Category Archives: United Kingdom

The City of Leicester and King Richard III

I was born in Leicester (for overseas readers it is pronounced simply as Lester) in June 1954. My family left the city for the nearby town of Rugby six years later. When asked I always say that I am from Leicester and I am always proud to say so.

Not so proud however to confess that sixty years later despite going to football matches and Baileys Night Club in the 1970s I have never found the time to properly visit the city and give it some of my time and attention.

Although Leicester is a large city in the UK there are only four places in the U.S.A. named after it which have the same spelling , in New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Vermont. There are however eleven cities and towns called Lester, in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington and West Virginia.  . As far as I can see there is no Leicester in Canada, New Zealand or in Australia. Perhaps it is just too difficult to pronounce correctly?

Just recently I was able to put right my dereliction and I especially wanted to explore the link with King Richard III, the Medieval monarch whose life and reputation is intrinsically woven into the life and the fabric of the city. I still remember the stories that my Dad told me about King Richard and who like most people from Leicester was a staunch Ricardian.

Richard was the last Plantagenet and House of York King of England, the last Medieval King, the third and last King of England killed in combat after King Harold at Hastings and Richard The Lion Heart at Aquitaine in France, at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, and succeeded by the victorious Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster.

I started the visit at Leicester Cathedral to see the tomb of the late King.

Thanks to William Shakespeare poor old Richard is mostly remembered as a bad man and an evil treacherous King who got what he deserved at the battle of Bosworth but history is now beginning to revise this judgement following the discovery of his bones in an unlikely burial place under a public car park in the centre of the city.

Thanks to Shakespeare the name Richard is so disgraced and besmirched  that no one has dared to revive the noble name of Richard for an English King.

Incidentally, after the reign of the tyrant number VIII there has never been another King Henry either.

No other English King has generated so much vigorous reinterpretation as Richard III. It is hard to imagine English history without the Tudors but sometimes I wonder, what if…?

After the discovery Yorkshire demanded that he should be immediately returned to the City of York for a final burial but the discoverers held firm and after a messy little legal spat and court case he now lies in the Cathedral of his adopted County of Leicester.

This is Richard at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire…

Leicester has laid claim to Richard III. Some people affirm that this is significant. Leicester City are a football team in England who have never really done anything spectacular. In 2014 they were playing badly and looked likely to be relegated from the Premier League but after the bones of Richard were found they suddenly began to play like champions and in the following year won the English Premier League. The reversal of fortune has been attributed by some to Richard III and though it is unlikely it is such a good story that I really want to believe it.

The Richard III visitor centre puts on a fine exhibition that chronicles his life and times culminating in the bloody showdown at Bosworth.

Our version of the reign of Richard and of the battle of Bosworth is almost entirely informed by Shakespeare but as with most of his histories this was a highly dubious account of what really happened and modern historians have reached the view that far from being gallant and chivalrous and still celebrated as a golden moment in history the battle was filthy, horrible and merciless.

Weapons were crude and brutal. Arrows from the longbows of the Welsh archers rained down and where the sword of a knight would not penetrate the armour of a noble foe and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) would fell him fast and then it was easy to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye. That was how hundreds of men died – their last sight on earth a dagger’s point.

It turns out that Bosworth is not a tale of chivalry at all, but rather of desperate men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. Of hundreds of opposing soldiers weighed down by heavy armour submerged and drowning in marshland. Hand to hand combat by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval fighting.

At some point in the battle and with things not going so well for the King, Richard led a rather reckless charge against Henry Tudor. He most likely looked quite magnificent in his gleaming suit of made-to-measure armour and wearing a crown on his helmet which may have been somewhat unwise (rather like Nelson in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar wandering around HMS Victory in full Admiral uniform and getting shot and killed) and before he could engage in hand to hand combat he was cut down and slain, not by a Prince or a Nobleman but by a common foot soldier with a spiteful pike.

I enjoyed my day in Leicester and I am certain now to return.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Odd One Out – Reflections

It was Venice for all the reasons you came up with.  Well done everyone.  Too easy by far, I am working on something more challenging for next time.

I thought that the cruise ship might have confused some of you…

A to Z of Statues – T is for Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was a radical revolutionary, a sort of proto-Marxist, a latter day Leveller, a real trouble maker, an all round (excuse the pun) pain in the ass to the establishment of late eighteenth century England and he didn’t come from London or Bristol, not even Ipswich or Norwich but from sleepy little Thetford.

In his writings he explored the origins of property, openly challenged the concept of monarchy, introduced the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, supported the abolition of slavery, questioned the very concept of Christianity and inspired The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen of 1791.

An interesting feature of the statue is that the book he holds is upside down maybe because his ideas turned regular thinking on its head.

Read The Full Story Here…

Chains, Ropes and Anchors

These pictures were all taken in the fishing harbour in the village of Mevagissey in Cornwall.  Except  for one that was taken on the Greek island of Corfu.  Can anyone guess the odd one out?

 

A Door in Skipsea Three Ways

Skipsea in Yorkshire – Doors, Gates and Windows

 

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Hadrian’s Wall to Whitley Bay

After the stress of dealing with the breakdown we set off immediately in the direction of Newcastle and specifically Whitley Bay.

We were visiting children but with a growing there is a shortage of space for overnight guests so we prefer to make alternative sleeping arrangements.

I never thought that I would say this but we prefer to stop in a caravan.

I have always hated caravans.  I remember how horrible they were when I was a boy and we used to have family holidays in a tin box without any modern facilities but now, after a few modern caravan holidays I have become a real enthusiast, a zealot even, rather like someone who has gone through a rapid religious conversion and has become a serious pain in the arse about it.

Read The Full Story Here…

Hadrian’s Wall and an Emergency Breakdown Callout

Although a lot of people think that the Roman Emperor’s Wall marks the border between England and Scotland it never has and never will because it runs a conveniently short distance between Wallsend near the River Tyne in Newcastle and the Solway Firth in Cumbria.

When it came down to military expediency the Romans didn’t concern themselves too much about geography. The wall is entirely within England and although it is close to Scotland in the west at its eastern end the wall is fully seventy miles south of the River Tweed.

Interestingly the wall was eighty Roman miles, a Roman mile based on 1,000 marching steps or 5,000 feet.  The unit of measure, the mile, has many variations, the US mile for example is slightly longer than the UK mile (established by Queen Elizabeth I).  At every mile the Legions erected a stone marker – a mile stone to record the distance from London and from Rome.

This was all a bit confusing so in 1791 the French Revolutionary National Assembly adopted the metric system which gave the World the kilometre.  Britain was invited to adopt the new system but naturally declined.  Over two hundred years later we have Brexit where we still refuse to join in with the Europeans.

Anyway, back to the border – in point of fact in Roman times and for a long time after there never was a border as such between England and Scotland, that came much later in 1706 with the Act of Union which united Scotland with England and Wales to form the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Border forms the boundary of the two separate legal systems.

This is Hadrian, from a statue found in the River Thames in 1834…

The Wall was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in AD 122 in the reign of the emperor Hadrian and was the northern limit of the Roman Empire, immediately north of which were the lands of the northern Ancient Britons, people so frightening that even the Romans wouldn’t take them on.

It was a very pleasant day for our visit and the sun was shining but I guess this would have been quite a bleak place two thousand years ago. I imagine a legionnaire waiting for details of his posting and hoping to go Spain or France to the warm inviting beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and bit of sunshine would have been rather disappointed to discover that he was going to the bitter cold north of England to help build a massive stone wall.

At a length of almost seventy-five miles long it is the largest remaining construction anywhere in the old Roman world and it was started and finished in just about six years which is an impressive rate of progress compared to how long it takes to get anything built these days.

A lot of it has disappeared over time, there is very little stone at the eastern and western extremities where it was dismantled during the medieval period as convenient construction material and later on for eighteenth century road building projects. And a lot of what we see know has been reconstructed and rebuilt but never mind I don’t have an issue with that.

Seventy-five miles sounds like a lot of wall but by way of comparison the Great Wall of China is over thirteen-thousand miles long, Donald Trump’s Mexico wall is approximately two-thousand miles and even in England Offa’s Dyke running between England and Wales was one hundred and fifty miles long stretching from the River Mersey in the North to the River Severn in the South. The Maginot Line in France (a sort of underground wall) was nine hundred and fifty miles long but ultimately completely useless because the French didn’t get to finish it and in 1940 the German Panzer divisions simply went around it on their way to Paris.

The Romans were more clued up than the French it seems and the wall goes all the way from coast to coast. They didn’t leave a gap at one end that the Barbarians could conveniently use to get past.

Hadrian’s Wall was built almost completely of stone with a small castle every mile to act as a watchtower and a large garrison fort every five miles which was manned by a cohort of troops numbering as many as eight-hundred. A cohort is considered to be the equivalent of a modern army battalion.

It is possible to visit quite a lot of these old fortress sites and there was one conveniently close to where we were staying.

I didn’t really know what to expect of the wall; when I was a boy I wondered why the Northern Barbarians didn’t just get some ladders and climb over it when no one was looking but here I got to appreciate the massive scale of the thing.

There wasn’t a great deal of it I have to say but there was an information board that explained what it would have looked like.

In this central section, the wall was built on a natural hard granite rock escarpment called Whin Sill which is a volcanic eruption that rises dramatically and vertically out of the ground. If this wasn’t enough, on the northern side the wall comprised a ditch, then the wall, a military road an earth rampart and then another ditch with adjoining mounds. No Welcome Mats and if anyone was going to get over this wall it was going to take a lot more than a ladder let me tell you!

Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed, its shining surface reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around, an extravagant expression of Roman military might and the border of the Empire.

We planned to see more of the wall but then there was an unfortunate incident. We pulled into a shale surface car park and immediately picked up a piece of flint which deposited itself in the rear brake arrangements on the car which required a call to the emergency services and a ninety minute wait for assistance.

With time running out we reluctantly abandoned the wall and continued to Whitley Bay, north of Newcastle where we were visiting family.

On the subject of Roads – Romans, Motorways and Sleaze

Yesterday I wrote about the Roman road infrastructure and how this related to the modern highway network based on six single digit primary roads.  On now to the motorways which follow more or less the same model.

Six principal single digit motorways.  M1 to the north, M2 to the south-east, M3 to the south, M4 to the south-west, M5  Exeter to Birmingham  and the M6  to the north-west.

The first real motorway was  the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened in 1959.

Then…

Now…

I have always thought this to be a curious choice of route.  Starting in London was sensible enough but it didn’t actually go anywhere and ended abruptly in a sleepy village in Northamptonshire.  Surely it would have made more sense to build a road between London and Birmingham.  The answer lies with the Romans because the M1 uses the Watford Gap which the Romans first used for the Watling Street (pictures above).  The Watford Gap is so convenient that it has been used for canals, railways and the M1.

This first section was seventy-two miles long and was built in just nineteen months by a labour force of five thousand men that is about one mile every eight days.

Guess what?  There was Tory cronyism even then.  The man responsible for the motorway building boom was the Minister for Transport Ernest Marples.

He both oversaw significant road construction and the closure of a considerable portion of the national railway network. His involvement in the road construction business Marples Ridgway, of which he had been managing director, was one of repeated concern regarding conflict of interest. Marples appointed Richard Beeching to head British Railways, who published a report which abandoned more than 4,000 miles of railway lines in the UK as the emphasis was switched to roads.

Substitute personal protective equipment for motorways and not a lot changes in Tory politics.

In later life, Marples was elevated to the peerage before fleeing to Monaco at very short notice to avoid prosecution for tax fraud.

The motorway age had arrived and suddenly it was possible to drive to London on a six-lane highway in a fraction of the previous time, helped enormously by the fact that there were no speed limits on the new road.

I mention speed limits because this encouraged car designers and racing car drivers were also using the M1 to conduct speed trials and in June 1964 a man called ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra Coupé at 185 MPH in a test drive on the northern carriageway of the motorway.

In fact there wasn’t very much about the original M1 that we would probably recognise at all, there was no central reservation, no crash barriers and no lighting.

The new motorway was designed to take a mere thirteen thousand vehicles a day which is in contrast to today’s figure of nearly one hundred thousand vehicles a day.  When it first opened this was the equivalent of a country road and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for families to pull up at the side for a picnic!

Following the A1 North To The Wall

I have always been interested in road numbering in England. I once had an idea for a project which involved driving along some of the of the pre motorway routes, for example the Great North Road and the Fosse Way.

Kim has never really shared my enthusiasm for the project I have to say.

Recently we went north and I thought this an opportunity to drive a section of the Great North Road rather than use the modern A1 Motorway.

I digress here but a lot of people say that the A1 North is the best thing to come out of London and I have to say that altogether I agree with that.

We have a London centric country because of Roman transport policy . There is a saying that all roads lead to Rome and that may well be true but in England, thanks to the Romans all roads do actually lead to London.

They had six principal roads from London, Ermine Street that went North to York and then on to Hadrian’s Wall at Corbridge, Watling Street which went in one direction South-East to Dover and in the other North West to Chester, Slane Street that went to the South coast, Portway which went to Exeter in the South-West and then an unnamed road which ran to Carlisle also in the North.

I mention this because two thousand years later roads in England follow almost exactly the Roman routes. There are six single digit main roads in England. The A1 runs north more or less along the route of Ermine Street (although slightly to the west of it to avoid the Humber Estuary), the A2 goes to Dover along the southern section of Watling Street, the A3 follows the route of Slane Steet to Portsmouth, the A4 is the old Portway that goes to Exeter. The A5 is the northern section of Watling Street that runs to Chester and the modern A6 follows the Roman route from London to Carlisle.

Some people ask, what did the Romans ever do for us? Well, amongst other things they gave us our modern road network system.

This may have been what a Roman motorway service area might have looked like…

We started out early and drove east (which as it happens is the only way of Grimsby) using the modern motorway system, the M180, the M18 and the M62 but instead of joining the A1(M) we left at a junction to follow the Great North Road which doesn’t exactly follow a Roman Road but was constructed in the seventeenth century to join London with Edinburgh in Scotland and was one of the great coaching roads of Georgian England.

We drove monotonously (I am obliged to confess) through Knottingly, Ferrybridge, Fairburn, Micklefield and Aberford which were all bottleneck villages without any real appeal and we watched the traffic whiz by on the adjacent motorway as we encountered several hold ups and slow progress Kim’s limited enthusiasm for my project began to rapidly evaporate.

I persuaded her to stick with it until we reached the town of Wetherby where following my chosen route really did become a chore. We stopped for a while by the River Wharfe where I trod in some canine poo left there by some inconsiderate dog owner and then we carried on but this time using Kim’s preferred route the A1(M). The old Great North Road ran alongside for most of the route so I was obliged to agree that driving it was rather pointless.

However pointless, it seems that if I am to complete my project that I will probably have to do it alone.

We continued now along the A1(M) and left at junction 56 on to the B6275 which really does follow the route of a genuine Roman Road, Dene Street which went from York to Corbridge and to Hadrian’s famous Wall. There is even a Roman Bridge over the River Tees at the village of Piercebridge.

Leaving the Roman Road at Bishop Auckland we continued now to the city of Durham and then we continued to our chosen overnight accommodation at the Barrasford Arms in the village of of the same name close to the river Tyne.

Let me explain why…

I am a great fan of the 1970s TV sitcom “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” and the Barrasford Arms featured in one of the episodes so for no better reason than that I wanted to stop there.

If I was compiling a top three of favourite TV sitcoms then “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” would definitely be in there along with…

“Dad’s Army”

and “Father Ted”

No one at the Barrasford Arms knew anything about the Likely Lads or seemed interested in what happened to them; well, it was almost fifty years ago and most of the staff were under thirty and from Eastern Europe.

It hasn’t changed a great deal over the years, Bob and Terry would still recognise it…