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Introduction

Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 27 May 2016

Moving on

Flowers for A Bit About Britain's reader

If you haven’t visited A Bit About Britain for awhile, you may not know that the blog has a new site – click A Bit About Britain’s blog.

Gradually, most of the content from the old site will be updated and moved across – so apologies if my regular reader is suffering a bit of repetition, so to speak.

Even more apologies to the regular reader who hasn’t heard from me for ages and ages…  I’m still struggling to get on top of comments and, for technical and other reasons, it will be a week or three before this starts to be resolved.  Meanwhile, I hope you like the flowers.


And new posts have been scheduled for A Bit About Britain.  Did I mention the new site?

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The end of the beginning

This post is primarily addressed to the regular reader of A Bit About Britain.  You know who you are.  The bad news (everything is relative) is that this will probably be the last post here.  The good news is that A Bit About Britain has a new website, www.bitaboutbritain.com (imaginative, isn’t it?), where you will be able to read future posts.

A Bit About Britain

If you would like to follow A Bit About Britain’s posts in the future – and I really hope you will - you need this link to A Bit About Britain’s Blog Page. http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/ and you need to put this address into whatever method you have used previously to follow the site.  Do not use the main website address to follow blog posts.

Secondly, I want to apologise to all the fellow-bloggers that haven’t heard from me for awhile.  I have had to concentrate on building the new site, but I hope that something resembling normal service – whatever that is - will be resumed shortly.

A Bit About Britain

If you visit the new A Bit About Britain, you will see that it already has some content on it – though in fact it only went publicly live on 13th May.  I have to say that the experience of building the site has been – and still is - much harder than getting to grips with ‘Blogger’!  It has always been the intention that A Bit About Britain would be informative, as well as a bit of fun.  So, the new site offers a bit more about Britain, including timelines, lists of kings and queens – and a developing, but very simple, directory of attractions.  No shortage of ideas.

I hope Terribly Serious People won’t be upset by me quoting the great Winston Churchill out of context:


“Now this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

A Bit About Britain

Friday, 15 April 2016

Tintinhull Garden

This item has been updated and moved.  The full article can now be found at Tintinhull Garden on www.bitaboutbritain.com

Tintinhull Garden, Somserset.

There’s a story behind every garden.  To avoid disappointment, I have to tell you right away that Tintinhull’s is frustratingly elusive.


Friday, 8 April 2016

The world's smallest police station

It’s asking for trouble, isn’t it, using superlatives?  Some smart-alec is bound to pop up and contradict your claim.  But it’s an eye-catching headline and we really shouldn’t allow truth to get in the way of a good story.

Smallest police station, Trafalgar Square, London

So, next time you happen to be walking across Trafalgar Square with a companion that you’d like to impress, stroll nonchalantly across to the south-east corner (that’s the bit closest to the Strand) and spy a small, round, stone, structure with an ornate lamp on top and a pair of black half-glazed doors.  Then ask your playmate, with a meaningful twinkle, “Now, what do you suppose that is?”  Once you’ve shaken your head in merriment at all the absurd suggestions made by your fellow traveller – toilet, Downing Street’s secret back door, tobacco kiosk, Nelson’s pantry, headquarters of Universal Export, etc – you can say, “Why, bless you, that’s none other than the smallest police station in Britain” (slight pause) “ – if not in the whole, wide, world.”   And before your associate has the chance to contest your assertion, you can further astound them – and the by now gathering crowd - with some additional knowledge, tempered with a touch of appealing humility, “Of course, there is a police kiosk in Carrabelle, Florida, in the USA, which is probably smaller; but nowhere near as nice.  And I’m just repeating something I saw on A Bit About Britain, so I could be wrong.  Anyway, isn’t it jolly spiffing?”

Your comrade will be so overwhelmed that they may even treat you to a glass of something in ‘the Clarence’ across the road on Whitehall.

Trafalgar Square has long been a focal point for public gatherings and, it must be said, a smidgen of rowdiness – with the occasional riot thrown in for good measure. This small police station was in fact a kind of observation post, created in the late 1920s by hollowing out the plinth that housed a gas lamp, dating from 1826.  Slits were cut in the side to provide 360 degree vision and a direct telephone line connected it to Scotland Yard, headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.  Apparently, it is large enough to hold one policeman or two prisoners (London’s criminals are quite small).  Once electricity was installed, the light flashed blue when the receiver was lifted (or when the telephone rang – it depends which account you believe) in order to alert other Constables to the possibility that something was amiss.  Whistles blew, truncheons were waived and men came running to assist, practising saying, “You’re nicked, mate,” as they went.

Smallest police station, Trafalgar Square, London

Legend has it that the lamp originated from Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory; alas, this is unlikely.  Alas, also, the tiny police station in Trafalgar Square is no longer in use.  I am not sure when it was decommissioned.  It is mentioned in a London guide published in 1979 (a photo shows it with dirty, cream, doors), and it seems to have been working then.  No doubt it gave way to cheaper CCTV.  Or maybe policemen are bigger now. More likely they couldn’t connect a PC to it…  The Met is helping us with enquiries on this and you will be the first to know what they say – though, obviously, they are quite busy catching bad people, so don’t hold your breath.


These days, the world’s smallest police station is apparently used as a broom cupboard by Westminster City Council. Seems like it’s made a clean break with its past.

Nelson, Trafalgar Square

Friday, 1 April 2016

Brimham Rocks

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

This attraction carries a SEVERE CHILD WARNING: if you are not the keeper of young children, or feel distressed or intimidated by the presence of hoards of loud, scurrying, sometimes barging, and seemingly unsupervised small humans, DO NOT visit Brimham Rocks during the school holidays. 

Brimham Rocks is an area of often curiously eroded rock formations in Nidderdale, near Pateley Bridge and about 10 miles from Harrogate, in Yorkshire.  Once owned by the monks of Fountains Abbey, the Rocks have been a tourist attraction for at least 200 hundred years.  Nowadays, they are a magnet for families, their dogs and walkers (sometimes with more dogs).  There is plenty of opportunity for adventure including, of course, clambering on, and falling off, the rocks.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

About 320 million years ago, half of Yorkshire was the delta of a huge river that flowed south from Norway and Scotland, depositing layers of granite sand which went on to form a hard sandstone, Millstone Grit.  Erosion, mostly during the last Ice age between 80-10,000 years ago, has worn away the softer rock, leaving harder rock exposed.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire

Some of the rocks have been given names – not personal names like Adolf or Goneril, but names which suggest the shape of the rock when viewed from a certain angle, such as ‘the Eagle’, ‘the Anvil’ and ‘the Fractious Child’ (I might have made the last one up).

Birch trees, controlling.

The habitat around the rocks includes heathland, bog and woodland.  So there is a variety of plants, including various mosses and marsh plants, heather, bilberry, oak, rowan and some particularly fierce birch trees, which have to be controlled by rangers.  The rangers’ remit unfortunately does not extend to some of the children.  Amazingly, Holly Blue and Green Hairstreak butterflies apparently manage to survive in this harsh environment.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

Since 1970, Brimham Rocks has been owned by the National Trust, who in addition to caring for the place provide a shop (which sells locally made bilberry jam), toilets, information and basic refreshments.  On a good day, it would be a nice spot for a picnic.  It is certainly an intriguing place to see, with some wonderful views, though the last time we visited it was like a home game at Old Trafford and we couldn’t wait to get into the nearest city centre for some peace and quiet.  We really shouldn’t have visited during the school holidays… The NT car park (free to members) was full and an enterprising farmer was offering spaces in a field for the princely sum of £4.00 for each vehicle.  We worked out that revenue that day would be at least £1,000 – not a bad little earner.


Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.

Brimham Rocks have appeared in various kids’ programmes, apparently, but the height of their fame, until being featured by A Bit About Britain, was an appearance in the video for the Bee Gees’ You Win Again in 1987.  I’m sure you can find it if you want to.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire.


Friday, 25 March 2016

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

This is one of our friend Jenny’s favourite places and she said we should go; so of course we did.

Heysham (it is pronounced ‘hee-shum’, not ‘hay-sham’) sits on Lancashire’s coast at the southern end of Morecambe Bay.  I knew of it as a ferry port, offering services to the Isle of Mann and Ireland, as well as home to the popular nuclear power station and, frankly, had no burning desire to visit either.  But the village of Heysham is a peach and, beyond it, on a sandstone headland just above the parish church of St Peter’s Heysham, stands the ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel as well as some very curious graves.

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

St Patrick's is the site of a fairly rare early Christian chapel.  It is odd to think of our ancestors worshipping in this windswept spot, oh such a very long time ago.  The place is undeniably evocative, notwithstanding the aesthetic blemish of the power station looming to the south.  Power stations and car ferries are real newcomers.  It is relatively easy to shut these things out, even to dismiss the dog-walkers, and try to imagine what it must have been like before civilisation came.  For some reason, I had an almost overpowering vision of a Viking longship pulled up on the sand of Half Moon Bay.  It lay at a slight angle, oars shipped, sail neatly furled, the painted dragon prow staring and grinning lopsidedly.  Men were gathering driftwood for a fire on the beach; others explored, stretching, scratching, laughing and calling to one another.  Somebody sang.  Guards, several wearing chain-mail, stood watchfully on the low cliffs.  A time-memory, perhaps, somehow recorded and played back; or just my over-active imagination.

Half Moon Bay, Heysham, Lancs.

The Norse raiders and Irish pirates that once plied the sea routes in these parts would probably have been no friends of any Christians.  St Patrick was, they say, captured and taken from Britain to Ireland by pirates.  There is a local tradition that he established a chapel on the headland sometime in the 5th century, after being shipwrecked nearby.  If he did, it would probably have been built in wood.  Our sandstone ruins are later than that – 8th or 9th century – roughly 27’ long x 9’ wide and with a fine, decorated, Anglo-Saxon doorway.  Beneath them are the buried remains of an earlier, even smaller, chapel which was rendered, inside and out, with decorated plasterwork – it sounds as though it was an elaborate, important, place.  Early Christian chapels, usually simple, one-roomed, buildings, could be associated with a particular person, or saint, and often became places of pilgrimage or veneration.  Is that what happened here?

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

Just outside the chapel to the west is a group of six rock-cut graves, by which I mean they are actually hewn out of the bedrock.  Four are shaped to take bodies, two are rectangular, but all are far too narrow, and shallow, for normal corpses to be interred in them.  They are on an east-west orientation, so likely to be Christian, and have sockets cut into the rock at the heads, possibly to take wooden head crosses.  They were once protected, at least partly, by a wall.  These days, they are mostly filled with sea and rain water.  So far as I am aware, Heysham’s Stone Graves are unique in Britain.  They were carved before the Norman Conquest and possibly date from 10th century.

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

There are two more rock-cut graves south east of the chapel, though these are not quite on an east-west alignment.  Pre-Christian, or poor workmanship?

(Incidentally, Heysham’s Stone Graves feature on the cover of “The Best of Black Sabbath”, a double CD unofficial compilation released in 2000.  Put that in your pub quiz.)

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

The remains of about 80 burials, men, women and children, have been found in three adjoining cemeteries near the chapel, mainly to the south.  Some bodies had stone-lined tombs, some may have had coffins, some were placed in crevices in the bed-rock.  The central and larger of the three cemeteries once had a wall round it.  One particularly interesting burial was of a woman, wrapped in a fine shroud; in her grave was a bone comb of an Anglo-Scandinavian type from around the 10th century.  One grave contained a large stone carved bird’s had, which has been dated to the late 7th/early 8th centuries.  There are further burials in the chapel, dating from 10th – 12th centuries.

St Peter's, Heysham, Lancashire

St Patrick’s seems to have been a relatively busy place, then.  It declined, apparently, from the 12th  century onward because - it is speculated - people were making greater use of the parish church of St Peter’s.  This occupies a charming spot, overlooking Morecambe Bay, and you can imagine that a window seat might make even the most boring sermon tolerable.  But what puzzles me is that the church is said to date from 7th century – so probably contemporary with, or perhaps earlier than, St Patrick’s Chapel.  Why did the good people of Heysham need so much spiritual support, spread across two adjacent sites?  What was going on?  Whilst the church was evidently for the benefit of the parish, perhaps the chapel had more limited, private, use.  Or was Heysham some kind of religious centre in pre-Conquest Britain?

Heysham's Stone Graves

I’m off to dig out my copy of Ozzy and the boys doing “Paranoid”.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Halfway to Paradise

Billy Fury looks out over the Mersey from Liverpool's Albert Dock

A statue of 1960s pop idol Billy Fury stares out across the Mersey, where he used to work on a tug-boat.  Billy was hot stuff in his day.  Of course, no immediate contemporary of mine has any clear recollection of those far-off times, when Billy Fury made the girls swoon.  But you may be vaguely familiar with his biggest hit, a cover of Tony Orlando’s ‘Halfway to Paradise’; it spent 23 weeks in the charts in 1961 and got to No 3.  Did you know it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin?   You do now.  It is, undeniably, the sound of an era, full of scudding violins, teenage angst and unrequited love.  Have you looked at the lyrics of some of these compositions?  Surely, Halfway to Paradise is a metaphor.  Baby, please don’t tease. Teenager in love.  Clearly, as well as having to cope with a world that was still largely black and white, the kids of the 1950s and early 60s were in a permanent state of sexual frustration.

Billy’s follow-up, ‘Jealousy’, reached No 2, but was only in the charts for 12 weeks.  Overall, the lad had 24 hits in the 60s, which his fans like to point out was only 3 fewer than fellow-Liverpudlians The Beatles struggled to achieve over the same period – though actually the Fab Four did manage 11 more top tens and 17 more No 1s than Billy did.

Billy Fury, statue at Liverpool's Albert Dock

However, comparing the then ‘new’ music of groups like the Beatles, Kinks and Stones with artists like Billy Fury is unfair; rather like comparing Cole Porter with John Lee Hooker; honey with blue stilton.  I gather Billy started as an unashamed rock ‘n’ roller – and a pretty good one, by all accounts – but he is best known as a balladeer in the late ‘50s mould.  Very few of the top acts in Britain at that time successfully transitioned their clean-cut (but frustrated) selves through to the end of the next decade – Cliff Richard being one notable exception.

Like Sir Cliff, Billy was a bit of an imitation Elvis at first: handsome in a boyish kind of way, ready with the obligatory lip-curl and moody look, equally compulsory DA haircut, a reputation for hip-swinging, sexually-charged concerts, and a more than adequate voice.

Born Ronald Wycherley in Liverpool on 17th April 1940, two bouts of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a heart problem, which ultimately took his life too soon.  His break came when he came to the attention of leading pop impresario Larry Parnes, the Simon Cowell of his day, who the press dubbed ‘Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence’ - a reference that only those with an appreciation of pre-decimal currency will understand.  According to legend, Parnes was so impressed that he put the young, shy, Ron Wycherley on stage almost as soon as they met in 1958 at a gig in Birkenhead.  Parnes had a stable of teen-idol male artists, who he liked to rename as part of their route to stardom, a process which began with the highly successful Tommy Steele (Thomas Hicks) and went on to include Marty Wilde (Reginald Smith), Vince Eager (Roy Taylor), Johnny Gentle (John Askew) and Dickie Pride (Richard Kneller).  So Ronald Wycherley became Billy Fury.  Another signing was Joe Brown – who apparently refused to change his name to Elmer Twitch.  I so much want that to be true.

Billy Fury looks out over the Mersey from Liverpool's Albert Dock

The world of pop wouldn’t be the same without its mythology.  The Beatles (then known as the Silver Beatles) were among the bands Parnes auditioned as Billy Fury’s backing group.  Versions differ, but the popular story is that they were offered the slot for 20 quid a week provided they sacked their then bass player, Stu Sutcliffe, which John Lennon refused to do.  Anyway, the Beatles went on to tour Scotland with Johnny Gentle, and Billy Fury’s new backing group was The Tornados (who had a massive hit in their own right with 'Telstar').

Mersey ferry, MV Royal Iris

Sadly, Billy Fury died of heart failure in Paddington, London, on 28th January 1983 aged just 42.  The bronze statue which started this piece was created by Liverpool sculptor Tom Murphy and unveiled on 19th April 2003.  It was funded by Fury’s loyal fans and the ceremony was attended by hundreds of them.  Afterwards, a tribute concert was held, headlined by Billy-Ron’s younger brother, Albie (stage name Jason Eddie, as if Albie Wycherley didn’t roll off the tongue sufficiently well).  The statue was donated to Liverpool Museums and moved to its current location outside the Pier Master’s House in Liverpool’s Albert Dock in 2007.  From what I can make out, there is even now a very active Billy Fury fan club, In Thoughts of You (a hit for Billy in 1965) – link here to the Billy Fury fanclub website – as well as several tribute acts.


I think Billy deserves his statue, don’t you?  He certainly brought pleasure to a lot people (Halfway to Paradise notwithstanding). 


Let your imagination go and listen to the song....now take a cold shower.