Category: Britain

Battle Abbey: 1066 and All That?

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I often talk about the fact that there are places where history exists in layers, where you can physically feel the weight of the past on the present. Battle Abbey in East Sussex is one such place. The importance of what happened here in October 1066 is still palpable nearly one thousand years later, for this is the site of what we now know as the Battle of Hastings – one of the most crucial moments in all of English history.

It all began (and ended) with the death of a king, as these things so often do. And, as is also so often the case with medieval history, that’s where it all gets a bit complicated. On 4th January 1066, King Edward (‘the Confessor’) died. He had no children and thus no direct heir. As a result, his death was likely to leave something of a power vacuum in England.

This was a problem in the making, since the English throne was among the most desirable in all of Europe due to its significant economic and military strength at the time. Unsurprisingly, amongst all the interested parties there were a number of claimants sniffing round the throne (although who claimed or promised what to whom will never be known with any accuracy now), with three in particular having perhaps the most legitimate claims to the English crown at the time.

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Even More Lost Property…

There’s nothing I like more on a hot and boring Tuesday morning than a good old-fashioned random ‘news’ story. And, in that context, my long-time readers will know that I particularly like hearing about weird lost property (like the full-size replica Dalek left behind in a hotel room a few years ago. One hopes it didn’t exterminate the cleaning staff). Honestly, this stuff is fascinating. Keep with me here, you’ll like this.

Train company First TransPennine Express has this week released a list of things that have been handed in to its lost property department. Alongside the usual phones, wallets, umbrellas, sets of keys and pairs of specs, there are some distinctly strange items that people have left on trains. Here are a few:

1 bag of haggis
1 6ft inflatable dinosaur
1 hamster
1 cat
1 lizard
1 framed photo of Mary Berry
1 Barry Manilow CD
1 bottle of champagne
1 wooden casket (of ashes)

Personally, I think these items speak volumes about the general oddness of the British psyche. I’m still puzzling over the picture of Mary Berry. She may be a baking legend, a national treasure and a bit of a fashion icon, but why would anyone want a framed photo of her (outside of her family, obviously)? And who loses a bottle of champagne? I’d be very careful to get that home in one piece so I could drink it. I mean, really. Then there’s the six foot inflatable dinosaur. Did it need its own ticket?

I have my suspicions about the Barry Manilow CD though. If that traveller was anything like me, they left that appalling object on the train deliberately….

Elections on Film: ‘General Election’ (1945)

Today’s election-related film is a bit different. It comes from the British Council film archive and is a short documentary explaining the processes involved in conducting the 1945 General Election from the perspective of one constituency – that of Kettering in Northamptonshire. The film offers the viewer a guided tour around Kettering as the various candidates (including the incumbent Tory MP John Profumo – yes, that John Profumo) valiently attempt to win their contituents’ votes, showing how their campaigns are run and reported and how the votes are cast and counted. Little has changed in this respect – much of what the viewer sees will still be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the way an election is organized in recent years.

Held in July 1945, this was the first General Election in ten years as a result of the Second World War and the results took some time to come in due to the huge numbers of the electorate who were still serving overseas in the armed forces, whose votes had to be returned to Britain from vitually every corner of the globe. This is also mentioned in the film and was, to a cetain extent, probably a factor in the end result – because the 1945 election is one of the most important of the twentieth century, as it returned a large and unexpected Labour majority for the first time.

This came as a real shock to the Conservative Party, who had expected to be carried into power on the back of Winston Churchill’s record as war leader. However, the nation thought otherwise and made their views very clearly known. The impact of this election result has echoed down the years following 1945 – indeed, modern Britain still owes a huge debt to this groundbreaking Labour government, as it was they who introduced the NHS and the welfare state.

Elections on Film: ‘All the Winners – And the Losers!’ (1923)

Today’s newsreel footage comes from the General Election of December 1923 and features a remarkable FIVE politicans who had been or were to become prime minister in the first half of the 20th century: Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Herbert Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill (again! He randomly popped up yesterday too…) – plus Austen Chamberlain, senior politician and half-brother of the late 1930s prime minister Neville Chamberlain.

This election was a hugely momentous one in that the result gave Labour their first ever stab at forming a government (with the support of the Liberals, for whom it was the last time they would win over a hundred seats and more than 25% of the vote – although they came close with the Liberal Democrats’ controversial result in 2010 with 22.1%). This minority government only lasted until the following year, but it was the first time that the traditional two-party system had genuinely been threatened in an electoral context.

If you’d like to find out more about the BFI’s National Archive, you can visit their website here.

Elections on Film: ‘Animated Politics’ (1910)

Some of you might remember that in the run-up to Christmas I posted some seasonal film snippets from the wonderful BFI archive YouTube channel. Since it is now election week, I was pleased to discover they’ve uploaded some bits and pieces of newsreel footage relating to various 20th century General Elections – so I’ll be posting a particularly interesting example every day until Thursday’s crucial ballot…

Today’s choice is very brief snapshot of one of the two elections held in 1910 (January and December – this film is probably from the January one), showing footage of the Labour MP Will Crooks and his Tory opponent Major William Augustus Adams on the hustings at Woolwich in London, plus a glimpse of the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill.

The results of both of the 1910 elections had been ridiculously close and very tense, with Asquith’s Liberals being separated from Balfour’s Conservatives by a matter of only two seats in January and a mere one in December. These deadlocked elections were particularly significant for being the last elections to be held until after the First World War. They were also significant for being the last elections to be held over a period of days, unlike the single polling day we are used to now – this, in many ways, was the beginning of the modern electoral system.

If you’d like to find out more about the BFI’s National Archive, you can visit their website here.

Bodiam Castle: Medieval Ruins and Structural Secrets

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This is Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. From the photographs, you can clearly see that it’s a pretty spectacular construction. Indeed, it looks like the kind of castle immortalised in books and films as the type of defensive military stronghold we all associate with knights and soldiers, sieges and battles – “everyone’s idea of what a medieval stronghold should look like”, as the guidebook puts it.

It certainly has all the outward trappings of a classic medieval defensive building, although now ruined inside: thick stone walls and tall towers with battlements, a wide surrounding moat, a rare 14th century wooden portcullis, arrow slit windows, murder holes in the ceiling of the gatehouse (and even a much later piece of defensive kit in the shape of a World War Two-era pill-box) – all the things you’d expect to see in such a castle. Ostensibly, it is such a castle, and it has the kind of history you might expect from that too.

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Horsemeat, Sloe Leaves and Arsenic: Food Adulteration Past and Present

It can’t have failed to escape your notice in recent months that most of the major supermarkets have been pulling beef products off the shelves at a rapid rate of knots due to the fact that it has been discovered that they have been adulterated with horsemeat.

Unlike many other cases of food adulteration, this isn’t necessarily a public health issue. In Britain, at least, the decision not to consume horsemeat is a cultural choice (although this hasn’t always been the case); however, this is more a case of whether we can assume honesty and are able to trust the products that we buy – or not. If our microwave meal claims to contain beef, for example, then beef is exactly what it should contain.

What is in our food is actually regulated by law, but that hasn’t always been the case either – and the horsemeat scandal shows how ineffective even these modern laws can be against those determined to make a fat profit out of the food we eat, whatever the consequences. However, a horsemeat lasagne is really nothing compared to some of the highly disturbing things that have been found in foodstuffs in the past.

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Library Cuts: The Facts

In March last year, I wrote about the impending cuts to our library services and why it’s just so important to save these vital community resources from closure and ‘rationalisation’. Recently, I was interested to note that the Public Libraries News had put together a list of library closures – and of those libraries still under threat from government policy.

This threat is very real, as a spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) explained to The Independent:

[W]e are seeing a reduction in opening hours, book stock spending and staff in many library services. Local communities, families and individuals are more than ever facing a postcode lottery when it comes to the quality of library services they can expect to receive.

And good quality library services are a crucial aspect of any healthy community. I’m a regular user of my local library – and not just in order to borrow books, although I do that frequently. The libraries in my local area also offer everything from local history services and access to education information, newspapers and the internet, to storytime sessions for the little ones and book groups, family history tutorials and craft workshops for the grown ups.

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Spring has sprung?

Less than a month ago, I posted a picture of the snowy view from my front door. During this last week, conversely, it appears that Spring has decided to put in an early appearance instead.

This photo was taken last weekend at Syon Lane Community Allotment, which is already beginning to look a lot greener than it did the last time I was there back in January, with blossom starting to appear everywhere.

Despite what the weather forecast is saying, I’m hoping this really is the beginning of a new Spring…