Visiting the Old Country, May 2016

I’ve finally managed to get my sorry arse out of the apartment having had the laziest of Sunday’s and so I thought I would jot down a few notes over a Flat White. This is the last Sunday of my second trip back to the UK this year. It’s been a long trip; four weeks but feels so much more. Unfortunately it will be less than four weeks before I’m back again for another month. While these visits play havoc with my life back home, my plans and more importantly my sleep patterns, they have allowed me to be a tourist in my own country and as such visit a few places which I’ve never been to before, or certainly not for many years.

As always when I sit down to write a post I am reminded how little I retain in my mind these days; if I don’t write it when it happens it seems to be lost. Perhaps a few sparks may ignite as I work.

The late flight in was not enough to stop me being awake at 4 am the following morning. As I was not heading down to see Lauren until the following day I had to find something to do. I could sit and watch telly or, as was the decision, I could head into London and be a tourist.

I was still at school the last time I visited St Pauls Cathedral. It was a school trip but I don’t actually remember how old I was or which school I was at. Somewhere I am sure I still have some photos!

St PaulsHaving not seen Steve during my previous trip I messaged him to see if he was about. We met up at his place round the back of Kings Cross and jumped on a bus into the city. A few hours wondering around St Pauls and then lunch wasn’t a bad way to spend the day. With jet-lag kicking in I headed back to Wycombe much earlier then I would have liked.

Steve took this picture from the upper gallery in the dome. I made the Whispering Gallery before height issues forced me back to ground level.

File 22-05-2016, 21 22 42Sunday and I was off to Canterbury to see Lauren. Another early start so I took the scenic route back through the centre of London, past parliament and along the embankment to Docklands, Blackwell tunnel and then the A2 south.

File 22-05-2016, 21 25 47With no plans we just had a lazy walk around the city and cathedral as well as a huge lunch. The weather was superb and the company not too shabby either.

Sadly, as always, work has to interrupt proceedings but as I was staying in Manchester the next weekend I decided to make a visit to the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port.

File 22-05-2016, 21 27 31Canals and the inland waterways of Britain have long held a fascination for me. Something about the accessible, living history would be my guess.  It is this interest that is one of the things that makes Australia such an amazing place for me to live. The history in Sydney can be seen, touched and experienced first hand. My visit to Port Arthur, Tasmania, reinforced to me just how recent some the country’s “history” actually is. Many trips are planned to the various convict, mineral and gold mining sites now abandoned around greater Sydney and New South Wales.

The docks, warehouses, cottages and boats were great to see and so a happy few hours was spent looking, enjoying and soaking up the atmosphere.

File 22-05-2016, 21 43 07Being so close to the castles of North Wales it would have been rude not to have visited at least one. Conwy Castle was one of Edward I “ring of steel” designed to suppress the welsh following a revolt. It later played important rolls in various uprisings and was even held by the last native Prince of Wales, Owain Glyndŵr. The fortifications were constructed to encircle the entire town much of which remain and are accessible to this day.

This was my first visit to this part of Wales but I doubt it will be my last. Chips by the sea rounded off a great day.

With the weather set to hold fair on Sunday, actually hotter than Sydney apparently, I headed north out of Manchester for the town of Lancaster.

File 22-05-2016, 21 44 33Lancaster Castle is at the very heart of the city and was until a couple of years back still a functioning prison, the oldest working prison in the country. The building remains an active court, the longest serving court in the country. There have been many famous accused passing through among them the Birmingham Six who where held in the prison as the underground passageway into the court meant that maximum security could be ensured.

Infamous for the number of people condemned to death within the court the process of passing sentence, execution and removal of the dead became very streamlined with the underground passage from gallows to coffin still visible if not, sadly, accessible to the public. Infamous amongst the condemned where the Pendle Witches in 1612.

Both courts can be viewed during the tour as can the route for the accused from prison to dock. When condemned you can actually see where the prisoner was “sent down” to commence their term at Her Majesties Pleasure.

File 22-05-2016, 21 56 06Form Lancaster I headed further north to Pooley Bridge and then up past Ullswater through the lanes and valleys to the tiny hamlet of Martindale and the Old Church of St Martins. This is a truly stunning, peaceful and remote location. It is a place I have visited a number of times since first finding it by pure luck over 25 years ago. While I have changed in so many ways over the years the church, and valley in which it sits, have not changed at all, locked in their own time and space.

Last weekend I was back down south. While watching some rubbish on the TV I picked up another canal location I needed to see.

2016-05-15 11.45.21Edstone Aqueduct on Stratford-upon-Avon Canal is the longest such structure in England, and what an amazing structure it is.  Effectively a long cast iron trough built on top a brick structure where the adjoining tow-path has been build at the bottom of the trough so as the boats pass by they are at eye level.

2016-05-15 10.43.30The whole of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal was built on a shoe-string. Bridges and locks where built to the minimum 7ft width wherever possible. One result of this were the ingenious bridges which where constructed in two halves, a gap being left through the middle of the bridge deck to allow the horses tow-lines to be passed through without being unhitched.

At Lowsonford stands an original barrel roofed “Lenghtsmen’s Cottage” which is now owned by the Landmark Trust and available to rent for holidays. During my visit the trust had an open day so I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have a look around.

2016-05-15 12.25.44 HDR-2Outside, on the bank of the canal, looking down towards the water, was a steel statue by Sir Antony Gormley. I say “was” because I understand it was only there for a year to mark the Landmark Trusts anniversary and was due to be removed in the week after my visit. I have always liked his work and it seems somewhat appropriate in the setting of the canal lock.

My final weekend was much quieter. On Saturday I took a drive back out through the North Wales country side, past Snowden and on to Caernarfon and its magnificant castle. From there I started north back towards Manchester with a detour across the Menai Bridge and into Anglesey, another first for me.


Watchmen @ Hughenden Manor

2014-07-09 20.08.57During World War II many of the countries great houses played their part in the defence of the nation and the liberation of Europe.

Hughenden Manor, found in the chiltern hills just outside the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe, was just such a house. Known best as the home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, during the war it was given the code name “Hillside” and used by the Air Ministry to analyse aerial photographs and create maps for bombing missions including the “Dambusters” raid undertaken by the now famous 617 Squadron.

In order to commemorate 70 years since D-Day a series of sculptures have been carved out of wood taken from the manors parkland and placed back into its original surroundings. A notice placed near the car park explains the background to the Watchmen:

2014-07-09 20.15.59“These watchmen appear to be rooted, like they have always been here.Ghostly guards of a distant history observing the land. These sculptures have been carved from a variety of trees grown right here on the estate, but independently installed back into the landscape, paying homage to the once dominant High Wycombe furniture trade.”

These amazing figures have been created by Ed Elliott.

If you are in the area make the time to go see them in their perfect surroundings.

2014-07-09 20.26.52


Last Public Execution in Bucks

For reasons which are of no great interest to this blog, I recently found myself in my local library with an hour or so to spare.

As I am currently working on a post inspired by a book I read on local paranormal activity, which included some very interesting references to the history of my area, I spent my time at the library looking through the local history section to see if I could find some additional reference material.

Well it was a great idea but I got distracted by a book called “Buckinghamshire Tales of Mystery and Murder” by David Kidd-Hewitt (ISBN 1 85306 809 8). There were two stories which caught my attention; the other is going to be the subject of another post! And so, there is this one …..

Friday 5th August 1864 saw the last public execution in Buckinghamshire.

William John Stevens had been convicted of murder and was sentenced to hang outside the county goal in Bierton Road, Aylesbury.

Apart from the obvious historic importance of this event, it also had two other facets which made it stick in my mind having read the story.

CalcraftFirstly, The executioner was a man by the name of William Calcraft. He was the Official Execution for the City of London and Middlesex, but found himself in great demand all of the country. He was so famous, or should that be infamous, in his time that mothers point him out to misbehaving children saying “behave or Calcraft will get you!”. With his long white beard, Calcraft made for an imposing figure on the gallows.

He was not only known for the number of executions he presided over, but also the manner of the execution. He was known for preferring the short form, or short rope, which invariably involved the victim suffering a slow death by strangulation rather than the long form which generally resulted in a broken neck and therefore a quick release from this world.

The second event of the day was recorded by Superintendent Symington who was in charge of proceedings, Shortly after Stevens was cut down from the gallows a man from the nearby town of Winslow asked that he be allowed to place the dead mans hand on his sons face and neck. The boy suffered from a serious skin infections and the man believed that an ancient cure, “the touch of evil”, would transfer the infections from his son to the murderer. Symington was so horrified by the request and its potential association with the county, that he told the man to go home and not reveal to anyone that, as a Buckinghamshire man, he had made such a request.

My Big Australian Adventure – Part 11, ANZAC

ANZAC1This year I am in Sydney on 25th April, Anzac Day. Coming from the other side of the world this isn’t a commemoration that I know much about; for us 11th November is Remembrance Day.

I have heard of Anzac and was aware of it’s importance to Australians. I also had some idea that there were connections to the Gallipoli landings, but being here I thought it important to find out more…..

The meaning of ANZAC 

ANZAC stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.It was formed in 1915 and disbanded in 1916 following the Allied evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula.

What is ANZAC Day?

Anzac Day is Australia’s national day of remembrance commemorated on 25th April.

The date was first marked in 1916 by ceremonies in Australia, a march through London, and a sports day in the Australian camp in Egypt. For the remaining years of the war the day was used as an occasion for patriotic rallies and recruiting campaigns.

During the 1920’s the 25th became the a national day of commemoration for the 60,000 Australians who had died during the war. In 1927 every Australian state observed some form of public holiday and by the mid-1930’s all the rituals of the day had been established; dawn vigils, marches, memorial services, reunions and two-up games.

The Second World War saw the commemoration extended to cover the additional Australian lives lost and in subsequent years it was broadened further to include all those lost during military operations.

The Origins of ANZAC

In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.

The forces landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate with the campaign dragging on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated, after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. Over 8,000 Australian soldiers had been killed. News of the landing at Gallipoli had made a profound impact on Australians at home, and 25th April soon became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who had died in the war.


Digger is a military slang term for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. Evidence of its use has been found in those countries as early as the 1850s, but its current usage in a military context did not become prominent until World War I when Australian and New Zealand troops began using it on the Western Front around 1916–17.

At the outbreak of World War I, Australia and New Zealand were both relatively “young” nations, with little exposure on the international stage. Deployed to Gallipoli in early 1915, the soldiers of both nations had a chance to prove themselves. Although the Gallipoli campaign resulted in heavy casualties and withdrawal for the Allies, the campaign became strongly linked with the emergence of national identity. Through the manner in which the soldiers endured the hardships of battle, the image that has become synonymous with the word “digger” embodies the qualities of “endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, and mateship”.

Two Up

Two-up is a traditional Australian gambling game, involving a designated ‘Spinner’ throwing two coins or pennies into the air. Players gamble on whether the coins will fall with both heads up, both tails up, or with one coin a head, and one a tail (known as ‘Odds’). It is traditionally played on Anzac Day in pubs and clubs throughout Australia, in part to mark a shared experience with Diggers through the ages.


The following details have been provided by the NSW Government, Trade & Investment, Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing:

Two-up is a gambling game in which coins are spun in the air and bets are laid on whether they fall heads or tails.

The game is regulated under the Gambling (Two-up) Act 1998 and may only be conducted on:

  • Anzac Day (25 April in any year)
  • Victory in the Pacific Day (15 August in any year), and
  • Remembrance Day (11 November in any year but only after noon).

A permit is not required.

The only exception to this is Broken Hill, where two-up is played all year round under a special licence from the New South Wales Government.




My Big Australian Adventure – Part 2, Convicts

It is not possible to spend much time in Sydney without coming up against its convict roots; the city was after all built by those men, women and children who found themselves on the wrong side of the law and transported to the other side of the world.

Convict ShipDuring the 17th & 18th centuries the industrial revolution in Britain, coupled with a dramatic rise in population, had resulted in extreme poverty and with it a huge increase in crime rates. In an attempt to combat the problem more and more crimes became punishable by death culminating with up to 200 capital crimes being on the statute books. These included such things as pick-pocketing more than a shilling, cutting down trees, forgery, arson, piracy, being out at night with a blackened face and unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child.

The situation had got to the point where a public execution became more of an entertainment than a deterrent. An alternative punishment was needed which, coupled with the desperate need for a labour force in the new overseas colonies, lead to the introduction of Transportation. Sentences of 7 years, 14 years or life could be handed down, but the reality was having been deposited in a foreign land thousands of miles from home, it was a life sentence. The courts would pay for your transport out, but it was up to you to find and pay for a way back.

Transportation to the American colonies had been taking place for some time when “The First Fleet” set sail from Portsmouth on the 13th May 1787 bound for Australia. This was made up of 11 ships carrying more than a 1000 people, including convicts, sailors and marines.


The fleet finally arrived in Botany Bay on 20th January 1788, representing the start of the settlement which became know as Sydney.

For the first 30 years or so life within Sydney was relatively relaxed for the convicts who arrived. There were no jails or barracks in which they were housed so they were generally free to move around as they wished. That’s said they were there to provide labour for the development of the colony and as such life was still relatively tough.

2014-03-23 16.40.04The Hyde Park Barracks were constructed in 1819 to house the convicts coming into the rapidly growing city. It was no longer considered appropriate that they should be housed amongst the free inhabitants, in part due to the increase in petty crime and anti-social behaviour. Some convicts were still able to live reactively freely as part of the benefit system which was put in place to encourage hard work and a respect for law and order. It is thought that as many 50,000 transported convicts passed through its doors between 1819 & 1848.

The last convicts arrived in Sydney in 1840 after which the barracks was used as a jail and als¬o to house orphans arriving from Ireland to escape the potato famine which was having such a devastating effect on the population there.

When the barracks finally closed its doors the last few prisoners were transferred to Cockatoo Island in the harbour which had become the main prison site.

December 1840 saw the last official convict ship, The Eden, off load its cargo in Sydney following the British Governments decision to stop transportation to New South Wales. It was increasingly being seen as an immoral, uneconomic and a counter productive form of punishment. There were stories about people committing petty crimes simply to get sent to the colonies to start a new life having received a letter from a family member telling them of the wonderful life that could be had on the other side of the world.

Increasingly the population of Sydney was becoming embarrassed by their penal origin which was dramatically demonstrated when the convict ship Hashemy arrived in 1849 to be met by a crowd of 5000 demonstrators. The ship was turned away with no convicts being landed.

Transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, continued until 1853 with 1868 seeing the final ship landing convicts in Western Australia.

With the bicentennial of the First Fleet and the founding of the city of Sydney and colony of New South Wales, people have became increasingly interested in their history and convict roots. No longer is their any embarrassment in being related to a felon, it is in fact worn as a badge of honour. If you can show that there is a convict in your family tree then you belong to one of the true founding families of Australia.

The Great War – A personal introduction

DSCF3769This morning I watched the final episode of Jeremy Paxman’s “Britain’s Great War”, a four part documentary, produced by the BBC, which covered the years from the start in 1914 through to the armistice of 1918. I found it a very insightful telling of the events both on the battlefields of Europe, as well as the home front.

At the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the guns fell silent. It is said that soldiers didn’t know how to react. They had been in the trenches for so long they remained afraid to look “over the top” finding it impossible to believe that there wouldn’t be a snipers bullet winging past their ear.

Equally back home people were disbelieving. After so long could it really be over? One symbol of the truth was that at 11am on the 11th November 1918 Big Ben, the huge bell over the Houses of Parliament in London was rung for the first time since war broke out. The distinctive sound of the bell which is known the world over for marking the hour, was a powerful message to all that heard it that day, and I believe is still so today.

At the end of the road where I live is a memorial to the men of the village who paid the ultimate price during both the Great War and World War II. It was erected in 1921 by the grateful villagers to ensure that they would never be forgotten. Regularly over the past 10 years I have made the effort to attend the remembrance ceremony and I still find it an incredibly moving experience. Many of those taking part the first time I was there are no longer with us, but their places have been taken by new faces who make sure that they and their comrades will always be in our thoughts.

At the appointed time, Big Ben sounds out across the assembled crowd and it is impossible not to be moved remembering those that laid down their lives to ensure that we have a secure future in this land we call home. At that moment if you look out over the old men on parade, some who struggle to even stand unaided, they are tall and they proud. They are young men again reliving their experiences during those days so long ago, remembering friends and family, and they have tears in their eyes.

It is 100 years ago this year that what became known as the Great War started. No one is left who took part in those events, but there are still those that recall them from their childhood; who remember immediate family members who never came home; who remember the grief and suffering that the war inflicted; who remember the incredible changes to our country in the years that followed.

As we know, the Great War didn’t prove to be “the war to end all wars” as many predicted and probably prayed. Just over 20 years later Europe was at war again. Far from the lessons being learned, the events following the first war, and the actions of the allied governments, led to the second great world conflict, and wars have been part of the world’s history ever since. I believe it to be a fact that at no time since the Great War has the world been free of conflict. Will it ever be?

So in this year of remembrance it is important that as a race we find a way to look back and try and understand what war actually means and remember all those that took part in the Great War and all conflicts since.

Last year Lauren and I made a visit to the World War II D Day landing sites in Normandy, details of which can be seen in my blog post, “The Battle Fields, France”, as well as the battle fields of the Somme.  It is only by seeing these places, and the huge war cemeteries, that you get any idea of the scale of the events; although even then it is not possible to comprehend the hardships that had to be endured by all concerned. It is possible to see some of the trenches and get a feel for the place, but that is all.

As educated people we don’t need to feel the hurt and suffering of war in order to appreciate its effects. Therefore it is perhaps only education which could ever see wars finally brought to an end.

Highgate Cemetery


Noted for such resident as Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery is one of those places that many have heard of but few visit. Currently, while sitting on the tube heading into London, I know very little of the history or story of the place I am going to. I know that originally it was a privately run business, I know that many famous people are buried there, I know that it has some amazing funeral art, I believe it to be a very atmospheric place. In a short while I will find out for myself.

I picked up the tube at Hillingdon, my usual starting point for journeys into the capital; a change at Kings Cross and then on the Northern line to Highgate. The approach to the cemetery, at least the route I took, takes you down a narrow tree lined lane. To the right is a 14 foot high brick wall with nasty looking spikes on the top. This is the cemetery wall! Not clear if it was intended to keep the locals out or the residents in.

Highgate Cemetery is split into two; East and West. The West Cemetery is home to the most impressive architectural features; the Chapel, Colonnade, Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, Terrace Catacombs and the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This area is only open for pre-booked tours and is the part that is hidden behind the wall.

Not being that well organised it is the East Cemetery for me which is open to everyone for a small entrance fee of £4.

Here you can find the tombs of ….

Karl Marx Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Malcolm Mclaren Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010)

Douglas Adams Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

As well as Jeremy Beadle (1948-2008), Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) and Max Wall (1908-1990) plus many thousands of others.

It is clear that the cemetery has not always been as well looked after as it is today. Many stones have collapsed or have been displaced by trees and other shrubs which have grown through them. The atmosphere of the places is in many ways enhanced by these areas of neglect, particularly when you spot new head stones or those that have been cleaned amongst the over grown vegetation. Particularly poignant were the small number of soldiers headstones which I spotted. They were created in the same design as those in the war cemeteries of Europe, but hidden amongst the graves of long dead London residents.

Highgate 3

I spent a good couple of hours wondering the paths through the trees and between the memorials, reading the names and dates of many long dead people. All mixed together they were from different times and in many ways different worlds. You have to wonder how it is possible to continue to add more, but they do. Highgate Cemetery is still in use to day and is an important part of the London community in which it is situated.

Highgate Cemetery is very much one of London’s hidden treasures and well worth a visit.

For more information:

Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839, as part of a plan to provide seven large, modern cemeteries, known as the “Magnificent Seven“, around the outside of central London. The inner-city cemeteries, mostly the graveyards attached to individual churches, had long been unable to cope with the number of burials.

On Monday 20 May 1839, Highgate Cemetery was dedicated to St. James by the Right Reverend Charles Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of the Church of England, and two acres set aside for Dissenters. Rights of burial were sold for either limited period or in perpetuity. The first burial was Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho, on 26 May.

Highgate, like the others of the Magnificent Seven, soon became a fashionable place for burials and was much admired and visited. The Victorian attitude to death and its presentation led to the creation of a wealth of Gothic tombs and buildings.

Highgate Cemetery was featured in the popular media from the 1960s to the late 1980s for its so-called occult past, particularly as being the alleged site of the “Highgate Vampire“.

War Grave

The cemetery contains the graves of 316 Commonwealth service personnel maintained and registered by the Commonwealth War Graves, in both the East and West Cemeteries, 257 from the First World War and 59 from the Second. Those whose graves could not be marked by headstones are listed on a Screen Wall memorial erected near the Cross of Sacrifice in the older (western) cemetery.