All posts by Clive Aslet

My trip to Greenwich on the world’s first suburban railway — as good as a holiday

I’ve been to Greenwich – rather nostalgic for me, because I went there so much in 1999 (I was writing a book) that my oldest son, William, became mad about Nelson.  He still is.  My down journey took me to London Bridge.  As we rattled, pleasantly if at no great pace, through South London, my eyes boggled at the changes that have taken place in the course of a decade.  The scene used to be shabby and featureless, now it lined with new buildings, with cloud-piercing towers in the mid distance.
I was reminded that this line represents the world’s first suburban railway.  At the end of the battle of Waterloo, the new means of going from London to Greenwich – then detached from the rest of London – was the paddlesteamer.  But coaches continued to operate: the journey took about an hour, which isnt’ that different from the car journey today, depending on traffic.  A railway was proposed in 1824, but slammed by the Quarterly Review which feared terrible things for ‘those who are to be whirled at the rate of 18 or 20 miles an hour’.  The Kentish Railway Company, as it was called, expired.
It took a former lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers, George Landmann, and George Walter, from a family of financial risk-takers one of whose members had lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble, to form the London and Greenwich Railway in 1831.  The railway strode down to Greenwich on arches – nearly 1,000 of them.  The viaduct, the purpose of which was to keep a steady gradient for the track, was a wonder in itself.  ‘As a work of art it it undoubtedly very striking, while the minor considerations involved int he plan are novel and interesting,’ commented the Penny Magazine in January 1836.  Even before the first trains were running, the company obtained a modest income from charging the public sixpence to walk down the line.
At Greenwich, I was shown around the Cutty Sark, which has been restored at a cost of £50m, to be opened by HM the Queen on April 25.  I then returned on another transport medium, the Docklands Light Railway, gliding drivelessly between the towers and over the landscaped ex-dock basins of Canary Wharf.  That bustling mobile-phone-to-ear district – devoid of old people, poor people and children – is a foreign land to me.   Altogether, my Greenwich trip was as good as a holiday.


By the way, my Greenwich book, commissioned at a time when it was thought the Millennium Dome would be a roaring success, has been out of print for ages.   But I have just checked on Google Books and most of it is here.  Amazing.

Why is soccer called soccer? And wehre were football’s rules made?

The Royal Mail has a new series of pictorial stamps.  I’m so excited — not because I’m a stamp collector, but because the theme is Landmarks of Britain.  I published a book of that very title in 2005; I’m not claiming copyright but have still got a proprietary interest in the subject.  I’ve blogged about it for the Daily Mail Online.  But I can’t resist sharing a favourite landmark with anyone reading the blog here.  
This is the place:
Parker’s Piece, Cambridge.

And why is it a landmark?  Read on.

Victorian England was a place of rules.  Rules were certainly needed for the game of football, whose origins lay in the anarchy of the Middle Ages, when teams of any size kicked an inflated pig’s bladder into their opponents territory.  More recently, it had become popular at public schools.  But the tendency for each school to play a different version of the game led to difficulties when players met at university.  On Parker’s Piece – the open ground where football was played at  Cambridge – the confusion became too much for H. De Winton and J.C. Thring, two University footballers.  In 1848 they met with representatives from other schools, and after an interminable meeting drew up the first set of rules for association football.  Today, football is still played according to Cambridge Rules.
Football is still played according to Cambridge Rules although the original Rules were somewhat different from their present form.   It was permissible to catch the ball, shoulder barge opponents, and any member of the team could act as goalie, when occasion offered.  These rules were revised in 1863, at a meeting which took place in the Freemasons’ Tavern, Great Queen Street, near the Royal Opera House in London.  The Football Association was born.  Footballers who persisted in playing by different rules found that their game was now called rugby. 
For the time being, soccer retained some of its original gentlemanly overtones.  The very word ‘soccer’ derives from assoc + er (as in Association Football), following the public schoolboy’s delight in diminutives such as brekker for breakfast.  But a new era was dawning.  The first issue of Country Life, published in 1897, contained an article asking whether football should go professional.  In fact professionals had been tolerated by the Football Association since 1885.  The game  acquired a new following from fans who watched as well as played.  In the course of the next hundred years it would become the most popular ball game in the world. 
Incidentally, this was Parker’s Piece at the time of Queen Victoria’s Coronation.  Any chance they could recreate it for the Jubilee?

What better way for the Cotswolds to celebrate the Jubilee?

In 1952, the architect Oliver Hill created what every country town needed to celebrate the Coronation: a Lion and Unicorn made out of rope.  The figures were 8ft tall, and as full of life as the effervescent architect himself.  Hill installed the pair in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, on a checkerboard floor surrounded by obelisks.  Stylistically, it was a tribute in keeping with the spirit of the Festival of Britain exhibition, held on London’s Southbank two years before.  The choice of material reflected the austerity of the times.  Both the Festival of Britain and Austerity are back in vogue.  Furthermore, we’ve got a Jubilee on the go.  Any local authority with half a brain would seize the opportunity to find the remains of Hill’s whimsical heraldry and set it up in glory.
Not the Cotswold District Council.  They have told the art historian Lucy Abel-Smith that they won’t lend a finger towards reinstating it.  Its remains therefore languish in a barn belonging to Lord Bathurst, at Cirencester Park, outside Cirencester.  Have they no imagination or patriotic spirit?
Or, come to that, appreciation of Cotswold traditions, or their place in the cultural history of the 20th century?  Hill lived at Daneway Manor outside Sapperton.  Daneway is one of the sacred sites of the Arts and Crafts movement, having been restored, at the beginning of the 20th century, by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers – architects and craftsmen who, as disciples of William Morris, had left London to seek a simpler way of life amid the purity of agricultural traditions in what was then an unfashionable part of the world.  Hill was also an Arts and Crafts figure, having been advised by none other than Lutyens to become apprenticed to a builder.  (He’d had a rarefied upbringing, Whistler having decorated a room in the family’s Bedfordshire country house, with gold leaf ‘washed over with a grey-green glaze through which the rectangle of each leaf faintly glowed,’ as Hill remembered.)   Between the Wars, he became one of the most fashionable architects of his day, practising in a variety of styles – Art Deco, Modern Movement, even Spanish.  But he became disillusioned with Modernism and returned to his Arts and Crafts roots.  Hence the rope.  The Lion and Unicorn are nothing if not a work of craft skill (albeit constructed on a base of chickenwire and wood.)
 The tradition continues.  In 1997, a replacement Crown was made to accompany the pair when, under Mrs Abel-Smith’s direction, the figures were restored.  The Crown is about to be displayed in Corinium Museum.  In this picture it is shown with a local man Neville Brown, who is horrified by the Museum’s proposal to display it on the floor: such disrespect!  He is engaged in making a suitable base.
As for the Lion and Unicorn themselves, although restored 15 years ago, they are in risk of deteriorating, and no one can see them.  Click here to see their present sorry state. May the trumpets sound and the Twentieth Century Society ride into battle on before of these unravelling beasts.
According to Mrs Abel-Smith, Sir Terence Conran can’t see what the Lion and Unicorn have to do with the course of British art in the 20thcentury.  If Sir Terence dislikes them, they must be good.  He probably doesn’t think they’re ‘modern’ enough.  Actually, until Norman Foster et al at the end of the century, British architects never made much of a contribution to Modernism; we limped behind the Continentals.  What we did give to the world was the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The Cotswolds were its epicentre.  Properly restoring these figures would cost less than a decent firework display – a bagatelle beside the cost of a new public lavatory. 

Part of the problem is that nobody will say they own the figures.  Circencester Urban Council, which commissioned them, is defunct.  But surely its powers were inherited by somebody, whether the Cotswold District Council or Circencester Town Council. 

For heavens sake, one of you, get on with it.

Oliver Hill and friend

This is the place in Devon that I was telling you about

I ought to show where Lydford is; it’s here:

This was a picture I took at exactly this time last year, showing that it doesn’t always rain on Dartmoor:

 The flowers are called milkmaids.
And I love this sign which looks as though it has spent too long at the Castle Inn (excellent pub, by the way, and the only place you can get an internet connection.  I’ve had to spend a lot of time there.)  The name of the street commemorates the mint that used to be here in the Saxon era.  Alas, the name itself doesn’t have quite that pedigree: it was dreamt up in the second half of the twentieth century.  The site of the mint isn’t known.

But enough photographs…
They do make me want to be in Devon though.  Not before Easter, sadly.  Still, I’ll be in the Cotswolds tomorrow: not so shabby as the boys would say.

The family followed military tradition and buried him where he fell; a Devon war memorial remembers his history

This is the Devon War Memorial that has been occupying my thoughts for the past year.  Not the memorial itself – designed, in that age of deference, by the local squire – but the names on it.  There are twenty three; you can see them on the plinth, in sans serif letters attached to the granite.  They don’t give away more than they need to: just the surname of the individual who died and his (and in one case her) initials.  But each has a story, which I have been applying myself to uncover.
There is nothing particularly unusual about the memorial itself.  Crosses were a standard form, particularly in Devon where wayside crosses had been erected since the time of the monasteries to help travellers find their way across the moors.  But the names include a young pilot who died in the Falklands, the first British casualty of the war, and a boy paratrooper, just eighteen years old, killed in Iraq.  The pilot was Nick Taylor.  He died attacking the air field at Goose Green, the target being principally the runway and the Pucara planes parked round about.  It was later discovered that the Argentines had constructed a primitive facility for making napalm there.
To assemble the 20 Sea Harriers that left with the Task Force was a considerable task.  They took every available plane that they could find – including the very first Sea Harrier ever built, which had been retained by British Aerospace so that it could be used to test new equipment.  That is the one that Nick flew. 
Thirty seconds from the target, the pilot in front of Nick, heard the whine in his headset which told him that the radar of a pair of Oerlikon 35mm anti-aircraft cannons had locked onto his plane.  He released a scatter of metal chaff to deceive it, and swung the plane violently left.  This broke the lock; he continued the attack.  But Nick’s plane, retained by the manufacturer as a test aircraft, was not fitted with a radar warning receiver.  He would not have known that the enemy radar had got a lock – probably transferred from the first plane as he flew through its chaff. 
By the time Nick’s death was reported in Britain, it had been overshadowed by the loss of HMS Sheffield, hit by an Exocet launched from a Super Etendart, later that day.  But his loss nevertheless affected the development of the war.  When the Argentines studied his plane, they saw that it had been fitted with Sea Eagle, a more advanced weapon than Exocet.  This amost certainly contributed to the decision to keep the Argentine Navy in port for the remainder of the conflict.
History is full of chances.  Loved ones are left to grieve.  Nick, who came from a military family, was buried when he fell.  This is a picture of his grave.

Archie Huggins, from a family of Devon stonemasons, becomes history. His name is on Lydford War Memorial

This morning I’ll go to the British Library.  It gets crowded at this time of year: the university students have exams to prepare for.  While it’s nice to see them, beavering away – even to imagine that one is one of life’s students oneself – they do clog the place up.  Don’t they have their own libraries to go to?  However, there are fewer of them on Saturdays, particularly when the sun shines.
My mission – and on this I don’t think that many of my young co-library users will be able to help me – is to discover whether organised took place on Dartmoor before 1914.  Discover?  I should say confirm, because I am pretty sure it is.  But since I make passing reference to it in my book War Memorial, just finished, I have got to be certain.   G.T.Teasdale-Buckell’s The Complete Shot, 1907, will be able to help me.
You see, Archie Huggins, a splendid young stonemason who played football for Tavistock and performed in horseback tugs of war at county shows, was a member of the Royal North Devon Hussars, originally a territorial regiment which sailed to Gallipoli on board the SS Olympic, sister ship to Titanic, in 1915.  They left Devon on August 12 – the Glorious Twelfth, the opening of the Grouse Shooting Season.  (You see why I need to know.)   That was in 1914.  First stop was Winchester, where, improbable though it may seem, given its inland location, there had been an invasion scare.  The subsequent 12 months they spent in Essex, getting bored in the very out of season holiday resort of Clacton.
I laughingly think that the grouse business is one of my last checks.  It won’t be; it never is.  Editor and copy editor will raise dozens more.  But unpicking the family history of the war memorial has consumed me for the past year, and I will be sorry when it ends.  If it does. 
If you’d like to see the book at Penguin, click this

The tale of the yew trees

We meet young Frank Fry in the Vestry Minutes for 1914, planting some of the yews that are still in St Petroc’s churchyard at Lydford.  He was born with the century, and so just a lad of 14.  He would probably have been a thatcher if he had lived.  That was the trade followed by both his father Frank and his grandfather Edmund; in fact Edmund had been thatching one of the Lydford cottage roofs in 1903 when he slipped, fell off and died.

Edmund was not a local; he had originally come from Cornwall, presumably in search of work.  He brought with him the traditional songs, not all of them polite to the ears of Victorian gentlefolk, which he had grown up with; and no doubt sang them to some of his Lydford friends, who had their own repertoire from Devon.  Sometimes the squire-vicar of the neighbouring parish of Lewtrenchard, the tireless Sabine Baring-Gould, would form an audience.  Baring-Gould built his own country house-cum-rectory, fathered 14 children, wrote Onward Christian Soldiers and other hymns, and produced over 100 books – one of them being Songs of the West in which, long before Cecil Sharp, he collected the folk songs he heard in Devon.  The world in which Frank Fry spent his boyhood was homespun.
There was little money in rural Devon in those years.  To judge from old photographs, village people were none too particular about the state of their roofs, many of which had holes in; they couldn’t afford to be.  But eventually there came a point when the roof needed renewing.  Thatch was picturesque but, from the village point of view, outmoded.  Tiles were cheaper and needed less looking after.  You could get stone ones from the parish of Coryton, next door to Lydford, although they would flake in a storm.  And mass-produced concrete tiles had come onto the market.  So these were difficult times for thatchers, as for other people in Lydford.  Frank Senior made a little extra by looking after another type of thatch: he cut hair for 6d a time. 
Some time before March 1917, young Frank went down to Plymouth and enlisted with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who put him in a reserve training battalion.  He was then posted to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  I’m not sure that he got overseas.  He is recorded as having died from pneumonia on March 24, 1918 – probably the victim of what was to prove an even deadlier killer than the shells, bullets, bombs and mines of the Great War itself: Spanish Flu. 
He is Fry, F.W. on the war memorial; his grave lies in Lydford churchyard, near the yews that he planted.  I have yet to see the stone.  Perhaps it will add to the story.


I visit Dick Petherick, brought up in Lydford but now retired, in his house on the outskirts of Tavistock.  He is named after his uncle, R.J.Petherick, who died on the Somme in 1916.  Dick has twenty or so photographs that will help me.  R.J.Petherick’s father, Herbert, was a builder.  A square-faced man in a bowler hat, his clothes have the rough look that working men’s clothes always do have in photographs from before the age of dry cleaning, when there was only a brush to take the mud off.  This man lost his wife when the last of the children was born and a female relative, Aunt Mary, from the pool of women who always seemed to exist for such services, arrived to take charge of the family; a white-haired spinster of determined mein. 

One of R.J.Petherick’s brothers is captured in a studio portrait aged twenty-one, in a stiff collar, long jacket and jaunty cap, a posed image in the guise of a man about town, swinging a cane.  The same young man looks quite different – and more at ease — with his sheep, sleeves rolled up and smoking a cigarette, a broad smile on his face.  There is a photograph of the Lydford football club, players in white shorts down to their knees, flanked by other men of the village, respectably dressed in their collars and ties, if not looking too comfortable in them.  Dick isn’t sure whether R.J. is in the picture.  R.J. played in it with Archie Huggins (see earlier post).  Instead, we see him as a boy, in a family group with his proud father; he wears a suit of heavy cloth, with a watch chain hanging prominently in front of his waistcoat.  In another shot, he is shown, with the others, in the vegetable garden: R.J. is the one holding the horse’s rein.  He is the oldest of the three Petherick boys.  There’s also his sister, Frances, in a white apron. 
Like Huggins, he had been a member of the Royal North Devon Hussars (a yeomanry regiment equivalent to the modern Territorial Army) but was posted into the 5th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiemnt.  A group photograph of Dorsetshire soldiers has been made into a postcard.  ‘Dear Frances,’ reads the message, dated August 28, 1916, saying that he can be seen in the back row at the right.  ‘…It’s a bit of a mixed up lot you can see.’  He means that companies had been amalgamated to make good the losses they had suffered.  ‘Have had a fairly decent time so far, billets are better than canvas.  Shall have to leave next Sat.’  He expects the exam he is sitting on Thursday to be a ‘washout’.  Dick died on November 24, 1916, aged twenty-one.  He is one of the 72,194 British and South African soldiers whose names are emblazoned on the great Thiepval Arch, the memorial to the Missing: men whose bodies were blown to pieces in the shelling of the battlefield and never recovered for burial. 
What was the action in which he died?  I plan to find out.  Whatever the fight, it would have been hardly imaginable to the village he left.  The Great War not only took a son and brother from the Petherick family but may have imposed other sacrifices on those who stayed behind.  Frances never married, suffering the pain of a generation whose sweethearts never came home.