Day 362: Don’t Let the Devil Sit in the Bend

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A-Z of English Towns: O is for Oakham (part 2)

I have fond memories of Oakham. In the early summer of 1996 I pedalled around England as a storyteller. I had a bag full of tales and yarns and a  couple of dozen schools and arts centres to visit on the way. I was mourning the death of someone close and the pedalling, the performances and the faces of the children, transported by the power of story, made it an unusual but highly effective way to deal with grief. I called in on a school near Oakham and after the show we went into classrooms with high windows and made up stories with the children. I was supposed to go at lunchtime but they prevailed upon me to stay for dinner. We sat on tiny chairs and in the afternoon we made puppets and re-told some of the best stories (theirs and mine) as puppet shows. I can’t remember ever having more fun.

The next time I came found me back in teaching. We had to attend  agreement trials where a bunch of drama teachers had to watch  students’ work and mark it. If our marks tallied with the exam board we were deemed fit to operate. Our team leader worked at the impressive private school in the town and trips there usually saw us well victualed as well as treated to some good drama. In return he would visit our schools to see students perform their examination pieces. If the work was poor and the students had obviously little idea of the conventions of drama he would diligently take notes and watch every unchoreographed movement, every wrongly inflected line, every cliché, every awkward and pointless blackout and give constructive feedback. If the work was good he would enjoy the opening moments and then slowly nod into slumber. He always slept well at our place. Year on year we produced exceptional work. I was very lucky with my students; and the harder we worked, the luckier we got.

Twelve years or more have passed since I was last here. I cannot find the school at all. I’ve been all around the town and, had I but realised it, all around significant parts of the school. It couldn’t be more central.

I have mixed feelings about private education. They’re not all that mixed. I’m mostly opposed to it. I’ve spent a large part  of my life fighting for equality of opportunity in society and striving for excellence in the state education system. I do acknowledge that there are many fine educators in the private system and that private students have as much right as anyone to develop their talents to the full. We saw some very good work here. Granted there was a distinctive house style. But the students glowed with a confidence, that many inner city students would find difficult to emulate, but which was nonetheless impressive.

We have promoted more and more public school students into positions of power in all sorts of fields. As a child of the sixties it appalls me. This isn’t what was meant to happen. The majority of the cabinet went to private schools as, more shockingly, did many in the Labour shadow cabinet. Important areas of culture, long deemed to be the preserve of the people, are being dominated by toffs. Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis went to Eton. Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow, Dan Stevens went to Tonbridge and Matthew MacFadyen went to Oakham. In pop music (once the voice of the streets) we have privately educated Chris Martin and Tom Chaplin and Jason Kay (Oakham boy!). We have comedians David Baddiel, Michael McIntyre and Jack Whitehall. Personally I don’t think we’d lose too much if all of these went into retirement tomorrow (and I speak as an admirer of Laurie and West). I don’t wish to deny people opportunities just because they went to a fee paying school (the fees are not inconsequential; it costs nearly £30,000 a year to send a child to Oakham as a boarder) but wouldn’t mind the same opportunities for for the (at least) equally talented students in state schools in Nottingham, Halifax, Exeter, Derby and Sheffield. A good number of my former students have gone on to make a considerable mark in theatre, dance and the arts. A lot of doors would have opened more easily for them had they gone to a private school.

A recent secretary of state for education said it was the responsibility of state school educators to match the standards being set in schools like Oakham and Uppingham and then the imbalance will correct itself. A simple logical fallacy. He sees privately educated students rising to the top in their chosen fields and draws the conclusion that they must have been better educated. It is a good deal more complicated than that.

I enjoy a saunter round the grounds and am once again amazed that more students from places like these don’t do better. The facilities are awe inspiring. The sports pitches alone would have students, that I have taught, drooling. The school has professional coaches as well as PE staff. The rugby first team are currently coached by ex Leicester captain and coach Ian Smith, assisted by Glen Gelderbloom another professional player from South Africa. The cricket team is coached by ex Lancashire, Hampshire and England player John Crawley. Another England and Lancashire batsman (and something of a boyhood hero of mine) Frank Hayes was, until recently, the director of cricket at the school. It’s the same for other sports. My question, given this coaching and these facilities, is not why they produce so many by why do they provide so few significant players?

I’m not asking that Oakham students be denied these privileges. All I ask is a level playing field. They’ve got plenty of these at Oakham! And they don’t seem to have to pick glass and dog shit off them before training can begin.

The school contributes greatly to the architecture of the town. There are plenty of other fine buildings too. The church serves its dual functions of looking formidable from close range and gentle and elegant from a distance. The castle caught me by surprise. It doesn’t look like a castle. At one time it did but the towers, the curtain wall, the keep and the moat are gone. What remains is superb. An intact Norman Great Hall of a manor house. It’s worth taking time to walk around it. The proportions are extraordinary. I don’t know how much is completely original but I do know that it is regarded as one of the most important examples of Norman architecture in the country and I can see why. The hall is best viewed from outside. Inside modern chairs desecrate any sense of history and the walls are adorned by, what seems to me, one of the most pointless collections I have ever seen. Tradition has it that any peer of the realm has to leave a horseshoe as a gift to the hall. It continues to this day. Several days before my visit a pointless royal who is married to another pointless royal had bestowed such a ceremonial shoe. I’d be more impressed if visitors had to leave a happy toy from MacDonalds. I don’t care if the custom goes back to the Wars of the Roses. Antiquity doesn’t add significance of itself.

The horseshoes are displayed facing downwards, which traditionally signifies bad luck. In Rutland horseshoes are hung this way. It is the prevent the devil sitting in the bend of the shoe. To keep such a collection in such a building is like being given the ark of the covenant and using it to house a collection of Garfield posters.

The octagonal Butter Mart is delightful. It gives the market place a sense of past present and future. The preserved stocks are always worth seeing. There are five holes in them and I ponder whether this is to fit five heads. It would be a considerable punishment if so. The victims would be almost lying on the ground and tightly packed against each other. If the holes are for the head, arms and legs of a single occupant then, unless he or she is a contortionist, it is a punishment to file under cruel and unusual. As a deterrent it may explain why there was only one instance of shoplifting in the town in June.

I’m at ease in the town. There is no great rush. People are pleasant and polite. Good food is available in the shops and restaurants. The buildings are attractive and in-keeping. There is even a man on the steps of the Victoria Hall reading a book. He’s there when I arrive and he’s still reading when it comes time for me to find my hotel.

I’m staying five miles outside the town in a still more lovely building than those I have been admiring. Launde Abbey is a Manor House and chapel dating from the time of Elizabeth the first. It stands in superb isolation in acres of parkland surrounded by woods and farmland. It makes a remarkable retreat and conference centre for the Church of England diocese of Peterborough and Leicester. If you are really lucky you can get to stay as a paying guest. I was very lucky indeed.

I am treated wonderfully. The food is good, the bed comfortable and the bathwater hot. At night I write my diary and notes in the library. The sun is setting over the western hills and not a sound can be heard. I’m surrounded by centuries old furniture and volumes that contain everything any clergyman, from 1588 to the present day, could possibly wish to know. There are 43 volumes of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. There are thousands of books. I feel very privileged.

Before breakfast I attend the morning service in the chapel (which is the oldest part of the building and which Nikolaus Pevsner described as “one of the purest monuments of the early Renaissance in England”.) I have a religious faith and wasn’t merely intruding. It was quite something to have experienced. In a similar mood of reflective contemplation I change my plans for the rest of the morning and drive to the shores of Rutland Water and visit the RSPB Birdwatching centre. I intend to stay an hour at most. It’s a reconnaissance visit to find my way around. I stay three hours and could easily have stayed all day. (Look closely and you may see the kingfisher.)

Yes, I think I could really get to like Oakham.

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Day 361: Close the Coldhouse Door Lads. There’s Blood Inside.

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Mostly Concerning Food

It’s been a dramatic week news wise. Tensions mount in Eastern Ukraine as senior German politicians warn of the situation beginning to slide out of control. Here in Britain the country’s terror threat is raised from substantial to severe (are they trying to scare us?) and President Obama lets slip that he has no policy on combatting the threat of “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. Plenty there for journalists to get their teeth into and of course the main headlines across newspapers, television and radio news  has been of a 69 year old pensioner from Shropshire who took a bowl of ice cream out of her freezer during a television cooking programme.

800 irate viewers have risen as one by sending letters of complaint to the broadcasting watchdogs and calling for the return of national service for anyone wilfully defrosting a baked Alaska.

Poor old Iain was left with a sloppy mess to turn into a presentable pudding to be judged by the sainted Mary Berry and the slightly more rotund Paul Hollywood on BBC’s Great British Bake Off. Deciding that the task was beyond him, and feeling the heat of the moment, Iain let it all slide gracefully into the waste bin. The other bakers and the quick witted hosts stood dumb-founded as he then took off his apron and walked out of the tent. It gave us 30 Mel and Sue free seconds and for this alone, I applaud him.

Intrigue grew as it became clear that amiable WI cook Diana had been responsible for removing the ice cream from the freezer and allowing it to melt. Despite Iain’s appearances on flag ship news programmes like the Today programme and Newsnight where he assured everyone that he didn’t blame Diana and the BBC’s assurance that the ice cream was only out of the freezer for 40 seconds, the country has risen in arms. It’s funny up to a point but seldom has the “blame someone” aspect, that has become an unfortunate part of the national psyche, been more evident. Seldom has reality tv seemed so real for some people and seldom has reality seemed so trivial.

As things are panning out the victim appears to be emerging as something of a national hero. There seems a general feeling that he deserves some sort of compensation. Expect him to soon fronting his own talk show and leading the British delegation to re-negotiate recipes for fondant fancies with European ministers in Brussels.

We gathered as a family group and pretty much missed the entire controversy. At the time we were tucking into slices of raspberry and blackberry pie. Steven had made this following the family formula that he makes the sweet course and I look after the savoury and everybody joins in the eating. We enjoy the programme but we don’t actually watch very much of it. It’s the best excuse we have for getting together once a week since the children left home. Our sympathies are with all the cooks this year. They are an exceptionally nice bunch. The task was badly thought out. No cook in the world would set about making a baked Alaska without first having ice cream that is already in a frozen state. The facilities provided for them are inadequate to the task and any chef with a degree of professional pride would be tempted to throw a poor attempt away. We don’t need the hurtful internet comments but neither do we need the moral high ground tut tutting of the judges saying that Iain’s perfectly understandable reaction was “unacceptable.”

A pity the show wasn’t being hosted by the late Terry Thomas. Apart from him finding great fun in the discomfort of the situation he could have said: “Well, I say! the old dear’s behaved like an absolute cad and the young chap should learn to take the bally thing on the chin”.

On the plus side it made the episode more entertaining than usual and Steven’s pie really was exceptional. (I had two slices).

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Elsewhere in the Johnson kitchen there was a need to make use of autumn’s bounty. French beans are growing by the bushel, trusses of tomatoes are weighing down the stems and capsicums are resembling overgrown Christmas decorations. I’ve never made minestrone soup before. It’s time to put that right. There are plenty of recipes and none of them suit the ingredients. the closest (believe it or not) come from a recipe book by Gerald Depardieu. He uses celery and carrot and he doesn’t include any onions. I follow suit. The rest of my recipe is as different from his as Middlemarch is from Madame Bovary. My French (bush) beans, tomatoes and pepper go in as does a tin of baked beans and some farfalle broken in halves. It was by some distance the best minestrone I have made!

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On Saturday I made a final batch of Cornish pasties for the season and ate three during the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final. It was a good game. Leeds won the match and HP won the battle of the sauces. Which is the correct sauce to put on a Cornish pasty? Brown or red? How about a sausage sandwich? How about a sausage and egg sandwich?

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Breadmaking makes a come back this week. I give some of the first batch of dough to T and she turns out some fruit tea cakes. Actually more the smaller version of bun loaf where the fruit and sugar are added before the second prove. She served up the first while we watched University Challenge. It was so good I intended to run downstairs for the camera but couldn’t bring myself not to finish it first. These were for breakfast the following day and were eaten toasted. Simply wonderful.

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Second day soup is always better than had been the day before. The salad had all been growing five minutes earlier and the Cropwell Bishop Stilton from Waitrose was just about the best I have ever tasted: the taste being matched by the creaminess of the texture.

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An almost perfect day at Newstead Abbey included a visit to the cafe there. The cakes look fine and the tea reasonable. In fact the cakes are poor in taste and texture and at £3 a slice you expect better. The young man behind the counter was pleasant enough but he neither knew what he was serving nor, quite frankly, cared. It is the ideal place for a tearoom with genuinely good, traditional baking and tea served in Staffordshire crockery. Newstead is losing visitors and money by the year. Charging a premium price for an inferior product isn’t going to get tourists flocking. A really good old fashioned tea room would. Doubly disappointed at the standard and the opportunity being missed.

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The best meal of the week. Poached eggs and asparagus on toast with a couple of knobs of butter. No need for Hollandaise. This is better.

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Bake to Bake Off. By the time I returned to the television room with my camera this was all that remained of 6 cheese and onion pasties. Conversation quietened during the munching. I take this as a sign they were being enjoyed.

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The presentation and the glaze on this pie was a treat for the eye.

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The combination of tastes and textures was a treat for the mouth. Fresh raspberries and blackberries, the jelly glaze, the perfect crème patisserie, the sweet crunch of the pastry. My pasties were nice but no match for this. Another victory for the pastry chef.

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Another first. A Spanish Omelette. Basically a way of using up the onions and potatoes that I didn’t need in the pasties the night before. Add a green pepper from the garden and some eggs from Frances and Steven’s chickens and it was a decent first effort. Not much left over and even that was enjoyed by Jolly.

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The third new recipe of the week is Bakewell Tart. My old Good Housekeeping recipe book whichI bought in the 70s need 3oz of cakecrumbs. Apart from the literal I wasn’t quite sure what this entailed so I tried Mary Berry. For once I wasn’t impressed. A Bakewell without any almonds? Seems unnatural to me. So I made up a recipe and it also passes muster for a first attempt. If and when I open a tearoom just outside Newstead Abbey I will have perfected the recipe but until then this will do nicely.

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The approach of any new season seems a perfect opportunity for using up the stock cupboard. We had a packet of pecan nuts. We made coffee and pecan cake. I made the cake, T made the butter cream. It was delicious.

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The flour and yeast (fresh) came from the local bakery.

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Three fine loaves. So easy to make. Such good exercise. Why don’t I make all my own bread? It’s better than anything you can buy in the shops (and I include artisan bakeries in this)*

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The challenge to spend £10 for a free newspaper at Waitrose continues. Once again I choose a few treats. This Kiln roasted salmon was a genuine delight. Stewart made his desire to join us known and was rewarded.

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The meal finished with a little more of the excellent Stilton.

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This was also a finishing things off meal. Pancakes are so very easy and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream  and a sauce made from squeezing a satsuma into a nearly empty pot of raspberry jam made a luxurious crepe. I still prefer them with sugar and lemon.

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A simple autumn chutney accounted for two small marrows, beans, tomatoes, onions, spices, chillies and vinegar. The house smelt fantastic!

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*In the case of bakeries the word artisan means run by middle class people.

Day 360: Oakham

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A-Z of English Towns: O is for Oakham (part 1 : The Grumbles)

Rutland always stood out in the list of English counties. I’m talking about counties prior to the 1972 Local Government Act. Rutland was the smallest county and this made it popular with people who set quizzes. Very few people could have pointed to it on a map but many people, outside its boundaries, felt something had been lost when it was absorbed into Leicestershire. At the same time Shropshire became Salop, Liverpool and Manchester were taken out of Lancashire, the ancient Ridings of Yorkshire were abolished and strange counties appeared on the list, like Avon and Cleveland. My own home town of Dalton in Furness (near Barrow in Furness but smaller and nicer) was moved out of Lancashire and placed into Cumbria. People who stayed in Furness have become proud Cumbrians but I’ll always think of myself as a Lancastrian.

Rutland fought against the twin indignities of losing its county status and being absorbed into the less than prestigious county of Leicestershire (one over coloured cheese and a reputation for fox hunting!). In 1997 it regained independence and once again people could drive past signs saying “Welcome to Rutland” fully expecting to pass another saying “Thank You for Visiting Rutland” a hundred yards further down the road. In fact Rutland isn’t as tiny as we all imagined. Having regained its county title it finds it has lost its smallest county tag to The Isle of Wight. The pair have much in common. There is an oft repeated joke that passengers on  the Isle of Wight ferry are asked to re-set their watches … to 1952. Rutland has a similar sense of having let some of the changes of late twentieth century, early twenty first century life pass it by. Some people in the county would be offended at the suggestion that it has its own time bubble but there are far more who are happy to see it as a plus and Rutland businesses tend to sell themselves on tradition and steadfast refusal to trade quality for modernity.

The name has always elicited a mixture of affection and humour. Eric Idle branched out of Monty Python with Rutland Weekend Television (deliberately named to contrast with, the then existing, London Weekend Television in an example of bathos that borders the mock-heroic). A feature of the programme were The Rutles who were, quite simply, not the Beatles in the same way as Brian was later “not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”. The Rutles were essentially a comic parody but in Eric Idle they had a decent musician and songwriter, and in Neil Innes they had a proper musician and song-writer. The band proved too popular not to exploit and they had actual hits of their own as well as a TV Mockumentary “All You Need is Cash” which featured actual Beatle, George Harrison.

The county is excellent is starting Breweries. Ruddles beer was brewed for the best part of a century at Langham, a few miles north west of Oakham. The local water gave it a distinctive flavour and it rightly earned a reputation as a brew to savour. The brewery has suffered the fate of many good firms in being repeatedly taken over by bigger organisations run by accountants. It is now the name of an inferior brew produced in Suffolk by the giant Greene King organisation and is best avoided. Oakham Brewery is one of the more successful micro brewers and has also moved out of the county and now produces its ales in Peterborough. Word is that this company has maintained standards while crossing the Rutland County Line. Good beer is now produced at Oakham’s GrainStore Brewery next to the station.

I’m in a state of English contentment as I drive from Melton Mowbray to Oakham. A novelist I like is being interviewed on Radio 3 (BBC classical music channel) by someone who doesn’t know who the novelist is. The writer is able to choose pieces of classical music to intersperse the talk. He features music heavily in his books and it doesn’t surprise me that I find his choices delightful. At the end the interviewer has to choose a piece for the guest that is somehow in keeping with that person’s character or reputation. The poor fellow hasn’t a clue. “I’ve chosen a bit of Mendelssohn for you and I hope you’ll like it. I’ve chosen the 10th symphony. Your name is Robert and Robert has a ‘B’ in it and this piece is written in the key of B minor. It was written in 1823 and you were born in 1955 so I can’t think of anything more appropriate.”*

Oakham is small and there is very little between the sign announcing you’ve arrived and the town centre. On one side of me a collection of seventeenth century buildings of warm brown stone and on the other a well landscaped park. It’s on a human scale, the tallest things around here are trees (and there are plenty of them), the only really tall building is the fourteenth century tower and spire of All Saints Church. The town is going about its business in a purposeful, mid-week manner but it isn’t busy. This is a county town. You may have to wait for a few cars to pass if you want to cross the road but you would have to wait at least as long again for another car to come along.

They know how to build here and they have a lovely stone to build with. Some might call it honey coloured but only in certain lights. It’s deeper and more distinguished. The best of the older properties around the town centre have stone mullions. Some have stone lintels and some have ancient oak beams across the tops of their windows. There is a worrying intrusion of modern double glazing. Some examples are in keeping with the age of the buildings but many are not in tune with the character. Too many (any at all in my opinion) have been allowed to install plastic windows.  Happily there are far more well maintained properties. I hope planning regulators keep a close watch.

While I’m picking out negatives the beauty of the town highlights the visual damage that is done by inappropriate signs. My usual grouse about shop fronts doesn’t apply here. Here the view is all too often spoiled by simple things like traffic furniture and unnecessary signs. It’s no worse than other towns. The removal of 70% of bollards, traffic lights and parking signs from any town would do little harm and would radically improve the appearance. The country town charm of Oakham exaggerates the problem. One handsome building is dominated by a pink and white sign announcing Presland and Co. If they were owners of an amusement arcade you might expect them to mar the architecture with a tawdry sign, but they are accountants and business advisors. I would doubt the quality of advice from people who can’t even see that their sign is woefully out of character with their premises and most certainly with the town. There are other examples of how the loveliness of a fine house can be depleted by putting posters in windows. It is a pity; it mars the town but doesn’t spoil it. I don’t expect bye-laws to tell people what they can and can’t display in their windows; I just expected better from a town that prides itself in its success in competitions for celebrating visual splendour.

There seems a genial amateurishness about the media. Radio Rutland FM adorns the windows of its attractive home with gaudy head shots of people who you wouldn’t want to have in your house. I’m listening to the station as I write and, to their credit, the underwhelming, uninspired display is matched by their broadcasts. The official Rutland tourist guide is no better and lists the railway signal box as number 4 on its list of must see attractions. (They add that Airfix used it as a template for all their models!)**

Interestingly the police station is up for sale. To add to the interest it is up for sale as a police station. So if you’ve ever wanted your own fully functioning bridewell then here is your chance. It’s a good place to dip your toe in police work as the crime rate is low. (It isn’t a town where there is any feeling of threat. Even the teenagers in the park look as though they are discussing A level options rather than where to buy drugs.). In June this year there were 36 recorded crimes in the town; 6 cases of anti-social behaviour, 7 of criminal damage or arson, 1 of drugs, 1 shoplifting and a surprising 6 for violence and sex offences.

There is great beauty here though. There are good shops too. The bread and cakes I buy from The Hambleton Bakery are as good as I have eaten. The little streets are worth wandering down and the market square is alive with traders and shoppers. I stop for a cup of coffee and a sit down. Afterwards I find nothing to complain about. I’ve been a little disappointed here and there in my initial saunter. After taking on some refreshment I continue to explore and slowly find myself falling in love with Oakham.

To be Continued…

*Some poetic licence employed

**Not sure if Airfix crosses national boundaries. They make model aeroplanes and railway engines to be built by the sort of six year olds who struggle to make friends at primary school but who end up getting double firsts in Maths and Physics.

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A picture of English loveliness. Now imagine it without the double yellow lines and the satellite dish.

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Day 359: So Great a Man I Have Forgotten His Faults

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A-Z of England: N is for Newstead Abbey

When Byron died at the age of 36 some radicals suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey which suggests that they weren’t quite in tune with the poet. William Hazlitt said that if he were buried there he would probably get up from the grave and walk straight out again. Instead he was buried in the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall. It was an attempt at revenge by the great and the good who had been opposed, satirised and seduced by Byron for the previous two decades. Traditionally bells are rung at the death of a lord and customary for the nobility to attend the funerals of “one of their own”. Both conventions were ignored though a number of aristocrats sent empty carriages in order fulfil the obligations of propriety while showing what they really felt of the deceased.

Byron is happily entombed in a lead lined coffin in the crypt of the church. His only legitimate daughter; Ada Countess of Lovelace lies alongside of him. Hucknall is quiet on the day I visit. Some teenagers sit on the back of a bench and share a can of energy drink. A trio of more seasoned drinkers occupy a bench in the churchyard itself. The church  is locked and barred and I fear a wasted journey. The ladies in the John Godber Centre (which is basically the church hall) have other ideas. The website (and the church notice board) state that the church is open from 2 until 4 each afternoon. It’s a little after 2.30. They want to know if I’ve come far and I intimate to a journey at least double the reality. They are happy to open the church for me and I feel honoured.

DSC_0131The one thing they cannot find are the light switches and we stumble around  for a few minutes as our eyes accustom to the light. It adds dramatically to the atmosphere but hinders my task. I don’t want to repay their kindness by taking up too much time and I rather hurry about my task.

DSC_0139It is an astonishingly beautiful church which has been much added to since Byron came to rest here. The crypt is sealed but a simple plaque, and what seems to be a viewing glass, adorn the wooden entrance. The crypt was opened a number of years ago and the coffins examined. Those who saw the bodies said they were almost as perfect as the day they died. Quite an achievement in Byron’s case as he died in a remote part of Greece and was transported back to England in barrel of rum.

Ada was a woman of immense achievements herself being a brilliant mathematician who along with Charles Babbage built the world’s first mechanical computer. She too died at the age of 36.

In 1969 Byron was finally given his memorial among the country’s other great poets in Westminster Abbey. Politicians and poets had long petitioned for him to be recognised for his achievements but those who know only parts of his story have been resolute that such a man has no place as a national hero. When a similar petition had been presented in 1924 the then Dean of the Abbey Herbert Ryle has said “Byron, partly by his own openly dissolute life and partly by the influence of licentious verse, earned a worldwide reputation for immorality among English-speaking people. A man who outraged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treatment of women violated the Christian principles of purity and honor, should not be commemorated in Westminster Abbey.”
An answering letter in Byron’s behalf was sent to The Times of London by a group including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and three former Prime Ministers – Balfour, Asquith, and Lloyd George. But the established church was unmoved.

I think Byron would have been rather proud that he was still ruffling feathers over a century after his death. The Rolling Stones only had a year or so of the “would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” campaign.

Meanwhile Byron’s verses have been recited by Chartists, learned by heart by trades unionists, daubed across public buildings in Gdansk by members of the Solidarity Union and commended by Friedrich Engels who noted that they were loved by working people and loathed by the establishment. If you are looking for some modern reincarnation of the poet then a combination of Peter Cook, Carl Sagan, James Dean and Jim Morrison would fulfil some of the qualities.

He was quite simply the best poet we have produced since Milton. I love Byron but admit that he was easy to dislike. Not recognising his work because you dislike the man would be to fall guilty of the intentional fallacy and to miss a great deal. I don’t share the politics of PJ O’Rourke but his writing has me in stitches of hilarity and admiration; Wagner was a foul man but his music resounds of eternity. Of other English poets, I find it difficult to like TS Eliot or Philip Larkin but their poems are a different matter altogether. It is a mistake to confuse the poet with the work.

As I walk through the town of Hucknall I find it difficult not to compare it with Stratford on Avon. Both are small English market towns that are home and final resting place of a major poet. It is impossible to avoid Shakespeare in Stratford. Every shop, street, alley and hotel speaks of the bard and seeks to squeeze every last drop they can from the association. Hucknall is almost Byron free and, in places, almost free of taste. The local bingo hall is named in his honour (as was the cinema that pre-dated it) and there is a strange statue of the man on a building near the church. One pub offers “a good time” in an unsubtle manner and the cheap barber goes out of its way to appear just that.  “Oh Byron”, the town seems to say, “we’re not quite sure what we think about him.”

The contrast between the surrounding towns and the Abbey, that was his home, couldn’t be greater. Byron inherited Newstead at the age of 10. It was in a poor state of repair and he wasn’t the best curator of the property. It is a stunning building and the grounds are as fine as any I can think of. There is little to suggest that you are approaching one of the best buildings  in the East Midlands until you pay your £6 and drive into the grounds of the estate. Once inside the tree lined roads, the hills, both landscaped and natural, the woodlands and the lakes provide a setting to match Blenheim. The gothic abbey, half in ruins, half habitable and well maintained by Nottingham City Council, make a stunning centrepiece. At weekends you can pay some more money to walk around the house at your leisure or take a guided tour. It is money well spent. There is a huge amount of information, paintings, books and furniture (including the poet’s bed) to absorb and explore. You can even dress up as a Romantic poet and take a selfie in revolutionary mode. Expert staff are on hand to help your knowledge and understanding. Cut backs in the council budget have meant that you have to time your visit. In the old days the rooms were open every day.

Don’t worry if the house is closed though. The grounds will transport you. The first thing you’ll see is one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the county. Unfortunately some committee or other has decided on placing seating at intervals around the boundary edge. If only they hadn’t chosen such pug ugly plastic offerings. If only they could at least wipe them over with a cloth. For a few pounds more wooden benches would have looked so nice. They don’t destroy the aspect but that is largely because the ground is so very lovely that they are fighting with thunder.

The gardens are the true delight of the place. Happily a team of gardeners have been maintained and a very good team they must be. There are a succession of gardens ranging from formal to different cultures to Alpine. All have a glorious air of peace about them. I could manage without the modern artwork statues that portray busy gardeners at work but they are popular with photographers. The planting, the use of space, the ancient walls and hedges are so well done that it is a pleasure to stroll or sit (happily on wooden benches) for as long as you wish. Nobody is in a rush in here.

Many of the gardens have impressive water features. Standing water in the form of ponds, stews (medieval fish ponds) or lakes are prevalent. There is a pleasant artificial waterfall but we are free of fountains here: they wouldn’t suit the place. Wherever you sit you get different views out over Nottinghamshire countryside or of the house itself. Near the house is the impressive grave of a six year old Newfoundland dog called Boatswain (pronounced Bosun) that had shown Byron a loyalty and friendship he didn’t always find easy with people.

Newstead is a wonderful day out. A perfect place for a picnic or a family game of cricket. A place to wander quietly or cycle safely. To sit and read novel or even a book of poems. A place to bring an easel and a box of watercolours. It’s quiet and safe and rather special.

The Abbey attracts smaller numbers each year. Still in the thousands but many less than there should be. Hucknall counts the visitors to Byron’s tomb in the hundreds. Stratford attracts millions. Stratford should attract millions, it’s a vital part of England. We should celebrate Shakespeare every bit as much as we do and then a little bit more. But, we should find some time to visit this other great English poet. Shakespeare was a bit of a lad and not averse to the “dissolute life” himself. OK there is only one poet who could claim to have insulted the prime minister, swam the Hellespont and slept with over a hundred members of the establishment (male and female). But only one of these two poets died of a sexually transmitted disease caught while committing adultery and it wasn’t Byron.

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Day 357: In Search of Lord Byron

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A-Z of the East Midlands: N is for Newstead (Part One)

You take the rough with the smooth around here. I’m sitting overlooking the cricket field at Nuncargate and contemplating Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography of local hero Harold Larwood.  I am approached by a man who seems to encapsulate violence in its purest form. From the military fatigues to the stretched earlobes. From the aggressive gait to the face like a throwing knife. He indicated that he wished to join me and I made room for him on the bench. Without preamble he started to talk about how England’s greatest ever fast bowler came from a mining community like Nuncargate. He had a mellow and gentle voice and knew his stuff. We talked for a long dozen minutes of cricket and coal mining and the way the recession hits places like this first and deepest. I enjoyed his company and was delighted to discover that memories of Harold Larwood were alive and respectful in the village where he was born 110 years ago.

Larwood had been a brilliant cricketer, a fearsome fast bowler and a loyal member of the team. History has some putting right to do. He is remembered as a villain on both sides of the world. This is a wrong. He was as much a hero as any sporting great to come out of this country. He followed the instructions of his aristocratic captain so successfully that he was the main reason why England beat Australia in 1932-3. The series became known by a single word; bodyline. The instructions were to aim at the leg side of the batsman and, to complete the tactic, the leg side field was filled with fielders in catching positions. It caused consternation and even heated the telegraph wires between the diplomats of the two countries. Larwood’s faults were that he followed the instruction given to him, by his captain Douglas Jardine, to the letter and that he was a good enough, and quick enough bowler to do it very well. In the 1980s the West Indies side won test series after test series using very similar tactics. Their fast bowlers are rightly considered  to be some of the greats of the game. The English cricket authorities cravenly apologised to the Australians for the manner in which victory was achieved. They put all the blame on the man from Nuncargate. Though still at his peak, he barely played for England again. His fortune waned, he left cricket to open a sweet shop in Blackpool and when that too went against him, he emigrated to Australia; the land where he was supposed to be the devil. He lived a good age but was never fully reconciled with the English cricketing world. The Australians however accepted him and recognised his achievements. There is a statue of him hereabouts, which pleases me.

Well informed as my new friend  was, he had never read anything by the yet more famous son of the area. Over the line of trees from Annesley Woodhouse (Nuncargate is contiguous with this town) lie the grounds of Newstead Abbey, one time home of England’s finest poet (my opinion) George Gordon Byron. I share a line or two and he laughs at the thought that the lines were written two hundred years ago about a member of the British cabinet.

Posterity will ne’er survey

A nobler grave than this:

Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:

Stop, traveller, and piss.

“Aye. I can see that he comes from round here if he writes like that. I always thought it was going to be a load of thees and thous.”

Poetry is supposed to be elevated, uplifting, deferential and respectful. Or so a common misconception implies. People who looked like my new friend were supposed to be people to fear, but he was in fact eloquent and gentle. Aristocratic poets are supposed to explore the abstract concepts of love, honour and valour. Actually Byron did these things better than most but his wicked wit made him a fellow with a huge appeal; a nineteenth century superstar whose light is fading but who should be as widely read, and as truly celebrated, as Shakespeare.

I consider the pair to be on a par. Shakespeare being so much more accessible because he largely wrote plays and his words are spoken for us now on film and on the stage while his poetry remains largely unread. Byron wrote line after line, verse after verse, canto after canto of supremely brilliant verse; funny, rude, disrespectful, acutely observed and directed against the great names of his time. Not many people read poetry these days. Go to a poetry reading and you will have this, as well as having the answer as to why this should be, confirmed for you. If he’d written plays (he was a master of dialogue) he would be far better known today. If he had taken up the new literary form (the novel was about 100 years old when Byron was writing but had yet to make its breakthrough as the dominant literary form) he would command shelves in bookshops in the way Shakespeare does. He was loved, read, admired, despised, hated and adored during his lifetime. Thousands cried all over Europe when he died. There is a simple reason for this. As a man he was famously regarded as being “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” As a poet he was very, very good.

I move a few miles to Newstead Village. It’s a quiet place with long rows of terraced houses, a primary school, a playground where a sign tells children under 13 not to play on the play equipment, a church, a miner’s welfare social club and a railway station. There is also the unmistakable shape of a colliery spoil heap and a small industrial estate in the former pit yard. The one pub I see, the station hotel, is boarded up and for sale. It is a wonderful building. It must have been a glorious pub in the past and could be again. Its position, literally ten yards from the station platform, make it ideal for the drinkers who don’t want to drive their cars. (Just outside Exeter is a village pub (The Beer Engine in Newton St Cyres) that has built a mighty reputation on exploiting the trade of those who wish to arrive by train). It’s a weekday afternoon in the summer holidays. Hardly anyone is about. A forklift truck trundles through the industrial estate and some council workmen mend the roof of the school. The village used to be officially called Newstead Colliery Village. When the pit closed in 1986 it took the heart out of the community. It is still a pleasant place to be but there isn’t much happening. Outside the school weird doll like mannequins stand in place of real children. They somehow symbolise the village.

In Annesley the same story can be told. The pit wheels proudly stand above the site of the colliery. Large tin sheds of industrial estates offer some employment but they add little to the beauty or the grace. A lot of new housing has been built using off the shelf architecture that could make this Folkstone or Peterlee. Everything built here in the last twenty years fights against the natural character of the place. The village has survived two world wars and a century of working at the coal face but has suffered badly from the politicians and planners of more recent times.

A mile or so from Annesley Cutting I find what I set out for. I needed three sets of instructions from three intelligent and obliging people. The first said I might have difficulty parking. The second said she didn’t know how I was going to actually get in as it was so overgrown and the third merely wished me good luck.

I’d been looking for Annesley Old Church and with it I knew I should find Annesley Hall. I knew one to be a ruin the other I had no expectations of. Wiki had told me it was in private hands. I’d come to find the church.

I pull up at the wrong lay-by. I’m by a lodge that has obviously served some grand manor in its time. The pathway into the woods smell a little as though the local youth have taken Byron’s advice for Castlereagh’s grave. I don’t know it but I’m on the “dog and bear path”. It will lead me into the grounds of the Newstead Abbey if I follow it all the way. There are more ghost stories attached to this path than almost any other in Britain. There are also stories of battles and even a Robin Hood narrative. Empty beer cans and numerous signs forbidding motorcycles  (together with plenty of motorcycle tracks) betray the nocturnal hangouts of the young and the bored. I can understand them coming here with a few cans. It is a beautiful place to be and a heck of a place to exchange stories.

I get  different views of the ancillary buildings attached to Annesley Hall but not a sign of a church.

The next lay by proves more successful. I’m parked and wandering slowly under the tower that DH Lawrence described in The White Peacock.

The church is abandoned. As I drew near an owl floated softly out of the black tower. Grass overgrew the threshold. I punched open the door, grinding back a heap of fallen plaster and entered the place.”

and Lord Byron wrote with some relief that childhood sweetheart Mary Ann Chaworth remained nothing more than a childhood sweetheart.

Hills of Annesley, bleak and barren,

Where my thoughtless childhood stray’d,

How the northern tempests warring,

Howl above thy tufted shade

 

Now no more, the hours beguiling,

Former favourite haunts I see,

Now no more my Mary smiling,

Makes ye seem a heaven to me.”

It is a truly magical place.

(To be Continued)

 

 

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Day 355: Painting the Town Red

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A-Z of the East Midlands: M is for Melton Mowbray

It’s all in the place name and Melton Mowbray was in the front row when they gave out names. It should sound dated or even vaguely comic in the way that my home towns of Huddersfield and Barrow in Furness do. It should sound a little pretentious in the way that double barrelled surnames did until the habit was swamped by people from a different tradition. It should even sound quaint; the alliteration adding to the effect. But it doesn’t. It isn’t dated, comic, pretentious or quaint. It is the near perfect name for an historic market town in the middle of England. And no name could sound better as the home of the best of pies and the king of cheeses.

The town shouldn’t be taken in isolation. Melton (means middle town) has been a market town since before the Norman conquest. It is more closely linked with the outlying villages of the borough than is usually the case. Beautiful broad acres of fields, wolds, woods and vales surround the town and this countryside (which matches the Cotswolds for its picturesque splendour) is very much a part of what makes the town what it is.

It doesn’t always get appreciated. The young woman, in the fine linen pinafore, who served us our breakfast in a delightful upstairs tea room thought long and hard.

“Do you like living in Melton?” I asked as she smilingly took our order.

“Oh yes. It’s a wonderful place.”

“What should  we see while we’re here?”

This was the tricky question. She started as though a whole list of un-missables was about to cascade forth. In reality she was  stuck. “There’s the pie shop.” she suggested. “And the cheese factory. You don’t want to miss that.” And she couldn’t think of anything else.

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In the barbers’ two rather beautiful women sat and looked up from their magazines  and state of distrait as I came in. A greying, unshaven middle aged man with a need for a haircut didn’t have them fighting each other for the right to trim. The slender darker haired one lost the battle of wills and got the task.

“You not working today?”

“No, just on a visit to the town.”

“By yourself are you?”

“No, my wife is having a wander around the shops.”

A long pause ensued. “What is there to see in Melton?” I asked.

“There’s nothing much here. Bit boring if you ask me.”

“Do you live in the town?”

She mentioned some nearby village that I didn’t catch, though the change of tone suggested that she rated it as an altogether more suitable place. Once shaved, clipped and anointed with a dab of pomade I answered her enquiry as to whether sir was pleased with his coiffure by stating my readiness and intention to “paint the town red.” They both wished me good luck and returned to their magazines and air of boredom.

Melton Mowbray claims to have given the world the above expression. In 1837 Henry Beresford and a bunch of hunting friends arrived in the town in a jocular state and proceeded to indulge in some high jinks of the sort that rich young men do. If they were working men, farm labourers or poor people then the high jinks might have been misconstrued as acts of gross vandalism, riot, assault and offensive behaviour. Beresford (or the Marquess of Waterford to give him his preferred title) and his cronies were a sort of pre-cursor of the Oxford Bullingdon Club. A bunch of over-privileged, egocentric, boorish twerps who couldn’t hold their drink.

After being requested to put a stop to their loud and loutish behaviour they caused considerable damage to the town, caused actual bodily harm to several people who were trying to keep the peace, assaulted several policemen and stole buckets of paint which they proceeded to daub on property and ornaments around the town centre. Their antics are remembered fondly (they were rich after all) as being the source of the expression. In reality the term “painting the town red” had been in accepted usage for some time before 1837.

Beresford was also considered to be the most likely suspect for the London prowler, stalker and possible rapist, Spring Heeled Jack. He may well have been, though that fellow’s actions continued after the death of the Marquess. For some reason a large element of British society seems to endorse such behaviour if performed by the silver spooned. A good percentage of our current political leadership were once in the Bullingdon Club.

Extending to the south of Melton Mowbray is a diamond shaped part of the country that is almost heart meltingly lovely. It has become the home of the well-heeled and, partly because of this (not all toffs are knobs) it retains a peaceful serenity that matches anywhere in England. Bounded to north and south by Melton and Market Harborough and to west and east by Leicester and Oakham it can lay claim to be the true heart of Merry England.

IMGP0630The countryside isn’t too shabby to the north either. As you leave the town you are soon on the ups and downs that are the Nottinghamshire Wolds. Here you’ll find villages that make you want to linger. Beyond these you enter the magnificent Vale of Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) with a line of villages that have become synonymous with good food and the best of English traditions. Long Clawson, Cropwell Bishop, Colston Bassett and Saxelbye are all homes in the Vale where England’s finest cheese is made. It is also made in Melton itself and has been made in Hungarton in Leicestershire and Hartington in Derbyshire (in my opinion the home of the very best). The one place where Stilton cheese was never manufactured was in the village of Stilton. It’s a strong flavoured, creamy blue veined cheese, though a milder white version is also made. Perfect for any occasion where taste is the uppermost consideration in a cheese. My grandmother used to buy a whole Stilton (from Hartington) and distribute it among the branches of the family as her Christmas present. I’m a huge admirer of British cheese and eat my share of good Lancashire, Wensleydale and Cheddar. It would be a Stilton cheese though that I would put forward as the very best of English cheese making, and the Stilton owes its existence to the farmers and dairy workers of Melton Mowbray.

English food producers were very slow in taking advantage of European food laws. For decades they complained of the French, in particular, protecting their food products and wines with “appellation d’origine contrôlée” labels that placed a culinary copyright on products. It was the farmers of this part of North Leicestershire that decided to stop moaning and to take out some licences of their own. Stilton is licenced and cannot be made outside the boundaries of Melton and the Vale of Belvoir. The finest of all pies is also licenced to the town and strict criteria have to be met (mainly to do with quality) before a pork pie can have the Melton Mowbray name attached to it.

DSC_0137A Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is made with uncured pork and a hand raised crust. The pork is chopped rather than minced and is a grey/brown colour as opposed to the strange lurid pink of many factory made pork pies. The hot water crust will bow out at the sides giving the pie it’s distinctive look. The pastry is made and moulded around a pie dolly and should be able to stand freely in an uncooked state. They are pies that are worth travelling for. Several butchers in the town make them and they are all good. The most famous pies are Dickinson and Morris. In their shop in the high street you can buy them in white or red wrappings. The red ones are factory made in Leicester and are a decent enough pie if you can’t get the real thing. The white wrapped pies are hand made in the shop and are not sold anywhere else. Do not, and I repeat, do not leave Melton without buying one. They are one of the real treats of English food and, speaking as a bit of an amateur pie maker, provide the model to aspire to.

If you visit Melton on a market day then you will be among crowds. The cattle market and the produce market happen at the same time (in different parts of the town) and attract shoppers from all around the east midlands. Coach parties drop off their customers. Market day is particularly popular with parties of pensioners. There may be crowds but there is seldom a great deal of haste so expect to spend time waiting for other people to slowly move out of your way.

We are travelling on a quieter day and highlight our visit with a picnic in one of the many well-tended gardens around the town. Of course we have a pie and lots and lots of good fruit and salad from one of the most obliging green grocers I’ve visited in a long time. Here in Melton quality and good service are not to be taken for granted but when they come together they give credence to the town’s claim to be the rural capital of food.

The woman in the barber’s shop was right. If you are looking for a modern-world-good-time there isn’t all that much going on in Melton Mowbray. No theme parks, no arcades, a single cinema and a theatre. A railway station where you can catch a slow train to Cambridge and an overgrown canal. If however, you want good food, friendly people and a few shops that you can’t find in other towns. If you want an impressive church and enough historic buildings to keep you busy for a week and if you want to experience what an English market town (that has held on to its traditions) feels like, then Melton Mowbray is a pretty good place to start.

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Day 354: Avoid the Arsenic on Your Fingers

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Mostly Concerning Food

I’ve had a little holiday this week. A holiday all by myself. With a hotel and a room of my own and everything. The first time I’ve been away without T for a long time. The first time I’ve been away without Jolly since she became one of the family. I was visiting towns for my ABC of the parts of England you can reach in a day trip from my house. It may seem to be stretching the rules to need a night in a hotel (actually an abbey … more in future alphabet posts) but I visited 4 towns that were all within bounds. To do any of them was a day trip. To do all four, and to do them justice, was an away trip. I really enjoyed it.DSC_0001There is a new challenge in the Johnson household. The tight-fisted Waitrose challenge. If you spend £5 (£10 at weekends) you get a free newspaper to go with your free cup of coffee. The task is to buy stuff you actually want while spending as close to the money as possible. When David is at home he wins every time. Rarely does he go over by more than a penny or two. T spent £14.88 this week. I spent £14.01. Neither are in the David class. The interest  lies in the difference in what we chose to buy. T got Key Lime Pie, Iced Belgian Buns, Fruit Teacakes, bananas, lemons, English mustard and cans of Pellegrino Limonata. I got Matzos, Taleggio cheese, a packet of what my receipt lists as “Wonky Chomps” which are dog treats, potted shrimps, Colston Bassett Stilton and Elsinore Caviar. I was quite proud of my shopping and have enjoyed tucking into it all since. Only some mustard and the Stilton remains. And all to get a free Telegraph and a Guardian.

DSC_0006Potted shrimps are one of the great English treats. Traditionally served as an afternoon tea in Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmoreland (and Lord Peter Wimsey novels) they make a fabulous breakfast. There is some debate on the internet about how best to serve them. You can’t do better than to pile them onto hot toast and allow the heat of the toast to soften the butter. A squirt of lemon juice turns something good into something marvellous. At £2.99 these are highly recommended. Well done Waitrose. I used to have to travel back home to get them (though the Chatsworth farm shop also has them on the shelves).

DSC_0011I promised Sarah that I would make fruit teacakes this week and add a recipe. Unfortunately my travels have precluded this (Next week) but we’ve still managed to eat a few. Apparently you cannot get these in Ireland. If you are an Irish baker I suggest you jump to fill this gap in the market. It is happiness on a plate.

DSC_0015The good harvest continues. We look set to be self sufficient for salad crops for weeks to come. Not only is it fun. Not only is it easy and convenient but the taste is light years ahead. These tomatoes and spring onions sing on the taste buds. Even the lollo rosso lettuce, which I have never been fond of, is a treat on the plate and the palette.

DSC_0014Stewart usually appears if there is a strong smelling cheese on the table. Here he is attracted by the Taleggio. He wrinkles his nose and walks away when actually offered some. He’s a Cheddar man if ever there was one!

DSC_0018DSC_0021We’re too late for the fresh cream cakes at the local bakery and had to settle for their version of Bakewell Tart. Incidentally, did you know that the cream cakes advertising slogan “naughty but nice” was written by Salman Rushdie in his copywriting days. This Bakewell was perfect if you had run out of Kendal Mint Cake and were thinking of climbing Scafell Pike. Plenty of pastry and an inch thick of fondant. A little more jam and almond wouldn’t have hurt. Filling rather than thrilling.

DSC_0022The matzos were only 21 pence for a box. I intend to use them more often. Here I use them instead of cream crackers and they are nicer.

DSC_0023DSC_0028Those summer days go on and on.

DSC_0031OK. The pasty challenge of 2014 continues. And it’s time to make real Cornish Pasties. I scour the internet for what looks like the best recipe and am taken by a piece of film showing them being made in Australia. The recipe is simple; skirt (beef), potatoes, swede, onion, salt and pepper and (and this is what tempted me) lots of chopped parsley. I’ve got no end of good parsley at the moment and in it went. I copied the Aussies in mixing the ingredients to allow the salt to draw a little moisture out of the meat and vegetables. It worked but I won’t bother next time. I’ll also miss out the parsley next time. It was nice enough but why mess around with a classic recipe. (Pancakes may work with saffron but they work so well without that it is foolish to bother). I decided to cycle to Bolsover to buy my meat at a proper butcher and vegetables at a proper green grocer. It all added to the enjoyment of the occasion.

DSC_0037We demonstrate a rather greedy aspect of our character when they come out of the oven. I’m away on my trip the following morning and the pasties are my contribution for the family “Bake Off” gathering. Only five of these beauties survive the first evening.

To pick up on the throwing away the crust in the tin mine idea I cast doubt on last week; the miners’ fingers probably had all sorts on that could act as a poison. Very little that is dug out of a Cornish mine is likely to do you any good. Tin, coper and lead are bad enough but there was a strong likelihood that miners would also have a fair smattering of arsenic on their hands. I can understand why they wouldn’t eat the part of the pasty they were holding. I still doubt that they would throw the crust into a shaft. They were supposed to be feeding the “Knockers” (Sort of Cornish pixies) but would more likely be feeding a colony of rats. A bit of lard based pastry would be like a UN food parcel for a hungry rat. I reckon that the scraps would go back in the “snap tin” and be disposed of at the surface.

DSC_0003DSC_0004I have long been an advocate of cooking eggs well. If you can do this then you will always be able to eat well. If you have a daughter who keeps chickens and who brings you freshly laid eggs on a regular basis then you have all the ingredients for happiness. The soft boiled egg is a challenge. It isn’t difficult.

In my opinion the very best flavour of an egg is revealed in a soft boiled egg. Brown bread and butter is the only possible accompaniment apart from a little salt and ground pepper.

DSC_0005It looks luxurious and it sounds expensive. It is neither. Little rounds of toast with some cream cheese and some “Elsinore Caviar”. This is Lumpfish caviar. I have little expertise with regards to the lumpfish but I have long held this as a special treat. It is only £1.99 a jar and I like it better than more expensive caviars I have tasted. (I have never had Beluga Caviar and am unlikely ever to be able to afford £840 for a jar).

DSC_0007It goes rather well with some freshly made coffee. A millionaires breakfast for less than a couple of quid.

DSC_0008I’ve knocked out another batch of pasties ready for the Rugby League Challenge cup final. Sadly I’ll be watching alone this year. I’ve never persuaded T to spend time watching sport on the telly (she occasionally comes to watch a match live) and my usual comrades are busy this year. David is rehearsing for another play and some concerts down in Exeter. Charlie is commentating on the Huddersfield Town versus Charlton Athletic game on hospital radio. I will watch the match by myself. I will eat some pasties and I will have a thoroughly nice time.

DSC_0001DSC_0678This is almost a crime. This is how my cream tea was served in a cafe on my travels. Mistake one is in failing to serve the ingredients separately. Mistake two is to spread one half of the scone (rhymes with gone…if anyone tells you different they are wrong) with margarine. Mistake three is using inferior jam and the worst mistake; the final turd in life’s water pipe (to quote Melchett in Blackadder) is to put squirty cream on the other scone. In fact, I would make it a crime to use squirt cream on anything without a large dollop of irony.

DSC_0677A pity because the tray, the teapot and the cafe were actually quite nice.

IMGP4800The Waitrose sausage sandwich. A good sausage in a good bread roll.

IMGP4801The Waitrose breakfast for the nicer member of the Johnson table.

IMGP4808A fabulous breakfast roll in a Sheffield cafe. The only fault, in my opinion, is the use of smoked bacon (another perfect ingredient that doesn’t need messing about with). The egg was well cooked, the field mushroom exceptional, and the Lincolnshire sausage (the first I’ve had prepared in a coiled link like a Cumberland sausage) was delicious. I can’t remember the name of the café but I will give them a shout out if my next visit proves as happy.

DSC_0271The highlight of my week. I arrive at my Abbey retreat in time for tea. Other guests were being coy but I went for the house special and got a real treat. A delicious selection of sandwiches and cakes and a scone (good jam and whipped double cream). It was too much for one person but I ate it all anyway. The perfect calm and peace of the English countryside. The endless cups of tea and a newspaper. I was happy indeed.

Have an excellent week.

Day 353: Leicester

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A-Z of English Towns: L is for Leicester

Leicester has one of the more idiosyncratic spellings of English towns. Along with Worcester and Gloucester it has people, unfamiliar with the place names, struggling with  the  pronunciation let alone the spelling. The “cester” part actually signifies that they were Roman settlements. We should settle uncomplainingly for the current spellings. All have had far more difficult versions in the past. Gleawcester isn’t actually too far away from the way  west country locals pronounce their city after a pint or two. Without the natural evolution of the English language we could be shopping for Wigreceastrescir sauce to pep up our tomato juice or Bloody Mary. And today’s town was once to be found in the county of Lægreceastrescir. If we seek a simpler version further back in time, we could always call it (as the Romans did) Ratae Corieltauvorum. If George Bernard Shaw had had his way with rationalising English spellings we could be talking about a town called Lester. But that would be too easy.

It is possible to explore significant features of Leicester’s Roman past at the Jewry Wall and the Jewry Wall museum. Can I recommend that you give them a visit (they’re right next to each other)? The exhibits are worth seeing and a few more customers (admission is free) might stop councillors considering closing it. Leicester councillors have a chequered history and it is best to take the opportunity for making poor decisions away from them.

Leicester has a lot of history on display if you take the time to look for it. The entire city is busy locating anything with a heritage and presenting it in the best light possible. The re-interment of Richard III next March (26th March) is going to be a major national event. The fact that it is going to take place in Leicester makes it a controversial one.

I’m caught somewhere in the middle of the controversy. I’m aware that any position I hold on the subject is as full of contradictions as it is full of holes. I’m not a fan of the royal family. I’d rather we didn’t have a king or a queen. I’m a huge fan of the Shakespeare play that re-wrote history from a Tudor perspective and made Richard out to be one of the great villains of history and yet I’m a supporter of the Richard III society whose brief it is to restore the reputation of a much maligned leader. I believe that a national funeral deserves great honour and have some sympathy for those who feel that a Westminster or York burial would confer greater honour on the occasion, and the corpse, yet I am very happy for the ceremony to take place in a city I have the highest regard for.  It is unlikely that Richard himself would have chosen to be interred here; he had made provisional plans for a chancel in York Minster and he is closely associated with the north of England. Leicester Cathedral isn’t one of our more magnificent edifices. Until the 1920s it was a parish church. But Gloucester Cathedral gains much from having Edward II (another maligned monarch) buried there and the massively maligned King John (who was not a good man according to no lesser authority than AA Milne) lies in Worcester Cathedral. The pattern is clear. All good kings and queens tend to end up in Westminster or Windsor, the bad ones get farmed out to the provinces and get laid to rest in towns that most members of the royal family would have trouble spelling.

The case for Leicester rests on his having been buried here since he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1487 and that it was experts from Leicester University who found  and identified the body. Well done them. It was recorded that he was buried at Greyfriars and any comparison with maps of the late medieval period (the moment of Richard’s death is often cited as the end of the medieval world and the beginning of the modern) and more recent maps would tell them that the churchyard had since become a car park. It wasn’t really the greatest piece of detective work. Richard was also the most famous man in the history of the world to have a curved spine. When our Leicester experts found a skeleton with a curved spine in a churchyard where Richard was recorded as having been buried it wasn’t too difficult a task to identify it. It took them a while.

University boffins want the body to remain here so they can continue to carry out tests. The specially designed tomb will actually be openable to allow the scientists to bother the bones whenever they feel the need. After taking 530 years to find the body more or less where they were told it was and months to conclude that it was Richard (DNA records were compared with direct descendants of the king’s sister) we are hopeful that by the end of the century the experts may well have concluded that King Richard the Third had two arms and two legs and that the round thing on top of his neck is, in fact, his head.

Walking round the cathedral I’m surrounded by workmen. The place is getting a major makeover and I’m happy about this. There’s a race against time to be ready for the ceremony and much of the church is being boarded over so the work can proceed. There is a rather delightful air of work in progress in amongst the tranquil peace of a house of prayer. All around the church a huge game of ‘make Leicester medieval’ is going on. The city planners made the same mess of making the city modern as many another east midlands urban settlement. Let’s hope they make a better job of turning the clock back.

I like Leicester enormously. We travel there at least twice a year for a Saturday shop, a wander round and an Indian meal at the Mem-Saab restaurant. I occasionally get a massage and steam bath (in one of those sit down and be closed into a sort of small sideboard with your head poking out contraptions). It’s a good town for shopping. Most of the big name shops are here (House of Fraser only manages an outlet so doesn’t really count) and a good number of Leicester’s own retailers have shops worth visiting. I much prefer the Leicester John Lewis to the ones in Sheffield or Nottingham. It simply has a great deal more space for the shopper to wander about in. The building may be modern but it is spacious and light. It’s also got a sale on and I’m soon disappearing into the toilet to change into a smart new shirt.

There is plenty of ugly in the city centre. Most of the sixties and seventies architecture is now quite horribly aged and there is no shortage of the parasitic shops that feed on a lack of hope. Tattoo parlours and places to buy your e-cigarettes are prevalent.

Delve further and there are surprises in all directions. Leicester is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. It has thrived on this. Different traditions have prospered alongside each other and they have all come together to create a multiculturalism that is the envy of many another town. It nearly didn’t happen this way. When Idi Amin gave the Asian population of Uganda a month to get out of the country, Leicester City Council prepared notices and posters telling them that they weren’t welcome in the city and to go elsewhere. Many hadn’t heard of Leicester before this campaign but the campaign alerted them to it and thousands came here in the first wave and many more later moved to the city to join them. The council bluffed and blustered about its reasons and its motives but it was a simple case of racial prejudice.

Within months of settling successful businesses were becoming established. Amin had banished many of the finest minds from his country and Uganda’s loss was Leicester’s and Britain’s gain. There was rioting in the city in both 1982 and 2011. On both occasions they were driven more by economic pressures than through racial tensions. We are now in second and third generation and Leicester is, like many melting pot cities, a great deal stronger and more culturally diverse than cities who haven’t experienced this enrichment.

People who come from Leicester tend to be rather proud of the fact. My mother in law was from the city and she was fabulous. Richard and David Attenborough are from here and proud of it. Amiable football presenter and one time decent player Gary Lineker rarely misses an opportunity to give Leicester a namecheck (his dad had a stall on the fruit and vegetable market … quite simply the best market for green grocery outside London), John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was Leicester born, as was Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Rock bands Kasabian and Family (who played prog rock but were worth listening to  all the same) are Leicester bands. (So are Showaddywaddy but least said soonest mended). One time sports presenter and self-proclaimed son of God, David Icke was born here and Engelbert Humperdinck was brought up on these streets as Arnold George Dorsey. Joseph Goddard who gave the world a way of polishing its silver and John Illsley the bass player from Dire Straits along with the original Drummer Pick Withers started life in this town . There must be something in the water. John Deacon is another bass player for another band I’m happy to say never made my record collection was also a Leicester lad. Actors Michael Kitchen, Richard Armitage, Kate O’Mara and Una Stubbs are all locals. Writers CP Snow and Julian Barnes add to the number. There are no end of snooker players and even Joan Maureen “Biddy” Baxter the long time editor of Blue Peter. Gok Wan is Leicester born as was Thomas Cook the man who invented the modern holiday and many many more.

There are major concert halls, two universities and one of England’s newest purpose built theatres. The rugby union side is one of the best in the country (it nearly became a rugby league side but the players couldn’t afford the drop in wages that going professional would have meant in 1896), the football side has just got itself back into the premier league. The foxes have these occasional surges. Under Martin O’Neill they even won a pile of trophies. The team has always played entertaining football and has had a fair number of crowd pleasing players. They  found room for ex Huddersfield hero Frank Worthington after high blood pressure ruled out a transfer to Liverpool. Worthington put the blood pressure down to having too much sex. The stronger rumour is that Liverpool were having second thoughts.

It’s worth taking your time in Leicester. Some things jump straight out at you like the High Cross Shopping Centre or the Vue cinema. Many of the best bits of the city lie lost or hidden away. They are worth looking for. There is a reason why so many significant people, and Engelbert Humperdinck, have come from the city. I look forward to my twice yearly visits and always return home happy in mind, spirit and tummy.

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Day 350: Knaresborough

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A-Z of Northern Towns. K is for Knaresborough

As far as Knaresborough’s place in the national political scene is concerned it could be said that history stopped in the aftermath of the English Civil war. At first this may seem a little harsh but I think it is one of the great strengths and appeals of the town. While the rest of the country has danced to the music of time, Knaresborough has gone about its business of being Knaresborough at the pace of the gently flowing River Nidd. It has acknowledged the world around it but it has gone its own way; leaving it a town with a gorge full of individual character in a world that has increasingly come to look like Luton.

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It’s as Yorkshire as the magnesium limestone that provides the bedrock of the western section of the gorge that gives the town much of it’s splendour and character. Yet it feels unlike any other Yorkshire town. Harrogate is only four miles away. Both are glorious towns but they are as alike each other as chalk and cheese. One is riverless, expansive and outward looking; saying to the rest of the world, “Look at me, look at me, Aren’t I amazing?” (and it is), the other huddled into it’s dramatic riverside setting, inward looking and, though welcoming of visitors, has no great need to show off to the world. I know few people who haven’t been to Harrogate, I don’t know many who have been to Knaresborough. York lies downstream and shares not only the river (the Nidd joins the Ouse a mile or two up river of the Viking capital) but also a medieval past. There are far greater differences than similarities between these neighbours.

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At one time Knaresborough was a town where national issues were settled. The “Honour of Knaresborough” was highly prized. The castle defended the safety of the nation; it was even the most valued of the royal hunting grounds. The lead knight in the bungled murder of Thomas Becket; Archbishop of Canterbury and turbulent priest, held the honour of Knaresborough. Hugh de Morville returned to seek refuge in his castle after butchering the priest on his altar. De Morville was later stripped of his lands, banished from the kingdom and excommunicated from the church. Few regard him as one of Knaresborough’s greatest sons.

In the Civil War Knaresborough suffered the fate of many fortified towns. It was taken by the parliamentary army before the Battle of Marston Moor and the castle was ordered to be destroyed. Some demolition was carried out but the majority of damage to the castle was done in the using of the dressed stone from the walls in building many of the older properties in the town centre. This wasn’t unusual. Good building materials have always been hard to come by. It would have been strange if local builders hadn’t taken advantage of the free stone on offer. Happily a good deal of the castle remains and I for one find castle ruins  an awful lot more impressive than complete castles. When they are in such a location as here then the impression is so much the greater.  Knaresborough Castle is a joy to walk around. The local authorities have done a first class job in using the natural spaces of the original building to incorporate gardens, planting, benches, lawns and other features to make it a delightful place to be. Beyond the remains of the curtain walls are the limestone and sandstone cliffs that drop so dramatically down to the deep brown waters of the River Nidd.

The view from the top is spectacular and delightful at the same time. Knaresborough is blessed with the natural geology of the gorge but has harnessed the jaw-dropping glories of the valley into a town that is very much built on a human scale. Everything is in keeping here. The little rowing boats on the river are not lost in the scale of the gorge and the massive viaduct and bridges nestle in without dominating. Such a balance of architecture and nature is rare. Knaresborough has done things very well.

It doesn’t attract visitors on the scale of York or Harrogate but it is a busy town that wasn’t designed for the motorcar. If it got too many more visitors it would become gridlocked rather easily and that would be a pity. If you are going to visit I would recommend arriving by train. Regular services run from York and Leeds and you get the advantage of being able to see the town from the top of that rather splendid viaduct. Schools enjoy making journeys to the town with Mother Shipton’s Cave and Brimham Rocks among the attractions. The first is England’s answer to Nostrodamus. The second are some of the most spectacular rock formations in the north of the country.

Ursula Southeil actually existed but claims that her art of prophesy ran to predicting the invention of the motor car and of steel ships as well as the end of the world (1881 if you are worried) are somewhat dubious. She’d been dead for 80 years before her sooth sayings began to be published and many a forger has joined in the authorship over the years. Knaresborough isn’t above taking a few pounds off you to be duped and they do it rather well. Mother Shipton’s Cave is announced as Britain’s oldest tourist attraction.

Another hero of the town is Blind Jack of Knaresborough. More properly known as John Metcalf he used his experience as a carrier and guide to build roads in the early years of the industrial revolution despite being blind from the age of 6. At school we were taught that he used his stick to see if he was building into a bog or marsh. Well, quite! Jack Metcalf built 180 miles of turnpike road by having a developed understanding of the relationship between geological contours and the weather. Many modern roads in Yorkshire, including some Pennine crossings, keep to the routes surveyed by this remarkable engineer.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and sat in slow moving traffic for a while. A cheap car park just out of the town centre on the York road became even cheaper when a smiling family insisted that we use their parking ticket. I put the money saved towards a big ice cream which we ate on the castle walls overlooking one of the great views of England. Two hours wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface but plenty of time to realise that here is a little gem; a town that is worth a proper visit. The shops looked good; plenty of them were independent. There is a weekly market in the square and the people were as relaxed and friendly as any we have encountered. The history is rich and the layout of the town justifies its remarkable geographical location.

The River Nidd was diverted several miles by the last ice age. If advancing moraines hadn’t cut off the original route the Nidd would never have cut the Knaresborough Gorge. Much of Yorkshire was shaped by ice. Knaresborough is shaped by water but water that only came to the town because of the advancing glaciers. The natural world is full of wonders and our trip to Knaresborough was quite, quite wonderful.

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Day 348: Jacksdale

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A-Z of Northern England. J is for Jacksdale

As a nation we are rather good at remembering those who have been in charge when a battle has been won and less good at remembering those who actually did the winning. Statues of generals and admirals and field marshals adorn plinths in high places. Mighty palaces, like Blenheim, are given as rewards for fellows whose deeds are far exceeded by their rewards. Since the end of the Great War though, the ordinary men; the men who marched away from cobbled street and village lane, often never to return, have been commemorated in towns and hamlets, boroughs and cities the length and breadth of the country. Some see them as fitting and lasting tributes to those who could show no greater love; others as a disguised apology for the greater crime committed upon them; for they need not have died.

“If any question why we died,                                                                              Tell them, because our fathers lied”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling who never got over the loss of his son in the fighting. Alan Bennett in The History Boys talks along the same lines. Lines that were first declared by Siegfried Sassoon while the conflict still raged. That there was no justification for what happened in Flanders’ fields and that a close inspection would find the blame for hundreds of thousands of deaths to lie in Westminster and Whitehall as much as in Berlin or Vienna.

“Why do we not care to acknowledge them? The cattle, the body count. We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. A photograph on every mantlepiece. And all this mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realise the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” Irwin in The History Boys by Alan Bennett.

I love war memorials and find a mixture of dignity and sadness, tragedy and glory whenever I stand by one. My family gave a great deal to the cause. Some didn’t come back, and those who did, including my grandfather, were so scarred by what they had been through that they led troubled lives afterwards and failed to see out even half their span. When I first saw his name on a church plaque commemorating those who served, I cried. It was the first time I recognised just how close we are.

DSC_0100Jacksdale has a particularly moving monument. It’s a memorial with its own history as well as a history commemorated. The soldier has more character than many who stand and look back across the years. Is it the peaked cap rather than the tin helmet which makes him look as he might have done as he left the village or returned to rest and recuperate? He looks younger than most such soldiers and he looks kind and smart and proud to serve. He looks trusting and able. He looks like a friend, a mate, a pal. And because of this the mixture of dignity, sadness, tragedy and glory feels even stronger; especially in the hundredth year since the conflict began.

I like this memorial enormously. Rightly it stands as the first thing you see as you enter the village. Rightly it lists not only those who gave their lives but also those who served and returned. Returned to a world forever changed by what they had gone through and forever changing.

The memorial was unveiled in 1921 (Saturday July 9th) at a ceremony attended by thousands. The soldier was blown off the pedestal on a stormy night in 1959. For years  the monument was topped with some simple coping but the soldier was (rightly) replaced more recently.

Some things haven’t changed around here. Almost all of the houses in the main part of the village had been built before the First World War. The simple layout and the names of the streets are the same and echo an older world. There is still something of that older world. On a Jacksdale website visitors are invited to stand and experience the quiet and stillness of the place that has a feel of a time that has gone; that something has been retained here that has vanished from other towns and villages. I have only a few hours but I feel that I am somewhere rather special. All the more special for holding onto this character while most of the original reasons for the village’s existence have rolled over into the history books.

Just as the ordinary soldiers of Balaclava, Trafalgar and Waterloo are long forgotten while Cadigan, Nelson and Wellington are still celebrated, the places and the people who made Britain an engine of the world, a powerhouse economy are quickly lost to time while children are taught of the great feats of Arkwright and Josiah Salt and those who made huge piles of cash out of it.

Coal made Britain powerful and iron and steel and earthenware and textiles. Jacksdale was never big on cloth manufacture but it produced more than its share of the other three. Coal has been dug hereabouts for centuries. At first coal was dug by outcropping. The coal seams of this part of the Erewash Valley came to the surface and coal had been dug out without shafts and drifts. Then with simple shafts that were then hollowed at the bottom known as bell pits. You can find evidence of these all over any mining part of England. In 1874 James Oakes Company sank a shaft that was to become known as Pye Hill Number 2. Pye Hill Colliery was in fact an amalgamation of three pits; the Barber Walker pit at Underwood, Pye Hill at Jacksdale (also known as the James Oakes and Company) and the New Selston Pit (known as the Bull and Butcher pit).

For over a hundred years Jacksdale men toiled in the earth to bring coal to the surface. In addition to the three shafts there was a drift (a sideways tunnel as opposed  to a vertical shaft) and much of the coal was brought out this way. Being practically on the Derbyshire Nottinghamshire border must have led to problems during the 1984 strike. Derbyshire pits had backed the strike while many Nottinghamshire pits continued working. Closure of Pye Hill had already been decided before the dispute and the colliery duly closed in 1985. Like many collieries it has all but disappeared from the area and from the lives of the people. Former miners will never forget. All can feel enormously proud of the job they did. Some regret the loss of an industry, others are relieved that their sons and grandsons don’t have to earn a living hundreds of feet below the surface of the world.

The demolition of the surface buildings has been preserved on film. The strike still seems recent to people of my generation but the film looks like ancient history . The story of coal seems every bit as long ago as the battles of The Somme and Passchendaele. It seems right that the pit wheel and the unknown soldier should stand together.

I breakfast well in the friendly and comfortable rooms of Pauline’s Pantry. It’s a busy and a happy place and the food is good. Predictably I have the cooked breakfast but there is more than a nod to more adventurous cooking: the soup of the day is Butternut Bisque and the drinks fridge has bottles of Fentiman’s soft drinks. A child’s drawing adorns one wall and you can buy hand embroidered cushions here. I like the  balance between comfort and quality.

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Beyond the village are playing fields where once tramlines hauled coal tubs and iron ore. Just across the Erewash (at this point a large tumbling stream) are the remains of the Cromford Canal. Filled in in the sixties (oh what a lack of forethought that decade had!) it was once the main artery of this most industrial part of the East Midlands. There are still the last remains of the iron bridge that carried a tramline across the canal.

Today it is hard to imagine why such transport links were needed. It appears that there is nothing here but this is the site of a huge industrial complex of the nineteenth century. Here the Butterley Company had a major iron works. Some of the finest wrought iron in the country was produced here. Next door the James Oakes Pipeworks employed hundreds, and the Riddings brickworks still more. The ironworks grew into a community on the Derbyshire side of the border. Ironville looks tired today but still contains a church, a primary school and many houses of architectural interest. In its heyday it had a fine model village and was a central cog in this part of industrial England.

I wander over acre after acre of land that has been shaped and landscaped to return to birch wood and meadow and mere. It’s rather beautiful and swallows swop and moorhens, coots and diving birds forage on the lake. Purple and yellow wild flowers blanket the ground. It is becoming difficult to imagine the mighty engines and smoke stacks of collieries, ironworks, brickworks and pipe works that dominated this area for two hundred years. The woods seem silent. Trains pass. Among the trees are several rusting remains of burnt out stolen motorcars as a testament to the boredom that replaced opportunities to work. The place has beauty and charm but still carries the scars of economic downturn. Thousands once worked here. There are few opportunities today unless you are prepared to travel.

It isn’t a sad place though. It is a quiet town but very much alive and well and enjoying itself. This is a part of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that can be easily overlooked and passed by. It shouldn’t be. Not only is it a place that played its part in the whole history of the country, but it is a quite remarkable place in its own right.

I wasn’t there long enough. I’m only just starting to uncover the story of Jacksdale and I look forward to going back.

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I gratefully acknowledge a debt to a series of films made by Tom Wilbraham in the 1990s of Jacksdale. These give a fascinating insight into the history of the village and can be found on Youtube. I include a link to the first of these.

 

 

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