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- ODSTOCK CHURCH, JOSHUA SCAMP AND THE CURSE OF THE GYPSY QUEEN
St. Mary's Church in Odstock is a 12th century, Grade II listed Anglican church just outside the Wiltshire city of Salisbury. A small rural church, it is perhaps best known for the rose covered grave of Joshua Scamp, an itinerant gypsy who was wrongfully hanged in 1801, with one of his fellow gypsies leaving a curse on the church itself. The village of Odstock was once a part of the Roman-British villa at Downton, a large farmstead whose inhabitants grew mainly corn. It is thought that its got its name from Ode Stock - the stockade owned by Ode - and is mentioned in the Domesday book as later being owned by Brictic, a senior nobleman after the Norman invasion. The area eventually became a part of the vast swathes of land which made up the estate of the Bishopric of Winchester. The area has always been agricultural, with sheep and corn as the dominant crops, and there are still several farms in the area today. The small church was the focal point of the village, although in modern times that seems to have been replaced by the Yew Tree Inn, a fantastic local pub with a thatched roof and beamed interior which does some great food, with the church rather shifted to the sidelines. St. Mary's Church, Odstock There has been a church on the site from at least the 12th century, although much of what you see there today is from the late 19th century, when the building was largely rebuilt in flint and stone. The interior still has traces of its early heritage, with Norman work in one of the chancel windows, Tudor arches, a 13th century font and a 16th century wooden pulpit. The interior has a few simple memorials - one a rather tragic one from John Webb, who once lived in the Manor House. John and his wife Mary lost four of their children in infancy in the space of four years of the 1760s, aged from 3 years down to a few months, with the epitaphs even counting the days they lived for. All are buried nearby. Other memorials include an Albert Gay, only son, who drowned when the HMS Cullist was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1917, a former rector who died in 1790 at the age of just 22, a soldier who died at the age of 49 in the Battle of the Somme and a Royal Engineer who died in the Siege of Malta in 1942. The rest of the church is simple - with a basic organ, a few stained glass windows, polychrome tiled floor and some very basic accessories such as a tatty, well worn pair of candlesticks. This was clearly a simple church for a rural community of farmers, with few decorative features or embellishments. A former rector, Phillip Miles, left behind ten pages of notes of his 'Memoirs of Odstock', where he describes the dilapidated state of the church when he arrived in 1869 and the attempts he made to restore it, much of which he paid for himself. He bemoans the lack of interest and the transient nature of his congregation saying that 'the chief thing from which we suffer is indifferentism more than from dissent'. He also describes the life of the villagers as 'a dull one', and how he put on parties and sporting events, 'without creating much real interest and amusement'. It is hard not to feel sorry for the poor man, doing his best in this rural community of farmers, who were plainly more interested in their day-to-day living than any higher purpose. The graveyard is a traditional one, and is still in use today, with a few crooked headstones, crumbling crosses and inscriptions which refer to their inhabitants as 'a true countryman' and 'a farmer who loved the countryside'. The grave which stands out though is that of Joshua Scamp, covered in a swathe of bright pink sweet-brier roses. Joshua Scamp Joshua Scamp was a gypsy, living occasionally at Yew Trees, close to where a Traveller community still resides. A horse was stolen from a John Marsh in the nearby village of Steeple Ashton, and Joshua’s jacket and halter were found in the stable. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for the capital offence of horse theft, not telling anyone that he had lent those clothes to his son-in-law. "At his execution he ascended the platform with firmness and looking around saw his wife and daughters, called them to him and asked if they were prepared to take away his body. On their answering to the affirmative he commended their care and then conversed with other persons. Turning to one of many gypsies present he said "You see what you have brought me to, live soberly and take care of your wife and your family." He asserted his innocence to the last and behaved with undaunted courage, unmixed with indecent levity or stupid insensibility. Having stretched the rope tight and tried it with his own hand, he gave the signal and died almost immediately. He was a remarkable robust and powerful man. Some time after it became known that the gypsy whom he particularly addressed was his daughter's husband who being afterwards executed at Winchester confessed that his father in law hanged innocently to save the life of his son in law who had stolen the horse." From County of Wiltshire: Fisherton Gaol. Statistics of Crime 1801 - 1850 compiled by the governor of the Gaol, W Dowding. It is said that he was allowed to be buried in the churchyard, unusual for a convicted felon, as everyone knew he was innocent, with the burial entry in the Parish Register stating that: 'Joshua Scamp, a gypsy, hanged supposed wrongly.' His grave became a place of pilgrimage to gypsies and travellers because of his courage and self-sacrifice; showing his love for his daughter by protecting his son-in-law so that she did not end up a widow. His fellow gypsies planted a hedge of roses around his grave and would visit it on the anniversary of his execution. Always dropping in to the Yew Tree Inn first, the event became a rather drunken and riotous affair. The clergy of the church got rather fed up with this, destroyed the hedge and locked the church. When the next anniversary came around, the gypsies discovered what had been done and Joshua's daughter put a curse on them, saying that “the man who did this deed might die, that the Churchwarden might never prosper, that the Parson might never speak plainly." The following Sunday, the Clerk died from a fit, the Churchwarden died within the year and the Parson 'never spoke plain afterwards'. (From Phillip Miles’ Memoirs of Odstock) It is said that the rector then threw the church key into the nearby River Ebble, so that it could never be locked again, where it is thought to remain until this day. The story does have an end as it is said that in the early 20th century, several members of the clergy locked the church, holding hands as they did so, to spread the curse amongst them to ‘dilute’ it. I haven’t been able to find out if his descendants or modern gypsies still visit the site on the anniversary of his death, but there is still a traveller camp just outside Odstock and they are still a feature of village life, so perhaps they do. You can ready the Rev. Phillip Miles memoirs here Visiting St Mary's Church, Odstock Postcode: SP5 4JA w3w: mealtime.obscuring.chipper Looking for refreshment? Try the Yew Tree just down the road, it's a great pub.
- ROUND THE BEND TOURS WITH WESSEX WATER
In the spirit of this website being about off-the-beaten-path travel and exploring the places that no one else goes, today I went on a free Round the Bend tour in Tisbury, Wiltshire, run by Wessex Water, one of several they do across the region. It really is a way to see something unusual, different and unique and I can guarantee that no-one you know will have done this tour. Wessex Water are the suppliers of water for much of the south-west of the UK covering parts of Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset. Water is something that we very much take for granted in the UK - it arrives on demand and is taken away without a moment's thought, only reaching our awareness when our drains are blocked with a 'fatberg' or we wrinkle our noses in disgust at the huge round vats of brown looking sludge that we may briefly see on train journeys. These vats are where sewage is processed and are the locations for the Round the Bend tours. They are actually far less disgusting that I had thought (the brown sludge you see is not sewage, it is rocks) and the whole process of cleaning the sewage is an organic and natural one, mostly fully automated with no chemicals involved. The tours are run by Wessex Water to try to educate people about what they do, how the system works and to give people a chance to ask questions. You can find the tours on Eventbrite - they are completely free and although they haven't run for a few years, I believe it is something they are planning to do more regularly. I joined a tour in Tisbury, about 14 miles west of Salisbury, and was thankful that the ticket included a what3words locations, as by their very nature, the sewage treatment plants (officially called Water Recycling Centres) are out of towns and in discreet locations. The plants do not have their own staff as the system is automated, but there were lots of staff on hand for the tours, cheerful people in blue hi-viz who helped with parking and did the tours. There was a display put on while we waited for our tour - art work re-imagined with a specific watery theme, and also a quick demonstration. A piece of loo roll was put into one bottle of water and shaken about. A 'flushable' wet wipe was put into another bottle of water and shaken about. As you can imagine, the toilet roll disintegrated entirely in the water and the wet wipe remained completely intact. It makes it easy to understand why water boards hate these wipes so much as they are the cause of so many blockages and expense, but it is mind-boggling that the manufacturers are allowed to declare these things 'flushable' when they clearly are not. The tour started at the initial pump, where all of the pipes come in from the catchment area and everything is filtered through screens, with all the big bits being taken out, washed, chopped and dried. These include rags, grit, bits of wood - our guide said there have been false teeth and all sorts of random objects appearing at this stage. These items were all in a small skip, drying out quietly in the sunshine. Then we moved onto the large round tanks. The first of these - the primary settlement tank - had a thick layer of scum on the top which was being scooped up by the rotating arms. In here, the sludge sinks to the bottom and is pumped to a large, sealed tank which is emptied about twice a week, the sludge going off in lorries for treatment at one of their larger plants which may then end up on farmers' fields. The remaining water is pushed over the sides. Our guide showed us a bottle of the water at this stage - rather murky with a few floating particles. The water that has gone over the sides then moves to one of several other large round tanks which I had always thought were full of human waste. These are the ones you see filled with brown stuff, rotating arms going round sprinkling water on them and birds flocking above them. All of us in the group were astonished to learn that the 'brown stuff' is in fact pumice rocks. Bacteria lives in these rocks - they move in naturally over time - and it is these which filter the water by feeding on the pollutants. The sewage is actually the water from the first tank, which is being sprinkled on top by the rotating arms, moving through the rocks and being filtered. The whole system is run by hydraulics and the power of the water - no electrics involved. The rocks were covered in moss, and a flock of wagtails were helping themselves to the varied insect life which lives there. It is a completely natural and organic filtration system. We were shown another bottle of the water at this stage - mostly clear with just a few tiny particles suspended within. The water then moves downhill to another of the round tanks. This one is just full of water, again with a rotating arm and again the water goes over the sides with the tiny remaining bits of sediment going to the bottom of the tank. The water is so clean at this stage that there is duckweed growing on it, and the sample bottle we were shown was crystal clear. The water is then pumped to four large tanks which are filled with sand which is kept constantly moving and which takes out the very last of any remaining sediment. From here the water goes through a final pump and ends up in the River Nadder, often cleaner than the water which is already in there. None of this water is used as drinking water. Everything is carefully regulated and checked by the Environment Agency who set the standards for the water quality. The sites are fully automatic and run without any people having to be involved. They are monitored 24/7 by lots of sensors and the minute there is a problem, the Wessex Water engineers are sent out, even in the middle of the night, to fix it. The whole filtration system takes about a day from flush to river, although it can vary. In Tisbury there is not much industry or many restaurants, so everything that comes in is quite clear anyway. In cities, towns and industrial sites, they may suffer from what is called FOG (fat oil and grease) buildup. Our guide explained that in the nearby town of Shaftesbury which has a lot of restaurants, they had quite a problem with FOG. They dealt with it by educating the restaurants to use grease traps rather than just tip everything down the sink, and the problem was soon resolved. Our tour guide was bombarded with questions from the group throughout the tour and he answered them all very patiently and with much enthusiasm for the subject matter. We were all talking to each other too, mostly about how we'd had no idea that's how it all worked, how little it smelled when we'd expected it to be terrible and how impressed we were that the system was organic and natural. After just an hour I was back in my car driving through the leafy lanes of rural Tisbury and thinking how surprised I was that I had found it so interesting. I had learnt a lot, been surrounded by greenery, wildlife and the river and met some interesting people - you can't ask for more than that for a free tour. So if you want to really get to the bottom of a place and visit somewhere that very few other people have been, you will not be disappointed by a Round the Bend tour! Booking a Round the Bend Tour Keep an eye on the Wessex Water events page to see upcoming events. They don't just do the Round the Bend tours - some of their sites have open days too which do not have to be booked in advance. You can book the free tours through Wessex Water on Eventbrite - they are held in various locations across the Wessex Water region. Other water boards may do similar tours - follow your local water board on Eventbrite to find out. The tours are child friendly - there is a special trail for kids to follow along with. There is nothing inappropriate or unpleasant on the tours.
- WE HAVE WAYS FEST 2022
We Have Ways Fest is a three day festival of all things World War II which takes place in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside. Inspired by the popular We Have Ways podcast which is now in its third year and which has a loyal fanbase of historians and history buffs, the festival is a place for like-minded people to gather for a weekend of 'talks, tanks and tankards'. Day 3 The grey and drizzly morning started with Eat Lead Fritz!, a look at some of the 'best, worst and most mad missions' of World War II. Three historians regaled the crowd with tales of times the enemy received a good thrashing in some rather bizarre missions, including Saul David talking about Operation Spratt Baker, a little known mission in Sumatra in 1944 which seemed to be a catalogue of embarrassing incidents for the SBS. Next up was a talk on the Citizen Army, a fascinating and highly intelligent debate on the role and motivations of citizens who volunteered to join armies across DUKE - a new acronym I learned in this talk which is a catchall term - Dominions, United Kingdom, Empire. Historians Johnathon Fennell and Dan Todman had a few good-natured disagreements, clearly part of an ongoing discussion, but most interesting to me was the American perspective, provided by Missouri professor John McManus. An erudite speaker, he swiftly cut through all of the US propaganda and seemed to have a clear perspective on the issues involved. Iain MacGregor introduced his audience to The Lighthouse of Stalingrad by giving a sense of Stalingrad today - a city dominated by statues and memorials celebrating the surrender of the German army here in January 1943. Evidence of the battle is all around: approximately 300 bodies, both German and Russian, are discovered and re-buried every year - the city is synonymous with the huge sacrifice of so many Russians made in defence of the Motherland. Using detailed research into previously unseen Russian archives which held the personal letters and testimonies of the 13 Guards Rifle Division defending Stalingrad and accounts by Friedrich Roske, Regimental Commander of the 71st German infantry division, he has been able to piece together a rather more accurate account of “Pavlov’s house”, the so-called Lighthouse of Stalingrad, than is acknowledged by the Russian historians bound to provide accounts that concur with the official diktat. Stalingrad is rightly seen as the pivotal battle of the Great Patriotic War, and the suffering of its people is beyond imagination, but the heroism attributed to one individual, Pavlov, is unwarranted, while the actions of many other courageous soldiers have been unrecognised as the accurate version does not suit the legend and propaganda perpetuated by the Russian state. The highlight of the day and possibly the festival for many there, was the talk given by Maurice Blik. A survivor of the German concentration camp of Belsen when he was just a young boy, he talked us through the chain of events and his life in the camp which saw the murder of his father, grandmother, younger sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. This frank story, which he told with remarkable composure, was harrowing to listen to, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one wiping away a stray tear as we walked out of the tent into the bright and sunny day which had emerged from the rain. (You can read Maurice Blik's talk here >>) The festival is not just about the talks and hardware displays, as there is so much more going on. There are stalls selling everything from army surplus to war movie DVDs and magazines from the 1940s. Various museums and organisations have stands with displays of some of their artefacts, such as a fascinating stand about Churchill's Secret Army, the Dunkirk 1940 Museum and writer Dr. Kate Vigurs who had a stand about women in the SOE, where she seemed to be permanently surrounded by people asking questions. A large part of the festival are the living historians and re-enactors, who are passionate about their roles. For some, it is not just a case of turning out for festivals but the whole historical experience has been incorporated into their lives. The Oxfordshire Home Guard looked just like something out of BBC casting but assured me that they took their membership very seriously, tracking down authentic uniforms and equipment and regularly performing drills. They all felt a great sense of comradeship and were keen to keep the memories of Britain’s Home Guard alive. Another great enthusiast was the purchaser of a 1944 Austin K2 heavy military ambulance. He had done all the restoration and maintenance himself, separately purchasing stretchers, blankets, medical equipment and painting it the requisite army colours. A rare hobby, but I left feeling grateful that such people existed to preserve both the vehicles and the knowledge of the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWII. Peter Caddick-Adams was warmly welcomed to the stage. His credentials as a military historian are legendary - he will only go to print when he has walked the ground himself and used his professional experience in the British army to guide him. He gave us a detailed history of Victory in the West, taking as his starting point the German failure at the Battle of the Bulge which severely weakened their resistance to the relentless Allied advance. He took us through the collapse of the Siegfried Line, the crossing of the Rhine, and the move eastwards, all now made possible by the vast superiority of Allied weapons and the ability of the commanders over the huge front of Western Europe to coordinate attacks. He ended with the dramatic moment at Torgau when West met East as Russian and American soldiers connected for the first time. It was a powerful and dramatic story told with his usual enthusiasm and extensive knowledge, and an appropriate ending to the three days of sometimes unbearably sad, sometimes very funny but always informative and thought-provoking talks given at this year’s Festival. The festival ended with James Holland and Al Murray taking the stage just after Peter Caddick-Adams had left to enthusiastic applause. Seeming somewhat baffled by the success of the event, they thanked everyone involved in its creation and production, and the tent echoed with vigorous clapping for all who had worked so hard to create such a fun, friendly and fascinating history festival. Day 2 The Saturday saw an increase in numbers of visitors, and with a much more diverse crowd, particularly in terms of their attire, as Hawaiian shirts seemed to be the dress code for the day. My day started with a War Movie Quiz run by the people behind the Fighting on Film podcast. One of the wonderful things about this festival is just how friendly everyone is and I was one of many tables of strangers who joined together for the quiz - we were soon chatting away about our interest in the war and debating the finer points of war movies. We came a very average 37th out of 50 something, but I was able to hold my head up high by knowing at least some answers that the others didn't. It was a fun and entertaining way to start a busy Saturday. The talk by Alex Richie, Waitman Wade Beorn and Bastiaan Willemstad about Berlin in the last months of the war made for grim listening. The situation for civilians became increasingly desperate. There was a wave of violence as German soldiers, hardened veterans of brutal warfare, came back and interacted with civilians. The SS carried out summary executions on anyone considered to be a deserter. The Allies’ insistence on unconditional surrender left each man with unpalatable options of fighting to the end, committing suicide or facing probable harsh imprisonment and execution in Russia. As the Red Army closed in, and it was known that Stalin encouraged rape as a weapon of war, there was utter misery for women and girls while teenage boys were forcibly drafted into the army and sent to almost certain death in defence of the city. The large audience was understandably subdued on exit. Katrin Himmler, in conversation with James Holland, came across as a truly amazing woman. As a child she gradually became aware of the notoriety of her great uncle, Heinrich Himmler, his role in the brutality of the Nazi regime and as the architect of the Holocaust. Even worse, she discovered that her own grandfather and other great uncle were also committed Nazis. She has, with tremendous courage, turned her dreadful heritage into the creation of something positive. She now speaks to both school and adult groups about her family’s history to ensure that it is not repeated. Her audience was fully appreciative of her openness, her courage and her integrity and she received lengthy applause. Historian Sir Max Hastings is a major coup for the festival and he gave his talk on Churchill's Finest Years to a packed marquee. The enthusiastic applause which he received when he ended his talk went on so long it had to be stopped by James Holland, but soon started again after the questions, especially when he was asked his opinions on current prime ministers. Very diplomatically he said that, 'Anyone who compares the enemy to Hitler should not be in power, neither should anyone who compares themselves to Churchill,' subtly making his opinions known to this very politically aware crowd. The queue for him to sign books afterwards was extensive, with some people clutching handfuls of books. The reason behind the excess of Hawaiian shirts soon became apparent, with a stand set up next to the sleek Citroen Traction Avant which naturally attends the same festivals as James Holland. The charity DKMS were registering and collecting swabs from attendees to add them to a database as potential donors for blood cancer sufferers. It is an illness close to the hearts of the We Have Ways podcasts faithful, as Al Murray's nephew recently died from the illness. The Hawaiian shirts were being worn to raise awareness and provided cheerful colour amongst the khakis and camouflage. Monty's Men are a group of living historians who are renowned for the strict accuracy with which they re-enact the past. Portraying British infantry they live under one regimental cap badge for a few days, living as soldiers actually did. Here at We Have Ways Fest they have an area amongst the woodland to call home, their bivvy tents lined up against the tall pines. Monty's Men don't just use period equipment, they live off period rations, do regular patrols, keep watch day and night and operate under a full military command structure. In a talk given by D-Day historian Paul Woodadge, Monty's Men demonstrated the use of a Vickers machine gun to a crowd of enthusiasts. As we watched the soldiers being trained in its use, other soldiers from the unit lounged in the long grass, resting after the exercises they had just taken part in, looking every inch the picture of the British tommy between battles. The highlight for many visitors was the battlefield re-enactment - a demonstration of how artillery, tanks and infantry coordinate an attack. Firstly, four 25 pounders from the Gunners Artillery Volunteers fired their shells, followed by smoke to obscure the battlefield from the enemy. Secondly, the audience were invited to move to the tank arena to watch an advance by a Sherman tank (described by the presenter as a “big, angry metal box”) and infantry from Monty’s Men equipped with rifles and bayonets. We watched their steady advance up the slope. The presenter then reminded his audience that a similar scenario had taken place at Hill 112 in Normandy in July 1944 and that 70% of the men had not come back. The applause that followed was only partially for the re-enactors, more poignantly it was for all those men who had fought with such bravery in the war for Britain’s freedom. James Holland gave a brilliant talk on Dunkirk to a full house. It is easy to see why he is so highly respected as a historian as he kept the entire audience on the edge of their seats for the whole hour, giving a blow by blow account of the single week from 26th May - 2nd June 1944. With a remarkable memory for detailed facts and figures he talked through the events of that week at breakneck speed. Moving swiftly between the action in the air, on the beaches, in the war cabinet and able to recite exact times, dates, figures, names, even the weather at a particular time of day yet without a single note in front of him, it was a masterclass in public speaking. The day ended with live music and War Movie Gogglebox with James and Al, an entertaining and lively evening for those lucky enough to be camping on site. Day 2 has reinforced the belief that this event is set to expand and grow exponentially. The tents were packed with enthusiasts well before the scheduled speakers arrived and hay bales were put outside for those unable to get a seat. The food stalls had lengthy queues, the merchandise and book shops had regular trade and the re-enactors were surrounded by small groups wanting answers to their many questions. Day 1 - Friday The event is situated in the open countryside of Buckinghamshire between Blackpit Lake, the 12th century stock pond for Luffield Abbey, and the Blackpit Brewery. It began with a bang with Al Murray and James Holland, the stars of the podcast, cheerfully doing a circuit of the arena in some American hardware as they saluted the crowds and fired a field gun to welcome them to the site and open the three day festival. The We Have Ways History Fest is a nostalgic excursion into the military history and hardware of WWII. While it glories in the past it is no supporter of war per se, sensitively changing its name in February from the original “WarFest”, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which brought the reality of war to Europe. Ukrainian flags fly over some of the tents in the very orderly camping area (who would expect anything other than neat rows of tents from war historians) and we spotted a few t-shirts amongst the crowds saying 'The Fighting Farmers 2022, 1st Ukrainian Farmoured Division' and 'F**k you Russian Warship', leaving no-one in any doubt where loyalties lie. The festival is a mix of historical talks and hardware, with famous historians, veterans and reenactors putting on events and displays to entertain and educate the crowds. Military vehicles are a large part of the festival with regular displays in the arena of some serious tanks and armoured vehicles, the sound of explosions and the waft of smoke permeating the air. The festival attracts a certain type of individual, and probably about 90% of the attendees are male. Mostly wearing cargo shorts, khaki t-shirts and clutching a pint of real ale, they are a friendly crowd, 'a bunch of nerds' as one of them told me with a sheepish grin. Another said how even though he was camping alone, he had made friends with his neighbours almost immediately, as they brought him a beer and were all talking history within a matter of minutes. Small crowds spontaneously gathered to discuss the details of a particular battle or talk through the hardware on display and the reenactors seem to be permanently engaged in serious in-depth discussions with people who really know their military history. This is one of the few places where a speaker can say to his audience, 'Of course you all know about the Heydrich assassination,', and the whole audience nods its head in agreement and understanding. The first talk of the festival was with Jack Mann who served in both the SAS and SBS during World War II. In conversation with historian Paul Beaver and doing their fifth talk together this year, they formed quite the double act, with Jack speaking with much humour about his experiences, clearly feeling more comfortable in front of this audience of like minded people than he had at other more formal history festivals, and laughter filled the air at regular intervals. Historian Andy Chatterton gave a talk in the new Arsenal Tent about Section 7, the most secretive of agencies during the war, which trained unlikely civilians how to kill and cause massive disruption should the UK ever be invaded by the German forces. Many of the people recruited to Section 7 had only told families of their roles when they were on their deathbeds, leaving their families thinking they were suffering from senility and so it had been a difficult story to research. In the Briefing Tent Al Murray introduced his Dad, Lt-Col Ingram Murray, who had a distinguished career between 1956 and 1989 and was clearly very knowledgeable about the role of the sappers at Pegasus Bridge in 1944. He spoke to a packed audience, people standing at the back and sides of the tent, themselves clearly enthusiastic and well informed about this critical event. The operation to take Pegasus Bridge was outlined, the planners using detailed research from holiday postcards sent in by the public and tremendous help from the French Resistance. The vital question was whether it, and also the swing bridge at Ranville, would be strong enough to take the weight of a Sherman tank - assuming that the Germans had not already booby trapped them both. Lt-Col Murray described the landing of the gliders and the successful capture of the bridges, then the rapid building of the eight Bailey bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal, all done under heavy shellfire, to enable the troops breaking out from Sword Beach to advance. He extolled the virtues of these British designed bridges saying that, when the Americans discovered them, “they thought it was the best thing since Spam”. He paid tribute to the sappers who had done such vital work in 1944 and, thanks to their efforts, by the end of the war the efficiency of their bridging played an important part in the final victory. In The Arsenal, Giles Milton spoke about Churchill’s Ministry of UnGentlemanly Warfare. He described how the original establishment of Military Intelligence Research eventually led to the formation of the Special Operations Executive. The Special Training School at Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland specialised in training operatives for guerrilla warfare, while an innocent looking house called The Firs near Bletchley Park was the home for the design of many of the ungentlemanly weapons of war. Both units produced brilliant individuals, many of them women, whose contribution to the war effort is not always recognised. Among other characters there was specific mention of Cecil Clarke whose purchase of a metal bowl from Woolworths, some aniseed balls and some condoms led to the invention of the limpet mine which was responsible for the destruction of many German ships. Cecil Clarke was also responsible for the manufacture of the bomb that was used to kill Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942: the assassins were trained in Arisaig. Tommy Macpherson was another exceptional operator whose decision to simply fell trees along the Germans’ route to Normandy in 1944 held up the German advance, particularly that of an elite SS Panzer division, for 17 days. His part in the Jedburgh Units, so successful in carrying out sabotage in guerrilla warfare in Europe, was highly praised. Churchill’s support for the unconventional, the innovative and - definitely- ungentlemanly was extremely significant in the overall victory of the Allies in WWII. By the final talks of the day, many were sporting their new 'merch' - t-shirts displaying the festival details, or carrying brown paper bags containing the new history books they had bought. There is a book shop on site which seemed to be doing a roaring trade, and there were lengthy queues to get the books signed by their authors. The gin and wine bar stood utterly neglected while the pints of ale only increased in quantity and I have no doubt that there will be a few sore heads in the morning. Knowing this crowd though they will soldier on rather than miss any of the upcoming talks and events, their love of history overcoming any possible hangover.
- THE CHALKE VALLEY HISTORY FESTIVAL 2022
The History Festival, the biggest in the world, has just finished in the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire. Attracting some of the biggest names in history, politics and the literary world as well as living historians from all eras, the festival is a fantastic and beautiful place to spend some time immersed in history. Jump to Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday The Weekend The Weekend Saturday always sees a massive influx of visitors, and this one was no exception. Cars were queing down the main road and filling up the car parks before the site opened, with the occasional torrential downpour not seeming to put anyone off. The living historians have doubled in number since yesterday, with whole new time periods and battalions pitched up in their white tents. The queues were halfway across the festival site to hear Ian Hislop be interviewed by Charlie Higson on Spike Milligan’s War against Hitler, the BBC and Everyone Else. This sold out talk was based on research he has done for a play about Spike Milligan at the height of his fame with The Goons in the early 1950s. We heard about Spike’s conflict with Peter Sellers and how much he loved complaining about both the BBC and his life in the army, but the overall impression we were left with was just how funny he was, with Ian Hislop repeating some of his many witticisms which had the audience laughing repeatedly. Ian Hislop was also given the chair at Speakers Corner and fielded questions put to him by the large audience assembled - on the few chairs, sitting on the grass, clinging to the tent poles and standing in groups. Inevitably his opinion on present day politicians was sought and, just as inevitably, he attacked them all with wit and humour. The existence of such a large crowd was testament to his ability to make stinging political points with self deprecation and pithy comments. There were live firing displays in the Arena on both days with the Garrison Artillery Volunteers. These are mostly former servicemen with the Royal Artillery who are the only people in the world still training using British Army Second World War artillery drills. Large crowds dotted the hillside to watch as they manoeuvred a towed battery of 25-pounder field artillery guns into position, unhitched them, positioned them and then fired them, both individually and collectively. The commentator talked the audience through what was happening and had them count the gap between firing the gun and it hitting its target. The loud cracks echoed across the peaceful valley as the smoke enveloped the crowds and the rest of site. Standing ovations at the History Festival are rare and usually reserved for veterans. On Saturday the audience delivered one for Bill Browder whose mission to get justice for the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky commanded great sympathy and respect. Bill Browder began his talk by explaining that he was no longer President Putin’s Enemy Number One, President Zelensky of Ukraine now had that dubious honour. The threat to him is real: at the Helsinki summit in 2018 President Trump seemed to express willingness to hand him over to Putin in exchange for 12 Russian intelligence operatives arrested for hacking the 2016 Presidential election. He told the history of how his early successful career of investment in Russia, and his campaign against the oligarchs, turned to disaster. It all hinged on Putin’s decision to support the oligarchs (in return for a substantial share of their wealth). In 2008 Bill Browder hired a young lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to investigate people who had fraudulently claimed a 230 million dollar tax rebate for companies they had stolen. Magnitsky duly acquired evidence and gave sworn testimony to prove it. He was arrested and tortured in the attempt to make him withdraw his testimony - which he constantly refused to do. He was held for almost a year in appalling conditions, became seriously ill, and died in custody in November 2009, aged just 37. Bill Browder concluded by saying that although nothing could bring Magnitsky back, at least some comfort could be had in the fact that since his death, 34 countries have adopted their own versions of the Magnitsky Act, which has been used to sanction many individuals for human rights violations. It was a powerful speech in support of justice for one honest and innocent man. Restoration horse racing is something new for the festival and what a wonderful addition it was. Running throughout the weekend, Charles II and his men arrived in the festival site on a magnificent horse back procession through the crowds before putting on a pageant and some racing with the beautiful valley as their backdrop. ‘Honest James’ had a tote board and was taking bets on the outcomes, with chocolate coins for the winners. Charles II was very regal and the whole event was highly entertaining. Other equestrian adventures included the death of Richard III at Bosworth, a great visual aid to the intricacies of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which was explained to the audience with detail and much humour. Kids took centre stage over the weekend, with a Warrior Academy joining the Soldier School, as well as archery lessons, and they were encouraged to participate in some of the events, such as the recreation of the battle of Mudeford Quay between 18th century smugglers and the Revenue, where they were put through their drill with foam swords. History Hit held a Family History Quiz, and many children enjoyed the vintage fairground attractions, with the oldest big wheel in the UK from 1922, 1930s dodgems and some yacht swing boats dating from 1915 which sounded rather terrifying judging from the screams coming from within. The best aspect of the festival, and one which we never tire of, is the sheer eccentricity and quirkiness of the event. The juxtaposition of soldiers from the Battle of Waterloo watching the World War II guns firing, an 18th century general stepping into a portable loo, medieval children riding the dodgems or Edwardian ladies queuing at an ice cream van is always a visual treat, as are some of the snippets of conversation you hear as you stroll through the site. “I don’t understand. How are the History Tellers going to bring in ships for the raid on St Nazaire”? A WWII sergeant to a passing Cavalier “Do you use Pantene on that hair?” Cavalier: “Yes. Because I’m worth it”. The Royal Navy Commandos camp to the nearby Second World War encampment. “Artillery! Get your pop guns off my beach!” A Civil War sutler at 7.00 pm. “Thank God I can get my corsets off”. The whole week is a joyous celebration of all things historical, and one we can't recommend highly enough. Until next year Chalke Valley! Chalke Valley History Festival: 26 June - 2nd July 2023 Day 5 The overcast day 5 kicked off with the extraordinary true tale of the Ticket Collector of Belarus. Two childhood friends who had played together in their home town of Belarus, faced each other in the only war crimes trial which has even been held in the UK. One had joined the Waffen SS, the other was Jewish. Andrei Sawoniuk had lived a quiet life as a ticket collector at London Bridge Station for over 50 years, before his past crimes caught up with him. It is a fascinating story, recently published by Neil Hanson and Mike Anderson, who were both on the stage to tell the tale and answer questions from a fascinated audience. Michael Cockerell is the BBC’s most prolific political documentary maker who has made films about 12 British Prime Ministers. The first was Harold Macmillan, Eton educated, who studied Classics at Balliol College, the latest being Boris Johnson, Eton educated, who studied Classics at Balliol. As he dryly observed, ‘how things change’. On the outdoor History Hit stage, he showed us clips of Prime Ministers behind the scenes, including a secret TV test done by Winston Churchill, who had wanted to see what he looked like on camera. He had insisted that the footage was destroyed, but instead it was hidden under the film maker’s bed for 40 years until Michael was allowed access to it. Churchill’s voice rang across the valley, still as powerful now as it was then, despite all of the crackles from the old recording. There were scenes of Margaret Thatcher, recorded secretly by Michael, preparing for an interview with a rather hostile Robin Day. She inquired what questions he would be asking her on camera. He said “I will be asking about you running on an obviously phony manifesto,” which raised nothing more than an eyebrow and a fleeting glance of annoyance on her face. It was an excellent and captivating talk which was well received by the audience spread across the hillside. Academic and author Piers Brendon talked about Churchill in the Post-Truth Era, a look at how Churchill has been judged and assessed in these modern times. There was much laughter at some of Churchill’s best witticisms, many of them apocryphal, as Piers described Churchill as, “someone who attracts tall tales as a statue attracts bird droppings”. He looked at how Churchill has been exploited by later politicians comparing themselves to him, such as Tony Blair who described himself as Churchill when justifying the invasion of Iraq. He said there is some validity in accusing Churchill of racial prejudice, but his critics have got too carried away, not making any allowance for the exigencies of war to explain the actions he took. Of course the history festival is not just about the talks and lectures, there are countless other things going on. The Living Historians are a main attraction here, and there is a wide range of time periods on offer. This year there is a strong presence of the English Civil War Society, a very committed and enthusiastic group of individuals whose mission is to inform and educate the public about the 17th century. While some of their camp are there to demonstrate weapons and uniforms, a very significant angle is to show aspects of civilian life. Meet, for example, Sue and Dee, two sutlers, whose role is to sell provisions to soldiers in the field. They wear costumes of heavy linen dresses and uncomfortable bodices (opening at the front: only higher status women who can afford servants have back opening stays) and daily set up their stall. Their top selling items are ale, tobacco and gambling dice; if near ports they can offer luxury items like citrus fruits and raisins. There’s Nathaniel Cope (aka David), Ensign to Colonel Nicholas Devereux of the Regiment of Foot, with his day tent table. A man of property and quality, his writing desk, glass, globe and cutlery are on display. Nathaniel Chapman (aka Douglas) will sell you pencils and all equipment for writing, should you be literate. There are frequent demonstrations by the “regular” soldiers of the firing of the matchlock and the flintlock. When asked what motivated him, one soldier confessed it was “the smell of black powder”. During the day many of the soldiers and traders will truly live within their parts, they are actors on a stage, showing the passing public an earlier way of life as authentically as possible. In the evening they sit around their campfires, the past and present merging together, before retiring into their tents for the night. They clearly enjoy both the educational nature of their role as well as their friendship, banter and sense of community - both in the 17th century and the 21st. One of the main attractions is the Trench Experience, a regular of the festival. This year the trench was from World War II, in the French town of Cassel. For three days in June 1940, British troops of the 2nd Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and the 4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry held Cassel against the Germans to allow the evacuation of Dunkirk. They dug in defences and kept them at bay, knowing that the only consequence of defeat would be death or being taken as a prisoner of war, which many were, for 6 years until the end of the war. A trench has been dug in the hillside behind the festival and as the small group gathers to wait (it is a ticketed and timed event), a soldier rushes out telling everyone to keep down, and lays out the scenario of the group being soldiers trying to get to Dunkirk. We are then taken through the trench through a variety of situations such as having to defuse a huge bomb which has landed in the trench, firing at the enemy and having to duck to avoid the gunfire headed our way. With some loud bangs and lots of smoke, we scurried through the trench to the end, where we sat down and had the reality of what we had just been through explained to us. It was a fun but sobering experience, and everyone walking away seemed to have found it well worth doing. The most packed house of the Festival so far was to hear Chris Patten speak about his five years as Governor of Hong Kong before its transfer to China in 1997. The diaries he kept during those years had long been kept in the cellar (surrounded by wine) but were brought out and edited during lockdown. He acknowledged that Britain’s original tenure of Hong Kong had come about dishonourably, but said that Hong Kong since 1949 had become a place of refuge for those Chinese escaping Communism and an example of how many Asian people wanted to embrace democratic values. Unlike other British-held territories, Hong Kong had to be prepared for handover, not independence. He described the difficulties and pitfalls of negotiating with a Communist power in the attempt to enable Hong Kong to retain local autonomy. He noted that from 1997 - 2013 there was in fact only minor interference from mainland China, but since the arrival of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party there has been a major crackdown on dissent, and the freedoms and liberties of the people are being slowly stripped away. He ended his talk by speaking of his own conviction that all abuses of human rights, by whatever nation, should always be “called out” if democracy and freedom is to survive. Tomorrow is the start of the weekend, the two busiest days of the festival, and more living historians have been arriving throughout the day, setting up tents and transporting their goods across the site. The weather looks promising and it should be an action packed couple of days. There are still some tickets available - book online here >> Day 4 Thursday dawned grey and overcast, which for a while was a welcome relief after the intense heat of the past three days. The site slowly stirred to life, the Naval Commandos raising the flag with their morning ceremony, the living historians collecting water and drinking steaming cups of tea next to their canvas tents before the crowds arrived. Today was World War II day and included talks from two war veterans, former SOE FANY Joyce Wilding and former RAF navigator, Des Curtis. Both are rapidly approaching their 99th birthdays, yet have a remarkable level of astuteness and quick wit that puts many of us to shame. Des was talking about his three years flying with the same pilot including as part of 618 Squadron, flying first in Beaufighters then Mosquitos, which he said was 'like going from a Morris Minor to a Rolls Royce'. They were in several skirmishes, one of which he described with typical British understatement as ‘an exhilarating ten minutes”, and they attacked several U boats. Asked if they were scared at any point he said, “to say we were scared has a little short word in front of it which I couldn’t say with ladies present.” Joyce Wilding related her role as a FANY in the years from 1941 to 1945. At 98 she was in amazing form both physically and mentally; on occasions correcting her interviewer, Tessa Dunlop, the historian and writer, and making it clear what aspects of her wartime career she thought demanded most attention. She was conscripted at 18 into the elite organisation known as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry where only young women of a certain social standing were accepted, largely because the authorities of the age were convinced that their background would guarantee complete secrecy about their wartime work. Initially, she was trained as a Transmitter Hut Attendant as part of the Special Operations Executive, a rather dull name for her role in the reception of the radio messages from SOE agents in France. She recalled the sadness in the atmosphere at Thame Park when an individual, many of whom had had some training at Thame, would stop transmitting. “But no one ever talked about it”, she said. In January 1945 she became a driver, transporting Top Secret brown envelopes and packages to London. She recalled how humbled and guilty she felt driving through the East End, seeing wretched young women of her own age bombed out of their homes while she was glorying in being at the wheel of a large American estate car. At the end of her lively and informative talk, the audience expressed their great appreciation of the part she had played and her willingness to share it with us. Dr. Matthew Green was talking on one of the outdoor stages about his latest book, Shadowlands, a look at the ghost towns and hidden places of Britain. Without using any notes and with a wonderful turn of phrase, he talked us through some of the places he has visited in his 3 year search for the unseen, explaining that these were places ‘once filled with peoples dreams, now just spectral echoes’. His intention was to give ‘a sense of the transience and fragility of the present’, starting with the famous Skara Brae in Scotland, a small commune built around 3200 BC when people were just starting to build permanent homes for the living rather than the dead. As he was telling us about Old Winchelsea in Sussex, once a city of 5 - 10 thousand people which vanished after several cataclysmic storms, the heavens opened on the outdoor stage and umbrellas were swiftly put up by those sensible enough to have them with them. For less well prepared people like me, I coped with it as long as I could until I just had to make a run for a drier location. Dr. Kate Vigers, who has just released a book about the 39 female Secret Agents of the SOE, has been holding regular talks at the SOE stand. Wearing a 1940s siren suit, she kept the crowd gathered around her fascinated as she talked them through the training involved in becoming a Secret Agent - which included ‘blowing things up and shooting things down’ as well as all sorts of physical drills and tests, such as how quickly they could climb a ladder. One of the SOE trainees said that she had already fought with the resistance and escaped from the Nazis and not once had any of them timed her climbing up a ladder. They had to learn how to field strip a Sten gun in under 30 seconds - Kate did this in front of her admiring audience and you get the impression she is not just an academic writing a book, she is someone who has a great deal of respect and admiration for the formidable women she wrote about. Operatives were taught silent killing and how to use their bodies as weapons - “sorry chaps nearly everything ends with a kick to the cods”, Kate said. The Finishing School at Beaulieu, which is just down the road from the festival, taught them further subjects such as what to wear and how to wear it, as every detail was thought of, even the style of the seams of their clothing and having to have their fillings removed and replaced with French fillings. After a sample interrogation from the Gestapo in the dead of night which only just stopped short of physical violence, the training ended with a final meal out and the handing over of a cyanide pill, before heading off to places such as RAF Tangmere and then being dropped overnight into France. The average life expectancy was just 6 weeks. Despite the rain, she had a large crowd hanging on her every word. Joyce Wilding was a member of the audience, sitting upright under her bright red umbrella and interjecting when appropriate. After the talk, I saw several people nervously approaching Joyce, desperate to tell her how impressed they were with her. The latest book from military historian heavyweight Peter Caddick-Adams was discussed by James Holland and Stephen Price, as Peter has been unavoidably detained in France. Victory in the West looks at the final year of World War II and was described as a very important book which takes the narrative of the last few months of the war to a new level. Discussion focused on some of the lesser known generals, many of who have been neglected in the years since the war, with all of the attention unfairly on Patten. Overlooked generals include US General Devers who led the 6th Army Group in France, or General Bill Simpson whom James Holland described as a ‘forgotten hero who was in fact a true legend - a team player, able to get on with Monty, which few could achieve, and tactically astute’. There was also mention of some of the German generals, including the ‘beastly’ General Kesselring, and General Model who was described as ‘your archetypal Nazi’ on whom every Nazi in every 60s war film has been modelled. The rain didn’t seem to stop people for long, with the living historians just carrying on, welcoming people to their tents and taking through what they were doing or demonstrating ancient skills. I noticed that the next talk scheduled for the outdoor stage had been turned around, with the audience all packed under the picnic gazebo, the screen and speaker just turned round to face them. No-one seemed to mind, everyone just carried on, listening quietly to the talk as they watched the rain drip off the plastic roof. Lord David Owen, a former Foreign Secretary, returned to the festival after a sold out talk in 2019. He started with a ‘Ten Questions’ session in the Speakers Corner to a small group. Always a good speaker, he handled some probing questions with candour and a great sense of humour, covering everything from Brexit, referendums, Bosnia and how he feels about Boris Johnson. He followed this with a packed out talk with Cambridge Professor David Reynolds where they discussed Russia, a conversation which inevitably turned towards the current crisis. Asked if he would be trying to negotiate with Putin, he said if he had been made to sit at the other end of a long table as Macron had, he would have got up and moved his chair closer, which generated much laughter from the audience. Lord Owen is a fascinating man, the sort you would really like to have a late night brandy with while putting the world to rights. As the band warmed up their instruments for the night's entertainment, corks popped and wine chillers were placed on the picnic tables waiting for the guests leaving the final talks of the evening. Meanwhile the living historians removed their swords, corsets and stays with much relief before tucking into their meals cooked around a fire, then turning into the shelter of their canvas tents for a night of rest. Tomorrow is the last of the peaceful days before the weekend, when the families arrive and the site will be filled with happy shrieks from the fairground rides, the much anticipated Restoration horse racing will take place and the living historians will be inundated with crowds and questions from inquisitive young minds. Day 3 It was another sizzling day in the Chalke Valley, with people headed for the shade, sitting under trees and packing out the covered NAAFI and tea room. Straw hats, parasols and floaty dresses were the order of the day for visitors while the reenactors in their armour, woollen clothing and hats could be seen mopping brows and devouring water. The day started with 96 year old Jack Mann, veteran of the SAS and SBS who served in North Africa and Greece, in conversation with acclaimed historian Paul Beaver. He talked about his time training for his wings, which seemed to have involved jumping from ladders and the back of fast moving trucks as well as from planes, the former method probably far more hazardous. You can read more about his talk here >> Max Hastings is always a crowd puller at the Festival and his marquee was packed with an audience keen to hear his talk on the hugely diverse topic of Soldiers: Great Stories of War and Peace. He has accumulated nearly 350 stories to illustrate what it is like to fight in wars, to live and die as a warrior from Greek and Roman times through to recent conflicts. He selected from the enormous wealth of material available, vastly increased from the mid 19th century as the poor became literate and were able to record their own version of events, free from the posturing and justification shown by many of their superior officers. He discussed the changing nature and expectations of the soldier in warfare, particularly in Western societies. Once required to stand upright in line to face rifle fire without complaint, by the ending of the two world wars there was a consensus that the state could no longer make such terrible demands upon its citizen soldiers, and modern regular soldiers do not make the assumption that death is automatically their fate. The standards of safety and of care and the recognition of PTSD reflect a different approach to that of bygone years. Various anecdotes illustrated his talk, some humorous, some practical, some emotionally disturbing. Afterwards, a lengthy queue formed to buy the book that detailed some of “the good, the bad and the ugly who served their country when there was trouble in the wind”. In the afternoon the IGPL Stage featured Alexandra Lloyd and two of her Oxford students who had recently collaborated on a project to translate all of the White Rose pamphlets published between June 1942 and February 1943 into English. These pamphlets attempted to encourage the German people to rise up against the tyranny of the Third Reich and the war that it had engendered. The talk gave the brief story of the five students and one academic from Munich University - Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Professor Kurt Huber - all of whom were executed by the Nazis in 1943. The pamphlets themselves are angry, impassioned and uncompromising, designed to stir their readers into action. Their distribution was amazingly courageous, coming at the same time as Goebbels was calling for Total War after the battle of Stalingrad. The Chalke Valley audience was left in no doubt that the professor and the five youngsters were extraordinarily brave: their courage resonating through their written words which called for defiance, for freedom, for action by ordinary German people. We were conscious as the talk ended that this appeal to ordinary citizens to rise up from the bounds of oppression and complicity to bring down a totalitarian regime can still have relevance today. On the popular History Hit stage, the wonderful Major General Patrick Cordingley joined in conversation with author Joanna Grochowicz on the subject of the Lost Virtue of Manliness, using their shared love of the Antarctic explorers as examples. Although in disagreement with each other on several occasions, they both seemed to ultimately agree on the chief aspects of manliness - duty, self-sacrifice, understatement after hardship amongst other qualities. General Sir Richard Shirreff took to the stage as the shadows grew over the outdoor auditorium. His message was powerful and sombre and matched the slowly fading sunlight. He has warned for many years now about President Putin’s ambition to recreate the Empire of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin and he reaffirmed his belief that, if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, then he will next aim for the Baltic States. He decried the cutback of so many of the West’s armed forces and the failure of Western politicians to act decisively after Georgia in 2008 and the Crimea in 2014. The talk was Churchillian in nature – he compared the situation today with that of our fathers and grandfathers in 1938 when appeasement contributed significantly to the outbreak of war in 1939. His audience as it slowly departed was subdued and thoughtful – as he had certainly intended us to be. Day 2 The second day of the Chalke Valley History Festival has been another day of clear skies and blistering sunshine, with the secondary schools in attendance for a day of GCSE and A-Level curriculum based talks, before the public arrived for an evening of talks, live music and good food. The first two days of the festival are aimed at schools - primary schools on Day 1, secondary schools on Day 2. It is good to see enthusiastic youngsters on Day 1, hands waving in the air to answer questions, crowding round the speakers with eager questions of their own. On Day 2 the demeanour of the students is rather more muted (GCSE and A-Level are serious, after all) but there is an appreciation of both the talks - which are generally geared towards the various history Examination Boards - and the chance to take part in the many activities. The CVHF website has many compliments from Heads of History, such as Trafalgar School in Downton comments on the “fantastic and unique opportunity to engage with world class historians in a way we could never achieve in school”. Over 12,709 children have attended since the launch of the Festival, which is a remarkable record, and amply demonstrates the aims of the Trust to educate youngsters and promote a long lasting love of history. Today the talks included subjects you would expect such as the American Civil War and both World Wars, but also more diverse subjects for today's socially aware youngsters such as An Alternative History of Identity and the British Empire and the Slave Trade. Groups of teenagers strolled around the site, stopping to talk to the Living Historians, to defuse a bomb in the Dunkirk trenches or to learn the skills of the Samurai. As the day drew on and the groups of colourful teenagers left via the exit, in through the entrance came the next visitors sporting variations of red trousers, linen blazers and panama hats. Those who had booked to listen to Tracy Borman may well have felt disappointed when she cancelled due to illness, but were probably delighted to instead hear the Holland brothers talking about the British monarchy. Both Tom and James Holland are famous historians with a veritable library of books to their names, both highly entertaining and clever men, who are both from the village of Broadchalke itself, where the festival is held. 2022 is the 100th anniversary year of Ernest Shackleton’s death and Joanna Grochowicz entitled her talk “Shackleton’s Endurance: An Antarctic Survival Story. He died on board ship on 5th January age only 47, and was buried in South Georgia on 5 March 1922. With wonderful timing, the discovery of the wreck of the Endurance was announced on 5th March 2022, rekindling interest in Shackleton’s doomed expedition of 1914 - 1916. The story of Shackleton’s mission is generally well known, so the speaker focused on the lives and experiences of his crew. We heard of 17 year old Perce Blackborow, who stowed away on board, smuggled on by others who thought that Shackleton had not hired sufficient crew. There was the story of Henry McNish, the unpopular carpenter, who used his myriad skills to make the winter quarters more comfortable and to strengthen the lifeboats that in the end saved lives. The diaries kept by the crew left behind on Elephant Island, with no idea if or when rescue would come, show very different preoccupations. The seamen worried about their wages and their families, the scientists about their careers and their equipment. All were obsessed with food. The audience reacted with understandable horror to James Wordie’s delight in changing his underwear after 5 months. He turned it inside out……… At the end we were reminded that while Shackleton’s expedition is hailed as being without casualties, in fact there were deaths among the support crew - the Ross Sea Party - three of whom were shipwrecked on the Aurora which was forced out to sea by the ice. Other talks today included Andrew Roberts talking about revisionist history of George III, who seems to have been rather misunderstood before the Queen recently allowed historians access to his papers, which showed a very different side to conventional thought about the 'Mad King'. Andrew Roberts is a powerful and compelling speaker and encouraged us to think of George III at the cutting edge of enlightenment, founder of the Royal Academy, patron of arts and architecture with a personal library of 80,000 books. He invited Mozart to London, supported both Haydn and Handel, gave William Herschel a grant for the building of a 40ft reflector telescope. His talk concluded with a convincing argument that George III was in many ways the founder of the modern monarchy. His legacy includes the purchase of Buckingham Palace, the institution of Trooping the Colour, the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and the royal walkabout (as demonstrated by the Duchess of Cornwall here at Chalke Valley only the day before). Dr. Kate Vigurs, who is at the festival all week running the SOE stand, gave an enlightening talk about the women recruited to work behind enemy lines in World War II, ordinary housewives and mothers who took on jobs of such incredible danger that the survival rate was about 6 weeks. Focusing on women other than the well known Noor Inayat Khan and Violette Szabo, she spoke with admiration about Yvonne Baseden, a wireless operator who was eventually captured but managed to survive the concentration camps and lived to the age of 95. On one of the outdoor stages, James Holland was in discussion with a 90 year old man who had been farming in the Chalke Valley since the 1940s, talking about the changes he has seen over the decades, his faltering voice belying his extraordinary memories of rural life in this beautiful part of Britain, which just a few months ago was voted the best place to live in the Southwest by the Sunday Times. Sitting in the shade watching the sun set over the whole valley, you could see new arrivals setting up and offloading equipment, as tomorrow is the first of the four full public days. The empty spaces of the valley will fill with more white canvas tents, their occupants jeans and t-shirts will be swapped for tunics and uniforms, and the serious business of history will begin. For more details about the Festival and to book tickets, please visit www.cvhf.org.uk Day One The Chalke Valley History Festival began today with a royal flourish, as Camilla The Duchess of Cornwall opened the event with an episode of her Reading Room, heralding a week of over 400 events and talks in the world’s biggest festival dedicated entirely to history. The start of the history festival always has an aura of calm before the storm, as the first two days are the Schools Festival. Over 1000 primary school children had the site mostly to themselves and spent the day visiting the living historians, listening to curriculum based talks as well as learning to march in Soldier School or visiting the trench, which is always a popular attraction. The sun shone down on the pristine white marquees, the picnic benches stood empty and stall holders were still assembling their tents and displays, with the public crowds yet to arrive. The outdoor pub was back under its colourful big top roof, flowering plants on each table, freshly washed bunting flapping in the breeze with an air of anticipation for the week ahead. Only the whirr of an air raid siren, the crack of guns and the sound of soldiers bellowing at their charges gave an indication of what lies ahead. It seemed entirely appropriate for the Duchess of Cornwall to open the event to the public, which started with a discussion entitled Rediscovering Women in History, with two of the country’s top historical novelists, Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. The Duchess is the first royal visitor to the festival and is a resident of Wiltshire herself. In her opening speech she described the county as "surrounded by an abundance of ghosts" mentioning previous female inhabitants from Jane Seymour to the first person in the country to be killed by a tiger. Quoting famous Wiltshire resident Christopher Wren, whose birthplace is just 15 miles away, she quoted the words on his tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral “ if you seek his monument look around you”. Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory took it in turns to answer questions asked by members of Camilla's book club, each randomly selecting a card with a question on it. In front of a largely female audience they discussed giving a voice to women who have been overlooked by history and the role women have played in it. I couldn’t help thinking how relevant the discussion was to the future Queen Consort watching from the front row, a woman not able to publicly voice an opinion yet so integral to the current monarchy and modern history. It was an interesting discussion with topics including the difficulties of portraying women accurately in an age when almost all documentary evidence was written by men who often portrayed women as either 'whores or Madonnas'. Their occasional sighting on the historical stage was often only due to an appearance in a criminal court or whenever a coven of “witches” was discovered. Yet many women were in fact the brains and organisation of many successful businesses but trading under the name of a husband or father. Sitting at the back of the comfortable marquee, out of one door we could see the Duchess's security detail patrolling outside, sweltering in suits and murmuring into their ear pieces. Through the door on the other side were Friesian cows casually wandering back and forth across their field, probably wondering what on earth was going on next to them. After the talk, the Duchess went for a stroll around the festival site accompanied by top historian and founder of the festival, James Holland. The phalanx of security personnel followed at a discreet distance, always on the move and keeping the press pack at bay, long lensed cameras clicking as she talked to some of the living historians and was introduced to members of the Chalke Valley team. She seemed genuinely interested in those she spoke with, a smile on her face and an ice cream in her hand, before being whisked away to face the rush hour traffic. The Hiscox tent then welcomed Sir Peter Westmacott to talk about Britain and the World of Diplomacy. He argued a strong case for the need for diplomats in the present day even in this age of instant communication, of Zoom, of Teams, of social media. There is a need for people on the ground with local contacts, knowledge of prevailing culture, who speak the language, who have already forged good relationships, who know what compromises could be offered in any negotiation. As the sun set on the first day, the sound of cannons firing could be heard across the valley as people drifted towards the bar and the live music on offer. Tomorrow is the turn of 1000 secondary school pupils to visit, before the site is filled with the general public and the talks, demonstrations and events start in earnest. The week ahead has much to look forward to including a Restoration Pageant, Restoration-era horse racing over a specially developed race course, speakers such as Max Hastings, Ian Hislop, Dan Snow and Michael Wood as well as a recreation of an Iron Age roundhouse, a Speakers Corner, the wonderful History Tellers and so much more. For more details about the Festival, please visit www.cvhf.org.uk Read the Top Ten Reasons why we love the History Festival >> Chalke Valley History Festival FAQ's >>
- JOHN HAMILTON - DUNKIRK VETERAN AT THE CHALKE VALLEY HISTORY FESTIVAL
In 2019, Dunkirk veteran John Hamilton was invited to the Chalke Valley History Festival to talk about his experiences. Chalke Valley holds the largest annual history festival in the world, a week of talks, events and living historians set in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside. Veterans are often invited to speak about their experiences providing a unique and immediate way of learning about the past. John Hamilton was one of the speakers at the 2019 Chalke Valley History Festival and astonishingly, it was his debut as a public speaker. Why had no one found him before? At 101 years old, totally sound in mind and body, he was an inspiring and engaging speaker. Andrew Cumming, who introduced us to this amazing man, told us he had met John in the gym, where John works out for two hours for five days a week. John added that exercise was indeed the key to his good health: he had given up golf at 88 and reluctantly, squash, on the advice of his doctor – who happened to be his opponent in the game. His early life seems horrific to contemporary eyes. With parents working abroad he was sent to live with a stranger in Weston-super-Mare at the age of 4, on to board at a prep school, and subsequently to Clifton where he suffered fagging and bullying. A friend of the family found him a job as a junior clerk in a London shipbroker’s office: work he clearly found tedious and unfulfilling. Acutely aware of events in Germany, he joined a TA Anti-Aircraft regiment, and twelve days after the outbreak of war, found himself sleeping on a palliasse in a farmhouse in northern France. He then proceeded to tell us of his experience of Dunkirk with the pragmatism, modesty and composure which seems common to so many veterans of the wars and continues to impress and move those of us who were not there, and could not know the extent of the horror they experienced. From October 1939 to May 1940 there was “nothing to do” as they sat idly but with apprehension through the Phoney War period. On 10 May 1940 the Germans threw the full force of Blitzkrieg at the French attacking through the Ardennes. As the French army fell back, Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, made the decision to evacuate the troops. “Calais had fallen to the Jerries,” John said, “the only place left was Dunkirk.” His unit was ordered to Dunkirk. The roads were so crowded with fleeing civilians, troops on the move and abandoned equipment that it took two days to reach the sand dunes near Dunkirk. (In this context he poured scorn on the recent 2017 film Dunkirk which showed the town to have intact streets and standing houses when he knew personally that Dunkirk was utterly devastated by the time the BEF arrived. He recommends the 1958 film instead which he said was much closer to the truth). When they got there, they set up their guns. Attacked by Stukas, which he described as a terrifying gun plane which dives from 5000 feet at 370mph, with the only chance to hit it is when it finally flattens out. In the chaos that followed John was proud to say that his unit were able to shoot down three Stukas, but he knew they were helpless against such overwhelming force. The queue to get to the water's edge was half a mile long and he recalled watching the panic and struggle as men on the beach fought to get on a mere handful of lifeboats dispatched from a ship, many of them drowning in the attempt. Later arrivals who tried to jump the queue were forced back by an officer who drew his revolver and threatened to shoot. The sand dunes, he explained, were a safer place to be than on the open beaches. To enable the evacuation, a perimeter had been established, 25 miles long and 8 miles deep. “My God,” he said, “they sacrificed everything.” Although the evacuating troops had to contend with bombers, they did not have to worry about short range weapons, thanks to this fighting perimeter. He remembered a padre coming to his unit as they sat waiting fearfully. “Would you boys like a service?” he asked them. So they prayed fervently for all those defending the perimeter, saving the lives of those on the dunes and beaches by enabling the evacuation to take place, men who in the end suffered the most – some through being taken prisoner but most through their deaths. Together they sang ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’. In a loud clear voice, John recited verbatim the first verse of this hymn for us, words that so evidently resonated with him 79 years after he sang it on the beaches of Dunkirk. At the water’s edge he volunteered to carry wounded men on stretchers to the breakwater. He recreated for us the terror of the Stukas with their 250lb bomb load screeching down at them at 370mph. “God, it was frightening”, he said, wiping his hand across his face as if an attempt to, even now, to erase the memory. He narrowly avoided the fate of others who were buried in sand nearby as a bomb hit, and was able to board a trawler which took them out to HMS Whitehall waiting at sea. This destroyer took them to Dover from where they boarded a train for Aberystwyth. Ten days rest was all that was allowed after this traumatic experience before he found himself recalled to duty. He seemed quite startled as the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation. But it was a fitting tribute to him, and to those who both lived and died in one of the most remarkable events of British history. Read more about the Chalke Valley History Festival >> Chalke Valley History Festival FAQ >>
- FIGHTING WITH THE FRENCH RESISTANCE – THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF JOHN JAMMES
The Chalke Valley History Festival is the biggest history festival in the UK, and runs for a week of lectures, talks, living history events and more, in a beautiful valley in the Wiltshire countryside. In 2019, former French Resistance fighter Jean Jammes was invited to talk about his experiences. The white marquee doors flapped in the soft summer breeze as Chalke Valley History Festival goers found their seats amongst a hubbub of greetings and chatter, using their programmes or panama hats as fans as the humidity built up around us. Two men walked onto the stage, Professor Peter Caddick Adams in his jaunty checked shirt and blue trousers, and John Jammes, in his early 90s, soberly dressed, but clearly with as much lively intelligence as the Professor. The crowd hushed and the Professor introduced John, once Jean, to us, as a torch bearer for his generation with so very few of them left. The audience collectively settled back into their seats to listen. With a clear unhesitating voice, remarkable self-possession and composure, and with only minimal prompting from the Professor, the story unfolded. And what a story it was. In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War when he was only 13, John and his mother and sister were living in Le Mans, in north western France. His father, an officer in the army, had been sent with his regiment to the Belgian frontier, where he stayed for the duration of the Phony War, until May 1940. John’s grandmother came from Paris to join the family. She could remember the Prussian War of 1870, the First World War of 1914 and the invasion of 1940, which was the third time her country had been invaded by Germans. As John wryly told us “she wasn’t well disposed towards the Germans and she had good reason, or two, or three.” The family tried to flee south, but the civilians were strafed by German fighter planes and forced to hide in ditches “which weren’t very comfortable”, next to the roads. They were stopped by a German patrol near Nantes and forced to spend some time there, with John sleeping in the hay barn of a local farmer. While there, they heard the pronouncement of a German commander demanding a curfew for all civilians, accompanied by the threat of being shot for any disobedience. John told us how he saw grown men cry real tears, both in shame and shock at the realisation of what was happening to them. “They stole our freedom”, he said with emphasis, “and that is unforgivable”. The family returned home and it wasn’t long before German officials arrived at the house, looking for suitable billets for the officers. The locals all knew that the Germans were terrified of tuberculosis; the family had rehearsed their parts, and John’s grandmother “walked down the corridor coughing”, So, fortunately, they never had this particular violation forced on them. The intrepid 13 year old soon became involved in low level but important resistance to the invader. At his lycée (school), the masters would give him leaflets to distribute. These carried pictures of de Gaulle so that people would know he was real, not a myth, and that someone, somewhere, was working to get the Germans out. In a local café the Germans would hang their bayonets on the coat rack. He and other boys hung their bicycle pumps alongside – a small but significant gesture of mockery and defiance. On 18th June 1940, as the French government were preparing to sign an armistice with the Nazi invaders, De Gaulle issued a call to arms to the French people, a speech which John remembers clearly and is still of great historical significance to the French. “Honour, common sense, and the interests of the country require that all free Frenchmen, wherever they be, should continue the fight as best they may.” L: General de Gaulle giving his famous speech, known as ‘The Appeal of 18th June’ from the BBC in London, 1940. R: An example of leaflets printed by the Resistance in Occupied France. ‘Long live the French Resistance!’ John’s memories of these years are of being hungry and angry, very angry. In 1941, his Father was finally able to send word and this was the first they knew that he was still alive. The family went to see him, travelling “illegally” to Tours, where they crossed the border at night, timed exactly to leave between two German patrols, as forewarned by locals who reconnoitred the German movements, and John finally got to see his father. By now two of his teachers had been arrested, were sent to Buchenwald and never returned. They were heroes to the boys and their fate had a big impact on him. In the summer of 1942, John and his family again managed to pass German patrols with false papers to see his father, this time in Loches. They travelled as a grieving local family in a hearse, with a real corpse in the coffin. Their papers were checked by an elderly German soldier which was very fortunate, as John’s mother was wearing a maroon hat when the local custom for funerals was to wear black, head to toe. A more observant soldier would have noticed this and they were very lucky to get away with it. The family settled in Loches where John was sent to boarding school. There was barely any food and they lived off Jerusalem artichokes which have no nutritional value at all, because the Germans took all of the potatoes. The boys called the Germans, ‘Colorado beetles’, a particular species which attacks potatoes. The Headmaster of this boarding school, who was unfortunate enough to be called Adolf, came from Alsace-Lorriane, an area of France which has long been contested between the French and Germans. He hid Jews and young conscripts from Alsace to prevent them being forced into the German army, the Lycée being a stepping stone as they moved from safe house to safe house. 30,000 men from Alsace were conscripted into the German army and died on the Russian Front. John asked us with real horror in his voice, “Can you imagine being forced into the enemy’s uniform and made to fight your allies?” The luckier escapees were hidden in the school and had to pretend to be younger and still of school age. Not one was ever betrayed. The Headmaster asked John to run messages for the resistance, which he keenly did, even though he was still just a schoolboy and it involved going out after curfew, where the risk of capture would result in death. John’s father was running an undercover resistance unit nearby at the time, so John found himself doing many clandestine jobs. He would cover hundreds of miles on a bicycle, taking messages from headquarters to farms, cycling all across the countryside spending hour after hour on his bike. John told us he hasn’t ridden a bike since 1945. By 1944, when John was 17, he joined the Maquis, the armed guerrilla units, and their job was to ambush German convoys which were heading up through France from South West France to Normandy after D-Day. The Germans who were travelling through his region included the Gestapo, Abwehr (German Military Intelligence), OVRA (Italian Secret Police) and the regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich (who massacred 600 civilians in the village of Oradour). L: Youthful members of the Maquis – the armed rural guerilla bands of the French Resistance R: The Maquis recruiting and instructing local men in the arts of Resistance John’s unit would fell trees to bring the German convoys to a standstill, then attack. On one foray, three of their men were captured and buried alive by the Germans. John returned the next day to take photos of this atrocity, photos which were later used in the Nuremburg Trials. The units started wearing armbands, to try to emulate a uniform, thinking that if they were captured by the Germans then they would be treated as prisoners of war rather than terrorists. Of course that was not the case, and when fighters were captured they were tortured and usually killed. These armbands, and here John held up his to show us, were made by women across France, thousands of them and if they had been caught then they too would have been tortured. John paid testament to their bravery, telling us how these women are not in the history books and get very little credit for the risks they took. They had to learn to recognise German uniforms, such as green piping on epaulettes meaning infantry. The Maquis originally thought the British mad for wanting to know this but realised it was to learn about troop movements. There were no Allies in the area until much later, as they had all gone northwards after D-Day, so units like Johns were an important source of information. He would receive a message that there was a parcel for him to collect, which meant that he was to receive another shot down airman. Over 55,000 men of Bomber Command were shot down and killed in the days after D-Day, their sacrifice often neglected as people think more of the work done by the Spitfire pilots. The unit would rescue, feed and clothe the ones who survived, provide false papers and send them on through the network of safe houses. John told us how the British airmen were much easier to pass off as Frenchmen, being of a similar size and build, whereas the Americans were not just ‘enormous’ but would walk differently too, meaning it was a real challenge to keep them safe. This car was parked near the entrance to the festival. John told us how he’d had a shock when he walked in and saw it that morning, as this was the preferred car of the Gestapo, who would always drive these around Occupied France. John explained that after D-Day, the Maquis would steal these cars and paint a white star on the roof, in the hope that they then wouldn’t be targeted by Allied aircraft. John told us that he had been so young, with no children to worry about; his only real fears were capture and torture. He said he was obsessed with, and haunted by, what would happen if he was captured and being forced into giving away the names of his fellow fighters, as he just knew far too much. One of his lieutenants was captured and sent to Buchenwald. He came back as a living skeleton but John knows he did not betray them, otherwise he and the rest of his unit would be dead. That summer, in August 1944, he heard of three Germans hiding in a nearby barn. The 15 year old daughter of the farmer had snuck out to tell his unit, despite the Germans threatening to kill them if she did so. John and his father went out in the curfew, burst in shouting “Hände Hoch” (hands up) and captured them. He had only had a little Sten gun and so ‘borrowed’ the far superior German machine gun that one of the soldiers had. He took them back to woods and by the end of the war, he had rounded up and captured over 80 Germans. They did not mistreat them, just interrogated them and then handed them over to the Americans when they were eventually liberated. At the end of the war both John and his father got a Croix de Guerre for their heroism, John at this point still only 17 years old. After the war, in 1947, they both met de Gaulle. John remembers how tall he was and with a Leica “borrowed” from a German soldier he took photos of de Gaulle which he still has. As the Americans advanced, John wanted to continue the fight corralling Germans but was sent back to school by his father. He was furious at the time but with hindsight sees that his father saved his life, as friends who kept fighting were killed. At the age of 18 he was exempted from National Service due to his time in the Resistance. John told us with much humour how in later years he applied for a war pension, but was told “service in the resistance under the age of 18 doesn’t count”. He quite rightly seemed rather unimpressed. The audience laughed with him, as tensions released and we all breathed for what felt like the first time in an hour. We had been swept up in his tale of incredible bravery and courage, told with such humility and dignity, that we had barely moved or fidgeted in our seats. “I saw the worst of man and the best of man in those years”, he said, and we were all humbled by his moving story. We took to our feet to applaud, programmes and panamas falling to the ground in a long standing ovation as this exceptional man sat there looking slightly nonplussed. Emerging into the warm air, the sound of applause ringing in our ears, the horrors of his story dissipated as we took in the green fields and trees, the sounds of other visitors laughing and joking; they were unaware of the dramatic journey we had been on, the resistance of a young boy through the war in Occupied France and out again. It was an enormous privilege to have listened to John Jammes, and his tale will undoubtedly stay with all of us there for a long time to come. Read more about the Chalke Valley History Festival >> Chalke Valley History Festival FAQ >>
- JACK MANN - SAS VETERAN AT THE CHALKE VALLEY HISTORY FESTIVAL
At the Chalke Valley History Festival today, former World War II SAS veteran talked about his experiences in World War II and his horror at the current war in Ukraine. Jack Mann is the only remaining member of the LRDG, the Long Range Desert Group which was formed in 1940, a reconnaissance and raiding unit of the British Army and disbanded in 1945. He later joined both the SAS and the SBS and gave lectures to the SOE in a varied military career which he started to ‘do his bit’. With such a distinguished career under his belt he is now an honoured member of the Special Forces Club, ‘the only club you can’t buy your way into’, and the only living person to have a bust sculpted of him for display in the club. Although he has previously been reluctant to discuss his wartime experiences, this is his fifth such talk this year: at the age of 96 perhaps thinking that the time is right, although he has previously collaborated with historical authors such as Saul David and Damien Lewis on their books about the Special Forces. His talk at the Chalke Valley History Festival was a conversation with historian Paul Beaver, who encouraged the memories to flow. Jack was born in Cairo in 1925, just two days after his father died. His father was a dentist of 34 years old, who was treated for a spot on his nose but within 24 hours had died of blood poisoning leaving behind his pregnant wife and two small children of 4 and 2, “all dead now”, he said, “I’m the only one left”. After about a year in Cairo the family moved to France, returning to Cairo when his aunt died and his mother married her widower. His step-father had a farm with ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys and Jack described it as a good life. When he was nearly 17 he signed up with the British Army, not liking what he saw going on in Germany and Italy, and was initially assigned to the Royal Signal Corps. He was trained as a radio operator, learning Morse code which he could soon do at 16 words a minute. The Intelligence Corps heard he spoke Italian and assigned him to go into an Italian prisoner of war camp to gather intelligence. Jack refused, saying his Italian was not good enough and that he didn’t join up to end up in a POW camp - he joined to attack the enemy. An hour later they found him another job, as a radio operator with LRDG. Based in North Africa, the LRDG were experts in desert navigation, covert reconnaissance and missions behind enemy lines. They worked alongside the SAS, who nicknamed them the ‘taxi service’, using them to help transport them across the desert. In 1943, Jack transferred to the SAS, undergoing further training courses, including a parachute course in Palestine. Usually a lengthy course, during the war it was just 9 days because that was the only time they could spare. The training included jumping out of a truck at 20 miles an hour and jumping off the top of a ladder, about 5 metres high, without a harness. “That’s quite high actually”, said the astonished interviewer. “Yes “,” Jack replied dryly, “that’s what we thought.” Jack later transferred to the SBS when they needed a radio operator for George Jellicoe, son of the famous Admiral Jellicoe who commanded the British Navy at the Battle of Jutland. He spent a lot of time in the occupied Greek islands, acquiring more language skills along the way. He described how hungry the inhabitants always were, having to sacrifice most of their food to the occupying Germans. He said they would rub their tummies to show hunger, but Jack said it was easy to see it in their faces. Sometimes he would help them, using dynamite to fish, shooting animals or even sometimes using grenades to kill the prey, which was rarely successful. Jack said he is very upset because of the terrible war in Ukraine. When he came out of the army he thought he would never see another war but there’s wars everywhere and Ukraine is the very worst of them. He finds it very upsetting - Russians attacking a neighbour and fighting fellow Russians. Paul asked, “Did you enjoy the war, was it exciting?” “No”, he replied, he joined to do his bit, nothing more. There was nothing exciting about it, but he was happy with the lads who were with him. They made an association after the war and met up, when they were together they were always happy, getting up to mischief. "They’re all gone now." It’s always a privilege to hear veterans and the Chalke Valley History Festival is one of the best places to hear them speak, a far better experience than just reading articles about them. It reminds you that history is more than a series of disconnected events that happened in the past, but that it had a real impact on the lives of those still living. Read more about the Chalke Valley History Festival 2022 >>
- VISITING EAST KNOYLE - THE BIRTHPLACE OF CHRISTOPHER WREN
East Knoyle is a small Wiltshire village which sits just inside the border of the Cranborne Chase Area of Natural Beauty. Only 3 miles south of the A303, that artery to the South west which is filled with traffic jams of holiday makers heading to the beaches of Devon and Cornwall, the village is an ideal place to stop for a break where you can walk through woods, admire sweeping valley views, absorb some history and enjoy some excellent local food. This quiet village is a place for those who are ‘in the know’. While others speed relentlessly by, or stop for a quick break at the dismal concrete services owned by a billionaire, just five minutes down the road is a peaceful, rural sanctuary, home to some beautiful old buildings, a splendid pub and the birthplace of one of Britain’s greatest architects, Sir Christopher Wren. East Knoyle is a parish of several small hamlets all intermingled by a network of narrow, tree-lined roads which twist and turn up and down the steep sides of the valley. Driving here is not for the faint hearted as each new bend brings with it a horror of meeting someone coming in the opposite direction and the inevitable ensuant reversing. It is well worth the journey though, for you end up in an attractive and peaceful village, flourishing and well cared for, a mixture of old cottages with wisps of smoke drifting out of chimneys, thatched houses, expansive bungalows sheltering behind cobblestone walls, and greenery everywhere; wild plants growing out of every cracked wall, ivy and climbers over every building, lanes lined with banks of colourful wild flowers and towering cow parsley. The centre of the village is the crossroads of Church Road and Wise Lane. A large grassy green next to the road is home to the war memorial, a memorial to Christopher Wren, a thriving community shop and a large children’s playground, which is barely visible behind sculpted hedges. Just a few yards up Church Lane is the church of St. Mary’s, a Grade I listed building which has been the focal point of the community for over 1000 years. It is a traditional church of weathered grey stone with a squat little tower which sports a blue clock charmingly askew. Part of the church is Saxon, with later additions of a 13th century nave and a 15th century tower. The church is fronted by a prodigious yew tree with a thick, peeling trunk, its soft green needles falling on the cracked chest tomb underneath. You can walk amongst the lichen clad gravestones around the back of the church and up a steep hill to get a wonderful view, with church, trees and rooftops blending into a backdrop of hills, valleys and endless sky. The church is usually open and is well worth a visit. It is simple inside with white walls, parabolic arches and a timbered roof with little in the way of interior decoration. There are some vibrant stained glass windows and interesting memorials but the the highlight is the plasterwork in the chancel, which was actually created by a 17th century rector, Dr Christopher Wren, who designed some scenes from the Bible and inscriptions. Dr Wren was Rector of East Knoyle for 20 years and it was while living in the village that his son was born, the man who would grow up to be one of England’s true Renaissance men, Sir Christopher Wren. Christopher Wren was an astronomer, geometrician, physicist, mathematician and founder of the Royal Society amongst his other achievements, but he is remembered mainly for his architecture. After the Great Fire of London he was King’s Surveyor, tasked with rebuilding over 50 churches in the capital, including what is widely considered to be the pinnacle of his accomplishments, St Paul’s Cathedral. His Baroque style of architecture graces many of the most important buildings in England’s history. Behind the war memorial is Wren’s Shop, a true community enterprise staffed mostly by volunteers, which is open every day. Like all good village shops, it seems to sell everything, most of which is locally sourced. Groceries are on display in wicker baskets, bread is baked daily, there are pastries, coffee, freshly made sandwiches and wines selected by the village sommelier. The noticeboard outside is covered in fluttering handwritten signs advertising local clubs and events, and the red telephone box has been converted to hold a defibrillator. The church may once have been the hub of the community, but I strongly suspect that it is now this delightful shop. Opposite the shop is the monument to Christopher Wren, a low stone monument with the sides barely visible between the ivy climbing down from the top and the moss creeping up from the base. In a house near this spot was born on 20th October 1632 Sir Christopher Wren Architect Mathematician Patriot The Son of the Rector of this Parish The house no longer exists, apparently knocked down in the 1800s to allow for the road to be widened, which seems something of a tragedy. L: This is thought to be the house Christopher Wren was born in R: The house which replaced it which was demolished in the 1950s Less than a mile up Wise Lane, another impossibly narrow road flanked by thick woodland, you find the East Knoyle Windmill, standing alone on a small hill overlooking a deep valley. This was once a barley meal mill, built in the 17th century and used until 1896. Built from rubble as a functional building with very little ornamentation, it lost its sails in 1911 when a firework was released during the celebrations for the Coronation of George V and set the wooden sails aflame. The mill was converted to an artist’s studio in the 1920s, but seems to no longer be in use. It does still looked cared for and is apparently entirely unchanged. You can walk all around the mill, to admire the views over the valley, full of green fields and gentle hills. Just opposite the mill are the grounds of Clouds House, a once stately home which is now a famous treatment centre, where rich celebrities go to be cured of their addictions. Some very famous people have wandered through these woods, not that you are likely to see any of them. Another 5 minute walk through the winding lanes leads to a large glade with views over the valley on one side and the Fox & Hounds, a 15th century country pub, on the other. With wood-burning fires, flagstone floors and a small but blossoming garden, this is no manicured village pub curated for visitors, this is the real thing where the locals gather. The food is excellent, with far more vegetarian options than you get in most rural locations, and I still remember with fondness the truly fantastic homemade Eton Mess I had there a few years ago. In less than 5 minutes you can be back on the A303 and back in the eternal queues to get to the West country. As you re-join the road at Willoughby Hedge Service Station, you can reflect with some relief that you avoided the soulless concrete car park with its giant Starbucks, or eating warm sandwiches wrapped in plastic triangles with cars screeching past you; instead you wandered through a beautiful village with valley views, ate locally sourced food and saw the birthplace of one of England’s greatest men. How to get to East Knoyle Turn of the A303 at Willoughby Hedge Service Station on to the B3089. Turn right at the crossroads onto the A350 which will take you straight into the centre of the village. This route avoids the narrow roads. There is free parking near the village shop or by the church. The village shop is open 7 days a week from 8am. The church is open 10am - 4pm. If you want to stay a while longer, there is a beautiful glamping site in open meadows overlooking the valley which is just a ten minute walk away from the village. It has shepherds huts and bell tents, a wood fired hot tub and home cooked, locally sourced food delivered to your fire pit. Find out more >>
- SOUTHWICK - THE D-DAY VILLAGE THAT TIME FORGOT
The village of Southwick, near Portsmouth on the south coast of Hampshire, has a long and varied history. Home to an 11th century priory, it is better known for its role in World War II when it became the 'D-Day Village' as it was from here that Eisenhower and his Generals coordinated the 1944 invasion and the military took over the entire village. This momentous occasion is remembered with an annual event, the Southwick Revival, when the whole village celebrates the role it played in the turning point of the war. Southwick Village The coastal city of Portsmouth is a sprawling urban mass of concrete around a huge natural harbour. It is not the most beautiful of places, as it suffered heavily from bombing raids in the war due to its importance to the British Navy, and it was rebuilt haphazardly and without much thought for aesthetics. Just north of its blocks of flats and motorways however is the small village of Southwick, hiding quietly between B roads and amongst fields, rivers and woodland. Southwick is one of those rare villages which is a total anomaly in the 21st century as it is still a feudal village, run by a Squire. The whole place, with just a couple of exceptions, is owned by the one family, who have been in charge since the 16th century. A traditional village centred around a village green, a mix of half-timbered medieval, Georgian and Victorian homes, there is a large manor house, an early medieval church, a village hall, a village shop, tea room and two pubs, which is truly an abundance of facilities for such a small place. Although a village being owned by one landlord in this day and age seems like an anachronism, it clearly has its advantages, as the village is immaculate. None of the traditional homes, some of which are over 500 years old, seem to have been ruined by PVC conservatories and tacky extensions (from the front at least) and they all have their front doors painted a deep red, a stipulation of the landowners and one which creates a pleasing, cohesive look to the village. Traditional iron lampposts haven't been supplanted by their modern concrete replacements and the village green still has a gleaming cast iron pump. Picket fences border some of the thatched cottages, there are roses climbing over front doors and colourful blooms in hanging baskets and planters. Once a year in June, this quiet little village opens up for the Southwick Revival on the weekend nearest to D-Day. The village fills with vintage vehicles, re-enactors, military historians and enthusiasts with a vintage fair, market, music and the pièce de résistance for the lucky few, a trip to see the actual D-Day map, still on the wall of Southwick House. The buildings are decorated with bunting, flags and blackout tape across the windows, visitors dress in 1940s clothing, and the whole village takes a celebratory step back in time to 1944. So why does this event take place at Southwick? It all centres around the manor house, which is ironically one of the few buildings that the Squire no longer owns. Southwick House The Royal Navy training school of HMS Dryad was based in Portsmouth, which suffered from nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. Students were getting no sleep at all as they were up all night helping the people of Portsmouth and so were sleeping through lectures when they should have been training. The Admiral who ran HMS Dryad mentioned it during a game of golf to his friend Lt. Col Thistlethwayte, who happened to own Southwick House, most of the village of Southwick and more land besides. Thistlethwayte said he could use some of the spare rooms in his house for the trainees to get a good night's sleep. The trainees stayed there in dribs and drabs, until 1941 when the whole of HMS Dryad was bombed, and they moved lock, stock and barrel to Southwick House. The Royal Navy bought the house as a compulsory wartime purchase for £40,000 and in 1943 it became the Advance Command Post for SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). General Eisenhower did not arrive in the village until June 1944 - most of the planning for D-Day was done elsewhere such as Norfolk House in London and Wilton House near Salisbury, but it was in Southwick House that they conducted the actual operation. Ramsay, Montgomery and their staff filled the house and grounds. One of the local pubs, The Golden Lion, became the unofficial Officer's Mess and the village was filled with Nissen huts and thousands of military personnel, vehicles and equipment. The D-Day Map at Southwick House The famous map was installed in April 1944. Made by the International Model Aircraft Company in Wimbledon, they were asked to produce a large wooden map of the whole of western Europe including Scotland, Norway and Spain - anywhere that the allies could have landed. This was to ensure that no-one could find out exactly where they were planning to invade. The huge map was delivered to Southwick House in April 1944. The delivery men were asked to just erect the parts showing the coast of Normandy that you see there today, and to burn the rest in the grounds. After doing so, they were informed that they had to stay on the base and could not return home, as they now knew where the invasion would be. They were kept at the base until September of that year in what must have been an exciting, if baffling, few months. The highest level of clearance was needed to access the map room. WRENS who worked there have said that they hated the map as it was constructed of a rather solid wood, so by the end of a shift they would have bloodied thumbs from pushing the tacks in. They also said that you could barely see the map, which filled a whole wall, as there was a thick layer of smoke in the room from all of the pipes, cigars and cigarettes being smoked by stressed generals and their staff. The room was filled with desks, people, noise and heat as they couldn't open any windows and risk being overheard; it must have been a difficult and tense place to work. The map is technically a chart rather than a map and its focus is Operation Neptune, the sea approach. The red lines show the convoy routes in operation throughout the war, the silver areas are minefields - those with black lines through them are German mines rather than British. Where the red lines become green in the middle of the channel is where the minesweepers had to make a path for the boats carrying troops - each beach had one route in and one route out. The discs on the map show the weather. The weather was crucial to D-Day and was the axis on which everything hung. The Allies needed a low tide that was beginning to rise and a full moon for the airborne troops to be able to navigate. D-Day was originally planned for 5th June and some troops had already left England, the whole operation was already in motion. On the 3rd June Group Captain Stagg, a meteorologist, received weather reports from around the world, saying a storm was coming in which would worsen and he informed Eisenhower, who was responsible for the final decision. Two rooms down from the Map Room in what was the library, but is now the bar, he consulted his generals who were all in disagreement. Eisenhower had to deliberate long and hard whether to delay it for 24 hours, even though it was warm and sunny at Southwick and storms must have seemed unlikely. He did delay it and soon the storms rolled in with torrential rain and gusts of wind lashing the house. On the 4th June he was given a report by Stagg that there would be a short break in the storm and that the weather would be 'good enough'. With the storm still raging he said "OK, lets go" and at 4.19am on 6th June, D-Day commenced. The Southwick Revival Weekend A visit to the map room is the focal point of the weekend, although tickets are scarce and many people don't manage to get one (see here how to get a ticket.) Even if you can't get a ticket though, there is so much else going on that it is a wonderful day out, especially if you are lucky enough to visit on a sunny day. The whole village is transported back to the 1940s, with most people in vintage clothing, visitors and reenactors alike. Both days of the weekend start with a motorcade of vintage vehicles, which are then parked down the sides of the roads for the rest of the day. There are military talks, plays, live firing, demonstrations and all manner of talks and activities from the living historians. One field was turned into a vintage fair with coconut shies, hook a duck, swing boats and other assorted entertainment for kids. Another was filled with military vehicles and enthusiasts all displaying various aspects of life in the war. There was a real Spitfire in the centre, where people could climb aboard and sit in the cockpit. The Memorial Hall is turned into a tea room, there are pop-up pie stalls and the Village Stores has people queuing down the street for fresh burgers in their garden. A vintage market was filled with stalls selling assorted goods, clothes, uniforms and all sorts of eclectic memorabilia. The church had a comprehensive display of life in the village during the war. There was a fly past on both days -on the day I visited we had a Hurricane flying overhead, a British single seat fighter plane that sounded magnificent as it swooped over the heads of everyone congregated in the streets and village green gazing skywards, the announcer atop the church tower with his binoculars to tell us all when it was on its way with much excitement in his voice. 1940s music filled the air from several live performers, with appreciative crowds gathered round and there were free trips on the vintage buses and steam vehicles around the village. Both pubs did a brisk trade, with gardens and bars filled with happy crowds of servicemen, land girls, nurses and farmhands. There was a fully equipped bomb shelter surrounded by crumbling bricks and explosion damage, a wood-timbered barn filled with models of Operation Neptune, made by a charity which helps army veterans with PTSD focus on modeling as therapy. The beautiful Victorian school room was converted from its current role as an architect's office to a traditional school for children to see what it was like to go to school during the war. It was the little details I liked the best though. Most of the houses had tape over their small paned windows, were covered in bunting or Allied flags and one had a washing line with 1940s clothing hanging on it, giant bloomers flapping in the breeze. Some had boxes collecting pots and pans for the war effort outside their front doors. Hay bales were used for those waiting in line for a ride on the steam vehicles, and sandbags were stacked up on street corners. I joined the people who were sitting on the walls and hay bales along the main road and just watched the world walk by. There was the woman with a vintage wicker pram, her baby sitting up wearing a traditional knitted bonnet. A boy dressed as a chimney sweep casually cycled up and down the roads, obligingly stopping for photos, and a photographer in his tweed flat cap and knitted sweater took photos using an old fashioned tripod. One man approached and introduced himself as Sid the Spiv, with a pair of nylons trailing out of his battered old suitcase, offering me black market watches. A Winston Churchill was regularly stopped, a cigar in his mouth and making the V for Victory sign for photos with visitors. Men in uniform from all Allied countries would walk past discussing the vehicles lining the roads, and women in dresses with Victory Rolls in their hair strolled past in animated discussion. There are a lot of smiling faces and the sound of laughter intermingles with the band playing wartime classics. It is a fantastic day out and feels like history has come to life in this small Hampshire village. The event takes place every year - sign up to their email list to be notified of future dates and ticket sales. Southwick Revival website >> Visiting the D-Day Map in Southwick House As Southwick House is home to the Defence School of Policing and Guarding which is the training centre for the Service Police of all of the British Armed Forces, it is an active military base and therefore not easily accessible. It is possible to visit throughout the year if you email in advance to request a special visit, fill out lots of forms and pay something for the visit. The best way though, is to visit during the Revival Weekend. You still have to get a ticket as only limited numbers are allowed in, but you get driven in on a vintage bus, a talk about the map and a visit to the Military Police Museum. The tickets are harder to get than Glastonbury tickets - they certainly were for me - as you are told in advance the precise time they go on sale and have to sit at your computer constantly refreshing the page and trying to grab some tickets for one of the time slots before everyone else does. It took me an hour to get two tickets, but it was well worth it. Make sure you are on their email list so you will be told exactly when tickets go on sale, and make sure you are at your computer, payment ready, to book tickets the split second they go on sale. Find somewhere to stay near Southwick
- A WALK ON THE QUIET SIDE - MUCHELNEY ABBEY TO LANGPORT: TAKING YOUR TIME
In the second of her 'Walk on the Quiet Side' series, Anna takes us on a gentle riverside walk from the 7th Century Mulcheney Abbey to the smallest town in England, following a part of the longer River Parrett Trail through the rural county of Somerset. It’s easy to step through a couple of centuries in a short walk down a high street with listed buildings and modern shop fronts side by side, in a town centre with history in its heart and a superstore on its edge, in the countryside with a state-of-the-art barn conversion where a farmstead used to be. This walk takes time travel even further back – it starts in the 7th Century – at Muchelney Abbey on the Somerset Levels. Though it feels at odds to park a car near this ancient site, there’s a grassy car park if you are stopping to visit the abbey and there’s a little parking place just outside its boundaries, where the footpath alongside the River Parrett heads towards Langport, if you are just passing by. It’s at the start of a four-mile ‘there and back’ walk across the Somerset Levels and across hundreds of years. The remaining part of Muchelney Abbey leans gently to one side but it’s clearly here to stay. All that’s left of the original buildings which go back to the 7th Century, and which were demolished courtesy of Henry VIII, is a floorplan set in stone. Now, courtesy of English Heritage, you can still go inside the Abbot’s House, and getting down to basics, you can pay a visit to the thatched reredorter – the monk’s loo to put it bluntly – it’s the only complete example in Britain. Setting off alongside the river, you can immediately picture the landmark that the abbey would have been, standing proud in the calm flat landscape. You can see some of the rooftops of Langport, the smallest town in England, in the distance. Accompanying the walk, the river aids and abets a quiet step forward into the present with the gentle passage of paddleboards and kayaks. More in keeping, given the history that has flowed along this route, there was even a coracle! The water is clear, a line of cattle on the riverbank creates a mirror image on the surface, and there are lily pads and swans, wild ducks and dogs - on it and in it – respectively. Time doesn’t matter on this quiet and peaceful walk yet it’s a walk that’s all about time. Time in the sense of history, time in the sense of taking your time to follow the path, time in the sense of the timelessness of the landscape of the Somerset Levels. Langport is a historic town that shares its history with the river. It’s the sort of place where you can stumble across a surprise. On this occasion it was a street market in the square under the watchful face of the town clock – ironically and appropriately the focus was going back in time with a collector’s treasure trove of antiques and vintage stalls. By the old stone bridge, the lovely Kitchen at the Wharf at Great Bow Yard, served up the most appropriate of all welcomes - ‘It’s a bit busy today so we hope you don’t mind that it won’t be fast food.’ The whole point of this walk was that there was all the time in the world. This was a perfect place to stop for a while, sit in the sun and anticipate a home-grown, homemade feast, before heading slowly back upriver again. This gentle walk is a part of the longer, 50 mile River Parrett Trail. You can get full directions for this and the rest of the trail on the Visit Somerset website >> Mulcheney Abbey visiting details >>
- BROCKHAMPTON ESTATE - MEDIEVAL MANOR HOUSE AND GROUNDS
Brockhampton in Herefordshire offers the Slow Traveller a glimpse into the world of the English Manor from the Middle Ages through to the 20th century – not a stately home full of ornate furniture, glided treasures and expensive art, but a small working farm with everyday objects and tools: comfortable but not at all grandiose. It’s set in a beautiful valley with stunning views, and there are walks through orchards, woodland and parkland to add to the delight of the visit. Turning across the cattle grid on the mile-long drive downwards to the house there are some spectacular views across the valley. The first glimpse of the white-washed house and gatehouse also elicits exclamations of admiration – the contrast of the white against the surrounding green of the countryside on a sunny day is exceptionally picturesque. There is plenty to explore. The estate has probably been farmed since before the 12th century but the earliest artefacts – pottery fragments - that have been discovered date to the early 13th century. These were found under the tiny ruined chapel that sits alongside the house. The chapel was constructed between 1200 – 1225 but was altered in the late 14th or early 15th century with new windows added, most likely as the manor house was being built for the Domultons, the owners of the state. An archaeological dig in 2012 found evidence of the stone walls of a previous manor house, indicating that a village, probably the lost village of Studmarsh, may once have been situated here. Entrance to the moated timber-framed manor house is by a very unusual (and slightly lopsided) two storey gatehouse. It was added probably about 1530 – 1540, not for defensive purposes but simply to demonstrate the status of the family. Some of it has been restored but the bargeboards at the back and the studded door are original. In the early 20th century the upstairs seems to have been used as storage for farm and game keeping equipment, and latterly as a chicken coop. The National Trust took the decision to display different rooms with the furniture of different ages of the house. This is slightly confusing chronologically as the first room gives the visitor a sense of the last occupant in his study – John Lutley – who left the estate to the National Trust in 1946. The Great Hall is from medieval times and is only small, despite its name. It was initially the centre of the household for the whole family with a firepit in the centre of the room. It has a Minstrel’s Gallery and stairs leading to the bedrooms, one with a magnificent four poster, one with a modern tapestry showing images of the working life of the estate in the 18th century. One room has the uniform that would have been issued to the estate worker, Albert Sprague, who volunteered to fight in 1915 and was killed, aged 21, in 1917. Back downstairs the kitchen shows life in 1910 and the sitting room shows the lives of tenant farmers who lived in the house in the 1950s. In the grounds there have been strenuous and imaginative efforts over the last years to restore the traditional orchards that were once a feature of this estate. Many varieties of apple, damson, pear, plum and quince have been newly planted, and visitors are encouraged to walk among them, and in the lowland flower meadows that surround the property. Wooden play areas are being developed for children. The Hebridean sheep keep their distance, others are more curious. You get the feeling that this has been a much loved building and estate throughout the last 600 years – and now is equally cherished by the volunteers who work there and the casual visitors who come to see it and learn something of its history. This one is indeed a National Trust gem. Visiting Brockhampton Estate Address: Brockhampton Estate, Bringsty, near Bromyard, Herefordshire, WR6 5TB Opening Times: 10am - 5pm Find out more on their website >>
- THE TITANIC EXPERIENCE, BELFAST
Belfast is very appreciative of its Titanic Museum that has brought tourists and employment to the city. Our bus driver proudly informed us that it was now the most visited attraction in the world. Initially sceptical about this, it was clear that there is some truth in his statement. So, only a Slow Travel experience if you can go in winter months or choose your time at the beginning or end of the day. Photograph © Prioryman The creators clearly wished this to be an interactive and sensory experience rather than a conventional museum, yet they have somehow managed to combine this aim with enough detailed knowledge and statistics to satisfy those who want a more comprehensive and technical understanding of the ship’s origins, design and engineering. There is a huge variety of presentation here - text, photographs, film, virtual reality, change of dimension, movement, sound, oral and visual history. As you round a corner, yet another type of display awaits you - it’s modern, dramatic, stimulating. Inevitably, given the subject most people typically begin their journey in jovial mood, but by the end are subdued and solemn as the enormity of the tragedy that hit this illustrious ship is powerfully portrayed. You are guided by a line on the floor - which begins as a rope then subtly changes to the logo of the White Star Line then to the Morse code as the story progresses. The first galleries discuss the origins of industry in Belfast, mostly through text and pictures, showing how rapidly the city developed from a focus on linen to rope making, tobacco, whiskey and engineering to a concentration on ship building by the end of the 19th century. By 1900 the site that eventually became Harland and Wolff covered 80 acres and had a workforce of 10,000, building large and complex vessels and becoming the biggest shipyard in the world. The design process and the building of the enormous gantry are shown accompanied by the noises of hammering, riveting and the foreman’s shouted instructions as you near the immersive experience of the shipyard. A lift, designed as a steel cage, takes visitors up to the “top” of the gantry where the height, only a quarter of the true structure, still seems dizzying. The dangers of construction are duly noted - the men used the phrase, “he’s away to the other yard” when someone died on the job. Visitors are then given a Shipyard Ride (you can be forgiven at this point for thinking you have somehow strayed into Disneyland by mistake) in a 4 person car which conveys you up, down and round the shipyard with some of the deafening noise and intense heat which the workers experienced as they laid the keel, framed, plated and riveted until the skeleton of the ship was completed. It’s a striking thought that the entire workforce from conception to completion must have been totally shocked and disbelieving when the news reached Belfast that their pride of the ocean had sunk. A 4 minute virtual tour of the interior of the ship follows, and then there are reconstructions of various cabins along with details of the furnishings for the three classes of passengers. Violin and piano music accompany information about the band who continued to play as the ship went down. It is then possible to sit to “watch” the launch of the Titanic overlooking Victoria Channel where, in May 2011, 100,000 spectators came to witness the event. After nearly a year of interior fitting out she left Belfast to collect passengers at Southampton and Cherbourg before turning west across the Atlantic for New York. The mood of the exhibition inevitably turns sombre as the drama of the ship’s sudden and disastrous end enfolds. There is graphic and chilling representation of the ship’s rapid descent into the water, accompanied by the text of the frantic SOS messages exchanged after the collision with the iceberg. The Carpathia came to the rescue but by the time she arrived the Titanic had disappeared. You hear the voices of some of those who survived and see a replica of the lifeboats that kept them alive. Curiously there is little about the failed operation of the lifeboats nor about the various and intertwined explanations of why the ship sank so swiftly. The experience ends with a seat in the theatre to view the story of the discovery of the ship in 1985 - 690 kilometres south east of Newfoundland - and the subsequent undersea exploration. Foremost in your mind as you leave the exhibition for the world outside are the human stories behind this vast “unsinkable” and luxurious ship, en route to hope and happiness in New York. Perhaps it qualifies as “dark tourism” to some extent, but it’s a carefully curated and thoughtful presentation worth two hours of your time. Additional photographs © The Titanic Museum Visiting The Titanic Experience How to get there Titanic Belfast, 1 Olympic Way, Queen’s Road, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, BT3 9EP By car: parking is available in a nearby underground car park. By air: There are buses and taxis available at both Belfast City Airport and the Belfast International Airport. By train: from Belfast City Centre to the Titanic Quarter Station, followed by a signposted 15 minute walk. By bus: the purple Glider departs every 30 minutes for Belfast City Centre. Opening times: 9am - 4.30pm Refreshments available at two cafes on site. Book your ticket with free cancellation here
- THE TROUBLES BLACK TAXI TOUR, BELFAST
Even for those with some sketchy understanding of Northern Ireland’s history, the Black Taxi Tour comes as a shock. The drivers are excellent guides: mostly they have lived through The Troubles themselves and they are determined to give you a balanced view of politics and events, offering equal condemnation of both sides where they feel it is due (which is most of the time) and the odd bit of praise where they feel a genuine effort has been made to unravel this most intractable of problems. And intractable it appears to be. Our tour began with the Bayardo Memorial on the Protestant Shanklin Road area and the intensity and passion of the past hit us immediately. It was shocking to be confronted with pictures of the bombing of the pub in 1975 that had once stood here, the devastation that followed, photographs of 5 people and the words “5 innocent Protestants died here”. The remaining walls of this memorial showed victims of the IRA, one whole panel being dedicated to “Children murdered by Sinn Fein - IRA”, another claimed that the IRA were “not freedom fighters but killers, criminals responsible for murdering over 2000 people”. The observer was left in no doubt of the partisan nature of this memorial, confirmed by a vitriolic attack on Tony Blair for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, seen here as a betrayal of Northern Ireland and its people. Back in the cab, our driver instantly restored balance by telling us about the Shankhill Butchers who, in the years 1975 - 1982 were responsible for the deaths of 23 people, mostly Catholic civilians. This “Protestant” gang kidnapped, tortured and murdered random Catholics, attacking them with hammers or a hatchet, cutting up the bodies and dumping them on waste ground. Here our driver admitted that, as a teenager, caught up in it all, he too had thrown petrol bombs and been arrested. Most young men of his age, Protestant and Catholic alike, did the same. In 1988 he had been in a pub that was attacked. The door was kicked open and 2 guys came in and started shooting. He also told us that at his first home, with his wife and young child present, a gun was thrown over a wall into his back yard one night after a policeman was shot in the street. Later, 4 men wearing balaclavas pushed their way through the house to retrieve the gun. These personal stories brought home to us how deeply both communities had been affected by those thirty years of conflict and violence. He took us next to one of the 29 “Peace Walls” that divide Catholic and Protestant areas in this city. It’s nearly 2 and a half miles long, it’s been in situ longer than the Berlin Wall, and it’s even been extended since the Good Friday agreement said all the walls should come down. Moving on we entered the “Catholic” Springfield Road area through iron gates. Here the streets had Gaelic as well as English names and some Irish flags were flying in the breeze. We were now in the Clonard area, in Bombay Street where the houses backing on to the wall had steel barriers to protect them from missiles hurled from the Protestant side. Here is the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, one of the five memorial gardens of Catholic West Belfast. Our driver told us that in 1969 some Protestants burnt this street down and the RUC and police stood by and watched it happen. Over the years many people from this area were murdered, including two completely innocent young people murdered at random in July 1973 in retaliation for IRA bombings earlier in the day. We saw more murals, more peace walls, more flags, more gates dividing communities. In the Catholic area there was a mural for Bobby Sands, in the Protestant area to “King Billy” - William III, victor of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. We ended with a very poignant mural - two young boys, one Protestant, one Catholic, friends standing together in the summer of 1969, showing how life used to be when the two sides had got on happily and tolerantly enough together. We had many questions about how today’s problems were to be resolved. Our driver sighed and told us that his son had married someone from “the other side” and had chosen to live 50 miles away from Belfast where such mixed marriages did not matter. Despite the intention of the Good Friday Agreement that all schools should become integrated, this has not happened, largely because the churches oppose it. The younger working class generations are growing up with the messages of blame and hate glaring down from these walls: murals and memorials that only serve to perpetuate the suspicion and conflict. We were left with a feeling of great sadness that so many lives had been lost for nothing achieved. At the time of writing the power-sharing government has collapsed: new elections in 2022 have brought no obvious resolution. Our short stay in Belfast had endeared us to its kind and friendly people and we hoped for a better future. The Black Taxi Tours are very good indeed. Anyone wanting a deeper and more personal insight into the history of the last years of the 20th century will find enlightenment and knowledge here. Don’t expect anything other than some emotional involvement in the horror of it all; at times it feels almost overwhelming. The tour will remain with you long after the taxi driver has left you but you will also feel that, at last, you have some understanding of how life has been in this city for those who lived through this turbulent period of The Troubles. There are a number of Black Taxi Cabs offering this service. Some will leave from the Crumlin Road Gaol, others from different stops in the centre of Belfast. Some will give you a joint ticket with Crumlin Road Gaol. Read about visiting the Crumlin Road Gaol >> Book your tickets with free cancellation up to 24 hours before the trip:
- CRUMLIN ROAD GAOL, BELFAST
Prisons seem to have something of a macabre fascination for those lucky enough never to have been subjected to enforced detention. Belfast’s Crumlin Gaol, known locally as “The Crum”, is one such “attraction” and it is particularly interesting for the part it has played in the living memory of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Crumlin is a Victorian prison, opened in 1846 to replace the old prison at Carrickfergus. The first 160 prisoners were forced to walk about 40 miles from Carrickfergus to their new home in chains. Since then it has housed young children jailed for theft, suffragettes, criminals and political prisoners. The latter include Eamonn de Valera, who later became President of Ireland, Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA, who later died on hunger strike in the Maze prison, Ian Paisley of the DUP, who later became First Minister and Martin McGuinness, a leader of the Provisional IRA who became Deputy Leader of Northern Ireland and greeted the Queen there on her visit to the Gaol in 2014. The entrance is appropriately forbidding. The black basalt rock reflects its dark and severe nature: the small windows indicate the restriction of light and sun inwards. There is a guided tour available, or you can simply follow the designated route. It begins with the history and explanations of the gaol’s role between 1841 and its closure in 1996. Various showcases have artefacts, and panels on the walls give details of executions and escapes over the years. There is then a video of actors including the Governor, supposedly from the 19th century (which I found a little irritating as it seemed to deal in a somewhat trivial fashion with the sadness and horror that must have been the main features of life in this building). Inside the Gaol itself you go down below to walk a little way through the underground tunnel which connected directly to the courthouse on the opposite side of the road and through which many a prisoner walked - from remand to the courthouse and very probably back again. Back upstairs in the exhibition is one of the original cell doors complete with peephole and small hatch for passing food. Next to it stands the menacing “flogging rack” used for corporal punishment with birch rod or cat o’nine tails. It is shocking to note that this type of punishment was used as recently as 1961. In the Circle the layout of the prison is apparent. It is a panopticon designed following the principles of Jeremy Bentham - the Circle is the hub with four spokes containing the cells radiating outwards. This allowed the warders maximum supervision of the offenders. The visitor then has access to C wing where the harshness of Victorian prison life becomes clear. It operated on the “separate and silent” system where prisoners were forbidden to communicate or even see their fellow inmates, having to wear a mask in the exercise yard. In the corridor is an example of the “bumper” - the machine prisoners had to use to polish the floor - and the “crank”, a completely mindless punishment where the incarcerated had to turn the hand screw many thousands of times. Apparently this is the origin of the term “screw” still used for prison warders. Through each open cell door visitors can see different aspects of prison life. They include some staff offices, a child prisoner’s cell, a padded cell, a woman’s cell and the condemned man’s cell and execution chamber. There seems little difference in comfort between the 1846 cell and the 1970/1980s cell, and certainly overcrowding was evident as by the 1980s cells housed two or three men instead of the one each was designed for. One cell had a video relating the experiences of two genuine past inmates which was sobering to listen to but gave a true flavour of what internment was like during The Troubles. Another had a video detailing the history of the Troubles - the pictures were in cartoon form, but the commentary was of a serious nature and provided a good, balanced summary. There is a somewhat gruesome audio to listen to in the execution chamber. Out in the yard you can visit the Matron’s House and the Sanger (watch tower) as well as see a decommissioned Wessex helicopter, once a familiar sight in the air above Belfast during the Troubles. The visit can be linked to either a Walking Tour or Black Taxi Tour for those who want to understand how the years of the Troubles affected the city and to be aware of the legacy of those times on the citizens of today. Read about taking a Black Taxi Tour of the Troubles >> Visiting Crumlin Road Gaol How to get there Crumlin Road Gaol, 53- 55 Crumlin Road, Belfast, BT14 6ST Car parking is available Bus routes 12A 1A 1D 57 all run from the city centre and stop near the gaol. Opening Times Open 7 days a week 10.30 - 1530 Refreshments are available in the restaurant Cuffs. Admission Adult: £12 Child: £6.50 Concessions: £10 Family of 4: £30.00 Discounts available if booking online. Book your tickets here, either for your visit to the gaol or combined with a fascinating Black Cab tour. Both can be cancelled up to 24 hours beforehand with a full refund.
- A GUIDED TOUR AROUND STORMONT, THE SEAT OF NORTHERN IRELAND'S GOVERNMENT
With the ever changing political situation in Northern Ireland, it’s difficult to predict exactly what will await you on a visit to Stormont. At the very least you will learn a tremendous amount about Northern Ireland’s troubled past and will enjoy a guided tour to the Legislative Assembly and the Senate. If the Assembly is in session you can sit in one of the 126 seats in the Public Gallery to listen to a debate. Or you may be lucky, as we were, and arrive at an interesting moment in tortured political negotiations and have the chance to witness leading politicians speaking to the press about the latest crisis. This is Northern Ireland: anything is possible! The mile long drive through an avenue of 305 lime trees up to the Parliament buildings is a delight in itself. It sweeps upwards towards the hill on which stands the impressive building designed by Arnold Thornely which stands in 235 acres of scenic parkland. It was officially opened in 19