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Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Vintage Man.

19 Sep

I’ve recently been feeling my age. I am 66 years old. The signs are all there. I have less energy and after a busy day, usually creep off to bed well before 11pm. I sometimes grumble about the younger generation and gently mock the technologies they are addicted to ( until I get into them  myself.) I have put on a late middle age/early old age spread and need to lose a couple of stone at least, but I cannot be bothered to join a gym or employ a personal trainer. Although I still look forward to plenty of times in the future, I increasingly hark back to the past. I recently had a coffee with my 90 year old mum and two of her chapel mates They all agreed that life would be much better if the “olden days” could be brought back again. Life seemed to have speeded up around them. They were increasingly bewildered by the frantic pace of change and multiple choices they are constantly bombarded with. I sympathise and empathise with the 3 old ladies to a certain extent. Even just going back to my own childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s, life seemed so much simpler, calmer and more pleasant. The roads were much quieter, there were only a couple of channels on the TV, there was no Internet and no social media sites to shower us with trivia and worry us about “keeping up.” With my rose-coloured glasses on, I can truly state: ” Those were the days!”

Yes, I should be feeling “past it” whatever “it” is, and should be gradually moving out of the main swim of things. I am retired and my teaching career is over. My children are all adults and no longer depend on my financial support. In many ways I have become a more peripheral figure in society. Yet, ironically, in recent years, it seems that I have become more and more trendy. This is because, you see, I am a genuine “vintage” person. “Vintage” is an extremely popular concept these days. People have “vintage” tea parties. Couples arrange “vintage” weddings. Cafes offer “vintage- style” afternoon teas. “Vintage” television shows are resurrected and rescreened, such as the current series of favourite BBC sitcoms. Collectors comb charity and antique shops for “vintage” items from tea sets to table cloths, from bric- a- brac to toys, inspired by daytime TV shows such as “Bargain Hunt.” Baking, the activity that was done in the past out of necessity, is now all the rage, even though we can easily buy all the items from the supermarket. The baking and cupcake craze is popularised on Facebook and other sites  and by phenomenally successful TV shows like “The Great British Bake Off.” For some reason, there seems to be a great thirst for items and activities from the recent past. Maybe some of this is generated by a powerful wave of nostalgia. Maybe people yearn for a simpler, less stressful time when Britain was still “great.” How else can one explain the enduring popularity of “The Archers” on radio or “Coronation Street” on TV? In those days, people talked to each other a lot more instead of being cut off in their private worlds of electronic devices. As far as I can work out, “vintage” means anything from the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s. And guess what — I am a real-life “vintage” human being! I don’t need to watch “Bake Off” to find out how to make cakes, bread and biscuits, as 60 years ago I watched my mum and my grandma doing it in real life. I remember being sent to the corner shop to buy the yeast that would later make the dough rise. I recall my mum placing trays of dough balls on the hearth near the open coal fire and the heat gradually baking them into delicious bread-rolls. This is why I am so excited! Surely a real vintage person will now be of great interest and be in great demand at the numerous vintage events? After-all, a tea-pot or a sundae dish cannot tell you what life was like back in the 1950’s , but I can!

I was recently at a vintage garden party for a charity I support. I wondered round expectantly, hoping to get into fascinating conversations about outside toilets, tin baths and coal houses. I was all ready to explain to an enthralled audience how we enjoyed a fruitful life without any need of the Internet and how we entertained ourselves before television. I wanted to tell people what it was like listening to the music of Vera Lynn, Perry Como or Val Doonican, before the age of the Beatles and Stones. Elvis had burst on the scene in the later 50’s of course but he was banned in our house. However, much to my disappointment, those “vintage” conversations never took place. The older people would have remembered those times anyway and probably wanted to forget about them. The younger people never asked me any questions and were never more than a few seconds away from checking their smart-phones. It was a very good crowd of people, all chatting away and eating their sandwiches and cakes off “vintage crockery” and drinking their tea from “vintage” tea pots. However,nobody was interested in finding out about real vintage life back in the day. I would have had to go to the Local History Society for that type of conversation. It was disappointing. I never got to tell them what is was like getting undressed in a unheated bedroom, or marvelling on a winter’s morning at the wondrous patterns “Jack Frost” had made on the window pains. Maybe I was just an old irrelevance after-all? I was just fooling myself, thinking I had become trendy at my advanced age. It was just silly, wishful thinking!  Then I remembered this blog, and decided to write a little bit about “vintage times” to my captive audience.

You see, I really do  remember the days before television came to rule the living room. I know it’s a cliché, but we truly did make our own entertainment back then. For example, my family loved doing giant jig-saw puzzles with up to a thousand pieces. My mum, dad, sister and I would all gather around the dining table to make our contribution to the evolving picture. The sky or trees were particularly difficult. One piece of blue or green was very much like another, or so it seemed. First of all, we had to sort out all the straight edged pieces, for these would make up the border. Then all the different colours or subjects would be sorted and placed into groups, ready to be eventually slotted into their correct places. It was a great family activity, bringing us all together after a busy day at work or school. It taught us patience and deferred gratification. It taught us categorisation and colour appreciation. It gave us socialisation and cooperation skills which stood us in good stead in later life. Sometimes it took many sessions to finish. If the jigsaw was unfinished when it was time to eat, we simply laid the table cloth gingerly on top of it and ate our meal extremely carefully, not wishing to spoil our emerging masterpiece. When the puzzle was finally completed we got a great feeling of satisfaction and pride. I particularly enjoyed doing pictures of railways featuring snorting steam locomotives. My dad was a railwayman. It helped to engender a lifelong passion for trains and keeps me linked to my father  to this day even though he is sadly no longer with us.

If you think that all that sounds very exciting, just wait till I tell you about “clippy mats!” In line with the current craze for all things “vintage” there is now a big revival of interest in this old, home-based method of rug making. In the north-east of England, where I now live, they are called “hooky” or “proggy” mats. In Derbyshire they were known as “clippy mats” or “rag-rugs.” It was another family activity before the age of television. Maybe the radio would be on in the background. Making these rugs or mats was a common activity in working-class homes in the north up to the middle of the 20th century. Our family made them in the 1950s. They were hand made from old socks, rags and other recycled fabrics. These were the days of post-war austerity when many items were in short supply and it was regarded as a crime to waste anything. These were the days of darning socks and mending old clothes instead of throwing them away  or donating them to charity shops. Well known phrases were: “make do and mend” and “waste not, want not.” So it was that we made our own rugs from recycled rags. I know it sounds very Dickensian but it’s true. These hard-wearing rugs and mats kept our feet warm before the days of wall-to-wall carpeting.

First of all, the family would set to work, cutting the old material into little strips. They would be about as long as a match-box. Then a large piece of hessian or sacking would be stretched across a frame and secured. This frame was placed on the dining table. The hessian would be arranged with the wrong side of the mat facing us. Once the strips of material had been prepared, we armed ourselves with little metal “prodders” and set about pushing or prodding the strips through the hessian backing. Somehow each strip of material was secured ( I cannot remember how) and the result was that on the other side, a thick, colourful rug emerged. It had a shaggy, long pile. Once it was placed down in front of the fire, we were all very proud of our creation.

Nowadays, mat-making is all about pleasure, but in those “vintage” days , for poorer families, it was a necessity. As well as keeping our feet warm, the mats also made good bed covers. It was another great activity that brought our family together and strengthened our relationships. Recently my daughter has learnt how to make these “proggy” or “clippy” mats at a skills- sharing session up in Whitley Bay where she lives. I also came across a “proggy” mat maker at an arts festival in Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast. Seeing her pushing the strips of material through the sacking took me straight back to my childhood and the family rug/mat making sessions we enjoyed in the 1950s. I talked to the lady and she said quite a lot of people had spoken to her about doing this when they were children.

Obviously there are lots of things I could tell you about life in the real “vintage” days. It was not all hunky dory. I remember the long process of making a coal fire instead of merely flicking a switch to get heating. I remember bath-time, when water had to be heated up in a copper which was like a large kettle. The water was then poured into a tin bath which usually hung on a nail in the outside wall. My dad would wash me very roughly at one end, while my mum washed my sister, considerable more gently, at the other end. The most recent time I saw such a tin bath was in a museum! I remember the outside toilet which was very cold and uncomfortable in winter, and the hard, crackly toilet paper. I remember the excitement when we got our little 12inch black and white telly and then, a little later in the early 60’s, our first mono record player complete with stylus and our first 45 rpm vinyl records. Just for the record, my sister and I purchased “Bobby’s Girl” by Susan Maughan and “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez.

I had a happy childhood in those far off vintage days, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with any more of the exciting details. You probably know most of it already now that the 40s,50s and 60s have become so fashionable and popular. Maybe one day, as a real life “vintage” person I’ll be really sought after as an after-dinner speaker, but somehow I doubt it. These days people can find out everything about everything from their lap-tops and smart phones. Maybe I’m destined to have a quiet retirement after-all, thinking nostalgically back to my many “vintage”, real-life memories.

No Peace at the Piece Hall!

2 Aug

1. HOPES IN PIECES.

Halifax was going to be the highlight of our summer 2016 bus pass tour of West Yorkshire.  We descended into it on the 503 double-decker from Huddersfield, talking to an old lady about her little dog, Doris. When I saw the town’s sign, the excitement started to mount inside me. Yes, I know you must think I’m daft as Halifax is not noted as a hot tourist destination, but I was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of ticking off a long-time resident of my British “bucket list”: the Grade 1 listed Piece Hall, built in 1779. It’s not everyday that one gets to see a major 18th century building. When the hall was built, the French Revolution was still ten years in the future.

The Piece Hall has been described as magnificent and unique, a huge building where thousands of pieces of woollen cloth were bought and sold over many years. It consists of 4 colonnaded sides, 2 stories high at one end and 3 stories high at the other.( it is built on a hillside, as most buildings are in Halifax.) The columns enclose a very large central space where the wool markets were regularly held. It’s like a Greek or Roman temple except it was devoted to industry rather than to ancient gods. Here, in 315 rooms, hand-loom weavers from the surrounding towns and villages would display and sell their pieces of worsted cloth. The Piece Hall transformed Halifax into the commercial capital of the whole region. It’s a miracle that such a historically and architecturally important building has survived the ravages of time for nearly two and a half centuries. And now, I was going to see it! I had given it the big build up to Chris and now it was only minutes away.

However, as we approached, there was obviously something wrong! The entrance was covered in scaffolding and was blocked by barriers. Inside, we glimpsed piles of rubble and dumper trucks were moving around in clouds of dust. A workman in a yellow hard-hat was turning some other disappointed visitors away.  Yes — the Piece Hall was closed. A major 2 year refurbishment which should have finished in the spring of 2016, was still very much ongoing. Our hopes were in pieces. There was no peace at the Piece Hall!

So what were we to do? We were tourists in a non-tourist town and the main place we had come to see was a no-go area. The man in the hard-hat explained that he wasn’t allowed to give us even a brief, sly peek, because of the dreaded “health and safety” rules. He had let some other visitors have a quick look but had been “bollocked” by his boss. Apparently, in the previous week, he had had to turn away a whole coachload of German tourists who had travelled to Halifax specifically to see the historical Hall. The work was running seriously behind schedule because of financial cut-backs of the Tory government’s “Austerity Britain.” Now, the “Leave” vote in the recent European Union referendum was going to pose another serious threat, because much of the money for this prestigious project comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund.

Back at the Premier Inn, the chirpy young lad at reception told us another big reason for the Piece Hall delay. While restoring the main courtyard, the workers had unearthed around 200 medieval bodies. So work had to stop while the archaeologists carried out their excavation. They found that the Hall had been partly built on top of an ancient churchyard!

The closed Piece Hall doubly snookered our plans as the Tourist Information Office was supposed to be in there, according to our Rough Guide of Yorkshire. We found out it was temporarily located in the central library, except that when we got there, we found out that Halifax library closes on Wednesdays. Guess which day we arrived on? Our hopes for Halifax were fading fast.

2. HANDSOME VICTORIANA.

But all was not lost. First of all, Halifax is, in my opinion, quite a handsome stone-built Victorian town. It has some fine public buildings. It is surrounded by a dramatic girdle of hills and moors.( the south Pennines.) We admired the stately, twin-turreted Victoria Theatre, named after a Queen who never visited it as it opened a month after she sadly died.( the opening was in February, 1901.)  The town has a spectacular Lloyds Bank HQ, yet another neo-Classical temple. Then we discovered the wonderfully atmospheric Borough Market ( 1896), a great place for people- spotting and sampling everyday Halifax life. Chris was very confused by the warren-like, old fashioned Ladies toilets. She entered through one door but somehow re-emerged through another. She still doesn’t know how she did it! The market has a decorative cast iron and glass roof, culminating in an eye-catching central dome.  Beneath this is an elaborate old clock guarded by 4 blue dragons. Around its base was a colourful, circular fruit and veg stall.

Halifax is not a tourist town. We didn’t see any postcards to send home to our mums. We struggled to find a decent café although I’m sure it has some secreted away. It is a busy, everyday town, which for me is part of the attraction. All the honey-coloured stone buildings contrasted with the sharp, shiny angles of the modern Halifax Building Society headquarters. ( now part of HBOS). It was once the country’s largest supplier of mortgages. Both Chris and I got our first home loans there. It is still one of the biggest employers in Halifax. In its large tinted windows I saw the reflections of its grand Victorian cousins.

3. SURVIVOR OF PURITANS AND VANDALS.

Leaving out the Piece Hall, the undoubted stars of Halifax town centre are the Minster and the Town Hall. We enjoyed visiting both. The Minster, first established 900 years ago, has many 16th and 17th century features. Outside it is smoke blackened, a legacy of its proximity to all those smoking mill chimneys of the recent industrial past. Being made of relatively soft sandstone, it has not been possible to clean it without causing irreparable damage. The Church of St John the Baptist, as it’s officially called, has a fine tower and dramatic, dark gargoyles sticking out from just below the roof line. A church member pointed out a deep dint in the wall near the entrance, caused by a parliamentary cannon-ball in the English Civil War of the 1640’s. Inside is a fancy Tudor font cover and delicately carved 17th-century boxed pews, a fairly rare occurrence. There were some Victorian and modern stained glass, but the most memorable windows were the plain ones. Puritan church rules in Cromwell’s time ( 1650’s) meant that the colourful glass had to be taken out. Nothing was supposed to distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. However, this planned back-fired somewhat in Halifax because the delicate  lead-tracery that holds the glass in place was(is) exquisitely beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Unfortunately, these lovely old windows have been damaged by vandals and would-be burglars 3 times in the past month, at great expense to the poor congregation. It seems that the iconoclasts did not exclusively live in the mid 17th century!

As we looked round the Minster, we were entertained by a musician practising for a recital on the very old organ later that morning. It had an impressive array of shining pipes. The music added to the spiritual atmosphere. We had trouble making our donations because the 2 volunteers were furiously making teas and buttering scones for the expected influx of visitors.

4. STAR TOWN HALL AND CELEBRITY ARCHITECT.

The other star of Halifax town centre is the Town Hall. built in 1863. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the famous architect of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was actually completed by his son, Edward Middleton Barry, following his father’s death in 1860. In 2008, it was voted as one of the top 10 Town halls in Britain by “Architect Today” magazine. It certainly is impressive. It is a masterpiece of the “high Victorian style” and was opened by the Prince of Wales( the future King Edward VII). No less than 85,000 people turned up for the Royal occasion. It must  have been one of the busiest days in the town’s entire history.

So why had a celebrity architect and the heir to the throne both been attracted to a small Yorkshire town which even today is not a tourist attraction? The answer is carpets! John Crossley, who commissioned the Town Hall, owned the biggest carpet mill in the world. It was in Dean Clough, a deep ravine just outside the town centre. His massive mill complex  ( in the end around 13 mills in all), is still there, in its restored form. They’ve done a great job, as it’s a spectacular sight, looking at it from the old iron bridge that still crosses the ravine.( along with modern concrete flyovers.) The mills are now used by modern businesses, shops, restaurants and galleries. We visited it during our stay. Crossley became very wealthy and influential through his development of steam-powered looms, clever use of patents and political activities. At its peak, in 1900, the business he created employed around 5000 workers. Crossley used his wealth and status to win a contest to build the town’s new Town Hall. He was able to attract a famous London architect to design Halifax’s most imposing public building. The road it is on is, not surprisingly, called Crossley Street. Crossley had managed to put his little home town on the map and secure his own lasting legacy.

The Town Hall has an impressive steeple with a clock and a carved figure on each of its 4 sides. The stone carvings represent :Europe, Africa, Asia and America, reminding everyone that at the time, Britain ruled the greatest Empire the World had ever seen. Inside is a grand staircase, a lovely blue and gold glass dome and ornamental plaster work with a repeated “H” motif. After we got past the rather gruff male receptionist at the top of the stairs, we stepped into the magnificent Victoria Hall. It has a stained glass ceiling featuring 12 little domes, marble columns and arch ways and a tiled floor featuring the town’s coat of arms in the centre. Here we met John the Baptist again.( remember him from the Minster?) He is the patron saint of wool weavers, a reminder of where all this wealth and splendour came from. On the fancy, wrought iron balcony of the upper floor, John’s severed head is frequently repeated. Beneath it are 3 vivid red drops of blood, a grisly reference to the saint’s fate at the hands of the spurned Salome.

Even the Gents’ toilets were magnificent. They had decorative tiles, marble sinks and urinals and shiny brass taps and pipes. I thought about taking a photo but didn’t want to get arrested! At opposite ends of Victoria Hall are large busts of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, looking over to their son Albert Edward and his wife, Princess Alexandria. Crossley was obviously very keen to ingratiated himself with his Royal patrons.

5. CELEBRITY FACE-OFF.

However, John Crossley wasn’t the only wealthy industrialist keen to make his mark and put Halifax on the map. In the mid-19th century, the textile town experienced a bit of a celebrity face-off! From our 5th floor hotel window, as I looked out on to the nearby hillside, I couldn’t help noticing a Victorian church with a very tall, soaring spire.  It’s the biggest church spire in Halifax. This is All Souls Church, designed by another celebrity architect from London: Sir George Gilbert Scott and paid for by another fabulously wealthy mill owner: Edward Ackroyd. Gilbert Scott had also designed the famous and still very impressive St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel in London. He always claimed that All Souls’ was his finest church. Like Charles Barry, he had been lured to this Yorkshire Pennine town by the money of a rich industrialist, desperate to make a name for himself and secure his legacy. Ego-tripping and celebrity culture are not confined just to the 21st century. The only difference is that in the 19th century, the “celebs” didn’t take to Twitter or pose in gossip magazines; instead they built town halls and churches and put up statues of themselves.

Edward Ackroyd owned textile mills in Halifax and nearby Copley. His mills produced worsted cloth, commonly known as “stuff.” The Ackroyds were the largest worsted manufacturers in the country. Worsted woollen cloth has parallel fibres which don’t trap air so it has a smoother, harder surface and was ( is) cooler to wear than other types of cloth. It’s surprising what you can learn when visiting museums! We visited the charming and quirky Bankfield Museum which used to be Edward Ackroyd’s Italianate -style mansion, built from the profits of his lucrative business. It’s grounds and gardens are now a pleasant and peaceful public park. Ackroyd’s statue stands in front of the church he commissioned in the High-Gothic style. Sadly, the church seems to be closed, a relic of a bygone era, when everyone wanted to ( or were expected to) attend Christian worship. Despite its magnificence, All Souls today looks slightly forlorn.

6. BENEVOLENT PATERNALISM.

On the slopes below the museum and church are the neat houses, shops and squares of Ackroydon, the model village that the mill owner had built for his workers. It’s like a smaller version of Saltaire which fellow industrialist Titus Salt had built in nearby Shipley. Akroyd wanted to look after his employees by giving them decent houses and facilities. However, this no doubt came at the price of individual freedom, as they would have had to follow all their employer’s rules and regulations. It’s another example of Victorian benevolent paternalism that can be found at Saltaire, at the Cadbury family’s Bournville, Robert Owen’s New Lanark near Glasgow , the Fry family in York and various others. It was another era. Sadly the man at the tourist office warned us not to visit Ackroydon after dark as it can be a distinctly dodgy area nowadays. Ackroyd’s vision has faded, his statue is largely ignored and his church lies empty. Still, Ackroyd, like Crossley, had his day and both helped to put Halifax into the national spotlight, at least for a while.

7. A REAL TOWN.

So Halifax has lots of interesting stories to tell and I haven’t even mentioned the infamous guillotine-style gibbet that stands on the edge of the town centre.( its a modern replica of the gruesome original which efficiently despatched many a thief and highwayman.) In spite of its lack of postcards and touristy tea-shops, it is a fascinating place to visit. It’s not on the regular coach tour itinerary or regularly featured in glossy  brochures, but that worked in our favour. We didn’t have to queue to get into places or run the gauntlet of souvenir shops. Halifax is still a real place, not an artificial tourist creation — and all the better for it. And, when the Piece Hall finally reopens, we shall visit it again.

 

 

 

 

Pennine Bus-Hopping — Huddersfield.

24 Jul

It all began when I read the unforgettable opening pages of J B Priestley’s great novel: “The Good Companions.” The reader hovers dizzyingly above the Pennine hills, which form the dark, “knobbly backbone” of northern England. Slowly, as if on some aerial computer image, we zoom in to focus on the central area of uplands, “where the high moorland thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” We hear the lonely cry of the curlew, sweep over brooding, dark peat-bogs and catch glittering glimpses of the moorland tarns. Finally, we home in on a town, a large mill town, with its “host of tall chimneys” and “rows and rows of little houses “climbing up the steep valley-side. This we find is “Bruddersfield”, a thinly disguised amalgam of real-life Huddersfield and nearby Bradford. Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Chris and I decided to visit Huddersfield to discover the modern reality behind Priestley’s classic creation, since he wrote those evocative lines back in 1929.

It was the second of our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass trips, pottering around the old textile towns of the south Pennines, using our free travel-passes.( one of the few perks of being over 60!) In our first odyssey, in 2012, we had explored the hills, moors and mill towns of east Lancashire. This time we were to visit their West Yorkshire cousins. I rather like the idea of holidaying in places that are not recognised resorts. They are not full of people taking selfies in front of famous landmarks but just consist of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I sneakily enjoy the look of incredulity on some peoples’ faces when we tell then where we’re going. I think it’s good to do something unpredictable and to test out my theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it. So Huddersfield it was, followed by Halifax, Hebden bridge and Heptonstall ( all the H’s!)

Thus, on a fine Monday morning in July, 2016 we found ourselves standing at the bus stop at the end of our street waiting for the service 5A to Middlesbrough ( we live in Cleveland on the north-east coast.) Inevitably it was a tense 9 minutes late. We worried about making our first connection. A friend in her car stopped to offer us a lift ( We daren’t tell her we were going to Huddersfield!) We declined her kind offer as we were determined that this was going to be a proper, eco-friendly public transport trip with no cheating. We would see local life, perhaps have impromptu conversations with complete strangers and feel part of a place instead of isolating ourselves in our private metal box. Luckily the 5A appeared at that very moment and we were off. At Middlesbrough we swapped our bus passes for our senior rail cards to take the Trans-Pennine train to Huddersfield via York and Leeds. True to form, it was a half hour late.( signalling problems in the York area.)

Nearly 2 hours later we arrived at a rather grand Huddersfield station and, after grabbing a street map from the info centre, stepped out into a spacious square, surrounded by large, stately Victorian buildings, including the Grade I listed station itself, built in 1846-50. John Betjeman described it as “the most splendid station façade on England.” To picture it, think– classical, Greek temple. At the top of St George’s Square are fountains and a statue of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 70’s, striding purposely forward ( but without his pipe!) He was one of Huddersfield’s most famous sons. To the left is the impressive George Hotel where Rugby League was born in 1895. The northern Rugby Union clubs decided to leave the Union because the largely more prosperous, public-school educated players, mainly from the south, had refused to allow payment of compensation for lost wages when playing. The split was acrimonious — an early example of the North-South divide.

On our first evening, we ate at one of the other grand buildings on the square: a former bank  which has now been converted into a very popular Kashmiri restaurant. it served one of the biggest nan breads I have seen!  So our first impressions were favourable. Maybe we had stumbled across a West Yorkshire version of Bath or Oxford full of historical, harmonious architecture? Second impressions quickly dispelled this however. We discovered the unattractive post-war buildings that took up whole swathes of the town centre. We saw, heard and smelt the road-works as a resurfacing operation was taking place. We experienced the heavy traffic grinding through parts of the centre near the bus station, and found the busy, noisy ring-road which encircled the centre like a tight, tarmac collar. We plunged down into a long, graffitied, concrete underpass! OK — I think you’ll have got the picture by now. The highlights of Huddersfield would have to be sought out — the “gems” amongst the “dross.” It was going to be fun! But first came the short trek to our guest house up the Halifax Road.

We couldn’t help noticing that most of the buildings on our road were substantial, fairly grand, stone mansions, sitting in their own grounds. Many had been converted to offices or hotels. One large, castle-like building was now a college, another a dancing school. Our guest house was in one of them, sharing it with a dental practice. Sadly, some of these mansions or villas are empty and in a state of neglect. It transpired that this area was once the comfortable, middle class district of Edgerton. It was a leafy suburb about a mile from the town centre on the Huddersfield-Halifax turnpike. The mill owners, merchants and other prosperous professionals would commute into town in their horses and carriages, before the age of the motor car. Sometimes there was a jarring clash of taste and style. One writer to the editor of the Huddersfield Courier in 1858 described Halifax Road as “too bewildering an affair to cope with; for you have Grecian temples, Swiss cottages, Gothic castles and Italian villas, all jumbled so closely together as scarcely to allow elbow room.” Many of these Georgian and Victorian residences were demolished to make way for a modern housing estate. ( I suppose they could squash a lot more people into the same area of land.) The survivors though, many in the neo-Classical style, are still impressive, bravely defying the relentless march of time, even though this once exclusive suburb has now been swallowed up by the town where all their owners made their money.

The wealthiest and most famous Huddersfield family was the Ramsdens.( nothing to do with the fish and chip shop chain, I don’t think.) They developed their huge estates agriculturally and then industrially, throwing up the textile mills that created so much of their wealth. They were responsible for many of the impressive civic buildings and also for the linking of Huddersfield to the burgeoning rail system as early as 1850. Later, in 1920, the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Cooperation for £1.3million, earning Huddersfield its nickname: “the town that bought itself.” Despite its large 160,00 to 170,00 population, Huddersfield is still only a town. It has never bothered to apply for city status, although it could easily do so. I read somewhere that it claims to be the largest “town” in Europe.

We started our heritage trail at the impressive, Art Deco, 1930’s Library and Art gallery. The art collection there is very good, including pieces by: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and L S Lowry. ( Huddersfield matchstick people scurrying around in the shadows of the giant mills instead of Salford/Manchester ones.) Outside, by the steps are two  symbolic statues of a boy and a girl, representing the spirits of literature and art.(“Youth Awaiting Inspiration by James Woodford, 1939.) Near the Library is the richly decorated stone Town hall (1881) which doubles up as a concert venue. However, just opposite the lovely library is the controversial, modern Queensgate Market ( 1968-70) which is pretty ugly. Local people either love it or hate it. Surprisingly it is a listed building . Inside are 21 unique, concrete roof-umbrellas, looking like giant curving shells. I was all ready to be impressed and entered the market with camera poised. Unfortunately the concrete shells were mostly obscured by the mundane market stalls, crowded around them. So it was an anti-climax. I’m sure most of the people buying cauliflowers, potatoes or second-hand jewellery don’t even notice them anymore. On the outside of the Queensgate Market however is another surprise. Who would have thought we would come across the world’s largest ceramic sculpture? It consists of 9, brown-toned, large panels, covered in abstract swirls, entitled:” Articulation in Motion”, whatever that means. ( Fitz Steller, 1969.) Once again, these were largely ignored by the locals as far as I could see, especially as they face on to the southern section of the busy ring road.

I think it was brave of Huddersfield to try to embrace the “shock of the new”, instead of just falling back on to its Victorian heritage. The roof-shells and ceramic panels are not really my cup of tea but are certainly more stimulating than the bland diet of uniform shopping malls and chain stores that many town centres, including parts of Huddersfield itself, offer up. Huddersfield, in my opinion is a mish-mash of the old and new, the original and the mundane. It’s just like most towns really. Maybe one has to have the one, in order to appreciate the other.

We explored a couple of old arcades with interesting, independent shops and had a quick look at the Parish Church, even though its pretty gardens were frequented by quite a few unfortunate down and outs. This is a side of a town not highlighted in the tourist brochures. We enjoyed visiting the late Victorian Wholesale Market, like a vast car boot sale under a splendid wrought iron and glass, curving roof. The actual open -air market- place was interesting too, with its market cross featuring the Ramsden Coat of Arms. It’s surrounded by fancy, old Victorian and Edwardian banks. Their ornate stonework and statues contrast with the flickering screens of their modern cash points.

Another gem we found nestling amongst the everyday, was the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Queen Street, built in 1819. One side of Queen Street is stately Victorian buildings, whilst the other is unbelievable taken up by a multi-storey car-park! Going back to the theatre, it had originally been constructed as one of the biggest Wesleyan Chapels in the country, following a visit from John Wesley himself. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Wesley seems to have passed through almost every town in England, judging from the number of plaques I have read over the years. Lawrence Batley was a local businessman who helped pay for the theatre conversion and thus immortalised himself, at least in Huddersfield. Our jaws dropped as we entered the foyer because we were met by a wonderful display of colourful fantasy costumes created  by the graduates of the adjoining University for their Leavers’ show.

Contrary to the traditional image of the gruff, brusque Yorkshireman ( and woman), we found Huddersfield to be an open and very friendly place. In fact at times it was a bit too friendly, as when we had to make an excuse and flee from the Oxfam book shop because a man was regaling us with all the gory details of an argument he had had with his wife because he had spent £250 of the housekeeping money on 3 military medals in a display box! We also found Huddersfield to be quite multi-cultural. We found Persian and Lebanese restaurants as well as the usual array of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian outfits. In the art gallery we saw an exhibition of photographs of refugees from all over the world being welcomed to Huddersfield, something that was very heartening in post-“Brexit” Britain, with its sharp increase in racial and anti-immigrant incidents.

Priestley’s dark mill town, with its cloth-capped working men trudging en masse to the football ground, has now changed beyond all recognition. For a start the football matches now take place in a modern, all- seater, out- of- town stadium, constructed for the convenience of the car. The woollen mills have closed, their chimneys demolished. The trams have bitten the dust and many of the hill-side terraces have gone. The motor car has taken over. For many travellers, Huddersfield is now merely a convenient short stop-over, just south of the M62. Most of the hotels and guest houses are situated near to the motorway. I imagine the town is less self-contained than in Priestley’s day, with many residents  commuting to Manchester or Leeds for their work and their bigger items of shopping. However, the town’s glorious past as a wealthy centre of the woollen textile industry has not been totally extinguished. All those fine Victorian civic buildings remain, as do the mansions and villas on the Halifax Road. Then there are the atmospheric, early 19th century alleys and courtyards off King Street, restored during the construction of a modern shopping mall on the opposite side of the road. This juxtaposition of old and new, existing cheek by jowl, perhaps best sums up the contradictions of the place.

One thing that will never change is the town’s setting, nestling between the brooding Pennine hills and moors. As we walked back to our guest house on our final evening, I looked beyond the rooves of the immediate town, to two, prominent wooded hills beyond. On one hill was a dark church tower, probably blackened by the belching mill chimneys of the past. On the higher hill we saw the stone Victoria (lookout) Tower, built in 1899 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s a landmark for miles around. Back in 2012, we had trecked up to a similar tower in the Lancashire mill town of Darwin. However, the Huddersfield tower is much further away and we are 4 years older, so we just admired it from afar. All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit and it whetted our appetites for Halifax, the next “H” on our bus- pass trip. Moreover, as soon as I got home, I searched the book shelves for my copy of “The Good Companions”, to re-read  that wonderfully evocative introduction to Priestley’s beloved “Bruddersfield.”

Cut Adrift.

30 Jun

Like nearly half of the UK’s population I woke up on the morning of June 24th, 2016, to news that both shocked and depressed me. The British people had voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, which we have been a member of since 1973. I had previously been mortified by the election of a Conservative majority government in 2015, but at least my dismay on that occasion was allayed by the thought that it would only last for 5 years maximum and then we would get a chance to overturn the result in the next General Election. However, the fateful decision to leave the EU will not just last for 5 years, but is probably irrevocable. The younger generations, who largely voted to stay in, are now stuck with the consequences of their elder peers’ negative decision. As one work colleague put it: “We’ve been cut adrift.”

This piece is not intended to be an expert analysis of the :political, economic, social and constitutional dimensions of this momentous development. This is because I am not an expert in any of these spheres. However, I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and I would like to try to summarise my own personal reaction.  I don’t wish to upset or attack the people who voted “Leave.” They had their reasons which were valid to them. I accept the result just I accept the system of democracy. I am not one of the callers for a second EU referendum just because I didn’t like the result of the first. Having said that, I think the decision to leave is wrong and probably reveals some worrying  characteristics of the nation I am part of.

First of all, I think that for many, this was not a carefully considered decision but a loud vote of protest.Many regions of Britain have suffered from unemployment, lack of investment and poverty. They have been left behind in the economic race and feel neglected and abandoned. These areas, particularly in the north, the midlands and Wales voted resoundingly to leave the EU in the recent referendum. This includes Cleveland in the north-east where I now live. I was a polling clerk in a small, ex-mining village, and although we are not allowed to discuss the issues with the voters, many  barely bothered to conceal their intentions. It was obvious to me that many were intent on delivering a protest vote against the so called “establishment” whom they blamed for many of their troubles. It was the “ordinary” working class wanting to give the rich, privileged, political elite a good kicking. One actually said that he was going to punish Cameron ( The pro-“Remain” Prime Minister) for all his “lies.” I got the distinct impression from my experiences in the polling station and my forays into social media that numerous people  primarily wanted to register such a vote of dissent. Quite a few older electors admitted that they  didn’t usually bother to vote but had especially turned out for this one. Nationally, it was the highest turn-out for a very long time. People were very taken with the idea that in a referendum, every single vote counts, unlike the “first past the post” system that the UK has in its normal elections. But having turned up, many of them didn’t know what to do. It was weird having to tell people in their fifties and sixties that they simply had to put a cross in the box of their choice. Many, whipped-up by a campaign on Facebook, were very suspicious that only a pencil was provided in the voting booth rather than a pen, even though thick pencils have always been used in British elections since the year dot. They expressed their concern that officials could later rub out their ” Leave” crosses and change them to “Remain.” Despite their political naivety and ignorance of polling procedures, these people had turned up because they were angry, and this anger had overcome their previous apathy. If this is true, then it’s a shame that this wider issue of shaking up the “establishment” clouded the more specific and crucially important issue of whether the country should remain in or leave the EU.

Another serious concern raised by the vote is our attitude to foreigners. I think patriotism is fine but if taken to extremes, can turn into unpleasant chauvinism or even xenophobia. Unfortunately, foreigners make very convenient scapegoats. It’s so easy to blame them for all our ills. According to the blamers, foreigners are: stealing our jobs, depressing our wages, taking our houses, making our schools over-crowded, overwhelming our health service and destroying our identity. I have heard all these arguments through the years, especially from a certain section of the tabloid press. In fact, I think many of these ideas have originated from the more corrosive elements of the popular press, which had been drip-feeding anti-EU and anti-immigration propaganda into peoples’ minds for decades This fear and distrust of thee “outsider” is not a new phenomenum. In the early years of the 20th century, the governments tried to unite the country against the “yellow peril.” Then in the 1950’s and 60’s, large scale immigration from the  Commonwealth led to widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. This culminated in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in Smethwick in 1969. I think he had serious and important points to make but the unfortunate side effect of his words was that it provided a more  respectable face for racists. Despite anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970’s, I believe that racism is alive and well in the UK and bubbles just beneath the surface of respectable society. Unfortunately, the EU’s “free movement of people” policy, has led to another upsurge of foreigner hating, especially when large numbers of people from Poland, Slovakia, Romania and other east European people arrived on our shores. This is despite the fact that many of them are very hard-working and have made important contributions to the economy, doing the jobs that British workers have not been keen to do. As one outspoken voter loudly exclaimed: “Enoch was right. He was a great man.”

To a certain extent I think this is just fear of the unknown, fear of the “other”. Unfortunately, more extreme members of the right wing turn this fear and unease into ideas of white British racial superiority. The National Front, The British National Party and the English Defence League  espouse neo-Nazi ideas about race and wish all foreigners, especially those with darker skins, to be deported. Slogans have already been painted up urging immigration to be replaced by repatriation. Luckily, the majority of British people abhor such ideas and the out- and- out racists have been largely kept in check. However, a relatively new party, UKIP, formed in the early 21st century has successfully managed to merge the issues of  EU membership ( with its free movement of people principle) with that of mass immigration. They have given the anti-foreigner idea a slightly more respectable cloak. Not only are foreigners coming over in increasingly large numbers to take our jobs etc, according to UKIP, but other, unelected foreigners in Brussels and Strasbourg are making decisions that effect British peoples’ lives detrimentally. So goes the argument. It’s easy to blame the foreigners for all Britain’s problems. Hitler blamed all Germany’s problems on the Jews. It’s the same idea. The trouble is that once these racist ideas come out of the woodwork, they can be very unpleasant and destructive. Already, since the Leave vote, there have been numerous racial incidents up and down the country. The far -right extremists unfortunately now feel emboldened to tell foreigners that they are not welcome in the UK. This is a very upsetting and unfortunate result of the Leave vote.

I believe that the EU leaders should be more democratically accountable to the people of Europe and I also think that the completely free movement of people needs to be looked at and modified, because, inevitably it will lead to people from poorer countries migrating to their richer European neighbours. However, I believe that Britain should have fought for such reform from within, rather than throwing its toys out of the pram and leaving the Union. It has been a case of flight not fight. I can sympathise with people who live in areas with a large immigrant population as they fear that they are losing their British identity. For many, identity trumps the economy and so they have ignored the warnings about dire economic consequences of a Leave vote. I think the numbers of incomers should be more carefully controlled but feel that a multi-cultural society has enriched Britain immeasurably over the years. It has broadened minds and given us many new alternatives in diet, religion, music, dance, art, language and traditions. We would be a much culturally poorer country if we consisted of just one race. However, the Leave vote heralds the advent of a more narrow minded, mono-culture definition of British life.

Britain has a long history of Empire and for a long time did not need to rely on its neighbours in Europe as its main trading partners. This is why, despite Churchill’s far sighted vision of a united Europe, the British government of the late 1940’s ( Atlee’s Labour administration), didn’t feel the need to join the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, set up by the Germans and the French and joined by Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Italy. The British also considered themselves as “Atlanticists” proudly pointing out their so-called special relationship with the USA. The aims of the Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, had been to deliberately inter-mesh their economies so as to make future wars between them impossible. Europe and the World had suffered two catastrophic wars in the 20th Century which had at their heart the long term enmity between Germany and France. Other terrible Franco-German wars had taken place in the 19th century. Thus by 1945, surveying yet another devastated continent, French and German statesmen said “never again” and took their brave and far-sighted decision to integrate and cooperate rather than continue to compete and confront. Their brave gamble has paid off as there has been no war between members of the European Union since its inception. The British stayed aloof of the new union, but when their Empire quickly melted away in the 1950’s and 60’s and their special cross-Atlantic relationship was exposed when the Americans refused to back them in the Suez crisis of 1956, they belatedly realised that their new focus must be on Europe. Prime Minister  Harold McMillan applied to join in the early 1960’s but was eventually rebuffed by France’s President De Gaulle, who said that the British didn’t have the right attitude to be good Europeans. Maybe, looking at our leave vote of June 23rd, 2016, and our history of opt-outs, objections and vetoes, De Gaulle had a point. Separated from the European mainland by a thin strip of sea, the English Channel, the British have found it difficult to cooperate with their European partners. It is almost if: because of our proud history being in charge of an  Empire, our  status as a Great Power, our seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, we regard ourselves as superior to our neighbours across the Channel. I’m sure this belief that Britain is a uniquely great nation and doesn’t need to cow-tow to or cooperate with others, is behind many people’s dislike of the EU, and their wish to leave it and go it alone. When people say they “want their country back”, the familiar and successful slogan of the Leave campaign, I suspect they are thinking back to a Britain in the past, not the diminished country of today, stripped of much of its power and influence. I think it is a mistake to think that the United Kingdom is still a great and powerful nation that can easily go it alone.

I suppose I could go on making point after point and this blog could go on for ever. That would be a waste of time as no-one would want to read it to the end anyway. The remaining important thing I want to say is that I have always been an Internationalist, ever since I owned my first stamp album. It makes me sad to realize I am living in  a nation of insular, “Little-Englanders.” I have always been interested in other countries and have wanted to travel to see them and experience their different cultures. I wanted to enrich my life and broaden my mind. My parents never left these shores and never showed any desire for foreign travel. At first they were too poor and later they were too timid to leave the comfort-zone of Britain. As I grew older I developed an increasing desire for foreign adventure. To their credit, my mum and dad recognised this and made a big financial sacrifice in paying for me to go on a school trip to the south of France in 1966. This lit the blue touch-paper and launched my life-long wanderlust.. Throughout my adult life I have travelled extensively throughout Europe and in the World at large, especially in my post-retirement years. I have enjoyed the UK being part of the European Community with all the economic and cultural benefits that this has brought. This is why I think it’s a great shame that many people want to pull up the draw-bridge and withdraw from the European project that we have been a part of for over 4 decades. In this modern, increasingly connected world, it’s strange that the majority in the British referendum wanted to withdraw and become a small separate entity. From an economic, cultural and political point of view this doesn’t make any sense to me. As someone said in the campaign, it’s like claiming one’s independence by moving out of the house and moving into the garden shed!

When my 92 year old mother- in- law heard the referendum result, she cried. She vividly remembered the devastation of the 2nd World War  and feared that the Leave vote might lead to the unravelling of much of the progress Europe has made since 1945. The vote seems to ignore the lessons of history, and if further countries leave, might lead to a more insecure and dangerous continent. It’s not surprising that Russia’s President Putin is delighted at the news of the UK’s imminent withdrawal from the powerful bloc that has been opposing his aggressive policies. It may also lead to the further unravelling of the United Kingdom itself as the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted firmly to remain in Europe. They may soon vote to leave us and leave us weaker and more vulnerable in a dangerous world. We are a proud, sea-faring nation, but how will we cope when we are cut adrift and are left alone in turbulent waters?

 

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.

Destroyed By The Humble Duvet.

23 Feb

When I was a child, if it was a cold night, my mum or dad would pop an extra blanket on the bed before tucking me in for the night. I’d lie there all nice and cosy, beneath a sheet  and 2 or 3 woollen blankets. This was before the days of central heating and the all-conquering duvet, formerly known as the “continental quilt”. Spare blankets for extra cold nights, were kept on top of the wardrobe. We were a traditional, working- class British family and we didn’t bother with, or weren’t even aware of , “new-fangled” items that were popular in the rest of Europe. This was before the UK joined the Common Market (EU) in the early 1970’s.  Our view, which we shared with  most of our friends and family, was that British goods and customs were obviously the best and that most things “foreign” were not to be trusted. We were proud to be British and not bothered about being thought of as insular.  Those blankets would have been made in Britain, part of a long tradition of wool- making that stretched right back to the Middle Ages. More likely than not, our blankets and other woollen products were made in Witney, Oxfordshire. Chris and I recently visited the town on a family trek  to the south. In  word association games, “Witney” and “blankets” were once inextricably linked. Even my mum, who unfortunately suffers from memory loss, said “blankets” as soon as I mentioned  Witney to her.

Until a few years ago I had barely been aware of the town, having lived most of my life in the north of England. Then it registered on my radar as the parliamentary constituency of the present Conservative prime Minister: David Cameron. Luckily he was busy in Brussels and London at the time of our visit so we were able to sneak in and out without facing the possibility of an awkward encounter. Today, Witney is mainly a dormitory town for the nearby city of Oxford, 12 miles to the east. It is also a bit of a tourist centre, being on the eastern fringes of the popular  Cotswolds. But, over the centuries, its main claim to fame has been as a wool town. This is proudly commemorated in numerous names and signs dotted about the centre. We stayed in a guest house next door to The Fleece public house. Just down the road was another hostelry called The Company of Weavers. In the churchyard some of the headstones bear images of shuttles and other symbols related to cloth making. A new shopping centre has been named The Woolgate Centre. The former Blanket Weavers Guild HQ is now a museum/heritage centre and is named Blanket House. This weaver’s guild was set up in the reign of Queen Anne in 1714. The presence of the  wool industry in the town actually dates as far back as 969 AD, in late Anglo-Saxon times. The industry really took off  with the arrival of Huguenot weavers from Flanders in the early 1700’s. This is an excellent example of the positive results of immigration for the British economy. I wonder what UKIP or the Daily Mail would have made of it? When Daniel Defoe, the famous writer and a pioneer tourist, passed through Witney in the mid 18th century, he noted that “you see a (spinning) wheel going in almost every door, the wool, and  yarn hanging up at every window.”

Like many of its neighbouring Cotswolds towns to the west, Witney built much of its wealth and reputation on the Wool industry. “Wolds” are gently rolling hills, and “cots” are sheep enclosures. So there was a plentiful supply of wool to supply a flourishing enterprise. Many of the attractive historical, stone buildings which help to make the Cotswolds so popular, were put up by wealthy, successful wool merchants. There was a lot of money to be made. As well as grand mansions, they paid for impressive churches, schools and even almshouses for the poor. This is evident in Witney as well as in its popular near neighbour, Burford.

We stayed on Church Green which is probably the most attractive part of the town centre. Nearby are the old market hall and butter cross. The green itself is a large expanse of open space headed by the Church of St Mary with its impressive spire. It can be seen for miles around. Back in the day though, Church Green wasn’t so peaceful. The whole green was filled with crowded sheep pens as farmers bought and sold their valuable livestock. The nearby River Windrush provided water for the washing, fulling and dying of the wool. Later the river provided power for the early spinning and weaving machines and was subsequently used to generate steam when the industrial revolution got into full swing. Part of the attraction of the Cotswolds to today’s tourist is that it is a throwback to a bygone, pre-industrial era. Bypassed by the main transport routes, most of it’s wool manufacturing towns fell into decline and economic stagnation in the 19th century. In fact it is difficult to spot a Victorian building in any of these places. This explains their  current popularity — they present a chocolate box version of Ye Olde England. However, Witney is the exception that proves the rule. It’s merchants and manufacturers successfully lobbied to have a rail link and it was already an important stop on the coaching routes. It never became a nostalgic backwater. Instead, it embraced industrialisation and the centre of  its cloth production moved from workers’ cottages to large mills. While trying to navigate ourselves out of the town one day we suddenly came across a tall, brick chimney– a remnant of one of those steam powered factories — Witney Mill. It looked incongruous in rural Oxfordshire, as this was a sight we associated more with the Pennine mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north. Until it closed in 1962, Witney Mill was the town’s last working blanket factory.

I have always been fascinated by the Textile Industry having taught countless children about it in my days as a History teacher. When my pupils complained about having to do their schoolwork, I reminded them what their life would have been like 150 to 200 years ago. Children worked long hours in factories and mills. Before that, when industry was centred on people’s homes ( cottage industry), every member of the family was expected to contribute. In the textile industry for instance, the boys would help their fathers do the carding ( combing of the raw wool), while the girls assisted their mothers with the spinning ( i.e. — turning the raw wool into thread or yarn, by stretching and twisting it.) Thus the name for an unmarried woman is still a “spinster”, although it might be deemed rude to actually call someone that today. One can imagine the girls and women telling stories as they worked — “spinning a yarn.” Meanwhile, the man of the house, when he wasn’t working in the fields, would busy himself on the loom, turning the thread or yarn into cloth. In Witney this was mainly turned into blankets. A shuttle containing the thread was passed quickly from side to side, weaving in and out of the vertical threads already attached to the loom. Thus today we get the term “shuttle service” for a bus or a train that goes back and forth between two close destinations. The weaver worked in the room which had the biggest window to maximise the light he needed to do the job. This is why old weavers’ cottages have their biggest windows upstairs, where the loom was operated. Examples of these can still be seen in and around Witney.

In the past, the fields around Witney would have witnessed a very strange sight — countless rows of blanket-drying racks. Blankets were not woven individually. Instead they came in “stockfuls” which equated to about 24 blankets in one piece. After weaving, the blanket cloth was washed and pounded to make it shrink and become firmer. This was done in  fulling mills which were situated along the river. A “stockful” was the amount of cloth that would fit into a fulling mill’s stocks. I hope you’re following all this! The cloth would obviously be wet when the fulling was complete so it had to be dried on the large racks in the fields. Afterall, no-one wants to be a “wet blanket”, do they? Gangs of men hauled the large lengths of soggy cloth up on to the wooden racks, attaching them by means of “tenterhooks.” It must have been a difficult and rather tense job, giving rise to the modern phrase — “being kept on tenter hooks.” The hooks made holes in the eventual blankets which, for a long time, were an accepted part of the product. On a fine day, it was possible to dry over a mile of blankets outside. Once it began to rain however, every available man had to be mobilised to get the cloth in quickly. In the 20th century, indoor tentering lines began to take over, but outdoor tenter racks could still be seen in the Witney fields up to the late 1950’s. It must have been a spectacular sight. I suppose the nearest we come to it today is rows and rows of shining solar panels.

So Witney embraced the industrial revolution and became the blanket capital of the UK. It exported a lot of its woollen products too. At the time of a devastating earthquake in Sicily in the mid 20th century, the Witney mills worked round the clock to provide warm blankets for the poor, homeless victims in Italy. Then it all finished. On 19th July, 2002, the looms fell silent for the final time. A thousand years of wool making in the town came to an end and the industry that had dominated the economic and social life of the town was consigned to the waste-bin of history! The Witney wool industry had successfully survived many great changes and challenges, moving out of the cottage into the factory; changing from muscle power to water and steam power and finally electricity. Yet it met its match in the early 1970’s with the rise and rise of the humble duvet!

This soft, flat bag filled with down, feathers, wool, silk or synthetic alternatives is very effective in keeping us warm at night and has made bed making much simpler. The bag is place in a cover and then just placed on the bed. Its insulating properties are very effective in keeping us warm. Duvets have been around since Viking times. They were originally developed in northern Norway. The name comes from the French for “down” The down of the Eider duck is particularly effective. From the 16th century it was popular with wealthier people in the west. In the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Princess and the Pea”, published in 1838, the royal lady lay down on 10 eider-down duvets!

Maybe ordinary British people avoided these “Continental Quilts” because they were strange and foreign. But eventually, in the later 20th century, the duvet overcame all resistance and the blanket was largely vanquished. Thus Witney’s wool industry is no longer a going concern. It now provides the raw materials for museums and heritage trails to amuse and interest tourists like myself. Having said that, just today, I was passing a bedding shop in my home town of Saltburn by the sea, on the North Yorkshire coast, and couldn’t help noticing a pack of pillows with the label: “Made in Witney”. So it seems that Witney has not quite vacated our bedrooms afterall. It has not totally  succumbed to its  seemingly all-conquering  foreign rival! And, considering its political connection with Mr Cameron, it is still the heartland of the “dyed in the wool Tory.” As a Labour supporter it pains me to acknowledge this, but I wouldn’t want to “pull the wool over your eyes” would I?