Return to Thomas Hardy country

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset

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.

Greenwood Grange: its Hardy history

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!

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Taking the train in the age of coronavirus

Have mask, will travel

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.

Social distancing on board

Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.

Sign of the times

To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.

The masked travellers

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…

Remember Tryweryn…

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.

Saundersfoot

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’s wartime story

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

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 Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital, Cliveden

The hospital saw service during both world wars, and became part of the NHS in 1948. It closed in 1985.

The war memorial, Cliveden

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.

VE Day, 75 years on

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

COVID-19: how Brunel inspired NHS Nightingale Hospital

 

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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.

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John Milton’s plague sanctuary closed by coronavirus

John Milton’s cottage, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire

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. 

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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. 

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Ireland marks the Easter rising centenary

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The 1916 rebellion that led to the end of British rule in the 26 counties

Easter has long been hugely significant in Ireland, and not just for religious reasons. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 marked the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite later tragedies such as Omagh. But the really significant event was the Easter rising of 1916, which Ireland marked today on a grand scale.

I blogged a decade ago that 2006 was the first time Dublin had staged a public parade to mark the Easter rising since the start of the  Northern Ireland Troubles in 1969. That murderous conflict complicated Ireland’s relationship with 1916. Ireland and Britain have an even stronger relationship now than in 2006, as the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and Irish president Michael D Higgins’ state visit to Britain three years later showed.  Continue reading

Our longest reigning monarch: Queen Elizabeth II

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The Queen reached a landmark this week: she is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch. On Wednesday she overtook Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days on the throne.

For most of us, she has always been there – a constant presence. The photograph at the start of this post shows the Queen with my father Bob Skinner earlier this year, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death and the creation of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as the great man’s memorial. Dad was an early beneficiary of this noble trust, which offers British citizens the chance to travel overseas to learn a new perspective on their personal or professional lives. Bob spent time in Japan studying how that country’s great cities communicated with the people – a fascinating perspective given that London and Tokyo were similarly sized world cities in 1971. Dad found that Japanese mayors were far keener to engage with their public. His boss quickly dismissed the idea of holding public surgeries. How things change..

In 2015, a monarch wouldn’t be anyone’s obvious choice of head of state. How could you possibly decide that a family chosen by fate centuries ago should lead you country? Yet we’ve never found the idea of President Blair or Thatcher more attractive or compelling. We recognise that the monarch holds no power. So why change? Overwhelmingly we admire the Queen’s 63 years of service to the nation and the Commonwealth. (It’s striking that Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been no more enthusiastic about ditching the Queen, despite being confident independent nations.) Time will tell if that changes under Charles III.

I’ll end on a personal note. All my grandparents were Victorians, born in the reign of that extraordinary monarch. Nan, Dad’s mother, turned 10 the year Victoria died, yet lived through 42 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to the amazing age of 102. Continuity is a huge factor in British history, and that applies to any family.

Quintinshill: Britain’s worst railway disaster 100 years on

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill, Gretna Green

The 498 soldiers of the 7th battalion of the Scots Guards must have had mixed feelings as they boarded their troop train at Larbert in Scotland in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. They were off to war as part of the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition. No doubt they pondered their chances of surviving in battle. Yet within three hours, over 200 were dead and a similar number injured in Britain’s most deadly railway disaster at Quintinshill near Gretna Green.

Quintinshill: the inferno

Quintinshill: the inferno

They were victims of a shocking act of neglect by two signalmen and other railwaymen, who failed to notice that signals had been cleared for their troop train even though a local train was standing in its path. The driver of the soldiers’ train had driven Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, but there was nothing he could do to avoid catastrophe as his train swept downhill at high speed into the local train. The 213 yard long troop train was compressed to a mere 67 yards. A third train ran into the wreckage, killing many survivors. Worse still, the coals of the engines set fire to the gas used to light the ancient wooden coaches causing an inferno that consumed the dead and the living.

A local reporter noted the incongruity of the mixing of human cries for help with the ‘sweet trills of the mavis and blackbird’.

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Quintinshill: the verdict

Quintinshill: the verdict

The accident report laid the blame firmly at the door of the signalmen who had forgotten the presence of the local train under their noses in broad daylight, and the fireman of the local who was in the box to remind the signalmen of the presence of the train. The inspector also strongly urged the abolition of deadly gas lighting on trains. (A danger similar to that posed by hydrogen-filled airships.)

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

The Royal Scots victims were buried in Rosebank cemetery in Edinburgh two days later.

Despite its poignant status as Britain’s most deadly rail crash, the Quintinshill tragedy is less well-known than the Tay bridge disaster or the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone crash. No doubt the fact it happened in wartime and involved a troop train ensured its anonymity.

PS: there’s an excellent Facebook page about the century commemoration of the disaster at Rosebank cemetery on 23 May 2015.

London remembers Britain’s latest Afghan war

It was a shock to see armed police at Marylebone station yesterday. It was so out of the ordinary. But then I saw this:

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

This Austin 1973 police car was parked on Horse Guards Road, opposite HM Treasury. It was one of a series of police vehicles along the road, with soldiers also present. Shortly afterward a police lorry went by. What on earth was going on?

Police in force in Horse Guards

Police in force in Horse Guards

Later, I found out that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and political leaders were taking part in a commemoration at St Paul’s marking the end of Britain’s participation in the Afghanistan war. I saw the end of the flypast marking the event:

Flypast marking end of Britain's latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Flypast marking end of Britain’s latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Britain’s latest entanglement in Afghanistan was an extraordinary development. In 1978, I learned about our disastrous 19th century Afghan wars during O level history. A year later, the Soviet Union invaded that country, with equally ill-fated results. I never imagined I’d see Britain repeating these disasters. George W Bush and Tony Blair were mad to embark on another Afghan adventure. How sad that 453 British troops (not to mention countless Afghans and Americans) lost their lives as a result.