Murder Most Foul

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A Jaunt into the South West  :  Part 6

Gloucester cont’d

My visit to Gloucester, like that of the famous Doctor Foster, took place in a shower of rain. His produced puddles of improbable depth, mine was the sort of fine, misty rain that puts tiny pearls in your hair and makes everything feel fresh and clean and full of growing.

A cathedral close can have a collegiate feel. At Salisbury or Exeter there is a sense of former grandeur not unlike a palace. The buildings may have had more than one architect, but there was a single presiding spirit behind the design. Here at Gloucester variety seems to have been the watchword and this gives the close a homely feel. At those more prestigious churches the connected houses seem to provide accommodation for church officials. At Gloucester, they provide homes for people. People who happen to work for the church.

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As you walk past the ecclesiastical properties around Salisbury cathedral you imagine that, behind the curtains, high church dignitaries are grappling with complex theological issues or how to get Gordon the blue engine back to the station before the Fat Controller realises he’s late. In Gloucester you imagine dean, and indeed chapter, sitting down with the family to watch Strictly Ballroom.

DSC_0087I know I’m missing a treat in not being able to go inside the cathedral. Nikolaus Pevsner may be dry and critical to a modern reader but he knew his buildings and he loved this church. The nave has the same powerful cylindrical columns as at Tewkesbury but here the roof is higher. The lady who shows me around the picture gallery in Bath extolled the beauty of the vaulted cloisters and says that the choir she sings in have never sounded better than when they sang at Gloucester. I wanted to visit the tomb of Edward II. He’s a king that history has been unkind to but a king who has left a conundrum or two behind; though his behind is the most famous part of his story.

Tomb of Edward II 1

History, it is said, is written by the winning side. We tend to judge our monarchs on battles won and sons sired especially if those battles were against the French or the Scots and the sons go on to glorious monarchy. Edward, though keen on sex, didn’t much go in for siring and his battle honours are summed up in one word: Bannockburn. A word that rings with honour and glory north of the Tweed but with failure and ignominy further south. Edward led 25 thousand men north to face an rag tag army of around 7 thousand. 11 thousand English were left on the battlefield and Edward was lucky to get home.

Historians inevitably use the word “weak” in describing Edward. The normally gentle Eleanor Farjeon captures his legend in verse.

“Edward the Second is commonly reckoned the feeblest of all of our kings”

To Sellar and Yeatman he was “A worthless king” and to many he was the one who came to a terrible end by having a red hot poker shoved up a horn that had been inserted in his backside. Some say it was a fitting punishment for one who practiced buggery, others that Edward was immensely popular with the people and that his death must be made to look like natural causes. There is nothing natural in fireside implements being thrust up posteriors but using the horn meant that there were no external injuries. If those living near Berkeley Castle heard screams in the night it was put down to the proximity of Wales and their endless singing.

DSC_0132The mystery to me lies in those words “immensely popular”. Bannockburn is about the only bit of Scottish history taught in English schools. No mention is made of Otterburn or Stirling Bridge or any of the other battles where the English were sent home defeated. It is almost as though the desire to put down the monarch is stronger than the usual desire to ignore Scottish history. If Edward was such a poor king why was his death so mourned? Why was the probable murder concealed? Why is he buried in one of the most remarkable tombs in the kingdom? Why was he subsequently canonised? and why did his tomb attract as many pilgrims (at one time) as that of Thomas a Beckett at Canterbury?

DSC_0137Shakespeare never included Edward in his history plays but Christopher Marlowe did. His play centres on the homosexual relationship between the king and Piers Gavaston and the apparent mis-use of royal privilege. Derek Jarman made a film which is well worth watching. Edward may or may not have been a good king but Derek Jarman was most definitely a good film maker and Tilda Swinton is magnificent as Queen Isabella.

I leave the last word with Sellar and Yeatman: “Since not even the Barons would confess to having horribly murdered him, it is just possible that Edward had merely been dying of a surfeit in the ordinary way.”

Without Edward the cathedral may well have fallen down years ago. The pilgrims were not only many but were also generous. Donations from those who came to pray at Edward’s tomb paid for much of the church to be re-built.

DSC_0101Out in the streets there are a few couples on their way to dinner and some foreign students. The street patterns quickly reveal a medieval feel. No road is entirely straight. All views have something to take the eye. It’s a grid pattern city but the person who laid out the grid didn’t have a ruler. You can tell where the walls were and if you look beyond the shopfronts there are still some good examples of buildings from different ages. The Romans liked Gloucester, called it Glevum and may have been the first to use the city as a port. An equestrian statue of the Emporor Nerva on Southgate Street made the news in 2003 when the plinth was daubed with the words “Romani ite domum”. Gloucestershire police sought either a Latin scholar or a Monty Python fan.

DSC_0134For a while I thought I was in Chester. Everywhere looked splendid, people looked friendly and signposts pointed to such attractions as the docks or the Beatrix Potter’s House of the Tailor of Gloucester Museum. And then I took a turn towards those docks and discovered in an instant that the council had taken measures against any possibility of their  town being considered too lovely. Suddenly I’m among sixties developments that cast a gloom  in a way the weather was failing to do. The Police station has got to be a contender for the ugliest building in Britain. The whole area is laid waste in the most rampant bad taste I’d seen since I’d left the north. If I’d come to think of Gloucester as a northern colony in the west country, then this was the proof I needed. 

DSC_0106But it passes. Once you’ve resisted the lure of the gentleman’s club you are nearly at the docks and just as the senses dropped on leaving the town centre, they rise again as the nineteenth century warehouses and the open water loom up along a wandering meander of the River Severn.

DSC_0113H V Morton was thrilled by the docks and sees in them a veritable inland Liverpool. Unfortunately they continue to resemble Liverpool in that the docks are largely decorative and residential rather than a proper working port. It was Britain’s most inland port according to Morton though I think the citizens of Bawtry or even Selby might beg to differ. Whatever, it remains a wonderful place to spend an hour or two. The architecture is as delightful as it is unexpected. There are some interesting vessels in the basin to add to the nautical feeling and the old warehouses are perfectly in-keeping with both the land and the water. Almost all have found new uses. It’s useless to bemoan the passing of their heyday, the new uses have kept them alive and preserved an important part of the culture of the town.

DSC_0120There are bars and restaurants aplenty down here and all are well patronised. It’s a lovely place to enjoy a pizza or a pint of West Country beer. Most of the craft at rest here seem to be decorative rather than functional. There’s a paddle steamer that looks as though it may sail and a dredger from a previous age.

It’s been a long day and the rain brings an early twilight and hastens me to my hotel. All is quiet and peaceful. Is this because they attract a particularly respectful type of guest or am I the only person staying? It’s comfortable and soon I’ve got the bath deep and foaming and end my day reading many chapters of Thomas Hardy and quietly planning a route to Exeter that keeps me off the M5. DSC_0122

It’s the first time I’ve been to Gloucester but I’ve seen enough to make me want to go back and have a proper look.

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Avoid the Aga-Saga

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A Jaunt into the West Country  :  Part 5

Gloucester Act I

As I drive into Gloucester, illuminated signs ask me to use the council car parks after seven, as this will help to avoid congestion. At six-thirty on a May Bank Holiday this is one of the least congested cities I’ve ever been in. Mine is one of about eight cars on the roads; but I’m an amenable fellow, and am happy to do as I am told. I park with the improbably impressive stands of Kingsholm rugby ground on one side and  the ramparts of a magnificent English cathedral on the other. It isn’t what I’d been led to expect.

DSC_0077Gloucester hasn’t had a good press, Frank Keating* excepted. It has a reputation as a bit of a punching town; a place where the rugby team is followed with a fervour that frightens the opposition into submission; even if you can beat the team you won’t beat the crowd. Where Fred and Rosemary West gave us the idea that here was some sort of Jack the Ripper throwback town, where the unwary would be lured into unpleasant sexual acts, before disappearing altogether under the patio. A place of drunken disorder on the streets. All things considered, a bit of rough to contrast with Cheltenham’s smooth.

So much for reputations. I’m only in the town for a few hours but I’m completely won over by it. Of the three Gloucestershire towns I’ve visited on this trip, this is the one I’d choose to live in.

DSC_0081I’d originally intended spending the rest of the day in Cheltenham but found, after four hours, that I really couldn’t think of anything else to do that I hadn’t already done. So I’d driven to Gloucester with low expectations and found myself looking up at a building I would have crossed continents to view. People extoll the beauty of Canterbury and York, hold out about Ely and even Peterborough. But I’d never heard anyone sing the praises of Gloucester cathedral. I knew it was there. It’s sign-posted on the motorway. But I’d expected an over-grown parish church like Manchester or Leeds. Gloucester may be (to a Lancastrian’s perspective) “down south” geographically but I’ve always had it down as a sleeves rolled up, spit-on-the-hands proper northern sort of a town. The cathedral is straight out of Trollope.

DSC_0083Unfortunately for Gloucester, it is straight out of Joanna Trollope rather than her rather more gifted grand-father. She sets her novel The Choir here and in it she describes the building as not being in the first division of English cathedrals but certainly near the top of the second. If only the same could be said for the book. I took it up in expectation of a gentle read among the cloisters and ended up (as I do on watching  those mid-afternoon television discussion programmes where they seem to be sharing opinions, on important issues, in coherent sentences but actually say nothing at all) disappointed. But that isn’t the fault of the building. My only regret (and it was a huge one) is that I arrived after the doors had been locked. Mine was to be a chance to enjoy the outside only; but it is quite an exterior.

DSC_0084Like all English cathedrals, with the exception of Coventry, the building dates from different periods. Nikolaus Pevsner says that the first view “gives the impression that is is a Perp (perpendicular) building. Closer inspection reveals its Norman bones in the rounded two-storey ambulatory with radiating chapels, and in the gabled ends of the transepts flanked in both cases by sturdy Norman turrets.” I’m sharing the small cathedral close with a family of holiday makers from India and we are all awed. Whether our silent gazing is caused by the strength of the spiritual belief that built the church or by the skill and strength of the hands that raised these stones, we share a moment or two of wonder.

What did the Normans ever do for us eh?

Slowly, slowly I wander round every side. Past a collection of buildings that house dean and bishop and many another in taste and splendour. My twenty-first century yearning for equality and a fair distribution of wealth and privilege isn’t satisfied but my love of historic buildings enjoys a five-course dinner with wafer-thin mints to follow.

The lawns on the rugby ground side are a gathering ground for the local youth who are happy to look intimidating to a passer-by but who are actually quietly sitting on the grass, on a spring evening, chatting, smoking and scaring old people away.

DSC_0092William the Conqueror spent Christmas 1085 in Gloucester and it was from here that he sent out his decree that all the country should be taxed and as a preliminary, that all the wealth of the country should be recorded. Thus, Gloucester gave to the world the Domesday Book.

In more recent times famous travellers have avoided the city. Bill Bryson gave the entire region a miss, JB Priestley got no closer than Bath, as did Beryl Bainbridge when she marked his footsteps like a good (and chain-smoking) page. H.V. Morton did come to Gloucester and had rather a good time here ogling the fifteen year old girls that delighted him by out-numbering the boys by six to one: something he put down, after dogged journalistic investigation, to the presence of a match factory in the city.

DSC_0094My first impression of Gloucester was that of a city full of small, comely maidens between the fortunate ages of fifteen and twenty-five. In the evening they wear flowered voile – the material favoured by the taller maidens in Botticelli – and they walk up and down Northgate and Southgate Streets with the cathedral bells as a sweet accompaniment to their perambulations. Some of these small maidens are pretty; others, thanks to the wise Nature’s law of compensation, have beautiful legs.”

In Search of England by HV Morton

There is something a little unpleasant about Morton. It was largely passed off as ribaldry by a twentieth century readership in the same way as we expected and tolerated mediocre entertainers, from the seventies, to take unscrupulous advantage of the power their little bit of fame gave them over vulnerable teenage fans. Morton’s diaries and letters later revealed him to be a serial philanderer and adulterer as well as being someone with Nazi sympathies who preferred to spend his declining years in apartheid South Africa rather than in an England that was beginning to celebrate its multi-culturalism.

DSC_0097If you are prepared to over-look the unsavoury, and there is plenty to overlook, Morton painted a bucolic picture of England in the 1920s as he drove around in a Bull-nosed Morris. His was a Gloucester of coaching inns where busty chamber maids called you to your bath in the morning and waiters carried your food across the courtyard in all weathers. In 2006 Joe Bennett persuaded Pocket Books to allow him to follow in Morton’s tyre-tracks. He adds very little to the story other than making the astute observation that the English are a stoical bunch, much given to accepting their lot with a resigned “Mustn’t Grumble”. It isn’t exactly insightful and it isn’t very accurate but there is worse on offer.

DSC_0141Doctor Foster came to Gloucester in a well-known nursery rhyme. I love these rhymes both for themselves and for the fact that they are a last bastion of our folk tradition being passed on almost exclusively by word of mouth. Every Briton knows them and none of us read them. All were learnt “at mother’s knee”. And all have a story to tell. Georgey Porgy was the Prince Regent making girls cry by kissing them before running off when their boyfriends turned up. Ring a ring a roses is about the bubonic plague. Lucy Locket is about who was being paid what for providing sexual favours to Charles II. Doctor Foster was apparently Edward I whose horse got stuck in the mud on a visit to the city. There is no record of the verse before 1844. Why the Hammer of the Scots should be known as Doctor Foster in the West Country or why it took 600 years before his ill-fated visit should be recorded is a mystery. I’ve always liked the fact that the poem rhymes puddle with middle. It was perhaps my first encounter with consonance.

to be continued…

* a west country man through and through, and one of the truly great sports writers to come out of twentieth century, knew Gloucester and wrote about it with a surge of pride.

Stardust Memories

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A Jaunt into the West Country  Part 4

Cheltenham Continued

My visit to Cheltenham finds the Jazz festival in full swing and I’m happy to pass an hour. I like jazz but tend to steer clear of those who term themselves enthusiasts or buffs. They’re invariably nice people but take it all a little seriously; try a bit too hard.

The sun is warm, champagne bars are doing brisk trade to the sort who can incorporate the words ‘Domaine Leroy Musigny’ into a sentence without breaking step. The audience; oddly for an art form that was originally created by those who were black, American and poor; is exclusively white, British and affluent. With a preponderance towards  middle age. They are appreciative, very knowledgable and enjoying themselves in the sunshine. The musicians (also white, British and from pleasant home backgrounds) are under canvas. The very keen have brought their own chairs and are inside the tent nodding and squirming to express both understanding and appreciation. The less keen stand in the opening of the tent and block the view of the majority who sprawl on the grass and soak up the tunes. These are my people and I’m very happy to sit among them and let time slip by.

DSC_0063I was brought up on jazz. My father’s collection wasn’t huge but contained Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. He worshipped Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson and took me to see Woody Hermann and Maynard Ferguson*. His friends, from the Shipyard band, taught me to play cornet and introduced the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Mugsy Spannier and Harry James.  We played Stardust at his funeral and I cried. I well up whenever I hear Artie Shaw play the tune. I’m sure my dad would be happy to be remembered in this way.

DSC_0067In later years I loved listening to Benny Green and Humphey Lyttleton on Radio Two but have to turn off Jamie Cullum even though the boy can play. Now I have something of a love hate relationship with the genre. When it feels real it takes me to a different place. When it feels forced and conventional, or the enthusiasm is overdone, it makes me cringe. In a Gloucestershire park, with a youthful band blowing cool and the sun glowing warm, it feels fine.

DSC_0066There are few signs of recession around the town centre. It’s bank Holiday Monday and nobody is coppering up. You don’t see people dressed like this in Meadowhall.** A lot of good quality wool has gone into the sweaters and lots of unlikely colours into the trousers. Men must wake up on a weekend or holiday and say: “Do you know, I’m sick and tired of wearing clothes that coordinate and look sensible; I feel in the mood for a pair of peach coloured strides and a pullover. Which pullover did you say? Oh, it doesn’t matter. Just so long as it clashes horribly with peach trousers.” Women are not so choosy. Breton tops and jeans that still feel a little bit daring.

They may dress oddly, and at great expense, but I admire these people. These are couples who have passed thirty years together and are on course to pass thirty more. They are happy and comfortable in themselves and in their wallets. If a range of brightly coloured trousers has helped them through a mid-life crisis then it is a good deal less expensive than a Harley Davidson and doesn’t make them look half so anachronistic, or half so stupid.

DSC_0070-001If you want to see bad dress sense then come to Cheltenham during the Literature Festival. British writers and British actors have no idea how to dress; and are proud of the fact. They’re above being measured against the trends of the high street or the designer studio: or so they would have us believe. In reality, their creased linen jacket, floral shirt and black jeans are as carefully chosen for effect as the most gullible teenager’s must-have top. There is a point where lack of taste becomes the height of refinement. On their own they can get away with it, but at a festival it soon becomes apparent that they are, essentially, in uniform. Ironically the only ones who come across as Bohemian are those who arrive in a suit.

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An almost silent backwater right in the town centre.

Ian MacMillan, who I think is wonderful, began his career as part of a circus of poets and has never quite got out of the habit of dressing like a children’s performer. It takes a certain type of physique to carry off an Hawaian shirt. Short, grey and dumpy isn’t it. Jeans look good on country musicians, cowgirls and the under thirty. Writers wear jeans that have those careful turn-ups that shout “Look at me! I’m creative!” They like cargo pants and leather bomber jackets as well. They think these make them look like men of action even though their physiques and complexions betray this idea; and anyway, no-one has looked good in a bomber jacket since Steve McQueen died. And not even he could carry off cargo pants.

I like literature festivals though. A novel gives a strangely intimate relationship between two people who have never met; the writer and the reader. Many of my heroes have worked with the pen, and to meet one is always a treat. I’ve sat in awe as Michael Rosen has shown that his mastery of story-telling extends to the stage, as Michael Frayn has taken my brain to places it  previously didn’t know existed, while Steve Bell has had me in tears of laughter on a journey through the best set of political cartoons in contemporary Britain, and Roger McGough sets the heart singing with silly verses that inevitably reveal a deeper significance.

DSC_0056I’ll um and ah and wonder if I really want to listen to current writers and then ask myself how I’d feel if I’d been alive in 1910 and I’d turned down the chance to see W B Yeats, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy or Thomas Hardy just because they were contemporary. As a teacher I’ve never worked at schools where many parents took their off-spring to festivals of this kind, but those who did had children who had developed a real love of books and a genuine ability to use language. (The two often go together.)

Children need heroes so give them a chance to meet the men and women who write books. They’re far more likely to read and value a book that the author has signed for them. Writers are a friendly bunch who are happy to be button-holed around the festival, to appear in a selfie, to tell you who they think is great. You might not like all of them.  But you’ll always remember sharing a lunch table with Cathy Cassidy or queuing up behind Kazuo Ishiguro.

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Be afraid of young people wearing hoodies; they may be carrying a novel!

Cheltenham is a centre for education. As well as the famous Ladies’ College there is Cheltenham College which was one of the great public schools of the Victorian age and teaches both Ladies and young gentlemen in surroundings that would make the average comprehensive student turn green with envy. The students do rather well. Of course they do.  As well as the thousands their parents spend on making sure they get the finest examination passing factories to attend, they also imbue them with a reading habit. In thirty years in the classroom I have yet to encounter the reading child who doesn’t turn into the successful student. There are forty people in the park with the statue of Gustav Holst. The three men playing frisbee are the only ones apart from me who aren’t reading. (I’m struggling to open a salad from Marks and Spencer and end up with balsamic dressing down my smart new peach shirt.) Granted some teenagers are reading their phones but it is still reading (and indeed writing, and believe me, all reading is good). Cheltenham has certainly got the reading habit.

I feel strongly about this. Parents would often ask how they could get their children to read more. I’d always tell them to read themselves and let their children see that they were reading And second, to read aloud to their children. And to continue doing this long past the toddling stages of infancy. Everyone loves being read to. We don’t grow out of it. We just run out of opportunities.

Joan Aiken once said, “If you’re not prepared to read to your children an hour a day, you shouldn’t have any.”

And, do you know, I think I agree with her.

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These two ladies obviously had a very important engagement otherwise I am sure they wouldn’t have pushed past a queue of polite people to get to the checkout. It was almost as if they hadn’t seen us.

 

*Though when we got to the venue in Blackpool where the Canadian maestro was performing it turned out to be the sort of nightclub your mother warns you about and they wouldn’t let the nine year old me in.

** Popular shopping mall near Sheffield

A little treat for my father

Pies, Pasties and Making Something of the Cheap Cuts

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Mostly Concerning Food

It’s a while since I did one of these and a crop of tasty photographs have been building up in the abeyance file. This is pure self-indulgence and a letter of best wishes and tasty morsels to my children. This is what we’ve been eating at home in the last week or so. It had seemed a quiet, make-do-with-what-we’ve-got sort of a week but a recurring delight with these food blogs is to realise that life is actually rather good, and eating well is a mainstay of this. It constantly surprises me when I put these posts together that we’ve had more treats than I’d thought. Eating well is as easy and cheap as eating badly. Eating exceptionally well is exceptionally well covered in other blogs. My food interest is putting something tasty and well-cooked onto the everyday meal table. There was one special occasion during the week as we gathered to wish Steven a happy birthday but it was a birthday celebrated with Cornish pasties and  jam tarts rather than oysters and foie-gras.

It has been a week where meals have been made up at the last minute from what happened to be in the fridge, but, what happened to be in the fridge came from the Welbeck Farm Shop and some other decent suppliers rather than from the shelves of Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Aldi. The flour bin played a crucial role. There is no finer indication that I’m finding life enjoyable than if I’m baking and the happiest I am, as a baker, is doing my impression of a pastry chef. Here, as elsewhere I like to keep to old-fashioned and tasty rather than fancy. Shortcrust is my pastry of choice and the only variety here is between those pastries cooked for the family carnivores and those baked lovingly for the vegetarians.

Cooking is in large part nostalgia. The fact that a meal takes us back to childhood or to some happy occasion years ago (if the food was good the memory will be good) is enough to make the meal an enjoyable one. Our taste memory is apparently stronger and more accurate than our memories of sight and sound. Proust knew what he was doing when he introduced a million words of reminiscence through the taste of a little madeleine cake.

I’ll begin with the birthday.

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When you’ve got people arriving, from different destinations, its a good idea to have a meal that can be ready when it is needed. When you want to sit and talk to people you like you don’t want to be in and out of the kitchen. Roast dinners are easy until the last ten minutes. Anything with a sauce keeps a cook on their toes. Pasties and salad rather look after themselves. The salad wants to be prepared so it is still very fresh but, so long as you don’t add the dressing, can sit and wait until everyone is ready. Once they are made pasties merely sit in the oven and then sit on people’s plates. It may not seem like a celebratory menu but a good pasty is a good pasty.

Trifle. Well, T makes a trifle I would cross continents to enjoy. The danger with this dish is everything ending up tasting the same. The key here is last minute preparation and a team effort. The cream has to be whipped just so and the skill involved in smashing up a Cadbury’s flake with a rolling pin is not to be under-estimated. As half the family goes into the kitchen to put the trifle together and talk about food, the other half stay around the table and catch up with the week’s news. I was a very late convert to puddings. This simple English, working-class pud is one of my very favourites.

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The pasties crimped at the top are potato, cheese and onion made with all butter pastry with an egg  yolk incorporated and Cornish cruncher cheese. The pasties crimped to the side are traditional Cornish pasties with beef steak, onion, potato and swede  (and made with pastry incorporating lard), and the funny things on green rice paper are slightly over-cooked coconut macaroons. The accidental extra five minutes in the oven didn’t help appearance but did nothing to hurt the flavour or the texture when eaten the day after. Difficult to only have one!

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My mother liked to add apple and orange to her tossed salad. The orange in this certainly helped to bring back memories of childhood to me. I may have lacked a sweet tooth as a boy but I was always fond of salad. I added a balsamic vinaigrette just before serving. It acted as a good foil to the pasties.

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Welbeck ham and pastrami. The ham is flavoursome and well grained. I often cook a full ham myself and would claim my own to be a superior product, but there isn’t much in it and this saves a lot of work. I’ve never made pastrami and have often been disappointed with the stuff that goes by that names in supermarkets. This is the real deal; meaty, beefy, spicy and tasty.

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This photograph makes me happy just to look at. The macaroons were crispy on the outside and moist and chewy in the middle. The Victoria sponge says “Happy Birthday” and “Welcome to Summer”. And jam tarts are the most under-rated treats. You cannot buy good jam tarts for the same reason that you cannot buy good scones. Namely; that they are past their best once they have been out of the oven for an hour. Commercial bakers have to rely on various preservatives and even then they are disappointing. Here is the perfect use for left over pastry. Always use good jam for these. Always use good jam full-stop!

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I’ve never been a big fan of coleslaw in its bought form. Again it is a product that must be eaten fresh. Bought versions tend to slimy or bland or move dangerously close to a strange product called sandwich spread that Heinz sold in the seventies and maybe still do. Here I wanted a green and white look and mixed chopped (never grated) white cabbage, celery, green pepper, white onion  and Cornish cruncher cheese with mayonnaise. I was very happy with it. If all coleslaws were as crisp, tangy and tasty as this I would become a true supporter.

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I made a lot of pasties; 3 lbs of flour went into the pastry. there were no pasties left the following day.

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For the rest of the week there were just the two of us (if you discount Jolly, Stewart and Percy). Marriage is much-maligned as a state of being. To me it is my highest achievement and a continuous source of happiness. I read a lot. I read this this week in a book by Michael Dirda.

“But a fortunate marriage offers more than mere “tranquil affection.” It is, in essence, a civilisation of two, and its greatest joy is a conversation that goes on for decades.”

In our case, much of the conversation has taken place over the meal table. Candlelit suppers for two still have their place as do picnics on the banks on rivers in June. Shepherds’ pie with baked beans and a decent mug of tea also serves.

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This is a relatively fancy shepherds’ pie with lots of mushrooms to supplement the mince and spiced with turmeric and ground cumin. The mash is a combination of desiree potato and butternut squash. A re-chauffered portion turned a few heads and drew envious comments (pleasantly and complimentarily envious) in the staff room next day.

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Ah, the cheap cuts. It is so nice to have a decent butcher. He celebrates the unfashionable cuts of meat just as much as the prized joints. The fillet has its place. This week I’ve gone for the often despised and dis-regarded. This is a breast of lamb; roasted just as it comes with a little drizzle of oil, some sprigs of rosemary and some salt and pepper. Cook it slowly for an hour and then give it a blast for the last 30 minutes and you’ll have a real mid-week joy. Any chef will tell you that the majority of flavour of meat is in the fat.* The trick is in being able to cook it so the fat is either moistening the lean or crisp and crozzly. Here it is both.

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It would be a rare week that I didn’t have at least one cooked breakfast. These can become meat feasts. This isn’t the healthiest but it isn’t the unhealthiest.

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The breast of lamb cost around £2. I paid a similar amount for a decent size piece of belly pork. I cooked it on Friday evening when neither of us fancied a full dinner. (I stole a slice fresh from the oven and it was unbelievably nice). So we served it as a cold cut on Saturday. Maybe not quite as perfect as serving it hot, but a wonderfully flavoursome way to enjoy the various delightful textures of this meat.

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Sunday breakfast comes from the book of literary meals. Ian Fleming fans will be aware that James Bond likes his food and that he likes well-cooked simple fare. He regularly breakfasts on scrambled eggs and bacon. This morning we did too. The eggs from Frances’s chickens continue to be peerless in freshness and flavour (and colour), the bacon is cooked to be as crispy as I can make it (almost crumbling) and the bread comes from the local Spar. I’m off to make dinner. I’ve got duck breasts in the fridge and some excellent English asparagus. I couldn’t decide whether to go with the duck or to follow a recipe I got given for an asparagus risotto. I rather fancy I may go with both.

Have a good week

Simon

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Three meals eaten out. The top has already featured in my blog post on Tewkesbury but I like to be reminded of how much an ordinary ham sandwich can be boosted with the right mustard. These have Tewkesbury mustard which was popular for centuries and is undergoing something of a renaissance. (It is a mixture of English mustard and horseradish). It was served in a retro café in the town. The second is scrambled eggs on toast which was also served in a retro-café (this time in Bath). The third are bacon and sausage “cobs” served and wrapped in the Coop in Creswell. To describe the shop (or indeed the town) as retro would be both ironic and a paradox. They made for a “tasty” breakfast on the Robin Hood Line.

 

*For proof and explanation read McGee on Food and Cooking

Hello, Is There Anybody in There?

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A Jaunt into the West Country Part 3

Cheltenham

You’d think Britain’s centre for secrets would be, well, secret. But the first thing you see as you drive into Cheltenham on the A40 is “The Doughnut”; the huge, space age structure that houses GCHQ or Government Communications Headquarters, to give it its full title. I wanted to take a photograph for the blog but didn’t. It wasn’t fear of a bunch of spooks descending upon me to beat me senseless and rip the inner workings out of my camera. No, it was simply that there was no-where to park on the main road. It is a hugely impressive building, though one wonders just how difficult it would be to disguise it from attack. From space it must appear as a graduated target with extra points for hitting the jam in the middle.

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As a country we’re not sure how we feel about GCHQ. Are they there to protect us or to snoop on us? Which way are they looking? Just how powerful are their instruments? They can obviously read this, if they want to, but are they actually monitoring it as I write? Are they able, as has become the urban myth, to watch us through the lens at the top of our screens, even when it is switched off, and do they use this to learn our passwords or just to try and catch us out at inopportune and compromising moments?

Playing word association games with friends brought up “sinister” as the most popular word to sum up GCHQ. “Frightening, ominous and disturbing” weren’t too far behind. If you play the same game with the words “Bletchley Park” you get: “heroes, code-breakers, enigma machines, Alan Turing and shortened-the-war”. Yet they are essentially the same place. Both are Spy Central. The Buckinghamshire Mansion was originally requisitioned in 1938 to house less than 100 men (MI6 was almost exclusively male at that time). By the end of the war more than 10,000 people were working there. The site wasn’t suited to so many. They had out-grown both the original buildings and the famous temporary huts, and there was no-where for them to live their lives outside of their duties. Intelligent people require a stimulating environment and Bletchley Park was rapidly being absorbed into Milton Keynes. With Victory in Europe the search began to find a place to re-locate. With the on-set of the Cold War, (and the encroachment of concrete cows) the need took on a degree of urgency.

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What was required was a new home that satisfied an exacting wish-list. It needed to be

  • A single site that could house the entire listening operation and a very big work-force.
  • About 100 miles from London with good communications links to the capital. London itself was seen as too vulnerable to attack.
  • A large town that could attract and absorb a large, highly educated work-force and provide suitable facilities for culture, relaxation, shopping and leisure.
  • Land that already belonged to the government, preferably with pre-existing office accommodation.
  • A place that had ready laid telegraphic cables.
  • A place that would allow expansion.
  • A place where there wasn’t a great deal of industry or other activity that could quickly absorb the capacity to communicate with the outside world and lure away the workers.

DSC_0037Serious consideration was given to Oxford and Cambridge, The Bedford/Leighton Buzzard area, Norwich, Liverpool, Manchester, Shrewsbury, Exeter and Bath.

One by one they were ruled out. Exeter a little too far from the capital, Shrewsbury not big enough to absorb the work-force, Norwich too near a large number of RAF stations that might require prior use of communication lines and also attract enemy attack. Oxford and Cambridge were ruled out as having too many other pulls on the academics and Liverpool and Manchester because industrial development would result in too much competition for jobs.

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Cheltenham had good road and rail links, was a large attractive town that already had a high percentage of graduates and the facilities to absorb a whole lot more. It had housed huge American bases during the war including the headquarters of The Services of Supply (SOS). When these re-located to France after the D-Day landings they left behind government owned land, office accommodation and miles of underground communication cables. The original move of American forces from London to Cheltenham in 1942 was planned as absolutely top secret. Special trains were laid on from Paddington and to avoid anyone accidentally getting on the wrong train, Paddington station staff had helpfully plastered the carriages with signs that read “US Forces to Cheltenham”. I suppose this is in-keeping with housing the secret services in the most prominent building for miles.

DSC_0044Modern day Cheltenham has four claims to fame; as the country’s centre of spying, as a glorious Regency spa town at the foot of the Cotswolds, as the centre of national hunt (fences) horse racing and the home of some of Britain’s leading cultural festivals. 110,000 people call Cheltenham home and there are almost exactly as many of them who work for GCHQ as there are who don’t work at all (6,200).

It had long been an ambition to go to the Cheltenham Festival in March and enjoy watching the very best of national hunt racing. Huge crowds are drawn from all corners of the country and almost as many pack the ferries from Ireland. For reasons that I have never quite understood the more high profile the horse racing event, the higher percentage of out and out drunkenness. People don’t get squiffy at the races they get absolutely pie-eyed, off their faces, pissed; and it isn’t a particularly lovely sight.

DSC_0040Whether it be Royal Ascot, Goodwood, The Ebor meeting at York, the Grand national at Aintree or the festival here in the Cotswolds you cannot get away from people who seem to leave sense and dignity behind at the gates. Enormous effort and considerable expense gets poured into dressing for the occasion and then additional sums of money go into putting sufficient over-priced beverage into the stomach to spew over the green sward. Drunkenness is no respecter of class and background at the racecourse. You’ll find drunks in Alexander McQueen and Givenchy gowns and you’ll find young women staggering on heels from New Look and dresses from TK Maxx. With drunken men there is a tendency to increase boorishness for every hundred pounds spent on a suit.

DSC_0071These days you’ll find me watching my horse racing on the rails at Cartmel and Worcester and rarely watching the classics at more celebrated racecourses. I love the sport and have been known to down a pint or two in my time but I’ve always found a day at the races goes better without huge displays of public drunkenness.

I still watch The Festival on the telly though. It’s one of the delights of being freed from the working week. Here we get a grand sweep over vast crowds in a delightful setting and detailed information and close-up views of the finest horses in training. I like the way Channel 4 present racing, I like the way they find insiders with the ability to express their knowledge articulately while retaining the vocabulary and ethos of the sport. I rarely bet on horses but have measured out my years on gold cup winners. Arkle was my first sporting hero; his annual battles with Mill House and Stallbridge Colonist are my earliest sporting memories alongside the Clay/Liston fights (The second actually being an Ali/Liston fight). In recent years I’ve cheered home Dawn Run and Burrough Hill Lad, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and Best Mate. I even named a car I owned after Garrison Savannah when I found the registration plates matched. I sold it when the vet’s bills got too high. Our friends  in the north were the great aunt and uncle of trainer Michael Dickinson and when he saddled the first five to cross the winning line in 1983 I almost felt a sense of personal pride and would have been thoroughly ecstatic if I hadn’t had my money riding on Wayward Lad (the one that finished third).

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I find my hotel, park up and wander happily up and down the streets of a town that has more than its fair share of attractions without ever quite selling those attractions to me. But what do I matter? The people look affluent and contented on a May Bank Holiday. They move around in couples and seem to be obliged to keep inside age bands. Older people sip cappuccinos in the many coffee bars, middle aged people are at the jazz Festival and the young, as young are won’t to do, are displaying in prominent places. Cheltenham isn’t short of attractive parks and avenues in which to go parading.

 

Tea Before Evensong

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A Jaunt into the West Country  :   Part 2

 Tewkesbury Part Two

Mrs Craik must have had a good eye for detail. She was a brief visitor to the town and captured the streets and alleys with the accuracy of an historian. Much of the early action of John Halifax, Gentleman takes place in the unique set of alleys that still lead off the main street every twenty yards or so.  The novel is set around a tanyard, and leather goods were always made in the town. At one time there were large forests nearby, which not only gave the town timber for building, but satisfied the greedy appetite for tree bark that tanning requires. One legacy of tanning can be found in the Old Black Bear Inn which has some remarkable leather ceilings. I passed through here on a long cycle ride in 1996 and was regaled by a hearty barman. When not pulling pints he was actually a music student, at the Royal Northern College in Manchester. He was home for the holidays and saving up for a double bass. It didn’t take him long to swing into tour guide mode.

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“Visitor to the town are you? Well, I suppose you’ll be wanting to know a little of the history of the place.” And without waiting for a response he was into the part of his speech that he obviously felt was excellently well penned and had taken great pains to con.

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A high security grave and an example of a building where the wrong sort of brick was used. The machine pressed, identical bricks create a lifeless building. Unfortunately it is directly opposite the Abbey.

 

“This hostelry dates back to the reign of Edward the Second and first served flagons of good ale to thirsty travellers in the year of our Lord 1308. The pub has the distinction of being the oldest in the entire county of Gloucestershire and in addition to it’s ancient leather ceilings and creaking floors, boasts its very own ghost in the headless figure of a defeated Lancastrian soldier from the Battle of May 4 1471; a battle that concluded the famous Wars of the Roses. Proceeding through the door and to your left, and crossing the main road,  you can find the Roses Theatre where much loved, English, comedian Eric Morecambe became ill after performing there in 1984; later dying in Cheltenham General Hospital in the early hours of the following morning.” and on, and on. A splendid barman and one whose capacity to listen was all that stood between him and popularity.

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The Battle of Tewkesbury was one of the most significant in our history and continues to resonate. Yorkists were on the verge of taking power in the Wars of the Roses through victory at Barnet in April 1471. The Lancastrian army was in disarray and was actually making a tactical retreat to join up with supporters in Wales when the River Severn blocked their path. They were refused entry and a safe place to cross at Gloucester, knew they didn’t have time to lay siege to the city, and were making their way up river to the next bridge, when they were caught up by the White Rose vanguard. The Yorkists were actually outnumbered two to one but had more guns; at that time still a very new technology on the battlefield. The guns didn’t actually kill many of the enemy but they put the fear of God into the Lancastrian forces. The killing was horrible. Over two thousand Lancastrians fell on a small patch of ground still referred to as “Bloody Meadow”. The “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard III is delivered in the aftermath of this battle which ended the unhappy reign of Henry VI and gave Yorkshire a conclusive victory in this earliest of Roses matches.

DSC_0014It saw Edward IV firmly seated on the throne and it promised many years of peace and prosperity to a country that had been ravaged by war for over a century. It wasn’t to be. With hindsight it was never likely. Tewkesbury was a bloody battle and the killing went of for many days afterwards in the form of summary executions and mopping up operations. Much of the killing took place inside the abbey church which later had to be closed and re-consecrated.  Within 14 years the armies of York and Lancaster were to clash once again at Bosworth: a battle that did end outward civil strife for generations but at a considerable cost. The first victim of that battle was truth and the second, civil liberties.

DSC_0029Where rivers flood you inevitably get rich alluvial soil and Tewkesbury became a centre for the growing of cereals long before the agricultural revolution. Barges carried the grain and milled flour out to Bristol and up river to Worcester and Stratford. The original mills are long gone but the river front is still dominated by a rather impressive Victorian mill and warehouse. The water meadows, on farms known locally as Hams, (its where we get such place names as Rotherham, Birmingham and Oldham) also provided rich grazing for cattle and sheep. The milk going to the cheeses that are synonymous with the county. (Incidentally you can get single Gloucester cheese as well as the better known double Gloucester. There are various theories* as to why it is called “double”. To me it would just sound wrong if it wasn’t. 

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I get the impression of a settlement at ease with itself. A place with a willingness to appear in its scruffs because it is relaxed and  because it doesn’t quite realise that is a near perfect example of the small English country town. There have been some ill-advised developments over the years (the sixties shopping precinct near the Bear is quite appalling) and there is a pull, at shop window level, to look like every other town. Look above the ground floor though, and you have a jewel of a town with heritage by the sackful.

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In 1996 I was on a cycle tour of England and arrived in Tewkesbury during  the European Football Championships. This was the “Football’s Coming Home” tournament held in England and the Black Bear hosted equal numbers of English and Dutch fans for a memorable match between the host nation and the Netherlands. Small knots of “In-ger-land” supporters gathered around the bar and happy Dutch families, decked in orange, held sway around the tables and chairs. I sat somewhere in the middle supping English ale and talking (in very broken Dutch) about Rembrandt and Johan Cruyff. It was a night when the England team played out of their skins as  Sherringham and Shearer knocked in two goals each before Patrick Kluivert got a Dutch consolation which kept Holland in the tournament at the expense of Scotland. The Dutch families showed dignity in defeat. The In-ger-land fans were not so gracious in victory and for a while things looked as though they might get ugly. Voices were raised. One suggested that the visitors from the Netherlands were no longer welcome, one challenged all comers to a fight and a musician player from behind the bar helped everyone re-gain their bearings: “Proceeding past the market cross you come to the site of one of the oldest Baptist chapels in the whole of Great Britain. Nearby you will find a Quaker Burial Ground dating back to 1660…”

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Ah, Tewkesbury. It was founded in Saxon times, flourished for a century or so before being wiped off the map by invading Danes. It was re-born under Norman rule when the great abbey was built and flourished up until the Reformation. The Benedictine Monastery was the bringer of wealth to the area and when it was dissolved the town fell into a period of quiet survival which saw alternate periods of prosperity and want. The main street has fine buildings from every era that money flowed into the town.  Though all of this, the great square Norman tower of the abbey stood immense and proud. Since World War Two the whole area has enjoyed a comfortable living and the population has grown steadily. At the time of my visit the country was getting ready to go to the polls and blue was very much the colour. Poverty and need has always been kept out of sight around here.

I enjoyed a gentle stroll and a cup of coffee at a table that allowed me to watch the town go by. It was busy with the May Festival and as I’m not one for the crowds  I got back on the road to Cheltenham and beyond that to Somerset and Devon. I had noticed though, that on Thursday there was sung evensong at the abbey and planned to repeat my detour on the way back home in order to hear that.

DSC_0008I arrived back at four o’clock on Thursday to find Tewkesbury in its working day clothes. With an hour to spare before the service I entered the Abbey Tearooms (a retro-café that would appeal to anyone with an interest in old comics, teacups and vinyl 45s). The tables were full of contented, affluent families out for an early evening meal and talk was of the election.  It seemed to me, from what I was able to glean, from snatches of conversation, that socialism was unlikely to prosper this time around.** The meal was rather good though and it was with a tummy as tight as a drum that I took my place for Choral Evensong.DSC_0540

In the abbey the choir were being put through final, exacting rehearsals by a choirmaster who had the happy ability to be able to insist on perfect singing while making it all good fun. I have never seen a happier choir, and rarely heard a better one. When rehearsals finished a very old, very well turned out, lady whispered conspiratorially as to where I might find a cushioned seat. It couldn’t have been better. The anthems reached the very vaults of the abbey with a beauty that would have pleased William Byrd and Thomas Tallis themselves. The readings were given by an ancient lady who had learnt her diction from the Edith Evans school of consonants and rolling rrrrs. There was nothing hasty here. As the choir left, the organist took over, and  the very pews shook in appreciative vibration. If you ever get the chance to attend Evensong at Tewkesbury, take it. It is a truly wonderful experience.

 

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The Ceiling above the choir is unbelievably lovely.

 

* Four theories as to how Double Gloucester got its name

  1. The milk was originally skimmed twice
  2. Double cream was added to the milk during the cheese making
  3. It took milk from two milking sessions to make a cheese
  4. The finished cheeses were twice as big as single Gloucester cheeses

** The Conservative candidate did indeed find himself elected with a comfortable majority

Tewkesbury: Where Avon Meets Severn

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A Jaunt into The West Country :  Part 1

Tewkesbury Part One 

As I ease onto the motorway, Nathaniel Parker is describing what happens to Farmer Oak’s face when he smiles. I’m not a huge fan of talking books but the radio is in its mid-morning lull. A few days in the south west of England begin with a little bit of Wessex. By the time we clear the roadworks at Pinxton, Farmer Oak has been wooer, rejected lover, lost his farm, his stock and had to shoot his dog. Some people find Thomas Hardy books a bit gloomy but then some folk don’t listen to Country Music for the same reasons. To manage without Merle Haggard would significantly reduce the pleasure of living; to do without Thomas Hardy would be a tragedy.

The changing fortunes of Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene and Farmer Boldwood keep me engrossed from the Nottinghamshire spoil heaps to when the grey outlines of the Malvern Hills sweep the western horizon. First intended stop is Cheltenham but I’ve got happy memories of Tewkesbury and have often thought to turn off the motorway and give the town another visit.

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“If it’s under 6 miles I’ll drop in,” I tell myself. It’s less than two and I’m in luck. It’s the day the town celebrates the battle that ended the Wars of the Roses and put the town on the map, and into the history books. Everywhere I look there are re-enactors and people who are drawn to a telling of history that allows you to hang a tankard onto your belt and call your wife a wench. It’s supposed to be the biggest gathering of it’s kind in England but I have no difficulty finding a place to park. Right outside the free museum. It is a fabulous building from the outside. Inside it has lots of big print boards, that ensure you don’t absorb too much information, and a large papier maché battlefield with a couple of thousand meticulously painted toy soldiers.

I like to absorb a sense of place and read my history off the fronts of old buildings. The re-enactors have taken over fields and erected a tented village and set a sentry guard of a splendidly decked out elderly couple. It seems a pity that after re-creating costumes with the care and precision of a wardrobe mistress at Elstree, both of which involve a leathern purse, they are seated behind a fake wood table and are collecting payment in a tupperware box.

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The festival has taken over the choir end of the abbey for a concert of music from the time of Henry VI. You have to pay to get past the rood screen and the music doesn’t improve as you get closer to the instruments. I suspect enthusiastic amateurs. I detect a serpent, a viol de gambon and maybe a crumhorn or two. If it’s authentic my opinion of the fifteenth century will take a knock. Keeping my fiver safely in my purse I peer up at the roof of the nave and wonder if it is a little out of proportion with the power of the columns supporting it. It’s spectacular and beautiful. Vaulted roofs are a thing of eternal delight to me, but one can’t help feeling that the columns were meant for an even more imposing crown.  Alec Clifton-Taylor is of the same opinion.

“In the nave the vault, though fine in itself, is too low: it seems rammed down onto the great Norman piers like a lid.”*

There is huge strength here and I am put in mind of an American footballer with muscles to spare and no neck. Above the choir and beyond the columns, the proportions are as near perfect as makes the head spin. Best to sit forward and face the east if you want to enjoy this church.

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The fact that the abbey church is still standing is a tribute to the people of Tewkesbury. This was the central glory of a Benedictine Monastery and was due to suffer the same Reformation fate as sister houses namely; that they were reduced to ruins and the land granted to a rich local in return for a hefty payment to the crown. The people of Tewkesbury clubbed together and divvied up the £453 to Henry VIII and claimed it as their parish church. It’s a bloody impressive parish church!

Tewksbury is a handsome town situated where the Rivers Severn and Avon meet (That’s Shakespeare’s Avon). Charles Dickens allowed the Pickwick Club to put up at the Royal Hop Pole Hotel. It’s been quite a hostelry in its time and, if you ignore the tawdry signs advertising cheap beer and two for one meal deals, still looks the part. I somehow doubt if Messrs  Pickwick, Snodgrass, Tupman and  Winkle  would be much impressed with the delights of a twenty-first century Weatherspoons. Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs.) Craik; who would have been remembered as one of the great Victorian Women novelists if Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and a gaggle of Brontes hadn’t all written much better novels; wrote and set John Halifax Gentleman in the town (re-named Norton Bury). It’s not a bad book. Worthy in style and content, where an abandoned orphan tries to make his way in the world. The title may give some clue as to how successful he was. An adaptation kept us in front of the telly in 1974 and gave us all our first view of the splendid Gwen Taylor.

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Without this blog I never would have read it and I would have missed out on a book my mother would have liked very much. You can draw an accurate map of the town from the descriptive passages and the author paints scene after scene of great world events as enacted on the streets of Tewkesbury and the surrounding valleys. In Mrs Craik’s world trouble is never very far away and the respectable lives of the characters are threatened by every dark cloud that ever crossed the country. Religious intolerance, Napoleonic wars, bread riots, corrupt parliamentary elections, the threat of industrialisation, the reality of the same industrialisation, small-pox and the advance of medicine (thanks to Gloucestershire’s own medical hero, Edward Jenner), the arrival of the railways, economic crises, floods and the advance of the United States as a second global super-power are all woven into the plot and bring with them imminent disaster and ruin. Fortunately Tewkesbury has John Halifax to fight them off one by one and save the town. If he hadn’t had such an unfortunate start in life I’m sure he cold have saved the entire world.

The novel over-stretches itself as Tewkesbury wasn’t the best place to view the changing world from. It played a part in the agrarian revolution and was a centre for the corn trade up to the eighteenth century; the big navigable rivers meant it was something of a transport hub between Bristol and the Midlands. But it played very little part in the bigger revolution that followed. Thomas Telford built a lovely bridge across the Severn at Mythe (in its time the longest single span in the world)

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“But when, a few years later, the Birmingham to Bristol railway was built, it by-passed Tewkesbury and went through Ashchurch, where to this day many Tewkesbury people go to work. It is only two miles away, but that was far enough to result in the Industrial revolution giving Tewkesbury a miss.”**

The fronts of the buildings are almost all of interest and all show some care and attention. You have genuine timber framed houses and fake timber framed. You have porticoed rooflines and cruck framed slopes. There is splendour and wonder for the student of architecture. It doesn’t shout at you and demand to be admired, as it can in prettier towns, and there is plenty to interfere with the beauty in the unwanted presence of inappropriate signs and street furniture; but there is a great deal in a fairly small space, and the crown jewel is the abbey.

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This is an ancient town and one that owed it’s early prosperity to wool as well as corn. A parallel can be drawn with Stamford in Lincolnshire but it is in contrast with that town that much can be revealed about Tewkesbury. The first contrast is the absence of stone built houses. There obviously is plenty of stone. The abbey has enough for many a small town in itself. (It would be the largest and most splendid parish church in the country if you don’t count Westminster Abbey and Beverley Minster but the stone was quarried elsewhere and brought here on barges). Here in Tewkesbury only the grandest homes are stone-built.

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Even the Abbey House is only stone-fronted. The walls to the rear are timber framed or brick.

 

 

The second contrast is where Stamford expands evenly in all directions, Tewkesbury is a strange linear Y shape. This is partly geographical and partly historical. The rivers form a Y.  Both the Severn and the Avon are apt to flood and to flood on a huge scale. Flooding was an even bigger problem in earlier times (In John Halifax, Gentleman one of the eponymous hero’s first acts is to save his master’s tannery from a great flood) and the layout of the town is one that follows contour lines most precisely. The rivers thus restricted building on two sides. Manorial and monastery lands restricted growth on the others. This is a town where space has always been at a premium and one delightful result of this is that people built upwards and outwards and backwards. Many of the houses have three or four storeys, some the upper storeys extend beyond the floor beneath (jetties) and behind the fronts are numerous alleys (originally housing poorer families and small workshops). The alleys are still there, still very much in use for residential and other purposes and add to the flavour and character of Tewkesbury. I know of no other town that has them.

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* Six English Towns by Alec Clifton-Taylor p 72

** ibid p90

 

 

Cambridge: A Photographic Record

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Day Tripping

I visit towns to explore them, and what I discover creates a desire to write; to have some sort of a record of the place and what I know. I’ve been to towns that have allowed me to believe, easily, that I already know quite enough about them; too much in some cases. Cambridge isn’t one of these. I don’t think it would be possible to know too much about Cambridge. Every few years I feel the need to go there and just walk around. On Thursday I went to Cambridge to visit a friend; one who drew me back into acting and someone I hadn’t seen for far too long. I have no intention of writing about that meeting but I thought I’d share a few photographs of the city in term-time on a wet Thursday in May. It was a very good place to be.

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Students’ bicycles: Christ’s Pieces

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They are actually a very friendly bunch in Cambridge. Lots of smiles and very little profanity even when someone is pointing a camera at you.

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Christ’s Pieces

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This is a bookshop, not a library.

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Master’s House. St John’s College

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Holy Sepulchre

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Punting on the Cam

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Now that my friends is a gateway!

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Yes it is 2015

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Where the carols come from on Christmas Eve

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The Senate House

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Would you have studied harder if your college had looked like this?

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My discovery of the visit. I’d never been to the Fitzwilliam before. Next time I go this is the only place I’ll visit. A superb museum and gallery.

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A stunning room with some staggering works of art. Here I was among eighteenth century English painters: Hogarth, Gainsborough, Stubbs ( that fellow understands horses!)

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James

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Simon

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Perfect peace for students of theology

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We stopped into a church: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were there first.

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More Matter For a May Morning

Being the 72nd and Last Post of my

Journey into Scotland

Everywhere I went in Scotland, I met people who were proud of their culture and happy to bring a friendly pedaller up to speed with what I should be reading and watching if I truly wanted to become au fait with life north of the border. A drunk near the Burns’ Memorial in Alloway ordered me to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I hadn’t even sought his opinion. Mind you, he also threatened to kill me with a knife. I was paying close attention. A nurse near Crianlarich took my notebook off me and wrote a long list. I’ve probably still got the notebook as it’s not the sort of thing I throw away. From memory, it contained two books by Robin Jenkins: The Cone Gatherers and The Awakening of George Darroch.

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At Soldier’s Leap, Killikrankie – I’m the one with my hand up

 

“They don’t teach any Scottish history in English schools. It’s a shocking omission. None of our history. And when was the last time a class read a Scottish book in one of your literature classes? No. As far as education in England is concerned, we don’t exist.”*

He went on to add the names of Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks to my reading list. I wasn’t short of advice.

I’m a believer in the power of the novel, above all other arts forms, to give an insight into a culture. Well, not a single novel. Too small a sample can give a very distorted picture. I read Lanark and I read Unlikely Stories Mostly by the brilliant Alasdair Gray and I thought them wonderful. I’d already read Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but I added Sunset Song from his Scots Quair and I’ll soon complete the trilogy with Cloud Howe. I read both of the books by Robin Jenkins and by that time I was on a roundabout with one book suggesting its successor. When I began this project I’d only dipped my toe into the water. Now I’m fully immersed and ready to have a go at swimming across the wide stream of Scottish literature. The country has only produced one winner of the Booker Prize, but that says more about the metropolitan tastes  (and backgrounds) of the judging panel. If I were to choose my shortlist of the best 100 books published in Britain over the last fifty years it would contain at least twenty Scottish titles. Here are a few that I have read especially for this journey.

Simon @ Carter Bar '87Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie

It’s a hoot. I laughed my way through it and immediately ordered the dvd of the 1949 film. The writing isn’t perfect, the characters are over-drawn to the extent of approaching caricature, the setting is idealised and, like Dylan Thomas’s The Outing, makes a bunch of men getting drunk sound almost fabulous; my experience is that it is rarely thus. But it has magic. It pulls together it’s different strands (it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t set in wartime) to make a very special weave. Very few books have made me laugh more than this one. I hasn’t made me want to drink whisky but it has provided a more than ample substitute.

Scotland

Sutherland at sunset

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

The book describes an almost idyllic isolation in the north west of the country. A touch sentimental. A touch from a previous time. I bought this with paper-round money when I was 12. I think I would have enjoyed it then. I certainly enjoyed it 44 years on. I like human company and I like being left alone. But I would hate to live without animal companionship. The real achievement of this book is as a celebration of what animals bring to us.

Also serves as a first-rate wildlife guide to the north west of Scotland.

How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

Caused controversy when it won the Booker. The sniffy reviews caused Kelman problems later on when looking for publishing deals. A rare case of winning the Booker closing doors for a writer. It opened doors for other writers though. This is brilliant. To manage the first thirty pages is impressive, to write the entire novel in faultless, poetic, realistic, crude, funny, genuine language is an immense achievement.

What did the gripers want from a novel? Storyline – gripping; characterisation – superb; language – as good as it gets; settings – you’re there! I’ve waited a long time to read this novel. It was worth the wait.

Sutherland-001The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Sadly Iain Banks died last year but he left us with great  grace and dignity.

This is the first book he published and the only one I’ve read so far. It certainly held me, it un-nerved me and it surprised me. It seemed gruesome and I wondered at the wisdom of having it on the English syllabus in schools and then I watched the news and realised that it was no more x-rated than the lunch-time bulletin. What makes it disturbing is the voice. Sustaining this voice throughout is quite something. It isn’t a fun read but it is a worthwhile one.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I’m glad I read this. It seemed dated at first and has fallen out of fashion (it is dated but you soon get into the trick and rhythm of the language), and the story seemed a little slow in getting going. The Prologue is worth reading at the end as well as at the beginning. A history of the Highlands told through the history of a few square miles.

It reminded me most of DH Lawrence (also fast falling out of fashion). It most nearly resembles The White Peacock and it is a much better book. For all its limited geographical range it paints a broad canvas. It is a great rough pastoral to go alongside Wordsworth’s Leech Gatherers and decrepit huntsmen and idiot children. It is a great picture of the First World War and its effects on the people far from the monstrous anger of the guns. It is a magnificent telling of the end of Crofting. It is a great Feminist novel. It is modernist and determined to speak with a Scottish voice and it is in this that it has aged badly. The style interferes with the narrative flow (ironic for a stream of consciousness) and the Scottishness is of a 1930s vintage. It may succeed in always making you aware of itself as a human construct but this prevents me (at least) from becoming totally immersed in, what is otherwise, one hell of a story.

Farr Bay East-001

Farr Bay

Hebridean Connection by Derek Cooper

A personal description of the western islands by the burgundy voiced former presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

A well written account of the Hebrides as a place to live and work with much less time for those who come in search of their own idyl (and bugger up everybody else’s by bringing a guitar and a passion for making crap out of shells); and much, much less time for those who use their obscene and ill-gotten wealth to play the landowner at the expense of real people and a real way of life.

Perhaps a few years out of date but I haven’t come across any thing more recent that is anything like as good.

The First Fifty: Munro Bagging Without a Beard by Muriel Gray

Buy this book and read it. End of review.

Portrait of Orkney by George Mackay Brown

A near perfect gentle guide. George Mackay Brown is the ideal companion. It’s an afternoon stroll or a morning walk rather than a detailed archaeological exploration. A pleasure. (Bonus fact: Robert Frost’s grandmother was an Orcadian.)

Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington

Christopher Brookmyre gives a much better summation of this brilliant book than I could do so I’ll unashamedly print his. “A surreal portrait of Sixties Glasgow, related via the keen – if well-bevvied – eyes and coruscating patter of amateur philosopher, father-to be and diligently dedicated waster Tam Clay. The essence of my home city finely distilled; every dram is a relished drop.”

culloden 2

Culloden

Scottish Journey by Edwin Muir

A gem of a book that takes you around a Scotland reeling from the blows of the great depression in the company of someone worth listening to. A companion piece to JB Priestley’ English Journey and a worthy one. Like Priestley he deliberately travels to parts of the country that tell different stories, that have suffered differently in the economic turmoil of the times. Muir has been criticised for waxing political as he wanders among Glasgow Slums or talks of farm labourers’ struggles under surf like conditions; their wives dying in childbirth to avoid the cost of a doctor or refusing to take time off to become ill because they know it will cost a livelihood; in the end it costs a life. How can a sensitive and caring man wax anything other than political? (Priestley certainly does as he visits Tyneside).

Here is a proud Scot who doesn’t care for the cult of Burns and Scott (though he admires both as writers). A man who resents the wrongs done to his countrymen, who is happy to point out the good when he comes across it…and he comes across plenty… and who sees a great need for change (and who sees hope in that need).

The book is a pleasure to read and a warning to myself that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a true travel writer.

Oh, and the prose is as beautiful as you’d expect from a true poet.

Thurso Home Front Door

Outside my old front door

 

I read plenty more but I think that gives a flavour. I learned an enormous amount by cycling around Scotland the autumn of 1987. I went off in search of myself and came back a different person. The more I discover about Scotland the more I like it and the less I seem to know. At 10 miles per hour you see so much and there is so much to see. Every day revealed a landscape as different from the day before as Norway is  from Portugal. And my education has continued through this writing. In school’s there is an old saying that if you really want to know something, then you should teach it. A good teacher should be a good learner else what are they in the classroom for? I’ve found the same thing to be true of writing. I’ve discovered as much about the country by writing about Scotland as I did by visiting.

A great many people have dropped by to read chapters and leave messages. Some of you have been with me through the whole 100,000 plus words (and who knows how many photographs?) All I can say is thank you; I have really enjoyed your company, appreciated your likes and comments and hope that I have given you a few new views of a very auld country.

* Some Scottish writers have made it onto the English Schools’ Syllabus; among them are Anne Fine, Iain Banks Liz Lochhead and Robert Louis Stevenson. Liz Lochhead adding something very different as you don’t get many words with a double h in them!

The End

 

Bouldering on the Ridiculous

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A Journey into Scotland : Bibliography Part Four

Geography and Geology

Bouldering: Definition: The sport of climbing without ropes or other technical gear on boulders or relatively small rock faces. (Which is pretty much how I regard my ability and knowledge as a geographer)

I left school when I was 16. It wasn’t that I was giving up on learning. I always had an idea that I might want  top-up at some time. It was just a huge desire to get off someone else’s carousel and  find one of my own. Anything I did find wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least I could write home. In reality I was progressing from one job to another just as soon as each revealed that it didn’t have much to reveal. A girlfriend took me to the theatre about this time and that excited me more than what I was doing for a envelope of notes and coins and a payslip. Between jobs I signed on for some courses at night school. It wasn’t a sudden kindling of ambition but I was drawn to the warmth of the promise of a better place.

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

I didn’t stay out of work for long (standing in line to be quizzed, probed and insulted by a junior clerk in return for a giro cheque wasn’t my idea of a good career move) and the enlightened powers that be, at the technical school, informed me that I was going to have to decide which A level to drop because they couldn’t allow someone in full-time employment to take three. I quiver at the stupidity of this decision but at the time I accepted it. (It was half way through the second year of study). I couldn’t give up English Literature. I didn’t think much of the class and less of the teacher, but as it consisted of reading books and thinking about them it wasn’t a much of a burden. The same was true of British Government and Politics. This was a rattling good shindig with angry young voices once a week. So out went Geography, despite it being with the nicest bunch of people, and the fact that classes would as often take place on the moors as in the college.

In reality it didn’t make a big difference. I soon found myself working shifts and couldn’t make very many of the classes anyway. To get the certificates required  personal study. The college got a course fee and an empty desk most weeks. I did ok. I’d secured a passport to higher education if I ever needed to use it. The certificate said I was pretty good at understanding books and governance. There was nothing to show for 18 months of learning about incised meanders and soil profiles; geomorphology and plate tectonics. Well, nothing outward anyway. I’d bought the books and continued to buy the books. The teacher gave me a reading list and said the pity was not being able to take a geography degree. Not caring much for badges I read them anyway and topped them up with late night Open University programmes delivered by strange men with long hair and tank tops. I wasn’t finished with earth science.

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

You cannot get away from landscapes, in life or in art. In galleries I like a human face or two but you’ll more often find me standing before a painting of the ocean or some mountains. In music, I travel readily into Beethoven’s woods or Sibelius’s lakes or the wide open spaces and cloudscapes that Copeland reveals (once he’s got past the bloody hoe-downs!). My favourite westerns wouldn’t work without the epic settings. Odysseus is all very well but it’s the journey we’re really interested in. Give me the rock and the whirlpool. And the passion has remained. There are two things to admire in any landscape. The first being the way it is and the second, how it got to be that way. You can take them one by one or you can take them both together.

All of the early geography books, including the world atlas, were given to charity shops before they became outdated. One, at least was by Harry Robinson who I later got to know and like very much as he taught at the polytechnic where I spent 18 months as a caretaker. One was emerald green and turquoise which isn’t much help as publishers like inappropriate colours for geography text books. So they all belong in that part of my bibliography that has to go down as “stuff I learned from books years ago but just which books, I cannot remember.” A bit like someone asking “How do you know that?” when you get a question right on University Challenge*. “What do you mean “How do I know that?” I just bloody know it.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you've watched the Harry Potter films.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you’ve watched the Harry Potter films.

My second job in teaching was as a history master. Nobody quibbled. My second last job was teaching geography. The teacher in the next classroom liked causing problems and questioned my qualifications: three quarters of an A level, a degree in the humanities, thirty years in the classroom, a hill-walker and canoeist and a lifelong passion for the subject. She was a PE teacher who’d been shoved into the department  when she found she couldn’t keep up on the netball court. I never questioned her right to teach…but many of her students did.

The head of department was a fine geographer (as was the head teacher)  and we enjoyed long chats about delivering the subject. He knew what he was doing and I was happy to follow his schemes to the letter. He used the Geog 123 series of textbooks from Oxford University Press and they were excellent. They came with all sorts of extras of an interactive nature and were popular with classes working together and students learning independently. When I was at school our teachers wouldn’t accept new fangled theories about the movement of the earth’s surface. In this school, even with an English teacher in charge, the students were all pretty well-versed on tectonics  and knew more vulcanology than we required, at a much higher level in 1975, by the end of year 8 (aged 12/13). It was impressive to be a part of.

Glencoe 3

As a brick-layer I’m happy to split stones but in the field I don’t carry a hammer. Up in the wild north-west of Scotland you don’t need to hit anything to be awed by the rocks. As an aesthete I was thrilled; as a poet, inspired; as a geographer I was in seventh heaven.

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Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell

In Scotland I was more taken with the story of the the development of geology as a subject than by the geology itself. The whole of this academic discipline grew out of Scotland, brilliant Scottish minds and Scottish rocks. This book has been over-taken many times by modern geologists but Charles Lyell was one of those giants who allowed others to stand on his shoulders in order to see a little further. Charles Darwin advises anyone reading On the Origin of Species to put his book aside until you have read Charles Lyell. As a lover of art and literature I was drawn to the book by it’s reported influence on George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin among others. I enjoyed it as much for what it revealed of the scientific process as for the advances in geological thinking it contained.

Principles of Physical Geography by Arthur Holmes

I’ve had a copy of this for years and it has been quite a companion. In fact it has been my substitute teacher and go-to guide for anything that puzzled me about what goes on under the grass and heather. It was only when researching my re-telling of the story of geology in Scotland that I discovered just how important Holmes was to that very story. My copy is a fourth edition. The first edition, published in 1944 gave the world his reluctantly published hand-sketched drawings explaining how convection might (just might) explain the movement of the earth’s land masses (they didn’t become known as plates until 1968). It’s a university level text book; and a weighty tome. I haven’t read it from cover to cover but I have left tea stains and biscuit crumbs on more than half of its pages. If it isn’t the last word for the current generation, it is the last word for this enthusiastic amateur.

Professor Iain Stewart : Making Scotland’s Landscape BBC

I came upon these accidentally and very possibly when looking for some post pub late night television. They became must-see programmes and form the framework of my own telling of the story of rock science. Thanks to Youtube these are readily available and (again with tea and biscuits) I settled down and watched them, one after another, with a fat notebook and a fast moving pen. Seldom has a subject been so well expressed to a general audience without either simplifying or patronising. Iain Stewart has followed Michael Wood into that rare club of academic television presenters who are almost as much admired for themselves as for their knowledge of subject. I wasn’t over-bothered about his boyish good looks but his enthusiasm and love of subject went along way with me.

 

to be continued…

 

* My wife also left school at 16 and later forged a successful career as a teacher. Between us it is rare that we don’t score between 20 and 40 on University Challenge. And that’s only counting the ones we get before the students answer. Let’s hear it for the drop-outs!

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