top of page

Search Results

320 items found for ""

  • SARASTRO - A FEAST FOR THE EYES IN COVENT GARDEN

    There are some restaurants which make for a truly unique dining experience, whether it is because of the food, the location or the ambience. The independently owned Sarastro has all three, but it is the décor which makes this a truly incredible place to eat and one which I would highly recommend to the Slow Traveller visiting London. On the corner of a fairly non-descript building on Drury Lane in Covent Garden is Sarastro, a Mediterranean restaurant which as been there since 1996. Named after a character in Mozart's Magic Flute, the restaurant is in the heart of London's theatre district. Drury Lane was once home to a grand mansion belonging to Sir Robert Drury in 1500, before the house and grounds were built over with rows of small houses and it eventually became one of the worst slums in the capital, famous for prostitution and gin palaces. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was first built here in the 1660s and the area soon became home to countless theatres as well as the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Today there are more than 20 theatres in the district and it is a mecca for culture vultures who visit for the wide range of entertainment on offer from highbrow operas to the ever popular musicals. Sarastro is located in an old pub, part of a larger complex that was built as social housing by the Peabody Estate. The building itself is rather bland, just a standard block of flats, but there is no mistaking where to find Sarastro. Covered in climbing plants, including huge arches which traverse the pavement, there are window boxes, hanging baskets, flowers in pots, ferns, shrubs and ivy everywhere. Interspersed amongst all the foliage you will find eclectic seating, lighting, statues, signs, all manner of curious things including a piano. The exterior gives you a good indication of what to expect, yet stepping inside for the first time will still leave you mouth agape. At the heart of the interior are gilt covered opera boxes converted into seating booths; the original opera boxes are from the nearby Royal Opera House, discarded when they had a refit. The top level only accessible by stairs, the booths underneath them have padded ceilings so you don't bump your head. The rest of the décor is a mishmash of opera and theatre props, rich fabrics and side lights. It is all jumbled together in no apparent order and creates such a rich visual display that you will spend most of your meal admiring the surroundings rather than talking to your companions. Piles of old books line the windowsills, paintings peer out at you from behind layers of decorations, Tiffany lampshades spread a colourful glow, random gold pipes cover the ceiling, and masks, mannequins, well worn ballet shoes and musical instruments hang from every available bit of ceiling. In the background music plays; it was 1920s music when I visited which created a wonderful vintage atmosphere as we sat there amongst the eclectic props. They do have live entertainment on some nights of the week with shows starting at 8.30pm. Thursdays is Swing and Motown, Fridays is Latin, Saturdays is 70s and 80s and Sundays is Opera and String Quartet. The food is excellent - Turkish Mediterranean with a choice of menus depending on what time you are eating, as this is a restaurant very much geared around the theatre crowd. The Pre-theatre set menu is available before 6pm and after 10pm, or there is an A La Carte Menu and a Set Menu. A trip to the loos is something else too, they are painted with colourful risqué scenes that make a visit far more interesting than you would anticipate. Service is quick and cheery. Make sure you ask for the Set Menu if that's what you want, otherwise you will be given the A La Carte menu. Bear in mind they automatically add a 12% service charge on to the bill. Book your table and look at menus on the Sarastro website >>

  • EAST MEETS WEST AT THE CROSSRAIL ROOF GARDEN

    London has several roof gardens on offer to the public, but the one above the Crossrail station in Canary Wharf is the largest of them all. Far superior to the more famous Sky Gardens, this garden is one where you can actually walk among the trees, rest on benches and listen to birdsong, and take your time to enjoy your surroundings, without having to book your visit in advance or get swamped by huge crowds. West India Docks on the River Thames were the first commercial wet docks in the country and once one of the busiest docks in the world. Once a place of thriving industry, they declined to almost nothing by the 1960s, suffering from changes in the shipping industry and technological advancement. The 1980s saw the start of the redevelopment of the area, with old dock buildings demolished or turned into riverside flats for the wealthy. Big business and the skyscrapers moved in, and Canary Wharf was formed. After a few initial hiccups and rivalry with the City of London for commercial supremacy, the area is now a high tech centre of multinational corporations; all shiny skyscrapers, gleaming steel and people in suits carrying briefcases, rushing around and looking important. For all of its glamour and fancy chrome restaurants, its does have a few decent parks and green spaces, one of which is the Crossrail Garden. Crossrail Place was first opened in 2015 and was the huge complex built around the improved rail infrastructure, created to open up parts of Canary Wharf. There are four levels of shops, cafes and other amenities above the underground station, the whole thing enclosed by a distinctive roof. 300m long and the largest timber project in the UK, the roof is open at points to allow natural light, air and rainwater in. These all benefit the plants which are growing in the roof garden - a free public space which is home to a wide variety of plants, including many species which first entered Britain through the original dock. The unique appearance of the cushioned looking roof was inspired by Wardian Cases - the special protective containers designed to safely transport specimens home from exploration overseas, a sort of early terrarium. The layout of the garden is said to be inspired by a ship's larder, filled with specimens being transported back. Many plants came back for commercial use, such as bananas, coffee and sugar, but others were just specimens of pretty and unusual plants and often ended up in places such as the nearby Kew Gardens and stately homes. As the park is directly north of Greenwich, home to the meridian which divides east and west, the garden is divided into the two geographic zones. The western half is filled with plants from the western hemisphere such as tree ferns, gum trees and strawberry trees, while the eastern half is filled with bamboos, magnolia and maples. Each is interspersed with flowering plants and shrubs. The best thing about the garden is that it does actually feel like a garden. It has paths winding through it, benches in shady spots and little hidden areas where you can just sit on a bench and relax. The rain comes in and you can feel the breeze on your face if you are standing under an open part of roof. In short it is the antithesis of the Sky Garden where they were forced to include a public space to get planning permission; so they threw a couple of plants in containers, make you book your time slot online and put you through airport style security before you are even allowed in there. This is the sort of garden where you just walk up there as and when you feel like it. There are a few people wandering around admiring the plants, or sitting and chatting on a bench, it feels like a normal park. There are not hundreds of people standing around with their phones out to take photos, or knocking back glasses of champagne just because it is for sale and they feel they should. There is the odd art piece amongst the foliage, a small café and some subtle lighting which keeps the place feeling safe without being intrusive. It is obviously more sanitised than you would find out in the countryside, but other than that it feels like a real piece of nature in the heart of commercial London. The Crossrail Garden is open every day until 9pm or sunset in the summer. It is free to visit and does not require advance booking.

  • THE THOMAS HARDY TREE

    This unusual tree growing through stacked gravestones in Camden, North London, is believed to have been created by the author Thomas Hardy when he worked there in the years before finding fame for his novels. Having stood firm for 160 years, the tree was sadly felled by a storm in December 2022, but its legacy lingers on and there are plans for a suitable memorial to this unique feature in a London graveyard. Hardy was working in London after his early years in the far more rural Dorchester, where he grew up in poverty - living in one of the most beautiful homely cottages you will ever find, and which is open the public. His family were unable to afford education for him beyond the age of 16 and so he was apprenticed to a local architect. After working on various local projects such as the church next to the impressive Athelhampton House, he moved to London and enrolled in Kings College, joining Arthur Blomfield's practice as an assistant architect. In the mid 1860s, the Midland Railway was being created to go through what is now Kings Cross-St Pancras and the cemetery of St Pancras Church was needed for its route. The church is thought to be one of the oldest Christian sites in the country and had fallen into disrepair by the early 1800s. In 1847 it underwent a period of restoration with drastic changes being made to the building, and burials ceased in 1854 with the Extramural Interment Act, going instead to the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery which was opened in nearby East Finchley. In 1865 the Bishop of London hired Blomfield's firm to supervise the proper dismantling of tombs and exhumation of the graves, and Blomfield passed the task to his protégé Thomas Hardy. The bodies were moved without their headstones, leaving the problem of what to do with them. The solution was to stack them around a young ash sapling - possibly intended as a temporary measure, but they remained there and over the years the sapling grew into a tree, its trunk and roots growing through the stones. Hardy returned to Dorset after only five years in London, worried about his health, disliking the city and acutely aware of the social divisions amongst its inhabitants. He probably never gave the tree a second thought, but over the years its fame grew, for many symbolising the triumph of life over death, and it received a steady trickle of visitors. The church put up a hedge barrier to protect it and the ash survived for at least 160 years before a storm in December 2022 snapped the trunk and destroyed it for good. I was very lucky to visit it not long before its demise. There are plans to ensure that the gravestones remain protected and that some sort of memorial is maintained but what that will look like is yet to be determined.

  • THE GRAVE OF THOMAS THETCHER

    An old gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral has an unusual place in history as the inspiration behind the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thomas Thetcher, also known as the Hampshire Grenadier, died in 1764 after drinking a small beer, and would have remained entirely forgotten if he had not become the inspiration for the early sobriety movement. Winchester in Hampshire is a beautiful and ancient city; once one of the most important cities in England, both pre and post Roman era. It retains many of its old buildings including The Great Hall, home to an Arthurian round table which has been there for 700 years, Wolvesey Castle where the important Bishops of Winchester lived for centuries and of course Winchester Cathedral. The cathedral is the focal point of this now very upmarket town, and features on every visitor's itinerary. Most visitors walk past the few remaining graves in the the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. There are not many gravestones left outside, and most people will head inside to find the far more recognisable graves of Jane Austen or the early Saxon Kings, ignoring the tall, loquacious gravestone sitting quietly under a tree. The lengthy inscription reads: "In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12th of May 1764. Aged 26 Years. In grateful remembrance of whose universal good will towards his Comrades, this Stone is placed here at their expence, as a small testimony of their regard and concern. 'Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall, And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all'. This memorial being decay'd was restor'd by the Officers of the Garrison A.D. 1781. 'An Honest Soldier never is forgot, Whether he die by Musket or by Pot'. The Stone was replaced by the North Hants Militia when disembodied at Winchester, on 26 April 1802, in consequence of the original Stone being destroyed. It was again replaced by The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1966." So how did this inspire the AA movement? An American soldier serving in World War I was stationed near Winchester while waiting to be sent to the Western Front. Bill Wilson had had a troubled start in life and had recently discovered the joys of alcohol, finding it helped him with his social unease and lack of confidence. He saw the grave when visiting the cathedral and was struck by the similarity of the name Thomas Thetcher with that of a childhood friend of his, Ebby Thacher. It was soon forgotten when he returned to the States and became a businessman, whose career was often marred by his extreme drinking. After several stints in rehab, he finally managed to quit with the help of Ebby Thacher and a church group. He later published his famous book, Alchoholics Anonymous, about how to overcome alcohol addiction, writing about his visit to Winchester Cathedral and how the gravestone had caught his eye, describing it as an ‘ominous warning which I failed to heed". Ironically, the gravestone is warning not of excessive alcohol consumption but rather the reverse. At a time when drinking water was rife with all manner of disgusting effluent, people drank beer instead. It was unknown at the time, but the water was full of diseases such as typhoid and cholera, so drinking beer protected them from this as the alcohol content killed off the germs. Poor Thomas Thetcher had drunk a weak beer, too weak for the alcohol to kill off the germs, and had died as a result: "And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all" The grave has become something of a memorial for those who have been afflicted by the same illness as Bill, and you will often see the odd flower or token in front of the gravestone. Otherwise, Thomas Thetcher goes unnoticed. You can find the grave at w3w: shaves.keys.microchip

  • THE NATURAL WORLD OF STONEHENGE

    Stonehenge sits on Salisbury Plain, a unique chalk ridge which covers much of Wiltshire and which is left mostly undisturbed as it is primarily military land, used for training and housing thousands of troops. This makes it the perfect place for wildlife and it is home to countless rare species of flora, fauna and fungi. A visit to the area can be about far more than stone circles when you look around you to see what is living amongst the stones and barrows. Stonehenge is often seen in isolation from the landscape around it, with all of the attention on the stones and what they meant to their original builders. Surrounded by ropes and security guards, it is easy to think of it as an entirely separate entity, yet the natural world, much like the original builders, does not recognise those recent man-made boundaries. For several species, Stonehenge is just home, a place to get treats from careless picnickers, or a location to visit on a long migration across the globe. All of those species, whether a jackdaw who lives in the lintels, a fungi who slowly creeps across the rocks or a butterfly who pops by over the summer, have a completely different view of those historic and ancient stones, and an appreciation of them can bring a whole new perspective to a visit to Stonehenge. Corvids: The Guardians of Stonehenge Salisbury Plain can be a bleak and forbidding place with a marked absence of much visible life, but the flock of ravens, jackdaws and crows keep the scene alive with their endless flight and fussing over the stones. In season you can watch the jackdaws nest, dropping twigs down the hole of a lintel until one catches on the sides and can be used as the basis for a nest. The rest perch on fence posts or casually stroll amongst and upon the stones, as if they know that their audience can't. Visitors are often surprised by the presence of the corvids which live in that lonely spot, and have done so for centuries, leading to them being seen as the 'Guardians of the Stones'. Not only can you see them flying over the stones and battling over twigs, they can get quite close to people, always on the lookout for an edible treat and having little fear of the intruders into their ancient home. “Another very unlikely spot is made use of by daws as a place to breed in, and that is Stonehenge. These birds deposit their nests in the interstices between the upright and the impost stones of that amazing work of antiquity: which circumstance alone speaks the prodigious height of the upright stones, that they should be tall enough to secure those nests from the annoyance of shepherd-boys, who are always idling round that place”. Gilbert White: Natural Histories and Antiquities of Selborne, 1788 Those of a more mystical persuasion interpret their presence as spiritually significant. Some see them as harbingers of death, and according to Druid tradition they're believed to bring about new changes (death to one phase of your life and the birth to another). Like anything to do with Stonehenge, the birds are not without controversy, as in recent years English Heritage have put mesh in some of the holes in the trilithons in an attempt to prevent nesting. This was noticed by an eagle eyed member of the public who tweeted about it to raise awareness, then submitted a Freedom Of Information request to find out what was going on. The heavily redacted documents confirm that they were indeed trying to prevent the birds from nesting in their traditional homes, but the reason was to protect the rare lichens which grow on the stones. Rare Lichen: Seawater on the stones Although it is widely accepted that Stonehenge is a mystery which will never be truly known, one of its lesser known mysteries is the presence of ancient lichen which can only usually be found by the sea. The stones are home to over 80 species of lichen; seven of them nationally rare and two of them exceptionally rare. One of these was identified in 1951 as "very rich, active and nearly pure unialgal growths of Hæmatococcus dræbakensis. I believed then that this alga was known only from pools in granite on a small island near Drobak in Norway ; I have learnt since that there is one doubtful record from Wales." (source) There are various explanations for its presence, the one that is the most exciting that the lichen was already present on the stones when they were transported to the Plain, having been washed in seawater. The more prosaic and likely explanation though is that they found their way here due to the way the stones are exposed to the elements on the Plain and that there is enough salt in the air coming off the coast to create their ideal living conditions. That being said, there is a good 30 miles between Stonehenge and the sea, and there are no other salt loving species to be found in the area, so they mystery remains. The lichen is currently being investigated by experts and there may be an answer yet. The Great Bustard: Back from the Brink Extinct in the UK after the last bird was shot in 1832, in recent years young birds have been hand reared and released onto Salisbury Plain, with a fair few sightings of them wandering around Stonehenge. The Great Bustard is one of the most elusive in the country as well as the heaviest flying bird in the world (up to 44lbs), and was once a common sight over the grassy plains of Wiltshire. The RSPB ran a project to reintroduce them in 2004, importing them from Russia with little success as they kept migrating back there, so eggs were then imported from Spain, whose Great Bustards were more similar in nature to those who had once been native to the UK and who were less inclined to migrate such great distances. The project has slowly become a success and is now monitored by the Great Bustard Group. Based in nearby Amesbury, you can visit their hide to see Bustards, or pay just £20 to spend 2 hours to have a guided tour of the project site and the hides, with all money going towards their upkeep and preservation. The Stone Curlew: Teetering on the brink There are two distinct populations of Stone Curlew in Britian - East Anglia and Wessex, and of these, Salisbury Plain and nearby Porton Down are particular strongholds. These areas are extremely important because they are relatively untouched by modern farming practices and remain the only area of level chalk grassland to have survived in the whole of Northwest Europe, the rest going under the plough. The RSPB set up the Stone Curlew recovery project in 1980s. The project monitors nests, rings chicks and keeps a watchful eye on breeding sites throughout the season. With help from the military who own much of the Plain and who run their own conservation programmes, they have worked successfully with farmers to double the population in recent years. Salisbury Plain is also home to many rare species of plants including orchids and grasses, as well as rare butterflies, insects and moths, many of whom can only survive in the unique, undisturbed chalklands of the hundreds of miles surrounding the stones. A visit to Stonehenge does not just have to be a quick sprint around the stones: you can walk around the woodlands and plains to find far more on offer. Walk from Woodhenge to Stonehenge >> Visiting Stonehenge: Your Questions Answered >> Four different ways to see Stonehenge and how to see it for free >> Paying to see the Stones >>

  • A VISIT TO THE POPPY FACTORY: RICHMOND, LONDON

    A visit to the Poppy Factory is a unique and rewarding experience, providing a chance to step briefly into the world of poppy making and remembrance that dominates the national consciousness in November of every year. A registered charity, they provide employment and raise funds for military veterans from their historic site in Richmond, south-west London. The wreaths that you see laid at the Cenotaph and at war memorials around the country are made at the Poppy Factory with a great sense of pride and satisfaction. A visit to the factory and learning its history pays tribute not only to those who died in war, but helps to support those who have survived the physical and emotional trauma of military service. A Brief History of the Poppy Factory The horrors of World War I are forever etched into the national memory of not just the UK, but the other countries who fought alongside them. It was a brutal war and the early promises of, 'It'll be over by Christmas' soon changed, with men spending days on end, knee deep in mud and filth as the endless pattern of trench warfare was developed and they were risking their lives for little more than a few metres of land each time. The once peaceful French countryside became a pock-marked landscape of mud, death and disease. In the first spring of the war, 1915, the artillery shelling of the Western Front in France and Belgium had disturbed the ground to such an extent that poppy seeds, which had lain dormant for years in the soil and fertilised by the nitrogen from the bombs, burst into spectacular colour. Soldiers who had spent the winter in the damp and cold trenches marvelled at the sight, picked the poppies and sent them home in letters to their families or stuck them between the pages of their diaries. It was in that year also that the Canadian physician, John McCrae, serving in dressing stations in Belgium, wrote his poem In Flanders Field: In Flanders Field, the poppies grow Between the crosses, row on row The words resonated with so many who were left bereaved or severely affected by the carnage of the conflict, and the poppy began to represent lives lost, remembrance, and the hope for a peaceful future. The creation of poppies came out of the work of two women. An American professor, Moina Belle Michael, conceived the idea of selling red poppies to show support and gratitude for the troops after reading John McCrae's poem and vowed to, "always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping the faith with all who died." She was the first person to make and sell red poppies. Simultaneously, French school teacher Anna Guerin who was living in the USA, held poppy days in several states and wanted to spread the concept further afield. She decided to mass produce poppies from silk, employing women and children in war-ravaged France to make them. She tried to persuade the American Legion to adopt the symbol of the red poppy but was unsuccessful, so in 1921 she appealed to the newly formed British Legion and won the support of Earl Haig. The poppies were sold in return for a donation and that year, 9 million poppies were made and sold. Earl Haig saw the huge potential for raising money for those under his command who had suffered so much, and he now wanted a British supplier. Major George Howson, a survivor of the Western Front, had formed The Disabled Society in 1920 and was desperate to find help for members; ex-servicemen who had been so severely physically or mentally wounded that they could not return to their pre-war jobs. He proposed to Haig that a factory should be founded to make the poppies and that the employees should be disabled veterans. Haig agreed, Howson was given £2000, and within a few weeks a factory was established in the Old Kent Road with just five disabled servicemen. By 1924 the workforce had expanded hugely and the factory that year made 27 million poppies. In 1926 it moved to its larger, still existing premises at Richmond. In 1928 Howson instituted the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, and the factory also began the manufacture of crosses and wreaths as well as buttonhole poppies. From these early beginnings, the factory expanded to become a vibrant community, with flats built for the workers and their families, and a thriving “estate”, providing much needed income for those who otherwise would have struggled to find occupation and purpose in their lives. Women were allowed to become employees from 1959. The factory still employs ex-servicemen and although they no longer make the individual poppies, they still make the wreaths, including those you see placed on the Cenotaph every November. A Visit to the Poppy Factory In 2021, the Poppy Factory opened its doors to visitors, mostly in large groups but with some days reserved for individuals. The Visitor Centre was revamped and it now welcomes an increasing number of people each year who are keen to find out more about poppies and learn about the charitable work which takes place in this historic and pretty corner of west London. A visit begins with a short presentation about the origin of the poppy itself as a powerful and nationally recognised symbol of remembrance and of the circumstances which led to the foundation of the factory in 1922, four years after the ending of the Great War in 1918. Our tour guide vividly depicted the horrors of the trenches and the simple joy which would have been found in the bright red poppies growing amongst the bleak, war torn mud. She told us how poppies were placed in with letters and sent home, how they were something the soldiers actually could write about without fear of the censor's black pen. The visitors are then allowed to wander around the visitor centre which incorporates a museum and displays as well as more hands-on activities, including trying their hands at making poppies themselves. The original wooden block design devised by George Howson is used and you are encouraged to make them one-handed as so many of those early veterans were compelled through loss of limb to do. You are provided with stems, leaves, red flowers and black centres and given simple instruction by the kindly volunteers. You may keep a couple of your poppies and put any more in the box, ready for shipping to the British Legion who will sell them in the future. You can also make the wreaths that are laid on town and village war memorials every year. You leave your enthusiastic – but somewhat imperfect – efforts for the veterans to reshape later, and they too will be used when November comes around. The buttonhole poppies are no longer made here at Richmond as inevitably machines have taken over and they are now produced at a modern factory in Aylesford in Kent, but the veterans here continue to make the wreaths by hand, and some still live in those early flats in a nearby building. The Poppy Factory has always had royal patronage and today’s patron is now Queen Camilla. The Visitors Centre has many photographs of royal visits and also displays the wreaths laid at the Cenotaph. A new wreath had to be hastily made for King Charles III in November 2022 just two months after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The King himself was closely involved in its design. It features the outer ring of laurel leaves to symbolise bravery, honour and victory and the bow is similar to that of his grandfather King George VI. The wreath of the Prince of Wales also had to be remade for Prince William, and Queen Camilla also has a wreath made to her own specification. After the Remembrance Service each year these wreaths are collected, cleaned, dried and repaired so that they can be reused. Today the Poppy Factory’s role main charitable role is the support offered to survivors of more recent conflicts, and you can read some of their stories in the displays. Since 2001 it has helped over 1500 veterans with complex health and social needs, setting those with physical disabilities and those with PTSD on the road to employment and continuing to support them as long as the help is needed. One area of the Centre is devoted to the kind of assistance offered, with many letters and photos showing the gratitude that many feel. The visitor centre has a café which makes excellent coffee and delicate cakes, served in some very beautiful poppy crockery, which we just couldn't resist buying from the small gift shop on the way out. All of the entrance fee for the visit is donated to the charitable work finding employment for ex-service personnel. You leave with a strong sense that George Howson’s vision of 1922, that “disabled men should be given their chance”, is flourishing still over 100 years later. It is a fascinating and highly informative visit and one which is well worth making. Visiting the Poppy Factory Book your tickets: Poppy Factory website Nearest tube station: Richmond

  • OAK APPLE DAY IN GREAT WISHFORD - GROVELY, GROVELY, GROVELY, AND ALL GROVELY!

    The 29th of May is a special occasion for the places across the country who celebrate Oak Apple Day. In Great Wishford, just north of Salisbury in Wiltshire, this takes the form of claiming the continuation of the ancient rights of villagers to collect wood from nearby Grovely Woods. The day is celebrated by the villagers with an early start to collect the wood, a short service at Salisbury Cathedral to re-instate their rights and is followed with a parade and fete in the village. For most of the UK, Oak Apple Day, also known as Restoration Day, is a yearly celebration to commemorate the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. On that day, which was his 30th birthday, the King rode into London in triumph to reclaim his throne. The day is named Oak Apple in memory of the time when the King hid from the pursuing Roundheads in an oak tree (there appear to be many of them on his route to the coast) following his escape from the Battle of Worcester in 1651 to exile in France. In Northampton a garland is laid on Charles II’s statue each year as grateful thanks for the gift of timber from royal forests after a great fire in the city. At St Neot in Cornwall the old oak is thrown down from the top of the church tower before a new bough is blessed and hauled up to the top by villagers. In London at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the day is observed as Founder's Day, as it was Charles II who founded the hospital for retired servicemen in 1681. Oak Apple Day used to be a public holiday, recognised across the country, with many monarchists wearing a sprig of oak leaves as a statement of loyalty to the crown. However, the day was formally abolished under the 1859 Anniversary Days Observance Act and in many places the traditions associated with it have died out. Not so in Great Wishford, a small and very picturesque village just five miles north of Salisbury. It is located just to the east of Grovely Woods, one of the largest tracts of forest in Wiltshire which stands on a chalk ridge over the River Wylye. The woods were once part of a large hunting forest and had belonged to Wilton Abbey. In 1541 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII gave the land to the 1st Earl of Pembroke and it is still owned by the Earl of Pembroke (we are currently on the 18th) who lives in the very stately Wilton House. The villagers of Great Wishford were granted rights - to collect fallen branches from the Earl of Pembroke’s Grovely Woods throughout the year, to collect live boughs “no thicker than a man’s forearm” on Oak Apple Day itself and to pasture cattle and allow pigs to root. These rights are believed to have been in operation from the 12th century but were actually enshrined in law in a Charter of the Forest Court of Grovely in 1603. The villagers have been forced to legally protect their wood rights at courts in 1292, 1318, 1332 and 1825 from various landowners who were keen to prevent them access to Grovely Woods so that they could use the wood exclusively, probably for hunting. The day begins at 5.30am (it used to be much earlier), with about 30 villagers going round the village to wake up all sleepers. They bang pots and pans to make as much noise as they can, to get all of the residents awake and up, as the right to collect live boughs is only for the 29th May, so all residents are needed up on the wooded hillside for as long a time as possible, to collect the maximum amount of wood for their winter fires and construction needs before darkness. Boughs are collected with which to decorate houses and a large bough of oak (the Marriage Bough) is hoisted up the tower of St Giles Church, said to give good luck to anyone married there. The most prized boughs are those covered with oak apples, which are not apples but actually gall from the oak apple gall wasp. These days breakfast is then served at the local pub, The Royal Oak, before many of the community head to Salisbury Cathedral to receive God’s blessing on their claims. Wearing sprigs of oak leaves in lapels, they gather to watch the ceremony. It begins outside the cathedral on the lawns when four dancers in 18th century costume, carrying their claimed oak apple boughs, process towards the building under the banner proclaiming “Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! And All Grovely! Unity is Strength”. The name 'Grovely' only appears twice in the Charter and it was said that the third was added at the start of the 20th century, when a villager was asked how much of Grovely the villagers claimed a right to. His reply was ‘just three thirds and no more’. The dancers then perform the Nitch Dance outside the cathedral door under the watch of a member of the clergy, accompanied by a harmonium. The dance is said to be in memory of Grace Read of nearby village, Barford St Martin, and her three companions, who were arrested and imprisoned in 1825 after taking wood from Grovely. (Nitches are the bundles of dry wood that they carry.) They perform two traditional dances, one holding their oak boughs, and the other around a pile of them. The villagers then move into the Chancel of the cathedral to hear a Canon of the Cathedral read from the 17th charter in acknowledgement of their rights, and pronounce his blessing to the villagers and assembled congregation. The villagers then shout in unison “Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! And All Grovely!” to conclude the event, a strangely evocative and almost primeval cry. Meanwhile, assorted and disbelieving tourists look on in amazement at such totally bizarre procedures. At midday there is a parade of villagers through the streets of Great Wishford, carrying their oak boughs to beat the bounds of the village. Led by a fire engine, the banner and the Nitch ladies walk holding the oak boughs on their heads, they are followed by groups of Morris Dancers, a May King and Queen, a series of very old tractors, local children carrying their artwork and anyone else who wants to get involved. After walking around the village, they go to the Oak Apple Field, which then opens to begin the annual celebration fete. The fete incorporates many traditional and quirky English customs. There are competitions such as £50 for the best scarecrow in a garden, and a Cup for the “best dressed” house. There is a BBQ and a bar which does a thriving trade, as well as various stalls selling knick knacks, cakes and locally produced goods. The Nitch Ladies dance again, as do the Morris Dancers, and anyone who wants to gets to have a go at traditional maypole dancing. Typical fete entertainments are provided including Punch and Judy, Swing Boats and horseshoe throwing as well as more modern activities like face painting and hair braiding. The day ends with live music in the marquee. The ceremony has changed in varying degrees over the centuries, with small alterations here and there, but thank goodness that villages like Great Wishford can keep the past and its traditions alive, albeit in a modern form. Visiting Oak Apple Day at Great Wishford Follow the Oak Apple Club on Facebook for details. The early morning part is for villagers only but you can watch the Nitch Dance and Procession at Salisbury Cathedral and join the villagers for the parade and fete afterwards. Parking is provided in Oak Apple Field and the fete costs £2 per person to enter.

  • THE SECRET GARDENS OF SALISBURY'S CATHEDRAL CLOSE

    Salisbury's Cathedral Close is the biggest in the country and is home to a variety of houses from stately riverside properties to small cottages tucked amongst them. Most properties are private homes and all you get to see of them is their front facing facades, but once a year for charity, many of them will open their garden gates and allow the public in to take a look behind the scenes. The Cathedral Close is a truly beautiful part of the city, and many would agree with Bill Bryson who famously wrote that, "There is no doubt in my mind that Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England and The Close around it the most beautiful space. Every stone, every wall, every shrub is just right. It is as if every person who has touched it for 700 years has only improved it. I could live on a bench in the grounds". The Close contains 21 Grade I listed buildings and countless other Grade II listed objects such as railings, flagstones, bollards and walls. Several buildings are open to the public such as Salisbury Museum, The Rifles Museum, Mompesson House, Sarum College and Arundels, where former Prime Minister Ted Heath lived until his death. Others are open for events, such as the Medieval Hall, or Rack Close, but for the most part, all you can do is walk past the beautiful homes and wonder what secrets they hide. Once a year however, some of the gardens are opened up to the public to raise money for the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral. The gardens seem to vary each year, probably depending on how confident the owners are feeling about their gardening skills over the past few months, but there are usually about 10 gardens open along with those of the buildings which are open to the public anyway. A white tent is set up in the grounds where you can buy a printed programme telling you a bit about which gardens are open, and the programme acts as your entry ticket. Each building has a cheerful volunteer on the gate, and you just wave your programme at them for entry. It is a fascinating walk through the Close - not just being able to see how the other half live (properties in the Close can sell for millions) and to nose around secret spaces and eclectic gardens, but also to see the cathedral spire from different angles and viewpoints. The end of May/early June is the perfect time of year to see gardens as many roses are starting to emerge, the purple headed alliums are in their prime, the gladioli are at their most vibrant, apple trees have the tiniest of apple buds, early clematis is wrapping itself around the arches and arbours and the ever present wisteria is in full, glorious bloom. The gardens ranged in style from the formal to the quirky, and it was fascinating to see the hidden sculptures, sundials, ponds, water features and wildflower areas, interspersed with the odd butlers sink or rabbit hutch. I particularly liked seeing the evidence of the work that had gone into the garden's creation; the bags of compost stuffed in a corner, trailing hosepipes, trugs and muddy gloves abandoned on a shelf in a cobwebbed shed. One home had their laundry hanging out on a line, it was just too warm and sunny a day to let go to waste, even if their garden was going to be full of nosy crowds. Some gardens had vegetable patches; neat rows of lettuce, beans and potatoes and other emerging vegetables. Log piles, compost heaps and insect hotels were in abundance, with bird feeders and bird houses hanging from tall branches. Many had quiet, shady corners with a small chair and table tucked away, and you just know it's a peaceful spot where the occupant can rest from their gardening for a while with a good book and a Pimms. In some there were benches positioned to get the best view over the flowers, others had seating facing the river which winds it way around the back of the Close with endless views over the Harnham Water Meadows and the waterfowl which glide past. Many back gardens gave you wonderful views of the brickwork of their ancient homes, bricked in windows and doors, random tiles, windows in curious places, all showing how the home had evolved over the centuries. You can see how the houses back on to each other, the hotch potch jumble of additions and extensions and chimneys. Some had the Close walls as part of their garden walls, the ancient soft grey, lichen clad bricks a permanent backdrop to their climbing roses. The event is a popular one, particularly in sunny weather, and the Close is filled with a certain demographic: middle class people d'un certain âge with women in flowery, floaty sundresses, men in chinos and positively everywhere you look, panama hats and wide brimmed sun hats. The snippets of conversation you hear as you shuffle through the gardens include intense discussion of irises, alliums and roses, the merits of dead heading and admiration of the garden sculptures. Some of the gardens had the owners in situ and visitors would approach to ask them how they cared for a particularly tricky perennial, how often did they prune, what was the name of that flowering shrub? I was particularly amused by a visitor to the grandest of all the gardens, which had a very formal layout including statues, who was bemoaning the boring box hedging the owner had put in, saying it showed a complete lack of imagination and was indicative of 'new money'. Entertainment is laid on with musicians who travelled around the gardens, and tea and cake is available for sale in the South Canonry, which is the Bishop's Palace. A huge expanse of gardens as it sits on a bend in the river, it was fascinating to see inside the hallowed walls. Many years ago as a youngster at school in the building next door, I caught the headmistress peering over the school walls - she told me she was just trying to sneakily see what the Bishop was growing in his garden. After all these years, I finally got the chance to see for myself. The Canonry grounds are the perfect place to wander through wild meadow areas with frothy cow parsley as tall as you are, admire the organic vegetable garden and watch the river lapping at the reeds on the bank. People lounged on the grass eating cake and relishing the sunshine in such a beautiful setting. It is the perfect way to end an afternoon exploring the secret gardens of the Cathedral Close. Visiting the Secret Gardens of Salisbury's Cathedral Close The event takes place towards the end of May/early June - follow the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral or Open Gardens for exact dates and timings. Tickets cost £10 each (in 2023) and all proceeds go to charity. If you are not able to visit when the secret gardens event is on, you can still do a fascinating walk around the Cathedral Close. Why not combine it with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral or do the Harnham Water Meadows Walk to see the Cathedral and Close from a different angle?

  • GREENHAM COMMON: A VISIT TO THE DECONTAMINATION SUITE

    In the North Wessex Downs in Berkshire and not far from the town of Newbury is Greenham Common, a large expanse of common land which played a critical role in both British cold war and protest history, and whose name is now synonymous with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Women's rights. Much of the land is open to visitors and is covered with relics of its fascinating past, but the completely intact Decontamination Suite is kept locked away behind its bomb proof doors and is only very rarely opened up to the public. When it is however, it is most definitely worth a visit. Greenham Common and its neighbour Crookham Common form the largest continuous tract of open lowland heath in Berkshire, which covers more than 10 square miles and includes ancient woodland, reedbeds, rivers and streams. Its history as common land can be traced back to the Neolithic and it has a history of military use going back to the Civil War. It is now a place filled with nature and walkers, but its serene appearance hides its history of military aggression and political tension. A brief history of Greenham Common Greenham Common was used by the military in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as World War I, but during World War II it was developed as a military airbase, requisitioned by the Air Ministry in May 1941 as a satellite airfield for a nearby RAF base at Aldermaston and it became RAF Greenham Common. In 1943 the airfield was taken over by the United States Army Air Force and during D-Day General Eisenhower watched the departure of some of the 10,000 sorties from Greenham Manor heading to Utah Beach. After the war in June 1946 the airfield reverted to the RAF and was finally decommissioned in 1947 but with the development of the Cold War it was requisitioned again in 1951. The World War II airfield had to be rebuilt to cope with the new large aircraft and its new landing strip of 10,000 feet was one of the longest military runways in the world. In 1980 it was announced that Tomahawk Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) were to be deployed at six sites in Europe which included Greenham Common, and the first of them arrived 3 years later. The site rose to prominence with the arrival of the protestors and became famous as the site for women protesting the presence of US nuclear weapons in the UK. You can read more about the protestors in this article on the Greenham Common Peace Garden, a site you can visit just a few minutes away from the Common. The USA and USSR signed a Treaty in 1987 and the last of the cruise missiles was removed in 1991, with the base closing in 1992. Bought by the Greenham Common Community Trust in 1997, the part of the base known as the technical area was developed into an industrial estate and the rest was returned to open heathland. Today the common is central to the West Berkshire Living Landscape and is home to Exmoor ponies, cattle, birds of prey and is particularly important for some of Britain’s rarest ground-nesting birds, including nightjar, woodlark and lapwing. Across the common you will find various remnants of its chequered past; the odd metal fire hydrant, part of the runway and buildings such as the control tower which is open to the public, and others such as the missile bunkers and the decontamination suite, which are not. The Greenham Common Decontamination Suite There is however sometimes the chance to visit the decontamination suite, such as on Heritage Open Days - the wonderful few days each September when you get to visit buildings that are normally closed to the public. I visited last year and it was only the second time that the building had been opened to the public - the queues to get in were immense as over 1000 people visited and we waited well over an hour in the sun as it is so small that only very limited numbers can visit at any one time The Decontamination Suite is located at the western end of the main bunker and is made of stainless steel. Completely airtight and with an external set of doors which weigh 15 tons, it is one of the last surviving key buildings of the Cold War on Greenham Common and is now Grade II listed. It was attached to the command and control centre of US airbase - that part is now privately owned and has unfortunately been stripped of its heritage. The decontamination unit however is completely intact and has not been altered since it was decommissioned. The Allies knew that in the event of an attack, the Soviets would not aim to destroy the base, but would want to keep the infrastructure together, particularly the long runway which they would need to use themselves, so any threat would be from conventional biological and chemical weapons rather than nuclear. The buildings were designed to withstand direct bomb hits to some degree, but that was not the priority. Instead it was thought that they would use chemical weapons to kill the military personnel whilst keeping the buildings safe. The decontamination suite was there to save personnel who had been subjected to a chemical attack, and it was attached to the main command building, so they could be cleaned before accessing the HQ. Potentially contaminated personnel would enter past the guard room via an airlock with thick steel blast-proof doors, their whole route mapped out by arrows on the floor - red for contaminated, blue for clean. The first room has the start of the wash down facilities where they would send their clothing down a chute to be destroyed, then wash under showers over a grilled floor which would drain the chemicals away, and had a container of Fuller's Earth which was used to absorb chemicals and where they could clean their guns. They would pass through a series of rooms including a drying off room and a kit room filled with lockers where they could put on clean uniform before moving to a holding room when they could follow the blue arrows once they were considered clean. The whole process was watched by observers in the centre of the unit, who were kept safe by secure windows and in command of all of the processes, using microphones to issue orders and with Geiger counters at every step of the way. The command room could lock all doors and had total control over what went on in the suite. The unit has two plant rooms which still have all of their original installations. One was the water and sewage management room and the other was for air and oxygen bottles. In the event of a napalm attack, all inlets, ducts and cables had valves to enable them to be completely shut off and they had enough air to keep them going for 6 hours. It is a bleak place with steel ceilings, bare walls, strip lights and cramped spaces. The command desk now looks like a technological relic with its basic design and flashing lights but there is no mistaking the horrifying purpose that the building could have been used for, or the relief you feel as you leave, safe in the knowledge that it never had to be put to purpose. It is a fascinating and stark reminder of our very recent history. Follow Greenham Control Tower on Eventbrite or Heritage Open Days to be the first to know about the tours of the Decontamination Suite.

  • ST. GEORGE'S DAY IN SALISBURY

    Salisbury is a city which takes St George's Day very seriously indeed, with an annual day of celebration in the Market Square which starts with a town crier, a procession of dignitaries and the famous Salisbury Giant and Hob Nob, guided walks, shows, kids activities, Morris Dancing and plenty more. It is one of the biggest and most traditional celebrations in England for reasons unknown to even most of the locals, but there is a specific and little known connection between the city and St George. St George George was a Roman officer who was tortured by the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to denounce Christ. In 303AD he was beheaded in modern day Palestine, his fame grew with stories of his strength and courage, including his battle with an evil dragon, which is said to have taken place on Dragon Hill in Uffington, although in reality he probably never visited England. St George was not always the patron saint. Before him it was St Edmund, the Anglo-Saxon King of East Anglia who fought alongside St Alfred, King of Wessex, but by the time of Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades in the 12th century, it was George's name being invoked in battle as a rallying cry. It was Edward III who made him the official patron saint of England when he formed the Order of the Garter of St George in 1350. This is the oldest order of chivalry in Europe, and the most distinguished honour in the country. Myth has it that it was given its name when Edward III was at a ball in 1349 and was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury, when her blue garter slipped down her leg. In order to save her embarrassment he picked it up, attached it to his own leg and said ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, (‘shame on him who thinks evil of this’), a phrase which remains the motto of the Order. Edward IV built St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle in the 15th century which is the private chapel of the Royal Family and the resting place of many of them, including the late Queen Elizabeth II. Salisbury and St George Salisbury is a medieval city which is home to a beautiful cathedral, an ancient Doom Painting, Old Sarum and Stonehenge and contains over 600 listed buildings, many of them half-timbered medieval homes, as well as plenty of things to do, making it a popular place on the tourist trail for visitors to the south of England. In medieval times, Salisbury was part of the Diocese of Windsor and Bishop of Salisbury, Richard Beauchamp, was appointed as the first Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, a position held by all future Salisbury Bishops. All of the inhabitants of Salisbury were encouraged to go on pilgrimages to St George's in Windsor, where many relics were held, and a close connection between the two cities was formed. Salisbury was once one of the major trading centres of England for wool produced from the resident Wiltshire Long Horn sheep, who lived on the chalky plains and who had the unique characteristics of shedding naturally (so no need for shearing) and of both males and females having horns. Salisbury was a very successful trading city, trading wool across the country and Europe, and by the end of the 14th century, the city was also becoming renowned for its cloth production, for a while making Salisbury one of the 10 richest cities in England. The merchants effectively controlled the city - it was their money which built many of the buildings you can still see today, and each of the merchant trades had their own guilds; weavers, carpenters, tailors, bakers and more. They all combined in a merchant guild, The Guild of St George, which dominated the city for many years, making laws and byelaws and keeping strict control over the city, forming an enduring association between the saint and the city. There is still some evidence of this today and across the city you can see St George and dragons depicted in architecture as well as several buildings named after him. The final unique connection between Salisbury and St George is the use of the famous Giant and Hob Nob. They probably both existed from the 1400s and the giant was the emblem of the Tailors Guild, used in festivals and processions. It is thought that the giant may represent St Christopher who was said to be there when St George fought the dragon. Hob Nob is thought to have belonged to the Guild of St George and may represent the dragon itself. Hob Nob's role was to clear the way for the Giant to walk through the crowds of the processions, biting and nipping at people who got in the way. Both have gone through several incarnations over the centuries, with the originals now in Salisbury Museum and replicas out for current events. This all goes to explain why Salisbury makes such an effort to celebrate St George's Day, with a day of celebration on the Sunday nearest to 23rd April, St George's Day, and has done for many years. St George's Day in Salisbury The whole day is focused around the Guildhall (once the secular home of the Guild of St. George) and the Market Square next to it. Events start at the Guildhall, where crowds gather to listen to the Town Crier in his full traditional outfit, ringing his bell and shouting, 'Oyez Oyez' to get people's attention, watched by the Mayor and local councillors in their bright red robes and tricorn hats standing on the steps next to him. They then all process through Fish Row and the Market Square, joined by the giant, Hob Nob, Morris Dancers and assorted musicians and performers. It makes a colourful and highly entertaining spectacle, with the crowds waving their St. George's flags along the route. The mayor gives a brief speech and then the market square opens up with assorted stalls, rides, food vendors and a large beer tent. Morris dancers perform at regular intervals throughout the day, there are puppet shows, story tellers and craft activities for kids and the whole square is filled with activity. Free guided walks are conducted by Blue Badge guides who take groups through the city showing them all of the sites connected with St George, and the impressive Guildhall oak court room is used to put the dragon on trial in entertaining plays. Crowds fill the square for much of the day as there is so much on, although you will always find some baffled looking visitors wondering what on earth is going on around them in this rather cheery display of traditional English eccentricity. Sites in Salisbury connected to St George The Guildhall - the original Guildhall (which burnt down in 1780) was where the Guild of St. George met in a secular space to make their laws and kept tight control over the city. Read more about the Salisbury Guildhall >> St. Thomas's Church - This was rebuilt in 1450 with money from the wool trade and has a Chapel dedicated to the brothers of St. George (where the organ now is). Once used as a vestry it has now been resurrected with a new altar and re-dedicated. The church contains a magnificent Doom painting was paid for by the merchants and which has the devil portrayed as a dragon. Read more about the Doom Painting >> St Thomas's also has a stained glass window done in 1920s depicting St. George, and is the only place in the UK where he is seen with a purple dragon as they are normally grey, green, or black. The window is a war memorial and shows St. George killing the evil dragon, the recent enemy in World War I - Germany. St. George is wearing plate armour which didn’t actually come in until the 14th century; he should be in Roman military uniform like St Michael who is next to him on the window (see photo above). Salisbury Cathedral - The west front of Salisbury cathedral is covered in statues and just above the west door you can see St. George with a very Disneyesque dragon around his feet. The statue is Victorian and dates from the 1860s and portrays St. George as an early medieval crusader. Read more about Salisbury Cathedral >> Old George Mall - The Old George Mall dates back to the 14th century when it was the Old George Inn, built in 1320. It was a focal point of the city and visitors included William Shakespeare, who apparently rehearsed 'As You Like It' in the gardens, Oliver Cromwell spent a night there in 1645, Samuel Pepys in 1668 and Charles Dickens in 1844. One of the beams supporting the beautiful half-timbered building is original and has a commemorative plaque on it. If you visit the Boston Tea Party you can go upstairs to see all of the medieval timber work, carvings, and plenty of dragons. The George and Dragon Pub - built from ships timbers in 1530 as a brothel known as the Silent Woman because it is said a lady had her tongue cut out in one of the courting rooms, it was renamed the George and Dragon in the 17th century when it became a coaching inn. It is a popular pub in the city which is surprisingly large inside and has a beer garden on the river. The Milford Hill Mural City planners violated Salisbury in the 1970s with the creation of a dual carriageway which cut right through the city, with whole streets and buildings removed. The ring-road as it is known may make it easy to get around the place, but it is an abomination to look at. That being said, people have tried to improve it, and one such instance are the murals in Milford Street. Both walls of the underpass have been filled with murals created by local artist Fred Fieber. One side depicts the buildings which were once there before the city planners got their hands on them, the other side shows historical events in the city, including the tradition of the Giant and Hob Nob out in the Guildhall Square. It shows them in 1977, their last outing before being retired to the museum and replaced with the modern versions. St George's Church Harnham Built in the early 12th century on the site of a Saxon Church, St. George's is in Harnham, one of the small villages which was once outside Salisbury but now forms part of it. It still retains some Norman features such as the nave and windows and has a 13th century wall painting. There are plenty of other buildings around Salisbury where you will find dragons as ornamentation. The historic Odeon, once a wealthy merchant's home, is covered with dragons and wyverns on its Pugin frontage, Cross Keys House near the Guildhall is also covered with them and you will easily find them in other locations around the city, including a Victorian terracotta dragon above the Timpsons building near the library.

  • PRISON MUSEUMS AROUND THE WORLD

    The more gruesome side of social history has always appealed to the darker side of people's curiosity and in recent years, prison museums have become much more popular, with many now offering ghost tours, overnight stays and other experiences to pique a visitor's interest. Some prison museums are a place to learn about the terrible criminals kept within their walls, whereas others are memorials; places for remembrance of atrocities committed against people who were wrongfully imprisoned. Whatever their history, there is no better place to get a true understanding of what life was like for those inside than a visit behind their once locked doors. With the article Prison Museums in the UK being such a big hit with readers, we have decided to expand to Prison Museums around the World. Unable to visit them all, we enlisted the help of other travel writers who have each written about a prison museum they have visited. Click on the arrow next to each title to expand the listing Prison Museums in Europe Prison Museums in The Americas Prison Museums in Africa Prison Museums in Asia Prison Museums in Australia

  • THE MOSQUITO, A VETERAN'S STORY: DES CURTIS

    (This article was originally published in the magazine for CAF - the Commemorative Air Force, based in Dallas Texas, who I wrote it for in 2022.) The world’s biggest history festival takes place outdoors every year in the beautiful Wiltshire village of Broadchalke in the south of the UK. The Chalke Valley History Festival has a strong emphasis on military history, particularly of World War II and is one of the few remaining places that people can meet and listen to veterans who give talks on their war experiences, always to packed out audiences. Des Curtis was one of the veterans invited to this year’s festival. 98 years old but still sprightly, he was joined on the stage by famous military historian, James Holland, and John Lilley who is the Chairman of The People’s Mosquito, a charity he established in 2012 to restore a Mosquito aircraft to British skies. Flight Lieutenant Des Curtis was an RAF navigator who flew over 70 sorties with the same pilot, Doug Turner, and was awarded a DFC for his exceptional navigational skills. Signing up at the age of 19, he flew in Beaufighters before moving to the brand new Mosquito, one of the fastest British aircraft of World War II. His service included flying for Coastal Command and the highly secretive 618 Squadron as part of the Dambusters operation. In front of a captivated audience, he told his tale with humour and typical English understatement. Des was 19 when he enlisted in 1940, keen to do his bit for the war effort. When he was on parade one day while still in training, an officer said, ‘we need volunteers to fly Beaufighters for Coastal Command, so when I call your name you fall out’, and so he found himself in Coastal Command, whose primary function was the protection of Allied convoys from German U-boats. He said he didn’t object to being forcibly volunteered, instead that it was quite exciting because the word ‘fighter’ came into it. Nearby to where he was in training was an RAF Convalescent home and ‘a lot of the characters in there were Battle of Britain pilots so on a Saturday when we finished work they would come up to the local cider house and regale us with the stories of their Battle of Britain flying. It was sheer vanity to want to be in a fighter.’ Partnered with Doug Turner in 235 Squadron in Scotland, their role was single aircraft reconnaissance down the Norwegian coast looking for enemy shipping, then acting as fighter escorts for Torpedo bombers once the warships had been discovered. They spent a lot of time flying over the North Sea; it was two hours out and back and they would have to fly in and out of the lees within the islands as the ships were so difficult to see hidden in the darkness of the fjords. Flying close in and at low level, without revealing that the they had spotted the ship, was always a challenge. There were occasions when they were seen by the enemy, which Des described as, ‘always an exhilarating ten minutes or so’. On one such occasion they had an intelligence officer on board who had wanted to join an operations flight, just to see what it was like. In the two seater Beaufighter, the officer was stowed behind the pilot and the door which separated the pilot from the fuselage. He had to stand there for over four hours and it was on that occasion that they were spotted. Doug had a great defence mechanism if he was being attacked by a single aircraft; he would descend and fly in a corkscrew motion so that if the fighter behind got anywhere in the turbulence, it was strong enough to literally push them out of the way. For ten minutes the enemy tried to fire but because of Doug Turner’s skill and evasive action, they never got a single shot in. Once they were safely flying back to base, they invited the rather shaken intelligence officer to crawl up to the front and join them for a bottle of beer and a cigarette. “Of course it was totally illegal,” said Des, “but that’s just what you did then.” Everything changed when he found out they were to convert to Mosquitos. Previously Des and Doug had only seen them when they had to do an emergency forced landing in December 1942 during a snowstorm, and returning to their aircraft the following morning there were ‘these lovely sleek aeroplanes parked there that we had heard of but hadn’t seen. We were very envious as we would have loved the chance to fly those’. The opportunity came the following March when they were sent on a conversion course. Des described it as ‘like going from a Morris Minor to a Rolls Royce’. First of all you were seated in tandem, with the navigator sitting slightly behind the pilot. There were single controls rather than dual so pilot had sole command, but it was comfortable and everything was at hand making it a very pleasant experience and ‘the sound of those two engines is electric, it’s a wonderful sound.’ John Lilley, Mosquito expert, explained that the Mosquito is a beautiful, slick design with the wing made as one piece and the fuselage made from two moulds which then sat on top of the wing. Made from ply and balsa wood in a modular form they had to turn to a specialist workforce of cabinet and piano makers to take it from an ingenious idea to something that could be made in quantity. Des said he had never felt any concern about flying an aircraft made of wood and that the Mosquito never let them down once. It proved itself towards the end of the war when a heavy gun was added and the plane not only held the weight but the recoil had no effect on the fuselage nor loosened any bolts, which really says something about the strength of the construction. “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?...They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops…” (Reichsmarschal Hermann Goering) Des and Doug left 235 Squadron in March 1943 to join a newly formed 618 Squadron, assuming they would continue the same work as before, just with better aeroplanes. However, after 36 hours by train to the far north of Scotland they arrived at a deserted airfield and saw that the rest of their new squadron was a mix of 105 and 139 squadrons from Bomber Command and some of 235 were there due to their sea flying experience. Surrounded by Service Police they were told that their squadron was top secret, that they were not to discuss their work outside the Operations Room, that all letters home were to be censored and they could not even write about the weather or put ‘x’ at the bottom for kisses, as it could be interpreted as code. Even engineering staff did not need to know where they were flying. The CO had ensured that the nearest village was a ‘dry’ one with no alcohol on sale and they were told that, “you’re going to carry out an an operation which is highly dangerous, so anybody not prepared to undertake this can step forward and will return to the unit from which you came without a stain on character”. Des said that nobody so much as twitched. The mission was a daylight low level attack on the German battleship Tirpitz using a specially designed weapon, a bouncing bomb. At this stage, they knew nothing about 617 Squadron, the famous Dambusters with their bouncing bombs which later destroyed the Ruhr Dam in Operation Chastise. The Tirpitz was moored 1120 miles away, the range of the Mosquito was 980 miles so the navigators had to work out a solution to this, as carrying the bombs meant there was no space for extra fuel. A variety of options was put forward by assorted officers, each of which was more ridiculous than the one before. One suggested that after the attack they fly on to Russia and use their pistols to demand their planes be refuelled. Another that they bail out over the ocean and get the Navy to pick them up - from U-boat infested waters so cold you could die within 3 minutes. Another suggestion put forward by an officer was that they fly back inland along a Swedish railway line, land in the trees once they had run out of fuel and walk along the line until they were hopefully picked up by the weekly train. Des and his colleagues swiftly realised that they were expendable. “To say that we were scared has a little short word in front of it that I can’t mention with ladies present, but when you’re stuck in an environment like that you couldn’t discuss your fears. If I had said to Doug ‘I’m scared’ he might then not want a navigator who is scared, as he would want somebody who is bold.” Des explained that they all acted out with a lot of stupid behaviour in the mess due to the stress that was going on every day with no form of outside relaxation. Time passed heavily. They learnt about the raid on the Ruhr dam and that it had been a successful use of the bouncing bombs, albeit to a different spec, but they still didn’t have all of the aircraft they needed for their mission and they were still trying to overcome a further problem of their bouncing bombs being phased one behind the other so that it didn’t knock them out of the sky. Their conclusion was that they were going to die. “I was 19,” Des said to the silent audience, “I had no desire to die, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice myself for King George VI or anybody else”. The mission was eventually called off, and the Tirpitz wasn’t attacked until a year later in 1944. Des and Doug were posted to Cornwall where they formed part of 618 Special Detachment, flying the Mosquito MK XVIII which had an anti tank gun attached. It was developed by the Army who had decided against using it but thought the RAF could make good use of it. The RAF soon realised it was effective for chasing U-Boats and so after just three days training, they were on their next secret mission of chasing U-boats off the Atlantic Coast with the 12 foot Tsetse gun projecting out of the nose, its flame measured at over 130 feet, so they ended up flying into their own flame. Their role was to chase U-boats as they entered and left the U-boat pens which was when they were at their most vulnerable as the water was so shallow. The Ultra signals were intercepted by Bletchley Park and the Squadron’s job was to be at the same location and fly down the path the U-boat was to take. Their first sortie was a disastrous one - they saw a lone trawler which was suspicious as there were no fishing nets or seagulls swarming around it and they released it was there to protect a U-boat. The Commanding Officer, Charlie Rose, flew in for a closer inspection, climbing to 4,000 feet then diving at a 30 degree angle to get as many shots in as possible, but they suddenly saw smoke coming from his port engine and he overshot the trawler, crashing into the sea. The wreckage and his body have never been found. “Needless to say, that trawler had the hell beaten out of it before we left,” said Des. Over the following months, Des and Doug continued with the attacks on U-boats, sinking several despite the onslaught of anti-aircraft fire and fighter escorts, that tell-tale brown slick of oil spreading across the sea the sign that they had been successful. The attacks became less secretive once the D-Day invasion had begun in June 1944. Once the war in France was over, they were no longer needed and returned to Scotland, where they joined RAF Banff Strike Wing, Coastal Command, whose primary function was to fly missions to attack German shipping in Norwegian waters and German ground positions in Norway. Des said up to 60 aircraft, mostly Beaufighters and Mosquitos, would look for targets along the coast, the German ships fleeing their homeland giving them their pick of vulnerable targets. Overall, Des and Doug flew over 70 missions, finishing in January 1945. By that time they had flown for two years without a single break and were both ‘rather tired’. “That’s the end of our flying days,” they said, and went their separate ways, one of the most successful World War II flying partnerships coming to an end. It hadn’t always been plain sailing, there were times when they literally came to blows. “Like in any happily married family, we had our moments. Doug’s idea of a good time was drinking beer and talking flying. My idea as a 19 year old was finding where the nearest girl was I could take out and have a bit of fun with. So our off-duty objectives were somewhat different. But we got used to each other and he was a damn good pilot I have to say, first class pilot, and we survived the war, others suffered badly.” They were both awarded the DFC for exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy in the air but Des said that the main thing was “we both survived and with only a few minor exceptions, we returned the aircraft in the same condition we got it in.” There is a postscript to his time in the war. One of the U-boats sunk by him and Doug was the U976, which they bombed in March 1944, killing four Germans. Decades later, Des and the Commander of the U-boat got in touch and ‘got along famously’, recognising they were just two soldiers on different sides doing their jobs. They and their families would visit each other regularly and on one occasion were at a large gathering and amongst all of the noise and merriment around them, the commander said quietly, “Des, why did I have to wait so long to find a younger brother?” Des said that moment pointed out the total futility of war, when two honourable people who had fought to kill each other realised how absurd the whole thing was. There was a long standing ovation for Des, the audience so impressed by this funny, humble man who had given so much at such a young age to defend Europe from Nazism.

  • THE GLOUCESTER HISTORY FESTIVAL

    The Gloucester History Spring Festival is nearly upon us, and we have been very lucky for BBC journalist Vernon Harwood to write a piece for us all about what lies ahead. There is still time to book your tickets for what promises to be a fabulous event to start the season of British history festivals and if you can't make this one, the main event takes place in Gloucester from 2nd - 17th September. There’s something very Monty Python about a fireplace that’s 20 feet above your head. Never mind the nagging questions about why it’s there and how on earth you light kindling wood at that height, the fact is that this bizarrely positioned fireplace is neither a Pythonesque practical joke nor an optical illusion. It’s the real - and surreal - sight which stops you in your tracks the first time you walk in to the medieval landmark that is Blackfriars Priory in the heart of Gloucester. The thick stone walls, gothic windows and exposed pillars of these hallowed buildings clustered round a courtyard garden are a superb relic of 13th century life in one of England’s great historic cities. Above your head, even higher than the attention-seeking fireplace, is a magnificent scissor- brace timber roof which Henry III put over the North Range with oak beams from the royal forests. Even the name comes with a legend attached; it arose from the dark cloaks worn by the men who lived and worshipped here - the black friars. So perhaps it’s no great surprise to discover that this is among the oldest surviving and best preserved Dominican priories in Britain. What’s more one part of the site, the ancient Scriptorium where the monks studied by candlelight, is the oldest standing purpose-built library in Northern Europe. Yet for decades Blackfriars languished in the shadow of the city’s mighty cathedral and its bustling Victorian dock; hidden from public view by newer buildings it was largely forgotten by the majority of Gloucestrians. But come the 21st century a transformation took place with investment, renovation and just enough modernisation to bring this gem out of its cobwebbed isolation and make it a welcoming venue for modern visitors without destroying the unique heritage and incredible ambience. Most impressive of all, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall was installed which flooded the North Range with light in a way not seen for 700 years. Blackfriars emerged like the ugly duckling turned beautiful swan. A fitting venue for history buffs to gather, you might think. And sure enough Blackfriars has become the perfect home for the Gloucester History Festival. Now firmly established in the annual calendar of not-to-be-missed events, the Blackfriars Talks are the vibrant centrepiece of a celebration of history, culture and ancestry which takes audiences on a journey down the centuries from the Ancients to the AI Age. The whole idea sprang from a one-day BBC History Festival held across the city in August 2010 and staged to launch a nationwide education campaign called BBC Hands on History. A sunny Saturday packed with dozens of walks, talks, archive film shows and visiting historians was enough to convince any doubters that there was an untapped appetite for an annual feast of history and heritage in the city. Things moved quickly and just a year later, almost to the day, the first Gloucester History Festival opened, and it has grown in size, ambition and stature every year since. The Festival has a knack of attracting some of the best-known and most-renowned historians, many of them acclaimed TV presenters; from the military specialist Dan Snow and classicist Mary Beard to royal expert Lucy Worsley and the BAFTA award-winning David Olusoga. While that line up of authorities and academics brings a wealth of expertise, the guest-list can also be described as eclectic. This is a festival which revels in great story-telling and welcomes speakers from every quarter to share their discoveries about people and places. In the last few years the mix has included the former Beirut hostage Terry Waite, charismatic comedian Griff Rhys Jones, rock star Cerys Matthews, ex-war correspondent Kate Adie, the UK’s first black female history professor Olivette Otele, legendary photographer Vanley Burke and broadcasting royalty in the form of Jonathan Dimbleby. Add to that roll-call the cast and creators of the world’s longest running soap opera The Archers as well as the hit TV drama Call The Midwife, and you get some idea of the scale and scope. This is a pivotal year for the Festival. Ambitious plans are underway for an impressive programme of events at the main Festival in early September when more than 200 talks, debates, tours and exhibitions will take place in the space of just two weeks. A new innovation for 2023 is the Spring Weekend in late April, a mini-festival in its own right and created to satisfy public demand for more events at other times of year. The Spring Weekend launches with appearances by big-hitters such as Professor Alice Roberts, Janina Ramirez and Greg Jenner who between them have millions of fans thanks to their television and radio programmes. If Blackfriars provides an evocative backdrop to debate and discussion about the past, then Gloucester is the perfect host city. You might think the place is famous only for Double Gloucester cheese and the nursery rhyme Doctor Foster went to Gloucester… but they merely scratch the surface of the city’s rich and varied heritage. Every guidebook ever written about Gloucester charts its beginnings as a Roman fortress, its transformation into a Roman city known as Glevum and how the modern street pattern dates back to those distant days almost 2,000 years ago. Less well-known is its role as a royal centre for the Saxons, a Norman stronghold, a besieged Civil War community and a seat of Victorian industry; the story of Gloucester is in so many ways the story of England and there’s pretty much universal agreement that if you can’t stage a history festival here, you can’t stage one anywhere. William the Conqueror came to Gloucester for Christmas in 1085 to order his great survey of England, the Domesday Book. The Norman cathedral is among the seven best cathedrals in the entire world; Edward II is buried there and the boy-King Henry III was crowned within its walls. The city streets ring with the names of its famous and infamous; Dick Whittington Lord Mayor of London, John Stafford Smith who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, the great Warrior Queen Aethelflaed, the entertainer/composer Ivor Novello and the rich but miserly owner of the Gloucester Old Bank, Jemmy Wood, who inspired the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. More recently, Gloucester has started to celebrate one of its ‘forgotten’ heroines. Dorothy Wilding was the portrait photographer of choice for Hollywood stars and British royalty with studios in New York and London. It was her iconic photograph of a young Queen Elizabeth II which was used on millions of postage stamps from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Not to mention the ‘firsts’ which have put Gloucester on the map; the first Sunday School, the first jet flight, the first vacuum cleaner, and for a century or more the cathedral could boast of having the largest window in the world. As for Blackfriars’ mysterious suspended fireplace, the explanation is simple enough. It’s a lonely remnant of the 16th century when a timbered first floor provided upstairs accommodation and a blazing log or two in the hearth was needed to warm the cold stone in the depths of an English winter. A floating fireplace with a touch of the Flying Circus. John Cleese may well ask ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ but he’d need to come to the Gloucester History Festival for an answer. The Gloucester History Festival Spring Weekend runs from 21st to 23rd April 2023. The Main Autumn History Festival takes place from 2nd to 17th September 2023. Book your tickets at https://www.gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk/ Book your accommodation here:

  • VISITING THE CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS, LONDON

    A vast network of rooms and passageways underneath the streets of Westminster in London allowed Britain’s war cabinet to plan strategies and missions during the war in relative safety away from the repeated bombings by the Luftwaffe. Now a branch of the Imperial War Museum, the labyrinth of tunnels house the Cabinet War Rooms, the Churchill Museum and an exhibition about life for all of the staff who worked in the bunker during the war. Located beneath the Treasury building in Whitehall at the very heart of British government, the Cabinet Rooms were completed in 1938 as the threat of war was imminent and negotiations were underway but looking dubious. The idea for them had first been mooted in 1936 when the RAF determined that an aerial bombing of the capital could lead to countless civilian deaths and officials realised that the government would need somewhere to stay safe and keep the wheels turning. Plans were made for staff to move out of London, but also for there to be somewhere for them to go in the event of bombing. The basement of a government building was identified as a suitable place and work hurriedly took place to extend and convert it. Walls were reinforced, soundproofing, ventilation and water pumps were installed, communication and broadcasting systems were wired in. Meanwhile, the decision was made for a central War Office to be formed to give government staff and military easy access to each other. The rooms were completed just days before the declaration of war in September 1939. Little used under Chamberlain, Churchill declared that he would run the war from these rooms, and they became the focal point for the decision making process of the war. During the Blitz in 1940 a huge 5 foot thick steel reinforced concrete slab was installed for added protection, and the whole area was extended still further with additional rooms including bedrooms and accommodation, not just for Churchill but also for staff, so they did not have to venture out during the bombing raids. The War Rooms were in continuous use until 1945 when the war in Japan ended; the lights were turned out for the first time in 6 years and everyone went home. Over the following years some of the rooms were used for storage, with the more important rooms being kept as they were due to their historical significance. They were not open to the public but some people were allowed to visit with special permission, and over the years there was such demand to see them that they were handed to the Imperial War Museum who opened them up to the public, in a ceremony officiated by Margaret Thatcher, in 1984. A museum dedicated to Churchill's life was incorporated within, and the whole place was rebranded as the Churchill War Rooms in 2010. Your visit starts, once you have descended the stairs into the basement and picked up your audio guide, with the main cabinet war room, laid out exactly as it was during the war. Churchill’s wooden chair sits right in the middle and it is easy to imagine how this room must once have been with the discussions and negotiations which must have raged within its walls. The whole place is a huge maze of tunnels and rooms, some of which are behind glass, many with costumed mannequins to bring the rooms to life. Staff lived down there for most of the war; many could go weeks without seeing daylight or feeling fresh air on their faces. Although people such as Churchill had their own rooms, others had to sleep in dormitories in claustrophobic and unhealthy conditions. There are countless bedrooms, offices, communications rooms, kitchens, typing pools and more, all very basic with brick walls painted in a utilitarian cream colour with pipes and wires running between them. There was little ornamentation or decoration; it is basic and rather bleak, and must have been hard work for those who were confined underground for much of the war. A highlight of the visit is the map room which was staffed 24 hours a day and which has not been touched since the war, with maps on every wall, still with drawing pins in them to mark out the various campaigns. Another is the old broom closet that had been disguised as Churchill’s loo but was actually a Transatlantic Telephone room where he used to speak to the President of the USA without being overheard, everyone thinking it was improper to loiter outside. The Churchill museum is incredibly comprehensive and provides information about his entire life, including all of his early military career, his political campaigning and his latter days after the war. There are plenty of interactive screens and devices to keep children entertained and the whole museum is well thought out. The only downside is that it was utterly packed with people; you really do have to fight your way around and through crowds at times. Museum fatigue sets in quickly in such situations, and the lack of daylight adds to the slightly claustrophobic nature of the place. It is highly educational, very interesting and most definitely worth a visit. Just outside is St.James Park which makes a great place to get something to eat and to watch the resident pelicans while you enjoy some welcome fresh air after your time underground. Visiting Churchill War Rooms Opening Hours: Every day from 9.30am - 6pm Closed 24 - 26 December Ticket Prices: Adults £30 Children £15 Other concessions and family tickets available I strongly recommend pre-booking tickets to visit the War Rooms, as the queues can be large, even in the colder months. If you pre-book, you just show up at the allotted time and you get guaranteed entrance and usually will get to walk straight in. For the people who just show up on the day, they face a long and uncertain wait as to if they will even get in, and on my visit, we did overhear grumbling in the ranks as we walked past them, trying not to look too smug. Nearest tube stop: Westminster which is 3 minutes walk away.

  • A FREE DAY IN CHRISTCHURCH, DORSET

    Christchurch is a small historic town on the south coast, once an important trading port and famed for its smugglers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it is home to a large population of retirees and visitors, many of whom come for the pretty streets, historic sites and sailing. With plenty of free sites to visit, Christchurch is a great place to explore. Depositing two teenage boys in the jungle-like depths of the New Forest for a day of shooting lots of other people in camouflage with air guns, I found I had a few spare hours on my hands. With traffic home backed up on such a hot and sunny day, I decided to head in the opposite direction and take myself off to the seaside town of Christchurch. Christchurch barely scrapes by not to be considered as part of the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation. The vast mass of modern apartment buildings which now surround the once genteel Victorian homes and hotels of traditional Bournemouth elegance, is spreading rapidly as the lure of golden beaches, huge piers and attractions for the masses means that the city is growing at an alarming rate. Merging with the industrial trading port of Poole, the two have converged into an overpopulated metropolis, while Christchurch sits quietly to the east of the sprawl, separated only by the narrow River Stour as it meanders down to the English Channel. All I really knew about Christchurch is that it is home to a Norman priory and a large harbour filled with boating enthusiasts - the bright lights and loud clamour of Bournemouth overshadow their calmer and more serene neighbour. Googling ‘Christchurch car parks’, I picked one at random, put it in my Sat Nav, bumped down the potholed rhododendron lined lanes of the Forest and headed out on the traffic-filled dual carriageways to the sea. Turning off on an empty slip road while everyone else continued on to the sunny delights of the beaches, I passed through typical suburban outliers - ageing malls of takeaways and hairdressers, council houses and multiple mini roundabouts, before reaching the centre of the town, where the roads narrowed, the buildings bowed and curved, and old towers could be seen rising above the uneven rooftops. I parked and headed in the general direction of one of these edifices, ending up at a crumbling tower on the top of a small hill. The Norman Castle The site was clearly a motte and bailey castle, looking like a text book version drawn by a child, a square keep on an artificially high mound complete with brilliant green grass against the blue sky and a winding path leading up to it. A thoughtfully placed sign confirmed that this was indeed the remains of a Norman castle, the stone keep built in 1310 as a replacement for a wooden one which had been built in 1074. There wasn’t a great deal to see, just the decaying remains of two stone walls with empty doorways, but it was an excellent vantage point to look out across the centre of the old town, a pleasingly haphazard mishmash of homes, gardens and outhouses of the type that you will never find when civic architects get their hands on urban planning. Beyond the trees I could see the tower of the Priory rising over a rather regimented looking graveyard, where a woman clutching flowers was sitting alone on a bench, head in her hands. On the other side of the hill was a large bowling green with another ruined building just beyond. Leaving the high ground, I headed off to explore this other set of ruins. Crossing the bowling green, I admired the ornate white clap board clubhouse which was filled with twinkling fairy lights and white confetti. The grounds were pretty, with a few palm trees dotted around the vast bowling green, which itself looked rather rocky and unloved. I sat on a bench for some quick research on my phone and discovered in the local paper that the clubhouse had been sold off as a wedding venue, much to the consternation of the local boules team, who were outraged at being ousted and at their pitch being left untended and rendered unusable. The article said the green was 18th century and was once one of the best pitches in the country: the comment section bounced between boules players lamenting its loss and angry people demanding to know why the council should pay for its upkeep. I could just imagine the anger in the town meeting where that had originally been discussed. Next to me and vivid against the blue sky was the ruin, a substantial building of grey stone with a chimney towering above it. The Norman House The building has all four walls remaining in varying degrees, one full size, and is right next to the river with beautiful views over the reeds and rushes. It is completely open and free to explore. I had the place to myself and was surprised at just how ornate the building was. Another handy sign informed me that this was once a Norman house and is in fact one of the few remaining examples of domestic Norman architecture left in the country. The tall, circular chimney which towered above me is particularly rare and one of only five left in the country. Built in 1160, the ground floor was a storeroom with a grand hall above it on the first floor and a solar for the family next to it. There was a crenellated wall walk where archers could defend the nearby bridge and in the 13th century a storeroom was added over the river so that boats could offload their produce easily and without tariff. They are rather atmospheric ruins, with clearly defined features such as fireplaces, windows and doorways, one of which led out onto a small balcony over the river. The windows are particularly well defined, with delicate frames and one with a coved recess, and it is surprisingly easy to imagine how the house may have once looked when it was inhabited. I may have been the only person in the place, but the incessant cooing let me know I was not alone, and I soon noticed that the holes left by the joists for the first floor were filled with pigeons who were nesting, their black eyes watching every step I took in case I made a move for their young. I decided to leave them to it and headed back across the controversial bowling green towards the Priory. Christchurch Priory Gardens I walked under a lovely arbour of bright green leaves and peered through the wrought iron gates of the Garden of Rest, where the woman clutching the flowers was still on the bench, gazing over the stones. There was a notice next to the gate; instructions for who was allowed to be interred there, what your memorial stone was to look like, what it had to say and what flowers you could leave. It all seemed incredibly strict, and the rows of identical memorial stones with identical stone vases looked regimented and indistinguishable. Everything that had made them unique as individuals had been stripped from them for the honour of being buried under the shadow of the priory. I far preferred what I saw as I walked through the older graveyard. Here in random profusion were wonky gravestones filled with details of lives lived and families left behind, cursive fonts adding a flourish that recent burials were denied. Contemplating the rigidity of modern death as I wandered through the priory grounds, I saw a rather unusual monument standing alone under some trees. Well over three metres high and about five metres wide, it was ornately decorated on one side but flat and whitewashed on the other. A sign informed me that this was the mausoleum of a Mrs Perkins who had died in 1793 at the age of 47. She had apparently had so great a fear of being buried alive that the mausoleum has been specifically designed with a host of features to prevent this from happening, including being originally sited next to a boy’s school so they could hear her cries and rescue her if her fears came true. One has to wonder what happened to her to make her so afraid; perhaps she had just read too many early Gothic novels, or maybe she was just a little odd, a contemporary writing that, “Mrs. Perkins had a fine face and majestic form, but her charms were external, for oddities, whims, and caprices made up her character”. The Red House Museum and Gardens Over the Priory wall I saw a sign for ‘The Red House Museum and Gardens’ and intrigued, headed straight for it. It was indeed a red brick building with not one but two blue plaques. I was welcomed by a friendly volunteer who explained the layout and told me that it was free to enter, a rare thing these days. Well, it is a fabulous museum, and one I would urge you to visit. The building has gone through several incarnations, one of which was as a workhouse for the impoverished. It is now a museum of local archaeology and history with a firm focus on its time as a workhouse. With wooden floorboards, flagstone floors, a loud ticking grandfather clock, a huge Victorian range and much more, it is a homely and atmospheric place to visit. Objects are arranged matter of factly in old fashioned display cases with simple black and white signs telling you what they are. There is no fancy lighting, no screens or sounds competing for your attention, no shiny chrome surfaces, just the ticking of that wonderful old clock and an eclectic mix of relics from both the building and the wider city. The archaeology galleries were upstairs, where a local artist had clearly been given the brief to draw ancient and modern together, producing some fascinating pictures, such as a Saxon family mourning around the grave of a loved one, next to a baffled workman from the 1970s scratching his head when he found the grave centuries later. It was a clever idea and a great visual for the kids. There is a lot in the museum for kids, lots of hands on stuff to do, to try on and to play with. Windows in many of the rooms looked out over the garden, oil lamps and vases on the windowsills, with real geraniums and succulents amongst them, providing a domestic touch to this unassuming building. This is a museum that hasn’t been overly curated or modernised and I seriously hope it stays that way; it is informative, educational and non-judgemental. Having seen the gardens from the windows, I just had to take a look. Not particularly big, I was delighted by what I found. They are truly beautiful walled gardens; beds filled with colourful roses, alliums and irises, an immaculate lawn, a woodland walk, palm trees, and the constant buzzing of insects and bees. Amongst the greenery are random bits of stone decoration, mill stones, old lampposts, a part of the Bailey Bridge which a volunteer told me they were very proud of in Christchurch, and some dinosaurs, clearly there for the children but looking quite at home peering through the undergrowth of this typical English country garden. I sat under the pergola on a bench dedicated to a friend of the museum who had given so much time and money to its upkeep, and said a silent thank you to him and others like him who keep these places going against the odds. Christchurch Priory I decided it was finally time to head to the Priory, having only admired the outside so far. Again it was free to visit and I was given a leaflet by kind volunteer to help guide me around. It is small for a priory church but pretty and I loved the simple Norman arches of the nave, which was only slightly ruined by the screens arranged down the aisle and the plastic sheeting hanging amongst the seats. The priory looks like a church which gets a lot of use but not much income, with random everyday objects tucked into every corner. The carved wooden miserichords were covered in signs asking people not to touch them until funding could be found to repair them, and the main quire was hidden behind a hanging rail of red choir robes - I took a peek through to see voting boxes and piles of paper on Formica tables. One of the tiny chapels was filled with mops, brooms and signage, and I was slightly confused by a flannel stuffed high up in a hole in the wall. I was still pondering the flannel when I saw a wall memorial to a Fanny White-White, which perplexed me for the rest of my visit. Why would you double barrel the same name? There were some pretty stained glass windows and a large memorial to Percy Shelley, sculpted dying melodramatically in his wife’s arms after he drowned in Italy. After a couple of hours of history, I decided to visit the town centre to buy some lunch. There are some really pretty buildings and houses, lots of shops with Instagrammable frontages of plastic plants, twinkling lights and colourful displays, unfortunately hidden behind the rows of cars lining the roads. There is an admirable if somewhat dilapidated 1930s Art Deco cinema, and colourful bunting flapping in the breeze, but I could not get over the sheer volume of litter. Christchurch has the biggest street bins I have ever seen but I don’t think anyone was using them. Receipts floated past me in the gentle breeze, cigarette butts littered the ground, cans and bottles lurked in every corner, the ripped pages from a rather insalubrious magazine were trampled underfoot across the high street. I wandered down narrow side streets, always a favourite occupation of mine, and there are lots in Christchurch to chose from. Amongst other delights I found some ghost advertising signs, pretty old buildings and a random graveyard unattached to a church which was filled with wildflowers and scaffolding. I saw a sign for the ‘Ducking Stool’ and just had to investigate, thinking maybe it was an old pub. It turned out to be a full size, sturdy wooden ducking stool on the banks of the river, sandwiched between two buildings and surrounded by nettles. Another helpful sign told me that Christchurch had had a ducking stool since the mid 14th century - this one was installed in 1986 as part of a centennial festival. I wanted to sit in it out over the river but felt a bit daft as I was on my own, so instead I stood next to it and watched the fish swimming by. I headed for Christchurch Quay to eat my sandwich, now warming slowly in my bag, a place which I vaguely remembered as being a quiet green with pretty river views of sailing boats bobbing about on the water. Well, I had picked a bad day for it, which I realised as I approached and could hear the sounds of a man bellowing over a tannoy competing with the revving of engines, and see people walking around licking enormous melting ice creams. It turned out to be a car show with scores of vintage cars parked on the green and lots of people peering intently into bonnets discussing engines. I found a bench with my back to it all and ate watching the boats, trying to pretend that there wasn’t a noisy car fair behind me. I chuckled to myself as I watched the people on board a tiny boat called ‘Loose Nuts’ wielding wrenches as they tried to start their spluttering engine. Unfortunately they eventually achieved it and a cloud of diesel fumes soon headed my way. They left their engine running and I was enveloped, so I donated my sandwich to the seagulls and wandered back to my car. As I pulled out of the car park, I unwittingly joined the mass exodus of vintage cars from the fair and I left the town as part of a procession: Cadillacs, Thunderbirds, even a Dolorean with the bumper sticker informing me that the driver always drives at 88mph ‘just in case’. Flanked by gleaming cars all around, I felt very ashamed in my far newer yet far grubbier car. I drove back out past the mini roundabouts, on to the dual carriage way filled with cars of hot and sandy people leaving the beaches of Bournemouth, and back down the solitary track bordered with purple rhododendron and unfurling bright green ferns. The sound of gunfire got louder and men in camouflage scurried past me as I pulled into the car park to collect two sweaty teenagers and take them home. My afternoon bimbling around Christchurch had been entirely free (except for parking) and I had thoroughly enjoyed exploring this ancient and venerable old town.

bottom of page