Walking around the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Saturday, I was transported back in time by the sight of this stained glass display. It reminded me of the day the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed my office in London 30 years ago this week.
The glass was part of the Baltic Exchange’s memorial to 60 members of the exchange who were killed in the Great War. The exchange building in St Mary Axe took the brunt of the explosion and was later demolished; the Gherkin now stands on the site. My office, a short walk along St Mary Axe, was badly damaged. I never worked there again.
I walked past the Baltic Exchange every day from 1990 to 1992 on my way to my office. I seem to remember a doorman stationed at the entrance, and metal gates used to block the entrance when it was closed. Or is my memory playing tricks?
I never expected Britain to be at war when I prepared to sit my A levels in 1982. Let alone at war with Argentina over a group of islands 8,000 miles away.
Yet that was the reality as I woke on the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. Barely awake at the start of the last day of the school term, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme some armchair general talking of nuking Buenos Aires. Later that day, we learned that Argentina had invaded the Falkland islands, one of the few remaining British overseas territories. Margaret Thatcher’s British government was stunned.
Contrary to popular belief, the invasion wasn’t a complete bolt from the blue. Two days earlier. I noted in my 1982 diary: ‘Falkland island crisis worsening: Guardian front page lead’. Yet the legend holds that many people in Britain were shocked, thinking the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland. Recovering them would have been a lot easier had that been true.
Going to war was a novel and shocking experience in 1982, almost 40 years after the end of the second world war. Yet it felt like an echo of the past. I described it in my 1982 diary as Britain’s last colonial war, a description that has stood the test of time. (Although there was no doubt that the islanders wanted to live under British rule.) Several of the warships involved in the Falklands took part in or were laid down during the second world war: the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by the Royal Navy, survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. In 1982, it was not so lucky. HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy’s Falklands flagship was laid down in 1944. And the RAF Vulcan bombers that flew 8,000 miles to bomb Stanley airfield relied on an updated version of the wartime H2S navigation radar system to find their target.
Back to the Seventies. That has been a theme of the past few weeks as a fuel crisis looms, with rocketing prices and supply problems in Britain.
Few people will remember, but the early 1970s also saw one of the biggest changes in British domestic and industrial history. The discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965 led the nation to switch from town gas, which was produced by heating coal. As a result, around 40 million gas appliances in Britain had to be converted to burn natural rather than town gas. Britain used to have over a thousand local gas works, but North Sea gas made these manufacturing sites redundant, with gas now being stored rather than made locally.
Our family was very unusual as our gas cooker was converted not once but three times. We were living in Whitton, Twickenham when London converted from North Thames town gas to North Sea gas. But soon after, we moved back to Wales – which had not yet switched. So we had to convert the cooker back to run on town gas, before switching yet again when Cardiff converted. The change had another legacy: a huge banner advert for High Speed Gas across the front of Cardiff Central station, which hid the legend ‘Great Western Railway’. (On display again since 1985.)
It wasn’t our only big fuel switch. When we moved into our house in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside, in 1971, we inherited a coal burning central heating boiler. I remember a frightening drama soon after. The pressure gauge on the boiler was moving into the danger zone, and Mum and my sister were getting worried it was going to blow up. (Dad was in Japan at the time on a coveted Winston Churchill fellowship.) My uncle Bert came to the rescue, and I think they poured water over the furnace to put the boiler out and end the crisis. Soon after, we switched to gas central heating, and the coal shed became a storage room.
Gasholders like the famous one behind the Oval cricket ground in London were a familiar part of the urban landscape for years. Originally they were part of a town’s gas works, storing the gas produced there. For the past 50 years they have stored gas from the North Sea, but from the 1990s onwards they were condemned as unnecessary and few now survive. How ironic that Britain’s acute lack of gas storage capacity is such a feature of the growing fuel crisis. (The country has storage for just four or five days’ winter demand; Germany has 16 times as much.) The government’s decision allow the closure of the Rough storage facility in the North Sea in 2017 now looks like an act of self harm. Maybe we shouldn’t have pulled down all those iconic gasholders.
PS: I played a very minor part in the privatisation of British Gas in 1986. I was a management trainee for Nationwide in Newport, Wales, and gave a presentation to British Gas employees in Cardiff explaining the sharesave account used for the staff share purchase scheme.
PPS: we even had a gas fridge when I was very young, but got rid of it before gas conversion.
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.
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.
Few writers have become as inextricably linked with a region as Thomas Hardy. The novelist and poet brought Dorset and neighbouring counties to life as his reimagined Wessex.
We’re enjoying a holiday in the heart of Hardy country. His birthplace is a short walk from our holiday cottage at Greenwood Grange, a group of buildings built by Thomas’s father. One gable (shown in the photo above) shows its 1840s heritage. Our holiday home Coomb Barton is reputedly mentioned in the last verse of Hardy’s 1915 poem, The Oxen:
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb Our childhood used to know,” I should go with him in the gloom, Hoping it might be so.
I confess to thinking it’s more likely a general reference to the then lonely farmyard (or ‘barton’) but it’s nice to think Hardy might have meant the cottage in which I am typing this sentence!
I took a train for the first time in over five months this week. What a contrast to that last journey in March, before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began.
Our short (eight minute) journey from Tenby to Saundersfoot was simple enough. We remembered to take our masks. The Transport for Wales guard challenged passengers who weren’t wearing masks, although the man sitting opposite us remained unmasked as we got off.
Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.
To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.
As we alighted at Saundersfoot station, it struck me that the town was likely to be a decent walk away. So it proved. I was reminded of tales of Victorian travellers leaving their trains at stations with the ‘Road’ suffix on a wild Welsh night not realising they were miles from the town in the station name. A practice followed by budget airlines 125 years later…
I was intrigued to come across this sign on our two kilometre walk to Saundersfoot . ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn’) recalls the infamous flooding of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the English city of Liverpool. Parliament voted for the project, but not a single Welsh MP voted for it. The scandal was a major boost to Welsh nationalism and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) in the 1960s and afterwards.
We finally reached the sea at Saundersfoot. This peaceful town was once a major port, exporting coal from the Pembrokeshire coalfield. We walked through a tunnel that was built for the narrow gauge coal tramway. A lovely mix of industrial history and rural beauty – not uncommon in Wales.
Cliveden is one of my favourite local places. I missed my regular bike rides here for tea and cake during lockdown. It felt strange cycling past those closed gates. Happily, the National Trust reopened Cliveden although you need to book tickets online in advance. (The house itself is a luxury hotel.)
We visited today with my niece Siân, and spent several hours exploring the estate. Cliveden is famous as the main stage of the Profumo scandal – as I blogged in The Shadow of Profumo in 2016. But the estate has better kept secrets; it was the site of a Canadian Red Cross military hospital in the Great War, which treated 24,000 people.
The hospital saw service during both world wars, and became part of the NHS in 1948. It closed in 1985.
There is to this day a moving and tranquil war memorial to the small number of men and one female nurse who died at the hospital. Many of those buried here were from Canada, although there are a few from Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. I certainly didn’t expect to find a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cliveden.
Cliveden today is a tranquil place with wonderful views over the Thames towards Cookham and Maidenhead. It’s well worth a visit. And your visit is unlikely to shatter your career, in contrast to John Profumo’s.
My grandfather at a Penarth street party, VE Day 1945
Today, Britain marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, VE Day. It was a muted occasion, held in the shadow of coronavirus and in the grip of lockdown.
The 75th anniversary was more muted
True, the BBC replayed Churchill’s broadcast from 1945. And the Queen will broadcast to the nation at the same time as her father George VI spoke to the Commonwealth in 1945. (The Queen pitched it perfectly as always.) Broadcasters will offer a tired selection of wartime films.
Chalfont St Giles, Bucks: a coronavirus-closed pub marks VE Day 75
In a curious way, perhaps this was an appropriate way to mark the occasion. It is time for Britain to look to the future, rather than continually harking back to those six years, critical though they were. We will always remember those who sacrificed their lives. I will always be fascinated by histories of those critical years. (I highly recommend James Holland’s War in the West series.) But perhaps we will now set aside these huge anniversary commemorations (apart from the 75th anniversary of VJ Day this August) until the centenaries from 2039 to 2045.
Victory: Churchill about to address the nation
On VE Day, Churchill in his broadcast said, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of jubilation”. On the 40th anniversary in 1985, I contrasted that sober comment with the enormously hyped BBC coverage of the anniversary. It felt then as if the jubilation had never ended. Perhaps now we can built a better, more equal world, just as the people of Britain yearned for one in 1945 as they rejected Churchill’s Conservatives and gave Labour a landslide victory two months later. The NHS, the subject of 2020’s adoration, was the result of that peaceful revolution.
Churchill added in his broadcast: “Let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead”. Few on 8 May 1945 would have taken notice of that cautionary note in their huge relief that the war, in Europe at least, was over.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By Robert Howlett, via Wikimedia Commons
Britain has been very impressed by the achievement of turning London’s ExCel conference centre into an emergency NHS coronavirus hospital, named after Florence Nightingale. Yet few realise that the Nightingale NHS Hospital London project follows the example of Isambard Kingdom Brunel over 160 years ago.
Brunel was the most flamboyant engineer of Victorian Britain. Most famous for his elegant railways, soaring bridges and pioneering steamships, he also designed a hospital in just six days during the Crimean War in 1855.
This is the cottage to which poet John Milton fled in 1665 to escape London’s Great Plague. Now a museum commemorating Milton’s life and works, it has, ironically, been closed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 1665 plague outbreak was the last epidemic of bubonic plague in England. It killed around 100,000 people – a quarter of London’s population. No wonder Milton fled the city with his family. He completed his famous epic poem, Paradise Lost, here.
Milton was also a republican support of Oliver Cromwell. He served in the Commonwealth government as Secretary for Foreign Tongues – what a wonderful title for a poet serving as a minister.
Today, the authorities managing the response to COVID-19 are discouraging anyone wishing to follow Milton’s example and escape from London to the country. Let’s hope the coronavirus outbreak soon passes and visitors will again be discovering the last surviving home of one of England’s most famous poets.