Best of British


I’ve been back at work for two weeks and I haven’t had time to draw breath until now. But I now have a four-day weekend (woo hoo) with only a little bit of work from home so I thought I’d catch up a bit.

During my week off Man and I went to the seaside town of Skegness. It was Man’s birthday that week and I’d promised him a trip on a roller coaster so we headed for Fantasy Island, a couple of miles up the Lincolnshire coast.

Now, in my defense, I actually did check the website first to make sure it was open and although it appeared a little like a ghost town at first, it actually was up and running -ish,

It’s a strange place. In the shadows of the coasters there is Europe’s biggest seven-day market.


So there were actually shoppers and stallholders milling about.

In fact, only one of the bigger coasters was open, so we bought Man a ticket and went to find a convenient vantage point for me to try and get a photo of him en route.

I found one sitting behind these two, who were having a tea break and waiting for customers.

So I sat, looking up, camera at the ready, waiting for Man to whizz over my head … when he came walking round the corner.

Yes, the roller coaster was open, but 12 people were needed to run it and he was number 4. This could take a while.


We had a look around the market, it appeared to be selling the usual tat, nothing original really.


Buy your luminous feather boa here.

We returned to the coaster… Man was now customer number 5.

So we repeated the procedure.


Here’s one you could have ridden on if there were enough customers.


For about two hours we had no luck at all. We even returned to the ticket sales office and tried to coerce the woman into confessing how many tickets she had sold, to see whether or not it was worth waiting for customers six through 12 to put in an appearance.

In the end we gave up, drove into Skegness and had fish, chips and mushy peas on the beach.


And then bought some doughnuts.

A few hours later, after mooching about on the beach for a while, we were about to head home when we thought we’d give Fantasy Island just one more try.

Miraculously, just as we arrived back, customer number 12 turned up.


And Man finally got his birthday trip on the roller coaster. I think he enjoyed it :)


You know there’s a lot more to Chelsea than a football team and a reality tv show. To be honest, I’m not hugely keen on either of those.

Sloane Square

Sloane Square

But I’ve fallen in love with Chelsea, it is just so cool.

Sloane Square and the King’s Road are still so vibrant – although I do wish I had been old enough to appreciate it in the 1960s and 70s when the King’s Road really was the epitome of cool.

Chelsea’s history goes back a lot further than that though. There was the Anglo Saxon settlement, a few Romans, medieval lords and a few kings along the way. The fountain these two are sitting in front of features images of Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn.

Sloane Square fountain

Sloane Square fountain

The King’s Road is named for these two. It was once a private road. King Charles lived at one end, the lovely Nell at the other. The road was built so he could gallop along it in private to see his lover.

The road really became famous in the 50s, 60s and 70s. In the late 1950s, Mary Quant opened her shop here and the King’s Road became eponymous with fashion, music and coolness. Mary created the mini skirt, hotpants, and huge great spidery eyelashes.

114bThere is still a Mary Quant shop here, only now it is in the rejuvenated Duke of York Square.

065bThis is the recording studio where the Beatles created the album cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just around the corner is a house formerly owned by Eric Clapton and probably party central for many a year. Bowie lived nearby, as did Mick Jagger.

118bAnd the Sloane Square Hotel is reputedly where Paul McCartney met Jane Asher and began their relationship.

Chelsea is also home to the Royal Chelsea Hospital where the Chelsea Pensioners live.

057bThat one’s a model, I’m really not sneaking up and surreptitiously snapping snoozing pensioners.

Around the hospital, Chelsea almost has a village feel. These two are contenders for my new home (if I had a fair few million pounds to spare that is).


Beautiful aren’t they, especially in the spring, but sadly they are megamillions and, therefore, a little outside my budget.

Now just along from the Royal Chelsea Hospital (next door in fact) is the National Army Museum. I actually didn’t know it was there. As you walk past you may miss an extraordinary piece of history because it’s just a little unobtrusive.

058bBut this is an actual piece of the Berlin Wall, complete with original graffiti. I think it was presented to the museum because the British Army spent so long manning Checkpoint Charlie, but I’m not really sure.

059bAnd a little bit further along again was once the home of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was living here when he had an affair with the Marquess of Queensberry’s son. Old Queensberry wrote Wilde a letter that he deemed offensive so he tried to sue him for libel but the ensuing trial laid bare Wilde’s hidden life and resulted in his prosecution (and eventual jail sentence) for gross indecency with men. Bet he wished he’d left the old Marquess to rot.

Incidentally, the judge who jailed Wilde was his neighbour in this street too.

063bJust a little way further round the corner I found this. Now my guide for the afternoon, a lovely man called George from The Tour Hub London (where do you think I got all this information from?) wasn’t sure whether this had actually been Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s studio but thought probably not. It looks like both the studios (there are about seven of them) and the apartments around them were just named after him, having been built by Edward Holland. Chelsea Art School began life here in 1904. Anthony Devas had a studio here, as did noted Vogue fashion photographer Ronald Traeger who photographed, among others, Twiggy.

Finally, this is Hans Sloane.

050bOr rather, it’s a statue of him and it sits on the King’s Road, on one corner of Duke of York Square. He was a physician and a collector. You’ve probably guessed Sloane Square was named after him.

He was president of the Royal College of Physicians, President of the Royal Society (he succeeded Sir Isaac Newton) and Royal Physician to Queen Anne, George I and George II. He was the first Baronet of Chelsea and also founded the Chelsea Physic Garden. He was a collector of natural history and when he died, he bequeathed these to the nation (on condition parliament paid his executors £20,000) and they formed the beginning of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.

Thanks Mr Sloane, you left us quite a legacy.





002bThis is St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland. It has a history interesting enough to merit several posts all of its own.

Opposite this church is a row of little cottages and it is in one of these cottages that our heroine for today was born.

graceGrace Darling, born in November 1815, was the seventh of nine children born to William and Thomasin Darling. William was a lighthouse keeper, just like his grandfather had been, and Grace and her brothers and sister were brought up on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland.

Lighthouse keeping was a family affair and Grace often took her turn at keeping watch. It was this that led to her becoming one of the most reluctant media darlings (excuse the pun) ever.

In the early years of the Victorian age, railways were still being developed and ships provided the quickest mode of transport up and down the coast of Britain.

The SS Forfarshire had been built in 1834 at a cost of £20,000. She was a paddle steamer with luxury accommodation 132ft long and 20ft wide.

On September 5 1838 the Forfarshire was in Hull. It loaded cargo and passengers for a journey to Dundee. There were supposedly around 40 passengers. I say supposedly because passenger records did not exist then. Around 22 crew, the captain, John Humble, and his wife were also aboard and the ship sailed at around 6.30pm.

Over the next 24 hours there were a number of problems with a boiler which involved the crew having to carry out repairs at sea. Some felt the ship ought to head for Newcastle instead of soldiering on but Capt Humble assured them nothing was wrong.

The SS Forfarshire passed the Farne Islands and was almost to Berwick when the weather changed dramatically. They had already had to put to partial sail because of the boiler problems and the turn in the weather was unwelcome to say the least.

The boilers, overworked in the storm, failed completely and as the ship got to St Abb’s Head at about 1am on the morning of Friday September 7, with no engines Capt Humble made the decision to turn around and seek shelter.

He spotted the light of a lighthouse and headed in that direction, thinking it to be the lighthouse of Inner Farne. But it was Longstone, not Inner Farne, he saw and he brought the ship crashing on to the rocky islands that surrounded it.



This is Longstone. It looks calm and serene on a sunny day in July but in a raging storm in the middle of the night there are probably few less hospitable places to be than among the scores of little rocky islands miles of the Northumberland coast.

As the Forfarshire crashed, several crew and one passenger launched a lifeboat. Whether they had the intention to try and rescue other passengers who knows, as it was the lifeboat drifted away from the wreck and out of danger.

The wrecked ship broke in two. The back, together with all the cargo, the steerage passengers, the captain and his wife, sunk and was lost. Some drowned in their cabins and some were swept overboard.

The front of the ship stuck on the rocks and a few passengers managed to cling to the deck.

After a while John Tulloch, ship’s carpenter, and passenger Daniel Donovan climbed off the ship and on to the rock and encouraged the others to do the same.

This included passenger Mrs Sarah Dawson and her two children. They also brought the body of the Reverend Robb, found dead with his hands clasped in prayer in the engine room, from the ship.

At Longstone Lighthouse only Grace and her parents were in residence, most of the siblings had moved away and the one remaining brother had gone fishing to the mainland.

Grace and her father had spotted the ship and thought all were lost but as day began to break they realised there were survivors on the island.

The two of them took a boat, a local design known as a coble, and rowed through the raging storm against the swell of the current more than a mile around dangerous rocks.

grace rowing

They got the coble close enough for her dad to jump off and she single-handedly held the boat in place while the rescue began. There were more survivors than they had thought so they took an injured man and Mrs Dawson as well as two crewmen, including John Tulloch, aboard and left the others with Daniel Donovan, the body of the Reverend and the bodies of both of Mrs Dawson’s children who had died in the night on the island.

They rowed back to Longstone where Grace took care of the injured man and Mrs Dawson while her father and the crewmen rowed back to get the other survivors.

In daylight, when the lifeboat from Seahouses on the mainland was scrambled, led by William, Grace’s 19-year-old brother who had gone fishing, the crew found no survivors on the rock, just the bodies of the Dawson children and the Reverend and the wreck of the Forfarshire. The lifeboatmen did not realise that Grace and her father had beaten them to it.

When word got out about the daring rescue, Grace Darling found herself in the unwanted spotlight of the media, which she hated.

Newspapers clamored for her story, people sent her money and the image makers of the day arrived, not to take her photograph but to paint her portrait…is that more arduous than today’s paparazzi? Who knows, but Grace hated it. There was even an agent, a spin doctor called Robert Smeddle, who helped fuel the flames of the media frenzy.

Queen Victoria sent her £50, people wrote wanting a lock of her hair, or a piece of her clothing or worse, they turned up in boats at Longstone with the same demands. Tales of her heroism were published as far afield as Japan, Australia and the USA with little mention of her father’s efforts.

It was the story of a young woman who risked her own life to save those of nine strangers.

The Duke of Northumberland took her under his wing and became her guardian in an effort to protect her from it all but Grace hid herself away more and more and eventually fell ill.

She was sent to Alnwick to stay with cousins and then inland to Wooler where the air was thought to be purer, before eventually being brought back to Bamburgh where she died of tuberculosis on October 20 1842. She was 26.

There are two memorials to Grace Darling at the church of St Aidan in Bamburgh.



This effigy inside the church originally stood under a canopy outside the church but was brought inside when it was in danger of becoming damaged.



This is the replacement under the canopy and nearby Grace is buried in a grave with her parents.

Opposite the church is the Grace Darling Museum, run by the RNLI. It is small but well kept and free to enter and it contains the coble that Grace and her father used in their rescue.

Was she the first media superstar? Well there can’t have been too many prior to that. She certainly caught the attention of the world and the media attention was as unwelcome to her as it is now to celebrities who feature on the news pages.

The main difference is that Grace Darling had performed an act of heroism and the media attention was uninvited and unwelcome, whereas many who feature in our newspapers today have done nothing of merit and have actively courted publicity and fame … until they don’t like it any more and scream press intrusion.

In Grace’s case the press, thanks in part to the spin doctor Smeddle, did seem to be intrusive and they really should have left the poor woman alone to carry on with her life.

And I say that as a journalist of more than 30 years.





In November 1943 the 155 residents of the ancient village of Imber in Wiltshire were called together and told their home was needed for the war effort.

Essential military training needed to take place in their parish, American soldiers being prepared for D-Day.

They were given until Christmas – 47 days – to leave.

They left and, although they were devastated, many appreciated that sacrificing the homes some families had lived in for generations was for the greater good.

They would return after the war was won they hoped … but that never happened.


The Ministry of Defence never did hand the village back to its residents and, nearly 70 years on, Imber and its surrounding countryside still makes up part of the huge military exercise and training area on Salisbury Plain.

It is closed off to the public apart from a few days a year. And on those days people still flock to the lost village of Imber.



One of those days was today. Routemaster buses ran through the village once more transporting the curious to see what remains.

I should have caught the bus but instead I drove … and discovered finding it is difficult, there are no road signs any more.



They have been replaced with these, reminding all comers that this is a military zone and straying from the road can be dangerous.

I went to Imber because one of the Churches Conservation Trust churches still stands there. To be honest, it’s one of the only remains of the old village of Imber that still stands. The church will be the subject of another post.

IMG_6871bBehind these gates is what was once, I guess, a fine home.

IMG_6870bNow shutters bar the windows and the number 16 crudely painted to the right of the door marks it as a military training property.

IMG_6863bThese all have numbers too and I could imagine soldiers using them for training exercises. They have to train somewhere I suppose.

IMG_6874bI am sure once this house was home to a family and the village and tight-knit place, as most villages were.

IMG_6872bNow Imber has a sadness about it.

IMG_6819bThere is a sign on the footpath up to the church. A tribute to those villagers who served in the First World War.

Look at the names. This village had less than a couple of hundred residents but there are four called Daniels who experienced the horrors of the Great War , three called Daniell and two each of Gray’s, Potter’s, Tinnams and Carter’s, and a Carter who was wounded in action. You can only presume these soldiers came from the same family or extended family. Such a loss for such a small place.

There is no memorial to those who died in the Second World War. By the time the war was won, the families had been dispersed across the countryside to other villages and hamlets.

IMG_6821bInstead there is this. It commemorates both Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan in the Second World War and marks the sacrifice the village of Imber made in that effort.

This village may only have been small but it had been there for centuries with evidence of Saxon settlement and a mention in the Doomsday Book. The last line on the plaque says the parish was abolished in 1991.

So it has ceased to exist.

But it hasn’t, has it?

Because on those occasions the MoD allow, people still flock from miles around to find it the ‘lost’ village of Imber.

There are thousands of lost villages across the UK and scores of reasons for them being abandoned – politics, landlords’ whim, plague, erosion and war among those reasons.



A burnt out tank sits at the side of one of the tracks into Imber.



And after what seemed like miles of driving along a lonely road dotted with Danger UXB signs, you come to a check point. And this would normally be as close as you can get to the village.

I’m glad I got explore further, even if it was desperately sad.








522bBerwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in England, and what a beautiful historic town it is.

On our recent visit to Northumberland Man and I decided we would start at the top, so we drove from Nottingham straight to Berwick.

501bThis is a town on the mouth of the river Tweed and among the first things we noticed were the bridges.

This viaduct takes the railway from England to Scotland. This is the Royal Border Bridge, built by Robert Stevenson and Berwick’s most famous landmark.

514bYou can see it in the background here. In the middle of the photo is the modern road bridge over the river and in the foreground, the older bridge.

It was at the foot of the old bridge that Man and I came across a fellow photographer who told us you could walk all the way around the walls of this border town. Nice guy, very enthusiastic about the delights the town had to offer.

Walls have been important to the people of Berwick. It has been in the firing line on more occasions than most towns.

Captured or sacked 13 times before it finally fell to the English, the Elizabethans built walls around the town to keep the marauding Scots out.


They built them well and they have stood the test of time for the most part, giving Berwick one of the most complete bastioned town defences in northern Europe. And from these walls you get some great views across the estuary.


And below the walls is a great place to sit and gaze out to sea.


This is also the home of England’s first purpose-built barracks, now owned by English Heritage.

530bBuilt in the eighteenth century, it houses museums, buttresses, batteries and a Russian canon.

525bThe surroundings of other fortifications in the centre of town have been turned into a car park – park at your own risk, the seagulls have a habit of ‘decorating’ the vehicles :)

516bEverywhere there is evidence of old architecture.

543bThis looked to me like an old church wall. Interesting how just one single wall of whatever this was was allowed to remain when all other traces of the building have disappeared.

529bAnd this has to be the most picturesque setting for allotments that I’ve ever seen … and they were all so beautifully kept.

545bBut although the town walls are incredibly preserved, the same cannot be said of the castle. Just ruins remain, but I have seen those ruins, so that is another castle knocked off the list for my Fifty before Fifty challenge.

542bThis sign was everywhere and it made me smile. In one image it looks as though the dog is weeing up the tree and in the other, well you can see. Struck me as quite appropriate for the Urban Sanitary Authority.

We found a highly unusual church, but that merits a post all of it’s own. And we checked off a pub from Man’s Good Pub Guide.

503bThis was the old schoolhouse. Now it is The Leaping Salmon where you can (and we did) purchase a large black coffee and a pint of the finest Hobgoblin for the bargainous price of just £2.75. Now that is worth driving to Berwick for.


There aren’t so many battles in Berwick-upon-Tweed any more. Now it is just a bustling, friendly market town with a lot of history.

But, if and when the Scots gain independence from the union, well who knows. Berwick will once again take its place in history as a border town.

243bYou know you can’t get lucky all the time and there was one minor disappointment during our recent trip to Northumberland.

While there I wanted to check off some castles for my Fifty before Fifty challenge, but there are also two Churches Coservation Trust churches in the area that I wanted to see as part of the same challenge. One is actually in Northumberland and one on the border with Durham.

We thought we’d check them out on our way home and make a day of the journey.

So I checked the website, both were listed as being open daily and off we went.

This is the first one, St Andrew’s at Bywell, Northumberland.

We found it without too much difficulty. It was closed.

I looked on the noticeboards to see if there was any information about a keyholder but there wasn’t.



So we walked around a bit.

This church is old, Saxon in fact and built around 850. It was once part of a thriving market town by the Tyne, though not much remains now.



This is a great example of a Saxon tower though.

Inside St Andrew’s is apparently a ‘glittering reredos’, a mosaic sanctuary floor and some fine Victorian stained glass, but I didn’t get to see any of those.

But what I most wanted to see were the ‘magnificent early Medieval grave slabs’ that the CTC website told me about.



Luckily, some of them were set into the outside walls, although there are, I believe, more inside.


239bBut those I did see were lovely. I love early Medieval carvings and the carvings of these are meant to depict the occupations of the people on whose grave they lay.

Now St Andrew’s sits next to, and by next to I mean within a few yards of, another Saxon church, the church of St Peter’s. Quite frankly having two Saxon churches in such lovely condition in one village is a little greedy methinks :)

232bThis one was closed too.

This church is still a fully functioning parish church.234b

I tried to call the Revd. Bill Rigby whose phone number was further down the sign, to see if he knew who held the keys to St Andrew’s but he was on another call and though ‘the person you are trying to contact knows you are waiting’, he was obviously busy and didn’t answer.

It seemed strange to me that two churches had been built at roughly the same time in such close proximity. A little research told me that St Peter’s was in fact built as the parish church of Bywell and St Andrew’s may originally have been the parish church for the long-since vanished village of Styford.

In between the two churches stands a market cross.

231bMaybe this was the meeting place that marked the boundaries of the villages of Bywell and Styford? Who knows?

So that was the minor disappointment of our trip – and it didn’t turn out to be that much of a disaster after all. Although I would like to see inside St Andrew’s and I am not sure when I am going to be able to return to Northumberland.

The clock is ticking… only 2.2 years until I’m fifty :)

(The second CTC church of that day will feature in another post all of it’s own)




Man has a theory that says things don’t exist properly until he’s seen them, which seems to us like a damn good excuse to go on lots of road trips to see as much as we possibly can.

So, adding now to the list of things that exist are two of the most enormous statues that say ‘Welcome to the North of England’.

497bThis is The Angel of the North.

Just outside Gateshead, this huge masterpiece by Antony Gormley stands the height of four double decker buses and has a wingspan the same size as a jumbo jet. That’s Man examining its ankle.

490bAnd that’s Man too, pretending to be angelic :)

It stands 20 metres high and is made of 200 tonnes of steel. It stands on a mound near the A1 where it can be seen by around 90,000 drivers each day and is also visible from the main train route to Scotland.

The area was a former coal mine, reclaimed as green space in the 1990s after the pits closed and the Angel of the North has been watching over the area since 1998.

I really like it.

227bThe second huge sculpture we came across also has a mining history but this has been recently created using the soil taken from a neighbouring new open cast mine.

This is Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North.

If you’re not quite sure what you are looking at, to the left of the feature is her head – you can see her forehead, nose, lips and chin. The path goes across her neck and to the right of that you have her chest. In the far right of the picture, that’s one hand sitting in the water.

It’s probably easier to see from above.

229bThis is the artists’ impression on the information board.

She is 34 metres high, 400 metres long and is made from 1.5 million tonnes of soil. Began in 2010, she was officially opened by the Princess Royal last August and lies in 47 acres of public park. The orange lines you can see in the photo above show the footpaths that wind their way all over her.

She was designed by the American landscape artist Charles Jencks, can be found near Cramlington in Northumberland and has been nicknamed Slag Alice – slag being the term for the waste material produced from a mine.

It is claimed that this is the world’s largest landmass sculpture of the female form. It really is quite something.

And she will be left to mature naturally, changing with the seasons and over time.

230bBut because I’m not remotely mature and that isn’t likely to change over time, I made Man pick her nose … just for fun :)