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.

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:

The Duke of Bridgewater

The Canal Duke

I have been reading a rather splendid book about the Canal Duke which I thought I would share with you. Being that Francis Egerton is the man credited with starting the Canal Mania on the late 18th Century, I thought I better gen up on him and his life, even though my forthcoming production isn’t really about his canal.

The third Duke of Egerton, by all accounts, was unlikely to live very long. His brothers and sisters died young, many did before they were in double figures. He was a sickly child and very shy. To cure this, Francis was sent on The Grand Tour to see the ways of the world. He was away for three years and saw many things. It was during this time that he began to collect items, fine painting, pottery and exotic works of art. He also was fascinated with the waterways and navigations in France and Italy. When he returned to England to his numerous estates he was a changed man. He became a dandy and spent many an hour at gambling clubs. It was fine for him to loose money, he had inherited plenty. But then one day he fell in love with a lady that the whole of England had equally become besotted with. He wooed her and they were to be married, then suddenly she changed her mind and Francis was a jilted man.

This was the catalyst that motivated him to change his ways and propelled him into business pursuits. He had coal mines on his estate in Worsely in Lancashire. His agent and mining consultant, John Gilbert, had found a way to empty the mine of water so that he could dig further down and get a much larger quantity of coal out. However, there was another problem. It was extremely expensive to transport the heavy coal to market in Manchester, only 7 miles away. The traditional route was via packhorse, which was slow and required many trips to get a reasonable amount of the black gold to the city. The other option was to send it via boat along the river navigation along the Mersey and Irwell. These presented problems of its own. The company that ran it held the monopoly and were expensive and the rivers were tidal and subject to delays.

The one day, the Duke had a brainwave. He would cut his own channel to Manchester. He would build a canal. This was not a completely new idea, for the Duke was familiar with the waterways in France and Europe. There had been attempts at similar projects in England, but nothing to write home about and all that had been attempted were either associated with rivers or ran parallel to one.

The one thing people need in a canal is water and this was going to be an issue when crossing the country away from the rivers and hills. John Gilbert had solved this problem, however. There was plenty of water in the mines and by digging small tunnels, or soughs as they are called, not only would the mines be drained, but water would supply the proposed canal.

All Francis needed now was a canal expert. Fortunately, Gilbert new a man, James Brindley, who was a millwright. The three of them plotted and planned and together, with the genius of Brindley’s knowledge of surveying water, the canal was built. It wasn’t without it’s problems and financial needs. In fact, these were immense and plagued the Duke most of his life. But it was his tenacity I greatly admire; the sticking to his guns when all were laughing at him and telling him that it would never work.

It did and the canal mania started, just at the right time. Without it there would not have been an Industrial Revolution in England. Without the transport network to carry the huge amounts of raw materials and finished products to and from the factories, this country would have missed a trick and have been left behind. But we led the way and we should all be proud. By pushing ahead with the first, of several canals and extensions, we certainly owe the Duke of Bridgewater a lot. I salute him.