Friday, 30 December 2011

Leicestershire - built for food

Most of Leicestershire is built on clay. The ground rises, swells and falls in a series of rolling hills that stretch to the horizon dotted by trees, topped by church spires and everywhere clothed in lush vegetation. The low lying, wetter grounds make for magnificent summer grazing for the cattle and sheep that form the basis for so many of the meat dishes of the county. Areas where the clay soil is better drained produce heavy crops of grain, potatoes and fruits or vegetables of all kinds. Mixed arable and livestock farming is typical of the county, producing a range of ingredients that has gone to produce some classic dishes.

The keeping of pigs has long been characteristic of eastern Leicestershire where root vegetables and whey, a by product of the dairy, have long provided an ideal food source for pigs. The uses to which pork has been put by the good people of Leicestershire has been hailed as their greatest contribution to English cuisine. It is not only Melton Mowbray pork pies that have benefited from the large number of hogs kept in the area.

The rolling clay east of the county is divided from the more rugged west by the defining waterway of the county: the Soar. This river flows north through a broad, fertile valley until it empties into the Trent on the county's northern border near Nottingham. Most of the county drains into the Soar by way of streams such as the Rothley, Blackbrook, Fishpool and Wreak. These streams and rivers answer the one culinary demand that a land-locked county like Leicestershire might otherwise lack: fish. Without a coast there are no sea fish here, but the rivers and lakes of the county have traditionally been rich fishing grounds for a range of freshwater fish that have between them offered up some tasty and very tempting treats.

To the west of the Soar, the landscape is more broken than to the east and the clay soil less prevalent. In medieval times Charnwood Forest was a deep and near impenetrable woodland covering some 60 square miles. It was characterised by craggy bluffs and tumbled boulders. These days much of the woodland has been cleared and the land improved for pasture. The trees still cling to the heights of Birch Hill, Cliffe Hill, Beacon and Bardon all of which offer magnificent views over the county - even as far as Belvoir Castle on a clear day. It was on the cleared land that the Leicester sheep was developed, adding its own distinctive edge to the cuisine of the county.


Monday, 19 December 2011

Hitler's relationship with the German Army in the 1920s

Before the Nazis took power in Germany the armed forces had a definite and vital role in German society and government. It was not a role with which Hitler was comfortable. He wanted to have total control over all aspects of the German state and from 1933 onwards set out to achieve dominance over the armed forces. By 1938 he had very largely succeeded.

The senior officers of the army and navy believed that they were the natural guardians of the German nation. Although they considered it improper for the armed forces to become involved in politics, they did believe the army had a right and a duty to preserve what they considered to be the best in German national spirit, pride and honour. It was a fine line to walk, but the officer corps had no doubt that it was one they were called upon to follow. In part, this was a duty inherited from the landed aristocracy who had made up the bulk of the army officers in the days of the Kaiser.

Many officers had resented the forced abdication of the Kaiser in 1918 and still wanted a return to monarchy in Germany. Some wanted a constitutional monarchy, such as that in Britain, others looked on this as an effete compromise and wanted a return to full absolutism. The one thing all officers could agree on, however, was that communism was bad for Germany and must be crushed. Hitler believed the same.

Before Hitler had come to power, the officer corps had been involved with the government and with maintaining the constitution for many years. It had also had close dealings with Hitler himself. In 1923 Hitler launched a Nazi coup in Bavaria. The aim was to replace the civilian government with one led by Hitler. The Nazi stormtroopers seized key government buildings while Hitler announced his assumption of power in a meeting room in a beer cellar. A large march of over 2,000 armed stormtroopers was brought to a bloody halt by a hail of gunfire from police marksmen, while soldiers waited in support. Hitler was arrested and briefly imprisoned for the abortive coup.

The coup was crucial to Hitler’s relationship with the army. He had on his side Erich Ludendorff, the highly respected World War I general, who had been second only to Hindenburg in the German High Command. Despite this, the serving army officers had preferred to support the constitutional republic rather than follow their old general. Hitler learned, and did not forget.

At his trial after the failed coup, Hitler declared. “We never thought to carry through a revolution against the Army. We believed we should succeed with the Army.” Hitler subsequently made much of the fact that the 1923 march had been halted by armed police, not the army - though he conveniently forgot the army had been hostile and would have been on the scene soon enough if the police had failed. He thus began to build up a legend that he had always been friendly to his old colleagues in the army and wanted to gain power legally, allied to the officer corps.

from HITLER: MILITARY COMMANDER by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 16 December 2011

Dorothea Dix - social reformer

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was born into a wealthy Boston family and at first sought a career in teaching. At the age of 38 she decided to devote herself to campaigning for what she termed the “indigent insane”, by which she meant people suffering mental health problems who had no family to care for them. She amassed evidence on the hardship these people suffered, but was unable to make the US government of President Franklin Pierce take action as Pierce said social welfare was a state concern. Her ideas and campaigns finally won through in the years after the US Civil War and she is generally credited with having massively improved the lot of those suffering mental health problems in the USA.

from HEROES, RASCALS AND ROGUES by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 12 December 2011

Hitler's Conference on the Invasion of Britain

On 31 July 1940 Hitler held another top level military conference to discuss the invasion of Britain.

The army put forward its plan which envisaged the main landings taking place between Folkestone and Brighton using the 16th and 9th Armies while the 6th Army carried out secondary diversionary landings in Lyme Bay and along the Hampshire coast. Paratroops would be used to capture Dover and Ramsgate. After four days establishing a secure beachhead the panzers would break out to thrust north between London and Reading. They would then fan out to surround London while the infantry came up to capture the cities and towns left isolated by the panzer thrust. If that did not force Britain to surrender, the panzers would head for Birmingham and Liverpool to cut Britain in half from the Channel to the Irish Sea. Britain would surrender within six weeks of the first landings it was predicted.

Admiral Raedar then put the naval view. He said that he could not guarantee to keep control of the entire English Channel and suggested dropping the landings at Lyme Bay. There was also the problem of transport ships and landing barges. Raedar estimated that he could gather enough to transport ten divisions at a time. Allowing for wastage and casualties he thought it would take four days to get the 16th and 9th Armies ashore. He was relatively confident, he said, that his ships and U-boats could maintain control of the seas between England and France from Brighton to Ramsgate for at least those four days. But again he emphatically insisted that this would be possible only if the Luftwaffe had control of the air.

Goering smiled. He now had the measure of the RAF and its much-vaunted fighters, he said, and the Luftwaffe was ready to strike. Hitler ordered him to begin on 10 August. The invasion was now scheduled for the first week of September to allow for the barges to be gathered. RAF bases would be bombed to destruction so that they could not be used and the British aircraft shot from the skies. Goering was confident he would achieve and maintain air supremacy over the key sea areas.

The heads of the army and navy were deeply relieved. They had never wanted to invade Britain in the first place, preferring to starve the island nation into surrender by a war of attrition. Now the responsibility for success or failure rested with the Luftwaffe.


Friday, 9 December 2011

Goering and Luftwaffe intelligence summer 1940

In June 1940 the radio listening posts that the Germans had set up in northern France to eavesdrop on British military radio signals reported that on certain wavelengths they were picking up the most peculiar signals. It was early July before a scientist at Luftwaffe HQ in Berlin recognised them as being radar. The Germans were by this date developing their own radar system, based largely on captured French sets, but even so they did not fully appreciate the importance of radar to the British air defence system. Such errors of intelligence were to prove crucial in the month of August 1940.

Not only did the Germans think that British radar was able to pick up their aircraft only when they were close to the British coast, they also thought it could not detect an aircraft flying at under 500 feet - neither of which was true.

The pre-war general intelligence that the Germans had acquired on the RAF – known in the Luftwaffe as the Blue Study, was excellent. It contained accurate data regarding the location of aircraft factories as well as RAF bases and civil airfields that could be converted to military use, and most such places had been photographed from the air from German civil aircraft. There was also an accurate estimation of RAF strength both in peacetime and when fully mobilised for war.

Once the war got underway, however, the Germans found themselves cut off from any up to date information that could not be gained from aerial photographs. Thus the entirely accurate pre-war estimate of maximum fighter production of 200 aircraft per month was not updated to take account of the emergency factory expansion programme that by July 1940 was turning out 460 fighters per month. The British could replace losses much faster than the Germans thought they could.

Similarly, the Germans tended to write off an airbase after it had been bombed. This was the result of experience in both Poland and France where the pressures caused by rapidly advancing German army units meant that the air forces of those countries had not been able to repair their airbases once damaged and get them operational again. Britain had no such problems and was able to get even the most devastated airfield back into operation again within a few days. The British habit of filling in only those bomb craters that were blocking the runway misled the Germans who analysed aerial photos. They saw airfields pockmarked by bomb craters and assumed this meant they had not been repaired when, in fact, they had.

These factors came into effect slowly during August, but by September were becoming serious. Goering’s strategy was based on his intelligence reports, and those proved to be faulty. For the men of Fighter Command in Kent, however, such high level intelligence matters were somewhat academic. So far as they were concerned throughout that August of glorious sunny weather the only thing that really mattered was that the German aircraft formations kept on coming, and they kept on coming in vast numbers.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

Bomber Harris and GEE

When Air Marshal Arthur Harris took up his command as head of Bomber Command on 22 February 1942 he found an urgent order lying on his desk in High Wycombe. Dated one week earlier, the directive came from Air Marshal Portal, head of the Air Staff in London. At first sight it appeared self-contradictory.

The order began by repeating the already established policy of “area bombing”, naming four cities – Essen, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Cologne – as the prime targets with fourteen others as secondary targets. the bombing of these cites was, Harris was told, his “primary objective”. However the instructions went on to accord “top priority” to eight specific targets, made up of four power stations, three oil plants and one rubber factory.

The key to Portal’s thinking in formulating this order was the development of a new, top secret navigational aid codenamed “Gee”. In 1940 the task of solving the chronic problems of navigating bombers at night over enemy territory had been given to Robert Dippy of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE). After a year’s work, Dippy produced the answer. He developed a “Gee Box” that could be carried in a bomber and operated by a navigator after only minimal training.

The box received radio pulses sent out at regular intervals by three powerful transmitters in England, each 100 miles from the other. The pulses were sent out at precisely the same instant by the transmitters, but would arrive fractons of a second apart at the receiving box. A simple triangulation carried out on the signals would give the navigator his position. Dippy estimated the equipment accurate to just 100 yards at a range of 350 miles. He also estimated that it would take the Germans about six months to produce effective countermeasures from the time they first captured an intact “Gee Box” from a downed bomber. Crews were given strict instructions to destroy the “Gee Box” if they were forced to land in enemy territory, but even so it would be only a matter of time before the Germans got hold of one.

from Heroes of Bomber Command, Lincolnshire by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 2 December 2011

Heroic Czech Pilots fighting in RAF Bomber Command

Not all the men who fought in Bomber Command from Norfolk were British. A great many came from Empire and Commonwealth countries. Most of these men were at first integrated into the RAF, but later they formed their own squadrons. No.75 Squadron was composed chiefly of New Zealanders, as was 487, while 464 Squadron was recruited in Australia. Of course, these various servicemen were not really considered foreigners in 1939 – the Canadians were especially seen as part of the larger British family. But there were some real foreigners flying in the RAF.

In Norfolk there were two squadrons in particular composed of men who had no duty to fight for the RAF, but whose heroic help was much appreciated. The first of these was 311 Squadron, which was formed on 29 July 1940, moving to East Wretham in September. This squadron was composed exclusively of Czech airmen who had managed to flee that unfortunate country after the German invasion of 1939.

At first these men had been based in France, officially fighting in the armed forces of the Czechoslovak government in exile of President Eduard Benes. When France fell to the Germans, the Czechs hastened to get to Britain as quickly as they could. Those with aircraft flew out – taking as many of their ground crew as they could. Those on foot hijacked trucks and cars to get to western ports where the Royal Navy risked Luftwaffe bombers to take off the Czechs, isolated British units and other refugees.

When 311 Squadron was formed, it was given new Wellington bombers to replace the Bloch 174 and Loiré 451 aircraft in which they had arrived in June 1940. The squadron continued to operate on Wellingtons out of East Wretham until April 1942 when it was transferred to Coastal Command and given the task of patrolling the North Sea to search for German ships and U-boats. In its time with Bomber Command, 311 had flown over a thousand operational sorties in 150 missions, dropping 1,300 tons of bombs on the enemy. The squadron’s airmen were awarded no fewer than 18 DFCs, which was an impressive total given the number of men serving with the unit.

The outstanding figure of 311 Squadron was Squadron Leader Josef Ocelka. As the squadron prepared to transfer to Coastal Command, the station commander was moved to write of him “He has always displayed conspicuous determination and devotion to duty and the recent successes of the squadron are in no small measure due to the high example he has set.”

A typical example of his dedication came on 28 March 1941 when he took off to attack Cologne. Soon after take off the wireless failed. When the wireless operator traced the fault he found that the entire electrical system of the bomber was in danger of failing. Such a fault was grounds for abandoning the mission, but Ocelka refused to be put off. He flew on to reach and bomb Cologne. On the return trip, however, the navigator was unable to keep track of where the aircraft was. After crossing a stretch of open sea that Ocelka hoped was the English Channel, he spotted an airfield. Ocelka warily landed on the runway, but kept his engines running while he sent a crew member to find out where they were. Fortunately they were in England.

Like the Poles, the Czechs gained a well earned reputation for dashing bravery in action. Sadly many of the men of 311 Squadron did not live to return home, being killed in action. Several are buried in the churchyard of East Wretham, in a small corner reserved especially for them. Each year on Remembrance Sunday, the Czech government sends a representative to East Wretham to lay a wreath by their graves.

from RAF BOMBER COMMAND, NORFOLK by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Build-up to the Battle of Brunanburh, 937

Of all the battles fought between the English and the Scots, the one fought at Brunanburh had arguably the most important long term results of all. It was at this battle that the English established themselves as the masters of what is now England – and that control has never been seriously in doubt since.

In the century before this climactic battle the map of Britain had been altered dramatically by the repeated hammer blows of the Viking invasions. The Battle of Brunanburh was to set the scene for further changes which led to the formation of the kingdoms of England and Scotland much as they exist today.

The Scots and the Picts had become united under the Scots royal family through dynastic marriage and by the 930s, King Constantine of Scotland ruled a kingdom which stretched form the Moray Firth south to the Forth and west to Mull and Kintyre. The Pictish lands north of the Great Glen had been lost to Viking Earls, who ruled a largely Pictish population. Allied to the Scots, more often than not, was the Kingdom of Strathclyde. This kingdom was based on the old Romano-British Kingdom of Clyde which had held off the barbarians in the collapse of the Roman Empire and now stretched from the Clyde south to include what is now Cumbria.

The English kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia had been overrun by the Vikings, as had much of Mercia. Most of northern and eastern England had thus been conquered and most areas heavily settled by the Scandinavian invaders. Even the Kingdom of Wessex had been threatened in the 890s, but southern England had been saved by King Alfred the Great and his successors.

Wales, too, had suffered Viking invasion and settlement. The Welsh princes had, however, managed to avoid being conquered and Wales was in the 930s divided among a number of local princes. Ireland had seen widespread Viking settlement, especially around Dublin, but most of that island remained in the hands of its native Celtic dynasties.

All these lands, kingdoms and dynasties were to be dragged into the destructive battle at Brunanburh, a conflict which all contemporaries recognised as being not only the greatest battle fought in Britain, but also one with truly historic consequences.


Monday, 21 November 2011

The Goddess Athena takes a hand

In the summer of 480bc a vast Persian army was invading Greece. An attempt by the Greeks to block the advance in the narrow pass at Thermopylae had failed, and Persian Emperor Xerxes led his army south into the lands of Boeotia.

While Xerxes was moving his army forward, gathering supplies from Boeotia and no doubt bringing his supply fleet forward, the Greek League was meeting at Corinth to discuss what to do in the light of the defeat at Thermopylae. The fleet, at the insistence of Themistocles of Athens had sought shelter in the narrow channel between the island of Salamis and the mainland, just southwest of Athens. The army, meanwhile, was somewhere a little north of the Isthmus of Corinth.

The delegates at the League meeting were divided. The Athenians and others from north of the Isthmus wanted to fight the Persians in or near Boeotia. But now that Thermopylae was fallen they could not offer a battlefield that had convincing merits. The Peloponnesians, as before, wanted to hold the line on the narrow Isthmus, but were as before unable to suggest a way of stopping the Persian fleet simply landing troops behind the defensive line.

The result was that a vote was dominated by the Peloponessians. The army would fall back on the Isthmus and begin building a defensive wall or earthwork, while the fleet would move south to try to guard the coast.

The commander of the Peloponnesian army that had been marching north to join Leonidas was none other than Cleombrotus, the younger brother of Leonidas. Receiving his orders, Cleombrotus set about the task of preparing a defensive position with all the thoroughness shown by his elder brother. With some 30,000 men to hand, he had not only enough labour to build a formidable barrier across the Isthmus but also to destroy the roads in front of the Isthmus. Everything was to be done to make the Persian approach as difficult as possible.

In the fleet, the decision of the League meeting caused fresh outbursts of argument. Eurybiades wanted to abandon the secluded waters of Salamis in favour of ports in the Peloponnese. Presumably he thought that if the fleet were stationed there it stood a better chance of driving off a landing by Persian troops. Themistocles, presumably supported by the men of Aegina, wanted the fleet to stay where it was. He knew that neither Athens nor Attica were yet properly evacuated and that the fleet would be needed to guard the refugees as they fled overseas. Although commander, Eurybiades had to bow to the will of his most powerful junior commanders if the fleet were to remain intact. It stayed at Salamis.

In Athens and across Attica the entire population was getting ready to flee. Those who lived too far from the capital to make it to the evacuation ships in time fled to the mountains and hoped the Persians did not stay long. Most however, flooded down to the port to be taken to Aegina or to Salamis, in accordance with the decree agreed some weeks earlier. The merchant ships of the League states were kept constantly busy shipping the mass of terrified humanity to safety.

The process was hurried along by what seemed to be a direct intervention by the goddess Athene herself. A great snake was said to live beneath the temples of the Acropolis, presumably in caverns or crevices, and to come out at night to patrol the sacred precincts of Athene to make sure the place was safe for the goddess. To ensure that the serpent did no harm to humans, such as the priests and priestesses, a piece of honeycake was left out every evening. By dawn it had always gone, consumed it was said by the snake. But now the honeycake was found uneaten at dawn. The High Priestess of Athene made this public, and many took it to mean that the goddess herself had left Athens. The rush to the ships increased dramatically.

from The Battle of Thermopylae by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

English boats attack the Spanish Galleon San Lorenzo

During the battles against the Spanish Armada in 1588 the galleass San Lorenzo ran aground. The first of the boats to get within musket shot of the galleass was the longboat from the Margaret and John packed with 40 men under the command of Richard Tomson. The boats from the Ark Royal came up next with about 60 men in her. Tomson takes up the story:

“These two boats came hard under the galleass sides, being aground; where we continued a pretty skirmish with our small shot against theirs, they being ensconced within their ship and very high over us, we in our open boats and far under them, having nothing to shroud and cover us; they being 300 soldiers, besides 450 slaves and we not, at the instant, 100 persons, Within one half hour it pleased God, by killing the captain with a musket shot, to give us victory above all hope or expectation; for the soldiers leaped overboard by heaps on the other side and fled with the shore, swimming and wading. Some escaped with being wet; some, and that very many, were drowned. The captain of her was called Don Hugo de Moncada, son to the Viceroy of Valencia. He being slain, and the seeing our English boats under her sides and more of ours coming rowing towards her some with ten and some with eight men in them, for all the smallest shipping were the nearest the shore, put up two handkerchers upon two rapiers, signifying that they desired truce. Hereupon we entered her, with much difficulty, by reason of her height over us, and possessed us of her. For the space of an hour and a half, as I judge, each man seeking his benefit of pillage until the flood came that we might haul her off the ground and bring her away.”

It is only fair to point out that not all the witnesses go along with one aspect of Tomson’s version. Tomson states that only his boat and that from the Ark Royal were engaged in the fight with the galleass, and implies that they were still the only boats engaged when the Spaniards surrendered. The other boats were, he says, “coming rowing towards her”. Others stated that they were alongside the San Lorenzo when her crew surrendered. It is likely that the reasons for this was that the men were vying for a share of the loot. At this date only those who took part in the actual capture were entitled to a share of any prize money on offer - it would be some decades before the navy adopted the rule that anyone engaged in the battle would get a share.

An account by a Spanish prisoner has survived, though it is scanty. He say that “The Italian sailors and artillerymen, with some others, were the first to escape and fly to shore. And so many went that not more than 50 men stood by the captain to defend the ship.”  He also gives the detail that Moncado was killed by a musket ball that penetrated his brain through his eye.

Such minor discrepancies apart, the general picture is clear. The capture of the San Lorenzo took over an hour to accomplish, and the subsequent events on board up to two more hours. About 50 Englishmen had been killed or badly wounded, and some 30 Spaniards were casualties as well.

from the book THE SPANISH ARMADA - A CAMPAIGN IN CONTEXT by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Cavalry horses of Alexander the Great

The type of horses used by the Macedonian army has been a subject of much debate over the years. Some sculptures and reliefs show horses that look rather like those of the modern day, though they appear rather more robust. Others show smaller horses that are not much bigger than ponies. Recent archaeological finds have gone some way to solving the riddle. Horse bones that have been recovered show that horses of this period were not much different in size from modern riding horses. They were, however, unmistakably heavier than is usual today. This may, in part, be due to the introduction of Arab bloodlines to nearly every breed of modern horse, or may reflect some centuries of selective breeding. Perhaps the reliefs that show pony-sized horses reflect an artistic convention that shows the humans larger than in reality.


Monday, 7 November 2011

1346 - The Black Prince advances on Caen

Cheux Church
Just before noon on 25 July the English advance guard under Edward, the Black Prince, arrived at the village of Cheux. The few houses were quickly plundered, while the Prince’s men secured the stocks of grain and other food in the great barns belonging to the local abbey. The village stood on a ridge, from which the Black Prince could look east down into the wide plain of the River Orne to the city of Caen, some 12 kilometres away. The soldiers dispersed to forage for food and cook their lunch.

Meanwhile a monk dressed in the habit of the Augustinian canons was riding down from the ridge and heading for Caen. This was Geoffrey of Maldon, an eminent professor of theology who had been brought on campaign by Edward to provide him with advice on matters of theology and ecclesiastical law that might crop up. His mission this day was to carry Edward’s offer of surrender terms to the defenders of Caen.

Given that the English were now embarked on a grand chevauchée, the terms were fairly generous. If Caen surrendered immediately the main English army would not enter the city, no looting would be allowed and the entire population could keep their personal possessions and lives intact. Of course, if the city did not surrender it would be looted and burned.

The monk was barely halfway through reading out the message to Bertrand and d’Eu when it was snatched from his hands by the Bishop of Bayeux. The Bishop, a relative of Bertrand’s who had been involved in the old feud with Harcourt, tore up the message and ordered Geoffrey to be thrown into prison. This was a serious breach of military etiquette and against all the customs of chivalry. The Acta Bellicosa records Edward’s reaction when his messenger failed to return “This wicked action of the French meant that their own punishment was all the more severe.”

It was not until late in the evening that Edward finally realised that Geoffrey of Maldon was not coming back, and by then it was too late to take any action. So it was at dawn on 26 July that the English marched down the ridge from Cheux towards Caen. Scouts were sent out ahead to discover the lay of the land and the French dispositions.

from "The Battle of Crecy,  A Campaign in Context" by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Build-up to the Battle of Halidon Hill, 1333

At the Battle of Bannockburn, fought near Stirling in 1314, Robert Bruce had defeated the army of English king Edward II and won for himself the crown of Scotland. However Bruce’s death in 1329 reopened the long-running disputes between the Bruce and Balliol families over which had the better claim to the Scottish throne. While the victor of Bannockburn lived the Balliols accepted him as king, but Bruce died leaving only the five year old David as his heir. Edward Balliol stepped forward to claim the throne, sparking a Scottish civil war.

Events in Scotland were being watched carefully by King Edward III of England, who was keen to avenge his father’s defeat. In 1332 Edward Balliol lost the civil war and fled to England. He asked Edward for military help, promising in return to honour the agreement made by William of Scotland after the Second Battle of Alnwick and acknowledge the King of the England as his feudal superior. Edward insisted on one more concession, the return of Berwick upon Tweed to England, and then mustered an army to march north against Scotland.

Edward laid siege to Berwick, held for David Bruce by Sir Alexander Seton, on 12 April 1333. Realising that the defences were too strong to storm, Edward decided to starve the garrison out. A small watching force was left to blockade Berwick while Edward marched north to capture and burn Edinburgh. Much to Balliol’s disappointment this did not cause the Scottish nobles to make peace. Edward, having no wish to be sucked into a long campaign inside Scotland, returned to Berwick, which he reached in June.

A large Scottish army led by Lord Archibald Douglas followed the English south from devastated Edinburgh. Rather than join battle, Douglas led his force around Berwick to lay siege to Bamburgh. The English queen was in residence at Bamburgh and Douglas hoped that the threat to his beloved wife would cause Edward to abandon the siege of Berwick, allowing the Scots to move in enough supplies and reinforcements to enable the town to hold out. The rather ungallant ruse failed. Edward stayed at Berwick.

Food in Berwick had now finally run out, so on 15 July Seton agreed to surrender Berwick on 20 July if he was not relieved by that date. Douglas now had no choice but to attack the main English army in open battle. He abandoned the siege of Bamburgh, crossed the Tweed and marched towards Berwick.

from "Battlefield Walks in Northumberland" by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 31 October 2011

Choosing a new King of England in 1066

In January 1066 King Edward the Confessor of England lay dying. He had no children, a fact that would plunge his kingdom into war and change the face of England, and of Britain, forever.

It was not that there was a shortage of potential heirs – the difficulty was that there were too many and none had a claim to the throne that was any better than the others. It was up to the Witan, the council of nobles, to decide who should be the next king. Tradition demanded that they should choose a member of the royal family, but beyond that they were free to choose who they liked. In terms of strict legitimacy the crown should have passed to Edgar the Atheling, great nephew of Edward the Confessor. However Edgar was a mere child who had been brought up in Hungary and few people supported his cause.

Next to be considered was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and head of the powerful Godwinson family. Harold had only a tenuous link to the crown. He was a member of the royal family by marriage, his sister being Edward’s queen. Unlike Edgar, Harold was a grown man of 44 with a proven track record of military success against the Welsh and of administrative skill in his earldom. He had, moreover, travelled on pilgrimage to Rome and had contacts abroad.

Also related to the royal family by marriage, though more distantly, was Duke William of Normandy. His great aunt Emma had married Ethelred the Unready and so was mother to Edward the Confessor. What William did have, or so he claimed, was a promise from Edward to nominate him as successor should he die without a son. The promise  appears to have been made in 1051 during some complex diplomatic moves between England and Normandy. If any of the nobles in England were aware of the promise they showed no signs of taking it very seriously.

A fourth contender lurked across the North Sea in the shape of King Harald Hardrada of Norway. Hardrada had no real claim to the throne at all, but he had friends and supporters in England. Moreover he was a big, tough and confident ruler who could command a mighty army of Vikings.

For the English noblemen meeting at Westminster as Edward lay dying the decision seemed an easy one. Harold Godwinson was English and he was capable. If any of them had any doubts, these were quelled when Edward indicated that Harold should be the next king. Edward died on 5 January and was buried next day. As soon as Edward was laid in his grave the nobles proclaimed Harold king and he was crowned later the same day.

from "Battlefield Walks in Kent and Sussex" by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Battle of Posbury 661

Distance:        1.5 miles
Terrain:        Most of the walk is over surfaced lanes with one steepish slope.
Public Transport:    There are no public transport links to this battlefield.
Parking:        There is some limited roadside parking, but care should be taken not to block the road to other motorists.
Refreshments:    There are no refreshment facilities on the walk, although plenty are available in Crediton three miles to the northeast.


After the crushing defeat of the Dumnonian invasion of Wessex at Bindon the two kingdoms were at comparative peace for a generation. No doubt there was a degree of border squabbling and there may have been battles the records of which have not  survived, but there were no major wars.

Then in 658 warfare erupted once again. King Cenwalh of the English kingdom of Wessex faced an invasion of the Welsh Dumnonians. He met the invaders at Penselwood, south of Frome. The Dumnonians received a crushing defeat and fled “like a man flees fire” according to a contemporary account. The victory for Cenwalh was impressive and he was able to occupy most of Somerset as a result. Three years later he decided to continue the English advance into Dumnonia with a daring strike west past Exeter to surround and capture that city.

At the time Exeter was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Britain, though given the basically agricultural nature of the economy that is not saying much. There were probably about 700 households in the city giving a population of around 2,000. The city was still surrounded by its impressive Roman walls, sections of which still stand today, but defence depended on the Dumnonians mustering enough men into the city to man the defences. It was probably to stop this that Cenwalh found himself marching to Posbury, southwest of Crediton.

from Battlefield Walks in Devon by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Problems for RAF Bomber Command, July 1940

As the French campaign came to its end, Bomber Command had to face a host of serious problems. Its squadrons had been badly mauled in combat, the morale of its men was sinking, the purposes for which it had been created were now in doubt – and worst of all time was rapidly running out before the armed might of the Third Reich would be hurled against Britain. Air Marshal Charles Portal, head of Bomber Command, had been in his job less than three months when faced with the herculean task of getting Bomber Command back into fighting trim.

Lurking behind all the other problems facing Portal was the very obvious fact that almost all the prewar assumptions about how the air war was to be fought had turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate. The grand strategy had been based on the fact that when war came it would involve Britain and France, plus one or more eastern European states, fighting against Germany. Poland went to war with close to a million men under arms, 500 tanks and 350 aircraft. The Polish landscape with its poor roads, few railways and vast tracts of swamp and forest. was not thought to be suitable for modern warfare. It was confidently expected that Poland would fend off the Germans for some months giving Britain and France plenty of time to mobilise and intervene. In fact Poland was crushed in less than a month.

When it came to war in the West the planners were proved wrong again. They expected Britain and France to halt the German drive, just as they had done in 1914. After that the war would settle down to a slogging match somewhere in northern and eastern France. Bomber Command had been designed both to launch long distance raids from Britain in to Germany and also to undertake short range missions from bases in France against the German military. The fall of France meant that the RAF now had to operate exclusively from Britain. Moreover the situation was complicated by the fact that the Luftwaffe now had the use of all the airbases in France, Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia that the planners had thought would be denied them. And, of course, the French air force had ceased to exist.

The combats of May and June 1940 had proved beyond doubt that the aircraft of Bomber Command were not suited to their purpose. They had been designed to fly during the day, allowing the navigator to find the target and the bombaimer to hit it with reasonable accuracy. But the heavily armed German fighters had proved too effective. Bomber formations that were to spend any time in enemy airspace would have to fly at night if they were to survive. As the ”nickel” raids had shown navigation at night was a difficult skill to master, and events would soon prove that bombaiming was no less tricky.

from the book "RAF Bomber Command at War" by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Training Early Gladiators

The ways in which gladiators were recruited, trained and maintained was, for the Romans, a distinctly dishonourable business. Few citizens of any consequence got involved except as a mask for hiring a gang of street toughs, and so accounts of these matters emerge only slowly into the written record.

We know that in the earliest days of the gladiatorial munera, the gladiators were largely recruited from amongst the personal slaves of the man whose funeral rites were being celebrated. Those slaves who would previously have been earmarked for sacrifice were put to fighting each other to the death instead. Often the dying man would specify in his will which slaves were to be used as gladiators and how much money his heirs should spend on entertaining the crowd of citizens which was bound to turn up to watch. One patrician stipulated that the gladiators who fought and died at his munus should be the teenage slaves he had bought to be his homosexual lovers. The youth of the proposed victims and the manifest unfairness of the man’s will led the magistrates to overturn it. Older men were chosen to fight instead.

During Rome’s long wars of expansion through the Republic and early Imperial periods there was a ready supply of prisoners of war. These were trained soldiers who could be pushed into the arena with little need for preparation. Nor were they particularly expensive, so those who died meant little in the way of financial loss to those staging the games. The survivors could be sold to citizens wanting gladiators or put to work on farms and in workshops.

By the middle of the 1st century AD, however, the situation had changed markedly. The demand for gladiators and arena games was as great as ever, but the ready supplies of prisoners of war were no longer available. To remedy this difficulty an entire business grew up to recruit, train and maintain the gladiators.

From "The Age of Gladiators" by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Treaty of Brest Litovsk

In November 1917 the Russian Communists, led by Vladimir Lenin, established control over the vast Russian Empire by carrying out a daring coup in the capital Petrograd.

In December 1917, Lenin agreed a ceasefire with Germany, and sent his deputy Leon Trotsky to the city of Brest Litovsk in Poland to negotiate a treaty with Germany and Austria. Trotsky was told to get peace at almost any price.

The Germans were keen to annex large sections of the Russian Empire, or to see them set up as German dominated independent nations.

The Austrian Empire was on the point of economic collapse. They might have wanted land from the Russians, but were even more desperate for peace so that they could move all their forces to Italy.

Once in Brest-Litovsk, however, Trotsky came to believe that Germany and Austria were ripe for a Communist revolution. If he could delay a peace treaty, he thought, revolutions would break out.

In February 1918 the Germans became exasperated with Trotsky’s delays. They told him that unless he signed a treaty at once, the war would begin again. Trotsky refused. The Germans invaded Russia.

The Russian forces did nothing to halt the German advance. They simply surrendered, or threw down their weapons and began to walk home.

By 24 February the German armies were approaching Petrograd in the north and were on the Don River in the south. The only delays were caused by problems getting supplies to the troops.

On 3 March the Russians signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania were annexed from Russia to Germany, though with vague promises that they would become independent after the war. Ukraine was set up as an independent country, but was occupied by German forces.

The Turks wanted to gain the Caucasus Mountains and nearby areas, but Germany said they should become independent of both Russia or Turkey.
From "1000 Facts on World War I" by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Roman Legion on the March

When a legion was on the march it took up a standard formation and routine that was followed as rigidly as the circumstances allowed no matter where the legion was. A legion on the march filled about 2 km of road.

At dawn the trumpets sounded to instruct the men to fold their tents and pack away their belongings. A group of eight men shared a tent, cooking pot and campfire. These were loaded on to a mule and one man had the task of caring for it.

A second trumpet call gave the order to start marching. First to leave camp were small groups of cavalry who rode ahead of the column to look for ambushes, broken bridges or other other obstructions.

One cohort of infantry was chosen to lead the way each day by throwing dice. These men marched fully prepared for battle and ready to deal with any emergency that might arise.

Next came a group of engineers and carpenters. They were expected to clear aside any rocks or fallen trees and to repair bridges. The road had to be clear for the rest of the legion.

Behind the engineers came the men with the mules. They had the task of pitching tents and starting camp fires when the legion stopped for the night.

The legatus and his staff rode behind the mules accompanied by a small troop of riders ready to take messages along the column or to other legions or towns as the commander thought necessary.

Mules and carts carrying supplies, dismantled catapaults and other material came next. Inside the empire carts were used as they could travel easily along the roads (see page 158), but in enemy territory mules were preferred.

The main body of the legion marched next. These men had all their armour and weapons with them, but were allowed to sling their helmets and shields from comfortable straps.

The rearguard was made up of a final cohort marching fully prepared for battle and accompanied by a few horsemen.

From "1000 Facts on Ancient Rome" by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Mercenaries in Ancient Greece

Mercenaries are men who fight for a country other than their own in return for payment. They are usually hired for a particular job or for a specified period of time.

In ancient Greece most states fielded armies made up of their own citizens. However, mercenaries would be hired if they offered specialist skills that could not be found elsewhere.

The Thracians from lands to the north of Greece produced troops who fought as peltasts (see page 84). Thracians were hired by many Greek states and sometimes even fought on both sides of a war at once.

The men of Crete were famous as archers. Cretans were hired as mercenary archers by many states, but only if the Cretan government gave permission first.

The island of Rhodes produced men who practised with the sling every day. These men worked as mercenaries throughout the Greek world and charged high prices for their services.

Mercenaries were famous for the greed and violence with which they looted enemy territory. Some commanders actually promised mercenaries that they would be allowed to loot the enemy.

In 402bc Prince Cyrus the Younger began a civil war against his brother Artaxerxes, Emperor of Persia. He hired 10,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries to face the light Persian infantry.

After Cyrus was killed at the Battle of Cunaxa, the 10,000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their way through 1,000 km of Persian territory to get home. The march took 215 days.

At the Battle of Granicus in 334bc about 10,000 Greek mercenaries fought on the Persian side against Alexander the Great (see page 36). Alexander saw this as treachery and had the mercenaries killed.

King Cleomenes III of Sparta hired a large force of mercenaries to fight against Achaea in 222bc. When Cleomenes failed to pay their wages on time, the mercenaries left. Sparta lost the following battle at Sellasia.

From the book

1000 Facts on Ancient Greece by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 6 October 2011

What were the origins of the Eisteddfod?

Billed as a traditional celebration of Welsh poetry, song and culture which dates back to pre-Roman times, the Eisteddfod is in reality a fairly modern invention. But that does not make it any the less impressive.

It was in 1792 that a group of Welsh Bards paraded through London to Primrose Hill where they erected a circle of stones, unsheathed a sword and placed it on a Maen Gorsedd stone, performed some ceremonies and then sheathed the sword again. It was this event which brought the existence of the Welsh bards to the notice of Society and launched the modern Eisteddfod.

In fact, the Welsh Bards had been performing since time immemorial and there is every reason to believe the claim that the institution dates back, one way or another, to before the coming of the Romans. In ancient Celtic society the Bards held a distinguished and much-honoured place. It was they who kept alive the memory of dynastic history through their  songs and epic poems. Kings and chieftains always gave an honoured place to any passing bard, and often had their own resident bard to compose songs and poems in praise of their families.

The coming of Christianity broke the previously close link between the bards and the druids. It also somewhat reduced their social standing.  However their calling was still considered  important and by the 1150s the bards had formed themselves into a type of loosely organised guild known as the Court. This Court met occasionally to settle disputes between members, accredit hopeful Bards and to hold competitions and give awards for poetry and music. The large national meetings went by the name of Eisteddfod.

In the 16th century the Welsh Tudors sat on the throne of England and made great efforts to tie the two nations together. Among the Tudor innovations was to make the Court responsible for the behaviour of the travelling bards. England and Wales were plagued by unemployment and the problem of  ‘sturdy beggars’, those who gained alms by intimidation, was growing. In Wales beggars often tried to evade the rules by claiming to be in gainful employment as travelling bards, and it was felt the Court was the best placed to judge their claims.

The Court continued to hold their Eisteddfods for generations, but gradually the size of the gatherings and quality of the work declined. Traditional Celtic poetry was highly complex. Not only did it have a complicated metre and rely upon difficult rhythms and rhymes, but it also had a complex system of metaphors and allusions which a bard was expected to understand. There was also a large body of oral material which a fully qualified bard should know by heart and be prepared to recite at short notice.


Everything You Need to Know About the British: 200 Insights into Our Way of Life by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Roman Mob

The Roman mob could oust emperors
Over a million people lived in ancient Rome. Many of them were voting citizens who did not have a regular job. Even the most powerful emperors had to keep this vast mob of Romans happy. If the mob rioted, the emperor might be killed and replaced with somebody the citizens preferred.

Each seat was allocated to a particular person
People attending the gladiator games had their own seats. The row and seat numbers were written on small clay tablets which were handed out by the editor of the games. Some seats were given to whoever queued up outside the arena.

Women had to sit at the back
The seats with good views were reserved for the men who had votes and money to help the editor. Women in ancient Rome could not vote, so they were given seats right at the back of the crowd.

The mob tried to decide which gladiators lived, and which died
If one gladiator was wounded, he could appeal for mercy. The man held up the first finger of his left hand. The editor then decided whether or not to grant a missus, allowing the man to leave alive. The mob would give a thumbs down gesture if they thought the man should die, or hide their thumbs in a clenched fist if they thought he had fought well enough to live. The editor usually did what the mob wanted so as to gain favour.

From 100 Things you should know about Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 26 September 2011

Make a Barbarian Pen Top

Make a Barbarian Pen Top
You will need:
Thick paper
Sticky tape
White glue

1. Fold a piece of thick paper in half and draw a barbarian on it.
2. Cut out the barbarian through both layers of paper.
3. Tape the pipecleaner on to one piece of paper.
4. Glue the two barbarians together with the pipecleaner between them.
5. Colour in the two sides of the barbarian.
6. Twist the pipecleaner around the end of your pencil.


100 Things You Should Know About Arms and Armour

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Nimitz Class of aircraft carrier

The place of the Forrestal class supercarriers was taken by the ten ships of the Nimitz class. These began entering service in 1975 when the USS Nimitz herself was commissioned. The most recent to enter service was the USS George H.W. Bush in January 2009. These ships are even larger than the Forrestal class. They displace about 101,000 tons, are 1,092 feet long, 252 feet wide and draw 37 feet. Their nuclear engines provide effectively unlimited endurance, though they ships need to restock with food and other supplies from time to time, and can achieve speeds in excess of 30 knots. For defensive purposes they have up to 40 anti-aircraft missiles.

Each ship of the Nimitz class can accommodate up to 90 fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, or a mix of the two. Among the fixed wing aircraft flown from the ships are the F/A-18 Super Hornet multirole fighter and the EA6B Prowler electronic weapons aircraft. Each carrier forms the heart of a carrier strike force, which consists of a number of warships including cruisers and destroyers. These provide anti-aircraft protection in depth, act as launch pads for cruise missiles and are able to lay down gunfire in support of amphibious landings. Two cruisers and five destroyers, for instance, escort the USS Nimitz. 
 From THE WORLD ATLAS OF WEAPONRY by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia

After making peace in 1807, Russia’s Tsar Alexander had been growing increasingly fearful of Napoleon and his ambitions. He watched the war of 1809 and decided to reform his army along the lines pioneered by Austria. With his new army, Alexander grew increasingly restive and by 1812 Napoleon had become convinced that Russia was about to declare war.
Napoleon decided to attack Russia before Tsar Alexander could conclude an alliance with Britain and, perhaps, Austria. For the showdown with Russia Napoleon mustered an army of 600,000 men, but 400,000 of these came from allies who were serving more or less under duress and had no real desire to invade Russia. Napoleon knew this and earmarked them for garrison and patrol duty, keeping his 200,000 Frenchmen for the key task of fighting battles. He crossed the border in June.

Alexander had about 250,000 men, who he put under the command of the veteran General Kutusov. Kutusov recognized that his main task was to avoid being defeated, so he opted to withdraw deep in to Russia rather than fight a battle on the borders. He wanted to force Napoleon to leave behind troops to garrison towns and forts, thus weakening his main army. Meanwhile the long supply lines would leave the French short of food and ammunition.

Finally, on 7 September, Kutuzov calculated the French were sufficiently weakened. He stopped to fight at Borodino with 121,000 men. Napoleon could field 130,000 men. The resulting battle was a bloody stalemate that saw the French losing 30,000 men and the Russians 45,000. Realizing he had miscalculated, Kutusov retreated once more and abandoned Moscow.

Napoleon entered the Russian capital in triumph, but it was a hollow victory. He had no food and the Russians stubbornly refused to come to terms. Instead, Napoleon was forced to retreat after 5 weeks. The return march became a nightmare as food ran out and the bitter Russian winter closed in – and the Russian army harried the invaders mercilessly.

By the time Napoleon regained friendly territory his losses had been enormous. About 350,000 men had died, either in battle or due to disease, while another 100,000 had been taken prisoner. His army had ceased to exist as a major force.

The Historical Atlas of the World at War 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Afternoon Tea in Kent

“Afternoon tea is the finest contribution that England has made to cuisine”, or so my grandmother always had it. And she was in a position to know. My childhood memories are filled with images of that kindly lady cutting Victoria sponges, handing round buttered scones and pouring out cups (never mugs) of nice fresh tea.

Ever since those long off days I have had a particular affinity for afternoon tea. I like to keep a cake on the go at home so that, come 4 o’clock, I can cut off a slice and take a break from the work of writing to sip a hot cup of tea and munch on the cake. I’m sure my wife thinks I’m a bit odd.

Essential as a cuppa and a cake at the desk might be to the working day, it cannot possibly compare with a visit to a traditional tea shop. I might have a cake at home, but a good tea shop will have a whole range of cakes from which slices can be carved as well as a range of buns, pastries and scones. And if you are lucky there will be cucumber sandwiches on offer as well. There is nothing quite like a good tea shop. I confess that I am totally unable to see one without wanting to pop in.

Addicted as I might be to the delights of a cream tea, I know full well that the tasty dainties can add worryingly to the waistline. So all visits to a teashop should be accompanied by a bit of light exercise – a walk.

Such is the purpose of this book.

I have selected 16 of the finest tea shops that Kent has to offer and that lie close to a convenient walk that offers something by way of scenery, history, wildlife or art. I hope that you enjoy the walks and the teas. I have certainly enjoyed putting this book together and would like to thank the many local residents who have helped me with the task.


Teashop and Pub Drives in Kent [Paperback]

by Rupert Matthews 

Friday, 16 September 2011

King Caractacus on the Medway

The wide River Medway with its broad, marshy valley and extensive flood plain cuts south across Kent from the Thames estuary to Tonbridge, where its headwaters rise in the Weald. Until recently the Weald was an area of thick forests standing on damp clay soils that were almost impassable in winter or wet weather. The Medway thus formed a distinctive and very real barrier to movement from east to west. So clear was this dividing line that folk on one side of the river called themselves Kentish men, while those on the other termed themselves men of Kent.

The river was no less a barrier to the movement of armies, so crossing points have long been a key strategic aim for any army operating in the area. The Romans built a bridge over the Medway at what is now Rochester. That crossing point was retained in good condition through the centuries that followed and in medieval times was guarded by the massive Rochester Castle, the ruins of which are still among the most impressive in England. This drive takes in three key battlefields which determined the outcomes of three very different wars.

Find the Watermans Arms in Wouldford on the main street just south of the church. On leaving the pub drive south along the High Street to find the battlefield of the Medway Battle, fought in AD43 during the Roman invasion of Britain. The Roman army led by the general Aulus Plautius consisted of three legions, the IX Hispania, the XIV Gemina and the XX Valeria, plus a number of auxiliary units and cavalry forces - probably around 35,000 combat troops, plus a number of support and administrative personnel. This army landed at Richborough, secured the harbour at Reculver for their supply ships then headed west along the chalk ridge of the North Downs until they found their route blocked by the Medway. Plautius had left troops behind to garrison Reculver and other places,so he may have had 30,000 men with him on the day of battle.

On the far bank stood an army raised by the Celtic King Caractacus of the Catuvellauni tribe with his various allies. He had an army considerably larger than that of the Romans, perhaps 50,000 men. He seems to have put his main force on the bank more or less opposite Wouldham. There was a ford here in those days, long since dredged out to make the Medway navigable.

The battle began before dawn when Plautius sent a force of Batavian troops down river to swim across. The Batavians came from the lower Rhine and were skilled in river crossings. Plautius seems to have hoped to get these men around the left flank of the British. The move failed as the men were seen and Caractacus sent a force off to attack them. Plautius then moved most of his army forward as if hoping to force the ford. In fact this was a diversion, for the II Augusta under its commander Vespasian (later to be emperor of Rome) was marching south through woods to cross the Medway further upstream. The II Augusta got over the river safely, but by this time it was dusk and the incoming tide cut Vespasian off from any reinforcement.

At dawn Caractacus attacked. It was a bloody engagement and was nearly a defeat for the Romans, but the tide fell just in time to join the action and Plautius was able to push the remaining two legions over the river just in time. Caractacus retreated from the Medway. The defeat proved to be decisive. The tribes allied to Caractacus melted away to make separate peace treaties with Rome. There would be other battles in the years to come, but never again did the Romans look likely to be pushed out of Britain.

Drive south along the lane to the village of Burham. Turn right to the smaller village of Burham Court. A footpath beside the old church here leads to the banks of the Medway. If you are feeling energetic you could walk north along the river bank to find the monument erected in the 20th century to mark the spot where Vespasian crossed the river. The river today flows between embankments and most of what was the marshy floodplain has been drained. The landscape is quite different from that faced by the Romans, but this is still a bleak and largely uninhabited area.


Teashop and Pub Drives in Kent

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Bodiam Castle in Sussex

At Bodiam the main attraction is Bodiam Castle, owned by the National Trust. This beautifully sited castle stands in the centre of a lake, which served as a moat when this castle was first built. The fortress was erected in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrydge using money that he had plundered from the French during the Hundred Years War which was then raging. Bodiam was one of the last great castles to be built in England, for by this time cannon were beginning to be used by siege armies. These big guns were, as yet, unreliable and enormously expensive so only royal armies had them and a castle such as Bodiam could expect to hold out against any French raiding party that might have landed in England. Dalyngrydge laid out his castle with great care, paying as much attention to his domestic comfort as to his defences. The luxurious rooms and spacious halls became famous. There was an ingenious flue system within the walls that channelled hot air from the kitchen fires round the hall to heat it without the need for an open fire.

The castle saw action twice. In 1485, during the Wars of the Roses, it was grabbed by Lord Lewknor who declared for Henry Tudor, then invading England by way of Wales with an army of Lancastrian exiles and foreign mercenaries. The Yorkist King Richard III declared Lewknor to be a traitor and sent the Earl of Surrey to capture Bodiam while he himself marched off west to deal with Henry Tudor. The siege does not seem to have got very far when news arrived that Richard had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth and that Henry was now king.

The next siege came in 1643, during the English Civil War. Bodiam was garrisoned for the king, but by that date the tall walls were totally obsolete. No attempt was made to update castle's defences, and the structure was used more as a barracks and arsenal than as a fortress. When Sir William Waller and his Parliamentarian soldiers arrived the garrison surrendered at once. Waller slighted the defences to render them useless and the castle was never again inhabited. It is now a roofless ruin, but remains one of the most complete castles in England and is well worth a visit.

The River Rother lies a few yards from the castle and in medieval times there was a small port here for barges coming up the river from the coast. Nothing of this now remains, but there is a pleasant riverside walk to be had.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Henley and the GWR

The busy, thriving town of Henley was a prosperous river port in the 1820s, so the citizens were probably relieved rather than upset to be bypassed by the new Great Western Railway.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel laid out a route for the GWR that ran direct from Maidenhead to Reading. This route meant cutting through the hill at Sonning, a major feat of engineering, but if the flat land along the river had been followed, the route would have many miles longer. Quite soon the fast, modern railway was taking traffic off the river boats. In the first year that the GWR ran, the river boats lost 23% of their trade and by 1845 long distance traffic had effectively ceased to operate on the Thames. Henley was left with only local river transport and its docks and warehouses stood empty. Moreover the town council watched with envious eyes as Reading prospered on goods brought in by rail. Factories, breweries and mills boomed in Reading, but faded in Henley.

In the spring of 1854, therefore, the Mayor of Henley led a delegation to the offices of the Great Western Railway in London. The townsfolk asked the company to open a branch line to Henley. The GWR had already surveyed a route from Twyford to Henley, but had not gone ahead with the line due to worries about its ability to turn a profit in the face of local hostility. Now that the town council and leading citizens were fully behind the plan, the financial sums were very different. Construction work began that autumn under the direction of Mr Murray, a GWR Engineer.

The route to be taken was uniformly flat and free of obstructions, except for one: the Thames. The site chosen for the crossing was just downstream of Shiplake Lock where an island provided a convenient base for the bridge piers in midstream. Mr Murray decided that the budget he had been given would not stretch to a proper bridge, so a timber viaduct was constructed to carry the railway over the river. By this date the Thames Commissioners, who organised river trade and kept the river navigable, were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy with debts of around £50,000. They were in no position to insist on keeping the river clear for large boats, so Mr Murray’s viaduct gave clearance for only smaller barges such as made up the vast majority of the local river trade.

After taking a surprisingly sharp bend as it left Twyford, the branch line ran almost directly north to cross the river, then bent slightly to the west to run into Henley. Mr Murray built just two stations on the five mile length. The first was slightly north of the river crossing at Shiplake, which consisted of little more than a platform and a lockable shed. The station at Henley was more grand, having a proper station building in the GWR style and an engine shed.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Romantic Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney was already an established novelist and playwright when in 1793 she came to visit her friend Susannah Lock at Norbury Park near Mickleham. Staying just on the other side of the Mole at Juniper Hall was a group of French noblemen who had fled to England to escape the guillotine. One of these was General Alexandre D'Arblay, with whom Fanny soon fell in love. The Burney family disapproved of the Frenchman on the grounds that he was French, Catholic and penniless. However, Fanny was financially independent due to the success of her writings, so she went ahead and married her Frenchman. They bought a house at nearby West Humble that they named Camillia Cottage after Fanny’s most profitable novel. The two lived happily in England and France until the general died in 1818.


Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Melton Mowbray Pies - Glory and Decline

In 1890 the pies hit the international trade. Cargo ships were by then being built with large refrigerated holds to transport quality meat - mostly lamb and mutton - from Australia and New Zealand to Britain. The idea was soon taken up by the beef merchants of North America, greatly boosting the demand for beef raised by cowboys in the Wild West. But the refrigerated ships needed some perishable product to take back again if they were to turn a profit. What better than a consignment of Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, or so thought the company of Evans and Hill. They packed up a crate of pies for chilling and sent them off to Borneo. It was the start of a highly profitable export trade.

But even as the pie bakers of Melton Mowbray were enjoying their boom years, the very basis of their trade was being undermined. The problem was two fold. First the numbers of inferior pies being produced outside the town was increasing. This led the public to mistrust the label “Melton Mowbray” as being synonymous with quality. No longer did buyers in shops across England gravitate toward a Melton Mowbray label when they wanted the best pork pie on offer.

Secondly, and most invidiously, the internal combustion engine had been invented. Motor cars and bikes remained inefficient and unreliable playthings of the rich until after the First World War. By 1920, however, motorised transport had become significantly more reliable, and it was becoming cheaper. A car was still out of the financial reach of most people, but increasingly doctors, lawyers, gentlemen and noblemen were coming to rely on their motor car to get them about. The process accelerated in the 1930s and by 1939 almost anyone who needed private transport - most people relied on public transport at this date - had abandoned a horse or horse and carriage in favour of a motor car.

Riding a horse was becoming what it is today: a sport. No longer did the dashing young A-listers and aspiring gentry desperate to show off their horses and horsemanship go hunting. Instead they took their motor cars down to Brighton for the weekend or drove off to have lunch at ‘roadhouses’, smart pubs and restaurants that dotted the main roads near large towns. There they would meet with other wealthy young types to show off their cars, talk about engine capacity and top speeds or simply to chat with like minded fashionable folk and hope to catch the eye of the young ladies who also flocked to such places.

Melton Mowbray remained a key pivot in the world of foxhunting, but that sport was increasingly confined to country types or to those townsfolk who still liked to ride as a hobby. Because the younger, smarter set from towns were no longer going to Melton Mowbray in large numbers, they were no longer able to enjoy the delights of the genuine pie in its home town. They no longer went home to tell their friends about the fantastic pies on offer. They no longer demanded a genuine Melton Mowbray Pork Pie to be served at their tables in place of whatever the local baker could turn out.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Hitler and the Generals

When Hitler became President of Germany in 1934 he automatically became the head of the German armed forces. At that time the high command of the armed forces was a complex organisation of planners, staff officers and field commanders organised into a series of structures and chains of command supported by a feeling of officer corps solidarity. There was space for group decision making, discussion and even dissent, although once a decision had been made the command structure was such that it could be carried out quickly and efficiently. Hitler was to change everything. He wanted absolute power over the military. The way in which he achieved this was ultimately to drive some officers to resign, others to question their duties and some to attempt the murder of the Führer.

During the Nazi rise to power, the army officer corps were not wholly hostile to Hitler and his party. Indeed, Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch in Munich numbered the Great War hero General Erich von Ludendorff among its leaders. Nor were the generals opposed to one of the Nazi Party’s central policies, that the Versailles Treaty which ended the Great War was unfair and needed revising. The treaty had put severe constraints on the German military and many senior officers wanted to shake these off.

Once Hitler came to power, his desire to win over the military to whole-hearted support of himself was a dominant influence in persuading him to destroy the power of the Nazi brownshirt storm troopers, the Sturmabteilung or SA. The army officers jealously guarded the army’s traditional right to be the only body in Germany authorised to carry arms and, as such, the ultimate guarantors of the constitution. Under the Versailles Treaty the army was allowed to be only 100,000 men strong. Ernst Röhm, the SA leader, had 3 million followers in uniform and wanted his SA to form the basis of the armed might of Nazi Germany.

In July 1934 Hitler ordered the murders of Röhm and dozens of other leading SA men, together with the disbanding of large numbers of stormtroopers. The immediate reaction of the army officers was to support Hitler’s actions and welcome the overthrow of the SA. Some officers opposed the brutal and illegal methods used but most were prepared to overlook them.