Open House London

Open House London has long been my favourite cultural event in London each year, despite the fact I’ve always been busy working and never got to enjoy the fun myself but it is the concept of it that I love so much.  One can enjoy free access to buildings which are not usually open to public, private houses of the rich and famous, churches, museums, schools and offices, and join tours, guided walks and activities throughout the weekend.

The first Open House London started in 1992 and the idea has spread across the world.  The found concept however was to provide free access to London’s best buildings as a way of inspiring the public about the benefits of great design and to demonstrate how architecture, urban design, planning and infrastructure – can transform the lives of ordinary people for the better.

London’s skyline is now a unique succession of diverse, exciting shapes, a statement of confidence in visionary architecture and its effect on the spirit of the city and its people. For me this strength more than outweighs some of the less adventurous developments to be seen today

Margaret Howell,

Designer

Each year over a quarter of a million people take part in the Open House weekend, visiting over 800 buildings, walks, talks and tours across London and that figure is bound to rise.

No doubt like many others, I have entered the ballot to be allowed into 10 Downing Street but there are so many other buildings to enjoy.  Just across the road is the fabulous building that is home to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a building that looks grand enough on the outside but doesn’t even hint at the grandeur on the inside.

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Inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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Dunbar Court at the Foreign office 

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Some of the highlights this year include the opportunity to:

 

The contrasts of London’s architecture are the genius of its beauty. No other city in the world brings together so well the historic and the new, or can delight the eye with a range of styles from Corinthian marble to Modernist steel. Open House London celebrates this wonderful melange, and gives Londoners a rare insight into the best of our buildings. I fully support its work and wish it every success. – Boris Johnson, Prime Minister.

Hopefully I will find a few hours free to visit some of the old halls in the City of London or perhaps the magnificent Australian Embassy, Royal Academy, Mansion House or Wilton Music Hall.

It’s not just places in the middle of London, most of the boroughs of Greater London are taking part so wherever you are living or staying in London then there is bound to be something old or new for you to explore on this special weekend.

You can visit the Open House London Website, download an app or purchase a guide book to plan your weekend.   Isn’t it great that government, academia, business and private homes open up to sneak a peek at what it’s like inside?

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Downton Abbey Film Review

It’s no secret that Downton Abbey is my favourite television show of the 21st Century.  I love everything about it.  The era, the mostly gentle storylines, the costumes, grant houses and beautiful countryside, the witty insults and quotes and the fact that everyone in the programme can actually speak in a civilised fashion which seems to be beyond many actors these days let alone the characters they portray.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have been very happy they had continued the 6 year run of Downton Abbey though there were lots of rumours that Dame Maggie Smith was getting increasingly fed up with it and the recognition that made her day to life apparently a little tedious.

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Mr. Bates and Anna (my favourite) in Downton Abbey The Movie 

Whenever they bring back television programmes there is always a tendency for it to fall into one of top traps, one that it is entirely pointless or the second that the nature of the production changes so much due to some sort of earnestness that whatever made it popular on television isn’t sufficient enough on the silver screen.

Happily Downton Abbey doesn’t falter with either of these and carries on the television series by exactly the same means as before.  There is no explanation whatsoever as to who everyone is or what is going on but from two people I know who watched the film without seeing the series, it didn’t dampen their enjoyment in any way.

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The incomparable Mrs Hughes and the indomitable Mr. Carson (my other favourite lol) in Downton Abbey The Movie 

All the main characters are still present with the exception of the odd valet, village doctor, Lady Rose and Aunt Rosamond and everyone gets featured to various degrees.  There are two new major characters joining the family however; namely Tuppence Middleton as the charming lady’s maid Lucy Smith and the Imelda Staunton as the dowager Countess of Grantham’s distant cousin, Lady Bagshaw.  Both of them are tremendous and Tuppence Middleton plays a very different character than that many of us saw in Fishermans Friends

If you remember the Christmas special in 2015, took us up to 1925, with Carson retiring with a palsy, Mr. Barrow taking over and Lady Mary running the estate as well as finally  Daisy and Andy getting a bit comfortable with each other.   We’re now in 1927 and the country is recovering from The General Strike though in true Downton style, there isn’t too much evidence of discord except for Diasy who keeps her socialist yearnings.  The Dowager Countess at one point is asked if she was affected by the strike and she replies with some disdain  that  “My maid was rather curt while it was on.”

The main plot of the film revolves around a  a one-night visit to Downton by King George V  and Queen Mary accompanied by a massive entourage, as part of a tour of Yorkshire and is loosely based on fact.

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Lady Edith is now Marchioness of Hexham in Downton Abbey The Movie

The film opens by reverently following the journey of the royal letter announcing the visit, all the way from Buckingham Palace to Downton, a fiesta of uniforms, steam trains, antique vans and motorbikes. Its arrival sets off a frenzy of excitement in the household, even more downstairs than upstairs, of course with the honourable exception of Daisy.  What greater honour could their be than to not only serve their betters but their King?

Sadly as the great day approaches, the Downton team are horrified to learn that the royal household is bringing its own staff, umpteen liveried footmen, a pompous French chef called M. Courbet, and an incredibly up himself butler, Mr Wilson (David Haig), who insists that his proper title is not butler but “The King’s Page of the Back Stairs”.  As such our faithful team won’t even be permitted to serve in their own household!

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Dowager Countess Violet and Lady Mary in Downton Abbey The Movie

With all this commotion going on it is no surprise that Mr. Barrows finds himself a little out of his depth though it is nice to see his character has become a senior and responsible member of the team.  Therefore Lady Mary  promptly brings Carson out of retirement to meet the challenge. What would Downton be without Mr. Carson? A pudding without a plum that is what!  The relationship between Lady Mary and Mr. Carson was always a touching one I thought and there was never any chance he would turn her down.  I always thought it fun that in many ways Mr. Carson was the most proper person in Downton Abbey, even above the family he so faithfully served.

And so the servants revolt in a most Downton fashion.  “We must all pull our weight tonight for Downton’s glory”, they swear.

There is also a plot about an Irish terrorist attempting to assonate King George V which gives some good screen time for Tom Branson and what passes for a suspenseful action sequence by Downton Abbey standards.

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Lord and Lady Grantham…. she isn’t too common for an American!

One of the things that I like about this film is that it isn’t just going through the motions, these characters still have stories to tell and Branson not only gets to have some lovely scenes with a young lady who turns out to be a Princess but also develops a friendship with new maid Lucy Smith that by the end of the film not only paves the way for him to have a grand estate and new wife but for the Dowager Countess to sneakily win her dispute with Lady Bagshaw.

At over 2 hours in length there is plenty of time for secondary stories and Mr. Barrow who temporarily resigns his post due to all the goings on is befriended by a member of the Royal staff and perhaps slightly improbably finds himself to a large underground gay night club in the city of York.  Improbable it may be but it was a good storyline and somewhat shocking to think how people were treated back then.

Barrow, supplanted once more by Carson, gets involved in a bit of gay intrigue, including a visit to a wildly improbable Yorkshire queer nightclub.

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Tuppence Middleton as Maid Lucy Smith

In a subplot about trouble with Downton’s boiler, Andy becomes so jealous of Daisy’s banter with a plumber, he attacks the boiler an act in someway treasonous which obviously wins over the reluctant revolutionary Daisy.

We have military parades, more beautiful aerial shots of Downton Abbey as can be good for anyone and a swanky ballroom party as well as some charming character moments.   Does the Royal visit go well?  It does perhaps except for the overly excited Molesley who has the temerity of addressing their Majesties at the dining table.  I guess it was he who is responsible for modern day serving staff asking us if our meals are ok!

Downton Abbey wouldn’t be the same of course with out Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham who has a number of joyful spats with family members.  My favourite was when they were all discussing whether Violet would maintain a proper manner when Lady Bagshaw arrived and Lord Grantham is assured by Lady Mary I believe who says she will be treated as Aunt that she never knew.   Lord Grantham then asks whether she might be like the mother he never had only for Violet to put an an end to things by stating “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit!”

There are also moments regarding the inheritance of Downton Abbey, the actual point of the whole series and a touching scene between Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess which promises a certain closure should there be any future instalments.

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They’ve been expecting you!

It being Downton Abbey by the end of the film, everyone is happily paired off and despite continuous doubts over pretty much everything, we’re assured life will carry on happily for almost everyone with the hope for a brighter future.

What a charming way to spend an afternoon back at Downton Abbey.  It may not be the most challenging or best film of the year but it is clearly my favourite and I would say the most beautiful film since Goodbye Christopher Robin.  It’s a wonderful way to get away from things for a while and it reminds me of everything I loved about the programme.  I wish people were like that in real life but as it happens it is mostly just me.

I hope you enjoy Downton Abbey as much as I do when it comes out in your country but until then, enjoy the trailer below.  The soaring music and beautiful cinematography just make me want to go and see it again and soon.  Words can’t say just how much I enjoyed this film.

Of course I don’t just watch Downton Abbey, I run Downton Abbey tours.  You can visit Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) with us at Ye Olde England Tours.   Some of the Downton television show and the parade sequences of the Downton Abbey film are at the beautiful Cotswold village of Lacock and Lacock Abbey which you can also visit with us.   Many of the scenes in the Downton Abbey television show though set in York are actually filmed in little known areas of London and you can visit the actual locations on our Downton Abbey London Walking Tour and enjoy a great walk too as my customers last week did below..

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An example of how English has changed over 1200 years.

I found this poster earlier today and thought it was well worth sharing.  The text contains a brief passage of one of the most famous Psalms and I think gives a wonderful insight to how language changes.

I really don’t like the modern version, it sounds almost like it is written for people with learning difficulties.  it gives the message but is so perfunctory and has no beauty or warmth.

The second version is the one I am most familiar with.  The King James Bible is widely recognised as being a work of art regardless of whether one believes in the message it offers.

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The third example is written in Middle English which though complicated to us, is much simplified compared to what came before it.  One can definitely understand it relatively easily particularly when you remember that back then sometimes the letter V was written as a U and a S could be an F.   Middle English is of course the language of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales but sadly there isn’t that much Middle English around, partly because of the Norman invasion and the resulting cultural and linguistic changes. Interestingly J R R Tolkien was a scholar of Middle English, one of many reasons why the Lord of the Rings is such a wonderfully rich world.

The final iteration is in Old English which really is the language of the Anglo-Saxons.  My forebears would have readily understood this.  I have to admit this is much trickier to readily understand but I find if you read it out loud phonetically then it is easier to make sense of, particularly if you compare it with the more recent texts.

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RED =  Old West Norse  Orange =  Old East Norse  Pink = Old Gutnish  Yellow = Old English (North Sea Germanic)   Green = Continental West Germanic languages 

The map above shows the differing Germanic based languages during the Anglo-Saxon period.  Interestingly I’ve seen documentaries where elderly people in the different parts of Britain can communicate with elderly people in parts of Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Brittany.

The four main dialectal forms of Old English were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon with Mercian and Northumbrian together referred to as Anglian or English.

Perhaps the most famous and widely read example of Old English is the fantastic story Beowulf.

Which of the 4 versions of the Psalm are you most comfortable with understanding?  If you have been following my blog for less than 5 or 6 years then you might like this classic post:

102 great words that aren’t in English but should be!

 

Posted in Culture, Heritage, history, Religion and Faith | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Hartley Colliery Disaster of 1862

My blog is full of disasters from beer floods in London to Grace Darling – A Victorian Heroine. burning building self-sacrifices  to heroic against the odd tales of survival I Am The Army – The Incredible Story of William Brydon

Many of them remain well known or at least just buried beneath the surface of public consciousness but not so with the case of the Hartley Colliery Disaster of 1862, one of those epic Victorian disasters to hit the most innocent and yet some how shape the world for the better.

If there is one thing that made Britain the industrial powerhouse which it became, then that is coal.  Coal is almost everywhere in Britain, Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire, the midlands, Kent.  But nowhere is more steeped in coal mining and heavy industry than Newcastle and the surrounding counties of Northumberland and County Durham.  There remains centuries of coal left even today, after it has been abandoned in leu of apparently safer, cheaper and cleaner energy.

Back then however, almost every man and boy of anything like working age would spend almost his entire life down the pit.  It was intensely dangerous and physical work and death was only ever a moment away.

The Hartley Colliery Disaster of 1862 was worst than most and the impact of the disaster  changed of law, spelling the end of one-shaft mines, and the beginning of more support for miners’ families.

The disaster in 1862 began when a beam supporting the steam engine which was used to pump sea water from the Hester pit broke, crashing down and blocking the single mineshaft.  (You can see my visit to an abandoned nearby mineshaft at Fell walking and an abandoned mine) or the new video I uploaded below.

 

 

Five men, who were in the lift coming up at the end of a shift, were killed instantly. Three others survived.

In common with many 19th Century coalmines the Hester pit had only one shaft. With this blocked, 199 men – almost double the normal numbers, as the accident happened during a shift changeover – were left trapped underground.

A massive rescue operation began and workers from neighbouring mines came to help, but it proved more difficult than anticipated to reach the trapped men.  Progress was further delayed by the discovery of poisonous fumes, and it was six days before a passage could be cleared, by which time they were all dead.

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Unfortunate families brave the freezing Northumbrian winter for news on the miners.

Hardly anyone in the close-knit community was unaffected, with some families losing two generations of their menfolk.  Reports of the tragedy had appeared in the newspapers, attracting national attention.

Unknown at the time, the men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.

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Some of the rescuers.

Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday.

Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.

The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber. A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.

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Lifeless bodies are hoisted up, one by one.

Queen Victoria, herself in mourning after Prince Albert’s recent death, sent a message of condolence and offered her “tenderest sympathy” to the widows and mothers of the dead, with her “own misery” making her feel the more for them.

Public attention also led to a successful campaign to make two shafts compulsory at mines, and despite opposition from some mine owners, an Act of Parliament was passed in August 1862.

Most of the dead were buried in the nearest cemetery, four miles away in Earsdon, with the Duke of Northumberland releasing additional land as the existing church grounds were too small.

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The funeral cortege

The Reverend Andrew France, current vicar of St Alban’s Church said to the BBC in 2012 that : “At the time the devastation was felt all around this area, but I don’t think there’s still a scar here. It was such a long time ago.  I will say something about the people round here, though, they all know about the Hartley pit disaster. They also realise that it had a positive impact. Although it was absolutely tragic that all those people died, out of that tragedy came mining legislation.  It meant that never again would a mine be allowed to have a single shaft, there must be two ways in and two ways out. That really is its legacy, it meant that those people did not die in vain.”

Inscribed on the obelisk in Earsdon churchyard are the names of the 204 men and boys who died in the Hartley Colliery disaster on 16 January 1862.

The youngest was 10, the eldest 71, and the same surnames are repeated time and time again. One family, no doubt in some way related to my own, the Liddles, lost nine members.

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If you’d like to read of a Liddell who died a hero in another underground tragedy then check out my recent post A grisly end for a brave Liddell at St. Botolph’s… Aldgate (Whitechapel).

If you’d like to read about a more recent and better remembered mining related disaster that scarred a nation then take a read of my 2016 post The Aberfan Disaster Remembered 50 Years On

 

Posted in Heritage, history, Life, Northumberland and Durham | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Changing with the tide – how newspapers reported Napoleon’s march on Paris

I was doing a bit of research on some French related history and the following made me smile so I thought I would share it.

I don’t often write on French history (except for WW1 or my trips to Paris) because there are people who are so much more knowledgeable than myself.  However I thought I would make an exception for a week.

Following his near 10 month exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon was itching to get back to France as the peace treaty known as The Congress of Vienna threatened to bring war and back-stabbing amongst the continental European powers.  With many of his former army being released as prisoners by Great Britain and Prussia, Napoleon theorised that he would have a ready-made army ready to flock to his cause.

With the Royal Navy and French royalist guard ships temporarily diverted, Napoleon fled his island prison with just 1,000 men and during his long and largely peaceful march to Paris, his small band of men became an army.

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Napoleon leaving Elba, painted by Joseph Beaume

The French newspapers which, in 1815, were subject to the censor, announced the departure of Bonaparte from Elba, his progress through France, and his entry into Paris in the following ever evolving manner:

— 9th March, the Anthropophagus has quitted his den

— 10th, the Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan

— 11th, the Tiger has arrived at Gap

— 12th, the Monster slept at Grenoble

— 13th, the Tyrant has passed through Lyons

— 14th, the Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides

— 18th, Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers

— 19th, Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris

— 20th, Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts

— 21st, the Emperor is at Fontainbleau

— 22nd, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.

Similar reporting have happened through the years.  I remember winning a prize in a national newspaper nearly 20 years ago when I wrote a fake headline in the fashion of the Iraqi Information Minister who with the aid of several packets of cigarettes a day, put  up a splendid show of epic denial of Allied forces getting ever closer to Baghdad.

 

 

 

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HMT Bedfordshire – The Royal Navy ship sank defending the United States.

I’ve written several posts about American servicemen who died in Britain in WW2, most recently on the The Endcliffe Park Memorial in Sheffield & the incredible devotion of Tony Foulds.

A few weeks ago I came across a fascinating sad little bit of history from WW2 regarding some British servicemen who died in American waters, securing the coast from the Third Reich.

HMS Bedfordshire, a converted fishing trawler, became one of the many casualties in the battle for the Atlantic during World War II.   In 1941, Allied ships were under constant attack from German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean in an attempt to starve Britain into surrender.

Along the East Coast of the United States, the submarines were a serious threat with many ships being attacked.  The US Navy had no specific anti submarine fleet and following the Japanese attack on pearl Harbour was concentrating its strength in the Pacific and so twenty four ships from the Royal Navy were sent to assist with patrol and escort duties and safeguard the eastern coast of the United States.

 

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HMT Bedfordshire

 

They all belonged to the Royal Naval Patrol Service, a fleet of ships that had all been converted from fishing trawlers.  Together they were affectionately known as Harry Tate’s Navy. Harry Tate was a famous musical hall performer who’s act always went wrong. His catchphrase was ‘Goodbyeeee’ which inspired the famous WWI song.One of the trawlers was HMS / HMT Bedfordshire. Built in 1935, the 443 ton ship was taken over by the Admiralty in 1939 and fitted with a four inch gun.

On the 11th May 1942, HMT Bedfordshire and HMT St Loman were sent out from their base at Morehead City in North Carolina to look for a German U-boat that was suspected to be operating near Ocracoke Island.

Unfortunately for the Bedfordshire, the two ships had already been spotted by the U-558, commanded by twenty-seven year old Gunther Krech.  That evening, Krech though they’d been detected by one of the trawlers and launched an attack on the St Loman, but it’s torpedoes were spotted and the St Loman managed to avoid them.

At 5.40am on the 12th of May, the U-558 fired on the HMT Bedfordshire and with a direct hit sent it to the bottom, with the loss of everyone on board.

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The British Cemetery in Ocracoke

Casualty List

Lt. R.B. Davis, RNR (In Command).
Temp. Sub. Lt. H. Clutterbuck, RNVR.
Temp. Sub. Lt. B. Hall, RNVR.
Temp. Sub. Lt. T. Cunningham, RNVR.
F.W. Barnes, Engineman.
S. Bennett, Ordinary Seaman.
L.P. Bickford, Seaman.
E.S. Carruthers, Ordinary Seaman.
G.W. Cerrino, Leading Seaman, RNR.
W.F. Clemence, Ordinary Seaman.
F. Cragg, Ordinary Seaman.
S .R. Craig, Ordinary Telegraphist.
J.R. Dick, Seaman.
T.M. Dicks, Ordinary Seaman.
A. Dryden, Seaman.
A.W. Duncan, Chief Engineman, RNR.
G. Featherstone, Ordinary Telegraphist.
G.H. Fisher, Stoker 2nd. Class.
H. Ford, Seaman.
J. Kelly, Seaman.
W. Lee, Leading Seaman, RNR.
E.W. Lukins, Act. Stoker Petty Officer (Ty).
A.A. McCrindle, Seaman.
A. McKenzie, Stoker.
F.F. Maltby, Leading Seaman, RNR.
E.N. Morton, Ordinary Seaman.
W.J. Myers, Stoker.
S.W. Smitten, Ordinary Seaman.
P.E. Stone, Seaman.
C.T. Travell, Ordinary Signalman.
C.W. White, Ordinary Telegraphist.
L.J. Williams, Stoker, 2nd. Class.
R. Davis, Ordinary Seaman, RCN.
J.L. McCauley, Ordinary Seaman RCN.

 

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Although everyone on board the Bedfordshire perished, ship stoker Sam Nutt survived.  Sam had sailed across the Atlantic on the Bedfordshire to Norfolk, Virginia, before continuing down to Morehead City.

On the 10th of May, Sam had been on shore leave, but that night while leaving a bar, he was arrested and put in jail for the night.  However he was  released without charge and so  Sam made off to reunite with his shipmates only to find the ship had already departed.  Having boarded another boat to rejoin his shipmates, but when they reached the vicinity of Ocracoke Island there was no trace of the Bedfordshire.   By a stroke of good fortune, Sam Nutt had avoided certain death.

Fourteen months after sinking the Bedfordshire, U-558 also met her end when two allied anti submarine aircraft caught her on the surface off Cape Finisterre.  They dropped depth charges on her and she sunk. Up to forty survivors had been spotted, but when HMCS Athabaskan found them five days later, only five were still alive . Amongst the survivors was Commander Gunther Krech.  Upon inspection of the ships logbook it was found that the sinking of the Bedfordshire had been recorded.

Bedfordshire Wreck Discovered

In the summer of 1980, a team of divers came across a wreck which was identified as HMS Bedfordshire.  With the consent of the British government, local divers occasionally make visits to the ship which has protected status as a War Grave.

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The wreck of HMT Bedfordshire

A few days after the sinking of HMS Bedfordshire, four bodies were washed up on the beach of Okracoke Island.

Two were identified as telegraphist Stanley Craig, and Sub Lieutenant Tom Cunningham. The other two seamen were not identified but were both presumed to have come from the Bedfordshire as they were wearing Royal Navy uniforms.

They were buried in a small fenced off area in the island’s main cemetery, which is now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

 

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Sub-Lt. Thomas Cunningham, photographed on the bridge of the HMS Bedfordshire, probably taken a few days before he died.  One of those buried in Ocracoke Village

In the 1980s, the state of North Carolina deeded the British cemetery in Ocracoke Village to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in perpetuity.  New British and Commonwealth style headstones for the sailors were erected on the plot though the Ocracoke Preservation Society decided they wanted to keep the original crosses that had been put up to mark the graves in the 1940s. The British agreed and so both original and new are present.

A Union Flag is raised every morning over the cemetery by members of the US Coast Guard, and a special ceremony, remembering those who died is held each May.

If you’d like to read about a shipwreck that might one day blew up and damage a significant part of London you might like The ticking timebomb shipwreck that could damage half of London

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The Fig Tree Tomb of Watford

Whilst walking through the cemetery I was reminded that over 100 years ago, this cemetery itself was something of a tourist trap due to the Fig Tree Tomb.  It is thought that the  the tomb belonged to a naval officer called Ben Wangford, who died in the middle of the 18th Century and who did not believe in the hereafter.
The legend has it that he asked for something to be placed in the tomb that would germinate. If there was a God, this would grow and burst the tomb to prove to his family that his soul was alive. If not, then nothing would happen and he would be proved correct.
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An extract from the parish magazine of September 1898 says of him: “Ben Wangford, as he was generally called, lived about the middle of the last century. I can’t say if he was a native of Watford or if married. But he was buried in St Mary’s churchyard and had a handsome tomb for that period. He was a man of enormous size. It is said that his boots could contain a bushel of corn.

“I have not heard what was placed in the coffin but a fig tree appeared and for years was passed unnoticed by strangers. Now it is very much talked of and people travel for miles to visit the tomb.”

The Book of Watford (compiled and edited by Bob Nunn) mentions a similar story about a lady atheist and states that the tomb was accidentally opened during the lowering of the churchyard in the 19th Century.

Countless burials had taken place around the church without benefit of coffins, with the result that earthwork grew so high the parishioners had to step down some three or four steps to enter the building. This caused considerable dampness and inconvenience.

During the lowering, rows of skeletons were uncovered, which appeared to have been buried side by side, and were probably remains of those who died during times of plague. In 1540, some 47 burials took place between July and September, and there were similar interments in 1592, 1594 and 1625.

In his History of Watford (1884), Henry Williams says: “Under the south wall of St Katherine’s Chapel stands a tomb through which is growing a fig tree that each year exhibits considerable luxuriance and sometimes produces figs. This fig tree has probably grown there for close upon 100 years, as some 15 or 16 years ago I enquired of one of the oldest inhabitants what knowledge he had of its age, and he told me he remembered that, when he was quite a child, it was growing there and apparently as large as now.”

Hundreds visited the churchyard, many making long excursions for the purpose of seeing the tree and, if possible, taking home with them a leaf or small branch.

“By some of the believers in the legend, the tree was looked upon with veneration, as to them it was evidence of the existence of a God that must have come directly from the Almighty against unbelievers.”

However, Mr Williams says that when the tomb was opened it was found that the root of the tree was some four or five feet above where the occupant’s head must have been. He said some tendrils had attached themselves to the bottom of the vault and to this he attributed the luxuriant growth of the fig tree, as these must have obtained much more moisture than those parts of the root that grew from the top of the vault.

For some, the fact the tree did not grow out of the coffin discredited the old legends, while others still held it was strange such a tree should grow out of a tomb at all.

Interestingly the coffin inside the tomb was found to have a projection at the top. This led to the conclusion that the person must have died with his or her knees up and that, after death, the knees could not be straightened.

There is also a theory that the seed of the fig tree could have been accidentally thrown into the tomb by the Honourable William Robert Capel, who was vicar of St Mary’s from 1799 to 1855.

He was very fond of figs and used to grow the trees. As he made his way from the vicarage to the church, entering the latter through the little south door, he would eat the figs and throw the pips away.

The churchyard was taken over by Watford Council some years ago and has been an open space for a long time.   Sadly the Fig Tree itself died in 1963 after the infamously long and cold winter though it is thought by some it was helped on its way by local officials who thought it to be in the way.

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The Fig Tree tomb as it is today after restoration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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