30 July 2014

Classics on the Common

Poop! Poop!

It's a beautiful afternoon.  Splendid English summer. A Wedgewood sky, the sun gleaming like lemon curd amongst a froth of egg-white clouds.  The grass underfoot is crisp like deep fried seaweed.  There are hats to rival Ascot.  Picnics in the shade. A slow cavalcade of bubbling, back-firing, smoking, steaming vehicles edges across the rumble boards and putters around the common, each ushered to a halt by a crew of aircraft carrier type stewards.....

Messrs Madden and Tibble, in their prime....

In 1994 Harpenden resident and Metropolitan Police officer Peter Madden bought a 1968 Rover P5B coupe and, with his fellow enthusiast John Tibble, then landlord of The Carpenter's Arms in Southdown, dreamed up Classics on the Common, which in its first year attracted 125 cars.

The good old days.....

The event is now the biggest show of its kind in the UK, attracting its maximum capacity of one thousand and fifty cars and vans (as well as some two hundred and fifty motorbikes and scooters) each year. 


More than ten thousand spectators, local residents as well as visitors from afar, throng across the common in the afternoon and evening, inspecting and admiring the much loved cars on display, chatting to proud owners, dreaming of what it might be like....

Glorious, stirring sight! murmured Toad. The poetry of motion! The REAL way to travel! The ONLY way to travel! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my! (Kenneth Grahame - The Wind in the Willows.)

A 2 litre Bristol - Quintessentially English, someone said, as I took this picture.....

A classic vehicle should be at least 20 years old but vintage cars also turn up, some of them more than a hundred years old, for example a 1900 Daimler Type A, and a 1913 model T Ford. Every period since then is represented, too, with Bentleys, Buicks and Austins, Morris Minors, Chevies and VW microbuses.  

Nothing wrong with a rusty Dodge from 1960....  Quintessentially American, perhaps?

The twenty year rule applies to vans and two-wheelers as well, but there are some modern bully-boys who will muscle in on the scene, with a phalanx of Ferraris prowling in at a certain point (though this afternoon half of them lost their way and turned up late!)

Robin, from Borehamwood, has had this Royal Enfield since he was 17.......

In 2008 Peter Madden decided to retire from organising the Classics, and, though still connected with Harpenden, John Tibble had by then retired to Suffolk. The Harpenden Village Rotary Club willingly took over responsibility for the event and so, from early in the day, the Rotarians have been busy preparing the grounds, assisted by members of their associated club, Harpenden Village Inner Wheel, and St Albans & Harpenden Police Cadets, volunteers from the principal charities supported by the event, members of Harpenden Lions Club and Carpenters Arms Classic Car Club and other volunteers.

Stalwart volunteers, such as Duncan Naughten of the Harpenden Village Rotary Club, make sure the wheels go round.....

It is very much a community event, and there is an aura of something special about it - perhaps the mixture of leather upholstery and high quality fuels and oils has something to do with that!  

You lookin' at me?

But as the day winds down, and drivers rev their engines for the drive home, the spectacle becomes even more colourful, with the dials lit up in tiny cockpits, and headlights sweeping the crowd.

Vroom, Vroom!

With a touch of Quadrophenia, ageing mods gather for a drink in Southdown.  The bunting is wound up on the common, and the Classics blur into the night.

In 2013 a record £23,000 was raised by a combination of entrance fees and donations. The main recipients were Herts Air Ambulance, the local branch of the Samaritans, Keech Children’s Hospice and WaterAid. 

The money raised in 2014 will be passed on to Community Meeting Point, the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Society, Youth Talk, Macmillan Cancer Support and Guildford Rotary Eye Project.

Elvis is leaving......

The wonder of this event is the care and pride which is apportioned to each vehicle.  It is marvellous to wander amongst these treasures, and to doff one's cap to the masters of this game.  The shine, the wear, the finishing touches all speak for endless dedication, and love.  The owners stand proudly by, glad to talk about their stories.  I have to say, however, that my attempt at pleasantry with one Ferrari pilot, who was struggling to arise from his steed, did not meet with frivolous risposte, but then if you have that much money, who needs friends, Toad?  

If Toad were around today.....

They reached the carriage-drive of Toad Hall to find a shiny new motorcar, of great size, painted a bright red (Toad’s favourite colour), standing in front of the house. As they neared the door it was flung open, and Mr. Toad, arrayed in goggles, cap, gaiters, and enormous overcoat, came swaggering down the steps (The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame).

Probably not the best time or place for a driving lesson.....

I had a lovely day!  Thanks to all who dreamed it, organised it, managed it, and spent years polishing for it!

Evening light reveals the cracks..... but, hey!

Classics on the Common
Organised by Harpenden Village Rotary Club
Sponsored by Harpenden Town Council
Wednesday, 30th July 2014

I'm off home now....  See you next year!  Poop! poop!

26 July 2014


The lamentable deaths (sic) of Edward II

Effigy of Edward II on a tomb in Gloucester Cathedral

I am in the Berkeley Arms, at Purton, musing on the fortunes of such a family before stopping to visit their ancestral home, Berkeley Castle.  The Severn drifts past, bored and listless, doing its best to keep the Welsh at bay. Over there, in the misty north-west, Edward II was born in (the then incomplete) Caernarvon Castle, in 1294, the first Prince of Wales, a post politically created by his ambitious father.  The boy saw little of his parents -  he was the youngest of at least fourteen children, most of whom died prematurely; his mother died when he was six, and his father was frequently abroad or at war.....              

Gazing out from The Berkeley Arms across the Severn.....

It will not be my first visit to this well-preserved castle - I remember the horror when I first saw the dank hole in which they told me King Edward the Second of England had been imprisoned.  I was small, and no one went into details.  I couldn't really handle that much information, but my imagination was seared by the idea of such brutal incarceration.

The Dungeon, Berkeley Castle

It was not until much later, perhaps when studying Marlowe, that I learned some detail of how the King was supposed to have been despatched - though even then it was the thought of such ugly pain that hit me, not the potential symbolism of it.

Only later, possibly seeing Derek Jarman's film, did I begin to understand some of the insinuation that has been woven into the tale, though was that interpretation fair to the maligned king?  And was Marlowe exploring something of his own inner demon?  There is no evidence of sexual relations between Edward and Piers Gaveston, though the two were indeed as close as brothers.

On November 1st, 1307, not long after the death of Edward's father (King Edward I) Piers Gaveston married Margaret de Clare, the Countess of Gloucester and Edward's niece.  Edward was at the time residing at King's Langley (where he spent a considerable part of his youth) and he attended the wedding in Berkhamsted Castle. On January 25th, 1308, Edward married the barely 13 year old Isabella, daughter of Philip IV, King of France at Boulogne. They had four children, including the future Edward III, who was born at Windsor in 1312.

Berkhamsted Castle, where Edward's troubles began

The trouble was that Edward was not really bothered about being a good king, and he allowed Gaveston, and later Hugh Despenser the Younger, too much influence.  As Holinshed recorded in 1587 in The Chronicles of England:  having revoked againe into England his old mate Peers de Gaveston, he received him into most high favour, creating him the earle of Cornewall, and lord of Man, his principall secretarie, and lord chamberlaine of the realme, through whose companie and societie he was suddenlie so corrupted, that he burst out into most heinous vices...... so that within a while, he gave himself to wantonnes, passing his time in voluptuous pleasure, and riotous excesse.  I am not sure where Holinshed got his evidence from, but he goes into some detail of the degradation under the influence of Gaveston: who furnished his court with companies of jesters, ruffians, flattering parasites, musicians, and other viles and naughtie ribalds, that the king might spend both daies and nights in jesting, plaieng, banketing, and in such other filthie and dishonourable exercises......

Kenilworth Castle, where Edward's troubles came to a head

So it is not really surprising that all sorts of lords joined together and eliminated Gaveston (in 1312), which didn't go down very well with Edward.  Things got worse, and so, with the connivance of his wife (who had, in 1325, fallen for Roger Mortimer of Wigmore) Edward himself was caught, with Despenser, in Wales, and brought to Kenilworth where he was kept until he was forcibly deposed on January 20th, 1327, his son Edward being proclaimed guardian of the realm and crowned king on February 1st.

Berkeley Castle, where Edward's troubles were said to have ended

Following real and/or supposed plots to free the now embarrassing ex-king, Edward was transferred to the custody of the Berkeley family, but, despite their care, he was said to have died on September 21st. Edward's embalmed and unrecognisable body was carried to Gloucester for public display on 22nd October, and on 20th December he was buried in St Peter's Abbey, in the presence of his son and widow. In later years Edward III erected a splendid tomb in his father's memory.

The room in which Edward II was supposed to have been murdered

Marlowe, probably relying on Holinshed, has it that Mortimer fears that unless Edward is disposed of, he will go down.  Apparently the bishop of Hereford .... signified .... that they should dispatch him out of the waie.... Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est: (To kill Edward will not to feare it is good.)  Although Marlowe makes play with the unpunctuated ambiguity of this instruction, the murder is planned.

The kitchen range and several unhealthily sharp spits, ready to heat in the fire.....

And so Lightborn commands a spit, and let it be red-hot, and a table and a feather bed, from his accomplices Matrevis and Gurney, and between them they assault Edward, who screams and dies.....

The Great Hall of Berkeley Castle

You cannot hear the scream today:  Lightborn is immediately silenced, Gurney and Matrevis disappear, and Mortimer is tried and executed. Now the castle is clean and smart, the blood and smoke and steaming entrails have long since dried and been erased.

The Great Hall of Berkeley Castle

There is, however, a faint chill about the place. The contrast between the refined and perfectly presented spaces within the fortified palace and the story of a clearly inept ruler cannot but be compared with stories from our more recent histories. Feed Romanian Dictator Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, or Muammar Gaddafi, or even George Bush into your search engine and see what you get?  Holinshed refers to the way Gaveston was erased:  at length an ancient grave man amongst them exhorted them to use the occasion now offered, and not let slip the meane to deliver the realme of such a dangerous person, that had wrought so much mischeefe..... And thus persuaded by his words, they caused him streitwaies to be brought foorth to a place called Blackelow, otherwise named by most writers, Gaverslieheath, where he had his head smitten from his shoulders, the twentith day of June being tuesdaie.....  This echoes across the ages.  Dr David Kelly, anybody? Alexander Litvinenko?

Berkeley Castle as it is today

However.  Sometimes the truth is hard to find.

Another death awaited the sorry Edward. An alternative story about the murder attempt at Berkeley is well supported.

It goes like this:

Edward was wary.  He was expecting to be rescued but apprehensive about his captors.  At a certain point around September 20th someone visited him in Berkeley, causing him concern.  He managed to change clothes with a servant and kill the gate-keeper, and escape (think Toad).  He made his way first to Corfe Castle and then to Dover.....

Dover Castle, possibly Edward's last port of call in England

And thence to Italy.  

In the meantime, concerned about the political difficulty of a deposed king at large, the authorities (aka MI5/6/CIA/etc) advised that it was best to bury Caesar....  So the unfortunate victim of Edward's escape was disfigured and embalmed and carried to Gloucester and given the necessary rites to bury a problem.  A wooden effigy was paraded through the streets and then interred.  Where he (who?) was entombed....

In the meantime, a dispirited, frightened ex-monarch with temporary low self-esteem (think Toad initially imprisoned) is on the packet boat to the continent. A slight change in appearance and who would know you were a king?

And so, apparently, he made his way to the Sacro Eremo di Sant'Alberto di Butrio, a hermitage in the high woods of the Val di Nizza, in northern Italy some fifty-five miles south of Milan, or a hundred miles south-east of Turin. 

The Sacred Hermitage of Saint Alberto of Butrio

Within the confines of this remote, and unprepossessing, hermitage there is a tomb which is labelled as that of Edoardo II, Re d'Inghilterra. With no fanfare or extremes of sequins, the story is that the king was given hospitality by the monks when on his way to Rome.  Il suo corpo fu poi traslato dal figlio a Gloucester.... (The corpse was later taken back to Gloucester by his son....)

The supposed actual tomb of Edoardo II, Re d'Inghilterra

The story may seem far-fetched, but it has legs (as they say).  In March of 1330, Edward's half-brother, Edmund, earl of Kent, was executed for plotting to restore the late king.  And then, in 1337, a letter was written by Manuele Fieschi, a Genoese priest at Avignon, to Edward III. Fieschi was a papal notary and a member of a respected family; he later became Bishop of Vercelli. The letter claimed that Edward had not been murdered in Berkeley but had made his way to Europe, via the Pope in Avignon, and ended his days near Cecima in the diocese of Pavia (possibly not at the Sacro Eremo.... but nearby).

The letter was discovered at Montpelier in 1878 and has been proved to be authentic (though whether the claims within are true is another matter). Perhaps Fieschi sought improvement and therefore had motivation for invention. But then why make this elaborate tale up?  Perhaps this really happened?

Anyway, in the Arms of the Berkeleys, gazing out towards the mysteries of Wales, I cannot help but empathise with the outcast king.  However bad a ruler he was, to have had everything and then to fall so fast and hard is the stuff of tragedy. Whether he died in the most ignominious way, at the hands of a faceless hitman, or of natural causes in the remoteness of Italian monasticism, his fate was an unenviable one.

And have we learned anything?

Farewell.  I know the next news that they bring 
Will be my death; and welcome it shall be:
To wretched men death is felicity.


20 July 2014

The Peak District

I'm a Rambler.....

My accommodation (as seen above) may not seem much, but, as Ewan MacColl (James Henry Miller) sang:

I've been over Snowdon, I've slept upon Crowdon, 

I've camped by the Wain Stones as well, 
I've sunbathed on Kinder, been burned to a cinder, 
And many more things I can tell. 
My rucksack has oft been me pillow, 
The heather has oft been me bed, 
And sooner than part from the mountains, 
I think I would rather be dead. 

This song, based on a traditional one, became one of the theme tunes of the movement against Enclosure. Following the industrial revolution, walking in the countryside had become an essential part of recreation for hard-working mill-workers who lived in the cramped conditions of Victorian cities, but wealthy land-owners were increasingly trying to stave the flow of the hoi-polloi across their grouse moors and grazing land.  The confrontation came to a head on April 24th 1932 when groups of ramblers left Manchester and Sheffield for an organised trespass onto Kinder Scout, the highest peak in Derbyshire.

Ewan MacColl was responsible for publicity in the planning of the trespass, and his song subsequently became highly popular with hiking folk, and can still oft be heard when beer and guitars come together:

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way, 
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way, 
I may be a wage slave on Monday, 
But I am a free man on Sunday. 

The Kinder Trespass led to violent clashes with gamekeepers and some of the ramblers were arrested and imprisoned.  However in the following weeks much larger trespasses were held and public opinion began to move in favour of the trespassers.

This led eventually to the start of an access movement that saw the establishment of National Parks, long distance footpaths including National Trails and finally, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which granted unrestricted access to 10,000 square kilometres of countryside in England and Wales. (See more at: http://www.ramblers.org.uk/what-we-do/what-we-have-done/past-campaigns/kinder-80.aspx#sthash.siFHHkhr.dpuf)

Ewan MacColl, once married to Joan Littlewood, and father of the late Kirsty MacColl, had a file opened on him by MI5 when local police tagged him as a communist with very extreme views but his efforts led to the formation of the Ramblers Association, and today (he died in 1989) he is commemorated in Russell Square on a plaque which includes the citation: Folk Laureate – Singer – Dramatist – Marxist ... in recognition of strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism....

Cotton Grass atop the Kinder Plateau

The top of Kinder Scout is 636 metres (2,087 ft) above sea level. One way of getting there is to ascend Jacob's Ladder, which, apart from anything else, is wonderful for being referred to favourably in Christian, Jewish and Muslim literature....

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

The plateau is dynamically varied, with exposed peat and strange shapes sculpted in millstone grit.  Henry Moore is said to have been inspired by outcrops fashioned by ice and rain here, but you do not have to be a famous artist to imagine that what you see is not quite what you see.....  After all, the over sixties who have clambered breathlessly here are perhaps short on oxygen to the brain and high on adrenalin.....

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
Ogden Nash: Very Like A Whale

Nearer the ground, and closer to the homely, bell heather provides a refreshing splash of colour to an otherwise strenuously bleak palette....

Then, slipping southwards from the Dark Peak, limestone becomes the stratum of the day, and fields hold their delineations in dry stone, with the landscape peppered by barns and salted by livestock..... 

The status of National Park (the first such designation in the UK, in 1951) has brought touristic stability to the area, but this has meant increases in property prices which inevitably have affected local residents. However, traditional stone buildings survive and somehow their owners are managing to access funds to preserve them, without necessarily altering their function....

In the so called White Peak part of the National Park, Dovedale has long been a justifiably popular destination: Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte - in no especial order - and, believe it or not, Richmal Crompton (!) have all been touched in some way by the landscape here....

And, historically, Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have stopped by (his thunderbox is still in use in Hartington Hall)....

And a more modern Prince Charlie can be seen in a photo by the bar of The George in Alstonefield....

But that is by the way.  The river Dove has entertained human activity for some fifteen thousand years, with plentiful evidence in limestone caves to support this claim.  

The first scene that strikes you upon descending into the valley, is the River Dove fringed with sedge, and stopped with a variety of small tufts of Grass hurrying between two hills, one of which about six years ago was cloathed with wood; the wood is again getting forwards; the other had a number of cattle grazing upon it. The scene was pleasing –
William Wordsworth, 8th June 1788

Brown trout manage their busy lives here, and daily seek to avoid the crowds, but they have been immortalised through the relationship of Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, who, between them produced The Compleat Angler (first published in 1653, but with a second part about fly fishing by Cotton in 1676). Apart from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, no book has been reprinted more often than the Compleat Angler (though I have heard Pilgrim's Progress put forward for this particular Booker Prize). As a treatise on the art of fishing (and cooking coarse fish) it has never been bettered.

Good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue:  The Compleat Angler (pt. I, ch. II)

Though not all fishers have read the handbook......

Dipper in the Dove

Bird life is one of the attractions of Beresford, Wolfscote, Biggin, and Dove Dales. These steep sided valleys are now protected habitats and much enjoyment can be had by simply sitting back and watching the show, from the simplest duck white water rafting.....

To the shadiest wren chattering away in the shadows of a tree....

To a smart raptor (an immature or female Kestrel) resting after an incredible flight in pursuit of a butterfly, mirroring each clumsy flapping turn like some sophisticated Russian missile...

The Dove, in any season, is a delightful river.  River enough to continue year round, but not so grand as to support shipping and have lent itself to human degradation....

In the meantime, we stroll and we chat, and we admire....

I once loved a maid, a spot welder by trade,
She was fair as the Rowan in bloom,
And the bloom of her eye matched the blue moorland sky,
I wooed her from April to June.
On the day that we should have been married,
I went for a ramble instead,
For sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead 

And we relax....

My rucksack has oft been me pillow,
The heather has oft been me bed,
And sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead. 

Though the Peak District is but a Saturday Night Fever from the conurbations of Manchester, Sheffield and Derby, and therefore not much further from Liverpool, Leeds and even Birmingham (so perhaps a third of the population of Britain live within a radius of fifty miles of this National Park), it is varied and corrugated enough to support innumerable visitors. The best times to be here may not be weekends in the school holidays, but then it can still be busy in the rainiest, and coldest, of times.  I have walked in driving rain and not been alone.....

And braved the springtime snows in splendid company.....

But there is space enough for all.  The Monsal Viaduct used to carry passengers from Derby to Manchester, and with five arches spanning 300 feet it is one of the wonders of our industrial past, but today it only carries hikers and bikers (and would-be artists!)

The Monsal Viaduct

And along with the natural, and industrial, marvels, the area also has many vernacular attractions as well, at least for the moment..... For example, The Barley Mow, a Jacobean-style inn at Kirk Ireton, which dates back to 1683, is one of the very few English pubs to have retained the traditional image of what a public house used to look like in times past.....

Here is the ancient floor,

Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

The Self-Unseeing
Thomas Hardy

While not far away, at Chatsworth, Debo (the Duchess of Devonshire) was busily writing to Paddy Leigh Fermor (in 2005) that Here is chaos. I'm on the brink of moving, trying to undo 46 years-worth of GLUT....

But me?  I'm a Rambler, and I find the quiet rot and cardboard box-like interior of my caravan sufficient. Tomorrow I will be gone, and those framed stains on the walls that I called watercolours will be someone else's forgeries....  This is a place to be outdoors, and I am grateful to Ewan MacColl and his contemporaries for blazing the trail that made way for the Long Distance Paths, and access to land that hitherto had been somehow privatised.  As MacColl said:

He called me a louse and said "Think of the grouse". 
Well I thought, but I still couldn't see 
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about 
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me. 
He said "All this land is my master's". 
At that I stood shaking my head, 
No man has the right to own mountains 
Any more than the deep ocean bed.

So I'll walk where I will over mountain and hill 

And I'll lie where the bracken is deep, 
I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains 
Where the grey rocks lie rugged and steep. 
I've seen the white hare in the gulleys, 
And the curlew fly high overhead, 
And sooner than part from the mountains 
I think I would rather be dead. 

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way, 

I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way, 
I may be a wage slave on Monday, 
But I am a free man on Sunday.