Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (2): Coast to coast

On reflection, I’m not completely sure our choice of holiday accommodation was appropriate.

It was located in the far south of Cornwall, just north of Helston, excellent for visiting the coast around the Lizard and Land’s End Peninsulas, but not so handy for any of the other sites we wanted to visit in the north of the county. So on two or three days we had 100 mile plus round trips. Maybe we should have looked harder to find a cottage in the center of the county.

Nevertheless, it was very comfortable, and in terms of facilities and cost, it was just what we were looking for. And we were very happy with our week’s stay there.

Having traveled more than 250 miles south on the Saturday to reach Cornwall, we decided to spend the first two days, Sunday and Monday, exploring the coast in the far south. In any case, perusal of the weather forecast indicated that these two days would be favored by warm and sunny weather, ideal for enjoying the coast.

First port of call was Lizard Point (owned by the National Trust), the most southerly point on the British mainland. We always hear about John o’ Groats to Land’s End. But I think it should be Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the mainland, in Caithness (which we visited in 2015) to Lizard Point.

Lizard Point, from the east

Having found the National Trust car park, we set off east along the cliff path towards Lion’s Den, a hole in the cliff created when a cave collapsed in the mid-1800s, overlooking Housel Bay.

The cave fall lies immediately in front, overlooking Housel Bay

Just as we approached Lion’s Den, I saw two black birds take to the air from a field to the side of the path, and fly down into Lion’s Den. Could those be choughs, I asked myself.

I hadn’t seen the distinctive reddish-orange curved bill and legs, but their call and size were different from either crows or jackdaws that were common in the area, especially jackdaws.

A local naturalist confirmed they were choughs, a resident pair that had nested at the Lizard in 2018. A few minutes later and he showed us a photo he’d just managed to take (with a super telephoto lens) of one of the birds deep down inside Lion’s Den.

So we returned to the spot, a few meters away where he took the photo, and waited. We could hear them calling. Our patience was rewarded, for after a couple of minutes, one of the birds hopped on to a ledge in full sunlight, and I had a brilliant view of this remarkable rare bird. Once common in Cornwall, choughs only returned to the Lizard in 2001, although more can be seen on the north coast of the county. We’d seen the Lizard’s only choughs! Needless to say, we were chuffed! Magic!

Returning to Lizard Point, we heard this eerie crying, wailing almost, coming from Enoch Rock just offshore. Talk about mermaids enticing unsuspecting sailors to their doom, shipwrecked on hidden rocks (no wonder the lighthouse was built there). A group of Atlantic grey seals was basking in the midday sunshine and calling to one another.

We enjoyed a coffee, overlooking Polpeor Cove, at Britain’s most southerly cafe, before heading west to follow the path towards Old Lizard Head through Pistil Meadow. On the way there were great views of the old lifeboat station, home to the RNLI’s biggest rescue in March 1907.

The following day, we headed to the north coast of the Land’s End peninsula, and the National Trust’s Levant Mine and Beam Engine (that had just shut down when we arrived there).

Levant Mine is located on Cornwall’s ‘Tin Coast’ (part of the Cornish Mine World Heritage Site), west of Lower Boscaswell (map). The 1840s beam engine has been fully restored. Both copper and tin were mined here, and the mine stretched for 1.6 miles out sea, and more than 500 of feet below the seabed. The mine closed in 1930.

There’s a small museum providing a window into the past and who were the miners and their families (particularly young women) who worked at the mine, underground and at the surface sorting and cleaning the ore. The coast path passes by the mine, but we didn’t walk too far; it was just too blustery and at the end of the day (after several other visits) we were feeling a little tired. The landscape is dotted with the remains of engines houses and chimneys of mines and their shafts long abandoned.

Continuing round the coast near St Just, we ended the day at Cape Cornwall (map). We had already decided to give Land’s End a miss: too commercialized. Cape Cornwall in the late afternoon sun was more than an adequate substitute. What glorious views west over the Atlantic Ocean (next stop: North America); and south to Land’s End, jutting just that little further out into the Atlantic, with the Longships Lighthouse just over a mile offshore.

At the end of our week in Cornwall, we visited Marazion and its the sandy beach before crossing over to St Michael’s Mount.

St Michael’s Mount at Marazion at low tide

And to Tintagel on the north coast, where (after visiting the castle and the Old Post Office) we enjoyed a picnic lunch overlooking the Atlantic from the National Trust’s car park at Glebe Cliff beside the Church of St Materianna, that can be seen from Tintagel Castle.

There’s no doubt that Cornwall has a spectacular coastline; cliffs and beaches, waves for even the bravest surfer. The places we chose fitted in with our National Trust and English Heritage itinerary – and didn’t disappoint.

Sometimes, history just passes me by . . . particularly in Ohio

William Tecumseh Sherman. Red-haired. Union Major-General in the American Civil War. Outstanding military strategist. Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Mastermind of the March to the Sea (that culminated in the capture of Savannah, GA) and the Carolinas Campaign, both of which contributed significantly to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Born in 1820, Sherman was a native of Lancaster, Ohio (map). I wish I’d known that just a few weeks ago.

As Steph and I crossed Ohio on our road trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we passed through Lancaster on the route I’d planned from Canton, OH to Bloomington, IN. I do recall saying to Steph how prosperous it looked compared to others.

I only learned of the Sherman connection from a biography that I’m reading right now¹, and which I picked up at my favorite bookstore in St Paul, Half Price Books on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park area. This year I added three more to my American Civil War collection.

I could have made the Sherman connection in Lancaster had I looked in my rear-view mirror at the right moment, but I was too intent on following the sat nav instructions.  There, on a west-facing wall on Main Street (we were heading west) is a full height mural of Sherman. I didn’t see it, more’s the pity. I would have stopped to explore further.

During the first part of our 2017 USA road trip, from Atlanta, GA (which Sherman ransacked in 1864) to Savannah, our route more or less mirrored Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the historic neighborhoods of Savannah his name appears on several historical markers, as you might expect.

And there were other surprises. Just 18 miles northeast of Lancaster is the small community of Somerset, OH. It has a lovely town square, in the middle of which is an impressive statue of a mounted soldier, Philip Sheridan, a Major-General of Cavalry during the Civil War, who was eventually promoted to four star rank. Sheridan grew up in Somerset. After the Civil War he served on the Great Plains during the Indian Wars. He was also instrumental in developing Yellowstone as a national park.

Despite its incredibly bloody outcomes and destructive consequences, the American Civil War, 1861-65 holds a certain fascination. To a large extent, it was the first war to be extensively documented photographically, many of the images coming from the lens of Mathew Brady.

But in terms of the war’s theater of operations, much of the fighting took place east of the Mississippi River, across the southern states, and into the maritime states as far north as Pennsylvania.

Imagine the topography, especially in the Appalachians, across which huge armies marched and fought each other. Imagine the effort needed to transport tens of thousands of men and their equipment and supplies over almost impenetrable terrain, along river valleys, crossing ridges, swamps, and huge rivers, while constantly being harassed by and engaging with the enemy.

We saw much of this landscape along our 2017 road trip. At Cumberland Gap there were even reminders how the opposing armies had fought to gain the upper hand and strategic overlook that was afforded on the hills surrounding this important pass through the mountains.

In that Sherman biography, I also learned that his superior, Major-General (then Brigadier General) Ulysses S Grant² (yet another Buckeye from Point Pleasant [map], just across the Ohio River from where we traveled this year) had his headquarters at Cairo (map) at the southern tip of Illinois in 1861, just a couple of miles north of Fort Defiance on the promontory at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fort Defiance was on our route west in 2017.

Southwest from Canton, OH we passed by close to Dover (map), birthplace of one the Civil War’s most notorious Confederate raiders or bushwhackers, William Clarke Quantrill³. His theater of operations was the Kansas-Missouri border, an area that was already experiencing conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to keep slavery in Missouri as early as 1858. Quantrill’s Raiders were the perpetrators of one of the Civil War’s most outrageous atrocity, the Lawrence (Kansas) massacre. Sherman’s brother-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr was a key Union general opposing Quantrill.

So while I may have missed out on some interesting historical aspects during this year’s road trip, that was not the case in 2011 when we toured extensively in Arizona and New Mexico. Earlier that year I had read an interesting biography of mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson whose campaigns against the Navajo are well documented. I planned parts of the trip around locations where he had been active. He is buried in Taos, NM, and after spending time at the Canyon de Chelly (site of a massacre of Navajos) in northeast Arizona, we headed for Taos.

Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly.

History is undoubtedly one of my principal hobbies, and occupies much of my reading. On retirement eight years ago I almost enrolled for a history degree with the Open University, but eventually decided to keep it just as a hobby. I read very little fiction, and the catalyst for my 2017 challenge – to read all of the novels by Charles Dickens – was a book (also bought at Half Price Books) about the terrible plight of children (early in the 19th century) in factories and cotton mills in the north of England.

Here in the UK, Steph and I are very active members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Whenever we get the opportunity, we head off to one of their many properties (stately homes, castles, archaeological sites, gardens) open to the public. And we learn a little more each time about the history of this country and the people who shaped events over the centuries, for better or worse.

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¹ Robert L O’Connell (2014). Fierce Patriot – The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8212-1.

² I picked up this biography of Grant which I have yet to start: HW Brands (2012). Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-47515-2.

³ I started this book about Quantrill’s Raiders first. Jesse and Frank James were members of Quantrill’s guerilla band. Edward E Leslie (1998). The Devil Knows How to Ride – the True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80865-X.

 

Candles, paraffin lamps, electricity . . . and a ‘rule of thumb’

Once there were hundreds. Now there’s just Court No. 15, the last remaining (and carefully restored) courtyard of working people’s houses just south of Birmingham city center on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets.

Court 15 of the Birmingham Back to Backs, with the Birmingham Hippodrome on the north (right) side. Just imagine what the area must have looked like in earlier decades with street upon street of these terraced and back to back houses.

This is the Birmingham Back to Backs, owned by the National Trust, which we had the pleasure of visiting a couple of days ago, and enjoyed a tour led by knowledgeable guide Fran Payne. This National Trust property should be on everyone’s NT bucket list.

Court 15 was completed in 1831 and its houses were occupied as recently as the mid-1960s, when they were condemned. Commercial premises on the street side were still being used as late as 2002.

Court 15 was a communal space for upwards of 60-70 men, women and children, living on top of one another, in houses that were literally just one room deep: built on the back of the terraces facing the street. Just imagine the crowding, the lack of running water and basic sanitation, leading to the spread of social diseases like tuberculosis or cholera that were common in the 19th century. Just three outside toilets for everyone.

Since coming into its hands in 2004, the National Trust has developed an interesting tour of three of the Court 15 houses, taking in the lives of families from the 1840s, 1870s, and 1930s known to be living there then. The tour, encompassing very narrow and steep (almost treacherous) stairs over three floors, takes you into the first 1840s house, up to the attic bedrooms, and through to that representing the 1870s. You then work your way down to the ground floor, and into the house next door. From the attic in that house, the tour passes into the former commercial premises of tailor George Saunders who came to Birmingham from St Kitts in the Caribbean and made a name for himself in bespoke tailoring. When Saunders vacated Court 15 in 2002 he left much of the premises as it was on his last day of trading.

A Jewish family by the name of Levi, was known to reside in one of the houses during the 1840s. The Levis had one daughter and three sons, and like many other families, Mr Levi practiced his trade (of making clock and watch hands) from his home.

On the top attic floor of this house there are two rooms still accessible on the street side, but have never been renovated.

In the next 1870s house, occupied by the Oldfields, who had many children – and lodgers! – there is already a coal-fired range in the kitchen, and paraffin lamps were used throughout for lighting. The children slept head-to-toe in a bed in the attic room, shared with the married lodgers. Modesty was maintained by a curtain.

By the 1930s, there was already electricity (and running water) in the house, occupied by an elderly bachelor George Mitchell.

The premises of George Saunders are full of all the paraphernalia of the tailoring business. An old sewing machine, and another for making buttonholes. Patterns for bespoke suits handing from the walls, and bolts of cloth stacked on shelves. There are some half-finished garments, others ready to collect. Until his death, George worked with the National Trust to document the last years of the Back to Backs.

Throughout the houses there are many contemporary pieces of furniture and ornaments. My eye was caught by this particularly fine pair of (presumably) Staffordshire rabbits.

Finally, no visit to the Birmingham Back to Backs would be complete without a look inside Candies, a Victorian sweet shop on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets at No. 55, purveyor of fine sweets that I remember from my childhood. What a sensory delight! In fact, tours of the Back to Backs start from outside Candies, so there’s no excuse.

And finally, what about that ‘rule of thumb’ I referred to in the title of this post. Well, while we were looking at the sleeping arrangements for the Oldfield children in the 1870s, Fran Payne reached under the bed for the gazunda, the communal chamber pot (‘goes under’). In the darkness, she told us, this how you could tell, with the tip of your thumb, whether a chamber pot was full or not. Dry: OK. Wet: time to go downstairs to the outside toilet in the courtyard.

I mentioned that our visit to the Back to Backs was very enjoyable, but it’s not somewhere that I would have made a special trip. We had to be in Birmingham on another errand, and since it was just a hop and a skip from the central Post Office, we took the opportunity. The Birmingham Back to Backs are a special relic of this great city of 1,000 trades.

 

Almost 400 years of history in the vicinity . . .

Yesterday, Steph and I traveled some 40 miles southeast from our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire, to revisit the National Trust’s Upton House and Gardens near the village of Edgehill in Warwickshire, that lies some seven miles northwest from Banbury (map).

We were last there in July 2012, combined with a trip to nearby Farnborough Hall. Take a look at a web album of photos that I posted afterwards.

Edgehill was the site of the first major battle of the First English Civil War, on Sunday 23 October 1642. Here the Royalist supporters of King Charles I clashed with Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Essex. The King had commanded the high ground and his troops marched down the Cotswolds escarpment to join battle with the enemy, arrayed below. The battle ended in stalemate.

The roar of cannons has long faded, as have the tramp of troops or galloping of horses, the clash of steel on steel, and the screams of wounded and dying men. Over the past four centuries the landscape must have changed immeasurably. Probably back in 1642 there were no fields, just open country, intermittently broken by woodland. And there certainly were no vivid blotches of bright yellow oilseed rape that are so typical of farming in the UK today.

A panorama over the site of the Battle of Edgehill, and north across Warwickshire.

We could see almost 40 miles west to the Malvern Hills, just visible (using binoculars) through the distant murk of an approaching weather front (that finally arrived with a vengeance overnight, and it has been raining heavily since). But what a magnificent view we had, almost perfect weather on May Day, even if a little chilly.

We had been intending to visit Upton just a few weeks ago, and enjoy the National Trust’s recommended ‘What a View’ Walk from Upton house, that takes in the Edgehill escarpment and the glorious view, a circular walk of just under 2½ miles that took around 1½ hours before arriving back at the car park to enjoy a welcome picnic.

We decided just to take a look at the gardens, rather than tour the house again. That would be a better option when the weather is inclement. Yesterday, after weeks of poor weather, it was just too nice to be inside.

The south front of the house overlooks the Main Lawn towards a ha-ha that disguises a steep drop to the Mirror Pool in the valley bottom.

The Main Lawn, looking south to the ha-ha, from where the garden drops steeply to the Mirror Pool. The open fields can be seen beyond the brick wall of the garden (see image immediately below).

The Mirror Pool from the ha-ha, with the Hazel Bank and Sunken Lawn on the right.

It’s remarkable how the landscape was adapted to create quite an intimate garden. We really must return again a little earlier in the year and enjoy the Spring bulbs. Most had already flowered, although there were some patches of Narcissi and beds of tulips adding a vibrancy in the early afternoon sunshine.

Looking west across the Mirror Pool to a magnificent yew behind the Kitchen Garden and the Dry Banks above.

A panorama of the Kitchen Garden and Dry Banks across the Mirror Pool, from the south. The ha-ha is at the top of the terraces, immediately below the Main Lawn.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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