Breathing life into history

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my hobbies is history (and archeology to some extent). I’ve often wondered whether I should have read history at university instead of botany. And, when I retired almost eight years ago, I did ponder taking a history degree course at the Open University. However, having decided that retirement meant I no longer had to meet deadlines any more, the allure of studying again soon faded.

Nevertheless, much of my reading focuses on history, and I’ve built up a sizeable library (mostly paperbacks) covering all periods and disciplines (social, economic, cultural, etc.). When we lived overseas in the Philippines I would take back half a suitcase of books after each annual home-leave in the UK. Near where my elder daughter lives in St Paul, Minnesota there is an excellent book store where I’ve been able to pick up a whole range of texts, many about the American Civil War, that I’ve never seen on sale over this side of the Atlantic. There are several university colleges near Half Price Books on Ford Parkway, where students divest themselves of course books each year—to my great advantage.

Here in the UK we are also fortunate that BBC2, BBC4 and Channel 4 regularly broadcast history programs of high quality, and others on archaeology, that provide interesting perspectives on how cultures and societies evolved. Steph and I have been enjoying many of these since we returned to the UK in 2010.

I guess my own fascination with history and archaeology on TV began with Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, a thirteen part documentary series, first broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 about the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. It was apparently the first series commissioned specifically for colour television in the UK (by Sir David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2). I didn’t actually see the series then; I was too busy being an undergraduate. We acquired the DVD in 2005.

Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, broadcast in 1973 (and which we also viewed years later on DVD), was a highly-acclaimed personal view about the development of human society through its understanding of science.

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (broadcast from September 2000, over 15 hour-long programs in three series until June 2002) was his personal view of different periods of British (actually, mainly English) history and its events. Once again, we caught up on DVD.

And during this period of working overseas, we enjoyed (on DVD) an impressive list of programs by Michael Wood, in a broadcasting career that began in 1979. He has had several series since we returned to the UK.

David Starkey is a hardy perennial who focuses on the Tudors. Despite several controversies that have surrounded him, he still appears quite regularly.

There is quite a long list of presenters (see below) whose programs we have enjoyed since 2010, covering a wide range of topics and periods. Just this past few weeks we’ve enjoyed a three-part series by Helen Castor about England’s first queen, Jane (great granddaughter of Henry VII), whose reign lasted just nine days in July 1553.

Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon is the ‘flavor of the month’ right now. A two part series, Rome Unpacked, co-presented with chef Giorgio Locatelli about the cultural history of Rome and its cuisine concluded last week. For some reason we didn’t watch the three series of Italy Unpacked broadcast between 2013 and 2015. He’s just started a four part series about the Royal Collection on BBC4, and next week he has a one-off program on BBC2 about the theft of two paintings by Van Gogh from a museum in Amsterdam in 2002. He’s certainly one of the most engaging presenters currently on TV.

But there are two presenters who are new to me with series showing right now on BBC2 and BBC4, respectively.

David Olusoga is a British Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster who I’d never heard of until his four part series A House Through Time began three weeks ago. It tells the social history of Liverpool through the lives of families who occupied a single house, from when it was built about 200 years ago until the present day.

62 Falkner Street (at one time, number 58) is a four storey terraced house in what was once a fashionable neighborhood, in the Georgian Quarter east of the city center, but within easy striking distance of the docks that were the basis of the city’s prosperity for so many decades.

It has been painstakingly researched. There must be a large team of researchers behind the scenes digging into the census records and other documents published in Liverpool that have provided insights into the business and economic history of the city. It’s a very engaging way to tell the social history of this important port city in England’s northwest, that climbed to the pinnacle of economic prosperity in the 19th century, and fell to the depths of economic decline in the late 20th.

Combining the history of art and fashion, A Stitch in Time (a six part series on BBC4) is presented by TV newcomer Amber Butchart, who has published several books and appears regularly apparently on BBC radio.

Amber is certainly a breath of fresh air, with her flamboyant fashion style, bright red hair, and piercingly blue eyes. Her range of clothes certainly needs a personality like Amber’s to carry off successfully. Elegant!

Working with historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team, Amber fuses biography, art, and the history of fashion, and explores the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore.

In the first program, she looked at the fashion of Charles II’s restoration, and in the second the green gown worn by the lady in the 1434 Arnolfini portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck. The third program was unusual in that the portrait was of a working man, a hedge-cutter, wearing a hand-me-down leather coat.

In each program Amber talks about the social status and lives of the subjects that we can deduce from each painting, while Ninya and her team recreate a costume just from their view of the painting and their detailed understanding of how clothes were made in the past. The Arnolfini recreation was outstanding.

From the outset I wouldn’t have imagined that a series along these lines would grab my attention. I guess we watched the first episode because there was nothing else worth watching across the channels. But then we were hooked, and I hope that the BBC will commission Amber to undertake other projects in the future.


  • Dan Snow: a Modern History graduate from Oxford University, Snow has an impressive list of programs under his belt.
  • Mary Beard: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Beard has presented programs on Rome and Pompeii, among others. Very entertaining.
  • Niall Ferguson: Scottish-born Ferguson has affiliations with many academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and specializes in economic and financial history.
  • Simon Sebag-Montefiore: he has presented some excellent city histories, on Jerusalem, Rome, Byzantium, and Vienna.
  • Lucy Worsley: she is Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and has been presenting since 2009, and has written a number of books. Renowned for her penchant for dressing up in her programs, I guess she is not everyone’s cup of tea. But we find her engaging.
  • Suzannah Lipscombe: is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, and has an impressive list of TV programs to her name.
  • Bettany Hughes: specializes in classical history, and has been broadcasting since the late 1990s.
  • Clare Jackson: is a senior tutor at Cambridge University and has a particular interest in 17th century English history.
  • Dan Jones: a writer and historian, his book on the Plantagenets was adapted for television in 2014 on Channel 5.
  • Sam Willis: is a military historian affiliated with the University of Plymouth.
  • Saul David: is Professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham.
  • Ruth Goodman: is a British freelance historian of the early modern period, specializing in offering advice to museums and heritage attractions.
  • Janina Ramirez: is an art and cultural historian, who works at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education.
  • Jago Cooper: archaeologist and the Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and specializes in the history and pre-Columbian archaeology of South America. He has presented programs on the Incas and lost kingdoms of Central America (areas particularly close to my heart, having lived in Peru and Costa Rica for over eight years in the 1970s).
  • Neil Oliver: is a Scottish archaeologist who has presented programs on the Vikings and is a resident presenter on Coast.
  • Alice Roberts: is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at The University of Birmingham. A medical doctor and anatomist by training, Roberts front many programs bringing together expertise in archaeology and history, and appears frequently on the BBC.
  • Waldemar Januszczak: is an art critic and TV presenter and documentary producer, with many films to his credit since 1997.

Navigating the Stourport Ring

I’m fascinated by canals. You have to admire the visionaries who financed and built the canals, and the armies of men who constructed them.

Most canals in England and Wales were dug by gangs of navvies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, within just a generation or two the canals were already in decline as an expanding railway network made transportation of goods cheaper and faster. The writing was on the wall for the canals once George Stephenson had demonstrated the power of steam locomotion.

The economic justification for and value of the canals waned, and they fell into disuse, and no longer navigable. However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence in the use of inland waterways. Today some 2000 miles of navigable waterways (canals and rivers) are managed by the Canal & River Trust, used mainly for pleasure traffic. Narrowboat holidays on the canals are very popular.

I have written several stories about the pleasure Steph and I take from walking along the towpath of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, that runs north-south between Gas Street Basin in the center of Birmingham and the River Severn at Worcester. The canal is less than two miles east of our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire. Our walks normally cover small sections of the towpath between Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58) and Astwood Bottom Lock (No. 17), a distance of about 5½ miles.

We not only enjoy the surrounding countryside, tranquil for the most part (unless a mainline express is speeding by about half a mile to the west), but also watching the canal narrowboats navigating their way up and down the Tardebigge Flight, the longest flight (of 30 locks) in the country, some with a greater degree of proficiency than others. Some days it can be like Piccadilly Circus¹ with boats queuing up to pass through the locks.

Taking to the water
We have taken only one canal holiday, in the summer of 1983, when Steph, Hannah (just five years old), Philippa (15 months) and me took to the water for a week, to navigate the Stourport Ring.

The Ring, for our purposes, comprised four waterways:

If I remember correctly, the various links connecting the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal with the BCN via the Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canals were not navigable in 1983.

Setting out, and setting some rules
It was early July, and we took Hannah out of school for the week with readily-granted permission from Mr Richards, the headmaster at Finstall First School. That would be almost impossible nowadays. We had chosen a small, 4-berth narrowboat for our holiday, Blue Heron, from a hire-boat center operating out of Alvechurch, about 15 minutes from home. So, packing clothes for a week, and several boxes of groceries (including the inevitable wine boxes that were very popular in the 80s), we headed to Alvechurch to board our boat.

Blue Heron, with Steph at the helm, and Philippa in the bow.

After a familiarization tour of the boat, one of the marina staff joined us for the first three miles to the first lock on our trip, Tardebigge Top Lock. Not only would that be the first lock we’d encounter over the next week, but it was one of the deepest. So, the marina staff not only wanted to guide us safely through this lock but also to show us the rudiments of safe canal navigation.

Looking at the various photos I have included in this post, you might be forgiven for questioning our apparent lack of awareness of on-board safety. Only Hannah is wearing a life jacket, something that would not be allowed more than three decades later. At five years old, we had to set Hannah some strict limits how to move around the boat. At 15 months, Philippa was already walking, and would crawl and stagger around the cabin whenever we moored for a meal break or at night. With either Steph or me steering the boat, one of us had to operate the locks, raising/ lowering the paddles to empty or fill each lock, and open the lock gates. So it was important we knew where the girls were at all times.

To keep Philippa safe, we put her in a high chair in the bow of the boat, and with her mob cap for protection, and a good coating of sun cream, she was (mostly) quite happy watching the world go by at a leisurely 4 mph (the maximum speed permitted on the canals), waving to passers-by, or falling asleep when the fancy took her. Hannah would often sit beside whoever was steering at the stern of the boat, or ‘help’ with the locks.

Our journey continues
Having successfully passed through Tardebigge Top Lock, we headed down a few more on our own, before mooring for the night just below the Engine House, then a nightclub/restaurant (but now converted into luxury apartments), near Lock 55 or 54, in the early evening. With two small children on board, we had to get them fed and not too late bedded down for the night.

The view from Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58).

Looking south on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Lock 54. The Malvern Hills can be seen in the far distance.

We spent all the next day completing the Tardebigge flight, but I’m not sure if we reached Worcester that same day, or took another day. Probably the latter. However, we spent one night at Worcester’s Diglis Basin before facing the River Severn.

It had become clear on the final stretch into Worcester that Hannah was not her usual perky self. And by bedtime, she had a temperature. The next morning she really looked very unwell, so she and I headed off into the center of Worcester in search of medical help. Although only 15 miles or so from home, it felt like 100 miles. I didn’t have our doctor’s telephone number with me. In any case, there were no mobile phones in 1983.

Nevertheless, we finally got to see a doctor (after completing a slew of NHS forms because we were being treated as ‘visitors’, not our own doctor), who diagnosed tonsillitis, and prescribed a course of antibiotics. It was remarkable how quickly those had an effect, because by late afternoon Hannah was feeling very much better, and almost back to her normal self by bedtime.

Diglis Basin in Worcester.

Our departure from Worcester was delayed until after lunch. We steeled ourselves for the section of our trip on the River Severn. We had good weather (and for the whole week), and no particular difficulties on the river itself. But we did have to pass through the Diglis Lock connecting Diglis Basin with the River Severn. This lock is wide and deep, and a challenge for two canal novices like Steph and myself. I don’t remember that this lock was assisted.

Once on the Severn we turned north, having a grandstand view from the center of the river of Worcester Cathedral on the east bank, and the city center.

There was just one other lock on the Severn itself, at Holt, to bypass a weir. That lock had lock keepers, and was electrically operated. Once we reached Stourport-on-Severn, it was time to leave the river and join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, for the next stage of our trip.

Entering the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Stourport-on-Severn.

This canal passes through the center of Kidderminster, a town famous world-wide for its carpet-making industry, then on through some lovely and peaceful red sandstone landscapes near Kinver in South Staffordshire.

We must have taken a couple of days to travel this section as far as Aldersley Junction, where we had to turn east and join the Birmingham Canals Navigation. However, as we needed water and some other supplies, we travelled a couple of miles further north, joining the Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction for a very short distance before turning around to moor up for the night by Aldersley Junction. At Autherley Junction, there is a stop lock, with just a small height difference, a matter of inches, between the two canals to prevent drainage of one canal into the other.

The next section on the BCN was our penultimate day, taking us from Aldersley Junction, through the Black Country, Birmingham city center, and south again on to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, mooring up north of Alvechurch in order to arrive back on time at the marina the next day.

From Aldersley Junction there is a flight of 21 locks that raise the canal 132 feet. We made an early start, with the idea of stopping about half way for breakfast. However, we discovered at about one third of the climb that a previous boat had left the lock paddles open and several pounds between the locks had drained completely. The photo below was taken on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal a couple of years ago when several refurbishment projects were underway. But it shows the sort of scene that greeted us that morning on the BCN. It must have taken an hour or more to restore water levels to the pounds before we could get on the move once again.

Travelling between Wolverhampton and Birmingham in 1983 was like passing through a desolate lunar landscape, with scenes of dereliction all around. This is part of the so-called Black Country of Dudley and Tipton, formerly an important industrial area. Today this whole area has been reclaimed for housing. Even the derelict warehouses along the canals in the center of Birmingham have either been refurbished as ‘desirable residences’ or demolished and replaced by new housing and offices.

Near Gas Street Basin in 1983.

Signposts on the canal, Wolverhampton to the left, Worcester to the right.

However in 1983, there was little shade along the banks of the BCN in the Black Country of Dudley and Tipton. It was a very hot day, and the sun was beating down. Because we had to travel more miles than usual, I had my lunch and tea breaks on the move, so to speak. Just as we crossed Gas Street Basin, the weather broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm. With that, we decided to moor until the storm had passed, before continuing south, past the University of Birmingham Edgbaston campus, and through the one and a half mile long Wast Hills Tunnel (under the Lickey Hills) north of Alvechurch, one of the longest in the country. We moored close to where the A441 crosses the canal at Hopwood, and enjoyed an evening meal at the Hopwood House pub.

The University of Birmingham campus from the canal near Selly Oak.

Just passed through one of the tunnels north of Alvechurch.

With only a short distance to Alvechurch, we spent a couple of hours cleaning the boat on the final morning, getting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, and arriving back at the marina by the noon deadline.

From there, it was just a case of hopping into our car, and within 15 minutes we were back home. A very enjoyable holiday and, as you can tell as you read this post, one that left me with long-lasting memories.


¹ The phrase it’s like Piccadilly Circus is commonly used in the UK to refer to a place or situation which is extremely busy with people.

Silent witness to centuries of history

In Friar Street, close to the center of Worcester, and a couple of hundred meters or so north of its magnificent cathedral, stands a half-timbered building built around 1480 (the birth year of my 13th Bull great grandfather) that has been a silent witness to some of England’s pivotal moments in history, such as the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII in the late 1530s, and just over a century later when King Charles II (although not yet crowned) was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the last battle of the English Civil Wars.



These photos show the double gateway looking into the garden, and from inside to the street, as well as views of the rear of Greyfriars’ from the garden. Building a half-timbered house was, according to our guide, a little bit like piecing a jigsaw together. Which pieces fitted where? Well, symbols were embossed on matching pieces of timber and these can be clearly seen in one the photos in this gallery.

Greyfriars’ is a late medieval merchant’s house that has survived the ravages of time—but nearly didn’t make it. Greyfriars’ is now owned by the National Trust. We enjoyed a visit to Greyfriars’ House and Garden yesterday, where many of the rooms had been decorated to celebrate Christmas during various times: a Tudor Christmas in the entrance hall, a Puritan Christmas (or lack of it) in one of the main bedrooms, and a wartime Christmas in the library.


Just 13 miles of so south of our home in Bromsgrove, Worcester is the county town of Worcestershire. But for one reason or another, and despite having been residents of Worcestershire for over 35 years (albeit with a break of almost 19 years in the Philippines) we have only rarely visited Worcester. I think the last time I was there was in December 2013 when I was called for jury service at the Crown Court (but never actually made it on to a jury).

Since becoming members of the National Trust in 2012, in the lead up to Christmas we have visited one of the Trust’s properties in our ‘neighbourhood’ – Hanbury Hall, Croome Park, Packwood House, Baddesley Clinton or Coughton Court – since there is always a special festive display to enjoy.

This year we decided to visit Greyfriar’s, making the short journey by train, not wanting to have the hassle of finding convenient parking in the city. In any case, it was also an opportunity of experiencing Bromsgrove’s new railway station¹.

We stopped off for a coffee at M&S before walking on to Greyfriars’ and arrived just in time, a little after 11 am, to take advantage of the excellent first house tour of the day. We were just three visitors, and I had full opportunity to use my camera to the full, even though light levels were extremely low. So the set of photos I came away with are certainly not my best, by any stretch of the imagination, but I hope I did capture something of the beauty of this interesting property.

Saved from demolition
Greyfriars’ was destined to be demolished but was saved by members of the Worcester Archaeological Society. In 1943, military dental surgeon M Matley Moore and his sister Elsie took on the refurbishment of Greyfriars’, eventually taking up residence in 1949.

These photos show the main entrance hall, one of the main tapestries, and some of Elsie Matley Moore’s handiwork above the fireplace.

Apparently the house was in a dreadful state when the Matley Moores began their refurbishment project, and this was not something undertaken lightly during the Second World War or its immediate aftermath when building supplies were hard to come by. Nevertheless, they were able to salvage panelling and other decoration from other buildings, in addition to keeping what original features that were still part of the building’s fabric. Elsie Matley Moore was an accomplished seamstress, and lovingly restored a number of the seventeenth century tapestries that are still on display, as well as adding features of her own, such as ceramics and a set of particularly rare Georgian green (from arsenic? – not so) wallpaper panels in the downstairs living room.

These photos show the main bedroom (apparently occupied by the man of the house), the parlour (and its William Morris tiled fireplace), and the library. All the rooms had magnificent grandfather clocks, several manufactured in Worcestershire, and at least one designed with just a single hour hand. In the fireplaces in two rooms were cast iron – and painted – door stops that Elsie Manley Moore collected. These are quite rare today. Above the fireplace in the parlour is some original carved woodwork frieze with carved dragons (there’s a close-up in this gallery), and indicating that Worcester is not that far from the Welsh border country.

Downstairs, the dining room was refurbished in a Georgian style. These photos show the majolica tiles above the fireplace, and one of the green wallpaper panels.

The garden was obviously dormant yesterday, but National Trust volunteers told us that during the summer months the garden is a haven in the center of Worcester (although traffic noise from the close-by ring road did unfortunately intrude as we explored a few of the garden’s nooks and crannies).

Each year Greyfriars’ is host to Shakespearean players who perform in the garden. I think we should look out for that event for 2017.


¹ After the Rio Paralympics 2016, the Bromsgrove station signs were all painted gold, recognising the rowing gold medal won by local sportswoman Lauren Rawles.


Half price books, full value history . . .

Most of my reading consists of history or biography, and I have written a number of posts in this blog about some of the books I have read and the periods of history that particularly interest me. In recent months, however, when I have not been able to get to the public library in Bromsgrove, I have returned to the Barchester novels by Anthony Trollope – with much enjoyment – that have sat on my bookshelves for several decades.

In recent years I have expanded my own history library through purchases of second-hand books in St Paul, Minnesota. And yesterday, being a bright and sunny Minnesota early autumn day, Steph and I walked the mile from Hannah and Michael’s new house to Highland Village in the Highland Park neighbourhood. Along Ford Parkway, near the corner with Cleveland Avenue, Half Price Books (a chain of 120 stores nationwide) offers a fantastic array of books of all genres and subjects (as well as second CDs and DVDs).



Over the years that we have visited Hannah and Michael we have always made a beeline for HPB. For my historical interests, and particularly for books about the ‘Wild West’ or the American Civil War, HPB has a much better selection than I have ever been able to find through Worcestershire County Library in the UK. Of course not everything that I have bought at HPB relates to American history. If a book takes my fancy, then it usually finds a place in my library. And I’ve often found many interesting books about British or European history that I’ve never come across back home.

This year has been no exception, and I came away from my visit to HPB with seven paperbacks for under USD60. There are several university campuses close to HPB: St Catherine University, University of St Thomas, and Macalester College. I reckon that many of the books I acquire must be cast-off course texts. Students’ loss, my gain!

So what’s on my reading list this year?

I’m particularly looking forward to delving into Amanda Foreman’s tome about Britain’s role in the American Civil War. The biography of Elias Ashmole, founder of the Royal Society in the UK is not something I would have contemplated had I not seen it on the shelf. And the social histories of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution England could be good reads.

I’ll post some reviews once I have waded through them. The Foreman book alone is over 950 pages.


2015: a great year for National Trust and English Heritage visits

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust for five years now. We even qualify for the Seniors discount from January! And we’ve been members of English Heritage for just a year.

But we will be renewing our membership of both organizations in 2016. Why? Because they both offer excellent value for money, and certainly give purpose to our trips out, whatever the weather. Be it a visit to a stately home, a ruined castle, a country park, or a beautiful garden, there are so many properties to visit and experience so many aspects of our cultural heritage.

Looking back on our 2015 visits we have certainly had our money’s worth, and annual membership has more than paid for all the entrance fees we would have had to pay in any case. And much more!

So here is a pictorial summary of our great visits this past year, beginning in early April and ending just last week when we visited Charlecote Park to see the Christmas decorations. And there are links to individual posts about each visit.


Lyveden New Bield (9 April)

20150409 092 Lyveden

Brodie Castle (National Trust for Scotland – 29 May)

Brodie Castle

Culloden Battlefield (National Trust for Scotland – 29 May)

Scotland 082

Inverewe Garden (National Trust for Scotland – 1 June)

Scotland 312

Arduaine Garden (National Trust for Scotland – 7 June)

Scotland 877

Rufford Old Hall (8 June)

The main entrance in the seventeenth century wing.

Tredegar House (18 June)

Tredegar House, near Newport in South Wales

Chirk Castle (1 July)

20150701 147 Chirk Castle

Hawford Dovecote (9 July)

20150709 010 Hawford dovecote

Wichenden Dovecote (9 July)

20150709 022 Wichenford dovecote

Hardwick Hall (12 August)

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Newark Park (28 August)

20150828 031 Newark Park

Croome Park (12 October)

20110328046 Croome Court

Charlecote Park (16 December)

The entrance hall.


Rushton Triangular Lodge (9 April)

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire

Stokesay Castle (14 April)

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Wroxeter Roman City (14 April)

20150414 130 Wroxeter Roman city

Kenilworth Castle (21 April)


Goodrich Castle (21 May)

Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire

St Mary’s Church, Kempley (21 May)

20150521 135 St Marys Kempley

Witley Court (9 July)

20150709 091 Witley Court

Hardwick Old Hall (12 August)

Looking down six floors in the Old Hall. And the magnificent plasterwork on the walls.

Wenlock Priory (18 August)

20150818 043 Wenlock Priory

Ironbridge (18 August)


All families have their problems – some more than others

51JzLs8XVHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Well if you think that your family has its quirks and secrets, just take a look at the family of George III, his queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and their large brood of dysfunctional princes and princesses.

And that is what Janice Hadlow (former Controller of BBC2) has done in her excellent book, The Strangest Family, published by William Collins in 2014 (ISBN978-0-00-716519-3). It’s a mammoth tome, 617 pages (and another sixty plus pages of acknowledgements, notes and index).

Born in 1738, acceded to the throne in 1760 following the death of his grandfather George II, married in September 1761, George III was father to 15 children (nine boys, two of whom died very young, and six daughters). And although George entered marriage with the aim of not repeating the ‘errors’ of his great-grandfather (George I), his grandfather, and father Frederick, Prince of Wales (who died in 1751), the ‘Hanoverian curse’ did not by-pass his family.

It seems George III remained faithful to Charlotte—unlike his regal predecessors who all took a string of mistresses. And although family life in the George III household seems to have started well, and George was reportedly a loving father to his young family, divisions began to develop as the older boys struggled under the strict and moral lifestyle imposed on them by their father. Soon the relations between George and Charlotte and their elder sons George, Prince of Wales, Frederick, Duke of York, and William, Duke of Clarence had become as sour as those between George I and his son, George II, and him and his son, Frederick, Prince of Wales.

The six daughters of George and Charlotte were not spared either. Their parents were controlling and implacable when it came to them marrying and moving on beyond the family. With selfish parents like George and Charlotte it’s hardly surprising that their children grew up rebellious or forever denying that their parents had ever loved them. Three daughters eventually did marry: Charlotte, Princess Royal, Elizabeth, and Mary, but not until they had reached middle age. Two remained spinsters, Augusta and Sophia, and Sophia is widely believed to have borne an illegitimate boy. Amelia, who was George’s favourite, died unmarried (although deeply in love with one of George III’s equerries) at 27, from tuberculosis and an acute bacterial infection of the skin, erysipelas (or St Anthony’s Fire).

Hadlow’s is a thorough and entertaining account of the life that George and Charlotte built for themselves, during a remarkable period in history, the second half of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. Remarkable? This was a period of great social change from a largely rural to urban living, a time of great conflict (the Seven Years War with France came to an end in 1763 but saw the UK evolve as the major world power), the loss of the American colonies during the War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the two decades of conflict in Europe that came to an end at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 with the defeat of the French. George’s reign also saw significant scientific and engineering developments such as vaccination against smallpox or the digging of the first canals. And not long after Waterloo, the first railways were built. George and Charlotte certainly presided over interesting times.

Janice Hadlow’s book is particularly interesting in the first 100 pages or so, and also in the latter part of the book. She spends time detailing the reigns of George I and George II, and how their familial relations were to impact eventually on George III. These pages give a contextual framework for George III’s reign that I hadn’t come across before. And of course, much of the familial dysfunction of George III was due in no small part to the periods of ‘madness’ he suffered from the later 1780s onwards, until he finally became totally incapacitated and his son, the future George IV became Regent. It split the family asunder, and Charlotte became increasingly irascible and hostile to her daughters. It’s no wonder they desired to seek the haven of marriage, even if it would be an arranged marriage to someone who they did not know nor could ever love.

Several years ago I had come across another book, published in 2004, by Flora Fraser, and from the princesses’ perspectives. Princesses – The Six Daughters of George III is also worth a few days of your literary time.

Herefordshire’s Goodrich Castle . . . yet another castle slighted

Two days ago, after a couple of weeks of really cold, wet and windy weather, it was bright and warm enough to contemplate an outing. Thank goodness, as cabin fever had begun to set in. With our 2,000 mile road trip around Scotland less than a week away, I didn’t fancy a long journey so we looked for a National Trust or English Heritage property that was within easy distance. Having been members of the National Trust for over four years now, we’ve visited most of the nearby venues. As English Heritage members only since the beginning of the year we decided that one of their properties would be a more convenient choice.

We chose to visit Goodrich Castle, built in the 12th century on a red sandstone outcrop along the River Wye in southeast Herefordshire.

It’s about a 400 m walk from the car park to the castle, and emerging through the trees you get this wonderful panorama of the south walls of the castle—or rather, what’s left of them. For having survived from the 12th century, the walls and floors in the towers were deliberately demolished (or slighted) in 1646 after the Parliamentarians captured the castle from Royalist supporters (just as they did at Kenilworth Castle that we visited a month earlier) in the aftermath of the Civil Wars.

Goodrich panorama 1

If you asked a child to draw a castle from memory, then I guess Goodrich Castle would fit the bill, minus the crenelations. These probably disappeared during the Parliamentarian vandalism. There are four towers around a ‘central’ keep (actually closer to the south wall). The towers no longer have any floors; but in the keep, stairs have been constructed up to first floor level from where it’s possible to climb to the roof of the keep, up an extremely narrow and tight spiral staircase.

20150521 066 Goodrich Castle

The climb to the roof of the keep – very narrow and steep. Not for the faint-hearted.

The castle is surrounded by a deep moat, although I don’t think it was ever filled with water, more of a deep ditch on the east, west and south sides. The outcrop on which the castle stands descends steeply on the north side to the River Wye that would have provided a natural defence. I did wonder whether the sandstone excavated to construct the moat was then used to build the castle’s walls. Above several courses of grey, and presumably harder sandstone, the upper courses of the walls were built from red sandstone.

What are particularly impressive are the straight-sided, triangular buttresses propping up the southeast and southwest round towers.

Below the gatehouse on the west side of the castle is a large hemispherical barbican, with a short causeway leading into the castle. This would have been protected originally by a drawbridge, wooden gates, and two separate portcullises.

Interestingly, the castle chapel can be found alongside the gatehouse, just to the south.

It seems that Goodrich Castle was more of a residence, luxuriously furnished, by its different owners over several centuries, rather than playing much part in the various conflicts that affected this part of England that is quite close to the border with Wales. That is until the 17th century English Civil Wars. Even after the Royalist besieged had surrendered, many parts of the castle were still inhabitable. That is why the Parliamentarians decided to demolish the walls and rooms deliberately.

English Heritage provides access to many parts of the castle, and you can walk along the upper part of the walls. In some buildings where there are no original stairwells, stairs have been installed.

It was our original intention of combining a visit to Goodrich Castle with a National Property such as Tredegar House in Newport (much further south), calling in at Goodrich on the way home. We thought that it would be just a quick visit to Goodrich, not a lot to see. How wrong we were! We must have spent well over two hours clambering over the various buildings, climbing up to the highest levels (at the top of the keep), and walking around the moat and remains (actually just the foundations) of the stable block—which was where the Parliamentarians first gained access to the castle in 1646.