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.
It’s easy to cruise through country communities, some only a cluster of houses, admiring the local architecture, spying churches hiding behind a screen of trees, sweeping over packhorse bridges that date back centuries, and within minutes you’ve left them behind anticipating the next village.
But stop occasionally, root around, find information boards or street names that tell a deeper story, and you will be amazed at what you might find. Odell, for example, has a manor house at the top of a hill that is called Odell Castle. Much more than just a name, shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle had been built by Walter de Wahul, with a stone keep, where the family lived for the next 400 years. The much restored castle survived until 1931 when it was destroyed by fire, and the present manor house was built in the 1960s.
Villages like Milton Ernest will carry connections with a famous person, even though those connections might have been fleeting. The famous musician, Glenn Miller, for example, spent most of the war entertaining American troops in Europe, but sadly met his end when his aircraft disappeared in bad weather in 1944. He had been stationed at a local airfield near Milton Ernest, and his death is commemorated with a plaque in the village hall.
Then I could mention the history of Thurleigh Airfield, but easier to give a link that gives a complete history of its role in World War 2.
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.
Cycling along country lanes, through little villages and hamlets, I am frequently conscious of the history I am travelling through. Wherever I go in this land, people have populated this country for thousands of years, and every metre of every ride comes close to some significant event in the past that has likely got lost in the mists of time. A well known African proverb tells us: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. So too with human beings. Until the poor and dispossessed have their historians, tales of the past will always glorify the rich and powerful, and will be recounted and handed down in a carefully sanitised version.
My ride this morning took me through tiny places associated with well known people from the past, some of whom were history-makers. Christopher ‘Troublechurch’ Browne, for instance, was a non-conformist who wanted to separate church from state, and became a mentor and father-figure behind the Pilgrim Fathers who set sail across the Atlantic to found a new colony. He was associated with Thorpe Waterville and had lived in Lilford Hall.
John Dryden (poet) was born in the Rectory in Aldwincle, and John Quincy Adams (6th President of the USA) had ancestors that came out of the tiny hamlet of Achurch. Achurch was also the home village of Alfred Leete, the designer of the famous Kitchener poster of the Great War that encouraged men to enlist in the armed services. My route home traced a long straight stretch of Roman road, and my route out passed through the village of Yielden that can trace its origins back to the late Neolothic period (2000 BC).
We are not only ‘surrounded by geography’, we are also surrounded by our ancient past.
If you know anything about the history of 16th century England, no doubt the subject of religion will feature prominently. The reigning monarch dictated which should be the established religion, and refusing to obey the wishes of the monarch could make life very uncomfortable. Indeed, many lost their lives because they refused to acquiesce and change sides.
In Amsterdam, on the other hand, the great change brought about by the Alteration in 1578 saw the city officially change its status from being Catholic to being Protestant. Unlike the ‘great alterations’ in England, this alteration did not cause a huge social and political earthquake. The Amsterdamers took it in their stride, and weighed up the pros and cons of taking a severely hard line attitude to dissent, and eventually decided that the wealth and talent brought by members of other religions to the city were immensely more important than ostracising them, or even executing them.
So Amsterdam settled into a long period of quiet acceptance, so long as the dissenting places of worship were not visible to the rest of the community. So over succeeding years, several buildings and attics were adapted to meet the spiritual needs of the dissenters, the most notable (and probably the only surviving example) is the Catholic chapel known as ‘Our Lord in the Attic’. An ingenious attic conversion that can accommodate several dozen in the congregation, but remains invisible to passers-by.
Amsterdam beckons for reasons far beyond its legendary tulips….believe me.
Now you may be thinking this a thinly veiled reference to its notorious red light district (…and yes, visitors do flood there in their thousands) and the equally famous cannabis supplying coffee houses (the only places in the whole of Holland where foreigners can indulge legally). But no…..Amsterdam is much, much more than that.
If you want to get to the palpitating heart of Amsterdam, and understand its very essence, you have to take in some of its excellent museums and the grand houses where the great and the good (and not so good) used to live. Spend an hour in Rembrandt’s house, then go to the superbly refurbished Rijksmuseum, and spend another hour in the golden age gallery, absorbing the masterpieces of the 17th century, until you are confronted by Rembrandt’s dazzling Night Watch…….trust me, you will be bewitched.
When Amsterdam underwent its huge religious earthquake, with the Alteration of 1578, when the city converted to Protestantism from Catholicism, the genre of painting almost immediately changed from expensively patronized religious art, to the secularism that became so famous of the succeeding century. Even formal portraits gave way to relaxed smiling couples on their wedding day, and drunken behaviour within families……..in the world of art, this was akin to a tornado sweeping through the population.
Then move forward in history and take a 10 minute walk to Van Gogh’s museum, and allow your mind to be rudely switched from the darker, sombre colours of the 17th century, to the bright colours and vivid brushstrokes of an artist who was hardly recognised in his day, who struggled to make a living through his art, and whose ultimate insanity drove him first to cut off his own ear, then to shoot himself…..at the absurdly young age of 37.
The museum has put together a joint retrospective of Van Gogh alongside the Norwegian Edvard Munch (famous for The Scream)…..two contemporary artists who learned their trades in Paris, who never actually met, but both betrayed an astonishing similarity not only in their artistic techniques, but also in their psychological and emotional states. The contrasts are enlightening.
Beyond the guide books, I wanted something to give me a different perspective on Berlin before heading off on our visit. This volume by Rory MacLean, Berlin: imagine a city did just that. I wasn’t sure about its format at first, but a few random chapters in, I tuned into the idea of getting a glimpse of the inside of the city through a series of 23 vignettes.
Each chapter is devoted to a mini-biography of someone, whether famous or unknown, who either had an impact on the city, or who was impacted by the city. From Frederick the Great to Bertolt Brecht, from David Bowie to Marlene Dietrich, from Christopher Isherwood to John F Kennedy….along with unknown nationals and migrants……their lives were all intimately tied up at some stage with the fortunes or misfortunes of Berlin.
This is a city that has had a turbulent recent past. If there had been any vestiges of an ancient and medieval past, they were all successfully wiped away by the utter destruction of the city by allied bombers during the last war…….and its reconstruction developed a city of two halves. During the Cold War years, the political division between east and west spawned two ‘cities’ that were a hemisphere apart……..and since the fall of the Wall, the strip in ‘no man’s land’ that came to be called death strip, became the biggest building site in Europe, and is where some of the most exciting and innovative architecture is to be found today.
This volume is an unconventional way to begin your journey of understanding Berlin, but it makes a very interesting read, nevertheless.
Getting into the Reichstag requires some planning and patience, though entry is free to visitors. I tried to book tickets online, but there was nothing available for weeks in advance. We sought inside information from some young staff on the gate, and they advised coming early in the morning to join a queue……which I did the next day…….when I arrived at 7.30am, I found myself second in line.
The lady in front of me had arrived at 7am in the hope of securing tickets for her entire class of students. We chatted until a third person arrived, and discovered he was waiting to get tickets for his whole family. I had been warned about carrying ID for both of us (in our case, passports) but the other two were unaware that ID was needed, especially for those in their groups who weren’t present in the queue. As I secured our tickets for an evening visit (the Reichstag stays open until midnight) I watched the other two walk away dejectedly, presumably to return and make a second attempt.
The Reichstag, which is now the seat of the German Bundestag, was built at the end of the 19th century, to house the government of the German Empire. In 1933 it was severely damaged by fire (believed to have been caused by Nazi arsonists) and more or less fell into disuse until reunification in 1990, when it was decided to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin, and to rebuild the Reichstag to house the parliament.
The prestigious contract was granted to the famous British architect, Sir Norman Foster, and he replaced the old dome with a magnificent glass dome, including a spiral walkway that takes visitors to the very top. We started our visit just as the sun was setting, so the views over the city illuminations were mixed with the luminescence of the fading sunlight. The upper balcony was a place to linger to enjoy the urban panorama, the base of the dome was also a place to linger, to study the information boards delving into the complex history of the Reichstag.
And right beneath us, looking down into the well of the dome, you could gaze on proceedings in parliament which, at 9pm, understandably had more visitors in the viewing gallery than deputies on the floor.
You have to remember that Berlin (and Germany) was not just subjected to the devastating division between east and west during the cold war years, but in the 1930s and 1940s it also suffered the appalling oppression of the National Socialists.
Germany had undergone a social and political revolution with the coming of the Third Reich, which initially promised to be the saviour of the country following defeat in WW1 and the economic depression but, in fact, turned into the force that ultimately destroyed Germany by 1945. Instead of being liberated by the allied troops at the end of the war, the division of Germany into four sectors spelled the advent of years of ‘incarceration’ for those in the east.
Curiously, on the same site where a long section of the Wall has been preserved, you will also find the museum of the Topography of Terror, which is housed in the area where the National Socialists had their centre of operations, including the buildings where dissidents were interrogated and tortured.
The museum provides a detailed and honest account of the brutality dealt out by the Nazis. I found the same message coming across as I did in the Documentation Museum in Nuremberg (which I visited 18 months ago en route to Istanbul). The blame for the war and its destructive consequences was entirely the responsibility of the National Socialists, including the utter annihilation of much of Germany. At no point did I see the merest suggestion that the allied troops bore any of the responsibility.
I guess that Germany’s ability to swiftly come to terms with its own past has been a cornerstone to the rapid reconstruction of a country that has, once more, become the leading nation of Europe……both economically and morally.
Our hotel in Berlin was located 100 metres from the site of the Wall, inside the old American sector. By a hair’s breadth, those who lived along this strip had found themselves just inside the western sector when the barricade went up overnight on August 13th 1961. Many families were split. People were cut off from their places of work. People who had stayed the night in one sector found they couldn’t return the next day to the other sector. What had once been the easiest crossing from east to west Germany, suddenly became the most difficult………indeed, the most lethal.
The no-man’s land created by a second wall became the killing zone, better known as the ‘death strip’, where more than 100 would-be escapees lost their lives. Over the years the barricade was upgraded until, in 1975, they began constructing the ultimate retaining wall measuring 12 feet in height. But none of this prevented more than 5000 people making a successful bid to cross the border; some in hot air balloons, some through the sewers, some in daring car dashes through checkpoints, even some on crude zip wires. If the desire was strong enough, some would most definitely find a way.
“Ich bin ein Berliner” (JF Kennedy) and “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (Reagan) were powerful milestones on the road to the Wall’s demolition, but none more powerful, perhaps, than Bruce Springsteen’s rock concert given in the eastern sector just 18 months before the wall came down. His invitation to play may have been the GDR’s attempt to appease its own younger generation, but it had exactly the opposite effect. It simply made them hungrier for more of the same.
The line of the Wall has now become a defined cycling and walking route around the city. What used to be the ‘death strip’ has been the biggest building site in Europe for many years, and it is along this strip that you will find some of the most avant garde buildings and creative open spaces that you’ll find anywhere in an urban setting.
…..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…..
Walter Raleigh, Malvasia and (unbelievably) rain!
Wanting to explore all parts of Lanzarote forced me to commit the ‘mortal sin’ of setting off for the day’s ride with the 25mph wind at my back. Why mortal? Because, although the outward ride would be a ‘breeze’, the journey back to base (Costa Teguise) was going to kill me…..and it did, because added to it was horizontal rain, which drove me to take shelter behind a bushy cactus, known locally as a ‘chumbera’ or ‘tunera’ (prickly pear)…..and that was a veritably prickly experience.
But then I was happily waylaid by an excellent museum in the Castillo de San Gabriel, in Arrecife (capital) and not only learned much about the history of the island, but discovered that our famous Sir Walter Raleigh himself had tried to invade Lanzarote, and the islanders had successfully hidden in the huge complex of volcanic caves. Raleigh sailed off having achieved nothing, because he had been under strict instructions from James I not to harm any of the islanders. I can imagine his frustration….poor chap.
When I got as far south as Puerto Calero, I came across this stunning field of meadow flowers, growing abundantly out of the volcanic ash.
….and not just wild flowers, but also a very special vine, that produces the Malvasia grape, and thrives in little dugouts in the volcanic ash, capturing moisture from night time dew for irrigation. Because it rains so little here (except for today, of course), this is an ingenious method of cultivating anything in this lunar landscape.
Radio 4 is putting out some fascinating stuff these days. This year being the 8ooth anniversary of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that has had major repercussions through the centuries in many countries across the world, it was good to hear that Melvyn Bragg was entrusted with the presentation of its history over four programmes.
Believed to be the foundation stone of most modern democracies today, it was astonishing to discover that the first version of Magna Carta was denounced as unlawful by the Pope within weeks of its publication, re-establishing the king’s divine right to, not only be the law-maker in his own kingdom, but also to be above the law and immune from prosecution.
The death of King John, however, brought the child King Henry III to the throne, and the rebellious barons once again saw their opportunity to re-establish the principles of Magna Carta, which was finally ratified in 1225.
Though most of the clauses have now lost their relevance in modern democracies, the very principles on which they were based are still pertinent, and have helped lay the foundation of constitutions around the world, most notably that of the United States……to name but one.
A series well worth attention: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wtchv
When out pedalling the miles, I frequently get distracted. Some distractions lead to unscheduled stops…….and this stop, some 20 miles (30kms) from my home, served to remind me of the importance of Norman Cross during the Napoleonic Wars, more than 200 years ago.
Norman Cross, some two centuries ago, was nowhere near any of the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars…….but that is precisely why it was chosen as the most suitable spot for creating the very first prisoner of war camp on these islands. Some 80 miles north of London, with ample water supplies and ready sources of food, it was remote enough to discourage French prisoners from trying to escape, but not too far away to make it impossible for the transfer of prisoners, as and when prisoner exchanges took place.
In the 15 years of its existence, some 30,000 prisoners passed through its gates, but the resident population seldom rose above 5000 at any one time. Over 1800 died of natural causes (usually some form of infectious disease), a few swapped sides and joined the British army, and still others chose to stay in this country after their liberation.
Prisoners at Norman Cross relieved the boredom by making ornaments from wood, bone and straw marquetry. These were often sold – there was a regular market beside the prison gates. Many of the objects made are on show at the Peterborough City Museum and Art Gallery where there is a gallery dedicated to the Norman Cross Depot.
The camp was closed in 1816, but it had established a tradition that would feature prominently in future wars, especially the two world wars of the last century.
The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France came in 1904 and in 1914 the Entente Cordiale Society put up a memorial column to the memory of the 1,800 prisoners who died at Norman Cross. The column – a Napoleonic Eagle – was an imposing sight for people travelling along the A1. However, in 1990 it was vandalised – the column was knocked over and the bronze eagle was stolen, never to be seen again.
The Norman Cross Eagle Appeal committee raised money to restore the memorial. When the A1 was rebuilt in 1998, the memorial column was re-erected on its original base on a new site, close to the site of the Depot. A bronze eagle, created by sculptor John Doubleday, was finally unveiled in April 2005.
One of the great benefits of using an e-Reader is the quick availability of foreign language texts. I remember waiting several weeks for Spanish books to arrive from source, but now I can access them in seconds, and carry several around without adding volume and weight to what I carry, other than the reading device itself.
This over-view of the history of Spain in the 20th century is much more than an ‘everyman’s version’, diluted and simplified to attract a wider readership. It takes us from the rural, agricultural economy in the late 19th century through to Spain’s integration into NATO and the EEC in the late 20th century. Through the upheaval in politics in the 1920s, the devastating period of the civil war 1936-39, the brutal aftermath followed by nearly 40 years of authoritarian government……then it emerges in the late 1970s into the gradual process of democratization, the shedding of the painful memories of repression, and the growth of a country with a new constitution into the country we know today.
The narrative has pace. Many of the less digestible details of politics are made accessible. The reader is taken deftly to the conclusion that Spain is now ready ‘to remember’ its recent past, now that the generations caught up in the struggle have passed away.
Some of the most celebrated English naturalists seldom strayed far from their homes to make their astonishing discoveries. On my cycle route to Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago, I chanced by the home of Gilbert White in Selbourne, Hampshire, and learned that through painstaking observation of the behaviour of swallows in his own village, he concluded that they migrated to other lands during the winter. From that seed of observation sprouted the theory that many species of birds (and animals) followed the same patterns of behaviour.
Charles Darwin, the man celebrated for having the wisdom to unwrap the mysteries of evolution, spent 40 years living in Downe House with his wife and children. Apart from his 5 years travelling the globe with HMS Beagle, the bulk of his study took place in his home, and out on the 18 acres of land purchased with the house.
He spent 40 years patiently observing and conducting experiments, and the theory of evolution was only one of hundreds of theories that emanated from that small domestic environment. In fact, one of his major studies concerned the huge impact of the humble earthworm on the well-being of the planet. The last book he published before his death contained the results of his life-long study of the worm…….and this from a man who was being celebrated (and vilified) the world over for the ‘earthquake’ he caused amongst the thinking classes.
Darwin had the wisdom to publish and then withdraw to the peace and quiet of his home environment, allowing the intellectuals of his time to ‘clear up the mess’. So it is astonishing to discover that his theory of evolution, in the hands of opposing intellectuals of the time, was used to justify the arguments of opposite camps.
‘Social Darwinists’, on the one hand, argued in favour of the theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’ being applied directly to human society: allow the weak and the poor to die off, and the strongest and wealthiest will propagate the earth. (The foundation of the Nazi final solution…..?). On the other hand, Karl Marx himself embraced the theory in proposing the class struggle. If the poor and the weak are likely to suffer and die at the hands of the rich and powerful, then they should rise up and fight for survival.
If you visit Downe House in Kent, allow a whole day to take in the length and the breadth of this fascinating house. More than just a home to the Darwin family, it was the laboratory from which new thinking was to change the way we viewed the world.
Trying to cover the last three miles to Stonehenge can be a trial. You think there is an accident ahead as the traffic creeps along at slower than a snail’s pace. The truth is somewhat more mysterious. There are no visible hold-ups, no roundabouts or traffic lights that seem to be delaying the traffic…..in fact, there is no explanation other than the fact that curious drivers slow down as they pass Stonehenge, probably to have a lingering look at the megalith without having to stop and visit it. For us, a three hour journey stretched to five hours, and we got there just in time for our allotted slot.
Now with its new Visitor Centre, the history and background to this stunning piece of ancient history is all laid bare. No longer can you wander amongst the stones, but you can get wrapped up in the myriad theories of the who, the how and the why of this circle of ancient stones and barrows. My favourite is the long-held belief that Merlin was the architect. Then the Romans were on the list of suspects, and latterly the Druids. But, of course, none of those were the culprits.
Now we know for certain (?) that it was the ancient Britons of 3000BC who were the proven master ‘bricklayers’. Just think of it…. this pre-dates all the admired wonders of Egypt, Rome and ancient Greece. And for centuries the world had thought the folks on these islands to be too stupid and savage to be the authors of such a wonder.
It’s not just our weather that catches people by surprise!