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  • The Hidden Gems of Underground Bunkers: Uncovering Their Surprising Artistic Side

    A guest post by Jackie Edwards, a historical tour guide Underneath the streets of the United Kingdom lies a network of tunnels leading to secret bunkers that sheltered people during the war. Recent data indicates that there are 258 bunkers spread out across the country, but more are being discovered as the years go by. For instance, in October 2023, an underground bunker was uncovered by developers who were clearing a site near Portreath in Cornwall. The bunker was reportedly used by personnel working near the Portreath airfield during and after World War II. Inside a War Bunker at Groveley Woods in Wiltshire Whilst most of the discovered bunkers had only dirt, broken bottles, and debris, other bunkers bore the signs of their former inhabitants as some people left their artistic stamp in these hidden places. Delve into the lesser-known artistic elements found within these bunkers, highlighting the creative expressions of the individuals who once occupied these spaces. From graffiti murals depicting life during wartimes to handcrafted sculptures made from spare military equipment, these artistic traces offer a unique perspective on the human experience within the bunkers. We would explore how these artworks reflect the resilience, camaraderie, and even humor of those who sought refuge underground. Graffiti as a Demand for Justice Some underground bunkers have become popular tourist spots as visitors can explore these hidden places with the help of an experienced guide. They have also become part of popular culture since some became iconic filming sites in the UK. One of these bunkers was featured in Stephen Poliakoff's “Hidden City,” a film which focuses on lost government secrets hidden in a bomb shelter under Tottenham Court Road. As more people became aware of these underground shelters, more evidence of what took place inside these bunkers have come to light. We've also gotten faint glimpses of what kind of people sought refuge in these hidden spaces. While we can only imagine how grim things were at the height of World War II, it's reassuring to know that some people found a way to cope by turning to art during these dark times in history. In March 2012, a graffiti possibly depicting Adolf Hitler was found at the Basil Hill Barracks in the underground tunnels of Corsham, Wiltshire. It's likely that no drawing materials, such as a pencil or a chunk of coal, was available to the graffiti creator at that time as the wall art appears to have been made by scratching the wall with a sharp object. Though there was no writing on the wall to confirm the identity of the person shown in the grafitti, experts concluded that there's a strong possibility that it's the former dictator since the etching bears his trademark toothbrush-style moustache. Rather than being a tribute to Hitler, the graffiti is interpreted as a demand for justice for his crimes to mankind. Now, it serves as a reminder of how one's arbitrary use of power can cause a lot of pain, and why we should all stay vigilant so history doesn't repeat itself. Humorous Doodles on Bunker Walls Some bunkers used to shelter hundreds of children from German bomb raids during the second World War. One such underground shelter is in Bristol, and upon its discovery in 2018, it was found that the walls are covered in various doodles made by its young inhabitants. Some of the artworks depict ordinary life, such as a drawing of a lady standing in front of a house. There's also a drawing of a soldier parachuting, and a lady wearing a ball gown. Read about the 14 Bunker Museums you can visit in the UK One of the children appears to be a favorite subject as there are drawings of a certain Betty Clease going shopping, while another wall etching shows her holding hands with a boy named Ken. Apart from drawing, the children also kept themselves occupied by playing games of hangman and noughts and crosses on the walls. But perhaps, one of the best pieces in the Bristol bunker is a simple yet quirky poem. Written in cursive, part of the poem reads, “The cat sat on the mat, and ate some bats.” The games played, as well as the doodles and words scribbled on these walls show us that life went on for these children, even during the worst of the Blitz. Glamorous Coal Portraits in a Bomb Shelter Upon entering a secret wartime bunker, most people would expect to find rubble, cobwebs, and perhaps some broken, rusted, or weathered household items, at the very least. But what if you found beautifully rendered portraits of well-dressed people on the walls? That's what Chris Halliwell from Rochdale, Greater Manchester found upon exploring a hidden bunker. Halliwell, who refused to share the location of the bunker to prevent vandals from defacing the drawings, said that he only heard stories about the wartime artworks' existence before seeing them for himself. Once he entered the tunnels, Halliwell was surprised to see charcoal portraits of ladies sporting 1940s pin curls, and drawings of soldiers wearing their uniform and metal hats. The father-of-four believes that the drawings were created by workers from a nearby coal factory who used the bunker as shelter during the bomb attacks. “It might have been a way for the people to keep themselves occupied during the tedious wait for the all clear,” Halliwell said. The gorgeous portraits are a tribute to 1940's style and fashion, and they serve as silent witnesses to the coal workers' trials during the war. The places underneath the streets where we walk on contain a lot of secrets and revelations from World War II. The presence of art in these underground bunkers symbolise the tenacity and the will to live of their former inhabitants as they hope for justice and peace, one doodle or graffiti at a time. Read about one of the most famous bunkers of them all

  • The Chalke History Festival 2024

    The historical event of the summer is back with a new name, a new look, and a programme to make your mouth water! Save the dates: 24th-30th June 2024 The Chalke History Festival - the biggest, most celebrated history festival in the world -will this year run from 24th to 30th June. To mark the start of a whole new chapter for the event it has announced a new name and a new look, with the website and branding being given an eye-catching makeover with a fresh new logo, new social media handles and the new domain name www.chalkefestival.com - all reflecting an exciting moment in the history festival’s life. History has rarely been more important than now. The Chalke History Festival programme for 2024 will reflect this, dealing with themes and concerns that dominate our current lives. The festival planning team will also be mixing the timings up a little this year, so as to avoid a wall of events all running concurrently, and there will be an increase in the number of panels and discussions. The aim is to provoke more conversation and debate about how the past guides us to the present and helps us prepare for the future. The line-up will show the threads and patterns of history and help those who visit to think about our history in different ways, and also help people to contextualise and make sense of the current rather tumultuous world we live in. A number of big household names - including James May, The Rest Is History duo Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, Max Hastings, Bettany Hughes, musician and record producer Jakko Jakszyk, and Sathnam Sanghera - have already been signed up as well as a greater number of international speakers and experts. There will be more performance this year, with no less than eight different acts and performers speaking around the site - every day and throughout the week - from light-hearted yarns through to expert traditional crafts people, and from the Iron Age through to the Second World War. In addition, there will be five main venues for talks and discussions, so there will be a huge amount on offer. Read our Top Ten Reasons to Visit the Chalke History Festival The layout of the site will be slightly different too as the team has given thought to the whole experience of how visitors can view the many events on offer. The main tent will be set-dressed on the stage, the second venue will be a vaudeville-style Spiegel tent and the newly-designed outdoor stage will be closer to the hub of the main activities. There will also be more live music, including an ABBA tribute act on the Friday night and a D-Day Dance on the Saturday evening. Each night there will be a different live music act, as well as on the Sunday a five-course lunchtime historical banquet. News of programme developments will be announced over the coming months and those interested in attending are encouraged to keep checking on the new website and the festival social media channels for all the latest announcements. Tickets will go on general release to the public in April. Over 200 fascinating talks, given by incredible historians and entitled ‘Chalke Talk’, can be heard on the Chalke History Festival podcast. These talks have been taken from more than a decade of festival appearances. The Chalke History Festival will take place at Church Bottom, Broad Chalke, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 5DP. For more details about the festival, please visit the recently-relaunched website at www.chalkefestival.com Follow all the news on X @Chalke Festival and Instagram at @chalkehistoryfestival and on Facebook. Read more about the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire About the Chalke History Festival Attracting the finest and most distinguished historians, academics, leading thinkers, and writers from the UK and abroad, the Chalke History Festival is now firmly established as one of the must-attend events of the festival summer. Taking place on a 70-acre farm, in the heart of the Wessex countryside just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire, it blends inspiring literary talks, discussions and panels with eye-catching and entertaining living history and historical experiences.

  • HIGHLIGHTS OF THE TUTANKHAMUN TOURING EXHIBITION

    King Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh was the last ever world tour of the grave goods buried with King Tutankhamun, before they settled into their permanent residence in Cairo. The tour visited Paris, London, Sydney and Tokyo, but for those who were unable to visit the exhibition, this is our photo album of the highlights from when the tour visited London, as a reminder of the last chance many had to see these amazing artefacts. This gilded wooden fan held 30 ostrich feathers, which would provide a cooling breeze. The inscription on the stick says that Tutankhamun hunted them himself, in the desert near Heliopolis, which is portrayed in the incredibly detailed carving. Left: Egyptian calcite vases. The central vase is inlaid with faience, a ceramic material with a brightly coloured glaze. Traces of a brown residue was found inside, from an oil which was essential for rituals and highly valued. Right: A close up of the neck of the vase. Faience was known as ‘tjehenet’ in the ancient Egyptian world, which means ‘dazzling’ or ‘brilliant’. It was a synthetic material and could be made in a variety of colours, although turqousie was the most common, as it was believed to represent life and fertility. Left: This calcite vase on a stand has cartouches of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun inscribed upon it. Ankesenamun was his half-sister and also his wife. They shared a father, but her mother was Queen Nefertiti, who was renowned for her beauty. Right: This alabaster vase with a stopper, has the name of Tutankhamun’s ancestor, Thutmose III, inscribed upon it. Thutmose III was considered one of the greatest Pharaohs, and a military genius. The vase was used to store perfume or oil for rituals. This painted calcite box, with a floral decoration on the vaulted lid, contained two bundles of human hair. These probably belonged to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun. Found with a small ivory pomegranate, this may well have represented their marriage contract. The gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun on a skiff, throwing a harpoon. He is dressed as Horus, son of Osiris. His prey is a hippopotamus, the incarnation of Osiris’ evil brother Seth, who tore apart Seth’s body and scattered it throughout Egypt. Using magic, Osiris’ sister Isis made his body whole again. They then married, starting the tradition of Egyptian Pharoahs marrying their sisters. As the Ancient Egyptians believed that words and images could come alive in the afterlife, the hippopotamus is considered too dangerous to portray. These wooden boomerangs are made from hardwood and decorated with bark patterns. Due to the curvature, none of these would have been able to be thrown and return, although there were others in the tomb that could do this. Boomerangs were used for hunting by wealthy Egyptians, who would throw them in the marshes to stun and kill birds. These would have been included in the tomb not only to allow Tutankhamun to continue one of his hobbies, but also to help him fight and subdue the forces of chaos he would meet in the afterlife. This solar hawk Horus figure, a gilded wooden hawk with a sun disk on its head, was part of the decoration of a chariot. The tomb contained six chariots in total, each of them dismantled to pass through the narrow entrance, then reassembled inside. Left: The original mummy remained in Cairo, but his adornments were on display at the exhibition. The mummy was tightly bandaged to complete his magical transformation and successful resurrection in the afterlife. Amulets and jewellery were folded into the layers, in a precise order determined by magical texts, such as The Book of the Dead. Centre: Four horizontal and two vertical gold bands are inlaid with carnelian, lapis and glass, which formed hieroglyphs of the king’s name and protective magic spells. Right: The gold ba-bird pectoral decoration is holding ‘shen’ signs, which represent the eternal journey of the sun. This lotus chalice was called ‘The Wishing Cup’ by Howard Carter, and was one of the first things he saw when he entered the tomb. Made from a single piece of alabaster, the handles are shaped like lotus flowers growing upwards. It represents the infinite and eternal life of Tutankhamun. Left: Tutankhamun’s organs were kept in a canopic shrine, which contained a magnificent calcite chest. On top of this, two pairs of Tutankhamun heads faced each other, and slotted inside those, were four intricate gold coffinettes, each containing an embalmed organ. The coffinettes are replicas of the actual coffin. This one contained his liver. Right: This gold squatting figure and chain is of King Amenhotep III. He was Tutankhamun’s grandfather and always identified himself closely with the gods. The collar of glass beads show his devotion to Ra, the sun god of Egypt. This protective pendant would have been to help Tutankhaumn on his journey through the Netherworld. Left: This gilded wooden statue of Ptah has three hieroglyphs on the sceptre, which stand for life, stability and sovereignty. Ptah was the god of Creator, and the patron of craftspeople and architects. He was central to Egyptian worship and was linked to the city of Memphis, which was also known as the ‘temple of the soul of Ptah’. The Ancient Greeks shortened this name, using it to refer to the whole country, eventually giving us the name ‘Egypt’. Right: This life sized statue of the Ka of Tutankhamun marks his passage from the dark night to his rebirth at dawn. The eyes are made from volcanic obsidian and his sandals are bronze. The black skin symbolises the fertility of the Nile, and the gold marks his divinity. It is one of a pair which stood guard in the tomb, the most complete examples of their kind ever discovered. Left: This incredible gold inlaid pectoral has a lapis scarab and is made of gold, silver, carnelian, turquoise, lapis lazuli, green feldspar and glass. When it was found by Howard Carter, he put it on the excavation’s water boy, Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, and had a photograph taken of him. This famous photograph managed to provide Hussein with an income for the rest of his life. Right: A wooden gilded mirror case in the shape of an Ankh, made with coloured glass, carnelian and quartz. Mirrors were symbolic of resurrection, and the ankh represented life. Inscriptions around it have Tutankhamun’s name, epithets and his relationship to specific gods. Pharoahs carried a crook and flail, in honour of Osiris. The crook in particular became the sign of a ruler. Tutankhamun would carry these symbols on formal occasions, confirming his divine authority. A wooden box inlaid with 47,000 separate pieces of ivory and ebony. An inscription suggests that this held gold jewellery for Tutankhamun’s wedding. Left: This golden shrine offers a glimpse into the domestic life of Tutankhamun and his wife, showing intimate scenes of domestic harmony within the royal household. Tutankhamun pours oil for her, she puts a collar on his neck, he aims his bow at birds while she hands him arrows. These images, along with others on the shrine such as the ducks, lotuses and necklaces, along with the hieroglyphs for verbs such as ‘shooting’, ‘pouring’ and ‘throwing’, all carry sexual overtones. Right: This Wesekh, or collar, was placed between the mummy’s layer of bandages. The hawk represents Horus, the god closely associated with the living Pharaoh. These collars were worn by gods and Pharaohs, and were often of such a weight that a counterpoise hung down between the shoulder blades of the wearer, to help them maintain balance. Left: This gilded wooden shield shows Tutankhamun wearing an Atef crown as he holds two lions by the tails. Lions were the most powerful animals of the natural and supernatural world, surrounding Egypt in the desert lands. By showing his mastery of these animals, he is showing his mastery over Egypt. Right: This shield has the King as a Sphinx, trampling on Nubian enemies underfoot. The hills at the bottom make the hieroglyph ‘foreign land’, showing how he is conquering his enemies. Due to the carvings on these shields, they are likely to be ceremonial rather than functional. There were 35 model ships inside the tomb, as the Ancient Egyptians believed that the power of magic would make them full size and functional in the afterlife. This one is a wooden solar boat, which has a throne and two steering paddles.

  • STOURHEAD AT CHRISTMAS - THE FESTIVE LIGHTS TRAIL

    Stourhead is a jewel in the National Trust's crown; a stately home with impressive gardens that people will travel miles to visit. Renowned for its autumnal display, Christmas has become just as popular, with the house and grounds decorated for the season, and festive lights trails around the grounds after hours. Unfortunately you don't get to do both festive house and garden on the same visit, but there is a way round it - read on for my tried and tested cunning plan. Stourhead house was built in the early 18th century on the site of the original manor house in the village of Stourton, in Wiltshire. It is a large stately home, filled with all the treasures and art you would expect from such a house where the owners spent 200 years globetrotting and gathering their souvenirs like spoils of war. It is however the gardens which are the major draw and for which Stourhead is renowned. The gardens were laid out in classical 18th century design by the owner: banker, garden designer and Salisbury MP, Henry Hoare II, who created gardens which were described as 'more beautiful than any landscape put on canvas'. An artificial lake is traversed by a Palladian Bridge, and following a path around the lake is intended to represent journey similar to that of Aeneas's descent in to the underworld. A Parthenon, grotto, summerhouse and assorted temples and follies are all carefully placed within the grounds, with the planting intended to evoke different emotions. The gardens are spectacular, whatever the season, from the early bulbs and buds of Spring to the reds and yellows of autumn, even the grey starkness of winter, when you can see the architectural details of the assorted buildings without foliage hiding them. For Christmas the house is beautifully decorated with tasteful trees, thousands of lights and festive foliage. Poinsettias, oranges, frosted branches and wrapped gifts adorn the antique furniture, the lights bounce off the gold picture frames and chandeliers, the house is a picture of elegance and cultured conviviality. The festive light trails are the polar opposite. Bright, gaudy and flashing, often loud and always swarming with crowds, they are still entrancing in the dark gardens, their garish ostentatiousness a marked contrast to the esthetic indoors, and a beacon in the darkness of winter evenings. The theme of the light show changes each year, but whatever the theme you can be guaranteed there will be a light tunnel, woodland filled with thousands of lights to look like spring bulbs and that the highlight will be the grand finale of the Palladian bridge over the lake, its mirror image shining in the inky blackness of the lake. Trees are filled with lanterns and fairy lights, there are laser shows under the trees, walks through tunnels and curtains of light or past a row of singing trees; each has its own magic and is particularly appreciated by children. The Christmas lights by day... Stourhead is owned by the National Trust, who love the opportunity to take money from people, even their members, and because of this, it is not possible to see both house and lights trail on the same visit. The house is closed when the garden trail is open, and the garden lights are not visible when the house is open - in fact the lights merge into the grey skies, and you can see the bulbs and trailing wires which ruin the pleasing symmetry of the landscape. There is however a way round this to see both in the same visit, albeit you still have to pay for both separately as even members have to pay for the light trail. My friend and I had been disappointed to read that we would not to be able to see the house on our festive lights visit, so we came up with a cunning plan. We got to Stourhead at around lunchtime, meaning that we could explore the house and the grounds which weren't part of the lights trail, on a standard day time ticket. When it all closed at about 4pm, we went to the café and had a satisfying and warming meal, while we waited for our booked festive trail time slot. We then went back into Stourhead and enjoyed the festive lights trail, leaving us feeling as if we had had the full festive experience. It also meant that we could explore the full grounds during the day, as much of the garden is closed for the festive lights trail, and you are confined to shuffling around just a mile of garden with hundreds of other people. There are plenty of places to eat in the area other than the National Trust café, which tends to be packed in the cold weather. The Spread Eagle is within walking distance, or you could drive a couple of miles to The White Lion in Bourton. Either way, a couple of hours out before you face the festive trail is a good idea. There is no denying that the festive lights trail in this and other National Trust properties have their detractors. You are packed closely with other people, all fighting to get a good view of the lights, trying to avoid other peoples phones thrust in front of your view, and being forced to take evasive action against the selfie sticks and over excited children. A mile of garden filled with lights can feel like a very short distance when you've paid nearly £30 per person, and the mince pies and mulled wine are so overpriced that even an extortionist would blush. That being said, they do provide a glow of joy in the depths of winter, particularly for families with young kids, who will find it a magical experience. Stourhead Festive Lights Trail Postcode: BA12 6QF Parking: The car park can get busy and be prepared for a bit of a walk through the mud to get to the entrance Facilities: There is a café and pub on site as well as assorted food and drinks stalls Trail Dates: The trails run from the end of November to early January, and start at around 4.30pm. The house is closed at this time and is not part of the trail, as are some of the further reaches of the garden. The trail itself is about a mile long; it gets very busy and can take about 60-90 minutes to walk if you really take your time.

  • THE SHERLOCK HOLMES MUSEUM, LONDON

    The Sherlock Holmes Museum, at 221B Baker Street, is housed in a Grade II listed former boarding house at the north end of Baker Street, and was the world's first museum dedicated to the fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is filled with stage sets from several TV productions of Sherlock Holmes and covers the time period of 1881 - 1904 when Holmes and Watson lived there with Mrs. Hudson as their landlady. It is possible that seriously minded Slow Travellers will eschew the Sherlock Holmes Museum as a tourist attraction centred on an improbable, if amazingly astute, detective of Victorian London. It wasn’t at all clear whether those in the queue (many of whom were from overseas) realised that the whole premise of what they were about to see was quite simply based on an extremely clever and popular work of fiction. No matter: it’s a bit of fun to see inside the 4 storey Georgian townhouse at 221B Baker Street and to look at the recreated rooms of the house “occupied” by Holmes, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson. The tour begins in Holmes’ study where desperate people begging him to take their case, beguiling him with bizarre and colourful details of the tragedy which has either occurred or is surely imminent, sit and wait in hope. The artefacts are from the Victorian era and have been chosen to fit the text and the gaslit rooms as appropriately as possible - there are books, lampshades, candlesticks, fire irons and period upholstered chairs. Watson’s desk is there too where he diligently took down notes of the case being discussed - which Holmes never read. Next door is Holmes’ bedroom, complete with pictures, chest of drawers and various tools of his trade laid out on the bed. The deerstalker and pipe are there but the guide assured us solemnly that Holmes would never have worn this hat, designed for hunting, and directed us to a rather nondescript black hat instead. One wall is lined with photographs of notorious murderers of the period which, apparently, Holmes liked to collect. We see his small table for chemical and forensic analysis which was important in solving his cases. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, had used the idea of fingerprint recovery and identification in 1890, 10 years before it was actually used by Scotland Yard. On the floor above is Dr Watson’s study with learned books and his medical briefcase and notes, and the room of Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper. The next floor has waxworks of various characters who feature within the books, including of course the evil Moriarty. From then on you have to be very knowledgeable about the 56 short stories and 4 novels penned by Conan Doyle, knowing both the characters and the development of the plots in order to identify the people who stand so rigidly in their allotted positions. There are plenty of gruesome scenes to decipher. Finally, there is a very ornate water closet, with a guide stationed nearby to explain to hopeful visitors that this for display purposes only. In all honesty it is very expensive for such a short tour which has no genuine historical substance, and, with so many authentic experiences to be found nearby, it shouldn’t be high on any serious visitor’s list. However, fans of Conan Doyle will not be deterred, particularly if they know his stories well, and the casual traveller may well find both humour and interest in the house in Baker Street, known to millions across the world. Visiting the Sherlock Holmes Museum Opening times, prices and directions can be found on the museum website >> Dedicated fans can visit the grave of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the New Forest village of Minstead >> Why not try these Sherlock Holmes themed tours?

  • CELEBRATING AUTUMN EQUINOX WITH THE VIKING BOAT BURN AT BUTSER ANCIENT FARM

    Butser Ancient Farm is an open air experimental archaeology museum on the Hampshire/Sussex border. At the Autumn Equinox they hold a Saxon and Viking Fire Festival, which culminates in the dramatic burning of a Viking long boat in front of a sold out crowd as the sun sets. A fascinating event set in beautiful countryside, the Fire Festival is a unique and enriching historical experience. Butser Ancient Farm Established in 1970, Butser Ancient Farm was developed to test archaeologist's theories about habitation construction and the practical side of life in the ancient world. Filled with authentically constructed dwellings, each year sees them add new ones, and the site now covers buildings from the Stone Age through to the Anglo Saxons. Last year they successfully ran a Roman hypocaust for ten days to see its impact on the building and mosaics above it, and other recent developments include an outdoor mosaic made from original tesserae found during the construction of the M4 in nearby Wiltshire. Set in a verdant valley conveniently just off the A3, the farm is open to the public during the summer months as well as to countless school groups who go to learn about ancient civilisations in these authentic buildings. There are also workshops relating to all things to do with the ancient world such as cooking, manufacturing, technologies, music and much more. One of the best aspects of Butser though is the annual celebrations of ancient customs to mark the changing seasons. In a modern world where we only recognise the changes by perhaps a change of wardrobe, gifts at Christmas or chocolate for Easter, Butser has brought back many of the old pre-Christian festivities which recognise our pagan heritage. The calendar at Butser includes Beltane, Samhain and Imbolc amongst others, each one celebrated in a unique way and which harks back to when our lives were dictated solely by the seasons and their impact on our ability to grow food. The Autumn Equinox The Autumn Equinox is celebrated by many cultures both past and present. Around the 21st of September, it marks the end of summer and the start of autumn and along with the Spring Equinox, is the only time in the year when the sun is exactly above the equator and day and night are of equal length. The Autumn Equinox in Viking history was closely connected to farming, a time of harvesting crops and preparation for the bleak winter ahead. After a year of strenuous labour, it was a time when days became shorter and nights longer, the harvest was complete and thanks needed to be given to the gods, the people and the land for what had been produced - hopefully enough to last until the coming of new life in the spring. It was a time of festivities around the fire to, "praise, ... the Fire Element, because the world itself would take its colours. The fields are veiled by a cloth in tones of fire, dark yellow, red and oranges, the skies at dusk emit a red light that resembles blood, a warning that the days ahead will be hard. The forests and the mountains become silent, most animals ... store food and hide in holes or inside old trees, others will hibernate, ravens will go ... from place to place in search of those who did not survive the hazards of the season and the harsh weather. " (Arith Harger) The burning of Viking boats is thought to be traditionally done when a chief died, his burning long ship sent out to sea with his body on board to be sent to Valhalla for the afterlife. Although there is some academic dispute over this, as many chiefs were buried in their boats underground, this is the common perception of the significance of the burning long boat, and in fact it is something celebrated in several festivals in the British Isles, namely in Up Helly Aa and another in Framlington. The Saxon and Viking Fire Festival at Buster 2023 The event, which is one of their major fundraising events of the year to enable the farm to keep going, sells out far in advance and it attracts an eclectic mix of people. There are the history fans in sensible coats and walking boots, reenactors in woolen capes and helmets, pagans in flowing gothic dresses or medieval gowns underneath their capes and I even saw an Edwardian lady complete with beribboned boater thrown into the mix. It makes for a veritable feast for the eyes and adds a real air of festivity to the event. On the warm September afternoon, people arrived at the farm gradually, many on foot but others bumping down the narrow road to the car park where cheerful volunteers steered everyone into their grassy parking spots. Through ticket and bag checks to the site itself, where at the end on a small hill was the highlight of the event - the Viking longboat which was awaiting its fate later on in the evening. People wandered up to inspect it and to take photos. Made from woven willow and decorated with shields, oars, a colourful sail and a dragon head, it was a quite a work of art. Behind it was a clothed straw dummy, waiting for his journey to Valhalla later on. People were soon tying their wishes to the willow, donating £1 to charity to write their wish on a scrap of paper and add it to the boat, to go up in flames to the heavens later on. The festivities kicked off with Dark Morris dancers in front of the small outdoor stage in the field, which hosted acts throughout the evening until it was time for the procession to the Viking boat. These included a band called Perkelt who soon had the audience dancing in the sunshine with their fast Celtic tunes and furious fiddle playing. Fire performers danced and did tricks as visitors unravelled their picnic blankets, set up chairs and drank mead as the shadows lengthened. There are so many activities laid on that it is impossible to do them all. On the more academic side of things were talks which included Women in the Viking Age, the Ancient Art of Plant Dyeing and Viking Star Navigation from Hants Astro, who had telescopes set up in a corner for visitors to peer through at the skies above. The Saxons and Vikings inhabited the British Isles at the same time, and both feature in the Autumn Equinox festival. The highlight was a Viking vs Saxon battle in the Battle Paddock, surrounded by crowds watching the lighthearted battle with much delight, cheering the Saxons on and really getting into the spirit of it all. There were a lot of activities for children, who all seemed to be really enjoying their day in the past. Striking their own Iron Age coins, decorating biscuits with ancient runes, archery, making drums, listening to the storytellers and getting their faces painted in their chosen warrior allegiances seemed to keep them all highly entertained. A drum awakening ceremony was held in the large roundhouse, smoke from the central fire swirling around us all sitting on hay bales covered in animal skins before rising through the thatch and across the valley. A bronze sword was cast in the forge, the prize for the lucky winner of the raffle. A smithy was set up and surrounded by fascinated visitors, there were displays of weaving and other crafts, as well as living historians on hand to talk about what they were doing. There were plenty of food stalls, including a huge hog roast which didn't seem to last long, as well as others selling vegan and sweet options. The bars did a roaring trade of ale, cider made especially for the festival and of course the ubiquitous mead, a bottle of which was clutched in many an adult hand. Other stalls included those selling beeswax products, herbs and garlands, metal badges and wiccan ornaments The highlight of the evening was of course the burning of the long boat. As the sun set, people drifted over to the hill and found places to sit, watching the fire performers as everyone settled down. The procession could soon be heard making its way across the site and the crowds parted as they walked up the hill to the ship to chanting and the pounding of drums. A small ceremony was held by two Viking women: "A mighty warrior has fallen and begun his journey to the next world, there he will feast and drink while we tell stories of his greatest feats. Let us send him on his way with flame and with fire. Let them hear us in the distant halls where we cannot tread until our time is called. Let them hear our howls of triumph, our cries of agony and let them once again hear the beat of the drum. On this night, we shall dance as the darkness crawls in and we shall raise our voices to remember them" To the beating of drums, three archers drew their bows with fiery arrows and fired them at the boat, with cries of, 'To Valhalla". After a couple of tries, the boat was soon aflame, and the warriors hollered, whooped and beat their drums as we all watched it go up in flames. The sail burnt quickly, the oars and shields took the longest; their silhouettes visible through the intense orange of the fire as it is crackled, hissed and spat against the night sky. Only when the fire started to diminish and reduce to a dull glow did the crowds slowly turn their backs and walk away from that most amazing spectacle, many buying a final bottle of mead as they headed back to their cars and start the drive back up the narrow roads to the A3 and home, the fire still roaring in ears, the smoke still wreathed through hair and clothes Visit the Butser website and sign up to their mailing list for details of tickets to future boat burns and all the other wonderful events they put on throughout the year.

  • FINDING THE SISTINE CHAPEL IN THE HEART OF SUSSEX

    At Slow Travel we are always on the lookout for a hidden gem and a visit to the English Martyrs Catholic Church in Goring revealed a completely unexpected treat – the faithful (if smaller) reproduction of Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. The story of how it came to be here is fascinating in itself but the results are astonishing. From the exterior the red-roofed church looks to be an architecturally dismal building – resembling an aircraft hanger or Nissen hut rather than a Catholic house of God. This impression immediately evaporates on entrance to the interior, where you are struck by the drama of the ceiling above. Reproduced in its entirety is the early 16th century masterpiece painted in fresco by Michelangelo, a cornerstone of the High Renaissance Art. It is two-thirds the size of the original, and therefore a mathematical achievement in a pre-digital age, as well as an extraordinary artistic success. In 1987 parishioner Gary Bevans visited Rome on pilgrimage and returned home inspired by what he had seen at the Vatican and sought permission to paint the glory of the Michelangelo creation on to a wooden vaulted surface fixed to the roof of this unprepossessing church. Sponsors were found, Dulux and ICI provided the acrylic paint and Gary, a sign writer by trade, and a self-taught artist, embarked on a five and half year task, while still carrying out his day job, to complete his mission. The result is stunning – above you God separates the light from the darkness, creates the sun, moon and plants, separates the sky and water and creates Adam and Eve. We see the expulsion from Eden, the Flood and the many Biblical figures and stories which feature from Pope Julius II’s original commission to Michelangelo. Even the windows of the Sistine Chapel are painted on to the roof to give an exact replica of the famous ceiling. It is a work of wonder. Gary Bevans himself is a remarkable man with devout faith in God. The volunteers speak of his humility – how he has received no financial gain for his labour and how he describes his own role in the accomplishment as “I was only the hand that held the brush”. Since the work was finished, he has become a Deacon of the Catholic Church, regularly conducting services there. The church has additional features of interest – the Martyrs’ Window depicts eleven famous men and women persecuted for their Catholic faith etched on to glass, and Peter the Fisherman’s window made by using glass recovered from a local convent is a theatre of the bright and colourful. There is also Gary’s own interpretation of the Last Supper. But it is the ceiling that will remain the longest and deepest in your memory. It is a very worthwhile visit – trolley mirrors enable you to look closely at the detail of the ceiling, and knowledgeable volunteers are on hand to answer questions. Certainly an interesting and unique experience. Visit the English Martyrs Church website >>

  • FITZROY HOUSE, LONDON: OFFICE OF AUTHOR L. RON HUBBARD

    Built in the 18th century, this immaculate house in Fitzrovia was home to two famous writers - George Bernard Shaw and L Ron Hubbard. Fitzrovia is an area of London with strong literary associations; George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf all lived and wrote here. Bernard Shaw lived in this house for a year with his mother in 1881, L. Ron Hubbard used the building as his London base of operations from 1956 and it is still owned by his organisation today, who do free tours by appointment. Number 37 is one of a row of pretty Georgian double fronted houses with wrought iron railings and Juliet balconies. From the outside there is no signage, just a discreet brass plaque underneath the doorbell. So long as you’ve got your appointment booked, ring the doorbell and you get welcomed in by a member of staff. First impressions are of polished wood, civilised furniture and mercifully on a hot day, the cool air of air conditioning. You are welcomed by a very personable member of staff, your bags are put in a safe place and then you start your tour in the reception on the ground floor, with the wall displays about L. Ron Hubbard's early life. Old black and white photos in polished wood frames tell a remarkable story of adventure and high achievement. Knowing very little about him, I was impressed at his exploits. Born in 1911 in Nebraska to a military father and a highly educated mother, he had a childhood of travels and adventures. One of the display cases has his scout badges from when he was an Eagle Scout at the age of 13 - apparently the youngest to ever achieve this honour at the time. He was an avid reader and developed an early interest in psychoanalysis and philosophy. Between the ages of 16 and 18 he travelled thousands of miles across Asia, learning about other cultures and their philosophies, and there are photographs of him on the ship he worked on, looking off into the distance as he explored little known lands. He studied engineering at university and continued his travels, becoming a glider pilot, and making a living writing pulp fiction. These are popular stories published on low quality paper made of wood pulp and he covered a multitude of genres - science fiction, adventure, westerns, mysteries and romance, gaining some success in the field. World War II saw him joining the navy, where he was in command of several vessels, but ill health meant he was admitted to a naval hospital, where he spent some time. My guide explained that it was during his time in hospital, where there were also lots of former prisoners of war, that he administered some of his early self-help theories. He could see that the ill were being medically treated, but also that they were not getting any better. Using his understanding of various philosophies learnt from his travels, he persuaded the staff to let him provide counselling services for some of these men. When they started getting better, he realised the impact that counselling could have on someone’s health, and he started writing about what he had learnt and what he was doing, eventually publishing everything in one volume, Dianetics, in 1950. Four years later, his followers set up the Church of Scientology, based on his research and work. It was in 1956 that he moved his London centre of operations into Fitzroy House, and the guided tour moves from the displays and photos and into his office. It is a lovely room at the front of the house, large windows with the sunlight streaming through, a polished wooden desk, heavy velvet curtains and framed prints on the wall. The room has been restored and set up exactly as it was, right down to the contents of the two display cabinets, which include a noiseless Remington typewriter. Just off this room is his secretaries room, an exact recreation of how it looked in the 1950s based on photographs. Desks, polished wooden floor, a window overlooking the back, bookshelves containing old box folders, wire in-trays, stacks of paper, office technology of the time; all that is missing is the secretaries, noise and cigarette smoke which must have hung in the air. The old fashioned technology was wonderful - so well looked after that it still all works today. Typewriters, Bakelite telephones, tape recorders, an early fax machine and best of all, a dictation machine which recorded onto vinyl records, really show how these rooms must have been a hive of activity when he worked here. The tour then takes you upstairs to several elegant rooms. Thick, soft carpets, classic seating, chintz cushions and polished wood furniture which gleams in the sunlight. I particularly liked the large room which is used for events today and which has several photographs taken by L Ron Hubbard who was clearly a skilled photographer - the early scenes of London show a much simpler time and a marked contrast to the London of today. There are displays on the walls which go into more detail about Scientology and how it became a global phenomenon. Several rooms are filled with bookshelves and dedicated to all of the books he published and these show you just how prolific he was as a writer. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records declared L. Ron Hubbard as the most prolific author of all time, publishing 1084 works between 1934 and 2006. 250 of these were fiction, and they are all laid out on the bookshelves in bright colours. Seeing them all together shows just how dedicated a writer he was. You leave the tour with a new understanding of the man behind the headlines as well as feeling as if you have spent time in a retreat from the noisy London streets. The whole house is immaculate: all polished wood, soft furnishings and candelabra lighting. It feels like a mixture of museum, time capsule, library, show home and study centre. It is a unique visit to a house behind a Georgian façade and the tour itself is really interesting: I really appreciated having a one on one tour as it meant I could ask countless questions. I was also really impressed at how they are happy to give up their time to any member of the public who asks for a tour, something the owners of most other historic houses are reluctant to do. Interior photographs © Fitzroy House Visiting Fitzroy House Email: info@fitzroyhouse.org Website: Fitzroy House Nearest tube station: Warren Street

  • UNCOVERING THE MAP OF AUSTRALIA IN COMPTON CHAMERLAYNE, WILTSHIRE

    Wiltshire is renowned for its historic white horses and chalk badges carved high into the hillsides. The military badges carved into the hills of Fovant are well known, but they are not the only World War I badges in the area. The map of Australia had disappeared for decades but thanks to a remarkable group of volunteers, the map is now clearly visible and is the site of an annual service on Anzac Day to remember veterans. A Brief History of the Map of Australia The county of Wiltshire in southern England is on a seam of chalk which gives the county its rolling hills and the high chalklands of Salisbury Plain. Over the centuries the land has been transformed; by the ancient civilisations who gave us sites such as Stonehenge and the barrows, by the ancient farmers who adapted to the chalky grasslands, and by the military who have used much of the land for over 130 years. Since the 1890s, the British Army had been buying up land in and around Salisbury Plain. Centrally located in the UK, close to coastline and ports with good train links, it was open landscape with just a small rural population, and by the time World War broke I out in 1914, it was the perfect location to set up military bases, hospitals, training camps and to hold the increasing number of overseas soldiers. Fovant Camp was the most southerly of all of the many and varied camps, possibly chosen as it was already the site of military exercises, and a series of camps sprang up in the area. Soldiers would travel on the London to Exeter trainline and get off at the village of Dinton, and a spur line was built to take men and equipment to Fovant. Hurdcott Camp, near the village of Compton Chamberlayne, was just two miles east of Fovant, and was initially occupied by London regiments. Although there had been Australian soldiers at the camp since March 1916, by March 1917 it was exclusively taken over by Australian soldiers who were joining the war in ever increasing numbers, and it became their Command Depot No. 3. A mixture of training camp and convalescent camp, the fields around Naishes Farm were filled with trenches, huts, a powerhouse, theatre, a hospital for the wounded to convalesce and up to 4000 men. The men started carving the map of Australia into the chalky hillside in early 1917. The regimental badges in Fovant were already underway by then, a reminder of home for the men stuck there in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar weather and people. After the war, the camp was used to hold men awaiting repatriation on the boats back home. When the last of them had left, the huts were removed and the land returned once more to peaceful farmland, with only the chalk badges remaining as evidence of the years they had spent here. Uncovering the Map of Australia All of the badges suffered some decline over the years and during World War II, they were deliberately covered over in case enemy pilots used them as landmarks. After the war, the Fovant Home Guard Old Comrades Association (later the Fovant Badges Association) was set up to preserve the badges, and the 1950s saw the restoration of the Map of Australia, with Anzac Day commemorated on the site of the map. By the early 21st century however, the Association did not have the funds to look after the outlying badges, such as those at Sutton Mandeville and the Map of Australia, and soon they were covered in weeds and had faded into obscurity. Local resident, Helen Roberts, realised that the map she had seen throughout her childhood had vanished, and explored the area until she found it, writing a letter to the local paper in 2014 asking if there were plans to maintain it. The Fovant Badges were undergoing renewal in time for the centenary of World War I, but the Map of Australia was not being included in the renovations. A very determined lady, she got the farmer, the press and a handful of volunteers on the case and soon was given permission to restore the map. Every year since, she has led a small group of volunteers who have taken tools up to the top of that very steep hill, and hacked away at the weeds, refreshed the chalk and tidied the edges, so that the map is once again visible from the road which passes below. In 2023 I saw an article in the local paper, a plea for volunteers, and having previously done a stint on the ancient white horse in Uffington, I joined one of the 'working picnics' to help restore the map. It is a very chilled out affair. We met at Naishes Farm, a motley crew of locals and Australians who were either living or stationed in the UK. Grabbing some hefty tools, it was a steep but pretty walk up to the map, and then we each took a section to work on, removing all of the weeds and trimming the edges. We paused to enjoy the picnics we had brought along, with the kids from one Australian family sharing out the Anzac biscuits they had made, which seemed such an appropriate gesture. The views up there are incredible; the patchwork of fields stretching off into the distance and the clouds chasing across the vast open skies, skylarks could be heard in the woodland below us and birds of prey were circling above us. A tiny dot of a tractor was busily working in the fields, constructing a new vineyard. Helen pointed out where the camp was, where the trainline was, and it was so hard to look at such a serene place and think of how busy it once was with all those huts and thousands of men living, training and convalescing there. It is a peaceful place and very rewarding work, if slightly hard on underused muscles. Once shipshape, the map is the location of an Anzac Day service, just as it was in the 1950s, and Australian military and locals join to remember those who were stationed in the camp. The Anzac Day Service Every 25th April is Anzac Day. First held in 1916 to remember the antipodeans who had died fighting in Gallipoli, it is now a national day of remembrance for those who fought in both world wars. Again meeting at Naishes Farm, the group included some of the volunteers, locals, buglers as well as members of the Australian military who are currently deployed in the UK and on exercise on Salisbury Plain, helping to train Ukrainian soldiers. One special guest was Jill, who had come from Australia and whose father was stationed in the camp over 100 years ago. There were readings of diary extracts from inhabitants of the camp, the Last Post was played, a minute's silence was held in the bright sunshine high up on the hill, and the leader of the Australian army contingent gave a moving speech, thanking the people of Wiltshire for the ‘care and hospitality afforded to those soldiers,’ for ‘helping us honour their sacrifice and for the enduring restoration effort made in keeping their esteemed legacy alive.’ It was very moving, standing up there in the bright sunshine, watching the world move around below us while listening to the words of former inhabitants of the camp be brought to life by serving Australian soldiers. After the service, we all gathered in the village hall, which was once one of the huts used in the World War I camp. Over tea and cakes, Major Hand of the Australian Army presented Helen Roberts with a plaque of the map of Australia, in gratitude for all of the work she has done to preserve this important piece of Australian heritage in the Wiltshire countryside. Just over the road is the cemetery, where 35 soldiers rest, most of them are Australian Infantry and all died during the war. A walk around the graves brings the reality of what happened to them sharply into focus, and shows just how valuable the work of the volunteers is in preserving the map, as the only evidence of the sacrifices the soldiers made in travelling thousands of miles from home to fight a foreign war. The MOAT website has more information about the camp, or follow the Facebook page for more information about volunteering. I would urge anyone reading this to volunteer next year - it is a truly rewarding experience. If you can't, they always need donations to buy new tools for working on the map.

  • HEXHAM OLD GAOL, NORTHUMBRIA

    A surprising find in a very pretty Northumbrian market town, Hexham Old Goal is the earliest purpose built prison still standing in England. It was completed in 1333, using stone from the Roman fort at Corbridge and has been through many incarnations before opening as a tourist attraction in 1980. Hexham Gaol was built on the orders of William Melton, 43rd Archbishop of York, to help him control the lawless border areas between England and Scotland. The region was plagued with bands of robbers, known as the Border Reivers and he needed a solid construction to keep many of these wrong-doers from causing further mayhem. It’s a small compact building and there are just three floors to see, accessed by a glass lift. The first visit is to the vaulted dungeon – which you can only see it from inside the lift, but you can get a sense of how it must have felt to be locked up here in the cold and dark. The ground floor has a display about crime and punishment in medieval times, with some good child-friendly comparisons between modern and medieval punishments. There are also some stocks to try out for the adventurous. There’s information about the area in the 16th century with a list of March Treasons, all punishable offences e.g. marrying a Scots woman! A display case of arms and armour, and a model of the Marches Warden help to set the scene. Upstairs there’s a look at daily life in the medieval and early modern period with an original bastle (defendable farmhouse) window. Information boards record how Hexham witnessed a severe riot in 1761 when a crowd gathered in the nearby Market Square to protest about changes for serving in the militia. 45 protesters were killed when fired upon by troops in the North Yorkshire Militia. After 1400 prisoners were taken from here on the very short walk to the courtroom of the Moot Hall. This building is one of the best surviving examples of a medieval courthouse, but is only open to the public on special Heritage Days. The prison closed in 1820 and has subsequently been used as a bank, solicitor’s office and, in WWII, a fire lookout tower. There’s not a lot in the way of artefacts to see, but the building itself is very atmospheric and so worth a visit.

  • THE VICTORIA TUNNEL, NEWCASTLE

    A great visit along part of a 19th century wagon way, built to transport coal to the Tyne river and later converted to an air raid shelter in WWII. There is plenty to learn about its construction and operation, with some good human stories too. You can take a 75 minute or 2 hour tour in small groups with very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. The 2 hour tour includes a short walk around this once heavily industrialised area, to help orientation when you go underground. Then the journey through the tunnel begins at the entrance in Ouseburn where visitors are issued with hard hats and torches. Chronologically the story is reversed, with the first half of the tour looking at the tunnel’s vital part in sheltering the citizens of Newcastle from German bombs, the second half focusing on its use to transport coal from the Leazes Main colliery to the river. The guides explain that before war began in 1939 plans had already been made to open up the defunct tunnels to protect people - for the most part Newcastle residents had no gardens for Anderson shelters, and Morrison shelters were unsuitable for sprawling tenement blocks. It took two weeks for engineers to find out how to access the tunnels. The higher levels had to have blast walls added because of the dangers of a bomb blast so near the surface. Once the level was more than 55 feet down it was deemed to be safe - it was not possible even to hear the planes or bombs, nor indeed the All Clear which had to be sounded by wardens’ whistles. A nurses’ station was positioned as soon as the area was safe, where patients were triaged in very little light. Nearby the wall was painted with canary yellow paint - gas detection paint, which would turn pink if gas got down into the tunnel. Bombing was heavy over Newcastle because of the many factories and docks in the North East. People could be down there for up to 10 hours as bombers coming back, using the river as navigation, would drop any unspent bombs on the city below. 141 people lost their lives in the bombing: the number would undoubtedly have been far greater without this vital shelter. 7000 people could be down there at any one time but there were wooden seats for only 2500. 500 3 tier bunk beds were provided with a strict hierarchy of users - kids on the top, pregnant or nursing mothers in the middle, essential war workers on the bottom. The toilet facilities are pointed out - an Elsan bucket - and it is explained that the only things to make this any easier was a modesty hessian curtain and plenty of strong smelling disinfectant. When the guides encourage the group to briefly turn out their torches, you get just a little glimpse of the horror this whole experience must have been for those compelled to dive underground into these damp dark tunnels night after night. Passing under Hadrian’s Wall, the story then goes backward in time to the construction of the tunnel. In 1839 there were coal mines everywhere and the coal was usually transported by horse drawn carts trundling through the centre of town, then being offloaded on to barges before eventually being taken to the coal ships waiting at the mouth of the Tyne. Two enterprising mine owners employed firstly an engineer and then 200 clay kickers to dig out the clay (later recycled into the bricks that line the tunnel). They then installed rails and eight wagons and used a simple system combing gravity and a stationary steam engine to move the coal directly to the ships. A masterpiece of engineering, opened in 1842 which could run 24 hours a day and saved 90% on transport costs. It operated until the colliery closed in 1860. There are plenty of good stories, including of the only unfortunate death within the tunnel, and the volunteers are happy to answer any questions. There is plenty of humour and fun within their delivery: they clearly enjoy enlightening and entertaining their visitors. 15,000 people now visit the tunnels every year - testament to their great success. Address: 53/55 Lime Street, Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2PQ The tours are run by the Ouseburn Trust and tickets have to be booked in advance through the website >>

  • BISHOP'S CAUNDLE - HOME TO THE UK'S OLDEST WORKING POSTBOX (BUT A MOST UNWELCOMING PLACE TO VISIT)

    Bishop's Caundle is a small village in rural North Dorset, the sort of place where you expect pretty walks in the countryside and a good village pub for a refreshing drink afterwards. Home to a unique British icon, an early Victorian postbox which is still in use, you would think this would make for a good walk with a bit of history thrown in. Sadly, this is not the case. One thing you will notice when trying to plan a visit to the village of Bishop's Caundle is that there is a significant shortage of walks on offer in guidebooks or on the internet. We should have realised there was a good reason behind this, but a look at the OS map had shown that there were plenty of public footpaths available, so we took a risk, thinking maybe it was just so off the beaten path that no one had put anything online as yet. There is nowhere to park in the village but we ended up at the Village Hall which although it was closed, had a small car park. A sign informed us that parking was for patrons only, but with no other options available, that's where we ended up, feeling a bit uncertain but hoping people would understand. We had mapped out a circular route from the village hall to take us through some countryside to the country's oldest postbox and back again, using public rights of way. However, although the footpaths were clearly marked on the map, that did not seem to correlate with the real world. The first one we tried was behind a locked gate which we had to climb, and the path had been planted with crops. We walked round the edge of the field, so as not to damage to crops, but they had actually been planted right up to the edge. Every turn we took, assured by the map it was a public footpath, we found that the farmer had put up gates, fences, wires to block paths and that much of the signage had been removed. Where we did find signage, assuring us we were on the right track, wires had been strung across the path, leaving us very uncertain if a farmer was going to come charging out yelling at us to "get off his land". Most of the footpaths that we ended up on were so overgrown that it was impossible to see any sort of path at all. We tripped and stumbled over brambles, nettles were up to head height, our clothes got ripped and we ended up covered in scratches and bruises. Spot the footpaths... This was not just a fresh season of minor growth. This was years worth of neglect. We couldn't open gates because they were so overgrown. We had to hunt around for ages to try and find the paths - we could see the signs but there was just no access. In the end, we managed to get ourselves onto the road and gave up entirely on the footpaths. However, the roads are very narrow and very bendy; it was a hazardous experience with lots of cars having to break suddenly as they rounded the corner and saw us. We did our best to leap out of the way, but the verges too were overgrown and full of potholes, causing us further injuries. With much relief, we finally made it to the old postbox. Photos online had shown it sitting in front of two charming looking old cottages, covered in roses. Sadly, one of theses cottages seems to double up as a junkyard; a large area by the side of the road and the whole of the cottage garden was full of broken glass, old tires, endless broken boxes. It was an absolute shambles. It is such a shame when beautiful buildings happen to squalid people. The postbox itself is very nice, an octagonal shape painted red with a back drop of deep red roses climbing up the cottage behind it, but for some unfathomable reason, someone has decided to put a wooden pillar up behind the postbox. Why it is there is an absolute mystery and it just looks like someone is deliberately trying to spoil the appearance of this wonderful piece of British heritage. We walked back on more narrow roads to the village thinking we might get something to eat from the local community shop. It was shut, so we walked on to the local pub, the White Hart. It too was shut. A Saturday lunchtime in the middle of July and the only place open was a service station. We ended up drinking our water in the rather damp and unremarkable church, listening to the sounds of the traffic speeding past the door, before heading back to see if our cars had remained unticketed. It is always a disappointment to be made to feel so unwelcome; clearly this is a place where the farmers rule the roost and have no compunction about allowing the footpaths to get so inaccessible that people get injured and just give up. Combine that with a lack of facilities for visitors and I really would avoid the place like the plague. If you want to see the oldest working postbox, drive up to it, park next to the cottage inhabited by fly tippers, take a photo and drive on to somewhere else for a walk, food and where you will be made to feel welcome.

  • ST. DUNSTAN IN THE EAST: A MICROCOSM OF LONDON'S DESTRUCTIVE HISTORY

    St. Dunstan in the East is often touted to visitors as a 'Secret Garden', where the bombed out ruins of a church hide a garden filled with plants to create a beautiful quiet spot away from the crowds. The truth is somewhat different as it features in so many photoshoots and Instagram photos that it is actually a well known location. That aside, it is still a fascinating place and well worth a visit if you are in the area, for that small spot near the Thames encapsulates much of London's history. Wreathed in ivy and lush greenery, the ruins of the church of St. Dunstan in the East are a peaceful enclave away from the chaos and intensity of the banking institutions that surround it. A shell of a church with blackened walls, no ceiling and empty Gothic windows; all that remains intact is a bell tower designed by Christopher Wren. These ruins are Grade I listed and serve as a bleak yet beautiful reminder of the damage that has been inflicted on the city over the centuries. St. Dunstan's was a parish church built around 1100 AD near the Tower of London and River Thames. The church was named for Saint Dunstan, a 10th century monk born in 909 who spent much of his early life being taught by Irish monks in Glastonbury Abbey. He survived several illnesses including a near fatal childhood illness and being thrown in a cesspool where he contracted blood poisoning and ended up covered in tumours. He spent time in the courts of several Saxon kings, each time being falsely accused by jealous courtiers of involvement with black magic and the Devil. He was well known as a skilled musician and metal worker, and eventually, after many trials and tribulations, became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan was canonised in 1029 and was the favourite saint of the English until Thomas a Becket usurped his popularity. He had founded (or rebuilt) Stepneys church in 952 A.D. which was originally dedicated to All Saints, but rededicated to him after his canonisation, which is the church now known as St Dunstan in the West. The ruins you see are not the original 1000 year old building - it has been added to, replaced and repaired over the years, particularly in the 14th century. Three hundred years later the Great Fire of London in 1666 inflicted some serious damage - Pudding Lane where the fire started is a minute's walk away so it was in the thick of the fiery onslaught. It was patched up in the following years with a new tower added in 1668 as part of Christopher Wren's massive undertaking to rebuild the churches of London, and the steeple was added in 1701. The tower and steeple kept the Gothic style so that they blended in with the body of the church, there were carvings by famous sculptor Greenling Gibbons who also worked on the rebuild of St Paul's Cathedral, and an organ which is now at the abbey in St Albans. In the 19th century there were problems with the roof. The architects were going to rebuild just the roof but the church was in such bad condition that the whole building was taken down and built again, although the original tower was retained. It reopened in 1821. Built of Portland stone, it could accommodate up to 700 people and thrived as a parish church. Over 100 years later, 1941 saw the peak of the Blitz, a massive German bombing campaign that dropped 30,000 tonnes of high explosive over the UK, a large amount of which was over London. Much of the East End was destroyed, including this once proud parish church which was decimated, although the tower and north and south walls remained standing. Being too costly to repair, the Gothic ruins were turned into a public botanical garden in the 1960s, which opened to the public in 1971. Since then it has been a place of peace and refuge as the City of London grew around it, giving a small oasis of green amongst all the concrete and chrome. With a small lawn, mature trees including palm trees which lend a tropical air, an old sundial clock, a fountain in the middle which was built on top of the nave and encircled by benches, it is a beautiful spot for the city workers to enjoy in the summer, and for visitors to use for atmospheric photos. Any visit you make will inevitably see you watching women in flowing dresses posing in front of the arched windows and glancing coquettishly at the camera. The ruins are free to visit and are a delightful place to rest on one of the benches and watch the world go by. It is a great place to really spark the imagination, with its mysterious dark walls and empty windows, and is one of the few places left that people can get a glimpse of the damage caused by the Blitz in London, under the shadow or Wren's tower from that other period of mass destruction some 400 years earlier. The church is no longer in use as the parish was combined with nearby All Hallows by the Tower, but they do have occasional services there. The Wren tower is closed to the public as it is used for the All Hallows House Foundation which is a charity for health services. Visiting St. Dunstan in the East Opening Hours: 8am - dusk or 7pm, whichever is earlier The site is sometimes closed to the public for private functions. Ticket Prices: Entry is free How to get there: The nearest tube stations are Monument or Tower Hill.

  • VISITING BILLINGSGATE ROMAN HOUSE AND BATHS - THE UNDERGROUND RUINS IN CENTRAL LONDON

    There are but a few remnants of Roman London underneath the office blocks and skyscrapers, most of them have been long since built over or destroyed, but a handful have managed to survive through to the modern day, and the Roman House and Baths in Billingsgate is one of them. A private house with its own bathhouse, its survival is unusual as despite having been found by the Victorians, who had little regard for such things, it was protected and preserved and is now open to the public on special guided tours. The Romans arrived in England in 43AD and quickly conquered the south, establishing Londinium in what is now central London. They remained for about 350 years and in that time London became a densely populated and thriving capital city, filled with all of the buildings you would expect in a major Roman city. Most of it has vanished, log since built over, but some sections of the Roman wall and a few buildings have been found, such as the Mithraeum and amphitheatre, both of which are open to the public as free museums. Billingsgate House is unusual as it is not open as a museum and still looks like an archaeological site. It has not been packaged into a museum format, there are no sound and light shows, no interpretation boards, multimedia screens or curated displays of finds in glass cases. Instead this is a raw and elemental dig site, hidden away underneath a very bland office building which can only be accessed by guided tour on certain days. The finds are packed away in cardboard boxes which line one wall, and a few visual aids sit on a table. The whole place has a very exclusive feel to it, you are not following in the footsteps of thousands of other tourists, this is very much off the beaten path, even though you are in central London. The entrance is through some nondescript doors and you wait for your tour in a bare concrete room before descending down narrow utilitarian steps to the basement. There is a small mezzanine level and metal walkways which take you over the ruins and two London City guides talk you through the history and show you around. This house is the only private house which has been found in London, and dates from around 190 AD. The house was originally built right by the Thames, which was far wider back then, and would probably have been U-shaped, although one wall has yet to be discovered. The bathhouse was built about 50 years after the house and was situated in its courtyard. It was a private bathhouse, not one of the usual public ones which the Romans are famous for, as they had a very social aspect to bathing. This one may have been built as a result of the nearby public baths closing down in about 200AD - this one is smaller and more functional, intended for use by the inhabitants of the house only. There is a model on display to show you how it would have looked. The bath house had three rooms, two of which had underfloor heating using the well known hypocaust system. You would enter into the frigidarium or cold room before moving into the caldarium or steam room, and then tepidarium or warm room, both of which had underfloor heating. The remains of the furnace can still be seen and is where a slave would have been feeding it with wood to generate the heat. People would have gone round the rooms several times, in a process of steaming, covering themselves in oil which would then have been scraped off with a special tool to remove the dirt. People would wear clogs on their feet to protect them from the heated floor. The whole system used in the construction was well thought out and you can see ventilation channels and gaps in the bricks and walls to avoid the buildup of smoke. There are no mosaics in the bathhouse, showing it was probably more functional than decorative or for showing off wealth but you can still see the tesserae tiles which were used. There is no indication of who would have lived there but archaeologists think it would have been a prosperous person who may have worked at the basilica, which is now under Leadenhall Market On display are a few tiles found which were found here, and common to building sites across time, a couple have paw prints in them and there is one with a badger's hoof imprint. The tiles were made in Hampstead Heath and the stone used to build the house was bought from nearby Kent. Not many artefacts were found in the house. The Roman walls were built in 200AD and were extended to include a riverside wall around 280AD which would have removed the view for the occupants of the house. The site was in decline by the third century and it clearly went through a change of use, possibly being turned into a boarding house, hotel, or even a brothel. You can see where one of the heating channels was bricked up to make it smaller so it was less costly to run. Eventually, the house collapsed in on itself and nature took over, alder trees grew amongst the ruins and the site was forgotten. The Romans left around 450 A.D. and the area inside the Roman walls remained unoccupied until the 880s. The Saxons had built Lundenwic, which is to the west of the Roman city, and only when their city was under threat from the Vikings did King Alfred move everyone back into Roman London and rebuilt the Roman walls. An Anglo-Saxon brooch was found at the site which dates from the late 400s, so people were exploring the undergrowth or perhaps blackberry picking over the ruins. There was also a metal coin hoard found in the hearth area which dated from 380AD. The Victorians used the site to build a Coal Exchange, coal being one of the mainstays of the economy. James Bunning the architect found part of the ruins when it was being built and unusually for the time, preserved them. Visitors could apply for special permission to go down to see them, although no one really knew quite what they were. The Coal Exchange was a majestic imposing building which was opened with much fanfare in 1848 by the future Edward VII in his first public appearance. In an act of architectural vandalism, the Coal Exchange was knocked down in the 1960s to widen Lower Thames Street, and some hideously bland office buildings were erected. During this process they found the rest of the house and bathhouse that you see today, preserving them in the basement. A visit here gives a fascinating glimpse into the historical underbelly of London, with its setting in a basement making it all the more intriguing; unsanitised, uncurated and with a tour from two excellent guides really is the best way to see it. How to visit the Roman House and Baths at Billingsgate You can find tour dates on Eventbrite - follow City of London Guides. Tours last just under an hour. They do not run year round due to having to maintain strict heat and moisture levels.

  • MAX GATE: THOMAS HARDY'S VICTORIAN VILLA AND THE LADY IN THE ATTIC

    Max Gate is the house designed and built by Thomas Hardy in the Dorset town of Dorchester, once he was a published and acclaimed author. Now owned by the National Trust, it is a substantial red brick villa set in a large garden, a marked contrast to the rural cottage where he was born. It was here he lived with both of his wives, both troubled relationships which led to some of his best work, but also led to the torment of his first wife, Emma. From his humble beginnings at the nearby Hardy's Cottage (which is also owned by the National Trust), and after his time spent working in London as an architect, Thomas Hardy bought a one acre site in Dorchester for the large sum of £450, and designed a two up, two down house for it, which was built by his father and his brother. He and his wife Emma moved in 1885, and Hardy was to live there for over 40 years until his death in 1928. Over the years, Hardy added to the house, starting in 1895 after achieving financial success when he published Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Rooms were extended, a huge extension was added at the back of the house, attic rooms were put in and a conservatory was added. By the time he died, he had three studies. Max Gate entertained the great and the good of the early 20th century literary world including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, A.E. Housman, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Holst, Siegfried Sassoon and T.E. Lawrence, who lived nearby and whose cottage is also open to the public. Thomas and Emma had met in Cornwall, and their courtship inspired his novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. They married four years later in 1874. It has been said that she forced his hand into marriage, then resented him, thinking she was superior as she was the niece of an archdeacon and that he had married 'up'. Friends said they did not get along at all, and they never had children, something which caused them both much unhappiness. Their marriage deteriorated over the years and she retreated more and more to her attic suite in Max Gate, to keep out of the way of her husband and his many visitors. By 1899 she was a virtual recluse and lived in the attic rooms she referred to as 'a sweet refuge and solace'. She died there in November 1912 at the age of 72, a lonely and resentful woman. Hardy’s discovery of her diaries after her death led him to write his greatest poetry, The Poems 1912-1913 in her memory - poems of grief and remorse, many of which are set in the house and grounds. In 1914 he married his secretary/researcher, Florence Dugdale, to whom he left the house on his death in January 1928. Florence ordered the house to be sold after her own death in 1938, and the proceeds to be placed in the Dugdale Trust. Hardy’s sister Kate bought the house to prevent it falling into the wrong hands, and it was she who left Max Gate to the National Trust in 1940. Visiting Max Gate The house is very much as you would expect a Victorian villa to look, filled with the formal arrangements and clutter of the era. Many of the rooms contain original possessions of Hardy's and show off his architectural skills. The Drawing Room, also called the Music Room, was designed to be light and airy and has unusually large windows for the time, which were intended to give views across the garden into the woods and hills beyond. Above the fireplace is Hardy's Venetian mirror and the original fire surround is covered in Delft tiles which he collected while on a cycling holiday in Holland. This room was for entertaining the many visitors received at Max Gate. The dining room includes some of the original furniture such as the scroll arm sofa, the writing bureau and the bookcases which are either side of the fireplace. Hardy designed special shutters for the windows to prevent people peering in on him and his guests, as towards the end of his life tourists would arrive in charabancs and then to try peer over the hedges and walls to see him. The painting on the left of the bookcases is called the Three Marys and was originally owned by the Reverend William Barnes, a Dorset poet and mentor to Hardy. Hardy cherished it and had the painting hanging in the dining room and then his study, but after his death it was sold by Florence, until it was bought and donated back to Max Gate by the Hardy Society. There are three studies in the house, one of which includes his desk, a kitchen which contains the original dresser and is now a café, and a staircase he designed himself which was deliberately wide enough to be able to carry a coffin down it without having to upend it. The Master Bedroom was where Hardy slept and eventually died in January 1928. He had wanted to be buried at Saint Michael's Church in nearby Stinsford with Emma and his family. However a contemporary thought he should be in Westminster Abbey to befit his status and in the end his family and followers compromised; his heart was removed while he still lay in bed, was sealed into a casket and is buried in Stinsford with Emma, while the rest of him was cremated and interred in Westminster Abbey. By far the most interesting room in the house is the small attic where Emma spent most of her time until her death. Emma Gifford had had an idyllic childhood, and was living in Cornwall with her sister when she met Hardy. He was captivated by her charm and she supported his goal to become a writer, helping him with research. She had ambitions to become a writer herself, and eventually began to irritate Hardy by talking of 'our' books, and of the emendations she had made to his work. She developed a fervent belief in religion and grew more eccentric in later life, possibly due to hereditary mental instability but probably more because of her unhappy life and marriage - Hardy's frequent infatuations with other women must have been hard on her. The attic rooms were built in the 1895 extension and she used them just as a daytime retreat until 1899, when she moved her bedroom there, calling the room her boudoir. By 1910, she was in poor health and didn’t leave the room much at all. Hardy wrote about the last time Emma played the piano, not long before she died. She suddenly sat down to the piano, played a long series of her favourite tunes and said at the end she would never play again, which she didn't. The day before her 72nd birthday, she felt really unwell and the following morning she was found by her maid in great distress and asking for Hardy. The maid rushed to Hardy and told him what was wrong - he told the maid to straighten her collar and only then went to see Emma, who died within five minutes. Hardy had her body brought to the foot of his bed, where it stayed for three days, while in her rooms he found two diaries - one called What I think of my Husband which gave a very harsh verdict of him, described by his second wife as being 'full of venom, hatred and abuse of him and his family' and which he swiftly burnt. The other one was a more affectionate account of her childhood and her early life with Hardy. He wrote a poem in The Poems of 1912 - 13 after she died, describing her spirit leaving her grave and visiting Max Gate, in which he wrote about her ghost wandering around unhappy at the changes such as the walls being repainted, her favourite daisies in the garden replaced by a formal border, and at the end of the poem she promises never to return. The implication is that Hardy has forgotten her very quickly after her death, which on the surface he probably had, as he moved Florence into Max Gate just a year later, and married her a year after that. Hardy and Florence met in1905 when she was only 26; within a year she was doing research for him in the British Museum and they were meeting regularly. For the next few years, Emma and Hardy competed for Florence's company with Emma becoming more and more affectionate towards her. Florence just seemed very sorry for her. Florence moved into Max Gate in 1913 to take charge of the household, but she was not well liked by the staff. They married in 1914, when she was 35 and he was 73, in a secret ceremony and she made big changes to Max Gate, getting rid of Emma's cats, completely redecorating the house and removing anything to do with Emma. Emma's attic rooms were locked shut. Florence didn't seem to fare much better than the original Mrs Hardy - he was still having infatuations with younger women, he was writing poems about eloping with women he knew as well as a short novel The Well-Beloved, which describes a man who falls in love with a woman, then with the woman's daughter, and then the woman's grand-daughter. He was described as a secretive person, and reading about his life in the house you can tell he was notoriously tight with money and food, and there is a mention that there was a high turnover of staff, not something you would expect in a happy Victorian home. It is not surprising that Florence destroyed so much of his work and writing after his death, and perhaps insisted on the house being sold after her own death, perhaps as a form of revenge on her husband and his literary legacy. The garden is a lovely one and has similarities with the beautiful cottage garden where he grew up, albeit far more formal and structured. Sadly though, you leave the house feeling slightly perturbed about his behaviours and the damage he inflicted on the two main women in his life. Visiting Max Gate Postcode: DT1 2FN Opening Hours:10.30am - 4.30pm Closed Monday and Friday Cost: £9 for an adult, free to NT members

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