St Albans – a bloody history!

Yesterday I jumped on a train and stepped off in a city that has been the site of plenty of murderous history in its time. I was in St. Albans. I was surprised to learn it was a city, being that it started and remained for most of it’s life a ‘one street town’. By that I mean, like many places in Britain, it grew up around a through road, and in this case the famous Roman road of Watling Street.

The city was named after Saint Alban, the first British Christian martyr who was beheaded by the Romans for refusing to give up his new faith. Alban, originally a Romano-British pagan, was so impressed with the piety of a Christian priest that he sheltered from religious persecution that he cast off his pagan beliefs and became a Christian convert. When the Romans came calling, Alban offered himself up in the place of the other priest. As a result, when this was discovered, the Romans became so angry they beheaded him. Later, when invaders returned home to Rome, the Roman City of Verulamium became known as St. Albans.

Before that, Boudicca, queen of the British Iceni tribe, led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. She and her tribe of warriors went on the rampage against the invaders attacking what is now called Colchester, London and St Albans. It took place in AD 60-61. Below the ground of these three towns archeologists have discovered a layer of carbon and ash. It is the remains from the sacking (burning down to the ground) of these Roman occupied centers.

battlefield-bookI was here, not to attack or rampage the place, but to meet up with author Robert Bard and his assistant Leslie Abrahams, to talk about the two battles from the War of the Roses that also took place on this historic site. Robert’s book, London’s Lost Battlefields, explains that there were two important conflicts fought here. The first, on 22nd May 1455, kicked off the numerous battles of the 32 year feud between the most powerful families in England at the time. Each side, represented by the colour of a rose, was vying for right to be King.

This war should have been called the War of the Car Parks; it is hard to believe that in an unassuming St Alban’s car park (one that Robert found a unique way of getting his car into – through the closed of bollards) opposite a pub, the first confrontation of the War of the Roses began. It would eventually lead to the death of Richard the Third and a burial in another car park in Grey Friars Street, Leicester. However, as you stand in the first car park, picturing how the Yorkists faced up to the Lancastrians for the first time, there is no official plaque or marker to tell the visitor of this important historical moment.

A great amount of detail from the two battles that took place during the War of the Roses in St Albans has been recorded. There is plenty of gory descriptions by those that took part, and also from observers living in or visiting the town. You may walk up the high street, between St. Peter’s church, at one end, and the Abbey at the other, with a 15th century clock tower near the middle, and picture the carnage and death that was happening 558 years ago. Many of the original buildings remain standing.

I am planning to return with my camera and make an episode of the Bald Explorer in the new year (2014) and tell part of that story.

If you would like to help make this happen and would like to be one of the first people to enjoy this episode, before it becomes broadcast on the Community Channel, then please make a donation on the right hand side of the BE website. Without out your support these important programmes, which incidentally are not funded in any other way, cannot happen. Thanks very much.

Episode 8: Taking the Water

Richard Vobes is the Bald Explorer and in this episode he is in search of the spring water of a Spa town in Kent.The Chalybeate of Tunbridge Wells – that’s pronounced ‘kal-eeb-ee-ot’ by the way, means iron water. In the programme to be aired on the Community Channel early next year, Richard will tell how the original orange coloured waters were discovered, by whom and how a fashionable resort arose from nothing at the beginning of the 17th century.

This is the 8th full length in the series of programmes, funding by Richard and some of his followers. You can help fund the next episode by making a donation on the right of the website.

History – leave it to the professionals!

History: leave it to the professionals. This was the message I was getting from my radio when I listened to Juliet Gardiner’s programme, Presenting the Past, How the Media Changes History on BBC Radio 4’s Archive on 4 last week. I got very angry and wanted to submerge the FM receiver in the bath water, except that, it would have ruined a perfectly good old fashioned wireless and I didn’t want to do that.

Juliet Gardiner might well be an eminent historian who studied at university and obtained fabulous qualifications in history studies, enabling her to teach, write about and appear on TV programmes, but it made me wonder, is the pursuit and telling of history really only allowable in the hands of those that went in for high education?

I came away from my comprehensive school with a bunch of CSEs (Certificate of Secondary Education) and I went off to learn many skills, most of which were self-taught. Book reading has been my passion for as long as I can remember and in recent years I have been keen to learn as much as possible about local history as well as that of Britain’s past . I am passionate about it and when I see people walk past a timber-framed house, for example, built in the Elizabethan period and now turned into a trendy coffee shop or wine bar, I want to scream and tell people that it was originally a wool merchants house or whatever. Too many of us, brought up in England, Scotland and Wales take our historic properties for granted and do not even think of them as terribly significant – just as old quaint buildings. But while they are that – they have a past and a story, and that has an impact on all of us.

I do not have any qualifications in the study of history and I suppose that is why the BBC and other television channels may never want to use me to present any of their programmes, but that hasn’t stopped me wanting to share my thirst for knowledge of our fascinating past with my fellow citizens through the medium of film and TV.

The Bald Explorer is a documentary series that tries to introduce its viewers to the heritage of this nation and tell some of the stories from the past. I cannot call myself a historian, but I do not see that it matters. Provided I research my subject well, communicate the main points and do not make stuff up, I do not see why I should not be allowed to do this. However, listening to Juliet Gardiner, the other day, I was given the distinct impression that I should leave well alone. To my mind, the more people who can engage with history the better. If I can enthuse my passion and persuade others to take a second look at that timber framed building, pick up a book (one even written by Juliet Gardiner) and learn a bit more about where we come from, then this is a good thing.

I am not sure what axe she has to grind with ‘amateurs’ having a go, but I think it very shortsighted.

The Bald Explorer episode about Taking the Waters at Royal Tunbridge Wells is now complete and will be broadcast on the Community Channel early next year. If you would like to help these programmes and can afford to give a small donation, you may see the programming before the transmission dates. Head to the Bald Explorer website (www.BaldExplorer.com) to find out how to donate. Thank you.

Lost Battlefields of London

Every now and then someone sends me an email to say they have a great idea or subject for the Bald Explorer. Sadly, I am not always able to follow up these ideas because the location is too far away or the cost to make such a show, for me at the moment, too prohibitive. On other occasions, I get in touch with someone I happened to have spotted either on a website or via Twitter that takes my fancy.

Robert Bard is one such person I am meeting up this week to discuss a possible collaboration on an episode about the lost battlefields of London. His book, Lost Battlefields of London, I believe recently published, gives a terrific insight to numerous key places where fatal disputes have played out between the Crown and aggressor over the years from the Roman era to the First World War.

Robert obviously has a healthy interest in death, destruction and conflict in our capital city, having written a number of books the subject, including a search for the plague pits, lost graveyards, the Tyburn Tree (the site at Marble Arch where many a felon was hanged, often dragged from Newgate Prison on a hurdle and later disemboweled and hacked to pieces and distributed either around London or the country), and other places of execution.

Looking at his profile on Amazon, it tells us: Robert Bard PhD was born in London, 1956. The author attended University of Liverpool, then preferring something glamorous to work, he became an airline pilot. After a number of years discovering that it was actually hard work, he went into the family confectionery manufacturing company where he remained until 1990.

He has also written a number of local history books about the towns close to where he lives in North London.

I have yet to tackle a Bald Explorer episode in the capital city. There is so much to explore it has been a difficult decision to know where to start. Filming on such busy streets is also a problem, especially when it comes to recording sound. Having tried to shoot a few pieces here in the past, I have been surprised by the deafening noises from pedestrians, trains, buses, taxis and aeroplanes. That is not to say it is impossible – there are plenty of TV shows that are based in the great city and they do not have problems.

Stories obviously abound and it is knowing which to concentrate on within the limited 45 minute format that the Bald Explorer series takes. With the help of an expert on hand to guide me to the sites of old battles, I am sure we shall manage. I am fascinated to see where, for example, Wat Tyler was beheaded at the end of the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the bloody battle for London Bridge took place during the rebellion of Jack Cade in 1450 and learn more about the plundering and burning of Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots of 1780.

London’s Lost Battlefields is a great introduction to gory events that took place on the Capital’s streets (not really forgotten) but often lost from our minds as we rush about trying to get from important meeting to new exhibition when visiting London. Many of the original buildings have disappeared or have been rebuilt over the past 2000 years and so you need to bring your imagination with you as you follow in the footsteps and picture the struggles that went on in our glorious and impressive past. It is a super book and has some cracking photographs too to help you explore these macabre sites.

You can purchase Robert Bard’s book, London’s Lost Battlefields by following this link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Londons-Lost-Battlefields-Robert-Bard/dp/1781552487/ref=la_B0034Q983W_1_1/279-3321448-2869943?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384156505&sr=1-1

The Great Storm of 1703

At the beginning of the 18th century, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, had published a short work about the most terrible tempest to have hit the British Isles in history – according to him. By all accounts it does sound rather grim.

By coincidence, a much publicised storm is brewing outside my window, in Worthing, West Sussex in the early hours of October 2013. The media has gone to town to highlight the potential danger; even the Prime Minister, David Cameron has assured the country that all emergency measures are on standby in case the lights go out the rivers flood. The wind is certainly gusty as I write this, although the wheelie bins that we are forced to keep outside the frontage of our houses for easy access to the refuse collectors have yet to topple over and cascade down the streets.

Within in living memory is the so-called hurricane of 1987, which I am sad to confess I slept through soundly and only discovered the devastation the following day. For me, one of the terrible effects of that storm was the decimation of beech trees on that for two hundred years pinpointed the iron age hill fort at Chanctonbury Ring, north of Worthing on the South Downs. There were, however, deaths, fallen trees, smashed up cars and endless damage to property. The insurance companies were caught unawares and the claims plentifold.

The Great Storm of 1703 had no such warnings and lasted a week, from Wednesday 24th November to 2nd December. The first two days the weather grew dark and foreboding and the wind gusty. It wasn’t until two o’clock of the morning, says Defoe, that the full force of the tempest hit travelling in a South West direction. It continued all night for the first night until 5am and then picked up again from three in the afternoon on Saturday.

The coastal areas suffered pretty severely and London too. Defoe talks about the systematic damage done to property; titles and bricks spread across the streets, chimney stacks collapsing in large numbers, crashing down on their own houses and their neighbours houses; how many, ignoring the warnings or the howling tulmit outside, remained in their beds and were crushed to death by the chimney stacks. The merchants boats and navy ships were hastily brought into ports and habours across the land and lashed together as best they could. Those at sea were quite literally pushed along, accelerated to the nearest shelter or if they were heading out on a voyage were forced to retreat. One report says that 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, a section of the Thames just down from London Bridge. The famous bridge, Defoe says was amazingly unaffected and put forward the theory that the wind was sucked under the arches rather that smash into the sides of the buildings and houses that were at that time perched along the structure. Other houses in London didn’t get away with it quite so lightly.

The Wikipedia entry is interesting: At sea, many ships (many returning from helping the King of Spain fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession) were wrecked, including HMS Resolution at Pevensey and on the Goodwin Sands, HMS Stirling Castle, HMS Northumberland, HMS Mary, and HMS Restoration, with about 1,500 seamen killed particularly on the Goodwins. Between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost overall. The first Eddystone Lighthouse was destroyed on 27 November 1703 (Old Style), killing six occupants, including its builder Henry Winstanley (John Rudyard was later contracted to build the second lighthouse on the site). The number of oak trees lost in the New Forest alone was 4,000.

It would be interesting to produce a Bald Explorer programme based on the great storm and trace the route of the wind, the damage caused and the lives affected. My interest was initially aroused when researching for a novel I am writing in which I needed a fictional Spanish Galleon to become shipwrecked on the British south coast. Although I could make up a storm, I much prefer to find some real events in history and plot my story around that – besides, it gives such wonderful material, more than my simple brain could never have dreamt up.

The Bald Explorer is a self funded project, making and producing TV programmes that become broadcast on the not-for-profit Community Channel and on their Youtube Channel. If you would like to help and see more episodes produced, you can assist by making a donation to the special Paypal account – the donate button is on the right hand side of the Bald Explorer website. Thanks so much.

Spas of England

As you may be aware, I am currently making another long format episode of the Bald Explorer about the subject of water. Not any old water you that might find in your tap or down a well – this is Chalybeate spring water, stacked with iron and coloured with an orange tinge. There are quite a few springs up and down the country like this and many located in famous resorts – Bath, Epsom and Harrogate. The BE is interested in one discovered by a nobleman while convalescing at the beginning of the 1600s in an area we now call Royal Tunbridge Wells. A place where gentry and royalty came in large numbers to be seen and parade along the Pantiles at the height of the Georgian period.

In 1841, Augustus Granville published the second volume of his well researched book, The Spas of England which concentrated on his travels in the Midlands and South of that country. He was an eminent physician who had previously brought out a guide to the spas of Germany – a country renown for their love and fascination with health giving water.

Granville worked his way round the country, describing not only the facilities which the Spa towns had to offer, but also tit bits of information about the locality, eating places and hotels. He stayed at Tunbridge Wells for a short, but didn’t have too many good things to stay about it. On one occasion, when in Buxton, Derbyshire, staying at the Crescent hotel, a hugely popular and expensive mansion of a place, the general manageress asked him if he was the same A.B. Granville that authored the work on Spas of Germany to which he bashfully confessed he was. She lampooned immediately, nearly casting him asunder from her hotel – the reason she exclaimed was that by telling the readers of his book how marvelous it was in Germany, most of her wealthy customers had lost interest in the English Spa scene and had disappeared abroad – many never returned.

The work is a little out of date, of course, but aside from the information on spring water and health advice bathing in the sea, it is a jolly good read.

I am hoping to have the programme finished and delivered to the Community Channel by January 2014 and no doubt it will transmitted soon after.

The Bald Explorer is a self funded TV documentary series and if you have enjoyed the programmes, you help is always appreciated. You may donate, if you like, to help me cover the costs of production by using the Paypal button to the right hand side of the website. Thank you so much.