Britain’s Lost Cities – Gavin Stamp

This has to be the most depressing yet fascinating books I have read in a long time. Gavin Stamp was an architectural historian and for many years was president of the Twentieth Century Society, sadly he died in 2017 aged just 69. He wrote many books and hundreds of articles on architecture including almost forty years as a columnist for Private Eye under the pseudonym of Piloti and was for a time professor of architectural history at The Mackintosh School of Architecture, part of the Glasgow School of Art. As you can tell from the brief biography he was an expert in his field and despite his long time association with the Twentieth Century Society this book is excoriating about the wanton vandalism to major cities undertaken by city planners in the 1930’s to 1970’s. The book looks at nineteen cities in England and Scotland and with the assistance of old photographs shows some of what has been lost including the Lion Brewery which features on the cover and which stood on the south bank of the Thames in London and survived WWII only to be pulled down in 1948 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.

I assumed, like probably most people in Britain, that most of the soulless centres to British cities were down to thoughtless rebuilding plans after the Luftwaffe bombing runs of WWII done in the years of austerity following the war. But this book makes it clear that at least for some of the cities the destruction of ancient thoroughfares and the buildings that made them often happened long before the bombers made razing what was left so convenient for the planners involved. I have travelled over large parts of Europe and seen the wonderful rebuilding of old cities, often reconstructing the lost or damaged buildings from before the war not the awful mediocrity of Britain’s reconstruction forcing inappropriate new ring roads through what was largely repairable, or even worse undamaged, buildings. The page shown above dealing with Coventry includes one of the most damning quotations from a city planner.

We used to watch from the roof to see which buildings were blazing and then dash downstairs to check how much easier it would be to put our plans into action.

Donald Gibson, City Architect for Coventry from 1938

The photograph of Bull Street in Birmingham at the top of the page reproduced above is amazing as every building shown in the picture no longer exists. I chose to illustrate this blog with Coventry and Birmingham as those are the cities I know best but I have to say that the pictures in the book for these Midlands industrial centres are completely unrecognisable. Quite what St George in the Fields church in Hockley (one of the northern districts of central Birmingham) had done to offend the local planners before its demolition in 1960 I don’t know but it looks a fine large building with an important history and where it stood is now just an open parkland so it clearly wasn’t in the way of some grand design. According to Wikipedia it had a capacity of almost two thousand people so it was a substantial church apparently needlessly lost.

Birmingham had its heart ripped out in the 1950’s and 60’s to make way for the car with underpasses and flyovers running right through the centre with little thought for pedestrians and is now undergoing further massive rebuilding largely removing structures thrown up sixty years ago. It’s too late sadly to restore the city centre but what is going up now does seem to be an improvement on what was done in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sorry about the wobbly images of the inside pages, trying to photograph these whilst holding the book open without breaking the spine really called for at least three hands, possibly four which is definitely more than I have available at the time. The copy I have is the 2010 first softback edition, the book was originally published in 2007 as a hardback, both versions are by Aurum Press which is now a division of The Quarto Group. I also have the first hardback edition of his follow up book Lost Victorian Britain, sadly both of these books are now out of print.

Sacred Britain – Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer

OK let’s start off by saying this book is a little odd and although I’m sure it could be used in the way it appears to have designed I have never done so in the twenty four years I have owned it. The book lives in my car rather than on a bookshelf and the times I have referred to it are when I am away from home and for some reason have some spare time to do a little exploring. But lets get back to why I think it’s odd. Firstly it is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. Now why, coming up to the millennium, this charity thought it appropriate to involve itself in a project regarding sacred spaces is beyond me as apart a small reference to trees and plants commonly found in a British churchyard there appears to be nothing linking nature to this book. Secondly although there are ancient pilgrimage routes in Britain these have been largely ignored by the authors, apart from one route to Canterbury cathedral, and instead they have created their own routes linking various sites which are usually associated with a varied selection of faiths, including pagan, all in one journey. Even the journey to Canterbury which was a major Christian pilgrimage in medieval times especially for those unable for financial or time reasons to make the trip to the Holy Land the suggested journey in this book goes via an iron age fort, the remains of a 1000 year old synagogue, a druids grove and some neolithic burial mounds, none of which fit in with a Christian pilgrimage. The inclusion of some excellent churches, cathedrals and ruined abbeys does not really get away from the trip being an odd mish mash of sites. The third oddity is to do with the panel maps within the text of the routes which are all narrow vertical pictures regardless of the true geography and to my mind are also upside down. Now there are ‘proper’ maps as well but these are the ones that you have to hand so to speak.

The example above shows what I mean, this is a journey TO St David’s and if you are going to ignore geographic orientation, north is to the right on this panel, then at least work down the picture to the destination not up. Also as you can see the text doesn’t actually refer to the map on the page, in fact that part of the journey is eight or nine pages further on, where there is no map but could easily have been one. The whole page layout throughout the book is as confusing as the selection of routes, you find yourself either inserting lots of bookmarks or constantly flipping between pages in an attempt to follow what is going on.

So why am I reading it this time, rather than dipping in for a specific locality which is my usual way of using the book? Well England is about to come out of what is the third and hopefully last lock down to prevent the spread of Covid 19 and I’m desperate to escape these four walls and go somewhere, in fact pretty well anywhere and I’m looking for inspiration. In all there are thirteen of these suggested journeys and they cover most of England, Scotland and Wales, the latter two will still be out of bounds next week but it should be possible to go somewhere in England if only for a day trip as overnight accommodation is still not easily available and won’t be for at least another month, probably longer. I’m not looking for a route but a destination preferably not too far away and if there is somewhere else interesting near to it then that would be a bonus. The one advantage of the route structure of the book is that places near one another are next to each other in the book so you can get happy accidents of two or three interesting places all in one go.

There are also sections that don’t stick to the routes but dot around by theme and one of these chapters on stone circles and tombs has probably inspired me to journey out on day trips more than any other and this is the only travel guide I own that specifically has a section on these ancient sites. So what to make of the book as a whole, well as I said at the beginning it’s odd and doesn’t really work in the way it was intended. It can also be infuriating due to the constant chopping and changing of pages to see what should be all together but it has earned its place in my car for when I have a spontaneous urge to go somewhere unplanned. It also has the advantage that it doesn’t matter that it is nearly a quarter of century old, which would be a serious handicap in most guide books as it is specifically pointing you to places that largely haven’t changed for centuries and will remain for years to come.

This book was originally published in 1997 by Piatkus in the UK and was reprinted in the USA in 2000 by Hidden Spring Books under the title ‘The Spiritual Traveller’. The sequence of some of the chapters are altered and suggestions of places to stay are added in the American edition but the books are to all intents and purposes the same.

Mark Steel’s in Town – Mark Steel

Mark Steel is a stand up comedian that started a BBC Radio 4 radio show called Mark Steel’s in Town back in March 2009 where he travels to towns in the UK and builds a routine about the place and people for a one off show played in that town. He has deviated slightly over the years and two shows have come from outside the UK, namely Gibraltar and most recently Malta (broadcast February 2019) both of which he found more British than a lot of the places he had been to before. This book, published by Fourth Estate in 2011, is adapted from his travels in the first two series along with other towns and cities that he did as part of his stand up tours which weren’t recorded for the BBC shows. The idea is to gently poke fun at the place he is in and during the radio show he also includes interviews with locals which highlight the oddities and history of the location.

The idea for the show grew out of a frustration that all towns are starting to look the same, you know that such and such a shop will be on that corner there, next to a legion of other similar shops, there is no real way to tell if you are in Taunton or Norwich when you are in the main shopping area as the same retailers are in roughly the same place no matter where you are. What Mark does is celebrate what makes a place different from anywhere else and the fact that he does it in such a funny way has made his series last over a decade. Presumably he would be working on series ten if it wasn’t for the coronavirus that makes such a project impossible.

In this book Mark bounces around Britain from Penzance in the far south west with its outdoor swimming pool which has a cannon built into one side of it; to Kirkwall on Orkney which is just about as far north as you can go and still be in the UK where he encounters a pram shop which is also a fully stocked off licence, presumably on the basis that drinking too much of some of the stock may lead you to needing the other half of the shop nine months later. In between he visits the concrete hippo of Walsall, the rabbits that must not be mentioned of Portland and the bonfire societies of Lewes amongst lots of others. He isn’t put off dealing with harder issues either such as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland when he went to Andersontown or the chronic unemployment and deprivation in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. You really can learn a lot about the UK, its geography and history from these short essays.

All in all it is a delightfully eccentric tour of the UK only marred by his use of the ‘f’ word on several occasions which makes it unsuitable for younger readers, but frankly they aren’t the audience he is aiming at. It is a pity though as the language is unnecessary because Steel has a wonderful turn of phrase and is genuinely funny and he is much more careful with his broadcast versions. All fifty four episodes of the Radio 4 show are currently available on BBC Sounds and are well worth a listen.

The Trial of Charles I

As I start reading this book it is 371 years to the day (January 30th 1649) since the execution of King Charles I and the events that led up to initially the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland later that year and then by 1653 the Protectorate under the control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The republic he founded turned out to be somewhat less of a democratic state than its founders hoped, relying on military force to control the country rather than popular support. The appointment of Cromwell’s third son, Richard, as Lord Protector on the death of Oliver in 1658 and thus replacing one hereditary leader with another did little to suggest that getting rid of the monarchy had led to significant change and eventually led to the Restoration in 1660 with King Charles II taking his place on the throne. It’s a fascinating period of British history so I’m looking forward to tackling this slim volume published by the Folio Society in 1959 and bound to resemble a book from Charles I’s own library.

20200203 The Trial of Charles I

The book is split into six sections, the first is a really good summary of the reign of Charles I and the issues that led to the Civil War and the subsequent trial after Charles lost the conflict. This twenty six page introduction is written by noted historian C V Wedgewood and she succeeds admirably in setting the scene for the remainder of the book which is made up from contemporary sources.  These take us from 13th November 1647 when Charles fled to the Isle of Wight hoping to avoid parliamentary forces and maybe get across the channel to France right through to his funeral in February 1649. The texts come from two sources and are interleaved as they cover the time period. Initially we come to Sir Thomas Herbert who was Groom of the Bedchamber throughout the book and was therefore in constant contact with the King right up until his death, the second source is John Rushworth who was a lawyer and collected information about any court cases that interested him and therefore is the best non-partisan recorder of the trial and its aftermath.

Thomas Herbert provides a lot of interesting background to the incarceration of Charles in the Isle of Wight and thence Windsor and ultimately St James in London for the trial itself. Although by inclination a Parliamentarian he provides a fair and balanced account of the Kings actions during this time and the publication of his account helped considerably with the improvement of the regard Charles was held in when it revealed the calm and dignified way he acted at all times compared to the treatment he received from his captors. Rushworth’s account of the trial itself, relying as it does on transcripts paints a clear picture of what would now be regarded as a kangaroo court where the decision of guilt had already been made before they started, the only question was if Cromwell could persuade enough judges to pass the death sentence. Charles is brought before the court and legitimately challenges the legality of the process. In fact there was no actual basis in law for Parliament to sit as a court and they were well aware of this as his repeated challenges simply result in adjournments to the next day whilst they try to come up with a legal argument. In the end Parliament simply ends up with the effective position that this is a legal court because we say it is and will not allow dissent from this statement. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days of ‘evidence’ where Charles was not allowed to attend let alone challenge anything given against him they decided on the death sentence that Cromwell had wanted from the first.

We then switch back to Herbert’s account of Charles’s last few days, which are spent in prayer and in trying to do what he can for his children. Rushworth is used again for a description of the execution before we return to Herbert to cover the funeral. These three sections are a lot shorter than the first two but again show the King in a favourable light. What is particularly interesting is the use of these two contemporary sources, I learnt about the Civil War at school and we probably covered the entire period of this book in one lesson being more concerned with the start of the conflict and the battles rather than the capture and trial of King Charles I. This book is an extremely interesting addition to my knowledge of this part of British history, for instance I didn’t know that the Scottish parliament had written to the English one complaining about the way they were handling the situation as Charles was also their King and they certainly didn’t want him executed.

There are four brief appendices, the most interesting of which concerns the death warrant itself and the changes made to it which suggest that it was written earlier and then had to be amended to fit the ultimate date along with two names that have been written over ones subsequently removed. It appears that the decision of the judges was more fluid than the Parliamentarians would have liked.