Goodbye to the shilling: decimalisation, 50 years on

Fifty years ago today, Britain and Ireland said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence and welcomed decimal money. From 15 February 1971, there would be 100 pence in a pound, rather than 12 shillings. That changeover decimal day in Britain was billed as D Day, no doubt a deliberate echo of the the D Day landings during the war, less than 27 years before.

I’m sure the decimal revolution was a wrench for my grandmothers, who grew up with Queen Victoria’s head on the nation’s coins. For me, it was a relief: as a seven year old, it meant an end to painful school maths lessons adding up in old money. But I still feel nostalgic for that lost world.

My childhood money

I grew up on old money, but was aware that change was on the way. Not long before decimalisation, my great aunt Megan offered my a choice: I could have my pocket money as a 10 shilling note or a 50p piece. I had never seen a 50p piece so went for that. Looking back, it was very generous regardless of the option I went for.

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Review: The Valley of Lost Secrets

On the eve of the Second World War, around 800,000 children were evacuated from big cities like London to the countryside to keep them safe from devastating bombing attacks. Many of the children had never been to the countryside.

The great exodus: children arriving in Devon, 1940. Photo: IWM

This mass movement of the young has long been fertile ground for writers and dramatists. As a child growing up in Wales in the 1970s, I loved the BBC television adaptation of Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden’s novel about children evacuated to Wales. Years later, I watched it again with my then eight year old son, Owen. He was equally enthralled.

Lesley Parr has followed in Nina Bawden’s footsteps with a superb debut novel featuring two brothers sent to Wales in September 1939. Jimmy and Ronnie arrive at the village of Llanbryn after an endless train journey from London.

The author evokes the tension as the children wait in the miners’ institute hall to be allocated to local families. At first, Jimmy is worried about his brother, fearing that his sulky looks and tears will deter the locals from choosing them as their guests. (This reminded me of the petty humiliation of being the last to be chosen for a team in school games in Cardiff.) But we soon find that Ronnie is quicker to settle and develop a bond with their hosts, Mr and Mrs Thomas. Jimmy resents the way his brother calls Mrs Thomas ‘Aunty Gwen’ and wishes their host wouldn’t pretend that the house in Heol Mabon was the boys’ home. Only in time does Jimmy establish his own sense of belonging in Llanbryn.

Lesley was born in Wales, and has a nice way of showing how the boys from London struggle with Welsh names and words. (In many ways, the Wales of 1939 would have been much more of a culture shock to newcomers than today, as Netflix, social media as well as television have created a common culture across countries and continents.) On arriving, Jimmy is puzzled by the name Llanbryn on the station platform : “Funny word. Too many Ls.” Later, Ronnie thinks they are having cow soup for lunch, mishearing the word cawl, a type of Welsh stew.

The author also skilfully develops the character and back story of Mr and Mrs Thomas. At the meeting to pair the children with local hosts, the couple intended to take just one child, but change their minds and provided a home for the brothers. Had they done it for money? As time goes by, we see that they really care for the London boys. Lesley also shows that Mr and Mrs Thomas are set apart from others in the village, with the Anglican vicar in particular badmouthing the nonconformist Mr Thomas. (“Chapel is low, see. Up at St Michael’s we’re closer to God”, sneers the vicar.) Mr Thomas is a far more agreeable character than the cold Mr Evans in Carrie’s War.

The Valley of Lost Secrets also shows the ebb and flow of friendships amongst the young people. Jimmy was wary of Florence, another evacuee from back home whose reputation had been darkened because she was seen as coming from a bad family. But in time he appreciates her qualities and friendship. By contrast, he becomes alienated from his best friend from home, Duff, who joins a gang that intimidates Jimmy.

The heart of the book is Jimmy’s frightening discovery of a human skull in a tree – the lost secrets in the title. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but I didn’t expect the story to develop as it did! This is a comforting tale of warmth and friendship overcoming fear and prejudice.

Before the war changed everything: my father and grandfather, Margate, 1938

My family is familiar with the disruption the outbreak of war caused. My father, Bob Skinner, was 12 when the war began. His school, Emanuel in Wandsworth, was evacuated to Hampshire, but Dad was sent to live with an aunt in Cardiff, and listened to Chamberlain’s famous, sombre ‘This country is at war with Germany’ broadcast in Cardiff on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939. His sister moved with her school out of London, and his older brother joined the RAF. A few years later, their father died of a heart attack aged just 52. Life was never the same again.

PS: a historical curiosity. Lesley refers to Cardiff Central station in the opening chapter. I presume she wanted to avoid confusing modern day readers by using the 1930s name, Cardiff General. British Rail renamed it in 1973.

The joy of winter cycling

The winter crossroads

In the deep midwinter, it’s too easy to hibernate. The sofa and screen exert a pull that even the most active cyclists can find hard to resist.

Yet it needn’t be like this. As a wise person once said, weather always looks worse through a window. When you’re out on the road, the rain may not feel so cold, so intense. (At least if you have the right clothes and mudguards.)

Zwift: no raingear needed. You don’t see redwoods on my local rides

When the cold, rain and darkness makes ‘real’ cycling intimidating, Indoor cycling is the answer. It is a far more attractive option than when I did my first indoor ride in 1995. On a cold January day that year, I struggled to carry an indoor roller back to the office from a bike shop in Cheltenham. I used it occasionally. Seven years later, I did training for my first Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride on an indoor trainer, but they were empty hours: I wasn’t tested enough for the training to count.

Winter riding, 1994: Easter Saturday in Wales

The photo above shows me smiling as I descended the famous seven mile bank on path of the old Brecon & Merthyr Railway towards Talybont on Usk after an Easter Saturday ride from Cardiff with my friend Richard. It may have been spring, but we arrived in a blizzard! My Dawes Super Galaxy was the perfect ride, as I blogged recently.

By contrast, today’s inside cycling can be as testing as any real life hill. When I got my Wattbike Atom in 2018, I found I preferred TrainerRoad to Zwift. I quickly got bored with Zwift, yet I found TrainerRoad’s workouts oddly compelling. There was no hiding place from the effort it demanded. (Apart from dialling down the effort needed.) But this week, I discovered Zwift’s many attractions. Watopia, which I dismissed as a gimmick three years ago, now strikes me as a stunning backdrop for indoor cycling.

A true winter ride: Mumfords Lane, near Chalfont St Peter, Bucks, 24 January 2021

Yet the great outdoors still inspires and rewards like no indoor ride. Two weeks ago, I set off on my mountain bike in the snow. It was a pleasure to see families revelling in a winter wonderland – a brief escape from the tedium of England’s third pandemic lockdown. This ride was all about the satisfaction of being in the elements with no thought of Strava achievements. It was all the better for it.

As a result, I am miles ahead of my usual cycling goals. I cycled 508 miles indoors and out in January – over 150 miles more than my previous winter month’s total. I hope to pass 1,000 miles in 2021 before February is over. That will be over six weeks earlier than my previous fastest 1,00 miles, in 2019, when I was training for my second Land’s End to John O’Groats ride. It’s all about habit, and putting in the miles indoors when venturing out is unappealing.

I’ll close this post with an image of an earlier magical winter bike ride. One crisp winter’s day in 2012, I took my original 1994 mountain bike through Hodgemoor Wood above our village. I found joy in exploring the wintry trails, capturing the moment with my digital SLR, which I carried in my CamelBak. I blogged about those pleasures here.

We’re expecting snow again tomorrow. My bike is ready. Here’s to winter riding.

Farewell to the Dawes Galaxy – the classic British touring bike

My Dawes Super Galaxy on my first century, 1995

The news that Dawes has axed its famous Galaxy touring bike made me sad and nostalgic. My first cycling adventures featured the Dawes Super Galaxy seen in the photo above: my first weekend tour, my first week long cycling holiday and my debut century, all in a two year period in the 1990s.

I described my affection for the bike in a blogpost about my favourite bikes 12 years ago. Over 30 years ago Richard Ballantine dubbed the Galaxy a classic touring bike – a tribute to its longevity. I found it outstandingly reliable: in the five years I owned it, I didn’t get a single puncture or mechanical failure. It carried four laden panniers with ease – and the low gears meant I was able to climb all but the toughest west country hill on a nine day tour in 1995.

The Galaxy on a Sunday afternoon loop of Richmond Park, 1992
Nearing the end of a day’s ride from Cardiff to the Brecon Beacons – before a blizzard!

I will always have a soft spot for the traditional touring bike. My decision to buy one (a Peugeot Camargue) in 1989 was the start of my passion for cycling. I’d never had a good bike as a child and so my first ‘proper’ bike was a revelation. I started commuting from Teddington to Holborn on it. I found cycling up hills needn’t be purgatory. A couple of years later, I upgraded to the Super Galaxy.

I will never forget the pleasure of riding the Galaxy down the seven mile swoop to Talybont on Usk on Easter Saturday 1994. My friend Richard and I had found the Taff Trail from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil surprisingly easy (thanks to the easy inclines of the old railways it followed). The climb over the Brecon Beacons was another story and we were relieved to freewheel towards our destination at Talybont. (Although we arrived in a blizzard!) My father was kind enough to bring us and our bikes back to Cardiff the next day.

Reaching the south coast at Sidmouth, Devon, June 1995

My greatest adventure on the Galaxy was that nine day tour of the west country. I’d plotted the route one January night, dreaming of warmer times, with OS maps spread out across my living room floor. The first day was a summer deluge, but it was the exception and as the tour unfolded a heatwave arrived. On the last day, we watched the Red Arrows against a perfect blue sky over the M4 near Chippenham.

I sold the bike a year later, but still kept faith with touring bikes, notably the Raleigh Randonneur, on which I completed my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002 and my final pannier-laden tour, from Cardiff to Bucks, in 2013.

Since then, my touring has been on light road bikes, with companies like Peak Tours carrying my overnight luggage. It has meant faster riding. Many cyclists have made the same switch from the traditional touring bike, while others have gone straight to gravel bikes and bikepacking – carrying their stuff in bags that fix straight to the frame rather than panniers fixed to racks. Our individual decisions have played a big part in the demise of the classic touring bike represented by the Dawes Galaxy. I don’t regret my switch, but I will always look back with affection to the bikes that started my love of cycling.

Who knows, maybe one day I will take the Randonneur back on the road for a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of the classic British tourer.

The coronavirus Christmas

Christmas Day Zoom call with Dad, 94

Christmas night 2020. This has been the hardest Christmas since the war, overtaking 1973, when Britain was facing a three day week during the miners’ strike. This time the cause is COVID-19, the virus that swept the world in 2020, killing 70,000 in Britain alone so far.

Last Saturday, the UK’s governments made dramatic u-turns, ending arrangements in many areas for families to meet over Christmas. We were due to visit Dad, 94, in his Cardiff residential home just before Christmas. We postponed the trip for a week as South East England went into near-lockdown, and then cancelled it as the UK and Welsh governments introduced even tougher restrictions six days before Christmas.

Yet Christmas wasn’t cancelled. We enjoyed the planned quiet family Christmas Day (the three of us plus dog and hamster) and had a Zoom call with Dad, Bob Skinner, during the morning.

Dad has written movingly this week about his saddest Christmas memory, in 1942. His father died on 21 December that year, leaving 16 year old Bob Skinner mourning a lovely, loving father he barely knew. Dad recalls those muted wartime Christmases, with families apart, food rationed and deadly dangers facing those at home as well as those on the front lines.

Happily, today’s dangers, while real, are modest compared with Britain’s fight for survival 80 years ago. Dad hopes to receive his first COVID-19 vaccination dose in the coming week or so. Let us hope that 2021 will bring the start of better times, not least for the countless people and businesses whose livelihoods are threatened by this deadly virus. Christmas 2021 should be a time when we can hug again.

I will end with the image of my indomitable father, dressed to celebrate Christmas at Sunrise of Cardiff. Thank you to all the carers, NHS staff and and everyone else who has made us smile this unique Christmas and through the year.

Britain, Wales and Europe, 25 years on

I wrote this article early in 1995. As the UK prepares for the possible disaster of a no-deal break up with the European Union, I reflect that I got it right 25 years ago.

The Senedd in Cardiff on Brexit day.

Europe – a dangerous obsession

Rob Skinner, March 1995

British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.

No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.

The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.

If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.

The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.

Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.

Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.

None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.

As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.

This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?

The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.

John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?

Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*

If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.

John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.

In this anniversary year [1995], of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.

After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an  unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.

Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.

* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994

Books and their readers: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

A bookish read

I’ve loved books for half a century. I remember the moment the love affair began: my grandmother giving me an Enid Blyton tale featuring a wooded island. (The Secret Island?) There was no turning back. My reading status changed: in a relationship.

Martin Latham has made books his working life as well as his passion. He has sold books for 35 years, and has produced a book of his own, The Bookseller’s Tale, that is full of intriguing stories and authors I had never heard of. Even his dust-jacket is revealing: it reveals he was responsible for the largest petty-cash claim in Waterstones’ history when he paid for the excavation of a Roman bath-house floor under his bookshop.

Latham opens by talking about ‘comfort books’ – books we love, and keep buying and reading. They may, or may not, be literary masterpieces. The author recalls the novelist AS Byatt buying a copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book in his Canterbury bookshop and admitting she couldn’t be seen buying it in London.

Latham never quite defines a comfort book. A book you read in difficult times? A volume you loved when you were young, and which gives you a heady draught of nostalgia every time you re-read it? A book that moved or inspired you deeply and which you read time and time again?

The definition may not matter. Most of us have books that we remember vividly and which we will happily read again. Here are some of mine.

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In praise of Terence Conran

A Conran legacy

I was a big fan of Habitat in my twenties and thirties. I loved the clean design of the furniture, kitchen wear and dinner sets. I’m typing this blogpost on the 23 year old Habital dining table (now my working from home desk) seen in the photo, while drinking from the pictured 31 year old coffee cup from the store. Somewhere I still have a Habitat fondue set and towel rail.

It’s all thanks to Terence Conran, who has died aged 88. Conran was one of the entrepreneurs who changed the face of Britain, bringing fresh, modern design to the high street and the home.

“It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” Conran later said. “You could go along a terrace of houses, and every living room you looked in was the exactly the same, with the same extremely dreary furniture.” (You can see a glimpse of that world even today in many chintzy guesthouses.) Design was a hugely under appreciated discipline, as a glance at almost any household product would show. Conran opened the first Habitat store in 1964, and the stores quickly became a symbol of the Sixties. Over time, Habitat made the duvet (or continental quilt as my parents and grandparents called them), beanbag, wok and fondue part of everyday life.

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Poundbury: Prince Charles’ model Dorset village, 30 years on

Poundbury

As you approach Dorchester from the west, you see a dramatic sight: a fire station that looks like a design from the era of George III. The royal connection is real: this is Poundbury, the model village created by Prince Charles to bring to life his dream of building new communities using traditional architectural styles.

Charles famously campaigned against modern architecture in the 1980s, describing a proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He made those comments in a 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects – and incidentally compared the design to that of a municipal fire station. We now know what Charles would like a fire station to look like. The speech killed the proposed design.

Charles later said that he didn’t intend to drag Britain back to the 18th century, or to begin a style war. “All I asked was for room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism.”

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Coasteering: Dorset delight with Cumulus

Coasteering with Cumulus near Swanage. As amazing as it looks

Owen, 12, was thrilled when I booked a coasteering adventure with Cumulus Outdoors, a company specialising in outdoor adventures and residential programmes. We’d hoped to go coasteering in West Wales but Storm Ellen sank that plan. We arrived at the Cumulus base in Langton Matravers, just outside Swanage, with a sense of excitement – and, for me, a few butterflies.

Our guides were welcoming and patient, which was good as we took time to get into our wetsuits. (Karen, as a former guide leader, would have hurried us up.) We began the trek to the starting point, the stunning Dancing Ledge on Dorset’s Jurassic coast, England’s only natural world heritage site.

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