatic sunsets, pristine white sandy beaches, and the endless blue of the ocean as it meets the sky on the horizon.
No bikes (the longest stretch of road is only 3 miles), but a walker’s and nature lover’s paradise…..and if a bit of ancient history attracts you, they have found burial chambers and villages that go back to the Mesolithic age (6000 years ago?).
This is probably Jenny’s favourite place in the whole of the British Isles……it would be mine but for the danger of succumbing to ‘cabin fever’ after a few weeks.
Enjoy the photos.
On a recent four day trip over to the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, we were able to delve beneath the surface of some of the “history makers” of these bonny isles. Like any member of the National Trust or English Heritage, we enjoy learning about our history through the buildings that have been left the nation as an inheritance, invariably by the aristocrats and wealth-makers of bygone ages.
The perspective we get is, naturally, as seen through the eyes of the people who had influence……
……and influence is not just a natural result of birth or connections, but is fundamentally rooted in wealth. The size of your income and bank balance are hugely significant factors in your ability to influence the course of history.
In our thousands, we flock to gape in awe at the fabulous country estates owned by the rich of bygone days. We hear the tales and scandals of how they made their money and, often, how they squandered it.
But how often do we stop to think, and analyse, the ways in which they made their money? So often the misery and squalid living conditions of millions have been the result of their lack of munificence as employers. So often the success of their business ventures had its foundation in human abuse, child labour, inhuman working hours and conditions, low pay, subjugation of strikes, punishment of ring-leaders, eviction of tenants……and the list goes on. In Merthyr Tidfil, in the mid 19th century, average longevity among the poor was only 17.5 years. Why? Living conditions were so appalling that over 40% of children died in early childhood and, those that weren’t eventually killed by avoidable diseases, probably died as a result of some avoidable industrial accident, that could have been prevented by some basic security measures.
For the wealth-creating aristocracy, people were often seen as a replaceable commodity. Life had little value other than its potential to produce wealth for the master. On the altar of productivity, millions were sacrificed.
But on the brighter side, we also soaked up the beauty of the Brecon Beacons covered in their winter garb….
…and enjoyed the heritage trail around one of the UK’s smallest cathedrals…..